Part One Best Herring Ulrika’s 115 E. …

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Part One

Best Herring
Ulrika’s
115 E. 60th (betw. Lexington & Park Aves.)
355-7069
Calling Squareheads, Jews and Russkies.

We’d say that herring is one of those foods you either love or hate, but
it’s actually just one of those foods nobody gives a shit about. After
temple lets out, if the bar mitzvah boy’s family springs for the full buffet,
maybe you’ll slap some on a bagel before heading home; or maybe you’ll
scrape some out of one of those tins you need a key to open, to introduce some
flavor to your morning eggs.

Be aware, however: In the wider world, there are some who care desperately
about herring. For more information, check out the herring at Aquavit, the matjes
at Barney Greengrass or, most of all, the herring in brown butter at Ulrika’s
(which you can also pick up by the fillet at the Lower East Side’s Russ
& Daughters).

Best Congee
Congee Village
100 Allen St. (betw. Broome & Delancey Sts.)
941-1818
Waiter, Just What Is Swimming in Our
Soup?
Okay, so we’re fans of congee–it’s
not just Chinese people who like to eat weird stuff. True, this Cantonese hot
rice porridge isn’t much to look at. It resembles an overboiling pot of
rice. But it’s certainly food of a conspicuous and pleasing wholesomeness
and purity, which is why you’ll find us eating congee once or twice a year,
and usually when we’re covering nasty, adolescent-style drunks and are
looking for food that’s going to settle our grinding stomachs, replenish
the nutrients that several gallons of lager will strip from the tissues of even
the best of us and open up our whiskey-pinched sinuses with plumes of cilantro-scented
steam. Congee’s liquid milquetoast for members of that wide demographic
that walks on neither four legs nor three.

Not that congee isn’t an acquired taste. It’s far from date food,
all right: this cloudy, bubbling medium the surface of which gets scummed with
rice-skin and bubbles like an industrially polluted swamp–like one of those
Stygian offshoots of the Newtown Creek. And within the cloudy methane-pit that
congee is, there swim strange prodigies indeed–weird beasties of the deep.
The congee novice, digging around within his bowl with his chopsticks, is likely
to be disgusted by what he dredges–by what bubbles monstrously–up
to the surface. Eh? A lump of protein, bristly and horrid, respiring still,
an artifact of the ocean’s unspeakable depths…sea cuke or…something…suckers
and goggling eyes, at any rate…Stay, demon! The beast lives still!

And even if you avoid seafood congees, and opt instead for the vegetarian versions,
God knows what you’ll get. Paranoia: secretive Orientals snickering and
peering around you as you salvage objects from the congee’s funky depths…
What are they feeding me? What’s…so funny? Then a dunk with the chopsticks
and…and…Good God, man! In the name of the Father what infernal
Prodigy is this!…
Bristly and multiform, this weird and undulating and
perhaps even sentient Oriental vegetable that you…raise to your mouth…very
tentatively…as the little folk whisper their conspiratorial whispers around
you…

Okay, so we’re not going to argue too strenuously in favor of your taking
up congee. But know this: If you are inclined to try the stuff, do so
at Congee Village, the hopping, crowded, extremely cheap (how about 20 bucks,
tops, for dinner for two?) and extremely friendly restaurant in that portion
of the Lower East Side that’s by now becoming Chinatown’s northern
frontier. There’s silly plastic foliage all over the cheerful room, the
comforting smell of steam and–everywhere, all the time–Chinese families
huddled over their tables, generating a great, merry din while the mothers try
to keep the little ones balanced on their chairs. And yes, everyone’s liking
their congee. Maybe–just maybe–you are, too.

Best Pu-Pu Platter
Vong
200 E. 54th St. (3rd Ave.)
486-9592
Fly Lice & Egg Loll.

No, of course they’d never call it a pu-pu platter, but that’s
what Vong’s “Black Plate” assorted appetizers are: an upscale,
Asian-fusion take on that old Chinese restaurant opener. You get one big platter
for the center of the table (at $19 per person); it’s a good way to loosen
folks up and take some of the austere chill off the room. Because, just like
in a Chinese restaurant, part of its function is to point out the communal nature
of the meal you’re about to have. Everybody reaches across the table, spearing
spring rolls with chopsticks, dipping in the four sauces and–we know this
is a stretch for hard-charging upscale New Yorkers–sharing. Highlights
were the satay prawns and the crab spring rolls; there was also something with
quail and something with tuna. And there’s that multicolored palette of
four sauces, which your waiter vongishly instructs you in the use of, which
you forget the instant he’s turned his back. By the time you’re done
you’re half full, which is good, considering Vong’s entrees are relatively
frugal portions.

Best Place to Eat Perfect Sushi While Being Showered
With Contempt
BondSt
6 Bond St. (betw. B’way & Lafayette St.)
777-2500
Giving You the Fish.
They’re
artists behind the sushi counter here at BondSt, demonstrating their mastery
as much through their ability to procure the city’s freshest fish as by
their ability to form it into perfect mouthfuls of translucent, textured flesh.

But BondSt is one of those restaurants that welcomes a certain chic sub-demographic
of the city’s diners, and discourages the patronage of all others. So if
you want to sample the art, you’ll have to suffer wretched service all
night long (when, that is, you can locate a waiter). Of course, very few of
the fashion-rag stick figures and coked-up mannequins who populate BondSt’s
dining rooms seem to take significant pleasure in the act of eating, so avoid
their company and sit instead at the sushi bar, where the chefs provide good
company. On the other hand, you might not be able to avoid the bar–if you’re
not either a known quantity or better looking than anybody has a right to be,
you’ll find yourself exiled back there anyway.

Best New Tribeca Restaurant
City Hall
131 Duane St. (betw. Church St. & W. B’way)
227-7777

A Steakhouse Arrives in Tribeca.

City Hall isn’t exactly “new,” but it did open after our last
“Best of” issue. In a remarkably short period of time, this huge restaurant,
decorated with photos of 1920s-era New York, became impossible to patronize
without a reservation in advance. In fact, as is typical in a flush economy,
when you do book a table for five or more, a credit card is required; that annoys
us, but all is forgiven once you take a look at the inviting menu. We’ve
been to City Hall about 10 times and have never left unsatisfied. Here’s
why: strong drinks; the best onion rings in New York City; excellent jumbo shrimp
and crab cocktails; a sirloin that’s second only to Sparks; a broiled 36-ounce
prime rib for two; monster baked potatoes with all the trimmings; light fries
of calamari, oysters or shrimp; an old-fashioned iceberg wedge salad with blue
cheese; “high rises” of shellfish that include oysters, clams, lobster,
mussels and crab; and terrific key lime pie and sorbets.

City Hall is a fine venue for a boisterous party of 10 or romantic dinner for
two. The bar is mobbed every night, so we suggest you go straight to the table,
have drinks there and then proceed to a leisurely, flawless meal.

Best Waitress
B&H Dairy
127
2nd Ave.
(betw. 7th St. & St. Marks Pl.)
505-8065

We Like to Watch.
B&H Dairy was made for the short, middle days of winter: torpid meridians
choked with the despair of exhausted friendships and stillborn love affairs.
It was on those dark afternoons in the past that you’d find us bellied
up to the counter, aspirating over a bowl of piping hot split-pea soup and soaking
in the lovefest that was Marta the counter girl and Raoul the grillman. We came
to learn, to watch–to witness a kind of tenderness that stayed perfect
since the first time we entered to hear Raoul sing out to her: “Two slices
challah with un poco de mantequilla my sweetheart, baby.”

We saw them pinching cheeks, doing the butt-bump by the cauldron of borscht,
laughing and teasing each other like carefree young lovers. Occasionally they
brought us in on the act, making asides just loud enough for the other to hear:
“She’s crazy, don’t you think?”

A nod; a wink. And every so often we’d catch a wry grin on the face of
the bent-double old babushka in the back kitchen–a knowing look, as if
maybe she were stirring ecstasy into the matzoh.

Marta retired this past spring, and Pablo is wistful.

“Oh, I miss her very much. I do.”

But now a new counter girl has taken her place. She’s a round young pip
with a sparkling smile and Marta’s sense of humor. She and Pablo seem to
have taken to each other. Which is nice for all of us. Winter isn’t far
off.

Best New East Village Restaurant
Acquario
5 Bleecker St. (betw. Bowery & Elizabeth St.)
260-4666
Mediterranean Son.

Call it the downtown, more youthful Gennaro: an unassuming little restaurant
dedicated to serving a restricted menu of flavorful dishes–in this case,
pan-Mediterranean ones. The secret to success is the same as at the always-overcrowded
Gennaro: If you keep things simple, and only use ingredients that themselves
taste terrific, you’re likely to wind up with good dishes. Thus we happily
scarf up grilled sardines served whole on oiled peasant bread; salmon and grouper
“carpaccio” marinated in super-premium olive oil with a hint of lemon;
or just a plate of prosciutto, parmesan and lemon-cured olives. Follow that
up with pappardelle with wild mushroom, artichoke and rosemary; or ricotta-filled
ravioli with caponata; or sea bass topped with salmoriglio (a Sicilian dressing
heavy on the oregano). Finish with the Campari-grapefruit sorbet. It’s
a most satisfying East Village meal, and doesn’t have to set you back more
than 30 bucks a head.

Best Questionable Restaurant Trend
Gourmet Irish
Uppity Micks.

All right, so it’s not yet quite a trend. But sometimes you have to nip
these things in the bud or, before you know it, the city’s crawling with
Belgian mussel-and-beer joints or some other unpleasantness. So in the face
of newcomers Tir Na Nog, Bellew, Thady Con’s, Sin Sin and others, we’re
obliged to point out that there are some cuisines that no amount of fusion will
ever help–and Irish cuisine, known for such delicacies as shepherd’s
pie and black pudding, is one of them. Do what you want: drizzle infused oils
all over the crap, stack it 2 feet high, shower it with fresh herbs, swap out
the main ingredients for sushi-quality tuna–in the end, it’s still
Irish cuisine. And it still sucks.

Best Bar Steak
Raoul’s
180 Prince St. (betw. Thompson & Sullivan Sts.)
966-3518
Eating at Raoul’s.
You’d
be surprised how often the question comes up for us: Where can a single human
being accomplish the socially difficult project of eating alone, unhassled and
with dignity?

It’s not that we’re isolatos who sit in parks befriending pigeons.
Mostly we eat alone because it suits our schedule. Out of work late on a Wednesday
evening, for example, walking out into an early fall torpor and our bodies wilting
with hunger after a day of cocktail nuts and black coffee–it’s hard
to imagine under such circumstances that there’s a better way on the planet
to blow a 50 than on a restorative meal that’ll fuel our bodies, and minds,
for the week’s remainder. We’re looking for a gentle, unhurried decompression
over liquor, steak and the reassuring solid presence of dark barwood.

Or maybe we’ll eat alone early on a Saturday night, when we’ve got
a couple of hours to kill before meeting married friends of ours, and we want
to prepare in solitude for what often turns into a long night.

We usually find ourselves at Soho’s venerable Raoul’s on these occasions.
It’s a matter of emphasis. Sure, a solitary diner will do well at the West
Village’s Cafe Loup, or at the Manhattan Bistro or–God knows–at
the Union Square Cafe. But those establishments are restaurants first, bars
second; their bars are appendages, if not afterthoughts. At Raoul’s the
tables cluster against the dark walls like immigrants crowded into steerage;
the bar dominates the space.

We always order Raoul’s bar steak. Which is, as you’d expect, a smaller
version of its famous steak poivre: a slightly more manageable (not to mention
obviously cheaper) portion of nobly charred beef, appointed with a pepper sauce
that manages the culinary trick of making pepper taste like the vegetable it
is, and not just something one-dimensionally assaultive to the taste buds. And
it would be too obvious to mention Raoul’s magnificent french fries, which
are best consumed after they’ve been saturated by the steak’s gravy.

It’s not that we think Raoul’s isn’t good for anything else.
We’ll be back this Christmas for their fine roast duck. It’s just
that Raoul’s is there for us when we’re traveling light and fast,
and feeling secure in our own company, and we thought we might as well honor
that.

Best Wine Service by the Glass
Gramercy Tavern
42 E. 20th St. (betw. B’way & Park Ave. S.)
477-0777
Rosé-Colored Glasses.

We were torn on this one. Babbo also provides a superb by-the-glass selection
of wines. Plus, Mario Batali has raised the bar a notch on enoteca generosity,
serving by the quartino, or quarter bottle, which in the end amounts to about
a glass and a half (decanted, by the way, as part of the service, a nice touch).
However, the list at Babbo is totally Italian, and we think that–charm
and innovation notwithstanding–a champion by-the-glass menu has to be a
bit more eclectic, has to range, to survey the international winescape.

Which is why, on late afternoons in early autumn, with the sky flaring yellow
and blue down over the Hudson and framed by Manhattan’s canyons, we like
to tuck a few newspapers under our arm and walk briskly toward Gramercy Tavern.
Is there in all the city a more beckoning location to perch barside on such
an afternoon, to perch barside wearing halfway dressy duds–blue blazer,
chinos, new blue-and-white checked shirt picked up at the Barneys Warehouse
Sale, repp tie–and read the papers, scanning the Tavern from time to time,
taking in the full cycloramic sweep of that riotously colorful, frieze-like
floral mural, studying the foot traffic out the windows on 20th St.? Causes
us to feel, indeed, that we live in a great city at a great time, with great
and satisfying events transpiring high and low. People! Movement! Happenings!
And suavely urbane establishments like Gramercy Tavern, catering to it all and
thoughtfully providing a big glorious bar at which to drink.

Complementing this sense of lush well-being is the by-the-glass wine list,
a constantly changing lineup that isn’t so much assembled as curated.
It is the very soul of an unpretentious but intelligent oenophilia, a lineup
that promises both something, and something edifying, for everyone. If
Ralph Waldo Emerson were a sommelier, alive today, this is the by-the-glass
wine list he would produce: a good American list (though certainly not xenophobically
limited to American wines) for a good American restaurant.

And here’s the deal with wine by the glass: Often, it’s necessary
to spend between nine and 12 dollars, upward of $15 to $20 even, to enjoy this
particular type of service. A lot of places pour plonk by the glass. They’d
rather get you into them for a bottle, and that fat markup. So you wind up dropping,
say, seven bucks on a glass when for the same price at a wine shop, you could
purchase a bottle of the same. Gradually, however, as you ascend the price ladder,
by-the-glass begins to approximate more closely, pour for pour, what the whole
bottle would cost ($10, for example, for a glass of pinot noir from a $40 bottle).
This isn’t an ironclad rule for enjoying wine by the glass, but we think
you’re generally better off spending more rather than less. Except at Gramercy
Tavern, where the tightly selected by-the-glass list is, top to bottom (and
from five dollars to around $18, with separate, lower prices for three-ounce
tastes), always intriguing, always delightful.

Here’s a snapshot from a recent visit. Sparkling Italian prosecco. Whites
from the Loire Valley and California’s Russian River Valley, as well as
two offbeat chardonnays, one from the Niagara Peninsula, the other from the
Veneto. A good deal on a Bonny Doon rosé, five dollars. And a magnificent,
curiosity-piquing litany of reds: a ’97 Cote de Beaune burgundy; a reliable
Rioja reserva; an Italian primitivo; and a ’97 California zinfandel. Our
head veritably spun from the effort to choose, but we were fairly certain that
no matter which way we went, satisfaction would follow. The efficient and friendly
bar staff slid a bowl of spicy-sweet, roasted pecans under our nose. The joint
filled up. Chaos was averted and democracy thrived. Metropolitan culture, handed
down through the ages, endlessly assailed, once again flourished. Manhattan
became a stone-and-steel paradise of boundless opportunity, a romance purged
of workaday grit. We heard music. We lifted our glass and filled our mouth.

Best Maitre D’
Primo Laurenti
Cafe Trevi
1570 1st Ave. (betw. 81st & 82nd Sts.)
249-0040
Bravissimo.

We pause for a reading from last year’s Best of Manhattan: “…’Best
of Moosehattan’ awards are not won by superior owning/maitre d’-ing
alone.” Well, we lied, because Primo scores this year’s trophy for
just such superior maitre d’-ing. The first part of the above snippet mentions
the reams we’ve written about Primo, so in the interest of non-overkill,
we’ll be brief: Visit after visit to the charming Cafe Trevi confirms Primo
Laurenti’s adeptness at running a restaurant. Here’s Primo greeting
us like old friends with a “Welcome back” after a few months’
absence, and chatting with us about Italy; there’s Primo putting the finishing
touches on a dish prepared tableside, laughing with the diners; here’s
Primo introducing us to our very first 1993 Amarone a few years ago, and suggesting
an excellent wine each and every time we go to Trevi; there’s Primo managing
his efficient, solicitous staff; here’s Primo, genuinely but unobtrusively
concerned that we are having a perfect dining experience in his restaurant.
Here’s cheers to Primo.

Best Sunset Views While Eating Crazy Food
Uguale
396 West St. (W. 10th St.)
229-0606
Location, Location, Location.
Not
necessarily a place to bring a date you’re looking to impress, in other
words–unless the point’s to make her think you’re some sort of
zany or something; some sort of culinary antihero who’s into eating
weird food
.

“Uh, we’ll have ‘The Tower,’” we ventured when we
visited Uguale this summer, shrugging our shoulders at our companion and peering
out through the expansive windows of this far, far, far-West Village
restaurant at the lovely sunset prospect. Well, no, the West Side Hwy., over
which this restaurant looks, isn’t lovely. But certainly what’s on
the other side of it is pretty appealing: young rollerbladers and bicyclists
and joggers swooping and gliding against a crazy sunset over Jersey–a hell
of a sunset, like a Malibu sunset, or a chemical sunset, with the orange fire
lighting up the dark Hudson water and backlighting the low-slung industrial
scape on the far shore. Yes: the Lackawanna terminal and all the mellow-red
industrial brick and the colors of the sky shifting blue-green and crazy yellow
and a hundred liminal shades you could never guess the names of–and the
lonely floating world of a barge fighting northward against the current and
the outgoing tide, heading for grand, glum Albany, with the crewmen ready to
huddle in the blue-lit wheelhouse after a day in the hot sun…we were lost
in a reverie. Our companion’s hand jogged our shoulder…”Sorry”
… But Jesus, it was beautiful.

Then the food came. The Tower: a tower of breadsticks like a kindling tower
when Tenderfeet are trying to fire up a campsite-roarer. We’d been served
a Lincoln Log-style tower on a plate, except instead of pieces of wood, the
structure was composed of breadsticks.

And not your run-of-the-mill breadsticks, either: these were greasy little
guys, fellows that approximated those chewy french toast sticks at Pizza Hut
or whatever the hell fast food joint serves them, and the point was… Well,
what was the point? Oh yeah, this: dunk ‘em in the pool of viscous
cheese with which the plate had been dribbled (Dig it! The moat around the tower!)
and crane ‘em dripping toward your maw… (By the way–did we mention
that we’d been served a square tour comprising stacked-up french
toast-style breadsticks
…?) A fried eggplant-and-breadcrumb dish, a strange
salmon quesadilla with all sorts of gloppy cheese and, um…well…are they
going for Nouveau Bar Food here?…and a portobello salad…stuff that was more
or less conceptually incomprehensible, and the less said about which the better.

“Hey…”

Our companion again. We’d been lost in the view once more. Moving water
and the last, heartbreaking, lingering light of the sun. And the restaurant’s
full of mellow blond wood and colors like yellow that do right by your brain;
and white tablecloths and glinting silverware all pure in the sun… And a wonderfully
friendly staff, and good steak and good roast chicken actually, for all that…

We paid up and walked happily eastward through a sweet summer twilight thinking
Uguale’s all right. We just might go back. But when we do, we’ll
order very, very carefully.

Best Cheap Chinese Chicken Soup
237 Grand St.
237 Grand St. (Bowery)
334-6868/334-6963
Aka: Best Life-Threatening Dining.

The soups are simply amazing at this high-volume, low-priced spot. Sit at the
big picture windows and watch the crowds go by as you sample generous bowls
of Shredded Chicken Noodle Soup ($3.50) or Curry Chicken Noodle Soup ($3.75).
Each is enough for a meal, and full of succulent, unaccountably fresh-tasting
meat (are they slaughtering the chickens in the back?) and delightfully slurpy
noodles. The curry is hot, but not painful, and the shredded chicken, garnished
with scallions, is a model of delicate seasoning. If you’re still hungry
afterward, try sweet hotcakes from the cart outside for dessert (20 for $1).

Beware: Our last visit was marred by a crazy patron who threatened to attack
us for talking, while the otherwise attentive waiters vanished as he
menaced us–and we mean that literally. Maybe we’ll do takeout next
time.

Best Gnocchi
Arqua
281 Church St. (White St.)
334-1888
We Did It All for the Gnocchi.
This
elegant, golden-hued Tribeca restaurant–there’s no more soothing place
to eat Italian food on a winter night–has for years served as a canteen
for the neighborhood’s well-off residents, but it’s never established
itself as a destination restaurant, like so many of its fellow area establishments
have. That’s fine with us. Arqua’s one of the few restaurants that’s
appealing when it’s half-empty–as it usually is on the weekday nights
when we visit, when it’s restorative to sit below the creamy high ceiling,
unrushed by the staff and taking it, for the first time that day, completely
easy. We’ll have the carpaccio, the salt cod served over polenta, the duck
breast served with a wine and cassis sauce, the zuppa di pesce, whatever that
day’s risotto is, or perhaps the butternut squash ravioli, which is drizzled
with a wonderfully clear, pure, sage-infused butter. And we’ll drink enough
red wine to help break all that substantial stuff down.

Most often, though, we’ll eat Arqua’s gnocchi, which sets bold standards
for pasta; which, indeed, defines the state of the art for the dumpling. It’s
hard to doll up gnocchi–they’re fat, ineluctable in their presence,
heavy, intractable, confident in their essential homeliness, pure dense matter,
epitomizing a sort of Heideggerian “thingness of the thing.” And so
Arqua doesn’t; just presents the fresh little guys to you in a bowl, graced
with a tomato and herb sauce of simplicity. What’s perfect about them,
though, is their texture, the way in which they’re a culinary essay in
the interplay of al dente firmness outside and deliquescence inside. They’re
like the Cadbury Creme Eggs of New York Italian cooking: each mouthful an incredibly
satisfying, not to mention sensual, progress into creamy, melting inner depths.

Best Cannellini Puree
Fresco By Scotto
34 E. 52nd St. (betw. Park & Madison Aves.)
935-3434
Yo, T, Pass the Dip.

This midtown Italian standby may be best known for its wacky, second-tier people-watching.
This is because the midtown beehive corporate-schmoozer clientele tends to be
cut with a heavy contingent of upscale goombata, looking like goodfellas out
on the town with their beefy torsos and silvery slick hair and pinky rings,
along with a steady drizzle of mid-to-downmarket tv personalities of your Mike
Wallace and Robin Leach level of sublebrity. Despite all that and against all
expectations, it’s a rather fine, mildly adventurous restaurant, with an
up-to-date menu that intersperses Italiano-Newyorkese standards with some convincing
flights of cucina creativa. We recently had a delicious entree of small grilled
shrimps (heads on, the way we like them) and fat grilled scallops on a bed of
greens, with a wonderfully tart chardonnay from Trentino, Mocca Gatta, to undercut
the scallops’ sweetness.

But sometimes it’s the little gestures, and at Fresco we appreciate the
humble little bowl of cannellini puree, a fluffy white bean dip that’s
effectively an Italian hummus. You ladle it into your mouth on foil-thin wedges
of crispy “pizza bread.” Between courses, it’s a cool nosh and
palate-refresher, and its presence on your table is a sign that, unlike the
vulture proprietors of some heartless midtown food factories, the Scottos are
paying attention to you.

Best Bar For Making Out
Kush
183 Orchard St. (betw. Houston & Stanton Sts.)

677-7328

Drink To Me Only. We
and our honorable honey show up early when the place is empty–it’s
a faux-Moroccan joint with candles set into the walls and pleading, quarter-tone-laden
music softly competing with the sound of the air conditioning. We don’t
go out much–we had this date and when she asked where we oughta go we just
blurted this place out. We’ve been going there for months now. Just to
the left of the front door is a highbacked couch and little hexagonal table.
The yellow lights of Orchard St. shine through the window right above the couch.
It’s a most strategic position for a makeout couch, even though it’s
right up by the front window–the patrons are facing away from us at the
bar, and the people entering just walk right past us. She always gets a vodka
gimlet on the rocks.

The other day we were looking through the guidebook section of a bookstore
and when we came across a book on Marrakech, for a millisecond we could taste
a kiss brushed lightly with Rose’s Lime Juice on our lower lip.

Best Place to Have Your Money Refused
Cavallo’s Pizzeria
324 7th Ave. (betw. 28th & 29th Sts.)
244-2012

Penny Crone. Some
people might prefer stuffing 50-cent sleeves and cashing in their pennies at
the bank, or else trading them in for free Big Macs, or whatever it is they’re
offering over at McDonald’s these days. We’ve got a better idea, though.
Cavallo’s Pizzeria–or at least one of the establishment’s curmudgeonly
employees–harbors an aversion to the humble copper coins that might well
be exploited by the crafty bargain-hunter.

It happened one day not long ago when–with that feeling of leaden apprehension
in our guts that afflicts us every time we here at NYPress set out to
hazard lunch in our culinarily untenable neighborhood–we handed over to
the Cavallo’s cashier three singles, a dime and five pennies to pay for
our vegetarian slice and root beer.

“We don’t accept pennies,” the woman informed us curtly.

Oh?

“It’s legal tender,” we countered.

“Whatever,” she responded, glaring at our pennies like they were
soiled gym socks. “We don’t use them.”

“Can we just give you $3.10?” we asked.

It was obvious that this prodigious intellect was getting powerful grumpy
at this point.

“Give me whatever you want!” she barked.

Suit yourself, lady. Ourselves, we escaped with a mere five-cent discount,
but perhaps a wiser patron than we are can more effectively take advantage of
this eccentric slice joint’s idiosyncrasy. Show up with a whole burlap
sack groaning full of coppers; slam them down on the counter with a cabin-fever
grin on your face like you’re some lousy miser who’s just humped out
of the hills with his vulgar sack of clinking loot, tip your hat to the battle-ax
and who knows? It’s possible you’ll eat for free.

After tamping off a bit of the grease with a wad of napkins, by the way, the
pizza isn’t half-bad either.

Best Cobb Salad
Kitchenette
80 W. Broadway (Warren St.)
267-6740
Cozy Is as Cozy Does (Oh God, That Sounds Like
Talk Magazine).
Our wife, who can’t
stand Bubby’s, has breakfast at Kitchenette, often with our five-year old,
who loves the cheese omelets, at least twice a week. She meets with friends,
business associates or just quietly has a plate of eggs and reads NYPress.
She’s a dear, still our lovely bride after all these years.

We usually go the delivery route, alternately choosing the spicy roast salmon,
turkey meatloaf, beef chili, tuna melt with tomato and cheddar or even a simple
burger. Our most frequent choice, however, is the bounteous Cobb salad, an enormous
portion of spicy chicken chunks, blue cheese, avocado and tomato on a bed of
greens, doused with bacon-buttermilk dressing. The woman who answers the phone
even knows our voice by heart, and makes suggestions of what’s especially
prime that night. Food from Pleasantville? Yeah, but it sure beats the garbage
from most of the takeout sewers that waste storefront space in the city.

Best Southwestern Below 14th St.
Miracle Grill(s)
112 1st Ave. (betw. 6th & 7th Sts.)
254-2353
415 Bleecker St. (betw. Bank & W. 11th Sts.)
924-1900
We Believe in Miracles.

We flipped back to the 1996 Best of Manhattan to see why Miracle Grill East
won “Best East Village Southwestern Restaurant.” “Never had a
bad meal” there was why. Three years later the statement’s still true.

Both Miracle Grills–the flagship 1st Ave. spot and its younger sibling
on Bleecker–turn out consistently great Southwestern food at excellent
prices. We rarely start with anything but half a Miracle quesadilla on the east
side–we could eat that combo of zucchini, corn, zippy chilis and guacamole
every day–unless it’s the cornmeal-dusted calamari. The tender rings
are crusted with a very light touch, just enough to provide extra traction for
the smoky, spicy chipotle hot-n-sour sauce that accompanies them.

At Bleecker St. we have the wild mushroom quesadilla, or maybe the smoked mushroom
soup; both are woodsy, savory and quite shroomy. Our favorite entree is the
Yucatan chicken fajita, made with the very-un-90s but superior thigh meat of
the bird. Wrap the toothsome, marinated chunks up with black beans and tangy
marinated red onions in the fresh flour tortilla and slather on the guacamole.
You won’t find a better “wrap” south of the GW Bridge. Another
winning entree, perfect for summer, is the blue-corn fried chicken salad. Served
with new potatoes, sweet roasted beets with a buttermilk dressing over greens,
it’s like a picnic in a bowl, and good for you too. A snap in the air sends
us toward our favorite meat entrees, either the sweet, juicy grilled pork chops
with a piquant orange-ancho chile recado (still don’t know what that is)
served with mashed potatoes, or the grilled black angus steak. The best steak
we’ve ever had in our entire life was at Miracle Grill East a few years
ago; subsequent steaks have been wonderful, but no steak since–not at either
Miracle Grill, or Luger’s or Sparks–has matched that one.

Miracle Grill East still has its gorgeous garden out back; the dining room
is cozy and handsome, and there’s a small bar area up front where you can
enjoy an effective margarita while awaiting your date. The West Village outpost
is a little more casual, the menu’s just a bit bigger and the bar scene’s
a bit livelier. You’ll never go wrong foodwise at either place. Poor Man’s
Mesa Grill, our ass–they’re not poor men’s anything.

Best Vegetarian Meatballs
Rice
227 Mott St. (betw. Prince & Spring Sts.)
226-5775
Let’s Go Bowling.
What’s
a vegetarian meatball, anyway? Some tofu invention, it turned out when we asked
the friendly girl here at Rice, the stylish little takeout storefront/sit-down
restaurant in Little Italy. A fried tofu ball to be exact, which might be described
as a high-protein capitulation to the vegan’s need to participate in that
satisfying variety of human culinary experience: pulling a dense ball of something
into your mouth, and mashing it the hell up against your palate.

But not deep-fried tofu, like something hideous at some mysterious Asian
spoon out in Flushing. What you’ve got here are lightly browned and apparently
greaseless entities about the size of ping-pong balls, the chewy-crisp exteriors
of which bust open at chopstick’s poke to reveal pillowy interiors manifesting
the texture and pure white color of good goat cheese; you’re served about
a half-dozen of the tasty, filling little guys, served in a deep, round bowl
over a bed of your choice of rice (basmati’s your best bet) and slathered
in either sweet or spicy sauce.

Not convinced? We were skeptical at first, too, but the darn things–we
order the large-sized bowl, which costs six dollars–have by now become
a habit for us, a dish we’re willing to go at least slightly out of our
way to eat if we’re anywhere at all in Little Italy’s vicinity.

Best Fry Bread
America
9 E. 18th St. (betw. 5th Ave. & B’way)
505-2110
Big Chief Belly Bomb.

To be honest, we’ve never been to another restaurant in New York that even
offers fry bread, so maybe this is an unfair category. And, as with most everything
else offered at America, the “Navajo Fry Bread” may well be a step
or two away from authentic, but Christ Almighty.

Take a lightly sweetened pocket of bread about the size of your average football,
fill it with chicken and cheese and avocado and salsa, seal it up and dump it
in the deep fryer for a few minutes. The result is something akin to…well,
nothing we can precisely put our finger on, but it’s an absolute nightmare
for delicate stomachs such as ours–but irresistible all the same. An overwhelming,
spicy, greasy wonderland of delight that never seems to end. And surprisingly,
even though we already had oil shooting in 3-foot jets out of most of the pores
of our body when it was all over, it didn’t bother us too much. in fact,
we were glad we ate it, and, after thinking twice, would probably do it again.

We’re not exactly sure how keen the Navajo Indians were on salsa, exactly–so
far as we’re aware, they mostly ate their fry bread plain–but if given
the choice, we don’t think they’d have been too disappointed with
what a wacky New York theme restaurant did with it.

Best Place for a Pre- or Postgame Drink in the
Bronx
The News Room
854 Gerard Ave. (betw. 160th & 161st Sts.) the Bronx, 718-993-0881
Thanks a Lot, Robert Moses.
The
Mets owe their fans an apology because they’ve got no bars out there in
that giant suburban parking lot in Queens. So the Yankees win in terms of maintaining
a pre- and postgame buzz. Forget Stan’s and the Sigma Chi bum’s rush
and all that plastic cup puke and run. The real place for drinking before and
after Yankee games is the News Room bar on Gerard Ave. in the borough of the
Bronx.

The News Room is the midblock joint with the checkerboard marquee, whose business
card says it all: Sports Bar & Jazz Club, Karaoke, Dance, CD Music, Sports,
TV and Poetry. And if that’s not enough they have crab nite and card nite
and the jazz combo jams are incredible.

Proprietor Ted Carelock keeps an eye on things, they put a napkin on top of
your beer bottle and they stay open much later and are less crowded earlier
than that other place with the troughs. The News Room rules because of its dependability,
much like a Scott Brosius sac fly late in the game for insurance. The old newspaper
front pages on the wall will remind you of everything from Marv Albert’s
embarrassing overbite to Neil Armstrong’s walking leadoff first base on
the moon. And it is of course only one small step for man off the subways, one
giant leap for mankind that prefers its drinks without the assholes.

Best $10 Entree
Oyster Pan Roast
The Oyster Bar at Grand Central
42nd St. (Vanderbilt Ave.), lower level
490-6650
Aw, shucks.

“Ambrosial” was the verdict of a guest urged to this bowl of oysters
in a creamy stew. It is not “roasted” at all; the cooking is done
through a weird mechanism that sends steam into contact with the concoction–which,
being as hot as Hades, cooks the dish in a flash so the oysters remain tender
and perfumed. There’s a combination with other shellfish that’s about
$4-$5 more but generates less clear elegance. It’s best to have it at the
counter right in front of where the oyster shuckers kibitz and shuck.

Best Restaurant Garden
Le Jardin Bistro
25 Cleveland Pl. (betw. Spring & Kenmare Sts.)
343-9599
‘Allo, Geraahhrd!
We
like the treehouse feel of I Coppi’s backyard deck in the East Village,
and it’s very pleasant out back behind Chelsea Commons or neighboring Bottino,
or under an umbrella in Verbena’s backyard on Irving Pl. There are other
restaurants, mostly below 23rd St., where we like to eat outside of a summer’s
eve. But none quite has the character that Gerard’s courtyard arbor does,
and we come back and back and back. The canopy of grapevines overhead came in
really nicely this summer, thick and leafy, and did a great job of sheltering
you from/filtering out the noises and stinks of the city. A table near the brick
wall, candle flickering, bottle of wine, the excellent and good-natured service–friendliest
French waiters in the city, bar none–Gerard presiding over it all like
a Gallic bear: what could be more romantic and yet laid-back? And the food’s
been as fine this year as ever, especially the phenomenal bouillabaisse (what’s
that sound? spoons in the flickering dark scraping the bottoms of bowls) and
the great country-style pate.

There are those moments of idyll you sometimes have in a restaurant–usually,
for us, not a fancy and uptight one but a more leisurely bistro or trattoria–when
you’re feeling completely comfortable and happy and well-fed, you’ve
had a great meal with great friends and you look around and think kill me now,
Lord, it won’t ever get better than this. We’ve had more than a few
of those moments in Gerard’s backyard. And that’s why this winter,
the courtyard shut up tight, we’ll go back anyway, sit inside the bright
and lively room and stuff ourselves like medieval wassailers full of Gerard’s
marvelous cassoulet. Then lean back, sated, faces greasy, sipping a sweet dessert
wine (Gerard keeps one of the more interesting small cellars in town) and an
espresso, and dream of Summer 2000, when we’ll be out back once again,
in candlelight, under the grapes.

Best Candy Fad To Squelch
Gummi Pizza
When the Gummi Sun Hits Your Gummi Eye Like
a Big Gummi Pizza Pie, That’s…Disgusting.
A
Gummi pizza looks like a dozen Gummi bears that were left out on the sidewalk
on a hot summer’s day, squashed underfoot by a few hundred pedestrians
and then mashed into one ugly, motley mess. It is perhaps the least appetizing-looking
novelty candy we’ve ever seen, far worse than those Gummi worms. What’s
next, Gummi Snot? Gummi Puke? Gummi Dead Baby Birds?

How does it taste? How the hell should we know? You don’t think we’re
gonna eat this shit, do you?

Best Caribbean Fusion
Palmetta Plantation House
265 E. 78th St. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves.)
327-2012
Plantation Economy.

It’s shocking to discover how good the cooking is at this little-noticed
Caribbean fusion establishment. Not that it should be less than stellar, coming
from chef Avi D’Araujo (who was handed the mantle by Eric Neas). But the
place looks so bloody homey, what with the ceiling fans and dried leaves hanging
from the ceiling, that it lulls you into thinking you’re eating at a neighborhood
hole-in-the wall.

Then the food emerges from the kitchen, and all of a sudden you’re eating
large: diving into lobster and fennel ravioli in a ginger-cream sauce;
wolfing butterflied coconut chutney shrimp; chewing mahi mahi baked in a banana
leaf; and gnawing outstanding jerk chicken. There is also–as there shoul

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