New York minutes/Mid-September 2013

The good: Toloache in Midtown, where we headed with friends at their suggestion after “The Butler” on bullet-free 42nd Street and where, as always, the small plates were big enough. We split an order of excellent straightforward guacamole with a side of superb salsa while waiting for that booth at the bar with margaritas, then divvied up a quesadilla with huitlacoche. I passed on sharing all their various tacos because my tortilla soup was beyond big enough if not quite at the awesome level of the version on 83rd Street. (Which made me think of the global chef who told me recently that every recipe an underling makes loses 10 percent of the original.) Still, WIGB? Anytime.

The surprisingly good: Pascalou on the Upper East Side, where we wound up after showing up on the wrong night for a lavish soiree for friends’ birthdays — and there are few neighborhoods that are more food-desolate than that one. The host was half-amusing, asking us which of us had reserved and responding to our “neither” with some British dis and conceding “well, most of our regulars aren’t back from the Hamptons” so he could give us a table. I forget why we quit going there, but aside from the Town & Country crowd, it delivered with both food and service. The menu, as always, was all over the atlas, so Bob had Middle Easternish grilled shrimp while I was beyond happy with my little slab of superb pissaladiere (on pate brisee rather than puff pastry) with good and generous greens/salad for all of $10. We should have sprung for a bottle of rosé rather than four glasses for much more, but WIGB? Absolutely. Even the French bread and butter impressed not just me but Mr. Sprat.

The not so good: Shanghai Asian Cuisine in Chinatown, where my consort and I wound up after bailing on a 45-minute wait at our first choice on a Sunday after visiting the spooky storage center. Maybe we’ve just calibrated our palates after the last couple of years of chopstick-wielding with our eating Asian/Asian eating pals, but the food this time just seemed ordinary. The fried dumplings that had haunted me as ethereal were doughy, the pickled cabbage almost inedibly sweet. At least the soup dumplings were perfection (as was the guy at the table across from us who advised the couple next to him: “Next time bring an Asian and you’ll know what to order”).  WIGB? Nope. As we walked through the Hong Kong Supermarket afterward, I realized I could make any of that at home. If I were so inclined.

The “it’s complicated:” The Cutting Room in Koreatown, where a great friend treated us to dinner and a Holly Williams (granddaughter of Hank) show and where the Health Department may or may not have ruined the rhythm. Our food took just short of forever to arrive even though we were there super-early, and the waitress blamed an inspection even though Bob noticed other tables were eating as we merely drank. Pretty shitty, if it was bureaucratic bungling, to muck up a live experience. My crab cakes were surprisingly creditable, though. And she comped us fries. WIGB? For $15 for live music, $17 for creditable crab cakes? Absolutely, even if we were paying.

We also repeatedly liked Luke’s, which is almost unnervingly consistent with those lavish lobster rolls, and also Cocina Economica, where the chorizo torta with spicy fries is very hard to beat for $8 (although the guacamole was beyond tame and lame despite the hint of papalo that had me burping all afternoon).  And we finally had breakfast at Fairway when a friend was in from Chicago and had to get her pancake fix. I shoulda gone the Big Boy route, with a stack plus eggs plus bacon, is all I’ll say.

New York minutes/Early February 2012

The seriously good again: Momofuku Ssam in the East Village, where my consort and I met another food-obsessed couple via the Twitter for a Sunday lunch that was even more invigorating than my two previous weekday indulgences. We were there before the door opened at 11:30 so of course got a nice table (and, I learned later, a waiter who Tweets, too). The four of us shared everything, which meant I tasted excellent sweetbreads I normally would spurn (prep them once or twice and you will, too) and the spicy sausage and rice-cake dish, as well as lively pickled vegetables and a pear sorbet brilliantly accessorized with pumpkin, cornflakes and blue cheese. All the duck — rotisserie, dumplings, pulled sandwich — was of course perfect. The only letdown was apple kimchi with bacon and maple labne, which amounted to ingredients talking past each other. WIGB? Can’t wait. 207 Second Avenue at 13th Street, 212 212 254 3500. (BTW: We all went down the avenue afterward to Vandaag for the exceptional coffee in that rigorously designed room; the cappuccino was one of the best I’ve ever had on this continent.)

The transporting: Il Buco Alimentari in Nebulousnabe, where we fortified ourselves with  Saturday lunch before a time trip through the amazing Merchant’s House Museum nearby and where the history was nearly as palpable (wood from the way-back machine). Seeing a whole porchetta on the rotisserie in the theatrical open kitchen made the panino irresistible, and it was a juicy/crunchy/tender marvel on just the right bun; pickled vegetables on the side only made it seem more of a deal at $16 (Porchetta’s is of course sublime and much cheaper but without the creature comforts). We shared the $14 insalata di cicoria despite my resistance to Scalia anchovies for their name alone, and it turned out to be one of the rare enjoyable bitter salads, with almost sweet Treviso radicchio tossed in and crunchy fine bread crumbs over the top. And $14 grilled sausage over Umbrian lentils had real nuance; fried sage leaves and sweet onions were grace notes. As the server warned, the coffee needs work; even with way more than a cloud on the macchiato it was bitter. (We stopped by Colombe later just to compare and now suspect, though, that taste is not what’s cutting into business; it’s probably more the scene.) The market in the front is quite nice, too, although we managed to get out without buying anything. WIGB? Absolutely, at least for serene lunch. I’d guess it might get loud at dinner, with all those hard surfaces. 53 Great Jones Street, 212 212 837 2622.

The satisfying, again: La Mangeoire in Midtown East, where we landed after being warned of a 45-minute wait at the Smith after an opening of New York in Color with a friend’s work at the Howard Greenberg Gallery on 57th Street. The $38 white from the Languedoc matched well with both Bob’s intense coq au vin with mushroom-bacon sauce and my pork roast (first time I’ve ever ordered that, and my reward was super-tender thanks to the server actually asking what temperature I wanted). And the anchoiade, olives and oil with the bread basket were just gravy. I’ll admit it was a little sad to see Christian Delouvrier and think back on Ruth’s bedazzled  review in his $30 soup days, but his cooking has lost only the flash and price tag, not the style and substance. WIGB? We may never make it to the Smith. Add in no din and the option of downsized main courses and it’s definitely worth the journey. 1008 Second Avenue near 53d Street, 212 759 7086.

The over-the-top: RedFarm in the West Village, where we left my name and of course got a perfect little table and no end of comped food from gregarious Eddie Schoenfeld; we only had to wait as long as it took to pick out three new salts at the Meadow down the street. Thank allah we kept a receipt, because it really was more dishes than any cranial sieve could retain (he at least did the smart thing and said: “Take a taste and take it home”). We chose good shu mai shooters (two for $7.50), huge and slightly overwrought crab and duck dumplings (four for $12), exquisite vegetable and chive steamed dumplings (four for $8), noodles with both Dungeness and rock crab ($27) and sublime okra and eggplant yellow curry ($17 and enough to keep me from succumbing to mediocre Thai again for a long, long time — this had at least six kinds of vegetables in addition to the excellent stars, and the sauce was all nuanced flavor). Forced upon us were killer soup dumplings with truffles; strange but irresistible eggplant “bruschetta” topped with smoked salmon and caviar; mushroom spring rolls; amazing barbecued Berkshire pork belly; the $39 like-buttah Creekstone prime rib steak with the best baby bok choy I’ve ever stuck an implement into, and two desserts: chocolate pudding and a “fruit plate.” The kittybag was damned heavy on the way back to the C train, and we ate from it for three days. We also shared a $32 bottle and two $16 glasses of an ideal wine for Joe Ng’s style of cooking, S.A. Prum “Blue” Mosel riesling (Joshua Wesson did the list). WIGB? Can’t wait, although I may sneak in with a bag over my head. But that might mean missing out on Eddie’s entertaining tales. 529 Hudson Street, 212 792 9700.

The “good luck to them”: Left Bank in the far West Village, where we met one of our favorite people, in from Veneto, for a great long, long Sunday dinner. We reserved at 6:30 to try out the “happy hour,” which sounded so much more respectable than “early bird,” but were only able to take advantage of the half-price, half-assed Aperol spritz ($6) because Diego didn’t get there by 7 for the three courses for $20. Dinner was still a steal: I had outstanding potato gnocchi with pumpkin, black pepper and pecorino, almost like spaetzle, for $17; the guys both had the superb juicy-crisp roast half-chicken with capers, cornichons and dill for $21. (Usual sneakiness: Sides are sold separately.) We also shared a pretty great rendition of brandade with warm toast and olives for $10 and a lively bottle of grillo from Diego’s second home of Sicily for $36. Service and the room were both fine, too. (Even though we got the worst table in the house, right under the speaker with nothing but #RIPWhitney — by the end of the night I was starting to realize why she needed drugs.) WIGB? No question, if it lasts. I know we’ve eaten there before . . . 117 Perry Street at Greenwich, 212 727 1170.

The dispiriting despite the design: Cafe Centro in Hell’s Kitchen, where we ducked in just for cheap sustenance at a sunlit table on our way to the must-see Loving and Weegee shows at ICP. Warm, salty chips and decent salsa were too easy to fill up on, which was lucky because the rice and beans with my lukewarm cheese enchiladas merited no more than one bite each. Bob ordered tacos with carnitas cooked in Coke and we were both glad he had resisted the mahi ones; these were overfilled and hyper-sweet, but things coulda been worse. WIGB? Why do restaurants get better on Ninth as you head south?

New York minutes/Early March 2011

The surprisingly good: The Astor Room in the landmark Kaufman Astoria Studios, where four of us were lucky enough to land after a great couple of hours at the Museum of the Moving Image across the street when Pachanga Patterson did not appear to be open and M. Wells was too far and too overcommitted with a 40-minute wait. I had low hopes, seeing the half-empty if hugely atmospheric room (the old actors’ commissary), but it was the first day of Saturday brunch, and the promise of free Bloody Marys (or mimosas) certainly sounded seductive. And these would have been spectacular at any price, thick with horseradish and each tall glass topped with both a lemon wedge and a caperberry. We passed plates, so I can vouch for my consort’s jerk chicken and waffles (juicy, perfectly fried breast and leg); Diane’s spinach and goat cheese omelet with, as billed, “robust flavors” plus accompaniments of both roasted potatoes and salad; my own lump crab melt with avocado and tomato under a blanket of melted Fontina, and Len’s “Astor Disaster,” a crazy-sounding but very harmonious layering of French toast, barbecued short rib, bacon, poached egg, Cheddar and onion rings. Who cared that the fries with his and my order were just industrial? The bill, with one coffee and a Lavazzo espresso, was all of $55 before the tip. Lagniappe: The chef, a David Burke protégé, came out to chat. WIGB? Absolutely. What better double bill for the Alain Resnais program at the museum? And the fried oyster and egg sandwich looked pretty enticing. 34-12 36th Street, Astoria, 718 255 1947.

The good again: Elsewhere in Hell’s Kitchen, where we stupidly assumed we’d have the room to ourselves after 8 after a work drink for a story and where the half-hour wait was well worth it. This time we were seated in the “garden” room, which was also a plus. We split popcorn with “bacon butter” to start, so I could finish only part of my portobello sliders, awesome as they were: mushrooms grilled like beef, topped with Fontina, layered in brioche with lettuce and “green” tomato that looked more yellow, and teamed with spicy remoulade. I could swear Bob made me taste tender lamb on polenta or grits, but it doesn’t appear to be on the menu now. WIGB? For sure. This is the new Theater District, with serious cooking in the hours when restaurants are usually dark. 403 West 43d Street, 212 315 2121.

The not bad: Piadina in the West Village, where friends lured us back for the “cheap and awesome food” despite our recollection of the namesake dish tasting like quesadillas in an Irish Catholic orphanage (hint: like communion hosts stuffed with scraps). And they were quite right. The room was charming, the salad was satisfying and my $14.50 garganelli in cream with peas and a plethora of prosciutto proved to be outstanding. I didn’t taste our friends’ food, but they seemed happy, so I’ll assume Bob’s watery orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe had to be an aberration. Points off, too, for the dismissive service. I will never understand why, if times are so tough, so many waiters just clear wineglasses and plates without asking: Hey, suckahs — want anything more? WIGB? Maybe. It was pretty cheap. (More points off, though, for cash-only.) 57 West 10th Street, 212 460 8017.

The apparently forgettable: Superfine in DUMBO, where the Bugses and we headed after hearing Gabrielle Hamilton talk about her memoir at Powerhouse Arena and where we were able to walk right in and sit right down and hear each other, which was key with Dr. B p*ant-gearing up to appear on the Colbert Report next night. I was a little unnerved on passing the pool table on the way in, but it’s a pretty nice space. And the reds we ordered were pretty good and affordable. Otherwise, I know there were steak frites and grilled mahi passed around, and I had decent pasta with goat cheese, broccoli and pancetta; the fourth dish has escaped my cranial sieve. WIGB? Possibly if we wound up in that neighborhood on a cold night again. Otherwise, Hecho en Dumbo on the Bowery is calling. . . 126 Front Street at Pearl, 718 243 9005.

Quick takes: Luke’s Lobster on Amsterdam came through yet again with meaty, overstuffed, thoroughly satisfying lobster rolls for all of $15 apiece. Fedora in the West Village came through with a totally transporting bar, the best argument for preservation (I could almost see Dawn Powell knocking back a few stiff ones there). And Terrizzi in Astoria delivered as a total trip, the one bakery we dared walk into after passing so many that looked so industrial. Sfogliatelle seemed Naples-worthy, with flaky dough and a sweet ricotta filling, and it came with character from the elderly woman in charge. She said we could find something like it in “The City.” Maybe. But not with her salesmanship.

New York minutes/Early November 2010

The good: The Redhead in the East Village, where we met two friends coming from Greenpoint as a compromise location and where we had that rare experience where things got better as the place got busier/louder. The lighting at 5 was police-interrogation level, so we spent our first round feeling as if were drinking at a VFW hall, but that soon changed. Then we were worried they would rush us out of our table as people started arriving for dinner in the tiny room, but the servers couldn’t have been nicer. We had to start with the bacon peanut brittle, which was not as great as I’d remembered from the New Amsterdam Market, but my duck rillettes, a special, may have been the best ever in an American restaurant, and came with enough toasts for a change. Bob’s fried chicken was also respectable, and a huge portion, with a big salad and corn muffin. I didn’t try the gnocchi across the table but heard no complaints, and we could still hear. Wines were well-chosen, too, and our friends seemed happy with beer and a Sazerac. WIGB? If I were in that neighborhood, for sure. 349 East 13th Street between First and Second, 212 533 6212.

The promising: Tolani on the Upper West Side, where we headed after finding Fairway’s cafe closed for a private party after the depressing “Inside Job,” and after I remembered reading about this weeks-old place in the Columbia newspaper my consort had brought home from his teaching gig. We just glanced at the menu prices ($18 or so) before asking for a table, and the super-happy hostess turned us over to a congenial host who led us downstairs to the “garden,” an awkward room with a glassed-in back wall and a view of the kitchen. (The upstairs was full.) And then the waiter informed us everything was small plates, designed for sharing. But we’d had popcorn for our first course and just ordered the grilled quail, hot but listed under “cold” because it came with a bulgar salad with dates, and the roasted half-chicken, with creamy mashed potatoes. Both little birds were juicy and flavorful, perfectly cooked. I recognized the consulting chef’s name, Craig Hopson, but had forgotten he works for Le Cirque; he’s branching out with this couple, who own another restaurant on the Upper East Side. The wine list had a couple of choices neither of us had encountered, including a Tasmanian white that was really fruity and would be great with that quail if I had not moved on to a New Zealand sauvignon blanc. WIGB? Absolutely. The cooking and the combinations were spot-on. 410 Amsterdam Avenue near 80th Street, 212 873 6252.

The fine: Num Pang in the Central Village, where we stopped for a quick lunch on a market Saturday after the Strand (which now must have the best penny-candy selection in town, and where we were amazed to see how many people could pay in cash when the computers went down — the line was huge). Bob shared his “seasonal special” sandwich, with five-spice glazed pork belly, that was messy/juicy perfection for $7.50; I had a $3.75 cup of the good “curry red lentil soup,” topped with pickled red cabbage, cilantro and fried shallots. With both, it was easy to see why the house policy is “have it our way,” with no substitutions, alterations or modifications allowed — the combinations work. As a bonus, we were able to grab stools in the teeny dining room up a spiral staircase rather than searching out a park bench. WIGB? The ginger barbecue brisket sandwich is calling my name. . . 21 East 12th Street between University and Fifth Avenue, 212 255 3271.

New York minutes/Mid-December 2009

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

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

New York minute/Early November 2009

The good: PDT in the East Village, where a little horde of us headed after a friend’s superb photography opening as guests of the gallery owner and where I could safely guess our experience was not the norm. It’s secreted alongside the Crif hot dog joint on St. Marks Place, a sleek narrow room with booths, a bar and taxidermed animals (ours was an otter, teeth bared in a grin, with a lace cap on). I had an excellent St. Rita cocktail to start, with Champagne and rye as I recall, then wisely switched to wine, which the waitress would have been wise to identify as Dr. Frank riesling — she would not have needed to bring tastes of it and the Chardonnay to reassure us it would not be too fruity. Otherwise the service was superb. Dinner was a Lebanese buffet brought in from nearby Al Diwan, and everything I tasted was good enough to make me want to give it a real try someday, particularly the hummus, borek and baklava. Best of all was the noise level: Music was playing, but six of us in a booth could hear each other babble. WIGB? Not likely — I’m not that cool. 212 614 0386.