New York, New York

Since it had been at least a couple years (two years too long) since I'd been in New York, my list of places to hit had become, shall we say, major? With ten days and far too many restaurants to visit, I had to come up with some hard and fast tablehopping rules with my dining musketeers: one dish, one drink per person, per place. So when I was traveling with my wonder duo, we were able to sample three plates total per place. When I was out with just one wingwoman, we'd sample two plates (well, sometimes more, heh). Not a definitive way to judge a restaurant by any means, but it was the easiest way to tablehop around town, check a bunch of places out, and figure out where I want to return next time I'm in the 212, which will be soon, hell yes.

We also hit restaurants that mostly resided in the middle price-wise--didn't dine at the big guns (Daniel, Per Se, etc.) because that would have entailed sitting in one place for three hours, and lifting at least two Benjamins out of my wallet. Next time I'm in town I'd like to commit to some full-scale meals, but this trip was all about hitting the town, tripping the light fantastic.

Overall I found New York restaurants really wowed me with all their gorg style and concepts and aesthetics and blessedly late-night hours, but I didn't have a lot of culinary experiences that really made me say WHOA NELLY. I had a total blast for sure. Fun to the extreme. But was I blown away? A few places, yes (hello Fatty Crab!) but most resided in the zone of pleasant, good, engaging, interesting. But not FULL-ON MEOW. Which is fine. Leaves room for more adventures next time. I'll call my journey "The Quest for Full-On Meow." (Not exactly The Iliad, but a bit more fun.) For now, buckle up, and let's begin:

I had this trip's first New York lunch with a dear pal at ~OTTO~. (Say it: oht-toe, not auto.) I had not established the tablehopper rules yet, so we did a ladies who lunch kind of meal (i.e. ordered to our heart's content, and not just salads, mind you). This was also the first Batali establishment I'd tried (there were many more this trip--which isn't the most difficult thing to manifest, swinging a cat, etc.). I loved the rosy hue of the entire space, and I can imagine how the rows of tall standing marble tables in the bar area fill with throngs of the thirsty working masses after they punch the clock. There are two gleaming Berkels in effect in the salumi/olive bar/prep area.

Naturally, we had to start with some salumi, so we tried the testa, which looked like stained glass, with hints of orange and clove. The insalata di acetaia, with ribbons of prosciutto, was tasty but the salad actually had some rust around the edges--not something that most Cali restaurants would send out. Three bean salad: yum. Had to try one of the famed flat-top/griddled pizzas (there are something like 17 delish types to choose from, and most are about $13-$14) so we did the pane frattau with a delightful bright tomato sauce, with pecorino and an egg on top (I wanted two eggs, a la Pizzetta 211). For a pizza coming off a flat-top, I'll give it high marks. (Historic building=they couldn't put in a pizza oven.) Also tried linguine with cozze (mussels), with hints of saffron and marjoram--there are seven pastas, all $9, can't argue with that, but the big hunk of lemon peel in our pasta was a bit, shall we say, ungainly? The extensive wine list is a fun one to navigate, and dessert is all about the olive oil copetta, a wicked layered combo of olive oil gelato, passion fruit granita, strawberries, basil syrup, and olive oil and Maldon sea salt on top. Perfetto.

1 5th Ave.
at 8th St.

Another Batali joint I checked out was ~ESCA~. It's in the bottom of a random apartment building, but once you're inside it's a pleasant space with some rustic touches, nice lighting. Music was a little dated (Moby? Elton John?) and the crowd was a bit too, but we were there early, so it's not a totally fair judgment. Service was fantastic--snappy and attentive. This joint is famed for starting the now-omnipresent crudo craze--there are at least 15 to choose from, and most are about $16. There's a tiny bar with room for like four people, so ideally you could snag a seat at the bar and do the crudo tasting (six tastes for $30). We purred over the pink mounds of yellowtail snapper with the crunch of pink Alai salt, and the bluefin tuna carpaccio offered an incredible texture. Really a fab experience.

Rounded out this pit stop with a rich Venetian number called egelfino ($17) which was almost like a brandade made with smoked haddock and peas and served with a lovely browned top, and some house made maccheroni alla chittara ($24), with sea urchin and crabmeat. Yeah, really light! And yeah, really delish. Chef Dave Pasternack is on it. I was quite tempted with the array of seafood on the menu (cobia, local monk fish, crispy halibut cheeks...) and again, the wine selection just rocked (love the quartinos!). Supposedly this place gets slammed with a pre-theater crowd, but otherwise if I was dining with my parents in NYC, I'd totally take them here--it was calm, well mannered, and comfortable. Hopefully they'd be paying too--the mains were averaging $32. Would also be a prime spot for a biz lunch--you'd have plenty to write off, or expense.

402 W 43rd St.
at 9th Ave.

Since we're in Mario-land, let's hop over to his villas in España, and visit Casa Mono and ~BAR JAMÓN~. These two are right around the corner from each other, which is handy because while you are waiting for your seat at Casa Mono, you can snag some vino at Bar Jamón, and they'll even let you amble over with your wine glass. Bar Jamón is a sleek and candlelit little spot where you can edge your way in and hopefully plunk yourself down at a communal-style table, order up some jamón, pan con tomate, your choice of cheeses, maybe some tortilla Espanola, and feel all cozy and close with your neighbors. I wouldn't go out of my way for a special trip here, but if you're in the neighborhood and want to cool your jets or just want a good launch pad for the night ahead, this place is muy bueno.

Bar Jamón
125 E. 17th St.
at Irving Place

I'm just gonna say it: ~CASA MONO~ didn't really fire me up. Low points: the ventilation was dripping water on my friend's head. The food came out like a shot, and it showed: our razor clams definitely didn't have enough time on the plancha. Server was clueless. High points: We were seated quickly (I have heard horror stories about wait times here). The piquillos stuffed with oxtails were tasty enough, and I enjoyed the Hidalgo Manzanilla Posada Pastrana the friendly somm poured for us. If someone else wanted to bring me there to sit at the counter one more time so I could try the skirt steak, and if they were paying, I'd give it another try, but otherwise there are other Spanish joints I'd rather hit up around town. (Like Tía Pol, bummed I didn't make it to this place, food friends I spoke to luuuurve it.)

Casa Mono
52 Irving Place
at 17th St.

So, what are those other Spanish joints? I certainly hit plenty of them. One was ~BOQUERIA~, which had a look I wanted to eat up with a spoon. My dining cohort and I got here too late one night, so the menu was pretty limited at that point. Great time sitting at the bar, replete with a cheeky barman who kindly obliged me with an order of the cojonudo (fried quail eggs and chorizo on toast) ($6) even though he told me the kitchen was done for the night. (Good man, he saw the disappointment on my face--I wanted that quail egg.) The fuet (a Catalan pork sausage) had nice flavor, but the soft mound of soprasada spiked with paprika totally put me over the edge. Swoon swoon. I totally want to come back here for a full meal (hello, suckling pig), and would be happy to sip rosy bubbles (Juve y Camps Brut Rose) with some cured meats here any time. Also want to check out the sister restaurant, Suba on Ludlow Street. Chef Seamus Mullen is on a tear. Next time.

53 W 19th St.
between 5th and 6th Ave.

The recently opened ~MERCAT~ was a sweet spot (and it's not just because it has "cat" in the name)--I'm glad we hit it before Bruni reviewed it and the masses descended. Loved the menu rich in unfamiliar (to me) Catalan words and dishes. The wide marble bar was delightfully deep--I could even cross my legs comfortably underneath it. Gorg wine display on a mezzanine level, and I was ready to park at the cheese and meat station (flanking the bar) and flip my hazards on and start gnawing away at the jamón leg proudly on display.

We did the assortiment d'embotits ($24), which brought a fab assortment of jamón Serrano, lomo, llonganissa, xoriç, sobrassada, and some other meaty treats. The menuts (sweetbreads) ($14) were over-breaded and not very hot, plus the side of woody fennel and overdressed salad was lacking in certain charms. Pffft. Bonus points for the bunyols de bacallà ($10), scrumptious house-cured salt cod fritters that were fluffy and had a nice dark crispy exterior. The rest of the menu is full of traditional dishes, some I have never seen in the U.S. Some folks try braving the cruets for swigs of wine, I played it safe and had mine in a glass. Small twinge of 'tude at the hostess stand, and the crowd was a little droid (polo shirt swarm in effect) but the vibe was fun--perfect early-evening spot, actually. Downstairs there's a basement where they serve a smaller selection of tapas (cash only)--the place is ripe for subterranean escapades.

45 Bond St.
between 2nd St. and Bowery

Thirsty from those fritters? Me too. It's time for a DRANK. Here were my two favorite watering holes (although I will definitely be mentioning more):

~LITTLE BRANCH~, how I love thee. This place was so lovely I went twice. Deco dream, underground (yes, you are supposed to go down those steep stairs, you have the right address), tinkling glasses, cozy booths, gorg gorg drinks. My drinking cohort ordered my cocktail as such: "something bourbon and refreshing" and that is was; just tell them the flavors you like and it shall appear. Bartenders and servers with pompadours and vests and silver arm garters and suspenders. The Milk and Honey de rigueur large ice cubes (these are chipped off a block). A combination metal straw and stirrer (don't bite it). Some drinks arrive in coupes. Loved the slightly dank moldy smell of the room. Oil-lit lamps casting soft buttery intimate light. Painted corrugated metal low ceiling. The candlelit bathroom has cloth towels and was one of the few places in all of New York with toilet seat covers (nice hotels included); be sure to read "the rules." Jazzy music, at times a touch too tinny on the challenged system was my sole sniff--heard there is occasionally live jazz/musique, now that's hott. Wouldn't try this place on the weekend, but mid-week was in the pocket. Open until 3am nightly. Triple X.

Little Branch
20 Seventh Ave. S.
at Leroy

Tucked away on a mostly residential street in the L.E.S. is ~DEATH & CO.~ (the name comes from a Dashiell Hammett piece). Pass through the heavy wood doors, sidle on up to the marble bar, admire the petite chandeliers, the jazzy vibe, the low wood-slat ceilings, engraved glass tables, bartenders in vests, and open the smart menu with at least four juleps to choose from (my kind of place). I also enjoyed my Bitter French, with Champagne, Plymouth Gin, Campari, and lemon juice. Have fun with the bartenders here--they are happy to concoct on the fly, and try things out on you. They also measure, measure, measure, good lads. There's a small kitchen, so you can order late-night bites like the mac 'n' cheese cleverly served in ten spoons. But be quiet outside because the cranky neighbors don't need any ammo against this little gem of a place.

Death and Company
433 East 6th St. at 1st Ave.

Probably one of my favorite discoveries that showcased the art of food and wine was the ~MONDAY ROOM~, a spiffy wine bar in an annex connected to PUBLIC. (I never got to dine at PUBLIC, but it was definitely a captivating scene, and the design of the place is as clever as it is cool, thanks to the tastemaking design and concept firm, AvroKO.) The Monday Room feels like a groovy little reading room, with black leather button-back booths and armchairs where you can sit and curl up with a nice glass of riesling. My sole kvetch with the design is the tables make it impossible to cross your legs if you're sitting in one of the booths. Not a deal breaker, by any means.

Chef Brad Farmerie has crafted a menu of 10-14 scrumptious canapes for the Monday Room that come out of the PUBLIC kitchen. I was happy to see some antipodean ingredients on the menu, like dukkah and Tasmanian sea trout. We started with a lovin' spoonful of glazed eel with pickled bean sprouts that had a satisfying little crunch up against the smooth and soft-boiled quail egg, equally matched in swoon factor by the cordial glass layered with a sensuous dashi custard, lobster, and caviar. You can pick a few bites, or do the deluxe tasting menu ($75), with five courses and paired wines. This is where wine steward Rubén Rubero will totally work his magic, pairing fantastic wines that are somewhat unbelievably being poured by the glass. I loved his tableside manner, totally charming and enthusiastic, and you get a great education about each wine he pours--it's like they are all his children and he's telling you all about their quirks and proclivities. (Which is why I had him write a piece for the wino, check it out.) Or if you just want to just have a liquid evening, you can come in for sole glasses of wine, or mini-flights of whites and reds, ranging from $19-$40. Check it!

Monday Room
210 Elizabeth St.
at Prince St.