New York minutes/Mid-December 2009

The womb-like: Beco in Greenpoint, where nine of us headed just for drinks after a friend’s gallery talk nearby and where the staff could not have been more accommodating, pulling together tables and handing us all menus drink-side up rather than taking umbrage at the prospect of no food tab. I ordered a $6 sauvignon blanc before realizing caipirinhas were the way to go. Four of us walked out to hearty thanks and shivered to the L close by wondering why we can’t have a place like that in our neighborhood. Of course, the answer is obvious: Ridiculous rents and stroller gridlock. WIGB? Absolutely. It was so pleasant, and the well-priced Brazilian menu looked promising. 45 Richardson Street near Lorimer, Brooklyn, 718 599 1645.

The when-did-it-turn-so-touristy?: Keens Steakhouse too close to Macy’s, where we rushed back from Brooklyn on a Sunday night to meet steak-craving friends literally just off the plane from India, Madagascar and Mauritius and where I’m surprised their heads didn’t explode from culture shock.  We were shunted to a table upstairs, a room that felt like an over-lit theme park, with unsmoked pipes on the ceiling and waiters, hostesses and other diners all snapping photos of grinning Middle Americans, but that was not the worst of it. I can’t recall service that unservicey in a restaurant where entrees are in the $40s — our guy spent most of the evening lounging against the bar after taking our wine and food orders. The Bugses split a $90 porterhouse, but my consort and I were overwhelmed by the $43.50 sirloin; we all shared decent creamed spinach and a big order of fries. (And there was a tray of gargantuan carrot sticks and celery stalks with olives and blue cheese dip in the middle of the table, another heartland touch, as were the mints at the door and $1 coat check fee posted on a brass plate at the checkroom.) We took most of our steak home, and it tasted just as odd sliced and seared next day. Maybe we’re just used to better beef everywhere these days, but this was downright peculiar. Do they store it too close to the mutton? WIGB? Not if you paid me. I don’t remember it being that bad, but then the last time I ate in the dining room I think was after 9/11 when I did a piece for the NYTimes on vintage restaurants thriving in a shattered city. Too bad you can’t eat the 1885 scenery.

New York minutes/Latish August 2009

The good: Joseph Leonard in the West Village, where my consort and I headed after the seriously hilarious but profoundly sad “In the Loop” at IFC and where the experience was nearly as good as the movie, odd as that sounds. We got a table in the window on walking in when it was half-empty, and if the width of the table coupled with the brayers next to us made talking a bit of a strain, that was a small complaint in a place so small and so new. They got about everything else right, right down to the Molton Brown in the rustic bathroom with the typo-ridden ode to writing over the toilet. Veltliner and Rioja were $7 a glass, with a taste pour to start. Bread was a choice of onion brioche and sourdough. Waitress was excellent, and her constant smile did not look forced. We split the $8 peach salad (with arugula, Cheddar, croutons and sunflower seeds), which we both liked but wondered if riper fruit would have balanced the acidic dressing better. Bob had very tender lamb T-bones with cauliflower gratin (for $20); that meat turns my stomach but this was worth braving a taste. But I really scored with the $11 duck rillettes, easily the best I’ve had in this country, not least because they were served at the right temperature (not fat-cold) with three huge slices of toasted bread (why does everyone else skimp?) and pungent Dijon mustard. And they packed up the half I left over to take home for a sublime breakfast next morning. WIGB? If we can get in. (No reservations.) 170 Waverly Place at Grove Street, 646 429 8383.

The sad: Resto in Murray Hill, where I stupidly suggested we head after the Greenmarket when the humidity was so thick it was like swimming up Park Avenue while dodging all the goddamn kamikaze bikes that have so quickly overrun the car-free lanes. Fat guy at the front jumped up to seat us from whatever he was doing at a table with another couple, but I wish the waiter heading our way had arrived first, because the couple just behind us got a four-top away from the hyenas in the back corner while we were wedged at a deuce in the din, with no AC aiming my dripping way. Which would have been okay, but the waitress was dumber than a post. I sickened myself by uttering the words “egg sammy,” but it turned out to be pretty good, once I got past the fact that the “souffléed eggs” bore a striking resemblance to the firm square an Au Bon Pain guy once waggled in my face at LaGuardia when I ordered a breakfast sandwich. How can you go wrong with hollandaise, guanciale, Gruyere and a superb English muffin, for $8? Poor Bob was not so lucky, even though I gave him my half-dressed greens. Shrimp and grits was a lot of fuss and very little food for $15: four shrimp, maybe half a cup of Anson Mills with a poolette of sauce and two slices of fried green tomatoes that could have been fried green anything. An hour later he was hitting the peanut butter. WIGB? Unlikely. He had to wave his card wildly for the check, twice. And neither the fat guy nor anyone else said a word as we walked dejectedly out.

The oy: La Carbonara on the Chelsea-Village border, where I will have to take the shit hit for suggesting 10 of us meet for a very young friend’s birthday. Insisting on a table in the back room where my consort had had a great experience with a similar-sized crowd was one mistake after not updating a reservation made for 8, which meant we were crammed in with another big and rowdy table. Which would have been tolerable if the waitstaff had not been justifiably pissed. The food was decent, although none of it lived up to the promise of the seasoned ricotta served with the good bread. My carbonara was spaghetti in a blizzard of cheese and eggs when a dusting would have sufficed, and the “pancetta” looked much scarier next day when I served it to The Cat WCTLWAFW, who of course scarfed it right down. I didn’t try Bob’s chicken cacciatore, but his mozzarella appetizer was quite good. Tiramisu did not exactly vanquish my hospital memories of “tiralisu” in Turin, no matter how happy everyone else was. I also didn’t keep a good eye on the wine ordered or would have been more adamant we stick to the low end, particularly with the Italian whites. As it was, jaws dropped when the check came out to $47 a head. In a joint chosen for $9.95 pasta. WIGB? I hope not.

The adequate: Pacifico in Brooklyn, where we settled with a mini Winston Churchill in tow on a brutally hot night and where the faintly Key Westian ambiance compensated for pretty lame food. The hostess let us sit outside with the verboten stroller, which was above and beyond and halfway compensated for one among us getting her hands besmirched trying to stabilize the picnic table. I had the most expensive thing on the menu, “crabcakes with chile relleño,” and all you need to know about the quality of the star in that sad show is that the whole thing cost $14 (with [allegedly green chile] rice, green beans and pico de gallo). Rosé was $6 a glass, which seemed great till we got home and remembered a whole bottle of the same Spanish wine is $6.99 from PJ’s. Bob’s margarita was pretty good, though, and we did get to sit outside. Overall, we were much happier to be there than at the “pop-up” restaurant we passed coming and going where a bunch of people who had schlepped from “as far away as the Upper West Side” were paying big bucks to eat froufrou food inside, away from the starlit sky.

New York minutes/Late November 2007

The good: Dean’s, where my consort and I headed with two friends to discuss the meaning of death in the superb “No Country for Old Men.” We got there just before 10, but the host was happy to seat us and the waitress was amazingly patient as we dithered over what to order; best of all, there were only a few tables still occupied and it was as quiet as our living room (if much warmer next to the oven). We shared a surprisingly excellent multi-cheese square pizza with mushrooms, a too-big salad with arugula and lentils and a small order of average fried calamari, plus a bottle of nero d’avolo, and the bill was about $35 a couple. WIGB? Soon, but on the late side. The pizza was even great the next day. 215 West 85th Street, 212 875 1100.

The bad: Cafe Frida, where I think I swore I would never go back and where I was of course spotted by a friend walking past. Never, it turns out, is not as long as you might think on this end of the island — I had almost succumbed to City Grill for a quesadilla when I thought I could walk just a bit farther and maybe at least get a glimmer of Mexican magic. I should have left when I saw three tables waiting for food at very late lunchtime, or at least when I saw the three tiny quesadillas are now $13. But my feet were failing me, so I suffered tired, cracked tortillas around slimy cheese and shiitakes, with a tiny ramekin of bland salsa and a side dish of mostly chayote with a tiny bit of the promised spinach and corn. Even without the din that drove us away for what we thought was for good, the mystery is why a hostile clip joint is still in business when earnest Jacques-Imo’s is being dismantled right next door.

The reliable: Les Halles, where we took refuge from turkey overkill and where we got the usual expertly done food with just slightly more addled service. The place was packed with people whose size would bar them from Barneys, and with huge family groups taking photos, so it took a while to get a waiter’s attention. But the steak frites with salad for $17.50 was as excellent as it always is, and the “hachi parmentier de canard” was like a French shepherd’s pie with truffle oil for perfume. The read and butter are top quality as well. Four dollars buys a whole pot of coffee, and Bob happily drank it all. WIGB? Any Saturday for post-Greenmarket lunch. 411 Park Avenue South at 28th Street, 212 679 4111.

New York minutes/Latish November 2007

The sublime: Chola, where I wedged my way in for an early lunch and where the new-to-me hostess immediately led me to the only open table, even though it was a four-top. The buffet seemed even more generous, with several excellent regional choices and a couple more chutneys than I had never seen before, but the usual three appetizers also arrived eventually. The place was swamped, with sit-down diners and stand-ups queuing with foil trays for takeout. But even surrounded by chaos, with waiters buzzing past, tucking into an overloaded plate there with just-baked bread was still like being transported to one of the best food countries on earth. 232 East 58th Street between Second and Third, 212 688 4619.

The ridiculous: Zocalo in Grand Central, where I resorted at an odd hour in an off neighborhood and could easily understand why so many people sitting at the other tables and lumbering past were so huge. I ordered the fish tacos and was presented with two very thin corn tortillas topped with four slabs of battered cod, each the size of a Taco Bell burrito, plus a honkin’ heap of slaw. There was no way to eat them right; each was enough food for a small village. They came with decent beans and rice I didn’t touch, preceded by a big bowl of weird-texture chips and bland salsa. I can never forget the cockroach big enough to saddle I once saw strutting through that area, though, and freaked when something (I know not what) hit my head shortly after I left the table. WIGB? I’m a slow learner, but. . . .

The halt: Toloache, where I met a friend for lunch and where the same waitress, same oven mistress, same menu etc. were all in play as on my last visit a week earlier but where almost everything was perceptibly less than perfect. The wineglass was slightly crusty, the rice was just slopped onto the plate, the black beans were whole rather than mashed. The huitlacoche quesadilla was still good, though, and the shrimp tacos were daintily superb. The waitress gets points for remembering me; it’s just too bad the kitchen didn’t remember how to get it absolutely right without the owner around. WIGB? Probably. When it’s on, it’s on. 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.

The lame: Mermaid Inn, where I met a downtown friend now from the neighborhood who felt as compelled as I did to try a new addition. We got there around 6, when the nice-looking room was pretty empty and very quiet, and left around 7:30 with our hands over our ears after the music had been cranked up to wake-the-dead volume. The fried calamari in the appetizer we shared was cut fat but quite tender and had a nice sauce, then she just had a fish soup that was topped with a huge slab of bread while I did my best with the thickly sauced salt cod cake on frisee. Two bites of either and the exploration was done. The freebie dessert also seems to have suffered in the move; that little chocolate pudding was as rigid as a breast implant. WIGB? Inevitably, given that it is close by, affordable (including the $37 bottle of Naia verdejo) and is still better than so much around it. But never late. 568 Amsterdam Avenue near 88th Street, 212 799 7400.

The charming: Perbacco, where friends in from Chicago treated me on a birthday and where the friends-of-the-house service, cozy room, unusual menu and warm mood more than compensated for slightly slimy gnocchi with sausage. I tasted a couple of the shared appetizers, though, and both were excellent — polenta with Fontina and truffles, and a spinach-Parmesan pie — as was the lasagne with impossibly thin layers, although the friend who ordered it thought it was dry. We had prosecco to start, and I finally got a chance to try grecchetto, a wine I had been tempted by for a story in Italy last summer. WIGB? Maybe, although, even if you are not paying, cash only is a drag in that neighborhood. 234 East Fourth Street between Avenues A and B; 212 253 2038.