Archive for the ‘barbecue’ Category

Beyond duck scrapple

July 2016

Pretty certain I’ll be late to my own funeral, so I shouldn’t be surprised I’m barely making it under the wire in confirming a Tweet by @Atrios, expert in the urban hellhole: “No one will listen, but plenty of good non-cheesesteak food in Philly.” The Dems in disarray and the reporters determined to portray them that way may have only a couple more days to listen to me, but at least I’m motivated to update on our last two trips. These are just some of the more representative local flavors to sample. Before or after experiencing the phenomenal “Creative Africa” show at the Rocky museum, of course.

Like the Double Knot, the Fat Ham is exceptional, not just the food and drink but the caring (we were cranky about our two bags taking up too much space in the tiny dining room and they comped us a great hummingbird cake in a Mason jar for the Amtrak ride home). A plate of smoked ribs and pulled pork with coleslaw; a brisket slider with white barbecue sauce, and pimento cheese served easy to eat on one slice of toast all wowed us, but the surprising standout was the cornbread, baked to order with tasso and molasses butter. It was $8 and worth even more. Unsurprisingly, the cocktail list is heavy on the bourbon.

ribs and pulled pork phila fat ham -0240

At the other extreme from that carnivorous overkill, V Street serves the most impressive vegan food either of us have ever encountered. Highest praise: If they didn’t label it, you wouldn’t know it. Everything had deep flavor and almost the mouth feel of meat, especially the charred and chewy carrot asado salad, with avocado, poblano and pumpkinseeds. Curried cauliflower nuggets came with whipped dal and mint chutney, so it was like eating in Kolkata. And the dan dan noodles were almost too filling, with five-spice mushrooms and zucchini in a spicy red chile sauce.

The Oyster House on Sansom felt like a bridge between classic Philadelphia and pushing-the-envelope Philadelphia. The servers are total (I guess I shouldn’t say old) pros, the modern room is get-’em-in-and-get-’em-out spare but attractive and the food simply makes you happy. My jumbo-lump crab cake at lunch sat atop “Chesapeake remoulade” and alongside an odd but addictive salad of broccoli, dates and almonds in a creamy dressing. Bob, however, scored with the softshell crab banh mi. Where has that idea been all our lives?

On the trip before that, for a wedding right after New Year’s, I was shocked to get four good meals within just a few blocks’ of our hosts’ dazzling townhouse in Graduate Hospital (which is a neighborhood, not anywhere to go get better). We couldn’t do that at home.

The tiny and charming Fitler Dining Room at lunch had great little pimento cheese fritters and amazingly light gnocchi Parisienne with cauliflower. I actually laughed when my consort’s “Waldorf Cobb” salad landed; it looked like deconstruction gone tiny-wrong. But the combination of grapes, spiced pecans, julienned apple and well-dressed greens added up. Southgate, a Momofuku knockoff, was a fun destination to meet up with our hosts and the newlyweds to share “fish and chips,” Korean tacos, bibimbop, sweet potato fritters, chicken wings and “Koreancini.” If it all had a one-noteness to it, and too much sweetness, that may have been thanks to our not-smart ordering. And the meal that is usually our least favorite, brunch, was perfect at Pub & Kitchen, including a massive and well-made cheeseburger with great fries and a spinach omelet. It’s a bar but a nice one I wish would move closer to us.

I was most thrilled with Blue Corn, a little farther away in the Italian Market, because it serves gorditas, which I developed an obsession with long ago in El Paso. These were obviously just fried, a plate of three filled with chicken, with pork and with cheese. Tacos were well-spiced, the queso fundido excellent. Red and green salsas with the (yes) blue corn chips were also superb. All I foggily remember of Mexican in Philadelphia from my three years there were the margaritas at some mill on Second Street. They were no more like Blue Corn’s than the menu was.

For the record, the letdowns on our most recent getaway included Distrito in University City, where we landed for lunch because it was close to the always-worth-the-trip Institute of Contemporary Art at Penn and because we had never tried a José Garces joint. We won’t be repeating that mistake. The food was one step up from Blockheads’: bland guacamole, dishwatery pork tacos, pallid queso fundido, the side of pico de gallo tasteless. Too bad you can’t eat decor. And I’m cutting Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in newly hip Fishtown a break because it had just opened when we had clumsy wine service and underwhelming food, including just-average double Margherita pizza with cold burrata and okay garganelli with duck. Dates stuffed with Gorgonzola and baked dry in speck earned a “worst date I ever had” from one friend. Asparagus salad with egg, pancetta and capers, however, was impressive if tricky to share. And maybe we would not have been so let down if the hamachi crudo with grapefruit and pistachios we started with had not been so impressive. The wine list was, as so many Philadelphia restaurants’ are, Gouge City. We also finally tried a Marc Vetri joint where the mortadella mousse was blow-away and the paccheri with swordfish and eggplant at least inventive. The dismissive waiter kept insisting the sausage of the day was chorizo, but it certainly looked and tasted Italian. Still, I think we would have liked the food more if we hadn’t had to walk out before they would give us a decent table in the deafening space. (“Those are reserved.” “Well, we reserved.”) At least a manager ran out and talked us back in. For a place named Amis it felt awfully like a club, one that would not admit us.

WIGB really doesn’t count in Philadelphia because we try not to repeat any resto on our eating expeditions to the town where we met. When or if we do it’s at a.Kitchen off Rittenhouse Square, where the smoked beet salad is extraordinary, and Barbuzzo, where the vibe and the pizzas etc. are so great, and Vernick, where the chef who comes up with such lively food was so generous in recommending other places, including Le Virtu in South Philadelphia, and finally Dizengoff, where the hummus platters are perfection. Even though we could now get one of those at the Chelsea Market it would not be as transporting.

Expedience . . .

July 2015

My latest filing under “reach should exceed grasp:” This layabout’s hard-working consort has a newish rule that we can only go out to eat if we will eat something substantially better than we could eat at home. And I did, after all, train as a chef, cook in a restaurant, cater and spend nearly half my lifetime developing recipes for $ (I just did an average there; otherwise it once would be $$$$). But sometimes the rule gets bent. Sometimes four times in one week.

The high had to be a lucky find after the New Museum and a Di Palo’s run (for the cheapest Illy + best Parmigiano-Reggiano in town). Our pal in from DC had not had lunch, and we reflexively headed to Parm in NoLIta when I remembered we always pass by and wonder about the sidewalk cafe at Gelso & Grand, the enticing restaurant on the corner where a deli once sold Italian products and snacks like arancini in my street food days before the Twitter ate my life. I would have been happy with pizza only slightly better than the tourist crap in all the other cafes on Mulberry, but the $19 “Inferno” was actually excellent: good-to-the-bones crust, lots of capicola, a sweet-burning heat to the sauce. Whatever the plural is of bruschetta were also fabulous, one set topped with a shell-bean puree plus pancetta, the other with burrata, cherry tomatoes and a drizzle of Port reduction. The best part: An order is two, but your three-top can get a third for $5 more. Rosé from Lombardy was a decent pour for $12. Service was perfectly attentive. So, WIGB? Absolutely. The people-watching was jaw-dropping — suffice it to say that stretch of Little Italy is one more place where you will not spot Bill Cunningham.

The low, however, was easily brgr, where we wound up after the Sunday Greenmarket when Bob unexpectedly expressed interest in a burger, something that crosses his screen about once a year (so I know to click on it). I had waited what felt like six days for one to be overcooked a few weeks before at Fairway’s cafe, so we couldn’t go there, and my stomach still feels distended from the hangover one I had at Spring Natural on New Year’s Day, so we couldn’t go back there. Unfortunately, I remembered neighbors saying they had been getting good grass-fed burgers at brgr, and we wandered over to Broadway. Not only did the things take just short of forever or Fairway. The flavor was as AWOL as the vowels in the name. Neither the meat nor the “Cheddar” nor the mustard nor the tomato nor, even, the bun had any taste at all. We just kept eating and eating, hoping the next bite would pay off. Nope. (And the fries were seriously lame, too.) It says it all that we stopped in Zabar’s afterward and found one small sample of mangalitsa ham was a “wake up, tastebuds” mouthful. WIGB? The clincher was doing the math and realizing Fairway was a better deal, at $9.50 including fries; these were $8.50 plus. No wonder that logo has always reminded me of Goatsie.

Almost as disappointing was the brisket at Mighty Quinn’s in the West Village, where we trotted after the awesomeness that is the new Whitney. Once again, it was dry and chewy and not particularly barbecue-y. The chain had redeemed itself the other week at Birchfield Place, but I have to concur with Bob: It will be a long time, if ever, before we brave that stuff again. It’s a good thing we only split one sandwich, and it’s a good thing it came with the usual generous sides of coleslaw and pickles (celery, onion, cucumber and jalapeño) for $9.50. And we only needed that because we had fortified ourselves before tackling all floors of the museum by sharing a couple of carnitas tacos off the Taco Truck on the gorgeous High Line. Those were more tortillas than (dull) filling.

The fourth exception to the rule was West Bank Cafe in Hell’s Kitchen, to which we resorted for proximity’s sake after the genius of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (which, beyond the great script, photography and acting, boasted some fud jokes, including rabbit andouille). Our friends had suggested Taboon, but the prices online were insane (no wines under about $45, entrees in the $30s) plus we had gotten the brush-off when we stopped in one night after a “Daily Show” filming. Here, with the After Eight menu,  we got a $35 Provencal rosé, a reasonably quiet table and the usual reliable, good-value cooking. My eggplant parmesan teamed with arugula and tomatoes, for $15, was almost Parm level (The Cat WCTLAFW approved to the point of stealing the salad off my plate the next day). Bob and Diane’s chicken breasts were juicy, with a fine sauce and lots of side vegetables including mashed potatoes (The Cat really approved). And I didn’t try Len’s shrimp but approved his wild mushroom risotto balls with their good truffle aioli for dipping. WIGB? Anytime we’re trapped in that tourist wasteland. Also, too? Upper West Side restos should offer After Eight menus. Bill ’em as stroller-free.

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.

New York minutes

November 2014

The good: Crazy Crab in Flushing, where I was, once again, lucky enough to hook up with my eating-Asian/Asian-eating group and where the arrival in Arrival City was exotic enough — the little “all eat with hands” restaurant is one stoplight away from the mall where the elusive Target resides. As always, I shut up as our unpaid tour leader sussed out the Burmese/Malaysian/Thai/sports bar menu, and we were soon spinning the Lazy Susan to share one carefully cooked sensation after another: silken tofu with spicy-crunchy sauce; fried tofu with both a red hot sauce and a more nuanced spicy brown sauce; tea leaf salad and ginger salad (both crunchy-spicy-fascinating); steamed whole fish in chili brodo (I guessed tilapia, but whether I was right or wrong, I lose); water spinach; Yunnan “spaghetti” (which proved to be rice noodles topped with a ground beef sauce and teamed with a spicy soup to be ladled over), and airy fried Burmese cucumbers, also with spicy and spiced sauces. The last “course” was a bucket of steamed crabs, served with a box of plastic gloves for breaking down the shells.All that still came out to less than the usual $20 a head. WIGB? Absolutely, if there weren’t so many other temptations out there. The owners were so happy to see not just Caucasians but nontourist Caucasians that they first comped us an excellent green papaya salad, then asked if they could take our photo to post to their FB page. Luckily, my back was turned. 40-42 College Point Boulevard, 718 353 8188

The semi-good: King Bee* in the East Village, where my consort and I trotted through the melting-glacier drizzle for something new on a Monday night and where we realized, again, that the new Brooklyn is a neighborhood that once was cursed with drugged-out rich kids who had no interest in food. I reserved Open Tabley, as in my name, and it turned out two of the owners knew me from mass emails with a mutual friend who has, we all agreed, not only gone full wingnut but done so “almost gleefully.” The place is very charming, Brooklyn without crossing over or under the water, and the servers could not have been more attentive. Acadian is what the cuisine promised, but I’m still not sure what that means; it’s definitely not Cajun. TomCat bread with butter ramped up with salt and herbs made a start as good as $9 Roussillon white and red. Cracklings we shared from a brown paper bag probably would have been better hotter, despite the peanuts, cane caramel and malt vinegar powder flavoring them. But the comped shrimp barbecue with creamy potato salad gave us hope — the spicing and its contrast with creaminess made it work. Unfortunately, both our entrees were just strange, mine labeled duck fricot, with perfectly cooked breast and leg paired with dumplings and potatoes in a weirdly flat broth and Bob’s a lamb neck “poutine rapee” that was more dumpling, not what you’d expect. WIGB? Maybe the hosts are awesome, the place is cozy, the price was right (duck was $26, lamb $22). But there are so many other new places to try. 424 East Ninth Street, 646 755 8088 *Damn, I’m getting not just slow but stupid — had the name wrong originally.

The surprisingly not bad: Ninth Ward, also in the East Village, where we met a tableful of friends old and fresh for an anniversary party and where the setting and the cooking were a trip. I had more traditional poutine, with the good fries awash in andouille gravy, and almost didn’t get my plate back when I swapped for Bob’s respectable spicy, tender  ribs. Everyone else seemed happy with the likes of burgers and fried pickles and gumbo, and certainly the room was South-transporting (we could all talk, tucked away at a long table in the back room). The waitress seemed stretched thin, and my wineglass did make me feel glad Ebola cannot be spread by lipstick prints, but WIGB? Maybe. It’s right across from the movie theaters where we sometimes wind up wondering where to go for a snack besides Momofuku Ssam or Mighty Quinn’s.

The good and quiet again: Arco Cafe on the Upper West Side, where we steered friends back from weeks of travel and trauma because we knew the food was decent and not bank-breaking and the sound level was civilized. And all three proved true again; we sat for 2 1/2 hours and could actually hear each other in that unique-for-the-neighborhood polished room. We split the light-on-the-fried-artichokes salad with arugula, cherry tomatoes and ricotta salata, then passed around plates of gnocchi with bacon, alisanzas (like pappardelle) with sausage in tomato sauce, cavatelli with broccoli rabe and more sausage and a cacio pepe that could have used some of the pepper in the name. Each was about $15. We paid for our cheapness in ordering wine with a rather thin bottle of Montepulciano, but it was only $33, and the superb server (the same as our first/last visit) poured it right. WIGB? Hope it makes it so that we can, often. Restaurants with respectable food and actual low sound levels are as rare as rednecks at the Greenmarket.

Also, too, the can’t-go-wrong: Xi’an Famous on the Upper West Side, where we ducked in for a quick lunch on the way to the Thursday Greenmarket up by Columbia and where we were, as always, rewarded with snappy eat-it-now-noodles. Bob scored with the lamb and cumin option, which is like Mexico by way of Asia, but my cold noodles were kinda dull, although the spicy cucumbers seemed as jazzy as ever. The price is always right: less than $20. No wonder the chain got a shoutout on Brian Lehrer the other day, as a small business that was able to expand successfully.

The “you don’t go to a bar for food:” BEA in Hell’s Kitchen, where we wound up after popcorn at “Gone Girl” and in search of just a snack and some liquid. We got a booth in the window on that quiet Monday night and soon had $10 and $11 malbec and albariño. Then we made the mistake of ordering pizza, “amatriciana” to be specific. The good news is that it was small for $10, about the size of a paper plate. The bad news is that we couldn’t finish it. It was sauce-heavy and pretty much flavor-free, and if there was pancetta anywhere near it it was undercover. At least the server was amazed that we didn’t want to kittybag the last slices. WIGB? For a drink, sure. The big screens showing old movies add to the experience.

And the shockingly not awful: Flatiron Hall in whatever the hell that neighborhood west of Broadway on 26th Street is, where we landed after hooking up for a Li-Lac factory tour over in Crown Heights, then an SVA photo opening. We had wine at both but no real food, so Bob was getting rather frantic as we checked out menus farther east where entrees started at $30, then Maysville had a 20-minute wait and HanJan was even longer, and he showed no interest in Hill Country, so we settled for what really is a bar. But a bar in the right neighborhood, because the service and food were competitive. Spring rolls filled with Carnegie Deli pastrami and Gruyere and served with a horseradish-heavy dipping sauce made my night for $10, while Bob was more than happy with a clean-tasting “Big Easy gumbo,” heavy on chicken and light on shrimp and andouille but with actually ethereal okra slices, for $18. Wines were not wonderful (Mirassou chardonnay for $10 almost put me off that grape again), but then it was a bar. And it was unsettling when the excellent busboy brought the kittybox in a Heartland Brewery bag. Gulled, we’d been. Still, WIGB? Not likely, but only because that street has so many other options. Bob is hot for HanJan now.

New York minutes/March into April 2013

April 2013

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.

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.

Oz-some

April 2011

While I’m processing Nickel City eats, I will jump ahead to say Toronto was a gustatory wonderland. And not a bad place to explore in only 27 hours. Thanks to a Buffalo tip from the woman who persuaded me to surrender rare face time, we were lucky enough to make our base at the Drake Hotel, which turned out to be super-hip as promised but also amazingly hospitable, with no attitude. Since we arrived too early for check-in, we took the super-charming manager’s suggestion to eat in the cafe and had respectable pulled pork sandwich and fish tacos, the latter with a rather innovative filling: cornmeal-battered and fried steelhead trout. I wound up peeling off the tortillas and sloppy cabbage and just forking up the good fish. Both entrees came with fries that looked both desiccated and Boehner orange but tasted pretty satisfying. Coffee, however, tasted pretty awful, Bob reported.

After a jaunt up to the Royal Ontario Museum to see the Crystal addition by Libeskind and take a quick spin through the vaut-le-voyage Bata Shoe Museum recommended by that manager, we made our way to dinner at Lee Lounge, the newly opened addition by Susur Lee. The celeb himself greeted us when we walked in, and we soon settled into a booth with menus for both the bar and the dining room. Bob was smart enough to order Niagara red wine to go with our pupu tower; my usual New Zealand sauvignon blanc seemed too acidic against the great cheeseburger springrolls (with chipotle mayo); edamame with pickled mustard seeds; salmon seviche; chickpea puree with over-browned potato chips, and Peking duck rolls. WIGB? Not sure, but the best part of the evening was peeking in to the kitchen after a trip to the head and seeing the chef/owner himself whipping the cooks into shape.

Next morning we fled the hotel’s bad coffee only to suffer the worst bitter/scorched cappuccino in donkey’s years at T.A.N., a few blocks down Queen Street. An overly sweet pumpkin muffin almost countered it, but it said it all that the barista was pleased when Bob asked for water afterward. “You can tell it’s good coffee if you need water.” Um. No! As they say in Italy.

Afterward we jumped on a $3 streetcar to the St. Lawrence Market, of which I had such intense memories from our first trip easily 20-some years ago. Maybe it was because the stalls were just setting up and restocking after the weekend, but I thought we could have saved Bob’s tiny tokens. We bought some amazing hot mustard from Kozlik’s and a few gifts (Pure honey, cheese curds) from one of the delis but mostly felt underwhelmed. At least we were close by the Flatiron building and walking to it took us past a newsstand where I flipped through a Toronto Life and found Origin touted as the year’s best new restaurant — and a UPS guy outside said it was just a block away. After a detour to the Distillery District one of my consort’s photo friends recommended, we headed there, bags from SOMA chocolate and the overwhelming Bergo’s design store in our hands, outstanding cappuccino from Balzac’s in my belly.

Origin might qualify as the best restaurant of our year so far, despite the AWOL waiters. We sat at the bar and could watch the young crew cooking as well as the street scene outside and the other patrons, ordering and eating with gusto (spicy Spanish fries with chorizo and Manchego looked like upscale poutine). First course: smoked cod croquettes with saffron aioli, which you could almost taste after reading the description. Wok-griddled calamari with pineapple and caramelized peanut sauce followed, a dish that was almost too good because we cleaned the bowl even knowing two more dishes were en route from the performance artists plating just inches in front of us. Then we had three slices of grilled bread topped with fior di latte plus mushrooms, spinach and truffle oil. I’d rate those sensational, but midway through the Chinois duck wrap stuffed with tender meat, pickled cucumber, hoisin sauce, sour cream and sriracha arrived. And it was one of the best duck dishes I’ve ever sunk my retractable fangs into. Only a reflective bowl in front of us prevented us from licking plates, and I normally have self-control. The place gets extra points for offering no drip coffee, only caffeine pulled to order.

The best part of both our better meals was being far afield from our “crash pad,” dazzling as the room and hotel were. I was (stupidly) amazed on realizing how many recommendations, both emailed and in travel stories, cited the same three or four restaurants. Which turned out to be no more than a couple of blocks from the hotel they all recommended. Did I mention the streetcar costs $3?

I always say Montreal is Paris without the jet lag. Toronto is Sydney without the phlebitis.

Drake Hotel, 1150 Queen Street West, 416 531 5042 www.thedrakehotel.ca
Lee Lounge, 603 King Street West, 416 504 7867 http://www.susur.com/
Origin, 107-109 King Street East, 416 603 8009 http://origintoronto.com
Balzac’s in the Distillery District http://www.balzacscoffee.com/
SOMA chocolatemaker in the Distillery District http://www.somachocolate.com/
Bergo design in the Distillery District http://www.bergo.ca/ has everything.
Kozlik’s mustard http://www.mustardmaker.com/

New York minutes/Even more latish March 2011

March 2011

The half-good: Pure in Hell’s Kitchen, where my consort and I headed after the MOMA Meyer night when he was hungry and I was just curious about the midtown cousin to Land. We were already arguing about something I was right about (food shortages as the cause of upheavals in the Middle East), so it was lucky we got seats within a few minutes at the bar facing into the noodle kitchen and soon had the distractions of wine and food. All the whites looked fruity, but my viognier made sense once I tasted the special crab salad with peanuts, chilies and lime. The salad itself was sensational, the first thing I’ve eaten in Manhattan that ever gave me a sense of the pyrotechnic aspects of Thai cuisine, and the almost syrupy wine countered it. Bob, unfortunately, ordered off the regular menu and was penalized with one of those interchangeably gloppy/bland big plates (bean sprouts, noodles, shrimp, scallions). Still, the room was pretty jazzy and the service was A+ even in our cramped quarters, right next to the “shophouse,” a few shelves with esoteric ingredients like durian chips. WIGB? Absolutely if I’m down that way again. Otherwise, I’m more determined to broaden my horizons via Land’s menu. 766 Ninth Avenue near 51st Street, 212 581 0999.

The vaut le voyage for adventure’s sake: Q in Port Chester, where a Louisiana/Texas friend who now lives in Greenwich lured us with the promise of great barbecue and a diversion in the Batali/Bastianich shops in that immigrant bastion. Several lessons were learned, starting with the fact that total luxury on venturing to the ’burbs is being able to walk off the train and into downtown, without the usual clambering into a car to be spirited off to parts unknown. So within five minutes of detraining Metro North to Stamford we were wandering around the Tarry market, ogling the meats and pastas and cheeses etc. and succumbing to focaccia as round and high as San Francisco sourdough and a packet of Manicaretti’s extraordinary garganelli. Next door we tried some Italians reds from the well-curated selection after checking out the menu at the Tarry Lodge restaurant, which Kevin said serves food that’s too salty and that we saw was clogged with old white Greenwichers. The bare-bones BBQ joint he walked us to next was much classier than I expected (the sink’s in the dining room, sure, but we were right between Greenwich and Rye). And we did have to order at the counter, but from then on it was a total restaurant. I shoulda listened about the brisket, which was not just as dry as the cliché but also fatty and tough and not really flavorful; at least the potato salad I ordered alongside was quality stuff. Bob fared better with a quarter-slab of ribs, meaty and juicy and smoky, and Kevin’s pulled pork nearly bested that. Drinks were also a deal: a second round of two drafts and a sauvignon blanc came to all of $13. WIGB? Sure. After we try the Mexican restaurants Kevin’s raving about. Especially since we learned Metro North cops will retrieve a 12-year-old irreplaceable Kenzo scarf if you happen to leave it on the train at 125th Street. 111 North Main Street, Port Chester, 914 933 7427.