Chef Scott Conant, who brought innovative Italian cuisine to Tudor City's L'Impero, has pushed originality to the outer limits at Alto. Every dish we sampled coaxed flavors with startling radiance. Openers include silky polenta scattered with chanterelle mushrooms, white asparagus, truffles, braised lumache (snails), and a delicious terrine featuring guanciale (smoked hog jowl) and eel. Main courses are often deconstructions. Conant dismantles a guinea hen, poaching the breast and roasting the legs, with meltingly tender results. Among the desserts, finely textured soufflé is almost cake-like, with an ivory foam and velvety sauce. The main dining room is a showstopper: a 1,000-foot-long, backlit wine cellar runs from the tops of the banquettes to the two-story ceiling. 520 Madison Avenue, 212/308-1099. Reservations essential.
Chef Bobby Flay's third and largest Manhattan restaurant is the soaring Bar Americain. The two-story, 200-seat space looks like a luxurious dining room on an ocean liner. Flay's concept here is American food served brasserie-style. There are plenty of classics on the menu, and prices are fairly high, but you get what you pay for. The bounteous Shellfish "Selection" (for two) rivals the plateaux de fruits de mer down at Balthazar. As if that weren't enough shellfish, we tried the magnificent crawfish and Dungeness crab cake, served in a pool of tangy basil sauce and topped with a fresh red-pepper relish with capers and chiles. A fat, succulent pork chop is lightly smoked, while the toothsome duck entrée features leg confit and roasted breast. Finish with whiskey éclairs -- pastry tubes piped with a thick, whiskey-laced pastry cream and burnished with a burnt-sugar glaze. 152 West 52nd Street, 212/265-9700. Reservations essential.
Of all the restaurants I visited this year, the best was BLT Fish, so named for the initials of past-master chef Laurent Tourondel. At the street level is the "Fish Shack"; as the moniker implies, it's much less formal and expensive than BLT Fish proper, which is upstairs. Tourondel's cooking yields to seductive whimsy. Buffalo Rock Shrimp are tempura-battered, shrimp-fried, and sauced in the manner of Buffalo wings, including a bed of blue cheese sauce. The most dramatic presentation is crispy red snapper, posed savagely on a platter as if its about to snap you in two. The vicious fish is filleted tableside, and the sweet-and-sour scrumptiousness and marvelously contrasting textures are endless. Tourondel's roasted Alaskan black cod is simply marinated overnight in honey, soy sauce, grapeseed oil, and white wine vinegar, then roasted briefly in a very hot oven. The piping hot result will leave you speechless. End with lime mille-feuille, pastries dribbled with lime syrup. 21 West 17th Street, 212/691-8888. Reservations essential.
There are plenty of Indian restaurants around town, but only a handful are stellar. The newest arrival on "Curry Hill" (Murray Hill, the high 20s around Lexington Avenue), Copper Chimney, belongs in that exalted company. Executive chef and co-owner Nazeer Ahmed spent six months getting everything just-so, and the menu has been similarly fine tuned. Cauliflower florets are deep-fried and sauced with a luscious honey-roasted garlic sauce. Fresh cubes of kingfish are perfectly fried to a crunch and drizzled with a fiery pepper sauce. Lamb vindaloo is spiced, but it won't make you scream. Best of all is a jealously guarded recipe that has been in Ahmed's family for generations: Dum Biryani. Great chunks of meat are tossed with the lightest and most delicious basmati rice I've ever tasted. Great flavors, reasonable prices, and a romantic setting make this a not-to-be-missed destination. 126 East 28th Street, 212/213-5742. Reservations suggested.
Joseph Cacace's 90-seat restaurant in Chelsea uses the finest ingredients to prepare dishes simply and directly, but beautifully. A meat and cheese antipasto leaves no doubt that Cacace has access to top-shelf ingredients. The plate groans with soppressata, feathery prosciutto, and mortadella, all of which pair superbly with honeydew melon, a fresh quartered fig, Granny Smith apple, or rich grana padana cheeses. Also on hand is a frico (fried Parmigiano-Reggiano), formed into a cup filled with purslane and pea shoots. Strozzapreti (which, charmingly enough, means "priest stranglers") are dressed in a ruddy, rough-and-tumble veal ragu, with tomatoes lightly sweetened by carrots. A veal rib chop is grilled and served with a zesty dipping sauce. Finish with cream puffs, delicate choux pastry shells stuffed with full-fat whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate. The simple pleasures that come from Cacace's kitchen are apparently endless. 191 Seventh Avenue, 212/675-5980. Reservations suggested.