My new/old goal is to clean off my desk and clear up my life (or vice versa), so here is a report on an encore at Bustan, on the Upper West Side, to which my consort and a friend and I resorted on a sweltering night after seeing a line out the door at the new, “downtownesque” Jin Ramen after the extraordinary “Wolfpack.” We were thrilled to get a table in the backyard garden even though the fan aimed in our direction was soon headed toward youngs. And the service was quite good, which meant we soon were tearing into the superb mazettim (taramasalata, hummus, smoked eggplant spread for $16) with the excellent flatbread that of course required reordering. Gummy-fried calamari, however, was Bottom Line-level and the felafel I insisted we order was fried-dry and unredeemed by the chutneyesque sauce with it. WIGB, though? Undoubtedly. Those spreads and that garden are quite a seductive combo. We blew through two bottles of verdejo like water, however, and paid $54 a head.
My latest filing under “reach should exceed grasp:” This layabout’s hard-working consort has a newish rule that we can only go out to eat if we will eat something substantially better than we could eat at home. And I did, after all, train as a chef, cook in a restaurant, cater and spend nearly half my lifetime developing recipes for $ (I just did an average there; otherwise it once would be $$$$). But sometimes the rule gets bent. Sometimes four times in one week.
The high had to be a lucky find after the New Museum and a Di Palo’s run (for the cheapest Illy + best Parmigiano-Reggiano in town). Our pal in from DC had not had lunch, and we reflexively headed to Parm in NoLIta when I remembered we always pass by and wonder about the sidewalk cafe at Gelso & Grand, the enticing restaurant on the corner where a deli once sold Italian products and snacks like arancini in my street food days before the Twitter ate my life. I would have been happy with pizza only slightly better than the tourist crap in all the other cafes on Mulberry, but the $19 “Inferno” was actually excellent: good-to-the-bones crust, lots of capicola, a sweet-burning heat to the sauce. Whatever the plural is of bruschetta were also fabulous, one set topped with a shell-bean puree plus pancetta, the other with burrata, cherry tomatoes and a drizzle of Port reduction. The best part: An order is two, but your three-top can get a third for $5 more. Rosé from Lombardy was a decent pour for $12. Service was perfectly attentive. So, WIGB? Absolutely. The people-watching was jaw-dropping — suffice it to say that stretch of Little Italy is one more place where you will not spot Bill Cunningham.
The low, however, was easily brgr, where we wound up after the Sunday Greenmarket when Bob unexpectedly expressed interest in a burger, something that crosses his screen about once a year (so I know to click on it). I had waited what felt like six days for one to be overcooked a few weeks before at Fairway’s cafe, so we couldn’t go there, and my stomach still feels distended from the hangover one I had at Spring Natural on New Year’s Day, so we couldn’t go back there. Unfortunately, I remembered neighbors saying they had been getting good grass-fed burgers at brgr, and we wandered over to Broadway. Not only did the things take just short of forever or Fairway. The flavor was as AWOL as the vowels in the name. Neither the meat nor the “Cheddar” nor the mustard nor the tomato nor, even, the bun had any taste at all. We just kept eating and eating, hoping the next bite would pay off. Nope. (And the fries were seriously lame, too.) It says it all that we stopped in Zabar’s afterward and found one small sample of mangalitsa ham was a “wake up, tastebuds” mouthful. WIGB? The clincher was doing the math and realizing Fairway was a better deal, at $9.50 including fries; these were $8.50 plus. No wonder that logo has always reminded me of Goatsie.
Almost as disappointing was the brisket at Mighty Quinn’s in the West Village, where we trotted after the awesomeness that is the new Whitney. Once again, it was dry and chewy and not particularly barbecue-y. The chain had redeemed itself the other week at Birchfield Place, but I have to concur with Bob: It will be a long time, if ever, before we brave that stuff again. It’s a good thing we only split one sandwich, and it’s a good thing it came with the usual generous sides of coleslaw and pickles (celery, onion, cucumber and jalapeño) for $9.50. And we only needed that because we had fortified ourselves before tackling all floors of the museum by sharing a couple of carnitas tacos off the Taco Truck on the gorgeous High Line. Those were more tortillas than (dull) filling.
The fourth exception to the rule was West Bank Cafe in Hell’s Kitchen, to which we resorted for proximity’s sake after the genius of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (which, beyond the great script, photography and acting, boasted some fud jokes, including rabbit andouille). Our friends had suggested Taboon, but the prices online were insane (no wines under about $45, entrees in the $30s) plus we had gotten the brush-off when we stopped in one night after a “Daily Show” filming. Here, with the After Eight menu, we got a $35 Provencal rosé, a reasonably quiet table and the usual reliable, good-value cooking. My eggplant parmesan teamed with arugula and tomatoes, for $15, was almost Parm level (The Cat WCTLAFW approved to the point of stealing the salad off my plate the next day). Bob and Diane’s chicken breasts were juicy, with a fine sauce and lots of side vegetables including mashed potatoes (The Cat really approved). And I didn’t try Len’s shrimp but approved his wild mushroom risotto balls with their good truffle aioli for dipping. WIGB? Anytime we’re trapped in that tourist wasteland. Also, too? Upper West Side restos should offer After Eight menus. Bill ’em as stroller-free.
That awkward moment when you all pick up the menu and think “this looks reasonable” right before a chosen one blurts: “The cheapest red is $60.” Yep, that was our four-top at Recette, which I had picked for its proximity to Norwood, where a friend was doing a book promo, and because we had wandered in over the summer and been shut out cuz we’d had no reservation even though it was empty. Luckily, our friends can roll with any surprise, so we all ordered small despite the server’s advice to figure on two to three items per person. And we all filled up, not least thanks to the cayenne-chocolate cakelettes presented with the check, which also arrived with a cheery “the salt cod fritters are on us,” presumably to compensate for the wine arriving well after our whole table of small plates had.
My consort had wisely ordered those salt cod fritters instantly for the table, and their dryness was offset by the rich lamb sausage ragu on which they sat (the promised curry aioli was imperceptible). I won with the Berkshire pork belly, rich as melted lard but enlivened by the panoply of accoutrements: rock shrimp, turnips, romesco sauce, sherry caramel. I didn’t try one friend’s marinated hamachi with uni etc., but the duck fat fingerlings he ordered were sensational. Bread? Perfect. Butter? Perfect temperature + salt. Unfortunately, the two of us who succumbed to the scallops really did succumb. The two outsized mollusks on each plate for $26 were teamed with beets, Brussels sprouts and caviar beurre blanc. And maybe they were the freshest in the sea. But the sauce made them taste, as Bob put it, like the fish he remembered his mom cooking up on pope-proscripting Friday nights in Buffalo. Our debate back to the subway was pretty much: “Ill-conceived or badly executed?”
And of course Bob had the last word when I defensively said: “At least they train the staff to fix mistakes.” And he, having actually paid our half of the bill, responded: “I’d rather they train them not to make mistakes.” WIGB? Nope. Not with Bar Bolonat so close by.
(As for Norwood, it really was the perfect setting for the reading, with just the right element of decadence for a book titled “Empire of Sin.” It is a private club, and we did feel privileged to be there. But when we walked up to the cash bar, the wineglasses were supersized thimbles — shades of the old P&P where Bob and I met back in the last century — and one whiff of white and one whiff of red came to $30.)
Apparently the seventh (or is it the eighth, or ninth?) time is the charm. After one more perfect meal at RedFarm uptown I’m finally motivated to write about it. So far my consort and I have eaten there alone and with friends and without each other and have sent other friends there, and it always, always delivers. Even though, as we were reminded on our last indulgence, the prices are rather “holy shit!” — a couple who crowded down the bar from us walked out rather quickly after perusing the menu. No matter. More room for the rest of us.
And if they’d asked, I coulda told them exactly how to order. Lift your eyes above the $48 lobster noodles and $41 Creekstone steak and stick to the dim sum section of the long menu. If you have to, venture into “starters & salads.” The bill will still be equivalent to a meal for four in Flushing, but then you will have eaten food you could not get even after an hourlong ride on the 7 train.
If I hadn’t spent the last few years feeling so fortunate to join a group of Asian-eating/eating-Asian friends, though, I would not be so appreciative of how brilliant the concepts and cooking are at RedFarm. I’ve eaten a lot o’soup dumplings, but Joe Ng’s in their silken wrappers really are the best, not least because the quality of the pork justifies the foie gras price.
Those are the most comparable to Chinatown/Flushing, but the genius of the RedFarm menu is how it strides far and wide away from typical lists. At our last lunch, we split the souplings plus “crunchy vegetable & peanut dumplings,” pan-fried but very airy, as well as the eggplant “bruschetta” (really tempuraesque-fried slices) topped with smoked salmon. And we finished with the “barbecued” Berkshire pork belly, the thin slices of super-tender, well-spiced meat paired with blackened jalapeños.
But we were restrained because we have chomped through a pretty good section of the kitchen’s offerings over the last year. The only danger in ordering is succumbing to too many fried temptations, like the killer egg roll stuffed with Katz’s pastrami along with the pan-fried pork buns.
I’m not a shrimp fan, but I’ll take the shrimp and snowpea-leaf dumplings and anything else Ng wraps up. The “Pac-Man” shrimp dumplings are also a trip. I can’t pick a favorite dish, although the crispy duck and crab dumplings come close, with the bird stuffed into the claws, fried and laid alongside a green curry sauce with vegetables. We usually have to order duck breast skewers with litchi when they’re on the specials list, too, and anything else with duck.
Full disclosure: Whenever Eddie Schoenfeld has been on the premises, we’ve gotten preferential treatment and usually a dish or two comped. So we know the best seats are in a booth. But the real extra is hearing about his travails in getting the place open.
RedFarm takes no reservations, but if you call ahead you can get a good read on how long the wait will be and walk in just in time. Just remember to tell the hosts you called. Otherwise you could get stuck back by the service station. And this is the rare restaurant where the seats (at the bar) next to the toilets are preferable. (Do check out the toilets, BTW.)
Something old: Brasserie Magritte on the Upper East Side, where my consort and I headed after the divisive “Inside Llewyn Davis”* rather than resorting to our usual Toloache in that restaurant dead zone. The place looks great, with, of course, paintings and symbols hanging everywhere. And the staff was quite friendly. But we got an odd table, too wide for two and in an awkward spot, and the cooking would be more suited to musty French joints in the Theater District. My sad duck confit, an appetizer, seemed fatigued, while Bob’s $25 coq au vin looked and tasted like yesterday’s special. The $9 frites with two sauces at least delivered. WIGB? Maybe. It is a dead zone. And the setting did motivate us to go see the real Magrittes at MOMA, which were totally vaut le voyage.
*I’m apparently alone in liking it. Not least for the “where are his testicles?” scene.
Something new: Cafe Luxembourg on the Upper West Side, where I met a great friend who was staying off Times Square and wanted to meet in that dead zone between him and me. As I promised, “The food is not dazzling, but the place is pleasant.” And it still has its charm, and good energy, but the waitress seemed not quite up to the selling job for the menu and wine. I was tempted by my usual fish and chips (for the fries) but thought I should give a special a try; my reward was a beautiful slab of $32 halibut cooked dry, with no sauce, just a scattering of ramps and vegetables. Rolando said his sea bass was in the same sorry state. He had tuna crudo to start and we sort of split the rather dinery profiteroles. He sent back first glass of wine because it was too sweet (not fruity — sweet), and I noticed how chintzy the flatware felt. Still, WIGB? Sure. For the fish and chips and the space and, not least, the acoustics. Our table felt as if we were under a dome. We could actually talk.
While I’ve been DAOTI, sad fates have befallen a couple of places in my catch-up pile of receipts. Casa Pomona on the Upper West Side, where we took refuge after “American Hustle” one night when Kefi’s kitchen was closed early (where are we? Middle Earth?), is apparently becoming a Flex Mussels. The food on that second or third visit was respectable (three types of croquetas, cheese, migas) and certainly the service was snappy. But seafood might be an improvement. And Calliope has lost its chefs, which means the end of the best cheeseburgers I have ever eaten. I’m just glad I had the foresight to go have one last one before I even knew it would be the last — I’d sent friends there, but they apparently are not into cerebral experiences and were underwhelmed, so I took myself back just to see if it was as spectacular as I’d remembered. And it was even better: great beef, cooked perfectly, on chewy ciabatta that stood up to the sturdiness of the meat, with perfect fries and a mustardy sauce for both spreading and dipping. This was a late lunch, so the gorgeous room was quiet. I’m just sorry we never made it there for dinner. The spicy tripe Bob ordered twice at brunch was amazing both times. And I’m saying that about tripe.
So where the hell have I been (eating)? So many satisfying places I get overwhelmed trying to remember all of them over all those months. I can’t decide whether to work backward or qualitywise, so I guess I’ll do both just to grease the neglected gears. Telepan Local in TriBeCa really was vaut le voyage on a shivery night. The space is like a cabin in the woods, right down to the JC Penney plaid shirts on the servers and the hang-’em-yourself coatroom. But the host was super-sophisticated — he shunted Ben Franklin in a yachting cap aside to seat my consort and me because we had arrived before her and whoever that guy was she was with. I wanted to try the place for the Buffalo quail I’m including in a story, and it alone was worth the $100-including-Rueda tab, the meat super-tender, the sauce Frank’s-spicy. But we also shared superb sourdough pizzetta topped with meaty-tasting Brussels sprouts, sage and pecorino, lively tempuraesque fried watercress with cashews and chili oil, just-okay arancini with bone marrow and Parmigiano aioli and spectacular smoked trout migas, the flaky fish a great counterpoint to the eggs and bread crumbs. Service was nervous but still: WIGB? Absolutely. Real energy in the room and on the plate.
The good: Lian Won in Bensonhurst, where we met up with our Asian-eating/eating-Asian pals for a Saturday lunch and where we had the kind of experience you can only experience with a big group of adventurous eaters who are not just on a return visit but have brought a Cantonese speaker this time. My China-hand consort and I arrived first in the empty restaurant, flummoxing everyone (he remembered too late that the Chinese do not show 10 with all fingers in the air but with two crossed), and the waiter still soon had a pink tablecloth laid out under the Lazy Susan and teacups all around; when our friends started arriving, the excitement and engagement only built, especially after one pal showed a photo on her smartphone to order a dish, superb water spinach with salted fish. She also forged ahead in ordering the house specialties, a Chiu Chowesque duck with awesome skin/flesh/sauce and an eel and rice casserole that was preceded by a clear soup made from the bones. We got talked into the large on that, for $40, but we made a pretty good dent in it, especially after the waiter scraped up the crusty bits of the rice. That Lazy Susan was soon overcrowded with oxtail cooked with boiled peanuts; frogs’ legs (I couldn’t); “steam meat paste with salt fish,” which proved to be more like the filling for one big dumpling; shrimp with awesome taro plus assorted nuts including gingko (which, it turns out, do not smell like shit); fish with water chestnuts and French lily (you had to be there); loofah and mountain mushrooms, and more. WIGB? Probably not, only because it was one long, long schlep on the D train on a Saturday, and we’d need interpreters. Anyone else, tho: Go.
The pretty good: Pearl & Ash on the Lower East Side/Nolita border, where we lured two friends who love adventurous food and where our reward was a relatively quiet table near the kitchen where we could actually talk while being bombarded with small plates, all just large enough to share. Dr. and Lady Bugs had wanted to go back to Aldea to reconnect, but I pushed the adventurers to try something new. And thanks allah for that quietish table. Bob was saddened to find only fortified wines and beers were on offer for cocktails when he had his liver set on a cocktail, but the one he tried was near-gin enough. Melissa and I were overwhelmed by the wine list, to the point that Bob had to ask the servers to hold off on the food until we could at least get a glass in hand — especially after the first pricey bottle we chose turned out to be off and we had to wait for a “fresh” old one. And the dishes just kept landing, so fast it was hard to taste, let alone mentally absorb: “fluke, watermelon, chili lime” and “hanger tartare, egg cocoa, melba,” and “diver scallop, fennel, lily bulb, berbere.” Before we’d gotten through that shopping list, we had “bread, chicken butter” (Emperor, meet your new clothes) and “octopus, sunflower seed, shiso” and “pork meatballs, shiitake, bonito” and “tea-cured salmon, goat cheese, tamarind seafood” and “sweetbread, sherry, heart of palm, morcilla.” I liked “crab, corn, yogurt, dashi” but passed on “lamb belly & heart, kohlrabi, hazelnut” even though I’m always happy to see an underused vegetable get some menu play. “Quail, almond, pomegranate, chicken skin” was yet another instance of the new duck getting lost in over-conceptualization. Interestingly, the sides were most seductive: “potatoes, porcini mayo, chorizo” was a choir singing in perfect harmony as was “long beans, uni, cream.” I should have taken notes on or photos of “blueberry, milk, honey, creme fraiche” because I remember it less vividly than the dessert I argued against, on @cuozzo’s advice. The Fernet-Branca ice cream sandwich turned up on both our table and the tab, and all I’ll say is that Bob finished it while recalling the night he was on the road on a budget and the cheapest thing in the mini-bar was that digestif. He drank it and regretted it. WIGB? Sadly, no, and not because it cost more than dinner at the Bugses first choice would have. I think we’re entering the age of the “been there, eaten that” restaurant. Once you’ve seen the mountaintop, you’re fine with going back to Sensible Valley.
The fabulous: Melba’s in Harlem, where a friend doing great guerrilla art in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington lured us after drinks on his rooftop nearby and where I walked out mortified I had had no awareness of all the changes happening such a short walk up the street off which I live. For starters, I had had no idea we would actually A) need a reservation on a Sunday night in late summer and B) need to be sure to honor that res. But we showed up and got a table thanks to Camilo’s due diligence. Everything about the place was uplifting: the room, the wine, the crowd, the service, the mood and of course the food. We split the spinach-cheese empanadas, which were unexpectedly satisfying, and modern. The macaroni and cheese was forks-down the best I’ve ever eaten, with the balance of dairy to carb completely reversed. I just tasted Bob’s chicken & waffles and passed on Camilo’s catfish, but both guys seemed happy. WIGB? No question.
The not bad: Barley & Grain on the Upper West Side, where we headed with friends in search of a new place after the very disturbing “Fruitvale Station” and where we were all thrilled things were not worse in such a new spot. Despite the brown-booze emphasis implied in the redundant name, we ordered a bottle of rosé plus one glass of beer, then another bottle after thinking we could all share a burger. It never arrived, but at least the din level was bearable. Crabcake sliders, two on the plate, were pretty satisfying, although the accompanying potato chips were rather underwhelming, Roasted eggplant with feta, olives, and cherry tomatoes was outstanding. I didn’t take attendance on the “kohlrabi quinoa salad mango crispy marcona almond, lemon, EVOO” but was happy to scarf it up. “Ancho chili beer battered seasonal vegetables,” though, were just bad bar food, and I call bullshit on the “lime horseradish aioli.” Not being a lamb tolerator, I passed on the grilled lollipops, but everyone else seemed to like everything about them but the size. WIGB? Sure. The Tangled Vine knows from running a food/wine joint in our neighborhood — we chose the former for drinks with CT friends just a few nights later. But you do have to wonder about a place whose chef is sitting in the DR with pals while an order for a burger goes missing.
The always good I: Cafe 2 at MOMA, where we took a break midway between the aural art show and the Walker Evans and where we had an even better lunch since the system has changed to waiter service rather than walk-in-point-and-wait. For once we restrained ourselves, which was wise since the prosciutto cotto/provolone panino and the quinoa salad with avocado and cucumbers were, as always, beyond perfectly generous. And of course the cappuccino and macchiato were right up to Danny standards. WIGB? Absolutely, especially after we took a spin up to the top floor to check out the fancier cafe. 2 is the way to go.
The always good II: Momofuku Ssam in the East Village, where I lured my old pastry instructor from restaurant school after connecting at the Union Square Greenmarket and where the duck and service were A+ yet again. I liked the pickled vegetables that came with my “set” better once I kittybagged them, but the meat was as sensational as always. To the point that my consort was convinced he was tasting duck sausage, not breast meat. WIGB? Always.
The redeemed: Mermaid Inn on the Upper West Side, where we walked in and out one night and happily back in two nights later. I feel bad that the reservation for five the first time was in my name on OpenTable, because even though we agreed to 7:15 rather than 7:30 the din was pretty deafening. Within minutes it was clear there was no point to having come together to see off a young friend if we couldn’t hear a fucking word she said. Our usual Social Media Monday waiter came over to say hello, and I had to say some version of that, after which the manager came over to make amends but really make things worse (we didn’t want to sit out an indefinite wait for a table in the back room where we suffered last time because the only thing worse than screaming kids in a restaurant is drunken olds). So we moved on to the quiet of Elizabeth’s outdoor cafe, with fine food (that Cobb salad is among The Cat’s favorites because I bring home all the grilled chicken). And then two nights later we moved on with friends from rosé at Tangled Vine to a reserved sidewalk table at Mermaid. With our favorite waiter. Not only was everyone super-pleasant and the noise level bearable both inside at the bar as we waited and outside as we lingered. OFW pushed us to order snacks to take advantage of the happy hour prices in the 60 seconds before they went up (shishito peppers, fried calamari, a shrimp slider), then he dropped off hush puppies on him with our entrees. Clone that guy! WIGB? It really is the best place for blocks.
The good for what it is: The Ellington on the Upper West Side, which we resorted to mostly for outdoor ambiance after a weekend getaway. The show on the street at 106th and Amsterdam was almost as satisfying as the food, although Bob and I had to swap salads. I ordered the chopped, he had the Caesar because he wanted protein. Still, WIGB? Sure. Nice people, fair prices, excellent sidewalk tables.
The seriously good: Empellon Cocina in the East Village, where my consort and I headed after getting shut out of the City Streets tunnel attraction on a Saturday and after a Twitter pal had been raving about the pork being better than Daniel’s or Chang’s. The menu was more eggs- and sugar-oriented because it was the worst time of the week — brunchtime — but we were blown away by the tacos, one order with short rib pastrami and the other with English peas and ricotta. We also ordered bacon guacamole with black pepper salsa and masa chips, and it had barely landed when the main attractions were set down. But that turned out to be the right order of eating. We got to concentrate on how fabulous the tastes and textures of the fillings were, then could slowly explore all the nuances of the appetizer: the avocado-bacon harmony, the crunchiness of the crisps, the way the creamy salsa amplified all the tastes. With chips, you dunk and gorge. It would be unpossible with this. The restaurant itself is also gorgeous, and everyone but our waiter was muy hospitable — WTF with bringing the check while we’re still eating? WIGB? Can’t wait, although for dinner and on the early side, because that dazzling array of tequilas and mezcals seemed like a pretty good indicator it might get loud.
The surprisingly good: ABV on the Upper East Side, where Bob suggested we go on one of his just-back nights rather than settling for Elizabeth’s yet again and where the food, service and noise level were almost like eating at home. We split a chilled spicy tomato soup that proved you don’t need to translate that concept into Spanish, especially if you add charred edamame and cotija cheese. Then we had an outstanding brisket torta with avocado, cheese etc. plus delicate but rich gnocchi with asparagus, smoked ricotta, mushrooms and more. WIGB? On the early (quiet) side, anytime. A $32 rosé was fuel for the walk back across the park in the gorgeous light.
The unsurprisingly good: Barrio Chino on the Lower East Side, where we wound up after a stock-up trek to Di Palo even though we had set out with Parm on our minds — something about the lure of a jalapeño margarita whomped the notion of eggplant Parmesan. As always, the food was fine (chorizo quesadilla for Bob, huge and great molletes for me), and that margarita was vaut le voyage. The kitchen was kind of snoozy, but the server was at the top of his form. WIGB? Anytime we’re close by. Although when we walked by empty Mission Chinese on our way to the killer black sesame gelato at Il Laboratorio, we did have a bit of eater’s remorse. One day we’ll make it there.
The pretty good: Market Table in the West Village, where I was treated to lunch by an editor who had offered Korean or Greek or Bar food and where the dissonance between careful cooking and craptastic acoustics was rather unnerving. (Neither of us is a loudmouth in person.) I should have picked up on her vibe and hints about the “roasted vegetable falafel,” because it really was a trudge. The Mexican corn off the cob we shared tasted pretty great, and so did the quinoa hush puppies the chef comped her as a powerful regular. And she sounded happy with her watermelon and peekytoe crab gazpacho. WIGB? Sure, if someone else is paying.
The all good again: The Smith across from Lincoln Center, Mermaid Inn uptown, Elizabeth’s and Txikito. At that last one, we had much of what I’d enjoyed on my first foray, including the crab gratin, but we also loved the cured pork canapé and a salad of baby arugula, egg and crisp silverfish. And then there was Saiguette on the Upper West Side, which really is too great to be anywhere near this close to home. The banh mi is easily the best we’ve ever had, even when lemongrass-grilled pork fills in for the special pork belly. Summer rolls are exceptional and steamed (not fried) dumplings pretty great.
The good: The Smith up/down by Lincoln Center, where we happily wandered in after the great OSF opening of the new Moving Walls galleries and where we immediately sat down at a non-deafening sidewalk table with fine service. Wine was involved, but only the glass, since the Soros crew springs for the bottomless fountains. And because the refreshments had also been so lavish beforehand, I was happy to eat only part of a flatbread topped with ricotta, red onions and olives while Bob blissfully tucked into his brick chicken and mashed potatoes. WIGB? Anytime it’s warm enough to eat outside.
The surprisingly good, given the hype: Prune in the East Village, where we were actually able to walk right in after an app party at Pizza a Casa — and after being offered barstools facing a wall at Fat Radish. (Designers: check your sight lines before signing off on floor plans.) In a million Fridays I would never have expected this, but the hostess instantly walked us to a nice table where we soon had pappadum to nibble on while ordering drinks (perfect spritz for him, Saumur for me), Neither of us was open to a real meal after tasting calzone and stromboli and pizza, so we shared appetizers: soft-shell crab with pea shoots, dandelion salad with feta, toasted manti. The last arrived swimming in a yogurt sauce with harissa that made up for the inconsistency in the cooking of the actual Turkish ravioli (some were too hard, some just fine). And the crab was very flavorful, especially with its curry sauce, but the frying was less than artful. Still, I can understand the appeal of the place, which we had never braved, always assuming it was too crowded. Now I know it’s the olds who fill the tables. So I’m impressed the food has as much character as it does, even though Bob was mildly disappointed when the legendary Triscuits and sardines were not on offer. WIGB? Sure. It felt like Philadelphia. In a good way.
The unsurprisingly good: Rural in Flushing, where we were lured by our eating-Asian/Asian-eating friends yet again and where even the meats not to my taste were worth trying, not least because the cuisine is Dongbei, formerly Manchurian, which is a trip. As always, the table just magically expanded as more people arrived, so we all could taste and talk, starting with peanuts and sprouts with hot peppers as amuse, then garlic scapes with pork, lamb with scallions, pork with potatoes, beef tendon in a wonderful sort of “Bolognese” and steamed dumplings, half with chives and half with cabbage, both very different. One dish none of us, even those with language skills, could translate would have tasted better to me if I’d known what it was; the best description would be sea knuckles. Tiger vegetable was a more clear-cut highlight, a toss of cilantro stems, chilies and scallions with a touch of sesame oil. But my favorite dish was the spicy quail, tender and piled high with dried chilies. The table winner, though, was the cumin flounder: the whole fish encrusted with spices and cooked so perfectly even the fins were crunchy-good. WIGB? In a heartbeat. As always, more food than we could all consume came to $20 a head. And, as always, the service was superb, the reward for having both language skills and adventurous palates among us. We. Are. Lucky. 42-85 Main Street, 718 353 0086.
The fine: Spring Natural on the Upper West Side, where we headed with a friend after the truly amazing “Frances Ha” when she balked at our standby (Fairway) and where the hospitality and setting were so admirable we realized only as we were walking home that the food was just okay. Really, we walked in and the hostess promised us a table momentarily, and not only did she make good on that, she moved us to a better one as soon as it opened up so the three of us could sit comfortably and (sort of) hear each other. The waitress also excelled; she really knew her wines (the rosé we chose was all of $34). I didn’t try Donna’s tuna nicoise or Bob’s crispy chicken but can say the rice that came with the latter was pretty great. My “Thai falafel salad” was what it was. The chickpea patties were not quite Sidoesque, but the dressing on the greens and tomatoes got the job done. WIGB? Shortly, in fact. It’s close, it’s pretty, it’s so well-run.
The seriously good, again: Montmartre in Chelsea, where my consort and I happily headed after French caught our fancy during the phenomenal “Genius of Marian” at the Tribeca Film Festival (showing at the Clearview) and where we were amazed to get a table (for four, no less) instantly, followed by typically great Little Wisco service. It was late for us olds, and we’d shared a small (read Gross) bag of popcorn because we got to the theater too soon, so I only ordered an appetizer. Which turned out to be nearly the size of an entree, for $17: Quail Tunisienne, a whole little bird grilled and quartered and set over couscous and spicy yogurt with dried apricots and toasted almonds. (The Cat WCTLWAFW was thrilled with the breast I brought home). Bob had the $25 “smoked and roasted chicken,” which arrived as cubes of intensely tender, flavorful chicken teamed with a shit-ton of fabulous red peppers and breaded and fried eggplant slices. Even though we ordered so little, we were still presented with an amuse of crab with cucumbers plus superb bread (Sullivan Street?) with good butter. Wines by the glass came in those damn little glasses but were still fine. WIGB? Absolutely. I’m not sure why the “real” critics have it in for the place, but we’re two for two there.
The not bad, again: The Ellington up by Columbia, where we dragged two friends after a reconnaissance of the Conservatory Garden (still a few weeks away from prime photo time) when Toloache 82 had no tables open and we wanted to stay on the north end of the island. We got there around 6:30 so were able to get a table fast while the windows were open to let the din dissipate; by the time the noise level was on high, so were we. But maybe not as much as the server, who was consistent only in her capability of mixing up orders. The $12 flatbread, this time topped with mushrooms and truffle oil, was not as satisfying as our previous smoked mozzarella/tomato/pesto but still got the starter job done. And I didn’t try the Brussels sprout-and-bacon salad or $16 bison burger, but our friends and Bob seemed happy (we’ll know for sure once we propose the place again and get a vigorous “no” shake of both heads — trouble often strikes later). But Bob and I agreed his $21 skirt steak was mighty flavorful, with good fries. Unfortunately, I had to go and succumb to the most certain prescription for disappointment: fish and chips. For $16, this was cod, at least, and not fishy cod, at least. But the breading was grossly sodden. Cubist fries and unmushy peas redeemed the dish, as did being able to kittybag so much for The Cat. Everyone else shared the cheesecake — I could tell by looking it was industrial, and not just because it was over-garnished to the max. WIGB? Undoubtedly. Pickings are slim around here. I understand the rent is too damn high, but why can’t ambitious places open so we can do better than middling without a schlep to other neighborhoods?
The pretty good, again: Cocina Economica Mexico on the Upper West Side, where we headed after the Sunday Greenmarket when Luke’s Lobster didn’t appeal for once and where we had a sit-down lunch for less than Chipotle would cost, in a weirdly empty space (well, it was early). I had a chipotle/loganiza torta again and Bob had the same meat in a cemita, which was goopy with cheese and pungent with red onion. Both ($8 apiece) came with those better-than-they-should-be spicy fries, which were even spicier after I asked for salsas. The torta was better conceived and constructed, but the cemita is what I would have to answer on WIGB? The space is very tight, but it’s also captivating to look at while you await your cheap, good food.