Archive for the ‘Mexican’ Category

Beyond duck scrapple

July 2016

Pretty certain I’ll be late to my own funeral, so I shouldn’t be surprised I’m barely making it under the wire in confirming a Tweet by @Atrios, expert in the urban hellhole: “No one will listen, but plenty of good non-cheesesteak food in Philly.” The Dems in disarray and the reporters determined to portray them that way may have only a couple more days to listen to me, but at least I’m motivated to update on our last two trips. These are just some of the more representative local flavors to sample. Before or after experiencing the phenomenal “Creative Africa” show at the Rocky museum, of course.

Like the Double Knot, the Fat Ham is exceptional, not just the food and drink but the caring (we were cranky about our two bags taking up too much space in the tiny dining room and they comped us a great hummingbird cake in a Mason jar for the Amtrak ride home). A plate of smoked ribs and pulled pork with coleslaw; a brisket slider with white barbecue sauce, and pimento cheese served easy to eat on one slice of toast all wowed us, but the surprising standout was the cornbread, baked to order with tasso and molasses butter. It was $8 and worth even more. Unsurprisingly, the cocktail list is heavy on the bourbon.

ribs and pulled pork phila fat ham -0240

At the other extreme from that carnivorous overkill, V Street serves the most impressive vegan food either of us have ever encountered. Highest praise: If they didn’t label it, you wouldn’t know it. Everything had deep flavor and almost the mouth feel of meat, especially the charred and chewy carrot asado salad, with avocado, poblano and pumpkinseeds. Curried cauliflower nuggets came with whipped dal and mint chutney, so it was like eating in Kolkata. And the dan dan noodles were almost too filling, with five-spice mushrooms and zucchini in a spicy red chile sauce.

The Oyster House on Sansom felt like a bridge between classic Philadelphia and pushing-the-envelope Philadelphia. The servers are total (I guess I shouldn’t say old) pros, the modern room is get-’em-in-and-get-’em-out spare but attractive and the food simply makes you happy. My jumbo-lump crab cake at lunch sat atop “Chesapeake remoulade” and alongside an odd but addictive salad of broccoli, dates and almonds in a creamy dressing. Bob, however, scored with the softshell crab banh mi. Where has that idea been all our lives?

On the trip before that, for a wedding right after New Year’s, I was shocked to get four good meals within just a few blocks’ of our hosts’ dazzling townhouse in Graduate Hospital (which is a neighborhood, not anywhere to go get better). We couldn’t do that at home.

The tiny and charming Fitler Dining Room at lunch had great little pimento cheese fritters and amazingly light gnocchi Parisienne with cauliflower. I actually laughed when my consort’s “Waldorf Cobb” salad landed; it looked like deconstruction gone tiny-wrong. But the combination of grapes, spiced pecans, julienned apple and well-dressed greens added up. Southgate, a Momofuku knockoff, was a fun destination to meet up with our hosts and the newlyweds to share “fish and chips,” Korean tacos, bibimbop, sweet potato fritters, chicken wings and “Koreancini.” If it all had a one-noteness to it, and too much sweetness, that may have been thanks to our not-smart ordering. And the meal that is usually our least favorite, brunch, was perfect at Pub & Kitchen, including a massive and well-made cheeseburger with great fries and a spinach omelet. It’s a bar but a nice one I wish would move closer to us.

I was most thrilled with Blue Corn, a little farther away in the Italian Market, because it serves gorditas, which I developed an obsession with long ago in El Paso. These were obviously just fried, a plate of three filled with chicken, with pork and with cheese. Tacos were well-spiced, the queso fundido excellent. Red and green salsas with the (yes) blue corn chips were also superb. All I foggily remember of Mexican in Philadelphia from my three years there were the margaritas at some mill on Second Street. They were no more like Blue Corn’s than the menu was.

For the record, the letdowns on our most recent getaway included Distrito in University City, where we landed for lunch because it was close to the always-worth-the-trip Institute of Contemporary Art at Penn and because we had never tried a José Garces joint. We won’t be repeating that mistake. The food was one step up from Blockheads’: bland guacamole, dishwatery pork tacos, pallid queso fundido, the side of pico de gallo tasteless. Too bad you can’t eat decor. And I’m cutting Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in newly hip Fishtown a break because it had just opened when we had clumsy wine service and underwhelming food, including just-average double Margherita pizza with cold burrata and okay garganelli with duck. Dates stuffed with Gorgonzola and baked dry in speck earned a “worst date I ever had” from one friend. Asparagus salad with egg, pancetta and capers, however, was impressive if tricky to share. And maybe we would not have been so let down if the hamachi crudo with grapefruit and pistachios we started with had not been so impressive. The wine list was, as so many Philadelphia restaurants’ are, Gouge City. We also finally tried a Marc Vetri joint where the mortadella mousse was blow-away and the paccheri with swordfish and eggplant at least inventive. The dismissive waiter kept insisting the sausage of the day was chorizo, but it certainly looked and tasted Italian. Still, I think we would have liked the food more if we hadn’t had to walk out before they would give us a decent table in the deafening space. (“Those are reserved.” “Well, we reserved.”) At least a manager ran out and talked us back in. For a place named Amis it felt awfully like a club, one that would not admit us.

WIGB really doesn’t count in Philadelphia because we try not to repeat any resto on our eating expeditions to the town where we met. When or if we do it’s at a.Kitchen off Rittenhouse Square, where the smoked beet salad is extraordinary, and Barbuzzo, where the vibe and the pizzas etc. are so great, and Vernick, where the chef who comes up with such lively food was so generous in recommending other places, including Le Virtu in South Philadelphia, and finally Dizengoff, where the hummus platters are perfection. Even though we could now get one of those at the Chelsea Market it would not be as transporting.

New York minutes

September 2014

If you had told me in December 1980 that I would, in August 2014, be eating kelp salad followed by braised pork belly — with chopsticks, to boot — I would have said subsisting on one tiny bag of potato chips plus a few Cokes must have made you delusional. And I have to admit I thought my consort was kidding when he suggested the salad, but it was surprisingly palatable despite the slight fishiness he couldn’t detect. It was definitely better than the woody green beans in peanut sauce we’d tried as a starter at our first lunch at Jin Ramen in Harlem, a few months ago. The rice bowl this time, topped with pickled ginger and brisket cooked with onions to falling-apart tenderness, was also better than my introductory version ($6 for the small, more than I could finish). Bob, as always, had to try something new and took the server’s recommendation of the spicy tonkotsu ramen, with liquid-bacon pork broth seasoned with the house blend of soybean and roasted garlic paste plus hot sesame oil. And it was even better than the milder ramen he’d chosen last time (well, last time with me — he confessed he’d gone there on his own once). The whole $12 dish is a fascination, with the noodles and the pork belly and the soft-cooked egg and the bamboo shoots and the scallions to mix and match on a wooden spoon. WIGB?  Absolutely. Between the food, the efficient service and the show, it’s the perfect pit stop before braving the miles of aisles at the uptown Fairway (the one where the stock and spaciousness make the Broadway store look like a shithole). Still, while the couple at the next table eating their way through half the “raymen” menu made me wish I’d spotted the gyoza on the menu, I realize on checking the fine print that we could not have ordered them. Because I still won’t eat (more than a taste of) chicken.

The weekend before I also got to engage in behavior, and food, that would also have felt beyond alien before I met Mr. Omnivorous Adventurer. And I actually found the place: IndiKitch, west from Eataly in the Flatiron. This was our second lunch together there and my turn to confess I’d been back twice on my own, for a quick snack after the Wednesday Greenmarket, simply for the samosas, which are among the best I’ve had in this city of fried-and-dried. The place is clearly staking out a claim as the South Asian answer to Chipotle: You choose feast (burrito), biryani (bowl), salad (salad) or sandwiches (tacos) and the counter crew assembles and sautés (actually finishes) to order. “Feast” is a serious deal for $9.87, with a main ingredient like saag paneer or mushroom kadai or chicken tikka teamed with a choice of rice (saffron is best), dal (chickpea or yellow lentil is best), side salad (carrot is definitely best) plus naan (garlic, of course). The naan is surprisingly good, better than in far too many Indian restaurants, because it’s both well-flavored and pliable enough to wield as your utensil, just the way you would eat in India. And if you order your food spicy, it’s near-perfect pitch, seasoned  to be balanced by the bread. The bathrooms, entered by entering a code, are spotless enough to encourage just that authentic way of eating.

Of course I had to go and ruin my new infatuation by suggesting Indian for Sunday lunch after the Greenmarket on Columbus when neither our usual lobster rolls nor tortas/cemitas appealed. I’d been wanting to try the uptown Saravanaa Bhavan for the last year, since a pal at the Greenmarket on 97th recommended it, and the thali was about three universes beyond IndiKitch. Of course, it was also $19.99 (but so generous we could split it). Every one of the 14 little dishes tasted vibrant (although I’ll take points off for the soggy papad), and the spicing varied from dish to dish. The menu was all Hindu to me aside from a couple of words, so there’s no point in listing specifics. Just know that it was (almost) like being transported to Mumbai at a sidewalk table on Amsterdam. WIGB? Definitely, even though the hometown magazine ran a long and peculiar story on how the owner of the chain is a killer. The staff was a bonus — when was the last time a waiter came out to tell you the one-holer occupied by a young woman for a suspicious amount of time was free?

Another country, 5 stops away on the 2

September 2014

The smartest thing cultural centers in far-flung neighborhoods do these days is recommend close-by eating options on their websites. Which is how my consort and I wound up sharing some pretty great spicy guacamole with just-fried chips at Xochimilco, on our way to the impressive Bronx Documentary Center. Maybe we would have found the place on our own, given that both a NYT article on Baron Ambrosia and a TripAdvisor seal were posted outside, but having the options narrowed to four (the others being pizza/Italian or a bar) definitely made it easier to think we would not starve on our little outing to a whole new New York.

As you might expect from the neighborhood, the place is a long way from Rosa Mexicano design-wise — the “silverware” is mostly plastic, the “tablecloth” a sheet of clear plastic over place mats. But that guacamole was exceptional, and all of $6. Even next day the kittybagged cupful was darker but still vibrant. I passed on Bob’s lengua tacos but did try his overloaded spicy pork ones and agreed they were deal of the year at $3 each (you can have them for 50 cents less if you leave off crema etc.) I’m a sucker for gorditas because they’re so rare in New York and I’m too lazy to make them using the recipe I did for Esquire’s “Man at His Best” way back in the last century after a trip to El Paso. These were definitely made to order, the masa dough soft inside, fried almost crisp outside, with a filling of Oaxacan cheese, crema and lettuce (plus, in one, chicharrones). The sweet waitress brought two salsas, a nearly incendiary red and a just-made/still-warm tomatillo, and both those added the essential acid to the richness. WIGB? If I lived nearby, for sure. But the gorditas in Corona were actually better if I”m going to have to get on a train. We’ll go back to the photo center for sure, but next time I’d try one of the other recommendations for one reason: local insight expands horizons.

New York obits

September 2014

Guilt at least is a motivator. When anything dies, remorse sets in faster than rigor mortis, and suddenly here are all these restaurants going under before I could either praise ’em or trash ’em. The first and worst was almost too embarrassing to write about, so the months flew by, and then we saw a new sign over the grimy entrance. A friend who lives in the neighborhood and had steered us right in the past suggested the hellhole over the winter, and only once we’d been seated did he volunteer that he had never braved the place. Suffice it to say the food and prices were all a classic demonstration of why Indian just can’t get a break in this town. Everything was bland and bloating and priced to keep anyone from eating as you would in the Subcontinent. I couldn’t even get it up for a hugely negative WIGB, and then we walked by recently and saw a new sign. For a place that cannot be any worse. (Update: It’s changed again. . . Reincarnation lives!)

Now I see Cocina Economica, our Sunday reliable, is no more. We went there more times than I can count, always for the torta and the cemita with spicy fries, each for about what Chipotle charges for a burrito alone. The kitchen was amazingly consistent, if often brunch-poky, and those excellent chorizo sandwiches and those fine fries never varied. The mystery is how a restaurant with Michelin, Zagat, Trip Advisor etc. decals on the door can go under. Unless it was because a Chipotle opened right around the corner on Broadway.

And then there was Seersucker, which we quite liked in a “this kind of resto could never survive in our neighborhood” way. The cocktail menu was particularly happy-making for my consort, who has started to see barmanship as more worthy of megabucks than mere wine selection. I’m a little fuzzy on what we ate cuz my photos also were, but I know I liked my ricotta gnocchi with bacon and the biscuits with butter and molasses butter and a couple of salads, plus the room and the service and the lighting.The whole situation makes me think of that old saying: “She was good, as cooks go. And as good cooks go, she was gone.”

The demise of Loi only mystifies as to why it took so long. We went there repeatedly, since it was our Fairway default after movies at Lincoln Square or Lincoln Plaza, but we never went excitedly. On our last drop-in, with the Bugses, we shared spreads and a bottle of wine at the (as always) underoccupied bar and were even comped desserts, but the place still had the stench of death about it even as the middle-of-the-road menu at Cafe Luxembourg kept the hordes coming. Can I indulge in some Realtor-speak? Put a Shake Shack in there. Nothing ambitious will work if even all the vaginal mean-muscle of the hometown paper could not undoom the location.

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/Mid-September 2013

September 2013

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

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

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

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

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

New York minutes/Late July into August 2013

August 2013

The seriously good: Empellon Cocina in the East Village, where my consort and I headed after getting shut out of the City Streets tunnel attraction on a Saturday and after a Twitter pal had been raving about the pork being better than Daniel’s or Chang’s. The menu was more eggs- and sugar-oriented because it was the worst time of the week — brunchtime — but we were blown away by the tacos, one order with short rib pastrami and the other with English peas and ricotta. We also ordered bacon guacamole with black pepper salsa and masa chips, and it had barely landed when the main attractions were set down. But that turned out to be the right order of eating. We got to concentrate on how fabulous the tastes and textures of the fillings were, then could slowly explore all the nuances of the appetizer: the avocado-bacon harmony, the crunchiness of the crisps, the way the creamy salsa amplified all the tastes. With chips, you dunk and gorge. It would be unpossible with this. The restaurant itself is also gorgeous, and everyone but our waiter was muy hospitable — WTF with bringing the check while we’re still eating? WIGB? Can’t wait, although for dinner and on the early side, because that dazzling array of tequilas and mezcals seemed like a pretty good indicator it might get loud.

The surprisingly good: ABV on the Upper East Side, where Bob suggested we go on one of his just-back nights rather than settling for Elizabeth’s yet again and where the food, service and noise level were almost like eating at home. We split a chilled spicy tomato soup that proved you don’t need to translate that concept into Spanish, especially if you add charred edamame and cotija cheese. Then we had an outstanding brisket torta with avocado, cheese etc. plus delicate but rich gnocchi with asparagus, smoked ricotta, mushrooms and more. WIGB? On the early (quiet) side, anytime. A $32 rosé was fuel for the walk back across the park in the gorgeous light.

The unsurprisingly good: Barrio Chino on the Lower East Side, where we wound up after a stock-up trek to Di Palo even though we had set out with Parm on our minds — something about the lure of a jalapeño margarita whomped the notion of eggplant Parmesan. As always, the food was fine (chorizo quesadilla for Bob, huge and great molletes for me), and that margarita was vaut le voyage. The kitchen was kind of snoozy, but the server was at the top of his form. WIGB? Anytime we’re close by. Although when we walked by empty Mission Chinese on our way to the killer black sesame gelato at Il Laboratorio, we did have a bit of eater’s remorse. One day we’ll make it there.

The pretty good: Market Table in the West Village, where I was treated to lunch by an editor who had offered Korean or Greek or Bar food and where the dissonance between careful cooking and craptastic acoustics was rather unnerving. (Neither of us is a loudmouth in person.) I should have picked up on her vibe and hints about the “roasted vegetable falafel,” because it really was a trudge. The Mexican corn off the cob we shared tasted pretty great, and so did the quinoa hush puppies the chef comped her as a powerful regular. And she sounded happy with her watermelon and peekytoe crab gazpacho. WIGB? Sure, if someone else is paying.

The all good again: The Smith across from Lincoln Center, Mermaid Inn uptown, Elizabeth’s and Txikito. At that last one, we had much of what I’d enjoyed on my first foray, including the crab gratin, but we also loved the cured pork canapé and a salad of baby arugula, egg and crisp silverfish. And then there was Saiguette on the Upper West Side, which really is too great to be anywhere near this close to home. The banh mi is easily the best we’ve ever had, even when lemongrass-grilled pork fills in for the special pork belly. Summer rolls are exceptional and steamed (not fried) dumplings pretty great.

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/Late April 2013

May 2013

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

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

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

New York minutes/Mid-April 2013

April 2013

The pretty good: La Camelia in the West Village, where my consort and I trotted after two friends’ opening at Leica Gallery after regretting passing it up despite a Twitter recommendation a few nights before. Outsized tequila bottles in the window made me fear for my ears, but we got a table in the window and had no problem talking, not least because the place never filled more than halfway. (Having Cantina Loco* a couple of blocks away must hurt.) The room is really quite lovely, and the waiter actually addressed me as both Milady and Madame. I just had a chorizo quesadilla, with low expectations, but it arrived in four wedges laid out over deflamed sliced onions with a bit of tomato and cilantro, and it was excellent for $10. Bob finally got his wish of mixed fillings for his $16 plate of tacos — chicken, mushroom, chorizo — so who cared that the beans and rice had apparently bypassed the flavor filling station? His margaritas were exemplary, my Chilean sauvignon blanc worth $8 a glass. WIGB? Absolutely, especially given the proximity to Film Forum.

*Oops. Cantina Loco’s a few hundred miles away. I meant Toro Blanco, of course. And wonder if I will miss my mind when it’s fully gone . . .

The half-good: Murray’s Cheese Bar in the West Village, where we headed with two friends after the turgid and narcissistic “Before and After Dinner” on Andre Gregory at Film Forum. And may I just ask why restaurants pay OpenTable to show a place fully committed when you can call and get a reservation and then spend your entire evening looking at a half-empty dining room? Late for our 7:30 phone booking, we had a choice of two big tables in the front and eventually managed to figure out hear each other speak despite the din. Our first shared dish, a kale Caesar, was faultless. Our second, the macaroni and cheese I’d balked at, was above average, not least because it was so creamy and the onions atop it such a smart counterpoint. Chorizo chili came with tortilla chips, so it was like a chunky queso fundido, and a fine one at that. (Each little dish was $12.) I balked at ordering a cheese board to start because it seemed so stupid when a fully stocked store was just a couple of doors down, but I was glad we gave in for a bit more sustenance for the last course. Naturally the torta del casar etc. were in peak condition, and each was paired with a fruity/acidic counterpoint. Breads and flatbreads also merit an A, as did the two bottles of cheapest-on-the-list red. The demerits? The server was just slightly smarter than rennet. She obviously couldn’t tell chevre from Shinola (and was clearly blowing wine words out her fanny). Which would be tolerable. But we’re talking cheese here. Still, WIGB? Probably, but to sit at the bar.