Washington Post Food critic Tom Sietsema's Monthly Report from the Road: NYC

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Acclaimed restaurateur Drew Nieporent's raved-about Corton in Tribeca will have to wait. On a recent trip to New York, like a lot of diners, I was more eager to find good deals than give my credit card a workout. The happy result: I got what I bargained for.

KEFI (505 Columbus Ave., 212-873-0200): "Is everything delicious for you?" asks the harried server, stopping for a nanosecond on a typically busy night. Our mouths are full of mezze, so all we can do is smile and nod in response. When the concept moved five blocks or so away in January, this wildly popular Greek restaurant on the Upper West Side listened to its fans and added 130 seats, spread across two levels, and a credit card machine. What the owners didn't change was the rustic menu. The grilled sardines are as meaty as ever, served on a pool of tart yogurt scattered with herbs. Chicken shows up bright with lemon, and if you leave without trying the cloudlike dumplings made with sheep's milk and rounded out with spicy lamb sausage, you'll miss one of Kefi's best efforts, which include a divine walnut cake. Sound too good to be true? Bare tables spaced seemingly centimeters apart and a noise level akin to that of a rock concert are the price one pays for these gentle tabs and sunny flavors. Entrees $9.95-$15.95.

MARKET TABLE (54 Carmine St., 212-255-2100): The kitchen of this brick-walled storefront in Greenwich Village seems to know exactly how people prefer to eat in trying times. So crisp roast chicken and juicy hanger steak are on the short menu, though both comforts show up with pleasing twists: sweet potato salad and hazelnut brown butter for the bird, a sangria marinade and lightly grilled romaine to set off the beef. Food fashions aren't forgotten (raw hamachi with batons of apple and a jolt of lime makes a perfect starting point), but they're outnumbered by heartier choices, including a soup brimming with kale, duck slivers and cracklings. Dinner at Market Table could pass for dinner and a movie, thanks to the winsome restaurant's corner location and two broad windows that capture an entertaining slice of New York life. Entrees $20-$32.

PERBACCO (234 E. Fourth St., 212-253-2038): Dark and wooded and cramped, the interior isn't much to look at. But chef Simone Bonelli has some surprises in store for his customers, dishes that are likely to distract them from any discomfort and remind them that Perbacco roughly translates as "wow." One is a Parmesan custard treated to a caramelized sugar top, a savory creme brulee balanced with a splash of balsamic vinegar. Another pairs swordfish with . . . caper gelato, anyone? Arancini taste like tradition but spill out of a little paper bag, as if they were doughnut holes instead of Italian rice balls. It isn't all camp; the gnocchi, for instance, are dressed up with little more than fried sage. Our table of six was asked to give up our seats after two hours, but the request came with an incentive: free prosecco for everyone! Entrees $14-$28.

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