October 18, 2010 | BITE: My Journal
Bill’s Bar & Burger/Dinosaur

I’m wild about Bill’s New York burger with bacon, oozing guacamole. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I never cease to be amazed how throngs of good-looking young’uns seem to be waiting on the sidewalks for new restaurants to open. In a snap, the sprawling uptown 10,000 sq. ft. ballooning of the new Bill’s Bar & Burger is jammed - white subway tiles, lazy fans above, walls paved with collages. What happened to the cultural disdain for midtown? Is the Lower East Side so old hat, Rockefeller Center suddenly amusingly fly? “They look like tourists,” one of our companions whispers. It’s a mix, I think. There’s a bar, it’s packed. A vast sweep of tables in an unknown downstairs. Instantly, I’m flooded with memories of Pino Luongo’s Tuscan Square in this very same space, the imported bowls I coveted. I’ll wait for the sale, I decided then. And sure enough…

It’s not that noisy and I can spy on foot traffic at the window. Photo: Gael Greene.

        No, we don’t have a reservation. I sense the hostess trying to decide what to do with us. “It’s just a short wait,” she says. But then a canny floor walker with a half smile closes in. He has recognized me. In no time we are seated at a table with a collection of condiments on a blue and white checked vinyl tablecloth and a view of the street. A waitress delivers a brief B.R. Guest welcome spiel and asks for our drink order. “Give us a few minutes,” I say. We’re still settling in, debating cocktails or boozy milk shakes. And then another young woman announces she will be our server. “What happened to our other server?” I ask.

Texas brisket chili with sour cream and chips is a fine warmup. Photo: Steven Richter.

        She grins. “They sent me to take care of you because you’re someone special,” she said. And she proceeds to guide us gently, but firmly, like a Girl Scout going for her junior life-saving badge.

         “This is good,” says the Road Food Warrior, scooping up rough-cut Texas brisket chili with a chip. “Mmmmm. Mmmm.” We four agree. The beer-battered onion rings are stellar, not at all greasy, firmly attached to the batter. I’d give anything for a dish towel napkin instead of these skimpy paper things.

Long boozy shakes come with a refill in the metal shaker. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Our designated driver seems unhappy with the mint in my vanilla ice cream shake with Jameson, the Irish cream liqueur Coole Swan, and stout, but he’s polished off his own “Bill’s Bangin’ Shake” – bourbon-spiked vanilla ice cream with caramel and salt. He pours himself a refill from the aluminum shaker crowding our table.

Checked tablecloths and an artist’s collage on one wall make big feel cozy. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I warm up with Chinese chicken salad, homage to my must-have at Brooklyn Diner, complete with canned mandarins, but not quite perfect. Stringy rice noodles here just can’t compete. I’ll admit I’m wary of the burger. Here, as downtown, half a dozen guises are offered billed under the legend: “Secret Blend, Fresh Ground Daily, Hand-Pressed.”

         I am not one of Bill’s passionate sycophants. I fled Bill’s rough downtown joint early on after a bite or two of noxious burger. I had insisted my burger be rare, unwilling to accept, that, like the anorexic patty at Shake Shack, this skinny patch of beef could only be cooked medium. Maybe the kitchen panicked. We let the Road Food Warrior finish off his chili-cheese dog, then fled to restore our palates with a quick fix of Grom’s “chocolate extra noir sorbetto.” I was shocked when I heard the raves: “Magnificent.” “Luscious.” “Burger at its sublime best.” “This burger rendered our otherwise raucous table speechless.” Had I lost touch with the palate populi?

Hot dog with sauerkraut and pickle relish in a toasted bun gets a thumbs up.Photo: Steven Richter.

        But tonight I have to admit, my friend’s skinny classic with American cheese on its soft sesame-studded bun is not bad at all. It’s good if you’re conservative, unlike me with my “California special” version of the 8 oz. “Original New York Burger” with bacon and guacamole. Ordered rare, it arrives not quite but is pretty good, caramelized and juicy. The house has run out of sweet potato fries tonight but classics with the house ketchup are fine.

         At the next table a couple is sharing tomato pizza soup served in a hollowed-out sourdough loaf. How could I have missed that? We order one. Alas, it’s one of those inspired ideas that don’t work – with a sludge of cheese like a bath mat and bread too tough to break off.

Who can resist a temptress toting a cupcake tree? Photo: Steven Richter.

       No need to brood. Our server is back with a tempting cupcake tree. I’ve never understood the cupcake cult, but tonight I have to have one. The peanut butter is powerful. Elvis, where are you? Double chocolate- filled with chocolate fudge is just right for a sweet finale. (16 West 51st Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. 212 414 3003. 11 AM - 9 PM). 

At Play in Dinosaur Country

Fresh in funky new digs, Dinaosaur draws an eclectic crowd. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Dinosaur Bar-B-Que was moving and would be taking reservations for its new 7,200 sq. ft. foot gussied up meatpacking warehouse six blocks south. The blogosphere lit up, tilt, hello. I hadn’t been back since that night of the arid brisket in l988. But recently I’d been hearing positive rumbles from barbecue hounds I trust. So we’re checking in at the podium, bringing a couple of swells from the Upper East Side who have heard of Harlem but have certainly never been. I don’t mean to suggest they are awed or intimidated. Actually they seem thrilled by the adventure. Cool in Levis and Cartier watch, he blithely parks his Mercedes on 12th Avenue.

Hunger builds as we wait near the kitchen action. Photo: Steven Richter.         

We’re waiting for our table to clear in the flight-path from the kitchen. It’s noisy but not painful, full up with early bird families on the way out, the bar tucked away on one side, reclaimed wood walls hung with giant movie posters. It’s an eclectic congregation, all ages, all hues, romantic and pragmatic. It’s the second night in the new space. In just two days the staff pushed everything downtown, we’re told.

Luscious chili in a cheese coverlet with jalapenos is a spicy amuse for four. Photo: Steven Richter.

        “Genuine house-rockin’ foot-stompin’ blues, jazz, rock & funk” (live Thursday through Saturday, the menu promises) has yet to begin even though it’s Thursday, but I’m starting with a gin’n’ginger cocktail just in case the “rockin’” gangs up on us later. Our server keeps darting by to see if we’re ready. Am I imagining that she thinks we are from outer space? Once we master the menu, studying as if for SATs – it’s larded with high risk temptations and complicated by combos – we discover we are four mouths with one mind. Except for the simmered greens. I’m the only one eating them.

The “Monster,” dry rubbed ribs chewy and meaty, maybe a tad sweet. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Creole-spiced deviled eggs and sensational fried green tomatoes, late summer harvest, firm and tart, in a girdle of crumbs, cleanly fried with a cayenne buttermilk ranch dressing is the stuff of junk food fantasy. Deep immersion in barbecue seems to call for chili too. Their luscious $8.50 “chili on the half-shell” under a melt of cheese with pickled jalapeno and sour cream is hedged with tortilla chips.

A $15.95 pork and brisket tasting combo with fries and beans. Photo: Steven Richter.

         The $24.95 “Monster,” a full rack of St. Louis cut, dry-rubbed, pit-cooked ribs that prove to be just the perfect balance of meaty and tender and flavorful, is more than enough for our four, given the $15.95 pulled pork and sliced brisket sampler I’ve added, and all the sides: marvelous Creole potato salad, first rate coleslaw, mac & cheese no one need be embarrassed about, deliciously silly mini iceberg wedge and the corn bread. Even if it’s not worth the calories, I must taste it to know for sure.

Dinosaur’s Americana is a big draw for students from Columbia. Photo: Gael Greene.

        Our gung ho foursome is drifting into pork fat torpor, but we agree dessert is a must. Alas, the chocolate ice box pie in its “nice Oreo cookie crust” isn’t the smart investment the financier half of our companion duo hoped. Still, for $5, and considering we’ve maxed out at $50 a couple, it’s no big loss. And the Mercedes is waiting just twenty-five steps from the back door. As soon as my arteries settle down, I’ll be plotting to return.

        700 West 125th Street on the corner of 12th Avenue. 212 694 1777. Monday through Thursday 11:30 am to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday 11:30 am to midnight. Sunday noon through 10 pm.

Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers