As a parent, you know that manhattan abounds with restaurants that welcome you and your kids, but you’re numbed by the familiarity of the prospects. Carmine’s is too loud and won’t take a reservation unless you’re bringing the entire tribe; Benihana’s overpriced food is tired and so is the theater, unless you’re lucky enough to win a hibachi chef whose sense of humor remains intact after a thousand and one nights flipping shrimp tails into his toque; and Mimi’s Macaroni, while cheerfully accommodating, is unrelievedly ordinary. More to the point, now that the kids finally have graduated from cheese-based cuisine, you’re determined to check out sophisticated dining rooms that are still willing to make nice to the progeny. Their menus offer a modicum of gustatory adventure, and they revive that dormant longing to connect with someplace of the moment (even if the pulsing-with-hipness factor is kicking in just as you’re leaving, because you’ve been smart enough to book a 6 p.m. table).
Start at Avenue (520 Columbus Avenue, at 85th Street; 579-3194), a little bit of Balthazar on the Upper West Side. Not that this vest-pocket bistro can match Balthazar’s sheer exuberance and scale, but there is the similar seductive hum of people deep in conversation pressing in against each other over too-small tables, not to mention great food prepared with an elegant twist, courtesy of chef-owner Scott Campbell and a totally winning staff. Kids love the cilantro-and-lemon-grass dipping sauce that accompanies airy, greaseless fried calamari ($8.95). Crackling fries ($4.50) arrive in a parchment cone that will be instantly empty. And though the Picky One will demand the Montrachet-cheese ravioli ($14.95) served plain with butter and as much grated cheese as the market will bear, you will want it with its oxtail ragout and braised beef marrow.
Sunday brunch here begins at 10 a.m., but regulars settle in by 9:30, sipping strong coffee or Avenue’s already legendary Valrhona-based hot chocolate. Montrachet cheese reappears in an omelet with scallions and field greens ($7.95). But it’s the pancakes – crêpes, really – that are utterly happy-making, whether served with blackberries and ambrosial homemade blackberry syrup or baked with apple and served with maple syrup (both $8.50).
Of course, you needn’t be French to knock ‘em dead in the morning. Consider Bubby’s (120 Hudson Street; 219-0666), a slightly schizophrenic southern outpost in TriBeCa with a great bar and gracious ambience. The ceiling is hung with antique toys, and the wait staff is as solicitous as could be. And why not: They’ve got the goods, from huevos rancheros with guacamole and grits ($10.95) to pancakes every which way to perfectly cooked fried chicken ($15.95) and catfish po’ boys ($9.95). Along with meat loaf and real macaroni and cheese, Bubby’s at dinner offers chicken braised in white wine with apricots, olives, and capers ($15.95) – beautifully done, but soon to be replaced by the springier grilled rosemary chicken ($16.95). Bubby’s was originally a pie supplier, and while it may be hard to reserve room for dessert, do so, especially for an obscenely rich peanut-butter pie that will sate even the bottomless pits across the table.
I’m not so sure about brand-new Celadon (1167 Madison Avenue, near 86th Street; 734-7711). Talk about a split personality. Tadashi Ono’s Asian-American menu, and the prices therein, bespeak a seriousness of purpose underscored by Larry Bogdanow’s bi-level space, with its sleek open kitchen (guaranteed kid-bait), dramatic lighting, and silent, glassed-in elevator. Yet the monied, almost?Carnegie Hill crowd is dressed down and seems oblivious to Celadon’s pretensions. The menu is studied and serious and, well, a little crazy: Foie gras ($16), which no child will touch, thank God, is perfectly, slimily wonderful, but it’s nearly wrecked by oyster sauce. Monkfish ($22) is overcooked and lackluster; if there’s any of the advertised ginger in the lime-ginger sauce, it went right by me. Steak ($23) is undistinguished, and the taro fries it’s served with are leaden. Yet a lobster salad ($14) is fresh and the meat teams well with the avocado and a not-quite-sinus-clearing wasabi vinaigrette; the kitchen prepares a perfect, pristine bowl of papardelle with cheese ($7) for the Picky One; and warm, melting chocolate cake ($9), oozing the dark stuff and paired with passion-fruit ice cream, is a winner. The staff is indulgent, and management seems to know that a place like this cannot survive on couples alone.
Another kind of fusion – of a much more celebratory order – is under way across town at Ruby Foo’s Dim Sum and Sushi Palace (2182 Broadway; 724-6700). Enter David Rockwell’s eye-popping red-and-black-lacquer jewel box on steroids and you’ve fallen through a pan-Asian rabbit hole into a world equal parts whimsy and seriously enjoyable dining. At a table right up against the open sushi bar (more kid bait), you can watch the surgical tag team – one old master, one young journeyman – turn out glisteringly fresh platters as you get numb with a ginger martini.
Okay, so most kids won’t touch sushi. But pot stickers and steamed dumplings are no-brainers, and here the dim sum may come stuffed with crab meat, lobster, or calamari ($4.95 to $7.50). Unlike M&Ms, the sensational baby-back ribs melt in your mouth and in your hands. Seven-flavor beef ($17.95) mounts a sharper assault on the tongue; crispy duck ($15.95) with cellophane noodles and hoisin sauce is gentler. The whimsy extends to the coda, which includes “Mr. Foo’s Sushi Dessert” ($6.50), a plate of sweet rice-coconut-and-fruit “maki rolls” served with chocolate dipping sauce; you could also try a warm apple spring roll ($5.95).
More traditional Chinese fare can be had at Shanghai Cuisine (89 Bayard Street; 732-8988) in the heart of Chinatown. Everything is beautifully prepared and served in a room that’s modest by Silver Palace standards. Along with the tried-and-true (Shanghai and otherwise), the 152-dish menu includes great crunchy and spicy pepper-salt prawns ($12.95), and superior fried rices ($6.50). Soft-shell crab is not the delicate, sweet thing you’re used to: It’s strong and fishy and not for the faint of heart ($15.95). But I was also completely taken with tender, slightly bitter sautéed pea tips ($7.95). The Joe’s Shanghai crowd has apparently discovered Shanghai Cuisine, and yet, even on a recent weekend night, eight of us were happy, unrushed, and well fed for less than $20 a head.
A few blocks north, in Little Italy, is the airy, plant-filled Il Cortile (125 Mulberry Street; 226-6060). I can’t certify that the fried baby calamari ($10.50) is imported from Europe, as the menu promises, but it’s terrific. Pastas ($7.50 to $22) are carefully and elegantly prepared, and what the menu doesn’t list the kitchen will happily turn out. You will be nearly as happy here as in Il Cortile’s tony East Side counterparts – for about two-thirds the cost.
Speaking of which: Whatever happened to cheap Greek? Well, these days, there’s plenty of chic Greek, and no shortage of bleak Greek. But for a reminder of something that seems to have gone the way of Zum Zum and the Calico Kitchen, you might want to head out to Astoria, and Zenon (yes, with a z, 3410 31st Avenue, Astoria; 718-956-0133). Greek restaurants are hardly unknown in these environs, yet even the cognoscenti rate Zenon a cut above. The room is long and narrow, the walls decorated with the requisite Aegean scenes. The classic food delivers what you might call the shock of the old. Nothing is oversalted, oversweetened, over-anythinged. Tsatsiki’s yogurt, garlic, and cucumber are in perfect balance, as are the red caviar, onion, and lemon juice of the taramasalata (both are $3.95). A combination of souvlaki and sheftalia ($9.95) – lamb cubes and Cypriot-style lamb sausage – is fragrant and totally satisfying; lamb youvetsi ($9.95) is nothing to write home about but nothing to complain about, either. Zenon will make the Picky One a perfectly respectable pizza ($2.95) to tear into while you sip your retsina. And when was the last time you had a baklava you could call subtle? As if you needed another reason to make the journey, the bakery next door to Zenon sells very good challah for $1 the loaf.
Back, finally, to the Upper West Side, where Main Street has been replaced by Calle Ocho (446 Columbus Avenue; 873-5025), and not a moment too soon. Whereas Main Street was welcoming and resolutely mediocre, Calle Ocho is welcoming and thrillingly exotic. The food is pan-Latin American, and the staff is sensational – not only completely versed in the menu’s arcana but concerned with your well-being in a way that somehow manages never to seem intrusive. Everything the kitchen does with shrimp is enticing, from a chowder zapped with achiote oil ($7) to rum-glazed jumbos with crispy fried onions and avocado salsa ($11). Salmon ($17), coated with spices, is beautifully underdone and swims atop a clam-infested broth of tomato and chorizo. The Argentinian steak ($19) is superb, but the substitution of yuca fries for potatoes perpetrates the season’s worst dining trend – a minor complaint, and more than made up for by the amazing desserts: coconut ice cream in a chocolate shell, for example, with roasted pineapple and passion-fruit sauce; or rolled chocolate cake with white-chocolate ice cream and a spicy chocolate sauce (both $7).
Journalistic duty compels me to report that when it was all over, my own kids delightedly ticked off their favorite dishes, from Avenue to Zenon. Who won best all-around, hands down? Benihana. Oh, well.