The Cat WCTLWAFW liked the dressed arugula almost as much as the killer eggplant Parmesan from West Bank Cafe. The good orecchiette did not make it home; plate was cleaned.
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.
The good again I: Northern Spy in the East Village, where we met friends who live down the block but had never been and where the staff was impressively unfazed by the squirming toddler in our perfect booth. Even she liked all the starters: the airy-crispy gnocchi with Brussels sprouts and sage, the farro with lamb bacon and egg and the unfishy bluefish rillettes with pickled onions on garlic toasts. My consort’s pork with black-eyed peas was good and hearty, so I was okay with my unexpectedly dainty asparagus salad with fascinating egg. Poor Mom had to miss the good chocolate cake. WIGB? Absolutely. Especially now that I know why it’s so Brooklyn: It was priced out of Brooklyn. (And because Dad introduced us to a great Spanish wine bar just down the block for an after-Turley Cinsault glass or two: Pata Negra, where the server could not have been more accommodating and I tasted a new-to-me godello.) 511 East 12th Street, 212 228 5100.
The good again II: Loi on the Upper West Side, where we met up with a gallery-crazed friend in from DC and another from way uptown and where we had the usual superb service and full swanky-joint experience even though we only shared first courses and a salad. This is the rare restaurant that treats every ass in the seat as valuable, and given that it never filled even on a Saturday night, the Athens owner is smart to keep us coming back for less. (Her visits to every table are also very savvy.) I was underwhelmed by the grilled sardines even though my expectations were already low, and I didn’t try the octopus because I just can’t do it anymore. But like everyone else, I thought the baby eggplant with feta mousse was sensational, the amuse of stuffed grape leaves superb and the gigantes redeemed by the unbilled cheese with them. Sea urchin with “crispy pita chips,” though, probably needed the lemon I didn’t squeeze over my two spoonfuls. We also split a dessert, about which the least said the better. (Oh, I’ll elaborate: It was the kataifi, it was soggy and it tasted better when dessert was a giveaway.) Bob’s and my $10 glasses of wine were good, and came with excellent recommendations by the waiter, and the bread basket was beyond generous. Plus the service was almost surreal, yet again: Waiters in suits catering to us as if we were spending megabucks in any other white-linen dining room. WIGB? Anytime. Not least because it’s so nice to be among old pharts and feel young.
The good again despite the din: Toloache in the Theater District, where we wound up after trying Anzas in the newish Hyatt on Fifth Avenue and being spurned both upstairs and downstairs. The place was packed even after curtain time, but we got a table fast and soon had decent wine and the quesadilla with huitlacoche, then overstuffed but fabulous brisket and carnitas tacos, then a salad with jicama and avocado. WIGB? Undoubtedly, but I think next time we’ll try the new outpost on East 83d Street. 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.
The gone-to-hell: Tre Otto on the Upper East Side, where we landed on a super-hot night seeking refuge from our own kitchen and where Bob dropped way too much money for dinner in a garden sauna. We made the mistake of strolling through the gorgeous park up to a tapas place I’d read about on 103d & Lex, only to decide the menu looked pedestrian and the wines seemed overpriced, then swung by ABV, only to be told we’d face a half-hour wait for a table in Bedlam populated by young uns all the same age and skin color, so we figured Tre Otto was a safe bet. And it turned out to be like eating in Rome in August: Immigrants slopping it out in the kitchen, overstretched staff neglecting too many tables, followed by sticker-price shock. I only wanted a Caesar salad, and it was not awful, if underdressed with a few too many rusty leaves. But Bob’s $18 pasta with “Trapanese” pesto turned out to be a few gummy noodles in a bowl of glop. As the waiter warned, it was heavy on the garlic, although light on any other flavors. The bread was rubbery, the rosé $45. And the sweat? Immeasurable. We baked like pizzas. WIGB? The next night we were back on that side of town, for dinner at friends’ whose gorgeous terrace overlooks the reservoir, and they, too, wondered: Why did that place go to hell so fast? I blamed the clientele and will probably never get invited back.
The pretty good, Chinese division: Hunan Manor in Midtown, where my consort and I wound up after a liquid opening at ICP when his first choice had a 30-minute wait. The place has the sad bare-bones look of so many Manhattan Chinese joints, but we were encouraged to see only ethnically appropriate faces at other tables as we were profusely welcomed. It probably wasn’t fair to order what we love in Flushing, but we did. And the tea-smoked duck might actually be superior; as we ate it, it tasted almost steamed, but next day it was grease-free and intensely smoky. Hunan-style stir-fried mustard leaf is better at the cousins’ place (thinner garlic slices, defter cooking), but not by much. Cold bean curd, Hunan style, was heavier, though, and while Bob is a total pan-fried pork dumpling junkie, even he agreed these were clunky. WIGB? Of course. It’s an hour closer, with treatment just as nice. 339 Lexington Avenue near 39th Street, 212 682 2883.
The pretty good, Thai division: Pure Thai Shophouse in Hell’s Kitchen, where a friend and I headed after being thwarted first by the bedlam at Toloache and then by the peculiar bar food menu at the otherwise perfect Xai Xai, and where the staff was just patient enough with two women who wanted mostly to talk while soaking up wine. Wally’s traveled in Thailand and immediately picked up on the crowd (authentic) and the food (smells/looks: authentic). We just split three appetizers, all above average: vegetable spring rolls, fat steamed vegetable dumplings and crispy fried tofu with peanut sauce. With two glasses each, it was $31 each with tip. WIGB? No question. 766 Ninth Avenue near 52d Street, 212 581 0999.
The pretty good, aside from the understaffing: Jacob’s Pickles on the Upper West Side, where we met a couple of friends on the early side and where we could only wonder why we had put off trying the place for so long. The food was shockingly accomplished for the neighborhood. I think I scored with excellent house-made sausage with leeks that came with respectable fries, good mustard and a great ketchup alternative (along with pointless braised cabbage), for all of $15. The running-hard waitress screwed up two orders, so gracious Bob took the Caesar with fried chicken no one had asked for and Len got his biscuit with fried chicken smothered in mushroom gravy plus grits; both were superb. I don’t think you go there for spinach salad, but Diane’s came with Niman Ranch bacon, blue cheese and mushrooms. We shared a couple of bottles of the rosé on tap, too. The mystery is why a restaurant that puts so much thought and energy into the menu, the sourcing and the drinks program skimps on staffing. WIGB? Looking forward to it but hoping they hire some waiters and runners in the meantime. Jeebus. 509 Amsterdam Avenue near 84th Street, 212 470 5566.
The seriously good again: Momofuku Ssam in the East Village, where my consort and I met another food-obsessed couple via the Twitter for a Sunday lunch that was even more invigorating than my two previous weekday indulgences. We were there before the door opened at 11:30 so of course got a nice table (and, I learned later, a waiter who Tweets, too). The four of us shared everything, which meant I tasted excellent sweetbreads I normally would spurn (prep them once or twice and you will, too) and the spicy sausage and rice-cake dish, as well as lively pickled vegetables and a pear sorbet brilliantly accessorized with pumpkin, cornflakes and blue cheese. All the duck — rotisserie, dumplings, pulled sandwich — was of course perfect. The only letdown was apple kimchi with bacon and maple labne, which amounted to ingredients talking past each other. WIGB? Can’t wait. 207 Second Avenue at 13th Street, 212 212 254 3500. (BTW: We all went down the avenue afterward to Vandaag for the exceptional coffee in that rigorously designed room; the cappuccino was one of the best I’ve ever had on this continent.)
The transporting: Il Buco Alimentari in Nebulousnabe, where we fortified ourselves with Saturday lunch before a time trip through the amazing Merchant’s House Museum nearby and where the history was nearly as palpable (wood from the way-back machine). Seeing a whole porchetta on the rotisserie in the theatrical open kitchen made the panino irresistible, and it was a juicy/crunchy/tender marvel on just the right bun; pickled vegetables on the side only made it seem more of a deal at $16 (Porchetta’s is of course sublime and much cheaper but without the creature comforts). We shared the $14 insalata di cicoria despite my resistance to Scalia anchovies for their name alone, and it turned out to be one of the rare enjoyable bitter salads, with almost sweet Treviso radicchio tossed in and crunchy fine bread crumbs over the top. And $14 grilled sausage over Umbrian lentils had real nuance; fried sage leaves and sweet onions were grace notes. As the server warned, the coffee needs work; even with way more than a cloud on the macchiato it was bitter. (We stopped by Colombe later just to compare and now suspect, though, that taste is not what’s cutting into business; it’s probably more the scene.) The market in the front is quite nice, too, although we managed to get out without buying anything. WIGB? Absolutely, at least for serene lunch. I’d guess it might get loud at dinner, with all those hard surfaces. 53 Great Jones Street, 212 212 837 2622.
The satisfying, again: La Mangeoire in Midtown East, where we landed after being warned of a 45-minute wait at the Smith after an opening of New York in Color with a friend’s work at the Howard Greenberg Gallery on 57th Street. The $38 white from the Languedoc matched well with both Bob’s intense coq au vin with mushroom-bacon sauce and my pork roast (first time I’ve ever ordered that, and my reward was super-tender thanks to the server actually asking what temperature I wanted). And the anchoiade, olives and oil with the bread basket were just gravy. I’ll admit it was a little sad to see Christian Delouvrier and think back on Ruth’s bedazzled review in his $30 soup days, but his cooking has lost only the flash and price tag, not the style and substance. WIGB? We may never make it to the Smith. Add in no din and the option of downsized main courses and it’s definitely worth the journey. 1008 Second Avenue near 53d Street, 212 759 7086.
The over-the-top: RedFarm in the West Village, where we left my name and of course got a perfect little table and no end of comped food from gregarious Eddie Schoenfeld; we only had to wait as long as it took to pick out three new salts at the Meadow down the street. Thank allah we kept a receipt, because it really was more dishes than any cranial sieve could retain (he at least did the smart thing and said: “Take a taste and take it home”). We chose good shu mai shooters (two for $7.50), huge and slightly overwrought crab and duck dumplings (four for $12), exquisite vegetable and chive steamed dumplings (four for $8), noodles with both Dungeness and rock crab ($27) and sublime okra and eggplant yellow curry ($17 and enough to keep me from succumbing to mediocre Thai again for a long, long time — this had at least six kinds of vegetables in addition to the excellent stars, and the sauce was all nuanced flavor). Forced upon us were killer soup dumplings with truffles; strange but irresistible eggplant “bruschetta” topped with smoked salmon and caviar; mushroom spring rolls; amazing barbecued Berkshire pork belly; the $39 like-buttah Creekstone prime rib steak with the best baby bok choy I’ve ever stuck an implement into, and two desserts: chocolate pudding and a “fruit plate.” The kittybag was damned heavy on the way back to the C train, and we ate from it for three days. We also shared a $32 bottle and two $16 glasses of an ideal wine for Joe Ng’s style of cooking, S.A. Prum “Blue” Mosel riesling (Joshua Wesson did the list). WIGB? Can’t wait, although I may sneak in with a bag over my head. But that might mean missing out on Eddie’s entertaining tales. 529 Hudson Street, 212 792 9700.
The “good luck to them”: Left Bank in the far West Village, where we met one of our favorite people, in from Veneto, for a great long, long Sunday dinner. We reserved at 6:30 to try out the “happy hour,” which sounded so much more respectable than “early bird,” but were only able to take advantage of the half-price, half-assed Aperol spritz ($6) because Diego didn’t get there by 7 for the three courses for $20. Dinner was still a steal: I had outstanding potato gnocchi with pumpkin, black pepper and pecorino, almost like spaetzle, for $17; the guys both had the superb juicy-crisp roast half-chicken with capers, cornichons and dill for $21. (Usual sneakiness: Sides are sold separately.) We also shared a pretty great rendition of brandade with warm toast and olives for $10 and a lively bottle of grillo from Diego’s second home of Sicily for $36. Service and the room were both fine, too. (Even though we got the worst table in the house, right under the speaker with nothing but #RIPWhitney — by the end of the night I was starting to realize why she needed drugs.) WIGB? No question, if it lasts. I know we’ve eaten there before . . . 117 Perry Street at Greenwich, 212 727 1170.
The dispiriting despite the design: Cafe Centro in Hell’s Kitchen, where we ducked in just for cheap sustenance at a sunlit table on our way to the must-see Loving and Weegee shows at ICP. Warm, salty chips and decent salsa were too easy to fill up on, which was lucky because the rice and beans with my lukewarm cheese enchiladas merited no more than one bite each. Bob ordered tacos with carnitas cooked in Coke and we were both glad he had resisted the mahi ones; these were overfilled and hyper-sweet, but things coulda been worse. WIGB? Why do restaurants get better on Ninth as you head south?
The good: Elsewhere in Hell’s Kitchen, where we headed after a great presentation nearby at CUNY on the hometown paper’s digital innovations (news to me because I read the print version). My consort called ahead to be sure we’d get a table in this new age of Theater District restaurants busy after 8, and the hostess was totally engaging as she led us to a nice table in the front. As Bob told the offended waitress, the menu is in dire need of a graphic designer, but at least we were able to navigate the wine list to the cheaper choices on tap (sauvignon blanc for $9 for me was fine). We shared wine-braised kale with tomatoes that was odd but good enough to inspire us to make something sorta similar at home for a dinner party a few nights later. I had a frisee salad dressed with creme fraiche and mixed with chunks of pickled eggs and good bacon plus dried cherries and walnuts; what I kittybagged home was even better next day, after the bitter greens had fully absorbed the light but creamy dressing. And I only tasted the accoutrements in Bob’s grilled octopus salad, but it seemed fine. As were the peppery/buttery biscuits that accompanied it all. WIGB? Absolutely. This is not your grandmother’s Theater District. 403 West 43d Street, 212 315 2121.
The not bad: Brickyard, also in Hell’s Kitchen, where we landed after leaving the extraordinary documentary “Position Among the Stars” at MOMA and desperately searching “gastropub” on Menupages. Where has this place been the last 18 months? It was happy hour, so my Chilean SB was only $5 (after a lame Californian for $9), and Bob was beyond happy with the Ommegang beers on tap. He had a huge, juicy, perfectly cooked pork chop with truffled mashed potatoes and I had a very satisfying house salad with roast turkey (fresh), goat cheese, avocado, bacon, cherry tomatoes etc. The waiter and host performed above and beyond in both jobs. WIGB? Sure. It’s more pub than gastro, but the price, service, location were right. 785 Ninth Avenue near 52d 212 767 4582.
The good again: Coppelia on the West Village/Chelsea border, where we ducked in after the Greenmarket and before cooking for a dinner party, thinking we could get in and out as we had on a holiday weekend. Yikes. The place was slammed. It took a while to get everything, from water to the little (not-so-great this time) breads, but my short rib nachos had flavor/texture/jazziness to spare, and Bob’s chicharrone salad with Romaine, tomatoes, roast pork and fried egg was perfection, dressed just enough with sherry vinaigrette and flecked with blue cheese. WIGB? Definitely, and not least because it’s right on the route back to the C train with overladen bags. 207 West 14th Street near Seventh Avenue, 212 858 5001.
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.
The good: Sezz Medi up near Columbia, where my consort led me after I’d steered him there on good advice a couple of months ago and where the whole experience was like Italy without Alitalia. It was Sunday brunchtime, but the menu had a panoply of egg alternatives, and the server didn’t even flinch when we ordered only small plates. One of which was huge — fried calamari and zucchini, an LP-sized platter of nicely cooked, very tender seafood and pretty crisp yellow and green squash slices, with a tangy parsley tzatziki as dunking sauce. Bob’s tegamino (a k a eggplant Parmigiana) was superb, with the ideal balance of vegetable to cheese and a good, lusty tomato sauce that doubled as a dip for the fritti (turns out the name refers to the skillet in which it’s cooked). We got away for $20 plus tip, about what we would have spent at Chipotle in the same time. WIGB? Absolutely, and often, if it were closer. 1260 Amsterdam Avenue near 122d Street, 212 932 2901.
The pretty good: Kin Shop in the Village, where Bob and I and the filmmaker of “How to Live Forever” repaired after a showing at the Quad and where the food definitely trumped the neglectful service, even after we ordered bottled water that could have been repeatedly up-sold. Duck laab salad was my favorite plate on the table, although it was not as blistering as I’d expected, and sea scallops with pea puree were nearly as good. Softshell crab can be filed under outstanding, pad see ew with ramps well below underwhelming. The one huge disappointment was the “selection of grilled eggplant.” No there there. . . WIGB? Sure. Brachetto goes surprisingly well with spicy upscale Thai. 469 Sixth Avenue, 212 675 4295.
The not bad, din in dinner notwithstanding: Qi in the Theater District, where Bob and I wound up, against his objections, when Elsewhere had a 15-minute wait for tables after the ICP opening of the entrancing Elliott Erwitt show. He spends so much time on/off Eighth Avenue he was dreading the whole experience but calmed a bit when we agreed the design evokes Pierre Gagnaire’s Sketch in London, where he shot for his last around-the-world Geographic story, on caffeine. Unfortunately, the kitchen and servers could have been jetlagged after flying in from England. It took forever to get attention and then food. By then, the torturous noise level had us fighting, and cold mushroom spring rolls amplified the pain even though they had great taste and texture. An eggplant special appetizer was mostly chicken and shrimp, but decent. Ordering pad see ew was a big mistake after Kin Shop, but the green curry duck was better next day, reheated in the quiet of our own kitchen. WIGB? Not likely, but Bob, amazingly, disagreed — he rated it above most joints near where he spends so much time. 675 Eighth Avenue near 43d Street, 212 247 8991.
The nearly perfect port in a near-storm: The Taproom at Colicchio & Sons in Chelsea, where we wound up after my two days of frantically calling around for a “shit — it’s your birthday” destination and getting no end of “5:30 or 10” merde de bull. Bob was willing to risk walking in anywhere, as we were able to do at the Dutch, but it was his big night so I wanted a safe haven. Which this totally was. We got a table looking out on the High Line, in a room that was surprisingly cozy despite its airiness, with the ideal noise level (you can easily hear both the mellow music and your companion) and a nice, young crowd (my seat had a view of the entrance, so I know the fancy side was not so lucky). Good Nebbiolo rosé ran $9 a glass, a much better deal than the heavily hyped kegged stuff, which was rather thin. Cured fluke with grapefruit and black olives was nice, but fatty salmon over smoked-egg mayonnaise outdid it (the menu called it vinaigrette, but I’ll call it what it was). Bob seemed happy with braised lamb ribs on pearl barley, and I was impressed by “steak & eggs,” with beef short rib in a crepinette laid alongside oats topped with a poached egg, even though the fancy stone-cut oats were decidedly rancid. And we both were amazed at how lame the rhubarb tart was. I’m all for cerebral desserts, but they need to function on a sensual level as well. This was almost gummi bear fruit on solid cream in a crust notable mostly for its crunch, not flavor. Even the two frozen scoops of whatever alongside could not elevate it. Still, WIGB? Absolutely. The price was right (very imaginative butchering and cooking put prices literally half what I had reeled from on other menus in my frenzy). Plus true luxury is being able to revel in conversation over your food. 85 Tenth Avenue at 15th Street, 212 400 6699.
The “it’s complicated:” Boulud Sud on the Upper West Side, where we steered friends in from Eden on the Willamette who had reserved at Bar Boulud and where we were lucky enough to be showered with freebies but cranky enough to evaluate the cooking like the journalists all of us once were and some still are. The Big Homme himself was there, and I hope the microphone under our table recorded me saying he is the most gracious guy in the business, because he not only came over to chat and engage but also sent us way too much free food. Of what we ordered, the duck kataifi was too much shredded wheat on a bit of poultry; vitello tonnato was fine but not Piemonte level, and the perfectly cooked, very fresh squid was done in by the overkill of fat filling and overwrought tomato sauce. Sicilian sardine escabeche, though, impressed even this sardine shunner. We got talked into unnecessary side dishes, of which the very smoky charred broccoli rabe trumped the bland chickpea panisse and fregola sarda with snap peas. Among main courses, Bob’s “cedar grilled rouget” turned out to be the usual far-from-the-Mediterranean fillet. My pancetta-wrapped quail, though, may have looked straight out of “Eraserhead” but tasted/ate pretty great, no Tuscan kale and rosemary soubise needed. Of our friends’ harissa-grilled lamb with eggplant and “grilled short rib on the bone,” I’d definitely lay the blue ribbon on the beef, cooked to amazing tenderness. Points off for a wine list that turned into a jousting match between reformed wine writer and paid sommelier, but we all liked our Nebbiolo rosé, and the excellent waiter poured it well. Our friends up and fled to Jazz at Lincoln Center, so Bob and I did not have to share two outstanding comped desserts, a chocolate-heavy, almost tiramisu-tasting “cassata” that would vanquish any memories of candied fruit, and a big-time wow of a grapefruit givré. WIGB? Probably, for a snack and glass of $9 picpoul at the bar after a movie, but I appeared to be in the minority. 20 West 64th Street, 212 595 1313.
The halt on the border of lame: La Superior in Williamsburg, where we happily headed with friends after an expedition in hopes of seeing the Rapture take Manhattan but where we left holding our ears because the music was not just painfully loud but horribly stupid. The birthday girl among us chose it, so I’ll be gentle, especially because it was decidedly cheap for too much food ($90 for four of us, with tip, including seven margaritas). And I can’t fairly judge because the dishes just came flying in after we ordered; there was no app-to-entrée progression. The best thing I tasted was the gordita filled with chorizo and potato; if it was not quite El Paso-(Texas)-level it was at least seriously satisfying. A rajas taco was also good if overfilled, as were the other tacos, some of which I tasted although I quailed at the lengua. Guacamole seemed surprisingly undistinguished, and the queso fundido would have been so much better with serious mushrooms. (At least they kept the tortillas coming.) And I wanted to like the ezquites, despite the pallid main ingredient, but the presentation sucked — a plastic cup to be dumped into a bowl to be shared among four with two plastic forks? Those ditz waitresses were damned lucky we were in birthday mode.
Lagniappe: Our expedition to exotic Williamsburg paid off in many ways. We had the most amazing iced coffee — New Orleans style, with a bit of chicory, plus sugar and milk — at Blue Bottle. The corn cookie and blackberry-lime ice from Momofuku Milk Bar at Smorgasburg were killer. Whimsy & Spice’s peanut butter sandwich flavored with massaman curry was right behind. And the Bedford Cheese Shop could have been airdropped in from the Seventh Arrondissement.
The half-good: Pure in Hell’s Kitchen, where my consort and I headed after the MOMA Meyer night when he was hungry and I was just curious about the midtown cousin to Land. We were already arguing about something I was right about (food shortages as the cause of upheavals in the Middle East), so it was lucky we got seats within a few minutes at the bar facing into the noodle kitchen and soon had the distractions of wine and food. All the whites looked fruity, but my viognier made sense once I tasted the special crab salad with peanuts, chilies and lime. The salad itself was sensational, the first thing I’ve eaten in Manhattan that ever gave me a sense of the pyrotechnic aspects of Thai cuisine, and the almost syrupy wine countered it. Bob, unfortunately, ordered off the regular menu and was penalized with one of those interchangeably gloppy/bland big plates (bean sprouts, noodles, shrimp, scallions). Still, the room was pretty jazzy and the service was A+ even in our cramped quarters, right next to the “shophouse,” a few shelves with esoteric ingredients like durian chips. WIGB? Absolutely if I’m down that way again. Otherwise, I’m more determined to broaden my horizons via Land’s menu. 766 Ninth Avenue near 51st Street, 212 581 0999.
The vaut le voyage for adventure’s sake: Q in Port Chester, where a Louisiana/Texas friend who now lives in Greenwich lured us with the promise of great barbecue and a diversion in the Batali/Bastianich shops in that immigrant bastion. Several lessons were learned, starting with the fact that total luxury on venturing to the ’burbs is being able to walk off the train and into downtown, without the usual clambering into a car to be spirited off to parts unknown. So within five minutes of detraining Metro North to Stamford we were wandering around the Tarry market, ogling the meats and pastas and cheeses etc. and succumbing to focaccia as round and high as San Francisco sourdough and a packet of Manicaretti’s extraordinary garganelli. Next door we tried some Italians reds from the well-curated selection after checking out the menu at the Tarry Lodge restaurant, which Kevin said serves food that’s too salty and that we saw was clogged with old white Greenwichers. The bare-bones BBQ joint he walked us to next was much classier than I expected (the sink’s in the dining room, sure, but we were right between Greenwich and Rye). And we did have to order at the counter, but from then on it was a total restaurant. I shoulda listened about the brisket, which was not just as dry as the cliché but also fatty and tough and not really flavorful; at least the potato salad I ordered alongside was quality stuff. Bob fared better with a quarter-slab of ribs, meaty and juicy and smoky, and Kevin’s pulled pork nearly bested that. Drinks were also a deal: a second round of two drafts and a sauvignon blanc came to all of $13. WIGB? Sure. After we try the Mexican restaurants Kevin’s raving about. Especially since we learned Metro North cops will retrieve a 12-year-old irreplaceable Kenzo scarf if you happen to leave it on the train at 125th Street. 111 North Main Street, Port Chester, 914 933 7427.
The good: Market Table in the West Village, where my consort and I wound up after a lively 50th at Automatic Slim’s a few blocks east on St. Drunken Day when Pearl was backed up and Fedora was Bedlam and where we scored some pretty great food at a fair price at a relatively quiet table. The $12 crispy calamari, with a thick crust around juicy “meat,” ranked among the best I’ve ever eaten, especially with the guacamole and chile crema blanketing the plate underneath. We shared a salad of Cara Cara and blood oranges with hearts of palm, basil and pomegranate, too, and Bob (and later The Cat) seemed content with his $22 “pan crisped” chicken with sweet potato salad and bok choy. Service was also above average. WIGB? Happily. Hospitable and creative are not to be underestimated. 54 Carmine Street at Bedford, 212 255 2100.
The floundering: Elsewhere in Hell’s Kitchen, where we headed with two friends after a Moving Walls opening at OSI after getting shut out of Yakitori Totto and where we must have been jinxed on this third try. We first got a crappy table near the door and the din and had to wait forever to order wine, then I asked about moving to the booth where we sat on our first foray and we were accommodated but then waited forever to get the gruner, which the servers kept coming back to say was hard to unearth (even though it was poured by the glass last time). The kitchen was on the slow side too. Len didn’t seem too wowed by the portobello sliders we clearly oversold, but Bob cleaned his plate of the sliced hanger steak over (chewy) spaetzl and brussels sprouts, and my Caesar was better than average. WIGB? Yeah. Just because there still isn’t much competition thereabouts. 403 West 43d Street, 212 315 2121.
The trip: Hindu Temple Society’s canteen in Flushing, where we hooked up with new friends via Bob’s gig at CUNY and where the tradeoff for folding tables and styrofoam dinnerware under fluorescent lights was very lively and seriously filling South Indian food that would have been a deal even if we had not been treated. After letting our new friends-in-the-know order for us all in a medium-long line at the counter, we sat down to a table soon covered with mango lassis and mango juices, plastic cups of water and plate after plate: chile-flecked vadas with coconut chutney and sambar; dosas stuffed with potatoes and with potatoes on the side; a special vada with red onions, and a vegetable uttapam, a big pancake studded with peas and tomato. It was all transporting to Bangalore, although the coconut chutney was milder than I remembered from seeing it pounded on the floor at MTR. The bill came to a little more than $9 a person, with way too much food. WIGB? Yep. To take someone new. It’s a great experience, not just as an alternative to Chinese in that neighborhood. 45-57 Bowne Street off Kissena Boulevard, 718 460 8493.