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. . .