Archive for January, 2012

New York minutes/Mid-January 2012

January 2012

The very close to perfect: Boulud Sud, the bar at, where I dragged my consort after the excellent opening of Luceo Images around the corner at @25CPW and where we left feeling quite smug on contemplating what the little people were eating that night across the street at the overpriced/underperforming Atlantic Grill. We did have to bribe a guy drinking alone to scoot over one stool by offering to buy him the beer the bartender generally would have, but from there on it was the right place/right time. We only had appetizers, and all were faultless — I woke up next morning thinking about the green-with-herbs falafel on the $15 chickpea/eggplant tray, with its baba ganoush and hummus flavored and colored with red pepper. Neither of us is a soup person, but the perfectly executed $17 soupe de poisson with garlic rouille was, as I anticipated, a mini-meal. And I was very happy the $16 rabbit “porchetta” delivered as more of a paté so both the rodent lover and I could enjoy it. Add in $9 picpoul and not-cheap but affordable reds, and it was one of those experiences that make you not just happy to live in NYC but appreciative of how brilliant the Big Homme was in opening these canteens to the banksters while making them welcoming to the 99 percent. WIGB? Anytime. The bar is so great I would consider an actual table again despite the whiff of God’s waiting room. 20 West 64th Street, 212 595 1313.

The why-the-hell not?: El Paso Taqueria on the Upper East Side, where of course I swore I would never go back over at least a year ago but of course where I have succumbed many times simply because no place closer to home does Mexican anywhere near as good. A friend and I had just been through the “Manhattan before the grid” show at the Museum of the City of New York, followed by the Cecil Beaton sensory overload, and he had a train to catch and I had a post to post, so we went for location, location. We both had enchiladas, and they took longer than usual to arrive, which for once was a sign of a kitchen not losing it but putting some muscle into the food; the tomatillo sauce and beans were much jazzier than usual, and they’re never less than satisfying. He had a Dos Equis, I had a white wine, and I think it was $20 apiece with tax and tip. (Warning, though: As great and longtime friends, we split the tab, and I noticed both halves were charged to his card. They fixed it, but beware.) 64 East 97th Street, 212 996 1739.

New York minutes/Early January 2012

January 2012

The good I: Tre Otto on the Upper East Side, where, for proximity’s sake, we trotted on an unusually frigid night after the awesome Maurizo Cattelan at the Guggenheim and where it was hard to find fault with much in the warmth. We passed on a table in the enclosed garden and braved the dining room for the first time, but luckily it was mostly empty so we could spread out and tuck into fine polenta and mushrooms heavy on the truffle oil, plus penne with sausage and peas in cream. Both the olive oil with the two kinds of bread and the $8 whites by the glass had character. And the staff, from hostess to busboy, actually seemed to have the hospitality gene. WIGB? Anytime. 1408 Madison Avenue near 97th Street, 212 860 8880.

The good II: Gajumaru, also on the Upper East Side, where we were lucky enough to be both treated by friends and guided through the menu, because what I don’t know about Japanese would fill half of Tokyo — I think I’ve eaten the non-sushi version three times in 30 years here. So the fresh tofu was just as they promised (if not quite on the level of freshly made at Morimoto) and the steamed char siu dumplings with crab just as satisfying. Pork cutlet seemed a bit dry, and I made a mess of the tempura by combining the brodo with the rice. But tons o’ sake also helped. WIGB? With friends, of course. Because I think Japanese is, like Indian or Chinese, best experienced at its origin. And that doesn’t mean on a layover at Narita on the way to Hong Kong. 1659  First Avenue near 86th Street, 212 348 2878.

The good III: Settepani in Harlem, again, where we met three other couples for Saturday dinner that would have been deafening misery almost anywhere else and where the cooking, service, setting and prices vanquished my fears over luring mostly out-of-towners to what could be taken for a location/location destination. It is a 20-minute walk for us, which was “schlepping to Harlem” for everyone else, but it really was the most enjoyable evening in a crazy crowd in a long time — we could hear each other snark, share each other’s food. I think I scored best with the mushroom lasagne, which this time was heavier on the filling and needed no kittybagging and reheating to become sensational. My consort’s osso buco could have been more collapsing-off-the-bone tender, but the flavor and accompanying polenta put it up in Milanese territory. I am not a sardine aficionada but was happy to see the friend who never orders an entree tucking happily into the pasta with it, and I didn’t need to try her husband’s “Montreal ragu” over couscous because he also was tucking in happily to the goose, veal etc. sauce. We all split good fried calamari, too-sweet/under-fried zucca and excellent leek-and-artichoke bruschetti to start and panna cotta for dessert. Plus the puff pastry sticks with pesto served at the bar were outstanding. And the wine prices were so amazing (a good Arneis at 100 percent markup rather than 500 percent) we kept ordering more, and, again, the staff let us sit there for hours as if we were in a private dining room. WIGB? No doubt. And not even in a mob. 196 Lenox Avenue at 122d Street, 917 492 4806.

The pretty bad: Wong in the West Village, where we stumbled in on spotting it on our way to Pearl (after a free screening of the underwhelming “It’s About You” at IFC) and where we stumbled out to next-day queasiness after a long night at the chef’s counter watching inexperienced cooks muck up almost all the few things we ate — it was like being back in restaurant school in 1983 when tentativeness ruled. And maybe we’d eaten too recently at Momofuku Ssam (although not that same day), but the contrast between the two was literally painful. Maybe there’s a reason one lists the provenance of its duck on the menu? Those birds rank among my top two favorite proteins, but I had to force myself to eat more of the duck bun with its insipid, soupy meat in the fried dough (Iowa State Fair on Cornelia Street). And we waited so long for the special duck meatball that I took only a tiny bite and Bob ate only one or two, but it will be a long time before he looks at a meatball of any protein persuasion. Something was off. We also shared a good if weird salad that tasted like a shopping list on a plate (dinnerware, BTW, is also a problem, with so much futziness and weird shapes). The house bread is a brilliant concept clumsily executed: naan-like with curry sauce, but the former was doughy and the latter silly with mint leaves served separately to be torn into it. Service was competent at least. But WIGB? I won’t quite give it negative two stars and still . . . not on a bet. It’s the kind of trying-too-hard restaurant a third-tier town would be thrilled to have.

Beyond pierogies

January 2012

My in-law equivalent refuses to learn how to navigate the wonderful series of tubes, so I can be quite frank in reporting I prodded my consort to do the right thing and head home for xmas only because I knew I would get a few good meals out of it. Along with a lovely ride up the Hudson and along the Erie Canal on Amtrak, now with real WiFi.

Lunch at Sea Bar downtown was totally vaut le voyage, not least because we got so much food for so little money. I had the BBQ and smoked salmon rolls in a bento special for all of $9.95: miso soup, sesame noodles and cucumber salad plus nine rolls (enhanced with avocado and spicy sauce). Bob was pretty blown away by his sashimi special, with no salad but five types of fish and otherwise the same accoutrements plus tea. We split a mega-pour of white and walked out with a tab not much more than two glasses of wine go for at Fatty Crab.

That night we followed a chorus of advice for dinner, with Bob driving through a wet and dark night to Lewiston to try Carmelo’s. This old bitch was the happiest of the three of us at table, because the menu hit all the right notes, but it was hard getting the other two excited, Gloria because unfamiliar is intimidating, Bob because he was still gut-shocked from a bad meatball back in the center of the universe. We happily shared the superb crispy squid salad with house-cured coppa over arugula with roasted peanuts and chile-lime vinaigrette as an appetizer and also the dessert with maple-bacon ice cream (more texture than taste). But Bob’s potato gnocchi with pork ragu and citrus-herb mascarpone needed something to pull all those elements into coherence, and G’s pork chop was well-flavored but too huge both for her to slice with arthritic hands and for us to appreciate the accompanying and overwhelmed roasted spaghetti squash, apple chutney and “spicy balsamic gastrique.” My “grilled bavette steak with roasted mushrooms, creamed artichoke, shallot puree and natural jus,” though, was just what we wanted to divide in half and tuck into DiCamillo’s (substandard) bread for our Amtrak ride home next day.

I’ll give big points for the huge wine pours and take none off for the ditzy service everyone retroactively warned us about. (Well, maybe one point off for “artesian” where “artisanal” was meant on the menu.) Carmelo’s is a fine restaurant, and its heart is in the right locavore place despite the jet-lagged barramundi. But is it Buffalo’s second coming? J’doubt it. As Bob said, the cooking starts with big flavors and finishes small.

Our other dinner, at Trattoria Aroma again, after a matinee of “Hugo,” turned out to be a travesty and a triumph. Just after we ordered, and Bob’s and my glasses of good/well-priced wine landed, the I-LE realized she was missing her wedding rings, the ones she has not taken off in 56 years. At one point we had three servers under the table searching, with their phones as flashlights, before I took the waiter’s suggestion to have the food wrapped to go while we sped back to the theater to comb the ladies’ room. As I anticipated, we were thwarted there and walked into her living room to see the diamonds glittering right by the chair where she’d been sitting with gloves on to keep warm earlier in the day. While she took Tylenol and reveled in recounting the drama to her sister by phone, Bob and I uncorked a bottle from Premier and marveled at how carefully the kitchen had packed our food so that everything was very nearly as good as it would have been on-site. Both the sausage on polenta and the special pizzette with soppressata and caramelized onion were nicely balanced, and my special gnocchi with peas and mushrooms rated A for both lightness in texture and richness in flavor. Even our salad held up. Plus the kitchen threw in a container of the excellent bread, regular and rosemary. I don’t know that I’ve ever had such a sense that a restaurant cared so much, not just about keeping the customer satisfied but showing pride in its food. And, obviously, it was a hard act to follow . . .