Picture yourself on a couch in the lobby of the Whitney after the kick-ass, so-urgently-political Biennial, and you’re trying to find a place to have a nice (not stand-up-in-a-stall-at-Chelsea-Market) lunch and Yelp is no help as you back-and-forth on restos you both like but have been to way too often. And then it comes upon you that Cookshop gets so much Twitter love and is just a High Line walk away. The last time I was there was with another professional eater, and I suspect her ears are still ringing from our brunch. But my consort and I landed right before 2 on a Wednesday and got a table for four in the back where we could sit side by side and not yell even a little bit. An hour later we walked out pretty much wanting to RT everyone who touts the hell out of the joint. We split an order of tempura-fried squid that transported me back to my best meal in Torino last summer, at a seafood resto in the great open-air market, where I had the perfect combination of fresh seafood and precise cooking. The little, light, just-salty-enough rings were laid over lemon aioli, so we got to dunk when you needed to, after appreciating the freshness and the frying. Bob’s lamb sausage sandwich was also world-class if messy, with the not-gamy-at-all meat stuffed into a bun between black olive aioli and pickled cucumber slices and teamed with faultless French fries. My asparagus “casserole,” though, was just what i deserved for ordering for $15 what I could have done at home for a coupla bucks: blanket a few spears with a sludge of melted cheeses. Coffee, though, was outstanding. Rosé? Ditto. WIGB? Not at crunch time, but absolutely.
When it comes to getting motivated to write about a consistently great experience, the fourth time is apparently the charm. We just ate at a Fonda again and came away, once again, as amazed by the service as the food. It might be a little worrisome that we feel compelled to order the same dishes at both the Park Slope and the Chelsea locations, but if you tasted ‘em you’d know why. They are consistently great. Start with the guacamole, which is served not just with chips but with warm fresh corn tortillas and a little ramekin of chipotle(?) sauce. Order the outstanding queso fundido with chorizo, which also comes with warm tortillas and a little ramekin, this time of salsa verde. Get the crab croquettes, three to an order, perched atop different sauces (and sometimes over-dusted with chile flakes). Get the zarape de pato, tender chunks of duck layered in more fresh corn tortillas with a creamy roasted tomato-habanero sauce. Get the taquitos, especially the ones with crisp pork belly. Get the refried beans with queso fresco and avocado. Get a classic margarita. Maybe two. You could order a main course, but the food communicates so clearly in small bites that you could almost be eating Chinese. You’ll walk, not waddle, away feeling so pleased.
Note: On our latest visit, we tried a flan, one made with cajeta. Suffice it to say I grew up in a Mexican neighborhood and will never believe desserts are part of the program. Except for pumpkin empanadas, which of course are not a cena-ender.
Note 2: We called last minute for a reservation for our last foray, in Brooklyn, and they fit us in. And when they asked for our six-top back after we’d paid but were lingering to shoot the breeze with friends we see too seldom, they offered to move us to the bar, shots on the house. WIGB? Anytime, any location. Even though brunch is deafening.
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.
My new goal in catching up on endless meals not rated is to grab a receipt off the dusty pile on my desk and just type. And so I’m here to say the Todd English Food Hall under the Plaza Hotel was — shockingly — not bad at all. Which I remember even though that was way back in November. We were in the neighborhood for a photo opening, and my brilliant idea of just dropping in on Betony was thwarted right at the end of the long line out that door. So we forged on and into what felt like “The Shining,” given that the eerily empty lobby floor was only missing Scatman Crothers, now that absentee Russian oligarchs apparently own all the high-priced crash pads on our little island. But once we pushed through the doors into the basement, it was like walking into a 1 percent food court — nearly every stool occupied. Our own private stools were at the end of the pasta counter, where some serious issues were getting acted out, so we were happy to opt for a decent margherita pizza and a “wedge” salad of iceberg amped up with bacon, blue cheese and creamy dressing. Don’t ask why the latter was $17, $3 more than the former. Wines, both red and white, were $14 a glass, but at least the hard-running waiter was there when we needed to reorder. WIGB? Shockingly, yes, if we found ourselves in that food desert again. All diner standards were met: Accessibility, affordability, diversity etc.
Also, too: Apparently we also ate at Chop-Shop in Far West Chelsea in mid-November, too, and the receipt has the deets while what I recall is a place that turns, turns, turns — thanx allah we reserved. Wines were good and wow-priced ($9 a glass for both viognior and nero d’avolo), and pretty much everything we ate was anything but glasian. A special of avocado and tofu summer roll tasted fresh and lively in peanut sauce, the $10 special Thai crab cakes were so generous The Cat got to share next day, while the lamb dumplings made my consort very happy. The one dish we ordered off the menu, the Thai basil eggplant, was off the menu compared with the likes of Spice. WIGB? Absolutely, if in the neighborhood and in the reservation book.
And file this under “Free is a very good price” — After getting stiffed on a high-exposure recipe by a “too busy” “celebrity” chef, I was beyond impressed when Bill Telepan suggested we meet for an interview at noon on a weekday in his restaurant. I anticipated standing around as the grimly wintry local vegetables went flying into sauté pans, but I arrived late and was immediately escorted to a table set for two. Now that was efficiency, even though I had eaten a second breakfast to fuel myself. So my consort’s pro recorder documented my tucking into a fantabulous first course of oozy house-made mozzarella paired with crisp-seared hen of the woods mushrooms, then a main course of good crispy-skinned trout fillets plated with sweet bacon bits and excellent wilted baby spinach with pine nuts. Two hours later I did offer to pay, but my interviewee said a $10 tip would do. And I didn’t argue because my emergency backup $20 bill was nowhere to be found in my bag.
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.
The seriously good: Calliope in the East Village, where my consort and I had the prescience to head for fortification before braving either the art fair on the Bowery or Di Palo’s for an Illy stock-up and where the food was just short of astonishing. And I say that after admitting I ordered the cheeseburger. While it took its savory time arriving, I indulged in my favorite sport, remorsing over not having been more brave and at least trying a sandwich if not the eggs, but what landed definitely merited a whoa! The bun was more like a square ciabatta, the cheddar was actually slices of the crumbly stuff and the ramekin of mayonnaisey sauce alongside made it perfectly clear you would not need either of the usual low-rent condiments, mustard and ketchup. As for the burger itself, the beef (grass-fed organic, the waitress instantly answered when I asked about its provenance) was juicy and bloody in the best way, with an exceptional char. Arrayed alongside this wonder were red-leaf lettuce leaves perfectly sized for that bun, red onion and a slice of tomato that looked malproportioned but turned out to fit exactly into the whole architectural assemblage. Fries, of course, were just as sublime. What was more amazing was steaming in a bowl across the table. Bob’s spicy tripe with egg was so beautifully conceived and executed I actually ate the offal as well as the kick-ass tomato base and vegetables, and the innards turned out to be both tender and tasty. WIGB? As soon as possible (not least because that was the first cheeseburger I have actually finished in nearly eight years). But not for dinner. Even when half-empty at brunchtime, the place makes Bedlam sound like a padded cell.
The not bad: Omai in Chelsea, where I hooked up with Bob and a friend who just won the fellowship he did six years ago in Middle Earth and needed cheerleading and where we were lucky to be seated early — by the time we picked up the kittybag, a line was out the door. I was the one who insisted on ordering the most plebeian item, the spring rolls, so I’m glad I left the rest of the choices to them. Duck was great, ribs not so much. For once, though, the chardonnay trumped the sauvignon blanc, which turned to vinegar against the flavors in the food. Service and sound level both earned an A. WIGB? Why not? It’s not as if you can’t find 18 different lousy Thai experiences just one avenue away.
The promising: Lafayette in NoHo or whatever the hell that area is called these days, where I was lucky enough to be treated to lunch by an editor in for Enron on 12th Street and where one bad server couldn’t spoil the whole experience. The place looks fabulous if a bit French-dinery at street level, and we scored a very comfortable booth, and it was relatively easy to talk among the four of us. (I was the stranger among half of them.) Eggs Lafayette and the tartine of the day had already been delivered when I arrived, and both made great starts. The hard-cooked, halved eggs were heaped high with smoked sable and topped with trout caviar; the tartine involved exceptional bread spread with smoked ricotta and overlaid with radishes and tomato. All of them passed the most rigorous test: We could eat them, by hand, without making a mess of either them or our clothes. I shared the mysterious $18 “Fleur de Soleil” pasta with snap peas, pancetta and mint — the pasta turned out to have a campanile shape and was exquisitely sauced. I can’t judge the grilled shrimp salad with arugula, muscat grapes and caper dressing because I passed on the protein, but I think I got the better end of the deal for an $18 item. I did taste the fries that came with the $25 flatiron steak with béarnaise butter and will give them freedom thumbs up. Not so many to the server, who seemed to be emitting information through gritted teeth. I actually apologized for wondering where the beef came from — when it’s Niman Ranch, he should fucking volunteer it. Our benefactress spotted and had to order the weirdest dessert option — pickled blueberry sorbet — which turned out to be more like frozen borscht. The sablé that came with it was so exquisite, though, I had to pick up a lemon-lime-filled one from the bakery case on the way out. (Which The Cat wasted very little time tearing into.) It was fabulous. WIGB? Even though the waiter made it perfectly clear he had had just about enough of us olds by the end of lunch? A resounding yes.
The GD: Regional on the Upper West Side, where we headed one early evening after seeing friends’ latest work (tumbleweeds, as you’ve never pictured them!) and where we got exactly what we were expecting — a not-terrible meal for a not-exorbitant price just blocks equidistant from both our homes. Oh, and a bottle of Valpolicella Santi at 50 percent off because it was a Wednesday. We shared a more-greens-than-artichoke salad for $10, then passed plates of ravioli fonduta, gnocchi in red sauce, trofie al pesto and lasagne vincigrassi, all in the $13-$15 range and all in the acceptable range. WIGB? It is geographically desirable. It is not awful. Why the hell not?
The lifesaving: The finally opened Birch on the Upper West Side, where I spent several happy hours after Verizon kept us waiting days for Internet restoration (for which it sent two teams to the same floor in our co-op at the same time to fix the same problem). The NYPL’s Bloomingdale branch was pretty great, with comfortable seating and a civilized crowd plus WiFi connection with no purchase required, but this new shop made me realize why the youngs are so happy to while away weeks in a profit-making environment. I would pay $3 or so and get an hour to check in to see how little I was missing on the Twitter and in pol porn. The staff was engaging, the crowd usually not annoying, the setting very sleek. WIGB? Yep. For the flat white alone. Birch’s is the best since Oz.
The seriously good, again: Montmartre in Chelsea, where my consort and I happily headed after French caught our fancy during the phenomenal “Genius of Marian” at the Tribeca Film Festival (showing at the Clearview) and where we were amazed to get a table (for four, no less) instantly, followed by typically great Little Wisco service. It was late for us olds, and we’d shared a small (read Gross) bag of popcorn because we got to the theater too soon, so I only ordered an appetizer. Which turned out to be nearly the size of an entree, for $17: Quail Tunisienne, a whole little bird grilled and quartered and set over couscous and spicy yogurt with dried apricots and toasted almonds. (The Cat WCTLWAFW was thrilled with the breast I brought home). Bob had the $25 “smoked and roasted chicken,” which arrived as cubes of intensely tender, flavorful chicken teamed with a shit-ton of fabulous red peppers and breaded and fried eggplant slices. Even though we ordered so little, we were still presented with an amuse of crab with cucumbers plus superb bread (Sullivan Street?) with good butter. Wines by the glass came in those damn little glasses but were still fine. WIGB? Absolutely. I’m not sure why the “real” critics have it in for the place, but we’re two for two there.
The not bad, again: The Ellington up by Columbia, where we dragged two friends after a reconnaissance of the Conservatory Garden (still a few weeks away from prime photo time) when Toloache 82 had no tables open and we wanted to stay on the north end of the island. We got there around 6:30 so were able to get a table fast while the windows were open to let the din dissipate; by the time the noise level was on high, so were we. But maybe not as much as the server, who was consistent only in her capability of mixing up orders. The $12 flatbread, this time topped with mushrooms and truffle oil, was not as satisfying as our previous smoked mozzarella/tomato/pesto but still got the starter job done. And I didn’t try the Brussels sprout-and-bacon salad or $16 bison burger, but our friends and Bob seemed happy (we’ll know for sure once we propose the place again and get a vigorous “no” shake of both heads — trouble often strikes later). But Bob and I agreed his $21 skirt steak was mighty flavorful, with good fries. Unfortunately, I had to go and succumb to the most certain prescription for disappointment: fish and chips. For $16, this was cod, at least, and not fishy cod, at least. But the breading was grossly sodden. Cubist fries and unmushy peas redeemed the dish, as did being able to kittybag so much for The Cat. Everyone else shared the cheesecake — I could tell by looking it was industrial, and not just because it was over-garnished to the max. WIGB? Undoubtedly. Pickings are slim around here. I understand the rent is too damn high, but why can’t ambitious places open so we can do better than middling without a schlep to other neighborhoods?
The pretty good, again: Cocina Economica Mexico on the Upper West Side, where we headed after the Sunday Greenmarket when Luke’s Lobster didn’t appeal for once and where we had a sit-down lunch for less than Chipotle would cost, in a weirdly empty space (well, it was early). I had a chipotle/loganiza torta again and Bob had the same meat in a cemita, which was goopy with cheese and pungent with red onion. Both ($8 apiece) came with those better-than-they-should-be spicy fries, which were even spicier after I asked for salsas. The torta was better conceived and constructed, but the cemita is what I would have to answer on WIGB? The space is very tight, but it’s also captivating to look at while you await your cheap, good food.
The good: Montmartre in Chelsea, where my consort and I hooked up with friends willing to be early birds to try a restaurant open only a few days but certain to be packed soon and where our rewards started with a nice quiet table downstairs. As always with a Little Wisco joint, the service was attentive and the kitchen was not afraid of flavor or fat. Everything on the menu sounded tantalizing, and the “canapé” of celeriac in a sort of mousse topped with pickled grape sent the right message as soon as we’d ordered. Because we couldn’t order a couple of apps to take the edge off immediately, because it would tax the kitchen, we held off and just shared one, of tiny, tender escargot teamed with great garlic sausage, Swiss chard and crunchy, spicy little crumbs of potato. Our server used everything but the word stew in describing the veal blanquette, and she was right: it was a deconstructed classic, with tender chunks of meat and almost no sauce surrounded by mushrooms and Thumbelina carrots, with a little bowl of sensational mustard spaetzl on the side (looked like fries, tasted like pungent pasta). I only snared a taste of the skate St. Malo, a crisp fillet laid over Savoy cabbage with bacon cooked in Riesling with mustard, so can only say it seemed to make one friend happy. And if my ample portion of fluke was not especially juicy, it was almost superfluous since the creamed leeks and chili-crab sauce with it were so satisfying. We all shared the dessert gougeres, which sounded like profiteroles, with their chocolate sauce and toasted hazelnut,s but were in fact cheesy more than creamy-puffy. The wine list seems pretty steep, though, with the cheapest bottle (the one we chose) at $40. (Entrees were in the mid to high $20s.) WIGB? Soon, I hope. 158 Eighth Avenue near 18th Street, 646 596 8838.
The relatively good: Zero Otto Nove on Arthur Avenue, where Bob and I stopped first on a field trip out of the house on a Saturday and where, as always, the setting — Italo-Disneyesque as it is — represented half the allure. We got there early and did not have to wait long, which was a good thing because the two hostesses were having a severe breakdown in communication. And so we soon had a table upstairs overlooking the skylit dining room, and we had a potato-sausage-smoked mozzarella pizza on that table in the time it took me to get to and from the bathroom. The crust was a little chewy, but the balance of other ingredients compensated. A salad of escarole with marinated eggplant and olives made an ideal dessert; we split a generous glass of okay California sauvignon blanc (someday someone is going to have to explain how pinot grigio came to be the taste of Italy when it is the most insipid of so many whites). WIGB? Absolutely. The “Italian” restaurants have always been more Albanian, but you can forgive a lot in a setting that transporting.
The not-as-bad-as-I-anticipated: Pylos in the East Village, where we met up with a knowledgeable friend with news to celebrate and where I am very glad I was not a total bitch in pooh-poohing it because . . . she paid, even after we definitely over-ordered. I had basement-level hopes for a restaurant that I thought of as a holdover from the days when that neighborhood was a food wasteland, thanks to denizens who were either too poor to eat out or too rich-druggie to care about eating. But the place looks as polished and fresh as when we were there for a press dinner eons ago, we got a nice corner banquette and the food was surprisingly imaginative. The bean spread that came with warm pita may have been having an identity crisis, but two of the three spreads we immediately ordered compensated (the eggplant purée was as bland as the beans; tzatziki and taramasalata nearly reached Kefi level). Saganaki landed while our pita platter was empty, so it congealed while we waited; artichoke moussaka, grape leaves and oddly sweet and slightly chalky gigantes were tepid even at their hottest spots. We shared a whole grilled branzino and somehow got talked into both roasted potatoes and a sensational side of chard and spinach stewed with celery and fennel. Because it was a celebratory night, one bottle of red led to two glasses more — and two glasses sent back because they did not smell corked but certainly tasted wan. WIGB? Sure. If someone’s treating and I don’t mind rushed-to-impatient service and wine bottles stowed on the floor between pours.
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.
The really good: Tacos Morelos in Queens, where four of us were steered by a DM to the Village Voice’s expert after our excursion to the totally awesome Louis Armstrong House/Museum in Corona. The neighborhood is lined with funky little taquerias and steam tables of all Central American persuasion, so my hopes were low. But this place was bright and cheery, with a full bar to boot (where the friendly owner spent part of our meal hanging Santas on poles and trapezes). The (free) salty chips tasted freshly fried and came with outstanding salsa. The chile relleno taco was even better than promised by the VV, a cheese-stuffed poblano that had been perfectly battered and fried and then laid onto orange rice in a good-size corn tortilla, with pickled jalapeño and onion for acidic heat. I didn’t brave my consort’s lengua and goat tacos, or our other friend’s roasted pork taco, or the third friend’s vegetarian tacos, but I liked the nopales salad well enough, mostly for the other elements: ripe avocado, sliced sweet peppers, mixed greens, lime juice. We did share guacamole that our friend just back from Mexico said was better than he had there. But the standout dish was my gordita, easily the best ever this far north of El Paso: crisp masa dough sandwiched with lettuce, cheese and crema, with green and red salsas for jazziness. Margaritas were fine, especially for $5 each, and the mojito was surprisingly decent as well. WIGB? I would spend more than an hour to get there to try some more of the less familiar options. That gordita haunts me. 94-13 37th Avenue, 347 332 91
The not great: Cascabel Taqueria on the Upper West Side, where we decided to brave Saturday brunch to avoid the cacophony we’d been warned of and where the room, service, prices etc. delivered everything the highly touted food did not. Queso fundido came in a Lilliputian cast-iron skillet with little evidence of rajas and even less of chorizo but with an abundance of bitter char on the cheese. (Lesson: Order it only at Rosa Mexicano, which does it so much better and larger [although I don’t care about the latter] for the same price.) Bob was baffled why the kitchen could not mix and match taco fillings as every other restaurant does, so he was stuck with two overloaded carnitas that were decidedly out of balance and totally underwhelming. Halfway through he asked: WIGB? And we agreed — not in any rush. It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t good enough to keep us from walking up Broadway and into Chipotle to compare prices and options. Our few $ woulda been better dropped there.
The geographically perfect: Donatella in Chelsea, where we headed with four friends after a screening at the SVA theater and where at least my consort’s and my orders were outstanding (Enzo pizza with sausage, pecorino, smoked mozzarella and broccoli rabe plus a really good arugula salad with grilled zucchini and a bit of ricotta salata). Good service and wine, but the soggy/sad margarita pizza was a serious reflection of the distracted owner. 184 Eighth Avenue near 19th Street, 212 493 5150
The increasingly reliable: Elizabeth’s on the Upper West Side, for the third time, where I hooked up with Bob on a rainy/cold early evening and where we had the place almost to ourselves, with none of the threatened hoarseness on screaming through dinner. Fish and chips was even better, not to mention more copious, than the first time I had it (how often does that happen?) and the wings I stupidly advised him to order were at least artfully executed despite the too-sweet coating. Our shared salad rated an A, not least for the anything-but-ordinary radishes. WIGB? Always and forever. Can’t believe the same owners inflicted Gabriela’s on the neighborhood. 680 Columbus Avenue at 93d Street, 212 280 6500.