New York minutes/Early January 2010

The seriously good: Cafe 2 at MOMA, where (I forgot to mention) my consort and I fueled up between the great Bauhaus and whimsical Gabriel Orozco shows and the scrum that was the Tim Burton. The place is civilized, the staff is actually hospitable (even when a manager reclaimed a stool we’d unthinkingly pilfered from a reserved table, he did it graciously) and the food looked and tasted amazing. We split an $11 panino stuffed with prosciutto, cheese and arugula and a $12 wild mushroom-wilted greens tart dolloped with robiola; the former came with excellent pickled cauliflower and olives, the latter with a huge mound of mesclun and grape tomatoes. Both of us could only marvel at how far museum food has come over the last few years. Coffee, of course, was excellent. Maybe I should quit ragging on Saint Danny. He does do things right; it’s not his fault he’s the restaurateur who stares at goats — it’s the media’s for swooning at his every move. WIGB? Absolutely, next time I can get my nerve up to brave the hordes. It took me years to get this far (I’ve been to the Modern three times, I think, but this was my first venture inside the museum.)

The pretty good: Marseille and West Bank Cafe, also in Hell’s Kitchen. Five of us snared stools at the packed bar at the fully booked cafe on 42d Street after a Saturday matinee of Part 2 of Horton Foote’s “Orphan’s Home Cycle” (friends’ daughter is in all three parts), and the bartenders were great waiters when we ordered the (overpriced at $12) cheese plate, mushroom risotto balls and calamari with two good dipping sauces, plus a lemon mousse for the starlet. Sauvignon blanc was $10 a glass but came in a glass big enough to float a goldfish. Mom and Emily went back to the theater for the evening’s performance while Dad and my friend from Philadelphia headed to Marseille a few blocks away for more substantial fare; amazingly, we were able to walk right in and get seated, and the place stayed busy all evening, which of course resulted in very distracted service. I had forgotten my reading glasses but could sort of make out a frisee salad with blue cheese on the menu, and it was a huge thing, with almost dairy overkill along with too-vinegary slices of pears and lots of walnut halves. Both guys seemed to like their salmon main course, although they agreed the accouterments were almost better than the fish. They finished up with a huge bowl of berries and good whipped cream and a creme brulee. Best part of the meal, though, was the bread, which didn’t have a lot of sturdiness but was flecked with what I think were cumin seeds — outstanding. 630 Ninth Avenue at 44th Street, 212 333 2323.

The good by hearsay: Remi in Midtown, where I have twice sent old people who have sent back rave reviews of both food and, especially, hospitality. I may have to go back there myself someday. . .

The not bad: Market Cafe in Hell’s Kitchen, where four of us headed for proximity’s sake on a frigid night after “Avatar” at the spooky AMC on 34th Street and where the accommodating staff and decent food made up for my qualms about the bathrooms. The host uncomplainingly moved us to a warmer table after we stupidly tried one in the window, and the waiters were all efficient. My Caesar was pricey at $12, but it was perfectly made, with good dressing and just the right amount of croutons — and of radicchio, which I despite (two or three shreds, just to keep the menu description honest). One friend ordered the same thing, and she got all the stems of the Romaine, while I got the leafy tops. Kitchen oops. I didn’t try Bob’s chicken or Dr. Bugs’s skirt steak with pesto and fries (both deals at $19), but they seemed happy. Viognier was unobjectionable at $8 a glass. WIGB? Probably. It is a wasteland around there. 496 Ninth Avenue near 37th Street, 212 564 7350.

The forgettable, apparently: A Voce Madison, where an editor and I retreated when we agreed we shared zero tolerance for the attitude at The Breslin, which was swamped at 12:30. The cavatelli with tons of garlic, broccoli, toasted bread crumbs and ricotta was outstanding, although a ridiculously huge portion for a primi, but I would not have remembered eating there if I had not just gone back through my Tweets. Maybe I was blanking out the annoying hotel-lobby music. Or the annoying service — after turning down wine, we were asked at least twice whether we wanted soda or iced tea, and when we asked to have the food split to eat Italian-style, in courses, they just presented both entrees with small share plates. I had hoped trout, which always tastes like the grain it’s fed, would be redeemed by the anchovy vinaigrette, but the roasted potatoes with it were the best part of the dish. Chocolate budino was intense, though, with candied kumquats and ice cream. The room seemed unnervingly deserted — wonder how it does at dinnertime since all the buzz has shifted uptown. WIGB? Nope. I’d brave the din to the north first.

New York minutes/Late October 2009

The always good: The Mermaid Inn uptown, where my consort and I hooked up with a friend in from out of town and another friend from way uptown after Kefi proved to be horologically undesirable on a Friday night. We sat in the old folks’ pen, which at least provided quiet enough to make our DC friend realize we had traded energy from the front room. As always, the food at the price point was pretty much faultless, although I did suffer serious remorse on seeing the latest incarnation of the skate land before our DC friend and realizing it was about as lame was last time I braved it. Cartilage is trouble. My salmon with lentils and turnips was sublime (at least then — kittybag included only the fish, not the accouterments, for next day). Our shared salad of calamari with cheese and frisee was better than it had any right to be. And of course the newbies to the place were thrilled with the free chocolate pudding and fish fortuneteller. Bob and I split a bottle of Chilean Jimenez sauvignon blanc that we probably would not order again, but what the hell — it was the right place at the right time. 568 Amsterdam Avenue near 88th Street, 212 799 7400.

The newly good: Roberta’s in Bushwick, where I accepted my payoff for nattering on Heritage Radio Network, in the backyard of Hipster Central a long way from the closest subway stop on a weekend when the transit gods were crazy. I followed emailed instructions and waited at the bar even after arriving late and was ready to head back out into the rain when it occurred to me to ask if my hosts had noticed I was on the premises. While waiting to be retrieved, I did have a fair amount of time to study the menu and wonder why wine prices were so high in a neighborhood young friends fled a year ago as too desolate. But all that was forgotten once we took off our headphones and headed to a table. The co-host’s recommendation of a shared Bibb lettuce salad with Gorgonzola and dried cherry vinaigrette plus walnuts was brilliant, and our Crispy Glover pizza with guanciale, egg and mozzarella needed only salt to reign as best pizza of the three I’ve had lately. The price was also right (HRN guests get a food credit), and the company and conversation were beyond worth the journey. WIGB? Absolutely, if I’m ever out that way again and carrying cash. 261 Moore Street, Brooklyn, 718 417 1118.

The surprisingly good: West Bank Cafe, where Bob and I headed in search of cheap/decent after paying $5 extra a ticket for misreading the schedule for “Where the Wild Things Are” on 42d Street and winding up in the Imax theater. The din was deafening as we walked in, but the hostess led us to a table in a glassed-off section too close to the bar, and the waiter and busboy took it from there. I regretted ordering my usual Caesar once all the appetizer options sank in, but Bob shared his excellent chicken with Robuchon-wannabe potatoes plus seasonally appropriate vegetables. The olives and bean spread with bread also took a serious edge off. Two glasses each of wine pumped up the bill, but it was still a serious deal. 407 West 42d Street near Ninth Avenue, 212 695 6909.

The trippy: El Parador, where we wound up after sticker-price and aural shock at all the other possibilities between a photography opening at SVA and the C train home from Penn Station. Lines out the door from Bar Milano north made me nervous until I remembered a friend loved this time-warp, and both of us were astonished at the scene when we entered under a tired awning so far east toward the river: It was packed with young people. The host said it would be a 20-minute-plus wait for a table, so we settled in at the bar and ordered on the cheap side: mushroom quesadilla, sautéed chorizo, shrimp seviche. The salsa was remorse foretold, almost sweet and hinting of Cincinnati chili, but the chips and and bartender compensated. And our “mains” were outstanding. The best part was scanning the reviews posted on the wall on the way out, ranging from the Herald-Tribune to NYPress (by Panchito’s successor). WIGB? Sure. 325 East 34th, 212 679 6812.

And the vaut the voyage: The New Amsterdam Market at the South Street Seaport, once again, where I ate and loved Marlow’s chili, Porchetta’s porchetta sandwich, Dickson’s sausage, Saltie’s eccles cake, Hot Bread Kitchen’s freshly made corn tortilla, plus assorted cheeses. I was not so crazy about Bklyn Larder’s fennel sausage with undercooked beans, and I didn’t brave the longest line, for Luke’s lobster and crab rolls. We also bought a habanero chile from the Queens County Farm Museum and a slab of extraordinary Vermont cheese from Anne Saxelby and Liddabit Sweets’s salted chocolate caramels (Tootsie Rolls gone wild), plus olive bread at a bargain $5 from Sullivan Street Bakery. This market is an amazing addition to the city, and I think it works because it’s neither a free free-for-all nor a gougefest but an ideal blend of  sampling and selling. All it needs is a wine-by-the-glass section. Or at least beer. Next market is November 22.

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/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).

New York minutes/Late November, early December 2008

The really good: West Branch, where I suspect reserving in my name snared my consort and me a good corner table and fine service for an exceptional meal. The Caesar (and I would know) was above average, but my crispy fried quail with potato salad was shockingly good, while Bob’s duck confit with choucroute (and pork shoulder, and sausage, and potatoes) was better than Alsace (small is good). Wines by the glass were fairly priced, the two breads were cheesy and warm, and I disagree with my friend who thinks the room is gloomy. WIGB? If I can ever get in. 2178 Broadway at 77th Street, 212 777 6764.

The satisfying: Mermaid Inn yet again, where we met friends who had had us to a party where of course they couldn’t talk. They live six blocks away and were awed, which says a lot, although I noticed the place is starting to razor away to keep prices down (the skate used to be a bigger wing with potatoes and chorizo and now comes with cauliflower and capers). A special of striped bass with spinach and (unbilled) beans was double-whammied by undercooking of two key ingredients, while the whole roasted fish (once dorade, now always trout) was pretty desiccated although the green sauce and fried potatoes redeemed it. I didn’t try Bob’s shrimp po’ boy, but the fries were excellent. So was our shared salad of calamari, feta and frisee. WIGB? Inevitably. 578 Amsterdam Avenue near 87th Street, 212 799 7400.

The slipping: Toloache, where we dragged friends in from Connecticut who always eat Mexican on Fridays because it was geographically convenient to their luxe lodgings at the Trump hotel where Jonas Bros groupies were grouped as we passed. We started with drinks at the Mandarin Oriental, where the hostess in the main bar should transfer to the TSA at the nearest airport to put that graciousness and efficiency to serious work. (Regular bar redeemed it, especially since our friends sprang for the by the glass priced by the bottle.) At T we did get a table downstairs as requested after a detour to the bar, and apparently I was in the minority on the food. The roja guacamole was great, as apparently were the tacos we mostly split: pork, chicken, veal cheek, brisket, tilapia. But the huitlacoche quesadilla seemed mingy and dry, and the tamal underwhelmed everyone (meat shreds on the side were like jerky; masa was characterless). Beyond the food, the music was hammering loud at an off-hour on a Saturday, and the waitress was obsessed with clearing the table even of water glasses. WIGB? Yeah, because it is mostly good, but I just wonder how long it will stay that way. 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.

New York minutes/Latish September 2008

The good: Wu Liang Ye in Midtown, where I dragged my consort with his queasy Stella stomach after the zooey opening at ICP and where we were both transported (I’ve only been to Hong Kong, and once; he’s been there and to China at least four times on extended trips). I thought of it after reading Ray Sokolov’s piece in the WSJournal, although I have long known Zarela raves about it. And just walking there felt authentic, with mega-cockroaches claiming right of way on the sidewalk and with the requisite stairs to the dining room one flight above street level. We got a table right away, surrounded by roughly 75 percent Asians, and when the buzz-cut waiter snarled at us for asking whether the Sichuan dumplings could be fried (“Fried? You can get fried anywhere!”), we knew we were in good cooks’ hands. The (boiled) pork dumplings were sleek and silky, in a sublimely spicy chile sauce, and the green beans with spiced sauce (pork? onion? both?) were absolutely worth the shocking $14.95. But the winner was the camphor-smoked half-duck, not as smoky-wonderful as one that still haunts me from Hong Kong but very succulent and flavorful and not at all fatty — plus the meat tasted fresh, which is far more remarkable than you might think. Big glasses of wine were around $7.50, and we walked out with enough leftovers for a huge lunch next day for a little over $50 before tip. WIGB? Can’t wait. 36 West 48th Street, 212 398 2308.

The reliable: Toloache, yet again, where we headed after “Burn After Reading” and had our usual satisfying experience at the oven-facing bar watching that amazing cook do her thing so efficiently. We split the huitlacoche quesadilla and the tacos de pastor and were totally happy with food, wine and service. The cat might be away with Yerba Buena etc., but the mice are not playing. WIGB? Over and over, obviously. 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.

The geographically adequate: Stella Maris at the South Street Seaport, where three of us retreated after the scrum around the Murray’s Cheese table at the Edible Manhattan soiree and where we paid too much for too little but were happy to have a sidewalk table despite the racket from the dining room (if the Wall Street meltdown sobers assholes up, it might be worth the suffering). I had just come from a press event and had no interest in more food, but I tasted the tiniest bit of the sausage and the duck confit and was happy that was as far as I went when Bob woke up next morning feeling the room spin. And not from the overpriced wine. Remind me never to order torrontes again, though. That is a grape finding its way in the world. WIGB? Only if I could not crawl farther uptown.

New York minute/Late January 2008

The seriously good: Maze by Gordon Ramsay at The London, where my consort treated me on my birthday and where, by the end, we were both glad to have turned down a reservation in the “real” restaurant. I got there latish to find Bob ensconced at a quiet back table next to the door leading to the inner sanctum, and every time it opened we got a whiff of the dark side — stuffy and rich and coffin-ready. We had silverware excess enough, thank you very much. The whole experience was like being in a baby bistro in France. The sommelier happily steered us through the shoals of the wine list to a gruner for around $50 (“steely,” and he was right), and the waiter could not have been more engaging and encouraging. Even the crowd, heavy (literally) on Brits, acted mellow. We split six small plates at $12 to $16, and only one was a dud, the confit hamachi. The best was the apple-cured duck breast, sliced buttery thin and topped with frisee and crispy duck tongues on one side and a cube of over-the-top smoked foie gras with crunchy amaranth to prolong the flavor on the other. White onion veloute with duck ragout and shaved truffle was also obscenely good, as was the cod crusted with Iberian ham and set over a fricassee of artichokes, chorizo and mussels. Scallops with cauliflower puree and beignets were just as I pictured them, although beets with ricotta and pine nuts looked gorgeous but seemed a little too cheesy even for me. The bread tasted more like focaccia and did not need the excellent butter sprinkled with coarse salt. We passed on dessert but tried the truffles and peanut brittle that arrived with the beyond-reasonable check. I’m glad I ate the former last; the latter had been made with rancid legumes. WIGB? Without even waiting for an occasion. All the way home in the cab we talked about how we had talked all the way home in the cab about birthday dinners at twice or three times the price that were less than half as good. 151 West 54th Street, 212 468 8889.

New York minutes/Late December 2007

The surprisingly decent: Le Mangeoire, where we met friends in from Bucks County who had been there before and rated it quiet and where we had a great evening with some decent food and no aural trauma. The place is a wild throwback to a Manhattan where French ruled — it’s full of knickknacks and posters and Provencal accents, and the menu hits all the right notes. The best part was the option of small or regular entrees; I ordered Muscovy duck with salad greens and got more than I could eat with the former ($19 as opposed to $27). Tiny olives, lively tapenade and olive oil were all served with the bread, and an appetizer of lump crab layered with tomatoes and avocado was outstanding for $13. Mostly we got what we wanted with the noise level — it was too easy to talk right through after-dinner drinks. WIGB? Maybe, for our ears alone. 1008 Second Avenue at 53d Street, 212 759 7086.

The assholey: Irving Mill, where we acceded to going back with a low-key/high-powered couple of friends mostly because we knew it would be quiet and where we left pissed on several levels. They had reserved a couple of weeks in advance through Opentable, which had said only 6:30 was available, and of course the place was nearly empty. Our H.P. friend asked for a booth and was told they were for parties of five or more, and of course we ended the evening at our snug table surrounded by booths either filled with or set for foursomes. Why lie? The servers were idjit noodges, too — the waitress interrupted at will, and the busboy with his silly basket of two choices of bread insisted on disrupting conversation rather than just quietly laying the two pathetic slices on each bread plate. I didn’t see the list, but my consort was freaking that wines were $42 and up. And the food? Big shrugs all around. I ordered monkfish solely for the celeriac puree billed with it and got only a schmear under a mound of red cabbage. (Truffle vinaigrette, you ask? Me, too.) The vegetables with the octopus appetizer were nice enough, but the strudel for dessert was about 15 minutes away from being properly baked. Pretty sad when the giveaway peanut butter cookies get raves by comparison with everything else. Even if every element had been extraordinary, though, it could not compensate for the inherent hostility. Saint Danny can sleep very peacefully these days. WIGB? Not on a strong bet.

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.

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.