New York minutes/Early September 2009

The decent: Jane in the Village, where I steered us after a story-scouting expedition for my consort in Washington Square because of the $15 Sunday night special — steak, salad or mussels with rosemary fries or salad. One of us should have opted for the greens, because the mountains of fries that came with his meat and my fish were mountainous (the excellent waiter jokingly asked if we wanted a side of them). The beef was either butchered wrong or singularly tough, but the flavor was great; my salmon would have been even better with anything sauce-like. If we hadn’t had that $32 bottle of rosé, we would have scored a real steal. 100 West Houston, 212 254 7000.

The flawed: Rainbow Falafel off Union Square, where we ducked in for something quick while loaded down with 500 pounds of produce and where the reality does not live up to the reputation. The counter guys were enraptured by Jacques and Julia working over a fish on a tiny teevee up on the wall, but they should have been tuned in to some Middle Eastern cooking show. In the mere minutes it took us to walk back into the park to a table, my pita had disintegrated. The flavors and the frying and the sauces were better than average, but I wound up with a sloppy soup/salad, not a sandwich — and no fork to tackle it with. WIGB? Pointless.

New York minutes/Latish August 2009

The good: Joseph Leonard in the West Village, where my consort and I headed after the seriously hilarious but profoundly sad “In the Loop” at IFC and where the experience was nearly as good as the movie, odd as that sounds. We got a table in the window on walking in when it was half-empty, and if the width of the table coupled with the brayers next to us made talking a bit of a strain, that was a small complaint in a place so small and so new. They got about everything else right, right down to the Molton Brown in the rustic bathroom with the typo-ridden ode to writing over the toilet. Veltliner and Rioja were $7 a glass, with a taste pour to start. Bread was a choice of onion brioche and sourdough. Waitress was excellent, and her constant smile did not look forced. We split the $8 peach salad (with arugula, Cheddar, croutons and sunflower seeds), which we both liked but wondered if riper fruit would have balanced the acidic dressing better. Bob had very tender lamb T-bones with cauliflower gratin (for $20); that meat turns my stomach but this was worth braving a taste. But I really scored with the $11 duck rillettes, easily the best I’ve had in this country, not least because they were served at the right temperature (not fat-cold) with three huge slices of toasted bread (why does everyone else skimp?) and pungent Dijon mustard. And they packed up the half I left over to take home for a sublime breakfast next morning. WIGB? If we can get in. (No reservations.) 170 Waverly Place at Grove Street, 646 429 8383.

The sad: Resto in Murray Hill, where I stupidly suggested we head after the Greenmarket when the humidity was so thick it was like swimming up Park Avenue while dodging all the goddamn kamikaze bikes that have so quickly overrun the car-free lanes. Fat guy at the front jumped up to seat us from whatever he was doing at a table with another couple, but I wish the waiter heading our way had arrived first, because the couple just behind us got a four-top away from the hyenas in the back corner while we were wedged at a deuce in the din, with no AC aiming my dripping way. Which would have been okay, but the waitress was dumber than a post. I sickened myself by uttering the words “egg sammy,” but it turned out to be pretty good, once I got past the fact that the “souffléed eggs” bore a striking resemblance to the firm square an Au Bon Pain guy once waggled in my face at LaGuardia when I ordered a breakfast sandwich. How can you go wrong with hollandaise, guanciale, Gruyere and a superb English muffin, for $8? Poor Bob was not so lucky, even though I gave him my half-dressed greens. Shrimp and grits was a lot of fuss and very little food for $15: four shrimp, maybe half a cup of Anson Mills with a poolette of sauce and two slices of fried green tomatoes that could have been fried green anything. An hour later he was hitting the peanut butter. WIGB? Unlikely. He had to wave his card wildly for the check, twice. And neither the fat guy nor anyone else said a word as we walked dejectedly out.

The oy: La Carbonara on the Chelsea-Village border, where I will have to take the shit hit for suggesting 10 of us meet for a very young friend’s birthday. Insisting on a table in the back room where my consort had had a great experience with a similar-sized crowd was one mistake after not updating a reservation made for 8, which meant we were crammed in with another big and rowdy table. Which would have been tolerable if the waitstaff had not been justifiably pissed. The food was decent, although none of it lived up to the promise of the seasoned ricotta served with the good bread. My carbonara was spaghetti in a blizzard of cheese and eggs when a dusting would have sufficed, and the “pancetta” looked much scarier next day when I served it to The Cat WCTLWAFW, who of course scarfed it right down. I didn’t try Bob’s chicken cacciatore, but his mozzarella appetizer was quite good. Tiramisu did not exactly vanquish my hospital memories of “tiralisu” in Turin, no matter how happy everyone else was. I also didn’t keep a good eye on the wine ordered or would have been more adamant we stick to the low end, particularly with the Italian whites. As it was, jaws dropped when the check came out to $47 a head. In a joint chosen for $9.95 pasta. WIGB? I hope not.

The adequate: Pacifico in Brooklyn, where we settled with a mini Winston Churchill in tow on a brutally hot night and where the faintly Key Westian ambiance compensated for pretty lame food. The hostess let us sit outside with the verboten stroller, which was above and beyond and halfway compensated for one among us getting her hands besmirched trying to stabilize the picnic table. I had the most expensive thing on the menu, “crabcakes with chile relleño,” and all you need to know about the quality of the star in that sad show is that the whole thing cost $14 (with [allegedly green chile] rice, green beans and pico de gallo). Rosé was $6 a glass, which seemed great till we got home and remembered a whole bottle of the same Spanish wine is $6.99 from PJ’s. Bob’s margarita was pretty good, though, and we did get to sit outside. Overall, we were much happier to be there than at the “pop-up” restaurant we passed coming and going where a bunch of people who had schlepped from “as far away as the Upper West Side” were paying big bucks to eat froufrou food inside, away from the starlit sky.

New York minutes/Latish July 2009

The not bad: Toast, where my consort and I headed to reconnect on neutral territory after his week teaching a workshop in Santa Fe. He had noticed it on the bus ride back from LaGuardia, so we headed north for a change and got a pleasant-enough table on the sidewalk and decent-enough food. The guacamole was rather wan, to the point that Mr. Salt Shunner actually reached for the shaker and shook hard. But my Caesar was better than average for $6.95. And his $15.95 pistachio-coated salmon may have been a dainty portion but arrived atop a huge pile of surprisingly tasty vegetable-rice pilaf. A bottle of decent rosé added only $20 to the tab. WIGB? He already has. And if it’s good enough for the famous  neighbors . . . 2737 Broadway at 105th Street, 212 663 7010.

The serviceable: Spice, the new one on 13th, where we headed because Bob was starving after the Greenmarket and at least it was someplace new. It’s pretty swanky for a $7.50 two-course lunch joint, with a serious bar and sleek design. And I was quite encouraged by my “duck wrapped” starter, which turned out to be a mound of good chopped meat with sauce and crisps to wrap in iceberg lettuce leaves. But the Samui phad Thai was gruesome, a sweet mess of bitter greens and glop with bits of smoked tofu, too-long carrot strands and great chunks of stringy eggs (yes, it turns out: eggs can be made stringy). Bob was happier with his eggplant with holy basil plus chicken although his steamed dumpling app was rubbery. But for that price and setting you can’t really complain. WIGB? Maybe. It does have location, location. 39 East 13th Street, 212 982 3758.

New York minute/Mid-July 2009

The stingily good: Bar Luna, where three of us under-ordered and over-drank because it was $34 a head and we only had three shared apps. Teeny apps. I’m taking it on faith that there was tasso in the manchego fritters. Burrata with roasted peppers was a similarly dainty portion of cheese, but the peppers were surprisingly gutsy. Polenta with wild mushrooms was the real winner. We sat outside, definitely preferable to the gloomy and mostly empty indoors. And we tipped more than the service warranted; it ranged from distracted to negligent. WIGB? Maybe, some night when we want a tasty little snack at an inflated price and feel like walking a few blocks farther than Pudding Stones. 511 Amsterdam Avenue near 85th Street, 212 362 1098.

New York minutes/Early July 2009

The always great: The New French, yet again, where five of us managed to convene without remembering it was Gay Pride Day after two had just been to “Food, Inc.” and still wanted the amazing cheeseburger (as did a third). I had the house-made sausage for the first time, which was unsurprisingly outstanding although the greens with it were overly sweet and underwhelming. And the fifth among us was very happy with the salmon salad. We also shared a suspiciously generous pizza bianca topped with runner beans and ricotta (as I recall). Plus rosé. Part of the reason we go back over and over is that this is such a deceptively serious restaurant. When I asked about the curry, which I’ve never had, the waiter took his time describing it, then when I wondered about the sausage, he squatted down to ear level to really describe it well. And everything is done with such care, right down to the sliced caperberries that one friend was so captivated by in the huge salad. 522 Hudson Street near West 10th, 212 807 7357.

The not bad: Num Pang Sandwich Shop, where I dragged my consort after he expressed a craving for a bahn mi and I didn’t remember he’d had the real deal in Saigon (not to mention in New Orleans East). The Cambodian version is rather ordinary by comparison. But it was a cheap lunch on a gorgeous day in Union Square: I had the roasted cauliflower with eggplant and he the pork belly with pickled rhubarb, both on good bread and dripping with chile mayonnaise. We didn’t really need the corn slathered with that same mayonnaise and dusted with coconut, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t finish it. WIGB? Maybe. The people were nice, and the service was fast. But we’ll try Republic’s first. 21 East 12th Street, 212 255 3271.

The entertaining: The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, where we had to stop for a chocolate-dipped cone after our al fresco dejeuner. The balance of ice cream to chocolate was perfect because the latter component does not harden and shatter. It was mostly worth the $3, though, for the show and routine. First he was so busy chatting that the ice cream plunged off the cone into the hot chocolate, then he told us he also plays the reeds so ice cream cannot take all his time. Thanks to the weird weather, this is the best summer ever in the city of be-all-you-can-be, and an enterprise like this just makes it more so.

New York minutes/Earlyish June 2009

The good: Dim Sum Go Go in Chinatown, where a friend and I sat for 2 1/2 hours over exactly $27 worth of food, tax and tip while the waiters just kept refilling the teapot and water glasses. At a nice window table we split steamed dumplings (including duck, Chinese parsley, seafood), fried turnip cakes and shiu mai, all faultless. So what if half the other patrons came in clutching guidebooks and the only Asians in the joint were staff? It’s clean and bright and hospitable, not to mention very easy to talk there. WIGB? Anytime. 3 East Broadway off Chatham Square, 212 732 0797.

The seriously good: Bar Boulud, where a friend and I wound up with a great sidewalk table after an odd little evening of Will “Tear Down This Myth” Bunch and “Laughing Liberally” in the Theater District; we just wanted salad and a glass of wine, but $12 for either seemed a little steep at the first places we considered, and PJ Clarke’s looked and sounded like a 20-something WASP convention in Bedlam. So we took our $24 across the street. Of course once we sat down salads seemed absurd when there was all that charcuterie to be had, so she ordered Grand-pere and I chose the excellent $15 tourte de canard, with foie gras layered throughout. My white was all of $9, but her red took forever to arrive, as did her knife. Bread, though, was excellent. The waiter seemed disappointed by our dainty order, although he warmed right up when I asked for a kitty bag for my half-eaten paté. WIGB? Such a deal! And Wyl-E was so happy. 1900 Broadway near 63d Street, 212 595 0303.

The “terrific:” Kefi, yet again, where my friend in from a dining wasteland was quite pleased and not just because we were comped really good orzo with shrimp, feta, spinach and tomatoes. The waiter listened when he wanted something more austere than the glass of white I ordered while waiting for him, and the bottle whose name I didn’t note was a step up and poured at just the right pace as we split the always-great spreads and then swordfish and striped bass (the latter made a superb lunch next day to share with The Cat WCTLWAFW). Gary paid, which should have made me feel terrible, but the place is such a bargain. WIGB? Very soon, I’m sure. 505 Columbus Avenue near 84th Street, 212 873 0200.

The oddly off: The New French, where it was damn lucky the food was as spectacular as always and the design holds up because the service and noise level were mortifying. I didn’t realize what a bad choice it would be for the combination of a soft-spoken scholarly writer and someone who, in the immortal phrase of a friend in Treviso, “chews words.” I couldn’t hear her, and she had it even worse — at one point she thought I was talking about Craig Claiborne rather than John Hess and reacted as if I had said Paula Deen was the new Julia Child. The waitress was an absolute ditz in a half-full room: took forever to come over, had to be hailed for a second glass of rosé, forgot my friend’s second beer, never refilled the water glasses, had to be hailed for the check, had to be hailed again to be told she overcharged me by $4 (sparkling/Spanish/what’s the diff?). And if I had to hear the same track of the Mamas and Papas blasting over all the braying one more time. . . . Still, WIGB? Absolutely. That Cheddarburger with heap o’ fries is just the best. Friend was happy with fresh tuna sandwich, too. And they let us sit far, far longer than Pearl would. 522 Hudson Street at 10th, 212 807 7357.

New York minutes/Early June 2009

The good: The Red Cat, where my consort and I headed for dinner after a nearby screening of the well-shot “Witnesses to a Secret War” and where we were very glad we’d reserved — even the bar was lined with people eating. Table of course was not ready, so we had to wriggle in to snare glasses of gruner and something red, and as soon as we had those in hand we were seated. And I realized I wasn’t even hungry and only wanted a salad, which turned out to be substantial: Bibb and Romaine interspersed with lentils and Parmesan, with golden beet slices as a base and crispy garlic slices on top. Bob had the special softshell crab (one big one, perfectly fried) over garlicky greens for a reasonable $26. Bread and olive oil were also outstanding, as was the service. Most amazing: He filled out a comment card and got a thank-you email a couple of days later. WIGB? Absolutely. It’s now open for lunch again. 227 Tenth Avenue near 23d Street, 212 242 1122.

The not horrible: The bacteria bars at Whole Foods in the dread TWC, where we resorted for a quick emergency refueling after a 5-year-old’s birthday party in the park where we snared mostly hummus and chips and before a sprint through the surprisingly worth-it Museum of Arts and Design across Columbus Circle (all galleries there are worth a serious look, but particularly the ones showing art in industrial ceramics). I had my usual reaction to the hubbub and swirl of people around all those choices of so much not-exciting food, which was a serious urge to flee, but Bob persevered and managed to choose rather lively chickpea salad with surprisingly Indian flavor, above-average coleslaw, okay orzo salad and chewy broccoli-mushroom salad, which we shared from a trough-like cardboard box at one of the grubby tall counters. He was happy; I was not too despondent. But would I do it again? I hope not.

The twitchy: Joe on Columbus, where I arranged to meet a friend and where we immediately realized our chances of either sitting or having a conversation were slim to none. Instead we got our cappuccino to go (despite her having ordered a latte) and headed to the park. It’s a great-looking little space, but the people who line up to patronize it stake out tables and do not move. And the line is out the door, partly because the team behind the counter is not very teamy — order taker could not hear orders, couldn’t find fresh cups, etc. The coffee was better than my doughnut, though. That would be best described as sugar encasing grease. I didn’t even take the leftover half home to The Cat Who . . . . WIGB? Probably not, just because it lacks the one thing I ever go out for when it comes to caffeine: A place to sit and talk. Someone who could open that in the Eighties or Nineties on Columbus would clean up.

The different: The Pinetum in Central Park, where a dozen of us managed to commandeer not one but two picnic tables for a feast with what must have been a case of discreet wine. On the menu besides my failed pumpkinseed flatbread and sad oven-fried chickpeas: amazing grilled grass-fed beef with chimichurri, grilled swordfish with aioli, 97th Street market vegetables with aioli, cabbage salad, mango-peach salsa with chips, a fascinating blend of green peas, feta and almonds, Sue’s signature sandwiches (tomato-mozzarella-pesto and smoked salmon-egg salad on baguette), chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano, Trader Joe’s snack bags, Georgia’s bakery chocolate cake and Burton’s world-beater lemon bars. This crowd had already given up restaurants for our living rooms. Now we have a new alternative. If only it had someplace for girls to go when they need to go.

New York minutes/Late September 2008

The good again: Aquagrill in SoHo, where we headed after my consort woke up late on Saturday and announced he wanted a real meal after seven beyond-grueling days of teaching while resorting to fodder rather than good food. I took that to be code for “fish,” and Pearl hates us on Saturdays, so we dragged all our bags from the market at Union Square to Spring Street only to find the crab cake sandwich I like so much is not on the brunch menu. But excellent roasted Casco Bay cod with spinach, artichokes and caper beurre noisette was, so I quietly put aside my salmon reservations and had the excellent BLT with the Atlantic fish and good fries apportioned judiciously. My qualms about octopus were stifled as well to please him, which was a good thing because the huge salad was outstanding: warm, amazingly tender tentacles with roasted peppers and sweet onions. Because we sat outside, the service was pretty discombobulated, with us begging for bread, waiting forever for wine. But WIGB? Absolutely. 210 Spring Street at Sixth Avenue, 212 274 0505.

The adequate: La Rural, where I met tired and annoyed Bob for a late dinner and where the entraña (skirt steak) was tougher than usual, but where the service and salad and wine were fine. WIGB? It is very close to home. 768 Amsterdam Avenue near 98th Street, 212 865 2929.

New York minutes/Latish September 2008

The good: Wu Liang Ye in Midtown, where I dragged my consort with his queasy Stella stomach after the zooey opening at ICP and where we were both transported (I’ve only been to Hong Kong, and once; he’s been there and to China at least four times on extended trips). I thought of it after reading Ray Sokolov’s piece in the WSJournal, although I have long known Zarela raves about it. And just walking there felt authentic, with mega-cockroaches claiming right of way on the sidewalk and with the requisite stairs to the dining room one flight above street level. We got a table right away, surrounded by roughly 75 percent Asians, and when the buzz-cut waiter snarled at us for asking whether the Sichuan dumplings could be fried (“Fried? You can get fried anywhere!”), we knew we were in good cooks’ hands. The (boiled) pork dumplings were sleek and silky, in a sublimely spicy chile sauce, and the green beans with spiced sauce (pork? onion? both?) were absolutely worth the shocking $14.95. But the winner was the camphor-smoked half-duck, not as smoky-wonderful as one that still haunts me from Hong Kong but very succulent and flavorful and not at all fatty — plus the meat tasted fresh, which is far more remarkable than you might think. Big glasses of wine were around $7.50, and we walked out with enough leftovers for a huge lunch next day for a little over $50 before tip. WIGB? Can’t wait. 36 West 48th Street, 212 398 2308.

The reliable: Toloache, yet again, where we headed after “Burn After Reading” and had our usual satisfying experience at the oven-facing bar watching that amazing cook do her thing so efficiently. We split the huitlacoche quesadilla and the tacos de pastor and were totally happy with food, wine and service. The cat might be away with Yerba Buena etc., but the mice are not playing. WIGB? Over and over, obviously. 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.

The geographically adequate: Stella Maris at the South Street Seaport, where three of us retreated after the scrum around the Murray’s Cheese table at the Edible Manhattan soiree and where we paid too much for too little but were happy to have a sidewalk table despite the racket from the dining room (if the Wall Street meltdown sobers assholes up, it might be worth the suffering). I had just come from a press event and had no interest in more food, but I tasted the tiniest bit of the sausage and the duck confit and was happy that was as far as I went when Bob woke up next morning feeling the room spin. And not from the overpriced wine. Remind me never to order torrontes again, though. That is a grape finding its way in the world. WIGB? Only if I could not crawl farther uptown.

New York minutes/Early September 2008

The good: Fairway’s cafe, again, where my consort and I met a new-to-New York couple for an affordable dinner in a quiet setting and had what we always have, satisfying food without gouging, although the service was a bit distracted (new faces). My pizza with prosciutto and arugula was fine, Bob’s game hen with fries was even better, and our friends seemed happy with their shared (misspelled) prix fixe menu of fig appetizer and lamb chop entree if not the creme brulee dessert (not enough crackling crust). The grilled pita on the table came with roasted or sauteed spicy zucchini that was excellent, to the point that I tried to duplicate it a couple of nights later, with only moderate success. That book needed more recipes. WIGB? Can’t beat the prices and the noise level. 2727 Broadway near 74th Street, 212 595 1888.

The unsurprising: Les Halles, where we went once again for a post-Greenmarket meat fix and where we walked out wishing only that we had shared the steak frites. Maybe that free chocolate ice cream was not such a good idea, because neither of us came close to cleaning our $17.50 plates. As it usually is, the meat was butchered right and cooked perfectly, the fries were copious and the salad was just enough. The ladies’ room was a bit neglected, but you can’t everything. Nothing crawled into all the bags we left under the table, and it certainly felt better than risking Primehouse with eggs down the street. WIGB? It is a good buy. 411 Park Avenue South near 28th Street, 212 679 4111.

The adequate: Cornelia Street Cafe, where we retreated after finding Pearl closed for vacation when we really needed uplifting after the thoroughly depressing “Trouble the Water” (how that literal son of a bitch lives with his narcissistic self when so many lives should be on his conscience mystifies me). We got a sidewalk table and the service was beyond attentive and the wine list was good and affordable, so who cared that the too-sweet pomegranate syrup drizzles made the hummus plate less than wonderful? The crab cake was made with that shreddy crab, but it was fried right and came over a nice cabbage salad. Four glasses of wine and two appetizers came to about what we would have spent at Pearl on food, so it was fine, especially given the setting — that street is one of the more magical on this island. But we trudged to the C train still depressed. 29 Cornelia Street near Bleecker Street, 212 989 9319.