When, on March 16, the city decreed restaurants could not serve dine-in customers, some of the city’s most creative chefs adapted, shifting towards takeout. They devised ways to pack up chicken-liver pâté with toast points and housemade ice cream to lay atop elaborate desserts.
They thought about what comfort looks and feels like (for chef Misti Norris it’s congee and a sous-vide egg), and deftly tucked edible flowers into recycled paper to-go boxes, relinquishing neither creativity, technique, nor flair. They’re doing something rather incredible, creating highly technical food we can’t wait to get home to eat— maybe on our couches, maybe in sweats.
They might say they’re simply trying to relieve those who are stuck cooking at home. But it’s more than that. In this time, their skills are providing a sense of normalcy even as they conjure something special. Many are honing skills or creativity, shifting their notions of how a restaurant runs and what it means. They’ve embraced the challenge–and we reap the rewards.
The saloon team at Billy Can Can took a week to scrub, and then, operating with a skeleton crew—executive chef Matt Ford, two sous chefs, and the general manager to answer phone calls front of house—they became a cowboy commissary, turning out daily two-person, prix-fixe three-course meals for $35–$45.
A menu might feature an escarole wedge salad with pepitas and blue cheese, wild boar jägerschnitzel with braised cabbage and spaetzle, and banana pudding layered with whiskey caramel and butterscotch custard. Dinners have ranged from wild boar ragù-sauced pasta with scratch-made ricotta to roasted halibut with sunchoke used three ways, a petit filet gilded with bone-marrow butter to the natural elegance of an ice box pie with a drift of marshmallow fluff. All embellished with edible flowers and herbs from Ford’s three communal garden plots.
Having to recreate the restaurant every night constitutes an exercise in creativity and a challenge, as they dance between puffy gougères and pastry. The only thing distinguishing a meal from date night out is that they don’t pre-slice the A Bar N Ranch Wagyu flat-iron steak laid over Yukon Gold pommes purée, lest the juices bleed out.
Misti Norris has come full circle, back to paper boats. It’s a return to what she was doing when she first opened, in the days when the converted gas station was newly hers and the world was clamoring for adventurous, butcher paper-covered “meatums” boards with head cheese, whipped lardo, cottage ham, and koji butter. (They’re still curing like mad.)
Norris makes an open-faced cornbread-pudding tartine with soured broccoli stem-Parmesan emulsion, lonza cotto, and peanut and strawberry vinegar jam, and you’ve never seen anything prettier in a to-go box, with all her esoteric powders and ferments. But there’s new comfort laced throughout an à la carte menu of warm congee with local mushrooms, ginger oil, and a gorgeous sous-vide egg; or a comforting pasta—maybe toasted rye tagliardi or mantu dumplings in a smoked ham broth.
The team threw their creativity into larder goods, and a Sunday supper ($95–$175) might involve an Ethiopian-inspired feast centered around berbere-spiced pork with accoutrements.
For Norris, fried chicken means birds from Cartermere Farms, cured and confit in pork fat, then fried and accompanied by dill-pickled turnips and sweet potatoes mashed with a Spanish trinxat of burnt pecans and ricotta and finished with candied chicken skin and dainty sweet alyssum blossoms. Obviously. And Petra’s take on milk and cookies—a pecan chocolate bar with chocolate cookie crumbles, whipped chocolate mousse, and buttermilk jam—is a tribute that’s exactly like the original. Only not.
For Matt McCallister, this was a chance to hone the delicate balancing act of the forager-chic aesthetic of Homewood. Dishes are cerebral, but homier, simplified, falling somewhere between high skill and country French. Immediately, pastry chef Maggie Huff advised, “People want comfort.”
So sous-vide pork served with warm German potato salad or the three-day ricotta gnocchi (which involves making the fresh cheese, reducing the whey, shaping and poaching the plump, ethereal pillows) speak with new reassurance. (Hint: look for the gnocchi that rotates—one night with wild onions and morel cream sauce; another night with bacon and caramelized whey.)
Weekly, changing four-course family meals recently shifted to seasonal a la carte options centered on basic, well-executed stand-outs, like a whole Cartermere Farms hearth-roasted chicken or braised Wagyu short ribs nestled over pommes purée with Bordelaise sauce and oyster mushrooms, or a chicken pot pie laced with local blond morels. These must be capped off by one of Huff’s desserts—a luxurious chocolate budino or luminous springtime strawberry-buttermilk ice cream—effortlessly simple in a new way.
“Everybody’s just trying to find some kind of normal,” McCallister says. They also imagined you might make stock from the chicken bones or pull the meat for pasta. They’ve focused on bringing the high-end home.
PejaKrstic thought about comfort and it meant his high-end, luxurious, elaborate French-Vietnamese fare with added family-style elements, but still (and, in fact, more so) riveting, magnetic flavor.
A full cadre of tricks plays into the complex, 18-hour olive oil- and ginger-braised heritage pork belly-filled dumplings laid over an intense but gossamer kimchi-caramel mousse; pan-fried bao buns filled with kimchi and pork and served with whipped kimchi and honey butter; or a kaleidoscopic smolder of caramelized, curry-roasted baby carrots with peanut aioli, a peanut streusel, and a bright carrot-ginger purée.
His new menu also features larger items: a full grilled chicken meal with curry made in house or the tangy-sweet pleasure of whole fried branzino. The five spice-braised brisket is charcoal-grilled, basted with traditional Vietnamese bun cha marinade and bundled up with green papaya and jerky to feed 4-6 people.
He’s been testing variations on the baos, baguettes, and biscuits he’ll use at his second location in Victory Park, where everything will be made from scratch when we can once again enjoy the luxury of dining in.
“The restaurant doesn’t exist anymore, so how do we think about that?” Krstic asked himself. The answer to him is about integrity of flavor—the architecture of a meal you can enjoy in mesmerizing layers.
What Else We’re Ordering
These places also have tremendous skill behind them, too: You can get the freshest crudo or sashimi as a tiny jewel-box delivered to you; or something from a patiently fanned grill; or exquisite handmade pasta. Don’t discount these restaurants doing creative things with takeout. Here’s your need-to-know digest.
J Chastain is packing up an a la carte menu of spicy creste de gallo pasta, rosy with paprika and tossed with juicy rock shrimp or casarecce amatriciana with house-cured and smoked thick-cut wagyu beef bacon. Rich polenta, like custard, is made into fries served over housemade creme fraîche. A pork blade chop entrée with the redolent pleasures of fennel pollen and orange became a Cuban roast pork sandwich when they shifted to a slightly more transportable model. Salted whipped cream meets lofty chocolate mascarpone mousse in the tiramisu with notes of coffee and orange. Chastain says they didn’t want to pursue takeout initially: so much of a restaurant experience isn’t merely about the food. But the flavors speak.
Jon Stevens and his wife MG closed Foxyco to focus on this Bishop Arts spot, doubling down on favorites that travel well in two-course, two-person ($35) duo dinners with the comforting heartiness of wagyu meatloaf with smoked mushrooms and green peppercorn sauce; braised wagyu short ribs with coconut rice; or fried spaghetti with crab chile hollandaise. Add a dessert, like toffee croissant bread pudding or buttermilk pie with huckleberry jam, or the $15 Wagyu bavette they’ll grill to-go or send home with you.
Our temple of modern fusion, which flirts with flavors from elsewhere, has a pared-down menu of warm tastings—maybe grilled escolar in ponzu—and cool tastings—like flounder with the jewels of candied quinoa and fish roe. Add a bottle of wine or sake from a thoughtfully curated list.
The grill masters at Tei Tei Robata tend the natural oak charcoal to send out robata treasures like the foil-wrapped seabass and maitake mushrooms whose sauce is so intoxicating with buttery, umami richness. Sushi and sashimi are available à la carte, as well as whole fish and small bites.
At Nonna, Julian Barsotti is reimagining his elegant regional Italian food. Yes, pastas that flit gracefully with the seasons (think spring onions and rustic house-cured pancetta with charred Calabrian chiles) and pizzas that come out of the wood-fired oven. But also a new comfort that centers around the wood-fired oven: a rustic pasta dish gratinéed in the wood-fired oven with bechamel, Bolognese ragu, and Parmesan is an homage to Northern Italy—but also a massively upscale mac and cheese.
Meanwhile, it turns out, the red-sauce Italian idiom of the intricate hundred-layer lasagna at sister-restaurant Fachini travels extremely well. At, Sprezza you’ll find Roman pizza al taglio and desserts like olive oil cake with pistachio buttercream, almond semifreddo, lemon zabaglione.
Justin Holt is doing his ramen (with house-crafted noodles and all their components) carefully packaged up to-go, with instructions. You’ll also find rice bowls that tussle with smoked mushroom or restaurant-cured koji bacon and the comforting, flavorful Wagyu Hamburg steak with mushroom gravy.