Archive for December, 2008

New York minutes/Late December 2008

December 2008

The newly good: Kefi, where my consort and I were able to walk in early on a Friday after several tries at reserving and where the mood and food could not be more vanquishing of the failed enterprises that languished in that space. We had just been on the East Side for the Eggleston show at the Whitney, and my poor consort had had to listen to my rant that diners charge way too much for crapola ($20.95 for mahi on the blackboard we passed on Madison). But was I ever vindicated: My $16.95 grilled branzino was two perfectly cooked fillets of very fresh fish laid over fingerling potatoes, caperberries, olives and seared grape tomatoes; I even ate the skin. Bob’s sheep’s milk dumplings with sausage and pine nuts put 95 percent of Italian “gnocchi” in this country to shame. The bread arrived warm with really green olive oil; the wine was $6 and $6.50 a glass; the service was tag-team perfect. And they take credit cards. (Of course nothing’s perfect — the bar was a stroller maze by the time we walked out.) WIGB? Probably constantly. It’s as Greek as your average diner anymore. 505 Columbus Avenue near 84th Street, 212 873 0200.

The good and good again: The West Branch, where we were lucky enough to get seats to eat at the bar one night and immediately reserved for the next — usually on Jesus Eve we go to a movie and stop in any bar that might be open and inevitably wind up drinking with Santa, but this time we dined with friends and hordes, on serious food. First night was vitello tonnato, clearly assembled by someone who has never had the Piemontese original with proportions of veal to mayo reversed, and fine Caesar; next night was $17 skate over tomato-cabbage risotto, seared cod with zucchini etc., haricot vert salad and shared gingerbread pudding. Dr. and Lady Bugs seemed underwhelmed after following our recommendations on the crispy quail and duck choucroute, but their choices looked good to me even though I was happy with new and different. Add in warm bread, cheap wine, attentive service and I can even forgive Bedlam-level sound and A-train-at-rush-hour seating. WIGB? Absolutely. It’s Ouest for the little people. 2178 Broadway at 77th Street, 212 777 6764.

The enlightening: The Smith in the East Village, where Bob and I stopped in rather than schlepping to Porchetta for perfection after the Greenmarket and a detour to Jams for more envelopes for New Year’s cards and where his sandwich and the place itself saved the day. Usually Bob bitches about non-specialty sandwiches, but I think the fries caught his eye, and what arrived was enough for two meals: ciabatta with big slab o’ chicken, tomatoes, greens, Cheddar, chipotle mayonnaise. It was good. My “Alsatian pizza,” not so much — I have no idea WTF I was doing ordering it in an NYU hangout, but I paid for my lack of due diligence. I had a tumbler of Argentine viognier, which helped, as did the nice hunk of chewy baguette, the free sparkling water and the snappy service. Also the room, which Bob instantly pegged as a knockoff Schiller’s (thank you, Richard Price). WIGB? Probably. I was curious to see what provoked a news story on its survival, and the answers are self-evident. 55 Third Avenue near 11th Street, 212 420 9800.

New York minutes/Latish December 2008

December 2008

The pretty good: Fairway Cafe on Broadway yet again, where my consort and I met three young friends in search of an affordable dinner in less than bedlam when we could not get reservations anytime but 6 and 9:30 at three other options. (So much for Panchito and his whining that restaurants are being too aggressively accommodating.) We were supposed to be six, so I can’t complain that the big table was crammed in so tightly the poor busboy almost lost it on his second pass as I was trying to give him room. But the focaccia with herbed olive oil made up for that right away, especially with refills. My hanger steak had great flavor and fries to share with Bob, whose chicken seemed dry to me but made him happy. The big debate came when the check did, with charges for one glass of white and one of red rather than a bottle of each. Everyone else wanted to just overtip; I thought we should tell the waiter, and he did seem relieved. We still got away for less than the price of a salad and a glass anywhere else. WIGB? It’s relatively quiet.

The lame: Atlantic Grill on the Upper East Side, where I stopped for what is becoming a ritual whenever I have a hospital experience nearby and where my penalty was a very slow, very tasteless cheeseburger. The place was packed, which made me think fewer people got scammed by Madoff than we might imagine. The burger was much bigger than the Hansons usually are, and it had mega-cheese on it, but I kept waiting for flavor to kick in. The guy who seated me was nice, though, and the supercilious waiter from last time was not as supercilious. And at least I did not get as annoyed as the guy in the booth behind me, who was losing it because his food, too, took so long. WIGB? For many reasons, I certainly hope not.

New York minutes/Mid-December 2008

December 2008

The good again: Mermaid Inn, yet again, where I dragged my consort just after he landed after nine days in London and Berlin when I suddenly couldn’t face the three closer but lamer choices. Without a reservation, we had to wait a bit at the bar for a table, but they seated us soon enough in the back and not because we’re old — young faces were there, too. We split the good green salad with cheese, then Bob polished off the $21 salmon with lentils, which is always satisfying. For once there was an entree special — fried, fried and fried (fish with chips and corn fritters) — and it was great, especially for $18. Service, wine, “bread” were all faultless, too. WIGB? Absolutely. No wonder the Neptune Room has gone dark. 568 Amsterdam Avenue near 88th Street.

The holding-up: Fatty Crab, where we headed after my first subway ride and Union Square excursion in exactly six weeks and where I expected the worst on finding the room nearly empty and a new chef on view but where the ribs alone would have been worth the journey. They really are amazing and almost made up for the absence of that incredible fatty duck that successive cooks seemed to have such a hard time perfecting. We split the Malay fish fish fry, and as usual the crab-curry rice was better than the slightly muddy-tasting fillets (tilapia?) And the mango salad seemed slightly unbalanced, flavor-wise. But the gruner was still $9, and if the waitress was unfocused she was pleasant as hell. Even the music has been ratcheted back as Momofuku has lured the pork-and-Asian hordes east. WIGB? Undoubtedly. It is food you can’t get just anywhere, especially with gruner. 643 Hudson Street near 12th Street, 212 352 3590.

The not sickening: El Paso in the restaurant desert of the Upper East Side, where Bob and I wound up after a gallery opening on that miserable night the skies opened and would not close and where the one redeeming aspect was the tab — $40 with tip for two glasses of wine, four tacos and a half-assed quesadilla. I know I’d sworn off it, but where else are you doing to eat in a restaurant desert priced like Dubai? And see a waiter taking hair cues from “No Country for Old Men”? Of the overstuffed tacos, I tasted the outstanding chorizo and the perfunctory vegetable; Bob liked the chicken and couldn’t even attempt the pork. WIGB? Maybe, but it’s never a good sign when an old cook is slumped in the dining room and the bathroom gets grodier every visit. 64 East 97th Street between Madison and Park, 212 996 1739.