One bottle of Barbaresco for the price of three

So one night we all really don’t want to go out for dinner but I feel too guilty about ramming pasta down our throats, so we three go out for dinner thinking at least it’ll be at a sidewalk cafe and at least it’ll be a chance to check out a place we’ve never been. An hour and $$$ later, we’re trudging back home wondering if a flashy restaurant that is mostly empty is actually a front for the types of people who laundered money from Russian catering halls. And why are three profoundly mediocre “Italian” restaurants each only one avenue apart?

No tattoos, for a reason

I always joke that I recognize more names lately in the paid death notices than in the socially vetted wedding announcements. One reason I scour them is to keep up as food legends fade away. The latest was our old neighborhood butcher, who was a real character who did things right back in the competitive days when every neighborhood had at least one butcher. His shop over on Broadway was very Old World, with gleaming tile and a sawdusted floor, and he was always behind the counter, wearing a bolo tie that looked doubly incongruous as soon as he started barking. The great Irene Sax summed him and his business up well in her still-invaluable “Cook’s Marketplace” in 1984: “Yes, he has prime beef, pale veal, game, does 50 percent of his business over the phone. But you don’t have to be rich to shop at his market. Specials are always posted, and his butchers are glad to sell an elderly woman a piece of Romanian tenderloin or some lamb breast. That’s why, Oppenheimer boasts, his shop is busy all summer, when other butchers go hungry because their customers are in Maine and the South of France.”

As his family said in paying to memorialize him, he was a butcher to the stars as well as to us earthbound cooks. Maybe if he had played bass on a one-hit wonder back in 1968 he would have merited a real obit.

Our most memorable encounter came the day after one Thanksgiving, when we went back to bitch that our “fresh” turkey had freezer burn. He just said, with his German brusqueness: “Take anything you want. I know you’re not trying to put one over on me.” He bought an awful lot of goodwill with a few veal cutlets. And don’t get me started on the butcher farther south who once sold us a turkey with a tumor and pretty much told us where to stuff it . . . .

‘wichcraft and the world not ending

I broke away from the Twitter the day I noticed on my old-style calendar that the NY Lunch exhibition was closing at the NYPL, and was I ever glad I did. It might not have been on the level of the Prohibition show in Philadelphia, but I learned a lot (and I know a lot). Most salient details: A display of the Automat’s revolving window explained that the slice of pie sitting in the front sent a message that no human had ever touched the food but also separated the cooks from the customers, freeing the company to hire women and minorities to work unseen. School lunches in NYC began more than 100 years ago, and kids whose parents worked through the day were called shutouts and were prey to street vendors. It was only in 1969 that Betty Friedan et al picketed the Oak Room to allow women to be admitted (kidz now rejecting the feminist label were born to moms far after that). The artist who drew the caricatures at Sardi’s did work for food. Women’s magazines a full 70+ years ago were running diet stories headlined “Nice People Don’t Eat.” Power lunch originated as a term to describe the time as much as money — only the little people had to rush through the midday meal. And the saddest thought on reading so many early-NYC menus: Crab used to be as common as calamari.

Buffalo or steak?

Apparently there is so much terrible news about Sandy it can’t all be printed, because I just learned the Bridge Cafe took a huge hit. This is the curse of “location, location” — even when the food was at its best, the most compelling reason to head there was the atmosphere, transporting you back to the 1800s right under the Brooklyn Bridge, right where devastating amounts of water could come slamming in. My consort and I first ate there before the South Street Seaport became a mall, and our reward at lunch was seeing James Beard ensconced in all his immensity alone at a table in a back corner. We were new to New York and unaccustomed to how often legends move among us here. I went back a year or so later to meet Leslie Revsin, who was the chef and had agreed to advise me about the wisdom of then insane-idea of giving up my job at the NYTimes to go off to restaurant school. Now they’re both dead, and so is Pierre Franey, who also agreed to advise me, by phone. I hope the place itself is not next . . .

Kittybags, the Tupperware for 20-somethings

I wasn’t sure which was more depressing. That this steaming pile of Rafalca dung was printed. Or that readers (and some smart bloggers) did not fully grasp how staggeringly stupid it was. Economics experts at least took apart the cretinism related to personal finance (while I wondered how the columnist’s NYT-underwritten 401K evaded the 201K-ing mine underwent in 2008). But there was so much WTF it was hard to process it all. One quotee spends $60 a week at the Greenmarkets and is blown off; the poster girl drops $250 or so a week at scenes like Spice Market and Morimoto, which have about as much to do with “curated” and “exquisite” as cosmos do with barrel-aged cocktails. While the columnist drops the Chanterelle name as if every 20-something could have been dining there on her way to a more fun party (sorry: it was a big-deal dinner for us at twice that age). Also, too, if you remember nothing from a neighborhood bistro, maybe it’s because the fud was forgettable? And that was a better age, how? The most ludicrous angle, though, was the hauling in of the two-grand PR stunt at a restaurant I will lay you cash money kiddles would never enter. Food at least is sustenance. When do we get the column on the financial toll it takes on women who do not in any real sense have the income to afford the hot new haircut?

Bubba Lobster Garden

By comparison, this is the late Seymour Britchky on the unlamented Mamma Leone’s, aiming at the real problem: “The food is decent, the service automatic, the customers contented and unliberated cows with bulls and broods in tow.” “The waiters take the orders because the captains are busy snapping family group photos with the customers’ own Instamatics.” “To satisfy out-of-town people, the overcooked Italian sausage has as much taste as a drugstore hamburger — neither hot nor sweet.” Etc. In short: If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot ’em?

“Mocked, ridiculed and ignored”

If not for the Twitter, I might have totally missed the coffin-nailing of a restaurant every critic in the eons I’ve lived in Manhattan has felt compelled to evaluate. My first reaction as the Tweets started was: Shouldn’t that be a TONY “who goes there?” When, really, was the last time that particular circus came to town in anyone’s cognizance? So I slogged through the dis and was rather stunned that the service is the only thing four-star about it these days. Wonder what could possibly have happened to change the arrogant assholes who tapped their order pads and wondered “did you come to talk or come to eat?” and then upended chairs around us as we finished our big-deal dinner after getting suckered in by my lunch with a big-time editor at which the asshole-in-chief did some serious butt-kissing himself? So I did a little poking around online and was reminded of another young un who was disabused of the notion that the temple of haute cuisine was anything but a private club, and then I turned up a story of how that same temple is now dependent on websites offering discounts. So file this under Dover sole served cold, the incomparable Seymour Britchky in 1990 on the ringleader now reduced to kowtowing to the hoi polloi: “With his slicked-down hair and accidental face, in his surely hand-tailored but too-tight suit, [he] is not aware that, though the moneyed and the powerful are his clientele today, in any reverse revolution, he and they will be separated at the first cut.”

Ponzu scheme or ponzi sauce?

As I was buying a last-minute shirt for Bob on his big day, the charming salesguy made chitchat of the “is this a gift?” sort. Which led to, “Are you having a party?” I said we were going out to dinner, he wondered where, I told him Acme and he’d never heard of it. “What kind of food?” “Sort of Scandinavian, or ‘new Nordic.’” “You mean, like, stroganoff?” “No, it’s like Noma in Copenhagen, with local foods foraged . . . “ “Oh, yeah. I’ve read about that. It’s eating like a caveman, right?”

Luckily, it was not.

Chickens delivered by semi

I keep seeing the union rat in front of food establishments lately and am glad to see some push-back against the race to the bottom, the endless attempts to make workers give up more and more for greedy overlords. If even cashiers have no money after paying for their own insurance and pensions, who is going to buy the groceries? And while I don’t want to jump to judgment on seeing chefs accused in lawsuits of cheating employees, I do keep wondering why the Wage Theft Prevention Act was even needed. Wasn’t that guy at the Last Supper all about “thou shalt not steal”?

“Potatoes the size of a nut”

And this is why the cluelessness matters: Everyone should have such problems, but my consort emailed me from Costa Rica to ask me to reserve somewhere nice for his first night back/my birthday, and it was hell trying to find a place with both exciting food and creature comforts. As taken as I am with the Changization of fine dining, there are times when you want pampering with your pyrotechnics, particularly when you’re reconnecting with someone who’s been in another world for 10 days. We settled on Aldea, and it was the right settling, at the chef’s counter, but it really made me realize how big a revolution is happening on the food front. Redwoods are falling in a shrinking forest. But we can put pickles up ourselves.

Armagnac by the bottle, even

I did insist on Momofuku Ssam for lunch with a friend on my big day, and something else struck me. She and I have been connecting midday for probably 25 years; usually she was the one with the expense account, but I did have my 46 long months with Pinch bucks. When she paid the check on this occasion, and out of her own pocket, she tipped 20 percent on the after-tax tab, which made me realize one more thing that’s been lost in the race to the bottom in publishing. Women have such a terrible reputation as tippers, but today you can point the fingers up the ladder to executives unwilling to pay fees, let alone expenses. Once upon a time, a rising tide really did lift all lunch ships.

Once were salad bars in Korean delis

One of the founders and I go so far back I can remember when Dover sole first came flying into New York thanks to him, but I still have to say I was not surprised to see the oddest upscale food emporium in my neighborhood go belly-up suddenly. All of us who hate Barzini had high hopes for it, and I will never forget spotting the nervous owner of our neighborhood downscale market cruising through on reconnaissance on opening day. But the reality was that the prices and the mustard-museum esthetic kept it from becoming a destination, which is ironic if you go back far enough to the coinage of “mustard museum.” I admire OotF for not whining about the rent going up or blaming brutal competition from either Holy Foods or the coming Westside Market. The place took its lumps of coal and shut down. And jeebus, did it shut down fast. I stopped in on Tuesday for a croissant on my way to the hip gym (and I mean that adjective sardonically) and the shelves looked tidier but by no means under siege. On Friday a hyper-local blog announced everything was 50 percent off, and by the time we walked over around 5 the whole cavernous space looked as if locusts had been through. As my consort said, it was most fascinating to see the left-behinds: Not just obvious Karo and Crisco and Cajun roux in a jar but a huge chunk of the fresh Mexican deli shelf (corn and flour tortillas, Wholly Queso etc. [Can you say Las Palomas?]) The last cheese sitting was halloumi, in a processed form. I was happy to grab Liquid Smoke — what fools West Side mortals be in not realizing what a great, useful, natural ingredient it is. The fish counter had a big sign reading something like “thanks for all the fishes” while a couple of slabs of shrink-wrapped something once-finned were tucked into the case with the unsold broccoli rabe and cucumbers. And that was what was most unsettling. In a big store stripped nearly bare, the fresh food was still languishing . . .