New York minutes/November 2012

The good: Elizabeth’s near us, where my consort and I wound up after the amazing “Argo” when the Mermaid Inn had a 45-minute wait on Social Media Monday and where we were able to walk right in, sit right down and have a couple of glasses of wine and way-above-average food in relative quiet. Both of us had been wondering why we hadn’t been back, and it was so worth the revisit, not least because the place itself is so attractive. I just had the crab cake appetizer with apple-fennel salad as my main, and it was so generous I took home one of the two heavy-on-the-lumps for next day. Bob was thrilled with his roast chicken, juicy and flavorful and surrounded by watermelon radishes and fingerling potatoes in sauce. WIGB? More often, for sure. It’s not cheap for the neighborhood (the crab cakes were $15), but you definitely get what you pay for.

The good and cheap: Land Thai on the Upper West Side, where Bob treated me to lunch after we waited an hour and a half to vote and then my ballot was repeatedly rejected by the scanner. He suggested Seasons, but I figured we should keep walking south for far better food in a nicer room at a lower price. Nine bucks is quite a bargain for jungle curry and spring rolls even if the latter are a bit greasy. Bob was just as happy with his shrimp overkill: first soup, then pad Thai. WIGB? Anytime. Anxiously awaiting the new Mexican two doors north.

The not bad: Kefi on the Upper West Side, where I hooked up with a friend camping out on a couch across town after the hurricane when it made more sense for her to come to me than for me to ride the bus twice across the closed park. She seemed satisfied with her lamb burger although it looked rather cooked-to-grey to me, and we both loved the array of spreads. Best of all, the waitress was fine with us taking our time ordering our wine as she wrangled tables with moms and kiddles, nannies and kiddles, bizguys doing biz. WIGB? Definitely, especially now that I know the Health Department has made it clean up its act.

The port in a storm: Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side, where I suggested a friend in from Connecticut doing errands nearby meet me on a gray, gloomy and nasty-wet day when we could use a little transporting to Salzburg. Unfortunately, everyone else had the same idea, so we waited about 45 minutes for a table, but at least we got a good one with a park hint. I was quite impressed by my crepes with smoked trout, which had been rolled up like Austrian burritos, and Mary wasn’t complaining about her sausage; we both liked our gruner. WIGB? Not soon. The waiting was the hardest part, and so many other places have opened nearby for ladies who lunch.

The vaut le voyage: Phayul in Jackson Heights, where we met up with a few friends from our adventurous-eating group for Saturday lunch. Years ago I remember Bob making a date with a GQ writer with whom he’d worked and us meeting at a Tibetan place because at that point I “don’t eat Chinese.” He was baffled, but this proved there is a difference. One connection had eaten there before, so he knew to order two types of momo (dumplings), potato and beef, plus the “bread,” and everyone else chimed in on a chicken dish, a pork dish, a blood sausage dish, a tongue dish, a cucumber-peanut-chile salad, a soup with beef and radishes, and a potato dish with julienned strips stir-fried with ginger and chilies. Six of us did a pretty good job cleaning all those small plates for $17 a head. The servers could not have been nicer, although none of us thought to ask them to close the window that had half the table eating in coats. What mattered was the kitchen, and it was clearly cooking everything to order with serious care. WIGB? Probably not only because there are so many other places to explore — we passed three other Tibetan and/or Nepalese places as we wandered the neighborhood afterward.

The typically well-done: Eater’s awards party, this year at the Bowery Hotel where, again, both food and wine were so easy to access and the crowd was all worth engaging with (aside from the short real estate lech who cornered me). A nice touch was the check-in list on tablets, rather than those silly clipboards with 50 pages of teeny type the girls in their little dresses need to flip through. I had great buttermilk-fried quail and a short rib “meatloaf” but will have to note that some of the other dishes seemed straight out of Monty Python. Not sure what to think about a meat doughnut . . .

New York minutes/October 2012

The good: Swine in the West Village, where we met up with internet connections, which presented no end of issues — food, noise, tastes etc. And it was damned near perfect, probably partly because we went on a Monday night, when it was pretty empty. We got a boothette, so the noise level was bearable enough that four near-strangers could converse easily and share tastes and get away for about $80 a couple before tip. We split a salumi/charcuterie board that included pork rillettes, duck prosciutto and superb merguez, then a “toast” topped with smoked trout and celery root, outstanding sweet potato “fingerlings” in a blue cheese melt, very good deviled eggs and excellent mushroom-fava salad with pecorino and mint; we were also comped spicy duck fat cashews. Wines by the glass were better than from the tap. But the service was good  even though we were all olds (and never so happy to be so aged as when we saw another server working his way around another table pouring hooch down a marrow bone into kiddles’ mouths; we at least did not have to rent our food). WIGB? Absolutely. It’s so much closer than Brooklyn.

The really good with the right people: C&L Imperial in Flushing, where I was lucky enough to be invited to join a smart lunch crowd for 11 Taiwanese tastes for all of $15 a head. The place is pretty bare-bones, but one in the group had been there so many times we got great treatment, plus a comped dish of outstanding braised cabbage. As always, I was super-happy to let others maneuver through the menu, especially when I saw much of it was untranslated and more was heavy on the intestine side (no duck, only guts and tongue). So we started with an fascinating oyster pancake, spicy noodles with pork and “rice tube pudding,” with meat and mushrooms tucked among the grains. We had crispy “three-cup tofu” (cooked in equal parts soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine), weirdly good corn with beef off the specials posted on the wall, bitter melon and super-tender red-cooked pork ribs. Two of the best dishes sounded the funniest: “fly heads,” bits of minced meat mixed with chives and green peppers to resemble insects with eyes, and “putz” fish with little olive-like berries. Not one dish was a dud. WIGB? Can’t wait, with many other mouths. 59-14A Main Street.

The worth it: Tarallucci e Vino on the Upper West Side, where my consort and I wound up after the mind-expanding “Looper” after finding the new Casa Pomona still a long way from opening despite the NYT’s promise. It did cost a hundred bucks for a couple of glasses of wine each and three shared dishes, but the food was impressive even though we nearly had a breakup over the octopus. (I can’t eat it because it’s too human but figured I could just nibble my way around the “galette,” and of course it was three honkin’ chunks, so there was a bit of sad meltdown over why I didn’t remind him sooner.) Creamy mozzarella bruschetta with eggplant and tomato was just as good as the oozy mozzarella over roasted red peppers and grilled zucchini and eggplant (after you’ve eaten too much popcorn at the micey movies, there’s no such thing as too much mozzarella). Extra points for the bread basket, with at least three different varieties. WIGB? Sure, as long as Bob is paying.

The right place on the right night I: Murray’s Cheese Bar in the West Village, where we were able to walk right in after the gorgeous but snoozy “Detropia” and sit right down at the bar to explore that fever dream of a menu. The bartender did a great selling job, so we soon had enchiladas verde with mozzarella in tomatillo salsa, a Bibb lettuce salad with grilled nectarines, marcona almonds, Rogue’s smoky blue cheese and prosciutto crisps and a queso fundido made with three goat cheeses plus chorizo, to be scooped up with blue corn chips. Wines were made for cheese, and the bartender also brought us a taste of kombucha in case we leaned weird. WGIB? Absolutely. The best part is knowing you should order the “real” food and just go next door and buy the meats and cheeses for home.

The right place on the right night II: Mermaid Oyster Bar in the West Village, where we headed after a cookbook party close by that was light on the food if fulfilling on wine and company, and after passing up a couple of nearby new restaurants whose owners did not seem to have had any business training ($48 steak in a 12-seat cafe with no amenities?) It was early, so we were able to turn down a table next to the kitchen door in favor of two seats at the quiet bar, just in time for happy hour and discounted wine and snacks: shared crazy-hot shishito peppers, then avocado-shrimp slider and chicken wing “lollipops” with blue cheese for Bob and the always perfect wedge salad with blue cheese, bacon and tomato for me. WIGB: Sure — it’s always a solid choice in that neighborhood but especially at happy hour or on Social Media Monday.

The always good, not least for a show: Fairway’s cafe, where we met friends in from Seattle for one Sunday brunch and where we headed after the Greenmarket for another. At the first, they missed seeing a famous actress storm off and leave her husband the famous director alone with her barely touched omelet at the next table; at the second, a blowhard writer at the next table got so upset over his food being slow to arrive that he first berated the hard-running waitress, then jumped up, blustering at his glazed-eye companion: “I’m going to say something to Mitch. He knows who I am!” Maybe. But it didn’t look as if Mr. London cared. (Our cheeseburgers were great and actually landed faster than usual, BTW.)

New York minutette

Until we were lounging next to the carefully apportioned wine at the Eater Awards party I never realized just how much my consort dreads the food events I drag him to because I feel bad about leaving him home to a martini and roast chicken with The Cat. (Why do I go? You never know . . . ) Before we got there I’d invested a good half-hour researching where we might forage afterward in that neighborhood; as he testily warned, “We’re going to need to eat and drink.” Usually it’s Night of the Locusts, with scrums at the bar and food tables and with din to beat your eardrums to deaf. But this was one of the very few mega-fetes run right. Although the place was packed, the 99% young crowd knew all about personal space — we could easily thread our way to the food, plus you didn’t have to scream to talk. And while we joked about the classy plastic wineglasses, they did seem to have a calming effect on partygoers, servers and busboys alike. When nothing is breakable, you have nothing to fear. Only one restaurant represented ran out of food, but even it had brought emergency backup chocolates. Two notes on the tastings: Those Pok Pok wings must come from chicken from another planet, one where the fowl have gyms. And I suspect the nation-famous Franklin Barbecue brisket out of Austin did not run out because it was probably the most cerebral BBQ I’ve ever encountered (and I’m old). The meat was amazingly tender, but as Bob said, the flavor was nuanced. You would never want to hoover it, just eat thoughtfully. And then go straight home, with no $150 wasted in a crapass restaurant that just happens to be near the party venue.

New York minutes/Early November 2011

The good: Loi, next door to Cafe Luxembourg, where attention-paying friends suggested we meet before the snooze-inducing “Ides of March” nearby and where the only off notes were the beginning and the end. Those first: I walked in, gave our friends’ name, the “hostess” said they had already arrived . . . and then picked up the phone for a protracted call. (One thing I learned while working as a shoe dog in my downtime as a bookkeeper was that the customer in front of you always takes precedence.) And although our desserts were comped, none of them impressed us. But everything else did, especially grilled calamari with parsley-pistachio sauce, the “meat” in thin, tender twirls; a green salad with a great smoked cheese, and amazingly delicate moussaka. Service was top-level, the sound level low. WIGB? Absolutely. The celeb chef herself came by to answer questions (like how she got the eggplant so light: soaked it in milk first) and say we would be getting desserts. The curse of Compass may finally be vanquished. 208 West 70th Street, 212 875 8600.

The impressive: The Foundry in Long Island City, where I schlepped for an event I stupidly assumed was promoting salmon but was really about saving Bristol Bay in Alaska from greedy mining polluters. (As one of several excellent speakers said: “You can’t eat gold.”) I know the owners and had been to a private party there, but by car; like several other guests, I almost didn’t go because it seemed kinda scary to walk to alone from the subway. But it was not at all unnerving, and what a perfect space, with plenty of room for the bar, a separate room for the chefs’ stations, an ideal noise level etc. etc. The next organizer thinking of cramming a promo party into a Manhattan shoebox should consider crossing the water. I had a third glass of wine to soak up all the salmon and good hors d’, knowing I would be fine getting home.

New York minutes/Middish March 2010

The really good: The New French, yet again, where we met newly engaged friends in from Connecticut on Saturday night in the gods-must-be-infuriated rainstorm and where the right table and the right waitress combined with the food to make another exceptional evening. We were late thanks to the fucked-up trains, so we were able to sit right down at the table our friends scored and join in the red wine and, shortly, another go at the pizza bianca with kale, Fontina, apple and Parmesan. We also all shared a New French salad and the beet appetizer, both great, before my consort tucked into a special of peppery seared tuna with long beans and, I think, bok choy; Kevin into the roast chicken, and Dan into the pulled pork with (they’re back) great fries. I confused the smart waitress with my order for the steak salad, but she and the kitchen sorted it out immediately. A shared slice of cheesecake almost revived my interest in that normally leaden dessert — it was fluffy but still intense. WIGB? Early and often, again. 522 Hudson Street at 10th, 212 807 7357.

The pretty bad: Sido on Amsterdam Avenue, where I stopped for a quick falafel sandwich on a crazed day and where I was almost saddened to see the former stationary food cart has taken over the relatively swanky La Grolla space while ambitious La Grolla has become a pizza-by-the-slice sliver in the old Sido space. Chilewich placemats and flatware wrapped in paper napkins on each table were nice touches, but the poor cooks were running hard and running behind. My sandwich seemed about average until I got home and, an hour or so later, felt like a float in the Macy’s parade. Not sure what the secret ingredient is, but I suspect baking soda. WIGB? Not unless proximity overrules good sense.

The impressive: The Malaysia Kitchen for the World promotion at the FCI. Normally I wouldn’t write directly about a press event, but this was so smart and well-run every promoter could learn. It had the right mix of chefs to illustrate the disparate influences that shaped Malaysian cuisine and how it both differs from and echoes Chinese, Thai and Indian. Each of them demonstrated a definitive dish (roti canai, curry laksa, chicken satay, beef rendang), which was then served to us at our seats in the lecture hall. It all made me want to head straight out for Malaysian with new understanding of what to order and why, or at least to Chinatown to buy ingredients for the recipes provided in a sharp little booklet featuring those chefs. And the year-long promotion for restaurants all along the East Coast will make putting my education to work even easier. So many of these events are just gang-bangs where everyone gorges and runs, leaving no one more informed than on walking in. Figures that so few old-media types were in the audience. . .

New York minutes/Early July 2008

The ideal: Fairway upstairs, where a very motley crew of us assembled to appease some who hate fish, some who were bored with Italian and Mexican and one who wanted mashed potatoes. We walked in around 8 on a Thursday and immediately got a round table for seven and an accommodating waiter and good food at a great price (although I doubt that the Atlantans and the Illinoisans would agree on the latter). I just had the pizza with prosciutto and arugula and a few bites of my consort’s perfectly executed (for a change) skate and a forkful of my littlest sister’s daughter’s Caesar. Everyone seemed happy enough with the chicken schnitzel and skirt steak on the great-value special menus, and I will never complain about sauvignon blanc that cheap. Plus we could hear each other talk. Most of us, anyway. And for some reason, the 20 percent service included struck the outlanders as a bonus. 2127 Broadway at 74th Street, 212 595 1888.

The serviceable: Spice, where five of us took refuge in a drenching rainstorm when we set out to explore the Greenmarket at Union Square and two of the out-of-towners balked at Rosa after having tried the Atlanta branch. The place was deserted for a change, and the staff could not have been nicer. I got a noodle-free pad Thai that was gloppy and good with lots of smoked tofu and vegetables, after the crispy spring rolls, and none of us could finish our food (even with the much smaller cup-size of rice shaped in a Madonna bra). The bill with tip was $44 if that says anything — I think I spent that much on produce four blocks north once the skies cleared. 60 “Universal” (University) Place, 212 982 3758.

Also, I was not invited to the celebration of the unholy marriage but would still have chosen to trek to Tribeca to another party the same night. The chef is engaging as hell (despite his lineage), his partner’s no dummy and the pastry chef has credentials to spare (Blackbird impresses me more than the Big E, though). The space they found looked great, too, but that might be because the Sancerre-filled wineglasses were the size of Prada chalices. I only tried a little of the food, but even this chicken shunner was impressed by the deep-fried nuggets. WIGB? Soon, I hope.

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/Late March 2008

The surprisingly good: Madaleine Mae, where my consort wanted to go on a rainy night for the novelty factor and where the food seemed to have come from a new kitchen. The spinach salad I warned him against was actually nicely balanced and perfectly dressed, although we agreed that baby spinach is no substitute for the full-grown thing. And the arctic char with dirty rice was shocking: fresh fish cooked juicy over really rich and flavorful rice (one of my least favorite starches). Even the biscuits were almost right. The waitress recognized me from my last visit, the hostesses could not have been more charming (they found an umbrella in the back for diner who lost his) and the noise level was perfect, maybe because the place was two-thirds empty on the night it was reviewed favorably. WIGB? Happily now. 461 Columbus Avenue at 82d Street, 212 496 3000.

The unsurprisingly good: Pearl Oyster Bar, where we were able to get a table fast on a Monday night when I couldn’t face dishes, and a table in the quiet back, and where everything was as perfect as always. The striped bass special came with brussels sprouts and bacon, and my superb crab cake appetizer-as-entree was big enough for leftovers after we split a Caesar. I am surprised I never noticed wine is priced the same by the glass and by the bottle, which makes life easier for everyone, especially a couple usually split between red and white. WIGB? Anytime, even though I had sworn off dinner. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.

The adequate: Film Center Cafe, where six of us headed in search of relatively cheap food and relative quiet after a little stint in the bitter wind in Times Square watching my consort’s amazing handiwork briefly showcased on the sides of two buildings. We got a big table in the back that wasn’t too noisy but was too easy for the waitress to forget, but at least she was efficient when she did swing by. I had crab cakes again, and they were redeemed by their sauce although the ratio of crab to potato filler was about one to six. Not realizing they came with a nice little salad, I ordered a big mixed salad that we wound up taking home along with Bob’s leftover Caesar with salmon. With three bottles of wine, we got away for $75 a couple. Pretty sad when that seems reasonable. WIGB? Maybe, although there have to be better choices on Ninth these days. 635 Ninth Avenue near 44th Street, 212 262 2525.

The invitation-only: The Core Club in Midtown, where Bob and I were among a dozen guests for a friend’s evening of birthday debauchery, courtesy of her newish consort. Apparently people pay $75,000 just to join, $20 for a drink. But they do get truffle oil on their popcorn and great seasoning on their bar nuts in a rather dramatic space, with huge chunks of modern art hung all about and a long hallway lined with lavish bathroom stalls the size of studio apartments. Given the rowdiness of our crowd, and all the bottles of chardonnay and pinot noir, the private dining room was crucial. As for the set meal, the chef started out working at Union Square Cafe and was hired on by Tom Colicchio, and it showed. Our amuse was a nice little quenelle of smoked salmon tartare, then we had a choice of beet salad, tuna carpaccio or crabmeat “croquettas.” I chose those, and they tasted great, although the oozy center was a little odd — imagine Jean-Georges’ molten chocolate cake made with seafood. Or don’t. The carpaccio was a roll the size of a pony penis — some incorrigible guest said, with editing — but the winner looked to be the salad: a gorgeous composition with goat cheese, blood orange and candied pecans. I picked the pan-roasted wild striped bass for my entree, a great slab of perfectly cooked fish laid over braised brussels sprout leaves with pancetta and hazelnuts, and my consort made me taste his excellent crispy, juicy square of roasted suckling pig. The birthday cake looked and tasted homemade. I’m not sure if that was intentional — Champagne was involved. WIGB? I couldn’t afford to. Plus we may be banned for life.