New York minutes/Mid-January 2010

The port in a storm: At65 at Lincoln Center, where my friend treating me to “Carmen” and I wound up after getting shut out of Bar Boulud, Ed’s Chowder House, P.J. Clarke’s and Rosa Mexicano and after fleeing Oneals on realizing not a single overpriced thing on the pre-theater menu appealed to either one of us (in fairness, I would have settled for crab cakes if I had not had them for both lunch that day and dinner the night before). I think we both decided to imagine we were in Europe rather than acknowledge it was just a lobby cafeteria with table service, but the smart hostess and sharp waiter helped with the illusion. So did the $10 flatbread with sausage and broccoli rabe, and Donna’s Italian wedding soup (for $4.75). I don’t know what I was thinking ordering the house salad, so I deserved a couple of bits of artichoke and a lot of mesclun. Pinot blanc at $10 a glass was a better deal than the $11 sauvignon blanc at Oneals, too. WIGB? Absolutely. That waiter was outstanding. Points off, though, for not printing a phone number on the receipt when salient details are so hard to come by online.

The reliable: Land Thai Kitchen on the Upper West Side, where my consort and I went to lay down some wine absorption before our second birthday party in two days and where we got just what we expected. I had suggested Recipe, but the menu was only eggs and sandwiches at Saturday lunchtime, and we could have had those at home, so it was funny that the couple at the next table struck up a conversation about their love of both restaurants (same owner). My vegetable spring rolls were better than Bob’s outsized vegetable dumplings, but he won with chicken curry over my beef thing (for once I decided not to think about sourcing, only about laying down some wine absorption). For $8 a lunch, it’s hard to complain. WIGB? After Bob tries Recipe, but absolutely. 450 Amsterdam Avenue near 82d Street, 212 501 8121.

The overhyped: Kesté Pizza & Vino in the West Village, where four of us met up after another friend’s opening at Leica Gallery and where the pizza was just as Italian as promised — doughy and soggy — while the vino was priced as New York gouge-y as it could be ($25 for a half-carafe that would go for 3 euros in Rome). We didn’t have to wait too long outside for a table, as the deceptively charming host promised, but the one we snared happened to be right under a speaker blasting Gloria Gaynor-era noise and right next to the bus pan where plates were steadily tossed in crashing piles. Right next to it was a table of chunky guys polishing off the first round of a pizza apiece who said it was so much like Naples you should watch your wallet. The special, loaded down with burrata and clumps of fresh basil, was satisfying because of all that cheese if not all those clumps. But the $16 capricciosa was the same as it always is anywhere in Italy: too much topping (mushrooms, artichokes, ham, cheese) on sodden “crust.” We also split the house salad, with mozzarella and grape tomatoes, and the Toscana, with a few slices of pear and sloshed-on balsamic vinegar. Too late, we realized we should have ordered a bottle of white for $38 plus a half-carafe rather than three stingy pours at $25 a pop. WIGB? I hope not. But stranger things have happened in that neighborhood. 271 Bleecker Street, 212 243 1500.

The lame: Dos Toros Taqueria off Union Square, where I waited in a ridiculously long line after buying my $8.40 eggs at the Greenmarket (subway fare included) and after deciding Chipotle’s portions are just too huge. I give the counter crew credit: Special orders did not upset them. They just kept doing their leisurely thing even with people out the door. By the time I got to the front I only wanted a quesadilla, and it was the oddest  I’ve ever had: two slices of cheese on a fast-steamed tortilla half-melted on a griddle, then topped with pico de gallo, hot sauce and guacamole (for an extra 92 cents) and folded up like a letter, or a flat burrito. The tortilla was especially strange, almost more fat than flour (one day I will find something that approximates what my neighbors in Arizona used to make every day). The guacamole was respectable, but the ratio to tasteless cheese was way off. I guess it’s just what I deserved, though, for thinking hipster Mexican was worth a wait.

New York minutes/Latish December 2009

The good, yet again: Fairway upstairs, yet again, where we trotted after the underwhelming “Up in the Air” and where we were rewarded yet again with good food, cheap wine and WTH service. We shivered in just minutes before the kitchen closed, which made it all the more amazing that my (yes) Caesar was super-garlicky perfection and Bob’s chicken thighs with roasted butternut squash were juicy-exceptional. And consider the wine: NZ sauvignon blanc was a buck less than lame popcorn at the theater. 2127 Broadway near 74th Street, 212 595 1888.

The not bad: Qi after the Wednesday Greenmarket, where I stopped for a quick hoisin duck banh mi preceded by chive dumplings. The waiter remembered me, which was nice, although not enough to compensate for my sandwich, which was light on filling and heavy on bread. The dumplings were no better than last time either. WIGB? Sure — location, location, location. Plus the tab with tax and tip was only a little over $10, and now they have wine. 31 West 14th Street, 212 929 9917.

The adequate: Santa Clara Taqueria Mexicana in Inwood, where we settled after an expedition to buy Russian chocolate in graphically great packaging at Moscow on the Hudson on 181st Street. I discovered aerated chocolate last year and figured it would be a good gift for my in-law equivalent, and this shop had many more options than the one where I shopped for my consort. Thirty-four dollars and a heavy bag later, we set out to find the vintage Grunebaum’s bakery I had read about on a neighborhood blog, only to find its longtime space up for rent, and were ready for anything for lunch. The loud place is minuscule, with half the space taken up with beer promos (wonder what the vendors think about waitresses whose hats boast one brand and aprons another). And the prices are insane — we could have been eating in mellow luxury closer to home at El Paso Taqueria. But Bob was thrilled with his beef tongue and chorizo tacos, $2 apiece with superb green salsa. I was put off by $9.95 enchiladas on a street where gloves are $2, so I settled for a $5.50 torta, soft bread skimpily filled with decent chorizo, avocado, jalapeños and lettuce. With a Jarritos grapefruit soda, the damage was all of $11.50. WIGB? Nah. We passed no end of tantalizing alternatives on our walk to the subway at 145th and Broadway.

The almost: O’Neals near Lincoln Center, where we headed with another couple after the bad-acoustics Steve Earle concert down the block and where the hosts were smart enough to offer us a table just for drinks but the waiter was dumb enough to hustle us out. I had expected we would have to squeeze into the bar and yell, but once we were seated with linen and flatware and menus, salad and crab cakes and guacamole were being ordered to go with the $11-a-glass sauvignon blanc. I only tasted the guacamole, which was better than it had any right to be despite supermarket-level chips, but our friends seemed happy with their real food. And the roll I tasted outperformed, too. It was late, but it was Friday, so I was rather surprised no one seemed interested in selling us another glass or so. WIGB? Undoubtedly. Location trumps many flaws. 49 West 64th Street, 212 787 4663.

The bittersweet: reBar in Dumbo, where we joined MediaStorm & famille for a last holiday party and where we got to celebrate Bob going from panda to condor again — he’s leaving regular feeding times in the zoo to go back to flying freely — while acknowledging it would be the last time we partied with this crew in this way. The tables were covered in food by the time I got there (late), but I can vouch for the guacamole, the pico de gallo and the penne with artichokes. And the wine service was surprisingly attentive considering how busy it was on a Monday night. WIGB? If he still had to commute, maybe. 147 Front Street, Brooklyn, 718 677 9110.

New York minutes/Earlyish June 2009

The good: Dim Sum Go Go in Chinatown, where a friend and I sat for 2 1/2 hours over exactly $27 worth of food, tax and tip while the waiters just kept refilling the teapot and water glasses. At a nice window table we split steamed dumplings (including duck, Chinese parsley, seafood), fried turnip cakes and shiu mai, all faultless. So what if half the other patrons came in clutching guidebooks and the only Asians in the joint were staff? It’s clean and bright and hospitable, not to mention very easy to talk there. WIGB? Anytime. 3 East Broadway off Chatham Square, 212 732 0797.

The seriously good: Bar Boulud, where a friend and I wound up with a great sidewalk table after an odd little evening of Will “Tear Down This Myth” Bunch and “Laughing Liberally” in the Theater District; we just wanted salad and a glass of wine, but $12 for either seemed a little steep at the first places we considered, and PJ Clarke’s looked and sounded like a 20-something WASP convention in Bedlam. So we took our $24 across the street. Of course once we sat down salads seemed absurd when there was all that charcuterie to be had, so she ordered Grand-pere and I chose the excellent $15 tourte de canard, with foie gras layered throughout. My white was all of $9, but her red took forever to arrive, as did her knife. Bread, though, was excellent. The waiter seemed disappointed by our dainty order, although he warmed right up when I asked for a kitty bag for my half-eaten paté. WIGB? Such a deal! And Wyl-E was so happy. 1900 Broadway near 63d Street, 212 595 0303.

The “terrific:” Kefi, yet again, where my friend in from a dining wasteland was quite pleased and not just because we were comped really good orzo with shrimp, feta, spinach and tomatoes. The waiter listened when he wanted something more austere than the glass of white I ordered while waiting for him, and the bottle whose name I didn’t note was a step up and poured at just the right pace as we split the always-great spreads and then swordfish and striped bass (the latter made a superb lunch next day to share with The Cat WCTLWAFW). Gary paid, which should have made me feel terrible, but the place is such a bargain. WIGB? Very soon, I’m sure. 505 Columbus Avenue near 84th Street, 212 873 0200.

The oddly off: The New French, where it was damn lucky the food was as spectacular as always and the design holds up because the service and noise level were mortifying. I didn’t realize what a bad choice it would be for the combination of a soft-spoken scholarly writer and someone who, in the immortal phrase of a friend in Treviso, “chews words.” I couldn’t hear her, and she had it even worse — at one point she thought I was talking about Craig Claiborne rather than John Hess and reacted as if I had said Paula Deen was the new Julia Child. The waitress was an absolute ditz in a half-full room: took forever to come over, had to be hailed for a second glass of rosé, forgot my friend’s second beer, never refilled the water glasses, had to be hailed for the check, had to be hailed again to be told she overcharged me by $4 (sparkling/Spanish/what’s the diff?). And if I had to hear the same track of the Mamas and Papas blasting over all the braying one more time. . . . Still, WIGB? Absolutely. That Cheddarburger with heap o’ fries is just the best. Friend was happy with fresh tuna sandwich, too. And they let us sit far, far longer than Pearl would. 522 Hudson Street at 10th, 212 807 7357.

New York minutes/End o’ May 2009

The good: Boqueria in SoHo, where we headed with a Philadelphia friend in town for the book expo who expressed a preference for either Caribbean or Mediterranean, anything “light and sunny.” Sort of Spanish sort of fit the bill, although I admit I paused at the blackboard brunch sign out front when I realized how likely eggs were to dominate and how close we were to the Saturday fallback, Aquagrill, with its sidewalk terrace. But it was early, and we got a nice table overlooking the plancha, and the waiter was attentive and the food and wine were excellent even if the music deserved deportation and the bathroom looked worthy of a train, and not in tidy Spain. We just shared a few pricey but excellent tapas: tender octopus on skewers and toast with tomatoes and sugar snap peas in green olive vinaigrette; diver scallops with English peas etc. in bacon vinaigrette; three croquetas — suckling pig, mushroom and salt cod — with sauces, and padron peppers, which were good but not up to Lanzarote level because only one I got had any heat. Rosé and sangria were $9 and $8 a glass; with two each it came out to $38 a person with tax and tip. Not bad, but not the proven deal down the block. WIGB? Maybe. Just not on Egg Day. 17 Spring Street between Thompson and West Broadway, 212 343 4255.

The better than we had any right to hope: Le Petit Marché in Brooklyn Heights, where I met locals and my consort after his workday and with very low expectations, given the neighborhood and the Alouette evocation when I walked in the door on a drizzly gray night. But our food was pretty satisfying, much more so than the sullen-at-best service. I had eaten earlier so only ordered my idea of nibbles — an appetizer of crab-chickpea fritters with chipotle-smoked paprika aioli plus a side of truffle-Parmigiano fries — and was happy with both. My consort made me taste his very chewy but flavorful duck with date gastrique and sweet potato puree, and our friends seemed happy with a special pasta with sausage and summer squash and crab-corn chowder (on this gray evening) plus an off-the-menu pork chop with corn risotto. We split two bottles of red and I think got out for under $100 a couple. WIGB? Absolutely, were I to find myself in that neck of the far woods ever again. 46 Henry Street, 718 858 9605.

P.J. Clarke’s at Lincoln Center, where nine of us landed after the disappointing “Departures” at the little theater around the corner and where we had no reason to complain given the location, location, location coupled with the reasonable prices, decent cooking and showoff service. Our small mob was seated almost instantly at a few tables jammed together in a back corner where we could mostly hear ourselves talk, and the waiter was patient and mellow when some of us just ordered salads or side dishes and others ordered no booze. My Caesar was the same as it ever was, and my consort looked to have more goat cheese than he needed on his spinach salad. Friend to my left was blissful with her sliders if not the bizarre “bubble and squeak” that came with; friend to my right ate the latter with as few complaints as he had for his French onion soup once the kitchen omitted the cheese topping. WIGB? Absolutely. Even if we have to again fight our way through a bizarre horde trying to get into the bar at Center Cut next door. 44 West 63d Street, 212 957 9700.

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.

New York minutes/End of February 2009

The good: The New French, yet again, where my consort and I headed on finding Pearl closed for vacation after the devastating “Gomorrah” at IFC (toxic waste, toxic assets — what’s the diff?) The place was surprisingly empty on this Monday night, and only one waitress was working, but we had unsurprisingly great service and food, hanger steak with fries and great sauce for Bob and the salad with tuna for me. Half the meal was spent marveling that such careful cooking can be dispensed for such beyond-reasonable prices — the amount of labor that goes into the salad alone is daunting, a thought that was reinforced as we stood up to leave and saw the chef roasting a huge batch of red peppers for the next day’s round of copious salads. WIGB? The burger is calling my name. . . 522 Hudson Street at 10th, 212 807 7357.

The not bad: Cafe Luxembourg, where we reserved for complicated reasons involving crossed signals on concerts and Connecticut plus overbooking at West Branch and Kefi too busy to take reservations, and where the room and vibe, as always, compensated for perfectly adequate food. I had the New French steak on my brain and stupidly succumbed to the 7-ounce steak frites, a dish that was decent enough but nothing like what was stuck in my cranial sieve (and a lot more expensive). Bob was bummed that his chicken was the reheated kind, but our friends were polite about their chicken and their tuna burger. Bob’s beet salad to start was pretty okay, though. We split a bottle of gruner and got away for around $115 a couple. Probably the best part of the evening, besides the conversation, was knowing that that lame Compass next door has only survived from CL overflow. We met there for a glass of wine beforehand, and it was like God’s waiting room. WIGB? Inevitably. It’s the poor man’s Balthazar, but that is not a bad thing. 200 West 70th Street, 212 873 7411.

The transporting: New Leaf in Fort Tryon Park, where we stopped for lunch on our way to avail ourselves of the already dirt-cheap PJ Wine’s loyal-customer deal on bottles at cost and where the setting was like a Hudson Valley inn without the Metro North ride. For reasons I still question, I had the portobello wrap, with zucchini, peppers, basil aioli and tapenade (and, allegedly, Fontina, although it tasted more like smoked mozzarella), which came with a big mound of mesclun. It was actually better than a wrap has a right to be, and Bob’s chicken potpie was its rival, with puff pastry for a crust and a very rich sauce around perfectly cooked carrots and, he said, overcooked chicken chunks. Like almost everyone else — tourists and old people and hooky-players like us — we had to have alcohol, and the sauvignon blanc was a good pour for $9. One waitress, one busboy and a couple of managers worked that busy room like a winning team. WIGB? Absolutely. It’s so far away and yet so close. 1 Margaret Corbin Drive, 212 568 5323.

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/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/Early December 2007

The good: Mermaid Inn uptown, where the noise level was not as brutal on a second visit and where the food and service were actually impressive. We walked over after the excellent “Gone Baby Gone,” around 7:30 on Saturday night, and expected a line out the door but were instead assured by the hostess the wait would be more than 10 minutes. Then we had just enough time to get our $9 glasses of gamay and gruner at the bar before we were seated. The very personable waiter, after promising four oysters in the grilled appetizer and delivering three, poured our second glasses with a very liberal hand to compensate. A special of grilled Arctic char seemed strange, laid as it was over rings of pasta and a mound of broccoli rabe with chilies, but it worked brilliantly. And the very meaty, nicely seasoned lobster sandwich not only came with excellent Old Bay fries but was made with a real brioche bun rather than a hot dog holder, which may be traditional but actually sucks. Who cared that the free chocolate mousse was overly gelatinous yet again? WIGB? Absolutely. 568 Amsterdam Avenue near 88th Street, 212 799 7400.

The not bad: P.J. Clarke’s at Lincoln Square, where the cold drove us for proximity’s sake with another couple after the nearly interminable “I’m Not There” and where the one drawback was the buffoons bellowing at the bar next to the oversized booth where we were trying to decide if we had seen art or annoyance. My Caesar salad was fine, Bob’s chicken potpie was big and our friends seemed happy with a burger and a big salad; the Chateau Ste. Michelle cabernet was about $35. The waiter was one of those relentless if pleasant upsellers, but the vibe in the place was definitely “happy to have your business.” WIGB? Probably. Buffoons are inescapable, and it is temptingly close to the best art house for miles. 44 West 63d Street, 212 957 9700.

The great: Chola yet again, where I met up with three friends for a long lunch and where the waiters not only let us linger unbothered but were even pleasant as we finally left, maybe because having a table occupied drew a second wave of diners for that always satisfying buffet. Every time I go it seems new temptations are on offer; this time a tomato chutney was exceptional. The bread baker was on a roll, too. No wonder all the other Indian choices on the block are all but empty. WIGB? Constantly. 232 East 58th Street, 212 688 4619.