Archive for the ‘tapas’ Category

New York minutes

February 2016

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

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

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

Short for Catalonia

April 2014

It’s one thing to sit online at your messy desk in what was in 1929 a maid’s room and pick out a restaurant downtown that you think will fulfill your consort’s craving for cooking he can’t get at home. And it’s another to walk up and down the Bowery trying to find the address you’ve culled off MenuPages and wonder if you really, really want to eat on a street still crawling with sad souls and lined with Rat Centrals. So I was ready to bail northward on arriving first at the Sunshine Hotel and remembering a pretty bleak documentary. Luckily, Bob had had a couple of beers nearby and was not too late in bounding up and insisting we give Cata a try. Once inside, around the corner on Stanton, we were in 2014 Manhattan for sure. Or on a Barcelona stage set.

We got an outstandingly engaging waiter, great window seats with just enough blossom views and $10 glasses of red and white wine. The chickpea fritters were not the usual hardballs but little cubes made from what in Genoa would be considered farinata, dusted with dried mint and chile. And they were perfect pick food until the bombas arrived (perfectly fried croquettes filled with serrano ham and Manchego and set over tomato sauce spiked with smoked paprika). We split a couple of intriguing brochettes of grilled halloumi with caramelized onion and membrillo, and I braved a taste of Bob’s merguez-spiced lamb (not bad, which is high praise from this lamb hater). The silly-sounding Bikini montadito comprised four exquisite triangles of a truffle-scented grilled cheese with more serrano ham. Tempura broccoli with Cheddar and romesco sauce was crunchy-excellent, but the winner had to be the curried cauliflower “couscous,” with little bits of crucifer tossed with Marcona almonds and currants. We’ve eaten a lot of small plates lately, but all those were sublime. What’s even better is that most of the tapas were priced by the piece, so Bob could get his lamb and we could share the rest by ordering two of the bombas and the halloumi. The menu has big plates, too, but nothing we ate was more than $9.50 (the silly-sounding but superb sandwich). WIGB? Absolutely, although I’ll admit I only like communal tables in an empty restaurant. I keep thinking about what we didn’t order, like the duck pastrami, and the quail eggs Benedict with chorizo. Plus the wine list with only $10 glasses and $40 bottles . . .

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 June-mid-July

July 2013

The good: Txikito in Chelsea, where a friend who treats it as her canteen lured me for an early dinner and where it was easy to understand why she goes back over and over. The waiter was a charmer, and almost everything we ordered delivered, particularly the crab gratin, a steal at $15. Julie is understandably nuts for the blistered peppers; I was happy to order a second round. We also shared little toasts topped with a gratin of artichokes, cheese and ham, and a bottle of Spanish rosé in that sunlit room. So what if a special of scallops wrapped in underdone bacon was forgettable? WIGB? Can’t wait.

The not bad: Clarkson in No Man’s Land, where my consort and I led two friends after the outstanding “Stories We Tell” at the Angelika after deciding their choice, Parm, would be too cramped and crowded. We had tons o’ space here, although it was kind of odd the hostess hid us olds in a back room with circulatory problems (I was melting). And we just split a bunch of starters, and I was stuffed after the food show, so I can’t say for sure if the menu promised more than it delivered, as in rye French toast with peppered maple anglaise with the milk-braised pork belly, or polenta croutons with the grilled trumpet mushrooms over watercress with piave vecchio and “black truffle.” We also shared a special salad, and a bubbling dish of excellent cannelloni filled with zucchini and ricotta. Also, too, two bottles of French rosé. WIGB? Maybe. If it lasts. Going there was a trip, remembering both the glory days when it was Rakel and the sad night a year or so ago when I got trapped in the grubby bathroom in the last incarnation.

The best, when it comes to a special banh mi: Saiguette on the Upper West Side, where we finally made a pilgrimage when I couldn’t face “Asian as euphemism for lame Thai” for lunch on a day too hot to light our gas stove. We were there before noon, so we got stools at the teeny counter in the AC rather than having to schlep to the park, but the sandwich would have wowed wherever we ate it. Beyond the layering of flavors, the architecture of bread and filling matters most to me, and this one held together to the last bite the next afternoon when I reheated the last third at home. Bob was all ready to order the “grilled juicy boneless chicken thigh” until we noticed pork belly was the filling of the day. And it was truly amazing, the meat seasoned right, cooked beautifully and in ideal balance with the carrots, cucumbers and pickled jalapeños in the good roll with sriracha mayo. For all of $9. As for me, I ordered half-blind since I’ve never been to Vietnam as Bob has and went for the taro-peanut moon dumplings, which would have been better steamed than fried. We also shared a “bubble mango ice tea” that was way too sweet but just as much a trip as the idea of eating such exquisite food 10 blocks from home. I’d ask WIGB but know we will also order in — the food is packed for delivery even if you eat there. This is the best thing ever to happen to Manhattan Valley.

The weird: Alder in the East Village, where I insisted on cashing in my compensation  for help editing a transcript while Bob was working in Bulgaria, and where everything but the food was happy-making. We walked in without a reservation but snared seats at the bar right away, a lucky break because the tables could get loud. We started with the “pub cheese,” which tasted okay but visually evoked shit on a shingle. Pigs in a blanket were too clever by half — the Chinese sausage really needed actual bread for balance, not the tricked-out coating it got. And the fried quail was just disheartening given that quail is the new duck; the meat was contorted into weirdness and teamed with sludgy banana curry and pickled turmeric. Those little birds need to be laid out as they are, not Spammed. The one dish we really liked was the most normal, a bowlful of grilled asparagus with scrambled eggs and smoked brook trout. When we got everything in a forkful, we could taste a sensational creation. I did like the giardiniera others have dissed, though. WIGB? It was relatively cheap ($107 with four drinks before tip), but, sadly, no. Genius might be best appreciated from afar.

The seriously good again: Lan Sheng in Midtown, where Bob and I made a lunchtime pit stop on the way to Grand Central to pick up his new glasses on a Saturday when the lunchtime options are hen’s-tooth scarce in that neighborhood. He’d been there a week or so earlier at my suggestion and was still raving about the camphor tea-smoked duck, so we had to order that. And the super-satisfying crab soup dumplings. And the intense stir-fried spinach with garlic. And the mysteriously wondrous cucumbers in green sesame sauce. We needed one more stomach in our booth, though, because everything was too good to finish it all. The duck was about as close to Hong Kong as you can find in NYC, the dumplings perfectly presented. I’d rate the service as tolerant at best, but the staff did have shit to deal with on a weekend: vent hoods were being ferried out for cleaning, deliveries were being logged in, communication was failing over liquid leaking from a light fixture. Still, WIGB? Absolutely. It’s not cheap, but it is great. And a lot closer than Flushing.

The happy-making again and again: The Smith across from Lincoln Center, where we landed for dinner after taking an NPR friend for drinks at the bar after the absolutely fabulous Bill Traylor show at the American Folk Art Museum just up the street. A table inside in the sunlight was easy to come by around 5:30 on Friday, and so we had too many carafes of rosé with my outstanding oyster slider BLT and Bob’s chicken under a brick with killer mashed potatoes. My chopped salad tasted undressed and supermarket-supplied when it came to the peppers and cucumbers, but we had fun. WIGB? Yep, and not least because the staff seems so happy to serve you.

The reliable: Mighty Quinn’s in the East Village and Cocina Economica on the Upper West Side, which are actually planets apart on food but deliver equal satisfaction. The brisket on my last trip to MQ was superb, and out-of-town friends and I were able to walk right in early and sit right down to enjoy. And the cemita at CE may be a messy eating experience, but the flavors deliver and the fries are outstanding, especially with the precision salsas.

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/December 2012

January 2013

The always good: Momofuku Ssam, where my consort and I ate dinner after the fabulous-as-promised “Searching for Sugar Man” and where I met up with friends for lunch the next day because I knew it would be an entirely different restaurant. Bob and I snared seats at the bar as soon as we walked in and got advice on either side on what to choose: unfishy Spanish mackerel with a schmear of black garlic plus lotus root and airy-crisp chips made from lime peel, then a creamy, light Jerusalem artichoke soup with snails, bits of pork jowl and sliced jalapeño that was just killer, every bite with each element alone and then with all combined. After a very large popcorn, we couldn’t finish the great spicy pork sausage and rice cakes with Chinese broccoli and Sichuan peppercorns (the cakes were like crunchy gnocchi). The bartender let me taste the Greek white, and it, too, was so good I felt safe ordering a bottle the next afternoon for friends who drink sauvignon blanc and Sancerre. The roast duck breast was, as always, stunningly good, as were the spicy fingerlings served in the set, although the duck dumplings were a little more fried than usual. I thought we had under-ordered in sharing those two dishes and insisted we try the duck wings. Which were pleasant enough but outshone by both the tempura squash and the watercress-apple-pumpkinseed salad on the plate. Wally was horrified when she saw the cook in the kitchen right next to our table drench the latter in duck fat, but not when she tasted it.

The vaut le schlep: Lao Dong Bei in Flushing, where I met the eating-Asian group I’ve been so fortunate to be invited to explore with and to whom I am so happy to leave the ordering. I arrived as the chef/owner and our Taiwanese-speaking leader were deep in discussion of all we needed to try to get a sense of the food from that part of China, formerly known as Manchuria, and he was translating that we would get “skin jelly” on the house. That turned out to be a sort of aspic meant to be dunked in a soy sauce-vinegar-garlic-ginger sauce, and it was the one dish I couldn’t brave. I usually can’t stomach lamb, either, but the slab of ribs that soon landed was exceptional: the meat tender, the crust crusty with black and white sesame seeds, cumin seeds and chile. (Coal is the cooking fuel in Dong Bei, that region.) It was rivaled only by the spicy quail, a platter of legs that may have been a bit overcooked but had great flavor and spicing, especially with the onions alongside (a tablemate likened them to liver and onions, but the little birds had none of that funky flavor). We also had two meatless dishes, “tiger vegetable,” which was mostly cilantro stems and jalapeños, and something off the specials on the wall in Chinese that the table translated as bracken (and was pretty great). “Fried pork in orange sauce,” as the menu had it, turned out to be very tender slices in a crisp but delicate coating (“thinking man’s General Pso’s?”). The showstoppers were served in hotpots over Sterno lit by the waitress/wife: the richest, most intense broth with chicken, mushrooms and vermicelli, followed by a whole fish in another rich broth with fermented tofu and glass noodles, both dishes seriously well-spiced (star anise?) After all that, our 24 steamed dumplings landed, stuffed with pork and pickled cabbage and made for dunking in the sauce from the skin jelly. WIGB? Actually, I would even on my own with a new crew, not just because the food was so eye-opening but because the owners were so thrilled to have a bunch of non-Chinese in the restaurant. The chef was clearly invested in us loving everything we ate, and his wife could not have been more eager to keep the customers satisfied. 44-09 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, 718 539 4100.

The happy-making, twice in a row: Toloache on the Upper East Side, where Bob and I warmed up after the outstanding Ann Hamilton installation at the Park Avenue Armory and again after the bloody-great “Django Unchained.” We got a nice booth for a quiet lunch to share the best-ever tortilla soup and then carnitas/nopales tacos, which the waiter warned were bite-size but were actually handfuls, and the huarache, a light masa cake filled with black beans, surrounded with chunks of chorizo and sauce and topped with ultra-creamy scrambled eggs. Even early on Saturday night, though, we could only get seats at the bar after calling to reserve, but the bartenders were excellent. We had to have the tortilla soup again, then the quesadilla with huitlacoche and truffle and more tacos, these filled with Modelo-braised brisket with tomatillo salsa and horseradish crema. WIGB? Absolutely. It’s a beautiful place and much more comfortable than the one in the Theater District. (That tortilla soup did such a good job of vanquishing Bob’s serial-killer cold that he insisted we stop and try the new Spanish LeChurro shop we passed nearby, where the hot chocolate with chilies was perfection although the churros themselves were doughy.)

The good again: Parm in Nolita, where we wound up after an Illy-stockup at DiPalo (best price in town) even though I had had dumplings on the brain on that day after Christmas — after reading this scary story on the train on industrial pork, eggplant parmesan sounded so much more enticing. We were lucky and had to wait only 15 minutes for a table to tuck into three great little salads, the pickles being the least surprising. Buffalo cucumbers were as good as you’d expect: chunks in a blue cheese dressing spiked with hot sauce, and excellent, while chickpeas in ranch dressing with celery qualified as genius. We should have split a hero; a roll was messy to eat once cut in half, but that eggplant was pretty fabulous. And of course we had to have the ice cream cake that had just been written up; I must not get out enough because it didn’t strike me as anything extraordinary aside from the strawberry goo holding the three flavors of ice cream together. WIGB? Anytime. The staff’s attitude is so upbeat, and the music was all flashbacks from my childhood.

The better than its ingredients: Tortaria just south of Union Square, where Bob and I ducked in for a quick lunch after the Greenmarket when all the cool joints mostly had eggs and after he Yelped it up and remembered he’d had a good fast lunch there. You order at a counter and sit at a table you hope has been wiped down, but the window area is as nice as the people, and the guacamole is way above average — we asked for spicy, and it was perfectly balanced with heat and richness; the huge bag of chips was obviously freshly fried. We split two plates of tacos, one with beef and the other carnitas, and both blew Chipotle out of the agua. Table salsas only enhanced the intense flavors. WIGB? Definitely. The people are pleasant, and the price is right, too. (Although I know the tradeoff is less-than-Chipotle meat.)

The undeniably good but probably doomed: Forager’s Table in Chelsea, where we hooked up for geographic convenience with a food aficionado in from Denver after my consort spoke at the School of Visual Arts and where the food and service were so impressive the near-emptiness of the nicely designed room was mystifying. We were disappointed the menu was so tiny compared with the extensive bait online, so Bob and I wound up ordering only appetizers after a shared (and superb) eggplant dip with cumin and lavash. His fluke carpaccio looked stunning, coated with toasted poppy seeds, and tasted sublime, with lemon vinaigrette, and my duck liver paté was fatty-satisfying, with perfectly grilled bread (and, for once, plenty of it) plus cornichons and grainy mustard. We only tasted Matt’s beautifully cooked fish with root vegetables. With a couple of glasses of wine each and a beer for him, it was $51 a person with tax and tip. WIGB? Hope so . . . Wish it had opened in our neighborhood.

The “how do you say kinks en Español?”: Casa Pomona on the Upper West Side, where a Spain-besotted friend and I landed for a drink in the first days after it was open and where it was one stumble after another. The worst was that the bartender offered to split the one glass of white he had left from one of the three bottles on the list, but he charged us for two. And I didn’t realize it until I was walking home, wondering how the tab was so high for three glasses of wine and one shared tapa, the migas. I’ve never had that in Spain, but I’m assuming it is not always a well-cooked egg topped with a little bit of chorizo and some dried croutons. WIGB? Probably, so Bob can try it. But the wine choices were so limited, and that little gouge didn’t help.

The not bad: Kelso Dining in Brooklyn, where I took Bob for lunch to try a Panamanian carimañola for a recipe I needed to develop. As good as those meat-filled yuca tubes were, the real stars on the table were the drinks: sorrel and tamarind, big glasses filled with ice and sweet-sour brightness. Both were perfect counterpoints to the richness of the fried yuca I also insisted on ordering, and to both the stewed chicken and the superb salt fish with rice and peas on the $10 lunch plate. It was like eating in the Caribbean. The owner and waitress couldn’t have been friendlier, even sending us off with a “souvenir” of the housemade hot sauce. WIGB? If I were in the neighborhood.

The port in a storm: A.G. Kitchen on the Upper West Side, where we landed after getting shut out of two other places (Loi, you had to hold a Tony Danza private party?) after the way overhyped “Chasing Ice.” It’s just the latest incarnation of the space, but the menu is more energetic. The hostess happily gave us a booth, and the waiter was patient. I didn’t try the burger one friend appeared to enjoy, but I’ll vouch for the fries. My salad was quite good, with Bibb lettuce, bacon and Cabrales dressing, and it was all of $9. Even better was Bob’s “samba” chicken, well-marinated and cooked juicy; The Cat loved the leftovers. Extra points for decent New Zealand sauvignon blanc for a non-gougey $36, and for a low noise level. WIGB? Why not?

The price is right: Cocina Economica on the Upper West Side, where we snared a table after an early showing of the seriously good “Silver Linings Playbook” and where the only thing that would keep me from going back was the space — it’s great-looking, but too many tables are crammed in so tightly the waiters can barely navigate. Everything was so cheap I hoped the chefs know restaurant math, because it’s hard to see how they’ll make money on an $8 skirt steak salad with avocado, lettuce, poblanos, jicama and cotija when it’s mostly meat. Bob’s braised pork loin for $13 was a mega-portion/plate as well, with Swiss chard, corn, green beans and pumpkin seeds. Maybe they’ll clean up on the ill-conceived avocado corn bread, baked to desiccation in a corn husk and desperately needing the superb salsas that arrived with it.

And the good as always when we’re eating close to home: Mermaid Inn on Amsterdam, where we met up with friends in from Bucks County before a balloon party on Tryptophan Eve and where the service was especially ebullient and the food pretty much as reliable as always. We had a 6:30 reservation, so happy hour prices were in order; I got there last to find a mini fish taco was on its way for me and a full glass of the discounted wine was waiting. The other three shared oysters while I ate my three-bite tilapia with spicy mayo. I was trying to abstain and only had the lobster knuckles given escargot treatment, which certainly is a lovely way to get $14 for scraps. They were swimming in less butter than I expected, but they were certainly satisfying. I just tasted Bob’s good skate and watched our friends tear through the trout and the spaghetti topped with seafood salad. They were thrilled with the free chocolate dessert. And with the waiter, who recognized us from many Social Media Mondays and was fully engaged. We went back a couple of weeks later with one of Bob’s boyhood friends who now lives in Sweden, and he loved it, too.

New York minutes/Mid-July 2012

July 2012

The really good: Lan Sheng in Midtown, where I met up with the best group of adventurous eaters I have ever known and where, as usual, I left the menu-driving to them with great payoff. I cannot overstate how valuable it is having a Caucasian who speaks Chinese at the table; he sat down and picked up the specials card and immediately started choosing so much better than the usual Sichuan #58 and #89. Just the dish of cucumbers dressed in sesame oil and some mysterious greenness as we sat down was impressive, but we went on to succulent bamboo shoots, pungent water spinach with garlic, fresh tofu in the most amazing sauce with chilies, peanuts and Chinese celery, (dried-out) rabbit with almost as much chile as meat, meaty soft-shell crabs on a platter also heaped almost as high in dried chilies as in shellfish, slices of pork belly served Peking duck-style, ribs in “rice powder” (actually almost like spicy paella in little mouthfuls) and the most astonishing dish, mung beans transformed almost Adria-style into cubes of gelatinous-looking/tasting cubes in yet another spicy sauce. Service was on a par with the cooking, too. And the sophistication did get that old discussion going, on why Chinese chefs are never celebrities. I thought it was more that restaurants rather than staffers are stars, but I was countered. (Conclusion: You had to be there.) WIGB? Can’t wait. At $27 a head, it was pricier than Flushing, but it was also so much faster to reach. 60 West 39th Street, 212 575 8899.

The “how could you hear if it was good?”: Tertulia in the West Village, yet again, where I met up with a friend who chose it from my short list because she spent her semester abroad in Madrid. Once we met up we went into that weird state where you’ll put up with any crap since you’re there — we finagled seats at the bar after being told our table was 15 minutes away, then turned down the communal table we were offered after ordering a bottle of rosé and finally, finally were seated at an individual table where conversation felt more frustrating than it must be in a prison with both parties separated by Plexiglas. Did I note that it was fucking loud? At one point I told Wally only those who know sign language should eat there. The food, as I’d promised, was stellar, although the mushrooms on the toasts with ricotta and pine nuts could have been rehydrated to a more supple state, and the $7-for-2 deviled eggs with bacalao could have tasted less made in advance. The fried ham-and-cheese balls were great, especially with the fig sauce underneath, and the special of smoked trout over beans and creaminess almost made us hear straight. WIGB? Not at night, and not for a good long time, if ever. Especially after reading the hometown paper’s exploration of the din in dinner and how noise is designed to drive out us olds. The place was so painful we walked for blocks afterward looking for someplace for a nightcap and rejected I can’t count how many before winding up at Lyon, where the sound was relatively low but I hate to hear what the weaving women at the bar sounded like in their bathroom next day. . . .

The good again: Mermaid Inn on the Upper West Side, where we headed with friends who wanted a “budget” meal after the underwhelming “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Social Media Monday = “starfish” for 20 percent off). As always, the front room was deafening, but we were promised the best waiter on the premises and, as always, he was. He was even great about us being double-cheapskates, ordering mostly apps and the cheapest rosé. I had satisfying fried green tomatoes topped with chunks of crab and laid over super-spicy tartar sauce (or aioli or whatever the term was); I will be trying that at home very soon. My consort ordered the only entree among us, skate with carrots with peas and carrots, and he was happy although I thought the chef should leave the sourcing to Northern Spy. And I tasted the soft-shell crab appetizer if not the grilled calamari but will let our friends’ plate-cleaning be the judge. WIGB? Absolutely. Good food, affordable food, decent wine, affordable wine, good service, great hospitality. Sometimes, who needs quiet?

The deal of deals: Land Thai on the Upper West Side after the so-seductive (and free)  “The Clock” at Lincoln Center, where we headed after trying to try the newish Purple Fig in the old All State Cafe but finding the room dark under the “open for lunch and dinner” sign. For $9 for two courses, it would be hard to find fault, but my spring rolls were perfectly fried and my jungle curry with tofu enough to restore my faith in soybean curd. Every bite made me wonder why we ever ordered from a “Thai” joint a few blocks north that was just slammed down by the Health Department.

New York minutes/Late April to early May 2012

May 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York minutes/End o’ May 2009

May 2009

The good: Boqueria in SoHo, where we headed with a Philadelphia friend in town for the book expo who expressed a preference for either Caribbean or Mediterranean, anything “light and sunny.” Sort of Spanish sort of fit the bill, although I admit I paused at the blackboard brunch sign out front when I realized how likely eggs were to dominate and how close we were to the Saturday fallback, Aquagrill, with its sidewalk terrace. But it was early, and we got a nice table overlooking the plancha, and the waiter was attentive and the food and wine were excellent even if the music deserved deportation and the bathroom looked worthy of a train, and not in tidy Spain. We just shared a few pricey but excellent tapas: tender octopus on skewers and toast with tomatoes and sugar snap peas in green olive vinaigrette; diver scallops with English peas etc. in bacon vinaigrette; three croquetas — suckling pig, mushroom and salt cod — with sauces, and padron peppers, which were good but not up to Lanzarote level because only one I got had any heat. Rosé and sangria were $9 and $8 a glass; with two each it came out to $38 a person with tax and tip. Not bad, but not the proven deal down the block. WIGB? Maybe. Just not on Egg Day. 17 Spring Street between Thompson and West Broadway, 212 343 4255.

The better than we had any right to hope: Le Petit Marché in Brooklyn Heights, where I met locals and my consort after his workday and with very low expectations, given the neighborhood and the Alouette evocation when I walked in the door on a drizzly gray night. But our food was pretty satisfying, much more so than the sullen-at-best service. I had eaten earlier so only ordered my idea of nibbles — an appetizer of crab-chickpea fritters with chipotle-smoked paprika aioli plus a side of truffle-Parmigiano fries — and was happy with both. My consort made me taste his very chewy but flavorful duck with date gastrique and sweet potato puree, and our friends seemed happy with a special pasta with sausage and summer squash and crab-corn chowder (on this gray evening) plus an off-the-menu pork chop with corn risotto. We split two bottles of red and I think got out for under $100 a couple. WIGB? Absolutely, were I to find myself in that neck of the far woods ever again. 46 Henry Street, 718 858 9605.

P.J. Clarke’s at Lincoln Center, where nine of us landed after the disappointing “Departures” at the little theater around the corner and where we had no reason to complain given the location, location, location coupled with the reasonable prices, decent cooking and showoff service. Our small mob was seated almost instantly at a few tables jammed together in a back corner where we could mostly hear ourselves talk, and the waiter was patient and mellow when some of us just ordered salads or side dishes and others ordered no booze. My Caesar was the same as it ever was, and my consort looked to have more goat cheese than he needed on his spinach salad. Friend to my left was blissful with her sliders if not the bizarre “bubble and squeak” that came with; friend to my right ate the latter with as few complaints as he had for his French onion soup once the kitchen omitted the cheese topping. WIGB? Absolutely. Even if we have to again fight our way through a bizarre horde trying to get into the bar at Center Cut next door. 44 West 63d Street, 212 957 9700.

New York minutes/Mid-February 2008

February 2008

The pretty good: Pegu Club, where seven of us met for early drinks on a Friday and could actually hear ourselves talk until about 9 in a second-floor space that really looks straight out of Hong Kong. Our social secretary, Julie, snared us a huge but snug booth near the bar and was waiting with a generous glass of wine, the sight of which made the $12 price tag much easier to swallow. (After extensive research, the Goldwater sauvignon blanc was more to my taste than the Joseph Drouhin Chablis.) We ordered not enough food, unfortunately, and I tasted only the good deviled eggs stuffed with trout and something strange; pulled-duck sliders with excellent filling, okay vegetable spring rolls and a bit of the exceptional tuna tartare. We had to sit next to Republicans, though, which was so unnerving that when I made some lame joke about the oceans and the fucker in the White House I thought the waitress was coming by to shush me. But that, sadly, was one of the few times she or anyone else in a dress voluntarily approached the table. A little more service would generate many more orders. 77 Houston Street near West Broadway, 212 473 PEGU.

The better than usual: Pearl Oyster Bar, where I went for my lunchtime fix of skate sandwich and where what seemed to be a new kitchen team was more surgical than on my last outing — the ciabatta was layered perfectly with just enough tomato and greens without huge globs of tartar sauce. The bartender was also new to me but was, as they always are, worthy of a starring role in a training video on service. Surprisingly if refreshingly, it was almost all solo diners on a rainy day and no one wanted to chat. But they still shared, if unwittingly: One woman was clearly on a POB orgy, starting with shrimp, then a lobster roll, then a butterscotch praline sundae, nearly licking the plates clean every time; a hungover guy almost had his head in his Caesar salad until his clams arrived and he snapped back to life. WIGB? Where else can you get two meals for one price? My consort had the other half of my huge sandwich for a late dinner. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.

The promising: Madaleine Mae, where a friend and I had a magical lunch with snow showering down out the windows and where I swore I would never go for dinner but still found myself just four nights later, wedged into the next table. Kinks are still being worked out, but our food at lunch was well above Columbus Avenue standards — the seafood gumbo needed only a little Tabasco, the crab cake sandwich was very meaty and the mirliton fritters with roasted pepper aioli were so dangerously good we only tasted rather than risking a Mr. Creosote. Service was a little erratic, but it had just opened, and our waitress was ebullient if not totally attentive (Jonathan himself waved goodbye as we left, though). And the room is so seductive, with barely a trace of its time as Kitchen 82. I assumed it would be brutally loud at dinner, but Bob and I were due out of a movie at 7 and so I reserved. Noise was not an issue, and although the tables around us were antsy about the service, the waitress was surprisingly efficient, although she did need to be prodded to bring the bread trowel everyone else had gotten. So we tried those four breads and were underwhelmed by all but one sort of warm biscuit; the scone, second biscuit and cornbread were all cold and chewy, not light or flaky or airy. Wines were good again, starting at $8 a glass for red or white from Argentina. My nut-crusted redfish tasted as if it was at least as old as the restaurant, but the new-wave succotash with squash that came under it was vinegary and great. And Bob’s jambalaya was outstanding, rich but light and with the perfect balance of seafood and sausage to popcorny rice. It all just made us wonder why Jacques-Imo’s went out of business serving similar food five blocks south. I guess it needed the not-from-around-here crowd. . . . WIGB? Often, I suspect. 461 Columbus Avenue at 82d Street, 212496 3000.