Archive for the ‘Lincoln Center’ Category

New York minutes, catch-up and new

April 2014

Something old: Brasserie Magritte on the Upper East Side, where my consort and I headed after the divisive “Inside Llewyn Davis”* rather than resorting to our usual Toloache in that restaurant dead zone. The place looks great, with, of course, paintings and symbols hanging everywhere. And the staff was quite friendly. But we got an odd table, too wide for two and in an awkward spot, and the cooking would be more suited to musty French joints in the Theater District. My sad duck confit, an appetizer, seemed fatigued, while Bob’s $25 coq au vin looked and tasted like yesterday’s special. The $9 frites with two sauces at least delivered. WIGB? Maybe. It is a dead zone. And the setting did motivate us to go see the real Magrittes at MOMA, which were totally vaut le voyage.

*I’m apparently alone in liking it. Not least for the “where are his testicles?” scene.

Something new: Cafe Luxembourg on the Upper West Side, where I met a great friend who was staying off Times Square and wanted to meet in that dead zone between him and me. As I promised, “The food is not dazzling, but the place is pleasant.” And it still has its charm, and good energy, but the waitress seemed not quite up to the selling job for the menu and wine. I was tempted by my usual fish and chips (for the fries) but thought I should give a special a try; my reward was a beautiful slab of $32 halibut cooked dry, with no sauce, just a scattering of ramps and vegetables. Rolando said his sea bass was in the same sorry state. He had tuna crudo to start and we sort of split the rather dinery profiteroles. He sent back first glass of wine because it was too sweet (not fruity — sweet), and I noticed how chintzy the flatware felt. Still, WIGB? Sure. For the fish and chips and the space and, not least, the acoustics. Our table felt as if we were under a dome. We could actually talk.

While I’ve been DAOTI, sad fates have befallen a couple of places in my catch-up pile of receipts. Casa Pomona on the Upper West Side, where we took refuge after “American Hustle” one night when Kefi’s kitchen was closed early (where are we? Middle Earth?), is apparently becoming a Flex Mussels. The food on that second or third visit was respectable (three types of croquetas, cheese, migas) and certainly the service was snappy. But seafood might be an improvement. And Calliope has lost its chefs, which means the end of the best cheeseburgers I have ever eaten. I’m just glad I had the foresight to go have one last one before I even knew it would be the last — I’d sent friends there, but they apparently are not into cerebral experiences and were underwhelmed, so I took myself back just to see if it was as spectacular as I’d remembered. And it was even better: great beef, cooked perfectly, on chewy ciabatta that stood up to the sturdiness of the meat, with perfect fries and a mustardy sauce for both spreading and dipping. This was a late lunch, so the gorgeous room was quiet. I’m just sorry we never made it there for dinner. The spicy tripe Bob ordered twice at brunch was amazing both times.  And I’m saying that about tripe.

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/Mid-May 2013

May 2013

The good: The Smith up/down by Lincoln Center, where we happily wandered in after the great OSF opening of the new Moving Walls galleries and where we immediately sat down at a non-deafening sidewalk table with fine service. Wine was involved, but only the glass, since the Soros crew springs for the bottomless fountains. And because the refreshments had also been so lavish beforehand, I was happy to eat only part of a flatbread topped with ricotta, red onions and olives while Bob blissfully tucked into his brick chicken and mashed potatoes. WIGB? Anytime it’s warm enough to eat outside.

The surprisingly good, given the hype: Prune in the East Village, where we were actually able to walk right in after an app party at Pizza a Casa — and after being offered barstools facing a wall at Fat Radish. (Designers: check your sight lines before signing off on floor plans.) In a million Fridays I would never have expected this, but the hostess instantly walked us to a nice table where we soon had pappadum to nibble on while ordering drinks (perfect spritz for him, Saumur for me), Neither of us was open to a real meal after tasting calzone and stromboli and pizza, so we shared appetizers: soft-shell crab with pea shoots, dandelion salad with feta, toasted manti. The last arrived swimming in a yogurt sauce with harissa that made up for the inconsistency in the cooking of the actual Turkish ravioli (some were too hard, some just fine). And the crab was very flavorful, especially with its curry sauce, but the frying was less than artful. Still, I can understand the appeal of the place, which we had never braved, always assuming it was too crowded. Now I know it’s the olds who fill the tables. So I’m impressed the food has as much character as it does, even though Bob was mildly disappointed when the legendary Triscuits and sardines were not on offer. WIGB? Sure. It felt like Philadelphia. In a good way.

The unsurprisingly good: Rural in Flushing, where we were lured by our eating-Asian/Asian-eating friends yet again and where even the meats not to my taste were worth trying, not least because the cuisine is Dongbei, formerly Manchurian, which is a trip. As always, the table just magically expanded as more people arrived, so we all could taste and talk, starting with peanuts and sprouts with hot peppers as amuse, then garlic scapes with pork, lamb with scallions, pork with potatoes, beef tendon in a wonderful sort of “Bolognese” and steamed dumplings, half with chives and half with cabbage, both very different. One dish none of us, even those with language skills, could translate would have tasted better to me if I’d known what it was; the best description would be sea knuckles. Tiger vegetable was a more clear-cut highlight, a toss of cilantro stems, chilies and scallions with a touch of sesame oil. But my favorite dish was the spicy quail, tender and piled high with dried chilies. The table winner, though, was the cumin flounder: the whole fish encrusted with spices and cooked so perfectly even the fins were crunchy-good. WIGB? In a heartbeat. As always, more food than we could all consume came to $20 a head. And, as always, the service was superb, the reward for having both language skills and adventurous palates among us. We. Are. Lucky. 42-85 Main Street, 718 353 0086.

The fine: Spring Natural on the Upper West Side, where we headed with a friend after the truly amazing “Frances Ha” when she balked at our standby (Fairway) and where the hospitality and setting were so admirable we realized only as we were walking home that the food was just okay. Really, we walked in and the hostess promised us a table momentarily, and not only did she make good on that, she moved us to a better one as soon as it opened up so the three of us could sit comfortably and (sort of) hear each other. The waitress also excelled; she really knew her wines (the rosé we chose was all of $34). I didn’t try Donna’s tuna nicoise or Bob’s crispy chicken but can say the rice that came with the latter was pretty great. My “Thai falafel salad” was what it was. The chickpea patties were not quite Sidoesque, but the dressing on the greens and tomatoes got the job done. WIGB? Shortly, in fact. It’s close, it’s pretty, it’s so well-run.

New York minutes/Mid- to late January 2013

January 2013

The good: The Smith on the Upper West Side, where my consort had the good sense to walk over and reserve a quiet table before the execrable “Tabu” and where our rewards included a great little cone of relative silence (A K A booth) and over-the-top service along with surprisingly satisfying food. The wine list seems priced for the same crowd who would go for the potpie/mac-and-cheese/nursery puddings, meaning those who live around the corner in a crazy-pricey apartment house, but we culled a “big-ass” (liter) carafe of Valpolicella for all of $48. We shared seared shishito peppers that turned out to be mild but not tame, as well as a respectable flatbread with ricotta, artichokes, olives and (mostly) onions. I didn’t taste the Bugses’ pork chop and chicken potpie, but Bob’s “brick-pressed” chicken was perfectly tender and juicy under its mountain of good mashed potatoes. And my $19 ricotta gnocchi in “truffle cream” had none of the usual gumminess and came in a portion large enough not just to share tastes but also to kittybag for lunch next day. I was underwhelmed by the silly s’mores-in-a-jar dessert, but I was in the minority of one. WIGB? Absolutely. The space is knockoff McNally, which the UWS could use more of, and the staff from the kitchen on out acted beyond happy to serve us.

The really good: Maysville in a yet-to-be-Realtor-branded neighborhood, where Bob and I shared an ideal birthday dinner. I picked it over Boulud Sud because it was newish and the small, focused online menu exuded energy, maybe because everything is geared toward the house booze: bourbon (I read that the same owner has Char No. 9 in Brooklyn). We were stunned on walking in and being led to the perfect table at a corner banquette, and things just kept getting better. The waiter was professionally hip, or hiply professional, and the food was outstanding. We shared a sublime poached egg over grits with duck confit, mushrooms and a smoky broth, then I had the how-can-you-go-wrong flounder teamed with grilled baby calamari, salsify, sunchokes and smoked ham, which was more of a dish than the shopping list it sounds like. Bob was equally happy with his crispy chicken leg and chicken roulade with potatoes and mushrooms. WIGB? Anytime. It’s really an upscale bar, but it reflects how important food for booze has become. Extra points for offering good wines, fairly priced.

The pretty bad: El Mitote on Columbus Avenue, where I stupidly steered Bob and four friends on a night too cold to venture much farther in search of something new after the very powerful “Five Broken Cameras” (all of us having forgotten Cafe Tallulah had opened). We were all so happy it wasn’t deafening that we were fine with a table in the back, right next to the toilet where the door would be opened and left open repeatedly all through our stay. And the menu looked to have something for everyone, starting with  margaritas, beer, white wine (chardonnay, unfortunately, and shitty chardonnay at that). I didn’t try the tacos, but what I ordered put me off Mexican for about a week, and I had always thought I could eat Mexican every day. This was on the menu under “Tortas Ahogadas Tapatias — Guadalajara Style Torta ‘Drowned’ in Hot Tomato Broth With Crema, Onion and Shredded Lettuce, wild mushrooms & fresco cheese.” It was on the plate as a crap roll lined with button mushrooms and what appeared to be sliced processed cheese, and the broth was like canned, diluted tomatoes. At a time when you can get amazing Mexican if you know how to order in the average deli, this was like your average deli staffed by Albanians. Worse, that sauce, like the relatively decent flan we shared, was served in a plastic takeout container. Because, the waiter volunteered, they have no dishwasher. I don’t even want to think about how they disinfect the good wineglasses and bad Mason jars in which the weak margaritas were served. . .

The much improved: Casa Pomona on the Upper West Side, where Bob and I scurried after a friend’s photo opening of MLK murals at the New-York Historical Society on a night when it was just too brutally cold to think farther afield. The hostess/owner(?) was effusive in welcoming us into the empty restaurant and showing us to a great table in the back room, which led to some serious over-ordering. The H/O, when we asked about happy hour at that time-appropriate hour, said drink prices could only be reduced if we sat at the bar, but she offered us the bar menu for food: three tapas for $15 (I think). So we had chorizo-cheese croquetas that were almost too intense, albondigas stuffed with oxtail that were even richer and wonderfully light spaghetti squash topped with piperrada, pine nuts and golden currants that restored my faith in that fruity vegetable. And that was after we tried the perfectly executed coca of the day, topped with onion, rosemary and bacon. WIGB? We almost did just a few days later for the combination of flavor, quiet and hospitality.

New York minutes /Latish May 2011

May 2011

The good: Sezz Medi up near Columbia, where my consort led me after I’d steered him there on good advice a couple of months ago and where the whole experience was like Italy without Alitalia. It was Sunday brunchtime, but the menu had a panoply of egg alternatives, and the server didn’t even flinch when we ordered only small plates. One of which was huge — fried calamari and zucchini, an LP-sized platter of nicely cooked, very tender seafood and pretty crisp yellow and green squash slices, with a tangy parsley tzatziki as dunking sauce. Bob’s tegamino (a k a eggplant Parmigiana) was superb, with the ideal balance of vegetable to cheese and a good, lusty tomato sauce that doubled as a dip for the fritti (turns out the name refers to the skillet in which it’s cooked). We got away for $20 plus tip, about what we would have spent at Chipotle in the same time. WIGB? Absolutely, and often, if it were closer. 1260 Amsterdam Avenue near 122d Street, 212 932 2901.

The pretty good: Kin Shop in the Village, where Bob and I and the filmmaker of “How to Live Forever” repaired after a showing at the Quad and where the food definitely trumped the neglectful service, even after we ordered bottled water that could have been repeatedly up-sold. Duck laab salad was my favorite plate on the table, although it was not as blistering as I’d expected, and sea scallops with pea puree were nearly as good. Softshell crab can be filed under outstanding, pad see ew with ramps well below  underwhelming. The one huge disappointment was the “selection of grilled eggplant.” No there there. . . WIGB? Sure. Brachetto goes surprisingly well with spicy upscale Thai. 469 Sixth Avenue, 212 675 4295.

The not bad, din in dinner notwithstanding: Qi in the Theater District, where Bob and I wound up, against his objections, when Elsewhere had a 15-minute wait for tables after the ICP opening of the entrancing Elliott Erwitt show. He spends so much time on/off Eighth Avenue he was dreading the whole experience but calmed a bit when we agreed the design evokes Pierre Gagnaire’s Sketch in London, where he shot for his last around-the-world Geographic story, on caffeine. Unfortunately, the kitchen and servers could have been jetlagged after flying in from England. It took forever to get attention and then food. By then, the torturous noise level had us fighting, and cold mushroom spring rolls amplified the pain even though they had great taste and texture. An eggplant special appetizer was mostly chicken and shrimp, but decent. Ordering pad see ew was a big mistake after Kin Shop, but the green curry duck was better next day, reheated in the quiet of our own kitchen. WIGB? Not likely, but Bob, amazingly, disagreed — he rated it above most joints near where he spends so much time. 675 Eighth Avenue near 43d Street, 212 247 8991.

The nearly perfect port in a near-storm: The Taproom at Colicchio & Sons in Chelsea, where we wound up after my two days of frantically calling around for a “shit — it’s your birthday”  destination and getting no end of “5:30 or 10” merde de bull. Bob was willing to risk walking in anywhere, as we were able to do at the Dutch, but it was his big night so I wanted a safe haven. Which this totally was. We got a table looking out on the High Line, in a room that was surprisingly cozy despite its airiness, with the ideal noise level (you can easily hear both the mellow music and your companion) and a nice, young crowd (my seat had a view of the entrance, so I know the fancy side was not so lucky). Good Nebbiolo rosé ran $9 a glass, a much better deal than the heavily hyped kegged stuff, which was rather thin. Cured fluke with grapefruit and black olives was nice, but fatty salmon over smoked-egg mayonnaise outdid it (the menu called it vinaigrette, but I’ll call it what it was). Bob seemed happy with braised lamb ribs on pearl barley, and I was impressed by “steak & eggs,” with beef short rib in a crepinette laid alongside oats topped with a poached egg, even though the fancy stone-cut oats were decidedly rancid. And we both were amazed at how lame the rhubarb tart was. I’m all for cerebral desserts, but they need to function on a sensual level as well. This was almost gummi bear fruit on solid cream in a crust notable mostly for its crunch, not flavor. Even the two frozen scoops of whatever alongside could not elevate it. Still, WIGB? Absolutely. The price was right (very imaginative butchering and cooking put prices literally half what I had reeled from on other menus in my frenzy). Plus true luxury is being able to revel in conversation over your food. 85 Tenth Avenue at 15th Street, 212 400 6699.

The “it’s complicated:” Boulud Sud on the Upper West Side, where we steered friends in from Eden on the Willamette who had reserved at Bar Boulud and where we were lucky enough to be showered with freebies but cranky enough to evaluate the cooking like the journalists all of us once were and some still are. The Big Homme himself was there, and I hope the microphone under our table recorded me saying he is the most gracious guy in the business, because he not only came over to chat and engage but also sent us way too much free food. Of what we ordered, the duck kataifi was too much shredded wheat on a bit of poultry; vitello tonnato was fine but not Piemonte level, and the perfectly cooked, very fresh squid was done in by the overkill of fat filling and overwrought tomato sauce. Sicilian sardine escabeche, though, impressed even this sardine shunner. We got talked into unnecessary side dishes, of which the very smoky charred broccoli rabe trumped the bland chickpea panisse and fregola sarda with snap peas. Among main courses, Bob’s “cedar grilled rouget” turned out to be the usual far-from-the-Mediterranean fillet. My pancetta-wrapped quail, though, may have looked straight out of “Eraserhead” but tasted/ate pretty great, no Tuscan kale and rosemary soubise needed. Of our friends’ harissa-grilled lamb with eggplant and “grilled short rib on the bone,” I’d definitely lay the blue ribbon on the beef, cooked to amazing tenderness. Points off for a wine list that turned into a jousting match between reformed wine writer and paid sommelier, but we all liked our Nebbiolo rosé, and the excellent waiter poured it well. Our friends up and fled to Jazz at Lincoln Center, so Bob and I did not have to share two outstanding comped desserts, a chocolate-heavy, almost tiramisu-tasting “cassata” that would vanquish any memories of candied fruit, and a big-time wow of a grapefruit givré. WIGB? Probably, for a snack and glass of $9 picpoul at the bar after a movie, but I appeared to be in the minority. 20 West 64th Street, 212 595 1313.

The halt on the border of lame: La Superior in Williamsburg, where we happily headed with friends after an expedition in hopes of seeing the Rapture take Manhattan but where we left holding our ears because the music was not just painfully loud but horribly stupid. The birthday girl among us chose it, so I’ll be gentle, especially because it was decidedly cheap for too much food ($90 for four of us, with tip, including seven margaritas). And I can’t fairly judge because the dishes just came flying in after we ordered; there was no app-to-entrée progression. The best thing I tasted was the gordita filled with chorizo and potato; if it was not quite El Paso-(Texas)-level it was at least seriously satisfying. A rajas taco was also good if overfilled, as were the other tacos, some of which I tasted although I quailed at the lengua. Guacamole seemed  surprisingly undistinguished, and the queso fundido would have been so much better with serious mushrooms. (At least they kept the tortillas coming.) And I wanted to like the ezquites, despite the pallid main ingredient, but the presentation sucked — a plastic cup to be dumped into a bowl to be shared among four with two plastic forks? Those ditz waitresses were damned lucky we were in birthday mode.

Lagniappe: Our expedition to exotic Williamsburg paid off in many ways. We had the most amazing iced coffee — New Orleans style, with a bit of chicory, plus sugar and milk — at Blue Bottle. The corn cookie and blackberry-lime ice from Momofuku Milk Bar at Smorgasburg were killer. Whimsy & Spice’s peanut butter sandwich flavored with massaman curry was right behind. And the Bedford Cheese Shop could have been airdropped in from the Seventh Arrondissement.

New York minutes/End of April 2011

May 2011

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

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

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

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

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

New York minutes/Mid-January 2011

January 2011

The sensational: Hunan House in Flushing, where my consort and I trekked on a cold Saturday as a diversion from our usual Greenmarket/cheap Thai routine and where the whole experience was easily the most satisfying ever in a Chinese restaurant in New York. I did my homework online, looking for a sit-down lunch rather than food court craziness (see below), and once I hit “smoked duck” in the Robert Sietsema review my Metro card was out. The place looks pretty bare-bones but was super-clean, with tables well spaced, and the host and waiters were excellent, with none of the usual impatience and/or condescension, even when it was clear we were ordering the Village Voice specials, right out of the review. (I normally hate people who do that, but as China traveler Bob said, “Why take a chance, since we don’t know the food?”) So we started with the cold tofu, silky and jiggling-fresh with just the lightest drizzle of sesame oil and sprinkling of chopped scallions. And then the braised pork belly, Mao-style, super-tender chunks in a surprisingly sophisticated sauce with greens and julienned scallions. Water spinach, it turns out, is not in season, so we subbed the spicy cabbage with fermented soybeans, also in a good light, greaseless sauce and just hot enough with red chilies. And then the reason for coming arrived, as sensational as billed, tasting close to the smoked duck a friend once brought back from Goode’s in Houston. The smokiness almost vibrated through the anything-but-geriatric meat. It was way too much food for $44 before the tip, so we had a superb dinner and then lunch the next day, as did The Cat. One other nice touch: a little bowl of soybeans with a hint of star anise arrives with the pot of tea, to nibble on while you study the huge menu. I thought we were stuffed, but somehow we managed to eat two warm, as-good-as-Hong Kong egg custard tarts at the nearby Taipei Bakery after a stock-up swing through the supermarket in between. WIGB? Absolutely. But first there are so many other places to try in that neighborhood. 137-40 Northern Boulevard, Flushing, Queens. 718 353 1808.

The half-good: Joe Allen in the Theater District, where I met a friend who needed solace by mouth after her father died and where the cheeseburger definitely delivered. It wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it was cooked perfectly (against my medium wishes) and was teamed with the right amount of respectable fries. Plus it was only $14.50, less than Cafe Loup’s, which she’d suggested but I couldn’t face. A bottle of Cline viognier was $27, a much better deal than the $12.50 “quartino” of sauvignon blanc at the bar, and of course the room is quintessential New York. So what was the half-bad? I know it was after the theater rush, but the bartender and two waitresses who tended to us exhibited the worst “I’ve had it” I’ve encountered in a while. When we asked Server A about the viognier, worried it might be too fruity, she sent over a not-happy Server B who described it well if impatiently, then returned, uncorked it, offered a taste and plunked the bottle down, saying, “We’re very casual. You can pour.” We saw her again only to pay the check. With exactly double the tax as tip. WIGB? Sure, for the half-good reasons, plus it’s so easy to get to on an icy night. 326 West 46th Street, 212 581 6464.

The one-step-up-from JFK: Two of the restaurants at Eataly, where I indulged a friend who wanted to go back after a good lunch in the pizza/pasta corral. We got there early and wandered around awhile feeling overwhelmed, and by the time we decided to sit at the seafood bar for uni my head was throbbing from the jangle in the joint. I was happy to see Arneis by the glass for only $9 but not so happy on seeing what arrived after the waiter ran off to get the last order of uni: one good plump taupe specimen and three reddish shriveled ones, literally the bottom of the barrel, for $17 (Donna at least let the waiter know we were underwhelmed, but it did feel weird to be women complaining about shrunken gonads). The bread and olive oil were both worth the calories, though. By the time we went back to the pizza/pasta corral, we had to wait, which gave us time to discuss how cheesy a wall of crap Barilla looks, so by the time we got seats at that bar we felt as if we were eating in a duty-free shop. We ordered the cheapest white by the glass, and the waitress suggested a bottle, but I saw the Arneis was the same price: $28. Unfortunately, it was pretty warm once it arrived. Lasagne came almost immediately, maybe too fast — a few more minutes in the oven and it might have hung together more, although it tasted great (it reminded me of a New York-style enchilada, rolled and served without the extra time to bake it into more than tortilla and cheese). And I would have been more impressed with the pizza with salami and basil if I had not recently had the perfection that Pizza a Casa teaches down on the Lower East Side. But I guess it qualified as “just like in Italia/Italy,” as the menu promised, because the center was soggy. WIGB? I will for my consort’s sake, because he’s curious about the experience. I can do without stress for dinner.

The open, at least: Landmarc in the dread TWC, where I hooked up with a friend in from Florence after we found Bouchon Bakery closed at breakfast time. He was paying, so a $12 eggamuffin didn’t seem like a bad deal, and aside from the fact that it had zero taste it was fine (lardons as the bacon at least added texture, and it came with decent hash browns). The cappuccino, though, was as scorched as any I’ve had in this town. On the plus side, they gave us a booth for four by the window, and the service was decent. WIGB? Sure, if someone else is paying when Bouchon Bakery is closed. 212 823 6123.

New York minutes/Middish October 2010

October 2010

The somewhat good: Atlantic Grill, the new one across from Lincoln Center, where my consort and I wound up after a surreal photo opening at the Essex House, which had had finger food ambitious enough for us to want better than we normally settle for. It’s amazing how the Ginger Man was transformed so quickly, and it was even more amazing how packed it was right around showtime. We settled for a table out in the north forty, which at least was quieter although apparently farther from the kitchen, because the food took just short of forever. And when it came it was more strange than satisfying, particularly the weird maki (we ordered one with spicy tuna, eel and avocado but the bill shows one with scallop and crab salad, and it could have been either). The seared octopus had too many accouterments (smoked paprika, chickpeas, mint, harissa etc.), and the poor creature was either old or abused; either way, it was tough chewing. Even the salad, frisee with bacon, was more shopping list than satisfaction (green beans, mushrooms, pecorino etc.) Wines were only $10 a glass, though, which was good because we were on our second by the time the plates arrived. WIGB? Maybe. Location, location. And Bob liked the look of the place. 49 West 64th Street, 212 787 4663.

The fully reliable: Mermaid Inn uptown, where I made two poor friends meet me again because I was too stressed to think of anything more ambitious and where we were at least rewarded with the usual. My cod with mashed potatoes and crispy spinach was a little bland, but at least the portion was enough for my dinner, two tastes for them and lunch the next day for me and The Cat. I liked what I sampled of the pecan-crusted trout with sweet potatoes, too, and the skate looked good. Service was rather dismissive, I guess because I was the only one springing for wine. But we all left happy enough.

New York minutes

August 2010

The good, even though: Recipe, twice. The first time it was four of us, early, and we dutifully got into the Epago program, sharing the macaroni and cheese with corn, peas and bacon as an appetizer (good, not great) and a nice panna cotta for dessert, plus one bottle of wine, and happily going on our way. As always, the main courses were superb, both my halibut and The Consort’s huge pork chop. All in all, a perfect evening. So great that I came home and reserved for two nights later with a new guy in town, one who doesn’t understand that you only rent a table in this town, especially in a tiny, very good restaurant. Food and service were again superb (I had the duck, we shared a crab cake), but we were having such a great time discussing the sorry state of the world and America’s sorry part in it that we kept ordering more wine until finally the host had to come by and tell us people had been waiting 15 minutes for our table. Or, here’s the check and what’s your hurry? It was rather mortifying, even under Bob’s name. WIGB? Only for lunch for a while, I guess. It is the best restaurant in the neighborhood at that price point. 452 Amsterdam near 82d Street, 212 501 7755.

The improved: Cafe Luxembourg, where we met friends for an early dinner on Saturday and reveled in the best part of Manhattan in August — no assholes. Only afterward did they confess that they had preferred Compass because they had had rushed and un-fun experiences here. But this great waiter let us take our very long sweet time talking before ordering, so we could enjoy the great room and the mellow noise level. I never think of the food as brilliant, but my hanger steak was beautifully cooked and well matched with bearnaise, broccoli rabe and potatoes “confit,” and Bob’s good branzino came with baby leeks and a very spicy tomato compote. Dr. Bugs seemed happy with his lobster roll (we were with his fries), while Lady Bugs’s corn ravioli with truffles could have used more of the former. I also tasted the shared chocolate-coconut terrine, which was like stacked Almond Joys but better than that sounds. But the best thing that landed on the table was the mango gazpacho, tomato-free and very lively with cilantro oil. The food was so much better than I remembered that I actually tracked down the waiter to ask if the chef was new, and he seemed taken aback. WIGB? Absolutely. Not many places in this town are that reliable. 200 West 70th Street, 212 873 7411.

The right place on the right night: The Corner, the latest incarnation at 93d and  Columbus, where we recharged our batteries the night we got home from Istanbul and then remembered to meet up with a young friend reeling from a sting by a Portuguese man o’war on her vacation in North Carolina. I thought she would get into the three-for-$10 
“steak” sliders at happy hour at the bar, but she landed first and chose a sidewalk table; luckily her favorite things were available there, too (although they were pretty overcooked). I had the quite respectable gazpacho, a huge bowlful, while Bob ordered the crab cakes again. The salad with cheese and almonds that I had liked the first time must have needed dressing not on the side, though, because Pam didn’t seem to attack it with gusto. WIGB? Totally. It’s close by, the setting’s great and the food hasn’t disappointed. 680 Columbus Avenue, 212 280 4103.

The wrong place on the right night: Jimmy’s No. 43 in the East Village, where I have always wanted to go but where the food was too small-plates for the occasion, which was a chance to reconnect with a photographer friend in from New Hope who’s spending more time in front of the camera than behind it these days. He was happy with the amazing beer selection, we less so with the wines served in Chimay goblets (message: don’t go to a beer specialist for anything else). But I should have understood the food would come out as the cook got it together, and that portions would be tres petite. We shared the good fried sausage slices with mustard and the shisito peppers, then one Bob had the bratwurst sandwich and the other, not sure why, “The Piggery salami,” which was seriously good but decidedly dainty. I usually drag our friend to more high-end places than he would like, but I think I aimed too low this time. WIGB? Sure, if I were in the neighborhood, after a movie and looking for something little in a convivial room. And had cash on me. 43 East Seventh Street, 212 982 3006.

New York minutes/Earlyish March 2010

March 2010

The obviously irresistible: Fairway’s upstairs cafe, where we wound up not just yet again but twice in three days, drawn by the ungreedily priced wine and the dependable food. I, of course, had the Caesar salad both times, and it was excellent both times. On encounter No. 1, the waiter suggested my consort and I order my salad and his chicken as the prix fixe, but we didn’t want the dessert and missed out on a helluva deal. One we availed ourselves of next time: I got the salad; he had the outstanding hanger steak, and three of us spooned up the banana thingola, for $26 total. WIGB? Absolutely. Not only is the food good and the wine cheap, but you can hear yourselves talk.

The almost great: The New French in the West Village, where we had not been in months and where we forced our friends in from Chicago to rush to avoid a long wait on Friday night. The bad news is that we arrived first and stewed in high anxiety about holding up a table as they were in E train hell. The good news is that they got there just as our special pizza bianca, with kale, Fontina, apples and Parmesan, was landing. I didn’t taste my consort’s roasted scallops or Paul’s grilled salmon salad (the table was too tight for passing plates), but they looked happy. Leasha said she had achieved the impossible for a change in getting her cheeseburger cooked all the way through, and my medium-rare one was sheer perfection, aside from the fries — the color of John Boehner and way too crunchy (I like a little potato with my carbon, ordinarily). We also shared a special salad of broccoli rabe with boccocini that was stellar, so much so that I regretted not accepting the kitchen’s challenge with my main course. WIGB? Absolutely. Even when the place is slammed, the service is good and the cooking superb. And the enterprising wines start at $9 a glass. 522 Hudson Street near Tenth, 212 807 7357.