Archive for January, 2011

New York minutes/Latish January 2011

January 2011

The really good: Casellula in Hell’s Kitchen, where my consort and I landed after the wine-free, bottom-of-the-suitcase opening at ICP and after getting shunted aside at cramped and reeking Ardesia. The anticipated wait was 20 to 30 minutes at A, so we inched over the ice down the street and were instantly greeted by a hostess promising no more than a 15-minute wait and proffering a wine list; as we scanned it, the bartender welcomed us, too. Within five minutes we were on barstools and ordering Etna rosso and New Zealand sauvignon blanc and on our way to the “pig’s ass” sandwich with chipotle aioli for dipping followed by three exquisite cheeses (Vermont Ayr, Montagne de Bethmale and Brunet by way of Piemonte, paired, respectively, with honeycomb, roasted grape tomatoes and cardamon-flavored candied popcorn). The Cubanoesque panino was outstanding and the second glasses of wine perfect, but what was most amazing was the mood — everyone was mellow and took her time to explain things and get them right. WIGB? At an off-hour, for sure, since no reservations are taken. 401 West 52d Street, 212 247 8137.

The pretty good: Elsewhere in the Theater District, where we reserved for four after our great experience at Casellula, taking the advice on the menu to “eat Elsewhere.” Turns out the place is what has taken over the old Cafe Madeleine space right near the NYTimes and Conde Nast, so we and one friend had flashbacks on walking in (I remembered food poisoning, he felt nostalgic about lunches with editors). I wasn’t crazy about my past-its-prime quail, although the rye stuffing and multiple accouterments almost compensated. As did a side of salt-roasted fingerlings paired with “bacon butter”  and anchovy mayonnaise for dipping. Bob’s fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy could pass for Southern, and both he and Gary seemed happy with the braised rabbit. I think Elizabeth scored, though, with two small plates: a squash broth poured around goat cheese panna cotta, and a silky, very flavorful carrot timbale. Three of us split a bottle of Austrian red and probably would have ordered more if given the opportunity. Which is why this place was not completely good: After fully engaged service to start, we were on our own, and because we rejected a table near the cold front door, we were stuck at a banquette between two service areas just outside the constantly swinging kitchen door. But at least it was easy to talk. WIGB? Absolutely. Despite the huge old Madeleine jars of spices visible through that kitchen door, some seriously creative cooking is going on. 403 West 43d Street, 212 315 2121.

The good but deafening: FishTag on the Upper West Side, where we thought we were lucky to score a table but soon realized the newly enlarged bar in the old Onera/Kefi/Gus & Gabriel would have been the better bet. This place puts the din in dinner (and hell is being seated next to six shrieking women who need frequent bathroom breaks). But the food more than made up for it. Ryan Skeen is clearly of the Mae West school of “too much of a good thing. . .” The chicory/arugula/bulgur salad read like a grocery list (Medjool dates, pomegranate, green olives, breakfast radish, pistachio, peppers, grilled onions, smoked almonds) but came together into party-in-your-mouth forkfuls. Sheep milk dumplings were gussied up with Jonah crabmeat, aji amarillo peppers and sea urchin fonduta but did not taste at all of overkill. The bacala-skodalia brandade “melt” came closest to going too far, with Greek cheese, smoked eggplant and tomato confit, but was still good next day. All three dishes were big bang for small bucks ($9 and $10 for the “melt” and salad, $19 for the dumplings), but wines, served as 3- to 27-ounce pours, are pricey. Extra points for the attentive waiter, who was working hard in cramped quarters with shrieking women all around. WIGB? Absolutely, but only to the bar. My ears still hurt. 222 West 79th Street, 212 362 7470.

The not all bad: Fatty Crab on the Upper West Side, where we stopped in for a late Sunday lunch despite the roomful of babies and where the neglect was showing but the flavors still came through. My wineglass had that wet dog smell and a few flecks on it, but it seemed pointless to bother the waiter even though the gruner was $14. Bob didn’t realize until we’d ordered that the clipboard menu had a whole other page of enticements; his was missing that crucial first sheet (and the rest were encrusted with flecks of food). The turmeric-roasted cauliflower was good and spicy but carelessly cooked to greasiness. And the fatty duck, now a crazy $23, was nothing like what I remember from the first half-dozen encounters with it downtown; both fat and meat were impossibly chewy, although the peppery-sweet crust made us want to keep chewing and chewing and the pickley Chinese mustard greens on top countered the richness. Bob said the $3 rice was also half-assed. But the Malay fish fry made up for much of that: perfectly fried, with a sublime curry sauce, plus we suspected it was not the tilapia the waiter had threatened but cod. WIGB? Probably. It is a nice break from Fairway and Land Thai etc. 2170 Broadway near 77th Street, 212 496 2722.

The happy-making: Barrio Chino on the Lower East Side, where Bob suggested we reprise last January’s excellent lunch the day before my birthday and where we were lucky enough on a hurting-cold day to snare “the best seats in the house,” in the far corner at the bar where we were not jostled and could ask all the questions we wanted of the bartender as he mixed up new vats of jalapeño-infused tequila. Of course we had to have those great jalapeño margaritas, with their slow burn, to go with respectable guacamole and good salsa to start. His grease-free sinchronizada with chorizo came with green salsa for dipping, but I really scored with a chile relleno stuffed with scrambled eggs, chorizo and cheese, teamed with black beans and a handful of greens, for only $1 more ($10). Coffee was also good. WIGB? Maybe even before next January. The newish Casa Mezcal around the corner on Orchard Street gets $16 for a chile relleno. 253 Broome Street, 212 228 6710.

The promising: The new Tarallucci e Vino on Columbus, where we stopped for a macchiato after Fatty Crab to warm up. It feels nothing like either the neighborhood or the Subway that preceded it; I almost felt the aura of Bill’s in Sydney, although this place is tiny by comparison. The coffee was excellent, but the room just seemed sunny and enticing. Plus the panino a guy was savoring at the bar looked awesome, and the quiches seemed a deal at $5, and the pastries appeared carefully made. Is this neighborhood starved for quality, or what? Bob’s only complaint is that it’s too far from home. . . We also had a great encounter at Saxelby Cheesemongers in the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side, where we were drawn after the amazing cheeses at Casellula — the counterman did steer us to the outstanding Chester from Consider Bardwell, but only after Bob stunned him by asking if he had something less like Brie after he’d offered his first choice for creamy and pungent. Apparently there is one four-letter word you can’t use at an artisanal cheese stand . . . .

New York minutes/Mid-January 2011

January 2011

The sensational: Hunan House in Flushing, where my consort and I trekked on a cold Saturday as a diversion from our usual Greenmarket/cheap Thai routine and where the whole experience was easily the most satisfying ever in a Chinese restaurant in New York. I did my homework online, looking for a sit-down lunch rather than food court craziness (see below), and once I hit “smoked duck” in the Robert Sietsema review my Metro card was out. The place looks pretty bare-bones but was super-clean, with tables well spaced, and the host and waiters were excellent, with none of the usual impatience and/or condescension, even when it was clear we were ordering the Village Voice specials, right out of the review. (I normally hate people who do that, but as China traveler Bob said, “Why take a chance, since we don’t know the food?”) So we started with the cold tofu, silky and jiggling-fresh with just the lightest drizzle of sesame oil and sprinkling of chopped scallions. And then the braised pork belly, Mao-style, super-tender chunks in a surprisingly sophisticated sauce with greens and julienned scallions. Water spinach, it turns out, is not in season, so we subbed the spicy cabbage with fermented soybeans, also in a good light, greaseless sauce and just hot enough with red chilies. And then the reason for coming arrived, as sensational as billed, tasting close to the smoked duck a friend once brought back from Goode’s in Houston. The smokiness almost vibrated through the anything-but-geriatric meat. It was way too much food for $44 before the tip, so we had a superb dinner and then lunch the next day, as did The Cat. One other nice touch: a little bowl of soybeans with a hint of star anise arrives with the pot of tea, to nibble on while you study the huge menu. I thought we were stuffed, but somehow we managed to eat two warm, as-good-as-Hong Kong egg custard tarts at the nearby Taipei Bakery after a stock-up swing through the supermarket in between. WIGB? Absolutely. But first there are so many other places to try in that neighborhood. 137-40 Northern Boulevard, Flushing, Queens. 718 353 1808.

The half-good: Joe Allen in the Theater District, where I met a friend who needed solace by mouth after her father died and where the cheeseburger definitely delivered. It wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it was cooked perfectly (against my medium wishes) and was teamed with the right amount of respectable fries. Plus it was only $14.50, less than Cafe Loup’s, which she’d suggested but I couldn’t face. A bottle of Cline viognier was $27, a much better deal than the $12.50 “quartino” of sauvignon blanc at the bar, and of course the room is quintessential New York. So what was the half-bad? I know it was after the theater rush, but the bartender and two waitresses who tended to us exhibited the worst “I’ve had it” I’ve encountered in a while. When we asked Server A about the viognier, worried it might be too fruity, she sent over a not-happy Server B who described it well if impatiently, then returned, uncorked it, offered a taste and plunked the bottle down, saying, “We’re very casual. You can pour.” We saw her again only to pay the check. With exactly double the tax as tip. WIGB? Sure, for the half-good reasons, plus it’s so easy to get to on an icy night. 326 West 46th Street, 212 581 6464.

The one-step-up-from JFK: Two of the restaurants at Eataly, where I indulged a friend who wanted to go back after a good lunch in the pizza/pasta corral. We got there early and wandered around awhile feeling overwhelmed, and by the time we decided to sit at the seafood bar for uni my head was throbbing from the jangle in the joint. I was happy to see Arneis by the glass for only $9 but not so happy on seeing what arrived after the waiter ran off to get the last order of uni: one good plump taupe specimen and three reddish shriveled ones, literally the bottom of the barrel, for $17 (Donna at least let the waiter know we were underwhelmed, but it did feel weird to be women complaining about shrunken gonads). The bread and olive oil were both worth the calories, though. By the time we went back to the pizza/pasta corral, we had to wait, which gave us time to discuss how cheesy a wall of crap Barilla looks, so by the time we got seats at that bar we felt as if we were eating in a duty-free shop. We ordered the cheapest white by the glass, and the waitress suggested a bottle, but I saw the Arneis was the same price: $28. Unfortunately, it was pretty warm once it arrived. Lasagne came almost immediately, maybe too fast — a few more minutes in the oven and it might have hung together more, although it tasted great (it reminded me of a New York-style enchilada, rolled and served without the extra time to bake it into more than tortilla and cheese). And I would have been more impressed with the pizza with salami and basil if I had not recently had the perfection that Pizza a Casa teaches down on the Lower East Side. But I guess it qualified as “just like in Italia/Italy,” as the menu promised, because the center was soggy. WIGB? I will for my consort’s sake, because he’s curious about the experience. I can do without stress for dinner.

The open, at least: Landmarc in the dread TWC, where I hooked up with a friend in from Florence after we found Bouchon Bakery closed at breakfast time. He was paying, so a $12 eggamuffin didn’t seem like a bad deal, and aside from the fact that it had zero taste it was fine (lardons as the bacon at least added texture, and it came with decent hash browns). The cappuccino, though, was as scorched as any I’ve had in this town. On the plus side, they gave us a booth for four by the window, and the service was decent. WIGB? Sure, if someone else is paying when Bouchon Bakery is closed. 212 823 6123.

New York minute/Early January 2011

January 2011

The not bad: Tue Thai Food in the West Village, where we ducked in after the Saturday Greenmarket rather than head home and recycle leftovers for a fast lunch and where I made the mistake of trusting a certain Tyro No More, who’d recommended the roast duck noodles in NYMag’s delivery issue. That wasn’t on the lunch menu, but the charming waitress brought the dinner menu to show me how it was described and how much it cost — $5 more than the four-item lunch specials. I would not have been happy if I hadn’t tried the stuff, but I envied Bob his four-item lunch special of good Thai fish cake with peanuts and sweet-hot sauce, spicy drunken noodles with tofu and bamboo shoots, green salad and Thai iced tea, which tasted as if it had been steeped in an ashtray but grew on me. I had to slog through only a big bowl of bland noodles in bland broth with a surfeit of duck that tasted the way duck all too often does in restaurants: verging on geriatric. Extra points to the waitress for delivering two choices when I asked for hot sauce. WIGB? Sure. It’s in the right place at our right time. 3 Greenwich Avenue at Sixth Avenue, 212 929 9888

New York minutes/Early January 2011

January 2011

The OMFG: El Paso Taqueria in East Harlem, where my consort and I wound up on New Year’s Day when I was too flu-ish to risk infecting friends in Connecticut but still wanted to get out and about to start off my year of the rabbit with something new. I suggested walking up to Harlem and back and somehow agreed to Target and back, and it was one gorgeous expedition, through the snowy park and up avenues we usually see only from the back seat of a cab on the way to an airport. We stopped in beforehand on 116th and a surly guy was swabbing tables and said it didn’t open till 1, so we took our time a couple of blocks away in the miles of deceptively priced aisles before heading back and were so hellbent on eating there we didn’t notice not a single table had any more food than guacamole. And the place was not empty. So we succumbed to the guacamole hard-sell and were beyond forgiving when it finally crawled from the kitchen, oversalted and with all the jalapeños clumped on one side of the molcajete. But then we sat. And sat. And sat, while the couple at the closest table kept asking where his pancakes might be, and ordering more sangria (they went through two pitchers). And as we watched bag after bag of delivery orders fly through the little dining room. Which would have been forgivable if our food had not finally arrived at Greenland temperatures. The tortilla soup that was going to restore me to life was just a bowl of clotted chicken fat, with cold diced cheese sunk to the bottom and hard tortilla strips throughout. Bob thought I was exaggerating till we swapped orders and I tasted his stone-cold enchiladas on “hot plate” with cold rice and beans on a separate plate. My notion of taking the shitty soup home to reheat didn’t fly, so he flagged down the surly guy to ask to have it reheated. Which, as I anticipated, took just short of a millennium and only made the bland mess too hot to eat. The waitress did apologize for the temperature, but she can fry in hell for never coming back with the leftover enchiladas we wanted to take home to try to resuscitate. The red sauce was actually pretty decent. WIGB? Only with an Uzi to my head.

Also, too: We finally stopped at Eataly on our way to the C train, after a stand-up Sunday brunch at friends’ in the East 30s, because there was no line outside when Bob wanted a coffee. He immediately balked on seeing the human congestion at the Lavazza stand just inside, but we persevered and he soon had a macchiato in hand, rather quickly by NY standards — although if there is a word for molasses in Italian, real baristas would be tossing it around. Jeebus, Americans move slow. The proportion of milk to espresso was off, but it was good enough to encourage us to delve deeper. And to find Caffe Vergnano also has a stand. We bought bread (“rustic with olives”), and an oily/airy slice of focaccia, and some red-leaf lettuce and Cara Cara oranges because the produce section is (I hate to say it) better set up to service customers than Fairway is. We left wanting to come back to eat. . .