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 Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin EATING WITH THE LOCALS:
WHERE NEW YORKERS DINE NOW


BY MARTIN B. DEUTSCH

March 17, 2005 -- Once upon a time, when the world was my oyster, I would sample far-flung and exotic cuisine wherever it originated. These days, however, my tastes are more parochial and I sample more conventional kitchens in the New York area.

This local bias is reflected in the cluster of local eateries I discuss below. Few of these are high-profile tourist places, so when you come to the Big Apple to entertain, you can amaze and delight your New York contacts by seeming totally conversant with where New Yorkers actually eat!

FISHING FOR GOOD FOOD ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE
The Ocean Grill, across from the Museum of Natural History, offers outdoor seating, which is big stuff for locals and visitors. But given the weather and the season, I chose to sit upstairs inside. It's comfortable enough, but very dark with only dim candlelight on each table. The service was pleasant and the food was quite good, an assessment I can make by taste, if not by sight. For a starter, try lobster and shrimp rolls in a chili glaze ($8.50 to $10, depending on the lobster's cost). It gets high marks for quality and generous portion size. For entrees, Alaska salmon off the menu ($22) gets a thumbs up. I recently tried a special, Wild Copper River King Salmon, also from the 49th state ($32). It didn't particularly resonate with my palate, despite the waiter's wide-eyed explanation that this fish dish was available only two weeks a year. Try the cooked strawberry crumble with rhubarb swirl ice cream ($6.75) for dessert. Let me hasten to add that I've dined a number of times at the Ocean Grill, for both lunch and dinner, and found the fish choices and their preparation uniformly well above average. (Ocean Grill, 384 Columbus Avenue, between 78th and 79th Streets; phone: 212-579-2300)

A ONE-NAME CHEF WITH A NICE TOUCH ON THE FRINGE OF MIDTOWN
Once in a while I'm in the market for a midtown Manhattan business lunch without the madding crowds, the excessive noise and the tables jammed together. I also want good food, attentive service and reasonable prices. Not an easy assignment. Thankfully, Da Tommaso fits the bill. This veteran Northern Italian spot sits on the fringe of the business and theater-district action and it's rarely crowded at lunch. Like Cher, Madonna and Christo, owner/chef Tommaso goes by just one name. And he has a nice touch in the kitchen. At a recent lunch for four, three of us started with tortellini in brodo, the Italian stuffed pasta in broth. It was fresh and flavorful. The other starter was clams oreganata, which also garnered a thumbs up. Two of us went for the entree of Chilean sea bass in tomato, olives and herbs, which was judged excellent. Another diner, who described himself as a finicky eater, was pleased with his lobster-stuffed ravioli. The fourth member of the group, who had a chopped salad, was also quite happy. Then came espresso and cappuccino and a tea for me. With tip and tax, the tab came to $167. And the business agenda also went down smoothly. (Da Tommaso is located at 903 Eighth Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets; phone: 212-265-1890.)

A CULINARY JOURNEY TO ITALY VIA THE NEW YORK SUBURBS
Every so often they let me escape from Manhattan and, in the nearby Westchester County suburb of Bronxville, I had lunch at a lovely Italian restaurant called Pane E Vino. I partook of a special menu for a private group that, among other dishes, featured a veal Milanese that hardly required the use of a knife. The salad course and dessert were also excellent. Pane E Vino's regular lunch features a $10.95 fixed-price menu that's a real deal. It offers an assortment of salads, cold appetizers, pastas and pizzas, breaded chicken and prosciutto and mozzarella sandwiches. There's also a pricier à la carte menu with a generous selection of classic Italian dishes and home-based staples such as grilled salmon and crab cakes. The dinner offerings include a regular ("popular favorites") menu and special fare that spotlights a particular region of Italy and changes seasonally. Dinner prices compete with those of the better Manhattan Italian dining rooms. I'm looking forward to trying the evening menu. It's worth the short trip from Manhattan's canyons. (Pane E Vino is located at 124 Pondfield Road West; phone: 914-337-3330.)

A VIETNAMESE GOURMET PILGRIMMAGE WORTH MAKING
If you're in Manhattan with a yen for mouth-watering Asian food at surprisingly moderate prices, then let me point you to the Saigon Grill, which has outlets on both the Upper East and West Sides. These bare-bones eateries are Vietnamese treasure troves that are crowded for lunch and jam-packed at dinner. Spareribs with plum sauce are the best I've ever had in any ethnic cuisine and the steamed "crystal" dumplings can pinch-hit for the best dim sum I've had in the Western world. The various spring and summer rolls are equally delectable, as are the rice-noodle soups and Pho. The pork dishes are standout entrees, especially the thinly sliced pork chops and the Xuong Nuong, a marinated pork chop with lemon grass. The stir-fried vegetable basket is splendid as are the string beans, which are stir-fried with shallot, basil and garlic sauce. There is also a wide selection of chicken, beef, shrimp and noodle dishes and lots of hot and spicy choices, too. No MSG is used and the restaurants have a commitment to prepare dishes without offending ingredients (i.e., peanuts) for diners with allergies. Lunch can be had for less than $10 per person; dinner runs about $20 a head. Domestic and imported beers are available. You never have to worry about getting dressed up, either. (The Saigon Grill will also deliver to most of the Midtown hotel district free of charge with specified minimum dollar orders.)

TWO DOGS AND KRAUT WHEN YOU'RE SLUMMING IT
Meanwhile, not all New York business trips are an endless string of expense-account meals. So let me suggest a perennial favorite of New Yorkers who are slumming it: Gray's Papaya. Astonishing as it may sound, you'll get two excellent grilled hot dogs with all the trimmings (sauerkraut and onions) and a choice of fresh "tropical" drink (papaya, pina colada) for $2.75. French fries are extra--and they're good. The dining on premises is standing up, jammed in among your neighbors. Gray's has several outlets around town and it's an offshoot of the older, nearly identical Papaya King chain.

Bon appétit!

Copyright © 2001-2005 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.