Hot & Not in New York

As the Manhattan restaurant scene sizzles, a writer looks for places where he won't get burned

To put your finger on the pulse of the dining scene in New York City, you must first put your finger on the speed dial. There have always been fashionable res-taurants here, of course, but the booming economy has made the competition for reservations even more frenzied. To book a table at certain places of the moment, you need to make peace with the busy signal, be patient on hold and be willing to dine several cycles of the moon beyond the evening you had in mind. Or you can be sensible and settle on a restaurant where you can have a great meal without heroic effort.

Recently, I ran into a colleague who was planning her birthday dinner. She had tried to get a table at Asia de Cuba (237 Madison Ave.; 212-726-7755), but nothing was available for two months. In a show of largesse, the reservationist had conceded that in six weeks the "sharing table," which seats 34, might have space at 5 P.M. That was a little too much sharing for her, my friend said. So I suggested Quilty's (177 Prince St.; 212-254-1260).

The SoHo restaurant is named for a character in Lolita, but that's about it for Nabokovian allusions. What you find is an attractively spare (sometimes clamorous) room that counterbalances Katy Sparks's ebullient food. Her duck confit and walnut empanada has enough zip to remind you that she spent time at Mesa Grill and Bolo. I happily return for her update on oyster stew: oysters spiked with Gewürztraminer, perked up with green grapes and nestled in root vegetables. The wine list, with such unusual bottles as a Horton Vineyards Viognier from Virginia, also sets a festive mood. My colleague called to thank me for recommending Quilty's, but I told her to thank the reservationist at Asia de Cuba first and Sparks second.

Not long ago, old ac-quaintances from Paris called to say that they would be in town soon and wanted to go with me to Le Cirque 2000 (455 Madison Ave.; 212-303-7788). When I phoned the restaurant, however, I was surprised to find that although it was midwinter I couldn't get a table until early summer--130 days away by my count. I checked my datebook and saw I had no dinner engagement that evening, but by then my guests would have been gone for 104 days. Instead, I booked a table at Union Pacific (111 E. 22nd St.; 212-995-8500).

The pleasures of Union Pacific begin when you enter the dining room, designed by the famed Larry Bogdanow. But the real satisfactions come from the food. The talented Rocco DiSpirito leans toward unusual ingredients in surprising combinations; solid French technique and a keen sensitivity to balance transform his dishes from the unlikely into the extraordinary. One appetizer deftly integrates the sweetness of Taylor Bay scallops, the brininess of sea urchin, the acidity of tomato essence and the heat of mustard oil. His squab is lacquered with a sweet-tart pomegranate and cinnamon glaze, which acts as a foil to the rich gaminess of the bird.

During the meal, I noticed my friends beaming, and upon departing the restaurant, they admitted that there were few places in Paris where they could eat as well.

After they left town, I found myself longing for France and thought of Balthazar (80 Spring St.; 212-965-1414), since this wildly popular brasserie has an authentic Parisian look and feel. Bal-thazar has become even better known, though, for its busy signal (it can take 30 minutes to get through) and for the amount of time the reservationist keeps you on hold (20 minutes or so). Unless your face is on billboards or your name on underwear, the reservations game, shall we say, favors the house. When I told a friend how much time I'd wasted, he said, "Even the French at their most French don't make things that difficult. Forget Balthazar." And then I remembered Jean Claude (137 Sullivan St.; 212-475-9232).

The only phone in this small bistro, opened six years ago by Jean-Claude Iacovelli, is a pay phone by the rest rooms, but there's no need to call in advance because the restaurant doesn't take reservations. While this means there may be a wait, the reward is terrific food that doesn't cost much. Where else can $8 satisfy a craving for foie gras? A wonderful appetizer of thin curls of squid in a slick of coriander, cayenne, curry and cinnamon costs even less. To follow, there's perfectly slow-roasted lamb with garlic and thyme. The trade-off is that the dining room is packed shoulder to shoulder, payment is cash only and service can be with or without charm, depending on some unfathomable Gallic calculation.

One Saturday night soon after I ate at Jean Claude, I walked by Moomba (133 Seventh Ave. S.; 212-989-1414), another Manhattan restaurant with a buzz. But you certainly can't see the action from the street. Although the restaurant has big windows, they are covered with thick curtains. Want to peek in the door? Not very likely, since you have to pass a velvet rope and a bouncer. I don't suppose Moomba will win any hospitality awards, and it probably doesn't care to. For that, I can always count on chef-owner Alan Tardi's gracious Follonico (6 W. 24th St.; 212-691-6359).

Follonico has the understated appeal of an Italian countryside inn. Four years ago, I thought that I'd discovered the restaurant, but I have since come to realize that everyone has the same proprietary feeling about it. Having eaten here so many times, I can report that I've had good meals and exceptional ones. I've never left unhappy.

I like to start with a hot bath: the Piedmontese bagna cauda, a pot of oil, garlic and anchovy, into which you dip vegetables. The delightful fazzoletto is a thin blanket of pasta, with herbs or flowers pressed into it, on a ragout that may contain morels, fiddlehead ferns and wild leeks. Tardi also takes a whole fish (usually red snapper), stuffs it with herbs and bakes it in a crust of spices and rock salt, which preserves the pristine flavors.

Restaurants with bouncers must know the clock is running. At Follonico, time has a way of standing still.

Charles Suisman is the publisher and editor of the Manhattan User's Guide newsletter.

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