Archive for the ‘french’ Category

Speak American, damn it

April 2015

Between the rigatoni and the “minced beef” (aka dogburgers) on homebound Turkish Airlines, I had plenty of time to chew over what a guide recounted in Istanbul on my second day: She once had to spend several weeks in New York and was just longing for the food of her birth country one day when she spotted a restaurant called Istanbul. She swore she got fine food there, and I’ll take her word for it. Mostly she got me thinking about why Americans never have to crave American food. Is it because you can find McBurgerShack anywhere you go? Or because there is no such thing as American food?

I’m going with the latter after considering a couple of eating experiences after landing. On the first night my also-jetlagged consort, just back from judging World Press Photo’s multimedia entries in Amsterdam, graciously suggested we meet somewhere near his post-school networking drink, and Mermaid Inn had no tables available before about 3  in the morning my time, so I suggested Maison Kayser, not least because we could economize by taking advantage of the BYOB policy, since the place has no liquor license but also no corkage fee. So we tucked right into food off a menu that felt like one we would be happy to find in a cafe in Paris on one of those nights when we had no energy to search out a real meal. I passed on the salade gourmandaise with foie gras, duck prosciutto, green beans etc. because (snob that I am) I have had it so many times in France. But I was thrilled to see duck rillettes, and something new: artichokes paired with burrata. Which were enticing enough to let me let Bob take the cassoulet.

Of the three, the cassoulet was the weakest link, but not by much. Once we shredded the duck confit and chopped the garlic sausage into the soupy beans, we had a credible version of the usually dense classic. The rillettes, all of $2 more than what I buy Hudson Valley Duck’s for, came with toasts and cornichons plus were so much better, with good chunks of meat among the shreds in white fat. And the artichoke assemblage was sublime, both then and next morning: puréed artichoke bottoms surrounded with bits of bottoms, dabs of pesto and a necklace of pitted black olives, all topped with a slab of melting burrata.

The setting was pretty dinery, even after the very charming waiter turned down the lights, and I had my suspicions about how one kitchen can turn out such a wide menu of so many choices, and so fast. Still, WIGB? Absolutely, but probably for a snack rather than a meal. Real diners have wine by the glass.

Overall, though, the meal felt very New York. As did, insane as it sounds, Saturday lunch with our Asian-eating/eating-Asian pals at a newish Sichuan restaurant in northern New Jersey. And not just because we ordered “hamburgers.”

The first sign we were a long way from either Mott Street or Main Street was the very look of the place: sleek, polished, elegant (the two-stall ladies room even had flowers in it rather than the usual grimy string mop). The second was the graceful dish filled with peanuts in one indentation, spicy pickled carrots and a mystery yellow vegetable in the other. The teapots were also china, not aluminum. And the food was uniformly sensational.

Pork wontons in hot chile oil were perfectly formed and cooked, so they held together to the last nibble. Duck soup had a delicate flavor but you could taste the ginger and Sichuan peppercorns. Dan-dan noodles had clean, beautifully balanced flavor. I skipped the ox tongue and tripe in peppery sauce while everyone else raved. I also skipped the fermented eggs with cucumbers but can vouch for the sauce and crunchy vegetable sauce. Fern root noodles with sliced chicken were fascinating, dark and chewy. Braised sea bass fillets in another spicy sauce were sensational, beautifully cooked, very fresh fillets, and all of $16.75 for a huge bowlful. Even dry-sautéed string beans with minced pork were exceptional. But the true “vaut le voyage” choices were the Sichuan “hamburger,” thin slices of well-spiced pork to be tucked into steamed buns, and the tea-smoked duck, easily the best we have ever had outside of Hong Kong — the fat was almost buttery, the meat almost rare but very tender. And when the check came, it amounted to all of $23 a person for the seven of us. WIGB? Despite the hourlong bus ride, absolutely. This is why we live in America, for freedom of choice on food.

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/Late May-mid-June 2013

July 2013

The good: Petite Soo Chow in Cliffside Park, N.J., of all places, where I met up with my Asian-eating/eating-Asian pals for Saturday lunch and where, as usual, leaving the ordering to the experts was the right thing to do. Also as usual, 17 dishes for the nine of us came to $22 a head with a good tip. Of course the soup dumplings and the Shanghai-style fried buns were superb, but I also had things I would never anticipate in a Chinese restaurant (like a cruller, more like deep-fried unsweetened dough, meant to be dipped into soy milk, and a gluten dish called sweet bran twist) and things I would not try again (kelp, in strips cutely knotted like bow ties but too fishy for me). The best dishes were the silk squash/loofah, like a more interesting chayote; the turnip cakes, in a flaky dough and flavored with teeny shrimp; the spicy sprats, served cold in a sensational sauce; the stewed pork riblets in brown sauce, and the super-tender pork belly in preserved bean sauce with water spinach, meant to be eaten in steamed buns. WIGB? It was a schlep — 45 minutes on the 159 bus from the Port Authority — but,  actually, yes. As good as the food was, the service matched it. 607 Gorge Road, 201 313 1666.

The sad: Boulud Sud on the Upper West Side, where I reserved for my consort’s birthday after we had to cancel Lafayette and he acknowledged proximity should trump excitement the night he was packing for a three-week trip to Prague and Bulgaria to work on a short film on the Roma. But oh, was it bleak. Since our first dinner shortly after it opened, we’ve (separately) been quite happy with drinks at the bar, and maybe that’s why it felt so bar-ish when we walked in and had to wait to be seated after being amazed OpenTable had had tables at just about any hour we could choose. We did wind up with a street view in a relatively quiet corner, but it was just grim. I faced into the room and could see servers lined up while we waited, and waited, for service, and we actually got our appetizer before our drinks. Fried artichoke hearts had us both recalling Rome, where at least in the ghetto they’re crispy, and my quail entree had me re-imagining ill-advised ordering in the past. As I Tweeted next day, quail is the new duck, and not in a good way — chefs serve it way past liver stage. The birthday boy didn’t complain about his paella, though, and we both agreed the olive oil with the bread was outstanding. WIGB? Never for dinner, maybe for a drink. It was shocking the menu had barely changed since our first visit, it was annoying to see so many more tables crammed in and it was disheartening to look at the crowd and think: “This is just the commissary for 15 CPW.” And you know what discerning tastes rich fucks have.

The pretty great: City Grit in Nolita, where Mike Andrzejewski was cooking and where my dinner with strangers turned out to be not just endurable but fun. The venue is a funky store by day but becomes an informal restaurant with communal seating at night, and they do things right. All six courses were served seamlessly, and wine orders were taken and delivered expeditiously. And the food was fabulous, starting with just-shucked oysters with cucumber, chile, ginger, lime and sweet rice vinegar (yes, I’m cribbing from the menu). I was queasy about the “nigiri of otoro and beef heart tartare with white soy, lardo and chile flowers,” mainly because of the base, the organ meat chopped to simulate sticky rice, but the topping was so sensational I didn’t mind the gory bits that accidentally wound up on my fork. Smoked salmon belly BLT was nicely done as well, with iceberg for the L and the fish for the B; the red and yellow beefsteak tomatoes were compressed into a cube. The sea scallops in the next course were beautifully seared and perfectly cooked, then teamed with julienned crisps of pig’s ear, baby red mustard, pickled Thai chilies and a wild smoked egg yolk. I should have left more room for the sea robin laid over risotto cooked like paella, with garnishes of chorizo oil, olives, piquillos and sherry vinegar glaze. And I definitely should not have underestimated “Vietnamese coffee and white chocolate bar,” which turned out to be a very cerebral but satisfying reinvention of all those elements into a sort of Asian tiramisu with substance. Dinner, prepaid, was $60 before wine, and a deal at twice that. A couple of glasses of muscadet at $9 a pop were also worth it. WIGB? Absolutely. It was good and fun. As was the company: the chef’s wife, a couple of his best customers in from Buffalo, business connections who live in Brooklyn, a young German woman in publishing in town on business and a guy from my neighborhood who just likes to eat well with strangers.

The disappointing: Momofuku Ssam in the East Village, where I met up with a caustic blogger pal for lunch after dangling the temptation “duck gorditas” in an email and where we both walked out underwhelmed for the first time ever. The duck set featured the usual beautifully cooked meat, but the pickles with it were short on finesse, and my pal would know. The duck dumplings had the feel of an appetizer the kitchen had had just about enough of, thank you very much. And the duck gorditas were too easy to eat but ultimately came off as reinvented Mexican nothingburgers: greasy masa disks overfilled with could-be-anything meat and gloppy sauce. As always, though, the service was snappy and the wine well-matched to the food. WIGB? Probably. Duck is not just a four-letter word.

The good again and again: The Smith across from Lincoln Center, where we had reserved a table for four after the outstanding “A Hijacking” just up Broadway and where even the short wait at the bar after we arrived early flew by when a manager offered us a mistakenly poured beer for free after we had ordered a large carafe of rosé, and even split it into tastes. We could have had a table inside in Bedlam but were happy to hold out even though we wound up with the best view ever of the multi-culti cast of characters heading in and out of the Citibank ATM lobby. But the service and food were so much better than a restaurant across from Lincoln Center should provide. We split excellent seared shishito peppers and an order of tempura green beans, and I had a nice-enough chopped salad and a few bites of Bob’s fine trout Milanese with good potatoes. Our friends seemed happy with the roast chicken and the pork chop, and we all liked the silly dessert. (They’re all silly.) WIGB? Absolutely. On my two trips to and from the downstairs bathrooms, the staff vibe was so positive. They have a license to mint money, but they appear to be sharing the wealth.

The half-good: Spring Natural Kitchen on the Upper West Side again, where I connected with a picture-editor friend and her daughter in from DC and a coupla photo friends from the neighborhood and where it was a damned good thing the food was so good because the service was on the other side of abysmal. The table next to us got their entrees and their check before we even managed to put in our food order. It was partly our fault for saying we needed a bit more time to negotiate the long menu, but it was mostly the fault of the kind of waitress who thinks busing a table comes before getting requests into the kitchen pipeline. Luckily, my cheeseburger was pretty exceptional, with good meat cooked right and topped with both mushroom and onions. My only complaint was that it was almost too big, although The Cat WCTLWAFW had no complaints. WIGB? Undoubtedly, the alternative pickings being pretty slim in this neighborhood. And for the third time, the welcome was truly welcoming; I got there first and the host had a table set up for the five of us by the time the others arrived.

The different: Cheburechnaya in Rego Park, where we hooked up with our Asian-eating/eating-Asian group on a cold, wet Sunday and where everything beyond getting lost in the cold and rain was a trip. This was kosher cooking from part of the former Soviet Union, and it reminded me of eating in Turkey. By the time we dripped in, everyone was already tucking into the outstanding salad with red peppers, cucumbers, red onions and olives (dressed, we later learned, in Wishbone Italian), the superb carrot and cumin salad, the good hummus and bread and the pickled cabbage. I got just a taste of the chebureki,  which I’d describe as sort of cheeseless quesadillas, filled with veal, with mushrooms and with “meat.” Lagman, described on the menu as a soup with pasta, beef, mixed vegetables and assorted spices, reminded me of a fresher, heartier Campbell’s. I knew I was in for trouble when the samcy with ribs started making the rounds: a flaky pastry with my least favorite meat tucked inside; Bob said I should try just a bite with the onions, but it was way too lamby for me. And that was followed by sword after sword of grilled meats from the long butcher case behind us: lamb testicles, lamb hearts, boneless chicken and cubes of lamb fat that had everyone else moaning in ecstasy. A plate of fried beef brains also landed on the table, but even if I weren’t skeert of mad cow I would have passed. We also had a little mountain  of irresistible French fries drenched in oily garlic — interestingly enough, at $5 they cost more than most of the meats. Beyond the food, the crowd was quite something — a huge table celebrating a wedding or other ritual event, another huge table ordering bottle after bottle of vodka, tables of women with Cokes and pints of hootch. Our table, however, drank Borzhomi, a mineral water with a pretty fair amount of sodium to cut the fat. WIGB? It was fun, but once was plenty. Although we did all enjoy gawking and buying in the many Russian markets nearby. They don’t call it Regostan for nothing. 92-09 63rd Drive, 718 897 9080.

The “price is right:” Land Thai on the Upper West Side, where a friend in from Connecticut for job interviews met me for lunch on another rainy day and where, as always, it was hard to complain about two courses for $9. We both had the springrolls and I was fine with the cashew curry. And although the place clearly makes its money by spinning tables, the staff let us sit there as long as we wanted.

The unfortunate: Sindicato de Cocineros in Greenpoint, where I had dinner on a monsoon night with four friends and where I have to judge a restaurant by the lowlifes it  attracts. The place was brand-new and chosen by two of the friends who used to live nearby, and it had its charms: widely spaced tables, a warm vibe, a deejay who played great bits of LPs at just the right sound level. The margarita was only adequate,* but our shared starters were sensational: the guacamole very limey and topped with snappy radish slices, and the mollete a couple of crisp slices of the usual torta roll topped with beans, chorizo, cheese and salsa. I’m not so sure deconstructing a gordita was such a wise idea because it was hard to get all the elements — ground beef, beans, crema, cheese, lettuce — in one bite, and the masa itself was doughy. I didn’t try either order of tacos on the table, or the pork, but the flan was okay. So WIGB? I had to come home and Tweet: Not on a bet. When we were all leaving in the raging downpour, I went to retrieve my $40 MOMA umbrella from the heap at the door and some hipster asshole had made off with it. To the restaurant’s social media manager’s credit, they did notice my carping and promise me a new umbrella if I DM’d my address. I am, however, still waiting . . .

*The vaut le voyage: Nights and Weekends, also in Greenpoint, where I had the best margarita of my long life. I met one of the Sindicato tablemates there early but late for our appointed hour, which was too bad because this drink was huge. And smoky. And spicy. And just absolute perfection. For all of $10. Apparently the food is pretty good there, too, so WIGB? Next time I need to scratch the margarita itch, I’m getting on the B to the E to the G.

New York minutes/Early May 2013

May 2013

The seriously good: Calliope in the East Village, where my consort and I had the prescience to head for fortification before braving either the art fair on the Bowery or Di Palo’s for an Illy stock-up and where the food was just short of astonishing. And I say that after admitting I ordered the cheeseburger. While it took its savory time arriving, I indulged in my favorite sport, remorsing over not having been more brave and at least trying a sandwich if not the eggs, but what landed definitely merited a whoa! The bun was more like a square ciabatta, the cheddar was actually slices of the crumbly stuff and the ramekin of mayonnaisey sauce alongside made it perfectly clear you would not need either of the usual low-rent condiments, mustard and ketchup. As for the burger itself, the beef (grass-fed organic, the waitress instantly answered when I asked about its provenance) was juicy and bloody in the best way, with an exceptional char. Arrayed alongside this wonder were red-leaf lettuce leaves perfectly sized for that bun, red onion and a slice of tomato that looked malproportioned but turned out to fit exactly into the whole architectural assemblage. Fries, of course, were just as sublime. What was more amazing was steaming in a bowl across the table. Bob’s spicy tripe with egg was so beautifully conceived and executed I actually ate the offal as well as the kick-ass tomato base and vegetables, and the innards turned out to be both tender and tasty.  WIGB? As soon as possible (not least because that was the first cheeseburger I have actually finished in nearly eight years). But not for dinner. Even when half-empty at brunchtime, the place makes Bedlam sound like a padded cell.

The not bad: Omai in Chelsea, where I hooked up with Bob and a friend who just won the fellowship he did six years ago in Middle Earth and needed cheerleading and where we were lucky to be seated early — by the time we picked up the kittybag, a line was out the door. I was the one who insisted on ordering the most plebeian item, the spring rolls, so I’m glad I left the rest of the choices to them. Duck was great, ribs not so much. For once, though, the chardonnay trumped the sauvignon blanc, which turned to vinegar against the flavors in the food. Service and sound level both earned an A. WIGB? Why not? It’s not as if you can’t find 18 different lousy Thai experiences just one avenue away.

The promising: Lafayette in NoHo or whatever the hell that area is called these days, where I was lucky enough to be treated to lunch by an editor in for Enron on 12th Street and where one bad server couldn’t spoil the whole experience. The place looks fabulous if a bit French-dinery at street level, and we scored a very comfortable booth, and it was relatively easy to talk among the four of us. (I was the stranger among half of them.) Eggs Lafayette and the tartine of the day had already been delivered when I arrived, and both made great starts. The hard-cooked, halved eggs were heaped high with smoked sable and topped with trout caviar; the tartine involved exceptional bread spread with smoked ricotta and overlaid with radishes and tomato. All of them passed the most rigorous test: We could eat them, by hand, without making a mess of either them or our clothes. I shared the mysterious $18 “Fleur de Soleil” pasta with snap peas, pancetta and mint — the pasta turned out to have a campanile shape and was exquisitely sauced. I can’t judge the grilled shrimp salad with arugula, muscat grapes and caper dressing because I passed on the protein, but I think I got the better end of the deal for an $18 item. I did taste the fries that came with the $25 flatiron steak with béarnaise butter and will give them freedom thumbs up. Not so many to the server, who seemed to be emitting information through gritted teeth. I actually apologized for wondering where the beef came from — when it’s Niman Ranch, he should fucking volunteer it. Our benefactress spotted and had to order the weirdest dessert option — pickled blueberry sorbet — which turned out to be more like frozen borscht. The sablé that came with it was so exquisite, though, I had to pick up a lemon-lime-filled one from the bakery case on the way out. (Which The Cat wasted very little time tearing into.) It was fabulous. WIGB? Even though the waiter made it perfectly clear he had had just about enough of us olds by the end of lunch? A resounding yes.

The GD: Regional on the Upper West Side, where we headed one early evening after seeing friends’ latest work (tumbleweeds, as you’ve never pictured them!) and where we got exactly what we were expecting — a not-terrible meal for a not-exorbitant price just blocks equidistant from both our homes. Oh, and a bottle of Valpolicella Santi at 50 percent off because it was a Wednesday. We shared a more-greens-than-artichoke salad for $10, then passed plates of ravioli fonduta, gnocchi in red sauce, trofie al pesto and lasagne vincigrassi, all in the $13-$15 range and all in the acceptable range. WIGB? It is geographically desirable. It is not awful. Why the hell not?

The lifesaving: The finally opened Birch on the Upper West Side, where I spent several happy hours after Verizon kept us waiting days for Internet restoration (for which it sent two teams to the same floor in our co-op at the same time to fix the same problem). The NYPL’s Bloomingdale branch was pretty great, with comfortable seating and a civilized crowd plus WiFi connection with no purchase required, but this new shop made me realize why the youngs are so happy to while away weeks in a profit-making environment. I would pay $3 or so and get an hour to check in to see how little I was missing on the Twitter and in pol porn. The staff was engaging, the crowd usually not annoying, the setting very sleek. WIGB? Yep. For the flat white alone. Birch’s is the best since Oz.

New York minutes

March 2013

The good: Montmartre in Chelsea, where my consort and I hooked up with friends willing to be early birds to try a restaurant open only a few days but certain to be packed soon and where our rewards started with a nice quiet table downstairs. As always with a Little Wisco joint, the service was attentive and the kitchen was not afraid of flavor or fat. Everything on the menu sounded tantalizing, and the “canapé” of celeriac in a sort of mousse topped with pickled grape sent the right message as soon as we’d ordered. Because we couldn’t order a couple of apps to take the edge off immediately, because it would tax the kitchen, we held off and just shared one, of tiny, tender escargot teamed with great garlic sausage, Swiss chard and crunchy, spicy little crumbs of potato. Our server used everything but the word stew in describing the veal blanquette, and she was right: it was a deconstructed classic, with tender chunks of meat and almost no sauce surrounded by mushrooms and Thumbelina carrots, with a little bowl of sensational mustard spaetzl on the side (looked like fries, tasted like pungent pasta). I only snared a taste of the skate St. Malo, a crisp fillet laid over Savoy cabbage with bacon cooked in Riesling with mustard, so can only say it seemed to make one friend happy. And if my ample portion of fluke was not especially juicy, it was almost superfluous since the creamed leeks and chili-crab sauce with it were so satisfying. We all shared the dessert gougeres, which sounded like profiteroles, with their chocolate sauce and toasted hazelnut,s but were in fact cheesy more than creamy-puffy. The wine list seems pretty steep, though, with the cheapest bottle (the one we chose) at $40. (Entrees were in the mid to high $20s.) WIGB? Soon, I hope. 158 Eighth Avenue near 18th Street, 646 596 8838.

The relatively good: Zero Otto Nove on Arthur Avenue, where Bob and I stopped first on a field trip out of the house on a Saturday and where, as always, the setting — Italo-Disneyesque as it is — represented half the allure. We got there early and did not have to wait long, which was a good thing because the two hostesses were having a severe breakdown in communication. And so we soon had a table upstairs overlooking the skylit dining room, and we had a potato-sausage-smoked mozzarella pizza on that table in the time it took me to get to and from the bathroom. The crust was a little chewy, but the balance of other ingredients compensated. A salad of escarole with marinated eggplant and olives made an ideal dessert; we split a generous glass of okay California sauvignon blanc (someday someone is going to have to explain how pinot grigio came to be the taste of Italy when it is the most insipid of so many whites). WIGB? Absolutely. The “Italian” restaurants have always been more Albanian, but you can forgive a lot in a setting that transporting.

The not-as-bad-as-I-anticipated: Pylos in the East Village, where we met up with a knowledgeable friend with news to celebrate and where I am very glad I was not a total bitch in pooh-poohing it because . . . she paid, even after we definitely over-ordered. I had basement-level hopes for a restaurant that I thought of as a holdover from the days when that neighborhood was a food wasteland, thanks to denizens who were either too poor to eat out or too rich-druggie to care about eating. But the place looks as polished and fresh as when we were there for a press dinner eons ago, we got a nice corner banquette and the food was surprisingly imaginative. The bean spread that came with warm pita may have been having an identity crisis, but two of the three spreads we immediately ordered compensated (the eggplant purée was as bland as the beans; tzatziki and taramasalata nearly reached Kefi level). Saganaki landed while our pita platter was empty, so it congealed while we waited; artichoke moussaka, grape leaves and oddly sweet and slightly chalky gigantes were tepid even at their hottest spots. We shared a whole grilled branzino and somehow got talked into both roasted potatoes and a sensational side of chard and spinach stewed with celery and fennel. Because it was a celebratory night, one bottle of red led to two glasses more — and two glasses sent back because they did not smell corked but certainly tasted wan. WIGB? Sure. If someone’s treating and I don’t mind rushed-to-impatient service and wine bottles stowed on the floor between pours.

New York minutes/Mid-September 2012

September 2012

The always good: The Mermaid Inn on the Upper West Side, where we headed on Social Media Monday, which has become the biggest incentive to eat out after three nights of Greenmarket amazingness at home. “Fish-ionista” was the password to 20 percent off four glasses of wine, a shared iceberg-bacon-blue cheese salad and my fried green tomatoes with crab and my consort’s fried shrimp. We reserved early and were rewarded with a relatively quiet table against the far wall on a night too holy-crap-it’s-fall to sit outside, then our usual perfect server came by to say hello even though he pretty much only sees us on 20 percent-off-Mondays. WIGB? Absolutely for many reasons, not least that there is no negative vibe on claiming the discount for a meal we would happily cover at full price.

The frustrating: La Mangeoire in Midtown East, where I met friends in from Seattle after one actually voiced an opinion on what to eat (meat!) and I was angling for someplace near their hotel where we could all actually talk. As I warned Dianne, it would feel like eating in NYC on our first trip north together in 1979 or so but it would be worth it. And it was. Ken got his honking slab of $36 steak, one that came with good fries and peppercorn sauce, and we dainty eaters were quite happy with crab-avocado-grapefruit appetizers as satisfying as a main course. I didn’t try Ken’s bouncy-looking profiteroles, but Dianne’s apricot tart was excellent. And the bread served with olive oil, anchoiade and olives is almost worth a journey on its own. I’ll admit I was surprised the prices are creeping toward $36-soup level — even the pared-down entree options are in the mid-$20s now — and I was kinda bummed we were stuck in an airless little alcove with a huge table of other olds close enough for aural discomfort. We were there for hours, though, so I guess I can’t complain the waitress pretty much just moved on with her life after belated dessert, surrendering any opportunity to sell more wine or even a coffee or two. WIGB? Maybe, for only one reason beyond the seriously good food — we walked outside and were almost blown back inside by the cacophony blasting from all the bars/restaurants on that avenue.

The sadly departed: The New French in the West Village, where I hadn’t been in at least a year for maybe the same reasons it’s no longer in business. It was so perfect for the longest time, then the chef went west and the food went south, and sidewalk tables were added that the staff clearly couldn’t staff. The slip in food would have been “stomachable,” but the service just became craptastic — and at the very time competition was opening up and down the same street. I do hope someone picks up the Maira Kalman wall drawings and the cool Heimlich poster. The place did so many things so right. H/t Adam for the death notice.

New York minutes/End o’August 2012

September 2012

The good: Sel et Gras in the West Village, where my consort and I headed partly because it was close to Jeffrey’s Grocery, where he was having work drinks, but largely because the name is so enticing. The place turned out to be teeny, an odd sliver of a bar/cafe, and loud, but they kindly seated us oldsters at an awkward but relatively quiet table, and we soon had nice glasses of rosé and some chickpea-battered and fried “market” vegetables with a chutneyesque tomato jam. Duck rillettes came with beer mustard and excellent pickled turnip, and we finished with an excellent croque madame, cut into thirds, each one a perfect layering of ham and cheese and sauce mornay topped with a fried quail egg. I was most impressed on my trip to the train-size bathroom on hearing the kitchen — it sounded not like a bar’s but a top chef’s. WIGB? Absolutely, although I have to take points off for the phrase “diminutive degustation” on the menu.

The reliable: El Paso Taqueria on the Upper East Side and Luke’s Lobster on the Upper West Side, again. The first was the right place to head after the cafe at El Museo del Barrio looked too cafeteriaish, and the second loaded almost too much lobster on its buns. (BTW: The current show at the museum is kinda baffling but includes some great food-related pieces: Barbados cookie cutters with a literal sharp edge, black-and-white photos that include one of “three-meat stew” and an absolutely wonderful collage entitled “Uncle Sam Wants Your Surplus Fat” by an artist with, it turns out, an equally wonderful back story.)

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 January 2012

February 2012

The very close to perfect: Momofuku Ssam, where I met a friend for lunch on my birthday and where everything from attitude to kittybag was done right. The rotisserie duck was easily the best nonsmoked duck I have ever eaten, and I have eaten a lot of duck in my many years — you’d almost think it was sous vide from the tenderness and concentrated flavor, but my consort and I watched one roast on the spit on our last visit, so that can’t be true. I didn’t even get into the rice and watercress the slices came with, but I did like wrapping them up in the pancake with all the accoutrements. The $20 weekday set comes with a side, and the spiced fingerlings were pretty amazing. Fried duck dumplings with pickled red cabbage were exquisite yet again, too. Wines by the glass are a better deal in the front room, BTW. WIGB? Any day now. The best part was hearing my friend recall how scary that very corner was back in the Eighties, when another good friend was mugged right outside where we were indulging. 207 Second Avenue at 13th Street.

The superb: Aldea, where Bob and I headed for my birthday the night he got in from 10 days in Costa Rica and where seats at the chef’s counter made the perfect perches as neutral territory for reentry. His sardines were a little mushy, the skin chips in my duck rice a little fatigued, but otherwise the whole experience was sensational. I was pretty taken with the sea urchin laid over cauliflower puree on a toast as a starter, and my entree had almost too much duck breast and chorizo. Bob had to order the suckling pig after seeing it plated: a slab of almost terrine-like deconstructed/reconstructed pork seared and teamed with both kohlrabi and “crispy potato” that was like the world’s longest strip/chip. (Best part of sitting at the counter: You can ask how they do everything, and this was by mandoline.) We should have listened to the sommelier on the Basque white; as he hinted, it was pretty acidic and watery, but our shared glass of sherry overcompensated, especially with the excellent mignardises. WIGB? Absolutely. Great value, great experience. 31 West 17th Street, 212 675 7723.

The good, and good deal: Mermaid Inn in the West Village, where I led us after the dazzling “Pina” at IFC and where the waitress’s tout for Blackboard Eats made me remember the Twitter secret and where 20 percent off made a great experience even better. We split a $35 bottle of decent verdicchio with the trout over kale and the outstanding crab cake appetizer ($15 but enough to kittybag). It was before 8, so the noise level was tolerable in the old-folks back room, too. The server and hosts could not have been more hospitable. But someone needs to sit the busboy down to a free dinner and show him how it feels to have someone invade your space with a git-’er-done roughness. He’s super-efficient, but he’s working too fast and definitely too hard. Still, WIGB? Of course. 79 Macdougal Street, 212 260 0100.

The surprisingly not bad: Plein Sud in Tribeca, where we wound up after the outstanding opening of the revitalized South Street Seaport Museum and after finding our destination across the street — Nam — was in the midst of morphing into some new destination. I’ll admit I trudged to the table with dread dragging me down, because I’d read in the WSJ that the chef was mostly known for being one of those lower-end Tin Chefs, and had worked in other not-great restaurants. The place was packed, but we got a good table, and the food/service/wine all delivered. Bob ordered a not-promising $11 tarte flambee as soon as we sat down, and I would have called it quits at that, but he insisted I order something else, and the $12 beet “tartare” with Fourme d’Ambert, pine nuts and chives almost changed my mind about the sugar veg. His $21 skate with capers turned out to be even more satisfying. WIGB? Surprisingly, yes. Everyone was so nice when we were so old by comparison with the rest of the room. 85 West Broadway at Reade Street, 212 504 5555.

New York minutes/Mid-January 2012

January 2012

The very close to perfect: Boulud Sud, the bar at, where I dragged my consort after the excellent opening of Luceo Images around the corner at @25CPW and where we left feeling quite smug on contemplating what the little people were eating that night across the street at the overpriced/underperforming Atlantic Grill. We did have to bribe a guy drinking alone to scoot over one stool by offering to buy him the beer the bartender generally would have, but from there on it was the right place/right time. We only had appetizers, and all were faultless — I woke up next morning thinking about the green-with-herbs falafel on the $15 chickpea/eggplant tray, with its baba ganoush and hummus flavored and colored with red pepper. Neither of us is a soup person, but the perfectly executed $17 soupe de poisson with garlic rouille was, as I anticipated, a mini-meal. And I was very happy the $16 rabbit “porchetta” delivered as more of a paté so both the rodent lover and I could enjoy it. Add in $9 picpoul and not-cheap but affordable reds, and it was one of those experiences that make you not just happy to live in NYC but appreciative of how brilliant the Big Homme was in opening these canteens to the banksters while making them welcoming to the 99 percent. WIGB? Anytime. The bar is so great I would consider an actual table again despite the whiff of God’s waiting room. 20 West 64th Street, 212 595 1313.

The why-the-hell not?: El Paso Taqueria on the Upper East Side, where of course I swore I would never go back over at least a year ago but of course where I have succumbed many times simply because no place closer to home does Mexican anywhere near as good. A friend and I had just been through the “Manhattan before the grid” show at the Museum of the City of New York, followed by the Cecil Beaton sensory overload, and he had a train to catch and I had a post to post, so we went for location, location. We both had enchiladas, and they took longer than usual to arrive, which for once was a sign of a kitchen not losing it but putting some muscle into the food; the tomatillo sauce and beans were much jazzier than usual, and they’re never less than satisfying. He had a Dos Equis, I had a white wine, and I think it was $20 apiece with tax and tip. (Warning, though: As great and longtime friends, we split the tab, and I noticed both halves were charged to his card. They fixed it, but beware.) 64 East 97th Street, 212 996 1739.