New York minutes/December 2012

The always good: Momofuku Ssam, where my consort and I ate dinner after the fabulous-as-promised “Searching for Sugar Man” and where I met up with friends for lunch the next day because I knew it would be an entirely different restaurant. Bob and I snared seats at the bar as soon as we walked in and got advice on either side on what to choose: unfishy Spanish mackerel with a schmear of black garlic plus lotus root and airy-crisp chips made from lime peel, then a creamy, light Jerusalem artichoke soup with snails, bits of pork jowl and sliced jalapeño that was just killer, every bite with each element alone and then with all combined. After a very large popcorn, we couldn’t finish the great spicy pork sausage and rice cakes with Chinese broccoli and Sichuan peppercorns (the cakes were like crunchy gnocchi). The bartender let me taste the Greek white, and it, too, was so good I felt safe ordering a bottle the next afternoon for friends who drink sauvignon blanc and Sancerre. The roast duck breast was, as always, stunningly good, as were the spicy fingerlings served in the set, although the duck dumplings were a little more fried than usual. I thought we had under-ordered in sharing those two dishes and insisted we try the duck wings. Which were pleasant enough but outshone by both the tempura squash and the watercress-apple-pumpkinseed salad on the plate. Wally was horrified when she saw the cook in the kitchen right next to our table drench the latter in duck fat, but not when she tasted it.

The vaut le schlep: Lao Dong Bei in Flushing, where I met the eating-Asian group I’ve been so fortunate to be invited to explore with and to whom I am so happy to leave the ordering. I arrived as the chef/owner and our Taiwanese-speaking leader were deep in discussion of all we needed to try to get a sense of the food from that part of China, formerly known as Manchuria, and he was translating that we would get “skin jelly” on the house. That turned out to be a sort of aspic meant to be dunked in a soy sauce-vinegar-garlic-ginger sauce, and it was the one dish I couldn’t brave. I usually can’t stomach lamb, either, but the slab of ribs that soon landed was exceptional: the meat tender, the crust crusty with black and white sesame seeds, cumin seeds and chile. (Coal is the cooking fuel in Dong Bei, that region.) It was rivaled only by the spicy quail, a platter of legs that may have been a bit overcooked but had great flavor and spicing, especially with the onions alongside (a tablemate likened them to liver and onions, but the little birds had none of that funky flavor). We also had two meatless dishes, “tiger vegetable,” which was mostly cilantro stems and jalapeños, and something off the specials on the wall in Chinese that the table translated as bracken (and was pretty great). “Fried pork in orange sauce,” as the menu had it, turned out to be very tender slices in a crisp but delicate coating (“thinking man’s General Pso’s?”). The showstoppers were served in hotpots over Sterno lit by the waitress/wife: the richest, most intense broth with chicken, mushrooms and vermicelli, followed by a whole fish in another rich broth with fermented tofu and glass noodles, both dishes seriously well-spiced (star anise?) After all that, our 24 steamed dumplings landed, stuffed with pork and pickled cabbage and made for dunking in the sauce from the skin jelly. WIGB? Actually, I would even on my own with a new crew, not just because the food was so eye-opening but because the owners were so thrilled to have a bunch of non-Chinese in the restaurant. The chef was clearly invested in us loving everything we ate, and his wife could not have been more eager to keep the customers satisfied. 44-09 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, 718 539 4100.

The happy-making, twice in a row: Toloache on the Upper East Side, where Bob and I warmed up after the outstanding Ann Hamilton installation at the Park Avenue Armory and again after the bloody-great “Django Unchained.” We got a nice booth for a quiet lunch to share the best-ever tortilla soup and then carnitas/nopales tacos, which the waiter warned were bite-size but were actually handfuls, and the huarache, a light masa cake filled with black beans, surrounded with chunks of chorizo and sauce and topped with ultra-creamy scrambled eggs. Even early on Saturday night, though, we could only get seats at the bar after calling to reserve, but the bartenders were excellent. We had to have the tortilla soup again, then the quesadilla with huitlacoche and truffle and more tacos, these filled with Modelo-braised brisket with tomatillo salsa and horseradish crema. WIGB? Absolutely. It’s a beautiful place and much more comfortable than the one in the Theater District. (That tortilla soup did such a good job of vanquishing Bob’s serial-killer cold that he insisted we stop and try the new Spanish LeChurro shop we passed nearby, where the hot chocolate with chilies was perfection although the churros themselves were doughy.)

The good again: Parm in Nolita, where we wound up after an Illy-stockup at DiPalo (best price in town) even though I had had dumplings on the brain on that day after Christmas — after reading this scary story on the train on industrial pork, eggplant parmesan sounded so much more enticing. We were lucky and had to wait only 15 minutes for a table to tuck into three great little salads, the pickles being the least surprising. Buffalo cucumbers were as good as you’d expect: chunks in a blue cheese dressing spiked with hot sauce, and excellent, while chickpeas in ranch dressing with celery qualified as genius. We should have split a hero; a roll was messy to eat once cut in half, but that eggplant was pretty fabulous. And of course we had to have the ice cream cake that had just been written up; I must not get out enough because it didn’t strike me as anything extraordinary aside from the strawberry goo holding the three flavors of ice cream together. WIGB? Anytime. The staff’s attitude is so upbeat, and the music was all flashbacks from my childhood.

The better than its ingredients: Tortaria just south of Union Square, where Bob and I ducked in for a quick lunch after the Greenmarket when all the cool joints mostly had eggs and after he Yelped it up and remembered he’d had a good fast lunch there. You order at a counter and sit at a table you hope has been wiped down, but the window area is as nice as the people, and the guacamole is way above average — we asked for spicy, and it was perfectly balanced with heat and richness; the huge bag of chips was obviously freshly fried. We split two plates of tacos, one with beef and the other carnitas, and both blew Chipotle out of the agua. Table salsas only enhanced the intense flavors. WIGB? Definitely. The people are pleasant, and the price is right, too. (Although I know the tradeoff is less-than-Chipotle meat.)

The undeniably good but probably doomed: Forager’s Table in Chelsea, where we hooked up for geographic convenience with a food aficionado in from Denver after my consort spoke at the School of Visual Arts and where the food and service were so impressive the near-emptiness of the nicely designed room was mystifying. We were disappointed the menu was so tiny compared with the extensive bait online, so Bob and I wound up ordering only appetizers after a shared (and superb) eggplant dip with cumin and lavash. His fluke carpaccio looked stunning, coated with toasted poppy seeds, and tasted sublime, with lemon vinaigrette, and my duck liver paté was fatty-satisfying, with perfectly grilled bread (and, for once, plenty of it) plus cornichons and grainy mustard. We only tasted Matt’s beautifully cooked fish with root vegetables. With a couple of glasses of wine each and a beer for him, it was $51 a person with tax and tip. WIGB? Hope so . . . Wish it had opened in our neighborhood.

The “how do you say kinks en Español?”: Casa Pomona on the Upper West Side, where a Spain-besotted friend and I landed for a drink in the first days after it was open and where it was one stumble after another. The worst was that the bartender offered to split the one glass of white he had left from one of the three bottles on the list, but he charged us for two. And I didn’t realize it until I was walking home, wondering how the tab was so high for three glasses of wine and one shared tapa, the migas. I’ve never had that in Spain, but I’m assuming it is not always a well-cooked egg topped with a little bit of chorizo and some dried croutons. WIGB? Probably, so Bob can try it. But the wine choices were so limited, and that little gouge didn’t help.

The not bad: Kelso Dining in Brooklyn, where I took Bob for lunch to try a Panamanian carimañola for a recipe I needed to develop. As good as those meat-filled yuca tubes were, the real stars on the table were the drinks: sorrel and tamarind, big glasses filled with ice and sweet-sour brightness. Both were perfect counterpoints to the richness of the fried yuca I also insisted on ordering, and to both the stewed chicken and the superb salt fish with rice and peas on the $10 lunch plate. It was like eating in the Caribbean. The owner and waitress couldn’t have been friendlier, even sending us off with a “souvenir” of the housemade hot sauce. WIGB? If I were in the neighborhood.

The port in a storm: A.G. Kitchen on the Upper West Side, where we landed after getting shut out of two other places (Loi, you had to hold a Tony Danza private party?) after the way overhyped “Chasing Ice.” It’s just the latest incarnation of the space, but the menu is more energetic. The hostess happily gave us a booth, and the waiter was patient. I didn’t try the burger one friend appeared to enjoy, but I’ll vouch for the fries. My salad was quite good, with Bibb lettuce, bacon and Cabrales dressing, and it was all of $9. Even better was Bob’s “samba” chicken, well-marinated and cooked juicy; The Cat loved the leftovers. Extra points for decent New Zealand sauvignon blanc for a non-gougey $36, and for a low noise level. WIGB? Why not?

The price is right: Cocina Economica on the Upper West Side, where we snared a table after an early showing of the seriously good “Silver Linings Playbook” and where the only thing that would keep me from going back was the space — it’s great-looking, but too many tables are crammed in so tightly the waiters can barely navigate. Everything was so cheap I hoped the chefs know restaurant math, because it’s hard to see how they’ll make money on an $8 skirt steak salad with avocado, lettuce, poblanos, jicama and cotija when it’s mostly meat. Bob’s braised pork loin for $13 was a mega-portion/plate as well, with Swiss chard, corn, green beans and pumpkin seeds. Maybe they’ll clean up on the ill-conceived avocado corn bread, baked to desiccation in a corn husk and desperately needing the superb salsas that arrived with it.

And the good as always when we’re eating close to home: Mermaid Inn on Amsterdam, where we met up with friends in from Bucks County before a balloon party on Tryptophan Eve and where the service was especially ebullient and the food pretty much as reliable as always. We had a 6:30 reservation, so happy hour prices were in order; I got there last to find a mini fish taco was on its way for me and a full glass of the discounted wine was waiting. The other three shared oysters while I ate my three-bite tilapia with spicy mayo. I was trying to abstain and only had the lobster knuckles given escargot treatment, which certainly is a lovely way to get $14 for scraps. They were swimming in less butter than I expected, but they were certainly satisfying. I just tasted Bob’s good skate and watched our friends tear through the trout and the spaghetti topped with seafood salad. They were thrilled with the free chocolate dessert. And with the waiter, who recognized us from many Social Media Mondays and was fully engaged. We went back a couple of weeks later with one of Bob’s boyhood friends who now lives in Sweden, and he loved it, too.

New York minutes/Mid-December 2009

The womb-like: Beco in Greenpoint, where nine of us headed just for drinks after a friend’s gallery talk nearby and where the staff could not have been more accommodating, pulling together tables and handing us all menus drink-side up rather than taking umbrage at the prospect of no food tab. I ordered a $6 sauvignon blanc before realizing caipirinhas were the way to go. Four of us walked out to hearty thanks and shivered to the L close by wondering why we can’t have a place like that in our neighborhood. Of course, the answer is obvious: Ridiculous rents and stroller gridlock. WIGB? Absolutely. It was so pleasant, and the well-priced Brazilian menu looked promising. 45 Richardson Street near Lorimer, Brooklyn, 718 599 1645.

The when-did-it-turn-so-touristy?: Keens Steakhouse too close to Macy’s, where we rushed back from Brooklyn on a Sunday night to meet steak-craving friends literally just off the plane from India, Madagascar and Mauritius and where I’m surprised their heads didn’t explode from culture shock.  We were shunted to a table upstairs, a room that felt like an over-lit theme park, with unsmoked pipes on the ceiling and waiters, hostesses and other diners all snapping photos of grinning Middle Americans, but that was not the worst of it. I can’t recall service that unservicey in a restaurant where entrees are in the $40s — our guy spent most of the evening lounging against the bar after taking our wine and food orders. The Bugses split a $90 porterhouse, but my consort and I were overwhelmed by the $43.50 sirloin; we all shared decent creamed spinach and a big order of fries. (And there was a tray of gargantuan carrot sticks and celery stalks with olives and blue cheese dip in the middle of the table, another heartland touch, as were the mints at the door and $1 coat check fee posted on a brass plate at the checkroom.) We took most of our steak home, and it tasted just as odd sliced and seared next day. Maybe we’re just used to better beef everywhere these days, but this was downright peculiar. Do they store it too close to the mutton? WIGB? Not if you paid me. I don’t remember it being that bad, but then the last time I ate in the dining room I think was after 9/11 when I did a piece for the NYTimes on vintage restaurants thriving in a shattered city. Too bad you can’t eat the 1885 scenery.

New York minutes/Late March/beginning of April 2008

The good: Gallo Nero, where I met a friend for lunch after finding a promo card in our doggie bag from Film Center Cafe. The place was so new you could smell the wood, but the kitchen was clearly settled in. We split only small plates: fine meatballs in pesto (where has that combination been all my life?), sauteed mushrooms on crisp toast with melted cheese, and beautifully fried calamari, zucchini slices and shrimp. The one letdown was our own damn fault — when the engaging Albanian waiter came back to say the kitchen had no buffalo mozzarella for the platter with prosciutto and roasted peppers, we insisted on substituting grana padano. Close but no mozzarella, and the peppers were pallid. But the warm roll was satisfyingly crusty and came with a nice bean puree, and the wines from an extensive list were poured by the quartino, and the waiter knew them all well. Also, the room is charming, the low-slung chairs so comfortable I wasn’t hobbling when I stood up and the bathroom as cozy as one on a train. WIGB? Soon, I hope. 402 West 44th Street west of Ninth Avenue, 212 265 6660

The not awful: Zamba, where my consort and I wound up for lunch after our usual Saturday morning run to the Greenmarket and Chelsea Market and after I had done a quick run through Menupages to see what might be escaping my notice in a neighborhood where I almost spend more time than I do around home. We snared two seats at the bar and had plenty of time to study the very cool design — you could imagine yourself in Torino if not for the crowd, which Bob immediately sized up as “Upper East Side but younger” — because the bartender’s efficiency seemed to be hobbled by his struggle to keep his low-slung pants from falling off his underpants. If not for my outstanding $10 glass of grillo, we could have been eating in a diner, though. My shiitake, taleggio and arugula sandwich with truffle oil was so rich it was almost queasy-making, even for this Mrs. Sprat, while Bob’s grilled eggplant with mozzarella and arugula was only redeemed by the tapenade spread on the focaccia in which it was grilled. Both came with a surprisingly lively little chickpea salad. WIGB? Maybe. Not much affordable around there, and the chalkboard wine list is long and enticing. 306 West 13th Street west of Eighth Avenue, 212 205 0601.

The well-situated: Chop Suey, where I lured Bob after his class at ICP both for proximity’s sake and because I remained curious after rejecting it for lunch with a fussy friend, and where we both didn’t really care about not-great food at inflated prices simply because the view of Times Square actually makes the middle-American armpit of New York look alluring. It was just after 8, so we got a great four-top looking in three directions, including toward several tables of “Sex and the City” wannabes. The less-than-wonderful scallion cakes were redeemed by an Asian pear mostarda, while the char siew roast pork was leathery and mostly noodles. Easily the best choice was the tofu hot pot, which had great flavor and sublime texture. Wine is served by the quartino, and we each nursed ours at $13-14 apiece. WIGB? When I hit the lottery, maybe. The bill with tip was $92 for three appetizers, two glasses. Renaissance Hotel, 47th and Seventh Avenue, 212 765 7676.

The transporting: Buzina Pop, where Bob and I took refuge after bailing on a free dinner with potentially boring strangers in the same neighborhood and where we found ourselves feeling far, far from Upper East Side stuffiness. He’s been to Brazil, I haven’t, but he said it felt very familiar to him; the stools at the booths across from us were made from tin cans, the curtains had boots imprinted in the design, a little shop in the corner of the second-floor dining room sold crafty things. We got there at the magic hour, just before it filled up (by about half Brazilians) and got loud, but at our little table by the window it was easy to talk if not read the menu (larger print or much bigger candles, please). While we were deciding, two rounds of salt cod fritters were laid on the table, followed by excellent warm bread with superb herbed olive oil. We split an order of exceptional crispy calamari set over arugula in tomato sauce, then a salad of arugula, endive and grana padana and an order of manioc gnocchi that were like eating flavored air. The very charming waiter kept our glasses refilled at $9 a pop, and we were out before the human larva toted in by the Carrie wannabe could start to howl. WIGB? If I found myself in the vicinity with a flashlight, absolutely. As we realized, it reflects a neighborhood changing as foreigners invest. And that is all to the good. 1022a Lexington Avenue near 74th Street, 212 879 6190.

The reliable: Pearl (even when the chowder is a little salty and the clams a little MIA, lunch there is an antidepressant, especially with a friend willing to share a Caesar, a fried oyster roll and those great fries) and Rosa Mexicano on 18th (even when I order the wrong enchiladas and get essentially wet vegetable tacos).