The new year won't be complete until you hit our hand-picked dining spots By Regan Hofmann We're ready to declare 2012 the year of the death of the meal, and we couldn't be happier about it. As more and more chefs embraced versatile dining, adding snacks to their menus, scaling down dishes or doing away with the old appetizer-entrée-dessert progression altogether, food got more inventive, more surprising and just plain better. For some, it was an opportunity to explore ideas that weren't quite fully formed-instead of worrying about what the skillet cornbread should accompany, let people just order the bread and see if they like it. For others, it was a new challenge, a way to refocus their creativity after years of culinary success. And for indecisive diners (guilty as charged), it means you can order most of the menu without feeling like a monstrous glutton. From snacks to sandwiches, here are the ones you just have to try this year. The samosa with chickpeas at Punjabi Deli (114 E. 14th St.) is a shockingly compact, intensely filling bowl of straight Indian comfort, a potato-and-pea samosa split, topped with a rich chickpea curry, tart chutneys and yogurt Jackson Pollock-ed over the top. It looks just awful, but after a bite, it's the most beautiful thing in the world-oh, and it's only $3. The best Jewish deli sandwiches in New York are coming out of a Canadian kitchen, and we don't care who hears us say it. All of the choices at Mile End Sandwich (53 Bond St., mileenddeli.com) are beyond reproach, but of them, The Beauty reigns supreme. It's the apotheosis of the lox sandwich; a housemade, slightly sweet Montreal-style bagel, house-cured salmon, capers and thin-sliced red onion. There are no modernist flights of fancy here-the glory is in the classic elements' flawless execution, in just the right proportions. "Coffee tea with condensed milk toast" sounds like Menupages madlib, but is in fact the most exciting afternoon pick-me-up going. At Cha Chan Tang (45 Mott St.), the sleekest Hong Kong-style teahouse in Chinatown, bubble tea flavors range from the mundane to the exotic, but the best is this unlikely combination of two great tastes you had no idea went well together. Like a particularly strong Earl Grey minus the tannic edge, it's excellent sipped alongside an inch-thick slice of soft white bread, barely toasted and drizzled with syrupy condensed milk. Whatever you do, do not head directly for Bar Jamón (125 E. 17th St., casamononyc.com) to order the pan con tomate. Painful as the wait may be, hang on until summer, when tomatoes are back in season, to appreciate the pure genius of this deceptively simple Spanish mainstay. Grassy olive oil highlights the mellow sweetness of the perfectly ripe tomato smeared over crusty bread, the occasional heavy crystal of salt crackling on the tongue. Is it July yet? M. Wells is dead; long live M. Wells! You'll be pleased to know the fat-friendly, offal-loving mad genius of the dearly departed diner lives on in its new cafeteria home at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Ave., Queens). Word of advice: Scan the menu for the most baffling combination of words and order it. That's how the chicken liver mousse with granola ended up on our table, an inspired savory take on the breakfast parfait. Salted pistachios, golden raisins, fried shallots and parsnip chips are bound together by a breathtaking scoop of creamy, funky mousse, a baffling combination that makes perfect sense on the first bite. In a town that's now got more steamed pork buns than hot dogs, Fun Buns (follow @funbunsnyc for locations) has somehow managed to rekindle the city's affair with the mini meaty bites. The secret is their Taiwanese take; pork belly is braised in rock sugar and soy for a sweet, salty edge, then topped with sharp pickled mustard greens and chopped peanuts. It's a brand-new flavor combination, enough to get New York to fall in love all over again.
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