New York minute

Sometimes I humor my consort on the rare weekend he’s in town and insists there is life beyond the tell-me-more Internets. Which is how we wound up, on a Sunday afternoon last spring, at the Studio Museum of Harlem, for one of its always-worth-the-journey/show-not-tell “3D is better than digital” exhibitions. The walk home was a revelation, since we took it down Frederick Douglass Boulevard — thanks to my online research into what we might find on this forced exile from Twitter/FB virtual heroin. And that stroll led not just to an actual story produced for cash money, plus a video for a few bucks more, but to expanded restaurant horizons.

We stopped at every one of the many eating opportunities we passed to check out the menu, but at Vinateria we were so taken by the space and the actually-hostessing hostess that we came back not long afterward for dinner. And if the cooking was only one step beyond what I would consider restaurant-school level, the whole experience would have rated a resounding yes to the old WIGB question. Which is why we just headed there straightaway after a stressful day when I needed to decompress and Bob wanted a good walk to/from dinner. Barely over a mile from our own kitchen I got new respect for restaurant-school cooking/conceptualizing.

The first time we split hmm-good fried artichoke hearts with lemon-”anchovie” dipping sauce, then I had respectable duck confit and Bob hoovered up very good chicken breast. We sat in a corner table in the front with a great view of both the street and the room, and the service was exemplary even though it took us several tries to get a bottle ready to drink (after the first were out, the next was not chilled). If I had come straight home and asked that old question, I would have said yes for the setting and proximity as much as the food.

But on this latest visit we scored a sidewalk table, the perfect place to watch one of the great evolving neighborhoods on promenade. Eating there really is like few other places in Manhattan, a harmonious scene that would scare the Pampers off most of the wingnuts out in “real” America. No wonder Harlem Shambles saw more potential there than over in the Nineties on Amsterdam.

As for the food, it was a night for bacon balls (croquettes, officially), which were almost liquid inside but with the richness offset by the mustardy swiping sauce. Bob had that chicken again, for all of $18, and the creamy mashed potatoes and pickled-tasting onions with it only amplified the juicy/crisp meat. I was looking for light and ordered the flatbread topped with brandade, which was Goldilocks-right and even better next morning. (The Cat agreed.)

Wine was a $42 bottle of Spanish rosé. Service was superb. The street show? Mesmerizing. Walking the 23 blocks home, I decided they should change the name of Frederick Douglass Boulevard to Central Park West Extended Northward. And noted that there are no restrictions on food & drink businesses once you get past that defunct gas station at 110th Street.

New York minutes/Late September-early October 2013

The good despite the cat piss smell: Gran Electrica in Brooklyn, where we filled our tanks on the way to the awesome Photoville and where the hyper-hospitable service and mellow garden setting rivaled the food (despite the faint aroma). My crab-habanero-avocado tostada was outstanding and the rajas taco I tasted off Bob’s place nearly as good (with potatoes, zucchini and crema). I passed on his lengua tacos, but he was thrilled. WIGB? Absolutely, especially on a warm day — inside tables are pleasant; outside exceptional. Also, too: Gotta like a place where the olds at the next table have nothing to say to each other. Perspective, perspective

The good despite ourselves: La Vie en Szechuan in Midtown, where we hooked up with our eating Asian/Asian eating group for early Sunday lunch and where we were nearly shut out until the Mandarin speaker among us snared a table for 13. I only wanted to/got to taste about half what landed on the Lazy Susan but was thrilled with everything savory: tea-smoked duck, cucumber sticks, Sichuan pickled cabbage, braised iceberg lettuce, dumplings with spicy sauce, cuttlefish in a marvelously peppery-rich sauce etc. (No ox tongue and maw or pig’s ears for me, though, thanks very much.) Desserts reminded me why meals in Chinese restaurants so often end in orange slices. Pumpkin sort-of-fritters were just sugary, black sesame dumplings in a sort of soup just . . . interesting. Still, WIGB? Sure. But for once with a smaller group. Even though it would average out to more than $20 a head for a full eating expedition.

The good again: Melba’s in Harlem, where we took an Italian friend for an American experience and where we pretty much wound up baffling him. He ordered the macaroni and cheese at my instigation and while it was as beautifully balanced between noodles and dairy as last time, it was mighty salty. All mains come with two sides, and he followed my lead on the onion rings but went for collards after I tried explaining they were greens (you Americans — colors are things? blues? greens?) He left them untouched just as another Italian friend did when we couldn’t translate beets, ordered them and then heard him say: Oh. I hate those. Diego also is no fan of mushrooms, so the excellent spring rolls went untouched by him, although we both dunked the onion rings in the sweet-hot sauce that came with them. Bob liked his smothered chicken well enough; the $34 red was good enough. And the whole experience came to less than $100 with tip for three. WIGB? It put the din in dinner, but yes. The people are so hospitable and the cooking above average.

The good for what & where it is: Boi Noodles across from Bob’s CUNY gig, where we headed after the slowwww and silly “We Are Who We Are” screening (really, you cannibals? you get fresh prime meat and make stew viewers think is chili?). We just split a smoked duck banh mi that would have been exceptional if the bread had been better. For $7.81 it was a steal. WIGB? Sure, and not just for a meal. The Vietnamese grocery selection is pretty dazzling.

The good except . . .: River Deli in Brooklyn Heights, where we were steered from Photoville by a former workshop student of Bob’s who’s taken those lessons and gotten richer, who mentioned it was the bee’s knees on Trip Advisor. The space, a corner deli converted to a Sardinian cafe, was charming as hell despite the three kids at a window table kicking and knocking over shit. The waitress rated A, the Southern Italian wines the same. But the food? We could have been eating in Rome. The eggplant “stuffed” with radicchio and mushrooms was pretty crude, the malloredus timidly sauced and teamed with sausage with that awful pig-pee taste you get with industrial pork. WIGB? Quite honestly, no. But I would steer others there. It’s so close to the Brooklyn Bridge Park and so charming. And people nearby with only espresso and a shared dessert seemed blissful.

Also, too: Elizabeth’s is always good and reliable, most recently for an early dinner after Bob had been trapped inside all day. Rosé at a sidewalk table would have been enough even if the Cobb salad had not been so well-proportioned or the chicken (so Bob said) so nicely cooked.

New York minutes/Late August 2013

The good: Lian Won in Bensonhurst, where we met up with our Asian-eating/eating-Asian pals for a Saturday lunch and where we had the kind of experience you can only experience with a big group of adventurous eaters who are not just on a return visit but have brought a Cantonese speaker this time. My China-hand consort and I arrived first in the empty restaurant, flummoxing everyone (he remembered too late that the Chinese do not show 10 with all fingers in the air but with two crossed), and the waiter still soon had a pink tablecloth laid out under the Lazy Susan and teacups all around; when our friends started arriving, the excitement and engagement only built, especially after one pal showed a photo on her smartphone to order a dish, superb water spinach with salted fish. She also forged ahead in ordering the house specialties, a Chiu Chowesque duck with awesome skin/flesh/sauce and an eel and rice casserole that was preceded by a clear soup made from the bones. We got talked into the large on that, for $40, but we made a pretty good dent in it, especially after the waiter scraped up the crusty bits of the rice. That Lazy Susan was soon overcrowded with oxtail cooked with boiled peanuts; frogs’ legs (I couldn’t); “steam meat paste with salt fish,” which proved to be more like the filling for one big dumpling; shrimp with awesome taro plus assorted nuts including gingko (which, it turns out, do not smell like shit); fish with water chestnuts and French lily (you had to be there); loofah and mountain mushrooms, and more. WIGB? Probably not, only because it was one long, long schlep on the D train on a Saturday, and we’d need interpreters. Anyone else, tho: Go.

The pretty good: Pearl & Ash on the Lower East Side/Nolita border, where we lured two friends who love adventurous food and where our reward was a relatively quiet table near the kitchen where we could actually talk while being bombarded with small plates, all just large enough to share. Dr. and Lady Bugs had wanted to go back to Aldea to reconnect, but I pushed the adventurers to try something new. And thanks allah for that quietish table. Bob was saddened to find only fortified wines and beers were on offer for cocktails when he had his liver set on a cocktail, but the one he tried was near-gin enough. Melissa and I were overwhelmed by the wine list, to the point that Bob had to ask the servers to hold off on the food until we could at least get a glass in hand — especially after the first pricey bottle we chose turned out to be off and we had to wait for a “fresh” old one. And the dishes just kept landing, so fast it was hard to taste, let alone mentally absorb: “fluke, watermelon, chili lime” and “hanger tartare, egg cocoa, melba,” and “diver scallop, fennel, lily bulb, berbere.” Before we’d gotten through that shopping list, we had “bread, chicken butter” (Emperor, meet your new clothes) and “octopus, sunflower seed, shiso” and “pork meatballs, shiitake, bonito” and “tea-cured salmon, goat cheese, tamarind seafood” and “sweetbread, sherry, heart of palm, morcilla.” I liked “crab, corn, yogurt, dashi” but passed on “lamb belly & heart, kohlrabi, hazelnut” even though I’m always happy to see an underused vegetable get some menu play. “Quail, almond, pomegranate, chicken skin” was yet another instance of the new duck getting lost in over-conceptualization. Interestingly, the sides were most seductive: “potatoes, porcini mayo, chorizo” was a choir singing in perfect harmony as was “long beans, uni, cream.” I should have taken notes on or photos of “blueberry, milk, honey, creme fraiche” because I remember it less vividly than the dessert I argued against, on @cuozzo’s advice. The Fernet-Branca ice cream sandwich turned up on both our table and the tab, and all I’ll say is that Bob finished it while recalling the night he was on the road on a budget and the cheapest thing in the mini-bar was that digestif. He drank it and regretted it. WIGB? Sadly, no, and not because it cost more than dinner at the Bugses first choice would have. I think we’re entering the age of the “been there, eaten that” restaurant. Once you’ve seen the mountaintop, you’re fine with going back to Sensible Valley.

The fabulous: Melba’s in Harlem, where a friend doing great guerrilla art in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington lured us after drinks on his rooftop nearby and where I walked out mortified I had had no awareness of all the changes happening such a short walk up the street off which I live. For starters, I had had no idea we would actually A) need a reservation on a Sunday night in late summer and B) need to be sure to honor that res. But we showed up and got a table thanks to Camilo’s due diligence. Everything about the place was uplifting: the room, the wine, the crowd, the service, the mood and of course the food. We split the spinach-cheese empanadas, which were unexpectedly satisfying, and modern. The macaroni and cheese was forks-down the best I’ve ever eaten, with the balance of dairy to carb completely reversed. I just tasted Bob’s chicken & waffles and passed on Camilo’s catfish, but both guys seemed happy. WIGB? No question.

The not bad: Barley & Grain on the Upper West Side, where we headed with friends in search of a new place after the very disturbing “Fruitvale Station” and where we were all thrilled things were not worse in such a new spot. Despite the brown-booze emphasis implied in the redundant name, we ordered a bottle of rosé plus one glass of beer, then another bottle after thinking we could all share a burger. It never arrived, but at least the din level was bearable. Crabcake sliders, two on the plate, were pretty satisfying, although the accompanying potato chips were rather underwhelming, Roasted eggplant with feta, olives, and cherry tomatoes was outstanding. I didn’t take attendance on the “kohlrabi quinoa salad mango crispy marcona almond, lemon, EVOO” but was happy to scarf it up. “Ancho chili beer battered seasonal vegetables,” though, were just bad bar food, and I call bullshit on the “lime horseradish aioli.” Not being a lamb tolerator, I passed on the grilled lollipops, but everyone else seemed to like everything about them but the size. WIGB? Sure. The Tangled Vine knows from running a food/wine joint in our neighborhood — we chose the former for drinks with CT friends just a few nights later. But you do have to wonder about a place whose chef is sitting in the DR with pals while an order for a burger goes missing.

The always good I: Cafe 2 at MOMA, where we took a break midway between the aural art show and the Walker Evans and where we had an even better lunch since the system has changed to waiter service rather than walk-in-point-and-wait. For once we restrained ourselves, which was wise since the prosciutto cotto/provolone panino and the quinoa salad with avocado and cucumbers were, as always, beyond perfectly generous. And of course the cappuccino and macchiato were right up to Danny standards. WIGB? Absolutely, especially after we took a spin up to the top floor to check out the fancier cafe. 2 is the way to go.

The always good II: Momofuku Ssam in the East Village, where I lured my old pastry instructor from restaurant school after connecting at the Union Square Greenmarket  and where the duck and service were A+ yet again. I liked the pickled vegetables that came with my “set” better once I kittybagged them, but the meat was as sensational as always. To the point that my consort was convinced he was tasting duck sausage, not breast meat. WIGB? Always.

The redeemed: Mermaid Inn on the Upper West Side, where we walked in and out one night and happily back in two nights later. I feel bad that the reservation for five the first time was in my name on OpenTable, because even though we agreed to 7:15 rather than 7:30 the din was pretty deafening. Within minutes it was clear there was no point to having come together to see off a young friend if we couldn’t hear a fucking word she said. Our usual Social Media Monday waiter came over to say hello, and I had to say some version of that, after which the manager came over to make amends but really make things worse (we didn’t want to sit out an indefinite wait for a table in the back room where we suffered last time because the only thing worse than screaming kids in a restaurant is drunken olds). So we moved on to the quiet of Elizabeth’s outdoor cafe, with fine food (that Cobb salad is among The Cat’s favorites because I bring home all the grilled chicken). And then two nights later we moved on with friends from rosé at Tangled Vine to a reserved sidewalk table at Mermaid. With our favorite waiter. Not only was everyone super-pleasant and the noise level bearable both inside at the bar as we waited and outside as we lingered. OFW pushed us to order snacks to take advantage of the happy hour prices in the 60 seconds before they went up (shishito peppers, fried calamari, a shrimp slider), then he dropped off hush puppies on him with our entrees. Clone that guy! WIGB? It really is the best place for blocks.

The good for what it is: The Ellington on the Upper West Side, which we resorted to mostly for outdoor ambiance after a weekend getaway. The show on the street at 106th and Amsterdam was almost as satisfying as the food, although Bob and I had to swap salads. I ordered the chopped, he had the Caesar because he wanted protein. Still, WIGB? Sure. Nice people, fair prices, excellent sidewalk tables.

New York minutes/Late August 2012

The surprisingly good: Revolucion in the JetBlue terminal at JFK, where my consort and I ducked in for lunch on our way to PGH and where the food was so worth the wait despite our being surrounded by teevees television distortions in kaleidoscopic visuals with no sound. We had actually allotted time just to eat at the airport, and it was vaut le detour on the way to the gate — the torta with carnitas came perfectly assembled, with tender pork layered with guacamole and salsa on ideal bread, plus the sweet potato fries were the best either of us had ever had, crisp and light and not at all gooey/caramelized/gross. I think that cost all of $9. We ate the tostada salad, with crisp tortilla chips buried under guacamole, greens and cheese, on the plane, so it might have suffered from the wilting languish, but it still made a perfect harbinger for the amazing eating experiences we would have for the next four days. WIGB? Happily, although I am now curious about the other (more expensive) restaurants in that gleaming food court.

The surprisingly not bad: Home in the West Village, where we wound up early with three friends after two of them got shut out of the excellent, food-heavy Ai Weiwei doc at IFC and where I at least was chagrined that we had never tried it under the “new” ownership (the old one once wrote me an unhappy letter over something I’d written in Newsweek). The menu struck me as weirdly clueless when it came to seasonality, but everyone seemed happy picking and choosing, one friend and I with the “artichoke” and pancetta cheesecake topped with tart tomatoes and capers, my consort and her husband with the pork chop over wild rice, suspiciously large fava beans and asparagus and our other friend with the clam chowder with grilled bread, plus a side order of grilled radicchio. Whole-grain bread in the basket was great, flavor-free butter not so much. We all tasted the cherry pie a la mode and split a bottle of Finger Lakes rosé for a reasonable $36, too. Judging by the server’s reactions to our questions, I doubt family meal is ever involved, though, and as much as we all appreciated being able to eat in the garden in the quiet, I personally wish I had not gone out to eat and wound up becoming a mosquito buffet. WIGB? Probably, even though the cooking is maybe too homey. Also, too: Spunto after the movie turned out to be an ideal destination for drinks in quiet, with skinny tumblers of sauvignon blanc for only $7, but why in hell do restaurants not A) train servers to check back often with a table that has ordered only drinks, just in case more could be sold and B) let busboys wipe down tables with bleach while patrons are drinking those cheap wines and picking up hints of Clorox? But at least the place was better than Cornelia Street Cafe, where Bob and I had settled in desperation the night before after “Sleepwalk With Me” when Murray’s Cheese Bar had a long wait and Pearl was just not interested in anyone at the bar who did not want dinner. Two deal-breakers: Crappy wine. Dirty.

The worth-the-death march: Covo in West Harlem, where Bob and I trudged and trudged after a so-worth-it expedition to the Caribbean show at the Studio Museum in  Harlem and after aborted attempts at brunching at both Red Rooster and Harlem Social.  We walked into the former just before noon to see about a third of the place empty but were still shunted to the nearly empty bar “until some tables clear.” As the bartender ignored us, I noticed the latter across the intersection and told Bob it was new and I’d been invited to the opening party but had passed. Just as he started to search his iPhone for the menu there, a sweet young thing suddenly surfaced to offer us a table in the bar. Which we took even though it was next to the ordering station, but we only sat  long enough to read a bit of the menu: “Yard” bird for $22? Burger for $19? Sorry. Outta there. Only to be shunted outside at Harlem Social for a lecture on how the only seats were at a high shared table and how we would have to surrender them in an hour and a half. Bob was more pissed than I on noting the the place was almost empty. But we both looked at the menu — $25 prix fixe for brunch — and walked out. I’d remembered Covo from an e-friend’s recommendation but had seen it referenced in a Harlem guidebook in the museum gift shop, so off we went. Thank allah the menu was a la carte, because that was one long walk in the heat and humidity. By the time our pizza (of the day, with spicy salami, roasted peppers, mozzarella and baby arugula) and salad (with artichoke hearts, more roasted peppers, tomatoes and more mozzarella) arrived, I would have been happy with Papa John’s. Even with an espresso, the whole lunch cost less than brunch for one over in Coolville at 126th and Lenox. The space also felt anything but Manhattanish. And we were virtually next door to Fairway for shopping and right next to the bike/walking path down the Hudson to home, five miles after we’d set out that a.m. WIGB? Maybe. That part of town does seem restaurant-deficient unless you like industrial pork in your BBQ.

New York minutes/Late November 2011

The seriously good: Settepani in Harlem, where we met friends who had wanted to brave Red Rooster but heeded our NFW for dinner. Not only could we walk there and back, but everything about the sleek place was ideal even though a large family was celebrating a young birthday near our table. Which was in the front, near the window, where two of us could watch the street and all of us could hear easily. The waiter gets an A, not least for his advice on the wine and food (why do we think employees have ever eaten what they’re asked to recommend?) And that wine and food were both reasonably priced and supremely satisfying, but we all woke up the next morning most appreciative of how serene the experience had been, and how the whole attitude was like being in either of our living rooms; there was no sense of being rushed. As for the food, everything seemed cooked to order, starting with our shared appetizer of very creamy polenta topped with sausage. Spaghetti with shellfish baked in parchment tasted lively and fresh, and we’ll all still be digesting the osso buco with polenta at Christmas (which is high praise for authenticity). My mushroom lasagne was a too-big-to-finish slab topped with good bechamel that I wished had been baked longer; the kittybagged portion was even better reheated next day. But the most impressive entree was the special duck, with none of the tired/reheated aspect you usually suffer with  either breast or leg. Cabbage with it was dazzling as well (and when does cabbage ever merit that adjective?) We all split one panna cotta, billed as fruits of the forest but described as including blood orange, with a couple of biscotti plus a strawberry and whipped cream. One more indicator of Italian authenticity: The sweet was an afterthought. WIGB? I’m amazed the place is not mobbed by my own neighbors, given how good and how accessible it is. Even the panhandler on the walk home who called me and one friend “crackers” for not giving him money made it vaut le voyage. 196 Lenox Avenue near 120th Street, 917 492 4806

The good again: Loi, where my consort and I went back twice in a week for atmosphere, service and, especially, food. (Fairway: Step up your game!) The first time we went with a friend who wanted a real meal while we were just looking to top off “Into the Abyss” popcorn with eggplant and salad. Her scallops were kinda strange, but the portion was huge and everything else was outstanding: an amuse of mini-stuffed grape leaves plus Greekesque crostini, great bread with peppery olive oil, good white wine, free desserts. The second time we got snappier service but food just as great. The Greek salad by another name was a really satisfying mixture of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions and olives with a paving stone of mild cheese over the top and a dusting of anything-but-dusty oregano. The moussaka was just as marvelous as the first time, the vegetable almost melting into the meat. I didn’t try one friend’s honking-huge slab of salmon, but we all agreed the grilled calamari with pistachio and parsley sauce was outstanding. Best of all: We arrived with no reservation at a fully committed restaurant and were able not just to score a good table but were in and out for a dance performance even with the usual free desserts afterward. WIGB? Early and often, despite the crowd (sometimes “Sex & the City” raucous, other times God’s waiting room). 208 West 70th Street, 212 875 8600.

New York minutes/End of October 2011

The pretty good: Nam in Tribeca, where a friend and I headed for quiet and snacks after Kurt Gutenbrunner’s superb book party at Blaue Gans (as social as being in someone’s home but with better food and real waiters working hard at keeping glasses and mouths full). The Nam waiter was a little brusque, and no one was happy to have us linger till closing time, but the food came through. We ordered four appetizers, which turned out to be way too many after pralined foie gras: summer rolls with beef and with shrimp, sausage and peanuts plus five-spice baby back ribs and grilled eggplant with ginger and lime. WIGB? Anytime I’m in that neighborhood. It’s great value in a sleek space. 110 Reade Street at West Broadway, 212 267 1777.

The even better: Red Rooster Harlem, where my consort just back from a week of food hell at a workshop in Kentucky insisted we head for Monday lunch as walk-ins and where the setting and service rivaled the cooking. I won’t eat catfish and two of the offerings involved farmed salmon, so of course I had to have the cheeseburger, which was $16 worth of excellent, sauced with a spicy mayonnaise and topped with mushrooms, red onions, tomato and lettuce; the great fries were tossed with baby arugula and lots of salt although the truffle flavor was AWOL. Bob’s “yard bird” was all it’s been billed as, a big plateful of juicy, perfectly fried breast and leg, laid over perfect collard greens with a little spicy sauce on the side. As he guessed, it was roasted first, as we learned on gawking at the kitchen and being invited over by the expediter to check out the wood oven (and then meet all the cooks). The vibe in the place that day was amazing, as were the beautifully designed bathrooms. (Not so sure about writing Crisco on the dining room wall, though — why not Spry?) WIGB? Absolutely, although I’d guess it would be insane for dinner. 310 Lenox Avenue just north of 125th Street, 212 792 9001.

The aurally alluring: Lyon in the West Village, where we met a friend who was in from New Hope for a photo event and had one request for a destination, that it be quiet enough to talk. The food and wine and service were all fine, although I’m not sure why we three were seated right up against the service/ordering station in a nearly empty dining room. But we could talk. And talk, through a second bottle of Crozes Hermitage. I think I liked the silk weaver’s brains the best, the herbed cheese spread from Lyon, because it was paired with Virginia ham and crudités and Bob was smart enough to ask how to tackle it — just wrap the ham around the vegetable and dunk. “Barbecued” duck wings were as good as the first time we had them, meaty and sticky-sweet, and I made them a main course with a side of excellent broccoli rabe, the bitterness muted by halved cherry tomatoes and sweet onions. Since I ordered those, Bob was liberated for once to grab the duck, and it was nice enough, a perfectly cooked breast over a buckwheat crepe enfolding pearl barley and kale and (imperceptible as always) “truffle.” I didn’t try the other Bob’s chicken, but he seemed happy. WIGB? Anytime. I was underwhelmed by the food in the real Lyon. This is the perfect detour. 118 Greenwich Avenue at West 12th/Jane Streets, 212 242 5966.

The addictive: Milk Bar on the Upper West Side, where I’m going to have to complain to the community board about that neon sign. It’s like a damn siren song every time I pass by, even after a party where I gorged on great cheese and still had to stop for a compost or corn cookie.

The emulative: The very different bars at Regional and Boulud Sud, both on the Upper West Side, where I was amazed by the “happy to serve you” attitude. At the former we  met a friend in from Santa Barbara to promote an admirable book, and I’d chosen it because it was nearly equidistant between where she was staying and we live. It was happy hour, and the bartender not only came over to the communal table to take our orders but volunteered that a Chianti and a pinot grigio could be had for $5 a glass, so we were able to have two for one. As we left, a proprietary-looking woman with a baby on her hip came over to thank us for coming. We will be back. At BS, I decided we need to quit wasting real money in dive bars where the crap wine is $11 or $12 a glass and you can’t hear your brain cells die for the din. Meeting a Twitter connection in from out of town, I had a nice glass of picpoul from the Languedoc for all of $9, and even as the restaurant filled up she and I could still talk easily. When another woman came in and asked us to move down a barstool, the bartender topped off our wineglasses for free for complying. As my consort had warned after having a similarly great experience there recently, the crowd is a bit fogeyish. But I’ll take it. Kids are not always all right.

New York minutes/Early April 2009

The pretty good: Anthos Upstairs, where one of the last editors with an expense account treated me to Recessionary Chic and where I wonder how happy the chef is that his downstairs regulars were so ready to try the cheap alternative. We split the better-than-Kefi fried cod, the exceptional dumplings with a surfeit of leeks, duck gyro (strange) and the beet-feta salad (great) and were comped the overwrought mussels and underwhelming red mullet. Each generous small plate was $12 or under, and you could get away with fewer dishes. The waiter seemed a good guide to the Greek wines by the glass, too. WIGB? I felt as if I was walking to a foreign country on leaving the subway, and I may not get a ticket there again soon. 36 West 52d Street, 212 582 6900.

The WTF was I thinking? Chez Lucienne in Harlem, where I dragged my long-suffering consort and the Bugses on a bitter night after I got a bug up my own restaurant notebook to try a nice chef’s latest outpost because it seemed so affordable. The host and the room were fine, very evocative of a French fantasy, but. .  .  The waiter was like a battering ram, repeatedly interrupting even though the place was pretty empty. And my consort spent half the long trek home bitching about the wine — the first bottle, a cabernet for $26, was so shiver-inducing he upgraded to the $32 St. Emilion for the second and felt twice as ripped off. As for the food, our shared endive-blue cheese salad was pretty sodden although the bit of our friends’ foie gras I tasted almost redeemed it. Lady Bugs and I both stupidly ordered the bavette, which was translated as skirt steak but was closer to hanger and really the worst of both cuts, chewy and sloppy. The potato gratin, while nothing to write home to Lydie Marshall about, was a saving grace, though. And certainly we did better than poor Bob with his cooked-to-winy-overkill coq au vin with noodles and Dr. Bugs with his beef daube (the polenta with it was fried, which seemed ill-matched). They split a “nougat glacé,” of which a forkful was plenty. It was $100 a couple, but Bob said he would always pay more for good. WIGB? Alouette is so much closer, if you catch my drift.

The adequate: The bar at PorterHouse in the dread TWC, where a friend and I hooked up before an outstanding evening of Jazz at Lincoln Center in the dread TWC. Pricey wines were strange (the Oregon pinot gris was as syrupy as they always are, and the Greek sauvignon blanc should have left the grape to New Zealand or Chile), but the bartender and his left-arm man were efficient enough to get us a bowl of $8 potato chips and a shared Caesar salad before we had to run to marvel at Wynton Marsalis et al in a performance broadcast live. Even with what seemed to be a huge meeting of Assholes Anonymous going on all around us, that whole experience was better than ducking into Blue Ribbon afterward, where the litter-covered floor looked like a tapas bar in Spain and wines by the glass were priced four times as high, and then Providence, where the eerie guy at the desk just inside, right out of “The Shining,” informed us there were no drinks to be had, and finally Kennedy’s, where the sauvignon blanc was just what you would expect in an every-day-is-March-17 kind of joint.