Archive for November, 2007

New York minutes/Late November 2007

November 2007

The good: Dean’s, where my consort and I headed with two friends to discuss the meaning of death in the superb “No Country for Old Men.” We got there just before 10, but the host was happy to seat us and the waitress was amazingly patient as we dithered over what to order; best of all, there were only a few tables still occupied and it was as quiet as our living room (if much warmer next to the oven). We shared a surprisingly excellent multi-cheese square pizza with mushrooms, a too-big salad with arugula and lentils and a small order of average fried calamari, plus a bottle of nero d’avolo, and the bill was about $35 a couple. WIGB? Soon, but on the late side. The pizza was even great the next day. 215 West 85th Street, 212 875 1100.

The bad: Cafe Frida, where I think I swore I would never go back and where I was of course spotted by a friend walking past. Never, it turns out, is not as long as you might think on this end of the island — I had almost succumbed to City Grill for a quesadilla when I thought I could walk just a bit farther and maybe at least get a glimmer of Mexican magic. I should have left when I saw three tables waiting for food at very late lunchtime, or at least when I saw the three tiny quesadillas are now $13. But my feet were failing me, so I suffered tired, cracked tortillas around slimy cheese and shiitakes, with a tiny ramekin of bland salsa and a side dish of mostly chayote with a tiny bit of the promised spinach and corn. Even without the din that drove us away for what we thought was for good, the mystery is why a hostile clip joint is still in business when earnest Jacques-Imo’s is being dismantled right next door.

The reliable: Les Halles, where we took refuge from turkey overkill and where we got the usual expertly done food with just slightly more addled service. The place was packed with people whose size would bar them from Barneys, and with huge family groups taking photos, so it took a while to get a waiter’s attention. But the steak frites with salad for $17.50 was as excellent as it always is, and the “hachi parmentier de canard” was like a French shepherd’s pie with truffle oil for perfume. The read and butter are top quality as well. Four dollars buys a whole pot of coffee, and Bob happily drank it all. WIGB? Any Saturday for post-Greenmarket lunch. 411 Park Avenue South at 28th Street, 212 679 4111.

New York minutes/Latish November 2007

November 2007

The sublime: Chola, where I wedged my way in for an early lunch and where the new-to-me hostess immediately led me to the only open table, even though it was a four-top. The buffet seemed even more generous, with several excellent regional choices and a couple more chutneys than I had never seen before, but the usual three appetizers also arrived eventually. The place was swamped, with sit-down diners and stand-ups queuing with foil trays for takeout. But even surrounded by chaos, with waiters buzzing past, tucking into an overloaded plate there with just-baked bread was still like being transported to one of the best food countries on earth. 232 East 58th Street between Second and Third, 212 688 4619.

The ridiculous: Zocalo in Grand Central, where I resorted at an odd hour in an off neighborhood and could easily understand why so many people sitting at the other tables and lumbering past were so huge. I ordered the fish tacos and was presented with two very thin corn tortillas topped with four slabs of battered cod, each the size of a Taco Bell burrito, plus a honkin’ heap of slaw. There was no way to eat them right; each was enough food for a small village. They came with decent beans and rice I didn’t touch, preceded by a big bowl of weird-texture chips and bland salsa. I can never forget the cockroach big enough to saddle I once saw strutting through that area, though, and freaked when something (I know not what) hit my head shortly after I left the table. WIGB? I’m a slow learner, but. . . .

The halt: Toloache, where I met a friend for lunch and where the same waitress, same oven mistress, same menu etc. were all in play as on my last visit a week earlier but where almost everything was perceptibly less than perfect. The wineglass was slightly crusty, the rice was just slopped onto the plate, the black beans were whole rather than mashed. The huitlacoche quesadilla was still good, though, and the shrimp tacos were daintily superb. The waitress gets points for remembering me; it’s just too bad the kitchen didn’t remember how to get it absolutely right without the owner around. WIGB? Probably. When it’s on, it’s on. 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.

The lame: Mermaid Inn, where I met a downtown friend now from the neighborhood who felt as compelled as I did to try a new addition. We got there around 6, when the nice-looking room was pretty empty and very quiet, and left around 7:30 with our hands over our ears after the music had been cranked up to wake-the-dead volume. The fried calamari in the appetizer we shared was cut fat but quite tender and had a nice sauce, then she just had a fish soup that was topped with a huge slab of bread while I did my best with the thickly sauced salt cod cake on frisee. Two bites of either and the exploration was done. The freebie dessert also seems to have suffered in the move; that little chocolate pudding was as rigid as a breast implant. WIGB? Inevitably, given that it is close by, affordable (including the $37 bottle of Naia verdejo) and is still better than so much around it. But never late. 568 Amsterdam Avenue near 88th Street, 212 799 7400.

The charming: Perbacco, where friends in from Chicago treated me on a birthday and where the friends-of-the-house service, cozy room, unusual menu and warm mood more than compensated for slightly slimy gnocchi with sausage. I tasted a couple of the shared appetizers, though, and both were excellent — polenta with Fontina and truffles, and a spinach-Parmesan pie — as was the lasagne with impossibly thin layers, although the friend who ordered it thought it was dry. We had prosecco to start, and I finally got a chance to try grecchetto, a wine I had been tempted by for a story in Italy last summer. WIGB? Maybe, although, even if you are not paying, cash only is a drag in that neighborhood. 234 East Fourth Street between Avenues A and B; 212 253 2038.

New York minutes/Early November 2007

November 2007

The perfect, at least at quiet lunchtime: Toloache, where I schlepped in despair all the way from the East Side after PT, passing one overpriced, mediocre restaurant after another gougy, bad restaurant. I walked in, the hostess instantly gave me a choice of a table or a seat at the guacamole bar, and I had a glass of wine in minutes and, shortly afterward, a superb huitlacoche quesadilla cooked in the wood oven right in front of me. It was $13, but it came with a heap of excellent rice and a schmear of great beans. The vibe in the place was also lovely — the owner was eating tacos at the bar after working the room, and everyone seemed relaxed and as mellow as the music. WIGB? Very shortly. 251 West 50th Street near Eighth Avenue, 212 581 1818.

The promising: Community Food & Juice up by Columbia, where I met an e-pal for lunch on a sunny afternoon so early on that the check was discounted 15 percent. I ordered what Scott Adams thinks no one would: a BELT (bacon, lettuce and tomato with an egg layered in), and while the T was pallid, the B and E were top quality. It came with “carrot hash” that reminded me of the mashed potatoes we fry up after Thanksgiving, but it was discounted 15 percent. The burger across the table looked good, too, although I noticed the woman down the banquette immediately scraped the mound of fried onions off hers. The supersize waitress was working hard, too. WIGB? Undoubtedly. Along with a juice bar, it does have wine and sunlight. 2893 Broadway near 112th Street, 212 665 2800.

The pleasant: Regional, where a longtime friend up from Bucks County took me and three whippersnappers and where we got two of the three things she wanted (proximity and relative quiet). We arrived so early on Saturday night that the staff was still listening to the chef teach them the specials, but they showed us to a nice booth-like table anyway. My bigoli with duck ragu seemed to have been rushed — the sauce had chunks of carrot and big slices of duck, while the noodles were so far ahead of al dente they were gummy — so I didn’t share to try the other pastas: pesto; ravioli with beets; ravioli with sheep’s milk cheese, and cavatelli with sausage and broccoli rabe (although the sausage in the latter looked out of proportion to the dish). The waitress and runners stayed upbeat, and one who agreed to take a photo of us all was a digital pro. Most encouraging? When I came out of the bathroom (after a cook, I might add), I told a hostess seating another table that the toilet was starting to look delayed-flight scary and she immediately got a manager to deal with the mess. WIGB? It’s close, it’s cheap, it’s pleasant, why not? 2607 Broadway near 99th Street, 212 666 1915.

The fey: Belcourt in the ridiculous East Village, where I met another e-pal and his wife for lunch on a gray day and where the brightly gorgeous room could still not compensate for the over-conceptualized, under-performing menu. I ordered “salt cod hash with poached eggs, Harissa and grilled flat bread,” and the first adjective was more discernible than the first noun. The Cod himself got skunked by choosing “boudin blanc dogs” — what read like a litter materialized as only a single runt, and in a poorly engineered “bun” at that. The Gascon and Provencal wines were hefty pours for $7 and $8, respectively, and the waitress was charming if not especially proficient. But it’s not good when portions are so dainty you leave wondering if a stop at a David Chang pork palace might be immediately in order. WIGB? Nah, I rate it a Kleenex; once was enough.

New York minutes/End of October 2007

November 2007

The really good: Kefi, where I have to confess we got slyly preferential treatment and a comped appetizer but where I would happily wait for a table and overtip to eat so well for so little. The place deserves to be jammed all night long with such good ingredients treated so well in kitchen: The branzino was two perfectly fresh, perfectly grilled fillets laid over roasted fingerlings with olives, while the swordfish was actually juicy on its bed of cauliflower, favas and olives. We also ordered the cuttlefish despite the waiter’s attempt to steer us toward the more tender octopus (it’s too human for me to eat anymore), and it was superb, paired with halloumi, zucchini and olives. As always, the four spreads (the freebie) were spectacular with nicely charred warm pita. Most of the Greek wines are all of $6 a generous glass, so we could each choose our color for less than a bottle goes for anywhere else. WIGB? Anytime my wallet is stocked with cash. 222 West 79th Street, 212 873 0200.

The pretty bad: Nizza in Hell’s Kitchen, where we headed after getting shut out of the movies on 42d Street on Friday night and where the throng around us appeared not to notice lame cooking and off wines — and they weren’t the usual clueless pre-theater crowd. The service was great, and the place looks cool, although my consort was troubled by the idea of using wine bottles as a design element since it meant displaying them so close to the ceiling, where, of course, they bake. Maybe that’s why the quartino of Ceretto arneis that I sent back as corked on my first try still tasted over the hill on the second (it was geriatric by Italian white wine standards, though: 2004). Bob, who did better with his red choices, also liked the socca better than I did, but then I remember that wonderful street food as being less dry and crumbly in Nice. The Swiss chard torta with artichokes tasted good, but the crust was clunky, while the little stuffed Nicoise vegetables were ingredients in search of cohesion. Only the very tender stuffed veal rolls were fine. I think Bob had it right yet again when he said it all seemed to be cooked by people who had never tasted the original versions. WIGB? Fool me once for a hundred bucks and I won’t get fooled again.

The Epago: Pio Pio on Amsterdam, where I met a couple of friends for proximity’s sake on Saturday night when the place was just jammed and where the Eat, Pay And Get Out message could not have been clearer. After ordering wine at the bar, we were quickly hustled to a table with human larva to the left and right of us and a big birthday party too close, so conversation would have been easier with ear trumpets; maybe that’s why it was so hard to get the waiter to understand two of us wanted a second glass of wine and the third wanted a Coke while the busboy kept trying to pour water in all our wineglasses, full or empty. The other girls were blissful over their shared $22 roast chicken with big platter of decent fries and an avocado-tomato salad, and I didn’t mind my Caesar sans Caesar dressing with tough Romaine because I could filch from said platter and dunk into the super-spicy table sauce. A whole chicken with nothing else goes for $10, which made me a little nervous, given that the birds we buy for home are never that cheap as a raw ingredient. But the price had to be a big lure for the line of people waiting as we left, having had the waiter actually roll up the white paper on our table before we could finish the wine we had finally gotten. WIGB? Given that 95 percent of the menu involves feather food, not likely.