The almost good: Mermaid Inn in the neighborhood, where we booked early-bird dinner with other oldsters who like to hear each other talk at the table but where the Tuesday special was no bargain even at a cut rate with booze option. Maybe it’s because we’ve been eating too many perfect Luke’s lobster rolls, but this one had only the skimpy fries to recommend it: The bun was burned and the meat had zero flavor even though I had to keep chewing because it was like a mouthful of rubber wine corks. The waiter was nice enough to offer to replace the beer that came with it for $22 with wine for $2 more. And he was even nicer to inform us we had arrived just in time for happy-hour prices on wines. The kitchen also worked wonders with my consort’s trout, adding enough accessories to mask its farmed nature. But our shared shisito peppers were greasy, yet again. I didn’t try our friends’ food, but no one objected to the free chocolate pudding. WIGB? Absolutely. There are many reasons the place is always packed.
Archive for February, 2012
The good again: Left Bank in the Far West Village, where we met up with a genius friend in from Northwestern in hopes of quiet and were actually happy to see the place fill up and reverberate by the time we left — maybe it will make it. And it certainly deserves to, considering the prices, quality and hospitality. I ordered the $21 duck confit half-heartedly, expecting the usual dried-out little leg with some overwrought accompaniment, but this was actually about a quarter of a meaty bird, cooked juicy-crisp and teamed with both a Meyer lemon salsa and a sort of fruit chutney, plus great chunky mashed rutabaga. Zach was flummoxed by the amount of fat on the huge pork chop for $26, but the meat once he got to it was tender and heritage-tasting. And I’d say the only problem with my consort’s house-made orecchiette with venison ragu was the sauce (I can’t stomach deer meat, having had it shoved down my gullet too often as a kid). The $19 portion, however, did seem a little dainty compared with the other trencherman’s plates. We all shared the outstanding brandade with spicy olives again, and we each got a taste of the affogato, which I would fault only for being a little too heavy on the drowning espresso. The same waiter as last time was just as attentive, and we were spared Whitney wailing on endless loop. WIGB? Soon, I suspect. 117 Perry Street at Greenwich, 212 727 1170.
The reliable I: Fairway’s cafe on Broadway, again, where we headed after leaving Zach’s presentation at MOMA and realizing the ribs I had bought for dinner would take too long to cook but venturing into Holy Foods at the dread TWC for an alternative would take even longer. Mr. London was in fine form at that early hour, ushering us to a table at the window, and the waiters were running hard even with big tables of families, so we were soon tucking into a whole grilled branzino with roasted fennel plus my usual arugula-and-prosciutto pizza, plus glasses of the $8 wines. The fish tasted of what it ate (mush, apparently), but the flatbread with herbed olive oil made a perfect starter, as always. As a bonus, we got “Streetcar Named Desire” on the triple screens with subtitles, although neither of us grasped it any better than the first time we saw it.
The reliable II: Luke’s yet again, where we ducked in after the Sunday Greenmarket and where the main/Maine attraction was just as perfectly executed as the first 15 times we’ve indulged. We enjoyed ours while marveling that neither of us ever gave a claw about lobster until this place opened. You do get your $15 worth (or your $17, if you go for the combo and get chips, soda and a pickle spear). Long may it run. 426 Amsterdam Avenue near 80th Street, 212 877 8800.
The seriously good again: Momofuku Ssam in the East Village, where my consort and I met another food-obsessed couple via the Twitter for a Sunday lunch that was even more invigorating than my two previous weekday indulgences. We were there before the door opened at 11:30 so of course got a nice table (and, I learned later, a waiter who Tweets, too). The four of us shared everything, which meant I tasted excellent sweetbreads I normally would spurn (prep them once or twice and you will, too) and the spicy sausage and rice-cake dish, as well as lively pickled vegetables and a pear sorbet brilliantly accessorized with pumpkin, cornflakes and blue cheese. All the duck — rotisserie, dumplings, pulled sandwich — was of course perfect. The only letdown was apple kimchi with bacon and maple labne, which amounted to ingredients talking past each other. WIGB? Can’t wait. 207 Second Avenue at 13th Street, 212 212 254 3500. (BTW: We all went down the avenue afterward to Vandaag for the exceptional coffee in that rigorously designed room; the cappuccino was one of the best I’ve ever had on this continent.)
The transporting: Il Buco Alimentari in Nebulousnabe, where we fortified ourselves with Saturday lunch before a time trip through the amazing Merchant’s House Museum nearby and where the history was nearly as palpable (wood from the way-back machine). Seeing a whole porchetta on the rotisserie in the theatrical open kitchen made the panino irresistible, and it was a juicy/crunchy/tender marvel on just the right bun; pickled vegetables on the side only made it seem more of a deal at $16 (Porchetta’s is of course sublime and much cheaper but without the creature comforts). We shared the $14 insalata di cicoria despite my resistance to Scalia anchovies for their name alone, and it turned out to be one of the rare enjoyable bitter salads, with almost sweet Treviso radicchio tossed in and crunchy fine bread crumbs over the top. And $14 grilled sausage over Umbrian lentils had real nuance; fried sage leaves and sweet onions were grace notes. As the server warned, the coffee needs work; even with way more than a cloud on the macchiato it was bitter. (We stopped by Colombe later just to compare and now suspect, though, that taste is not what’s cutting into business; it’s probably more the scene.) The market in the front is quite nice, too, although we managed to get out without buying anything. WIGB? Absolutely, at least for serene lunch. I’d guess it might get loud at dinner, with all those hard surfaces. 53 Great Jones Street, 212 212 837 2622.
The satisfying, again: La Mangeoire in Midtown East, where we landed after being warned of a 45-minute wait at the Smith after an opening of New York in Color with a friend’s work at the Howard Greenberg Gallery on 57th Street. The $38 white from the Languedoc matched well with both Bob’s intense coq au vin with mushroom-bacon sauce and my pork roast (first time I’ve ever ordered that, and my reward was super-tender thanks to the server actually asking what temperature I wanted). And the anchoiade, olives and oil with the bread basket were just gravy. I’ll admit it was a little sad to see Christian Delouvrier and think back on Ruth’s bedazzled review in his $30 soup days, but his cooking has lost only the flash and price tag, not the style and substance. WIGB? We may never make it to the Smith. Add in no din and the option of downsized main courses and it’s definitely worth the journey. 1008 Second Avenue near 53d Street, 212 759 7086.
The over-the-top: RedFarm in the West Village, where we left my name and of course got a perfect little table and no end of comped food from gregarious Eddie Schoenfeld; we only had to wait as long as it took to pick out three new salts at the Meadow down the street. Thank allah we kept a receipt, because it really was more dishes than any cranial sieve could retain (he at least did the smart thing and said: “Take a taste and take it home”). We chose good shu mai shooters (two for $7.50), huge and slightly overwrought crab and duck dumplings (four for $12), exquisite vegetable and chive steamed dumplings (four for $8), noodles with both Dungeness and rock crab ($27) and sublime okra and eggplant yellow curry ($17 and enough to keep me from succumbing to mediocre Thai again for a long, long time — this had at least six kinds of vegetables in addition to the excellent stars, and the sauce was all nuanced flavor). Forced upon us were killer soup dumplings with truffles; strange but irresistible eggplant “bruschetta” topped with smoked salmon and caviar; mushroom spring rolls; amazing barbecued Berkshire pork belly; the $39 like-buttah Creekstone prime rib steak with the best baby bok choy I’ve ever stuck an implement into, and two desserts: chocolate pudding and a “fruit plate.” The kittybag was damned heavy on the way back to the C train, and we ate from it for three days. We also shared a $32 bottle and two $16 glasses of an ideal wine for Joe Ng’s style of cooking, S.A. Prum “Blue” Mosel riesling (Joshua Wesson did the list). WIGB? Can’t wait, although I may sneak in with a bag over my head. But that might mean missing out on Eddie’s entertaining tales. 529 Hudson Street, 212 792 9700.
The “good luck to them”: Left Bank in the far West Village, where we met one of our favorite people, in from Veneto, for a great long, long Sunday dinner. We reserved at 6:30 to try out the “happy hour,” which sounded so much more respectable than “early bird,” but were only able to take advantage of the half-price, half-assed Aperol spritz ($6) because Diego didn’t get there by 7 for the three courses for $20. Dinner was still a steal: I had outstanding potato gnocchi with pumpkin, black pepper and pecorino, almost like spaetzle, for $17; the guys both had the superb juicy-crisp roast half-chicken with capers, cornichons and dill for $21. (Usual sneakiness: Sides are sold separately.) We also shared a pretty great rendition of brandade with warm toast and olives for $10 and a lively bottle of grillo from Diego’s second home of Sicily for $36. Service and the room were both fine, too. (Even though we got the worst table in the house, right under the speaker with nothing but #RIPWhitney — by the end of the night I was starting to realize why she needed drugs.) WIGB? No question, if it lasts. I know we’ve eaten there before . . . 117 Perry Street at Greenwich, 212 727 1170.
The dispiriting despite the design: Cafe Centro in Hell’s Kitchen, where we ducked in just for cheap sustenance at a sunlit table on our way to the must-see Loving and Weegee shows at ICP. Warm, salty chips and decent salsa were too easy to fill up on, which was lucky because the rice and beans with my lukewarm cheese enchiladas merited no more than one bite each. Bob ordered tacos with carnitas cooked in Coke and we were both glad he had resisted the mahi ones; these were overfilled and hyper-sweet, but things coulda been worse. WIGB? Why do restaurants get better on Ninth as you head south?
The very close to perfect: Momofuku Ssam, where I met a friend for lunch on my birthday and where everything from attitude to kittybag was done right. The rotisserie duck was easily the best nonsmoked duck I have ever eaten, and I have eaten a lot of duck in my many years — you’d almost think it was sous vide from the tenderness and concentrated flavor, but my consort and I watched one roast on the spit on our last visit, so that can’t be true. I didn’t even get into the rice and watercress the slices came with, but I did like wrapping them up in the pancake with all the accoutrements. The $20 weekday set comes with a side, and the spiced fingerlings were pretty amazing. Fried duck dumplings with pickled red cabbage were exquisite yet again, too. Wines by the glass are a better deal in the front room, BTW. WIGB? Any day now. The best part was hearing my friend recall how scary that very corner was back in the Eighties, when another good friend was mugged right outside where we were indulging. 207 Second Avenue at 13th Street.
The superb: Aldea, where Bob and I headed for my birthday the night he got in from 10 days in Costa Rica and where seats at the chef’s counter made the perfect perches as neutral territory for reentry. His sardines were a little mushy, the skin chips in my duck rice a little fatigued, but otherwise the whole experience was sensational. I was pretty taken with the sea urchin laid over cauliflower puree on a toast as a starter, and my entree had almost too much duck breast and chorizo. Bob had to order the suckling pig after seeing it plated: a slab of almost terrine-like deconstructed/reconstructed pork seared and teamed with both kohlrabi and “crispy potato” that was like the world’s longest strip/chip. (Best part of sitting at the counter: You can ask how they do everything, and this was by mandoline.) We should have listened to the sommelier on the Basque white; as he hinted, it was pretty acidic and watery, but our shared glass of sherry overcompensated, especially with the excellent mignardises. WIGB? Absolutely. Great value, great experience. 31 West 17th Street, 212 675 7723.
The good, and good deal: Mermaid Inn in the West Village, where I led us after the dazzling “Pina” at IFC and where the waitress’s tout for Blackboard Eats made me remember the Twitter secret and where 20 percent off made a great experience even better. We split a $35 bottle of decent verdicchio with the trout over kale and the outstanding crab cake appetizer ($15 but enough to kittybag). It was before 8, so the noise level was tolerable in the old-folks back room, too. The server and hosts could not have been more hospitable. But someone needs to sit the busboy down to a free dinner and show him how it feels to have someone invade your space with a git-’er-done roughness. He’s super-efficient, but he’s working too fast and definitely too hard. Still, WIGB? Of course. 79 Macdougal Street, 212 260 0100.
The surprisingly not bad: Plein Sud in Tribeca, where we wound up after the outstanding opening of the revitalized South Street Seaport Museum and after finding our destination across the street — Nam — was in the midst of morphing into some new destination. I’ll admit I trudged to the table with dread dragging me down, because I’d read in the WSJ that the chef was mostly known for being one of those lower-end Tin Chefs, and had worked in other not-great restaurants. The place was packed, but we got a good table, and the food/service/wine all delivered. Bob ordered a not-promising $11 tarte flambee as soon as we sat down, and I would have called it quits at that, but he insisted I order something else, and the $12 beet “tartare” with Fourme d’Ambert, pine nuts and chives almost changed my mind about the sugar veg. His $21 skate with capers turned out to be even more satisfying. WIGB? Surprisingly, yes. Everyone was so nice when we were so old by comparison with the rest of the room. 85 West Broadway at Reade Street, 212 504 5555.