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.