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Branching out in the East Village

Pan | Jul 6, 201501:24 AM

I eat out and do takeout and delivery a lot. It’s easy to get into a rut, and I’d like your help to branch out. I’ll give you all a rundown of my standby places in the area.

My price categories:

Everyday eating – up to around $50-55 for 2 people, including tax and tip but not necessarily drinks.

Every 3-4 weeks or so – c. $60-80/2 people, including tax and tip and possibly a drink apiece

Every 2-3 months – c. $80-100/2 people, including tax and tip and perhaps 1-2 drinks apiece

2-3 times a year: c. $100-140/2 people, including tax and tip and perhaps 1-2 drinks apiece. I usually go outside the neighborhood to dine at restaurants in this category. I may go higher than this for a special meal, like the dinner I had with friends a few months ago at St. Anselm’s, the great steakhouse in Williamsburg.

If I have to ignore most of the menu items to keep the prices down, don’t count it, and if I can have only a main course and no appetizers or dessert (both are not necessary), don’t count that, either. These prices should be for a regular-sized meal – not a 4-course Italian restaurant meal, but one that’s averagely filling.

Anyway, my standbys for everyday eating:

Xian Famous Foods, St Marks. I doubt I have much to add about this place, except that there’s a new rice noodle dish that I want to try. Even though the prices have crept up a bit, it’s still very well-priced and an excellent value. I only wish they were open till 11 or later, rather than 10.

Grand Sichuan St Marks – I’ve been a regular since it opened in, I think, 1998. It’s still a very good place to eat in, but delivery is not nearly as good. Prices, especially for cold dishes, have gone up, but it’s still very possible to have a very good, inexpensive meal if you are a party of at least 2.

Hot Kitchen – Their lunch special is a great value - $10 or less before tax and tip, and it includes quite a few good Sichuan dishes. Dinner is significantly more expensive than Grand Sichuan, but the portions are humongous and the menu is different enough for it to be worthwhile to go to both places.

Somtum Der – They really love fermented fish, and I don’t. But I like the place, anyway. I enjoy their Gaeng Om Kai (Isaan chicken soup), Somtum Thai, Sa Poak Kai tod Der (deep-fried chicken thighs) and some other items. Don’t get their larb – it’s watery and just not worthwhile. I really like the fact that they do not stint on chili: The spiciness level if I say nothing to them is moderately high, and if I’m having allergy symptoms and order delivery of that chicken soup with extra Thai chilis, they give it to me. I prefer the atmosphere at lunch, when it’s quieter and they play nice Quincy Jones Band music from the 70s, than at dinner, when it’s heavily patronized, they play music that makes me feel like I should be in a dance club, and the lights are down.

Ukrainian East Village (National Home) – I really liked Stage Restaurant and hope we haven’t seen the last of it (and before that, I liked Teresa’s, and Leshko’s…), but this place is pleasant and usually reliable. I go there mostly for soup and for such main dishes as Beef Stroganoff and Kasha with Mushroom Gravy.

Yakitori Taisho – This is my standby for late-night dining in the East Village. Their yakitori is very good, except for the mushrooms, which don’t have enough taste. My girlfriend and I like their chicken skin, chicken thighs, chicken wings, scallions, garlic, shishito peppers, beef balls, and my girlfriend also likes the fried and then braised tofu dish that comes in a bowl (the menupages.com menu doesn’t list it and I forget its name – I think it’s OK). We also love that they have good, inexpensive sake, and we usually split at least one order of sake, usually a large one. It’s at least a couple of levels of quality down from Yakitori Totto, but it’s in the neighborhood, open late and good.

Next price category:

Cafe Mogador – I’ve gone to this place since the 1980s, and for the most part, it’s consistently good and pleasant, but I’ve always felt it was a bit more expensive than it should be, in terms of value and my comfort. I never seem to get out of there without a bill of $70 or more for 2 people. That said, it is a good place.

Mighty Quinn – This is a place I do consider a very good value. Their brisket is wonderful and their chicken wings are excellent. And this is one place where I always get a beer, and their beers are very good. It’s not a full-service place, which is why it doesn’t cost more, but the service I do get is always friendly and helpful, so I make sure to leave a significant tip, even though less than the 20% I’d leave for full service.

Supper – This is my Italian standby. They make good, dependable, honest food and have an acceptable wine list if you want some. I usually like to share the fennel salad and the roast chicken (or sometimes a fish dish) with a side of zucchini “pasta”. It always seems to cost $80 or more for 2 people, so I can’t go more than once every 4-6 weeks.

Malai Marke – This place just reentered my rotation after my previous meal had been oversalted and disappointing. I like this place and it’s definitely a fair value, but it isn’t cheap. My last visit, a couple of weeks ago, cost $93 total for 3 people, including 2 lassis ($5 apiece, which seems a bit expensive to me) and 1 beer, which I thought was quite a good value.

Katz’s – Probably belongs in this price category, but I go there 2-3 times a year because the food is so rich, I just can’t have it more often.

Oda House – I have liked this place, but the last time I went, everything was salty and the meal cost I think $107 including tax and tip for 2 people. Even considering that we got one $11 glass of good Georgian wine apiece, I considered it a poor value. I did like the Khachapuri, whose saltiness was at least mostly attributable to the cheese and was not excessive like the other dishes (we also got the Pkhali Trio, which we had previously liked a lot, and the Tolma, their word for dolma, which were really rather poor - watery and oversalted). I don’t feel like rushing back but would like to try Old Tbilisi at some point.

Soba Koh – I haven’t been there in some time and should return, but I’m kind of spoiled with the cheap noodles at Xian. It’s a good, civilized place, though. The last time I went, I got soba with wasabi that tasted like it had nothing except wasabi in it, but almost every other time has been good. My recommendation would be: Never get appetizers, which are poor values, and don’t get sake unless you really know what you want, as the waitresses have never been able to steer me right and I’ve never had good sake there (perhaps that’s changed, but that’s been my previous experience). Other than the soba, desserts are good.

Cacio e Vino – My girlfriend and I went back there a few months ago after several years away. We regret that they removed their wood-fired pizza oven, but the food was good and pleasant. I don’t remember what the bill was, and I’m not sure why I haven’t thought of going back since then.

Next category:

Momofuku Ssam Bar belongs in the next price category. I consider it an excellent value, though there are certain items on the menu I don’t love (e.g., the pork buns are a little fattier than I prefer, purely a matter of taste as that’s kind of the point of them). I usually really like the way they cook duck. Their food is imaginative and uses excellent ingredients, and a trip there is always pleasant.

Lavagna also probably belongs in this price category. My last meal there was splendid. I think it may have cost $70 (that’s for me, not for 2 people), but I was eating with some heavy wine drinkers (I partook but don’t usually drink that much wine), so factor that in. I haven’t been back but probably should go.

If you’ve read this far: I’d like recommendations for all these price categories, but I’m most interested in recommendations at the increasingly disappearing lower end. What that amounts to, basically, is restaurants with mains in the teens with perhaps a few in the lower to mid 20s but nothing in the 30s and clustering probably in the mid to upper teens at most. Also, appetizers should cost as close to $5 as possible, with $8 being around the upper limit for the average app on the menu, unless the apps are really main dish-sized (as the cauliflower I had recently at Malai Marke was). If it’s the kind of place where one might normally get dessert, desserts should cost $7 or less – I’ve been seeing restaurants that are otherwise not high-end charging $10 and $12 per dessert, and unless you have desserts that are comparable to great high-end desserts, that’s gouging.

Grand Sichuan,
Somtum Der,
Der Krung,
Ukrainian East Village,
Ukrainian National Home,
Yakitori Totto,
Lavagna,
Malai Marke,
Supper,
Momofuku Ssäm Bar,
Hot Kitchen
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