The seriously good: Maze by Gordon Ramsay at The London, where my consort treated me on my birthday and where, by the end, we were both glad to have turned down a reservation in the “real” restaurant. I got there latish to find Bob ensconced at a quiet back table next to the door leading to the inner sanctum, and every time it opened we got a whiff of the dark side — stuffy and rich and coffin-ready. We had silverware excess enough, thank you very much. The whole experience was like being in a baby bistro in France. The sommelier happily steered us through the shoals of the wine list to a gruner for around $50 (“steely,” and he was right), and the waiter could not have been more engaging and encouraging. Even the crowd, heavy (literally) on Brits, acted mellow. We split six small plates at $12 to $16, and only one was a dud, the confit hamachi. The best was the apple-cured duck breast, sliced buttery thin and topped with frisee and crispy duck tongues on one side and a cube of over-the-top smoked foie gras with crunchy amaranth to prolong the flavor on the other. White onion veloute with duck ragout and shaved truffle was also obscenely good, as was the cod crusted with Iberian ham and set over a fricassee of artichokes, chorizo and mussels. Scallops with cauliflower puree and beignets were just as I pictured them, although beets with ricotta and pine nuts looked gorgeous but seemed a little too cheesy even for me. The bread tasted more like focaccia and did not need the excellent butter sprinkled with coarse salt. We passed on dessert but tried the truffles and peanut brittle that arrived with the beyond-reasonable check. I’m glad I ate the former last; the latter had been made with rancid legumes. WIGB? Without even waiting for an occasion. All the way home in the cab we talked about how we had talked all the way home in the cab about birthday dinners at twice or three times the price that were less than half as good. 151 West 54th Street, 212 468 8889.
Archive for January, 2008
The good: Toloache yet again, where we stopped in after the excellent “Juno” for a snack and a little wine. We got our usual seats at the bar facing the oven where the woman chef who works like a machine turns out quesadillas etc. and split one with huitlacoche (superb as always) plus the tacos de pastor and de cabeza (with braised veal cheeks). WIGB? Anytime; the servers are good even when they screw up a wine order. 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.
The bad: Nice Matin, where I stupidly retreated for a late lunch and found myself surrounded by fixed Upper East Siders, so I should not have been surprised that the prices are up and the quality is down. The crab salad, which was always borderline exquisite, arrived this time as a big mound of mayonnaise-drenched lump crab topped with half a sliced avocado on a few greens with asparagus sliced the long way and a few little nubbins of raw vegetables. The waitress was overwhelmed, no bread was ever served and the whole experience felt like a diner with scarier patrons (we need an immigration wall through Central Park). WIGB? Fool me one last time. . . .
The overpriced: Buceo 95, where we met a friend just to try something new and where it might have been a little too new — the smell of varnish was still so fresh it overwhelmed the wine. Which was no small consideration given that the quartino of Quincy from the Loire was $13 (and why does wine portioned that way inevitably feel like a rip?) The kitchen also seemed to be finding its way: The bacalao in cucumber cups ($12!) was undersoaked and so very chewy, while both the chopped Mediterranean salad and the albondigas were mediocre at best. Only the slow-roasted pork with potatoes on what looked like little soft nacho chips (billed as a mini-wrap) was anything special, and that only by comparison. The olives and oil served with the bread were lively enough, though. As for the sound system blaring techno music, it seemed to be tuned into a hair salon. WIGB? For the hospitality and to try the cheese plate, maybe. It’s slim pickings up this way. 201 West 95th Street, 212 662 7010.
The slightly off: Chola, where I met a friend for a long winy birthday lunch and where the usual mob seemed to be taking an unusual toll. We never got vegetable fritters to start; I had to ask for bread (and it was not as good as it normally is). But we had a great table and easy access to all that wine, and the buffet was outstanding as always if a little too familiar from my last visit. WIGB? Not on a Thursday for a while. 232 East 58th Street, 212 212 688 4619.
The surprising: The cafe at the Cooper-Hewitt, where we only had restorative caffeine between the great Gus Powell show at the Museum of the City of New York and the spectacular Ingo Maurer lighting show upstairs from our table overlooking the garden. I didn’t try my consort’s tea, but my huge cappuccino was, amazingly, perfect (for $3.85). The salads, sandwiches and wines by the glass also looked worth a return visit for whatever exhibition comes next.
The painful: BXL Cafe, where we ducked in for a drink after a totally pretentious ICP opening down the block and where the din was at CIA torture level. We only split an order of seriously slopped-out calamari before fleeing. WIGB? Never after dark.
The good I: Resto, where we headed for something new after our usual Saturday morning at the Greenmarket and where we both were made ridiculously happy. The place was bright and sunny at midday, the staff actually seemed happy to serve us (even the poor busboy who had no idea what the Belgian word on his T-uniform meant) and the food, service and drinks were outstanding. I succumbed to the burger after spotting three around the room, and it was well worth the $13 (with good fries and a nice mound of dressed mesclun). The meat was meaty, even though the waitress said it had to be cooked through to the kitchen’s taste, and the accessories were perfect: excellent Gruyere, pickles, red onion and mayonnaise. My snout-loving consort of course went for the salad of crispy pig’s ear with poached egg, and even his squeamish longtime companion was impressed — the bits of fried flesh were like cracklins, a perfect match with the bitter frisee and runny egg. My glass of Gruner was just what he wanted, his cafe americano, made to order, what I wished I’d ordered. WIGB? Can’t wait, for a more challenging meal. 111 East 29th Street between Park Avenue South and Lexington Avenue, 212 685 5585.
The good II: Harry’s Cafe, where we took refuge after a disastrous chocolate event that at least was held at a hotel with a smart concierge who suggested a short walk to Stone Street. We started at his recommendation, Adrienne’s Pizza, even though we had already been there and suspected it would be jammed, then I insisted we move around the corner. Harry’s was pretty full but very mellow, and the food was the best we’ve had there: My lump crab-avocado-tomato salad was blowaway, like a parfait, and Bob’s shrimp club was enough for two. The red/white wines by the stemless glass were good, the service attentive, the noise level un-abusive, and we got out for well under $80 with tip. As a bonus, we were able to interrupt Harry himself in a booth and catch up a little bit. His son is seriously rising. WIGB? Happily. One Hanover Square, 212 785 9200.
The bad: Pipa in the ABC Home store, where I gimped in on Wednesday in desperation near the Greenmarket after finding Bocca had only a $20.95 lunch special (I never need two courses). It took a while to get waited on, but if the decent sauvignon blanc came fast the check took forever. I ordered the portobello “burger,” which was doomed by the cheese on it — billed as mozzarella, it had the texture of that slimy snot on slices in pizza joints all over the city anymore. The mushroom seemed to have been cooked eons in advance, and the “truffle sauce” seemed to have been vanquished by the other accouterments. As I left I spotted Phil Suarez having a high time at the reception desk and wondered why he wasn’t covering his head. WIGB? Not on a bet.
The good: Dim Sum Go Go, where we lucked in while trekking from the South Street Seaport to Nolita on a mid-Saturday and where we had mostly splendiferous food in a reassuringly clean environment (the bathrooms were even fragrant, in a good way). I haven’t eaten in Chinatown in years, since that devastating New Yorker piece on Health Department inspectors, but it was hard to resist an old favorite. We snared a tiny table fast and split perfectly fried pork dumplings, turnip cakes, steamed crab and “three-star” vegetable dumplings plus two orders of steamed duck dumplings (the waiter was right: they’re the best). Everything was delicate and carefully made and cooked right. I think the bill was about $25, and the service managed the impossible: helpful, mellow and efficient. Best of all, just as I was feeling stupid for being in a room with mostly gweilos, Pichet Ong came bouncing past on his way out, saying it was his favorite place in Chinatown. WIGB? Can’t wait till next Christmas. 5 East Broadway, 212 732 0796.
The better: Maremma, where we headed on New Year’s Eve for the second Dec. 31 and where we were just as happy we didn’t go back to searching for something new. The regular menu was on offer; Cesare was in fine form in red sneakers; Champagne was poured; the noise level was mellow until the place got busy just as we were leaving. And the food was, as always, really satisfying. He comped us the lardo and then his own salsiccia with lentils before we could order the traditional but imported cotechino, then we had an amazing apple salad, exceptional peppery farro with mussels and comped Tuscan fries. My pasta, a special with goose, was like what I would make at home with duck, but it was hard to complain when our $39 Tuscan wine from a sentimental favorite producer was also comped. We overtipped happily and came home with enough leftovers for a superb lunch. WIGB? Anytime. 228 West 10th Street off Bleecker, 212 645 0200.
The not bad: Green Table in the Chelsea Market, where I stopped in desperation one afternoon at an off-hour and where, aside from a grubby wineglass, I had a perfectly satisfying little lunch. Every place else I had tried to try between Le Du’s and Appellation was either not serving or serving junk, so I was happy to find a $14 platter built around very good trout and duck rillettes, each packed into little canning glasses and teamed with baguette toasts from Amy’s Bread across the concourse, a fine little mesclun salad and a teeny dish of pickled root vegetables (one of which cracked a wisdom tooth and I didn’t even mind). I’ve walked past this place more times than I can count but now see why it’s usually busy. WIGB? Probably. 75 Ninth Avenue, 212 741 6623.
The repeatable: La Rural, where we went back after a movie with friends who had reserved at Cafe Luxembourg but who agreed the chance to try good wines in a BYO environment was irresistible. Their shared ribeye was good, but I have to say our skirt steak was even better; the fries without the Provencal treatment were okay, while the multicolor salad had no dressing. The service was outstanding, with fresh glasses offered for our second bottle, and much charm. And, luckily for us if not the owners, the dining room was empty enough that we could almost talk comfortably. WIGB? Inevitably. 768 Amsterdam Avenue near 97th Street, 212 749 2929.
The overlooked: La Pizza Fresca, where I just remembered we ate right before Christmas with a bunch of my consort’s friends from his new universe and where the whole experience was better than it had any right to be. The waiters were fools and neglected us after the food landed, not realizing how much more they could have sold, but the cooking and wine were fine, and we got a long table out of the way of aural assault. One FOB had eaten there the night before and was thrilled to be back, steering us to the right pizzas and indulging us with appetizer choices (fried calamari, polenta with mushrooms and Montasio, etc.) Sitting right by the pizza oven added to the good vibe in a place we had given up on after a bad experience with an Italian friend years ago. WIGB? Probably. 31 East 20th Street, 212 598 0141.