Pastrami tacos with mustard seed salsa at Empellon, a two-story Mexican restaurant in Midtown. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)
Food critic

Two years ago, in search of America's best food cities, I took a serious bite out of the Big Apple. My conclusion then is my feeling now: The presence of lots and lots of restaurants doesn't necessarily translate to memorable dining. Thankfully, there are noteworthy exceptions — places with the power to take you to another country or a different time, or simply to serve as an amuse-bouche before "Dear Evan Hansen" — and those are my holiday gifts, edible splurges all.

Performance Art, Mexican-Style

Should you be inclined to see a show before a show, Empellon, within speed-walking distance of Broadway, is where you want to snare a spot. The glass-fronted, two-floor restaurant, from chef Alex Stupak, reels you in with the aroma of masa and the spectacle of ceramic animal sculptures, then keeps you glued to your seat with its whimsical Mexican cooking. 

Simple as it sounds, "chopped cabbage salad" brings a fetching circle of color (from cilantro, jalapeño and broccolini) and crunch (thanks to toasted fava beans, which lend their flavor to the garlicky dressing). "Fun fact?" a chipper server says of the creation. "It tastes like a Caesar, but it's vegan."

Unwrap a tamal from its dark green banana leaf, and inside awaits a luscious log of sticky rice — red from chiles, sweet with roast duck, agreeably funky with chopped liver — which would have been my favorite dish had I not also crowded my table with some open-faced tacos.

The two-story dining room at Empellon is a vibrant, colorful setting and a fitting backdrop for chef Alex Stupak’s menu. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

The saffron margarita (saffron-infused tequila and mezcal, citrus and saffron salt) is one of the memorable cocktails crafted at Empellon. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

Fish tempura brightened with lime mayonnaise is all goodness and light; ruddy pastrami dappled with mustard seed salsa is echt New York. While taking liberties with tradition, the kitchen nails important details. The corn for the tortillas comes from Oaxaca and gets ground fresh each morning.

Stupak, who launched his career as a pastry chef, has the eye of an artist. Witness the way he elevates chilaquiles verdes, a peasant dish, by applying "scales" of sheer tomatillo and pickled onions over an entree of roasted sea bream. Zest comes courtesy of the fried tortillas tucked into the mix.

Here in Midtown, you're apt to be seated next to hedge funders and other suits. Referring to both his fanciful food and colorful setting, the chef jokes, "I'm definitely out of place."

Of course the margaritas are top-shelf. Of course they come in unexpected flavors. Of course you want tequila infused with saffron. Just don't get too wild with the spirit animals, custom-made by a Brooklyn artist and sitting on the exposed shelves separating bar from dining room. As our server recalls it, one tipsy guest got an unexpected $3,000 on her tab. 510 Madison Ave., Shareable entrees, $22 to $42.

A Fine Romance

The best of the fabled Four Seasons lives on in its replacement, and by that I mean: Thank heavens the owners of The Grill kept the dreamy mid-century look of the legendary Phillip Johnson-designed restaurant in the Seagram Building. If the food in its last years smacked of banquet fare, the interior — mesmerizing chain-mail curtains, bronze-rod sculpture suspended over the bar — did its best to make you forget what was on your plate. And now, thanks to a multimillion-dollar makeover by Major Food Group, the space dazzles anew.

Simply showing up for dinner gives arrivals the sense they're about to embark on a night to remember, cued by a red carpet leading to the ground-floor host desk and a bevy of hosts to guide you up the stairs and into an amber-lit episode of "Mad Men," hold the cigarettes and gloves. Servers at the Grill sport tuxedos but zero attitude, as if in Kansas City rather than Manhattan. When one of the attendants tells my party he's "living the dream!" and I tell him that's the same thing he said to me on an earlier visit, he shoots back, "And I still am!"

The food is Continental: old-fashioned (albeit updated) and French-leaning cooking that doesn't require Google Translate to grasp, only a good appetite. Here comes the lush steak tartare, spiked with anchovies and presented with lettuce spears for scooping, as well as the chance to sip on a Grasshopper, a creamy, minty cocktail I last recall my parents sipping — during the Nixon administration.

Trolleys crisscross the carpeted expanse. One cart might feature a flame over which servers turn eggs and wild mushrooms into omelets that smack of a forest and, at $25, cost a mogul's ransom. Another table on wheels might hold an antique silver press, into which go duck parts whose juices help flavor an order of house-made egg noodles. Venison, as tender as I've ever had it, is flattered with huckleberry sauce and walnuts for punctuation. The entree that calls to me most, though, is thick-cut ham shoulder, its smoky notes juxtaposed with thin slices of pickled pineapple. James Beard (the long-departed food giant, and a frequent presence in the room's younger years) would approve.

Restrain yourself from return visits to the bread basket, with its pleasing pretzel twists and yeasty rolls; the fluffy, citrus-charged chiffon cake, among other desserts, merits a diner's personal storage space.

The prices, like the ceiling, run sky-high, which probably explains why the online menu omits them. (Insert Bronx cheer.) But in the end, the monumental Grill is as much about time travel and romance as what's on the tines of your fork. 99 E. 52nd St., Entrees, $37 to $98.

Avocado lettuce cups with toasted cumin, serrano, lime and pepitas are part of the all-vegetarian menu ABCV. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

The Beta Boost is a cold-pressed organic juice with carrot, lemon, orange and ginger. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)
V Is for Vibrant

Maybe it's the clean, white backdrop. Perhaps it's seeing the visionary himself, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, fit as can be, a couple of tables away one recent breakfast. But I never finish dining at ABCV, the chef-entrepreneur's vegetarian dining room within ABC Carpet & Home, without feeling more virtuous than when I came in.

Here's the rare mindful restaurant that doesn't lard (ahem) its menu with preachy descriptions, but rather strings together a combination of ingredients that make you want to order one of almost everything.

Lettuce cups filled with creamy avocado, crisp pepitas, the sting of serrano and the brightness of lime? Oh, yes. Spinach spaghetti with preserved lemon, a dusting of Parmesan and saffron-tinted crumbs? My fork does the twist, over and over. Steamed broccoli dunked in farmers cheese? Okay, the combination tastes straight out of some spa, but you have to agree that cardamom crumbs make the dish more alive.

Which helps explain the "V" in the name of the worldly, plant-based restaurant. In addition to embracing "vegetable" and "Vongerichten," the letter stands for "vibration." The chef, who has dropped 10 pounds since ABCV's rollout in February, says he hopes the cold-pressed organic juices and the grain- and legume-rich choices "give you energy" and "positive thoughts."

From the looks of it, the gym-refreshed Ladies Who Breakfast appear happily animated. (Go for the congee over the ordinary dosas.) So, at a subsequent lunch, do the unlined faces of what could pass for the avocado toast fan club, its members passing tastes of thinly sliced beets, seasoned as if beef tartare with spark plugs of pickles and mustard, and beluga lentils with sweet potatoes. The latter duo is a favorite of the chef, who enjoys the mingling of sweet and spicy notes in the dish, shot through with chile oil and black vinegar.

While cheerful, service could use some fine-tuning. At lunch, our restorative tonics didn't come until after most of the food arrived.

The carnivores I've introduced to ABCV are G-O-O-D with the menu, by the way. As he pushed away from the table recently, a dedicated meat eater shared the power of "V" when he said, "This is the first time in a long while I haven't thought of a nap after lunch." V, one could say, also stands for victory. 38 E. 19th St., Lunch plates, $10 to $19.

Cocktails at Le Coucou. (Courtesy Le Coucou/Courtesy Le Coucou)
Haute Times in the City

Since it opened last year, Le Coucou has been at the tiptop of every food lover's wish list. With good reasons: Daniel Rose helms the kitchen, and Stephen Starr hatched the setting. Rose is the Chicagoan who had a lot of us flying to Paris for a taste of Spring, a gem of a modern bistro near the Louvre, while Starr is the Philadelphia-based mastermind behind some of the East Coast's most popular restaurants, Le Diplomate in Washington among them.

Their partnership begat an all-too-rare, old-school French restaurant, dressed as if it were in a castle that happens to be in SoHo, with grand archways, clusters of candles set in weighty chandeliers and an intime salon near the door that dispenses drinks. No mere stage set with sole Veronique and wild hare on the script, Le Coucou channels an era when chefs wore Eiffel Tower-size toques, servers were more clipped than chummy and fancy menus were written in French.

Not to worry on the last point: Le Coucou helps out with English subtitles. Diners who don't parle français would be advised to commence dinner with a terrine marbled with beef cheeks and foie gras, its richness foiled with a sherry vinaigrette, or a plump peeled tomato whose hollowed center contains glistening tuna, olives and herbs. Then again, sweet crab freckled with tarragon and presented with a buckwheat crepe makes a heady hors d'oeuvre, too.

The evening involves things you believe to be endangered in this country but are charmed to see done justice by a classicist. Anticipate glossy reductions, ethereal pike quenelles in a foamy moat of lobster sauce and tout le lapin, er, "all of the rabbit." Le Coucou is not the place where you want to bring your list of allergies, but maybe your favorite gourmands. Psst: The lusty veal tongue with a drift of creme fraiche and more than a glimmer of caviar will make their month.

For the most part, this is food that makes you wistful for more civilized times — and space that can't hide its Manhattan roots. The frequent rumbling under your feet? A rushing subway, wouldn't you know. 138 Lafayette St., 212-271-4252. Entrees, $36 to $48.

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