Eats & Drinks

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Best Person to Visit when You're Feeling Down
Your Favorite Cute Bartender

One bourbon, one scotch, one cheer. We've dated bartenders, we've dated waitresses. We know how it works. The smiles come with the job. No matter her enthusiastic laughing and giggling and leaning over to your side of the bar, she's ultimately hoping for tips.

We swear, we're not being cynical. More than doctor/patient, priest/confessor, attorney/serial killer, the bartender/patron relationship is a sacred institution and a dear part of our lives. When we've had a rough day on the job, when our roommate is too much to handle (and when we can't accept that, at our age, we even have a roommate, not to mention an ex-wife and monstrous tax debt and no assets), we swing by our local for a quick one-two.

And there she is, smiling when we walk in the door. She remembers our name, offers whatever drink we had last and asks about our day. Just like the wife never did.

Nah, we know, it's not genuine. She's got her own life and a million guys chasing her tail, but if we don't think about it too much, the simulacrum of affection is enough to coax us off the ledge. It's cheaper than the comforts of a whore, and we don't need to run for bloodwork 30 days later.

Best French Fries
Live Bait
14 E. 23rd St. (betw. B'way & Park Ave. S.), 212-353-2400

Happy now? Happy?! It didn't take long for the "Readers Poll" choice for "Best French Fries" to become a New York Press office joke. Every year, the same answer: McDonald's. Last year, finally, we scrapped the category altogether.

Just to prove that we're not complete meanies, though, we've found a restaurant for you that may not be McDonald's, but serves French fries that taste exactly the same! Better, even, because they're made up fresh and don't get soggy sitting in that wire basket.

Yeah, we were surprised to find them at Live Bait. We'd been going there on a fairly regular basis for years, but it wasn't until a few months ago that we ordered something that came with fries. (We usually go for the gumbo.) There they were alongside our first crab cake sandwich, that same cut, that same sugar-brushed, over-salted, glowing yellow potato product that McDonald's offers several million times a day. But like we said, they're better. They're hotter, they're crispier and they don't soak through the bag.

Screw those dry, grainy, half-frozen steak fries you get at most diners in town. Screw those brown, soggy piles of shoestrings the mid-scale places offer. If you want McDonald's fries without admitting that you actually went to McDonald's, go to Live Bait, where you can act like a concerned counter-culturist while eating what you really want.

Best Borscht
194 1st Ave. (betw. 11th & 12th Sts.), 212-777-4163

Soup du jour, every jour. The first time we ate here, we thought the leafy garden out back was going to be the surprise of the day. Then we tried the borscht. Is there a tastier soup in the world than a fresh bowl of creamy cold beet borscht? And is it prepared better anywhere else in the city than at this friendly little East Village Polish diner? Nie and nie.

We like hot Ukrainian borscht just fine, steaming and brimming with cooked beans, carrots, cabbage and onions, but nothing comes close to the crisp goodness and pure refreshment of rose-red chilled beet juice, thickened with a splash of buttermilk cream and weighted with dices of fresh cucumber and a hard-boiled egg. This is the real borscht, the big Lebowski, the year-round summer soup we'd chug with glee were it not so satisfying to slurp slow and savor. Served with a side basket of bread, Neptune's $2.60 bowl of the cold stuff is the most delicious deal 10 blocks in any direction. Make that 15.

Best New Restaurant
1 5th Ave. (8th St.), 212-995-9559

Second time's the charm. Immediately after Otto, Mario Batali's new pizza place, opened, we stopped in and encountered a mediocre meat plate and unacceptable griddle-cooked pizza. We called it a bust.

Eight weeks later, we tried again and Otto was amazing. We've heard of restaurants adjusting, but this was crazy. It went directly from Emperor's New Clothes-status to the Manhattan restaurant most worthy of its long waits for tables.

The whole front room is essentially one huge bar, a long, gorgeous strip of marble complemented by a cluster of free-standing slabs that are perfect for snacking or feasting. The place gets packed, but the crowd is jovial and the bartenders handle the crush with class.

Somehow, Otto figured out how to achieve crispy and chewy pizza crusts without having a proper brick oven (at least at this time). We never tried the meat plate again, but the fish plate is extraordinary: swordfish meltingly tender, absolutely non-chewy octopus, calamari and scungili, cold mussels with mint and much more. The cheese plate comes with outrageous preserves and even more outrageous black-truffle honey; the cheeses themselves are all Italian, all beautiful.

Then there's the head cheese, which is identified as "testa"-wise move, no matter how delicious the offering. Here, it's sliced thin and dappled pink, red and white; it's naturally gelatinous and glistening when we bring the first scoop to our mouth. We savor the succulent, meaty flavor, wait one second, two, and wham-the bracing zip of orange peel rips through the richness, balancing it perfectly.

Otto even has enough awe-inspiring vegetarian dishes to go full-glutton on them alone. The artichokes are exquisite; roasted corn in olive oil packs a wallop of flavor; the cauliflower is simply the best we've ever had anywhere; and the heirloom tomato salad with buffalo mozzarella is off the charts.

Despite being new and trendy, Otto is inexpensive-unless you show up thirsty, which we actually recommend doing. Try a fragolini cocktail: prosecco with strawberry liqueur, complete with tiny wild strawberries in it. End with a sparkling moscato that's like an exclamation mark on your meal, or amaro that's 10 times better than what everybody drinks on the Amalfi coast.

Looking back, even on that first unfortunate visit, their desserts were incredible. That is, after all, what brought us back. The gelato may be the best in New York, and be sure to try the creamy and unctuous olive oil variety, which continues to humble and amaze us.

Best 100-Year-Old Microorganism
Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. Bulgaricus
Yonah Schimmel Knishes Bakery, 137 E. Houston St. (betw. Forsyth & Eldridge Sts.), 212-477-2858

Glass slides not included. Several years ago, we were privileged to overhear a conversation at Yonah Schimmel that gave us yet another reason to love the place. A very elderly customer was telling an only-somewhat-younger gentleman that he remembered seeing him at the knishery when the latter was a boy in short pants.

"And," he went on, pointing a gnarled finger at the second table from the back, "when I was little boy, Leon Trotsky used to come in and sit right there!"

A quick calculation led to the year 1917, when Trotsky was in exile in New York, editing Novy Mir with Bukharin and about to return to Russia to join the Bolsheviks and take part in the October Revolution. The old fellow looked to be in pretty good shape; we'd bet he ordered the yogurt.

The knishery's yogurt is still made from the same culture that was imported from Romania in the late 19th century. Rabbi Yonah Schimmel started his knish business selling from a pushcart, and the bakery restaurant has been operating at its current location since 1910. We looked down at our own serving, and contemplated the idea that we were ingesting the same microbes that fueled the great revolutionary. It gave us a warm feeling.

L. bulgaricus' healthful properties were postulated more than 100 years ago by Nobel laureate Eli Metchnikoff, who discovered the strain while trying to find out why so many Bulgarians were so long-lived. Schimmel's manager Alex Volfman may not be all that familiar with Metchnikoff's work, but he does know his yogurt.

"It's very good for the stomach," he says. "People with stomach trouble, they get out of Beth Israel and come straight down here. You drink a little yogurt, you'll feel better. It's better than medicine."

Doses from Schimmel's dairy of youth run $1.75 for an at-table glass, $2.25 for a 10-ounce takeout container, $5 a quart.

Best Huevos Rancheros
Esperanto Restaurant
145 Ave. C (betw. 9th & 10th Sts.), 212-505-6559

Not to be confused with locos cojones. Many places in the city serve brunch; many places serve huevos rancheros. Our favorite for the past year has been this small South American restaurant a few blocks off Tompkins Square Park, where they put a little twist on the dependable and ubiquitous breakfast dish. Bucking the traditional, they forgo the beans, leaving a crunchy tortilla shell topped with two eggs and excellent salsa. We're not trying to lay it on too thick, but the home fries might just be the best in the city as well, leaving you with a somehow light but filling semi-traditional dish.

Consider too the pitch-perfect mimosa and live music, and you've a splendid late- morning meal lined up.

Best Park Slope Pasta
Trattoria Mulino
133 5th Ave., (betw. Sterling & St. John Pl.), Park Slope, 718-398-9001

Who dares call it Park Slop? You can have your overpriced, overrated Al Di La, a place so retarded that they won't take reservations but will write down your number so they can call you back whenever there's a table ready. And you can have your Prego-quality marinara sauce at Aunt Suzie's. We'll be down the street at Trattoria Mulino, gorging ourselves. Every sauce at Mulino is delicious, but the pasta itself is so good that we would eat it without sauce, with just salt and butter if we had to, because it's always perfectly firm and full of its own flavor.

Try the green tagliateli with chicken, artichokes and cream sauce or the spaghetti bolognese or the calamari siciliana or the linguini with seafood that's always overflowing with clams and mussels. A caveat: We were once there when an annoying Salon columnist was telling her unlucky date, at a volume loud enough for the entire restaurant to hear, about how David Talbot said he was going to make so much money on something and then later ranted about how nobody reads fiction anymore. If this happens during your meal, walk next door to Southpaw and ask for a pair of earplugs.

Best Indian Lunch Buffet
Salaam Bombay
319 Greenwich St. (betw. Duane & Reade Sts.), 212-226-9400

Quite a raita. We've seen Chris Rock clean his plate at this spacious, comfortable Tribeca spot a few times during the 11:30 to 3:00 buffet hours, but we didn't point or stare. We come here to chow down in quiet ourselves, and wouldn't think of bothering him while feasting on the most varied and delicious all-you-can-eat Indian buffet going. At $12.95, it can also be more than an occasional indulgence. The spread changes daily, but is always a fresh and lavish multi-table offering of subcontinental staples and house specialties.

We recommend loading up on the aloo gobi matar and murg xacuti, but there are no wrong turns here, where the bread is always more than a footnote and even has its own chef, who bakes a wide array of specialty breads in an authentic clay tandoori oven tuned to 600 degrees. All tandoori meats are marinated for 24 hours in yogurts and spices, and they go down extra nice with a glass of mango lassi. Don't forget the homemade pistachio ice cream.

Best Thing Since Sliced Bread
Fried Mars Bar
A Salt & Battery, 80 2nd Ave. (betw. 4th & 5th Sts.), 212-254-6610

Heart attack, man. It was Friday night. In England, many of you know, Friday night is synonymous with fish 'n' chips, so three of us made our way down to A Salt & Battery for the much-acclaimed entrees. Ignoring the near-$3 price tag on a can of imported soda, we instead concentrated on the sushi-quality cod and chips that brought back "a shed load of memories," as one staffer put it.

After much gurning at the idea of actually-finally-trying the most daunting of desserts, we succumbed to the curiosity of a deep-fried Mars Bar, served with ice cream. With heads bowed, we checked and re-checked the contents of our bowl, trying desperately to figure out what exactly our taste buds were saying. Not since A Salt & Battery's deep-fried toffee crisp (which took home last year's "Best British Dessert to Go") have we put anything quite so exquisite in our mouth.

Thank god we only succumb to these desserts once a year. Fish 'n' chips every Friday night is one thing, but deep-frying candy bars would, to put it nicely, put us off the diet.

Best Iced Coffee with a Side of Right-Wing Pablum
Angelina's Bakery
188 Orchard St. (betw. Houston & Stanton Sts.), 212-979-5564

Paleo con leche. Angelina's is a redoubtable Italian bakery and coffee shop beloved of Orchard St.-area locals. Dino Hallas is one of that shop's owner-managers. Hallas is a skinny, opinionated fellow, with short salt-and-pepper hair and a sneer to make the babies wail. Dressed always in faded Levis and mildly dorky, monochromatic t-shirts, to peg his appearance as merely "bland" would be too mild. In truth, he's about one unshaved whisker shy of not giving a rat's ass. This is only part of what we like about him.

Hallas is the embodiment of genuine insouciance. He's got in spades what the fauxhemians in these parts can only acquire by proxy and at an embarrassing mark-up from neighboring boutiques like the ridiculous Stongarm (sellers of the $35 "vintage" t-shirt). While most local merchants can be expected to stay mute when the conversation turns political-or in certain cases go out of their way to parrot the sympathies of the local populace-Hallas is openly, unapologetically contrary. Whether we agree with him is not relevant here; that he doesn't lick boots is.

We recall, for instance, an afternoon this past July. Hallas had been rejoicing over the Jayson Blair troubles at the New York Times, claiming those events as evidence of the underlying bankruptcy of affirmative action. "Damn, this is great!" he'd exclaimed, repeatedly. "Just what the Times deserves."

He was sticking out his chin, looking for takers, and when a group of young tongue-studs entered the shop, one wearing a large anti-IMF button on her backpack, the game was on. In the ad hoc debate that ensued, things got heated. In our habitual role as centrist twinkie, we ended up moderating between righty merchant and lefty customers. But-and here we credit Hallas for being more than just a blowhard-no one was chased from the shop with a rolling pin. Nor did anyone scream "fascist!"

Goaded into a cleaner defense of their respective positions, the tongue-studs departed cheerfully and Hallas, in his cynical drone, called after them, "Come back any time. Really." They often do.

Hallas, who is Greek, gives lie to the notion that the males of that culture are all zesty, plate-smashing Zorbas. Indeed, his response to this award is likely to be a curt, "What the fuck do I care?" Still, we'd like to think his background is in part responsible for the truly hospitable feel of the place. (The consideration he shows to dogs, proffering treats and water on hot days, being a special favorite of ours.) Yes, there are those occasions when his stridency is too much even for us to bare. Fortunately his partners-two juicy Italian women of supple skin and iron fist-are available to summarily shut him up. This, too, makes for good viewing and at $2 a cup, value entertainment.

Best Appetizer
Blackened Calamari at Acme
9 Great Jones St. (betw. Lafayette & B'way), 212-420-1934

Comfort food from the sea. In general, appetizers are a very bad idea. They're usually smothered in cheese or deeply fried to cover up that the kitchen is recycling something appropriate for entrees. Start skipping appetizers and find out how much better you feel after eating out.

Our favorite exception is at Acme, where they've cleverly added the blackened calamari appetizer to their specials. It's really a great idea. After all, what's been the benefit of breading those little bits of squid? All you get is an ugly crust that emphasizes the creepy nature of those little tendrils.

Acme's calamari leaves those cephalopods looking pretty healthy and happy, just like when you see them nestled in pasta. They don't overdo the blackened experience, either. These calamari are just spicy enough to invoke new respect for how much flavor those rubbery little squids can pack.

Sadly, other restaurants have been slow to rip off Acme's triumph, but that's okay. We're also still fond of the place as a comfort-food set-up where you don't feel like you're going back home to Mommy-who, of course, has never blackened anything on purpose.

Best Time Out Credibility Gap
Castle Seltzer Bottling Co.
245 Francis St., Derby, CT, 203-877-6429

A service out of time. Since we can remember, the seltzer man has visited our house. The distributors have come and gone, staff has turned over and delivery schedules have changed, but we've always kept ourselves in the bubbly. On those bad weeks when we forgot to order or misjudged our drinking requirements, we substituted Canada Dry, Perrier, Pellegrino-all the usual brand-name suspects. None compared to home delivery.

Imagine our surprise when Time Out named seltzer a New York vanishing act and claimed that only Gomberg Seltzer Works was left to supply the city. Nothing against the Brooklyn-based Gomberg, but we're loyal to the Connecticut boys at Castle Seltzer.

Concerned that we were the last to hear the bad news, we called up our pushers to make sure they were on the case. Rest assured, we were told, it was a false alarm. Castle still delivers to the tri-state area. At $12 a case-that's a buck a bottle-our weekly purchase of nostalgia is packaged in a wooden crate held together with metal joints; the blue, green and clear glass bottles are outfitted with plastic or metal spouts. There's a $25 deposit, but no minimum case order and no start-up fee. There are no strings attached at all, just like the good old days. Just return the empties when the new ones arrive.

We order every Monday afternoon and greet the deliveryman at the ungodly hour of eight the next morning. (East Side deliveries are Thursday.) Occasionally, when we can't drag ourselves from bed, he's nice enough to leave two cases just outside our front door, rather than abandon us to suffer with Brita.

For the same price as a can of Coke at the bodega, you can shoot an entire bottle of seltzer into someone's mouth from a few feet away. Two can engage in water fights; three, in all-out warfare. Or, when that thrill wears off-which it will, but quick-fill a glass and greedily gulp-never sip-the salt-free, super-carbonated liquid.

Seltzer delivery, a thing of the past? Hardly.

Best $3 Sandwich
Vestedda at La Focacceria
128 1st Ave. (betw. 7th St. & St. Marks Pl.), 212-254-4946

Extra spleen, please. Actor and bred-to-the-bone New Yorker Michael Badalucco (best-known these days as Jimmy Berluti on The Practice) changed our dietary habits forever back around 1980 when he took us to lunch at Vinnie Bondi's original La Focacceria, then a few blocks further north between 11th and 12th streets. Bondi's father, Nate, started the business there in 1914; Vinnie took over in 1956, and vastly expanded the premises and the food selection when the restaurant moved down to its present location in the early 80s.

Then, as now, one of the staples of its menu of simple regional-Sicilian cuisine was the vestedda (plural vesteddi). Boiled beef spleen is sliced thin and heated for several minutes in a pan of melted shortening with a dollop of spiced ricotta and slivers of hard caciocavallo ("horse cheese"), all of which is then ladled onto a seeded roll. Rich, filling, tasty and cheap.

Maybe we've given away too much. We've observed that the description "spleen-on-a-bun" can be enough to get prospective initiates shaking their heads hard enough to cause whiplash. We seem to recall that Badalucco had ordered our vesteddi and waited until we'd finished them and downed two bottles of Manhattan Special coffee soda (still served) before letting us in on the sandwich ingredients. By then we were basking in that warm, full, cheese-and-sweetbread, artery-hardening glow coursing through our system. The rest is gastronomic history.

By our estimate, we've consumed several hundred in the 20-plus years since. At just $2.75 each, they're still among the best bargains in the city. While you're there, try the rice balls.

Best Vegetarian Hot Dogs for Meat Eaters
269 W. 23rd St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.), 646-486-4441

No ears, no lips. It's not often that carnivores can coexist with their vegan counterparts, let alone sharing the same dish in the same spot. But at this Chelsea hole-in-the-wall outlet of a European fast-food chain, the lamb can chow down on dawgs alongside the lion; Moby can share a counter with Ted Nugent. Two and a half bucks will buy a hot dog that looks-and just about tastes-good enough for most Nathan's or Hebrew National fans. And that includes a mountain of fixins, from chopped onions to sauerkraut. If you want to get fancy, try the Healthy Dog, a $3.50 jumbo smoked-tofu dog topped with hummus, grated carrot and black olives. Be sure to try the french fries; do as the Dutch do, and skip the ketchup.

Best Feature of Any Bar

And baby makes one too many. It amazes us when people bring their children to the bar. Do we take a six-pack to the daycare center and gather 'round for storytime?

Good for them, we suppose. They've figured out that having a kid is the easiest way to have an impact upon as many lives as they can while doing as little as possible, and that's just about where their wisdom ends. These idiots park their strollers in the center aisle; they allow their spawn to toddle free amongst drunkards. We get dirty looks for swearing in their presence or accidentally stepping on them when they get underfoot. Now they're thrilled that they can drag their babies to a smoke-free environment (leave it to a clueless schoolmarm of a mayor to ban cigarettes from a tavern while still allowing children).

We pray that at least one of them will read this: Squeezing out a baby doesn't automatically make you a parent. You're supposed to take care of it after that. Having been one ourselves, we can tell you that a child needs a real place to play, interaction with other children like itself and attention from a capable parent-not a selfish, neglectful pet-owner like you. It's obvious that none of your friends have the nerve to break this to you, or maybe they're just as self-absorbed as you are. That's why we love bars that won't let you in with your kids.

Best Mexican Restaurant Staffed by Chinese
Chelsea Fresca Tortilla
253 8th Ave. (betw. 22nd & 23rd Sts.), 212-463-8877

Fortune churros say. Perhaps now, after giving props to our local Fresca Tortilla, the Chinese crew behind the counter will refrain from mocking our order. Granted, we request "two black bean and cheese tortillas with a side of 'Mexican' rice and a Coke" every time we're there, but still. Is that cause for derision? Right to our faces? In a foreign language?

Daunted by the myriad options that shine through the dyed-plastic, strip-mall menu hanging over the counter, we quickly became a creature of habit. We always choose "to go," but take-out isn't the only option either; customers are welcome to get comfy in the Western-style swivel stools and munch on tortilla chips. The decor resembles a prop assistant's first day on the job, with gumball machines on one counter (out of reach of children never seen inside) and a plastic clock near the register, next to a small, black sombrero (not to be outdone by an oversized yellow version). The massive rice cooker is just one of many clues that the employees haven't all gone entirely south of the border. Stalks of lucky bamboo grow in a porcelain dish, tucked almost out of sight-but surely in view of the employee who lumps dough into the tortilla maker.

We always leave with a feeling of shame for being so predictable, but sometimes you don't want to take chances. Especially in a place that's so mixed up about its identity.

Best Jamaican Beef Patty
334 Flatbush Ave. (betw. Sterling Pl. & Park Pl.), Ft. Greene, 718-636-9746

Here's the beef. It was one of those rare times where we had our shit together and met a friend at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens on a Tuesday. We did the rose garden, the cherry trees and the ducks in the koi pond, but before we reached the greenhouses, the sky opened and buckets fell. By the time we made it to the front gate, we were soaked. Laughing at our sloshing sneakers and drenched clothes, our friend promised a Jamaican beef patty to cheer us up.

Four blocks later, we arrived at Christie's/Juniors on Flatbush. Shaking ourselves dry while standing on line, we ordered two beef and two jerk chicken patties. While we waited for our patties to reach molten temperatures, we flattened out a few soft, wet bills from our pockets, noting for the future that a healthy handful of change would cover the entire bill.

At a friend's nearby apartment, we had a picnic on the floor, with pruned hands and hair still dripping. The jerk chicken patty was intense, leaving us with tears for 30 minutes after admitting defeat. We loved the beef, even taking tiny bites near the end to make it last longer. At the end of the meal, we regretted not having another.

Deep down inside, we still hold foggy but fond memories of artificially yellow patties served in our high-school cafeteria, but another trip or two to Christie's should be the beginning of a new Jamaican patty legacy.

Best German Chocolate Cake
281 3rd Ave. (22nd St.), 212-473-8718

Welche Zahnpasta gebrauchen Sie? Our mom made German chocolate cake a lot when we were kids. Almost every birthday, in fact, that Duncan Hines box would come down from the cupboard. We never told her this because we didn't want to hurt her feelings, but it just wasn't very good. Two layers of bone-dry chocolate cake separated, then slathered, with a slimy, curiously lumpy beige frosting concoction that tasted vaguely of coconut.

Because of that, we hadn't touched German chocolate cake since we were 13. Until, that is, the last time we had dinner at Rolf's. Of course, you expect a German restaurant to take their German chocolate cake seriously, but this was insane. The cake itself is excellent, but what holds it together bears absolutely no resemblance to the peculiar substance that covered those cakes of our childhood. The frosting at Rolf's is like a form of slightly more malleable macaroon-thick and chewy and packed with real coconut. It was more like candy than frosting-and it nearly brought tears of joy to our eyes.

Funny thing is, we were kind of dreading dessert at the time. After a meal of sausages and potatoes and ham and sauerkraut and beer, we were already painfully stuffed when it arrived. After that first tentative bite, however, we decided that next time we went to Rolf's, that's all we would order. Well, that and the beer.

Best Place to catch Bugs
Doc Holliday's
141 Ave. A (9th St.), 212-979-0312

They don't eat much. Ah, Doc Holliday's. How could we forget the time that 70-year-old Artemis Pyle double threw a bottle and screamed at his Native American girlfriend?only to make it up to her minutes later over a slow dance to Hank Williams? Or the night Waylon's "Honky Tonk Heroes" came on, and everybody-NYU freshmen, the homeless, tourists in fanny packs-sang along? Or that Saturday night we came home from Doc's, totally shit-faced, crawling with little black bugs?

That's right-we can handle the amputee sailor at the bar informing us we're "not good enough to be here," or the dotcommers drinking with their shirts off, or that drunk bitch Stacey pouring margarita mix all over the place and moving people's pool balls around when they're not looking. So when we noticed a small insect on our husband's face while sitting at a table by the window, we brushed it away lovingly, and reveled in the authentic old-man bar "atmo."

The next morning, when we noticed a dark, flying beetle emerge from the crotch of our Levis, which we'd very authentically left in a sweaty wad on the bathroom floor the night before, we knew with a sinking feeling we'd drank our last $2 Pabst. Ah, what the fuck-it's time to start having kids, anyway.

Best Place to be an Expat While Still in Country
Cafe Moto
394 Broadway (Hooper St.), Williamsburg, 718-599-6895

Wishful drinking. On our first visit, we thought Cafe Moto was a coffee shop. We toted along our laptop, a small cachet of files and two books. Instead of finding understuffed second-hand couches and a poorly graffiti'd bathroom, we stumbled into what we'd swear is a cozy, 1920s juke joint. Nobody complained when we ordered coffee and homemade donuts, and proceeded to sit around reading for the next few hours. In fact, the live jazz band apologized when we had to scoot over so they could set up.

Normally, we're wary of anywhere quite this fancy, especially within the 11211. Everything in the place is intentional, down to the sideways spigot on the bathroom sink. If it weren't for the owner's attention to detail, however, the illusion might not be so complete. The grub is cheap and plentiful, from the rich mussel soup, to the portobello panini, to the herb-crusted ribs. The lighting stays low; the band plays and plays; wine bottles keep coming. The walls shake every time the JMZ roars by upstairs, shadows flickering over the glazed windows. Sometimes, you can even stick around with the owners and musicians after they close at three o'clock, doors locked and lights off, conversations still going.

We will get out of this country again, and soon. Until then, we'll sneak some time at Moto and imagine that the most recent stamp in our passport came from a foreign hand.

Best Place to Eat Seven Eel Rolls Because You Must
Kinoko Japanese Restaurant
165 W. 72nd St. (betw. B'way & Columbus Ave.), 212-580-5900

Just?one?more... The fish is raw and delicious; the avocado-covered and eel-stuffed dragon and Godzilla rolls redefine umami. The decor and setup are as kinky and hilarious as a scene from a Hong Kong-era John Woo film; four silent chefs work behind a food prep bar overlooking the mirrored walls and frictionless black furniture. The service is disconcertingly quick; the staff half runs through the floor in quick concentric circles, delivering food and taking orders with speed, enthusiasm and an admirable disregard for order.

All that shit's cool. But what makes Kinoko the silliest sino-spot in the city is the sushi special. First rule: all you can eat, $19.95. Second: unlimited custom ordering. That means if you want 15 spicy tuna hand rolls, you get 'em. The third rule: you must eat everything you order-including the rice-or pay for each uneaten item a la carte.

The third rule is the real draw. Our gluttonous, cheapskate friends are suckers for all-you-can-eat joints and never admit defeat when faced with food. They order plate after plate of sushi, with each choice of fish more bizarre than the last. By plate five, they've gorged on octopus, sea urchin and clam-and start to turn green. Still, they soldier on, ordering again and making the table into a spectacle by engaging in vigorous stomach stretching lunges learned from master glutton Takeru Kobayashi. Once it's time to pay the bill, they waddle to the counter, humbled by the might of Kinoko.

Of course, the a la carte trap and the question of tomorrow's lunch could both be solved by deep pockets, plastic baggies and quick hands. But that wouldn't be sporting.

Best Cheap Lebanese
411 E. 70th St. (betw. 1st & York Aves.), 212-744-3115

Hash(emite) browns. A secret known only to the medical residents who live in the Lenox dorms across the street, Maryum's is homey and comfortable, and the guys who run it are like instant family. Falling under the official category of "Hole in the Wall," Maryum's is nonetheless craveworthy?and cheap. Although distinctly Lebanese in flavor, Maryum's Middle Eastern food is so fresh and delicious that we even take our Israeli friends there, and they gobble up the babaganoush with a minimum of references to how much better it is in the homeland. Every dish is delicately prepared-light and never too garlicky-and the portions are generous. The hummus platters are swirly with garnishes, the falafel sandwiches are hot and not too crunchy, the meat dishes are full and perfectly spiced. Bring a cute kid with you, and you're bound to get a free dessert-a piece of baklava, or maybe a bird's nest, which is a flaky round cookie jammed with pistachio nuts.

Best Return to Form
Stingy Lulu's
129 St. Marks Pl. (betw. 1st Ave. & Ave. A), 212-674-3545

C'mon back now, y'hear? When new management took over Stingy Lulu's at the beginning of this year, we admit to moving on to other cheap dinner spots. Maybe it was the heroin-reality as opposed the heroin-chic that once slumped across the stools at the bar, or maybe it's that the surrounding neighborhood has become just another must-see stop on the NYU orientation tours.

Recently, for whatever reason, we checked back in and found that the new guy is trying. Notably, there's the quite-ridiculous offer of unlimited drinks during brunch. Read that again: unlimited drunks during brunch. Sure, the mimosas are more orange juice than champagne (and then, more orange drink from the gun than orange juice), but who actually serves strong drinks at brunch? Just drink more. And no matter how sharply we turn tail at the first mention of it, Stingy Lulu's persists with the city's oldest drag show on most nights.

The real turn-on is the menu, though you might not have noticed unless someone told you about it. The chefs here aren't the most consistent collection in the business, and the waitresses are clearly hired on their ability to smile politely, but somehow the old boy has put together a solid line-up that's brought us back a few times.

In a patch of the East Village that's sometimes difficult to frequent, Stingy Lulu's has persevered and come through the other side. Keeping in mind that all-you-can-drink thing, though, we wonder how long it'll last.

Best Williamsburg Bar
Blue Lady
769 Metropolitan Ave. (betw. Graham Ave. & Humboldt St.), Williamsburg, 718-218-6997.

The blues ain't bad. We don't waste time bitching about Williamsburg. By and large, those with such vehement opinions of the geographic demon du jour are precisely the kind of people who should be living there: just shy of their twenty-fifth birthdays, self-consciously anti-stylish, not as smart as they think they are, not as creative as they think they are and, most of all, always worried about what other people think. Stop estimating worth based on zip code, and life becomes much simpler.

So, no, we don't have an all-consuming problem with Williamsburg. One of our favorite bars happens to be there, out at the third stop on the L. Blue Lady Lounge opened after we left the 3rd/4th stop corridor for another small town far, far away. When we came back and set up shop on a friend's Devoe St. couch for a month, we were pleased to find an alternative to the Pourhouse.

elvetica, sans-serif" size="3">Blue Lady is chill and unpretentious. With a long, comfortable bar, a couple of couches in the back area and a back patio that's open during the nice weather, it's worlds superior to the self-conscious pose of the Pourhouse. Owner Lou is a local boy, and many of his regulars are friends and family stopping in for a quick coupla and a howdy-do to the crew.

The jukebox is up and down, but acceptably so; it matches the clientele in its variety and friendliness. Bartender Dawn hosts movies on Sunday night and has been booking DJs and bands during the week. Blue Lady even offers internet access on two spankin' new iMacs.

Best Beer-Company Model
The Czech Rebel Slut

Bounced Czech. We've seen a bunch of fancy new beer ads leveled at us over the past year-on billboards, bodega signs and the sides of distributor trucks-but when we first laid eyes on the model in the Czech Rebel poster, we were instantly smitten.

She's absolutely filthy-looking. Her picture looks like it's been run through Photoshop's skank-ho filter about three or four times. She does not smile. And she has a gut. Posed in slothful recline against a motorbike, she's darkly resplendent in a leather vest and miniskirt, pink bargain-basement camisole and a come-hither gaze that promises a crippling cross-sample of venereal diseases. She makes Miss Rheingold 2003 look like June fucking Cleaver.

We can only imagine the sort of ad- agency meetings that spawned her, and we'd prefer not to. But we will try her beer, soon. We just need to drink a few others first.

Best Takeout Salads
120 Prince St. (betw. Wooster & Greene Sts.), 212-941-0111

Selling the farm. To the manager of every restaurant that's ever sold us a crappy, overpriced salad-and there are so many of you-take heed. Olive's serves up a shining example of what salad is supposed to be: Fresh. Clean. Carefully prepared. Tastefully dressed. Reasonably priced. Visit the case to the far right of this tiny Soho takeout kitchen, look at the salads and be schooled.

Here's what you won't find at Olive's: Nasty, wilted leaves caked with gooey, black gobs of decomposing vegetable matter; rinse water; anything that looks like it's been dredged out of someone's rain gutter; aged stems so tough and fibrous that a starving rabbit couldn't gnaw its way through them; grit; dressings composed entirely of soy oil with some sorry bits of unidentifiable seasoning floating at the bottom.

Here's what you will find at Olive's: Tender baby spinach with grape tomatoes; crisp Romaine with toast and shaved Parmesan; maybe even a special salad-of-the-day if you're lucky, and if not, they'll whip up one to order. Each of them is excellent in its own way.

Far too many local eateries serve garbage, whereas Olive's serves salad. Learn from them.

Best Bar Dog
Reid at Louis
649 E. 9th St. (betw. Aves. B & C), 917-517-9253

Yappy hour. We don't mean to ignore the many other fine qualities of this cozy little spot. It's got live jazz (Sunday through Thursday nights), a very friendly owner, a beautiful view (ancient weeping willows, courtesy of La Plaza Cultural Garden across the way), draught beer, wine, sake and a cool, soothing, tile-topped bar that may well prepare you for the feeling of your own bathroom floor tomorrow morning. But best of all, it's got Reid.

Reid is a brown-and-white hound and terrier type of the love-sponging variety. He's greeted us at the door on more than one occasion. He escorts us to our table in the back, presses his solid weight against our calves, and when we return the affection, he rolls right over. Then, when the next guest comes in, the cycle of love begins anew. We thought we were special. But, no-it's him.

Mind you, this is not an open invitation to tug ears and rub belly. Reid needs to choose you. Just don't be surprised if he does.

Best Flan
Mexican Radio
19 Cleveland Pl. (betw. Spring & Kenmare Sts.), 212-343-0140

No flash in the pan. Sure, we probably could've stopped at the several Dos Equis and the otter-sized burrito we'd just enveloped, but something that day seemed to lure us onward: the siren song of the flan. We'd never tried Mexican Radio's desserts before, so we deliberated coquettishly, patting our boa-constrictor belly.

"It's really good," promised our waitress, in what would turn out, in our minds, to be the greatest culinary understatement of the year.

Sweet Jesus, that flan. It was placed before us, plain and unassuming in its light dusting of cinnamon. Upon the very first taste, we learned that we'd sorely underestimated it. Our pupils dilated, our heart fluttered and our cholesterol levels rose instantaneously. The flavor and texture spoke of more than eggs, milk and vanilla-there was careful, patient, skillful preparation in that little pudding, and perhaps a secret ingredient. While easily rich enough for two, a slow but cutthroat spoon-duel soon ensued between us and our dining companion.

We have experienced both the regular and the white-chocolate flans, and have heard only legends of a passion-fruit variety. Don't be one of those stuck-up purists. Try them all.

Best Device for Giving Mexican Radio Another "Best Of" Award
Best Flan
Best All-Around Sandwiches
202 Lafayette St. (betw. Spring & Broome Sts.), 212-226-1963

Duke of Earls. Dom's has, for far too long, been a best-kept secret of residents and employees of the downtown/Soho area. While its flagship business is homemade Italian sausages and cured meats, it's the takeout counter in the back that we don't want you to know about. Not that it doesn't deserve an award-we just don't want you blocking Dom's beloved aisles with your big ol' butt. But fair's fair.

Dom's offers an eyepopping 31 varieties of house sandwich, from the simple meatballs on hero to the daunting bresaola, parmesan, arugula, tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette on focaccia. The eight or nine kinds we've sampled have been formidable in size and invariably delicious. There are also some cheese-, fish- and veggie-centric sandwiches for the lightweight luncher, and many unique, inventive salads as well.

Most menu items are under six bucks, and all come without the madding crowd or the frequently nasty attitude of Katz's. Browse the impressive shelves of imported gourmet foods while you wait; maybe pick up something for dinner, later. The one downside is, no seating, unless you want to park it on the bench outside.

Best All-night Coffee When You're Homeless
Esperanto Café
114 MacDougal St. (Bleecker St.), 212-475-2525
Bagel Buffet
406 6th Ave. (betw. 8th & 9th Sts.), 212-477-0448

We remember when coffee was a nickel. We offer two winners: one for those who don't look homeless (and you know what we mean), another for those who do. Esperanto Cafe is always open; they just shuffle you around, from couch to easy chair, at 4:30 a.m. when the cleaning ritual begins. Coffee is $1.55, and if you're helping a homeless friend spend the night, they must perch in a vertical fashion. Bagel Buffet, on the other hand, has a more flagrantly down-and-out crowd. They once gave pocket money to a homeless dude who kept a sharp eye when their deliveries were arriving. A toasted bagel with cream cheese is only $1.68, and coffee is a record-breaking 70˘.

Best Masala Dosai
Anand Bhavan
35-66 73rd St. (betw. 35 & 37 Sts.), Jackson Heights, 718-507-1600

You'll be back. For most of us, indulging in Indian culture means feasting on half-price meals at 6th St.'s chili pepper-lit sitar joints. Others know these restaurants omit the flavors of Southern India and thus only represent half the cuisine. True cultural ambassadors trek to vibrant Jackson Heights. We make this trip every few months-usually less often than we'd like. After collecting our fill of obscure incense, Ganesha stickers and decorative bindis, we lug the spoils past sari shops, threading salons and gold wholesalers to Anand Bhavan.

Lacking flashing Christmas lights, entertainment, a flashy name or insane dinner deals, they boast well-priced authentic South Indian vegetarian cooking. It's never crowded, and customers are seated immediately and presently with perfect papadam. Our sensitive tongue usually saves us from filling up on the spicy bread, leaving plenty of room for our favorite dish, masala dosai.

We keep a yogurt lassi on hand to counter any surprise spice attacks, and tackle the hearty meal head-on. The pea and potato mixture is wrapped in a thin, crispy oversized crepe and fully infused with just the right amount of curry. Forgoing the fork, we use our hands to shovel the mess into our mouth. After succumbing to the dosai's sheer mass, we waddle back to the train through colorful huddles of bustling shoppers, proud of the wee bit of culture we've sought out.

Best Green Parrot
Grand Sichuan Int'l
229 9th Ave. (24th St.), 212-620-5200

Pretty Polly. When it comes to restaurants, Chelsea has typically had at least one but no more than two of everything. This is perhaps due to the residents' parsimonious loyalty-two of any particular fare might upset the balance in our lives. When Grand Sichuan hung the "grand opening" signs a little over four years ago, we doubted they'd last. Come on-we already had two perfectly good Chinese delivery spots.

A week later, lines were forming outside the corner restaurant that was once a Blimpee, with veteran customers describing dishes as though no one had ever eaten Chinese food. We were stubborn and skeptical of the hype, but eventually went on a fact-finding mission and sampled a few Caucasian favorites: beef and broccoli, fried dumplings and spare ribs. They were fabulous, offering complex and distinguishable flavors underneath unusually grease-free ingredients.

Recently, we discovered a dish called Green Parrot when a friend requested it (after some hesitation). We were in luck when we found a pile of sweet and tart bok choy/spinachesque vegetables that was as good as anything else we'd eaten there. Curiously, Green Parrot is not always available. We'll attempt to make it on our own, one of these days, sure. Until then, we cross our fingers when placing an order.

Best California Dreaming
Atlas Café
116 Havemeyer St. (Grand St.), Williamsburg, 718-782-7470

A cleaner high. Are the streets of Brooklyn this swollen with California expats? Or does Atlas sport some hidden broadcasting apparatus that transmits subsonic renditions of "Miserlou" and "Good Vibrations"? Judging by the steady stream of West Coasters that run through this Californian-run cafe, it could go either way. Spend more than an hour or two here, and you're sure to overhear at least one mention of Valencia or Berkeley or BART.

Owners Walter and

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