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. . .