Part Two Best Northern Tribeca Restaurant Sosa Borella ...
Best Northern Tribeca Restaurant
460 Greenwich St. (betw. Watts & Desbrosses Sts.)
The Bubby's Alternative. Tucked away in a low-profile part of Tribeca (probably not for long; developers have finally discovered this fertile land), right below Canal St., Sosa Borella is an Argentine/Italian restaurant that most New Yorkers haven't heard of. That's a pity, because it's one of the most reliable bistros we've found in all of Manhattan. The staff is friendly, even bordering on the goofy: One night the ponytailed waiter, in proper attire, told us that no shrimp was available that night. "No shrimp?" we asked, since this isn't an edible that's often scratched from the menu. No matter. As always, we started with a crispy pizza?the eclectic selection includes small pies topped with sausage, shallots and Gorgonzola, or anchovies, capers, olives, tomatoes and parmesan?and then progressed to a tuna steak with tomato chimichurri sauce.
But we've also had delicious white ravioli with spinach and ricotta, an Argentine mixed grill of sausage, beef short ribs, chicken and mashed potatoes or a simple filet mignon. No, the beef doesn't match the quality of that in Buenos Aires, but show us a steakhouse in Manhattan that can pull that trick off and we'll give you an entirely rare Beanie Baby.
Jeff's Chocolate Soda Classic New York Egg Cream
The Money Shot. New York, for all its being the center of the world and everything, is pretty lame when it comes to good soda pop. There are a few, but most deli cold-shelves are lined with the usual crap.
Then there's Jeff's Chocolate Soda Classic New York Egg Cream: 9.5 ounces of sweet, milky heaven in an elegant little bottle. Fuck Jack Newfield?this magic potion's better than that watery shit they sold at luncheonettes 30 years ago. Jeff's Sodas go for a mere $1.50 a pop, but be sure to stay away from the orange flavor, which is real swill. The chocolate egg cream's the money, and years from now, if you ever get yourself a city column in a tabloid, you'll be able to crow about how great this stuff was.
Best Downtown Bar
288 Elizabeth St. (betw. Houston & Bleecker Sts.)
Duh! Duh! A Thousand Times Duh! Comfort in a bar means more than sofas or overstuffed chairs (288 has barstools, and the chairs are wooden); it means a warm reception?like the staff's glad you're spending your money there, like you're welcome there. It means walking in and feeling you belong.
The entire 288 crew makes us feel that way the moment we enter the door. Doesn't matter if the place is packed with neophyte NYU students and icky M&R overflow on Saturday night; Michael will spot us above the crowd, give a thumbs-up and serve us right away. When we reach earshot, it's not just what'll you have, but did you see that game today? Last week we asked him why a good Irish lad such as himself loved baseball so much, and he treated us to a wonderful story about falling in love with the game in 1989 while watching Frank Viola pitch.
Suave Brian makes special trips from the far end of the bar to offer a grinning hello, perhaps a bow, maybe even a kiss on the hand. Paul raised an eyebrow recently when we ordered soda?didn't say a word?because he knows us. Don't think we've seen Doggie raise his brow, but we've raised ours when he regales us with stories about his trips to Mom's in Canada. Ruth not only takes care of us behind the bar, but is up for chat when we run into her in the neighborhood, and when we repair to Houston & Elizabeth late Monday nights after the paper goes to press, Linda takes care of our weary bones, asking "How yas doin'?" and do we want the usual, or maybe one of the elusive Rheingolds they've been stocking intermittently. Haven't seen Dominic in a coon's age, but have no reason to believe his cordiality has in any way diminished.
For color, there's natty Jack Flynn holding court at the far end, always glad to see a NYPresser, asking how so and so's holding up, where're our new offices again and then give us a twirl in front of the jukebox. Baron, Buddy, Buick and other associated neighborhood pooches complete a scene so homey and inviting Rockwell may have just considered capturing it.
We've known owners Jo and Giles (third owner Jimmy stays behind the scenes) since their pre-288 days at Milano's?close to 10 years. They're frequently barside?see, the people who work there actually seem to like one another?and to this day they take the time to halt their conversations and greet us. Flip through past Best of Manhattans and you'll see what we were after when we bestowed this award: "Best New Bar" in 1994; "Best After Work Bar" in '95; "Best Bar Dogs" and "Best Saturday Afternoon Bar" last year. There are others, but you get the picture. It's that welcome thing we mentioned.
Best Manhattan Imitation Of Barney Greengrass in Beverly Hills
Viacom Bldg., 1515 Broadway (45th St.)
A Couple of Barneys. Say what you will about the Pressmans and their Chapter 11 shuffle, but out at their West Coast Barneys New York store?which, appropriately, houses Los Angeles' Barney Greengrass location?they've contrived one of L.A. County's finest ways to greet the morning. True, Ron Rosenbaum considers the chopped liver served at this sunwashed outpost of the Upper West Side-based Barney "The Sturgeon King" Greengrass to be an insulting imitation of the sublime original. But then again, who the hell eats chopped liver in Southern California? We're sworn enemies of brunch, but we'll make an exception for Barney Greengrass in 90210. Why? Because you sit there, out on the patio, in lush SoCal splendor, atop a debt-beleaguered but still formidably chic retail paradise, allowing the mellowness to seep into your marrow as the morning fog burns off and the Hollywood sign emerges into view and the ocean breeze ruffles the collar of your linen shirt. You leave your sunglasses on and drink several cups of superb coffee. Eat smoked salmon. Push your eggs around your plate. Keep one eye peeled for a player. It's all so Warren Beatty.
And in Manhattan, unfortunately, there is no parallel experience to be had. Perhaps because, of all the world's important metropoli, New York is the least conducive to al fresco anything. Time Cafe? Coffee Shop? Those places give us the heebie-jeebies. Irving Place? Sure, it's a logical site for outdoor dining. But while that brief boulevard is pleasant, it sure isn't all of Beverly Hills laid out under a smog-smudged though still notably azure sky and a fat Pacific sun.
No, to match this L.A. vibe in NYC?and you'll just have to accept the fact that there are at least a few L.A. vibes worth matching?we have to cozy up to someone who works for that most un-New York of local media institutions, Viacom. Because only by chumming with a pal who punches the clock for MTV or VH1 can we wheedle our way into the cafeteria at 1515 Broadway, which features a windswept patio offering fine vistas of Times Square's upper reaches. Times Square actually looks authentically like the future from up here, all endless planes of mirrored glass and frantic signage, Jumbotrons and spooling stock quotes. And, rising sleekly to the southeast, the cursed blue-gray spire of the new Conde Nast building, which does not appear to us to be a structure that will garner plaudits very far into the next century, but whatever?it's what goes on inside its venal warrens that really matters, anyhow. Smack in the middle of a precipitation-challenged summer, there's no other place in Manhattan that can make us feel like we've scammed our way into Woody Allen's shiniest nightsweat, his own personal vertical hell?Tinseltown East. And so what? Woody's grubby limestone-and-sycamore prejudices are yesterday's postcards. We inhabit a new city, now less celebrated for its greasily shadowed gutter ambience, its bonecruching winter tales, than for its ambition to shun street life in favor of an eternal summer of arid high-rise flash. Architects, we reckon, try to worm their way up here, past the fairly slack guards and Carson Daly's teenybopper micro-mobs, whenever they get the urge to see what Blade Runner might have looked like if it hadn't been raining all the goddamn time. What can we say? We enjoy the view ourselves a lot.
Best Upper Chelsea Deli
341 7th Ave. (29th St.)
A Silver Lining. Okay, so we were somewhat snookered when moving the NYPress offices from the Puck Bldg. to 333 7th Ave. The price was right, the space was built to look like a Lou Grant set and the pace of midtown is far preferable to sleepy Soho. Still. When the water's turned off on weekends and the elevators either don't work or drop several floors in a flash, that's disturbing. We don't recommend this building to any growing business looking for a new nest.
Still, there are consolations. At Healthy Choice, a 24/7 deli right up the street, there's the standard setup of salads, steam-table chicken, pizza and sandwiches, newspapers, a full array of beer and soft drinks and all the phony vitamins that kids like to swallow after ingesting too many drugs. Our favorite aspect of Healthy Choice, however, is the gregarious workers who, after maybe two visits, treat you like a regular. Some of the staff is from Yemen, which makes for interesting dialogue behind the counter, and they'll tell you exactly what they're saying in their Arabic. Also, they don't mind at all when your kids spin the chips and popcorn wheel round and round, sometimes making a hash of the junk food. That's because a lot of the workers have children too, and are eager to proudly show you their wallet photos of the little nippers. Tell us one deli in Soho where you'll receive the same welcome.
128 2nd Ave. (betw. 7th St. & St. Marks Pl.)
Did Marx Like Dumplings? Sad thing: The East Village's Veselka restaurant is thronged, night after night, with a clientele willing to wait to eat the restaurant's professional, satisfying, but ultimately unexceptionable Eastern European food. Meanwhile, a block down 2nd Ave., the humble Stage Restaurant?just a counter and a plywood-paneled wall?serves its superior Ukrainian specialties up into a void. Pass the Stage Restaurant on any given night, peer inside and you'll find yourself afflicted by a scene of pathos: a couple Ukrainian cousins sitting at a counter slurping borscht; a series of unpopulated stools; glum Slavic Joes with mustaches, turned half-cocked on their stools and staring off into the yellow fluorescent space.
Not, we should make clear, that there's anything wrong with the Veselka. We love the place. It's just that it's a matter of emphasis. Veselka's a high-yield operation, priding itself on its admirable ability to turn out good, professional cooking for succeeding mass waves of bargain diners. That's different from the mandate at the Stage, which functions according to different margins, to a different, more humble economy?it must daily attract about one twentieth of the Veselka's patronage.
But let's talk pierogis, and compare the two establishments' potato versions. Veselka's: uniform, professional dumplings, each indistinguishable from the other; pierogis for our postmodern era of effortless reproduction. At the Stage, on the other hand, pierogis are obviously hand-pinched. They're misshapen entities the homeliness of which encodes the effort some human laborer's effort. And they taste better, too. The potato filling registers a depth of buttery, seasoned flavor that's absent from the product sold at the city's other, more established Ukrainian diners. The dough itself is a darker and less refined thing?the product, no doubt, of a rolling-pin beatdown.
A competition between two neighboring Ukrainian diners? It's both more and less than that: economists should visit the pertinent stretch of 2nd Ave. to witness a sociological marvel: a dominant mode of cultural production existing in enduring juxtaposition with the residual. Drop by the Stage sometime, order pierogis and borscht and do your part for the little guy.
"Five Little Dishes" at Union Pacific
111 E. 22nd St. (betw. Lexington Ave. & Park Ave. S.)
A Fin's Worth. We still contend that Rocco DiSpirito is the city's most inspired chef, and recently he's come up with a solution to the most vexing problem posed by eating in great restaurants: deciding what the hell to eat. For those who find themselves infuriating dining companions by poring over menus as if they were Talmudic tracts, DiSpirito's five little dishes represent a way to decide without deciding. Each offers a combination of ingredients that add up to a mouthful or two of intense flavor: Spanish mackerel with watercress and quail egg; or sweet Taylor bay scallops with uni. DiSpirito's admirably hard on himself?witness his constant tinkering with his menus, as he replaces crowd-pleasers with new dishes to avoid creative stagnation?and the five little dishes offer more thrills than do entire meals at other restaurants. Plus, you still get to look forward to your entree.
Best Lazy Afternoon Drunk
The Garden at d.b.a.
41 1st Ave. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Sts.)
Solitude Sitting. We like to come to the d.b.a. garden on weekdays at around 1 in the afternoon. We'll bring the dog, the mail, our terminally unfinished copy of Tom Frank's The Conquest of Cool, and work successive pints of whatever's fresh and on tap, straight through to the dinner hour. Talk about peace and quiet?the waitresses here never hassle us.
When we get hungry, we order in food. And lest we feel too unproductive, there's always some trivial clerical matter to which we can attend?writing a check or two, organizing our address book?that'll lend our idyll the patina of industry. Why, last month we even refinanced our mortgage from the same green plastic chair we're sitting in right now.
But the best time spent here is time spent doing nothing. A daylight drunk in the shade of the birches lazing in semi-Arcadian splendor and loving the fact that we've got another five hours to soak in peace and hops until the charge of the young men, their suits and their cigars.
206 E. 60th St. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves.)
Raw Dogs. Actually, you'll find a variety of ceviches at this new restaurant in the space vacated by the long-running Arizona 206. Before you get to the marinated fish, though, you'll want to pickle yourself a bit with one of Bolivar's outstanding specialty drinks: pisco sours, a cosmopolitan mixed with homemade cranberry tequila or the infamous "Libertador."
Properly sedated, you can move on to some of the most extraordinary ceviche in a town crammed with memorable renditions (Maya's tomato-inflected marinated mahi mahi springs to mind), ranging from "leche de pantera," in which the squares of sushi-quality tuna aren't even marinated, just served raw atop avocado slices and topped with a sauce made from rocoto peppers, or a carpaccio of sea bass in a cilantro-lime marinade, spiked with shards of hot green amarillo pepper. Bolivar would also earn honors for best arepas, if New York offered it any real competition.
Old Devil Moon
511 E. 12th St. (betw. Aves. A & B)
Deep Breakfast. Breakfast's recently become fashionable amongst New York restaurateurs, which has led to a remarkable improvement in the state of the art. Balthazar, for example, serves breakfast starting at 7:30 a.m., offering a wonderful continental menu (Balthazar's coffee tastes good, which is, strangely enough, a rarity amidst first-rank New York restaurants). Even establishments that don't?like the likable Balthazar?cultivate the welcoming atmosphere of the solid, all-purpose, catholic Parisian neighborhood cafe have taken to serving up some discerning variation on morning grits and toast. Want to break your fast at the Mercer Kitchen? That culinarily unimpeachable establishment is there for you early in the morning if you need it: breeze in with your bedhead, your Times and enough mephobarbitals to redeem the 19-year-old mannequin at the next table from the edgy remains of last night's meth high and...well, who knows? We were going to tell you that you'd score. But it's early in the morning, and maybe you won't.
As fond as we are of Balthazar and the Mercer Kitchen and its fellows in the business of serving high-end breakfasts, though, this award's parameters are different. We're seeking to honor here the breakfast that's most rejuvenating?the most restorative?when your hungover body needs it to be. Enter Old Devil Moon, the East Village wallet-chain-and-soulfood restaurant that's long been a favorite of ours for its cozy crowdedness, its goofy kitsch decor, its excellent ham omelets, and?most pertinently here?its Fisherman's Breakfast, which consists of this: a large hunk of catfish, blackened from the skillet and seasoned with God knows what; two eggs, which we habitually order over easy; a biscuit, to be slathered with Old Devil Moon's remarkable preserves (you can opt for the sticky bun instead); a heap of sauteed greens riddled with minced garlic; and a pool of grits glistening with butter.
Sound too heavy for breakfast? Well, but that's the point. This is the true redemptive stuff: precisely what you need when you're coming off a long night, your stomach's torquing inside you, you're feeling gnarly as hell and every last trace of iron in your system was leached out by last night's river of beer. Grease, carbs, protein?all washed down with Old Devil Moon's fine coffee, and the whole affair weighing about a ton and half, thus anchoring your queasy corporeality back to Mother Earth, reestablishing your center of gravity. It's good. It's really good (and even better if you order a plate's worth of the restaurant's ugly, wonderful Bourbon cakes). If Bertie Wooster were smart, this is the meal Jeeves would bring him on his hungover mornings.
Best Indian Fusion
433 E. 6th St. (betw. 1st Ave. & Ave. A)
Honest Injun. With the rest of the city beating the drum for Tabla, we thought we'd focus attention on the restaurant that plays David to Floyd Cardoz's Indian fusion Goliath. We're not going to claim that the food at Raga surpasses what Tabla's turning out in terms of creativity, flavor or quality of ingredients. But when it comes to that intangible that sentimentalists like ourselves refer to as "heart," Raga's the clear choice.
While Cardoz's culinary vision has to be translated through Tabla's army of sous-chefs, line chefs, prep chefs, waiters and expediters, Vijayan Francis (following in the footsteps of his predecessor Gheetika Khanna) prepares his cuisine in a humble, 50-square-foot kitchen with the assistance of only a couple of capable prep chefs, so his artistic creations?goat cheese samosas, Indian bouillabaisse?arrive all but unmediated, from his hands to your mouth. It doesn't hurt that Raga will set you back around half of what Tabla costs, and with significantly friendlier service.
Best Brooklyn Bakery
328 7th Ave. (betw. 8th & 9th Sts.), Brooklyn
New Day Rising. It's like clockwork. At least once per week, weather permitting, we drag ourselves out of bed, pull the crusher cap over our alarming hair, lace up the sneakers half-way and wade with our jeans drooping off our ass through the early morning sunshine toward Uprising, the Park Slope bakery that opened last fall in the nick of time; soon enough, at any rate, to wean us off our shabby morning diet of PowerBars and granola. We grab a selection of baked goods and a cup of coffee at that friendly establishment, score a Post from the subcontinental cat at the newsstand on our homeward swing, then climb our building's stairs to sit on the cool tar of our rooftop, read the box scores and eat our breakfast in the rarefied light of a late-summer morning?listening to the garbage trucks rattling and crawling on 7th Ave. below and watching the new sun playing in the western distance against the cityscape: the lower Manhattan skyline, of course, but also sooty Jersey City over yonder; and Liberty Island; and Staten Island's homely seafaring hills rising like a surfacing whale from the blue-gray morning water; and, far to the south, a silvery peek of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the tugs and ferries churning up white froth on blue harbor. Sometimes?and no kidding?the view from Brooklyn's so gracious and pretty it kills us. Brooklyn's a seafaring town, low-slung and surrounded by water, and on these early mornings, from what amounts to our widow's perch overlooking the harbor, you feel that.
But weren't we talking about Uprising? Here's the thing. Our constant visits to Uprising have become such a pleasant part of our routine, such a necessary component of our pre-meridian schedule some days, that when the bakery closed for over a week for vacation through the Labor Day weekend, its lack represented an actual impingement upon our quality of life, and made it?this sounds stupid and forced, but it's utterly sincere?more difficult to rise in the morning. Partly that has to do with the pleasure of maintaining a morning routine, to be sure; with being alive during those limpid hours when everybody else is either comatose or jammed into a train. But it's also got to do with Uprising; with the quality of what the guy who used to sell weed in our sophomore-year dorm used to call "the merchandise." Consistently excellent French roast coffee, buttermilk scones of a tremendous delicacy, substantial rye scones, wonderfully soft and moist carrot and banana breads that are as often as not pockmarked by huge, satisfying pockets of unresolved brown sugar, a fruit foccaccia?stewed currants, raisins and apricot bits on a thick, chewy crust?that hammers Balthazar's version, and a number of wonderful breads (peasant, walnut raisin, multigrain, sourdough rye, Kalamata olive), loaves of which we bring as gifts for our baba when we visit her up in Queens.
All that from a minute storefront off 9th St., where a staff of helpful kids are just friendly enough to make us feel welcome without bumming us out with the usual muffin-joint And how are you today? cloyingness that generally makes us find a new establishment to patronize.
Best Non-Scene Coffeehouse
955 West End Ave. (107th St.)
No Mellows Harshed Here. Squarely within Columbia territory yet spiritually opposed to it, this basement cafe is all about ambience: exposed brick walls, comfy armchairs and sofas, cozy lighting, The Village Green Preservation Society on the stereo. Patrons actually read the magazines and papers scattered about instead of scamming on newcomers or chattering about how miserable they are. The Coffee Lounge space used to be a fine used bookstore so maybe there's some kind of real estate karma at work.
Sandwiches, smoothies, gelato and, of course, coffee drinks are all good and reasonably priced, but the real reason to go is just the relaxed and novel pleasure of being out without making the scene. We'll see if a recently added adjoining bar spoils the mellow vibe.
Best Korean Barbecue
1250 Broadway (32nd St.)
Kim Kim Cheree. Our favorite of the Korean Row barbecues. Downstairs there's a sushi parlor, but the real deal is upstairs, where the tables have those holes in the middle for the charcoal braziers, which are set in hot motion if you order at least two barbecue items?the marinated steak slivers, the chicken (a little dull), the shrimp, beef heart, etc. The scallion pancakes are splendid, and each diner gets to share a lively array of kimchis, sauces, salads and a wad of lettuce in which to wrap the main course. You also get raw garlic and green pepper, and it's tasty to cook those a bit on the grill. It's no-nonsense, pleasantly staffed and the beer's cold.
Best Christmas Eggnog
2809 Broadway (betw. 108th & 109th Sts.)
The Advent of a Terrible Hangover. This stuff just doesn't let up?which is probably why the serious middle-aged fellow who mans the counter sometimes at this hectic, steamy and wonderful Cuban greasy spoon on Broadway's northern reaches slides it at you across the formica with profound respect; with the ritualistic solemnity of a waiter serving Hemingway characters; or else with the uncensuring blankness of an old clinic hand as he slides a hit of methadone toward a gabbling, junk-quivering wreck.
Methadone? Sure, this so-called "Puerto Rican" eggnog is served in the same styrofoam coffee cups in which methadone is. But it's probably more devastating than methadone. Methadone's merely a synthetic opiate; this stuff, on the other hand, is a terrifyingly pleasurable concoction that represents the fruitful congress of dairy purity and distillate muscle, spiked through with coconut shavings and ladled out to the Cuban and Dominican curmudgeons who sit at La Rosita's counter, day after day.
And so it shall be ladled out to you, too, if you're smart enough to ask for it. Come December, you're advised to ride the IRT to 110th St., walk the several southward blocks to point zero, consume a huge plate of chicken stew with yellow rice and black beans and a couple of El Presidentes, and then join the old men (huddled on stools under the joint's riot of tinsel and Christmas-light ticky-tacky and amidst the joyous Spanish chattering of the waitresses) in drinking this superlative eggnog, one of the Advent season's little graces. The old men stare into the depths of their cups like absinthe drinkers, contemplating...what? Long-lost Caribbean places, we guess, where the hot sun shines long on Christmas and it's not like here?here in this afternoon darkness uptown where the winds pull up the scent of the icy river and the dealer kids huddle in doorways against the wind, moving aside for ladies entering with packages?they're good Catholic boys?and strands of colored lights shine against the tenements.
Still, drink enough of this thick, sweet, bracing stuff, and it's not so bad here uptown after all. Afterward you walk half-drunk down Broadway and look back at the restaurant?it glows with light and color, like a cabin on a plain?and the cold air's against your face, and the smell of snow. Merry Christmas after all.
Best Unnecessary Restaurant Revamping That Turned Out Fine
200 9th Ave. (betw. 22nd & 23rd Sts.)
Gift Horse, Mouth. So what was so wrong with Luma, anyway? Such was the question we posed to ourselves when part-owner Scott Bryan shuttered that superb, moderately priced New American fusion restaurant of his to refurbish the joint and reopen it as something new.
No worries, as the something new turned out to be Siena, a superb, moderately priced Italian restaurant featuring innovative, intensely flavored dishes that rival Babbo's in quality while undercutting them by about 30 percent in price. (There remain, to be sure, differences. For one thing, you're dining at Babbo in a luxurious converted carriage house, while at Siena you're eating in a clamorous beige box.)
The Tuscan food?which ranges from prosciutto and figs to ricotta ravioli in sage-infused brown butter?doesn't get much better at this price point (although we also like Acquario), and the staff's friendly. We actually prefer this place to Bryan's elegant new Park South flagship, Veritas.
Best Mexican Restaurant
250 Mulberry St. (betw. Prince & Spring Sts.)
Nobody Goes There Anymore, It's Too Crowded. One of our favorite Mexican dishes is chile rellenos, but it wasn't till this tiny cantina opened in Little Italy almost three and a half years ago that we actually found good rellenos in Manhattan. For a while they were only specials, and we'd eagerly look on the chalkboard for them. Now they're on the menu and the spicy, spongy, cheesy wonders are available on demand.
Those rellenos'd be enough in our book for Mexican Radio to capture this award. Add to it the outstanding nachos and chicken fajitas; the carnitas?sweet and tangy grilled pork marinated in citrus and garlic; the enchiladas?especially the mole; the burritos?especially the Cajun. Hell, add everything on the menu, plus the incredibly nice, accommodating staff.
We still visit the fabulous Mi Cocina; and the fancy midtown Mexicans get our pesos from time to time. We even make special trips to Gabriela's all the way up west. But for consistent, fresh, marvelous Mexican, it's Mexican Radio. Beware the small quarters, though there's a lovely bench outside on which to cool your heels. If you're really lucky, you live close enough to order delivery. Best yet, go on a weekday for lunch, when you can relax and savor the wonderful food and margaritas in peace.
Best Bar to Meet a Man Who Claims to Have Been Driving Teddy Kennedy's Car When It Took the Plunge at Chappaquiddick
627 9th Ave. (44th St.)
Glub Glub Glub. "Aha!" he cried, "a young couple in for a drinky-winky, eh?" The Mrs. froze; we nodded. "Ever seen Days of Wine and Roses? Aaaahh, you're too young for that one. Fucking kids."
We'd come in for an afternoon drink. Just one beer before resuming our Sunday stroll. We had been there just a few minutes before he bounded off his bar stool and began his rant. Tall, scrawny, wearing red checkered golf pants, an ugly shirt and a Yankees cap, he looked a bit like Tommy Smothers, only drunken to the point of emaciation.
"I know, I know?you just want to be left alone for your drinky-winky. But this is important." His big hands would fly about crazily and then slap together in a tight clutch, only to come loose again. "You kids are young, but you need to know the truth. Ted Kennedy, you know who that is?"
Insulted, we both noted that we did.
"When he plunged his car in Chappaquiddick? You know? He wasn't driving. I was. I was driving the car. It was a black Ford. You can look that up! I DROVE THE CAR! HE WAS IN THE BACK SEAT FOOLIN' AROUND WITH THE GIRL. BUT I DROVE THE CAR! You see?"
We've seen him there three or four times since. Every time, somebody gets the rant.
Best Midtown Szechuan
Wu Liang Ye
36 W. 48th St. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.), 398-2308
More Juicy Buns, Please! The excellent, moderately priced Wu Liang Ye is worth going to midtown for. We don't even mind fighting the Rockefeller Center crowds and the conveyor belt avenues of workaday stiffs knowing that this temple of traditional Szechuan cuisine awaits us. Competition being what it is these days, one is often forced to choose between frill-free cheap and easy, or a waitstaff attitude that can only be appealing to the self-loathing. Not at Wu Liang Ye. The service is efficient and friendly, and like the brownstone parlor floor space that the white-tableclothed restaurant occupies, it is pleasant and comfortable without the slightest trace of pretension. They don't play with their food here?no architectural constructions, nouveau flares of freaked-out fusion?just plates heaped with premium ingredients expertly combined into dishes served family style without bells or whistles (our table had a lazy Susan). Try the Kung Pao (sauteed chicken with roasted chili and peanuts), baby eggplant with spicy garlic sauce, shredded camphur tea smoked duck with spring ginger, wok-roasted prawns with pepper-spiced salt, braised pan-seared tofu with Szechuan chili-sliced pork and the steamed mini juicy pork buns. Everything we had was supreme, and the absence of fanfare gave us the opportunity to focus on the incredible range of flavors and textures.
Best Williamsburg Restaurant
85 Broadway (Berry St.), Brooklyn
The Odeon of the Future, If They're Smart. No, it's not Plan Eat Thailand or Vera Cruz?though those two are just fine with us. The thing is that Williamsburg is by now so thoroughly a grungy-posh postcollegiate bedroom community; so homey and domesticated a simulacrum of what undergraduate living must be among the non-Euro population at Brown. The difference is that Providence's Portuguese have yielded to Brooklyn's Dominicans, who maintain cleaner bodegas even if they whistle louder at white ass, and the streets smell marginally worse than they do on College Hill. But the point is that Williamsburg's by now been domesticated, and we're inclined to honor a restaurant the ambience of which is consistent with that domesticity: with the fact that Williamsburg's no longer a grotty frontier, but a familiar place for young white people to come home to, and in which, most nights, they'll be looking for good, inexpensive, regular food, and not the spiky, though fine, Asian or Mexican concoctions offered by Plan Eat Thailand, Vera Cruz or any of the other...interesting establishments in the area.
Thus Diner, right off Bedford Ave. in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, on Williamsburg's less thoroughly conquered southern margins. Diner? Oh yes, it's a converted diner, all right: a fine, low-slung little old beauty, at 76 years of age. And Diner?which is run by people who used to be involved with Balthazar and Odeon, two of our favorite restaurants on Earth?isn't only a good, cheap restaurant, but it's the perfect one for its neighborhood. The damn place looks Time Out New York art-directed: bedheaded dudes at the bar with their slender chicks, and everybody kind of...perfect...in That Great White Williamsburg Way...
And that's fine. Anyway, we go for the food, which is as appealingly simple and easy to live with as the restaurant's typed-out menu. A good burger? Six-fifty. With cheese? An even seven. Half a well-roasted half-chicken? A mere nine bucks. A steak with fries? Fifteen smackers.
And so on down the thrifty line. The chocolate cake and the cheese plate are estimable desserts, the bar's a fun place to hang around in its own right and everybody's so goddamn good-looking and young. Maybe that's why we go back: to feel that we're still part of all that, somewhat, even as time marches on.
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