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.