Archive for the ‘Italianesque’ Category

New York minutes

September 2016

My road to hell is apparently being paved with receipts from dozens and dozens of restaurants signifying my good intentions of writing about the good, the bad and the just okay (and, also, too, the surprisingly not bad). So I’m forcing myself to type about our latest meal out, the one where my consort noted we had had all appetizers the night before and I had to ask: Where did we eat last night?

(Mermaid Inn on Amsterdam, FTR, which was, yet again for like the eighth time since it expanded, close to perfect — points off for no “bread” offered, but we didn’t need it given that we were eating light with oysters on the half-shell [for Bob], fried calamari, wedge salad and grilled octopus with frisee, gigante beans and paprika aioli [again for Bob; I ain’t eatin’ no near-human]).

I actually had done a little research before we headed down to IFC for the amazing “Cameraperson,” so we were able to resist the fine-and-affordable siren song of Baker & Co. in order to stroll a couple of blocks north to the new Seabird, downtown relative of Mountain Bird, that awesome East Harlem destination that unfortunately represents a paving stone on my cluttered-desk highway (thanx again, Cheese Jenkins). It was only 7:30 or so and there were actually sidewalk tables available, but we headed into the din for our dinner.

I could complain about the table being too small, but the servers were too friendly; our main one jokingly offered to eat what she recommended if we didn’t like it although we would still pay. We took the cheaper of her recommendations, passing on the $32 bouillabaisse after she translated it as if we were rubes. Salmon poke with avocado and seaweed was about 10,000 times better than I expected, with the perfect balance among fatty, fatty and tangy. Crab and artichoke cheese dip was like a flashback to the TGIFriday’s 35 years ago where we agreed to move to NYC, but with real artichokes and real crab and good chips for dipping. “Fried oyster taco” proved to be three, each with a huge fried mollusk set over coleslaw (marred by celery). Ms. Charming apparently forgot to put in our last order, for the “crab lasagna mac-and-cheese,” because it took forever, but it was worth the wait, with an insane amount of lump crab in and atop the creamy shells with a touch of tomato sauce. Our $44 bottle of albariño was poured a little too fast, but maybe that’s because we were thirsty from the #bestintownpopcorn. WIGB? Absolutely, but only in a party of two able to lip-read.

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.

New York minutes, scattered

October 2015

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

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

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

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

New York minutes

June 2015

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

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

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

Reel food

May 2015

WIGB to Baker & co in the West Village? Already have. Twice. A few weeks (or was it years, in Lost Internet Time?) a friend treated me to Buster Poindexter midday in the Greene Space for my birthday, after which we set out in sloppy snow to find wine and snacks, heading at my suggestion to Murray’s overpriced cheese bar. Which was closed. And it was sloppily snowing. We both noticed a rustic sign directly across the street and walked into a wonderland. Not only was the place serving at that odd hour. Everyone seemed seriously happy to see us, the food (mostly pizzette for us) was both affordable and nicely done and the table felt hearthside even without smoke smoking up our coats and scarves. So when three friends plus my consort wanted to connect after the punch-to-the-head-awesome “About Elly” at Film Forum, I thought I knew just the place. Turned out two of those friends knew it even better — it’s a sibling of the Aurora across the water that they love.

We landed in happy-hour time for $5 house wine at the bar, which came with a show: The cleverly designed place felt like a stop for those grim “Sex & the City” tours, but you can squeeze past the rib cages with watermelon-busting augmented breasts and the stilettos to get to the glassed-in cafe in the very back. We split one appetizer, a fabulous pizzetta heaped with house-made sausage plus broccoli rabe and smoked scarmorza. The excellent house bread came with very creamy ricotta drizzled with olive oil and olives. And every one of our entrées was happy-making, especially my $16 lasagne, easily the best since I last made that assemblage at home for a story after 9/11. The Cat was as pleased as my consort and our friend to his right with the roasted half-chicken stuffed with mascarpone and teamed with fries, the potatoes nearly swamped with truffle oil and garlic chips. I only snared tiny tastes of the orecchiette with shrimp and the gnocchi with mushrooms and asparagus but would go back for either. Nothing was more than $24, and that was the generous chicken. The server’s dessert recommendation of caramel budino also played out right — when sugar is sweet, five spoons can dredge through it happily. Wines were good, too. When I clumsily ordered the cheapest white, a grillo for $37, and when it was 86d, the host came over to sell us a fabulous Friulano for the same price.

So it was no surprise I got no resistance from Bob about a week later when we left a waste of time aside from the gin-soaking at Storyscapes at the Tribeca Film Festival and I suggested the short walk back to Bleecker. This time we got a table instantly and were soon sharing crisp and gooey fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with burrata and paired with mixed green salad. We thought we ordered fava beans as well but were served a lavish beet salad with citrus supremes, horseradish yogurt and pistachios (guess it was the gin talking). And we finished with an order of ravioli with smoked eggplant, cherry tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella. All of it was so good we left marveling at the waiter’s revelation that the place gets a largely tourist crowd. I hope those Carrie wannabes realize they are not congregating in a typical Village restaurant. It’s way better than that. Plus it is so close to the movies, both Film Forum and IFC. We settle for worse/pricier so often.

Uptown Parm

January 2015

Last year went by in a faster blur than usual, and my Collyer Bros-worthy desk is a mess of menus and receipts from unrecorded meals good, bad, awful and occasionally sensational. Too many weeks I paved too many more roads to hell with my good intentions, so I’m cutting my losses and starting over fresh in 2015. With silly plans to revisit some wins, like Lafayette for my birthday last year.

I will make a crossover exception for the uptown Parm, though, because it is so exceptional. We’d been watching and watching for it to open over many months and stopped by to peek inside one Saturday night after a movie at Lincoln Square. The windows were covered in brown paper, but we could see tables set and staff getting marching orders, so a couple of nights later we left a press party (Rustichella d’Abruzzo shoutout!), jumped on the bus back across the park and walked in to find seats available even though the place had opened exactly three hours earlier. Everything was perfection: table (in the quiet back), service and especially food: eggplant parmesan sandwich, three vegetables — crisp but airy fried zucchini, Buffalo-style cucumbers, with blue cheese and Crystal hot sauce, and chickpeas with B&G pickle relish — plus Little Italy-meets-Chinatown ribs, tender and spicy.

A week later we miscalculated our timing for a movie and had an hour to kill and trotted back from AMC Lincoln Square for a drink at the bar and were so happy with the service/setting/quaffables we headed straight back after the movie, again for eggplant Parm perfection and the three vegetable starters, plus superb service in the back room.

And a week after that we were back after “Selma” with a friend and walked in to get a booth in the back and share the ribs and eggplant Parm again plus the vegetables while friends seated in the front railed that they had reserved and had had to wait. Call it stroller in the balance. WIGB? If it holds up it is going to change the neighborhood and maybe even kill off Lincoln Square Steak if not Fairway — after a movie, cheap and cheerful is the way to go. And at least we can use the bathroom before heading north to the Milling Room, about which TK.

New York minutes

November 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York minutes/Late September 2014

October 2014

The good: Following up on the great Musket Room: Just a couple of days before, of course, I had misunderstood which M restaurant Bob had suggested trying on a night when neither of us could deal with putting food on the family after crazy days working. And so we made our way to the Marshal in Hell’s Kitchen with visions of the scallops cooked with Hudson Valley Duck bacon in our heads, courtesy of the cook we ran into on Union Square as he bought up half the cooler over the summer. A table on the sidewalk, across from the taxi gas station, distracted us from the fact that there were no scallops with bacon the menu, but we were perfectly happy to indulge in the $11 duck liver mousse (funkiness offset by honeycomb plus great crunchy toasts, and plenty of them) and what I called tamale pie without the ground beef (local polenta topped with Cheddar, sauced with tomatillo salsa, also $11) and Bob’s blowout entrée, roast leg of lamb stuffed with spinach, rosemary and ginger and laid over duck-fat smashed potatoes, for $32. A $30 rosé from Anthony Road in the Finger Lakes was just gravy. WIGB? Maybe, although the inside space is rather tight and the prices could be lower if marquee farms did not dominate the menu.

The closer good: Arco on the Upper West Side, which we’d been walking past for months while shrugging (more average Italian?) but where we finally headed after a rave heard over in Brooklyn, at Photoville. And our fandoc was right: The place, which I had dismissed as a draw for guests at the hostel right across Amsterdam, looks downtown sleek; the hostess and server were superb, and the food definitely surpassed my expectations of “why go out when Italian is so easy at home?” Plus there was Arneis by the glass, for all of $10. We split a respectable salad, a special with fried artichokes, arugula, tomatoes and shredded cheese, then Bob wound up finishing my outstanding gnocchi, alla montanara, in a creamy sauce with mushrooms and bacon, while we kittybagged his pork on polenta. WIGB? Absolutely. The tide is turning uptown with restaurants lately.

The downtown pretty good: Ramen-Ya in the West Village, where we wound up feasting before a Yom Kippur break fast after Bob responded to the moody weather by suggesting the Japanese bellybuster and I suggested we pass on the Wayne Thiebaud show uptown because every painting is online and instead head south to the Grey Gallery, for a truly staggering show on apartheid (which we now have to specify means South African, not Israeli). The place is tiny, as threatened, but comfortable when only three-quarters full in daytime. As we do uptown at Jin Ramen, he had the namesake dish, here with a medium-rich, and spicy, brodo with respectable pork, while I had the rice bowl topped with beef, scallions and pickled ginger. I should have known the one dish using the B word would not be using a recognizable cut, but I also didn’t put my chopsticks down until I was nearly finished. The knockout dish, though, was the appetizer of pork gyoza, liberally dusted with togarashi. They were a little greasy, but the wrappers were silken. WIGB? Maybe, but there are so many other ramen places to explore these days.

Something very old: Elizabeth’s in our neighborhood, where we were so embarrassed to have dragged our great friends from across the park after the awesome Balthus/cats exhibition at the Met. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. They seated us right next to the bar and the teevee during a game, then moved us to a table where the new waiter was not talking to the old waiter. (Scary how I remember all this seven months on.) The wine was a mixup, the cocktail Nancy ordered was undrinkable and I waited seven months short of forever for dressing for my usually-great-but-tonight lame-ass Cobb salad. Bob was okay with his grilled salmon, Charles with his turkey meatloaf, but I noticed Nancy left most of her burger uneaten, even with us sharing the okay onion rings. We trudged out saying we would never go back unless for rosé in the sidewalk cafe. And so:

Something newish: Elizabeth’s in our neighborhood, where we ran to on one of those rare summer nights when you could eat outside and where everything reminded us why the place has stayed in business longer than so many predecessors, without sinking to the craptastic tequila level next door. The waiter, for a rare change, was on top of the wine list, so we got a good organic rosé, before the always-excellent bread and butter, and then my outstanding sliders and his roast chicken. WIGB: Only for just the two of us. So embarrassing to drag our friends there from across the park, where we look out on the El Dorado and notice why so many windows are dark on an early fall Sunday night: Nobody lives there year-round anymore. And that only hurts restaurants and other living businesses in the neighborhood.

New York minutes/Late September-early October 2013

November 2013

The good despite the cat piss smell: Gran Electrica in Brooklyn, where we filled our tanks on the way to the awesome Photoville and where the hyper-hospitable service and mellow garden setting rivaled the food (despite the faint aroma). My crab-habanero-avocado tostada was outstanding and the rajas taco I tasted off Bob’s place nearly as good (with potatoes, zucchini and crema). I passed on his lengua tacos, but he was thrilled. WIGB? Absolutely, especially on a warm day — inside tables are pleasant; outside exceptional. Also, too: Gotta like a place where the olds at the next table have nothing to say to each other. Perspective, perspective

The good despite ourselves: La Vie en Szechuan in Midtown, where we hooked up with our eating Asian/Asian eating group for early Sunday lunch and where we were nearly shut out until the Mandarin speaker among us snared a table for 13. I only wanted to/got to taste about half what landed on the Lazy Susan but was thrilled with everything savory: tea-smoked duck, cucumber sticks, Sichuan pickled cabbage, braised iceberg lettuce, dumplings with spicy sauce, cuttlefish in a marvelously peppery-rich sauce etc. (No ox tongue and maw or pig’s ears for me, though, thanks very much.) Desserts reminded me why meals in Chinese restaurants so often end in orange slices. Pumpkin sort-of-fritters were just sugary, black sesame dumplings in a sort of soup just . . . interesting. Still, WIGB? Sure. But for once with a smaller group. Even though it would average out to more than $20 a head for a full eating expedition.

The good again: Melba’s in Harlem, where we took an Italian friend for an American experience and where we pretty much wound up baffling him. He ordered the macaroni and cheese at my instigation and while it was as beautifully balanced between noodles and dairy as last time, it was mighty salty. All mains come with two sides, and he followed my lead on the onion rings but went for collards after I tried explaining they were greens (you Americans — colors are things? blues? greens?) He left them untouched just as another Italian friend did when we couldn’t translate beets, ordered them and then heard him say: Oh. I hate those. Diego also is no fan of mushrooms, so the excellent spring rolls went untouched by him, although we both dunked the onion rings in the sweet-hot sauce that came with them. Bob liked his smothered chicken well enough; the $34 red was good enough. And the whole experience came to less than $100 with tip for three. WIGB? It put the din in dinner, but yes. The people are so hospitable and the cooking above average.

The good for what & where it is: Boi Noodles across from Bob’s CUNY gig, where we headed after the slowwww and silly “We Are Who We Are” screening (really, you cannibals? you get fresh prime meat and make stew viewers think is chili?). We just split a smoked duck banh mi that would have been exceptional if the bread had been better. For $7.81 it was a steal. WIGB? Sure, and not just for a meal. The Vietnamese grocery selection is pretty dazzling.

The good except . . .: River Deli in Brooklyn Heights, where we were steered from Photoville by a former workshop student of Bob’s who’s taken those lessons and gotten richer, who mentioned it was the bee’s knees on Trip Advisor. The space, a corner deli converted to a Sardinian cafe, was charming as hell despite the three kids at a window table kicking and knocking over shit. The waitress rated A, the Southern Italian wines the same. But the food? We could have been eating in Rome. The eggplant “stuffed” with radicchio and mushrooms was pretty crude, the malloredus timidly sauced and teamed with sausage with that awful pig-pee taste you get with industrial pork. WIGB? Quite honestly, no. But I would steer others there. It’s so close to the Brooklyn Bridge Park and so charming. And people nearby with only espresso and a shared dessert seemed blissful.

Also, too: Elizabeth’s is always good and reliable, most recently for an early dinner after Bob had been trapped inside all day. Rosé at a sidewalk table would have been enough even if the Cobb salad had not been so well-proportioned or the chicken (so Bob said) so nicely cooked.

New York minutes/Late August 2013

September 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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