New York minutes/Early July 2009

The always great: The New French, yet again, where five of us managed to convene without remembering it was Gay Pride Day after two had just been to “Food, Inc.” and still wanted the amazing cheeseburger (as did a third). I had the house-made sausage for the first time, which was unsurprisingly outstanding although the greens with it were overly sweet and underwhelming. And the fifth among us was very happy with the salmon salad. We also shared a suspiciously generous pizza bianca topped with runner beans and ricotta (as I recall). Plus rosé. Part of the reason we go back over and over is that this is such a deceptively serious restaurant. When I asked about the curry, which I’ve never had, the waiter took his time describing it, then when I wondered about the sausage, he squatted down to ear level to really describe it well. And everything is done with such care, right down to the sliced caperberries that one friend was so captivated by in the huge salad. 522 Hudson Street near West 10th, 212 807 7357.

The not bad: Num Pang Sandwich Shop, where I dragged my consort after he expressed a craving for a bahn mi and I didn’t remember he’d had the real deal in Saigon (not to mention in New Orleans East). The Cambodian version is rather ordinary by comparison. But it was a cheap lunch on a gorgeous day in Union Square: I had the roasted cauliflower with eggplant and he the pork belly with pickled rhubarb, both on good bread and dripping with chile mayonnaise. We didn’t really need the corn slathered with that same mayonnaise and dusted with coconut, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t finish it. WIGB? Maybe. The people were nice, and the service was fast. But we’ll try Republic’s first. 21 East 12th Street, 212 255 3271.

The entertaining: The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, where we had to stop for a chocolate-dipped cone after our al fresco dejeuner. The balance of ice cream to chocolate was perfect because the latter component does not harden and shatter. It was mostly worth the $3, though, for the show and routine. First he was so busy chatting that the ice cream plunged off the cone into the hot chocolate, then he told us he also plays the reeds so ice cream cannot take all his time. Thanks to the weird weather, this is the best summer ever in the city of be-all-you-can-be, and an enterprise like this just makes it more so.

New York minutes/End of February 2009

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

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

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

New York minutes/Late January 2009

The good: Kefi, where my consort and I met great friends for an early birthday dinner and where their shock at the inflated wine prices in the new location was offset by the superb service and unexpected freebies. We got a relatively sheltered table in the cacophony (only in Strollerland would an 8 o’clock reservation be on the late side), and the waiter was outstanding. He sold us on a $48 bottle of “Red Velvet” to start, and poured it as judiciously as a waiter would in Paris. Our orders of the assorted spreads, grilled sardines, Greek salad, sheep’s milk dumplings and Greek sausage with pita were supplemented by the kitchen’s beneficence of grilled octopus and meatballs. We even got a comped dessert topped with a candle, a wedge of semolina cheesecake in filo sauced with quince and candied orange peel. WIGB? Late and often. 505 Columbus between 84th and 85th Streets, 212 873 0200.

The sad: Harry’s Cafe, where we stupidly agreed on Inaugural night to meet a friend who lives nearby, on the assumption that “Jump, You Fuckers” would be watching the teevee. Instead, the joint was sleepy, maybe six tables filling all long night long, and the only screen was in the busy bar. But our food was pretty good, both Bob’s frisee salad with egg and bacon totally reinvented and my copious portion of duck confit on white beans with portobellos and haricots verts. We didn’t try Kevin’s cod special but were happy enough with his choice of wine, a $40 red Bordeaux that was substantially better than the red Bob chose in the low $30s. So much for the cheapest wine on a great list; this one obviously caters to people who order by price. At the high end. The waiter, though, was spectacular. WIGB? Maybe. Not much happening down there these days. You don’t even have to watch for falling bodies. One Hanover Square, 212 785 9200.

The pretty good: Bar Boulud, where we toasted my actual birthday and where we were both thrilled not to be squandering the usual 300 bucks in some swank clip joint. Thank allah we got a table in the front, near the window, because even though I reserved (in a friend’s name) the “hostesses” wanted to shunt us to the jammed bar in a room that looks like a French train station. The paté “Grand-Pere” with foie gras and assorted meats was sublime, although the toasts that came with it were charred and poor Bob had to intercept the stressed waiter at a nearby table to get a second round of them. It was so great, in fact, that neither of us could finish even half of our main courses, not my rather desiccated monkish with blowaway “super green” spinach or Bob’s hyper-rich coq au vin with fat lardons and hand-rolled pasta. Our arbois was excellent with both of those, although I’m not sure I needed the sommelier to slap me down when I ordered our starter glasses as “Champagne” —  I know Cremant is just a sparkler and would have said it with a lower-case C if I had known he was in a superior mood. I also can’t remember the last time I saw busboys and runners who looked more defeated. WIGB? Absolutely, next time we’re leaving a movie and looking for a snack and a great glass of wine rather than a meal. The crowd is a trip; the tab was half the price of a visit to the vet with a geriatric Siamese. 1900 Broadway between 63d and 64th Streets, 212 595 0303.

The always good: The New French, where a friend and I adrift at an odd hour after the Bronx Museum wound up after having farts blown in our general direction at Company and after bailing on realizing we had landed in a “Sex and the City” bus tour at Spice Market. (I refuse to eat anywhere people are wearing sunglasses indoors. In winter.) The place was empty at around 5, so we got a nice corner table and soon had $8 and $7 glasses of Italian white, followed by two of what really are the best cheeseburgers in the city.  Neither of us could come close to finishing the heap o’ fries that comes with. WIGB? Absolutely, even though I inadvertently hurt the owner’s feelings by declining comped wine. The cooking and service are holding up incredibly well. 522 Hudson Street at 10th Street, 212 807 7357.

New York minutes/End o’ June 2008

The great: The New French, yet again, where we headed after Werner Herzog’s latest at prime time on a Saturday and where we were fortunate enough to arrive with just long enough of a wait to be distracted by excellent sparkling rose in paper cups out on the sidewalk. Some of the scariest words you can hear on entering a restaurant are “party of 12 ahead of you,” but the kitchen and the staff were more than up to the punishing challenge. Four of us split the pizza bianca of the day (two cheeses with roasted peppers) and stole forkfuls of the beet salad with superb dressing, then passed around the excellent braised lamb, pulled pork sandwich and top-grade Nicoise (well, I made it that by ordering tuna rather than salmon or beef). My consort scored highest with the special fish, seared skate over corn and bacon etc. He said it sounded like Bouley Bakery’s, but it was at least five times better. We also overindulged in desserts, a ginger creme brulee and berries with lemon curd. They know me now, but I don’t think the service was affected, and I did appreciate a table against the wall rather than out in the room, because it does get loud. Especially when four friends are arguing about a movie only one thinks is totally brilliant. WIGB? I think I’m moving in. 522 Hudson Street, 212 807 7357.

The good: Bouley Bakery, where we coincidentally wound up for brunch the day after the skate and where the halibut was perfectly fine but not what it once was, which is just like the place. The market floor where the bathrooms are was pretty funky-smelling; the carpet on the stairs was pretty beaten down; the whole room had a seedy aspect (napkins stuffed into vents to stop drips?) But the energy was still there, even late on a Sunday when the cooks have seared about enough burgers. I had the wild smoked salmon over rosti potatoes, which was immensely satisfying even though the arugula strewn over the top was past its prime and the caviar was the kind my dad used to use to catch lesser fish. And Bob’s halibut was the same as it ever was, pristine fish cooked just right, set over coconut milk with shiitakes, corn and peas, the latter seemingly straight from the Birds Eye farm. Service was outstanding, and there could be no better place to be during two serious thunderstorms, with those windows looking out onto those old buildings. The funniest part was that we had to wait for a table late in service while the new incarnation of Duane Park Cafe a few doors away was pretty much empty aside from a hostile broad at the “hostess” stand. And this was after we had actually decamped from a table at the new Fish Market at the Seaport because the bartender was overextended and some broadette in a tight black dress refused to acknowledge customers. I was fried by the time we got there, but the destination was more than worth the long walk north through hordes of lumbering tourists. And not just because we got to watch some blonde young thing plow through a steak, eggs, toast, potatoes and a huge side order of sausages a couple of tables away. Made me wonder if her escort realized that what looks like a lusty appetite at 25 is obese gluttony at 35. WIGB? Maybe. The host/waiter was outstanding. 130 West Broadway at Reade Street, 212 608 5824.

The promising: New Amsterdam Market, where Bob and I schlepped for different reasons and where we both hoped the Fulton Fish Market can find a second life. The food on offer was impressive, and not just because it was the right mix of Greenmarket familiarity and off-island artisanal imports. We bought Bouchon bread with rhubarb and pistachios after sampling a bit, and ground veal after just spotting it (I needed it for a story) for only $3 (Unholy Foods gets $7.99 a pound for meat of murky origins). Flying Pigs was there, so I was able to get pork for work reasons as well. Bob tried his fill of amazing cheeses, but I could have gone through two or three more times with toothpick in hand. And both of us put Peasant on our restaurant agenda after tasting the razor clam salad/ceviche being portioned out on razor clam shells. What was most intriguing is that I spotted exactly one other professional eater there. Hope they can get it off the ground, but it is much more Ferry Plaza than Union Square, and the tourists just to the west are mostly of the Disney World variety — I can’t remember when I last saw so many hippos lumbering past in short shiny shorts bunched at crotch level.