Not sure how long I can keep this up, but I’ve surprised my consort on significant birthdays three times now. For the first, I did a decoy duck — told him I was cooking a whole bird Chiu Chow-style (Cantonese with flavor) for just us, let him go jeans-shopping and had friends sneak into our apartment, after which I had dumplings delivered. For the second, fellow graduate students where he was off in Middle Earth coordinated a multimedia extravaganza and all I had to do was orchestrate digital contributions and long-distance-travel invitations and pay for the buffet in a great bar. For the third, I was feeling a bit wan. I gave my own “big” party for myself last time, and it didn’t seem so important. But a friend who is even older than I am prodded me into at least arranging a picnic in Central Park where I would tell him we were meeting a poor, sad friend left home alone on the first weekend in summer but where he would arrive to find a little clot of well-wishers (hard to round up on Memorial Day Sunday). I knew I couldn’t tip him off by making great quantities of food, so we came up with the idea of ordering pizzas. Which you can really do in the park; Bob has always marveled when we see a delivery guy on a bike with boxes heaped high on a Sunday when we’re walking to the Greenmarket down at the natural history museum. It took a bit of sleuthing to find not just a pizzeria that would deliver but one that could deliver pies fit to eat, but I settled on V&T, up by Columbia. And it was so worth it. The expressions on the faces of both the guests and the I-know-I’ll-get-a-great-tip delivery guy were unforgettable (iPhones shot right out). Thanks to the science the wingnuts deny, we were able to have a plain, a mushroom and a pepperoni dropped off at our blankets at 90th and West Drive. We came home with the equivalent of a full pizza, but it froze well. These are the days of miracle and wonder for sure.
My consort and I went back and forth on whether Mermaid’s pizza expansion would be a regular WIGB. On the minus side, the space is just as loud, maybe more deafening, than the original. On the plus side, the service is just as great. OTMS, did the neighborhood really need just-okay pizza? OTPS, the befores are just as good as next door, particularly the bruschetta heaped with zucchini, super-creamy ricotta and pine nuts (the kale salad at least did not promise more than it delivered, as in cavolo nero leaves). The pizza, however, is fine for the neighborhood although I would not recommend traveling to try it. Ours was (sloppily, as in sloped onto one side) topped with fennel sausage, onions and mozzarella, and the crust was the sort that makes you leave bones behind. (Surviving slice was actually better reheated next day.) Back to OTPS, the wine comes by the quartino, fairly priced, and the free dessert is now “panna cotta” rather than chocolate mousse.
Pizza Beach on the Upper East Side has many attractions: a cool setting with oversized color sand-and-water photos on the walls; a jazzy menu; unusually melanin-rich front-of-the-house representation. But I think we liked it best for the birth-control ad down the banquette. We got there crazy-early on a Sunday evening for reasons too depressing to discuss, and we walked in realizing it would all be kiddles. But the hostess seated us at a boothette in the back and things were fine till one of those unhappy rich families who are all alike walked in. It was not as bad as babbies on a plane, but it was annoying when the 2-something went ballistic. Luckily, they moved on soon. And our shared Tuscan kale salad turned out to be outstanding, with the julienned leaves interspersed with pickled red onions and grana padano in a mustard-seed vinaigrette. And while the crust on our pizza did make you want to leave the bones behind (more Piadina than Marta), the topping was sensational, with thick cheese, a generous paving of peppery “salumi” slices and a lavish sprinkling of microgreens to give the illusion of vegetables. The wine list was impressive as well, with 40 wines for $40 and a fair number of those available by the glass for $10 (Falanghina for me, Nero d’Avola and Barbera for Bob). WIGB? Absolutely. Although I have to take points off for the hostess denying us a four-top in the window because she was holding it for a bigger party. We walked past it on the way out to see it sitting just as we had on the way in: Empty.
And now I’m repeating myself: Once upon a time we would have been thrilled to find ourselves just a block or so away from Roberta’s at lunchtime when we could probably have walked right in. But now that you can pass a pizza oven by that name anywhere in Manhattan, the exotic allure dims a bit. Which is how we would up going back to Northeast Kingdom on our outing to “East Williamsburg” aka Bushwick to drop off a chair to be reupholstered. Nothing else in the neighborhood seemed inspired, and we knew this would be good. From the super-peppery bloody mary to the smooth coffee the place delivered, yet again. Bob’s fried chicken sandwich, with a crunchy crust and juicy meat set off against shredded cabbage, probably outdid my burger, which, for all its gilding with mushroom duxelles and caramelized onion, was just okay beef slightly overcharred. The fries with it were fine, though, and Bob’s greens were perfectly dressed. The waitress was superb, and our booth came with a sidewalk view of the exotic street.
That night we had a flawless meal, yet again, at Baker & Co. in the West Village, where we met a friend in from Veneto who wanted to eat light. It was a Monday, so the place was quiet and empty, which was perfect for talking even in the glassed-in garden. As always, the ricotta-garlic spread for the bread started the dinner right. My salad was a marvel of flavors and textures, with tender kale and a showering of ricotta salata over roasted delicata squash rings, with toasted almonds and tahini in the dressing. Bob and Diego had the roast chicken with truffle-garlic fries, as great as it’s always been. And Diego was impressed by the Italian red. The occupant of the fourth chair, in from the Outer Banks, had a pizzetta and a beer and seemed satisfied as well. Beyond the food and service, it’s such a perfect spot pricewise.
And here some notes from various receipts on my cluttered desk: BEA in Hell’s Kitchen proved to be the perfect place for a good 18 people to gather for a drink after a showing of the very moving “Overburden” at CUNY — our reserved area was quiet enough for talking, the servers were superb at running separate checks and the wine was both decent and affordable. Wisely, we did not order any food. Elizabeth’s, the neighborhood standby we keep swearing off, sucked us back in on a sidewalk-cafe evening over the summer; the white was fine and my Cobb salad what it always is. But Bob was loving his lamb burger until he found a sheet of paper in the middle of it. I guess it was the liner between patties, but it was gross. They took the $18 charge off the bill, but still. And I shouldn’t have wasted 10 months waiting to write about the Empire Diner, because the Buffalo skate wings were pretty great the night we lucked into a table. But now they are no longer on the menu since the chef left. It was a “WIGB? Nope” anyway.
Our friend who moved back to Philadelphia from the “restaurant wasteland” of the Upper West Side begs to differ with all the national food media hyping the wonders of her hometown. To her, too many of the restaurants are too much like so many that afflict Manhattan: not just overpriced but dishing up food that she, as a great cook, could make at home.
Given that she runs the Relais & Chateaux where my consort and I would be staying while he was starting shooting on his latest documentary, I was very glad to have arrived with a suggestion off the Twitter for where we should head for our first lunch. And I was even more glad when she was as impressed as we were. Cheu Noodle Bar could be just a Changstamp but puts its own imprint on the menu. As my Twitter pal predicted, I was thankful for the advice on ordering the brisket-matzo ball-kimchi option, with tender meat and unrubbery dough to absorb the spicy-vibrant broth. Joanne’s ramen with braised pork shoulder and egg was more Jin-like; although the broth was not as rich, the meat was sublime. But Bob’s soba with chorizo, queso fresco and snow peas was the simple winner; he’s usually Mr. Brodo but was more than happy with this dry bowl. We also split an appetizer of the special beef-sesame dumplings of the day, beautifully made and cooked. If not for that $9 addition, Joanne could have left a tip of less than $10.
Dinner that night was with her nephew and his girlfriend, whose yelling dog Bob had just filmed, and four of the six of us were all “whoa” on arriving at the restaurant in Old City and thinking we were heading into a gelateria in that “Jersey Shore”-overwhelmed neighborhood. But back in the back turned out to be a very Philadelphia dining room anchored by a glitzy wood pizza oven. Then the owner recognized her friend at our table and stopped to offer suggestions. Which is when I actually started to worry — what if everything sucked? How could I write about it?
That was ridiculous.
All three pizzas we chose were hard to fault, generous even sliced into sixths and with especially good crusts (I usually leave a pile of “bones” on my plate but kept on gnawing). The Ciro had lardo, the San Lorenzo smoked mozzarella and house-made sausage, the Vesuvius good heat (cameras should have a caption function). We also split a stellar “capra” salad of delicate arugula, goat cheese, pancetta and almonds, plus adequate arancini and amazing eggplant “meat”balls as well as a smartly chosen four-cheese and two-salumi board. We did not need the fourth pizza the owner comped us, but we all tucked into it: a margherita gussied up with pepperoni. With two bottles of a crisp and complementary verdicchio, the bill was $186 before the tip. For six of us. We should all be riding Amtrak.
Next day I steered us to the doughnut-famous Dizengoff for hummus: one plain, one topped with fried chickpeas and a third with “longhot hazelnut,” a very fiery green pepper minced with filberts. Each dainty plateful came with a salad of diced cucumber and red onion plus a little bowl of pickled cucumber and onion, as well as just-baked pita in a brown paper sleeve. You have to congratulate a business that can charge up to $13 for meatless meals. We lucked out with a table at that late hour; otherwise, it would have been great to take lunch to Rittenhouse Square a few blocks away.
Our second dinner was home-cooked at the H&J R&C and our last lunch was at a tiny, funky cafe called Lutecia, just a block or so away from my first apartment in Philadelphia. We could have been eating in 1978, too, and I mean that in the Commissary way: lentil soup with coconut milk and saffron; quiche Lorraine; croque monsieur; potato-leek soup paired with a half-sandwich of chicken and tomatoes on baguette. At about $10 a person, it was almost like paying in the Rizzo years.
We also fit in gelato (pistachio plus spicy Mexican chocolate) at Capofitto predecessor Capogiro on 13th Street, which was good if not the best in America as proclaimed by National Geographic. We split a superb little Jezabel’s beef empanada from Gavin’s while walking around once-dangerous Fitler Square. We bought addictive Monkey Crackers at the Reading Terminal Market for the cheese we’d brought down from Murray’s and the aged-two-years prosciutto we bought at Di Bruno Bros. And we had perfect espresso at Nook, where the “small-batch coffee, small-batch baking” sign lured us in.
Joanne may be right with her tepid take on the allegedly hot restaurant scene. But she can’t argue over the improvement on other levels, not least on the booze front. We turned her on to a new state store that is not up there with Astor but at least is centuries beyond the one Bob remembers, the one that had not shelves but a binder full of wines.
The good: Crazy Crab in Flushing, where I was, once again, lucky enough to hook up with my eating-Asian/Asian-eating group and where the arrival in Arrival City was exotic enough — the little “all eat with hands” restaurant is one stoplight away from the mall where the elusive Target resides. As always, I shut up as our unpaid tour leader sussed out the Burmese/Malaysian/Thai/sports bar menu, and we were soon spinning the Lazy Susan to share one carefully cooked sensation after another: silken tofu with spicy-crunchy sauce; fried tofu with both a red hot sauce and a more nuanced spicy brown sauce; tea leaf salad and ginger salad (both crunchy-spicy-fascinating); steamed whole fish in chili brodo (I guessed tilapia, but whether I was right or wrong, I lose); water spinach; Yunnan “spaghetti” (which proved to be rice noodles topped with a ground beef sauce and teamed with a spicy soup to be ladled over), and airy fried Burmese cucumbers, also with spicy and spiced sauces. The last “course” was a bucket of steamed crabs, served with a box of plastic gloves for breaking down the shells.All that still came out to less than the usual $20 a head. WIGB? Absolutely, if there weren’t so many other temptations out there. The owners were so happy to see not just Caucasians but nontourist Caucasians that they first comped us an excellent green papaya salad, then asked if they could take our photo to post to their FB page. Luckily, my back was turned. 40-42 College Point Boulevard, 718 353 8188
The semi-good: King Bee* in the East Village, where my consort and I trotted through the melting-glacier drizzle for something new on a Monday night and where we realized, again, that the new Brooklyn is a neighborhood that once was cursed with drugged-out rich kids who had no interest in food. I reserved Open Tabley, as in my name, and it turned out two of the owners knew me from mass emails with a mutual friend who has, we all agreed, not only gone full wingnut but done so “almost gleefully.” The place is very charming, Brooklyn without crossing over or under the water, and the servers could not have been more attentive. Acadian is what the cuisine promised, but I’m still not sure what that means; it’s definitely not Cajun. TomCat bread with butter ramped up with salt and herbs made a start as good as $9 Roussillon white and red. Cracklings we shared from a brown paper bag probably would have been better hotter, despite the peanuts, cane caramel and malt vinegar powder flavoring them. But the comped shrimp barbecue with creamy potato salad gave us hope — the spicing and its contrast with creaminess made it work. Unfortunately, both our entrees were just strange, mine labeled duck fricot, with perfectly cooked breast and leg paired with dumplings and potatoes in a weirdly flat broth and Bob’s a lamb neck “poutine rapee” that was more dumpling, not what you’d expect. WIGB? Maybe the hosts are awesome, the place is cozy, the price was right (duck was $26, lamb $22). But there are so many other new places to try. 424 East Ninth Street, 646 755 8088 *Damn, I’m getting not just slow but stupid — had the name wrong originally.
The surprisingly not bad: Ninth Ward, also in the East Village, where we met a tableful of friends old and fresh for an anniversary party and where the setting and the cooking were a trip. I had more traditional poutine, with the good fries awash in andouille gravy, and almost didn’t get my plate back when I swapped for Bob’s respectable spicy, tender ribs. Everyone else seemed happy with the likes of burgers and fried pickles and gumbo, and certainly the room was South-transporting (we could all talk, tucked away at a long table in the back room). The waitress seemed stretched thin, and my wineglass did make me feel glad Ebola cannot be spread by lipstick prints, but WIGB? Maybe. It’s right across from the movie theaters where we sometimes wind up wondering where to go for a snack besides Momofuku Ssam or Mighty Quinn’s.
The good and quiet again: Arco Cafe on the Upper West Side, where we steered friends back from weeks of travel and trauma because we knew the food was decent and not bank-breaking and the sound level was civilized. And all three proved true again; we sat for 2 1/2 hours and could actually hear each other in that unique-for-the-neighborhood polished room. We split the light-on-the-fried-artichokes salad with arugula, cherry tomatoes and ricotta salata, then passed around plates of gnocchi with bacon, alisanzas (like pappardelle) with sausage in tomato sauce, cavatelli with broccoli rabe and more sausage and a cacio pepe that could have used some of the pepper in the name. Each was about $15. We paid for our cheapness in ordering wine with a rather thin bottle of Montepulciano, but it was only $33, and the superb server (the same as our first/last visit) poured it right. WIGB? Hope it makes it so that we can, often. Restaurants with respectable food and actual low sound levels are as rare as rednecks at the Greenmarket.
Also, too, the can’t-go-wrong: Xi’an Famous on the Upper West Side, where we ducked in for a quick lunch on the way to the Thursday Greenmarket up by Columbia and where we were, as always, rewarded with snappy eat-it-now-noodles. Bob scored with the lamb and cumin option, which is like Mexico by way of Asia, but my cold noodles were kinda dull, although the spicy cucumbers seemed as jazzy as ever. The price is always right: less than $20. No wonder the chain got a shoutout on Brian Lehrer the other day, as a small business that was able to expand successfully.
The “you don’t go to a bar for food:” BEA in Hell’s Kitchen, where we wound up after popcorn at “Gone Girl” and in search of just a snack and some liquid. We got a booth in the window on that quiet Monday night and soon had $10 and $11 malbec and albariño. Then we made the mistake of ordering pizza, “amatriciana” to be specific. The good news is that it was small for $10, about the size of a paper plate. The bad news is that we couldn’t finish it. It was sauce-heavy and pretty much flavor-free, and if there was pancetta anywhere near it it was undercover. At least the server was amazed that we didn’t want to kittybag the last slices. WIGB? For a drink, sure. The big screens showing old movies add to the experience.
And the shockingly not awful: Flatiron Hall in whatever the hell that neighborhood west of Broadway on 26th Street is, where we landed after hooking up for a Li-Lac factory tour over in Crown Heights, then an SVA photo opening. We had wine at both but no real food, so Bob was getting rather frantic as we checked out menus farther east where entrees started at $30, then Maysville had a 20-minute wait and HanJan was even longer, and he showed no interest in Hill Country, so we settled for what really is a bar. But a bar in the right neighborhood, because the service and food were competitive. Spring rolls filled with Carnegie Deli pastrami and Gruyere and served with a horseradish-heavy dipping sauce made my night for $10, while Bob was more than happy with a clean-tasting “Big Easy gumbo,” heavy on chicken and light on shrimp and andouille but with actually ethereal okra slices, for $18. Wines were not wonderful (Mirassou chardonnay for $10 almost put me off that grape again), but then it was a bar. And it was unsettling when the excellent busboy brought the kittybox in a Heartland Brewery bag. Gulled, we’d been. Still, WIGB? Not likely, but only because that street has so many other options. Bob is hot for HanJan now.
Clearest sign you’re over-Tweeting: You can’t turn up any mention of when exactly you walked through the sheets and towels at Macy’s en route to and from dinner with a view of the Empire State Building. And we really did eat dinner, after a fashion, in a department store. Blame the Insatiable One for her incessant touting, albeit with disclaimers; at some point you just give in and go out, especially on a night when your consort has to be in the creative-food desert that is West Midtown. How much worse could Stella 34 be than 90 percent of the craptastic places on Ninth Avenue?
Answer: If it weren’t for the schlep through the merch, you could actually see making this a destination. From a window table, that view is pretty 1930s NY. And the pizza was surprisingly good, despite the Olive Gardenesque prose selling it (“water meticulously sourced from local wells to match the natural spring water in naples). We chose right, I suspect, with the $18 Diavola: “san marzano tomato, salami piccante, mozzarella, pecorino-romano.” The Cat loved the kittybag.
Unfortunately, the other half of our dinner in a department store, the vitello tonnato, really looked like sliced crumpled calf on a small plate with too much frisée and too little tuna creaminess. Still: wines are served by the quartino ($12-15 for white, $12-16 for red). And the view is pretty great. As long as you don’t look left or right to see who’s at the next table and how much they’re not even Roombaing but Hoovering. WIGB: Not likely with so many great alternatives opening everywhere. But if I were a tourist . . .
My new goal in catching up on endless meals not rated is to grab a receipt off the dusty pile on my desk and just type. And so I’m here to say the Todd English Food Hall under the Plaza Hotel was — shockingly — not bad at all. Which I remember even though that was way back in November. We were in the neighborhood for a photo opening, and my brilliant idea of just dropping in on Betony was thwarted right at the end of the long line out that door. So we forged on and into what felt like “The Shining,” given that the eerily empty lobby floor was only missing Scatman Crothers, now that absentee Russian oligarchs apparently own all the high-priced crash pads on our little island. But once we pushed through the doors into the basement, it was like walking into a 1 percent food court — nearly every stool occupied. Our own private stools were at the end of the pasta counter, where some serious issues were getting acted out, so we were happy to opt for a decent margherita pizza and a “wedge” salad of iceberg amped up with bacon, blue cheese and creamy dressing. Don’t ask why the latter was $17, $3 more than the former. Wines, both red and white, were $14 a glass, but at least the hard-running waiter was there when we needed to reorder. WIGB? Shockingly, yes, if we found ourselves in that food desert again. All diner standards were met: Accessibility, affordability, diversity etc.
Also, too: Apparently we also ate at Chop-Shop in Far West Chelsea in mid-November, too, and the receipt has the deets while what I recall is a place that turns, turns, turns — thanx allah we reserved. Wines were good and wow-priced ($9 a glass for both viognior and nero d’avolo), and pretty much everything we ate was anything but glasian. A special of avocado and tofu summer roll tasted fresh and lively in peanut sauce, the $10 special Thai crab cakes were so generous The Cat got to share next day, while the lamb dumplings made my consort very happy. The one dish we ordered off the menu, the Thai basil eggplant, was off the menu compared with the likes of Spice. WIGB? Absolutely, if in the neighborhood and in the reservation book.
And file this under “Free is a very good price” — After getting stiffed on a high-exposure recipe by a “too busy” “celebrity” chef, I was beyond impressed when Bill Telepan suggested we meet for an interview at noon on a weekday in his restaurant. I anticipated standing around as the grimly wintry local vegetables went flying into sauté pans, but I arrived late and was immediately escorted to a table set for two. Now that was efficiency, even though I had eaten a second breakfast to fuel myself. So my consort’s pro recorder documented my tucking into a fantabulous first course of oozy house-made mozzarella paired with crisp-seared hen of the woods mushrooms, then a main course of good crispy-skinned trout fillets plated with sweet bacon bits and excellent wilted baby spinach with pine nuts. Two hours later I did offer to pay, but my interviewee said a $10 tip would do. And I didn’t argue because my emergency backup $20 bill was nowhere to be found in my bag.
The good: Montmartre in Chelsea, where my consort and I hooked up with friends willing to be early birds to try a restaurant open only a few days but certain to be packed soon and where our rewards started with a nice quiet table downstairs. As always with a Little Wisco joint, the service was attentive and the kitchen was not afraid of flavor or fat. Everything on the menu sounded tantalizing, and the “canapé” of celeriac in a sort of mousse topped with pickled grape sent the right message as soon as we’d ordered. Because we couldn’t order a couple of apps to take the edge off immediately, because it would tax the kitchen, we held off and just shared one, of tiny, tender escargot teamed with great garlic sausage, Swiss chard and crunchy, spicy little crumbs of potato. Our server used everything but the word stew in describing the veal blanquette, and she was right: it was a deconstructed classic, with tender chunks of meat and almost no sauce surrounded by mushrooms and Thumbelina carrots, with a little bowl of sensational mustard spaetzl on the side (looked like fries, tasted like pungent pasta). I only snared a taste of the skate St. Malo, a crisp fillet laid over Savoy cabbage with bacon cooked in Riesling with mustard, so can only say it seemed to make one friend happy. And if my ample portion of fluke was not especially juicy, it was almost superfluous since the creamed leeks and chili-crab sauce with it were so satisfying. We all shared the dessert gougeres, which sounded like profiteroles, with their chocolate sauce and toasted hazelnut,s but were in fact cheesy more than creamy-puffy. The wine list seems pretty steep, though, with the cheapest bottle (the one we chose) at $40. (Entrees were in the mid to high $20s.) WIGB? Soon, I hope. 158 Eighth Avenue near 18th Street, 646 596 8838.
The relatively good: Zero Otto Nove on Arthur Avenue, where Bob and I stopped first on a field trip out of the house on a Saturday and where, as always, the setting — Italo-Disneyesque as it is — represented half the allure. We got there early and did not have to wait long, which was a good thing because the two hostesses were having a severe breakdown in communication. And so we soon had a table upstairs overlooking the skylit dining room, and we had a potato-sausage-smoked mozzarella pizza on that table in the time it took me to get to and from the bathroom. The crust was a little chewy, but the balance of other ingredients compensated. A salad of escarole with marinated eggplant and olives made an ideal dessert; we split a generous glass of okay California sauvignon blanc (someday someone is going to have to explain how pinot grigio came to be the taste of Italy when it is the most insipid of so many whites). WIGB? Absolutely. The “Italian” restaurants have always been more Albanian, but you can forgive a lot in a setting that transporting.
The not-as-bad-as-I-anticipated: Pylos in the East Village, where we met up with a knowledgeable friend with news to celebrate and where I am very glad I was not a total bitch in pooh-poohing it because . . . she paid, even after we definitely over-ordered. I had basement-level hopes for a restaurant that I thought of as a holdover from the days when that neighborhood was a food wasteland, thanks to denizens who were either too poor to eat out or too rich-druggie to care about eating. But the place looks as polished and fresh as when we were there for a press dinner eons ago, we got a nice corner banquette and the food was surprisingly imaginative. The bean spread that came with warm pita may have been having an identity crisis, but two of the three spreads we immediately ordered compensated (the eggplant purée was as bland as the beans; tzatziki and taramasalata nearly reached Kefi level). Saganaki landed while our pita platter was empty, so it congealed while we waited; artichoke moussaka, grape leaves and oddly sweet and slightly chalky gigantes were tepid even at their hottest spots. We shared a whole grilled branzino and somehow got talked into both roasted potatoes and a sensational side of chard and spinach stewed with celery and fennel. Because it was a celebratory night, one bottle of red led to two glasses more — and two glasses sent back because they did not smell corked but certainly tasted wan. WIGB? Sure. If someone’s treating and I don’t mind rushed-to-impatient service and wine bottles stowed on the floor between pours.
The uplifting: Primo Pizza 84 on the Upper West Side, where I ducked in after a screening in Midtown after realizing I was hitting the dead zone between 84th Street and home at lunchtime on a crunch day. I only noticed the tiny place in the last few weeks, so I doubled back to try a slice. The guys who run it were so friendly, the display case so quirky (a salad slice was topped with “lettuce, tomatoes, onions, ranch dressing, American cheese, mozzarella — want me to keep going?”), and the plain slice that needed no reheating was impressive. As I ate it, on a stool at the tiny counter overlooking a bench on the sidewalk, I wondered if the joint could possibly survive, in that too-easy-to-miss location. But the guys who run it seemed to know all the schoolkids and yummy mummies eating on that bench. So as I left, I asked one of the guys how long they’d been open. “A year, a year and two months. We just got the space next door and are expanding, gonna serve wine and beer.” Message: I can pick out an apartment, but do not trust me on restaurant locations. (BTW: I can also recommend the fennel-Parmesan shortbread cookie from Petrossian’s cafe, which fueled me from 58th to 84th.)
The surprisingly good: Revolucion in the JetBlue terminal at JFK, where my consort and I ducked in for lunch on our way to PGH and where the food was so worth the wait despite our being surrounded by teevees television distortions in kaleidoscopic visuals with no sound. We had actually allotted time just to eat at the airport, and it was vaut le detour on the way to the gate — the torta with carnitas came perfectly assembled, with tender pork layered with guacamole and salsa on ideal bread, plus the sweet potato fries were the best either of us had ever had, crisp and light and not at all gooey/caramelized/gross. I think that cost all of $9. We ate the tostada salad, with crisp tortilla chips buried under guacamole, greens and cheese, on the plane, so it might have suffered from the wilting languish, but it still made a perfect harbinger for the amazing eating experiences we would have for the next four days. WIGB? Happily, although I am now curious about the other (more expensive) restaurants in that gleaming food court.
The surprisingly not bad: Home in the West Village, where we wound up early with three friends after two of them got shut out of the excellent, food-heavy Ai Weiwei doc at IFC and where I at least was chagrined that we had never tried it under the “new” ownership (the old one once wrote me an unhappy letter over something I’d written in Newsweek). The menu struck me as weirdly clueless when it came to seasonality, but everyone seemed happy picking and choosing, one friend and I with the “artichoke” and pancetta cheesecake topped with tart tomatoes and capers, my consort and her husband with the pork chop over wild rice, suspiciously large fava beans and asparagus and our other friend with the clam chowder with grilled bread, plus a side order of grilled radicchio. Whole-grain bread in the basket was great, flavor-free butter not so much. We all tasted the cherry pie a la mode and split a bottle of Finger Lakes rosé for a reasonable $36, too. Judging by the server’s reactions to our questions, I doubt family meal is ever involved, though, and as much as we all appreciated being able to eat in the garden in the quiet, I personally wish I had not gone out to eat and wound up becoming a mosquito buffet. WIGB? Probably, even though the cooking is maybe too homey. Also, too: Spunto after the movie turned out to be an ideal destination for drinks in quiet, with skinny tumblers of sauvignon blanc for only $7, but why in hell do restaurants not A) train servers to check back often with a table that has ordered only drinks, just in case more could be sold and B) let busboys wipe down tables with bleach while patrons are drinking those cheap wines and picking up hints of Clorox? But at least the place was better than Cornelia Street Cafe, where Bob and I had settled in desperation the night before after “Sleepwalk With Me” when Murray’s Cheese Bar had a long wait and Pearl was just not interested in anyone at the bar who did not want dinner. Two deal-breakers: Crappy wine. Dirty.
The worth-the-death march: Covo in West Harlem, where Bob and I trudged and trudged after a so-worth-it expedition to the Caribbean show at the Studio Museum in Harlem and after aborted attempts at brunching at both Red Rooster and Harlem Social. We walked into the former just before noon to see about a third of the place empty but were still shunted to the nearly empty bar “until some tables clear.” As the bartender ignored us, I noticed the latter across the intersection and told Bob it was new and I’d been invited to the opening party but had passed. Just as he started to search his iPhone for the menu there, a sweet young thing suddenly surfaced to offer us a table in the bar. Which we took even though it was next to the ordering station, but we only sat long enough to read a bit of the menu: “Yard” bird for $22? Burger for $19? Sorry. Outta there. Only to be shunted outside at Harlem Social for a lecture on how the only seats were at a high shared table and how we would have to surrender them in an hour and a half. Bob was more pissed than I on noting the the place was almost empty. But we both looked at the menu — $25 prix fixe for brunch — and walked out. I’d remembered Covo from an e-friend’s recommendation but had seen it referenced in a Harlem guidebook in the museum gift shop, so off we went. Thank allah the menu was a la carte, because that was one long walk in the heat and humidity. By the time our pizza (of the day, with spicy salami, roasted peppers, mozzarella and baby arugula) and salad (with artichoke hearts, more roasted peppers, tomatoes and more mozzarella) arrived, I would have been happy with Papa John’s. Even with an espresso, the whole lunch cost less than brunch for one over in Coolville at 126th and Lenox. The space also felt anything but Manhattanish. And we were virtually next door to Fairway for shopping and right next to the bike/walking path down the Hudson to home, five miles after we’d set out that a.m. WIGB? Maybe. That part of town does seem restaurant-deficient unless you like industrial pork in your BBQ.