December 28, 1998 | Insatiable Critic
Where to Eat in 1999
Could I ever be jaded? Impossible. Not in a town where chefs create fusion in a teacup at the drop of a yuzu. And untold exotic cuisines still lurk in the wings, waiting to be deconstructed. I always said I would pay the magazine if it didn't pay me to eat my way across town. I dreamed up this annual feature as an excuse to revisit my favorites. So when friends call for hot tips, here's what I tell them.
Of all that's new this year, where would you go back in a flash?
I remember the Staten Island ferry floating in dazzling noontime sunshine from our table at American Park. But it's just as magical at night with Ms. Liberty illuminated and flavorful food handsomely mounted. Zesty cooking, the Middle Eastern touches, and the warm good looks and well-spaced tables would bring me back to Scarabée. I'm not sure I can handle the gamble of its no- reservation policy, but I'll be back to try my luck at the sushi bar of Next Door Nobu, a harmony of handsome texture and quiet detail from the often raucous Rockwell Group. La Fourchette, with Marc Murphy at the stove, trots out white-tablecloth ambition and refinement in a neighborhood that needs it. I'm embarrassed to confess I actually relished most of the outrageously ridiculous fusions at Cena -- rococo edibles in a sternly minimalist setting. A friend's parody of the menu, "wild greens hand-gathered by Druids in the moors bordering Loch Macawber with a persimmon-oil- lavender vinaigrette," in no way detracts from the real prose: fried squid on a salad of Chinese long beans, cipollini onions with mint and pineapple sauce. Good grief.
Got something against Babbo?
Babbo confounds me. Serious gourmands line up to eat at the bar, but I've been blissed and miffed in the same meal twice. The crew is still not quite trained. Maybe I started out cranky when my chickpeas -- admittedly delicious -- went flying off their crostini and the waiter observed: "It happens to everyone." So fix the damned chickpeas. Mash them a little so they stick, for Heaven's sake. And how can the beef-cheek ravioli that usually has me swooning suddenly become so gummy? But there are triumphs for every flub. The linguine and clams glow with pepper fire. The calamari "Sicilian-lifeguard-style" is sheer macho. And I'm wild for pasta al ceppo with black cabbage, toasted garlic, and bread crumbs -- even though all my tablemates insist al dente still means cooked through. Outside on the sidewalk, my guests muttered, "The emperor is naked." But there's not enough evidence yet for me to impeach.
I'm in a seafood mood.
The Sea Grill at Rockefeller Center has mellowed into a landmark without a hint of stodge. Sitting at the window as skaters soar toward us, I try not to eat too much creamy chowder, saving myself for Thai mussels, exquisite tuna, and the demanding chocolate cake. Lunch at Oceana is a series of flavor compositions: salmon tartare wrapped in smoked salmon with pea shoots and Osetra. Lobster ravioli in a tomato-basil broth with real acid oomph. And Chilean sea bass in a barely jelled chunk (as requested) with vegetable julienne and a yuzu kick. Aquagrill's winning ways with sea creatures makes it worth a costly detour for me. I've had char that was a miracle of perfection at Estiatorio Milos and been satisfied with crab cakes and swordfish the way I like it (rare) at Ocean Grill.
I've never experienced less than an epiphany on any of my recent extravagant dalliances at Le Bernardin. Of course, we were known and my guest is a regular. "Dazzle us," he said. From the complex salmon rillettes and perfect oysters, chef Eric Ripert's missives kept interrupting the conversation. Tuna tartare layered on endive with dots of a haunting sauce ravigote. Baby-clam seviche with jalapeño (the French captain pronounced the j). A timbale of langouste in fragile bits on a puddle of buttery champagne-chive broth. Possibly the best shrimp dumpling a wonton ever wrapped. One of those diver-harvested sea scallops atop celery-root purée with carrot-chili oil. And on and on and on into the afternoon, tiny tastes, different for each of us, through something demonic that should be called "triple-threat ganache" and pineapple crumble. ("We are become so American," cries Maguy LeCoze.) Then chocolates so tiny I have to eat three.
Breakfast is my favorite meal.
Breakfast is primordial for everyone I know who equates French toast or biscuits with Mom and unconditional love. That's why I think the Parker Meridien's spiffy Norma's, with its exuberant all-day breakfast, is worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. Pancakes by a mom on Prozac. Fruit smoothies. A duo of croissants oozing smoked-salmon-flecked scrambled eggs. A deuce of poached eggs atop duck-confit hash. Nothing is less than outsize at TriBeCa's Kitchenette either, though the breakfast special -- two eggs, bacon, and cheese on loveable homemade biscuits with coffee -- costs more after 11 a.m. There's no snooze-you-lose tax on the gingerbread waffles with pumpkin butter. And my quest for the cherry pie of my midwestern childhood is finally -- well, almost -- satisfied. It is awfully close to lunch, and Kitchenette's plump exuberant beauty, a now-and-then special or baked custom order, is only a tad too sweet.
Corn arepas, elegant orange- sour-cream doughnuts, and eggs with a truly wondrous biscuit at Campo in the Village make it worthwhile to get out of bed before noon. Breakfast gets a curtain call after midnight at the Brooklyn Diner: sturgeon with scrambled eggs and onions, or my favorite, "the mixed-marriage" (eggs baked into challah with hot Italian sausage, roasted peppers and polenta).
Where should we andiamo for Italian?
Felidia is as warm and pampering as ever, with a new breath of energy at the range. Sauces are lighter, pastas still wonderful; and entrées get deftly tweaked. Remi is grander and more ambitious than most Venetian canteens, exactly why I like it. Miraculously, Bar Pitti keeps its side-street-in-Florence feel and authentic Tuscan fare. Puglianese and Sardinian cooking, the fireplace in winter, the garden in summer, are the draw at i Trulli. I prefer the Tuscan specialties at Osteria del Circo, where my after-theater supper is pizza and a glass of champagne at the bar. Mark Strausman honors his adopted cucina with considerable style at Campagna. Success at San Pietro has given the Bruno brothers courage to dip deeper into the cuisine of their native Salerno. Il Mulino is a garlicky Heaven of delicious excess, but you won't find me suffering the torturous wait unless I'm with a regular who can cut the line. Stop by Trattoria Dell'Arte for the mixed-antipasto platter before Carnegie Hall, and you may spot Craig Claiborne eating his inevitable chicken-liver crostini with a martini. At lunch, look for Tina Brown and maybe the infamous Lucianne.
Is there one particular chef you're high on?
I am happily thrown off balance by the poetry and complexity -- indeed, the unbridled chutzpa -- of Rocco DiSpirito's cooking at Union Pacific. Spunked up by glowing response to his bravura, he is hawking a $350 Menu Luxe Louis XIII -- eight courses, including a flight of caviars, white-truffle-and-langoustine soup, and charred Kobe beef with Thai ginger. If one gemlike boucheful on the house amuses, how about three for $20 extra, or five for $30, on the $59 prix fixe? An exquisite trio of miniatures -- sea-urchin-spiked blue-fin and fluke morsels, charred mackerel in pear-champagne vinaigrette, and caviar-bearing quail egg-in-a-hole -- wake up our taste buds for the alchemy that follows: a masterly toss of sweetbreads and quail touched with apricot-black-truffle vinaigrette. The cassolette of white-truffle risotto beside its mini-cassolette of shrimp-tomato fondue is an homage to Gray Kunz, says DiSpirito. But Nantucket scallops with lamb's tongue, and his mysterious white-curry tripe with cod cheeks in a haze of lemongrass, galanga, and kaffir leaf, can have sprung only from his own feverish cortex.
Sometimes I get so homesick.
Home is an homage to growing up well-fed in the heartland. But it is tiny and always booked, so I'm happier tucked into a booth in its roomier offshoot, Drovers Tap Room, sharing James Beard's parsley salad with country ham, rich iron-skillet macaroni, lamb pot roast, or the slow-cooked pork shank. Sometimes, I just need a great burger with the house-made ketchup. Actually, chef Larry Forgione is Beard's earliest and most dedicated disciple. Taste the legacy at An American Place with its wonderful chowders, cedar-planked salmon, berry shortcake, and double-chocolate pudding. Soul food at Sylvia's in Harlem will cure those homesick blues (but avoid Sunday breakfast if you're allergic to tour buses). Settling into Blue Ribbon or the Blue Ribbon Bakery is like melting into Grandma's arms. The Bromberg brothers will feed you whatever you long for -- roasted peppers with an anchovy purée, corned-beef sandwich, veal pot pie, or potato latkes. Virgil's Real BBQ and Tennessee Mountain might not convince a Texan or a southern expat, but I have daydreams about those ribs. And there's fresh-baked bread and slow-cooked lamb at Bouterin, just like maman used to make.
Tell me the dishes that made you moan.
Nantucket bay scallops with white-truffle broth at The Four Seasons. Pig's feet, beef shanks, and foie gras terrine at Eleven Madison Park. Bay scallops with uni, mustard oil, and tomato water at Union Pacific. Tuna tartare at Tropica. Truffle-crusted salmon with red-wine sauce at Montrachet. Ravioli of celery root and black truffles in truffle beurre blanc at Lespinasse. Roasted rabbit on risotto with green peas and a hint of mint at Bolo in the spring. The just-baked bread that never stops coming at Pasha. Turbot filet in champagne-caviar butter with oysters and leeks at Le Bernardin. Jean Georges's heady chestnut soup with mushroom ravioli. Forbidden Broadway, a sundae so monstrously awesome it terrified a child at the next table in Serendipity. Lusty pasta al ceppo with black cabbage, toasted garlic, and bread crumbs at Babbo. Wednesday's special jerk-chicken lunch from Yvonne's Jamaican Mobile Restaurant: The truck is parked at 71st Street near York Avenue. And cheese-smeared corn on the cob at Café Habana.
What do you do when the chef gets restless?
When chefs roam, I follow. Often the uprooting brings a jolt of fresh energy. When Christian Delouvrier moved to Lespinasse, I was ready with a yawn, expecting vapid fussy food to match that vapid, fussy room. But the challenge of stepping into Gray Kunz's clogs has lifted Delouvrier to a new level of creativity. As in his ragout of tiny vegetables with scattered salt crunch, lush butternut-squash soup with duck breast and foie gras, venison in two chapters served side by side, and magnificent suckling pig with cassoulet beans. Chef Remi Lauvand, recruited from Tropica, has brought a welcome Escoffier gloss to Montrachet. There's just enough cream in the champagne sauce blanketing the oysters, just enough butter in the lobster garbure and the roasted sweetbreads, to make Montrachet fans feel pleasantly dissolute. Franck Deletrain has never been better than now, swimming with the fishes at Tropica. In a town infatuated with tuna tartare, his miso-ginger-wasabi-touched rendition is stellar. For winter, he floats poached-halibut-and-pumpkin dumplings in lobster consommé with white truffle and sears sea scallops on quinoa with oxtail soffrito. Chef Bill Telepan was orphaned when the persnickety West Side failed to support Ansonia, so now he brings welcome brio and flavor astonishments to Judson Grill with such voluptuous notions as foie gras in a mini-pumpkin, his sheep's-milk-ricotta gnocchi with truffles, and sea-urchin-shrimp-and-leek stew. Iced quince-pomegranate soup makes a jolting thrill of a finale.
I can't find my way in the maze of Chinatown anymore.
Chinatown has many secrets. I wish I knew them. Once in a while I stumble on a find. Alas, raves have left Joe's Shanghai with the mechanical hum of a factory assembly line. But now there's a tsunami of new Shanghai feeding spots flaunting that city's famous soupy buns, so-called because they spurt all over the table if you're not an expert slurper. Goody's, of Rego Park, where I first sampled the supernal dumplings of Shanghai, has begat an offspring on Chatham Square. Try flaky turnip pastry, sweet crispy eel, marvelous Shanghai noodles with seafood, or starchy rice cake with squid, shrimp, and scallion. Torrid Sichuan-peppered prawns are a must. The family that once ran the beloved Say Eng Look has opened New Green Bo with glaring light, glass-topped tables, and an unusually friendly welcome. After the obligatory steamed dumplings, we share tiny boiled shrimp, exquisitely delicate, with seaweed (to scoop up in a soup spoon and sprinkle with vinegar), excellent tong po pork, carp tail with brown sauce, and winter-melon soup with dried young bamboo shoots. And Shanghai Cuisine is that rare duck, a Chinatown spot with style, as well as fried seaweed with peanuts, hot and gingery bean-noodle casserole with crabs, the classic braised pork with brown sauce, and a fine version of carp tail.
So what happened to the Golden Age of midtown Chinese restaurants?
Shun Lee Palace and its western outpost, Shun Lee, are the sole survivors in my book, even though occasional brusque indifference to strangers can be especially annoying at these haute-couture prices. Still, no one can better orchestrate his chefs' eclectic skills to produce a stunning banquet -- authentic, nouvelle, and China Lite -- than proprietor Michael Tong. Best of all, Shun Lee will deliver anything from a banquet for 1,000 to a dim sum feast for two, all day -- river to river -- between 34th and 96th Streets.
Arepas? Am I missing something?
New York mouths are gobbling up South America, and soon even the derrière-garde will be hooked on these rich little corn cakes. Arizona 206 has morphed into Bolívar, with piqueos (Pan-American snacks including, of course, arepas with crème fraîche), cebiches, aperitivos, and meat from the Argentine parrilla -- I especially like the mixed grill. In the Village, Campo borrows (with reasonable success) from south-of-the-border kitchens. Loved arepas, yuca turnovers with corn, ropa vieja, and marvelous mushroom-studded cheddar grits. Rafael Palomino has found a spiritual home at Sonora -- good for a neighborhood lacking a lively canteen. (I liked the Cuban sandwich, the yuca pastal with leek and foie gras, and monstrous barbecued ribs that for some reason he's dropped from the menu.) Best of all, Doug Rodriguez still does his risky and exhilarating high-wire act at Patría.
My guy's fantasies are still frozen in a disco mode.
We dancing fools survived cruel deprivation in the years when there was only Decade to make us feel eternally 23. But now, after sneering at our white latex booties and our Travolta moves, New York loves the seventies again. Limelight is having its second fifteen minutes, and Regine is back at Rage with billowing cleavage and the more or less well-vacuumed faces of her pals. Surprise: Rage's food is first-rate (guaranteed at least till hired whisk Michael Scheiman exits).
Can your love's knees navigate serious salsa? Come to Jimmy's Bronx Cafe to fuel on hearty Latino soups and empanadas or giant lobster tail, then let Jimmy's amiable crew twirl you out on the floor and dance till dawn. Or the emergency room. Whatever.
I'm so out, clue me in.
Feel the heat at Joe's Pub, Lot 61, and Moomba, where I wonder if those gangly chickadees sipping their tangy Moombapolitans actually care how good the food is. Clementine, where chef-owner John Schenk's touch is surer than ever, draws a mix of young grunge and metropolitan headbands. At their most uninhibited, they can be deafening. That certain clan, SoHo tradefolk and fashion sachems, hangs out at Mercer Kitchen, where the food can be good, very good, or simply puzzling and you have a choice of bright lights next to the grill or ghostly cellar shadows. I love the look, hate the feel. The inferno at BondSt flames on. Give thanks for the new third floor and what is possibly New York's least Zen and most vibrant play on Japanese tradition. Thin-sliced fluke sashimi in frozen shiso slush, yuzu-sprinkled tuna, the mustard-spiked beef tartare with gold leaf aquiver, and a trio of omakase sushi sculpted by sensai Hiroshi Nakahara had us raving.
What's really worth a trek?
The savory rijsttafel and warm welcome at Java in Brooklyn is so cheap ($27.50 for two), you can afford to hire a limo. The fragrant sizzle of chicken, lamb, or brains cooked on a fiery hot iron is the lure at the Pakistani Tabaq, half a block from the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt stop on the subway. Book at eight any Monday for ribs or the famous chicken and waffles at Wells Restaurant and stay for a night of swing with the sixteen-man Harlem Renaissance band. Jump up and jitterbug and don't mind the tourists.
Why don't we have decent restaurants on the Upper West Side?
Stop whining already. Is Picholine chopped liver? Dare I mention the enduring legacy of splendid cured seafood at Barney Greengrass, especially the eggs softly scrambled with sturgeon and onions? Or the veritas of Pizza Joint's sausage-and-peppers hero? Two Two Two draws fans across the great green divide for its costly decadence of truffle and foie gras. In a rare act of charity for those who feel nurtured by the place's Victorian-bed-and-breakfast charm, Frank Valenza has added a $36 prix fixe lunch.
Tingling Asian flavors keep bringing me back to Rain on West 82nd. And last month, the Rainmakers jumped on the Latino craze by installing Patría-prepped Alex Garcia around the corner at Calle Ocho, their Columbus Avenue space (formerly Main Street). Vong and Typhoon Brewery veteran James Chew is the consulting brain behind the sizzle of the woks and steamers at Ruby Foo's on Broadway, a dramatic two-story stage set designed by David Rockwell.
Like so many Upper West Siders who don't think it's happening unless it's happening downtown, I've clocked untold hours in traffic making Spartina in TriBeCa my neighborhood hangout. But with Stephen Kalt cloning himself at Spazzia, on the Columbus Avenue site of the late Museum Cafe, his splendid grilled pizzas and rustic Mediterranean cooking will now be just footsteps away.
My guest is a vegetarian, and money is not the issue.
Advertise how deeply you care by treating your vegophile to the $95 vegetarian tasting at Lespinasse. While you wallow in stuffed pigs' feet at Café Boulud, your chum can find fulfillment in the "Le Potager" listings -- butternut- squash soup with ricotta gnocchi, artichoke-arugula-black-olive ravioli, splendid root-vegetable cassoulet. Bolo, Spartina, Tapika, The Screening Room, and The Lobster Club all have lively vegetable options, as do most Italian and Indian restaurants. I once asked for a plate made up of all the side dishes at Mesa Grill and was wowed. The vegetarian niece I sent to Union Square Cafe was totally blissed out by the boodle of options. She thought the menu was designed just for her.
All this buzz over root vegetables is making me crave meat.
Welcome to cow country, the town that gave its name to a swaggering cut of sirloin. City Hall brings a turn-of-the-century-chophouse feel and the finesse of French technique to TriBeCa. I wasn't expecting serious prime cow from a place called Michael Jordan's The Steak House, but hosts Penny and Peter Glazier and chef David Walzog wouldn't have it any other way. The sirloin at Sparks tastes first-rate, ditto the spectacular Maryland crab and a Mondavi Cabernet from the mythic cellar, but everything else smacks of mass production, including oversalted hash browns. Determined cadres, mostly men, endure the obligatory 25-to-35-minute wait for a table and care not a whit. Filli Ponte no longer woos with the multitude of freebies I used to marvel at, but the splendid 32-ounce T-bone fiorentina is a genuine thrill, possibly equal to the mammoth pork shank I can never resist at Maloney & Porcelli.
I send everyone who's really hungry to Churrascaria Plataforma, with its marathon of waiters wielding rotisserie spears of every imaginable viand. It's Chimichurri Grill for chorizo, blood sausage, and first-rate empanadas, and for the Argentine parrilla -- preferably chewy short ribs or boneless rib-eye -- with marvelous fries and the piquant green sauce that gives this sometimes glum house its name.
Is nothing sacred?
Amazingly, '21' soldiers on with a few senior retainers to remember the last of the dotard clientele and to jolly the thirtysomethings and Gen-Xers who have recolonized this saloon. I remember the clubby, forbidding days when provincials like me got stiffed at the door, but now is now. Fancy schmancy -- mesquite-fired foie gras with sickly sweet quince, pineapple, and spiced plums, and roasted sea scallops with chive-potato pancake and caviar-sabayon sauce -- co-exist with ghosts of the house classics, chicken hash and a soggy Caesar salad. Still, it pleases me to feel like a kid playing grown-up here.
Every few years a new generation of movers, shakers, machers, and auteurs seek shelter, a belt, and maybe a veal chop at Elaine's, never mind that the dish is usually tastier than the dishes. La Grenouille ages like a grande dame: impenetrable French (untranslated on the menu). Bijouterie piled on (floral bouquets ever more exuberant). And flaunting a younger man, American, no less. Chef Daniel Orr dishes up respectable quenelles de brochet and classic Dover sole. But clearly he puts his heart into nouvellisms like Nantucket scallops with soy beans, lentils, and barley in a tangy sauce, and a tingling chiffonade of calamari with ginger, all for a crowd that doesn't feel even a tiny ouch at paying $655 for four.
I'd like to eat close to home for a change.
A restaurant may not be worth a cab ride but can still be an asset to the neighborhood. Plant your derrière on a chair at Avenue bistro on the Upper West Side and happily spend the day: scrambled eggs and a croissant at breakfast, a grazing of salads for lunch, and more ambitious offerings come dinner -- nothing more than $20. Totonno's thinish, crisp wagon-wheel pizzas are a plus for the Upper East Side. La Fôret is a much-needed island of warmth and solid French-bistro cooking far north on First Avenue. There, a Ukrainian who last worked for Bouley wraps shrimp in feathery phyllo to start, then roasts leg of lamb, duck breast with potato purée, and a meaty round of filet mignon -- entrées $12.95 to $17.95. Be grateful for Le Solex if you're wooing a client or an artist in Chelsea. Breakfast is served till a beneficent 4 p.m. And there's a first-rate burger, excellent fries, and updated bistro classics.
Café Adriana in the arcade of the Galleria on 57th Street has quickly become a hot lunchtime boutique for shoppers transfixed by Philippe Feret's mile-high ostrich burgers with frizzled onion, and the onion rolls stuffed with buffalo short ribs in tomato-onion-carrot confit. There's confusion at the cloakroom, but otherwise the crew knows its drill at pleasantly gussied-up Chianti on Second Avenue in midtown, where a new chef, Scott Conant, shows off what he learned at San Domenico and Il Toscanaccio. Don't overindulge in the savory cakelike focaccia. Short ribs off the bone atop a vegetable-and-farro "risotto" and a first-rate fritto misto big enough for two come next. Then pepper-crusted tuna or marinated skirt steak with a pile of irresistible Tuscan fries.
Girls just want to have fun.
Chili funk, fabulous Thai-esque food, and a live-wire crowd create a cheerful vibe at The Elephant in the East Village. Score a spot at the glowing communal table at Asia de Cuba to sip exotic drinks and flirt with strangers over fusion food that can be really good. Some people think the do-it-yourself barbecue at Bop is a kick: The mysteries of Korean nibbles are made accessible by nubile-young-woman servers in stylish black designer aprons. Fun for the guys too.
Why India? Why now?
Given America's galloping neophilia, and the old-hat-ness of Asian fusion, it was inevitable chefs would stumble on India and try to reinvent its cooking. Sexy, romantic, fiercely noisy, Tabla is an island of exotic wood and semiprecious jeweled mosaics by artist Robert Kushner suspended in a lofty space adjacent to Eleven Madison Park. There chef Floyd Cardoz realizes his dream of coloring contemporary American food with the spices of his homeland. Already startlingly good on the $48 prix fixe: sweet spice-and-port-glazed sweetbreads, spice-braised oxtails, lamb two ways with five-bean stew, and melting date-chocolate cake with iced espresso yogurt. At cool, loungey Surya, South Indian dishes are deliciously fused with Western ways. Try sprouted-lentil salad, the giant crêpelike dosai, and pungent rack of lamb. Pongal in the East Twenties offers an authentic (and certified kosher) rendition of this cuisine for vegetarians at modest prices. And for a wide-ranging tour of India's many kitchens -- northern, southern, Goan, Calcutta, Jewish, and even Pakistani -- Chola is my first choice among the traditional spots.
What fresh hell is this?
You refer to the Algonquin, I presume, my favorite new theme park. Harold Ross and Dorothy Parker (the Vicious Circle's Mickey and Minnie) are there in spirit -- whirling in their graves, I do not doubt -- and in the painting of the Round Table's usual suspects hanging not far from where we are having watery lentil soup, a cheesy Caesar, and a rather decent roast-beef sandwich. "Can it be rare?" I asked. "For you," the waiter said, "anything." (And that's rare, too, these days.) An extra dab of horseradish sauce is a must. The surround of the glorious Corinthian columns leading out to the lobby is retro and stylish, never mind how it actually was -- was it ever? And there are real books, gasp, on the shelves . . . available for, gasp, reading. Thackeray. Dickens. Thurber. Is Sex Necessary? If not, there is always fine chocolate cake, definitely not flourless, and weekly readings too. (Dorothy Parker, of course.)
I know you must have a favorite.
When pressed, as I often am, to choose just one, I can't. I must list Le Bernardin, Gotham Bar & Grill, Jean Georges, Nobu, Mesa Grill, Shun Lee, and Aureole. In the past year, I've added Picholine and BondSt to that Valhalla. And I have no doubt I'll be fighting for a table at the $10 million temple of Daniel along with his Park Avenue sycophants, worshipful foodies, and the flotsam that follow with money to burn. I need a regular fix at Vong and Bolo too. But even an insatiable gourmand needs a night out from ceremonial greatness, and it's been too long since I gave myself the luxury and ease of Balthazar, where (I must admit) I am likely to find myself seated swiftly in a booth, basking in Keith McNally's perfect hallucination of a Parisian brasserie: The scarred mirrors that tilt for voyeuristic pleasure. The zinc-topped bar, the remarkable bread, a skyscraper harvest of the sea, a really rare steak au poivre. Maybe even a boldfaced thrill or two. In the dim, noisy little neighborhood saloon with crackled-leather banquettes that is Butterfield 81, I feel a frisson of John O'Hara's ghost and nostalgia for a time when telephone exchanges had names. Chef Tom Valenti's bold and rustic cooking always lives up to lofty expectation.
Is that a tear in your eye?
The food world lost a measure of courtly glamour with the death of Paul Kovi, one half of the duo that resurrected The Four Seasons. But the loss of Joe Baum is especially wrenching -- his comebacks were legend, his five decades of creative genius filled with fantasy. And I'm sad for the cavalier commandeering of the Rainbow Room. It will be closed to the public except on weekends. Talk about the art of the steal. Where is the Landmarks Conservancy when New York needs it most?
There are too few tables and too many gringos lined up for the zesty black-bean tamales or beef- barbacoa burrito with fiery poblano potatoes at Mexicana Mama in the West Village. Nibble on a brown bag of chips with salsa while you wait.