The regrettable: Balkanika in Hell’s Kitchen, where a friend and I wound up after the ICP Cuba/Mexican Suitcase opening after getting turned away at Chez Napoleon (fully committed after curtain time, WTF?) and then getting driven out of Wondee Siam by the din. Those were her first two choices before I remembered something similar to Kashkaval having opened, so we headed there (me with visions of Istanbul in my silly head). It was not loud, and it had tables, so we settled in without checking out the food in its case at the front. By this point we weren’t even hungry and decided to split four mezes for $10: artichoke hearts with lemon and herbs, leek-carrot-honey-lemon spread, beet-pignolia spread and a paprika-walnut spread. First sign of disaster: the little basket of tired, crusty, commercial pita wedges. Really? That’s the best you can do when you have two cases of mezes to sell? At least the walnut spread was not too, too distant a cousin of one I ate in Beyoglu. And the beet was inoffensive, as much as beets can ever be. But the other two tasted mostly of musty herbs — the seasonings must have been brought in by clipper ship. Worse was the service, easily the most dismissive-to-contemptuous I’ve encountered in a while. The waitress never even came back to see if we might want anything else even after we’d said we were just starting with the mezes; we wound up leaving cash because my card would have made us wait even longer. I had a $6 glass of sauvignon blanc, Mary had tea, and we tipped more than I wanted. WIGB? Not even if the entire Theater District’s restaurants went dark.
Archive for September, 2010
The quite good: Marea, where a working friend treated me and a mutual other-coast friend to Friday lunch and where the cooking almost vanquished ghosts of the previous restaurant in that space. We did get a pretty crappy table — a sixtop with three chairs, so it was damn difficult to talk, especially butted up against a wine wall and service station — but at least we were not shoved back into the old bitch alcove where I suffered my last meal at San Domenico. The bread also earned points, especially the focaccia with big chunks of green olive. Aside from a couple of clunkers, the food was amazing, especially the crab with duck prosciutto and figs on puff pastry, the lettuce gazpacho topped with fried oysters and underlaid with trout roe and tiny pickled mushrooms and the spaghetti with crab and sea urchin. All three crudi also gave faith, each with layers of flavor and contrasting texture. And we all liked the smoked mackerel entree because the small fillet was so un-fishy and silky and paired so well with plum and fried capers, although I was the only one who thought the relatively huge mound of mache was a good matchup. Our second pasta — gnocchetti with shrimp — was the weakest link, sort of what two of us remembered as Fiamma fare. Desserts were good, not dazzling, at least to me: a semolina tart with poached local cherries and a little gianduja number of which the best element was the cocoa nibs. Our wine, a white from Puglia, was another great surprise. WIGB? Absolutely, and not necessarily when someone else is paying. 240 Central Park South, 212 582 5100.
The pretty good: Choptank in the West Village, where my consort and I headed in search of seafood when Pearl was closed after the outstanding “Soul Kitchen” at IFC on Fashion Freaks Out Night on Bleecker. It was relatively early, so it was seductively quiet at first, and the reception could not have been warmer; they let us move tables twice. But the menu was a bit of a puzzler, equal parts straightforward and tantalizing. I wish Bob had seen the waiter’s face when he asked about the FLT (fish stick, lettuce, tomato) and followed up with: Is the fish frozen? (Maybe you have to see the movie.) No, he swore, “we make everything from scratch.” But he redeemed himself on bringing my second glass of good $9 rosé from Languedoc and insisting I finish the last tiny sip of the first. I had wanted fried oysters, but Bob talked me into the $9 shrimp tacos, which were exceptional: perfectly fried rock shrimp on blue corn tortillas with a cumin-lime slaw and a lively salsa. Then he tried to humor me by getting the $10 fried oysters, and they were fine little specimens in a good crust but unfortunately fried imperfectly, to doughiness. Not coincidentally, the place was getting busier. So his $22 skate with spaetzle, brown butter and caraway was flawed by the greasy frying; otherwise it was a beautifully balanced dish. And my $12 white gazpacho with Maine crab salad was not just inspired but impeccably executed. WIGB? Absolutely. Price, service and location are all right. 308-10 Bleecker Street off Seventh Avenue South, 212 675 2009.
The adequate: Spice, the one just off Union Square, where we ducked in on a rushed death march from the Greenmarket to Joe’s Dairy for smoked mozzarella for a picnic and where I felt a little guilty at bitching after I tucked into my “duck wrapped.” It’s pretty great considering the price (free at lunch with a main course), the spiffy room and the snappy service. You get a surprisingly generous amount of smoky-tasting duck chunks with vegetables to be wrapped into iceberg lettuce leaves with cracklings and dunked into a soy-sort of sauce. I didn’t even care that my green curry was mostly dull and hard-to-eat slivers of vegetables like green peppers and carrots. Bob was happy with his steamed dumplings and eggplant curry, too. And with tax & tip it was less than $20, I think. WIGB? Inevitably. Location, location, price. 39 East 13th Street, 212 982 3758.
The pretty good: Mermaid Inn in our neighborhood, where I met my consort after his Columbia lecture gig on one of those miserable nights Al Gore warned us were coming, when we had to flee our sweltering kitchen yet again. After hearing the din inside, I chose an outside table, and the breeze made it bearable. As did an excellent waiter. And a glass of rosé right away. My soft-shell crab sandwich with avocado and bacon and a scattering of fries was more than decent, and Bob’s trout was cooked right and came with excellent potatoes. As a friend had reminded us, though, the place makes its profits on the wine — it’s marked up way more than the food. WIGB? Anytime. 568 Amsterdam Avenue near 88th Street, 212 799 4300.
The not bad: Land Thai, where we hooked up with friends on another night when our kitchens were furnaces and where we cooked up a plan as we waited on the sidewalk for a table — retreat to their place for more wine once we were ejected, as we inevitably would be. So we clipped through our meal, sharing a bottle of typically syrupy Torrontes plus excellent pea shoots with garlic and an entree of wok-charred squid with a superb spicy sauce (wisely racheted back to medium) plus a great rendition of pad see yew with beef, perfectly cooked duck and, unfortunately, pretty grim fried rice with salmon (it was like what you might whip up from a kitty bag with a bit of leftover fish). WIGB? Undoubtedly. It’s great value and a nice venue with a cheery staff and lively cooking. You just need a living room close by to retreat to for conversation. 450 Amsterdam near 82d Street, 212 501 8121.
The adequate: Papatzul in SoHo, where we stopped in while furniture shopping on a Sunday because we both remembered the price and a torta and were willing to forget Bob’s disappointing chilaquiles last time we were there. And that sandwich was pretty damn good once again, even though the cheese seemed more Oaxacan than Manchego; the balance of chorizo, avocado, beans and chipotle mayonnaise in crisp roll was nearly perfect. Bob, once again, got the corta end of the stick; his tacos with carnitas needed more something — salsa, vegetables? — to bring the huge mound of juicy (dare I say succulent?) meat into proportion with the four tortillas. We only drank water and signed up for the Tasting Mexico Passport on his iPhone to get 10 percent off the tab (plus a chance to win a trip to the land of the decapitated), so we walked out for less than $20 before tip. WIGB? Sure; the music was fabulous and the waiter was energetic and the price was right. 55 Grand Street near West Broadway, 212 274 8225.
The convenient: Canteen 82, where we headed for a quick lunch while rug mats were being cut at a store on Amsterdam. Although the place was nearly empty, cobwebs seemed to be forming on a couple with a baby in a stroller at another table, but our food came relatively fast, starting with a scallion pancake that was less incinerated than the one a friend and I shared last time. It didn’t taste much of scallion and the sauce didn’t taste like much of anything, but the latter did have a few shreds of ginger that we used to enliven the sesame noodles. Bob loves fried dumplings, so we had those instead of the soup kind, and I could only eat one; the filling was too porky for me. The salad, once again, saved the lunch, with mango, avocado, jicama and tiny tomatoes atop the greens. Even the dressing on that, like everything else, was surprisingly bland, and as yet another couple came in with a young kid, we realized why: It’s a cage for baby pork (as some restaurant in Spy once referred to holding pens for stroller rats). WIGB? I’d like to say no, but the room is much more appealing than any Chinese restaurant for miles. 467 Columbus Avenue near 82d Street, 212 595 4300.
The abysmal: Le Monde, where we met friends in from Chicago to drop off his baby at Columbia, where Bob was speaking late. The location and the idea of a sidewalk cafe had seemed ideal, but I guess our memories of the place were a little too misty-colored. We wound up sitting inside because it was so miserable outside, and our table was awkward, our waitress even more so (and neglectful to boot). Even worse, the food made me embarrassed for New York. I didn’t taste our friends’ entrees, but we all shared a salad made with anemic tomatoes (in August!) When was the last time you got butter pats in wrappers, all melted and chilled back together? My duck sausage was not cooked so much as fried into a chew toy (The Cat liked it fine next day), and the potatoes with it were an inch deep in salt (and I can eat salt straight). Bob’s steak was not-great chewy meat with oversalted sides, too. All of which would have been tolerable if we had maybe had a waitress whenever more wine was needed. WIGB? Bob will be up there constantly, but it’s dead to me. Surely there has to be somewhere decent to reconnoiter?