Chow, Manhattan

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.

But after the Fabergé checkerboard of tuna and hamachi with its masterly acid kick, and delicately sautéed frog’s legs redolent of garlic and lemon, these seem like testy little quibbles. I won’t even make fun of the marshmallows anymore. Not after luscious turbot delivered “rarish,” as if the kitchen and I were two minds with one thought. Not after the discovery of what a millet pancake can mean. Not after the astonishment of apple-cake confit. From the incandescence of the night, I’d never dreamed the chef was not in the kitchen till I walked out back to say “bravo.”

What if I’m too disorganized to book a month in advance?

There’s still hope. A sudden no-show may clear a table for you if you happen to be close by, sipping champagne and batting your eyelashes or waving a Ben Franklin (let the vibes dictate which). At Jean Georges, for one, it’s a shade easier to infiltrate lunch, and it’s a bargain too – $45 for three courses plus desserts, compared with $78 for dinner. Shockingly, that may be less than lunch à la carte at Nougatine – Vongerichten’s adjacent bar-café, relaxed but proper with stunning bouquets in hues of flame, orange, and burgundy. A friend and I have picked up a last-minute reservation there at noon, but we’d be just as happy perched at the bar (where we spy restaurant critic John Mariani up to his ears in foie gras).

There’s nothing casual about Nougatine’s crab salad with cumin crisps or the tuna tartare with chive oil or steamed black bass with roasted beets and caviar in beet juice. Everything zings with flavors that soothe and bite and warm and mystify. Don’t be fooled by the seeming simplicity of white figs with port and pistachio ice cream; it’s divine, as is kiwi reborn in a tart with mandarin-milk marmalade and lemon ice cream.

How can we amuse Junior without torturing ourselves?

When the Petit Prince breaks into a squall at Sofia Fabulous Grill, don’t give him a grappa-soaked napkin to teethe on. Let the nanny take him out for a walk so you can finish your pizza and schmooze with the young mommies who fill the back room at lunch. Watching the skaters – or actually joining in – can keep even jaded Manhattan rug rats amused at American Festival Cafe, where the children’s menu features chicken fingers with fries, grilled American-cheese sandwiches, and ice-cream cones with sprinkles. On a recent Saturday at Honmura An, where I fall under the spell of the heavenly homemade buckwheat soba and udon noodles, I am astonished to see so many toddlers out on the town, all so well behaved. Is it SoHo or is it zen? One child naps in his stroller. Another makes a trampoline of the banquette for more than two hours, gurgling happily and nibbling one grain of rice at a time. As for me, I love my noodles cold with uni and grated daikon, or hot with button mushrooms called nameko that bob in a powerful broth. If you don’t travel with your own sensei, let one of the remarkably down-to-earth servers show you the way to grace.

Sunday is definitely family night at the Lobster Club, where there is always meat loaf or crispy rock shrimp in a paper cone for kids of all ages. Owner Anne Rosenzweig wisely instructs her staff to take a child’s order quickly, then dispatches carrot and celery sticks to keep everybody busy. The kitchen gamely ad-libs burgers or a mozzarella pizza and even pasta any way you ask, including naked. Meanwhile, adults get to sip sensational squash soup or enjoy a perfectly al dente risotto with mussels and arugula pesto. Your heir is invited to tour the kitchen, where he or she gets a cookie so you can enjoy dessert and the last sip of some treasure from one of the town’s savviest wine lists. Values at every price level are packed on just two pages: an elegant Languedoc from Clavel, an exceptional Viognier from Iron Horse, a seriously good Chianti Classico from Castello di Ama, and one-of-a-kind wines that partner-husband Andy Freedman totes home on his biweekly bi-coastal commutes.

An adored grandchild also seems to have made softies of the Maccioni clan. At Osteria del Circo, they now have clown desserts and booster seats. To amuse grown-up gourmands: suckling pig on Saturdays.

Dare I ask you to suggest a theme restaurant?

Young sports nuts love and deserve the Official All Star Cafe, though having survived it once, I know the sensory bombardment is too taxing for me. A joke-sprouting waiter, fire-throwing magicians, and the shy balloon sculptor will vie for your youngster’s attention at Comedy Nation. And they don’t get nasty even if you torture them, as my grown-up delinquent did, topping their jokes, spoiling their trick. Across the room, a hassle of moppets somersault happily on the cushions of a giant sofa, egged on by the magician.

The Dagwood – an eight-inch tower of first-rate black forest ham, pastrami, smoked turkey, and three cheeses with mayonnaise and mesclun on seven-grain bread topped with twin cherry peppers – could easily feed the Brady Bunch. Yes, you read that right: mesclun. Rob Miketa, the chef whose old-fashioned American home cooking made Hot Tomato so endearing, has signed on to do food that will attract grown-ups, too. I’ve been searching for years to find the cherry pie of my childhood. Comedy Nation’s wonderfully crumbly tart might do if it weren’t served blazing-hot with what looks like freshly dispensed shaving cream.

What’s brand-new in the neighborhood?

Having scored with fin and claw at his Blue Water Grill, Stephen Hanson still has a few fish up his sleeve. Modestly, minus the whistles and clatter of some high-profile competitors, Hanson next week opens Atlantic – sushi bar up front, raw bar out back, a few Asian insinuations in between. It’s the sixth outpost in his growing mid-list empire.

If 500 Hell’s Angels gunned their bikes up and down the aisles of the Wall Street Kitchen & Bar, it couldn’t be noisier than it is every night when hordes of young traders colonize the place. To really appreciate chef Tom Valenti’s smart flavor sensibility, ride the elevator to his new padded sanctum upstairs. At The Wall Street Club, affluent lunchers can revel in the robust good food that lured Valenti fans to Alison on Dominick and Cascabel: oyster pan roast in a light curried chowder and yellowfin tuna with white-bean puree.

Where do you send friends for pasta?

Fresco by Scotto (for unfailing warmth and delicious excess), I Trulli (for wonderful Apulian savories from the roasting oven), Bar Pitti (Firenze-on-Sixth), and Trattoria dell’Arte (for its unmatched antipasti bar and crackling pizzas) top my list. On a recent visit, the kitchen at Campagna bristles with fresh energy, fueled perhaps by padrone Mark Strausman’s new Sunday menu, celebrating Southern Italy (spaghetti and meatballs redux). Our quartet of fussy eaters is pleased with pappardelle bolognese, grilled octopus and squid in peppery wine-vinegar glaze, the white-bean-and-sausage-soup special.

The De Rosa family now spins its passionate sales pitch for Naples at Pierino in TriBeCa. If you focus on the big white anchovies, pork-flavored bean soup, grilled whole squid, and remarkable pastas – strangolapreti with broccoli and black truffle, and the manfredi alla Vesuviana – you may be able to forget the forlorn room.

What’s the catch of the day?

I was distracted when Aquagrill landed on Spring Street, so I only just discovered what the very gifted chef-owner, Jeremy Marshall, is dishing up: Tangy salmon tartare on potato chips. Plump crab-cake napoleon. Warm octopus salad with roasted peppers and pepper cress moistened with roasted-onion vinaigrette. When all that counts is perfect cooking, Marshall delivers. I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t betrayed by Manhattan clam chowder. His is perfect, as is a classic bouillabaisse and the pristinely fresh swordfish served with broccoli rabe, bacon bits, polenta, and a tang of balsamic vinegar. At times it seems that he is teetering over the edge – roasted-garlic spaetzle, wild-mushroom ragout, and Jerusalem artichokes in fresh-truffle emulsions sound like more than any poor fish can suffer. Yet that combo is a treat, too. And don’t resist the warm banana skillet cake. Jennifer Marshall runs the cellar, stocking wines both reasonable and rare. The place is plain-jane and noisy with a savvy crowd shelling out for shellfish. The $66 two-story coquillage sampler seems to be an essential centerpiece at every table.

Of all that’s new, where would you gladly return?

Fans of John Schenk’s cooking (like me) will gamely brave the club-kid-and-post-deb clutter at Clementine. His lemon-saffron risotto with sea urchin in pea broth will cut the winter chill, as will venison osso bucco with potato-sage pancakes. And the iceberg-lettuce wedge in a creamy sludge of bacon-studded buttermilk dressing is like Mom’s but better.

Defy Thomas Wolfe and go home again to Drovers Tap Room, where owners David Page and Barbara Shinn flavor the good grub with nostalgic Americana like beef stroganoff on sour-cream noodles and the chicken-sausage potpie.

Growing up Greek and making it big in America inspired the Livanos family and their partners at Oceana to create Molyvos, a sprawling midtown taverna. Rustic starters, moussaka, and stewed rabbit are reason enough to return. Monzù seems far removed from its inspiration, Sicily, but I loved the tangy squid and octopus, the hunky lamb shank, and the antipasto platter lavish enough to feed our foursome. Indeed, peasant stews and soups seem especially appealing as winter gets serious, so I’ll go back to Tuscan Square again. If I’m lucky, the handsome pottery bowls I coveted last fall might be on sale.

Turkey’s cosmic mushes of eggplant, tomato, and chickpea and pita bread that’s impossible to stop eating are what lure West siders back to the warm and welcoming Pasha.

That sublime foie gras- massaged chicken at Moomba haunts me. And I can’t wait to taste what a chef who rubs duck liver on chicken will do next. The downtown pop-arazzi and uptown boomers’ babies loitering here for the moment will undoubtedly migrate with the next hot vibe, but that’s good news for serious food lovers.

Though I’m exhilarated by the masterworks of Jean Georges and Union Pacific, and grudgingly seduced by the flavorful poetics of Bouley, the banquette I’d most like to own is at Balthazar, a fantastical French bistro on Spring Street that looks like it’s been there forever. I don’t give a Calvin if it draws an A crowd or a B-minus. How nice to find end-of-the-day loaves of bread in the outer vestibule bagged for the taking. Heading home with a similar gift loaf from Bouley, I try to persuade my mate to make a detour to Balthazar so I can sneak in and switch breads.

Where are the eternal verities?

You may find a few frozen in amber or, even better, slathered with chicken fat at the Second Avenue Deli. The sidewalk outside is studded with stars celebrating the royalty of the Yiddish theater. A jarring poster on the door offers a reward in the murder of owner Abe Lebewohl. But Adam Tihany’s fine redesign is as sensitive as a matzoh ball. The pastrami is not what it used to be, but then, neither are we. Still, the stuffed derma deserves landmark status. Once we are into the pickles and very good chopped liver, and mesmerized by the dazzling makeup and inky pompadour of our inimitable waitress, Diane, it seems like old times.

Inside the vast, echoing cavern of Katz’s Delicatessen, the historic magnetism of the frank and beans (served up here since 1888) escapes us, but the salami immortalized by the famous send a salami to your boy in the army is garlicky and as good a way to die as any.

I’ll eat anything as long as it’s chocolate.

Don’t hope to compete with the headbands that lunch. Come late to Payard with an ally. Waste precious time if you must with a croque monsieur or even the wonderful potato tourte (imagine a French chef assigned to come up with a knish). Better yet, go directly to dessert.

Ask for the chocolate tasting, not one but five cocoa-beanie babies. The frosted mousse with striped candy antlers is really you, darling. And the midnight-dark comma – the endearingly eager-to-please François Payard calls it a tear drop – is the pâtissier’s marvelous brownielike bow to American taste.

She favors French. He loathes it. Where to go?

If it weren’t so brutally noisy, Les Halles, the Gallic steakhouse, would be perfect, raffish and casual. More civilized and comfortable, with proper but relaxed service and the urbane sophistication you find in contemporary French kitchens: The Lenox Room. She’ll appreciate the lobster spring roll with tamarind bite against shellfish sweetness and top-notch tuna with roast-tomato hash. He’ll go for the lamb shank and won’t be put out by attitude.

Cascabel, with its nonjudgmental bonhomie, knowledgeable service, and oenophilic grace, can also save this marriage. Chef Sam Hazen’s dazzling experiments with flavor and texture are worldly but never eccentric. Tell the Francophobe it’s plain old lox and pass him gravlax with chickpea blini and caviar, followed by grilled lamb chops of roasted loin. Seared sea scallops with polenta croutons will suit her fine. Ditto, potato-crusted salmon with steamed leeks in a red-wine sauce. Yes, the molten chocolate cake is a cliché, but it’s a glorious one.

How can I score a table at Le Cirque?

It helps if you’ve got clout in Brunei or a faintly ersatz title (never mind that your palace has been sacked, as long as you escaped with a tiara or two). Try forging an alliance with a known pet of Sirio Maccioni, Le Cirque’s storied owner. Sirio never abandons a friend of the house, although a few regulars who used to anchor his royal banquette in olden times now commune over high-priced macaroni-and-cheese at Harry What’s-His-Name’s. Since my querulous pan of Le Cirque 2000 last spring, a half-dozen trusted gourmandlich pals have been reporting that the kitchen’s early hit-and-miss has bubbled into brilliance. Well, with one heady sniff and a taste of exquisite scallops almost invisible under wanton shards of fresh white truffle, I have to agree. The diver-harvested critters – the chef’s gift to our table – are quickly caramelized, cooked to near-melting perfection, then buried in a blizzard of truffle. The marriage of earth and sea is celestial. Alas, nothing else hits this high – not stone-crab salad with grapefruit and mundane hard-boiled egg, not the mucky lobster risotto, not overcooked bass in too-tough lettuce, not insipid fillets of John Dory (though vegetables tossed in for the ride are quite wonderful). Even one of my guests, an unabashed knight of the Maccioni round table, is disappointed. “Forget the food,” he shrugs. “It’s about the faces, this crowd, Sirio and the sons doing their dance, the excitement.” True enough.

At eleven, boldface types and typos are still arriving: Cindy Adams and Joey in one corner, Mary Tyler Moore in the other, a few steps from the kitchen. (Now, that’s a new zone of chic!) Also peppering the red room: A.E. Hotchner, Jill St. John with Robert Wagner, Diane Von Furstenberg – oh, no need to go on. Servers trot smartly, while eagle-eyed Papa, two of his sons, and vigilant floor-walkers oversee all. I especially like Mr. Las Vegas in the white prom jacket.

Sirio always sweetens up his critics with a triumphal tidal wave of desserts. Tonight the gesture backfires. Too much sugar in roasted figs and mandarins. Too much alcohol in the roasted pineapple. Too much air and not enough cocoa bean in the chocolate soufflé. But all the carping is stilled by the arrival of an extraordinary chocolate tree, its winter-bared branches tipped with berries and dripping sweet ruffles and butter-cookie leaves.

Is it true David Bouley is running a soup kitchen?

In haute pursuit of the Soup Nazi and the Soup Nutsy, here comes the Soup Nietzsche. You may not be able to snare a spot in the dining room of the Bouley Bakery, but you can stop by for a carryout cup of his split-pea soup. Skip the very ordinary bread. This café is just a diversion while Bouley waits for his planned empire of Boulemania to emerge: a grand restaurant, a Viennese hash house, his greenmarket-grocery, and the Academy Bouley.

The chef (one of People’s “50 Most beautiful”) has been insufferably prickly and rude of late, so I’m hardly in the mood to love dinner. But I have no choice. Everyone at the table is dazed and disarmed by every precious little morsel, the unlikely pairings of fruit and fish, the preemie lamb chops, the albino rice, the seeds, the spikes, the sprouts, the devilish shenanigans. Does he do it by remote control? There Bouley sits, with his back to the dining room, having dinner with a friend even as we eat. Some of the staff have yet to be trained, and some servers seem simple-minded, but I’ll get over that if I ever get past the door again.

I’m in the mood for meat.

Go to The Palm for classic steakhouse sirloin, to Morton’s of Chicago for a hulking double porterhouse, and to Maloney & Porcelli for its haunch of pig wrapped in a crackle of skin. Kobe beef is the latest extravagance at Restaurant 222. Inagiku in the Waldorf lets you sear your own primal beef on limestone, with chunks of bean curd for the yin and yang of it. But once again, the best steak of the year is thick, sweetly charred prime rib fiorentina at Fresco. Alfred Portale’s rack of lamb at the Gotham Bar and Grill makes most lamb elsewhere seem anemic. But the rack Erik Blauberg serves with a vegetable tart at ’21’ comes mighty close.

If you want to wallow in meat, turn up the green go button on your table at Churrascaria Plataforma, and prepare for a wild Brazilian dance of waiters toting speared meats hot off the rotisserie. One by one, they hit your table, slice off a chunk or three – skirt steak, flank, short ribs, a ribbon of loin – and that’s just beef, for starters. Eventually, you’re offered lamb, chicken hearts, pork, sausage, even fish. For just $27, you can pig out till the place closes.

I’m in love with a dancing fool.

Want to please an Arthur Murray grad? Nothing but the Rainbow Room will do. Let the Ginger-and-Fred illusion include caviar and vintage lobster thermidor. Your aging hippie might prefer boogie nights at Decade. Stick to the simpler concepts, like the country salad or the risotto. To show off your sensuous mambo, book a seviche and a Chilean-salmon dinner at Bistro Latino.

Who does Gotham’s best crab cake?

Estiatorio Milos molds a cake that is virtually pure crab, naked on the plate. But Seagrill’s traditional round, with its indulgence of fat crab lumps, is equally good, and the floor show on ice is more fun than a fireplace. If a passionate Greek re-created an Aegean village inside a skyscraper, it would look like Milos: Here a stone well, there an ancient ruin. Even at night, fish are trundled in from the airport, tossed on the ice, and priced by the pound. Dinner at Milos and lunch at Seagrill set me back $300. From the satisfied grunts of the Greek shipping moguls across the room, I guess business must be good.

Where shall I take my ravenous brood after The Lion King?

Pay lip service to family values with spaghetti-and-meatball excess at Carmine’s or the barbecue sampling platter at Virgil’s. Soul Café is a hike west on 42nd Street but worth it for ribs, chicken, and live jazz (some nights and Sunday brunch). Pasta and stuffed cheese crisps are the drill at gently priced Frico. Honor thy pizza at John’s Pizzeria in the soaring nave of what used to be the Gospel Tabernacle Church.

How about a new turn-on for an incurable romantic?

The Park, with its aura of Venetian decadence and its rococo cooking, feels just right for an assignation, even if it’s with your own mate. And it’s even sexier at a corner table in the bar, where a trio evokes the thirties and forties.

What well-known haunts are worth rediscovering?

Close to Carnegie Hall and a fast hike to the theater, Tapika thrills with southwestern fantasy and spicy fare. Just as convenient for culturati is Red Eye Grill, with sparkling smoked fish on the seafood bar and a menu that has something for any appetite. Christer’s, with its winning Scandinavian ways, is ideal for pretheater dinner. Maybe you had to grow up with the old legends and the original faces at ’21’ to find it as sexy as I do. Chef Erik Blauberg has tamed some of his highfalutin fuss in deference to the saloon memories, but not enough. Still, risottos are rich and delicious, and the splendid rack of lamb and grilled veal chop stand on quality alone.

I sent friends with Off Broadway plans on the lower east side to First for dinner. Their raves sent me back, and I loved it, too.

A visit to Verbena is like stepping into a cocoon of almost southern gentility where the staff is proudly professional and the tea is brewed. In the three years since I was last here, Diane Forley has refined her signature dishes – the crunchy oxtail terrine and the popular beer-braised ribs with roasted carrots. New to me are the wild striped bass with truffled spaetzle in a primal cabbage stew, and exceptional desserts – slow-baked apple tart, coffee-ice-cream cake with hazelnut praline, and pear upside-down cake with ginger ice cream.

Last fall, Bobby Flay moved back into the kitchen at Bolo with new ideas for his bold and better-than-Spanish Iberianesque cocina. Piquillo peppers stuffed with salmon tartare is one result.

Can squid be too crisp? Impossible, and Flay’s is pleasantly salty from anchovy-and-parsley pesto. I insist on chopped salad for the table and my favorite lamb shank (impossible to resist), though the rabbit on sweet-potato risotto is wonderful, too, as is mint-brushed tuna from the grill with tangerine-pomegranate-almond relish.

Match Uptown is a must for me now that Gary Robbins is building his spicy Pan-Asian edible towers there. Giant prawns, seared foie gras, diver scallops – each item gets a touch of fruit and chili heat. Almost hidden behind yellowfin tuna are pilings of Shanghai pickled turnip in a puddle of red-pepper miso. Ginger-soy-glazed salmon comes with sake-steamed cockles and Chinese sausage. Desserts are exceptional, too. My favorite: the signature mango sundae with chili-macadamia praline.

The Grill Room, Larry Forgione’s outpost for American regional classics, is good news for workaholics around Battery Park.

I’m in town for just one night. I want your numero uno.

I’ve never been able to choose just one. If you asked for a dozen, I’d give you thirteen. Gotham Bar and Grill, Le Bernardin, Nobu, Daniel, Lespinasse, and Aureole are the ultimate. Picholine, with its brand-new dress and seductive cheese service, gets better all the time. Shun Lee Palace’s menu can be challengingly Chinese, stylishly Hong Kong, and very made-in-the-USA, suiting New Yorkers and old China hands alike. Until I find the great Thai canteen New York deserves, I’ll settle for Thai from a French perspective at Vong. Jean Georges and Bouley rate pedestals, too. As for dinner tonight, let’s meet at Mesa Grill.

Chow, Manhattan