New York minutes/End of November 2009

The pretty good: Safran, where my consort and I headed after the rather deserted Greenmarket on the Saturday after Thanksgiving when I remembered reading about it in the Wednesday Chef’s “goodbye to all that” roundup. We weren’t slaves to her pho advice, though. Overwhelmed by all the special choices, I ordered the Peking duck summer roll off the regular menu ($10 appetizer, and worth it, with just-right dipping sauces), while Bob finally decided on the $8.95 lunch box with surprisingly tender lemonglass-glazed pork chop, noodles with peanuts, rice, vegetable summer roll and mixed green salad with excellent creamy dressing. The place is rather elegant for that strip of Seventh Avenue (although the upholstery is getting grubby), and the European waitress could not have been more welcoming or attentive. WIGB? Definitely. For a real lunch. 88 Seventh Avenue near 15th Street, 212 929 1778.

The really bad: Palacio Azteca, which I passed on leaving the Hospital for Special Surgery in my usual state of elation (one-year followup visit on a “home run” thanks to Dr. Douglas Padgett) with a hankering for something Mexican and self-indulgent. I should have known York Avenue would be all white bread (even Bloomberg won’t eat around there), but I was still amazed at how lame this little dive was. The watery salsa tasted like dish soap, and not from cilantro. The $8.95 nachos were mostly bland beans and chunks of burned chorizo (allegedly; it had no discernible flavor). And the waitress was equal parts surly and inefficient (I had to ask for both flatware and a napkin after waiting forever for even a menu in a nearly empty little room). I guess I deserved everything I got for not being smart enough to flee immediately, though. I still can’t run, but I could have walked out.

The reliable: Fairway’s cafe, where four of us retreated after “Broken Embraces” when the “hostess” at Ed’s Chowder House across from the theater was so fuck-youish on learning we did not have a reservation and wanted to try the bar menu. Cheap wine is always the tipping point, and so we shared a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc for virtually nothing. All their food was fine: Bob’s leg of lamb, the two huge crab cakes and the short ribs. But my Caesar (of course) was the best I’ve had there. The service was a little distracted, and beer-clueless, but WIGB? Absolutely. It’s even quiet enough to talk about what a provocative movie you’ve just seen. 2127 Broadway near 74th Street, 212 595 1888.

New York minutes/Mid-November 2009

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

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

New York minutes/Early October 2009

The good & good deal: Fairway Cafe, once again, where my consort and I headed unhesitatingly after he expressed an interest in satisfying food with cheap wine after the absorbing and haunting “Serious Man.” Hard to complain about a window table, a perfect hanger steak with fries for $21 and a fine Caesar, especially after the warm flatbread with herbed olive oil. The only downside is that $5 and $6 glasses of drinkable wines make it awfully hard to swallow gouging anywhere else . . . 2127 Broadway at 74th Street.

The Epago: Co. in Chelsea, where we ducked in early after our first High Line perambulation and where the message could not have been clearer — eat, pay and get (the hell) out. We were seated instantly, at one of the long, cramped communal tables, and we all but instantly had $10 tumblers of wine in front of us along with the $5 special “toast,” topped with greens and rendered prosciutto. We shared a radicchio salad with raw shiitakes and a few chunks of Taleggio, then a dainty pizza topped with, if the menu was to be believed, roasted cauliflower, bechamel, buffalo mozzarella, Parmesan, green olives, chile, garlic and parsley. One bite in Bob wondered, “How much do you think it costs them to make this?” And as satisfying as the charred crust was, it was hard to think the thing was worth $17. WIGB? Probably not. Keste is calling.

New York minutes/Early June 2009

The good: The Red Cat, where my consort and I headed for dinner after a nearby screening of the well-shot “Witnesses to a Secret War” and where we were very glad we’d reserved — even the bar was lined with people eating. Table of course was not ready, so we had to wriggle in to snare glasses of gruner and something red, and as soon as we had those in hand we were seated. And I realized I wasn’t even hungry and only wanted a salad, which turned out to be substantial: Bibb and Romaine interspersed with lentils and Parmesan, with golden beet slices as a base and crispy garlic slices on top. Bob had the special softshell crab (one big one, perfectly fried) over garlicky greens for a reasonable $26. Bread and olive oil were also outstanding, as was the service. Most amazing: He filled out a comment card and got a thank-you email a couple of days later. WIGB? Absolutely. It’s now open for lunch again. 227 Tenth Avenue near 23d Street, 212 242 1122.

The not horrible: The bacteria bars at Whole Foods in the dread TWC, where we resorted for a quick emergency refueling after a 5-year-old’s birthday party in the park where we snared mostly hummus and chips and before a sprint through the surprisingly worth-it Museum of Arts and Design across Columbus Circle (all galleries there are worth a serious look, but particularly the ones showing art in industrial ceramics). I had my usual reaction to the hubbub and swirl of people around all those choices of so much not-exciting food, which was a serious urge to flee, but Bob persevered and managed to choose rather lively chickpea salad with surprisingly Indian flavor, above-average coleslaw, okay orzo salad and chewy broccoli-mushroom salad, which we shared from a trough-like cardboard box at one of the grubby tall counters. He was happy; I was not too despondent. But would I do it again? I hope not.

The twitchy: Joe on Columbus, where I arranged to meet a friend and where we immediately realized our chances of either sitting or having a conversation were slim to none. Instead we got our cappuccino to go (despite her having ordered a latte) and headed to the park. It’s a great-looking little space, but the people who line up to patronize it stake out tables and do not move. And the line is out the door, partly because the team behind the counter is not very teamy — order taker could not hear orders, couldn’t find fresh cups, etc. The coffee was better than my doughnut, though. That would be best described as sugar encasing grease. I didn’t even take the leftover half home to The Cat Who . . . . WIGB? Probably not, just because it lacks the one thing I ever go out for when it comes to caffeine: A place to sit and talk. Someone who could open that in the Eighties or Nineties on Columbus would clean up.

The different: The Pinetum in Central Park, where a dozen of us managed to commandeer not one but two picnic tables for a feast with what must have been a case of discreet wine. On the menu besides my failed pumpkinseed flatbread and sad oven-fried chickpeas: amazing grilled grass-fed beef with chimichurri, grilled swordfish with aioli, 97th Street market vegetables with aioli, cabbage salad, mango-peach salsa with chips, a fascinating blend of green peas, feta and almonds, Sue’s signature sandwiches (tomato-mozzarella-pesto and smoked salmon-egg salad on baguette), chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano, Trader Joe’s snack bags, Georgia’s bakery chocolate cake and Burton’s world-beater lemon bars. This crowd had already given up restaurants for our living rooms. Now we have a new alternative. If only it had someplace for girls to go when they need to go.

New York minutes/Early March 2009

The good: Cabrito in the West Village, where my consort and I wound up because it was geographically convenient when I was in peanut-reputation-rehabilitation wonderland and he was on his way home from Dumbo. I got there first and would have walked right back out if the bartender et al had not been so insistently pleasant — it was almost unsettling. The place looked cramped and crowded and potentially tequila-fueled loud, but the niceness was seductive. I chose to stand near the door to wait after being encouraged to walk through to see if Bob had arrived, but they laid out a menu and brought a glass of water and it was hard to say let’s move on when he did. My gills were bulging from all the peanut products earlier, so I only ordered rajas con crema with flour tortillas, which was just right. But his plate of carnitas was outstanding, crispy chunks of barnyardy heritage pork with good corn tortillas and salsa verde. I still hate the Barfry-holdover tumblers sentenced to serve as wineglasses because they make even good pinot blanc taste jug-like, but it was hard to complain with fine service to go with the food. WIGB? Absolutely. The huaraches with chorizo are calling my name. 50 Carmine Street between Bedford and Bleecker, 212 929 5050.  

The pretty good: Klee in Chelsea, where we headed after the opening of the intense  Jonathan Torgovnik show at Aperture on children born of rape in Rwanda.  Luckily, all the stylish gallerygoers preening in front of the photos made it easier to transition to food and drink, but Red Cat was jammed and Company (as the sign says on the restaurant) looked even worse from a block away, so Klee it was. Bob just plunged in without checking the menu, and it turned out to be rather more ambitious than I imagined, with a tasting menu and a sommelier and other pretensions. The place was almost empty aside from a couple of tables in the back and one in the window, so we were happy enough with a table near the bar — at least until the hostess seated the Large Family exactly next to us, a braying woman with three other hearty eaters who made big noise as we tried to talk and eat. WTF? We shared the Liptauer, paprika-pungent with thin bread chips, then I just had the “Alsatian pizza,” which I ordered as tarte flambé and should have known was “Alsatian pizza” — the dough was like a flour tortilla. Flavors were right, though. Bob ordered $27 duck, a huge tender breast set over wheat berries, but I guess I need my glasses checked because I thought the plate was draped in kitchen twine used to hold the two halves of the slab together. He forked up a segment and I yelped, “Don’t eat that! It’s string!” And it was julienne of lemon zest. Not good when garnishes go bad. “Steal of the day” in wine was a nice enough verdicchio for $36, endorsed by the sommelier. WIGB? Maybe. The bar looks very accommodating, and we’re down there a lot. 200 Ninth Avenue near 22d Street, 212 633 8033.  

The not bad: Grand Sichuan in the West Village, where Bob and I had lunch after a trip to the Greenmarket on which we bought exactly one apple. (It was us, not the season.) He wanted Asian and I remembered online and other positive vibes for this place; only when we finished did Bob confess he’d been skeptical because nothing on Seventh Avenue South is ever very good or lasts. The service was rather addled (they stuck us at a bare table and took their sweet time both setting it and delivering the food), and bad music was compounded by scary paintings. As for the food, scallion pancakes were cooked to a greasy crisp and close to flavor-free, while the $17 tea-smoked duck had great flavor and crunchy skin but geriatric flesh. Since he’s traveled so much in China, Bob is obsessed with “ma po to fu,” and for once he got a pretty sensational rendition, the silky curd in a super-spicy sauce with a lot of nuance. A full portion at $9 was more than enough for a second lunch the next day. WIGB? Maybe, but the duck is far superior at Wu Liang Ye on 48th. 15 Seventh Avenue South near Carmine, 212 645 0222.    



New York minutes/Late July 2008

The if-it-were-a-candidate-it-would-be-presumptuous: Bar Milano, where a friend lured another friend and me to take “advantage” of Restaurant Week and where we all staggered out two hours later senza $46 apiece and underwhelmed to boot. Value-wise, I guess I can’t complain; they threw in an extra course for the $24.08. But the kitchen must have been on muscle relaxants — the gap between each of those four courses was long enough to write a cookbook. The weirdness that is RW also tainted the experience; waiters don’t want to be accused of pushing, so they don’t do what they might any other week and offer refills on wine etc. From the two to three choices for each course, we chose mostly the same things: ribbons of Tuscan kale drenched in creamy dressing with wonderful mini-croutons; rabbit terrine (I passed); “conseci” stuffed with chard and ricotta (gummy) and tagliatelle with ragu (salty); trout on “montecato” (bland), and “frittelle” with alleged rhubarb. I liked the last taste best, mostly because it was more vegetal than fruity. Bread plates sat empty the entire meal while I saw other tables dunking into olive oil, and the flatware fought the plates and bowls for balance and largely lost. Even half-full, the place was noisy (and we got a great table for three near the front). I can’t imagine setting foot inside at dinner. In any other city, this would be the swankiest joint in town. They spent the bucks, on the bathrooms, the liquor carts, the design in general. But soundproofing? Not so much. WIGB? Not likely. 323 Third Avenue at 24th Street, 212 683 3035.

The redeemed: Crema, where a friend and I retreated after getting our minds set on Mexican after Aimee Mann at Barnes & Noble, only to be told Rosa Mexicano had more than an hour’s wait. I had sworn I would never go back, but the host this night was so welcoming and gave us the quietest table in the front so quickly that it was hard to hold that grudge. Even for $18 quesadillas. We split the guacamole, which was light on jalapeno, cilantro, onion and tomato, but the chips were good. Kevin was a bit flummoxed by the weirdness of his top-shelf margarita, but I realized it was the mescal giving it the woodshed aspect. And my second choice of wine, after the Veramonte was gone, was decent enough. WIGB? Maybe. 111 West 17th Street, 212 691 4477.

The time-warpy: Pete’s Tavern, where I met my friend for a drink for proximity-to-Barnes-&-Noble’s sake and where the wine choices and prices ($6 for sauvignon blanc) were right, plus the happy hour feast was movable: a little guy came around repeatedly with a tray of fried things and teeny triangles of gummable “pizza.” The place reeks history (O. Henry), and it is undeniably cool that it exists in a city hellbent on destroying anything that might be able to support a 30-story high-rise. On the debit side, the bartenders do seem to respond only to their hung patrons. WIGB? Maybe. Nostalgia can be a very good appetite. 129 East 18th Street at Irving Place, 212 473 7676.

New York minutes/Mid-May 2008

The good: El Paso Taqueria and Toloache, each in its own way. The former was our refuge after we realized Square Meal would be filled with fixed and scary rich bitches at lunchtime when we were looking for sustenance after the underwhelming Cai Guo-Qiang at the Guggenheim; the latter was our happy destination after the not-great opening at ICP (pretty bad when the best image is the actuality of Diane Keaton being photographed by cellphone). As always, El Paso came through with excellent enchiladas (red sauce, green sauce) if not solicitous service, while Toloache delivered superb pork tacos and huitlacoche quesadilla and a special crab salad well worth the $15, with splendiferous service. 64 East 97th Street, 212 996 17390; 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.

The not bad: A Cafe, where I met my consort after work on his co-worker’s recommendation and where it was hard to complain about anything when the service — one waiter totally on top of everything — was so amazing and the tab for three courses was $38 before tax and tip. BYO is a huge savings, but said waiter took the time to engage as he uncorked our bottle and stopped back repeatedly to be sure we were happy; when we asked for the leftovers (in foil swans) he even came back to be sure we didn’t want a sauce that would not survive the trip home. Bob and I split a grilled avocado, of which the less said the better (nirvana to me is half a Hass slathered with Hellmann’s), and then I just had the vegetable terrine, which was refrigerator-fatigued. The merguez with couscous, though, was outstanding, and lamb is far from my favorite meat. (The only good thing about it? It’s not deer.) WIGB? Maybe. I hear the neighborhood is better than it looks. 973 Columbus Avenue near 108th Street, 212 222 2033.

The adequate: Heights Cafe in Brooklyn, where I stopped for sustenance after interviewing a neighborhood resident who said the food most places was the shitz. He recommended Teresa’s two doors down, but on my most optimistic days I never have high hopes for Polish (don’t tell my in-law equivalents). This place looked great, and it was staffed like the first-class cabin of British Air. But I should have known a $10.95 crab cake sandwich would be mostly bread, between the filler and the bun. Still, the fries were pretty good, and the pickle was exceptional. And the room looked great. WIGB? Not in that big booming borough. 84 Montague Street, 718 625 5555.

The high: Suenos in Chelsea, where I led three friends after “Iron Man” at that nasty theater on 23d Street and where we all were almost blown back to the street by the pungency of geriatric fish as we stepped inside. Only the facts that it was late and nothing close by seemed reasonable kept us from fleeing, but Pam did actually get up and leave our booth to walk outside and see how funky it seemed on her re-entry. The place passed, so we split a bottle of too-fruity Torrontes and a bunch of appetizers and the staff was nice enough not to roust us even as it got later and later. Unfortunately, I think the best flavor experience was the black bean spread with cornbread that arrived gratis. Well, maybe the cute little beef taquitos and a “shrimp stack” of which I tasted only the garnishes. Plantain empanadas with goat cheese were molasses sweet, while the quesadilla with chayote etc. was misguided at best. Nobody finished the chilaquiles. And why do I suspect the webmaster is also the fish steward? WIGB? Not likely.

The medium-low: Anthos, where I steered the boss lady from the other coast for dinner and where the room, service and overall experience could not have been more ideal but where the cooking just refused to do what I promised. The menu read great; it was nearly impossible to decide which combination of mind-bending combinations to go for. The assorted pre-tastes were also enticing — of the four I only tried the cod tatziki and fried halloumi but was totally jazzed. The rolls were spectacular, to the point that I even felt compelled to taste the goat butter offered alongside a quenelle of regular butter (still can’t get into the dairy I was weaned on). I was even able to ingest the mini of lamb carpaccio. But my grilled quail appetizer was just okay, dry and not especially flavorful, redeemed only by the braised endive and fried halloumi underneath; turbot over fried oysters with cardoon etc. was just a Mormon marriage with none of the partners talking. Mme X’s sheep’s milk dumplings were the best thing we tasted: pungent but airy and paired with favas, peas and other complementary greenery. Unfortunately, the “milk fed” chicken with figs, walnuts and Metaxa sauce continued her Benoit losing streak. I came away thinking something I never have at Kefi: The best floor staff on the planet cannot compensate for an absent genius chef. WIGB? Unfortunately, my Lotto ship will not be coming in to make it possible. Entrees go for what a bottle of wine used to cost. Then again, that assyrtiko at $14 a glass was pretty easy on the “pallet.” 32 West 52d Street, 212 582 6900.

New York minutes/Late February 2008

The pretty good: Kouzan, where every hint of the place’s previous occupant has been eradicated. That would be enough right there to recommend it, but I managed a nice lunch even though Japanese is almost my least favorite cuisine. I had a really fresh and lively green salad and exquisitely fried vegetable tempura (carrot, broccoli, onion, eggplant and I think taro) for all of $6.95, plus a good glass of California sauvignon blanc. The waitress was beyond efficient even while dealing with typical neighborhood old cranks. WIGB? Happily. 685 Amsterdam Avenue at 93d Street, 212 280 8099.

The not bad: Land Thai, where I wound up after remembering too late that Saturday lunchtime is egg hell and my options were totally limited. As always, the service was snappy, the $9 sauvignon blanc was a big pour and the cooking was adequate — I just had the lunch special with spring rolls (fried a little too long) and a vegetable medley (with rubbery tofu) and was satisfied, although I realized it’s a bad idea to eat there when staff meal is about to be consumed. What was laid out for them looked a whole lot more interesting than anything on the menu. WIGB? Inevitably. 450 Amsterdam Avenue near 82d Street, 212 501 8121.

The aging well: Spice Market, where I retreated after wandering the meat district in search of a new French place and getting repelled everywhere by all the packettes of women who seemed to have stepped off the “Sex in the City” bus tour (be warned: I overheard one insisting Fig & Olive is a must stop, and it was jammed at the very unfashionable hour of 6:30). My food was mostly excellent, but I was most impressed by the staff — the host offered to take my coat and showed me to a nice table facing the kitchen, the waitress who was training a newbie was as attentive as the busboys were solicitous and the coat check “girl” actually asked if I’d enjoyed my dinner. The $9 green papaya and apple salad was enough for four people, a really lively, crunchy mountain of fruit flecked with candied ginger and cashews. The crispy skate was slightly overbattered, but the fish was clean-tasting and the airy cilantro sauce with it exceptional. The basket of pappadum with a spicy dip was a great starter, and wines at $9 and $10 are fairly priced. I left thinking it didn’t look so much like Pier One anymore. 403 West 13th Street, 212 675 2322.

The already slipping: Mermaid Inn on Amsterdam, where I stopped for an early dinner at the bar while my consort was working yet again and left thinking what I ordered was described backward on the menu. It should have been Old Bay fries with lobster sandwich. The thing reminded me of what I had just read the protagonist in Richard Russo’s LOL “Straight Man” was served by his stingy mother: two slices of white bread barely glazed with pimento cheese spread. This was a hefty brioche bun filled with about six forkfuls of lobster with only rubberiness as proof that it was indeed the billed seafood; there was zero sweet flavor. The decent fries were heaped over it like a duck blind, as if even the chef realized it was a rip for $24. But the bartender was an excellent waitress, the gruner was good and good value for $9 and at that hour the place was nice and quiet. WIGB? Probably. Amsterdam ain’t exactly the West Village.

New York minutes/Beginning of 2008

The good: Dim Sum Go Go, where we lucked in while trekking from the South Street Seaport to Nolita on a mid-Saturday and where we had mostly splendiferous food in a reassuringly clean environment (the bathrooms were even fragrant, in a good way). I haven’t eaten in Chinatown in years, since that devastating New Yorker piece on Health Department inspectors, but it was hard to resist an old favorite. We snared a tiny table fast and split perfectly fried pork dumplings, turnip cakes, steamed crab and “three-star” vegetable dumplings plus two orders of steamed duck dumplings (the waiter was right: they’re the best). Everything was delicate and carefully made and cooked right. I think the bill was about $25, and the service managed the impossible: helpful, mellow and efficient. Best of all, just as I was feeling stupid for being in a room with mostly gweilos, Pichet Ong came bouncing past on his way out, saying it was his favorite place in Chinatown. WIGB? Can’t wait till next Christmas. 5 East Broadway, 212 732 0796.

The better: Maremma, where we headed on New Year’s Eve for the second Dec. 31 and where we were just as happy we didn’t go back to searching for something new. The regular menu was on offer; Cesare was in fine form in red sneakers; Champagne was poured; the noise level was mellow until the place got busy just as we were leaving. And the food was, as always, really satisfying. He comped us the lardo and then his own salsiccia with lentils before we could order the traditional but imported cotechino, then we had an amazing apple salad, exceptional peppery farro with mussels and comped Tuscan fries. My pasta, a special with goose, was like what I would make at home with duck, but it was hard to complain when our $39 Tuscan wine from a sentimental favorite producer was also comped. We overtipped happily and came home with enough leftovers for a superb lunch. WIGB? Anytime. 228 West 10th Street off Bleecker, 212 645 0200.

The not bad: Green Table in the Chelsea Market, where I stopped in desperation one afternoon at an off-hour and where, aside from a grubby wineglass, I had a perfectly satisfying little lunch. Every place else I had tried to try between Le Du’s and Appellation was either not serving or serving junk, so I was happy to find a $14 platter built around very good trout and duck rillettes, each packed into little canning glasses and teamed with baguette toasts from Amy’s Bread across the concourse, a fine little mesclun salad and a teeny dish of pickled root vegetables (one of which cracked a wisdom tooth and I didn’t even mind). I’ve walked past this place more times than I can count but now see why it’s usually busy. WIGB? Probably. 75 Ninth Avenue, 212 741 6623.

The repeatable: La Rural, where we went back after a movie with friends who had reserved at Cafe Luxembourg but who agreed the chance to try good wines in a BYO environment was irresistible. Their shared ribeye was good, but I have to say our skirt steak was even better; the fries without the Provencal treatment were okay, while the multicolor salad had no dressing. The service was outstanding, with fresh glasses offered for our second bottle, and much charm. And, luckily for us if not the owners, the dining room was empty enough that we could almost talk comfortably. WIGB? Inevitably. 768 Amsterdam Avenue near 97th Street, 212 749 2929.

The overlooked: La Pizza Fresca, where I just remembered we ate right before Christmas with a bunch of my consort’s friends from his new universe and where the whole experience was better than it had any right to be. The waiters were fools and neglected us after the food landed, not realizing how much more they could have sold, but the cooking and wine were fine, and we got a long table out of the way of aural assault. One FOB had eaten there the night before and was thrilled to be back, steering us to the right pizzas and indulging us with appetizer choices (fried calamari, polenta with mushrooms and Montasio, etc.) Sitting right by the pizza oven added to the good vibe in a place we had given up on after a bad experience with an Italian friend years ago. WIGB? Probably. 31 East 20th Street, 212 598 0141.

New York minutes/Mid-September 2007

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

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

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

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