The good: Petite Soo Chow in Cliffside Park, N.J., of all places, where I met up with my Asian-eating/eating-Asian pals for Saturday lunch and where, as usual, leaving the ordering to the experts was the right thing to do. Also as usual, 17 dishes for the nine of us came to $22 a head with a good tip. Of course the soup dumplings and the Shanghai-style fried buns were superb, but I also had things I would never anticipate in a Chinese restaurant (like a cruller, more like deep-fried unsweetened dough, meant to be dipped into soy milk, and a gluten dish called sweet bran twist) and things I would not try again (kelp, in strips cutely knotted like bow ties but too fishy for me). The best dishes were the silk squash/loofah, like a more interesting chayote; the turnip cakes, in a flaky dough and flavored with teeny shrimp; the spicy sprats, served cold in a sensational sauce; the stewed pork riblets in brown sauce, and the super-tender pork belly in preserved bean sauce with water spinach, meant to be eaten in steamed buns. WIGB? It was a schlep — 45 minutes on the 159 bus from the Port Authority — but, actually, yes. As good as the food was, the service matched it. 607 Gorge Road, 201 313 1666.
The sad: Boulud Sud on the Upper West Side, where I reserved for my consort’s birthday after we had to cancel Lafayette and he acknowledged proximity should trump excitement the night he was packing for a three-week trip to Prague and Bulgaria to work on a short film on the Roma. But oh, was it bleak. Since our first dinner shortly after it opened, we’ve (separately) been quite happy with drinks at the bar, and maybe that’s why it felt so bar-ish when we walked in and had to wait to be seated after being amazed OpenTable had had tables at just about any hour we could choose. We did wind up with a street view in a relatively quiet corner, but it was just grim. I faced into the room and could see servers lined up while we waited, and waited, for service, and we actually got our appetizer before our drinks. Fried artichoke hearts had us both recalling Rome, where at least in the ghetto they’re crispy, and my quail entree had me re-imagining ill-advised ordering in the past. As I Tweeted next day, quail is the new duck, and not in a good way — chefs serve it way past liver stage. The birthday boy didn’t complain about his paella, though, and we both agreed the olive oil with the bread was outstanding. WIGB? Never for dinner, maybe for a drink. It was shocking the menu had barely changed since our first visit, it was annoying to see so many more tables crammed in and it was disheartening to look at the crowd and think: “This is just the commissary for 15 CPW.” And you know what discerning tastes rich fucks have.
The pretty great: City Grit in Nolita, where Mike Andrzejewski was cooking and where my dinner with strangers turned out to be not just endurable but fun. The venue is a funky store by day but becomes an informal restaurant with communal seating at night, and they do things right. All six courses were served seamlessly, and wine orders were taken and delivered expeditiously. And the food was fabulous, starting with just-shucked oysters with cucumber, chile, ginger, lime and sweet rice vinegar (yes, I’m cribbing from the menu). I was queasy about the “nigiri of otoro and beef heart tartare with white soy, lardo and chile flowers,” mainly because of the base, the organ meat chopped to simulate sticky rice, but the topping was so sensational I didn’t mind the gory bits that accidentally wound up on my fork. Smoked salmon belly BLT was nicely done as well, with iceberg for the L and the fish for the B; the red and yellow beefsteak tomatoes were compressed into a cube. The sea scallops in the next course were beautifully seared and perfectly cooked, then teamed with julienned crisps of pig’s ear, baby red mustard, pickled Thai chilies and a wild smoked egg yolk. I should have left more room for the sea robin laid over risotto cooked like paella, with garnishes of chorizo oil, olives, piquillos and sherry vinegar glaze. And I definitely should not have underestimated “Vietnamese coffee and white chocolate bar,” which turned out to be a very cerebral but satisfying reinvention of all those elements into a sort of Asian tiramisu with substance. Dinner, prepaid, was $60 before wine, and a deal at twice that. A couple of glasses of muscadet at $9 a pop were also worth it. WIGB? Absolutely. It was good and fun. As was the company: the chef’s wife, a couple of his best customers in from Buffalo, business connections who live in Brooklyn, a young German woman in publishing in town on business and a guy from my neighborhood who just likes to eat well with strangers.
The disappointing: Momofuku Ssam in the East Village, where I met up with a caustic blogger pal for lunch after dangling the temptation “duck gorditas” in an email and where we both walked out underwhelmed for the first time ever. The duck set featured the usual beautifully cooked meat, but the pickles with it were short on finesse, and my pal would know. The duck dumplings had the feel of an appetizer the kitchen had had just about enough of, thank you very much. And the duck gorditas were too easy to eat but ultimately came off as reinvented Mexican nothingburgers: greasy masa disks overfilled with could-be-anything meat and gloppy sauce. As always, though, the service was snappy and the wine well-matched to the food. WIGB? Probably. Duck is not just a four-letter word.
The good again and again: The Smith across from Lincoln Center, where we had reserved a table for four after the outstanding “A Hijacking” just up Broadway and where even the short wait at the bar after we arrived early flew by when a manager offered us a mistakenly poured beer for free after we had ordered a large carafe of rosé, and even split it into tastes. We could have had a table inside in Bedlam but were happy to hold out even though we wound up with the best view ever of the multi-culti cast of characters heading in and out of the Citibank ATM lobby. But the service and food were so much better than a restaurant across from Lincoln Center should provide. We split excellent seared shishito peppers and an order of tempura green beans, and I had a nice-enough chopped salad and a few bites of Bob’s fine trout Milanese with good potatoes. Our friends seemed happy with the roast chicken and the pork chop, and we all liked the silly dessert. (They’re all silly.) WIGB? Absolutely. On my two trips to and from the downstairs bathrooms, the staff vibe was so positive. They have a license to mint money, but they appear to be sharing the wealth.
The half-good: Spring Natural Kitchen on the Upper West Side again, where I connected with a picture-editor friend and her daughter in from DC and a coupla photo friends from the neighborhood and where it was a damned good thing the food was so good because the service was on the other side of abysmal. The table next to us got their entrees and their check before we even managed to put in our food order. It was partly our fault for saying we needed a bit more time to negotiate the long menu, but it was mostly the fault of the kind of waitress who thinks busing a table comes before getting requests into the kitchen pipeline. Luckily, my cheeseburger was pretty exceptional, with good meat cooked right and topped with both mushroom and onions. My only complaint was that it was almost too big, although The Cat WCTLWAFW had no complaints. WIGB? Undoubtedly, the alternative pickings being pretty slim in this neighborhood. And for the third time, the welcome was truly welcoming; I got there first and the host had a table set up for the five of us by the time the others arrived.
The different: Cheburechnaya in Rego Park, where we hooked up with our Asian-eating/eating-Asian group on a cold, wet Sunday and where everything beyond getting lost in the cold and rain was a trip. This was kosher cooking from part of the former Soviet Union, and it reminded me of eating in Turkey. By the time we dripped in, everyone was already tucking into the outstanding salad with red peppers, cucumbers, red onions and olives (dressed, we later learned, in Wishbone Italian), the superb carrot and cumin salad, the good hummus and bread and the pickled cabbage. I got just a taste of the chebureki, which I’d describe as sort of cheeseless quesadillas, filled with veal, with mushrooms and with “meat.” Lagman, described on the menu as a soup with pasta, beef, mixed vegetables and assorted spices, reminded me of a fresher, heartier Campbell’s. I knew I was in for trouble when the samcy with ribs started making the rounds: a flaky pastry with my least favorite meat tucked inside; Bob said I should try just a bite with the onions, but it was way too lamby for me. And that was followed by sword after sword of grilled meats from the long butcher case behind us: lamb testicles, lamb hearts, boneless chicken and cubes of lamb fat that had everyone else moaning in ecstasy. A plate of fried beef brains also landed on the table, but even if I weren’t skeert of mad cow I would have passed. We also had a little mountain of irresistible French fries drenched in oily garlic — interestingly enough, at $5 they cost more than most of the meats. Beyond the food, the crowd was quite something — a huge table celebrating a wedding or other ritual event, another huge table ordering bottle after bottle of vodka, tables of women with Cokes and pints of hootch. Our table, however, drank Borzhomi, a mineral water with a pretty fair amount of sodium to cut the fat. WIGB? It was fun, but once was plenty. Although we did all enjoy gawking and buying in the many Russian markets nearby. They don’t call it Regostan for nothing. 92-09 63rd Drive, 718 897 9080.
The “price is right:” Land Thai on the Upper West Side, where a friend in from Connecticut for job interviews met me for lunch on another rainy day and where, as always, it was hard to complain about two courses for $9. We both had the springrolls and I was fine with the cashew curry. And although the place clearly makes its money by spinning tables, the staff let us sit there as long as we wanted.
The unfortunate: Sindicato de Cocineros in Greenpoint, where I had dinner on a monsoon night with four friends and where I have to judge a restaurant by the lowlifes it attracts. The place was brand-new and chosen by two of the friends who used to live nearby, and it had its charms: widely spaced tables, a warm vibe, a deejay who played great bits of LPs at just the right sound level. The margarita was only adequate,* but our shared starters were sensational: the guacamole very limey and topped with snappy radish slices, and the mollete a couple of crisp slices of the usual torta roll topped with beans, chorizo, cheese and salsa. I’m not so sure deconstructing a gordita was such a wise idea because it was hard to get all the elements — ground beef, beans, crema, cheese, lettuce — in one bite, and the masa itself was doughy. I didn’t try either order of tacos on the table, or the pork, but the flan was okay. So WIGB? I had to come home and Tweet: Not on a bet. When we were all leaving in the raging downpour, I went to retrieve my $40 MOMA umbrella from the heap at the door and some hipster asshole had made off with it. To the restaurant’s social media manager’s credit, they did notice my carping and promise me a new umbrella if I DM’d my address. I am, however, still waiting . . .
*The vaut le voyage: Nights and Weekends, also in Greenpoint, where I had the best margarita of my long life. I met one of the Sindicato tablemates there early but late for our appointed hour, which was too bad because this drink was huge. And smoky. And spicy. And just absolute perfection. For all of $10. Apparently the food is pretty good there, too, so WIGB? Next time I need to scratch the margarita itch, I’m getting on the B to the E to the G.