Many Happy Returns

Since I’m well aware that some of you may be thinking, “Boy, wish I had his job,” it’s not like I’m asking for tissue-boxfuls of sympathy here. But there are real frustrations that come with being a food critic, and the worst is the way you repeatedly end up eating where you’re supposed to rather than where you want to.

True, I could end up swooning for Lot 61 and deifying Obeca Li once I’ve sampled these new places. But they could just as easily turn out to be the next Fashion Cafe and Lucky Cheng’s. Any wonder that, left to my own food vices, I’d sooner scoot down my block for any dacquoised crumb at Payard? If I felt that soon it’s gonna rain, I’d duck inside La Lunchonette and play in its bouillabaisse. And when the sun comes out, I think how nice it would be to park it outside at Bar Pitti and watch the world amble by. But then, there’s that new Bhutanese barbecue sports bar opening on Broome Street . . .

What makes my nomadic eating pattern all the more agonizing is that establishing “regular” credentials at a restaurant you wholeheartedly enjoy is one of the slyest ways to cultivate sanity (and clout) in this town. Consequently, I sorely miss frequenting Jean-Claude, Odeon, Fresco by Scotto, Barocco, and Tout Va Bien. And having discovered the pleasures of Maya, 27 Standard, and Mono for this column, I yearn to return to them, too. (Are you even the least bit choked up?)

So it is with bittersweet delight that I add JUdson Grill and Boughalem to my list of longings.

JUdson is hardly a new destination. This soaring, brass-girded space opened, with trumpets blaring, as Sam’s back in the eighties. But Sam’s was a fey singles outpost that desperately strained to cover the sprawling, banqueted gymnasium. The room dwarfed everything and everyone. You sat at a table, feeling as if you were waiting not so much for a meal but for your train and track number to be called.

Re-emerging as JUdson Grill in 1994, the room’s imposing dimensions remained intact, but it’s been transformed dramatically over the years. Amber lighting now offers warm, flattering tones, and a quartet of huge copper fountains, exploding with forsythia, forms an awning that tempers the height. Even with all the acreage that must be trod, the staff never exhibits anything but graceful, untiring efficiency, easy smiles, and silent harmony. The clientele is a broader mix than your typical midtown crowd, creating an atmosphere that’s more convivial than intimidating. Finally, there’s the kitchen, which never seems taxed. The combination of all these elements has altered the space to the degree that it now feels sheltering and safe. Busy as lunchtime gets, it’s never “hot” or “on” here (that’s why God made Balthazar and Patroon). Whether your objective is corporate raiding or romance, come to JUdson Grill and be left in peace. Sort of makes you want to take up residence, don’t it?

One bit of the equation, however, has never been exactly right at JUdson. The food never matched the room. Exciting and refreshing as John Villa’s Asian-hinting cuisine was, it always seemed a little off-kilter, like those mandarin-collared shifts that Long Island cabana-club matrons wear to play mah-jongg by the pool. You get it, like it even, but why?

New chef Bill Telepan has finally fitted JUdson Grill with its glass slipper. His food boasts big flavors and hearty spicing, but not so much that it will rattle your relatives. It tastes soulful but is still very healthy. And it reads so American while steering clear of all that roadside-diner coyness. Lately, Peekytoe crab is seen out more often than Ben Affleck, but Telepan renders his version memorable with a splash of lemon verbene vinaigrette and sevruga. His garlic duck sausage with black mustard is the hot dog of your dreams. The pale delicacy of marinated yellowtail is bolstered by a feisty trio of kohlrabi, radish, and mint. It’s a shame the house can’t turn down the lights each time it serves goat-cheese croutons with shaved artichoke. It deserves the sultriness. House-smoked salmon deserves a rethinking, as it is merely ordinary (the cabana ladies would love it); divers’ sea scallops are tender but sit in an inert potato fondant; and purée of fennel soup with tomato is too soft and shy. But the unassuming vegetarian chickpea soup is an unexpected blast of gusto; pancetta and swiss-chard ravioli is an idea worth stealing; the aroma of fettuccini in a walnut-parsley sauce with rabbit confit could turn the head of a southern Italian; and the terrine of foie gras with sauterne-onion marmalade could be just the trick to get that wincing partner to try to like liver. It won’t ever be more tempting than this.

The list of entrées is broad enough to incite sighs of “Ah, real food!” from loved ones with less sophisticated palates than yours. Now get ready to tear into their plates like a savage. Free-range chicken, that poor, overexposed bird, is revitalized, golden and juicy, bursting with sweet garlic and a fragrant wild mushroom sauce. Yellowfin tuna has a flinty pool of vinegar and shallots. Dollops of monkfish rise to the occasion of black truffles and velvety potato pierogi. Aged sirloin is worth the money ($31). A brash bracketing of blood-orange sauce and golden beets enlivens an impressive fan of moulard duck breast. Halibut roasted simply in herbs is breathlessly right, salmon is softened by a brush of citrus, and those same sea scallops, this time embraced by salsify and wild mushrooms, come across as a much happier alternative. But the crowd pleaser is lusciously roasted baby loin of pork, accompanied not only by sauerkraut and apple compote but by smoked sausage and two spare ribs. Does Telepan know that some men almost weep at the sight of this plate?

And, yay, there’s actually a choice of appealing deserts. Flaky, delicate apple financier; a super pineapple upside-down cake with toasted-almond-coconut ice cream (you read that right); shockingly tart champagne granita with grapefruit; a serene chocolate cinnamon tart; a more boastful bittersweet chocolate cake; and infectious banana-bread pudding with cashew ice cream. Tropical fruit with lime yogurt is a diet dud, and white-chocolate charlotte is precious, but you have to try the house ice-cream soda made with chocolate, fudge, soda, and a shot of Jack Daniel’s. You won’t miss the whipped cream, but next time I’m sitting in the next Moomba, which should be sometime later this week, boy, will I miss JUdson Grill.

JUdson Grill, 152 West 52nd Street, (582-5252). Monday through Friday, lunch noon to 2:30 p.m., dinner 5:30 to 11 p.m. Open only for dinner on Saturday, closed Sunday. Appetizers $8-$15.50; entrées $19.50-$31. All major credit cards.

When was the last time the two of you felt kinda romantic, got all dressed up, went out not for dinner but a “date,” walked into a room, and knew it was going to be heaven. If it’s been too long, get to Boughalem right away. It’s just perfect. In your daydreams, you couldn’t conjure a room as effortlessly elegant as this cream, lacquer-walled jewel box. The reflected lighting is seductive, the flowers lush, the service charming, the prices calming. Even the geometry of the room is beckoning. So relaxing is the environment, you’ll probably finish half a bottle of burgundy before tasting a morsel (which is fine because the bartender, who is so nice, makes cocktails that could have put Tallulah on the wagon).

The food, however, will get you in the mood even if you’re stone sober. Chef James Rafferty’s menu is almost too small to withstand frequent return visits, but since all we really have is the here and now, indulge in silky gulf-shrimp-and-potato dumplings or the sexy consommé of prawns and celery with a juicy crustacean smack in the middle. Someone should feed you the creamy potato and roquefort gallette with their fingers. The smooth lentil soup could use a garlic boost, but the sweetly roasted eggplant makes a yummy couple with the crunchy, cumined chickpea napoleons. And had the seared scallops in parsley oil been around when Flashdance was made, Jennifer Beals never would have worked that lobster.

For the main course, if you haven’t drowned in each other’s eyes by now, there is a handsome Amish chicken in a lovely wild-mushroom sauce, monkfish floating deliciously in red-pepper purée, weightless farfalle flecked with an aromatic basil purée, an airy couscous with grilled shrimp and plum tomatoes, and rosy filet mignon with mashed potatoes.

There are only three desserts – denser-than-usual vahlrona cake, warm apple tart, and cinnamon-apple-bread pudding in caramel – but they’re all worth holding your horses for.

Whatever the weather, you’re sure to leave Boughalem all warm and fuzzy. It may even become your place. So you’ll keep coming back, again and again, as often as you please. How nice for the two of you. I hate you both.

Boughalem, 14 Bedford Street (414-4764). Open Tuesday through Sunday 6 p.m. to midnight, closed Monday. Appetizers $6-$8; entrées $12-$18. Cash only. Reservations not accepted.

Many Happy Returns