My new/old goal is to clean off my desk and clear up my life (or vice versa), so here is a report on an encore at Bustan, on the Upper West Side, to which my consort and a friend and I resorted on a sweltering night after seeing a line out the door at the new, “downtownesque” Jin Ramen after the extraordinary “Wolfpack.” We were thrilled to get a table in the backyard garden even though the fan aimed in our direction was soon headed toward youngs. And the service was quite good, which meant we soon were tearing into the superb mazettim (taramasalata, hummus, smoked eggplant spread for $16) with the excellent flatbread that of course required reordering. Gummy-fried calamari, however, was Bottom Line-level and the felafel I insisted we order was fried-dry and unredeemed by the chutneyesque sauce with it. WIGB, though? Undoubtedly. Those spreads and that garden are quite a seductive combo. We blew through two bottles of verdejo like water, however, and paid $54 a head.
My latest filing under “reach should exceed grasp:” This layabout’s hard-working consort has a newish rule that we can only go out to eat if we will eat something substantially better than we could eat at home. And I did, after all, train as a chef, cook in a restaurant, cater and spend nearly half my lifetime developing recipes for $ (I just did an average there; otherwise it once would be $$$$). But sometimes the rule gets bent. Sometimes four times in one week.
The high had to be a lucky find after the New Museum and a Di Palo’s run (for the cheapest Illy + best Parmigiano-Reggiano in town). Our pal in from DC had not had lunch, and we reflexively headed to Parm in NoLIta when I remembered we always pass by and wonder about the sidewalk cafe at Gelso & Grand, the enticing restaurant on the corner where a deli once sold Italian products and snacks like arancini in my street food days before the Twitter ate my life. I would have been happy with pizza only slightly better than the tourist crap in all the other cafes on Mulberry, but the $19 “Inferno” was actually excellent: good-to-the-bones crust, lots of capicola, a sweet-burning heat to the sauce. Whatever the plural is of bruschetta were also fabulous, one set topped with a shell-bean puree plus pancetta, the other with burrata, cherry tomatoes and a drizzle of Port reduction. The best part: An order is two, but your three-top can get a third for $5 more. Rosé from Lombardy was a decent pour for $12. Service was perfectly attentive. So, WIGB? Absolutely. The people-watching was jaw-dropping — suffice it to say that stretch of Little Italy is one more place where you will not spot Bill Cunningham.
The low, however, was easily brgr, where we wound up after the Sunday Greenmarket when Bob unexpectedly expressed interest in a burger, something that crosses his screen about once a year (so I know to click on it). I had waited what felt like six days for one to be overcooked a few weeks before at Fairway’s cafe, so we couldn’t go there, and my stomach still feels distended from the hangover one I had at Spring Natural on New Year’s Day, so we couldn’t go back there. Unfortunately, I remembered neighbors saying they had been getting good grass-fed burgers at brgr, and we wandered over to Broadway. Not only did the things take just short of forever or Fairway. The flavor was as AWOL as the vowels in the name. Neither the meat nor the “Cheddar” nor the mustard nor the tomato nor, even, the bun had any taste at all. We just kept eating and eating, hoping the next bite would pay off. Nope. (And the fries were seriously lame, too.) It says it all that we stopped in Zabar’s afterward and found one small sample of mangalitsa ham was a “wake up, tastebuds” mouthful. WIGB? The clincher was doing the math and realizing Fairway was a better deal, at $9.50 including fries; these were $8.50 plus. No wonder that logo has always reminded me of Goatsie.
Almost as disappointing was the brisket at Mighty Quinn’s in the West Village, where we trotted after the awesomeness that is the new Whitney. Once again, it was dry and chewy and not particularly barbecue-y. The chain had redeemed itself the other week at Birchfield Place, but I have to concur with Bob: It will be a long time, if ever, before we brave that stuff again. It’s a good thing we only split one sandwich, and it’s a good thing it came with the usual generous sides of coleslaw and pickles (celery, onion, cucumber and jalapeño) for $9.50. And we only needed that because we had fortified ourselves before tackling all floors of the museum by sharing a couple of carnitas tacos off the Taco Truck on the gorgeous High Line. Those were more tortillas than (dull) filling.
The fourth exception to the rule was West Bank Cafe in Hell’s Kitchen, to which we resorted for proximity’s sake after the genius of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (which, beyond the great script, photography and acting, boasted some fud jokes, including rabbit andouille). Our friends had suggested Taboon, but the prices online were insane (no wines under about $45, entrees in the $30s) plus we had gotten the brush-off when we stopped in one night after a “Daily Show” filming. Here, with the After Eight menu, we got a $35 Provencal rosé, a reasonably quiet table and the usual reliable, good-value cooking. My eggplant parmesan teamed with arugula and tomatoes, for $15, was almost Parm level (The Cat WCTLAFW approved to the point of stealing the salad off my plate the next day). Bob and Diane’s chicken breasts were juicy, with a fine sauce and lots of side vegetables including mashed potatoes (The Cat really approved). And I didn’t try Len’s shrimp but approved his wild mushroom risotto balls with their good truffle aioli for dipping. WIGB? Anytime we’re trapped in that tourist wasteland. Also, too? Upper West Side restos should offer After Eight menus. Bill ‘em as stroller-free.
The grease may be off-putting, but this was the best naan we have ever eaten in New York — it was even splendid two days later, pliable and flavorful and loaded with sliced garlic. Even better, the goat curry and kadi pakora we ate with it were both spiced for bread, not a fork, and those sensational sauces held up when reheated at home, too. We lucked into all this in Queens, at Sohna Punjab in Richmond Hill, thanks to a recommendation from the owner of a halal live-meat market we had just interviewed in Ozone Park; it’s a testament to the quality of his operation that we could go straight to that curry after seeing goats in their pen and the room where they’re slaughtered. He described the restaurant as a hole in the wall, but it was better than that for sure, with both the waitress and chef very welcoming and a bathroom that definitely passes the Chang test. Bob spotted kulfi in the ice cream case, so we split one straight from the metal cone in which the creamy, cardamomy sweetness was frozen. I spotted paan in the wine and beer case, but we passed on those — once, in Bangalore, was enough. WIGB? If we were in the neighborhood, for sure. Beyond the excellent cooking, two orders of the naan came to $5.98; the curries were both under $10. 117-10 Atlantic Avenue, 718 850 6221.
I have looked at the naked backsides of three women at the bar on the Cafe Luxembourg card/ad for as long as I’ve been eating for a living, but I only just learned what the damned image meant. Suffice it to say that a single guy did the explaining, which involved how mens see ladies. And that was on my third meal in the last half-year in that seductively faux-Parisian space, where the charm has held up for as long as I’ve been eating for a living despite the fact that the cooking has never really been transporting.
I thought I had figured out how to ace the menu after the first of the three meals, when another host and I made the mistake of ordering specials, which were overwrought, overpriced and underwhelming (it’s been half a year, at least, so no deets). From then on, I swore, I would only order the fish and chips. And on my second meal I was rewarded with perfection: fresh pollack, crisply fried and teamed with excellent tartar sauce, textbook frites and a little side of fresh pea purée to approximate mushy peas. The Cat was one happy cat when I kittybagged what was left of the ample portion.
Then I had to go and ruin everything by calculating how to order safely while not giving my host the impression I was a boring orderer and queering a potential deal. So I decided on a cheeseburger. Which turned out to be everything you would want in a cheeseburger — good bun, good lettuce and tomato, great frites, ramekins of not just ketchup but mustard and mayonnaise, proper rareness — but lacked that little essential. Flavor. The meat had no char or tang. Still, WIGB? Absolutely, especially if someone else is paying. You can eat the scenery.
And I guess the burger was not that lame because I trotted to the 3 train afterward to get to the Tribeca Film Festival and was feeling pretty light, having left most of my food on the plate. For my next eating experience I spotted a happy-hour sign on a new-to-me restaurant on West Broadway after exiting at Chambers, and I remembered it when my consort and I had an hour and a half to kill between shorts programs. So we walked away from the wind back to Saleya to settle onto stools for $6 glasses of wine, chardonnay from the Languedoc for me and garnacha for Bob.
Bob also wisely suggested we order a couple of small plates rather than making dinner later of a sachet of popcorn for $6.50, so we split a seriously good pizzetta topped with bacon, Gruyere and onions (tarte flambee by another name) and adequate hummus with exceptional pita (charred and perfectly salted). Bob’s no fan of chickpeas, so I got all those topping both the hummus and the little salad that came with the $14 snack.
WIGB? Definitely, if I were in the neighborhood and wanting to avoid the no-discount drinking in all the swankola restaurants near the Regal Cinemas. And not least because the design of the two-level bar is so savvy it reminded me of the restaurateur we met eons ago in Estonia who said “restaurants serve air” — theatricality is half the experience.
Also, too, it’s a good thing I never got around to writing about how negative my pals felt a couple of months back after choosing Mighty Quinn’s brisket before the Jim Jarmusch/John Schaeffer silent-film-with-music presentation down in the old Winter Garden under the new World Trade Center. All but Mr. Pulled Pork dispiritedly forked through leathery meat and agreed: Romance. Over. But then Bob and I had half an hour to forage between documentaries at the film festival and went upstairs rather than back to Le District and, at my instigation, circled back to the Mighty. All dryness was forgiven. For $9.25, that mound of meat on a bun paired with coleslaw (half-creamy, half-vinegary as the accommodating counter server provided) plus pickled celery, cucumbers, jalapenõs and red onions was easily the best deal in a food court where a grilled cheese is just a grilled cheese. To think for only $2.75 less, we could have been feasting on popcorn.
I came home from my consort’s birthday dinner at Fung Tu on the Lower East Side determined not to Tweet but to think things through rather than squandering good ideas in 140 characters. More than two weeks have gone by, so here I am to say it was actually a thrill to realize we could walk out of a restaurant and get lost, after going on 34 years in Manhattan. We had walked south to the end of Orchard Street and turned right and found ourselves completely disoriented — why were we walking toward the Williamsburg Bridge if we were heading west? (Answer: We had never been that far east on Canal before; we both thought it ended around the Bowery.)
I also have to report that it took two and a half hours online to find a restaurant that could even let our credit cards in on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend. What the hell ever happened to the city emptying out on long holidays? I realize it’s the tourists flooding in who are clogging the system, but some part of me also wonders if a lot of restaurants were “fully committed” just for appearance’s sake. We walked past one that had had only 5 and 5:30 openings online that was nearly empty around 9.
And I got our table through Fung Tu’s website, which uses not OpenTable but Yelp for reservations and offered a genius option: If anything opened up the next day, it would text me with 15 minutes to text back whether I was in. So we got our 7 o’clock seating (we’re olds), and both the automated system and an actual human checked back twice to confirm as the hour of the olds approached.
As for the meal, the whole experience seemed influenced by what I suspect is the Keller Effect. The chef, and I assume others, had worked at Per Se, so the staff was solicitous, the noise level serene, the seating comfortable despite the tight quarters, the bathroom tile artfully designed. When the waiter delivered fried clams we hadn’t ordered, another server insisted we keep them (and they were worth spending money on, tender-crisp with a lively dipping sauce).
We started with something even more sensational: dates stuffed with shredded duck, smoked and then fried. Our next shared small plate was good but odd, a fava bean curd terrine, sprinkled with pickled mustard greens and bits of bacon, and the one after that was too similar in texture. I liked the scallion masa pancake more than Bob did, even though it came with my favorite bird (chicken). But the last dish was spectacular: spaetzl with Sichuan ground pork, the spicy meat the perfect contrast to the soft noodlettes. We were also glad the waitress persuaded us to add a side of water spinach cooked in whey broth; the whole dish was elevated to something so much more. Plus the $22 portion was big enough to kittybag; we split it for lunch a couple of days later. WIGB? Absolutely, not least because the tab before tip was $138 for all that food plus a bottle and two glasses of anything-but Chardonnay wine.
And given that I’m in birthday mode, I’m going to confess it’s only been a year and a half since we had a fabulous evening at Lafayette for mine in 2014 that I never got around to writing about here (quiet table in the corner in the front; fine pumpkin risotto with duck confit and chestnuts). And it’s only a year since we celebrated Bob’s at the Gander (his request is always for interesting food, what he won’t get at home because this trained cook is basically unambitious). Underlines on the dusty menu on my desk indicate we had brisket “tots” (tater, not kiddle) with mustard (strands caught in my cranial sieve indicate they were almost too meaty), and brown butter panzotti with taleggio, chanterelles, ramps and Parmesan (not a shopping list but actual flavor-texture coherence) and arctic char with coco beans, chorizo, leeks and beurre rouge (good but unfortunately too close to the kitchen where I do the chopping and dishwashing). I do recall we ate in a luxurious booth and the sommelier became our friend once we ordered a cheap but interesting white; I think he said you could judge his list by the fact that it took two months for any customer to ask for pinot grigio. WIGB to either, though? Haven’t yet.
The always good: RedFarm on the Upper West Side, where my consort and I connected with two friends for a birthday lunch on a rare sunny day and where the kitchen, as always, delivered big time. Each of us had an instant request: soup dumplings for me, because they are always worth the $14, least of all for the fit-to-savor pork; eggplant-smoked salmon “bruschetta” for Joanne, because the combination of crisp vegetable and the creamy, caviar-topped topping really is a marvel; spicy duck and crab “dumplings” for Bob because the Thai green curry sauce at the core of the dish is so sensational, and a special of a crisp soft-shell crab for Donna because she was hankering for a crisp crustacean (it was $18 but easily divided into four and was bulked up with tempuraesque eggplant wedges). We should have quit while we were ahead, because the sesame noodles Donna was also craving struck me as equal parts bland and dry, although the chicken and vegetables they were tossed with tasted both juicy and smoky-wild. WIGB? Anytime. Service, also as always, was also superb. And both sauvignon blanc and rosé were $10 a glass — a deal with the people-watching show from the sidewalk cafe. All we needed was The Cat WCTLWAFW, even though he would never wear a leash.
The surprisingly not bad: Cotenna in the West Village, which we stumbled upon after leaving yet another TriBeCa film festival screening and where we were first amazed by how the old, teeny ‘ino has been freshened up and enlarged and then by how good and affordable the food was. Of course, we had just plunged in on seeing $12 pasta on the menu posted at the door, so we were not too annoyed to find the wine list up at lap-dance levels ($60 for the cheapest white? you must be shitting me). We settled for quartini, at $16 for chardonnay and $18 for Barbera, while marveling that our $12 garganelli osso buco and “insalata Nizzarda” were so filling. The latter was billed as a traditional tuna Nicoise but betrayed with fresh tuna; the former was much more meat (tender, rich-tasting) than noodle. WIGB? It’s a weird little place that makes you wonder how such a huge menu can come out of such a tiny kitchen. And the tables were too close together. But. Yeah. That was quite a dinner for $63 before tax and tip on superb service.
The oh, you’re gonna miss him now he’s gone: Fairway Cafe, where a friend had informed us the food was actually better since Mitchel had been kicked to the stinking curb in the great vulture-capitalist purge. We stopped in for a quick lunch after the Sunday Greenmarket on Columbus and were happy to be seated right away, not so happy to wait more than half an hour for a cheeseburger that arrived cooked to boot dryness. Fries were okay, the usual coleslaw, tomato, red onion etc. were generous. And Bob’s chicken sandwich was the same as it ever was. But even the server’s peace offering of a cruller so giant it arrived with a steak knife embedded in it could not make up for the feeling that the same is not as it ever was.
WIGB? If you’re talking Pier A, I already did. Lunch a while back with a friend with benefits (or at least an expense account) was such a great experience I insisted my consort and I head there as a reward for me braving one of our dreary trips to the horror-movie-worthy storage center down near the old Fulton Fish Market. The setting is magical, with a huge deck outside a beautifully restored building with sight lines straight to the Statue of Liberty, and the food is far beyond what you would expect in a tourist magnet (maybe because the crowd includes jump-you-fuckers suits from surrounding office towers?) Both lunches I had fish and chips, the cod perfectly fried and matched with good tartar sauce plus excellent fat, crunchy fries (and okay coleslaw). The oyster po’ boy at the first lunch was more bread than bivalve, though, so I was glad Bob immediately went for the Buffalo chicken wings. Which were so much better than we have ever had the few times we have bothered with them in their namesake city. These were big and meaty and juicy and, again, fried right, plus they were awash in buttery hot sauce. He had a beer, I had a glass of rosé and the view did the rest. I will say service merited an A+ the first time and at best a C the second; four times a runner showed up at our table with food we hadn’t ordered, plus the waiter did not know the rosé price, which beers were IPA etc. and vanished for too long between those questions and our ordering. Both the WiFi and the computer system were down, though, so everyone is entitled to an off day. The place was also full with a wedding and a private party. And I could forgive it anything because I spotted Harry Poulakakos*, dad of the partner in the place, on my way to the hoi polloi bathroom and got to catch up to his sweetness a bit on my way back to the table. His apple not only did not fall far from the tree but has spread fruit all over Lower Manhattan, the best place to get out of New York without leaving the island. *It’s a long way from the sea of heartbreak.
WIGB to Baker & co in the West Village? Already have. Twice. A few weeks (or was it years, in Lost Internet Time?) a friend treated me to Buster Poindexter midday in the Greene Space for my birthday, after which we set out in sloppy snow to find wine and snacks, heading at my suggestion to Murray’s overpriced cheese bar. Which was closed. And it was sloppily snowing. We both noticed a rustic sign directly across the street and walked into a wonderland. Not only was the place serving at that odd hour. Everyone seemed seriously happy to see us, the food (mostly pizzette for us) was both affordable and nicely done and the table felt hearthside even without smoke smoking up our coats and scarves. So when three friends plus my consort wanted to connect after the punch-to-the-head-awesome “About Elly” at Film Forum, I thought I knew just the place. Turned out two of those friends knew it even better — it’s a sibling of the Aurora across the water that they love.
We landed in happy-hour time for $5 house wine at the bar, which came with a show: The cleverly designed place felt like a stop for those grim “Sex & the City” tours, but you can squeeze past the rib cages with watermelon-busting augmented breasts and the stilettos to get to the glassed-in cafe in the very back. We split one appetizer, a fabulous pizzetta heaped with house-made sausage plus broccoli rabe and smoked scarmorza. The excellent house bread came with very creamy ricotta drizzled with olive oil and olives. And every one of our entrées was happy-making, especially my $16 lasagne, easily the best since I last made that assemblage at home for a story after 9/11. The Cat was as pleased as my consort and our friend to his right with the roasted half-chicken stuffed with mascarpone and teamed with fries, the potatoes nearly swamped with truffle oil and garlic chips. I only snared tiny tastes of the orecchiette with shrimp and the gnocchi with mushrooms and asparagus but would go back for either. Nothing was more than $24, and that was the generous chicken. The server’s dessert recommendation of caramel budino also played out right — when sugar is sweet, five spoons can dredge through it happily. Wines were good, too. When I clumsily ordered the cheapest white, a grillo for $37, and when it was 86d, the host came over to sell us a fabulous Friulano for the same price.
So it was no surprise I got no resistance from Bob about a week later when we left a waste of time aside from the gin-soaking at Storyscapes at the Tribeca Film Festival and I suggested the short walk back to Bleecker. This time we got a table instantly and were soon sharing crisp and gooey fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with burrata and paired with mixed green salad. We thought we ordered fava beans as well but were served a lavish beet salad with citrus supremes, horseradish yogurt and pistachios (guess it was the gin talking). And we finished with an order of ravioli with smoked eggplant, cherry tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella. All of it was so good we left marveling at the waiter’s revelation that the place gets a largely tourist crowd. I hope those Carrie wannabes realize they are not congregating in a typical Village restaurant. It’s way better than that. Plus it is so close to the movies, both Film Forum and IFC. We settle for worse/pricier so often.
Our friend who moved back to Philadelphia from the “restaurant wasteland” of the Upper West Side begs to differ with all the national food media hyping the wonders of her hometown. To her, too many of the restaurants are too much like so many that afflict Manhattan: not just overpriced but dishing up food that she, as a great cook, could make at home.
Given that she runs the Relais & Chateaux where my consort and I would be staying while he was starting shooting on his latest documentary, I was very glad to have arrived with a suggestion off the Twitter for where we should head for our first lunch. And I was even more glad when she was as impressed as we were. Cheu Noodle Bar could be just a Changstamp but puts its own imprint on the menu. As my Twitter pal predicted, I was thankful for the advice on ordering the brisket-matzo ball-kimchi option, with tender meat and unrubbery dough to absorb the spicy-vibrant broth. Joanne’s ramen with braised pork shoulder and egg was more Jin-like; although the broth was not as rich, the meat was sublime. But Bob’s soba with chorizo, queso fresco and snow peas was the simple winner; he’s usually Mr. Brodo but was more than happy with this dry bowl. We also split an appetizer of the special beef-sesame dumplings of the day, beautifully made and cooked. If not for that $9 addition, Joanne could have left a tip of less than $10.
Dinner that night was with her nephew and his girlfriend, whose yelling dog Bob had just filmed, and four of the six of us were all “whoa” on arriving at the restaurant in Old City and thinking we were heading into a gelateria in that “Jersey Shore”-overwhelmed neighborhood. But back in the back turned out to be a very Philadelphia dining room anchored by a glitzy wood pizza oven. Then the owner recognized her friend at our table and stopped to offer suggestions. Which is when I actually started to worry — what if everything sucked? How could I write about it?
That was ridiculous.
All three pizzas we chose were hard to fault, generous even sliced into sixths and with especially good crusts (I usually leave a pile of “bones” on my plate but kept on gnawing). The Ciro had lardo, the San Lorenzo smoked mozzarella and house-made sausage, the Vesuvius good heat (cameras should have a caption function). We also split a stellar “capra” salad of delicate arugula, goat cheese, pancetta and almonds, plus adequate arancini and amazing eggplant “meat”balls as well as a smartly chosen four-cheese and two-salumi board. We did not need the fourth pizza the owner comped us, but we all tucked into it: a margherita gussied up with pepperoni. With two bottles of a crisp and complementary verdicchio, the bill was $186 before the tip. For six of us. We should all be riding Amtrak.
Next day I steered us to the doughnut-famous Dizengoff for hummus: one plain, one topped with fried chickpeas and a third with “longhot hazelnut,” a very fiery green pepper minced with filberts. Each dainty plateful came with a salad of diced cucumber and red onion plus a little bowl of pickled cucumber and onion, as well as just-baked pita in a brown paper sleeve. You have to congratulate a business that can charge up to $13 for meatless meals. We lucked out with a table at that late hour; otherwise, it would have been great to take lunch to Rittenhouse Square a few blocks away.
Our second dinner was home-cooked at the H&J R&C and our last lunch was at a tiny, funky cafe called Lutecia, just a block or so away from my first apartment in Philadelphia. We could have been eating in 1978, too, and I mean that in the Commissary way: lentil soup with coconut milk and saffron; quiche Lorraine; croque monsieur; potato-leek soup paired with a half-sandwich of chicken and tomatoes on baguette. At about $10 a person, it was almost like paying in the Rizzo years.
We also fit in gelato (pistachio plus spicy Mexican chocolate) at Capofitto predecessor Capogiro on 13th Street, which was good if not the best in America as proclaimed by National Geographic. We split a superb little Jezabel’s beef empanada from Gavin’s while walking around once-dangerous Fitler Square. We bought addictive Monkey Crackers at the Reading Terminal Market for the cheese we’d brought down from Murray’s and the aged-two-years prosciutto we bought at Di Bruno Bros. And we had perfect espresso at Nook, where the “small-batch coffee, small-batch baking” sign lured us in.
Joanne may be right with her tepid take on the allegedly hot restaurant scene. But she can’t argue over the improvement on other levels, not least on the booze front. We turned her on to a new state store that is not up there with Astor but at least is centuries beyond the one Bob remembers, the one that had not shelves but a binder full of wines.
Between the rigatoni and the “minced beef” (aka dogburgers) on homebound Turkish Airlines, I had plenty of time to chew over what a guide recounted in Istanbul on my second day: She once had to spend several weeks in New York and was just longing for the food of her birth country one day when she spotted a restaurant called Istanbul. She swore she got fine food there, and I’ll take her word for it. Mostly she got me thinking about why Americans never have to crave American food. Is it because you can find McBurgerShack anywhere you go? Or because there is no such thing as American food?
I’m going with the latter after considering a couple of eating experiences after landing. On the first night my also-jetlagged consort, just back from judging World Press Photo’s multimedia entries in Amsterdam, graciously suggested we meet somewhere near his post-school networking drink, and Mermaid Inn had no tables available before about 3 in the morning my time, so I suggested Maison Kayser, not least because we could economize by taking advantage of the BYOB policy, since the place has no liquor license but also no corkage fee. So we tucked right into food off a menu that felt like one we would be happy to find in a cafe in Paris on one of those nights when we had no energy to search out a real meal. I passed on the salade gourmandaise with foie gras, duck prosciutto, green beans etc. because (snob that I am) I have had it so many times in France. But I was thrilled to see duck rillettes, and something new: artichokes paired with burrata. Which were enticing enough to let me let Bob take the cassoulet.
Of the three, the cassoulet was the weakest link, but not by much. Once we shredded the duck confit and chopped the garlic sausage into the soupy beans, we had a credible version of the usually dense classic. The rillettes, all of $2 more than what I buy Hudson Valley Duck’s for, came with toasts and cornichons plus were so much better, with good chunks of meat among the shreds in white fat. And the artichoke assemblage was sublime, both then and next morning: puréed artichoke bottoms surrounded with bits of bottoms, dabs of pesto and a necklace of pitted black olives, all topped with a slab of melting burrata.
The setting was pretty dinery, even after the very charming waiter turned down the lights, and I had my suspicions about how one kitchen can turn out such a wide menu of so many choices, and so fast. Still, WIGB? Absolutely, but probably for a snack rather than a meal. Real diners have wine by the glass.
Overall, though, the meal felt very New York. As did, insane as it sounds, Saturday lunch with our Asian-eating/eating-Asian pals at a newish Sichuan restaurant in northern New Jersey. And not just because we ordered “hamburgers.”
The first sign we were a long way from either Mott Street or Main Street was the very look of the place: sleek, polished, elegant (the two-stall ladies room even had flowers in it rather than the usual grimy string mop). The second was the graceful dish filled with peanuts in one indentation, spicy pickled carrots and a mystery yellow vegetable in the other. The teapots were also china, not aluminum. And the food was uniformly sensational.
Pork wontons in hot chile oil were perfectly formed and cooked, so they held together to the last nibble. Duck soup had a delicate flavor but you could taste the ginger and Sichuan peppercorns. Dan-dan noodles had clean, beautifully balanced flavor. I skipped the ox tongue and tripe in peppery sauce while everyone else raved. I also skipped the fermented eggs with cucumbers but can vouch for the sauce and crunchy vegetable sauce. Fern root noodles with sliced chicken were fascinating, dark and chewy. Braised sea bass fillets in another spicy sauce were sensational, beautifully cooked, very fresh fillets, and all of $16.75 for a huge bowlful. Even dry-sautéed string beans with minced pork were exceptional. But the true “vaut le voyage” choices were the Sichuan “hamburger,” thin slices of well-spiced pork to be tucked into steamed buns, and the tea-smoked duck, easily the best we have ever had outside of Hong Kong — the fat was almost buttery, the meat almost rare but very tender. And when the check came, it amounted to all of $23 a person for the seven of us. WIGB? Despite the hourlong bus ride, absolutely. This is why we live in America, for freedom of choice on food.