New York minutes/End of October 2011

The pretty good: Nam in Tribeca, where a friend and I headed for quiet and snacks after Kurt Gutenbrunner’s superb book party at Blaue Gans (as social as being in someone’s home but with better food and real waiters working hard at keeping glasses and mouths full). The Nam waiter was a little brusque, and no one was happy to have us linger till closing time, but the food came through. We ordered four appetizers, which turned out to be way too many after pralined foie gras: summer rolls with beef and with shrimp, sausage and peanuts plus five-spice baby back ribs and grilled eggplant with ginger and lime. WIGB? Anytime I’m in that neighborhood. It’s great value in a sleek space. 110 Reade Street at West Broadway, 212 267 1777.

The even better: Red Rooster Harlem, where my consort just back from a week of food hell at a workshop in Kentucky insisted we head for Monday lunch as walk-ins and where the setting and service rivaled the cooking. I won’t eat catfish and two of the offerings involved farmed salmon, so of course I had to have the cheeseburger, which was $16 worth of excellent, sauced with a spicy mayonnaise and topped with mushrooms, red onions, tomato and lettuce; the great fries were tossed with baby arugula and lots of salt although the truffle flavor was AWOL. Bob’s “yard bird” was all it’s been billed as, a big plateful of juicy, perfectly fried breast and leg, laid over perfect collard greens with a little spicy sauce on the side. As he guessed, it was roasted first, as we learned on gawking at the kitchen and being invited over by the expediter to check out the wood oven (and then meet all the cooks). The vibe in the place that day was amazing, as were the beautifully designed bathrooms. (Not so sure about writing Crisco on the dining room wall, though — why not Spry?) WIGB? Absolutely, although I’d guess it would be insane for dinner. 310 Lenox Avenue just north of 125th Street, 212 792 9001.

The aurally alluring: Lyon in the West Village, where we met a friend who was in from New Hope for a photo event and had one request for a destination, that it be quiet enough to talk. The food and wine and service were all fine, although I’m not sure why we three were seated right up against the service/ordering station in a nearly empty dining room. But we could talk. And talk, through a second bottle of Crozes Hermitage. I think I liked the silk weaver’s brains the best, the herbed cheese spread from Lyon, because it was paired with Virginia ham and crudités and Bob was smart enough to ask how to tackle it — just wrap the ham around the vegetable and dunk. “Barbecued” duck wings were as good as the first time we had them, meaty and sticky-sweet, and I made them a main course with a side of excellent broccoli rabe, the bitterness muted by halved cherry tomatoes and sweet onions. Since I ordered those, Bob was liberated for once to grab the duck, and it was nice enough, a perfectly cooked breast over a buckwheat crepe enfolding pearl barley and kale and (imperceptible as always) “truffle.” I didn’t try the other Bob’s chicken, but he seemed happy. WIGB? Anytime. I was underwhelmed by the food in the real Lyon. This is the perfect detour. 118 Greenwich Avenue at West 12th/Jane Streets, 212 242 5966.

The addictive: Milk Bar on the Upper West Side, where I’m going to have to complain to the community board about that neon sign. It’s like a damn siren song every time I pass by, even after a party where I gorged on great cheese and still had to stop for a compost or corn cookie.

The emulative: The very different bars at Regional and Boulud Sud, both on the Upper West Side, where I was amazed by the “happy to serve you” attitude. At the former we  met a friend in from Santa Barbara to promote an admirable book, and I’d chosen it because it was nearly equidistant between where she was staying and we live. It was happy hour, and the bartender not only came over to the communal table to take our orders but volunteered that a Chianti and a pinot grigio could be had for $5 a glass, so we were able to have two for one. As we left, a proprietary-looking woman with a baby on her hip came over to thank us for coming. We will be back. At BS, I decided we need to quit wasting real money in dive bars where the crap wine is $11 or $12 a glass and you can’t hear your brain cells die for the din. Meeting a Twitter connection in from out of town, I had a nice glass of picpoul from the Languedoc for all of $9, and even as the restaurant filled up she and I could still talk easily. When another woman came in and asked us to move down a barstool, the bartender topped off our wineglasses for free for complying. As my consort had warned after having a similarly great experience there recently, the crowd is a bit fogeyish. But I’ll take it. Kids are not always all right.

New York minutes/Mid-October 2011

The good, now that I’m over my snit: Crema in Chelsea, where my fried consort suggested we head after an exhausting morning at the Greenmarket on Union Square. I’d been boycotting it since a bad experience so long ago I can’t even remember, but his instincts were, as usual, dead-on. We got a table in the back right away and had superb service from one personable waiter; the $10 margarita was huge and perfectly blended, and the food dazzled. Bob’s chilaquiles easily outshone Hecho en Dumbo’s, which outshone El Paso Taqueria’s, but my chile relleno was a reinvention that could redeem the whole category of stuffed peppers. A roasted poblano was presented on a crispy flour tortilla alongside a little cylinder of good tomatillo salsa, with the pepper not battered or fried but slit open and loaded with eggs scrambled with chorizo and chipotle-flavored (I think) potatoes. The whole assemblage was presented on a schmear of black beans, so if you tackled correctly you got nearly everything in one bite. WIGB? Now, absolutely. 111 West 17th Street, 212 691 4497.

The aurally correct: Ditch Plains on the Upper West Side, again, where we wound up with friends after the underwhelming “Contagion” and where, once again, the deserted dining room was nearly half the allure. I didn’t taste the deviled eggs or fried calamari across the booth but can vouch for the plain Caesar and the spicy salad, again (shrimp or no shrimp, the heat redeems it). I did snare a bite of the Ditchbar ice cream sandwich, with mint flavoring, which was great. Three of us shared a good $38 bottle of Spanish red, and this time no one lost a molar to the saltwater taffy. WIGB? Definitely. 100 West 82d Street, 212 352 4815.

New York minutes/End of April 2011

The pretty good: Columbus Tavern, where we stopped in for something different after the pitch-perfect “Win Win” at Lincoln Plaza and where we would have been mostly happy even if we’d not been comped a rather wan cheesecaky dessert by the owner. The din level was blissfully low, for starters, and the waiter was almost embarrassingly polite and attentive. Plus the food was way better than you’d expect: My consort’s cooked-right hanger steak came with a Snowdon-size heap of creamed spinach plus slightly limp but flavorful onion rings and three sauces on the side, unnecessary but worth the calories. I just ordered the house salad, since we’d shared a vat of popcorn at the movie and Bob had ordered the duck fat cashews as soon as we sat down, knowing my addiction to all things duck (verdict: the fat adds nothing but richness to oily nuts, especially when they’re overspiced). And that salad was completely satisfying as an alternative to a Caesar, with avocado, cucumber, radishes and tons of herbs. The “biscotti” the sweet waiter delivered were actually biscuits, okay on their warm own but even better with lemon-rosemary butter. Too bad the 30-year-old chef’s creativity and attention to detail are getting hammered by the crappy wine selection. I tried two whites, Bob two reds and all four fought the food. WIGB? Absolutely, although we’d been torn between Fairway and something new, and Fairway has nearly comparable food plus much cheaper, better wine if not as nice a setting. 269 Columbus Avenue near 73d Street, 212 873 9400.

The not bad: Osteria Cotta, where a friend and I headed in despair after contemplating the bleak choices in Chelsea after her son’s second showing of his sushi documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival (she wanted Company and I couldn’t find a bank to rob). Our cramped table in the back was at least quiet enough that we could almost hear each other, but otherwise it felt like the last seat in the plane near the bathroom and galley, with a constant stream of servers/runners/busboys slamming past. The grilled (actually skillet-charred) escarole salad with grape tomatoes and pecorino was as good as she and others had promised, and if the margherita pizza was more soupy than crisp, I ate my two slices happily. The tocai was also decent and fairly priced at $8 a glass. WIGB? Sure. Location, location, and Bob has to try it because it’s just a walk away. 513 Columbus Avenue near 85th Street, 212 873 8500.

The not bad: Spice uptown, where I met another friend for an early dinner that stretched for three hours and where the patient staff never hassled us, maybe because we wound up spending nearly twice as much on (crappy) wine as on food (and the food came to all of $11 apiece). Meatless spring rolls were sloppily assembled but cooked right, and if my duck-lettuce wraps did not live up to my first encounter with them they still amounted to a heap of decent filling. I didn’t try Joanne’s vegetable green curry, just listened to her yelp at every bite (from heat, not meanness). WIGB? Sure. The price is right, and the people are so nice. 435 Amsterdam Avenue at 81st Street, 212 362 5861.

Quick hits: I finally succumbed to Cafe Frida uptown for a snack at happy hour, and the quesadillas with chorizo were surprisingly decent although what I washed them down with was total shiver wine, perfect for watching the Good Friday procession pass by with the squad car and so many religious observers texting away. El Paso Taqueria across the park is getting kinda grimy but consistently has the best Mexican deal in town if you’re into cheese enchiladas with tomatillo sauce: $9 for three good ones topped with onions with black beans and rice. But Rickshaw Dumpling, where I stopped off for something quick on the way home from a drink with an editor at the snack-free bar in the “Shining”-evoking Eleven Madison Park, reminded me how low mediocre can go. My first complaint will be my last: Maybe the cooks could take a little more time and get it right? My order of sad duck dumplings was ready before I had even finished paying.

Also, too, I’m too lazy to go into all the details here, but we had great experiences at Cafe 2 at MOMA and at Cafe Sabarsky at Neue Galerie, which is especially transporting after dark.

New York minutes/End of November 2010

The good: Pulino’s, where my consort and I were brave enough to walk in on a weeknight after a photographer friend’s opening at a spare boutique off the Bowery that had to be catering to Russian mafia molls ($3,800 for a little black dress?) We got a table right away and soon were sharing an exceptional salad that transcended its deli-fare appearance: roasted broccoli with hen of the woods mushrooms, mixed with some escarole and lots of garlicky bread crumbs. The waiter wasn’t too happy that we only shared a pizza, too, one topped with Tuscan kale, mozzarella and salami picante, but it was quite good if not the best I’ve had lately, with the crust a little too bubbly. (And enough to send us home with two slices for breakfast.) We split a carafe of decent red and were out of there for $48 before tax and tip. WIGB? Absolutely. The place is gorgeous, and the price is right. 282 Bowery at Houston, 212 226 1966.

The good if someone else is paying: Accademia di Vino on the Upper East Side, where I wound up with a comfort-Italian-craving friend and her brother-in-law after we’d all gathered at Sloan-Kettering. After the abysmal salad I’d suffered in the hospital cafeteria for lunch, I was actually looking forward to pasta and ordered the spaghetti carbonara — one of the few choices I never make at home — despite the sticker price shock ($22 for something so simple?) It turned out to be an excellent rendition, with the smart addition of a sliced scallion garnish to ramp up the flavor. Warm, airy focaccia served after we ordered also earned points. I didn’t try Mary’s penne alla norma or Randy’s mushroom-speck pizza, but they seemed happy enough. The service was impressive, too, aside from one annoyance. Because Mary and I had taken a Meursault break while waiting for “Richard” to wake up, I wanted a really good glass of wine and, assuming we’d split the tab, ordered the $15 arneis, my all-time favorite Italian white. The first sip was just what I remembered from Piemonte, but then I noticed a weird film on the surface. I swirled the glass and it moved but didn’t disperse, which made me think of soapsuds. At that price, I had to speak up, so the excellent waitress grabbed the glass, and Randy’s, and took them away to have a fresh bottle opened. Then she came back with some cork-and-bull story from the wine director on how arneis “always has fizziness.” It had been a long day, so I just snapped: “I’ve drunk a lot of arneis and have never seen that film.” Then I shut up and drank even though the replacement glass had a white spot on it. WIGB? Maybe, if I were in that neighborhood and someone else would pick up the tab. Although the crowd was unnerving: Are times really so good that so many 20-somethings can be out midweek ordering $38 lamb? 1081 Third Avenue near 64th Street, 212 888 6333.

The WTF-was-I-thinking: Basta Pasta in Chelsea, where I dragged my consort, two friends in from Chicago and their daughter, who had just performed with a Barnard troupe at Dance Theater Workshop. My top two motivations were proximity and noise level (my first choice was Donatella, but it puts the din in dinner, especially on a Friday night), but I had always been curious about the place because a very fussy friend from Bologna eats there whenever he comes to New York. And I could see the allure, given how the Japanese are taking over Italy’s kitchens; it was a trip to be cooked for and served by Asians in a restaurant with a relatively traditional Italian menu. But first we had to wait because we were late and they’d assumed we weren’t going to show even though we’d confirmed. Then we walked into a room full of cameras, and not in the hands of food bloggers. And then I saw the half-wheel of Parmesan being wheeled around to make pasta. And flashed on Mamma Leone’s. So it was no real surprise the “crespelle” with mushrooms came in that flavor-sapping deal-breaker, brodo, or that the stunt pasta, which I had to order, was pretty much a mess, with clumps of cheese on one part of the plate and pools of liquid on the other. Thank the food gods for the prosciutto laid over the top and the basil julienne sprinkled around that. Bob’s linguine with sea urchin was a gutsy rendition, though, and the vegetarian dancer had no audible complaints about her pasta; neither did her dad, about his special pork dish or mushrooms baked in parchment. And the smoked duck in Bob’s baby arugula salad was some of the best I’ve ever chewed. Plus the dessert drinks menu included sgroppino. WIGB? Probably not, even if Carlo insisted. Despite the fact that it was quite reasonable, and not loud. Although I can’t remember the last time an entire restaurant staff, from waiters to cooks to bartender, thanked us profusely as we left. 37 West 17th Street, 212 366 0888.

New York minutes/Mid-November 2010

The good: Lyon in the old Cafe Bruxelles in the West Village, where we were lucky enough to arrive early when it had just opened and got a nice table in a quiet corner in the back and tried not to dwell on why we had been so underwhelmed by food in the real Lyon. There it’s belly-busting heavy, so I only ordered two appetizers: escargots in risotto, a nice idea, and quenelles, which someone should have warned me were not real — chicken is foul when you’re expecting fish — although the sauce with black trumpet mushrooms was excellent. My consort loved his lamb shank on a few white beans with spicy merguez, though. And wines are a deal (starting at $7 a glass), but they took forever to arrive. WIGB? Absolutely. Although no one will take the place for authentic because the waiters are too thin. 118 Greenwich Avenue.

The pretty good under the circumstances: Donatella in Chelsea, where four of us headed after “Long Story Short” in the hellhole that is the Theater District and where the din was definitely put in dinner but the food redeemed everything. The kitchen was slammed, maybe thanks to the great review in the Village Voice, so my consort and I should have known better than to try to order things we’d loved previously. A first go-round of the fried calamari with aioli spiked with bottarga lived up to memory, but the second looked over-browned and heavy. His spaghetti with sea urchin also seemed more sodden this time. Eggplant parmigiana, though, a tiny portion in an iron pot, was exceptional if dainty for $13. And my mushroom-and-smoked mozzarella pizza was soggier than I expected but had great flavor and ingredients; the Enzo, with sausage and broccoli rabe, probably qualified as true Neapolitan because it sagged at the center as well. Comped zeppoli made our friends who know from the Jersey Shore very happy. WIGB? Probably, if we’re near there. The waitress was a bit of a ditz, and someone really needs to teach the staff which wineglasses go with which wine, but the food and value (with both food and wine) make it far better than anything on that strip. Despite the din. 184 Eighth Avenue near 20th Street, 212 493 5150.

The surprising: City Winery in Tribeca, where I stayed to try the product while on another mission and was happy to find the chardonnay straight from the barrel in the cellar was a serious wine and the flatbread made with lees left from the winemaking was beyond respectable. The special that day was chorizo and padron peppers with Manchego, and it held up well despite the charred chiles. The waitress, once she kicked into gear, was also outstanding. WIGB? Definitely, especially after Film Forum, and absolutely for a concert. 155 Varick Street at Vandam, 212 608 0555.

New York minute/Latish October 2010

The good: Donatella in Chelsea, where five of us were lucky enough to get seats if not our own table after finding it suddenly open on leaving “The Social Network.” The boss herself was there and sent over appetizers and desserts, but I still would have been impressed, not least because the waiter, when I asked if the music blaring from a speaker overhead could be turned down, actually listened. The pizza was much better than Keste’s and far better value than Co’s, with a great crisp crust and superb balance in the toppings, particularly the $15 diavola, with tomatoes, mozzarella, pecorino, spicy salami and chili oil. The $16 Enzo, with smoked mozzarella, pecorino, sausage and broccoli rabe, was also good. My consort’s $17 lasagna was a huge portion and nicely executed, although the cheese could have melted just a bit longer (which was also the flaw in the mozzarella in carozza, which was redeemed by the runny poached egg and truffle oil paired with it). Fried calamari was elevated by the lemon-bottarga aioli with it, and the aracini were fine. The winner on the communal table, though, was spaghettini with sea urchin and fennel, and I’m no fan of fennel — the flavors were all in harmony, and the pasta was perfectly cooked. Bonus points for the price: $18. (Point off: Bob was bummed that his leftover didn’t come home in the kitty bag.) As the waiter promised, the sfogliata was the best dessert, flaky and full of ricotta cream with orange blossom. WIGB? Absolutely. It’s a find on a boulevard of mediocrity. 184 Eighth Avenue near 20th Street, 212 493 5301.

New York minute/Mid-June 2010

The pleasant: Trestle on Tenth in Chelsea, where I wound up with a friend up from Bethesda after waiting too long to reserve on a Saturday night and getting shut out of my first through tenth choices. We were warned a big wedding party was in the garden but took a table there and soon surmised they must have been Swiss, because they never got rowdy, so we could talk easily. And it really was a great setting, so I’m not going to feel too bad about my $22 dish, which smelled a little high — monkfish with calamari, tired clams and Swiss chard in smoked lobster broth. Gary was happier with his halibut with asparagus, mushrooms and ramps, very simply done, and with his pork shoulder crepinette as an appetizer. I did like the bread. And the ethereal waiter. And the way the busboy handled dropping a butter knife into my quarter-full wineglass: Not only did he not shatter it, he immediately offered to bring a fresh one, so after we finished the bottle the waiter split a glass for us. WIGB? Probably, mostly for the atmosphere — the food is beyond reasonable, but the wine list is kinda crazy; our $43 gruner might have been the cheapest bottle. 242 Tenth Avenue at 24th Street, 212 645 5659.

New York minutes/Early May 2010

The reassuringly decent: Qi downtown, where we took refuge after the zooish market at Union Square when my consort wanted Asian. The hoisin duck banh mi was as satisfying as always, so the just-adequate mushroom spring rolls didn’t matter (and I’d pay $8 for the sandwich alone). Bob was happy with his spicy basil chicken thing, and the sauce on his fried chicken-shrimp dumplings had more zest than the syrupy one with my appetizer. We were in and out for $20 with tip. WIGB? Sure. Location’s great, and the place looks phenomenal — just not sure I’d brave it for dinner. 31 West 14th Street, 212 929 9917.

The surprisingly bad: The Red Cat in Chelsea, which Bob picked for lunch with our Italian friend in from TPW for the New York Photo Fest in Dumbo who had an appointment close by. Now I worry Carlo will think I know nothing about restaurants. I don’t know about his “fettucini,” but my cod sandwich was a mess — the fish was okay, and fried right, but so much wet slaw had been loaded onto the lame sliced(!) bread that it fell apart on the first bite. I almost didn’t order it because of that apple slaw, too. Decent greens came with it, and they were a relief after all the glop. Bob was even more bummed by the carnitas salad, which was like the driest ropa vieja laid dispiritedly over greens and beans, with a little crema and crisp tortilla strips on top. Even the usually fabulous tempura green beans were slopped out, greasy. As for the service, the inattentive waiter seemed intimidated by our friend, which felt odd in a neighborhood that should be so cosmopolitan. My cappuccino was one of the worst I’ve had in New York, and Bob later said the espresso was not even hot. WIGB? J’doubt it. Two days later we were still talking about how off it all was. Maybe the lesson is: Never expect much from a restaurant where the chef is hanging out on the sidewalk at the start of service. . .

New York minutes/Mid-April 2010

The pretty good: Pearl Oyster Bar, where my consort and I headed after the slowly transporting “Mid-August Lunch” at Film Forum and where we were obviously too mellow and willing to wait half an hour for seats at the bar and then a short eternity for our food from a slammed kitchen. Bob’s whole roasted pompano qualified as superb, and beyond generous with roasted shiitakes, red peppers, haricots vert, fennel and tomatoes plus a huge handful of fresh herbs. And of course the bartender/waitress was outstanding, accommodating us through various glasses of white wine (big points for a list where five glasses cost the same as one bottle so we didn’t have to beat ourselves up about not being forward-thinking). But I chose the place because I had that “baby lettuce” salad with Fourme d’Ambert on my brain after a large popcorn, and it was a major fail. I think there were two leaves of green on the plate; all the others were red or worse (not my favorite, to say the least), and they were the size of Paul Bunyan’s hands. WIGB? Undoubtedly. It is quintessential New York. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.

The not bad: Dickson’s Farmstand in Chelsea Market, where I made a special trip after the Union Square Greenmarket to try the chili after spotting it too late the week before. And it was vaut le voyage. I’m not much on chili, but great meat makes a serious difference, and this was topped with homemade crema (my new obsession). A hefty cup for $7 came with a buttery roll that The Cat thoroughly enjoyed when I brought a cup home for Bob. WIGB? Absolutely, but next time I might spring for the miso sausage with kimchi or some other special. The new wall of condiments is also tempting. 75 Ninth Avenue, 212 242 2630.

New York minutes/Late February 2010

The surprisingly good, given the reviews: Tipsy Parson in Chelsea, where we meandered after Doug Menuez’s opening and after finding Red Cat booked solid as usual on open-gallery night. We had to wait a few minutes at the bar but got a relatively quiet table in the back corner for an outstanding if dainty little plate of spreads: deviled tasso, pimento cheese and blackeye peas, with less-than-outstanding crackers. We also split a country ham and frisee salad that would have been great if the dressing had not been too tart because the egg on top was not oozy but poached rubber hard. Macaroni and cheese was above average, though. Gruner at $10 a good-sized glass also left us feeling good about the place. WIGB? Absolutely. 156th Ninth Avenue near 20th Street, 212 620 4545.

The when-the-fuck-will-I-ever-learn?: Les Halles, where once again, too late, we remembered only the affordable steak frites with salad, not the dispirited feel of the place and the absurdly disorganized service. As soon as I saw the leatherette on the banquette was split open, I knew the slide had gone a little farther. Bread, butter and fries were still great, but the steak was oddly un-beefy. And I made the mistake of ordering only the frisee salad with lardons and blue cheese, only to learn after one bite that stone-cold lardons are chilling  — the greens tasted only nasty porky-greasy. As I was goating through it, Bob ordered coffee, but it only came after the check (waiter never noticed he had billed for something not on the table), so we went next door to Fika for a seriously bracing Swedish espresso for $1 less and instant service. WIGB? Someone shoot me before I forget again.