Category Archives: New York
We’ve been to the Red Flame Diner, the Frick Collection and the Whitney. Now it’s time to clear our heads of comfort food and culture so Monsieur and I head across to Central Park. Every time we’ve visited together, we’ve spent a little time in this glorious lung for the island of Manhattan, and every time, we’ve discovered new sights to enthrall. The last visit saw us wading through drifts of newly-fallen snow; this time, the sun was shining and New Yorkers were out in droves, soaking up the vitamin D.
Do you think this runner stopped for some Gatorade or a big, fat pretzel after his run?
This pair looked slightly uncomfortable on their carriage ride:
Their wives, hidden by the hood, looked far more enthused. Monsieur and I didn’t feel the need for wheels, no matter how romantic the notion of a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park, so on we walked.
The paths were busy with happy wanderers, like ourselves:
And then, in the midst of everything, we found our old pal, Rabbie Burns:
We passed the place where people’s endowments of trees for the park are honoured by plaques in a place called Literary Walk:
Further along, we found people sunning themselves like seals on a giant rock. We climbed up to see what they were watching and found the Wollman skating rink beneath the Midtown skyline. There was no mistaking who operates it these days – Donald Trump, his name emblazoned all around the rink:
We then headed for the Plaza Hotel and Fifth Avenue, spotting this colourful line up of carriages en route:
Now the carriages and tree-lined walks would be replaced by skyscrapers and New York yellow cabs, but not before we glimpse a horse proudly sprouting a bright purple feather from its bridle. It seems that even the horses in Manhattan know that in this part of world, anything goes.
DSK: a trio of letters synonymous with scandal, sex and the Sofitel Hotel in New York City. When Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then-head of the IMF found himself embroiled in a hotel housemaid’s accusation of sexual assault earlier this year, Monsieur and I were transfixed before the television, not because of yet another (yawn) politician making the headlines due to a certain lack of behavioural restraint, but because of the hotel at the centre of the scandal. The story broke while we were in France for a family celebration. The French news stations were saturated with back-to-back tales of Strauss-Kahn and his fateful stay at the New York Sofitel, where Monsieur and I have stayed quite happily twice – no straying politicos or maids-with-benefits involved. It felt odd to know the place where such sordid events unfolded; contrary to how it may have come across in this year’s press coverage of the DSK affair, the Sofitel is a serene and beautiful place to call home during a sojourn in Manhattan.
Monsieur and I are fans of the Sofitel chain, especially as the presence of plenty of French staff make Monsieur feel so at home. On our last visit to The Big Apple, we dragged our cases up to the Sofitel from Penn Station and were greeted with warmth and a couple of welcome drinks vouchers to be used at Gaby, the hotel bar. Once we’d settled into our room set in a quiet recess away from 44th Street we took our vouchers down to the lobby to join the Friday afternoon crowd for a drink.
It was still too early for the pre-theatre crowd so prevalent in Midtown, and too early for most office workers to kick up their heels at the start of the weekend, but there was already the beginning of a lively gathering at one end of the room. Our waiter was Buddhist in his calm approach to serving his patrons; so much so he was almost invisible. Menus and cocktail mix appeared before us, yet so quietly that it was as if they’d been conjured from thin air.
Perusing the drinks list, Monsieur decided to forego his usual mojito in favour of the Lemon Drop cocktail, his first sip causing an audible sigh of appreciation. I stole a taste: it was like intense alcoholic lemonade with the essence of lemon meringue pie mixed through it. Iced, this would be a grown-up’s dessert of choice, not far from that naughty Venetian after-dinner drink, the sgroppino.
Chocolate was on my mind, so I ordered a mochatini, but our waiter quietly returned to our table to say “I’m afraid we’re all out of the Starbuck’s liquor required to make the mochatini. Could I interest you a chocatini instead?”. I was more than a little surprised to learn that a French hotel served drinks made with an American coffee giant’s syrup, but I have to admit that Starbuck’s mocha flavouring is quite excellent (stone me, curse me, but I give credit where it’s due). Fortunately, the chocatini soon took my mind off the omnipresence of globalisation. The cocktail was absolute decadence in a glass, like syrupy, alcoholic chocolate milk.
Meanwhile, three suits had taken stools at the bar, self-importantly jabbing the air from time to time as they mentioned markets and calls and shorts and losses. Shortly afterward, three women dressed for the kill arrived and took seats a little further down the bar. Air-kissing commenced amidst drawling “how AAAAARE you”s, making me giggle at their own brand of theatre. By the time we left, the girls were exchanging meaningful nods with the neighbouring suits whilst pointedly preening long tresses and adjusting cleavages. DSK it wasn’t, but mating rituals in Manhattan still make excellent entertainment.
There are many good reasons to stay at New York’s Sofitel: it’s ideally situated for the theatre district and Times Square, is central for the main attractions of all the big Avenues, close to the major stores of Barney’s, Bendel’s and Bloomingdale’s and shares its address of 44th Street with the eponymous Red Flame Diner and the Algonquin Hotel of Round Table fame. Ready and waiting for you when you’ve walked your feet into a numbed fatigue, the Sofitel beds are there to envelop the tired wanderer in their rejuvenating cocoons of softness. The doormen and concierges go the extra mile, there are PC and printing facilities in a quiet corner of the lobby, and if you want to just sit and watch the comings of goings of visitors and guests, the sumptuous lobby armchairs provide the comfort from which to do so.
Highly recommended, especially if someone else is paying, and I think we can safely assume that DSK won’t be going back any time soon.
There are four branches of Petite Abeille, or ‘Little Bee’ in New York City, each with Belgian charm and all proud of their reputation as being the providers of an excellent weekend brunch. Alas, house rules say no reservations are possible; you have to present yourself in person and be prepared to wait.
Monsieur and I were in New York for a long weekend, late in March. We were lucky with the weather: the sky was nothing but high and blue, the air crisp and we couldn’t wait for a proper Noo Yoik Sunday brunch, so, armed with a pair of rumbling stomachs we headed down to lower Manhattan to the Petite Abeille at 134 West Broadway.
On arrival there was already a line out the door, but within a few minutes we were inside and soon after that were offered seats at the bar while we waited for a table to become free. The restaurant byline is ‘a taste of Belgium’ and the walls were suitably covered with Tintin posters and a variety of Belgian memorabilia. We ordered drinks to quell our hunger. Monsieur had an OJ and I went all out, ordering one of the famous Petite Abeille Bloody Marys.
This was one fantastic cocktail, with plenty of va-va-voom courtesy of oodles of fresh horseradish and a liberal dose of Worcestershire sauce. The usual celery stick garnish was enhanced by a sprinkling of colourful batons of capsicum, a bit like fat pick-up sticks. The success of this drink surely augured well for our brunch – if we ever got a table.
Just as Monsieur’s stirrings of impatience became dangerous to the waitresses, we were ushered to a table by the window – one of the prime positions in this otherwise tiny shack of an eatery. The wait was worth it for our view of both our fellow patrons and the street of eclectic boutiques outside. There must have been a fun run that day because runners and their cheerleading friends and family started to descend on the Petite Abeille, wrapped in aluminium blankets. These sporty folk knew exactly where to get their post-exercise carb fix.
Monsieur and I ventured into the menu with caution, nibbling at first on a shared almond croissant and a tartine of perfectly toasted baguette slathered with Nutella. My husband being French, his critique of breads is utterly unforgiving, so when he declared the baguette perfect and asked for a toaster like the one in the Petite Abeille kitchen, I was blown away. Such praise is rare.
Around us, the meal of choice seemed to be the waffle special, loaded with blueberries, strawberries and rounds of fresh kiwifruit, all scattered atop an evil layer of whipped cream. This was obviously not the place for slimmers, as proven by a quick glance at the menu which features a lot of eggs, potatoes, burgers and cheese. With such a tempting selection I was torn; would I honour my penchant for croquettes (North Sea shrimp or Belgian Cheese), cave in to an Omelette Maison (smoked salmon, scallions and sour cream) or tuck into the vol au vent filled with chicken stew, bacon, mushrooms and accompanied by fries? In the end I decided to go all out on the calorie front, ordering the Macaroni Jambon-Fromage - traditional mac ‘n’cheese with ham and Gruyère, delightfully gooey and rich with melted dairy products. Then to assuage the guilt attached to the glutton I am fully capable of being, I ordered a side salad of leaves with sliced red onion, seedless cucumber chunks and divinely marinated tomato that’s reminiscent of how tomatoey a tomato should taste. All of the time.
Monsieur was now elbow deep in his brunch fare: eggs benedict with smoked salmon, mesclun salad and stoemp, golden yolky lava coursing across his plate. “Your eggs are better,” he pronounced, “but the muffins and smoked salmon are excellent.” Having started the day unconvinced by my choice of brunch restaurant, fussy French husband was now praising my eatery-selection techniques. “And this stoemp is very, very good.” he mumbled through a mouthful of leek and potato mash. The only thing he didn’t comment on was the mesclun, but he wouldn’t; to Monsieur salad is simply salad, only worthy of comment when the leaves are brown.
Bottomless ice water and decent regular coffee with warm milk completed this sunny picture. We didn’t have room for any of the eight waffle options on offer but as a consolation, we would now not need lunch, having been fully topped up with calorific goodness. Monsieur and I paid our waitress with a smile, heading out into a bright Manhattan Sunday afternoon with gleeful step. I’ll certainly be back when the siren call of the North Sea shrimp croquettes becomes insistently inescapable and between you and me, I hope that might be soon.
In recent years, I’ve found one of the most efficient conversation starters to be “what do you think of Starbucks?” The opinions fly about as fast as Roadrunner on his sixth triple espresso, and there’s often the feeling that it’s a bit uncool to admit to liking Starbucks, just like when it wasn’t cool to like Abba. Don’t get me wrong; there’s always a handful of brand-faithful caffeine addicts ready to share their love of vanilla frappuccinos, Christmas gingerbread or eggnog lattes, caramel macchiatos or the reliability of the simple flat white. On the other hand, there are plenty of folk who make no secret of their disdain for the world’s most famous coffee house.
Some people hate Starbucks because it’s everywhere. Others love it because it’s everywhere. It would seem the jury’s still out, especially because of the effect of Starbucks on the small, old-fashioned coffee shop which has been fast-disappearing, unable to keep up with the larger coffee chains. Think: You’ve Got Mail, only with independent cafes, instead of bookstores, being put out to pasture by the new big boy on the block. Given all the different opinions, the argument seems nowhere near being resolved. Then, in one online dispute between some of my fellow bloggers from different cities around the world, each with their own Starbucks (plural) nearby, I learned something new about the coffee giant: in the States Starbucks is respected for the benefits it offers its employees and the fact that it has a notable non-discriminatory recruitment record. That piqued my interest. Gay, straight, young, old, black, white, with or without qualifications. If you’re willing to work, you’re almost assured of a job at Starbucks.
A while ago, I picked up a book in a charity store. It was called ‘How Starbucks Saved My Life’. It sat in my To Read pile until recently, when I found I could not put it down. The author, Michael Gill, tells the tale of his successful career, for which he sacrificed Christmas with his kids and quality family time as he jetted around the States and beyond in the name of advertising. Not so clever in hindsight, he finds. He never considered that the agency for whom he worked would axe him. No, he really believed he’d be there until he retired, but the agency didn’t see it that way. Suddenly, and without further ado, Gill was fired. His face no longer fit the image of the agency.
One failing consultancy, an affair, a love-child, a divorce and a tumour later, Gill finds himself down-and-out, applying for a job at Starbucks. Instead of feeling embarrassment at taking a blue collar job with very basic hourly wage, Gill surprises himself by realising how much he enjoys his new, simpler life. He makes new friends, looks back at past experience with fresh eyes, learns to take pride in all aspects of his new-found work, including toilet cleaning, and starts to reassemble the different parts of his broken life. It’s inspiring.
Some cynics would say that the Ad-Man in Gill saw an opportunity here; by writing about his experience of such a global brand, he’d get his book noticed, and he did. I don’t have a problem with that. Others might complain about Gill’s name-dropping, which did annoy me at times, but we should remember that until he lost his job in advertising, Gill really was a major player in that world, so a certain amount of his past-life involved schmoozing high-profile people. What impressed me, however, was how the once-grand man with everything learned to take pleasure in simple things and be grateful for them. Once upon a time Gill would have taken his ad-agency remuneration package, including health care benefits for all his family, for granted. He is now almost pathetically grateful for the health care he receives through Starbucks. In the past Gill would have been scared to cross paths with some of his co-workers, from starkly different backgrounds to his. Now they share music and anecdotes and learn from each other’s life experiences.
Gill works hard and steadily, getting himself into a new groove and routine. He overcomes fears, confronts his failings and learns enough about coffee to run tastings for colleagues and guests. I’d say that’s pretty admirable for a man who only recently thought he was on the scrap heap for good.
Apparently Tom Hanks thought Gill’s tale was worth further attention, because he bought the film rights. The film version of How Starbucks Saved My Life is listed on IMDB as being a 2012 release, so we’re going to hear a lot more about the global coffee king before too long.
Before you all jump on your soapboxes to tell me that I’m evil for supporting what one acquaintance calls The Devil’s Coffee House, just remember that my day job is in Human Resources. In recent years I’ve had to tell too many good people that they needed to find a new way to cover their rent/ mortgage/ school fees/ loan repayments and credit card debts because their job had ceased to exist. I’ve seen grown men and women sway with catatonia and cry, and it’s been soul-destroying for all concerned.
We weren’t alone; the credit crunch has forced many companies to shrink their staff numbers or close down completely, and many firms use the credit crunch as an excuse to remove non-contractual benefits and cut salaries. Often the business reasons for this have been valid. At other times, you’ll find they’re a tight-fisted pretext for making those at the top richer and Joe Bloggs poorer. Of those still in work, most of us are worse off than we were four years ago. So when you’re jobless, sixty something, down on your uppers and are accustomed to having coffee served to you as opposed to serving it to other people, but have never made cappuccino foam in your life, what do you do? Take a leaf out of Gill’s book and head for Starbuck’s. Then ask for an application form. In this tough climate, Starbuck’s is rare in not pulling the plug on staff benefits and however you look at it, the list of benefits for U.S. Starbucks workers is impressive. They cleverly call it a ‘Special Blend’. Here’s a brief summary of benefit components that a Starbucks partner might expect, taken from the U.S. website:
- Competitive pay
- Insurance: medical, prescription drug, dental, vision, life, disability
- Paid time off
- Retirement savings plan
- Stock options and discounted stock purchase plan
- Adoption assistance
- Domestic partner benefits
- Emergency financial aid
- Referral and support resources for child and eldercare
- A free pound of coffee each week
Further information is here:
When it comes to finding out what benefits a UK Starbucks partner can expect, there is a curious lack of information on the UK website, but I did manage to find out that Starbucks intends to introduce an NVQ training scheme for their staff from next year, with an MBA-style programme for senior managers currently in development. These courses and more will be available to partners through the Starbucks University, helping them to gain education whilst working, whatever their level.
As for Michael Gill? He’s written a second book, called How to Save Your Own Life: 15 Lessons on Finding Hope in Unexpected Places, but according to a quote on his website, he is intent on keeping things simple.
“I have heard from literally thousands of people who have told me that they have benefited from my surprising story,” Mike says, “I think because my life is irrefutable proof that simply acquiring things does not bring happiness. In fact, the contrary has proved true for me: losing a lot of stuff frees me to be truly me. There is a cost to working 12 hour days like I used to do, or striving to keep up a big house and a big life. There is a freedom to going through life without a lot of heavy status stuff—and just giving yourself the chance to do what you were meant to do, and be who you were truly meant to be.”
Sounds like someone’s been talking to the ghost of Epicurus…
In case you’re wondering, yes, Michael Gill still works part-time at his local Starbucks. And my favourite Starbucks beverage? Ice-cold mocha frappuccino, even when it’s snowing.
Do you have a comment to make about The Devil’s Coffee Shop? Let’s debate. Let me know YOUR experience of Starbucks, good, indifferent or bad – all opinion is welcome here.
Most frequent fliers will tell you that they can recite crew and cockpit announcements by heart: “Welcome to Airy Airways. My name is (muffle muffle) and I am your purser for flight 999 to Istanbul. Your crew today consists of Cindy and Mindy in First Class, Davis and Mavis in Business Class, and should you have the misfortune to be a sardine today, you will be cared for by Travis, Bevan, Morgan and Mercedes. Even if you fly regularly, please pay attention to the emergency procedure demonstration that follows,” Of course, hardly any one does, except for the Nervous Flier who reads and re-reads the laminated emergency brochure all the way to the destination, by which time its corners and fingernails various are in tell-tale shreds. Then we hear various stock phrases along the lines of: “Do not inflate your life jacket until you have left the plane,” “Please turn off all electronic devices for take-off and landing,” “The flight time today will be 8 hours and 23 minutes,” if we’re lucky and, following a rumble of turbulence just as the refreshment trolley comes around, “We are now cruising at an altitude of 33,000 feet”.
Recently, Monsieur and I flew to Lisbon. Let me just say that our pilot was a little different to the ordinary. Firstly, he came out of the cockpit, took the speakerphone and addressed his passengers, face to face. To say he was whacky is somewhat of an understatement. After introducing himself and the crew, he told us “I’m driving this thing tonight. We’re off to Malaga.” This was a risky joke to make. I understood that he was being funny, but others around us didn’t, “What did he say? Are we on the wrong flight? He’s joking, right?” Captain Whacky then apologised for the way an excess of hand luggage had been stowed, causing a brief delay. “If you’d like to complain, send your e-mails to Easyjet. They need a few.” he suggested. Okay, so not only was the Captain whacky, he was also unusually keen to solicit e-mail traffic for his employers. “Buy food! Buy duty free!” he then implored, “We need the money!” And, sure enough, as soon as we were bound for Lisbon or Malaga or wherever else Captain Whacky was ‘driving’ us that night, the crew certainly did a repeated hard sell on both as they trotted dutifully up and down the aisles, one (male) cabin attendant being overheard to say “I feel like such a tart.” whilst peddling his trolley of wares. Apparently, things are tough for airlines right now, as they are for most sectors of industry. Having said that, I’ll never forget Captain Whacky. He certainly spiced up the flight.
Not long after Captain Whacky ‘drove’ us to Lisbon, Monsieur and I spent a pre-Christmas weekend in New York. The flight home was just as remarkable as Captain Whacky’s for far less amusing reasons. Firstly, take-off was delayed because US Immigration had decided to check the passports of all passengers on incoming flights as they disembarked, as well as in the customs hall, thus severely delaying the cleaning of the plane that would take us to London. While we were waiting, a fellow passenger approached the counter. “I’ve been vomiting,” she told the airline staff, “and I don’t know if I can travel.” They asked her various questions about symptoms and so forth, then sought out an airport doctor to come and verify whether or not Vomiting Passenger should travel. In spite of my concerns that she might infect 400 plus people with the dreaded Swine ‘Flu, Vomiting Passenger was indeed deemed fit, at least for long enough that everyone could board and the cargo could be loaded and all doors closed. But the plane sat still at the gate for longer than usual. Then the captain spoke. “Ladies and gentlemen, I apologise for the delay. We have a sick passenger on board who is not deemed fit to travel so she’s being taken off the flight. That means we have to find her bag and remove it before we can leave tonight. Once again, please accept our apologies for the delay.” Searching for the suitcase in the haystack took a while, as you can imagine. Luckily (?) for me I was sitting directly above the cargo door so could watch with ever-decreasing patience as first one, then multiple baggage containers were removed in the quest for Vomiting Passenger’s suitcase.
Eventually, said luggage was located so we could finally push off, taxi onto the runway, hurtle down it and take off. Then the plane banked and banked some more. It felt as if we were going to fall out of the sky, but in fact we were fine. I never really doubted that we were fine. It’s just that, like so many people, when it comes to flying I’m a bit more nervous than I was ten years ago.
Monsieur was sitting in another part of the plane so my seat-mates were a kind English couple who smiled at me every time the plane banked and my knuckles lost colour. We made chit chat, plugged into our respective movie channels, artfully pecked at the in-flight meal and rugged up for a snooze on the red eye.
Sometime later I was dreaming, a rare feat on any flight, when suddenly I was woken by shrill screaming from the front of our cabin. The screaming was panicked, piercing and did not stop. Chillingly, my initial thought was “Oh well. We travel so much, it’s bound to happen sooner or later,” as I wondered whether this was a terrorist situation or the case of an unstable passenger stabbing a flight attendant because the galley had run out of Jack Daniel’s. When I think back to that waking moment, it was one of extreme resignation that Fate had taken over and there was nothing to be done but sit still and wait to see what happened. Losing it didn’t even cross my mind.
In those nervous moments already frayed nerves were exacerbated by the actions of the flight attendants. They swiftly turned on all the cabin lights, which had been dimmed for the overnight flight, waking only those whose Beta blockers had left them impervious to the noisy panic, and one spoke code over the speakerphone: “Cabin Crew, Delta Foxtrot in row thirty five,”. There’s nothing like Cabin Crew Code to increase anxiety amongst passengers. “Delta Foxtrot? What do they mean, ‘Delta Foxtrot?” “Is it a bomber?” “Is someone dead?” After what seemed like an age, having seen resuscitation kits and portable defibrillator panels and latex gloves and all manner of first aid paraphernalia sent into action, we learned that a passenger had passed out cold in the aisle. The screaming woman had thought this person was dead, hence her banshee bursts of howling, and although we never found out whether or not the sick person survived the flight, things did calm down considerably and we were all able to relax (ish) in the knowledge that we were not being taken hostage.
Given the Banshee Incident coupled with the Christmas Day event of a Nigerian attempting to blow up a plane bound for Detroit, I’m relieved not to be flying anywhere for a while. My feet are quite happy to be at zero thousand feet, thank you very much. Having said that, even train travel hasn’t been straightforward of late, what with extreme weather conditions and the recent Eurostar debacle where trains broke down mid-Chunnel. It seems we just can’t win. Suddenly the concept of the Staycation is an attractive one, indeed.
If you’ve had any in-flight moments of madness, good or otherwise, please leave a comment below and let’s share. We can call it Post-Flight Therapy.
It’s that time of year again, when a weekend in New York looms in Big Apple style on the pre-Christmas horizon. I have long associations with this city; it was in New York that, as a foetus, I first kicked my mother from the inside out, thrilling her with the reality of impending motherhood. It was as a teenager in New York that I first rode in a stretch limo and played the piano with my feet at FAO Schwarz, just like Tom Hanks did in Big. It was in New York that my Stateside friends threw me a surprise birthday party, the only one I’ve ever had, when I’d tiptoed out of London in order to avoid another year older. And now, decades after launching that first little kick, the inspiration to skip, and jump my way up and down that little island known as Manhattan still ignites me from the moment I start to plan a visit.
Some people like to shop in New York City. There’s certainly plenty of opportunity to do that: from bargains to be found at Century 21, located somewhat eerily adjacent to 9-11’s Ground Zero and its ever-present conspiracy theorists, through to the air-kissing environs of Barney’s and Bergdorf’s at the other end of the spender’s spectrum.
However, shopping is not what gets my Big Apple Fires a-burning; it goes deeper than that for me. There’s a vibe about Manhattan which ripples invisibly through the air, up and down the grid of streets and avenues, and straight into my soul. It’s the small things, as much as the skyscrapers, that thrill me here: the excitement of buying Motrin at Duane Reade (SO much better and more cost-effective than Nurofen), Chinese being spoken in Chinatown in front of windows of crispy fried ducks hanging by their feet, a glimpse of hand cuffed to briefcase in the diamond district, meetings beneath the clock at Grand Central Station. A smile threatens to break every time I see a yellow cab with bent plastic fender or when I hear someone in a deli order “pastrami on rye!” or when I pass a man wearing a battered Yankees cap or when a debate starts over where to find the best bagels in the city. Even when struggling to decide whether to go to the MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Whitney or the Frick because, goshdarnit, there’s just too much choice, I feel a constant buzz buzzity buzz.
Plenty of people go to New York to make money and/or spend money and there’s plenty to do there for all tastes and ages. Shoppers ogle at the animated Christmas windows, romantics sigh at chestnuts roasting on street corners and in every crowd you will spot Big Brown Bloomingdale’s Bags. It’s a melting pot of art and culture and music and design and hippy and chic – all in a mere 23.7 square miles. As might sound familiar to those In The Epicurienne Know, it’s New York’s food that really gets me going. There’s such a wealth of variety to be had, just begging for the attention of food lovers like me. So where have I been so far?
- The Red Flame Diner with its bottomless cups of coffee and evil stacks of pancakes swimming in maple syrup and crispy bacon is a breakfast favourite. It’s so busy here at weekends that there’s no time for pleasantries. Order, eat, pay and move outta the way for the next in line. Please note: I’ve never seen the place without a line, but it does move fast and it gives you plenty of time to read the How To Help A Choke Victim poster, just in case.
- Les Halles, the restaurant called home by travelling chef Anthony Bourdain. With a mouthful of cassoulet you could close your eyes and think yourself in Paris, so authentic is the atmosphere. It would be easy to believe that a tornado had picked up a brasserie in France and plonked it down, intact, in the middle of New York.
- Nobu Next Door is the no-reservations little sister to Nobu, located just next door to the main restaurant in Tribeca. It serves delightful small plates, including Nobu’s signature black cod in miso but it’s a bit of a trek and to be assured of a table, you really need to get there after 10pm. Even then, there will be a queue. Your patience will be rewarded, if you can stay awake after a long day exploring New York.
- Mama Mexico’s on East 49th Street (and another located on Broadway) is a Mexican food-lover’s mecca. The guacamole is made at your table by one of the friendly wait-staff, tasting better than any other guac on earth, there’s plenty of choice and the portions are so humongous that we watched an entire table of eight leave smiling with doggy bags. Not one of them finished their main. Nor, as it happened, did I. Mama Mexico’s even offers take-out, a BIG reason for me NOT to move to New York. I’d probably never cook again.
- Union Square Cafe is a place I will always cherish because the grim-faced bouncer carded me there when I was a ripe old 27. I laughed as I pulled out my passport. “This is no laughing matter, ma’am.” he growled. Au contraire, mon frère! I took being asked for ID as a massive compliment, though, and told him so, bless his size thirteen cotton socks.
- Spring Street Natural was recommended by a former colleague who knows New York well. I had a divine tuna steak there, served rare to perfection. The food is as healthy and organic as it is possible to be, but not at the expense of taste or portion size.
- Brasserie Ruhlmann on Rockefeller Plaza is faithful to Art Deco style, as it takes its name from a great designer of that era – Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann. Another former colleague whisked me into this restaurant for lunch and a whirlwind catch-up session when I was in town a few years back and my, what a treat! The food was divine, the service infallible, and the atmosphere absolutely authentic. The disappointment was in having to squeeze as much out of it as we could within the one-hour lunch-break time-frame. I guess I’ll just have to return when we’re less hurried.
- Heartland Brewery is a chain with multiple locations. It’s ideal for a laid-back bite with a Heartland beer in hand. The menu is quintessentially American fare with old favourites like Classic Caesar Salad, Clam Chowder and St Louis Smoked Ribs. You can have Maine & Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes with a side of Idaho Mashed Potatoes or a burger of free-range South Dakota Bison with Hand Cut Idaho Fries, ‘cos ‘dem taters dere dey all do come from Idaho, ya know. Being a brewery I must also mention their beers. They have great names like Indiana Pale Ale, Farmer Jon’s Oatmeal Stout and Indian River Light. I tried Cornhusker Lager and very pleasant it was indeed. With more time on your hands, you might even be tempted to take a Voyage of Beer, enjoying a sampling of Heartland’s six classic beers.
Other New York experiences in the Epicurienne catalogue include eating very average Chinese in an ominously-empty Chinatown restaurant, (now I am furnished with foolproof tips for that area so hopefully history won’t repeat itself in that neck of the woods) where the biggest action took place in the fish tanks. I’ve lunched with the glitterati at Barney’s and twirled spaghetti in Little Italy and ordered pizza delivery at a friend’s Midtown apartment. I’ve hung out with the son of an Irish immigrant who made his fortune pouring beer for the folks of the Upper East Side and I’ve stood with dropped jaw as a woman ahead of me at Dean & Deluca ordered a “skinny decaf soy latte” which is very Sex and the City but defeats the purpose of drinking coffee in the first place. However, my finest hour when eating in New York? Sitting opposite the man I love in the Pomodoro Rosso and NOT getting dumped. You see, the Pomodoro Rosso is THE recommended break-up restaurant in the comedy series, Seinfeld. It also does a very good Sunday brunch menu, which is some consolation if you’ve only just realised that ‘he’s just not that into you’.
That’s all for today. In the next instalment I’m going to write about places on the Epicurienne Hit List, New York Edition. I may need some help choosing where next to dine…suggestions are welcomed because this is a case of so many eateries, so little time. And sadly, only one mouth.
When I was about eleven, I started home ec classes at school. My classmates and I then spent the next two years fighting over ingredients in these core classes as we perfected the mangling of simple dishes such as scrambled eggs and kedgeree. The worst part of these classes, however, was post-cooking when we had to sit and EAT what we’d just burned, undercooked or over-salted. At this key time in my culinary development I learned precisely how not to cook in class; conversely I learned how better to cook at home, where I’d help in the kitchen and sit with my mother in front of afternoon TV shows of Julia Child slamming food around her studio kitchen amidst what could only be described as a slightly awkward, inelegant presentation. Part of me loved watching her infectious passion for food and admired the results, wishing she could visit our dated home ec kitchen to inspire our prematurely-jaded attempts at food preparation; another part of me sat glued to the set in awe of the hulking woman who obviously knew her onions when it came to food, but whose booming voice and giant stature were more than a little intimidating. In case you need reminding, here’s a clip of La Child in action:
Cue a bout of Julia Child amnesia, until last year, when I bought Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, written in conjunction with her great nephew, Alex Prud’homme. I’m embarrassed to say that it sat in my ‘to read’ pile for some time until recently, when I quite literally devoured it. Once more, I was mesmerised by this towering doyenne of cuisine as I learned that there was so much more to her own personal history than is first apparent when you think of an acclaimed author of cookbooks. For a start, she wasn’t born with a wooden spoon in her hand, nor could she bake soufflés before she could walk. Au contraire; Julia Child didn’t start cooking until she was 37 years old, when she moved to post-war France with her adored husband Paul. Once there, her love of eating and a fascination with French food led her to the Cordon Bleu school, where she studied food and its preparation. Julia also spent time getting to know the local market vendors, finding the best produce, learning French and experimenting in her own kitchen in an odd apartment on the ‘rue de Loo’, as she called the rue de l’Université. On top of all of the above, the tireless Julia somehow found the time to socialise with Paris-based foodies. She taught, gave dinner parties, helped a couple of new friends with their attempt at ‘cookbookery’, and it is this latter activity that eventually developed into Child’s weighty mega-oeuvre, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), which brought truly French methods and cuisine into the American kitchen and subsequently revolutionised many kitchens all around the world.
This new-found passion for French cuisine changed Julia’s life, but not without hard graft did she become a published household name with her own TV show. I dare not give too much away, as this book is filled with such characters and surprises and inside knowledge of famous restaurants, critics and foods (I yelped with delight at the part where she visits the original Poilâne bakery in the name of breadmaking research) that it demands a reader’s first-hand attention, rather than a second-hand account. However, to whet your appetite, I will say that the complex politics of the time does not escape mention and honest accounts of strain on a workaholic’s interpersonal relationships, a quite unexpected picture of Julia in the bath with her husband and the down-to-earth description of universal frustrations and disappointments can only add to the admiration which Julia fans will feel on reading what she referred to as ‘The French Book’.
My Life in France was the sort of book that pained me to finish. There was only one thing to be done: I’d been bitten by the bug and now simply had to read more Julia. So, as you do, I popped onto Amazon, where Julie and Julia – My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell came to my attention. I’d heard of it; in fact, one of my grub-loving friends had recommended it to me; I just hadn’t bought it yet. One click later and the book was delivered to me at the end of last week, just in time for the May Bank Holiday weekend – a blissful three days of Nothing Planned. Julie and Julia arrived with impeccable timing because on commencing to read this book I experienced the startling result of waking up well before I would normally have roused myself on a long weekend. Why? To read The Book, of course, and for once I’m not complaining about waking early. Not at all.
So, every morning for the past three days, as Monsieur slumbered on next to me, my first waking thought was “I wonder what Julie does next?” as I grabbed the book and read as quietly as possible so that Monsieur wouldn’t wake up and disturb this precious reading time. You see, this Julie Powell person had decided on a whim to cook every single one of the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a mere 365 days. AND she had a full-time job, AND a tiny kitchen AND lived in Long Island City, which isn’t the best place to find some of the more unusual ingredients commanded by such recipes. To call this book entertaining is quite the culinary understatement. Refreshingly, there’s zero pretension. If the aspic doesn’t set or if murdering lobsters keeps Powell awake at night, we hear about it. Some recipes work, others don’t, and at times Powell enlists a search party to track down some strange foodstuff or other. Oh my Heavens, how I am loving this book, right down to the plumbing issues and day job and the strain that an obsession with cooking can place on a relationship.
As veteran Googlers tend to do, I’ve also spent some time reading the Julie and Julia Project blog, which is the unwitting inspiration for the book. There’s also the current Julie Powell blog to salivate over and on You Tube, there’s a trailer for THE FILM (see end of post), starring none other than Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Amy Adams as frustrated cooking-by-night-to-save-own-sanity government agency temp, Julie Powell. Now we just have to wait until it’s released on 7 August (I’m counting the days and if you know someone who can donate preview tickets to this particularly enthusiastic fan, then please please pretty please would you let me know?).
Believe it or not, you can also follow @Julia_Child on Twitter, only it’s not REALLY Julia (unless there’s a new app allowing us to tweet from beyond the grave), because she passed away in 2004, aged an astonishing 91. Following this sad date on the Child fan’s calenday, The Smithsonian was lucky enough to be given her kitchen, copper pans, units, books ‘n’ all and it’s now a crowd-drawing exhibit. (The Smithsonian has been added to my Bucket List. )
So, to sum up, unless I’m mistaken, it would seem that we’re in a mid-Julia Child revival and we just might have former government drone, Julie Powell to thank for that. Personally, I love the fact that courtesy of Powell I’ve now learned what a gimlet is and have added kattywhompus to my vocabulary.
In the meantime, here’s the trailer for the film of Julie and Julia:
It isn’t often that I find a book that makes me want to read it twice in three months, but I should have known from the review that I’d want to immediately re-read Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl:
“GARLIC AND SAPPHIRES is Ruth Reichl’s delicious and mischievous account of her time spent as an undercover restaurant critic. Reichl knows that to be a good critic you have to be anonymous. When she lands the much coveted job of the NEW YORK TIMES restaurant critic, she resorts to disguise in order to avoid the inevitable red carpet treatment.”
Have you ever heard of anything so unusual? A restaurant critic dining in disguise, then writing about her experiences as various alter egos? I love reading about food; that’s a given. But what makes this book really special is how Reichl’s disguises take her on an unexpected journey to discover aspects of herself that she hadn’t been aware of previously. We’re not talking big hat and dark glasses here; Reichl (pronounced ‘Rye-shul’)develops astoundingly three-dimensional characters, adjusting hair, make-up, style and personality to suit each. In the course of the book we meet a frumpy old lady, a come-hither siren, an elegant hippy whom everyone adores and the invisible woman. A huge amount of effort goes into pulling off each of these new personae, but it works, and Reichl successfully avoids being spotted as she gets around the Manhattan dining scene. Sometimes, in the course of her research, Reichl visits a single restaurant multiple times, as both herself and as one of her other selves (not at the same time!), allowing insightful comparisons between how she is treated depending on which of her personalities dines there. Needless to say, the resulting reviews were the subject of some controversy, especially when revered establishments lost a New York Times star or two because they treated the alter ego badly. This is a veritable rollick through gastronomic Manhattan – so much fun!
As a result of so thoroughly enjoying Garlic and Sapphires, I’ve now placed Reichl’s other culinary memoirs, Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples on my New Year’s reading list. These follow Reichl’s evolution from a New York childhood, through college at Berkeley and on to her career as a food critic. I’m also having fun devouring the odd copy of the magazine food-fest that Reichl edits, Gourmet, which is always crammed with fantastic recipes and inspiration. Check out Reichl’s pumpkin fondue recipe for some truly warming kitchen inspiration. (This said as it approaches 3pm in London, with the light fast disappearing and a particularly chilly office because the boilers failed – again - this morning.)
Btwn 5th & 6th Ave
Fax: 212-869-4398 Menu link click here.
To visit The Red Flame Coffee Shop in Midtown, Manhattan is to have the quintessential New York diner experience. Monsieur and I have visited this bastion of weekend brunch each time we’ve been in Manhattan and on each occasion we’ve left a little breathless; it’s like dining in a washing machine on a fast spin cycle, only without the dizzy spells.
I would say that you shouldn’t go to The Red Flame if you’re not prepared to wait for a table. Having said that, the wait shouldn’t be too long, such is the speed of table turnaround. This diner is especially packed on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and the all-you-can-drink coffee is practically splashed into your cup (bring a bib!) because the staff are so incredibly busy that pancakes seem to fly out of the pan and across the room – think edible frisbee.
Monsieur likes the Red Flame pancake stacks (not for the carbo-phobe) which are likely to beat you unless you have an insatiable stomach, but they’re still worth trying, especially as they come with bacon AND maple syrup. It’s an unusual combo, at least to me, but the sweet-savoury thing works well. Personally, I prefer the bagels – the classic lox and cream cheese option is simple and not too overwhelming; portion sizes are FLAMING big here.
Gastronomes won’t get much out of The Red Flame other than local atmosphere, so don’t expect truffle oil on your omelette or sculpted vegetables on the side, but the food is hearty and tasty and energising for big days in the Big Apple.
Drinks-wise, the chocolate milkshakes are worth a splurge, but don’t expect the coffee to be anything other than instant and definitely don’t look for smiley, happy service. The wait-staff don’t have time for all that schmalz. In spite of that, it’s definitely worth the time to brunch here, just for the people-watching and buzzy vibe and you certainly can’t complain about slow service.
Lastly, I have to comment on the How To Help A Choking Victim poster in a corner by the door. I know they’re a health & safety requirement in New York, but it isn’t the most appetising of wall art to be faced with whilst eating. It’s also odd how that poster sticks in my mind so that whenever I think of The Red Flame, I remember Choking Victims. You wouldn’t want to play word association games with me, that’s for sure.
Everyone who was alive when planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Centre knows where they were at the time. Seven years later, the legacy of that attack is still with us, in our actions, in our racism towards anyone who looks vaguely Middle Eastern, in our fear of flying, in our reactions to media, in our politics. Single for a Reason has a brilliant post without words today, commemorating 9-11. Click here to see Pat’s page.
Here are some photos of the World Trade Center (American spelling on purpose, anglophiles!) that I took just before Christmas 2006.
On the approach, there’s already quite a crowd, including the determined conspiracy theorists.
They must be convinced of their theories to brave the cold December day, standing for hours being booed by the patriots. Still, freedom includes self-expression, no? The scariest part is wondering if these theorists are right. It would make things so, so much worse if they are.
Scenes of that terrible day hold people in place as they stare and stare, silent, at the images in the makeshift photo gallery or reading the timeline, bit by bit.
Many folk come to this part of Manhattan for Century 21′s famous bargains. Some don’t realise they’ll be whammed with a giant graveyard cum building site across the way. Most stop and visit the WTC memorial before leaving to shop. After all, life must go on, but we should also remember.
Who could imagine the horror of completing a day’s work here?
The dead, the surviving, the blamed, the guilty, the innocent, the legends, the insidious legacy that seems nowhere near an end. I feel so bad for the good people in this world whose lives and identities have been tainted by this atrocious event, purely because they follow a particular religion or look a certain way.
Time to leave. Looking out from under cover, Manhattan’s life continues.
And later, beneath a brilliant sunset, it was hard to believe that anything like 9-11 could have happened here, or that a friend’s entire New York team (make that office) at Cantor Fitzgerald was wiped out, or that another friend due for a meeting at the WTC ran uncharacteristically late, thus saving his life, or that a petite friend who hates walking or taking the subway trudged the miles home in high, high heels, but didn’t feel her feet because she was in shock, or that a young man I once met had endured the pain of that final phone call from a WTC office from his beautiful wife, his high school sweetheart, and had to come to London to escape the thousands of daily reminders of that day, or that the emergency services would lose so many selfless and brave individuals as they tried so valiantly to save others. No one could possibly believe it. Not when Manhattan’s beauty remains. It’s all a bad, bad dream. But then we wake up…
and we’re still here. We do not give in and we do not give up. We go on.