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.

New York minutes/Late August 2013

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.