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BITE April 15, 2014

Memory Games. Sexy Lingerie. Bustan is a Garden. Sticks and Stones. Quality Supper. Porter House.   


Dear Friends and Family,

       As the longest living, eating restaurant critic in the world, or at least on the Upper West Side, I get requests every week for interviews to plumb my supposed expertise and harvest my reveries. Given my selective memory, I try my best to be helpful.

       What was different about eating out in the 60s? someone asks. You could get a table at a hot restaurant between 6 and 9 pm. Chefs were likely to be found in the kitchen.

       Is there a prejudice against women restaurant critics? Women chefs, yes; women critics, definitely not. Maybe in 1968 when I started reviewing for New York, but not now.   

       Two women are writing books about Helen Gurley Brown, an amazing dame, a visionary, Arkansas' gift to Hearst. I wrote about 50 articles for Cosmopolitan
starting even before Helen arrived to take over and invent the Cosmo girl. So I try to dredge up memories that aren't already in my memoir, "Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess."

       What do I remember? We both wore falls in the big hair days. And Pucci. I remember her slip showing. I remember her book full of story ideas that she would offer writers she summoned to her desk. The "emo" pieces. And her "icky boo" edits in my major oeuvre: "The Cosmo Girl's Book of Etiquette." She put them into the manuscript. The editor, Jeanette Sarkisian, took them out. I am forever grateful. I remember that even when she had delivered billions to Hearst and lived in luxury with her beloved David Brown on Fifth or (was it Park?) she still refused a car and took the bus to work.

       Last week, Brooke Hauser spent time in the HGB archives before she called to interview me. She sent me a photo of an ancient "Step Into My Parlor," by Helen, on me and Tom Wolfe. Cosmo had published an excerpt from his "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby." I'd written "Freudian Slips and Other Nude Underthings" for her. It seems I claimed a woman's choice of underwear reflected her innermost sexual fantasies. Underpinnings were evolving quickly then from Maidenform rigidity to sheer and colorful, barely-there freedom.

       Later would come the golden 70s when, single again, I carried a satin teddy in my coat pocket to dinner and the disco, just in case I didn't get home to my own bed. At least I remember that.

Don't these colors look like Easter? We were thinking of dying eggs (which I'm not doing for the 40th year) and Easter candy, freesia and cherry blossoms. 

Bustan: Garden of Earthy Delights

       The West Side Rag's new restaurant roundup alerted me to Bustan on Amsterdam, not far from my homestead. "Sounds Lebanese," I said, confusing it with Al Bustan across town. "Sounds like mezze," I told my friends on West 86th Street. "You can walk," I tempted them.

       That first Saturday night, the place was bustling. The usual display of discipline (no, not from me, needless to say, but from my pals) vanished with the landing of olives and the house's fabulous, blowsy flatbread like a stretched-out pita, warm and oozing from the oven, for scooping up the spreads. "Mazettim," the menu calls them -- one for $5, three for $13, five for $19. I chose the quintet: hummus, tzatziki, spicy feta, smoked eggplant and Moroccan turnips, pickled pink. I could live without the turnips but I'm polishing off the last of everything else.

       Why isn't the menu more Lebanese? I'm wondering. I don't need to come here for salmon roulade when I can have a "Soft Egg Bourrick." That could be Tunisian or Algerian, I'm thinking. If I were more of a linguist, I might have picked up the Israeli vibe. Mazettim, it seems, is Israeli. Google didn't seem to know that. Perhaps the other odd spellings are Israeli too. Want to know more? Click here to discover what I loved in my three visits to Bustan. 487 Amsterdam Avenue between 83rd and 84th Street. 212 595 5050.

Sticks and Stones: Grasstronomy at Blue Hill       
       The three of us were joking and jiving with visions of Lucullus-only-knows-what deliciousness as we drove up from Manhattan to Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills for dinner at Blue Hill Wednesday. 
       The winding entrance, the stretch of candlelit stones leading to the sprawling barn, the smiling
welcome inside, the low buzz in the elegantly-swathed dining room -- brown velvet, thick tablecloths -- the solicitous captain, the confident sommelier, the properly suited pilgrims, the tulips. The art on the far wall that brings the surrounding fields into the room. It fueled our excitement. It promised that yes, indeed, this could be the best restaurant in the continental United States as Internet enthusiasts report.

       After confiding our allergies, our likes and aversions, the prepubescent little root vegetables that arrived impaled on spikes in a winsome lineup made us smile. Should we eat the thread-like tails? Midway through the parade of leaves and berries and pickled things, I was reminded how cranky I can become when dinner stretches beyond two hours and on into three.

       It was the devout and messianic Dan Barber, evolved into a warrior of sustainability, possibly over-doing the forage and forest riff that evening because it was me. Not even the chewy beet jerky or the fine coppa made from the farm heritage pigs could satisfy our hunger.  

       Blue Hill regulars return every season to worship whatever Chef Barber harvests. Click here to read more, decide if you might want to disagree. 630 Bedford Road. Pocantico Hills, NY 914 366 9600. 



Quality Supper

       My enthusiastic BITE welcomed Alan and Michael Stillman's new Quality Italian Steakhouse to midtown where Staples used to be on 6th Avenue. After sampling the chicken parm spectacular, pricey slabs of beef, tempting starters and a vast range of sides, I had a fantasy of coming back late one evening and putting together a bargain supper.

       It wouldn't just be pinching pennies, it would be sharing some of the favorites I'd discovered. That's what my friend Barry and I did one evening recently when dinner at a new Japanese spot didn't work out. We walked to 6th Avenue. "I'm sorry, we're fully committed," said the guardian of the welcome stand on the main floor.  

       "Well, we'll just take the elevator up anyway and see if that's true," I said. Okay, granted, I was  
recognized upstairs, and quickly settled at a small intimate round for two. Barry ordered a cocktail, The Midtown, a Manhattan, and let me choose dinner. I recalled liking the Caesar salad. The waiter set our Caesar in the middle of the table and we went mano mano, fork to fork.  


       There were only four baked oysters topped with sea urchin -- two for each of us -- just enough, considering that the artichoke maccheroni in its black iron baking dish was as generous as remembered, cheesy and rich, and only $11. 

       We studied the dessert menu, though I scarcely had room and it wasn't on the pinch penny plan. But hey wait. Maybe it could be. "Gelato," it read. "A dressed up scoop just $6." The coffee crumb bun was all that it promised -- gelato, cake, crumbles, a sane and sweet finale for two. $60 bucks total without tip. I made it $80 and took the check. "You're my guest," I said, surprising him. Now I've got a credit in heaven for a pittance. If you try this, please don't say I sent you. 57 West 57th Street. Entrance on 6th Avenue between 57th and 58th Street. 212 390 1111. 



Hungry for Meat: Porter House


       I wanted a discreet spot for dinner with some friends who'd been making headlines. I thought it ought to be a steakhouse. Porter House, tucked away on the third floor of the Time-Warner shops, proved to be  perfect. I have had glorious times here over the years.    
       Ever in search of what's new, I hadn't been to Porter House for a while. The big round, seating six at the widow overlooking Columbus Circle, was quiet, remarkably discreet. We shared clams casino, Caesars and chopped salads to begin. And then five of
us focused on meat. A porterhouse landed across the table. A friend and I shared the chili-rubbed rib eye, boldly rare as ordered. The guest-of-honor chose grilled skirt steak -- a leaner cut, for arterial issues, I guessed, not budgetary.


       As always, agreeing on sides can take restraint and diplomacy. Creamed spinach and fries were deemed essential. Asparagus, broccoli and a tower of fried onion rings arrived, gift of the amiable Chef Lomonaco. I insisted on macaroni and cheese and hash browns. These were the hash browns of my dreams -- tiny squares fried into a cake, oniony and crusty.

       Wayne Harley Brachman, one of my all-time favorite pastry chefs, does his classic all-American desserts here so even when you've eaten too much,
you need to consider dessert. My pals outvoted me but the kitchen sent out two plates of Brachman's astonishing cookies. I did my share at demolishing them but so did certain dessert deniers. I love watching very slim women letting go.

10 Columbus Circle 4th floor. 212 823 9500.    


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Photographs of Bustan's five spreads, the revised beet salad, Blue Hill's kale sails, its heritage pork, uni oysters at Quality Italian Steakhouse, their artichoke maccheroni, the coffee crumb bun, the porterhouse steak, and the irresistible cookies at Porter House may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.