The Underground Gourmet

Ask the Underground Gourmet: Where to Take ‘The One’

Photo: Andy Friedman

A few months ago, Adam Platt took time between meals to answer questions from readers. Today, food editors Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld take their turn behind the mike. The pair, known as the Underground Gourmet, has been eating their way through New York for over ten years. Today, they address date night, food allergies, and where to find a proper Japanese breakfast. Keep those questions coming! Send your queries to Adam Platt, who will answer them next week.

If you were going on a first date, with SOMEONE whom you expected to be the “one.” Where would you go? Let’s choose 3 places for 3 budgets. A student, an IT guy working at a standard media company, and an investment banker (who is still employed.)

If what you’re shooting for is romance at three price levels, how about ‘ino for the student: If there’s anything besides alcohol that can help in a terrifying situation like this, it’s truffled egg toast. Let’s say Vinegar Hill House for the IT guy (how much do IT guys make, anyway?) or PDT if you like good cocktails and deep-fried hot dogs. For the still-employed (but presumably mildly repentant) investment banker, you can’t do much better than the very reasonable and romantic Corton. Or maybe Minetta Tavern if you possess the pertinacity of a bull terrier and can get in. If the investment banker is still employed, but newly de-bonused, there’s always the recession-proof Prosperity Dumpling, where $1 still gets you five excellent pork-and-chive pot stickers. If that doesn’t impress, nothing will.

I am someone who reads food blogs before I go to bed and who loves to eat out in NYC and try new restaurants as a hobby. My current favorite is Convivio and I am thrilled that I can usually snag a table if I go on a night other than Saturday or if I go early. Is there someplace in the city that you can usually walk in without a reservation that has consistently good food? I like: Convivio, Mia Dona, Lupa, Cookshop, and West Branch — simple, flavorful food.

Your general strategy is a sound one. Eat early (or late) and often is the Underground Gourmet’s motto. Avoid prime time and you can feast like a Roman emperor virtually anywhere you like these days. Although reading food blogs before going to bed, as you probably know, may cause facial spasms, hysteria, spots, convulsions, pre-senile dementia, hypovolemic shock, tennis elbow, myocardial infarction, and gout. In fact, after chain-smoking and subsisting solely on a diet of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, the act is now considered a leading health risk by the American Medical Association.

That said, if it’s immediate gratification you’re looking for, you might consider I Sodi, a sliver of Tuscan refinement on a ragtag strip of Christopher Street. Small menu, huge wine list, nice cocktails, and always very civilized. Blaue Gans is another — very casual Austro-German spot with a welcome-anytime vibe, and Irving Mill has a terrific “charcroute” plate, some surprisingly good pastas, and one of the best burgers in town, plus a lot of tables. Ilili is an underrated — albeit slightly sceney — Lebanese restaurant that we’ve dined at reservationless on more than a few occasions with only a minor struggle at the hostess podium. If you like Cookshop, you’ll like the same owner’s Soho spinoff, Hundred Acres. At polar ends of the culinary spectrum, Bar Stuzzichini and wd~50 are both good bets (rustic southern Italian for one, avant-garde American for the other). We like Centovini and Insieme too.

As for off-hours, the Spotted Pig isn’t as horribly overrun at lunch or late at night during the week as it is at other times. Franny’s in Park Slope is open for lunch straight through dinner on Saturdays and Sundays, and as such, scoring a table there anywhere from 2 to 5 p.m. is a good bet. And if you don’t mind being mistaken for a Miami Beach octogenarian, try Babbo at 4:30 on Sundays. At that hour, the coveted walk-in tables in the front near the bar are a relative cinch.

Is there a restaurant (not a high-end hotel) in the city that serves real Japanese breakfast: the rice, green tea, miso soup, mackerels, pickles and all? I know Hakubai (which doesn’t even really count because it’s IN a high-end hotel) used to, but I don’t think it does anymore. Also, while I have your ear, is there a place in NY to get that amazing sour milk/yogurty thing that Swedes put on their cereal? I forget what it’s called.

Tough questions. Sadly, it looks as though the traditional Japanese breakfast may be going the way of pike quenelles and peach Melba. Hakubai at the Kitano New York did discontinue breakfast service, as you suspected. But another restaurant located there, the Garden Cafe, serves a buffet-style breakfast that includes some of the dishes you’re looking for. The West 55th Street Menchanko-tei used to serve a terrific Japanese breakfast for a song, but telling you that doesn’t do you any good. If you can get over your aversion to high-end hotels, there is Asiate at the Mandarin Oriental, which serves a grilled-salmon version for $32 along with a great view. But the $18.50 broiled-salmon breakfast at Blue Ribbon Sushi in midtown may be your best bet, although, yes, it’s technically in a hotel, how high-end we’re not sure. (What have you got against high-end hotels, anyway?) As far as your dairy question, if you’re speaking of fil mjolk, then no, but you can find the thicker, tangier Icelandic-style skyr at a few places around town, including Whole Foods and LifeThyme (410 Sixth Avenue).

When I was younger, I loved linguine with clam sauce, and had it often with no consequences. I would still enjoy it, I’m sure. However, the last three times I’ve tried it, I have gotten horribly, horribly ill. Each time was at what were considered well-respected, very good quality restaurants, which I trusted. My family thinks I’m insane for even considering ever eating linguine with clam sauce again, and they’re probably right. But I don’t think what I have is an allergy to the clams (I can eat other shellfish, no problems at all), but just a case of a bad clam getting in there, coincidentally all three times, even at good restaurants. Don’t worry, I’m not going to try clams again ever, ever, no matter what your answer is — since the last time was quite inconvenient. (We were visiting New York at Christmastime, went to a famous Italian restaurant, then I took them to Blue Man Group, and ditched them in the middle of the show, scooting out under the Blue Men’s legs, to hide out in that theatre’s very small restrooms.) However, I’m just curious on what your take on this problem is. Is it probable that I would just get lucky enough to have a bad clam in the mix at three good restaurants?

You must have us confused with someone else. We are lowly food reporters. We are not licensed medical doctors, brainiac probability-and-statistics professors like that dude on Numb3rs, or Vegas oddsmakers. Still, if it’s our opinion that you can’t live without, why not go to an allergist and get tested? Lots of people, apparently, are allergic to lobster and shrimp, for instance, but not mussels and clams, and vice versa or something like that. That way you can pick and choose your poison. And if you ever change your mind and decide to go out with a bang, try the linguine with clams at Del Posto.

Ask the Underground Gourmet: Where to Take ‘The One’