Lobster Cioppino from Casino.
Photo: Marcus McDonald
As the winter months begin to really take hold, my thoughts naturally turn to soup. Hot pot, bone-broth counters, and even ramen have reliably warmed the city over the years, but I’ve also noticed that a decade and a half of shared-plate madness seems to have pushed the proper soup course to the margins of restaurant menus, if it shows up at all. In a way, this makes sense: Nobody wants to split a bowl of chowder with three other co-slurpers. But you’ve also probably noticed that lots of things are upside down in this era of Post-Lockdown (Po-Lo) dining, and as many restaurants have embraced a decidedly retro approach to luxury — while, it’s probably worth noting, simultaneously looking for ways to trim costs — soup has become both hot and haute.
I first realized something was up when I stopped into Jupiter, the all-day Rockefeller rink-level dining room run by the people behind King in Soho. The core of the menu at their new restaurant is pasta, but I was drawn to something listed on the menu as “Alfabeto in Brodo.” For $21, what arrived was homemade alphabet soup — yes, the letters spell J-U-P-I-T-E-R — in a chicken-and-veal broth. The letter noodles had more bounce than anything you’d find in a can of Campbell’s, and the entire bowl was finished with a pleasantly aromatic scrape of fresh nutmeg.
Broth is life, forever and always, but this alfabeto nevertheless made me wonder anew what other soups might be hiding within the city’s upper-tier dining rooms, so I did the only reasonable thing and went to Le Coucou for lunch. There, I encountered the consommé Alsacienne (which is not served at dinner). It appears at the table as a bowl containing three neatly folded, thick-skinned sauerkraut dumplings. The server follows, carrying a copper pot of gewürztraminer-scented broth to ladle table side. Although the components seem austere, the consommé is a masterpiece, as clear as a diamond. It’s all brightened with a sprig of chervil and when all eaten together, it reminded me of a kind of French take on wonton soup.
Another soup that reminded me of Chinese takeout can be found at the new Torrisi Bar and Restaurant. The “chicken stracciatella soup” is a New York–inspired take on the egg-streaked Roman original, which means that it’s seasoned more like egg-drop soup, with a broth that might border on too rich and salty if you were eating it from a pint container instead of a shallow bowlful. Extra points for the chicken meatball, which was notably tender.
Surprisingly, the soup at Torrisi is just $18, meaning that it’s not even close to the most expensive option I encountered on this quest. The “velouté de topinambour” at L’Abeille in Tribeca can be ordered as part of the $195 prix-fixe, a shorter $145 prix-fixe, or for $38 à la carte at the bar. A Joël Robuchon vet named Mitsunobu Nagae is in the kitchen, and his fine-dining pedigree shows in this ultra-refined sunchoke purée: Servers pour the soup table side over a bowl of gently cooked scallop halves, fried sunchoke nuggets, and rounds of black truffle. Big spenders can splurge on a white-truffle supplement, but it’s probably not necessary. The soup itself is deeply earthy and as smooth as a latte.
It was very French, which I’d expected. Though I was surprised I’d be able to say the same thing about the “lobster cioppino” at Casino, the newish Mediterranean restaurant that moved into the former Mission Chinese space on East Broadway. I thought its flavor profile would lean Italian, but I was immediately taken by the rich seafood broth, which perfumed the entire table with saffron. My suspicions that this $48 stew-soup hybrid was inspired by bouillabaisse were only further strengthened by the aioli-topped toast that came on the side for dipping. (I wasn’t complaining; there was plenty of broth that needed to be sopped up.)
Finally, I was heartened to learn that soup can still draw a crowd. OkDongsik is a pop-up on East 30th Street that specializes in one thing: dweji gomtang. A collaboration between the Seoul chef Ok Dongsik and New York’s Hand Hospitality, reservations here fill up weeks in advance, all on the strength of the soup. For $18, you get a steaming bowl of clear broth poured over a base of soft heirloom rice that’s garnished with a fan of thinly sliced pork. The broth is made only with lean meat and vegetables (as opposed to bones), a process that contributes to its delicate flavor. There’s homemade gochuji on the side, which lends spice, but servers will tell you to use it for dipping meat, and not to add it to the soup itself, as it tends to disrupt the purity of the mellow pork infusion.