My consort and I went back and forth on whether Mermaid’s pizza expansion would be a regular WIGB. On the minus side, the space is just as loud, maybe more deafening, than the original. On the plus side, the service is just as great. OTMS, did the neighborhood really need just-okay pizza? OTPS, the befores are just as good as next door, particularly the bruschetta heaped with zucchini, super-creamy ricotta and pine nuts (the kale salad at least did not promise more than it delivered, as in cavolo nero leaves). The pizza, however, is fine for the neighborhood although I would not recommend traveling to try it. Ours was (sloppily, as in sloped onto one side) topped with fennel sausage, onions and mozzarella, and the crust was the sort that makes you leave bones behind. (Surviving slice was actually better reheated next day.) Back to OTPS, the wine comes by the quartino, fairly priced, and the free dessert is now “panna cotta” rather than chocolate mousse.
Archive for the ‘wine’ Category
Pizza Beach on the Upper East Side has many attractions: a cool setting with oversized color sand-and-water photos on the walls; a jazzy menu; unusually melanin-rich front-of-the-house representation. But I think we liked it best for the birth-control ad down the banquette. We got there crazy-early on a Sunday evening for reasons too depressing to discuss, and we walked in realizing it would all be kiddles. But the hostess seated us at a boothette in the back and things were fine till one of those unhappy rich families who are all alike walked in. It was not as bad as babbies on a plane, but it was annoying when the 2-something went ballistic. Luckily, they moved on soon. And our shared Tuscan kale salad turned out to be outstanding, with the julienned leaves interspersed with pickled red onions and grana padano in a mustard-seed vinaigrette. And while the crust on our pizza did make you want to leave the bones behind (more Piadina than Marta), the topping was sensational, with thick cheese, a generous paving of peppery “salumi” slices and a lavish sprinkling of microgreens to give the illusion of vegetables. The wine list was impressive as well, with 40 wines for $40 and a fair number of those available by the glass for $10 (Falanghina for me, Nero d’Avola and Barbera for Bob). WIGB? Absolutely. Although I have to take points off for the hostess denying us a four-top in the window because she was holding it for a bigger party. We walked past it on the way out to see it sitting just as we had on the way in: Empty.
And now I’m repeating myself: Once upon a time we would have been thrilled to find ourselves just a block or so away from Roberta’s at lunchtime when we could probably have walked right in. But now that you can pass a pizza oven by that name anywhere in Manhattan, the exotic allure dims a bit. Which is how we would up going back to Northeast Kingdom on our outing to “East Williamsburg” aka Bushwick to drop off a chair to be reupholstered. Nothing else in the neighborhood seemed inspired, and we knew this would be good. From the super-peppery bloody mary to the smooth coffee the place delivered, yet again. Bob’s fried chicken sandwich, with a crunchy crust and juicy meat set off against shredded cabbage, probably outdid my burger, which, for all its gilding with mushroom duxelles and caramelized onion, was just okay beef slightly overcharred. The fries with it were fine, though, and Bob’s greens were perfectly dressed. The waitress was superb, and our booth came with a sidewalk view of the exotic street.
That night we had a flawless meal, yet again, at Baker & Co. in the West Village, where we met a friend in from Veneto who wanted to eat light. It was a Monday, so the place was quiet and empty, which was perfect for talking even in the glassed-in garden. As always, the ricotta-garlic spread for the bread started the dinner right. My salad was a marvel of flavors and textures, with tender kale and a showering of ricotta salata over roasted delicata squash rings, with toasted almonds and tahini in the dressing. Bob and Diego had the roast chicken with truffle-garlic fries, as great as it’s always been. And Diego was impressed by the Italian red. The occupant of the fourth chair, in from the Outer Banks, had a pizzetta and a beer and seemed satisfied as well. Beyond the food and service, it’s such a perfect spot pricewise.
And here some notes from various receipts on my cluttered desk: BEA in Hell’s Kitchen proved to be the perfect place for a good 18 people to gather for a drink after a showing of the very moving “Overburden” at CUNY — our reserved area was quiet enough for talking, the servers were superb at running separate checks and the wine was both decent and affordable. Wisely, we did not order any food. Elizabeth’s, the neighborhood standby we keep swearing off, sucked us back in on a sidewalk-cafe evening over the summer; the white was fine and my Cobb salad what it always is. But Bob was loving his lamb burger until he found a sheet of paper in the middle of it. I guess it was the liner between patties, but it was gross. They took the $18 charge off the bill, but still. And I shouldn’t have wasted 10 months waiting to write about the Empire Diner, because the Buffalo skate wings were pretty great the night we lucked into a table. But now they are no longer on the menu since the chef left. It was a “WIGB? Nope” anyway.
WIGB to Baker & co in the West Village? Already have. Twice. A few weeks (or was it years, in Lost Internet Time?) a friend treated me to Buster Poindexter midday in the Greene Space for my birthday, after which we set out in sloppy snow to find wine and snacks, heading at my suggestion to Murray’s overpriced cheese bar. Which was closed. And it was sloppily snowing. We both noticed a rustic sign directly across the street and walked into a wonderland. Not only was the place serving at that odd hour. Everyone seemed seriously happy to see us, the food (mostly pizzette for us) was both affordable and nicely done and the table felt hearthside even without smoke smoking up our coats and scarves. So when three friends plus my consort wanted to connect after the punch-to-the-head-awesome “About Elly” at Film Forum, I thought I knew just the place. Turned out two of those friends knew it even better — it’s a sibling of the Aurora across the water that they love.
We landed in happy-hour time for $5 house wine at the bar, which came with a show: The cleverly designed place felt like a stop for those grim “Sex & the City” tours, but you can squeeze past the rib cages with watermelon-busting augmented breasts and the stilettos to get to the glassed-in cafe in the very back. We split one appetizer, a fabulous pizzetta heaped with house-made sausage plus broccoli rabe and smoked scarmorza. The excellent house bread came with very creamy ricotta drizzled with olive oil and olives. And every one of our entrées was happy-making, especially my $16 lasagne, easily the best since I last made that assemblage at home for a story after 9/11. The Cat was as pleased as my consort and our friend to his right with the roasted half-chicken stuffed with mascarpone and teamed with fries, the potatoes nearly swamped with truffle oil and garlic chips. I only snared tiny tastes of the orecchiette with shrimp and the gnocchi with mushrooms and asparagus but would go back for either. Nothing was more than $24, and that was the generous chicken. The server’s dessert recommendation of caramel budino also played out right — when sugar is sweet, five spoons can dredge through it happily. Wines were good, too. When I clumsily ordered the cheapest white, a grillo for $37, and when it was 86d, the host came over to sell us a fabulous Friulano for the same price.
So it was no surprise I got no resistance from Bob about a week later when we left a waste of time aside from the gin-soaking at Storyscapes at the Tribeca Film Festival and I suggested the short walk back to Bleecker. This time we got a table instantly and were soon sharing crisp and gooey fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with burrata and paired with mixed green salad. We thought we ordered fava beans as well but were served a lavish beet salad with citrus supremes, horseradish yogurt and pistachios (guess it was the gin talking). And we finished with an order of ravioli with smoked eggplant, cherry tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella. All of it was so good we left marveling at the waiter’s revelation that the place gets a largely tourist crowd. I hope those Carrie wannabes realize they are not congregating in a typical Village restaurant. It’s way better than that. Plus it is so close to the movies, both Film Forum and IFC. We settle for worse/pricier so often.
So I roused myself from Twittergy and picked a receipt at random out of the dusty pile on my sit-down desk (many, many more are gathering dust on my improvised stand-up desk). And the memories all came flooding back, with a little help from my consort on what exactly we might have gone to see back in late December with good friends before heading to Jeffrey’s Grocery in the West Village. How in holy Siamese hell could I have forgotten this amazing short? If not for the printed tab, I would also not have remembered much beyond the sticker-price shock when the wine list landed. It was around the bend, but then we soon realized the booze had to be subsidizing the very approachable fud. Bob, assuming the list had to have been carefully curated, followed our long-standing rule of choosing the cheapest bottle, a white Antonopoulus for $38, and it got the job done. We shared outstanding salmon rillettes to start, and we sorta passed around plates of roasted dourade, roasted chicken and a chicken leg special although I didn’t want to share my $23 clever “fish and chips,” built on my favorite, blowfish, and paired with dill pickle aioli plus doughnut holes and maple malt vinegar. WIGB? That wine list is pretty daunting, but the location so close to IFC is pretty alluring. And the din was not deafening.
Most recently, we had another amazingly consistent experience at Luke’s Lobster on Amsterdam and another too-overloaded-to-finish $9-molletes experience as an excuse to indulge in a jalapeño margarita at Barrio Chino on the Lower East Side (with dainty but also great sopesitos: thick corn tortillas topped with cactus and chorizo plus black beans, queso fresco and crema, plus the bonus of watching an apartment bound dog in a tenement window across the street). But our big outing was to City Winery in Tribeca, to hear Richard Shindell and let Bob experience a place where I had a respectable lunch alone years ago after an interview for Edible Manhattan. The food was actually as good as you would get in a restaurant without the dessert of favorite songs. We started with a kale Caesar that the otherwise superb waiter first threatened would come with escarole, which we declined, then with Romaine but arrived as . . . cavolo nero (plus boquerones and celery root). Then we split a flatbread topped with pancetta, roasted garlic, smoked garlic, rosemary and Aleppo pepper that was also about six decades beyond the crap the Bottom Line used to crank out. We both drank tap wines (Rousanne-Marsanne from California for me), and both the quality and the non-gougey prices were also a long way from dirty dives with great music. WIGB? We’re checking the calendar for the next excuse. Musically and foodwise, the whole experience was exceptional.
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.
The pretty good, Chinese division: Hunan Manor in Midtown, where my consort and I wound up after a liquid opening at ICP when his first choice had a 30-minute wait. The place has the sad bare-bones look of so many Manhattan Chinese joints, but we were encouraged to see only ethnically appropriate faces at other tables as we were profusely welcomed. It probably wasn’t fair to order what we love in Flushing, but we did. And the tea-smoked duck might actually be superior; as we ate it, it tasted almost steamed, but next day it was grease-free and intensely smoky. Hunan-style stir-fried mustard leaf is better at the cousins’ place (thinner garlic slices, defter cooking), but not by much. Cold bean curd, Hunan style, was heavier, though, and while Bob is a total pan-fried pork dumpling junkie, even he agreed these were clunky. WIGB? Of course. It’s an hour closer, with treatment just as nice. 339 Lexington Avenue near 39th Street, 212 682 2883.
The pretty good, Thai division: Pure Thai Shophouse in Hell’s Kitchen, where a friend and I headed after being thwarted first by the bedlam at Toloache and then by the peculiar bar food menu at the otherwise perfect Xai Xai, and where the staff was just patient enough with two women who wanted mostly to talk while soaking up wine. Wally’s traveled in Thailand and immediately picked up on the crowd (authentic) and the food (smells/looks: authentic). We just split three appetizers, all above average: vegetable spring rolls, fat steamed vegetable dumplings and crispy fried tofu with peanut sauce. With two glasses each, it was $31 each with tip. WIGB? No question. 766 Ninth Avenue near 52d Street, 212 581 0999.
The pretty good, aside from the understaffing: Jacob’s Pickles on the Upper West Side, where we met a couple of friends on the early side and where we could only wonder why we had put off trying the place for so long. The food was shockingly accomplished for the neighborhood. I think I scored with excellent house-made sausage with leeks that came with respectable fries, good mustard and a great ketchup alternative (along with pointless braised cabbage), for all of $15. The running-hard waitress screwed up two orders, so gracious Bob took the Caesar with fried chicken no one had asked for and Len got his biscuit with fried chicken smothered in mushroom gravy plus grits; both were superb. I don’t think you go there for spinach salad, but Diane’s came with Niman Ranch bacon, blue cheese and mushrooms. We shared a couple of bottles of the rosé on tap, too. The mystery is why a restaurant that puts so much thought and energy into the menu, the sourcing and the drinks program skimps on staffing. WIGB? Looking forward to it but hoping they hire some waiters and runners in the meantime. Jeebus. 509 Amsterdam Avenue near 84th Street, 212 470 5566.
The seriously good again: Momofuku Ssam in the East Village, where my consort and I met another food-obsessed couple via the Twitter for a Sunday lunch that was even more invigorating than my two previous weekday indulgences. We were there before the door opened at 11:30 so of course got a nice table (and, I learned later, a waiter who Tweets, too). The four of us shared everything, which meant I tasted excellent sweetbreads I normally would spurn (prep them once or twice and you will, too) and the spicy sausage and rice-cake dish, as well as lively pickled vegetables and a pear sorbet brilliantly accessorized with pumpkin, cornflakes and blue cheese. All the duck — rotisserie, dumplings, pulled sandwich — was of course perfect. The only letdown was apple kimchi with bacon and maple labne, which amounted to ingredients talking past each other. WIGB? Can’t wait. 207 Second Avenue at 13th Street, 212 212 254 3500. (BTW: We all went down the avenue afterward to Vandaag for the exceptional coffee in that rigorously designed room; the cappuccino was one of the best I’ve ever had on this continent.)
The transporting: Il Buco Alimentari in Nebulousnabe, where we fortified ourselves with Saturday lunch before a time trip through the amazing Merchant’s House Museum nearby and where the history was nearly as palpable (wood from the way-back machine). Seeing a whole porchetta on the rotisserie in the theatrical open kitchen made the panino irresistible, and it was a juicy/crunchy/tender marvel on just the right bun; pickled vegetables on the side only made it seem more of a deal at $16 (Porchetta’s is of course sublime and much cheaper but without the creature comforts). We shared the $14 insalata di cicoria despite my resistance to Scalia anchovies for their name alone, and it turned out to be one of the rare enjoyable bitter salads, with almost sweet Treviso radicchio tossed in and crunchy fine bread crumbs over the top. And $14 grilled sausage over Umbrian lentils had real nuance; fried sage leaves and sweet onions were grace notes. As the server warned, the coffee needs work; even with way more than a cloud on the macchiato it was bitter. (We stopped by Colombe later just to compare and now suspect, though, that taste is not what’s cutting into business; it’s probably more the scene.) The market in the front is quite nice, too, although we managed to get out without buying anything. WIGB? Absolutely, at least for serene lunch. I’d guess it might get loud at dinner, with all those hard surfaces. 53 Great Jones Street, 212 212 837 2622.
The satisfying, again: La Mangeoire in Midtown East, where we landed after being warned of a 45-minute wait at the Smith after an opening of New York in Color with a friend’s work at the Howard Greenberg Gallery on 57th Street. The $38 white from the Languedoc matched well with both Bob’s intense coq au vin with mushroom-bacon sauce and my pork roast (first time I’ve ever ordered that, and my reward was super-tender thanks to the server actually asking what temperature I wanted). And the anchoiade, olives and oil with the bread basket were just gravy. I’ll admit it was a little sad to see Christian Delouvrier and think back on Ruth’s bedazzled review in his $30 soup days, but his cooking has lost only the flash and price tag, not the style and substance. WIGB? We may never make it to the Smith. Add in no din and the option of downsized main courses and it’s definitely worth the journey. 1008 Second Avenue near 53d Street, 212 759 7086.
The over-the-top: RedFarm in the West Village, where we left my name and of course got a perfect little table and no end of comped food from gregarious Eddie Schoenfeld; we only had to wait as long as it took to pick out three new salts at the Meadow down the street. Thank allah we kept a receipt, because it really was more dishes than any cranial sieve could retain (he at least did the smart thing and said: “Take a taste and take it home”). We chose good shu mai shooters (two for $7.50), huge and slightly overwrought crab and duck dumplings (four for $12), exquisite vegetable and chive steamed dumplings (four for $8), noodles with both Dungeness and rock crab ($27) and sublime okra and eggplant yellow curry ($17 and enough to keep me from succumbing to mediocre Thai again for a long, long time — this had at least six kinds of vegetables in addition to the excellent stars, and the sauce was all nuanced flavor). Forced upon us were killer soup dumplings with truffles; strange but irresistible eggplant “bruschetta” topped with smoked salmon and caviar; mushroom spring rolls; amazing barbecued Berkshire pork belly; the $39 like-buttah Creekstone prime rib steak with the best baby bok choy I’ve ever stuck an implement into, and two desserts: chocolate pudding and a “fruit plate.” The kittybag was damned heavy on the way back to the C train, and we ate from it for three days. We also shared a $32 bottle and two $16 glasses of an ideal wine for Joe Ng’s style of cooking, S.A. Prum “Blue” Mosel riesling (Joshua Wesson did the list). WIGB? Can’t wait, although I may sneak in with a bag over my head. But that might mean missing out on Eddie’s entertaining tales. 529 Hudson Street, 212 792 9700.
The “good luck to them”: Left Bank in the far West Village, where we met one of our favorite people, in from Veneto, for a great long, long Sunday dinner. We reserved at 6:30 to try out the “happy hour,” which sounded so much more respectable than “early bird,” but were only able to take advantage of the half-price, half-assed Aperol spritz ($6) because Diego didn’t get there by 7 for the three courses for $20. Dinner was still a steal: I had outstanding potato gnocchi with pumpkin, black pepper and pecorino, almost like spaetzle, for $17; the guys both had the superb juicy-crisp roast half-chicken with capers, cornichons and dill for $21. (Usual sneakiness: Sides are sold separately.) We also shared a pretty great rendition of brandade with warm toast and olives for $10 and a lively bottle of grillo from Diego’s second home of Sicily for $36. Service and the room were both fine, too. (Even though we got the worst table in the house, right under the speaker with nothing but #RIPWhitney — by the end of the night I was starting to realize why she needed drugs.) WIGB? No question, if it lasts. I know we’ve eaten there before . . . 117 Perry Street at Greenwich, 212 727 1170.
The dispiriting despite the design: Cafe Centro in Hell’s Kitchen, where we ducked in just for cheap sustenance at a sunlit table on our way to the must-see Loving and Weegee shows at ICP. Warm, salty chips and decent salsa were too easy to fill up on, which was lucky because the rice and beans with my lukewarm cheese enchiladas merited no more than one bite each. Bob ordered tacos with carnitas cooked in Coke and we were both glad he had resisted the mahi ones; these were overfilled and hyper-sweet, but things coulda been worse. WIGB? Why do restaurants get better on Ninth as you head south?
The good I: Tre Otto on the Upper East Side, where, for proximity’s sake, we trotted on an unusually frigid night after the awesome Maurizo Cattelan at the Guggenheim and where it was hard to find fault with much in the warmth. We passed on a table in the enclosed garden and braved the dining room for the first time, but luckily it was mostly empty so we could spread out and tuck into fine polenta and mushrooms heavy on the truffle oil, plus penne with sausage and peas in cream. Both the olive oil with the two kinds of bread and the $8 whites by the glass had character. And the staff, from hostess to busboy, actually seemed to have the hospitality gene. WIGB? Anytime. 1408 Madison Avenue near 97th Street, 212 860 8880.
The good II: Gajumaru, also on the Upper East Side, where we were lucky enough to be both treated by friends and guided through the menu, because what I don’t know about Japanese would fill half of Tokyo — I think I’ve eaten the non-sushi version three times in 30 years here. So the fresh tofu was just as they promised (if not quite on the level of freshly made at Morimoto) and the steamed char siu dumplings with crab just as satisfying. Pork cutlet seemed a bit dry, and I made a mess of the tempura by combining the brodo with the rice. But tons o’ sake also helped. WIGB? With friends, of course. Because I think Japanese is, like Indian or Chinese, best experienced at its origin. And that doesn’t mean on a layover at Narita on the way to Hong Kong. 1659 First Avenue near 86th Street, 212 348 2878.
The good III: Settepani in Harlem, again, where we met three other couples for Saturday dinner that would have been deafening misery almost anywhere else and where the cooking, service, setting and prices vanquished my fears over luring mostly out-of-towners to what could be taken for a location/location destination. It is a 20-minute walk for us, which was “schlepping to Harlem” for everyone else, but it really was the most enjoyable evening in a crazy crowd in a long time — we could hear each other snark, share each other’s food. I think I scored best with the mushroom lasagne, which this time was heavier on the filling and needed no kittybagging and reheating to become sensational. My consort’s osso buco could have been more collapsing-off-the-bone tender, but the flavor and accompanying polenta put it up in Milanese territory. I am not a sardine aficionada but was happy to see the friend who never orders an entree tucking happily into the pasta with it, and I didn’t need to try her husband’s “Montreal ragu” over couscous because he also was tucking in happily to the goose, veal etc. sauce. We all split good fried calamari, too-sweet/under-fried zucca and excellent leek-and-artichoke bruschetti to start and panna cotta for dessert. Plus the puff pastry sticks with pesto served at the bar were outstanding. And the wine prices were so amazing (a good Arneis at 100 percent markup rather than 500 percent) we kept ordering more, and, again, the staff let us sit there for hours as if we were in a private dining room. WIGB? No doubt. And not even in a mob. 196 Lenox Avenue at 122d Street, 917 492 4806.
The pretty bad: Wong in the West Village, where we stumbled in on spotting it on our way to Pearl (after a free screening of the underwhelming “It’s About You” at IFC) and where we stumbled out to next-day queasiness after a long night at the chef’s counter watching inexperienced cooks muck up almost all the few things we ate — it was like being back in restaurant school in 1983 when tentativeness ruled. And maybe we’d eaten too recently at Momofuku Ssam (although not that same day), but the contrast between the two was literally painful. Maybe there’s a reason one lists the provenance of its duck on the menu? Those birds rank among my top two favorite proteins, but I had to force myself to eat more of the duck bun with its insipid, soupy meat in the fried dough (Iowa State Fair on Cornelia Street). And we waited so long for the special duck meatball that I took only a tiny bite and Bob ate only one or two, but it will be a long time before he looks at a meatball of any protein persuasion. Something was off. We also shared a good if weird salad that tasted like a shopping list on a plate (dinnerware, BTW, is also a problem, with so much futziness and weird shapes). The house bread is a brilliant concept clumsily executed: naan-like with curry sauce, but the former was doughy and the latter silly with mint leaves served separately to be torn into it. Service was competent at least. But WIGB? I won’t quite give it negative two stars and still . . . not on a bet. It’s the kind of trying-too-hard restaurant a third-tier town would be thrilled to have.
The sensational: Hunan House in Flushing, where my consort and I trekked on a cold Saturday as a diversion from our usual Greenmarket/cheap Thai routine and where the whole experience was easily the most satisfying ever in a Chinese restaurant in New York. I did my homework online, looking for a sit-down lunch rather than food court craziness (see below), and once I hit “smoked duck” in the Robert Sietsema review my Metro card was out. The place looks pretty bare-bones but was super-clean, with tables well spaced, and the host and waiters were excellent, with none of the usual impatience and/or condescension, even when it was clear we were ordering the Village Voice specials, right out of the review. (I normally hate people who do that, but as China traveler Bob said, “Why take a chance, since we don’t know the food?”) So we started with the cold tofu, silky and jiggling-fresh with just the lightest drizzle of sesame oil and sprinkling of chopped scallions. And then the braised pork belly, Mao-style, super-tender chunks in a surprisingly sophisticated sauce with greens and julienned scallions. Water spinach, it turns out, is not in season, so we subbed the spicy cabbage with fermented soybeans, also in a good light, greaseless sauce and just hot enough with red chilies. And then the reason for coming arrived, as sensational as billed, tasting close to the smoked duck a friend once brought back from Goode’s in Houston. The smokiness almost vibrated through the anything-but-geriatric meat. It was way too much food for $44 before the tip, so we had a superb dinner and then lunch the next day, as did The Cat. One other nice touch: a little bowl of soybeans with a hint of star anise arrives with the pot of tea, to nibble on while you study the huge menu. I thought we were stuffed, but somehow we managed to eat two warm, as-good-as-Hong Kong egg custard tarts at the nearby Taipei Bakery after a stock-up swing through the supermarket in between. WIGB? Absolutely. But first there are so many other places to try in that neighborhood. 137-40 Northern Boulevard, Flushing, Queens. 718 353 1808.
The half-good: Joe Allen in the Theater District, where I met a friend who needed solace by mouth after her father died and where the cheeseburger definitely delivered. It wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it was cooked perfectly (against my medium wishes) and was teamed with the right amount of respectable fries. Plus it was only $14.50, less than Cafe Loup’s, which she’d suggested but I couldn’t face. A bottle of Cline viognier was $27, a much better deal than the $12.50 “quartino” of sauvignon blanc at the bar, and of course the room is quintessential New York. So what was the half-bad? I know it was after the theater rush, but the bartender and two waitresses who tended to us exhibited the worst “I’ve had it” I’ve encountered in a while. When we asked Server A about the viognier, worried it might be too fruity, she sent over a not-happy Server B who described it well if impatiently, then returned, uncorked it, offered a taste and plunked the bottle down, saying, “We’re very casual. You can pour.” We saw her again only to pay the check. With exactly double the tax as tip. WIGB? Sure, for the half-good reasons, plus it’s so easy to get to on an icy night. 326 West 46th Street, 212 581 6464.
The one-step-up-from JFK: Two of the restaurants at Eataly, where I indulged a friend who wanted to go back after a good lunch in the pizza/pasta corral. We got there early and wandered around awhile feeling overwhelmed, and by the time we decided to sit at the seafood bar for uni my head was throbbing from the jangle in the joint. I was happy to see Arneis by the glass for only $9 but not so happy on seeing what arrived after the waiter ran off to get the last order of uni: one good plump taupe specimen and three reddish shriveled ones, literally the bottom of the barrel, for $17 (Donna at least let the waiter know we were underwhelmed, but it did feel weird to be women complaining about shrunken gonads). The bread and olive oil were both worth the calories, though. By the time we went back to the pizza/pasta corral, we had to wait, which gave us time to discuss how cheesy a wall of crap Barilla looks, so by the time we got seats at that bar we felt as if we were eating in a duty-free shop. We ordered the cheapest white by the glass, and the waitress suggested a bottle, but I saw the Arneis was the same price: $28. Unfortunately, it was pretty warm once it arrived. Lasagne came almost immediately, maybe too fast — a few more minutes in the oven and it might have hung together more, although it tasted great (it reminded me of a New York-style enchilada, rolled and served without the extra time to bake it into more than tortilla and cheese). And I would have been more impressed with the pizza with salami and basil if I had not recently had the perfection that Pizza a Casa teaches down on the Lower East Side. But I guess it qualified as “just like in Italia/Italy,” as the menu promised, because the center was soggy. WIGB? I will for my consort’s sake, because he’s curious about the experience. I can do without stress for dinner.
The open, at least: Landmarc in the dread TWC, where I hooked up with a friend in from Florence after we found Bouchon Bakery closed at breakfast time. He was paying, so a $12 eggamuffin didn’t seem like a bad deal, and aside from the fact that it had zero taste it was fine (lardons as the bacon at least added texture, and it came with decent hash browns). The cappuccino, though, was as scorched as any I’ve had in this town. On the plus side, they gave us a booth for four by the window, and the service was decent. WIGB? Sure, if someone else is paying when Bouchon Bakery is closed. 212 823 6123.