New York minutes/Latish November 2007

The sublime: Chola, where I wedged my way in for an early lunch and where the new-to-me hostess immediately led me to the only open table, even though it was a four-top. The buffet seemed even more generous, with several excellent regional choices and a couple more chutneys than I had never seen before, but the usual three appetizers also arrived eventually. The place was swamped, with sit-down diners and stand-ups queuing with foil trays for takeout. But even surrounded by chaos, with waiters buzzing past, tucking into an overloaded plate there with just-baked bread was still like being transported to one of the best food countries on earth. 232 East 58th Street between Second and Third, 212 688 4619.

The ridiculous: Zocalo in Grand Central, where I resorted at an odd hour in an off neighborhood and could easily understand why so many people sitting at the other tables and lumbering past were so huge. I ordered the fish tacos and was presented with two very thin corn tortillas topped with four slabs of battered cod, each the size of a Taco Bell burrito, plus a honkin’ heap of slaw. There was no way to eat them right; each was enough food for a small village. They came with decent beans and rice I didn’t touch, preceded by a big bowl of weird-texture chips and bland salsa. I can never forget the cockroach big enough to saddle I once saw strutting through that area, though, and freaked when something (I know not what) hit my head shortly after I left the table. WIGB? I’m a slow learner, but. . . .

The halt: Toloache, where I met a friend for lunch and where the same waitress, same oven mistress, same menu etc. were all in play as on my last visit a week earlier but where almost everything was perceptibly less than perfect. The wineglass was slightly crusty, the rice was just slopped onto the plate, the black beans were whole rather than mashed. The huitlacoche quesadilla was still good, though, and the shrimp tacos were daintily superb. The waitress gets points for remembering me; it’s just too bad the kitchen didn’t remember how to get it absolutely right without the owner around. WIGB? Probably. When it’s on, it’s on. 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.

The lame: Mermaid Inn, where I met a downtown friend now from the neighborhood who felt as compelled as I did to try a new addition. We got there around 6, when the nice-looking room was pretty empty and very quiet, and left around 7:30 with our hands over our ears after the music had been cranked up to wake-the-dead volume. The fried calamari in the appetizer we shared was cut fat but quite tender and had a nice sauce, then she just had a fish soup that was topped with a huge slab of bread while I did my best with the thickly sauced salt cod cake on frisee. Two bites of either and the exploration was done. The freebie dessert also seems to have suffered in the move; that little chocolate pudding was as rigid as a breast implant. WIGB? Inevitably, given that it is close by, affordable (including the $37 bottle of Naia verdejo) and is still better than so much around it. But never late. 568 Amsterdam Avenue near 88th Street, 212 799 7400.

The charming: Perbacco, where friends in from Chicago treated me on a birthday and where the friends-of-the-house service, cozy room, unusual menu and warm mood more than compensated for slightly slimy gnocchi with sausage. I tasted a couple of the shared appetizers, though, and both were excellent — polenta with Fontina and truffles, and a spinach-Parmesan pie — as was the lasagne with impossibly thin layers, although the friend who ordered it thought it was dry. We had prosecco to start, and I finally got a chance to try grecchetto, a wine I had been tempted by for a story in Italy last summer. WIGB? Maybe, although, even if you are not paying, cash only is a drag in that neighborhood. 234 East Fourth Street between Avenues A and B; 212 253 2038.