The good: The Smith on the Upper West Side, where my consort had the good sense to walk over and reserve a quiet table before the execrable “Tabu” and where our rewards included a great little cone of relative silence (A K A booth) and over-the-top service along with surprisingly satisfying food. The wine list seems priced for the same crowd who would go for the potpie/mac-and-cheese/nursery puddings, meaning those who live around the corner in a crazy-pricey apartment house, but we culled a “big-ass” (liter) carafe of Valpolicella for all of $48. We shared seared shishito peppers that turned out to be mild but not tame, as well as a respectable flatbread with ricotta, artichokes, olives and (mostly) onions. I didn’t taste the Bugses’ pork chop and chicken potpie, but Bob’s “brick-pressed” chicken was perfectly tender and juicy under its mountain of good mashed potatoes. And my $19 ricotta gnocchi in “truffle cream” had none of the usual gumminess and came in a portion large enough not just to share tastes but also to kittybag for lunch next day. I was underwhelmed by the silly s’mores-in-a-jar dessert, but I was in the minority of one. WIGB? Absolutely. The space is knockoff McNally, which the UWS could use more of, and the staff from the kitchen on out acted beyond happy to serve us.
The really good: Maysville in a yet-to-be-Realtor-branded neighborhood, where Bob and I shared an ideal birthday dinner. I picked it over Boulud Sud because it was newish and the small, focused online menu exuded energy, maybe because everything is geared toward the house booze: bourbon (I read that the same owner has Char No. 9 in Brooklyn). We were stunned on walking in and being led to the perfect table at a corner banquette, and things just kept getting better. The waiter was professionally hip, or hiply professional, and the food was outstanding. We shared a sublime poached egg over grits with duck confit, mushrooms and a smoky broth, then I had the how-can-you-go-wrong flounder teamed with grilled baby calamari, salsify, sunchokes and smoked ham, which was more of a dish than the shopping list it sounds like. Bob was equally happy with his crispy chicken leg and chicken roulade with potatoes and mushrooms. WIGB? Anytime. It’s really an upscale bar, but it reflects how important food for booze has become. Extra points for offering good wines, fairly priced.
The pretty bad: El Mitote on Columbus Avenue, where I stupidly steered Bob and four friends on a night too cold to venture much farther in search of something new after the very powerful “Five Broken Cameras” (all of us having forgotten Cafe Tallulah had opened). We were all so happy it wasn’t deafening that we were fine with a table in the back, right next to the toilet where the door would be opened and left open repeatedly all through our stay. And the menu looked to have something for everyone, starting with margaritas, beer, white wine (chardonnay, unfortunately, and shitty chardonnay at that). I didn’t try the tacos, but what I ordered put me off Mexican for about a week, and I had always thought I could eat Mexican every day. This was on the menu under “Tortas Ahogadas Tapatias — Guadalajara Style Torta ‘Drowned’ in Hot Tomato Broth With Crema, Onion and Shredded Lettuce, wild mushrooms & fresco cheese.” It was on the plate as a crap roll lined with button mushrooms and what appeared to be sliced processed cheese, and the broth was like canned, diluted tomatoes. At a time when you can get amazing Mexican if you know how to order in the average deli, this was like your average deli staffed by Albanians. Worse, that sauce, like the relatively decent flan we shared, was served in a plastic takeout container. Because, the waiter volunteered, they have no dishwasher. I don’t even want to think about how they disinfect the good wineglasses and bad Mason jars in which the weak margaritas were served. . .
The much improved: Casa Pomona on the Upper West Side, where Bob and I scurried after a friend’s photo opening of MLK murals at the New-York Historical Society on a night when it was just too brutally cold to think farther afield. The hostess/owner(?) was effusive in welcoming us into the empty restaurant and showing us to a great table in the back room, which led to some serious over-ordering. The H/O, when we asked about happy hour at that time-appropriate hour, said drink prices could only be reduced if we sat at the bar, but she offered us the bar menu for food: three tapas for $15 (I think). So we had chorizo-cheese croquetas that were almost too intense, albondigas stuffed with oxtail that were even richer and wonderfully light spaghetti squash topped with piperrada, pine nuts and golden currants that restored my faith in that fruity vegetable. And that was after we tried the perfectly executed coca of the day, topped with onion, rosemary and bacon. WIGB? We almost did just a few days later for the combination of flavor, quiet and hospitality.