The pretty good, and quite authentic-feeling, in a bad way: Chola on the East Side, yet again, where I met a friend on a sweltering day at a table under a halogen light in an un-air-conditioned room and where our sweat was definitely transporting. We hadn’t seen each other in a year and a half, so this was one of those bottle-and-a-glass lunches, which the waiters took in stride, giving a little hint at what kind of ladies lunch there. The routine has changed, so I kept expecting the apps to arrive when you now can make some chaat yourself off the huge buffet, which remains my favorite in the city (especially for a paltry $13.95). Everything else was outstanding aside from the saag paneer and the dosa, which both seemed a little wan. We did get a tindal curry, though, which I don’t think I’ve ever had in this country. And the vada counted as a particular treat. Points off, though, for a bathroom floor I almost slipped on even before our sauvignon blanc’s cap was unscrewed, and for the staff cleaning with ammonia, which does tend to drown out flavor. WIGB? Always. It does Indian right. 232 East 58th Street, 212 688 4619.
Archive for May, 2011
The good: Sezz Medi up near Columbia, where my consort led me after I’d steered him there on good advice a couple of months ago and where the whole experience was like Italy without Alitalia. It was Sunday brunchtime, but the menu had a panoply of egg alternatives, and the server didn’t even flinch when we ordered only small plates. One of which was huge — fried calamari and zucchini, an LP-sized platter of nicely cooked, very tender seafood and pretty crisp yellow and green squash slices, with a tangy parsley tzatziki as dunking sauce. Bob’s tegamino (a k a eggplant Parmigiana) was superb, with the ideal balance of vegetable to cheese and a good, lusty tomato sauce that doubled as a dip for the fritti (turns out the name refers to the skillet in which it’s cooked). We got away for $20 plus tip, about what we would have spent at Chipotle in the same time. WIGB? Absolutely, and often, if it were closer. 1260 Amsterdam Avenue near 122d Street, 212 932 2901.
The pretty good: Kin Shop in the Village, where Bob and I and the filmmaker of “How to Live Forever” repaired after a showing at the Quad and where the food definitely trumped the neglectful service, even after we ordered bottled water that could have been repeatedly up-sold. Duck laab salad was my favorite plate on the table, although it was not as blistering as I’d expected, and sea scallops with pea puree were nearly as good. Softshell crab can be filed under outstanding, pad see ew with ramps well below underwhelming. The one huge disappointment was the “selection of grilled eggplant.” No there there. . . WIGB? Sure. Brachetto goes surprisingly well with spicy upscale Thai. 469 Sixth Avenue, 212 675 4295.
The not bad, din in dinner notwithstanding: Qi in the Theater District, where Bob and I wound up, against his objections, when Elsewhere had a 15-minute wait for tables after the ICP opening of the entrancing Elliott Erwitt show. He spends so much time on/off Eighth Avenue he was dreading the whole experience but calmed a bit when we agreed the design evokes Pierre Gagnaire’s Sketch in London, where he shot for his last around-the-world Geographic story, on caffeine. Unfortunately, the kitchen and servers could have been jetlagged after flying in from England. It took forever to get attention and then food. By then, the torturous noise level had us fighting, and cold mushroom spring rolls amplified the pain even though they had great taste and texture. An eggplant special appetizer was mostly chicken and shrimp, but decent. Ordering pad see ew was a big mistake after Kin Shop, but the green curry duck was better next day, reheated in the quiet of our own kitchen. WIGB? Not likely, but Bob, amazingly, disagreed — he rated it above most joints near where he spends so much time. 675 Eighth Avenue near 43d Street, 212 247 8991.
The nearly perfect port in a near-storm: The Taproom at Colicchio & Sons in Chelsea, where we wound up after my two days of frantically calling around for a “shit — it’s your birthday” destination and getting no end of “5:30 or 10” merde de bull. Bob was willing to risk walking in anywhere, as we were able to do at the Dutch, but it was his big night so I wanted a safe haven. Which this totally was. We got a table looking out on the High Line, in a room that was surprisingly cozy despite its airiness, with the ideal noise level (you can easily hear both the mellow music and your companion) and a nice, young crowd (my seat had a view of the entrance, so I know the fancy side was not so lucky). Good Nebbiolo rosé ran $9 a glass, a much better deal than the heavily hyped kegged stuff, which was rather thin. Cured fluke with grapefruit and black olives was nice, but fatty salmon over smoked-egg mayonnaise outdid it (the menu called it vinaigrette, but I’ll call it what it was). Bob seemed happy with braised lamb ribs on pearl barley, and I was impressed by “steak & eggs,” with beef short rib in a crepinette laid alongside oats topped with a poached egg, even though the fancy stone-cut oats were decidedly rancid. And we both were amazed at how lame the rhubarb tart was. I’m all for cerebral desserts, but they need to function on a sensual level as well. This was almost gummi bear fruit on solid cream in a crust notable mostly for its crunch, not flavor. Even the two frozen scoops of whatever alongside could not elevate it. Still, WIGB? Absolutely. The price was right (very imaginative butchering and cooking put prices literally half what I had reeled from on other menus in my frenzy). Plus true luxury is being able to revel in conversation over your food. 85 Tenth Avenue at 15th Street, 212 400 6699.
The “it’s complicated:” Boulud Sud on the Upper West Side, where we steered friends in from Eden on the Willamette who had reserved at Bar Boulud and where we were lucky enough to be showered with freebies but cranky enough to evaluate the cooking like the journalists all of us once were and some still are. The Big Homme himself was there, and I hope the microphone under our table recorded me saying he is the most gracious guy in the business, because he not only came over to chat and engage but also sent us way too much free food. Of what we ordered, the duck kataifi was too much shredded wheat on a bit of poultry; vitello tonnato was fine but not Piemonte level, and the perfectly cooked, very fresh squid was done in by the overkill of fat filling and overwrought tomato sauce. Sicilian sardine escabeche, though, impressed even this sardine shunner. We got talked into unnecessary side dishes, of which the very smoky charred broccoli rabe trumped the bland chickpea panisse and fregola sarda with snap peas. Among main courses, Bob’s “cedar grilled rouget” turned out to be the usual far-from-the-Mediterranean fillet. My pancetta-wrapped quail, though, may have looked straight out of “Eraserhead” but tasted/ate pretty great, no Tuscan kale and rosemary soubise needed. Of our friends’ harissa-grilled lamb with eggplant and “grilled short rib on the bone,” I’d definitely lay the blue ribbon on the beef, cooked to amazing tenderness. Points off for a wine list that turned into a jousting match between reformed wine writer and paid sommelier, but we all liked our Nebbiolo rosé, and the excellent waiter poured it well. Our friends up and fled to Jazz at Lincoln Center, so Bob and I did not have to share two outstanding comped desserts, a chocolate-heavy, almost tiramisu-tasting “cassata” that would vanquish any memories of candied fruit, and a big-time wow of a grapefruit givré. WIGB? Probably, for a snack and glass of $9 picpoul at the bar after a movie, but I appeared to be in the minority. 20 West 64th Street, 212 595 1313.
The halt on the border of lame: La Superior in Williamsburg, where we happily headed with friends after an expedition in hopes of seeing the Rapture take Manhattan but where we left holding our ears because the music was not just painfully loud but horribly stupid. The birthday girl among us chose it, so I’ll be gentle, especially because it was decidedly cheap for too much food ($90 for four of us, with tip, including seven margaritas). And I can’t fairly judge because the dishes just came flying in after we ordered; there was no app-to-entrée progression. The best thing I tasted was the gordita filled with chorizo and potato; if it was not quite El Paso-(Texas)-level it was at least seriously satisfying. A rajas taco was also good if overfilled, as were the other tacos, some of which I tasted although I quailed at the lengua. Guacamole seemed surprisingly undistinguished, and the queso fundido would have been so much better with serious mushrooms. (At least they kept the tortillas coming.) And I wanted to like the ezquites, despite the pallid main ingredient, but the presentation sucked — a plastic cup to be dumped into a bowl to be shared among four with two plastic forks? Those ditz waitresses were damned lucky we were in birthday mode.
Lagniappe: Our expedition to exotic Williamsburg paid off in many ways. We had the most amazing iced coffee — New Orleans style, with a bit of chicory, plus sugar and milk — at Blue Bottle. The corn cookie and blackberry-lime ice from Momofuku Milk Bar at Smorgasburg were killer. Whimsy & Spice’s peanut butter sandwich flavored with massaman curry was right behind. And the Bedford Cheese Shop could have been airdropped in from the Seventh Arrondissement.
The straight-ahead good: The Dutch in the old Cub Room in SoHo, where we ventured after being told reservations were only available at 5:30 or after 10:15 on a Monday night and where we were able to walk right in, sit right down and revel in too much food, all as satisfying as it’s been buzzed about online. The oyster “sliders” are just called “little sandwiches” on the menu, and ours was outstanding, with distinctive oyster flavor despite heavy saucing partly thanks to perfect frying (crisp exterior, interior with almost a poached consistency). “White boy Asian ribs,” with sweet-spicy sauce and tender meat, seemed A-level to me, but my consort compared them with the ones he’d had at Oklahoma Joe’s in KCMO recently and rated them a rung down the BBQ ladder. But the eggplant dip with crisp chips proved to be the knockout bar snack, like a beautifully balanced smoky-creamy baba ghanoush. I took half my rib home for The Cat and tried to resist too much dip, but I still could only make it halfway through a superb duck breast, crusted with pecans, laid over dirty rice with gizzards and andouille and topped with the vegetable I loathe most, which turned out to be a brilliant finishing touch — sliced lengthwise almost paper-thin, so there were no nasty strings, only fresh green flavor. Bob’s super-succulent lamb neck came in the best mole I have ever tasted, with no weird fruity flavor, just chile-nut intensity; red rice and chayote cut the heat and richness. We left with enough of both entrees for lunch the next day. The waitress was also amazing, efficient, attentive and patient enough to answer endless questions. And we snared one of the cheapest bottles on the list, a fine Italian white for $30, poured with no condescension (old rule ratified yet again: the cheapest bottle on a smart list will always be a find). WIGB? Absolutely — beyond the food, the setting and buzz make it worth a trip. And before the tip, the tab was only $113. Extra points for real matches, too. 131 Sullivan Street at Prince, 212 677 6200.
The good with an asterisk: Vinegar Hill House after the lame NY Photo Fest in Dumbo, where at least some of us in a party of five felt a little ridiculous to be waiting in line for a table 20 minutes before the place opened but where the cooking was rivaled only by the service and the place itself, like a discovery in some other city far, far away. Luckily, we were the third group in the door and got a nice table tucked in an alcove where we could actually hear ourselves talk (if also overhear the sad couple at the next table, an old bitch and her resigned husband with pathetic dyed hair). We should have ordered two of the clam pie to share, because it turned out to be not an easily divvied flatbread but a real little pie with an almost liquid center. One bite apiece was a mouthful, though: serious clams with lardons and potatoes in a perfect crust, with a parsley-red onion salad to cut the richness. One order of the charred pork belly on masa flatbread with watercress, sour cream and pumpkinseeds was also enough because of the big flavors, and because the main courses were so substantial, at least in the meat division: huge Red Wattle pork chop with Cheddar grits; braised lamb neck with freekeh and pomegranate yogurt; tilefish with green garbanzos, spring onions, black olives and marjoram, and a special of boned whole trout crusted in cumin and walnuts with baby spinach on the side. Everything was beautifully cooked, especially the tilefish; the trout, unfortunately, could not surmount the fact that it was what it ate — it tasted bland and mealy to me. Everyone was wowed by the salted caramel pudding (butterscotch is a turnoff; caramel a seduction), to the point that the chocolate Guinness cake seemed most impressive as a visual pun, with the white frosting looking like the head on a glass of dark stout. Four of split a bottle of arneis for $38, two of us a little tumbler of Quincy and one indulged in a big glass of Rioja and we got away for $55 a head. WIGB? Probably not, and not because of the silly line to get in. *Just when I was near the end of my tilefish in its wonderful sauce, my fork snared a hair and I gagged. Then I had to wait for the bathroom with a view of the kitchen and saw a smiling chef with a long beard and nearly puked. Bugs don’t gross me out that badly. Everyone else, however, voted yes on a return visit even after I confessed on the train home. 72 Hudson Avenue, Brooklyn, 718 522 1018.
The pretty good: Zero Otto Nove on Arthur Avenue, where we led two friends after a long morning at the New York Botanical Garden and its underwhelming azalea gardens and where the magic was missing but the price was right. We were fried and still had eight stops to make in provisioning, so I’m hoping that’s why the pizzas were not as dazzling as our last. The potatoes on the one with porcini and mozzarella were cold and oily, although the crust was charred/puffy perfect. And the one with broccoli rabe, sausage and mozzarella felt like more of a struggle to eat. The arugula salad lived up to our memory, although the escarole with eggplant and olive reminded us all why we don’t usually order escarole. We left convinced they’d cranked up the AC to drive us out to close for a break before dinner. WIGB? Absolutely. It is the best option for sit-down food in the neighborhood. And the tab with tip was like $50. 2357 Arthur Avenue, the Bronx, 718 220 1027.
The addictive: Luke’s Lobster on the West Side, where we are now one roll away from a freebie after accumulating three loyalty cards at various outlets. For $15, you can’t get a better experience, with a good amount of meat and just the right amount of butter and mayonnaise. As my consort, the Maine Photo Workshop veteran, noted, you would pay $20 for something less satisfying at the source of those lobsters. We split a bag of chips and a lemon-lime soda and were out for $34. WIGB? Definitely once more to collect on that card. 426 Amsterdam Avenue near 80th Street, 212 877 8800.
The pretty good: Columbus Tavern, where we stopped in for something different after the pitch-perfect “Win Win” at Lincoln Plaza and where we would have been mostly happy even if we’d not been comped a rather wan cheesecaky dessert by the owner. The din level was blissfully low, for starters, and the waiter was almost embarrassingly polite and attentive. Plus the food was way better than you’d expect: My consort’s cooked-right hanger steak came with a Snowdon-size heap of creamed spinach plus slightly limp but flavorful onion rings and three sauces on the side, unnecessary but worth the calories. I just ordered the house salad, since we’d shared a vat of popcorn at the movie and Bob had ordered the duck fat cashews as soon as we sat down, knowing my addiction to all things duck (verdict: the fat adds nothing but richness to oily nuts, especially when they’re overspiced). And that salad was completely satisfying as an alternative to a Caesar, with avocado, cucumber, radishes and tons of herbs. The “biscotti” the sweet waiter delivered were actually biscuits, okay on their warm own but even better with lemon-rosemary butter. Too bad the 30-year-old chef’s creativity and attention to detail are getting hammered by the crappy wine selection. I tried two whites, Bob two reds and all four fought the food. WIGB? Absolutely, although we’d been torn between Fairway and something new, and Fairway has nearly comparable food plus much cheaper, better wine if not as nice a setting. 269 Columbus Avenue near 73d Street, 212 873 9400.
The not bad: Osteria Cotta, where a friend and I headed in despair after contemplating the bleak choices in Chelsea after her son’s second showing of his sushi documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival (she wanted Company and I couldn’t find a bank to rob). Our cramped table in the back was at least quiet enough that we could almost hear each other, but otherwise it felt like the last seat in the plane near the bathroom and galley, with a constant stream of servers/runners/busboys slamming past. The grilled (actually skillet-charred) escarole salad with grape tomatoes and pecorino was as good as she and others had promised, and if the margherita pizza was more soupy than crisp, I ate my two slices happily. The tocai was also decent and fairly priced at $8 a glass. WIGB? Sure. Location, location, and Bob has to try it because it’s just a walk away. 513 Columbus Avenue near 85th Street, 212 873 8500.
The not bad: Spice uptown, where I met another friend for an early dinner that stretched for three hours and where the patient staff never hassled us, maybe because we wound up spending nearly twice as much on (crappy) wine as on food (and the food came to all of $11 apiece). Meatless spring rolls were sloppily assembled but cooked right, and if my duck-lettuce wraps did not live up to my first encounter with them they still amounted to a heap of decent filling. I didn’t try Joanne’s vegetable green curry, just listened to her yelp at every bite (from heat, not meanness). WIGB? Sure. The price is right, and the people are so nice. 435 Amsterdam Avenue at 81st Street, 212 362 5861.
Quick hits: I finally succumbed to Cafe Frida uptown for a snack at happy hour, and the quesadillas with chorizo were surprisingly decent although what I washed them down with was total shiver wine, perfect for watching the Good Friday procession pass by with the squad car and so many religious observers texting away. El Paso Taqueria across the park is getting kinda grimy but consistently has the best Mexican deal in town if you’re into cheese enchiladas with tomatillo sauce: $9 for three good ones topped with onions with black beans and rice. But Rickshaw Dumpling, where I stopped off for something quick on the way home from a drink with an editor at the snack-free bar in the “Shining”-evoking Eleven Madison Park, reminded me how low mediocre can go. My first complaint will be my last: Maybe the cooks could take a little more time and get it right? My order of sad duck dumplings was ready before I had even finished paying.
Also, too, I’m too lazy to go into all the details here, but we had great experiences at Cafe 2 at MOMA and at Cafe Sabarsky at Neue Galerie, which is especially transporting after dark.