New York minutes/Early March 2011

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.

New York minutes/Mid-October 2009

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.

New York minutes/Late April/Early May 2009

The always good: The New French, where I guiltily went to re-calibrate my appestat after the Wednesday Greenmarket. A-plus for Cheddarburger, fries, rosé and service. Would have given my compliments to the chef on the way out, but he was doing what chefs so rarely do: Cooking his ass off at peak lunchtime. 522 Hudson Street at 10th, 212 807 7357.

The not bad: Bar Artisanal, where I hooked up with my consort after the book party down below and where the pluses outweighed the minuses, maybe because the Boss Man was on the premises, in his whites. Manchego “beignets” were a rip, four little deep-fried dabs on long skewers for $9, but the $16 seared cod with cockles, chorizo and potatoes was actually big enough to share and the $15 tartiflette “pissaladiere” was a generous slab richly topped with lardons, potatoes and Reblochon. I had a half-glass of Brachetto at the bar while waiting ($7) and felt happier with a full glass of $9 Verdicchio at the table. The place looks pretty grand, but the hostess told Bob it was one restaurant one night and this one the next, so credit where credit is due. 268 West Broadway at Sixth Avenue, 212 925 1616.

The promising: Centrico, where I was a bad guest at a decent book party and where the passed apps and the margarita made me think, yet again, I have been remiss in never investing in a full meal there. Crab tostaditos were irresistible and the little meatballs . . . spicy. Bartenders were great; it was all almost enough to make me forget my one ignominious night cooking in the teeny kitchen there when it was 211, back in the last century. 211 West Broadway, 212 431 0700.

New York minutes/Early July 2008

The ideal: Fairway upstairs, where a very motley crew of us assembled to appease some who hate fish, some who were bored with Italian and Mexican and one who wanted mashed potatoes. We walked in around 8 on a Thursday and immediately got a round table for seven and an accommodating waiter and good food at a great price (although I doubt that the Atlantans and the Illinoisans would agree on the latter). I just had the pizza with prosciutto and arugula and a few bites of my consort’s perfectly executed (for a change) skate and a forkful of my littlest sister’s daughter’s Caesar. Everyone seemed happy enough with the chicken schnitzel and skirt steak on the great-value special menus, and I will never complain about sauvignon blanc that cheap. Plus we could hear each other talk. Most of us, anyway. And for some reason, the 20 percent service included struck the outlanders as a bonus. 2127 Broadway at 74th Street, 212 595 1888.

The serviceable: Spice, where five of us took refuge in a drenching rainstorm when we set out to explore the Greenmarket at Union Square and two of the out-of-towners balked at Rosa after having tried the Atlanta branch. The place was deserted for a change, and the staff could not have been nicer. I got a noodle-free pad Thai that was gloppy and good with lots of smoked tofu and vegetables, after the crispy spring rolls, and none of us could finish our food (even with the much smaller cup-size of rice shaped in a Madonna bra). The bill with tip was $44 if that says anything — I think I spent that much on produce four blocks north once the skies cleared. 60 “Universal” (University) Place, 212 982 3758.

Also, I was not invited to the celebration of the unholy marriage but would still have chosen to trek to Tribeca to another party the same night. The chef is engaging as hell (despite his lineage), his partner’s no dummy and the pastry chef has credentials to spare (Blackbird impresses me more than the Big E, though). The space they found looked great, too, but that might be because the Sancerre-filled wineglasses were the size of Prada chalices. I only tried a little of the food, but even this chicken shunner was impressed by the deep-fried nuggets. WIGB? Soon, I hope.