Archive for May, 2008

New York minutes/Late May 2008

May 2008

The good: Rhong-Tiam in the West Village, where my consort and I met friends in from the ’burbs who wanted something not too fancy on a weeknight and where they were unnerved by the emptiness of the place but we were thrilled by the cooking. My pal who would know has raved about the place on his blog, so we mostly used his cheat sheet to order and totally followed his advice to get plenty of rice because the food is authentically incendiary. The papaya salad was exceptional despite being almost too hot to eat, but the duck chu chee (succulent deep-fried breast with curry gravy) was just right even though I insisted on having it spicy. Overall, flavor trumped heat. Nuer nam tok (Thai beef salad) was outstanding, the meat very tender and the lime sauce very lively. “Roasted pork neck” as an appetizer looked similar but tasted different, with thin juicy slices in a vibrant fish and chili sauce. Tom yum was very rich and full of seafood. Crispy basil pork was also smoking but balanced, with the stir-fried ground meat mixed with sweet and hot peppers under a duck blind of deep-fried herb leaves. Even the non-spicy compromise entree, the lemongrass chicken, was at least 10 times better than anything I’ve experienced in most Thai restaurants. We also split two ice creams and a creme brulee, and while Bret warned that beer was the best choice because the wine would probably not be good, the list was actually smart (maybe too much so — we ran up a ridiculous tab with only two iced teas and one sake on the other side of the table). WIGB? Can’t wait, assuming it lasts — I don’t think more than two other tables filled the whole evening. 541 LaGuardia Place, between West Third and Bleecker Streets, 212 477 0600.

The better: The New French, again, where Bob and I headed after being spurned at La Lunchonette, where we stupidly headed after a friend’s gallery opening nearby (the place was literally half-empty and they insisted we needed a reservation; luckily, the rebuff lasted just long enough to make me remember how mediocre the food was the last time we risked it). Our second choice was packed, but they took Bob’s name and cell number and promised they would call us in 30 minutes if we wanted to go have a drink across the street. So we had a glass at Bayard’s and then, right on time, got the ring tone to head back for that perfect table in the window and an overall excellent experience. The place has so much energy, and the staff seems so happy that it’s jammed and jazzy. (Not incidentally, that staff is exactly the same as the first time we went.) I just had the pizza bianca again, this time topped with two cheeses, onions and peppers, while Bob, who had started the night craving fish, tucked into a huge Nicoise-esque salad with charred steak (he ordered medium and it arrived rare, as it needed to be). Wines by the glass were excellent and priced right (about $9), and the service was exemplary, too. Odd as it sounds, it felt like eating in a new place in Paris. WIGB? If we can get in. 522 Hudson Street near West 10th, 212 807 7357.

The annoying: Bar Blanc in the West Village, where I took my super-stressed consort for his birthday (blame a certain Alsatian) and where I had that Niagara Falls feeling (what’s a honeymooner’s second biggest disappointment?) The host and waiter were superb, but they stuck us back at a table so cramped it was really like eating at 30,000 feet — I couldn’t stretch out my fucked-up leg, and every time the polyester napkin slid off my lap it was like trying to retrieve something from an aisle clogged by a drinks cart. Bob hated that, but I pointed out that at least we were not under the techno-thumping speakers. He got more pissed when the sommelier presented the verdejo we ordered from the relatively reasonable list and then vanished to open it. If he did so in front of the customer, he explained when asked, “Things could happen.” Okay. . . . All of which would have been forgiven, but the food was surprisingly one-note given the Bouley heritage of the founders. Buffalo mozzarella with ramps turned out to be two bland balls, cold at the center, sitting in rapidly cooling mushroom foam. Seared black cod with “wilted arrowleaf spinach, roast sunchoke, squid ink, saffron mussel sauce [really foam again]” proved to be just what it read like: one of those Mormon marriages on a plate. Bob’s crispy striped bass was at least redeemed by the amazing black risotto on which it rested. The olive bread was outstanding, more so with the olive oil for dipping. But as we headed out on an early Friday night as the cheap “Sex and the City” knockoffs were settling in, we were wishing we had realized P*ong was just a couple of doors away. WIGB? Fool me once. . .

New York minutes/Mid-May 2008

May 2008

The good: El Paso Taqueria and Toloache, each in its own way. The former was our refuge after we realized Square Meal would be filled with fixed and scary rich bitches at lunchtime when we were looking for sustenance after the underwhelming Cai Guo-Qiang at the Guggenheim; the latter was our happy destination after the not-great opening at ICP (pretty bad when the best image is the actuality of Diane Keaton being photographed by cellphone). As always, El Paso came through with excellent enchiladas (red sauce, green sauce) if not solicitous service, while Toloache delivered superb pork tacos and huitlacoche quesadilla and a special crab salad well worth the $15, with splendiferous service. 64 East 97th Street, 212 996 17390; 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.

The not bad: A Cafe, where I met my consort after work on his co-worker’s recommendation and where it was hard to complain about anything when the service — one waiter totally on top of everything — was so amazing and the tab for three courses was $38 before tax and tip. BYO is a huge savings, but said waiter took the time to engage as he uncorked our bottle and stopped back repeatedly to be sure we were happy; when we asked for the leftovers (in foil swans) he even came back to be sure we didn’t want a sauce that would not survive the trip home. Bob and I split a grilled avocado, of which the less said the better (nirvana to me is half a Hass slathered with Hellmann’s), and then I just had the vegetable terrine, which was refrigerator-fatigued. The merguez with couscous, though, was outstanding, and lamb is far from my favorite meat. (The only good thing about it? It’s not deer.) WIGB? Maybe. I hear the neighborhood is better than it looks. 973 Columbus Avenue near 108th Street, 212 222 2033.

The adequate: Heights Cafe in Brooklyn, where I stopped for sustenance after interviewing a neighborhood resident who said the food most places was the shitz. He recommended Teresa’s two doors down, but on my most optimistic days I never have high hopes for Polish (don’t tell my in-law equivalents). This place looked great, and it was staffed like the first-class cabin of British Air. But I should have known a $10.95 crab cake sandwich would be mostly bread, between the filler and the bun. Still, the fries were pretty good, and the pickle was exceptional. And the room looked great. WIGB? Not in that big booming borough. 84 Montague Street, 718 625 5555.

The high: Suenos in Chelsea, where I led three friends after “Iron Man” at that nasty theater on 23d Street and where we all were almost blown back to the street by the pungency of geriatric fish as we stepped inside. Only the facts that it was late and nothing close by seemed reasonable kept us from fleeing, but Pam did actually get up and leave our booth to walk outside and see how funky it seemed on her re-entry. The place passed, so we split a bottle of too-fruity Torrontes and a bunch of appetizers and the staff was nice enough not to roust us even as it got later and later. Unfortunately, I think the best flavor experience was the black bean spread with cornbread that arrived gratis. Well, maybe the cute little beef taquitos and a “shrimp stack” of which I tasted only the garnishes. Plantain empanadas with goat cheese were molasses sweet, while the quesadilla with chayote etc. was misguided at best. Nobody finished the chilaquiles. And why do I suspect the webmaster is also the fish steward? WIGB? Not likely.

The medium-low: Anthos, where I steered the boss lady from the other coast for dinner and where the room, service and overall experience could not have been more ideal but where the cooking just refused to do what I promised. The menu read great; it was nearly impossible to decide which combination of mind-bending combinations to go for. The assorted pre-tastes were also enticing — of the four I only tried the cod tatziki and fried halloumi but was totally jazzed. The rolls were spectacular, to the point that I even felt compelled to taste the goat butter offered alongside a quenelle of regular butter (still can’t get into the dairy I was weaned on). I was even able to ingest the mini of lamb carpaccio. But my grilled quail appetizer was just okay, dry and not especially flavorful, redeemed only by the braised endive and fried halloumi underneath; turbot over fried oysters with cardoon etc. was just a Mormon marriage with none of the partners talking. Mme X’s sheep’s milk dumplings were the best thing we tasted: pungent but airy and paired with favas, peas and other complementary greenery. Unfortunately, the “milk fed” chicken with figs, walnuts and Metaxa sauce continued her Benoit losing streak. I came away thinking something I never have at Kefi: The best floor staff on the planet cannot compensate for an absent genius chef. WIGB? Unfortunately, my Lotto ship will not be coming in to make it possible. Entrees go for what a bottle of wine used to cost. Then again, that assyrtiko at $14 a glass was pretty easy on the “pallet.” 32 West 52d Street, 212 582 6900.

New York minutes/Early May 2008

May 2008

The not too bad: La Palapa, where I wound up at late brunchtime after the Saturday market when I literally could not trudge another step, let alone the few blocks to Cabrito. It’s not much of an excuse, but I still think I did better than I would have if I’d stayed at Wildwood with the fat tourist at the next table almost in my lap and the cheesy music blaring and the waiters so oblivious and the patent bogusness of the place so palpable. The chorizo in my cheesy eggs had zero flavor, but the $9.95 plate came with decent guacamole and a big slab pond of black beans, and the three salsas helped. WIGB? Stranger things have happened. 359 Sixth Avenue, 212 243 6870.

The not too horrible: Rohm Thai, where I stopped for a quick, cheap lunch rather than my usual queso fundido fix after the Wednesday market. The host and waitress were excellent, and the place is reasonably attractive, but it would be a stretch to describe the food as any better than mediocre. “Sauteed” duck off the $9 lunch menu was really a few hacks of a crispy breast, a dollop of bland peanut sauce, a big heap of rice and a lot of broccoli florets and carrot coins with no perceptible taste, only texture. A salad was included and maybe should not have been: a leaf of iceberg lettuce, a few carrot strips, a mushy tomato slice and a tidal wave of sweet dressing. WIGB? Maybe — my consort’s office gets takeout often, so it’s possible I just ordered badly. And how many Thai restaurants offer duck as an alternative to chicken, beef and tofu? 27 East 20th Street, 212 228 7681.

The hellish: Cafe du Soleil, where I stupidly led a friend who wanted to eat outside on one of those glorious evenings recently and where the usual bus fumes, traffic noise, pooping dogs and other sidewalk nuisances were supplemented by the most astonishing performance ever by a howler monkey. I got there first and chose a table next to a really old couple, not realizing they were just finishing, let alone that a kiddy ride was just outside the picket fence. By the time Donna arrived, an older guy with a trophy baby had taken their place, and two human larvae were shrieking to the incessant tune of “It’s a Small World After All.” Before long the 18-month-old with the huge diamond earrings in her pierced ears was joining in the symphony, and the more the show-off dad — and what was apparently his son from an earlier marriage — ignored her, the louder she got. Donna was more perturbed by the other parents, who were blithely ignoring the chaos on the ride, but even she finally had to say she would offer to help the dad but knew she would wind up holding the kid. Which would do neither of us any good as we tried to drink away our dejection over her ridiculously undercooked salmon and my slimy duck pizza. (Who knew fake mozzarella now comes in smoked flavor?) It got worse, too: the father actually stuck the kid in the stroller and pushed it out to the curb, then walked away as if abandoning her. Which of course only made her scream louder. Only the intervention of another mom now letting her own kid ride wild calmed the baby down somewhat. If I were the investing type, I would be putting all my money into psychotherapy clinics. Some seriously fucked-up kids are going to need all the help they can get. WIGB? Never at feeding time for the privileged and the oblivious. The bread, olives, wine and waiter were all fine. 2723 Broadway near 104th Street, 212 316 5000.

A tale of two cappuccinos: The Sheep Meadow Cafe charges $4, uses paper cups and plastic spoons, requires self-service (and busing) and lets you sit as long as you like. Bouchon, in the dread TWC, charges $4.25 plus tax and tip, uses real china and silver, has a hostess and waiters (one a live ringer for a character in the original “Office”) and lets you sit as long as you can resist the steady upselling and finally the subtle but very effective hints that your welcome is now officially outworn. So which one had the better beverage? Maybe it was a case of no expectations, but the one in the park actually surmounted all the strikes against it. Bouchon’s was scorched. Of course, life is a series of tradeoffs. As my date at the Sheep Meadow notes, the bird shit was free.

New York minutes/End o’ April 2008

May 2008

The good until it got annoying: Pudding Stone West, where I arranged to hook up with a friend on a chilly Sunday night and regretted it once great throngs of cloned women — all the same age, all the same look — thronged in and started whooping and Vows-hunting. Until then, we had been enjoying our $9 wine at the bar, with the superb bartender and a martini glass filled with $10 avocado puree for dipping with chips. By the time my consort turned up, I had heard about enough. WIGB? Only if I can sit outside. There are worse things than views of funeral homes where you can still hear the eulogy. 645 Amsterdam Avenue at 91st Street, 212 787 0501.

The not bad: Bodrum Mediterranean, where the three of us decamped in search of quiet, a good snack and more wine and where those minimal expectations paid off. The place is pretty slick, with good flatware, but we were only in the market for mezze and happily split a $14 plate of mixed tastes and then a pizza. The first (hummus, babaganoush, lebne etc.) I liked better than my consort did, and the second left me wondering, yet again, what in the name of rennet people are buying instead of real mozzarella. This was like slime on a crust, and it’s the same mucus-like experience you suffer everywhere pizza is sold anymore. WIGB? Maybe, because it’s in the neighborhood, and our friend who used to live here was amazed at the options. Still, when we signed our bills at 9:20, we felt as if we were keeping the staff from going home. 584 Amsterdam Avenue near 88th Street, 212 799 2806.