New York minutes/Mid-February 2008

The pretty good: Pegu Club, where seven of us met for early drinks on a Friday and could actually hear ourselves talk until about 9 in a second-floor space that really looks straight out of Hong Kong. Our social secretary, Julie, snared us a huge but snug booth near the bar and was waiting with a generous glass of wine, the sight of which made the $12 price tag much easier to swallow. (After extensive research, the Goldwater sauvignon blanc was more to my taste than the Joseph Drouhin Chablis.) We ordered not enough food, unfortunately, and I tasted only the good deviled eggs stuffed with trout and something strange; pulled-duck sliders with excellent filling, okay vegetable spring rolls and a bit of the exceptional tuna tartare. We had to sit next to Republicans, though, which was so unnerving that when I made some lame joke about the oceans and the fucker in the White House I thought the waitress was coming by to shush me. But that, sadly, was one of the few times she or anyone else in a dress voluntarily approached the table. A little more service would generate many more orders. 77 Houston Street near West Broadway, 212 473 PEGU.

The better than usual: Pearl Oyster Bar, where I went for my lunchtime fix of skate sandwich and where what seemed to be a new kitchen team was more surgical than on my last outing — the ciabatta was layered perfectly with just enough tomato and greens without huge globs of tartar sauce. The bartender was also new to me but was, as they always are, worthy of a starring role in a training video on service. Surprisingly if refreshingly, it was almost all solo diners on a rainy day and no one wanted to chat. But they still shared, if unwittingly: One woman was clearly on a POB orgy, starting with shrimp, then a lobster roll, then a butterscotch praline sundae, nearly licking the plates clean every time; a hungover guy almost had his head in his Caesar salad until his clams arrived and he snapped back to life. WIGB? Where else can you get two meals for one price? My consort had the other half of my huge sandwich for a late dinner. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.

The promising: Madaleine Mae, where a friend and I had a magical lunch with snow showering down out the windows and where I swore I would never go for dinner but still found myself just four nights later, wedged into the next table. Kinks are still being worked out, but our food at lunch was well above Columbus Avenue standards — the seafood gumbo needed only a little Tabasco, the crab cake sandwich was very meaty and the mirliton fritters with roasted pepper aioli were so dangerously good we only tasted rather than risking a Mr. Creosote. Service was a little erratic, but it had just opened, and our waitress was ebullient if not totally attentive (Jonathan himself waved goodbye as we left, though). And the room is so seductive, with barely a trace of its time as Kitchen 82. I assumed it would be brutally loud at dinner, but Bob and I were due out of a movie at 7 and so I reserved. Noise was not an issue, and although the tables around us were antsy about the service, the waitress was surprisingly efficient, although she did need to be prodded to bring the bread trowel everyone else had gotten. So we tried those four breads and were underwhelmed by all but one sort of warm biscuit; the scone, second biscuit and cornbread were all cold and chewy, not light or flaky or airy. Wines were good again, starting at $8 a glass for red or white from Argentina. My nut-crusted redfish tasted as if it was at least as old as the restaurant, but the new-wave succotash with squash that came under it was vinegary and great. And Bob’s jambalaya was outstanding, rich but light and with the perfect balance of seafood and sausage to popcorny rice. It all just made us wonder why Jacques-Imo’s went out of business serving similar food five blocks south. I guess it needed the not-from-around-here crowd. . . . WIGB? Often, I suspect. 461 Columbus Avenue at 82d Street, 212496 3000.

New York minutes/Early February 2008

The good: Toloache, yet again, where eight of us and a 6 1/2-pound frog wedged into a tight table to run up a big bill with grasshopper tacos, ceviches, quesadillas and more after our friend Dr. Bugs’ taping on Stephen Colbert. Proximity to the studio was the main appeal, but the food and service came through, too. When we got there, after the car had delivered the two stars and the wrangler of one, the staff had already dealt with the weirdness and soon the wine, margaritas and food were flowing. I just had my usual huitlacoache quesadilla and some good (allegedly) spicy guacamole, but my consort ordered an amazing duck special in a green chile sauce, beautifully cooked and perfectly balanced. It’s a far cry from El Paso on 97th Street, where I had excellent chilaquiles with tomatillo sauce the day before, but it’s satisfying in much the same way. WIGB? Constantly, it seems. 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.

The not bad: Regional, where my consort treated me to dinner on yet another night when I wasn’t up to eating let alone cooking and where he got what he deserved given that he was paying. My special of grilled eggplant, tomato and mozzarella was just what I should have expected in February, with undercooked eggplant and pathetic tomato, and my cod-fritter appetizer was fried to less than perfection although the fish itself was great. But Bob’s salad of arugula and plum tomatoes was the same satisfaction it always is, and his pasta with lamb ragu had so much of the latter that he had enough to make a work lunch with rice next day. The service was good, the bread and bean spread excellent as always and the noise level — fortunately for us, not so good for a restaurant trying to stay afloat — painless. WIGB? Why not? 2607 Broadway near 99th Street, 212 666 1915.

The dinery: French Roast, where I stopped after getting my stitches yanked and my jaw set free and where I was so ready for a great breakfast I would have been happy with three bites of anything painless. I wanted toast, bacon, eggs and home fries after a week of nibbling and gumming, but I settled for a huge omelet overstuffed with crisp bacon strips and soggy tomatoes and a little Gruyere plus a basket of baguette slices and butter and a few honkin’ huge potato chunks with ketchup. Walking from 86th and CPW to 85th and B’way just brought home how the Upper West Side is being eaten away by greed, though. Diners are disappearing as fast as bodegas as the banks and drugstores and nail parlors proliferate, but maybe this is the new template: Open 24 hours, cheaper than Artie’s, not as industrial and synthetic-feeling as the Greek places that manage to hang on, and with nicotine-free waiters to boot. WIGB? There may soon be no choice. . . . 2340 Broadway at 85th Street, 212 799 1533.

New York minutes/Early February 2008

The pretty good: Lunetta, where my consort and I stopped on a Saturday when we needed sustenance after the Greenmarket and I had limited options two days after surrendering two wisdom teeth. The hostess was great, some woman working the floor kept the water flowing and the waitress was trying hard, but it still took forever to get our food, to the point that I was panicking we would still be there at dinnertime. I also almost took a nasty dive on hitting a grease patch on the floor on my way to the bathroom. But all was forgiven once the respectable bucatini carbonara and superb chicken under a brick arrived. The first was rich and heavy on meat, with no fewer than two bay leaves and three sprigs of thyme to boot; the latter was gorgeously charred but still juicy. And we were home in plenty of time for an interview I’d scheduled. WIGB? Undoubtedly — there are far less attractive places to be stuck waiting for gummable lunch. 920 Broadway, 212 533 3663.

The pretty unsettling: Spain on 13th Street, where a friend arranged to meet me and another birthday girl who was craving old-style Spanish with sangria and paella and where she got half her wish anyway. They were already at the bar and well into the tiny glasses of red wine when I showed up, so at the bartender’s suggestion we all moved to three stools together and he brought the tapas with them (shrimp, limp patatas bravas and Eraserhead-worthy meatballs). I asked what kind of white wine he had and got: “White wine. Spanish.” No arguing with that, even when it was poured from a jug. As we ordered more rounds, he brought out respectable chorizo, then chicken wings awash in garlic sauce and finally three honkin’ slabs of tortilla. Just as the Chimp started blathering on the teevee, the place cleared out, he presented the check ($46 for 10 or 12 glasses, but who was counting?) and we realized paella was not an option. After seeing how gray the bones were on those wings, I wasn’t really disappointed.

New York minute/Late January 2008

The seriously good: Maze by Gordon Ramsay at The London, where my consort treated me on my birthday and where, by the end, we were both glad to have turned down a reservation in the “real” restaurant. I got there latish to find Bob ensconced at a quiet back table next to the door leading to the inner sanctum, and every time it opened we got a whiff of the dark side — stuffy and rich and coffin-ready. We had silverware excess enough, thank you very much. The whole experience was like being in a baby bistro in France. The sommelier happily steered us through the shoals of the wine list to a gruner for around $50 (“steely,” and he was right), and the waiter could not have been more engaging and encouraging. Even the crowd, heavy (literally) on Brits, acted mellow. We split six small plates at $12 to $16, and only one was a dud, the confit hamachi. The best was the apple-cured duck breast, sliced buttery thin and topped with frisee and crispy duck tongues on one side and a cube of over-the-top smoked foie gras with crunchy amaranth to prolong the flavor on the other. White onion veloute with duck ragout and shaved truffle was also obscenely good, as was the cod crusted with Iberian ham and set over a fricassee of artichokes, chorizo and mussels. Scallops with cauliflower puree and beignets were just as I pictured them, although beets with ricotta and pine nuts looked gorgeous but seemed a little too cheesy even for me. The bread tasted more like focaccia and did not need the excellent butter sprinkled with coarse salt. We passed on dessert but tried the truffles and peanut brittle that arrived with the beyond-reasonable check. I’m glad I ate the former last; the latter had been made with rancid legumes. WIGB? Without even waiting for an occasion. All the way home in the cab we talked about how we had talked all the way home in the cab about birthday dinners at twice or three times the price that were less than half as good. 151 West 54th Street, 212 468 8889.

New York minutes/Mid-January 2008

The good: Toloache yet again, where we stopped in after the excellent “Juno” for a snack and a little wine. We got our usual seats at the bar facing the oven where the woman chef who works like a machine turns out quesadillas etc. and split one with huitlacoche (superb as always) plus the tacos de pastor and de cabeza (with braised veal cheeks). WIGB? Anytime; the servers are good even when they screw up a wine order. 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.

The bad: Nice Matin, where I stupidly retreated for a late lunch and found myself surrounded by fixed Upper East Siders, so I should not have been surprised that the prices are up and the quality is down. The crab salad, which was always borderline exquisite, arrived this time as a big mound of mayonnaise-drenched lump crab topped with half a sliced avocado on a few greens with asparagus sliced the long way and a few little nubbins of raw vegetables. The waitress was overwhelmed, no bread was ever served and the whole experience felt like a diner with scarier patrons (we need an immigration wall through Central Park). WIGB? Fool me one last time. . . .

The overpriced: Buceo 95, where we met a friend just to try something new and where it might have been a little too new — the smell of varnish was still so fresh it overwhelmed the wine. Which was no small consideration given that the quartino of Quincy from the Loire was $13 (and why does wine portioned that way inevitably feel like a rip?) The kitchen also seemed to be finding its way: The bacalao in cucumber cups ($12!) was undersoaked and so very chewy, while both the chopped Mediterranean salad and the albondigas were mediocre at best. Only the slow-roasted pork with potatoes on what looked like little soft nacho chips (billed as a mini-wrap) was anything special, and that only by comparison. The olives and oil served with the bread were lively enough, though. As for the sound system blaring techno music, it seemed to be tuned into a hair salon. WIGB? For the hospitality and to try the cheese plate, maybe. It’s slim pickings up this way. 201 West 95th Street, 212 662 7010.

The slightly off: Chola, where I met a friend for a long winy birthday lunch and where the usual mob seemed to be taking an unusual toll. We never got vegetable fritters to start; I had to ask for bread (and it was not as good as it normally is). But we had a great table and easy access to all that wine, and the buffet was outstanding as always if a little too familiar from my last visit. WIGB? Not on a Thursday for a while. 232 East 58th Street, 212 212 688 4619.

The surprising: The cafe at the Cooper-Hewitt, where we only had restorative caffeine between the great Gus Powell show at the Museum of the City of New York and the spectacular Ingo Maurer lighting show upstairs from our table overlooking the garden. I didn’t try my consort’s tea, but my huge cappuccino was, amazingly, perfect (for $3.85). The salads, sandwiches and wines by the glass also looked worth a return visit for whatever exhibition comes next.

The painful: BXL Cafe, where we ducked in for a drink after a totally pretentious ICP opening down the block and where the din was at CIA torture level. We only split an order of seriously slopped-out calamari before fleeing. WIGB? Never after dark.

New York minutes/Early January 2008

The good I: Resto, where we headed for something new after our usual Saturday morning at the Greenmarket and where we both were made ridiculously happy. The place was bright and sunny at midday, the staff actually seemed happy to serve us (even the poor busboy who had no idea what the Belgian word on his T-uniform meant) and the food, service and drinks were outstanding. I succumbed to the burger after spotting three around the room, and it was well worth the $13 (with good fries and a nice mound of dressed mesclun). The meat was meaty, even though the waitress said it had to be cooked through to the kitchen’s taste, and the accessories were perfect: excellent Gruyere, pickles, red onion and mayonnaise. My snout-loving consort of course went for the salad of crispy pig’s ear with poached egg, and even his squeamish longtime companion was impressed — the bits of fried flesh were like cracklins, a perfect match with the bitter frisee and runny egg. My glass of Gruner was just what he wanted, his cafe americano, made to order, what I wished I’d ordered. WIGB? Can’t wait, for a more challenging meal. 111 East 29th Street between Park Avenue South and Lexington Avenue, 212 685 5585.

The good II: Harry’s Cafe, where we took refuge after a disastrous chocolate event that at least was held at a hotel with a smart concierge who suggested a short walk to Stone Street. We started at his recommendation, Adrienne’s Pizza, even though we had already been there and suspected it would be jammed, then I insisted we move around the corner. Harry’s was pretty full but very mellow, and the food was the best we’ve had there: My lump crab-avocado-tomato salad was blowaway, like a parfait, and Bob’s shrimp club was enough for two. The red/white wines by the stemless glass were good, the service attentive, the noise level un-abusive, and we got out for well under $80 with tip. As a bonus, we were able to interrupt Harry himself in a booth and catch up a little bit. His son is seriously rising. WIGB? Happily. One Hanover Square, 212 785 9200.

The bad: Pipa in the ABC Home store, where I gimped in on Wednesday in desperation near the Greenmarket after finding Bocca had only a $20.95 lunch special (I never need two courses). It took a while to get waited on, but if the decent sauvignon blanc came fast the check took forever. I ordered the portobello “burger,” which was doomed by the cheese on it — billed as mozzarella, it had the texture of that slimy snot on slices in pizza joints all over the city anymore. The mushroom seemed to have been cooked eons in advance, and the “truffle sauce” seemed to have been vanquished by the other accouterments. As I left I spotted Phil Suarez having a high time at the reception desk and wondered why he wasn’t covering his head. WIGB? Not on a bet.

New York minutes/Beginning of 2008

The good: Dim Sum Go Go, where we lucked in while trekking from the South Street Seaport to Nolita on a mid-Saturday and where we had mostly splendiferous food in a reassuringly clean environment (the bathrooms were even fragrant, in a good way). I haven’t eaten in Chinatown in years, since that devastating New Yorker piece on Health Department inspectors, but it was hard to resist an old favorite. We snared a tiny table fast and split perfectly fried pork dumplings, turnip cakes, steamed crab and “three-star” vegetable dumplings plus two orders of steamed duck dumplings (the waiter was right: they’re the best). Everything was delicate and carefully made and cooked right. I think the bill was about $25, and the service managed the impossible: helpful, mellow and efficient. Best of all, just as I was feeling stupid for being in a room with mostly gweilos, Pichet Ong came bouncing past on his way out, saying it was his favorite place in Chinatown. WIGB? Can’t wait till next Christmas. 5 East Broadway, 212 732 0796.

The better: Maremma, where we headed on New Year’s Eve for the second Dec. 31 and where we were just as happy we didn’t go back to searching for something new. The regular menu was on offer; Cesare was in fine form in red sneakers; Champagne was poured; the noise level was mellow until the place got busy just as we were leaving. And the food was, as always, really satisfying. He comped us the lardo and then his own salsiccia with lentils before we could order the traditional but imported cotechino, then we had an amazing apple salad, exceptional peppery farro with mussels and comped Tuscan fries. My pasta, a special with goose, was like what I would make at home with duck, but it was hard to complain when our $39 Tuscan wine from a sentimental favorite producer was also comped. We overtipped happily and came home with enough leftovers for a superb lunch. WIGB? Anytime. 228 West 10th Street off Bleecker, 212 645 0200.

The not bad: Green Table in the Chelsea Market, where I stopped in desperation one afternoon at an off-hour and where, aside from a grubby wineglass, I had a perfectly satisfying little lunch. Every place else I had tried to try between Le Du’s and Appellation was either not serving or serving junk, so I was happy to find a $14 platter built around very good trout and duck rillettes, each packed into little canning glasses and teamed with baguette toasts from Amy’s Bread across the concourse, a fine little mesclun salad and a teeny dish of pickled root vegetables (one of which cracked a wisdom tooth and I didn’t even mind). I’ve walked past this place more times than I can count but now see why it’s usually busy. WIGB? Probably. 75 Ninth Avenue, 212 741 6623.

The repeatable: La Rural, where we went back after a movie with friends who had reserved at Cafe Luxembourg but who agreed the chance to try good wines in a BYO environment was irresistible. Their shared ribeye was good, but I have to say our skirt steak was even better; the fries without the Provencal treatment were okay, while the multicolor salad had no dressing. The service was outstanding, with fresh glasses offered for our second bottle, and much charm. And, luckily for us if not the owners, the dining room was empty enough that we could almost talk comfortably. WIGB? Inevitably. 768 Amsterdam Avenue near 97th Street, 212 749 2929.

The overlooked: La Pizza Fresca, where I just remembered we ate right before Christmas with a bunch of my consort’s friends from his new universe and where the whole experience was better than it had any right to be. The waiters were fools and neglected us after the food landed, not realizing how much more they could have sold, but the cooking and wine were fine, and we got a long table out of the way of aural assault. One FOB had eaten there the night before and was thrilled to be back, steering us to the right pizzas and indulging us with appetizer choices (fried calamari, polenta with mushrooms and Montasio, etc.) Sitting right by the pizza oven added to the good vibe in a place we had given up on after a bad experience with an Italian friend years ago. WIGB? Probably. 31 East 20th Street, 212 598 0141.

New York minutes/Last o’ 2007

The pretty good: Barfry, where I retreated after finding Pearl closed for Xmas break and where I had a great crab cake po’ boy but the strangest service even though only one other diner was in the joint at lunchtime. The waiter behind the bar pointed me to a table and let me sit while he did a few chores before finally bringing a menu and weirdly funky-tasting water. Then he disappeared into a back room or basement to retrieve milk and was gone so long I considered leaving, but Pearl was closed. I think it took longer to order than to eat, since the check shows 22 minutes elapsed. But that $15 sandwich was superb, with great crunch to the crab cake and lots of little pickles in with the dressing and chopped lettuce. It was too big by half, but that’s a tiny complaint. I also had a $10 Tasmanian chardonnay that really needed a proper wineglass rather than a ridiculous little tumbler. WIGB? Probably, although my money goes farther at Pearl and the thought of that glass sent us to Jane the next night . . . . 50 Carmine Street, 212 929 5050.

The not bad: La Rural, where we headed for a Sunday dinner to avoid washing dishes and where we got the deal of the month. Because it’s BYO, we split a big salad, a heaping order of “Provencal” fries and a skirt steak so huge we had leftovers for burritos the next day, and the bill with a good tip was $42. The meat was good and perfectly cooked, very fast, and the fries were fine, too. The engaging waiter remembered us from when the place was Pampa; it looks nicer now but still takes cash only. And because it was nearly empty, it was luxuriously quiet. WIGB? Happily. 768 Amsterdam Avenue near 97th Street, 212 865 2929.

The charming: Tiffin Wallah, where the room and the Koizumi-look-alike waiter compensated for the sub-Saravanaas cooking at Saturday lunch. The hand-washing sink is in the dining room, and it’s the coolest one imaginable; the walls are hung with great black-and-white photos from India, while the waiters’ area has shelves filled with Indian gewgaws. And the behl poori was everything Irene Sax promised: spicy, crunchy, a great blend of cooling and hot. The Mysore sada dosa with coconut chutney and sambar was big and greasy, though, and the best thing in the Gujarati thali was the dessert, which says everything given how cloying Indian sweets can be. The bread was too greasy to eat, and the curries were one-note; the two fried bits were also sodden. No wonder most of the clientele was not Indian. WIGB? Maybe, as an antidote to Saravanaas hostility. 127 East 28th Street off Lexington, 212 685 7301.

The annoying: Jane, where we landed after the truly extraordinary “Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and where the ample portions at low prices had to be weighed against the crazy-making service. Why do restaurateurs insist on stinting on waiters? Six busboys are not much use if they can’t take an order for a second glass of wine with the entrees. Plus the waitress was really a waitron, with a chip implanted that made her unable to deviate from her water-selling script. I ordered the $19 veal Milanese because it came under an arugula-tomato salad, and it was literally the size of the not-small plate; that and the flavor made me wonder if it was really the ingredient with top billing. My consort’s $23 scallops were also oddly gargantuan, but they came in a spectacular chile sauce with pozole and bacon. Wines by the glass started at $8, but I had to switch to the $10 sauvignon blanc after the not-great viognier. WIGB? Maybe — price and proximity to two movie theaters are not to be underestimated. 100 West Houston Street near Thompson, 212 254 7000.

New York minutes/Late December 2007

The surprisingly decent: Le Mangeoire, where we met friends in from Bucks County who had been there before and rated it quiet and where we had a great evening with some decent food and no aural trauma. The place is a wild throwback to a Manhattan where French ruled — it’s full of knickknacks and posters and Provencal accents, and the menu hits all the right notes. The best part was the option of small or regular entrees; I ordered Muscovy duck with salad greens and got more than I could eat with the former ($19 as opposed to $27). Tiny olives, lively tapenade and olive oil were all served with the bread, and an appetizer of lump crab layered with tomatoes and avocado was outstanding for $13. Mostly we got what we wanted with the noise level — it was too easy to talk right through after-dinner drinks. WIGB? Maybe, for our ears alone. 1008 Second Avenue at 53d Street, 212 759 7086.

The assholey: Irving Mill, where we acceded to going back with a low-key/high-powered couple of friends mostly because we knew it would be quiet and where we left pissed on several levels. They had reserved a couple of weeks in advance through Opentable, which had said only 6:30 was available, and of course the place was nearly empty. Our H.P. friend asked for a booth and was told they were for parties of five or more, and of course we ended the evening at our snug table surrounded by booths either filled with or set for foursomes. Why lie? The servers were idjit noodges, too — the waitress interrupted at will, and the busboy with his silly basket of two choices of bread insisted on disrupting conversation rather than just quietly laying the two pathetic slices on each bread plate. I didn’t see the list, but my consort was freaking that wines were $42 and up. And the food? Big shrugs all around. I ordered monkfish solely for the celeriac puree billed with it and got only a schmear under a mound of red cabbage. (Truffle vinaigrette, you ask? Me, too.) The vegetables with the octopus appetizer were nice enough, but the strudel for dessert was about 15 minutes away from being properly baked. Pretty sad when the giveaway peanut butter cookies get raves by comparison with everything else. Even if every element had been extraordinary, though, it could not compensate for the inherent hostility. Saint Danny can sleep very peacefully these days. WIGB? Not on a strong bet.

New York minutes/Latish December 2007

The good: Lunetta, where I stopped for lunch to break my post-Greenmarket addiction to Rosa Mexicano’s queso fundido and where it was hard to find fault with anything even though I sat in exactly the same spot I ate the two times I braved the funky Mayrose that preceded it. The host was a host, the waitress was efficient and beyond personable (she spilled the salt on clearing the table and threw some over her shoulder for both of us) and my panini was a good value. Fontina, lots of prosciutto and a little arugula were melted together in a good roll, and a big mound of wild arugula and a little ramekin of garlicky sauce came on the side. A $9 glass of tocai helped drown out the woman at the next table nattering on to her tablemate about family scandals (I left when she started in on the relative involved with a married guy who has drawn her into three-way sex; the tablemate looked on in envy as I gathered my bags and coat and fled). The bread and olive oil were quite good, though, and the space has been transformed to make the most of the tall windows and good light with a trace of Balthazar charm. WIGB? Absolutely. Who needs “Sex and the City?” 920 Broadway at 20th Street, 212 53 3663.

The not awful: Charm, where my consort and I retreated for a fast lunch when neither of us could deal that goddamn Mother Hubbard we have unleashed. A two-course $8 lunch special is hard to complain about, but I suspected the dishwasher was cooking that day. The vegetable springrolls were clumsily rolled and scantily filled; the beef in my curry could have come from the shoemaker a block away. Bob was happier with his seafood ravioli soup and pad Thai, especially after he realized a squeeze of the lemon wedge served with the latter livened it right up. WIGB? Unfortunately. How many burritos can one couple eat? 722 Amsterdam Avenue near 95th Street, 212 866 9800.