Archive for the ‘Vietnamese’ Category

New York minutes/Late September-early October 2013

November 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York minutes/Late 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 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/Early May 2013

May 2013

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

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

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

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

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

New York minutes/End of October 2011

October 2011

The pretty good: Nam in Tribeca, where a friend and I headed for quiet and snacks after Kurt Gutenbrunner’s superb book party at Blaue Gans (as social as being in someone’s home but with better food and real waiters working hard at keeping glasses and mouths full). The Nam waiter was a little brusque, and no one was happy to have us linger till closing time, but the food came through. We ordered four appetizers, which turned out to be way too many after pralined foie gras: summer rolls with beef and with shrimp, sausage and peanuts plus five-spice baby back ribs and grilled eggplant with ginger and lime. WIGB? Anytime I’m in that neighborhood. It’s great value in a sleek space. 110 Reade Street at West Broadway, 212 267 1777.

The even better: Red Rooster Harlem, where my consort just back from a week of food hell at a workshop in Kentucky insisted we head for Monday lunch as walk-ins and where the setting and service rivaled the cooking. I won’t eat catfish and two of the offerings involved farmed salmon, so of course I had to have the cheeseburger, which was $16 worth of excellent, sauced with a spicy mayonnaise and topped with mushrooms, red onions, tomato and lettuce; the great fries were tossed with baby arugula and lots of salt although the truffle flavor was AWOL. Bob’s “yard bird” was all it’s been billed as, a big plateful of juicy, perfectly fried breast and leg, laid over perfect collard greens with a little spicy sauce on the side. As he guessed, it was roasted first, as we learned on gawking at the kitchen and being invited over by the expediter to check out the wood oven (and then meet all the cooks). The vibe in the place that day was amazing, as were the beautifully designed bathrooms. (Not so sure about writing Crisco on the dining room wall, though — why not Spry?) WIGB? Absolutely, although I’d guess it would be insane for dinner. 310 Lenox Avenue just north of 125th Street, 212 792 9001.

The aurally alluring: Lyon in the West Village, where we met a friend who was in from New Hope for a photo event and had one request for a destination, that it be quiet enough to talk. The food and wine and service were all fine, although I’m not sure why we three were seated right up against the service/ordering station in a nearly empty dining room. But we could talk. And talk, through a second bottle of Crozes Hermitage. I think I liked the silk weaver’s brains the best, the herbed cheese spread from Lyon, because it was paired with Virginia ham and crudités and Bob was smart enough to ask how to tackle it — just wrap the ham around the vegetable and dunk. “Barbecued” duck wings were as good as the first time we had them, meaty and sticky-sweet, and I made them a main course with a side of excellent broccoli rabe, the bitterness muted by halved cherry tomatoes and sweet onions. Since I ordered those, Bob was liberated for once to grab the duck, and it was nice enough, a perfectly cooked breast over a buckwheat crepe enfolding pearl barley and kale and (imperceptible as always) “truffle.” I didn’t try the other Bob’s chicken, but he seemed happy. WIGB? Anytime. I was underwhelmed by the food in the real Lyon. This is the perfect detour. 118 Greenwich Avenue at West 12th/Jane Streets, 212 242 5966.

The addictive: Milk Bar on the Upper West Side, where I’m going to have to complain to the community board about that neon sign. It’s like a damn siren song every time I pass by, even after a party where I gorged on great cheese and still had to stop for a compost or corn cookie.

The emulative: The very different bars at Regional and Boulud Sud, both on the Upper West Side, where I was amazed by the “happy to serve you” attitude. At the former we  met a friend in from Santa Barbara to promote an admirable book, and I’d chosen it because it was nearly equidistant between where she was staying and we live. It was happy hour, and the bartender not only came over to the communal table to take our orders but volunteered that a Chianti and a pinot grigio could be had for $5 a glass, so we were able to have two for one. As we left, a proprietary-looking woman with a baby on her hip came over to thank us for coming. We will be back. At BS, I decided we need to quit wasting real money in dive bars where the crap wine is $11 or $12 a glass and you can’t hear your brain cells die for the din. Meeting a Twitter connection in from out of town, I had a nice glass of picpoul from the Languedoc for all of $9, and even as the restaurant filled up she and I could still talk easily. When another woman came in and asked us to move down a barstool, the bartender topped off our wineglasses for free for complying. As my consort had warned after having a similarly great experience there recently, the crowd is a bit fogeyish. But I’ll take it. Kids are not always all right.

New York minutes/Mid-February 2010

February 2010

The good: Nam in TriBeCa, where four of us headed after the amazing “That Night’s Wife” with original score at the World Financial Center and where I could only wonder why we had never tried it before. The elegant room looks like $30 entrees, but I don’t think anything was over $18; Oyster Bay SV was only $30 when wine stores are gouging at $13 or $14. We split outstanding beef rolls and seared tuna rolls plus exceptional grilled eggplant; only the bland green papaya salad with shrimp and scabs (a k a dried beef) was a letdown among appetizers. Roast duck might not have been the freshest bird ever, but it was perfectly cooked, and a noodle dish with pork-and-shrimp meatballs and grilled pork rivaled it. WIGB? Absolutely. Len was longing for the Vietnamese coffee we saw at the next table, and it would only be safe at lunchtime. Plus the staff was so chipper. 110 Duane Street near West Broadway, 212 267 1777.

The sad: Quinto Quarto in the West Village, where we stumbled in for late lunch after finding Market Table closed for a wedding reception and where we soon learned $14.95 is no deal for two courses, wine and coffee. Bob described the food as profoundly mediocre, but I think he was too kind: My “orzo” salad of barley, radicchio and tomatoes with a dusting of grated pecorino bordered on flavor-free, as did his “ribollita,” a mess of mixed vegetables in bland broth. Worse was the baked lamb, allegedly with rosemary; it tasted as if it had been sitting on a steam table long enough to turn to mutton. Only my “bombolotti alla gricia” was half-worth eating, although it arrived cold, a mortal sin in Italy; the sautéed onions, guanciale and pecorino hung together despite the absence of the promised “hot chilly pepper.” Trebbiano and Montepulciano were big pours but also wan. Espresso and macchiato, though, tasted almost Trieste-worthy. And the waitress who made them was incredible: super-friendly, efficient, upbeat. Too bad she wasn’t doing the cooking. WIGB? If a real chef were around. The room is quite nice.

The believe-the-hype: Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village, where a friend and I landed after Sigiri was closed despite the open-hours sign on the door on a less-snow-than-expected afternoon; we were able to walk right in and get seats at a relatively quiet table in the back and were soon sharing a superb pork-kimchi tamal, fabulous steamed buns with shiitakes (more like soft tacos) and spicy noodles with Sichuan sausage, spinach and cashews. I never like wine in teeny tumblers; it never feels worth $9. But that’s a tiny complaint when the staff was so hospitable, the ingredients so clean and the experience so uplifting. WIGB? Can’t wait. I’m even half-tempted to buy the cookbook. 171 First Avenue near 11th Street.

The decent: Turkuaz on the Upper West Side, where we hooked up with three friends after another great “Selected Shorts” at Symphony Space on a snowy night and where the staff let us linger well past midnight in an empty back room. Raku to start was not the smartest idea, but it kept us to one bottle of Turkish white for $32. I’m not sure the “platter” of spreads was worth $19.95; it was more the size of a dinner plate, and we got two baba ghanoush because they were out of a fifth spread. Everything tasted fine, with excellent bread, though. I didn’t try the two meat shish kebabs or $26 lamb chops, but the decent vegetable casserole was overpriced at $14.95. The bathroom was a trip, too, back to the 1950s or a backward country, with old armchairs and that disinfectant reek. WIGB? Maybe. It was certainly comfortable, with more than accommodating service. 2637 Broadway at 100th Street, 212 665 9541.

The design/food fail: Community Food & Juice across from Columbia, where Bob and I settled after a preview program on the enticing “Latin Music USA” series on PBS at the  J-School and where we might have been happier if we had taken seats on the banquette rather than evading two self-absorbed crazy women at the door. Instead we were crammed into a ridiculously tight table in an alcove where the waiter and runner could only get to the next table by slamming into Bob and where the jerk at the next table was bellowing about tits. It all made me think a new rule should be that any restaurant designer should have to suffer a meal at every table greedily wedged in. But all that might have been forgiven if the zucchini-scallion pancakes had not been both desiccated and tasteless and the shrimp dumplings had not been so sad. Only the spicy green beans with peanuts redeemed the meal. Does no one monitor what leaves the kitchen? WIGB? Not on a bet.

New York minutes/End of November 2009

November 2009

The pretty good: Safran, where my consort and I headed after the rather deserted Greenmarket on the Saturday after Thanksgiving when I remembered reading about it in the Wednesday Chef’s “goodbye to all that” roundup. We weren’t slaves to her pho advice, though. Overwhelmed by all the special choices, I ordered the Peking duck summer roll off the regular menu ($10 appetizer, and worth it, with just-right dipping sauces), while Bob finally decided on the $8.95 lunch box with surprisingly tender lemonglass-glazed pork chop, noodles with peanuts, rice, vegetable summer roll and mixed green salad with excellent creamy dressing. The place is rather elegant for that strip of Seventh Avenue (although the upholstery is getting grubby), and the European waitress could not have been more welcoming or attentive. WIGB? Definitely. For a real lunch. 88 Seventh Avenue near 15th Street, 212 929 1778.

The really bad: Palacio Azteca, which I passed on leaving the Hospital for Special Surgery in my usual state of elation (one-year followup visit on a “home run” thanks to Dr. Douglas Padgett) with a hankering for something Mexican and self-indulgent. I should have known York Avenue would be all white bread (even Bloomberg won’t eat around there), but I was still amazed at how lame this little dive was. The watery salsa tasted like dish soap, and not from cilantro. The $8.95 nachos were mostly bland beans and chunks of burned chorizo (allegedly; it had no discernible flavor). And the waitress was equal parts surly and inefficient (I had to ask for both flatware and a napkin after waiting forever for even a menu in a nearly empty little room). I guess I deserved everything I got for not being smart enough to flee immediately, though. I still can’t run, but I could have walked out.

The reliable: Fairway’s cafe, where four of us retreated after “Broken Embraces” when the “hostess” at Ed’s Chowder House across from the theater was so fuck-youish on learning we did not have a reservation and wanted to try the bar menu. Cheap wine is always the tipping point, and so we shared a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc for virtually nothing. All their food was fine: Bob’s leg of lamb, the two huge crab cakes and the short ribs. But my Caesar (of course) was the best I’ve had there. The service was a little distracted, and beer-clueless, but WIGB? Absolutely. It’s even quiet enough to talk about what a provocative movie you’ve just seen. 2127 Broadway near 74th Street, 212 595 1888.

New York minutes/Late April 2009

April 2009

The good again: Aquagrill in SoHo, where we headed for our default brunch after the Saturday Greenmarket and after every other destination we considered had the usual egg-heavy menu. The place was quite busy, with the outdoor tables all full, but it was running at peak performance. We got a nice table (albeit next to the overactive linen closet), were served good Spanish rosé and warm breakfast breads right away and had our food almost too fast, given the long lines for the one-seat bathrooms. I ignored the lack of provenance on the salmon BLT and just enjoyed the perfect balance of fish against crisp bacon, mayonnaise and baby arugula on a ciabatta. Bob’s warm shrimp salad had nicely cooked shellfish with well-dressed potatoes on more baby arugula. The biscuits were exquisite. What was most impressive is that the bill, including one coffee, was about what really nasty Cabrito had cost the Saturday before; my sandwich with good fries was a buck less than the still queasy-making chorizo biscuits and gravy. Plus we were thanked at least four times on our way out. WIGB? Inevitably. They have restauranting down to an art. 210 Spring Street, 212 274 0505.

The not bad: SobaKoh in the East Village, where nine of us wound up after an opening at Leica Gallery and where the tiny room and excellent service made it the perfect destination thanks to one smart guy who lives in the neighborhood taking charge. The menu was huge, but soba with grilled duck and scallions jumped out at me, while Bob was taken with eggplant stuffed with ground duck for his soba. Japanese and I are not on familiar terms, but I was happy enough with our food, especially since the sake kept coming. Our young friend who barely drinks was floored by the $42-a-head tab, but that’s how it goes when you order $55 bottles. The best part is that even in a group that ridiculously large, it was easy to talk. And the waitress happily took a combination of cash and I think five credit cards. WIGB? Not likely, but only because soba sounds enticing about once in a decade. 309 East Fifth Street off Second Avenue, 212 254 2244.

The not great: Baoguette in Curry Hill, where I wandered in very hungry after the Wednesday Greenmarket on my way to Foods of India and where I paid for my stupidity in ordering the $7 “sloppy bao,” billed as spicy curried beef but more like a cafeteria special. The bread and the pickled vegetables and especially the heat were all good, but it was the kind of ground beef that comes with a remorse guarantee. What mostly struck me was how dull it was: After the third bite, whatever thrill there was was gone. The people were pleasant and efficient, though, and the thing was obviously prepared with a level of care. WIGB? Not likely, especially after I realized I could have had a full buffet with lots of vegetables for a couple of dollars more just up the avenue.

New York minutes/Mid-April 2009

April 2009

The really good: Fatty Crab uptown on second try, where my consort and I snagged seats at the bar away from the din and where we scored with food, service and lagniappe. It was a choice between a crappy table right inside the door or a 20-minute wait, so we settled for the latter and stayed put once we saw what people around us were eating. The bartender was patient and solicitous, too, pouring glasses of Grüner to try before filling them and doing a serious selling job on the special chicken-and-oyster banh mi, endorsed by the guy to my right. I had gone in wanting only wine but agreed to the green mango salad to go with the Fatty Dog Bob ordered; we were halfway through it when the touted banh mi landed. The bartender admitted he had gotten so distracted selling it that he had put it through as an order, so he said we should take it for free while he got the right dish. And it was all he said it would be, as was the dog, actually XO-flavored sausage in a soft bun. Best news: The mango salad is back in proper proportion. WIGB? Absolutely; the kitchen has hit its stride. 2170 Broadway near 77th Street, 212 496 2722.

The pretty bad: Cabrito, where we settled after schlepping around the West Village after the Greenmarket, finding the new Vietnamese place in Time Out a long way from open and the menu at Centro Vinoteca a little unpromising. I should have known not to enter any restaurant with exactly two customers at prime brunchtime, and we paid more than the $12 price of the entrees: The arepa “biscuits” under the fried eggs and chorizo gravy on my plate were sawdusty-dry and too thick by half; if the eggs had not been cooked so hard oozy yolks might have helped, and I hate oozy yolks. Worse, the “gravy” separated out into fat and chunks, to the point that it will be a while before I brave chorizo again. Bob shelled out $7 extra for goat, and it was certainly better than my food, big chunks of the meat with three fresh tortillas, chopped onions, cilantro, salsa borracha and crema. Guacamole was not bad, either. But both of us nearly fell asleep on the subway home, and both of us needed naps before heading out to a dinner party. Does goat have tryptophan? WIGB? Nope. Second time was the turnoff.

The promising: Dhaba in Curry Hill, where I stopped for fortification before getting all but thrown out of a shop for taking out a notebook and pen. The buffet lunch is $9.95, and if it was not Chola-level it was redeemed by the naan, far superior to what I have had anywhere else in town. I prefer veg over non-veg and was happy enough with the potatoes, spinach, peas and dal on offer, but people who eat lamb and chicken would do better here. Two tandoori drumsticks arrived with a little plate of limp fried potatoes and other vegetables as an appetizer, and they were actually pretty good. The carrot dessert was also surprisingly satisfying, and I have no sweet tooth. I missed the raita and the mango pickle. Service qualified as discombobulated at best, but WIGB? For sure, for lunch. 108 Lexington Avenue near 28th Street, 212 679 1284.

The gruesome: Nha Trang One, where I stupidly wasted my one jury-duty lunch thanks to a notebook jotting about it being a favorite of an admirable chef and where the F&W tout posted in the window should have been a warning. I studied both lunch and dinner menus for a long time, realizing as I slowly turned the pages that I knew way too little to be even trying to navigate the cryptic descriptions, before randomly pointing at something in the beef section starred as spicy. Five seconds later a mound of gray meat and white rice with big nasty hunks of onion arrived, and it was so profoundly disappointing I called the waiter over to ask for spring rolls — grease absolves many sins. But these, which arrived in all of 10 seconds, were even nastier, more wrapper than filling with no discernible flavor. The people were nice, and the bathroom was wild (black fixtures), and the $4 wine was a big gobletful. But WIGB? Not a Chinatown chance in hell.