Archive for January, 2013

New York minutes/Mid- to late January 2013

January 2013

The good: The Smith on the Upper West Side, where my consort had the good sense to walk over and reserve a quiet table before the execrable “Tabu” and where our rewards included a great little cone of relative silence (A K A booth) and over-the-top service along with surprisingly satisfying food. The wine list seems priced for the same crowd who would go for the potpie/mac-and-cheese/nursery puddings, meaning those who live around the corner in a crazy-pricey apartment house, but we culled a “big-ass” (liter) carafe of Valpolicella for all of $48. We shared seared shishito peppers that turned out to be mild but not tame, as well as a respectable flatbread with ricotta, artichokes, olives and (mostly) onions. I didn’t taste the Bugses’ pork chop and chicken potpie, but Bob’s “brick-pressed” chicken was perfectly tender and juicy under its mountain of good mashed potatoes. And my $19 ricotta gnocchi in “truffle cream” had none of the usual gumminess and came in a portion large enough not just to share tastes but also to kittybag for lunch next day. I was underwhelmed by the silly s’mores-in-a-jar dessert, but I was in the minority of one. WIGB? Absolutely. The space is knockoff McNally, which the UWS could use more of, and the staff from the kitchen on out acted beyond happy to serve us.

The really good: Maysville in a yet-to-be-Realtor-branded neighborhood, where Bob and I shared an ideal birthday dinner. I picked it over Boulud Sud because it was newish and the small, focused online menu exuded energy, maybe because everything is geared toward the house booze: bourbon (I read that the same owner has Char No. 9 in Brooklyn). We were stunned on walking in and being led to the perfect table at a corner banquette, and things just kept getting better. The waiter was professionally hip, or hiply professional, and the food was outstanding. We shared a sublime poached egg over grits with duck confit, mushrooms and a smoky broth, then I had the how-can-you-go-wrong flounder teamed with grilled baby calamari, salsify, sunchokes and smoked ham, which was more of a dish than the shopping list it sounds like. Bob was equally happy with his crispy chicken leg and chicken roulade with potatoes and mushrooms. WIGB? Anytime. It’s really an upscale bar, but it reflects how important food for booze has become. Extra points for offering good wines, fairly priced.

The pretty bad: El Mitote on Columbus Avenue, where I stupidly steered Bob and four friends on a night too cold to venture much farther in search of something new after the very powerful “Five Broken Cameras” (all of us having forgotten Cafe Tallulah had opened). We were all so happy it wasn’t deafening that we were fine with a table in the back, right next to the toilet where the door would be opened and left open repeatedly all through our stay. And the menu looked to have something for everyone, starting with  margaritas, beer, white wine (chardonnay, unfortunately, and shitty chardonnay at that). I didn’t try the tacos, but what I ordered put me off Mexican for about a week, and I had always thought I could eat Mexican every day. This was on the menu under “Tortas Ahogadas Tapatias — Guadalajara Style Torta ‘Drowned’ in Hot Tomato Broth With Crema, Onion and Shredded Lettuce, wild mushrooms & fresco cheese.” It was on the plate as a crap roll lined with button mushrooms and what appeared to be sliced processed cheese, and the broth was like canned, diluted tomatoes. At a time when you can get amazing Mexican if you know how to order in the average deli, this was like your average deli staffed by Albanians. Worse, that sauce, like the relatively decent flan we shared, was served in a plastic takeout container. Because, the waiter volunteered, they have no dishwasher. I don’t even want to think about how they disinfect the good wineglasses and bad Mason jars in which the weak margaritas were served. . .

The much improved: Casa Pomona on the Upper West Side, where Bob and I scurried after a friend’s photo opening of MLK murals at the New-York Historical Society on a night when it was just too brutally cold to think farther afield. The hostess/owner(?) was effusive in welcoming us into the empty restaurant and showing us to a great table in the back room, which led to some serious over-ordering. The H/O, when we asked about happy hour at that time-appropriate hour, said drink prices could only be reduced if we sat at the bar, but she offered us the bar menu for food: three tapas for $15 (I think). So we had chorizo-cheese croquetas that were almost too intense, albondigas stuffed with oxtail that were even richer and wonderfully light spaghetti squash topped with piperrada, pine nuts and golden currants that restored my faith in that fruity vegetable. And that was after we tried the perfectly executed coca of the day, topped with onion, rosemary and bacon. WIGB? We almost did just a few days later for the combination of flavor, quiet and hospitality.

New York minutes/Earlyish January 2013

January 2013

The good: Mighty Quinn’s in the East Village, where my consort and I headed after a trip to Union Square just for eggs that also snared duck legs, potatoes, celeriac, apples and shallots and where we wound up getting a tour of the “pit” after quite a happy-making little lunch. The carver and counter people could not have been nicer, and it turns out that’s no accident; the owner who walked us through his rib-and-brisket methods said only the pleasant need apply. We shared that brisket, which was far juicier than you normally encounter, with perfectly crusty ends, and some ribs, super-tender and jazzily dry-rubbed. Both came with a choice of creamy or vinegary coleslaw (Mrs. Sprat here preferred the former) plus pickled cucumbers, onions and red jalapeños, all better accents to the fatty meat than the sweet and tame barbecue sauce in the honking huge bottle on the table. WIGB? Absolutely. The price was right, too ($8 or so for each meat).

The good except for the food: Fig & Olive on the Upper East Side, where I let a friend and curiosity lure me after the ridiculous “unaffordable luxury of food” column cited it as a destination for kiddles who care about eating. It’s a favorite of hers, and I understood why as soon as she was seated and the server recognized her. The whole place is like a canteen for the 1 percent, with super-obsequious service, and if there is one thing all that top tier has in common it is a low bar for vittles. Rube that I am, I figured a $22 crab salad would at least include topnotch seafood, but as soon as the oversized plate finally landed I realized it was the kind I routinely pass up in stores, undoubtedly canned in waters I wouldn’t wade into. The hard-cooked eggs with it at least looked and tasted fresh, although what I guess was roasted tomatoes looked as if an unfortunate “sanitary” accident had happened. Mostly, though, it tasted like pretty much nothing, the cucumbers as bland as the radishes and the cherry tomatoes and the avocado, all of it laid over a pile of outsized lettuce and under oversized sprigs of basil and tarragon. The little squares of focaccia with different oils at least got the soaking job done. And I will give the waiter credit for asking if I didn’t finish because I was full or because I didn’t like it, and for accepting my lie with a joke only a family retainer would brave. WIGB? I walked by the place at least once a week over 20-some months of physical therapy and never once ventured inside. Now I know why.

The pretty good but what do I know? — Upi Jaya in Elmhurst, where I met up with our eating-Asian group for Saturday lunch and where even our relative ignorance of Indonesian cuisine didn’t prevent us from satisfying ourselves one dish or another. I liked the perkedal kentang/potato fritters, the lemper ayam/steamed glutinous rice stuffed with shredded seasoned chicken, the kale in coconut curry and especially the beef rendang, which was not exactly tender but was busting out all over in flavor. The weekend-only noodle dishes were also worth ordering, one with shrimp and the other with more shredded chicken. I wasn’t crazy about jackfruit curry, and the gado gado was pretty sloppy. Overall, though: Yes, I got my $22 worth, and the super-patient, running-hard waitress really earned her tip. Props to the youngest at the table who wondered: Can she live on tips? 76-04 Woodside Avenue, 718 458 1807.

New York minutes/December 2012

January 2013

The always good: Momofuku Ssam, where my consort and I ate dinner after the fabulous-as-promised “Searching for Sugar Man” and where I met up with friends for lunch the next day because I knew it would be an entirely different restaurant. Bob and I snared seats at the bar as soon as we walked in and got advice on either side on what to choose: unfishy Spanish mackerel with a schmear of black garlic plus lotus root and airy-crisp chips made from lime peel, then a creamy, light Jerusalem artichoke soup with snails, bits of pork jowl and sliced jalapeño that was just killer, every bite with each element alone and then with all combined. After a very large popcorn, we couldn’t finish the great spicy pork sausage and rice cakes with Chinese broccoli and Sichuan peppercorns (the cakes were like crunchy gnocchi). The bartender let me taste the Greek white, and it, too, was so good I felt safe ordering a bottle the next afternoon for friends who drink sauvignon blanc and Sancerre. The roast duck breast was, as always, stunningly good, as were the spicy fingerlings served in the set, although the duck dumplings were a little more fried than usual. I thought we had under-ordered in sharing those two dishes and insisted we try the duck wings. Which were pleasant enough but outshone by both the tempura squash and the watercress-apple-pumpkinseed salad on the plate. Wally was horrified when she saw the cook in the kitchen right next to our table drench the latter in duck fat, but not when she tasted it.

The vaut le schlep: Lao Dong Bei in Flushing, where I met the eating-Asian group I’ve been so fortunate to be invited to explore with and to whom I am so happy to leave the ordering. I arrived as the chef/owner and our Taiwanese-speaking leader were deep in discussion of all we needed to try to get a sense of the food from that part of China, formerly known as Manchuria, and he was translating that we would get “skin jelly” on the house. That turned out to be a sort of aspic meant to be dunked in a soy sauce-vinegar-garlic-ginger sauce, and it was the one dish I couldn’t brave. I usually can’t stomach lamb, either, but the slab of ribs that soon landed was exceptional: the meat tender, the crust crusty with black and white sesame seeds, cumin seeds and chile. (Coal is the cooking fuel in Dong Bei, that region.) It was rivaled only by the spicy quail, a platter of legs that may have been a bit overcooked but had great flavor and spicing, especially with the onions alongside (a tablemate likened them to liver and onions, but the little birds had none of that funky flavor). We also had two meatless dishes, “tiger vegetable,” which was mostly cilantro stems and jalapeños, and something off the specials on the wall in Chinese that the table translated as bracken (and was pretty great). “Fried pork in orange sauce,” as the menu had it, turned out to be very tender slices in a crisp but delicate coating (“thinking man’s General Pso’s?”). The showstoppers were served in hotpots over Sterno lit by the waitress/wife: the richest, most intense broth with chicken, mushrooms and vermicelli, followed by a whole fish in another rich broth with fermented tofu and glass noodles, both dishes seriously well-spiced (star anise?) After all that, our 24 steamed dumplings landed, stuffed with pork and pickled cabbage and made for dunking in the sauce from the skin jelly. WIGB? Actually, I would even on my own with a new crew, not just because the food was so eye-opening but because the owners were so thrilled to have a bunch of non-Chinese in the restaurant. The chef was clearly invested in us loving everything we ate, and his wife could not have been more eager to keep the customers satisfied. 44-09 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, 718 539 4100.

The happy-making, twice in a row: Toloache on the Upper East Side, where Bob and I warmed up after the outstanding Ann Hamilton installation at the Park Avenue Armory and again after the bloody-great “Django Unchained.” We got a nice booth for a quiet lunch to share the best-ever tortilla soup and then carnitas/nopales tacos, which the waiter warned were bite-size but were actually handfuls, and the huarache, a light masa cake filled with black beans, surrounded with chunks of chorizo and sauce and topped with ultra-creamy scrambled eggs. Even early on Saturday night, though, we could only get seats at the bar after calling to reserve, but the bartenders were excellent. We had to have the tortilla soup again, then the quesadilla with huitlacoche and truffle and more tacos, these filled with Modelo-braised brisket with tomatillo salsa and horseradish crema. WIGB? Absolutely. It’s a beautiful place and much more comfortable than the one in the Theater District. (That tortilla soup did such a good job of vanquishing Bob’s serial-killer cold that he insisted we stop and try the new Spanish LeChurro shop we passed nearby, where the hot chocolate with chilies was perfection although the churros themselves were doughy.)

The good again: Parm in Nolita, where we wound up after an Illy-stockup at DiPalo (best price in town) even though I had had dumplings on the brain on that day after Christmas — after reading this scary story on the train on industrial pork, eggplant parmesan sounded so much more enticing. We were lucky and had to wait only 15 minutes for a table to tuck into three great little salads, the pickles being the least surprising. Buffalo cucumbers were as good as you’d expect: chunks in a blue cheese dressing spiked with hot sauce, and excellent, while chickpeas in ranch dressing with celery qualified as genius. We should have split a hero; a roll was messy to eat once cut in half, but that eggplant was pretty fabulous. And of course we had to have the ice cream cake that had just been written up; I must not get out enough because it didn’t strike me as anything extraordinary aside from the strawberry goo holding the three flavors of ice cream together. WIGB? Anytime. The staff’s attitude is so upbeat, and the music was all flashbacks from my childhood.

The better than its ingredients: Tortaria just south of Union Square, where Bob and I ducked in for a quick lunch after the Greenmarket when all the cool joints mostly had eggs and after he Yelped it up and remembered he’d had a good fast lunch there. You order at a counter and sit at a table you hope has been wiped down, but the window area is as nice as the people, and the guacamole is way above average — we asked for spicy, and it was perfectly balanced with heat and richness; the huge bag of chips was obviously freshly fried. We split two plates of tacos, one with beef and the other carnitas, and both blew Chipotle out of the agua. Table salsas only enhanced the intense flavors. WIGB? Definitely. The people are pleasant, and the price is right, too. (Although I know the tradeoff is less-than-Chipotle meat.)

The undeniably good but probably doomed: Forager’s Table in Chelsea, where we hooked up for geographic convenience with a food aficionado in from Denver after my consort spoke at the School of Visual Arts and where the food and service were so impressive the near-emptiness of the nicely designed room was mystifying. We were disappointed the menu was so tiny compared with the extensive bait online, so Bob and I wound up ordering only appetizers after a shared (and superb) eggplant dip with cumin and lavash. His fluke carpaccio looked stunning, coated with toasted poppy seeds, and tasted sublime, with lemon vinaigrette, and my duck liver paté was fatty-satisfying, with perfectly grilled bread (and, for once, plenty of it) plus cornichons and grainy mustard. We only tasted Matt’s beautifully cooked fish with root vegetables. With a couple of glasses of wine each and a beer for him, it was $51 a person with tax and tip. WIGB? Hope so . . . Wish it had opened in our neighborhood.

The “how do you say kinks en Español?”: Casa Pomona on the Upper West Side, where a Spain-besotted friend and I landed for a drink in the first days after it was open and where it was one stumble after another. The worst was that the bartender offered to split the one glass of white he had left from one of the three bottles on the list, but he charged us for two. And I didn’t realize it until I was walking home, wondering how the tab was so high for three glasses of wine and one shared tapa, the migas. I’ve never had that in Spain, but I’m assuming it is not always a well-cooked egg topped with a little bit of chorizo and some dried croutons. WIGB? Probably, so Bob can try it. But the wine choices were so limited, and that little gouge didn’t help.

The not bad: Kelso Dining in Brooklyn, where I took Bob for lunch to try a Panamanian carimañola for a recipe I needed to develop. As good as those meat-filled yuca tubes were, the real stars on the table were the drinks: sorrel and tamarind, big glasses filled with ice and sweet-sour brightness. Both were perfect counterpoints to the richness of the fried yuca I also insisted on ordering, and to both the stewed chicken and the superb salt fish with rice and peas on the $10 lunch plate. It was like eating in the Caribbean. The owner and waitress couldn’t have been friendlier, even sending us off with a “souvenir” of the housemade hot sauce. WIGB? If I were in the neighborhood.

The port in a storm: A.G. Kitchen on the Upper West Side, where we landed after getting shut out of two other places (Loi, you had to hold a Tony Danza private party?) after the way overhyped “Chasing Ice.” It’s just the latest incarnation of the space, but the menu is more energetic. The hostess happily gave us a booth, and the waiter was patient. I didn’t try the burger one friend appeared to enjoy, but I’ll vouch for the fries. My salad was quite good, with Bibb lettuce, bacon and Cabrales dressing, and it was all of $9. Even better was Bob’s “samba” chicken, well-marinated and cooked juicy; The Cat loved the leftovers. Extra points for decent New Zealand sauvignon blanc for a non-gougey $36, and for a low noise level. WIGB? Why not?

The price is right: Cocina Economica on the Upper West Side, where we snared a table after an early showing of the seriously good “Silver Linings Playbook” and where the only thing that would keep me from going back was the space — it’s great-looking, but too many tables are crammed in so tightly the waiters can barely navigate. Everything was so cheap I hoped the chefs know restaurant math, because it’s hard to see how they’ll make money on an $8 skirt steak salad with avocado, lettuce, poblanos, jicama and cotija when it’s mostly meat. Bob’s braised pork loin for $13 was a mega-portion/plate as well, with Swiss chard, corn, green beans and pumpkin seeds. Maybe they’ll clean up on the ill-conceived avocado corn bread, baked to desiccation in a corn husk and desperately needing the superb salsas that arrived with it.

And the good as always when we’re eating close to home: Mermaid Inn on Amsterdam, where we met up with friends in from Bucks County before a balloon party on Tryptophan Eve and where the service was especially ebullient and the food pretty much as reliable as always. We had a 6:30 reservation, so happy hour prices were in order; I got there last to find a mini fish taco was on its way for me and a full glass of the discounted wine was waiting. The other three shared oysters while I ate my three-bite tilapia with spicy mayo. I was trying to abstain and only had the lobster knuckles given escargot treatment, which certainly is a lovely way to get $14 for scraps. They were swimming in less butter than I expected, but they were certainly satisfying. I just tasted Bob’s good skate and watched our friends tear through the trout and the spaghetti topped with seafood salad. They were thrilled with the free chocolate dessert. And with the waiter, who recognized us from many Social Media Mondays and was fully engaged. We went back a couple of weeks later with one of Bob’s boyhood friends who now lives in Sweden, and he loved it, too.