Archive for May, 2012

New York minutes/Late May 2012

May 2012

The very close to perfect: Acme in “NoHo,” where I had the unusual foresight to reserve for my consort’s birthday after he’d expressed interest in it, he being the one in the consortium who keeps up with trendiness on the food front these days. I had to enroll in Open Table and use my own name, and weeks out we only got a choice of 6:15 or 6:30, but it was his birthday, and he had expressed interest. And I will admit that Emily Dickinson’s “I’m nobody, who are you?” was flashing across my brainpan as we waited to be seated, but once we were escorted to the corner of a booth set for three everything made us so much happier than our last birthday dinner at Le Bernardin, exactly 10 years earlier, from which we headed home in a cab thinking we should have put the same $320 toward plane tickets to Paris for all the soulfulness in the cooking. Bob started with a cocktail that smelled like just-mowed grass; I had cava that turned out to be pink; both of us were happy. And with the engaging waiter’s guidance, we chose bison/shrimp tartare in endive spears with radicchio and green almonds (fabulous); slow-grilled cabbage with truffle/Gruyere foam (sensational); morels stuffed with pork sausage (fabsational — the lingering flavor was not of meat but of mushroom, the most seductive mushroom), and finally sea bass with pickled green tomato and dandelions, which would have been dazzling if we had started with it. We also shared the waiter’s tout for dessert, a beer and bread porridge with salted caramel. Even with way too many glasses of rosé, the tab was only $220. And while the place still smells a little like the old Acme, between the crowd and the design it looks like 2012 New York. WIGB? Soon, I hope. 9 Great Jones Street, 212 203 2121.

The close second: Sakagura in Midtown East, where we hooked up after the underwhelming Whitney Biennial with friends who had celebrated one of their birthdays there earlier that week. I’ve only been to Narita so am always happy to be guided through a Japanese menu, and we acceded to a sake tasting of three types for $20, then shared chewy but flavorful roasted duck slices wrapped around scallions, then a salad with fresh tofu and miso dressing, then lightly fried taro/shiitake/eggplant, then grilled eggplant with three great glazes, then tender and rich braised pork belly. The boys at the table shared one order of the tongue with shiitakes and more taro, but taro that touched tongue would not touch mine. We didn’t need but very much enjoyed the super-tender beef slices we seared ourselves using a cube of beef fat to lube the smoking-hot stone; The Cat appreciated the last slice taken home in a warning-covered plastic box. I can’t believe I was still tempted to taste the desserts, a cherry flan and a black sesame creme brulee, but both were worth the calories. WIGB? Anytime. Even with two carafes of other sakes, the tab before tip was $102 a couple for way more than we should have eaten. 211 East 43d Street, 212 953 7253.

The very close to abysmal: Ditch Plains on the Upper West Side, where we stopped in for early lunch on holiday-weekend Sunday and where I should have known to insist we flee as we waited for one of two front booths to be bused, by a guy who actually sat down to do it. Or when we saw the waitress reset the table before he had wiped it down. Or when we got only one menu. Or when — especially or when — said waitress did not know what the fish in the fish sandwich was (“stake?” “skate?” “yeah, that’s it!”) She did mime swooning over how great my choice was, though, so I went off to the bathroom and nearly slipped on the greasy floor in the basement (which is decidedly not aging well). I should have sent the $14 thing back: the fish was seriously fishy, and definitely not skate, plus it was topped with what tasted like processed cheese and it came with a tired mound of oxidized greens, mostly escarole. Instead, by trying to be nice I ruined two people’s lunch. Bob’s seafood Cobb was actually decent, with almost more salmon and shrimp and definitely more avocado than lettuce. But not much makes me sadder than having to leave behind food The Cat WCTLWAFW could be sharing.

The redeemed: Fairway Cafe in the mother ship, where we retreated with two friends after the awesome “Moonrise Kingdom” when the new pizza/pasta place up the street had a five- to ten-minute wait that gave us just enough time to scope out the tiny size of the blackened pizzas and the inflated prices ($18 for four slices?) We got a nice table in the back and pretty close to fast service and soon had a bottle of $25 Provencal rosé and then our food. Len confessed after he was slogged through them that the mussels were tasteless but aromatic, but Bob and Diane were happy first with their arugula-goat cheese salads and biscuits and then barbecue chicken with coleslaw and finally warm apple tart with ice cream. My watercress and endive salad with walnuts, golden beets and blue cheese, though, was the total winner, maybe the best thing I’ve ever eaten there. But the contrast between our last experience there was most striking with the service. The guy was actually working hard to be a real waiter. Long may he run. . .

By way of Gramercy Tavern

May 2012

All the time I squander on Twitter is usually made up every time I need an out-of-town restaurant recommendation, and that was never truer than when I desperately threw out “anywhere good to eat between NYC and the Catskills?” @MSCharak suggested Peekamoose, especially for the paté, and it turned out to be in the same town as the great resort where the wedding was going to be. Bob and I took a little drive before the “BBQ” the first night and saw the big sign reading “open 4 to 10, Thursday through Monday” and of course had to stop in. And once we were in, we had to try some wine and then some food after seeing everyone eating so happily in the bar. The place is just designed to the max, with taxidermed animal heads in the tap room and rustic chandeliers in the dining room and a special “cage for baby pork” (AKA kids’ playroom) right outside the bar. And the bartender was amazing: friendly but fast and efficient as she took orders even from tables. I had a Finger Lakes Riesling, Bob had a Spanish red, both described accurately by the AB. I was tempted by the charcuterie plate, but Bob reminded me we would be eating within an hour, so we settled on the beets with spuma made from local goat cheese. Which also bought us a slab of warm “focaccia-style” bread with a little ramekin of roasted garlic-chive butter. I hope to have more to say about all this somewhere else, but the whole experience brought home how far countryside restaurants have come as real chefs open them with an understanding of both sourcing and service. Not to mention insight into how the Thursday-through-Monday set functions . . . .

New York minutes/Mid-May 2012

May 2012

The pretty good, Chinese division: Hunan Manor in Midtown, where my consort and I wound up after a liquid opening at ICP when his first choice had a 30-minute wait. The place has the sad bare-bones look of so many Manhattan Chinese joints, but we were encouraged to see only ethnically appropriate faces at other tables as we were profusely welcomed. It probably wasn’t fair to order what we love in Flushing, but we did. And the tea-smoked duck might actually be superior; as we ate it, it tasted almost steamed, but next day it was grease-free and intensely smoky. Hunan-style stir-fried mustard leaf is better at the cousins’ place (thinner garlic slices, defter cooking), but not by much. Cold bean curd, Hunan style, was heavier, though, and while Bob is a total pan-fried pork dumpling junkie, even he agreed these were clunky. WIGB? Of course. It’s an hour closer, with treatment just as nice. 339 Lexington Avenue near 39th Street, 212 682 2883.

The pretty good, Thai division: Pure Thai Shophouse in Hell’s Kitchen, where a friend and I headed after being thwarted first by the bedlam at Toloache and then by the peculiar bar food menu at the otherwise perfect Xai Xai, and where the staff was just patient enough with two women who wanted mostly to talk while soaking up wine. Wally’s traveled in Thailand and immediately picked up on the crowd (authentic) and the food (smells/looks: authentic). We just split three appetizers, all above average: vegetable spring rolls, fat steamed vegetable dumplings and crispy fried tofu with peanut sauce. With two glasses each, it was $31 each with tip. WIGB? No question. 766 Ninth Avenue near 52d Street, 212 581 0999.

The pretty good, aside from the understaffing: Jacob’s Pickles on the Upper West Side, where we met a couple of friends on the early side and where we could only wonder why we had put off trying the place for so long. The food was shockingly accomplished for the neighborhood. I think I scored with excellent house-made sausage with leeks that came with respectable fries, good mustard and a great ketchup alternative (along with pointless braised cabbage), for all of $15. The running-hard waitress screwed up two orders, so gracious Bob took the Caesar with fried chicken no one had asked for and Len got his biscuit with fried chicken smothered in mushroom gravy plus grits; both were superb. I don’t think you go there for spinach salad, but Diane’s came with Niman Ranch bacon, blue cheese and mushrooms. We shared a couple of bottles of the rosé on tap, too. The mystery is why a restaurant that puts so much thought and energy into the menu, the sourcing and the drinks program skimps on staffing. WIGB? Looking forward to it but hoping they hire some waiters and runners in the meantime. Jeebus. 509 Amsterdam Avenue near 84th Street, 212 470 5566.

New York minutes/Late April to early May 2012

May 2012

The seriously good: Shanghai Asian Cuisine in Chinatown, where my consort and his studio manager and I took a lunch break on their run to the storage space down in the old NYPost building near the Seaport that would make a perfect setting for a remake of “The Shining.” I’d picked the tiny place from a Robert Sietsema rave, and the soup dumplings were everything he promised, perfectly made and with great flavor. As were the steamed dumplings filled with greens, very delicate texturally but intense-tasting. We all thought the mock duck was way above average, and the noodles with a kind of meat gravy were fine. But the fried pork dumplings turned out to be what we’ve all most craved ever since — they made me realize how rare those are when done to greaseless perfection. WIGB? Absolutely. Everything was in the $5 to $7 range, and the whole staff actually seemed happy to please us. 14A Elizabeth Street, 212 964 5640.

The not bad: Sezz Medi up near Columbia, where we trotted after a excellent morning seeing the Pete Souza Obama photo show at the Schomburg Center and touring Alexander Hamilton’s Grange before Bob had to be at school to coach aspiring journalists. We wanted fast and good, but sit-down, so we ordered without really thinking. Decent if a bit grease-sodden fried calamari and zucchini arrived in minutes, but my BLT took so long we had plenty of time to argue about why anyone would order such a thing in an Italianesque restaurant. It was okay, and came with fine fries with garlic, and really was a lot of food for $8. But I think six pizzas came out before one sandwich. WIGB? Maybe, if we found ourselves stranded in that neighborhood.

The great again: Hunan House in Flushing, where I met a few members of the best little eating group I’ve ever connected with and where we ate ourselves smart (I think with seven or nine dishes) for all of $20 a head. All I wanted was the smoked duck, but the group went for a different version, with dried turnips and white pepper (aka chilies), and I had no complaints. That kitchen is definitely not afraid of heat. The lazy Susan was spinning, with dan dan noodles and pumpkin cake and pickled Hunan cabbage flying by, but I was most impressed by the (comped) winter melon with black beans and chilies, the braised beef with chilies and black beans and especially with the Hunan mustard greens. A whole fish, though, just tasted muddy to me (you are what you eat, and grain doesn’t cut it). WIGB? Absolutely, but now I want to try its sister restaurant, without the hourlong ride. 718 353 1808.

The mostly good: Tertulia in the West Village, where I connected with friends in from Philadelphia after being warned on the phone that it would be tough to get in because it was Beard Eve but where we were instantly shown to a great table. I was a little worried by the grease/smoke smell hanging over the whole room, but the food was outstanding: eggs stuffed with smoked cod; mushrooms on toast with (allegedly) smoked ricotta and pine nuts; ham croquettes, and grilled asparagus with poached egg. I only tasted a bit of the chocolate-sea salt tart and the crema catalana. Service was a bit distracted, but it was Beard Eve . . . WIGB? Anytime. Despite the tumblers that always make wine taste as if it came from a hose. 359 Sixth Avenue near Waverly Place, 646 559 9909.

The worth-the-journey: Fort Defiance in Red Hook, where we landed with another couple on our little expedition to a different neighborhood that also involved Key lime pie (good but not life-changing), then excellent iced tea at Baked plus samples of just-distilled rum at an open house at Van Brunt Stillhouse. We had our maiden voyage through an Ikea beforehand, after the free Saturday ferry dumped us right there, and must have carried away some of the craziness that comes from too much choice, because we looked at every other eating option before heading back after leaving our names and being told the wait would be 15 minutes. So we walked in and sat right down, in a quiet table in the very back, and soon were being seduced by the cocktail list. My spritz was not bubbly enough but was the right choice to go with a huge fluffy biscuit flooded with sausage gravy alongside poached eggs that just needed Tabasco; the guys succumbed to excellent Ramos gin fizzes that didn’t play so well with either granola or Bob’s kick-ass grillades and (Anson) grits, with what must have been a very large calf’s cheek in lively sauce. Joanne’s omelet looked like an omelet, though. WIGB? If I lived closer, for sure. The room, the service, the mood were all just right. And while eggs out scare me, the menu promised safe sourcing. 365 Van Brunt Street, 347 453 6672.

The oy: Fairway, in what I call the flagship store, where we met friends who now have a 14-month-old for an early dinner on a Friday that I figured would last about an hour. I think we almost closed the place down, with very little of that time spent eating and drinking. Plus the pizza was the worst ever, just slopped out. The parents were smart, though: they brought mooshed-up fish and vegetables for the daughter. And she at least got to get up and walk around while waiting. And waiting.

The not-terrible: Osteria Cotta on the Upper West Side, where Bob and I landed after the very smart “We Have a Pope” and where a sidewalk table, even under scaffolding, made up for mediocre food and ditzy service. Caponata bruschetta suffered from the tasteless main ingredient; pizza verdure was soggy and wan, and the endive and watercress salad may or may not have had actual Gorgonzola in it. The best part was when the waitress brought my second glass of wine and it was half-full. “Oh, I guess I took it from the bartender too fast.” WIGB? Maybe. But not anytime soon.

The regrettable: Calexico’s taco cart, parked across from Madison Square in one of those Bloomberg triangles where I stumbled upon at least a dozen mobile vendors assembled in some sort of promotion through June 1. I’d walked by the cart before, but the line reminded me of our friend Leslie Wong’s memorable line about New Yorkers: “The more they get fucked, the more they like it.” On this Wednesday it was no shorter, but after checking out the other options I decided it was worth the wait even with Roberta’s right next “door.” Now can someone please explain to me why I thought carne asada was the filling to go for with mad cow loose in the land? Or what in hell the rubber chunks billed as skirt steak really were?