New York minutes, catch-up and new

Something old: Brasserie Magritte on the Upper East Side, where my consort and I headed after the divisive “Inside Llewyn Davis”* rather than resorting to our usual Toloache in that restaurant dead zone. The place looks great, with, of course, paintings and symbols hanging everywhere. And the staff was quite friendly. But we got an odd table, too wide for two and in an awkward spot, and the cooking would be more suited to musty French joints in the Theater District. My sad duck confit, an appetizer, seemed fatigued, while Bob’s $25 coq au vin looked and tasted like yesterday’s special. The $9 frites with two sauces at least delivered. WIGB? Maybe. It is a dead zone. And the setting did motivate us to go see the real Magrittes at MOMA, which were totally vaut le voyage.

*I’m apparently alone in liking it. Not least for the “where are his testicles?” scene.

Something new: Cafe Luxembourg on the Upper West Side, where I met a great friend who was staying off Times Square and wanted to meet in that dead zone between him and me. As I promised, “The food is not dazzling, but the place is pleasant.” And it still has its charm, and good energy, but the waitress seemed not quite up to the selling job for the menu and wine. I was tempted by my usual fish and chips (for the fries) but thought I should give a special a try; my reward was a beautiful slab of $32 halibut cooked dry, with no sauce, just a scattering of ramps and vegetables. Rolando said his sea bass was in the same sorry state. He had tuna crudo to start and we sort of split the rather dinery profiteroles. He sent back first glass of wine because it was too sweet (not fruity — sweet), and I noticed how chintzy the flatware felt. Still, WIGB? Sure. For the fish and chips and the space and, not least, the acoustics. Our table felt as if we were under a dome. We could actually talk.

While I’ve been DAOTI, sad fates have befallen a couple of places in my catch-up pile of receipts. Casa Pomona on the Upper West Side, where we took refuge after “American Hustle” one night when Kefi’s kitchen was closed early (where are we? Middle Earth?), is apparently becoming a Flex Mussels. The food on that second or third visit was respectable (three types of croquetas, cheese, migas) and certainly the service was snappy. But seafood might be an improvement. And Calliope has lost its chefs, which means the end of the best cheeseburgers I have ever eaten. I’m just glad I had the foresight to go have one last one before I even knew it would be the last — I’d sent friends there, but they apparently are not into cerebral experiences and were underwhelmed, so I took myself back just to see if it was as spectacular as I’d remembered. And it was even better: great beef, cooked perfectly, on chewy ciabatta that stood up to the sturdiness of the meat, with perfect fries and a mustardy sauce for both spreading and dipping. This was a late lunch, so the gorgeous room was quiet. I’m just sorry we never made it there for dinner. The spicy tripe Bob ordered twice at brunch was amazing both times.  And I’m saying that about tripe.

New York minutes/End of March 2014 & catch-up

So I roused myself from Twittergy and picked a receipt at random out of the dusty pile on my sit-down desk (many, many more are gathering dust on my improvised stand-up desk). And the memories all came flooding back, with a little help from my consort on what exactly we might have gone to see back in late December with good friends before heading to Jeffrey’s Grocery in the West Village. How in holy Siamese hell could I have forgotten this amazing short? If not for the printed tab, I would also not have remembered much beyond the sticker-price shock when the wine list landed. It was around the bend, but then we soon realized the booze had to be subsidizing the very approachable fud. Bob, assuming the list had to have been carefully curated, followed our long-standing rule of choosing the cheapest bottle, a white Antonopoulus for $38, and it got the job done. We shared outstanding salmon rillettes to start, and we sorta passed around plates of roasted dourade, roasted chicken and a chicken leg special although I didn’t want to share my $23 clever “fish and chips,” built on my favorite, blowfish, and paired with dill pickle aioli plus doughnut holes and maple malt vinegar. WIGB? That wine list is pretty daunting, but the location so close to IFC is pretty alluring. And the din was not deafening.

Most recently, we had another amazingly consistent experience at Luke’s Lobster on Amsterdam and another too-overloaded-to-finish $9-molletes experience as an excuse to indulge in a jalapeño margarita at Barrio Chino on the Lower East Side (with dainty but also great sopesitos: thick corn tortillas topped with cactus and chorizo plus black beans, queso fresco and crema, plus the bonus of watching an apartment bound dog in a tenement window across the street). But our big outing was to City Winery in Tribeca, to hear Richard Shindell and let Bob experience a place where I had a respectable lunch alone years ago after an interview for Edible Manhattan. The food was actually as good as you would get in a restaurant without the dessert of favorite songs. We started with a kale Caesar that the otherwise superb waiter first threatened would come with escarole, which we declined, then with Romaine but arrived as . . . cavolo nero (plus boquerones and celery root). Then we split a flatbread topped with pancetta, roasted garlic, smoked garlic, rosemary and Aleppo pepper that was also about six decades beyond the crap the Bottom Line used to crank out. We both drank tap wines (Rousanne-Marsanne from California for me), and both the quality and the non-gougey prices were also a long way from dirty dives with great music. WIGB? We’re checking the calendar for the next excuse. Musically and foodwise, the whole experience was exceptional.

New York minutes/Mid-March 2014 & catch-up

My new goal in catching up on endless meals not rated is to grab a receipt off the dusty pile on my desk and just type. And so I’m here to say the Todd English Food Hall under the Plaza Hotel was — shockingly — not bad at all. Which I remember even though that was way back in November. We were in the neighborhood for a photo opening, and my brilliant idea of just dropping in on Betony was thwarted right at the end of the long line out that door. So we forged on and into what felt like “The Shining,” given that the eerily empty lobby floor was only missing Scatman Crothers, now that absentee Russian oligarchs apparently own all the high-priced crash pads on our little island. But once we pushed through the doors into the basement, it was like walking into a 1 percent food court — nearly every stool occupied. Our own private stools were at the end of the pasta counter, where some serious issues were getting acted out, so we were happy to opt for a decent margherita pizza and a “wedge” salad of iceberg amped up with bacon, blue cheese and creamy dressing. Don’t ask why the latter was $17, $3 more than the former. Wines, both red and white, were $14 a glass, but at least the hard-running waiter was there when we needed to reorder. WIGB? Shockingly, yes, if we found ourselves in that food desert again. All diner standards were met: Accessibility, affordability, diversity etc.

Also, too: Apparently we also ate at Chop-Shop in Far West Chelsea in mid-November, too, and the receipt has the deets while what I recall is a place that turns, turns, turns — thanx allah we reserved. Wines were good and wow-priced ($9 a glass for both viognior and nero d’avolo), and pretty much everything we ate was anything but glasian. A special of avocado and tofu summer roll tasted fresh and lively in peanut sauce, the $10 special Thai crab cakes were so generous The Cat got to share next day, while the lamb dumplings made my consort very happy. The one dish we ordered off the menu, the Thai basil eggplant, was off the menu compared with the likes of Spice. WIGB? Absolutely, if in the neighborhood and in the reservation book.

And file this under “Free is a very good price” — After getting stiffed on a high-exposure recipe by a “too busy” “celebrity” chef, I was beyond impressed when Bill Telepan suggested we meet for an interview at noon on a weekday in his restaurant. I anticipated standing around as the grimly wintry local vegetables went flying into sauté pans, but I arrived late and was immediately escorted to a table set for two. Now that was efficiency, even though I had eaten a second breakfast to fuel myself. So my consort’s pro recorder documented my tucking into a fantabulous first course of oozy house-made mozzarella paired with crisp-seared hen of the woods mushrooms, then a main course of good crispy-skinned trout fillets plated with sweet bacon bits and excellent wilted baby spinach with pine nuts. Two hours later I did offer to pay, but my interviewee said a $10 tip would do. And I didn’t argue because my emergency backup $20 bill was nowhere to be found in my bag.

New York minute/Early March 2014

So where the hell have I been (eating)? So many satisfying places I get overwhelmed trying to remember all of them over all those months. I can’t decide whether to work backward or qualitywise, so I guess I’ll do both just to grease the neglected gears. Telepan Local in TriBeCa really was vaut le voyage on a shivery night. The space is like a cabin in the woods, right down to the JC Penney plaid shirts on the servers and the hang-’em-yourself coatroom. But the host was super-sophisticated — he shunted Ben Franklin in a yachting cap aside to seat my consort and me because we had arrived before her and whoever that guy was she was with. I wanted to try the place for the Buffalo quail I’m including in a story, and it alone was worth the $100-including-Rueda tab, the meat super-tender, the sauce Frank’s-spicy. But we also shared superb sourdough pizzetta topped with meaty-tasting Brussels sprouts, sage and pecorino, lively tempuraesque fried watercress with cashews and chili oil, just-okay arancini with bone marrow and Parmigiano aioli and spectacular smoked trout migas, the flaky fish a great counterpoint to the eggs and bread crumbs. Service was nervous but still: WIGB? Absolutely. Real energy in the room and on the plate.

New Jersey minutes/January 2014

Those who love New York take the bus. My consort and I had an offer of a ride to and from a meet-up with the eating-Asian/Asian-eating group that always includes us in such fabulous meals, but I insisted we should follow the slow route one way so Bob could see the ethnic richness that lies between the Port Authority and the relatively upscale suburb where Petite Soo Chow is tucked away in the back of a little parking lot, catercorner from a Russian catering hall. And, as always, I was right. The local passes through another world of Spanish signs and symbols, but we soon realized we were flying and should get off and walk. So we did the last mile poking through three great food stops — one Russian, two Turkish — and contemplating what a gorgeous mosaic this whole region is.

We bought nothing at our first stop but succumbed to both a simit and those tiny Antep pistachios with outsized flavor at the second, after walking down every aisle to marvel at the variety of stuff on offer, then we crossed the street to Gulluoglu baklava cafe just to look. As the cheery countergirl said: “Looking is free.” But we had to indulge, in two cylinders and two squares of pistachio baklava, for which she charged us by the pound ($5.36) rather than the piece ($8). The Cat WCTLWAFW went nuts for both the simit and the cylinder.

And at the end of the walk we were rewarded with easily the most excessive Chinese feast we’ve  split a tab for ($31 a head, in this case). The waitress was in major up-selling mode, but everyone was definitely open to nearly everything she up-sold (lobster and crab were lines drawn, however). First to land on the table were excellent Shanghai-style fried buns, soup dumplings and pickled cucumber spears, then three choices off the cold buffet near the front door (all of which scared me): tripe, jellyfish with celery and a sort of Chinese headcheese (or jambon persille sans the greenery). I also passed on the thickly sauced eel with pork belly but quite liked the whole steamed bass, the stir-fried pea shoots and the weird but worthwhile packets of carrots and mushrooms wrapped in bean curd skin. As much as I love duck, though, the eight-treasure one that was sliced open was too much treasure, not enough meat. Because it’s near New Year’s, we were also treated to a mochi-like cake. WIGB? Absolutely, especially if we can snare a speedy ride home over the Chris Christie Memorial Bridge.

New York minutes/Late September-early October 2013

The good despite the cat piss smell: Gran Electrica in Brooklyn, where we filled our tanks on the way to the awesome Photoville and where the hyper-hospitable service and mellow garden setting rivaled the food (despite the faint aroma). My crab-habanero-avocado tostada was outstanding and the rajas taco I tasted off Bob’s place nearly as good (with potatoes, zucchini and crema). I passed on his lengua tacos, but he was thrilled. WIGB? Absolutely, especially on a warm day — inside tables are pleasant; outside exceptional. Also, too: Gotta like a place where the olds at the next table have nothing to say to each other. Perspective, perspective

The good despite ourselves: La Vie en Szechuan in Midtown, where we hooked up with our eating Asian/Asian eating group for early Sunday lunch and where we were nearly shut out until the Mandarin speaker among us snared a table for 13. I only wanted to/got to taste about half what landed on the Lazy Susan but was thrilled with everything savory: tea-smoked duck, cucumber sticks, Sichuan pickled cabbage, braised iceberg lettuce, dumplings with spicy sauce, cuttlefish in a marvelously peppery-rich sauce etc. (No ox tongue and maw or pig’s ears for me, though, thanks very much.) Desserts reminded me why meals in Chinese restaurants so often end in orange slices. Pumpkin sort-of-fritters were just sugary, black sesame dumplings in a sort of soup just . . . interesting. Still, WIGB? Sure. But for once with a smaller group. Even though it would average out to more than $20 a head for a full eating expedition.

The good again: Melba’s in Harlem, where we took an Italian friend for an American experience and where we pretty much wound up baffling him. He ordered the macaroni and cheese at my instigation and while it was as beautifully balanced between noodles and dairy as last time, it was mighty salty. All mains come with two sides, and he followed my lead on the onion rings but went for collards after I tried explaining they were greens (you Americans — colors are things? blues? greens?) He left them untouched just as another Italian friend did when we couldn’t translate beets, ordered them and then heard him say: Oh. I hate those. Diego also is no fan of mushrooms, so the excellent spring rolls went untouched by him, although we both dunked the onion rings in the sweet-hot sauce that came with them. Bob liked his smothered chicken well enough; the $34 red was good enough. And the whole experience came to less than $100 with tip for three. WIGB? It put the din in dinner, but yes. The people are so hospitable and the cooking above average.

The good for what & where it is: Boi Noodles across from Bob’s CUNY gig, where we headed after the slowwww and silly “We Are Who We Are” screening (really, you cannibals? you get fresh prime meat and make stew viewers think is chili?). We just split a smoked duck banh mi that would have been exceptional if the bread had been better. For $7.81 it was a steal. WIGB? Sure, and not just for a meal. The Vietnamese grocery selection is pretty dazzling.

The good except . . .: River Deli in Brooklyn Heights, where we were steered from Photoville by a former workshop student of Bob’s who’s taken those lessons and gotten richer, who mentioned it was the bee’s knees on Trip Advisor. The space, a corner deli converted to a Sardinian cafe, was charming as hell despite the three kids at a window table kicking and knocking over shit. The waitress rated A, the Southern Italian wines the same. But the food? We could have been eating in Rome. The eggplant “stuffed” with radicchio and mushrooms was pretty crude, the malloredus timidly sauced and teamed with sausage with that awful pig-pee taste you get with industrial pork. WIGB? Quite honestly, no. But I would steer others there. It’s so close to the Brooklyn Bridge Park and so charming. And people nearby with only espresso and a shared dessert seemed blissful.

Also, too: Elizabeth’s is always good and reliable, most recently for an early dinner after Bob had been trapped inside all day. Rosé at a sidewalk table would have been enough even if the Cobb salad had not been so well-proportioned or the chicken (so Bob said) so nicely cooked.

New York minutes/Mid-September 2013

The good: Toloache in Midtown, where we headed with friends at their suggestion after “The Butler” on bullet-free 42nd Street and where, as always, the small plates were big enough. We split an order of excellent straightforward guacamole with a side of superb salsa while waiting for that booth at the bar with margaritas, then divvied up a quesadilla with huitlacoche. I passed on sharing all their various tacos because my tortilla soup was beyond big enough if not quite at the awesome level of the version on 83rd Street. (Which made me think of the global chef who told me recently that every recipe an underling makes loses 10 percent of the original.) Still, WIGB? Anytime.

The surprisingly good: Pascalou on the Upper East Side, where we wound up after showing up on the wrong night for a lavish soiree for friends’ birthdays — and there are few neighborhoods that are more food-desolate than that one. The host was half-amusing, asking us which of us had reserved and responding to our “neither” with some British dis and conceding “well, most of our regulars aren’t back from the Hamptons” so he could give us a table. I forget why we quit going there, but aside from the Town & Country crowd, it delivered with both food and service. The menu, as always, was all over the atlas, so Bob had Middle Easternish grilled shrimp while I was beyond happy with my little slab of superb pissaladiere (on pate brisee rather than puff pastry) with good and generous greens/salad for all of $10. We should have sprung for a bottle of rosé rather than four glasses for much more, but WIGB? Absolutely. Even the French bread and butter impressed not just me but Mr. Sprat.

The not so good: Shanghai Asian Cuisine in Chinatown, where my consort and I wound up after bailing on a 45-minute wait at our first choice on a Sunday after visiting the spooky storage center. Maybe we’ve just calibrated our palates after the last couple of years of chopstick-wielding with our eating Asian/Asian eating pals, but the food this time just seemed ordinary. The fried dumplings that had haunted me as ethereal were doughy, the pickled cabbage almost inedibly sweet. At least the soup dumplings were perfection (as was the guy at the table across from us who advised the couple next to him: “Next time bring an Asian and you’ll know what to order”).  WIGB? Nope. As we walked through the Hong Kong Supermarket afterward, I realized I could make any of that at home. If I were so inclined.

The “it’s complicated:” The Cutting Room in Koreatown, where a great friend treated us to dinner and a Holly Williams (granddaughter of Hank) show and where the Health Department may or may not have ruined the rhythm. Our food took just short of forever to arrive even though we were there super-early, and the waitress blamed an inspection even though Bob noticed other tables were eating as we merely drank. Pretty shitty, if it was bureaucratic bungling, to muck up a live experience. My crab cakes were surprisingly creditable, though. And she comped us fries. WIGB? For $15 for live music, $17 for creditable crab cakes? Absolutely, even if we were paying.

We also repeatedly liked Luke’s, which is almost unnervingly consistent with those lavish lobster rolls, and also Cocina Economica, where the chorizo torta with spicy fries is very hard to beat for $8 (although the guacamole was beyond tame and lame despite the hint of papalo that had me burping all afternoon).  And we finally had breakfast at Fairway when a friend was in from Chicago and had to get her pancake fix. I shoulda gone the Big Boy route, with a stack plus eggs plus bacon, is all I’ll say.

New York minutes/Late August 2013

The good: Lian Won in Bensonhurst, where we met up with our Asian-eating/eating-Asian pals for a Saturday lunch and where we had the kind of experience you can only experience with a big group of adventurous eaters who are not just on a return visit but have brought a Cantonese speaker this time. My China-hand consort and I arrived first in the empty restaurant, flummoxing everyone (he remembered too late that the Chinese do not show 10 with all fingers in the air but with two crossed), and the waiter still soon had a pink tablecloth laid out under the Lazy Susan and teacups all around; when our friends started arriving, the excitement and engagement only built, especially after one pal showed a photo on her smartphone to order a dish, superb water spinach with salted fish. She also forged ahead in ordering the house specialties, a Chiu Chowesque duck with awesome skin/flesh/sauce and an eel and rice casserole that was preceded by a clear soup made from the bones. We got talked into the large on that, for $40, but we made a pretty good dent in it, especially after the waiter scraped up the crusty bits of the rice. That Lazy Susan was soon overcrowded with oxtail cooked with boiled peanuts; frogs’ legs (I couldn’t); “steam meat paste with salt fish,” which proved to be more like the filling for one big dumpling; shrimp with awesome taro plus assorted nuts including gingko (which, it turns out, do not smell like shit); fish with water chestnuts and French lily (you had to be there); loofah and mountain mushrooms, and more. WIGB? Probably not, only because it was one long, long schlep on the D train on a Saturday, and we’d need interpreters. Anyone else, tho: Go.

The pretty good: Pearl & Ash on the Lower East Side/Nolita border, where we lured two friends who love adventurous food and where our reward was a relatively quiet table near the kitchen where we could actually talk while being bombarded with small plates, all just large enough to share. Dr. and Lady Bugs had wanted to go back to Aldea to reconnect, but I pushed the adventurers to try something new. And thanks allah for that quietish table. Bob was saddened to find only fortified wines and beers were on offer for cocktails when he had his liver set on a cocktail, but the one he tried was near-gin enough. Melissa and I were overwhelmed by the wine list, to the point that Bob had to ask the servers to hold off on the food until we could at least get a glass in hand — especially after the first pricey bottle we chose turned out to be off and we had to wait for a “fresh” old one. And the dishes just kept landing, so fast it was hard to taste, let alone mentally absorb: “fluke, watermelon, chili lime” and “hanger tartare, egg cocoa, melba,” and “diver scallop, fennel, lily bulb, berbere.” Before we’d gotten through that shopping list, we had “bread, chicken butter” (Emperor, meet your new clothes) and “octopus, sunflower seed, shiso” and “pork meatballs, shiitake, bonito” and “tea-cured salmon, goat cheese, tamarind seafood” and “sweetbread, sherry, heart of palm, morcilla.” I liked “crab, corn, yogurt, dashi” but passed on “lamb belly & heart, kohlrabi, hazelnut” even though I’m always happy to see an underused vegetable get some menu play. “Quail, almond, pomegranate, chicken skin” was yet another instance of the new duck getting lost in over-conceptualization. Interestingly, the sides were most seductive: “potatoes, porcini mayo, chorizo” was a choir singing in perfect harmony as was “long beans, uni, cream.” I should have taken notes on or photos of “blueberry, milk, honey, creme fraiche” because I remember it less vividly than the dessert I argued against, on @cuozzo’s advice. The Fernet-Branca ice cream sandwich turned up on both our table and the tab, and all I’ll say is that Bob finished it while recalling the night he was on the road on a budget and the cheapest thing in the mini-bar was that digestif. He drank it and regretted it. WIGB? Sadly, no, and not because it cost more than dinner at the Bugses first choice would have. I think we’re entering the age of the “been there, eaten that” restaurant. Once you’ve seen the mountaintop, you’re fine with going back to Sensible Valley.

The fabulous: Melba’s in Harlem, where a friend doing great guerrilla art in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington lured us after drinks on his rooftop nearby and where I walked out mortified I had had no awareness of all the changes happening such a short walk up the street off which I live. For starters, I had had no idea we would actually A) need a reservation on a Sunday night in late summer and B) need to be sure to honor that res. But we showed up and got a table thanks to Camilo’s due diligence. Everything about the place was uplifting: the room, the wine, the crowd, the service, the mood and of course the food. We split the spinach-cheese empanadas, which were unexpectedly satisfying, and modern. The macaroni and cheese was forks-down the best I’ve ever eaten, with the balance of dairy to carb completely reversed. I just tasted Bob’s chicken & waffles and passed on Camilo’s catfish, but both guys seemed happy. WIGB? No question.

The not bad: Barley & Grain on the Upper West Side, where we headed with friends in search of a new place after the very disturbing “Fruitvale Station” and where we were all thrilled things were not worse in such a new spot. Despite the brown-booze emphasis implied in the redundant name, we ordered a bottle of rosé plus one glass of beer, then another bottle after thinking we could all share a burger. It never arrived, but at least the din level was bearable. Crabcake sliders, two on the plate, were pretty satisfying, although the accompanying potato chips were rather underwhelming, Roasted eggplant with feta, olives, and cherry tomatoes was outstanding. I didn’t take attendance on the “kohlrabi quinoa salad mango crispy marcona almond, lemon, EVOO” but was happy to scarf it up. “Ancho chili beer battered seasonal vegetables,” though, were just bad bar food, and I call bullshit on the “lime horseradish aioli.” Not being a lamb tolerator, I passed on the grilled lollipops, but everyone else seemed to like everything about them but the size. WIGB? Sure. The Tangled Vine knows from running a food/wine joint in our neighborhood — we chose the former for drinks with CT friends just a few nights later. But you do have to wonder about a place whose chef is sitting in the DR with pals while an order for a burger goes missing.

The always good I: Cafe 2 at MOMA, where we took a break midway between the aural art show and the Walker Evans and where we had an even better lunch since the system has changed to waiter service rather than walk-in-point-and-wait. For once we restrained ourselves, which was wise since the prosciutto cotto/provolone panino and the quinoa salad with avocado and cucumbers were, as always, beyond perfectly generous. And of course the cappuccino and macchiato were right up to Danny standards. WIGB? Absolutely, especially after we took a spin up to the top floor to check out the fancier cafe. 2 is the way to go.

The always good II: Momofuku Ssam in the East Village, where I lured my old pastry instructor from restaurant school after connecting at the Union Square Greenmarket  and where the duck and service were A+ yet again. I liked the pickled vegetables that came with my “set” better once I kittybagged them, but the meat was as sensational as always. To the point that my consort was convinced he was tasting duck sausage, not breast meat. WIGB? Always.

The redeemed: Mermaid Inn on the Upper West Side, where we walked in and out one night and happily back in two nights later. I feel bad that the reservation for five the first time was in my name on OpenTable, because even though we agreed to 7:15 rather than 7:30 the din was pretty deafening. Within minutes it was clear there was no point to having come together to see off a young friend if we couldn’t hear a fucking word she said. Our usual Social Media Monday waiter came over to say hello, and I had to say some version of that, after which the manager came over to make amends but really make things worse (we didn’t want to sit out an indefinite wait for a table in the back room where we suffered last time because the only thing worse than screaming kids in a restaurant is drunken olds). So we moved on to the quiet of Elizabeth’s outdoor cafe, with fine food (that Cobb salad is among The Cat’s favorites because I bring home all the grilled chicken). And then two nights later we moved on with friends from rosé at Tangled Vine to a reserved sidewalk table at Mermaid. With our favorite waiter. Not only was everyone super-pleasant and the noise level bearable both inside at the bar as we waited and outside as we lingered. OFW pushed us to order snacks to take advantage of the happy hour prices in the 60 seconds before they went up (shishito peppers, fried calamari, a shrimp slider), then he dropped off hush puppies on him with our entrees. Clone that guy! WIGB? It really is the best place for blocks.

The good for what it is: The Ellington on the Upper West Side, which we resorted to mostly for outdoor ambiance after a weekend getaway. The show on the street at 106th and Amsterdam was almost as satisfying as the food, although Bob and I had to swap salads. I ordered the chopped, he had the Caesar because he wanted protein. Still, WIGB? Sure. Nice people, fair prices, excellent sidewalk tables.

New York minutes/Late July into August 2013

The seriously good: Empellon Cocina in the East Village, where my consort and I headed after getting shut out of the City Streets tunnel attraction on a Saturday and after a Twitter pal had been raving about the pork being better than Daniel’s or Chang’s. The menu was more eggs- and sugar-oriented because it was the worst time of the week — brunchtime — but we were blown away by the tacos, one order with short rib pastrami and the other with English peas and ricotta. We also ordered bacon guacamole with black pepper salsa and masa chips, and it had barely landed when the main attractions were set down. But that turned out to be the right order of eating. We got to concentrate on how fabulous the tastes and textures of the fillings were, then could slowly explore all the nuances of the appetizer: the avocado-bacon harmony, the crunchiness of the crisps, the way the creamy salsa amplified all the tastes. With chips, you dunk and gorge. It would be unpossible with this. The restaurant itself is also gorgeous, and everyone but our waiter was muy hospitable — WTF with bringing the check while we’re still eating? WIGB? Can’t wait, although for dinner and on the early side, because that dazzling array of tequilas and mezcals seemed like a pretty good indicator it might get loud.

The surprisingly good: ABV on the Upper East Side, where Bob suggested we go on one of his just-back nights rather than settling for Elizabeth’s yet again and where the food, service and noise level were almost like eating at home. We split a chilled spicy tomato soup that proved you don’t need to translate that concept into Spanish, especially if you add charred edamame and cotija cheese. Then we had an outstanding brisket torta with avocado, cheese etc. plus delicate but rich gnocchi with asparagus, smoked ricotta, mushrooms and more. WIGB? On the early (quiet) side, anytime. A $32 rosé was fuel for the walk back across the park in the gorgeous light.

The unsurprisingly good: Barrio Chino on the Lower East Side, where we wound up after a stock-up trek to Di Palo even though we had set out with Parm on our minds — something about the lure of a jalapeño margarita whomped the notion of eggplant Parmesan. As always, the food was fine (chorizo quesadilla for Bob, huge and great molletes for me), and that margarita was vaut le voyage. The kitchen was kind of snoozy, but the server was at the top of his form. WIGB? Anytime we’re close by. Although when we walked by empty Mission Chinese on our way to the killer black sesame gelato at Il Laboratorio, we did have a bit of eater’s remorse. One day we’ll make it there.

The pretty good: Market Table in the West Village, where I was treated to lunch by an editor who had offered Korean or Greek or Bar food and where the dissonance between careful cooking and craptastic acoustics was rather unnerving. (Neither of us is a loudmouth in person.) I should have picked up on her vibe and hints about the “roasted vegetable falafel,” because it really was a trudge. The Mexican corn off the cob we shared tasted pretty great, and so did the quinoa hush puppies the chef comped her as a powerful regular. And she sounded happy with her watermelon and peekytoe crab gazpacho. WIGB? Sure, if someone else is paying.

The all good again: The Smith across from Lincoln Center, Mermaid Inn uptown, Elizabeth’s and Txikito. At that last one, we had much of what I’d enjoyed on my first foray, including the crab gratin, but we also loved the cured pork canapé and a salad of baby arugula, egg and crisp silverfish. And then there was Saiguette on the Upper West Side, which really is too great to be anywhere near this close to home. The banh mi is easily the best we’ve ever had, even when lemongrass-grilled pork fills in for the special pork belly. Summer rolls are exceptional and steamed (not fried) dumplings pretty great.

New York minutes/Late June-mid-July

The good: Txikito in Chelsea, where a friend who treats it as her canteen lured me for an early dinner and where it was easy to understand why she goes back over and over. The waiter was a charmer, and almost everything we ordered delivered, particularly the crab gratin, a steal at $15. Julie is understandably nuts for the blistered peppers; I was happy to order a second round. We also shared little toasts topped with a gratin of artichokes, cheese and ham, and a bottle of Spanish rosé in that sunlit room. So what if a special of scallops wrapped in underdone bacon was forgettable? WIGB? Can’t wait.

The not bad: Clarkson in No Man’s Land, where my consort and I led two friends after the outstanding “Stories We Tell” at the Angelika after deciding their choice, Parm, would be too cramped and crowded. We had tons o’ space here, although it was kind of odd the hostess hid us olds in a back room with circulatory problems (I was melting). And we just split a bunch of starters, and I was stuffed after the food show, so I can’t say for sure if the menu promised more than it delivered, as in rye French toast with peppered maple anglaise with the milk-braised pork belly, or polenta croutons with the grilled trumpet mushrooms over watercress with piave vecchio and “black truffle.” We also shared a special salad, and a bubbling dish of excellent cannelloni filled with zucchini and ricotta. Also, too, two bottles of French rosé. WIGB? Maybe. If it lasts. Going there was a trip, remembering both the glory days when it was Rakel and the sad night a year or so ago when I got trapped in the grubby bathroom in the last incarnation.

The best, when it comes to a special banh mi: Saiguette on the Upper West Side, where we finally made a pilgrimage when I couldn’t face “Asian as euphemism for lame Thai” for lunch on a day too hot to light our gas stove. We were there before noon, so we got stools at the teeny counter in the AC rather than having to schlep to the park, but the sandwich would have wowed wherever we ate it. Beyond the layering of flavors, the architecture of bread and filling matters most to me, and this one held together to the last bite the next afternoon when I reheated the last third at home. Bob was all ready to order the “grilled juicy boneless chicken thigh” until we noticed pork belly was the filling of the day. And it was truly amazing, the meat seasoned right, cooked beautifully and in ideal balance with the carrots, cucumbers and pickled jalapeños in the good roll with sriracha mayo. For all of $9. As for me, I ordered half-blind since I’ve never been to Vietnam as Bob has and went for the taro-peanut moon dumplings, which would have been better steamed than fried. We also shared a “bubble mango ice tea” that was way too sweet but just as much a trip as the idea of eating such exquisite food 10 blocks from home. I’d ask WIGB but know we will also order in — the food is packed for delivery even if you eat there. This is the best thing ever to happen to Manhattan Valley.

The weird: Alder in the East Village, where I insisted on cashing in my compensation  for help editing a transcript while Bob was working in Bulgaria, and where everything but the food was happy-making. We walked in without a reservation but snared seats at the bar right away, a lucky break because the tables could get loud. We started with the “pub cheese,” which tasted okay but visually evoked shit on a shingle. Pigs in a blanket were too clever by half — the Chinese sausage really needed actual bread for balance, not the tricked-out coating it got. And the fried quail was just disheartening given that quail is the new duck; the meat was contorted into weirdness and teamed with sludgy banana curry and pickled turmeric. Those little birds need to be laid out as they are, not Spammed. The one dish we really liked was the most normal, a bowlful of grilled asparagus with scrambled eggs and smoked brook trout. When we got everything in a forkful, we could taste a sensational creation. I did like the giardiniera others have dissed, though. WIGB? It was relatively cheap ($107 with four drinks before tip), but, sadly, no. Genius might be best appreciated from afar.

The seriously good again: Lan Sheng in Midtown, where Bob and I made a lunchtime pit stop on the way to Grand Central to pick up his new glasses on a Saturday when the lunchtime options are hen’s-tooth scarce in that neighborhood. He’d been there a week or so earlier at my suggestion and was still raving about the camphor tea-smoked duck, so we had to order that. And the super-satisfying crab soup dumplings. And the intense stir-fried spinach with garlic. And the mysteriously wondrous cucumbers in green sesame sauce. We needed one more stomach in our booth, though, because everything was too good to finish it all. The duck was about as close to Hong Kong as you can find in NYC, the dumplings perfectly presented. I’d rate the service as tolerant at best, but the staff did have shit to deal with on a weekend: vent hoods were being ferried out for cleaning, deliveries were being logged in, communication was failing over liquid leaking from a light fixture. Still, WIGB? Absolutely. It’s not cheap, but it is great. And a lot closer than Flushing.

The happy-making again and again: The Smith across from Lincoln Center, where we landed for dinner after taking an NPR friend for drinks at the bar after the absolutely fabulous Bill Traylor show at the American Folk Art Museum just up the street. A table inside in the sunlight was easy to come by around 5:30 on Friday, and so we had too many carafes of rosé with my outstanding oyster slider BLT and Bob’s chicken under a brick with killer mashed potatoes. My chopped salad tasted undressed and supermarket-supplied when it came to the peppers and cucumbers, but we had fun. WIGB? Yep, and not least because the staff seems so happy to serve you.

The reliable: Mighty Quinn’s in the East Village and Cocina Economica on the Upper West Side, which are actually planets apart on food but deliver equal satisfaction. The brisket on my last trip to MQ was superb, and out-of-town friends and I were able to walk right in early and sit right down to enjoy. And the cemita at CE may be a messy eating experience, but the flavors deliver and the fries are outstanding, especially with the precision salsas.