Archive for June, 2015

Working backward, indeed

June 2015

I have looked at the naked backsides of three women at the bar on the Cafe Luxembourg card/ad for as long as I’ve been eating for a living, but I only just learned what the damned image meant. Suffice it to say that a single guy did the explaining, which involved how mens see ladies. And that was on my third meal in the last half-year in that seductively faux-Parisian space, where the charm has held up for as long as I’ve been eating for a living despite the fact that the cooking has never really been transporting.

I thought I had figured out how to ace the menu after the first of the three meals, when another host and I made the mistake of ordering specials, which were overwrought, overpriced and underwhelming (it’s been half a year, at least, so no deets). From then on, I swore, I would only order the fish and chips. And on my second meal I was rewarded with perfection: fresh pollack, crisply fried and teamed with excellent tartar sauce, textbook frites and a little side of fresh pea purée to approximate mushy peas. The Cat was one happy cat when I kittybagged what was left of the ample portion.

Then I had to go and ruin everything by calculating how to order safely while not giving my host the impression I was a boring orderer and queering a potential deal. So I decided on a cheeseburger. Which turned out to be everything you would want in a cheeseburger — good bun, good lettuce and tomato, great frites, ramekins of not just ketchup but mustard and mayonnaise, proper rareness — but lacked that little essential. Flavor. The meat had no char or tang. Still, WIGB? Absolutely, especially if someone else is paying. You can eat the scenery.

And I guess the burger was not that lame because I trotted to the 3 train afterward to get to the Tribeca Film Festival and was feeling pretty light, having left most of my food on the plate. For my next eating experience I spotted a happy-hour sign on a new-to-me restaurant on West Broadway after exiting at Chambers, and I remembered it when my consort and I had an hour and a half to kill between shorts programs. So we walked away from the wind back to Saleya to settle onto stools for $6 glasses of wine, chardonnay from the Languedoc for me and garnacha for Bob.

Bob also wisely suggested we order a couple of small plates rather than making dinner later of a sachet of popcorn for $6.50, so we split a seriously good pizzetta topped with bacon, Gruyere and onions (tarte flambee by another name) and adequate hummus with exceptional pita (charred and perfectly salted). Bob’s no fan of chickpeas, so I got all those topping both the hummus and the little salad that came with the $14 snack.

WIGB? Definitely, if I were in the neighborhood and wanting to avoid the no-discount drinking in all the swankola restaurants near the Regal Cinemas. And not least because the design of the two-level bar is so savvy it reminded me of the restaurateur we met eons ago in Estonia who said “restaurants serve air” — theatricality is half the experience.

Also, too, it’s a good thing I never got around to writing about how negative my pals felt a couple of months back after choosing Mighty Quinn’s brisket before the Jim Jarmusch/John Schaeffer silent-film-with-music presentation down in the old Winter Garden under the new World Trade Center. All but Mr. Pulled Pork dispiritedly forked through leathery meat and agreed: Romance. Over. But then Bob and I had half an hour to forage between documentaries at the film festival and went upstairs rather than back to Le District and, at my instigation, circled back to the Mighty. All dryness was forgiven. For $9.25, that mound of meat on a bun paired with coleslaw (half-creamy, half-vinegary as the accommodating counter server provided) plus pickled celery, cucumbers, jalapenõs and red onions was easily the best deal in a food court where a grilled cheese is just a grilled cheese. To think for only $2.75 less, we could have been feasting on popcorn.

MT

June 2015

I came home from my consort’s birthday dinner at Fung Tu on the Lower East Side determined not to Tweet but to think things through rather than squandering good ideas in 140 characters. More than two weeks have gone by, so here I am to say it was actually a thrill to realize we could walk out of a restaurant and get lost, after going on 34 years in Manhattan. We had walked south to the end of Orchard Street and turned right and found ourselves completely disoriented — why were we walking toward the Williamsburg Bridge if we were heading west? (Answer: We had never been that far east on Canal before; we both thought it ended around the Bowery.)

I also have to report that it took two and a half hours online to find a restaurant that could even let our credit cards in on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend. What the hell ever happened to the city emptying out on long holidays? I realize it’s the tourists flooding in who are clogging the system, but some part of me also wonders if a lot of restaurants were “fully committed” just for appearance’s sake. We walked past one that had had only 5 and 5:30 openings online that was nearly empty around 9.

And I got our table through Fung Tu’s website, which uses not OpenTable but Yelp for reservations and offered a genius option: If anything opened up the next day, it would text me with 15 minutes to text back whether I was in. So we got our 7 o’clock seating (we’re olds), and both the automated system and an actual human checked back twice to confirm as the hour of the olds approached.

As for the meal, the whole experience seemed influenced by what I suspect is the Keller Effect. The chef, and I assume others, had worked at Per Se, so the staff was solicitous, the noise level serene, the seating comfortable despite the tight quarters, the bathroom tile artfully designed. When the waiter delivered fried clams we hadn’t ordered, another server insisted we keep them (and they were worth spending money on, tender-crisp with a lively dipping sauce).

We started with something even more sensational: dates stuffed with shredded duck, smoked and then fried. Our next shared small plate was good but odd, a fava bean curd terrine, sprinkled with pickled mustard greens and bits of bacon, and the one after that was too similar in texture. I liked the scallion masa pancake more than Bob did, even though it came with my favorite bird (chicken). But the last dish was spectacular: spaetzl with Sichuan ground pork, the spicy meat the perfect contrast to the soft noodlettes. We were also glad the waitress persuaded us to add a side of water spinach cooked in whey broth; the whole dish was elevated to something so much more. Plus the $22 portion was big enough to kittybag; we split it for lunch a couple of days later. WIGB? Absolutely, not least because the tab before tip was $138 for all that food plus a bottle and two glasses of anything-but Chardonnay wine.

And given that I’m in birthday mode, I’m going to confess it’s only been a year and a half since we had a fabulous evening at Lafayette for mine in 2014 that I never got around to writing about here (quiet table in the corner in the front; fine pumpkin risotto with duck confit and chestnuts). And it’s only a year since we celebrated Bob’s at the Gander (his request is always for interesting food, what he won’t get at home because this trained cook is basically unambitious). Underlines on the dusty menu on my desk indicate we had brisket “tots” (tater, not kiddle) with mustard  (strands caught in my cranial sieve indicate they were almost too meaty), and brown butter panzotti with taleggio, chanterelles, ramps and Parmesan (not a shopping list but actual flavor-texture coherence) and arctic char with coco beans, chorizo, leeks and beurre rouge (good but unfortunately too close to the kitchen where I do the chopping and dishwashing). I do recall we ate in a luxurious booth and the sommelier became our friend once we ordered a cheap but interesting white; I think he said you could judge his list by the fact that it took two months for any customer to ask for pinot grigio. WIGB to either, though? Haven’t yet.

New York minutes

June 2015

The always good: RedFarm on the Upper West Side, where my consort and I connected with two friends for a birthday lunch on a rare sunny day and where the kitchen, as always, delivered big time. Each of us had an instant request: soup dumplings for me, because they are always worth the $14, least of all for the fit-to-savor pork; eggplant-smoked salmon “bruschetta” for Joanne, because the combination of crisp vegetable and the creamy, caviar-topped topping really is a marvel; spicy duck and crab “dumplings” for Bob because the Thai green curry sauce at the core of the dish is so sensational, and a special of a crisp soft-shell crab for Donna because she was hankering for a crisp crustacean (it was $18 but easily divided into four and was bulked up with tempuraesque eggplant wedges). We should have quit while we were ahead, because the sesame noodles Donna was also craving struck me as equal parts bland and dry, although the chicken and vegetables they were tossed with tasted both juicy and smoky-wild. WIGB? Anytime. Service, also as always, was also superb. And both sauvignon blanc and rosé were $10 a glass — a deal with the people-watching show from the sidewalk cafe. All we needed was The Cat WCTLWAFW, even though he would never wear a leash.

The surprisingly not bad: Cotenna in the West Village, which we stumbled upon after leaving yet another TriBeCa film festival screening and where we were first amazed by  how the old, teeny ‘ino has been freshened up and enlarged and then by how good and affordable the food was. Of course, we had just plunged in on seeing $12 pasta on the menu posted at the door, so we were not too annoyed to find the wine list up at lap-dance levels ($60 for the cheapest white? you must be shitting me). We settled for quartini, at $16 for chardonnay and $18 for Barbera, while marveling that our $12 garganelli osso buco and “insalata Nizzarda” were so filling. The latter was billed as a traditional tuna Nicoise but betrayed with fresh tuna; the former was much more meat (tender, rich-tasting) than noodle. WIGB? It’s a weird little place that makes you wonder how such a huge menu can come out of such a tiny kitchen. And the tables were too close together. But. Yeah. That was quite a dinner for $63 before tax and tip on superb service.

The oh, you’re gonna miss him now he’s gone: Fairway Cafe, where a friend had informed us the food was actually better since Mitchel had been kicked to the stinking curb in the great vulture-capitalist purge. We stopped in for a quick lunch after the Sunday Greenmarket on Columbus and were happy to be seated right away, not so happy to wait more than half an hour for a cheeseburger that arrived cooked to boot dryness. Fries were okay, the usual coleslaw, tomato, red onion etc. were generous. And Bob’s chicken sandwich was the same as it ever was. But even the server’s peace offering of a cruller so giant it arrived with a steak knife embedded in it could not make up for the feeling that the same is not as it ever was.

Light in the harbor

June 2015

WIGB? If you’re talking Pier A, I already did. Lunch a while back with a friend with benefits (or at least an expense account) was such a great experience I insisted my consort and I head there as a reward for me braving one of our dreary trips to the horror-movie-worthy storage center down near the old Fulton Fish Market. The setting is magical, with a huge deck outside a beautifully restored building with sight lines straight to the Statue of Liberty, and the food is far beyond what you would expect in a tourist magnet (maybe because the crowd includes jump-you-fuckers suits from surrounding office towers?) Both lunches I had fish and chips, the cod perfectly fried and matched with good tartar sauce plus excellent fat, crunchy fries (and okay coleslaw). The oyster po’ boy at the first lunch was more bread than bivalve, though, so I was glad Bob immediately went for the Buffalo chicken wings. Which were so much better than we have ever had the few times we have bothered with them in their namesake city. These were big and meaty and juicy and, again, fried right, plus they were awash in buttery hot sauce. He had a beer, I had a glass of rosé and the view did the rest. I will say service merited an A+ the first time and at best a C the second; four times a runner showed up at our table with food we hadn’t ordered, plus the waiter did not know the rosé price, which beers were IPA etc. and vanished for too long between those questions and our ordering. Both the WiFi and the computer system were down, though, so everyone is entitled to an off day. The place was also full with a wedding and a private party. And I could forgive it anything because I spotted Harry Poulakakos*, dad of the partner in the place, on my way to the hoi polloi bathroom and got to catch up to his sweetness a bit on my way back to the table. His apple not only did not fall far from the tree but has spread fruit all over Lower Manhattan, the best place to get out of New York without leaving the island. *It’s a long way from the sea of heartbreak.