Archive for June, 2008

New York minutes/End o’ June 2008

June 2008

The great: The New French, yet again, where we headed after Werner Herzog’s latest at prime time on a Saturday and where we were fortunate enough to arrive with just long enough of a wait to be distracted by excellent sparkling rose in paper cups out on the sidewalk. Some of the scariest words you can hear on entering a restaurant are “party of 12 ahead of you,” but the kitchen and the staff were more than up to the punishing challenge. Four of us split the pizza bianca of the day (two cheeses with roasted peppers) and stole forkfuls of the beet salad with superb dressing, then passed around the excellent braised lamb, pulled pork sandwich and top-grade Nicoise (well, I made it that by ordering tuna rather than salmon or beef). My consort scored highest with the special fish, seared skate over corn and bacon etc. He said it sounded like Bouley Bakery’s, but it was at least five times better. We also overindulged in desserts, a ginger creme brulee and berries with lemon curd. They know me now, but I don’t think the service was affected, and I did appreciate a table against the wall rather than out in the room, because it does get loud. Especially when four friends are arguing about a movie only one thinks is totally brilliant. WIGB? I think I’m moving in. 522 Hudson Street, 212 807 7357.

The good: Bouley Bakery, where we coincidentally wound up for brunch the day after the skate and where the halibut was perfectly fine but not what it once was, which is just like the place. The market floor where the bathrooms are was pretty funky-smelling; the carpet on the stairs was pretty beaten down; the whole room had a seedy aspect (napkins stuffed into vents to stop drips?) But the energy was still there, even late on a Sunday when the cooks have seared about enough burgers. I had the wild smoked salmon over rosti potatoes, which was immensely satisfying even though the arugula strewn over the top was past its prime and the caviar was the kind my dad used to use to catch lesser fish. And Bob’s halibut was the same as it ever was, pristine fish cooked just right, set over coconut milk with shiitakes, corn and peas, the latter seemingly straight from the Birds Eye farm. Service was outstanding, and there could be no better place to be during two serious thunderstorms, with those windows looking out onto those old buildings. The funniest part was that we had to wait for a table late in service while the new incarnation of Duane Park Cafe a few doors away was pretty much empty aside from a hostile broad at the “hostess” stand. And this was after we had actually decamped from a table at the new Fish Market at the Seaport because the bartender was overextended and some broadette in a tight black dress refused to acknowledge customers. I was fried by the time we got there, but the destination was more than worth the long walk north through hordes of lumbering tourists. And not just because we got to watch some blonde young thing plow through a steak, eggs, toast, potatoes and a huge side order of sausages a couple of tables away. Made me wonder if her escort realized that what looks like a lusty appetite at 25 is obese gluttony at 35. WIGB? Maybe. The host/waiter was outstanding. 130 West Broadway at Reade Street, 212 608 5824.

The promising: New Amsterdam Market, where Bob and I schlepped for different reasons and where we both hoped the Fulton Fish Market can find a second life. The food on offer was impressive, and not just because it was the right mix of Greenmarket familiarity and off-island artisanal imports. We bought Bouchon bread with rhubarb and pistachios after sampling a bit, and ground veal after just spotting it (I needed it for a story) for only $3 (Unholy Foods gets $7.99 a pound for meat of murky origins). Flying Pigs was there, so I was able to get pork for work reasons as well. Bob tried his fill of amazing cheeses, but I could have gone through two or three more times with toothpick in hand. And both of us put Peasant on our restaurant agenda after tasting the razor clam salad/ceviche being portioned out on razor clam shells. What was most intriguing is that I spotted exactly one other professional eater there. Hope they can get it off the ground, but it is much more Ferry Plaza than Union Square, and the tourists just to the west are mostly of the Disney World variety — I can’t remember when I last saw so many hippos lumbering past in short shiny shorts bunched at crotch level.

New York minutes/Late June 2008

June 2008

The good again: The New French, where my faith in the restaurant business is always restored — it is possible to get it exactly right right out of the starting gate. And the advantage over Pearl is that it was open Saturday for lunch when my consort and I had an errand on Bleecker Street. The tuna sandwich on pizza bianca with fries was just as amazing as last time, and the brisket sandwich on ciabatta with greens was nearly its equal — I took the last four bites home. We were going to skip wine, but the rose was too tempting and the waitress too easy to hail. The best part was that the brunch menu had those eggless alternatives. And without elaborating, I’ll just say the attention to detail is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in this city. Even the doggie bag is right (no wasteful packaging there). WIGB? My cover’s blown, but absolutely. 522 Hudson Street near 10th Street, 212 807 7357. 

The surprisingly good: La Rural, where we headed for a latish Sunday supper despite having heard stories of rudeness and cluelessness recently but where we got service as good as the food. We shared a cheap bottle of Malbec plus a skirt steak — a great slab of meat grilled really rare, with a mound of sauteed grape tomatoes alongside — and an excellent tricolore salad with blue cheese. We were there too late for garden seating (it ends at 8), but our table right by the back door compensated. WIGB? Even with no BYOB, it’s still good value and a really nice room. 768 Amsterdam Avenue near 98th Street, 212 749 2929.  

The reassuringly good: Toloache, where we retreated from the hordes and the Trader Joe’s plonk at the ICP student exhibition and where the food and service were as superb as ever, even if the cooks were now wearing gloves (why anyone thinks those are better than clean hands is beyond me). We got our favorite seats at the guacamole bar and shared overstuffed brisket tacos, a quesadilla with huitlacoche and the trio of empanadas; we ordered in stages, and somehow comped guacamole with chips and salsa verde materialized in between rounds one and two. The vibe in the place is always great, too. 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818. 

The whoa, what the hell happened? Gallo Nero, where I lured a friend for a scheming lunch when she had to be in that neighborhood for a meeting and where I walked out embarrassed nearly two hours later. Not only was everything we ordered lame, but it was also slow — three small dishes took forever to come. The porcini under the provolone on crostini were slimy, and the crab in the crab cakes could have been canned salmon. The fried calamari and zucchini were fat rubber bands and a few charred slices of squash. Even the bean puree with the bread needed salt. The waiter was the solicitous one from my first trip, and the wine was decent, and the room was still very charming. But WIGB? Not on a bet. 

New York minutes/Mid-June 2008

June 2008

The excellent: The New French, where I met a friend for lunch and where the place turned out to be more appealing almost empty (the Maira Kalman walls are easier to appreciate, too). The kitchen had all the energy missing in the room: My sandwich of fresh (confit) tuna on pizza bianca was perfect, as was the huge mound of fries burying the two halves; Katrina, a sucker for “old” French, had crepes filled with goat cheese, peppers and mushrooms that were anything but stodgy and were themselves buried under a big mound of well-dressed greens. The waitress both paid attention and backed off, and she was great on wine recommendations for my Chablis-loving friend. I didn’t try her cappuccino, but it too was huge. Great place even before you add in the prices ($9.50 for that amazing sandwich, $9.75 for crepes). 522 Hudson Street near West 10th, 212 807 7357.

The half-good: Roberto Passon, where my consort and I wound up after the disgustingly funny “Harold & Kumar” when he wanted something small but not wine-bar-proportioned (tiny portions, absurd prices) in a neighborhood that seems to alternate Thai joints with Italian imitations. I spotted a Caesar on the menu, which is all I wanted after popcorn, so we ventured inside and the happy hostess gave us a nice table by the window to watch the Sunday sidewalk parade outside. If only the waitress had been as enthusiastic. Jeebus. My salad had a rather watery dressing, but the two spreads with the bread were good, and Bob’s $14 fusilli with radicchio and bacon looked disgusting but tasted great. WIGB? Maybe, but I’d sit in the other half of the dining room, the one where the other waitress was doing nothing while Ms. Surly grudgingly tended to too many tables. Still, it was far preferable to a cock sandwich in Guantanamo. 741 Ninth Avenue at 50th Street, 212 582 5599.

The adequate: Rosa Mexicano across from Lincoln Center, where they really need to train a tortilla maker. You get about three times as many with the queso fundido as you do on 18th Street, but they are so poorly turned out that for the first time ever I thought I could make better on my own. The chorizo was weirdly stringy, too, and I excavated exactly two rajas. But the waiter was decent. And the room is always cheery. WIGB? Not until I can blank out that weirdness in the chorizo.

The unsurprising: Fairway Cafe, where Bob and I met a friend from the sleepy suburb on one of those nights hot enough to melt chocolate chips and where we got just what we were hoping for — air conditioning, fine Caesar salads, excellent skirt steak with fries and lots of cheap wine (the last being the prime lure). Where else in town can you get a New Zealand sauvignon blanc for $18? For a bottle, not a couple of glasses?

The dead: El Paso on 97th, where I will never go back after a fat, oily, sluggish waiter officiously informed me a special order I have been special ordering since the day the place opened was not available. And this after friends who used to live a couple of blocks away but have now exiled themselves to deepest Jersey told us they had come back to their favorite neighborhood destination for Mother’s Day only to find it “not good and not clean.” In desperate need of nachos with chorizo, my guiltiest of pleasures (I eat only a quarter of an order), I set out across the park while determinedly putting all images of hair in refries, crud on platos, mierda on toilets out of my head. Only to be treated like a huge annoyance, with sports on the teevee and FOS waiter more engrossed in that than his job in down time. Was it the “chipotle aioli” on the special brunch menu by the new chef that changed a simple substitution into an impossibility? One thing that always redeemed this place before it got art on the walls and other accouterments was a staff that seemed happy to serve in a neighborhood that is all about indentured servitude. Not this Saturday. WIGB? With the lobo edging closer to the door, I can make my own effen enchiladas.

New York minutes/Early June 2008

June 2008

The pretty good: Fairway Cafe, where my consort and I retreated after finding the Sheep Meadow Cafe closed on a Monday night and where we actually had the best service ever if not the greatest food. The waiter ran up to us as we walked in, said a window table was opening up in a few minutes and then stayed attentive throughout the meal. The great lure there is always the $5 sauvignon blanc from New Zealand (half the price anyone else extracts), but my consort was craving rose and got taken in by the “seaside tipple of the filthy rich” for $7.50, which actually turned out to be white zinfandel’s poor French cousin. The $6.50 shiraz was much better. I hadn’t had a real meal in a couple of days, so I ordered skate, which was fresh enough but not expertly fried; Bob’s game hen, though, was outstanding, very flavorful and juicy. The paltry frites also kicked the steamed potatoes’ ass. 2127 Broadway at 74th Street, 212 595 1888.

The pretty great: Pearl Oyster Bar, where I got to indoctrinate a first-timer in the total bliss of the fried fish sandwich at the bar, the only place to sit at lunch. It was halibut for a change but, as always, totally fresh, cooked just right and perfectly balanced with the bread, tomato, lettuce and drippy tartar sauce. And the fries were outstanding again. I took half of mine home for lunch the next day (it was still good), but she soldiered on to the last bite, even while observing that “this sandwich is like Moby-Dick.” We seemed to be surrounded by VIPs but couldn’t imagine anything bigger or better. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.

The not too bad: Dean’s Pizzeria, where we stopped after a party with a couple of friends to soak up the dangerously fortified vodkas we’d ingested and where we survived the lack of air conditioning by snaring a table just inside the door, in a breeze. The salad for one was enough for all of us, and we took a third of the mushroom-sausage pizza home. The crust struck me as more Pillsbury this time, and half the mozzarella had that weird sliminess turning up everywhere, but it did the job. 215 West 85th Street, 212 875 1100.

The strange: The Modern, where I’m not sure a press lunch should be used to judge the “real” kitchen but where the food was actually so peculiar I have to say so. Gabriel Kreuther has always been a favorite chef, so I was surprised that the first course was just a bunch of ingredients on a plate, mostly lobster; I ate it all because I knew lamb was on the way, but it was really another of those Mormon marriages. As for the lamb, the huge honking slab on the T-bone was nearly impossible to saw through with the knife provided; at least the Alsatian gnocchi with it were gummable. And the dessert was really amateur hour, a clumsy chocolate tartlet with an oozing center that overwhelmed the two ports it was meant to complement. All very odd. But the company was excellent, the service beyond superb. Just not sure I’d go back and spend my own money on the fancy side of the bar.

New York minutes/End o’ May 2008

June 2008

The atmospherically good: The Sheep Meadow Cafe, where a friend and I connected for an early dinner and where the scenery is well worth eating at any price. We were the second table of the night, so the waiter was hyper-attentive even though we wanted to dawdle before ordering. And $8 sauvignon blanc in a small plastic cup turned out to be surprisingly easy to swallow. The bravely burger-free menu is heavy on meat, but Donna wisely chose the grilled trout with salsa verde when I stupidly ordered the grilled portobello (the $16 price would have put me off if I hadn’t bought four pounds for lasagne for my consort’s birthday party for $5 to $6 a pound just a few days earlier — not much of a markup there). At least my vegetarian steak was properly cooked; the mushrooms in the grilled vegetable medley that came with it were underdone. My fries were also superior to her potato salad, both included on the plate. WIGB? Eating in any park on a gorgeous evening is such a transporting experience that we could have been served rat burgers with roach frites. But here you can watch the young grill jockey in his crisp whites and shorts cook it clean. Central Park, just inside the 69th Street entrance on the west side, 212 396 4100.