Part Four Best Wine List Veritas 43 …

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Part Four

Best Wine List

Veritas

43 E. 20th St. (betw. Park Ave. S. & B’way)

353-3700

Who Woulda Thunk?
This
was a fairly easy choice, given that you’ll probably find 80 to 90 percent
of most other restaurants’ wine lists among the selections at Veritas.
The list reads like a phone book–indeed, some of the prices look like phone
numbers–with more than 1300 different bottles and a staff of four to administer
it. Oenophiles can browse the selections online (www.veritas-nyc.com), while
lay boozers will find a wealth of options in the $30 range off the restaurant’s
separate Market List.

Best Cut-Rate Japanese Noodles

Soba-ya

229 E. 9th St. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves.)

533-6966

Slipped the Noodle.

For soba aficionados, there’s only one restaurant worth mentioning when
it comes to the incomparably buttery, springy and nutty buckwheat noodle: Honmura
An. But for those disinclined to spring for $20 noodles in Soho, Soba-ya offers
an admirable alternative, with handmade noodles and a range of hot and cold
broths (some featuring that bizarre, flavorless ingredient known as yam paste).
On winter evenings, you might also gather round a warm bowl of nabeyaki udon,
packed with submerged attractions ranging from scallions and shiitake to fish
cake and shrimp tempura and wonderfully fat noodles. Most of the noodle dishes
ring in at around 10 bucks–which, combined with the fact that you’ll
have your face planted in a bowl of noodles, compensates for a general lack
of atmosphere.

Best East Village Dinner for $8.66

Mama’s Food Shop

200 E. 3rd St. (betw. Aves. A & B)

777-4425

Steamshovel Mama.

What’s good to eat? Oh, most anything you happen to select off the counter
at the fine Mama’s Food Shop, the cafeteria-style home cooking joint that,
with its next-door sister establishment Mama’s Milk and Stepmama across
the street, has redeemed a ratty and nondescript Alphabet City block. Indeed,
it’s rendered its Ave. B corner a sort of culinary destination.

Well, all right. A culinary destination for us, at least. Here’s
what we like to do on a Friday evening when we get out of work late, we’ve
got nothing planned and Goal #1 is to stop feeling so end-of-the-week punk:
mosey into Mama’s and spend a minute scanning the selection of Southern
food that exists in huge bowls behind glass in the establishment’s clean
industrial kitchen.

Sterno bins of roast and fried chicken are a given. There’s also, typically,
grilled salmon, garlicky string beans, pillowy mashed potatoes, roasted red
potatoes, butternut squash and Brussels sprouts–not to mention whatever
else the often fetchingly kerchiefed young women who staff the joint will have
prepared.

Then we order–specifying that the gal serve us in a takeout tray instead
of on a plate, and examining with interest the process by which she loads us
up: First, several slices of the roast chicken, followed immediately by the
imposition of mashed spuds. Then the green beans…and we’re slackjawed
with amazement as the chick keeps loading it on. More potatoes to fill
in around the edges, then another chicken leg that jams its way against
the odds, into the fragrant, wonderfully grease-sweating center of the dish
and then–Can she pull it off? Is the girl a prodigy? Well, the fact
is that she’s using a domed plastic dish-cover, but still: This plate
is packed
.

Then out to one of the benches that fronts the restaurant, there to audit the
chirping of hipsters and observe their plumage as they pass. (The tables inside
Mama’s are comfortable, but they’re usually crowded with strangers,
and on these sorts of nights, when we’re trying to decompress, we’d
rather be alone.) There, also, to open our tray and spend the next 25 minutes
or so consuming our wealth of protein, starch and vegetative matter, which of
course has mashed itself into one glorious mess.

Finally over to 288 for a solitary beer to help break the food down and we’re
blissfully in bed a half hour later, with the weekend ahead of us and ballasted
for deep sleep by Mama’s good stuff.

By the way, did we mention that that huge meal costs exactly $8.66?

Best Pit Stop En Route to New York City from Cape
Cod

Bill’s Seafood Restaurant

U.S. 1, Westbrook, CT

860-399-7224

Prolonging the Inevitable.
Returning
from a Cape Cod jaunt recently, we were overcome by the wash of Sunday-night
blues that had begun near Warwick and had been intensifying with every mile
we put behind us on 95 south. In hopes of prolonging our vacation just a little
bit more and in search of one last fried-fish meal, we exited at Mystic, onto
the old highway that parallels the interstate.

Our standards were high, since we’d just dined on scrod at the Lobster
Pot in Provincetown, and had indulged in excellent Clam Shack fare at the Wellfleet
Drive-In Theatre, which we’d visited for a double bill. Still, we weren’t
disappointed when we stumbled upon Bill’s Seafood. “Oh, honey!”
we warbled to our boyfriend when we spied the tables, graced with umbrellas,
that cheerfully litter the deck–”Outside dining right on the highway.”
The food, which is served on plastic plates, is cheap and simple: steamers,
stuffed clams and fried food until you can’t stand the glory of it anymore;
popcorn shrimp, oysters, scallops, flounder, beer-batter scrod and something
called a “Fish Twist Plate.”

What sets Bill’s apart, however, is its intriguing “Singing Bridge,”
which is really nothing more than a narrow span across the bit of gray Atlantic
water over which the restaurant, located at a marina, sits–and from which
mallards squawk insistently throughout your meal, jonesing for hotdog bun scraps
off your clam roll. The bridge bears those metal grates that hum and squeal
when a car passes over them; order another beer and close your eyes (thus shutting
out the sight of the high-hairs in Chic jeans who drink at the tiki-type bar
in the corner and flirt with potbellied lugs in hockey shirts and freshly buzzed
schlongs), and you just may find yourself appreciating the weird serenade generated
by the interaction of steel-belted rubber and this iron feat of engineering.

Best Place to Drink Pabst Blue Ribbon

The Village Idiot

355 W. 14th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.)

989-7334

The Greedy Maw of Yertle.
“Let’s
go feed the boys,” my friend remarked. It was our last night in the city
for a while; we were headed for a trip down South, and looking for a place to
ease our transition. Thus this “redneck” dive, with a jukebox full
of country songs every whitey should know the words to.

As we stumbled into the bar, the doorguy greeted our friend–he’s
a regular–and we noticed the bartenders were both women. One had the top
button to her Levi’s unbuttoned; the other had her shirt tied in a knot
to expose her belly. Luckily we’d already had a few drinks in us, or the
smell of puke would’ve been overwhelming.

Pabst Blue Ribbon’s been our favorite cheap beer for as long as we can
remember. The fact that it’s now fashionable among arts-faculty pseuds
bothers us not a whit. And the Village Idiot is the place to drink it: a mere
$1.75 a can, which means you can drink the stuff all night without putting a
dent in your wallet–show up on the right night, and you might even get
a couple free belts of something hard from the sweet, scantily dressed shot
girl who walks around laying the drink on you. You don’t even necessarily
have to get off your ass to get drunk, and ain’t that America?

Finally the time arrived to feed the boys. We bought four goldfish ($1) from
the bartender, then headed over to the tank to give them to the turtles. It’s
funny and it’s real, but it’s not real funny. Unless you’re drunk–and
then it’s really fucking funny. Oh, the Idiot. It’s great to
visit, if only once or twice a year, but it’s the kind of place where you
want to end up, not start off.

Best Upper West Side Bar

The Abbey Pub

237 W. 105th St. (betw. B’way & Amsterdam Ave.)

222-8713

Local One-Oh-Five.
Oh,
nonsense–this apparently ineradicable idea that the Dublin House is the
Upper West Side’s best bar. And in fact, it’s not only the Dublin
House that the frat brothers and morons discuss so affirmatively when it comes
to evaluating Upper West Side bars: it’s also other area Irish dumps, like
Malachy’s. That West 70s colony of grimy, generic beerhalls aswim in cheap
beer, the stench of ancient Chesterfields and blowzy dames singing along with
the Eddie Money on the box.

Not that the Abbey Pub, which is located in that liminal, still-grimy neighborhood
north of 96th St. and south of a radically gentrifying Morningside Heights,
is an establishment of refinement. But it is warm, clean and comfortable: a
dark wood hutch down a flight of stairs, in which neighborhood regulars drink
a good selection of beers and consume adequate bar food in an ambience that
never gets overwhelmed by throbbing music or poisoned by the manful posturing
of corporate guys in rugby togs. Shaggy intellectuals lugging books, middle-aged
neighborhood women looking for a respectful berth, quiet old Dominican men,
the occasional respectful Columbia undergraduate–they all take their gentle
place in this wonderful and unassuming bar.

Best, Maybe Only,
Restaurant to Go To in Newport, RI

Scales & Shells

527
Thames
St. (Goodwin St.), Newport, RI

401-846-3474

Not Fishy. You’d
think in an affluent sea town like Newport there’d be an array of good
fish restaurants. But while there are a number of serviceable clam-belly fryers
and cod broilers, only Scales & Shells produces that sense of swoop and
clarity that fine shoreline fish cooking ideally demands. Scales has superb
cherrystones and oysters, a marinated and wood-grilled toro tuna to swim across
the bay for and a host of tangy and quite intrepid dishes, all in a boisterous
environment. Downstairs is wait-in-line, though two years ago Ackerman the owner
finally installed air conditioning so summer tourists can drink at the bar comfortably.
Upscales, upstairs, takes reservations and is correspondingly more sedate. Interesting
wines up and down.

Best Flatiron Sports Bar

Barfly

244 3rd Ave. (20th St.)

473-9660

Three-Point Shot and a Beer.

We can’t even express how happy we were, last winter, to replace sleazy
No Idea with Barfly as our preferred place to enjoy big-screen spectatorship
in the E. 20s. Not that Barfly is a particularly classy place, but its bartenders
treat regulars well (sure, some of ‘em look like they’ve been regulars
since the first Nixon administration–hence the bar’s name) and the
place boasts the sort of grownup, beer-and-a-shot atmosphere that keeps the
neighborhood’s odious herds of cosmo-swilling young Wall Streeters away.
We grew to love Barfly’s classic-rock jukebox–with its one broken
speaker (offers a whole new take on all those Hendrix and Led Zep standbys)–as
well as its reliably cafeteria-fresh curly fries. We’re proud to say we
were at Barfly the afternoon last spring when Allan Houston’s buzzer-shot
bounced in and the Knicks vanquished Miami, again–a moment we’ll remember
for a long time to come. We’ll be there again next year, in hopes of witnessing
our team claim for New York the first NBA championship of the third millennium.

Best Segue

Michael Garin, Monkey Bar

60 E. 54th St. (betw. Madison & Park Aves.)

838-2600

Just a Man in a Monkey Suit.
We
were extremely fond of the old Monkey Bar. It was dark and padded and
fusty and genteely down-at-the-heels in a way we think all great piano bars
should be. You felt like you should be wearing your granddad’s tails when
you drank there. The crusty waiters were all about 100 years old and indeterminately
Middle European and they creaked around like funny insects. And how could you
not love those murals, all those Roaring 20s monkeys with their bananas and
tuxedoes, even as they were beginning to disappear behind a tobacco-brown patina
from half a century or more of cigarette and cigar smoke? It was one of Manhattan’s
dusky jewels, one of those Jazz Age treasures miraculously locked away in the
heart of midtown, and we were terrified when it was closed down for renovations.
Then it remained closed for what seemed like half a decade and we just got sad
whenever we remembered to think about it. We were sure, the way you always are
in these cases, that if and when it reopened the new Monkey Bar would be some
hideously moderne and vulgar disaster of a Eurotrash flytrap.

But when it did reopen a few years ago we had to admit, very grudgingly, that
it really wasn’t so awful a rehab job after all. Yeah, the new chrome furnishings
and the motif of all-tall-blonde-waitresses-in-short-black-dresses scream of
that bizarre mid-90s interior design tendency to recapitulate the “Addicted
To Love” video (where was that look hip by the mid-90s? Helsinki? Dublin?
Seoul?). We’ve never eaten in the back room and are, perhaps irrationally,
suspicious of reports about how good the food is. Then again they saved the
murals, the clientele turns out most nights we’ve been there to be a comfortable
mix of city mice, b&ters and tourists on their best behavior, and the atmosphere
is a lot more leisurely and congenial than you’d have any right to expect.

And there’s Michael Garin, perhaps Manhattan’s ultimate piano bar
piano man. It was George Tabb and his lawyer pal Andrew Krents, surprisingly,
who first tipped us to Garin last year. Self-proclaimed the Monkey Bar’s
resident alpha male and dripping with the chicks to prove it (Oh, why
didn’t Mom make us take piano lessons?), Garin’s a small, elegant
guy with velvety pipes, flowing chops and a leering wink behind every song.
His sets ingeniously blend every era, phase and fashion of classic piano bar
tunes like “Satin Doll” and “Fly Me to the Moon,” et al.,
but he mixes in tango chestnuts like “Volver,” goofy Beatles medleys
and a few inspired oddball choices like “King of the Road.” (He’ll
sell you his 1998 CD, The Song of the Alpha Male, with selected highlights
of his act.) Our favorite part in his nightly routine is a drop-dead funny segue.
He marches all the way through a straightfaced rendition of Piaf’s “Non,
je ne regrette rien,” an uncanny choice in itself, then leaps abruptly
and preposterously into “Blueberry Hill.” It’s an hilariously
jarring segue, like Fats Domino is answering back and trying to cheer Piaf up,
and yet so right somehow that we laugh every time we hear it.

Too bad in a way that he’s doing it in a bar, where so few people are
truly listening. This October he remedies that with a monthlong residency at
the Duplex, where performers of his wit and elegance are appreciated.

Best Oyster Po’Boy

La Gould Finch

93 Ave. B (6th St.)

253-6369

What Can a Po’boy Do?
Best
oyster po’boy in New York? Stupid category, you’re thinking.
As if it’s an issue in this infernal city of granite where no one ever
bothers frying their oysters anyway, much less–under any circumstances–adulterating
the beasts’ molluscoid dignity by insinuating them between two pieces of
mayo-shmeared roll and swaddling them in bushels of chopped lettuce and thin-sliced,
watery tomato. Oysters are valuable commodities here in New York, a city the
once-great oyster beds of which have long since been either polluted or decimated;
and fried oyster po’boys are more naturally culinary staples in waterlogged
Southern cities like New Orleans or Mobile in which oysters are almost literally
a dime a dozen.

And yet the proprietors at La Gould Finch, the superlative Cajun restaurant
that opened this year in the East Village, don’t seem to care about any
of that, and produce an oyster po’boy that rivals any of the specimens
that you’ll find along the Gulf Coast. Not because they’ve tarted
or foodied the thing up, either. No. It’s a homely entity, this La Gould
Finch po’boy, and that’s as it should be: a baguette-like roll that’s
appropriately both crispy and chewy and that’s slathered with mayonnaise
and ketchup–and also a bit soggy with terrifically flavorful grease from
the handful of perfectly fried oysters, which recline smugly on the bread in
all of their fat and tender glory, padded with strips of iceberg lettuce and
tomato slices. It works, is about the finest praise we can give this
sandwich: loosens the muscles in our neck just like the thick, hot New Orleans
air does when we visit down there, and makes us want to kick back and…hell,
we don’t know, go catfishing all day or something. New York’s Delta-style
late summer and early autumn produce a lot of beer-drinking weather. This po’boy’s
the perfect beer-drinking food, all year long.

Best Elegant Restaurant Bar

Daniel

60 E. 65th St. (betw. Madison & Park Aves.)

288-0033

A Pint of the Usual.

Sure, the crappy-looking $10 million main dining room blows. But the designers
of the new Daniel certainly did do a hell of a job with the bar. Whether you’re
trysting, breaking up, closing the deal, pretending you’re European or
just getting expensively wasted, the bar at Daniel features row upon row of
top-shelf liquor towering toward the sky, and manipulated by exceptionally skilled
bartenders. Steps up in the lounge area, you can slouch in Etruscan-inspired
“klismos” chairs and ottomans while stuffing yourself from one of
the city’s great bar menus (most of the Daniel tasting menu is available
a la carte at the bar).

Best Roast Chicken

Coco Roco

392 5th Ave. (betw. 6th & 7th Sts.), Brooklyn

718-965-3376

But Not, Perhaps, on Sunday.
And
boy, do we mean that literally. It was a Sunday evening on which we visited
Coco Roco last–and Christ, but if the place wasn’t limping. We’d
humped out from brownstone Brooklyn and down Park Slope’s mingy 5th Ave.
corridor for this? An exercise in culinary negation, it was; of crossing
out categories like some elementary logician, as the Peruvian fellow with the
ponytail and the sparse beard rimming his aquiline face leaned over us with
a big smile, fingering our menu with something that was less indicative of friendly
waiterly solicitousness than of the aw, to hell with it ecstasy of a
celebrant dancing at the edge of a void. And so the tally at the limping end
of the week: no fried squid with jalapeno mayo and yucca (out of squid); no
Argentine sirloin steak with scallion chimichurri, french fries and grilled
peppers (out of beef); no ceviches at all (out of fish); no roast chick–

“WHA–?” we screamed at that point, rocketing from our chair
to seize the rascal by the throat. Gained purchase against the restaurant’s
floor; felt for his carotid as the shocked faces of mild, dining burghers bloomed
around us–restaurant violence! Alert Tim Zagat! And that eerie disaster-time
silence busted only by the thwack thwack thwack thwack of the young fellow’s
head impacting hardwood…we had him by the scruff of the neck…well, we’d
subdued him, all right. “WHERE’S THE ROAST POLLO, YOU LIMA SLUM BASTARD!
POLLO! POLLO! CHICKIE! YOU SAVVY, EH?” Thwap thwap thwap–and
the sound of alarms as the silverware slid from the table and into the void…
Boosted the cash register and beat it down 6th St… Lost ourselves around the
Gowanus as the sirens ripped the Brooklyn dark…

Most nights, though, you’ll get the roast chicken you came for, here at
this excellent Peruvian restaurant in Park Slope, a neighborhood that, against
all odds, has in the last year managed to transmogrify itself–with the
addition of al di la, Sweet Mama’s, a second Olive Vine location and especially
this place–into a viable restaurant neighborhood, thus defying its own
image as a square, dreary, fat-ankled, sanctimonious, hideously “family-friendly”
and above all concerned eastern colony of the Upper West Side. What can
we say about roast chicken other than that the Peruvians do it best–The
Upper East Side’s El Pollo is another great roast chicken locale–and
that the good people at Coco Roco do it better than any other Peruvians on the
planet? The whole familiar roast-bird nine yards: the perfect meat, the wonderfully
seasoned crispy/chewy skin–and so on and so on. Ordering a bottle of malbec–that
thick, peppery Argentine red that’s as cozy with roast bird as beer is
with bratwurst–is absolutely required, as is starting off with one of the
establishment’s superlative ceviches. A whole chicken costs eight bucks–$11.95
if accompanied by steamed vegetables, $9.95 if by a baked or sweet potato. You
can also order a half-chicken, of course. And the restaurant’s roast chicken
sandwich–nothing but shredded birdmeat on a long roll with chopped iceberg
lettuce and tomatoes–is the model of simple quality.

Best Brooklyn Bartender Who Happens to Look Just
Like Jean-Pierre Leaud

Bart at O’Connor’s

39 5th Ave. (betw. Dean & Bergen Sts.), Brooklyn, 718-783-9721

Au Bart.
Lots
of people praise O’Connor’s, the Brooklyn dive. But no celebrant’s
yet analyzed the bar’s arguably most noteworthy attraction: young Bartender
Bart, who, much like Antoine Doinel–France’s doomed answer to Holden
Caulfield, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud in the Truffaut films–probably doesn’t
grasp the full magnitude of his appeal. And sadly, this best-of–much like
the 20-minute short Antoine et Colette–will merely scratch its surface.

A good bedside manner still counts with some of us, Bart. In fact, we’ve
started timing our visits to coincide with Bart’s work schedule in an effort
to avoid one of the establishment’s less savory bar hands. Dig, for example,
Mr. I-Was-Punk-Rock-When-Punk-Rock-Was-Real, Maaaaan serving up suds
and gruesome vibes some nights when the stars aren’t aligned right and
Bart’s making himself scarce. “But what are you now?”
we wonder, rolling our eyes as we sip bourbon from a cup.

Anyway, follow our lead and tip Bart heavily, since he represents an
endangered species: a likable presence at a bar that tends to get patronized
by an unpleasant element. As Bart himself puts it every now and then–he’s
witty, too, you see–”Everybody’s happy!”

Best Pot Roast

One and One

76 E. 1st St. (1st Ave.)

260-9950

McHip Ain’t In It.
We’ll
intensify what was expressed by another member of our awards committee elsewhere
in these pages: Gourmet Irish is arguably the most worthless culinary trend
to wend its way down the societal turnpike since the arrival in the public consciousness
of that fat, greasy fuck Emeril Lagasse. Any unemployed CIA graduates out there
feel like tarting up a stuffed bladder for white-tablecloth consumption? Interested
in whipping up a fusion stuffed bladder? We’ll pay you, brother;
we’ll give you good money. Then we’ll take a peek at it, pass
our big nose over its airspace and heave the wretched thing in the trash. Gourmet
Irish, our ass.

What’s worse than Gourmet Irish, though (as long as you asked) is Hip
Irish. Which is, broadly speaking, what you get when a young Irish guy–a
respectable thing to be–loses his mind and starts participating in the
pan-European youth culture that, for a moment back there in 1996, appeared as
if it might take over the world, and that persists every time some male Irish
salesboy folding shirts at Canal Jeans mouths ecstatically along with every
word of the Echo & the Bunnymen song that comes over the store sound system.
The thought of pan-European youth culture–raves, sideburns, those yellow
sunglasses everyone was wearing back in 1996 (bad, bad year to be alive, 1996,
was), Verve Pipe records, Parisian turntable-scratchers and, generally, a musical
culture that takes as its fundamental texts records by Everything But the Girl,
the Housemartins, Serge Gainsbourg and those hairdressers the Clash–as
we say, the thought of these things makes us want to throw up. Hip Irish makes
us despise the inhabitants of the ole sod as much as Benjamin Disraeli did.
Animals.

Damned but if we didn’t think that One and One was going to be one of
the capitals of Hip Irish when it opened this past winter. First there was its
East Village location, which made us…wary…since even the East Village’s
other “serious” Irish joint, St. Dymphna’s, no matter that it’s
wonderfully fun and friendly, can’t really shake its worrisomely Hip Irish
clientele.

Then there was the decor. Crimson walls; a forbidding, lacquered black floor
of the sort we imagined French homosexuals would want to get down on their Prada-ed
knees to snort cocaine off of; little tables it’s impossible to properly
eat food from… No. We had reason to be suspicious.

But we were wrong. Which we realized almost as soon as we walked into the place
to eat at the bar, not long after it had opened. The bar was patronized almost
exclusively by sullen, unfashionable late-middle-aged men, who did a little
bit of talking amongst themselves, but mostly just sat with their gray heads
in their hands and drank beer, just as if they were the morning crew at Jackie’s
Fifth Amendment out in Brooklyn, and not in a Hip Irish bar at all. Okay! But
that’s the trouble with virulent prejudice, isn’t it? You tend to
jump to ugly conclusions.

One and One’s pot roast, by the way, is superlative. A couple chunks of
tender beef, succulent with just the right amount of fat, flaking away into
a sauce that’s reddish-brown like bourbon and that betrays hints of Worcestershire,
dark sugar, porter and God knows what else. Your meat’s accompanied by
“champ”: that is, potatoes roughly mashed through with parsley and
enough horseradish to blast a hole through the dome of your skull. A hunk of
parsnip; a cone of carrot; and if you’re anything like other human beings,
you’re washing it down with Guinness. It’s not hip, it’s not
even exclusively Irish and in fact it’s not on the menu at the moment,
One and One’s management having apparently decided to shoot themselves
in the foot and excise it. But it sure is one hell of a dish, and we hope they
get their acts together and serve it again in time for winter, when it will
be a true balm for the soul to eat it.

Best Spaghetti & Meatballs

Le Zie Trattoria

172 7th Ave.
(betw.
20th & 21st Sts.)

206-8686

Grand Alimentary Canal.
Le
Zie is an expertly managed provider of delicious Venetian dishes. Spaghetti
& meatballs is presented with the pasta in an artfully coiffed array, rather
like a design, and the meatballs are pungent and precise. There is an ambient
sauce with rich tomato reality and a platform of red pepper. The combination
is hauntingly tasty and memorable. If you’d had it in Venice, you’d
tell your friends when you got home.

Best Chelsea Restaurant We Wish Was a Little Less
Popular

Rocking Horse Cafe Mexicano

182 8th Ave. (betw. 19th & 20th Sts.)

463-9511

Get Your Tamale Out of My Ear.

If you’re expecting the impending eastvillagification of Chelsea to flood
the hood with chino-wearing coeds who’ll calm the place down, take a walk
around on a Friday or Saturday night: It’s still looking like a forbidden
zone in a Samuel R. Delany novel. Comes the weekend, the oddities swarm the
streets in full force and full drag. Body-modified gayliens, boy-scouting hustler
kids, rollerblading trisexuals, rawhide cowboys, horrifically pumped steroidites
in spandex short-shorts and muscle shirts strolling three-by-three down the
whole sidewalk, where the damaged and the derelicts hang around the edges like
trash waiting to be picked up, cadging smokes and muttering darkly at the cranky
lesbions who glower like drill sergeants at the guys who look like Tank Girl.
It’s going to take several fleets of condoing coeds to calm this scene
down.

Rocking Horse Cafe is still one of our favorite restaurants in the hood, but
the love affair has been strained this year. The place is both a beneficiary
and a victim of Chelsea’s unabated party spirit. A beneficiary because
the narrow space seems to be packed solid every time we go now, which certainly
wasn’t the case a few years ago, so bully for them. A victim because the
narrow space seems to be packed solid every time we go now, and they still haven’t
figured out how to deal with that in a polite or efficient way. The problems
began when they installed that huge bar a few years ago. It dominates the room,
so that except at a few tables in the front or the back, diners often have drinkers’
asses in their faces. Personally we could do without some gym rat’s buttcheeks
in our guacamole. The bar is simply too big for the space. We know it’s
good for the bottom line, but it’s been a disaster for the atmosphere.

The bar generates a level of hubbub at peak hours that’s risen to such
a din your waiter inevitably mishears half your order. Chaos doesn’t reign,
but it hovers menacingly over the whole operation. The tables have always been
crammed too close together anyway, but now the uproar and scurrying makes the
place feel even more cramped. The no-reservations policy means lots of hungry,
increasingly cranky people standing around that bar glaring at the diners at
busy times, and depending on what kind of day they’ve had, the maitre or
mistress d’ isn’t always very sympathetic or skilled at dealing with
their well-founded complaints. Like El Teddy’s, they won’t seat you
until your whole party arrives, which we find rude and annoying; it’s like
they’re accusing you of being liars right as you walk in the door. Why
launch the evening by acting like we’re trying to get over on you with
the simple act of asking for a table?

Yes, we keep coming back: for the margaritas, and the way they get creative
and do things like stuff a tortilla with crab meat and bacon, and because old
standbys like steak fajitas are as good here as anywhere in town. And the price
is decent and the location is handy if you’re going to the movies or the
Joyce. We’re glad the place is so successful. But we find ourselves getting
nostalgic for the old days when it was a little less so, a little quieter, more
relaxed and polite.

Best 50 Yards for Restaurants on the Upper West
Side

Columbus Ave. betw. 77th & 78th Sts.

Hello, Columbus.

You ready to believe this or not? The argument: The Upper West Side is slowly
maturing into a viable restaurant neighborhood–one in which there exist
not only restaurants like Savann, which would wow the ladies in culinarily insipid
locales like Boston or Dallas, if not in Soho, but in which–and this is
something you couldn’t have said as recently as several years ago–you’ll
find restaurants that could even compete with those in other Manhattan neighborhoods.

Okay, so there’s not that many. And one of them–the reliable Cafe
Luxembourg–you’ve known for years. But there is Gennaro, on
upper Amsterdam Ave., at the southern end of one the Western hemisphere’s
great heroin bazaars. And the last year’s also seen the opening of two
estimable establishments on Columbus Ave., where for years Isabella’s
was (usually) an island of competence amidst of a sea of mediocrity. What
pleases us–appeals to our sense of congruence, of efficiency–is that
these two new Columbus Ave. eateries have opened within spitting distance of
each other.

Each eatery, furthermore, is presented by people who know what they’re
about. First there’s the Dining Room, at 380 Columbus Ave. (78th St., 724-0276),
where Michael Harris is doing the cooking. And cooking an excellent, eclectic
New American (but what does that really mean anymore?) menu in a high-ceilinged
space dim with warm shadows and candlelight and appointed with dark, bare wood,
navy-blue expanses and sleek human beings.

Then, a block away at 366 Columbus, at 77th St., there’s Spazzia (799-0150),
which is run by the same people responsible for Tribeca’s excellent and
perennially fashionable Spartina. Which means much the same type of perennially
fashionable Mediterranean food as is served at Spartina (even if the decor and
ambience aren’t quite up to Tribeca snuff): grilled sardines, shrimp bisque,
veal osso bucco and the thin-crust pizzas that are what, years ago, brought
us to Spartina in the first place.

Now they bring us to, of all places, Columbus Ave. And it’s cool: If Harris
and Spazzia’s chef Stephen Kalt stood in front of their respective establishments,
they could probably–if they’re properly limbered up–take out
their competition’s front window with a well-flung skillet.

Best Tribeca Pizza

Il Mattone

413 Greenwich St. (betw. Beach & Hubert Sts.)

343-0030

Later for Ray’s.

We can’t remember a year when Il Mattone, the Italian restaurant on Tribeca’s
Restaurant Row, hasn’t won some kind of “Best of” award. Favoritism?
You bet. After all, only one pizza out of 10 is a dud–when the pie swirler
doesn’t cook it long enough–and those other nine are killers,
whether plain with a superb tomato sauce, or topped with sausage, pepperoni,
vegetables or four cheeses. The pasta dishes are fine as well, and so are the
portobello or skirt steak sandwiches, but it’s the brick-oven pizza with
the crispy crust we travel for. Eat there or call for delivery.

Best Burger

Aggie’s

146 W. Houston St. (MacDougal St.)

673-8994

Burger Meister.

At first, Aggie’s looks like most any other diner in town, despite the
tables on the sidewalk outside. There’s a counter, a tile floor, mirrors
and a menu posted on the wall. A glance at the prices, however, reveals that
it ain’t no simple diner. But there’s a reason for those prices.

A burger at Aggie’s doesn’t come cheap, by any means. We’d never
deny that. It’s $9-plus for a bacon cheeseburger. Oh, my, but what a burger
it is. A thick, heavy, solid hockey puck of a beef pattie, seasoned and glued
to the fresh bun with melted cheese. Add the bacon, lettuce and tomato, and
it towers precariously over the plate. (We’ve seen more than one person
resort to knife and fork in order to get through it.) It’s one of those
“only meal of the day” burgers, and it’s worth it–spicy
and juicy and a little crunchy, even. The kind of burger that may well follow
you around for the rest of the day–but every time it comes back up, it’s
a fine, fine memory.

Best Chicken Burrito

El Teddy’s

219 W. Broadway (betw. Franklin & White Sts.)

941-7070

It’s Teddy’s Ballgame.
Call
us conventional, or snobbish, or anything else your skull can devise, but we’re
pretty set on this one. The best chicken burrito in the City of New York’s
served not at some demotic, “authentically” Mexican restaurant like
the Upper West Side’s wonderful Gabriela’s or Yorkville’s excellent
Taco Taco. It’s certainly not produced by the chain places at which we
all eat happily a couple of times a month, like Burritoville or Benny’s
Burritos. And if you attempt to insist to us, a la some “cheap eats”
clerk at a weekly listings magazine that the best chicken burrito on Earth
is proffered by an old lady who sells grub and salsa out of a picnic basket
on a well-traveled corner in Jackson Heights, we’ll thank you for your
expertise and go about our business. It’s not that we disbelieve you, or
that we don’t wish the woman well. It’s that we have jobs and responsibilities,
and the thought of tracking down fashionably “authentic” food in the
manner of Ed Levine has nothing to do with our lives. Call us provincial–and
maybe in this regard we are a little–but you might as well inform us that
the best croissants are to be found in a little nook in the 5th arrondissement.
What’s it mean to us?

The best chicken burrito in New York City is served by Tribeca’s fashionable
El Teddy’s, they of the well-known margaritas and happy-hour crowd of well-dressed
people under 40. Don’t believe us? Stop in some night. If you can locate
a waitress, start off with a shrimp cocktail and, if you’re not into the
TONY-sanctioned margarita trip, a glass of Sierra Nevada. Then, the next
time your waitress makes one of her bimonthly passes in the direction of your
table, leap from your chair–if you’ve still got the strength, that
is; there’re people with scurvy up in the El Teddy’s smoking
section; dudes who’ve been waiting months for their orders to appear;
old bags with legs bent by rickets; it’s like the Royal Navy, sometimes;
squeeze that seafood-cocktail lime wedge into your parched lips, matey, for
the nutrition that’s in it!–as we say, leap from your chair, throw
yourself on your knees in front of her and beg her to bring you, in merciful
God’s name, the burrito you…years?…well, at least weeks ago
ordered…

We did mention, though, how it’s one hell of a burrito, didn’t we?
An elegant little torpedo of a thing, sliced on the bias, one piece propped
on the other, and in which flavorful, tender chicken–not, as in your run-of-the-mill
Mexican torpedo, a mess of beans or, worse, enough rice to stuff a mattress
with–takes precedence.

And while we’re on the subject, do El Teddy’s burrito rollers suffer
from carpal tunnel syndrome? Their wrists must kill them; these fine burritos
as rolled tight. We like most of the menu at El Teddy’s–the
excellent queso fundido, the fine guacamole, the entrees, especially the grilled
striped bass–but we always come back to the chicken burrito. It’s
under 10 bucks, it’s easy to eat and it presents no hassles–at least,
that is, if you can track a server down and the chicks at the front desk don’t
shoot you too much lip. But those are other stories, for another time.



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