The surprisingly good: Madaleine Mae, where my consort wanted to go on a rainy night for the novelty factor and where the food seemed to have come from a new kitchen. The spinach salad I warned him against was actually nicely balanced and perfectly dressed, although we agreed that baby spinach is no substitute for the full-grown thing. And the arctic char with dirty rice was shocking: fresh fish cooked juicy over really rich and flavorful rice (one of my least favorite starches). Even the biscuits were almost right. The waitress recognized me from my last visit, the hostesses could not have been more charming (they found an umbrella in the back for diner who lost his) and the noise level was perfect, maybe because the place was two-thirds empty on the night it was reviewed favorably. WIGB? Happily now. 461 Columbus Avenue at 82d Street, 212 496 3000.
The unsurprisingly good: Pearl Oyster Bar, where we were able to get a table fast on a Monday night when I couldn’t face dishes, and a table in the quiet back, and where everything was as perfect as always. The striped bass special came with brussels sprouts and bacon, and my superb crab cake appetizer-as-entree was big enough for leftovers after we split a Caesar. I am surprised I never noticed wine is priced the same by the glass and by the bottle, which makes life easier for everyone, especially a couple usually split between red and white. WIGB? Anytime, even though I had sworn off dinner. 18 Cornelia Street, 212 691 8211.
The adequate: Film Center Cafe, where six of us headed in search of relatively cheap food and relative quiet after a little stint in the bitter wind in Times Square watching my consort’s amazing handiwork briefly showcased on the sides of two buildings. We got a big table in the back that wasn’t too noisy but was too easy for the waitress to forget, but at least she was efficient when she did swing by. I had crab cakes again, and they were redeemed by their sauce although the ratio of crab to potato filler was about one to six. Not realizing they came with a nice little salad, I ordered a big mixed salad that we wound up taking home along with Bob’s leftover Caesar with salmon. With three bottles of wine, we got away for $75 a couple. Pretty sad when that seems reasonable. WIGB? Maybe, although there have to be better choices on Ninth these days. 635 Ninth Avenue near 44th Street, 212 262 2525.
The invitation-only: The Core Club in Midtown, where Bob and I were among a dozen guests for a friend’s evening of birthday debauchery, courtesy of her newish consort. Apparently people pay $75,000 just to join, $20 for a drink. But they do get truffle oil on their popcorn and great seasoning on their bar nuts in a rather dramatic space, with huge chunks of modern art hung all about and a long hallway lined with lavish bathroom stalls the size of studio apartments. Given the rowdiness of our crowd, and all the bottles of chardonnay and pinot noir, the private dining room was crucial. As for the set meal, the chef started out working at Union Square Cafe and was hired on by Tom Colicchio, and it showed. Our amuse was a nice little quenelle of smoked salmon tartare, then we had a choice of beet salad, tuna carpaccio or crabmeat “croquettas.” I chose those, and they tasted great, although the oozy center was a little odd — imagine Jean-Georges’ molten chocolate cake made with seafood. Or don’t. The carpaccio was a roll the size of a pony penis — some incorrigible guest said, with editing — but the winner looked to be the salad: a gorgeous composition with goat cheese, blood orange and candied pecans. I picked the pan-roasted wild striped bass for my entree, a great slab of perfectly cooked fish laid over braised brussels sprout leaves with pancetta and hazelnuts, and my consort made me taste his excellent crispy, juicy square of roasted suckling pig. The birthday cake looked and tasted homemade. I’m not sure if that was intentional — Champagne was involved. WIGB? I couldn’t afford to. Plus we may be banned for life.