New York minutes/Early July 2008

The ideal: Fairway upstairs, where a very motley crew of us assembled to appease some who hate fish, some who were bored with Italian and Mexican and one who wanted mashed potatoes. We walked in around 8 on a Thursday and immediately got a round table for seven and an accommodating waiter and good food at a great price (although I doubt that the Atlantans and the Illinoisans would agree on the latter). I just had the pizza with prosciutto and arugula and a few bites of my consort’s perfectly executed (for a change) skate and a forkful of my littlest sister’s daughter’s Caesar. Everyone seemed happy enough with the chicken schnitzel and skirt steak on the great-value special menus, and I will never complain about sauvignon blanc that cheap. Plus we could hear each other talk. Most of us, anyway. And for some reason, the 20 percent service included struck the outlanders as a bonus. 2127 Broadway at 74th Street, 212 595 1888.

The serviceable: Spice, where five of us took refuge in a drenching rainstorm when we set out to explore the Greenmarket at Union Square and two of the out-of-towners balked at Rosa after having tried the Atlanta branch. The place was deserted for a change, and the staff could not have been nicer. I got a noodle-free pad Thai that was gloppy and good with lots of smoked tofu and vegetables, after the crispy spring rolls, and none of us could finish our food (even with the much smaller cup-size of rice shaped in a Madonna bra). The bill with tip was $44 if that says anything — I think I spent that much on produce four blocks north once the skies cleared. 60 “Universal” (University) Place, 212 982 3758.

Also, I was not invited to the celebration of the unholy marriage but would still have chosen to trek to Tribeca to another party the same night. The chef is engaging as hell (despite his lineage), his partner’s no dummy and the pastry chef has credentials to spare (Blackbird impresses me more than the Big E, though). The space they found looked great, too, but that might be because the Sancerre-filled wineglasses were the size of Prada chalices. I only tried a little of the food, but even this chicken shunner was impressed by the deep-fried nuggets. WIGB? Soon, I hope.

New York minutes/End o’ June 2008

The great: The New French, yet again, where we headed after Werner Herzog’s latest at prime time on a Saturday and where we were fortunate enough to arrive with just long enough of a wait to be distracted by excellent sparkling rose in paper cups out on the sidewalk. Some of the scariest words you can hear on entering a restaurant are “party of 12 ahead of you,” but the kitchen and the staff were more than up to the punishing challenge. Four of us split the pizza bianca of the day (two cheeses with roasted peppers) and stole forkfuls of the beet salad with superb dressing, then passed around the excellent braised lamb, pulled pork sandwich and top-grade Nicoise (well, I made it that by ordering tuna rather than salmon or beef). My consort scored highest with the special fish, seared skate over corn and bacon etc. He said it sounded like Bouley Bakery’s, but it was at least five times better. We also overindulged in desserts, a ginger creme brulee and berries with lemon curd. They know me now, but I don’t think the service was affected, and I did appreciate a table against the wall rather than out in the room, because it does get loud. Especially when four friends are arguing about a movie only one thinks is totally brilliant. WIGB? I think I’m moving in. 522 Hudson Street, 212 807 7357.

The good: Bouley Bakery, where we coincidentally wound up for brunch the day after the skate and where the halibut was perfectly fine but not what it once was, which is just like the place. The market floor where the bathrooms are was pretty funky-smelling; the carpet on the stairs was pretty beaten down; the whole room had a seedy aspect (napkins stuffed into vents to stop drips?) But the energy was still there, even late on a Sunday when the cooks have seared about enough burgers. I had the wild smoked salmon over rosti potatoes, which was immensely satisfying even though the arugula strewn over the top was past its prime and the caviar was the kind my dad used to use to catch lesser fish. And Bob’s halibut was the same as it ever was, pristine fish cooked just right, set over coconut milk with shiitakes, corn and peas, the latter seemingly straight from the Birds Eye farm. Service was outstanding, and there could be no better place to be during two serious thunderstorms, with those windows looking out onto those old buildings. The funniest part was that we had to wait for a table late in service while the new incarnation of Duane Park Cafe a few doors away was pretty much empty aside from a hostile broad at the “hostess” stand. And this was after we had actually decamped from a table at the new Fish Market at the Seaport because the bartender was overextended and some broadette in a tight black dress refused to acknowledge customers. I was fried by the time we got there, but the destination was more than worth the long walk north through hordes of lumbering tourists. And not just because we got to watch some blonde young thing plow through a steak, eggs, toast, potatoes and a huge side order of sausages a couple of tables away. Made me wonder if her escort realized that what looks like a lusty appetite at 25 is obese gluttony at 35. WIGB? Maybe. The host/waiter was outstanding. 130 West Broadway at Reade Street, 212 608 5824.

The promising: New Amsterdam Market, where Bob and I schlepped for different reasons and where we both hoped the Fulton Fish Market can find a second life. The food on offer was impressive, and not just because it was the right mix of Greenmarket familiarity and off-island artisanal imports. We bought Bouchon bread with rhubarb and pistachios after sampling a bit, and ground veal after just spotting it (I needed it for a story) for only $3 (Unholy Foods gets $7.99 a pound for meat of murky origins). Flying Pigs was there, so I was able to get pork for work reasons as well. Bob tried his fill of amazing cheeses, but I could have gone through two or three more times with toothpick in hand. And both of us put Peasant on our restaurant agenda after tasting the razor clam salad/ceviche being portioned out on razor clam shells. What was most intriguing is that I spotted exactly one other professional eater there. Hope they can get it off the ground, but it is much more Ferry Plaza than Union Square, and the tourists just to the west are mostly of the Disney World variety — I can’t remember when I last saw so many hippos lumbering past in short shiny shorts bunched at crotch level.

New York minutes/Late June 2008

The good again: The New French, where my faith in the restaurant business is always restored — it is possible to get it exactly right right out of the starting gate. And the advantage over Pearl is that it was open Saturday for lunch when my consort and I had an errand on Bleecker Street. The tuna sandwich on pizza bianca with fries was just as amazing as last time, and the brisket sandwich on ciabatta with greens was nearly its equal — I took the last four bites home. We were going to skip wine, but the rose was too tempting and the waitress too easy to hail. The best part was that the brunch menu had those eggless alternatives. And without elaborating, I’ll just say the attention to detail is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in this city. Even the doggie bag is right (no wasteful packaging there). WIGB? My cover’s blown, but absolutely. 522 Hudson Street near 10th Street, 212 807 7357. 

The surprisingly good: La Rural, where we headed for a latish Sunday supper despite having heard stories of rudeness and cluelessness recently but where we got service as good as the food. We shared a cheap bottle of Malbec plus a skirt steak — a great slab of meat grilled really rare, with a mound of sauteed grape tomatoes alongside — and an excellent tricolore salad with blue cheese. We were there too late for garden seating (it ends at 8), but our table right by the back door compensated. WIGB? Even with no BYOB, it’s still good value and a really nice room. 768 Amsterdam Avenue near 98th Street, 212 749 2929.  

The reassuringly good: Toloache, where we retreated from the hordes and the Trader Joe’s plonk at the ICP student exhibition and where the food and service were as superb as ever, even if the cooks were now wearing gloves (why anyone thinks those are better than clean hands is beyond me). We got our favorite seats at the guacamole bar and shared overstuffed brisket tacos, a quesadilla with huitlacoche and the trio of empanadas; we ordered in stages, and somehow comped guacamole with chips and salsa verde materialized in between rounds one and two. The vibe in the place is always great, too. 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818. 

The whoa, what the hell happened? Gallo Nero, where I lured a friend for a scheming lunch when she had to be in that neighborhood for a meeting and where I walked out embarrassed nearly two hours later. Not only was everything we ordered lame, but it was also slow — three small dishes took forever to come. The porcini under the provolone on crostini were slimy, and the crab in the crab cakes could have been canned salmon. The fried calamari and zucchini were fat rubber bands and a few charred slices of squash. Even the bean puree with the bread needed salt. The waiter was the solicitous one from my first trip, and the wine was decent, and the room was still very charming. But WIGB? Not on a bet. 

New York minutes/Mid-June 2008

The excellent: The New French, where I met a friend for lunch and where the place turned out to be more appealing almost empty (the Maira Kalman walls are easier to appreciate, too). The kitchen had all the energy missing in the room: My sandwich of fresh (confit) tuna on pizza bianca was perfect, as was the huge mound of fries burying the two halves; Katrina, a sucker for “old” French, had crepes filled with goat cheese, peppers and mushrooms that were anything but stodgy and were themselves buried under a big mound of well-dressed greens. The waitress both paid attention and backed off, and she was great on wine recommendations for my Chablis-loving friend. I didn’t try her cappuccino, but it too was huge. Great place even before you add in the prices ($9.50 for that amazing sandwich, $9.75 for crepes). 522 Hudson Street near West 10th, 212 807 7357.

The half-good: Roberto Passon, where my consort and I wound up after the disgustingly funny “Harold & Kumar” when he wanted something small but not wine-bar-proportioned (tiny portions, absurd prices) in a neighborhood that seems to alternate Thai joints with Italian imitations. I spotted a Caesar on the menu, which is all I wanted after popcorn, so we ventured inside and the happy hostess gave us a nice table by the window to watch the Sunday sidewalk parade outside. If only the waitress had been as enthusiastic. Jeebus. My salad had a rather watery dressing, but the two spreads with the bread were good, and Bob’s $14 fusilli with radicchio and bacon looked disgusting but tasted great. WIGB? Maybe, but I’d sit in the other half of the dining room, the one where the other waitress was doing nothing while Ms. Surly grudgingly tended to too many tables. Still, it was far preferable to a cock sandwich in Guantanamo. 741 Ninth Avenue at 50th Street, 212 582 5599.

The adequate: Rosa Mexicano across from Lincoln Center, where they really need to train a tortilla maker. You get about three times as many with the queso fundido as you do on 18th Street, but they are so poorly turned out that for the first time ever I thought I could make better on my own. The chorizo was weirdly stringy, too, and I excavated exactly two rajas. But the waiter was decent. And the room is always cheery. WIGB? Not until I can blank out that weirdness in the chorizo.

The unsurprising: Fairway Cafe, where Bob and I met a friend from the sleepy suburb on one of those nights hot enough to melt chocolate chips and where we got just what we were hoping for — air conditioning, fine Caesar salads, excellent skirt steak with fries and lots of cheap wine (the last being the prime lure). Where else in town can you get a New Zealand sauvignon blanc for $18? For a bottle, not a couple of glasses?

The dead: El Paso on 97th, where I will never go back after a fat, oily, sluggish waiter officiously informed me a special order I have been special ordering since the day the place opened was not available. And this after friends who used to live a couple of blocks away but have now exiled themselves to deepest Jersey told us they had come back to their favorite neighborhood destination for Mother’s Day only to find it “not good and not clean.” In desperate need of nachos with chorizo, my guiltiest of pleasures (I eat only a quarter of an order), I set out across the park while determinedly putting all images of hair in refries, crud on platos, mierda on toilets out of my head. Only to be treated like a huge annoyance, with sports on the teevee and FOS waiter more engrossed in that than his job in down time. Was it the “chipotle aioli” on the special brunch menu by the new chef that changed a simple substitution into an impossibility? One thing that always redeemed this place before it got art on the walls and other accouterments was a staff that seemed happy to serve in a neighborhood that is all about indentured servitude. Not this Saturday. WIGB? With the lobo edging closer to the door, I can make my own effen enchiladas.

New York minutes/Early June 2008

The pretty good: Fairway Cafe, where my consort and I retreated after finding the Sheep Meadow Cafe closed on a Monday night and where we actually had the best service ever if not the greatest food. The waiter ran up to us as we walked in, said a window table was opening up in a few minutes and then stayed attentive throughout the meal. The great lure there is always the $5 sauvignon blanc from New Zealand (half the price anyone else extracts), but my consort was craving rose and got taken in by the “seaside tipple of the filthy rich” for $7.50, which actually turned out to be white zinfandel’s poor French cousin. The $6.50 shiraz was much better. I hadn’t had a real meal in a couple of days, so I ordered skate, which was fresh enough but not expertly fried; Bob’s game hen, though, was outstanding, very flavorful and juicy. The paltry frites also kicked the steamed potatoes’ ass. 2127 Broadway at 74th Street, 212 595 1888.

The pretty great: Pearl Oyster Bar, where I got to indoctrinate a first-timer in the total bliss of the fried fish sandwich at the bar, the only place to sit at lunch. It was halibut for a change but, as always, totally fresh, cooked just right and perfectly balanced with the bread, tomato, lettuce and drippy tartar sauce. And the fries were outstanding again. I took half of mine home for lunch the next day (it was still good), but she soldiered on to the last bite, even while observing that “this sandwich is like Moby-Dick.” We seemed to be surrounded by VIPs but couldn’t imagine anything bigger or better. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.

The not too bad: Dean’s Pizzeria, where we stopped after a party with a couple of friends to soak up the dangerously fortified vodkas we’d ingested and where we survived the lack of air conditioning by snaring a table just inside the door, in a breeze. The salad for one was enough for all of us, and we took a third of the mushroom-sausage pizza home. The crust struck me as more Pillsbury this time, and half the mozzarella had that weird sliminess turning up everywhere, but it did the job. 215 West 85th Street, 212 875 1100.

The strange: The Modern, where I’m not sure a press lunch should be used to judge the “real” kitchen but where the food was actually so peculiar I have to say so. Gabriel Kreuther has always been a favorite chef, so I was surprised that the first course was just a bunch of ingredients on a plate, mostly lobster; I ate it all because I knew lamb was on the way, but it was really another of those Mormon marriages. As for the lamb, the huge honking slab on the T-bone was nearly impossible to saw through with the knife provided; at least the Alsatian gnocchi with it were gummable. And the dessert was really amateur hour, a clumsy chocolate tartlet with an oozing center that overwhelmed the two ports it was meant to complement. All very odd. But the company was excellent, the service beyond superb. Just not sure I’d go back and spend my own money on the fancy side of the bar.

New York minutes/End o’ May 2008

The atmospherically good: The Sheep Meadow Cafe, where a friend and I connected for an early dinner and where the scenery is well worth eating at any price. We were the second table of the night, so the waiter was hyper-attentive even though we wanted to dawdle before ordering. And $8 sauvignon blanc in a small plastic cup turned out to be surprisingly easy to swallow. The bravely burger-free menu is heavy on meat, but Donna wisely chose the grilled trout with salsa verde when I stupidly ordered the grilled portobello (the $16 price would have put me off if I hadn’t bought four pounds for lasagne for my consort’s birthday party for $5 to $6 a pound just a few days earlier — not much of a markup there). At least my vegetarian steak was properly cooked; the mushrooms in the grilled vegetable medley that came with it were underdone. My fries were also superior to her potato salad, both included on the plate. WIGB? Eating in any park on a gorgeous evening is such a transporting experience that we could have been served rat burgers with roach frites. But here you can watch the young grill jockey in his crisp whites and shorts cook it clean. Central Park, just inside the 69th Street entrance on the west side, 212 396 4100.

New York minutes/Late May 2008

The good: Rhong-Tiam in the West Village, where my consort and I met friends in from the ’burbs who wanted something not too fancy on a weeknight and where they were unnerved by the emptiness of the place but we were thrilled by the cooking. My pal who would know has raved about the place on his blog, so we mostly used his cheat sheet to order and totally followed his advice to get plenty of rice because the food is authentically incendiary. The papaya salad was exceptional despite being almost too hot to eat, but the duck chu chee (succulent deep-fried breast with curry gravy) was just right even though I insisted on having it spicy. Overall, flavor trumped heat. Nuer nam tok (Thai beef salad) was outstanding, the meat very tender and the lime sauce very lively. “Roasted pork neck” as an appetizer looked similar but tasted different, with thin juicy slices in a vibrant fish and chili sauce. Tom yum was very rich and full of seafood. Crispy basil pork was also smoking but balanced, with the stir-fried ground meat mixed with sweet and hot peppers under a duck blind of deep-fried herb leaves. Even the non-spicy compromise entree, the lemongrass chicken, was at least 10 times better than anything I’ve experienced in most Thai restaurants. We also split two ice creams and a creme brulee, and while Bret warned that beer was the best choice because the wine would probably not be good, the list was actually smart (maybe too much so — we ran up a ridiculous tab with only two iced teas and one sake on the other side of the table). WIGB? Can’t wait, assuming it lasts — I don’t think more than two other tables filled the whole evening. 541 LaGuardia Place, between West Third and Bleecker Streets, 212 477 0600.

The better: The New French, again, where Bob and I headed after being spurned at La Lunchonette, where we stupidly headed after a friend’s gallery opening nearby (the place was literally half-empty and they insisted we needed a reservation; luckily, the rebuff lasted just long enough to make me remember how mediocre the food was the last time we risked it). Our second choice was packed, but they took Bob’s name and cell number and promised they would call us in 30 minutes if we wanted to go have a drink across the street. So we had a glass at Bayard’s and then, right on time, got the ring tone to head back for that perfect table in the window and an overall excellent experience. The place has so much energy, and the staff seems so happy that it’s jammed and jazzy. (Not incidentally, that staff is exactly the same as the first time we went.) I just had the pizza bianca again, this time topped with two cheeses, onions and peppers, while Bob, who had started the night craving fish, tucked into a huge Nicoise-esque salad with charred steak (he ordered medium and it arrived rare, as it needed to be). Wines by the glass were excellent and priced right (about $9), and the service was exemplary, too. Odd as it sounds, it felt like eating in a new place in Paris. WIGB? If we can get in. 522 Hudson Street near West 10th, 212 807 7357.

The annoying: Bar Blanc in the West Village, where I took my super-stressed consort for his birthday (blame a certain Alsatian) and where I had that Niagara Falls feeling (what’s a honeymooner’s second biggest disappointment?) The host and waiter were superb, but they stuck us back at a table so cramped it was really like eating at 30,000 feet — I couldn’t stretch out my fucked-up leg, and every time the polyester napkin slid off my lap it was like trying to retrieve something from an aisle clogged by a drinks cart. Bob hated that, but I pointed out that at least we were not under the techno-thumping speakers. He got more pissed when the sommelier presented the verdejo we ordered from the relatively reasonable list and then vanished to open it. If he did so in front of the customer, he explained when asked, “Things could happen.” Okay. . . . All of which would have been forgiven, but the food was surprisingly one-note given the Bouley heritage of the founders. Buffalo mozzarella with ramps turned out to be two bland balls, cold at the center, sitting in rapidly cooling mushroom foam. Seared black cod with “wilted arrowleaf spinach, roast sunchoke, squid ink, saffron mussel sauce [really foam again]” proved to be just what it read like: one of those Mormon marriages on a plate. Bob’s crispy striped bass was at least redeemed by the amazing black risotto on which it rested. The olive bread was outstanding, more so with the olive oil for dipping. But as we headed out on an early Friday night as the cheap “Sex and the City” knockoffs were settling in, we were wishing we had realized P*ong was just a couple of doors away. WIGB? Fool me once. . .

New York minutes/Mid-May 2008

The good: El Paso Taqueria and Toloache, each in its own way. The former was our refuge after we realized Square Meal would be filled with fixed and scary rich bitches at lunchtime when we were looking for sustenance after the underwhelming Cai Guo-Qiang at the Guggenheim; the latter was our happy destination after the not-great opening at ICP (pretty bad when the best image is the actuality of Diane Keaton being photographed by cellphone). As always, El Paso came through with excellent enchiladas (red sauce, green sauce) if not solicitous service, while Toloache delivered superb pork tacos and huitlacoche quesadilla and a special crab salad well worth the $15, with splendiferous service. 64 East 97th Street, 212 996 17390; 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.

The not bad: A Cafe, where I met my consort after work on his co-worker’s recommendation and where it was hard to complain about anything when the service — one waiter totally on top of everything — was so amazing and the tab for three courses was $38 before tax and tip. BYO is a huge savings, but said waiter took the time to engage as he uncorked our bottle and stopped back repeatedly to be sure we were happy; when we asked for the leftovers (in foil swans) he even came back to be sure we didn’t want a sauce that would not survive the trip home. Bob and I split a grilled avocado, of which the less said the better (nirvana to me is half a Hass slathered with Hellmann’s), and then I just had the vegetable terrine, which was refrigerator-fatigued. The merguez with couscous, though, was outstanding, and lamb is far from my favorite meat. (The only good thing about it? It’s not deer.) WIGB? Maybe. I hear the neighborhood is better than it looks. 973 Columbus Avenue near 108th Street, 212 222 2033.

The adequate: Heights Cafe in Brooklyn, where I stopped for sustenance after interviewing a neighborhood resident who said the food most places was the shitz. He recommended Teresa’s two doors down, but on my most optimistic days I never have high hopes for Polish (don’t tell my in-law equivalents). This place looked great, and it was staffed like the first-class cabin of British Air. But I should have known a $10.95 crab cake sandwich would be mostly bread, between the filler and the bun. Still, the fries were pretty good, and the pickle was exceptional. And the room looked great. WIGB? Not in that big booming borough. 84 Montague Street, 718 625 5555.

The high: Suenos in Chelsea, where I led three friends after “Iron Man” at that nasty theater on 23d Street and where we all were almost blown back to the street by the pungency of geriatric fish as we stepped inside. Only the facts that it was late and nothing close by seemed reasonable kept us from fleeing, but Pam did actually get up and leave our booth to walk outside and see how funky it seemed on her re-entry. The place passed, so we split a bottle of too-fruity Torrontes and a bunch of appetizers and the staff was nice enough not to roust us even as it got later and later. Unfortunately, I think the best flavor experience was the black bean spread with cornbread that arrived gratis. Well, maybe the cute little beef taquitos and a “shrimp stack” of which I tasted only the garnishes. Plantain empanadas with goat cheese were molasses sweet, while the quesadilla with chayote etc. was misguided at best. Nobody finished the chilaquiles. And why do I suspect the webmaster is also the fish steward? WIGB? Not likely.

The medium-low: Anthos, where I steered the boss lady from the other coast for dinner and where the room, service and overall experience could not have been more ideal but where the cooking just refused to do what I promised. The menu read great; it was nearly impossible to decide which combination of mind-bending combinations to go for. The assorted pre-tastes were also enticing — of the four I only tried the cod tatziki and fried halloumi but was totally jazzed. The rolls were spectacular, to the point that I even felt compelled to taste the goat butter offered alongside a quenelle of regular butter (still can’t get into the dairy I was weaned on). I was even able to ingest the mini of lamb carpaccio. But my grilled quail appetizer was just okay, dry and not especially flavorful, redeemed only by the braised endive and fried halloumi underneath; turbot over fried oysters with cardoon etc. was just a Mormon marriage with none of the partners talking. Mme X’s sheep’s milk dumplings were the best thing we tasted: pungent but airy and paired with favas, peas and other complementary greenery. Unfortunately, the “milk fed” chicken with figs, walnuts and Metaxa sauce continued her Benoit losing streak. I came away thinking something I never have at Kefi: The best floor staff on the planet cannot compensate for an absent genius chef. WIGB? Unfortunately, my Lotto ship will not be coming in to make it possible. Entrees go for what a bottle of wine used to cost. Then again, that assyrtiko at $14 a glass was pretty easy on the “pallet.” 32 West 52d Street, 212 582 6900.

New York minutes/Early May 2008

The not too bad: La Palapa, where I wound up at late brunchtime after the Saturday market when I literally could not trudge another step, let alone the few blocks to Cabrito. It’s not much of an excuse, but I still think I did better than I would have if I’d stayed at Wildwood with the fat tourist at the next table almost in my lap and the cheesy music blaring and the waiters so oblivious and the patent bogusness of the place so palpable. The chorizo in my cheesy eggs had zero flavor, but the $9.95 plate came with decent guacamole and a big slab pond of black beans, and the three salsas helped. WIGB? Stranger things have happened. 359 Sixth Avenue, 212 243 6870.

The not too horrible: Rohm Thai, where I stopped for a quick, cheap lunch rather than my usual queso fundido fix after the Wednesday market. The host and waitress were excellent, and the place is reasonably attractive, but it would be a stretch to describe the food as any better than mediocre. “Sauteed” duck off the $9 lunch menu was really a few hacks of a crispy breast, a dollop of bland peanut sauce, a big heap of rice and a lot of broccoli florets and carrot coins with no perceptible taste, only texture. A salad was included and maybe should not have been: a leaf of iceberg lettuce, a few carrot strips, a mushy tomato slice and a tidal wave of sweet dressing. WIGB? Maybe — my consort’s office gets takeout often, so it’s possible I just ordered badly. And how many Thai restaurants offer duck as an alternative to chicken, beef and tofu? 27 East 20th Street, 212 228 7681.

The hellish: Cafe du Soleil, where I stupidly led a friend who wanted to eat outside on one of those glorious evenings recently and where the usual bus fumes, traffic noise, pooping dogs and other sidewalk nuisances were supplemented by the most astonishing performance ever by a howler monkey. I got there first and chose a table next to a really old couple, not realizing they were just finishing, let alone that a kiddy ride was just outside the picket fence. By the time Donna arrived, an older guy with a trophy baby had taken their place, and two human larvae were shrieking to the incessant tune of “It’s a Small World After All.” Before long the 18-month-old with the huge diamond earrings in her pierced ears was joining in the symphony, and the more the show-off dad — and what was apparently his son from an earlier marriage — ignored her, the louder she got. Donna was more perturbed by the other parents, who were blithely ignoring the chaos on the ride, but even she finally had to say she would offer to help the dad but knew she would wind up holding the kid. Which would do neither of us any good as we tried to drink away our dejection over her ridiculously undercooked salmon and my slimy duck pizza. (Who knew fake mozzarella now comes in smoked flavor?) It got worse, too: the father actually stuck the kid in the stroller and pushed it out to the curb, then walked away as if abandoning her. Which of course only made her scream louder. Only the intervention of another mom now letting her own kid ride wild calmed the baby down somewhat. If I were the investing type, I would be putting all my money into psychotherapy clinics. Some seriously fucked-up kids are going to need all the help they can get. WIGB? Never at feeding time for the privileged and the oblivious. The bread, olives, wine and waiter were all fine. 2723 Broadway near 104th Street, 212 316 5000.

A tale of two cappuccinos: The Sheep Meadow Cafe charges $4, uses paper cups and plastic spoons, requires self-service (and busing) and lets you sit as long as you like. Bouchon, in the dread TWC, charges $4.25 plus tax and tip, uses real china and silver, has a hostess and waiters (one a live ringer for a character in the original “Office”) and lets you sit as long as you can resist the steady upselling and finally the subtle but very effective hints that your welcome is now officially outworn. So which one had the better beverage? Maybe it was a case of no expectations, but the one in the park actually surmounted all the strikes against it. Bouchon’s was scorched. Of course, life is a series of tradeoffs. As my date at the Sheep Meadow notes, the bird shit was free.

New York minutes/End o’ April 2008

The good until it got annoying: Pudding Stone West, where I arranged to hook up with a friend on a chilly Sunday night and regretted it once great throngs of cloned women — all the same age, all the same look — thronged in and started whooping and Vows-hunting. Until then, we had been enjoying our $9 wine at the bar, with the superb bartender and a martini glass filled with $10 avocado puree for dipping with chips. By the time my consort turned up, I had heard about enough. WIGB? Only if I can sit outside. There are worse things than views of funeral homes where you can still hear the eulogy. 645 Amsterdam Avenue at 91st Street, 212 787 0501.

The not bad: Bodrum Mediterranean, where the three of us decamped in search of quiet, a good snack and more wine and where those minimal expectations paid off. The place is pretty slick, with good flatware, but we were only in the market for mezze and happily split a $14 plate of mixed tastes and then a pizza. The first (hummus, babaganoush, lebne etc.) I liked better than my consort did, and the second left me wondering, yet again, what in the name of rennet people are buying instead of real mozzarella. This was like slime on a crust, and it’s the same mucus-like experience you suffer everywhere pizza is sold anymore. WIGB? Maybe, because it’s in the neighborhood, and our friend who used to live here was amazed at the options. Still, when we signed our bills at 9:20, we felt as if we were keeping the staff from going home. 584 Amsterdam Avenue near 88th Street, 212 799 2806.