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.
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 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.
For some time now, I’ve been promising to write a list of things to do in New York for a colleague who’ll be visiting there soon. Then I thought, better to blog it. Same result, different method. Here’s the first part:
It’s family legend that as a foetus I first kicked in New York. My parents were there because Dad had a work placement in New York for a while and Mum tagged along. I love asking her about that time. In my mind it is a different New York with a slightly faded technicolour look and lots of people wearing mini skirts, ironed hair and orange and brown striped shirts with wide collars. Inside my mother, I was coming alive. Perhaps it was New York that woke me up, with its honking yellow cabs and loud, city people. Perhaps that’s why I love the place so much.
The past couple of years, Monsieur has travelled to New York for a winter bonding session with his American colleagues. They have off-site meetings and off-site sporting fun. He has won curling contests in Mohonk (so proud!) and artfully avoided ice skating in a blizzard (Monsieur hates the cold). Then, once Action Monsieur is all actioned and bonded out, I fly across to join him for the weekend so we can have some New York fun.
For my first winter weekend spent with Monsieur in the Big Apple, the company booked us into the Roosevelt Hotel. This was a bit weird because my father used to stay there when he came to New York on business. The halls are wide, the bedrooms small, the bathrooms tired and the central heating noisily erratic, but it’s central. So central that it’s right by Grand Central Station and you can’t get any more central than that.
I love Grand Central Station. I’ve even travelled in and out of it by train when I went to visit Yale with friends. There’s something so New York about this honey stone building with its landmark clock and destination oyster bar. Once upon a time I had the oyster bar on my must-eat-here-list. Then I had a bad oyster. The poisoning was so bad that my doctor told me I could never eat oysters again because my body would remember and press the eject button. Having ejected quite enough oyster at that time, I haven’t touched one since, but I miss them terribly. A saving grace is that the Grand Central Oyster Bar doesn’t only serve oysters so I’d be perfectly safe. Today’s menu reads like a sea-lover’s dream: Maine mussels, popcorn shrimp, bouillabaisse and New England clam chowder. Bluefish, catfish, halibut and monkfish. Sea scallops, soft shell crab, fresh Maine lobster and fried Jumbo shrimp, and even though I can’t eat them myself, to read Oysters Rockefeller on a menu is to read a line of New York’s culinary poetry. Okay, Oyster Bar at Grand Central, you are on my list for next time.
Apart from the trains and the Oyster Bar, Grand Central Station has a great little shopping mall. There are gift shops and a Banana Republic, food shops and florists and hair salons… and, best of all, a food market!
Food markets are my thing. I love them. I take photos in them while Monsieur buries his head in a cookbook, trying not to be associated with that strange woman who insists on photographing fruit. I love the smells and the colours and the textures and the inspiration. I love talking to the chicken man about the best way to prepare his breasts (yes, I know how that sounds). I love the spices, the recipe cards, the ingredients I’ve yet to try, the vegetable I’ve never seen before because it isn’t popular where I live. Grand Central Market is one of these places. If you love food, you must visit. The last time I went, the fish stall had the best looking tuna burgers you can imagine – all minced yellowfin pressed into patties with a few breadcrumbs, a squeeze of lemon and tufts of fresh coriander…
Razzbuffnik will be pleased to hear that there are only two Starbucks in the entire mall, and there’s even a museum shop to keep trainspotters happy. Called The Transit Museum Gallery and Store (related to The Transit Museum in Brooklyn Heights), there’s all sorts of transport-related paraphernalia to add to your collection, alongside changing exhibitions. If I run out of my favourite face cream, there is an Oliviers & Co selling olive-based products direct from la belle France, and if you’re there on a Wednesday or Friday, you can join one of the free tours of the station to hear its fascinating history and how it has been saved, on more than one occasion, from the wrecking ball.
If you do visit Grand Central Station, stop in the main concourse and remember all those moments when this backdrop has been immortalised on film, and then, slowly, look up. It’s the Sky Ceiling, and if you know anything about astronomy, you’ll see that it’s back-to-front.