New York minutes

New rule: When the menu mentions chorizo, said ingredient had damn well better be perceptible, either visually or as you chew and chew. But the missing element was one of only two flaws when we stopped at the newish Tasca Chino in search of something different after a rare Saturday outing to the Greenmarket on Union Square. Bob chose those pallid losers (for once the taste-free chicken deserved the cliché description of rubbery), but I scored with another steamed dumpling option, the Woodland, which had a filling with seriously meaty mushroom flavor inside the light wrappers and a broth with intense and complex taste. We also split patatas bravas, perfectly cooked with crisp outsides, fluffy inners, with yin-yang dipping sauces in a too-small ramekin/portion: “Szechuan aioli” and tamarind barbecue. The restaurant itself has style to burn, with oversized paintings of, say, Mao overlaid with bullfighting images; it’s clearly designed for nighttime action. But at that most dread eating occasion, brunch, it’s quite pleasant, huge table of drinkers of $20 bottomless margaritas to our left notwithstanding. And I can’t remember the last time we left a resto with so many big smiles and “thank yous.” WIGB? Yeah, actually. For that dread eating occasion, the menu had quite a few clever huevos, plus duck & waffles. I would be tempted by the “nested eggs Benedict,” in a blue corn tortilla with miso hollandaise. But the menu said chorizo. And you never know.

Old rule: Always head to Baker & Co. after a movie at IFC; we have not found a more affordable hospitable option anywhere for blocks. On the occasion of our meeting two friends for the slow but powerful “Mustang” (lots o’ food in that film, BTW), we ran ahead and made reservations for dinner after the show. And so we wound up with the table in the window right after an obnoxiously entitled mom with stroller the size of a Cuban Buick strutted in with her husband and another guy and told the hostess that that six-top should be their spot. The din level was even more bearable there, and the food and service were, as always, a notch above. We all shared a jazzy special of anchovies laid over blood orange slices with red onion, capers and microgreens. And when we all passed plates, I scored again, with the lasagne packed with pork slices and ragu, enough for dinner and then lunch for two next day for all of $17. Garganelli must have been house-made because they were not little rolled handkerchiefs but unfurled, under a lavish layering of burrata. Bob’s pappardelle with veal ragu was almost more meat than pasta, not that there’s anything American-wrong with that, while our other friend’s orecchiette with shrimp and roasted cauliflower landed with a whiff of rancidity, and there is something wrong with that. (The bread crumbs? WTF?) With two bottles of food-friendly Grillo from Sicily, the bill was about $50 apiece. WIGB? Undoubtedly. Despite the one-holer bathroom where you can only feel the dread rising as the person taking too long is a guy. Still, as someone said over to FB: Sometimes they like to sit and think, too.

In between N & O Rules: We ducked into Amy’s Bread on Bleecker to pick up bread (olive fougasse, just like I’d pictured it) and were seduced into trying a new item, a croissant pistachio twist. Which was sensational, with just enough balance of nutty paste and buttery dough that made you long for a swig of coffee. Somehow it was fitting that we shared it on the sidewalk just steps from a homeless guy going through a trash can and pulling out unfinished hot dogs still in buns. It was a survival model: Station yourself near a tourist attraction where the food actually sucks. And scoop up what they leave behind. Side note: Said homeless guy was annoyed when a family pulled up in a car and a kid inside jumped out to carefully deposit what was apparently an unfinished large coffee drink atop the debris. The intended recipient was not happy it could have leaked onto “the food.” Sadder side note: We saw all this after passing yet another homeless guy on Sixth who had a big bleak sign (where do they get the Sharpies?) laying out how desperate he was. While he sat and ate a presumably donated sandwich offa which he had pulled all the crusts. Beggars/choosers? This is someone’s America.

New York minutes/Late June-mid-July

The good: Txikito in Chelsea, where a friend who treats it as her canteen lured me for an early dinner and where it was easy to understand why she goes back over and over. The waiter was a charmer, and almost everything we ordered delivered, particularly the crab gratin, a steal at $15. Julie is understandably nuts for the blistered peppers; I was happy to order a second round. We also shared little toasts topped with a gratin of artichokes, cheese and ham, and a bottle of Spanish rosé in that sunlit room. So what if a special of scallops wrapped in underdone bacon was forgettable? WIGB? Can’t wait.

The not bad: Clarkson in No Man’s Land, where my consort and I led two friends after the outstanding “Stories We Tell” at the Angelika after deciding their choice, Parm, would be too cramped and crowded. We had tons o’ space here, although it was kind of odd the hostess hid us olds in a back room with circulatory problems (I was melting). And we just split a bunch of starters, and I was stuffed after the food show, so I can’t say for sure if the menu promised more than it delivered, as in rye French toast with peppered maple anglaise with the milk-braised pork belly, or polenta croutons with the grilled trumpet mushrooms over watercress with piave vecchio and “black truffle.” We also shared a special salad, and a bubbling dish of excellent cannelloni filled with zucchini and ricotta. Also, too, two bottles of French rosé. WIGB? Maybe. If it lasts. Going there was a trip, remembering both the glory days when it was Rakel and the sad night a year or so ago when I got trapped in the grubby bathroom in the last incarnation.

The best, when it comes to a special banh mi: Saiguette on the Upper West Side, where we finally made a pilgrimage when I couldn’t face “Asian as euphemism for lame Thai” for lunch on a day too hot to light our gas stove. We were there before noon, so we got stools at the teeny counter in the AC rather than having to schlep to the park, but the sandwich would have wowed wherever we ate it. Beyond the layering of flavors, the architecture of bread and filling matters most to me, and this one held together to the last bite the next afternoon when I reheated the last third at home. Bob was all ready to order the “grilled juicy boneless chicken thigh” until we noticed pork belly was the filling of the day. And it was truly amazing, the meat seasoned right, cooked beautifully and in ideal balance with the carrots, cucumbers and pickled jalapeños in the good roll with sriracha mayo. For all of $9. As for me, I ordered half-blind since I’ve never been to Vietnam as Bob has and went for the taro-peanut moon dumplings, which would have been better steamed than fried. We also shared a “bubble mango ice tea” that was way too sweet but just as much a trip as the idea of eating such exquisite food 10 blocks from home. I’d ask WIGB but know we will also order in — the food is packed for delivery even if you eat there. This is the best thing ever to happen to Manhattan Valley.

The weird: Alder in the East Village, where I insisted on cashing in my compensation  for help editing a transcript while Bob was working in Bulgaria, and where everything but the food was happy-making. We walked in without a reservation but snared seats at the bar right away, a lucky break because the tables could get loud. We started with the “pub cheese,” which tasted okay but visually evoked shit on a shingle. Pigs in a blanket were too clever by half — the Chinese sausage really needed actual bread for balance, not the tricked-out coating it got. And the fried quail was just disheartening given that quail is the new duck; the meat was contorted into weirdness and teamed with sludgy banana curry and pickled turmeric. Those little birds need to be laid out as they are, not Spammed. The one dish we really liked was the most normal, a bowlful of grilled asparagus with scrambled eggs and smoked brook trout. When we got everything in a forkful, we could taste a sensational creation. I did like the giardiniera others have dissed, though. WIGB? It was relatively cheap ($107 with four drinks before tip), but, sadly, no. Genius might be best appreciated from afar.

The seriously good again: Lan Sheng in Midtown, where Bob and I made a lunchtime pit stop on the way to Grand Central to pick up his new glasses on a Saturday when the lunchtime options are hen’s-tooth scarce in that neighborhood. He’d been there a week or so earlier at my suggestion and was still raving about the camphor tea-smoked duck, so we had to order that. And the super-satisfying crab soup dumplings. And the intense stir-fried spinach with garlic. And the mysteriously wondrous cucumbers in green sesame sauce. We needed one more stomach in our booth, though, because everything was too good to finish it all. The duck was about as close to Hong Kong as you can find in NYC, the dumplings perfectly presented. I’d rate the service as tolerant at best, but the staff did have shit to deal with on a weekend: vent hoods were being ferried out for cleaning, deliveries were being logged in, communication was failing over liquid leaking from a light fixture. Still, WIGB? Absolutely. It’s not cheap, but it is great. And a lot closer than Flushing.

The happy-making again and again: The Smith across from Lincoln Center, where we landed for dinner after taking an NPR friend for drinks at the bar after the absolutely fabulous Bill Traylor show at the American Folk Art Museum just up the street. A table inside in the sunlight was easy to come by around 5:30 on Friday, and so we had too many carafes of rosé with my outstanding oyster slider BLT and Bob’s chicken under a brick with killer mashed potatoes. My chopped salad tasted undressed and supermarket-supplied when it came to the peppers and cucumbers, but we had fun. WIGB? Yep, and not least because the staff seems so happy to serve you.

The reliable: Mighty Quinn’s in the East Village and Cocina Economica on the Upper West Side, which are actually planets apart on food but deliver equal satisfaction. The brisket on my last trip to MQ was superb, and out-of-town friends and I were able to walk right in early and sit right down to enjoy. And the cemita at CE may be a messy eating experience, but the flavors deliver and the fries are outstanding, especially with the precision salsas.

New York minutes/Early October 2011

The good again: Ditch Plains on the Upper West Side, where we ducked in for wine and salads after popcorn at the outstanding “Moneyball” (“it’s a metaphor”). Jewish holidays really are the best nights to try anything in this town — the place was as empty as the theater,  and not in a depressing way; we got a booth for just the two of us and great service. The half-bottle list should be a deal-breaker, but as Bob points out, not only can we each indulge in our own color but we’d likely drink two glasses anyway. For $18 I got two and a half of a very lively Gavi from Piemonte. Seafood Cobb salad was too much to finish even in the appetizer size, with salmon, shrimp (WTF was I thinking not to have them hold it), bacon and avocado, and the spicy salad with shrimp was just as jazzy and carefully prepared as it was the first time we ever had it. WIGB? I hope it lasts, because: yes. A menu that huge should not be that consistent. 100 West West 82d Street off Columbus, 212 362 4815.

The great addition to the neighborhood: Momofuku Milk Bar, where we stopped to try the buns and pick up a corn cookie after the Sunday Greenmarket. We expected a huge line, but only half a dozen people were ahead of us, and the serene staff kept things moving even while taking the time to get everything right. Then the 10-minute wait for the buns had to be half that. The $8 pork was good, with juicy meat and cucumbers, but the vegetable for $1 less tasted almost meatier, with mushrooms topped with a sauce, carrot slivers and sprouts. Sriracha took the flavors higher, of course. And the corn cookie was perfection. WIGB? I’m thinking we should walk down for breakfast — the pastrami and cheese and the pistachio croissants looked awfully tempting, and the mile round trip would be a good start to the day. 561 Columbus Avenue at 87th.

New York minutes/Mid-March 2011

The good again: Elsewhere in Hell’s Kitchen, where my consort and I reserved for after the Tow reception for the entrepreneurial journalism center at CUNY and where we arrived full from Evans catering but not so stuffed we couldn’t appreciate how great those portobello sliders are. We shared a respectable escarole/bacon/walnut salad to start, then each had one of the three sliders, chunked with spicy remoulade, and took the last home for an outstanding cold lunch next day for me. The place was pretty empty on this latest go, so the waiter had plenty of energy to oversell the gruner. WIGB? Anytime. Everything about it is way better than the neighborhood usually inflicts. 403 West 43d Street, 212 315 2121.

The half-bad: The Breslin in that weird zone of cheesy wholesale fashion, where we met three friends for a 9 o’clock Sunday breakfast and where the seating and setting made up for the lame food. The place is overdesigned to the max, right down to nonfunctioning water fountains in the basement, so we were happy with our booth with adjustable lighting, plug-ins for phones etc. and retractable curtain and buzz light to summon servers. They seemed disturbingly on, hyper and super-chatty at that empty/early hour. But the food. (And the coffee! My cappuccino tasted bitter and scorched, no matter how gorgeous the foam pattern was.) Our orders took forever, after we took forever ordering, and my grilled cheese with house-cured ham was totally flavor-free, even when slathered with coarse-grain mustard. Bob’s special bubble & squeak was more like bland & grease. One friend shared a good chunk of his skirt steak, which tasted livery to us. And I did not taste another’s Greek yogurt although Bob declared it a rival to sour cream. But Friend No. 3 was not a bit happy with her grapefruit, sliced on the bottom to sit flat but “whacked back and forth” without separating the segments, and encrusted with a clumped “ginger sugar mint” topping. WIGB? Only with friends from out of town on expense account. A for ambiance. D for cooking. 16 West 29th Street in the Ace Hotel, 212 679 1939.

The worth-the-line: Doughnut Plant on the Lower East Side, where I lured my consort before our awesome class at Pizza a Casa a coupla doors away. We hit it just right, with only two people waiting on the sidewalk as we walked up, so 15 minutes didn’t matter. Bob was happy with his tres leches cake doughnut, and we were both awed by the raspberry jam-filled square yeast doughnut I chose. So much so that we wrapped half up and schlepped it home to let The Cat taste before fighting over it. WIGB, though? Only if the line was nonexistent, or if an out-of-continenter was really hellbent on trying it. 379 Grand Street near Norfolk,

New York minutes/Early March 2011

The surprisingly good: The Astor Room in the landmark Kaufman Astoria Studios, where four of us were lucky enough to land after a great couple of hours at the Museum of the Moving Image across the street when Pachanga Patterson did not appear to be open and M. Wells was too far and too overcommitted with a 40-minute wait. I had low hopes, seeing the half-empty if hugely atmospheric room (the old actors’ commissary), but it was the first day of Saturday brunch, and the promise of free Bloody Marys (or mimosas) certainly sounded seductive. And these would have been spectacular at any price, thick with horseradish and each tall glass topped with both a lemon wedge and a caperberry. We passed plates, so I can vouch for my consort’s jerk chicken and waffles (juicy, perfectly fried breast and leg); Diane’s spinach and goat cheese omelet with, as billed, “robust flavors” plus accompaniments of both roasted potatoes and salad; my own lump crab melt with avocado and tomato under a blanket of melted Fontina, and Len’s “Astor Disaster,” a crazy-sounding but very harmonious layering of French toast, barbecued short rib, bacon, poached egg, Cheddar and onion rings. Who cared that the fries with his and my order were just industrial? The bill, with one coffee and a Lavazzo espresso, was all of $55 before the tip. Lagniappe: The chef, a David Burke protégé, came out to chat. WIGB? Absolutely. What better double bill for the Alain Resnais program at the museum? And the fried oyster and egg sandwich looked pretty enticing. 34-12 36th Street, Astoria, 718 255 1947.

The good again: Elsewhere in Hell’s Kitchen, where we stupidly assumed we’d have the room to ourselves after 8 after a work drink for a story and where the half-hour wait was well worth it. This time we were seated in the “garden” room, which was also a plus. We split popcorn with “bacon butter” to start, so I could finish only part of my portobello sliders, awesome as they were: mushrooms grilled like beef, topped with Fontina, layered in brioche with lettuce and “green” tomato that looked more yellow, and teamed with spicy remoulade. I could swear Bob made me taste tender lamb on polenta or grits, but it doesn’t appear to be on the menu now. WIGB? For sure. This is the new Theater District, with serious cooking in the hours when restaurants are usually dark. 403 West 43d Street, 212 315 2121.

The not bad: Piadina in the West Village, where friends lured us back for the “cheap and awesome food” despite our recollection of the namesake dish tasting like quesadillas in an Irish Catholic orphanage (hint: like communion hosts stuffed with scraps). And they were quite right. The room was charming, the salad was satisfying and my $14.50 garganelli in cream with peas and a plethora of prosciutto proved to be outstanding. I didn’t taste our friends’ food, but they seemed happy, so I’ll assume Bob’s watery orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe had to be an aberration. Points off, too, for the dismissive service. I will never understand why, if times are so tough, so many waiters just clear wineglasses and plates without asking: Hey, suckahs — want anything more? WIGB? Maybe. It was pretty cheap. (More points off, though, for cash-only.) 57 West 10th Street, 212 460 8017.

The apparently forgettable: Superfine in DUMBO, where the Bugses and we headed after hearing Gabrielle Hamilton talk about her memoir at Powerhouse Arena and where we were able to walk right in and sit right down and hear each other, which was key with Dr. B p*ant-gearing up to appear on the Colbert Report next night. I was a little unnerved on passing the pool table on the way in, but it’s a pretty nice space. And the reds we ordered were pretty good and affordable. Otherwise, I know there were steak frites and grilled mahi passed around, and I had decent pasta with goat cheese, broccoli and pancetta; the fourth dish has escaped my cranial sieve. WIGB? Possibly if we wound up in that neighborhood on a cold night again. Otherwise, Hecho en Dumbo on the Bowery is calling. . . 126 Front Street at Pearl, 718 243 9005.

Quick takes: Luke’s Lobster on Amsterdam came through yet again with meaty, overstuffed, thoroughly satisfying lobster rolls for all of $15 apiece. Fedora in the West Village came through with a totally transporting bar, the best argument for preservation (I could almost see Dawn Powell knocking back a few stiff ones there). And Terrizzi in Astoria delivered as a total trip, the one bakery we dared walk into after passing so many that looked so industrial. Sfogliatelle seemed Naples-worthy, with flaky dough and a sweet ricotta filling, and it came with character from the elderly woman in charge. She said we could find something like it in “The City.” Maybe. But not with her salesmanship.

New York minutes/Mid-November 2009

The somewhat good: Qi near Union Square, where I made the mistake of tempting the restaurant demons by going back after a promising first encounter. I just stumbled upon it while heading home from the Greenmarket and couldn’t resist the $6.90 two-course lunch special; for $1 more I got a hoisin duck banh mi plus mushroom spring rolls. The duck was that rarity: succulent meat that did not taste as if it had been dead for weeks. And it came in a huge slab of soft baguette with pickled daikon and carrot plus cucumber, cilantro and Asian mayonnaise. The spring rolls were fine for what they were. It was way too much food, but I ate it. The staff seemed overwhelmed, but the place was so overdesigned it almost compensated. So I suggested four of us meet there for Saturday lunch before heading on a death march through half a dozen photo galleries in Chelsea. This time the service was not just bumbling but annoying; food came three dishes at a time, with a lag for the fourth, and the waiters were constantly either seizing half-finished plates or grabbing chopsticks away. The communal tables and stools seemed even less comfortable. And while the duck sandwich was still satisfying, one friend was disappointed in his BM made with honey BBQ grilled pork, as was my consort with his pad see euw — both seemed to be missing a serious spark. Corn-chive steamed dumplings tasted like neither ingredient and were slightly gummy to boot, and the fried chicken and shrimp dumplings were not much better. Pam, however, seemed happy with her noodles with tender beef, spiced with the menu called Asian cinnamon but tasted like star anise. At least the price was right: $25 a couple with tax, tip and three types of tea. No extra charge for the entertainment of trying to figure out how the faucet worked in the design-fail bathroom. Defeated, Jeff wound up washing his hands in the unattended bar sink. WIGB? Possibly. The duck is good, and there aren’t a lot of great cheap options around there. 31 West 14th Street, 212 929 9917.

The port in a storm: La Bergamote in Chelsea, where we rested our dogs after the gallery death march. We had to sit at a dirty table, but at least we got a table, and at least we did summon someone to clean it eventually, and at least the cashier was pleasant and accommodating given how swamped he was. After overhearing a parent on the High Line promising a kid hot chocolate, two among us had to order that, and the payoff was rather thin. Chocolate mousse was what it was, and the mango and the pear paté de fruit could only be described as French Chuckles, with way too much sugar and understated flavor. Best thing on the table was a simple cookie. And my sparkling water. WIGB? Maybe. We did get to sit down in a bright and lively room. 169 Ninth Avenue at 20th Street, 212 627 9010.