I spent last week in Manhattan and wanted to say thanks for all the good information on this board and offer some observations in return.
I got to my hotel on the Upper West Side on Sunday night and wanted to get something to eat. I had read about Spazzia, so headed over and arrived about 9:45. They closed at 10, but there were still about 25 people inside, so I went in and asked whether it was too late for dinner. The nice hostess checked with the kitchen and said no, it was fine. I was surprised to see there weren't many Italian items on the regular menu, though the prix fixe menu looked more Italian (and very good, but they were out of it for that night). I chose a couple of things that I figured would be quick to prepare, a roasted beet salad with goat cheese and a pasta (linguine, I think) with seafood. The beet salad arrived quickly and was very good, though absolutely huge. I didn't gobble but I did eat with an eye on the clock. I had to ask for bread, but when it arrived it was stale and dry. (I noticed this in many of the restaurants in NYC, which I found curious. I live in San Francisco, so maybe we're just spoiled for bread.)
Once I finished I waited for about 10 minutes. A waiter finally came by and said "Were you having anything else?" I said yes, pasta. I waited another 15 minutes (meanwhile all the other people except one table had left and I was feeling guilty, but I was still quite hungry). The pasta dish finally arrived. It was scalding hot and consisted of different kinds of seafood on something that looked exactly like sobu noodles in pink water. Unfortunately, it tasted worse than that. The seafood was stellar--fat scallops in two sizes, shrimp, mussels. I had to wait five minutes even to try anything since it was so very hot. I ended up digging around for the seafood and eating much of it, but the watery sauce had such an awful flavor that I went straight home and brushed my teeth afterward. Oh, well, it was an off night, I guess. I would try Spazzia again based on the first course and the interesting things on the menu (but I'd come earlier, obviously!).
I wanted to try as many things as possible, so had determined to get the traditional tasting menu. The friend with whom I dined really wanted something else on the menu, but it turned out that the entire table had to order the tasting menu for anyone to have it, so she kindly acquiesced. We also ordered the paired wines (the regular ones, not the reserves). The wines were absolutely stellar! I was less impressed with the menu, which was rather uneven. I am a salt fiend, but one of the dishes, pappardelle with chanterelles and thyme, had such intensely salty pasta that we couldn't eat it (though we did eat the chanterelles). I'm sure it was a kitchen mishap, but surprising in such a restaurant. The standout dish was a grilled guinea hen. I will definitely come back here and sit at the bar downstairs and have a nice dinner of a couple of courses. It must be lovely on a rainy night. Both the bartender and our waiter had suggested that we order off the regular menu, and we should have taken their advice, but I don't regret ordering the tasting menu because we got a chance to have those terrific wines. (I'd be happy to post the menu and wines if anyone is interested.)
I changed hotels midweek to one close to Les Halles on Park Avenue South, and thought I'd give it a try for lunch. Despite wanting to eat at Babbo, I'm really not into celebrity chef restaurants, but the menu sounded appealing. I had the steak frites and a very nice glass of wine, recommended by the very nice waiter. My friend and I came back for dinner a few nights later and ended up with the same waiter and had a really great dinner. She had New York steak, if I recall correctly, and I had pork tenderloin with mashed potatoes and roasted garlic. Both delicious. Another very nice bottle of wine on the waiter's recommendation. He suggested a cheese course to finish off (I don't know if he remembered me from before, when I'd declined dessert), and when the bill came he had comped us on it. Really a delightful dinner, with a fun atmosphere. I will definitely return. When we left, we ran into Anthony Bourdain coming down the street. He was smoking (surprise), but politely held it behind his back while he talked to us. We told him how much we'd enjoyed it (and how great the waiter was), and he asked what we'd had to eat. Very pleasant--especially as I'm sure he gets recognized all the time.
I went here because I'd seen on Chowhound that they had white truffles from Alba. Last January I was in Asti and in one memorable lunch finished off the last truffle in town, so obviously I was interested in this. Everyone was extremely nice and friendly, but I have to say I was not really impressed with the food. They recommended the egg yolk raviolo (not sure that's the official name) for the truffle, and a goat cheese souffle with black Mission figs and proscuitto to start. The souffle was good but the figs were either green or peeled (they were small and it was rather dark, so I couldn't tell) and had little flavor. They were floating on top of a very sweet sauce that I didn't eat. The proscuitto was fried. I didn't think the dish really came together. The raviolo was very good, but the truffle (which was very large and beautiful when the waiter shaved it on) had no taste. With one glass of a chardonnay recommended by the sommelier (which I didn't like that much--I prefer red with truffles, but I am always interested in trying something new), an espresso, bottled water, and a grappa, plus a good tip (because they were very nice), the bill was $120. I might return here for a pre-theatre dinner and order something simpler, but on the other hand there are an awful lot of other restaurants in NYC.
Grand Central Station Oyster Bar
Just had to mention this as I love oysters and was delighted by the huge selection (not to mention the rest of the menu!). We had a very dynamic Irish waitress who was hilarious. Will definitely return here too.
Other places I enjoyed: Katz Delicatessen, Stage Deli, Empire Diner, Hollywood Diner, Old King Cole bar, Ritz-Carlton bar, and the gelato place on the Lower East Side whose name I can't recall at the moment--the one started by the guy who started Ciao Bella. Still not close to gelato in Italy, but interesting nonetheless. I went to NiceMatin for breakfast one morning. It was fun to sit on the sidewalk (very warm day), but they seemed to have an awful lot of attitude for what the place is, and the croissant was burned. Oh yes, and the new cafeteria at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is surprisingly good.