Archive for October, 2009

New York minutes/Late October 2009

October 2009

The always good: The Mermaid Inn uptown, where my consort and I hooked up with a friend in from out of town and another friend from way uptown after Kefi proved to be horologically undesirable on a Friday night. We sat in the old folks’ pen, which at least provided quiet enough to make our DC friend realize we had traded energy from the front room. As always, the food at the price point was pretty much faultless, although I did suffer serious remorse on seeing the latest incarnation of the skate land before our DC friend and realizing it was about as lame was last time I braved it. Cartilage is trouble. My salmon with lentils and turnips was sublime (at least then — kittybag included only the fish, not the accouterments, for next day). Our shared salad of calamari with cheese and frisee was better than it had any right to be. And of course the newbies to the place were thrilled with the free chocolate pudding and fish fortuneteller. Bob and I split a bottle of Chilean Jimenez sauvignon blanc that we probably would not order again, but what the hell — it was the right place at the right time. 568 Amsterdam Avenue near 88th Street, 212 799 7400.

The newly good: Roberta’s in Bushwick, where I accepted my payoff for nattering on Heritage Radio Network, in the backyard of Hipster Central a long way from the closest subway stop on a weekend when the transit gods were crazy. I followed emailed instructions and waited at the bar even after arriving late and was ready to head back out into the rain when it occurred to me to ask if my hosts had noticed I was on the premises. While waiting to be retrieved, I did have a fair amount of time to study the menu and wonder why wine prices were so high in a neighborhood young friends fled a year ago as too desolate. But all that was forgotten once we took off our headphones and headed to a table. The co-host’s recommendation of a shared Bibb lettuce salad with Gorgonzola and dried cherry vinaigrette plus walnuts was brilliant, and our Crispy Glover pizza with guanciale, egg and mozzarella needed only salt to reign as best pizza of the three I’ve had lately. The price was also right (HRN guests get a food credit), and the company and conversation were beyond worth the journey. WIGB? Absolutely, if I’m ever out that way again and carrying cash. 261 Moore Street, Brooklyn, 718 417 1118.

The surprisingly good: West Bank Cafe, where Bob and I headed in search of cheap/decent after paying $5 extra a ticket for misreading the schedule for “Where the Wild Things Are” on 42d Street and winding up in the Imax theater. The din was deafening as we walked in, but the hostess led us to a table in a glassed-off section too close to the bar, and the waiter and busboy took it from there. I regretted ordering my usual Caesar once all the appetizer options sank in, but Bob shared his excellent chicken with Robuchon-wannabe potatoes plus seasonally appropriate vegetables. The olives and bean spread with bread also took a serious edge off. Two glasses each of wine pumped up the bill, but it was still a serious deal. 407 West 42d Street near Ninth Avenue, 212 695 6909.

The trippy: El Parador, where we wound up after sticker-price and aural shock at all the other possibilities between a photography opening at SVA and the C train home from Penn Station. Lines out the door from Bar Milano north made me nervous until I remembered a friend loved this time-warp, and both of us were astonished at the scene when we entered under a tired awning so far east toward the river: It was packed with young people. The host said it would be a 20-minute-plus wait for a table, so we settled in at the bar and ordered on the cheap side: mushroom quesadilla, sautéed chorizo, shrimp seviche. The salsa was remorse foretold, almost sweet and hinting of Cincinnati chili, but the chips and and bartender compensated. And our “mains” were outstanding. The best part was scanning the reviews posted on the wall on the way out, ranging from the Herald-Tribune to NYPress (by Panchito’s successor). WIGB? Sure. 325 East 34th, 212 679 6812.

And the vaut the voyage: The New Amsterdam Market at the South Street Seaport, once again, where I ate and loved Marlow’s chili, Porchetta’s porchetta sandwich, Dickson’s sausage, Saltie’s eccles cake, Hot Bread Kitchen’s freshly made corn tortilla, plus assorted cheeses. I was not so crazy about Bklyn Larder’s fennel sausage with undercooked beans, and I didn’t brave the longest line, for Luke’s lobster and crab rolls. We also bought a habanero chile from the Queens County Farm Museum and a slab of extraordinary Vermont cheese from Anne Saxelby and Liddabit Sweets’s salted chocolate caramels (Tootsie Rolls gone wild), plus olive bread at a bargain $5 from Sullivan Street Bakery. This market is an amazing addition to the city, and I think it works because it’s neither a free free-for-all nor a gougefest but an ideal blend of  sampling and selling. All it needs is a wine-by-the-glass section. Or at least beer. Next market is November 22.

New York minutes/Mid-October 2009

October 2009

The believe-the-hype: Zero Otto Nove Trattoria, where my consort and I headed after his photo shoot with an exhibit designer at the Bronx Zoo and after the press contact who gave us a lift to the closest gate in his little zippered train raved about it. Good thing it was so great, because Bob was schlepping a heavy bag with tripod and light bank plus his camera bag and we did some walking: 10 blocks to the restaurant, with a stop at Borgatti for some hand-cut pasta and a box of ricotta ravioli and stops afterward for  Milan-level espresso at a cafe down the street and the cheapest Illy espresso in town at Teitel Brothers. When I did my Arthur Avenue piece for the NYTimes seven years ago, I tried enough restaurants to know the neighborhood is a shopping, not eating, destination; our lunch at Roberto’s was underwhelming. But the owner of that place has done everything right here — the design is more LA than NYC, and the pizza is so much better than you will ever eat in Italy, land of the sodden crust. Hospitality in the sit-down   joints up there is always wanting as well, so we did not storm out when the bartender idly watching one of the two big-screen teevees acknowledged us by saying, “It will be a few minutes for a table.” Pressed on how many minutes, he persuaded us to take stools at the bar.  And it felt like seconds later that we were tucking into a perfect arugula salad topped with shaved Parmigiano and an individual pizza topped with the weirdest combination on the long menu: potatoes, sausage and smoked mozzarella. The crust was very different from Co(mpany’s) but still kicked that overpriced effeteness’s ass. (Extra points for coal oven, and speed with which the thing arrives and is still cooked through.) WIGB? Can’t wait, but never for dinner. If there’s that much attitude and wait time at lunch in a place that takes no reservations, I can’t imagine what it’s like when the working world flocks in. 2357 Arthur Avenue, 718 220 1027.

The pretty good: Recipe, where I met a friend I have been neglecting through this long annus horribilus because it was her choice and where the food and service were so much better than early reports had threatened. Plus it was a deal: $9.95 for appetizer and sandwich or $11.95 for appetizer and main course — so I had the former (dainty duck confit spanakopita [singular] set over spicy foie gras oil with exactly one leaf of arugula, an olive and I think a grape tomato, followed by an attempted cheese steak sandwich with potato chips that tasted too much of duck fat, whether they were or were not fried in that easily funked medium). Nicki did even better with the special heirloom tomato salad followed by the crispy duck confit with assorted vegetables. I was kicking myself in my own leg for not ordering that. WIGB? Yep. But again, not for dinner. This place makes Land Thai look like Tavern on the Green, space-wise. 452 Amsterdam Avenue near 82d Street, 212 501 7755.

The overwrought: Nios, in the Muse Hotel off Times Square, where four of us headed after a book signing at ICP in search of a quiet corner and imaginative food. (I’d read Patricia Williams conceived the menu, and her cooking is always worth checking out.) It was just before curtain, so we had the place nearly to ourselves, which may be why the service was so herky-jerky (emphasis on the latter half of that description). We split three slivers of cheese at 5 bucks a pop plus a plate of jambon to start, and those should have been a warning that no one in the kitchen knew where the brake was — each sliver came with a mound of sweet accent, while the ham that should stand alone was teamed with cornichons, pickled peppers and (excellent) creamy horseradish. The bread basket was just as copious. And my sheep’s milk gnocchi ($12 appetizer as main course) were doing valiant battle to be heard over asparagus, toasted hazelnuts, arugula, peas etc. Bob ordered the bison-bacon meatloaf, also excellent if overkill, although the sides of whole shiitakes and potatoes deserved their place on the plate. I didn’t try the fresh pasta or the arugula salad (with green goddess dressing) or the smoked mozzarella sandwich (which came with a salad of its own, a fact the waiter could have pointed out), but they looked good. We shared a bottle of a biodynamic Spanish red that took the waiter some time to find, and when it was finished he just reached in and grabbed glasses as we kept eating (did I mention we had the place nearly to ourselves?) And it all would have been great if not for the music. On my way to the bathroom I saw the receptionist in the hotel lobby had a tiny dog with her, and I wondered if it goes nuts listening to that incessant, mindless techno-thump all night . . . WIGB? Probably — it’s one of the few places in the wasteland where you can talk even with the crap music. 130 West 46th Street, 212 485 2999.

The promising: The new cafe at El Museo del Barrio, where I was rewarded for listening to an hour of congratulatory speeches about the dramatic renovation of the museum with the best tamal I have had in burro’s years. This was everything tamales rarely are: light but dense, flavorful, nicely balanced between cheese filling and masa, teamed with excellent if mild salsa (made for the cafe by the farm that grows the tomatoes). The promised duck chimichurri empanadas that had lured me to this press event were replaced by rather leaden ones filled with chicken molé, though. But I confess that I went back twice for more of the salsas, both green and red, served with tortilla and plantain chips. The Great Performances honcha I was introduced to noted that her chefs are largely Hispanic and were especially excited about this cafe; the one who was serving the tamales deserved to be proud. WIGB? Definitely. Not only does the new cafe have courtyard seating right across from Central Park but the menu looks enticing and the exhibits in the museum itself are superb. They’re less about Latinos and more about a universal love affair with New York. Fifth Avenue at 104th Street.

New York minutes/Early October 2009

October 2009

The good & good deal: Fairway Cafe, once again, where my consort and I headed unhesitatingly after he expressed an interest in satisfying food with cheap wine after the absorbing and haunting “Serious Man.” Hard to complain about a window table, a perfect hanger steak with fries for $21 and a fine Caesar, especially after the warm flatbread with herbed olive oil. The only downside is that $5 and $6 glasses of drinkable wines make it awfully hard to swallow gouging anywhere else . . . 2127 Broadway at 74th Street.

The Epago: Co. in Chelsea, where we ducked in early after our first High Line perambulation and where the message could not have been clearer — eat, pay and get (the hell) out. We were seated instantly, at one of the long, cramped communal tables, and we all but instantly had $10 tumblers of wine in front of us along with the $5 special “toast,” topped with greens and rendered prosciutto. We shared a radicchio salad with raw shiitakes and a few chunks of Taleggio, then a dainty pizza topped with, if the menu was to be believed, roasted cauliflower, bechamel, buffalo mozzarella, Parmesan, green olives, chile, garlic and parsley. One bite in Bob wondered, “How much do you think it costs them to make this?” And as satisfying as the charred crust was, it was hard to think the thing was worth $17. WIGB? Probably not. Keste is calling.

New York minutes/Early October 2009

October 2009

The fine: Cafe Luxembourg, where I met two great friends who treated me and their brilliant colleague to lunch and where it was hard to find much fault as a result. We got a nice quiet table near the window, seemingly sunny in the rain, and the waiter was efficient enough while on the run. Bread, butter, Gruner were all outstanding. And if the $18 cheeseburger was a letdown, I knew a certain cat would be very happy with the leftovers. Tucking into it made me realize, despite all my scorn for the trend, how far burgers have come in this city. Even two years ago CL’s would have induced bliss. Now it’s just average beef on a typical bun, nothing like the magic The New French and even Fairway manage. The fries were decent, though. And Wyl-E was beyond happy. WIGB? Of course, even if I’m paying — the room and energy are real New York. Although I have to say it was a surreal setting to be talking about the sun doing down on the USA — our credit cards are obsolete overseas, China and India are going to own us, this is the easiest country in the world right now to lay off workers etc. I obviously need to update my cellphone. 200 West 70th Street, 212 763 7411.

The better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be: Gus & Gabriel Gastropub, where my consort insisted we head with two friends after the excellent “Informant” (Meryl Streep could use a few lessons from Matt Damon on how to disappear into a role). Bob assumes Psilakis can do no wrong; the rest of us who keep up with reviews had our doubts. And the decor is truly a disaster, and the retro music sucks, especially when it’s so loud in a nearly empty room. But the waiter was superb, turning down the speaker nearest us, bringing tastes of beer as well as comping us a platter of the nose-to-tail menu items, of which the two chicken liver patés dazzled even this chicken spurner. (I can’t get my mind past sweetbreads or tongue, but the two guys raved about those.) We also split an order of good tater tots that were elevated by the spicy barbecue sauce with them, less so by the Cheddar fondue for dipping. And of course I had a Caesar, a rich and over-the-top Caesar, and snared a couple of bites of my consort’s burger with mozzarella, smoked tomato and garlic confit with good fries and top-shelf coleslaw. Len and Diane seemed happy with their burgers, too. I think my Torrontes was $5 or $6 a glass. WIGB? Probably. We got away for $50 a couple (cash only), and more adventurous ordering would probably pay off. 222 West 79th Street, 212 362 7470.

The I-have-only-myself-to-blame: H B Burger off Times Square, where I steered a friend after the ICP fashion opening down the block because the food is cheap and where we literally paid for my not remembering the wine is no bargain. We split a $33 bottle of mediocre Mirassou chardonnay, and even the good $5.50 small Caesar was not compensation. She had the Southwestern salad, which I didn’t try; we divvied up tater tots to indulge in “something disgusting” but had to beg for chipotle mayonnaise to dunk them in — otherwise they were tasteless. The waitress was pleasant but distracted-to-ditzy.  And it was loud when we really wanted to talk. Especially about the woman we had just seen carrying what appeared to be a taxidermed Scottish terrier as a purse . . . WIGB? Unfortunately, yes. Location, location. What else is decent and affordable around there?   127 West 43d Street, 212 575 5848.