oldest trails

The reassuringly good: Cafe Luxembourg, where a class act has been burnished over 20-some years and where you feel as if you’re in Paris and not mere steps from Trump’s Travestyville. No matter that some of the food is finesse-free (the miso beurre blanc with the excellent roast duck crepe was a blast from the 1980s; the vinegar in the sauce with the soggy skate tasted straight from the bottle). The salads are fine, the wines by the glass are poured generously and priced intelligently and the scene is such a New York scene. We ran into neighbors from two ZIP codes north; our waiter was foisting his CD off on friends at the next table; the pre-theater energy was more charged than it ever is in the theater district. Huge points go to the front desk. If any restaurant on the Upper West Side had reason to be snooty, this is the one. And this is not the one. 200 West 70th Street, 212 873 7411


The reliably good: @sqc, where the best dish was one we didn’t order and where the half-price wine on Monday nights should be a much bigger draw. We always get treated like Zagats there, but anyone would do well with the sugarcane shrimp with spicy sauce we were comped or the roast chicken with “haystack” fries, which was exceptional. My duck was the same as it always is, as was the hot chocolate dessert forced upon us. The summer rolls with avocado were a little soggy, but that New Zealand chardonnay for only $17 went a long way toward atoning. 270 Columbus Avenue near 72d, 212 579 0100.


The good and quick: Saigon Grill, where one table near us turned three times while we faced down huge portions of bun xao and beef with basil for $4.95 apiece at lunch. For once I could understand why Spice hasn’t opened an Upper West Side branch. 620 Amsterdam Avenue at 90th, 212 875 9072.


The good but painfully slow: Rocking Horse Cafe at brunch, where the kitchen must have been sleeping it off on a Saturday midday and where the chips and salsa kept coming to compensate. Once it finally arrived, the food was excellent (carnitas on ancho tortillas with guacamole and pickled onions) to spectacular (chile relleno with wild mushrooms and queso fresco). Black beans with both were soupy and strange, though. 182 Eighth Avenue near 19th, 212 463 9511. [Late October/early November 2004]



The good: Zona Rosa at lunch, where the chorizo sandwich was as good as the first time but where the $20 promotion was even better — excellent ceviche in an extremely vibrant marinade, salmon with calamari rings over inky rice, boozy flan. Service was superb, the kind where a manager is not too important to step in to keep tables turning, and my $8 sauvignon blanc was not just a big pour but one well-chosen for chile harmony. 40 West 56th Street, 212 247 2800.


The pitiful: Serafina Broadway, where we ducked in because it was the closest new place to a screening and where we were penalized by an overwhelmed waitress and a kitchen one step above Domino’s. The sodden pizza, the reason for being, appeared to be made from Kleenex, for $14.75. A tricolore salad was greens with all the bite bred out of them plus slices of pears and Parmesan that were indistinguishable. And the hose wine in $9 pours would have been palatable if the glasses had not been the kind you can pick up for parties at one of those 99-cent stores. Figures that the place was packed.


The disheartening: Oppenheimer’s short ribs ordered over the phone for delivery. Meat cut there while I’ve watched has always been perfect for the two of us. But when I needed great meaty ribs for company, about a third were all connective tissue and bone and fat. I debated calling to complain, then decided it was just like so many things anymore — the nasty nurse with the Jesus-the-Christ hour playing scratchily on her radio while she’s drawing blood, the I-know-it’s-going-to-be-awful restaurant that’s too difficult to leave without two good legs — and just shut up and suffered until I could type. [Mid-October 2004]



The good: Nice Matin, where it turns out the crowd from God’s waiting room has at least made the staff hypersensitive to the crutch-dependent and where some of the food is more adventurous than the clientele would indicate. A special of anchovy beignets seemed heavy on dough, light on fishiness, but my sea bass with stewed artichokes and potato puree was exceptional and the grilled leg of lamb with chickpeas tasted of anything but steam table cooking. A bitter green salad was surprisingly well balanced, too. As always, wines by the glass were half the pleasure (and not just because our Argentinean cab driver, a Nice Matin name-dropper, had spent the whole ride extolling Yellowtail). Without dessert but with four glasses, the bill was only $95 before tip. 201 W. 79th Street, 212 873 6423.


The nice: Union Square Cafe, where we walked in on a whim after hearing Nina Zagat drone on about it on the radio and where we got a decent table in the back right away and, eventually, a couple of serviceable entrees. It was noon and it was a weekday, but it still says something about the low octane of the gas the 800-pound gorillas are emitting these days that we got in at all. The legendary tuna burger was pleasant enough, and my steak sandwich was an upscale version of something from a Little Italy street festival (open face is so much more sophisticated, even with some variant on Steak-Ums for the meat). But the special appetizer of crispy quail was truly sensational: the whole bird was chicken-fried to perfection and teamed with an excellent salad of roasted parsnips, rutabaga and squash with watercress; the pomegranate “vinaigrette,” which was more like sauce, was superfluous. We hadn’t eaten there in at least 10 years, and this time we got the full Meyer: the service was almost too solicitous. And the little card poor Michael Romano has to stick into the doggie bag is overkill. I don’t need a chef to reassure me it’s okay to take home food I’ve paid for. 21 East 16th Street, 212 243 4020.

The salvation: D’Artagnan’s duck confit, the supper of invalids. We bought them for my in-law equivalents for an easy meal while my consort’s dad was laid up, and now we too are living on them since fresh fish from Fairway and Citarella, not to mention Blue Moon, is a distant dream on too many nights. This is the one prepared food I would almost serve to company — you just heat and eat. Add some fresh arugula and leftover potatoes, and you could half-imagine yourself walking out of your apartment. (Zabar’s has the best price.)

The seriously good: Neptune Room, where my second restaurant venture was nearly thwarted by my meltdown on a close encounter of the steps kind but was saved by a booth, by twitchy but total-pro service and by food that was as well-conceived as it was executed. A special of grilled calamari with arugula and brioche croutons tasted surprisingly balanced, skate was a crusty alternative to the usual caper-lemon cliche and my monkfish wrapped in prosciutto was a restaurant rarity: fresh fish cleaned right and cooked even better. Wines by the mini-carafe were also exceptional, particularly a Spanish red. The place should be thronged, but I was happy to see it half-empty on a Monday night if I had to embarrass myself. 511 Amsterdam Avenue near 85th Street, 212 496 7000. [Early October 2004]


The good: Aquagrill in Soho, where the menu is such a respite from the egg monotony of Saturday brunch all over town, where the service is beyond attentive and where the weekend cook has it all over on the large specimen who usually lumbers out of the kitchen to induce second thoughts in anyone contemplating dessert. We wound up there after deciding Odeon, new chef or no new chef, had too dull a menu and after finding Kittichai locked tight in daylight. A salmon BLT was just as smartly conceived and assembled as a special of a grilled scallop sandwich with corn salad and basil mayonnaise, both with just enough fine french fries. Only the bread basket was an oversweetened reminder that weekends are for amateur eaters. 210 Spring Street at Sixth Avenue, 212 274 0505.


The good: Savoy, where I succumbed to my first cheeseburger since India after falling off the meat wagon at a mention of the house-made ketchup in the Malcolm Gladwell story in the New Yorker. Given Peter Hoffman’s messianic attitude toward clean food, I figured the beef had to be safe to eat, and as good as the story promised. And this proved to be a perfectly respectable burger, complete with a slice of seriously heirloom tomato, but it was overshadowed by everything else on the plate. The fries were exceptional, smoky with pimenton that made the famed ketchup beside the point (Heinz, by the way, has nothing to worry about). And the arrray of pickled vegetables laid out where the usual nasty sour thing lurks were great. I should have followed my instinct on reading the imaginative menu and ordered real food. 70 Prince Street, 212 219 8570.


The sad: Isabella’s, where I had to go have my second cheeseburger since India because I was still craving that dripping grossness you only get from not-great beef. Usually this is the best burger to be had for miles, but the grill guy was having his first off day: not only was the meat thoroughly well done (read dead dry) rather than medium rare but it had a funky aspect I didn’t want to dwell on. A Bono sighting and too-eager service could not compensate for the letdown.


The appalling: Quartino Bottega Organica, where the focaccia al formaggio was a travesty and the pasta was even worse. The tough and undercheesed “house specialty” was a universe away from the extraordinary oozing focaccia I can still taste from around Genoa, and the “taglierini” “del Quartino” was a small mess of poorly cooked noodles globbed with a fruit that was avocado in color only and with criminally pallid tomatoes (come on, it’s the season). Repeated shakes of salt, pepper and cheese just disappeared into the nothingness. Each of those abominations was $12 at lunch (sublime pasta at Bianca a couple of doors down starts at $9 at dinner). We left wondering if the cooks were Albanian rather than Italian, then, as a weird queasy/bloated feeling set in, deciding that was an insult to Albanians. (Maybe I should just learn to be wary of menus with mission statements. This one made a big deal of the olive oil that is “added raw.” Is raw even more virgin than extra? Someone tell the Bush skanks.) [Earlyish to mid-September]



The good, again: Bianca, where the service was both friendly and attentive, the wine list covered all prices and the food bordered on stellar. Ravioli with sage butter was nicely balanced and the gnocchi with gorgonzola as airy as on first taste, but an appetizer of grilled squid and shrimp stuffed with a pesto-type breading was smoky and spectacular. My monkfish in tomato-olive-caper sauce with potatoes was a little fibrous (that nasty purple membrane will trip up a chef every time), but the flavors were great. Even the peppery olive oil served with the good bread was well, well above average. The air conditioning, unfortunately, was no match for the night, and the bathroom was hot enough to roast a suckling pig in. 5 Bleecker Street, 212 228 7551.


The not bad for starters: Alouette and the Neptune Room, where the former turns out excellent foie gras made in house and where the latter offers a great combination of scallops in the shell with spinach and cheese, sort of scallops Rockefeller. I ate appetizers at the bar both places, once alone, and had total-pro service twice. Alouette gets points for $5.50 white Burgundy; Neptune loses them for doughy focaccia. The Parmesan crisp over escargots floating in broth had gone soggy at Alouette, though, and Neptune could have left those scallops under the heat just a scosh longer to make them perfect. 2588 Broadway near 97th Street, 212 222 6808; 511 Amsterdam Avenue near 85th Street, 212 496 7000.


The happy anniversary: La Palapa Rockola, where I wandered in with a craving for spicy grease and was rewarded with a perfect quesadilla, packed with oozy cheese and chorizo, one that barely needed the great pico de gallo and decent green salsa I loaded on it, for all of $4.95. Turns out one of the owners was there and elated to have made it through her first year as of that day. Her attitude and the snappy service made it easy to see why. (Not sure I would ever set foot in the place at night, though.) 359 Sixth Avenue near West Fourth, 212 243 6870.


The always reliable: Spice, the one on Eighth Avenue, where $17 buys a two-course lunch for two with tax and tip (best this time: steamed vegetable dumplings and pad thai), and El Paso Taqueria, where the kitchen seems to be getting up to speed at last but the food quality is not suffering, and where the service is still exceptional for a place at that level. [Late August/early September]




The sad: Brasserie LCB, where a survivor of a chef had a dream of a reinvention and has just gone and blown it. The idea of transforming dull, stuffy, moribund La Cote Basque into a bright and lively brasserie could have revived French tradition in a town too easily swayed by faux Italian. But rather than borrow a few pages from the Balthazar playbook, the one filched from France, Jean-Jacques Rachou has apparently listened to his accountants and his Dorian Gray clientele and dodged a success big time. The menu looks like the first French one I ever saw, at Le Quercy in 1979: tiny italic type over too many pages with too many choices, all priced as if we were eating in Paris with our U.S. pesos. The room is nicer on one level, since it’s divided by dark-wood half-walls, but more craven on another: the wonderful little bar where Charlie the unionized bartender held court the last time I was there, right after 9/11 for a story, has been expanded to two-thirds of the front room and taken over by a guy with more of a chip than a personality. As for the food, the menu is larded with time-warp tantalizations but delivers only the adjective. My quenelles were like Martian droppings, texturewise, or French gefilte fish, although the sauce was nice enough. Onion soup was watery, and when we asked to split a souffle we each got a ramekin barely inflated with what could have been brownie batter made with cocoa powder. I deliberately ordered what read like one of the more new-wave entrees on the menu and was rewarded with a big slab of dry halibut with a couple of weird walnuts and some wild mushrooms. Someone else was paying or I would have felt more gouged than depressed ($15 for a glass of Piper Heidseick, $32 for lamb).


What made the whole long evening so much more dispiriting was remembering meeting J-JR in Paris by accident when we were eating at some new-wave restaurant and a guy in jeans at the next table offered to share the last of his bottle of red wine as we were digging into our cheese. He was in town to scout out the cutting-edge to try to liven up his empire, all those years ago. And now it’s come to this, just when francophiles are desperate for quenelles. He’s got the right crowd — tourists kept meandering in in their cargo pants and polo shirts — but he needs a lighter touch to come close even to Rue 57 up the block.


The bizarre: Le Quinze on the Soho-Village border, where the service and setting are as pleasant as at the sister restaurant Tournesol in Queens but where the food seems to come from a kitchen manned by a cross between Roxanne Klein and Claudia Fleming. A classic frisee salad benefited from still-warm lardons but suffered from an overpoached egg that refused to ooze into a dressing, and that was the best thing to land on the table. My appetizer order of eggplant cannelloni was two virtually raw strips of eggplant rolled with cheese and set over a stomach-churning mass of pickly red vegetable matter. My consort’s entree of monkfish kebabs on Israeli couscous was mostly the latter, with a surfeit of jarring pineapple to keep the two from communing. Corked rose was the last indignity (although the waiter handled it well).


The third-time’s-the-jinx: Crispo, where we dragged frugal friends after a miserable movie (“Outfoxed,” which would kill Leni with its clumsiness if she weren’t already dead) and where our reward was wandering-in-the-wilderness “service” and sub-par food (overcooked-to-falling-apart wild mushroom agnolotti, under-imagined striped bass). Forget shrinks: do all chefs take August off? Prices were a bit unnerving, too: I never realized Crispo was one of those thoroughly American Italian places that discourage pasta-eating by charging as much for lamb as carbonara. Wine prices are in euros, too. [Mid- to late August 2004]



The decent: ’Cesca, where the fresh pickles actually outperformed the mushroom panini but where the room was the perfect hideaway for a gossipy lunch. Without the hordes, the place actually looks rather clubby, less like tables set up in a prewar co-op lobby. But without the hordes, you have busboys with not enough to do and waitresses who get distracted; between the two, you’re either harassed with plate-clearing requests or waving for another glass of wine. The asparagus frittata was a little leaden, but, like the panini, it was huge, and the cooks toss frisee around as if it were iceberg. As one last reminder that the kitchen absolutely, positively closes at 2 for lunch, the place fills up with smoke from pregrilling chicken breasts to drive out the last lingerers. 164 West 75th Street, 212 787 6300.


The not bad: Rocking Horse Cafe, where $12.95 at brunch buys a huge and meaty burrito plus a glass of just-above-shiver wine. Waiters work hard, too. The rice and beans were forgettable, and the salsa was one-note heat, but the hanger steak in the burrito was outstanding, especially with eggs, avocado and cheese as foils. 182 Eighth Avenue, 212 463 9511.


The worth-another-try: Bettola, where the room and food could qualify as an upscale Celeste without the abuse and where the pizzas might actually be superior. We were in a wine-soaked mob of eight, so it’s not fair to judge the food or service, but I have to say the grilled calamari on one salad was tender and charred and the pizza bianca was crisp overkill with both wild mushrooms and white truffle oil. The cassata, unfortunately, was like mutated tiramisu. Prices qualify as bargain unless you start drinking (then it’s $60 a head despite two teetotalers at the table). A trip to the bathroom brought back unsettling memories of the old days when the place was Sarabeth’s Kitchen. Suffice it to say there’s not a trace of the former identity beyond the steps up to the facilities. 412 Amsterdam Avenue near 79th Street, 212 787 1660.


The style-over-substance: Diner 24, where the waiters are all legends in their own mirrors and where the tables are all bad and where the menu goes for twists rather than taste. In honor of the TLC, I succumbed to the duck meatloaf sandwich, which was really more a duck cake and did not seem to have much dark bird flavor even when dunked into the GravyMasteresque “jus” served with it and the average fries. To top it all off, the bloody Mary was one you would send back even in an airport bar.


The what-the-Cheney-was-I-thinking?: Senor Swanky’s, the new one on Columbus Avenue, where the food is so unspeakably bad it makes Chevy’s look like Zarela. This place almost made me want to get help for Mexican dependency — I couldn’t resist trying it once, and the penalty for risking “enchiladas suizas” was a big plate of cheap cheese and two thin tortillas under a slick of moss-green posing as salsa verde, with bland beans on one side and blander rice on the other. The chips were colors never seen in nature, more Chernobyl red and Three Mile Island green. I should have gone home and ordered in from Noche Mexicana, where they know lettuce and tomatoes are necessary for digestion of six pounds of cheese (or at least know vegetables exist). The place is the worst kind of margarita mill, set up to extract dollars from drinkers but with no white wine except box chardonnay. Even a space where the Lattes infamously met did not deserve to meet this ignominious end. [Mid-August 2004]



The good: Jean Luc, where the service and kitchen are equally sluggish but where the food turns out to be anything but Upper West Side standard in the sidewalk cafe. Caesar salad with fried calamari was satisfying, as was the green salad with goat cheese, and my crab cake was fat and fine despite the BBs posing as black beans underneath it. Halibut topped with more of that crab cake was not just huge but cooked and sauced right. 507 Columbus Avenue near 85th Street, 212 712 1700.


The better: Chimichurri Grill in Hell’s Kitchen, where lunch was about as close to perfect as a meal can get that close to Broadway theaters. Polenta was fried crisp with just enough of a glaze of Cabrales melted over it; the churrasco steak was super-thin but super-flavorful, even before the hot sauce went on; sauteed portobellos were almost as meaty. Bread comes with a great eggplant spread, and Argentine wine is well priced. To top it all off, one waiter had the skill of 10 in the subtly elegant room. The only drawback is the crowd, most apparently taking a break from the Cafe Regret just down the block at the NYT. 606 Ninth Avenue, 212 586 8655.


The great: Sumile in the Village, where we walked in after a Champagne party and in the middle of a monsoon to the nicest greeting, the most understated but stunning room and the most amazing food. Asianesque fusion generally leaves me feeling unrepentingly Western, but the party’s hostess was right: this is world-class cooking you could eat every night (if you could afford it). Dungeness crab with “Caspian thorn caviar” and green yuzu gelee was sheer decadence, while the “burnt” octopus with marinated watermelon and shiso was weirdly wonderful even to this octopus avoider (I hate to eat a near-relative). Hiramassa (yellowtail to us) was also sensational with pickled melon and nori salt. But the capper was the poached duck breast in foie gras and sake foam: texturally and tastewise it was my favorite meat transformed into something even better. Wines by the glass were not just fairly priced ($8 to $12) but surprisingly well matched with such envelope-pushing flavors. Everything is tasting size, for $14 minimum, but just big enough. The $35 early bird special is calling me next. 154 West 13th Street, 212 989 7699.


Bonus: The why-can’t-other-restaurants-get-it-consistently-right? Pearl Oyster Bar (although the renowned lobster club is really no match for the fried fish sandwich) and Les Halles (that duck, those fries). [Late July to early August 2004]



The dazzlingly good: Nice Matin, where both the food and the service seem to be benefiting from seasonal white flight. I was able to walk right in and put my lunch in the hands of one of the best waitresses working anywhere in Manhattan (my dropped fork had barely hit the floor when she was there with a replacement; she was smart about the wines, stayed supremely attentive at her busiest and even presented the check holder open when she saw I had my card ready — I think she might be that rarity, a server who has been served). Even better, the crab salad was all top-grade lump crab that would have tasted fresh even without the remoulade, with diced avocado and tiny asparagus spears for contrast. I should have tipped Simone a lot more, because I didn’t even mind the under-air conditioning and bad table in a room that looks like a Greek diner by way of Lord & Taylor. 201 West 79th Street, 212 873 6423.


The stunningly bad: The Carriage House in Chelsea, where I have walked past myriad times between the Greenmarket and the C train and finally succumbed to the bait of the imaginative-sounding menu posted three ways outside at lunchtime. I ignored the seriously grimy upholstery and peeling mural, figuring the place really is just a glorified bar that has clearly suffered heavy use. Things simply sounded enticing on that menu, tattered though it was. First bad sign was the “fondue” fries, limp logs with a watery ramekin of what I can only describe as Kraft Parmesan vinaigrette. But even they could not compete with the “bacalao crab cakes with black bean sauce, sprout salad and piquillo pepper coulis:” Three pucks about the size of poker chips with not a hint of salt cod flavor or much evidence of crab meat, laid over a sludge of refried black beans topped with a few bits of diced pink pepper. And a mound of watercress. It was if Rumsfeld had written the menu — the gap between reality and description was huge enough to drive a WMD through. (The waiter was excellent, though, with only my table to tend.) [Late July 2004]



The reliably good: El Paso Taqueria, where even the nachos with chorizo are always cooked with perceptible care and the service is smart and warm but where the biggest attraction is the motley crowd. I bypassed five other restaurants in the Nineties on Madison Avenue because I could not face lunch with those bloodless old rich types who like their food as bland as their conversation. 64 East 97th Street, 212 996 1739.

The surprisingly not bad: Cafe Spice in Greenwich Village, where the vegetable thali at lunch is a seriously spiced bargain at $7.95 and where the room is designed with such warm colors and accents it makes even the NYU self-mutilators look half-normal. The cabbage and vegetable curries started to taste mostly of heat after a few mouthfuls, but the plate was true Indian in its variety of dishes (eight altogether). And for once in New York, there was even enough bread to use as a fork. 72 University Place, 212 253 6999.

The last refuge for lunch: Redeye Grill, where an editor friend and I retreat too often after ruling out other places near her job where either of us has retained a bad taste (this time it was Seppi’s and Rue 57). It’s really an expense-account diner, but you can’t go wrong with the Peking duck quesadilla or the negamaki steak roll from that bizarre sushi bar where the Asian chefs wear straw boaters. The pinot grigio by the glass, though, might as well have been water waiting for a miracle. 890 Seventh Avenue near 56th Street, 212 541 9000. [Mid-July 2004]



The good: Bianca in Noho, where the pastas are worth twice the price, where the fruity vermentino went perfectly with all the food and where the service was far above average. Gnocchi with gorgonzola were among the best I’ve had in this country, and the shaved artichoke salad with Parmesan was enough for four. The only flaw with the gramigna with salsiccia was that it was American style: too much salsiccia. At $9.50, that’s not much of a complaint. We wandered in when the place was half-empty, which accentuated the faux nonna decor. I’m not sure how it would feel full. Cash only. 5 Bleecker Street off the Bowery, 212 260 4666.

The not bad: Tournesol, where the cooking was less than brilliant but where the experience was well worth the ride to Queens. Watching the very French hostess deftly deal with reservations and walk-ins in the tiny space while juggling tables as well was quite a show — one that would be a sellout in Manhattan. Bread, olives and butter were all promising, as was the vibrant room. Skate (with pineapple and cabbage) was a skimpy fillet, which was fine since it was so overfried. So was the goat cheese over a little haricot vert and corn salad. Cold pea soup was on the thin side but redeemed by chunks of melon. My duck special was easily the best dish, with a juicy breast arrayed around and over salsify, portobellos, spinach, broccoli and porcini sauce — it was enough for dinner and then two quesadillas next day. 50-12 Vernon Blvd., Long Island City, 718 472 4355.

The DNR: Craftbar, where austerity has given way to joylessness, where the service lurches from neglectful to hovering and where the menu has gone winter-heavy but the formerly irresistible pressed sandwiches have been cut to two (one with potatoes in the filling, the other mostly bread). Even the breadsticks seemed to have given up the ghost. Maybe it was the welcome we didn’t get — the host looked about as happy to see us as Chodorow would Rocco — but this was one dispiriting Saturday lunch (for $88: one green salad, two sandwiches, one prosecco, three glasses of wine). At least the wine list still delivers. And the bathrooms are still exemplary. [Early to mid-July 2004]



The good: Gavroche, where the fairly priced new wine list ($30 for Montagny premier cru from Bouchard) would be reason enough to go back but where the food is that rarity in a Manhattan garden: actually better than the ambience. I’m generally off salmon, but the lentils and the horseradish sauce and the smoking to order all sounded appealing, and I think I won the entree contest. Skate and duck were also excellent, while the two appetizers I got forkfuls of — goat cheese tatin and tomato tart — were heavy but satisfying. (This is no place for anyone with a fear of gout.) Prices look low, but somehow dinner for four still added up to $220, with one shared dessert. 212 West 14th Street, 212 647 8553.


The sorta good: Noche, where the penthouse at lunch is dramatic and the service is tag-team snappy and the Latino wines by the glass are not just decent but cheap but where the food veers between creative and turgid. A napoleonesque stack of tostadas with smoked salmon and lively mango salsa was spectacular, but the Cubano made with fresh and smoked turkey was a lame idea in worse bread (the frites tasted frozen, too). At least the place is transporting enough to make re-emerging into Times Square a shock. 1604 Broadway near 49th Street, 212 541 7070.


The bargain: Market Cafe, where you might have to step over a babbling bum to get inside on a particularly creepy stretch of Hell’s Kitchen but where the payoff is food and wine far better than they have any right to be at these prices. Steak frites, a good one, was all of $12, including a splash of pesto alongside the tender meat and spicing on the excellent fries. My Caesar salad was fine, and our friend’s $12 special sole didn’t seem to cause any complaints. Giesen riesling from New Zealand cost $18, and it sells for at least $10 in the liquor store. Throw in professional service and an atmospheric room and this adds up to probably the most overlooked, underrated bistro in town. 496 Ninth Avenue near 38th Street, 212 967 389 [Late June 2004]



The not bad: Miracle Grill in the West Village, where the waiter and busboy were more than attentive with only one other table to tend to at lunch and where the tacos were surprisingly decent (and huge) for $8.95. The filling didn’t have that geriatric funk that afflicts so much duck in New York, and the fattiness was offset by the good arugula and a more-chile-than-heat salsa on the side. Yucca fries were okay, but the green apple slaw I was expecting to hate was actually worth a second taste, with just enough cilantro and chile to subjugate the world’s nastiest fruit. 415 Bleecker Street off Hudson, 212 924 1900.


The pretty bad: Zeytin on Columbus Avenue, where the space that failed at French and then Italian is now flunking Turkish. The room is just as alluring as it’s been in every incarnation dating back to Delfina, and if the servers did go AWOL they at least weren’t klutzy enough to knock over all the glasses. But the food. And the wine. I was mortified to have suggested the place, and the cooks should feel even worse (there cannot be a chef on the premises). My trout was many days from its farm, and carelessly cooked to boot. The special lamb was described as kebabs but arrived as mystery mince. And the mezze were dry to queasy-making (I regretted the weirdly greasy tarama in particular). The quail looked to be babies, but the friend who ordered them thought they were tiny enough to be stem cells. Judging by my entree, I suspect they were still too big.


The execrable: Extra Virgin in the West Village, where everything was so awful my normally hyper-generous consort said: “You’re paying for this one. You picked it.” The decor is cheesy, in that Upper East Side condo lobby way. The service is abysmal — I counted six people on the floor and nine seats occupied and we still had to wave wildly across the room to the bartender for the check (his facial response can best be described as, “You talkin’ to me?”) Waitresses’ uniforms are apparently kids’ polo shirts pulled down to be dresses, and they apparently cut off circulation to the brain, because ours could not describe the baked egg dish either before or after she went to the kitchen to ask. Then she forgot the chicken on Bob’s bizarre Caesar. We should have bailed as soon as I noticed the couple at the next table poking at their burgers, and not with excitement. But instead I ordered the “smoked salmon potato tart” and got two layers of days-old puff pastry sandwiching a thin slice of salmon, five dainty slices of potato, a poached but unheralded egg, a mess of salad and enough greasy onions to fill 40 real tarts. The chicken arrived poached but with grill marks. I left feeling the same way. I almost never finish my food in a restaurant, but this was the first time I can ever remember walking out hungry. And it gets worse: the penalty was almost $40 with no ameliorating alcohol. No wonder every other restaurant for blocks had lines out the door. [Late June 2004]



The half-good: Neptune Room, where the salads, service and wine list held up on a second visit but where we have yet to risk a main course, partly because of the uniformly grim feedback on them. We were just happy to get seats at the communal table on a Friday night even though it meant suffering guys in baseball caps advising each other to “fuck ’em till they produce you, then you dump ’em.’’ And if the octopus from the bait bar was not as charred as it could have been, both the arugula and the five-green salads were ample and well dressed, and the people at the door and in the white coats seem genuinely happy to serve. Somewhere in there is a real restaurant trying to get out. 511 Amsterdam Avenue, 212 496 7000.


The thoroughly bad: Soho Cantina on a second try, where the duck “confit” quesadilla was ill-conceived (too big, too bland, too messy) and poorly presented (a plate would be so smart) and where the service was beyond abysmal again. But I feel as if I got away clean. At least I didn’t order the aromatic eggs that landed on the next table.


The promising: Ixta, where the tiny space is quite dramatic and the service is snappy and the wine list is well-matched to the cooking, but where the food is a few stops short of gutsy-great Mexican. Crab soup was spicy and well-crabbed but thin, while the lobster and black bean taquitos were more like big, unbaked enchiladas in search of flavor coherence. Portions are huge for the lunch price, though ($10.95 for the taquitos with a hefty watercress salad; $8 for a good glass of Marsanne). Maybe I just ordered badly. The food is much improved since the chef was at Jimmy’s Uptown in Harlem. 48 East 29th Street, 212 475 1183. [Late June 2004]



The repeatedly good: Pearl Oyster Bar, where, once again, the fried fish sandwich with shoestring fries was excellent but where the real special was the aural snippets. It was worth more than a glass of prosecco to overhear the sommelier from a “farmhouse” restaurant getting dish from a pal on the next stool who had issues with Batali (or was it Bastianich?) No one should eat here, though, without being willing to be beaten about the self-respect. Even when the joint is empty, rules are rules. Take a stool and be glad you got it. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.


The third-strike bad: Aix, where the hostess at the reception desk seems to have been hired from the DMV and the dishwasher seems to take over the stove after a certain hour. We went looking for good food close by at any price for my consort, who had just suffered a week in a fish-free town in Mississippi, so we settled for the sidewalk cafe with the inside menu. We shared a nice if bizarrely plated appetizer of raw tuna with cucumbers and yogurt, then waited for most of a bottle of wine for our main courses. Bob’s $31 snapper landed cold and weird, with winter vegetables, and my $29 rouget was something I could make at home with a few bread crumbs and a half-assed attitude, although even I would have cooked the zucchini tian (raw slices were tucked under the pestoish topping). The sommelier did a great job of describing wine to get to just the right blend of “straw” and “river stones” that Bob was craving. But the overall experience was like eating on Columbus Avenue and paying for 20th Street.


The barely justifiable: Vento, where the food wasn’t horrible and the waiter was only on the edge of sitting down and joining the conversation but where the embarrassment quotient is just too high. Eat there and everyone will only ask you why. I went with a friend who needed to be in the neighborhood and insisted I try some place I hadn’t been, and Vento was all that was left for lunch. And I have to admit I was curious about whether Steve Hanson would offer his inevitable burger (yes, among the panini). My oversized vegetable panino was at least diner-level, but my usually easy-to-please date actually described the experience best: “Kinda forgettable.” [Mid-June 2004]



The good: Gavroche on the Village-Chelsea border, where the gutsy cooking is almost as seductive as the secret garden out back. The chef shows off his multi-bistro resume with dishes like frog’s legs and sauteed skate, both with the kind of rich and intense Provencal sauce you don’t taste enough anymore. The service is also quite charming, and the prices are definitely not Parisian ($17.50 for onglet with frites). I’d go back just for the shareable cheese and meat plates. Unfortunately, the fromagey logo makes the place look more like a hope than a survivor. With luck, though, the BYO policy that keeps the tab low will hang around. 212 West 14th Street, 212 647 8553.

The promising: Neptune Room on the Upper West Side, where the space is a little depressing (designed to be nautical, it feels more like a ship’s hold) but the global wine list is adventurous (Salina bianco was fascinating for $29). The “bait bar” included grilled octopus and tuna carpaccio, very small plates done very well; even better was the creamy blue crab panna cotta with avocado and almonds on top. Service is also handled smoothly, although it’s a bit unsettling to see a bunch of Jonathan Waxmans bustling around (why dress portly waiters in chef coats?) They themselves are well-served by the glossary on the back of the menu, which definitively answers all questions from aioli to tortilla. 511 Amsterdam Avenue near 85th Street, 212 496 7000

The fussy: Mas in the Village, where the service was so hovery it made me wish for a bug zapper. No two dishes could be delivered by one guy; it took two, choreographed to the point of Pythonesque. Maybe it was too soon after a world-class meal in Copenhagen, but the food generally seemed just as overwrought, with a truly great vegetable terrine smothered with garnishes for starters. My duck was perfect, but the $34 overdressed softshell crabs were in that leathery state watermen call buckram. The Spanish wine we chose was slightly off, and our food arrived while a new bottle was being chilled (buy a bigger refrigerator). Aside from all that, everything was fine until I asked to take the three-quarters of a duck breast left on my plate home. I was warned that the kitchen had none of those plastic doggie bowls and of course volunteered to settle for foil. (Who knew the swan was an endangered species?) Only then did a lone waiter approach the table, to drop my packet off as if it was a loaded diaper. (Credit to the kitchen for Pamperizing it by lining it with a slab of bread to absorb the drippings.) 39 Downing Street near Bedford, 212 255 1790. [Early June 2004]



The good: Pearl Oyster Bar, where I finally got a seat at the counter, where the air didn’t reek of grease for a change and where the fried skate sandwich was absolute perfection: two fat fillets cooked crisp on the outside, juicy inside, dripping fresh tartar sauce with big chunks of cornichon between mixed greens, good tomato and excellent bread. Some of the best shoestring fries I’ve had in years rounded out the plate for $14. The house wine was a little on the $3.99-a-bottle, $6-a-glass side, but that’s a quibble when the eavesdropping is so good at uncrowded lunchtime. First I overheard a man in a suit muttering to his young companion, “That must be Pearl,” as he nodded toward the woman in the white coat behind the counter. Then I overheard someone on staff advising another cook to make a Caesar, “and VIP it.” The only disappointment was not seeing who got that, and how it got upgraded. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.


The bad: Josephs at the bar, where the bartenders are so distracted they can screw up orders with all of six customers to serve, where the nuts have gone soggy and where the food brought back a story from our six days on a halibut boat off Kodiak, Alaska. One of the fishermen, chattering away to ward off the boredom of baiting miles of hooks, threw out his plan for getting rich one day: “I’m going to go on one of those casino boats and punch out microwave sandwiches for drunks.” The kitchen at Josephs (ne Citarella the Restaurant) has the same idea: almost all the bar offerings are fried, and not well; compared with the regular menu, it was all sops for drunks. The square crab cakes were strange, the mushroom spring rolls were Geno’s-worthy and the whitebait was fatigued. Each was $10, or three for $25, and none was worth half that. I should have known better going into a restaurant that doesn’t know from apostrophes.


The frustrating: Soho Cantina, where five staff people were on the floor and only one was empowered to take orders and checks, where the kitchen was on manana time and where the food was just on the edge of satisfying. The place was newly opened, in the short-lived Elysee space, and overwhelmed, mostly because the management had hired the requisite Playmates in skimpy black but given them nothing to do (designated waiter insisted on even resetting tables as a roomful of patrons fumed). The corn sampler was like a triple echo (tostada topped with salsa, lettuce and crumbled cheese; sope topped with salsa, lettuce and crumbled cheese; huarache topped with salsa, lettuce and crumbled cheese) with a tamal on the side; the same food at El Paso Taqueria would be a fraction of this $15 penalty. But the Caesar salad was lively — two big hunks of Romaine awash in pungent dressing, sprinkled with more crumbled cheese and garnished with good tortilla chips. And the cava was a huge pour and the perfect alternative to the lousy wines every Mexican restaurant seems to offer. I might go again, but only for lunch on a Monday when I have three newsmagazines to help me wait out the kitchen and staff. 199 Prince Street near Sullivan, 212 598 0303. [Mid- to late May 2004]




The aggressively good: davidburke & donatella, where the cooking is as boisterous as the crowd, where the service is good-natured despite the obstacles of a packed house and where the energy is palpable. Every dish was not just over-the-top imaginative but artfully executed: super-rich short ribs on cavatelli on wild mushrooms under truffle butter; scallops “Benedict” with chorizo foam; gingersnap barbecued squab with foie gras corn torte. Crazy flavors talked; wacky flavors worked. I didn’t see too many original faces in the place (as it so often is on the East Side, it was like dining with the undead), but the experience was total New York. I wouldn’t recommend a table in the front rooms, though. It’s the 1980s all over again in there. (And maybe more so in the “smoking section” in the white stretch limo out front; the waiters say some users are not exactly inhaling.) 133 East 61st Street, 212 813 2121.


The borderline bad: JUdson Grill’s bar at lunchtime, where the service is uneven, where the crabcake in the sandwich is oddly gelatinous and where the onion rings are big, sloppy things that make you wonder who ever dreamed up such a klutzy idea as stringy vegetable in doughnut. Whatever the salsa/relish/salad was that came with them was even more unsatisfying. As is so often the case anymore, only the coleslaw, spicy and perfect with the pulled pork sandwich, was a winner. The bartender is from the old school, topping off wineglasses with abandon, but the barman with him is from kindergarten. When the older man next to me asked where his burger was, the kid just shrugged. Not his problem. [Closed July 2004]


The pretentiously average: Hearth, where the decor is poor man’s Craft (felt instead of leather on the walls), where the service is so overly solicitous you can’t talk and where the food is surprisingly flat. The best dish was gnocchi with sage butter, sent out by the chef. The worst was socca cannelloni with spinach and hen of the woods mushrooms — if there was chickpea flour anywhere in that assemblage, it was a whisper and not a statement. The one bite of raw tuna appetizer I tried was slippery-scary. And huge fava and pecorino salads ($13) were a slog after the first bite. We entertained ourselves critiquing the waiters’ getups (odd blue striped shirts — Paul Smith was my guess; my friend thought Old Navy — tucked into uniformly ill-fitting Levis) and trying to figure out why the room evoked the dormitory in “The Cider House Rules.” I kept hearing Michael Caine saying goodnight and was only to glad to say thanks and head to Schiller’s for a nightcap with nonandroids. 403 East 12th Street, 646 602 1300.


The “you don’t go there for the food”: Spice Market, where the blood orange mojito got raves from the rum drinker at the table but where none of us were much impressed with anything except the absence of Jean-Georges aesthetic in the cooking. Shaved tuna with chili tapioca was fascinating, but it didn’t need the tuna (and it couldn’t have been harder to eat, spoon or no spoon — we were shoveling balls onto it with chopsticks). Green papaya salad was just ordinary; mushroom spring rolls were unexceptional except for the galangal emulsion; pork vindaloo was about two hours away from braised tenderness. We wound up fighting over the last of the pappadum chips, and those are a giveaway. As for the crowd at lunchtime, look for Howard Stern’s aunts. [Early to mid-May 2004]





The good enough: TOC (Thai on Clinton), where the hip design was apparently done on a shoestring (box graters as light fixtures), where the kitchen runs on 66/Spice Market time (dishes sent out when they’re ready, not when you are) and where the food is pricey for what it is but better than it has any right to be. Crispy duck salad was mostly skin and dressing with a good scattering of cashews and a plenitude of bell peppers; vegetarian spring rolls were a little greasy but well balanced against the sweet-spicy sauce, and the $7.70 lunch special of salad with good peanut dressing plus chicken and eggplant in basil curry was the best buy on a cheap block. I’m not sure I would ever brave the place after dark — a tiny crowd would overfill it. 6 Clinton Street, 212 228 9388.


The relatively reliable: Patsy’s off Columbus, where the service and kitchen are on move-them-in-get-them-out speed and where the standards will always be the standards. For a cheap and quick pizza stop after a movie when you can’t face brain food, it’s fine. 61 West 74th Street, 212 579 3000.


The disorienting: Mangia in the shadow of the Flatiron, where the crowd looks to be all from the same office, where the counterpeople are discombobulated to the max but where the food is imaginative and at least fixed to order. A rustico panino was good pizza bianca filled with ham, gruyere, tomato and mushroom paste. It took so long to be toasted, though, that I was tempted by prosecco. No one knew what that was until I said Champagne, so they dragged out a bottle of spumante and four of them passed it back and forth until one got it open to pour into a regular wineglass. The show was almost as good as the $5 sandwich. And nothing about it felt like 23d Street. 22 West 23d Street, 212 647 0200. [Early May 2004]



The bizarrely good: Mexicana Mama at early lunchtime midweek, where the waitress needs a drink and where the prices ($17.75 for essentially queso fundido) will make the frugal quail but where the gussied-up menu actually delivers. My enchiladas were pretty scary, three made from red tortillas with a glop of mole on top, laid over some weeping potatoes with chipotle seasoning. But the flavor and texture of the filling (cheese, onion and cilantro) were better than the whole thing looked. I can only hope the margaritas are not as gruesome as the wine, though, and I wouldn’t go near the place when it’s busy. 525 Hudson Street, 212 924 4119.


The surprisingly bad: Riingo in the Alex Hotel, where Marcus Samuelsson is dabbling in sushi and confusion and where the open kitchen has all the glamour of a diner even before the hollering at the cooks begins (I don’t want to speculate about what the toaster oven is used for). Tuna and foie gras is not a marriage made in Japan, for good reason. A mackerel roll was overwhelmed by ginger; a main course of rare tuna with clams and chorizo was pallid. And a salad of smoked salmon with asparagus and alleged saffron was begging for any one of those flavors. The one truly great component of a bleak meal was the green tea doughnut for dessert, and it didn’t need all the frippery with it.


The simply sad: La Bottega in the Maritime Hotel, where the overall experience is not quite as offensive as the reviews would lead you to believe but where the food and the illusion are a very long way from Italy. It’s bad when your primary impression is of cheeks, and not the halibut kind — all the waitresses have been forced into uniforms that would have fit them in high school (shades of Atom Egoyan’s “Exotica”). I had quite a nice salad of escarole, mint, pecorino and favas, while Bob was dejected over his skimpy arugula salad with onions and cannellini beans. We shared a not-terrible mushroom pizza. It was brunch, it was empty, and it was borderline depressing.


The overpriced and underserved: Oceo in the Time Hotel, where the cooking reaches for Lespinasse levels (the chef and front of the house are veterans) but where one bad waiter can almost ruin dinner (there were several times when I wanted to say: If you’re so superior, why aren’t we delivering your food?) We split a $19 appetizer of decent potato gnocchi with tasso and garlic chips in a Montepulciano glaze, an odd layering that worked. Champagne-roasted wild striped bass with artichoke mousseline and a brioche and horseradish ragout also hung together better than any $28 shopping list should. The room is still as awkward as it was when it opened as Palladin, unfortunately. But I’d go back on someone else’s account. 224 West 49th Street, 212 262 6236.


The dizzying: Asiate, on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental, where the view is not as unsettling as the hiccupy service — we were there 2 1/2 hours for a two-course lunch, and that included the arrival of someone else’s food. For $25, though, this is one of the best deals in town, if you stick to the heartier choices (asparagus soup was far more satisfying than a spa-style salad; braised short ribs were extraordinary). At least at lunchtime, the food is not as strange as it’s been billed, although my duck had been formed into what looked like hot dogs and cut like boots. This is one dramatic space, with all the haute hotel trappings, and it’s worth risking the scary TWC to experience it. 212 805 8881. [Mid- to late April 2004]



The good (except for the scene and the service): Bivio in Greenwich Village, where the room is sleekly designed, where the wine list is as affordable as it is extensive and where the cooking is a country away from the mediocrity of the place that spawned it, Bottino in Chelsea. Unfortunately, they stowed us way in the back in an empty room early on a Sunday night, at the second-worst table in the house (next to the worst, looking into the high-turnover toilets), and the waiters deigned to wait only when flagged down. I wanted to hate the food, but the gratineed asparagus with prosciutto contained only excellent ingredients, and both my ricotta-leek ravioli and my consort’s garganelli with lamb ragu were almost Italy level. Maybe we were just swayed by the little drama once the room filled up: a trapped diner in the men’s room tried to pound his way out (which was no easier than getting a refill on a glass of wine). 637 Hudson Street at Horatio, 212 206 0601


The sad: Salsa y Salsa on Seventh Avenue, where the space is brightly decorated and where the service is offhand but competent but where the menu is a strange amalgam of taqueria and Hamburger Helper. The one saving grace is the candy with the check: a three-ball Mexican lollipop I’m going to be searching for all over town.


The surreal: Fairway Cafe at lunchtime, where it’s almost possible to forget you’re eating upstairs from an octogenarian roller derby, and not just because the crowd is hard to place (Upper East Side? suburbs? Santa Fe?) The menu is very undinery, the disorganized service ultimately comes through and the cooking is far more credible than it has any right to be over a killing floor where shopping carts are the lethal weapons. My croque monsieur was twice the sandwich you would get in Paris (dis or praise? depends on how much you appreciate supersizing) and my Macon-Villages was a good deal at $6. It’s the ultimate example of how “it’s enough that the dog talks — you can’t expect it to speak in complete sentences.” Next day I was in Macy’s and was almost tempted by the Cellar Grill but decided not to push my in-store luck. 74th and Broadway. [Mid-April 2004]



The good: Jacques-Imo’s, at last, where the service seems to have found its rhythm, where a new local chef has been hired away from David Burke and where the food is finally coming together. For the first time I tasted something that really tasted like New Orleans: fried mirliton with oyster stuffing and fried oysters. I don’t even like oysters, but I had the best dish on the table (the paneed rabbit was a close second). The poor top chef is looking a little shell-shocked these days, but he’s getting his New York act together. 366 Columbus Avenue at 77th Street, 212 799 0150.


The superior to Sarabeth’s for Biennial fuel: Nectar, the diner down the block from Bloomberg’s mansion, where the crowd is a sociological study and where anything made with the fresh roast turkey is a good bet. My Cobb salad was better than it had any right to be, with a real vinaigrette, decent blue cheese and excellent warm bacon. Part of the appeal is eating among such disparate diners: yummy mummies with their baby Hummers, lonely rich women trying to share Oaxacan memories with the overworked waiters, shop clerks and maids, lost German tourists who know one beverage to order, and plaintively: White wine. And that’s the catch: it’s alcohol-free. 1022 Madison Avenue at 79th Street.


The scrum: Spotted Pig, where the food is surprisingly well done, where the bartender is a total pro but where the experience is like being on line in a soccer stadium with one toilet. No reservations is a hostile policy when it means everyone eats with bodies crammed up against and behind and over every chair in a tiny space. The line for the bathroom alone would detract from the rich smoked haddock chowder and the Otto lonza (salami to you). A salad of pumpkin, pecorino and arugula was a great combination although I could not figure out why pumpkin was on the menu in April. But the grilled striped bass seemed to have some age on it, and the shepherd’s pie “smelled like cat food,” one of my three partners in pain said. Bonny Doon Big House Red was all of $22 a bottle, and the super-skinny French fries were exceptional. But not one of us would go back. Elbow room is not to be underestimated. 314 West 11th Street, 212 620 0393. [Mid-April 2004]



The getting good: Jacques-Imo’s on a second visit, where the New Orleans chef himself was working the brightly decorated room, where the mood was lively on a dreary Monday night and where the food seems to be starting to even out. Paneed duck was more chicken-fried and shrimp etouffee was light on both shrimp and gutsy flavor, but the mashed potatoes were less salty than last time and the greens were spectacular. All of it could have been hotter (temperature-wise), though. And while we did not get the usual salad with oyster, we were comped a glass of wine each because we whined about the waiter taking so long. 366 Columbus Avenue at 77th Street, 212 799 0150.


The really bad: Garlic Bob’s on Columbus Avenue, where I stopped in a weak moment one afternoon and where all half-hearted attempts to serve real cheese have been abandoned in favor of that strange slime that usually turns up only on the unplain slices. I’m not asking for fresh mozzarella, which makes a rubbery pizza anyway. But cheese should melt and not ooze. It should have at least a hint of flavor. And it should definitely not evoke dairy pus.


The pretty mediocre: Florent, where the room remains as funkily charming as ever, where the service is more like camaraderie but where probably anything but a burger or an omelet at brunch will be a letdown. My consort’s roast chicken was, as he put it, cooked yesterday and heated up to tired today; my crab cake sandwich was more sauce than seafood. The Freedom fries were the best thing on the overloaded plates. Cinnamon elevates the coffee, too. (I have to confess, though: Try as hard as I could while walking to the place, in the heart of the meatpacking district, I could not honestly say: I smell dead animals.) [Early April 2004]



The seriously good: Paprika, where a friend steered us by saying it was well designed with good cooking, where the food puts most pricier Italian restaurants to shame and where the service was definitely of the empowered kind. The grilled polenta with three-cheese fonduta was perfection, the eggplant parmigiana with pesto was that rarity — not slime but eggplant chunkiness — and the malloreddus with sweet sausage and bitter broccoli rabe was as good as any in Italy. And that’s saying a lot. It’s the best restaurant no one’s ever heard of. 110 St. Marks Place off First Avenue, 212 677 6563.

The strange: HK, where the room is sleeker and cleaner than any place in Hell’s Kitchen and where the menu at lunchtime is nice and affordable but where a model/photo shoot can turn you off even a good grilled portobello sandwich. I don’t want to see anorectics getting caked over at lunchtime in the bright light. The only thing more offputting is the 300-pound hostess at Gabriela’s at lunchtime. 523 Ninth Avenue at 39th Street, 212 947 4208.

The great if you don’t get out much: Spice Market, where the decor is very Jekyll & Hyde, where the service is very all-sleek-body, un-well-endowed-brain and where the food is both very good and profoundly disappointing. In column A I would put the lobster and the mussels, not for the seasonings but for the raw ingredients, and the spectacular green papaya salad. In column F I would have to put the weird skate, the chicken samosa poseurs and all the desserts (bad news when reeking durian ice cream is the winner among four). The geriatric duck goes into a category all its own. Soupy things served family style also don’t work when there are no bowls or even rice offered with them. The kitchen really lurches, so there are long gaps between dishes, bringing out the locust in starving diners. Maybe I’ve eaten too much good, cheap ethnic food with no attitude, here and overseas, but I would rather throw away major money in a grownup space at 66. The Thai Monsoon red wine, however, is almost worth the struggle to get in. 403 West 13th Street, 212 675 2322. [Late March 2004]



The good for what it is: Stella Osteria, where the very professional waiter wore a suit, where the table was covered with food before we even ordered, where the anchovy-saturated Caesar salad labeled a Romana was the best I’ve had in months and where the atmosphere was bright and cheery if a little mall-like on a snowy day. We went there after getting shut out at Noche (mysteriously closed at lunchtime on a matinee Wednesday) and got a window table, a respectable pizza with wild mushrooms and good wines at fair prices ($7.50 for a pinot grigio). The giveaways were beyond generous: grilled flatbread, salami, mortadella, olives and a bread basket including grissini and focaccia. The cavernous room is more food hall than dining room, but it fills up. 135 West 50th Street, 212 957 1070.

The not bad: West Bank Cafe, where the wineglasses remain commodious and the room and staff still feel welcoming and where the $9 appetizer special was a whole skate fillet, crusted with pistachios, perfectly sauteed and teamed with mache. A portobello on polenta with truffle oil was decent, but not the crabcake, whose accouterments were beyond misguided. There’s a reason tartar sauce was invented and not fennel and artichoke salad with tomato sauce. 407 West 42d Street, 212 695 6909.

The infested: Schiller’s, where, just as I suspected, a gruesome crowd kills half the charm and totally defeats the waiters and where the kitchen shows its weaknesses a little too vividly. Saturday lunch was a letdown on the food front: my seared tuna salad was light on arugula, heavy on onions and determined not to satisfy (without the anchovies, there would have been no fish taste at all); my consort’s steak was a little on the leathery side, although the herb butter with it was brave and the frites were great as always. I didn’t dare ask how our friend’s steak and eggs were, but an awful lot of sawing was going on on his plate. Still, the room is always magic, and the capuccino was superb. Who needs bread, elbow room, quiet? 131 Rivington Street at Norfolk Street, 212 260 4555. [Late March 2004]



The promising-to-be-great: BLT Steak, where Laurent Tourondel is carrying on the excellent Cello tradition of smartly conceived, beautifully executed food, where the floor staff was exceptional on the fourth night of service, where the wines by the glass are extremely well chosen and well priced and where the room (formerly Le Chantilly, Sono and Pazo) finally works. The tuna tartare was a marvel, even to my consort just back from three weeks of super-fresh fish in Hawaii. We ordered one steak and were comped another and couldn’t decide which was more extraordinary. (You get a choice of six sauces and need none of them.) The Parmesan gnocchi were the airiest I’ve eaten since Italy, while the braised collards were bacony-better than I’ve ever eaten in the South. Even the popovers were winners, like gougeres on steroids. Add to that fair prices ($26 for the flatiron Kobe) and this looks like the last great place I’ve eaten, David Burke and Donnatella: impossible to get back into. 106 East 57th Street, 212 752 7470.

The good except for the food: Blue Ribbon Bakery, where the service was so smoothly polished and professional it made my duck club seem unworthy. The hostess was friendly and led me to a great table by the window, pulling out it out so I could slip in (Lever House never heard of that); the waitress was attentive in just the right measure and even her successor actually wiped the table before setting down the check and thanked me when I left. (Neither came over to ask me to settle the bill because of the shift change, either, which is one of the most odious tricks a restaurant can pull.) I can’t ever remember being treated that well while eating alone in a mid-range restaurant in New York. Too bad the sandwich I ordered was disappointing: the duck was sliced from a roast and rather dull, and even the bacon and the raisin-nut bread couldn’t ramp up the flavor. But the pickle was the best I’ve come across yet, and the wine was nice. 33 Downing Street at Bedford, 212 337 0404.

The profoundly disappointing: Curry Leaf on Lexington, where half a jar of chile-cilantro sauce could not ignite the dal, the chana, the cauliflower and potato curry or the tandoori chicken (we were both afraid to try the desiccated seek kabab with it). Not only was it all the bland leading the bland but it was not even cooked carefully. The rice was okay, and so were the free salad and rice pudding. But I felt as if we were eating in Ottawa (wait, Canadians might even do Indian better). The bathroom was grubbier than some in Calcutta, too. Suffice it to say Kalustyan’s is a better grocer than restaurateur. [Mid-March 2004]



The good: El Paso Taqueria, where the kitchen can be excruciatingly slow but where the payoff is perfect food, where the staff is personable and professional and where the whole experience of eating serious Mexican in a clean, bright space is uplifting. The sopes with chorizo were particularly well done this time, the masa cakes just the right balance of crisp and pliable, the beans, lettuce and cheese in equal harmony. The chilaquiles at Taqueria de Mexico in the Village a few days later were Chi-Chi’s quality by comparison. 64 East 97th Street, 212 996 1739.

The borderline bad: Gennaro, where the kitchen appears to be into volume only these days, where the service is brisk to the point of insulting and where the wines by the glass are a disgrace (California Chardonnay and pinot grigio and that’s it?) This used to be one of the few neighborhood reliables, but now it just has a move-’em-in, move-’em-out feel. The vegetables on my antipasto plate with rubbery smoked cheese had apparently done a fly-by on the grill, just long enough to get the marks but not the taste, and the crabcakes were dough balls (the mayonnaisy sauce underneath did not taste as fresh as a special should). When the best thing on the table is lentils, you know a place is slipping.

The questionable: Cassis, where the design is a glorious knockoff of imitation French style, complete with classic moules-to-crepes menu, lustrous wood and mirrored walls with hand-written specials. The short-lived Kloe has been opened up and jazzed up and completely transformed. I can only hope the kitchen someday matches the decor — the salade Nicoise was mostly onions and unpitted olives and the onion and goat cheese tart was unpleasantly cold. But chicken liver mousse is a nice alternative to butter for the very good bread, and the wine choices are above average, and someone has trained the staff: our waitress did not say goodbye but “see you again soon.” And she may very well. 243 West 14th Street, 212 871 6020. [Early March 2004]



The good: Baluchi’s in Curry Hill, where the imported-from-India artifacts are sunlit at lunchtime, where the service is dignified and where the crab Kerala is a marvel: real lump crab in a spicy sauce that manages to be both velvety and smoking. Unfortunately, the naan is the usual lumpy sponge you get in so many other restaurants, and it’s hard to use as a fork. But the half-off prices from noon to 4 make even that easier to swallow. 111 East 29th Street, 212 579 3900. [Format changed June 2004]

The bland: Indus Valley on upper Broadway, where the “crabs” soup was floating flecks of surimi, where the dal was virtually flavor-free and where the paneer came in a sauce the color of Pepto-Bismol with the sweetness of corn syrup. Even at $9.95, including pappadum with sauces, rice, raita and gummy bread, the lunch special is no deal. Only the vegetable of the day, spicy potatoes with green peppers, had the faintest whiff of India to it. The waiters are also the kind who pace and hover and stare but have to be asked to clear the table and bring the check.

The unfortunate: Jacques-Imo’s, where 10 of us led by friends of the chef descended on the third night it was open and where the kitchen, waitstaff and certainly the bartender were borderline overwhelmed (a New Orleans offshoot that can’t make a Sazerac has cosmopolitan problems). Some things were as good as at the original, like the corn muffins soaked in garlic butter and the giveaway salad topped with a fried oyster, and some I didn’t try, like the alligator sausage cheesecake everyone raved about. But the jambalaya was more like Spanish rice and many of the other dishes, even the mashed potatoes and corn maque choux, had a strange chemical-salty undertone. To the managers’ credit, they took all four orders of fried chicken off the bill when the sniffy Frenchwoman among us complained about a similar off taste, and they poured us a free bottle of sparkling wine. The room is quite pretty, the staff is eager and willing, the food is not your average New York roast chicken, but I don’t know that I would exert myself for another reservation. It may be that you can take the restaurant out of New Orleans, but you wind up taking the New Orleans out of the restaurant. 366 Columbus Avenue at 77th Street, 212 799 0150. [Late February 2004]



The seriously good: Crispo on a second visit, where the noise level was still civil, the service was still exceptional, the prices were still beyond fair and where the cooking was still so much better than in so many starred places. Very lightly breaded fluke was supremely fresh on a Sunday night, and flawlessly fried, and a whole grilled branzino was juicy, perfectly accessorized (with partially dried tomatoes, greens and lemon) and enough for three. No wonder it’s packed constantly. 240 West 14th Street near Eighth Avenue, 212 229 1818.

The reliably good: @sqc, where the owners, Scott and Linda Campbell, treat us like foie gras geese on every visit but where we would know the food is consistently inspired and inspirational even without the freebies. On our latest visit we were force-fed superb ribs in a chocolate barbecue sauce as a starter and chocolate-infused booze as a meal ender, but the real standout was a plate of the staff meal: chicken enchiladas that were better than almost any I’ve ever ordered in a restaurant. 270 Columbus Avenue near 72d Street, 212 579 0100.

The exorbitantly frustrating: Ilo, where we wandered in after a friend’s book party nearby looking for just one course of above-Midtown-average food and were suckered into a $68 prixe fixe in a room that feels very much like the faded-chic hotel it’s in. The high point was my quail, ungamy and very juicy in a sauce with hominy and bright green, nonslimy okra; it was so huge and good it made the hamachi appetizer seem tiny and tired by comparison. John Dory was unexceptional, and my poor grilled dorade suffered mightily in the 10-minute detour between presentation whole at the table and fillets with fishy finnan haddie and caviar sauces on the plate. The tray-long arrays of desserts were overkill, not pleasure. But the place at least gets points for a fair wine list: Our Brundlmayer gruner-veltliner was only $38. I’m never high on commitment, but I really liked the place so much better when it was a la carte. 40 West 40th Street near Sixth Avenue, 212 642 2255. [Late February 2004]



The good: Mandoo Bar on a second visit, where the waiter was a Sacajawea-worthy guide to Korean cuisine, where the wine was decent (Geyser Peak sauvignon blanc) and fairly priced ($19) and where the dumplings were almost outpaced by the entrees. It was early evening and six of us had the downstairs almost to ourselves, but we had an amazingly civilized meal of well-prepared classics — beef bulgogi, pumpkin noodles, etc. — for all of $22 a head. 71 University Place near 10th Street, 212 358 0400.

The reliable: Spice in Chelsea, where the room is dramatic and the kitchen is on speed, where the waiters put Greek diners’ to shame and where the $6 and $7 lunch specials are almost too good to be non-nervous-making. The branch on University Place is busier and sleeker, but this one has a not-too-sweet duck salad and vibrant steamed vegetable dumplings. 199 Eighth Avenue near 20th Street, 212 989 1116.

The baffling: Radio Perfecto near Columbia, where the club sandwich was more of a panini (but with more leathery skin than meat on the turkey and with cheese thrown in for bad measure); where the wines by the glass were one step above jug, and where the waiter was so self-mutilated in that college-sheep style that I couldn’t make eye contact. I left this new SoHar branch of a downtown classic wondering why any sane businessperson would bother to expand with nothing to sell but mediocrity. Then I remembered: Starbucks and Krispy Kreme.

Vicarious eating: My consort had a succession of foreign photographer friends in town and decided to dazzle them with Restaurant Week specials rather than lure them to the fading Saigon Grill yet again. Toqueville got high marks for exquisite food and points off for $12 wine by the glass (neither he and his Italian pal noticed the excellent wine-pairing option at $35.04). Eleven Madison took home an A as always for setting and wine prices/choices but a C for food. I wasn’t there, but I’ll swallow Bob’s word. Despite his taste in women. [Early January 2004]



The surprisingly good: Crispo, where we walked in on a bitter night when the earliest reservation at La Bottega was 9:45 and we would have been happy with just a fast table. Instead we got fast and efficient service, a lively scene and superb sole, easily the best piece of fish I’d had in a restaurant in weeks. It was fresh, perfectly fried and sitting on just enough of a sauce with just enough lemon to cream in it; the zucchini fritters with it were above and beyond. Amatriciana pasta was sauced with a typically American heavy hand but was nicely done, and the side dish of sauteed spinach was good and generous. Bonus points for good pours of $7 and $8 wines by the glass and a really appealing, almost Londonesque design (not anywhere near as S&M palace as it appears from outside). Frank Crispo remains a starrable chef, even if the boys uptown thought his latest enterprise is only a $25 & Under. 240 West 14th Street, 212 229 1818.

The surprisingly pleasant: West Bank Cafe, where the bread comes from Sullivan Street Bakery, where the wineglasses are deep and the prices low and where the vegetable terrine tastes like anything but 42d Street. My Caesar salad was a little underdressed, but the greens were crisp; the room was also bright and pretty at lunchtime, enough to make up for a ditz of an overworked waiter. I kept wondering where this place has been all my life, even though I walked past it hundreds of times in two go-rounds at the Times. Angus McIndoe has gotten my last dollar, I’m afraid. 407 West 42d Street near Ninth Avenue, 212 695 6909.

The scarily bad: 44 Southwest, where a friend lured me for probably the creepiest plate I have faced down anywhere in that notoriously desolate culinary wasteland around the NYTimes. In six lifetimes I wouldn’t be able to explain why I ordered an eggplant parmesan sandwich with fries. But in eight lifetimes I wouldn’t be able to explain why the huge mass that arrived tasted like fish, and not anchovies, either — something more rubbery. As for the fries, which I banked on as backup nutrients in case the sandwich was bad, the oil they had come from had apparently been around since Saddam was palling with Rumsfeld. Ninth Avenue is a hellhole, but this was a new level. {Late January 2004]



The relatively good: Zona Rosa, where the dining room was deserted at lunchtime right after a Gray Lady tout but the food was surprisingly satisfying. My friend who arrived first was ready to bail on reading the menu and seeing the connection with Calle Ocho, but we stuck it out and had decent guacamole and chips followed by creditable beef tacos and an excellent “torta” filled with chorizo and cheese. The basket of chile-dusted jicama sticks was better than the usual chips. And the usual jicama. On the debit side, we had to beg for a second glass of wine, and the check we didn’t ask for was presented by the waiter with his backside to us (where do they teach that trick?) 40 West 56th Street, 212 247 2800.

The not bad: Cubana Cafe, where the Desi-silly decor strikes just the right note between Havana and Nolita, where the tables are too close together but you never need to worry about flagging down a waiter and where the out-of-season roasted corn with chipotle mayonnaise is worth the journey alone. A plato grande of lechon had an almost Cuban proportion of rice and black beans to roast “pig,” and the meat was pertty good — for all of $8.50. My pressed sandwich with refried beans and Cheddar plus salsa was a good meatless alternative to the Cubano. The place is cash only but wine is $3.50 a glass — a big glass. Jean-Claude Iocavelli may have located his inner Latino. 110 Thompson Street near Prince, 212 966 5366.

The fading: Seppi’s, where the ambiance is still clinging to the illusion of the uptown Raoul’s, where the booths are cozy and the location is perfect but where the experience slips a little with every encounter (the place used to be famous-to-notorious for employing a fortuneteller — couldn’t she predict what would happen when weak chefs met disengaged waiters?) Four of us did no sharing, so I can only say my frites were respectable and my tarte flambee “wrap” was just what I deserved for not ordering the real thing. Any crust would be better than an old tortilla, especially to support the good grilled salmon and plethora of bacon bits layered with it. On the other side of the table, there were no moans of ecstasy over the special bouillabaisse, but the creme brulee seemed satisfying, despite its odd taupe color. 123 West 56th Street, 212 708 7444. [Mid-January 2004]



The good if you’re feeling undemanding and someone else is paying: DB Bistro Moderne, where the spice crust on my duck breast was extraordinary, where the quince sauce was not the usual cloying-to-coma-inducing fruitiness and where the cheese plate was in perfect condition. Considering the sharpest knife could not have sliced through the ossified duck leg on my plate, though, I’m not sure the dish was worth $30. I’m also still wondering where the chorizo was in the special soup I ordered (well, I’m not really wondering; I know I was served the wrong soup but couldn’t say anything as a guest of someone who treats the place like a canteen). 55 West 44th Street, 212 391 2400.

The mystifying: Mermaid Inn, where the menu has exactly one non-oceanic option (salad with a few shreds of salami) but both the skate and whole grilled dorade were flabby from either age or cryogenics. Why focus on fish if you can’t serve the best? Both those entrees were expertly cooked, proving the most accomplished chef cannot resuscitate subpar ingredients. (Serving the skate with a “white gazpacho” that looked like baby mess didn’t make it any more appealing.) The place gets points, though, for polished service, fair prices ($17 for the skate) and some cleverness: spaghetti with salad on top was actually pasta in a seriously spiced sauce with good squid and other shellfish under arugula, and scallops with butternut squash made a great combination. Dessert is forced upon you: a little cup of pumpkin pudding so gelatinous it doesn’t jiggle even if the little cup tips right over. 96 Second Second Avenue near Fifth Street, 212 647 5870.

The respectable: Jubilee 51, where the salad, duck and lamb were surprisingly lively even on a Monday night before the review when we had the sleek new place to ourselves until another table of four showed up. The cooking is not sophisticated but it does satisfy: the shepherd’s pie was a plate of mashed potatoes and shredded duck confit surrounded by trumpet mushroom sauce and topped with the super-crisp intact skin of the leg. And never underestimate the pleasure of eating in a French restaurant in the Theater District that doesn’t feel as seedy as old seamen. 329 West 51st Street, 212 265 7575. [Early January 2004]



The pretty good: Mandoo Bar, a fast stop for a Saturday snack where the Korean dumplings were an education in a sleek and well-designed two-floor dining room. The fried vegetable dumplings were fine, but the steamed kimchee kind were exceptional, and both were all of $5 at lunch, with kimchee and pickled daikon as lagniappes. Beware the gingseng tea, though: it will set you back what eight dumplings do. 71 University Place, near 10th Street, 212 358 0400.

The not bad: Chow Bar, a desperate stop for Saturday lunch where fusion set the style for both the setting and the menu but where the least Asian dishes were the strongest. A green salad with a miso-chile dressing was superb, my vegetable spring rolls were acceptable and my consort’s huge but rather dull chow fun was redeemed by the surfeit of excellent Chinese barbecued pork. 230 West Fourth Street at West 10th Street, 212 633 2212.

The largely disappointing: ’Inoteca, where the kitchen should stick to what the original ’ino does best — panini and salads — and where the wines are what you would settle for in a third-rung Italian restaurant with much lower prices (one red was past its prime, in fact). Expanding to a huge space on the Lower East Side has not improved the concept; you’ll settle for a lot less in a minuscule cramped room in the West Village but get a lot more. I ordered the legendary truffled egg toast and was rewarded with a hollowed-out rock of white bread filled with yolks and cheese but not a whiff of truffle. The eggplant lasagnette was only a tiny step up from the disastrous parmigiana down the block at Schiller’s. Bob got portions twice as large with his potato-tomato-pesto salad and his chicken cacciatore, but sometimes double does not translate to twice as good. 98 Rivington Street at Ludlow Street, 212 614 0473. [Late December 2003]



The good: ’Cesca at the bar, where the service is snappy, the wine pours are cheap and generous and the limited menu has been expanded just enough. Now instead of mostly marinated olives you can get a plate of speck topped with a little basket of Parmesan filled with a couple of leaves of arugula and a runny egg. And you might not need dinner for days. 164 West 75th Street, off Amsterdam Avenue, 212 787 6300.

The bad: Ruby Foo’s, where the notion of duck dumplings haunted me after an aborted visit weeks ago and where the reality left me queasy. I think it was Alan Richman who always admonished, “Don’t order the duck,” but you would expect a dim sum joint to use birds before they qualify for Medicare. Then again, the meat could have just aged in the 45 minutes between my ordering and its arrival (this in a restaurant with maybe four tables occupied).

The well-located: Josephina, where the room is bright and happy at lunchtime and the wines by the glass are decent but where the kitchen would have killed the place years ago if not for Lincoln Center just across Broadway (and my expense-account friend’s office only blocks away). I should know Cobb salad is a bigger gamble than duck, but what was plopped in front of me was still appalling: sugar vinaigrette, caramelly bacon, infinitesimal avocado cubes and powdered blue cheese. Don’t remind me about the turkey. [Mid-December 2003]



The good: Schiller’s, where on a repeat visit the waiter was somnolent but the kitchen was in peak form (the fries with mayonnaise are still great; the oyster po’ boy is pretty respectable) and where the room remains a real-life fantasy as long as it’s empty.

The respectable: Pfiff, where the main allure was location, location (around the corner from our Chicago friends’ room at the Soho Grand) but where the secondary attractions held up as well: the room is quiet enough for a grownup conversation; the wine list is imaginative but reasonable, and the food is better than it has any right to be at the prices (my $16 crabcake just got points for size, and Bob’s $24 steak was cooked better than it was raised, but the grilled vegetable “tart” that was more a crustless napoleon was excellent, and the fried calamari special with chipotle mayonnaise better than decent). 35 Grand Street, 212 334 6841.

The major bad: Gabriela’s downtown, where the tamal was so vintage if could qualify for Medicare (unlike my friend who paid and who was sickened by it), where the special salad comprised six Romaine leaves with gray avocado bits and where the bar actually ran out of white wine. On Halloween afternoon. A block from one of the best-stocked liquor stores on the Upper West Side. What kind of cretins would go there? Two friends meeting for an Upper West Side lunch who were foiled by Cafe Frida’s renovation, frustrated by Isabella’s limited menu, frightened by North West’s dineresque tomatoes stuffed with tuna and appalled by the lack of waiters and surfeit of East Side jerks at Nice Matin. That’s who. [Early November 2003]



The reliable: Virgil’s, where the brisket melt will always be greasy, fatty overkill, where the pickly-mustardy potato salad will always taste housemade, where the wines will never talk to the food and where the waiters will invariably be as happy to see a woman eating alone as they would be to serve a vegan. For once, though, the bartender offered a glass of wine on him after my food took longer to come than it took to cook the brisket. 152 West 44th Street, 212 921 9494

The bad: Atlantic Grill, where the clientele looks to have stepped out of Dorian Gray’s frame, where the waiters shake with ineptitude and where the three cramped and poorly designed dining rooms have a faint odor that can only be sushi dying and going to the grill. I should have fled when I realized everyone around me was waiting — for food, for coffee, for a check — but I stuck it out and braved what I thought was a safe choice, billed as turkey salad with avocado, beets, egg whites and blue cheese dressing. The cooks get points for alchemy: they managed to make “fresh roasted” turkey taste just like Boar’s Head. For $13.

The unsettling: Baluchi’s on Columbus Avenue, where the food at lunchtime comes too fast for comfort, where nothing is quite heated through, where everything is strangely sweet and where the view of the kitchen is enough to transport you straight to Calcutta. Other branches in the chain have never been so scarifying. [Late October 2003]



The good: Bricco, yet again, where the Caesar salad may be a bit underdressed and Parmesan-light these days but where the brick-oven quattro stagione pizza is satisfying, the service is completely professional and the wines are decent (and where they will bring a fresh bottle to the table to open if your glass is corked). 304 West 56th Street, 212 245 7160.

The even better: Parish and Company, where the room still looks a bit B&B’y but where the bread basket is superb (from Sullivan Street) and where the chef is still thinking and cooking in top form. Raw pumpkin soup was brilliant, and my farro and quinoa salad with avocado was about as exceptional. Potato gnocchi with ghee and sage had overstayed their welcome in the skillet, but a pork chop was that rarity in the other white meat: succulent, juicy and meaty. Almost everything on the menu can be ordered in regular or tasting portions, which is a great way to range all over the many temptations. Even better, most full portions are under $20. 202 Ninth Avenue between 22d and 23d Streets, 212 414 4988

The convivial: Grace, where the bar is long enough to spread out an oversubscribed guest list, where the finger foods are copious and inspired (duck cakes, anyone?) and where the cheerful staff rolls with the crowd. A Canadian friend marking his 20th year in New York put his finger on the perfect party place. 114 Franklin Street, 212 343 4200. [Mid-October 2003]



The ephemerally good: La Palapa Rockola, where the design is one of the most polished and creative in town, where the staff is beyond friendly and where the portions would take a village to accommodate. And maybe that’s why two hours later we were in bloated agony. The food was fresh and lively, particularly the chalupas with chorizo and smoking guacamole, but the tacos had so much filling they could have used four more tortillas, while the torta salud with portobello, poblano, avocado and queso was a six-handed mess. Unfortunately, I’ll undoubtedly go back. This outpost of La Palapa in the East Village is much better than Taqueria de Mexico relatively nearby. 359 Sixth Avenue near West Fourth Street, 212 243 6870.

The expediently bad: Time Cafe uptown, where the dineresque ambiance is matched only by the frazzled service (aside from a manager who steps in when a waitress nears meltdown) and where the Caesar salad is bereft of garlic, anchovies, Parmesan and even a whiff of taste in the Romaine, too. On the plus side, it’s not crowded after a movie and all wine is $6 a hefty glass.


The neglected: Ouest, where the bartender was distracted to the point of rude and where the smoked duck and crispy egg appetizer that’s usually a delicate balance of satisfying and overkill strayed over into gout territory thanks to oversliced meat and heavyhanded garnishing. When the chef’s away . . . . [Early October 2003]



The almost good: Redeye Grill, where the Peking duck quesadilla is actually a tantalizing idea well-executed, where the lobster Cobb salad and wine pours are certainly copious and where the Japanese sushi chefs maintain their dignity despite their straw boaters. Don’t go, though, unless you’re expecting no better than diner-smooth service — or unless someone else’s employer is paying. 890 Seventh Avenue, 212 541 9000.

The not bad: Bayou, where the room slightly evokes New Orleans, where the wine list is well chosen and where the crawfish etouffee is heavy on the shellfish and flavor if light on the heat and spice. Points off for a Manhattanized po’ boy (ratio of bread to fish was way off, and lettuce and tomatoes were the wrong kinds and cuts). Our waiter was polished and attentive, but we could have flown halfway to Louisiana in the time it took the kitchen to send out two dishes. 308 Lenox Avenue at 125th Street, 212 426 3800.

The clearly slipping: Aquagrill, where my usually perfect order of a Dungeness crab cake sandwich with fries landed cold and greasy, where my friend complained that her chowder was too salty and where the service was surprisingly discombobulated. The raw oysters are apparently holding up, though. [Early October 2003]



The good: ’Cesca on a return visit, late after a movie, where the farro salad was as sprightly as the first time, where the speck, arugula and Parmigiano appetizer with poached egg was Ouestian, and where the risotto with skate was rich, hearty and right on the verge of being over the top. Maybe it’s my imagination, though, but is the crowd eating into its burial insurance?

The bad: Gloria’s in Tribeca, where I went desperate for Mexican, even bad Mexican, and got my wish: salsa straight from the Del Monte can, a greasy open-face omelet over a chile billed as relleno, enchiladas with cheese in cold chunks, and all with background music by that inescapable cell phone band, the Self-Important Brayers.

The half-and-half: Nice Matin, where the beet salad was Provence-class but where the portobello pizza was Charles de Gaulle airport-lame: mushrooms so sparse and razor-thin they could have been carved up by a coke dealer, crust by Pillsbury, one speck of sage and a couple of nubblets of what might have been Gruyere. Hard to believe both dishes came from the same kitchen.

The always reliable: @sqc, where the duck (with figs this time) was the best I’ve had there in months and where the jumbo lump crab with sesame dressing was blowaway; Cafe Frida, which came through yet again with the ensalada china poblana and the guacamole, even though the avocado was outweighed by the tomato this time, and Les Halles, where the $15.95 steak frites at lunch remains the best post-Greenmarket indulgence in town even when the kitchen mislays your order so long veal would age into beef. [Mid- to late September 2003]



The good and generous: Good in Greenwich Village, where $8.95 at lunch buys a deep cup of crunchy, tangy gazpacho and one of the biggest quesadillas in town, 1 1/2 tortillas packed with potatoes, mushrooms and three cheeses. Add one very attentive waitress for an entire room and it’s almost as great a value as Taqueria de Mexico next door. 89 Greenwich Avenue, 212 691 8080.

The good and stingy: Kitchen Market, where the $7.75 BLT burrito done LA style contains all of three strips of thick bacon, a cup or so of chopped Romaine, a sprinkling of diced tomatoes and a glaze of chipotle mayonnaise. The flavors are spicily complementary, but you need $3 worth of guacamole to make it seem like lunch. 218 Eighth Avenue at 21st Street, 212 243 4433.

The grim and generous: Pampano in midtown, where the opera-worthy setting is gorgeous, where the service is relatively on the ball and where the food may be gruesome but there’s plenty of it. I had easily the worst torta in town, a Wonder roll overstuffed with good skirt steak and slimy avocado mashed into unseasoned black beans. The promised Manchego and sauteed onions were AWOL, and if that was chipotle on the diner-fried potatoes on the side, I’m Condoleezza Rice. A big mound of tired coleslaw rounded out the huge plate with a dressing that tasted like shampoo in the Caribbean smells. The $8 hard-sell guacamole and greasy chips, presented in the kind of glass-and-marble tower you see in the finest trailers, only made my friend and me wish we had met at far superior Cafe Frida, where the guacamole, and everything else on the menu, is consistently spectacular. The last time I had upscale Mexican this depressing was at Maya. Where Richard Sandoval is also owner and chef. Avocados deserve better. [Late August 2003]



The pretty good: Hell’s Kitchen at lunchtime, where the room has a clean, pared-down, un-Hell’s Kitchen feel and where the chilaquiles with mushrooms are a nearly perfect steal at $8. Unfortunately, the wine-by-the-gouge is shameless — I think the cheapest white was $10. A dollar or two more for entrees would feel less like high-octane robbery. 679 Ninth Avenue near 46th Street, 212 977 1588.

The mystifying: Svenningsen’s on a bizarre block in Midtown, where the lobster roll was pure lobster and mayonnaise for all of $12.50 (with respectable fries and coleslaw), where the Clos du Bois chardonnay was a big pour for $7 and where the great-looking bartender worked as if he had stepped out of the training video for employees of the year. The place seems air-lifted out of New England, aside from the decidedly unglamorous business crowd but right down to the understated seasonings. 292 Fifth Avenue near 30th Street, 212 465 1888.

The almost great: Atelier on a third visit, where Gabriel Kreuther is cooking more brilliantly than ever (quail as a sensuality-extender in a sort of crepinette of foie gras topped with diced — not sliced — truffles with truffle gelee), where the wine pairings are equally inspired and where the service is superlative. The $95 tasting menu is exquisite until it ends — a seventh-grade home ec class appears to be in charge of desserts now that the pastry chef has moved over to the coming Delouvrier empire. Ritz-Carlton, 50 Central Park South, 212 521 6125. [Mid-to-late August 2003]



The good (for what it is): Film Center Cafe in the Theater District, where the Caesar salad is unfailingly one of the best choices on the diner-length menu, where the wine is cheap and not too shiver-inducing and where the ambiance just barely stands up to daylight scrutiny. Bonus points for not being in Zagat. 635 Ninth Avenue near 44th Street, 212 262 2525.

The bad: Gabriela’s uptown, where the enchiladas were just two cold corn tortillas wrapped around unmelted cheese under a tame green sauce with all the allure of pond scum. This original outlet has long been safe for only desperation dining, but now it’s slipping from grim to miserable. Either that or the competition is kicking the refries out of it.

The inexplicable: Mary’s Fish Camp in Greenwich Village, where the tiny crab cake for $14 is mostly aggressive spicing, where the wine comes in turn-off water glasses and where the waitrons seem to be former homecoming royalty who never got over it and never found a night job, either. People line up for this place? [Mid-August 2003]



The good: Sullivan Street Bakery, where the breads consistently set the bar for upper crust, where the green olive and raisin-walnut rolls are made for freezing as so few artisanal breads ever are and where, after being addicted for years, I’ve just learned that the only thing better than the pizza bianca packed with pecorino is the pizza bianca while it’s still warm. 73 Sullivan Street between Spring and Broome, 212 334 9435 (there’s a branch way west on 47th Street with less charm).

The not half-bad: A Fish Tale, the new incarnation of one of the Upper West Side’s hardiest but most horrendous restaurants, Under the Stairs. We went braced for awful in exchange for a sidewalk table, but the mahi on a Sunday night was surprisingly fresh, the mango salsa with it was lively, the mashed potatoes with the other fish (one in the witness protection program) were quite good, the “tri-fries” (potato, sweet potato and polenta) were irresistible, and the sauvignon blanc at $21 was a liquid bargain. Luckily, the new place maintains the one allure of the old: its fair prices and diversified staff attract a mirror-on-the-neighborhood crowd — and I don’t mean Central Park Westers. Columbus Avenue at 94th Street, no phone listing yet. [Closed soon afterward]

The seriously, consistently, underratedly good: @sqc, where Scott Campbell serves some of the most intricate and inspired food in the city, let alone on the Upper West Side. Every time we go, usually after the movies, the menu has been tweaked, but the greatest hits hang on while new ideas break out all over. A salad of shrimp, haricots verts and tomatoes was a perfect post-popcorn meal, while the scallops with prosciutto were sweet and rich and compelling. The one drawback is that we always get desserts comped. Life could be worse, though, than a bowlful of berries with raspberry sorbet, or a warm chocolate excess with mint ice cream. The NYTimes never thought it was worth a review. But if it’s good enough for Bloomberg and entourage, it’s good enough for us. 270 Columbus Avenue at 72d, 212 579 0100. [Early August 2003]



The sort of good: Suenos in Chelsea, where the lobster-corn fritters with chipotle cream evoke the ghost of Arizona 206, where the empanada dough is as masa-y as a tamal and where the sirloin would serve six (although none of them would touch more than a bite of the plantain pancake with it). Too bad the bland salsa was an unappetizing color and the oily chips with it shattered with every dip. Even worse were the gusts of Clorox emanating from the kitchen all night. At least the hostess had the hospitality gene. 311 West 17th Street, 212 243 1333.

The bad: Freddy & Pepper’s on Amsterdam Avenue, where I have been loving the pizza in one location or another ever since I got to New York 22 years ago and where the spinach-tomato-bacon slice has always been one of the nine wonders of the yeast world. I may never go back now that the chewy, salty, perfectly balanced mozzarella has been replaced by oily, airy, creepy white stuff that, if it isn’t processed, gives cows a fake name.

The underwhelming: Gotham Bar & Grill in Greenwich Village, where dishes are less creations than shopping lists, where the service is smart and polished but where the low buzz seems to be the sound of a kitchen running on empty. My bass was like bass all over town; even Alfred Portale’s trademark towering assemblage had gone low-rise. With every bite, I could only think: this is fish, and this is tomato, and this is a fava bean, but none of this is brilliant, let alone coherent. The terrine of foie gras, quail and morels was even more of a letdown despite the stacked-high piles of greens with it — the three ingredients stubbornly refused to talk to each other, and only the foie gras spoke up at all. Lentil salad and haricots verts and a pickled onion only confused the situation. Still, the bread was good, the photos on the walls were impressive and the bathroom was spiffy. What more can you ask of a high-priced legend? [Late July 2003]



The pretty good: El Teddy’s at lunchtime, where the lone waitress was superattentive, the chips and salsa were generous and the $12 duck enchiladas in mole sauce were huge enough to take home for dinner, too. 219 West Broadway, 212 941 7070. [Closed]

The bad: Paradou in the meat district, where the grilled sandwich of duck rillettes was decent enough but the waiter was overwhelmed and the bartender didn’t help, the rose was served at spit temperature on a sweltering day and the silverware was so encrusted I passed up my salad. How it stays in business with no comfort factor and prices higher than far superior Craftbar’s is also a mystery: my lunch was $33 with the bare minimum of a tip.

The misguided: Amuse in Chelsea, where a beautiful old room and bar have been sacrificed to Plexiglas design, where the noise would pain Helen Keller, where the menu is quite simply a mess. If the idea is small plates for sharing, someone needs to explain how to carve half a squab in two, and how to divvy up a baby spinach salad with one poached egg. Codfish cakes were easier to figure out, although I couldn’t detect any truffle taste in the tartar sauce, only fish in the fish. The wan orecchiete with alleged duck ragu was borderline flavor-free, and a rip at $15. Whoever matched the tables to the menu also needs to go back to geometry class: there’s no room for the weird, salty bread and requisite puddle of olive oil, let alone for glasses, once the plates start landing. [Mid-July 2003]



The extremely good: Parish & Co., where the bread is really strips of Sullivan Street Bakery’s pizza bianca, where the waitress was smart, friendly and beyond generous and where the menu has creativity to burn (sensational Jerusalem artichoke and pine nut salad; chocolate avocado pudding that tastes far, far better than it sounds). It’s a brilliant neighborhood restaurant in a gallery-rich neighborhood that desperately needs it, especially at lunchtime. The chef worked with David Bouley, and it shows in dishes like the cold avocado soup with cilantro as a top note, goat’s milk as an undertone and a swirl of citrusy broth as a highlight. Scallop dumplings were a little chewy, like seafood pierogi, but inspired nonetheless, especially with a shiso garnish and side salad of celery root and hijiki. 202 Ninth Avenue near 22d Street, 212 414 4988.

The even better: WD50, where we walked in on Saturday night on the holiday weekend and immediately got a table, snappy service and some of the most limits-pushing food outside of Spain. The menu is almost written in code: Squid linguine, cavaillon melon, serrano ham, sweet paprika is a whole much more brilliant than its intensely flavored parts — the seafood is cut to look like pasta and served warm in a tiny bowl that you want to inhale before you literally inhale. Oysters, Granny Smith apple, dried olive and pistachio does not begin to describe the cold, briny, one-dimensional terrine that arrives like the frozen, heady essence of the sea (and unfortunately melts into something resembling cat mess if you don’t wolf it right down). Corned duck was unctuous and irresistible, and rouget with nasturtium leaf, Chinese sausage and cherries was simply a little party on the palate. We only had appetizers but will be back soon for the full Wylie. 50 Clinton Street, 212 477 2900.

The seriously improved: Craft, where the $20.03 lunch special easily made all the points Tom Colicchio seemed to be trying to make with the confused and confusing menu he opened with. Everything was clear and simple and stunning and also presented for sharing: the eight thin slices of duck ham and the eight little lettuce leaves; the skinny slabbette of exquisite wild salmon cooked to perfection with Swiss chard on the side and the gamy-rich hunk of hanger steak with a restrained potato puree; even the assemble-it-yourself strawberry shortcake and the trio of sorbets. With relatively good service and good Viognier for $7 a glass, it was the best argument yet for passing up all those mid-range restaurants in Restaurant Week and instead going straight for the top: You get your time’s worth. 43 East 19th Street off Broadway, 212 780 0880. [Early July 2003]



The good: Gennaro, where we strolled right in and ate way too much food for very little money after fleeing the newish, overpriced Vicino on Columbus Avenue in frustration over sitting unacknowledged for 15 minutes while the four servers fought among themselves and we got more and more depressed by the dreary menu and gougey wine list ($27 for a generic white). Gennaro’s $8.50 orecchiete with broccoli and melted provolone was as filling as it ever was, and the $19 Regaleali was even more of an incentive to suffer the cash-only policy. As always, though, we steered clear of the double-their-money specials. 665 Amsterdam Avenue at 93d Street, 212 665 5348.

The old: Barney Greengrass, where slow is a virtue, where seedy is seductive, where the waiters are endlessly patient even with Japanese tourists who really want the fishiest fish and where I really should learn to share an order of the salmon pastrami with eggs and onions — for $14 it would feed a village. 541 Amsterdam Avenue at 87th Street, 212 724 4707.

The unspecial: Patria, where the $20.03 restaurant week lunch had an assembly-line feel — the empanada and crabcake-with-gazpacho appetizers tasted as if they had come from a waiting room, not a kitchen, and the alleged grouper was as muddy as cheap tilapia, while the pork ribs had been cooked so long the meat not only fell off the bones but the bones fell off the marrow, too (there’s tender, and there’s weird). The bread and spread (butter, roasted garlic and creme fraiche in a mortar and pestle to be blended to taste) are as dazzling as ever, though. 250 Park Avenue South at 20th Street, 212 777 6211. [Late June 2003]



The good: Bricco, where the super-thin-crust pizzas are good to the last crumb, where the antipasto and Caesar salad are above average and where the prices are low enough to make a waiter on the verge of postal almost seem entertaining. Just don’t try to eat at the bar. 304 West 56th Street off Eighth, 212 245 7160.

The seductive: D’Artagnan, where the policy seems to be “first you marinate the guest” and where you really want to be a guest, if the host is a birthday boy with a wekness for foie gras, confit and the other finer things in life. My quail-and-quail-egg salad was good, but the star of the fete was the gazpacho with duck prosciutto. Or maybe the white armagnac poured as the trou Gascon. Or was it the fritons, the goose rinds that make potato chips seem like peasant trash? 152 East 46th Street off Lexington, 212 687 0300. [Closed]

The suspiciously cheap: Spice, where $7 buys you two courses at a sit-down Thai lunch that will leave you wondering how New York soup sellers get away with puree robbery. Crunchy vegetable spring rolls in a sweet-spicy sauce might not be the best choice before a spicy-sweet duck salad (basil eggplant with chicken, maybe?), but you will get your money’s worth. The Chelsea location is good; the Village is busier and better (and those are connected when it comes to Asian food). 80 University Place at 10th Street, 212 982 3758. [Late June 2003]



‘The good: ‘Ino, where the two cooks, one bartender and lone waitress are a synchronized serving team, where the wine list is a virtual grand tour for stay-at-home Americans and where the panini are so satisfying it pays to order in multiples ($10 for one with four fillings). The owner can be forgiven his partnership in Lupa now that he’s opening Inoteca on the Lower East Side this summer. 21 Bedford Street near Downing, Greenwich Village, 212 989 5769; cash only; no reservations.

The bad: Acqua at 95th and Amsterdam, where the breaded veal cutlet would have fit a Rockport sandal, where the tomatoey seafood stew came wearing the red badge of scary and where the clientele leaned toward the cheap and bitchy.

The aging well: Inside, where the crowds have moved on but the kitchen still turns out seriously good food at unintimidating prices (most entrees are under $20). Rabbit stewed with guajillo chilies and avocado leaves was exceptional, grouper with leek and potato brandade was fine and a special of quail with grits, arugula and rhubarb would have been spectacular with a brace of better birds. 9 Jones Street between Bleecker and West Fourth, Greenwich Village, 212 229 9999. [Early June 2003]



The pretty good: Borobodur Cafe, where my Indonesian-Dutch friend thinks the cooking could use more authentically “nastyish” flavors but where I thought the corn fritters with chile sauce were the best things since hush puppies and where the $6 lunch special was a full day’s rations: chicken-vegetable soup; gado gado; spicy lamb curry, and mild chicken curry with a huge mound of rice plus shrimp chips. A pretty room, charming waitress and spotless bathroom almost compensated for a characterless bean curd/bean thread combo. 128 East Fourth Street, 212 614 9079.

The better: Angelo’s, where the carefully cooked coal oven pizza makes Patsy’s seem like mall food (the crust is as good as the cheese) and where the “individual” salads are enough for two. Add decent wines priced right and tag-team service and if you don’t feel as if you’re in Palermo, at least you won’t mind eating with mostly tourists in a bleak block after a movie. 117 West 57th Street, 212 333 4333.

The surprising: Voyage, where a meal that started out like a trip to pretentiousness evolved into a great exploration of updated, upscaled Southern cooking, with warm, smart service to boot. Where else would you get sublime blowfish on fried green tomatoes, spoonbread with a ragout of crayfish and rock shrimp, halibut on a hoecake with lobster succotash or rich-as-Ted Turner oxtail croquettes? Let alone both pappadum and fried plantains in the bread basket, plus an around-the-world wine list? No wonder every seat in the tight dining room filled after we the unreserved were shunted to a knee-cramping table in the bar. 117 Perry Street at Bleecker (the old Caribe), 212 255 9191. [Early June 2003]



The good: Nice Matin, where the little things (good bread, butter dusted with herbes de Provence) mean as much as the big ones (excellent bass on potato puree with stewed baby artichokes; magret cooked just right with super-bitter greens). The crowd all seems to be carrying East Side visas, and the decor just skirts cheesy (think Lord & Taylor’s cafes). But the waiters are enthusiastic and the sommelier loves his work and his prices ($28 for quite a good Barbera d’Alba). You can almost forgive it for being a cousin of Pigalle. 201 West 79th Street, 212 873 6423.

The reliable: Aquagrill, where the namesake sandwich was just as good the last time as the first time. And that’s saying something — it’s easily the best crab cake sandwich in the city: lots of Dungeness crabmeat with chipotle mayonnaise and wisps of slaw on perfect ciabatta with perfect fries, a bargain for $13 at lunch. 210 Spring Street at Sixth Avenue, 212 274 0505.

The great: Atelier, where Gabriel Kreuther is throwing veritable orgies of flavor — peppered foie gras with truffles and almonds; frogs’ legs in a toasted flour soup; wild mushrooms and crayfish in a puff pastry casserole; minted leeks with John Dory with blood orange sauce. He almost out-Jean Georges’ed Jean Georges. And while the room is a little stuffy, the staff is anything but. (Full disclosure: Probably because of my old Times connection, we were charged only for the cheapest tasting menu and nothing for more Champagne and wine — red, white and dessert — than was wise. I’d go back, but under my consort’s name.) Ritz-Carlton, 50 Central Park South, 212 521 6125. [Late May 2003]



The good: Branzini, where Rick Moonen’s touch was obvious in the super-rich lobster bisque with truffle foam and the crabcake with that rarity, a chipotle sauce that tasted like chipotles, and where the service did not discriminate between a woman eating alone and businessmen laying out expensable plastic. It’s not cheap (the namesake fish is $23 at lunch), but even the little touches were impressive, like the duo of tapenades (green and black) for the bread. 299 Madison Avenue at 41st Street, 212 557 3340.

The fast: Kitchen 82, where $25 buys you three courses whether you want them all or not and where the reservation-free experience is so wham-bam-here’s-your-check that you can barely decide whether the tuna appetizer needs all its froufrou garnishes or if the pecan pie would merit the name if it had more of a gooey filling. Skate was fried to a crisp, although traveling with the wrong crowd of vegetables, and roast chicken was so juicy-flavorful it could have done without the bacon in the risotto underneath. The Marsanne from Australia at $25 was almost better value than the meal even though it may have been the quickest bottle we’ve ever gone through. 461 Columbus Avenue at 82d Street, 212 875 1619.

The not quite ripe: Morrells downtown, where too much of the food on opening night actually tasted day old (mushroom-Comte crostada, Jerusalem artichoke pancakes, the rabbit in the excellent crepes) but where the grilled marinated short ribs were smoky and silky (if a bit fatty). Service was as much a work in progress as the wine list (more names in red — for “coming” — than black — for “here now”). And presentation is a problem: the weird and weary fried asparagus spears log-fencing in the risotto looked just a little too close to something else brown and skinny. 900 Broadway near 21st Street, 212 253 0900. [Late April 2003]



The consistently good: Cafe Frida, where the guacamole, quesadillas and china poblana salad are always the perfect back-to-reality indulgence, after the movies or after a trip to a country where Mexico has not invaded. The only problem is that it’s getting busier and busier. 368 Columbus Avenue near 77th Street, 212 712 2929.

The promising: Pigalle, where the brandade was better than serviceable and the tarte flambee was like quiche on a tortilla, and I mean that in a good way. Both our salads seemed to have been dressed with a Taco Bell gun, but the place was far better than you’d expect in a Days Inn in that wasteland populated by more actors than chefs. 790 Eighth Avenue at 48th Street, 212 489 2233.

The disappointing: Vida, where the service had manana written all over it, where the chips were more grease than corn and the $16.95 mahi “tacos” were not only rolled up like enchiladas but came with cold black beans that tasted fresh from the can. This guy got a cookbook? [Mid to late April 2003]



The good: Aix, where I’ve been turned off by the vaguely unsavory bar but where the duck, Arctic char and striped bass are adultly satisfying (if not as head-bangingly original as Didier was cooking up at the ill-fated Virot). Skip the licorice panna cotta, though. 2938 Broadway, 212 874 7400.


The sad: The Flamingo Room in Chelsea, where the theme seems to be 1950s Havana but where the smoked turkey was straight out of a 2003 factory and the Cubano was a few pickles short of balanced. Even with a fountain trickling, the place was so dreary at lunch it should be called the Dead Parrots Society. {Closed]


The fatally hip: Cafe Lebowitz in Nolita, where the first word of my croque monsieur should have been spelled the American way and where nicotine has literally seeped into every inch of the wood. My friend’s chicken (with rice and beans) looked as undernourished as the girls always associated with Brian McNally do, even in daylight, when he’s there and they’re not. [Early April 2003]



The good: Dos Caminos, where the tequila-sotted reviews apparently turned the opening chefs into walking pinatas but where a replacement is now cooking up the best lunchtime taco plate in the city right now. About $10 buys three little soft ones filled with super-tender skirt steak, guacamole and hot-and-smooth salsa, with sides of cheesy black beans and the best rice outside of Zarela. I can’t vouch for more, aside from snappy service and decent wine (in a crusty glass, though — time for a new dishwasher?) 373 Park Avenue South at 27th Street, 212 294 1000.

The conflicted: Carne, where the dinner Caesar with either grilled salmon ($9) or steak ($11) is always done right and where the quirky wine list is full of quirky 20-something dazzlers. Do not, however, attempt to lunch there. The sandwiches and french fries belong in the Capitol cafeteria — they’re what morons posing as solons should be forced to eat for legislating euphemisms. 2737 Broadway at 105th Street, 212 663 7010.

The unspeakable: Pampa, where a skirt steak cooked to tire consistency still oozed thick blood all over the paper table “cloth” and where the next table was deep in a graphic discussion of bone marrow transplants. [Mid March 2003]



The good: Taqueria de Mexico, where the cheesy/spicy tortilla soup is bliss in a bowl and where the weekday lunch special is cheaper than cooking at home: $5.95 for that soup, club soda and molletes (saucer-size open-face sandwich of refried beans topped with pico de gallo and melted cheese). 93 Greenwich Avenue, between Bank and West 12th Streets, 212 255 5212.

The odd: Centolire, where the service is almost hospitable and the eggplant parmesan and fried artichokes are acceptable but where the ambiance is way too close to a CEO’s wake. It was hard not to wonder if the super-garlicky Caesar salad wasn’t meant more to ward off vampires in the gloom than to please snack-hunting couples like us who wandered in from the wrong ZIP code — and generation. 1167 Madison Avenue at 86th, 212 734 7711.

The mystifying: Jefferson, where I couldn’t resist something described as “sauteed shimeji mushrooms, butternut squash, shishito peppers, fennel and taro root gnocchi and black truffle oil” and where my reward was what seemed like a small Chinatown grocery bag upended in a bowl, with none of the ingredients either communing or communicating. Oxtail raviolo with seared monkfish was almost as incoherent. Still, I have to give this gorgeous place big points for at least attempting a menu more ambitious than roast chicken and mashed potatoes. 121 West 10th Street, off Sixth Avenue, 212 255 3333. [Early March 2003]



The good: Titou, where a free-spending French friend sent me to accommodate a dollar-pinching American friend. Steak frites at $17.95 was the best dish, partly because the kitchen has a thing for serious sauces, but the appetizers of duck confit-potato galette and mille-feuille of wild mushrooms with chevre were better than respectable for $7.95. Only the fish on a Sunday night tasted like Chirac’s revenge. 259 West Fourth Street, between Perry and Charles, 212 691 9359. [Closed]

The adequate: Time Cafe uptown, where the eavesdropping at lunchtime was more interesting than the food. The character at the next table was either auditioning for Martin Scorcese, or for real. Either way it kept me from dwelling on my avocado-tomato-bacon on hallah, except to notice that the allegedly chile-dusted fries did seem a bit timid.

The borderline great: Brasserie 360, where Luc Dendievel is going to send those anorectic ladies famous for pushing around lunch either hobbling back to Bloomingdale’s or into feeding frenzies with gutsy dishes like a crepinette of pig’s feet with black truffle ($13 appetizer) or braised veal cheeks with root vegetables ($19). Service is still a little spotty, but the manager at least offered us dessert as compensation for our delayed wine (a spectacular Priorat — Mas d’en Compte — that was also the cheapest white choice, at $28). 200 East 60th Street, 212 688 8688. [Late February 2003]



The Good: @sqc, where Scott Campbell consistently cooks up some of the best food on the Upper West Side (fried oysters and calamari with Asian accents, crab cakes, salads) and where he is now offering wines at half price on Monday nights. The mystery is how he makes any money with such copious portions and the most lavish bread basket in town.

The Bad: Brasserie during the “apres-midi” menu hour. Better the place should shut down for three hours than to limit diners to $18 chopped salads of iceberg and dishwasher-poached chicken, tuna tartare on its last fins and cheeseburgers greedily priced at $16. The great bread, butter, wine and room are not anywhere near enough to compensate.

The Undistinguished: Blue Smoke barbecue, as served at the Jazz Standard. If only sax fiends could live on sausage and deviled eggs alone. The ribs had zero flavor; the catfish and hominy chili were a half-step above steam table. When Virgil’s looks good, you know it’s sad. [Early to mid February 2003]



The Good: Chango, where every birthday girl with a hankering for Mexican should be treated by good friends who can make a happy meal of multicolored chips, two lively salsas, guacamole, onion rings, crab-and-mango quesadilla and paella with lobster, chorizo and mussels. Not to mention good sauvignon blanc from New Zealand and just enough noise on a Monday night to be able to dish comfortably. 239 Park Avenue South, 212 477 1500.

The Gorgeous: Giorgione in SoHo, where I really wished I could eat the scenery. The one great dish was quintessential eggplant Parmigiana; the margherita pizza and fresh pasta with ragu were just acceptable. But there is no more beautiful room in Manhattan at lunchtime. Ask Giorgio Deluca, who opened it as his latest incarnation. 307 Spring Street, 212 352 2269

The Shining: Bayard’s in the Financial District, where the reservationist knew our name before we uttered it at 7:55. I asked: “Are we the last?” and was chilled to hear: “No, they just left.” If the huge dining room was scarily empty, the kitchen was running on all cylinders, starting with the house-smoked cod and a dazzling rendition of frisee with blue cheese, apple and bacon. My fish was superb, but the special of a hulking veal chop with truffle sauce and mashed potatoes transformed into cream haunts me. Even with entrees around $30, it was worth a $20 cab ride in both directions. 1 Hanover Square, 212 514 9454 [End of January 2003]



The Good: Sosa Borella uptown, the best thing to happen to the theater district since I had to quit going to the Times. It’s Argentinian, but you wouldn’t know it from the wine list (malbec, yes, but also viognier) or the lively food: polenta with goat cheese and roasted vegetables; superb Caesar; quintessential grilled tuna on ciabatta with avocado and roasted peppers. Skip the grilled cheese sandwiches, though.

The Better: Ouest, for the early bird special (at 5:30, a booth rather than a barstool). The duck ragout with gnocchi seemed to be playing chicken and lead, and the waiter was mostly MIA, but the souffleed omelet with mousseline was a perfect blast from the glorious past, the pork chop was nearly a roast and tuna mignon actually earned its meaty pretension. A $25 vermentino almost made up for entrees flirting with $30.

The Surreal: Fresco by Scotto, where the murals look like the poor Italian’s La Cote Basque and the entrees are as grotesquely oversized as the Lillie Langtrys tearing into them. Lasagna was 30,000 miles ahead of Delta’s, but enough to feed four aisles. Osso buco was more haunch than shank. And the leftovers from the pork chops made two meals at home. How do you say “my stomach hurts, and my eyes, too” in Italian? [Late January 2003]



The Good: Kloe, on West 14th Street, where the wild salmon on blue corn spoonbread was all cascading flavors, where the usual asparagus-beet-goat cheese salad was reinvented in a Napoleonic twist and where even the butter had a chef’s touch (chives whipped in). Creativity? Good prices? In New York? [Closed]

The Bad: Otto on Eighth Street, which should be spelled AughtZero.


The Awful: Emerald Inn on Columbus Avenue, which used to do good burgers, sandwiches and home-style vegetables and now slops out corned beef and Swiss on rubbery rye and mashed potatoes that taste as if they were made from dried flakes — soap flakes. If you’re dying to watch football, your friends will die at the wine choices (Glen Ellen, Soave Bolla). [Mid-January 2003]



The Good: El Paso Taqueria on 97th Street off Madison, where the enchiladas in green sauce are the best I’ve found — the kitchen actually lets them cook long enough to soften the tortillas and melt the cheese, heretical behavior in a microwave world — and where the grilled chicken torta is a juicy, spicy wonder.

The Bad: Lozoo on Houston Street, where the kid waiter warned us off half the menu and where the new-Shanghai cooking tastes like Chinese takeout without the white boxes. [Closed]

The Awful: Pintxos, where the anemic red from Penedes was overpriced at $21 and where patatas bravas were timid, chorizo was more grease than spice and piquillos stuffed with salt cod were actually overwhelmed by the watery pepper puree on top. Don’t ask about the bathroom, butted up against the dishwashing station. [Early January 2003]




One of the reasons I could never sustain a full-time job is that I’m addicted to the easy of the freelance life. Life in the off-hours is the only one worth living. And nowhere is that more true than at a trendy new restaurant like Schiller’s Liquor Bar, the latest Keith McNally fantasy production downtown. The place is absolute magic around noon. Then the customers have to come in and ruin it.

I stopped in one midday when only three tables were filled, and so I had acres of time to get completely seduced by the brilliance of the fakery of the place. From the outside, you could assume it’s just another Lower East Side restoration of a long-forgotten restaurant space. But what was on the corner of Rivington and Norfolk was actually a pharmacy, and my waitress said it took more than a year to transform it into this retro fantasy with tiles as chipped and worn as the ones in my 1929 kitchen, chairs uniformly decayed, mirrors as cracked and crazed as the ones at Balthazar. It also has all those little New York things that mean so much: a magazine rack stocked with publications you won’t find at your hairdresser’s; good-looking and attentive waiters (the men wearing gray T-shirts with the Heimlich poster emblazoned on the back); bottled water from the tap, and well-trained busboys who keep the flatware polished and the doggy bags coming. The bathrooms alone are worth the journey (possibly the best visual joke, and the coolest sink, below Houston Street).


I had a huge Cubano, with six times the filling of the only one I was able to find in Havana, and outstanding french fries. The wine comes in three levels, starting at Cheap and topping out at Good, for $6 a glass, but the best you can say about it is that it doesn’t make you shudder when you swallow. I would give the food a B-minus and the wine a C-minus and could still say the experience merits an A. In fact, I walked out feeling quite uplifted and immediately encountered a very old neighborhood woman hunched over her cart who asked: “Was it expensive?” “Ten dollars for a sandwich,” I said. Her gap-toothed mouth literally dropped open. “You paid it?” That was a more pleasant reality check than remembering that Schiller’s is undoubtedly overrun with cellphone vermin unless you go for weekday lunch.

Schiller’s Liquor Bar, 131 Rivington Street, 212 260 4555.




I just went almost exactly a week without eating a restaurant meal — the closest I came was a pretzel croissant from City Bakery. And it was a great six days. I ate BLTs made with Niman Ranch’s spectacular bacon and Keith’s organic arugula and heirloom tomatoes. I cooked for friends using short ribs from Oppenheimer and a superb recipe from Leslie Revsin’s new cookbook that brought tomatoes, soy sauce, vermouth, star anise, garlic, ginger and scallions into serious harmonic intensity. Some days my breakfast was the red peppers from Bialy’s farm that I’d marinated with garlic and basil and lots of olive oil, spooned onto toasted Amy’s potato bread. And one night my dinner was two ears of bicolor corn from the Greenmarket vendor at West 16th Street that has had the only ears worth husking all this sodden summer.

All this happened after I walked home from Tom Valenti’s new ’Cesca and realized I should save my 80 dollars for one really good meal rather than three or four mediocre ones — or for some incomparable ingredients at home.

The restaurant itself is much like Ouest, with the same living room lighting and big womb feel, while the food has the same boisterous flavors and extravagant proportions. My judgment may be skewed because Valenti sent out some freebies and came by a few times to talk, but I can still say the place is the best thing to open on the Upper West Side since @sqc, even if the kitchen is still on its shake-down cruise.

Probably the best dish was almost an Italianesque bouillabaisse, with cod and shellfish in a rich tomato-saffron broth with nuggets of couscous-like fregola. The arancini also need no refinement: they’re studded with wild mushrooms, fried to perfection and come with a superfluous red dipping sauce that works even better on the bread. And the marinated baby artichokes with fresh ricotta were rivaled only by the perfectly selected and cooked broccoli rabe, and by Valenti’s take on caponata.

Roasted mushrooms with polenta were disappointing, and I have yet to meet the sardine of my dreams, but there was really only one dud. Maybe it’s because I had eaten so many splendiferous gnocchi by another name in Salzburg, but ’Cesca’s were just doughy-bland, and the braised duck with them did nothing to save the situation.

The wine list is comprehensive and not gougey, the service is fine and the prices aren’t staggering ($32 veal chop, $17 bucatini). I wish you could order real food at the bar and not just arancini or olives. But that’s a small complaint about a place whose biggest accomplishment may be taking a huge bite out of the business at surly Celeste just up the avenue. ’Cesca, 164 West 75th Street, 212 787 6300. [Note: Tom Valenti is no longer involved.}



The more we go to my consort’s hometown, the more I’m fascinated by it, and not just because Frank Lloyd Wright architecture is a drive-by sighting in that broken city. We just keep finding better places to lunch, and we’ll never find a better place to stay. The Mansion on Delaware Avenue is a literal refuge from the cold, with fireplaces in the common rooms and tea lights in the well-heated rooms but also the ultimate in hospitality: an honor bar where you just go downstairs and pour a big glass to take back to bed or laptop. This trip there were three choices in white or red, but the easily the most amazing was the Whitehaven sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, which had that wonderful “cat’s pee on a bush” aspect and none of the syrupy overkill of a California wine. Even more surprising was the price: $6 a glass from a bottle listed online for $18.

Since we were upgraded to an expansive “accessible” room with a walk-in shower after I couldn’t ford the Jacuzzi-encumbered bathtub in a “classic queen,” I could even forgive the hotel its one flaw: Breakfast sucks. The morning spread of relentlessly sweet junk, mostly heavily iced pastries and sweet yogurt parfaits, was almost enough to send me screaming for South Beach. One morning there was a bizarre pasta salad to break the sugar glut, but otherwise it was diabetes on a roll. A platter of meats and cheeses would go a long way even in a city where great bread is as hard to find as unfunky fish. After all, even the spartan Holiday Inn Express out at the airport where we got the “distress rate” of $69 after missing our JetBlue flight had boiled eggs and a toaster on the breakfast bar.


But the Mansion (or MODA as it has taken to calling itself) came through at lunch our first day, when one of the bevy of girl “butlers” recommended Gabriel’s Gate nearby, where she said the wings were far superior to the Anchor Bar’s (that borders on blasphemy). We got to the pub in an old house in Allentown at 11:45, and just as I was wondering if the place was even open we saw four guys at the bar, beers and gin well underway. It was like landing in Sydney around breakfast time.


We sat near a seriously crackling fireplace, with a good view of the pickled specimens at the bar and the stuffed ones above it. Bob had to have the wings, of course, a half-order of eight, and then a beef on weck, and I tried to take the light road with a spinach salad but was foiled by the deep bowl of “hot bacon dressing,” a sludge that seemed to be equal parts syrup and fat. The sandwich went untouched and Bob went for a beer, brewed in Utica for Gabriel’s. But the wings were even better than billed: big, meaty, crispy and dripping with Frank’s hot sauce. It was our last “real” meal in Buffalo, and it was enough to make me think next trip we may finally be able to shake free of our longtime lunchtime pattern of Ted’s hot dogs and Anderson’s beef on weck and frozen custard. The butlers will do it.


Mansion on Delaware Avenue, 414 Delaware Avenue, 716 886 3300.

Gabriel’s Gate, 145 Allen Street, 716 886 0602.


One of the reasons I could never sustain a full-time job is that I’m addicted to the easy of the freelance life. Life in the off-hours is the only one worth living. And nowhere is that more true than at a trendy new restaurant like Schiller’s Liquor Bar, the latest Keith McNally fantasy production downtown. The place is absolute magic around noon. Then the customers have to come in and ruin it.
I stopped in one midday when only three tables were filled, and so I had acres of time to get completely seduced by the brilliance of the fakery of the place. From the outside, you could assume it’s just another Lower East Side restoration of a long-forgotten restaurant space. But what was on the corner of Rivington and Norfolk was actually a pharmacy, and my waitress said it took more than a year to transform it into this retro fantasy with tiles as chipped and worn as the ones in my 1929 kitchen, chairs uniformly decayed, mirrors as cracked and crazed as the ones at Balthazar. It also has all those little New York things that mean so much: a magazine rack stocked with all the publications you won’t find at your hairdresser’s; good-looking and attentive waiters (the men wearing gray T-shirts with the Heimlich poster emblazoned on the back); bottled water from the tap, and well-trained busboys who keep the flatware polished and the doggy bags coming. The bathrooms alone are worth the journey (possibly the best visual joke, and the coolest sink, below Houston Street).
I had a huge Cubano, with six times the filling of the only one I was able to find in Havana, and outstanding french fries. The wine comes in three levels, starting at Cheap and topping out at Good, for $6 a glass, but the best you can say about it is that it doesn’t make you shudder when you swallow. I would give the food a B-minus and the wine a C-minus and could still say the experience merits an A. In fact, I walked out feeling quite uplifted and immediately encountered a very old neighborhood woman hunched over her cart who asked: “Was it expensive?” “Ten dollars for a sandwich,” I said. Her gap-toothed mouth literally dropped open. “You paid it?” That was a more pleasant reality check than the realization that Schiller’s is undoubtedly overrun with cellpho

Schiller’s Liquor Bar, 131 Rivington Street, 212 260 4555.





Don’t tell Rick Marin, who calls Washington the District of Catatonia in his laugh-a-page memoir “Cad,” but the capital may be slowly emerging from its coma. My most recent weekend there was actually rather lively, at least when we sat down to eat or lay down to sleep.

We stayed at the Rouge, a boutique hotel in a neighborhood near National Geographic where the bed choices in the past have ranged from funky (Tabard Inn) to prisonesque (Governor’s House). All the skin in the safari motif lobby made it look like a destination for Explorers’ Clubbers looking to pick up escorts, but our room was as sleek and smartly outfitted as any in the Kimpton Group. Only when we opened the drapes onto the concrete tundra did we remember we were not someplace vibrant like Chicago.


We met friends for dinner around the corner at 15 Ria, in another hotel where we had stayed back when it was as stylish as Barbara Bush. I don’t know what the rooms are like now, but the restaurant had been made over more radically than the actress in “Greek Wedding.” The crowd was all young Republicans; the prices and wine pours were decidedly Democratic. I had the best dish — maple- and chile-glazed salmon over haricots verts and bacon with jalapeno corn bread pudding ($18) — but everything on the table was better and smarter than I had eaten in Washington in years. (The chef, Jamie Leeds, came from New York, of course.)


For Sunday brunch another couple of friends took us to Montmartre, a gorgeously bright cafe near the Eastern Market that felt like Paris until it filled up with typical Washingtonians (lots of brightly colored sweaters and light-colored pants; the tight jaw and uptight attitude of Dylan Baker in “Happiness”). Luckily, the menu was far from local: omelet Basquaise for me and grilled trout on well-seasoned eggplant puree for Bob.

At Poste, the super-sleek restaurant in another Kimpton hotel, we split an exceptional crab cake on sauteed greens at the bar with a couple of glasses of wine. The service was jaw-dropping: the bartender knew the wines and the menu, went to get us Metro directions and, when I handed her my credit card without checking the bill to avoid an argument over who would pay, handed the tab back “so you can check it while I ring it up.”

Only Zaytinya, the new mezze joint opened by the Jaleo group, reminded me I was in a galaxy far, far away from the center of the culinary universe. Not one of the six small plates we tried — from zucchini fritters to iman bayaldi to lamb kaftah — was as sprightly as the dullest offering at Molyvos in New York. I have one word of advice for the kitchen on its skordalia: garlic. But then if it were exciting, it wouldn’t be Washington.


Rouge, 1315 16th Street NW, 202 232 8000

15 Ria, 1515 Rhode Island Avenue NW, 202 232 7000

Montmartre, 327 Seventh Street SE, 202 544 1244

Poste, Hotel Monaco, 555 Eighth Street NW, 202 783 6060




If Nantucket was the worst of islands when it came to gouges and attitude, it was the best of islands for New York-quality food. We went expecting gummy institutional chowder and greasy fried fish and had two meals that were actually worth the flight. If you’ve packed your Platinum Card, of course.

Black-Eyed Susan’s is a case study in how to seduce the really, really rich: serve restaurantized versions of home cooking in a diner tricked up to look sleekly roughhewn. Charge for bread, and at all costs keep up the charade that this is just a little hole-in-the-wall rather than a serious kitchen. The chef is the guy without the hat, the one at the grill with the big hole in the side of his jacket that’s exposed to the counter where diners worth more than some small countries are happily bumping elbows and socking back the wine they brought themselves (and paid $2 a person — not $2 a bottle — to have opened).

As with so many Nantucket menus, the one here is logorrheic. But at least it’s focused, with the main ingredient printed alone on a line above the 32 accompaniments. And so Fig is the easily understood centerpiece of Tempura of, With Baby Spinach, Point Reyes Blue Cheese and Meyer Lemon Beet Vinaigrette. Beyond all the fussiness, frying may be the best thing that ever happened to figs.

Our waiter, who had serious EOR Syndrome (End Of Rope at the end of the season), cut through the nonsense even more. The exotic-sounding veal confit with lemon pappardelle and Chablis sauce, he said through gritted teeth, “is like stroganoff.” Trout (Carolina Mountain) sounded equally mundane but actually tasted like sweet fish rather than the grain it was fed, and the fingerling potato salad, wild arugula and Green Tabasco tarragon sauce with it actually seemed understated. The onion rings on top were knockouts: it was almost as if they had been battered in grits (the waiter had some suspicious explanation that did not jibe with the flavor or the texture). Even mackerel was irresistible, with or without its arugula pesto.

We were so impressed at how the rich eat that we went back to Black-Eyed Susan’s twice more (one great breakfast, one bad, and cold).


Le Languedoc, which locals pronounce LangDock, was the little country inn you always wished you had found while suffering through steam table sauces and overcooked roast beef. The 27-year-old restaurant is pretty, casually luxurious, well-staffed and very satisfying. It not only took credit cards but also had a gorgeous bedroom for us just up a flight of stairs. And the food was great.

It all read fussy but tasted contemporary, particularly a goat cheese tart with caramelized onions and the fat lamb tenderloin that was good to the last gnaw. The special of the day, roast duck, was already 86’d by the time we sat down at 8 o’clock, but the gray sole with spinach and mushroom sauce was a pretty satisfying second choice. With some offbeat wines by the glass and a waitress oozing charisma, it was easy to see how the place could fill two floors night after night on an island with almost as many restaurants as yachts.

Black-Eyed Susan’s, 10 India Street, Nantucket, 508-325-0308. Entrees average $26. No credit cards, no wine list.

Le Languedoc, 24 Broad Street, Nantucket, 508-228-2552. Entrees range from $19 (chicken breast) to $38 (lobster or beef tournedos).


The most liberating thing you can learn in France is not that they all secretly speak English. It’s that petit dejeuner does not have to be taken in the hotel.

For years we dutifully ate up and paid up, even though it was always slightly queasy-making to be served croissants by the same women busy changing the beds and scrubbing the toilets. Then one trip it occurred to us to wake up and smell the espresso at a cafe. The 70-franc breakfast for one suddenly dropped to 40 or 50 for two.

We used to eat around, but few trips ago we discovered a bakery called Paul near our usual refuge in the Sixth Arrondissement and have been hooked, not just on the price but on the experience. The cafe area is a cavernous room beyond the bread cases where a motley crew of multiethnic waiters works the floor in uniforms and bakers’ hats, tending to a good mix of bewildered tourists bulging in shorts and insouciant Parisians in scarves. Smoke and attitude are everywhere.

The breakfast is probably the best buy in Paris: tea or coffee, juice and either a croissant or half a baguette with butter and jam for about 3 euros. The tea is great, the coffee good, the bread superb. But the show keeps us coming back for more. You can hear relationships being forged (the morning after is always obvious) and falling apart (two women travelers in deep analysis, two more barely on speaking terms after the supercilious one who has clearly been doing the translating announces “Oh, you get Champagne!” when she spots the word flute).

This Paul is just one outlet in a massive chain, in France and outside the country, but even Jose Bove would love it.

Paul, 21 Rue de Buci, and dozens of other locations.




A city known for blizzards was overdue for a Tsunami. This Asian restaurant is the best thing to happen to Buffalo since Ted’s started grilling hot dogs and Anderson’s started piping frozen custard into cones.

My consort and I had the most fascinating meal ever in his hometown (outside of his mom’s house) when we stopped in. The space had been a Swiss restaurant the last time we made a trip to the boyhood home but had been converted into a surprisingly hip representation of a tropical oasis (although one looking out on a parking lot and pizza joint). And the waiter turned out to be not just knowledgeable about the menu and wine list but also a 9/11 Manhattan refugee, from our own neighborhood even. Needless to say, we bonded.

He unabashedly steered Bob away from the tofu extravaganza in favor of the fish steamed in a lotus leaf, a little party on the plate. He got excited when we chose an Alsatian white to go with it. Busy as the place was, he stood by to explain every element of the daily dim sum platter, three tidbits starting with a crab cake that were all big enough to share. It all made it easier to eat a Chinese barbecued duck that bore no resemblance to what I buy in Chinatown. It was actually better. But what else would you expect from a chef/owner with a good Buffalo name like Michael Andrzejewski who clearly knows there’s more to his hometown than chicken parts.

Tsunami, 1141 Kenmore Avenue, Buffalo, 716-447-7915. Dinner for two about $95. (Closed in 2006, unfortunately.)


I have no control over my feet whenever I pass Curry in a Hurry. They automatically turn left off Lexington Avenue at the first corner when I leave Kalustyan’s after stocking up on ghee and cumin and basmati rice. The vegetable samosas at CIAH are not the best in the city, but they are the easiest to walk in and buy, right off the steam table (by way of the microwave), and stroll out eating. Unfortunately, the last time I succumbed I discovered a new street snack that might be even more irresistible, not just because it’s there but because it’s great. “Cheese nan $2.50” is all the white paper label taped on the menu on the wall says about it, but it’s really the equivalent of an Indian quesadilla, puffy dough baked to order in the tandoori oven with a thin layer of cheese (or cheese product, which melts even better) in the center. Why would anyone want to walk along eating a hot dog?

130 East 29th Street, NYC.