New York minutes/Mid-September 2010

The pretty good: Choptank in the West Village, where my consort and I headed in search of seafood when Pearl was closed after the outstanding “Soul Kitchen” at IFC on Fashion Freaks Out Night on Bleecker. It was relatively early, so it was seductively quiet at first, and the reception could not have been warmer; they let us move tables twice. But the menu was a bit of a puzzler, equal parts straightforward and tantalizing. I wish Bob had seen the waiter’s face when he asked about the FLT (fish stick, lettuce, tomato) and followed up with: Is the fish frozen? (Maybe you have to see the movie.) No, he swore, “we make everything from scratch.” But he redeemed himself on bringing my second glass of good $9 rosé from Languedoc and insisting I finish the last tiny sip of the first. I had wanted fried oysters, but Bob talked me into the $9 shrimp tacos, which were exceptional: perfectly fried rock shrimp on blue corn tortillas with a cumin-lime slaw and a lively salsa. Then he tried to humor me by getting the $10 fried oysters, and they were fine little specimens in a good crust but unfortunately fried imperfectly, to doughiness. Not coincidentally, the place was getting busier. So his $22 skate with spaetzle, brown butter and caraway was flawed by the greasy frying; otherwise it was a beautifully balanced dish. And my $12 white gazpacho with Maine crab salad was not just inspired but impeccably executed. WIGB? Absolutely. Price, service and location are all right. 308-10 Bleecker Street off Seventh Avenue South, 212 675 2009.

The adequate: Spice, the one just off Union Square, where we ducked in on a rushed death march from the Greenmarket to Joe’s Dairy for smoked mozzarella for a picnic and where I felt a little guilty at bitching after I tucked into my “duck wrapped.” It’s pretty great considering the price (free at lunch with a main course), the spiffy room and the snappy service. You get a surprisingly generous amount of smoky-tasting duck chunks with vegetables to be wrapped into iceberg lettuce leaves with cracklings and dunked into a soy-sort of sauce. I didn’t even care that my green curry was mostly dull and hard-to-eat slivers of vegetables like green peppers and carrots. Bob was happy with his steamed dumplings and eggplant curry, too. And with tax & tip it was less than $20, I think. WIGB? Inevitably. Location, location, price. 39 East 13th Street, 212 982 3758.

New York minutes/Early June 2010

The sorta good: Tarallucci et Vino near Union Square, where a friend and I on our once-a-year coffee date retreated after getting a good look at the pastries on display at Joe the Art of Cart. We sat in the din outside, where it was apparently too easy for the staff to forget all about us; we saw the waiter twice in nearly two hours. (Which comes first? The crappy tip or the crappy treatment of women?) And while my cappuccino was Italy-class, the cornetto was mostly gloppy “cream.” WIGB? Probably. There really aren’t many great alternatives around there. 15 East 18th Street, 212 228 5400.

The excellent: Recipe, where I wound up with my consort just back from the Ukraine when neither of us could face either a long subway ride to Vinegar Hill House or $40 entrees on our own island. As before, the food, service, place outperformed, and not just for the neighborhood. The heirloom tomato salad was the weakest link, but we knew that on ordering it as a special because it’s too early even for regular tomatoes from close by. But my wintry-sounding, spring-tasting duck breast with wild rice, turnips and baby corn combined quality meat with precision cooking and a sublime sauce, while Bob’s sea bass special may have been better than anything we’ve eaten at Bouley Upstairs (it came with white and green asparagus, fingerling potatoes and a corn emulsion). We also split a chocolate-caramel tart topped with pine nuts and sea salt, plus a bottle of decent French chardonnay and got away for $112 before the tip. WIGB? Early and often. 452 Amsterdam Avenue near 82d Street, 212 501 7755.

New York minutes/Mid-January 2010

The port in a storm: At65 at Lincoln Center, where my friend treating me to “Carmen” and I wound up after getting shut out of Bar Boulud, Ed’s Chowder House, P.J. Clarke’s and Rosa Mexicano and after fleeing Oneals on realizing not a single overpriced thing on the pre-theater menu appealed to either one of us (in fairness, I would have settled for crab cakes if I had not had them for both lunch that day and dinner the night before). I think we both decided to imagine we were in Europe rather than acknowledge it was just a lobby cafeteria with table service, but the smart hostess and sharp waiter helped with the illusion. So did the $10 flatbread with sausage and broccoli rabe, and Donna’s Italian wedding soup (for $4.75). I don’t know what I was thinking ordering the house salad, so I deserved a couple of bits of artichoke and a lot of mesclun. Pinot blanc at $10 a glass was a better deal than the $11 sauvignon blanc at Oneals, too. WIGB? Absolutely. That waiter was outstanding. Points off, though, for not printing a phone number on the receipt when salient details are so hard to come by online.

The reliable: Land Thai Kitchen on the Upper West Side, where my consort and I went to lay down some wine absorption before our second birthday party in two days and where we got just what we expected. I had suggested Recipe, but the menu was only eggs and sandwiches at Saturday lunchtime, and we could have had those at home, so it was funny that the couple at the next table struck up a conversation about their love of both restaurants (same owner). My vegetable spring rolls were better than Bob’s outsized vegetable dumplings, but he won with chicken curry over my beef thing (for once I decided not to think about sourcing, only about laying down some wine absorption). For $8 a lunch, it’s hard to complain. WIGB? After Bob tries Recipe, but absolutely. 450 Amsterdam Avenue near 82d Street, 212 501 8121.

The overhyped: Kesté Pizza & Vino in the West Village, where four of us met up after another friend’s opening at Leica Gallery and where the pizza was just as Italian as promised — doughy and soggy — while the vino was priced as New York gouge-y as it could be ($25 for a half-carafe that would go for 3 euros in Rome). We didn’t have to wait too long outside for a table, as the deceptively charming host promised, but the one we snared happened to be right under a speaker blasting Gloria Gaynor-era noise and right next to the bus pan where plates were steadily tossed in crashing piles. Right next to it was a table of chunky guys polishing off the first round of a pizza apiece who said it was so much like Naples you should watch your wallet. The special, loaded down with burrata and clumps of fresh basil, was satisfying because of all that cheese if not all those clumps. But the $16 capricciosa was the same as it always is anywhere in Italy: too much topping (mushrooms, artichokes, ham, cheese) on sodden “crust.” We also split the house salad, with mozzarella and grape tomatoes, and the Toscana, with a few slices of pear and sloshed-on balsamic vinegar. Too late, we realized we should have ordered a bottle of white for $38 plus a half-carafe rather than three stingy pours at $25 a pop. WIGB? I hope not. But stranger things have happened in that neighborhood. 271 Bleecker Street, 212 243 1500.

The lame: Dos Toros Taqueria off Union Square, where I waited in a ridiculously long line after buying my $8.40 eggs at the Greenmarket (subway fare included) and after deciding Chipotle’s portions are just too huge. I give the counter crew credit: Special orders did not upset them. They just kept doing their leisurely thing even with people out the door. By the time I got to the front I only wanted a quesadilla, and it was the oddest  I’ve ever had: two slices of cheese on a fast-steamed tortilla half-melted on a griddle, then topped with pico de gallo, hot sauce and guacamole (for an extra 92 cents) and folded up like a letter, or a flat burrito. The tortilla was especially strange, almost more fat than flour (one day I will find something that approximates what my neighbors in Arizona used to make every day). The guacamole was respectable, but the ratio to tasteless cheese was way off. I guess it’s just what I deserved, though, for thinking hipster Mexican was worth a wait.

New York minutes/Mid-November 2009

The somewhat good: Qi near Union Square, where I made the mistake of tempting the restaurant demons by going back after a promising first encounter. I just stumbled upon it while heading home from the Greenmarket and couldn’t resist the $6.90 two-course lunch special; for $1 more I got a hoisin duck banh mi plus mushroom spring rolls. The duck was that rarity: succulent meat that did not taste as if it had been dead for weeks. And it came in a huge slab of soft baguette with pickled daikon and carrot plus cucumber, cilantro and Asian mayonnaise. The spring rolls were fine for what they were. It was way too much food, but I ate it. The staff seemed overwhelmed, but the place was so overdesigned it almost compensated. So I suggested four of us meet there for Saturday lunch before heading on a death march through half a dozen photo galleries in Chelsea. This time the service was not just bumbling but annoying; food came three dishes at a time, with a lag for the fourth, and the waiters were constantly either seizing half-finished plates or grabbing chopsticks away. The communal tables and stools seemed even less comfortable. And while the duck sandwich was still satisfying, one friend was disappointed in his BM made with honey BBQ grilled pork, as was my consort with his pad see euw — both seemed to be missing a serious spark. Corn-chive steamed dumplings tasted like neither ingredient and were slightly gummy to boot, and the fried chicken and shrimp dumplings were not much better. Pam, however, seemed happy with her noodles with tender beef, spiced with the menu called Asian cinnamon but tasted like star anise. At least the price was right: $25 a couple with tax, tip and three types of tea. No extra charge for the entertainment of trying to figure out how the faucet worked in the design-fail bathroom. Defeated, Jeff wound up washing his hands in the unattended bar sink. WIGB? Possibly. The duck is good, and there aren’t a lot of great cheap options around there. 31 West 14th Street, 212 929 9917.

The port in a storm: La Bergamote in Chelsea, where we rested our dogs after the gallery death march. We had to sit at a dirty table, but at least we got a table, and at least we did summon someone to clean it eventually, and at least the cashier was pleasant and accommodating given how swamped he was. After overhearing a parent on the High Line promising a kid hot chocolate, two among us had to order that, and the payoff was rather thin. Chocolate mousse was what it was, and the mango and the pear paté de fruit could only be described as French Chuckles, with way too much sugar and understated flavor. Best thing on the table was a simple cookie. And my sparkling water. WIGB? Maybe. We did get to sit down in a bright and lively room. 169 Ninth Avenue at 20th Street, 212 627 9010.

New York minute/Late September 2009

The lame: Laut off Union Square, where my consort and I stopped for a fast late lunch after the Greenmarket and spent most of it wishing we had walked the extra blocks to Tue. The waiters were all welcoming and smiling, but the room smelled like a urinal cake and a group with a screaming child made it hard to hear with all the hard surfaces in the strange design. And while my steamed dumplings (at $6, a buck apiece) were amazingly light, with a superb dipping sauce, they could have been filled with either mushrooms as billed or ground pork — impossible to determine  what I was ingesting. Poor Bob chose the enticing-sounding masak kicap: “cinnamon, turmeric, star anise, ginger, garlic, shallot, onion, bell pepper, sweet pea, tomato, sweet soy sauce.” Rather than being amalgamated into a sauce, half the things on that list seemed to have been just tossed onto the chicken and vegetables. The unsatisfying mess came with a big mound of brown rice, but the same $9 would have bought two good courses farther away. WIGB? Not likely. This place makes Spice seem polished.

New York minutes/Early September 2009

The decent: Jane in the Village, where I steered us after a story-scouting expedition for my consort in Washington Square because of the $15 Sunday night special — steak, salad or mussels with rosemary fries or salad. One of us should have opted for the greens, because the mountains of fries that came with his meat and my fish were mountainous (the excellent waiter jokingly asked if we wanted a side of them). The beef was either butchered wrong or singularly tough, but the flavor was great; my salmon would have been even better with anything sauce-like. If we hadn’t had that $32 bottle of rosé, we would have scored a real steal. 100 West Houston, 212 254 7000.

The flawed: Rainbow Falafel off Union Square, where we ducked in for something quick while loaded down with 500 pounds of produce and where the reality does not live up to the reputation. The counter guys were enraptured by Jacques and Julia working over a fish on a tiny teevee up on the wall, but they should have been tuned in to some Middle Eastern cooking show. In the mere minutes it took us to walk back into the park to a table, my pita had disintegrated. The flavors and the frying and the sauces were better than average, but I wound up with a sloppy soup/salad, not a sandwich — and no fork to tackle it with. WIGB? Pointless.

New York minutes/Latish July 2009

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

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

New York minutes/Early July 2009

The always great: The New French, yet again, where five of us managed to convene without remembering it was Gay Pride Day after two had just been to “Food, Inc.” and still wanted the amazing cheeseburger (as did a third). I had the house-made sausage for the first time, which was unsurprisingly outstanding although the greens with it were overly sweet and underwhelming. And the fifth among us was very happy with the salmon salad. We also shared a suspiciously generous pizza bianca topped with runner beans and ricotta (as I recall). Plus rosé. Part of the reason we go back over and over is that this is such a deceptively serious restaurant. When I asked about the curry, which I’ve never had, the waiter took his time describing it, then when I wondered about the sausage, he squatted down to ear level to really describe it well. And everything is done with such care, right down to the sliced caperberries that one friend was so captivated by in the huge salad. 522 Hudson Street near West 10th, 212 807 7357.

The not bad: Num Pang Sandwich Shop, where I dragged my consort after he expressed a craving for a bahn mi and I didn’t remember he’d had the real deal in Saigon (not to mention in New Orleans East). The Cambodian version is rather ordinary by comparison. But it was a cheap lunch on a gorgeous day in Union Square: I had the roasted cauliflower with eggplant and he the pork belly with pickled rhubarb, both on good bread and dripping with chile mayonnaise. We didn’t really need the corn slathered with that same mayonnaise and dusted with coconut, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t finish it. WIGB? Maybe. The people were nice, and the service was fast. But we’ll try Republic’s first. 21 East 12th Street, 212 255 3271.

The entertaining: The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, where we had to stop for a chocolate-dipped cone after our al fresco dejeuner. The balance of ice cream to chocolate was perfect because the latter component does not harden and shatter. It was mostly worth the $3, though, for the show and routine. First he was so busy chatting that the ice cream plunged off the cone into the hot chocolate, then he told us he also plays the reeds so ice cream cannot take all his time. Thanks to the weird weather, this is the best summer ever in the city of be-all-you-can-be, and an enterprise like this just makes it more so.

New York minute/End o’ June 2009

The decent: Blue Water Grill, where my consort and I wound up in desperation post-Greenmarket after finding BLTFish is no longer open for lunch at all(!) when Bob, coming off a week of really bad eating, decided what he really wanted was fish. Try finding that at midday on any Saturday, when real chefs are sleeping in and letting egg jockeys sling omelets and worse. He wound up ordering $16 scallops (with favas, asparagus and gnocchi in morel sauce) because the main fish offering, Chilean sea bass, should not even be on the menu. And I didn’t mind that my $17.50 crab cake sandwich on burger bun tasted mostly of the heavy garnishes: avocado and chipotle sauce. I don’t know why the kitchen even bothers with the jicama slaw, though. Does anyone eat shredded shirt box? Gruner and rosé were each worth the $10, and the waiter, beaten as he looked toward the end of another day of egg hell, was superb. Whoever’s managing the staff is doing a hell of a job (as opposed to a heckuva) because even the runner was upbeat, and the reception men and women were seriously cheery. 31 Union Square West at 16th Street, 212 675 9500.

New York minutes/Late May 2009

The really good: Aldea, where I lured my consort for his birthday because he wanted someplace relaxed with good seafood and where he knew instantly that the “arroz de pato” was why we were there. Even though rice is one of my least favorite foods (fodder as a kid), the enhancements listed on the menu — duck confit, chorizo, olive, duck cracklings — had to make it splendiferous, and it truly was, with very tender slices of breast to boot. We got off to an awkward start first when Bob saw his surname was F’ed up on the reservation screen and then when the hostess tried to seat us in the empty upstairs while the open kitchen was glowing like a lamp for us moths. After gently objecting, she did let us take two stools at the counter facing into the glow, and it was perfect. The chef plating apps was close enough for Bob to ask what the little puffy white things were with the sardines (along with Madeira raisins and citrus) and close enough for him to go get a green almond, cut it open and show what he had extracted to soak in milk. Boss came over to watch, too, said hello and then comped us each a huge, beautifully cooked scallop set over farro risotto with cucumber and orange. The scallops had been scored so that they got really crusty on the plancha, and the combination of hot grain and cold accents was revelatory with them. Nothing will convert me to sardines, so I swapped Bob for his ramps with crisped pig’s ear, apple and cumin yogurt and while chewing still thought I came out ahead. His main course of monkfish was better than we could have made at home, with crab and sausage in the brodo. We split a bottle of light Portuguese white for $28 and each had an albariño for $7.50, all fine with the food. The servers were that rare mixture of friendly and competent, too. Best of all: $126 before what I realize was too small a tip. WIGB? Absolutely. That “duck rice” was $20. 31 West 17th Street between Fifth and Sixth, 212 675 7223.

The pretty good: Gradisca, where two friends lured us to meet his Italian cooking teacher and where I was relieved she had the same verdict on the mamma-made pasta so that I can report with no qualms. Bob and I had had lunch there years ago and remembered the ravioli being spectacular but very expensive, so the $26 on the menu was not shocking. And if the gems had been cooked just 30 seconds longer, they would have been perfect; the filling was sublime, only the edges were doughy. Bob and I split little artichoke “meatballs” that were nice enough plus one wedge of Anna Teresa’s piadina, which almost wiped out my memory of the one we’d had at another restaurant that was about as supple as a Communion host. And I snared a bite of our host’s excellent fresh mozzarella (with anemic tomato). Bob’s main course of cavatelli with eggplant and ricotta salata was faultless, as was the farro lasagne my friend shared. (I think — should have stolen the menu for notes because nothing is current online.) I was glad we were there early; by the time we left it was getting very loud in the back dining room, and the food was already slow to arrive. WIGB? Maybe, if someone else was paying again. As good as the food was, it was very removed from the matter-of-factness in Italy. 126 West 13th Street between Sixth and Seventh, 212 691 4886.

The always good: The New French. Yet again. Running out of descriptives, but there is no better burger. Spanish rosé was perfect with it and the salmon salad.

The expedient: Hecho en Dumbo, where 500 of us descended just before the kitchen closed after the amazing “Driftless” screening at Galapagos and where the service was surprisingly proficient. My “picaditas” with chorizo, though, were topped mostly with potato, a complaint the friend to my left had about the chorizo filling in his “burritas.” More demerits for the din, the cash-only policy and the one bathroom, which by the end of the night looked Hecho en Mexico. WIGB, though? Probably. Location, location, location. 111 Front Street, Brooklyn, 718 855 5288.