New York minutes/Early December 2007

The good: Mermaid Inn uptown, where the noise level was not as brutal on a second visit and where the food and service were actually impressive. We walked over after the excellent “Gone Baby Gone,” around 7:30 on Saturday night, and expected a line out the door but were instead assured by the hostess the wait would be more than 10 minutes. Then we had just enough time to get our $9 glasses of gamay and gruner at the bar before we were seated. The very personable waiter, after promising four oysters in the grilled appetizer and delivering three, poured our second glasses with a very liberal hand to compensate. A special of grilled Arctic char seemed strange, laid as it was over rings of pasta and a mound of broccoli rabe with chilies, but it worked brilliantly. And the very meaty, nicely seasoned lobster sandwich not only came with excellent Old Bay fries but was made with a real brioche bun rather than a hot dog holder, which may be traditional but actually sucks. Who cared that the free chocolate mousse was overly gelatinous yet again? WIGB? Absolutely. 568 Amsterdam Avenue near 88th Street, 212 799 7400.

The not bad: P.J. Clarke’s at Lincoln Square, where the cold drove us for proximity’s sake with another couple after the nearly interminable “I’m Not There” and where the one drawback was the buffoons bellowing at the bar next to the oversized booth where we were trying to decide if we had seen art or annoyance. My Caesar salad was fine, Bob’s chicken potpie was big and our friends seemed happy with a burger and a big salad; the Chateau Ste. Michelle cabernet was about $35. The waiter was one of those relentless if pleasant upsellers, but the vibe in the place was definitely “happy to have your business.” WIGB? Probably. Buffoons are inescapable, and it is temptingly close to the best art house for miles. 44 West 63d Street, 212 957 9700.

The great: Chola yet again, where I met up with three friends for a long lunch and where the waiters not only let us linger unbothered but were even pleasant as we finally left, maybe because having a table occupied drew a second wave of diners for that always satisfying buffet. Every time I go it seems new temptations are on offer; this time a tomato chutney was exceptional. The bread baker was on a roll, too. No wonder all the other Indian choices on the block are all but empty. WIGB? Constantly. 232 East 58th Street, 212 688 4619.

New York minutes/End of November 2007

The pretty good: Irving Mill, where we walked in bedraggled and overburdened from the Greenmarket and Barnes & Noble for lunch on Saturday and where we were given a booth big enough to sleep in with all our belongings. The food was almost beside the point — the place is so overdesigned right down to the bathrooms I’m surprised Danny Meyer isn’t pulling a Rebecca Charles. But I liked my peekytoe crab salad ($14 appetizer) with frisee, fingerlings, beets, leeks and crosnes even though the dominant flavor was salt rather than the promised truffle vinaigrette. I also liked my consort’s less-than-succulent braised rabbit with olives, garlic sausage and potato puree even though it, too, seemed to be absent a menu-marquee flavor (rosemary). The bread and butter were as copious as the wine pours were abstemious (the $9 verdejo was underwhelming, the $9 Bordeaux better). Service was a bit pretentious, but it is competing with the best restaurant in St. Louis. WIGB? Bob said yes for me on the comment card, but on reexamining the bill I see the rabbit was $22 on the menu and $24 on the receipt. Not so sure now. 116 East 16th Street, 212 254 1600.

The promising: Pamplona, where one drawback beyond the risky business with the credit cards is the noise level. Six of us were lucky enough to score a back booth, so we could sorta hear what three of us were saying at one time, but I guess that’s what you get when the draw is imaginative, well-executed nueva Espanol. Food went by in a blur, but I know I tasted good chickpea fries, salt cod croquettes and salt-cured tuna, way-above-average patatas bravas and lively crab lasagne with salsa verde, among other dishes. The free-flowing tempranillo was fine, too. WIGB? Cautiously, given the carelessness with credit card numbers and the fact that I just looked at the purloined menu and see that it advises a 20 percent service charge tacked onto bills for parties of six or more — if I dredge up that telltale receipt and find we all tipped twice, we will not exactly be happy. 37 East 28th Street, 212 213 2328.

The boring: Market Table in the West Village, where a friend/professional eater in town for a few days to soak up New York at its most exciting was lured by this fool too lazy to schlep to more promising destinations. The service was beyond personable and friendly, but my $19 crab cake sandwich was a snore begging for livelier tartar sauce and less rubbery bun. All the menu was a snooze, though, to the point that we briefly considered decamping to Pearl on first scanning it. But it was raining, so we stuck around for good bread and butter, good gruner (a glass going for what the same bottle sells for at Gotham) and a borderline-acceptable noise level. My friend was happy with her very straightforward soup and the side of sauteed greens she persuaded the waitress to bring, and with the bathrooms, which she said are way far above those in the town where she is sentenced to serve. She also got her New York’s worth yukking it up over the maple syrup for sale in the weird “market” at the entryway. How many ways can you say “buyer beware new-age idiocy”?

New York minutes/Late November 2007

The good: Dean’s, where my consort and I headed with two friends to discuss the meaning of death in the superb “No Country for Old Men.” We got there just before 10, but the host was happy to seat us and the waitress was amazingly patient as we dithered over what to order; best of all, there were only a few tables still occupied and it was as quiet as our living room (if much warmer next to the oven). We shared a surprisingly excellent multi-cheese square pizza with mushrooms, a too-big salad with arugula and lentils and a small order of average fried calamari, plus a bottle of nero d’avolo, and the bill was about $35 a couple. WIGB? Soon, but on the late side. The pizza was even great the next day. 215 West 85th Street, 212 875 1100.

The bad: Cafe Frida, where I think I swore I would never go back and where I was of course spotted by a friend walking past. Never, it turns out, is not as long as you might think on this end of the island — I had almost succumbed to City Grill for a quesadilla when I thought I could walk just a bit farther and maybe at least get a glimmer of Mexican magic. I should have left when I saw three tables waiting for food at very late lunchtime, or at least when I saw the three tiny quesadillas are now $13. But my feet were failing me, so I suffered tired, cracked tortillas around slimy cheese and shiitakes, with a tiny ramekin of bland salsa and a side dish of mostly chayote with a tiny bit of the promised spinach and corn. Even without the din that drove us away for what we thought was for good, the mystery is why a hostile clip joint is still in business when earnest Jacques-Imo’s is being dismantled right next door.

The reliable: Les Halles, where we took refuge from turkey overkill and where we got the usual expertly done food with just slightly more addled service. The place was packed with people whose size would bar them from Barneys, and with huge family groups taking photos, so it took a while to get a waiter’s attention. But the steak frites with salad for $17.50 was as excellent as it always is, and the “hachi parmentier de canard” was like a French shepherd’s pie with truffle oil for perfume. The read and butter are top quality as well. Four dollars buys a whole pot of coffee, and Bob happily drank it all. WIGB? Any Saturday for post-Greenmarket lunch. 411 Park Avenue South at 28th Street, 212 679 4111.

New York minutes/Latish November 2007

The sublime: Chola, where I wedged my way in for an early lunch and where the new-to-me hostess immediately led me to the only open table, even though it was a four-top. The buffet seemed even more generous, with several excellent regional choices and a couple more chutneys than I had never seen before, but the usual three appetizers also arrived eventually. The place was swamped, with sit-down diners and stand-ups queuing with foil trays for takeout. But even surrounded by chaos, with waiters buzzing past, tucking into an overloaded plate there with just-baked bread was still like being transported to one of the best food countries on earth. 232 East 58th Street between Second and Third, 212 688 4619.

The ridiculous: Zocalo in Grand Central, where I resorted at an odd hour in an off neighborhood and could easily understand why so many people sitting at the other tables and lumbering past were so huge. I ordered the fish tacos and was presented with two very thin corn tortillas topped with four slabs of battered cod, each the size of a Taco Bell burrito, plus a honkin’ heap of slaw. There was no way to eat them right; each was enough food for a small village. They came with decent beans and rice I didn’t touch, preceded by a big bowl of weird-texture chips and bland salsa. I can never forget the cockroach big enough to saddle I once saw strutting through that area, though, and freaked when something (I know not what) hit my head shortly after I left the table. WIGB? I’m a slow learner, but. . . .

The halt: Toloache, where I met a friend for lunch and where the same waitress, same oven mistress, same menu etc. were all in play as on my last visit a week earlier but where almost everything was perceptibly less than perfect. The wineglass was slightly crusty, the rice was just slopped onto the plate, the black beans were whole rather than mashed. The huitlacoche quesadilla was still good, though, and the shrimp tacos were daintily superb. The waitress gets points for remembering me; it’s just too bad the kitchen didn’t remember how to get it absolutely right without the owner around. WIGB? Probably. When it’s on, it’s on. 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.

The lame: Mermaid Inn, where I met a downtown friend now from the neighborhood who felt as compelled as I did to try a new addition. We got there around 6, when the nice-looking room was pretty empty and very quiet, and left around 7:30 with our hands over our ears after the music had been cranked up to wake-the-dead volume. The fried calamari in the appetizer we shared was cut fat but quite tender and had a nice sauce, then she just had a fish soup that was topped with a huge slab of bread while I did my best with the thickly sauced salt cod cake on frisee. Two bites of either and the exploration was done. The freebie dessert also seems to have suffered in the move; that little chocolate pudding was as rigid as a breast implant. WIGB? Inevitably, given that it is close by, affordable (including the $37 bottle of Naia verdejo) and is still better than so much around it. But never late. 568 Amsterdam Avenue near 88th Street, 212 799 7400.

The charming: Perbacco, where friends in from Chicago treated me on a birthday and where the friends-of-the-house service, cozy room, unusual menu and warm mood more than compensated for slightly slimy gnocchi with sausage. I tasted a couple of the shared appetizers, though, and both were excellent — polenta with Fontina and truffles, and a spinach-Parmesan pie — as was the lasagne with impossibly thin layers, although the friend who ordered it thought it was dry. We had prosecco to start, and I finally got a chance to try grecchetto, a wine I had been tempted by for a story in Italy last summer. WIGB? Maybe, although, even if you are not paying, cash only is a drag in that neighborhood. 234 East Fourth Street between Avenues A and B; 212 253 2038.

New York minutes/Early November 2007

The perfect, at least at quiet lunchtime: Toloache, where I schlepped in despair all the way from the East Side after PT, passing one overpriced, mediocre restaurant after another gougy, bad restaurant. I walked in, the hostess instantly gave me a choice of a table or a seat at the guacamole bar, and I had a glass of wine in minutes and, shortly afterward, a superb huitlacoche quesadilla cooked in the wood oven right in front of me. It was $13, but it came with a heap of excellent rice and a schmear of great beans. The vibe in the place was also lovely — the owner was eating tacos at the bar after working the room, and everyone seemed relaxed and as mellow as the music. WIGB? Very shortly. 251 West 50th Street near Eighth Avenue, 212 581 1818.

The promising: Community Food & Juice up by Columbia, where I met an e-pal for lunch on a sunny afternoon so early on that the check was discounted 15 percent. I ordered what Scott Adams thinks no one would: a BELT (bacon, lettuce and tomato with an egg layered in), and while the T was pallid, the B and E were top quality. It came with “carrot hash” that reminded me of the mashed potatoes we fry up after Thanksgiving, but it was discounted 15 percent. The burger across the table looked good, too, although I noticed the woman down the banquette immediately scraped the mound of fried onions off hers. The supersize waitress was working hard, too. WIGB? Undoubtedly. Along with a juice bar, it does have wine and sunlight. 2893 Broadway near 112th Street, 212 665 2800.

The pleasant: Regional, where a longtime friend up from Bucks County took me and three whippersnappers and where we got two of the three things she wanted (proximity and relative quiet). We arrived so early on Saturday night that the staff was still listening to the chef teach them the specials, but they showed us to a nice booth-like table anyway. My bigoli with duck ragu seemed to have been rushed — the sauce had chunks of carrot and big slices of duck, while the noodles were so far ahead of al dente they were gummy — so I didn’t share to try the other pastas: pesto; ravioli with beets; ravioli with sheep’s milk cheese, and cavatelli with sausage and broccoli rabe (although the sausage in the latter looked out of proportion to the dish). The waitress and runners stayed upbeat, and one who agreed to take a photo of us all was a digital pro. Most encouraging? When I came out of the bathroom (after a cook, I might add), I told a hostess seating another table that the toilet was starting to look delayed-flight scary and she immediately got a manager to deal with the mess. WIGB? It’s close, it’s cheap, it’s pleasant, why not? 2607 Broadway near 99th Street, 212 666 1915.

The fey: Belcourt in the ridiculous East Village, where I met another e-pal and his wife for lunch on a gray day and where the brightly gorgeous room could still not compensate for the over-conceptualized, under-performing menu. I ordered “salt cod hash with poached eggs, Harissa and grilled flat bread,” and the first adjective was more discernible than the first noun. The Cod himself got skunked by choosing “boudin blanc dogs” — what read like a litter materialized as only a single runt, and in a poorly engineered “bun” at that. The Gascon and Provencal wines were hefty pours for $7 and $8, respectively, and the waitress was charming if not especially proficient. But it’s not good when portions are so dainty you leave wondering if a stop at a David Chang pork palace might be immediately in order. WIGB? Nah, I rate it a Kleenex; once was enough.

New York minutes/End of October 2007

The really good: Kefi, where I have to confess we got slyly preferential treatment and a comped appetizer but where I would happily wait for a table and overtip to eat so well for so little. The place deserves to be jammed all night long with such good ingredients treated so well in kitchen: The branzino was two perfectly fresh, perfectly grilled fillets laid over roasted fingerlings with olives, while the swordfish was actually juicy on its bed of cauliflower, favas and olives. We also ordered the cuttlefish despite the waiter’s attempt to steer us toward the more tender octopus (it’s too human for me to eat anymore), and it was superb, paired with halloumi, zucchini and olives. As always, the four spreads (the freebie) were spectacular with nicely charred warm pita. Most of the Greek wines are all of $6 a generous glass, so we could each choose our color for less than a bottle goes for anywhere else. WIGB? Anytime my wallet is stocked with cash. 222 West 79th Street, 212 873 0200.

The pretty bad: Nizza in Hell’s Kitchen, where we headed after getting shut out of the movies on 42d Street on Friday night and where the throng around us appeared not to notice lame cooking and off wines — and they weren’t the usual clueless pre-theater crowd. The service was great, and the place looks cool, although my consort was troubled by the idea of using wine bottles as a design element since it meant displaying them so close to the ceiling, where, of course, they bake. Maybe that’s why the quartino of Ceretto arneis that I sent back as corked on my first try still tasted over the hill on the second (it was geriatric by Italian white wine standards, though: 2004). Bob, who did better with his red choices, also liked the socca better than I did, but then I remember that wonderful street food as being less dry and crumbly in Nice. The Swiss chard torta with artichokes tasted good, but the crust was clunky, while the little stuffed Nicoise vegetables were ingredients in search of cohesion. Only the very tender stuffed veal rolls were fine. I think Bob had it right yet again when he said it all seemed to be cooked by people who had never tasted the original versions. WIGB? Fool me once for a hundred bucks and I won’t get fooled again.

The Epago: Pio Pio on Amsterdam, where I met a couple of friends for proximity’s sake on Saturday night when the place was just jammed and where the Eat, Pay And Get Out message could not have been clearer. After ordering wine at the bar, we were quickly hustled to a table with human larva to the left and right of us and a big birthday party too close, so conversation would have been easier with ear trumpets; maybe that’s why it was so hard to get the waiter to understand two of us wanted a second glass of wine and the third wanted a Coke while the busboy kept trying to pour water in all our wineglasses, full or empty. The other girls were blissful over their shared $22 roast chicken with big platter of decent fries and an avocado-tomato salad, and I didn’t mind my Caesar sans Caesar dressing with tough Romaine because I could filch from said platter and dunk into the super-spicy table sauce. A whole chicken with nothing else goes for $10, which made me a little nervous, given that the birds we buy for home are never that cheap as a raw ingredient. But the price had to be a big lure for the line of people waiting as we left, having had the waiter actually roll up the white paper on our table before we could finish the wine we had finally gotten. WIGB? Given that 95 percent of the menu involves feather food, not likely.

New York minutes/Very late October 2007

The good: Fatty Crab, where I connected for the first time with a lyrical e-correspondent and his consort for early Saturday lunch and where I finally experienced the food as it’s meant to be eaten. Usually I go alone or with my consort and we taste at most three dishes; this time I was with people who first insisted the waiter move us to a four-top and then ordered like Halliburtoneers.* (Given that we were planning to do that in any case, the waiter did not have to warn us we needed to “order a lot of food” to justify the move in an all-but-empty restaurant.) A bottle of Sicilian red (Tenuta Terre Nere) went better with most everything than my usual single glass of gruner. Otherwise, I thought the mango salad was a C compared with the usual A, but the Malay fish fry, spicy skate, Chinese water spinach and spicy pickled vegetables were all top grade. After insisting we also order the heritage pork ribs, I abstained, but that plate was cleaned as well. And for once the music being blasted for the staff’s pleasure suited the AARP crowd — “Beast of Burden” is just what makes the Bush-bashing go down. WIGB? Not for a while. I miss the fatty duck, and now Spice Market is back on the radar. 643 Hudson Street near 12th Street, 212 352 3590.

*Bad joke, I realize too late: Gofuckyourself would never pick up a tab.

The better: Buddakan, where I took Bob after the excellent J-G party when Asian sounded most enticing. I was surprised we were seated after such a quick wait in the bar; he was astonished that the place was so packed on a Monday night. One reason came clear at meal’s end, but first we drank too much wine and shared excellent potstickers and glazed cod and sloppily executed frisee salad with Peking duck and overcooked egg. The noise level was not painful and the design of the place is dazzling, so what more could you ask? Well, the waitress forgot we wanted to take home the leftovers and the hostess came over to offer to have the kitchen cook both dishes fresh to pack up to go. We declined, but there’s no reason even to ask WIGB? Stephen Starr has a winning formula. 75 Ninth Avenue at 16th Street, 212 989 6699.

The bad: Thai Market up near Columbia, where I set out for lunch expecting jazz and was rewarded with a dirge. The restaurant is stunning, with huge photos of Thai food vendors and floor-to-ceiling doors that open onto Amsterdam Avenue. But the tantalizing special of duck with flat noodles was first not available, then materialized as a study in grim. (Whatever that meat was, it did not resemble the bird I order, eat and cook at every opportunity.) If not for the spiciness, it would have tasted worse. The waiter had clearly had about enough, although he was efficient. Ultimate insult: My one dish cost $10, $2 more than two courses at Land, a restaurant that is Vong by comparison. WIGB? I’m slow but not stupid.

New York minutes/Latish October 2007

The good again: Toloache in the theater district, where I ventured to meet a friend around 8 on a Saturday night, where we expected post-curtain dreariness and where it was just like eating in a real neighborhood. I got there first and took a seat at the bar, where the margarita inches away looked so seductive I ordered one myself, throwing off my friend. By the time we were ready to move to a table, we had to haul old ass up the stairs because the first floor was full; at least it was slightly quieter if much hotter (over the kitchen). The waiter was a charmer I remembered from last time, a guy who could sell sun lamps to Sonorans (he even pointed out that we would have been better off ordering a bottle of albarino). We split a special of crab, cheese, chipotle and pumpkin baked in a small pumpkin, with chips for dipping and a vibrant salad of quartered cherry tomatoes with onion on the side — my only regret on passing up the queso fundido for it was that it should have been bubbling hot. I had carne asada tacos in which the meat actually seemed braised, while Wally was in ecstasy over her octopus. We, being girls, had no room for the special of apple enchiladas, although that idea haunts my thoughts. WIGB? Soon, for queso fundido at least, although the skirt steak with enchilada next to that other margarita on the bar looked pretty tantalizing. 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.

The not bad again: Saravanaas, where the south Indian thali is $9.95 at lunchtime, the German riesling is $6 a glass and the amplitude of the tiny dishes makes up for the sameness of flavors. Having been there often enough, I no longer get worked up about the brain-dead-to-hostile service. The place is clean, the light is nice, the food when it finally arrives is always fine. If I wanted variety and the whole spiritual journey, I would be up at Chola. WIGB? Absolutely. 81 Lexington Avenue at 26th Street, 212 679 0204.

The underwhelming: Shorty’s32, where I lured another friend who had proposed Aquagrill among other destinations and where we were lucky to escape without needing ear trumpets. And maybe if it had not been so loud and crowded we might have appreciated what the poor gifted chef is doing in a doomed space. Our food took so long to arrive we were comped a very rich Jerusalem artichoke soup with very Jean-Georges garnishes (I suspected intervention by another food writer across the room); maybe that’s why my “crab sticks” just seemed like a great crustacean forced into pollock duty. I didn’t try the chicken entree across the table but got the strong sense that a chicken shunner was not converted that night. The service was better than it had any right to be in a gang bang; the bartender in particular gets points for knowing what wines we had ordered from her before being seated after a surprisingly long wait. A few days later I ran into the above food writer at a kluster phuck and he made a good point — in my words, that real estate is restricting. WIGB? Maybe, although Provence when we fled there for a quiet drink afterward was so serene and comfortable and alluring I almost wondered why we care about food when we leave our homes with all of the above. 199 Prince Street, 212 357 8275.

New York minutes/Mid-October 2007

The pretty close: Charm, where we headed for a fast lunch on a crazed day with no time for the extra 15 blocks to Land and where the food was surprisingly decent even though the staff clearly wanted to sit down to its own lunch that late in the afternoon. My consort had the $8 special of lively salad with peanut dressing and respectable pad Thai, while I went off the cheap chicken-or-beef menu and indulged in the vegetable spring rolls and the duck salad. We both ate too fast and regretted it, but there was Gilileo just around the corner for excellent coffee. WIGB? Yeah. It’s pretty close. 722 Amsterdam near 95th Street, 212 866 9800.

The pretty dirty: French Roast, where I can only hope the kitchen floor is kept mopped more than the one where all the customers can see the filth. It was one of the few places I passed that had something more than eggs on a late Saturday afternoon, though, so I succumbed and had a two-steps-above-diner-level grilled portobello sandwich with a little Fontina and a lot of radicchio on soft toast. A big pile of mesclun came with it, with a few clots of dressing. But the service was great and the food came fast and the room certainly looks nicer than the real diners a few blocks south. WIGB? Inevitably. The alternatives are grim and slim. 2340 Broadway at 85th Street, 212 799 1533.

The pretty gougey: Brooklyn Diner on 57th Street, where I found myself in despair after walking all the way west from PT without finding anywhere that called my name and where I realized too late I had squandered the price of an infinitely superior lunch just a short walk away, at BLT Market. I chose one of the cheapest things on the menu, the $15.50 fish sandwich, and was just glad I had not sprung for anything pricier. It was a piece of decent fried cod on a plain bun — no lettuce, no tomato, no nothin’ — with a couple of wedges of lemon, a handful of adequate fries, a little ramekin of tartar sauce and a honking portion of flavor-free coleslaw. The waiter was great, though. WIGB? Silver-plated revolver to the back of my head, maybe.

New York minutes/Earlyish October

The good: Land Thai Kitchen again, where $8 at lunch bought a bright and lively green papaya salad and a perfectly balanced pad see ew, a hearty mix of rice noodles, egg, cauliflower, broccoli and superfluous beef. My consort was underwhelmed by the special menu that day, mostly by comparison, but the service as always was enthusiastic and the room has such a sleek look and cheerful feel. WIGB? Yes, it’s worth the walk beyond Charm and Asiakan for sure. 450 Amsterdam Avenue near 81st Street, 212 501 8121.

The lame: PicNic for dinner, where we sat outside to avoid the nursing home crowd and were rewarded with overpriced, uninspired food. I just had the salad with goat cheese croutons, and the lettuce was supermarkety; Bob had sauteed trout that tasted mealy to me (you are what you eat even if you’re a fish). Add the AWOL waiter (Bob had to go track him down to order our second glasses of wine) and I wondered where our $83 went. WIGB? For breakfast only. No place for blocks is as appealing in the morning.

The clubby: Payard, where the duck terrine made me ridiculously happy, enough to ignore the snotty service. It was a hefty slab, studded with pistachios and very flavorful, and came with an oniony jam and a little pile of purslane to cut the richness. I treated it like a DIY tartine, and it was like eating in France. The $11 gruner-veltliner I ordered didn’t have much to say to it, though, and the bartender clearly couldn’t wait till I got out of the way of her regulars. WIGB? Probably, but I’d sit at a table next time, like the other lunching ladies, much as I prefer eavesdropping at the bar. 1032 Lexington Avenue near 73d Street, 212 717 5252.