New York minutes

The good: Following up on the great Musket Room: Just a couple of days before, of course, I had misunderstood which M restaurant Bob had suggested trying on a night when neither of us could deal with putting food on the family after crazy days working. And so we made our way to the Marshal in Hell’s Kitchen with visions of the scallops cooked with Hudson Valley Duck bacon in our heads, courtesy of the cook we ran into on Union Square as he bought up half the cooler over the summer. A table on the sidewalk, across from the taxi gas station, distracted us from the fact that there were no scallops with bacon the menu, but we were perfectly happy to indulge in the $11 duck liver mousse (funkiness offset by honeycomb plus great crunchy toasts, and plenty of them) and what I called tamale pie without the ground beef (local polenta topped with Cheddar, sauced with tomatillo salsa, also $11) and Bob’s blowout entrée, roast leg of lamb stuffed with spinach, rosemary and ginger and laid over duck-fat smashed potatoes, for $32. A $30 rosé from Anthony Road in the Finger Lakes was just gravy. WIGB? Maybe, although the inside space is rather tight and the prices could be lower if marquee farms did not dominate the menu.

The closer good: Arco on the Upper West Side, which we’d been walking past for months while shrugging (more average Italian?) but where we finally headed after a rave heard over in Brooklyn, at Photoville. And our fandoc was right: The place, which I had dismissed as a draw for guests at the hostel right across Amsterdam, looks downtown sleek; the hostess and server were superb, and the food definitely surpassed my expectations of “why go out when Italian is so easy at home?” Plus there was Arneis by the glass, for all of $10. We split a respectable salad, a special with fried artichokes, arugula, tomatoes and shredded cheese, then Bob wound up finishing my outstanding gnocchi, alla montanara, in a creamy sauce with mushrooms and bacon, while we kittybagged his pork on polenta. WIGB? Absolutely. The tide is turning uptown with restaurants lately.

The downtown pretty good: Ramen-Ya in the West Village, where we wound up feasting before a Yom Kippur break fast after Bob responded to the moody weather by suggesting the Japanese bellybuster and I suggested we pass on the Wayne Thiebaud show uptown because every painting is online and instead head south to the Grey Gallery, for a truly staggering show on apartheid (which we now have to specify means South African, not Israeli). The place is tiny, as threatened, but comfortable when only three-quarters full in daytime. As we do uptown at Jin Ramen, he had the namesake dish, here with a medium-rich, and spicy, brodo with respectable pork, while I had the rice bowl topped with beef, scallions and pickled ginger. I should have known the one dish using the B word would not be using a recognizable cut, but I also didn’t put my chopsticks down until I was nearly finished. The knockout dish, though, was the appetizer of pork gyoza, liberally dusted with togarashi. They were a little greasy, but the wrappers were silken. WIGB? Maybe, but there are so many other ramen places to explore these days.

Something very old: Elizabeth’s in our neighborhood, where we were so embarrassed to have dragged our great friends from across the park after the awesome Balthus/cats exhibition at the Met. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. They seated us right next to the bar and the teevee during a game, then moved us to a table where the new waiter was not talking to the old waiter. (Scary how I remember all this seven months on.) The wine was a mixup, the cocktail Nancy ordered was undrinkable and I waited seven months short of forever for dressing for my usually-great-but-tonight lame-ass Cobb salad. Bob was okay with his grilled salmon, Charles with his turkey meatloaf, but I noticed Nancy left most of her burger uneaten, even with us sharing the okay onion rings. We trudged out saying we would never go back unless for rosé in the sidewalk cafe. And so:

Something newish: Elizabeth’s in our neighborhood, where we ran to on one of those rare summer nights when you could eat outside and where everything reminded us why the place has stayed in business longer than so many predecessors, without sinking to the craptastic tequila level next door. The waiter, for a rare change, was on top of the wine list, so we got a good organic rosé, before the always-excellent bread and butter, and then my outstanding sliders and his roast chicken. WIGB: Only for just the two of us. So embarrassing to drag our friends there from across the park, where we look out on the El Dorado and notice why so many windows are dark on an early fall Sunday night: Nobody lives there year-round anymore. And that only hurts restaurants and other living businesses in the neighborhood.

New York minute/September 2014

Playing catch-up (which is different from ketchup, and definitely from ketchup of the mushroom variety): My consort and I had a restore-your-faith-in-eating-out experience at the Musket Room in NoLiTa, after Lou DiPalo’s superb presentation at the Tenement Museum to promote his new book. He was so eloquent on the immigrant experience, which made it that much more seamless to move from the generous tastes of his product line to dinner next to a New Zealand couple in a restaurant with a New Zealand chef and New Zealand wine list. I had been there on the rare assignment with a bit of expense budget and really wanted Bob to experience the smoked scallops, which sound like a gimmick but are actually brilliant, from the presentation (dome whisked off to emit a cloud of smoke) to the expedition through flavors and textures of black garlic and cucumbers and pears. We split another appetizer of quail with the wild-sounding but harmonious accoutrements of blackberries, roasted onions and “bread sauce.” And then the kitchen, when we asked to share, actually split the duck entrée for us. The breast was sous-vide-tender, laid over a sublime carrot purée and paired with halved “Tokyo” turnips and little logs of baby zucchini, both roasted. All that was after the greatness of the bread basket — bacon brioche (eat that, Marie Antoinette), a little sourdough roll and a mini-loaf topped with caraway seeds — all teamed with great butter. The $54 Misha’s Vineyard sauvignon blanc pitched by the sommelier actually made Mr. ABSV happy, too. On top of all that, the restaurant is sleek and happy: New York, just as someone from Ozville would picture it. WIGB? No question, not least for the chance to advise a coupla NZers on what to see in NYC, like the Louis Armstrong House in Queens (not least for the kitchen). The tab, with 20 percent tip, was all of around $135.

 

New York minute, Brooklyn edition

You can mock Yelp and you can mock “farm to table,” but when you put the two together you can actually steer yourself to a good meal. The latter filters out the crapola. Twitter has been a huge help the last few years when I’ve been soliciting advice on road food (and Brooklyn is a serious road trip even underground), but it’s not very nimble and not always quick. So when I put out a plea for suggestions in Bushwick, I got one recommendation but wound up rewarding “location, location, location” and heading to the Yelp FTT restaurant closest to the gallery where the “Appetite” show with my consort’s photo in it was opening that night. Haters gonna hate, but it was the right choice.

Just walking into Northeast Kingdom in that industrial wasteland was a lift — the unwomaned hostess table at the door had a Chanterellesque vase of flowers on it; the lighting was seductive, and we got a table right away. I had a special appetizer as my main course, peekytoe crab mixed with creme fraiche (which really is better than mayonnaise [sometimes]) and paired with jalapeño slivers and green apple slices. We shared a jazzy cauliflower appetizer, the florets dressed with coconut harissa and pistachio gremolata, the flavors and textures so fascinating I could forgive what I think of as a winter vegetable of last resort being showcased in peak summer produce season. And Bob was thrilled with his special, a fat and perfectly cooked pork chop with kale, peaches and maple syrup countered with just the right amount of acidity. The waiter’s description of how the chef butchered it, leaving all that fat on, was so farm to table it deserves a Yelp.

New York minutes

If you had told me in December 1980 that I would, in August 2014, be eating kelp salad followed by braised pork belly — with chopsticks, to boot — I would have said subsisting on one tiny bag of potato chips plus a few Cokes must have made you delusional. And I have to admit I thought my consort was kidding when he suggested the salad, but it was surprisingly palatable despite the slight fishiness he couldn’t detect. It was definitely better than the woody green beans in peanut sauce we’d tried as a starter at our first lunch at Jin Ramen in Harlem, a few months ago. The rice bowl this time, topped with pickled ginger and brisket cooked with onions to falling-apart tenderness, was also better than my introductory version ($6 for the small, more than I could finish). Bob, as always, had to try something new and took the server’s recommendation of the spicy tonkotsu ramen, with liquid-bacon pork broth seasoned with the house blend of soybean and roasted garlic paste plus hot sesame oil. And it was even better than the milder ramen he’d chosen last time (well, last time with me — he confessed he’d gone there on his own once). The whole $12 dish is a fascination, with the noodles and the pork belly and the soft-cooked egg and the bamboo shoots and the scallions to mix and match on a wooden spoon. WIGB?  Absolutely. Between the food, the efficient service and the show, it’s the perfect pit stop before braving the miles of aisles at the uptown Fairway (the one where the stock and spaciousness make the Broadway store look like a shithole). Still, while the couple at the next table eating their way through half the “raymen” menu made me wish I’d spotted the gyoza on the menu, I realize on checking the fine print that we could not have ordered them. Because I still won’t eat (more than a taste of) chicken.

The weekend before I also got to engage in behavior, and food, that would also have felt beyond alien before I met Mr. Omnivorous Adventurer. And I actually found the place: IndiKitch, west from Eataly in the Flatiron. This was our second lunch together there and my turn to confess I’d been back twice on my own, for a quick snack after the Wednesday Greenmarket, simply for the samosas, which are among the best I’ve had in this city of fried-and-dried. The place is clearly staking out a claim as the South Asian answer to Chipotle: You choose feast (burrito), biryani (bowl), salad (salad) or sandwiches (tacos) and the counter crew assembles and sautés (actually finishes) to order. “Feast” is a serious deal for $9.87, with a main ingredient like saag paneer or mushroom kadai or chicken tikka teamed with a choice of rice (saffron is best), dal (chickpea or yellow lentil is best), side salad (carrot is definitely best) plus naan (garlic, of course). The naan is surprisingly good, better than in far too many Indian restaurants, because it’s both well-flavored and pliable enough to wield as your utensil, just the way you would eat in India. And if you order your food spicy, it’s near-perfect pitch, seasoned  to be balanced by the bread. The bathrooms, entered by entering a code, are spotless enough to encourage just that authentic way of eating.

Of course I had to go and ruin my new infatuation by suggesting Indian for Sunday lunch after the Greenmarket on Columbus when neither our usual lobster rolls nor tortas/cemitas appealed. I’d been wanting to try the uptown Saravanaa Bhavan for the last year, since a pal at the Greenmarket on 97th recommended it, and the thali was about three universes beyond IndiKitch. Of course, it was also $19.99 (but so generous we could split it). Every one of the 14 little dishes tasted vibrant (although I’ll take points off for the soggy papad), and the spicing varied from dish to dish. The menu was all Hindu to me aside from a couple of words, so there’s no point in listing specifics. Just know that it was (almost) like being transported to Mumbai at a sidewalk table on Amsterdam. WIGB? Definitely, even though the hometown magazine ran a long and peculiar story on how the owner of the chain is a killer. The staff was a bonus — when was the last time a waiter came out to tell you the one-holer occupied by a young woman for a suspicious amount of time was free?

Another country, 5 stops away on the 2

The smartest thing cultural centers in far-flung neighborhoods do these days is recommend close-by eating options on their websites. Which is how my consort and I wound up sharing some pretty great spicy guacamole with just-fried chips at Xochimilco, on our way to the impressive Bronx Documentary Center. Maybe we would have found the place on our own, given that both a NYT article on Baron Ambrosia and a TripAdvisor seal were posted outside, but having the options narrowed to four (the others being pizza/Italian or a bar) definitely made it easier to think we would not starve on our little outing to a whole new New York.

As you might expect from the neighborhood, the place is a long way from Rosa Mexicano design-wise — the “silverware” is mostly plastic, the “tablecloth” a sheet of clear plastic over place mats. But that guacamole was exceptional, and all of $6. Even next day the kittybagged cupful was darker but still vibrant. I passed on Bob’s lengua tacos but did try his overloaded spicy pork ones and agreed they were deal of the year at $3 each (you can have them for 50 cents less if you leave off crema etc.) I’m a sucker for gorditas because they’re so rare in New York and I’m too lazy to make them using the recipe I did for Esquire’s “Man at His Best” way back in the last century after a trip to El Paso. These were definitely made to order, the masa dough soft inside, fried almost crisp outside, with a filling of Oaxacan cheese, crema and lettuce (plus, in one, chicharrones). The sweet waitress brought two salsas, a nearly incendiary red and a just-made/still-warm tomatillo, and both those added the essential acid to the richness. WIGB? If I lived nearby, for sure. But the gorditas in Corona were actually better if I”m going to have to get on a train. We’ll go back to the photo center for sure, but next time I’d try one of the other recommendations for one reason: local insight expands horizons.

New York obits

Guilt at least is a motivator. When anything dies, remorse sets in faster than rigor mortis, and suddenly here are all these restaurants going under before I could either praise ’em or trash ’em. The first and worst was almost too embarrassing to write about, so the months flew by, and then we saw a new sign over the grimy entrance. A friend who lives in the neighborhood and had steered us right in the past suggested the hellhole over the winter, and only once we’d been seated did he volunteer that he had never braved the place. Suffice it to say the food and prices were all a classic demonstration of why Indian just can’t get a break in this town. Everything was bland and bloating and priced to keep anyone from eating as you would in the Subcontinent. I couldn’t even get it up for a hugely negative WIGB, and then we walked by recently and saw a new sign. For a place that cannot be any worse. (Update: It’s changed again. . . Reincarnation lives!)

Now I see Cocina Economica, our Sunday reliable, is no more. We went there more times than I can count, always for the torta and the cemita with spicy fries, each for about what Chipotle charges for a burrito alone. The kitchen was amazingly consistent, if often brunch-poky, and those excellent chorizo sandwiches and those fine fries never varied. The mystery is how a restaurant with Michelin, Zagat, Trip Advisor etc. decals on the door can go under. Unless it was because a Chipotle opened right around the corner on Broadway.

And then there was Seersucker, which we quite liked in a “this kind of resto could never survive in our neighborhood” way. The cocktail menu was particularly happy-making for my consort, who has started to see barmanship as more worthy of megabucks than mere wine selection. I’m a little fuzzy on what we ate cuz my photos also were, but I know I liked my ricotta gnocchi with bacon and the biscuits with butter and molasses butter and a couple of salads, plus the room and the service and the lighting.The whole situation makes me think of that old saying: “She was good, as cooks go. And as good cooks go, she was gone.”

The demise of Loi only mystifies as to why it took so long. We went there repeatedly, since it was our Fairway default after movies at Lincoln Square or Lincoln Plaza, but we never went excitedly. On our last drop-in, with the Bugses, we shared spreads and a bottle of wine at the (as always) underoccupied bar and were even comped desserts, but the place still had the stench of death about it even as the middle-of-the-road menu at Cafe Luxembourg kept the hordes coming. Can I indulge in some Realtor-speak? Put a Shake Shack in there. Nothing ambitious will work if even all the vaginal mean-muscle of the hometown paper could not undoom the location.

New York minute

Sometimes I humor my consort on the rare weekend he’s in town and insists there is life beyond the tell-me-more Internets. Which is how we wound up, on a Sunday afternoon last spring, at the Studio Museum of Harlem, for one of its always-worth-the-journey/show-not-tell “3D is better than digital” exhibitions. The walk home was a revelation, since we took it down Frederick Douglass Boulevard — thanks to my online research into what we might find on this forced exile from Twitter/FB virtual heroin. And that stroll led not just to an actual story produced for cash money, plus a video for a few bucks more, but to expanded restaurant horizons.

We stopped at every one of the many eating opportunities we passed to check out the menu, but at Vinateria we were so taken by the space and the actually-hostessing hostess that we came back not long afterward for dinner. And if the cooking was only one step beyond what I would consider restaurant-school level, the whole experience would have rated a resounding yes to the old WIGB question. Which is why we just headed there straightaway after a stressful day when I needed to decompress and Bob wanted a good walk to/from dinner. Barely over a mile from our own kitchen I got new respect for restaurant-school cooking/conceptualizing.

The first time we split hmm-good fried artichoke hearts with lemon-”anchovie” dipping sauce, then I had respectable duck confit and Bob hoovered up very good chicken breast. We sat in a corner table in the front with a great view of both the street and the room, and the service was exemplary even though it took us several tries to get a bottle ready to drink (after the first were out, the next was not chilled). If I had come straight home and asked that old question, I would have said yes for the setting and proximity as much as the food.

But on this latest visit we scored a sidewalk table, the perfect place to watch one of the great evolving neighborhoods on promenade. Eating there really is like few other places in Manhattan, a harmonious scene that would scare the Pampers off most of the wingnuts out in “real” America. No wonder Harlem Shambles saw more potential there than over in the Nineties on Amsterdam.

As for the food, it was a night for bacon balls (croquettes, officially), which were almost liquid inside but with the richness offset by the mustardy swiping sauce. Bob had that chicken again, for all of $18, and the creamy mashed potatoes and pickled-tasting onions with it only amplified the juicy/crisp meat. I was looking for light and ordered the flatbread topped with brandade, which was Goldilocks-right and even better next morning. (The Cat agreed.)

Wine was a $42 bottle of Spanish rosé. Service was superb. The street show? Mesmerizing. Walking the 23 blocks home, I decided they should change the name of Frederick Douglass Boulevard to Central Park West Extended Northward. And noted that there are no restrictions on food & drink businesses once you get past that defunct gas station at 110th Street.

New York minutes

All through “Chef” I kept wondering where in holy hell we would go eat afterward. Between the food and the philosophy onscreen, there was no way we were going to, as my consort put it, risk a crappy Cubano. Luckily, the theater was only blocks from Momofuku Ssam, so we trotted there even though it was a Saturday night and seats might be lacking. Within five minutes of walking in, we were ensconced at the bar and ordering a food-friendly pinot bianco and a Gin No. 3 (with apricot, Campari and lemon). And of course the food was perfection. In my most fat-obsessed delirium I would never conceive of pairing tempura softshell crab with pimento cheese and sesame seeds, but the diced green tomatoes offset the potential overkill. Then, the kimchi was so pungent I could forgive the Mason jar it was served in (as I’ve often said: only those raised prosperous can appreciate that presentation). The Buffalo pork buns were outstanding, the fat crispy and enhanced by both hot sauce and blue cheese. And the seafood hot pot was so sublime, with a coconut-sambal brodo floating rice cakes and killer kohlrabi, that I ate it even though it contained human-of-the-sea. WIGB? The new double feature would be “Chef” and Chang, any day.

A few times, after dropping a hundred bucks at the Greenmarket or having a couple of $15 lobster rolls at Luke’s, my consort and I stopped to check out the menu of the newish Bustan, on Amsterdam Avenue, and always decided it was too pricy to bother with. But I kept reading about it and hearing about it and finally suggested it to friends from the neighborhood who wanted to meet up somewhere different. Another friend had warned me she didn’t think it was worth the money, and the wine was really pricy, but then she admitted she’s “cheaper and fussier” than we are. So the four of us ignored her and agreed to meet up for an early dinner. They got there at 6:30 and were warned the table would have to be surrendered by 7:45, which is always annoying, but that was enough time to decide the buzz was justified.

We only shared small plates rather than springing for entrées in the high $20s. Len wanted beef cheeks, but I noticed they were an option on the hummus bowl for only $18. And it was outstanding hummus and very tender meat. The “mazettim” we chose were fine tzatziki and good smoked eggplant spread and amazing spicy Moroccan turnips, easily the best turnips I’ve ever eaten. Falafel were superb as well, perfectly crunchy outside and just soft enough on the green inside, and they came with both tahini and a pickled mango sauce for dipping; the latter was killer, like liquid chutney. A “popover” stuffed with lump crab, spinach, feta and leeks was more like a puff pastry box; the combination sounded over the top but tasted fine quartered. And the roasted beet salad was a nice toss of kale, pomegranate, shaved fennel, celery, pine nuts and, the nicest touch, grilled halloumi. Both the mazettim and the hummus were supposed to come with house-made focaccia, but we only got one loaf and were charged for the second one we requested. One of those little things that piss you off. Still, WIGB? Absolutely. A bottle of Provencal rosé was $42, which now seems reasonable. And aside from the bum’s rush, the service was fine, and the place is attractive. The stylish crowd I’d read about, however, must have been home watching the World Cup that night . . . .

Another New York minute

Trying to force myself to realize a documentation of a thousand eating experiences can start with one post. So let this one be about our most recent Sunday outing to Flushing to connect with our Asian-eating/eating-Asian group, at a new spot specializing in Henan cooking. I deliberately do no research before jumping on the C train to the 7 train because a little knowledge can be a disruptive thing when the Lazy Susan leaders can speak and read Cantonese and have scoped out our destinations so smartly. And I keep my mouth shut except for regular infusions of hot tea as the ringleaders suss out the menu and decide on the order. Or, in this case, the over-order. For once we were at two tables (14 of us) and decided doubling up on everything was fairest. I cringed, especially when the waiter volunteered in English: “It’s too much food.” And he was right, but we still got away for the usual $20 a head (with generous tip).

The blowaway dish was the one I once would have vetoed because it was built on a nasty bird, but the “big plate chicken”/”chicken with special sauce” was fabulous, the leading flavor indicator being the star anise pods strewn over the top. I tasted the NB, which was great for NB, but it was the deep red sauce and the sublime noodles that pushed this over the top. Everyone asked for rice to sop up the sauce, but the smartest move was requesting more fresh noodles. Having just been to the food show, where everyone fantasizes about coming up with a liquid moneymaker, I’d say someone should start bottling this stuff ASAP.

I passed on the “sautéed chicken tripe with hot pepper” and tasted only enough of the “lamb soup with breast” to feel sickened (lamb is my deer meat). But the lamb-braised noodles were palatable to me and scarfed by everyone else. I also was underwhelmed  by the steamed whole tilapia despite the expert cooking — mud is mud to me. But the “stir-fried lecture” (crisp greens with wood-ear mushrooms) was outstanding and the braised tofu in brown sauce way better than it had any right to be. Pork dumplings with Chinese cabbage, landing too late in the rotation, were nicely executed but very bland, even with vinegar splashed on. And by the time the “wok vegetables” arrived, complete with meatballs in a stellar sauce, everyone looked over-satiated. That broth was amazing, though. WIGB? Absolutely, but only with someone who could communicate with the chef (in his coat emblazoned “celebrity chef”) and servers. While there are slick photos of the specialties festooning the walls, it really would be hard to know how to order. The place does not even have a name in English either on the sign or on the takeout menu (which does, however, list numbers for everything from Emergency to Public Housing Application, all those resources given in Chinese characters). 40-26 Union Street, 718 353 2816. Open daily.

New York minute/Mid-May 2014

The surprisingly good: Tavern on the Green in its new incarnation, where a friend treated my consort and me to dinner in return for my sorta helping her research a couple of stories and where we were amazed to find ourselves among what appeared to be mostly New Yorkers (including the Maroons, at the next table — and wouldn’t every dinner a business dinner be a tedious way to go through life?) Looks were clearly taken into account in the hiring, but everyone from the hostess to the runner was well-trained, to the point that we barely had to argue to get moved from a table right next to the servers’ station (Bob did say “kinda” when the hostess asked if we were in the bidness). So we wound up in the glass atrium as the sun was going down and a (nonunion?) crew was working on the lights outside, reminding me of one ostensible reason the old TOTG died. The menu is confusingly designed, to the point that Wally missed the whole “Hearth” section while distracted by the “Grill” and “Plancha” and “Salads.” But everything we shared was impressive, starting with the grissini and bread set down with labneh perfumed with lemon and thyme. As starters, surprisingly nuanced smoked bluefish paté came with (too few) juniper-seasoned toasts, while plancha’d cremini paired with blue cheese, basil leaves and chile-heated bread made for a very stealable idea. I think I scored with my $30 main, two whole-down-to-the-wings grilled quail laid over creamy grits with a surfeit of “homemade” chorizo, touched off with a garnish of roasted grapes. But Bob’s honkin’ huge pork chop was a close second, not least because its accoutrements included wood-roasted rhubarb and fennel. Not sure if I were paying I’d think Wally’s red endive salad with caramelized anchovies, roasted garlic, buttermilk and Parmesan was worth the $17, but it played well with her other small plate, fat grilled scallops with citrus butter, fried shallots and capers. The wine list was superb, too: interesting choices at non-25CPW prices, so we could indulge in an albariño after our verdejo and still wind up with a $200 tab for our too-generous friend to cover. WIGB? Absolutely, even on our own dime. The bar with its fireplace and booths looked quite enticing, although I’m not so sure about Siberia in the back room, where the strollers were parked. The kitchen alone makes you appreciate how transformed the place is. Back in the mid-Eighties when I got a tour thanks to a friend’s husband who was the short-term chef (two stars and he was out), the stockpots were Campbell’s-sized, which was a pretty clear indicator of how impossible it was to turn out great food in a feeding factory. Now you can see the cooks humping in an open kitchen that is so well-ventilated you see them through smoke you can’t smell.

Update: Yes, the place has apparently reverted to type, if you can believe all the reviews and online frothing. And I can’t really doubt it. Tourists are so easy to trap they ensnare chefs and managers, too. Sadly inevitable.