Eli, Eh: Taste

[restaurant review as IM chat]

Me: What do you think of eli zabar

James Felder: Zabar was never my thing. I used to go to EAT as a kid, and even being a spoiled rich kid, I thought back then “This is ridiculously overpriced” Zabar’s is a West Side Jew thing. I think I’ve been in there once in my life. Why?

Me: i went to eli’s a few weeks ago and thought it was overpriced

then the other day i was meeting someone at pearson’s bbq and it was closed for construction

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so we walked over to Eli’s Taste

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and had the salad bar

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which wasn’t outrageously expensive

but just ok*

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just wanted to know what you think

James Felder: Zabar’s I cannot explain. It’s a NY thing. Rich people eat there. It’s branding and convenience. I don’t know. I love Pearson’s. Their ribs and their texas links are great. If it’s closed for redos, try Mara’s downtown.

Me: cool i will

* Note: I say it was just ok, but looking at that picture I see a potato pancake and a knish. That was kind of special to see on a salad bar. They were as good as a potato pancake and a knish can be sitting on a salad bar all day. A cake caught my eye on the way out:

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We didn’t partake but it is impressive looking and I thought you should see it so you don’t think I’m a hot-headed critic. But back to Taste I won’t be running.

Strawberry Blonde Cheesecakes Have More Fun, Especially at The Brooklyn Diner

I almost forgot to mention that after the Indian meal and after the reading Patty and I went for coffee and dessert at The Brooklyn Diner. You know my parents really like The Brooklyn Diner: it’s on 57th Street and the food there is really good, I gotta say. Plus the service is really attentive, the decor is kitschy and my brother got a picture with Tony Bennet there once.

We were seated next to a girl who was eating by herself reading a City Opera program. Reading the dessert menu, our attention went immediately to the strawberry blonde cheesecake—because it was in a box and it said FAMOUS and had a quote from Gael Greene in New York magazine saying “it’s worth a month on the treadmill.”

So here it is, with Patty pouring on the chocolate sauce:

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You know I have a theory about cheesecake. It goes something like this: Adam’s Theory About Cheesecake. Cheesecake can only be so good. I love cheesecake, but if one were to graph the effort one can put into a cheesecake and the way it pays off in taste and flavor, you would see that at a certain point no matter how much additional effort you apply it’s going to taste just as good as the good cheesecake you could make without that extra effort. Because good cheesecake is light and rich and fluffy—and you do those things in the assembly, by beating it properly and baking it properly. If you bake it in a water bath that makes it more satiny. But beyond that, again, it can only be so good.

Ok, ok, your theory sucks. How was this one? I liked it. Patty and I gobbled it up. The girl next to us eyed it over her opera program. We threw a fork at her. It was a lovely evening.

Where To Eat Before A New Yorker Reading at The Director’s Guild? Try Zitar

This weekend was The New Yorker festival. I had a fabulous time, especially last night when I went with my friend Ricky to see Rufus Wainwright and we totally became best friends with Rufus’s sister, Lucy. The Rufus Wainwright concert was the highlight for me (we had awesome seats right up front) and “The Art Teacher” (a song from his newest CD) is now in my permanent mental rotation. Today I went with my friend Mark to “The Humor Review” and it was less funny than it should’ve been (this old man behind me said to his wife, “They call that comedy?”) but it was great to put so many New Yorker names with faces. George Saunders did a great bit about samish sex marriage and Patricia Marx did a hysterical piece called “Audio Tour.” You can probably find these pieces somewhere on the internet.

Friday night I went with my friend Patty to see Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen read from their work. First, though, we grabbed dinner with Patty’s girlfriend Lauren. I had my little ethnic eating guide and we were exploring Indian restaurants on 57th street when it began to pour. Patty pointed out Sitar and said she’d heard it was good. Here’s a picture I took after dinner when it wasn’t raining:

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That is SUCH a New York picture. I love it. For anyone who doesn’t live in New York, this gives you a sense of what it’s really about. Trash on the curb, neon NAIL lights, graffiti on metallic gates. Of course there are pretty patches too, but much of New York looks like this.

As you can see from the picture, Sitar is upstairs. So we went upstairs and saw just a few people eating. We took a table somewhere in the middle and the waiter said, “You want the buffet? It’s very good buffet.”

We asked to look at the menus and realized, doing some calculations, that it made more sense to do the buffet which cost $15 and came with nan and rice.

“Ok, ok,” we relented. “We’ll do the buffet.”

So here’s the buffet from far away:

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And here it is up close:

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And here, finally, is the plate I made:

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What’s on it? Oh, let’s see: fried cauliflower, chicken of some sort, “Lamb Rogan Josh” (I got that from the previous picture—sounds like someone I knew in college), vegetable curry, a spinach dish, etc etc.

It was all very tasty. Patty had an Indian beer. I had two pieces of nan. Lauren ate some rice.

Lauren went off to a party and Patty and I went on to see Zadie and Johnny read. They both did great: Zadie especially. She’s adorable and her new book “On Beauty” seems pretty great. I enjoyed “White Teeth” very much. When I finish the 80 other books I’ve started lately, I’ll make sure to get to hers. And maybe I’ll read it while eating another meal at Sitar. That’d be nice, now, wouldn’t it. I’m having trouble ending this piece. [Adam does a tap dance and runs off stage. CURTAIN.]

Going Tapas at Tia Pol

Lisa doesn’t love tapas. In various conversations, Lisa’s explained that when you eat tapas (small appetizer portions of food) you spend lots of money and you go away hungry. And so Tia Pol, the fairly new tapas bar on 10th avenue–part of the 10th ave. restaurant boom–didn’t seem like an obvious choice for dinner with Lisa. But last night she was feeling free-spirited and she said, “I can eat anything, really” and I said, “Ok, let’s go to Tia Pol.”

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Amanda Hesser wrote about Tia Pol a few weeks ago in The New York Times Magazine section. (I can’t find the article online so I can’t link to it.) She basically praised Tia Pol for its similarity to the tapas bars you’d find in Spain. I’ve never eaten tapas in Spain, so I can’t comment on that, but Lisa and I were very excited to try something new and exotic.

And new and exotic is what we had. Upon arrival, they sat as at a table in the back—a two-top with stools, like the kind you’d see at a bar. Which makes sense because this is a tapas bar. The waitress helped us steer through the menu. She raved over the blistered green peppers and so we ordered those. And soon Lisa was raving too.

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After a few peppers Lisa gushed, “Oh my God—I never want to stop eating these.”

They were really addictive. Not spicy, as you might expect. Just sweet and salty and crunchy and chewy and wet. These peppers were already the highlight of the meal!

Me being a meat eater, I wanted to try some of their signature meat dishes. The waitress recommended chorizo and bittersweet chocolate on toast. I know, I know–that sounds gross. Sausage and chocolate? Well here it is, with some saffron threads on top:

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So this wasn’t gross in anyway, but it wasn’t a sublime revelation either. It tasted like what you’d expect chocolate and chorizo to taste like. My complaint is that everything was a down note: the chorizo had no heat and so it was like eating leathery meat and dark bitter chocolate. Sort of like a wrestling match between an old man and a cat with no legs. Or something.

Lisa had this potato and onion omelet that came with a side of what we assumed was aioli. (Sorry this one’s blurry.)

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The omelet wasn’t outrageously special, but Lisa was glad she had ordered it. “Otherwise,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been full.” And if you remember: one of Lisa’s issues with tapas is that they don’t get her full.

My other meat dish was lamb:

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And this was perfectly succulent and juicy and flavorful. Plus the bread, as you can see, caught all the drippings and made for a nice post-lamb afterthought.

More bread came with Lisa’s bread tomato dish. I forget what it’s called. But it’s two slices of bread, drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with tomato and served with three dips: olive tapenade, fava bean spread, and roasted red peppers.

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This was enjoyable but not transcendent. And I think that describes our overall experience: everything was fine and pleasant, but we weren’t blown away. Even the dessert didn’t knock us off our socks:

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That’s an almond tart thingie with dulce de leche and chocolate ice cream. It was very nice but small for what it cost and not particularly mind-boggling.

On the walk home, Lisa said she was really happy with our dinner in terms of food consumed–“That was the perfect amount of food,” she said–but felt it cost way more than it was worth. I was less troubled by the pricetag (and it was about $30 each with drinks) and I was glad to have tried weird things like chocolate and sausage and blasted green peppers. And though, peppers aside, nothing really blew me away, I’d be more than happy to give it another chance.

And that’s how we felt about Tia Pol.

Eating Grenouille at La Grenouille

If you live in New York or even if you don’t, you’ve probably seen an ad for La Grenouille. With its particular font and style, you see it in the back of Playbills at Broadway shows. You see it in The New Yorker and sometimes in the New York Times Magazine section. Such blatant commercialism may cause you to unfairly dismiss La Grenouille as “a place for tourists” and if you do you’ll miss out on one of New York’s most beautiful and (relatively) historic French restaurants.

Located on 52nd between 5th and Madison, the place looks–from the outside–like a magical jewelbox. Here’s mom and dad under the sign:

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Moreso than any other restaurant I’ve been to New York, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of it all once we stepped inside. Flowers, flowers everywhere. And gold and silver and mirrors: it was like a miniature version of Versailles. I tried to snap some pictures so I could capture a sense of it, but none of them came out. I’ll steal some from the La Grenouille website:

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Well, you get the floral effect but you lose the jewel-like quality. Anyway, it’s very pretty in there.

However (first complaint!) the tables are a bit…difficult. There are large tables in the middle for large parties–usually six or more. And then on the side are banquettes that are tight squeezes and, much like at the Carnegie Deli, you’re required to basically eat on top of another family. It was a bit uncomfortable, but we got over it.

The service at La Grenouille is great. They were there for us right away with bread, with water, with wine, with menus. We asked questions and they answered. Here’s the menu up close: (click to enlarge)

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The way it works is for the fixed prix of $87.50 you’re entitled to an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. You can order a la carte, but that would ultimately be more expensive. (Unless you didn’t want an appetizer or a dessert). The left side of the menu features classic dishes that are available year round; the right side seasonal dishes. You can choose from either side.

After we made our choices, they presented us with a tiny gazpacho which was really refreshing:

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“It’s cold,” said dad, kiddingly.

Next up, I decided to indulge myself with foie gras since I don’t eat foie gras on a regular basis, and since–according to some people–it won’t be available forever. This particular foie gras came with peaches:

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I liked it, though it was the first foie gras I’ve eaten that was–in parts–a bit stringy. Wonder why that was?

But folks–my entree is where you’ll be proud of me. Despite a childhood of devotion to this guy:

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And repeated viewings of “The Muppet Movie” (whose plot revolves around the dish I ordered), I knew I owed my readers the brave act of eating grenouille at La Grenouille. For, as those who speak French (and I’m not one of them) know: grenouille means frog. And so for my entree I ordered frog’s legs:

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“It’s our signature dish,” said the waiter, proudly, when he took my order. “It’s messy but it’s worth it.”

I realized a little too late that these were meant to be eaten with my hands. (The presentation of a finger bowl at the end clued me in.) But even with a knife and fork, I truly enjoyed them. They’re sauteed in garlic and crusted with flour so how bad could they be to start with? I hate to be cliche, but that old expression you always hear about things like frog’s legs proved true. “It tastes like chicken.” It kind of did.

Mom had the dover sole and dad had the steak au poivre:

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And they were both satisfied.

For dessert, I had the peach tart which I accidentally ordered as the plum tart, causing some confusion for our waiter. (The process by which you choose your tart is fun: they bring out a tray of tarts and tell you which they are. The man who did that presented my tart as a plum tart which is why, when the waiter came, I said plum tart. See: everything adds up here.)

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This was the low point of the meal: nothing to write home about.

But all in all, the La Grenouille experience was worth having. The other French places in New York I’ve been to–Daniel, Le Bernardin, Jean-Georges–are all temples of gastronomy with modern flair. La Grenouille is a bit more of a relic: they’re not pushing any envelopes, but they’re serving up old world France with style and charm. Plus you get to eat frog. How often do you do that? Quiet, Miss Piggy.

High Drama and Warm Bagels at Ess-A-Bagel

Back in my Chowhounding days, before I lived in New York, I had a list on the back page of a moleskin notebook of places Chowhounders revered in the city. I actually still have that moleskin in my desk somewhere. The summer before I moved to New York, I stayed with Lisa and used that Chowhounded moleskin as a guide, trying lots of quirky places like Gem Spa for great egg creams. One of those places was Ess-A-Bagel on 1st Ave. for “the best bagel in NY” (according to the Chowhounders.)

This morning I had the Sunday Times in my satchel bag and, it being beautiful outside, a desire to walk far for a bagel. So I walked five avenues over and two blocks down to Ess-A-Bagel, where I hadn’t been in two years:

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The walk was really pretty—I passed Gramercy Park which, apparently, you need a special key to enter. I also passed the Gramercy Tavern where I’d like to go some day.

Inside Ess-A-Bagel, there was a line. Here is a picture of that line:

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The high drama mentioned in the title of this post came when these women, at the front of the line, went to pay for their bagels. “Two bagels, everything on it,” said the man at the register. “We didn’t want everything on it,” said the woman. The man said, “I asked you if you wanted everything on it, you said yes.” “Well we don’t want everything on it. We never said that.”

I may be getting the details wrong, but that was the basic exchange. And it culminated with the man saying, “What do you want me to do with these bagels then? Throw them out?”

The women huffed. “You don’t talk to customers that way,” said one of them. “Don’t give me that,” said the man. “I’m leaving,” said one of the women. “Me too,” said another. “You’re very rude,” she said as a final thought on her way out. She was wearing rollerblades.

Now I was already a little turned off by this guy’s behavior. I mean, maybe these women did accidentally say everything when they didn’t want everything, but still “the customer is always right”…right? But then he did something gross. He disassembled the bagels they didn’t buy and scraped the cream cheese back into the bins and put everything else back. Gross!

(I guess not as gross as if he took a half eaten bagel and did the same thing.)

Eventually it was my turn to order and I was very careful to say: “Everything bagel, lox spread, tomato and onion.” I decided to get lox spread because, for me, it has the perfect ratio of lox to cream cheese and I don’t feel all oily and heavy like I do when I eat salty, briny slices of smoked salmon in the middle of the day. (Sure, once in a while, like at Russ and Daughters, but not every Sunday.)

Here’s the resulting bagel:

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The best part, right away, is that the bagel was warm. Probably fresh from the oven. This made it easier to chew, though it melted the cream cheese a bit. Was it fantabulous? No. But it was very good. Easier to chew than a Murray’s bagel but somehow not as hefty. And I like the lox spread better at Murray’s.

My ideal bagel, then, would be a Murray’s shaped bagel baked at Ess-A-Bagel and served with lox from Russ & Daughters. I will market these bagels under the name Murr-A-Bagel and Daughters. And if you order it with everything and change your mind, not only will I not yell at you, the bagel’s on the house. I’m a bagel business prodigy!

A.O.C. is A-OK except for the loud music

There was a time, not too long ago, when I’d have to beg my friends to eat with me at interesting restaurants–to not do the Olive Garden or whatever restaurants most people our age eat at and try something different, new, and maybe more expensive than they wanted to pay. There was a time when they thought this web site was weird, that my infatuation with food was just a phase and that my taking pictures of food was a nuisance. But then, over time, as this web site gained in acclaim and as I was on CNN for making a breast cupcake, the tables turned a bit. Now my friends cater to my every whim. Well. Ha. No. But they’re more likely to defer to me for dinner.

So on Saturday night, when Lisa and I had plans, it wasn’t like I said, “We must eat where I want to tonight or the friendship ends!” It was more like we were figuring out what to do and I said, “Wanna try something interesting for dinner?” and she said, “Sure.” I suggested we go down to Bleecker street and walk around. (Reminder: Bleecker Street in the West Village is my favorite food zone in New York.) My secret destination was August but when we got there it was packed and the menu was too meaty for Lisa. So we ended up here, at A.O.C.:

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A.O.C. is a French acronym for…I defer to the world wide web which offers this definition via the A.O.C. L.A.’s web site: “The Appellation d’Origine Controlee or (A.O.C.) applies to wines, eaux-de-vie, dairy and farmhouse products. It guarantees that a product of quality has been produced within a specified region following established methods of production. The AOC is regulated by laws, the first of which was the Law for the Protection of the Place of Origin of May 6th, 1919.”

See the research I do for you people? The nice thing about A.O.C. Saturday night was that it wasn’t terribly crowded. We were seated (yay, I didn’t say sat) right away at a booth near the front. The menu is pretty big with lots of options for everyone at the table. The waitress asked if we wanted bottled water or sparkling water and we said tap water. She gave us a look. Then she asked if we were ordering drinks. Lisa ordered a diet coke, I was going to wait and order wine with my entree. Lisa’s diet coke came in a bottle and Lisa HATED that. “Ugh,” she said because she prefers tap, as most people do. This, I argued, was more European but that did little to assuage her.

We shared an awesome–and I mean awesome–appetizer: “Croustillant de Chevre: Phyllo Pastry Filled with Goat Cheese & Spinach over a Spinach Salad.”

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I told Lisa I thought this was an A+ appetizer. “It’s really good,” she agreed. I loved the crispness of the phyllo and the creaminess of the goat cheese and the greenness of the salad. It was a triumph of flavors! (They can put that on their billboard.)

But at this moment in time–and as is hinted at by the title of this post–the music was blaring in our ears. It was loud to begin with but it kept getting louder and louder. There must’ve been a speaker right over our table because we were drowned in noise. We totally couldn’t hear each other and, a bit fed up, we asked the waitress really nicely if they could lower it. “I’ll have to ask the bartender,” she said, “It’s part of the ambience.”

The ambience is death by sound? But it did, I suppose, get quieter over time. That was my least favorite aspect of the meal.

But the food was terrific, I’m not going to lie. My entree was “Cotes d’Agneau: Tender Lamb Shank cooked with Rosemary, Polenta and Seasonal Vegetables”:

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The meat was so tender I didn’t need the knife, just flaked it all off with a fork. And it had wonderful flavor helped by the winey, sweet and potent sauce. At this moment in time, I asked for a glass of wine. I wanted a red and chose a $7 Côtes du Rhône (like my fancy symbols?). The waitress said she recommended the $10 version. I said, “That’s ok, I’ll stick to the $7.” I’m not a wine maven and I felt pretty sure I wouldn’t taste the difference between the $7 and the $10. “The $10 is better,” she said. She wasn’t leaving. This was awkward. “No, thanks, just the $7 one please.” (We were actually using the names of the wines, not the prices, but that was what was implied.) She left reluctantly and I thought poorly of that experience. When the wine came, it was fine and I enjoyed it with my lamb.

Lisa had Risotto with arborio rice, truffle oil (I’m getting this from menupages.com), mushrooms, vegetables, paremsan, and aged balsamic:

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She enjoyed hers a great deal but couldn’t finish it because, as we all know, risotto is very filling. She took the rest home and I encouraged her to make arancini like I did last week.

The bill came and it wasn’t unreasonable for all the delicious food we’d eaten. Usually I like restaurants with adventurous unusual cuisine, but this was just standard French food (minus the risotto) prepared extremely well. We liked it. And next time I bully my friends into eating out, maybe we’ll go here again and sit away from the speakers, making sure to order $7 glasses of wine.

Knowledge is Power: Dinners at Wondee Siam II and Osteria del Sole

Here is a story of two dinners, both unplanned.

The first happened Friday night. I was meeting my friend Mark, theater critic (who has a story in the NYT coming out soon!), to go see a production of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband.” Mark couldn’t do dinner first so I was on my own. I went to the theater on 54th street and began exploring. On 9th Avenue I saw this in front of me:

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From that perspective, you really can’t tell much about a restaurant. I gathered Asian food was involved. I knew their fax number. I saw some people inside.

But as I came closer, I saw taped to the door articles and “blurbs” from various newspapers and magazines. I am a total sucker for that and for good reason. When you have no idea what to make of a restaurant, reading a colorful praise-heavy clip from a newspaper lets you know that at least ONE person who cares about food thinks this place is worth eating at. And, as the title of this post suggests, that kind of knowledge is some kind of power. Plus the praise in this case was very specific. New York Magazine raved over the duck salad.

So I went inside and ordered the duck salad. (Normally I’d go to menupages and find the precise Thai name for the salad but Wondee Siam II’s menu’s not showing up.) Here it is in all its glory:

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This salad is so indulgent and so good. There are cashews and red onions and pieces of pineapple but the best part is the duck. It’s basically duck bacon: fatty crispy bits scattered throughout the salad. The dressing is lime juice. There can be hot peppers, but I said no. I scarfed this mother down like it was my job. And if I’m ever in that hood again, I’m totally going back.

So that’s part one in a story of two dinners.

Part two was less successful. Ricky and I went tonight for a walk on the Christopher Street pier, which was fun, and then we went a’wandering for dinner. The West Village, as you’ve frequently heard, is my favorite place to stroll and stumble upon great restaurants. Oh, there’s The Spotted Pig, and August, and Mary’s Fish Bar, Magnolia Bakery, etc. We hit a corner with some pricey but very pretty open-windowed joints. Extra Virgin, which looked the most promising, had a long wait. So we came to this place, Osteria Del Sole:

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This picture’s a bit unfair because it doesn’t show you the lovely view outside. We were on the corner of Perry and West 4th and the tree-lined streets make for quite a charming view. One part Mary Poppins to two parts Sex and the City. (Haha, I just had this image of Julie Andrews in her brown wig at a table with Samantha, Miranda, Charlotte and Carrie telling them, in her clipped British accent, “Girls, have I ever told you about my umbrella?”).

So it looked promising and cute, but were there blurbs and articles outside to confirm our suspicion that this was a good place to eat? There were not. Should this preclude us experimenting with a new restaurant? Of course not. Knowldge may be power but ignorance is bliss.

Or is it?

Ricky and I started off sharing this Caesar salad. They accidentally brought us the wrong salad first but that was remedied. Here’s the Caesar:

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It was ok: nothing great. Sometimes I order a Caesar because it’s comfort food and what my family eats when we go out, and other times I order it as a test of a restaurant’s competence or its innovativeness. The Caesar at Pearl Oyster Bar may not be my favorite, but it’s innovative. Or at least interesting. This was neither.

For our entrees, Ricky ordered from land, I ordered from sea. He had the “Fettina di Manzo al Pepe Nero” (Charcoal Grilled Hanger Steak served in a Black Peppercorn Sauce):

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And Ricky may look excited, but the steak would quickly end that. “I wish there were more peppercorns on it,” he said sadly, after a few bites. I tried it too and it was a bit bland. Which tied in nicely with my pasta:

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“Spaghettini alla Bottarga con Ruchetta e Pomodorini Piccanti” (Spaghettini Pasta Tossed with Dry Mullet Caviar, Arugola & Cherry Tomatoes (Sardinian Specialties)).

Something with that long a name should go equally long on flavor. This didn’t. Ricky tried it and said, “It tastes like noodles in butter.” Well, olive oil, but yeah. And for $17 you’d think it would taste like a whole lot more. It didn’t.

So what have we learned? That when dining planlessly one should look before they leap? Perhaps. But Ricky and I had fun, so all was not lost. And what if the meal had been great? I’d be whistling a different tune. I suppose it’s a matter of odds: you increase your odds of having a good meal the more you know about where you’re eating before you eat there. And that’s your platitude for the night.