The pretty good: Chimichurri Grill in Hell’s Kitchen, where my consort and I wound up after leaving “True Grit” late on Christmas Eve and realizing I could not face Market Cafe’s grody bathrooms and then finding West Bank Cafe already closed as we walked up. Bob had good memories of CG from years ago, so we didn’t even stop to look at a menu before settling into a table in the packed dining room, which was a mistake, especially since the minimum order was “one entree or equivalent.” But we got out for around $100 with tip and two glasses of wine each — he had the well-made goat cheese ravioli (in a red sauce worthy of Chef Boyardee) and I had the “palmito salad,” with artichoke hearts, roasted peppers and hearts of palm, and we shared the great grilled quail in red chimichurri sauce. Warm bread with herbed olive oil also earned points. WIGB? Sure. Even though the waiters lost interest once we revealed ourselves as cheapskates. And despite the pelt-covered wine list that left little hairs in the bread plates. 606 Ninth Avenue near 43d Street, 212 586 8655.
Archive for December, 2010
Thanks to a sudden death in the family (11-year-old cat), we just had to make yet another trek to Buffalo (or, as the purists would have it, suburban Buffalo). And I wasn’t surprised my worst eating experiences were on the way there — I’m opting out of the cancer boxes and groping at the airport, so I had to brave Amtrak. Which was beyond great: I walked into Penn Station as the train was boarding and stepped off at the Depew station eight hours and 20 minutes later, about double the time it took my consort on the train to the plane, the Airtrain, in the miserable security line and on JetBlue. But my trip was mellow all the way, a beautiful ride up the icy Hudson and across snowy New York State. I read, I worked, I read some more. (There was no wifi, but I did have an outlet for my MacBook.) I didn’t leave enough time to pack or buy food, though, so I had to settle for the least scary things in the cafe car, first a sawdusty muffin and later a little frozen pizza that the sweet barman managed to nuke to rubber on one side while leaving the other side cold.
Fortunately, my grieving in-law equivalent was up for going out to dinner and even willing to brave SeaBar, despite the fact that she would eat duck’s blood soup before raw fish. Happily. She was the only one of us who knew to dress appropriately; Bob and I were chagrined to see all the other patrons in their Friday best in that very stylish room. The menu was almost overwhelming, but the chef himself stopped by to explain the specials, and Bob had to have the New Zealand salmon he was selling, with a chorizo and smoked paprika sauce swiped from Le Bernardin. The I-LE was sold on the pulled pork, which was pretty amazing, the tender meat crusted with panko, fried and served in blocks over a poblano puree and Chinese-style noodles, an absurdly huge (read: Buffalo-size) portion for $17. I was glad I went for the appetizer size of the sublime glazed duck breast with a corn pancake and mango salsa; it would be a generous full in Manhattan. The meat was beautifully cooked, and the corn cake soaked up the juice (which sounds so much better than blood).
As starters, we shared the bizarre-sounding, too-filling miso caramel crab roll, with cream cheese and mushrooms in tempura, at least half a dozen fat slices. And a seaweed salad, to introduce the I-LE to that sensation. And the great unagi BLT handroll, stuffed with avocado and tomato along with the eel and bacon. We overindulged and had to kitty-bag our main courses, so dessert was out of the question, but the waiter said we were getting after-dinner drinks on the house. Which is when I learned Bob had reserved in my name although I had checked in as Sacha. I’d recently used the chef for a magazine piece, and he knows I’m coming up to help judge the Nickel City Chef next spring. But he’d nicely said nothing until after we’d eaten.
A note about the alcohol: Of the many wonderful things about Buffalo (and, for the purists, its suburbs), you can always get a big pour for very little. I had two sauvignon blancs for $6.50 apiece. The comped late-harvest Riesling (which sounds so much better than ice wine) was excellent. And the teetotaling I-LE swore she got soused on her Bailey’s.
As a result, next day she was in no shape for brunch out, so we set off in search of anything but eggs, heading for Duff’s as a default after scouring the internets. She had suggested Marotto’s, so we swung by to find it closed but the Delaware just opened, the “gastropub” I had just read about, on Buffalo Spree.
We wanted to get to the Burchfield-Penney Art Center and almost fled after walking in and finding one table of three sitting unattended, with no host or waiter in sight, but the bartender laid menus out in front of each stool, so we took a look and a chance. And it was so worth it. The $8 pastrami sandwich was excellent there, but the second half was even better on the train ride home next mid-morning. (Buffalo does have great rye bread.) And this thickly cut meat was pretty sensational, as was the balance of cheese and sauerkraut and Russian dressing. The fries with it seemed sad, though, soggy and limp, but still less flaccid than the “thinly cut fries” mounded over Bob’s outstanding hanger steak — I mistook them for onion shoestrings gone greasily bad. The meat (for all of $14) was really tender and perfectly cooked, though. We also shared the $5.50 artichoke-Cheddar-Gouda rarebit, too, a gooey-good mess with rye toast points for dunking. The bartender was old school, attentive and chatty and very efficient. And it made for an out-of-Manhattan experience for sure: a football game on the big screen teevees with Sarah McLachlan on the sound system, and every other patron at the bar wearing the same North Face fleece. . .
Amtrak home was a gorgeous ride even though we were delayed an hour by a freight train in front of us and a single track near Utica, I think. But from Depew to Rochester I had an entire car to myself to watch the snowy countryside glide past, the ultimate in luxury. I’d take it again; the fare was $140 round trip, and there could not be a more soul-reviving way to travel. All those “real Americans” out in fly-over country should get behind some serious, China-level infrastructure investment — high-speed rail would open up their world to us “elitists.”
SeaBar, 475 Ellicott Street, Buffalo 716 332 2928
The Delaware, 3410 Delaware Avenue, Town of Tonawanda 716 874 0100
A whole week went by without one meal eaten away from our kitchen, but we did make it out to Greenpoint to the just-opened Eastern District cheese-and-beer shop, where we came away with good sandwiches on Tom Cat focaccia with Fra Mani turkey plus good cheese for all of $7. The proprietor also carries seriously local honey and other Brooklyn pantry staples like pickles and jams. And that stop was after our first pilgrimage to the Acme Smoked Fish factory for retail@wholesale Friday — we got two kinds of salmon, two whole smoked trout and a big container of smoked whitefish salad for $27. Or, I think, about the price of a pound of smoked salmon in one of the Manhattan stores the place supplies. Eastern District, 1053 Manhattan Avenue, 718 349 1432; Acme, 30 Gem Street, 718 383 8585
The good: Pulino’s, where my consort and I were brave enough to walk in on a weeknight after a photographer friend’s opening at a spare boutique off the Bowery that had to be catering to Russian mafia molls ($3,800 for a little black dress?) We got a table right away and soon were sharing an exceptional salad that transcended its deli-fare appearance: roasted broccoli with hen of the woods mushrooms, mixed with some escarole and lots of garlicky bread crumbs. The waiter wasn’t too happy that we only shared a pizza, too, one topped with Tuscan kale, mozzarella and salami picante, but it was quite good if not the best I’ve had lately, with the crust a little too bubbly. (And enough to send us home with two slices for breakfast.) We split a carafe of decent red and were out of there for $48 before tax and tip. WIGB? Absolutely. The place is gorgeous, and the price is right. 282 Bowery at Houston, 212 226 1966.
The good if someone else is paying: Accademia di Vino on the Upper East Side, where I wound up with a comfort-Italian-craving friend and her brother-in-law after we’d all gathered at Sloan-Kettering. After the abysmal salad I’d suffered in the hospital cafeteria for lunch, I was actually looking forward to pasta and ordered the spaghetti carbonara — one of the few choices I never make at home — despite the sticker price shock ($22 for something so simple?) It turned out to be an excellent rendition, with the smart addition of a sliced scallion garnish to ramp up the flavor. Warm, airy focaccia served after we ordered also earned points. I didn’t try Mary’s penne alla norma or Randy’s mushroom-speck pizza, but they seemed happy enough. The service was impressive, too, aside from one annoyance. Because Mary and I had taken a Meursault break while waiting for “Richard” to wake up, I wanted a really good glass of wine and, assuming we’d split the tab, ordered the $15 arneis, my all-time favorite Italian white. The first sip was just what I remembered from Piemonte, but then I noticed a weird film on the surface. I swirled the glass and it moved but didn’t disperse, which made me think of soapsuds. At that price, I had to speak up, so the excellent waitress grabbed the glass, and Randy’s, and took them away to have a fresh bottle opened. Then she came back with some cork-and-bull story from the wine director on how arneis “always has fizziness.” It had been a long day, so I just snapped: “I’ve drunk a lot of arneis and have never seen that film.” Then I shut up and drank even though the replacement glass had a white spot on it. WIGB? Maybe, if I were in that neighborhood and someone else would pick up the tab. Although the crowd was unnerving: Are times really so good that so many 20-somethings can be out midweek ordering $38 lamb? 1081 Third Avenue near 64th Street, 212 888 6333.
The WTF-was-I-thinking: Basta Pasta in Chelsea, where I dragged my consort, two friends in from Chicago and their daughter, who had just performed with a Barnard troupe at Dance Theater Workshop. My top two motivations were proximity and noise level (my first choice was Donatella, but it puts the din in dinner, especially on a Friday night), but I had always been curious about the place because a very fussy friend from Bologna eats there whenever he comes to New York. And I could see the allure, given how the Japanese are taking over Italy’s kitchens; it was a trip to be cooked for and served by Asians in a restaurant with a relatively traditional Italian menu. But first we had to wait because we were late and they’d assumed we weren’t going to show even though we’d confirmed. Then we walked into a room full of cameras, and not in the hands of food bloggers. And then I saw the half-wheel of Parmesan being wheeled around to make pasta. And flashed on Mamma Leone’s. So it was no real surprise the “crespelle” with mushrooms came in that flavor-sapping deal-breaker, brodo, or that the stunt pasta, which I had to order, was pretty much a mess, with clumps of cheese on one part of the plate and pools of liquid on the other. Thank the food gods for the prosciutto laid over the top and the basil julienne sprinkled around that. Bob’s linguine with sea urchin was a gutsy rendition, though, and the vegetarian dancer had no audible complaints about her pasta; neither did her dad, about his special pork dish or mushrooms baked in parchment. And the smoked duck in Bob’s baby arugula salad was some of the best I’ve ever chewed. Plus the dessert drinks menu included sgroppino. WIGB? Probably not, even if Carlo insisted. Despite the fact that it was quite reasonable, and not loud. Although I can’t remember the last time an entire restaurant staff, from waiters to cooks to bartender, thanked us profusely as we left. 37 West 17th Street, 212 366 0888.