My mom has just returned from an extended stay in St John's Hospital and my daily visits to her gave me an unprecedented opportunity to try just about every one of the twelve or so restaurants in Utica Square, that verdant and tony shopping plaza just to the south. Here's what I found.
Always my favorite. Some of the dishes would be well-received in New York's finest restaurants. The halibut, for example, crusted in pistachio in the style Wylie Dufresne made famous, served on a bed of minced shallots, tomato and huge shrimp, and surrounded by a wonderful sauce that was little thicker than consomme, the color of lobster bisque with flecks of cream, but was redolent with flavor -- a tart citrus vied with Chardonnay. It's $15 at lunch and about $30 at dinner. Most of the lunch entrees are $14 or less, change daily, and often include house-made sausages atop a hearty ragout of spinach, wine and white beans, or sliced steak adjacent to a marvelous medley of a salad. Hamburgers, big and dreamy, are $8.50. Lunch is served till about 4:30PM, closed Sunday and Monday. The Stonehorse Market, just next door, has just been expanded, that's a retail store where the restaurant sells food that's raw but prepped for cooking. Two and a half inch thick pork chops brined and marinated, huge chickens brushed with a garlic and rosemary paste, and prime-quality steaks, all from small farms and ranches in Colorado or Okla., and all excellent
Hearty pastas such as linguini in an anchovy cream sauce with mushrooms and pine nuts ($11), stellar sandwiches like catfish (a huge hunk of fried fish swims atop a hero roll)($12), and simple entrees, such as a good version of chicken fried steak ($12), or grilled pork chop with caramelized apples ($15) Lunch till 5, closed Sunday. A pleasant, airy setting with outdoor dining too. www.wildfork.com
Slightly cheaper lunch dishes served till 4 on weekdays. Olive Garden has come up in the past 10 years. The food used to be downright inedible. Now it's sometimes quite good, and comes with a mountain of salad. (If you eat all the salad and breadsticks, that's probably about 800 calories) Braised beef and tortelloni has ribs braised in wine surrounded by cheese-filled dumplings, topped with a small amount of a yummy cream sauce. Pasta might be soggy unless you request al dente, and the tomato sauce is not their best feature. From time to time, about once a year, they have all you can eat pasta for only $9. Now is that time; it's available lunch and dinner until October 12, 2008.
P F Chang's
Upscale decor, Chinese-inspired food can be surprisingly good. They have a few cheap lunch dishes until 4, including salmon fillet served atop a bed of asparagus surrounded by a lovely lemon-soy sauce (more French than Chinese) ($9.50) and shrimp with lobster sauce that is redolent of a good black bean flavor. ($8.50) Good things on the dinner menu too. I finally tried mu shu pork ($11), which for years I avoided on principle, and it was excellent. See http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/437668
Peppers has the same menu all day but it's one of the least expensive places in the area. It's shamelessly Tex-Mex... no subtle moles here, just lots of melted cheese... but if that's what you want, it does a good job, and prepares the burritos and chimichingas lovingly and with care. Most dishes under $10.
Lunch menu till 4:30. Most of the lunch dishes are fairly uninspired in creation, but the execution and presentation makes them well worth ordering. One of the best chicken fried steaks around. ($13), good hamburger steak covered in wine sauce ($13). My favorite was an enormous chicken breast. The skin was removed and the inside stuffed with a tangy cheese sauce, then the skin was put back. ($15). Usually I loathe chicken breast but I loved this. http://www.pologrill.com/
McGill's (just across the street)
Lunch till 4. Their pasta with lobster ($13) is worth a lunchtime trip. Farfalle, ziti and spirelli pasta with a yummy red cream sauce redolent of lobster (with a few chunks of meat too) Their fettucini Alfredo ($10) is quite good too. Their specialty is steaks, though, which are $25 and up. www.dinemcgills.com
Places I haven't been
Queenie's is a wildly popular lunch spot with outdoor dining and sandwiches, soups, salads under $7. I've never eaten there and I think its draw is being a pleasant place to have a snack between shopping. The food does not look all that inspired (except for the wonderful desserts) I've never been to Fleming's. It is a chain steakhouse and with prices there about as high as Peter Luger's I don't plan to go. But it's always crowded. Perhaps the most crowded place of all is the Starbucks. If you want a Starbucks, this one has a better location, with tables opposite the central and luxuriant garden, than most.