New York minutes/Early December 2011

The nearly perfect: Momofuku Ssam, where my consort suggested we head for lunch on a good friend’s advice after our neighborhood Greenmarket diverted us to Union Square in search of turkey nether regions and where we could only wish for an uptown branch, ideally slightly north of the Milk Bar. As directed, we ordered at the back counter and chose seats at the elevated communal tables facing the rotisserie; while Bob was washing his hands and I was back ordering a glass of wine, our first three choices landed: sublime pulled-pork buns with smoky mayonnaise; broccoli crunchy with smoked bluefish vinaigrette, and perfectly fried duck dumplings laid over pickled red cabbage teamed with sriracha mayonnaise for dipping. Our duck sandwich (banh mi, the menu did not say) was just as sensational, the filling like sliced duck sausage. Every single staffer was professional but engaged, too. WIGB? Can’t wait — especially after watching a duck spin on a spit and everyone around us tuck into rotisserie duck on rice, with or without chive pancakes. 207 Second Avenue at 13th Street.

The seriously good: Osteria Morini in SoHo, where we were able to meet Jersey friends dying to try it because we reserved (online) on a Monday night. We under-ordered, but I at least felt full after tasting three pastas and a bit of two mains (seafood in brodo, mixed grill). The pastas were Italy-worthy, particularly the garganelle with radicchio, cream, prosciutto and truffle butter and the stracci (“pasta rags”) with mushrooms. One friend also knew to ask for the off-the-menu chocolate dessert, essentially a big bowl of melted chocolate. Service was relaxed but superb, and the noise level was bearable. But the wine list tilted toward downtown; the cheapest still red was $46 (at least it was as singular as promised). WIGB? Definitely, although we may try another White joint first. 218 Lafayette Street near Spring, 212 965 8777.

The pretty good: Sookk on the Upper West Side, where we met up with Dr. Bugs before his appointment with our landline and where the food/space were so much better than you would expect in this glasian wasteland. I realize lunch in is a whole other experience from delivery, but I’d rate it at least a B. The room is tiny but nicely designed, even if the textile rolls on the walls do invoke a fabric store, and the staff is super-accommodating. The deal is $7/8 for sublime soup plus appetizer of choice plus main course (w/ or w/out rice) plus coconut ice cream. No wonder none of us cared that our curry/pad see euw/rama dishes were just adequate — fresh hot sauce helped. The good shiitake spring rolls only needed to be dunked into the fried chicken dumplings’ sauce to sing, and the dessert was as finely wrought as the soup. WIGB? Can’t wait, especially with vegetarian friends who are still wasting time/calories at Aangan close by. 2686 Broadway between 102d and 103d, 212 870 0253.

And the abysmal: Landmarc in the dread TWC, where I am mortified to admit that I led five others after the too-long, too self-congratulatory “Artist” in overpriced-restaurantland  and where everything was one step above a diner. I asked the hostess for a quiet spot, and after letting us the reserved cool our heels in the crowded entrance while walk-ins were seated she led us to a back dining room with interrogation-room lighting where two huge tables were sitting, un-set. And we took it because she promised “privacy.” And it went downhill from there. We split the chewy, gummy fried calamari, and it arrived before our wine. (If the waiter had put in the app order later, he might have sold a second bottle.) The busboy cleared away bread plates sloppily before our “mains” arrived, one of which, the calves liver, looked like a fried-hard abortion. (Sunday special of spaghetti and meatballs looked emptied from a can by that good old chef, Boyardee.) And my Caesar looked as if someone had flicked something from a nostril onto rusty-edged romaine; I sent it back while audibly hoping no one spit on it (the replacement was okay). The waiter went AWOL, the busboy crudely cleared everyone’s plates while one person was still eating and we had to beg for water refills. At least it wasn’t deafening, but by the end we had all noticed the sound went up whenever a song started and then down again. We spent too much time after the table was cleared thinking of where we should have gone (consensus: Loi). Thank allah someone thought to check whether service had been added before we surrendered credit cards: Yes, it was 20 percent on the taxed total. WIGB? That AWOL waiter resurfaced to toss out a jaunty “see you later” as we were leaving, and it was all I could do not to respond: “Not on a fucking bet.” I’m even having severe reservations about ever going to Ditch Plains again. I ruined five people’s evening.

New York minutes/Early July 2011

The seriously good: The Dutch, again, in SoHo, where my consort and I were able to walk right in after an early showing of “The Trip” at IFC on a holiday weekend and where the food was even better than we’d remembered. We got a nice corner table where we could sit side by side (inspiring far younger couples) in the happy front room, which is much quieter than the bar, and if the waiter was a bit ditsy and distracted and emptied the rosé bottle too fast, the busboy/runner was a total pro (little things that mean a lot: before clearing the silverware between courses, he discreetly checked the check to see what was arriving next). We’d had popcorn, so I wasn’t going to tackle a main course, which meant Bob got a rare shot at the duck option I always hog. And it was of course perfect, plus the dirty rice with it seemed even dirtier than the first go-round. We split asparagus with pork belly, poached egg and shaved bonito to start, which gets A for effort. Even the whole loaf of warm cornbread that arrives first seemed to have come into its own. But the total winner was my dressed crab, set over avocadoey Green Goddess in a Bloody Mary pool. That is the most amazing combination since the crab-jalapeño crostini at Locanda Verde. WIGB? Every night if I could. The food was even more enjoyable after the fussy stuff in the well-made movie. 131 Sullivan Street at Prince, 212 677 6200.

The seriously lame: The new Zero Otto Nove in the Flatiron, where we made the mistake of heading after the Greenmarket on Fourth of July weekend and where the fact that only three tables were occupied in the huge room should have been a warning that this would not end well. And of course the pizza we remembered as so great on Arthur Avenue, made by the same guy we’d seen tossin’ there, was half-assed, with a doughy crust and sloppily disbursed porcini and grape tomatoes over the mozzarella and Gorgonzola. The eggplant parmesan we shared to start was nearly cold at the center, which made its heaviness fork up even gloppier. The air conditioning was also emitting an annoying high-pitched whine, although the place looks to have cost a bloody fortune to design. But all that would be forgiven if not for the asshole waiter. He was not happy that he kept getting interrupted in his endless specials recitation by busboys trying to shove wads of cardboard to stop the table from rocking, on both sides. Then, when I asked the price of the special pizza, he just said: “How should I know?” Well, if you were going to be the one paying, Bub, you could keep your little secret. (He did admit what I suspected: It would be a lot more than pizzas on the menu.) And when I didn’t finish my half of the eggplant, he asked why. Excuse me? That’s between me and my hips. But his worst offense was lounging near our table so we couldn’t talk. Or dis the joint. WIGB? Not even for free pizza. Afterward we walked through Eataly to see if it was busy on that dead weekend, and we both agreed we’d have been happier eating in the Birreria. . .

The pretty good: Tenpenny in the Gotham Hotel in the Theater District, where we headed after the showing of students’ work at ICP and where the quiet alone would make it vaut le mini-voyage. The over-lit room is strange, and the emptiness didn’t make it any more inviting to us walk-ins, particularly after I’d gotten some bullshit about no tables when I’d called to reserve. But the servers were efficient, and the wine was generously poured. Pork belly tots, an appetizer, tasted underwhelming, neither porky nor totty enough. A starter of mixed spring vegetables was superb, though: roasted, raw, candied & crisped. And the black garlic spaghettini with lump crab, chorizo and charred scallions qualified as brilliant, one of the best pasta dishes ever. WIGB? Absolutely, even just to sit at the bar for a snack. Cuz it’s a wasteland around ICP. 16 East 46th Street, 212 490 8300.

The pretty reliable: Recipe, again, for my welcome back to this time zone after Italy; it’s always best there early at night before everyone gets anxious about turning tables. The cooking was not quite spot-on (pork was done to chew-toy state, and duck was too rare, and not in a good way). But the service was great. 452 Amsterdam Avenue near 81st Street, 212 501 7755. Under the same category, file Luke’s Lobster just down the avenue, where we collected our free roll after having bought 10. And that one was just as good as the first one.

The always good, even better with Twitter discount: Mermaid Inn uptown, where Bob and I loved our two most recent dinners even more for 20 percent off thanks to the secret code of the night. A table on the sidewalk only made things more enjoyable on a hot night. Both times Bob had the mustard-crusted trout with crushed cherry tomatoes and spinach; I had fine roasted cod with truffled mashed potatoes once and just a perfect soft-shell crab appetizer the second outing. (Seared shisito peppers were too bland, though.) A bottle of rosé went fine with each. WIGB? No question. It’s the best place for many blocks. Plus I sent Coloradans there and they were blown away. 568 Amsterdam near 88th Street, 212 799 7400.

The barely bearable: The newish Spice, where we met two friends for an early dinner rather than risk the new Saravanaa and where my promise of relative quiet was a joke. It wasn’t even full and we couldn’t hear each other talk, and we all had travel tales (they were just back from Paris, Bob from Oslo). And the waitress needed remedial English. Plus lessons in how to pour wine. But if was not cheap, the food was better than it had any right to be, especially the duck wrap (although with two few lettuce leaves provided), the papaya salad and the crispy duck main course. Even the Massaman vegetable curry was above average. WIGB? Unfortunately, yes, because of where it is, and what a bargain it is. But Mermaid never looked more enticing when we walked past afterward. 435 Amsterdam Avenue at 81st Street, 212 362 5861.

The port in a literal storm: Market Cafe in Hell’s Kitchen, where a friend in from Veneto and I retreated as the rain was threatening when he had only a quick window of time for catching up before his flight home after going to B&H. I heard no complaints about his steak frites although I should probably not have dissuaded him from ordering the salmon he really wanted after a week of too many sandwiches in the Outer Banks. And I had no complaints about my BLT, which was packed fatter with bacon than any I have ever eaten; there was more than enough to kittybag. Good fries with both were also copious. I don’t recall the service but will add redeeming points for the window table with a fabulous view of those buckets of rain. WIGB? Probably. Because I need to find more places around B&H and the 42d Street movie houses. 496 Ninth Avenue near 38th Street, 212 564 7350.

New York minutes/Mid-May 2011

The straight-ahead good: The Dutch in the old Cub Room in SoHo, where we ventured after being told reservations were only available at 5:30 or after 10:15 on a Monday night and where we were able to walk right in, sit right down and revel in too much food, all as satisfying as it’s been buzzed about online. The oyster “sliders” are just called “little sandwiches” on the menu, and ours was outstanding, with distinctive oyster flavor despite heavy saucing partly thanks to perfect frying (crisp exterior, interior with almost a poached consistency). “White boy Asian ribs,” with sweet-spicy sauce and tender meat, seemed A-level to me, but my consort compared them with the ones he’d had at Oklahoma Joe’s in KCMO recently and rated them a rung down the BBQ ladder. But the eggplant dip with crisp chips proved to be the knockout bar snack, like a beautifully balanced smoky-creamy baba ghanoush. I took half my rib home for The Cat and tried to resist too much dip, but I still could only make it halfway through a superb duck breast, crusted with pecans, laid over dirty rice with gizzards and andouille and topped with the vegetable I loathe most, which turned out to be a brilliant finishing touch  — sliced lengthwise almost paper-thin, so there were no nasty strings, only fresh green flavor. Bob’s super-succulent lamb neck came in the best mole I have ever tasted, with no weird fruity flavor, just chile-nut intensity; red rice and chayote cut the heat and richness. We left with enough of both entrees for lunch the next day. The waitress was also amazing, efficient, attentive and patient enough to answer endless questions. And we snared one of the cheapest bottles on the list, a fine Italian white for $30, poured with no condescension (old rule ratified yet again: the cheapest bottle on a smart list will always be a find). WIGB? Absolutely — beyond the food, the setting and buzz make it worth a trip. And before the tip, the tab was only $113. Extra points for real matches, too. 131 Sullivan Street at Prince, 212 677 6200.

The good with an asterisk: Vinegar Hill House after the lame NY Photo Fest in Dumbo, where at least some of us in a party of five felt a little ridiculous to be waiting in line for a table 20 minutes before the place opened but where the cooking was rivaled only by the service and the place itself, like a discovery in some other city far, far away. Luckily, we were the third group in the door and got a nice table tucked in an alcove where we could actually hear ourselves talk (if also overhear the sad couple at the next table, an old bitch and her resigned husband with pathetic dyed hair). We should have ordered two of the clam pie to share, because it turned out to be not an easily divvied flatbread but a real little pie with an almost liquid center. One bite apiece was a mouthful, though: serious clams with lardons and potatoes in a perfect crust, with a parsley-red onion salad to cut the richness. One order of the charred pork belly on masa flatbread with watercress, sour cream and pumpkinseeds was also enough because of the big flavors, and because the main courses were so substantial, at least in the meat division: huge Red Wattle pork chop with Cheddar grits; braised lamb neck with freekeh and pomegranate yogurt; tilefish with green garbanzos, spring onions, black olives and marjoram, and a special of boned whole trout crusted in cumin and walnuts with baby spinach on the side. Everything was beautifully cooked, especially the tilefish; the trout, unfortunately, could not surmount the fact that it was what it ate — it tasted bland and mealy to me. Everyone was wowed by the salted caramel pudding (butterscotch is a turnoff; caramel a seduction), to the point that the chocolate Guinness cake seemed most impressive as a visual pun, with the white frosting looking like the head on a glass of dark stout. Four of split a bottle of arneis for $38, two of us a little tumbler of Quincy and one indulged in a big glass of Rioja and we got away for $55 a head. WIGB? Probably not, and not because of the silly line to get in. *Just when I was near the end of my tilefish in its wonderful sauce, my fork snared a hair and I gagged. Then I had to wait for the bathroom with a view of the kitchen and saw a smiling chef with a long beard and nearly puked. Bugs don’t gross me out that badly. Everyone else, however, voted yes on a return visit even after I confessed on the train home. 72 Hudson Avenue, Brooklyn, 718 522 1018.

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/Early April 2010

The half-good: Papatzul in SoHo, where my consort and I settled when I wanted Mexican after the too-small Saturday Greenmarket in Tribeca we detoured to rather than face the prides of designer dogs and bewildered tourists in Union Square. Our timing was perfect; Bob paid the check just before a baby shower hit high hysteria (margaritas and cute-gift overload  are a dangerous combination). My $8 torta with chorizo and “Manchego” (really Oaxacan cheese) on a great roll had cascading flavors, with avocado, black beans and red onion. The $10.95 chilaquiles, unfortunately, played exactly one note. The tortilla chips were soggy, the sauce bland, the chicken for $2 extra insipid. But we couldn’t fault the service, and the room looks great at midday. WIGB? Sure — the brunch menu had too many enticing choices — but probably not at night. I imagine the crowd would put the din in dinner. 55 Grand Street near West Broadway, 212 274 8225.

The right place on the right night: Fairway’s cafe, yet again, where I headed with a friend who lives nearby for a cheeseburger and cheap wine after I came by to meet her new kitten, and where the only letdown was not getting table near the window. The fries were erratic (some wide, some thin), but the burger itself was fine, and the coleslaw with it tasted particularly lively. As always, $5 sauvignon blanc buys a lot of goodwill. I left not minding that Ruth Reichl, whom we’d spotted getting into a cab on WEA, undoubtedly went somewhere hipper, or that my consort had had happy meals last week at Cookshop and Recipe while I was left behind (V&T pizza, though, was apparently not so wonderful).

New York minutes/Late July 2009

The pretty good: Applewood in faraway Brooklyn, where we met friends who live nearby but had never been and where the best part was the noise level. Imagine four people sitting at a good-sized table in a nearly full dining room and actually hearing each other talk. But that’s not to discount the food, which was far better than the understated menu led me to expect — except for the goat stew and pan-roasted sweetbreads, most entrees read like stuff I could make at home. The energy and the deftness in the cooking, though, would be beyond me: my $23 sautéed haddock came with peas and bacon plus a potato cake, while my consort’s $23 bluefish was not only perfectly fresh but would have been redeemed in any case by the tapenade with it, and our friend’s $24 grilled pork sausage was certainly impressive. Bob and I split roasted beets with goat cheese fondue and roasted hazelnuts and snared a taste of our other friend’s lively mixed green salad with prunes and country ham and the good scallops with peaches, onion jam and chimichurri she had as a second course. Everyone else was happy with two shared desserts, but I have to confess they were literally forgettable (I don’t care, and I didn’t keep the dessert menu). Wine was a reasonably priced verdejo, and the bread with choice of schmears (blue cheesy, cayenney and plain butter) was a nice touch. Service was fine, and the room is really seductive, with a screen door to the kitchen and a few tables on a little patio out front, but I have to modify my “good” because the entrees were so sloooow in coming — I actually started to wonder if they were grinding the sausage from scratch. WIGB? No, but for only one reason: The whole experience was so satisfying it only made me want to explore others of this ilk. Otherwise, a resounding yes. Starting with the reservation process it was everything a restaurant should be. 501 11th Street off Seventh Avenue, Park Slope, 718 788 1014.

The not bad: Jolie, again in faraway Brooklyn, where six of us decamped after Veuve Clicquot, raspberries and cherries in a fourth-floor walkup and where the ambiance alone was worth the journey. Again, all of us could talk comfortably, and the service was good, and everyone else seemed happy with their food, not least because that night the special was three courses for $30. Maybe it was all the fruit beforehand, but by the time we were seated the only thing that appealed to me on the short menu was the crab cake appetizer. My consort insisted on sharing his beet salad, then gave me a taste of the accouterments [NYT preferred spelling] with his lamb chops and then his sorbets (passion fruit and coconut were sensational). So I didn’t even mind that my choice was heavily breaded and fried and over-garnished to an absurd state; the spicy sauce redeemed it. I was surrounded by apparent happiness. And not just at our table. WIGB? Maybe if I lived closer. 320 Atlantic Avenue between Smith and Hoyt, 718 488 0777.

The almost Italian: Caffe Falai in SoHo, where Bob and I landed after the Saturday Greenmarket just hoping for an alternative to eggs and where the linguine with imported clams was like eating in the pesto homeland. This was the day he should have been flying off to Tuscany to teach as usual, but the Chimp brought down the goddamn global economy, so it was almost bittersweet to try something so transporting: good pasta cooked till it was just chewy enough to support the light and liquid pesto, very tender tiny clams with actual flavor, the ideal balance of sauce to other ingredients. The portion size was also authentic (at $14). Our shared salad with avocado and truffle oil balanced rich and bitter nicely as well. I liked the $12 gnudi with spinach and sage, but Bob hit on exactly why they were off: They seemed unfinished, more like loose cheese and chewy vegetable than a cohesive dish. We both decided we like our focaccia a little lighter and airier, but the other bread, flecked with fennel seeds, made an ideal mop for the vinaigrette, his sauce and the butter on my plate. Tiny, amazing bombolini served with the check almost tempted us to order dessert. Bob’s macchiato was a little milkier than it should be, but then we weren’t in Tuscany. The room is really airy and light and actually better than sitting outside, and the service would be best described as relaxed and professional. WIGB? In a Roman second. 265 Lafayette Street at Prince, 212 274 8615.

New York minutes/End o’ May 2009

The good: Boqueria in SoHo, where we headed with a Philadelphia friend in town for the book expo who expressed a preference for either Caribbean or Mediterranean, anything “light and sunny.” Sort of Spanish sort of fit the bill, although I admit I paused at the blackboard brunch sign out front when I realized how likely eggs were to dominate and how close we were to the Saturday fallback, Aquagrill, with its sidewalk terrace. But it was early, and we got a nice table overlooking the plancha, and the waiter was attentive and the food and wine were excellent even if the music deserved deportation and the bathroom looked worthy of a train, and not in tidy Spain. We just shared a few pricey but excellent tapas: tender octopus on skewers and toast with tomatoes and sugar snap peas in green olive vinaigrette; diver scallops with English peas etc. in bacon vinaigrette; three croquetas — suckling pig, mushroom and salt cod — with sauces, and padron peppers, which were good but not up to Lanzarote level because only one I got had any heat. Rosé and sangria were $9 and $8 a glass; with two each it came out to $38 a person with tax and tip. Not bad, but not the proven deal down the block. WIGB? Maybe. Just not on Egg Day. 17 Spring Street between Thompson and West Broadway, 212 343 4255.

The better than we had any right to hope: Le Petit Marché in Brooklyn Heights, where I met locals and my consort after his workday and with very low expectations, given the neighborhood and the Alouette evocation when I walked in the door on a drizzly gray night. But our food was pretty satisfying, much more so than the sullen-at-best service. I had eaten earlier so only ordered my idea of nibbles — an appetizer of crab-chickpea fritters with chipotle-smoked paprika aioli plus a side of truffle-Parmigiano fries — and was happy with both. My consort made me taste his very chewy but flavorful duck with date gastrique and sweet potato puree, and our friends seemed happy with a special pasta with sausage and summer squash and crab-corn chowder (on this gray evening) plus an off-the-menu pork chop with corn risotto. We split two bottles of red and I think got out for under $100 a couple. WIGB? Absolutely, were I to find myself in that neck of the far woods ever again. 46 Henry Street, 718 858 9605.

P.J. Clarke’s at Lincoln Center, where nine of us landed after the disappointing “Departures” at the little theater around the corner and where we had no reason to complain given the location, location, location coupled with the reasonable prices, decent cooking and showoff service. Our small mob was seated almost instantly at a few tables jammed together in a back corner where we could mostly hear ourselves talk, and the waiter was patient and mellow when some of us just ordered salads or side dishes and others ordered no booze. My Caesar was the same as it ever was, and my consort looked to have more goat cheese than he needed on his spinach salad. Friend to my left was blissful with her sliders if not the bizarre “bubble and squeak” that came with; friend to my right ate the latter with as few complaints as he had for his French onion soup once the kitchen omitted the cheese topping. WIGB? Absolutely. Even if we have to again fight our way through a bizarre horde trying to get into the bar at Center Cut next door. 44 West 63d Street, 212 957 9700.

New York minutes/Late April 2009

The good again: Aquagrill in SoHo, where we headed for our default brunch after the Saturday Greenmarket and after every other destination we considered had the usual egg-heavy menu. The place was quite busy, with the outdoor tables all full, but it was running at peak performance. We got a nice table (albeit next to the overactive linen closet), were served good Spanish rosé and warm breakfast breads right away and had our food almost too fast, given the long lines for the one-seat bathrooms. I ignored the lack of provenance on the salmon BLT and just enjoyed the perfect balance of fish against crisp bacon, mayonnaise and baby arugula on a ciabatta. Bob’s warm shrimp salad had nicely cooked shellfish with well-dressed potatoes on more baby arugula. The biscuits were exquisite. What was most impressive is that the bill, including one coffee, was about what really nasty Cabrito had cost the Saturday before; my sandwich with good fries was a buck less than the still queasy-making chorizo biscuits and gravy. Plus we were thanked at least four times on our way out. WIGB? Inevitably. They have restauranting down to an art. 210 Spring Street, 212 274 0505.

The not bad: SobaKoh in the East Village, where nine of us wound up after an opening at Leica Gallery and where the tiny room and excellent service made it the perfect destination thanks to one smart guy who lives in the neighborhood taking charge. The menu was huge, but soba with grilled duck and scallions jumped out at me, while Bob was taken with eggplant stuffed with ground duck for his soba. Japanese and I are not on familiar terms, but I was happy enough with our food, especially since the sake kept coming. Our young friend who barely drinks was floored by the $42-a-head tab, but that’s how it goes when you order $55 bottles. The best part is that even in a group that ridiculously large, it was easy to talk. And the waitress happily took a combination of cash and I think five credit cards. WIGB? Not likely, but only because soba sounds enticing about once in a decade. 309 East Fifth Street off Second Avenue, 212 254 2244.

The not great: Baoguette in Curry Hill, where I wandered in very hungry after the Wednesday Greenmarket on my way to Foods of India and where I paid for my stupidity in ordering the $7 “sloppy bao,” billed as spicy curried beef but more like a cafeteria special. The bread and the pickled vegetables and especially the heat were all good, but it was the kind of ground beef that comes with a remorse guarantee. What mostly struck me was how dull it was: After the third bite, whatever thrill there was was gone. The people were pleasant and efficient, though, and the thing was obviously prepared with a level of care. WIGB? Not likely, especially after I realized I could have had a full buffet with lots of vegetables for a couple of dollars more just up the avenue.

New York minutes/Mid-March 2009

The always great: Both Kefi and the New French, where I should be weary of the menus but where we find ourselves heading over and over. We met friends for a late Sunday supper at the former and wound up closing the joint, which gets extra points for easing us out far more gracefully than Le Cirque did. It was so late we all only split the superb spreads, an order of the sheep’s milk ravioli and another of the crispy calamari plus the house-made sausages the kitchen sent out. Chad and Pam each had the special white bean soup, which looked great. We were also comped our bottle of red wine, but even without it I would say the experience was close to perfection. Ditto for the New French, where we had to wait about 15 minutes for a table for latish Saturday brunch. The place is like a humming machine: the service was fast and friendly and efficient; the cooking was outstanding. Bob was as happy as ever with that masterpiece of a Nicoise-esque salad, which has to take mega-prep but is always done with care. And the cheeseburger was even better than I remembered. Bob insisted I take the half I didn’t finish home, and I would be embarrassed to admit I reheated it next day except that it was still great warmed over. 505 Columbus Avenue near 84th Street, 212 873 0200; 522 Hudson Street at 10th Street, 212 807 7357.

The pretty good: Savoy in SoHo, where I met a new friend for lunch after she suggested heading there to split one of the special cassoulets and where the waiter was only half-able to mask his disdain at our perceived chintziness. She had been once before to try the Toulouse version, so I trusted her when she said the Carcassonne would be enough for two; I certainly didn’t want to be still digesting at Christmastime as is usually the case with what my consort calls French pork and beans. And of course we didn’t even finish it, although the $25 portion in a cast-iron pot was not excessive, just lots of gigande beans with smoked pheasant, duck confit and outstanding house-made sausage. It came with a little mound of mixed green salad, but we’d also ordered one with goat cheese, so we got our cud’s worth. Bread and butter were excellent, and my gruner was a generous glass for $9 (she had Basque cider, poured right). Almost the best part was the table, perfect for people-watching in style central. WIGB? Yep. Peter Hoffman walks the walk. 70 Prince Street at Crosby, 212 219 8570.

The not bad: Adrienne’s Pizzabar, where we resorted after poor Bob was pressed into being a messenger boy at the end of a grueling week, with a stopover near Wall Street between a party in Dumbo and home. The place was rocking, loudly, but we got a table right away, had water and bread before we’d even gotten our coats off and had wine poured not long after that (undistinguished red from Campania for $34). My insistence on olives and mushrooms pushed the $16.50 “old-fashioned” rectangular pizza to $22.50, but it was beyond satisfying, with a crisp crust and a thick layer of fresh mozzarella along with the copious extras. We managed 2 1/2 slices apiece, had the rest boxed up and were set for breakfast for the next three mornings. WIGB? It’s a great port in a downtown storm, although one day I’ll get my nerve up to try another of Harry’s son’s enterprises. 54 Stone Street, 212 248 3838.

The snotty: La Pizza Fresca in the Flatiron, where we stopped in late with a friend after Bob’s star turn before a picture editors’ group around the corner and where the officious waitress who may have been the hostess or an owner was almost vibrating with scorn when we tried to order one pizza. (At that time of night I only need to see food, not really eat it.) She talked us into another plus a second salad and was never seen again, nor was the server once he poured the first round from our bottle of red. Salads were excellent, one just classic arugula with shaved Parmigiano, the other beets with Gorgonzola. But the pizza was as authentic as signs promised; like so many we have eaten all over Italy, both were more cheese soup on soggy bread than crisp crust with topping (funghi for one, buffalo mozzarella, olives, Parmigiano and basil for the other). I took some shit over at the Epi Log for getting “buffaloed,” but maybe you had to be there. WIGB? I’d have to be a glutton for condescension.

New York minutes/Late September 2008

The good again: Aquagrill in SoHo, where we headed after my consort woke up late on Saturday and announced he wanted a real meal after seven beyond-grueling days of teaching while resorting to fodder rather than good food. I took that to be code for “fish,” and Pearl hates us on Saturdays, so we dragged all our bags from the market at Union Square to Spring Street only to find the crab cake sandwich I like so much is not on the brunch menu. But excellent roasted Casco Bay cod with spinach, artichokes and caper beurre noisette was, so I quietly put aside my salmon reservations and had the excellent BLT with the Atlantic fish and good fries apportioned judiciously. My qualms about octopus were stifled as well to please him, which was a good thing because the huge salad was outstanding: warm, amazingly tender tentacles with roasted peppers and sweet onions. Because we sat outside, the service was pretty discombobulated, with us begging for bread, waiting forever for wine. But WIGB? Absolutely. 210 Spring Street at Sixth Avenue, 212 274 0505.

The adequate: La Rural, where I met tired and annoyed Bob for a late dinner and where the entraña (skirt steak) was tougher than usual, but where the service and salad and wine were fine. WIGB? It is very close to home. 768 Amsterdam Avenue near 98th Street, 212 865 2929.