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/Late January 2009

The good: Kefi, where my consort and I met great friends for an early birthday dinner and where their shock at the inflated wine prices in the new location was offset by the superb service and unexpected freebies. We got a relatively sheltered table in the cacophony (only in Strollerland would an 8 o’clock reservation be on the late side), and the waiter was outstanding. He sold us on a $48 bottle of “Red Velvet” to start, and poured it as judiciously as a waiter would in Paris. Our orders of the assorted spreads, grilled sardines, Greek salad, sheep’s milk dumplings and Greek sausage with pita were supplemented by the kitchen’s beneficence of grilled octopus and meatballs. We even got a comped dessert topped with a candle, a wedge of semolina cheesecake in filo sauced with quince and candied orange peel. WIGB? Late and often. 505 Columbus between 84th and 85th Streets, 212 873 0200.

The sad: Harry’s Cafe, where we stupidly agreed on Inaugural night to meet a friend who lives nearby, on the assumption that “Jump, You Fuckers” would be watching the teevee. Instead, the joint was sleepy, maybe six tables filling all long night long, and the only screen was in the busy bar. But our food was pretty good, both Bob’s frisee salad with egg and bacon totally reinvented and my copious portion of duck confit on white beans with portobellos and haricots verts. We didn’t try Kevin’s cod special but were happy enough with his choice of wine, a $40 red Bordeaux that was substantially better than the red Bob chose in the low $30s. So much for the cheapest wine on a great list; this one obviously caters to people who order by price. At the high end. The waiter, though, was spectacular. WIGB? Maybe. Not much happening down there these days. You don’t even have to watch for falling bodies. One Hanover Square, 212 785 9200.

The pretty good: Bar Boulud, where we toasted my actual birthday and where we were both thrilled not to be squandering the usual 300 bucks in some swank clip joint. Thank allah we got a table in the front, near the window, because even though I reserved (in a friend’s name) the “hostesses” wanted to shunt us to the jammed bar in a room that looks like a French train station. The paté “Grand-Pere” with foie gras and assorted meats was sublime, although the toasts that came with it were charred and poor Bob had to intercept the stressed waiter at a nearby table to get a second round of them. It was so great, in fact, that neither of us could finish even half of our main courses, not my rather desiccated monkish with blowaway “super green” spinach or Bob’s hyper-rich coq au vin with fat lardons and hand-rolled pasta. Our arbois was excellent with both of those, although I’m not sure I needed the sommelier to slap me down when I ordered our starter glasses as “Champagne” —  I know Cremant is just a sparkler and would have said it with a lower-case C if I had known he was in a superior mood. I also can’t remember the last time I saw busboys and runners who looked more defeated. WIGB? Absolutely, next time we’re leaving a movie and looking for a snack and a great glass of wine rather than a meal. The crowd is a trip; the tab was half the price of a visit to the vet with a geriatric Siamese. 1900 Broadway between 63d and 64th Streets, 212 595 0303.

The always good: The New French, where a friend and I adrift at an odd hour after the Bronx Museum wound up after having farts blown in our general direction at Company and after bailing on realizing we had landed in a “Sex and the City” bus tour at Spice Market. (I refuse to eat anywhere people are wearing sunglasses indoors. In winter.) The place was empty at around 5, so we got a nice corner table and soon had $8 and $7 glasses of Italian white, followed by two of what really are the best cheeseburgers in the city.  Neither of us could come close to finishing the heap o’ fries that comes with. WIGB? Absolutely, even though I inadvertently hurt the owner’s feelings by declining comped wine. The cooking and service are holding up incredibly well. 522 Hudson Street at 10th Street, 212 807 7357.

New York minutes/Early June 2008

The pretty good: Fairway Cafe, where my consort and I retreated after finding the Sheep Meadow Cafe closed on a Monday night and where we actually had the best service ever if not the greatest food. The waiter ran up to us as we walked in, said a window table was opening up in a few minutes and then stayed attentive throughout the meal. The great lure there is always the $5 sauvignon blanc from New Zealand (half the price anyone else extracts), but my consort was craving rose and got taken in by the “seaside tipple of the filthy rich” for $7.50, which actually turned out to be white zinfandel’s poor French cousin. The $6.50 shiraz was much better. I hadn’t had a real meal in a couple of days, so I ordered skate, which was fresh enough but not expertly fried; Bob’s game hen, though, was outstanding, very flavorful and juicy. The paltry frites also kicked the steamed potatoes’ ass. 2127 Broadway at 74th Street, 212 595 1888.

The pretty great: Pearl Oyster Bar, where I got to indoctrinate a first-timer in the total bliss of the fried fish sandwich at the bar, the only place to sit at lunch. It was halibut for a change but, as always, totally fresh, cooked just right and perfectly balanced with the bread, tomato, lettuce and drippy tartar sauce. And the fries were outstanding again. I took half of mine home for lunch the next day (it was still good), but she soldiered on to the last bite, even while observing that “this sandwich is like Moby-Dick.” We seemed to be surrounded by VIPs but couldn’t imagine anything bigger or better. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.

The not too bad: Dean’s Pizzeria, where we stopped after a party with a couple of friends to soak up the dangerously fortified vodkas we’d ingested and where we survived the lack of air conditioning by snaring a table just inside the door, in a breeze. The salad for one was enough for all of us, and we took a third of the mushroom-sausage pizza home. The crust struck me as more Pillsbury this time, and half the mozzarella had that weird sliminess turning up everywhere, but it did the job. 215 West 85th Street, 212 875 1100.

The strange: The Modern, where I’m not sure a press lunch should be used to judge the “real” kitchen but where the food was actually so peculiar I have to say so. Gabriel Kreuther has always been a favorite chef, so I was surprised that the first course was just a bunch of ingredients on a plate, mostly lobster; I ate it all because I knew lamb was on the way, but it was really another of those Mormon marriages. As for the lamb, the huge honking slab on the T-bone was nearly impossible to saw through with the knife provided; at least the Alsatian gnocchi with it were gummable. And the dessert was really amateur hour, a clumsy chocolate tartlet with an oozing center that overwhelmed the two ports it was meant to complement. All very odd. But the company was excellent, the service beyond superb. Just not sure I’d go back and spend my own money on the fancy side of the bar.

New York minutes/Very late October 2007

The good: Fatty Crab, where I connected for the first time with a lyrical e-correspondent and his consort for early Saturday lunch and where I finally experienced the food as it’s meant to be eaten. Usually I go alone or with my consort and we taste at most three dishes; this time I was with people who first insisted the waiter move us to a four-top and then ordered like Halliburtoneers.* (Given that we were planning to do that in any case, the waiter did not have to warn us we needed to “order a lot of food” to justify the move in an all-but-empty restaurant.) A bottle of Sicilian red (Tenuta Terre Nere) went better with most everything than my usual single glass of gruner. Otherwise, I thought the mango salad was a C compared with the usual A, but the Malay fish fry, spicy skate, Chinese water spinach and spicy pickled vegetables were all top grade. After insisting we also order the heritage pork ribs, I abstained, but that plate was cleaned as well. And for once the music being blasted for the staff’s pleasure suited the AARP crowd — “Beast of Burden” is just what makes the Bush-bashing go down. WIGB? Not for a while. I miss the fatty duck, and now Spice Market is back on the radar. 643 Hudson Street near 12th Street, 212 352 3590.

*Bad joke, I realize too late: Gofuckyourself would never pick up a tab.

The better: Buddakan, where I took Bob after the excellent J-G party when Asian sounded most enticing. I was surprised we were seated after such a quick wait in the bar; he was astonished that the place was so packed on a Monday night. One reason came clear at meal’s end, but first we drank too much wine and shared excellent potstickers and glazed cod and sloppily executed frisee salad with Peking duck and overcooked egg. The noise level was not painful and the design of the place is dazzling, so what more could you ask? Well, the waitress forgot we wanted to take home the leftovers and the hostess came over to offer to have the kitchen cook both dishes fresh to pack up to go. We declined, but there’s no reason even to ask WIGB? Stephen Starr has a winning formula. 75 Ninth Avenue at 16th Street, 212 989 6699.

The bad: Thai Market up near Columbia, where I set out for lunch expecting jazz and was rewarded with a dirge. The restaurant is stunning, with huge photos of Thai food vendors and floor-to-ceiling doors that open onto Amsterdam Avenue. But the tantalizing special of duck with flat noodles was first not available, then materialized as a study in grim. (Whatever that meat was, it did not resemble the bird I order, eat and cook at every opportunity.) If not for the spiciness, it would have tasted worse. The waiter had clearly had about enough, although he was efficient. Ultimate insult: My one dish cost $10, $2 more than two courses at Land, a restaurant that is Vong by comparison. WIGB? I’m slow but not stupid.

New York minute/Late September 2007

Sometimes it’s not where you eat but with whom. I might have found Kashkaval too loud, cramped, busy and definitely if my consort and I had wandered in there by ourselves after the theater some night. But we were lured there by friends of his from the year of magical learning, two of whom who happened to be good friends from Paris with our hyper-efficient waitress, and everything was about as good as excess gets.

Until a table opened up, we wedged ourselves at the comfortable bar to be plied with big glasses of wine and fine Mediterranean spreads: chickpea, spicy walnut and excellent black olive, all with warm pita. Once we were wedged at a tiny table where it was easy to talk, five of us shared three fondues: the namesake, made with sheep’s milk cheese; Cheddar and ale, and a classic, with Gruyere and Emmenthaler. We ordered crudite to dunk along with the chunks of baguette and were comped some sausage slices as well, and we got more spreads and bread. The wine kept flowing as wineglasses broke all around us with surprising regularity and little recoil.

From my NYTimes days I remembered the place as a cheese store with takeout and coffee beans, but it’s been transformed with that great bar in the back, a small L-shaped dining room and two very commodious bathrooms, once you get past the display cases in the front. Prices are excellent: The fondue was $10 a person and wines started at $6 a glass, I think but don’t quote me; we just chipped in a tip. Plus it has one hell of a waitress in Emma the friend of the friends from Middle Earth.

856 Ninth Avenue near 56th Street, 212 581 8282.

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 yelp.com (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.