New York minutes/Early June 2012

The pretty good: Excellent Thai in Flushing, where we reconnected with a great eating group and probably had only our leaderless selves to blame for not ordering perfection. The tea leaves salad was as sensational if more heat-unbalanced than the first time we had it, and the steamed fish with lemon and chilies held up once we realized it needed to be apportioned in bowls, with its brodo. I was underwhelmed by the greens with shrimp paste we chose when sweet potato leaves were not available, the flat-tasting pork with fermented bamboo shoots and the spicy chicken, but then each of those was built on a protein pretty far down my ideal shopping list. “Crossing the bridge noodles” was also not my bowl of flavor. But I was pretty blown away by the Yunan yellow fried tofu, the texture of which one of the smart young palates around the Lazy Susan compared to fried marshmallows. WIGB? Maybe. It did come out to $18 a head, and the oranges at the end were so great they were, as Mom of SYP put it, “almost fake-tasting,” and the service is so enthusiastic. But the more we go to Flushing, the more we realize there is so, so much more to try. 36-50 Main Street, 718 886 8972.

The disappointing: Hunan House, also in Flushing, at least with carryout. Our new strategy is to eat anywhere, then pick up a smoked duck for dinner (then go have egg tarts at Tai Pan Bakery). And I don’t think it’s because the one from the cousins’ branch LINK in Manhattan was so good that we were so disappointed. When we opened up the leaking container, the scanty hunks were all weird (were there even three slices from the breast?) and the meat was both dried-out and unsmoky. Oh. Well. As I have long lamented, the impossible dream with restaurants is consistency. WIGB? Not for takeout.

The redeemed: Tangled Vine on the Upper West Side, where friends lured us out for a quick drink that turned into three and where I was happy to concede I was too harsh about our first outing. All three servers showed just the right balance of attentiveness and “oh, sit as long as you like”ness. A sidewalk table and gruner for $6 a nice glass are not to be underestimated, but I woke up next morning clear-headed and thinking more about the succession of little plates we split. Fried chickpeas and housemade potato chips were naturals (and we did make the poor waiter suffer finding out whether the former was made with canned or dried garbanzos; he said fresh and got us going on that possibility). Fava hummus was exceptional, with pecorino chips on top and a hint of mint plus a dusting of Aleppo pepper. And after a second glass, how can you not appreciate nicely done bacalao fritters or arrancini? WIGB? Happy Hour sounds so much better as HH.

New York minutes/Early September 2010

The pretty good: Mermaid Inn in our neighborhood, where I met my consort after his Columbia lecture gig on one of those miserable nights Al Gore warned us were coming, when we had to flee our sweltering kitchen yet again. After hearing the din inside, I chose an outside table, and the breeze made it bearable. As did an excellent waiter. And a glass of rosé right away. My soft-shell crab sandwich with avocado and bacon and a scattering of fries was more than decent, and Bob’s trout was cooked right and came with excellent potatoes. As a friend had reminded us, though, the place makes its profits on the wine — it’s marked up way more than the food. WIGB? Anytime. 568  Amsterdam Avenue near 88th Street, 212 799 4300.

The not bad: Land Thai, where we hooked up with friends on another night when our kitchens were furnaces and where we cooked up a plan as we waited on the sidewalk for a table — retreat to their place for more wine once we were ejected, as we inevitably would be. So we clipped through our meal, sharing a bottle of typically syrupy Torrontes plus excellent pea shoots with garlic and an entree of wok-charred squid with a superb spicy sauce (wisely racheted back to medium) plus a great rendition of pad see yew with beef, perfectly cooked duck and, unfortunately, pretty grim fried rice with salmon (it was like what you might whip up from a kitty bag with a bit of leftover fish). WIGB? Undoubtedly. It’s great value and a nice venue with a cheery staff and lively cooking. You just need a living room close by to retreat to for conversation. 450 Amsterdam near 82d Street, 212 501 8121.

The adequate: Papatzul in SoHo, where we stopped in while furniture shopping on a Sunday because we both remembered the price and a torta and were willing to forget Bob’s disappointing chilaquiles last time we were there. And that sandwich was pretty damn good once again, even though the cheese seemed more Oaxacan than Manchego; the balance of chorizo, avocado, beans and chipotle mayonnaise in crisp roll was nearly perfect. Bob, once again, got the corta end of the stick; his tacos with carnitas needed more something — salsa, vegetables? — to bring the huge mound of juicy (dare I say succulent?) meat into proportion with the four tortillas. We only drank water and signed up for the Tasting Mexico Passport on his iPhone to get 10 percent off the tab (plus a chance to win a trip to the land of the decapitated), so we walked out for less than $20 before tip. WIGB? Sure; the music was fabulous and the waiter was energetic and the price was right. 55 Grand Street near West Broadway, 212 274 8225.

The convenient: Canteen 82, where we headed for a quick lunch while rug mats were being cut at a store on Amsterdam. Although the place was nearly empty, cobwebs seemed to be forming on a couple with a baby in a stroller at another table, but our food came relatively fast, starting with a scallion pancake that was less incinerated than the one a friend and I shared last time. It didn’t taste much of scallion and the sauce didn’t taste like much of anything, but the latter did have a few shreds of ginger that we used to enliven the sesame noodles. Bob loves fried dumplings, so we had those instead of the soup kind, and I could only eat one; the filling was too porky for me. The salad, once again, saved the lunch, with mango, avocado, jicama and tiny tomatoes atop the greens. Even the dressing on that, like everything else, was surprisingly bland, and as yet another couple came in with a young kid, we realized why: It’s a cage for baby pork (as some restaurant in Spy once referred to holding pens for stroller rats). WIGB? I’d like to say no, but the room is much more appealing than any Chinese restaurant for miles. 467 Columbus Avenue near 82d Street, 212 595 4300.

The abysmal: Le Monde, where we met friends in from Chicago to drop off his baby at Columbia, where Bob was speaking late. The location and the idea of a sidewalk cafe had seemed ideal, but I guess our memories of the place were a little too misty-colored. We wound up sitting inside because it was so miserable outside, and our table was awkward, our waitress even more so (and neglectful to boot). Even worse, the food made me embarrassed for New York. I didn’t taste our friends’ entrees, but we all shared a salad made with anemic tomatoes (in August!) When was the last time you got butter pats in wrappers, all melted and chilled back together? My duck sausage was not cooked so much as fried into a chew toy (The Cat liked it fine next day), and the potatoes with it were an inch deep in salt (and I can eat salt straight). Bob’s steak was not-great chewy meat with oversalted sides, too. All of which would have been tolerable if we had maybe had a waitress whenever more wine was needed. WIGB? Bob will be up there constantly, but it’s dead to me. Surely there has to be somewhere decent to reconnoiter?

New York minutes

The good, even though: Recipe, twice. The first time it was four of us, early, and we dutifully got into the Epago program, sharing the macaroni and cheese with corn, peas and bacon as an appetizer (good, not great) and a nice panna cotta for dessert, plus one bottle of wine, and happily going on our way. As always, the main courses were superb, both my halibut and The Consort’s huge pork chop. All in all, a perfect evening. So great that I came home and reserved for two nights later with a new guy in town, one who doesn’t understand that you only rent a table in this town, especially in a tiny, very good restaurant. Food and service were again superb (I had the duck, we shared a crab cake), but we were having such a great time discussing the sorry state of the world and America’s sorry part in it that we kept ordering more wine until finally the host had to come by and tell us people had been waiting 15 minutes for our table. Or, here’s the check and what’s your hurry? It was rather mortifying, even under Bob’s name. WIGB? Only for lunch for a while, I guess. It is the best restaurant in the neighborhood at that price point. 452 Amsterdam near 82d Street, 212 501 7755.

The improved: Cafe Luxembourg, where we met friends for an early dinner on Saturday and reveled in the best part of Manhattan in August — no assholes. Only afterward did they confess that they had preferred Compass because they had had rushed and un-fun experiences here. But this great waiter let us take our very long sweet time talking before ordering, so we could enjoy the great room and the mellow noise level. I never think of the food as brilliant, but my hanger steak was beautifully cooked and well matched with bearnaise, broccoli rabe and potatoes “confit,” and Bob’s good branzino came with baby leeks and a very spicy tomato compote. Dr. Bugs seemed happy with his lobster roll (we were with his fries), while Lady Bugs’s corn ravioli with truffles could have used more of the former. I also tasted the shared chocolate-coconut terrine, which was like stacked Almond Joys but better than that sounds. But the best thing that landed on the table was the mango gazpacho, tomato-free and very lively with cilantro oil. The food was so much better than I remembered that I actually tracked down the waiter to ask if the chef was new, and he seemed taken aback. WIGB? Absolutely. Not many places in this town are that reliable. 200 West 70th Street, 212 873 7411.

The right place on the right night: The Corner, the latest incarnation at 93d and  Columbus, where we recharged our batteries the night we got home from Istanbul and then remembered to meet up with a young friend reeling from a sting by a Portuguese man o’war on her vacation in North Carolina. I thought she would get into the three-for-$10 
“steak” sliders at happy hour at the bar, but she landed first and chose a sidewalk table; luckily her favorite things were available there, too (although they were pretty overcooked). I had the quite respectable gazpacho, a huge bowlful, while Bob ordered the crab cakes again. The salad with cheese and almonds that I had liked the first time must have needed dressing not on the side, though, because Pam didn’t seem to attack it with gusto. WIGB? Totally. It’s close by, the setting’s great and the food hasn’t disappointed. 680 Columbus Avenue, 212 280 4103.

The wrong place on the right night: Jimmy’s No. 43 in the East Village, where I have always wanted to go but where the food was too small-plates for the occasion, which was a chance to reconnect with a photographer friend in from New Hope who’s spending more time in front of the camera than behind it these days. He was happy with the amazing beer selection, we less so with the wines served in Chimay goblets (message: don’t go to a beer specialist for anything else). But I should have understood the food would come out as the cook got it together, and that portions would be tres petite. We shared the good fried sausage slices with mustard and the shisito peppers, then one Bob had the bratwurst sandwich and the other, not sure why, “The Piggery salami,” which was seriously good but decidedly dainty. I usually drag our friend to more high-end places than he would like, but I think I aimed too low this time. WIGB? Sure, if I were in the neighborhood, after a movie and looking for something little in a convivial room. And had cash on me. 43 East Seventh Street, 212 982 3006.

New York minutes/Latish July 2009

The not bad: Toast, where my consort and I headed to reconnect on neutral territory after his week teaching a workshop in Santa Fe. He had noticed it on the bus ride back from LaGuardia, so we headed north for a change and got a pleasant-enough table on the sidewalk and decent-enough food. The guacamole was rather wan, to the point that Mr. Salt Shunner actually reached for the shaker and shook hard. But my Caesar was better than average for $6.95. And his $15.95 pistachio-coated salmon may have been a dainty portion but arrived atop a huge pile of surprisingly tasty vegetable-rice pilaf. A bottle of decent rosé added only $20 to the tab. WIGB? He already has. And if it’s good enough for the famous  neighbors . . . 2737 Broadway at 105th Street, 212 663 7010.

The serviceable: Spice, the new one on 13th, where we headed because Bob was starving after the Greenmarket and at least it was someplace new. It’s pretty swanky for a $7.50 two-course lunch joint, with a serious bar and sleek design. And I was quite encouraged by my “duck wrapped” starter, which turned out to be a mound of good chopped meat with sauce and crisps to wrap in iceberg lettuce leaves. But the Samui phad Thai was gruesome, a sweet mess of bitter greens and glop with bits of smoked tofu, too-long carrot strands and great chunks of stringy eggs (yes, it turns out: eggs can be made stringy). Bob was happier with his eggplant with holy basil plus chicken although his steamed dumpling app was rubbery. But for that price and setting you can’t really complain. WIGB? Maybe. It does have location, location. 39 East 13th Street, 212 982 3758.