New York minute at cusp of 2024

Sez everything about how great the food scene is everywhere that I just got finished spending a couple of weeks sorting through all my photos and receipts from restaurants for Buffalo Eats to compile my top meals of 2023 that I “filed” and immediately had one more to add. 

The shining-new Parla (from The Smith whizzes) on Columbus Avenue near us was actually astonishing: The service was superb (I got there first and had to wait at the sidebar and the server complimented me on my phone photo of #Feliz); the room was buzzing even though we were seated next to a fat-faced baby, and the food was beyond impressive. Cacio e pepe arancini made with pasta instead of rice were perfectly fried, so the outsides were crisp and the insides oozed mozzarella. Broccolini with tomato vinaigrette shoulda been a placeholder but commanded attention (as in: we scarfed it all down). Our S.O.P. pizza topped with fennel sausage and onion confit and shishito peppers blew Motorino’s out of the oven. With three glasses of wine and one cocktail, the bill was all of $105 before tip. WIGB? Absolutely, if we can get in.  

New York minutes

IRL friend at the Sunday Greenmarket asked if I would be writing about all the amazing meals I keep raving about from all our travels this year (Phila, twice; Atlanta; CDMX; Berkshires/Catskills; Toronto/Buffalo), and I swore I would. One way to procrastinate, though, is to focus only on where we’ve eaten in one week back home. 

As is usually the case, our first dinner after dropping off our bags was Motorino, for a kale Caesar and a soppressante super picante pizza — both even better than usual, especially with a nice, affordable bottle of rosé, poured by our usual server in a particularly mellow mood. (Nina’s Great Burrito, BTW, after our earlier trip to a tick wedding was a total reentry bust: half-assed margaritas, lame nachos and I can’t even remember what else.) WIGB? Closer than Song e Napule

After the awesomeness that was “Barbie” (30 percent off for tickets to a 3 o’clock Thursday matinee), we made our way to a reserved 5:30 table at Cafe Luxembourg, where we had not eaten in literally years and where the room and the food held up astonishingly well. (When I said so over to the Twitter, many people said the streetery was a sad way to eat. Design matters — as the restaurateur we met years ago in Estonia, in a joint called Grandma’s, said: “Restaurants sell air.”) Salmon tartare was a perfect blend of richness and acidity; my croque monsieur was Paris-worthy, as were the frites, and Bob’s special of skate with asparagus and porcini sauce was so much better than our old failsafe order of fish&chips woulda been. Rosé here was even better than Motorino’s, and for only $20 or so more. WIGB? Now back in the rotation. Truly comforting to see so many staffers, especially so many multi-culti staffers. #Bidenomics 

And then there was Fonda, which I think was the first restaurant we braved during “lockdown,” when even sitting outside far apart from other tables was quite an experience. I can’t count how often we’ve been back over the last three years, both to the Chelsea location and the new one in Tribeca (both Chelsea Market & Hudson Street Greenmarket). As always, we got our own A+ classic margaritas and split the awesome queso fundido with chorizo (with an extra order of freshly made corn tortillas), but rather than our usual crabcakes or duck serape braved the beef tostadas. WIGB? Absolutely, but not for the tostadas, which were good but not QF level. 

New York minutes

My road to hell is apparently being paved with receipts from dozens and dozens of restaurants signifying my good intentions of writing about the good, the bad and the just okay (and, also, too, the surprisingly not bad). So I’m forcing myself to type about our latest meal out, the one where my consort noted we had had all appetizers the night before and I had to ask: Where did we eat last night?

(Mermaid Inn on Amsterdam, FTR, which was, yet again for like the eighth time since it expanded, close to perfect — points off for no “bread” offered, but we didn’t need it given that we were eating light with oysters on the half-shell [for Bob], fried calamari, wedge salad and grilled octopus with frisee, gigante beans and paprika aioli [again for Bob; I ain’t eatin’ no near-human]).

I actually had done a little research before we headed down to IFC for the amazing “Cameraperson,” so we were able to resist the fine-and-affordable siren song of Baker & Co. in order to stroll a couple of blocks north to the new Seabird, downtown relative of Mountain Bird, that awesome East Harlem destination that unfortunately represents a paving stone on my cluttered-desk highway (thanx again, Cheese Jenkins). It was only 7:30 or so and there were actually sidewalk tables available, but we headed into the din for our dinner.

I could complain about the table being too small, but the servers were too friendly; our main one jokingly offered to eat what she recommended if we didn’t like it although we would still pay. We took the cheaper of her recommendations, passing on the $32 bouillabaisse after she translated it as if we were rubes. Salmon poke with avocado and seaweed was about 10,000 times better than I expected, with the perfect balance among fatty, fatty and tangy. Crab and artichoke cheese dip was like a flashback to the TGIFriday’s 35 years ago where we agreed to move to NYC, but with real artichokes and real crab and good chips for dipping. “Fried oyster taco” proved to be three, each with a huge fried mollusk set over coleslaw (marred by celery). Ms. Charming apparently forgot to put in our last order, for the “crab lasagna mac-and-cheese,” because it took forever, but it was worth the wait, with an insane amount of lump crab in and atop the creamy shells with a touch of tomato sauce. Our $44 bottle of albariño was poured a little too fast, but maybe that’s because we were thirsty from the #bestintownpopcorn. WIGB? Absolutely, but only in a party of two able to lip-read.

If they expand it, you will go . . .

My consort and I went back and forth on whether Mermaid’s pizza expansion would be a regular WIGB. On the minus side, the space is just as loud, maybe more deafening, than the original. On the plus side, the service is just as great. OTMS, did the neighborhood really need just-okay pizza? OTPS, the befores are just as good as next door, particularly the bruschetta heaped with zucchini, super-creamy ricotta and pine nuts (the kale salad at least did not promise more than it delivered, as in cavolo nero leaves). The pizza, however, is fine for the neighborhood although I would not recommend traveling to try it. Ours was (sloppily, as in sloped onto one side) topped with fennel sausage, onions and mozzarella, and the crust was the sort that makes you leave bones behind. (Surviving slice was actually better reheated next day.) Back to OTPS, the wine comes by the quartino, fairly priced, and the free dessert is now “panna cotta” rather than chocolate mousse.

Plus one . . .

When I was totting up our favorites, I forgot about Parm, Upper West Side division. Which has become one of our regular destinations after the Sunday Greenmarket because it’s the rare egg-free and day-drunkless environment on Sunday afternoon. We always sit in the bright and sunny back room and always split a perfect eggplant parm sandwich (hero is too big) along with Buffalo cucumbers, awash in hot sauce and chunky with blue cheese. As a starter, we have either the very satisfying fried zucchini, which now comes with cocktail sauce and a spicy mayonnaise, or the artichokes casino. And the tab is about what a lobster roll plus a lobster combo at Luke’s would cost. Some of our Upper West Side friends don’t get the place or the tongue-in-red sauce menu. But then they apparently haven’t eaten as much in Italy, cuz they’ll settle for the earnest but sad “true Italian” in other restos.

New York minutes, scattered

Pizza Beach on the Upper East Side has many attractions: a cool setting with oversized color sand-and-water photos on the walls; a jazzy menu; unusually melanin-rich front-of-the-house representation. But I think we liked it best for the birth-control ad down the banquette. We got there crazy-early on a Sunday evening for reasons too depressing to discuss, and we walked in realizing it would all be kiddles. But the hostess seated us at a boothette in the back and things were fine till one of those unhappy rich families who are all alike walked in. It was not as bad as babbies on a plane, but it was annoying when the 2-something went ballistic. Luckily, they moved on soon. And our shared Tuscan kale salad turned out to be outstanding, with the julienned leaves interspersed with pickled red onions and grana padano in a mustard-seed vinaigrette. And while the crust on our pizza did make you want to leave the bones behind (more Piadina than Marta), the topping was sensational, with thick cheese, a generous paving of peppery “salumi” slices and a lavish sprinkling of microgreens to give the illusion of vegetables. The wine list was impressive as well, with 40 wines for $40 and a fair number of those available by the glass for $10 (Falanghina for me, Nero d’Avola and Barbera for Bob). WIGB? Absolutely. Although I have to take points off for the hostess denying us a four-top in the window because she was holding it for a bigger party. We walked past it on the way out to see it sitting just as we had on the way in: Empty.

And now I’m repeating myself: Once upon a time we would have been thrilled to find ourselves just a block or so away from Roberta’s at lunchtime when we could probably have walked right in. But now that you can pass a pizza oven by that name anywhere in Manhattan, the exotic allure dims a bit. Which is how we would up going back to Northeast Kingdom on our outing to “East Williamsburg” aka Bushwick to drop off a chair to be reupholstered. Nothing else in the neighborhood seemed inspired, and we knew this would be good. From the super-peppery bloody mary to the smooth coffee the place delivered, yet again. Bob’s fried chicken sandwich, with a crunchy crust and juicy meat set off against shredded cabbage, probably outdid my burger, which, for all its gilding with mushroom duxelles and caramelized onion, was just okay beef slightly overcharred. The fries with it were fine, though, and Bob’s greens were perfectly dressed. The waitress was superb, and our booth came with a sidewalk view of the exotic street.

That night we had a flawless meal, yet again, at Baker & Co. in the West Village, where we met a friend in from Veneto who wanted to eat light. It was a Monday, so the place was quiet and empty, which was perfect for talking even in the glassed-in garden. As always, the ricotta-garlic spread for the bread started the dinner right. My salad was a marvel of flavors and textures, with tender kale and a showering of ricotta salata over roasted delicata squash rings, with toasted almonds and tahini in the dressing. Bob and Diego had the roast chicken with truffle-garlic fries, as great as it’s always been. And Diego was impressed by the Italian red. The occupant of the fourth chair, in from the Outer Banks, had a pizzetta and a beer and seemed satisfied as well. Beyond the food and service, it’s such a perfect spot pricewise.

And here some notes from various receipts on my cluttered desk: BEA in Hell’s Kitchen proved to be the perfect place for a good 18 people to gather for a drink after a showing of the very moving “Overburden” at CUNY — our reserved area was quiet enough for talking, the servers were superb at running separate checks and the wine was both decent and affordable. Wisely, we did not order any food. Elizabeth’s, the neighborhood standby we keep swearing off, sucked us back in on a sidewalk-cafe evening over the summer; the white was fine and my Cobb salad what it always is. But Bob was loving his lamb burger until he found a sheet of paper in the middle of it. I guess it was the liner between patties, but it was gross. They took the $18 charge off the bill, but still. And I shouldn’t have wasted 10 months waiting to write about the Empire Diner, because the Buffalo skate wings were pretty great the night we lucked into a table. But now they are no longer on the menu since the chef left. It was a “WIGB? Nope” anyway.

New York minute

My new/old goal is to clean off my desk and clear up my life (or vice versa), so here is a report on an encore at Bustan, on the Upper West Side, to which my consort and a friend and I resorted on a sweltering night after seeing a line out the door at the new, “downtownesque” Jin Ramen after the extraordinary “Wolfpack.” We were thrilled to get a table in the backyard garden even though the fan aimed in our direction was soon headed toward youngs. And the service was quite good, which meant we soon were tearing into the superb mazettim (taramasalata, hummus, smoked eggplant spread for $16) with the excellent flatbread that of course required reordering. Gummy-fried calamari, however, was Bottom Line-level and the felafel I insisted we order was fried-dry and unredeemed by the chutneyesque sauce with it. WIGB, though? Undoubtedly. Those spreads and that garden are quite a seductive combo. We blew through two bottles of verdejo like water, however, and paid $54 a head.

Expedience . . .

My latest filing under “reach should exceed grasp:” This layabout’s hard-working consort has a newish rule that we can only go out to eat if we will eat something substantially better than we could eat at home. And I did, after all, train as a chef, cook in a restaurant, cater and spend nearly half my lifetime developing recipes for $ (I just did an average there; otherwise it once would be $$$$). But sometimes the rule gets bent. Sometimes four times in one week.

The high had to be a lucky find after the New Museum and a Di Palo’s run (for the cheapest Illy + best Parmigiano-Reggiano in town). Our pal in from DC had not had lunch, and we reflexively headed to Parm in NoLIta when I remembered we always pass by and wonder about the sidewalk cafe at Gelso & Grand, the enticing restaurant on the corner where a deli once sold Italian products and snacks like arancini in my street food days before the Twitter ate my life. I would have been happy with pizza only slightly better than the tourist crap in all the other cafes on Mulberry, but the $19 “Inferno” was actually excellent: good-to-the-bones crust, lots of capicola, a sweet-burning heat to the sauce. Whatever the plural is of bruschetta were also fabulous, one set topped with a shell-bean puree plus pancetta, the other with burrata, cherry tomatoes and a drizzle of Port reduction. The best part: An order is two, but your three-top can get a third for $5 more. Rosé from Lombardy was a decent pour for $12. Service was perfectly attentive. So, WIGB? Absolutely. The people-watching was jaw-dropping — suffice it to say that stretch of Little Italy is one more place where you will not spot Bill Cunningham.

The low, however, was easily brgr, where we wound up after the Sunday Greenmarket when Bob unexpectedly expressed interest in a burger, something that crosses his screen about once a year (so I know to click on it). I had waited what felt like six days for one to be overcooked a few weeks before at Fairway’s cafe, so we couldn’t go there, and my stomach still feels distended from the hangover one I had at Spring Natural on New Year’s Day, so we couldn’t go back there. Unfortunately, I remembered neighbors saying they had been getting good grass-fed burgers at brgr, and we wandered over to Broadway. Not only did the things take just short of forever or Fairway. The flavor was as AWOL as the vowels in the name. Neither the meat nor the “Cheddar” nor the mustard nor the tomato nor, even, the bun had any taste at all. We just kept eating and eating, hoping the next bite would pay off. Nope. (And the fries were seriously lame, too.) It says it all that we stopped in Zabar’s afterward and found one small sample of mangalitsa ham was a “wake up, tastebuds” mouthful. WIGB? The clincher was doing the math and realizing Fairway was a better deal, at $9.50 including fries; these were $8.50 plus. No wonder that logo has always reminded me of Goatsie.

Almost as disappointing was the brisket at Mighty Quinn’s in the West Village, where we trotted after the awesomeness that is the new Whitney. Once again, it was dry and chewy and not particularly barbecue-y. The chain had redeemed itself the other week at Birchfield Place, but I have to concur with Bob: It will be a long time, if ever, before we brave that stuff again. It’s a good thing we only split one sandwich, and it’s a good thing it came with the usual generous sides of coleslaw and pickles (celery, onion, cucumber and jalapeño) for $9.50. And we only needed that because we had fortified ourselves before tackling all floors of the museum by sharing a couple of carnitas tacos off the Taco Truck on the gorgeous High Line. Those were more tortillas than (dull) filling.

The fourth exception to the rule was West Bank Cafe in Hell’s Kitchen, to which we resorted for proximity’s sake after the genius of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (which, beyond the great script, photography and acting, boasted some fud jokes, including rabbit andouille). Our friends had suggested Taboon, but the prices online were insane (no wines under about $45, entrees in the $30s) plus we had gotten the brush-off when we stopped in one night after a “Daily Show” filming. Here, with the After Eight menu,  we got a $35 Provencal rosé, a reasonably quiet table and the usual reliable, good-value cooking. My eggplant parmesan teamed with arugula and tomatoes, for $15, was almost Parm level (The Cat WCTLAFW approved to the point of stealing the salad off my plate the next day). Bob and Diane’s chicken breasts were juicy, with a fine sauce and lots of side vegetables including mashed potatoes (The Cat really approved). And I didn’t try Len’s shrimp but approved his wild mushroom risotto balls with their good truffle aioli for dipping. WIGB? Anytime we’re trapped in that tourist wasteland. Also, too? Upper West Side restos should offer After Eight menus. Bill ’em as stroller-free.

Working backward, indeed

I have looked at the naked backsides of three women at the bar on the Cafe Luxembourg card/ad for as long as I’ve been eating for a living, but I only just learned what the damned image meant. Suffice it to say that a single guy did the explaining, which involved how mens see ladies. And that was on my third meal in the last half-year in that seductively faux-Parisian space, where the charm has held up for as long as I’ve been eating for a living despite the fact that the cooking has never really been transporting.

I thought I had figured out how to ace the menu after the first of the three meals, when another host and I made the mistake of ordering specials, which were overwrought, overpriced and underwhelming (it’s been half a year, at least, so no deets). From then on, I swore, I would only order the fish and chips. And on my second meal I was rewarded with perfection: fresh pollack, crisply fried and teamed with excellent tartar sauce, textbook frites and a little side of fresh pea purée to approximate mushy peas. The Cat was one happy cat when I kittybagged what was left of the ample portion.

Then I had to go and ruin everything by calculating how to order safely while not giving my host the impression I was a boring orderer and queering a potential deal. So I decided on a cheeseburger. Which turned out to be everything you would want in a cheeseburger — good bun, good lettuce and tomato, great frites, ramekins of not just ketchup but mustard and mayonnaise, proper rareness — but lacked that little essential. Flavor. The meat had no char or tang. Still, WIGB? Absolutely, especially if someone else is paying. You can eat the scenery.

And I guess the burger was not that lame because I trotted to the 3 train afterward to get to the Tribeca Film Festival and was feeling pretty light, having left most of my food on the plate. For my next eating experience I spotted a happy-hour sign on a new-to-me restaurant on West Broadway after exiting at Chambers, and I remembered it when my consort and I had an hour and a half to kill between shorts programs. So we walked away from the wind back to Saleya to settle onto stools for $6 glasses of wine, chardonnay from the Languedoc for me and garnacha for Bob.

Bob also wisely suggested we order a couple of small plates rather than making dinner later of a sachet of popcorn for $6.50, so we split a seriously good pizzetta topped with bacon, Gruyere and onions (tarte flambee by another name) and adequate hummus with exceptional pita (charred and perfectly salted). Bob’s no fan of chickpeas, so I got all those topping both the hummus and the little salad that came with the $14 snack.

WIGB? Definitely, if I were in the neighborhood and wanting to avoid the no-discount drinking in all the swankola restaurants near the Regal Cinemas. And not least because the design of the two-level bar is so savvy it reminded me of the restaurateur we met eons ago in Estonia who said “restaurants serve air” — theatricality is half the experience.

Also, too, it’s a good thing I never got around to writing about how negative my pals felt a couple of months back after choosing Mighty Quinn’s brisket before the Jim Jarmusch/John Schaeffer silent-film-with-music presentation down in the old Winter Garden under the new World Trade Center. All but Mr. Pulled Pork dispiritedly forked through leathery meat and agreed: Romance. Over. But then Bob and I had half an hour to forage between documentaries at the film festival and went upstairs rather than back to Le District and, at my instigation, circled back to the Mighty. All dryness was forgiven. For $9.25, that mound of meat on a bun paired with coleslaw (half-creamy, half-vinegary as the accommodating counter server provided) plus pickled celery, cucumbers, jalapenõs and red onions was easily the best deal in a food court where a grilled cheese is just a grilled cheese. To think for only $2.75 less, we could have been feasting on popcorn.

New York minutes

The always good: RedFarm on the Upper West Side, where my consort and I connected with two friends for a birthday lunch on a rare sunny day and where the kitchen, as always, delivered big time. Each of us had an instant request: soup dumplings for me, because they are always worth the $14, least of all for the fit-to-savor pork; eggplant-smoked salmon “bruschetta” for Joanne, because the combination of crisp vegetable and the creamy, caviar-topped topping really is a marvel; spicy duck and crab “dumplings” for Bob because the Thai green curry sauce at the core of the dish is so sensational, and a special of a crisp soft-shell crab for Donna because she was hankering for a crisp crustacean (it was $18 but easily divided into four and was bulked up with tempuraesque eggplant wedges). We should have quit while we were ahead, because the sesame noodles Donna was also craving struck me as equal parts bland and dry, although the chicken and vegetables they were tossed with tasted both juicy and smoky-wild. WIGB? Anytime. Service, also as always, was also superb. And both sauvignon blanc and rosé were $10 a glass — a deal with the people-watching show from the sidewalk cafe. All we needed was The Cat WCTLWAFW, even though he would never wear a leash.

The surprisingly not bad: Cotenna in the West Village, which we stumbled upon after leaving yet another TriBeCa film festival screening and where we were first amazed by  how the old, teeny ‘ino has been freshened up and enlarged and then by how good and affordable the food was. Of course, we had just plunged in on seeing $12 pasta on the menu posted at the door, so we were not too annoyed to find the wine list up at lap-dance levels ($60 for the cheapest white? you must be shitting me). We settled for quartini, at $16 for chardonnay and $18 for Barbera, while marveling that our $12 garganelli osso buco and “insalata Nizzarda” were so filling. The latter was billed as a traditional tuna Nicoise but betrayed with fresh tuna; the former was much more meat (tender, rich-tasting) than noodle. WIGB? It’s a weird little place that makes you wonder how such a huge menu can come out of such a tiny kitchen. And the tables were too close together. But. Yeah. That was quite a dinner for $63 before tax and tip on superb service.

The oh, you’re gonna miss him now he’s gone: Fairway Cafe, where a friend had informed us the food was actually better since Mitchel had been kicked to the stinking curb in the great vulture-capitalist purge. We stopped in for a quick lunch after the Sunday Greenmarket on Columbus and were happy to be seated right away, not so happy to wait more than half an hour for a cheeseburger that arrived cooked to boot dryness. Fries were okay, the usual coleslaw, tomato, red onion etc. were generous. And Bob’s chicken sandwich was the same as it ever was. But even the server’s peace offering of a cruller so giant it arrived with a steak knife embedded in it could not make up for the feeling that the same is not as it ever was.