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 . . . .