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Chow, Manhattan

Just when it seemed like the restaurant madness of the eighties was safely in remission, everyone and his dentist wants to play the game again. And one bistro simply isn’t enough. Finding the gems in a rubble of cubic zirconia is my job. When friends call for advice, here’s what I say.

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I want to go to a spot that’s so hot I can’t get a table.

It all depends on what crowd you want to be shunned by: Supermodels, Displaced Royals, Book-of-the-Month Club Lions, Grammy Bait, Bonus-Baby Jocks, Hollywood Heavyweights, Drag Queens. There are layers upon layers of heat in this town. Incredibly, Elaine’s still gets visiting filmbos and is now into its third generation of the fourth estate. Le Cirque is a conundrum. One day, it’s a Junior League outing in Cincinnati. The next, hello, Hollywood Squares. But don’t even hope to see the fire in Sirio’s eyes before February. At Nobu, cinema- and music-world sluggers have first dibs. So unless De Niro or Drew Nieporent owes you, forget it. Downtown boomers’ brats hang out at Rialto.

Subterranean insinuations of the Casbah, kooky drinks, and stylized Moroccan dishes bring scene-seekers to Chez es Saada, hidden in an old schoolhouse on the Lower East Side.

The gossip vixen Cassandra, my well-placed nocturnal spy, insists the crowd at Asia de Cuba is already slightly shabby. But I don’t care. It’s sexy and dim and cosmetic in that Starckly gorgeous room. After a mai tai and a half, I couldn’t tell Joan Rivers from Dennis Rodman anyway. And I love the tricked-up cooking. People who have nothing better to debate are of two minds about Balthazar. Some say torrid. Some say torpor. Even so, Keith McNally’s Parisian homage is still a tough ticket. Lunch brings out SoHo’s sachems en masse. But hey, breakfast is so far still sedate and civilized. Even you, even I, will likely rate a spot to nurse a pot of Earl Grey or a nice mocha latte, with pain au chocolat from the Balthazar bakery.

No matter how much you deny it, I bet you have secret places.

My secret places have nothing to do with restaurants. Perhaps it’s naïve and even boring, but when it comes to food, I always tell. Here are my off-duty hangouts: When Daddy Warbucks pays, I butter him up at Le Bernardin or Nobu. In Upper West Side just-we-two moments after a flick, my mate and I stop by Shun Lee Cafe, where we shun the dim sum in favor of an authentic stir-fry. Tripe or oxtails, perhaps. At Cafe Fiorello, we can point to what we want from the savory vegetable-antipasti display -- a no-yawn supper before a night of brain-taxing Kultur at Lincoln Center. Often we join friends at Spartina, most recently to see how chef Stephen Kalt, my sometime tasting crony, has been inspired by his latest week in Spain. When I first spotted him in the kitchen at Le Cirque, it was his cool good looks I noticed. But now I value his thin grilled pizzas and lusty flavoring as much as his camaraderie.

Velvet, iridescent taffeta, and golden lighting add new swank and intimacy to the room, but it’s the Oloroso-perfumed mushrooms and brandade-stuffed trout in a basquaise sauce that takes the spotlight. Crisp heads-on shrimp ride atop Valencian rice and aïoli, the same garlicky ooze that flavors the shrimp pancakes. The tasty new orange cake made with olive oil comes straight from the kitchen of an Iberian granny. I tease Kalt because the a is shorted out in the neon sign at the end of the bar that reads ple sure, but as my guest observes, “There’s always something missing in pleasure.”

What are New York’s best chefs buzzing about?

Verjus, wild grouse, Bugs Bunny (popping up on every menu these days), cotton candy, and Union Pacific. In his last post, at the late Dava, Rocco DiSpirito’s cooking was wildly inventive. Some found it simply weird. Wonderfully weird, I thought. Now, in a dramatic otherworldly rain-forest setting by Larry Bogdanow Partners, DiSpirito steps up a level closer to Valhalla. Sweet, small scallops nuzzle in their shells next to blobs of sea urchin, damp with an essence of tomato, mustard oil, mirin, and black mustard seed that rocket straight to the brain. “Toss them down like shooters if you wish,” the smooth pro of a waiter suggests. Thick seared foie gras fillet gets mounted on sheer slivers of green papaya, tart, sweet, and nutty all at once -- mingling textures of velvet and pistachio crunch. Do these sound like the delusions of a madman? Halibut braised in goose fat with ginger jus and shallot cracklings. Black bass crusted in crushed sunflower seeds on celeriac purée with corn and sherry-poached figs. Diver scallops in a foie gras emulsion. Dare I whisper “Genius”?

Who gets your vote for star chef of the year?

Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The rail-thin, baby-faced Alsatian seemed to be cooking in a fugue state for a while. But the Trump challenge woke him up. Maybe he’s cloned himself. Seeding Vong around the world, he keeps Jo Jo jumping and has quickly choreographed a triumph at Jean Georges in its minimalist glass box inside the Donald’s towering new bed-and-breakfast. By late fall, the dining-room crew had mastered a few old-fangled serving tricks and abandoned the rest. Imagine. There must be some fledgling pastry elf who does nothing but sliver vanilla beans thin as string. I could do without the petals and the cookie-crumb-and-candied-almond dust on the edge of the plate. And let’s definitely 86 the ridiculous marshmallows (or roast them over the votive candle) and toss out the confit of celery in the ethereal strawberry water.


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