Archive for November, 2009

New York minutes/End of November 2009

November 2009

The pretty good: Safran, where my consort and I headed after the rather deserted Greenmarket on the Saturday after Thanksgiving when I remembered reading about it in the Wednesday Chef’s “goodbye to all that” roundup. We weren’t slaves to her pho advice, though. Overwhelmed by all the special choices, I ordered the Peking duck summer roll off the regular menu ($10 appetizer, and worth it, with just-right dipping sauces), while Bob finally decided on the $8.95 lunch box with surprisingly tender lemonglass-glazed pork chop, noodles with peanuts, rice, vegetable summer roll and mixed green salad with excellent creamy dressing. The place is rather elegant for that strip of Seventh Avenue (although the upholstery is getting grubby), and the European waitress could not have been more welcoming or attentive. WIGB? Definitely. For a real lunch. 88 Seventh Avenue near 15th Street, 212 929 1778.

The really bad: Palacio Azteca, which I passed on leaving the Hospital for Special Surgery in my usual state of elation (one-year followup visit on a “home run” thanks to Dr. Douglas Padgett) with a hankering for something Mexican and self-indulgent. I should have known York Avenue would be all white bread (even Bloomberg won’t eat around there), but I was still amazed at how lame this little dive was. The watery salsa tasted like dish soap, and not from cilantro. The $8.95 nachos were mostly bland beans and chunks of burned chorizo (allegedly; it had no discernible flavor). And the waitress was equal parts surly and inefficient (I had to ask for both flatware and a napkin after waiting forever for even a menu in a nearly empty little room). I guess I deserved everything I got for not being smart enough to flee immediately, though. I still can’t run, but I could have walked out.

The reliable: Fairway’s cafe, where four of us retreated after “Broken Embraces” when the “hostess” at Ed’s Chowder House across from the theater was so fuck-youish on learning we did not have a reservation and wanted to try the bar menu. Cheap wine is always the tipping point, and so we shared a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc for virtually nothing. All their food was fine: Bob’s leg of lamb, the two huge crab cakes and the short ribs. But my Caesar (of course) was the best I’ve had there. The service was a little distracted, and beer-clueless, but WIGB? Absolutely. It’s even quiet enough to talk about what a provocative movie you’ve just seen. 2127 Broadway near 74th Street, 212 595 1888.

New York minutes/Latish November

November 2009

The geographically good: West Bank Cafe, where we retreated yet again after a movie down the street (the overwrought “Precious”) when our first choice, Chez Jacqueline,  was dark. We just had good salads, the inevitable Caesar for me and the endive with blue cheese mousse for my consort, plus wine, but the hostess let us take up a table for four (admittedly, in a nearly empty room). Points off for distracted service, but WIGB? Absolutely. It’s reliable and affordable in a food desert. 407 West 42d Street, 212 695 6909.

The not bad: La Petite Abeille in Tribeca, where we wound up because of my bad planning and Bob’s growling stomach after the Greenmarket on Greenwich and before our friend’s gallery opening on Duane (with amazing pictures of the “vanishing continent’s” icebergs). I had thought we could try Bouley’s market, but they’ve really got to turn down those steam tables — the duck is desiccating as you watch — and the Vietnamese place we both remembered appears to have vanished. So croques madame and monsieur it was. I had the former, which was more like a grilled cheese than an open-face affair, but it was surprisingly satisfying, with a big mound of decent fries and just enough greens with a half-tomato flavored with julienned basil. The food took three years to arrive as my stomach started grumbling in harmony, but it was worth the wait and the cacophony of shrieking children (why does only the Upper West Side get dissed for being stroller central?) WIGB? Inevitably. 134 West Broadway, 212 791 1360.

The stuff-stuff-with-heavy: Candle Cafe on upper Third Avenue, where we agreed to meet a great photographer friend in from Chicago with his vegetarian daughter, who was in town to check out colleges. Another meat-spurning friend had recommended it, and it was what it was, but surprisingly busy (as we were coming in, an older woman was stomping out, muttering, “I can’t take this!”) The mezze plate with hummus, tabouli, olives and paratha-esque bread with it was promising, but the “Indian plate” I ordered just to tempt fate failed to deliver. Aside from the vibrantly seasoned blackeye peas, the components were all stodgy: chunks of sweet potato and turnip; Russia-worthy chunks of cabbage; a huge mound of yellow rice, and a diabetes-inducing date chutney plus more of that respectable bread. Bob’s chipotle-grilled tofu, though, was surprisingly great. The portions, of course, were huge. I could be vegetarian if I lived in India. Not on the Upper East Side. WIGB? Not likely.

The promising: Focacceria Piccola Cucina in the Village, where we ducked in on a reconnaissance after our too-filling lunch at Abeille and could not resist a $4 slab of the regular focaccia al formaggio because the “kid” selling it sounded so Italian (and not in the waiter-in-a-snooty-restaurant way). Even reheated the next day, it was a respectable   version of the Ligurian specialty, with the right proportion of thin dough to oozy crescenza cheese.  The shop is tiny, but it looks like one you might wander into in Recco. And it’s nice to see Minetta Tavern inspiring a better quality of food options on that street. WGIB? Have to. 120 MacDougal Street, 212 677 7707.

New York minutes/Mid-November 2009

November 2009

The somewhat good: Qi near Union Square, where I made the mistake of tempting the restaurant demons by going back after a promising first encounter. I just stumbled upon it while heading home from the Greenmarket and couldn’t resist the $6.90 two-course lunch special; for $1 more I got a hoisin duck banh mi plus mushroom spring rolls. The duck was that rarity: succulent meat that did not taste as if it had been dead for weeks. And it came in a huge slab of soft baguette with pickled daikon and carrot plus cucumber, cilantro and Asian mayonnaise. The spring rolls were fine for what they were. It was way too much food, but I ate it. The staff seemed overwhelmed, but the place was so overdesigned it almost compensated. So I suggested four of us meet there for Saturday lunch before heading on a death march through half a dozen photo galleries in Chelsea. This time the service was not just bumbling but annoying; food came three dishes at a time, with a lag for the fourth, and the waiters were constantly either seizing half-finished plates or grabbing chopsticks away. The communal tables and stools seemed even less comfortable. And while the duck sandwich was still satisfying, one friend was disappointed in his BM made with honey BBQ grilled pork, as was my consort with his pad see euw — both seemed to be missing a serious spark. Corn-chive steamed dumplings tasted like neither ingredient and were slightly gummy to boot, and the fried chicken and shrimp dumplings were not much better. Pam, however, seemed happy with her noodles with tender beef, spiced with the menu called Asian cinnamon but tasted like star anise. At least the price was right: $25 a couple with tax, tip and three types of tea. No extra charge for the entertainment of trying to figure out how the faucet worked in the design-fail bathroom. Defeated, Jeff wound up washing his hands in the unattended bar sink. WIGB? Possibly. The duck is good, and there aren’t a lot of great cheap options around there. 31 West 14th Street, 212 929 9917.

The port in a storm: La Bergamote in Chelsea, where we rested our dogs after the gallery death march. We had to sit at a dirty table, but at least we got a table, and at least we did summon someone to clean it eventually, and at least the cashier was pleasant and accommodating given how swamped he was. After overhearing a parent on the High Line promising a kid hot chocolate, two among us had to order that, and the payoff was rather thin. Chocolate mousse was what it was, and the mango and the pear paté de fruit could only be described as French Chuckles, with way too much sugar and understated flavor. Best thing on the table was a simple cookie. And my sparkling water. WIGB? Maybe. We did get to sit down in a bright and lively room. 169 Ninth Avenue at 20th Street, 212 627 9010.

New York minute/Earlyish November 2009

November 2009

The pretty good: Salumeria Rosi, where I stupidly insisted friends in from Chicago celebrating a birthday meet us when they have their own favorite places that would have been far less $$$. The reservation team was so accommodating, as I kept calling to up and down the number in our party, that I felt obligated to show up, and at least we were not held to the “need the table back by 9:30” warning I heard on first reserving. And because the space is so tight, it was very easy to talk when talking was half the point of the evening. The food, not surprisingly, was all exceptional, particularly the bean salad, the lasagne, the Tuscan ribs, the asparagus and arugula salads and the sliced meats. But the portions are seriously dainty, and the stressed waitress was in no mood to advise three neophytes on how much to order. (I would have been happy simply sniffing.) We did get a candle in one of the desserts, though, and the wine was decent enough to reorder. (Points off for only serving San Pellegrino — our friend needs, not wants, another brand.) In retrospect, though, if I was going to seize the evening, we should have gone to Kefi. WIGB? Probably. But not hungry, or with friends. 283 Amsterdam Avenue near 73d Street, 212 877 4800.

New York minute/Early November 2009

November 2009

The good: PDT in the East Village, where a little horde of us headed after a friend’s superb photography opening as guests of the gallery owner and where I could safely guess our experience was not the norm. It’s secreted alongside the Crif hot dog joint on St. Marks Place, a sleek narrow room with booths, a bar and taxidermed animals (ours was an otter, teeth bared in a grin, with a lace cap on). I had an excellent St. Rita cocktail to start, with Champagne and rye as I recall, then wisely switched to wine, which the waitress would have been wise to identify as Dr. Frank riesling — she would not have needed to bring tastes of it and the Chardonnay to reassure us it would not be too fruity. Otherwise the service was superb. Dinner was a Lebanese buffet brought in from nearby Al Diwan, and everything I tasted was good enough to make me want to give it a real try someday, particularly the hummus, borek and baklava. Best of all was the noise level: Music was playing, but six of us in a booth could hear each other babble. WIGB? Not likely — I’m not that cool. 212 614 0386.