Not sure how long I can keep this up, but I’ve surprised my consort on significant birthdays three times now. For the first, I did a decoy duck — told him I was cooking a whole bird Chiu Chow-style (Cantonese with flavor) for just us, let him go jeans-shopping and had friends sneak into our apartment, after which I had dumplings delivered. For the second, fellow graduate students where he was off in Middle Earth coordinated a multimedia extravaganza and all I had to do was orchestrate digital contributions and long-distance-travel invitations and pay for the buffet in a great bar. For the third, I was feeling a bit wan. I gave my own “big” party for myself last time, and it didn’t seem so important. But a friend who is even older than I am prodded me into at least arranging a picnic in Central Park where I would tell him we were meeting a poor, sad friend left home alone on the first weekend in summer but where he would arrive to find a little clot of well-wishers (hard to round up on Memorial Day Sunday). I knew I couldn’t tip him off by making great quantities of food, so we came up with the idea of ordering pizzas. Which you can really do in the park; Bob has always marveled when we see a delivery guy on a bike with boxes heaped high on a Sunday when we’re walking to the Greenmarket down at the natural history museum. It took a bit of sleuthing to find not just a pizzeria that would deliver but one that could deliver pies fit to eat, but I settled on V&T, up by Columbia. And it was so worth it. The expressions on the faces of both the guests and the I-know-I’ll-get-a-great-tip delivery guy were unforgettable (iPhones shot right out). Thanks to the science the wingnuts deny, we were able to have a plain, a mushroom and a pepperoni dropped off at our blankets at 90th and West Drive. We came home with the equivalent of a full pizza, but it froze well. These are the days of miracle and wonder for sure.
Pizza Beach on the Upper East Side has many attractions: a cool setting with oversized color sand-and-water photos on the walls; a jazzy menu; unusually melanin-rich front-of-the-house representation. But I think we liked it best for the birth-control ad down the banquette. We got there crazy-early on a Sunday evening for reasons too depressing to discuss, and we walked in realizing it would all be kiddles. But the hostess seated us at a boothette in the back and things were fine till one of those unhappy rich families who are all alike walked in. It was not as bad as babbies on a plane, but it was annoying when the 2-something went ballistic. Luckily, they moved on soon. And our shared Tuscan kale salad turned out to be outstanding, with the julienned leaves interspersed with pickled red onions and grana padano in a mustard-seed vinaigrette. And while the crust on our pizza did make you want to leave the bones behind (more Piadina than Marta), the topping was sensational, with thick cheese, a generous paving of peppery “salumi” slices and a lavish sprinkling of microgreens to give the illusion of vegetables. The wine list was impressive as well, with 40 wines for $40 and a fair number of those available by the glass for $10 (Falanghina for me, Nero d’Avola and Barbera for Bob). WIGB? Absolutely. Although I have to take points off for the hostess denying us a four-top in the window because she was holding it for a bigger party. We walked past it on the way out to see it sitting just as we had on the way in: Empty.
And now I’m repeating myself: Once upon a time we would have been thrilled to find ourselves just a block or so away from Roberta’s at lunchtime when we could probably have walked right in. But now that you can pass a pizza oven by that name anywhere in Manhattan, the exotic allure dims a bit. Which is how we would up going back to Northeast Kingdom on our outing to “East Williamsburg” aka Bushwick to drop off a chair to be reupholstered. Nothing else in the neighborhood seemed inspired, and we knew this would be good. From the super-peppery bloody mary to the smooth coffee the place delivered, yet again. Bob’s fried chicken sandwich, with a crunchy crust and juicy meat set off against shredded cabbage, probably outdid my burger, which, for all its gilding with mushroom duxelles and caramelized onion, was just okay beef slightly overcharred. The fries with it were fine, though, and Bob’s greens were perfectly dressed. The waitress was superb, and our booth came with a sidewalk view of the exotic street.
That night we had a flawless meal, yet again, at Baker & Co. in the West Village, where we met a friend in from Veneto who wanted to eat light. It was a Monday, so the place was quiet and empty, which was perfect for talking even in the glassed-in garden. As always, the ricotta-garlic spread for the bread started the dinner right. My salad was a marvel of flavors and textures, with tender kale and a showering of ricotta salata over roasted delicata squash rings, with toasted almonds and tahini in the dressing. Bob and Diego had the roast chicken with truffle-garlic fries, as great as it’s always been. And Diego was impressed by the Italian red. The occupant of the fourth chair, in from the Outer Banks, had a pizzetta and a beer and seemed satisfied as well. Beyond the food and service, it’s such a perfect spot pricewise.
And here some notes from various receipts on my cluttered desk: BEA in Hell’s Kitchen proved to be the perfect place for a good 18 people to gather for a drink after a showing of the very moving “Overburden” at CUNY — our reserved area was quiet enough for talking, the servers were superb at running separate checks and the wine was both decent and affordable. Wisely, we did not order any food. Elizabeth’s, the neighborhood standby we keep swearing off, sucked us back in on a sidewalk-cafe evening over the summer; the white was fine and my Cobb salad what it always is. But Bob was loving his lamb burger until he found a sheet of paper in the middle of it. I guess it was the liner between patties, but it was gross. They took the $18 charge off the bill, but still. And I shouldn’t have wasted 10 months waiting to write about the Empire Diner, because the Buffalo skate wings were pretty great the night we lucked into a table. But now they are no longer on the menu since the chef left. It was a “WIGB? Nope” anyway.
My new/old goal is to clean off my desk and clear up my life (or vice versa), so here is a report on an encore at Bustan, on the Upper West Side, to which my consort and a friend and I resorted on a sweltering night after seeing a line out the door at the new, “downtownesque” Jin Ramen after the extraordinary “Wolfpack.” We were thrilled to get a table in the backyard garden even though the fan aimed in our direction was soon headed toward youngs. And the service was quite good, which meant we soon were tearing into the superb mazettim (taramasalata, hummus, smoked eggplant spread for $16) with the excellent flatbread that of course required reordering. Gummy-fried calamari, however, was Bottom Line-level and the felafel I insisted we order was fried-dry and unredeemed by the chutneyesque sauce with it. WIGB, though? Undoubtedly. Those spreads and that garden are quite a seductive combo. We blew through two bottles of verdejo like water, however, and paid $54 a head.
My latest filing under “reach should exceed grasp:” This layabout’s hard-working consort has a newish rule that we can only go out to eat if we will eat something substantially better than we could eat at home. And I did, after all, train as a chef, cook in a restaurant, cater and spend nearly half my lifetime developing recipes for $ (I just did an average there; otherwise it once would be $$$$). But sometimes the rule gets bent. Sometimes four times in one week.
The high had to be a lucky find after the New Museum and a Di Palo’s run (for the cheapest Illy + best Parmigiano-Reggiano in town). Our pal in from DC had not had lunch, and we reflexively headed to Parm in NoLIta when I remembered we always pass by and wonder about the sidewalk cafe at Gelso & Grand, the enticing restaurant on the corner where a deli once sold Italian products and snacks like arancini in my street food days before the Twitter ate my life. I would have been happy with pizza only slightly better than the tourist crap in all the other cafes on Mulberry, but the $19 “Inferno” was actually excellent: good-to-the-bones crust, lots of capicola, a sweet-burning heat to the sauce. Whatever the plural is of bruschetta were also fabulous, one set topped with a shell-bean puree plus pancetta, the other with burrata, cherry tomatoes and a drizzle of Port reduction. The best part: An order is two, but your three-top can get a third for $5 more. Rosé from Lombardy was a decent pour for $12. Service was perfectly attentive. So, WIGB? Absolutely. The people-watching was jaw-dropping — suffice it to say that stretch of Little Italy is one more place where you will not spot Bill Cunningham.
The low, however, was easily brgr, where we wound up after the Sunday Greenmarket when Bob unexpectedly expressed interest in a burger, something that crosses his screen about once a year (so I know to click on it). I had waited what felt like six days for one to be overcooked a few weeks before at Fairway’s cafe, so we couldn’t go there, and my stomach still feels distended from the hangover one I had at Spring Natural on New Year’s Day, so we couldn’t go back there. Unfortunately, I remembered neighbors saying they had been getting good grass-fed burgers at brgr, and we wandered over to Broadway. Not only did the things take just short of forever or Fairway. The flavor was as AWOL as the vowels in the name. Neither the meat nor the “Cheddar” nor the mustard nor the tomato nor, even, the bun had any taste at all. We just kept eating and eating, hoping the next bite would pay off. Nope. (And the fries were seriously lame, too.) It says it all that we stopped in Zabar’s afterward and found one small sample of mangalitsa ham was a “wake up, tastebuds” mouthful. WIGB? The clincher was doing the math and realizing Fairway was a better deal, at $9.50 including fries; these were $8.50 plus. No wonder that logo has always reminded me of Goatsie.
Almost as disappointing was the brisket at Mighty Quinn’s in the West Village, where we trotted after the awesomeness that is the new Whitney. Once again, it was dry and chewy and not particularly barbecue-y. The chain had redeemed itself the other week at Birchfield Place, but I have to concur with Bob: It will be a long time, if ever, before we brave that stuff again. It’s a good thing we only split one sandwich, and it’s a good thing it came with the usual generous sides of coleslaw and pickles (celery, onion, cucumber and jalapeño) for $9.50. And we only needed that because we had fortified ourselves before tackling all floors of the museum by sharing a couple of carnitas tacos off the Taco Truck on the gorgeous High Line. Those were more tortillas than (dull) filling.
The fourth exception to the rule was West Bank Cafe in Hell’s Kitchen, to which we resorted for proximity’s sake after the genius of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (which, beyond the great script, photography and acting, boasted some fud jokes, including rabbit andouille). Our friends had suggested Taboon, but the prices online were insane (no wines under about $45, entrees in the $30s) plus we had gotten the brush-off when we stopped in one night after a “Daily Show” filming. Here, with the After Eight menu, we got a $35 Provencal rosé, a reasonably quiet table and the usual reliable, good-value cooking. My eggplant parmesan teamed with arugula and tomatoes, for $15, was almost Parm level (The Cat WCTLAFW approved to the point of stealing the salad off my plate the next day). Bob and Diane’s chicken breasts were juicy, with a fine sauce and lots of side vegetables including mashed potatoes (The Cat really approved). And I didn’t try Len’s shrimp but approved his wild mushroom risotto balls with their good truffle aioli for dipping. WIGB? Anytime we’re trapped in that tourist wasteland. Also, too? Upper West Side restos should offer After Eight menus. Bill ’em as stroller-free.
The good: Following up on the great Musket Room: Just a couple of days before, of course, I had misunderstood which M restaurant Bob had suggested trying on a night when neither of us could deal with putting food on the family after crazy days working. And so we made our way to the Marshal in Hell’s Kitchen with visions of the scallops cooked with Hudson Valley Duck bacon in our heads, courtesy of the cook we ran into on Union Square as he bought up half the cooler over the summer. A table on the sidewalk, across from the taxi gas station, distracted us from the fact that there were no scallops with bacon the menu, but we were perfectly happy to indulge in the $11 duck liver mousse (funkiness offset by honeycomb plus great crunchy toasts, and plenty of them) and what I called tamale pie without the ground beef (local polenta topped with Cheddar, sauced with tomatillo salsa, also $11) and Bob’s blowout entrée, roast leg of lamb stuffed with spinach, rosemary and ginger and laid over duck-fat smashed potatoes, for $32. A $30 rosé from Anthony Road in the Finger Lakes was just gravy. WIGB? Maybe, although the inside space is rather tight and the prices could be lower if marquee farms did not dominate the menu.
The closer good: Arco on the Upper West Side, which we’d been walking past for months while shrugging (more average Italian?) but where we finally headed after a rave heard over in Brooklyn, at Photoville. And our fandoc was right: The place, which I had dismissed as a draw for guests at the hostel right across Amsterdam, looks downtown sleek; the hostess and server were superb, and the food definitely surpassed my expectations of “why go out when Italian is so easy at home?” Plus there was Arneis by the glass, for all of $10. We split a respectable salad, a special with fried artichokes, arugula, tomatoes and shredded cheese, then Bob wound up finishing my outstanding gnocchi, alla montanara, in a creamy sauce with mushrooms and bacon, while we kittybagged his pork on polenta. WIGB? Absolutely. The tide is turning uptown with restaurants lately.
The downtown pretty good: Ramen-Ya in the West Village, where we wound up feasting before a Yom Kippur break fast after Bob responded to the moody weather by suggesting the Japanese bellybuster and I suggested we pass on the Wayne Thiebaud show uptown because every painting is online and instead head south to the Grey Gallery, for a truly staggering show on apartheid (which we now have to specify means South African, not Israeli). The place is tiny, as threatened, but comfortable when only three-quarters full in daytime. As we do uptown at Jin Ramen, he had the namesake dish, here with a medium-rich, and spicy, brodo with respectable pork, while I had the rice bowl topped with beef, scallions and pickled ginger. I should have known the one dish using the B word would not be using a recognizable cut, but I also didn’t put my chopsticks down until I was nearly finished. The knockout dish, though, was the appetizer of pork gyoza, liberally dusted with togarashi. They were a little greasy, but the wrappers were silken. WIGB? Maybe, but there are so many other ramen places to explore these days.
Something very old: Elizabeth’s in our neighborhood, where we were so embarrassed to have dragged our great friends from across the park after the awesome Balthus/cats exhibition at the Met. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. They seated us right next to the bar and the teevee during a game, then moved us to a table where the new waiter was not talking to the old waiter. (Scary how I remember all this seven months on.) The wine was a mixup, the cocktail Nancy ordered was undrinkable and I waited seven months short of forever for dressing for my usually-great-but-tonight lame-ass Cobb salad. Bob was okay with his grilled salmon, Charles with his turkey meatloaf, but I noticed Nancy left most of her burger uneaten, even with us sharing the okay onion rings. We trudged out saying we would never go back unless for rosé in the sidewalk cafe. And so:
Something newish: Elizabeth’s in our neighborhood, where we ran to on one of those rare summer nights when you could eat outside and where everything reminded us why the place has stayed in business longer than so many predecessors, without sinking to the craptastic tequila level next door. The waiter, for a rare change, was on top of the wine list, so we got a good organic rosé, before the always-excellent bread and butter, and then my outstanding sliders and his roast chicken. WIGB: Only for just the two of us. So embarrassing to drag our friends there from across the park, where we look out on the El Dorado and notice why so many windows are dark on an early fall Sunday night: Nobody lives there year-round anymore. And that only hurts restaurants and other living businesses in the neighborhood.
If you had told me in December 1980 that I would, in August 2014, be eating kelp salad followed by braised pork belly — with chopsticks, to boot — I would have said subsisting on one tiny bag of potato chips plus a few Cokes must have made you delusional. And I have to admit I thought my consort was kidding when he suggested the salad, but it was surprisingly palatable despite the slight fishiness he couldn’t detect. It was definitely better than the woody green beans in peanut sauce we’d tried as a starter at our first lunch at Jin Ramen in Harlem, a few months ago. The rice bowl this time, topped with pickled ginger and brisket cooked with onions to falling-apart tenderness, was also better than my introductory version ($6 for the small, more than I could finish). Bob, as always, had to try something new and took the server’s recommendation of the spicy tonkotsu ramen, with liquid-bacon pork broth seasoned with the house blend of soybean and roasted garlic paste plus hot sesame oil. And it was even better than the milder ramen he’d chosen last time (well, last time with me — he confessed he’d gone there on his own once). The whole $12 dish is a fascination, with the noodles and the pork belly and the soft-cooked egg and the bamboo shoots and the scallions to mix and match on a wooden spoon. WIGB? Absolutely. Between the food, the efficient service and the show, it’s the perfect pit stop before braving the miles of aisles at the uptown Fairway (the one where the stock and spaciousness make the Broadway store look like a shithole). Still, while the couple at the next table eating their way through half the “raymen” menu made me wish I’d spotted the gyoza on the menu, I realize on checking the fine print that we could not have ordered them. Because I still won’t eat (more than a taste of) chicken.
The weekend before I also got to engage in behavior, and food, that would also have felt beyond alien before I met Mr. Omnivorous Adventurer. And I actually found the place: IndiKitch, west from Eataly in the Flatiron. This was our second lunch together there and my turn to confess I’d been back twice on my own, for a quick snack after the Wednesday Greenmarket, simply for the samosas, which are among the best I’ve had in this city of fried-and-dried. The place is clearly staking out a claim as the South Asian answer to Chipotle: You choose feast (burrito), biryani (bowl), salad (salad) or sandwiches (tacos) and the counter crew assembles and sautés (actually finishes) to order. “Feast” is a serious deal for $9.87, with a main ingredient like saag paneer or mushroom kadai or chicken tikka teamed with a choice of rice (saffron is best), dal (chickpea or yellow lentil is best), side salad (carrot is definitely best) plus naan (garlic, of course). The naan is surprisingly good, better than in far too many Indian restaurants, because it’s both well-flavored and pliable enough to wield as your utensil, just the way you would eat in India. And if you order your food spicy, it’s near-perfect pitch, seasoned to be balanced by the bread. The bathrooms, entered by entering a code, are spotless enough to encourage just that authentic way of eating.
Of course I had to go and ruin my new infatuation by suggesting Indian for Sunday lunch after the Greenmarket on Columbus when neither our usual lobster rolls nor tortas/cemitas appealed. I’d been wanting to try the uptown Saravanaa Bhavan for the last year, since a pal at the Greenmarket on 97th recommended it, and the thali was about three universes beyond IndiKitch. Of course, it was also $19.99 (but so generous we could split it). Every one of the 14 little dishes tasted vibrant (although I’ll take points off for the soggy papad), and the spicing varied from dish to dish. The menu was all Hindu to me aside from a couple of words, so there’s no point in listing specifics. Just know that it was (almost) like being transported to Mumbai at a sidewalk table on Amsterdam. WIGB? Definitely, even though the hometown magazine ran a long and peculiar story on how the owner of the chain is a killer. The staff was a bonus — when was the last time a waiter came out to tell you the one-holer occupied by a young woman for a suspicious amount of time was free?
The good despite the cat piss smell: Gran Electrica in Brooklyn, where we filled our tanks on the way to the awesome Photoville and where the hyper-hospitable service and mellow garden setting rivaled the food (despite the faint aroma). My crab-habanero-avocado tostada was outstanding and the rajas taco I tasted off Bob’s place nearly as good (with potatoes, zucchini and crema). I passed on his lengua tacos, but he was thrilled. WIGB? Absolutely, especially on a warm day — inside tables are pleasant; outside exceptional. Also, too: Gotta like a place where the olds at the next table have nothing to say to each other. Perspective, perspective
The good despite ourselves: La Vie en Szechuan in Midtown, where we hooked up with our eating Asian/Asian eating group for early Sunday lunch and where we were nearly shut out until the Mandarin speaker among us snared a table for 13. I only wanted to/got to taste about half what landed on the Lazy Susan but was thrilled with everything savory: tea-smoked duck, cucumber sticks, Sichuan pickled cabbage, braised iceberg lettuce, dumplings with spicy sauce, cuttlefish in a marvelously peppery-rich sauce etc. (No ox tongue and maw or pig’s ears for me, though, thanks very much.) Desserts reminded me why meals in Chinese restaurants so often end in orange slices. Pumpkin sort-of-fritters were just sugary, black sesame dumplings in a sort of soup just . . . interesting. Still, WIGB? Sure. But for once with a smaller group. Even though it would average out to more than $20 a head for a full eating expedition.
The good again: Melba’s in Harlem, where we took an Italian friend for an American experience and where we pretty much wound up baffling him. He ordered the macaroni and cheese at my instigation and while it was as beautifully balanced between noodles and dairy as last time, it was mighty salty. All mains come with two sides, and he followed my lead on the onion rings but went for collards after I tried explaining they were greens (you Americans — colors are things? blues? greens?) He left them untouched just as another Italian friend did when we couldn’t translate beets, ordered them and then heard him say: Oh. I hate those. Diego also is no fan of mushrooms, so the excellent spring rolls went untouched by him, although we both dunked the onion rings in the sweet-hot sauce that came with them. Bob liked his smothered chicken well enough; the $34 red was good enough. And the whole experience came to less than $100 with tip for three. WIGB? It put the din in dinner, but yes. The people are so hospitable and the cooking above average.
The good for what & where it is: Boi Noodles across from Bob’s CUNY gig, where we headed after the slowwww and silly “We Are Who We Are” screening (really, you cannibals? you get fresh prime meat and make stew viewers think is chili?). We just split a smoked duck banh mi that would have been exceptional if the bread had been better. For $7.81 it was a steal. WIGB? Sure, and not just for a meal. The Vietnamese grocery selection is pretty dazzling.
The good except . . .: River Deli in Brooklyn Heights, where we were steered from Photoville by a former workshop student of Bob’s who’s taken those lessons and gotten richer, who mentioned it was the bee’s knees on Trip Advisor. The space, a corner deli converted to a Sardinian cafe, was charming as hell despite the three kids at a window table kicking and knocking over shit. The waitress rated A, the Southern Italian wines the same. But the food? We could have been eating in Rome. The eggplant “stuffed” with radicchio and mushrooms was pretty crude, the malloredus timidly sauced and teamed with sausage with that awful pig-pee taste you get with industrial pork. WIGB? Quite honestly, no. But I would steer others there. It’s so close to the Brooklyn Bridge Park and so charming. And people nearby with only espresso and a shared dessert seemed blissful.
Also, too: Elizabeth’s is always good and reliable, most recently for an early dinner after Bob had been trapped inside all day. Rosé at a sidewalk table would have been enough even if the Cobb salad had not been so well-proportioned or the chicken (so Bob said) so nicely cooked.
The good: Lian Won in Bensonhurst, where we met up with our Asian-eating/eating-Asian pals for a Saturday lunch and where we had the kind of experience you can only experience with a big group of adventurous eaters who are not just on a return visit but have brought a Cantonese speaker this time. My China-hand consort and I arrived first in the empty restaurant, flummoxing everyone (he remembered too late that the Chinese do not show 10 with all fingers in the air but with two crossed), and the waiter still soon had a pink tablecloth laid out under the Lazy Susan and teacups all around; when our friends started arriving, the excitement and engagement only built, especially after one pal showed a photo on her smartphone to order a dish, superb water spinach with salted fish. She also forged ahead in ordering the house specialties, a Chiu Chowesque duck with awesome skin/flesh/sauce and an eel and rice casserole that was preceded by a clear soup made from the bones. We got talked into the large on that, for $40, but we made a pretty good dent in it, especially after the waiter scraped up the crusty bits of the rice. That Lazy Susan was soon overcrowded with oxtail cooked with boiled peanuts; frogs’ legs (I couldn’t); “steam meat paste with salt fish,” which proved to be more like the filling for one big dumpling; shrimp with awesome taro plus assorted nuts including gingko (which, it turns out, do not smell like shit); fish with water chestnuts and French lily (you had to be there); loofah and mountain mushrooms, and more. WIGB? Probably not, only because it was one long, long schlep on the D train on a Saturday, and we’d need interpreters. Anyone else, tho: Go.
The pretty good: Pearl & Ash on the Lower East Side/Nolita border, where we lured two friends who love adventurous food and where our reward was a relatively quiet table near the kitchen where we could actually talk while being bombarded with small plates, all just large enough to share. Dr. and Lady Bugs had wanted to go back to Aldea to reconnect, but I pushed the adventurers to try something new. And thanks allah for that quietish table. Bob was saddened to find only fortified wines and beers were on offer for cocktails when he had his liver set on a cocktail, but the one he tried was near-gin enough. Melissa and I were overwhelmed by the wine list, to the point that Bob had to ask the servers to hold off on the food until we could at least get a glass in hand — especially after the first pricey bottle we chose turned out to be off and we had to wait for a “fresh” old one. And the dishes just kept landing, so fast it was hard to taste, let alone mentally absorb: “fluke, watermelon, chili lime” and “hanger tartare, egg cocoa, melba,” and “diver scallop, fennel, lily bulb, berbere.” Before we’d gotten through that shopping list, we had “bread, chicken butter” (Emperor, meet your new clothes) and “octopus, sunflower seed, shiso” and “pork meatballs, shiitake, bonito” and “tea-cured salmon, goat cheese, tamarind seafood” and “sweetbread, sherry, heart of palm, morcilla.” I liked “crab, corn, yogurt, dashi” but passed on “lamb belly & heart, kohlrabi, hazelnut” even though I’m always happy to see an underused vegetable get some menu play. “Quail, almond, pomegranate, chicken skin” was yet another instance of the new duck getting lost in over-conceptualization. Interestingly, the sides were most seductive: “potatoes, porcini mayo, chorizo” was a choir singing in perfect harmony as was “long beans, uni, cream.” I should have taken notes on or photos of “blueberry, milk, honey, creme fraiche” because I remember it less vividly than the dessert I argued against, on @cuozzo’s advice. The Fernet-Branca ice cream sandwich turned up on both our table and the tab, and all I’ll say is that Bob finished it while recalling the night he was on the road on a budget and the cheapest thing in the mini-bar was that digestif. He drank it and regretted it. WIGB? Sadly, no, and not because it cost more than dinner at the Bugses first choice would have. I think we’re entering the age of the “been there, eaten that” restaurant. Once you’ve seen the mountaintop, you’re fine with going back to Sensible Valley.
The fabulous: Melba’s in Harlem, where a friend doing great guerrilla art in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington lured us after drinks on his rooftop nearby and where I walked out mortified I had had no awareness of all the changes happening such a short walk up the street off which I live. For starters, I had had no idea we would actually A) need a reservation on a Sunday night in late summer and B) need to be sure to honor that res. But we showed up and got a table thanks to Camilo’s due diligence. Everything about the place was uplifting: the room, the wine, the crowd, the service, the mood and of course the food. We split the spinach-cheese empanadas, which were unexpectedly satisfying, and modern. The macaroni and cheese was forks-down the best I’ve ever eaten, with the balance of dairy to carb completely reversed. I just tasted Bob’s chicken & waffles and passed on Camilo’s catfish, but both guys seemed happy. WIGB? No question.
The not bad: Barley & Grain on the Upper West Side, where we headed with friends in search of a new place after the very disturbing “Fruitvale Station” and where we were all thrilled things were not worse in such a new spot. Despite the brown-booze emphasis implied in the redundant name, we ordered a bottle of rosé plus one glass of beer, then another bottle after thinking we could all share a burger. It never arrived, but at least the din level was bearable. Crabcake sliders, two on the plate, were pretty satisfying, although the accompanying potato chips were rather underwhelming, Roasted eggplant with feta, olives, and cherry tomatoes was outstanding. I didn’t take attendance on the “kohlrabi quinoa salad mango crispy marcona almond, lemon, EVOO” but was happy to scarf it up. “Ancho chili beer battered seasonal vegetables,” though, were just bad bar food, and I call bullshit on the “lime horseradish aioli.” Not being a lamb tolerator, I passed on the grilled lollipops, but everyone else seemed to like everything about them but the size. WIGB? Sure. The Tangled Vine knows from running a food/wine joint in our neighborhood — we chose the former for drinks with CT friends just a few nights later. But you do have to wonder about a place whose chef is sitting in the DR with pals while an order for a burger goes missing.
The always good I: Cafe 2 at MOMA, where we took a break midway between the aural art show and the Walker Evans and where we had an even better lunch since the system has changed to waiter service rather than walk-in-point-and-wait. For once we restrained ourselves, which was wise since the prosciutto cotto/provolone panino and the quinoa salad with avocado and cucumbers were, as always, beyond perfectly generous. And of course the cappuccino and macchiato were right up to Danny standards. WIGB? Absolutely, especially after we took a spin up to the top floor to check out the fancier cafe. 2 is the way to go.
The always good II: Momofuku Ssam in the East Village, where I lured my old pastry instructor from restaurant school after connecting at the Union Square Greenmarket and where the duck and service were A+ yet again. I liked the pickled vegetables that came with my “set” better once I kittybagged them, but the meat was as sensational as always. To the point that my consort was convinced he was tasting duck sausage, not breast meat. WIGB? Always.
The redeemed: Mermaid Inn on the Upper West Side, where we walked in and out one night and happily back in two nights later. I feel bad that the reservation for five the first time was in my name on OpenTable, because even though we agreed to 7:15 rather than 7:30 the din was pretty deafening. Within minutes it was clear there was no point to having come together to see off a young friend if we couldn’t hear a fucking word she said. Our usual Social Media Monday waiter came over to say hello, and I had to say some version of that, after which the manager came over to make amends but really make things worse (we didn’t want to sit out an indefinite wait for a table in the back room where we suffered last time because the only thing worse than screaming kids in a restaurant is drunken olds). So we moved on to the quiet of Elizabeth’s outdoor cafe, with fine food (that Cobb salad is among The Cat’s favorites because I bring home all the grilled chicken). And then two nights later we moved on with friends from rosé at Tangled Vine to a reserved sidewalk table at Mermaid. With our favorite waiter. Not only was everyone super-pleasant and the noise level bearable both inside at the bar as we waited and outside as we lingered. OFW pushed us to order snacks to take advantage of the happy hour prices in the 60 seconds before they went up (shishito peppers, fried calamari, a shrimp slider), then he dropped off hush puppies on him with our entrees. Clone that guy! WIGB? It really is the best place for blocks.
The good for what it is: The Ellington on the Upper West Side, which we resorted to mostly for outdoor ambiance after a weekend getaway. The show on the street at 106th and Amsterdam was almost as satisfying as the food, although Bob and I had to swap salads. I ordered the chopped, he had the Caesar because he wanted protein. Still, WIGB? Sure. Nice people, fair prices, excellent sidewalk tables.
The good: Petite Soo Chow in Cliffside Park, N.J., of all places, where I met up with my Asian-eating/eating-Asian pals for Saturday lunch and where, as usual, leaving the ordering to the experts was the right thing to do. Also as usual, 17 dishes for the nine of us came to $22 a head with a good tip. Of course the soup dumplings and the Shanghai-style fried buns were superb, but I also had things I would never anticipate in a Chinese restaurant (like a cruller, more like deep-fried unsweetened dough, meant to be dipped into soy milk, and a gluten dish called sweet bran twist) and things I would not try again (kelp, in strips cutely knotted like bow ties but too fishy for me). The best dishes were the silk squash/loofah, like a more interesting chayote; the turnip cakes, in a flaky dough and flavored with teeny shrimp; the spicy sprats, served cold in a sensational sauce; the stewed pork riblets in brown sauce, and the super-tender pork belly in preserved bean sauce with water spinach, meant to be eaten in steamed buns. WIGB? It was a schlep — 45 minutes on the 159 bus from the Port Authority — but, actually, yes. As good as the food was, the service matched it. 607 Gorge Road, 201 313 1666.
The sad: Boulud Sud on the Upper West Side, where I reserved for my consort’s birthday after we had to cancel Lafayette and he acknowledged proximity should trump excitement the night he was packing for a three-week trip to Prague and Bulgaria to work on a short film on the Roma. But oh, was it bleak. Since our first dinner shortly after it opened, we’ve (separately) been quite happy with drinks at the bar, and maybe that’s why it felt so bar-ish when we walked in and had to wait to be seated after being amazed OpenTable had had tables at just about any hour we could choose. We did wind up with a street view in a relatively quiet corner, but it was just grim. I faced into the room and could see servers lined up while we waited, and waited, for service, and we actually got our appetizer before our drinks. Fried artichoke hearts had us both recalling Rome, where at least in the ghetto they’re crispy, and my quail entree had me re-imagining ill-advised ordering in the past. As I Tweeted next day, quail is the new duck, and not in a good way — chefs serve it way past liver stage. The birthday boy didn’t complain about his paella, though, and we both agreed the olive oil with the bread was outstanding. WIGB? Never for dinner, maybe for a drink. It was shocking the menu had barely changed since our first visit, it was annoying to see so many more tables crammed in and it was disheartening to look at the crowd and think: “This is just the commissary for 15 CPW.” And you know what discerning tastes rich fucks have.
The pretty great: City Grit in Nolita, where Mike Andrzejewski was cooking and where my dinner with strangers turned out to be not just endurable but fun. The venue is a funky store by day but becomes an informal restaurant with communal seating at night, and they do things right. All six courses were served seamlessly, and wine orders were taken and delivered expeditiously. And the food was fabulous, starting with just-shucked oysters with cucumber, chile, ginger, lime and sweet rice vinegar (yes, I’m cribbing from the menu). I was queasy about the “nigiri of otoro and beef heart tartare with white soy, lardo and chile flowers,” mainly because of the base, the organ meat chopped to simulate sticky rice, but the topping was so sensational I didn’t mind the gory bits that accidentally wound up on my fork. Smoked salmon belly BLT was nicely done as well, with iceberg for the L and the fish for the B; the red and yellow beefsteak tomatoes were compressed into a cube. The sea scallops in the next course were beautifully seared and perfectly cooked, then teamed with julienned crisps of pig’s ear, baby red mustard, pickled Thai chilies and a wild smoked egg yolk. I should have left more room for the sea robin laid over risotto cooked like paella, with garnishes of chorizo oil, olives, piquillos and sherry vinegar glaze. And I definitely should not have underestimated “Vietnamese coffee and white chocolate bar,” which turned out to be a very cerebral but satisfying reinvention of all those elements into a sort of Asian tiramisu with substance. Dinner, prepaid, was $60 before wine, and a deal at twice that. A couple of glasses of muscadet at $9 a pop were also worth it. WIGB? Absolutely. It was good and fun. As was the company: the chef’s wife, a couple of his best customers in from Buffalo, business connections who live in Brooklyn, a young German woman in publishing in town on business and a guy from my neighborhood who just likes to eat well with strangers.
The disappointing: Momofuku Ssam in the East Village, where I met up with a caustic blogger pal for lunch after dangling the temptation “duck gorditas” in an email and where we both walked out underwhelmed for the first time ever. The duck set featured the usual beautifully cooked meat, but the pickles with it were short on finesse, and my pal would know. The duck dumplings had the feel of an appetizer the kitchen had had just about enough of, thank you very much. And the duck gorditas were too easy to eat but ultimately came off as reinvented Mexican nothingburgers: greasy masa disks overfilled with could-be-anything meat and gloppy sauce. As always, though, the service was snappy and the wine well-matched to the food. WIGB? Probably. Duck is not just a four-letter word.
The good again and again: The Smith across from Lincoln Center, where we had reserved a table for four after the outstanding “A Hijacking” just up Broadway and where even the short wait at the bar after we arrived early flew by when a manager offered us a mistakenly poured beer for free after we had ordered a large carafe of rosé, and even split it into tastes. We could have had a table inside in Bedlam but were happy to hold out even though we wound up with the best view ever of the multi-culti cast of characters heading in and out of the Citibank ATM lobby. But the service and food were so much better than a restaurant across from Lincoln Center should provide. We split excellent seared shishito peppers and an order of tempura green beans, and I had a nice-enough chopped salad and a few bites of Bob’s fine trout Milanese with good potatoes. Our friends seemed happy with the roast chicken and the pork chop, and we all liked the silly dessert. (They’re all silly.) WIGB? Absolutely. On my two trips to and from the downstairs bathrooms, the staff vibe was so positive. They have a license to mint money, but they appear to be sharing the wealth.
The half-good: Spring Natural Kitchen on the Upper West Side again, where I connected with a picture-editor friend and her daughter in from DC and a coupla photo friends from the neighborhood and where it was a damned good thing the food was so good because the service was on the other side of abysmal. The table next to us got their entrees and their check before we even managed to put in our food order. It was partly our fault for saying we needed a bit more time to negotiate the long menu, but it was mostly the fault of the kind of waitress who thinks busing a table comes before getting requests into the kitchen pipeline. Luckily, my cheeseburger was pretty exceptional, with good meat cooked right and topped with both mushroom and onions. My only complaint was that it was almost too big, although The Cat WCTLWAFW had no complaints. WIGB? Undoubtedly, the alternative pickings being pretty slim in this neighborhood. And for the third time, the welcome was truly welcoming; I got there first and the host had a table set up for the five of us by the time the others arrived.
The different: Cheburechnaya in Rego Park, where we hooked up with our Asian-eating/eating-Asian group on a cold, wet Sunday and where everything beyond getting lost in the cold and rain was a trip. This was kosher cooking from part of the former Soviet Union, and it reminded me of eating in Turkey. By the time we dripped in, everyone was already tucking into the outstanding salad with red peppers, cucumbers, red onions and olives (dressed, we later learned, in Wishbone Italian), the superb carrot and cumin salad, the good hummus and bread and the pickled cabbage. I got just a taste of the chebureki, which I’d describe as sort of cheeseless quesadillas, filled with veal, with mushrooms and with “meat.” Lagman, described on the menu as a soup with pasta, beef, mixed vegetables and assorted spices, reminded me of a fresher, heartier Campbell’s. I knew I was in for trouble when the samcy with ribs started making the rounds: a flaky pastry with my least favorite meat tucked inside; Bob said I should try just a bite with the onions, but it was way too lamby for me. And that was followed by sword after sword of grilled meats from the long butcher case behind us: lamb testicles, lamb hearts, boneless chicken and cubes of lamb fat that had everyone else moaning in ecstasy. A plate of fried beef brains also landed on the table, but even if I weren’t skeert of mad cow I would have passed. We also had a little mountain of irresistible French fries drenched in oily garlic — interestingly enough, at $5 they cost more than most of the meats. Beyond the food, the crowd was quite something — a huge table celebrating a wedding or other ritual event, another huge table ordering bottle after bottle of vodka, tables of women with Cokes and pints of hootch. Our table, however, drank Borzhomi, a mineral water with a pretty fair amount of sodium to cut the fat. WIGB? It was fun, but once was plenty. Although we did all enjoy gawking and buying in the many Russian markets nearby. They don’t call it Regostan for nothing. 92-09 63rd Drive, 718 897 9080.
The “price is right:” Land Thai on the Upper West Side, where a friend in from Connecticut for job interviews met me for lunch on another rainy day and where, as always, it was hard to complain about two courses for $9. We both had the springrolls and I was fine with the cashew curry. And although the place clearly makes its money by spinning tables, the staff let us sit there as long as we wanted.
The unfortunate: Sindicato de Cocineros in Greenpoint, where I had dinner on a monsoon night with four friends and where I have to judge a restaurant by the lowlifes it attracts. The place was brand-new and chosen by two of the friends who used to live nearby, and it had its charms: widely spaced tables, a warm vibe, a deejay who played great bits of LPs at just the right sound level. The margarita was only adequate,* but our shared starters were sensational: the guacamole very limey and topped with snappy radish slices, and the mollete a couple of crisp slices of the usual torta roll topped with beans, chorizo, cheese and salsa. I’m not so sure deconstructing a gordita was such a wise idea because it was hard to get all the elements — ground beef, beans, crema, cheese, lettuce — in one bite, and the masa itself was doughy. I didn’t try either order of tacos on the table, or the pork, but the flan was okay. So WIGB? I had to come home and Tweet: Not on a bet. When we were all leaving in the raging downpour, I went to retrieve my $40 MOMA umbrella from the heap at the door and some hipster asshole had made off with it. To the restaurant’s social media manager’s credit, they did notice my carping and promise me a new umbrella if I DM’d my address. I am, however, still waiting . . .
*The vaut le voyage: Nights and Weekends, also in Greenpoint, where I had the best margarita of my long life. I met one of the Sindicato tablemates there early but late for our appointed hour, which was too bad because this drink was huge. And smoky. And spicy. And just absolute perfection. For all of $10. Apparently the food is pretty good there, too, so WIGB? Next time I need to scratch the margarita itch, I’m getting on the B to the E to the G.
The good: The Smith up/down by Lincoln Center, where we happily wandered in after the great OSF opening of the new Moving Walls galleries and where we immediately sat down at a non-deafening sidewalk table with fine service. Wine was involved, but only the glass, since the Soros crew springs for the bottomless fountains. And because the refreshments had also been so lavish beforehand, I was happy to eat only part of a flatbread topped with ricotta, red onions and olives while Bob blissfully tucked into his brick chicken and mashed potatoes. WIGB? Anytime it’s warm enough to eat outside.
The surprisingly good, given the hype: Prune in the East Village, where we were actually able to walk right in after an app party at Pizza a Casa — and after being offered barstools facing a wall at Fat Radish. (Designers: check your sight lines before signing off on floor plans.) In a million Fridays I would never have expected this, but the hostess instantly walked us to a nice table where we soon had pappadum to nibble on while ordering drinks (perfect spritz for him, Saumur for me), Neither of us was open to a real meal after tasting calzone and stromboli and pizza, so we shared appetizers: soft-shell crab with pea shoots, dandelion salad with feta, toasted manti. The last arrived swimming in a yogurt sauce with harissa that made up for the inconsistency in the cooking of the actual Turkish ravioli (some were too hard, some just fine). And the crab was very flavorful, especially with its curry sauce, but the frying was less than artful. Still, I can understand the appeal of the place, which we had never braved, always assuming it was too crowded. Now I know it’s the olds who fill the tables. So I’m impressed the food has as much character as it does, even though Bob was mildly disappointed when the legendary Triscuits and sardines were not on offer. WIGB? Sure. It felt like Philadelphia. In a good way.
The unsurprisingly good: Rural in Flushing, where we were lured by our eating-Asian/Asian-eating friends yet again and where even the meats not to my taste were worth trying, not least because the cuisine is Dongbei, formerly Manchurian, which is a trip. As always, the table just magically expanded as more people arrived, so we all could taste and talk, starting with peanuts and sprouts with hot peppers as amuse, then garlic scapes with pork, lamb with scallions, pork with potatoes, beef tendon in a wonderful sort of “Bolognese” and steamed dumplings, half with chives and half with cabbage, both very different. One dish none of us, even those with language skills, could translate would have tasted better to me if I’d known what it was; the best description would be sea knuckles. Tiger vegetable was a more clear-cut highlight, a toss of cilantro stems, chilies and scallions with a touch of sesame oil. But my favorite dish was the spicy quail, tender and piled high with dried chilies. The table winner, though, was the cumin flounder: the whole fish encrusted with spices and cooked so perfectly even the fins were crunchy-good. WIGB? In a heartbeat. As always, more food than we could all consume came to $20 a head. And, as always, the service was superb, the reward for having both language skills and adventurous palates among us. We. Are. Lucky. 42-85 Main Street, 718 353 0086.
The fine: Spring Natural on the Upper West Side, where we headed with a friend after the truly amazing “Frances Ha” when she balked at our standby (Fairway) and where the hospitality and setting were so admirable we realized only as we were walking home that the food was just okay. Really, we walked in and the hostess promised us a table momentarily, and not only did she make good on that, she moved us to a better one as soon as it opened up so the three of us could sit comfortably and (sort of) hear each other. The waitress also excelled; she really knew her wines (the rosé we chose was all of $34). I didn’t try Donna’s tuna nicoise or Bob’s crispy chicken but can say the rice that came with the latter was pretty great. My “Thai falafel salad” was what it was. The chickpea patties were not quite Sidoesque, but the dressing on the greens and tomatoes got the job done. WIGB? Shortly, in fact. It’s close, it’s pretty, it’s so well-run.