Archive for April, 2014

New York minutes/End of April 2014

April 2014

When The Consort’s away, The Cat WCTLWAFW decamps from his bed on top of the refrigerator. He knows there won’t be any stove action, let alone any real kittybags landing. So when Bob got home from a week at a workshop out in real America, source of of Sysco spinach and other abominations, I was determined to be a little more careful about where we went out to eat. And it’s amazing what you can find in this town if you pay attention.

After walking every aisle at AIPAD, for starters, I might have suggested we head to our usual refuge in that restaurant wasteland, the can-get-expensive/we-know-the-menu-too-well Toloache 82. But I remembered the Writing Room had opened a while back in ridiculous old Elaine’s*, so we headed there at early-bird hour to find nearly empty dining rooms but ditzy hostesses insistent on giving us dark tables. We settled for the second, next to another couple of olds, but a manager came by and moved us, luckily — to right alongside the server stand. At least the staffers aside from the ditzes seemed to be that rarity, workers proud to be serving and enthusiastic as hell about making our meal happy. The New Yorker may have been underwhelmed by the Parkerhouse-style rolls, but we liked both them and the butter they rode in on. The salmon tartare we shared — flecked with everything-bagel spices, and creamy with onion mayonnaise — tasted quite lively when spread on warm grilled rye bread. We both had only salads, and I got the better one: spinach interspersed with blue cheese and pickled mushrooms and tossed with bacon vinaigrette, all laid over a CD-size crouton spread with bacon jam. Bob’s “farmer’s salad” read better than it tasted, and even then it was more of a grocery list: Romaine, radicchio, pepper, wild rice, avocado, broccoli and hearts of palm, all allegedly dressed with Green Goddess. Everyone else in the room as it filled seemed to be ordering the fried chicken for two, served with biscuits and coleslaw, but we’d split some chouquettes from Maison Kayser on the schlep north and passed on mains (which run $24 to $52). We did finish a bottle of $34 rosé, poured right. WIGB? Yep. It’s not just for the little old lady in Dubuque. And the bar seemed very alluring in early evening light.

*One of Seymour Britchky’s greatest lines was how Elaine strutted around that same space while “hoisting up her underwear.”

A couple of nights later I had to pass on the amazing “Lunchbox” with Bob and a couple of friends because I had to crash a story revision, and on my way to meet them afterward for the usual cheap-wine-and-pizza at Fairway got a call on my green-like-xmas phone that the menu there was Passover-only, for $40 — so I suggested the days-old Tessa. And what a find on that rain-blizzardy night. We snared one end of a communal table in the high-energy, well-designed bar and passed around fabulous plates: The array of house dips to start (tiny portions with huge flavors: smoked eggplant; hummus; ricotta, all with crunchy lavash, for all of $8), then a sensational asparagus risotto with ricotta for me (I ordered the appetizer size for $14 and still had enough to kittybag), lamb “porchetta” for Bob (the meat rolled, aggressively seasoned and roasted, with a plethora of garnishes, for $28), monkfish with a lentil-quinoa pilaf ($27) for Diane and intense braised pork cheeks with pecorino polenta ($27) for Len (The Cat loved the last bites bagged). The $11 chocolate “mouse” (cq on the check) was sensational, strewn with toasted almonds and caramelized fennel seeds and teamed with honey-anise ice cream. Everything was so happy-making, and the waiter was so engaging, and the weather outside was so awful, that we wound up splitting two fine bottles of white, a verdicchio and a Rousanne, for $45 and $40.

Three nights later Bob and I wound up making our way there again with another friend, after she and I caught up with “The Lunchbox” and Bob came along because he had liked the movie as much as the restaurant. Luckily, he called ahead and, even though all tables were reserved, the FOH was able to fit us in again in the bar, at a four-top, where the only downside was the debauched quartet partying on beside us. This time, after I’d confirmed the chef’s background at Peacock Alley, the cooking struck me as a little overwrought, but in good ways. The cod salad was billed as “for the table,” but it was hard to get all the elements in one coherent bite: cabbage, cucumber, lemon confit and pickled tomato. After popcorn, I only wanted an appetizer, but the $12 rouget could have been a main, the perfectly seared fillets teamed with fennel marmalade and seasoned with espelette (separatist paprika). Bob’s baked-juicy black sea bass was rather restrained, simply laid over crushed potatoes with lemon and accented by braised fennel. But Donna may have won, with spaccatelli (damned if I can adequately describe that pasta shape — botched priest strangler?) in a rich sauce with lobster and chanterelles. Again, the $19 appetizer size was beyond generous. Grapefruit poundcake turned out to be more cerebral than the “mouse,” with olive oil ganache, citrus curd and grapefruit-thyme sorbet ramping up the sensations. And this time the three of us were having such a good time, and the sommelier was so engaging (when was the last time you measured a table by cubits?) that we went through two bottles of the Rousanne. WIGB? Early and often. Did I mention the bread and butter were exceptional, too? Plus, as Donna said as we waited for our seats: “I can’t believe we’re uptown.”

Bob agreed I was really on a roll the following Wednesday when, after the pleasurable-if-still-brown Greenmarket and then the root-canal-rivaling carpet-shopping at ABC, I led him to Barn Joo. I’d been curious about the place since doing a story on the beef I had been told the chef buys, and after failing to get a quote from that smart buyer by email or phone, I’d dropped by to leave my card and been pretty wowed by the decor. It seemed even more seductive because the meal was a steal: $10 for a “cheesesteak” stuffed with slices of that Happy Valley beef in a sort of focaccia with excellent fries and superb spicy dipping sauce plus a house-made yuzu soda, and $12 for the jap chae noodle platter, with beef and a little tray of condiments, one with egg, two like kimchi. The servers were sweet and the room was fun. WIGB? Absolutely. How could I have walked past it so many times and never gone in?

One day I may turn up a receipt showing we tried somewhere else between all that high-end consumption, but I do recall we made a three-train expedition to Queens to Hibiscus, in Richmond Hill, to meet our Asian-eating/eating-Asian group. On this Easter Sunday we were 12, apparently only two of whom uttered the words “happy Easter” to both tablemates and the dressed-to-kill fellow guests. The destination had been chosen for its mix of West Indian and Chinese, but most everyone agreed only the former was vaut le voyage. The house fried rice, mixed with everything but the kitchen sink, was just what it sounds like: more excess than execution. The noodle dishes were what we could have phoned home from an hour and a half earlier. Etc. But the duck curry was fabulous even before chunks of the tender, spicy meat and rich sauce were wrapped in the killer roti, and the sauce on the oxtail (I didn’t brave the meat) transformed the already-great peas-and-rice cooked in coconut oil. I also did not brave the black pudding, made with lamb blood, but the vinegary-peppery dipping sauce with it was a revelation. Bunghal pork, which the slow-warming charming waitress described as “cooked down,” was also great, and the “fried bangha Mary” — whitingesque whole fish heavily spiced and perfectly fried — was so impressive we ordered a second set. We also duped an order of the plantain chips. And the few forkfuls I snared of the weekend-only platter of Guyanese chicken and pork tasted pretty great, too. WIGB? Maybe on a day when we could take the A train straight there. The West Indian markets we wandered through before and afterward would be worth the $5 fare alone.

We also snared a drink at BEA on our way to the disappointing “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” Real bartenders, decent pours and a little bowl of warm fried chickpeas. As Bob said: When was the last time you got a makes-’em-drink-more bonus at a bar?

Up from the Cellar

April 2014

Clearest sign you’re over-Tweeting: You can’t turn up any mention of when exactly you walked through the sheets and towels at Macy’s en route to and from dinner with a view of the Empire State Building. And we really did eat dinner, after a fashion, in a department store. Blame the Insatiable One for her incessant touting, albeit with disclaimers; at some point you just give in and go out, especially on a night when your consort has to be in the creative-food desert that is West Midtown. How much worse could Stella 34 be than 90 percent of the craptastic places on Ninth Avenue?

Answer: If it weren’t for the schlep through the merch, you could actually see making this a destination. From a window table, that view is pretty 1930s NY. And the pizza was surprisingly good, despite the Olive Gardenesque prose selling it (“water meticulously sourced from local wells to match the natural spring water in naples). We chose right, I suspect, with the $18 Diavola: “san marzano tomato, salami piccante, mozzarella, pecorino-romano.” The Cat loved the kittybag.

Unfortunately, the other half of our dinner in a department store, the vitello tonnato, really looked like sliced crumpled calf on a small plate with too much frisée and too little tuna creaminess. Still: wines are served by the quartino ($12-15 for white, $12-16 for red). And the view is pretty great. As long as you don’t look left or right to see who’s at the next table and how much they’re not even Roombaing but Hoovering. WIGB: Not likely with so many great alternatives opening everywhere. But if I were a tourist . . .

Short for Catalonia

April 2014

It’s one thing to sit online at your messy desk in what was in 1929 a maid’s room and pick out a restaurant downtown that you think will fulfill your consort’s craving for cooking he can’t get at home. And it’s another to walk up and down the Bowery trying to find the address you’ve culled off MenuPages and wonder if you really, really want to eat on a street still crawling with sad souls and lined with Rat Centrals. So I was ready to bail northward on arriving first at the Sunshine Hotel and remembering a pretty bleak documentary. Luckily, Bob had had a couple of beers nearby and was not too late in bounding up and insisting we give Cata a try. Once inside, around the corner on Stanton, we were in 2014 Manhattan for sure. Or on a Barcelona stage set.

We got an outstandingly engaging waiter, great window seats with just enough blossom views and $10 glasses of red and white wine. The chickpea fritters were not the usual hardballs but little cubes made from what in Genoa would be considered farinata, dusted with dried mint and chile. And they were perfect pick food until the bombas arrived (perfectly fried croquettes filled with serrano ham and Manchego and set over tomato sauce spiked with smoked paprika). We split a couple of intriguing brochettes of grilled halloumi with caramelized onion and membrillo, and I braved a taste of Bob’s merguez-spiced lamb (not bad, which is high praise from this lamb hater). The silly-sounding Bikini montadito comprised four exquisite triangles of a truffle-scented grilled cheese with more serrano ham. Tempura broccoli with Cheddar and romesco sauce was crunchy-excellent, but the winner had to be the curried cauliflower “couscous,” with little bits of crucifer tossed with Marcona almonds and currants. We’ve eaten a lot of small plates lately, but all those were sublime. What’s even better is that most of the tapas were priced by the piece, so Bob could get his lamb and we could share the rest by ordering two of the bombas and the halloumi. The menu has big plates, too, but nothing we ate was more than $9.50 (the silly-sounding but superb sandwich). WIGB? Absolutely, although I’ll admit I only like communal tables in an empty restaurant. I keep thinking about what we didn’t order, like the duck pastrami, and the quail eggs Benedict with chorizo. Plus the wine list with only $10 glasses and $40 bottles . . .

New York minutes, catch-up and new

April 2014

Something old: Brasserie Magritte on the Upper East Side, where my consort and I headed after the divisive “Inside Llewyn Davis”* rather than resorting to our usual Toloache in that restaurant dead zone. The place looks great, with, of course, paintings and symbols hanging everywhere. And the staff was quite friendly. But we got an odd table, too wide for two and in an awkward spot, and the cooking would be more suited to musty French joints in the Theater District. My sad duck confit, an appetizer, seemed fatigued, while Bob’s $25 coq au vin looked and tasted like yesterday’s special. The $9 frites with two sauces at least delivered. WIGB? Maybe. It is a dead zone. And the setting did motivate us to go see the real Magrittes at MOMA, which were totally vaut le voyage.

*I’m apparently alone in liking it. Not least for the “where are his testicles?” scene.

Something new: Cafe Luxembourg on the Upper West Side, where I met a great friend who was staying off Times Square and wanted to meet in that dead zone between him and me. As I promised, “The food is not dazzling, but the place is pleasant.” And it still has its charm, and good energy, but the waitress seemed not quite up to the selling job for the menu and wine. I was tempted by my usual fish and chips (for the fries) but thought I should give a special a try; my reward was a beautiful slab of $32 halibut cooked dry, with no sauce, just a scattering of ramps and vegetables. Rolando said his sea bass was in the same sorry state. He had tuna crudo to start and we sort of split the rather dinery profiteroles. He sent back first glass of wine because it was too sweet (not fruity — sweet), and I noticed how chintzy the flatware felt. Still, WIGB? Sure. For the fish and chips and the space and, not least, the acoustics. Our table felt as if we were under a dome. We could actually talk.

While I’ve been DAOTI, sad fates have befallen a couple of places in my catch-up pile of receipts. Casa Pomona on the Upper West Side, where we took refuge after “American Hustle” one night when Kefi’s kitchen was closed early (where are we? Middle Earth?), is apparently becoming a Flex Mussels. The food on that second or third visit was respectable (three types of croquetas, cheese, migas) and certainly the service was snappy. But seafood might be an improvement. And Calliope has lost its chefs, which means the end of the best cheeseburgers I have ever eaten. I’m just glad I had the foresight to go have one last one before I even knew it would be the last — I’d sent friends there, but they apparently are not into cerebral experiences and were underwhelmed, so I took myself back just to see if it was as spectacular as I’d remembered. And it was even better: great beef, cooked perfectly, on chewy ciabatta that stood up to the sturdiness of the meat, with perfect fries and a mustardy sauce for both spreading and dipping. This was a late lunch, so the gorgeous room was quiet. I’m just sorry we never made it there for dinner. The spicy tripe Bob ordered twice at brunch was amazing both times.  And I’m saying that about tripe.

New York minutes/End of March 2014 & catch-up

April 2014

So I roused myself from Twittergy and picked a receipt at random out of the dusty pile on my sit-down desk (many, many more are gathering dust on my improvised stand-up desk). And the memories all came flooding back, with a little help from my consort on what exactly we might have gone to see back in late December with good friends before heading to Jeffrey’s Grocery in the West Village. How in holy Siamese hell could I have forgotten this amazing short? If not for the printed tab, I would also not have remembered much beyond the sticker-price shock when the wine list landed. It was around the bend, but then we soon realized the booze had to be subsidizing the very approachable fud. Bob, assuming the list had to have been carefully curated, followed our long-standing rule of choosing the cheapest bottle, a white Antonopoulus for $38, and it got the job done. We shared outstanding salmon rillettes to start, and we sorta passed around plates of roasted dourade, roasted chicken and a chicken leg special although I didn’t want to share my $23 clever “fish and chips,” built on my favorite, blowfish, and paired with dill pickle aioli plus doughnut holes and maple malt vinegar. WIGB? That wine list is pretty daunting, but the location so close to IFC is pretty alluring. And the din was not deafening.

Most recently, we had another amazingly consistent experience at Luke’s Lobster on Amsterdam and another too-overloaded-to-finish $9-molletes experience as an excuse to indulge in a jalapeño margarita at Barrio Chino on the Lower East Side (with dainty but also great sopesitos: thick corn tortillas topped with cactus and chorizo plus black beans, queso fresco and crema, plus the bonus of watching an apartment bound dog in a tenement window across the street). But our big outing was to City Winery in Tribeca, to hear Richard Shindell and let Bob experience a place where I had a respectable lunch alone years ago after an interview for Edible Manhattan. The food was actually as good as you would get in a restaurant without the dessert of favorite songs. We started with a kale Caesar that the otherwise superb waiter first threatened would come with escarole, which we declined, then with Romaine but arrived as . . . cavolo nero (plus boquerones and celery root). Then we split a flatbread topped with pancetta, roasted garlic, smoked garlic, rosemary and Aleppo pepper that was also about six decades beyond the crap the Bottom Line used to crank out. We both drank tap wines (Rousanne-Marsanne from California for me), and both the quality and the non-gougey prices were also a long way from dirty dives with great music. WIGB? We’re checking the calendar for the next excuse. Musically and foodwise, the whole experience was exceptional.