Restaurants


I was recently in New York, where lunches at two well-turned-out restaurants brought a question to my mind about wine-by-the-glass service. Should waiters bring the glass of wine to your table or should they bring the bottle to the table, show you the bottle and then pour the wine? Put to the vote, I don’t see how anybody could not opt for the latter procedure.

My flight arrived at La Guardia at 12:35 on Sunday. I had not checked a bag, so I was able to rush outside, grab a cab and beat my friends to a 1:15 reservation at Bar Boulud, on Broadway directly across from Lincoln Center. Talk about a great location. Pre-matinee, the place was packed, and from what I have read, that’s the case with before and after theater at night or anytime. Bar Boulud is one constellation in the galaxy of establishments in New York (and around the world) belonging to French chef Daniel Boulud. It’s called a casual bistro, but instead of going in the direction of Keith McNally with Balthasar in SoHo and Pastis in the Meatpacking District, that is, reproducing down to the ultimate nostalgic detail an old-timey bistro or brasserie in Paris — or our fantasy of such — Boulud called in Thomas Schlesser, the James Beard Award-winning restaurant designer, to create a sleek, contemporary vaulted room that’s cool in its modernist allure yet warm at heart.

The menu features a wide range of traditional French “country” and bistro fare, with lots of charcuterie, which the kitchen, under chef Damian Sansonetti, turns out in stylish versions. The wine list, overseen by sommelier Michael Madrigale (and Daniel Johnnes, wine director for all of Boulud’s restaurants and what a tremendous job, in all senses, that must be), is phenomenal; I mean, truly, it’s the sort of deep and detailed wine list one might expect at a high-end temple of French cuisine, yet it includes many reasonable choices too, though by reasonable I mean under $100. This is New York. The list focuses on Burgundy and the Rhone Valley, with excursions into the wine regions of other countries that use Burgundian and Rhone grape varieties and then a section of “heart-throb” wines of other sorts. The list is interesting, inventive, intriguing, inviting and in the rarefied cases very expensive, so one wisely turns to the wine-by-the-glass offerings.

I forget what my friends ate at Bar Boulud — they had the $29 four-course prix-fixe — but I do remember that they each had a glass of the charming Domaine Triennes Sainte Fleur Viognier 2009 ($12 for a glass; $45 for a bottle). With my “country breakfast” of fried eggs, house-made sage sausage, buttermilk biscuit and tomato confit ($18), I chose a glass of the Domaine Tissot Cremant du Jura Brut ($15; $59), a completely delightful, floral and slightly austere sparkling wine made from chardonnay, pinor noir, trousseau and poulsard grapes.

Our waiter, whose only flaw was being too chatty, brought the bottles to the table, showed us the labels and then poured the wines. We knew exactly what we were getting.

A few days later, I had lunch with friends on West 57th at Brasserie 8 1/2, an elegant restaurant reached by descending a wide spiral staircase theatrically carpeted in red-orange. Our waiter, whose only flaw was that he was goofy and distracted and therefore distracting to us, followed the standard line; he took our drink orders — from the surprisingly ordinary, corporate wine list — and returned in a few minutes bearing a glass of red and a glass of white. Who knew what was in those glasses?

I ordered the Domaine Le Croix St Laurent Sancerre 2010 ($12; a bottle is $52), and, yes, the wine was certainly made from sauvignon blanc grapes in the dry, limestone-loaded style of the eastern Loire Valley — it was quite nice, and I enjoyed it, especially with my sea urchin risotto and skate with lentils (from the three-course prix fixe, $34); executive chef is Julian Alonzo — but who’s to tell if a cheaper wine had not been substituted? No, please understand that I’m not accusing Brasserie 8 1/2 of chicanery; I’m just using that occasion to mention that in the system by which wines-by-the-glass are delivered to the table instead of poured at the table the possibility for abuse exists.

As Americans, we’re all about transparency, especially at this point in history; we’ve been hoodwinked plenty, not to mention keelhauled and financially waterboarded, in the past decade, and we want to know what we’re paying for. Wouldn’t it make sense for the sake of good customer relationships and openness and honesty to have waiters bring the bottle of wine out to the diner and pour the wine into the glass at the table instead of merely escorting to the table the now anonymous glass of wine which has apparently been reluctantly released from some mysterious Guantánamo of wine coolers in the back of the restaurant?

Image of Bar Boulud from sociallysuperlative.com; image of Brasserie 8 1/2 by Paul Goguen from bloomberg.com.

July 14 being Bastille Day, we went out to eat steak frites. Completely logical, mais non? Somewhat illogically, the restaurant which we went to, while having a French chef and serving mainly Euro/bistro-style fare, features almost all California wines on its list. The chef told me, in an interview at the beginning of this year, that he would like to have French wines on the list but that he couldn’t afford them. The thought-cloud hovering over my head pleaded, “Let me do your list!” Anyway, that’s not the point.

We ordered our steak frites and two glasses of Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel 2008. Our waiter was a cheery, eager young woman, what my mother would have called “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” an expression that always puzzled me when I was a child; I got the bright-eyed part, but bushy-tailed? Was she talking about squirrels? The waiter brought the glasses of wine, and here’s where the problem started. Now I haven’t tasted a Lyttons Spring Zinfandel in a while, but over the years I have tasted and consumed many examples of the zinfandel wines, including Lytton Springs, that emerge from the Ridge winery. After a few sniffs and sips of this wine, I was convinced that, unless Paul Draper and the team at Ridge have completely changed the philosophy and methodology of their decades-old practice, this was not a Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel. What I was smelling and tasting seemed to be the super-ripe snap and spicy toasty overlay of an over-oaked merlot or cabernet sauvigon.

Of course I couldn’t prove my theory because, as happens in about 95 percent of the cases when one orders wine by the glass in a restaurant, we didn’t see the bottle from which the wine was poured. I could have asked the waiter to bring us the bottle but we have to remember that it’s usually not the waiter who pours the glass of wine, it’s the bartender. So the waiter could have been completely innocent.

So, we chowed down on our delicious, medium-rare strip steaks and terrific frites and so forth and mutely drank the wine. The waiter came back to the table after a while and asked if we would like another glass, and LL said yes she would and I said no, not for me, but I reminded her that we were drinking the Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel, and she was like, well, yeah, duh, of course. Still, the waiter misunderstood and brought two glasses anyway, and I thought, swell, O.K., this will give me a chance to compare the wines, but before I could say, whoop-de-doo — and I have never seen this before in a restaurant but perhaps I live a protected life — she took the old glasses and poured the remaining wine in them into the new glasses of wine. So much for comparison.

Here’s the point.

Anything that happens to the wine that diners order in a restaurant, whether full bottle or by-the-glass, should happen in front of the customer. A bottle of wine, it should go without saying, should be opened at the table. Is the wine a precious bottle that the wine steward or sommelier thinks he or she should taste to see if it’s up to standard? All right, fine, but only with the permission of the diner and done at the table. Does an older wine need to be decanted? Sure, go ahead, but decant the wine at the table or at a nearby waiters’ station in view of the patron. And if wine is ordered by the glass, the waiter or wine steward should bring the bottle to the table and pour the glasses right there in front of the customers.

Such transparency can only promote the sense of goodwill and trust that form the bedrock of excellent service.

We ate at a popular local restaurant last night, one that probably falls into the “casual/fine dining” category. The place is well-designed and comfortable, a little clubby; there are white table-cloths and napkins; the menu is varied and fairly expensive; the wine list is good; waiters wear pin-striped shirts and white aprons. Our waiter annoyed the crap out of me by consistently addressing our table as “guys,” as in “Are you guys ready to order?” and “Do you guys need anything?” This locution was particularly annoying because our table consisted on one man (me) and five women; I mean, we weren’t a bunch of guys scarfing down Bud Lite and chicken wings in a sports bar. Restaurant owners and managers! Remember that waiters and the manner in which they relate to patrons help set the tone for the establishment!

Anyway, what I really wanted to mention though was this: I brought two bottles of wine to the restaurant, first checking online to be sure they weren’t on the wine list. These were the Morgan Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands, and a Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Alexander Valley. When I take wine to a restaurant, I always buy a bottle or two from the list, in this case a bottle of the Fritz Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Russian River Valley, and a glass of the King Estate Pinot Gris 2008, Oregon. We only drank the Morgan Pinot Noir, so I set the Silver Oak aside.

Now, here’s the kicker; I promise that after decades of dining out and frequently taking wine to restaurants, I had never heard this. When the waiter brought the check, he said, “I only charged you one corkage fee since we didn’t open the other bottle.”

Say wha’? Was I supposed to feel special that we didn’t get charged corkage for a bottle of wine that wasn’t opened? Come on, the corkage fee doesn’t start the moment you walk in the door with the bottle; it’s the opening of the bottle that results in the fee.

I mean it wasn’t a big deal, but it was startling.

Or, the subtitle might be “There Is Such a Thing as Too Much Raw Veal.”

In the village of Barbaresco, we had a major tasting event at Gaja, with Gaia Gaja, and then her father, the legendary, the visionary, Angelo Gaja joined us for a chat, and then we went to lunch with Gaia Gaja at a charming place up the hill, just beyond the church and under the 13th or 14th Century tower, called, appropriately, Trattoria Antica Torre.

In the picture you can see a remnant of the snow that unexpectedly blanketed Piedmont on Tuesday and Wednesday (March 9 and 10). And notice in the following images how even though this is just a trattoria in a village and it’s lunchtime that there’s a white cloth on the table, that the plates and bowls are supported by chargers and that the plates and bowls are good china. No short cuts here, and that’s the way I have found things at restaurants in Italy generally. There’s no fear of formality; it’s ingrained in the culture, and it feels, to this diner, comfortable and comforting. I hate this American notion that a white tablecloth is supposedly stifling and stuffy and that proper service somehow takes the “fun” out of eating out.

Anyway, Trattoria Antica Torre fields a traditional Piedmontese menu, with which, by this time, we were pretty familiar. The genial proprietress seated us upstairs and asked if she should bring a selection of tradition dishes, and we agreed to that. She also mentioned that rabbit was on the menu, and my ears perked up. Call it Peter, call it Thumper, but I love rabbit when it’s cooked right.

A couple of our group were feeling a bit puny, and she graciously offered to bring them bowls of brodo — broth — to ease their unsettled stomachs. I’ll admit to feeling a big smug and superior that guys half my age were succumbing to the weariness, overeating and gladiatorial drinking that a hectic wine-trip imposes while I was fit as a fiddle and ready for lunch. It didn’t hurt that we were drinking the Gaja Rossj-Bass 2007, a lovely chardonnay and sauvignon blanc blend, and the Gaja Barbaresco 2006.

First came the usual veal tartare, and not a small serving either. Obviously at Trattoria Antica Torre lunch was taken seriously. This was delicious stuff, clean and ripe in the way that the best raw meat is, but enough was enough. I hardly ate half of my portion.

Next came the ubiquitous pasta of the Piedmontese region of Langhe, tajarin, a form of egg noodle like tagliatelle except cut, ideally, about 1/12th of an inch wide. This is typically served with an intense ragu of veal and pork and sometimes rabbit made with no tomatoes. Again, the portion would have been enough to satisfy me for a meal, and delicious as it was, I couldn’t finish the serving.

Our hostess that not forgotten my interest in rabbit, and she surprised me by bringing a plate that held not, say, one piece for me to sample but three pieces with roasted potatoes and glazed carrots, enough for a hearty dinner. It was, I’ll make clear, the best rabbit I have eaten, braised to tender and succulent perfection, but one piece, I think a thigh, and a few potatoes and carrots utterly defeated me. A cup of rich, bitter espresso either revived me or delivered the coup de grace.

After a few hours of driving around and what seemed to my addled brain a series of fruitless ventures and visitations, we arrived at dusk at the winery of Negro Angelo e Figli, where the Negro family has been cultivating grapes since 1670. Our hostess, Marissa Negro, who conducted a tasting for us, was attractive and amiable and the wines, particularly the whites made from the arneis grape, were excellent. It was Friday, however, and we had tasted hundreds of wines since Monday, and I think we were all feeling pretty slogged out.

Actually, I was feeling more than slogged out; I was feeling distinctly as if my innards were protesting, rebelling, mounting an assault, mounting …. and as discreetly as possible I rose from my chair, soundlessly left the room, found the restroom, closed and locked the door and, yielding to an irresistible force, violently tossed my cookies. It took two more trips to the toilette to resolve these issues, by which time my compatriots were beginning to look askance. I smiled mirthlessly but I hope reassuringly, waving a hand to dismiss concern. Later, however, when someone asked if I were feeling all right, I confessed to being grossly importuned.

I think, honestly, that there wasn’t a thing wrong with the meal I ate at lunch. I think it was simply too much of a good thing added to too much more of a good thing, and my stomach couldn’t take the punishment. After the group returned to Asti that night, my colleagues went out for a pizza. I stayed in my hotel room and drank sparkling water and finished Sense and Sensibility. In the morning, I was ready to start again.

According to a bulletin I received from My Foodservice News (mymfn.com), matters look pretty dire for the restaurant business in America. Under the headline, “Restaurant Performance Index Fell to Record Low,” the National Restaurant Association announced that in every category, including current situation, expectation and capital expenditure, the month of September was one of the worst in the history of record-keeping for the industry. Statistics have not been issued yet for October, another month of implosion for the world’s financial institutions, as well as my 401k, but the current report indicated that restaurateurs are extremely pessimistic about the prospects for the next six months.

But in the same newsletter, a piece by Mike Steinberger, who writes about wine for Slate.com, trumpets “Good News about the Recession!” Whoa, what good news is this? That restaurants may begin cutting prices for the wines on their lists. “Extortionate markups do send a regrettable message,” says Steinberger, “but it is nothing that a deep recession can’t cure. In the current economic climate, gouging on wine is not just unsporting but suicidal. Restaurants looking for strategies to survive the downturn ought to begin by cutting the prices on their wines.”

Gosh, Mr. and Mrs. America, don’t you feel better already about your pensions going down the tubes? What else will a deep recession cure? Obesity? Drug addiction? This is like the crew of the Titanic telling passengers, “Yes, the ship is going down, but, look, we’re waiving the shuffleboard fees!” The remedy for outrageous wine prices in restaurants is to stop eating out.

For restaurant wine prices to go down, prices on wines all the way from the producer to the broker and supplier to the wholesaler to the retail outlet, whether a store or a restaurant, will have to come down, and I see no sign of that happening. Coincidentally, the same day that I received this report from My Foodservice News, there dropped into my inbox an email newsletter from the venerable and honorable Burgundy Wine Company in New York, touting the 2006 releases from Domaine Leflaive. Admittedly, Leflaive is a high-class operation and the wines are superb, but $58 for a Bourgogne Blanc? $106 for a village Puligny-Montrachet? $148 to $290 for Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru wines? Here’s a product that seems recession-proof if you possess sufficient fiduciary prowess to indulge.

NEW YORK –

Monday we ate lunch at The Green Table, a small, spare, almost zen-like restaurant inside the vast and fascinating Chelsea Market, on Ninth Avenue just at the northern edge of the Meatpacking District, which now, of course, contains more restaurants, clubs and boutiques than meatpacking establishments. It’s amazing! There used to be no traffic except for trucks and no people except for meatpackers wearing bloody aprons and their customers in this formerly quiet, way out-of-the-way neighborhood.

Anyway, Chelsea Market is a huge building that features myriad wholesale and retail food emporiums and restaurants. One of our favorite places is Buon Italia, a store that imports all sorts of foodstuffs from Italy. When we go to NYC, we always make it over to Buon Italia to pick up guanciale, coppa, panchetta and other cured meats. lime honey — great on my toast in the morning — and other items.

We stopped by The Green Table, an all-organic (but not necessarily vegetarian) off-shoot of The Cleaver Co catering group. LL had baked eggs with ramps and potatoes and a little salad, and I had macaroni-and-cheese, also with a salad. A nice lunch.

Now the glass of wine I ordered will, I’m sorry to say, have relevance only to BTYH readers in the Northeast. It was the Wölffer Estate Rosé 2007, from Sagaponack, The Hamptons, Long Island. This is a very spare, very dry rosé wine in the Provençal rose-2007-label-resizedpdf-main.jpg fashion, but there’s nothing Provençal about its make-up, which is 40% chardonnay, 35% merlot, 17% cabernet sauvignon and 8% cabernet franc. That roster of grapes raises the question: If the wine contains 40% chardonnay grapes, is it only 60% an actual rosé?

The estate was founded in 1987. Winemaker is Roman Roth, who has made wine in his native Germany, in California and Australia.

The wine, made, not surprisingly, all in stainless steel, is a classic pale copper/onion skin color. The bouquet offers notes of dried strawberry and and fresh peach with hints of dried thyme and wet rocks. The mineral quality intensifies in the mouth, while touches of pear and melon are added to the flavor spectrum, with more backnotes of dried herbs; the wine is vibrantly clean and crisp. This would be a great picnic wine, served with fried chicken, deviled eggs, ham, potato salad and such.

I rate the wine Very Good+. It costs about $15 at the winery.

Visit wolffer.com.

NEW YORK –

The Modern is the fine dining restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s operated by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group; Meyer is the well-known owner of Union Square, Gramercy Tavern, Tabla and a host of other diverse restaurants in New York. Now appetizers at The Modern — at lunch — range from $17 to $42 and main courses go from $24 to $45. So most of us in the real world won’t be eating lunch there.

Fortunately, The Modern offers The Bar Room, a far more casual restaurant where patrons, hungry and thirsty after hours of looking at modern and contemporary art, can rest their weary bones and perk up with food and drink. There’s a small lounge waiting area, a bar appropriate for dining as well as imbibing, and an open dining area with tables and chairs. It’s all quite 10rest6001.jpg welcoming and attractive in a sleek modern fashion.

Chef at The Modern is Gabriel Kreuther, whose roots in Alsace are revealed in many dishes of the menus for The Bar Room and The modern.

The small menu in The Bar Room consists of three pages: The 18 items listed on the first two pages are served in appetizer portions; prices are $11 to $24. The 10 items found on the third page are served in “half-entree” portions; prices are $15 to $28. Now I didn’t say the The Bar Room menu was cheap; we’re not talking about $7.99 for meat ‘n’ three, including a refillable glass of sweet tea, but we are talking about delicious food that gratifyingly balances tradition with invention, lovely presentation, a waiter who knows the menu and wine list backwards and forwards and terrific wine selections.

So, perched at the bar, LL started with the shaved spring salad ($15), while I chose the veal and goat cheese terrine with watercress ($14). She followed with a fascinating item, a traditional “leftovers” dish from Alsace that featured lamb, conch and tripe is a spicy, savory ragout ($16). This baekeoffe, said our waiter, is the least-ordered dish on the menu, but it holds a special place in the chef’s heart. My second course was squid wrapped in pancetta with a black rice cake and Parmesan foam ($20).

So, how to tie these dishes together with one wine? Well, that wasn’t quite going to work. I suggested a riesling from Alsace, the Dirler Belzebrunem 2004 ($11), and while the waiter acknowledged that as a good idea, he offered to pour LL two half-glasses of wine so she could have a different experience with each of her two courses; when they came, they were generous “half-pours.” For her, he chose a gruner veltliner from Austria, the Prager Federspiel 2007, Wachau ($16) — a lovely gruner, clean, vibrant, floral and minerally — and for the red, the Umathum Zweigelt 2006, from Austria’s Bergenland region ($12). The zweigelt grape was propagated in 1922 as a cross between blaufrankisch and St. Laurent; it makes a deeply colored, spicy wine, hearty but not heavy.

The beautifully composed salad consisted of baby arugula, baby frisee, sections of grapefruit, slivers of cucumber and, according to the menu, Sicilian pistachios. The richness of my veal and goat cheese terrine was balanced by the slight bitterness of the watercress; all of this was draped by a light green sauce made of parsley pureed with a bit of garlic and olive oil.

More diners ought to order the baekeoffe, though I understand that many people are put off by the idea of tripe. Our waiter told us that chef Kreuther treats the tripe in three different processes over three days to ensure its tenderness and almost custardy texture. The dish is presented in a ramekin with a crust of breadcrumbs; the sauce that encloses the lamb, conch and tripe is deeply flavorful. It was a great dish for a chilly, rainy day.

My squid wrapped in pancetta like neatly tied presents were skewered on a shaft of rosemary. I’m not a true believer in the cuisine of foams and gels, and in relation to the grilled squid and the rice cake under them, the Parmesan foam was largely superfluous; better just to have shaved a few slivers of Parmesan onto the squid.

Still, that’s a quibble. This was a terrific lunch, capped off with two cups of excellent espresso. We would definitely go back, and since we visit MOMA every time we’re in NYC, we’ll probably eat there again soon.

The Museum of Modern Art is at 9 West 53rd Street. The number of The Modern’s Bar Room is (212) 333-1220. The Bar Room opens at 11:30 a.m. daily and closes at 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and 9:30 p.m., Sunday. Menus and wine list are available at themodernnyc.com.

This routine happened to us at a restaurant last night. It’s becoming a common occurrence. This is one of those steak and chop houses where a strip steak is $39 and a rib-eye is $42 and everything else is a la carte.

We’re seated at the table. One waiter brings water and says, “You’re waiter will be here in a moment.” So the official waiter waiterand-wine.jpg comes, says hello, my name is whatever and I’ll be taking care of you tonight — taking care of us? — hands each of us a menu and puts the wine list on the table.

“May I start you off with a cocktail or a glass of wine?” he asks.

I say, “No, we’ll look at the wine list and the menu.”

So he ambles off and we look at the menu, compare ideas about what we might order and what kind of wine we’re in the mood for. Usually LL and I order either fish or red meat so one bottle of white or red wine will do. So we’re mulling these things over, and I’m looking at the wine list, and the moments flee by, and LL says, “We haven’t gotten any bread.” Indeed, we have not. And she adds, “I wonder if there are any specials we should know about.” Indeed, we have not been told about any specials.

The waiter shows up finally and asks, “Have you had a chance to select your wine?”

I say, “Well, yes, but could we have some bread?”

He looks amazed. “Well,” he says, “don’t you want to order the wine first?”

And I say, “No, the wine is to go with dinner, and when the wine comes we’ll want some bread to go with it.” So off he goes to bring us some bread.

Which he does, and then we order the wine, and then he has to go get the wine and then he opens the wine and goes through all the folderol and THEN we get around to the matter of reciting the specials and ordering dinner.

By now, a time zone has slipped away to the east. Friends, life is too short to sit in restaurants where the preferred method of business is to get the cocktails and wine on the table as fast as possible and get patrons good and oiled before allowing them to decide what they want to eat or even bringing them some bread with which to buffer their stomachs.

It’s not — to be fair — the waiter’s fault. He was only doing what management tells him to do. But, lord love a duck, isn’t it enough that we’re paying $60 or so each for dinner? Must we be led down the path of inebriation too?

Waiter image from images.inmagine.com.

… is food poisoning. Which felled first me and then LL after we dined Thursday night at a new restaurant I was reviewing. Yes, a restaurant’s worst nightmare: The dining critic gets food poisoning. It ain’t a pretty circumstance for the diner either, lemme tell you, after about eight hours of cramps, violent vomiting and, um, other explosive eruptions. Needless to say, I missed work Friday and lay prostrate most of Saturday, weak, exhausted and, for some reason, aching all over. I did keep down some scrambled eggs and toast last night and I had my tea and toast for breakfast this morning; as I write this post I’m eating soda crackers and sipping ginger ale. LL took care of me until Saturday evening, when she said, “You know, I’ve been feeling pretty queasy since this afternoon.” Yep, it hit her too.

The culprit? Either the crab cakes with remoulade sauce or the calves liver I ordered. LL had a tiny bite of each; I finished off the rest. Did the food sit out too long? Had it not been refrigerated adequately? Was it already spoiled when it came from the purveyor? The point is that somewhere along the line, someone wasn’t careful enough.

Now, here’s the dilemma. Do I out the place? A charge of food poisoning can kill a restaurant. Do I review the restaurant as if nothing had happened? Call the restaurant to let them know? Drop the review altogether or wait a few months? I confess to not being keen about going back soon.

It’s interesting, in a way, that in 20 years of reviewing restaurants for my newspaper — 20 years this coming January — I have never been stricken with food poisoning. What are the odds? I’ve had plenty of bad or bizarre meals, but never this. The problem is, there’s no defense; even tainted food, I now understand, can taste fine, but once you’ve swallowed it, you’re done for.

So, excuse me, but I’m actually not feeling quite up to scratch.

When we were in New York last month, it was unseasonably and oppressively hot for the first couple of days. Then, on Wednesday, it cooled off wonderfully, turning crisp and fall-like, a perfect day to tromp around Chelsea and look at art. Which we did until about 1 o’clockwhen, famished for lunch, we dropped in at Tia Pol Bar de Tapas, a narrow, deep store-front tiapol_01.jpg establishment where on this fine day that French doors to the sidewalk were flung wide open.

Chelsea may have been the center of New York’s contemporary art world for more than a decade, but it’s still tough to find a place to get a decent lunch. We have eaten at Empire Diner, right across the street from Tia Pol, many times and were heartily tired of it. Likewise Botino, the old stand-by of the Art Crowd.

So it was a great pleasure to take two stools at the corner of the marble-topped bar at Tia Pol, close to the open front of the restaurant, where we could sit and watch the world and the traffic and the walkers and their dogs go by. Turns out there’s a three-course prix fixe lunch for $16. We couldn’t pass that up! Since there were two choices for each course, we ordered everything. And glasses of sangria, red wine chilled with a few ice cubes and containing a modest amount of diced apple and lemon, so the sangria was completely not sweet and not overwhelmingly fruity. It was incredibly refreshing.

Now the $16 three-course lunch is, one understands, a simple affair. First, gazpacho or blistered gernika green peppers tossed with sea salt. Second, squid with rice in a squid ink sauce or a “po’boy” with crisp squid, aioli, tomato and lettuce. Third, a Fuji apple or a dish of ice cream. Simple, yes, but well-prepared and tasty all around, even to that fresh, crisp Fuji apple.

You can see it the top image that the gazpacho was an attractive reddish-orange color and that it was pureed almost smooth, tiapol_02.jpg except for a couple of pieces of tomato; it was delicious. The roasted and blistered peppers were hot, salty and earthy. Squid in its ink is not the most photogenic dish on earth, as you can see, but it was tasty (and fairly chewy), while the sandwich was pretty hearty and down-to-earth. The apple, the vanilla ice cream. Everything was delightful and well-worth the price.

Next time you’re doing the art tour of Chelsea — and don’t take that assignment lightly, we covered only two streets that day — treat Tia Pol as your canteen and oasis. I know that we’ll be back.

Tia Pol is at 205 10th Avenue. Lunch is noon to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; dinner is 5:30 to 11 p.m., Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to midnight Friday, 6 to midnight Saturday and 6 to 10:30 Sunday. Call (212) 675-8805 or visit tiapol.com, where the lunch and dinner menus are displayed.

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