Archive for February, 2008

New York minutes/Late February 2008

February 2008

The pretty good: Kouzan, where every hint of the place’s previous occupant has been eradicated. That would be enough right there to recommend it, but I managed a nice lunch even though Japanese is almost my least favorite cuisine. I had a really fresh and lively green salad and exquisitely fried vegetable tempura (carrot, broccoli, onion, eggplant and I think taro) for all of $6.95, plus a good glass of California sauvignon blanc. The waitress was beyond efficient even while dealing with typical neighborhood old cranks. WIGB? Happily. 685 Amsterdam Avenue at 93d Street, 212 280 8099.

The not bad: Land Thai, where I wound up after remembering too late that Saturday lunchtime is egg hell and my options were totally limited. As always, the service was snappy, the $9 sauvignon blanc was a big pour and the cooking was adequate — I just had the lunch special with spring rolls (fried a little too long) and a vegetable medley (with rubbery tofu) and was satisfied, although I realized it’s a bad idea to eat there when staff meal is about to be consumed. What was laid out for them looked a whole lot more interesting than anything on the menu. WIGB? Inevitably. 450 Amsterdam Avenue near 82d Street, 212 501 8121.

The aging well: Spice Market, where I retreated after wandering the meat district in search of a new French place and getting repelled everywhere by all the packettes of women who seemed to have stepped off the “Sex in the City” bus tour (be warned: I overheard one insisting Fig & Olive is a must stop, and it was jammed at the very unfashionable hour of 6:30). My food was mostly excellent, but I was most impressed by the staff — the host offered to take my coat and showed me to a nice table facing the kitchen, the waitress who was training a newbie was as attentive as the busboys were solicitous and the coat check “girl” actually asked if I’d enjoyed my dinner. The $9 green papaya and apple salad was enough for four people, a really lively, crunchy mountain of fruit flecked with candied ginger and cashews. The crispy skate was slightly overbattered, but the fish was clean-tasting and the airy cilantro sauce with it exceptional. The basket of pappadum with a spicy dip was a great starter, and wines at $9 and $10 are fairly priced. I left thinking it didn’t look so much like Pier One anymore. 403 West 13th Street, 212 675 2322.

The already slipping: Mermaid Inn on Amsterdam, where I stopped for an early dinner at the bar while my consort was working yet again and left thinking what I ordered was described backward on the menu. It should have been Old Bay fries with lobster sandwich. The thing reminded me of what I had just read the protagonist in Richard Russo’s LOL “Straight Man” was served by his stingy mother: two slices of white bread barely glazed with pimento cheese spread. This was a hefty brioche bun filled with about six forkfuls of lobster with only rubberiness as proof that it was indeed the billed seafood; there was zero sweet flavor. The decent fries were heaped over it like a duck blind, as if even the chef realized it was a rip for $24. But the bartender was an excellent waitress, the gruner was good and good value for $9 and at that hour the place was nice and quiet. WIGB? Probably. Amsterdam ain’t exactly the West Village.

New York minutes/Mid-February 2008

February 2008

The pretty good: Pegu Club, where seven of us met for early drinks on a Friday and could actually hear ourselves talk until about 9 in a second-floor space that really looks straight out of Hong Kong. Our social secretary, Julie, snared us a huge but snug booth near the bar and was waiting with a generous glass of wine, the sight of which made the $12 price tag much easier to swallow. (After extensive research, the Goldwater sauvignon blanc was more to my taste than the Joseph Drouhin Chablis.) We ordered not enough food, unfortunately, and I tasted only the good deviled eggs stuffed with trout and something strange; pulled-duck sliders with excellent filling, okay vegetable spring rolls and a bit of the exceptional tuna tartare. We had to sit next to Republicans, though, which was so unnerving that when I made some lame joke about the oceans and the fucker in the White House I thought the waitress was coming by to shush me. But that, sadly, was one of the few times she or anyone else in a dress voluntarily approached the table. A little more service would generate many more orders. 77 Houston Street near West Broadway, 212 473 PEGU.

The better than usual: Pearl Oyster Bar, where I went for my lunchtime fix of skate sandwich and where what seemed to be a new kitchen team was more surgical than on my last outing — the ciabatta was layered perfectly with just enough tomato and greens without huge globs of tartar sauce. The bartender was also new to me but was, as they always are, worthy of a starring role in a training video on service. Surprisingly if refreshingly, it was almost all solo diners on a rainy day and no one wanted to chat. But they still shared, if unwittingly: One woman was clearly on a POB orgy, starting with shrimp, then a lobster roll, then a butterscotch praline sundae, nearly licking the plates clean every time; a hungover guy almost had his head in his Caesar salad until his clams arrived and he snapped back to life. WIGB? Where else can you get two meals for one price? My consort had the other half of my huge sandwich for a late dinner. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.

The promising: Madaleine Mae, where a friend and I had a magical lunch with snow showering down out the windows and where I swore I would never go for dinner but still found myself just four nights later, wedged into the next table. Kinks are still being worked out, but our food at lunch was well above Columbus Avenue standards — the seafood gumbo needed only a little Tabasco, the crab cake sandwich was very meaty and the mirliton fritters with roasted pepper aioli were so dangerously good we only tasted rather than risking a Mr. Creosote. Service was a little erratic, but it had just opened, and our waitress was ebullient if not totally attentive (Jonathan himself waved goodbye as we left, though). And the room is so seductive, with barely a trace of its time as Kitchen 82. I assumed it would be brutally loud at dinner, but Bob and I were due out of a movie at 7 and so I reserved. Noise was not an issue, and although the tables around us were antsy about the service, the waitress was surprisingly efficient, although she did need to be prodded to bring the bread trowel everyone else had gotten. So we tried those four breads and were underwhelmed by all but one sort of warm biscuit; the scone, second biscuit and cornbread were all cold and chewy, not light or flaky or airy. Wines were good again, starting at $8 a glass for red or white from Argentina. My nut-crusted redfish tasted as if it was at least as old as the restaurant, but the new-wave succotash with squash that came under it was vinegary and great. And Bob’s jambalaya was outstanding, rich but light and with the perfect balance of seafood and sausage to popcorny rice. It all just made us wonder why Jacques-Imo’s went out of business serving similar food five blocks south. I guess it needed the not-from-around-here crowd. . . . WIGB? Often, I suspect. 461 Columbus Avenue at 82d Street, 212496 3000.

New York minutes/Early February 2008

February 2008

The good: Toloache, yet again, where eight of us and a 6 1/2-pound frog wedged into a tight table to run up a big bill with grasshopper tacos, ceviches, quesadillas and more after our friend Dr. Bugs’ taping on Stephen Colbert. Proximity to the studio was the main appeal, but the food and service came through, too. When we got there, after the car had delivered the two stars and the wrangler of one, the staff had already dealt with the weirdness and soon the wine, margaritas and food were flowing. I just had my usual huitlacoache quesadilla and some good (allegedly) spicy guacamole, but my consort ordered an amazing duck special in a green chile sauce, beautifully cooked and perfectly balanced. It’s a far cry from El Paso on 97th Street, where I had excellent chilaquiles with tomatillo sauce the day before, but it’s satisfying in much the same way. WIGB? Constantly, it seems. 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.

The not bad: Regional, where my consort treated me to dinner on yet another night when I wasn’t up to eating let alone cooking and where he got what he deserved given that he was paying. My special of grilled eggplant, tomato and mozzarella was just what I should have expected in February, with undercooked eggplant and pathetic tomato, and my cod-fritter appetizer was fried to less than perfection although the fish itself was great. But Bob’s salad of arugula and plum tomatoes was the same satisfaction it always is, and his pasta with lamb ragu had so much of the latter that he had enough to make a work lunch with rice next day. The service was good, the bread and bean spread excellent as always and the noise level — fortunately for us, not so good for a restaurant trying to stay afloat — painless. WIGB? Why not? 2607 Broadway near 99th Street, 212 666 1915.

The dinery: French Roast, where I stopped after getting my stitches yanked and my jaw set free and where I was so ready for a great breakfast I would have been happy with three bites of anything painless. I wanted toast, bacon, eggs and home fries after a week of nibbling and gumming, but I settled for a huge omelet overstuffed with crisp bacon strips and soggy tomatoes and a little Gruyere plus a basket of baguette slices and butter and a few honkin’ huge potato chunks with ketchup. Walking from 86th and CPW to 85th and B’way just brought home how the Upper West Side is being eaten away by greed, though. Diners are disappearing as fast as bodegas as the banks and drugstores and nail parlors proliferate, but maybe this is the new template: Open 24 hours, cheaper than Artie’s, not as industrial and synthetic-feeling as the Greek places that manage to hang on, and with nicotine-free waiters to boot. WIGB? There may soon be no choice. . . . 2340 Broadway at 85th Street, 212 799 1533.

New York minutes/Early February 2008

February 2008

The pretty good: Lunetta, where my consort and I stopped on a Saturday when we needed sustenance after the Greenmarket and I had limited options two days after surrendering two wisdom teeth. The hostess was great, some woman working the floor kept the water flowing and the waitress was trying hard, but it still took forever to get our food, to the point that I was panicking we would still be there at dinnertime. I also almost took a nasty dive on hitting a grease patch on the floor on my way to the bathroom. But all was forgiven once the respectable bucatini carbonara and superb chicken under a brick arrived. The first was rich and heavy on meat, with no fewer than two bay leaves and three sprigs of thyme to boot; the latter was gorgeously charred but still juicy. And we were home in plenty of time for an interview I’d scheduled. WIGB? Undoubtedly — there are far less attractive places to be stuck waiting for gummable lunch. 920 Broadway, 212 533 3663.

The pretty unsettling: Spain on 13th Street, where a friend arranged to meet me and another birthday girl who was craving old-style Spanish with sangria and paella and where she got half her wish anyway. They were already at the bar and well into the tiny glasses of red wine when I showed up, so at the bartender’s suggestion we all moved to three stools together and he brought the tapas with them (shrimp, limp patatas bravas and Eraserhead-worthy meatballs). I asked what kind of white wine he had and got: “White wine. Spanish.” No arguing with that, even when it was poured from a jug. As we ordered more rounds, he brought out respectable chorizo, then chicken wings awash in garlic sauce and finally three honkin’ slabs of tortilla. Just as the Chimp started blathering on the teevee, the place cleared out, he presented the check ($46 for 10 or 12 glasses, but who was counting?) and we realized paella was not an option. After seeing how gray the bones were on those wings, I wasn’t really disappointed.