When The Consort’s away, The Cat WCTLWAFW decamps from his bed on top of the refrigerator. He knows there won’t be any stove action, let alone any real kittybags landing. So when Bob got home from a week at a workshop out in real America, source of of Sysco spinach and other abominations, I was determined to be a little more careful about where we went out to eat. And it’s amazing what you can find in this town if you pay attention.
After walking every aisle at AIPAD, for starters, I might have suggested we head to our usual refuge in that restaurant wasteland, the can-get-expensive/we-know-the-menu-too-well Toloache 82. But I remembered the Writing Room had opened a while back in ridiculous old Elaine’s*, so we headed there at early-bird hour to find nearly empty dining rooms but ditzy hostesses insistent on giving us dark tables. We settled for the second, next to another couple of olds, but a manager came by and moved us, luckily — to right alongside the server stand. At least the staffers aside from the ditzes seemed to be that rarity, workers proud to be serving and enthusiastic as hell about making our meal happy. The New Yorker may have been underwhelmed by the Parkerhouse-style rolls, but we liked both them and the butter they rode in on. The salmon tartare we shared — flecked with everything-bagel spices, and creamy with onion mayonnaise — tasted quite lively when spread on warm grilled rye bread. We both had only salads, and I got the better one: spinach interspersed with blue cheese and pickled mushrooms and tossed with bacon vinaigrette, all laid over a CD-size crouton spread with bacon jam. Bob’s “farmer’s salad” read better than it tasted, and even then it was more of a grocery list: Romaine, radicchio, pepper, wild rice, avocado, broccoli and hearts of palm, all allegedly dressed with Green Goddess. Everyone else in the room as it filled seemed to be ordering the fried chicken for two, served with biscuits and coleslaw, but we’d split some chouquettes from Maison Kayser on the schlep north and passed on mains (which run $24 to $52). We did finish a bottle of $34 rosé, poured right. WIGB? Yep. It’s not just for the little old lady in Dubuque. And the bar seemed very alluring in early evening light.
*One of Seymour Britchky’s greatest lines was how Elaine strutted around that same space while “hoisting up her underwear.”
A couple of nights later I had to pass on the amazing “Lunchbox” with Bob and a couple of friends because I had to crash a story revision, and on my way to meet them afterward for the usual cheap-wine-and-pizza at Fairway got a call on my green-like-xmas phone that the menu there was Passover-only, for $40 — so I suggested the days-old Tessa. And what a find on that rain-blizzardy night. We snared one end of a communal table in the high-energy, well-designed bar and passed around fabulous plates: The array of house dips to start (tiny portions with huge flavors: smoked eggplant; hummus; ricotta, all with crunchy lavash, for all of $8), then a sensational asparagus risotto with ricotta for me (I ordered the appetizer size for $14 and still had enough to kittybag), lamb “porchetta” for Bob (the meat rolled, aggressively seasoned and roasted, with a plethora of garnishes, for $28), monkfish with a lentil-quinoa pilaf ($27) for Diane and intense braised pork cheeks with pecorino polenta ($27) for Len (The Cat loved the last bites bagged). The $11 chocolate “mouse” (cq on the check) was sensational, strewn with toasted almonds and caramelized fennel seeds and teamed with honey-anise ice cream. Everything was so happy-making, and the waiter was so engaging, and the weather outside was so awful, that we wound up splitting two fine bottles of white, a verdicchio and a Rousanne, for $45 and $40.
Three nights later Bob and I wound up making our way there again with another friend, after she and I caught up with “The Lunchbox” and Bob came along because he had liked the movie as much as the restaurant. Luckily, he called ahead and, even though all tables were reserved, the FOH was able to fit us in again in the bar, at a four-top, where the only downside was the debauched quartet partying on beside us. This time, after I’d confirmed the chef’s background at Peacock Alley, the cooking struck me as a little overwrought, but in good ways. The cod salad was billed as “for the table,” but it was hard to get all the elements in one coherent bite: cabbage, cucumber, lemon confit and pickled tomato. After popcorn, I only wanted an appetizer, but the $12 rouget could have been a main, the perfectly seared fillets teamed with fennel marmalade and seasoned with espelette (separatist paprika). Bob’s baked-juicy black sea bass was rather restrained, simply laid over crushed potatoes with lemon and accented by braised fennel. But Donna may have won, with spaccatelli (damned if I can adequately describe that pasta shape — botched priest strangler?) in a rich sauce with lobster and chanterelles. Again, the $19 appetizer size was beyond generous. Grapefruit poundcake turned out to be more cerebral than the “mouse,” with olive oil ganache, citrus curd and grapefruit-thyme sorbet ramping up the sensations. And this time the three of us were having such a good time, and the sommelier was so engaging (when was the last time you measured a table by cubits?) that we went through two bottles of the Rousanne. WIGB? Early and often. Did I mention the bread and butter were exceptional, too? Plus, as Donna said as we waited for our seats: “I can’t believe we’re uptown.”
Bob agreed I was really on a roll the following Wednesday when, after the pleasurable-if-still-brown Greenmarket and then the root-canal-rivaling carpet-shopping at ABC, I led him to Barn Joo. I’d been curious about the place since doing a story on the beef I had been told the chef buys, and after failing to get a quote from that smart buyer by email or phone, I’d dropped by to leave my card and been pretty wowed by the decor. It seemed even more seductive because the meal was a steal: $10 for a “cheesesteak” stuffed with slices of that Happy Valley beef in a sort of focaccia with excellent fries and superb spicy dipping sauce plus a house-made yuzu soda, and $12 for the jap chae noodle platter, with beef and a little tray of condiments, one with egg, two like kimchi. The servers were sweet and the room was fun. WIGB? Absolutely. How could I have walked past it so many times and never gone in?
One day I may turn up a receipt showing we tried somewhere else between all that high-end consumption, but I do recall we made a three-train expedition to Queens to Hibiscus, in Richmond Hill, to meet our Asian-eating/eating-Asian group. On this Easter Sunday we were 12, apparently only two of whom uttered the words “happy Easter” to both tablemates and the dressed-to-kill fellow guests. The destination had been chosen for its mix of West Indian and Chinese, but most everyone agreed only the former was vaut le voyage. The house fried rice, mixed with everything but the kitchen sink, was just what it sounds like: more excess than execution. The noodle dishes were what we could have phoned home from an hour and a half earlier. Etc. But the duck curry was fabulous even before chunks of the tender, spicy meat and rich sauce were wrapped in the killer roti, and the sauce on the oxtail (I didn’t brave the meat) transformed the already-great peas-and-rice cooked in coconut oil. I also did not brave the black pudding, made with lamb blood, but the vinegary-peppery dipping sauce with it was a revelation. Bunghal pork, which the slow-warming charming waitress described as “cooked down,” was also great, and the “fried bangha Mary” — whitingesque whole fish heavily spiced and perfectly fried — was so impressive we ordered a second set. We also duped an order of the plantain chips. And the few forkfuls I snared of the weekend-only platter of Guyanese chicken and pork tasted pretty great, too. WIGB? Maybe on a day when we could take the A train straight there. The West Indian markets we wandered through before and afterward would be worth the $5 fare alone.
We also snared a drink at BEA on our way to the disappointing “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” Real bartenders, decent pours and a little bowl of warm fried chickpeas. As Bob said: When was the last time you got a makes-’em-drink-more bonus at a bar?