New York minutes/Early May 2013

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.

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 /Latish May 2011

The good: Sezz Medi up near Columbia, where my consort led me after I’d steered him there on good advice a couple of months ago and where the whole experience was like Italy without Alitalia. It was Sunday brunchtime, but the menu had a panoply of egg alternatives, and the server didn’t even flinch when we ordered only small plates. One of which was huge — fried calamari and zucchini, an LP-sized platter of nicely cooked, very tender seafood and pretty crisp yellow and green squash slices, with a tangy parsley tzatziki as dunking sauce. Bob’s tegamino (a k a eggplant Parmigiana) was superb, with the ideal balance of vegetable to cheese and a good, lusty tomato sauce that doubled as a dip for the fritti (turns out the name refers to the skillet in which it’s cooked). We got away for $20 plus tip, about what we would have spent at Chipotle in the same time. WIGB? Absolutely, and often, if it were closer. 1260 Amsterdam Avenue near 122d Street, 212 932 2901.

The pretty good: Kin Shop in the Village, where Bob and I and the filmmaker of “How to Live Forever” repaired after a showing at the Quad and where the food definitely trumped the neglectful service, even after we ordered bottled water that could have been repeatedly up-sold. Duck laab salad was my favorite plate on the table, although it was not as blistering as I’d expected, and sea scallops with pea puree were nearly as good. Softshell crab can be filed under outstanding, pad see ew with ramps well below  underwhelming. The one huge disappointment was the “selection of grilled eggplant.” No there there. . . WIGB? Sure. Brachetto goes surprisingly well with spicy upscale Thai. 469 Sixth Avenue, 212 675 4295.

The not bad, din in dinner notwithstanding: Qi in the Theater District, where Bob and I wound up, against his objections, when Elsewhere had a 15-minute wait for tables after the ICP opening of the entrancing Elliott Erwitt show. He spends so much time on/off Eighth Avenue he was dreading the whole experience but calmed a bit when we agreed the design evokes Pierre Gagnaire’s Sketch in London, where he shot for his last around-the-world Geographic story, on caffeine. Unfortunately, the kitchen and servers could have been jetlagged after flying in from England. It took forever to get attention and then food. By then, the torturous noise level had us fighting, and cold mushroom spring rolls amplified the pain even though they had great taste and texture. An eggplant special appetizer was mostly chicken and shrimp, but decent. Ordering pad see ew was a big mistake after Kin Shop, but the green curry duck was better next day, reheated in the quiet of our own kitchen. WIGB? Not likely, but Bob, amazingly, disagreed — he rated it above most joints near where he spends so much time. 675 Eighth Avenue near 43d Street, 212 247 8991.

The nearly perfect port in a near-storm: The Taproom at Colicchio & Sons in Chelsea, where we wound up after my two days of frantically calling around for a “shit — it’s your birthday”  destination and getting no end of “5:30 or 10” merde de bull. Bob was willing to risk walking in anywhere, as we were able to do at the Dutch, but it was his big night so I wanted a safe haven. Which this totally was. We got a table looking out on the High Line, in a room that was surprisingly cozy despite its airiness, with the ideal noise level (you can easily hear both the mellow music and your companion) and a nice, young crowd (my seat had a view of the entrance, so I know the fancy side was not so lucky). Good Nebbiolo rosé ran $9 a glass, a much better deal than the heavily hyped kegged stuff, which was rather thin. Cured fluke with grapefruit and black olives was nice, but fatty salmon over smoked-egg mayonnaise outdid it (the menu called it vinaigrette, but I’ll call it what it was). Bob seemed happy with braised lamb ribs on pearl barley, and I was impressed by “steak & eggs,” with beef short rib in a crepinette laid alongside oats topped with a poached egg, even though the fancy stone-cut oats were decidedly rancid. And we both were amazed at how lame the rhubarb tart was. I’m all for cerebral desserts, but they need to function on a sensual level as well. This was almost gummi bear fruit on solid cream in a crust notable mostly for its crunch, not flavor. Even the two frozen scoops of whatever alongside could not elevate it. Still, WIGB? Absolutely. The price was right (very imaginative butchering and cooking put prices literally half what I had reeled from on other menus in my frenzy). Plus true luxury is being able to revel in conversation over your food. 85 Tenth Avenue at 15th Street, 212 400 6699.

The “it’s complicated:” Boulud Sud on the Upper West Side, where we steered friends in from Eden on the Willamette who had reserved at Bar Boulud and where we were lucky enough to be showered with freebies but cranky enough to evaluate the cooking like the journalists all of us once were and some still are. The Big Homme himself was there, and I hope the microphone under our table recorded me saying he is the most gracious guy in the business, because he not only came over to chat and engage but also sent us way too much free food. Of what we ordered, the duck kataifi was too much shredded wheat on a bit of poultry; vitello tonnato was fine but not Piemonte level, and the perfectly cooked, very fresh squid was done in by the overkill of fat filling and overwrought tomato sauce. Sicilian sardine escabeche, though, impressed even this sardine shunner. We got talked into unnecessary side dishes, of which the very smoky charred broccoli rabe trumped the bland chickpea panisse and fregola sarda with snap peas. Among main courses, Bob’s “cedar grilled rouget” turned out to be the usual far-from-the-Mediterranean fillet. My pancetta-wrapped quail, though, may have looked straight out of “Eraserhead” but tasted/ate pretty great, no Tuscan kale and rosemary soubise needed. Of our friends’ harissa-grilled lamb with eggplant and “grilled short rib on the bone,” I’d definitely lay the blue ribbon on the beef, cooked to amazing tenderness. Points off for a wine list that turned into a jousting match between reformed wine writer and paid sommelier, but we all liked our Nebbiolo rosé, and the excellent waiter poured it well. Our friends up and fled to Jazz at Lincoln Center, so Bob and I did not have to share two outstanding comped desserts, a chocolate-heavy, almost tiramisu-tasting “cassata” that would vanquish any memories of candied fruit, and a big-time wow of a grapefruit givré. WIGB? Probably, for a snack and glass of $9 picpoul at the bar after a movie, but I appeared to be in the minority. 20 West 64th Street, 212 595 1313.

The halt on the border of lame: La Superior in Williamsburg, where we happily headed with friends after an expedition in hopes of seeing the Rapture take Manhattan but where we left holding our ears because the music was not just painfully loud but horribly stupid. The birthday girl among us chose it, so I’ll be gentle, especially because it was decidedly cheap for too much food ($90 for four of us, with tip, including seven margaritas). And I can’t fairly judge because the dishes just came flying in after we ordered; there was no app-to-entrée progression. The best thing I tasted was the gordita filled with chorizo and potato; if it was not quite El Paso-(Texas)-level it was at least seriously satisfying. A rajas taco was also good if overfilled, as were the other tacos, some of which I tasted although I quailed at the lengua. Guacamole seemed  surprisingly undistinguished, and the queso fundido would have been so much better with serious mushrooms. (At least they kept the tortillas coming.) And I wanted to like the ezquites, despite the pallid main ingredient, but the presentation sucked — a plastic cup to be dumped into a bowl to be shared among four with two plastic forks? Those ditz waitresses were damned lucky we were in birthday mode.

Lagniappe: Our expedition to exotic Williamsburg paid off in many ways. We had the most amazing iced coffee — New Orleans style, with a bit of chicory, plus sugar and milk — at Blue Bottle. The corn cookie and blackberry-lime ice from Momofuku Milk Bar at Smorgasburg were killer. Whimsy & Spice’s peanut butter sandwich flavored with massaman curry was right behind. And the Bedford Cheese Shop could have been airdropped in from the Seventh Arrondissement.

New York minutes/Latish January 2011

The really good: Casellula in Hell’s Kitchen, where my consort and I landed after the wine-free, bottom-of-the-suitcase opening at ICP and after getting shunted aside at cramped and reeking Ardesia. The anticipated wait was 20 to 30 minutes at A, so we inched over the ice down the street and were instantly greeted by a hostess promising no more than a 15-minute wait and proffering a wine list; as we scanned it, the bartender welcomed us, too. Within five minutes we were on barstools and ordering Etna rosso and New Zealand sauvignon blanc and on our way to the “pig’s ass” sandwich with chipotle aioli for dipping followed by three exquisite cheeses (Vermont Ayr, Montagne de Bethmale and Brunet by way of Piemonte, paired, respectively, with honeycomb, roasted grape tomatoes and cardamon-flavored candied popcorn). The Cubanoesque panino was outstanding and the second glasses of wine perfect, but what was most amazing was the mood — everyone was mellow and took her time to explain things and get them right. WIGB? At an off-hour, for sure, since no reservations are taken. 401 West 52d Street, 212 247 8137.

The pretty good: Elsewhere in the Theater District, where we reserved for four after our great experience at Casellula, taking the advice on the menu to “eat Elsewhere.” Turns out the place is what has taken over the old Cafe Madeleine space right near the NYTimes and Conde Nast, so we and one friend had flashbacks on walking in (I remembered food poisoning, he felt nostalgic about lunches with editors). I wasn’t crazy about my past-its-prime quail, although the rye stuffing and multiple accouterments almost compensated. As did a side of salt-roasted fingerlings paired with “bacon butter”  and anchovy mayonnaise for dipping. Bob’s fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy could pass for Southern, and both he and Gary seemed happy with the braised rabbit. I think Elizabeth scored, though, with two small plates: a squash broth poured around goat cheese panna cotta, and a silky, very flavorful carrot timbale. Three of us split a bottle of Austrian red and probably would have ordered more if given the opportunity. Which is why this place was not completely good: After fully engaged service to start, we were on our own, and because we rejected a table near the cold front door, we were stuck at a banquette between two service areas just outside the constantly swinging kitchen door. But at least it was easy to talk. WIGB? Absolutely. Despite the huge old Madeleine jars of spices visible through that kitchen door, some seriously creative cooking is going on. 403 West 43d Street, 212 315 2121.

The good but deafening: FishTag on the Upper West Side, where we thought we were lucky to score a table but soon realized the newly enlarged bar in the old Onera/Kefi/Gus & Gabriel would have been the better bet. This place puts the din in dinner (and hell is being seated next to six shrieking women who need frequent bathroom breaks). But the food more than made up for it. Ryan Skeen is clearly of the Mae West school of “too much of a good thing. . .” The chicory/arugula/bulgur salad read like a grocery list (Medjool dates, pomegranate, green olives, breakfast radish, pistachio, peppers, grilled onions, smoked almonds) but came together into party-in-your-mouth forkfuls. Sheep milk dumplings were gussied up with Jonah crabmeat, aji amarillo peppers and sea urchin fonduta but did not taste at all of overkill. The bacala-skodalia brandade “melt” came closest to going too far, with Greek cheese, smoked eggplant and tomato confit, but was still good next day. All three dishes were big bang for small bucks ($9 and $10 for the “melt” and salad, $19 for the dumplings), but wines, served as 3- to 27-ounce pours, are pricey. Extra points for the attentive waiter, who was working hard in cramped quarters with shrieking women all around. WIGB? Absolutely, but only to the bar. My ears still hurt. 222 West 79th Street, 212 362 7470.

The not all bad: Fatty Crab on the Upper West Side, where we stopped in for a late Sunday lunch despite the roomful of babies and where the neglect was showing but the flavors still came through. My wineglass had that wet dog smell and a few flecks on it, but it seemed pointless to bother the waiter even though the gruner was $14. Bob didn’t realize until we’d ordered that the clipboard menu had a whole other page of enticements; his was missing that crucial first sheet (and the rest were encrusted with flecks of food). The turmeric-roasted cauliflower was good and spicy but carelessly cooked to greasiness. And the fatty duck, now a crazy $23, was nothing like what I remember from the first half-dozen encounters with it downtown; both fat and meat were impossibly chewy, although the peppery-sweet crust made us want to keep chewing and chewing and the pickley Chinese mustard greens on top countered the richness. Bob said the $3 rice was also half-assed. But the Malay fish fry made up for much of that: perfectly fried, with a sublime curry sauce, plus we suspected it was not the tilapia the waiter had threatened but cod. WIGB? Probably. It is a nice break from Fairway and Land Thai etc. 2170 Broadway near 77th Street, 212 496 2722.

The happy-making: Barrio Chino on the Lower East Side, where Bob suggested we reprise last January’s excellent lunch the day before my birthday and where we were lucky enough on a hurting-cold day to snare “the best seats in the house,” in the far corner at the bar where we were not jostled and could ask all the questions we wanted of the bartender as he mixed up new vats of jalapeño-infused tequila. Of course we had to have those great jalapeño margaritas, with their slow burn, to go with respectable guacamole and good salsa to start. His grease-free sinchronizada with chorizo came with green salsa for dipping, but I really scored with a chile relleno stuffed with scrambled eggs, chorizo and cheese, teamed with black beans and a handful of greens, for only $1 more ($10). Coffee was also good. WIGB? Maybe even before next January. The newish Casa Mezcal around the corner on Orchard Street gets $16 for a chile relleno. 253 Broome Street, 212 228 6710.

The promising: The new Tarallucci e Vino on Columbus, where we stopped for a macchiato after Fatty Crab to warm up. It feels nothing like either the neighborhood or the Subway that preceded it; I almost felt the aura of Bill’s in Sydney, although this place is tiny by comparison. The coffee was excellent, but the room just seemed sunny and enticing. Plus the panino a guy was savoring at the bar looked awesome, and the quiches seemed a deal at $5, and the pastries appeared carefully made. Is this neighborhood starved for quality, or what? Bob’s only complaint is that it’s too far from home. . . We also had a great encounter at Saxelby Cheesemongers in the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side, where we were drawn after the amazing cheeses at Casellula — the counterman did steer us to the outstanding Chester from Consider Bardwell, but only after Bob stunned him by asking if he had something less like Brie after he’d offered his first choice for creamy and pungent. Apparently there is one four-letter word you can’t use at an artisanal cheese stand . . . .

New York minutes/Mid-January 2011

The sensational: Hunan House in Flushing, where my consort and I trekked on a cold Saturday as a diversion from our usual Greenmarket/cheap Thai routine and where the whole experience was easily the most satisfying ever in a Chinese restaurant in New York. I did my homework online, looking for a sit-down lunch rather than food court craziness (see below), and once I hit “smoked duck” in the Robert Sietsema review my Metro card was out. The place looks pretty bare-bones but was super-clean, with tables well spaced, and the host and waiters were excellent, with none of the usual impatience and/or condescension, even when it was clear we were ordering the Village Voice specials, right out of the review. (I normally hate people who do that, but as China traveler Bob said, “Why take a chance, since we don’t know the food?”) So we started with the cold tofu, silky and jiggling-fresh with just the lightest drizzle of sesame oil and sprinkling of chopped scallions. And then the braised pork belly, Mao-style, super-tender chunks in a surprisingly sophisticated sauce with greens and julienned scallions. Water spinach, it turns out, is not in season, so we subbed the spicy cabbage with fermented soybeans, also in a good light, greaseless sauce and just hot enough with red chilies. And then the reason for coming arrived, as sensational as billed, tasting close to the smoked duck a friend once brought back from Goode’s in Houston. The smokiness almost vibrated through the anything-but-geriatric meat. It was way too much food for $44 before the tip, so we had a superb dinner and then lunch the next day, as did The Cat. One other nice touch: a little bowl of soybeans with a hint of star anise arrives with the pot of tea, to nibble on while you study the huge menu. I thought we were stuffed, but somehow we managed to eat two warm, as-good-as-Hong Kong egg custard tarts at the nearby Taipei Bakery after a stock-up swing through the supermarket in between. WIGB? Absolutely. But first there are so many other places to try in that neighborhood. 137-40 Northern Boulevard, Flushing, Queens. 718 353 1808.

The half-good: Joe Allen in the Theater District, where I met a friend who needed solace by mouth after her father died and where the cheeseburger definitely delivered. It wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it was cooked perfectly (against my medium wishes) and was teamed with the right amount of respectable fries. Plus it was only $14.50, less than Cafe Loup’s, which she’d suggested but I couldn’t face. A bottle of Cline viognier was $27, a much better deal than the $12.50 “quartino” of sauvignon blanc at the bar, and of course the room is quintessential New York. So what was the half-bad? I know it was after the theater rush, but the bartender and two waitresses who tended to us exhibited the worst “I’ve had it” I’ve encountered in a while. When we asked Server A about the viognier, worried it might be too fruity, she sent over a not-happy Server B who described it well if impatiently, then returned, uncorked it, offered a taste and plunked the bottle down, saying, “We’re very casual. You can pour.” We saw her again only to pay the check. With exactly double the tax as tip. WIGB? Sure, for the half-good reasons, plus it’s so easy to get to on an icy night. 326 West 46th Street, 212 581 6464.

The one-step-up-from JFK: Two of the restaurants at Eataly, where I indulged a friend who wanted to go back after a good lunch in the pizza/pasta corral. We got there early and wandered around awhile feeling overwhelmed, and by the time we decided to sit at the seafood bar for uni my head was throbbing from the jangle in the joint. I was happy to see Arneis by the glass for only $9 but not so happy on seeing what arrived after the waiter ran off to get the last order of uni: one good plump taupe specimen and three reddish shriveled ones, literally the bottom of the barrel, for $17 (Donna at least let the waiter know we were underwhelmed, but it did feel weird to be women complaining about shrunken gonads). The bread and olive oil were both worth the calories, though. By the time we went back to the pizza/pasta corral, we had to wait, which gave us time to discuss how cheesy a wall of crap Barilla looks, so by the time we got seats at that bar we felt as if we were eating in a duty-free shop. We ordered the cheapest white by the glass, and the waitress suggested a bottle, but I saw the Arneis was the same price: $28. Unfortunately, it was pretty warm once it arrived. Lasagne came almost immediately, maybe too fast — a few more minutes in the oven and it might have hung together more, although it tasted great (it reminded me of a New York-style enchilada, rolled and served without the extra time to bake it into more than tortilla and cheese). And I would have been more impressed with the pizza with salami and basil if I had not recently had the perfection that Pizza a Casa teaches down on the Lower East Side. But I guess it qualified as “just like in Italia/Italy,” as the menu promised, because the center was soggy. WIGB? I will for my consort’s sake, because he’s curious about the experience. I can do without stress for dinner.

The open, at least: Landmarc in the dread TWC, where I hooked up with a friend in from Florence after we found Bouchon Bakery closed at breakfast time. He was paying, so a $12 eggamuffin didn’t seem like a bad deal, and aside from the fact that it had zero taste it was fine (lardons as the bacon at least added texture, and it came with decent hash browns). The cappuccino, though, was as scorched as any I’ve had in this town. On the plus side, they gave us a booth for four by the window, and the service was decent. WIGB? Sure, if someone else is paying when Bouchon Bakery is closed. 212 823 6123.

New York minutes/Early January 2011

The OMFG: El Paso Taqueria in East Harlem, where my consort and I wound up on New Year’s Day when I was too flu-ish to risk infecting friends in Connecticut but still wanted to get out and about to start off my year of the rabbit with something new. I suggested walking up to Harlem and back and somehow agreed to Target and back, and it was one gorgeous expedition, through the snowy park and up avenues we usually see only from the back seat of a cab on the way to an airport. We stopped in beforehand on 116th and a surly guy was swabbing tables and said it didn’t open till 1, so we took our time a couple of blocks away in the miles of deceptively priced aisles before heading back and were so hellbent on eating there we didn’t notice not a single table had any more food than guacamole. And the place was not empty. So we succumbed to the guacamole hard-sell and were beyond forgiving when it finally crawled from the kitchen, oversalted and with all the jalapeños clumped on one side of the molcajete. But then we sat. And sat. And sat, while the couple at the closest table kept asking where his pancakes might be, and ordering more sangria (they went through two pitchers). And as we watched bag after bag of delivery orders fly through the little dining room. Which would have been forgivable if our food had not finally arrived at Greenland temperatures. The tortilla soup that was going to restore me to life was just a bowl of clotted chicken fat, with cold diced cheese sunk to the bottom and hard tortilla strips throughout. Bob thought I was exaggerating till we swapped orders and I tasted his stone-cold enchiladas on “hot plate” with cold rice and beans on a separate plate. My notion of taking the shitty soup home to reheat didn’t fly, so he flagged down the surly guy to ask to have it reheated. Which, as I anticipated, took just short of a millennium and only made the bland mess too hot to eat. The waitress did apologize for the temperature, but she can fry in hell for never coming back with the leftover enchiladas we wanted to take home to try to resuscitate. The red sauce was actually pretty decent. WIGB? Only with an Uzi to my head.

Also, too: We finally stopped at Eataly on our way to the C train, after a stand-up Sunday brunch at friends’ in the East 30s, because there was no line outside when Bob wanted a coffee. He immediately balked on seeing the human congestion at the Lavazza stand just inside, but we persevered and he soon had a macchiato in hand, rather quickly by NY standards — although if there is a word for molasses in Italian, real baristas would be tossing it around. Jeebus, Americans move slow. The proportion of milk to espresso was off, but it was good enough to encourage us to delve deeper. And to find Caffe Vergnano also has a stand. We bought bread (“rustic with olives”), and an oily/airy slice of focaccia, and some red-leaf lettuce and Cara Cara oranges because the produce section is (I hate to say it) better set up to service customers than Fairway is. We left wanting to come back to eat. . .

New York minutes/Early August 2009

The not bad: Tue Thai Food in the West Village, where my consort and I landed after our inevitable “where the hell do we go now?” dithering after the Saturday Greenmarket while he was carrying 12 ears of great corn among other burdens. He suggested Otto, but we both looked at the menu and kept trudging, then I thought we could finally succumb to Gobo, but its prices seemed rather high for not-very-enticing food and we were finally considering the Asian place on Sixth we have resisted so far when I noticed this new Thai at an address that has been countless eateries since I wrote about an ATM in one eons ago. The kitchen was visible from the street, and people were inside, so we plunged in. It’s a cool-looking space although a little unfinished and slightly evocative of a public bathroom, but the staff could not have been more hospitable, checking back repeatedly to see how we liked our lunch and thanking us profusely as we left. And the food really did taste cooked to order, rather than slopped off an assembly line as at other places we frequent. I had sriracha fried rice with tofu and mixed vegetables, and if one of the latter was raisins and the former was a little rubbery, the flavor was still pretty great. We both thought Bob’s order was even better: “Our Secret Recipe Chalee’s Noodle,” with “grounded chicken,” eggs, vegetables and basil with perfectly balanced heat. With tax and tip it was all about $20, too. WIGB? Maybe on a weekday, when you get salad and app free with lunch. 3 Greenwich Avenue off Sixth Avenue, 212 929 9888.

Just for the record, I also had a decent Caesar at Toast on Broadway before a glass of wine at Campo. Wine in tumblers always tastes like it came from a hose. I had a slice of spinach-tomato-bacon pizza at Freddy & Pepper’s, and the cheese has gotten even slimier. We split a cup of coffee at the very serious Roasting Plant Coffee Company on Greenwich that had really amazing flavor but an oddly watery texture (yes, coffee can have texture), and it was even more worth it for the experience: If Rube Goldberg designed a coffee shop, this would be it (also sort of awed by the $1 cookie dough “shots” and the chocolate-covered matzoh for sale). Finally, my consort was quite happy when I directed him and nine in his posse to La Carbonara on 14th for an inexpensive meal — the tab was $32 apiece with drinks and wine. He said his pasta was fine, but the whole experience made it worthwhile: hospitable host, superlative waiter, room to themselves. Cheap is the new good.

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/Mid-January 2009

The good: Hecho en Dumbo, where I met my consort after an excellent afternoon with a fellow language junkie over in Brooklyn Heights and where the food and prices were worth the oily after-effects (you’ll leave there smelling as if you just ate at Ugglesich’s in New Orleans). I also suspect the place might be brutal, noisewise, later in the evening, but around 7 on a Monday night it was superb. We split the best guacamole in eons — what looked like a mingy portion was actually ample with the warm chips — and then outstanding sopes topped with crab and with chorizo etc. Wines and service were also better than I would expect. WIGB? Undoubtedly, given that the prices are right and the place is right around the corner from Bob’s underheated office. 111 Front Street, Brookyn, 718 855 5288.

The also-good: Zoma, where a table right next to the arctic-breezing door was the one downside to dinner for four of us with one injera spread with mounds of well-spiced vegetables and another with lamb, chicken and sirloin. The price was certainly right — I got there first and ordered a $7 glass of sauvignon blanc to keep me company in the cold, and then we split a bottle of red and it all came out to all of $25 a person. The place looks great, and the staff is surprisingly attentive and efficient. I don’t know enough about Ethiopian cooking to be critical, but I liked most of what we ate, particularly the red lentils, which could pass for Indian. WIGB? The price is right. (Cash only, though, and reservations are respected.) 2084 FDBlvd (Eighth/CPW) at 113th Street, 212 662 0620.

The adequate: Metro Marche in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where we headed for proximity’s sake after an opening at ICP and an encounter with NYC’s nastiest outside a Hillary event (pedestrians forced to walk in the street? no problem!) The place was the busiest I think I’d ever seen it, but the bouncer/manager was doing a better job than the cops; when three girls tried to use the same bathroom, his shoulders stepped in. Wine, service, my pizzette were all fine, but Bob’s frisee salad looked as if it had walked in from Weehawken: tired, overdressed greens mixed with soggy lardons and weary walnuts. It didn’t matter, though, because the subway entrance was mere steps away on that brutally cold night. WIGB? Inevitably. The crap going in across the street at the shrine to Pinch’s ego doesn’t look much better. 625 Eighth Avenue near 41st Street, 212 239 1010.

The unsettling: Pearl, where I was so disoriented by the emptiness at lunch that I must have set myself up for disappointment. When I got there exactly no one was at the bar and two tables were occupied in the “dining room,” but that didn’t stop the bartender from pushing around a couple of foreigners who did not understand why they had to wait for a complete party to be seated and who were told to “take any stool on the wall” when one went to the bar to sit down while the other was on the phone; the surliness even after one ordered a bottle of “Champagne” almost made me embarrassed to be a New Yorker. It’s the first time I ever thought about how one letter separates “rule” from “rude.” (Or maybe I’ve just been kicked around too much in countries where I don’t speak the language.) As for the food, I got my usual fish sandwich, and the bread was so huge I ate quite a while on one half before finding the cod in all the sauce and lettuce. I guess it was what it always is, but for the first time it struck me as almost gross. Fries and muscadet were fine, though. And the bartender/enforcer was certainly efficient with my order. WIGB? Yep. Any place can have an off day, with or without extenuating circumstances. 18 Cornelia Street.

The cheap and cheerful: Cafetasia, where we ducked in after freezing our bones and metal off on Union Square and where my crab Rangoon and Thai-eggplant-loaded green curry together cost about the same as the pound and a half of organic stew meat we had to buy at Whole Foods because the Greenmarket only had goat and pork. For the same $7.50, Bob had gyoza (lame) and udon (respectable). The place was packed, but the staff was outstanding (we got a table immediately in a room designed for communal eating). I just wish I had been two tables away with the male couple who were on their second bottle of wine at 12:30 on Saturday. WIGB? Probably. The green curry sauce was much gutsier than Spice’s, and the price was tres right. 38 East Eighth Street, 212 529 2363.

The painful: Ninth Street Espresso in the Chelsea Market, where I met a friend for our once-a-year coffee and where I can’t remember when I have felt more bilked (and she bought the $3.50 cherry scone at Amy’s afterward). The Camorra have killed for a less muddy cappuccino. For $4 at that.