New York minutes, catch-up and new

Something old: Brasserie Magritte on the Upper East Side, where my consort and I headed after the divisive “Inside Llewyn Davis”* rather than resorting to our usual Toloache in that restaurant dead zone. The place looks great, with, of course, paintings and symbols hanging everywhere. And the staff was quite friendly. But we got an odd table, too wide for two and in an awkward spot, and the cooking would be more suited to musty French joints in the Theater District. My sad duck confit, an appetizer, seemed fatigued, while Bob’s $25 coq au vin looked and tasted like yesterday’s special. The $9 frites with two sauces at least delivered. WIGB? Maybe. It is a dead zone. And the setting did motivate us to go see the real Magrittes at MOMA, which were totally vaut le voyage.

*I’m apparently alone in liking it. Not least for the “where are his testicles?” scene.

Something new: Cafe Luxembourg on the Upper West Side, where I met a great friend who was staying off Times Square and wanted to meet in that dead zone between him and me. As I promised, “The food is not dazzling, but the place is pleasant.” And it still has its charm, and good energy, but the waitress seemed not quite up to the selling job for the menu and wine. I was tempted by my usual fish and chips (for the fries) but thought I should give a special a try; my reward was a beautiful slab of $32 halibut cooked dry, with no sauce, just a scattering of ramps and vegetables. Rolando said his sea bass was in the same sorry state. He had tuna crudo to start and we sort of split the rather dinery profiteroles. He sent back first glass of wine because it was too sweet (not fruity — sweet), and I noticed how chintzy the flatware felt. Still, WIGB? Sure. For the fish and chips and the space and, not least, the acoustics. Our table felt as if we were under a dome. We could actually talk.

While I’ve been DAOTI, sad fates have befallen a couple of places in my catch-up pile of receipts. Casa Pomona on the Upper West Side, where we took refuge after “American Hustle” one night when Kefi’s kitchen was closed early (where are we? Middle Earth?), is apparently becoming a Flex Mussels. The food on that second or third visit was respectable (three types of croquetas, cheese, migas) and certainly the service was snappy. But seafood might be an improvement. And Calliope has lost its chefs, which means the end of the best cheeseburgers I have ever eaten. I’m just glad I had the foresight to go have one last one before I even knew it would be the last — I’d sent friends there, but they apparently are not into cerebral experiences and were underwhelmed, so I took myself back just to see if it was as spectacular as I’d remembered. And it was even better: great beef, cooked perfectly, on chewy ciabatta that stood up to the sturdiness of the meat, with perfect fries and a mustardy sauce for both spreading and dipping. This was a late lunch, so the gorgeous room was quiet. I’m just sorry we never made it there for dinner. The spicy tripe Bob ordered twice at brunch was amazing both times.  And I’m saying that about tripe.

New York minutes/Latish November

The geographically good: West Bank Cafe, where we retreated yet again after a movie down the street (the overwrought “Precious”) when our first choice, Chez Jacqueline,  was dark. We just had good salads, the inevitable Caesar for me and the endive with blue cheese mousse for my consort, plus wine, but the hostess let us take up a table for four (admittedly, in a nearly empty room). Points off for distracted service, but WIGB? Absolutely. It’s reliable and affordable in a food desert. 407 West 42d Street, 212 695 6909.

The not bad: La Petite Abeille in Tribeca, where we wound up because of my bad planning and Bob’s growling stomach after the Greenmarket on Greenwich and before our friend’s gallery opening on Duane (with amazing pictures of the “vanishing continent’s” icebergs). I had thought we could try Bouley’s market, but they’ve really got to turn down those steam tables — the duck is desiccating as you watch — and the Vietnamese place we both remembered appears to have vanished. So croques madame and monsieur it was. I had the former, which was more like a grilled cheese than an open-face affair, but it was surprisingly satisfying, with a big mound of decent fries and just enough greens with a half-tomato flavored with julienned basil. The food took three years to arrive as my stomach started grumbling in harmony, but it was worth the wait and the cacophony of shrieking children (why does only the Upper West Side get dissed for being stroller central?) WIGB? Inevitably. 134 West Broadway, 212 791 1360.

The stuff-stuff-with-heavy: Candle Cafe on upper Third Avenue, where we agreed to meet a great photographer friend in from Chicago with his vegetarian daughter, who was in town to check out colleges. Another meat-spurning friend had recommended it, and it was what it was, but surprisingly busy (as we were coming in, an older woman was stomping out, muttering, “I can’t take this!”) The mezze plate with hummus, tabouli, olives and paratha-esque bread with it was promising, but the “Indian plate” I ordered just to tempt fate failed to deliver. Aside from the vibrantly seasoned blackeye peas, the components were all stodgy: chunks of sweet potato and turnip; Russia-worthy chunks of cabbage; a huge mound of yellow rice, and a diabetes-inducing date chutney plus more of that respectable bread. Bob’s chipotle-grilled tofu, though, was surprisingly great. The portions, of course, were huge. I could be vegetarian if I lived in India. Not on the Upper East Side. WIGB? Not likely.

The promising: Focacceria Piccola Cucina in the Village, where we ducked in on a reconnaissance after our too-filling lunch at Abeille and could not resist a $4 slab of the regular focaccia al formaggio because the “kid” selling it sounded so Italian (and not in the waiter-in-a-snooty-restaurant way). Even reheated the next day, it was a respectable   version of the Ligurian specialty, with the right proportion of thin dough to oozy crescenza cheese.  The shop is tiny, but it looks like one you might wander into in Recco. And it’s nice to see Minetta Tavern inspiring a better quality of food options on that street. WGIB? Have to. 120 MacDougal Street, 212 677 7707.

New York minutes/Mid-September 2007

The pretty good: BXL Cafe, where my consort and I had quite a satisfying lunch at a corner table out of the monsoon and where I gained new respect for (either that or it is maturing fast). I thought I knew every restaurant in that grim neighborhood, but this Belgian bar turned up in a fast search when menupages was unnavigable after Bob called suggesting I meet him on an unexpected break from his new gig down the block at ICP. The place feels like the old theater district, with the walls hung with Belgian beer signs and not a chain detail in sight. The service started slow but progressed to perfect, the sauvignon blanc was better than $8 would lead you to expect and the bread and butter were superb. It was hard to fault Bob’s Caesar with chicken, and I was fine with my grilled vegetable-goat cheese sandwich once I tasted the crisp fries and mayonnaise alongside it (over a heavily dressed mesclun salad). WIGB? Probably often, given where it is and he’ll be. 125 West 43d Street, 212 678 0200.

The not bad: Bistro Cassis, where we resorted yet again after a movie and where we left thinking, yet again, how scarily easy it is to run through a hundred bucks on nothing much anymore. The place is always lively, and the host always finds a table, and the service is generally earnest. My sole was not a spectacular piece of fish, but the lemony sauce with it helped, as did the julienned carrots and zucchini underneath. Bob was much happier with his huge paneed pork chop with salad on top and lardons all around. We split a $30 bottle of Chateau de Grollet rose′, one of the very few cheap choices on the list, and then the $93 tab with tip, after which we had to stop and remember that our first big dinner in Manhattan, at Le Lavandou for my birthday in 1982, cost a then-staggering $125. I think we have to start eating at home before the movies. Either that or start finding bars with ample snacks afterward. WIGB? Unfortunately, inevitably, given how few decent alternatives exist near the theaters we frequent. 225 Columbus Avenue, 212 579 3966.

The compromised: Saravanaas, where the seriously great cooking is always offset by the go-fuck-yourself-in-Tamil attitude. We stopped in for Saturday lunch after the Greenmarket, when the usually zooey place was two-thirds empty, and got a table right away. Then, after a long wait, Bob got his “business lunch” and, after a much longer wait, my South Indian thali finally arrived. Both were exceptional, though, with sublime spicing. I even liked the syrup-soaked sweet among the three that came on my too-big platter. All three breads were India-worthy, too. As always, we left wondering about the sign over the sinks in an alcove off the dining room: “For hand washing only.” What else could they mean? Fannies? WIGB? Undoubtedly, although Chola at lunch is better and a better deal, just in the wrong neighborhood on a Saturday after the Greenmarket. 81 Lexington Avenue at 26th Street, 212 679 0204.

The improved: Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, where I probably swore I would never go back but where I found myself on an afternoon when I needed an expeditious cheap lunch between the Greenmarket and the F/V train. For the first time, the kitchen took its time, and so the Peking duck dumplings were properly fried. They still didn’t have brilliant flavor, but they were fast enough. And done right. 61 West 23d Street, 212 924 9220.