New York minutes/Mid-July 2012

The really good: Lan Sheng in Midtown, where I met up with the best group of adventurous eaters I have ever known and where, as usual, I left the menu-driving to them with great payoff. I cannot overstate how valuable it is having a Caucasian who speaks Chinese at the table; he sat down and picked up the specials card and immediately started choosing so much better than the usual Sichuan #58 and #89. Just the dish of cucumbers dressed in sesame oil and some mysterious greenness as we sat down was impressive, but we went on to succulent bamboo shoots, pungent water spinach with garlic, fresh tofu in the most amazing sauce with chilies, peanuts and Chinese celery, (dried-out) rabbit with almost as much chile as meat, meaty soft-shell crabs on a platter also heaped almost as high in dried chilies as in shellfish, slices of pork belly served Peking duck-style, ribs in “rice powder” (actually almost like spicy paella in little mouthfuls) and the most astonishing dish, mung beans transformed almost Adria-style into cubes of gelatinous-looking/tasting cubes in yet another spicy sauce. Service was on a par with the cooking, too. And the sophistication did get that old discussion going, on why Chinese chefs are never celebrities. I thought it was more that restaurants rather than staffers are stars, but I was countered. (Conclusion: You had to be there.) WIGB? Can’t wait. At $27 a head, it was pricier than Flushing, but it was also so much faster to reach. 60 West 39th Street, 212 575 8899.

The “how could you hear if it was good?”: Tertulia in the West Village, yet again, where I met up with a friend who chose it from my short list because she spent her semester abroad in Madrid. Once we met up we went into that weird state where you’ll put up with any crap since you’re there — we finagled seats at the bar after being told our table was 15 minutes away, then turned down the communal table we were offered after ordering a bottle of rosé and finally, finally were seated at an individual table where conversation felt more frustrating than it must be in a prison with both parties separated by Plexiglas. Did I note that it was fucking loud? At one point I told Wally only those who know sign language should eat there. The food, as I’d promised, was stellar, although the mushrooms on the toasts with ricotta and pine nuts could have been rehydrated to a more supple state, and the $7-for-2 deviled eggs with bacalao could have tasted less made in advance. The fried ham-and-cheese balls were great, especially with the fig sauce underneath, and the special of smoked trout over beans and creaminess almost made us hear straight. WIGB? Not at night, and not for a good long time, if ever. Especially after reading the hometown paper’s exploration of the din in dinner and how noise is designed to drive out us olds. The place was so painful we walked for blocks afterward looking for someplace for a nightcap and rejected I can’t count how many before winding up at Lyon, where the sound was relatively low but I hate to hear what the weaving women at the bar sounded like in their bathroom next day. . . .

The good again: Mermaid Inn on the Upper West Side, where we headed with friends who wanted a “budget” meal after the underwhelming “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Social Media Monday = “starfish” for 20 percent off). As always, the front room was deafening, but we were promised the best waiter on the premises and, as always, he was. He was even great about us being double-cheapskates, ordering mostly apps and the cheapest rosé. I had satisfying fried green tomatoes topped with chunks of crab and laid over super-spicy tartar sauce (or aioli or whatever the term was); I will be trying that at home very soon. My consort ordered the only entree among us, skate with carrots with peas and carrots, and he was happy although I thought the chef should leave the sourcing to Northern Spy. And I tasted the soft-shell crab appetizer if not the grilled calamari but will let our friends’ plate-cleaning be the judge. WIGB? Absolutely. Good food, affordable food, decent wine, affordable wine, good service, great hospitality. Sometimes, who needs quiet?

The deal of deals: Land Thai on the Upper West Side after the so-seductive (and free)  “The Clock” at Lincoln Center, where we headed after trying to try the newish Purple Fig in the old All State Cafe but finding the room dark under the “open for lunch and dinner” sign. For $9 for two courses, it would be hard to find fault, but my spring rolls were perfectly fried and my jungle curry with tofu enough to restore my faith in soybean curd. Every bite made me wonder why we ever ordered from a “Thai” joint a few blocks north that was just slammed down by the Health Department.