Archive for the ‘dumplings’ Category

New York minutes

February 2016

New rule: When the menu mentions chorizo, said ingredient had damn well better be perceptible, either visually or as you chew and chew. But the missing element was one of only two flaws when we stopped at the newish Tasca Chino in search of something different after a rare Saturday outing to the Greenmarket on Union Square. Bob chose those pallid losers (for once the taste-free chicken deserved the cliché description of rubbery), but I scored with another steamed dumpling option, the Woodland, which had a filling with seriously meaty mushroom flavor inside the light wrappers and a broth with intense and complex taste. We also split patatas bravas, perfectly cooked with crisp outsides, fluffy inners, with yin-yang dipping sauces in a too-small ramekin/portion: “Szechuan aioli” and tamarind barbecue. The restaurant itself has style to burn, with oversized paintings of, say, Mao overlaid with bullfighting images; it’s clearly designed for nighttime action. But at that most dread eating occasion, brunch, it’s quite pleasant, huge table of drinkers of $20 bottomless margaritas to our left notwithstanding. And I can’t remember the last time we left a resto with so many big smiles and “thank yous.” WIGB? Yeah, actually. For that dread eating occasion, the menu had quite a few clever huevos, plus duck & waffles. I would be tempted by the “nested eggs Benedict,” in a blue corn tortilla with miso hollandaise. But the menu said chorizo. And you never know.

Old rule: Always head to Baker & Co. after a movie at IFC; we have not found a more affordable hospitable option anywhere for blocks. On the occasion of our meeting two friends for the slow but powerful “Mustang” (lots o’ food in that film, BTW), we ran ahead and made reservations for dinner after the show. And so we wound up with the table in the window right after an obnoxiously entitled mom with stroller the size of a Cuban Buick strutted in with her husband and another guy and told the hostess that that six-top should be their spot. The din level was even more bearable there, and the food and service were, as always, a notch above. We all shared a jazzy special of anchovies laid over blood orange slices with red onion, capers and microgreens. And when we all passed plates, I scored again, with the lasagne packed with pork slices and ragu, enough for dinner and then lunch for two next day for all of $17. Garganelli must have been house-made because they were not little rolled handkerchiefs but unfurled, under a lavish layering of burrata. Bob’s pappardelle with veal ragu was almost more meat than pasta, not that there’s anything American-wrong with that, while our other friend’s orecchiette with shrimp and roasted cauliflower landed with a whiff of rancidity, and there is something wrong with that. (The bread crumbs? WTF?) With two bottles of food-friendly Grillo from Sicily, the bill was about $50 apiece. WIGB? Undoubtedly. Despite the one-holer bathroom where you can only feel the dread rising as the person taking too long is a guy. Still, as someone said over to FB: Sometimes they like to sit and think, too.

In between N & O Rules: We ducked into Amy’s Bread on Bleecker to pick up bread (olive fougasse, just like I’d pictured it) and were seduced into trying a new item, a croissant pistachio twist. Which was sensational, with just enough balance of nutty paste and buttery dough that made you long for a swig of coffee. Somehow it was fitting that we shared it on the sidewalk just steps from a homeless guy going through a trash can and pulling out unfinished hot dogs still in buns. It was a survival model: Station yourself near a tourist attraction where the food actually sucks. And scoop up what they leave behind. Side note: Said homeless guy was annoyed when a family pulled up in a car and a kid inside jumped out to carefully deposit what was apparently an unfinished large coffee drink atop the debris. The intended recipient was not happy it could have leaked onto “the food.” Sadder side note: We saw all this after passing yet another homeless guy on Sixth who had a big bleak sign (where do they get the Sharpies?) laying out how desperate he was. While he sat and ate a presumably donated sandwich offa which he had pulled all the crusts. Beggars/choosers? This is someone’s America.

Capital/control F

November 2014

Apparently the seventh (or is it the eighth, or ninth?) time is the charm. After one more perfect meal at RedFarm uptown I’m finally motivated to write about it. So far my consort and I have eaten there alone and with friends and without each other and have sent other friends there, and it always, always delivers. Even though, as we were reminded on our last indulgence, the prices are rather “holy shit!” — a couple who crowded down the bar from us walked out rather quickly after perusing the menu. No matter. More room for the rest of us.

And if they’d asked, I coulda told them exactly how to order. Lift your eyes above the $48 lobster noodles and $41 Creekstone steak and stick to the dim sum section of the long menu. If you have to, venture into “starters & salads.” The bill will still be equivalent to a meal for four in Flushing, but then you will have eaten food you could not get even after an hourlong ride on the 7 train.

If I hadn’t spent the last few years feeling so fortunate to join a group of Asian-eating/eating-Asian friends, though, I would not be so appreciative of how brilliant the concepts and cooking are at RedFarm. I’ve eaten a lot o’soup dumplings, but Joe Ng’s in their silken wrappers really are the best, not least because the quality of the pork justifies the foie gras price.

Those are the most comparable to Chinatown/Flushing, but the genius of the RedFarm menu is how it strides far and wide away from typical lists. At our last lunch, we split the souplings plus “crunchy vegetable & peanut dumplings,” pan-fried but very airy, as well as the eggplant “bruschetta” (really tempuraesque-fried slices) topped with smoked salmon. And we finished with the “barbecued” Berkshire pork belly, the thin slices of super-tender, well-spiced meat paired with blackened jalapeños.

But we were restrained because we have chomped through a pretty good section of the kitchen’s offerings over the last year. The only danger in ordering is succumbing to too many fried temptations, like the killer egg roll stuffed with Katz’s pastrami along with the pan-fried pork buns.

I’m not a shrimp fan, but I’ll take the shrimp and snowpea-leaf dumplings and anything else Ng wraps up. The “Pac-Man” shrimp dumplings are also a trip. I can’t pick a favorite dish, although the crispy duck and crab dumplings come close, with the bird stuffed into the claws, fried and laid alongside a green curry sauce with vegetables. We usually have to order duck breast skewers with litchi when they’re on the specials list, too, and anything else with duck.

Full disclosure: Whenever Eddie Schoenfeld has been on the premises, we’ve gotten preferential treatment and usually a dish or two comped. So we know the best seats are in a booth. But the real extra is hearing about his travails in getting the place open.

RedFarm takes no reservations, but if you call ahead you can get a good read on how long the wait will be and walk in just in time. Just remember to tell the hosts you called. Otherwise you could get stuck back by the service station. And this is the rare restaurant where the seats (at the bar) next to the toilets are preferable. (Do check out the toilets, BTW.)

New York minutes/Mid-September 2013

September 2013

The good: Toloache in Midtown, where we headed with friends at their suggestion after “The Butler” on bullet-free 42nd Street and where, as always, the small plates were big enough. We split an order of excellent straightforward guacamole with a side of superb salsa while waiting for that booth at the bar with margaritas, then divvied up a quesadilla with huitlacoche. I passed on sharing all their various tacos because my tortilla soup was beyond big enough if not quite at the awesome level of the version on 83rd Street. (Which made me think of the global chef who told me recently that every recipe an underling makes loses 10 percent of the original.) Still, WIGB? Anytime.

The surprisingly good: Pascalou on the Upper East Side, where we wound up after showing up on the wrong night for a lavish soiree for friends’ birthdays — and there are few neighborhoods that are more food-desolate than that one. The host was half-amusing, asking us which of us had reserved and responding to our “neither” with some British dis and conceding “well, most of our regulars aren’t back from the Hamptons” so he could give us a table. I forget why we quit going there, but aside from the Town & Country crowd, it delivered with both food and service. The menu, as always, was all over the atlas, so Bob had Middle Easternish grilled shrimp while I was beyond happy with my little slab of superb pissaladiere (on pate brisee rather than puff pastry) with good and generous greens/salad for all of $10. We should have sprung for a bottle of rosé rather than four glasses for much more, but WIGB? Absolutely. Even the French bread and butter impressed not just me but Mr. Sprat.

The not so good: Shanghai Asian Cuisine in Chinatown, where my consort and I wound up after bailing on a 45-minute wait at our first choice on a Sunday after visiting the spooky storage center. Maybe we’ve just calibrated our palates after the last couple of years of chopstick-wielding with our eating Asian/Asian eating pals, but the food this time just seemed ordinary. The fried dumplings that had haunted me as ethereal were doughy, the pickled cabbage almost inedibly sweet. At least the soup dumplings were perfection (as was the guy at the table across from us who advised the couple next to him: “Next time bring an Asian and you’ll know what to order”).  WIGB? Nope. As we walked through the Hong Kong Supermarket afterward, I realized I could make any of that at home. If I were so inclined.

The “it’s complicated:” The Cutting Room in Koreatown, where a great friend treated us to dinner and a Holly Williams (granddaughter of Hank) show and where the Health Department may or may not have ruined the rhythm. Our food took just short of forever to arrive even though we were there super-early, and the waitress blamed an inspection even though Bob noticed other tables were eating as we merely drank. Pretty shitty, if it was bureaucratic bungling, to muck up a live experience. My crab cakes were surprisingly creditable, though. And she comped us fries. WIGB? For $15 for live music, $17 for creditable crab cakes? Absolutely, even if we were paying.

We also repeatedly liked Luke’s, which is almost unnervingly consistent with those lavish lobster rolls, and also Cocina Economica, where the chorizo torta with spicy fries is very hard to beat for $8 (although the guacamole was beyond tame and lame despite the hint of papalo that had me burping all afternoon).  And we finally had breakfast at Fairway when a friend was in from Chicago and had to get her pancake fix. I shoulda gone the Big Boy route, with a stack plus eggs plus bacon, is all I’ll say.

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/Latish February 2013

February 2013

The pretty good: Shanghai Cuisine 33 in Flushing, where I met my Asian-eating/eating-Asian group for a Lunar New Year feast and where, for the first time ever, I felt full before half the many dishes had landed, to the point that I didn’t even try everything. We ate and ate and the tab came to $25 a person, though, so who could complain? I’ll get the bad news out of the way first: I was very glad the camphor tea-smoked duck was among the shares, because I’d had it in my head to order one to go and what we were served was like duck jerky (I schlepped back to Hunan House before getting on the first of my four trains home to pick up a very succulent, very smoky duck there). But all the dumplings were exquisite: soup, fried, steamed with pork and leeks and with pork and a strange herb, in wonton soup. The braised boar hock with baby bai choy and “moss” was a bit too much for me, and I was underwhelmed by the braised cabbage with dried shrimp. I also, thanks to bulging belly syndrome, could not appreciate the “salty and fresh pork medley” casserole. More may have passed me, but I’ll just say the tofu with crab roe was splendiferous and the rice cakes with spicy crab, a New Year’s special, would have made a meal. WIGB? Probably not, given there are so many other choices out there.

The surprisingly satisfying: Spring Natural Kitchen on the Upper West Side, where my consort and I ducked in after the Greenmarket on a brutally windy Sunday and where we got more than we would have settled for. We’d never bothered to cross the street to check it out, partly because of the last two words in its name. But no expectations paid off: The space is beautifully designed, as we could tell from the great corner booth we got from the superb host. (At that hour the place was infested with human larvae, but at least they were all well-behaved.) And the long menu actually had several temptations and was written so well Bob ordered what he normally spurns: a sandwich. We both rated it excellent, the chicken grilled juicy and paired with melted Cheddar and a green sauce, and came with good fries. My “taco” salad was like a burrito without the tortilla: rice, black beans, mesclun, tomato, red onions, salsa, guacamole, cheese and sour cream, with yellow, red and blue chips surrounding the huge plate. The leftovers fried up nicely as a side for dinner. (Half the sandwich was kittybagged.) WIGB? Absolutely. Not least because the tab for more than we could eat came to all of $25 before tax and well-earned tip.

The right place for the right lunch: Cocina Economica on the Upper West Side, where I lured a friend who had suggested Land and where we got the same bargain meal but in a different setting. My issues with the space remain (only Twiggies should be servers in that tight route from the kitchen through the tables), but we were not rushed even as other tables turned. My chorizo torta was fine, although the jalapeños and tomato would not stay in the (wrong) roll and the mayonnaise was only perceptible at the end, but the fries were good if oversalted (and were even better dunked into the red and green salsas). Joanne acted profoundly happy with her braised pork. WIGB? Absolutely for lunch. Although I still hope the kitchen knows how to cost-out food, for survival’s sake.

New York minutes/Mid-May 2012

May 2012

The pretty good, Chinese division: Hunan Manor in Midtown, where my consort and I wound up after a liquid opening at ICP when his first choice had a 30-minute wait. The place has the sad bare-bones look of so many Manhattan Chinese joints, but we were encouraged to see only ethnically appropriate faces at other tables as we were profusely welcomed. It probably wasn’t fair to order what we love in Flushing, but we did. And the tea-smoked duck might actually be superior; as we ate it, it tasted almost steamed, but next day it was grease-free and intensely smoky. Hunan-style stir-fried mustard leaf is better at the cousins’ place (thinner garlic slices, defter cooking), but not by much. Cold bean curd, Hunan style, was heavier, though, and while Bob is a total pan-fried pork dumpling junkie, even he agreed these were clunky. WIGB? Of course. It’s an hour closer, with treatment just as nice. 339 Lexington Avenue near 39th Street, 212 682 2883.

The pretty good, Thai division: Pure Thai Shophouse in Hell’s Kitchen, where a friend and I headed after being thwarted first by the bedlam at Toloache and then by the peculiar bar food menu at the otherwise perfect Xai Xai, and where the staff was just patient enough with two women who wanted mostly to talk while soaking up wine. Wally’s traveled in Thailand and immediately picked up on the crowd (authentic) and the food (smells/looks: authentic). We just split three appetizers, all above average: vegetable spring rolls, fat steamed vegetable dumplings and crispy fried tofu with peanut sauce. With two glasses each, it was $31 each with tip. WIGB? No question. 766 Ninth Avenue near 52d Street, 212 581 0999.

The pretty good, aside from the understaffing: Jacob’s Pickles on the Upper West Side, where we met a couple of friends on the early side and where we could only wonder why we had put off trying the place for so long. The food was shockingly accomplished for the neighborhood. I think I scored with excellent house-made sausage with leeks that came with respectable fries, good mustard and a great ketchup alternative (along with pointless braised cabbage), for all of $15. The running-hard waitress screwed up two orders, so gracious Bob took the Caesar with fried chicken no one had asked for and Len got his biscuit with fried chicken smothered in mushroom gravy plus grits; both were superb. I don’t think you go there for spinach salad, but Diane’s came with Niman Ranch bacon, blue cheese and mushrooms. We shared a couple of bottles of the rosé on tap, too. The mystery is why a restaurant that puts so much thought and energy into the menu, the sourcing and the drinks program skimps on staffing. WIGB? Looking forward to it but hoping they hire some waiters and runners in the meantime. Jeebus. 509 Amsterdam Avenue near 84th Street, 212 470 5566.

New York minutes/Late April to early May 2012

May 2012

The seriously good: Shanghai Asian Cuisine in Chinatown, where my consort and his studio manager and I took a lunch break on their run to the storage space down in the old NYPost building near the Seaport that would make a perfect setting for a remake of “The Shining.” I’d picked the tiny place from a Robert Sietsema rave, and the soup dumplings were everything he promised, perfectly made and with great flavor. As were the steamed dumplings filled with greens, very delicate texturally but intense-tasting. We all thought the mock duck was way above average, and the noodles with a kind of meat gravy were fine. But the fried pork dumplings turned out to be what we’ve all most craved ever since — they made me realize how rare those are when done to greaseless perfection. WIGB? Absolutely. Everything was in the $5 to $7 range, and the whole staff actually seemed happy to please us. 14A Elizabeth Street, 212 964 5640.

The not bad: Sezz Medi up near Columbia, where we trotted after a excellent morning seeing the Pete Souza Obama photo show at the Schomburg Center and touring Alexander Hamilton’s Grange before Bob had to be at school to coach aspiring journalists. We wanted fast and good, but sit-down, so we ordered without really thinking. Decent if a bit grease-sodden fried calamari and zucchini arrived in minutes, but my BLT took so long we had plenty of time to argue about why anyone would order such a thing in an Italianesque restaurant. It was okay, and came with fine fries with garlic, and really was a lot of food for $8. But I think six pizzas came out before one sandwich. WIGB? Maybe, if we found ourselves stranded in that neighborhood.

The great again: Hunan House in Flushing, where I met a few members of the best little eating group I’ve ever connected with and where we ate ourselves smart (I think with seven or nine dishes) for all of $20 a head. All I wanted was the smoked duck, but the group went for a different version, with dried turnips and white pepper (aka chilies), and I had no complaints. That kitchen is definitely not afraid of heat. The lazy Susan was spinning, with dan dan noodles and pumpkin cake and pickled Hunan cabbage flying by, but I was most impressed by the (comped) winter melon with black beans and chilies, the braised beef with chilies and black beans and especially with the Hunan mustard greens. A whole fish, though, just tasted muddy to me (you are what you eat, and grain doesn’t cut it). WIGB? Absolutely, but now I want to try its sister restaurant, without the hourlong ride. 718 353 1808.

The mostly good: Tertulia in the West Village, where I connected with friends in from Philadelphia after being warned on the phone that it would be tough to get in because it was Beard Eve but where we were instantly shown to a great table. I was a little worried by the grease/smoke smell hanging over the whole room, but the food was outstanding: eggs stuffed with smoked cod; mushrooms on toast with (allegedly) smoked ricotta and pine nuts; ham croquettes, and grilled asparagus with poached egg. I only tasted a bit of the chocolate-sea salt tart and the crema catalana. Service was a bit distracted, but it was Beard Eve . . . WIGB? Anytime. Despite the tumblers that always make wine taste as if it came from a hose. 359 Sixth Avenue near Waverly Place, 646 559 9909.

The worth-the-journey: Fort Defiance in Red Hook, where we landed with another couple on our little expedition to a different neighborhood that also involved Key lime pie (good but not life-changing), then excellent iced tea at Baked plus samples of just-distilled rum at an open house at Van Brunt Stillhouse. We had our maiden voyage through an Ikea beforehand, after the free Saturday ferry dumped us right there, and must have carried away some of the craziness that comes from too much choice, because we looked at every other eating option before heading back after leaving our names and being told the wait would be 15 minutes. So we walked in and sat right down, in a quiet table in the very back, and soon were being seduced by the cocktail list. My spritz was not bubbly enough but was the right choice to go with a huge fluffy biscuit flooded with sausage gravy alongside poached eggs that just needed Tabasco; the guys succumbed to excellent Ramos gin fizzes that didn’t play so well with either granola or Bob’s kick-ass grillades and (Anson) grits, with what must have been a very large calf’s cheek in lively sauce. Joanne’s omelet looked like an omelet, though. WIGB? If I lived closer, for sure. The room, the service, the mood were all just right. And while eggs out scare me, the menu promised safe sourcing. 365 Van Brunt Street, 347 453 6672.

The oy: Fairway, in what I call the flagship store, where we met friends who now have a 14-month-old for an early dinner on a Friday that I figured would last about an hour. I think we almost closed the place down, with very little of that time spent eating and drinking. Plus the pizza was the worst ever, just slopped out. The parents were smart, though: they brought mooshed-up fish and vegetables for the daughter. And she at least got to get up and walk around while waiting. And waiting.

The not-terrible: Osteria Cotta on the Upper West Side, where Bob and I landed after the very smart “We Have a Pope” and where a sidewalk table, even under scaffolding, made up for mediocre food and ditzy service. Caponata bruschetta suffered from the tasteless main ingredient; pizza verdure was soggy and wan, and the endive and watercress salad may or may not have had actual Gorgonzola in it. The best part was when the waitress brought my second glass of wine and it was half-full. “Oh, I guess I took it from the bartender too fast.” WIGB? Maybe. But not anytime soon.

The regrettable: Calexico’s taco cart, parked across from Madison Square in one of those Bloomberg triangles where I stumbled upon at least a dozen mobile vendors assembled in some sort of promotion through June 1. I’d walked by the cart before, but the line reminded me of our friend Leslie Wong’s memorable line about New Yorkers: “The more they get fucked, the more they like it.” On this Wednesday it was no shorter, but after checking out the other options I decided it was worth the wait even with Roberta’s right next “door.” Now can someone please explain to me why I thought carne asada was the filling to go for with mad cow loose in the land? Or what in hell the rubber chunks billed as skirt steak really were?

New York minutes/Early February 2012

February 2012

The seriously good again: Momofuku Ssam in the East Village, where my consort and I met another food-obsessed couple via the Twitter for a Sunday lunch that was even more invigorating than my two previous weekday indulgences. We were there before the door opened at 11:30 so of course got a nice table (and, I learned later, a waiter who Tweets, too). The four of us shared everything, which meant I tasted excellent sweetbreads I normally would spurn (prep them once or twice and you will, too) and the spicy sausage and rice-cake dish, as well as lively pickled vegetables and a pear sorbet brilliantly accessorized with pumpkin, cornflakes and blue cheese. All the duck — rotisserie, dumplings, pulled sandwich — was of course perfect. The only letdown was apple kimchi with bacon and maple labne, which amounted to ingredients talking past each other. WIGB? Can’t wait. 207 Second Avenue at 13th Street, 212 212 254 3500. (BTW: We all went down the avenue afterward to Vandaag for the exceptional coffee in that rigorously designed room; the cappuccino was one of the best I’ve ever had on this continent.)

The transporting: Il Buco Alimentari in Nebulousnabe, where we fortified ourselves with  Saturday lunch before a time trip through the amazing Merchant’s House Museum nearby and where the history was nearly as palpable (wood from the way-back machine). Seeing a whole porchetta on the rotisserie in the theatrical open kitchen made the panino irresistible, and it was a juicy/crunchy/tender marvel on just the right bun; pickled vegetables on the side only made it seem more of a deal at $16 (Porchetta’s is of course sublime and much cheaper but without the creature comforts). We shared the $14 insalata di cicoria despite my resistance to Scalia anchovies for their name alone, and it turned out to be one of the rare enjoyable bitter salads, with almost sweet Treviso radicchio tossed in and crunchy fine bread crumbs over the top. And $14 grilled sausage over Umbrian lentils had real nuance; fried sage leaves and sweet onions were grace notes. As the server warned, the coffee needs work; even with way more than a cloud on the macchiato it was bitter. (We stopped by Colombe later just to compare and now suspect, though, that taste is not what’s cutting into business; it’s probably more the scene.) The market in the front is quite nice, too, although we managed to get out without buying anything. WIGB? Absolutely, at least for serene lunch. I’d guess it might get loud at dinner, with all those hard surfaces. 53 Great Jones Street, 212 212 837 2622.

The satisfying, again: La Mangeoire in Midtown East, where we landed after being warned of a 45-minute wait at the Smith after an opening of New York in Color with a friend’s work at the Howard Greenberg Gallery on 57th Street. The $38 white from the Languedoc matched well with both Bob’s intense coq au vin with mushroom-bacon sauce and my pork roast (first time I’ve ever ordered that, and my reward was super-tender thanks to the server actually asking what temperature I wanted). And the anchoiade, olives and oil with the bread basket were just gravy. I’ll admit it was a little sad to see Christian Delouvrier and think back on Ruth’s bedazzled  review in his $30 soup days, but his cooking has lost only the flash and price tag, not the style and substance. WIGB? We may never make it to the Smith. Add in no din and the option of downsized main courses and it’s definitely worth the journey. 1008 Second Avenue near 53d Street, 212 759 7086.

The over-the-top: RedFarm in the West Village, where we left my name and of course got a perfect little table and no end of comped food from gregarious Eddie Schoenfeld; we only had to wait as long as it took to pick out three new salts at the Meadow down the street. Thank allah we kept a receipt, because it really was more dishes than any cranial sieve could retain (he at least did the smart thing and said: “Take a taste and take it home”). We chose good shu mai shooters (two for $7.50), huge and slightly overwrought crab and duck dumplings (four for $12), exquisite vegetable and chive steamed dumplings (four for $8), noodles with both Dungeness and rock crab ($27) and sublime okra and eggplant yellow curry ($17 and enough to keep me from succumbing to mediocre Thai again for a long, long time — this had at least six kinds of vegetables in addition to the excellent stars, and the sauce was all nuanced flavor). Forced upon us were killer soup dumplings with truffles; strange but irresistible eggplant “bruschetta” topped with smoked salmon and caviar; mushroom spring rolls; amazing barbecued Berkshire pork belly; the $39 like-buttah Creekstone prime rib steak with the best baby bok choy I’ve ever stuck an implement into, and two desserts: chocolate pudding and a “fruit plate.” The kittybag was damned heavy on the way back to the C train, and we ate from it for three days. We also shared a $32 bottle and two $16 glasses of an ideal wine for Joe Ng’s style of cooking, S.A. Prum “Blue” Mosel riesling (Joshua Wesson did the list). WIGB? Can’t wait, although I may sneak in with a bag over my head. But that might mean missing out on Eddie’s entertaining tales. 529 Hudson Street, 212 792 9700.

The “good luck to them”: Left Bank in the far West Village, where we met one of our favorite people, in from Veneto, for a great long, long Sunday dinner. We reserved at 6:30 to try out the “happy hour,” which sounded so much more respectable than “early bird,” but were only able to take advantage of the half-price, half-assed Aperol spritz ($6) because Diego didn’t get there by 7 for the three courses for $20. Dinner was still a steal: I had outstanding potato gnocchi with pumpkin, black pepper and pecorino, almost like spaetzle, for $17; the guys both had the superb juicy-crisp roast half-chicken with capers, cornichons and dill for $21. (Usual sneakiness: Sides are sold separately.) We also shared a pretty great rendition of brandade with warm toast and olives for $10 and a lively bottle of grillo from Diego’s second home of Sicily for $36. Service and the room were both fine, too. (Even though we got the worst table in the house, right under the speaker with nothing but #RIPWhitney — by the end of the night I was starting to realize why she needed drugs.) WIGB? No question, if it lasts. I know we’ve eaten there before . . . 117 Perry Street at Greenwich, 212 727 1170.

The dispiriting despite the design: Cafe Centro in Hell’s Kitchen, where we ducked in just for cheap sustenance at a sunlit table on our way to the must-see Loving and Weegee shows at ICP. Warm, salty chips and decent salsa were too easy to fill up on, which was lucky because the rice and beans with my lukewarm cheese enchiladas merited no more than one bite each. Bob ordered tacos with carnitas cooked in Coke and we were both glad he had resisted the mahi ones; these were overfilled and hyper-sweet, but things coulda been worse. WIGB? Why do restaurants get better on Ninth as you head south?

New York minutes/End of April 2011

May 2011

The pretty good: Columbus Tavern, where we stopped in for something different after the pitch-perfect “Win Win” at Lincoln Plaza and where we would have been mostly happy even if we’d not been comped a rather wan cheesecaky dessert by the owner. The din level was blissfully low, for starters, and the waiter was almost embarrassingly polite and attentive. Plus the food was way better than you’d expect: My consort’s cooked-right hanger steak came with a Snowdon-size heap of creamed spinach plus slightly limp but flavorful onion rings and three sauces on the side, unnecessary but worth the calories. I just ordered the house salad, since we’d shared a vat of popcorn at the movie and Bob had ordered the duck fat cashews as soon as we sat down, knowing my addiction to all things duck (verdict: the fat adds nothing but richness to oily nuts, especially when they’re overspiced). And that salad was completely satisfying as an alternative to a Caesar, with avocado, cucumber, radishes and tons of herbs. The “biscotti” the sweet waiter delivered were actually biscuits, okay on their warm own but even better with lemon-rosemary butter. Too bad the 30-year-old chef’s creativity and attention to detail are getting hammered by the crappy wine selection. I tried two whites, Bob two reds and all four fought the food. WIGB? Absolutely, although we’d been torn between Fairway and something new, and Fairway has nearly comparable food plus much cheaper, better wine if not as nice a setting. 269 Columbus Avenue near 73d Street, 212 873 9400.

The not bad: Osteria Cotta, where a friend and I headed in despair after contemplating the bleak choices in Chelsea after her son’s second showing of his sushi documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival (she wanted Company and I couldn’t find a bank to rob). Our cramped table in the back was at least quiet enough that we could almost hear each other, but otherwise it felt like the last seat in the plane near the bathroom and galley, with a constant stream of servers/runners/busboys slamming past. The grilled (actually skillet-charred) escarole salad with grape tomatoes and pecorino was as good as she and others had promised, and if the margherita pizza was more soupy than crisp, I ate my two slices happily. The tocai was also decent and fairly priced at $8 a glass. WIGB? Sure. Location, location, and Bob has to try it because it’s just a walk away. 513 Columbus Avenue near 85th Street, 212 873 8500.

The not bad: Spice uptown, where I met another friend for an early dinner that stretched for three hours and where the patient staff never hassled us, maybe because we wound up spending nearly twice as much on (crappy) wine as on food (and the food came to all of $11 apiece). Meatless spring rolls were sloppily assembled but cooked right, and if my duck-lettuce wraps did not live up to my first encounter with them they still amounted to a heap of decent filling. I didn’t try Joanne’s vegetable green curry, just listened to her yelp at every bite (from heat, not meanness). WIGB? Sure. The price is right, and the people are so nice. 435 Amsterdam Avenue at 81st Street, 212 362 5861.

Quick hits: I finally succumbed to Cafe Frida uptown for a snack at happy hour, and the quesadillas with chorizo were surprisingly decent although what I washed them down with was total shiver wine, perfect for watching the Good Friday procession pass by with the squad car and so many religious observers texting away. El Paso Taqueria across the park is getting kinda grimy but consistently has the best Mexican deal in town if you’re into cheese enchiladas with tomatillo sauce: $9 for three good ones topped with onions with black beans and rice. But Rickshaw Dumpling, where I stopped off for something quick on the way home from a drink with an editor at the snack-free bar in the “Shining”-evoking Eleven Madison Park, reminded me how low mediocre can go. My first complaint will be my last: Maybe the cooks could take a little more time and get it right? My order of sad duck dumplings was ready before I had even finished paying.

Also, too, I’m too lazy to go into all the details here, but we had great experiences at Cafe 2 at MOMA and at Cafe Sabarsky at Neue Galerie, which is especially transporting after dark.

New York minutes/Late November 2010

November 2010

The pretty good: Bettolona in “the hinterlands,” as one stressed friend coming from Midtown described it, where my consort and I met her and a new friend for too little food and just enough wine (BYO) after he had tried it for lunch on advice from my Columbia e-correspondent. Last time we were in that space it was nouveau Latino, but it’s been transformed and now turns out slightly soggy mushroom pizza, decent whole wheat pasta with vegetables, above-average spinach lasagne with meat sauce and good grilled squid. Baked asparagus with Fontina, though, arrived as three soggy spears and not even the promised “hint” of truffle oil. Neither tiramisu nor the crespelle with bananas and Nutella could be faulted, and either could the tab, a little over $20 a person thanks to the reportedly nervous-making wine shop two doors south. WIGB? Sure. It wasn’t loud, either. 3143 Broadway near LaSalle Street, 212 749 1125.

The surprisingly respectable: RedFarm Stand at FoodParc, where we stopped after the Saturday Greenmarket for a quick, egg-free lunch and where all of $20.95 bought four carefully prepared items. We shared the duck bun, which turned out to be slabs of tender, fatty roast duck on a soft roll with pickled vegetables, and the wild Katz’s pastrami egg roll, a fat, crispy cylinder with maybe one layer too many of dough and a creamy mustard dunking sauce, as well as a mesclun salad loaded with good vegetables cut small and topped with rice noodles. The best things were the black pepper pork potstickers with chile-soy dipping sauce, which were filled right and fried perfectly — they put Canteen 82’s to shame, I’ll have my uptown friends know. Because it was the holiday weekend, the place was pretty deserted, so we had two tables to ourselves to sit side-by-side with a nice view of the patio and the huge screen outside showing a creepy art video with baby. And maybe the cooking was more careful because it was so slow, but the potstickers on another table looked just as good. WIGB? Absolutely. Sixth Avenue at 29th Street.