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 August 2008

The predictably good: The New French, where my consort and I schlepped after buying way too much at Union Square and where our reward was food not dissimilar from what we could have made out of our many bags at home (aside from the fries) but where the whole experience was just self-indulgence with Provencal rose. I finally got my tuna sandwich with great fries; Bob had the Nicoise-inspired salad with salmon, with a great anchovy dressing. Half the pleasure of eating there is just appreciating the design, which is why lunch is so much more rewarding than dinner. You can see and hear. 522 Hudson Street, 212 807 7357.

The predictably abysmal: Hudson Beach Cafe in Riverside Park. Even in the dark, a salad cook should not think the proper proportion in a Caesar is 1 cup dressing to 1 1/2 cups Romaine. Gruesome would be an understatement. I didn’t dare brave a bite of Bob’s burger, but his fries were just what you would expect in a joint that exists solely to take advantage of people too un-enterprising to pack a picnic. Thirty-five bucks a head?

The adequate: Mermaid Inn uptown, where Bob and I headed in search of neutral territory after 2 1/2 weeks apart and where we were lucky enough to arrive so late we got a nice big table outside, away from the bedlam inside. The gazpacho with peeky-toe crab was much better this time and the calamari-frisee-feta salad was fine, plus he seemed happy with his special of seared octopus. Wine, service, “bread,” were all what they always are.

The more than adequate: Cafe du Soleil, where I wound up with a wise-beyond-her-years friend new to the neighborhood who had suggested a reprise of Sookk but decided she wanted something different once we got to the door. We scored a sidewalk table far from the nightmare of the mechanical rocking horse and survived a waiter who apparently pegged us as two non-tippers by gender alone. Pam lost her gazpacho virginity, only to have the experience ruint by the cilantro I had assured her would be nowhere near it (she has the Zest gene when it comes to that taste). But she was a good sport and just fished out all the offending greenery and picked at the side order of squash and eggplant we also ordered. I went for the endive salad with blue cheese and walnuts and couldn’t really complain. As always, busboys, olives, bread and wine were unobjectionable. Lots o’ new stuff opening in the neighborhood, though.

New York minutes/Mid-July 2008

The good: The New French, where I met the Not-So-Tyro-Anymore for a perfectly pleasant lunch at that great little table in the window and where I was mostly relieved that I had not oversold the tuna sandwich (confit makes it as much as the proper proportion of bread). I had the special BLT pizza bianca, which tasted great but was tough to eat either by hand or with knife and fork; the judiciously applied creamy dressing on the greens over the tomato slice and under the bacon bits was outstanding, though. And we each had a glass of the Spanish rose. Like old pros. WIGB? It’s become beyond a habit, and lunch, even when the place is busy, is so mellow. 522 Hudson Street near 10th, 212 807 7357.

The hellish: Barceo 95, where I met a friend for location’s sake on a sweltering night when all the doors were open to the street and where we somehow managed to survive a few hours wedged into a tight table directly under a blaring speaker with the most inattentive service since Helen Keller last waited tables. We should have stayed at the uncrowded bar for our two rounds and a shared order of roasted peppers stuffed with cheese. As it was, the busboy got the bread, napkins, silverware and oil to us right away and kept our water glasses full no matter how tricky it was to navigate through too many chairs crammed into too small a room. The waiter was either overwhelmed or out of it; we might have ordered more if he had seemed half-engaged. I was fine with the $11 verdejo (quartino), but Valerie thought her $13 monastrell — listed as “full,” with extensive tasting notes — was on the wan side. Luckily, the place had emptied out enough that she was able to send back her second choice because the glass reeked of bleach. Unluckily, around 11 someone started to use that same cleaner to swab up around the bar. Not the best effect in a place where aroma is part of the pleasure. The only saving grace was that the human larva at the next table when we were first seated did not throw the shit fit you always anticipate from those ticking time babies. WIGB? Not likely.

New York minutes/Mid-June 2008

The excellent: The New French, where I met a friend for lunch and where the place turned out to be more appealing almost empty (the Maira Kalman walls are easier to appreciate, too). The kitchen had all the energy missing in the room: My sandwich of fresh (confit) tuna on pizza bianca was perfect, as was the huge mound of fries burying the two halves; Katrina, a sucker for “old” French, had crepes filled with goat cheese, peppers and mushrooms that were anything but stodgy and were themselves buried under a big mound of well-dressed greens. The waitress both paid attention and backed off, and she was great on wine recommendations for my Chablis-loving friend. I didn’t try her cappuccino, but it too was huge. Great place even before you add in the prices ($9.50 for that amazing sandwich, $9.75 for crepes). 522 Hudson Street near West 10th, 212 807 7357.

The half-good: Roberto Passon, where my consort and I wound up after the disgustingly funny “Harold & Kumar” when he wanted something small but not wine-bar-proportioned (tiny portions, absurd prices) in a neighborhood that seems to alternate Thai joints with Italian imitations. I spotted a Caesar on the menu, which is all I wanted after popcorn, so we ventured inside and the happy hostess gave us a nice table by the window to watch the Sunday sidewalk parade outside. If only the waitress had been as enthusiastic. Jeebus. My salad had a rather watery dressing, but the two spreads with the bread were good, and Bob’s $14 fusilli with radicchio and bacon looked disgusting but tasted great. WIGB? Maybe, but I’d sit in the other half of the dining room, the one where the other waitress was doing nothing while Ms. Surly grudgingly tended to too many tables. Still, it was far preferable to a cock sandwich in Guantanamo. 741 Ninth Avenue at 50th Street, 212 582 5599.

The adequate: Rosa Mexicano across from Lincoln Center, where they really need to train a tortilla maker. You get about three times as many with the queso fundido as you do on 18th Street, but they are so poorly turned out that for the first time ever I thought I could make better on my own. The chorizo was weirdly stringy, too, and I excavated exactly two rajas. But the waiter was decent. And the room is always cheery. WIGB? Not until I can blank out that weirdness in the chorizo.

The unsurprising: Fairway Cafe, where Bob and I met a friend from the sleepy suburb on one of those nights hot enough to melt chocolate chips and where we got just what we were hoping for — air conditioning, fine Caesar salads, excellent skirt steak with fries and lots of cheap wine (the last being the prime lure). Where else in town can you get a New Zealand sauvignon blanc for $18? For a bottle, not a couple of glasses?

The dead: El Paso on 97th, where I will never go back after a fat, oily, sluggish waiter officiously informed me a special order I have been special ordering since the day the place opened was not available. And this after friends who used to live a couple of blocks away but have now exiled themselves to deepest Jersey told us they had come back to their favorite neighborhood destination for Mother’s Day only to find it “not good and not clean.” In desperate need of nachos with chorizo, my guiltiest of pleasures (I eat only a quarter of an order), I set out across the park while determinedly putting all images of hair in refries, crud on platos, mierda on toilets out of my head. Only to be treated like a huge annoyance, with sports on the teevee and FOS waiter more engrossed in that than his job in down time. Was it the “chipotle aioli” on the special brunch menu by the new chef that changed a simple substitution into an impossibility? One thing that always redeemed this place before it got art on the walls and other accouterments was a staff that seemed happy to serve in a neighborhood that is all about indentured servitude. Not this Saturday. WIGB? With the lobo edging closer to the door, I can make my own effen enchiladas.

New York minutes/Late May 2008

The good: Rhong-Tiam in the West Village, where my consort and I met friends in from the ’burbs who wanted something not too fancy on a weeknight and where they were unnerved by the emptiness of the place but we were thrilled by the cooking. My pal who would know has raved about the place on his blog, so we mostly used his cheat sheet to order and totally followed his advice to get plenty of rice because the food is authentically incendiary. The papaya salad was exceptional despite being almost too hot to eat, but the duck chu chee (succulent deep-fried breast with curry gravy) was just right even though I insisted on having it spicy. Overall, flavor trumped heat. Nuer nam tok (Thai beef salad) was outstanding, the meat very tender and the lime sauce very lively. “Roasted pork neck” as an appetizer looked similar but tasted different, with thin juicy slices in a vibrant fish and chili sauce. Tom yum was very rich and full of seafood. Crispy basil pork was also smoking but balanced, with the stir-fried ground meat mixed with sweet and hot peppers under a duck blind of deep-fried herb leaves. Even the non-spicy compromise entree, the lemongrass chicken, was at least 10 times better than anything I’ve experienced in most Thai restaurants. We also split two ice creams and a creme brulee, and while Bret warned that beer was the best choice because the wine would probably not be good, the list was actually smart (maybe too much so — we ran up a ridiculous tab with only two iced teas and one sake on the other side of the table). WIGB? Can’t wait, assuming it lasts — I don’t think more than two other tables filled the whole evening. 541 LaGuardia Place, between West Third and Bleecker Streets, 212 477 0600.

The better: The New French, again, where Bob and I headed after being spurned at La Lunchonette, where we stupidly headed after a friend’s gallery opening nearby (the place was literally half-empty and they insisted we needed a reservation; luckily, the rebuff lasted just long enough to make me remember how mediocre the food was the last time we risked it). Our second choice was packed, but they took Bob’s name and cell number and promised they would call us in 30 minutes if we wanted to go have a drink across the street. So we had a glass at Bayard’s and then, right on time, got the ring tone to head back for that perfect table in the window and an overall excellent experience. The place has so much energy, and the staff seems so happy that it’s jammed and jazzy. (Not incidentally, that staff is exactly the same as the first time we went.) I just had the pizza bianca again, this time topped with two cheeses, onions and peppers, while Bob, who had started the night craving fish, tucked into a huge Nicoise-esque salad with charred steak (he ordered medium and it arrived rare, as it needed to be). Wines by the glass were excellent and priced right (about $9), and the service was exemplary, too. Odd as it sounds, it felt like eating in a new place in Paris. WIGB? If we can get in. 522 Hudson Street near West 10th, 212 807 7357.

The annoying: Bar Blanc in the West Village, where I took my super-stressed consort for his birthday (blame a certain Alsatian) and where I had that Niagara Falls feeling (what’s a honeymooner’s second biggest disappointment?) The host and waiter were superb, but they stuck us back at a table so cramped it was really like eating at 30,000 feet — I couldn’t stretch out my fucked-up leg, and every time the polyester napkin slid off my lap it was like trying to retrieve something from an aisle clogged by a drinks cart. Bob hated that, but I pointed out that at least we were not under the techno-thumping speakers. He got more pissed when the sommelier presented the verdejo we ordered from the relatively reasonable list and then vanished to open it. If he did so in front of the customer, he explained when asked, “Things could happen.” Okay. . . . All of which would have been forgiven, but the food was surprisingly one-note given the Bouley heritage of the founders. Buffalo mozzarella with ramps turned out to be two bland balls, cold at the center, sitting in rapidly cooling mushroom foam. Seared black cod with “wilted arrowleaf spinach, roast sunchoke, squid ink, saffron mussel sauce [really foam again]” proved to be just what it read like: one of those Mormon marriages on a plate. Bob’s crispy striped bass was at least redeemed by the amazing black risotto on which it rested. The olive bread was outstanding, more so with the olive oil for dipping. But as we headed out on an early Friday night as the cheap “Sex and the City” knockoffs were settling in, we were wishing we had realized P*ong was just a couple of doors away. WIGB? Fool me once. . .

New York minutes/Early March 2008

The painfully slow: Community Food and Juice, where the hostess ushered me to the bar without offering a table when I showed up alone at lunch and where I could barely stand after teetering on the bone-contorting stool while waiting just short of forever for food in a half-empty room. Forget my glass of wine — I was worried I was going to finish my book before a simple fluke sandwich arrived. It wasn’t bad, although it was about four universes away from the Pearl rendition. The fish was very fresh but all out of balance with the bread and lettuce, and the sauce on it literally dripped. It came with a little bit of good coleslaw and a few tasteless zucchini pickles for $13, no extra charge for bloat; I would have been better off dropping $4 on my Metrocard to spend $3 more on Cornelia Street. On the plus side, the bartender was excellent, even explaining when she saw my look of horror as she handed me menus that she was wearing her gross rubber gloves because she was about to cut lemons. WIGB? Maybe, but not when I’m in a hurry or hungry. The ingredients and organic wines are well sourced. 2893 Broadway at Columbia, 212 665 2800.

The painfully raucous: Les Halles, where two friends and I headed in desperation after being shunted to the bar at Resto and where we realized too late that we should have stayed shunted. Everyone at Resto was eating the burger, which looked good even to me, and I’m off beef for the foreseeable future. But the heat was blasting on us, and we were at the bar, so we headed around the corner after one friend went ahead to be sure a table was available. Of course it was one between two groups of what the place attracts after dark: testosterone-overloaded jackasses, so we could barely hear each other and the waiters couldn’t hear for shit — first they brought one steak frites cooked not to order, then they brought a muscat after saying a muscadet was available. Our new Sicilian almond-growing friend seemed underwhelmed by his food; I couldn’t see my duck confit with one tea light on the four-top, so I kept hacking off hunks of fatty skin rather than meat. It seemed more roasted than confit, so I was very glad I was not up-sold into taking the special choucroute for $5.50 more. WIGB? Maybe for lunch, but not for a good long while.

The relatively comfortable: Regional, where three of us took a birthday girl who lives around the corner and where we at least could talk and not get gouged. My baked pasta with leeks and mushrooms was shy on the vegetables and pretty dry, but it did soak up the vermentino. WIGB? Location, location. 2607 Broadway near 98th Street, 212 666 1915.