Sunday: The Perfect Pre-Park Pit Stop (Hint: It’s the Only Thing Swedish About Columbus Circle)

One of these days, I’ll get around to actually dining in at AQ Kafé in Columbus Circle — the room certainly looks pleasant enough, with its woods and Swedish minimalism, and the menu is stacked with classic Swedish entreés you just don’t find in every neighborhood.

photo-5But so far, I just haven’t been able to get past the draw of that oasis of green that lingers in your peripheral view, no matter where you look. Every time I’ve been here so far there comes a point when I give in, forget it, let’s just get something to-go and go find a place to sit in Central Park.

I mean, it’s right there.

I’ve tried a number of things before, including the gravlax sandwich ($9.95), the potato salad and pickled cucumbers ($2.95 ea.), all worthy picnic items. Yesterday, looking for the simplest thing to put in my stomach that wouldn’t have me sugar-crashing two hours later, I tried one of their bagels ($1.95), which are made fresh daily in their bakery.

photo-6photo-7Cheap, fresh, original — and of modest size. This bagel appeals to me more than any other plain bagel of recent memory. An everything bagel sandwich stacked with gravlax, tomato, onion, capers, cream cheese, etc., from a fine purveyor like Murray’s Bagels is in a class of its own, but in general, the huge, doughy bagels people order in delis around the city every day and they terrify me. I can only think of one word: Dry. So, so, dry. And so, so bland.

On the other hand, AQ Kafe’s bagel is… delightful. Just like that green space that’s right across the street.

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Saturday: A Quietly Raucous Night at Fanelli Cafe (aka the “Balloons, Beers and Bison Burger” Post)

photo-2Anytime balloons are affixed to a street sign outside a restaurant (or bar, as it may be) when I’m sitting nearly in the picture window of said restaurant — I take that as a good sign. Who doesn’t love balloons, bobbing and bouncing softly off each other, as the background to their evening?

It makes a festive place like Fanelli Cafe in Soho — with its tin ceilings, worn, wooden bar and bear of a bald-headed bartender, who single-handedly (and quite adeptly) nurtures to his bar into the steady, cacophonous riot that is part of Fanelli’s charm.

Quiet, everyone, quiet,” he bellows, and then, when the din has settled a murmur, he turns to my friend and I and asks, “are you here for dinner or for drinks?

photo-3Both,” I said, “But we want to sit at the bar.”

His whole face lights up — that’s his turf. (For the couple behind us that wants to sit down for dinner, he sends them to the hostess stand deep inside the restaurant with an dismissive wave.) He scans the bar, and gestures for us to come to where there’s a single open seat.

Just wait a few minutes and you’ll have two,” he says. No doubt if only one other single seat opened up on the opposite side of the bar, he’d readily convince everyone scoot down so we could fit the two chairs in together. Fortunately, two adjacent seats opened up at the same time, and, at his signal, we made the move.

It’s called a cafe, and certainly, there are more tables than seats at the bar, but I know Fanelli’s for its drinking culture, so when I think of how to categorize the food, immediately in my mind it falls under pub fare, better than average.

photo-1It’s a little classier — the burgers, for example, come on a nice onion roll, with your option of fries or salad, and you can choose between a beef, turkey, veggie or bison burger ($10.95). Really, rather than being upscale pub food, this is the effect of a great bar operating within a full-service restaurant kitchen.

We split a bison burger, plus pepper jack cheese, plus bacon, cooked to a medium doneness — and it was a beautiful thing. During my first encounter with Fanelli’s, on a trip to visit the city before I moved here, my knowledgeable guide told me to “get the burger. They have great burgers,” and I’ve hardly strayed since because they are good.

photoWe shared an order of jalapeno poppers ($5.50), the cheddar inside kind, which were good, but not great, and a little skimpy — the order only came with four. Sure, it saved us the decision of who got the last one, or the awkwardness of splitting a popper with a knife, but really, an order of poppers should come with no less than five, ideally six, or seven, little gems. All the better to order another pint, you might say.