NYC Michelin Star Dining for $52 and Under

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Culinary Tourism

Anyone that followed my now defunct personal Instagram account (side note: I would love for you to now follow me @houseofhighlow on IG) would say I’m the quintessential foodie. When I travel, I sometimes forget to snap a shot of a picturesque skyline, a famous landmark or a very instagrammable door (#doortrait!) but I rarely neglect to document a culinary experience.

Given my lawyer/type-A personality, it should come as no surprise that I thoroughly research every aspect of an upcoming trip. I spend hours reading TripAdvisor hotel reviews (I’m incredibly fastidious about hotel cleanliness); perusing Rick Steves’ and Lonely Planet guidebooks; picking the brains of my well-traveled friends; and combing through pertinent Instagram hashtags for unique ideas. 

However, without question, I spend the majority of my time researching where I will eat. I’m so passionate about travelling to discover incredible food that my resume rightfully lists “culinary tourism” as an interest!   

Culinary Tourism

Michelin Guide: The Restaurant Bible

When it comes to finding reputable sources for dining recommendations, in my opinion, nothing tops the Michelin Guide (it has only steered me wrong once - I'm looking at you, The Clocktower).  

According to the Guide, Michelin’s “expertly trained professionals in the food industry” conduct anonymous visits to restaurants using a “highly confidential and meticulous evaluation process.” It can be argued that the 3-star Michelin rating system is the most important standard in the restaurant and culinary world.

Michelin Guide New York City

6 NYC Michelin Starred Restaurants $52 and under

The only downside to the Michelin experience is often the cost.  Restaurants that earn a Michelin star (or two or three) are often booked months in advance despite the sometimes exorbitant cost (we’re talking up to US$1000 per person!). 

Even though a Michelin Star seems to be a green-light for a restaurant to charge astronomical prices for their dishes, after dining at more than 140 restaurants in NYC over the past year (I have the extra 10lbs to prove it! *cringe*), including 28 Michelin starred ones, I discovered some well-priced NYC Michelin starred restaurants.  The following 6 NYC Michelin starred restaurants are superb and each of these dining experiences will cost US$52 or less per person (not including tax and tip). There are few things better than enjoying the best of the best without breaking the bank!

1.     Tempura Matsui (1 Michelin Star)

Chef Kiyoshi Chikano of Tempura Matsui is a master of the art of tempura. He methodically coats each delicate cut of seafood or vegetable in batter before individually placing each piece into a clear vat of oil. The finesse and attention to detail are mesmerizing!  

Matsui - Chikano.jpg

The only thing more beautiful than this art in motion is the taste and texture of the tempura. It is unbelievably light yet crispy and the fresh tempura sauce and freshly grated daikon complements each crunchy morsel perfectly. Unless you’ve tasted tempura in Japan, you will question what you were eating before!  

In addition to the preparation, taste, texture, and appearance being vastly different from any other tempura I’ve had in North America, you’ll also notice that you won’t feel heavy after the meal (but you’ll be satiated), so you can continue with a jampacked day without the bloat!  

Request a seat at the bar so the chef will only prepare a couple of pieces at a time before placing it on a little plate in front of you. This ensures that each bite is hot, the seafood remains tender and the light batter keeps its perfect crisp. 

For US$40, you can choose between the Tempura Teishoku (with a bowl of rice) or Tenju (on a bed of rice). Either option will include an assortment of shrimp, seasonal seafood (2 pieces) and vegetable tempura (5 pieces) served with pickles and miso soup. You’ll also get your choice of delicious soba or udon, an appetizer, and dessert. It's a fantastic value as the least expensive dinner set menu starts at US$120.

2.    Uncle Boons (1 Michelin Star)

Uncle Boons is not your stereotypical Michelin restaurant. You won’t see crisp white linens set with perfectly spaced cutlery here. Instead, as you make your way down to the restaurant and past the bar, you'll be greeted by a boisterous crowd packed into a narrow space. But there’s a reason why this restaurant has a Michelin Star and is at capacity nightly, despite the requirement to eat elbow-to-elbow with a stranger - their authentic Thai food is phenomenal and well-priced. If you're expecting pad thai or salad rolls, you won't find them on the menu.

Uncle Boons consistently (I’ve eaten here five times in the past year) serves high-quality authentic Thai food that is impeccably seasoned. I don’t like spicy foods (I know, blasphemy for a foodie) but GC loves the spice, so we often disagree on our assessment of Thai restaurants. Yet we both rank Uncle Boons in our top 5 NYC restaurants that we wish we could transport to Toronto.  

I admit I find some of the dishes, like the banana blossom salad (US$15), to be too spicy for my liking, but the flavour profile is so spot on, I force myself to power through. 

Other standout dishes include: the tender grilled baby octopus (US$16) that has the ideal amount of char; the delectable northern style golden curry (US$22) with homemade egg noodles, chicken leg, pickled mustard greens and fresh turmeric - the harmonious flavours are a culinary treat; and the crab fried rice (US$26). The rice is cooked to the ideal texture (no clumps!) and the flavour of the fresh crab really comes through and is wonderfully enhanced by the cilantro, fish sauce, lime, and egg.  

Uncle Boons is a great place for an affordable and delicious meal - you can enjoy an appetizer, two mains, and a dessert to share for two for under US$100.  

3.    Aquavit (2 Michelin Stars)

If you’re like me, you automatically think of Ikea when you hear “Swedish meatballs”. But Aquavit, a contemporary Nordic restaurant, has elevated this pedestrian-sounding dish. The meatballs are tender and rich making it the perfect interplay between flavour and texture. The accompanying sauce has the right amount of creaminess and pairs beautifully with the tart jam.  

When I dined at Aquavit for lunch last December, their lunch prix fixe offerings were more extensive, so I was able to try their bouillabaisse as part of my set menu. The bouillabaisse is some of the best seafood I’ve had in recent memory. The serving of seafood was generous and each element was delicately cooked. The scallops are tender and buttery, the fish is flaky, and the vegetables are bright and fragrant. Instead of a soup (like in typical bouillabaisses), the dish is delightfully balanced by a light foam and shellfish aioli which allows the fresh seafood to be the real star of the dish.  

Aquavit is currently offering a City Harvest prix fixe lunch menu for US$43 that includes the Swedish meatballs or Icelandic cod as well as an appetizer. Alternatively, you can order the bouillabaisse at lunch for US$33.

4.    Kanoyama (1 Michelin Star) 

One of my favourite things about NYC is the incredibly fresh sushi. My friend, a self-proclaimed Japanophile, was also impressed by New York’s offerings. He was surprised that the best sushi restaurants in New York actually serve sushi that tastes like what you can get in Japan. The only real difference is the disparity in pricing. In Toyko, you can get out of this world sushi practically anywhere (in fact, one of my all-time favorite sushi experiences was at a standing sushi bar in Tokyo near the train station where the total cost of the meal for two was US$20). In Manhattan, you can find world-class sushi, but you’ll pay a lot more than fast food prices.  

Of all the sushi joints, my overall favourite (when factoring in price and quality) in Manhattan is Kanoyama. Since I’ve dined at Kanoyama eleven times in the past twelve months, I can speak to the consistent quality and freshness of the fish regardless of the season. The sushi rice is always perfectly cooked and unfailingly, the sushi and rolls are meticulously cut and assembled.  

I used to skip eating unagi because I found the taste to be too “fishy” but at Kanoyama, the freshwater eel has the perfect combination of deliciously crisp skin and succulent tender meat. Their buttery torro is also wonderfully rich. The sushi special which includes 9 pieces of sushi and a tuna roll costs US$39.  

5.    Cote (1 Michelin Star) 

I’ve never been a huge fan of steakhouses even though I’m the kind of person who doesn’t consider a meal complete unless it includes some sort of meat (or seafood)! I can’t get excited about only eating giant slabs of beef as a main course. Consequently, on the day of our Cote reservation, I didn’t feel my usual level of excitement associated with trying a new Michelin starred restaurant. But by the end of the meal, while devouring a surprisingly delicious vanilla soft serve with a drizzle of soy caramel sauce, I was already planning when I could return.  

Cote is a Korean-American fusion steakhouse. Like a typical Korean NYC BBQ restaurant, your server will cook the entire meal for you tableside on a gas burner. Unlike your typical Korean BBQ experience, the dinner will involve dry-aged beef (which they age in-house in a large transparent aging room in the basement) which produces a superior texture and concentration and depth of flavour.

For US$52 (it was US$48 earlier this year; accordingly, this post was supposed to be Michelin meals under $50 but I think Cote’s dinner is an excellent value even at US$52, I just had to include it on my list (and rename this post!)), you can enjoy the Butcher’s Feast of USDA Prime & American Wagyu Beef. This option comes with four cuts of beef. When I went this week, we were served American wagyu, hanger steak, 45 day dry-aged rib-eye, and galbi (short rib marinated in sweet soy mirin) which were all expertly grilled by our server and Korean accompaniments (kimchi stew, egg souffle, ban-chan, red leaf lettuce, etc.).

It’s truly a perfect marriage of Korean flavours and dry aged beef! If you feel like splurging, Cote offers additional longer-aged cuts and other premium meats, like Japanese A5 Wagyu. Although I've indulged in the oh-my-gawd-it-literally-melts-in-your-mouth A5 wagyu as a treat, the Butcher's Feast is more than enough and the best value.

6.    Ai Fiori (1 Michelin star)

Marrying into an Italian family has meant being spoiled by mouthwatering homemade sauces (and piles and piles of carbs). Consequently, GC and I tend to be very critical of Italian restaurants.  If we can make it at home (or, more accurately, have my mother-in-law make it) we usually walk away unimpressed. An Italian restaurant really has to elevate the typical Italian fare to earn our patronage and Chef Michael White at Ai Fiori does just that.  

In addition to the excellent service, Ai Fiori offers perfectly cooked al dente pasta packed with bold flavours. Standouts for me include the trofie nero (with fresh scallops, seppia and spiced mollica for a delightful crunch and a kick of spice) as well as the wonderfully light fluke crudo (beautifully finished with crème fraiche, meyer lemon breadcrumbs, and a giant heap of American sturgeon caviar).

Ai Fiori offers a weekday lunch prix fixe menu. For US$49, you can enjoy two courses from the prix fixe menu. I should note that the fluke crudo is an additional US$8 supplement.  

Let me know in the comments below if you’ve been to any of these restaurants or if you’re planning on going! I'd also love to hear your suggestions for amazing and affordable(ish) dining options in NYC!  

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Michelin Restaurants -