The good: Mighty Quinn’s BBQ in the East Village, again, where my consort and I headed for an early-bird Saturday supper after a great screening of a friend’s shorts at Anthology Film Archive and where the availability of only beer was easier to swallow since we had just tried Fairway’s private-label prosecco. We were lucky to wander in and take our slow time ordering so that we snared a table and were soon making a mess of the super-tender ribs, with their crusty spicing, and the meltingly fatty slabs of smoky brisket. Both came with good coleslaw and pickled onions, red jalapeños, cucumbers and celery, the acid cutting the richness. WIGB? As Bob said: “Hill Country is good. This might be better.”
The seriously good: Lao Chengdu in Flushing, where we hooked up on a Sunday with our eating-Asian/Asian-eating group for an especially satisfying expedition through yet another particular subset of Chinese and where the seating arrangement turned out to be the most ideal since our virgin outing, to the now-vanished Excellent Thai. Nine of us fit around a big table in the back of the small dining room, with a Lazy Susan (an amenity rarer than you might think out there), so we could easily both share and talk. Both of which we did with abandon. I should have written this as soon as we got back off the three trains it took to get from there, but I do recall the spicy beef tendon was so sensational I tried a second piece despite knowing what it was — the slices were parchment-thin and beautifully seasoned. Wontons in red chili sauce seemed more predictable but well-executed, while thousand-year eggs tasted great but kind of creeped me out, between the camo color and the Jell-O-y texture. Tiger-skin peppers were as Russian roulette-like as shisitos or padrons: some incendiary, some tame. We had great pork belly with green vegetable and Sichuan chicken with peppers and, most amazing, a house special of “steamed pork” teamed with mushy peas, almost like a Chinese interpretation of a timballo with meat instead of rice or pasta. I know there was a great green vegetable, and beautifully presented if slightly syrupy whole fish with “pine seeds,” and a fish soup with chunks of tomato. I think that was on the house, along with a dessert of a sweet soup afloat with what tasted like rice balls along with maraschino cherries. WIGB? Absolutely, but only in a big group to taste as much as possible (the bill was so ridiculously low we each chipped in $20 and wound up leaving a 50 percent tip). 37-17 Prince Street, 718 886 5595.
The historically good: Grand Central Oyster Bar, where Bob and I headed after the first part of a weekday daytime date, at the Nick Cave Heard NY performance of dancing “horses” and where the whole experience was the same as it ever was. We found seats at the counter, were instantly handed the big menu and the lunch special cheat sheet, got water and warm roll and cold flatbread with butter and, after perusing the insanely long and inventive list of specials ($39.95 softshells, $31.95 grouper), ordered what we always do: the $11.95 oyster pan roast and a $10.15(cq) crab cake sandwich, plus a glass of riesling to share because everyone else was drinking at just-on noon. The former dish is one the many decades could never improve, with richness countered by a bit of heat and a hunk of toast and a generous portion of oysters not quite cooked in the hot cream. And the sandwich was a plain thing, with cocktail sauce served alongside rather than tartar, and rather too much good bun, but the crab cake itself was thick and meaty. Coleslaw alongside helped. WIGB? Of course, and not just to use the facilities, among the most old-school in all of Manhattan.
The good to my untrained palate: Malay Restaurant in Flushing, another destination booked by our Asian-eating/eating-Asian group, where we crowded around a tight table to indulge in a cuisine with which none of us could claim to be expert. We were there for the Haianese dishes, though, and they were all good, such as the chicken and the rice. Roti canai proved to be a fine rendition, and I only wish we had ordered four, not just three, to share. Beef rendang was also excellent, with big tender chunks of well-sauced/spiced meat. Popiah, translated as Malaysian spring roll, was a big hunk of great flavors, the soft slices meant for dunking in a spicy sauce. I liked the fruity Indian rojak salad better than the Malaysian interpretation, which was just too funky-powerful with fish sauce. Judging by the scribbles on a takeout menu we took out, we also had kang kung belachun, a good water spinach, and “fried pearl noodles.” (Guess I’d better go back to shooting my meal.) Everyone got most excited over the durian-red bean shaved ice and ABC shaved rice, both weirdly wonderful (the latter had corn kernels in it, although none could say why). WIGB? Maybe. It was all satisfying, but I’d do more homework before any encore.
The good for the first time: Gran Electrica in Dumbo, where we had the good sense to reserve for after an enlightening presentation on food rackets in NYC at the Brooklyn Historical Society and where we were able to walk right in and get a table in a packed place for shared small plates. The crab tostada, with peekytoe meat, grapefruit, orange, cilantro, onion, avocado and habanero, was close to mind-blowing, the corn tortilla pliable enough to cut into wedges but crisp enough to support each perfectly balanced bite of the topping. I got tricked into trying the lengua taco after Bob insisted the server must have made a mistake and brought beef because it was so tender. Nope. He slipped me tongue. (And it was sensational, but jeebus, I don’t need to eat that.) I was busy with my chorizo con papas quesadilla, an excellent balance of fat and starch. His margarita also made him happy (as I was with a taste). I do like a menu that lists purveyors first, too. WIGB? Absolutely, but as much for the hospitality as the fine food. Everyone we came in contact with seemed genuinely happy to serve us.
The good for the third time: Toloache 82 on the Upper East Side, where we rewarded ourselves with Saturday lunch after the outstanding AIPAD show at the Park Avenue Armory and where the cramped little dining room where we were seated was redeemed by the service and sublime food. I had the huarache again, with just the right balance of chorizo and cheese to masa, beans and egg, but Bob scored with the pork pozole, a splendid bowlful of corn, meat and chilies that was paired with a world-class black bean tostada and came with a little tray of seasonings, including chile salt. WIGB? Yep. As always, I walked out thinking you can never go wrong at a Julian Medina joint. Cooks and servers are all on the same happy professional program.
The surprisingly not bad: The Ellington on the Upper West Side, where we headed after one of those days when two people working at home (or one dicking around on the Internets) needed a change of scenery. And that’s all we were expecting, but the food turned out to be vaut le (short) voyage. We split a beet and quinoa salad with goat cheese and walnut vinaigrette that tasted a long way from 106th Street, then I had a $12 flatbread topped with smoked mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and pesto that was fine for dinner, even better for breakfast. And if Bob’s Cumberland sausage and mash was more about the onion gravy and braised red cabbage than the billed meat and potatoes, it was still a nice plate of food for $15 (star ingredient came from Myers of Keswick). We scored a nice table at the window, so there wasn’t much din in our dinner, but we were also there early. WIGB? If it lasts. That corner location does tend to shuffle restaurants in and out.
The good and reliable: Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table, in our neighborhood, where we hooked up on a night after one of us was teaching and the other was dicking around on the Internets and where everything was not just what we wanted but even better, right down to the kittybag. That room always seems so garish from the street but so homy once you sit down, even at the same awkward table you always get. But I always find it encouraging when the server is the same as the last times — consistency is not to be underestimated in a restaurant. Bob ate his fried chicken with many “wows,” and I was just as happy with my Cobb salad, which I ordered partly so I could bring something home to The Cat — the bacon, avocado, blue cheese, tomatoes were all perfectly proportioned against the chicken. WIGB? Why don’t we remember it more often? Bonus points for the kittybag: All our leftovers were actually carefully plated in their plastic takeaway containers.
The regrettable: Amigos on the Upper West Side, where we wandered in after the Greenmarket despite having been warned by my Columbia e-pal and where the food was not the problem. The aftermath was. We were suckered by the lunch menu lying on a table outside, but it turned out we had descended into brunch hell, and huevos do make me nervous when they’re mostly what’s on offer. I wanted to leave immediately, but the host/manager was so professional and friendly and the salsa so lively if weirdly tangy I shut up and ordered $6 black bean soup, which turned out to be better than I expected if oddly rich. Bob succumbed to chicken chicharrone tacos, which were overstuffed with crunchy skin bits with meat attached plus generous guacamole; three of those came with decent black beans and mediocre orange rice for $12. He paid the relatively tiny check and we started walking. And aching. By the time we got home I felt like Mr. Creosote. Whatever they put in that food, it has the bad Indian/Houlihan’s effect. Bob asked first: WYGB? And we agreed. Nope. Average food was not worth the distention. But I do hope someplace better hires away that superb host/manager.
The underwhelming: Buvette in the West Village, where I met two friends for one of those annual-or-so catch-up sessions and where the setting definitely outdid the food. Even at $13, the brandade was no deal — bland would be an overstatement. I kept thinking about the time a French friend and I gave a party together and her BFF Ariane Daguin advised me: “Take the garlic out of the guacamole and put it in the brandade.” Except there was no guacamole to garlic to the rescue. And while I would always prefer a teaspoonful of food to a heaping ladleful, I still thought the portion and presentation were just daintily silly. WIGB? Allow me to blurb: “Buvette was cute but probably too precious to make it a destination again for me.”
Ends and odds: While I was neglecting my updates here, we also had experiences so predictably fine at Fairway Cafe & Mermaid Inn & Luke’s Lobster that they would be soporific to recount. But I do have to note Rainbow Falafel, the most famous stand at least near Union Square, was a downer. If those sandwich assemblers were erecting skyscrapers, every one would collapse. In a hail of hard pink tomato chunks.