Picture yourself on a couch in the lobby of the Whitney after the kick-ass, so-urgently-political Biennial, and you’re trying to find a place to have a nice (not stand-up-in-a-stall-at-Chelsea-Market) lunch and Yelp is no help as you back-and-forth on restos you both like but have been to way too often. And then it comes upon you that Cookshop gets so much Twitter love and is just a High Line walk away. The last time I was there was with another professional eater, and I suspect her ears are still ringing from our brunch. But my consort and I landed right before 2 on a Wednesday and got a table for four in the back where we could sit side by side and not yell even a little bit. An hour later we walked out pretty much wanting to RT everyone who touts the hell out of the joint. We split an order of tempura-fried squid that transported me back to my best meal in Torino last summer, at a seafood resto in the great open-air market, where I had the perfect combination of fresh seafood and precise cooking. The little, light, just-salty-enough rings were laid over lemon aioli, so we got to dunk when you needed to, after appreciating the freshness and the frying. Bob’s lamb sausage sandwich was also world-class if messy, with the not-gamy-at-all meat stuffed into a bun between black olive aioli and pickled cucumber slices and teamed with faultless French fries. My asparagus “casserole,” though, was just what i deserved for ordering for $15 what I could have done at home for a coupla bucks: blanket a few spears with a sludge of melted cheeses. Coffee, though, was outstanding. Rosé? Ditto. WIGB? Not at crunch time, but absolutely.
The good: Elizabeth’s near us, where my consort and I wound up after the amazing “Argo” when the Mermaid Inn had a 45-minute wait on Social Media Monday and where we were able to walk right in, sit right down and have a couple of glasses of wine and way-above-average food in relative quiet. Both of us had been wondering why we hadn’t been back, and it was so worth the revisit, not least because the place itself is so attractive. I just had the crab cake appetizer with apple-fennel salad as my main, and it was so generous I took home one of the two heavy-on-the-lumps for next day. Bob was thrilled with his roast chicken, juicy and flavorful and surrounded by watermelon radishes and fingerling potatoes in sauce. WIGB? More often, for sure. It’s not cheap for the neighborhood (the crab cakes were $15), but you definitely get what you pay for.
The good and cheap: Land Thai on the Upper West Side, where Bob treated me to lunch after we waited an hour and a half to vote and then my ballot was repeatedly rejected by the scanner. He suggested Seasons, but I figured we should keep walking south for far better food in a nicer room at a lower price. Nine bucks is quite a bargain for jungle curry and spring rolls even if the latter are a bit greasy. Bob was just as happy with his shrimp overkill: first soup, then pad Thai. WIGB? Anytime. Anxiously awaiting the new Mexican two doors north.
The not bad: Kefi on the Upper West Side, where I hooked up with a friend camping out on a couch across town after the hurricane when it made more sense for her to come to me than for me to ride the bus twice across the closed park. She seemed satisfied with her lamb burger although it looked rather cooked-to-grey to me, and we both loved the array of spreads. Best of all, the waitress was fine with us taking our time ordering our wine as she wrangled tables with moms and kiddles, nannies and kiddles, bizguys doing biz. WIGB? Definitely, especially now that I know the Health Department has made it clean up its act.
The port in a storm: Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side, where I suggested a friend in from Connecticut doing errands nearby meet me on a gray, gloomy and nasty-wet day when we could use a little transporting to Salzburg. Unfortunately, everyone else had the same idea, so we waited about 45 minutes for a table, but at least we got a good one with a park hint. I was quite impressed by my crepes with smoked trout, which had been rolled up like Austrian burritos, and Mary wasn’t complaining about her sausage; we both liked our gruner. WIGB? Not soon. The waiting was the hardest part, and so many other places have opened nearby for ladies who lunch.
The vaut le voyage: Phayul in Jackson Heights, where we met up with a few friends from our adventurous-eating group for Saturday lunch. Years ago I remember Bob making a date with a GQ writer with whom he’d worked and us meeting at a Tibetan place because at that point I “don’t eat Chinese.” He was baffled, but this proved there is a difference. One connection had eaten there before, so he knew to order two types of momo (dumplings), potato and beef, plus the “bread,” and everyone else chimed in on a chicken dish, a pork dish, a blood sausage dish, a tongue dish, a cucumber-peanut-chile salad, a soup with beef and radishes, and a potato dish with julienned strips stir-fried with ginger and chilies. Six of us did a pretty good job cleaning all those small plates for $17 a head. The servers could not have been nicer, although none of us thought to ask them to close the window that had half the table eating in coats. What mattered was the kitchen, and it was clearly cooking everything to order with serious care. WIGB? Probably not only because there are so many other places to explore — we passed three other Tibetan and/or Nepalese places as we wandered the neighborhood afterward.
The typically well-done: Eater’s awards party, this year at the Bowery Hotel where, again, both food and wine were so easy to access and the crowd was all worth engaging with (aside from the short real estate lech who cornered me). A nice touch was the check-in list on tablets, rather than those silly clipboards with 50 pages of teeny type the girls in their little dresses need to flip through. I had great buttermilk-fried quail and a short rib “meatloaf” but will have to note that some of the other dishes seemed straight out of Monty Python. Not sure what to think about a meat doughnut . . .
The good: Sel et Gras in the West Village, where my consort and I headed partly because it was close to Jeffrey’s Grocery, where he was having work drinks, but largely because the name is so enticing. The place turned out to be teeny, an odd sliver of a bar/cafe, and loud, but they kindly seated us oldsters at an awkward but relatively quiet table, and we soon had nice glasses of rosé and some chickpea-battered and fried “market” vegetables with a chutneyesque tomato jam. Duck rillettes came with beer mustard and excellent pickled turnip, and we finished with an excellent croque madame, cut into thirds, each one a perfect layering of ham and cheese and sauce mornay topped with a fried quail egg. I was most impressed on my trip to the train-size bathroom on hearing the kitchen — it sounded not like a bar’s but a top chef’s. WIGB? Absolutely, although I have to take points off for the phrase “diminutive degustation” on the menu.
The reliable: El Paso Taqueria on the Upper East Side and Luke’s Lobster on the Upper West Side, again. The first was the right place to head after the cafe at El Museo del Barrio looked too cafeteriaish, and the second loaded almost too much lobster on its buns. (BTW: The current show at the museum is kinda baffling but includes some great food-related pieces: Barbados cookie cutters with a literal sharp edge, black-and-white photos that include one of “three-meat stew” and an absolutely wonderful collage entitled “Uncle Sam Wants Your Surplus Fat” by an artist with, it turns out, an equally wonderful back story.)
The seriously good: Shanghai Asian Cuisine in Chinatown, where my consort and his studio manager and I took a lunch break on their run to the storage space down in the old NYPost building near the Seaport that would make a perfect setting for a remake of “The Shining.” I’d picked the tiny place from a Robert Sietsema rave, and the soup dumplings were everything he promised, perfectly made and with great flavor. As were the steamed dumplings filled with greens, very delicate texturally but intense-tasting. We all thought the mock duck was way above average, and the noodles with a kind of meat gravy were fine. But the fried pork dumplings turned out to be what we’ve all most craved ever since — they made me realize how rare those are when done to greaseless perfection. WIGB? Absolutely. Everything was in the $5 to $7 range, and the whole staff actually seemed happy to please us. 14A Elizabeth Street, 212 964 5640.
The not bad: Sezz Medi up near Columbia, where we trotted after a excellent morning seeing the Pete Souza Obama photo show at the Schomburg Center and touring Alexander Hamilton’s Grange before Bob had to be at school to coach aspiring journalists. We wanted fast and good, but sit-down, so we ordered without really thinking. Decent if a bit grease-sodden fried calamari and zucchini arrived in minutes, but my BLT took so long we had plenty of time to argue about why anyone would order such a thing in an Italianesque restaurant. It was okay, and came with fine fries with garlic, and really was a lot of food for $8. But I think six pizzas came out before one sandwich. WIGB? Maybe, if we found ourselves stranded in that neighborhood.
The great again: Hunan House in Flushing, where I met a few members of the best little eating group I’ve ever connected with and where we ate ourselves smart (I think with seven or nine dishes) for all of $20 a head. All I wanted was the smoked duck, but the group went for a different version, with dried turnips and white pepper (aka chilies), and I had no complaints. That kitchen is definitely not afraid of heat. The lazy Susan was spinning, with dan dan noodles and pumpkin cake and pickled Hunan cabbage flying by, but I was most impressed by the (comped) winter melon with black beans and chilies, the braised beef with chilies and black beans and especially with the Hunan mustard greens. A whole fish, though, just tasted muddy to me (you are what you eat, and grain doesn’t cut it). WIGB? Absolutely, but now I want to try its sister restaurant, without the hourlong ride. 718 353 1808.
The mostly good: Tertulia in the West Village, where I connected with friends in from Philadelphia after being warned on the phone that it would be tough to get in because it was Beard Eve but where we were instantly shown to a great table. I was a little worried by the grease/smoke smell hanging over the whole room, but the food was outstanding: eggs stuffed with smoked cod; mushrooms on toast with (allegedly) smoked ricotta and pine nuts; ham croquettes, and grilled asparagus with poached egg. I only tasted a bit of the chocolate-sea salt tart and the crema catalana. Service was a bit distracted, but it was Beard Eve . . . WIGB? Anytime. Despite the tumblers that always make wine taste as if it came from a hose. 359 Sixth Avenue near Waverly Place, 646 559 9909.
The worth-the-journey: Fort Defiance in Red Hook, where we landed with another couple on our little expedition to a different neighborhood that also involved Key lime pie (good but not life-changing), then excellent iced tea at Baked plus samples of just-distilled rum at an open house at Van Brunt Stillhouse. We had our maiden voyage through an Ikea beforehand, after the free Saturday ferry dumped us right there, and must have carried away some of the craziness that comes from too much choice, because we looked at every other eating option before heading back after leaving our names and being told the wait would be 15 minutes. So we walked in and sat right down, in a quiet table in the very back, and soon were being seduced by the cocktail list. My spritz was not bubbly enough but was the right choice to go with a huge fluffy biscuit flooded with sausage gravy alongside poached eggs that just needed Tabasco; the guys succumbed to excellent Ramos gin fizzes that didn’t play so well with either granola or Bob’s kick-ass grillades and (Anson) grits, with what must have been a very large calf’s cheek in lively sauce. Joanne’s omelet looked like an omelet, though. WIGB? If I lived closer, for sure. The room, the service, the mood were all just right. And while eggs out scare me, the menu promised safe sourcing. 365 Van Brunt Street, 347 453 6672.
The oy: Fairway, in what I call the flagship store, where we met friends who now have a 14-month-old for an early dinner on a Friday that I figured would last about an hour. I think we almost closed the place down, with very little of that time spent eating and drinking. Plus the pizza was the worst ever, just slopped out. The parents were smart, though: they brought mooshed-up fish and vegetables for the daughter. And she at least got to get up and walk around while waiting. And waiting.
The not-terrible: Osteria Cotta on the Upper West Side, where Bob and I landed after the very smart “We Have a Pope” and where a sidewalk table, even under scaffolding, made up for mediocre food and ditzy service. Caponata bruschetta suffered from the tasteless main ingredient; pizza verdure was soggy and wan, and the endive and watercress salad may or may not have had actual Gorgonzola in it. The best part was when the waitress brought my second glass of wine and it was half-full. “Oh, I guess I took it from the bartender too fast.” WIGB? Maybe. But not anytime soon.
The regrettable: Calexico’s taco cart, parked across from Madison Square in one of those Bloomberg triangles where I stumbled upon at least a dozen mobile vendors assembled in some sort of promotion through June 1. I’d walked by the cart before, but the line reminded me of our friend Leslie Wong’s memorable line about New Yorkers: “The more they get fucked, the more they like it.” On this Wednesday it was no shorter, but after checking out the other options I decided it was worth the wait even with Roberta’s right next “door.” Now can someone please explain to me why I thought carne asada was the filling to go for with mad cow loose in the land? Or what in hell the rubber chunks billed as skirt steak really were?
The totally good: Perla in the West Village, in the space that was our great friend Rolando’s magical Bellavitae, where we headed after I met my consort post-”Jiro” at IFC and where the wait was worth it, not least because it’s such a great corner on which to cool heels, with Amy’s Bread and Murray’s Cheese just across Sixth Avenue. We came back with heels cooled and bags full to be seated at a lovely booth with the most attentive service. And awesome food. Even Mr. Sprat agreed our shared foie gras tramezzini with pistachios and cherry were exquisite. And we both scored with garganelli with tripe and guanciale and with cavatelli with pancetta, egg and pecorino; both the portion size and the balance of flavors were faithfully Italian. But what made this a resounding yes to WIGB? was the service. Superb. 24 Minetta Lane, 212 933 1824.
The pretty good: ABV Wine Bar on the Upper East Side, where I lured Bob on a night when we both needed a diversion and when the prospect of a walk in the park followed by interesting food paid off big time. The place, in a long-abandoned brownstone, is a bigger spinoff of a tiny bar that opened not so long ago on Park Avenue, and the whole experience was like eating in Brooklyn. We snared seats at the bar and soon had interesting wines and an explanation of the name: (A(cohol) B(y) V(olume). We split a basket of decent fried smelt with how-can-you-go-wrong sriracha-tobiko sauce to start, then quite good gnocchi with root vegetables and mushrooms and then two scallops buried in cauliflower cream with cremini. A salad of bitter greens with banana-walnut butter, oats and shallot vinaigrette coulda been dessert. WIGB? Absolutely, but only on the early side. I suspect it might get loud later. 1504 Lexington Avenue at 97th Street, 212 722 8959.
The good again: The second-floor cafe at MOMA, where we settled in after the kick-in-the-head Cindy Sherman show with a friend in from DC and where the food/service/setting again matched the museum quality. Kainaz and I were hungry earlier than the breakfaster who’d had oatmeat with egg, tofu and sriracha, but Bob indulged us, so we were able to beat the line and get a nice spot at the window counter. We split the excellent bruschetti (cauliflower, mozzarella with olives, hummus with prosciutto and arugula), then rigatoni with pork and fennel in a tomato cream sauce (needed salt), salad with bresaola, candied pecans, dried cranberries and blue cheese, and the always-good mushroom tart. It did add up ($77 with 10 percent tip), but the guy who paid agreed: It was worth it.
The great with an asterisk: Excellent Thai in Flushing, where a friend in an eating group lured us for a Sunday lunch meet-up and where I got a refresher course in the payoff in letting go. With 12 at our big table, I just sat back and let the leader lead; he was the one who lived in Taiwan and who had sussed out the owner’s Burmese roots and homed in on the unusual offerings on a menu encompassing Thai, Malaysian, Burmese and Yunnan. So it was one dazzlement after another: Yellow tofu salad (made from peas, not soybeans, and much richer-tasting) with a spicy sauce. Tea leaves salad, like nothing I have ever tasted, with both crunch and heat. Shredded pork with bamboo shoots, which the outstanding waitress said we could not like (the shoots were kinda funky, but in a great way). Sautéed sweet potato leaf, which could have been anything but was perfectly done anything. Green beans, crunchy okra and baby eggplant Belaran, in a rich curry sauce. Beef with ginger and scallion, though, was perfectly cooked and greaseless but tasted like something you could get anywhere. The fins-down winner, though, was the whole fish steamed in chile-lemon sauce. It had flavor down to its essence — Le Bernardin would have a hard time improving on it. All that came to about $28 a head with tax and tip. WIGB? No, for only two reasons — without a guide through the menu, lunch might be pretty ordinary, and then there is the little issue of Hunan House being just a couple of blocks away. (Compromise: Eat elsewhere and pick up a smoked duck to take home.) 3650 Main Street, 718 886 8972.
The half-goods: The Tangled Vine and Ditch Plains on the Upper West Side on a Friday early evening, where and when we shared wine with a friend who knows her way around a happy hour but had never been to the kiddle kraziness uptown. She was worried we would be turned off by the B rating at the first stop, but I have to say that was the least of my worries heading in and heading out — when I would have awarded an F to the “servers.” Gruner for $6 a generous pour, a table overlooking the sidewalk and pretty great chickpea fritters otherwise added up to a WIGB: Yep, but only at happy hour. As for the second stop, a place I’d sworn off since an abysmal experience at Landmarc in the dread TWC, I’ll say I don’t regret the revisit. The place was overrun with human larvae, but we were sort of shielded in a booth, and the food was distracting (bland deviled eggs jazzed up with sauces from Buffalo chicken wings). WIGB? Oh, why not?
The dispiriting: The newish Jackson Diner on University Place, where Bob and I headed for lunch after the accountant near the Wednesday Greenmarket and where I knew on walking in the door how I would feel on exiting. But I also knew he needed to eat, and fast, so I shut up and loaded my plate with poorly fried pakora and bland “curries” and then sat and waited for (pretty good) naan to eat it all with. Tandoori vegetables tasted better than I expected, if sweet and gloppy, but the whole experience was just unsatisfying. I have never once gone back for seconds at the buffet at Chola, where the room is not papered with “don’t waste food” and other warnings. But here I debased myself, desperately seeking satisfaction. Then both of us hit the intestinal inflation wall at the exact same minute. Even though the people were so nice, and the room so pleasant (we two got a booth for four), WIGB? How do you say “emphatically no” in Hindi?
The seriously good again: Momofuku Ssam in the East Village, where my consort and I met another food-obsessed couple via the Twitter for a Sunday lunch that was even more invigorating than my two previous weekday indulgences. We were there before the door opened at 11:30 so of course got a nice table (and, I learned later, a waiter who Tweets, too). The four of us shared everything, which meant I tasted excellent sweetbreads I normally would spurn (prep them once or twice and you will, too) and the spicy sausage and rice-cake dish, as well as lively pickled vegetables and a pear sorbet brilliantly accessorized with pumpkin, cornflakes and blue cheese. All the duck — rotisserie, dumplings, pulled sandwich — was of course perfect. The only letdown was apple kimchi with bacon and maple labne, which amounted to ingredients talking past each other. WIGB? Can’t wait. 207 Second Avenue at 13th Street, 212 212 254 3500. (BTW: We all went down the avenue afterward to Vandaag for the exceptional coffee in that rigorously designed room; the cappuccino was one of the best I’ve ever had on this continent.)
The transporting: Il Buco Alimentari in Nebulousnabe, where we fortified ourselves with Saturday lunch before a time trip through the amazing Merchant’s House Museum nearby and where the history was nearly as palpable (wood from the way-back machine). Seeing a whole porchetta on the rotisserie in the theatrical open kitchen made the panino irresistible, and it was a juicy/crunchy/tender marvel on just the right bun; pickled vegetables on the side only made it seem more of a deal at $16 (Porchetta’s is of course sublime and much cheaper but without the creature comforts). We shared the $14 insalata di cicoria despite my resistance to Scalia anchovies for their name alone, and it turned out to be one of the rare enjoyable bitter salads, with almost sweet Treviso radicchio tossed in and crunchy fine bread crumbs over the top. And $14 grilled sausage over Umbrian lentils had real nuance; fried sage leaves and sweet onions were grace notes. As the server warned, the coffee needs work; even with way more than a cloud on the macchiato it was bitter. (We stopped by Colombe later just to compare and now suspect, though, that taste is not what’s cutting into business; it’s probably more the scene.) The market in the front is quite nice, too, although we managed to get out without buying anything. WIGB? Absolutely, at least for serene lunch. I’d guess it might get loud at dinner, with all those hard surfaces. 53 Great Jones Street, 212 212 837 2622.
The satisfying, again: La Mangeoire in Midtown East, where we landed after being warned of a 45-minute wait at the Smith after an opening of New York in Color with a friend’s work at the Howard Greenberg Gallery on 57th Street. The $38 white from the Languedoc matched well with both Bob’s intense coq au vin with mushroom-bacon sauce and my pork roast (first time I’ve ever ordered that, and my reward was super-tender thanks to the server actually asking what temperature I wanted). And the anchoiade, olives and oil with the bread basket were just gravy. I’ll admit it was a little sad to see Christian Delouvrier and think back on Ruth’s bedazzled review in his $30 soup days, but his cooking has lost only the flash and price tag, not the style and substance. WIGB? We may never make it to the Smith. Add in no din and the option of downsized main courses and it’s definitely worth the journey. 1008 Second Avenue near 53d Street, 212 759 7086.
The over-the-top: RedFarm in the West Village, where we left my name and of course got a perfect little table and no end of comped food from gregarious Eddie Schoenfeld; we only had to wait as long as it took to pick out three new salts at the Meadow down the street. Thank allah we kept a receipt, because it really was more dishes than any cranial sieve could retain (he at least did the smart thing and said: “Take a taste and take it home”). We chose good shu mai shooters (two for $7.50), huge and slightly overwrought crab and duck dumplings (four for $12), exquisite vegetable and chive steamed dumplings (four for $8), noodles with both Dungeness and rock crab ($27) and sublime okra and eggplant yellow curry ($17 and enough to keep me from succumbing to mediocre Thai again for a long, long time — this had at least six kinds of vegetables in addition to the excellent stars, and the sauce was all nuanced flavor). Forced upon us were killer soup dumplings with truffles; strange but irresistible eggplant “bruschetta” topped with smoked salmon and caviar; mushroom spring rolls; amazing barbecued Berkshire pork belly; the $39 like-buttah Creekstone prime rib steak with the best baby bok choy I’ve ever stuck an implement into, and two desserts: chocolate pudding and a “fruit plate.” The kittybag was damned heavy on the way back to the C train, and we ate from it for three days. We also shared a $32 bottle and two $16 glasses of an ideal wine for Joe Ng’s style of cooking, S.A. Prum “Blue” Mosel riesling (Joshua Wesson did the list). WIGB? Can’t wait, although I may sneak in with a bag over my head. But that might mean missing out on Eddie’s entertaining tales. 529 Hudson Street, 212 792 9700.
The “good luck to them”: Left Bank in the far West Village, where we met one of our favorite people, in from Veneto, for a great long, long Sunday dinner. We reserved at 6:30 to try out the “happy hour,” which sounded so much more respectable than “early bird,” but were only able to take advantage of the half-price, half-assed Aperol spritz ($6) because Diego didn’t get there by 7 for the three courses for $20. Dinner was still a steal: I had outstanding potato gnocchi with pumpkin, black pepper and pecorino, almost like spaetzle, for $17; the guys both had the superb juicy-crisp roast half-chicken with capers, cornichons and dill for $21. (Usual sneakiness: Sides are sold separately.) We also shared a pretty great rendition of brandade with warm toast and olives for $10 and a lively bottle of grillo from Diego’s second home of Sicily for $36. Service and the room were both fine, too. (Even though we got the worst table in the house, right under the speaker with nothing but #RIPWhitney — by the end of the night I was starting to realize why she needed drugs.) WIGB? No question, if it lasts. I know we’ve eaten there before . . . 117 Perry Street at Greenwich, 212 727 1170.
The dispiriting despite the design: Cafe Centro in Hell’s Kitchen, where we ducked in just for cheap sustenance at a sunlit table on our way to the must-see Loving and Weegee shows at ICP. Warm, salty chips and decent salsa were too easy to fill up on, which was lucky because the rice and beans with my lukewarm cheese enchiladas merited no more than one bite each. Bob ordered tacos with carnitas cooked in Coke and we were both glad he had resisted the mahi ones; these were overfilled and hyper-sweet, but things coulda been worse. WIGB? Why do restaurants get better on Ninth as you head south?
The pretty good: Columbus Tavern, where we stopped in for something different after the pitch-perfect “Win Win” at Lincoln Plaza and where we would have been mostly happy even if we’d not been comped a rather wan cheesecaky dessert by the owner. The din level was blissfully low, for starters, and the waiter was almost embarrassingly polite and attentive. Plus the food was way better than you’d expect: My consort’s cooked-right hanger steak came with a Snowdon-size heap of creamed spinach plus slightly limp but flavorful onion rings and three sauces on the side, unnecessary but worth the calories. I just ordered the house salad, since we’d shared a vat of popcorn at the movie and Bob had ordered the duck fat cashews as soon as we sat down, knowing my addiction to all things duck (verdict: the fat adds nothing but richness to oily nuts, especially when they’re overspiced). And that salad was completely satisfying as an alternative to a Caesar, with avocado, cucumber, radishes and tons of herbs. The “biscotti” the sweet waiter delivered were actually biscuits, okay on their warm own but even better with lemon-rosemary butter. Too bad the 30-year-old chef’s creativity and attention to detail are getting hammered by the crappy wine selection. I tried two whites, Bob two reds and all four fought the food. WIGB? Absolutely, although we’d been torn between Fairway and something new, and Fairway has nearly comparable food plus much cheaper, better wine if not as nice a setting. 269 Columbus Avenue near 73d Street, 212 873 9400.
The not bad: Osteria Cotta, where a friend and I headed in despair after contemplating the bleak choices in Chelsea after her son’s second showing of his sushi documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival (she wanted Company and I couldn’t find a bank to rob). Our cramped table in the back was at least quiet enough that we could almost hear each other, but otherwise it felt like the last seat in the plane near the bathroom and galley, with a constant stream of servers/runners/busboys slamming past. The grilled (actually skillet-charred) escarole salad with grape tomatoes and pecorino was as good as she and others had promised, and if the margherita pizza was more soupy than crisp, I ate my two slices happily. The tocai was also decent and fairly priced at $8 a glass. WIGB? Sure. Location, location, and Bob has to try it because it’s just a walk away. 513 Columbus Avenue near 85th Street, 212 873 8500.
The not bad: Spice uptown, where I met another friend for an early dinner that stretched for three hours and where the patient staff never hassled us, maybe because we wound up spending nearly twice as much on (crappy) wine as on food (and the food came to all of $11 apiece). Meatless spring rolls were sloppily assembled but cooked right, and if my duck-lettuce wraps did not live up to my first encounter with them they still amounted to a heap of decent filling. I didn’t try Joanne’s vegetable green curry, just listened to her yelp at every bite (from heat, not meanness). WIGB? Sure. The price is right, and the people are so nice. 435 Amsterdam Avenue at 81st Street, 212 362 5861.
Quick hits: I finally succumbed to Cafe Frida uptown for a snack at happy hour, and the quesadillas with chorizo were surprisingly decent although what I washed them down with was total shiver wine, perfect for watching the Good Friday procession pass by with the squad car and so many religious observers texting away. El Paso Taqueria across the park is getting kinda grimy but consistently has the best Mexican deal in town if you’re into cheese enchiladas with tomatillo sauce: $9 for three good ones topped with onions with black beans and rice. But Rickshaw Dumpling, where I stopped off for something quick on the way home from a drink with an editor at the snack-free bar in the “Shining”-evoking Eleven Madison Park, reminded me how low mediocre can go. My first complaint will be my last: Maybe the cooks could take a little more time and get it right? My order of sad duck dumplings was ready before I had even finished paying.
Also, too, I’m too lazy to go into all the details here, but we had great experiences at Cafe 2 at MOMA and at Cafe Sabarsky at Neue Galerie, which is especially transporting after dark.
The surprisingly good: The Astor Room in the landmark Kaufman Astoria Studios, where four of us were lucky enough to land after a great couple of hours at the Museum of the Moving Image across the street when Pachanga Patterson did not appear to be open and M. Wells was too far and too overcommitted with a 40-minute wait. I had low hopes, seeing the half-empty if hugely atmospheric room (the old actors’ commissary), but it was the first day of Saturday brunch, and the promise of free Bloody Marys (or mimosas) certainly sounded seductive. And these would have been spectacular at any price, thick with horseradish and each tall glass topped with both a lemon wedge and a caperberry. We passed plates, so I can vouch for my consort’s jerk chicken and waffles (juicy, perfectly fried breast and leg); Diane’s spinach and goat cheese omelet with, as billed, “robust flavors” plus accompaniments of both roasted potatoes and salad; my own lump crab melt with avocado and tomato under a blanket of melted Fontina, and Len’s “Astor Disaster,” a crazy-sounding but very harmonious layering of French toast, barbecued short rib, bacon, poached egg, Cheddar and onion rings. Who cared that the fries with his and my order were just industrial? The bill, with one coffee and a Lavazzo espresso, was all of $55 before the tip. Lagniappe: The chef, a David Burke protégé, came out to chat. WIGB? Absolutely. What better double bill for the Alain Resnais program at the museum? And the fried oyster and egg sandwich looked pretty enticing. 34-12 36th Street, Astoria, 718 255 1947.
The good again: Elsewhere in Hell’s Kitchen, where we stupidly assumed we’d have the room to ourselves after 8 after a work drink for a story and where the half-hour wait was well worth it. This time we were seated in the “garden” room, which was also a plus. We split popcorn with “bacon butter” to start, so I could finish only part of my portobello sliders, awesome as they were: mushrooms grilled like beef, topped with Fontina, layered in brioche with lettuce and “green” tomato that looked more yellow, and teamed with spicy remoulade. I could swear Bob made me taste tender lamb on polenta or grits, but it doesn’t appear to be on the menu now. WIGB? For sure. This is the new Theater District, with serious cooking in the hours when restaurants are usually dark. 403 West 43d Street, 212 315 2121.
The not bad: Piadina in the West Village, where friends lured us back for the “cheap and awesome food” despite our recollection of the namesake dish tasting like quesadillas in an Irish Catholic orphanage (hint: like communion hosts stuffed with scraps). And they were quite right. The room was charming, the salad was satisfying and my $14.50 garganelli in cream with peas and a plethora of prosciutto proved to be outstanding. I didn’t taste our friends’ food, but they seemed happy, so I’ll assume Bob’s watery orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe had to be an aberration. Points off, too, for the dismissive service. I will never understand why, if times are so tough, so many waiters just clear wineglasses and plates without asking: Hey, suckahs — want anything more? WIGB? Maybe. It was pretty cheap. (More points off, though, for cash-only.) 57 West 10th Street, 212 460 8017.
The apparently forgettable: Superfine in DUMBO, where the Bugses and we headed after hearing Gabrielle Hamilton talk about her memoir at Powerhouse Arena and where we were able to walk right in and sit right down and hear each other, which was key with Dr. B p*ant-gearing up to appear on the Colbert Report next night. I was a little unnerved on passing the pool table on the way in, but it’s a pretty nice space. And the reds we ordered were pretty good and affordable. Otherwise, I know there were steak frites and grilled mahi passed around, and I had decent pasta with goat cheese, broccoli and pancetta; the fourth dish has escaped my cranial sieve. WIGB? Possibly if we wound up in that neighborhood on a cold night again. Otherwise, Hecho en Dumbo on the Bowery is calling. . . 126 Front Street at Pearl, 718 243 9005.
Quick takes: Luke’s Lobster on Amsterdam came through yet again with meaty, overstuffed, thoroughly satisfying lobster rolls for all of $15 apiece. Fedora in the West Village came through with a totally transporting bar, the best argument for preservation (I could almost see Dawn Powell knocking back a few stiff ones there). And Terrizzi in Astoria delivered as a total trip, the one bakery we dared walk into after passing so many that looked so industrial. Sfogliatelle seemed Naples-worthy, with flaky dough and a sweet ricotta filling, and it came with character from the elderly woman in charge. She said we could find something like it in “The City.” Maybe. But not with her salesmanship.
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.
The believe-the-hype: Zero Otto Nove Trattoria, where my consort and I headed after his photo shoot with an exhibit designer at the Bronx Zoo and after the press contact who gave us a lift to the closest gate in his little zippered train raved about it. Good thing it was so great, because Bob was schlepping a heavy bag with tripod and light bank plus his camera bag and we did some walking: 10 blocks to the restaurant, with a stop at Borgatti for some hand-cut pasta and a box of ricotta ravioli and stops afterward for Milan-level espresso at a cafe down the street and the cheapest Illy espresso in town at Teitel Brothers. When I did my Arthur Avenue piece for the NYTimes seven years ago, I tried enough restaurants to know the neighborhood is a shopping, not eating, destination; our lunch at Roberto’s was underwhelming. But the owner of that place has done everything right here — the design is more LA than NYC, and the pizza is so much better than you will ever eat in Italy, land of the sodden crust. Hospitality in the sit-down joints up there is always wanting as well, so we did not storm out when the bartender idly watching one of the two big-screen teevees acknowledged us by saying, “It will be a few minutes for a table.” Pressed on how many minutes, he persuaded us to take stools at the bar. And it felt like seconds later that we were tucking into a perfect arugula salad topped with shaved Parmigiano and an individual pizza topped with the weirdest combination on the long menu: potatoes, sausage and smoked mozzarella. The crust was very different from Co(mpany’s) but still kicked that overpriced effeteness’s ass. (Extra points for coal oven, and speed with which the thing arrives and is still cooked through.) WIGB? Can’t wait, but never for dinner. If there’s that much attitude and wait time at lunch in a place that takes no reservations, I can’t imagine what it’s like when the working world flocks in. 2357 Arthur Avenue, 718 220 1027.
The pretty good: Recipe, where I met a friend I have been neglecting through this long annus horribilus because it was her choice and where the food and service were so much better than early reports had threatened. Plus it was a deal: $9.95 for appetizer and sandwich or $11.95 for appetizer and main course — so I had the former (dainty duck confit spanakopita [singular] set over spicy foie gras oil with exactly one leaf of arugula, an olive and I think a grape tomato, followed by an attempted cheese steak sandwich with potato chips that tasted too much of duck fat, whether they were or were not fried in that easily funked medium). Nicki did even better with the special heirloom tomato salad followed by the crispy duck confit with assorted vegetables. I was kicking myself in my own leg for not ordering that. WIGB? Yep. But again, not for dinner. This place makes Land Thai look like Tavern on the Green, space-wise. 452 Amsterdam Avenue near 82d Street, 212 501 7755.
The overwrought: Nios, in the Muse Hotel off Times Square, where four of us headed after a book signing at ICP in search of a quiet corner and imaginative food. (I’d read Patricia Williams conceived the menu, and her cooking is always worth checking out.) It was just before curtain, so we had the place nearly to ourselves, which may be why the service was so herky-jerky (emphasis on the latter half of that description). We split three slivers of cheese at 5 bucks a pop plus a plate of jambon to start, and those should have been a warning that no one in the kitchen knew where the brake was — each sliver came with a mound of sweet accent, while the ham that should stand alone was teamed with cornichons, pickled peppers and (excellent) creamy horseradish. The bread basket was just as copious. And my sheep’s milk gnocchi ($12 appetizer as main course) were doing valiant battle to be heard over asparagus, toasted hazelnuts, arugula, peas etc. Bob ordered the bison-bacon meatloaf, also excellent if overkill, although the sides of whole shiitakes and potatoes deserved their place on the plate. I didn’t try the fresh pasta or the arugula salad (with green goddess dressing) or the smoked mozzarella sandwich (which came with a salad of its own, a fact the waiter could have pointed out), but they looked good. We shared a bottle of a biodynamic Spanish red that took the waiter some time to find, and when it was finished he just reached in and grabbed glasses as we kept eating (did I mention we had the place nearly to ourselves?) And it all would have been great if not for the music. On my way to the bathroom I saw the receptionist in the hotel lobby had a tiny dog with her, and I wondered if it goes nuts listening to that incessant, mindless techno-thump all night . . . WIGB? Probably — it’s one of the few places in the wasteland where you can talk even with the crap music. 130 West 46th Street, 212 485 2999.
The promising: The new cafe at El Museo del Barrio, where I was rewarded for listening to an hour of congratulatory speeches about the dramatic renovation of the museum with the best tamal I have had in burro’s years. This was everything tamales rarely are: light but dense, flavorful, nicely balanced between cheese filling and masa, teamed with excellent if mild salsa (made for the cafe by the farm that grows the tomatoes). The promised duck chimichurri empanadas that had lured me to this press event were replaced by rather leaden ones filled with chicken molé, though. But I confess that I went back twice for more of the salsas, both green and red, served with tortilla and plantain chips. The Great Performances honcha I was introduced to noted that her chefs are largely Hispanic and were especially excited about this cafe; the one who was serving the tamales deserved to be proud. WIGB? Definitely. Not only does the new cafe have courtyard seating right across from Central Park but the menu looks enticing and the exhibits in the museum itself are superb. They’re less about Latinos and more about a universal love affair with New York. Fifth Avenue at 104th Street.