The duck will abide

hunan house flushing soup dumplings-3659

So I walked onto a 7 train car at Main Street/Flushing at 2:38 on a Saturday afternoon and stepped off the C at 96th Street and CPW just about 12 miles and exactly one hour and 47 minutes later (USofAusterity, No. 1!) I could have Amtraked to Philadelphia in that time. But aside from my digital whining, I really didn’t mind at all. Hunan House is so vaut le voyage the chopsticks come in Michelin sleeves.

On this frazzled day I met only six other friends and worried that the bill would be more than the inevitable $20 a head. But we all ate our fill to the point of succumbing to an eight-treasure fried rice dessert and still walked away for $23.

We started with two dishes I flinched at as the excellent waiter laughed: jellyfish (which made me contemplate where aspic originated) and “ox tongue and tripe in peppery sauce.” Then again, no one seemed to much appreciate my choice of Hunan pickled cabbage, either. I did try to push for soup dumplings, but they were not immediately findable on the menu, only in my photo files.

Water spinach stems proved to be texturally sublime but cough-inducingly painful thanks to the peppers. Preserved pork with leeks proved to be near-bacon with great chunks of ginger, and I could have eaten another platterful. But the dazzlers on the Lazy Susan proved to be my choice of smoked duck, the meat super-tender, and the steamed eggs with pork, like a quivering custard topped with sausage bits.

For the record, afterward I stopped at the Petland under the yellow awning with Chinese characters on Main Street and then picked up a matcha-flavored egg tart at the Taipan bakery for the ride home. Either its flavor fell short or the ride was too damned long.  The Cat has not forgiven me for arriving with not even a whiff of duck on my fingers.
*Posting this feels grim on considering how neglected my Trails trail has gotten the last few years; I have been repeatedly as the resto has gotten swankier and better even as the staff and food have stayed the course. Shorter? So many photos, so few verbal journeys . . .

Taco & beer or rosé & tomato bread?

Do not get between a platter of beautifully composed sushi and a bunch of sports reporters at a US Open pre-opening tasting. Half of them will be jockeying to videograph the static stuff and the rest will be serving themselves with both hands. And when you finally figure out that this is one big wedding reception, where the best table is closest to the kitchen, they will have locusted through all the fancy fare. You will be settling for what you always envisioned as stadium fud, gut-busting indulgences like portobello fries and bratwurst re-presented as art on a skewer with a round of soft pretzel and a squiggle of mustard.

I blame myself for not asking about the rules of the game, though. After the half-hour-long BS intro with the “celebrity guest chefs,” I put my bladder before my stomach and wasted time walking half a mile to the closest bathroom while the pros were staking out tables and grabbing seats where the wine and cocktails and high-end tidbits would be served first. I didn’t realize the goal was to snare a chair immediately and dig into whatever the waiters were passing.

On the plus side, I finally chose a table that turned out to be occupied by a couple of producers from a local teevee station — and those are always guaranteed to be both the most experienced and the most gregarious guests.

Great lesson one: Charm the waiter. After just two “I love you” encounters with one overburdened carrier, our table leader had him sneaking her not just the chicken tinga taco our table had been deprived of but a glass of red to accompany the sliver of bone-in tomahawk rib-eye only she was able to cadge.

Great lesson two: Traditions matter. Our table leader pointed out that you got to keep the “glass” (plastic) if you took the sponsored cocktail; last year she amassed nine. Because I don’t have enough crap in my kitchen, I got in line to garner one, right alongside an Argentine sportswriter who wanted his refilled because this was his 10th Open and he actually had enough crap. (Hope he understands it was genuine curiosity and not Cougarism that led me to inquire where he stays on so many trips to such an expensive city. “With friends” was good enough.)

So was the food worth the schlep on four trains to the Mets-Willets Point stop (which has, incidentally, the first working bathrooms I’ve ever seen in a subway)? Michael White’s squid ink cassarecci was extraordinary, the pasta perfectly cooked and its dark flavor amplified by tiny bits of shrimp, scallops and squid, with a garlicky dusting of mollica for crunch (someone should do a story on how great that Italian garnish is). That composition was worthy of Marea. Unfortunately, I missed his lobster-topped burrata and his tomahawk steak (wary of feedlot beef, I did pass on his steak tartare).

Mantuano-of-Spiaggia’s avocado toast was also sensational, with pistachios for crunch and pickled serranos for heat, and his “tomato bread,” a soft slice also topped with Manchego and serrano ham, also delivered great flavor. (I passed on his flaming ouzo shrimp.)

I don’t eat chicken, so I didn’t mind not scoring Richard Sandoval’s tinga taco, and I missed his Maya chopped salad with steak (see beef wariness above) and chayote, which I later would see described as “a type of Central American cucumber” — take that, mirlitons!  Otherwise, what I snared was more like those portobello fries (tempuraed, BTW), a bready mini crab cake and over-grilled tuna about which everyone kept asking “what is it?” To be fair, salmon crudo had a pretty presentation, while the US Open Signature Lobster Roll was overstuffed, although the “spicy” flavor of the Louis dressing that was either promised or threatened proved to be imperceptible.

One amusing thing was that the chefs were subjected to the usual trite questions in the introduction beforehand (“what’s the best thing you’ve ever tasted?”), and of course grilled cheese came up and reverse snobbery rained down. All said it needs to be down-and-dirty, made with American “cheese” and cooked in the grease on a griddle so it takes on the flavor of whatever went before. (So much for “Chef”’s after-the-credits demo.) But later there were two types on offer, one made with Gouda, herb butter and bacon and the other with New York Cheddar and New Hampshire Landaff. And the sports types went nuts, one yelping “Jesus” as he tried to get through the scrum around a waiter.

The whole event reminded me of many in Italy that were sponsored by the local government. So I guess it wasn’t surprising that the cappuccino I finished with had “Lavazza for US Open” spelled out in dark chocolate on the foam.

Two last notes: I did hear a new line, after all these decades, after the inevitable “what do you cook at home?” was asked of the “celebrities.” Michael White: “That’s like asking a postman if he wants to take a walk at the end of his shift.” And I now think every chef who feels star-bound to show up in whites should take a fashion cue from Morimoto (my photo was even lamer).

WIGB, though? Yep. If only for the smug privilege of being media and avoiding the metal detectors the regular people had to walk through, here in the freedomest country in the world.

A good scent from a familiar ocean

The grease may be off-putting, but this was the best naan we have ever eaten in New York — it was even splendid two days later, pliable and flavorful and loaded with sliced garlic. Even better, the goat curry and kadi pakora we ate with it were both spiced for bread, not a fork, and those sensational sauces held up when reheated at home, too. We lucked into all this in Queens, at Sohna Punjab in Richmond Hill, thanks to a recommendation from the owner of a halal live-meat market we had just interviewed in Ozone Park; it’s a testament to the quality of his operation that we could go straight to that curry after seeing goats in their pen and the room where they’re slaughtered. He described the restaurant as a hole in the wall, but it was better than that for sure, with both the waitress and chef very welcoming and a bathroom that definitely passes the Chang test. Bob spotted kulfi in the ice cream case, so we split one straight from the metal cone in which the creamy, cardamomy sweetness was frozen. I spotted paan in the wine and beer case, but we passed on those — once, in Bangalore, was enough. WIGB? If we were in the neighborhood, for sure. Beyond the excellent cooking, two orders of the naan came to $5.98; the curries were both under $10. 117-10 Atlantic Avenue, 718 850 6221.

New York minutes

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.

Another New York minute

Trying to force myself to realize a documentation of a thousand eating experiences can start with one post. So let this one be about our most recent Sunday outing to Flushing to connect with our Asian-eating/eating-Asian group, at a new spot specializing in Henan cooking. I deliberately do no research before jumping on the C train to the 7 train because a little knowledge can be a disruptive thing when the Lazy Susan leaders can speak and read Cantonese and have scoped out our destinations so smartly. And I keep my mouth shut except for regular infusions of hot tea as the ringleaders suss out the menu and decide on the order. Or, in this case, the over-order. For once we were at two tables (14 of us) and decided doubling up on everything was fairest. I cringed, especially when the waiter volunteered in English: “It’s too much food.” And he was right, but we still got away for the usual $20 a head (with generous tip).

The blowaway dish was the one I once would have vetoed because it was built on a nasty bird, but the “big plate chicken”/”chicken with special sauce” was fabulous, the leading flavor indicator being the star anise pods strewn over the top. I tasted the NB, which was great for NB, but it was the deep red sauce and the sublime noodles that pushed this over the top. Everyone asked for rice to sop up the sauce, but the smartest move was requesting more fresh noodles. Having just been to the food show, where everyone fantasizes about coming up with a liquid moneymaker, I’d say someone should start bottling this stuff ASAP.

I passed on the “sautéed chicken tripe with hot pepper” and tasted only enough of the “lamb soup with breast” to feel sickened (lamb is my deer meat). But the lamb-braised noodles were palatable to me and scarfed by everyone else. I also was underwhelmed  by the steamed whole tilapia despite the expert cooking — mud is mud to me. But the “stir-fried lecture” (crisp greens with wood-ear mushrooms) was outstanding and the braised tofu in brown sauce way better than it had any right to be. Pork dumplings with Chinese cabbage, landing too late in the rotation, were nicely executed but very bland, even with vinegar splashed on. And by the time the “wok vegetables” arrived, complete with meatballs in a stellar sauce, everyone looked over-satiated. That broth was amazing, though. WIGB? Absolutely, but only with someone who could communicate with the chef (in his coat emblazoned “celebrity chef”) and servers. While there are slick photos of the specialties festooning the walls, it really would be hard to know how to order. The place does not even have a name in English either on the sign or on the takeout menu (which does, however, list numbers for everything from Emergency to Public Housing Application, all those resources given in Chinese characters). 40-26 Union Street, 718 353 2816. Open daily.

New York minutes/End of April 2014

When The Consort’s away, The Cat WCTLWAFW decamps from his bed on top of the refrigerator. He knows there won’t be any stove action, let alone any real kittybags landing. So when Bob got home from a week at a workshop out in real America, source of of Sysco spinach and other abominations, I was determined to be a little more careful about where we went out to eat. And it’s amazing what you can find in this town if you pay attention.

After walking every aisle at AIPAD, for starters, I might have suggested we head to our usual refuge in that restaurant wasteland, the can-get-expensive/we-know-the-menu-too-well Toloache 82. But I remembered the Writing Room had opened a while back in ridiculous old Elaine’s*, so we headed there at early-bird hour to find nearly empty dining rooms but ditzy hostesses insistent on giving us dark tables. We settled for the second, next to another couple of olds, but a manager came by and moved us, luckily — to right alongside the server stand. At least the staffers aside from the ditzes seemed to be that rarity, workers proud to be serving and enthusiastic as hell about making our meal happy. The New Yorker may have been underwhelmed by the Parkerhouse-style rolls, but we liked both them and the butter they rode in on. The salmon tartare we shared — flecked with everything-bagel spices, and creamy with onion mayonnaise — tasted quite lively when spread on warm grilled rye bread. We both had only salads, and I got the better one: spinach interspersed with blue cheese and pickled mushrooms and tossed with bacon vinaigrette, all laid over a CD-size crouton spread with bacon jam. Bob’s “farmer’s salad” read better than it tasted, and even then it was more of a grocery list: Romaine, radicchio, pepper, wild rice, avocado, broccoli and hearts of palm, all allegedly dressed with Green Goddess. Everyone else in the room as it filled seemed to be ordering the fried chicken for two, served with biscuits and coleslaw, but we’d split some chouquettes from Maison Kayser on the schlep north and passed on mains (which run $24 to $52). We did finish a bottle of $34 rosé, poured right. WIGB? Yep. It’s not just for the little old lady in Dubuque. And the bar seemed very alluring in early evening light.

*One of Seymour Britchky’s greatest lines was how Elaine strutted around that same space while “hoisting up her underwear.”

A couple of nights later I had to pass on the amazing “Lunchbox” with Bob and a couple of friends because I had to crash a story revision, and on my way to meet them afterward for the usual cheap-wine-and-pizza at Fairway got a call on my green-like-xmas phone that the menu there was Passover-only, for $40 — so I suggested the days-old Tessa. And what a find on that rain-blizzardy night. We snared one end of a communal table in the high-energy, well-designed bar and passed around fabulous plates: The array of house dips to start (tiny portions with huge flavors: smoked eggplant; hummus; ricotta, all with crunchy lavash, for all of $8), then a sensational asparagus risotto with ricotta for me (I ordered the appetizer size for $14 and still had enough to kittybag), lamb “porchetta” for Bob (the meat rolled, aggressively seasoned and roasted, with a plethora of garnishes, for $28), monkfish with a lentil-quinoa pilaf ($27) for Diane and intense braised pork cheeks with pecorino polenta ($27) for Len (The Cat loved the last bites bagged). The $11 chocolate “mouse” (cq on the check) was sensational, strewn with toasted almonds and caramelized fennel seeds and teamed with honey-anise ice cream. Everything was so happy-making, and the waiter was so engaging, and the weather outside was so awful, that we wound up splitting two fine bottles of white, a verdicchio and a Rousanne, for $45 and $40.

Three nights later Bob and I wound up making our way there again with another friend, after she and I caught up with “The Lunchbox” and Bob came along because he had liked the movie as much as the restaurant. Luckily, he called ahead and, even though all tables were reserved, the FOH was able to fit us in again in the bar, at a four-top, where the only downside was the debauched quartet partying on beside us. This time, after I’d confirmed the chef’s background at Peacock Alley, the cooking struck me as a little overwrought, but in good ways. The cod salad was billed as “for the table,” but it was hard to get all the elements in one coherent bite: cabbage, cucumber, lemon confit and pickled tomato. After popcorn, I only wanted an appetizer, but the $12 rouget could have been a main, the perfectly seared fillets teamed with fennel marmalade and seasoned with espelette (separatist paprika). Bob’s baked-juicy black sea bass was rather restrained, simply laid over crushed potatoes with lemon and accented by braised fennel. But Donna may have won, with spaccatelli (damned if I can adequately describe that pasta shape — botched priest strangler?) in a rich sauce with lobster and chanterelles. Again, the $19 appetizer size was beyond generous. Grapefruit poundcake turned out to be more cerebral than the “mouse,” with olive oil ganache, citrus curd and grapefruit-thyme sorbet ramping up the sensations. And this time the three of us were having such a good time, and the sommelier was so engaging (when was the last time you measured a table by cubits?) that we went through two bottles of the Rousanne. WIGB? Early and often. Did I mention the bread and butter were exceptional, too? Plus, as Donna said as we waited for our seats: “I can’t believe we’re uptown.”

Bob agreed I was really on a roll the following Wednesday when, after the pleasurable-if-still-brown Greenmarket and then the root-canal-rivaling carpet-shopping at ABC, I led him to Barn Joo. I’d been curious about the place since doing a story on the beef I had been told the chef buys, and after failing to get a quote from that smart buyer by email or phone, I’d dropped by to leave my card and been pretty wowed by the decor. It seemed even more seductive because the meal was a steal: $10 for a “cheesesteak” stuffed with slices of that Happy Valley beef in a sort of focaccia with excellent fries and superb spicy dipping sauce plus a house-made yuzu soda, and $12 for the jap chae noodle platter, with beef and a little tray of condiments, one with egg, two like kimchi. The servers were sweet and the room was fun. WIGB? Absolutely. How could I have walked past it so many times and never gone in?

One day I may turn up a receipt showing we tried somewhere else between all that high-end consumption, but I do recall we made a three-train expedition to Queens to Hibiscus, in Richmond Hill, to meet our Asian-eating/eating-Asian group. On this Easter Sunday we were 12, apparently only two of whom uttered the words “happy Easter” to both tablemates and the dressed-to-kill fellow guests. The destination had been chosen for its mix of West Indian and Chinese, but most everyone agreed only the former was vaut le voyage. The house fried rice, mixed with everything but the kitchen sink, was just what it sounds like: more excess than execution. The noodle dishes were what we could have phoned home from an hour and a half earlier. Etc. But the duck curry was fabulous even before chunks of the tender, spicy meat and rich sauce were wrapped in the killer roti, and the sauce on the oxtail (I didn’t brave the meat) transformed the already-great peas-and-rice cooked in coconut oil. I also did not brave the black pudding, made with lamb blood, but the vinegary-peppery dipping sauce with it was a revelation. Bunghal pork, which the slow-warming charming waitress described as “cooked down,” was also great, and the “fried bangha Mary” — whitingesque whole fish heavily spiced and perfectly fried — was so impressive we ordered a second set. We also duped an order of the plantain chips. And the few forkfuls I snared of the weekend-only platter of Guyanese chicken and pork tasted pretty great, too. WIGB? Maybe on a day when we could take the A train straight there. The West Indian markets we wandered through before and afterward would be worth the $5 fare alone.

We also snared a drink at BEA on our way to the disappointing “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” Real bartenders, decent pours and a little bowl of warm fried chickpeas. As Bob said: When was the last time you got a makes-’em-drink-more bonus at a bar?

New York minutes/Late May-mid-June 2013

The good: Petite Soo Chow in Cliffside Park, N.J., of all places, where I met up with my Asian-eating/eating-Asian pals for Saturday lunch and where, as usual, leaving the ordering to the experts was the right thing to do. Also as usual, 17 dishes for the nine of us came to $22 a head with a good tip. Of course the soup dumplings and the Shanghai-style fried buns were superb, but I also had things I would never anticipate in a Chinese restaurant (like a cruller, more like deep-fried unsweetened dough, meant to be dipped into soy milk, and a gluten dish called sweet bran twist) and things I would not try again (kelp, in strips cutely knotted like bow ties but too fishy for me). The best dishes were the silk squash/loofah, like a more interesting chayote; the turnip cakes, in a flaky dough and flavored with teeny shrimp; the spicy sprats, served cold in a sensational sauce; the stewed pork riblets in brown sauce, and the super-tender pork belly in preserved bean sauce with water spinach, meant to be eaten in steamed buns. WIGB? It was a schlep — 45 minutes on the 159 bus from the Port Authority — but,  actually, yes. As good as the food was, the service matched it. 607 Gorge Road, 201 313 1666.

The sad: Boulud Sud on the Upper West Side, where I reserved for my consort’s birthday after we had to cancel Lafayette and he acknowledged proximity should trump excitement the night he was packing for a three-week trip to Prague and Bulgaria to work on a short film on the Roma. But oh, was it bleak. Since our first dinner shortly after it opened, we’ve (separately) been quite happy with drinks at the bar, and maybe that’s why it felt so bar-ish when we walked in and had to wait to be seated after being amazed OpenTable had had tables at just about any hour we could choose. We did wind up with a street view in a relatively quiet corner, but it was just grim. I faced into the room and could see servers lined up while we waited, and waited, for service, and we actually got our appetizer before our drinks. Fried artichoke hearts had us both recalling Rome, where at least in the ghetto they’re crispy, and my quail entree had me re-imagining ill-advised ordering in the past. As I Tweeted next day, quail is the new duck, and not in a good way — chefs serve it way past liver stage. The birthday boy didn’t complain about his paella, though, and we both agreed the olive oil with the bread was outstanding. WIGB? Never for dinner, maybe for a drink. It was shocking the menu had barely changed since our first visit, it was annoying to see so many more tables crammed in and it was disheartening to look at the crowd and think: “This is just the commissary for 15 CPW.” And you know what discerning tastes rich fucks have.

The pretty great: City Grit in Nolita, where Mike Andrzejewski was cooking and where my dinner with strangers turned out to be not just endurable but fun. The venue is a funky store by day but becomes an informal restaurant with communal seating at night, and they do things right. All six courses were served seamlessly, and wine orders were taken and delivered expeditiously. And the food was fabulous, starting with just-shucked oysters with cucumber, chile, ginger, lime and sweet rice vinegar (yes, I’m cribbing from the menu). I was queasy about the “nigiri of otoro and beef heart tartare with white soy, lardo and chile flowers,” mainly because of the base, the organ meat chopped to simulate sticky rice, but the topping was so sensational I didn’t mind the gory bits that accidentally wound up on my fork. Smoked salmon belly BLT was nicely done as well, with iceberg for the L and the fish for the B; the red and yellow beefsteak tomatoes were compressed into a cube. The sea scallops in the next course were beautifully seared and perfectly cooked, then teamed with julienned crisps of pig’s ear, baby red mustard, pickled Thai chilies and a wild smoked egg yolk. I should have left more room for the sea robin laid over risotto cooked like paella, with garnishes of chorizo oil, olives, piquillos and sherry vinegar glaze. And I definitely should not have underestimated “Vietnamese coffee and white chocolate bar,” which turned out to be a very cerebral but satisfying reinvention of all those elements into a sort of Asian tiramisu with substance. Dinner, prepaid, was $60 before wine, and a deal at twice that. A couple of glasses of muscadet at $9 a pop were also worth it. WIGB? Absolutely. It was good and fun. As was the company: the chef’s wife, a couple of his best customers in from Buffalo, business connections who live in Brooklyn, a young German woman in publishing in town on business and a guy from my neighborhood who just likes to eat well with strangers.

The disappointing: Momofuku Ssam in the East Village, where I met up with a caustic blogger pal for lunch after dangling the temptation “duck gorditas” in an email and where we both walked out underwhelmed for the first time ever. The duck set featured the usual beautifully cooked meat, but the pickles with it were short on finesse, and my pal would know. The duck dumplings had the feel of an appetizer the kitchen had had just about enough of, thank you very much. And the duck gorditas were too easy to eat but ultimately came off as reinvented Mexican nothingburgers: greasy masa disks overfilled with could-be-anything meat and gloppy sauce. As always, though, the service was snappy and the wine well-matched to the food. WIGB? Probably. Duck is not just a four-letter word.

The good again and again: The Smith across from Lincoln Center, where we had reserved a table for four after the outstanding “A Hijacking” just up Broadway and where even the short wait at the bar after we arrived early flew by when a manager offered us a mistakenly poured beer for free after we had ordered a large carafe of rosé, and even split it into tastes. We could have had a table inside in Bedlam but were happy to hold out even though we wound up with the best view ever of the multi-culti cast of characters heading in and out of the Citibank ATM lobby. But the service and food were so much better than a restaurant across from Lincoln Center should provide. We split excellent seared shishito peppers and an order of tempura green beans, and I had a nice-enough chopped salad and a few bites of Bob’s fine trout Milanese with good potatoes. Our friends seemed happy with the roast chicken and the pork chop, and we all liked the silly dessert. (They’re all silly.) WIGB? Absolutely. On my two trips to and from the downstairs bathrooms, the staff vibe was so positive. They have a license to mint money, but they appear to be sharing the wealth.

The half-good: Spring Natural Kitchen on the Upper West Side again, where I connected with a picture-editor friend and her daughter in from DC and a coupla photo friends from the neighborhood and where it was a damned good thing the food was so good because the service was on the other side of abysmal. The table next to us got their entrees and their check before we even managed to put in our food order. It was partly our fault for saying we needed a bit more time to negotiate the long menu, but it was mostly the fault of the kind of waitress who thinks busing a table comes before getting requests into the kitchen pipeline. Luckily, my cheeseburger was pretty exceptional, with good meat cooked right and topped with both mushroom and onions. My only complaint was that it was almost too big, although The Cat WCTLWAFW had no complaints. WIGB? Undoubtedly, the alternative pickings being pretty slim in this neighborhood. And for the third time, the welcome was truly welcoming; I got there first and the host had a table set up for the five of us by the time the others arrived.

The different: Cheburechnaya in Rego Park, where we hooked up with our Asian-eating/eating-Asian group on a cold, wet Sunday and where everything beyond getting lost in the cold and rain was a trip. This was kosher cooking from part of the former Soviet Union, and it reminded me of eating in Turkey. By the time we dripped in, everyone was already tucking into the outstanding salad with red peppers, cucumbers, red onions and olives (dressed, we later learned, in Wishbone Italian), the superb carrot and cumin salad, the good hummus and bread and the pickled cabbage. I got just a taste of the chebureki,  which I’d describe as sort of cheeseless quesadillas, filled with veal, with mushrooms and with “meat.” Lagman, described on the menu as a soup with pasta, beef, mixed vegetables and assorted spices, reminded me of a fresher, heartier Campbell’s. I knew I was in for trouble when the samcy with ribs started making the rounds: a flaky pastry with my least favorite meat tucked inside; Bob said I should try just a bite with the onions, but it was way too lamby for me. And that was followed by sword after sword of grilled meats from the long butcher case behind us: lamb testicles, lamb hearts, boneless chicken and cubes of lamb fat that had everyone else moaning in ecstasy. A plate of fried beef brains also landed on the table, but even if I weren’t skeert of mad cow I would have passed. We also had a little mountain  of irresistible French fries drenched in oily garlic — interestingly enough, at $5 they cost more than most of the meats. Beyond the food, the crowd was quite something — a huge table celebrating a wedding or other ritual event, another huge table ordering bottle after bottle of vodka, tables of women with Cokes and pints of hootch. Our table, however, drank Borzhomi, a mineral water with a pretty fair amount of sodium to cut the fat. WIGB? It was fun, but once was plenty. Although we did all enjoy gawking and buying in the many Russian markets nearby. They don’t call it Regostan for nothing. 92-09 63rd Drive, 718 897 9080.

The “price is right:” Land Thai on the Upper West Side, where a friend in from Connecticut for job interviews met me for lunch on another rainy day and where, as always, it was hard to complain about two courses for $9. We both had the springrolls and I was fine with the cashew curry. And although the place clearly makes its money by spinning tables, the staff let us sit there as long as we wanted.

The unfortunate: Sindicato de Cocineros in Greenpoint, where I had dinner on a monsoon night with four friends and where I have to judge a restaurant by the lowlifes it  attracts. The place was brand-new and chosen by two of the friends who used to live nearby, and it had its charms: widely spaced tables, a warm vibe, a deejay who played great bits of LPs at just the right sound level. The margarita was only adequate,* but our shared starters were sensational: the guacamole very limey and topped with snappy radish slices, and the mollete a couple of crisp slices of the usual torta roll topped with beans, chorizo, cheese and salsa. I’m not so sure deconstructing a gordita was such a wise idea because it was hard to get all the elements — ground beef, beans, crema, cheese, lettuce — in one bite, and the masa itself was doughy. I didn’t try either order of tacos on the table, or the pork, but the flan was okay. So WIGB? I had to come home and Tweet: Not on a bet. When we were all leaving in the raging downpour, I went to retrieve my $40 MOMA umbrella from the heap at the door and some hipster asshole had made off with it. To the restaurant’s social media manager’s credit, they did notice my carping and promise me a new umbrella if I DM’d my address. I am, however, still waiting . . .

*The vaut le voyage: Nights and Weekends, also in Greenpoint, where I had the best margarita of my long life. I met one of the Sindicato tablemates there early but late for our appointed hour, which was too bad because this drink was huge. And smoky. And spicy. And just absolute perfection. For all of $10. Apparently the food is pretty good there, too, so WIGB? Next time I need to scratch the margarita itch, I’m getting on the B to the E to the G.

New York minutes/March into April 2013

The good: Mighty Quinn’s BBQ in the East Village, again, where my consort and I headed for an early-bird Saturday supper after a great screening of a friend’s shorts at Anthology Film Archive and where the availability of only beer was easier to swallow since we had just tried Fairway’s private-label prosecco. We were lucky to wander in and take our slow time ordering so that we snared a table and were soon making a mess of the super-tender ribs, with their crusty spicing, and the meltingly fatty slabs of smoky brisket. Both came with good coleslaw and pickled onions, red jalapeños, cucumbers and celery, the acid cutting the richness. WIGB? As Bob said: “Hill Country is good. This might be better.”

The seriously good: Lao Chengdu in Flushing, where we hooked up on a Sunday with our eating-Asian/Asian-eating group for an especially satisfying expedition through yet another particular subset of Chinese and where the seating arrangement turned out to be the most ideal since our virgin outing, to the now-vanished Excellent Thai. Nine of us fit around a big table in the back of the small dining room, with a Lazy Susan (an amenity rarer than you might think out there), so we could easily both share and talk. Both of which we did with abandon. I should have written this as soon as we got back off the three trains it took to get from there, but I do recall the spicy beef tendon was so sensational I tried a second piece despite knowing what it was — the slices were parchment-thin and beautifully seasoned. Wontons in red chili sauce seemed more predictable but well-executed, while thousand-year eggs tasted great but kind of creeped me out, between the camo color and the Jell-O-y texture. Tiger-skin peppers were as Russian roulette-like as shisitos or padrons: some incendiary, some tame. We had great pork belly with green vegetable and Sichuan chicken with peppers and, most amazing, a house special of “steamed pork” teamed with mushy peas, almost like a Chinese interpretation of a timballo with meat instead of rice or pasta. I know there was  a great green vegetable, and beautifully presented if slightly syrupy whole fish with “pine seeds,” and a fish soup with chunks of tomato. I think that was on the house, along with a dessert of a sweet soup afloat with what tasted like rice balls along with maraschino cherries. WIGB? Absolutely, but only in a big group to taste as much as possible (the bill was so ridiculously low we each chipped in $20 and wound up leaving a 50 percent tip). 37-17 Prince Street, 718 886 5595.

The historically good: Grand Central Oyster Bar, where Bob and I headed after the first part of a weekday daytime date, at the Nick Cave Heard NY performance of dancing “horses” and where the whole experience was the same as it ever was. We found seats at the counter, were instantly handed the big menu and the lunch special cheat sheet, got water and warm roll and cold flatbread with butter and, after perusing the insanely long and inventive list of specials ($39.95 softshells, $31.95 grouper), ordered what we always do: the $11.95 oyster pan roast and a $10.15(cq) crab cake sandwich, plus a glass of riesling to share because everyone else was drinking at just-on noon. The former dish is one the many decades could never improve, with richness countered by a bit of heat and a hunk of toast and a generous portion of oysters not quite cooked in the hot cream. And the sandwich was a plain thing, with cocktail sauce served alongside rather than tartar, and rather too much good bun, but the crab cake itself was thick and meaty. Coleslaw alongside helped. WIGB? Of course, and not just to use the facilities, among the most old-school in all of Manhattan.

The good to my untrained palate: Malay Restaurant in Flushing, another destination booked by our Asian-eating/eating-Asian group, where we crowded around a tight table to indulge in a cuisine with which none of us could claim to be expert. We were there for the Haianese dishes, though, and they were all good, such as the chicken and the rice. Roti canai proved to be a fine rendition, and I only wish we had ordered four, not just three, to share. Beef rendang was also excellent, with big tender chunks of well-sauced/spiced meat. Popiah, translated as Malaysian spring roll, was a big hunk of great flavors, the soft slices meant for dunking in a spicy sauce. I liked the fruity Indian rojak salad better than the Malaysian interpretation, which was just too funky-powerful with fish sauce. Judging by the scribbles on a takeout menu we took out, we also had kang kung belachun, a good water spinach, and “fried pearl noodles.” (Guess I’d better go back to shooting my meal.) Everyone got most excited over the durian-red bean shaved ice and ABC shaved rice, both weirdly wonderful (the latter had corn kernels in it, although none could say why). WIGB? Maybe. It was all satisfying, but I’d do more homework before any encore.

The good for the first time: Gran Electrica in Dumbo, where we had the good sense to reserve for after an enlightening presentation on food rackets in NYC at the Brooklyn Historical Society and where we were able to walk right in and get a table in a packed place for shared small plates. The crab tostada, with peekytoe meat, grapefruit, orange, cilantro, onion, avocado and habanero, was close to mind-blowing, the corn tortilla pliable enough to cut into wedges but crisp enough to support each perfectly balanced bite of the topping. I got tricked into trying the lengua taco after Bob insisted the server must have made a mistake and brought beef because it was so tender. Nope. He slipped me tongue. (And it was sensational, but jeebus, I don’t need to eat that.) I was busy with my chorizo con papas quesadilla, an excellent balance of fat and starch. His margarita also made him happy (as I was with a taste). I do like a menu that lists purveyors first, too. WIGB? Absolutely, but as much for the hospitality as the fine food. Everyone we came in contact with seemed genuinely happy to serve us.

The good for the third time: Toloache 82 on the Upper East Side, where we rewarded ourselves with Saturday lunch after the outstanding AIPAD show at the Park Avenue Armory and where the cramped little dining room where we were seated was redeemed by the service and sublime food. I had the huarache again, with just the right balance of chorizo and cheese to masa, beans and egg, but Bob scored with the pork pozole, a splendid bowlful of corn, meat and chilies that was paired with a world-class black bean tostada and came with a little tray of seasonings, including chile salt. WIGB? Yep. As always, I walked out thinking you can never go wrong at a Julian Medina joint. Cooks and servers are all on the same happy professional program.

The surprisingly not bad: The Ellington on the Upper West Side, where we headed after one of those days when two people working at home (or one dicking around on the Internets) needed a change of scenery. And that’s all we were expecting, but the food turned out to be vaut le (short) voyage. We split a beet and quinoa salad with goat cheese and walnut vinaigrette that tasted a long way from 106th Street, then I had a $12 flatbread topped with smoked mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and pesto that was fine for dinner, even better for breakfast. And if Bob’s Cumberland sausage and mash was more about the onion gravy and braised red cabbage than the billed meat and potatoes, it was still a nice plate of food for $15 (star ingredient came from Myers of Keswick). We scored a nice table at the window, so there wasn’t much din in our dinner, but we were also there early. WIGB? If it lasts. That corner location does tend to shuffle restaurants in and out.

The good and reliable: Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table, in our neighborhood, where we hooked up on a night after one of us was teaching and the other was dicking around on the Internets and where everything was not just what we wanted but even better, right down to the kittybag. That room always seems so garish from the street but so homy once you sit down, even at the same awkward table you always get. But I always find it encouraging when the server is the same as the last times — consistency is not to be underestimated in a restaurant. Bob ate his fried chicken with many “wows,” and I was just as happy with my Cobb salad, which I ordered partly so I could bring something home to The Cat — the bacon, avocado, blue cheese, tomatoes were all perfectly proportioned against the chicken. WIGB? Why don’t we remember it more often? Bonus points for the kittybag: All our leftovers were actually carefully plated in their plastic takeaway containers.

The regrettable: Amigos on the Upper West Side, where we wandered in after the Greenmarket despite having been warned by my Columbia e-pal and where the food was not the problem. The aftermath was. We were suckered by the lunch menu lying on a table outside, but it turned out we had descended into brunch hell, and huevos do make me nervous when they’re mostly what’s on offer. I wanted to leave immediately, but the host/manager was so professional and friendly and the salsa so lively if weirdly tangy I shut up and ordered $6 black bean soup, which turned out to be better than I expected if oddly rich. Bob succumbed to chicken chicharrone tacos, which were overstuffed with crunchy skin bits with meat attached plus generous guacamole; three of those came with decent black beans and mediocre orange rice for $12. He paid the relatively tiny check and we started walking. And aching. By the time we got home I felt like Mr. Creosote. Whatever they put in that food, it has the bad Indian/Houlihan’s effect. Bob asked first: WYGB? And we agreed. Nope. Average food was not worth the distention. But I do hope someplace better hires away that superb host/manager.

The underwhelming: Buvette in the West Village, where I met two friends for one of those annual-or-so catch-up sessions and where the setting definitely outdid the food. Even at $13, the brandade was no deal — bland would be an overstatement. I kept thinking about the time a French friend and I gave a party together and her BFF Ariane Daguin advised me: “Take the garlic out of the guacamole and put it in the brandade.” Except there was no guacamole to garlic to the rescue. And while I would always prefer a teaspoonful of food to a heaping ladleful, I still thought the portion and presentation were just daintily silly. WIGB? Allow me to blurb: “Buvette was cute but probably too precious to make it a destination again for me.”

Ends and odds: While I was neglecting my updates here, we also had experiences so predictably fine at Fairway Cafe & Mermaid Inn & Luke’s Lobster that they would be soporific to recount. But I do have to note Rainbow Falafel, the most famous stand at least near Union Square, was a downer. If those sandwich assemblers were erecting skyscrapers, every one would collapse. In a hail of hard pink tomato chunks.

New York minutes/Latish February 2013

The pretty good: Shanghai Cuisine 33 in Flushing, where I met my Asian-eating/eating-Asian group for a Lunar New Year feast and where, for the first time ever, I felt full before half the many dishes had landed, to the point that I didn’t even try everything. We ate and ate and the tab came to $25 a person, though, so who could complain? I’ll get the bad news out of the way first: I was very glad the camphor tea-smoked duck was among the shares, because I’d had it in my head to order one to go and what we were served was like duck jerky (I schlepped back to Hunan House before getting on the first of my four trains home to pick up a very succulent, very smoky duck there). But all the dumplings were exquisite: soup, fried, steamed with pork and leeks and with pork and a strange herb, in wonton soup. The braised boar hock with baby bai choy and “moss” was a bit too much for me, and I was underwhelmed by the braised cabbage with dried shrimp. I also, thanks to bulging belly syndrome, could not appreciate the “salty and fresh pork medley” casserole. More may have passed me, but I’ll just say the tofu with crab roe was splendiferous and the rice cakes with spicy crab, a New Year’s special, would have made a meal. WIGB? Probably not, given there are so many other choices out there.

The surprisingly satisfying: Spring Natural Kitchen on the Upper West Side, where my consort and I ducked in after the Greenmarket on a brutally windy Sunday and where we got more than we would have settled for. We’d never bothered to cross the street to check it out, partly because of the last two words in its name. But no expectations paid off: The space is beautifully designed, as we could tell from the great corner booth we got from the superb host. (At that hour the place was infested with human larvae, but at least they were all well-behaved.) And the long menu actually had several temptations and was written so well Bob ordered what he normally spurns: a sandwich. We both rated it excellent, the chicken grilled juicy and paired with melted Cheddar and a green sauce, and came with good fries. My “taco” salad was like a burrito without the tortilla: rice, black beans, mesclun, tomato, red onions, salsa, guacamole, cheese and sour cream, with yellow, red and blue chips surrounding the huge plate. The leftovers fried up nicely as a side for dinner. (Half the sandwich was kittybagged.) WIGB? Absolutely. Not least because the tab for more than we could eat came to all of $25 before tax and well-earned tip.

The right place for the right lunch: Cocina Economica on the Upper West Side, where I lured a friend who had suggested Land and where we got the same bargain meal but in a different setting. My issues with the space remain (only Twiggies should be servers in that tight route from the kitchen through the tables), but we were not rushed even as other tables turned. My chorizo torta was fine, although the jalapeños and tomato would not stay in the (wrong) roll and the mayonnaise was only perceptible at the end, but the fries were good if oversalted (and were even better dunked into the red and green salsas). Joanne acted profoundly happy with her braised pork. WIGB? Absolutely for lunch. Although I still hope the kitchen knows how to cost-out food, for survival’s sake.

New York minutes/Earlyish January 2013

The good: Mighty Quinn’s in the East Village, where my consort and I headed after a trip to Union Square just for eggs that also snared duck legs, potatoes, celeriac, apples and shallots and where we wound up getting a tour of the “pit” after quite a happy-making little lunch. The carver and counter people could not have been nicer, and it turns out that’s no accident; the owner who walked us through his rib-and-brisket methods said only the pleasant need apply. We shared that brisket, which was far juicier than you normally encounter, with perfectly crusty ends, and some ribs, super-tender and jazzily dry-rubbed. Both came with a choice of creamy or vinegary coleslaw (Mrs. Sprat here preferred the former) plus pickled cucumbers, onions and red jalapeños, all better accents to the fatty meat than the sweet and tame barbecue sauce in the honking huge bottle on the table. WIGB? Absolutely. The price was right, too ($8 or so for each meat).

The good except for the food: Fig & Olive on the Upper East Side, where I let a friend and curiosity lure me after the ridiculous “unaffordable luxury of food” column cited it as a destination for kiddles who care about eating. It’s a favorite of hers, and I understood why as soon as she was seated and the server recognized her. The whole place is like a canteen for the 1 percent, with super-obsequious service, and if there is one thing all that top tier has in common it is a low bar for vittles. Rube that I am, I figured a $22 crab salad would at least include topnotch seafood, but as soon as the oversized plate finally landed I realized it was the kind I routinely pass up in stores, undoubtedly canned in waters I wouldn’t wade into. The hard-cooked eggs with it at least looked and tasted fresh, although what I guess was roasted tomatoes looked as if an unfortunate “sanitary” accident had happened. Mostly, though, it tasted like pretty much nothing, the cucumbers as bland as the radishes and the cherry tomatoes and the avocado, all of it laid over a pile of outsized lettuce and under oversized sprigs of basil and tarragon. The little squares of focaccia with different oils at least got the soaking job done. And I will give the waiter credit for asking if I didn’t finish because I was full or because I didn’t like it, and for accepting my lie with a joke only a family retainer would brave. WIGB? I walked by the place at least once a week over 20-some months of physical therapy and never once ventured inside. Now I know why.

The pretty good but what do I know? — Upi Jaya in Elmhurst, where I met up with our eating-Asian group for Saturday lunch and where even our relative ignorance of Indonesian cuisine didn’t prevent us from satisfying ourselves one dish or another. I liked the perkedal kentang/potato fritters, the lemper ayam/steamed glutinous rice stuffed with shredded seasoned chicken, the kale in coconut curry and especially the beef rendang, which was not exactly tender but was busting out all over in flavor. The weekend-only noodle dishes were also worth ordering, one with shrimp and the other with more shredded chicken. I wasn’t crazy about jackfruit curry, and the gado gado was pretty sloppy. Overall, though: Yes, I got my $22 worth, and the super-patient, running-hard waitress really earned her tip. Props to the youngest at the table who wondered: Can she live on tips? 76-04 Woodside Avenue, 718 458 1807.