Archive for March, 2008

New York minutes/Late March/beginning of April 2008

March 2008

The good: Gallo Nero, where I met a friend for lunch after finding a promo card in our doggie bag from Film Center Cafe. The place was so new you could smell the wood, but the kitchen was clearly settled in. We split only small plates: fine meatballs in pesto (where has that combination been all my life?), sauteed mushrooms on crisp toast with melted cheese, and beautifully fried calamari, zucchini slices and shrimp. The one letdown was our own damn fault — when the engaging Albanian waiter came back to say the kitchen had no buffalo mozzarella for the platter with prosciutto and roasted peppers, we insisted on substituting grana padano. Close but no mozzarella, and the peppers were pallid. But the warm roll was satisfyingly crusty and came with a nice bean puree, and the wines from an extensive list were poured by the quartino, and the waiter knew them all well. Also, the room is charming, the low-slung chairs so comfortable I wasn’t hobbling when I stood up and the bathroom as cozy as one on a train. WIGB? Soon, I hope. 402 West 44th Street west of Ninth Avenue, 212 265 6660

The not awful: Zamba, where my consort and I wound up for lunch after our usual Saturday morning run to the Greenmarket and Chelsea Market and after I had done a quick run through Menupages to see what might be escaping my notice in a neighborhood where I almost spend more time than I do around home. We snared two seats at the bar and had plenty of time to study the very cool design — you could imagine yourself in Torino if not for the crowd, which Bob immediately sized up as “Upper East Side but younger” — because the bartender’s efficiency seemed to be hobbled by his struggle to keep his low-slung pants from falling off his underpants. If not for my outstanding $10 glass of grillo, we could have been eating in a diner, though. My shiitake, taleggio and arugula sandwich with truffle oil was so rich it was almost queasy-making, even for this Mrs. Sprat, while Bob’s grilled eggplant with mozzarella and arugula was only redeemed by the tapenade spread on the focaccia in which it was grilled. Both came with a surprisingly lively little chickpea salad. WIGB? Maybe. Not much affordable around there, and the chalkboard wine list is long and enticing. 306 West 13th Street west of Eighth Avenue, 212 205 0601.

The well-situated: Chop Suey, where I lured Bob after his class at ICP both for proximity’s sake and because I remained curious after rejecting it for lunch with a fussy friend, and where we both didn’t really care about not-great food at inflated prices simply because the view of Times Square actually makes the middle-American armpit of New York look alluring. It was just after 8, so we got a great four-top looking in three directions, including toward several tables of “Sex and the City” wannabes. The less-than-wonderful scallion cakes were redeemed by an Asian pear mostarda, while the char siew roast pork was leathery and mostly noodles. Easily the best choice was the tofu hot pot, which had great flavor and sublime texture. Wine is served by the quartino, and we each nursed ours at $13-14 apiece. WIGB? When I hit the lottery, maybe. The bill with tip was $92 for three appetizers, two glasses. Renaissance Hotel, 47th and Seventh Avenue, 212 765 7676.

The transporting: Buzina Pop, where Bob and I took refuge after bailing on a free dinner with potentially boring strangers in the same neighborhood and where we found ourselves feeling far, far from Upper East Side stuffiness. He’s been to Brazil, I haven’t, but he said it felt very familiar to him; the stools at the booths across from us were made from tin cans, the curtains had boots imprinted in the design, a little shop in the corner of the second-floor dining room sold crafty things. We got there at the magic hour, just before it filled up (by about half Brazilians) and got loud, but at our little table by the window it was easy to talk if not read the menu (larger print or much bigger candles, please). While we were deciding, two rounds of salt cod fritters were laid on the table, followed by excellent warm bread with superb herbed olive oil. We split an order of exceptional crispy calamari set over arugula in tomato sauce, then a salad of arugula, endive and grana padana and an order of manioc gnocchi that were like eating flavored air. The very charming waiter kept our glasses refilled at $9 a pop, and we were out before the human larva toted in by the Carrie wannabe could start to howl. WIGB? If I found myself in the vicinity with a flashlight, absolutely. As we realized, it reflects a neighborhood changing as foreigners invest. And that is all to the good. 1022a Lexington Avenue near 74th Street, 212 879 6190.

The reliable: Pearl (even when the chowder is a little salty and the clams a little MIA, lunch there is an antidepressant, especially with a friend willing to share a Caesar, a fried oyster roll and those great fries) and Rosa Mexicano on 18th (even when I order the wrong enchiladas and get essentially wet vegetable tacos).

New York minutes/Late March 2008

March 2008

The surprisingly good: Madaleine Mae, where my consort wanted to go on a rainy night for the novelty factor and where the food seemed to have come from a new kitchen. The spinach salad I warned him against was actually nicely balanced and perfectly dressed, although we agreed that baby spinach is no substitute for the full-grown thing. And the arctic char with dirty rice was shocking: fresh fish cooked juicy over really rich and flavorful rice (one of my least favorite starches). Even the biscuits were almost right. The waitress recognized me from my last visit, the hostesses could not have been more charming (they found an umbrella in the back for diner who lost his) and the noise level was perfect, maybe because the place was two-thirds empty on the night it was reviewed favorably. WIGB? Happily now. 461 Columbus Avenue at 82d Street, 212 496 3000.

The unsurprisingly good: Pearl Oyster Bar, where we were able to get a table fast on a Monday night when I couldn’t face dishes, and a table in the quiet back, and where everything was as perfect as always. The striped bass special came with brussels sprouts and bacon, and my superb crab cake appetizer-as-entree was big enough for leftovers after we split a Caesar. I am surprised I never noticed wine is priced the same by the glass and by the bottle, which makes life easier for everyone, especially a couple usually split between red and white. WIGB? Anytime, even though I had sworn off dinner. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.

The adequate: Film Center Cafe, where six of us headed in search of relatively cheap food and relative quiet after a little stint in the bitter wind in Times Square watching my consort’s amazing handiwork briefly showcased on the sides of two buildings. We got a big table in the back that wasn’t too noisy but was too easy for the waitress to forget, but at least she was efficient when she did swing by. I had crab cakes again, and they were redeemed by their sauce although the ratio of crab to potato filler was about one to six. Not realizing they came with a nice little salad, I ordered a big mixed salad that we wound up taking home along with Bob’s leftover Caesar with salmon. With three bottles of wine, we got away for $75 a couple. Pretty sad when that seems reasonable. WIGB? Maybe, although there have to be better choices on Ninth these days. 635 Ninth Avenue near 44th Street, 212 262 2525.

The invitation-only: The Core Club in Midtown, where Bob and I were among a dozen guests for a friend’s evening of birthday debauchery, courtesy of her newish consort. Apparently people pay $75,000 just to join, $20 for a drink. But they do get truffle oil on their popcorn and great seasoning on their bar nuts in a rather dramatic space, with huge chunks of modern art hung all about and a long hallway lined with lavish bathroom stalls the size of studio apartments. Given the rowdiness of our crowd, and all the bottles of chardonnay and pinot noir, the private dining room was crucial. As for the set meal, the chef started out working at Union Square Cafe and was hired on by Tom Colicchio, and it showed. Our amuse was a nice little quenelle of smoked salmon tartare, then we had a choice of beet salad, tuna carpaccio or crabmeat “croquettas.” I chose those, and they tasted great, although the oozy center was a little odd — imagine Jean-Georges’ molten chocolate cake made with seafood. Or don’t. The carpaccio was a roll the size of a pony penis — some incorrigible guest said, with editing — but the winner looked to be the salad: a gorgeous composition with goat cheese, blood orange and candied pecans. I picked the pan-roasted wild striped bass for my entree, a great slab of perfectly cooked fish laid over braised brussels sprout leaves with pancetta and hazelnuts, and my consort made me taste his excellent crispy, juicy square of roasted suckling pig. The birthday cake looked and tasted homemade. I’m not sure if that was intentional — Champagne was involved. WIGB? I couldn’t afford to. Plus we may be banned for life.

New York minutes/Mid-March 2008

March 2008

The I-Gotta-Start-Planning-Better: Youzan, Alouette, Rosa Mexicano, Whym and Pio Maya: Whoever described going out to dinner as a 90-minute solution to a 30-minute problem was talking my week. Forget why that was, but we/I had one crappy experience after another just because my consort was stressed and I was both stressed and unwilling to pick up the sponge after one recipe-testing bout worse than the last. Youzan I thought would make Bob happy because he loves Asian food more than I do Mexican, but he instantly noticed how the space feels just like evil Gabriela’s with a Japanese menu. He got some grim sushi thing, I ordered a teriyaki salmon thing that reminded me why I have not wanted to eat Japanese in the 24 years since I last encountered that leathery fish. Alouette was pretty much a disaster on every level except the one for which I chose it: Nice, quiet, cheap wine, pleasant atmosphere. This was a Monday night, so the staff were happily talking among themselves, and to call the service offhand would have been overstating it. Bob’s scallops with spinach and mystery potato puree were fine, but my “duck confit salad” appetizer comprised shreds of geriatric meat on a little pile of frisee. I pushed the funky meat aside, tasted his entree and paid $75 for that little bit plus two glasses of wine each. As we left, not a word. Rosa? I have to remember never to agree to a table in the back room on 18th Street at Wednesday lunch when I go for my queso fundido fix. The bright sunlight showcases the grime on the glasses, the waitron is always distracted, I always and inevitably get so angry I would walk out except it ain’t that easy with a heavy bag from the market. QF was fine, though, and the waitress went into kowtowing overdrive once she realized she had bowed to another table of two broads who had arrived after me and wanted to babble on while I stewed.

Whym at least was the right refuge at the right time — we were six leaving the OSI photo opening around the corner, and at least we could all hear each other even if the air was a little on the fried side. Bob’s salad of salmon over greens was decent, but I was walking wounded next day after greens with cheesy dressing. The price was right, though. As for Pio Maya, shoot me, which I think is exactly what Mr. Sacha was ready to do after we wound up there after the Greenmarket on Saturday after finding Elettaria not open for brunch and before realizing he had to get to a Story Corps interview way downtown so fast. The funky little place I remembered has turned itself into more of a cafe, but shoving the steam table into the kitchen has clearly set it back big time. My chorizo torta was not great (stale roll, architect in absentia), but Bob’s chicken salad comprised a few strips of bizarrely orange protein on a tiny mound of romaine and chopped vegetables. I tasted the protein only out of curiosity and thought it could have been fish. Maybe dried. Possibly rehydrated. $12.98 total? Overpriced.

I really have to start keeping a notebook again. Surely things are not as bad everywhere as they tasted. . . .

New York minutes/Middish March 2008

March 2008

The not awful: Zipper Tavern, where we retreated in the sheeting rain after an excellent Camera Club opening upstairs of really evocative work by one of my consort’s students from Piemonte. The food was mostly just okay — a decent if odd salad of beets, peas, mizuna, hard-cooked eggs and corn offset by flavor-light empanadas filled with alleged duck confit — but the wineglasses were well-filled for $7 each (albarino, tempranillo). The waitress was harried but attentive, the noise level was less than abusive and it was the right place at the right time. The decor, however, reminded me of Grandma’s Place in Tallinn, where the owner admitted every theatrical detail was bogus. WIGB? It’s cheap, it’s convenient. 336 West 37th Street, 212 695 4600.

The fading fast: Madaleine Mae, where it was hard to believe a kitchen could descend to slopping out food in so few weeks. I went alone for an early dinner while Bob was chained to his high-tech work station yet again, and it was light enough to read, quiet enough to think. The hostesses were certainly friendly, the busboys were solicitous, the waitress was not a ’tron and the room was as charming as always. I was even wishing I’d ordered real food after finding the biscuit was improved if not perfect — it had the desired flakiness if not the airiness. But both my appetizers were huge letdowns. The thin johnnycake was overlaid with lots of smoked salmon, but the stingy schmear of creme fraiche or sour cream or whatever under it had melted away to grease. And the spinach salad came drenched in oily dressing, with a few flecks of bacon and only a handful of tiny roasted mushrooms to redeem it. I don’t know why I was surprised when a friend told me P.J. Clarke’s is behind the joint despite the Waxman connection. (I guess I gotta start trying to untangle the knotty prose crammed into DI/DO’s restaurant “column.”) WIGB? Maybe. It’s in the neighborhood, and said friend had a great time at the bar. But it says it all that the hand-dryer in the bathroom didn’t even work, and the staff must have known it because there was a pile of paper towels under it. One month and the place is falling apart?

The transporting: “The Grocer’s Son” at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. I went to the God’s-waiting-room showing at 3:15 and got to hear the filmmaker speak before and after (one question from the audience: “Since it’s a French film, why does it take the couple so long to get into bed?”) He did his research by making three documentaries on mobile epiceries, and he really recreated a small world. Of course what I liked best was buying popcorn beforehand and asking the counter clerk what was in the plastic bag lying on top of the kernels under the heat lamp. “Brioche. They taste like nothing unless you heat them.” Leached plastic notwithstanding, the popcorn was as satisfying as the movie. It opens in America in May.

New York minutes/Early March 2008

March 2008

The painfully slow: Community Food and Juice, where the hostess ushered me to the bar without offering a table when I showed up alone at lunch and where I could barely stand after teetering on the bone-contorting stool while waiting just short of forever for food in a half-empty room. Forget my glass of wine — I was worried I was going to finish my book before a simple fluke sandwich arrived. It wasn’t bad, although it was about four universes away from the Pearl rendition. The fish was very fresh but all out of balance with the bread and lettuce, and the sauce on it literally dripped. It came with a little bit of good coleslaw and a few tasteless zucchini pickles for $13, no extra charge for bloat; I would have been better off dropping $4 on my Metrocard to spend $3 more on Cornelia Street. On the plus side, the bartender was excellent, even explaining when she saw my look of horror as she handed me menus that she was wearing her gross rubber gloves because she was about to cut lemons. WIGB? Maybe, but not when I’m in a hurry or hungry. The ingredients and organic wines are well sourced. 2893 Broadway at Columbia, 212 665 2800.

The painfully raucous: Les Halles, where two friends and I headed in desperation after being shunted to the bar at Resto and where we realized too late that we should have stayed shunted. Everyone at Resto was eating the burger, which looked good even to me, and I’m off beef for the foreseeable future. But the heat was blasting on us, and we were at the bar, so we headed around the corner after one friend went ahead to be sure a table was available. Of course it was one between two groups of what the place attracts after dark: testosterone-overloaded jackasses, so we could barely hear each other and the waiters couldn’t hear for shit — first they brought one steak frites cooked not to order, then they brought a muscat after saying a muscadet was available. Our new Sicilian almond-growing friend seemed underwhelmed by his food; I couldn’t see my duck confit with one tea light on the four-top, so I kept hacking off hunks of fatty skin rather than meat. It seemed more roasted than confit, so I was very glad I was not up-sold into taking the special choucroute for $5.50 more. WIGB? Maybe for lunch, but not for a good long while.

The relatively comfortable: Regional, where three of us took a birthday girl who lives around the corner and where we at least could talk and not get gouged. My baked pasta with leeks and mushrooms was shy on the vegetables and pretty dry, but it did soak up the vermentino. WIGB? Location, location. 2607 Broadway near 98th Street, 212 666 1915.