Hashtag Know Hope

How radically has the restaurant world changed since the pandemic began? We actually just had a better meal in Jersey City than we did at a NYT three-star joint in Nomad. One was early dinner, and one was brunch, but still. At the former, the very atmospheric Madame, where my stomach sank when I saw the menu read like Bucks County, the kitchen split a surprisingly good kale Caesar for us, so we each got exactly half the ample portion of basil-dressed greens, avocado slices, halved green grapes, slivered fennel and generous sunflower seeds. The kale-cutting coulda been more refined, but the parts really made the whole. Then the super-tender, very flavorful hanger steak in au poivre sauce was also perfectly divided, with a little cup of truffle fries for each of us.

Two days later we had a dainty plate of “linzer” beets with Little Gem lettuce and toasted hazelnuts set down between us at Koloman, and we had to ask for share plates. At least they were provided for the flavor-free pork schnitzel, which was fried to shoe leather and barely revived by the lingonberry sauce and redeemed by the (intricate) cucumber and (sloppy) potato salads. 

Wine presentation was much more fine-dining at Koloman, and my glass of Austrian sauvignon blanc was worth the $19 Bob paid. With two rounds of drinks, the tab was exactly $9 more at Madame. But to be fair, the cocktails in both establishments were too sweet.

BTW: Jersey City was also vaut le PATH voyage for a huge loaf of amazingly crusty-soft sourdough bread from Razza and a little shopping at CoolVines on Grove, where we scored some Duke’s mayonnaise plus a couple of bags of Rustichella d’Abruzzo pasta, the latter for all of $7 each.

New York minutes

My desk is stacked high enough with restaurant receipts that The Cat Who Came to Live With a Food Writer can actually make a nest out of them to keep me company as I dick around on the internets. And all those are an accumulation of guilt for not writing about so many destinations as this joint has been gathering dust. So rather than just trying to catch up on all the good, the bad and, worse, the mediocre, here are a couple:

Saint Julivert Fisherie in Brooklyn had the most transporting food in donkey’s years: mackerel whipped into a creamy spread accented with piri piri oil; raw scallop in tacos formed of shiso leaves, with salsa macha; squid carbonara, with the tentacles cut into “noodles” and tossed with Parmigiano and spicy squid ink, with strips of Belgian endive to trick your eye and palate, and hamachi collar cooked jerk-style that almost had us sucking the bones. Service was unnervingly friendly, and the wines were all over the map, given that the theme of the place is oceanic. WIGB? I have recommended it to like 50 people, but next time we might head to the same owners’ La Vara just a couple of doors away.

And Momofuku in the dread TWC will leave you marveling “did we just eat in a mall?” It’s worth at least half an hour’s wait in line for just the Bang Bar options of extraordinary spicy pork wrapped in what Trinidad would be considered a roti and the “rip & dip” with the same flaky bread to dunk in either eggplant or chickpea dip, both phenomenal. But it’s better to snare a table inside at the Noodle Bar for both the service and the specials board behind the bar, which flips over the way the Amtrak announcements used to at Penn Station. I’ve been twice so far for the steamed buns enfolding shiitakes cooked so artfully they could pass for pork belly, the fried Japanese potato with “white sauce” (Alabamaesque BBQ), the lively cucumber salad with halved and smashed radishes in a sesame-chili dressing, the carrots roasted to intensity with scallions and pumpkinseeds and the ginger-scallion noodles, which are nothing like the homage to NY Noodletown you would expect but are amped up with pickled shiitakes. The one dish we shared that would have been better hogged was the mixed spicy noodles with herbs and fried egg. Chopsticking down to the incendiary sauce would have been more satisfying in one bowl. WIGB? Any chance I get. Not least for the soft-serve dessert made with Chang’s trademarked Hozon, based on chickpea water. It’s light but butterscotchy.

Hatin’ on gypsum, too

I typed this months ago but keep thinking about it, so I swung by the Union Square Greenmarket (motto this time of year: “All this useful beauty”) on a Wednesday to see if it was still boiling up. And, yes, it is, with even more events:

So we’re finishing up our rigatoni with ragu, dainty eggplant parm and awesome garlic dots on a Saturday at Pasta Flyer and I’m bloviating about why the concept is genius for a chef — he can create the menu, develop the recipes and technology, staff up and take weekends off. Then Mr. Curious, the guy I sleep with, goes back to the counter to ask how long it takes to cook the pasta (15 seconds) and how (water’s constantly boiling). One of the five staffers says, “You can ask Chef. He’s right there.” And Mark Ladler was indeed in the kitchen, dumping a big pot of ragu out and looking quite pleased with himself.

I’d been wanting to try the fast-pasta place ever since we wound up with friends (after the amazing “Faces Places” at the Quad) at a seriously mediocre Syrian place nearby. That night I didn’t argue for it because I thought it would have no atmosphere. But maybe it has too much. The design is subtly dazzling, with upholstered benches and rustic-looking tables and chairs and tulips in vases and a huge black-and-white photo of Rome with a flying saucer dominating the room (the bathroom is just as wild). Planters are filled with wheat sheaves, the main lighting fixture is Del Posto-evocative. In any other neighborhood the joint would be jammed. (I wish I could argue for the UWS, but I’m not that dumb.)

When we walked in we were given samples of fried mozzarella sticks in a fabulously spicy tomato sauce, a special of two for $1? Our whole meal came to about $13, and it was enough for both of us. Servers delivered the dishes and cleared the table, and one came around afterward with a little pill cup with three chocolate-covered espresso beans (“to help the digestion”). Both the denteness of the rigatoni and the restraint of the ragu were Italy-worthy. I read about the garlic knots while waiting in the deliberately slow line at Di Palo so had new appreciation for what were essentially Italian gougere.

So it was fascinating to come home and read up on “real” critics’ reactions. The same people who slaver over McD’s/Dunkin’/Taco Bell are so harsh when top chefs try to reinvent the genre.

The $7-a-glass wine looked good & there was a loyalty card on offer. WIGB? Absolutely. Even after a movie. 

When you know you will pass this way again

There is no travel luxury like time. When you have 18 days in one place, a Mollica can happen.

One afternoon in Torino I was wandering back from an hour studying the alimentary canal (and femurs and brains) at the anatomy museum and swung past a new restaurant a food photographer had recommended. It looked a bit too intimidating for a sweaty traveler at lunch, but a couple of doors up on the piazza I spotted an enticing little sandwich shop with the most alluring concept: panini made to order with bread, cheese, salumi and salse from small producers in and around the city. It had a line and looked tricky to navigate for someone still sleepwalking through jet lag, but I took a couple of snapshots. On a quick trip that would have been the end of it.

A few nights later three of us who can speak about three phrases of Italian among us braved the intimidating restaurant for a two-bottle dinner (more about that later, of course) and then wandered past the shop again. This time a small group of youngs was clustered outside, so we stumbled in to gawk at the design and were followed by the owner, who explained the concept. In English, because this generation of food-changing Torinese always seem to speak it, usually well.

On a quick trip, that would have been the end of it. But my consort and I had the luxury of time the following Monday to make a foray. And it was so worth the journey. The counter was manned by two stylish women (daughter-mother?) who summoned an older man from the courtyard to translate even though it turned out daughter? spoke excellent English. We could choose from three breads (I learned morbidoso is not stale but soft), half a dozen each cheeses and meats, grilled eggplant or zucchini or sun-dried tomatoes and four salse, from verde to oliva. Even with gentle explaining, it was all a bit overwhelming, so Bob went with one from the list of suggestions for the undecided (coppa, cheese, grilled zucchini) and I stupidly chose mortadella as the base for mine, meaning there were limits to what could be added without overwhelming the main ingredient (robiola, though? great). Of course the sandwiches themselves were nothing like what you get in train stations and stand-up caffes, just layers of perfection, but the mother? also plied us with tastes of cheese and lardo. Wine was E3 for a little plastic cup of serve-yourself local white or red. And the bill came to all of E15. Because we drank wine, water was free. WIGB? I hoped to, but there are so many choices and now so little time. It says everything, though, that when I touted it on FB the owner responded with a grazie.

New York 60th-minute

So where does $60+ go on a Friday night? Not to either Mermaid Inn or Tangled Vine, both swamped when I hooked up with my consort after a friend bailed on us. We wound up at Barley & Grain for dramatic hummus with warm, puffy pita, a nice deal at $6 even though they charged for the necessary extra bread. But we passed on the $6 happy-hour wine deal in favor of a $42 bottle of Provencal rosé. Pinot grigio is just one step up from Flint water.

New York minutes, A (plural) to Q

Twitter might have done me a favor for once. A digital pal just asked what my favorite dining/drinking spots, $ to $$$$, might be. And of course the answers would take more than 140 characters. And of course I couldn’t just send her here because my site is a bit dusty, which is an ass-saving way of saying downright neglected. Now I’m motivated, even though I have to quote my consort’s response whenever he was asked, back when he was on the road nine months of the year for National Geographic et al: Favorite city? The next one.

So. I haven’t gotten around to writing why RedFarm was my choice in early November for what could have been my last meal. The cooking and service are unsettlingly close to perfect every time we go. Pro tip: Stick to the dim sum and appetizers and you will eat extremely well for just $$ and not $$$$. We also find ourselves at the Mermaid Inn almost too often since it expanded and added soundproofing. Happy hour is even more of a deal for surprisingly creative cooking. (I can make a meal of the crab cake appetizer.)

We are also devotees of $ Jin Ramen, although I always get the rice bowl with beef rather than the namesake bellybuster. We like $$ Saravanaas in Curry Hill for the thali and the dosa and the atmosphere (uptown? not so much). Great New York Noodletown in Chinatown ($) never lets us down, either, but Hunan House in Flushing is vaut le $$ voyage for atmosphere as well as a great menu.

I always like Baker & Co. in the West Village after a movie because it’s good and quiet and $$. We usually get a good meal (prosciutto-arugula pizza for me, inevitably) with very cheap wine at Fairway’s upstairs cafe. We like the Smith, too, even though it’s loud and it’s not at all cheap — it delivers in a restaurant what nearby New York Look promises in clothing. Because of the peeps behind it, I like Toloache in any of its locations although, again, the appetizers deliver more than the mains for a lower tab. I could happily eat at least once at week at Momofuku Noodle Bar, the best duck dealer going.

But this all makes me realize how big this city is and how small the world is.

I think the birthday night we cabbed home from Le Bernardin and reflected that we (or one of us) could have flown to Paris for the same amount I’d just paid for dinner was sobering, because we almost never go out for fancy anymore. We’re much more interested in places like the awesome Fung Tu, or the Musket Room, where we’ve had perfectly splendiferous meals for less than a month’s maintenance.

Because Twitter is not the room for an altercation, I didn’t ask why my pal was asking about restos. But she has made me confirm something. The $$$$ is no longer about the food. It’s the experience. I went to a media event the other night at one of New York’s Finest and was kinda stunned by how bustling the place was, how mixed the crowd was, how lively the whole mood was. But the food just struck me as safe. And I wasn’t even paying.

New York minutes/Late July into August 2013

The seriously good: Empellon Cocina in the East Village, where my consort and I headed after getting shut out of the City Streets tunnel attraction on a Saturday and after a Twitter pal had been raving about the pork being better than Daniel’s or Chang’s. The menu was more eggs- and sugar-oriented because it was the worst time of the week — brunchtime — but we were blown away by the tacos, one order with short rib pastrami and the other with English peas and ricotta. We also ordered bacon guacamole with black pepper salsa and masa chips, and it had barely landed when the main attractions were set down. But that turned out to be the right order of eating. We got to concentrate on how fabulous the tastes and textures of the fillings were, then could slowly explore all the nuances of the appetizer: the avocado-bacon harmony, the crunchiness of the crisps, the way the creamy salsa amplified all the tastes. With chips, you dunk and gorge. It would be unpossible with this. The restaurant itself is also gorgeous, and everyone but our waiter was muy hospitable — WTF with bringing the check while we’re still eating? WIGB? Can’t wait, although for dinner and on the early side, because that dazzling array of tequilas and mezcals seemed like a pretty good indicator it might get loud.

The surprisingly good: ABV on the Upper East Side, where Bob suggested we go on one of his just-back nights rather than settling for Elizabeth’s yet again and where the food, service and noise level were almost like eating at home. We split a chilled spicy tomato soup that proved you don’t need to translate that concept into Spanish, especially if you add charred edamame and cotija cheese. Then we had an outstanding brisket torta with avocado, cheese etc. plus delicate but rich gnocchi with asparagus, smoked ricotta, mushrooms and more. WIGB? On the early (quiet) side, anytime. A $32 rosé was fuel for the walk back across the park in the gorgeous light.

The unsurprisingly good: Barrio Chino on the Lower East Side, where we wound up after a stock-up trek to Di Palo even though we had set out with Parm on our minds — something about the lure of a jalapeño margarita whomped the notion of eggplant Parmesan. As always, the food was fine (chorizo quesadilla for Bob, huge and great molletes for me), and that margarita was vaut le voyage. The kitchen was kind of snoozy, but the server was at the top of his form. WIGB? Anytime we’re close by. Although when we walked by empty Mission Chinese on our way to the killer black sesame gelato at Il Laboratorio, we did have a bit of eater’s remorse. One day we’ll make it there.

The pretty good: Market Table in the West Village, where I was treated to lunch by an editor who had offered Korean or Greek or Bar food and where the dissonance between careful cooking and craptastic acoustics was rather unnerving. (Neither of us is a loudmouth in person.) I should have picked up on her vibe and hints about the “roasted vegetable falafel,” because it really was a trudge. The Mexican corn off the cob we shared tasted pretty great, and so did the quinoa hush puppies the chef comped her as a powerful regular. And she sounded happy with her watermelon and peekytoe crab gazpacho. WIGB? Sure, if someone else is paying.

The all good again: The Smith across from Lincoln Center, Mermaid Inn uptown, Elizabeth’s and Txikito. At that last one, we had much of what I’d enjoyed on my first foray, including the crab gratin, but we also loved the cured pork canapé and a salad of baby arugula, egg and crisp silverfish. And then there was Saiguette on the Upper West Side, which really is too great to be anywhere near this close to home. The banh mi is easily the best we’ve ever had, even when lemongrass-grilled pork fills in for the special pork belly. Summer rolls are exceptional and steamed (not fried) dumplings pretty great.

A note about the wine

I had a lot of time by myself while Bob was preoccupied with his students, so I invested it in serious research, investigating “rose wine,” as the waiters called it. The House Cafe had a pleasant balcony and charged 12 Turkish lira for a big glass of fine Lal, from Kavaklidere, apparently the dominant producer in Anatolia. At the sleek cafe in the wonderful Pera Museum with its spirit-lifting Botero exhibit, I tried two other producers’ over two days for only 10 TL a pour and got amazing pistachios to go with them. And one afternoon I invested an hour tasting four different rosés at Sensus, a wine cellar with a cheese counter. I’m not sure how any of them would stack up against something from Languedoc or Provence, but they were beyond impressive there. I see Astor carries some of them in New York, and they’re much cheaper than they were in the restaurants.

New York minutes/Latish May 2010

Wow. Did I really eat out nowhere this week? I know I had endless Champagne at Mireille Guiliano’s book party at her home. And I ate some great short ribs braised in Austrian vinegar at a press party, plus a great fava bean salad with pumpkinseeds and pumpkinseed oil, all tucked into a crunchy cornet. But I also realized, yet again, why chefs should be wary of those kinds of promos: What I tasted from a restaurant I’d been wanting to try was rated NG. For all a certain chef’s alleged fear of cooking for 200 in a kitchen set up for that, the awful truth is that way too much turns to rubber chicken when you have to transport it and serve it to a crowd.

New York minutes/Middish August 2009

The good as always: The New French, for post-market cheeseburger and steak salad done right. Kitty bag was kinda sloppy (leftovers all tossed into one tin, which leaked) but otherwise it was as it inevitably is: perfect.

Otherwise, I only broke away from our kitchen for dinner at our friends Debbie & Jim’s place down CPW, and as always it was great food and consummate hospitality: excellent guacamole, trailer park dip (equal parts mayonnaise, Cheddar and Vidalia onion, baked till gooey), salad with watermelon surprise, seafood-chicken-sausage paella, raspberry-sauced almost-flourless chocolate cake baked by Emily the star of stage and small screen and many, many bottles of wine to fuel lively conversation. Much as I like to cook (and control), having someone else do it is beyond luxury these days.