Archive for the ‘bars’ Category

Greened

March 2016

Apparently this is International Belfast Month, what with the pubs getting a shoutout in the NYT magazine and the restaurant scene enjoying a good tongue bath over to the Independent. But, as usual, my consort and I got there too soon. And it was a very different experience.

This was way back in a rare break in the Troubles, in 1996. We were in London on one of Bob’s corporate boondoggles, photographing banksters on their bonus trip (I think the Ubs met Maggie Thatcher that year), and while he was working, hard, I had lunch with a restaurant critic someone connected me with who insisted we had to make a pilgrimage to the most underrated food city in the UK. “It has a Michelin one-star restaurant!” My mom was born in Belfast, and I’d always been curious, and we’d added a week to the end of our trip for some excursion. So why the hell not?

A couple of days later we were eating little tea sandwiches and orange cake on British Midlands. In that pre-Google era I have no idea how I found our B&B, but I’m pretty sure we reserved via fax and I’m absolutely certain it was like checking into a home for unwed mothers. Monastic would have been an understatement, but it was all of 49 pounds a night. And I remember when we went out to explore that first afternoon we were passed by an armored car with soldiers with rifles hanging off and even under it. Lovely welcome.

Judging by the chicken scratches in my notebook from that trip, we had a bacon and onion tart with gravy(?) and salad at a pub nearby and a Sicilian pizza with olives and anchovies at Villa Italia that night. Apparently we were staying in the comfort zone of the hotel. Or: Wherever you travel you will eat pizza.

My notes and Quicken don’t document this, but I also remember we had quite an experience at the famous Crown Liquor Saloon, with its gaslights and private enclosed booths. I wish I had realized my cranium would eventually become a sieve, because there was a very amusing interaction with a local guy who wound up showing us all the contents of his wallet. Did we buy him a beer? Or six? I know I drank white wine. Probably Jacob’s Creek. Because it was Northern Ireland.

Our B&Breakfast next day was the same as it would be for the rest of the week moving farmhouse to farmhouse as we explored: porridge, eggs, bacon, sausage and grilled tomatoes. My notes don’t show it, but there had to be wheaten bread, too, which was outstanding. (Those were the days when everyone said you could eat well in Britain if you ate breakfast three times a day.)

After that we should not have had room for our reason for going: Lunch at Roscoff, in a sunlit dining room with casually perfect service. This was 1996, remember, and I had duck ravioli with scallions and mushrooms and seared hake with Asian coleslaw and crispy wontons and lemon cheesecake tart with sweet Irish strawberries. Bob cleaned his plate of scallops with lobster spring rolls then was in ecstasy over char-grilled eel with pimentos and salsa verde, followed by pot au caramel with cassis and fruit. I bought both cookbooks the owners, Paul and Jeanne Rankin, had done for the BBC because even then chefs had to have teevee platforms. And I got my 26 pounds’ worth: About once a year I’ll still make the superb warm pasta salad with smoked salmon, lettuce, chives and dill.

Writing this, and reading all the new coverage that never mentions the place, I wondered what happened; apparently the end was not pretty.

Mostly what I remember from that trip was setting out for the graveyard to see if we could find where the grandmother I never met might be buried. Instead we watched boys playing soccer under the eye of more military, in huge ugly watchtowers. And then we decided to go look for Van Morrison’s birthplace. (Two-for-two fail.)

Overall, things may have radically improved, but I’d have to echo James Boswell’s reaction to the Giant’s Causeway: Worth seeing. Not worth traveling to see.

After days of having our bags checked everywhere we went, then after the most invasive security checks at the airport, I also remember boarding that British Midlands flight back to London feeling very grateful to be an American, living in the land of the free, home of the brave. Thanks to the Panchito-enabled Bushwhacking, we are all Belfast now.

New York minutes, scattered

October 2015

Pizza Beach on the Upper East Side has many attractions: a cool setting with oversized color sand-and-water photos on the walls; a jazzy menu; unusually melanin-rich front-of-the-house representation. But I think we liked it best for the birth-control ad down the banquette. We got there crazy-early on a Sunday evening for reasons too depressing to discuss, and we walked in realizing it would all be kiddles. But the hostess seated us at a boothette in the back and things were fine till one of those unhappy rich families who are all alike walked in. It was not as bad as babbies on a plane, but it was annoying when the 2-something went ballistic. Luckily, they moved on soon. And our shared Tuscan kale salad turned out to be outstanding, with the julienned leaves interspersed with pickled red onions and grana padano in a mustard-seed vinaigrette. And while the crust on our pizza did make you want to leave the bones behind (more Piadina than Marta), the topping was sensational, with thick cheese, a generous paving of peppery “salumi” slices and a lavish sprinkling of microgreens to give the illusion of vegetables. The wine list was impressive as well, with 40 wines for $40 and a fair number of those available by the glass for $10 (Falanghina for me, Nero d’Avola and Barbera for Bob). WIGB? Absolutely. Although I have to take points off for the hostess denying us a four-top in the window because she was holding it for a bigger party. We walked past it on the way out to see it sitting just as we had on the way in: Empty.

And now I’m repeating myself: Once upon a time we would have been thrilled to find ourselves just a block or so away from Roberta’s at lunchtime when we could probably have walked right in. But now that you can pass a pizza oven by that name anywhere in Manhattan, the exotic allure dims a bit. Which is how we would up going back to Northeast Kingdom on our outing to “East Williamsburg” aka Bushwick to drop off a chair to be reupholstered. Nothing else in the neighborhood seemed inspired, and we knew this would be good. From the super-peppery bloody mary to the smooth coffee the place delivered, yet again. Bob’s fried chicken sandwich, with a crunchy crust and juicy meat set off against shredded cabbage, probably outdid my burger, which, for all its gilding with mushroom duxelles and caramelized onion, was just okay beef slightly overcharred. The fries with it were fine, though, and Bob’s greens were perfectly dressed. The waitress was superb, and our booth came with a sidewalk view of the exotic street.

That night we had a flawless meal, yet again, at Baker & Co. in the West Village, where we met a friend in from Veneto who wanted to eat light. It was a Monday, so the place was quiet and empty, which was perfect for talking even in the glassed-in garden. As always, the ricotta-garlic spread for the bread started the dinner right. My salad was a marvel of flavors and textures, with tender kale and a showering of ricotta salata over roasted delicata squash rings, with toasted almonds and tahini in the dressing. Bob and Diego had the roast chicken with truffle-garlic fries, as great as it’s always been. And Diego was impressed by the Italian red. The occupant of the fourth chair, in from the Outer Banks, had a pizzetta and a beer and seemed satisfied as well. Beyond the food and service, it’s such a perfect spot pricewise.

And here some notes from various receipts on my cluttered desk: BEA in Hell’s Kitchen proved to be the perfect place for a good 18 people to gather for a drink after a showing of the very moving “Overburden” at CUNY — our reserved area was quiet enough for talking, the servers were superb at running separate checks and the wine was both decent and affordable. Wisely, we did not order any food. Elizabeth’s, the neighborhood standby we keep swearing off, sucked us back in on a sidewalk-cafe evening over the summer; the white was fine and my Cobb salad what it always is. But Bob was loving his lamb burger until he found a sheet of paper in the middle of it. I guess it was the liner between patties, but it was gross. They took the $18 charge off the bill, but still. And I shouldn’t have wasted 10 months waiting to write about the Empire Diner, because the Buffalo skate wings were pretty great the night we lucked into a table. But now they are no longer on the menu since the chef left. It was a “WIGB? Nope” anyway.

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/Late August 2013

September 2013

The good: Lian Won in Bensonhurst, where we met up with our Asian-eating/eating-Asian pals for a Saturday lunch and where we had the kind of experience you can only experience with a big group of adventurous eaters who are not just on a return visit but have brought a Cantonese speaker this time. My China-hand consort and I arrived first in the empty restaurant, flummoxing everyone (he remembered too late that the Chinese do not show 10 with all fingers in the air but with two crossed), and the waiter still soon had a pink tablecloth laid out under the Lazy Susan and teacups all around; when our friends started arriving, the excitement and engagement only built, especially after one pal showed a photo on her smartphone to order a dish, superb water spinach with salted fish. She also forged ahead in ordering the house specialties, a Chiu Chowesque duck with awesome skin/flesh/sauce and an eel and rice casserole that was preceded by a clear soup made from the bones. We got talked into the large on that, for $40, but we made a pretty good dent in it, especially after the waiter scraped up the crusty bits of the rice. That Lazy Susan was soon overcrowded with oxtail cooked with boiled peanuts; frogs’ legs (I couldn’t); “steam meat paste with salt fish,” which proved to be more like the filling for one big dumpling; shrimp with awesome taro plus assorted nuts including gingko (which, it turns out, do not smell like shit); fish with water chestnuts and French lily (you had to be there); loofah and mountain mushrooms, and more. WIGB? Probably not, only because it was one long, long schlep on the D train on a Saturday, and we’d need interpreters. Anyone else, tho: Go.

The pretty good: Pearl & Ash on the Lower East Side/Nolita border, where we lured two friends who love adventurous food and where our reward was a relatively quiet table near the kitchen where we could actually talk while being bombarded with small plates, all just large enough to share. Dr. and Lady Bugs had wanted to go back to Aldea to reconnect, but I pushed the adventurers to try something new. And thanks allah for that quietish table. Bob was saddened to find only fortified wines and beers were on offer for cocktails when he had his liver set on a cocktail, but the one he tried was near-gin enough. Melissa and I were overwhelmed by the wine list, to the point that Bob had to ask the servers to hold off on the food until we could at least get a glass in hand — especially after the first pricey bottle we chose turned out to be off and we had to wait for a “fresh” old one. And the dishes just kept landing, so fast it was hard to taste, let alone mentally absorb: “fluke, watermelon, chili lime” and “hanger tartare, egg cocoa, melba,” and “diver scallop, fennel, lily bulb, berbere.” Before we’d gotten through that shopping list, we had “bread, chicken butter” (Emperor, meet your new clothes) and “octopus, sunflower seed, shiso” and “pork meatballs, shiitake, bonito” and “tea-cured salmon, goat cheese, tamarind seafood” and “sweetbread, sherry, heart of palm, morcilla.” I liked “crab, corn, yogurt, dashi” but passed on “lamb belly & heart, kohlrabi, hazelnut” even though I’m always happy to see an underused vegetable get some menu play. “Quail, almond, pomegranate, chicken skin” was yet another instance of the new duck getting lost in over-conceptualization. Interestingly, the sides were most seductive: “potatoes, porcini mayo, chorizo” was a choir singing in perfect harmony as was “long beans, uni, cream.” I should have taken notes on or photos of “blueberry, milk, honey, creme fraiche” because I remember it less vividly than the dessert I argued against, on @cuozzo’s advice. The Fernet-Branca ice cream sandwich turned up on both our table and the tab, and all I’ll say is that Bob finished it while recalling the night he was on the road on a budget and the cheapest thing in the mini-bar was that digestif. He drank it and regretted it. WIGB? Sadly, no, and not because it cost more than dinner at the Bugses first choice would have. I think we’re entering the age of the “been there, eaten that” restaurant. Once you’ve seen the mountaintop, you’re fine with going back to Sensible Valley.

The fabulous: Melba’s in Harlem, where a friend doing great guerrilla art in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington lured us after drinks on his rooftop nearby and where I walked out mortified I had had no awareness of all the changes happening such a short walk up the street off which I live. For starters, I had had no idea we would actually A) need a reservation on a Sunday night in late summer and B) need to be sure to honor that res. But we showed up and got a table thanks to Camilo’s due diligence. Everything about the place was uplifting: the room, the wine, the crowd, the service, the mood and of course the food. We split the spinach-cheese empanadas, which were unexpectedly satisfying, and modern. The macaroni and cheese was forks-down the best I’ve ever eaten, with the balance of dairy to carb completely reversed. I just tasted Bob’s chicken & waffles and passed on Camilo’s catfish, but both guys seemed happy. WIGB? No question.

The not bad: Barley & Grain on the Upper West Side, where we headed with friends in search of a new place after the very disturbing “Fruitvale Station” and where we were all thrilled things were not worse in such a new spot. Despite the brown-booze emphasis implied in the redundant name, we ordered a bottle of rosé plus one glass of beer, then another bottle after thinking we could all share a burger. It never arrived, but at least the din level was bearable. Crabcake sliders, two on the plate, were pretty satisfying, although the accompanying potato chips were rather underwhelming, Roasted eggplant with feta, olives, and cherry tomatoes was outstanding. I didn’t take attendance on the “kohlrabi quinoa salad mango crispy marcona almond, lemon, EVOO” but was happy to scarf it up. “Ancho chili beer battered seasonal vegetables,” though, were just bad bar food, and I call bullshit on the “lime horseradish aioli.” Not being a lamb tolerator, I passed on the grilled lollipops, but everyone else seemed to like everything about them but the size. WIGB? Sure. The Tangled Vine knows from running a food/wine joint in our neighborhood — we chose the former for drinks with CT friends just a few nights later. But you do have to wonder about a place whose chef is sitting in the DR with pals while an order for a burger goes missing.

The always good I: Cafe 2 at MOMA, where we took a break midway between the aural art show and the Walker Evans and where we had an even better lunch since the system has changed to waiter service rather than walk-in-point-and-wait. For once we restrained ourselves, which was wise since the prosciutto cotto/provolone panino and the quinoa salad with avocado and cucumbers were, as always, beyond perfectly generous. And of course the cappuccino and macchiato were right up to Danny standards. WIGB? Absolutely, especially after we took a spin up to the top floor to check out the fancier cafe. 2 is the way to go.

The always good II: Momofuku Ssam in the East Village, where I lured my old pastry instructor from restaurant school after connecting at the Union Square Greenmarket  and where the duck and service were A+ yet again. I liked the pickled vegetables that came with my “set” better once I kittybagged them, but the meat was as sensational as always. To the point that my consort was convinced he was tasting duck sausage, not breast meat. WIGB? Always.

The redeemed: Mermaid Inn on the Upper West Side, where we walked in and out one night and happily back in two nights later. I feel bad that the reservation for five the first time was in my name on OpenTable, because even though we agreed to 7:15 rather than 7:30 the din was pretty deafening. Within minutes it was clear there was no point to having come together to see off a young friend if we couldn’t hear a fucking word she said. Our usual Social Media Monday waiter came over to say hello, and I had to say some version of that, after which the manager came over to make amends but really make things worse (we didn’t want to sit out an indefinite wait for a table in the back room where we suffered last time because the only thing worse than screaming kids in a restaurant is drunken olds). So we moved on to the quiet of Elizabeth’s outdoor cafe, with fine food (that Cobb salad is among The Cat’s favorites because I bring home all the grilled chicken). And then two nights later we moved on with friends from rosé at Tangled Vine to a reserved sidewalk table at Mermaid. With our favorite waiter. Not only was everyone super-pleasant and the noise level bearable both inside at the bar as we waited and outside as we lingered. OFW pushed us to order snacks to take advantage of the happy hour prices in the 60 seconds before they went up (shishito peppers, fried calamari, a shrimp slider), then he dropped off hush puppies on him with our entrees. Clone that guy! WIGB? It really is the best place for blocks.

The good for what it is: The Ellington on the Upper West Side, which we resorted to mostly for outdoor ambiance after a weekend getaway. The show on the street at 106th and Amsterdam was almost as satisfying as the food, although Bob and I had to swap salads. I ordered the chopped, he had the Caesar because he wanted protein. Still, WIGB? Sure. Nice people, fair prices, excellent sidewalk tables.

New York minutes/Late June-mid-July

July 2013

The good: Txikito in Chelsea, where a friend who treats it as her canteen lured me for an early dinner and where it was easy to understand why she goes back over and over. The waiter was a charmer, and almost everything we ordered delivered, particularly the crab gratin, a steal at $15. Julie is understandably nuts for the blistered peppers; I was happy to order a second round. We also shared little toasts topped with a gratin of artichokes, cheese and ham, and a bottle of Spanish rosé in that sunlit room. So what if a special of scallops wrapped in underdone bacon was forgettable? WIGB? Can’t wait.

The not bad: Clarkson in No Man’s Land, where my consort and I led two friends after the outstanding “Stories We Tell” at the Angelika after deciding their choice, Parm, would be too cramped and crowded. We had tons o’ space here, although it was kind of odd the hostess hid us olds in a back room with circulatory problems (I was melting). And we just split a bunch of starters, and I was stuffed after the food show, so I can’t say for sure if the menu promised more than it delivered, as in rye French toast with peppered maple anglaise with the milk-braised pork belly, or polenta croutons with the grilled trumpet mushrooms over watercress with piave vecchio and “black truffle.” We also shared a special salad, and a bubbling dish of excellent cannelloni filled with zucchini and ricotta. Also, too, two bottles of French rosé. WIGB? Maybe. If it lasts. Going there was a trip, remembering both the glory days when it was Rakel and the sad night a year or so ago when I got trapped in the grubby bathroom in the last incarnation.

The best, when it comes to a special banh mi: Saiguette on the Upper West Side, where we finally made a pilgrimage when I couldn’t face “Asian as euphemism for lame Thai” for lunch on a day too hot to light our gas stove. We were there before noon, so we got stools at the teeny counter in the AC rather than having to schlep to the park, but the sandwich would have wowed wherever we ate it. Beyond the layering of flavors, the architecture of bread and filling matters most to me, and this one held together to the last bite the next afternoon when I reheated the last third at home. Bob was all ready to order the “grilled juicy boneless chicken thigh” until we noticed pork belly was the filling of the day. And it was truly amazing, the meat seasoned right, cooked beautifully and in ideal balance with the carrots, cucumbers and pickled jalapeños in the good roll with sriracha mayo. For all of $9. As for me, I ordered half-blind since I’ve never been to Vietnam as Bob has and went for the taro-peanut moon dumplings, which would have been better steamed than fried. We also shared a “bubble mango ice tea” that was way too sweet but just as much a trip as the idea of eating such exquisite food 10 blocks from home. I’d ask WIGB but know we will also order in — the food is packed for delivery even if you eat there. This is the best thing ever to happen to Manhattan Valley.

The weird: Alder in the East Village, where I insisted on cashing in my compensation  for help editing a transcript while Bob was working in Bulgaria, and where everything but the food was happy-making. We walked in without a reservation but snared seats at the bar right away, a lucky break because the tables could get loud. We started with the “pub cheese,” which tasted okay but visually evoked shit on a shingle. Pigs in a blanket were too clever by half — the Chinese sausage really needed actual bread for balance, not the tricked-out coating it got. And the fried quail was just disheartening given that quail is the new duck; the meat was contorted into weirdness and teamed with sludgy banana curry and pickled turmeric. Those little birds need to be laid out as they are, not Spammed. The one dish we really liked was the most normal, a bowlful of grilled asparagus with scrambled eggs and smoked brook trout. When we got everything in a forkful, we could taste a sensational creation. I did like the giardiniera others have dissed, though. WIGB? It was relatively cheap ($107 with four drinks before tip), but, sadly, no. Genius might be best appreciated from afar.

The seriously good again: Lan Sheng in Midtown, where Bob and I made a lunchtime pit stop on the way to Grand Central to pick up his new glasses on a Saturday when the lunchtime options are hen’s-tooth scarce in that neighborhood. He’d been there a week or so earlier at my suggestion and was still raving about the camphor tea-smoked duck, so we had to order that. And the super-satisfying crab soup dumplings. And the intense stir-fried spinach with garlic. And the mysteriously wondrous cucumbers in green sesame sauce. We needed one more stomach in our booth, though, because everything was too good to finish it all. The duck was about as close to Hong Kong as you can find in NYC, the dumplings perfectly presented. I’d rate the service as tolerant at best, but the staff did have shit to deal with on a weekend: vent hoods were being ferried out for cleaning, deliveries were being logged in, communication was failing over liquid leaking from a light fixture. Still, WIGB? Absolutely. It’s not cheap, but it is great. And a lot closer than Flushing.

The happy-making again and again: The Smith across from Lincoln Center, where we landed for dinner after taking an NPR friend for drinks at the bar after the absolutely fabulous Bill Traylor show at the American Folk Art Museum just up the street. A table inside in the sunlight was easy to come by around 5:30 on Friday, and so we had too many carafes of rosé with my outstanding oyster slider BLT and Bob’s chicken under a brick with killer mashed potatoes. My chopped salad tasted undressed and supermarket-supplied when it came to the peppers and cucumbers, but we had fun. WIGB? Yep, and not least because the staff seems so happy to serve you.

The reliable: Mighty Quinn’s in the East Village and Cocina Economica on the Upper West Side, which are actually planets apart on food but deliver equal satisfaction. The brisket on my last trip to MQ was superb, and out-of-town friends and I were able to walk right in early and sit right down to enjoy. And the cemita at CE may be a messy eating experience, but the flavors deliver and the fries are outstanding, especially with the precision salsas.

New York minutes/Late April 2013

May 2013

The seriously good, again: Montmartre in Chelsea, where my consort and I happily headed after French caught our fancy during the phenomenal “Genius of Marian” at the Tribeca Film Festival (showing at the Clearview) and where we were amazed to get a table (for four, no less) instantly, followed by typically great Little Wisco service. It was late for us olds, and we’d shared a small (read Gross) bag of popcorn because we got to the theater too soon, so I only ordered an appetizer. Which turned out to be nearly the size of an entree, for $17: Quail Tunisienne, a whole little bird grilled and quartered and set over couscous and spicy yogurt with dried apricots and toasted almonds. (The Cat WCTLWAFW was thrilled with the breast I brought home). Bob had the $25 “smoked and roasted chicken,” which arrived as cubes of intensely tender, flavorful chicken teamed with a shit-ton of fabulous red peppers  and breaded and fried eggplant slices. Even though we ordered so little, we were still presented with an amuse of crab with cucumbers plus superb bread (Sullivan Street?) with good butter. Wines by the glass came in those damn little glasses but were still fine. WIGB? Absolutely. I’m not sure why the “real” critics have it in for the place, but we’re two for two there.

The not bad, again: The Ellington up by Columbia, where we dragged two friends after a reconnaissance of the Conservatory Garden (still a few weeks away from prime photo time) when Toloache 82 had no tables open and we wanted to stay on the north end of the island. We got there around 6:30 so were able to get a table fast while the windows were open to let the din dissipate; by the time the noise level was on high, so were we. But maybe not as much as the server, who was consistent only in her capability of mixing up orders. The $12 flatbread, this time topped with mushrooms and truffle oil, was not as satisfying as our previous smoked mozzarella/tomato/pesto but still got the starter job done. And I didn’t try the Brussels sprout-and-bacon salad or $16 bison burger, but our friends and Bob seemed happy (we’ll know for sure once we propose the place again and get a vigorous “no” shake of both heads — trouble often strikes later). But Bob and I agreed his $21 skirt steak was mighty flavorful, with good fries. Unfortunately, I had to go and succumb to the most certain prescription for disappointment: fish and chips. For $16, this was cod, at least, and not fishy cod, at least. But the breading was grossly sodden. Cubist fries and unmushy peas redeemed the dish, as did being able to kittybag so much for The Cat. Everyone else shared the cheesecake — I could tell by looking it was industrial, and not just because it was over-garnished to the max. WIGB? Undoubtedly. Pickings are slim around here. I understand the rent is too damn high, but why can’t ambitious places open so we can do better than middling without a schlep to other neighborhoods?

The pretty good, again: Cocina Economica Mexico on the Upper West Side, where we headed after the Sunday Greenmarket when Luke’s Lobster didn’t appeal for once and where we had a sit-down lunch for less than Chipotle would cost, in a weirdly empty space (well, it was early). I had a chipotle/loganiza torta again and Bob had the same meat in a cemita, which was goopy with cheese and pungent with red onion. Both ($8 apiece) came with those better-than-they-should-be spicy fries, which were even spicier after I asked for salsas. The torta was better conceived and constructed, but the cemita is what I would have to answer on WIGB? The space is very tight, but it’s also captivating to look at while you await your cheap, good food.

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/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/October 2012

October 2012

The good: Swine in the West Village, where we met up with internet connections, which presented no end of issues — food, noise, tastes etc. And it was damned near perfect, probably partly because we went on a Monday night, when it was pretty empty. We got a boothette, so the noise level was bearable enough that four near-strangers could converse easily and share tastes and get away for about $80 a couple before tip. We split a salumi/charcuterie board that included pork rillettes, duck prosciutto and superb merguez, then a “toast” topped with smoked trout and celery root, outstanding sweet potato “fingerlings” in a blue cheese melt, very good deviled eggs and excellent mushroom-fava salad with pecorino and mint; we were also comped spicy duck fat cashews. Wines by the glass were better than from the tap. But the service was good  even though we were all olds (and never so happy to be so aged as when we saw another server working his way around another table pouring hooch down a marrow bone into kiddles’ mouths; we at least did not have to rent our food). WIGB? Absolutely. It’s so much closer than Brooklyn.

The really good with the right people: C&L Imperial in Flushing, where I was lucky enough to be invited to join a smart lunch crowd for 11 Taiwanese tastes for all of $15 a head. The place is pretty bare-bones, but one in the group had been there so many times we got great treatment, plus a comped dish of outstanding braised cabbage. As always, I was super-happy to let others maneuver through the menu, especially when I saw much of it was untranslated and more was heavy on the intestine side (no duck, only guts and tongue). So we started with an fascinating oyster pancake, spicy noodles with pork and “rice tube pudding,” with meat and mushrooms tucked among the grains. We had crispy “three-cup tofu” (cooked in equal parts soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine), weirdly good corn with beef off the specials posted on the wall, bitter melon and super-tender red-cooked pork ribs. Two of the best dishes sounded the funniest: “fly heads,” bits of minced meat mixed with chives and green peppers to resemble insects with eyes, and “putz” fish with little olive-like berries. Not one dish was a dud. WIGB? Can’t wait, with many other mouths. 59-14A Main Street.

The worth it: Tarallucci e Vino on the Upper West Side, where my consort and I wound up after the mind-expanding “Looper” after finding the new Casa Pomona still a long way from opening despite the NYT’s promise. It did cost a hundred bucks for a couple of glasses of wine each and three shared dishes, but the food was impressive even though we nearly had a breakup over the octopus. (I can’t eat it because it’s too human but figured I could just nibble my way around the “galette,” and of course it was three honkin’ chunks, so there was a bit of sad meltdown over why I didn’t remind him sooner.) Creamy mozzarella bruschetta with eggplant and tomato was just as good as the oozy mozzarella over roasted red peppers and grilled zucchini and eggplant (after you’ve eaten too much popcorn at the micey movies, there’s no such thing as too much mozzarella). Extra points for the bread basket, with at least three different varieties. WIGB? Sure, as long as Bob is paying.

The right place on the right night I: Murray’s Cheese Bar in the West Village, where we were able to walk right in after the gorgeous but snoozy “Detropia” and sit right down at the bar to explore that fever dream of a menu. The bartender did a great selling job, so we soon had enchiladas verde with mozzarella in tomatillo salsa, a Bibb lettuce salad with grilled nectarines, marcona almonds, Rogue’s smoky blue cheese and prosciutto crisps and a queso fundido made with three goat cheeses plus chorizo, to be scooped up with blue corn chips. Wines were made for cheese, and the bartender also brought us a taste of kombucha in case we leaned weird. WGIB? Absolutely. The best part is knowing you should order the “real” food and just go next door and buy the meats and cheeses for home.

The right place on the right night II: Mermaid Oyster Bar in the West Village, where we headed after a cookbook party close by that was light on the food if fulfilling on wine and company, and after passing up a couple of nearby new restaurants whose owners did not seem to have had any business training ($48 steak in a 12-seat cafe with no amenities?) It was early, so we were able to turn down a table next to the kitchen door in favor of two seats at the quiet bar, just in time for happy hour and discounted wine and snacks: shared crazy-hot shishito peppers, then avocado-shrimp slider and chicken wing “lollipops” with blue cheese for Bob and the always perfect wedge salad with blue cheese, bacon and tomato for me. WIGB: Sure — it’s always a solid choice in that neighborhood but especially at happy hour or on Social Media Monday.

The always good, not least for a show: Fairway’s cafe, where we met friends in from Seattle for one Sunday brunch and where we headed after the Greenmarket for another. At the first, they missed seeing a famous actress storm off and leave her husband the famous director alone with her barely touched omelet at the next table; at the second, a blowhard writer at the next table got so upset over his food being slow to arrive that he first berated the hard-running waitress, then jumped up, blustering at his glazed-eye companion: “I’m going to say something to Mitch. He knows who I am!” Maybe. But it didn’t look as if Mr. London cared. (Our cheeseburgers were great and actually landed faster than usual, BTW.)

New York minutes/Late August 2012

August 2012

The surprisingly good: Revolucion in the JetBlue terminal at JFK, where my consort and I ducked in for lunch on our way to PGH and where the food was so worth the wait despite our being surrounded by teevees television distortions in kaleidoscopic visuals with no sound. We had actually allotted time just to eat at the airport, and it was vaut le detour on the way to the gate — the torta with carnitas came perfectly assembled, with tender pork layered with guacamole and salsa on ideal bread, plus the sweet potato fries were the best either of us had ever had, crisp and light and not at all gooey/caramelized/gross. I think that cost all of $9. We ate the tostada salad, with crisp tortilla chips buried under guacamole, greens and cheese, on the plane, so it might have suffered from the wilting languish, but it still made a perfect harbinger for the amazing eating experiences we would have for the next four days. WIGB? Happily, although I am now curious about the other (more expensive) restaurants in that gleaming food court.

The surprisingly not bad: Home in the West Village, where we wound up early with three friends after two of them got shut out of the excellent, food-heavy Ai Weiwei doc at IFC and where I at least was chagrined that we had never tried it under the “new” ownership (the old one once wrote me an unhappy letter over something I’d written in Newsweek). The menu struck me as weirdly clueless when it came to seasonality, but everyone seemed happy picking and choosing, one friend and I with the “artichoke” and pancetta cheesecake topped with tart tomatoes and capers, my consort and her husband with the pork chop over wild rice, suspiciously large fava beans and asparagus and our other friend with the clam chowder with grilled bread, plus a side order of grilled radicchio. Whole-grain bread in the basket was great, flavor-free butter not so much. We all tasted the cherry pie a la mode and split a bottle of Finger Lakes rosé for a reasonable $36, too. Judging by the server’s reactions to our questions, I doubt family meal is ever involved, though, and as much as we all appreciated being able to eat in the garden in the quiet, I personally wish I had not gone out to eat and wound up becoming a mosquito buffet. WIGB? Probably, even though the cooking is maybe too homey. Also, too: Spunto after the movie turned out to be an ideal destination for drinks in quiet, with skinny tumblers of sauvignon blanc for only $7, but why in hell do restaurants not A) train servers to check back often with a table that has ordered only drinks, just in case more could be sold and B) let busboys wipe down tables with bleach while patrons are drinking those cheap wines and picking up hints of Clorox? But at least the place was better than Cornelia Street Cafe, where Bob and I had settled in desperation the night before after “Sleepwalk With Me” when Murray’s Cheese Bar had a long wait and Pearl was just not interested in anyone at the bar who did not want dinner. Two deal-breakers: Crappy wine. Dirty.

The worth-the-death march: Covo in West Harlem, where Bob and I trudged and trudged after a so-worth-it expedition to the Caribbean show at the Studio Museum in  Harlem and after aborted attempts at brunching at both Red Rooster and Harlem Social.  We walked into the former just before noon to see about a third of the place empty but were still shunted to the nearly empty bar “until some tables clear.” As the bartender ignored us, I noticed the latter across the intersection and told Bob it was new and I’d been invited to the opening party but had passed. Just as he started to search his iPhone for the menu there, a sweet young thing suddenly surfaced to offer us a table in the bar. Which we took even though it was next to the ordering station, but we only sat  long enough to read a bit of the menu: “Yard” bird for $22? Burger for $19? Sorry. Outta there. Only to be shunted outside at Harlem Social for a lecture on how the only seats were at a high shared table and how we would have to surrender them in an hour and a half. Bob was more pissed than I on noting the the place was almost empty. But we both looked at the menu — $25 prix fixe for brunch — and walked out. I’d remembered Covo from an e-friend’s recommendation but had seen it referenced in a Harlem guidebook in the museum gift shop, so off we went. Thank allah the menu was a la carte, because that was one long walk in the heat and humidity. By the time our pizza (of the day, with spicy salami, roasted peppers, mozzarella and baby arugula) and salad (with artichoke hearts, more roasted peppers, tomatoes and more mozzarella) arrived, I would have been happy with Papa John’s. Even with an espresso, the whole lunch cost less than brunch for one over in Coolville at 126th and Lenox. The space also felt anything but Manhattanish. And we were virtually next door to Fairway for shopping and right next to the bike/walking path down the Hudson to home, five miles after we’d set out that a.m. WIGB? Maybe. That part of town does seem restaurant-deficient unless you like industrial pork in your BBQ.