New York minutes/Late September 2014

The good: Following up on the great Musket Room: Just a couple of days before, of course, I had misunderstood which M restaurant Bob had suggested trying on a night when neither of us could deal with putting food on the family after crazy days working. And so we made our way to the Marshal in Hell’s Kitchen with visions of the scallops cooked with Hudson Valley Duck bacon in our heads, courtesy of the cook we ran into on Union Square as he bought up half the cooler over the summer. A table on the sidewalk, across from the taxi gas station, distracted us from the fact that there were no scallops with bacon the menu, but we were perfectly happy to indulge in the $11 duck liver mousse (funkiness offset by honeycomb plus great crunchy toasts, and plenty of them) and what I called tamale pie without the ground beef (local polenta topped with Cheddar, sauced with tomatillo salsa, also $11) and Bob’s blowout entrée, roast leg of lamb stuffed with spinach, rosemary and ginger and laid over duck-fat smashed potatoes, for $32. A $30 rosé from Anthony Road in the Finger Lakes was just gravy. WIGB? Maybe, although the inside space is rather tight and the prices could be lower if marquee farms did not dominate the menu.

The closer good: Arco on the Upper West Side, which we’d been walking past for months while shrugging (more average Italian?) but where we finally headed after a rave heard over in Brooklyn, at Photoville. And our fandoc was right: The place, which I had dismissed as a draw for guests at the hostel right across Amsterdam, looks downtown sleek; the hostess and server were superb, and the food definitely surpassed my expectations of “why go out when Italian is so easy at home?” Plus there was Arneis by the glass, for all of $10. We split a respectable salad, a special with fried artichokes, arugula, tomatoes and shredded cheese, then Bob wound up finishing my outstanding gnocchi, alla montanara, in a creamy sauce with mushrooms and bacon, while we kittybagged his pork on polenta. WIGB? Absolutely. The tide is turning uptown with restaurants lately.

The downtown pretty good: Ramen-Ya in the West Village, where we wound up feasting before a Yom Kippur break fast after Bob responded to the moody weather by suggesting the Japanese bellybuster and I suggested we pass on the Wayne Thiebaud show uptown because every painting is online and instead head south to the Grey Gallery, for a truly staggering show on apartheid (which we now have to specify means South African, not Israeli). The place is tiny, as threatened, but comfortable when only three-quarters full in daytime. As we do uptown at Jin Ramen, he had the namesake dish, here with a medium-rich, and spicy, brodo with respectable pork, while I had the rice bowl topped with beef, scallions and pickled ginger. I should have known the one dish using the B word would not be using a recognizable cut, but I also didn’t put my chopsticks down until I was nearly finished. The knockout dish, though, was the appetizer of pork gyoza, liberally dusted with togarashi. They were a little greasy, but the wrappers were silken. WIGB? Maybe, but there are so many other ramen places to explore these days.

Something very old: Elizabeth’s in our neighborhood, where we were so embarrassed to have dragged our great friends from across the park after the awesome Balthus/cats exhibition at the Met. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. They seated us right next to the bar and the teevee during a game, then moved us to a table where the new waiter was not talking to the old waiter. (Scary how I remember all this seven months on.) The wine was a mixup, the cocktail Nancy ordered was undrinkable and I waited seven months short of forever for dressing for my usually-great-but-tonight lame-ass Cobb salad. Bob was okay with his grilled salmon, Charles with his turkey meatloaf, but I noticed Nancy left most of her burger uneaten, even with us sharing the okay onion rings. We trudged out saying we would never go back unless for rosé in the sidewalk cafe. And so:

Something newish: Elizabeth’s in our neighborhood, where we ran to on one of those rare summer nights when you could eat outside and where everything reminded us why the place has stayed in business longer than so many predecessors, without sinking to the craptastic tequila level next door. The waiter, for a rare change, was on top of the wine list, so we got a good organic rosé, before the always-excellent bread and butter, and then my outstanding sliders and his roast chicken. WIGB: Only for just the two of us. So embarrassing to drag our friends there from across the park, where we look out on the El Dorado and notice why so many windows are dark on an early fall Sunday night: Nobody lives there year-round anymore. And that only hurts restaurants and other living businesses in the neighborhood.

New York minutes

If you had told me in December 1980 that I would, in August 2014, be eating kelp salad followed by braised pork belly — with chopsticks, to boot — I would have said subsisting on one tiny bag of potato chips plus a few Cokes must have made you delusional. And I have to admit I thought my consort was kidding when he suggested the salad, but it was surprisingly palatable despite the slight fishiness he couldn’t detect. It was definitely better than the woody green beans in peanut sauce we’d tried as a starter at our first lunch at Jin Ramen in Harlem, a few months ago. The rice bowl this time, topped with pickled ginger and brisket cooked with onions to falling-apart tenderness, was also better than my introductory version ($6 for the small, more than I could finish). Bob, as always, had to try something new and took the server’s recommendation of the spicy tonkotsu ramen, with liquid-bacon pork broth seasoned with the house blend of soybean and roasted garlic paste plus hot sesame oil. And it was even better than the milder ramen he’d chosen last time (well, last time with me — he confessed he’d gone there on his own once). The whole $12 dish is a fascination, with the noodles and the pork belly and the soft-cooked egg and the bamboo shoots and the scallions to mix and match on a wooden spoon. WIGB?  Absolutely. Between the food, the efficient service and the show, it’s the perfect pit stop before braving the miles of aisles at the uptown Fairway (the one where the stock and spaciousness make the Broadway store look like a shithole). Still, while the couple at the next table eating their way through half the “raymen” menu made me wish I’d spotted the gyoza on the menu, I realize on checking the fine print that we could not have ordered them. Because I still won’t eat (more than a taste of) chicken.

The weekend before I also got to engage in behavior, and food, that would also have felt beyond alien before I met Mr. Omnivorous Adventurer. And I actually found the place: IndiKitch, west from Eataly in the Flatiron. This was our second lunch together there and my turn to confess I’d been back twice on my own, for a quick snack after the Wednesday Greenmarket, simply for the samosas, which are among the best I’ve had in this city of fried-and-dried. The place is clearly staking out a claim as the South Asian answer to Chipotle: You choose feast (burrito), biryani (bowl), salad (salad) or sandwiches (tacos) and the counter crew assembles and sautés (actually finishes) to order. “Feast” is a serious deal for $9.87, with a main ingredient like saag paneer or mushroom kadai or chicken tikka teamed with a choice of rice (saffron is best), dal (chickpea or yellow lentil is best), side salad (carrot is definitely best) plus naan (garlic, of course). The naan is surprisingly good, better than in far too many Indian restaurants, because it’s both well-flavored and pliable enough to wield as your utensil, just the way you would eat in India. And if you order your food spicy, it’s near-perfect pitch, seasoned  to be balanced by the bread. The bathrooms, entered by entering a code, are spotless enough to encourage just that authentic way of eating.

Of course I had to go and ruin my new infatuation by suggesting Indian for Sunday lunch after the Greenmarket on Columbus when neither our usual lobster rolls nor tortas/cemitas appealed. I’d been wanting to try the uptown Saravanaa Bhavan for the last year, since a pal at the Greenmarket on 97th recommended it, and the thali was about three universes beyond IndiKitch. Of course, it was also $19.99 (but so generous we could split it). Every one of the 14 little dishes tasted vibrant (although I’ll take points off for the soggy papad), and the spicing varied from dish to dish. The menu was all Hindu to me aside from a couple of words, so there’s no point in listing specifics. Just know that it was (almost) like being transported to Mumbai at a sidewalk table on Amsterdam. WIGB? Definitely, even though the hometown magazine ran a long and peculiar story on how the owner of the chain is a killer. The staff was a bonus — when was the last time a waiter came out to tell you the one-holer occupied by a young woman for a suspicious amount of time was free?

New York minutes/Late May 2012

The very close to perfect: Acme in “NoHo,” where I had the unusual foresight to reserve for my consort’s birthday after he’d expressed interest in it, he being the one in the consortium who keeps up with trendiness on the food front these days. I had to enroll in Open Table and use my own name, and weeks out we only got a choice of 6:15 or 6:30, but it was his birthday, and he had expressed interest. And I will admit that Emily Dickinson’s “I’m nobody, who are you?” was flashing across my brainpan as we waited to be seated, but once we were escorted to the corner of a booth set for three everything made us so much happier than our last birthday dinner at Le Bernardin, exactly 10 years earlier, from which we headed home in a cab thinking we should have put the same $320 toward plane tickets to Paris for all the soulfulness in the cooking. Bob started with a cocktail that smelled like just-mowed grass; I had cava that turned out to be pink; both of us were happy. And with the engaging waiter’s guidance, we chose bison/shrimp tartare in endive spears with radicchio and green almonds (fabulous); slow-grilled cabbage with truffle/Gruyere foam (sensational); morels stuffed with pork sausage (fabsational — the lingering flavor was not of meat but of mushroom, the most seductive mushroom), and finally sea bass with pickled green tomato and dandelions, which would have been dazzling if we had started with it. We also shared the waiter’s tout for dessert, a beer and bread porridge with salted caramel. Even with way too many glasses of rosé, the tab was only $220. And while the place still smells a little like the old Acme, between the crowd and the design it looks like 2012 New York. WIGB? Soon, I hope. 9 Great Jones Street, 212 203 2121.

The close second: Sakagura in Midtown East, where we hooked up after the underwhelming Whitney Biennial with friends who had celebrated one of their birthdays there earlier that week. I’ve only been to Narita so am always happy to be guided through a Japanese menu, and we acceded to a sake tasting of three types for $20, then shared chewy but flavorful roasted duck slices wrapped around scallions, then a salad with fresh tofu and miso dressing, then lightly fried taro/shiitake/eggplant, then grilled eggplant with three great glazes, then tender and rich braised pork belly. The boys at the table shared one order of the tongue with shiitakes and more taro, but taro that touched tongue would not touch mine. We didn’t need but very much enjoyed the super-tender beef slices we seared ourselves using a cube of beef fat to lube the smoking-hot stone; The Cat appreciated the last slice taken home in a warning-covered plastic box. I can’t believe I was still tempted to taste the desserts, a cherry flan and a black sesame creme brulee, but both were worth the calories. WIGB? Anytime. Even with two carafes of other sakes, the tab before tip was $102 a couple for way more than we should have eaten. 211 East 43d Street, 212 953 7253.

The very close to abysmal: Ditch Plains on the Upper West Side, where we stopped in for early lunch on holiday-weekend Sunday and where I should have known to insist we flee as we waited for one of two front booths to be bused, by a guy who actually sat down to do it. Or when we saw the waitress reset the table before he had wiped it down. Or when we got only one menu. Or when — especially or when — said waitress did not know what the fish in the fish sandwich was (“stake?” “skate?” “yeah, that’s it!”) She did mime swooning over how great my choice was, though, so I went off to the bathroom and nearly slipped on the greasy floor in the basement (which is decidedly not aging well). I should have sent the $14 thing back: the fish was seriously fishy, and definitely not skate, plus it was topped with what tasted like processed cheese and it came with a tired mound of oxidized greens, mostly escarole. Instead, by trying to be nice I ruined two people’s lunch. Bob’s seafood Cobb was actually decent, with almost more salmon and shrimp and definitely more avocado than lettuce. But not much makes me sadder than having to leave behind food The Cat WCTLWAFW could be sharing.

The redeemed: Fairway Cafe in the mother ship, where we retreated with two friends after the awesome “Moonrise Kingdom” when the new pizza/pasta place up the street had a five- to ten-minute wait that gave us just enough time to scope out the tiny size of the blackened pizzas and the inflated prices ($18 for four slices?) We got a nice table in the back and pretty close to fast service and soon had a bottle of $25 Provencal rosé and then our food. Len confessed after he was slogged through them that the mussels were tasteless but aromatic, but Bob and Diane were happy first with their arugula-goat cheese salads and biscuits and then barbecue chicken with coleslaw and finally warm apple tart with ice cream. My watercress and endive salad with walnuts, golden beets and blue cheese, though, was the total winner, maybe the best thing I’ve ever eaten there. But the contrast between our last experience there was most striking with the service. The guy was actually working hard to be a real waiter. Long may he run. . .

New York minutes/Early January 2012

The good I: Tre Otto on the Upper East Side, where, for proximity’s sake, we trotted on an unusually frigid night after the awesome Maurizo Cattelan at the Guggenheim and where it was hard to find fault with much in the warmth. We passed on a table in the enclosed garden and braved the dining room for the first time, but luckily it was mostly empty so we could spread out and tuck into fine polenta and mushrooms heavy on the truffle oil, plus penne with sausage and peas in cream. Both the olive oil with the two kinds of bread and the $8 whites by the glass had character. And the staff, from hostess to busboy, actually seemed to have the hospitality gene. WIGB? Anytime. 1408 Madison Avenue near 97th Street, 212 860 8880.

The good II: Gajumaru, also on the Upper East Side, where we were lucky enough to be both treated by friends and guided through the menu, because what I don’t know about Japanese would fill half of Tokyo — I think I’ve eaten the non-sushi version three times in 30 years here. So the fresh tofu was just as they promised (if not quite on the level of freshly made at Morimoto) and the steamed char siu dumplings with crab just as satisfying. Pork cutlet seemed a bit dry, and I made a mess of the tempura by combining the brodo with the rice. But tons o’ sake also helped. WIGB? With friends, of course. Because I think Japanese is, like Indian or Chinese, best experienced at its origin. And that doesn’t mean on a layover at Narita on the way to Hong Kong. 1659  First Avenue near 86th Street, 212 348 2878.

The good III: Settepani in Harlem, again, where we met three other couples for Saturday dinner that would have been deafening misery almost anywhere else and where the cooking, service, setting and prices vanquished my fears over luring mostly out-of-towners to what could be taken for a location/location destination. It is a 20-minute walk for us, which was “schlepping to Harlem” for everyone else, but it really was the most enjoyable evening in a crazy crowd in a long time — we could hear each other snark, share each other’s food. I think I scored best with the mushroom lasagne, which this time was heavier on the filling and needed no kittybagging and reheating to become sensational. My consort’s osso buco could have been more collapsing-off-the-bone tender, but the flavor and accompanying polenta put it up in Milanese territory. I am not a sardine aficionada but was happy to see the friend who never orders an entree tucking happily into the pasta with it, and I didn’t need to try her husband’s “Montreal ragu” over couscous because he also was tucking in happily to the goose, veal etc. sauce. We all split good fried calamari, too-sweet/under-fried zucca and excellent leek-and-artichoke bruschetti to start and panna cotta for dessert. Plus the puff pastry sticks with pesto served at the bar were outstanding. And the wine prices were so amazing (a good Arneis at 100 percent markup rather than 500 percent) we kept ordering more, and, again, the staff let us sit there for hours as if we were in a private dining room. WIGB? No doubt. And not even in a mob. 196 Lenox Avenue at 122d Street, 917 492 4806.

The pretty bad: Wong in the West Village, where we stumbled in on spotting it on our way to Pearl (after a free screening of the underwhelming “It’s About You” at IFC) and where we stumbled out to next-day queasiness after a long night at the chef’s counter watching inexperienced cooks muck up almost all the few things we ate — it was like being back in restaurant school in 1983 when tentativeness ruled. And maybe we’d eaten too recently at Momofuku Ssam (although not that same day), but the contrast between the two was literally painful. Maybe there’s a reason one lists the provenance of its duck on the menu? Those birds rank among my top two favorite proteins, but I had to force myself to eat more of the duck bun with its insipid, soupy meat in the fried dough (Iowa State Fair on Cornelia Street). And we waited so long for the special duck meatball that I took only a tiny bite and Bob ate only one or two, but it will be a long time before he looks at a meatball of any protein persuasion. Something was off. We also shared a good if weird salad that tasted like a shopping list on a plate (dinnerware, BTW, is also a problem, with so much futziness and weird shapes). The house bread is a brilliant concept clumsily executed: naan-like with curry sauce, but the former was doughy and the latter silly with mint leaves served separately to be torn into it. Service was competent at least. But WIGB? I won’t quite give it negative two stars and still . . . not on a bet. It’s the kind of trying-too-hard restaurant a third-tier town would be thrilled to have.

New York minutes/Late April 2009

The good again: Aquagrill in SoHo, where we headed for our default brunch after the Saturday Greenmarket and after every other destination we considered had the usual egg-heavy menu. The place was quite busy, with the outdoor tables all full, but it was running at peak performance. We got a nice table (albeit next to the overactive linen closet), were served good Spanish rosé and warm breakfast breads right away and had our food almost too fast, given the long lines for the one-seat bathrooms. I ignored the lack of provenance on the salmon BLT and just enjoyed the perfect balance of fish against crisp bacon, mayonnaise and baby arugula on a ciabatta. Bob’s warm shrimp salad had nicely cooked shellfish with well-dressed potatoes on more baby arugula. The biscuits were exquisite. What was most impressive is that the bill, including one coffee, was about what really nasty Cabrito had cost the Saturday before; my sandwich with good fries was a buck less than the still queasy-making chorizo biscuits and gravy. Plus we were thanked at least four times on our way out. WIGB? Inevitably. They have restauranting down to an art. 210 Spring Street, 212 274 0505.

The not bad: SobaKoh in the East Village, where nine of us wound up after an opening at Leica Gallery and where the tiny room and excellent service made it the perfect destination thanks to one smart guy who lives in the neighborhood taking charge. The menu was huge, but soba with grilled duck and scallions jumped out at me, while Bob was taken with eggplant stuffed with ground duck for his soba. Japanese and I are not on familiar terms, but I was happy enough with our food, especially since the sake kept coming. Our young friend who barely drinks was floored by the $42-a-head tab, but that’s how it goes when you order $55 bottles. The best part is that even in a group that ridiculously large, it was easy to talk. And the waitress happily took a combination of cash and I think five credit cards. WIGB? Not likely, but only because soba sounds enticing about once in a decade. 309 East Fifth Street off Second Avenue, 212 254 2244.

The not great: Baoguette in Curry Hill, where I wandered in very hungry after the Wednesday Greenmarket on my way to Foods of India and where I paid for my stupidity in ordering the $7 “sloppy bao,” billed as spicy curried beef but more like a cafeteria special. The bread and the pickled vegetables and especially the heat were all good, but it was the kind of ground beef that comes with a remorse guarantee. What mostly struck me was how dull it was: After the third bite, whatever thrill there was was gone. The people were pleasant and efficient, though, and the thing was obviously prepared with a level of care. WIGB? Not likely, especially after I realized I could have had a full buffet with lots of vegetables for a couple of dollars more just up the avenue.

New York minutes/Mid-February 2009

The good: Salumeria Rosi, where a friend offered to treat me to a birthday drink and snack and where we wound up staggering from Cesare’s beneficence. I got there first for a 5:30 connection, and the hostess seated me with a warning that the table was needed back by 7 or 7:30, so I ordered a glass of $9 tocai and as the waiter was explaining the menu an “Italian spritzer” landed — prosecco with Aperol. Another followed for Donna when she arrived, so we huddled over the menu choosing small plates. They all actually turned out to be the most satisfying tastes of the night, but it was hard to complain about the succession of indulgences sent from the kitchen: prosciutto bread; a beyond-generous platter of salumi; squash risotto with pumpkinseeds; caponata and heirloom-bean salad; salt cod, and Gorgonzola with candied almonds. We were more taken with the beyond-tender heirloom pork rib, the culatello, the green of the day (Swiss chard) and especially the lasagne, a small square of totally tender pasta layered with just enough ragu, cheese and sauce. Through all that, we somehow found room for three desserts, of which the date toffee cake was the most amazing. WIGB? Early for sure, and maybe with a bag over my head. 283 Amsterdam Avenue near  74th Street, 212 877 4800.

The not bad: Fairway Cafe yet again, where we retreated with Dr. and Lady Bugs after the beyond-abysmal “Wrestler” and where the cheap wine compensated for the soup sold as pizza and the rathah scary bathrooms (Dr. B lived in India for a month on a pittance and still decided he could count on his camel bladder to get him home to Brooklyn before he would brave a backed-up toilet as employees were voiding). We were there late on a Sunday night, and so the real amazement was that the branzino was not totally geriatric. I didn’t try our just-back-from-Argentina friends’ huge steaks (hanger, strip), or the shrimp chowder starter one got on the prix fixe, but their fries were good. The free flatbread was half-baked, though. We had a new, great waitress with serious personality, and the wine was all we wanted: cheap. For the first time, though, Bob left saying it was depressing. I reminded him the food is usually great. Plus the wine is extraordinarily cheap. And no fingers were excised in slicers like in the crapflick.

The transporting: Yakitori Totto, where seven of us hooked up for a little orgy of skewers etc. and where we learned to let the regular do the ordering — get greedy and you wind up with Vienna sausages made of chicken. Gyoza were exceptional, probably the best I’ve had in New York. But she also suggested good chicken and tofu and pork and indulged us with the asparagus wrapped in bacon; what’s great is that you can order by the $3 piece as you so rarely can with other cuisines. We didn’t try the dessert she was lusting after (and I didn’t steal a menu), but the green tea ice cream dusted with matcha was a good ending. The service was quite good, too; we’ve never been eased out so gracefully with people lined up for our table in a little front room. 251 West 55th Street, 212 245 4555.

The worth notice even though I am dispirited: Sookk delivered decent Thai for a Saturday lunch, El Paso came through with great enchiladas for me if not satisfaction for my two escorts and the Mermaid Inn was the right place to head for an early dinner after our kick-in-the-gut loss (Bob let me order clam chowder and french fries as my dinner — you take your balm where you find it).