Part Three Best Goyishe Bagels La ...

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Part Three

Best Goyishe Bagels
La Bagel Delight
252 7th Ave. (5th St.)
Brooklyn, 718-768-6107
Yelling for Your Supper. Say "La Bagel Delight" in a heavy Brooklyn accent, and you're sure to get some laughs.

There are at least three La Bagel Delight outlets that we know about in Brooklyn, but this one's our favorite, primarily because they turn ordering a half-dozen bagels on a sleepy Sunday morning into a full-contact sport.

Stop by anytime between 6 a.m. and noon on a weekend, and no matter how quiet the street outside is, the bagel shop will be a madhouse. Four or five burly Italian guys will be behind the counter, taking orders, confirming orders, filling orders, ringing up orders, the unruly yuppie mob jockeying for position, poised to snap the next time one of the countermen screams, "Who's next?!" If you aren't ready to pounce, you'll lose your spot.

It's pretty nerve-wracking, if you aren't prepared for it. That's the thing?La Bagel Delight is no place for the meek. Because not only do you have to jump when one of the countermen screams, "Who's next?!"?you have to scream your order back over the heads and voices of six other people who are ordering at the same time. Like working the floor of the stock exchange, we've found in our own experience, hand gestures help.

But the primal struggle is always worthwhile. Despite all the screaming, the guys who work there are all nice as can be, and La Bagel Delight bagels are among the finest we've ever had anywhere in the city?prepared fresh every day, they vanish too quickly to ever get stale.

And beyond the bagels, they also offer muffins and huge sandwiches and great soups?all a helluva lot cheaper than you'll find in Manhattan. On top of it all, if you don't want to walk a block to the grocery store, they also sell cream cheese and milk and juice right there. Hey?all the local cops and EMS workers can't be wrong.

Besides, sometimes a little terror, a little slam dance first thing in the morning, is just the thing to get the old heart pumping again.

Best Speakeasy
147 W. 24th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.)
But Don't Walk Into the Pool Table. Whenever we tell someone to meet us at Dusk, we go through a routine of explaining exactly where it is. Its frontage is so humble, looking like a nondescript storefront with heavy curtains behind the glass, that half the time people walk right past it anyway. We like that about the place. Low-key is good in a drinking establishment. And harder than ever to find. Not that Dusk hasn't been discovered, just that it's rarely mobbed at the hour we tend to drop by, just after work. We hang at the bar in the back usually, as opposed to the banquettes near the pool table. Sean knows our libation preferences and sets us right up. We chat with Phil and Trish, when the former's not off climbing K2. It's nice and dark, the music trends toward the triphoppy, it's a cool, relaxing environment for some rounds and chatter. Cheers, kids.

Best Olive Oil
Beirut Olive Oil
Fertile Crescent
570 Atlantic Ave. (betw. 3rd & 4th Aves.)
Brooklyn, 718-797-3066
How Weird: An Unctuous Product from Lebanon. Because it's oily, and how often do you really notice that in an olive oil? Because it's the right shade of vegetal ocher-green. And because it's cheap. Seven bucks for a bottle that, were you to go for primo Tuscan product at, say, Balducci's, would set you back $30.

It's also Lebanese, and we like that. Makes us feel like we've stumbled onto the Chateau Musar of olive oil, or something, down there on Atlantic Ave. We cook with it, we drizzle it, we dip bread in it, we make no fussy distinctions. An everyday olive oil if ever one existed, if ever one crossed our moody questing olive-oil-jonesing path.

Best Lunch Before You Ride the Train Home for Christmas
Oyster Bar
Grand Central Terminal
Lower Level
42nd St. (Park Ave.)
Winter's Tale. Because, see, we're generally heading upstate for Christmas on the Hudson Line, and we find ourselves?so to speak?in the neighborhood. We love dropping into this great restaurant any time of the year, but it's even better during the Christmas season, when the renovated Grand Central Terminal's decked in its elegant, severe holiday equipment and a more rarefied variety of light sifts through the high windows to fill the great barrel-vaulted hall. Replete with the optimism that fills us when we're going home for Christmas, we invariably choose to take a later train, and lope down the ramp toward the Oyster Bar for beers and oyster pan roasts at the counter, either alone or with a friend or two, depending on who's coming with us.

The secret thing about Grand Central is that it's one of the perfect places for Christmas, because it's unself-consciously infused with the romance of Olde New York (the trains in the amber light, the gray-flanneled ghosts of Midtown, the knickerbocker severity of the clubhouse rows over off Vanderbilt), which is appropriate for a holiday the bittersweet sentimentality of which you deprecate only at cost to your prune-like hipster's soul. Unlike a number of ancient New York eateries we could name, the Oyster Bar doesn't play up its historical resonances?the place is just unassumingly and reassuringly there?but they're fun to think about. We're always amused by the thought of how many Tammany bosses must have poured how many steins of beer, or shoved how many hand-sized Hudson River oysters, into how many flushed and muttonchopped holes, there in that loud, echoing Oyster Bar space floating with the smell of beer and brine. And we're always braced by the flavor, and by the mere idea, of the pan roast that we're eating, that wonderfully heavy, elemental concoction of mollusk, cream, Worcestershire, horseradish?a dish it seems almost impious to eat in any other place or time than a New York winter.

Then, within the hour, we're half-dozing by the train window, watching the Hudson shoot by, buzzed by beer and cream, peaceful and country-Christmas-bound.

Best Pre-Packaged Sushi
2135 Broadway (75th St.)
1313 3rd Ave. (75th St.)
Sushi Boy. Pre-packaged sushi-to-go is a great addition to workers' lunchtime routines. It's handy and healthy. Much better for you than that dog on the corner. Still, with pre-packed sushi you're taking a chance that, at the very least, it won't be exactly fresh.

Not at Citarella. These things taste like the sushi chef just rolled them up. Because even under the best of circumstances we get a little ginchy about pre-packed sushi, we tend to go with the California roll. It seems the safest. Citarella's California roll is $2.99 for six pieces (compare that to $4.75 at Balducci's), and it's the best we've carried out of any shop. The crabmeat is real crabmeat, and always fresh; the avocado is perfectly ripe; and they add a little salmon roe for a delicious crunch. Comes with the soy sauce, wasabi and fresh ginger. Available at both the Upper West and East Side locations.

Best Way-West After-Work Bar
The Half King
505 W. 23rd St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.)
Perfect. No Sturm. We work in a building that's so far west it's practically falling off the edge of Manhattan. There's no such thing as "West Chelsea" over here: it's just parking garages, our enormous, warehouse-like building and the river. And, actually, we love it. We love that it's not a horribly carpeted Midtown media behemoth; we love the elevator operator who trades gossip with us about fellow building resident Susan Sontag; we love it even through its quirks: faulty air conditioning, broken elevators, fake "gas leaks" that trigger useless building evacuations. The main problem, though, is that there's no after-work bar. No ol' watering hole. We can order in for lunch, but we're screwed for end-of-the-day drinks.

So we're pleased to announce the Half King as our new local. It's roomy (two full rooms with couches and countless tables) and it's homey (an overly friendly waitstaff and all-wood decor). And while the Half King has received tons of press, thanks to its part-owner, artiste Sebastian Junger, it's just a bar. It's just a plain old bar, with fried fish, excellent fries and a normal-sized selection of beers. And the whole writer-meets-working man aura that Junger wants to create? We're not sure about that; the book parties have to move on sometime, and we've thankfully never seen anyone scribbling away at a corner table. For now, we're just grateful that it exists.

Best Risotto
al di la
248 5th Ave. (betw. Carroll & Garfield Sts.)
Brooklyn, 718-783-4565 Risotto, if ordered at a restaurant, is usually a mistake?a glutinous blob of salty starch most likely prepared hours beforehand and then spread thin on a baking sheet to be reheated as ordered. To get good risotto, the conventional wisdom goes, you need to make it at home, stirring and stirring and stirring. And then stirring some more.

Not any longer. Now, those dedicated to risotto need only place themselves in lower Park Slope, in the creepily upscale environs of 5th Ave. and the general neighborhood of al di la, the best Venetian trattoria in Brooklyn. Al di la is a mere stone's throw from the ritually overrated Cucina, and, as far as we can tell, doing more than its bit to cut into Cucina's business. (What bugs us most about Cucina is that they offer valet parking, pretty much conceding from the get-go that their clientele is composed of river-crossing Zagat-thumbers who would otherwise never venture onto Brooklyn's trash-strewn thoroughfares.)

We recommend a visit, and we even more highly recommend that you put off all the other dishes on the generally excellent menu of Northern Italian fare and go with chef Anna Klinger's lemon risotto. You'll wait 20 minutes, and you know why? Because she's making it right back there in the kitchen, to order. The results of her delicate labor are sublime: some rice, some butter, some white wine, some lemon zest. The painstaking slow combination of which allows the full glorious satisfying texture of the dish to shine through?each friskily al dente grain suspended in a creamy, glistening broth shot through with citrus zing.

Best Brooklyn Malaysian Restaurant
Coco Reef
222 7th Ave. (3rd St.)
Brooklyn, 718-788-5036
Cuckoo for Coco Reef. It may be a moot point, given that there hasn't really been much of a war going on between feuding Malaysian eateries in Brooklyn. At least not for a while.

In fact, so far, Coco Reef has beat the odds. The spot they're in?right at the very heart of Park Slope's commercial stretch?should be perfect. Heavy yuppie foot traffic toting around a lot of yuppie cash passing by all day long. Plus it's a nice-looking building with a deck, so you don't have to eat on the sidewalk. But that spot has killed off half a dozen restaurants in just the last decade. Before Coco Reef, it was Nam. Before that, it was some other place. Before that, if we remember correctly, it was a mid-range Italian joint that nearly killed us one night. And it was a few other places before that. Coco Reef has held on for a year and a half already, and still seems to be doing a pretty brisk business.

The interior is bright and airy?tall, shuttered windows, lots of bamboo?they even have their own waterfall. And the menu, heavy with fish and noodles in thick, sweet and spicy sauces, is reasonably priced. The staff is pleasant and quiet, and they have a fully stocked bar (which they're willing to open early, if you ask them nicely).

So if you've got a craving for the Malaysian, there's no other place to go. Literally!

Best Wine List
110 Waverly Pl. (betw. MacDougal St. & 6th Ave.)
Salute! Oh, how torn we were with this one! Gotham veritably abounds in terrific wine lists these days, not to mention splendid sommeliers. Gramercy Tavern's list is superbly curated, broad, adventurous, but not overwhelming. Ditto 11 Madison Park's. The Red Cat offers a tight selection of quality stuff at reasonable prices?a sign that there's some thoughtfulness at work. Savoy, year after year, delivers strong, and Meigas is the place to go if it's Spanish wine you seek. Veritas continues to maintain the city's most legendary?and widely discussed?list. However, we're going with Babbo for two reasons. First, Italian wine?of which there is nothing else in Mario Batali's grandest restaurant?is enjoying a heyday. A stupendous amount of glorious juice is flowing from the boot, everything from Barolos to Chiantis to the wines of Sicily, and though the Italians are still struggling with their whites, improvement is imminent. Second, the reverence that Babbo accords the service of wine is, currently, second to none.

The enoteca philosophy begins with quartino service, in which rather than a glass of wine, you purchase a quarter bottle. This allows you to control your pour, which means that you also control your taste, an essential aspect of enjoying wine. The list itself covers the entire country, pretty much, and includes esoterica from Puglia as well as hotshot Super Tuscans, coveted Barbarescos, magnificent Brunellos, and a healthy lineup of dessert wines, not to mention grappas. It's saying something that, when out strolling during these first dry, crisp days of autumn with thoughts of wine preying on our sensibility, we now almost always default to Babbo. Because as much as a wine list is about what's in the cellar, it's also about how wine gets put in front of you. In that, Babbo has 'em all beat.

Best Birthday Cakes
Cupcake Cafe
522 9th Ave. (39th St.)
Sweet and Sour. For a bakery shop-cum-luncheonette with such a cutesy name and a mission to fill people with sweetness, there's always a weirdly edgy and tense atmosphere when we're in Cupcake Cafe, a sense that things are perpetually teetering on the brink of some ontological chaos and the whole operation could come down around your harried server's ears at any moment, to be sucked away into a collapsing vortex of doom and disaster from which no tasty cakes, nay, not a single jimmy-sprinkled cupcake will ever emerge again. The staff, as though hyperaware that the gaping maw of the endless void is yawping at their heels, always seems distracted and disorganized; it's the sort of place where the staff seems surprised to see customers, as though you haven't walked into a shop but barged into a private kitchen where there just happen to be a lot of ladies baking a lot of cakes and pies in some sort of communard spirit. Always somebody's order is wrong or not ready, or somebody's arguing that the price is more than was quoted over the phone, and the customers milling around the narrow space?this one just dropping in for a single treat, that one picking three dozen fancy party trays?elbow and jockey, adding another layer of confusion. Plus, the off-to-one-side location is a pain in the ass; there're always half a dozen people outside fighting over cabs with cake boxes under their arms. There should be a permanent taxi stand on the corner.

Now, they wouldn't be so busy and crowded if they didn't bake a mean cake, a stellar cake, a cake worth the effort. Over the years we've tried a bunch of variations on birthday cakes, from piled-high rococco fantasias of sugared flowers and vines with a moist yellow cake hiding inside to a simpler, straightup chocolate cake with minimal decoration. Their icings are sweet but not that vulgar, toothachey, heart-attacky super-sweetness you get from this city's prole bakeries. These are cakes that are not only tasty but tasteful; it's a cake that makes a great presentation when you dim the lights and parade up to the birthday person with maybe just one lit candle in the middle of it. No one's ever been disappointed at our hacienda.

As a final hurdle, though, this is also not a cheap cake. We shelled out $35 for our last one. Add the $8 cab ride home with it on our lap, and that was one damn pricey birthday cake. But damn good.

Best Uncrowded L.E.S. Bar
The Saint
105 Stanton St. (betw. Ludlow & Essex Sts.)
Santa Cerveza. With its medieval decor and good list of imported beers, the Saint remains one of the few uncrowded LES bars on a weekend night. We stumbled into this place on a Saturday evening drinking binge to discover only three others sitting at the bar. We found it odd to be tippling among so few. The upstairs is quiet, comfy and easy on the conversation, while the downstairs area features live music by Frank Bambara y Sus Salseros most Saturday evenings. The Saint has several draft beers including Bass and Brooklyn; they also stock nearly 30 hard-to-find imports, all at prices you'd pay for most domestic drafts a few blocks over. Too soon the hipsters will discover the Saint and we'll have to search again, but until then you can find us here weekends, sipping one of our favorite Polish beers.

Best Brooklyn Restaurant Tomatoes
Olive Vine Cafe
131 6th Ave. (betw. Sterling & Park Pls.)
Brooklyn, 718-636-4333
A Ripe Little Tomata. Red like and red like a red that is redder than... damn, those tomatoes sure are red. And what month is it? February? They glisten redly, they strobe sanguinely like neon, they are red as red as red... Lordy. Red.

Somehow, the Park Slope-based Olive Vine franchise has succeeded in finding a reliable year-round tomato distributor who keeps both their restaurants (the other location's in the South Slope, at 7th Ave. and 15th St.) in luminously fresh and ripe fruit regardless of what the malignant climate of this sorry archipelago is doing (not that our weather has anything to do with it?but seeing perfect tomatoes in the middle of winter does wonders for our mood.)

We call it one of the great produce mysteries of the outer boroughs. We puzzle over it, knock heads. We suspect intrigue, payoffs, foul play. Secret underground tomato patches tended by blind novitiates. But do we ask questions? We do not. We just keep on eating, because tomatoes, well...tomatoes is living.

Best Mexican Restaurant for Europeans
Casa Mexicana
133 Ludlow St. (Rivington St.)
Greater Eurobeans. Casa Mexicana is characterized by neither of Manhattan Mexican dining's two dominant reflexes: toward the upscale, as defined by such good, kind of expensive, restaurants as Maya or Zarela; or toward the pestilent, as defined by any number of high-yield dumps like Tortilla Flats, where first-year associates assemble after work for greasy tacos, frozen margaritas and publicists.

In fact, Casa Mexicana has swung so far in a third direction that it's kind of interesting. Maybe it's the New Thing?Mex-Euro fusion, with the second term in that syncretism represented by such a stunning variety of Euro-vibing human fauna that, had we been in possession of a beret and one of those hash-laced ciggies Parisians cool-guys are fond of toking, we would have put on the former, sparked the latter and kicked back right at our Casa Mexicana table like we were in?well, what arrondissement, after all? Doesn't matter. There's probably more than one where's it's proper to hang wearing leather trousers, smoking Export A's while the pastel-stained air twinkles with the music of guitar orchestras, and you can't leave your girlfriend at the bar long enough to wash the subway off your palms before some tipo suave's sidling up to her like she's the last gal standing in a Madrid disco after midnight and you've got, so to speak, a minor international incident on your hands. Euro-smooth waiters ask you if you want wine as soon as you take your table and the blue stemware vibes with the mood-indigo lighting. It all comes down to an unusual intermingling of cultures?there was this Barcelonan, see, and he got lost on his motor-scooter somewhere down Guadalajara-way?but heck, that's the beauty of life, right?

Best Happy Brunch Accident
2427 Broadway (betw. 89th & 90th Sts.)
Liquid Brunch. In general, we aren't big fans of the Upper West Side. There's always such a creepy feeling in the air up there. But Sunday brunch at Docks is helping cure us of that, in its own way.

We first stumbled upon it a few months back. We had tickets for a Sunday matinee at the Beacon, and decided to get a bite before going to the show. We wandered up and down the streets, looking for a restaurant that didn't seem too stupid, and found ourselves in Docks. Sure, it's a bit touristy, perhaps, but the food was great and plentiful. Even sitting between a group of Upper West Siders discussing politics much too seriously on one side, and a screaming child on the other, was tolerable once we dove into Docks' remarkable seafood salad.

But the clincher came as we were thinking about finishing up. See, the Docks Sunday brunch menu offers you a choice of champagne, wine, a mimosa, a bloody mary or a few other delightful brunch drinks. Same as most any other brunch in the city. But what we didn't know, until the waitress shot us an ugly look as we were ordering our fifth round, is that at Docks Sunday brunch, refills are free.

We'd never heard of such a thing before. Hell, we just thought the waitress was annoyed because we were making her run (though we were very polite about it). We were fully prepared to pay for all the rounds and tip her well on top of it. So imagine our surprise when the check turned out to be much smaller than we expected! Not cheap, certainly, but still a pleasant surprise. A quick scan of the bill revealed that we'd only been charged for one drink each, and that everything that followed had simply been part of the package. We briefly contemplated ordering a couple more rounds while we were there, given that they were free, but we had a show to catch.

We checked on this "free refills" business with the folks at Docks sometime later, before we went up there again, and discovered that no, refills were not free. Never were. They'd never heard of such a thing. So it seems we just got lucky that day. Maybe those dirty looks from the waitress were all a ruse?maybe she just really liked us. Or maybe it was just her last day, and she was getting her revenge.

Oh well, whatever the case, we had a fine drunken brunch, whatever the reason, and we're grateful for that.

Best Restaurant Bathrooms
72 Bedford St. (Commerce St.)
Never Been Price-Checked. It's true, we admit it: When we go to use the can during a dinner out we like to get the sense that the establishment has invested some thought in the environment that surrounds the bowl, the urinal, the toilet paper holder, the "employees must wash hands before returning to work" sign. And at Casa, we get more than thought?we get restrooms that are every bit the equal of the restaurant's decor, pretty much our favorite in town: white walls and dark wood and, everywhere, adorable little toys, presumably of Brazilian lineage, because that's what they do at Casa. They do Brazilian, and they do it fine.

One approaches their restrooms down a narrow corridor, at the end of which sits a rustic curio crammed with more quaintly fetching toys. The WCs themselves are clean and simple, snug but not in a way that demands excretory gymnastics, and tenderly decorated. We usually stay in there for a few extra minutes, trying to remember other restrooms around the city, trying to recall if we've enjoyed any of them, regardless of amenities, enough. Sometimes, in fact, we even bring our dessert and coffee and cigars in, and consume them there, conversing pleasantly amongst ourselves and soaking in the special magic of the place.

Best Good Sport
39 5th Ave. (betw. Bergen & Dean Sts.)
Brooklyn, 718-783-9721
We Didn't Get His Irish Up. It doesn't matter what happened to the writer who so anonymously and viciously lampooned Spike in last year's Best of Manhattan. No doubt wandering the streets in a daze of self-loathing, they've been banished to the journalistic equivalent of Palookaville, where all hacks, except those lucky enough to find employment on the pages of "Taki's Top Drawer," are eventually destined to take up permanent residence. Spike, however, is still behind the bar, and Brooklyn (including an increasing number of the LES population, thanks to a tip-off from Ann "I ruin everything I touch" Powers in the Times) is the better for it. With that loving yet firm grip required to keep the peace in any establishment where those vying for the liquor outnumber those guarding it by 100 to one (wait a second!), Spike has been known to permit the odd Daily News hatmaking session or even occasionally allow standing on things other than the floor when the feeling takes one, as it sometimes will. But when he detects so much as a shimmy of the shoulders in that pub of no cabaret license, the devil music he stocks in that jukebox will be shut off faster than you can sheepishly shoot him your best Otis Campbell. Bottom line is he, and the steady stride in which he took that good-natured ribbing last year, is why O'Connor's is worth the $10 gypsy cab fare it takes for us to make it our local. Oh, and about the stool?it was broken when we got there. Honestly.

Best Post-Funeral Restaurant
111 Ave. A (7th St.)
Last Rites, Late Supper. You're of New York Ukrainian descent, you can count on beets, Shevchenko's nationalist verse, taxes and eventually lying in state in the venerable Jarema Funeral Home, on 7th St. off Ave. A. Jarema's is the Ukrainian-American's terminus ad quem: quite simply, and without your having much say in the matter, it's where you'll go when you die, regardless of what other subsequent plans the pertinent authorities have been drafting for you. It's comforting?this realization that, whatever peasant void your ancestors emerged from, you'll end up at Jarema for a couple days on your return journey to the chthonic muck. It's something, at least, that the members of an immigrant community can count on.

And if your family's lucky enough that you drop dead between now and the time this boom economy gives out, they'll pop around to eat at Leshko's after they've had enough of looking at you, and they'll be?if our own experience is any indication?taken care of. A raw Friday evening in early March, and our clan had just waked a grandmother, the misery of the ceremony receding?as it tends to, and as ought to happen by the end of a wake, because that's what that ceremony's for; it's all about that emotional alchemy that transforms mourning into humble commonality. Gathered the cousins, the uncles, the parents, the siblings, the great-aunt from Rhode Island, and slogged around the corner to what was at that point the just-refurbished Leshko's?the new hipster version of the old Ukrainian diner?ablaze with its late-night weekend energy.

And were treated beautifully. A smart East Village restaurant on a Friday night is neither the place nor the time to show up unannounced with a group of nine people, most of whom skew a room's median age radically upward. Still, within minutes a banquet table had been cleared for us; and despite the feral young roar that suffused the packed establishment, the waitresses?and sure, they looked a little down at the mouth, but so did we?were wonderfully accommodating. That's rare enough in the East Village under any circumstances, much less when a sizable group results in the redundant journeys to the bar that drive waitstaffs batty. Can't prove it, but we had the feeling that these girls somehow knew where we had just come from, and were laying on the gentleness, and it touched us. Sure, we've got an esthetically appropriate family?nine thin, severe-featured blond people dressed uniformly in downtown black don't exactly rock the East Village boat?but we've got the feeling that if your clan's big and fat and badly dressed, Leshko's will oblige you, too. The booze flowed; Leshko's tarted-up (chives?) renditions of Eastern European dishes didn't, as it turned out, demoralize our great-aunt; the staff produced a birthday cake with candles with which to sing in our uncle's approaching birthday. Hell, for that matter the staff tolerated our blowzy singing in the first place, which didn't stop with the cake?our being, as we were, in the mood for sentimental anthems and several rousing Hapsburg Army marching numbers. Leshko's was even kind enough to let our aunt pay the tremendous bill, which meant we didn't have to.

By long meal's end we were convinced that some beneficent spirit from the old Ukrainian East Village, and from the soulful old Leshko's, inhered somehow?mystically?in the atmosphere of this canteen for hipster twentysomethings, and that it was keeping track of us, watching over our table and our melancholy. Who would have expected that Leshko's would have taken such good care of us? But they did?and did so when we needed as much generosity as we could get. We thank them for it.

Best Manhattan Wine Store that Isn't Crossroads
Best Cellars
1291 Lexington Ave. (betw. 86th & 87th Sts.)
Wine in a Box. Credit Josh Wesson and his business partners with reinventing the wine store as we knew it?and successfully defending their achievement, from vulgar imitators, in court. Back in '98, Best Cellars looked as if it were just the latest example of the rapid Starbucksification of the Upper East Side, where nostalgia and charm are being left behind by the banker-dorm residents of 2nd Ave. in their mad rush to get down to the Street and kick some ass?nostalgia and charm, like Hungarian butchers and Yorkville kraut cookiesellers, left to the shuffling old bags and the yammering malodorous retirees who stalk the neighborhood's spotless corridors, hollering inanities and ethnic curses at doormen, while all the New Economy's stripling champions of youth and grace are a hundred blocks south, raking it in.

But they come back, and Wesson, a much-decorated American wine pro, recognized that they were being underserved by the area's hidebound old wine emporia (dust, dank, claret). Best Cellars, where wines, all priced at $10 and less, are not so much displayed as integrated into the implication of a clean and tasteful?well, you might not like this?Metropolitan Home kind of lifestyle. Bottles stowed like artillery shells in a backlit matrix, compliments of David Rockwell. Wines categorized not by region or varietal or other such viticultural mumbo-jumbo, but under easy-to-remember, unintimidating headings: Fizzy, Fresh, Juicy, Smooth, Soft, Big, Luscious, Sweet.

Wesson's own clever, though at times patronizing, descriptions accompany each bottle. Yeah, yeah, it sounds irritating as hell, particularly if the disheveled?though ultraprofessional?cheer of Crossroads is more your thing. But Best Cellars works, and, furthermore, most of the wines are perfect gems, absolute $10 steals basically handpicked by a guy who... Let's just say he knows his stuff. The stock rotates frequently.

Best Soup Dumplings Without Having to Wait in Line
1 E. Broadway (Chatham Sq.)
The Place Is Called... The dumplings at Joe's Shanghai are justly desirable, but there is often a line of eager nondieters waiting their turns. The version at Goody's is as fine, and the restaurant is much larger, and we've never had to wait. There is an interesting night manager who will steer you to unusual foods to follow the dumplings if you ask. Prices are neat too. But no wine or beer.

Best Gay Coffeehouse in Chelsea
Big Cup
228 8th Ave. (betw. 21st & 22nd Sts.)
Cruise, Sulk, Lounge, Eat. Fabulous. That's not exactly the reaction we thought we'd have when we finally got around to checking out Chelsea's most infamous coffee shop, or the "bar without the booze," as it's affectionately referred to by the regulars. We'd always heard stories about the meat-market atmosphere from our friends, and had been told to beware of the violation one feels upon walking into Big Cup?or, as one friend advised: "Just be sure to bring lots of extra attitude." In fact, a particularly dramatic friend of ours said that on entering the 8th Ave. establishment, gay men are rated numerically by a panel of New York's bitchiest queens.

That's simply not true. Instead, we discovered Big Cup to be a coffee shop with a funky vibe unlike anything we'd seen before. The shop boasts a wide selection of what you'd expect?lattes, teas, coffees and mochas, oversized Rice Krispie treats, bagels and cookies?plus lunch specials, though it remains, for most of its patrons, a place to meet, cruise, sulk, read or simply lounge while pretending to study. Once, we saw an enterprising guy actually doing something that resembled work on his laptop, rather than perusing the latest HX or Next while periodically glancing up.

Patrons know Big Cup by the red awning and the two psycho clown paintings on the wall. In addition to the food, the techno beats and the amusingly pompous attitudes sometimes on display, we like the antics of the cute counter workers, who are usually quite courteous. As an added bonus, show times for the nearby Chelsea Cineplex are listed on a blackboard, along with other events.

As Big Cup gets crowded?on Friday and Saturday nights around 11?we find ourselves scratching and kicking our way through packs of Chelsea queens and dancing boys, ducking and swerving around the divas and the players, to get a seat up front, for the best view.

Best Sandwiches
Bottino Take-Out
248 10th Ave. (betw. 24th & 25th Sts.)
Our Mouth Floods Just Thinking About Them. We know we're repeating ourselves, but the lunch options around our 333 7th offices blow. Other than the estimable Manhattan Hero, our choices pretty much run the gamut from garbage to crap. So it was like God forking over a miracle when we discovered the takeout offshoot of the fine Bottino over in West Chelsea.

Bottino Take-Out offers 16 different Italian sandwiches and each we've tried?and that'd be about 11 of them, so far?without exception has been excellent. The bresaola and Tuscan pecorino, for example: chewy layers of the dried beef are piled with just-sliced slivers of the excellent, tangy sheep's cheese and accompanied by peppery, crisp arugula and a splash of good olive oil. Remarkable. Likewise, the tuna salad. A usually ho-hum lunch staple is taken to new heights with the addition of onions and capers (you get capers at your deli?) and improbably red, ripe (year-round) tomatoes and more of that arugula. It's a favorite. The fresh mozzarella, basil and tomato sandwich is one of the best things we've put in our mouths between noon and 3. And the peppered salami and Gruyere; and the grilled chicken and avocado; the prosciutto di Parma with Asiago or mascarpone; etc. All served on Bottino's exceptional baguettes or Italian white or wheat.

These lunch-savers run from $6.50 to $7.95, with most $6.95. Wonderful salads, many featuring the abovementioned meats and salads, are similarly priced. And they've got soups and lasagna as well. But we especially recommend the sandwiches. We like those sandwiches a lot.

Best Bartenders in Manhattan
Seamus and Eric
349 E. 14th St. (betw. 1st & 2nd Aves.)
Irish Ayes. Maybe, as a wise man once claimed, genius is the ability to make a difficult thing look easy. If so, then Seamus and Eric are a couple of drinking-culture Einsteins. They work the long bar at O'Hanlon's so well, and with such apparent ease, that it takes a while to sink in just how hard they're working. Bartending is never an easy job, especially in a New York that's crowded by now with kids stinking of money and entitlement, but even under the difficult circumstances, Seamus and Eric are exceptional. Many's the night we've seen them service a five-deep crowd for hours without breaking a sweat, bitching or keeping anybody waiting for more than about 12 seconds. And we've never been able to hit the seat cushion before one of them's already waiting and smiling, bidding us good evening (or, as it sometimes happens, good morning) and asking what we'll be having. The understated professionalism and warmth they generate make the process of having a pint after a bad day an ennobling experience. O'Hanlon's might not be the fanciest place in town, but Seamus and Eric make it one of the classiest.

Best Bruschetta
88 2nd Ave. (betw. 5th & 6th Sts.)
It's Toasted. Bruschetta, really great bruschetta, relies on the integration, and yet integrity, of three essential ingredients: crusty bread, perfect tomatoes and fresh garlic. Skimp on any of the three and your bruschetta will flounder. It will be soggy or insufficiently crunchy or lacking in tomatoey zip. The color will be bad. No one will want to eat it.

At Frank, the snug East Village Italian where dining is very nearly a contact sport, and where most of the food is prepared in old-world grandmotherly fashion, they've got bruschetta down. On occasion, we've ordered a nice big platter of the stuff and slammed it all down in record time and then ordered some more and plowed through a few bottles of Chianti on bruschetta alone. But that's the way it goes when food is perfect.

Best Fish Soup
190-A Duane St. (Greenwich St.)
Rocco and His Lobsters. Roc, the new Tribeca Italian, is awarded an overall "Best of" in this section, but we wanted to single out their zuppetta di pesce della penisola for special honors. We love all kinds of fish soup?cioppino, bouillabaisse, zuppa di pesce. The zuppetta di pesce at Roc is the best new variation to hit town since Gerard's killer bouillabaisse at Le Jardin. The broth is rich, and the seafood varies with the seasons. One night last July it included scallops, shrimp and an entire (small) lobster tail. Coming after an appetizer of succulent grilled langoustine, with a crisp, cold white wine?we thought we'd died and returned to Sorrento.

Speaking of, William Grimes, the Times food critic who dissed Roc with a one-star review, would have had much better meals if he'd done a tad of homework and learned that Roc's menu is based on the cuisine of the Sorrentine peninsula?Sorrento, Amalfi, Sant'Agata sui due golfi (home of Don Alfonso, one of Italy's finest restaurants)?and favors fish and seafood over meat. Like Ruth Reichl before him (we're remembering her ignorant dismissal of the Gramercy Italian Novita), he seems to bring old-fashioned, pedestrian spaghetti-and-meatball expectations to the table. He's going to miss some fine meals that way. Don't you be one of those drones who believe every star they read in the Times.

Best Bar for a Rainy Late-Winter Day
Joe's Bar
520 E. 6th St. (betw. Aves. A & B)
No Phone
Whiskey-Bent and Hellbound. Black late-winter afternoon, and the emotional prognostications were?as they are at th

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