Archive for April, 2009

New York minutes/Late April 2009

April 2009

The good again: Aquagrill in SoHo, where we headed for our default brunch after the Saturday Greenmarket and after every other destination we considered had the usual egg-heavy menu. The place was quite busy, with the outdoor tables all full, but it was running at peak performance. We got a nice table (albeit next to the overactive linen closet), were served good Spanish rosé and warm breakfast breads right away and had our food almost too fast, given the long lines for the one-seat bathrooms. I ignored the lack of provenance on the salmon BLT and just enjoyed the perfect balance of fish against crisp bacon, mayonnaise and baby arugula on a ciabatta. Bob’s warm shrimp salad had nicely cooked shellfish with well-dressed potatoes on more baby arugula. The biscuits were exquisite. What was most impressive is that the bill, including one coffee, was about what really nasty Cabrito had cost the Saturday before; my sandwich with good fries was a buck less than the still queasy-making chorizo biscuits and gravy. Plus we were thanked at least four times on our way out. WIGB? Inevitably. They have restauranting down to an art. 210 Spring Street, 212 274 0505.

The not bad: SobaKoh in the East Village, where nine of us wound up after an opening at Leica Gallery and where the tiny room and excellent service made it the perfect destination thanks to one smart guy who lives in the neighborhood taking charge. The menu was huge, but soba with grilled duck and scallions jumped out at me, while Bob was taken with eggplant stuffed with ground duck for his soba. Japanese and I are not on familiar terms, but I was happy enough with our food, especially since the sake kept coming. Our young friend who barely drinks was floored by the $42-a-head tab, but that’s how it goes when you order $55 bottles. The best part is that even in a group that ridiculously large, it was easy to talk. And the waitress happily took a combination of cash and I think five credit cards. WIGB? Not likely, but only because soba sounds enticing about once in a decade. 309 East Fifth Street off Second Avenue, 212 254 2244.

The not great: Baoguette in Curry Hill, where I wandered in very hungry after the Wednesday Greenmarket on my way to Foods of India and where I paid for my stupidity in ordering the $7 “sloppy bao,” billed as spicy curried beef but more like a cafeteria special. The bread and the pickled vegetables and especially the heat were all good, but it was the kind of ground beef that comes with a remorse guarantee. What mostly struck me was how dull it was: After the third bite, whatever thrill there was was gone. The people were pleasant and efficient, though, and the thing was obviously prepared with a level of care. WIGB? Not likely, especially after I realized I could have had a full buffet with lots of vegetables for a couple of dollars more just up the avenue.

New York minutes/Mid-April 2009

April 2009

The really good: Fatty Crab uptown on second try, where my consort and I snagged seats at the bar away from the din and where we scored with food, service and lagniappe. It was a choice between a crappy table right inside the door or a 20-minute wait, so we settled for the latter and stayed put once we saw what people around us were eating. The bartender was patient and solicitous, too, pouring glasses of Grüner to try before filling them and doing a serious selling job on the special chicken-and-oyster banh mi, endorsed by the guy to my right. I had gone in wanting only wine but agreed to the green mango salad to go with the Fatty Dog Bob ordered; we were halfway through it when the touted banh mi landed. The bartender admitted he had gotten so distracted selling it that he had put it through as an order, so he said we should take it for free while he got the right dish. And it was all he said it would be, as was the dog, actually XO-flavored sausage in a soft bun. Best news: The mango salad is back in proper proportion. WIGB? Absolutely; the kitchen has hit its stride. 2170 Broadway near 77th Street, 212 496 2722.

The pretty bad: Cabrito, where we settled after schlepping around the West Village after the Greenmarket, finding the new Vietnamese place in Time Out a long way from open and the menu at Centro Vinoteca a little unpromising. I should have known not to enter any restaurant with exactly two customers at prime brunchtime, and we paid more than the $12 price of the entrees: The arepa “biscuits” under the fried eggs and chorizo gravy on my plate were sawdusty-dry and too thick by half; if the eggs had not been cooked so hard oozy yolks might have helped, and I hate oozy yolks. Worse, the “gravy” separated out into fat and chunks, to the point that it will be a while before I brave chorizo again. Bob shelled out $7 extra for goat, and it was certainly better than my food, big chunks of the meat with three fresh tortillas, chopped onions, cilantro, salsa borracha and crema. Guacamole was not bad, either. But both of us nearly fell asleep on the subway home, and both of us needed naps before heading out to a dinner party. Does goat have tryptophan? WIGB? Nope. Second time was the turnoff.

The promising: Dhaba in Curry Hill, where I stopped for fortification before getting all but thrown out of a shop for taking out a notebook and pen. The buffet lunch is $9.95, and if it was not Chola-level it was redeemed by the naan, far superior to what I have had anywhere else in town. I prefer veg over non-veg and was happy enough with the potatoes, spinach, peas and dal on offer, but people who eat lamb and chicken would do better here. Two tandoori drumsticks arrived with a little plate of limp fried potatoes and other vegetables as an appetizer, and they were actually pretty good. The carrot dessert was also surprisingly satisfying, and I have no sweet tooth. I missed the raita and the mango pickle. Service qualified as discombobulated at best, but WIGB? For sure, for lunch. 108 Lexington Avenue near 28th Street, 212 679 1284.

The gruesome: Nha Trang One, where I stupidly wasted my one jury-duty lunch thanks to a notebook jotting about it being a favorite of an admirable chef and where the F&W tout posted in the window should have been a warning. I studied both lunch and dinner menus for a long time, realizing as I slowly turned the pages that I knew way too little to be even trying to navigate the cryptic descriptions, before randomly pointing at something in the beef section starred as spicy. Five seconds later a mound of gray meat and white rice with big nasty hunks of onion arrived, and it was so profoundly disappointing I called the waiter over to ask for spring rolls — grease absolves many sins. But these, which arrived in all of 10 seconds, were even nastier, more wrapper than filling with no discernible flavor. The people were nice, and the bathroom was wild (black fixtures), and the $4 wine was a big gobletful. But WIGB? Not a Chinatown chance in hell.

New York minutes/Early April 2009

April 2009

The pretty good: West Branch, where we met friends in search of an affordable dinner on the one night we were confident you could easily go anywhere on the Upper West Side. Even then, it was swamped and loud, but we survived close to three hours with one bottle and two glasses of pinot blanc. I wanted nothing more than the respectable Caesar salad but took satisfying tastes of my consort’s celeri remoulade with ham and his squash tortelli. The burger across the table also looked worth the $16. WIGB? Why not? 2178 Broadway at 77th Street, 212 777 6764.

The not awful: Comida, where we resorted after finding Cesare’s joint fully committed even at 9:30 on a Monday night and where we at least got a bar table immediately and good-sized glasses of okay red and white wine for $8 each in a far-from-full room. Not sure what came over Bob after popcorn at disappointing “Duplicity,” but he ordered nachos, which were not great but hugely filling. I wanted the house salad with Romaine, olives, roasted chilies and queso fresco and was presented a mound of baby spinach with accouterments instead — a restaurant open mere days had run out of the right lettuce. The least they could have done was knock the $2 surcharge for avocado off the check. WIGB? Probably. We live in a notorious wasteland, and the waiter and half-empty room were nice enough. Plus one thing that has killed everything in that space has been hostility to people who only want a drink and a snack after a movie. 461 Columbus at 82d Street, 212 696 3000.

Rust, not sleeping

April 2009

It was more than a little depressing to tackle my taxes and realize I spent exactly $0 on travel last year — my last big trip was Tuscany/Arles/Languedoc two summers ago. So maybe I was more mellow than usual on flying off to Buffalo for a fast weekend for my in-law equivalent’s 80th, because I thought we ate quite well despite a first stop at Panera (Where the Large Ones Go) Bread. For fast food, it was not awful; chipotle mayonnaise redeemed the few slices of smoked turkey with lettuce and red onion between asiago bread on my half-sandwich, which came with a cup of decent broccoli-Cheddar soup. And the mood was certainly much mellower than at Wegman’s, where we headed not long afterward to pick up punch and paper products for I-LE’s party — there was cart gridlock right inside the door, with all these frantic people on their cells, and I soon realized why. My consort went one way, I another, and I actually had to call him to find him again. As Kurt Andersen detailed in Time the other week, we have been wallowing in way, way too much in this country. Then again, Bob ordered a cake for 12 to 15 at Sweet Beginnings and got a two-layer beauty with chocolate mousse and chocolate buttercream for all of $17. (What’s that, the price of two cupcakes here?) 

It took some effort, but we extricated the birthday girl for dinner at Shango, described as “seriously underrated” by Mike Andrzejewski, probably Buffalo’s best chef, who owned Tsunami until he had a horrific accident and lost a leg. He now runs two SeaBars, but their sushi-worshiping menu looked way too rigid for octogenarians. Shango turned out to be a Manhattan-worthy restaurant not far from the old Tsunami, with very flattering lighting and commodious booths. I was quite happy with my Creole meatloaf, which had a log of andouille embedded in the center of the pork-beef-veal blend, with okay garlicky mashed potatoes and decent “Cajun corn” (with peppers). Bob’s mom ate more than I would have anticipated of the sirloin that came with a portobello stuffed with spinach and blue cheese plus Parmesan/rosemary-crusted fries. And he might have done best with tuna-avocado spring rolls over cilantro-cashew pesto etc., a shrimp cake on Cajun remoulade with corn salad and a good Caesar loaded down with fried oysters. A basket of bread (corn, regular) was accompanied by a sort of muffuletta olive salad and a little bowl of flavored olive oil. Not surprisingly, we had no room for dessert but did keep our glasses refilled with gruner for me and a red from Austria for him. 

High point of the flying trip was the Broadway Market, not least because it was the liveliest I’ve ever seen it, with special booths opened to take advantage of the throngs shopping for butter lambs and hams and chocolate for Easter. The horseradish roots for sale at one stand looked better than I’ve ever seen in Manhattan, and they were being ground right there and ladled into jars, as was a nasal-blasting mustard. And we scored two types of kielbasa, from producers whose names both ended in ski. If you smell smoke, it’s probably the clothes those links traveled home with. 

After meandering around sadly deserted downtown in search of somewhere, anywhere for lunch, we wound up on Elmwood Avenue looking for old reliable Le Metro, only to find it had become Mode, recently reviewed. Inside looked the same, but the menu was more imaginative. My consort had the “sea biscuit,” a big one topped with shrimp, scallops and andouille sausage in a light sauce; his mom ate pretty much all of her stuffed french toast with strawberries and mascarpone, and I got a special that sounded like home cooking — cheese grits, bacon and scrambled eggs — but was actually brilliant: the three elements were stacked, so that each bite was a cascade of flavor and texture. Or maybe that was just the huge glass of Domaine Lalande sauvignon blanc talking. 

On the way back to pick up our bags and speed to the airport, we passed the new Burchfield Penney art museum, just across from the always amazing Albright-Knox. For what the I-LE insisted is America’s third-poorest city, Buffalo has rather a wealth of attractions. All it needs is a high-speed rail link and Brooklyn would empty out. 

Sweet Beginnings, 3759 Delaware Avenue, Kenmore, 716 875 1431.

Shango, 3260 Main Street, Buffalo, 716 837 2326. 

Broadway Market, 999 Broadway, Buffalo, 716 893 0705.

Mode, 520 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, 716 885 1500. 

New York minutes/Early April 2009

April 2009

The pretty good: Anthos Upstairs, where one of the last editors with an expense account treated me to Recessionary Chic and where I wonder how happy the chef is that his downstairs regulars were so ready to try the cheap alternative. We split the better-than-Kefi fried cod, the exceptional dumplings with a surfeit of leeks, duck gyro (strange) and the beet-feta salad (great) and were comped the overwrought mussels and underwhelming red mullet. Each generous small plate was $12 or under, and you could get away with fewer dishes. The waiter seemed a good guide to the Greek wines by the glass, too. WIGB? I felt as if I was walking to a foreign country on leaving the subway, and I may not get a ticket there again soon. 36 West 52d Street, 212 582 6900.

The WTF was I thinking? Chez Lucienne in Harlem, where I dragged my long-suffering consort and the Bugses on a bitter night after I got a bug up my own restaurant notebook to try a nice chef’s latest outpost because it seemed so affordable. The host and the room were fine, very evocative of a French fantasy, but. .  .  The waiter was like a battering ram, repeatedly interrupting even though the place was pretty empty. And my consort spent half the long trek home bitching about the wine — the first bottle, a cabernet for $26, was so shiver-inducing he upgraded to the $32 St. Emilion for the second and felt twice as ripped off. As for the food, our shared endive-blue cheese salad was pretty sodden although the bit of our friends’ foie gras I tasted almost redeemed it. Lady Bugs and I both stupidly ordered the bavette, which was translated as skirt steak but was closer to hanger and really the worst of both cuts, chewy and sloppy. The potato gratin, while nothing to write home to Lydie Marshall about, was a saving grace, though. And certainly we did better than poor Bob with his cooked-to-winy-overkill coq au vin with noodles and Dr. Bugs with his beef daube (the polenta with it was fried, which seemed ill-matched). They split a “nougat glacé,” of which a forkful was plenty. It was $100 a couple, but Bob said he would always pay more for good. WIGB? Alouette is so much closer, if you catch my drift.

The adequate: The bar at PorterHouse in the dread TWC, where a friend and I hooked up before an outstanding evening of Jazz at Lincoln Center in the dread TWC. Pricey wines were strange (the Oregon pinot gris was as syrupy as they always are, and the Greek sauvignon blanc should have left the grape to New Zealand or Chile), but the bartender and his left-arm man were efficient enough to get us a bowl of $8 potato chips and a shared Caesar salad before we had to run to marvel at Wynton Marsalis et al in a performance broadcast live. Even with what seemed to be a huge meeting of Assholes Anonymous going on all around us, that whole experience was better than ducking into Blue Ribbon afterward, where the litter-covered floor looked like a tapas bar in Spain and wines by the glass were priced four times as high, and then Providence, where the eerie guy at the desk just inside, right out of “The Shining,” informed us there were no drinks to be had, and finally Kennedy’s, where the sauvignon blanc was just what you would expect in an every-day-is-March-17 kind of joint.