Reel food

WIGB to Baker & co in the West Village? Already have. Twice. A few weeks (or was it years, in Lost Internet Time?) a friend treated me to Buster Poindexter midday in the Greene Space for my birthday, after which we set out in sloppy snow to find wine and snacks, heading at my suggestion to Murray’s overpriced cheese bar. Which was closed. And it was sloppily snowing. We both noticed a rustic sign directly across the street and walked into a wonderland. Not only was the place serving at that odd hour. Everyone seemed seriously happy to see us, the food (mostly pizzette for us) was both affordable and nicely done and the table felt hearthside even without smoke smoking up our coats and scarves. So when three friends plus my consort wanted to connect after the punch-to-the-head-awesome “About Elly” at Film Forum, I thought I knew just the place. Turned out two of those friends knew it even better — it’s a sibling of the Aurora across the water that they love.

We landed in happy-hour time for $5 house wine at the bar, which came with a show: The cleverly designed place felt like a stop for those grim “Sex & the City” tours, but you can squeeze past the rib cages with watermelon-busting augmented breasts and the stilettos to get to the glassed-in cafe in the very back. We split one appetizer, a fabulous pizzetta heaped with house-made sausage plus broccoli rabe and smoked scarmorza. The excellent house bread came with very creamy ricotta drizzled with olive oil and olives. And every one of our entrées was happy-making, especially my $16 lasagne, easily the best since I last made that assemblage at home for a story after 9/11. The Cat was as pleased as my consort and our friend to his right with the roasted half-chicken stuffed with mascarpone and teamed with fries, the potatoes nearly swamped with truffle oil and garlic chips. I only snared tiny tastes of the orecchiette with shrimp and the gnocchi with mushrooms and asparagus but would go back for either. Nothing was more than $24, and that was the generous chicken. The server’s dessert recommendation of caramel budino also played out right — when sugar is sweet, five spoons can dredge through it happily. Wines were good, too. When I clumsily ordered the cheapest white, a grillo for $37, and when it was 86d, the host came over to sell us a fabulous Friulano for the same price.

So it was no surprise I got no resistance from Bob about a week later when we left a waste of time aside from the gin-soaking at Storyscapes at the Tribeca Film Festival and I suggested the short walk back to Bleecker. This time we got a table instantly and were soon sharing crisp and gooey fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with burrata and paired with mixed green salad. We thought we ordered fava beans as well but were served a lavish beet salad with citrus supremes, horseradish yogurt and pistachios (guess it was the gin talking). And we finished with an order of ravioli with smoked eggplant, cherry tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella. All of it was so good we left marveling at the waiter’s revelation that the place gets a largely tourist crowd. I hope those Carrie wannabes realize they are not congregating in a typical Village restaurant. It’s way better than that. Plus it is so close to the movies, both Film Forum and IFC. We settle for worse/pricier so often.

Like, no WiFi, no Club Car

Our friend who moved back to Philadelphia from the “restaurant wasteland” of the Upper West Side begs to differ with all the national food media hyping the wonders of her hometown. To her, too many of the restaurants are too much like so many that afflict Manhattan: not just overpriced but dishing up food that she, as a great cook, could make at home.

Given that she runs the Relais & Chateaux where my consort and I would be staying  while he was starting shooting on his latest documentary, I was very glad to have arrived with a suggestion off the Twitter for where we should head for our first lunch. And I was even more glad when she was as impressed as we were. Cheu Noodle Bar could be just a Changstamp but puts its own imprint on the menu. As my Twitter pal predicted, I was thankful for the advice on ordering the brisket-matzo ball-kimchi option, with tender meat and unrubbery dough to absorb the spicy-vibrant broth. Joanne’s ramen with braised pork shoulder and egg was more Jin-like; although the broth was not as rich, the meat was sublime. But Bob’s soba with chorizo, queso fresco and snow peas was the simple winner; he’s usually Mr. Brodo but was more than happy with this dry bowl. We also split an appetizer of the special beef-sesame dumplings of the day, beautifully made and cooked. If not for that $9 addition, Joanne could have left a tip of less than $10.

Dinner that night was with her nephew and his girlfriend, whose yelling dog Bob had just filmed, and four of the six of us were all “whoa” on arriving at the restaurant in Old City and thinking we were heading into a gelateria in that “Jersey Shore”-overwhelmed neighborhood. But back in the back turned out to be a very Philadelphia dining room anchored by a glitzy wood pizza oven. Then the owner recognized her friend at our table and stopped to offer suggestions. Which is when I actually started to worry — what if everything sucked? How could I write about it?

That was ridiculous.

All three pizzas we chose were hard to fault, generous even sliced into sixths and with especially good crusts (I usually leave a pile of “bones” on my plate but kept on gnawing). The Ciro had lardo, the San Lorenzo smoked mozzarella and house-made sausage, the Vesuvius good heat (cameras should have a caption function). We also split a stellar “capra” salad of delicate arugula, goat cheese, pancetta and almonds, plus adequate arancini and amazing eggplant “meat”balls as well as a smartly chosen four-cheese and two-salumi board. We did not need the fourth pizza the owner comped us, but we all tucked into it: a margherita gussied up with pepperoni. With two bottles of a crisp and complementary verdicchio, the bill was $186 before the tip. For six of us. We should all be riding Amtrak.

Next day I steered us to the doughnut-famous Dizengoff for hummus: one plain, one topped with fried chickpeas and a third with “longhot hazelnut,” a very fiery green pepper minced with filberts. Each dainty plateful came with a salad of diced cucumber and red onion plus a little bowl of pickled cucumber and onion, as well as just-baked pita in a brown paper sleeve. You have to congratulate a business that can charge up to $13 for meatless meals. We lucked out with a table at that late hour; otherwise, it would have been great to take lunch to Rittenhouse Square a few blocks away.

Our second dinner was home-cooked at the H&J R&C and our last lunch was at a tiny, funky cafe called Lutecia, just a block or so away from my first apartment in Philadelphia. We could have been eating in 1978, too, and I mean that in the  Commissary way: lentil soup with coconut milk and saffron; quiche Lorraine; croque monsieur; potato-leek soup paired with a half-sandwich of chicken and tomatoes on  baguette. At about $10 a person, it was almost like paying in the Rizzo years.

We also fit in gelato (pistachio plus spicy Mexican chocolate) at Capofitto predecessor Capogiro on 13th Street, which was good if not the best in America as proclaimed by National Geographic. We split a superb little Jezabel’s beef empanada from Gavin’s while walking around once-dangerous Fitler Square. We bought addictive Monkey Crackers at the Reading Terminal Market for the cheese we’d brought down from Murray’s and the aged-two-years prosciutto we bought at Di Bruno Bros. And we had perfect espresso at Nook, where the “small-batch coffee, small-batch baking” sign lured us in.

Joanne may be right with her tepid take on the allegedly hot restaurant scene. But she can’t argue over the improvement on other levels, not least on the booze front. We turned her on to a new state store that is not up there with Astor but at least is centuries beyond the one Bob remembers, the one that had not shelves but a binder full of wines.

Speak American, damn it

Between the rigatoni and the “minced beef” (aka dogburgers) on homebound Turkish Airlines, I had plenty of time to chew over what a guide recounted in Istanbul on my second day: She once had to spend several weeks in New York and was just longing for the food of her birth country one day when she spotted a restaurant called Istanbul. She swore she got fine food there, and I’ll take her word for it. Mostly she got me thinking about why Americans never have to crave American food. Is it because you can find McBurgerShack anywhere you go? Or because there is no such thing as American food?

I’m going with the latter after considering a couple of eating experiences after landing. On the first night my also-jetlagged consort, just back from judging World Press Photo’s multimedia entries in Amsterdam, graciously suggested we meet somewhere near his post-school networking drink, and Mermaid Inn had no tables available before about 3  in the morning my time, so I suggested Maison Kayser, not least because we could economize by taking advantage of the BYOB policy, since the place has no liquor license but also no corkage fee. So we tucked right into food off a menu that felt like one we would be happy to find in a cafe in Paris on one of those nights when we had no energy to search out a real meal. I passed on the salade gourmandaise with foie gras, duck prosciutto, green beans etc. because (snob that I am) I have had it so many times in France. But I was thrilled to see duck rillettes, and something new: artichokes paired with burrata. Which were enticing enough to let me let Bob take the cassoulet.

Of the three, the cassoulet was the weakest link, but not by much. Once we shredded the duck confit and chopped the garlic sausage into the soupy beans, we had a credible version of the usually dense classic. The rillettes, all of $2 more than what I buy Hudson Valley Duck’s for, came with toasts and cornichons plus were so much better, with good chunks of meat among the shreds in white fat. And the artichoke assemblage was sublime, both then and next morning: puréed artichoke bottoms surrounded with bits of bottoms, dabs of pesto and a necklace of pitted black olives, all topped with a slab of melting burrata.

The setting was pretty dinery, even after the very charming waiter turned down the lights, and I had my suspicions about how one kitchen can turn out such a wide menu of so many choices, and so fast. Still, WIGB? Absolutely, but probably for a snack rather than a meal. Real diners have wine by the glass.

Overall, though, the meal felt very New York. As did, insane as it sounds, Saturday lunch with our Asian-eating/eating-Asian pals at a newish Sichuan restaurant in northern New Jersey. And not just because we ordered “hamburgers.”

The first sign we were a long way from either Mott Street or Main Street was the very look of the place: sleek, polished, elegant (the two-stall ladies room even had flowers in it rather than the usual grimy string mop). The second was the graceful dish filled with peanuts in one indentation, spicy pickled carrots and a mystery yellow vegetable in the other. The teapots were also china, not aluminum. And the food was uniformly sensational.

Pork wontons in hot chile oil were perfectly formed and cooked, so they held together to the last nibble. Duck soup had a delicate flavor but you could taste the ginger and Sichuan peppercorns. Dan-dan noodles had clean, beautifully balanced flavor. I skipped the ox tongue and tripe in peppery sauce while everyone else raved. I also skipped the fermented eggs with cucumbers but can vouch for the sauce and crunchy vegetable sauce. Fern root noodles with sliced chicken were fascinating, dark and chewy. Braised sea bass fillets in another spicy sauce were sensational, beautifully cooked, very fresh fillets, and all of $16.75 for a huge bowlful. Even dry-sautéed string beans with minced pork were exceptional. But the true “vaut le voyage” choices were the Sichuan “hamburger,” thin slices of well-spiced pork to be tucked into steamed buns, and the tea-smoked duck, easily the best we have ever had outside of Hong Kong — the fat was almost buttery, the meat almost rare but very tender. And when the check came, it amounted to all of $23 a person for the seven of us. WIGB? Despite the hourlong bus ride, absolutely. This is why we live in America, for freedom of choice on food.

“Cuz they were nomads, they ate on the floor”

If a chef had a finger in your guided tour of Istanbul, here’s what you’d experience: An exhaustive exhibit on the history of Turkish coffee, complete with a centuries-old flyswatter meant to illustrate indolence in coffeehouses. The newly opened kitchens at the Topkapi Palace, where the guards are so busy on their phones they don’t notice everyone ignoring the universal no-photos sign on every exhibit, and where the workmanship in centuries-old china and silver is extraordinary. A warm-up stop for Turkish tea and red poppy/rosewater/tamarind sherbets (more like juices) in the gift shop. A spin through the Spice Bazaar with more time spent outside, where the real food is for sale and the cheese and olive vendors can’t pass out enough samples. A stock-up stop in a lokum/Turkish delight shop dating from the relatively recent past (1777). Lunch at an unlikely power lunch scene in a gentrifying neighborhood with exceptional traditional food (if the usual watery manti) and with Noah’s Pudding for dessert, made with grains and beans and honey and pomegranate and walnuts. True Turkish coffee in a 1967 coffeehouse and a lesson in reading the grounds like tea leaves. Through it all, nonstop insights into Istanbul’s history and modern life. I usually find guided tours about as pleasant as actually being led around by my nose would be, but this was impressive. As our guide said: “No one person can ever finish Istanbul.” I highly recommend her; email if you’re interested in contact info.

Between cats

I almost skipped my last supper in Istanbul, having had a late lunch with cauliflower and cat over in Orhan Pamuk’s neighborhood and knowing I had one more big breakfast to tuck away before the long, long ride home. But I would have missed an experience that had everything: great food, good wine, excellent service, a dramatic setting, cats to shoot on the walk to and from and, best of all, proof that bitches act the same all over the world. When I walked into Aheste, having had my lunch date reserve for me (cuz you can’t just walk in), the host/server offered me two tables, one awkwardly positioned in the center of the narrow room and the other in the window, where a scarf and bag were arranged in one chair, as if the owner had just stepped away. I didn’t understand that the latter was really available and settled for awkwardness, only to watch as a couple entered shortly afterward and the waiters started to remove the bag and scarf to a high stool. The young woman next to that table grabbed both, angrily, and then apparently instructed her husband/date to get the check even though they were still eating. If I had known it would be so easy to evict a princess, I would have chosen my table more wisely.

But as soon as the menu was set down and the host/server translated what I could not, I was oblivious to everything but the food and wine. I was actually tempted by the lamb neck but chose grilled mixed (mild) peppers with anchovy “aioli” and green olives plus the mutebbel, a combination of smoky eggplant with tahini and walnuts. And I would have been totally happy with those, especially after the sourdough bread with garlic confit in excellent Turkish olive oil. Maybe because I snapped everything, or because I had a little notebook, or because Istanbul, even with a population now of 18 million, 4 million more than my last trip in 2011, is a very tiny town, I was comped sensational ceviche, of buttery sea bass with red onion, dill fronds and orange. That made me order the chard with smoked yogurt so I could taste more of what the generous chef was cooking up, and I am here to report that “dried rose” actually could outperform bacon bits as a garnish. I couldn’t finish any of it, but I was then comped the craziest pumpkin dessert all week: crisp, crunchy, slightly sweet slices of squash set over ice cream and dusted with chopped walnuts. If I got it all straight, the cucumber cousin is being cooked via centuries-old molecular gastronomy — limestone does the trick.

As my own private Baedeker said: Eating at Aheste “tastes like being here.”

Up from Parm

Among the many reasons I restrain myself from interacting digitally anywhere but at my desktop: Tweet in haste, repent at leisure. Never was that clearer than on our second visit to the Milling Room. Our first meal was fine; our second made me want to blast out a “why isn’t this joint packed?” iStorm.

And the food really was impressive, as were the waiters and the lively wine, a pinot bianco for only $40. The beet salad with those bloody roots set over pistachio and blue cheese was again fabulous; the hamachi tartare downtown-worthy. On our first visit, the mushroom risotto rivaled the roast chicken; on the second, Bob’s honking huge pork chop was on the same level as our friends’ rabbit with pappardelle and Scottish salmon set over caramelized endive. The service was spectacular, at least until the place filled up a bit more, and the space and the low noise level both had my fingers twitching to Tweet.

Luckily, I held off. Because my main, monkfish cheeks substituted for cod in combination with black trumpet mushrooms and celeriac puree, proved to be dazzling. Only on the walk home, when I said the fish was great but too rich, did my consort note: “Yeah, and it was $38.” My heart stopped and I turned right around. That wonderfully welcoming maitre d’ or host or whatever he was never mentioned a whopping surcharge for trash fish. And the confrontation at the reception desk was awkward, and slow, but Bob got the $12 overcharge off the bill.

Still, WIGB? Undoubtedly. Even though we had been gulled three times before by trying to book on OpenTable when it was supposedly always full; only after a friend who lives nearby emailed to say it was quiet and comfortable did we try walking right in. (Shades of the Jerry Della Femina strategy for filling a resto: tell ’em no till they beg to hear yes.) The cooking is typical Scott Bryan — skillful if not pyrotechnic — and the Endicott Hotel lobby-converted-into-dining room and noise level are almost as comfortable as eating at home. And, if you check the bill before you let your consort pay, the prices are very right.

And why did we and Dr. and Lady Bugs wind up at the Milling Room to chew over “Mr. Turner”? Because I stupidly thought we would be able to walk out of the theater at 6 and into the uptown Parm, little realizing that the olds we usually do battle with for tables would instead be outnumbered by young parents. The anticipated wait on that Sunday evening was an hour. A couple of weeks later Bob and I hit the same reality — if you want to walk right in, sit right down, eat early downtown. Uptown, wait till the stroller gridlock clears.

Uptown Parm

Last year went by in a faster blur than usual, and my Collyer Bros-worthy desk is a mess of menus and receipts from unrecorded meals good, bad, awful and occasionally sensational. Too many weeks I paved too many more roads to hell with my good intentions, so I’m cutting my losses and starting over fresh in 2015. With silly plans to revisit some wins, like Lafayette for my birthday last year.

I will make a crossover exception for the uptown Parm, though, because it is so exceptional. We’d been watching and watching for it to open over many months and stopped by to peek inside one Saturday night after a movie at Lincoln Square. The windows were covered in brown paper, but we could see tables set and staff getting marching orders, so a couple of nights later we left a press party (Rustichella d’Abruzzo shoutout!), jumped on the bus back across the park and walked in to find seats available even though the place had opened exactly three hours earlier. Everything was perfection: table (in the quiet back), service and especially food: eggplant parmesan sandwich, three vegetables — crisp but airy fried zucchini, Buffalo-style cucumbers, with blue cheese and Crystal hot sauce, and chickpeas with B&G pickle relish — plus Little Italy-meets-Chinatown ribs, tender and spicy.

A week later we miscalculated our timing for a movie and had an hour to kill and trotted back from AMC Lincoln Square for a drink at the bar and were so happy with the service/setting/quaffables we headed straight back after the movie, again for eggplant Parm perfection and the three vegetable starters, plus superb service in the back room.

And a week after that we were back after “Selma” with a friend and walked in to get a booth in the back and share the ribs and eggplant Parm again plus the vegetables while friends seated in the front railed that they had reserved and had had to wait. Call it stroller in the balance. WIGB? If it holds up it is going to change the neighborhood and maybe even kill off Lincoln Square Steak if not Fairway — after a movie, cheap and cheerful is the way to go. And at least we can use the bathroom before heading north to the Milling Room, about which TK.

Bloody richness

That awkward moment when you all pick up the menu and think “this looks reasonable” right before a chosen one blurts: “The cheapest red is $60.” Yep, that was our four-top  at Recette, which I had picked for its proximity to Norwood, where a friend was doing a book promo, and because we had wandered in over the summer and been shut out cuz we’d had no reservation even though it was empty. Luckily, our friends can roll with any surprise, so we all ordered small despite the server’s advice to figure on two to three items per person. And we all filled up, not least thanks to the cayenne-chocolate cakelettes presented with the check, which also arrived with a cheery “the salt cod fritters are on us,” presumably to compensate for the wine arriving well after our whole table of small plates had.

My consort had wisely ordered those salt cod fritters instantly for the table, and their dryness was offset by the rich lamb sausage ragu on which they sat (the promised curry aioli was imperceptible). I won with the Berkshire pork belly, rich as melted lard but enlivened by the panoply of accoutrements: rock shrimp, turnips, romesco sauce, sherry caramel. I didn’t try one friend’s marinated hamachi with uni etc., but the duck fat fingerlings he ordered were sensational. Bread? Perfect. Butter? Perfect temperature + salt. Unfortunately, the two of us who succumbed to the scallops really did succumb. The two outsized mollusks on each plate for $26 were teamed with beets, Brussels sprouts and caviar beurre blanc. And maybe they were the freshest in the sea. But the sauce made them taste, as Bob put it, like the fish he remembered his mom cooking up on pope-proscripting Friday nights in Buffalo. Our debate back to the subway was pretty much: “Ill-conceived or badly executed?”

And of course Bob had the last word when I defensively said: “At least they train the staff to fix mistakes.” And he, having actually paid our half of the bill, responded: “I’d rather they train them not to make mistakes.” WIGB? Nope. Not with Bar Bolonat so close by.

(As for Norwood, it really was the perfect setting for the reading, with just the right element of decadence for a book titled “Empire of Sin.” It is a private club, and we did feel privileged to be there. But when we walked up to the cash bar, the wineglasses were supersized thimbles — shades of the old P&P where Bob and I met back in the last century — and one whiff of white and one whiff of red came to $30.)

Capital/control F

Apparently the seventh (or is it the eighth, or ninth?) time is the charm. After one more perfect meal at RedFarm uptown I’m finally motivated to write about it. So far my consort and I have eaten there alone and with friends and without each other and have sent other friends there, and it always, always delivers. Even though, as we were reminded on our last indulgence, the prices are rather “holy shit!” — a couple who crowded down the bar from us walked out rather quickly after perusing the menu. No matter. More room for the rest of us.

And if they’d asked, I coulda told them exactly how to order. Lift your eyes above the $48 lobster noodles and $41 Creekstone steak and stick to the dim sum section of the long menu. If you have to, venture into “starters & salads.” The bill will still be equivalent to a meal for four in Flushing, but then you will have eaten food you could not get even after an hourlong ride on the 7 train.

If I hadn’t spent the last few years feeling so fortunate to join a group of Asian-eating/eating-Asian friends, though, I would not be so appreciative of how brilliant the concepts and cooking are at RedFarm. I’ve eaten a lot o’soup dumplings, but Joe Ng’s in their silken wrappers really are the best, not least because the quality of the pork justifies the foie gras price.

Those are the most comparable to Chinatown/Flushing, but the genius of the RedFarm menu is how it strides far and wide away from typical lists. At our last lunch, we split the souplings plus “crunchy vegetable & peanut dumplings,” pan-fried but very airy, as well as the eggplant “bruschetta” (really tempuraesque-fried slices) topped with smoked salmon. And we finished with the “barbecued” Berkshire pork belly, the thin slices of super-tender, well-spiced meat paired with blackened jalapeños.

But we were restrained because we have chomped through a pretty good section of the kitchen’s offerings over the last year. The only danger in ordering is succumbing to too many fried temptations, like the killer egg roll stuffed with Katz’s pastrami along with the pan-fried pork buns.

I’m not a shrimp fan, but I’ll take the shrimp and snowpea-leaf dumplings and anything else Ng wraps up. The “Pac-Man” shrimp dumplings are also a trip. I can’t pick a favorite dish, although the crispy duck and crab dumplings come close, with the bird stuffed into the claws, fried and laid alongside a green curry sauce with vegetables. We usually have to order duck breast skewers with litchi when they’re on the specials list, too, and anything else with duck.

Full disclosure: Whenever Eddie Schoenfeld has been on the premises, we’ve gotten preferential treatment and usually a dish or two comped. So we know the best seats are in a booth. But the real extra is hearing about his travails in getting the place open.

RedFarm takes no reservations, but if you call ahead you can get a good read on how long the wait will be and walk in just in time. Just remember to tell the hosts you called. Otherwise you could get stuck back by the service station. And this is the rare restaurant where the seats (at the bar) next to the toilets are preferable. (Do check out the toilets, BTW.)