January 3, 2000 | Insatiable Critic

Where to Eat in the Millennium

        In the event of computer dementia, we may be eating chops seared on a wood-burning barbecue by candlelight for a while, tallying the check by ballpoint. But in these last euphoric moments of the century, it still seems as if nothing short of a stock-market seizure can sedate our town's feeding frenzy. Every week, another three or four contenders of respected provenance leap into the tussle, and a dozen more of dubious or uncharted DNA vie for attention. Hungry? Here's what's happening right now:

Where will I be eating in the next ten minutes?

        Dedicated Magellans of the tempestuous restaurant scene have come ashore in the meatpacking district. There were a thousand pastel pashmini flapping in the breeze this summer as Fressen and Markt claimed their abandoned warehouses. (I like Markt's plain-packing-box-brewery feel and the Belgian mussels-with-fries routine.) The swarm got so intense at Oriont, the place burst into flames and firemen ripped the roof off.

        By the time Balthazar's Keith McNally had hung the last ravaged mirror in his clever, less expensive, no-dinner-reservations Pastis, hordes of angels and demons were converging, standing around like dill-pickle strips crammed in a jar, hoping for a table. Given the everyday New Yorker's incurable masochism, I don't predict a letup. If you're not a face or a boldfaced name, come with a Balthazar regular for onion soup as good as your junior year in Paris, splendid leg of lamb with flageolets, excellent fries, modest wines by the carafe, and tangy lemon-curd tart all by itself on a plate, not a coulis squiggle or a pomegranate seed in sight.

        Isla, with its cool-blue Formica table- tops, Miami Beach tile, and white Naugahyde booths, is Tampa-born Diane Ghioto's sexily lit invocation of fifties Havana. That's her in the flowing prom dress. An instant rush of good-looking and savvy scenesters shout to be heard above the sweet strains of the Buena Vista Social Club. They share the ceviche sampler, the mussels deliciously perfumed with smoked tomato and garlic chips, seafood paellita, or a mammoth stuffed pork chop with sour-orange mojo.

        Fighting the Queensboro Bridge traffic to get to Bridgemarket won't be pretty. But if, like me, you got a lift from his spiffy glam Quaglino's in London, come February you'll want to see how Terence Conran has wrestled the cavernous space under the bridge into a brasserie called Guastavino. If you're not Nan Kempner or Anne Eisenhower, or distinctly related by the ties that bind the displaced personae of Mortimer's, don't even try to get into Swifty's. Yes, the food is eminently edible and the snub and gruff has gone to its just reward, but there's not much room for parvenus like you and me once investors and regulars claim their tables in this pretty walk-in closet of a place. Relieved of the full brunt of its Mortimer's refugee rescue mission, La Goulue may at last have banquettes to spare. Gossip and people-watch over a spirited salade folle or the goat-cheese-and-tomato napoleon and other New World bistro fare.

What's new and hot and worth the hassle?

        Lupa, down-home Rome in the Village, is my favorite autumn launch and not just for Mario Batali's celebration of odd animal parts and Italian delicatessen, or for partner Joe Bastianich's bid to bring depth and finesse to a casual Village joint's wine service. I like the mood, the food, and the gentle prices . . . but so do legions of tuned-in New Yorkers. Already it's almost as tough a sanctum to crack as its pricier sibling Babbo.

        Crazed, obsessed, monomaniacal, a pain in the ass and proud of it, David Bouley could have sabotaged his high-wire cuisinary act with the Mitteleuropa mania of his new Danube. But his outrageous, highly lacquered, velvet-swathed, Klimt-deckled little dining room is beautiful, fun, funny, and romantic. And the bone-marrow dumplings, the Tyrolean wine soup, the braised beef cheeks, and even the Wiener schnitzel (as transmorphed by Bouley) manage to be Austro-Hungarian but not too.

        If he has not yet been lionized as a landmark himself, Warner LeRoy certainly deserves a Landmarks Preservation Commission crown for polishing up the fanciful red and green frippery of the Russian Tea Room with so little trauma. Whether you love or hate the second-floor annex with trout swimming inside an acrylic bear, you can't fault the borscht -- it's wonderful, a meal all by itself. The kitchen is treacherously uneven, but the short ribs, the halibut, the savory minced-veal-and-chicken pozharsky, and the equally luscious lyulya kebab (minced lamb) with saffron macaroni are surprisingly tasty.

        Those of us who take the life of our stomachs most seriously were instantly seduced by the sensory shock and sustained pleasure of chef Laurent Tourondel's seafood at Cello last spring. Serene and almost somber, with unusual tableware and haute French service, Cello cost $6 million to open and took just weeks to become near-impossible to book.

What makes a restaurant great?

        A skilled and driven chef, a design that wears well, a drilled staff, the owner's presence and relentless perfectionism. Maybe even a megalomaniacal sense of destiny. That's what makes Le Bernardin the model for ambitious copycats. When Gilbert Le Coze died in 1994, his sister Maguy could have frozen the place in homage. Instead, she warmed up the room, threw out the old menus, and gave chef Eric Ripert license to express himself in an exuberant style, so unlike Gilbert's celebrated minimalism. And she's still fussing, adding wooden trellises at the windows, putting up a glass-and-steel marquis outside. This is classic French service at its best, welcoming but proper. Two weeks ago, Ripert astonished us with minced geoduck clam marinated with wasabi and soy-ginger dressing, luscious seared-on-one-side yellowfin tuna paillard with confited tomatoes and bits of olive, and aïoli crab cake in a bouillabaisse that was like a ticket to the Côte d'Azur. Caviar, a side of the house's mythic garlic fries, the $60 Buzet (cheap on this pricey wine list), and a shot of prunelle white lightning brought the bill for four to $500. Less than a Judith Leiber handbag. (But then, I bought mine at the sample sale.)

        The same passion for perfection, a sense of discipline in a more dressed-down style of service, and an obsessive driving animator in the kitchen has boosted Gotham Bar and Grill to greatness. It is as American as Le Bernardin is French. Gotham's distinct personality is all the more remarkable because there is no ever-present patron recognizing friends of the house, chatting up the locals, making nice when disaster strikes. A succession of managers have shared that role over the years, some with less charm than others. Now Le Bernardin-bred Richard Hollocou brings a depth of Old World manner and tradition to that role. Why has Gotham not gone for the gold in Las Vegas or London? Perhaps because even after fifteen years, chef Alfred Portale, a major partner here, remains enmeshed in every detail. He broods over each nuance of the wait staff's choreography. He thinks the music softens the clamor. (Oh, if only it did.) He personally selected each photograph hung in the latest freshening-up. There are no revolutions on this menu. He isn't a little bit Japanese one day and Moroccan the next. But the quality of the product could not be better. Each dish is a still-life, oak-leaf-lettuce plumes flying, flavors distinct, textures that stun.

I could eat breakfast any hour of the day.

        Refitted for the next 100 years by a duo of prizewinning architects, the 40-year-old Brasserie in the Seagram Building reawakens next week from a deep slumber. In its golden decades, it drew guys and dolls and ink-stained wretches as the only all-night sanctuary in midtown. Its 24-hour vigil will be trimmed now to a mere 16, and the menu will be a tad less slavishly Alsatian, but breakfast items will be available till 1 a.m.

Breakfast stretches until 4 p.m. at Kitchenette, including the lumberjack special (eggs, bacon, and two pancakes) or my favorite, two eggs, bacon, and cheese on marvelous homemade biscuits. Breakfast at Norma's in the Parker Meridien (weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m.) is an extreme sport: banana-macadamia-nut flapjacks, lemon-ricotta griddle cakes, smoked-trout corn cakes, duck-confit hash with a fried egg on top, even seared foie gras with mango compote in a port sauce. I do my business breakfasts at the Fairway Café with chorizo-and-pepper-tossed scrambled eggs or delicate pancakes and a superior muffin.

I want to shop till I drop and then eat.

       When I've been cruising for a frock too long, fish-and-chips is the last thing on my mind. I'm more likely craving fen-phen. But when I pretend to be Uma Thurman, slithering down the dark stairway to meet someone else's husband for lunch, the cool, airy, semi-subterranean Nicole's can be pleasantly erotic. There are ambiguous creatures of every possible gender, stylishly zippered, mostly in black, to turn us both on, not to mention the white-bean-and-spinach soup with a swirl of crème fraîche, and a perky green salad with slivers of raw fennel. Fish-and-chips turns out to be monkfish in a thick crumb girdle, a few fat fries, and peas. Most of the latter are inexplicably smashed. An English fetish, I suppose.

        Lunch at the help-yourself cafeteria in Eli's Manhattan, his new Third Avenue emporium, is more my dress-down style. Root vegetables give a subtle sweetness to the chicken soup, but I don't understand why the counterman shattered my matzo ball. I like to do my own shattering. Inside the glass case are all sorts of plump sandwiches on beautiful breads. What torturous riches. Egg salad on pumpernickel. Tuna in a baguette. Meat loaf in an onion brioche pocket. Brisket with Dijon mayonnaise on rye.

I've almost given up on Chinatown.

        My problem, exactly. I can say pea sprouts in Mandarin, but not even that helps. I send friends to New York Noodle Town and Ping's Seafood (though I worry it won't be as reliable as it was before chef Chuen Ping Hui took his act to Flushing). Both the Golden Unicorn and Triple Eight Palace were fun and cheap and bustling at recent dim sum lunches, but the dumplings, turnip cake, and deep-fried odds and ends did not make the earth move. Then an old China hand sends me racing to Grand Sichuan International in Chelsea, tingling with great expectations. The tingle escalates, as it will under Sichuan-pepper attack. My pals are game to taste fiery beef tendon, the ox tongue with tripe in hot pepper sauce, torrid "wonder" chicken with fresh bean sprouts, and the braised beef fillets till our tongues are numb. Not bad at all.

What's new in the neighborhood that rates a visit (but maybe not a major detour)?

        Do we agree? Brass rails and a few square feet of abused mirror doth not a Balthazar make. But if you're stuck on 57th Street, theme-park row, Marc Packer's new Rue 57 is desperately needed. Sam Hazen, a solid veteran whose food I loved at Cascabel, turns out sensational beefsteak-tomato salad with charred onions and Gorgonzola, a fabulous burger on chibatta with excellent fries, and a $22 pepper steak my mate, the red-meat maven, pronounces "better than Balthazar's."

        Celebrate your winning bid on that precious Picasso at Christie's in Rockefeller Center with great wine and cheese or a sophisticated supper at the Morrell Wine Bar & Café, directly across from the skating rink. Gravad lax is luscious, served warm in a thick cut with celery root and crème fraîche. Follow "tartar times three" (scallops, salmon, and tuna) with rich gnocchi in sun-dried-tomato pesto.

        The Red Cat is the American bistro at its best, cozy and laid-back with an eclectic crowd and mostly splendid food at sane prices on a constantly changing menu, a prize for Chelsea. But it's worth a detour too. Chef Philippe Roussel's lively herb greenery and lush Provençal revivals make Park Bistro feel new again. Slip into a booth at Jack's Fifth, across from the Plaza, and taste the sparkling cooking of chef Herb Wilson.

        Philippe Féret juggles a duo of new brasseries with near duplicate menus -- Brasserie Julien on the Upper East Side and Acacia, not far from Bloomingdale's. I love his ancien classics: intense fish soup with spicy rouille, the frisée salad with bacon lardons, the cassoulet, the choucroute, the giant braised lamb shank, the buffalo short ribs, and sensational buffalo tartare.

        Not new at all but new to me, C3, hidden in the Washington Square Hotel, has been trying to get my attention for years. Then a fussy-eater pal had dinner there and left a message on my v-mail hailing it as "a find for the neighborhood." I agree. Especially that $27.50 prix fixe. Though not everything is as good as the peppery grilled Thai shrimp, the garlicky (and overdressed) Caesar, the barely seared tuna with arugula-basil-spiced quinoa, and the buckwheat linguine. Our waitress, young and exotic in a way that would have delighted Gauguin, is quick with misinformation and slow with the order, but we're won by her cheerful enthusiasm.

I'll need romance more than ever in the new century.

       Sitting on top of the world in Wild Blue sipping a rare wine and eating Michael Lomonaco's almost old-fashioned American cooking is romance enough for me. Eating in the lounge at Daniel feels sexy, especially if you have great legs that don't quite tuck under the table. I hear Leonardo DiCaprio was seen kissing Amber Valletta in Il Cantinori's rustic, votive-lit back room. A table for two in the corner at Cello will do till it's balmy enough for the garden.

Is pizza too old-hat for you?

       Would I give up emeralds just because I discovered rubies? If I didn't have Spazzia with its unbeatable grilled pizzas a few blocks from my door, I'd be trucking down to TriBeCa to get the original at its sibling Spartina. Not that I ever complain about the taxi fare, tightwad that I am, since Stephen Kalt's rustic Mediterranean riffs touch my gourmand soul. The best old-fashioned New York-style pizzas -- fresh mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, thin crust slightly black on the bottom -- emerge from the antique coal oven at Lombardi's in Little Italy.

When I listen to my body, it says, eat meat.

        Backlash, perversity, cholesterol denial, the latest diet credo . . . whatever it is, my friends are eating meat again. My mate, the Road Food Warrior, never stopped. We agree that the best steak we ate all year was the thick, juicy fiorentina consulting chef Jonathan Waxman sliced on a wooden board at our table in ABC Carpet & Home's Colina. But all the meats off the grill and rotisserie were extraordinary: suckling pig, baby lamb, even turkey breast, so juicy from brining we couldn't guess what it was. At Beacon, chef-owner Waldy Malouf is grilling and oven-roasting salads, herbs, even fruit, but most temptingly meat, glorious meat: splendid T-bone, luscious spit-roasted duck, crusty cured pork chop, and suckling pig.

       We had a handsome sirloin at the Palm West, and an equally thoroughbred steak with the unique aged taste that is the signature of Sparks Steak House. (Alas, it was impossible to eat just a little of the crunchy hashed browns.) I shared a fine hunk of cow with a wary Weight Watchers graduate at Angelo and Maxie's, an astonishing one-pounder on the $19.98 lunch. I'd be happy anytime with the double porterhouse at Morton's of Chicago as long as I don't have to hear the waiters' silly show-and-tell where they hold up each broccoli sprig and cellophane-wrapped hunk of raw flesh. And I'm pleased my editor ordered a sirloin at Maloney & Porcelli so I got a taste. I never order it because I'm hopelessly addicted to the crispy pork shank.

       This past year, I've been sending friends in search of great steak (especially pals from overseas) to Michael Jordan's Steak House because the meat is first-rate and the bird's-eye view of the newly beautified Grand Central Station gives me shivers of New York pride. Chef David Walzog has exported his new skill on the grill back to his sister ship, Tapika, now billed as a cowboy steak house, i.e., with a southwestern cant. We loved the New York strip, the spicy venison, and the green-chile corn fries.

       Raging carnivores always thank me for pointing them toward Churrascaria Plataforma. Start with an icy caipirinha, but don't go berserk at the buffet if you hope to do justice to this Brazilian madness. At your signal, a waltz of waiters begins, toting pork, sausage, lamb, and a dozen different cuts of beef, all on skewers, slicing away at your command. It's a floor show that keeps even the kiddies amused.

Do you fast on your day off?

       Silly question. Fast? Not when I can eat. In our neighborhood, the Upper West Side, we like the spicy Asian fusion at Rain. Before or after theater, the two of us think we're dieting by sticking to the vegetable antipasto at Café Fiorello's. I put so much passion into choosing each item from the counter buffet that the server usually slips me something extra. But if we're hungry with friends or have kinfolk in tow, we join the hordes at Ruby Foo's. The Hong Kong carnival hullabaloo is fun and exhilarating. We have to order both kinds of ribs (black-bean and tamarind-glazed), chopped seaweed salad, the miso cod, stir-fried vegetables, the glazed duck perhaps, and that Goliath slice of chocolate cake, dessert indulgence enough for four or six.

I want a taste of the Renaissance in Harlem.

        There's still talk of reopening Minton's Playhouse, the club where be-bop was born, but all the funds are not yet in place. Meanwhile, an expanded and rehabbed Wells Famous Home of Chicken and Waffles will open any day now, bringing back "Swing Night Mondays" with the fabulous sixteen-piece Harlem Renaissance band. And more room to jitterbug. Jimmy's Uptown hit the tabloids with an opening-night party for Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. But an official opening of the restaurant-cum-lounge was delayed till the end of January by owner Jimmy Rodriguez, whose boldfaced Manhattan fans are merely the frosting on the sweet hordes of Latinos who keep Jimmy's Bronx Café rocking.

So call me shallow, I just want to see famous faces.

       Right now, our town's certified fabulous 500 are enjoying droit du seigneur at Pastis while the uncertified hold up the bar, if they can get close enough to it. It's still a challenge to book the dinner hour at Balthazar, where the kitchen soldiers on as good as ever, with neighborhood sachems powwowing at lunch. Mercer Kitchen still radiates serious heat with its mix of design types, food-world pros, bi-coastals (from the hotel above), and at the bar not so long ago, Jerry Seinfeld with that Gwyneth Paltrow person. Still primal at a geriatric twenty years, Indochine's waitresses are likely to be as stunning and/or exotic as its clientele of mannequins and their rotating sugars.

       Canteen basks in the sunshine of its infancy. A consortium of veteran celebrity wranglers at the door jump to make Russell Simmons, Julia Roberts, Matt Dillon, Nicole Miller, Puff Daddy, and Jennifer Lopez feel happy. After a desultory early dinner and a more recent lunch of tasteless shrimp cocktail, imperfect burger, pretty good chili, and a cobb salad I couldn't stop eating, my conclusion is: It's not that good, but it's not so bad you'll be angry you came. The design definitely pulls this vast space together, but orange, brown, and chartreuse are three colors I hate. Overheard, one underwear-clad wisp to another: "Let's bring back the early nineties."

        Looking for power and wattage? A contagion of media -- many small-screen types, magazine brass, and observant Boswells -- check into Michael's for lunch. The grubbier newsprint crew and the politicos that love them hang out late nights at evergreen Elaine's. At noon, a rabble of the rich and powerful from banking, real estate, home shopping, publishing, and underwear claim their "leased" tables in The Four Seasons' Grill Room. The kitchen still has its moments, but lately I find the staff has lost its practiced deference, its robotic perfection, and grown a bit casual, bemused, dare I say smart-alecky, spoiling the humble-retainer charade.

        A small constellation of media stars -- Mary Boone, Diane Von Furstenberg, Anna Wintour, Si Newhouse, Liv Tyler -- blind, or indifferent, to the reality that the kitchen has ups and downs -- have made 25-year-old Da Silvano their neighborhood cantina. Sixteen years of feeding the high and the flighty has not jaded or puffed up the folks that run Il Cantinori. You might spy Susan Sarandon, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Woody, Gwyneth, Calvin, or Donna Karan in the candlelit dim of this faux-Tuscan farmhouse. I'm thrilled to find whole duck, "roasted standing up," as our agreeable waiter boasts, and one night's risotto suffused with the scent of wild mushrooms and truffle oil.

Which new young chef seems destined for Valhalla?

        I find myself cheering for Wylie Dufresne, the 29-year-old comer who has brought uptown class to a rag-taggle block east of Delancey below Houston with tiny 71 Clinton Fresh Food. Dufresne went from the Gotham to Jean Georges, then was farmed out by Vongerichten to help launch Prime in Las Vegas. Now he's slinging rabbit tagliatelle, Scottish salmon mounded inside avocado, and aristocratic black bass in a rye-bread-and-edamame crust on a shoestring. From here, anything seems possible.

        Forget genius for a moment and just contemplate New York's Great Gods of Pleasure. How settled and mature they are -- Jean-Georges Vongerichten, David Bouley, Alfred Portale, Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert; yes, even 34-year-old Ripert. Dare I add Gramercy's Tom Collicchio, Terrance Brennan, Nobu Matsuhisa, Rocco DiSpirito at Union Pacific (his "chef's spontanée" tasting is a series of delicious shocks and surprises)? If asked to nominate the youngest star to the Great Whisks Hall of Fame, I'd have to tap Christian Delouvrier. At 53, Delouvrier is as loose and happy as a pig in truffles at Lespinasse, where he does just what he wants to do, with the goofy enthusiasm of a teenager. Even the room seems less fossilized. Taste the chef's amuse-bouche of lobster under intoxicating asparagus cream without moaning -- if you can. Exalt in the sensory roller-coaster of his truffles shiitake risotto with ama ebi shrimp lapped with an exquisite crustacean foam. Don't overlook the parmentier of beef stew with truffled mashed potatoes. I won't debate the morality of $18 desserts -- a Bronx cheer for audacity -- but I'm wild for the chocolate roasted-pear tartlet with its crumb crust and Pear William granité.

In a swamp of fusion cooking, don't you long for a trattoria?

        At least once a week I need a simple untortured pasta or a Tuscan soup. Bar Pitti remains an unspoiled corner of Firenze. And the Maccioni clan's Osteria del Circo evokes Tuscany with enough New York-isms to disarm those who haven't a clue. Lupa is the trattoria of my dreams, and I like the party-animal vibe at Baraonda, where the food is always good enough. Trattoria Dell'Arte's kitchen is consistently reliable. (I like the way the staff caters to the whims of long-retired New York Times critic Craig Claiborne.) Mark Strausman's Jewish-mother sensibility and passion for la cucina Italiana keeps Campagna vibrant.

        There's an unrelenting power scene at Coco Pao, where the kitchen does mostly quite well. "There's about $20 million in the room at any time," my friend the Wall Street voluptuary observes. We're seething from being ignored at the bar for 40 minutes while friends of the house amble in and get seated instantly, a Coco Pao tradition. Belatedly, the maître d' sees it's me and plies us with crostini and a bowl of luscious flash-fried mushrooms and herbs. Though the fish is dry and the waiter pushy, we like the raw-artichoke salad, the special stroapreti pasta, rigatoni alla buttera (sausage, peas, and cream), and a first-rate bistecca fiorentina with a side of Tuscan fries.

He's Japanese, and I want him to feel at home.

       The sparkling freshness and the imported treasures at the sushi bar of Kuruma Zushi will earn points for you. Sushi Zen also draws homesick Japanese. Say omakase at Taka and let him be daled by the pottery and sushi art of a woman chef. The kaiseki tasting at Sugiyama can be scrupulously authentic for him, and should you wish, a shade less scary for you. Honmura An is the serene spot in SoHo for just-made soba.

I'm a health nut, so I only eat fish.

        My passion is food, not vitamins. You'll find me in the great fish restaurants because I'm in need of an epiphany (Le Bernardin) or the casual feel of the seashore (Pearl Oyster Bar) or biscuits and chocolate pudding and salmon on a cedar plank (Rosehill). My affection for deep-fried clam bellies, rich chowders, and a lobster roll might take me to Rosehill, Pearl, or Fireman's of Brooklyn, where I might brave the "lobster shanty" (an outsize beauty buried under a hill of fried onion ribbons) and must certainly taste the banana-cream pie. For sublime smoked sturgeon and salmon or silken sable on a bagel, or any one of these scrambled with onions and eggs, head for Barney Greengrass. And when pals ask me to recommend a superior spot for seafood, I send them to Tropica, where the tuna tartare is my weakness and the fish is bravura without fuss. To Oceana, for its deferent service, its shipshape décor, its smoky chowders, and its perfectly cooked fish. And to Aquagrill for its friendly, laid-back air and creativity that never masks the pristine freshness of the seafood. Great-looking thirtysomethings flock to Blue Water Grill for its easy-going style, its raw bar, and the sensible prices.

Is it true there are dishes better than great sex?

       No. Definitely not. But each year there are moments so transcendent they knock all one's senses for a loop. At Daniel lightning struck twice, first in satiny foie gras exquisitely dotted with quince and pear, then again with three plump rigatoni made even fatter by a force-feeding of foie gras, mascarpone, and minced porcini. Gotham Bar and Grill's seared yellowfin tuna tastes as if it's been pumped up to the ultimate of tunaness by some unknown alchemy, beside caponata similarly transubstantiated. At Lespinasse, the intense asparagus cream on lobster gelée with Osetra had all our heads whirling 360 degrees. Mustard-crumbed braised-pork terrine tuffet and perky frosted round of devil's-food hazelnut cake with buttercrunch toffee and caramel sauce did the trick at Butterfield 81. At Le Bernardin, it's the witty croque monsieur with caviar. Chanterelle's oysters floating in vivid cream get a flurry of white truffle. Danube's voluptuous braised beef cheeks in a superlative red-wine sauce and the powerful zing of elderberry fruit soup blaze in memory. The haunting citrus of lime-leaf paste makes squab on black sticky rice taste new at Sono. Is this the burger of the year? Mesa Grill's double-cheddar-cheese beauty with grilled vidalia onion and horseradish mustard on a house-baked roll, crisp southwestern frites on the side.

I need new ideas for before and after theater.

       The smorgasbord plate and icy aquavit at Christer's bar will get you there before the curtain. There's a bar menu for pretheater snacks at Thalia, a smart and soaring new spot on Eighth Avenue. Or come late for a supper designed around starters by Michael Otsuka, the chef import from L.A.'s Patina: sprightly green-bean salad, the terrine of smoked ham hocks and leeks, crispy sweet-and-sour quail, and warm lobster salad with baby turnips and chanterelles. The Redeye Grill jumps late at night with live ja, a cacophony of paintings by artists those latter-day Duveens Saatchi and Giuliani have yet to discover, and a fine smoked-fish platter, plus the town's quintessential cobb salad.

        At Palm West, a Broadway clone of Manhattan's legendary steakhouse, two can share the spectacular crab cocktail -- just fat lumps of freshest crab, meticulously cleaned -- or lightly breaded crab cakes (again, the same plump tendrils just barely invaded by foreign matter) followed by a standard thick cut of sirloin.

        Monster trucks block the path at noon. At night it almost disappears behind the scaffolding of the new hotel rising above it. But one of these days, theatergoers won't be able to miss the eccentric sign that says Local, just steps from Schubert Alley. If anything, too much thought has gone into the details, the silly mission statement, the ridiculous steel-hinged menus that test one's digital dexterity. But there is definite verve and elegance in the design, and chef Franklin Becker doesn't let invention lead him to preposterous excess. His tangy borscht really dales. The tender seared nubbins of lamb with layered beet-and-cheese tort or the caramelized-onions-and-black-olive tart with tomato confit and goat cheese are billed as starters, but either one would be lunch for me. Judy Schmitt's dried-sour-cherry cannolis with supernal bittersweet-chocolate sorbet under a filigree chapeau of chocolate, and her marvelous banana dome are both showstoppers. Still, one might wish one's "local" would have friendlier prices.

Is it safe to go out on Sunday?

       Sunday, chef's night off, can be risky. But, hey, this is New York! Didn't we invent Chinese on Sundays? Shun Lee Palace fairly bristles with a full house of demanding Chinese-on-Sunday faithful. Behind our table a chef I recognize is hacking away at a Peking duck. I'm eager to try the newest dishes. Owner Michael Tong (never here on Sunday) can't stop adding to the kitchen's already expansive repertoire. Soupy dumplings are the rage now in Chinatown's Shanghai joints, so he has to serve them, too. There is silken Chilean sea bass and slices of fresh water chestnut floating on shao-hsing wine, and gingered lobster comes with spikes of crisp angel hair. "Free range" makes a stunning difference in the familiar steamed chicken we dab with cilantro ginger sauce. Pickled mustard greens provide an earthen bitterness to sliced beef filet of unreal tenderness in a torrid but flavorful chile sauce. That sets off a cry for more vegetables. Crunchy yau choy with garlic is just the ticket. None of us is really hungry, but having watched a flock and a half of lacquered ducks divvied up before our eyes, we must have one, too. My idea of Sunday dessert: slivers of bird and crackling skin -- the fat neatly liposuctioned away -- rolled with hoisin, scallion, and cucumber in a pancake.

I'm not a cheapskate; I'm just broke from the holidays.

      Make a date for the $25 lunch in the bar at Le Cirque 2000, or reserve at Gotham Bar and Grill but stick to the $20.00 prix fixe, which just went up by one penny for the new year. At the MetLife's Cucina & Co. and its new namesake in Rockefeller Center, the three-course dinner for two is a public-spirited $19.95. Our Underground Gourmet is high on the eclectic home cooking at Prune. For more comfort food, the kitchen-sink salad, yam fries, and a fabulous BLT comes cheap enough at Chat 'n Chew.

Come on, I can't believe you don't have a secret favorite.

       It's boring, I know. But greedy as I can be, I've always shared my favorites. Most of them are longtime loves. Le Bernardin. The Gotham Bar and Grill. Nobu and now Next Door Nobu too. And Charles Palmer's Aureole. Daniel, where flutters of rose curtains have finally softened a stiff room. There I was pleased to find chef de cuisine Alex Lee, a strong stand-in for the absent Daniel Boulud, producing lush seasonal specials with the house's signature elegance, as in lobster garbure with root vegetables and savoy cabbage, bay scallops on cauliflower purée with kumquat and Spanish capers, and duck confit with wild-mushroom fricassee, sautéed potatoes, and black truffles.

        Bobby Flay's Bolo and Mesa Grill (where Wayne Brachman does great American desserts with an excess after my own heart) are golden oldies on this hit parade. Months ago, Mesa Grill shocked me with unwelcome sweetness in one dish after another. It was like catching your husband cheating. I didn't want to go back. But sensational cobb salad and a wickedly oozing barbecued- buffalo Reuben sandwich just days ago at a marvelous lunch make me hope that misguided dinner was only a lapse. As for my longtime favorite Jo Jo, friends tell me it's always wonderful, but Vongerichten's Jean Georges is my neighborhood haunt now. I do know that If I lived downtown, Balthazar would be my canteen and my sanctum for breakfast too.

        Not long ago I added Picholine, which chef-owner Terrance Brennan has groomed and indulged in his drive for the top -- surely such a grand inventory of cheeses with its own fromagier is a noblesse all my foodie friends rave about. Butterfield 81, with its winsome and romantic saloon look, hit the list just as soon as Tom Valenti took over the kitchen. A few nights ago the dining room suffered a meltdown. We waited 40 minutes for the first course. But seafood and avocado in a scrumptious marinade of lemon-cilantro oil and tomato water, along with the marvelous smoked-sturgeon-frisée salad with lardons and a poached egg, cured our grumps. Valenti's mythic lamb shank and his sure touch with short ribs made me crave a taste of tripe (my pals vetoed the order), but I'll be back.

        Gramercy Tavern scores with me for its exemplary service, Colecchio's consistently fine cooking, Claudia Fleming's brilliant and majestically simple dessert. And the appealing fare in its no-reservations discount Tap Room. Add BondSt (where I mostly stick to sushi, sashimi, and salads dreamed up by Hiroshi Nakahara) and Shun Lee Palace, still the best Chinese food in town. When I crave a Vietnamese dinner, I head for Cyclo. I love Babbo for better or weirder, and its bargain-basement twiglet, Lupa. The serving crew at Patria seems a notch more poised than remembered. As the former chef's longtime compadre, Andrew DiCataldo, moves seamlessly into Douglas Rodriguez's abandoned clogs. Similar wit, same daring. I share this list with people I meet in Istanbul and Delhi and Aspen and my ex-sister-in-law outside Detroit. I send them to JUdson Grill in midtown for bravura food by Bill Telepan that matches the bravura of the room. And to American Park in historic Battery Park on the tip of Manhattan for splendid food and a glorious view of the harbor and Ms. Liberty.

Will I still be writing this column in 2050? Or will we all be eating Soylent Green?

        Five decades from now, I see myself semi-retired on half-salary ($2.5 million a year to keep up with inflation), zapping my work in to newyorkmag.com by genetic upgrade through GOL (Galaxy Online) from an air-cooled tropical-island capsule in near outer space. All that is left is my brain with its ever-expanding memory cells. Of course, I have an exquisite zip-up body for human interaction and video remotes, and so I don't scare the astronauts' kids. My lifelong passion for delicious excess has left all my senses purring along as if I weren't a day over 82, and I can report what's new and hot and worth the detour interterrestrially.

        To me it seems only yesterday that most Americans stopped leaving their cell pads, thanks to the new technology that lets us call up a virtual restaurant, enter the bar, get sloshed waiting for a table, be insulted by a maître d', and receive whatever we order in situ by wireless delivery of biological molecules that reconstitute themselves on ancient plates in the style of whatever twentieth-century star chef we specify.

        With the recent announcement that archaeologists have unearthed and restored a handful of twentieth-century dry-world restaurants atop venerable skyscrapers, teen skybladers are eating with anatomical mouths again after years of more convenient osmosis. The kids are discovering nourishing soups and porridges stewed from plant forms raised hydroponically in rotating farm capsules, and the heirloom vegetables that remain from before the polar ice-cap melted and New York's few survivors were washed up on the shores of Omaha. Of course, the vegetables must be pulverized since no one has teeth anymore. Those of us old enough to remember can program ourselves to experience the sensations of eating Shun Lee's hot-and-sour soup as we slurp the usual biodegradable organic mush. I'm amazingly content. No worry about fitting into last year's Armani. Though now and then, for auld lang syne, I slip on a vintage hat.