BEST NOSE OF ANY EAST VILLAGE BARTENDRESS Part One Best Nose ...
We mean the nose not of the head bartendress proper, but rather of the younger blonde woman who seemed to be performing the bar-back duties of a barkeep trainee. Don't get us wrong. Her nose ain't big, and it certainly pulls off the trick of augmenting a good-looking face. But man, if that isn't a good, strong, imposing nose you could match up with an equally strong jaw and bring home to Mother; show off to the neighbors; highlight in a slideshow; dedicate oneself to with the great and humble respect of the acolyte, seeing in its firm, bony rigor and assertion a vision of an eternal summer. This was truly a nose with which to move to a house in the country and raise children and start over.
By the fourth round, we were cataloguing?for comparative purposes, in order properly to contextualize the young woman's physiognomy?other great noses throughout history. The legendary Dutchman Anthony the Trumpeter, for whom the craggy Hudson Valley mountain Anthony's Nose is named. Didn't John Singer Sargent's Madame X carry one hell of a nose on her, too? By the sixth beer we'd recalled that the Roman poet Catullus had a strong nose, which he liked to stick up boys' asses. Then there was the Russkie poetess Anna Akhmatova. And so on.
But we figured that not one of them had anything over the blonde bartendress/bar-back girl of Doc Holliday's. Her nose is truly something special. Arrive respectfully, hat in hand, and commune with it in piety and reverence.
Best Chelsea Italian
172 7th Ave. (betw. 20th & 21st Sts.)
Auguri! We're delighted to see how well this friendly trattoria has done over the last year?even though that means fighting for a table on Friday and Saturday nights. As a casual, affordable alternative to nearby Le Madri, it's tops in the neighborhood. Chef Roberto Passon works a Venetian angle, with great results. His variation on classic spaghetti and meatballs won a "Best of" last year; add to that a long list of winners from our many trips there this year: the outstanding macaroni and cheese (Parmesan and Fontina) with black truffles; the pungent pasta bottarga (pressed tuna roe, shaved into Parmesan-like flakes); the risottos (one with black squid ink, one with radicchio and shrimp); the salt-baked red snapper. For appetizers, skip the Italian pu-pu platter novelty item and go with the bresaola, the steamed asparagus and crabmeat or the artichokes. For dessert, there's an excellent choice of sorbets and granitas. Good wine list and warm service.
As noted, it gets too packed on weekends now, a situation exacerbated by two policies we find baffling: they take no reservations, and they take no plastic. That's a bit retarded in this day and age, but the food and atmosphere absolutely make up for it.
Best Midtown Wine Store
Grand Harvest Wines
Grand Central Terminal
42nd St. (Lexington Ave.)
Location, Location. We remember well the days when Grand Central was a sooty, mungy hulk, the urban equivalent of an abandoned Balkan castle or a decayed antebellum manse. Jackie O. put her heart and soul and considerable pull into saving this? we thought as we dodged yet another shambling tatterdemalion human shadow, circa 1987. Meanwhile, skeptical and vaguely contemptuous and certainly neither smiling nor whistling-while-they-loitered porters looked on, and commuters undertook their grim, slope-shouldered trundles to trains idling in malignant tunnels. And always it seemed as if hunks of the edifice were precariously teetering, dangling from a mold spore or a strip of frayed wiring.
Now the place looks good?and we approve. We especially approve of Grand Harvest Wines, a tidy little shop lodged behind glass, under a vaulted ceiling. We like to drop in just to stand in the middle of it all and feel deeply pleasant and reassured of the essential civility that has been restored to our so recently blighted metropolis. The stock is heavy on California and France (some spectacular California bottlings at that, Joseph Phelps "Insignia" and Far Niente and all manner of widely coveted Napa vintages still on the shelves), but there are reasonable selections of German, Italian and Australian goodies, too. Also an admirable lineup of premium-octane harder libations, your single malts and highfalutin bourbons and rums and grappas and cognacs and whatnot.
Best Smith St. Skirt Steak with Chimichurri Sauce
232 Smith St. (betw. Butler & Douglas Sts.)
Who Else? What makes Sur one of the best places in Brooklyn for steak-eating is the conservatism of the portions, the reliable freshness of the superb chimichurri sauce and the splendid wine list, which is heavy on Argentine and Chilean selections?just fine with us, as Argentina and Chile make some of the best high-quality bargain wines currently available. Sur's skirt steak, a beautifully crusted branch of beef that gives us that healthy chew we like in our beef without skimping on the juice, matches very well with, for example, a Chilean cabernet sauvignon, or an Argentine malbec.
Because that's what steak is all about, to us, at a level: eating it while drinking a really terrific but not too expensive red wine with depth of flavor and an emphatic sturdiness that makes the beef taste better, that cuts right though the sinew and does something magical in the process. A magical combination, and, in Brooklyn, we need look no farther than Sur to find it.
Best Dessert to Avoid
330 Lafayette St. (Bleecker St.)
The Code is Almighty Zero-Niner-Two-Six-Four-Seven-One-Two. We'd just finished another fine meal at Noho?which, at the time, had become a fairly regular stop for us. It was a frigid January night outside, and we weren't particularly looking forward to the walk to the subway, and then home. So to delay the inevitable, we decided to order dessert. We normally got one of Noho's great hot-fudge sundaes, but that didn't seem appropriate on a night like this. Instead, we decided to try the Indian pudding. Had no idea what was involved?we'd never had it before?but it was on the dessert menu, and were told that it was served warm, which sounded just fine.
Maybe the first clue that something was wrong was the fact that the scoop of ice cream plopped on top of the large bowl of pudding was actually screaming.
We aren't exactly sure what's all involved in the Indian pudding. In theory, it's some sort of spiced grain suspension with a quicksand consistency. But in reality, it's like ordering yourself a big bowl of napalm. That first, unsuspecting spoonful left us with a scorched mouth and tongue. So scorched, in fact, that we could no longer taste anything. Ice water may have cooled the burning, but it did nothing to restore the sense of taste (which didn't come back for more than a day, sometime after the blisters left).
At first, we thought it was simple foolishness on our part. We've done similar things with soup and coffee?but in this case, we waited and waited, but the pudding never cooled down. It was like some sort of party gag, or a Candid Camera routine. The scoop of ice cream, which we imagine was there to help cool things down, did nothing. It screamed, then evaporated. To this day we wonder why, exactly?and how?we finished it.
We don't know what sort of cruel revenge the Indians were after when they concocted this savage and diabolical dessert, what we had done to deserve this, but whatever it was, we apologize.
301 Park Ave. (betw. 49th & 50th Sts.)
Die Meister Singer. Much of the time, we feel that chefs and sommeliers are on slightly different pages. Sometimes, completely different pages. It's as if the wine list were composed in a cellar a far distance from the establishment's kitchen. Well, we feel that way. Sometimes. Where's the organizing intelligence? we ask. Where's the dialogue?
At Peacock Alley, by contrast, an intricate dynamic reigns between youthful sommelier David Singer and chef Laurent Gras, whose gustatory coup has been to transform a sleepy room for wealthy blue hairs into perhaps the most vigorous and adventurous place to eat dinner in all Manhattan. What he's done is dispense with entrees, asking diners instead to assemble their meals out of an ever-changing assortment of appetizer-size portions?quantities of food that seem small, but that are in fact huge with provocative flavors. Gras' "Tete a Tete" menu has really compelled Singer to raise his game to a high level, providing wine matches for numerous exotic courses. He's all over the wine-and-spirits map, but somehow makes it work, shifting agilely from Chilean sauvignon blanc to overlooked Burgundian reds. Genius. An embattled word. But Singer deserves it.
Best Garlic Delivery System Apart from the Bulb Itself
Karnatzlach at Sammy's Roumanian
157 Chrystie St. (Delancey St.)
A Zest for Living. Sammy's is a raucous purveyor of traditional Yiddish cuisine run along the lines of a training ground for smart-ass waiters with the kind brusqueness of Borscht Belt regulars. The food is copious, the music amusing and, when the thin girl sings, altogether wonderful. Among the appetizer selections is "karnatzlach," which is essentially a cylinder of beef, veal and onions apparently held together solely by garlic or vice versa. Nearly all restaurants fail to use enough garlic (who do they think they are cooking for?dead people?). Those wan chefs should go to Sammy's. It'll set them right.
Best Gourmet Foods
Grand Central Market
Grand Central Terminal
42nd St. (Park Ave.)
Almost Makes Us Wish We Were Commuters. With Balducci's and Dean & DeLuca virtually unnavigable (D&D must be in every Eurotrash guidebook printed), the Grand Central Market has been a godsend when we need to purchase classy, gourmet goods. (And that's not even mentioning the stunning building in which it's housed.)
For your sea needs, there's Pescatore's wide array of fin and shellfish, plus prepared meals, too (blackened catfish with shrimp, saffron rice and grilled vegetables, e.g.). There's 20 feet of cheeses, and about as much poultry (chicken, Cornish hens, duck breasts and legs, and prepared bird dishes too, plus about 15 different salads), while Greenwich Produce can satisfy your fresh fruit and vegetable needs. Wonderful Ronnybrook Dairy's got a slot, along with Wild Edibles for more fish, Oren's Daily Roast for coffee beans and teas, Zaro's and Corrado's breads, and?take note?the unbeatable Li-Lac chocolates (remember this during holiday season). Go further upscale at La Truffe du Perigord, where you can stock up on pates, truffle-infused oils, olives, cornichons and capers, and a nice selection of French saucissons. Come back down to Earth at Ceriello butchers (the classics: beef, lamb, pork, sausage) and their line of pastas and sauces.
Two special finds: First, Adriana's Caravan, which boasts "Every ingredient for every recipe you've ever read." When we ran out of urfa biber last week, Adriana's had it. Dozens and dozens of other herbs and spices as well, and an impressive collection of dried mushrooms. They've got a back wall devoted to sauces and oils and the like, subdivided into regions: remoulade and jarred muffaletta from New Orleans; Vidalia onion relish and spirited peaches from the South. Italy, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Mexico have shelf space, alongside a section for the intriguing "American Exotics," wherein lie mustards, flavored oils and more.
And second, Koglin German Royal Hams, serving up 14 types of salamis (cervelat to Westfaelian to tea sausage), seven bacons, numerous liver sausages and wursts (Thuringia bratwurst, Ucrain kolbassa, Swabian gourmet), ox tongue, blood tongue sausage and the elusive Holsteiner katenschinken and herb-cured lachsschinken. Haven't seen a selection like that since we were in lederhosen.
The Grand Central Market is smaller than those other stores, but there's room to browse, and the welcoming proprietors know what they're shilling. And in the time it takes to penetrate just the entrance of Dean & DeLuca, or make your way to the cheese counter at Balducci's, you could hop the 6 train and have your shopping list nearly complete.
42 Central Park S. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.)
King of the Kids' Sports Bars. So, you've got a boy or girl under the age of 12 who's a baseball nut, a sponge ready to soak up everything about the National Pastime. The Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, is a must, naturally: but in the meantime, go to Mickey Mantle's for fine pub grub, games on the tube, and where every square inch of the joint's adorned with baseball memorabilia. You see the Mick on magazine covers when he was New York's golden boy in the 50s; Mick paired with Roger Maris from the incomparable season of 1961; and also the poignant Daily News cover when Mantle decided to quit in 1968, his career cut short by too many injuries and eye-openers.
But it's not just the Oklahoma superstar who's celebrated at this sports shrine. Original uniforms from members of the Brooklyn Dodgers are on display; tributes to Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Yogi Berra can be found in about a minute's search. Souvenirs are for sale and the food won't disappoint your pre-sudsy sprout: Southern fried chicken fingers, fried waffle potatoes, mac and cheese, burgers and spaghetti.
We took our seven-year-old to Mickey Mantle's one rainy night, when a game at Yankee Stadium was postponed, and his jaw literally dropped upon entering the ultimate Manhattan palace of All Things Baseball. Frankly, we had a ball as well, looking at the famous Bill Gallo drawings on the wall, baseball cards of long-forgotten Yankees (Tom Tresh, anyone?) and the collection of cleats, uniforms and gloves of some of the game's greats.
Best Un-Chicken Buffalo Wings
58 Ave. B (betw. 4th & 5th Sts.)
And an Uncola, of Course. Who would've thought that every beer-drinking/sports-watching fool's favorite winged snack could be made without meat? Much less made into a tofu-based concoction that's not only edible but scrumptious? This East Village restaurant whips up plenty of fine vegetarian and vegan fare, with the un-chicken buffalo wings being their best creation, even surpassing their famed un-turkey club, which could feed two, or their appropriately named T.L.T. (tofu, lettuce and tomato sandwich). Once we brought a carnivore friend here. She refused to try an un-wing at first, but after some taunting she had one...then another. We claim it's the sauce that makes these un-buffalo wings so great, while she swears it's the un-dairy ranch dressing that accompanies the carrot and celery sticks. The $5.95 six-wing portion can serve as an entire meal or as a shared appetizer with friends. Where else can ya slop up some faux-chicken wings and look so cool doing it?
55 E. 54th St. (betw. Madison & Park Aves.)
Not One Iota of Crummy Laxity. Oceana is an astonishingly fine restaurant focusing on fish, and its chef, Rick Moonen, makes spectacular crabcakes. They've none of the crummy laxity of many versions but are luxurious, crisp, light and substantial at once, and just so tasty. They can form a highlight of a prix-fixe lunch for about $45 or a dinner at about $65. The skill of the chef and kitchen are extraordinary. Virtually every dish makes you glad to be a human.
Best Light Lunch
641 6th Ave. (betw. 19th & 20th Sts.)
Green World. There are those ethereal blue-sky-blasted spring days when all we want for lunch is a tidy plate of greens, a sandwich served on wonderful bread and a glass of refreshing wine. O Padeiro satisfies that desire, on all fronts, from the gossamer low-alcohol sippage of the establishment's vinhos verdes to its broa of grilled sardines right on through any number of delectable sides and salads. The Brazilian waitstaff is limber and pleasant. The decor is all light and air and Portuguese tile mosaics and tall girls lingering over coffees?and we like that, like the whole Euro-javabar vibe (get in, slam an espresso, get out) so sorely lacking in this city.
Best Wine Bar
Le Bateau Ivre
230 E. 51st St. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves.)
Das Boot. Wine bars are usually better in theory than in execution. This is because, by and large, wine isn't meant to be consumed as a cocktail or an aperitif; it's meant to wash down food. Wine bars, groovy as they seem in concept, often leave us with a sour taste in our mouths, and hungry. Plus, unless they adopt quartino service (quarter-bottle quantities served in pour-in-yourself decanters), the pours are too generous.
But wine bars do further the cause of wine education, and on that score Le Bateau Ivre does an admirable job, particularly of boosting the stock of French wine in a Midtown East neighborhood whose denizens (lawyers, p.r. types, assorted smegs) go for that kind of cultural striving. The service is geologically slow, but there's a sprawling list of French wine, from all regions, and an attractive staff headed by a maitre d' whose Gallic-urbano look is second to none. It's Balthazar Jr., but for a more mature crowd.
Best Reason to Punch Waiters in the Face
Use of the First Person Singular
Poke in the "I." Let's be clear about this, waiters. It's not that you have?or do not have?the tuna carpaccio with the summer truffles or the terrine of smoked fish. It's rather that the culinary concern that employs you is?or, conversely, isn't?serving those items on any given evening when we sit down to a meal within its walls. You, as an individual who functions in the first person singular, have little or nothing to do with it. Do us all a favor, then, and recuse yourself from agency.
Can't quite say why?you'd think it would be an inconsequential thing?but it drives us absolutely nuts when waiters try to pull that shit on us. "I've got a nice plate of homemade mozzarella with zucchini blossoms and boiled tripe?" Oh, you do, do you? Perhaps you and the busboys own the place. You and the busboys and the mendicant and the beat cop outside on the corner. Perhaps you're buying the meat and vegetables, and cooking it. There's something ineffably and corrosively presumptuous about that rhetorical service-industry gambit, and it's as good a reason as any to carry sidearms?so that the next time a waiter springs it on you, you can stick your barrel at his neck and scream, "OH YOU DO, DO YOU, SONOFABITCH! PRODUCE IT THEN, EH? PRODUCE IT!"
Now if only we could get waiters to stop using the word "tonight"?as in the needlessly stylized formulation, "Tonight, I've got a nice sodden grouper"?we'd be talking turkey. Tonight? Or perhaps yesterday? Or perhaps Wednesday next? Or maybe we thought you were referring to this coming February. Buddy.
Best Astute Public-Relations Initiative by a Chef
Espèce d'Imbécile! Alain Ducasse opened his new restaurant, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, which allows expense-accounters to improve their standards with his meal bills of about $200 per as a modest beginning. When press and other complainers noted that the great man was never there, and that the place wasn't that wonderful anyway, the p.r.-meister announced that it was obvious New Yorkers didn't know anything about good food and had a lot to learn.
Best Morningside Heights Bar
938 Amsterdam Ave. (106th St.)
Old, Old Amsterdam. Haven't yet figured this place out in almost a decade of patronizing it; this scarred, ragged tavern flashes us a different persona every time we walk in. A winter afternoon, and we're alone at the bar with a lachrymose Irishman who manages a building on West End Ave.; autumn night and a night watchman from Westchester's offering us a bump of cocaine; midsummer midnight and we're (badly) playing pool with a couple of Dominican kids from the neighborhood while a pair of grad students play chess and the smokes on the stools do their thing; a spring eve and the place roars with Columbia kids in their college-kid rags, their clean faces lighting up this ghetto place.
What hasn't changed over time is the essential spirit of this woody hutch of a tavern. The Night Cafe reminds us?and this is a good thing?of the sort of old bar you find in the blue-collar neighborhoods of cities like Seattle and San Francisco: defined by low turnover, full of the old men who anchor a neighborhood bar, pleasantly grungy and as cozy as they come. (In fact, it feels like a different, sweeter, shabbier city up in this ramshackle neighborhood; a neighborhood that remains, too, a good place to purchase hard drugs.) The juke's good, and not too loud; the chess set's kept behind the bar; the great Cuban cafeteria La Rosita's just over on Broadway and up a few blocks, for eggs, beans, rice and coffee when your drinking's done.
Best New Italian Restaurant
190-A Duane St. (Greenwich St.)
Giving Everything They Have. This extraordinary restaurant is actually the best new Italian spot that's opened in the past five years. In a neighborhood that's already spilling over with topnotch establishments?Danube, Layla, Rosemarie's, Nobu, Odeon and El Teddy's, to name just several?Roc established itself as a Tribeca institution just months after its first dish of gnocchi Sorrentina was served.
And it's no wonder. The staff is welcoming and helpful, and not just to the instant roster of regular diners they've attracted. Seafood is the game here, even though the veal Milanese or fettuccine Bolognese are excellent recommendations for those not so inclined. We've ordered the marinated salmon, swordfish and white anchovies about a dozen times; a competing starter is the fried calamari and zucchini combo, so light that even a weight-watcher can dig in without feeling excessively guilty.
As for pasta, we like the fedelini with assorted shellfish, taglierini with lobster, linguine with clams or the simple but perfectly turned-out spaghetti al pomodoro. Aside from the specials of the day, which are numerous, we'd suggest the fish and shellfish soup with leek and saffron as an entree; it's an enormous dish that you'll feel compelled to finish. Other superb choices include: tuna carpaccio with marinated eggplant, seafood salad with celery and olives and the shrimp and asparagus salad.
Roc was reviewed in The New York Times recently and received a lukewarm notice. The silly man who took over from Ruth Reichl mainly ate meat on his several visits to Roc, a miscue you wouldn't expect from a person who eats for a living. As a result, he gave the restaurant just one star, which to the sheep-like Times clods uptown who don't actually read the reviews but simply count the stars means the place is a relative failure. Nonetheless, Roc is always crowded, so reservations are a must, unless you're like us, and go for an early-bird 6 o'clock seating.
Best Culinary Harbinger of Gowanus-Area Rejuvenation
291 3rd Ave. (Carroll St.)
Roll On, Mighty Gowanus. The tiny Italian neighborhood that centers around Carroll St. and huddles on the Gowanus Canal's eastern bank has always struck us as one of Brooklyn's most promising: a shady little region that's lived through its own particular variety of environmental apocalypse?must have been great living alongside the despicable Gowanus these last few decades, huh??and seems to have come out alive. Since they began flushing out the canal with seawater, the neighborhood doesn't even smell so bad anymore. On a recent morning jog we stopped on the lovely old Carroll St. bridge and sat to rest above the water, conscious that we were engaged in an activity that would have been unpleasant a few years ago, when the canal's stagnant dead-green filth percolated with surface-borne bubbles generated by sewage and trace elements of benzene, and the Gowanus was best approached as a convenience for the disposal of auto parts and bags of kittens. Not on the late-summer morning on which we stopped, though. The water?though you still probably wouldn't want to touch it?smelled of ocean brine, looked fantastically clear. There was even a guy down the shore a bit, hosing off a motorboat. Maybe there was something to this rebirth-of-the-Gowanus stuff we'd been hearing about. Quick, get us our realtor: it's time for a little real-estate speculation, and we might?heh heh?be looking to buy.
Correlation doesn't equal causation, but it occurred to us that the old women in their lawn chairs and their housedresses in front of their Catholic postwar houses on Carroll St. looked happier out there, cleaner somehow?which was consistent with our sentimental theory that the vibrancy of urban places is contingent upon their proximity to admirable bodies of water. (The Charles, for instance, is a fey, passive-aggressively serpentine river clogged with Sunfish and crew-teams. So much for Boston.) Even the aged Italian guys hanging in front of that darkened candy store at the corner of Carroll and 3rd looked stronger, more robust, like they could kick your ass faster. Two Toms, up on 4th, looked tastier.
So it was nice to see that, on the southeast corner of the 3rd and Carroll intersection, a slice-joint called Tuscano's was under construction. Just a little slice joint, like any one of a thousand in New York with a street-service window and a neon sign, right down the block from the tiny beauty shop in which a girl, that morning, was trimming an old fella's head. The point isn't the food, but rather that this embattled neighborhood is, it seems, rejuvenating itself in a nice way. Tuscano's isn't a muffin shop, after all, or a food co-op; it doesn't whisper of the human dislocations that accompany gentrification. Drop by Tuscano's and let us know how the pizza tastes since, as yet, we're only in the neighborhood in order to move fast through it. Maybe it's open by now. Or don't?how bad can slice-pizza get? We wish the place luck.
Best Sports Bar
974 Boulevard East
Weehawken, NJ, 201-867-5631
Pass That Wasabiburger. There's really no such thing as a "best" sports bar. They all inherently suck. Especially in Manhattan, where you're at risk of getting stuck sitting next to some table full of morons with facial hair who enjoy going on about the different uniform designs over the past few years and the hairstyles of the best sportscasters of the 70s.
But step outside of Manhattan, and you discover a truly fascinating sports bar experience. We're just not sure what to call the place. Officially, the sushi bar in the middle is called Kawabae. The actual sports bar below is called Intercrew I. And the top floor is Intercrew II, which seems to be some kind of Japanese nightclub. Forget that part. Instead, let's consider Kawabae and Intercrew I as the main players here. Both restaurants seem to use the same kitchen. And both of them seem to use the same decorator.
So ditch the downstairs and watch the multiple televisions showing the ballgame at Kawabae. The decor is pure rumpus room, and the menu is unique. For appetizers, choose between Sunomono or Buffalo wings. Or make up your mind between oshinko or some potato skins. And for your entree, may we suggest oyako don, or perhaps the Philly cheese steak? There's always the Sushi Regular Love Boat, or maybe you'd prefer the Casa Fiesta burger.
That's what we call a cultural melting pot. But we wouldn't make you take a ferry just for some goofy interracial dining. There's also the amazing view from Kawabae. Look out at the magnificent Manhattan skyline whenever the game gets slow. And don't worry about jockeying for a table. We've yet to see more than five other people in the place on a Saturday afternoon. Grab a bunch of your idiot friends, commute on over and spoil the place for the rest of us. What the hell. We've just been using it as the Best Romantic View of Manhattan, and what does that mean in the face of needy fandom?
Best Bits of New Insider Information from a New York Chef
Newton's Fourth Law. The importance of the runner is described by Anthony Bourdain in his informative and lively book Kitchen Confidential. The runner attends to the law of gravity and the fact that materials have to be shifted from one place to another. Bourdain?executive chef of Les Halles?also suggests maybe to not order fish on Monday, since it may have been sitting around since Friday.
Best Williamsburg Butcher
404 Graham Ave. (betw. Jackson and Withers Sts.)
Here's the Beef. Ask Lou the name of his butcher shop, and he's curiously vague. "My father opened the place in 1935," he'll start, "but he never really gave it a name." Some people, he continues, call it "the Model-T Place," owing to Lou's affinity for restoring old wonders. He's got a snapshot of one behind the counter and is happy to tell you where the various parts came from: "The rear wheels came from a '26, but the fronts are from a..." That kind of thing. Our father had a Model-T on the side of the house for years?its condition waxed and waned as his interest in restoring it came and went?so we're happy to engage in Model-T talk, even when it trips into obsessive minutiae. Most antique car guys are like that. Like Lou, they're also often some of the nicest guys you'll meet.
But Lou's also a wicked good butcher. The meat's as fresh as any we've found, and inexpensive in the way that reminds you that a couple of steaks?cooked at home, mind you, not by way of Peter Luger?needn't cost a fortune. Living in Manhattan for a few years, one often forgets that many families of four survive just fine on a dual income that adds up to far less than yours. They do it by buying their meat from guys like Lou.
Chicken wings: $1.09/pound. Breasts: $1.69/pound. Deli turkey: $3.49/pound. Five pounds of chuck beef: $7.75. Splurge for sirloin, and walk out with two 1-pound steaks for less than eight bucks. Grab some hot or sweet Italian sausage for $1.99/pound, or try the parsley and cheese sausage at $2.79/pound. (These are the book prices?they'll change a little with availability. There's also a price-break at five pounds, at least in the case of the sausage.) The woman in front of us bought three chicken legs (halved, skin removed), one plump chicken breast and a dozen eggs: $6.35. That's a couple affordable family meals that don't revolve around hotdogs and mac-and-cheese.
Stop thinking about the butcher as the place to go only before you host a barbecue. Instead, put Lou's on your mental list alongside your favorite vegetable stand and liquor store. There are some other butchers in this area of Williamsburg, but none quite compare to the service and quality of Lou's.
Best New Neighborhood Bar
237 E. 5th St. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves.)
Catch of the Day. Fish Bar isn't the biggest place in town, or the fanciest, or the hippest. They don't have the largest selection of beers and single-malt scotches on the East Coast, but that's all part of it. Fish Bar isn't a place to meet and greet, to see and be seen?it's a place to go when you just want to relax and have a couple, or several, friendly drinks. The red-and-white "Dive in Progress" flag hanging out front tells you all you need to know. Walk through the front door and, with the exception of the new, handmade bar, the place feels like it's been there forever.
And in a couple of ways, it has. It's in the space once occupied by the Castro Lounge (they even restored the old fish mural on the back wall, thus giving the bar its name). And the owners, Paul, an Irishman, and J.R., who is Welsh, have generations of tavernkeeping experience backing them up. Paul was always our favorite bartender at 288, and he's created a mighty fine hideout here again, with a mighty fine crew working behind the bar. It's quiet, it's dark, it's extremely low-key and comfortable?and the walls are covered with fish memorabilia of all kinds! There are no taps, unfortunately (the physical setup of the building won't allow it), but after that first bottle or two, it doesn't matter much. It's the kind of place where?even if you've never done such a thing before?you'll find yourself talking to the strangers sitting at the bar next to you. It just works out that way.
In a city where quiet neighborhood bars are an increasingly rare commodity, displaced as they are by theme taverns and boutique watering holes, the appearance of a new one?and one with this much warmth and old-time charm?is cause for celebration.
Best Lunch Spot Near the New York Press Offices
168 W. 27th St. (7th Ave.)
We Call Them Our Pals. One of us flips for the "Banana Boat," a serving of the fruit filled with ground beef and topped with cheese and a red sauce, with some yuca on the side, although the other savory hot dishes (the chicken with olives, onion and potato fritatta, etc.) are no slouches; another goes for the sandwiches?especially the salami and provolone with "the fixin's" or an egg salad?and wraps (maybe a shrimp salad on Friday), while La Cubana Caliente can't get enough of the beans and rice, sweet plantains and avocado on the side, though she swears by the spaghetti, too. In short, everything we order at Manahattan Hero hits the spot, and not just because they have no competition for lunch in this godforsaken neighborhood. The food is fresh and tasty, and the staff: did we mention the staff? "Fuckin' amazing," is how the Cubana put it.
Best Spedino alla Romano
1 Hudson St. (Chambers St.)
Where Are We? Acappella is a well-appointed, old-style (but expensive) Italian restaurant with dramatic waiters and a bartender with a wicked sense of humor. That it's situated near the epicenter of Tribeca seems a bit odd; at most of that neighborhood's kitchens, both fancy and casual, you'll find a mixture of residents as well as New Yorkers on a downtown field trip. Acappella (like Bubby's, which years after its inception still draws a weekend crowd willing to brave any kind of weather to sample their so-so grub) is a horse of a different color. For example, the disturbing dress-down trend that reached Manhattan this year certainly isn't in evidence there. Most of the men wear suits, most of the gals are dressed to impress. And with a menu that still features appetizers like clams posillipo and minestrone, there is a Time Tunnel feel to the joint.
Which suits us fine. After all, there aren't many Italian restaurants left in the city that offer spedino as a starter; it's been discarded as a dining option just as brutally as the humble but delicious grilled sausages with peppers. Acappella's spedino is splendid: a lightly fried loaf of cheese with a simple but delicious sauce rich with anchovies and garlic. Move on to a veal chop perhaps, saltimbocca or a special of lobster, eavesdrop on the wildly varying conversations, and relax, knowing that for two hours you're in a place that could be located anywhere in New York, but nowhere else in the United States.
Best Place to Get Drunk with Your Shirt Off
141 Ave. A (9th St.)
Show! Us! Your! Which also makes this the best place to drink under an alias (ours is Staci), and the ideal spot for learning the two great rules of public intoxication: (1) Don't ever, ever interfere with someone else's pool game and (2) If you do interfere with someone else's pool game, offer to buy them a drink. It's not only the best way, it's the only way to stop a bar fight. And who better to teach you these life lessons than your elders, the proud men and women who served their country and were rewarded with just enough money to keep them permanently cocked in a one-room closet above the bar?
Doc Holliday's is that place you think you'll never get kicked out of. That's why when you do, it comes as such a shock, especially as you notice the bum (drinking from a bottle he got at the liquor store down the street) sleeping in the corner. How did it happen? Was it the moment you convinced your boyfriend that drinking with a shirt on was too inhibiting? Was it when he tried to convince the woman to his right of the same? Was it when you spilled so much alcohol on each other that you had to switch to a drier table? Was it when your girlfriend fell on the floor? Was it when she stayed there for 10 minutes? The truth is, it was none of these things. And when you wake up the next morning, in jeans so stiff from hardened margarita mix you can't get out of bed, you realize it was simply this: unlike the bum in the corner, you were obvious. Keep practicing. Maybe someday you'll get good enough at drinking to become a pro. Just like him.
Best Place to Commit Most of the Deadly Sins
Sparks Steak House
210 E. 46th St. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves.)
Well-Fed and Hell-Bound. Lust, Envy, Greed, Sloth, Gluttony, Pride, Anger?there's almost no way to sit down to a feast at Sparks and not find yourself committing at least those first six. And, on special occasions (if you know your local mob history), that last one, too?though that would have nothing to do with Sparks itself.
Inside the cavernous, elegantly lit, well-staffed Midtown extravaganza that is Sparks Steak House, you'll find a local Pleasure Dome, an East Coast Palace of Sin. The Road of Excess and all that.
Even the menu items that look so innocent at first?a shrimp cocktail or a tossed green salad?are surprising (the cocktail sauce comes with horseradish and Tabasco on the side, so you can make it as eye-watering as you like). When you finally move on to the main courses, you soon realize that nothing will ever be the same again.
Take the filet mignon. Order it in most places?even other well-established steakhouses?and chances are you'll receive what amounts to a medallion, a hockey puck, of meat, surrounded by sides of some sort to hide the fact that you're paying through the nose for something so tiny. At Sparks, it comes with no sides unless you request them (from a choice of potatoes, hash browns, spinach or broccoli). It's just a piece of meat on a plate. But it's a piece of meat the size?it was pointed out to us?of a human brain. Boneless, fatless, tender and well-seasoned. It may kill you, but you'll smile all the way to the Pit.
The wine list goes on forever, the dessert menu is basic but still quite nice, the waiters are friendly and attentive, the service remarkably fast. Still, last time we were there, we killed three hours in what felt like no time at all. And stuffed to bursting as we were when we were done, we still found ourselves pining over what other people at other tables had ordered.
It's best to get to the restaurant early?it starts filling up pretty quickly by 6:30 on weeknights?and it's imperative that you come hungry. By getting there early, you'll be able to take in the warm, aging ambience. It's got a class and a feel you don't find much anymore, with the gold-framed oil paintings on the walls and the crisp linen tablecloths.
Dinner at Sparks ain't cheap, not by a long shot (dinner for two, with a couple bottles of wine, can easily cost $200 or more). But the way we figure it, we'd rather pay for our sins up front, and feel satisfied afterward.
Best 19th Hole
401 W. 14th St. (9th Ave.)
And in the Afternoon, No Piggies. Hitting balls at the Chelsea Piers Golf Club is about as close to visiting Connecticut, sociologically?and Japan, technologically?as you can get without departing, officially, the island of Manhattan. (Symbolically, you hit your balls toward Jersey, the humming white spheres expressing small velocities of westward escape.)
But once we're finished with our weekly ritual, we don't much like to hang around, and the last thing we want to do is heft brews at the facility's bar, which looks like it was imported from Cincinnati. No, we hump our clubs a few blocks back in the direction of civilization and sidle up to the long, long bar at Markt?nearly always empty at 3 on a weekday afternoon?suck down a pair of Stellas and shoot the shit with whoever happens by to inquire about our sticks. You'd be surprised. Scratch a hipster, find a linkster.
Best Williamsburg Pizza
Brick Oven Gallery
33 Havemeyer St. (betw. N. 7th & N. 8th Sts.)
Damn, That's Old. The last time a brick-oven pizza place opened in Williamsburg we rushed up the street with as much joy as we're capable of mustering, only to find that the "brick oven" in question was actually standard-issue metal Bari equipment that had been covered with brickfacing.
So we were skeptical when we entered the Brick Oven Gallery, on an unassuming block of Havemeyer St., with our pizza money in hand and a void in our gut. Lucky for us, though, the Gallery's the real deal, boasting what the owner maintains is one of Brooklyn's oldest brick ovens?112 years and counting. Brick Oven Gallery bakes perfect, individually sized thin-crust pies slopped over with any number of great toppings: goat cheese, arugula, roasted sausage, wild mushrooms and on and on. Get a bottle of red, lay back at one of the outdoor tables and mutter about all the hipsters skulking into and fouling up the neighborhood. You'll feel just like a native.
Best Incongruous Game Dish
Quail at Manhattan Bistro
129 Spring St. (betw. Greene & Wooster Sts.)
They Got the Varmints. "Game season" occurs in autumn, and?we've read?has to do with dudes tramping through the woods carrying ordnance, trying to avoid Lyme disease and those irksome moments when, swinging your barrel toward gamecocks, you in fact blast the skull off of your hunting partner, who may or may not deserve it. To put it simply, we were brought up to believe that you eat quail?and other gamy varmints?only when there's frost on the pumpkin.
So it was nice to wander into the Manhattan Bistro one sweltering evening this summer, take a peek at the menu and see on it, remarkably, roast quail. You bet we ordered it. And were satisfied with what we got: two of the little sons of bitches cooked up nice and laid down on a big plate over a heap of rice and such, glazed and rather tasty. Felt a little strange in midsummer, to be honest, as if there was something missing. (Again, see the Encyclopedia Britannica entry for "Autumn, Romance of.") And it's not the greatest quail you're ever going to eat; not the bird you're accustomed to eating when New York restaurants start rolling their game out in November, killed upstate the day before and riddled with some hillbilly's shot. But still, the dish was a pleasure for how unusual, and easy, it was, for how it represented a little tear in culinary reality's continuum. We mean really, aren't we supposed to be eating melon balls this time of year? Game in July?and the rest of the year, too, we suspect.
Best Yorkville Dinner Offer
1582 York Ave. (betw. 83rd & 84th Sts.)
Good God, Make Them Stop. It seemed too good to be true: $19.99 for appetizer, dinner and entree (no exceptions, either?they apparently weren't into underhanding you that way), plus unlimited wine with each course. The problem drinker in us palpitated with joyous expectation. We made reservations and invited a couple friends.
And Marino's?a small establishment with Italian family charm up the snoot, the sort of restaurant you could probably once order in toto from the "Italian" section of the Sears catalog, complete with smiling waiters who don't seem to possess two English words to rub together, a picturesque old woman and the proverbial checked tablecloths?wasn't lying. Two courses into the evening, and too many bottles of wine?and no, it wasn't Chateau Margaux, but who cares??littered the table like bowling pins; we ought to have set 'em up at one end of the room and hired a dwarf to chuck at 'em. God knows what the waiters were saying half the time, but they certainly were friendly; our companions ended up with them later that night at Le Bar Bat. The food? Good, basic red-sauce stuff. Honestly, we didn't take too much note of it.
Since then we've been back to Marino's a bunch of times. The price of the unlimited-wine special was recently jacked up to $22.95, which still isn't enough to prevent you from subjecting the temple that is your body to this pleasant variety of punishment. True, the waitstaff has become the slightest touch haggard and little more cynical, which is forgivable in those who make their living off drunks, whether we're talking waiters, bartenders or whores. Still, if you live on the Upper East Side, Marino's can't be topped for a careless night of washing down good food with huge torrents of decent wine.
170 Thompson St. (betw. Bleecker & Houston Sts.)
The Margins of the Swine. Here's what you get on the $13 "Affetati Misti" board when you order that selection at Lupa. You get cold cuts, sliced and folded atop a sheet of wax paper. You get some sopressata, some mortadella. You get the best prosciutto you're ever likely to eat. Velvet protein, veined with fat.
And you get headcheese. An amazing foodstuff, headcheese. Multi-textured. Delicate, firm and sort of bony, all in the same mouthful. So greasy that it refuses to remain folded and skewered on the tines of the fork. Headcheese. It has a life of its own, is not a dead thing. The forgotten or neglected parts of the pig. Snouts and shit. Scrumptious, and like eating tripe: thinking about it either ruins the experience or enriches it. A measure of suspended revulsion is required, and rewarded.
Best West Village Brunch
89 Greenwich Ave. (betw. 12th & Bank Sts.)
Harm Reduction Restaurant. We've resigned ourselves by now to the necessity of brunch in New York City, but fuck if we're going to muddle through dismal omelets and confused pancakes and too many cups of coffee and mimosas and worse. Why is it that people who claim to adore brunch always eat at such crappy restaurants, and eat such wretched food?
And another thing: When we're in the West Village, we're not standing in line for an hour over at Tartine. It ain't worth it. No, we'll head for Good. As brunches go, Good's are superb. Give us hope. Ethereal egg-white omelets, innovative sausage, digestible hash, the legendary lemon-ricotta pancakes, a bevy of refreshing fruit drinks, many cocktails (if that's your bag), a vaguely Tex-Mex ethos hanging around from the restaurant's previous incarnation. Lovely, restrained decor. A sweet-tempered staff. Best of all, rarely overcrowded on a Sunday at 11 in the morning, the unholy witching hour for brunch everywhere.
Best Bar to Get Her in the Sack
8 Stuyvesant St. (betw. 9th St. & 3rd Ave.)
Drinking with the Angels. So you don't have any inside information about the "secret" lounges opening on the Lower East Side or under the Manhattan Bridge? No way to impress your date with your encyclopedic knowledge about New York's underground nightlife? Bring her here. It'll work. As long as she isn't, say, a writer for Time Out.
Angel's Share isn't necessarily a secret, but it feels like one. To get to the bar, you have to climb the stairs to the second floor and turn left, walking through a Japanese restaurant. You'll know the door to Angel's Share by the sign posted on the door: "No shouting. No standing. No more than four people."
It's not a place to bring your rowdy crew, that's for sure. It's Date Central, and the bartenders know it. You'll only see couples here: tasting each other's expertly mixed drinks, watching the passersby on 9th St., hoping to get lucky.
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