NEW YORK MINUTES
The really good: Garden Court Cafe at the Asia Society, where I wandered in after AIPAD at the Armory, knowing there is nothing for blocks in that timid-rich wasteland, and where I would have happily settled for cafeteria mediocrity. Instead, it was the end of lunch service, but the staff all seemed happy to serve me (and the three other tables that arrived after me), while the room was bright and cheery on a pissing-down-rainy day, and the wine choices were tantalizing. More stunningly, the menu was quite imaginative; I never expected to find Korean BBQ duck with kabocha puree and green beans as an option. What arrived was even better than described: The sweet squash was the perfect foil for the mild duck breast, while half the plate was covered with a tangle of haricots vert, frizzled shallots, quartered baby beets in two colors, a few leaves of lettuce and a showering of microgreens. For $17. WIGB? I would even make a special trip. It blew Craftbar out of the water . . . . 725 Park Avenue at 70th Street, 212 570 5202.
The not bad: Maurizio Trattoria, where an editor treated me to lunch and where I have only myself to blame for letting hope triumph over experience with the gnocchi. My mixed green salad was exceptional, a great mass of greens with sliced tomatoes and slivered endive in just enough dressing, as were the bread and peppery olive oil. But those gnocchi, a daily special, were half gummy, half slimy, and the Gorgonzola sauce on them packed zero blue pungency. When will I ever learn that gnocchi should never be attempted here at home? WIGB? Maybe, if someone else is paying. 35 West 13th Street, 212 206 6474.
The strangely unpleasant: Craftbar, where the waiter was so harried it almost gave me indigestion and where the food seemed to have been conceived and cooked in anger. I resisted the urge to order the duck prosciutto panino I have had myriad times and invested in $18 skate with braised cabbage, currants and bacon, only to find myself truly envying the woman at the next table who was enjoying her sandwich. The fish was chewy, the cabbage in big chunks that were impossible to cut and the whole combination just felt heavy and weirdly depressing. On the plus side, the bread sticks were as perfectly irresistible as ever. But on the debit side, the waiter, almost running in place in his impatience at questions, informed me that the Timorasso was fruity and from Spain, exactly the same description as for the white from Ribeiro. I noted that Piedmont is in Italy and ordered the Timorasso anyway. WIGB? Probably, for a $10 panino and another big glass from that stump-the-staff list. 900 Broadway near 19th Street, 212 461 4300. [Early to mid-April 2007]
Gus’s Place, reincarnated in the West Village, where I met a couple of hollow-legged friends for salads on a sunny afternoon. I was never a fan of the original, but it was such a pleasure having someone else choose the destination that I didn’t argue, and the food was better than I had remembered, if not as deftly made or as cheap as Kefi’s. The feta-mint spread served with the pita was a nice touch, as was the tiny glass of moscato doled out by Gus himself as we were paying. He was also my wine consultant, calling out a fine choice from the table where he sat over paperwork in the bright room. The usual four Greek spreads were all satisfying, and I quite liked the Horiatiki salad of feta, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, capers and olives. Beets and octopus don’t do it for me, although my friends seemed happy with their choices. The one waitress was suspiciously mellow, but she got the job done admirably. WIGB? Probably, for lunch only. 192 Bleecker Street near Macdougal, 212 777 1660.
The not bad: Metro Marche, where the food, wine and service once again trumped the location. I always start to lose my nerve the closer we get to the Port Authority after leaving a movie, but it is the best bet for blocks. They’ve finally got the Caesar down, and my consort’s grilled salmon was faultless, especially with his choice of sides, sauteed mushrooms and a creamy potato gratin. The bread is fine, the waiter was personable and efficient, and it’s certainly reasonable ($56 before tip, with two glasses of wine each). It was pretty close to empty at prime dining time, though; I hope they can hang on until the Sulzbergers’ Taj Mahal opens across the street. 625 Eighth Avenue, 212 239 1010.
The appalling: Ozen on Amsterdam Avenue, where my spring-breaking consort and I headed for lunch on a day when our building had no water and where our reward was the most abysmal food I have had out in eons. The sign in Spanish advertising an urgent need for a dishwasher should have been a warning, as much as the pages-long menu, but we stuck it out for the sake of newness. I guess the miso soup was not offensive, but the salad was pale and pathetic and both entrees were pure slop, and flavor-free to boot. Why would anyone open a restaurant if the food was beside the point? I actually suggested we leave and go eat somewhere else, but Bob saved the afternoon by insisting on a cafe con leche afterward at El Malecon two doors north. That was nothing short of world class. WIGB? Maybe if other every restaurant in town closed.
The bogus: Morandi, where I made the requisite pilgrimage for an ill-fated story and where I left thinking Mamma Leone’s was back. Nothing about the place evokes the Italy I know, but maybe I just haven’t been hanging out where they still line walls with Chianti in straw-jacketed bottles. My friend and I got skunked on a half-carafe of Ligurian white, decided a bottle was the way to go and wound up with something just as unsatisfying. Neither was enough to distract from the fact that so much of the menu involved the combination of raisins and pine nuts. The famous fried artichokes were nice enough, if greasy, but grilled radicchio with scamorza was an uncommunicative marriage. Fresh noodles with lemon tasted so forgettable I couldn’t tell you if they were spaghetti or fettucine. Meatballs with raisins and pine nuts were exactly that, while a seafood stew was a bowlful of gloppy, not spicy. It should tell you everything that the waiter incessantly pushed the “risotto bianco” with quail stuffed with grapes. And that the place was packed solid by the time we finished. As my French-to-the-coeur friend noted, Pastis is ridiculously fake, too, but look how it does. WIGB? Not sure why. 211 Waverly Place at Seventh Avenue South, 212 627 7575.
The authentic: Ostia, where a Spanish-in-another-life friend and I took refuge after getting shut out of the zoo at Tasca across the street (where the light fixtures looked even more like full condoms on second viewing) and where we had an experience almost worthy of Madrid. We’d just come from the dinner below, which was unfortunate considering how tempting the tapas in the case on the bar looked, and how promising the little dish of flavored olives and marinated artichoke hearts was that arrived with our wines (the house white is an excellent albarino for $7, the Spanish chardonnay even better). The tiny room is appropriately dark and moody, and the staff was exceptional; the host actually did the dirty work of asking a woman hogging stools for her belongings to make room for us, while the bartender was attentive and personable. WIGB? Absolutely. 113 Seventh Avenue South near West Fourth, 212 924 2305.
The shameless: Ed’s Lobster Bar, where the knockoffs of Pearl are too close for comfort and where the comfort level is close to hellish. I felt compelled to check it out for comparison’s sake, so I have only myself to blame for calories wasted and hearing lost; my friend who is not in the Cornelia Street cult was perfectly happy with her meal if not the constant “What?” We stupidly accepted an immediate table in the over-lit back room rather than eat facing a wall or wait for a seat at the long bar, and it was cramped, deafening and very much like dining on the A train, although my friend noticed that everyone around us looked to have come in from across some body of water. (The 400-pound woman two tables away particularly made both of us think twice about licking our plates.) And the shorts-and-Uggs staff was clearly still working out some kinks; when a woman two inches away got the lobster roll instead of the salad she had ordered, a white jacket-character tried to browbeat her into accepting it because “it’s our signature dish.” As for the food, the lobster roll was, not surprisingly, a letdown (and I’m not even addicted to the original). The meat was stringy to rubbery, and the whole assemblage was oddly bland. Usually I prefer fat fries, but these of course seemed off balance. On the other hand, the Caesar salad was big, well-dressed and well-made, while the mussels in lobster broth were fat babies. We also had to try the potato galette with lobster after seeing an order inches away at the next table of hyenas, and I guess it was okay, although it was peculiar that they got four slices to our three. The house-made pickles mounded underneath my fries, though, were so fascinating I just wonder why the chef did not have the cojones to do his own thing all the way. Ed Lobster has a nice ring to it. WIGB? Nah. Been there. 222 Lafayette Street near Prince, 212 343 3236. [Late March 2007]
The seriously good: Kefi, where the hordes have descended but where the careful cooks and cheery staff are holding up amazingly well. A friend and I scored a table around 6:30 and were never rushed even though lines were literally out the door all night. We were comped the exceptional spreads (tzatziki, red pepper hummus, charred eggplant and taramosalata) with warm pita, which unfortunately took the edge off our appetites, so we just ordered other appetizers: good fried calamari and the mussels-feta-gigante combination for me, and the open-face spanakopita and crispy cod on garlicky potatoes for her. With an excellent $18 white and a hefty tip, we were out all of $60. The only down side is that we continued talking on the sidewalk so long we were drawn back to the bright inside like moths for more wine, which the harried-but-not-showing-it host handled surprisingly well even though the bar is not really a bar. The crowd did not look local, to put it tactfully, but once they move on there will be room for the neighborhood throngs the place deserves. WIGB? Often. 222 West 79th Street, 212 873 0200.
The not bad: Sumile Sushi, where I thought my fish-craving consort in from Middle Earth would have the best choice but where the main ingredient tended to be overworked. The skate was heavily glazed and layered with Swiss chard and bacon, while the BBQ tuna was beautiful and perfectly cooked but sauced to within an inch of its fins. We were both underwhelmed by the “chopped top” of hamachi (sushi with garnishes). And while the $30 gruner was a great deal, an extra glass of Burgundy each bumped up the bill $26 ($17 for past-its-prime chablis!) As redemption, the sound level, room and service were just what we wanted to get reacquainted. WIGB? Maybe. It was so easy to talk. 134 West 13th Street, 212 989 7699.
The promising: Both Tasca and the Inn LW12, where a friend and I wandered in before and after an early work dinner in the West Village. The former is a bright sliver of a tapas bar where the Spanish wines are served in tumblers with a nice little plate of mixed olives and warm flatbread to dip into a garlicky spread and olive oil. My friend tried a $13 glass of a Basque white she knew that was oddly flat, and when she told the bartender it should be slightly fizzy there was no argument: the glass was dumped and a new bottle opened. It must have been our evening, though: Midway through our last glasses at the dark and atmospheric Inn in the meat district, a Gary Busey look-alike materialized with plates of food from a private party upstairs and started handing them out along the bar; those bites of a huge slab of braised beef on potatoes may have saved us from detox. WIGB? Happily, to both, to really eat. 130 Seventh Avenue South near Waverly, 212 620 6815. 7 Ninth Avenue, 212 206 0300.
The painful: O’Neals’, where four of us headed on a slushy night after the astonishing “Lives of Others,” the best seven movies I have ever seen in one sitting, and where we certainly paid for the proximity. The food and wine were decent enough (we all just had salads and other appetizers and a $32 gruner), but the service was bizarrely neglectful and confused. And it took forever when part of the lure of the place was that it’s a bar used to moving crowds in and out, and our friends had to be up at 5 the next morning. I have never seen so many service people wandering a room and doing so little. The runner first delivered four wrong plates to our table and insisted we were wrong, then he arrived with only two dishes. An eon later the other salads and an order of fried calamari that was meant to share turned up. It was like eating in an Alzheimer’s banquet hall. WIGB? Only to the literal bar. And never on St. Patrick’s Day. 50 West 60th Street, 212 787 4663. [Mid-March 2007]
The pretty good: Blaue Gans, where the sunlit room and charming service made up for my bad ordering off the $20 special menu. I had no idea a sausage salad would be mostly meat and mayonnaise on one leaf of lettuce or I would not have chosen fatty Arctic char. I passed on the apple strudel that came with those and shared the “chopped-up pancake” my lunch date who works nearby raved about, and it was as good as she’d promised, not sweet and not rich (my idea of dessert). I think the best part of the meal, though, was the cheese spread with the bread. And that space in the bright of day is magical, much more so than when it’s packed. WIGB? I already have, five nights later for more Gruner at the jammed bar. 139 Duane Street, 212 571 8880.
The mostly bad: Salaam Bombay in Tribeca, where I realized on entering and seeing overdressed staff polishing chargers that I had made a mistake using location alone in choosing a rendezvous with a Brooklyn friend who had a craving for Indian. I had walked by the place a million times on my way to or from the Greenmarket across the street and assumed it was as funky inside as out, but only the bathroom was. It reminded me of the fanciest old-line restaurant in Calcutta, with oversized leatherette menus and a futsy wine list and pretentious service. Even with the waiter’s relentless up-selling, though, it would have been okay if the food had been spicier or warmer — I would have settled for either — and if the two orders of bread had been decent. The naan was as dry as a stale pita and the paratha was just greasy; both had all the flavor of a Communion host. We shared an underseasoned okra curry, an underseasoned mixed vegetable curry, a watery dal and seriously weird raita. Even the wine, an albarino that looked like the best of the bizarre overpriced lot, was insipid. To the waiter’s credit, he added the rice we repeatedly refused to order to the doggy bag my friend took. WIGB? Not even in my longest next lifetime.
The oddly off: Maremma, where for some reason the cooking was uneven and the service distracted even though the charming Cesare was on site at the end. I had reserved in my date’s name to avoid looking as if I expected anything and of course walked in to find her stuck at a too-wide, erratically ventilated table directly under a speaker in the back (which would not have seemed so bad if I had not run into another friend ensconced in a booth who was able to talk easily with her date). The usually wonderful strozzapreti were a little tepid at the center, and the shrimp, while seasoned well, were just on the other side of perfectly grilled; the anorectic asparagus underneath would be banned from a runway. The fresh tagliatelle with pork bolognese, though, was sublime. WIGB? Absolutely. It’s usually fabulous on so many levels, as I always hear from friends. Not so sure about the one at my table, though. . . . 228 West 10th Street, 212 645 0200. [Early March 2007]
The pretty good: Goblin Market in SoHo, where what could have been tired brunch food was actually rather lively and where it was almost possible to forget how many restaurants that space has been. I went just to try something new on a Saturday when I was way downtown (and to avoid Landmarc’s stroller gridlock), but the payoff was a nice plate of eggs Benedict made with a generous amount of lump crab and fresh “croutons” as a base. The hollandaise was outstanding, the eggs were perfectly poached by my standard (I hate yolk cum) and the fried potatoes alongside were a very long way from a diner’s. To top it off, the $9 gruner-veltliner was a huge pour. The service was also faultless, but that might have been a function of the sparse crowd — only five tables were in play, while crowds were lined up outside the tourist snares on West Broadway. WIGB? Maybe, if it’s still there. 199 Prince Street near MacDougal, 212 375 8275.
The not bad: Asiakan, where I had a nice-enough lunch but where I could see why friends complained after taking my word on it as a destination. Fresh fish was not the first thing I thought of on whiffing the air. The otherwise perfect waitress had no idea what the Thai duck entree was all about, so I settled for duck spring rolls and a duck salad to overcompensate. The first were tiny and perfectly made, but the bird in question should not have been the billed ingredient. And the second arrived in a big goblet and was more fruit than duck or salad, with maybe four leaves of green tucked in. I left half-wishing I had braved the new Ozen up the street, especially when I stopped to read the menu and saw it had a duck salad it described as “not quack.” 710 Amsterdam Avenue near 94th Street, 212 280 8878.
The next-best-thing-to-Pearl: Fatty Crab, where I headed after feeling half-relieved to find the city’s most sublime seafood place closed for vacation while rats were going wild on the next block, and where I had my most satisfying lunch yet, with service to match. The place was pretty empty at that hour, but the waiter was still admirably on top of things, so I had my order in and gruner on the table very fast. Even better, I had been obsessing on the fatty duck but was so happy to see choices new to me that I over-ordered: green mango salad (a superbly crunchy toss with hot peppers, pineapple and peanuts in beautiful balance), and the Malay fish fry (three crunchy fillets on rice with an irresistible crab curry). Even the music was mellow for a change. What did Mae West say about too much of a good thing? 643 Hudson Street, 800 783 4450. [Late February 2007]
The half-good: Unwined, the bar at Symphony Space, where the setting and service were faultless but where the food was mostly weird to off (as in rancid). I met friends there at happy hour ($1 discount on a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc), and it was quiet and comfortable and the waiter was beyond attentive. Then we made the mistake of eating. The oxtails arrived cold, were sent back and returned lukewarm. The filo dough on the eggplant really was funky/old, and the prevalence of parsnips throughout the menu was disturbing. The spicy little crab cakes were best. Everything was oddly proportioned and too utensil-dependent for a wine bar, though. Still, WIGB? Absolutely. The cheese plate everyone else was eating looked good, and it’s better ambience than Vintage NY two blocks away. 2537 Broadway at 95th Street, 646 403 3215.
The dreadful: City Diner on Broadway, where I had not been in years and left remembering exactly why. The waitress was AWOL throughout, but she had all the time in the world to chatter away with what looked to be a couple of Russian hookers eating bagel sandwiches with pancakes for dessert. And I could have forgiven rubbery processed cheese on my rubbery eggs and the really industrial bacon, but everything on the plate was stone cold (I was sure they would spit on it if I sent it back). Of course the place was packed. WIGB? With a gun to my head.
The promising: Cilantro, the new West Side incarnation, where I stopped in for something little after popcorn at “Avenue Montaigne,” knowing anything French would be a letdown. The hostess has issues — in an empty restaurant, she seated both me and a mom with two kids back in the farthest reaches where the waiters chat and idle — but the servers were superb and my huge chopped salad was made with very fresh lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans and cheese. A big basket of chips, fried platanos and salsa landed first (I guess they have not gotten the UPW message that you can gouge for those). And if the sauvignon blanc from Argentina was not wonderful, it was a hefty pour for $8. WIGB? Soon, but I’d have them hold the onions. 485 Columbus Avenue near 84th Street, 212 712 9090. [Late February 2007]
The good: Kefi, where I wound up two nights in a row and where the food only got better. The first time was with a friend for an early dinner and a lot of cheap Greek wine ($18 for a bottle of retsina-free white) near two other tables of professional eaters, which was a good sign. I took the two-appetizer route with an open-face spinach pie and nicely fried crispy cod on garlicky potatoes, while my friend demolished a first course of mussels, gigante beans and feta, then an entree of very juicy swordfish with artichokes and potatoes. I came home to an email inviting me to a fellow aging Aquarian’s birthday dinner the next night, and this time I was made: The chef sent out the mussel assemblage again (much more harmonious flavors this time) and his selection of Greek spreads, at least three of which were extraordinary, plus two desserts. Even without all that, I thought my cod with potatoes and fennel was outstanding, as were the forkfuls I snared of grilled branzino, sheep’s milk ravioli topped with crispy shallots and the very airy veal meatballs. Kefi has ratcheted back its ambition since it opened as Onera, but it is priced right and way too good for the neighborhood. WIGB? Soon. And although it is cash only, for once there is a Chase machine nearby. 222 West 79th Street, 212 873 0200.
The not bad: French Roast, where my visiting consort and I took refuge for proximity’s sake after “Last King of Scotland” and had a perfectly respectable dinner on snaring the last table open near the window. I was back on my Caesar salad regimen, and this rendition was twice the size and quality and better dressed than one the previous evening at Bistro Cassis after “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Bob’s salmon with sauce Choron, excellent spinach and fingerling potatoes rendered him blissful, and not just because his most recent encounter with that fish back in Middle Earth had left him with shards of pinkish flesh splattered inside his microwave — it had exploded as he tried to thaw it. The service was fine, the wines by the glass decent; the only question was why we had avoided the place for dinner for so many years. WIGB? Probably too often. 2340 Broadway at 85th Street, 212 799 1533.
The right place at the right time: Cafe du Soleil at Saturday brunchtime, when the light was particularly flattering and the din was down. Despite the Frenchiness of the menu and decor, a cheeseburger seemed most appealing, and if it was relatively pricey ($12.95) and a little bland at least it was huge and came with a well-dressed mesclun salad and excellent frites accented with a melty clove of roasted garlic. (The Burger Joint boys would love it.) Maybe it was because I had read an article recently advising asking how long a bottle has been open when ordering wine by the glass, but I thought the Languedoc chardonnay seemed over the mesa. (Is wine the only living thing that gets less aromatic as it decays?) I guess that’s the tradeoff for a long list of choices. And my constructive criticism would be that servers should be trained to clear away the detritus when tracked down for a check. Grubby diners do it. Incomparably transporting additions to the neighborhood should, too. WIGB? Absolutely. 2723 Broadway near 104th Street, 212 316 5000. [Mid-February 2007]
The pretty good: Saravanaas for early Sunday lunch, where the service was actually above average and where the thali was generous if not exciting. What made it marvelous was arriving just before the noon opening, in time to see the rituals for Pongal, the Hindu harvest festival, which included a barefoot chef bringing a huge winter melon holding a lit candle outside and smashing it on the sidewalk. Just after that, my date walked up and said he had eaten in a Saravanaas hotel in India on the same holiday a year ago. Everyone in the dining room was brought a little bowl of special sweet rice as we sat down, too. The mood was about as festive as it could get, so who could complain that on a third encounter too many of the different dishes tasted awfully alike? WIGB? Eventually. 81 Lexington Avenue at 26th Street, 212 679 0204.
The uncharacteristically bad: El Paso Taqueria, where I took desperate refuge after Sfoglia turned me away at 2:15 when the sign on the door said 2:30 (menu-changing day, they said). I ordered the chile rellenos for the first time and got something sloppy — the batter hadn’t crisped and the cheese hadn’t melted and the egg flavor was scarily pronounced. Maybe it was an off-hour, maybe it was an inexperienced cook or maybe I should just stick to the tortas and enchiladas. WIGB? Yeah, it can be so good.
The bafflingly dinery: Cafe Cluny, where I wandered in after spotting Mr. Blink at a back table and where I had the most unsatisfying late lunch. The hostess was welcoming, the waitress was superb, the place looked homey and warm, with a big center table with newspapers and reading glasses on offer. But the crappy wineglass made even an $11 Soave taste like Bolla. And my dainty “tonno” sandwich deserved the pretentious Italian name — the fish was cut thin and cooked gray. I assume it was in confit, but nothing less than pristine should ever be preserved; I could taste the fishiness even through the piperade, wild arugula and olive bread. Plus it came with skinny little fries that could have used Viagra. What was so mystifying is why so much effort went into the little things — herbs dusting the flaccid fries, all that complexity in a simple sandwich — while the big things were neglected. WIGB? Probably. Aside from the food, it was a really nice experience at an off-hour. 284 West 12th Street at West Fourth Street, 212 255 6900. [Late January 2007}
The good: Asiakan, where the whole experience gives hope for the future of some of the nastiest blocks of one bleak avenue. I’m pretty sure the premises last housed a surgical supply store where I had to buy compression socks at my nadir, but the look and feel are totally Southeast Asia by way of downtown, with buddhas all around, a sushi bar and slate flooring. I went for lunch and had a sublime duck salad (roast duck, not crispy duck) and a glass of decent Italian wine, while the other tables were occupied by people sharing swoons over the black pepper tuna rolls and copious $8 specials. The staff actually seemed thrilled to have us there. WIGB? Often, I suspect. 710 Amsterdam Avenue near 94th Street, 212 280 8878.
The not bad: Barbuto at lunch, where the welcome and service could not have been more exemplary but where the food was not as stunning as on my last stop. My pizza with sausage and stewed onions, strewn with wild arugula, had a slightly doughy crust, and the shaved Brussels sprouts salad was less than exquisite — there were chunks of core in it, and the main reason I could tell the walnuts were really fresh was that I happened to bite down on a chunk of shell. My friend seemed happy with her spaghetti carbonara, though, and I liked the big glass of soave and excellent cappuccino. Also, the space is transporting, and really, the staff could not be nicer. WIGB? Absolutely, but next time I will have pasta or gnocchi. Washington Street at West 12th Street, 212 924 9700.
The always perfect: Pearl Oyster Bar, where I had the skate sandwich and muscadet at the bar plus a funny experience with Mario to the left of me and to the right — in caricature on the wall on one side, in the flesh to the other. When he walked out, someone gasped, “Was that . . . ?” and everyone laughed at the star-struckness of the question before we heard what he eats. And now I know that my usual order is “the fattening stuff,” which changed my perception of it even though I can never get through the whole thing. Still, I walked out thinking the best mood-altering experience in town is lunch at Pearl, a stop at Amy’s for bread and Murray’s for anything and a stroll up Bleecker to the C train, doggy bag in hand. WIGB? No question, if they let me. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.
The rewarding: Loft, where a friend and I actually took refuge after two unsettling experiences, “Children of Men” and the bar at Arte Cafe (like drinking in Albania with flat-screen TVs and the whole Staten Island ferry unloaded around you). The restaurant was full, so we sat at the bar and had incredible service, superb Caesars (with the nice touch of black olives) and a forgivably flaccid pizza margherita. The bartenders were nothing like what you would expect in a place with a bouncer that does hookah tasting menus; they even brought water without us begging. WIGB? Earlier rather than later. 505 Columbus Avenue near 84th Street, 212 362 6458. [Early to mid-January 2006]
One of my many superstitions is that whatever I do on New Year’s Eve will symbolize what I will do for the next 12 months, which is why I always try to eat in a new restaurant with a regular menu, sans balloons, dancing, toasts with shitty “Champagne” and all the other worthless bait laid on for amateur night. This year I was too overworked to spend hours on the phone trying to track down both requirements and just headed for my new favorite, Maremma. Exactly as I suspected, there was no attempt to gouge; the menu was the same as it ever was but with Champagne rather than prosecco on offer. I felt a little sad not to be pushing my personal envelope, even though dinner was beyond perfection, until I tallied up what has happened to just a few of our last destinations on the last night of December. Citron? Dead. Mi? Adios. Aleutia? Vanished. Toque? Mort. If I had to sacrifice novelty, maybe I saved some newcomer for another New Year’s.
The good: See above. WIGB? I’m moving in.
The sad: Henry’s, where I headed for a ridiculously early dinner after a friend mentioned having recently broken an addiction to it and where I had one of the bleakest meals out in some time. I was seated two tables away from a fat bloviator with a cell phone and an old woman he was trying to impress, which would not have been a bother if the “confit” in the duck spring rolls had been anything but and the “hoisin” sauce had been just a notch more flavorful than brown water. The Caesar had that rusted aspect of Romaine past its prime, and the pallid dressing did nothing to brighten it. The wine could have been anything. If not for the bread and the good service, I would have been beyond depressed at wasting $33 just to escape my own empty kitchen. WIGB? Medicate me first.
The entertaining: Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, in the dread TWC, where friends lured me out the night my consort escaped back to Middle Earth and where the bizarre wine service proved to be almost as much of a distraction as the excellent music (Bobby Watson & Horizon). I got there last at a table of four and missed the spiel from the waiter on why exactly he was pushing wines not on the list the day after New Year’s, but I have never seen a guy work so diligently and energetically to talk patrons out of malbec by giving them tastes of Barbaresco and Sancerre rouge. Everyone else seemed happy with their fried chicken and catfish po’ boy, but my muffaletta was definitely a post-Katrina rendition, with only a few slices of meats and cheese cut thinner than fax paper and sandwiched in ciabatta with nothing like olive salad. The sweet potato fries, though, were easily the best rendition I have ever come across anywhere, and the whole big plate was all of $11. So what if we were in a mall with Japanese tourists nodding off at nearby tables? WIGB? Happily, I’m embarrassed to admit. 212 258 9595.
Lagniappes: I had a great experience at Regional with the in-law equivalents, all five of them, where the chef transformed the mood when Bob took his nephew into the kitchen for a peek and chat; a nice evening in a booth at the Neptune Room with too-good friends (although my flounder was either vintage or thawed and the wine list was a rip), and a perfect lunch at Rosa Mexicano downtown, where the hostess actually wondered why I had not been in recently. Plus I got a Christmas card from them. What is happening to this town? Is everyone having what Rehnquist had?
Some other good things my cretinous critics will never read: Avenue A Cards is a real find of a shop at 117 West 26th Street that carries countless facsimiles of French booze and food labels as well as repro-vintage postcards from Cuba and other once-accessible glam destinations, and they’re all much less than at some store like La Brea ($1.95 for big ones). Heritage Foods USA came through again with an extraordinary ham; I had to buy the bone-in 18-pounder when the nine-pounder was sold out but with my consort’s and a French friend’s help managed to dispose of it all at one open house. (My only beef is that the web site had erased all info on reheating the sucker, and ours came out of the oven ice-pack cold. I guess it’s too much to expect techno-brilliance with time-travel ingredients.) The Godiva truffles an in-law equivalent brought to dinner in lieu of wine were gone in 60 seconds on Jan. 1, but a friend managed to make an e-image worthy of Christ on a tortilla before they vanished. And this is the true Christmas miracle: Among the many perfect presents my consort gave to me, the most useful so far has been the set of stacking measuring/prep bowls from the . . . oh, do I have to admit it? . . . Mario Batali line. If a virgin can give birth, I guess I can be appreciative. These are very smart. [Late December 2006]
In one week, I had a good dinner at Chola, a perfect lunch at ’Ino and a perfectly dreadful experience at the new Pain Quotidian on First Avenue (the waiter looked to have taken so many steroids his brain was honeycombed because he could not bring water, silverware, napkins to save his life, while the busboy slammed every chair as he swept up around us two hours before closing). But my attention was more on the Greenmarket at this sad time of year. It’s the end of Keith’s incredible garlic and mesclun and Blue Moon’s amazing fish and Bialases’ exceptional produce (Paffenroth’s, too). We’ve had friends over for dinner three times lately, and the most satisfying part was knowing almost everything on the plates at every meal came from either Union Square or 97th Street: duck legs, swordfish with sage, monkfish, sweet dumpling squash, romenesco, Carola potatoes, purple carrots, thyme and rosemary, the cream in the ice cream and the eggs in the birthday cake. Funny that I rely on the markets to keep me attuned to the seasons, to the reality that there are cycles in life and you shouldn’t have all the food all the time, but this year the markets are observing winter and the weather isn’t. And that may be the biggest argument ever for eating close to home. [Late December 2006]
The good: Houston’s Park Avenue South, believe it or not, where I stumbled in one afternoon in the rain when I just could not walk farther and the other choice was equally corporate Dos Caminos. It was like two minutes after noon and already people were swarming in, so I snagged a seat at the bar and was stunned by the menu and everything else. I had anticipated an upscale T.G.I.Friday’s, but it was closer to a meat-centric Oceanaire — the bartenders were spiffily uniformed, the fish in the sandwich was “striped bass, Virginia striped bass,” and there were no nachos or blooming onions. The burger at the stool next to me didn’t look so great, but the fries were well-salted perfection. As for the $15 fish sandwich, it was almost as if the cooks couldn’t bear to waste such a nice piece, cooked to perfection, in a big hamburger bun, because the sauce and pickles were partitioned off by the lettuce, tomato and onion. I really should have eaten it with a fork. The place looks mid-range soulless, but I couldn’t complain when it meant Molton-Brown in the bathroom. It says everything about the crowd, though, that my $9 Tohu sauvignon blanc was a huge pour but pop wine. WIGB? Maybe, and even without a gun to my head. 378 Park Avenue South at 27th Street, 212 689 1090.
The bland: Bread Bar at Tabla, where I couldn’t bring myself to spend $19.95 on a thali so close to Saravanaas’ superb $10 one and instead wasted $17 on cheese kulcha and coconut-cauliflower curry that were both right on the edge of insipid. I keep hearing the place has finally found its way, but I wonder. The hostess was flummoxed when I walked in around 2:30 and asked to sit at a table; while she was off consulting with the waiter in the nearly empty room, some guy in a suit came out and immediately escorted me to a four-top on the banquette (guess which one has drunk the Kool-Aid). If you could eat the design, you’d leave happy; it is stunning. But I wish I had given the kitchen a better shake with more food. Like a thali. I have to say, too, that even in India your wine comes in a stemmed glass; here the curved tumbler made the sauvignon blanc smell off, almost corked. WIGB? Never alone. 11 Madison Avenue at 25th Street, 212 889 0667.
The great: Tintol at Saturday lunch, where the sound level was perfect, the service was outstanding and the food was close to blowaway, especially considering the kitchen was underemployed with only three tables occupied early. I met my consort there because it was the nicest place open in proximity to the workshop he was teaching at ICP, and the host couldn’t have been nicer when I got there first. We shared exceptional green olive bread with great olive oil to start; perfectly fried salt cod croquettes; a triple-decker toasted sandwich with cheese, chorizo and ham, like a Spanish croque monsieur but even better, with a brown sauce flecked with more olives, and an exquisite salad of watercress with fat chunks of Cabrales. (Why is watercress in restaurants always so much better than from stores?) The bill with 20 percent tip was $40. Extra credit: My albarino was all of $5.50; the waiter happily bagged up one last croquette to go; in daylight, the design of the place is even more striking, while the sound of the staff speaking Portuguese is transporting. You could not be closer to Europe or farther from the lumbering hordes in Times Square. The only point off would be for the bathroom, which looked as if it was still recovering from the onslaught the night before but was still more messy than dirty. WIGB? No question. 155 West 46th Street, 212 354 3838. [Mid-December 2006]
The seriously good: Maremma again, where our big group would have been blissful even if Cesare had not comped us a plate of his amazing lardo at the bar while giving his picks on the excellent wine list, choices validated by the wine-obsessed friend who brought us all together. Everything about the place felt right, even though we were seated back in the cage for baby pork, with two screaming babies. Luckily, they left and no one objected to our rowdiness as two other people wedged themselves at the table for a glass of wine. The staff was cheerful and accommodating and patient and everything you so rarely find anymore, and it was easy to intuit that they treat the patrons well because the boss treats them well. As for the food, everything I tasted was spectacular, particularly the swiss chard dumplings with guanciale, the very clever crisp seafood polenta with Tuscan “ketchup,” the signature salad with pancetta and soft-scrambled egg, the spaghetti carbonara and the special pork shank, one honking slab of meat. The spicy fried fusilli on the bar are addictive. But beware the strawberry grappa. Apparently it’s a knockout punch. Spotting photos of places we had been in Maremma last summer added to the mood, as did my ordering a glass of white wine and realizing we had been to the producer, La Parrina. But my favorite part was having Cesare explain the cut of beef used with the special pasta, which comes from the neck and is traditionally braised because in Italy, “the cow was the tractor, and no one killed the tractor” until it couldn’t run anymore and was good and tough. WIGB? Often, I hope. 228 West 10th Street between Bleecker and Hudson, 212 645 0200.
The flawed: Steak Frites, where you would think they could get half the namesake crisp and where you have to wonder how they can screw up a croque monsieur enough to burn the bread, vulcanize the cheese and leave the ham cold. It could have been worse, though: The two old guys talking business at the next table got their burgers, ordered medium, faster than they did their Diet Cokes, and it was not because the bar was lagging. Something weird in that kitchen. The hostess was surly, but the waiters were fine, the place still looks good, and I had to wonder how they can make money on an $8 sandwich — I guess by charging $11 for a glass of wine. WIGB? Eventually. It is dangerously close to the Greenmarket. 9 East 16th Street, 212 463 7101. [Early December 2006]
The good: Papatzul in SoHo, where every aspect of my Saturday lunch was faultless but where the place was nearly empty when I got there and totally empty when I left, while I’m sure abysmal Dos Caminos just a few blocks away was doing business that was too good for it. A salad of Romaine, hearts of palm, cucumbers and grape tomatoes in cilantro-lime vinaigrette was only improved by the substitution of pomegranate seeds for plums, and the whole assemblage only got better as I finished it (the sign of a great salad to me with my empathy for goats and other ruminants). I also had the three quesadillas, which were made with fresh masa, filled with wild mushrooms, poblanos and chorizo and teamed with two salsas, of which the tomatillo was better than the mild tomato. The waitress was efficient, the verdejo was a good pour and the place is even prettier in daylight (and quieter). WIGB? As long as they can make a go of it in a tough space. 55 Grand Street off West Broadway, 212 274 8225.
The better: Maremma, where seven of us had the rarest of experiences in a busy Manhattan restaurant on a Friday night — not just great food and service but the ability to hear each other. We were upstairs in an alcove but never neglected by the waiters and runners, who stayed gracious even as we played musical chairs at our wrangler’s insistence so that a bunch of strangers could become friendly. The waitress gave such a passionate description of the specials and the special qualities of the beef and pork, raised on Cesare’s farm, that I ordered something I never would, which was an appetizer of house-made sausages. They were spectacular, grilled and laid over fabulously smoky lentils. My consort’s seared skirt steak with roasted cauliflower was nearly as extraordinary (he thought it was a little salty; to me it was just right, but then my Christmas gift one year was a salt lick). My gnocchi with peas and guanciale were a respectable rendition, too. I only snared forkfuls of the pork rib special and the day’s farrotto (with wild mushrooms), which were great, and passed on desserts, which everyone else ate to the last bite. The Tuscan wines were outstanding and good value, too, as far as I could tell at the other end of the table from where the check was settled. WIGB? As soon as possible, in a smaller group where I can taste much more. 228 West 10th Street between Hudson and Bleecker, 212 645 0200.
The best (of the week): Saravanaas in Curry Hill, where it was hard to decide which aspect of the South Indian vegetarian cooking was most dazzling: the spices, the heat or the variety. A friend and I had the excellent thalis, with two breads, a big mound of rice and about a dozen little dishes, from curds to dessert. My consort insisted we share a dosa to start, which came with three condiments, all superb, especially the coconut chutney. And then he ordered chickpeas with a huge fluffy flatbread and a separate dish of idly in spicy red sauce. We ate it all with a Lois gruner-veltliner that was great and a great value at $22. The service was rushed and confused, and the lighting would make you want to confess, but those are quibbles in a place so evocative of India that the hand-washing sinks are outside the bathrooms. WIGB? Can’t wait. 81 Lexington Avenue at 26th Street, 212 649 0204.
The surprisingly not bad: Metro Marche, where it is definitely unsettling to be looking out at Greyhound signs but where some of the cooking and the wine were far above what you would expect from a merger between a fast food chain and an ambitious food chain in the grodiest bus station this side of Trenton. It should be disgusting but feels more like Lyon (well, the mall version). My consort was extremely happy with his very fresh-tasting roasted half-chicken with super-creamy leek mashed potatoes and haricots verts, every element done right, and with the bread basket, which was too generous. My salad was more Cheeser than Caesar, really sodden with dressing, which was unfortunate because all the ingredients were top-shelf. The place was nearly empty around 9:30 on a weeknight, but we still had to keep flagging someone down to bring bread or another glass of wine, let alone order to begin with. Meanwhile, the officious little manager strutted around importantly and obliviously. WIGB? Yep, anytime I’m in the theater district. It’s dangerously convenient to the movies, and you really don’t have to enter the Port Authority to get to it, just walk through an off-putting takeout area. 625 Eighth Avenue at 41st Street, 212 239 1010. [Late November 2006]
The always good: Pearl Oyster Bar yet again, where my Caesar salad might have been drenched in dressing but where the crowd-wrangling, the snappy service and the other dishes were beyond impressive. My consort wanted fish for his first meal back in Manhattan from Middle Earth, and of course this was his choice even though it meant braving the 8 o’clock hordes after “Iraq in Fragments” at Film Forum. But we put our names on the list, went off to sit for a quiet glass of wine at Cornelia Street Cafe, came back in 20 minutes as instructed and were ensconced down the counter from Ruth Reichl within five minutes. I ordered the johnnycakes with smoked salmon for the first time and had to fend off the fish-deprived one’s fork; the assemblage was perfection. So were his cod, his green salad and a $33 bottle of white that the bartender dispensed attentively. WIGB? Absolutely, but it’s so much more enjoyable at lunchtime. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.
The not bad: O’Neals’ across from Lincoln Center, where we ducked in after “Volver” and had a perfectly pleasant if unsettling experience trying to figure out just how it had changed since its last incarnation, not to mention since its first, eons ago when we moved to New York. We waited for a seat at the bar, which was a good move: The kibble was from Bazzini, the young bartender was very attentive and the not-young woman nursing brandy next to me was a trip. She kept calling said bartender one name while all the waiters addressed him by another; she kept grilling him on his Thanksgiving, and at one point she was actually fondling his arm. He did the smart thing, though, and hooked her up with another apparent lush who strolled in. And she was right about one thing — my $9 Caesar salad had to be the smallest in town — but then so was he, almost: it was the tastiest. My consort’s chopped salad was bigger and more bountiful, and so was the bread basket, with four types and a splatted rosette of butter. The wines by the glass were not great choices; my sauvignon blanc from Argentina was too fruity and the pinot grigio too insipid. But the place was so good-looking in a last-century New York way that it was hard to complain. We walked out through the other half of the restaurant, which had a whole other look and feel (and was not as busy). WIGB? Soon, probably. 49 West 64th Street/50 West 65th Street, 212 787 4663.
The confused: Boqueria, where I realized I am going to have to get much more WTF aggressive about menus. I stopped in for a fast lunch after the Saturday Greenmarket and got a nice table and some water right away, then waited forever while the waitress explained the menus and the wines and the specials to two guys nearby, only to be overridden by the manager when she went to send their orders through on the bar computer. When she finally got to me, I said I knew what I wanted to drink but needed a menu. She said, “You have one.” Well, it had only cheese and desserts, so she brought me another and explained, pointing to each category, that it consisted of tapas, meats, appetizers, main courses and large dishes to share. It seemed odd not to see any bocadillos, so I just picked out two tapas and sat back. While all around me people were being served sandwiches. The bacalao “bunuelos” were a little too soft at the center and odd-tasting, while the “cojonudo” of fried quail eggs on toast with chorizo just shattered into disparate ingredients when I tried to eat it, with fingers or fork. As I was finishing my wine (the Naia I had to settle for when they were out of the Catalonian I had wanted), a couple with a kid who were speaking Spanish were seated at the next booth. The wife brightly said, “The Times said the chorizo with quail egg is good,” and the husband grunted. “What?” she asked. “You have it. I’m not interested.” Give that guy a high-five. WIGB? Absolutely, but with other people, and I would insist on the lunch menu — the one I saw posted outside as I left. 53 West 19th Street, 212 255 4160. [Late November 2006]
The always good: Chola yet again, where the Wednesday buffet included cabbage kofta that were exceptional along with the other satisfying vegetarian choices. With what looked like many more takeout orders than usual, the service was especially ditzy, though — the poor guy next to me, a first-timer, got his dosa, pakora etc. halfway through his plate from the buffet. WIGB? What kind of question is that? 232 East 58th Street, 212 688 0347.
The astonishingly bad: Cru, where you could choke on the pretentiousness if the food and Roman cocktails didn’t do you in first. With Mme X in town and wanting to eat well while shut out of Gordon Ramsay, we headed here on hype alone and within 10 minutes were debating whether to flee to Fatty Crab. We should have once the drinks arrived. The Aperol had caught her eye, but that wonderful bitter flavor was overwhelmed by the raw sugar and orange juice that had been muddled in with what looked like a metal bubble blower; it was scarily close to orange soda. While we were awaiting that travesty, the puffed-up waiter came by to insist we eat the risotto balls that had been presented as we were seated because they are best hot, and we had to point out that we still did not have our drinks. From there on it ranged from laughable to sad, and the offending drinks just would not vanish; even after the wine was poured, they sat on the table; once they were finally removed, they went to a service area in M’s direct line of sight. Our first courses arrived, she tasted and threw out, “Taste of Home,” and that was it for me. Suddenly the pasta with duck meatballs in what could pass for soup did taste like a reader recipe, while she dubbed her appetizer, scallops that had been scored and seared, “Blooming Scallops.” I ate enough of my dish to know I would never make it to the entree if I continued, not to mention the diminishing returns with every bite. And then the waiter came over to ask what was wrong, which was nice, and warn that “Chef looks at everything that comes back,” which was not. Luckily, we were spared the interrogation after not finishing my grouper saltimbocca, which was cooked dry, or her special cavatelli, which was soupy, bland and very TOH despite the paving of tame truffles. The sommelier did recommend a decent Crozes-Hermitage; the waiter did let M choose two courses off the special truffle menu, and desserts were better than the rest of the meal. But it says everything that the petits fours, which we had no room for and asked to take, were sent back cheesily wrapped in foil. I’m glad I didn’t try to take the duck for my cat. It would have leaked all over my purse. WIGB? What kind of question is that?
The meritorious: Cafe Gray in the dread TWC, where we showed up shamefully late for a 10 o’clock reservation and were never rushed even though we clearly outstayed our welcome. Of course we got a nice table near the kitchen and windows at that hour, which added to the experience. But the food was Kunzian, especially the amazing kampachi cured with kalamansi that was teamed with soba noodles flecked with flying fish roe. The porcini and chestnut soup with scallops was good but super-rich. And the duck with spaetzle and red cabbage, which they split for us, was perfect bird with too much cabbage. Entrees were mostly in the high $30s, but it still felt like a better value than Cru. WIGB? Even without an expense account. 10 Columbus Circle, third floor, 212 823 6338.
The dispiriting: The cafe at Fairway, where I got up the nerve to have one of the usually superb cheeseburgers after thinking I had vanquished visions of “Our Daily Bread” and where I was rewarded with something so leathery I could have slapped it on the bottom of my right shoe to even off my legs. It arrived 35 minutes after I ordered it, medium, and I think it was cooking the whole time; the Cheddar had glued the bun to the gray meat, leaving no space for tomato or lettuce, let alone mustard. The place is never known for snappy service or efficient cooking, but this was a new slow. WIGB? Unfortunately, yes. It can be the best bet for blocks and blocks.
The adequate: Regional, where the food was not the thing but where the setting and price were right for an evening with friends with amazing tales to tell from the new episodes of “Touch of Evil” unfolding on the border. The over-eager waiter did his best to interrupt, but at least he piped down once we ordered and still kept our glasses filled. I had a special that sounded like eggplant parmesan but was more of an insalata caprese with grilled eggplant added; my friends did not complain about their big pastas with a smart side of greens. And no one rushed us even when the chairs were upended onto the tables. WIGB? Anytime; it was $32 a head. 2607 Broadway near 99th Street, 212 666 1915.
The un-fucking-believable: La Esquina in SoHo, where the floor staff all must have been medicated and the kitchen on something stranger. The waiters and runners were moving not just slow but stupid, which should have been a clue that this would not end well, but once I was settled, I was staying. After long contemplation of the confusing brunch menu, I ordered something called huevos Chilango, which included chorizo and avocado salsa. What arrived had neither ingredient; I could have made the same thing at home by opening up a can of Goya beans and a jar of salsa and dumping it over a couple of corn tortillas topped with two of the rubbery yellow things a counter guy at Au Bon Pain in some airport once flapped before me to be sure I really wanted the breakfast sandwich. I tried a few bites, seriously thinking I had ordered the wrong dish by not knowing the lingo. Then the woman at the next table was presented with her entree, which was announced as chilaquiles. And it was the same damn plate. Finally I got the check and the waitress and asked her what the hell I had been served. “Huevos rancheros,” she said, cheerily. I pointed out the line on the bill: Chilango. She did charge me only for my wine, when I asked, and she did offer to give me someone else’s order, to go. But my day was ruined. How long until waiters go the way of bank tellers? Machines could not do a worse job. WIGB? When my Alzheimer’s is in full bloom, maybe. [Latish November 2006]
The always good: Spice in Chelsea, where I just missed the cutoff for the bargain lunch but got a great portion of crispy duck for $14 that made me think I’ve been cheating myself only ordering the two-course, $8 special. It wasn’t the quantity so much as more careful cooking. A $5 glass of wine went down equally well. Why can’t they open a branch in my neighborhood? WIGB? Of course, later and often. 199 Eighth Avenue near 20th Street, 212 989 1116.
The not bad: Papatzul in SoHo, where the service, design and attitude were all outstanding and where the noise level was not as excruciating as a recent review had warned. The staff — hostess, bartender, waitress and busboy — could not have bent any farther backwards to take care of a friend and me; when we could not decide between an albarino from Galicia and a verdejo, the waitress brought each of us a taste of each after first down-selling, recommending the $32 bottle over the $36. She then pulled the two-top next to ours over just to hold the wine bucket. The place never filled up on Saturday night, which made it fairly easy to talk, although we moved to the much quieter, very beautiful bar for a last glass. So what about the food? We stupidly did not order appetizers, expecting the usual too-muchness that is Mexican. But my $18 enchiladas comprised three very small tortillas folded over chunks of duck in a not-overwhelming mole with almonds; my friend’s swordfish “napoleon” was the fish layered with black beans and tortillas, all topped with sliced avocado. That was it. Not even a sprig of cilantro, let alone a side dish to make it a meal. Charge another couple of bucks and throw on some rice or zucchini at least. WIGB? Yes, to try those appetizers. 55 Grand Street at West Broadway, 212 274 8225.
The fascinating: Moore Brothers Wine Co., which is not a place to eat but delivers a transporting experience. I found it after a haircut down the block and walked into what felt like a warehouse, with jackets hanging on a rack at the front. A clerk immediately came up and talked me through the layout, and I found exactly one Italian wine I recognized. I didn’t want to carry anything but succumbed to an $11 Touraine sauvignon that was just as unfamiliar, and the cashier explained the gimmick, which every wine store in Manhattan needs to have anymore. Every bottle, from small producers, is shipped and sold at cellar temperature, from the vineyard to the Flatiron. Mine was still chilled when I got it home an hour and a half later. Maybe I’m a sucker, but I could swear the taste was enhanced by the special handling. The best part is that the chain was started, by a Le Bec-Fin sommelier, as a fuck-you to Pennsylvania’s dismal and infuriating State Store system; the other stores are just across the border in New Jersey and Delaware. [Early November 2006]
The seriously good: Chola, where a friend and I took refuge after fleeing the unspeakably bad “A Good Year” and where my first after-dark experience was a revelation. The lighting and mood are completely different from buffet lunch, although the waiters are the same and have much more to do. Choosing from the menu was also quite an experience, especially reading all the “A must try” and “A Martha Stewart favorite” recommendations. Okra was transformed though julienning and crisp-frying, while the ragara — potato patties topped with chickpeas and sauce — were gloppy perfection. We didn’t need the garlic nan we ordered, except for a lesson in eating with fingers. I woke up next morning thinking I should have taken the leftovers of the masala calamari; that was a whole new twist on a fried idea, really well spiced and not at all chewy. WIGB? Every week if I could. 232 East 58th Street, 212 688 4619.
The not bad: Film Center Cafe in Hell’s Kitchen, where the redesign has erased most of the charm and the service is bumbling but where the kitchen at least is reinvigorated. It was geographically perfect for dinner with friends before “Heartbreak House,” and it would have been even better if the music had not started throbbing halfway through our meal. We got a comfortable booth in front, though, and two tries got us a bottle of Clos du Bois pinot grigio from the rattled waitress. (They can dress them up in little black dresses, but they can’t make them think.) My Caesar salad and one friend’s spinach and blue cheese salad were fine, and we both liked our crisp little crab cakes, although the third among us was put off by the size (they did look like Crab Tots). The chipotle salsa and corn salsa with them were nice touches. The carb-fearing third also seemed happy with his miso-glazed cod with broccoli, especially when the waitress offered him spinach instead of the usual wasabi mashed potatoes. WIGB? Absolutely. 635 Ninth Avenue near 44th Street, 212 262 2525.
The scary: Hudson Yards in Hell’s Kitchen, where I met a friend in town for Photo Expo nearby and where the “prosciutto” in both our sandwiches was serious mystery matter. He took the waitress’s advice and had a slice added to his roasted vegetable panini and finally admitted: “My teeth aren’t sharp enough to cut this meat.” I had chosen it as the main ingredient along with “Fontina” in mine, and one bite had me thinking what Abraham Lincoln famously said about coffee and tea: If this is prosciutto, bring me ham, and if it’s ham, bring me prosciutto. To her credit, the badly overworked waitress took one look at my plate as she cleared and said: “Your sandwich was not good? A bit off, is it?” and immediately took it off the check. Too bad, because the place is wonderfully atmospheric, with gorgeous light in early afternoon and the real feel of a neighborhood joint in a city losing them by the hour. We even wound up striking up a conversation with the guys at the next table, and one of them turned out to be the legendary Barbara Haber’s son. I guess anyone can wander into the wrong bar. WIGB? Unfortunately, no.
The painful: Jacques Imo’s on Columbus, where friends and I settled for a snack after passing up all the other mediocre bedlams between there and “Borat” and where our penalty was head-pounding music and slopped-out food. I just had the house salad, and it was greens, a little blue cheese and some pecans awash in too-sweet dressing and topped with an uncored green apple hacked into four chunks. The calamari was doughy and a little high for my taste; the corn muffins in garlic butter were doughier still. I didn’t try the crawfish tamal, but it had to have been the best of the lot. The New Zealand sauvignon blanc for $38 arrived warm. And the worst innovation since the TV over the bar was on display: miniature screens at some tables. The place was the busiest I have seen it some time, so maybe what people really want is aural and visual abuse rather than decent food. WIGB? Shoot me first.
The seriously good: Barbuto in the far West Village, where a friend and I wound up for Saturday late lunch when I was so hungry I would even eat Italian and where we had outstanding food and an astonishing experience. It was a good thing I was with French nobility, because she did not sit quietly and stew as I would while waiters busily cleared and re-set tables as we sat waiting to order, or clustered to chat while we waited for our second glass of wine (a blow-away Soave whose producer’s name I wish I had written down). She hailed them as if they were cabs, and, amazingly, they responded. We did get a big dish of good olives to tide us over as soon as we sat down in the sunlit, very New York room with walls of windows thrown open. And when our first courses finally arrived, it was clear why they had taken so long. The “crudi,” as the menu termed it, was absolutely perfect shaved Brussels sprouts tossed with excellent pecorino, toasted walnuts and olive oil. Simple as could be, it was the antithesis of molecular gastronomy but achieved the same result of making me think about four basic ingredients in an entirely new way. The crispy salt cod cake was superb, too, laid over a slab of toast set over escarole. We also ordered a pizza with pancetta, egg and grana with salsa verde but received one with Swiss chard, shaved potato, salsa verde and grana. And here is where it started to get interesting. The waitress whisked the offender away, then returned to say it was on the house while the kitchen baked the right one. And it was exceptional, with a perfectly crisp crust and just the right balance of greens to cheese; even the potato melded into the topping. The “right” one was clearly put together too fast, because it was awash in grease over overcooked eggs. But the waiter who delivered it poured us each a third glass of wine and said those, too, were on the house. As was the second pizza. The NYT should let Mimi Sheraton write about Manhattan street by street much more often. She does know where to steer people. WIGB? Absolutely, but maybe not for dinner, when it would undoubtedly be deafening. West 12th Street at Washington Street, 212 924 9700.
The seriously bad: Q2 Thai in Hell’s Kitchen, where every dish came with the same two-tone, too-sweet sauces and where I could swear my second glass of wine had been cut with something weaker than water. I had heard encouraging things about it, and needed to be in that neighborhood, so I inflicted a sorry experience on a friend who had to go home and eat chocolate ice cream to recover. The duck roll we started with was actually not bad once I got past the fact that I was eating a flour tortilla in a Thai joint, and the brown-and-orange effect was not too cloying. Then our grilled eggplant — one long, skinny, forlorn one — arrived in the same bi-color puddle of sweetness, and so did the fried tofu with peculiar “portobellos.” By the time the tofu curry with basil, chile and garlic — and the succulence of PVC piping — landed, it was hard to care. WIGB? Not on a bet.
The consistent (it always disappoints): Artisanal, where I settled for lunch on an absolutely miserably frustrating shoe-adjustment day when I needed to be on that street anyway. I ran in in a hurry and, rather than waiting while the party of six ahead of me dithered at the hostess stand, settled for eating at the bar, which was temptingly set with place mats, napkins and flatware. The bartender immediately brought me a menu, then vanished to re-set tables and do I don’t know what else. Finally he took my order and I got a nice enough glass of viognier and some water and waited and waited for the skate with cauliflower and “blood orange Grenobloise” I ordered instead of the fish and chips to try to break out of my pattern of eating like a British schoolkid these days. The joke was on me because the fish had a coating as thick as you could get on cod, but instead of chips I got five fragments of raw cauliflower and a plethora of capers and buttery croutons. And if those were really blood orange segments, they were raised like leeks; they had no characteristic color, let alone vibrant flavor. To compound the insult of no bread with my food, I had the injury of being trapped in a situation where it was impossible to scoot close to my plate because of the bar along the bar. WIGB? If I do, I need help. Every time I have been it has been a letdown even with my beyond-low expectations.
The surprisingly not awful: City Grill on the Upper West Side, where I went in looking for cheap and basic at an odd hour and at least got amazing service — the host actually leapt to seat me at a nice window table, while the waiter was fast, efficient and attentive. I just had a spinach and mushroom quesadilla that was huge and came with black beans, rice, a blob of okay guacamole and not enough decent pico de gallo. With a glass of cheap Chilean and a $4 tip, though, it was $25. (Forget the $40 entrees. When did guacamole in a neighborhood bar start going for $10?) WIGB? Maybe. There aren’t many other options nearby. 269 Columbus Avenue near 72d Street, 212 873 9400. [Late October 2006]
The relatively good: BLT Fish at the counter, where I took refuge after the hostess hostility down the street and immmediately had a satisfying lunch served by an attentive and thoroughly competent bartender. This was on a weirdly hot day, and it was only after my food arrived that I remembered October is not exactly peak softshell crab season. But the sandwich was so lavishly assembled, with tomato, onion, lettuce and a spicy mayonnaise, that even a frozen crustacean would have passed. The fries were good, the coleslaw okay, and I guess it was worth $20. This is no Pearl, but it’s great for where it is. WIGB? Yep. 21 West 17th Street, 212 691 8888.
The suddenly pretty bad: Pascalou in Carnegie Hill, where the Bruxelles effect seems to have set in just since my last visit. The place and the service and the wine are all fine, and so was the idea of the food, but the execution made me think cooks to whom French is a very foreign concept were involved. I ordered duck breast au poivre medium, then switched to medium-rare, and got a slab that oozed like a cut finger. The green peppercorn sauce with it was far from classically made, and the braised endive was just a mound of defeated slime too stringy to cut. At least the haricots vert were not ruined. WIGB? It would be tough.
The adequate: Tarallucci e Vino in the Flatiron, where a friend and I resorted after the Greenmarket on a sunny day just for the sidewalk tables and long wine list. The service was laughable at the end of brunch, but both our panini were beyond respectable: arugula with scarmorza, and serious salame with aged ricotta, both on excellent bread with a little mesclun on the side. And the wines were interesting, too, even the soave. WIGB? Probably. 15 East 18th Street, 212 228 5400.
The grubby: Ocean Grill on Columbus, where I chose to sit outside after getting a whiff of inside and where the linens and glassware looked the way it smelled. Admittedly, it was a bright day, but someone should notice stains on napkins and tablecloths and crud crusted to wineglasses and carafe alike. None of it made fish seem like the freshest choice. Still, the lobster bisque was better than it had any right to be, despite the skin on it, although the Romaine in the salad was on the tired side. At least the waiter, when he finally showed up, was on his toes. WIGB? Only if the only other alternative was Isabella’s.
The wish-I-had-gone-to-Chola: Earthen Oven on the corner of Columbus that has been a succession of losing propositions ever since I lived across the street in the last century and a pizza place there was allegedly paying 20 grand a month in rent. Now it is this very formal, very ambitious Indian restaurant whose name clearly lost something in the translation — the idea of dirt and tandoori is not exactly appealing. I had made very complicated arrangements to meet a friend there or I would have picked up and left after being handed the lunch menu: $12.95 for the vegetarian special, with exactly one main dish, a choice of three appetizers, rice, dal, bread and dessert. For $1 more we could have wallowed in nirvana just across the park. My pal, who has also eaten in India, liked the samosa better than I did; it was temperature more than taste on my palate. And we could swear both our sauces — on the paneer for me and the chicken tikka masala for her — were the same; to me it was something like Campbell’s tomato cut with sweet cream. The dal was bland and soupy and the rice just rice, but at least the naan was pliable if greasy. Dessert is what you don’t get if you finish your meal as far as I’m concerned, but we took ours because it was included and the cheese ball in syrup was actually one of the better renditions of that overkill. The service was excellent, though, and the Chilean sauvignon blanc was only $6. WIGB? Maybe. It’s much, much cleaner than one other Indian place nearby, and I didn’t get sick, as I did at the other. 53 West 72d Street, 212 579 8888.
The back-storied: Morimoto, Hawaiian Tropic Zone and Craftsteak, where I happily set off to do my tangible reporting after already having been seduced by Buddakan and where two out of three ain’t bad. Morimoto was always on my list, but a deadline made it irresistible and I was happy to have a Santa Barbara friend in town to try anything. The space alone would be worth a dinner, but we sat at the sushi bar and thoroughly enjoyed a Philadelphia-quality experience, with superb service, great show, satisfying food. The overcooked duck egg on my duck-duck-duck plate would be my one quibble. Tropic Zone should be a joke, but we are in a fallow time in Manhattan restaurants and it actually has real appeal. My high-powered editor friend agreed that the cooking, except for the Hooters-cheapened dessert, was as good or better than at most restaurants getting serious reviews anymore. But Craftsteak is what Manhattan could deteriorate into if no one is left here but guys with truckloads of money and zero taste. For expediency’s sake I went for lunch and, because I was not into meat, ordered a portobello “burger” with cheese for $2 extra and fries for $7 extra. The pretentiousness and fussiness would have felt at home in a Michelin three-star in the Bois de Bologne (the waitress bowed at my order, the runner needed help to unload all the accouterments with the food, the luxe aspect of the decor was over the top), but when the figurative silver dome was whisked off, it was like finding a Whopper Junior. The fries were limp, the sandwich lame. Why serve it if it sucks? And the down side of a gym-size space is how empty it looks when empty. Suffice it to say I would have spent my own money at the first two restaurants, and would again. At least until someone opens something that is not Paris-priced and meat-centric.
The clearly forgettable: Dos Caminos Soho, where in a week of obsessing on chilies I completely blanked on the profoundly mediocre overpriced lunch I had here. All you need to know is that the fish tacos made Pastis seem briliant. [Mid-October 2006]
The always good Mexican: El Paso Taqueria, where every visit is a lesson in how to run a restaurant. The waiters are inevitably the same, the wine is the same, the mood is the same, but the menu changes slightly, and always for the better, while the decor gets more polished. Consistency is a virtue much fancier restaurants could invest in.
The seriously bad Mexican: Gabriela’s, where I stupidly headed back on a crunched day rather than spending the half-hour and $4 in bus fare to get to and from El Paso. Even sitting at a perfectly nice outdoor table, I was appalled. The food is ridiculously expensive (enchiladas more than twice the price of El Paso’s), the ingredients are dismal (dried herbs in the vinaigrette; what could have been processed cheese in the quesadilla) and the cooking is slovenly. If there were any doubt menupages had turned into a flacksite, the positive comments on this travesty would put them to rest.
The erratic Mexican: Rosa Mexicano in the Flatiron District, where lunch is a crap shoot but where the location so close to the Greenmarket will always be my downfall. Last time the place was busy late but the service and cooking were spot on; this time the place was scarily empty at peak hour and the queso fundido was right on the edge of greasy rubber, with, yet again, only four cold tortillas provided.
The this-is-what-I-get-for-deviating-from-Mexican: Saigon Grill on Amsterdam, where the whole miserable history of Upper West Side Asian can be traced in one 20-minute early dinner. The joint started as a joint, essentially a diner with really good Vietnamese for next to nothing. Success begat a bigger, sleeker space where the cooking managed to hold up against the crowds. Then they expanded and added sushi and here it is, shades of Empire Szechuan: nice space, who-gives-a-shit food. I went alone and was seated in the cage for baby pork, surrounded on three sides by tables with kiddles in their high chairs, which would have been almost okay if the food had not been so depressing. The steamed vegetable dumplings were light and perfectly cooked but had minus-15 taste; the vegetarian spring rolls were sloppily made, carelessly fried and more grease than zest. What was strange was that all the vegetables with them were crisp and fresh and perfectly prepped; only the reason for being was a disaster. I don’t love Land, but it would have been Vong by comparison. And why can’t Spice open in my neighborhood? [Early October 2006]
The not great: Little Giant, where my high expectations were thwarted on every level. It’s a two-star setting for sure, and overall it was better than Little Owl, but the cooking and the attitude were turnoffs. After being told no table was reservable at 8, only 7:30, my friend and I ate in a half-empty room. Worse, our miserable table was jammed almost into the doorway while a couple who came in later were given a four-top. My duck confit had an excellent crisp skin but chewy flesh, and it was not talking to the arugula and wheatberries on which it rested, let alone to the raisiny-tasting sauce underneath. I had just a bite of my friend’s cavatelli in sage pesto, but that was plenty. The herb butter with the bread was excellent, though, and so was the Welschriesling yet again. WIGB? Maybe, to the bar. 85 Orchard Street north of Broome, 212 226 5047.
The not bad: Calle Ocho, where the food was respectable and the noise level was actually not painful but where the staff disdain was mystifying. Friends in from Connecticut chose it, and I was happy to give it another try after at least six years. I just had an appetizer of arepas with three aspects of duck — sliced, shredded and foie gras — and shared their bottle of malbec, and it was fine for what it was. The warm bread with black bean spread was nice, too. But everyone from the host to the bartender to the waiter to the server treated the three of us like necessary evils. There was something truly strange about a glacial reception in a tropical theme park. WIGB? Not unless I need to be dissed for my own good.
The perfectly dreadful: Pastis, where I sat down in desperation at late lunchtime and realized only after ordering a glass of wine that there was absolutely nothing on the menu that I wanted to eat. I saw fries go by and settled sadly for fish and chips; the former was soggy and the latter dry. Even Oliver Leflaive tastes like Gallo from a box when it’s served in a tumbler. The service was exemplary, though, even though it was clear the waiter knew the joke was on me for coming there just to eat. WIGB? Shoot me first. [Early October 2006]
The pretty good: Copper Chimney in Curry Hill, where I sought refuge after fleeing the circle of hell that is Chennai Garden and was rewarded with an even cheaper lunch with better wine in a very sleek — and cleaner — environment. It was late on a Saturday afternoon and I was far from Chola and the veg half of the buffet at the new Masala Bollywood looked like slim pickings, so I had snared the last table at grubby Chennai, where the manager hurriedly took my drink order, handed me a menu and disappeared after dropping off my Baron Herzog. I sat there for maybe 15 minutes while he dashed around and schmoozed and then went out to the sidewalk while waiters bumbled past with trays of drinks and food and clearly no idea where to set them down. Babies were screaming, a 500-pound American drinking Diet Coke was in my sight line and I sat and sat. When a guy who walked in well after me was approached by a waiter, I fled unnoticed with that huge sense of having dodged an overpriced cannonball. By contrast, the hostess at Copper Chimney opened the door for me, smilingly seated me, sold me a Villa Maria New Zealand sauvignon blanc for all of $8 and showed me the special veg lunch menu for $9.95 (at Chennai the thali is $14.95 with fewer dishes on it). That brought greaselessly fried pakora with corn and other vegetables, curried chickpeas, paneer in a deep red pepper sauce, vegetable-flecked pilaf, perfect raita, excellent spicy dal, a tiny green salad, superb nan and one of those strange little milk-and-saffron balls Indians love. Much of it was even garnished, with cilantro and strips of ginger, and the place is as nice-looking as a trendy restaurant in Mumbai, too. WIGB? Probably. 126 East 28th Street off Lexington, 212 213 5742.
The not bad: Cafe Loup in the West Village, where an equally wine-soaked friend insisted we head for old time’s sake after a show at Spiegeltent. It was once her neighborhood hangout, so I pushed aside bad memories to humor her and was repaid with a surprisingly great cheeseburger: juicy, perfectly cooked and good-sized but dwarfed by the mound of good fries with it. The place still feels like a club for regulars only, but I liked it. WIGB? Maybe, with an insider. 105 West 13th Street, 212 255 4746.
The off: Fatty Crab, where I went expecting the usual perfection and learned too late that the perpetrator of it has moved on to a new gig. It was on the far side of lunch and the staff was distracted by a film crew looking to shoot an interview, so things started rocky after the trying-hard busboy showed me to a seat and brought me water. I knew what I wanted without seeing the menu it took so long to be given, and that was exactly what I usually want: the fatty duck, the steamed baby bok choy and the gruner veltliner. Two out of three isn’t bad, but the duck was a different specimen from the usual tender, spicy chunks; it was tough and chewy, and the way it had been hacked up made it difficult to get the fat and the flesh in one satisfying bite. But the rice underneath it was better than ever, and the spicy bok choy was sublime as always. The funniest thing was that the waiter had refused to turn down the music when my out-of-town friends had asked at lunch months ago, insisting “it’s our style,” but the director got no argument at all. If you happen to see the segment, don’t think it’s always that quiet. WIGB? Absolutely, and often. 643 Hudson Street near 12th Street, 800 783 4450. [Late September 2006]
The sorta good: Klong in the East Village, where the crispy duck salad for $6 and a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc for a buck less made for a surprisingly satisfying lunch. The waiters were good, the kitchen is fast and the place looks much sleeker than it should given where it is (although they might want to run Mr. Clean over those white chairs gone grubby). Spice actually does the Thai salad better, with more and more succulent duck integrated more harmoniously with the chilies and dressing. But if you sit by the front window, you won’t notice anything except the Halloween parade going by every day of the year. It’s a freak show down there. WIGB? Probably, for the real lunch menu (two courses for $6 to $8). 7 St. Marks Place, 212 505 9955.
The not horrible: Phoenix Garden in Murray Hill, where a finicky friend who lives nearby chose to introduce me to a favorite neighborhood place on what may have been an off night. We ordered two appetizers and two main courses and got one of each in two fast installments, flat fried rolls that I think were called Buddha’s Delight with the crispy salt-and-pepper shrimp, followed almost instantly by the gummy steamed shrimp dumplings at the same time as the half-order of Peking duck. It was our choice which we wanted to let go cold first. The duck — skin and meat both — was wrapped up for us by a waiter in chewy pancakes the size of tablecloths, and the slivered scallions were so old and hard it was like chewing toothpicks. If I had never eaten Cantonese in Hong Kong, I might have been more forgiving. But the coup de grace was the woman owner(?) who came to the table promptly at 10 to announce: “Ladies, we closed.” At least it was BYO and there’s a good wine shop two blocks away (Sussex). WIGB? Only if she insists. 242 East 40th Street off Second Avenue, 212 983 6666.
The adequate: Uncle Nick’s Ouzeria in Hell’s Kitchen, where a Greek-loving friend and I trying to recover from “Jesus Camp” on 42d Street made our way for a snack while the theaters were full and the restaurants empty. For some reason we pissed the waiter off big time by asking which of the fairly long list of white wines was dry, not fruity, since the descriptions were so contradictory (“dry” and “honey and orange” do not sound the same to me). Exactly one qualified, and of course I don’t remember what it was, just that it was not too ouzy. We shared a plate of skordalia, eggplant, tarama and tzatsiki and another of fried zucchini with more skordalia. The spreads were respectable and the bread with them was warm, although the zucchini managed to be both greasy and raw. My friend returned a bit shaken from the unisex bathroom, but I’ve seen much, much worse. At least it was cheap: $22.32 with wine and tip, for which we just doubled the tax because the waiter was so annoyed we had entered his world. And not ordered the cheese he would ignite and flame with a loud, “Oooo-pah.” If I had to do that 15 times a night, I’d be surly, too. WIGB? Not on a bet. 749 Ninth Avenue near 50th, 212 245 7992.
The convenient: Gilileo on the Upper West Side, where I hope the owner can make a go of it. A friend and I headed there because she had brought her dog and we needed an outside table near my place, and the two women behind the counter could not have been more hospitable. I had half of a good vegetarian panino (avocado, roasted red pepper and goat cheese) and San Pellegrino for $6.50 with tip for the table service. It’s under scaffolding now, but that makes it even more appealing in the rain. WIGB? As often as I can. 176 West 94th Street at Amsterdam, 646 403 3215.
The nice-looking: PicNic on the Upper West Side, where you clearly pay for the redesign into a real restaurant. My scrambled egg-and-Cheddar breakfast sandwich was $4.50, and the cheese was imperceptible. Two dollars more brought “frites” that were diner fries, sodden and limp. The place is certainly attractive now, and the service was not bad, but in morning light you can really see the food on the floor and the banquettes. And forget Nora Ephron. I wonder what the Health Department thinks about salt cellars on tables with no spoons provided. WIGB? Probably. There aren’t many other decent options around here, and it does look good. 2665 Broadway near 100th Street, 212 8222.
[Late September 2006]
The good: Little Giant on the Lower East Side, where a friend and I exploring in the rain stumbled onto some of the jazziest food I’ve had in months, complete with a lesson on a wine entirely new to the both of us. It was like eating in San Francisco, with a cozy pillowed room, supremely eater-friendly bar, great vibe and creative ideas at work in the open kitchen. In prowling mode, we stupidly only stayed for superb appetizers — crostini mounded with favas, pecorino and tomatoes, and a salad of arugula, figs, curried walnuts and Bayley Hazen blue — with quartinos of white. The Colombard was apparently undistinguished, but the Welschriesling tasted as lively as the food. When I asked about it, the winsome bartender explained that it was not a riesling at all but a grape apart, then sent one of the owners over, who poured another little glass to talk about it some more. WIGB? Can’t wait. 85 Orchard Street at Broome, 212 226 5047.
The not bad: The Little Owl in the West Village, where I snared a barstool early on Saturday for a nice-enough glass of Domaine de la Soucherie from the Loire and a very fresh hunk of $18 cod but where I left thinking I could have eaten as well at home. I was set up to hate the place after I was treated warmly at the door, then left neglected in an impossible-to-extricate-myself corner while a couple who came in were of course seated down the bar, given water and menus and had wine poured before the clueless waitress polishing flatware right in front of me even leaned over to address me. But the bread and peppery olive oil were perfection, the place had a nice feel and that cod, atop a chunky, under-salted corn salad, was cooked perfectly, broiled under a pesto glaze. Unfortunately, it tasted very similar to the “60-Minute Gourmet” treatment my consort and I always give to fluke and flounder, which is just a slather of Dijon mustard and mayonnaise and a run under the broiler. I did perk up when the check arrived tucked inside a food book. That would have seemed ridiculously affected except the book was Patricia Volk’s “Stuffed” in paperback, and my words were on the cover from the NYT review. How cool was that? WIGB? Nah, been there. Funny how Pearl yet again made the familiar taste brand new by comparison in the same week. 90 Bedford Street at Grove, 212 741 4695.
The mystifying: Alias on the Lower East Side, where my friend and I stumbled into a din for seriously lame food because it was pissing down rain, Falai Panetteria had no liquor license, I faintly remembered a distant Wylie connection and, most important, pork belly was on the menu posted outside. Unfortunately, by the time our swamped but patient waiter took our order, the belly had been 86’ed. So we studied the suddenly unappealing menu a long time and settled on fried okra (stodgy, heavy, anemic-looking and unredeemed by the Tabasco aioli) and the shrimp flatbread (the main ingredient had a good char but the whole thing was leaden). Apparently it doesn’t matter what I think, though. The place was jammed when we got there and when we left, after overtipping wildly when our second glasses of wine were left off the bill and the waiter comped them for our honesty. WIGB? Only in a hurricane. 76 Clinton Street at Rivington, 212 505 5011. [Mid- September]
The pretty good: Pascalou on the Upper East Side, where it’s hard to complain about anything as long as you get a table downstairs at an off hour. My crab cake was beyond respectable and came with a sort of ratatouille wrapped in spinach leaves; it was hard to mind that the promised scalloped potatoes that were half the reason for ordering that dish were more roasted and not at all creamy. The bread and butter are good, the wine choices are decent, the service is efficient. Wish it was not a park away. WIGB? Anytime. 1308 Madison Avenue near 94th Street, 212 534 7522.
The not bad: Aquagrill in SoHo, where the crab cake sandwich and fries were not as stellar as I remembered and where the service was beyond obsequious. The real problem was that I had set out for Pearl and found it closed for renovation. Once you have your gut set on the fish sandwich there, anything else will taste tired. But I still think the A roll was changed, and not for the better. WIGB? Maybe. When the memory fades. 210 Spring Street at Sixth Avenue, 212 274 0505.
The sad: Gavroche on the Chelsea-Village border, where the garden and the quiet only slightly made up for the not-great food. An out-of-towner wanting the bistro classics his wife finds boring made me remember the place, and remember it more kindly than I should have. Both our first glasses of wine tasted as if they had been poured from the same fruity jug; certainly my “Olivier Leflaive Chablis” was more like Eighties Gallo. He seemed happy with his skate with ratatouille, but my fish, a special of mahi wrapped in prosciutto, was mummy of the sea. It came on okay mashed potatoes and a good-tasting but trauma ward-looking red wine sauce with what seemed to be beets but turned out to be mushrooms. Weird. On the up side, we were nearly the youngest people in the place. And we didn’t have to yell. WIGB? Not if I can help it. [Early September 2006]
The good: Buddakan, where a friend suggested we ignore the “fully committed” bullshit and walk in at 7 on a Saturday and where we were rewarded with amazing food and typical Stephen Starr service in a beyond-dramatic setting. The waitress said the place was expecting to do 900 covers that night, but nothing we ate gave any hint of a stressed kitchen. Taro “lollipops” were outstanding, crispy outside and oozy inside; edamame dumplings were like green hummus in just enough truffle oil, and the wok-roasted water spinach tasted smoky and garlicky. Corn and crab dumplings were sweet and gooey; the tuna spring roll was just okay. But the blowaway dish was a reinvention of frisee salad, with Peking duck and cracklings substituting for lardons and cucumber slices for croutons, with what tasted rich enough to be a duck egg oozing over it all. I’m not sure the Paul Blanck gewurtztraminer was worth $59, though. As we left, the place was packed on both cavernous levels while the streets and subways were deserted in the rain- and windstorm. Steve Hanson should be shitting his pants. WIGB? Can’t wait. 75 Ninth Avenue at 16th Street, 212 989 6699.
The reliable: Cafe Luxembourg, where the room alone is always a mood elevator but the service and food come through, too. I just had fish and chips and a glass of sauvignon blanc for lunch and went away happy to have dropped $33. WIGB? Of course. 200 West 70th Street, 212 873 7411.
The transporting: The Bridge Cafe, where the food is really beside the point because eating in a place so old and so magical is its own reward. We loved the crab, spinach and artichoke “fondue” with flatbreads, but the duck confit and Asian vegetable spring roll was as big as a burrito and a lot less satisfying. The waitress and the wine were faultless, and sitting at the James Beard table only added to the experience of being a world away. WIGB? Absolutely. 279 Water Street, 212 227 3344.
The disappointing: Chinatown Brasserie, where the dim sum was better than average but not as outstanding as I expected, and the service was bizarre. I ordered three things and asked for one to come first, but everything was delivered on one tray, so by the time I got to the steamed crab dumplings they had collapsed and I was regretting choosing to start with the logey, bland duck spring rolls. The turnip cake was greasier than last time, too. All three sauces were exceptional, though, and the gruner veltliner went with everything. I guess it was because the place was nearly empty, but I had to keep fighting off waiters and busboys; one reached right across my food as I was eating to remove the chopstick wrapper, and another would not let me sit down after the bathroom until he had finished refolding my napkin. Give that staff some customers! Or not. As I left, $39 later, no one said a word. WIGB? Maybe. 380 Lafayette Street at Great Jones, 212 533 7000. [Late August 2006]
The good: Salud, where we stopped in for a snack after checking out what is not happening at the Fulton Fish Market. The owner of the excellent Photographic Gallery nearby warned us off Dodo and mentioned live music here, which to me is a turnoff but this time wound up being a selling point. The trio who play every Thursday night, Nu Guajiro, are good enough to be interrupting diners at lunch in a restaurant in Santiago de Cuba. It made us all the happier to split a silly little plate of “paellaita” with a few assorted mollusks scattered around a mound of seafood-studded rice and a superb little plate of three “langostacos” stuffed with lobster, corn and lobster. The black bean dip and garlicky mojo served with fried plantain chips were faultless, as was the service. 142 Beekman Street near Front Street, 212 566 2220.
Also: Chola, yet again and as always, and even better on a Tuesday when the menu is so different from Thursday, and Spice in Chelsea, where the curried duck with basil special was so good I got a second order to schlep home to my consort for lunch for all of $8.50 with vegetable spring rolls. And Fairway Cafe, for steak frites and pizza margarita and too-cheap-to-be-true $5 wine.
The not bad: La Esquina in SoHo at street level, where I ducked in for lunch before Maine and had a perfectly satisfying avocado-queso fresco torta with chips and salad served by a totally efficient waiter. And Alouette, where three good appetizers at an open-to-the-sidewalk table, served by a personable waitress with a bottle of affordable white Bordeaux, were almost as satisfying as kissing the filthy pavement after a week away from the magic kingdom.
The adequate on a repeat visit: Pizzabolla on Amsterdam, where I dragged a friend north on a rainy night and where everything was off, from the distracted service to the cold and tired eggplant parmigiana. It was a quiet refuge from the storm, though. Also, Land Thai for a cheap lunch (steamed vegetable dumplings and cashew curry for me, evil shrimp and chicken special for my consort). Nothing like an asshole in an outback hat near the window to make an okay meal stick in your cranial sieve. [Latish August 2006]
The good: Virgil’s in Times Square, where the service and upbeat attitude almost made up for the slight inconsistency in the food. The waiter was outstanding, even in his attempted upselling; the hostess was hyperfriendly and efficient to boot, and the runner who brought my order took the time to explain the choices in sauces. How they do it while overrun with tourists is something Rosa Mexicano and Mesa Grill might want to study. My brisket melt was much fattier and greasier than usual, but it was still the ultimate Hangover Helper, especially with the good potato salad and not-too-sweet coleslaw. Would I Go Back? Not until I finish digesting, sometime this winter. 152 West 44th Street, 212 921 9494.
The not bad: Land Thai Kitchen, where I was lured on the promise of wine at last but where the staff still thinks it’s dealing with beer drinkers. Three of us were mostly looking for air conditioning and happily settled for decent food, aside from charred squid that was heavier on heat than flavor. Vegetable dumplings stuffed with shiitakes, corn, tofu and peanuts were not too stodgy, and an eggplant-shrimp appetizer seemed to be trying hard. The wok cashew with shrimp and drunken noodles with chicken were not objectionable, either. We split a bottle of gruner-veltliner, then each ordered another glass while we had food to finish. And when we did, the waitress looked as if we had asked her to clean up after a very large dog. Strange thing about the hospitality business anymore. It really would prefer you eat and get the hell out. WIGB? Only for lunch. 450 Amsterdam Avenue near 82d Street, 212 501 8121.
The neglected: Mesa Grill, where a manager type was lurking in the cool area in the back while I was seated in a dead zone, my knife was dirty, my wineglass had food crusted on the base, the butter looked recycled and my food came so fast I was sure it had been turned away by another table. There’s no way a crispy softshell crab salad can be assembled as fast as a glass of sauvignon blanc can be poured, is there? It was pretty disappointing, too: the salad was mostly nasty frisee with a little watercress, the dressing was too sweet and the little crab had been fried to within an inch of desiccated. Maybe I would have been more forgiving if I hadn’t been forced into a table near the window where there was absolutely no air movement; I guess the hostesses have been trained to park bodies there so the place will look busy from the street, and it was too hard to move once I was down with my heavy bag of corn and milk and more from the Greenmarket. I walked in dewy and left with my dress literally soaked in sweat. WIGB? Not on a dare. [Late July/Early August 2006]
The good if fussy: Falai on the Lower East Side, where I lured three women who were tempted by WD-50 and where I left feeling lucky to be with good sports. Entrees in the $25 range were not surprising, but the $18-and-up dainty pastas were, as was the swank overkill. We also had to suffer a long anecdote from the strange waiter about how he was once dissed by a snoot in France for not ordering enough food, only to have him write down our six choices and blurt: “That’s all? For four of you?” I guess waiters make more than you think. We got out for under $45 a person by sharing an excellent $40 Arneis; a buffalo ricotta flan; white polenta topped with chicken livers and chanterelles and, allegedly, dates; grilled Treviso radicchio (American, by the bitterness of it) with more cheese and Lilliputian gnocchi fritti; slightly gooey gnudi made from more ricotta with spinach; little squares of underwhelming pasta called foiade, and what was essentially mantecato. Even sampled in tiny bites, all of it was so rich we skipped dessert. The place is so starkly white it’s unsettling, but not as much as the open bread oven with a temperature gauge blinking at 496 degrees on a hot night. It was off and the bread was good. Would I Go Back? Maybe. 68 Clinton Street, 212 253 1960.
The not bad: Food in East Harlem, where a fellow Upper West Sider and I headed for an absurdly early Saturday dinner and were rewarded with the luxury of quiet and space, without a stroller in sight, plus better-than-it-had-to-be food at a great price. The house salad for $6 was enough for two, with lots of cucumber and grape tomatoes in not-picked-yesterday mesclun. We accidentally wound up with the same entree — perfectly fried hake — but mine came in the $13 fish and chips and hers was tucked into the $11 tacos with cabbage and two salsas. The chipotle tartar sauce made an ideal dipping sauce for everything, especially the good “house-cut” fries, with skins on. The waitress seemed surprisingly attentive, given how empty the relatively huge place was, and the gruner-veltliner was a steal at $27. (Funny to think that was once the hip wine that went for $15 a glass.) WIGB? Absolutely. 1569 Lexington Avenue near 100th Street, 212 348 0200.
The surprising: Pizzabolla on the Upper West Side, where the eggplant parmigiana was portioned for Buffalo but assembled for Manhattan and where the whole feeling was less a pizza parlor than an overlooked neighborhood restaurant. I’d given up on the place early on after ordering a pizza delivery that actually made the Albanian Famous Famiglia look good, but it suddenly seemed appealing one night when I needed dinner alone close by. The eggplant was outstanding, very thin layers sandwiched with just enough cheese in a bright sauce, with a good mesclun salad on the side (you can get it with pasta, but why?) A glass of mediocre Orvieto cost what a bottle does at Gotham, but the service was great, and the two families with kids were eating outside. WIGB? Absolutely. 654 Amsterdam Avenue at 92d Street, 212 579 4500.
The I-take-it-all-back: Bistro Citron, where I was mortified to run into a friend who had just had a flavor-free dinner of coquilles St. Jacques on his birthday. With his girlfriend off in Scandinavia. While his cat was on its last paws. He had trusted me, and my consort and I had also had a bad evening. The place is trying seriously hard, but it is not getting better as it gets slammed night after night. The sole had a leathery crust, and the vegetables in filo just looked silly. The Caesar was no more or less than it usually is, but the bread had gone all rubbery. WIGB? Under duress.
Honorable mention: Saxelby Cheesemongers in the Essex Market. Three of us had just left Schiller’s, where we had met for an afternoon drink but where I had warned everyone off the food. By the time we got to this first stop on our Lower East Side meander, a few tastes of the few cheeses would not be enough for the two of us who had skipped lunch, at least not to get us to the amazing black sesame gelato at the Laboratorio on Orchard Street. The owner, Anne Saxelby, who used to work at Murray’s, agreed to sell a few slices of Cato Corner Hooligan on a roll, which looked like manna. Opening a business that involves free samples in a market where no good deed could go unpunished takes nerve. But she deserves huge success at a tiny stall. There must be a reason the new Formaggio Kitchen nearby in the market was empty even with cheese samples set out while Saxelby’s had a line. [Late July 2006]
The good: Chola yet again, where the owners have revamped by moving the excellent buffet to the front, adding a wall of water and renovating the bathroom when they really have nothing to fear from the totally lame new competition next door. The service is always great and the food is always superb and a great lunch value at $13.95 — after the usual generous appetizers I had fish pakora, saag paneer, aloo gohbi, dal, a creamy vegetable curry and almost enough bread while passing up a couple of kinds of chicken and lamb and the desserts and the two salads. So far it remains as close to India as any place I have ever found in New York, without a pasta salad in sight. 232 East 58th Street, 212 688 4619.
The not bad: Niko’s, where three of us took refuge in search of cheap food and quiet after getting shut out of Fairway Cafe (the kitchen is closed at 9:20?) after a movie and where the food almost compensated for the diner ambiance and cheesy wineglasses sloshing with not-great wine. A little overpriced at $13.50, the house pizza had a decent crust and a surprisingly harmonious blend of toppings: feta, spinach, scallions, black olives and strips of hot pepper. A side salad of cucumbers (not the tomatoes we ordered but what the hell) was a rip at $4.50. The pikilia plate was overloaded with excellent Greek eggplant salad, beets on skordalia, “tsatiki,” fava puree and pita, although I was happy the threatened octopus garnish was nowhere to be seen. The waitresses move fast in tight quarters but would never survive a Gordon Ramsay weigh-in. 2161 Broadway at 76th Street, 212 873 7000.
The off: Fairway Cafe, where we made our way early enough the next night and got most of what we were looking for (cheap wine, no din) but where I made the mistake of ordering a special. The softshell crabs were not just leathery buckrams but were seriously undercooked, and there are few things less appetizing than slimy crab flesh. The antipasto plate and arugula salad with prosciutto were excellent, though, and the service is always good. And you cannot underestimate the appeal of $5 New Zealand sauvignon blanc and no din. 2127 Broadway at 74th Street, 212 595 1888.
The deafening and disappointing: Cookshop in Chelsea, where I keep going back for the mood and the philosophy and keep coming away underwhelmed. Maybe if I didn’t spend the whole meal yelling across the table, I would like the food better, or at least be more willing to forgive strange flavor combinations (grouper was not talking to its chutney, let alone with the undercooked potato-zucchini gratin it sat on). The best thing I tasted was the fried okra with chili aioli. My consort’s Treviso and red dandelion salad was two variations on bitterness, and his duck breast was just okay. Our friends seemed satisfied with their food, but then if they were complaining I couldn’t hear them.
The transporting: Hudson Beach Cafe in Riverside Park, where you want to close your eyes at the thought of where you’re eating but where you would miss the sunset if you did. Friends in the neighborhood lured us there on a brutally hot Sunday and we gamely ordered a decent Caesar salad and an airport-quality cheeseburger and a couple of plastic cups of not too shivery wine. It felt very French to be dining with the dog, but it felt very New York to think rats had to be all around us. The awful part is that we will go back. It is a trip, right near 103d Street.
The infuriating: Rosa Mexicano downtown, where the fish is rotting from the head down if the suit I keep spotting doing nothing is in charge. I can usually put up with lame service because the food has gotten better, I’m down there all the time at the Greenmarket or getting my hair cut, and the design really is revivifying. But this time I ducked in for a fast queso fundido and glass of wine and waited forever for the former as the waiter went MIIA (missing in inaction). When my food finally came, it was cooked to rubber, with the chorizo bricked to the baking dish and the cheese separating out into grease. The basket of tortillas held exactly three, all cold. I had to flag down a busboy to get more (three again, warm but hard), and by then it was too late. Through it all, the suit strutted around blithely, oblivious to booths full of people languishing with menus long after they were seated and tables waiting for water or food or checks or just sitting disconsolate over the careless cooking. Funny how funky El Paso Taqueria always comes off as the better restaurant — yet again for five of us at dinner — with a tiny but tight team in front and back of the house. [Late July 2006]
The good: Fairway Cafe yet again, where the Cornish hen was charred to excellence and the wine was priced crazy-low but where the four-star element was the absence of the din that reigns in just about every other restaurant. Admittedly, the place was pretty empty when we stopped in after a movie at Lincoln Square but even crowded it could not be as painful as at any other place for blocks. The space is also much nicer after dark, and the bread comes with fine roasted peppers in oil. I couldn’t even complain that my inevitable Caesar salad was not creamily dressed enough after the bill came: $48 for two plates and four glasses of wine. 2127 Broadway at 74th Street, 212 595 1888.
The better: Pegu Club one flight up in SoHo, where a friend and I took refuge after fleeing the mismanaged and ridiculously expensive Petrarca and were rewarded with a good show by the bartender mixing lethal gin martinis, not to mention pretty decent mushroom dumplings and great deviled eggs with smoked trout. The design is dazzling; the experience is Hong Kong-worthy; the location even makes suffering a film at the Angelika look tempting. I didn’t even mind the expensive wine. 77 West Houston Street, 212 473 PEGU.
The great value: The Bar Room at the Modern, where the racket and an overwhelmed waitress were the only drawbacks. For my $35, I got an excellent pea soup with pistachios accentuating the clean flavor, very tender if not perfectly crisped duck confit with potatoes and frisee and “Modern cheesecake,” which was a free-form blob and oversweetened to boot. Everyone else started with grilled shrimp and cabbage-Gruyere salad (generous with the main ingredient, skimpy on the cheese). My consort was let down by his Alsatian sausage, although I liked the turnip choucroute that came with it. Of the other desserts, the hazelnut dacquoise was the least cloying and most sophisticated; the baba glazed with Grand Marnier with roasted pineapple and lime sabayon was a diabetic coma waiting to happen. The wine list was also so affordable — $36 for a perfectly satisfying L’Alycastre from Provence — that we went ahead and indulged in a $19 quartino of pinot blanc for dessert. Interestingly, the main dining room never filled while the bar was still packed when we left. And I give the hostess points — she may have insisted our friends were not there and their reservation had been canceled for not confirming (blame confusion over the name), but she promised she would seat us no matter what. Not only was the whole experience enough to make me contemplate risking another Restaurant Week outing, it actually made me think about going back and eating from the real menu. Every restaurateur who skimps should try it. 9 West 53d Street, 212 333 1220. [Mid-July 2006]
The good: Le Gamin in Chelsea, where my “classique” club was surprisingly inspired and where the experience was so transporting it was hard to remember the subway was just outside. I only stopped in in desperation after finding half the Village closed for renovations after a trip to the Greenmarket, and I would have settled for anything even with a baby at the next table. But the Macon was well chilled and served fast, the waiter was all Gallic charm, the room and lively music were very French and my sandwich was not a tired assemblage of cold deli junk but ciabatta pressed with turkey, lots of bacon, tomatoes and Swiss cheese, melted and gooey. A good pile of greens, carrots and cucumbers came with it for $12.50. Even the baby acted French, maybe because the parents did, too, and took it (boy? girl?) out for walks before crankiness could ever set in. 258 West 15th Street, 212 929 3270.
The better: Fairway Cafe, where lunch was a revelation when I would have settled for decent. I had walked all the way from 96th Street down Amsterdam without finding a single place that appealed for a late lunch and then I remembered our friend whose wife had tried to get us to go here after a movie (we should have — Bistro Citron was having an off night after getting slammed out of mussels by a Time Out write-up). He loves the burgers, and well he should: Mine was fat and juicy (if a shade past medium) and came with red onion, tomato, mesclun, good skin-on fries, coleslaw and a garlicky mayonnaise for exactly $9. It was an off-hour and service was a bit offhand, but a $5 Giesen sauvignon blanc made it impossible to find any fault. I’ve almost sworn off burgers, but this place could be dangerous. 2127 Broadway at 74th Street, 212 595 1888.
The excellent: Chinatown Brasserie, where the design alone would be worth a trip (it reminded me of the Asian version of an Estonian fantasy) but where the cooking was seriously accomplished and the wines well matched. The place is covering all carryout bases with dishes like General Tso’s chicken but has vastly higher ambitions. Of the dim sum we tried, all but the soup dumplings were superb (mine were dehydrated); both the relatively ordinary (shimp and pea shoot dumplings) and the innovative (shrimp crackers topped with scallops and pancetta; mushroom-corn dumplings) were Hong Kong-level. We were also all happy with the scallops with roast pork and the pea shoots with garlic. Only the Peking duck was underwhelming. While the pancakes were beyond perfect and the skin perfectly crispy, the meat itself was chewy and dull and needed way too much hoisin sauce for its own good. But now that we’ve gotten that out of the way and shared the $48 burden, I can’t wait to go back and try more of the menu. 380 Lafayette Street at Great Jones, 212 533 7000.
The mediocre: Yuva in Midtown’s Little India, where I should have turned tail as soon as I saw pasta salad on the buffet, even before I realized the whole array was so heavily weighted toward chicken and lamb (I’d rather eat a hot dog). I had already committed at that point, so I went ahead and tackled the vegetable choices on the appetizer side. The fried vegetables were insipid, the spinach balls could have been fried by Dunkin’ Donuts and the “Mochurian” nonmeatballs could have been anything in their coma-inducing sweet sauce. Twelve different condiments on offer couldn’t help matters much, and either did the greasy dosa fried up in the window and rolled around bland potatoes, although the fresh coconut chutney almost brought that to Bangalorean life. The three vegetable entrees — okra, more potatoes, and cabbage with peas — all tasted alike, although the rice and dal were fine. Only the sambhar and the solicitous service saved my lunch, but I still wish I had gone to Chola next door. Anyone who risks the new kid on this block of 58th Street should also be prepared for that Larry King feeling. To put it politely, the concept seems less “Frontier Indian” and more “Blazing Saddles.” [Early July 2006]
The always good: Fatty Crab, where the menu keeps changing, and for the unimaginably better. We were almost the only patrons at Saturday lunch, which meant the music level was not quite Guantanamo level and the waitress was in attentive form, explaining the steamed Shanghai shoots (infant bok choy in oyster sauce) and table sauce (sambal, and unnecessary). The fatty duck was not as sublime as usual (a little chewier and a lot fattier), but the accouterments were sensational. Charred squid salad came with an oceanic garnish we’d never encountered. I was tempted by a new pickle and some other additions but restrained myself so that we had exactly enough. The bug in the bathroom seemed equally dazed from happy eating. 643 Hudson Street near West 12th Street, 212 352 3590.
The always acceptable: Rosa Mexicano near Union Square, where any lapses by either cooks or waiters seem to be forgivable because the place is so convenient and the room so attractive and the bathrooms so accessible. I just had queso fundido and a Chilean sauvignon blanc, which was all perfect, but the waitress was snappily attentive for a change. 9 East 18th Street, 212 533 3350.
The third-time-charming: Bistro Citron, where my sole was as satisfying as Tout Va Bien’s always was before Times Square went to hell by way of Disneyworld and where the service, wine, prices and place all held up yet again. The fries with the mussels remain superior to the sodden logs alongside the steak, but the salmon on ratatouille was a fine combination. In a neighborhood where relatively quiet and affordable restaurants with decent cooking are so rare, it still feels like a winner. 473 Columbus Avenue at 83d Street, 212 400 9401.
The appalling: Gabriela’s, where I stupidly suggested five of us meet as a novel alternative to yet another meal at Citron and where we were penalized with head-banging noise, slovenly cooking, foul wine and unforgivable prices (higher than Rosa Mexicano, at 93d and Columbus?) The new incarnation is certainly attractive, but it’s hard to notice details when shrieking children are shrieking all around you, their misery reverberating off no end of hard surfaces and amplifying the general let’s-get-obnoxious tequila din. We were forced inside by a monsoon with hail, but even refuge from a storm did not compensate for chips greasily fried in geriatric oil, enchiladas with slimy cheese and pallid sauce, carnitas cooked to a fossil level of tenderness and what looked to be the world’s most sodden quesadilla. And every bite I tried to take of my bland refried beans brought back memories of the hair I found the last time I’d tried them. What made it so much worse was knowing I had only myself to blame for succumbing to the oldest lure in the book: location, location. [Late June 2006]
The pretty good: Montparnasse in midtown, where the decor would have been worth a trip even if the lobster club sandwich had not been not so well made and the service not so efficient. It really is one of the prettiest in the boomlet of faux Parisian bistros around town, and to think I had never been there in a year and a half of eating within a few blocks after PT. My $16.50 sandwich was a little light on lobster but a good balance of arugula and apples on briochy bread with what was billed as lemon aioli but tasted more like saffron. I also now know the French name for matchstick fries: allumette potatoes. The bread was warm if the fries were not, the Domaine Nicolas chardonnay was $7 and the whole experience was just what I needed on another monsoony day. I might even go back for the $19.95 three-course lunch. 230 East 51st Street, 212 758 6633.
The not bad: Bistro Citron, where the menu was exactly the same as at Bistro Cassis down Columbus Avenue but where the sound level was not so brutal and the tables not so A-train-tight. I risked the canard a l’orange, the daily special for $20, and it was actually nicely done without being coma-inducing sweet. The hanger steak was also a respectable rendition, although the fries with it were thick and lukewarm. Regular frites, with the mussels, tasted better than they smelled (regular oil changes might keep that kitchen running). The Hungarian waitress was a good sport as well as a good server and aspiring up-seller. 473 Columbus Avenue at 83d Street, 212 400 9401.
The charming: Harry’s Cafe, in the Hanover Square space where I spent $187 on lunch for three on the NYT expense account for a story in 2002 and where dinner for three was $98 before tip the other night. Even better news than the prices is that the cafe looks and feels like a lively, young restaurant now that the son of Harry himself has reopened it, while the service still has the signature touch — we went with a friend who lives nearby and the waiter recognized him from a previous dinner. We were also graced with a visit from Harry himself, who pulled a chair up to our booth, comped us a $38 bottle of Leflaive Burgundy and regaled us with stories. You could spend much more in the reincarnated Harry’s Steak on the other side of the subterranean wall, but you could not have a better time. The down side was that my duck ravioli was seriously lame — rubbery dough around flavor-free filling, with dried-out shreds of bird strewn on top. Vegetable sides with the big chunk of chicken tasted better, though, and our friend seemed happy with his huge plate of sole with potato-shrimp hash. The wine list also has nominal markup even if you aren’t treated; we started with a gruner-veltliner for all of $27. 1 Hanover Square, 212 785 9200.
The reliable: Mermaid Inn, where we took refuge after a late showing of the transporting-to-Cuba “La Tropical” and put too much fried food on top of popcorn through careless ordering. Both the crispy calamari and the cod croquettes were relatively greaseless, and the Bibb and beet salad was fine. The service and the place were faultless. 92 Second Avenue, 2312 674 5870.
The promising: Gilileo, where the only risk for the enterprising owner is developing a following. The kiosk under scaffolding had barely opened when we stopped over for lunch, and chaos seemed to be the order of the day, with one guy making sandwiches and the second ferrying them to the counter and tables on the sidewalk. They should get slammed, especially with gelato for sale, but it will hurt. My $9.50 lobster roll was surprisingly good, with the right proportion of fresh lobster to celery and onion in chipotle mayonnaise. And the prosciutto and avocado panino was also decent, as you might expect from a place opened by a guy who worked in food and beverage at the Essex House. 94th Street just east of Amsterdam.
The deafening: Momofuku Noodle Bar, where we stopped in for an after-the-Greenmarket lunch and found a menu with ingredients we had just seen in Union Square but where the pleasure was muted by the sound system, cranked up for the open kitchen. The fried dumplings would have been Hong Kong-worthy, with silky wrappers encasing flavorful — not scary — pork, if they had been dripping less grease. Roasted asparagus with miso and poached egg was very flavorful but a mess to eat with chopsticks. I had the best entree, the “burrito” of roast pork, rice, kimchi and edamame in a tortilla; the meat was exceptional and the combination very jazzy. My Asiafiliac consort looked dejected over his ramen, with pork neck, peas and poached egg, because the main ingredient had so little flavor, but our friend seemed happy with his mega-bowlful, a variation made with another cut of the pig. The mood was as upbeat as the music, and the service was tag-team outstanding. If you want to soothe your nerves, go next door to Tarallucci e Vino and get an espresso, or an iced cappucino, at a quiet back table. 163 First Avenue at 10th Street, 212 475 7899.
The apparently managerless: Rosa Mexicano downtown, where I sat as neglected as the guy at the next table for an embarrassingly long time, while various uniformed people flitted past repeatedly without making eye contact until one waiter with a huge table finally came by to take orders. My cheese enchiladas were fine, but the refries were as cold as the club soda, and it tasted like 7-Up. As I left, the two people at the hostess stand were busy chatting about something much more important than paying patrons. Pissing-down rain must be a godsend for restaurateurs right now. They know we’ll check in but can’t check out. [Mid-June 2006]
The good: 5 Ninth in the meat district, where we made our way for lunch after realizing we would have to miss the second-anniversary party and where both our entrees were smartly conceived and carefully cooked. Shanghai noodles came in a sizzling broth with a poached egg and big chunk of pork belly, while my polenta with chorizo ragout and fried egg was a little trip through nuances of simple ingredients. The service was beyond solicitous, the place is gorgeous and the wine list is nice enough. But our food should not have taken longer to arrive than it had taken us to shop the Greenmarket and walk from Union Square. 5 Ninth Avenue near Gansevoort Street, 212 929 9460.
The not bad: 202 in the Chelsea Market, where I was lured in by the list of specials on the blackboard in Chelsea Market, only to settle for an $11 croque monsieur when the sit-down menu was both more limited and much pricier. It’s a little weird to be eating in a clothes store, and no table could be considered good, but the waiters were nice — when I ordered a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, they poured me the last of what they had for free. My sandwich was weird, more of a grilled cheese, but it was made with good ham and plenty of it, and it came with a little salad of celery, celery leaves and walnuts to cut the grease. 75 Ninth Avenue.
The reliable: Tintol in Times Square, where five of us headed after the Brasserie Ruhlmann party whether we needed more alcohol and food or not. As always, the tapas and wine were underpriced — the bill was around $100 for a bottle, two glasses and at least six tapas. As always, the chorizo was perfection, grilled in flaming grappa at the table. As always, the piquillos stuffed with brandade were excellent. The goat, though, was just goat, and the tortilla is still dry. 155 W. 46th Street, 212 354 3838.
The atmospheric: P.J. Clarke’s, the original, where I ducked in after PT just because it was close by. I got the last table at 12:30 and had a lump-crab cake sandwich that would have been perfect if the cook had taken just another minute to get the crust crusty. The waitress was a trip: “What are you drinkin’?” “And what’s for lunch?” Halfway through: “How’s my cookin’?” She earned her tip when the setting would be seduction enough. 915 Third Avenue at 55th Street, 212 317 1616.
The Mossy: Cento Vini in Soho, a new wine bar with wine shop attached where we took refuge between a movie and a monsoon and the latter went on so long we stayed for dinner. Bob deduced from the design that the place had to be connected to Moss around the corner, and we later learned the other link is to I Trulli. All the Italian wines come in communion-style cruets that are ostentatiously poured into oversized glasses, and the cheapest choice is $9. We had two each and a couple of Lilliputian entrees and the tab was close to $100. My red mullet with broccoli “romaneschi” and almonds included three fillets the size of my big toenail, beautifully fried with a perfectly peppery sauce, and the little cruciferous head was extraordinary. Too bad the fish was about a day past pristine. Bob’s roast chicken with asparagus was just that, nothing more. If you get caught in a rainstorm after the Angelika, though, there could be far worse oases. 25 West Houston Street, 212 219 2113.
The off-the-island: No. 9, two hours south of the Port Authority, where five of us had one of our best eating experiences in Lambertville, N.J., on one of the saddest occasions. The waiter was a charmer who stayed on the right side of engaging without ever tipping over into intrusive, the room was relatively sophisticated and the food was outstanding, largely because the ingredients were Slow Foodesque, particularly Bob’s juicy-tender pork chop and my asparagus with prosciutto teamed with a mesclun salad with shaved cheese. The Caesar salad was exemplary, as were the vegetable medleys with the pork and one friend’s salmon. BYOB is a nuisance in the rain but a great deal when the check arrives. 9 Kline’s Court, Lambertville, N.J. 609 397 6380. [Early June 2006]
The good: Xing in Hell’s Kitchen, where the food now lives up to the design, if tofu is any indication. It was as good as in Hong Kong, little cubes fried to an airy crisp with tiny rings of incendiary chilies. The sweet-and-sour baby eggplant with it was also done right. My “crispy asparagus and avocado roll” suffered from the blands, though; even a less sweet and more jazzy dipping sauce might not have helped two ingredients so easily overwhelmed by rice. A spoonful of superb tuna tartare came before the meal and a little plate of coconut gelees, marshmallows and black sesame seed shortbreads arrived with the check. And the service was outstanding on a slow Sunday night. 785 Ninth Avenue near 52d Street, 646 289 3010.
The really good: Crema, where the brunch menu was a little too heavy on eggs but where it was hard to complain when they were done so creatively. Chilaquiles came loaded with chicken and topped with poached eggs in seriously spicy yellow salsa, while my egg “taquitos” were more like a fried wrap, in a flour tortilla with lots of cheese inside and another great salsa on the side. The waiter steered us toward extra home fries with chorizo and crema, which I’m glad I tried although both our plates had sides already, black beans for Bob and faultless guacamole for me. I imagine the place is deafening at night, but midday it’s serene and soothing. 111 West 17th Street, 212 691 4477.
The unsurprisingly superb: Dona, where I regretted reserving in my name once the freebies started coming. We went for my consort’s birthday after sending our friend Dr. Bugs there and getting a rave review, but all we were really looking for was a couple of creative courses in a nice space. Instead, the genius from Onera started bringing out plate after plate of mind-blowing food: fish tartare mounded around artichokes and topped with fried capers, or uni teamed with caviar, favas and burrata, or the ethereal sheep’s milk ricotta gnudi, or the half-moons of pasta stuffed with chestnut puree and topped with duck. The things we had ordered were just as spectacular, whether the octopus with crisp wafers of guanciale and sliced peaches, the creamy bacala fried into triangles and topped with buffalo ricotta or the grilled branzino with artichokes. We got smart advice from the just-in-from-Vegas sommelier, both on our $30 Spanish white and the two half-glasses she suggested with our main course, and comped desserts and dessert wines that were also superb. The only way to go back would be either starving or anonymously. 206 E. 52d Street between Second and Third, 212 308 0830.
The mediocre: Bar Vetro on the East Side, where I stopped in on my endless search for a decent restorative near PT and where the lunch deal sounded like a good value but was overpriced even at $16 with endless offers of wine refills. The starter of eggplant rollatine was nice enough despite an anemic tomato sauce, but the “Italian BLT” was mostly chewy focaccia and albino tomatoes with a little arugula and some pancetta while the allegedly hand-cut potatoes managed a pretty decent imitation of diner fries. The friendly staff was running hard, but another waiter wouldn’t go underworked at lunchtime. [Mid- to end of May 2006]
I ate in four restaurants in the previous week, but the absolute best thing I put in my mouth in seven days was something I sliced up in my own kitchen. It was a smoked duck breast from Blue Ribbon Bakery Market in the West Village, and it was beyond exquisite. The fat is scored into tiny triangles so that it almost melts as you taste it, and the meat is smoked until it’s as unctuous as prosciutto but still looks and tastes like perfectly cooked duck. A nice fat breast was all of $8.50.
The runner-up was the hanger steak a friend grilled for a great friend’s party to promote a new book with a cringe-inducing title (“Cooking on the Road With Celebrity Chefs”) but stand-tall recipes. This particular one, from Daniel Bruce in Boston, was described with a mouthful of adjectives (malted mole rubbed barbecued) when only one was needed: addictive. You might even want to try it in your RV, or buy the book. [Mid-May 2006]
The good: Ditch Plains in the short-lived Yumcha, where the menu makes you work too hard but where the payback is food to rival Landmarc’s, from the same owner. A line of sheep was baaing across the street at Blue Ribbon when we strolled in for Saturday lunch after the Greenmarket, and we got a whole booth and an Athens-friendly waitress right away. I think we spent most of our time there deciding what to eat, from the little flip cards strung together on a ring. It’s mostly pick food with burgers and macaroni and cheese as the heftiest options, but we hit three winners: beautifully balanced salmon tartare with preserved lemon and red onion; cucumber and white anchovy salad with capers, and a really spicy, wonderfully fried calamari salad that was more squid than greens. The wines are all in half- and full bottles, and we officially launched rose season with a $12 Provencal. Our waitress said the place is open from 7 in the morning till 2 in the morning, and I would imagine it gets beyond deafening most of that time. We only had to tune out the sheep. 29 Bedford Street at Downing, 212 633 0202.
The improved: BLT Fish downstairs, where I stopped back after my consort reported having a pretty great meal upstairs on a shoot recently. I sat at the counter for a huge softshell crab sandwich that was no threat to Pearl but still had great flavor and contrast between the dressing and the greens and the tomato on the soft bun. The fries were okay and the coleslaw mostly mayonnaise, but I got my $20 worth. Never sit next to an off-duty cook, though. He might not be ready for dining time. 21 West 17th Street, 212 691 8888.
The seductively convenient: Cacio e Pepe, where we ran in before a friend’s film premiere across the street in the dread East Village and had a surprisingly Italianesque dinner of eggplant timbale and monkfish saltimbocca with roasted potatoes. This was all in a very pleasantly rustic room with a good waiter and decent wine and we were out in time for a second glass at the too-kool Bar Veloce next to the theater. 182 Second Avenue near 12th Street, 212 505 5931.
The dangerously convenient: Fusia, where a friend and I resorted after PT across the street and were rewarded for our long wait with not the noisiest table in a noisy room with overwhelmed waiters (are they rationing chopsticks in this country, too?) Her mixed vegetable stir-fry at least looked good, and my “curry duck noodle” was excellent, but the soup that came with both smelled and looked scary (as she said: “Egg or spinach or beef, but not all three”). Wine is overpriced whether by the bottle or the glass when lunch is around $8. I won’t comment on the fact that one of the sushi offerings is called the Titanic, but I do wonder why the credit card slips list no restaurant name, let alone address. The place is so packed it probably doesn’t matter. 677C Lexington Avenue but really on 56th Street, 212 308 2111. [Earlyish May 2006]
The good: Tokyo Pop, where the design, the service and the food are so much better than anyone would expect at 104th and Broadway. The kitchen still did not have gas but did manage miso soup and vegetable tempura (a mistake with the latter). The Asian green salad that came with it was perfect, a good jumble of raw vegetables in ginger vinaigrette. My consort ordered a sushi medley and got a sashimi medley, and the host brought him an order of tuna rolls to compensate. The staff is charming and the wines go well with the food, and still the place was deserted. 2728 Broadway, 212 932 1000.
The bland: El Centro in Hell’s Kitchen, where the menu looks so enticing but everything needed salt, big time. Probably the best of the four things a friend and I tried was the tamal, with rajas and, allegedly, cheese, even though the green sauce was anemic. The goat cheese empanada in red sauce was even more pallid, while the skirt steak tostada was a chore to eat, with big chunks of unseasoned meat on a crisp tortilla. And the pozole was so dull I couldn’t taste the lamb in it, which for me is a good thing. My friend finally waved down the waiter for a saltshaker, but it was too little, too late. (Waving is the only way to get service, by the way.) The design of the place is quite clever. Too bad they forgot to put any imagination into the cooking.
The grubby: Market Cafe in Clinton, where we took refuge after being driven out of the sleek new Camino Sur by the din from a party of 24 in the back room. As always, the food and wine were quite good and too cheap to be true ($10 for my flopping-off-the-plate wild mushroom pizza), and the waiter did a respectable job. But I would have a hard time ever going back after braving the downstairs bathroom with its oozing toilet. If the kitchen is half that filthy, someone tell the Health Department there are worse things than unfilled paper towel holders.
The better than ever: Fatty Crab, where the waitress was a ditz (”Squid salad? What do you mean? Oh, squid salad. The menu is new.”) but the cooking was flawless — even the Chinese broccoli had a balanced heat for a change. The fatty duck was as brilliant as ever and it and the equally succulent, spicy short ribs rendang now come on a bed of rice that adds another dimension to the ricocheting tastes and textures. And that mystifying squid salad was outstanding, with crunchy tentacles and tender rings on a bed of joltingly hot chilies with sweet mango and bean sprouts. Bonus celebrity sighting: Diana Kennedy at the sidewalk table. 643 Hudson Street near West 12th, 212 352 3590.
The always excellent: Upstairs at Bouley Bakery, where seven of us scored the best tables for an early Saturday dinner. Aside from a slightly sloppy green salad and a right-on-the-edge-of-broken sauce on my halibut, everything I stuck a fork or spoon into was superb. The sashimi salad looked like liver but tasted like perfectly silky tuna. An appetizer of uni gelee with lobster was blowaway, while my consort’s cod almost restored my faith in a fish abused twice earlier in the week. The passion fruit dessert was the winner of the three. 130 West Broadway at Duane Street, 212 219 1011.
The never again at dinner: Cafe Sabarsky in the Neue Galerie, where four of landed after trying to think of somewhere decent to eat in the Upper East Side wasteland early on a Friday. The place is always enchanting, and our waiter was great, but the host was a prick, I guess realizing he has the worst job in the restaurant business, explaining to people who have reserved that all tables are too small and badly located and two women can hold down a booth with coffee for hours, but that’s “just how it is.” We chose the tiny table next to the kitchen door over the tiny table in front of the orangutan at the piano terrorizing the ivories (thank allah he did not attempt the sax). I had a watercress salad with a few pieces of duck and even fewer shreds of shiitakes, my consort got the boring cod special, our friend got soggy spaetzl and his friend had cod strudel — the same fish and presentation as Bob’s but wrapped in dough that she said added nothing but novelty. Dessert was supposed to be the payoff, but they all looked a little tired on the sideboard and the famed strudel was still-chewy apples in gummy dough, and cold to boot. Gruner veltliner at $12 a glass felt like a gouge after $7 at Fatty Crab, too. The bill for three glasses, four main courses and three desserts: $180. But at least we were very nearly the youngest patrons in the place. [Early May 2006]
The surprisingly good: Whym, in that no man’s land between Hell’s Kitchen and Lincoln Center, where we were greeted and served so warmly in such a jazzy space that it was easy to overlook slightly geriatric cod. My wild arugula salad with nuts, apples and goat cheese was outstanding, while the risotto with Bob’s fading fish saved the dish. Wines by the glass were good and well-priced, and we got out for the impossible: $50 or so before tip. 889 Ninth Avenue near 58th Street, 212 315 0088.
The head-bangingly bad: Acqua, where I had an abysmal meal some years ago but where I spotted neighbors eating recently and figured it could have improved. Not to mention I was shaky-hungry and my neighborhood is criminally underserved with good eating and drinking options. The place is actually nice-looking and the other people eating there were well dressed, including what Patricia Volk has dubbed the Upper West Side odd couple (very old Jewish woman with young West Indian woman). How bad could it be? The bartender/waitress was efficient and friendly, the bread above average, the wine pour generous (although into a grimy glass). But the “Nostra” panino was more of a cosa. After a long wait I got a pita bread that had been thrown onto the grill long enough to char but not long enough to warm the mozzarella inside. Of which there were exactly six quarter-inch-thick, half-dollar-size disks with four slices of tomato under a disgusting mound of cheap ham cut into thick matchsticks. My neighborhood is in worse shape than I ever imagined if it keeps this place afloat.
The other-dimensional: Ginger in Harlem, where we slopped in after getting off Metro North on a miserable rainy day and where the space, service and prices were all a world apart from where we had just been. We each got a Great Wall platter for $7.50 with clunky baked egg roll plus broccoli-protein combo and accouterment, not-great beef and excellent Asian slaw in my case and pretty-great chicken and splendiferous green rice in Bob’s. The place is dazzling, the waitress was superb and the street scenes from the big windows are theateresque. 1400 Fifth Avenue at 116th Street, 212 423 1111. [Late April 2006]
The good for the first time: Sascha in the meat district, where I wandered into a nearly empty room at lunchtime and got some of the best solo treatment since Sydney. I spotted sauteed Dungeness crab with garlic bread on the menu and wanted nothing else, especially after the waiter described it as being served cracked and in the shell, “so it’s softened, but it’s a little bit of work.” On his recommendation, I had it with a glass of gruner-veltliner, and what a combination. The crab was perfectly succulent, with chunks easily picked out to fall into lemon and leeks floating in butter in the bottom of the bowl along with the heel of the bread. It was seriously good, and not just because I was sitting at an open window table on a sunny day and four different people asked me if I was comfortable. The place is not as polished as Balthazar, or even Pastis, but it has a strangely coherent look in a neighborhood that still feels right on the edge between industrial and so nauseatingly hip you might spot Marcus Samuelsson at the sidewalk cafe around the corner. Bonus: The hostess volunteered that an elevator was available to reach the totally cool bathrooms downstairs. 55 Gansevoort Street, between Ninth Avenue and Washington Street, 212 989 1920.
The good for the second time: Pio Maya in the Village, where I snared one of the six tables for Saturday lunch and had superb sopes with chorizo. When every element is cooked to order, starting with the masa dough, it’s hard to bitch that the food takes a little time to arrive. And as anyone who knows me knows too well, I am iron-resistant to kid charm, but the very young boy serving food and busing tables was an added attraction in what feels like a family affair; he even had the hospitality gene, complimenting a dad with a baby in a stroller and asking name and age. Clone him. 40-42 West Eighth Street, 212 254 2277.
The good for the umpteenth time: Chola in Midtown, where the food on the buffet actually tasted even livelier than normal. Between the room, the service and the value — $13.95 for at least 12 items on your main plate, with good bread — this is the best Indian in town, with decent wine by the glass to boot. Figures that as my friend and I were finally leaving, the waiter brought us a card with a new program offering one free lunch after seven visits. I’ve been trekking to that neighborhood for PT for 16 months. Now they tell me. 232 East 58th Street, between Second and Third, 212 688 4619.
The deafening: Bistro Cassis, where the place is so pretty and the host so organized and the wine and food so affordable that we keep going back and leaving feeling as if we’ve been trapped with iPod headphones on blastola for an hour or two. Last time we were seated next to a hyenas’ night out; this time it was just general early Saturday din, but both times it was painful. Figures that I noticed that my “magret” was really just plain old Pekin and not cooked brilliantly, in a too-sweet sauce. Good bread, great butter and big wineglasses always ease the agony, though. 225 Columbus Avenue near 70th Street, 212 579 3966.
The oddly quiet: Jacques Imo’s, where I stopped in for something light and had perfect crawfish tamales with andouille sauce, plus a big glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc. The tamales were small but heavy and rich, especially after one of the corn muffins soaked in garlic butter, but the whole experience felt just right on a chilly early evening. As an unsettling dessert, I spotted a raccoon foraging in the grass down the block at the Museum of Natural History. He was fussy, too. 366 Columbus at 77th Street, 212 799 0150. [Earllyish April 2006]
The good: Brasserie Ruhlmann in Rockefeller Center, where the kitchen just taken over by Laurent Tourondel is painfully slow but where the place and staff are so seductive it’s hard to get worked up. I liked it so much I went twice in a week, first for lunch with a friend, then for brunch with my consort and another friend. Both times the croque monsieur was so tough it should have come with a steak knife, although the ham was great quality and the balance of bechamel to bread and cheese was better than average. Frites redeemed my order, though, while our poor friend was given only a small, sad salad. Skate was perfection for all of $19: a small portion cooked just crisp-right with capers and lemon, with haricots vert and potatoes to balance the richness. And cod provencale was quite good as well, although a little precious with the half-moon of polenta on the side. Easily the best dish at brunch was eggs Rockefeller, which were just runny enough under hollandaise and mornay sauces over spinach and ham and under crisp bacon. We shared an $18 carafe of French chardonnay at brunch, which was good value. And at lunch we split a bottle of muscadet for $24 — and how often do you have that option in a swanky joint in Midtown? (The best part of that was communicating the order among all the abstemious suits at other tables: I asked for a bottle and the French waiter said: “Two glasses of muscadet?” “No, one bottle.” “Oh. One glass of muscadet.” “No, one bottle.” “Oh, my English is not very good. . . . I think two bottles would be too many.”) The place was pretty deserted Saturday midday, but once it gets overrun it should be as cacophonous as Balthazar. And with more ambitious cooking. 45 Rockefeller Center, 212 974 2020.
The half-hearted: The Loft on Columbus Avenue on a Sunday night, where the appetizers were respectable but the entrees were sorta forlorn and where the waiter pretty much vanished midmeal even though the place was less than a quarter-full. The duck skewers were superb and the tomato-feta flatbread at least satisfying. But Uncle Ben’s is a strange choice for starch in a tagine. . . . And somehow four and a half of us managed to run up a $250 bill with too much wine and probably too much tip. 505 Columbus Avenue, 212 362 6458.
The great value: Spice in Chelsea, where the atmosphere is more grown up than at the Spice on University and where the food is always more satisfying. The vegetable dumplings were both gummier and drier than usual, but the sauce was vibrantly hot. And I had a special of curried duck breast with carrots and green beans in a greaseless sauce that was outstanding, even before the $8.50 price of two courses was taken into consideration. No wonder the place has people waiting for tables while Nooch down the block sits mostly empty. 199 Eighth Avenue near 19th Street, 212 989 1116. [Early April 2006]
The good: Crema, where I hope someone knows something about costing out a recipe because you get an awful lot of imaginative, high-prep food for very little money. At lunch $17 buys a soup or salad, main course and a side — I think caffeine might be involved, too, but I sprang for wine. My salad with corn, grilled panela cheese, tortilla strips and greens in a peanut-guajillo dressing was excellent, and my only complaints about the scallop-avocado-mango tostadas were that they were tricky to eat and a little oversauced. Rice with corn and green chilies was a huge portion with great flavor. The place is quite pretty, especially with sun streaming in, and it’s not a bad thing that the waiter seemed about to wet himself with nervousness tending exactly two tables. Best of all, the diente dulce that plagued Julieta Ballesteros at Mexicana Mama seems to be more restrained here. 111 West 17th Street, 212 691 4477.
The sad: Cafe d’Alsace on the Upper East Side, where I wanted to love everything but could not forgive a tarte flambee that was pretty close to incinerated. That would be a capital offense in Strasbourg. The duck sausage was more like a crumbly meatball, and a bland one at that, too. The pinot blanc and the bread were okay, and this is a pretty and promising restaurant in a neighborhood starved for them. But it may be missing the most important ingredient: the hospitality gene. I’ve never seen a place so well staffed and so unconcerned about the reason for being. I could have been a ghost with a credit card.
The deafening: Cafe du Soleil, where the food and service were better than ever but where the sound level was torture-level. Early dinner is beyond a steal: three courses for $19.95, all portioned as if you were ordering a la carte. The arugula salad with blue cheese and candied pecans was immense, as was the salmon, and you get dessert, too. I had salade Nicoise with tuna that was about six shades closer to tartare than medium-rare, but it cooked up nicely in tacos the next day. A nice bottle of viognier for $28 added to the good vibes. The bad ones have my ears still ringing. 2723 Broadway at 104th Street, 212 316 5000. [Late March/early April 2006]
The unfortunately good: Pio Maya, where the tamal (with cheese and tomatillo sauce) was one of the best I’ve ever encountered on this side of the country and where the chorizo tostada was perfection, assembled with a deft hand from very fresh sausage, lettuce, beans, avocado and pico de gallo. The price ($6.79 for everything) and attitude were exceptional, too. So what’s the drawback? The place is self-serve, with fewer than half a dozen tables. I’d go back to get a picnic for Washington Square, though, assuming the edu-nazis have not banned that indulgence yet. 40 West Eighth Street, 212 524 2288.
The profoundly bad: Tout Va Bien, where a friend who suffers for a paycheck nearby persuaded me to meet her and where every aspect was painful. I had not been there in donkeys’ years, since it went all fromagey, but she said it had improved. Instead it was shatteringly loud, the sole was either frozen or just cooked to white leather, the fries were tired and the service was slovenly (only the runner who brought our food seemed to be relatively competent, and I decided it was because he did not have to squander brain cells remembering to use a fake French accent). To think we passed on a new Mexican joint nearby because my friend said it was noisy, with bad food.
The insulting: Ada, where the food was good if nowhere near as great as Chola down the block but where the staff seemed clearly put out first by a woman alone and second by a live customer as opposed to a delivery — huge energy was being expended trying to soothe someone angry on the phone while I sat neglected. All I wanted was a restorative lunch after PT, when I was exhausted and starving, and by the time the waiter finally took my order I was almost in tears at having zero energy to walk out. Luckily, my main course on the $12 vegetarian menu was faultless, paneer in a beautifully spicy coconut sauce with vibrant dal on the side and the best nan I have found anywhere in New York, greaseless and pliable and crusty all at once. The samosas to start had only the smell, not the flavor, of cauliflower, but the overdressed mesclun and julienned mango with them helped. I passed on the included dessert but did have a glass of sauvignon blanc once I deciphered the waiter’s mangling of the choices (it sounded like a new blend with pinot grigio). I had intended to eat at Yuva, but it was completely empty and looked closed, and the menu looked forbidding with its emphasis on dishes “for the table.” Message: Keep out, single diners. 208 East 58th Street, 212 371 6060.
The maintaining: Virgil’s, where I took refuge in heading-north desperation on a Saturday after finding the cafe at Country was too expensive, Urena and Butterfield 8 were closed and Artisanal and Bryant Park Cafe were serving only brunch. My compensation for lunching with 300-pound Americans in shorts was snappy service, a respectable New Zealand sauvignon blanc and a brisket melt with meat that was much fattier than in the past but still completely satisfying. The prices don’t seem to have gone up since way back when it was my refuge from the Cafe Regret around the corner, either. 152 West 44th Street, 212 921 9494.
The Starbucks alternative: Tarallucci e Vino, where the perfect cappuccino for all of $2.75 made up for the impatient waitress. Only two other tables in the very sleek room were occupied besides the huge one in the center where a wine sales meeting was being conducted by a woman you would not want to answer to, but my friend and I got two shots at ordering pastries and then never saw our “attendant” until we had to tip. After the second cappuccino, though, we didn’t really need whatever those Italian creamy-overkills might have been. 15 East 18th Street, 212 228 5400.
Two other stops in a week held steadily great. Bellavitae in the Village, where I am always treated far too well to be anywhere near objective anymore, is now serving scarmorza fresh out of the wood oven, dusted with Tuscan herbs. It’s Italian queso fundido and it is superb. As always, everything else set in front of me was hard to complain about, but the high points were peerless spaghetti cacio e pepe, lively grilled treviso with bottarga, impossibly tender sliced steak and wondrous stewed cardoons. The company was not bad, either.
And Tintol in Times Square held up on a third try, too. It’s still too noisy to be comfortable, but the waitress was totally attentive and all the tapas were excellent, especially chorizo charred at the table, mussels in wine, sauteed mushrooms and bacalao fritters. Albarino at $5.50 a glass is just a bonus, but you can spend much more. 155 West 46th Street, 212 354 3838. [Early to mid-March 2006]
The good: Tintol, where the space, the decor, the wines, the food and the service feel like a galaxy far, far away from Toys “R” Us Times Square. The tortilla was the only weak dish, with grainy potatoes and not enough olive oil flavor. A watercress salad with Cabrales, salt cod croquettes with irresistible dipping sauce and piquillos stuffed with more salt cod were all faultless, and the chorizo was a trip: The waiter brought a long sausage in an earthenware grill, poured grappa over it and lit it. “It’s cook-ed,” he said. “You just have to turn it.” Which we did, and it charred beautifully. I’d give bonus points for the lengthy, cheap list of wines by the glass ($5.50 for my albarino) and take points off only for the music level, high enough to drown out the marital spat at the next table. 155 West 46th Street between Sixth and Seventh, 212 354 3838.
The better: Upstairs, where I think we managed to impress friends from Italy in for the Whitney Biennial. Our table was perfect, the food even more so, and the waiter sold us a Pouilly Fuisse he said was wine-listed at $75 for the price of the Aligote we’d ordered but the cellar runner could not find: $45. My asparagus with crab salad was extraordinary, in the most vibrant herbal-briny broth, and the tuna sashimi salad was just as superb as last time. I guess I’ll never get tired of the halibut or the cod, either, especially at those prices ($18 and $15). We were a little disappointed in dessert, the waiter’s choice of the patisserie, and none of us got to try our friend’s sushi assortment, but she seemed happy. I now know, too, that ordering wine by the glass is the way to go. At $8, you get five for less than the cheapest bottle on the list. 130 Duane Street at West Broadway, 212 219 1011.
The adequate: L’Express, where I ducked in for a quick lunch before a haircut after wandering the neighborhood in desperation and at least got a very fast, very huge croque monsieur with tired greens but okay fries, along with a respectable sauvignon blanc. The Greeks should feel threatened; it really is a diner with a bar. And a bartender who perked up perceptibly once he saw his tip. 249 Park Avenue South at 20th, 212 254 5858.
The convenient: La Palapa Rockola, where I wound up after finding Mexicana Mamma closed and Pio Maya packed at lunchtime. It didn’t smell particularly fresh, so I just had chalupas with chorizo, which were fine, and a glass of pretty nasty Italian wine (in a grimy glass). The redeeming factor was the one other table, where a domineering girl was miseducating her heavily accented date, who not only had a different definition of tortilla but also wanted to order anything but what she did; finally she asked, “Don’t you have Mexican food in Israel?” 359 Sixth Avenue, 212 243 6870. [Early March 2006]
The always good: Pearl Oyster Bar, where I headed after walking out on an abysmal panino at Mangia, one that hit the press just long enough to dry out the bread, not melt the cheese. I had clam chowder that was a meal in a bowl, and a glass of gruner-veltliner that the waiter at the bar topped off for me to empty a bottle. There’s no better place to eat alone, or with someone. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.
The good again: Fatty Crab, where the chef seemed to have found his rhythm at a latish Saturday lunch. The duck was back to being perfect, the greens were spiced right, the ribs were tender, the skate on a banana leaf was outstanding and noodles with Chinese sausage were a whole new taste sensation. The only drawback is that it’s so easy to overorder, but it’s all so cheap. 643 Hudson Street near 12th Street, 212 352 3590.
The good but I’m prejudiced: Bellavitae, where I’m a marked woman. We got seats at the food bar without a reservation, got little treats from the cook at the oven (gorgonzola crostini with chestnut honey, figs baked in pancetta) and got comped moscato and desserts (Italian “ice cream sandwich” and gelato with honey). Of the things we chose and paid for, the cavolo nero was sublime, the pesce spada was beautifully cooked and the yellow grilled polenta was the best of three varieties on one plate. My pizzichi al forno, though, was a little too overexposed to the forno and all nuances were crusted over. But how can you complain in a place with such great buzz and warmth? 24 Minetta Lane, 212 473 5121.
The not bad: Papillon, where single women are apparently required to eat in the bar and where the croque monsieur was a grilled cheese big enough to feed a small arrondisement. But I was happy not to have to trudge up the stairs after PT to the noisy dining room, and the sandwich was at least made with good ingredients if a surfeit of bechamel. The salad with it was gritty from what I hope was pepper, although it had no perceptible taste. 22 East 54th Street, 212 754 9006.
The okay: Cookshop, where the sunlight at brunch makes the place look even more enticing and where not even a tableful of shrieking women, like at a bachelorette party without the stripper, can really ruin the experience. I was underwhelmed by the trout wrapped in bacon and roasted, then laid onto hyper-creamy grits — two bites and I’d reached the outer limits of the flavor potential. My friend’s cod with potatoes, preserved lemon and olives, a special, was better, and the salt cod cakes as a starter were also satisfying. The Meyer lemon tart was more almondy than citrusy. And the waiter and host were superb. 156 Tenth Avenue at 20th Street, 212 924 4440. [Mid-February 2006]
The good: Piola, where we stumbled in while looking for the new Mexicana Mama and finding it across the street but closed, and where we had not just a superior pizza but a transporting experience. We were surrounded by kids at Saturday lunch, but they were quiet and well-behaved and actually eating like little humans (my consort guessed they were all foreign). The whole front of the house was staffed by a host, one waiter and a runner, and they worked like a mellow team from some other country. And the place, the second U.S. outlet in a chain born in Treviso and branched out all over South America, had a cool design, with a wood-burning oven open to the room. Our quattro-funghi pizza (from a list of 50) smelled like porcini resting on an excellent crisp crust; the multicolore salad was big and perfectly balanced between good greens and accouterments: tomatoes, onions and carrots. The one demerit goes to the coffee, Segafredo that tasted like Folger’s cut with hot water. I guess the slogan that sounded so alluring from the street was dead-on: Famoso per la pizza. 48 East 12th Street near Broadway, 212 777 7781.
The bad: Patsy’s on 74th Street, where a friend in from out of town tried to satisfy a craving but may have just extinguished any desire for pizza ever again. The large one with prosciutto three of us shared was doughy, gummy and sad, with a soggy crust and pallid toppings. Our insalata mista was inoffensive, and the Arancio Nero d’Avolo was easy-drinking enough. But it was hard not to think the oven had been hijacked by Albanians.
The bizarre: WD-50, where a friend and I took refuge after getting a whiff of the hideous room at Thor, which smelled like fish in a bad cafeteria going in and something seriously decaying going out. We agreed to eat at the bar but got a great table for four rather quickly, and then the weirdness began. The shrimp couscous was ultimately disappointing but at least tasted like shrimp, although the avocado schmear under it looked like a stool sample. The foie gras was ultimately too unctuous, but I did like both the crunchy ground peas under it and the candied olive with it. And the corned duck appetizer had one perceptible flavor: caraway. Both main courses were supremely unsatisfying, the turbot because the texture was unpleasantly fake-feeling and the short ribs because they had been so worked over they reminded me of the deer heart my mother used to cook in the pressure cooker when there was absolutely no more of the actual meat left. The one stroke of true brilliance was the most “normal:” smoked bulgur with fabulous flavor and texture. And the Manchego cheesecake was downright straightforward by comparison. We left looking back in sorrow at 71 Clinton.
The enchanting: Upstairs at Bouley Bakery, where three of us got the primo table with the best view of the cooking and just reveled in the ultimate luxury — cuisine built on ingredients that tasted like themselves, only better. All four or five breads were good, and the wines by the glass were again huge pours at good prices ($8 for my Austrian sauvignon blanc), while the wine list had a whole range of unfamiliar offerings. We all shared the excellent mesclun salad, pretty amazing tuna sashimi salad with white miso dressing and outstanding calamari salad, with big chunks seared to succulence. I had the ($21) half-lobster cooked soft on the plancha, with an apple-parsnip puree that built on and played off the sweetness, while my consort finished a big hunk of halibut (for $15) with corn and shiitakes in a lemon thyme sauce made more vibrant by passion fruit and our friend changed her order to get the lamb chops, perfectly grilled. The dessert I chose was the best, I’m convinced: poached pineapple with sorbets and pistachio ice cream. The one peculiarity was hearing that the sardines were off the menu because they were out of season when so many other components were equally guilty but still present, from corn to asparagus to raspberries to zucchini. And the cooking was much more precise when David himself was behind the plancha. Still, the room is so charming and the service so competent despite the tightest of tight quarters it all seemed stellar on a snowy night. 120 West Broadway at Duane Street, 212 964 2525.
The right place at the right time: The Pig ‘n’ Whistle, where a friend and I headed at the suggestion of my physical therapist right around the corner and where it was almost too easy to have a good long time at lunch. I’d walked by it for literally more than year and never thought to go in, but it had a warm ambiance, efficient service and respectable food — if my crab cake sandwich was more filler than crab it was well dressed with real greens and tartar sauce, with a big mound of French fries. It felt like the poor man’s P.J. Clarke’s but actually might be pricier. And I’m not sure I would ever set foot in it when the Valentine’s Day karaoke is going down. The second of two guys who held down the next table too close to us was one of those floppy-fat ones with droopy pants who definitely should have said no to crack. 922 Third Avenue near 55th Street, 212 302 0112.
The wrong place at the right time: Aix, where I stupidly led us after seniors’ night at Selected Shorts because I had read so much folderol about it going more mainstream and affordable. All I really wanted was a Caesar salad after a supremely rich pasta for lunch that day, but the menu was too highfalutin for that, so I settled for a plain green salad and hedged my bets with the smoked trout plate. The trout was pretty near tasteless, the potato cake with it dry and chewy. At least my consort’s squid salad was exceptional, tiny rings perfectly cooked in a great dressing. With tax and two glasses of wine, though, the bill was $61. To think we could have had free wine with dinner at the Key West Diner across the street from Symphony Space just by showing our stubs. And we would not have had to eat with Upper East Siders. [Early to mid-February 2006]
It’s only happened twice in a week, but I hope it’s a trend: the civilized publicity event. One was at the moving-down-the-block Tocqueville, where the hosts had thoughtfully provided bars upstairs and downstairs and opened the kitchen for those of us who couldn’t get enough of the excellent hors d’oeuvres coming out steadily on trays (the best: foie gras with scallops on skewers, tiny beignets with truffle mayonnaise, and potato canapes with smoked salmon and caviar, but then I passed on the rabbit tonnato). The space is probably just what it’s meant to be, a living room for the regulars, and what it’s lost in natural light it’s gaining in grandeur. The only downside was that it is not supposed to open for three weeks. Hope we all remember it then.
Even more impressive was the lunch Bloomsbury put on at Blue Hill for Nina Planck and her very sensible, non-hectoring book: “Real Food: What to Eat and Why.” It was small, well-run, light on the usual suspects and with food good enough to put the place back on my radar: a slow-poached egg over a sprightly salad with coppa; fluke with pistou, soybeans and winter vegetable, and braised quince with yogurt sorbet. The passed appetizers were also great, especially the cubes of foie gras with apple gelee, but the most amazing taste was the Lilliputian turnip sitting on a bed of Malden salt, to be eaten raw like a radish. The wine was well-matched and poured steadily, too. Taken together it made me want to get on the train to Stone Barns, and soon.
The good again: Regional, where more than just the short walk makes it worth an escape from my own kitchen. The hostess was welcoming, the service was perfect and the pastas were respectable. My bigoli with duck ragu was more like garganelli, but it was gutsy and good, slightly better than my consort’s spaghetti. Our salad was made with excellent baby argula and a very lemony dressing, and the bread now comes with what looks like chicken liver but tastes like eggplant. And that’s a good thing. 2607 Broadway near 99th Street, 212 666 1915.
The not as great again: Fatty Crab, where the design was just as charming, the gruner-veltliner just as affordable (at $7 a glass) and the service as good as it could be considering we held our table way too long. But the cooking seemed a bit off. Aside from the pork belly tea sandwiches, which were far too exquisite to be squandered on Stupid Bowl partyers, and the irresistible sauce on the Dungeness crab, almost every dish was not as dazzling as on two previous visits. The crab itself was dry, the greens were too spicy and way too salty to eat even with rice, and the duck had fat that was more chewy than melty — and the price had gone up to $11. (The waiter took the greens off the bill without argument.) The coconut rice was fine, though, and I liked the green mango with sugar-chile-salt better than my friends did. Every cook has his bad days, I suppose. I’d still go back in a heartbeat. 643 Hudson Street near 13th Street, 212 352 3590.
The surprising: Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, where I should be embarrassed to admit I braved the soul-sucking of the TWC. We went with neighbors who love the early show on Sundays for dinner and music, and if the jazz was derivative the food was above average for a club. I just ordered a special salad of arugula with feta and tapenade toasts, plus a side of fries in case it sucked, and it was fine. My consort had the $15 fried chicken, which was crunchy-crispy-juicy and came with superb collard greens and mashed potatoes. A $40 Clos Pegase also lessened the gouge factor. The setting is quite magical, with the stage in front of a big window looking into the park, and when you leave you almost feel more as if you’re in Lincoln Center than Lincoln, Nebraska. I do like how the developer has added those Boteros on the first floor, though — they are the obesities it needed in Manhattan to make the place look like a real American mall. [Early February 2006]
The good: Perry Street, where the dining room feels like a lobby restaurant in a corporate tower in Milwaukee but where the cooking is very Manhattan. I got the gutsy stuff — excellent fat crab dumplings in a black pepper sauce, lemon sole over potato ravioli (a k a pierogi) — while my consort found himself with spa cuisine: mushroom-avocado carpaccio, grilled snapper with grapefruit juice. The amuse bouche was a baked potato soup that fell somewhere in the middle. Both of us were underwhelmed by the bizarre dessert, but we had no complaints about the service, the bread or the wine. I did spot a trend, though, this being the third restaurant in a row with food on the floor. Someone could make a mint selling those robot vacuums for food service. 173/176 Perry Street @ West Street, 212 352 1900.
The bad: Le Perigord, where I stupidly agreed to meet a friend who likes to explore during Restaurant Week and where we were treated as if we had scarlet letters on our backs — C for Cheap. The insulting menu was only $7.93 less than the regular prix fixe, but for free it would not have made either of us ever want to come back for the real deal. The soup we were told was zucchini was actually (dull) butternut squash; I passed on it as being unseasonal and ordered the vegetable tart . . . which was made from zucchini. It turned out to be the best dish of the day, though. The beef stew was more greasy than winey, with potatoes my friend swore were canned but tasted too mealy for that; my salmon was cooked perfectly but seemed a little high, not least because the presentation — laid over cucumbers with salmon roe as a garnish — reeked of the Eighties. And the tarte tatin was rubbery, tired and cold enough to be cause for deportation of the pastry chef. We had to order the wine twice (insipid merlot and decent Macon-Villages), and when the geriatric waiter finally came by to clear the plates we had pushed to the side he nonchalantly swiped all the crumbs off the tablecloth onto the floor (fourth incidence of the trend). It was all particularly sad because it wiped out a memory of a really lovely experience among the walker set there on my consort’s birthday at least 20 years ago. NYC&Company should change the name of the whole promotion to Shoot Yourself in the Foot Week. Restaurants that slop out slop will never get the asses back in the seats. As Larry Gelbart might say.
The transporting: Blaue Gans, where great cooking, smart service and a lively crowd could all make you forget this was once dreary Le Zinc, even though the place looks exactly the same except for the serious flowers. We just sat at the bar rather than wait longer for a two-top on a Saturday night and had small plates that tasted big: an excellent pork and beef sausage with serious snap to it, and a slab of flaked smoked trout with lots of horseradish and just enough beets. The bartender had laryngitis but was communicating with lots of smiles and working at warp speed, keeping that $8 gruner veltliner flowing. Amazing how a focused menu and well-trained staff can recharge a beaten place. 139 Reade Street off West Broadway, 212 571 8880.
The promising: Tintol, where a disgusting crowd at the bar was the only drawback and where the wine list and menu could finally translate tapas for New York. I just had the deep-fried eggs and a glass of wine but would go back to try the tortilla and much more. The place is lovely and the bartender was superb, even offering to let me use the phone to call the date who stood me up. 155 West 46th Street, 212 354 3838.
The tamed: David Burke at Bloomingdale’s, where the menu has been downsized and made more East Side-friendly (as in boring). The alluring reinvention of a reuben I had lusted after on my first visit has become a reuben panino, and a surprisingly bland one at that (I guess I was supposed to ask for the flavor sprays). The service, though, has gotten almost polished, and the wine list is still interesting and well priced. Even the cappuccino was improved. Someone from the kitchen, though, should sit at the counter where I did for as long as I did, to see just how much food gets dumped into the bus pan. This is the poster neighborhood for eating disorders, but still. There must be a reason why so many of those turkey wraps are coming back. [Late January 2006]
The good: Cookshop, where you could choke on the good intentions if the food were not so purely satisfying. It really is all about the ingredients — the Catskills duck, the Columbia River sturgeon, the Berkshire pork loin — and the kitchen can only be faulted for gilding some serious lilies. The duck in particular would have been sensational all on its own, peppery-crusty and perfectly cooked and big enough for three (and at $25), but it was loaded down with rutabagas, escarole, kumquats and pomegranate and even, as one friend asked in astonishment, “walnuts, too?” It would take a small village to polish off the excellent pork, while the diver sea scallops in truffle vinaigrette were positively restrained by comparison. That sturgeon was also a relative spa portion, but there’s got to be a good reason. It’s a weird fish. Probably because my consort talked up the reception desk so much about the sourcing, we were comped four appetizers, and two were out of the park: gribiche deviled egg and duck confit taquitos. Jared can keep his air-dried beef, and I was happy just to listen to the swooning over the house-made liverwurst. The wine, the service and especially the room all made us all want to head straight back again. I’d rate it 95 beyond Five Points. 156 Tenth Avenue at 20th Street, 212 924 4440.
The half-bad: Highline, where we stopped for snacks and pussy drinks on the way to Cookshop on a meat district crawl and did well by what was poured, not so well by what was plated. The place was empty on an early Monday night and we got to sit at the high communal table and the staff was beyond welcoming. But the two “overtures” we tried came too fast and tasted as if they had been made too far in advance: corn-scallion fritters with edamame sauce, and the “golden chest” of crab, shrimp and chicken in an egg roll skin. It was a step up from the Brass Monkey, where we’d started, but that is pretty damn faint praise.
The right place at the right time: Alta, where we wandered in after “A History of Violence” and were mellowed out by the space, the service and the food. First we had to visualize how the cozy place had once been Texarkana and El-Ray, then we had to figure out which of the myriad wines to try by the glass. (The Bianco di Uve Merlot, Guido Brivio 1998, was far better than my first glass, a sauvignon from Touraine.) Then we had to navigate the menu, which reads like a shopping list written with the munchies, with more ingredients than 52 Greek diners combined, everything from sardines with agrodolce and black peppermint to cauliflower with Manila clams, chorizo and raisins. Both our abstemious choices were good, though: buckwheat crepes folded like tricorns around raclette, Gruyere and prosciutto, and a pissaladiere “Marocaine” with merguez and olives. The two were $16 together, and wines were just as cheap. What will fill you up most is reading that “the whole shebang” — all 44 assemblages, or about 3 shopping cartsful at Fairway — is available for $330. Every neighborhood with a movie theater should have an Alta. 64 West 10th Street, off Sixth Avenue, 212 505 7777. [Late January 2006]
The good: El Paso Taqueria, where I find myself eating at least every other week and where I have yet to be less than happy with the food, service, wine and clean, happy space. This time I had a torta with chorizo and huevos and it was fat and hot and juicy, with the perfect balance of avocado and onion. If there’s a down side, it’s that it’s hard to spend enough to use a credit card, even with wine; there’s a $15 minimum. 64 East 97th Street between Madison and Park, 212 996 1739.
The sad: The Oyster Bar at Grand Central, where the place is always time-trip magical but where the cooking this time was time-warp gloppy and the service was like an old Woolworth’s except the Asian waitress had such limited English. I settled for the “she crab” soup and I swear there were more lumps of gluey roux than crab in it, and it was right on the edge of flavor-free. I had to let the waitress find a wine for me because the type on the huge list was too tiny to read, but I think I did better with my $10 Australian sauvignon blanc than the poor guy next to me who ordered “a dozen West Coast oysters and white wine.” Whatever she brought him he sent right back. Having a janitor come by and insist on sweeping directly under my feet at the counter was the finishing touch.
The okay except for the food: Bar Americain, where the two things going for it were mostly about convenience — a friend in town for a jazz conference wanted American food near her hotel. I didn’t try her Cobb salad, but it looked more trough-like than composed. My Kentucky hot brown was bizarre, like French toast topped with the usual turkey, tomato, bacon and cheese sauce. One of the all-time great sandwiches did not need a makeover, let alone burned bacon and funky turkey. The place was packed, despite white wine at $12 a glass and cappuccino that was like a 911 call for Illy. Funny not to offer a coat check, too. 152 West 52d Street, 212 265 9700.
The mystifying: Blue Water Grill, where a friend who’s a regular got a bunch of us a great booth but where the food and service would be a letdown for anyone who believes in Zagat rankings. Why a party of six has to be shunted to the bar until everyone arrives is a puzzle and an insult, especially in a half-full restaurant. Coat check? Forget about it. Water? Wine? You can beg. (And to a waiter who admits he has exactly one other table.) Spring rolls were actually pretty decent if clunky, but both my striped bass and my consort’s snapper were good reminders of why Sunday is not the best night to expect fresh fish. Luckily, that waiter did come through on a vegetarian alternative for the wise woman who never eats seafood. [Mid-January 2006]
The good if cramped: Pascalou, where I just needed a refuge after PT but, as always, was surprised at how varied the menu is and how accomplished the cooking is. The specials list is huge, so I resisted the duck confit salad in favor of a barbecued duck sandwich on baguette that was juicy and perfectly assembled; if the potato “chips” on the menu meant only one, the side salad was a great amalgam in a good dressing. The cappuccino was livelier than the sauvignon blanc. 1308 Madison Avenue near 93d Street, 212 534 7522.
The great as always: Pearl Oyster Bar, one of the very few places where I go expecting perfection and am never disappointed (unlike at Le Bernardin). I sat at the counter, had the cod sandwich, drank a glass of Chablis, and it was all the same as it ever was. Also no surprise: the leftovers were good cold. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.
The Disneyesque: Gradisca, where we wound up after the Greenmarket thanks to all the press the mamma making the ravioli has been getting. Walking in to see her in all her ample glory, rolling out the dough and spooning ricotta and herbs into it, was like Italy, but the prices were definitely New York. I think there were eight little square ravioli on the plate for $22 at lunch. They were good, and the butter-sage sauce was extraordinary, but that is not exactly comparable to many lunches at “Mamma’s” in Costigliole in Piedmont a few months ago. My field green salad was very un-Italian but quite nice, while the $10 piadina wiped out the bad memory of a similar dish down the block several years ago. This one was made with good flatbread, lots of arugula and just enough Fontina. The place is a little run-down, but the mood was buoyant, with Mamma and a waiter arriving late in his track suit oozing charm. I just should have noticed the waiter’s flinch when I ordered the pinot grigio rather than the chardonnay. Insipid would be an understatement for what came in my glass. 126 West 13th Street, 211 691 4886.
The slammed: Bistro Cassis, where we landed again after “Lame-Ass Mountain” and where my suspicion that the only good tables are side tables was confirmed. Even after we were moved from a too-big table in every waiter’s pathway, it was still painfully loud and the service distracted. My crab cake was big and meaty but burned, and my consort’s sole was a little tired. Our friends were happy with the Kobe burger but not the fries. Still, there are many reasons why the place is packed every night. Not least that it’s close to the movies, even sappy ones. 225 Columbus Avenue near 71st Street, 212 579 3966. [Early January 2006]
The half-good: Vong, where the food was actually better than last time but where the service seemed less Parisian than Times Squared. Even though the place was not even half full at lunch, a friend and I were escorted to an awkward table under an interrogation lamp and then moved between two tables of loudmouths when we complained. Of course, that was the best option since all the booths and banquette tables were sitting unbused. We had to flag down waiters twice and then, when we declined dessert, were simply given a check and had to beg someone to add $10 to the bill for cappuccino. At least the kitchen was slacker-free. We split an appetizer tasting for $46 that had exactly one flaw: it was too big, with crab spring rolls, lobster summer rolls, raw tuna in rice paper, prawn satay and duck rolls, each with its own dipping sauce. 200 East 54th Street, 212 486 9592.
The half-assed: Luca on the Upper East Side, where the service was distracted and the food just okay. Friends chose it for proximity to their place after Taittinger rose, and if it hadn’t been for the fried olives it would have had only geographic convenience in its favor. I plucked eight mussels out of a communal bowl without finding one that had flesh in it. My quarter of the pear and Gorgonzola tart was also missing the billed ingredients. And my ravioli were all rubbery rims and bland filling. Our friend was warned off the mushroom risotto but ordered it anyway and abandoned it after one or two funky bites. (Did the waitress care? She was bored and playing clapping games by herself, and pretty much abandoned us after taking the orders.) Penne pomodoro was respectable, and the Cornish hen was cooked perfectly but was supermarket-quality poultry. Granita and chocolate mousse were no great shakes, either. At least it was a short walk back.
The repeatable: Bistro Cassis, where we stopped in after “Cache” to calm down and had appetizers that were promising enough to lure us back for New Year’s Eve the next night. (It met my top two requirements: reservation not at 6, and regular menu.) The crab beignet was big and better than average, laid onto greens with the tartar sauce dolloped into three leaves of the endive, while the frisee salad with lardons and egg was nicely balanced. The waiter was so mellow but professional I wanted to take whatever he was. At our second meal we had an equally good, even cheerier waitress. We split the excellent green salad, which was huge and loaded with haricots vert, blue cheese and walnuts, then I had magret, the breast expertly cooked but the leg rather chewy, with a mushroom cake on the side and a raspberry sauce that did not sugar up the meat. Lamb gags me, but my consort happily ate his rack down to the bones. At both stops, the wine was in big glasses at $8 each, the bread was good and warm with both butter and chicken liver pate and the room was buzzing and festive. If what you do on New Year’s Eve is a harbinger of the next 365 days, I expect to eat well and happily for not a lot of money. 225 Columbus Avenue near 71st Street, 212 579 3966.
The skippable: Sol y Sombra on Amsterdam, where we ignored a friend’s warning to stick to wine and were penalized with one sorry dish after another. Salt is probably my favorite food, and I couldn’t eat the salad because of the heavy hand with the shaker in the kitchen. The Serrano ham had only an authentic price ($9), and for some reason it turned my stomach when I laid a little onto the tomato toasts plated with it. Baby squid in garlic sauce actually seemed tasty, but all things are relative. At least the waiter didn’t balk when I hated my second glass of wine and switched back to the more expensive Albarino. You just have to wonder why anyone would open a Spanish restaurant if the chef can’t master a tortilla.
The confused: Spiga, where the hungry hordes descending just days after opening overwhelmed the front of the house but not the wildly inventive kitchen. Our waiter told us to yell for him, but I didn’t think he was serious. Ordering a bottle of wine was a headache because not everything was on the list, and the woman who knew what was would not come consult. Five of us were tucked into a windowed alcove, luckily, or the noise would have been painful. Still, I had excellent cod and potatoes and shared the respectable rendition of fennel-orange-olive salad. My consort had a pasta timballo with red mullet, which was weirdly good, and we both tasted the aromatic mushroom-Gorgonzola lasagne (the best choice), maltagliati with mixed seafood and caramelized mussels (interesting in the right way) and cocoa gnocchi with wild boar sauce (interesting in a weird way). The lemon-mascarpone mousse was sensational. The best part: On the way home we passed those poor suckers lining up outside Celeste who didn’t know what they were missing. 200 West 84th Street, 212 362 5506. [Very late December 2005]
The surprisingly good: Lili’s, where we had some of the best Chinese since Hong Kong thanks to a friend who knew first what she was ordering and second how to get it in true Cantonese style, with very little oil. We went for the roast duck, to indulge our vegetarian friend who will only fall off the meat wagon there, but the other dishes were even better. Sesame won tons in hot oil came in an extraordinary bowl of sauce, while a special of crispy cod with asparagus was pristine fish, perfectly fried, with just enough sweetness in its sauce. Sautéed Chinese broccoli was also exceptional, vibrant and clean-tasting, as were the Shanghai curry noodles. The restaurant itself is bright and stylish, with big tables upstairs where it’s quiet enough to talk, and the wine by the glass may not be brilliant (Fortant chardonnay), but it is drinkable. I can’t believe I’ve walked by Lili’s more times than I can count, especially over the last year, and never knew it was not just worth crossing the street for but worth a $10 cab ride on an MTA strike night. 1500 Third Avenue near 84th Street, 212 639 1313.
The not bad: Bistro 60, where I landed in my endless search for a decent lunch in PT wear and where everything was better than it had any right to be. The host was jovial (to the point of offering to eat with me when I asked for a table for one), the service was quick and smart, the (okay) roll was warm, the sauvignon blanc was a good pour for $8 and the duck on my salad was a breast cooked to order (exactly right). Pine nuts, portobellos and good greens also made the whole assemblage above average, particularly in that neighborhood. The design and the mood were festive, and to top it all off there was entertainment: some sort of boisterous soap opera was playing out between the host and a Russian-sounding woman eating steak tartare and french fries with only her décolletage for company. Maybe he should have sat with her. 37 East 60th Street, 212 230 1350.
The improved: Land, where the Thai kitchen seems to have settled into a groove, where the design is still impressive (especially that disorienting sink in the bathroom) and where the two-course $8 lunch is a better deal than ever. Steamed vegetable dumplings were hearty but light and not at all gummy. My “wok cashew nut with tofu” was far superior to the same dish at the usually reliable Spice the Saturday before, while my consort’s chicken fried rice was greaseless and perfectly balanced. Now I can see why he’s been eating there at least once a week lately. 450 Amsterdam Avenue near 81st Street, 212 501 8121.
The improvable: Telepan, where the design is quietly spectacular but where almost all the pricey appetizers and “midcourses” four of us tried were overthought and underwhelming. Admittedly, the place had only been open about four nights, but that would leave no excuse for guanciale that tasted tired, or salsify soup so one-note rich and flavor-sapped that one friend kept conjuring melted Crisco. Yellowtail with farro tabbouleh was more about texture than taste; beets and the two types of pig with it weren’t talking; slow-cooked pork ravioli with lardo were rich but dull, and if there was really black truffle in the pierogi, it was doing a pretty successful disappearing act. Quail with duck sausage and scallops with spinach and wild mushrooms were better, but the bar was set rather low by then. Because it was late and everything read so heavy, we had only one main course, and it turned out to be the one dish that was perfectly proportioned and close to flawless: monkfish with “kielbasa and barley stuffed cabbage.” The fact that we all agonized over the dessert list before settling on only the “peanut butter chocolate gianduja” tells you how irresistible it is. As both guys at the table said, almost everything needed either “acid” or “snap.” The wine list, though, has great bottles at great prices; we had a Gruner-Veltliner for $30 and a red from Langhe for $28. 72 West 69th Street, 212 580 4300. [Late December 2005]
The really good: Mo-Bay, where we headed after a party at the new Emperor’s Roe in Harlem on the recommendation of two guests from the neighborhood and where the food, service, room, and overall experience were galaxies away from Bataliland. I had jerk snapper that was as good as I’ve ever eaten by a different name in Barbados and Grenada, the seasoning smoky-hot from Scotch bonnet peppers with thyme. My consort’s chicken was fried and then stewed in brown sauce and was just like the Caribbean, especially with perfect rice-and-peas and awesome vegetarian collard greens with lots of heat. The too-sweet, too-greasy corn muffin/cakes served before our food and the too-vinegary potato salad with my fish only brought home how far Harlem cooking has come from the South. The best food is West Indian now. Everything about Mo-Bay was so seductive we could tune out the belting jazz singer: the spiffy room, the four-star bathroom, the crowd, the bar with stools on two sides at one end. I would throw in the charming staff, but the reason they were so charming came clear with the Keller-style check: Service is included. 17 West 125th Street between Lenox and Fifth Avenues, 212 876 9300.
The really bad: Mint in the San Carlos Hotel on East 50th Street, where I headed in a hurry after PT when I thought Chola would be swamped and too slow. It was me, four or five floor staff and one other table of two women, and I had to compete for attention with the Windex in the waiter’s hand. Then I had to wait while he went back to the kitchen to find out the specials on the $17 lunch. Of which the best were the vegetarian samosas, unevenly filled with potatoes and peas and served with standard-issue sauces. I had spinach and chick peas as my main course, ladled out with “saffron” rice, watery cauliflower, and dull yellow dal (insult to injury: the menu said those three sides were included and the waiter ostentatiously pronounced each of them “compliments of the chef” — forgetting to add, “and of your American Express”). The naan was actually pretty good, but I learned after only a few bites that everything else was seasoned to be eaten with a fork. Otherwise, it had no taste at all. The pale green room was quite easy on the eyes, but the only thing that made the place worth a stop was opening the fogged glass door on a bitter cold day to find a beautiful old doorman in Indian headdress and North Face jacket.
The acceptable: Bright Food Shop on a frostbiting day, when I went in just to warm up. Once again, I resorted to the pozole just because the rest of the menu is so healthy-Moosewood-weird (Chinese black beans in a quesadilla? gag me with a chopstick). It was okay, although the prep chefs think celery and onions should be cut the size of logs. And the chipotle cornbread with it would have been amazing with butter. And salt would have taken both elements to another level. But, as always in a nearly empty restaurant, order boy was not to be seen once his main job was done. 218 Eighth Avenue at 20th Street, 212 243 4433.
The must to avoid: One Fish Two Fish, where we had an experience one step above a diner after running out of restaurants on a walk home from the Met. We’d heard about the place for years from friends who lived nearby, and it came up at PT, and it seemed to be buzzing when we passed on the way to a party on 119th Street on a Saturday night. How bad could it be? Well, the couple at the next table were either a hooker and a Soprano or very good actors. The service was distracted at best. And the room would have seemed almost jazzy if we had not had so much time to study it while waiting for someone to acknowledge our presence. They do bring a house salad, and a good one, right away, but I guess only as a way of making you feel too guilty to flee. The free garlic bread was okay, the Caesar an abomination and the snapper not great fish that was outshone by the clearly housemade coleslaw. The place mat/menu boasts that “we serve over a ton of fresh fish a week.” Much of it should go back uneaten in the bus pan. Wines for under $7 were actually decent (Estancia, Talus) but served in glasses that make the cup you have to pee in to work at the NYT look like a snifter. [Mid- to late December 2005]
The good: Barbounia, where no one could possibly mourn the demise of Patria. The space has been gorgeously transformed, the food fuses only Mediterranean elements and the service is surprisingly polished early on. I went with calorie-fearing friends who agreed we should stick to small plates, and only one choice was a letdown, the gigante beans that tasted more chalky than buttery. The eponymous dish, red mullet, was outstanding, and I quite liked the portobello moussaka. Grilled saganaki went rubbery too fast, but the truffled fig marmalade with it almost saved it. And the roasted Jerusalem artichokes were outstanding, as were the warmed olives brought with the bread. I’m still not sure the Spanish white was worth $67, but considering our neighborly friend treated two of us wine wimps to it, the price was right. 254 Park Avenue South at 20th Street, 212 995 0242.
The not bad: David Burke at Bloomingdale’s, in the bar, where the staff was Bush league (bumbling and divisive) on the second day but where the food was promising. I was just happy to get a stool at peak lunchtime after PT nearby and could almost forgive a succession of screwups: My “classic” Caesar came with chicken, and my “Asiago truffle fries” arrived naked and fragrance-free, and of course the bill reflected all the confusion even after the food was straightened out. But the pretty waiter was trying hard, and the fury of the fixed woman in the seat to my left and the generosity of the menu-sharing woman to my right made it all more entertaining than annoying. The “hot reuben tartelette” also looked hugely great. Too bad the staff mostly seems to be out of the Condi school, though, sniping more than cooperating. When someone asks what CheeseBurker sliders are, as everyone does, the answer should not be: “Don’t ask me, I’m the bartender.” I’ll go back and try the potato chip pizza and keep my questions to myself. 1000 Third Avenue @ 59th Street, 212 705 3800.
The transporting: Ginger, where it was hard to believe we were eating reinvented Chinese an $8 cab ride from home, through a neighborhood that has gone so far upscale it seems more Fifth Avenue than Harlem. Once you pass a nasty takeout area, complete with bicycles, you’re in a sleek and smart room that needs only decent lighting. The waiters were exceptional, and exceptionally welcoming, and the food was better than you might expect when “healthy” is the mission statement on the menu (and when the cooks are, shall we say, ample). Five of us tore through about a quarter of the entire menu, and the best tastes I tried were the BBQ beef ribs, the mango-vegetable spring rolls, the green rice, the Sichuan long beans with cashews and, believe it or not, the grilled marinated spicy tofu. The wine list is as ambitious as the cooking, which must be why we dropped $56 a head. But then how often do you come across an Austrian red above 96th Street? 1400 Fifth Avenue at 116th Street, 212 423 1111.
The transported: Bistro Cassis in its new uptown location, where any flaws were outweighed by the waiter’s disgust at having only chardonnay to serve by the glass. Once we were in agreement, I could find very little to fault in my delicately dressed Caesar salad or my consort’s sautéed sole over julienned squash with potatoes. Extra points for the bread, the butter and the space, which is not as enticing as the 14th Street original but is not bad for Columbus Avenue. Maybe this concept will stick in a room that seems to be the Sybil of restaurants. 225 Columbus Avenue near 70th Street, 212 579 3966. [Mid-December 2005]
The seriously good: Fatty Crab, where we desperately headed in search of a “real meal” to counter three days of leftover-Thanksgiving excess and wound up eating so much my consort had to walk the four-plus miles home to work it off. I blame the waiter, for suggesting we order the watermelon pickle along with our slow-cooked pork ribs and fatty duck and two vegetables, water spinach and broccoli with salted fish. Those cubes of extraordinary pork in the salad were just more fat. Which of course we had to eat. Green mango with chili-sugar-salt might have been better as a last course, too. Everything else was as Sydney-level as the cooking: the service, the wines, the bathroom design. 643 Hudson Street, 212 800 783 4450.
The even better: Country, where the room is so transporting and the cooking so proficient that not even incessant jackhammers could intrude on the serenity at Saturday lunch. Tucked into the Carlton Hotel, with its “Waterworks” design, this restaurant could be in any other world-class city (the fact that the toilet brand was Toto only reinforced that impression). I’ve never been crazy about Town, but Zakarian (or Psaltis) is hitting on all cylinders here. She-crab soup was extraordinary, bittersweet more than rich and so fat with Dungeness crab that the croquette in the center that burst open to ooze tarragon cream was just gilding on a very polished lily. My duck frisee salad was easily the best I have had in Manhattan, with a perfect greens-to-meat ratio and a lovely foundation of pickled shallots, but my consort’s chicken was even better, impossibly juicy but still crisp and full of flavor even before it came in contact with the pesto, tomatoes and creamy potatoes under and around it. We each had a $7 glass of wine (Aligote and Rioja) and coffee, and the only weak point was the cappuccino (the foam was more like gel, and that Bodum cup has got to go). Service was both self-conscious and forgetful, but who could complain in a warm, dark room on a bitter-cold day? 90 Madison Avenue at 29th Street, 212 889 7100.
The not bad: Matt’s Grill, where I dove in in desperation for lunch after having passed it myriad times over the last 10 years; I instinctively knew it could not be worse than the Brooklyn Diner when I wanted something basic between PT and the C train. The room was surprisingly bright and cheerful and clean on a bleak block of Eighth, and the service was fast and warm. I had a huge special sandwich described as crabcake “frittes” that was made with real crab and came with respectable fries and a too-tame mayonnaise. If this bar were in my neighborhood, I would go there all the time, I’m afraid. 932 Eighth Avenue at 55th Street, 212 307 5109.
The redeemed: Alouette, where we headed in overfed exhaustion after arriving home safely from Buffalo with an extreme craving for fish any way but fried. And once again it was good again. Monkfish fricassee with mushrooms was probably better than I would have made at home, while my special of seared fluke was fresh and perfectly cooked. Both came with profoundly out-of-season vegetables (favas, asparagus, zucchini), but that’s the bottom line’s loss, not mine. 2558 Broadway near 98th Street, 212 222 6808. [Early December 2005]
The mystifying, Take 1: Etats-Unis, where we finally made it after Michelin bestowed a star but where the whole experience is just “home away from restaurant.” The room was nice and sleek, the service fast and accommodating, the cheapest wines by the glass excellent. But the food was just what you always seem to get when a well-thumbed cookbook collection is proudly displayed next to the kitchen. It played by the rules, not by whims and genius. The opah at the next table looked grim, and I’m not much on chicken, steak or paella, so I had two appetizers: a nice-enough salad with Stilton and hazelnuts (and a nasty caramelized pear), and scalloped oysters with saltines, which was what it was. The kitchen did its competent best with my consort’s grilled rack of lamb but could not transcend the fact that the meat was merely adequate. Plus steamed asparagus in November is always a turnoff. No wonder everyone was ordering $26 meatloaf. 242 East 81st Street, 212 517 8826.
The mystifying, Take 2: Pair of Eights on Amsterdam, where the scary old Les Routiers has been transformed into the BLT Steak of the Upper West Side, at least when it comes to design. Until our food landed, I really thought it was a contender — the walls are padded to minimize noise; the room is sleek and beautifully appointed; the wine list is astounding; there’s even a coat check. But all of that made the food so much more of a letdown. A spinach salad with bacon and cheese was quite nice as a starter, but my “duck confit” salad was just dishwatery meat on a pile of tired, timid and poorly prepped greens with a poached egg; my consort’s roast chicken came with watery beets. Why would anyone invest in Riedel water glasses and cut corners on lettuce? Especially in a neighborhood that knows the difference?
The adequate: Miracle Grill, where we stumbled in at peak eating hour on a Friday after drinks at Alcoholics Anythingbutanonymous on 13th off Sixth and then a gallery opening where food and wine were actually served, and where we got speedy seating, great service and okay food. The two half-quesadillas were fine, but the fried calamari was more like French squid in syrup. 415 Bleecker Street, 212 924 1900.
The overwhelmed: Aquagrill, where I was so happy to get a table at prime lunchtime when I was carrying an obscenely heavy bag from the Greenmarket that I could forgive anything. The waitress and busboy were running hard and the kitchen was clearly getting slammed with orders for the Dungeness crab sandwich, but all the essentials were in place. If my sandwich was not perfectly assembled and my fries a little on the skimpy side, the flavors still came through. And the little things that mean too much were there in spades: great warm bread, a manager who greets nobodies, a scene that is totally Soho across from a subway station. For the first time, though, I can see why no one would want to go there for dinner. 210 Spring Street, 212 274 0505. [Mid-November 2005]
The good: Savoy, where the food and service were — luckily — worth the 45-minute, $22 wait at the bar, coats unchecked. The upstairs dining room seemed like anywhere but Soho, even without the wood fire, and so did the waiter, who was quick and patient even though I was losing it from post-PT exhaustion. We split grilled hen-of-the-wood mushrooms with polenta, which were excellent with that touch of raisin, and then I did my best with the salt-baked duck (succulent breast, chewy leg) with odd caraway steam bread that you could have fooled me was not Levy’s rye. Bob’s pork chop was perfectly sublime, although the vegetable with it certainly tasted more like celery root than the turnip the waiter said it was. 70 Prince Street at Crosby, 212 219 8570.
The not all bad: Cinema Cafe, where the film decor only half-disguises the fact that this is the sequel to the classic Greek diner. I stopped in looking for fast sustenance in that no-luck land between PT and Barney’s, and at least my crab “burger” did come almost too soon after I ordered. It was literally the size of an old 45rpm, smashed thin on a brioche bun. The fries were respectable, and the crab was real crab. But it was a diner, and it was packed. 43-45 East 60th Street, 212 750 7500.
The amazing: Upstairs at Bouley Bakery, where we tried our luck after Meredith Monk at the World Financial Center and walked out thinking we have been settling for overpriced mediocrity way too often lately. The space could not be more cramped, but then the staff could not be more accommodating. We got a table right away, huge glasses of good sauvignon blanc and merlot for $8 not long after and then spectacular food from then on. Of course the bread is a trip, and so is the mesclun salad that seems to be almost equal parts herbs on the most alluring china. I had halibut and Bob had cod, each was all of $15, and both would put you off fish most places in town. Watching all of it cooked with David himself on a Wednesday night as the sushi chefs stood by only added to the singular experience. 130 West Broadway at Duane, 212 219 1011.
The transporting: Fatty Crab, where I happened by on a Saturday and had easily the best duck in town, for all of $8. It was described as brined, steamed and fried, and it was extraordinary, even before I tasted it with the little hot peppers and fresh pickles sprinkled over it. Almost as good was the kang chong blachan, greens with deep flavor and a seriously peppery sauce. A glass of gruner-veltliner at $7 seemed like a light pour but was just the right amount and the right contrast. And the one bathroom was like a trip to Asia all by itself. Does anyone actually go to Pier One/Spice Market? 643 Hudson Street, 352 3590.
The promising: The Loft, where the mood is like a scene waiting to happen but where the cooking is surprisingly serious. The bread was a puffy, just-baked loaf presented with chickpea and eggplant purees; the crab fritters came with a lively tamarind dipping sauce, and the lamb on the flatbread had great flavor (for lamb) if unfortunately Nine Livesian texture. I’m not sure I’d go back for $27 entrees, but already this place should spell the death of awful Zeytoun just a few doors up the street. Bring a flashlight, though — I guess for the kiddles’ sake, it’s dark as the womb. 505 Columbus Avenue near 84th, 212 362 6440. [Mid-November 2005]
The pretty good: Mesa Grill, where the kitchen was in fine form at Saturday brunch even as the front of the house seemed to be stumbling (a manager who stares vacantly at walk-ins, then gorillas around the room doing nothing to help seems to be paid just to show up in a suit). The Cobb salad was a respectable rendition reinvented with a little smoked lamb, while my chile relleno was perfectly fried to a crunchy crust (luckily, it also appeared to contain no trace of the ingredient listed on the menu that almost made me pass it up: spaghetti squash). The bread basket was hot and generous, while the cappuccino tasted almost as good as homemade despite a heavy hand with the cinnamon. And if we had to be shunted off to the upper level, our table at least had a great view of everyone else’s food, a diversion while we waited for the waitresses to catch up to ours. 102 Fifth Avenue near 15th Street, 212 807 7400.
The not bad: Jacques-Imo’s for a couple of appetizers and wine after the excellent “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” where the service was friendly and the cooking almost on. The chicken and andouille gumbo tasted perfect, and my fried jalapeno cheese grits would have been if the tasso and crawfish sauce over them had not been poured stone cold. If only I could say that for the white wine. 366 Columbus Avenue at 77th Street, 212 799 0150.
The mediocre: Barca 18, where tables are so much in demand the two of us were given a four-top, where the service got more annoying by the course (Spanish with a Betty Boop accent) and where the food ranged the very short gamut from strange to poorly executed. We minimized the damage by splitting three appetizers, a paella and a dessert and still left thinking underwhelming would be an overstatement. The padron peppers in particular were nothing like the ones my consort and I had for our last meal in Lanzarote; they were just greasy; while the tortilla with salt cod was not the Spanish kind but just a flour one topped with ingredients that melded into indistinguishable. And something about serving wine by the unstemmed copa in a pichet just seems silly.
The lame: Cafe du Soleil, where the waiters had so few tables to tend to they could afford to neglect us and where the fries and salmon cakes were a letdown. The former needed to be longer and skinnier and the latter less dense and dry, at least enough to stop images of canned salmon from clogging my brain. A nice chef clearly has his hands full. Or a management position open.
The loud: Balthazar, where we had to flee around 10:30 on a Sunday night as the noise just got more deafening as more huge parties were wedged in the later it got and as the waitress just bailed. My duck confit was excellent, and everyone else at our table of seven seemed happy with their orders (although I may have misunderstood their sign language). It was so painful I think we left half a bottle of good red wine behind. [Early November 2005]
The seriously good: Maremma, where we were almost killed with comped kindness, but where no extra free food or wine was needed to understand that this is a real restaurant with a true Italian soul. The bar is well-designed, the booths are great, the decor is clever, the service is chirpy, the wine list is as adventurous as it is affordable and the noise level is so civilized only our guest seemed to be breaking it. For all the jokey-bordering-on-hokey touches, the kitchen is deadly serious — the spicy braised oxtail could not be further from mom’s slop. No one does beans like Cesare, and his antipasto plate of four types was a little adventure in flavor and texture. Not one of the entrees was a letdown after four appetizers, whether the grilled skirt steak with mushrooms, the duck, the whole trout or the pasta with chocolate-wild boar sauce. Maybe it was because all the earlier food had been so perfect, but the desserts showered on us at no charge seemed less than dazzling. Still, Village people should be flocking here. 228 West 10th Street between Bleecker and Hudson Streets, 212 645 0200.
The surprisingly good: Pearl Oyster Bar at night, a time when I had always stayed away because of the prospective horror of too many people trying to get into a too-small place with too-rigid rules. We just wandered in at 7:30 and were seated right away for the usual faultless food (skate, Caesar salad). What was most surprising, aside from the emptiness and relaxed feeling, was how cheap it seemed. At dinner, $22 skate is a deal. Fresh skate, at that. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.
The surprisingly respectable: Bistro du Vent, where the service was a little falling-all-over-itself in deference to my illustrious host but where my striped bass with squid and shrimp was nothing to complain about. The steak frites and poached pear across the table looked classic, and the place always gets points for the good olives and baguette with French butter. One off-note was a pinot gris that was not only almost syrupy but served right on the edge of warm, and in a pichet so that I had to drink it all. Luckily, I had a view of lovely 42d Street, because the room is as butt-ugly as it ever was. 411 West 42d Street, 212 239 3060.
The unreservedly bad: Cercle Rouge, where we made the mistake of heading after realizing we had shown up at Balthazar a week early for a date with visiting Londoners. The problem was not only the shock brought on by walking out of a packed, happy place where the hosts could not have been more hospitable (they checked the missing reservation in the book and by calling the central office, and they promised “we’ll make it work” if our date did show up). This new bistro was depressingly deserted, with careless service (wine order taken, twice, and delivered only after nagging; salad plates wiped off on the busboy’s aproned fanny before he set them down) and fish that really should have been turned into chum days before. My skate was just fading, but Bob’s cod was slimy to scary. The salad we split to start with was good, but it only raised our hopes. All the McNallyesque decor in the universe cannot compensate for a reeking walk-in. [Late October 2005]
The good: Red Cat, where we walked into a packed room at peak reservation hour after a surreal party at Crobar and got a good table in front in about the time it took to order a glass of wine at the bar, and where the cooking, service and scene just get better with age. Trout was excellent, as were the usual tempura green beans, but the pumpkin panzanella was truly inspired. As for the bacon tempura, I am embarrassed only about ordering it, not about thoroughly enjoying it. 227 Tenth Avenue near 24th Street, 212 242 1122.
The seriously good: Landmarc, where we got a superb table with a view straight north to the Empire State Building, where the service was smart and patient and where the kitchen was, as always, running on all cylinders. Our friend used my name to reserve, which may account for the table, but nothing could change the cooking. After a hard weekend in my own kitchen, I could only face a Caesar salad with tuna, but even it was brilliant, with what looked like a log of perfect grilled fish over carefully prepared greens and dressing. I passed on the shared marrow bone appetizer and the goat cheese profiteroles but did succumb to the white anchovy salad, which was just what you want from those little fillets: balanced flavor. I did, though, take too many bites of my consort’s roasted cod with tomato and anchovy butter with potatoes and dandelion greens. Even with eight of us, two dessert platters were too many. And the low markup on the wines made it too easy to keep ordering bottle after bottle. 179 West Broadway, 212 343 3883.
The good and cheap: Market Cafe, where the noise can be deafening at lunchtime but where the cooking and value are unsurpassed as a close-by choice for the Javits Center and Photo Expo. The roasted duck leg I wanted was not available, but that was less annoying than finding radicchio in my otherwise good Caesar salad. Luckily, my consort kept flipping French fries over onto my plate along with bites of his pesto-soaked steak, cooked just right. The cappuccino was grim, but I deserved it for not just ordering an espresso. With coffees and one glass of wine, three of us walked out for $55 with tip and steak included. 496 Ninth Avenue near 38th Street, 212 967 3892.
The good: Fusia, where the welcome could not be warmer, the mood happier or the food a better value. The $5 green papaya salad was as beautifully presented as the vegetable spring rolls were well-fried, and my consort was not even penalized for ordering tofu. Now there’s even wine by the glass. As one of my PT saviors who works across the street pointed out, curry comes with soup at lunch in a nice, bright room for $7, just what the nearby deli charges for a sandwich to go. 677C Lexington Avenue (but on 56th Street), 212 308 2111.
The sad: Mainland, where the whole experience could not have been more different from our maiden expedition. To put it bluntly: What a difference reserving in my NYT-recognizable name had made. This time four of us got the worst table in the house, not just back in Upper Siberia but imprisoned next to a huge table deep into their eighth drinks and howling over wilting erections. (Maybe the booth our new friend asked for really was reserved, but the place was probably half-full.) The Peking duck came already carved, and cold, and unexciting. But otherwise the food was better than one-star for sure. A round of Bracchetto “from the general manager” for something like “being such loyal customers” also helped somewhat, at least enough to get me back. Ever since that New Yorker story on restaurant inspectors, I’m a sucker for cleaner than Chinatown. 1081 Third Avenue at 64th Street, 212 888 6333. [Early October 2005]
The good: Chola, where the lunchtime buffet remains about the closest spread I’ve found to true Indian in Manhattan and where the service is Mumbai-level as well. The fish pakoras were a little fishy, but all five vegetable curries were perfect, and the bread was so pliable it made an excellent knife and fork. I skipped the too-sweet dessert but did indulge in wine and got a huge glass of sauvignon blanc for about half the price of the buffet. If the dining room is sleek and clean, the kitchen looks enviable with sunlight streaking in. 232 East 58th Street, 212 688 4619.
The not bad: Pacific Echo, where the menu is all over the map of Asia but where the combinations mostly work and where the waiters border on too-attentive. A friend and I only had appetizers, of which the best was the tuna “pizza,” like a tortilla topped with fish in a peppery-creamy sauce. The dumplings and spring rolls were fine. I’d go back, especially since it is in such a bleak corner of Manhattan restaurantland. The wineglasses must have been deceptively big, though, because we decided we had to have a nightcap at Providence. You know you’re stupid-drunk when you will brave bouncers, a rope and a dog. 242 West 56th Street, 212 265 8988.
The unforgivable: Rocking Horse Cafe, where it was hard to decide which was worse — the cooking or the service. If an Italian cooking teacher were grading my omelet with bacon, poblanos, cheese and alleged wild mushrooms with salsa verde, he would have to say: “The eggs are too cooked, the bacon is too raw, the sauce is too bland. It sucks.” Worse, the jalapeno “hash browns” were stone cold and slimy. And the $4 cappuccino arrived well after my friend’s coffee with no foam at all and at beer temperature. A little Italian would have made the waiter’s constant intrusions into the conversation a little less annoying. They say permesso. [Late September 2005]
Picnic does an exemplary cappuccino and croissant on a Friday morning when almost no one’s on the premises except a great waitress and busboy and a very large baker who has to be told by a woman with two crazed poodles: “Your pants are falling down. Big time.” And Bellavitae is a whole different restaurant when you sit at the food bar, in the back. You’ll find yourself ordering, and eating, way more than you need because everyone around you is tucking into successive plates with such gusto. The arugula, fig and ricotta salad is great, as are orechiette with sausage and especially the eggplant “panini.” But Park Bistro is not a summer destination, it turns out — it felt a little sad with sunlight coming in, although the food was fine when it finally arrived. And everything you need to know about the new Mex & Co on Columbus: It puts the din in dinner, plus they didn’t even bother to translate uomo and donna on the bathroom doors from the previous lame incarnation. Snapper at $21.95 that bears no resemblance to Veracruzano is a travesty, and that pork taco with pineapple was clearly an intestinal mistake, or maybe it was the off-tasting chorizo. Oh, and did I mention the service sucks? [Early September 2005]
The good: Aquagrill, where the room was the busiest in SoHo on a Saturday for a reason, where the service was as smooth as always and where the grilled pompano sandwich was almost a perfect substitute for the signature one made with Dungeness crab cakes. The tiny scone and muffin were ideal starters, the New Zealand sauvignon blanc the right pour and the cappuccino an even better ending — it might be the best I’ve had in New York outside our kitchen. Also, for once there was a real host, and he was a real host. 210 Spring Street at Sixth Avenue, 212 274 0505.
The sad: Suenos in Chelsea, where nothing clicked on a slow Monday night. I went by myself and it was too dark to read the menu, let alone anything more than the headlines in the magazine I brought. The bar was out of the bargain Chilean sauvignon blanc I chose off the unimaginative wine list and the waitress seized the opportunity to upsell me on a $10 albarino. The duck quesadilla with unsummery pears inside and in the accompanying salad made the portions at Chevy’s look dainty; the meat itself was good but sage gave it an acrid undertone. And the little introductory ramekin of black beans with cornbread triangles, too familiar from Hell’s Kitchen, arrived well after my food. What was most disappointing was that nothing had that vibrancy Mexican food at its best almost bursts with. I’ll resist the urge to make bad puns about the name.
The good in spite of itself: Ixta, where I went next to try to quell Mexican cravings and where everything should have been a disaster. As I sat down, the next table was sending its burrito back because it had ordered tacos (one tortilla is just like another). Neither the hostess nor the waiter knew wines by the glass were not listed in the cocktail menu they both referred to; neither the waiter nor the bartender knew what wines by the glass were available (the latter dragged out two bottles and the former struggled to remember the names in the five steps to my table). And when I ordered the “croque senor,” the waiter pronounced it croquet seener. It should have been a quesosteak: sliced chorizo with roasted peppers glued together with melted cheese. But, stunningly, it was excellent, with bread just soft enough and flavors just lively enough. Even better, the green salad on the $10.95 plate was carefully chopped, beautifully balanced and far too generous. I’d never set foot in the place at night (can you say margarita mill?), but it’s definitely satisfying for lunch with a comedy show. 48 East 29th Street, 212 683 4833.
The good again: Regional, where I’ve finally figured out the script if not the cast. The food is not literally what we have eaten around Italy, but the spirit is there, and the reality is in the menu translations. The gnocchi truly are “spinach and bread dumplings,” and they’re fascinating, not to mention airy. The long tubular pasta with eggplant and ricotta salata truly is Sicilian in nature. And it’s hard not to like frascati priced as it would be in Rome. 2607 Broadway near 98th Street, 212 666 1915.
The reliable as always: Pascalou, where the kitchen is surprisingly adventurous considering the crowd is the usual Upper East Side undead and where the service is completely casual but attentive. I resisted the urge to have my usual duck confit salad and risked a duck wrap with black beans and iceberg. The meat was almost as good as Sueno’s, and the salad with it — garnished with the usual odd two potato chips — was a bonus: all mesclun, none of that exotic greenery from inside the tortilla. 1308 Madison Avenue near 92d Street, 212 534 7522.
The good: Keen’s, where the pub room was just full enough to be lively but not loud enough to stop conversation, where the service was perfect and where even the trivia questions posted in the bar were not just grammatical but literate. It was the only place I could think of near Penn Station to meet my consort coming in late from Moscow on the Potomac, and it couldn’t have been a better choice. Even the food was spot-on: wild mushroom soup was chunky and rich and not at all cloying; the Caesar had serious anchovy flavor and perfect (read: rib-free Romaine) texture; a special salad of arugula with dates and grapefruit qualified as interesting, and my consort’s lamb sandwich (for all of $12.50) was a huge mound of tender meat in a great bun with excellent fries. Throw in good wine by the $6.25 glass and you’re talking serious New York, not quite circa 1885. 72 West 36th Street, 212 947 3636.
The bad: Alouette, where we went for proximity’s sake and were penalized with dreary food and distracted service. A friend bitching about the din level at Regional made us think the only sound here would be oxygen tanks, but apparently the chef has been fired and the dishwasher promoted. Or maybe it’s the floor mopper. The duck I have had countless times was gruesome, in a sauce more like brown water with carrot slices floating sadly; my consort’s skate looked sodden, and I didn’t dare ask how bad the monkfish was that was being pushed around like rubbery clumps on our friend’s plate. At least the air conditioning worked, maybe too well.
The sad: Bolzano’s, where the temptations of newness and a terrace lured me and a friend who works nearby but where the only thing good was the bread (Sullivan Street’s). The waitress was clearly trained to help the Hooples in from Iowa maneuver the menu (yes, she informed us when we asked about portion size, we could order a salad as an entree but there were entree salads). The “warm wild mushroom salad” was mostly spinach with flecks of pancetta and too many soggy onions; only the unbilled ricotta salata redeemed it. And the lobster PLT (pancetta, again) was heavy on the celery and lemon and light on the lobster richness; neither of us touched the roasted peppers nestled in a radicchio leaf on the side. My wine, the same one I had when we stopped in before the theater, was fine, though. But for a place some paper said is packed with Conde Nast types, an awful lot of tables at lunch were empty. Like 90 percent. [Closed]
The dispiriting: Juniper Suite, where the location was even more geographically appealing midway between PT and my friend’s office but where the food was lame at best and the service not much better (you never want to see a hostess nearly nodding off at lunch). We split a crab cake with mango garnishes that was superb, but both our sandwiches were right at or slightly below deli level. The Niman Ranch pastrami was fatty and chewy and rather daintily portioned, while the turkey Cobb was undone by the overly industrial main ingredient. A little tray of condiments complete with miniature jar of Hellmann’s almost saved the meal. And at least the place was quiet, at least once the braying boors at the next table paid their check. [Closed]
The surprisingly good: Mainland, where the design screams Orlando but where the food is seriously inspired Chinese with many twists. Walking in, I was worried about a Pantondo reprise when I smelled smoke and then saw ducks twisting over coals — what else could it be but an overpriced gimmick? But despite the Ollie’s pedigree the experience was outstanding. My consort thought the Peking duck was the best he had ever had, and he has spent way too much time in Beijing. His miso-glazed cod was so far beyond the cliche that it was almost French. Our shared shao leung dumplings were strange, although the broth they floated in was sensational; the long beans were even better eaten cold the next day. Our waitress was a bit robotic but certainly competent, and maybe she needed a computer chip to get through explaining the concept over and over all night. With a bottle of okay Tocai, we dropped $123 including tip, which sounds crazy for Chinese but not for an almost Hong Kong-quality meal. 1081 Third Avenue at 64th Street, 212 888 6333.
The surprisingly not horrible: Kitchen 82, where the a la carte menu makes the place more tempting after popcorn at the movies and where some new dishes compensate for the increasingly dreary old (save us from ourselves and retire that pollack, please). My salad was great, even though I could taste past the easy seduction of truffle oil, and seared duck on noodles bordered on sophisticated. Unfortunately, we were seated at a tight table that had been left empty for a reason, clear as soon as we got a whiff and could not gracefully flee. What can best be described as a 2-year-old in Adult Depends (or, as my consort heard him, “an id”) was among the large group next to us, pounding, yelping, bodily functioning. Having grossed out so many other diners and waiters for so many months merely by arriving on crutches, I actually feel nasty saying this, but why would anyone bring a vegetable to dinner in a too-crowded room? At least the kitchen and waiters are cued up to turn tables fast. 461 Columbus Avenue at 82d, 212 857 1619. [Closed]
The surprisingly unpleasant: Cafe Luxembourg, where one bad waiter can vanquish good memories of repeated meals and instead conjure two horrible nights with friends whose relationships were in meltdown. We arrived with a reservation and didn’t mind cooling our heels at the uncrowded bar, but the pleasantries evaporated as soon as we were seated in the back next to a table where the blonde was wondering why she wasn’t getting more than 6 percent return and the oily investment manager was running up a tab in between bussing her fingertips. My consort asked about the night’s special of suckling pig and was told only: “Outstanding.” I then said I would take the fish and chips and heard: “Are you asking or ordering?” Downhill to confusion over the rose (the Tavel was sold out; I couldn’t get my glasses out in time to realize we would be paying $26 for the insipid Marques de Caceres) and diner-style dump-and-run service from there on out. What a way to dim the glow from the excellent “Junebug.” Josue needed a time-out. . . .
The good and cacophonous: BLT Prime, where the hard-drinking, heavy-spending crowd was like a giant burp from the Eighties but where the food and service were sublime. I got the same freebie overload from Laurent as I have at BLTSteak, but even the dishes on the check were many levels above the cooking in most restaurants in the city. My duck was perfectly done and intriguingly spiced, and the veal was even better. Side dishes were mostly exquisite: creamy spinach; peas and bacon; hon-shimeji mushrooms; only the tantalizing blue cheese tater-tots were a letdown, gummy and dull. The sad thing was that the mostly male barbarians at most other tables seemed to be there just for the meat and the chance to throw their credit cards around on $42 entrees. If you want a hint of how painful it is to eat there, go to the web site and turn your speakers up LOUD. 111 East 22d Street, 212 995 8500.
The bad and annoying: Seppi’s, where I swore I could put up with anything for a friend’s birthday lunch but where the combination of lackadaisical service and sloppy cooking did me in. Another friend who made the arrangements even admitted, “You say I’m easy to please, but my food was not good.” At least I didn’t risk the mussels, which smelled high to say the least. Five women ordering wine by the bottle should have warranted a little more attention, too — would a place setting and water glass for the last arrival have been too much to ask?
The merely off: Rosa Mexicano, where I made the mistake of going for lunch on brunch day and paid with badly fried crab empanadas and distracted service. That new sidewalk cafe seems to take a lot of waitron energy. And while the tortilla soup was good, Taqueria de Mexico does it so much better, with so much less grease. Jim Quinn in Philadelphia claimed the best book title many years ago: “Never Eat Out on a Saturday Night.” Saturday afternoon is even riskier . . . .
The pretty good: Yumcha at brunch, where the design is the most designed I’ve experienced in some time, where the service was smart and attentive and where the cooking was mostly excellent. A dim sum basket had six undistinguished dumplings in weirdly gummy rice paper, proudly imported from Chinatown. But the tofu and vegetable spring rolls with young ginger dipping sauce made inhouse were beautifully flavored and almost perfectly fried, while the udon noodles were spa-dainty but full of great tastes, from spicy pepper to Thai basil. And Forstreiter gruner-veltliner in one of those newly prevalent Riedelesque tumblers seemed more attuned to the food with every bite. The place is gorgeous, right down to the bathroom, but I would never set foot in there after early-bird hour for fear of hearing loss. 29 Bedford Street at Downing, 212 524 6800. [Closed, October]
The pretty annoying: Neptune Room, where the food may have been better than ever but where the service and music grated and the wine list gouged big time (I don’t think there was a white for under $30). Our pigtailed waitress seemed to be auditioning for Oz gone wild; the mugging and rictus-grinning and faux enthusiasm made me conjure a balloon over her head reading: “If I only had a brain.” And that techno-thump made me wish for Ecstasy after the second hour. But the skate was as good as it gets, and my cod with artichokes and mushrooms was 0faultless. Seeing $42 for a sauvignon blanc that sells for less than $10 at Gotham, though, left almost as nasty a taste as the lame, cold chocolate dessert the aspiring Do’ swooned over. No wonder the place never filled up on a Friday night. 511 Amsterdam Avenue near 85th Street, 212 496 4100.
The acceptable again: Thalia, where the promise of my appetizer stop was fulfilled at a real lunch. Our food came almost too fast for comfort, but it was all excellent to decent, particularly the softshell crab and my Dungeness crab sandwich, despite way too much arugula on a too-small bun. The once-great herbed fries are now a bit on the grease-sodden, timid side, though. Bonus points for handing out tidy umbrella bags on a miserably drenched day. 828 Eighth Avenue at 50th Street, 212 399 4444.
The reliable: Nice Matin, where the unsavory East Side crowd always makes the food seem so much more adventurous than it really is. I was not let down by my old favorite, the lump crab salad with asparagus and avocado, while my consort’s half chicken was a bit over-roasted but still good, especially with the perfect fries. The waiter seemed distracted until the very end, when he sidled up to say: “I need you to do me a favor,” grabbed my napkin and disappeared. When he came back, it was wet and he said, pointing across the table, “Clean off his back. A bird got to him.” File that under above and beyond the call of duty. 201 West 79th Street, 212 873 6423.
The geographically appealing: Juniper Suite, where the service was superb and the food respectable and the pinot grigio a good pour but where it was hard to overlook the fact that the place is designed, sleekly, primarily for drinking. I had smoked duck in a reuben with juniper sauerkraut that came on rye-pumpernickel swirl bread, which made it taste suspiciously close to pastrami. The fries with it were fine, but the coleslaw had crunch but no zest. Can’t complain too much for $11 for more than you can eat after PT, though. 44 West 56th Street, 212 586 4737. [Closed]
The worth the journey: Hot Rods Real Pit BBQ’s catered smoked brisket, ribs, pulled pork and chicken at a friend’s Fourth of July soiree deep in the heart of Jersey. The Louisville-rooted hostess said she found the place through a newspaper ad and was sold on it after hearing its music — the owner had bought a jukebox from a blues joint in the true South. I liked everything I tasted, even the crumbly/sweet cornbread and the Northern-style buns, and I don’t think it was only because our ride got our juices going by providing such spirited Bush-bashing from and to the tunnel on such a perfect day. 19 North Main Street, Wharton, N.J., 973 361 5050. [Early July 2005]
The seriously good: The Harrison, where the food and service were flawless even though our dinner included a show. We were stuck next to a tableful of brayers who only piped down after the two tipsy women, one of whom either had a bun in the oven or too many Cinnabons under her belt, staggered back from the bathroom while holding hands and bumped into a waiter carrying a tray of martinis and other drinks that cascaded over a very formal young couple out with a much older couple. The wettest victim was immediately dried off by said waiter but was steaming that neither of the lush lifers had apologized and came over to confront them and their macho tablemates. Unfortunately, she did finally say sorry and so we didn’t have any chairs thrown between us and my exquisite salad of peektyoe crab with avocado and grapefruit (worth every penny of $15), or my consort’s yellowtail special. We split a main course of perfect skate and polished off four glasses of wine, each better than the last and much better than the first my consort ordered and the waiter immediately replaced. For the first time, I’d say Spartina died for a good cause. 355 Greenwich Street, 212 274 9310.
The pretty good: Bombay Talkie, where the menu was a bizarre blend of Delhi and deli and where the superb waiter was wasted in an empty room but where my “Bombay bhel” was extremely satisfying, the perfect “salad” for a hot day. I should have settled for only that and not ordered the strange and bland cheese toastie sandwich that came with greasy chips. The decor is garish in daylight, and I’m sure the place is painful at night. But Igor, on only his second or third day, was a model waiter: he had all the essentials down but also insisted on changing the placemat he spilled water on, bounded over to replace the knife I dropped and walked me to the door and held it as I was leaving. Someone should either steal him or clone him. 189 Ninth Avenue near 21st Street, 212 242 1900.
The not bad: Regional on a second try, where the service kinks were less obvious and the cooking more assured. My consort’s $13 braised chicken was overcooked but came in a superb sauce with rich flavor; the arugula salad was above average, and my pasta gratin with leeks and mushrooms was just restrained enough to pass for true Italian. Looking around, it was hard to believe we were on the Upper West Side in what used to be a dumpy Peruvian place. 2607 Broadway near 99th Street, 212 666 1915.
The redeeming: Deep Blue in the Jet Blue Terminal at Kennedy, where we spent all the money we saved on a cab, and more, to kill some of the four hours we had to fill after missing our flight thanks to the AirTrain that moves at escargot speed. Sushi in an airport would be a scary concept if we hadn’t seen it so often overseas, even in Frankfurt, and so we just took it as a sign that the fish on the regular menu had to be fresh. My consort’s salmon certainly was, and it was cooked right to boot (the broccoli and mushrooms with it were almost raw, though), and it came with a huge mound of great sticky rice. My crabcake sandwich proved far better than it had any right to be, plus it was paired with exactly the right bun, sturdy but not dense, and with pretty decent french fries and tartar sauce. The one waitress was more efficient than surly. And the place gets extra points for the Cruvinet with Bogle sauvignon blanc and for a classy design with comfortable blue booths with lots of leg room. Overall, you’d never know you were eating just steps from security where everyone is forced to walk barefoot across the filthy floor in the land of the brave and the free. Terminal 6, 718 656 6210. [Late June 2005]
The pretty good if you close your eyes: Gusto, where the chef is cooking on more cylinders than she managed at Giorgione but where the crowd makes you wonder what Liberty City mall you’ve wandered into. We got a table without a reservation on a Monday night after only a short wait at the packed bar, and the food was actually seriously satisfying. The fried artichokes Roman-style, the ones that “made the chef’s name,” were a respectable rendition, while the radishes with crushed anchovies that arrived with the bread were a revelation. After three of us agreed gnocchi in America are always gumballs, I scored very light ones with ricotta and spinach. My consort’s saffron risotto with squash blossoms was also faultless, as were our friend’s pansoti with bitter greens. Wine was good and affordable and the service was not bad, if distracted by the hordes thronging in. But it says something that the place has barely opened and the menus are already tattered and that the decor is meant to evoke Italian cinema but the waiter has no idea the body depicted on said menu is from “La Dolce Vita.” I might brave it again, but only for lunch, when the creatures who come out by night are still safely in their cubicles or in salons getting highlights. Our friend who lives just a few blocks away kept asking: “Who are these people?” New rule: If you see more than three anuses with cellphones attached in front of a restaurant, keep on walking. 60 Greenwich Avenue at Perry Street, 212 924 8000.
The hospitable: Table XII, where the chef who makes Sara Jenkins look grounded was luckily nowhere to be seen at lunchtime but where the bar-room waiter was smart, efficient and attentive (a service trifecta) and where the food was better than it had to be considering we chose the place only for its convenient location down the street from PT. My panini was fat (too fat) with prosciutto, tomato and buffalo mozzarella and came with good potato chips; my friend did a decent job of pushing around the steak, asparagus, green beans and hearts of palm in her euro-priced salad. Wines were affordable and good pours. Maybe the back room’s decor is livelier and the menu more exciting. But I would go back for the bathrooms, which are a time-trip to the age of Mamie. 109 East 56th Street at Park Avenue, 212 750 5656.
The better than we expected: Thalia, where the room was actually full post-theater but the staff was not too swamped and where a couple of appetizers made a meal. The crabcakes were tiny but crispy and meaty and in a pool of good sauce; the mixed green salad was well-dressed and shingled with shaved cheese. The wines by the glass were good and well priced, although it took the waiter a few trips to remember them. And, as always, the bisexual bathrooms were a good sobriety test. 828 Eighth Avenue at 50th Street, 212 399 4444. [Late June 2005]
The good again: Crispo, where the kitchen was not just open but in fine form at 10:15 on a Saturday night when Cassis across the street had already rolled up its towels and turned three of us away. Stuffed zucchini blossoms were plump and perfect, while a ribeye with fries and a striped bass special were faultless. Fried calamari could have been either more tender or a lot jazzier, though. What was most impressive is that both the hostess and the waiter actually seemed to believe they were in the hospitality business. 240 West 14th Street, 212 229 1818.
The oddly not great: Via Emilia on Park Avenue South, where the tagliatelle with ragu was respectable (especially at $8.50) but where the eggplant parmesan tasted bitter and tired, the bread was off and the whole attitude seemed to be dismissive even on a half-empty night. [Closed]
The always transporting: Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie, where the aura and crowd seem galaxies away from sweltering touristy New York. Service was snappier than last time but the cake just as exceptional, a klimttorte with exquisite layers of hazelnut and chocolate. Blood orange tea and elderflower syrup in sparkling water only added to a virtual escape to Europe. 1048 Fifth Avenue at 86th Street, 212 288 0665. [Early June 2005]
The good: Bouley, where the service was exemplary and the room looked luxe even from a table too close to the bathroom, and where half the dishes were brilliant (unfortunately, they weren’t the Birthday Boy’s half). I snared a reservation only days in advance, but the old “fully committed” runaround still applies; no one ever answers the phone without putting you on hold. Still, the place was full and everyone was working at top form, including the runners who delivered and explained the amuse-bouche (a strange and anemic tomato-apple concoction) and the after-dessert (a strange but flavorful fruit concoction). “Return from Chiang Mai” was not a shopping list in a bowl of brodo but a beautifully composed terrine with lobster, mango, artichoke and Serrano ham with passion fruit and tamarind accents. Black sea bass in a sea scallop crust was equally inspired, right down to the seriously aromatic bouillabaisse sauce. My consort’s braised yellowtail was both overcooked and jet-lagged, though, while his rack and loin of lamb with fava mint sauce was nicely done but not extraordinary. He tricked me into ordering one dessert, hoping my luck would hold, and what I got was good and chocolatey. We chintzed on the wine and still found a superb Spanish red neither of us knew for all of $45, then, after the sommelier came to chat up the empty bottle, we were showered with free dessert wine, a second dessert and the after-desserts. Even without the extras, I would rate the place perfect for what we were looking for: a good special meal sans a second mortgage ($237 with tax and tip). 120 West Broadway at Duane, 212 964 2525.
The surprisingly enjoyable: Balthazar at Saturday brunch, where we called to reserve 20 minutes before walking in and got a snug and quiet table while long lines were waiting, where the service was like a well-oiled machine and where the food was far better than I remembered. My cheeseburger was exceptional enough to keep me from wanting another for a few months, while my consort’s steak was not too far below Les Halles level, and both came with above-average fries. The place should be appalling on every level, especially when it’s overrun with tourists and other invaders bearing Century 21 bags and digital cameras in equal numbers, but it was very close to ideal, right down to the very winy rose and the cappuccino. Even two turns of scary mother-daughter acts at the next table could not intrude on our mood. 80 Spring Street at Crosby, 212 965 1414.
The struggling: Regional on the Upper West Side, where the design is cool, the menu is all over the Italian map and the cooking is halfway decent even as the place gets slammed. I’m happy for any alternative to Gennaro, but this had promise. Fresh cod fritters in “yeast batter” were more like goujonettes but very light and satisfying, while an arugula and tomato salad was at least well dressed. My bigoli with duck seemed a little steam-tably, but my consort scored with garganelli in veal sauce that tasted and chewed almost like the real deal. Unfortunately, this is yet another restaurant that thinks it can get by on a couple of waiters and a clutch of busboys. Nothing could be more pennywise and pound-foolish if it means patrons can’t order more wine to push up that check. 2607 Broadway near 98th Street, 212 666 1915. [Late May 2005]
The good: Cafe du Soleil, where the flavors are as robust as the din is cacophonous and the staffing as excessive as the quarters are tight. On my first visit the pizzette topped with pesto, tomato and anchovies was perfection and the wild mushroom ragout was the model of restraint while the whole grilled daurade and the tuna with mussels were letdowns. Next visit the pizzette was still good but surpassed by a special of white asparagus with ham from the Carolinas; the daurade was all it should have been, and the scallops on greens with truffle vinaigrette were world-class. Both times the bread from Silver Moon arrived with utter, olive oil and a dish of warmed olives with peppers, the exact kind of little touch that can predispose you to repeat visits. Wines are good, prices are restrained ($18.95 for the scallops) and service is a little rocky this early but at least there are so many guys on the floor you never languish for long. Matthew Tivy has one thing to fear in this underserved neighborhood, and that’s too much business. A woman at the table next to us had been there three times in the first two weeks. Don’t even think of heading there without reservations, even at early-bird hour. 2723 Broadway near 104th Street, 212 316 5000.
The cheery: Bone Lick BBQ, where the food is not radically better than at Dismal Urban BBQ but where the room is almost like Schiller’s of the South and where the staff is both upbeat and attentive, making sure you know the stools came from an old Woolworth’s and the giant Coca-Cola sign from Long Island City. The best dish was the Texas beef rib sandwich, boneless chunks of smoky, hypertender meat on a bun that didn’t dissolve under the juices and sauce. French fries tasted better than they looked, especially with some of the seriously peppery sauce drizzled over them. A slider was a perfect little burger, cooked just right, piled high with good lettuce, red onion, tomato and pickles. But the pulled pork sandwich was bland and dreary, and the coleslaw was missing something integral, although it was obviously made there and with care. And I can’t fault the mojito for being too sweet when the iced tea was sugar-free and poured as freely as water. 75 Greenwich Avenue near Seventh Avenue South, 212 647 9600.
The dinery: Brasserie 360 at lunch, where the cooking is competent, the prices surprisingly reasonable and the message very much Epago. My crab cake “burger” tasted mostly of crab despite heavy breading, and the fries were respectable. The place was packed, with one poor waitress doing the work of 10, it seemed, and easily addled busboys were not helping much — I never got water even after asking four times. It may no longer have the aspirations toward cuisine it did when it opened, but it’s still one of the better places around Bloomingdale’s to stoke up before braving the assault by perfume across the street. 200 East 60th Street, 212 688 8688.
The disorienting: MetroCafe & Wine Bar, where the whole dim sum section of the menu should be 86ed to keep fools like me from succumbing after seeing so many Asians working the front of the house. I should have followed my first instinct and had one of the predictable (read: dull) burgers or sandwiches or salads rather than attempting the greasy, doughy scallion pancake. Or the greasy, heavy spring rolls. Or even the gummy steamed vegetable dumplings. At least the wine-by-the-glass list is dazzling and priced right, the place is nicely turned out and the service is friendly and efficient. And for three little plates and one glass of Australian viognier, plus tax and tip, I still got away for less than the cheapest entree at the new Craftbar (I’ve given up spending more on one lunch dish than on my copayment for PT). 32 East 21st Street, 212 353 0800. [Mid-May 2005]
The seriously good: Mesa Grill, where the service is still annoying but where the kitchen is running on all cylinders. The duck pancake was excellent — juicy, spicy, finessed — and the Caesar salad probably the best I’ve had in years — well-dressed, carefully chosen greens, with grits croutons and just enough anchovies. A $10 glass of St. Supery sauvignon blanc only buffed my good mood. I’m just happy I stuck around for the food after staffer in red shirt after staffer in red shirt walked past me for long minutes in a nearly empty restaurant. And that was after I’d insisted on sitting at a table after walking out on suffering the same neglect at the bar nearly four years ago. Something about me must say: Nil by Mouth. 102 Fifth Avenue near 15th Street, 212 807 7400.
The nearly perfect: Landmarc in Tribeca, where the menu reads dull and the staff is underemployed this early in the brunch game but where almost everything earns an A. The hostess persuaded us to sit upstairs on a sunny afternoon despite the long haul, and even two tables with crawly-crazy kids could not ruin our lunch. I ordered the mozzarella-ricotta fritters as one of the few choices I could not make at home (aside from a grilled portobello priced the same as a skirt steak), and they were amazingly light and airy and crisp all at once; the spicy tomato sauce with them made me wish I’d chosen the day’s pasta. My Caesar salad was just decent, but my consort’s roast chicken with a green olive tomato sauce was outstanding. A half-bottle of Paul Blanck was $11, and my capuccino was not just superb but the size of Bob’s coffee. House-made caramels could not have been a better sendoff. 179 West Broadway near Franklin, 212 343 3883.
The deafeningly grim: R.U.B. in Chelsea, where the name should be changed to DUB: Dismal Urban Barbecue. The room was butt-ugly, which seemed to add an air of authenticity, but the noise was agonizing and the food profoundly disappointing. My friend ordered the pulled pork platter, which was like ropes of pig; except for a few burned edges, the meat was as dry and dull as the potato salad and coleslaw with it. My platter of sausage with greens du jour and onion strings was redeemed by the accouterments; the sliced links themselves had that strong smell/taste that is politely described as uric but that always gets me thinking about the horrific eating habits that make swine worthy of the name. To cap it all off, when I went back to wash up for the train ride home, I spotted a bucket of iced tea sitting open on the floor, way too close to the bathroom door.
The sweet and slow: Fusia in Midtown, where the little flags just started flying to announce the grand opening and where I ducked in for a quick lunch after PT and almost chewed up the chopsticks before my food finally arrived. Luckily, my noodles with duck in spicy yellow curry were superb, almost Italian in their balance of sauce to other ingredients. Steamed mushroom dumplings either fell apart or turned gummy before I could get them to my mouth, but that could have been because I was shaking; the flavor was nearly Hong Kong level. And the sweet corn soup included with lunch entrees looked light and tasted rich. The room was really pleasant, the staff beyond solicitous even when their English was so much better than my Cantonese (I can’t remember the last time I heard so many “goodbye, thank you” calls as I left a place). Wine is only sold by the bottle, unfortunately, and the waiter tried his best to persuade me “you could try” to drink it all for $28. He also threatened to card me, which might be the most restorative thing since the leg press. 677C Lexington Avenue (around the corner toward Third on 56th Street), 212 308 2111.
The unsettling: Parish & Company in Chelsea, where we ducked in for a fast meal after a gallery opening and were still waiting for food an hour later in a not-full back room. Everything started with such promise: the bread was excellent and came with olives in a pool of supremely flavorful oil; the wine list had choices Panchito would spurn because they are so far below $40; the menu had endless tantalizing combinations (although at prices much higher than I remember from a year or so ago). But the music turned painful by the time we got our shared appetizer, of fiddlehead ferns with spelt in a salad, and brutal by the time we got our main plates: foie gras dumplings in prosecco sauce for me and grilled striped bass for him. Everything tasted great, and we even took the leftovers home. But by morning remorse of the intestinal variety was settling in. I thought it was just my consort manifesting road-food backlash after five nights away, then it hit me. It will be a while before I risk any of those ingredients again. [Mid-May 2005]
The perfect: Pearl Oyster Bar, yet again. The quintessential cod sandwich, the best-in-Manhattan shoestring fries, the pouilly-fuisse, the waiter, the music, the bathroom and the mood all were exactly as they always are. (At lunch, at least. I would never go near there at dinnertime.) This time I ate at the bar with two sets of tourists, and I don’t know what was more encouraging — that the place’s fame has spread to Spain or that the ultimate out-of-towners could get such exemplary treatment even with limited English. Maybe I haven’t traveled in seven long months, but I was almost transported just by eavesdropping. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.
The perplexing: Opia in midtown, where the room and terrace are so inviting and the earnestness palpable but where the center cannot hold. A friend and I walked in and were almost lunged at by a host who showed us to a table for four looking out on the terrace on a chilly day. We got menus and wine and Caesar salads with discernible anchovy right away. Then we sat and shivered every time the terrace door opened as we waited and waited for our “pizza” and for someone, anyone, to come by who might be capable of bringing more wine. On the down side, the pizza made Otto’s look like Patsy’s (it seemed to be made out of piadina or pita bread with a schmear of goat cheese and pallid tomatoes); on the plus side, the cappuccino was acceptable. The worst thing is that the place is so convenient to PT I could go back. It’s also tucked away above street level in a Habitat hotel, and there could be no safer place for conducting an assignation. Even the busboys won’t spot you. 130 East 57th Street near Lexington, 212 688 3939. [Early May 2005]
The reassuringly good: Rosa Mexicano near Lincoln Center, where the fusion I feared has been kept to a minimum and where the cooking is better than ever under the pastel-coated Ivy Stark. The crab empanadas were as satisfying as the first time, and the guacamole and steak tacos were as good as they get. My duck appetizer could have been warmer, but the flavors were exceptional, and the spinach-stuffed chile was certainly hot. All the salsas were superb, each esonant proof of how different chiles can be. Sitting downstairs seems to be the secret to relatively attentive service at lunch, although the great window table is a cul-de-sac, an easy place to get forgotten. 61 Columbus Avenue at 62d Street, 212 977 7100.
The unsurprisingly mediocre: French Roast on Broadway, where both the food and the ambiance aim for Parisian and hit hashhouse. My croque monsieur was rubber-eggy-strange, and not in a madame way. But the hostess was great, my New World wine was a big glassful and at least I was lucky to get a sentient waitress. The women at the next table were waving their credit card as the busboy brought them a basket of bread. Now I know why I’ve never stopped there for lunch before. How do you say “slow-poke diner” en francais?
The sanitized: Dawat, where the food, the room and the service are all careful to the point of being the antithesis of India. Of the more than half-dozen dishes in the vegetarian lunch special, from naan to dal, only the inauthentic grilled/roasted vegetables and salad dressing had any zing (the tandoori broccoli was great, actually). Everything else just tasted tame to dull. The buffet at Chola a few doors east was a nickel cheaper and 15 times as vibrant. If you want to feel as if you’re eating in the Oberoi, this is the place, right down to the multilingual tip instructions included in the check folder and the waiters ostentatiously checking to make sure you’ve left the requisite amount. 210 East 58th Street, 212 355 7555. [Late April/Early May 2005
The seriously good: Chola, where the lunch buffet is beyond generous, where the service is exceptional and where the Indian food is easily the best I’ve had since my extraordinary lunch in Mumbai. For $13.95, I filled one big plate with three vegetable curries, perfect rice, spicy dal, fresh coconut chutney and two types of pickles (both exquisite flashbacks), while passing up about four meat choices. I thought that was plenty even after a pretty rigorous bout with PT, but then the waiters started filing over: with vegetable fritters, bhel puri, warm (and singularly pliable) naan, sambar, more chutney, tamarind sauce, a masala dosa as good as in Bangalore and then tandoori chicken. I didn’t even need the huge glass of $8 Snoqualmie sauvignon blanc I’d reflexively ordered, and I had no trouble declining dessert. As a bonus, I certainly enjoyed the show underway when I came in and still running when I left: a large guy at the bar in an FDNY hat and T-shirt who was either the most conciliatory inspector ever faced with “the most violations I’ve ever seen in one place” or a total scam artist (a lot of “call this guy and he’ll fix this; if you don’t call this number there’ll be a huge fine”). They were even nice to him. 232 East 58th Street, 212 688 0464.
The not bad: Xing in Hell’s Kitchen, where the downtown design would overshadow the best food but where half our dishes actually held their own. A friend and I were nervous when we had the whole place nearly to ourselves on matinee day, but the kitchen was definitely up and running. Within minutes of ordering we were tucking into sauteed pea shoots with garlic, which I liked but my friend spurned as not even close to what she usually orders in her neighborhood. Then came a winner, a takeout box spilling with “crab Rangoon,” perfectly fried dumplings filled with cream cheese and the eponymous seafood to dunk into a mild sauce. Peking duck salad was huge and good. Pork shu mai were a letdown, little leaden balls of underseasoned meat, but that may be because we waited until we could flag someone down to bring sauce before trying them. Xing is much more 66 than Grand Sichuan, and that’s not a bad thing. 785 Ninth Avenue around 52d Street, 646 289 3010.
The grim: Molyvos, where four of us stopped in after way too much wine and far too little food at the Bar Americain party and where the kitchen and the waiters and especially the hostess were giving off serious besieged-to-disgusted vibes. Crabcakes and seafood salad were quite good, and the Greek sampler tasted only slightly more wan than it had on myriad earlier visits. But even the omnivores among us did not go back to finish the sweetbreads or the dried-looking lamb ribs. For the first time ever at that address, I felt as if I had wandered into a tourist joint. [Late April 2005]
The superb: Les Halles on Park Avenue South, where the expansion of the dining room seems to have revitalized the cooks (if overwhelmed our lunch waitress). I can’t remember how many time I’ve had the duck confit salad and been perfectly content, but this was like tasting something new: the potatoes seemed freshly fried rather than tired, the frisee was green, the duck leg itself was meaty and crispy, and lively slices of garlic were lavished on the whole thing. Bob’s steak frites was what it always is: the best meat deal in town. (We both had enough left to take home for fat omelets next morning.) But for once both of us ordered off the brunch menu and for $17.89 each we also got a salade petatou and amazingly light lentil soup to start and perfect chocolate mousse and profiteroles flooded with dark chocolate sauce to end with. Throw in bigger, nicer bathrooms and it’s no wonder I didn’t argue when Bob suggested we forgo anything new and head straight for something old after the Greenmarket. 411 Park Avenue South at 28th Street, 212 679 4111.
The pretty good: L’Impero, where the room, the mood, the noise level and the pricing all make up for any unevenness in the food. Luxury to my aging ears is being able to have a four-way conversation in a fully booked restaurant, and this place has that down, with lots of upholstery and drapery and artfully separated tables. The service is also very French, although the too-perky waitress who insisted on pouring a $78 St. Innocent pinot noir as if it were bottled water was pretty annoying. Unfortunately, after the amuse (squid tendrils in a spicy fennel veloute with walnuts) the entrees just seemed overwrought and underachieving. My duck and foie gras agnolotti in particular were all design, with slightly funky flavor. Our friend was unhappy that his medium-rare lamb was dangerously (for his immune system) on the raw side. And two dishes with foam on one table are really two too many. But the polenta with wild mushrooms as an appetizer was rich, creamy and rich, and I thought the sardines poached in olive oil were better than average (I sat alone on that, though). Considering we had squandered around $129 a couple with slovenly service and naked tables at cacophonous Carne the night before with friends with a kid, the place was an adult bargain at less than $160. 45 Tudor City Place, 212 599 5045.
The not bad: L’Express, where the tables turn as fast as the kitchen can cook, where the service is at least upbeat and where the $9 Attitude sauvignon blanc can make one-step-above-diner food acceptable. A croque monsieur was not bechamel-oozy enough but otherwise fine, while the lox-thin salmon scallops on a lettuce-shy Caesar were surprisingly juicy and flavorful. The frites were more fries, woody and tired considering most every table had at least one order on it. After walking past the place hundreds of times after the Greenmarket, though, it was worth succumbing if only to see what brunch would look like with nothing but Lucky subscribers (way too much clipped-back big hair, Juicy Couture, sunglasses as tiaras). 249 Park Avenue South at 20th Street, 212 254 5858.
The misguided: BLTFish downstairs, where one French chef’s vision of an American fish shack is a Pearl Oyster Bar aficionado’s detour into mediocrity. I stupidly ordered the special “cod burger” ($16) and got a little slab of overcooked-to-slime fish inside a Frisbee-size crust on a tough bun with iceberg lettuce and timid tartar sauce. (The same kind of bun is used for the freebie butter-soaked garlic bread, with cheese melted on top for overkill.) Coleslaw in a tiny cup was not terrible, but the fries were redeemed only by their spicy coating. I was only glad I had not tried the lobster roll for total disillusionment. Having heard how bad the service could be, I ate alone at the bar and had nothing but attention from the underemployed bartender. Still, I kept staring at the menu board and thinking the last thing it should read is, “Visit our sister restaurant BLTSteak.” With fish that lame, not on a bet.
The geographically desirable: Five Points, where an outside table on a spring night is a great refuge from a July-hot opening at Leica Gallery a couple of blocks away. With enough interesting, reasonably priced wine (American Aligote, for one) and relatively attentive service, we barely noticed the mounds of garbage just down the sidewalk. Easily the best dish among our four orders of two courses each was the Caesar salad; the pizzette with teleme, potatoes and truffle oil was a little rubbery, and skate was overaccessorized. (And if I had remembered how steep the stairs to the bathroom are, I would not have drunk.) Still, the price is right and the location is superb after suffering beer and second-hand sweat. 31 Great Jones Street off Lafayette, 212 253 5700. [Mid-April 2005]
The pretty good: Devi, where the fantasy-of-India decor was half the appeal, where a French waiter added to the cosmopolitan aura and where either the cooking was better than at Amma or my memories of the real deal had faded enough to make me less critical. I never did come across any Parmiggiano (sic) in the bread in the homeland, but maybe I didn’t eat enough “authentic home cooking” in the home I was lucky enough to lunch in. Crab kulcha was more quesadilla than shellfish, the halibut should have been taken off life support at least a day earlier and the beef was just as creepy as any ancestor would be when treated like a kebab (although the fig chutney with it was a great touch). The “crispy tangy” okra seemed more the former than the latter, and burned to boot. But otherwise, the chicken curry was decent, the breads not gummy, the basmati rice cardamomy, the chocolates with the check a real hit with the girls. Dessert was passing strange. And at $25, one entree would feed about 20 in Calcutta (with 19 going away hungry). 8 East 18th Street, 212 691 1300.
The charmingly atmospheric: Keens Chophouse, where the barroom is easily the most comfortable refuge in Midtown for a long lunch and where the service is coat-and-tie professional but where the pub menu is a minefield. I ordered fish and chips to keep two of us from going to hell after my friend chose a burger on Good Friday, and it came with respectable fries and nice-enough tartar sauce. The batter encasing the perfect fish, though, was slimy/raw under the crisp crust. Even so, I’d go back for the burger that is now haunting me. When Manhattan seems to be vaporizing all around us, this is one reassuring pit stop. 72 West 36th Street, 212 947 3636.
The scarily atmospheric: Guastavino’s, where I wandered in for lunch after PT and was surprised just to see people. One of the most faultless waiters I’ve encountered in months was a bonus, as were the good wine list and the sunlit room itself, with those gorgeous vaulted ceilings and that whole airlifted-in-from-London Conran feel. I was so blissful sitting there and then finishing with a cappuccino almost as good as my consort makes that I was willing to forgive the food — a travesty of a vegetable focaccia sandwich, with stale bread topped on one side with two whole roasted peppers and cheese and on the other with sliced avocado and spicy mayonnaise. There was no way to put the two together; whoever designed it needs to go back to architecture school. The accompanying fries had a tired taste, but I didn’t realize just how fatigued until about an hour later, when I was almost doubled over with cramps. It was a classic Houlihan’s reaction, and I hadn’t had that in 24 years. I’m sad, because there could be no better place to go back for a long, lazy lunch, and I would only be able to drink it.
The sad: Isabella’s, where I should have known I was heading for trouble when I ran into Courtney Grant Winston a few blocks away and he tossed out what he thought most restaurants should be called anymore — Epago. “It sounds Italian,” he said, “but it really means Eat Pay And Get Out.” I admitted that could be BR Guest’s motto, but I kept walking because I had a real craving for a cheeseburger, and Steve Hanson’s moneymaker on 77th has rarely let me down. The place was nearly empty and still understaffed around 3 o’clock, while the “hosts” at the desk were either on the phone or mucking with paperwork and the kitchen was taking deliveries on the street. Naturally the whole meal was dispiriting, from the gray matter in my “medium-rare” burger to the waitress overstretched to distraction. I ate. I paid. And I was very happy to get out. [Mid-March 2005]
The pretty good: Le Monde, as usual, where for some reason I expect very little and am never disappointed. My frisee salad with duck confit and portobellos was very satisfying, and the warm bread and chive butter only elevated the whole experience, as did a good glass of Babich sauvignon blanc, not to mention service that was almost too attentive. Toss in great ambiance and what’s not to like, if you have to eat near Columbia. 2885 Broadway near 113th Street, 212 531 3939.
The pretty bad: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, where the design is not as fromagey as we’d been led to believe but where the meat bordered on scary. The brisket was leathery weird and the ribs seemed strangely dense but still a little too tender. Can you say industrial? Greens were too sweet, cornbread was too dry, coleslaw was too mayonnaisy, creamed spinach was too peculiar. The one redeeming dish was the “Syracuse salt potatoes,” whole babies in an addictive sauce that I would not want to have demystified. Even if you’re stranded in Harlem after meeting the accountant and have no idea where else to have lunch close by, think twice. Unless you have a thing for beefy detectives.
The merely annoying: August in the West Village, where so much seemed likable, from the design to the brunch menu to the waitress, but where the food went down one wrong road and the service another. “Roesti” was really just a thick latke, nowhere near the real deal, and the gravlax over it had only the faintest flavor (at $12, too). The croque monsieur came on a hunk, not a slice, of burned bread that would have been tough to cut with a Laguiole knife. My corked glass of Picpoul was replaced with no argument, but that was by our first waitron. The two guys who took over for her were hellbent on giving us our check, first before a second round of wine was delivered and then after we had barely finished it, in a nearly empty room. At least we were spared the $10 upselling of cappuccini. [Early March 2005}
The atmospherically good: Bond 45, where the ambiance evokes a Parisian brasserie despite the cheesy Italian touches. At 8 o’clock on a theater night the place was packed and getting fuller, but we walked in and scored a good booth and soon had big glasses of Arneis and Barbera ($7 to $7.50 each) and a great view of a lively room that felt like anywhere but Times Square. Unfortunately, the excellent rolls and butter were the best bites. The “Pantondo” was a joke at $22. The roast pork was all bulk, no flavor; the cannellini beans that came with it in a too-cute little jar were like chalk pellets. The tricolore salad was decent but more accouterments (nuts, cheese) than greens of any hue. Even as we waited, and waited, for the waiter, we both agreed we would come back, though. In that wasteland, you can settle for scenery worth chewing. 154 West 45th Street, 212 869 4545.
The unsurprisingly good: Red Cat, where the menu seems not to have changed since Day One but where the team and space just feel more polished over time. The green beans tempura remain the best dish, although the seared skate was a close second, especially with clever batons of butternut squash mixed with the mushrooms underneath. The chicken was just chicken, and the zucchini with almonds, nicely done as it was, seemed jarring on a snowy night when the wind was literally howling off the Hudson. Overall, though, it would be hard to find a better experience in a nicer room at a lower price (a little over $50 a head with wine). 227 Tenth Avenue near 23d Street, 212 242 1122.
The still good: El Paso, where I hadn’t been since I had two good legs but where the small changes are mostly for the better. The kitchen is now partly enclosed, there’s equipment for real coffee and tea, and the menu is streamlined. My enchiladas poblanas were excellent, and the “blanc sauvignon” the waiter sold me was a generous pour. 64 East 97th Street between Park and Madison, 212 996 1739.
The now bad: Bricco in the shadow of the new Hearst monstrosity, where the host was anything but hospitable on a busy night, where each of the red and white wines was worse than the last and where the funghi pizza was sodden with pointless ricotta. I actually liked the roasted red peppers in the stingy Caesar salad, but the lettuce and dressing were pallid to the point of tasteless. And if they’re going to shunt walk-ins to the bar, they might consider cleaning up the clutter behind it. It was like eating at the bus station. By the time we left, the only thing that felt Italian was the requisite red slicing machine in the foyer. And the “do not touch” sign said it all. [Late February 2005]
The magical: Cafe Sabarsky, where the room looks straight out of Salzburg, where the gruner-veltliner is presented with great flair and where the chocolate feuillete is exceptional, even from a takeout box. Crepes filled with smoked trout and horseradish were surprisingly bland, though, and the service could best be described as lackadaisical to confused, even in a nearly empty room. But there can be no more transporting experience on a late afternoon with all the time in the world. Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue at 86th Street, 212 288 0665.
The economical: Land, where $7 at lunch buys two generous courses in a sleekly designed space that looks like anything but Amsterdam Avenue. The root vegetable spring rolls may have been a little gummy and bland, with not enough dipping sauce, and the spicy fried rice only virtuous, with no egg or meat, but it was hard to argue with the price or the service. 450 Amsterdam near 82d, 212 501 8121.
The cheap and cheerful: Matador, where we wandered in for brunch in exhaustion and strutted out in exultation at spending $19 with tax and tip for two meals with sangria and coffee. If the waiters had not been so relentlessly upbeat, and the room less vibrant, I might have been more critical of the tortilla, which was closer to the menu description of “Spanish quiche” than Spanish tradition, and definitely of the chorizo frittata, which was just okay. But the sangria was surprisingly drinkable and the coffee respectable. We’ve spent much more for worse experiences, although coming home and finding Steve Cuozzo’s review on Google did give me pause at ever risking dinner there. 57 Greenwich Avenue near Seventh Avenue South, 212 691 0057.
The perilously close to perfect: Vong, where the room looks fresh, where the waiters are a polished team and where the food is even better than it was back when the place was just a scene. We went for lunch because it was crutching distance from PT and came home feeling as if we had been to Paris — it was that serious a restaurant. The crab spring rolls were not as extraordinary as they tasted back in the last century when they seemed so novel, but a seared tofu entree with at least a dozen vegetables in a seriously spiced brodo was a vegetarian’s wet dream. My consort had the $20 lunch special, which proved the old rule: if you want superb cheap food, have the least expensive dish on a great menu. A wonderfully composed squid and arugula salad was followed by lacquered duck with well-seasoned fried rice and bok choy so baby they were almost fetal, then a rhubarb financier-like dessert with ice cream. Jean-Georges is taking some hits lately, but this actually made me want to try another of the links in his growing chain. It’s the antithesis of that Bangkok-Bond bar with the three stars. 200 East 54th Street, 212 486 9592. [Mid-February 2005]
The time-warpy: P.J. Clarke’s, where the Eighties never ended and reality never intrudes. A friend and I who had not been there since our previous lifetimes ducked in because it was a block from PT on a slushy-slippery day and were surprised to find it jammed at late lunchtime. The white wines seemed more global, and the fish with the chips less industrial, but otherwise it was the same as it ever was, with a decent burger, pounding music (nothing later than Paul Simon’s “Cecilia,” I don’t think) and a hyper-efficient waitress who calls women “ladies.” Just don’t go there on a Friday or you’ll be conjuring “Days of Wine and Roses” and quoting another friend: “We could stay here, but we could never come back.” 915 Third Avenue at 55th Street, 212 317 1616.
The better than it has any right to be: Annie’s, where the menu is glorified diner but the service snappy enough to make you overlook the constipated crowd. My huge wild mushroom quesadilla was heavy on the buttons but came with above-par guacamole, and the Markham sauvignon blanc was not your average Greek pour. I just hope that first credit card receipt they printed with the wrong total went no farther than the trash. 1381 Third Avenue near 79th Street, 212 327 4853.
The not-my-cup-of-Darjeeling: Josie’s, where the tables are packed so close together you could be eating on the A train and where you hope the food gives back to your body what the din takes away from your hearing. We went with friends with food issues, and I could see why they prefer it to the few options in this city. It is, as they said, not stodgy. I just want a little more out of my dining experience than a kitchen that puts the premium on everything but big fat flavor. And someday I will remember that if “roast turkey” is in exactly one dish on a menu, do not order it, even in an innocuous salad with baby spinach, bits of avocado and too many walnuts and “veggie bacon” bits.
The better-than-Patsy’s: Bettola, where we felt lucky to get in after a movie on a Friday night when we were resigned to settling for pizza. The bianca with mushrooms was surprisingly respectable, with a crackly crust and lots of cheese. So was the mixed green salad with whole baby calamari that tasted more of grill than rubber. And if the wines by the glass were not great they were the next best thing: big. 412 Amsterdam Avenue near 79th Street, 212 787 1660. [Early February 2005]
The pretty good: Neptune Room, yet again, where the room is half the draw even when you’re crammed into an upstairs booth next to a bus station. The special fluke lived up to its adjective, the gnocchi managed to pull off both rich and airy, and the chocolate dessert the guys shared looked like fun. Unfortunately, salmon done a la plancha the way I stupidly ordered it only illuminated what the place does so well: accouterments. The fish needs every sauce and side dish the chef can add. 511 Amsterdam Avenue near 85th Street, 212 496 4100.
The sad: Beacon, where the smell on a Tuesday night could only be described as fish morgue, where the deserted bar and upper levels had a last-gasp feel and where the best of three appetizers was flatbread sold as three-cheese pizza. My consort thought his baroquely garnished “charred filet mignon tartare” was raw meat for wimps, and my $16 crabcake had about two lumps of the starring ingredient in it (and not a whiff of the wood roasting it allegedly had been through). Toss in a stretched-brittle waitress and dry bread and you have one bleak pit stop. Maybe it’s because we had just come from a gallery opening where the wines were on the level of Origin sauvignon blanc and Quixote cabernet, but even the $10 and $16 glasses we ordered came off as what you might suffer at some starving artist’s party.
The respectable: Osteria Stella in the Theater District, where the ambiance is like a brasserie but the menu is all over the map of Italy, not France. We stopped in late, after the photo show at the Hilton, and had a surprisingly decent white pizza with funghi and a tricolore salad, after a big bowl of good olives. The waiters seemed beat, though, and the crowd was a loud mix of martini-soaked suits and large women in pink. 135 West 50th Street, 212 957 5050.
The reliable: Cafe Luxembourg, where the room is even more appealing in sunlight, where the freedom fries are above average and where the hostess gets huge points for crutch care. My omelet was fine, but my consort loved his roast chicken. 200 West 70th Street, 212 873 7411.
The evolving: Bellavitae in the Village, where the best dishes this visit were the least likely. Braised greens with Agrumato olive oil were outstanding, and a blood orange and red onion salad went surprisingly well with the wine. But the biggest stunner was dessert, which is rarely an Italian strength. The chocolate-hazelnut meringue cake was great, and I’m not crazy about chocolate or meringue. 24 Minetta Lane, 212 473 5121.
The promising: Porcupine in Nolita, where the $12 brunch menu is limited but all made with obvious care, where the room is either warmly designed or the crowd really is that good-looking and where the blackboard menu of cheeses and meats alone would warrant a return trip. Gravlax is not something I would ordinarily choose, but it came with two tempting garnishes: lemon pickles and fried capers. (The former was the surprise: cucumbers, not citrus.) The salmon itself was satiny and with more flavor than fishiness. The chef needs to go back to architecture class for the grilled lamb sandwich, which refused to hang together, but the meat was good and the tastes of tapenade and onion were exceptionally harmonious with it. A salad of grated carrots alongside looked dull but was quite vibrant, with chopped pistachios and pink peppercorns. My $5 mimosa had just enough orange juice (very, very little). The service was confused, to say the least, but as my consort reminded me, better superb food and addled waiters than the other way around. 20 Prince Street at Elizabeth, 212 966 8886.
The puzzling: Mezzaluna on the Upper East Side, that neighborhood where no one ever calls a wasteland a wasteland. So many tables were packed into such a tiny space it felt like a diner, but the special branzino at lunch was priced for Payard, at $33. My four-cheese pizza seemed to be mostly mozzarella with a touch of Gorgonzola, but the crust was good, and by the time it arrived the table was already covered with a basket of good bread and dishes of excellent olives and sliced Parmigiano. Everyone was great about my difficult situation, but we couldn’t get water no matter how often we asked. I hadn’t been there since its heyday back in the last century, and I probably wouldn’t rush back for one more try at figuring out why it remains so swamped in such an allegedly restaurant-rich area. 1295 Third Avenue, 212 535 9600.
The merely gorgeous: Eleven Madison Park, where the space will always naturally outshine the food, where the welcome will always be warm and where the Restaurant Week menu was a doubly good deal with wines at $5.12 a glass. Our lunch was perfectly fine except for one knockout dish, the passion fruit meringue tart with litchi sorbet and fresh berries. My grilled squid salad with beet batons and a ring of kumquat was pretty good and certainly much better-looking than the bacon-heavy lentil flan (although the pappadum “crust” was an inspired touch). My mahi was beautifully roasted and came with braised sweet potatoes and excellent bitter greens, but it was not far removed from what we might make ourselves. I would never try beef cheeks marinated in zinfandel at home, though, and for that and the accompanying risotto cake it was worth the journey. One mystery: How could a waiter so humorless ever have passed initiation into the cult of Saint Danny? 11 Madison Avenue at 24th Street, 212 889 0905. [Mid-January 2005]
The good and surprising: Inside in the Village, where we wandered in looking for something light after a party on a bitterly cold night and were seduced by some of the best tamales I’ve ever encountered in Manhattan. On Mondays, the waiter said, the specials are all Mexican (and no, he said, it’s not the chef’s night off). And so we had seriously spicy guacamole, with a surfeit of chilies compensating for the substandard avocado, and superb tamales, two fat, meaty, borderline-fluffy ones for $6 apiece. The place was nearly empty, which added to its appeal just as much as the $8 wines did. 9 Jones Street, 229 9999.
The quite good: Bar Room at the Modern, where the service is both discombobulated and Danny Meyer solicitous, where the menu looks enticing even before the chef starts sends out freebies and where the “unisex” bathrooms with stalls segregating men and women are alone worth a trip. Gabriel Kreuther says he is having much more fun now that he has the weight of the Ritz-Carlton off his shoulders, and it shows in dishes like the ethereal sweetbread ravioli and the grilled quail with chive spaetzle, wildly seasoned with cinnamon. Eel rillettes were just weird (calling all cats), though, and foie de veau dumplings were too close to the eel quenelles and way too far from the sweetbread ravioli. For the timid, the tarte flambee is the best rendition outside Alsace. White wine prices are absurd — $11 for a glass of Vermentino or $21 for a quartino, for instance. But I showed them. I ordered two different glasses and cost myself $23. 9 West 53d Street, 212 333 1220.
The not bad: Bistro du Vent, where the decor is cheesy and the Saint-Emilion watery but where the food shows promise and the prices are beyond reasonable. Salade tiede was a shopping list on a warm plate, with quarters of artichoke not talking to cardoons and goat cheese and ham and olives. The house olives were outstanding, but the baguette seemed to have been backed over by a truck. My sea bass was cooked to leather, although the chanterelles and salsify with it were worth $20 alone. And my consort’s lamb shank, heavily spiced and rotisserie-roasted rather than braised, was as extraordinary as the potato gratin with it was undistinguished. Dessert took so long we were ready to bail, but the fact that it was then comped made roasted pineapple with peppercorn ice cream seem like a better idea than it tasted. If you’re going to the theater, allow an extra half-hour for coat check-in and checkout. 411 West 42d Street off Ninth Avenue, 212 239 3060.
The pretheater decent: Blue Fin, where three fish dishes were heaping with flavor and ingredients, where the staff is up to the crunch and where the location near “Democracy” could not be more convenient. Our waiter’s striving exceeded his grasp (he refused to take a number for a wine order, then had to return to clarify exactly what we wanted), but luckily all he had to do was take down orders. Monkfish with white beans and bacon was probably the best entree on the table, but salmon with lentils was nicely prepared and relatively minimalist, while yellowtail snapper with clams and shrimp was a wow-the-Iowans concoction. On the whole, this might be the best eating for blocks before a show. They move you in, they move you out, and it’s fairly priced for fresh, imaginative cooking. 47th and Broadway, 212 918 1400.
The striving: Picnic Market & Cafe, where the cooking is competent and the help is helpful. One of the most frustrating things about not being able to walk far is knowing that anything good is a galaxie away, but this was worth the eight-block trudge just for the airy room and the sense that someone cared about what was going on a plate. My leek tart was not at all quiche-like, while vegetable lasagne was good and vibrant once we got both heated twice. Unfortunately, the cucumber salad with both went into the oven on the second trip, too, and the Illy espresso in my cappuccino was scorched. But the place has promise at a price, with Artisanal cheeses, housemade pates, relatively ambitious cooking and a friendly attitude in a neighborhood light on all of those. 2665 Broadway near 101st Street, 212 222 8222. [Early to mid-January 2005]
The stunningly good: Onera, where all memories of the odious 222 were vanquished by the sleek redesign and the real intelligence behind the menu. Greek is far from my favorite food, but this is as close to Milos as Napa Valley is to Astoria. An array of mezze crossed with sashimi included scintillating raw ideas like tuna with preserved sour cherries, sea urchin over beets layered with preserved lemon and halloumi cheese, veal with tuna tartare and crispy capers, and lamb with kalamata olives and sun-dried tomatoes. Roasted octopus was paired with Greek salami and apples in an anchovy vinaigrette; sweetbreads were in a chicken liver sauce with a foie gras dumpling on the side; even manti (Greek ravioli) had been jazzed up with four cheeses and crisply fried artichokes. Chocolate was a better flavor than rose for dessert unless you like eating at the Body Shop. Even the most bizarre combinations worked, though, and this was seriously assured cooking. The best way to approach it is to set the chef, Michael Psilakis, free to play in the kitchen, especially now that he has pulled back on his offal obsession. Even better, go for the wine pairings. Maurizio de Rosa, whom we know, came over to say he owns the place (a fact you didn’t see as news fit to print), and he comped us with a steady flow of gems with not a hint of cheap retsina. 222 West 79th Street, 212 873 0200.
The great for the neighborhood: Alouette, where the cooking seems more assured than ever and the service more polished but where the wines are still priced at 1995 levels. This was my first real meal there in eons, and my only complaint about my duck breast was that it was too big, especially with duck sausage underneath, Vichy carrots with star anise alongside and a potato cake to boot, all for $20. It was also much redder than medium rare, but there was so much left I could sear it off for quesadillas for two at home. My friend had no quibbles with her goat cheese tart with grilled asparagus, or with her duck confit salad, both for $8.50 apiece. Decent French wine at $5.50 a glass only enhanced the experience. We had been in earlier in the week with friends after “Motorcycle Diaries” at the newly renovated Metro theater but didn’t eat then. Now we have the perfect show-and-a-dinner destination. Extra points to the hostess who twice lunged to hold doors open for this pathetic gimp. It’s not as common as you’d think. 2588 Broadway near 97th Street, 212 222 6808. [Early January 2005]
The great: BLT Steak, where the room, service and food would all have seemed spectacular even if so many freebies had not kept coming, to the point where my cynical friend started to wonder if I had reserved in the name of a certain Old Gray Shrew. (No, she would have been able to get a table later.) Among the many standouts: collards braised with cream and bacon; cured salmon with pumpkin seeds; pan-roasted porcini, and the hanger steak. Spiced swordfish was way overcooked and shrimp cocktail was steakhouse standard, though. And the citrusy souffleed crepe was far better than the chestnut chocolate sundae that sounded so fascinating. The sommelier was one of those babblers more into provenance than taste, but he did earn points for steering us to a cheaper bottle of white to start and a quite good red to end with. No wonder the only way to get an 8 o’clock table is to dawdle from 6 on. 106 East 57th Street, 212 752 7470.
The still good: The Neptune Room, where the waiters have shed their chef’s coats but not their professionalism, and where the cooking, wines by the glass and prices are all spot-on. My skate Milanese was a little soggy but laid over excellent (if season-violating) zucchini and yellow squash in spicy tomato broth. Tuna tartare had a good sharp edge, and my consort’s pizza with lobster (a special appetizer) was better than we could have gotten across the street at Celeste. 511 Amsterdam Avenue near 85th Street, 212 496 4100.
The off: Nice Matin, where our table was in jostling distance of the bar and where the day’s special was anything but. Bob’s sea bass over potatoes and artichokes and a shared green salad were as perfect as the last time, but I made the mistake of ordering the roast duck and getting a chewy reminder of why I don’t like the whole bird: the breast and legs just don’t cook at the same rate (and legs you can’t slice through are not cooked at any rate). One day I will also remember that the R.H. Phillips viognier is a letdown after the fascinating (and cheaper) arbois. [Late December 2004]
The surprisingly great: Park Bistro, where the ambiance is like Paris, where the cooking is very modern but seems classic and where the service is beyond accommodating. We were looking for someplace near the National Arts Club with good food but without a raucous scene and gouge prices and I remembered this old classic. The last time we had eaten there was not long after it opened in a frenzy of press 15 years ago — we never went back after I bit into a fragment of bouillon cube in my sauce. But now it’s warm, it’s pretty and it’s polished. The olives set down with the menus are excellent, the bread basket arrives after you order, the waitstaff seems genuinely interested in waiting. The salade Petatou was perfection: warm potatoes topped with goat cheese and surrounded by olives and vinaigrette. My entree was the best plate of duck I’ve encountered in some time: both breast and leg done right, with spinach, corn and potatoes, all larded with bacon, on the side. With a bottle of Montagny premier cru, the bill was $92 before tip — one last reason to feel like Europeans in New York. 414 Park Avenue South near 28th Street, 212 689 1360.
The staggeringly mediocre: La Masseria in the Theater District, where I dragged a friend for lunch and was embarrassed by cursory service (the waiter had that scornful “two women” expression) and average food at inflated prices. It’s a nice-looking room, but we had to eat what was in front of us: mozzarella stuffed with asparagus and prosciutto; fritto misto that was mostly squid rather than the promised shrimp (bounceable) and scallops (tiny and slimy); vegetables grilled by a cook whose heart was clearly not in it. The arneis even tasted like pinot grigio. It’s hard to believe a partner also owns the rather good La Locanda. This was Disneyworld-dismal right down to the six-inch head of foam on the cappuccino.
The promising: Bellavitae, where friends as owners may have tried to skew my judgment but where the wine, cooking, room and service seemed soulfully Italian even with a chef whose resume includes Chez Panisse. As guests, we tried at least 20 dishes from the small-plate menu, all seriously good to great but some rising to amazing, like the figs baked in pancetta, the garganelli with ragu and the tagliata with salsa verde. This could be the six bottles of wine talking, but it felt anything but Bataliesque, which is no small compliment. 24 Minetta Lane, 212 473 5121.
The hopeless: Nonna on Columbus Avenue, where something of a VIP welcome and 10 percent opening discount could not compensate for the appalling attempts at Italian coming out of the tiny kitchen. A place that boasts of hiring a chef away from one good restaurant and consulting with a name chef from another should surely be able to serve a decent pasta at the very least, but the “pappardelle, forest mushrooms” seemed to have slogged straight from a steam table; I’ve had far better on airlines, and not Alitalia. “Codfish origanato” was geriatric fish cooked to a late death under dull bread crumbs, laid over “gigante beans” that could have been limas. Chopped antipasto salad was not dreadful, but the freebie antipasto plate was an absolutely un-Italian mess, from the charred cauliflower to the Greek-tasting marinated carrots. The white wine in a stem glass was warm, the red came in a tumbler. As a parting insult, the menu actually names the “culinary team.” For once I wished the dishwasher really was doing the cooking. [Mid- to late December 2004]
The reliably good: Chimichurri Grill, where four of us were lucky to get a table at 5 o’clock, where the tight quarters at least made it easy to talk and where the food and wine were right on the edge of being perfect. The herbed oil with the good bread was seriously herbed; the churrasco steak was done right as always; the fries were exceptional and the sauces good and pungent. Unfortunately, the viognier smelled corked but not enough to argue with the English-mangling waiter, and both grilled squid and my wild mushroom ravioli were stone cold. 606 Ninth Avenue at 43d Street, 212 586 8655.
The pretty good: Caviar & Banana Brasserio, where the hostesses were more than accommodating about getting us to a table out of the air-conditioned nightmare near the Chodorow party and where some of the food almost came up to CT levels. The “big ravioli” certainly did: one round filled with airy taro and topped with mushroom foam that actually had flavor and substance. A moqueca (Brazilian coconut stew, they mean) was slightly bland but every element was, amazingly, cooked perfectly: chicken, lobster, monkfish and vegetables. The salgadinhos (tapas to you) were best when weirdest (hearts of palm with black raisins); the normal ones (Serrano ham, Portuguese cheese) were just dainty. As a substitute for bread, though, fried plantains are too-sweet nonsense. We went on opening night, when the place was about a third full and relatively pleasant. Too bad it will undoubtedly become a scene. The menu is huge and would need many visits to really appreciate. 12 East 22d Street, 212 353 0500.
The not bad: Bistro du Nord, where the waiters are earnest, the wines are decent and the food is lively and copious despite the location in a culinary wasteland. We wandered in in the rain after a memorial and the staff actually seemed happy to see us, so happy that two waiters each came by to recite the specials. Both sold us on squid with fennel and tomatoes on arugula, which was excellent. My skate was a little flabby and short on capers, but it was lying on a huge heap of haricots verts; chicken with ratatouille was long on lavender but nicely done. Everything came at prices only hawk evictors could stomach happily, though. 1312 Madison Avenue at 93d Street, 212 289 0997.
The port in a storm: Chango, about the only place with a table free after a party on another rainy night, where the din was not quite deafening, the service was super-snappy and the food was better than it had any right to be, on that street and at those prices ($12 for tuna tacos). Guacamole was just bitter green paste, but both salsas were excellent. A wild mushroom quesadilla was done right, although tortilla soup was a little too much like masa gruel. Wines, unfortunately, were what they always seem to be in Mexican restaurants: poor relations of straight tequila. 239 Park Avenue South, 212 477 1500.
The disorienting: Carne, where a new chef with boldface on his resume has improved a couple of dishes and ruined a couple. I ordered Caesar salad with salmon expecting the usual big bowl of well-dressed Romaine in bite-size pieces with chunks of grilled fish interspersed. What I got was one of those pretentious still lifes of whole Romaine leaves in between two little squares of seriously undercooked salmon. (Wild salmon, at least.) A pork chop was seriously overcooked, although the Brussels sprouts on the side were quite good. Grouper with morel sauce evoked Payard, though, and the bistro salad was a smaller but nicer mix of duck confit and foie gras. On the consistency side of the ledger, the French fries were still decent and the wine list still felt like a gouge. 2737 Broadway at 105th Street, 212 663 7010. [Early to mid-December 2004]
The good and strange: Cafe Gray’s bar, where the servers are as frenetic as the food is eclectic. Pizza was like Sloppy Joe nachos: little wedges of crunchy dough topped with beef and lamb etc. seasoned to taste like none of the above. I did better with what could have been French tramezzini, three little triangles of white bread encasing excellent foie gras, served with a spoonful each of (unnecessary) salt and pepper and (essential) kumquat preserve. We would have ordered more, but none of the little plates seemed to go with any others any better than mystery meat did with fancy liver. And reading the menu for the “real” restaurant did nothing to entice us back. Visually and verbally, it’s a mess. 10 Columbus Circle (a k a The Mall), third floor, 212 823 6398.
The not half-bad: Lisca, where the wines by the glass are outstanding and well-priced, where the service is super-snappy from a tiny staff and where the one good dish out of four was funghi fritti with rosemary. Tagliolini with shrimp and radicchio can only be described as a rip at $16 — the shrimp were rubber pinwheels and the pasta was soaked in just what the menu promised: pink sauce. Eggplant fritters came on excellent greens but tasted like diner crabcakes made from vegetables, and “insalata nonno” translated as ingredients not talking to each other (artichokes, celery, dry Parmesan). I’d go back only to sit at the tiny bar and have the sauvignon blanc again, and maybe the mushrooms. 660 Amsterdam Avenue near 92d, 212 799 3987. [Early December 2004]
The good: Sumile, where the chef’s wild reach consistently matches his grasp, where the room is so civilized you can hear across the table and where the small-plates concept actually works, even for sharing. On this second visit the place was busier and the staff far more distracted, but the food pretty much lived up to my expectations. The weakest link was sliced Montauk tuna that was a little past its prime but redeemed by burnt onion and miso accents. A second order of the cod on “sea-scented spinach” was not as perfectly cooked as the first, and either was the black bass, although the scallion “fondue” and uni foam were exceptional. None of us could find fault with eel on boiled daikon, miso-cured brook trout or especially the green salad, well worth its $3 supplement, and the desserts were more than creative: they tasted like dessert, even the black sesame “dice.” This is the kind of place where I’ll even try fried duck tongues (like chewy cracklings). Wines turned out to be better by the glass the first time than by the bottle this time. A Yarden gewurtztraminer our Italian restaurateur friends insisted on ordering was either past its prime or fading fast, and even the Grove Mill sauvignon blanc from New Zealand was a letdown. 154 West 13th Street, 212 989 7699.
The beyond hospitable: Ouest for lunch, where the hostess was clueless but the manager saved the day, where we had the whole dining room to ourselves and where the salads are dainty but done right. Steps are still the Alps to me, and it looked as if we were doomed to yet another meal essentially side by side at our kitchen counter when the hostess insisted the bar was the only seating that did not involve a terrifying trek up to the second-level dining room. Her boss came through by first offering me his shoulder to support me down the few steps into the lower room, then by suggesting we come around through the emergency exit. That’s above and beyond. The menu is clearly designed for those little ladies from across town, but my crispy eggs on smoked duck were excellent, and my consort was happy enough with a Lilliputian Cobb salad with top-grade components. Those full booths up near the bar looked awfully appealing, but the sunlit room turned out to be the better seating. 2315 Broadway at 84th Street, 212 580 8700.
The accessible: Roth’s Steakhouse, where the dining room evokes “The Shining” at Saturday brunch, where the music and decor seem like a country club way off in the country but where you can get a decent lunch and adequate glass of wine without a cab ride if you start off where I do. The crabcake was not bad, although the sauce was really just mayonnaise, and my friend’s steak salad, with potatoes, blue cheese, green beans and more, was nothing if not big. And the waitress was surprisingly lively for such a deserted space, although I think I recognized Scatman Crothers busing the two other tables occupied. 680 Columbus Avenue at 92d Street, 212 280 4103. [Late November 2004]
The good again: Nice Matin, where the crabmeat salad was excellent as always, where the attentive waiter exuded faux concern and where I was lucky to get a table looking out rather than in at the garish decor. 201 West 79th Street, 212 873 6423.
The even better on the second try: Cafe Luxembourg, where the scene was more downtown than sleepy suburb on a Friday night, where the service was outstanding and where someone must have hidden the vinegar bottle from the chef. The lobster roll was not quite Pearl-quality but more to my taste, with big chunks of lobster and less mayonnaise than the classic, and the fries and coleslaw with it were quite good. Our waitress was amazingly patient with a tableful of women squandering $80 Burgundy on fried artichokes and grilled chicken. 200 West 70th Street, 212 873 7411.
The underwhelming: Kitchen 82, where the service would do a diner proud and where the flawed premise gets more obvious with every visit. You can’t do three courses for $25 in this town, not even if the foie gras is spread on the brioche with the daintiest butterknife. Or maybe you just shouldn’t. My first two courses were fine (sauteed pollack with Palmer-worthy flourishes; salad from a grocery list), but four of us felt let down by the desserts. No one should ever have to wonder if the carrot cake was not done in layers just to save pennies on the frosting it needed.