New York minutes/Early October 2007

The seriously good: Toloache, where we headed after a beer-infused photo show at Splashlight Studios (and after I had run into the chef’s wife at Zarela’s party) and pretty much got dinner and a show. No one was at the door, so we seated ourselves right in front of the brick oven where an astonishingly efficient woman was assembling everything from guacamole to quesadillas. It was close enough to kitchen and bar to expect the worst, but the waiters were great — various members of a small crew arrived quickly, brought beer and wine fast and not only delivered our food efficiently but stopped back to say they were not the best servers but wanted to be sure we were happy. The chicken tacos were exceptional, and the queso fundido with huitlacoche may be the best in town. It was served with fresh flour tortillas rather than corn, and we had no trouble getting one more made to order. The place is noisy as hell, but the huge menu holds enormous promise. WIGB? Can’t wait. 251 West 50th Street, 212 581 1818.

The uncomfortably good: Hill Country, where I was uncharacteristically happy but where my four escorts were put off by the butcher paper for plates, picnic tables and head-banging noise level. What can I say? One friend requested barbecue, and this is the best I’ve found, at least close to where everyone was planning to be. Whatever bitching went on I couldn’t really hear, but I have to say the jalapeno sausage and the creamy/spicy potato salad were extraordinary. We also liked what we tasted of the brisket (stupidly, I warned them off the “moist” because I remembered it as fatty), the pork ribs and the beef ribs. And maybe I don’t eat cafeteria food often enough, but the corn pudding, macaroni and cheese and green bean casserole also were nothing I would throw off my butcher’s paper. Yeah, it was noisy, and it was a mistake to go there with these friends. But it was real barbecue, and the staff is really cheerful. WIGB? Yes, but with no more than one other eater. 30 West 26th Street, 212 255 4544.

The promising: Bar Stuzzichini, where my starving consort and I headed after realizing there was no way we could make it home to cook any of the multiple bags of food we had just burdened ourselves with on Union Square. Saturday turned out to be a good day to experiment, because the brunch special for $13.75 included a quartino of prosecco (or Bellini) — how bad could be a spaghetti-egg-cheese “torta” be? Bob, on hearing that the tidbits were the specialty, insisted we get three for $12, and they were quite a deal. Panelle (deep-fried chickpea triangles) were a little sodden but surprisingly light; zucchini scapese was even more awash in olive oil but had great mint and garlic flavor, and the octopus salad was fine even for someone who gets weirded out by eating such a smart specimen. That spaghetti cake was fine, with baby arugula salad and super grilled bread, and my consort’s eggplant parmigiana would have been as good as any in Parma or Rome if the eggplant had been Italian rather than seedy American. On the deficit side, the tables were riculously small in the front, where everyone was crammed, and the service was ditsy. When Bob was finally able to order a glass of wine after his entree arrived, I tried to move my drink to make room and wound up knocking the bread basket onto the floor. I apologized, saying we didn’t need it anyway because I had bread, and the waitress said: “You could have told me.” To which I pointed out: “He didn’t.” WIGB? Yep. It’s tantalizingly close to a certain park where I find myself at least twice a week. 928 Broadway near 21st Street, 212 780 5100.

The really bad: Goodburger, where I found myself for no defensible reason after the Greenmarket and in a major funk. I was in no shape to sit down to a real lunch and so ducked in after spotting this newly opened and seeing it had alternatives to potentially Topps meat. The BLT, even tsunamied in “the works” of onions, pickles, ketchup, mustard and mayo, was one step below your average Greek diner’s — it had two strips of bacon max, industrial tomatoes and iceberg lettuce on supermarket white bread. And the cheese fries I spotted while waiting to order were incredible: They had absolutely no taste, despite having something oily and melty in two colors draped across them. The noise level was painful; it made McDonald’s sound like a Buddhist temple. Maybe the burgers are as good as the big media blurbs on that takeout menu promise. But WIGB? Not even if you put a gun loaded with mad cow to my head.

The well-serviced: Adrienne’s Pizzabar, where we made our way after a great promo event put on by Bob’s newfound heroine at the Spiegelbar at the South Street Seaport for her new edition of the superb NFT (Not for Tourists Guide) to New York City. It was quite a scene, like right out of a travel article on Eutopia: Half a dozen or more restaurants packed and spilling over onto a brick-lined street. We found seats on benches at the pizza place on Top Guide’s recommendation and had a nice if overly sweetened arugula salad followed by a just-the-right-size margarita pizza. The next table of assholes was acting the part as we started to order, so a runner took our requests and brought the beer and wine and salad instantly. Then we sat. And sat. Finally a couple who arrived after us at the next able was delivered what we suspected was our pizza. Said runner intercepted the other runner to say get another margarita to us ASAP, and within five minutes we had an adequate pizza plus the promise of a free round of drinks. We ordered them and sure enough, they were off the final tab as the waitress said the pizza was on the house as well. And it was coming clear why that street has to be the busiest in all of New York. Who cares about food when the people between you and the kitchen do so well by you? WIGB? Anytime. What a show. 54 Stone Street, 212 248 3838.

New York minute/Late September 2007

Sometimes it’s not where you eat but with whom. I might have found Kashkaval too loud, cramped, busy and definitely if my consort and I had wandered in there by ourselves after the theater some night. But we were lured there by friends of his from the year of magical learning, two of whom who happened to be good friends from Paris with our hyper-efficient waitress, and everything was about as good as excess gets.

Until a table opened up, we wedged ourselves at the comfortable bar to be plied with big glasses of wine and fine Mediterranean spreads: chickpea, spicy walnut and excellent black olive, all with warm pita. Once we were wedged at a tiny table where it was easy to talk, five of us shared three fondues: the namesake, made with sheep’s milk cheese; Cheddar and ale, and a classic, with Gruyere and Emmenthaler. We ordered crudite to dunk along with the chunks of baguette and were comped some sausage slices as well, and we got more spreads and bread. The wine kept flowing as wineglasses broke all around us with surprising regularity and little recoil.

From my NYTimes days I remembered the place as a cheese store with takeout and coffee beans, but it’s been transformed with that great bar in the back, a small L-shaped dining room and two very commodious bathrooms, once you get past the display cases in the front. Prices are excellent: The fondue was $10 a person and wines started at $6 a glass, I think but don’t quote me; we just chipped in a tip. Plus it has one hell of a waitress in Emma the friend of the friends from Middle Earth.

856 Ninth Avenue near 56th Street, 212 581 8282.

New York minutes/Mid-September 2007

The pretty good: BXL Cafe, where my consort and I had quite a satisfying lunch at a corner table out of the monsoon and where I gained new respect for yelp.com (either that or it is maturing fast). I thought I knew every restaurant in that grim neighborhood, but this Belgian bar turned up in a fast search when menupages was unnavigable after Bob called suggesting I meet him on an unexpected break from his new gig down the block at ICP. The place feels like the old theater district, with the walls hung with Belgian beer signs and not a chain detail in sight. The service started slow but progressed to perfect, the sauvignon blanc was better than $8 would lead you to expect and the bread and butter were superb. It was hard to fault Bob’s Caesar with chicken, and I was fine with my grilled vegetable-goat cheese sandwich once I tasted the crisp fries and mayonnaise alongside it (over a heavily dressed mesclun salad). WIGB? Probably often, given where it is and he’ll be. 125 West 43d Street, 212 678 0200.

The not bad: Bistro Cassis, where we resorted yet again after a movie and where we left thinking, yet again, how scarily easy it is to run through a hundred bucks on nothing much anymore. The place is always lively, and the host always finds a table, and the service is generally earnest. My sole was not a spectacular piece of fish, but the lemony sauce with it helped, as did the julienned carrots and zucchini underneath. Bob was much happier with his huge paneed pork chop with salad on top and lardons all around. We split a $30 bottle of Chateau de Grollet rose′, one of the very few cheap choices on the list, and then the $93 tab with tip, after which we had to stop and remember that our first big dinner in Manhattan, at Le Lavandou for my birthday in 1982, cost a then-staggering $125. I think we have to start eating at home before the movies. Either that or start finding bars with ample snacks afterward. WIGB? Unfortunately, inevitably, given how few decent alternatives exist near the theaters we frequent. 225 Columbus Avenue, 212 579 3966.

The compromised: Saravanaas, where the seriously great cooking is always offset by the go-fuck-yourself-in-Tamil attitude. We stopped in for Saturday lunch after the Greenmarket, when the usually zooey place was two-thirds empty, and got a table right away. Then, after a long wait, Bob got his “business lunch” and, after a much longer wait, my South Indian thali finally arrived. Both were exceptional, though, with sublime spicing. I even liked the syrup-soaked sweet among the three that came on my too-big platter. All three breads were India-worthy, too. As always, we left wondering about the sign over the sinks in an alcove off the dining room: “For hand washing only.” What else could they mean? Fannies? WIGB? Undoubtedly, although Chola at lunch is better and a better deal, just in the wrong neighborhood on a Saturday after the Greenmarket. 81 Lexington Avenue at 26th Street, 212 679 0204.

The improved: Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, where I probably swore I would never go back but where I found myself on an afternoon when I needed an expeditious cheap lunch between the Greenmarket and the F/V train. For the first time, the kitchen took its time, and so the Peking duck dumplings were properly fried. They still didn’t have brilliant flavor, but they were fast enough. And done right. 61 West 23d Street, 212 924 9220.

New York minutes/Early September 2007

The good: Land Thai, where the $8 lunch special was, as always, a better deal than it has any right to be. The vegetable spring rolls were dainty but perfectly fried, and the beef Thai curry was more decent beef than vegetables and just hot enough — I usually avoid cheap beef and now see why I’m usually let down. Bob had the daily dishes, some kind of chicken and rice noodle salad that was perfectly balanced and a shrimp thing (shrimp and I don’t communicate). Service gets an A, too. WIGB? Absolutely. 450 Amsterdam Avenue near 82d Street, 212 501 8121.

The better if bizarre: Hurapan Kitchen, where the kitchen was as attentive as the service was weird. Our table of three was the only one in the well-decorated house, and you can guess how that turned out. “Mussaman” curry with duck was light on the protein but fresh-tasting, spicy and lively, everything standard Thai is not. Charred rare tuna with a wasabi glaze was just as billed and came with exceptional crispy eggplant. Even the vegetarian summer roll with avocado and ginger-hoisin sauce was well above average. WIGB? I just wish it was closer. 29 Seventh Avenue South near Bleecker Street, 212 727 2678.

The surprisingly decent: Dishes in Grand Central Terminal, where I grabbed two sandwiches for the train ride up to Beacon for a party at a friend’s after an outing at DIA. The “media noche,” essentially a Cubano, was adequate if undergrilled, but a smoked turkey with Monterey Jack, avocado and chipotle mayonnaise on a huge soft sesame bagel was outstanding, melty and spicy. And both were done in not much more time than it took to buy the tickets. WIGB? Probably. It was the ideal prelude to a surprisingly great cappuccino at DIA and wines (Domaine Gaujaul rose and Vrak Macon Villages, each $9.99) from the new Artisan shop on Main Street in Beacon.

New York minutes/Late August 2007

The good again: Fatty Crab, where my consort and I headed after finding Fry Bar, Perilla and Ostia closed at Saturday brunchtime on a clear-sky holiday weekend when Manhattan felt as if a neutron bomb had hit. I had meant to try Mercadito, given that the restaurant has started a fund to support the delivery guys killed by a drunk right out front, but forgot it in a pain haze in the schlep from Union Square to Dean & Deluca to the Apple store to the far West Village. We evicted some guy waiting for a newish date at the best table on the sidewalk and shared the superb mango salad (with pineapple, cilantro and roasted peanuts), the outstanding Malay fish fry (tilapia in tempura on very spicy crab-curried rice) and the strange wonton mee (fried noodles, silken dumplings). I would have killed for the fatty duck but settled for designer dogs on parade. Apparently no one in that neighborhood owns a mutt. WIGB? In a Kuala Lumpur heartbeat. 643 Hudson Street north of 12th Street, 212 352 3592. (And for coffee afterward, we have a new destination: Ninth Street Espresso, newly opened west of Amy’s in the Chelsea Market. A just-brewed small cupful for $1 had fascinating flavor. Plus you can get a kick watching the barrista fling coffee everywhere while pressing each cup of real espresso.)

The not bad: Picnic, where we met up with a DC friend for very early Saturday breakfast and had to endure only a minimum of wheezing buses and snot-emptying homeless guys at the sidewalk cafe. My cappuccino was excellent even in a mug rather than the proper cup, and the scrambled eggs with frites and wheat toast were unobjectionable. Our visiting friend brought home just how underserved the neighborhood is when she said she had eaten there the day before simply because there was nothing else for 10 blocks in either direction. Maybe another Chase bank or Duane Reade would help. 2665 Broadway near 101st Street, 212 222 8222.

The convenient: Heartland Brewery at the South Street Seaport, where we scarfed down appetizers and wine after not leaving enough time for a real meal before Spiegeltent and the awesome “Absinthe” (Bob’s pithy description of the show: a bawdy Cirque du Soleil). The tents this summer do cut into the illusion that you are eating somewhere close to Sydney harbor, but the service was quick and the music was bearable. We over-ordered and ate too much hummus, baba ganoush, guacamole and pita plus chips. None of it was great, but that was not the point. Getting up close and personal with dervish crotches was. WIGB? Inevitably. Location, location, location.

The excruciating: Tarallucci e Vino dangerously close to the Greenmarket, where I stopped in for fuel for PT, ate half of it and lost the rest along with half my hearing. The place was not even a third full at early lunchtime, but the waitress was nervous in the service and the noise level was at Gonzales level. Then the Russian bimbette next to me got her soup, whipped out her cellphone and started shrieking while the jackass to my right was bellowing into his phone. I just gnawed through part of my lukewarm arugula and scamorza panino, asked to take the rest home and never saw it again. WIGB? Never inside when it is even half-busy.

The innocuous: Bin No. 220, where we made our way after the show, sat on stools outside, split a teeny plate of cheese and a couple of glasses of wine in tumblers and marveled at the transformation of the Seaport. Twenty-five years ago you would not have seen baby carriages being rolled past at 10 o’clock at night, let alone hordes of drunken traders. WIGB? Why not? 220 Front Street, 212 374 9463.

The Albanian: No. 28 on Carmine Street, where we wound up after the devastating “No End in Sight” at Film Forum when the new occupants of Shopsin’s were not receiving visitors and Bar Fry seemed too close to popcorn for comfort (and liquor-license-free to boot). The small pizza with prosciutto and arugula was not awful, or any worse than the pallid insalata mista, but the tab was a surprise: with two glasses of wine each, sitting at a rickety table on the sidewalk, we dropped $33 each with tip. WIGB? Not anytime soon.

Espresso track

Don’t ask me why we wound up in Rome for two days (something to do with the goddamn rental car costing as much as a hotel room in the countryside), but I have to say my least favorite city was vaut le voyage this time, and not just for the sight of a highway lined with young, stylish hookers on a Sunday morning as we blasted back to return said goddamn car. In a rare stroke of good luck, we slept in the Aventine, the leafy residential neighborhood, and ate mostly down the hill in Testaccio, the old slaughterhouse area. We’d stayed there on our last trip and found Volpetti, the specialty food shop that makes Dean & Deluca look like Trader Joe’s, and one quick stop had set us back $60. This time our guard was up. When a familiar tempter asked where I was from and then proffered a slice of “drunken cheese” — one washed with amarone — I turned around to see Bob had vanished before we could get seduced again, but I stayed long enough to buy us at least a slice of the just-baked zucchini blossom pizza to go.

The pizza was good, even cold, but lunch around the corner was even better. After checking out the kick-ass Paolo Pellegrin show over in Trastevere, we pushed one tray for two down the Volpetti cafeteria line while an amazingly patient attendant dished up trofie with pesto, extraordinary eggplant parmesan, seafood (all octopus) salad, roasted and marinated zucchini slices and a lovely little half-bottle of white wine. Our eyes were 33 euros bigger than our stomachs, but I wasn’t complaining.

By then we were on a roll. Every morning started with a surfeit of fruit from the buffet at the excellent Aventino (included in the 95-euro room rate, booked through venere.com). The night before we had put up with Vespa din on the sidewalk to eat at “Da Oio” a Casa Mia, where my rigatoni cacio e pepe was perfection and Bob gnawed his Roman-style stewed chicken down to the rosemary- and pepper-infused bone. Lunch was at a sleek businessy restaurant he sussed out in Trastevere called La Ripa: sauteed frutti di mare (mussels and clams in a peppery brodo), super-tender grilled grouper and calamari, and spaghetti with clams. And every afternoon we trekked in the brutal heat to Sant’Eustachio for an espresso granita. Bob would get his plain and order alla panna for me, and we would stand outside in a patch of shade, passing them back and forth for maximum bliss. It was hard to believe I almost died from caffeine withdrawal in Rome, back in the days when I drank tea and the Excelsior Hotel balked at brewing it and I had to medicate myself with Coke. Harder still to believe some people still think St. Peter’s is the only shrine in town.

Volpetti shop, Via Marmorata, 47, Testaccio, 39 (0)6 574 2352.
Volpetti Tavola Calda, Via Alessandro Volta, 8, Testaccio.
“Da Oio” a Casa Mia, Via Galvani, 43/45, Testaccio, 39 (0)6 5782680.
Ripa 12, Via San Francesco a Ripa, 12, Trastevere, 39 (0)6 5809093.
Sant’Eustachio, Piazza S. Eustachio, 82, 39 (0)6 688 0248.
Hotel Aventino, Via S. Domenico, 10, 39 (0)6 570057.

French twists

I don’t think we have ever done Italy and France back to back, which must be one reason why I was so underwhelmed by the food in a country where I had always fully intended to have my last meal. The comparison was rather stark, especially considering the first course at our first dinner in Tuscany, at Posta Marcucci in Bagno Vignoni, was Kelleresque in both concept and execution: a plate of Cinta Senese prosciutto paired with a chilled melon soup with a dollop of onion jam — the ham tasted irresistibly barnyardy against the sweetness. But another reason is simply that a wedding banquet in Italy is a hard act to follow, at least as staged by a multinational crew. The reception was around the pool at magical Il Poggiolo in San Quirico d’Orcia, where four food stations had been set up: One with fried food (tomatoes, arancini, zucchini, etc.) to be eaten from paper cones, one with melon and prosciutto carved to order, yet another with cheese and red wine and one more with bruschetti; if that was not enough, waiters were passing hors d’oeuvres like little tarts with artichoke and truffle filling. The sit-down dinner under the hyper-clear stars started with gnocchi, followed by a filled pasta, then roast pork, then Tuscan steak, then the wedding cake, then a full dessert table.

The steak, and the melon soup, were so extraordinary that it’s no wonder Bob yawned at the best meal we had in Arles, at Le Cilantro. I ordered essentially the same two dishes off the special menu, but the beef was not as dazzling and the soup came with slivers of prosciutto crisps and a balsamic granita. He had seared tuna and sea bream, each with two sauces, and we both left thinking the room was half the reason for the Michelin star.

We had a promising start at lunch at Tamarillos in the lively city of Montpellier — minis including foie gras with vanilla, then coconut milk risotto with langoustines, dried strawberries and mushrooms — but the herky-jerky service and slow kitchen cost us patience by the time our main courses came. Glutton for fowl punishment, I ordered duck with mango and chewed yet another penalty ration. Bob’s scallops with spinach and pistachios arrived with neither of the billed ingredients, but who was counting?

My faith in France was restored at L’Entre Pots in Languedoc, in the Moliere stomping ground of Pezenas, and not just because we had been tasting picpoul all morning. This was a Paris-quality restaurant, on every level, starting with the fact that our wine was chilled in a silver bucket shaped like a dinosaur egg. It even offered half-portions on several starters and main courses, and I took one (monkfish sauteed to succulent perfection with calamari) while Bob made a meal of two (anchovies atop eggplant and tomato, then veal saltimbocca with a plethora of mashed potatoes). My appetizer of exquisite brandade with pesto tapenade was enough for an entree. The bread was excellent, the cafe creme even better. And the place itself was designed more like a resort than a restaurant, with a patio where we ate, a seating area with tables in the middle of the restaurant, and shelves with food and a few housewares for sale in the front. Like that ice bucket.

Hotel “Posta” Marcucci, Bagno Vignoni, 39 (0) 57 788 7112.
Il Poggiolo, San Quirico d’Orcia, 39 (0)57 789 9074, www.poggiolo.info
Grand Hotel Nord Pinus, Place du Forum, Arles, 33 (0)49 903 4444, www.nord-pinus.com
Le Cilantro, 31, rue Porte-de-Laure, Arles, 33 (0)49 018 2505.
Tamarillos, 2, Place du Marche aux Fleurs, Montpellier, 33 (0)46 760 0600.
L’Entre Pots, 8, Ave. Louis-Montaigne, Pezenas, 33 (0) 46 790 0000.

Market ratings

Can you love a town without eating in it? We stopped in Salon-de-Provence to break up the roughly five-hour drive from Languedoc to the Nice airport and could not have been more infatuated, even though our consumption was limited to a couple of pichets of rose at a sidewalk cafe late on the night we drove in and a world-class cafe creme next morning before we blew out (we sneaked croissants in from Narbonne with that). If I were heading back to Provence, I would make this my base for the cheap hotels and street life; our perfectly serviceable, beyond-clean room at the Vendome was 44 euros, WiFi included. We didn’t have time to check out the soap factories (this is the home of the Marius Fabre we got hooked on thanks to Alain Ducasse and his otherwise worthless bastide), but we were lucky enough to be in town for market morning, and what a market it was. All the food looked exceptional, and it was not geared to tourists at all. Bob will probably never forgive me for not being a chicken eater after spotting the first rotisserie dripping juices onto potatoes and whole garlic cloves. Instead of getting one to go, we split a roasted eggplant-and-tomato tartine at a rest stop, having learned another rule for happy eating in the new Europe: vegetables are always better than the industrial meats and cheeses.

The market our Languedoc friend took us to in Nardonne was even more splendiferous, housed as it was in a gorgeous century-old hall with 80 shops. Our heads were swiveling from the second we stepped inside and saw a huge line for roast chickens, a three-foot-wide pan of seafood paella being ladled into takeout containers, an olive display manned by the most persuasive barkers scooping out samples, and a couple of bars where shoppers — men and women alike — were drinking beer and wine at 10 in the morning. One stall was devoted to cassoulet, several others to cheese and a couple to dazzling seafood (my favorite had lumped all the ingredients for bouillabaisse together under a sign). When we stopped to try a local cheese, I learned a good lesson, though: Look before you buy. The local sea salt was 7 euros at the cheese stall and up to 9 at other stands.

Hotel Vendome, 34, rue Marechal Joffre, Salon-de-Provence, 33 (0)49 0560196.
Les Halles de Narbonne, Bd du Dr Ferroul, 33 (0)46 8326399.

New York minutes/August 2007

The good and gimmicky: Hill Country, where I wanted to hate everything but actually was impressed by both the concept, the unnaturally hospitable staff and the Kreuz Market sausage. I’m not sure I would brave it at a busy dinner hour, when it would have to be a circle of cacophonous hell, but at lunchtime on a Monday it was pretty deserted and we were patiently served at the barbecue, side dish and drinks sections. You start with a meal ticket to be stamped at each stop (one that costs $50 if you lose it), and facing down the food makes you want to over-order before you head for the picnic tables with rolls of paper towels waiting to eat off butcher paper. We stuck to a quarter-chicken, a quarter-pound of “moist” (as opposed to lean) brisket, one sausage, coleslaw, pickled cucumber salad and a glass of Texas chenin blanc and got out for $34, no tip needed. The brisket turned out to be too fatty for my taste, but the chicken was excellent for chicken and that sausage was just outstanding — I’d had it before by mail order, and fresh was a whole new experience. Most meats are sold by the pound, but you can buy as little as a slice. WIGB? Only for lunch. I’m too old for head-banging din. 30 West 26th Street between Sixth and Broadway, 212 255 7245.

The inevitably perfect: Pearl, where my cod sandwich came with overheard snippets of chef gossip that made me think about how un-New Yorkly hospitable the West Village is to women (Rebecca, Anita Lo, April Bloomfield, Jody Williams, Amanda Freitag, to name just a few).

The not bad: Alouette, for a change, where we sought out neutral ground after my consort dragged in from a week of teaching at the Maine Photo Workshops. I chose it primarily because the noise level is usually so inoffensive even if the food, whether by idea or execution, can be mediocre to gruesome. But our timing was off, and we were led to the attic level (read: hot) two tables away from boors and basically felt as if we were eating in the spillover chute. Still, the special of mayonnaisy shrimp in avocado was a dated notion but satisfying, and Bob’s monkfish with shiitakes was far better than average for the neighborhood. A real chef could turn this place around so that the upstairs would be as packed as downstairs. WIGB? Where else can I find peace and $7 Macon-Village sanity so close to home? 2588 Broadway near 97th Street, 212 222 6808.

The overreaching: Asiate in the Mandarin Oriental, where the protracted Restaurant Week deal reeled a friend and me in and where both of us walked away adding up all the other venues where $24.07 would have gone further. I was further suckered into ordering salmon because it was described as glazed with both sea urchin and miso, and the resulting flavor and texture could best be described as cat foody. The corn soup with crispy chickpeas and chanterelles that preceded it was unobjectionable, but my date was beyond underwhelmed by the taste-light raw tuna salad and the special cod. I think the cheapest glass of wine was $11, which had to help underwrite the view-maximizing design of the room but was still hard to swallow. The service was almost obsequious. On the plus side, the bathrooms were exceptional. WIGB? Only when I have $24 for a diner breakfast with a view, served by inchworms. Or if someone gives me megabucks to explore that tantalizing wine list.

The dispiriting: Tandoori on 94th Street, a “new” cafe that proves something about reincarnation, although I am not sure what. In 21 years in the neighborhood, I ate at the original at 97th and Columbus exactly once and got takeout or delivery only slightly more often, and I remembered the food as being slightly less dull than dishwater. So don’t ask how I wound up on the buffet line at the new location, where I used to be able to buy crema and chilies and fresh chorizo at Stop One. (Well, actually, I had fled the new fusiony Asian place nearby because it was not just empty but reeked of fish.) Suffice it to say that it was a total rip if you don’t eat lamb or tandoori chicken or whatever fish previously occupied the third Sterno station. I was left with only a yellow dal, an okra-heavy curry with potatoes and spinach with chickpeas to eat with coriander chutney and mango pickles and a whole basket of bread. It was only $8.95 and I have seldom felt so cheated.

The divey: All State Cafe, where I had not been in donkey’s years but agreed to join friends who were craving cheeseburgers and worried that Fairway would be too zooey. I just had a turkey club with big leaden fries and a couple of glasses of overpriced glasses of wine, and the place was the same as it ever was. WIGB? Maybe. It was quiet enough for a shockingly calm debate about Israel. 250 West 72d Street, 212 874 1883.

The doomed: China de Puebla, where the owners have apparently sunk megabucks into the swank decor without considering location, location — our table looked out onto a barrier under the subway tracks and off toward the projects. Only four tables filled on a chilly Monday night. The food was up and down, but at least the concept was clear when the excellent salsa landed with a mix of tortilla and shrimp chips. The best thing three of us split was the hoisin-braised duck empanada with chipotle sauce; the salmon seviche with Asian pears, passion fruit and cilantro was over-cured. And the best entree was the roast chicken with black sticky rice and plantains; my consort’s shrimp and scallops were drowned in other dark flavors, while my crispy tofu with vermicelli and edamame in curry sauce was a bunch of very fresh-tasting ingredients refusing to talk to each other. The service was excellent, although having spent five weeks in a too easily begrimed sling, I have to say the sight of one on a server’s wrist was a little queasy-making. WIGB? Not anytime soon, unfortunately. 3143 Broadway at 123d Street, 212 222 8666. [Late July 2007]

New York minutes/July 2007

The pretty good: Malatesta Trattoria, where uptown friends lured us deep into the West Village on a Friday night and where we should have known “quirky” meant no credit cards. The place is one of their favorites, and it was easy to see why: the room is very Italy-charming, not deafening, and the service was that rare blend of relaxed but attentive. The food was almost beside the point, although Nancy’s lamb chops did look straight out of Tom Jones. The gnocchi she ordered as a shared appetizer were better than either my special fettucine with infinitesimal lobster and alleged shiitakes or my consort’s tagliatelle with unnamed meat ragu. But the crostini were ample and the tiramisu and panna cotta were fine and the prosecco and wine kept coming. I didn’t even mind the inevitable baby Jesus rolling up at the next table. WIGB? Probably, but with cash next time. 649 Washington Street at Christopher, 212 741 1207.

The not as bad as it’s sounded: Provence, where we met friends for Saturday lunch just for the alluring space and walked away happy no matter what the critics had warned. As we headed there from the N train I was laughing that our back-to-back destinations were previewing our trip to both Tuscany and Provence, but the menu turned out to reflect very little of the latter. My poor consort and one friend wound up with slightly overgrilled shrimp on a sloppy pile of summer squash with shaved fennel and citrus, although her husband didn’t complain about the merguez sandwich. I scored with mussels and frites even though the promised chorizo was MIA in the brodo; the garlicky mayonnaise with the crisp and salty fries made up for that. The cheese plate was dainty but perfect, and a rhubarb-lemon tart made the others happy. Best of all was the bottle of picpoul we shared. WIGB? Absolutely, assuming it survives (it was pretty empty); it’s cheaper than a ticket to Nice this summer. 38 MacDougal Street, 212 475 7500.

The cacophonous: Dean’s Pizzeria, where in the name of something new I stupidly lured friends for the most aurally excruciating experience. The food and service and huge room were actually acceptable, but Jesus, do 5,000 human larvae ever crank out some serious din. We sat in the back (big mistake) and shared an okay bottle of Italian white, a respectable mushroom-sausage pizza (way heavy on the latter) and a “multicolore” salad with surprisingly good ingredients, starting with baby wild arugula. WIGB? Undoubtedly, but late, after the spawners have gone home. 215 West 85th Street, 212 875 1100.