Part Three Best Goyishe Bagels La …

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Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Speakeasy
Dusk
147 W. 24th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.)
924-4490
But Don’t Walk Into the Pool Table.
Whenever we tell someone to meet
us at Dusk, we go through a routine of explaining exactly where it is. Its frontage
is so humble, looking like a nondescript storefront with heavy curtains behind
the glass, that half the time people walk right past it anyway. We like that
about the place. Low-key is good in a drinking establishment. And harder than
ever to find. Not that Dusk hasn’t been discovered, just that it’s
rarely mobbed at the hour we tend to drop by, just after work. We hang at the
bar in the back usually, as opposed to the banquettes near the pool table. Sean
knows our libation preferences and sets us right up. We chat with Phil and Trish,
when the former’s not off climbing K2. It’s nice and dark, the music
trends toward the triphoppy, it’s a cool, relaxing environment for some
rounds and chatter. Cheers, kids.

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

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

Best Lunch
Before You Ride the Train Home for Christmas
Oyster Bar
Grand Central Terminal
Lower Level
42nd St. (Park Ave.)
490-6650
Winter’s Tale.
Because, see, we’re generally heading upstate for
Christmas on the Hudson Line, and we find ourselves–so to speak–in
the neighborhood. We love dropping into this great restaurant any time of the
year, but it’s even better during the Christmas season, when the renovated
Grand Central Terminal’s decked in its elegant, severe holiday equipment
and a more rarefied variety of light sifts through the high windows to fill
the great barrel-vaulted hall. Replete with the optimism that fills us when
we’re going home for Christmas, we invariably choose to take a later
train, and lope down the ramp toward the Oyster Bar for beers and oyster pan
roasts at the counter, either alone or with a friend or two, depending on who’s
coming with us.

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

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

Best Pre-Packaged
Sushi
Citarella
2135 Broadway (75th St.)
1313 3rd Ave. (75th St.)
874-0383
Sushi Boy.
Pre-packaged sushi-to-go is a great addition to workers’
lunchtime routines. It’s handy and healthy. Much better for you than that
dog on the corner. Still, with pre-packed sushi you’re taking a chance
that, at the very least, it won’t be exactly fresh.

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

Best Way-West
After-Work Bar
The Half King
505 W. 23rd St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.)
462-4300
Perfect. No Sturm.
We work in a building that’s so far west it’s
practically falling off the edge of Manhattan. There’s no such thing as
“West Chelsea” over here: it’s just parking garages, our enormous,
warehouse-like building and the river. And, actually, we love it. We love that
it’s not a horribly carpeted Midtown media behemoth; we love the elevator
operator who trades gossip with us about fellow building resident Susan Sontag;
we love it even through its quirks: faulty air conditioning, broken elevators,
fake “gas leaks” that trigger useless building evacuations. The main
problem, though, is that there’s no after-work bar. No ol’ watering
hole. We can order in for lunch, but we’re screwed for end-of-the-day drinks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Wine
List
Babbo
110 Waverly Pl. (betw. MacDougal St. & 6th Ave.)
777-0303
Salute!
Oh, how torn we were with this one! Gotham veritably abounds in
terrific wine lists these days, not to mention splendid sommeliers. Gramercy
Tavern’s list is superbly curated, broad, adventurous, but not overwhelming.
Ditto 11 Madison Park’s. The Red Cat offers a tight selection of quality
stuff at reasonable prices–a sign that there’s some thoughtfulness
at work. Savoy, year after year, delivers strong, and Meigas is the place to
go if it’s Spanish wine you seek. Veritas continues to maintain the city’s
most legendary–and widely discussed–list. However, we’re going
with Babbo for two reasons. First, Italian wine–of which there is nothing
else in Mario Batali’s grandest restaurant–is enjoying a heyday. A
stupendous amount of glorious juice is flowing from the boot, everything from
Barolos to Chiantis to the wines of Sicily, and though the Italians are still
struggling with their whites, improvement is imminent. Second, the reverence
that Babbo accords the service of wine is, currently, second to none.

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

Best Birthday
Cakes
Cupcake Cafe
522 9th Ave. (39th St.)
465-1530
Sweet and Sour.
For a bakery shop-cum-luncheonette with such a cutesy name
and a mission to fill people with sweetness, there’s always a weirdly edgy
and tense atmosphere when we’re in Cupcake Cafe, a sense that things are
perpetually teetering on the brink of some ontological chaos and the whole operation
could come down around your harried server’s ears at any moment, to be
sucked away into a collapsing vortex of doom and disaster from which no tasty
cakes, nay, not a single jimmy-sprinkled cupcake will ever emerge again. The
staff, as though hyperaware that the gaping maw of the endless void is yawping
at their heels, always seems distracted and disorganized; it’s the sort
of place where the staff seems surprised to see customers, as though you haven’t
walked into a shop but barged into a private kitchen where there just happen
to be a lot of ladies baking a lot of cakes and pies in some sort of communard
spirit. Always somebody’s order is wrong or not ready, or somebody’s
arguing that the price is more than was quoted over the phone, and the customers
milling around the narrow space–this one just dropping in for a single
treat, that one picking three dozen fancy party trays–elbow and jockey,
adding another layer of confusion. Plus, the off-to-one-side location is a pain
in the ass; there’re always half a dozen people outside fighting over cabs
with cake boxes under their arms. There should be a permanent taxi stand on
the corner.

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

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

Best Uncrowded
L.E.S. Bar
The Saint
105 Stanton St. (betw. Ludlow & Essex Sts.)
646-654-1293
Santa Cerveza.
With its medieval decor and good list of imported beers,
the Saint remains one of the few uncrowded LES bars on a weekend night. We stumbled
into this place on a Saturday evening drinking binge to discover only three
others sitting at the bar. We found it odd to be tippling among so few. The
upstairs is quiet, comfy and easy on the conversation, while the downstairs
area features live music by Frank Bambara y Sus Salseros most Saturday evenings.
The Saint has several draft beers including Bass and Brooklyn; they also stock
nearly 30 hard-to-find imports, all at prices you’d pay for most domestic
drafts a few blocks over. Too soon the hipsters will discover the Saint and
we’ll have to search again, but until then you can find us here weekends,
sipping one of our favorite Polish beers.

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

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

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

Best Mexican
Restaurant for Europeans
Casa Mexicana
133 Ludlow St. (Rivington St.)
473-4100
Greater Eurobeans.
Casa Mexicana is characterized by neither of Manhattan
Mexican dining’s two dominant reflexes: toward the upscale, as defined
by such good, kind of expensive, restaurants as Maya or Zarela; or toward the
pestilent, as defined by any number of high-yield dumps like Tortilla Flats,
where first-year associates assemble after work for greasy tacos, frozen margaritas
and publicists.

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

Best Happy
Brunch Accident
Docks
2427 Broadway (betw. 89th & 90th Sts.)
724-5588
Liquid Brunch.
In general, we aren’t big fans of the Upper West Side.
There’s always such a creepy feeling in the air up there. But Sunday brunch
at Docks is helping cure us of that, in its own way.

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

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

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

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

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

Best Restaurant
Bathrooms
Casa
72 Bedford St. (Commerce St.)
366-9410
Never Been Price-Checked.
It’s true, we admit it: When we go to use
the can during a dinner out we like to get the sense that the establishment
has invested some thought in the environment that surrounds the bowl, the urinal,
the toilet paper holder, the “employees must wash hands before returning
to work” sign. And at Casa, we get more than thought–we get restrooms
that are every bit the equal of the restaurant’s decor, pretty much our
favorite in town: white walls and dark wood and, everywhere, adorable little
toys, presumably of Brazilian lineage, because that’s what they do at Casa.
They do Brazilian, and they do it fine.

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

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

Best Post-Funeral
Restaurant
Leshko’s
111 Ave. A (7th St.)
777-2111
Last Rites, Late Supper.
You’re of New York Ukrainian descent, you
can count on beets, Shevchenko’s nationalist verse, taxes and eventually
lying in state in the venerable Jarema Funeral Home, on 7th St. off Ave. A.
Jarema’s is the Ukrainian-American’s terminus ad quem: quite
simply, and without your having much say in the matter, it’s where you’ll
go when you die, regardless of what other subsequent plans the pertinent authorities
have been drafting for you. It’s comforting–this realization that,
whatever peasant void your ancestors emerged from, you’ll end up at Jarema
for a couple days on your return journey to the chthonic muck. It’s something,
at least, that the members of an immigrant community can count on.

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

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

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

Best Manhattan
Wine Store that Isn’t Crossroads
Best Cellars
1291 Lexington Ave. (betw. 86th & 87th Sts.)
426-4200
www.bestcellars.com
Wine in a Box.
Credit Josh Wesson and his business partners with reinventing
the wine store as we knew it–and successfully defending their achievement,
from vulgar imitators, in court. Back in ’98, Best Cellars looked as if
it were just the latest example of the rapid Starbucksification of the Upper
East Side, where nostalgia and charm are being left behind by the banker-dorm
residents of 2nd Ave. in their mad rush to get down to the Street and kick
some ass
–nostalgia and charm, like Hungarian butchers and Yorkville
kraut cookiesellers, left to the shuffling old bags and the yammering malodorous
retirees who stalk the neighborhood’s spotless corridors, hollering inanities
and ethnic curses at doormen, while all the New Economy’s stripling champions
of youth and grace are a hundred blocks south, raking it in.

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

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

Best Soup
Dumplings Without Having to Wait in Line
Goody’s
1 E. Broadway (Chatham Sq.)
577-2922
The Place Is Called…
The dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai are justly desirable,
but there is often a line of eager nondieters waiting their turns. The version
at Goody’s is as fine, and the restaurant is much larger, and we’ve
never had to wait. There is an interesting night manager who will steer you
to unusual foods to follow the dumplings if you ask. Prices are neat too. But
no wine or beer.

Best Gay
Coffeehouse in Chelsea
Big Cup
228 8th Ave. (betw. 21st & 22nd Sts.)
206-0059
Cruise, Sulk, Lounge, Eat.
Fabulous. That’s not exactly the reaction
we thought we’d have when we finally got around to checking out Chelsea’s
most infamous coffee shop, or the “bar without the booze,” as it’s
affectionately referred to by the regulars. We’d always heard stories about
the meat-market atmosphere from our friends, and had been told to beware of
the violation one feels upon walking into Big Cup–or, as one friend advised:
“Just be sure to bring lots of extra attitude.” In fact, a particularly
dramatic friend of ours said that on entering the 8th Ave. establishment, gay
men are rated numerically by a panel of New York’s bitchiest queens.

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

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

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

Best Sandwiches
Bottino Take-Out
248 10th Ave. (betw. 24th & 25th Sts.)
206-6766
Our Mouth Floods Just Thinking About Them.
We know we’re repeating
ourselves, but the lunch options around our 333 7th offices blow. Other than
the estimable Manhattan Hero, our choices pretty much run the gamut from garbage
to crap. So it was like God forking over a miracle when we discovered the takeout
offshoot of the fine Bottino over in West Chelsea.

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

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

Best Bartenders
in Manhattan
Seamus and Eric
O’Hanlon’s
349 E. 14th St. (betw. 1st & 2nd Aves.)
473-9431
Irish Ayes.
Maybe, as a wise man once claimed, genius is the ability to
make a difficult thing look easy. If so, then Seamus and Eric are a couple of
drinking-culture Einsteins. They work the long bar at O’Hanlon’s so
well, and with such apparent ease, that it takes a while to sink in just how
hard they’re working. Bartending is never an easy job, especially in a
New York that’s crowded by now with kids stinking of money and entitlement,
but even under the difficult circumstances, Seamus and Eric are exceptional.
Many’s the night we’ve seen them service a five-deep crowd for hours
without breaking a sweat, bitching or keeping anybody waiting for more than
about 12 seconds. And we’ve never been able to hit the seat cushion before
one of them’s already waiting and smiling, bidding us good evening (or,
as it sometimes happens, good morning) and asking what we’ll be having.
The understated professionalism and warmth they generate make the process of
having a pint after a bad day an ennobling experience. O’Hanlon’s
might not be the fanciest place in town, but Seamus and Eric make it one of
the classiest.

Best Bruschetta
Frank
88 2nd Ave. (betw. 5th & 6th Sts.)
420-0202
It’s Toasted.
Bruschetta, really great bruschetta, relies on the integration,
and yet integrity, of three essential ingredients: crusty bread, perfect tomatoes
and fresh garlic. Skimp on any of the three and your bruschetta will flounder.
It will be soggy or insufficiently crunchy or lacking in tomatoey zip. The color
will be bad. No one will want to eat it.

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

Best Fish
Soup
Roc
190-A Duane St. (Greenwich St.)
625-3333
Rocco and His Lobsters.
Roc, the new Tribeca Italian, is awarded an overall
“Best of” in this section, but we wanted to single out their zuppetta
di pesce della penisola for special honors. We love all kinds of fish soup–cioppino,
bouillabaisse, zuppa di pesce. The zuppetta di pesce at Roc is the best new
variation to hit town since Gerard’s killer bouillabaisse at Le Jardin.
The broth is rich, and the seafood varies with the seasons. One night last July
it included scallops, shrimp and an entire (small) lobster tail. Coming after
an appetizer of succulent grilled langoustine, with a crisp, cold white wine–we
thought we’d died and returned to Sorrento.

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

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

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