Part Two Best Northern Tribeca Restaurant Sosa Borella …

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Part Two

Best Northern Tribeca Restaurant
Sosa Borella
460 Greenwich St. (betw. Watts & Desbrosses Sts.)
431-5093

The Bubby’s Alternative.
Tucked away in a low-profile part of Tribeca (probably not for long; developers
have finally discovered this fertile land), right below Canal St., Sosa Borella
is an Argentine/Italian restaurant that most New Yorkers haven’t heard
of. That’s a pity, because it’s one of the most reliable bistros we’ve
found in all of Manhattan. The staff is friendly, even bordering on the goofy:
One night the ponytailed waiter, in proper attire, told us that no shrimp was
available that night. “No shrimp?” we asked, since this isn’t
an edible that’s often scratched from the menu. No matter. As always, we
started with a crispy pizza–the eclectic selection includes small pies
topped with sausage, shallots and Gorgonzola, or anchovies, capers, olives,
tomatoes and parmesan–and then progressed to a tuna steak with tomato chimichurri
sauce.

But we’ve also had delicious white ravioli with spinach and ricotta, an
Argentine mixed grill of sausage, beef short ribs, chicken and mashed potatoes
or a simple filet mignon. No, the beef doesn’t match the quality of that
in Buenos Aires, but show us a steakhouse in Manhattan that can pull that trick
off and we’ll give you an entirely rare Beanie Baby.

Best Soda
Jeff’s Chocolate Soda Classic New York
Egg Cream
The Money Shot.
New
York, for all its being the center of the world and everything, is pretty lame
when it comes to good soda pop. There are a few, but most deli cold-shelves
are lined with the usual crap.

Then there’s Jeff’s Chocolate Soda Classic New York Egg Cream: 9.5
ounces of sweet, milky heaven in an elegant little bottle. Fuck Jack Newfield–this
magic potion’s better than that watery shit they sold at luncheonettes
30 years ago. Jeff’s Sodas go for a mere $1.50 a pop, but be sure to stay
away from the orange flavor, which is real swill. The chocolate egg cream’s
the money, and years from now, if you ever get yourself a city column in a tabloid,
you’ll be able to crow about how great this stuff was.

Best Downtown Bar
288
288 Elizabeth St. (betw. Houston & Bleecker Sts.)
260-5045
Duh! Duh! A Thousand Times Duh!

Comfort in a bar means more than sofas or overstuffed chairs (288 has barstools,
and the chairs are wooden); it means a warm reception–like the staff’s
glad you’re spending your money there, like you’re welcome
there. It means walking in and feeling you belong.

The entire 288 crew makes us feel that way the moment we enter the door. Doesn’t
matter if the place is packed with neophyte NYU students and icky M&R overflow
on Saturday night; Michael will spot us above the crowd, give a thumbs-up and
serve us right away. When we reach earshot, it’s not just what’ll
you have, but did you see that game today? Last week we asked him why a good
Irish lad such as himself loved baseball so much, and he treated us to a wonderful
story about falling in love with the game in 1989 while watching Frank Viola
pitch.

Suave Brian makes special trips from the far end of the bar to offer a grinning
hello, perhaps a bow, maybe even a kiss on the hand. Paul raised an eyebrow
recently when we ordered soda–didn’t say a word–because he knows
us. Don’t think we’ve seen Doggie raise his brow, but we’ve raised
ours when he regales us with stories about his trips to Mom’s in Canada.
Ruth not only takes care of us behind the bar, but is up for chat when we run
into her in the neighborhood, and when we repair to Houston & Elizabeth
late Monday nights after the paper goes to press, Linda takes care of our weary
bones, asking “How yas doin’?” and do we want the usual, or maybe
one of the elusive Rheingolds they’ve been stocking intermittently. Haven’t
seen Dominic in a coon’s age, but have no reason to believe his cordiality
has in any way diminished.

For color, there’s natty Jack Flynn holding court at the far end, always
glad to see a NYPresser, asking how so and so’s holding up, where’re
our new offices again and then give us a twirl in front of the jukebox. Baron,
Buddy, Buick and other associated neighborhood pooches complete a scene so homey
and inviting Rockwell may have just considered capturing it.

We’ve known owners Jo and Giles (third owner Jimmy stays behind the scenes)
since their pre-288 days at Milano’s–close to 10 years. They’re
frequently barside–see, the people who work there actually seem to like
one another–and to this day they take the time to halt their conversations
and greet us. Flip through past Best of Manhattans and you’ll see what
we were after when we bestowed this award: “Best New Bar” in 1994;
“Best After Work Bar” in ’95; “Best Bar Dogs” and “Best
Saturday Afternoon Bar” last year. There are others, but you get the picture.
It’s that welcome thing we mentioned.

Best Manhattan Imitation Of Barney Greengrass
in Beverly Hills
MTV Cafeteria
Viacom Bldg., 1515 Broadway (45th St.)
Invitation Only
A Couple of Barneys.

Say what you will about the Pressmans and their Chapter 11 shuffle, but out
at their West Coast Barneys New York store–which, appropriately, houses
Los Angeles’ Barney Greengrass location–they’ve contrived one
of L.A. County’s finest ways to greet the morning. True, Ron Rosenbaum
considers the chopped liver served at this sunwashed outpost of the Upper West
Side-based Barney “The Sturgeon King” Greengrass to be an insulting
imitation of the sublime original. But then again, who the hell eats chopped
liver in Southern California
? We’re sworn enemies of brunch, but we’ll
make an exception for Barney Greengrass in 90210. Why? Because you sit there,
out on the patio, in lush SoCal splendor, atop a debt-beleaguered but still
formidably chic retail paradise, allowing the mellowness to seep into your marrow
as the morning fog burns off and the Hollywood sign emerges into view and the
ocean breeze ruffles the collar of your linen shirt. You leave your sunglasses
on and drink several cups of superb coffee. Eat smoked salmon. Push your eggs
around your plate. Keep one eye peeled for a player. It’s all so Warren
Beatty.

And in Manhattan, unfortunately, there is no parallel experience to be had.
Perhaps because, of all the world’s important metropoli, New York is the
least conducive to al fresco anything. Time Cafe? Coffee Shop? Those places
give us the heebie-jeebies. Irving Place? Sure, it’s a logical site for
outdoor dining. But while that brief boulevard is pleasant, it sure isn’t
all of Beverly Hills laid out under a smog-smudged though still notably azure
sky and a fat Pacific sun.

No, to match this L.A. vibe in NYC–and you’ll just have to accept
the fact that there are at least a few L.A. vibes worth matching–we have
to cozy up to someone who works for that most un-New York of local media institutions,
Viacom. Because only by chumming with a pal who punches the clock for MTV or
VH1 can we wheedle our way into the cafeteria at 1515 Broadway, which features
a windswept patio offering fine vistas of Times Square’s upper reaches.
Times Square actually looks authentically like the future from up here, all
endless planes of mirrored glass and frantic signage, Jumbotrons and spooling
stock quotes. And, rising sleekly to the southeast, the cursed blue-gray spire
of the new Conde Nast building, which does not appear to us to be a structure
that will garner plaudits very far into the next century, but whatever–it’s
what goes on inside its venal warrens that really matters, anyhow. Smack in
the middle of a precipitation-challenged summer, there’s no other place
in Manhattan that can make us feel like we’ve scammed our way into Woody
Allen’s shiniest nightsweat, his own personal vertical hell–Tinseltown
East. And so what? Woody’s grubby limestone-and-sycamore prejudices are
yesterday’s postcards. We inhabit a new city, now less celebrated for its
greasily shadowed gutter ambience, its bonecruching winter tales, than for its
ambition to shun street life in favor of an eternal summer of arid high-rise
flash. Architects, we reckon, try to worm their way up here, past the fairly
slack guards and Carson Daly’s teenybopper micro-mobs, whenever they get
the urge to see what Blade Runner might have looked like if it hadn’t
been raining all the goddamn time. What can we say? We enjoy the view ourselves
a lot.

Best Upper Chelsea Deli
Healthy Choice
341 7th Ave. (29th St.)
279-9221
A Silver Lining.

Okay, so we were somewhat snookered when moving the NYPress offices from
the Puck Bldg. to 333 7th Ave. The price was right, the space was built to look
like a Lou Grant set and the pace of midtown is far preferable to sleepy
Soho. Still. When the water’s turned off on weekends and the elevators
either don’t work or drop several floors in a flash, that’s disturbing.
We don’t recommend this building to any growing business looking for a
new nest.

Still, there are consolations. At Healthy Choice, a 24/7 deli right up the
street, there’s the standard setup of salads, steam-table chicken, pizza
and sandwiches, newspapers, a full array of beer and soft drinks and all the
phony vitamins that kids like to swallow after ingesting too many drugs. Our
favorite aspect of Healthy Choice, however, is the gregarious workers who, after
maybe two visits, treat you like a regular. Some of the staff is from Yemen,
which makes for interesting dialogue behind the counter, and they’ll tell
you exactly what they’re saying in their Arabic. Also, they don’t
mind at all when your kids spin the chips and popcorn wheel round and round,
sometimes making a hash of the junk food. That’s because a lot of the workers
have children too, and are eager to proudly show you their wallet photos of
the little nippers. Tell us one deli in Soho where you’ll receive the same
welcome.

Best Pierogis
Stage Restaurant
128 2nd Ave. (betw. 7th St. & St. Marks Pl.)
No Phone

Did Marx Like Dumplings? Sad
thing: The East Village’s Veselka restaurant is thronged, night after night,
with a clientele willing to wait to eat the restaurant’s professional,
satisfying, but ultimately unexceptionable Eastern European food. Meanwhile,
a block down 2nd Ave., the humble Stage Restaurant–just a counter and a
plywood-paneled wall–serves its superior Ukrainian specialties up into
a void. Pass the Stage Restaurant on any given night, peer inside and you’ll
find yourself afflicted by a scene of pathos: a couple Ukrainian cousins sitting
at a counter slurping borscht; a series of unpopulated stools; glum Slavic Joes
with mustaches, turned half-cocked on their stools and staring off into the
yellow fluorescent space.

Not, we should make clear, that there’s anything wrong with the
Veselka. We love the place. It’s just that it’s a matter of emphasis.
Veselka’s a high-yield operation, priding itself on its admirable ability
to turn out good, professional cooking for succeeding mass waves of bargain
diners. That’s different from the mandate at the Stage, which functions
according to different margins, to a different, more humble economy–it
must daily attract about one twentieth of the Veselka’s patronage.

But let’s talk pierogis, and compare the two establishments’ potato
versions. Veselka’s: uniform, professional dumplings, each indistinguishable
from the other; pierogis for our postmodern era of effortless reproduction.
At the Stage, on the other hand, pierogis are obviously hand-pinched. They’re
misshapen entities the homeliness of which encodes the effort some human laborer’s
effort. And they taste better, too. The potato filling registers a depth of
buttery, seasoned flavor that’s absent from the product sold at the city’s
other, more established Ukrainian diners. The dough itself is a darker and less
refined thing–the product, no doubt, of a rolling-pin beatdown.

A competition between two neighboring Ukrainian diners? It’s both more
and less than that: economists should visit the pertinent stretch of 2nd Ave.
to witness a sociological marvel: a dominant mode of cultural production existing
in enduring juxtaposition with the residual. Drop by the Stage sometime, order
pierogis and borscht and do your part for the little guy.

Best Starter
“Five Little Dishes” at Union Pacific
111 E. 22nd St. (betw. Lexington Ave. & Park Ave. S.)
995-8500
A Fin’s Worth.

We still contend that Rocco DiSpirito is the city’s most inspired chef,
and recently he’s come up with a solution to the most vexing problem posed
by eating in great restaurants: deciding what the hell to eat. For those who
find themselves infuriating dining companions by poring over menus as if they
were Talmudic tracts, DiSpirito’s five little dishes represent a way to
decide without deciding. Each offers a combination of ingredients that add up
to a mouthful or two of intense flavor: Spanish mackerel with watercress and
quail egg; or sweet Taylor bay scallops with uni. DiSpirito’s admirably
hard on himself–witness his constant tinkering with his menus, as he replaces
crowd-pleasers with new dishes to avoid creative stagnation–and the five
little dishes offer more thrills than do entire meals at other restaurants.
Plus, you still get to look forward to your entree.

Best Lazy Afternoon Drunk
The Garden at d.b.a.
41 1st Ave. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Sts.)
475-5097
Solitude Sitting.

We like to come to the d.b.a. garden on weekdays at around 1 in the afternoon.
We’ll bring the dog, the mail, our terminally unfinished copy of Tom Frank’s
The Conquest of Cool, and work successive pints of whatever’s fresh
and on tap, straight through to the dinner hour. Talk about peace and quiet–the
waitresses here never hassle us.

When we get hungry, we order in food. And lest we feel too unproductive, there’s
always some trivial clerical matter to which we can attend–writing a check
or two, organizing our address book–that’ll lend our idyll the patina
of industry. Why, last month we even refinanced our mortgage from the same green
plastic chair we’re sitting in right now.

But the best time spent here is time spent doing nothing. A daylight drunk
in the shade of the birches lazing in semi-Arcadian splendor and loving the
fact that we’ve got another five hours to soak in peace and hops until
the charge of the young men, their suits and their cigars.

Best Ceviche
Bolivar
206 E. 60th St. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves.)
838-0440
Raw Dogs.

Actually, you’ll find a variety of ceviches at this new restaurant in the
space vacated by the long-running Arizona 206. Before you get to the marinated
fish, though, you’ll want to pickle yourself a bit with one of Bolivar’s
outstanding specialty drinks: pisco sours, a cosmopolitan mixed with homemade
cranberry tequila or the infamous “Libertador.”

Properly sedated, you can move on to some of the most extraordinary ceviche
in a town crammed with memorable renditions (Maya’s tomato-inflected marinated
mahi mahi springs to mind), ranging from “leche de pantera,” in which
the squares of sushi-quality tuna aren’t even marinated, just served raw
atop avocado slices and topped with a sauce made from rocoto peppers, or a carpaccio
of sea bass in a cilantro-lime marinade, spiked with shards of hot green amarillo
pepper. Bolivar would also earn honors for best arepas, if New York offered
it any real competition.

Best Breakfast
Fisherman’s Breakfast
Old Devil Moon
511 E. 12th St. (betw. Aves. A & B)
475-4357
Deep Breakfast.

Breakfast’s recently become fashionable amongst New York restaurateurs,
which has led to a remarkable improvement in the state of the art. Balthazar,
for example, serves breakfast starting at 7:30 a.m., offering a wonderful continental
menu (Balthazar’s coffee tastes good, which is, strangely enough, a rarity
amidst first-rank New York restaurants). Even establishments that don’t–like
the likable Balthazar–cultivate the welcoming atmosphere of the solid,
all-purpose, catholic Parisian neighborhood cafe have taken to serving up some
discerning variation on morning grits and toast. Want to break your fast at
the Mercer Kitchen? That culinarily unimpeachable establishment is there for
you early in the morning if you need it: breeze in with your bedhead, your Times
and enough mephobarbitals to redeem the 19-year-old mannequin at the next table
from the edgy remains of last night’s meth high and…well, who knows?
We were going to tell you that you’d score. But it’s early in the
morning, and maybe you won’t.

As fond as we are of Balthazar and the Mercer Kitchen and its fellows in the
business of serving high-end breakfasts, though, this award’s parameters
are different. We’re seeking to honor here the breakfast that’s most
rejuvenating–the most restorative–when your hungover body needs it
to be. Enter Old Devil Moon, the East Village wallet-chain-and-soulfood restaurant
that’s long been a favorite of ours for its cozy crowdedness, its goofy
kitsch decor, its excellent ham omelets, and–most pertinently here–its
Fisherman’s Breakfast, which consists of this: a large hunk of catfish,
blackened from the skillet and seasoned with God knows what; two eggs, which
we habitually order over easy; a biscuit, to be slathered with Old Devil Moon’s
remarkable preserves (you can opt for the sticky bun instead); a heap of sauteed
greens riddled with minced garlic; and a pool of grits glistening with butter.

Sound too heavy for breakfast? Well, but that’s the point. This is the
true redemptive stuff: precisely what you need when you’re coming off a
long night, your stomach’s torquing inside you, you’re feeling gnarly
as hell and every last trace of iron in your system was leached out by last
night’s river of beer. Grease, carbs, protein–all washed down with
Old Devil Moon’s fine coffee, and the whole affair weighing about a ton
and half, thus anchoring your queasy corporeality back to Mother Earth, reestablishing
your center of gravity. It’s good. It’s really good (and even
better if you order a plate’s worth of the restaurant’s ugly, wonderful
Bourbon cakes). If Bertie Wooster were smart, this is the meal Jeeves would
bring him on his hungover mornings.

Best Indian Fusion
Raga
433 E. 6th St. (betw. 1st Ave. & Ave. A)
388-0957
Honest Injun.
With
the rest of the city beating the drum for Tabla, we thought we’d focus
attention on the restaurant that plays David to Floyd Cardoz’s Indian fusion
Goliath. We’re not going to claim that the food at Raga surpasses what
Tabla’s turning out in terms of creativity, flavor or quality of ingredients.
But when it comes to that intangible that sentimentalists like ourselves refer
to as “heart,” Raga’s the clear choice.

While Cardoz’s culinary vision has to be translated through Tabla’s
army of sous-chefs, line chefs, prep chefs, waiters and expediters, Vijayan
Francis (following in the footsteps of his predecessor Gheetika Khanna) prepares
his cuisine in a humble, 50-square-foot kitchen with the assistance of only
a couple of capable prep chefs, so his artistic creations–goat cheese samosas,
Indian bouillabaisse–arrive all but unmediated, from his hands to your
mouth. It doesn’t hurt that Raga will set you back around half of what
Tabla costs, and with significantly friendlier service.

Best Brooklyn Bakery
Uprising
328 7th Ave. (betw. 8th & 9th Sts.), Brooklyn
718-499-8665
New Day Rising.

It’s like clockwork. At least once per week, weather permitting, we drag
ourselves out of bed, pull the crusher cap over our alarming hair, lace up the
sneakers half-way and wade with our jeans drooping off our ass through the early
morning sunshine toward Uprising, the Park Slope bakery that opened last fall
in the nick of time; soon enough, at any rate, to wean us off our shabby morning
diet of PowerBars and granola. We grab a selection of baked goods and a cup
of coffee at that friendly establishment, score a Post from the subcontinental
cat at the newsstand on our homeward swing, then climb our building’s stairs
to sit on the cool tar of our rooftop, read the box scores and eat our breakfast
in the rarefied light of a late-summer morning–listening to the garbage
trucks rattling and crawling on 7th Ave. below and watching the new sun playing
in the western distance against the cityscape: the lower Manhattan skyline,
of course, but also sooty Jersey City over yonder; and Liberty Island; and Staten
Island’s homely seafaring hills rising like a surfacing whale from the
blue-gray morning water; and, far to the south, a silvery peek of the Verrazano-Narrows
Bridge and the tugs and ferries churning up white froth on blue harbor. Sometimes–and
no kidding–the view from Brooklyn’s so gracious and pretty it kills
us. Brooklyn’s a seafaring town, low-slung and surrounded by water, and
on these early mornings, from what amounts to our widow’s perch overlooking
the harbor, you feel that.

But weren’t we talking about Uprising? Here’s the thing. Our constant
visits to Uprising have become such a pleasant part of our routine, such a necessary
component of our pre-meridian schedule some days, that when the bakery closed
for over a week for vacation through the Labor Day weekend, its lack represented
an actual impingement upon our quality of life, and made it–this sounds
stupid and forced, but it’s utterly sincere–more difficult to rise
in the morning. Partly that has to do with the pleasure of maintaining a morning
routine, to be sure; with being alive during those limpid hours when everybody
else is either comatose or jammed into a train. But it’s also got to do
with Uprising; with the quality of what the guy who used to sell weed in our
sophomore-year dorm used to call “the merchandise.” Consistently excellent
French roast coffee, buttermilk scones of a tremendous delicacy, substantial
rye scones, wonderfully soft and moist carrot and banana breads that are as
often as not pockmarked by huge, satisfying pockets of unresolved brown sugar,
a fruit foccaccia–stewed currants, raisins and apricot bits on a thick,
chewy crust–that hammers Balthazar’s version, and a number of wonderful
breads (peasant, walnut raisin, multigrain, sourdough rye, Kalamata olive),
loaves of which we bring as gifts for our baba when we visit her up in Queens.

All that from a minute storefront off 9th St., where a staff of helpful kids
are just friendly enough to make us feel welcome without bumming us out with
the usual muffin-joint And how are you today? cloyingness that
generally makes us find a new establishment to patronize.

Best Non-Scene Coffeehouse
Coffee Lounge
955 West End Ave. (107th St.)
531-4759
No Mellows Harshed Here.

Squarely within Columbia territory yet spiritually opposed to it, this basement
cafe is all about ambience: exposed brick walls, comfy armchairs and sofas,
cozy lighting, The Village Green Preservation Society on the stereo.
Patrons actually read the magazines and papers scattered about instead of scamming
on newcomers or chattering about how miserable they are. The Coffee Lounge space
used to be a fine used bookstore so maybe there’s some kind of real estate
karma at work.

Sandwiches, smoothies, gelato and, of course, coffee drinks are all good and
reasonably priced, but the real reason to go is just the relaxed and novel pleasure
of being out without making the scene. We’ll see if a recently added adjoining
bar spoils the mellow vibe.

Best Korean Barbecue
Kang Suh
1250 Broadway (32nd St.)
564-6845
Kim Kim Cheree.
Our
favorite of the Korean Row barbecues. Downstairs there’s a sushi parlor,
but the real deal is upstairs, where the tables have those holes in the middle
for the charcoal braziers, which are set in hot motion if you order at least
two barbecue items–the marinated steak slivers, the chicken (a little dull),
the shrimp, beef heart, etc. The scallion pancakes are splendid, and each diner
gets to share a lively array of kimchis, sauces, salads and a wad of lettuce
in which to wrap the main course. You also get raw garlic and green pepper,
and it’s tasty to cook those a bit on the grill. It’s no-nonsense,
pleasantly staffed and the beer’s cold.

Best Christmas Eggnog
La Rosita
2809 Broadway (betw. 108th & 109th Sts.)
663-7804
The Advent of a Terrible Hangover.

This stuff just doesn’t let up–which is probably why the serious middle-aged
fellow who mans the counter sometimes at this hectic, steamy and wonderful Cuban
greasy spoon on Broadway’s northern reaches slides it at you across the
formica with profound respect; with the ritualistic solemnity of a waiter serving
Hemingway characters; or else with the uncensuring blankness of an old clinic
hand as he slides a hit of methadone toward a gabbling, junk-quivering wreck.

Methadone? Sure, this so-called “Puerto Rican” eggnog is served in
the same styrofoam coffee cups in which methadone is. But it’s probably
more devastating than methadone. Methadone’s merely a synthetic opiate;
this stuff, on the other hand, is a terrifyingly pleasurable concoction
that represents the fruitful congress of dairy purity and distillate muscle,
spiked through with coconut shavings and ladled out to the Cuban and Dominican
curmudgeons who sit at La Rosita’s counter, day after day.

And so it shall be ladled out to you, too, if you’re smart enough to ask
for it. Come December, you’re advised to ride the IRT to 110th St., walk
the several southward blocks to point zero, consume a huge plate of chicken
stew with yellow rice and black beans and a couple of El Presidentes, and then
join the old men (huddled on stools under the joint’s riot of tinsel and
Christmas-light ticky-tacky and amidst the joyous Spanish chattering of the
waitresses) in drinking this superlative eggnog, one of the Advent season’s
little graces. The old men stare into the depths of their cups like absinthe
drinkers, contemplating…what? Long-lost Caribbean places, we guess, where
the hot sun shines long on Christmas and it’s not like here–here in
this afternoon darkness uptown where the winds pull up the scent of the icy
river and the dealer kids huddle in doorways against the wind, moving aside
for ladies entering with packages–they’re good Catholic boys–and
strands of colored lights shine against the tenements.

Still, drink enough of this thick, sweet, bracing stuff, and it’s not
so bad here uptown after all. Afterward you walk half-drunk down Broadway and
look back at the restaurant–it glows with light and color, like a cabin
on a plain–and the cold air’s against your face, and the smell of
snow. Merry Christmas after all.

Best Unnecessary Restaurant Revamping That Turned
Out Fine
Siena
200 9th Ave. (betw. 22nd & 23rd Sts.)
633-8033
Gift Horse, Mouth.
So
what was so wrong with Luma, anyway? Such was the question we posed to ourselves
when part-owner Scott Bryan shuttered that superb, moderately priced New American
fusion restaurant of his to refurbish the joint and reopen it as something new.

No worries, as the something new turned out to be Siena, a superb, moderately
priced Italian restaurant featuring innovative, intensely flavored dishes that
rival Babbo’s in quality while undercutting them by about 30 percent in
price. (There remain, to be sure, differences. For one thing, you’re dining
at Babbo in a luxurious converted carriage house, while at Siena you’re
eating in a clamorous beige box.)

The Tuscan food–which ranges from prosciutto and figs to ricotta ravioli
in sage-infused brown butter–doesn’t get much better at this price
point (although we also like Acquario), and the staff’s friendly. We actually
prefer this place to Bryan’s elegant new Park South flagship, Veritas.

Best Mexican Restaurant
Mexican Radio
250 Mulberry St. (betw. Prince & Spring Sts.)
343-0140
Nobody Goes There Anymore, It’s Too Crowded.

One of our favorite Mexican dishes is chile rellenos, but it wasn’t till
this tiny cantina opened in Little Italy almost three and a half years ago that
we actually found good rellenos in Manhattan. For a while they were only specials,
and we’d eagerly look on the chalkboard for them. Now they’re on the
menu and the spicy, spongy, cheesy wonders are available on demand.

Those rellenos’d be enough in our book for Mexican Radio to capture this
award. Add to it the outstanding nachos and chicken fajitas; the carnitas–sweet
and tangy grilled pork marinated in citrus and garlic; the enchiladas–especially
the mole; the burritos–especially the Cajun. Hell, add everything on the
menu, plus the incredibly nice, accommodating staff.

We still visit the fabulous Mi Cocina; and the fancy midtown Mexicans get our
pesos from time to time. We even make special trips to Gabriela’s all the
way up west. But for consistent, fresh, marvelous Mexican, it’s Mexican
Radio. Beware the small quarters, though there’s a lovely bench outside
on which to cool your heels. If you’re really lucky, you live close enough
to order delivery. Best yet, go on a weekday for lunch, when you can relax and
savor the wonderful food and margaritas in peace.

Best Bar to Meet a Man Who Claims to Have Been
Driving Teddy Kennedy’s Car When It Took the Plunge at Chappaquiddick
Rudy’s
627 9th Ave. (44th St.)
No Phone
Glub Glub Glub.

“Aha!” he cried, “a young couple in for a drinky-winky, eh?”
The Mrs. froze; we nodded. “Ever seen Days of Wine and Roses? Aaaahh,
you’re too young for that one. Fucking kids.”

We’d come in for an afternoon drink. Just one beer before resuming our
Sunday stroll. We had been there just a few minutes before he bounded off his
bar stool and began his rant. Tall, scrawny, wearing red checkered golf pants,
an ugly shirt and a Yankees cap, he looked a bit like Tommy Smothers, only drunken
to the point of emaciation.

“I know, I know–you just want to be left alone for your drinky-winky.
But this is important.” His big hands would fly about crazily and then
slap together in a tight clutch, only to come loose again. “You kids are
young, but you need to know the truth. Ted Kennedy, you know who that is?”

Insulted, we both noted that we did.

“When he plunged his car in Chappaquiddick? You know? He wasn’t driving.
I was. I was driving the car. It was a black Ford. You can look that up! I DROVE
THE CAR! HE WAS IN THE BACK SEAT FOOLIN’ AROUND WITH THE GIRL. BUT I DROVE
THE CAR! You see?”

We’ve seen him there three or four times since. Every time, somebody gets
the rant.

Best Midtown Szechuan
Wu Liang Ye
36 W. 48th St. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.), 398-2308
More Juicy Buns, Please!

The excellent, moderately priced Wu Liang Ye is worth going to midtown for.
We don’t even mind fighting the Rockefeller Center crowds and the conveyor
belt avenues of workaday stiffs knowing that this temple of traditional Szechuan
cuisine awaits us. Competition being what it is these days, one is often forced
to choose between frill-free cheap and easy, or a waitstaff attitude that can
only be appealing to the self-loathing. Not at Wu Liang Ye. The service is efficient
and friendly, and like the brownstone parlor floor space that the white-tableclothed
restaurant occupies, it is pleasant and comfortable without the slightest trace
of pretension. They don’t play with their food here–no architectural
constructions, nouveau flares of freaked-out fusion–just plates heaped
with premium ingredients expertly combined into dishes served family style without
bells or whistles (our table had a lazy Susan). Try the Kung Pao (sauteed chicken
with roasted chili and peanuts), baby eggplant with spicy garlic sauce, shredded
camphur tea smoked duck with spring ginger, wok-roasted prawns with pepper-spiced
salt, braised pan-seared tofu with Szechuan chili-sliced pork and the steamed
mini juicy pork buns. Everything we had was supreme, and the absence of fanfare
gave us the opportunity to focus on the incredible range of flavors and textures.

Best Williamsburg Restaurant
Diner
85 Broadway (Berry St.), Brooklyn
718-486-3077
The Odeon of the Future, If They’re Smart.

No, it’s not Plan Eat Thailand or Vera Cruz–though those two are just
fine with us. The thing is that Williamsburg is by now so thoroughly a grungy-posh
postcollegiate bedroom community; so homey and domesticated a simulacrum of
what undergraduate living must be among the non-Euro population at Brown. The
difference is that Providence’s Portuguese have yielded to Brooklyn’s
Dominicans, who maintain cleaner bodegas even if they whistle louder at white
ass, and the streets smell marginally worse than they do on College Hill. But
the point is that Williamsburg’s by now been domesticated, and we’re
inclined to honor a restaurant the ambience of which is consistent with that
domesticity: with the fact that Williamsburg’s no longer a grotty frontier,
but a familiar place for young white people to come home to, and in which,
most nights, they’ll be looking for good, inexpensive, regular food,
and not the spiky, though fine, Asian or Mexican concoctions offered by Plan
Eat Thailand, Vera Cruz or any of the other…interesting establishments in
the area.

Thus Diner, right off Bedford Ave. in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge,
on Williamsburg’s less thoroughly conquered southern margins. Diner? Oh
yes, it’s a converted diner, all right: a fine, low-slung little old beauty,
at 76 years of age. And Diner–which is run by people who used to be involved
with Balthazar and Odeon, two of our favorite restaurants on Earth–isn’t
only a good, cheap restaurant, but it’s the perfect one for its neighborhood.
The damn place looks Time Out New York art-directed: bedheaded dudes
at the bar with their slender chicks, and everybody kind of…perfect…in That
Great White Williamsburg Way…

And that’s fine. Anyway, we go for the food, which is as appealingly
simple and easy to live with as the restaurant’s typed-out menu. A good
burger? Six-fifty. With cheese? An even seven. Half a well-roasted half-chicken?
A mere nine bucks. A steak with fries? Fifteen smackers.

And so on down the thrifty line. The chocolate cake and the cheese plate are
estimable desserts, the bar’s a fun place to hang around in its own right
and everybody’s so goddamn good-looking and young. Maybe that’s why
we go back: to feel that we’re still part of all that, somewhat, even as
time marches on.



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