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THE MODERN AMERICAN OBSESSION: FOOD
By Martin B. Deutsch
April 19, 2007 -- The American obsession with dining in and dining out has reached pandemic proportions. Food and its preparation, both at home and in restaurants, from fast food to five-star, now dominates a plethora of television channels, plies the radio waves, inhabits the Internet and gives flavor to the print media.

While much of the planet is absorbed by war and want, we are on a national eating binge that is probably unparalleled in the annals of gustatory history. I recently heard that we eat out or have food brought in an average of four times a week.

And, I admit, I am a willing participant in this debauchery. This introduction, or appetizer if you will, presages some commentary on the current state of food--both dining in and dining out--in the Big Apple, my hometown and the capital of American gustatory obsession.

LITTLE-KNOWN GREEK EATERY DRAWS PRAISE--AND CROWDS
I'm not in the habit of making specious guarantees, but I think that New Yorkers and visitors alike will enjoy the incredibly fresh and zesty fare at Snack Taverna. Nearly hidden at 63 Bedford Street in the West Village, the Snack Taverna offers excellent Greek cuisine at reasonable prices.

Domiciled in the most basic of accommodations with nonexistent décor, the service is nevertheless delightful. Our waitress was a charming young lady with a good deal of patience that allowed her to explain the intricacies as well as the ingredients of the various menu items. The menu needs explanation because it looks as if it's printed for a fast-food take-out crowd. But such an interpretation would be a disservice to this crowded and often loud eatery.

Among the outstanding dinner appetizers: Tzatziki ($5), a dish of sheep's milk, yogurt and garlic; Taramosalata ($5), a combination of red caviar and sour cream; Dolmades ($4), which are stuffed grape leaves; and a wonderfully fresh Greek salad ($9). The appetizers were universally applauded by our table of four. Moving on to the entrées, we had perfectly prepared leg of lamb ($22), a vegetable platter ($14) and one of the special fish dishes of the day, Bronzini ($22), a sort of Mediterranean sea bass. Again, all winners and worth a repeat visit. A Greek red wine priced at $50 was okay, but not memorable. The desserts were also decent, but uninspired.

The Snack Taverna (212-929-3499) also serves lunch, with a modified menu that also features sandwiches and salads. Reservations for dinner are suggested; in fact, when we left the restaurant at 9:45 one recent evening, there were at least twenty people patiently waiting inside and outside for tables.

AN AMERICAN STEAK HOUSE CONTINUES TO EXCEED EXPECTATIONS
As far back as I can recall, Sparks Steak House in Midtown Manhattan has received universal acclaim from the legion of carnivores that comprise its core of admirers. Now I've never been a big fan of an oversized slab of red meat, but I've always enjoyed dining at Sparks.

The occasion presented itself again recently and the meal blew me away. This was a private function, so we all ordered off a fixed menu, but I'd hardly call it fixed in a traditional sense. The lavish offerings included a choice of half-dozen appetizers, two salads, 14 entrées and a selection of desserts. I started with a platter of the best oysters I've had in years, while others tried the prosciutto; lump crabmeat with bay scallops; or the baked clams with shrimp scampi. I went for the tomatoes and onions, others for mixed greens with tomato wedges. Both got high marks. There were five beef choices, including beef medallions; prime sirloin; and sliced steak with sauteed onions and peppers. Other meat choices included lamb chops and veal chops. Also offered were lobster tails and broiled shrimp, as well as six fresh fish courses. My host had the simply prepared red snapper; it looked mouth-watering and he said it was delicious. Side dishes ran the gamut from the renowned Sparks hash brown potatoes to sautéed mushrooms, broccoli and spinach. Sparks, the pundits allege, has one of the best wine lists in the country. The bottles poured at our lunch were lauded and applauded. The service was attentive, friendly and low-key.

Dining at Sparks--whether at a private function or as a walk-in guest--doesn't come without a steak-sized bill. Expect to spend at least $40 for an entrée. But Sparks is all a good steak house should be and more.

DINING HEAVEN, UNLESS THE DELIVERYMEN ARE ON STRIKE
Just the other day, I learned to my dismay that the delivery crew at the Saigon Grill had gone on strike. I reported on the Saigon Grill two years ago and the news came as quite a blow since I often use it to deliver food to my office so I can entertain business guests.

This disturbing news also led me to speculate on a phenomenon that may be unique to Manhattan, namely that you can get any kind of cuisine delivered within minutes, around the clock, seven days a week. I once figured out that I can order for delivery at an estimated 100 eateries, all of them within a six-block radius of my office. The delivery options range from diners and coffee shops to some pretty fancy restaurants and eateries of all ethnic stripes. This range includes the now delivery-less Saigon Grill, which is famous for its authentic Vietnamese dishes at a very reasonable price.

Just to give you a partial idea of what else is available, let me offer the following roster: China Fun is one of several decent Chinese restaurants; it's my 7-year-old daughter's favorite, so that's the family choice. Our favorite Italian, Francesco's Pizzeria (186 Columbus Avenue; 212-721-0066) also offers better-than-average pasta, a variety of Italian heroes on wonderful semolina bread and steak fries. In the more elegant Italian genre, Arte Café is a white tablecloth place with outdoor seating in the warm weather. There is a selection of Jewish delis and from that genre we generally choose Fine & Shapiro (138 West 72nd Street; 212-877-2874), which offers everything from matzo ball soup to grilled kosher hot dogs with sauerkraut and freshly carved turkey. We can choose from a half-dozen Indian restaurants, my favorite being Sapphire, which isn't cheap, but is far above average. I could also mention some soup-and-sandwich specialists, four or five Japanese places, even Thai and Greek restaurants that will deliver.

In the meantime, though, I remain firmly optimistic that delivery service from Saigon Grill will resume shortly.
ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.

This column is Copyright © 2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.