New York minutes/Late April to early May 2012

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?

New York minutes/Early May 2008

The not too bad: La Palapa, where I wound up at late brunchtime after the Saturday market when I literally could not trudge another step, let alone the few blocks to Cabrito. It’s not much of an excuse, but I still think I did better than I would have if I’d stayed at Wildwood with the fat tourist at the next table almost in my lap and the cheesy music blaring and the waiters so oblivious and the patent bogusness of the place so palpable. The chorizo in my cheesy eggs had zero flavor, but the $9.95 plate came with decent guacamole and a big slab pond of black beans, and the three salsas helped. WIGB? Stranger things have happened. 359 Sixth Avenue, 212 243 6870.

The not too horrible: Rohm Thai, where I stopped for a quick, cheap lunch rather than my usual queso fundido fix after the Wednesday market. The host and waitress were excellent, and the place is reasonably attractive, but it would be a stretch to describe the food as any better than mediocre. “Sauteed” duck off the $9 lunch menu was really a few hacks of a crispy breast, a dollop of bland peanut sauce, a big heap of rice and a lot of broccoli florets and carrot coins with no perceptible taste, only texture. A salad was included and maybe should not have been: a leaf of iceberg lettuce, a few carrot strips, a mushy tomato slice and a tidal wave of sweet dressing. WIGB? Maybe — my consort’s office gets takeout often, so it’s possible I just ordered badly. And how many Thai restaurants offer duck as an alternative to chicken, beef and tofu? 27 East 20th Street, 212 228 7681.

The hellish: Cafe du Soleil, where I stupidly led a friend who wanted to eat outside on one of those glorious evenings recently and where the usual bus fumes, traffic noise, pooping dogs and other sidewalk nuisances were supplemented by the most astonishing performance ever by a howler monkey. I got there first and chose a table next to a really old couple, not realizing they were just finishing, let alone that a kiddy ride was just outside the picket fence. By the time Donna arrived, an older guy with a trophy baby had taken their place, and two human larvae were shrieking to the incessant tune of “It’s a Small World After All.” Before long the 18-month-old with the huge diamond earrings in her pierced ears was joining in the symphony, and the more the show-off dad — and what was apparently his son from an earlier marriage — ignored her, the louder she got. Donna was more perturbed by the other parents, who were blithely ignoring the chaos on the ride, but even she finally had to say she would offer to help the dad but knew she would wind up holding the kid. Which would do neither of us any good as we tried to drink away our dejection over her ridiculously undercooked salmon and my slimy duck pizza. (Who knew fake mozzarella now comes in smoked flavor?) It got worse, too: the father actually stuck the kid in the stroller and pushed it out to the curb, then walked away as if abandoning her. Which of course only made her scream louder. Only the intervention of another mom now letting her own kid ride wild calmed the baby down somewhat. If I were the investing type, I would be putting all my money into psychotherapy clinics. Some seriously fucked-up kids are going to need all the help they can get. WIGB? Never at feeding time for the privileged and the oblivious. The bread, olives, wine and waiter were all fine. 2723 Broadway near 104th Street, 212 316 5000.

A tale of two cappuccinos: The Sheep Meadow Cafe charges $4, uses paper cups and plastic spoons, requires self-service (and busing) and lets you sit as long as you like. Bouchon, in the dread TWC, charges $4.25 plus tax and tip, uses real china and silver, has a hostess and waiters (one a live ringer for a character in the original “Office”) and lets you sit as long as you can resist the steady upselling and finally the subtle but very effective hints that your welcome is now officially outworn. So which one had the better beverage? Maybe it was a case of no expectations, but the one in the park actually surmounted all the strikes against it. Bouchon’s was scorched. Of course, life is a series of tradeoffs. As my date at the Sheep Meadow notes, the bird shit was free.