Posted by: JLG | 29 October 2015


When we left Beijing more than five years ago, one of the things we were saddest to leave was actually not a thing, but a person, our friend and personal trainer, Alpha. We became good friends with Alpha over the course of several years training with him and eventually opening a gym with him. When we moved to NZ, he saw us off at the airport and ever since he has kept in regular touch with us. When we went back to Beijing in 2011 we of course spent time with him, and when I went to Shanghai in 2013 he came down and met me.

So we were really excited when he told us that he and his wife were planning to come for a visit to New Zealand, and even more that they were going to check the place out as a possible place to emigrate. They had a bit of trouble getting their visas at first, but in the end they got the visas and began to plan their trip. A few weeks before arriving, Alpha said that they would be accompanied by two friends of theirs, one an old friend of Alpha’s wife, and the other a client of Alpha.

Their itinerary was to start off by flying into Auckland where they’d spend two or three days before flying down to Dunedin where they’d hire a car and come to Oamaru. Then, after five nights here, they would drive off to Queenstown, spend some time there, and then drive all the way to Picton (a 9-1/2 hour drive), cross the Tasman on the ferry to Wellington, and then drive up to Auckland. All started out just fine, and we enjoyed following their exploits in Auckland on Facebook. They arrived as expected on Sunday, and Alpha and Diana settled into their room (the Elizabeth) before they headed out to take their friends to their accommodation for their time in Oamaru, a backpackers a bit of a drive away. Before too long, they were back, since Diana’s friend–a well-to-do woman with houses in Beijing, Macau, France and a villa at the Great Wall–was not going to be caught dead staying in a place with a shared bathroom. So she would now take the Victoria Room, while Alpha’s friend was content to stay at the backpackers. No problem, especially since he would spend his waking hours with us and just sleep out there.

On Monday we spent the day together as planned, and in the evening, after dinner and penguins and some tea at our place, I went to bed and the friend got into their car to head to his place. Almost immediately Alpha came to find us to tell us that there had been an accident. Turns out that the friend pulled out of our driveway, turned left up the hill and somehow managed to hit the neighbour’s car with such force that he a) sheared off the front left wheel of his car, and b) forced the rear right wheel of the neighbour’s car into the passenger compartment. And incidentally the neighbour’s car was brand-new, and the neighbour is the CEO of the local district council. Of course, the rental car company cancelled their contract and banned them from hiring from them again. This of course put a bit of a damper on their plans to drive all over the South Island so on Tuesday we headed to a local travel agent (strategically choosing the one where the mayor’s wife works) to book alternative plans for them. Getting them from Queenstown to Wellington was easy enough (they’ll fly rather than take an arduous drive followed by a rough sea crossing) and we even managed to hire them a car (with a different company), but getting them from Oamaru to Queenstown was proving a challenge. There being no public transport option that met with their approval, the solution I came up with was to drive them myself in a van that I hired to let us all be able to get around together, with them falling all over themselves to promise that they’ll pay for my room in Queenstown (I’m going to stay with them to help them get around…) and all my other expenses. I’m actually looking forward to it, but I’m sure it’ll provide fodder for a follow-up post…

Posted by: JLG | 17 October 2015

New Rooms Unveiled!

At long last, after years of planning and months of work, we are finally able to reveal the newly expanded and renovated rooms in our Annex building. To recap, the Annex is a stone building located across the courtyard from the main house, and while it was built at the same time as the rest of the house (in 1889) it suffered a fire in 1925 and was massively rebuilt in the 1990s, thus causing it not to be protected by the historic covenants that govern the rest of the property. Thus we were able to do a bit of construction there, as long as we did not do any digging, since digging would require the expensive oversight of Heritage NZ, who would send an archeologist to make sure we did not unearth any artefacts in the course of our work.

Work started in June, taking off the roof from the ground-floor cinderblock extension that would be the base on which our new build would stand, and then knocking out the bits of wall that would provide access between the existing parts of the rooms and the new parts. Then the framing went up, followed by the roof, and once things were enclosed they started to work on the interior. The interior walls went up in early September, followed quickly by plumbing, electrics, and the other bits and pieces. By late September it looked pretty much finished, though to comply with the district council’s building codes, we also had to put drywall up on the walls in the downstairs section and make it fire-safe, thus accelerating our plan to convert that space into a number of rooms to use for storage, gardening and J2’s hobbies.

Even while under construction we managed to bring a few groups in to see the rooms, including a few travel agents who had come by on site inspection visits. Each of them was very impressed by the size, design and amenities of the rooms, and earlier this week, after sending out photos of the new rooms (which you’ll soon see below) to some of our key travel agent partners around the world, quite a few immediately asked to upgrade their guests from the “inside” rooms to these new “outside” rooms. So early signs are that this will prove to have been a worthwhile undertaking.

So, without further ado, here are the rooms, with both “before” and “after” shots:

Here is the Park Room:

Park Room BEFORE

Park Room BEFORE

Park Room Bedroom

Park Room Bedroom AFTER

Park Room Bedroom

Park Room Bedroom AFTER

Park Room Ensuite

Park Room Ensuite AFTER

As you can see, the room is much larger, and while we do not have a photo of the previous ensuite, I assure you that the new one is not only far bigger, offering both a shower and a bathtub, but it also has lovely views over the garden and park beyond.

Nest, the Nest Room:

Nest Room BEFORE

Nest Room BEFORE

Nest Room Bedroom

Nest Room Bedroom AFTER

Nest Room

Nest Room AFTER

Nest Room Ensuite

Nest Room Ensuite AFTER

Nest Room Ensuite

Nest Room Ensuite AFTER

The Nest Room is also much larger, but still retains the sunken bedroom that had made this room so popular with honeymooners and others looking for a romantic room. While the sleigh bed is now gone (it is now being used as the bed that our personal guests can use rather than occupying a guest room), it has been replaced by a new super-king bed that splits into twins when needed (all the Annex rooms now have this feature). And again the ensuite is far larger, and has great views of the ocean and the mountains.

Finally, the Garden Room:

Garden Room BEFORE

Garden Room BEFORE

Garden Room Bedroom

Garden Room Bedroom AFTER

Garden Room

Garden Room AFTER

Garden Room

Garden Room AFTER

Garden Room Sitting Area

Garden Room Sitting Area AFTER

Garden Room Ensuite

Garden Room Ensuite AFTER

The Garden Room fulfils the maxim that the “last shall be first”, since it has gone from our “ugly duckling” room, which was so small that we actively discouraged travel agents from booking it, and almost always upgraded people out of it if they had booked it and our other rooms were not full. Now it has by far the largest living area of all our rooms, with an enormous space occupied by the California king bed (poached from the former Park Room) at one end, and a sitting area at the other. Like the other two rooms, this one also has a satellite television–the only rooms in the lodge with this feature–and a Nespresso machine in addition to the former tea kettle, and the ensuite (which, it has to be admitted, is the smallest of the three, and has no great views) has the same bath and shower and heated tile floors of the other rooms.

There is still work to be done to complete the rooms. You may have noticed that the Nest and Garden Rooms have no curtains in these images (the Garden Room curtains have now been installed, and we’re just waiting for the Nest curtains to be finished) and the shelves that will go above the tea/coffee areas have to be made, stained and installed, and the closets that have been built into the corridor connecting the rooms have to have their doors painted etc, so more photos from when this work is done will be forthcoming!

What do you think of the outcome?

Posted by: JLG | 23 September 2015

Our Wee Project

I just realised that I have not written in at all about our little project back at the lodge. In case you’re out of the loop, back in June prior to my departure from NZ for my US trip, J2 and I dismantled the three rooms in the Oamaru stone annex building at the rear of the lodge in preparation for the builders to come in and work on turning those three not-overly-large rooms into something more befitting a luxury lodge. Throughout my time away, J2 kept me abreast of developments on the project, from the breaking through of the outside wall, to the removal of the roof over the portion of the building that the extension would sit on top of, and to the raising of the walls. By the time I returned, eight weeks of work had already passed, together with a few of the Council inspections that are part and parcel of the building process here. Most of those inspections were merely routine, but a few turned up some issues that required a rethink of the project, such as the requirement to put emergency lighting over all steps in the rooms, fully lining the space underneath the project (which we planned to line one day, to make it more useful as storage and work space, but we had hoped to put off until this project was long-since paid for), and adding fire exit lighting.

When I returned, most of the interior walls were still going up, and the windows had just gone in, but progress went very quickly, despite several workers taking numerous sick days. J2 has been an absolute workhorse throughout, working late into the evening and making sure that progress was kept up. A few weeks ago the drywall went up, but as a cost-saving move J2 agreed to do all the finishing of the walls, including the plastering and the painting. That work was all done (we thought) by Monday of this week, but then yesterday the glass people came to reinstall the shower doors, and in doing so they realised that there was no wood in place to screw the hinges into, so a portion of the drywall had to be removed, a 2×4 installed, and the drywall put back in place.

Last night the electrician came to wire up the place, so we now have light throughout the building. Coming from a family in the lighting industry, the lighting of these rooms has proved to be an especially trying challenge, since the range available here is not quite what I had hoped for. Also, technology has moved way forward in lighting and the thing nowadays is LED, which provides wonderful light economically (barring the initial investment, which can be high) but not always in forms that suit a high-end environment. We managed to find nice lights however, and even make use of some old Glucksman Lighting Product lamps, that I hope will give the rooms a nice ambience.

This morning the bathroom vanities arrived (not a moment too soon!), and the plumbers began the work of installing the toilets, sinks, mixers, and heaters. We have ordered granite from the local monumentalist to serve as counters for the tea-and-coffee areas in the rooms, and we have found some Portuguese bedspreads to cover the new super-king beds, and high-quality bed linen to go underneath. The carpeting is due to go in next Tuesday, so the plan is for J2 to sand down the wooden portion of the floors on Wednesday and refinish them on Thursday and Friday, so we should be done just in time for a travel agent from the US to come and visit on October 6.

Pictures are worth 1000 words of course, so here you can see the project from start to current status. What do you think?

Posted by: JLG | 9 August 2015

Los Angeles and Home!

As mentioned in the last post, Los Angeles is not exactly my favourite place in the world, and I could easily live the rest of my life without ever going back there. Nonetheless, one of my favourite people in the world, Kris, lives there, and she is always generous about letting us stay at her house when we visit, so that makes visiting the city actually rather pleasant.

As much as I was looking forward to seeing Kris, it was not quite enough to make me actually enjoy the experience of dealing with LAX. I had booked a rental car through a company that only tells you the name of the rental agency after you commit to the booking, and I had never heard of the company I was stuck with. Waiting for the shuttle bus at the arrival terminal was my first indication that this was not one of the better car hire companies, since dozens of shuttles for every other rental company passed by before even one for mine came, so I gave the company a call to find out what’s going on. The agent basically told me to be patient, and before I got a chance to ask if there was an alternative way of reaching them he actually hung up on me! Then when I finally got there the choice of cars was abysmal but at least I only would have to drive it for four days.

I had a meeting the afternoon of my arrival, so I headed there straight from the airport, letting my GPS guide the way. Unexpectedly, I wound up driving through several streets that are on the “tours of the stars’ homes” routes, so I had to dodge slow-moving open-topped tourist coaches as I drove along, but I eventually got there and had a very good meeting with a very boutique agency. After that I headed to Kris’ place, waited for her to get home from work, and then we went out for a Mexican dinner (natch!) before jet lag caught up with me and I called it an early night at 9pm (though midnight for me).

During the day on Thursday and Friday I mostly occupied myself either meeting with people or getting to my meetings with people, since traffic in LA is pretty abhorrent. But luckily for me the meetings all went really well, and everyone is upbeat about the prospects for West Coast travel to New Zealand this coming year. I did have one other thing to do though while in LA. My niece had seen a thing on TV about a restaurant in Studio City that makes a dish that she wanted to try to replicate, but she needed some intel on its consistency and components, so I said I’d pay it a visit. That was before I realised that Studio City is miles away from anywhere I had to be, and as I mentioned before, dealing with LA traffic is not my favourite thing to do. But my love for my niece is endless, so off I went on Friday. When I got to the restaurant, I told the waiter (who was one of the best-looking people I have ever seen, and is clearly a model or actor waiting to be discovered) that I was a man on a mission to taste one and only one item on the menu (since I had a lunch meeting later), and he was extremely accommodating. The dish, a hoecake with maple syrup, chopped scallions and flaky sea salt, was not really all that great, since it’s basically just a corny pancake, but I was able to get my niece the info she wanted, and that’s a priceless commodity.

When I got to LA Kris asked me what things I wanted to do, and I casually mentioned that a friend had told me that Spamalot was playing at the Hollywood Bowl. That sounded appealing to her, so she ended up getting us tickets, and we went on Friday. I had never been to the Bowl, so I was doubly excited, since I am a big Monty Python and had not yet seen this show. The deal with the Bowl is you generally eat there, either bringing a picnic or buying something at one of a number of places that sell food (and wine) for consumption at your seats. The seats themselves are just wooden benches, none too comfortable, so people bring cushions to soften the blow. But the shows are first-rate, and this one was no exception, especially since they enlisted a cast of big names (including Christian Slater, Warwick Davies, Craig Robinson and Eric Idle) who were excellent and clearly were having a blast themselves.

On Saturday we decided to treat ourselves to lunch at Langers, the famed Jewish delicatessen in the heart of a very Mexican neighbourhood, and then head to the Getty Museum for an afternoon of art. This was my first visit to the Getty, which is housed in a beautiful set of buildings on a hill overlooking the city and the ocean, with several interesting special exhibits in addition to a range of permanent displays and a beautiful garden. On Sunday we kept close to home, visiting the Mar Vista farmers’ market in the morning and then babysitting Kris’ friend’s two-year-old newly adopted daughter for the afternoon while the friend edited a commercial she’s working on. Walking around Venice on a hot, sunny day was probably not the best thing to do, especially without sun protection, and sure enough I got a bit of a burn, but nothing too terrible.

This ended up being a really fun visit to LA, and it was a great way to cap off my visit to the US and Canada. Big thanks to all my friends and family who put me up these several weeks, and looking forward to my return next year, and to returning the favour when you visit me!

Posted by: JLG | 9 August 2015

Last Days in NYC

On my last two days in NYC before heading to the last stop on my trip, Los Angeles, the weather gods decided that the city could use a bit more heat and humidity, so whatever time I would spend traipsing around on the streets would be sure to be a bit stickier and ickier than my visit had so far been. Luckily I didn’t have that many more things to do, so I could manage to keep somewhat out of the heat for the most part. A friend from Wellington had sent me an email over the weekend, asking, if my luggage would accommodate it and I could locate it, I could bring him back a bottle of something called Bonal Gentiane-Quina. The friend is something of a cocktail aficionado, and has generously offered to concoct a “house cocktail” for the lodge, and he’s something of a bitters fan, so I assumed that this was some sort of bitters, and would probably come in a small bottle with a dropper cap. A quick Google search revealed that I was close–it is in fact a French apéritif along the lines of Campari or Fernet-Branca, and awfully hard to come by in New Zealand–but it comes in a 750ml bottle. Still, I had not much better to do, and I still had two days left on my all-you-can-stomach NYC transit pass, so I headed into the city to visit the Mecca of any self-respecting drinker, Astor Wines & Spirits, down near NYU.

As though to prepare me for my departure from the city, the powers that be decided to much around with the IRT subway this day, causing all downtown local trains to run express between Grand Central and Brooklyn Bridge. To get to local stops, such as Astor Place, you would have to overshoot and take an uptown local from the express station “below” your chosen destination. Astor Place, of course, is four stations uptown from Brooklyn Bridge, so I’d not only have to way overshoot the stop, but then I’d have to wait for an uptown train to come and then ride it for four stops if I were to do as the MTA gods instructed, or I could just get off at 14th Street and walk south for one stop. Despite the heat and humidity, I decided that was a better option. Having been to Astor Wines many, many times, I more or less walked there by autopilot, but was caught off-guard when I got to its location and found that in its place was a Walgreens drugstore! I couldn’t imagine that it was out of business, so I got on my phone and found that it had moved a few blocks further south along Lafayette Street, a short walk away.

Astor Wines has expanded a bit in their new location, and the new layout is a lot easier to navigate than the old one. One thing that has not changed is the breadth of their offering, and they remain competitively priced. Sure enough, they had the Bonal, and for only $19, but they had only two bottles left, which I took to be a sign. Up until now, I had only bought one bottle of alcohol to bring back to NZ, a bottle of Zacapa rum, which our friends Mike and Naomi turned us onto a few years ago and which I frequently choose as my tipple of choice when sitting with guests after dinner. Zacapa is essentially unavailable in NZ, and when it is it is very, very expensive, so I usually try to get a bottle when out of the country (and it’s our standard answer when visitors ask what they can bring us from overseas). I had not planned on bringing much more than that back with me, but now that there was the Bonal to contend with, I figured I might as well fill a box. Astor does not sell suitable boxes, but on a previous trip to NYC we discovered the Spirited Shipper, a company that sells specialised cardboard boxes designed to carry wine and spirits securely as checked-in luggage. Having learned my lesson from my walk to Astor, I phoned them to make sure they are still around and in their same location, and happily for me they were, and they’re not far from the subway, to boot. So with a new option to buy, I bought not just the two bottles of Bonal but also a bottle of Zaya rum (which Mike and Naomi also introduced to us) and a bottle of Amaro Lucano, an Italian aperitivo that I also enjoy sipping and that is not sold in NZ at all (to my knowledge).

For lunch I made myself a booking at Craftbar, a restaurant owned by Tom Colicchio (of Top Chef fame) that was participating in NYC restaurant week. Their entire lunch menu was available under the $25 promotion, so I had a wealth of choice, but in the end it was pretty easy to make my selection since a) they had soft-shell crab on the menu (in the form of a sandwich), and b) they had a few things on the menu that I thought could easily be adapted for use at the lodge. So for my starter I had a lovely salad of beets with watermelon, pistachios, cucumbers and yogurt, followed by the soft-shell crab sandwich (the crab was great, but the bun was a bit too heavy for the delicate crab), and a “pavlova” for dessert. My understanding of pavlovas has evolved since moving to NZ, the home of the famed dessert, and this one was more of a meringue than a true pavlova, but it was still very tasty, and the berries and corn custard that accompanied it were delicious.

I made it to the box store very easily, but had not considered that the box would be a bit unwieldy to carry, together with four heavy bottles of liquor, since it comes unassembled. To get back to my mom’s from the store involved taking a bus and the subway, and walking a few blocks, too, and doing so encumbered by heavy and awkward packages, in the high heat and humidity, was not exactly fun, but knowing that I was doing my friend a huge favour made it all worthwhile…

My last lunch in NYC was booked at Nobu downtown, which was also taking part in restaurant week. Having visited Nobu in several other cities, and having enjoyed the meals I had at each of them, I was really looking forward to this lunch. The meal itself was fantastic, but the arrogance of the model wannabe who was responsible for showing me to my seat was a bit much, and put a bit of a damper on the experience. My menu consisted of a sashimi salad with Matsuhisa sauce; uni tempura; seared Arctic char with pickled vegetables; and Earl Grey crème brûlée. (Normally I would not order crème brûlée at a restaurant, since mine is always better, but I had faith that Nobu would do it well, and I was not disappointed.)

Before heading back to mom’s for the evening on my last full day in NYC I stopped in midtown to meet up with my goddaughter, Alisa (whom I had seen during the weekend at her parents’ house), since she wanted to help us with some PR for the lodge. So we met near her office and I took her to Magnolia Bakery for a touristy cupcake while we chatted about what she can help us do and she asked for some godfatherly advice (which I supplemented, of course, with the old standby to “leave the gun and take the cannoli”). I also stopped at William Greenberg’s bakery at The Plaza to buy some black-and-white cookies to take to LA and to NZ, further adding to my packing woes for the flight across country.

I wanted to spend my last evening in town with my mom, and she had chosen a new Italian restaurant as the venue for our farewell dinner. The meal was great, but it was even better to have some time for just mom and me to culminate the more than two weeks I got to spend with her.

One of the best things about the way I organised this trip was that it involved an absolute minimum of air travel. Other than the big flights between NZ and the US, the only other flight I had to contend with was one flight from NYC to Los Angeles on Virgin America. I had thought, since it was an early flight (departing at 9am) that JFK would be virtually deserted when I checked in at 7am, but boy was I wrong! The place was a madhouse, with thousands of people lining up to check in for their flights and go through security, but the wait at Virgin America was pretty short. When I got to the check-in agent, I put my William Greenberg bag on the counter, which lead to a friendly banter between the agent and me about giving her the contents, and I think that friendly exchange is responsible for her deciding not to charge me for one of my bags being overweight (woot!). With that bit of good luck my visit to NYC ended on a very positive note, and I now had Los Angeles–not one of my favourite cities to visit–to look forward to.

Posted by: JLG | 28 July 2015

New York City Part Six! Eating and reunions!

IMG_0939I am pleased to report that I suffered no ill effects from my wild day on Friday, not even as much as a bout of dry mouth or a headache. So when my niece and sister came down to Forest Hills to join mom and me for a traditional dimsum lunch at a nearby place, East Ocean Palace. This is a place that we’ve been visiting for years, and my sister and niece even sometimes come here with mom in my absence, so it’s clearly not just that I drag them here. Still, it was really nice of them to tell me that, while they enjoy going there anytime, it’s a whole better experience with me. Maybe that’s because I have a bit of a ritual when we go there, including making sure that I get a quality pot of tea instead of the swill (aka jasmine) that they normally foist on non-Chinese diners. I also usually end up conversing with the cart ladies in Chinese, generating much amusement and the inevitable effusive praise of my language skills from the servers. I’m not sure that we had any items on this visit that they wouldn’t have had without me, other than perhaps the chicken feet (I don’t think my family are fans, though they gave it a go). It was a lovely little reunion of our tiny little family before I leave the area, and I enjoyed it immensely.

After dropping mom off at home, my sister, niece and I drove into Corona for a visit to the Lemon Ice King of Corona, only the second of my visit to NYC. This time, however, I stuck to the lemon ice, while my niece and sister opted for piña colada and watermelon, respectively. The reason for this little stop was that they were dropping me off at a nearby restaurant to meet with

Diane and Debbie with their ices

Diane and Debbie with their ices

my old friends Robert and Katya, whom I know from my days working in Moscow in the early 1990s. They now have two grown kids, a daughter who is also my goddaughter, and a son. They were at this restaurant with Robert’s dad and other family members, all of whom remembered me from get togethers from years and years ago, so we had a fun chat over espresso and cantuccini before the party broke up and I headed up to Westchester to spend the evening and overnight at Robert & Katya’s house.

Despite a number of years having passed since we last saw each other, Robert, Katya and I fell immediately back into our old friendship, as though we had last got together last week. Sure, we had to catch each other up on some things, but when you are good enough friends, those grooves are well-worn, and you fall back into them easily. Since we had all had big lunches, we thought we’d just have a light dinner, but when I accompanied Katya and my goddaughter to the store, we wound up buying the makings of a huge feast (Katya’s mother is also in town from Russia, and their son is a big kid, so I guess definitions of a ‘light dinner’ may vary depending on your frame of reference).

When we got back from the store, I then went out with Robert to their local liquor store, which was doing an absinthe tasting. Robert could not believe that I had never had absinthe, so this was a must-do, he reckoned. As a fan of pastis, which in fact I had just had last week at one of my meetings, I enjoy the flavour of liquorice liqueurs, and was happy to sample the three varieties on offer. The first one we sampled was Vieux Pontarlier, and was easily my favourite, very smooth with a not-too-sweet flavour. The second was made for Marilyn Manson, a singer whose songs I do not much like and whose taste in absinthe I like even less. The last was a Swiss brand whose name I don’t recall, despite having liked it almost as much as the first one. Robert then noticed that they had an open bottle of one of his favourite bourbons (we used to drink rather a lot of bourbon back in Moscow, since he had Jim Beam as a client), and it was extremely good, but they had no bottles for sale (thank goodness).

Mozzarella & Tomato salad that I made for dinner

Mozzarella & Tomato salad that I made for dinner

Dinner was tremendous fun, sitting outside on their deck and sipping a fantastic bottle of Italian wine that they brought back from their recent trip to Tuscany, reconnecting with my goddaughter, who is now in public relations and eager to help spread the word of our lodge to the right people in the US, and playing with their three dogs. It just doesn’t get better than this!

In the morning, Robert, who wakes up early, was eager to make Sunday breakfast for everyone, and what a spread it turned out to be! Several packages of bacon were cooked up, followed by a huge batch of pancakes, and then Russian-style fried eggs with ham. I think he’d have kept cooking more stuff if I had let him. Unfortunately, I had to leave rather early to catch a train to head into town, since I was meeting another old friend for lunch in Chinatown.

Erika and I studied in Leningrad in 1985 and when we returned to the US we stayed very close for years. She got married, had twins, got divorced, and we saw each other less and less, but like Robert and Katya, we were such good friends that whenever we get together it’s as though no time has passed. Unfortunately, the fact that her kids are now 17 years old makes it hard to pretend that no time has passed… We went to a dimsum place (yes, dimsum twice in a row!) that was the first I had ever visited, way back in the 1970s, long before dimsum (aka yumcha) was popular outside the Cantonese community. Thank goodness the place has undergone a bit of a renovation, since in the old days it had no air conditioning and it was not the cleanest place you’d ever like to visit (my parents turned up their noses at going here when I introduced them to dimsum, preferring a more sanitary looking place that is now long gone). Our lunch was fantastic, with a tremendous amount of laughter, jokes at everyone’s expense, and the realisation by the daughter that her fencing instructor (who was also my fencing instructor back in college) is a distant relation of mine.

This was a stupendous way to spend a weekend in New York, and one that I hope I’ll get to recreate before too many years pass.

Pearl River Mart

Pearl River Mart

Friday was another beautiful day in New York, with sunny skies, moderate temperatures, and just beckoning me to venture out and enjoy the city to the max. I had a meeting to get to in the afternoon, so that meant I had to be dressed professionally (not that I would be caught dead in the city in shorts and a t-shirt anyway), but the temperatures were moderate enough to make that a comfortable outfit. My friend Naomi had asked me to check out a shop for her in SoHo, so I made that my first stop of the day. I had never heard of Pearl River Mart, but I sure wish I had, since this is a great place for gifts, or to outfit an apartment, since they have a bewildering assortment of beautiful Chinese and Japanese dishes, serving ware, fabrics, incense, etc etc etc, all at very low prices. Unfortunately, I had little interest in shipping yet another box back to NZ, so I had no openings to buy, and the landlord has tripled their rent so the shop will close by December, but they may relocate, so if you’re interested, keep an eye on their website.

Before I could move too far away from Pearl River Mart, Naomi suggested I check out the NY branch of Spin, the Chinese ceramics company whose shops in Beijing and Shanghai used to be regular haunts of ours, supplying us with gifts for friends and family whenever we needed an interesting piece at a reasonable price. The SoHo branch, not surprisingly, is a lot more expensive than the ones in China, but the pieces are the same, and the salesperson was very welcoming, especially when he found out that we use their plates at the lodge (he even asked me to send him a photo, which he’d share on their social media and link to our website).

At La Esquina

At La Esquina

It was now lunchtime, so I headed over to Kenmare Street to visit a place that my friend Steve recommended, a tiny Mexican diner called La Esquina (“The Corner”) that serves highly regarded tacos, tortas and other items. Not being a real fan of Mexican food, I did not really know what or how to order, so I just ordered a taco and a torta, both of which were tasty enough, but they were far from enough to satisfy my appetite. Not really wanting more of this, I considered my options. I still had three hours before my meeting, so there was plenty of time to have a sit-down lunch. I realised that I was not too far away from one of my favourite places in town, the Roman-style trattoria Lupa, so I started walking in that direction, giving them a quick call to make sure they would have a seat.

As luck would have it, Lupa not only had a table for me, but it was also participating in NYC’s Restaurant Week, so they were offering a $25 menu of three courses (and American Express had sent me a thing last week, giving me $5 off on up to four restaurant week meals, making it just $20), and it looked very appealing. They were also offering a wine pairing with the menu at just $20, so I went for that, too. The starter I chose was a delicious antipasto of marinated baby octopus with cucumber and almonds, which they served with a beautiful prosecco; this I followed with the pork arista with a mustard of plums and sautéed kale, together with a bright, fruity red wine; and finally I had a refreshing dessert of ricotta with fennel pollen honey and a glass of Moscato. It was a great lunch, just what the doctor ordered, and I was able to enjoy it at a relaxed pace.



I took the subway to my meeting, which I was 100% sure was at 750 Third Avenue. But when I got to the building, just five minutes before the appointment was due to begin, it turned out that I was mistaken, and I was supposed to be at 950 Third Avenue, a good 10 blocks away. Not wanting to run 10 blocks and arrive sweaty, and not having the time to wait for a bus or subway, I took a cab, and immediately got caught in a traffic jam, so I didn’t arrive there until five minutes after we were to have started. Considering that it took three years to get this meeting, that they were only giving me a thirty minute meeting time, and that we just had our first guests from them, I was very concerned about starting this meeting off on the wrong foot, so I sent them a note from the cab saying I was stuck in traffic, and when I arrived they were completely understanding about my tardiness. They were also not concerned about limiting my time to just 30 minutes, and we ended up sitting together for a good hour or so, and the meeting was very positive. Another of their agents will be attending Luxperience in Sydney in September, so I met her and we promised to select each other for a pre-booked appointment.


Stirred Bird, Booker & Dax

With that out of the way, it now just after 4pm and I had no other plans for the day. Nothing much appealed to me in the area I was in–Midtown on the East Side–so I decided to make my way to the East Village, a good 50 blocks (4 km/2.5 miles) south, where there were a couple of bars I wanted to check out. I thought it would be nice to amble south, stopping in if I found anywhere interesting, and just taking my time to get where I was going. I am normally a pretty fast walker, so walking slowly did not come naturally, but I managed to take about 90 minutes to get to my first stop, a bar called Booker & Dax on E13th Street near Second Avenue. The bar is owned by Dave Arnold and David Chang; the former is a blogger and podcaster who answers people’s cooking questions and dabbles in modernist cooking, while the latter is the chef-owner of the Momofuku empire of restaurants. The bar was busy when I got there, but I got a seat readily, taking a stool at the bar where I could watch the bartender at work. The menu of cocktails has lots of only-at-this-bar drinks, many of which involve house-made infusions and other concoctions. I chose the “Stirred Bird”, made with blackstrap, Jamaican rum, Campari and pineapple juice, a very tasty mixture that had the benefit of having a bitter element that acted as a very good aperitivo to get me ready for dinner.

At Robata-ya

At Robata-ya

I was surprised that this part of New York, which in the old days was a haven for Ukrainians and burn-outs, is now home to a lot of interesting-looking Japanese restaurants in addition to the hip cocktail bars. I chose one of these as my dining spot, a place called Robata-ya, which turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. Once you enter the restaurant, you find yourself in a space that could easily have been in Tokyo, with a large counter area with about 20 seats or so forming an irregular U around a pair of cooks who are responsible for preparing most of what is served. There is also another seating area at the rear with Western-style tables, but I did not venture back there. As a traditional robata restaurant, the majority of the food served here is grilled at that counter by the two yukata-clad cooks, with the waiters (not all of whom were Japanese) calling out the guests’ orders in Japanese across the restaurant, just like you’d see anywhere in Japan. The counter area had most of what they had available that day on display, with some beautiful mushrooms, fresh vegetables and meats to choose from. I ordered four items–shishito peppers; eryngi mushrooms; duck breast; and a salad of wakame, cucumber and crab with a light vinaigrette. Keeping with the tradition, I decided to enjoy a carafe of Dassai 50 nigori sake with my meal, an unusual variety of sake that is kind of milky-looking with a sweet taste that went really well with the dishes I ordered.

Death & Co Door

Death & Co Door

When I finished my dinner, I moved on to bar #2, a place with the imposing name “Death & Co.” The name derives from an anti-alcohol cartoon from the Prohibition Era, in which alcohol was depicted as being “Death & Co”. The bar is a bit like an old-fashioned speakeasy, with a barely-marked heavy door. When I entered, I encountered a black fabric curtain, and as I parted the curtain I was accosted by a burly bouncer who I could not quite tell if he was talking to me or not (he was), and whether he was trying to get me to step back out or not (he was). Apparently he needed to card me (!), which immediately bumped him up to the top of my list of favourite people. But he burst my bubble by giving my ID only the most cursory of glances, as if to say that he knew there was no way in the world that I was underage. My cocktail here was called “Fistful of Dollars” and comprised Old Granddad, Dolin Vermouth #2, lemon juice, Cointreau, Campari and Bitter Truth aromatic bitters. I did not like this one as much as the Stirred Bird at Booker & Dax, but it was still tasty, and I enjoyed soaking in the atmosphere here.

Next stop was a bit of dessert (I skipped it at the restaurant). Since The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop had one of its outlets just a block away, I could hardly pass up the opportunity to visit, and by going in the evening, I had less of a wait to contend with. I opted for their Rocky Roadhouse cone, with chocolate ice cream, marshmallows, and toasted almonds. Like all their treats, I enjoyed this one a lot, though perhaps not as much as the Salty Pimp, with its contrast between creamy vanilla ice cream and salted caramel. Next time…



Last stop of the evening was one that I came close to skipping, but I decided I had come this far, I could hardly quit now. Please Don’t Tell (aka PDT) turned out to be the most interesting of the three, if only because of the novel way you gain access to it. PDT, like the previous two bars, came to my attention through its cookbook (Booker & Dax’s book is called Liquid Intelligence; while PDT and Death & Co’s books are eponymous), and its the closest to a speakeasy in style, since there is absolutely no sign on the street to indicate that it’s there. Instead, when you go to their address you see only a divey hot dog restaurant with video games along the right-hand wall. But on the left-hand wall there’s an old phone booth, and if you go into the phone booth (it’s unclear if the phone is functional) you’ll notice a false wall at its back, behind which a receptionist is waiting to take your name and either tell you how long a wait you’ll have, or let you in. When I arrived there were three or four couples waiting to get in (I have heard of people waiting 90 minutes to get in), but when I presented myself as a solo drinker, I was shown right in. The interior of the bar area is very dark, much like Death & Co., so I had to let me eyes get accustomed to the lack of light to be able to peruse the menu. The drink I gravitated to was the Hanami, which from what I could see was made with sake, plum brandy and St Germain, and yet was not too sweet. It went down smoothly, and from my perch at the bar I was able to watch the two bartenders ply their craft. Neither of them was a showman bartender like you see in some movies, but they took their work seriously, and made their cocktails with considerable care.

Surprisingly, after a day that saw me consume three glasses of wine, three cocktails and a small carafe of sake, I did not feel excessively incapacitated as I made my way from PDT to the subway for the ride back to my mom’s. And not only that, but despite the considerable mixing of alcohols, I did not suffer from so much as a headache the next morning!

IMG_0759The first weekend of my visit to NYC began the way all good weekends in NYC begin, with the reading of the Sunday New York Times. It used to bother me that some of the Sunday paper would be delivered to home subscribers on Saturday, including the magazine section, the arts section and other non-news-related sections, but now I see it as bolstering the traditionally very thin Saturday paper. I did not have a busy day planned this day, sticking instead close to mom’s place for the majority of the day, so having the paper to read was a welcome activity.

For lunch, we went out to dinner with mom’s friend Dorothy, who used to be our neighbour a few buildings over when we lived in Rego Park, and her daughter, Debbie, visiting from Buffalo. Both mom and Dorothy use a wheeled walker, and while Debbie’s car has a nice-sized trunk, getting the two walkers to cohabit in there was an exercise in engineering and spatial relationships that would puzzle the greatest minds in the industry. Still, we managed to make it work. They had planned to go to London Lennie, the famed seafood restaurant that usually figures in my NYC visits, but they don’t open till 4pm, so we made a quick (well, not really so quick…) decision to change to an Italian place, located not too far away. There we had a very nice meal, marred only by the occasional wail by a nearby young child, which appeared to grate on the ears of the adults far more than on Debbie or me (and if you know how fond I am of wailing young children, you’ll have some idea of what their reactions were like).

In the evening, my good friend Jeff came by for a visit with mom before he and I headed out for Chinese dinner in Flushing. Jeff works for CBS News, and is on Obama duty, so he came up to NYC as part of the entourage that followed the President as he took one of his daughters up for a fun weekend in conjunction with a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee. Jeff can always be relied upon for good stories, and he did not disappoint this time. In Flushing he and I did a sort of restaurant-crawl, grazing at a couple of choice spots (including one where the noodles were such a tangle that it just about exhausted our chopstick skills as we tried to create two portions).

Dominique Ansel Kitchen

Dominique Ansel Kitchen

On Sunday the weather was promised to be a lot hotter than the past few days, which stands to reason, since it was a day when I’d be wandering the streets of Manhattan with an overnight bag, since I was meeting one friend for lunch, and then dining out with another, who was also putting me up for the night. By as early as 10:30 it was already hazy, hot and humid (the terrible trio that usually besets the US Northeast at this time of year), but I was not to be deterred.

I was to meet my friend for lunch at Chelsea Market for a Cambodian sandwich at a branch of Num Pang, the little chain that I discovered last year, so I figured I’d take the subway to a spot a few stations south of there and work my way toward lunch while wandering the streets of the West Village. But just as I came out of the subway my lunch companion phoned to advise that she had returned from her business trip to India with (gasp!!) food poisoning, and would have to postpone. Thus freed of any time constraints, I was able to wander at leisure, but the heat and humidity were so oppressive that before long I decided I needed a respite. At just about that moment I realised I was just a block or so away from Dominique Ansel Kitchen, the bakery-café that became famous a few years ago as the home of the “cronut”, a croissant-donut hybrid that fostered mile-long lines of salivating foodies and countless imitations around the world. I was not about to try a cronut, of course, but a quick perusal of their photographic menu led me to decide that their pain au chocolat looked interesting, so I joined the very short queue and placed an order.

The seating area inside the bakery is reminiscent of the stands at an amphitheatre, with tiered rows of seating delineated by little cushions. Since people occupy the lower level first, getting to the upper levels necessitates climbing over people and their food, which I was not keen to do. Luckily for me, a spot on the lower level opened up while I waited for my order to be ready, so I snapped it up. After about 10 minutes of waiting, my cappuccino and pastry were delivered to me. I had concluded that the longish wait was made necessary by their determination to prepare the pastry order fresh, or at least to warm it up or something. Alas, that did not appear to be the case, since the pastry that came to me–bearing only a passing resemblance to the one on their menu–was neither fresh, nor warm, nor particularly enjoyable. Instead of being what you are probably imagining to yourself, assuming you’re familiar with the traditional pain au chocolat, this was a round of croissant pastry, the centre of which was filled with an unctuous buttery substance, into which a number of shards of chocolate were haphazardly stabbed. This highly architectural concoction was interesting to look at, but very difficult to eat, and it was nearly impossible to manage to get any chocolate in the same mouthful as the pastry. The buttery stuff was also really awful, and kind of gelatinous (and not in a good way), so after consuming about a half of it I concluded that nothing about this experience was pleasurable, and that it was preferable to waste the money than to waste the calories, so I left the remaining bit untouched as I abandoned the place. (The fact that such a large amount was uneaten was remarked upon by the people sitting next to me, who probably wondered what the hell was wrong with me.) The moral of the story: just because a place is popular with the gliterati of food fashion does not mean it is actually any good.

As I walked further north from that horrible experience, I was distracted from my ponderings over the experience, and my eventual scathing review that I’d post on Yelp, by encounters with one group of visitors after another, all seemingly lost and in need of assistance. In each case, I was able to provide the help they needed, and in two of those cases I got to do it in French, which surprised the tourists no end. Eventually I made it to Chelsea Market, where I decided I’d have my Num Pang fix solo. Just like last year, the sandwich this time was stupendous, cheap, and just the right size. And just like last year, I timed my arrival perfectly, since while I got in without waiting in a line, by the time I was finished the line was dozens of people long.

Oysters at Chelsea Market

Oysters at Chelsea Market

Chelsea Market has become a really popular spot over the years, and has several interesting shops with a good range of food-related products on offer. Bowery Kitchen Supply outpost has a huge assortment of cookware, generally at competitive prices, and here I finally found the square mousse ring I had been looking for. The Filling Company offers interesting olive oil and balsamic vinegar infusions, all available for tasting, including a pomegranate balsamic vinegar that I thought would be a good addition to our pantry. The outlet of Posman Books has an eclectic selection of books, including a lot of NYC-focused, and food-related books, that makes it a great place for tourists and locals alike to wander the shelves.

I decided that I didn’t have it in me to walk much further in the by-now midday heat, but I had quite a while to go before meeting my friends for dinner, so I decided to head up to the Upper West Side and check out the American Museum of Natural History. There was a long queue for tickets where you could take advantage of their “pay what you like” policy, or there was no line at all for the automated ticket kiosks where you were stuck paying their recommended price of $25. I opted for the latter, taking on to my purchase a ticket to see a temporary exhibit on “Life at the Limits”, about the adaptations that have allowed plants and animals

Stuffed tardigrade

Stuffed tardigrade

to survive under a bewildering assortment of challenging circumstances. That exhibit alone was worth the price of admission, and I spent a good 90 minutes just soaking in all of the displays, including those about my favourite extreme creature, the tardigrade. I had time before closing to check out the huge blue whale that famously hangs over the ground floor, and several dinosaur exhibits, and to wax nostalgic about the many times I visited the museum during my childhood, especially since many of the exhibits seem little changed from the 1970s.

My friend Nuno’s apartment is located on the very same block as my high school, so I took the opportunity before knocking on his door to check the old place out. A lot has changed there since my graduation in 1982, including the construction of two new buildings, one of which they are already expanding! Gone are the days when classes had to be held in nearby apartment buildings, or when the lack of space meant that the senior class was excused from the City’s mandated phys ed curriculum (and for which I was extremely grateful).

Nuno decided that it was too hot in his un-airconditioned apartment to cook dinner, so he invited another friend of his from work and me to go out to a French place in the heart of Harlem. “A French place in Harlem?” I thought, wondering how this was going to turn out. But a renaissance was going on in a lot of NYC neighbourhoods, so why not? Unfortunately, the restaurant was also lacking air-conditioning, and the menu was geared to the local clientele, who we learned from the owner have uninspired tastes, so while the dinner was perfectly fine, it was not a place to make a journey to get to, so I am not linking to its website.

On Monday morning I left the Upper West Side to head into Midtown to meet an old friend from my 1979 summer trip to England. Gail and I were good buddies on that trip, and we stayed in touch afterwards for several years, even visiting each other in our hometowns (she’s from LA), but we lost touch for a while until she reached out to me through Facebook a few months ago. We quickly fell back into our old friendship despite the intervening years, and when it turned out that she’d be visiting NYC from her new base in North Carolina while her 16-year old daughter attends a summer youth camp for bright kids, we planned to get together. As it happens, Gail’s husband is a Kiwi (but from Auckland…) so it was quite a coincidence that we have NZ in both of our lives now. We arranged to meet at Madman Espresso, one of a number of coffee shops in NYC with hipster names, but this one is actually very good, and it was right near a place with exceptional bagels (called, modestly, “Best Bagels”). It was really nice to reconnect, and to find that we both enjoyed seeking out unusual and delectable food experiences, so I hope that we’ll be able to get together again, either here or in NZ.

Madman Espresso

Madman Espresso

Lunch was another opportunity for a reunion of sorts, this time with an old high school friend whom I hadn’t seen in a few decades. Steve and I were not just classmates in high school, we also both attended the same semester abroad programme in Leningrad in 1985, and even shared a room (together with two Russian kids, at least one of whom was responsible for reporting on us to the KGB). But we had drifted apart since then, and only reconnected when I reached out to advise him that our high school Russian teacher had died this past March. He’s now a cancer researcher and oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering, so I got a brief tour of his lab before we had lunch at the cafeteria at Sotheby’s auction house. I expected a really swell meal at this highfalutin’ place, but it was in fact less than mediocre, and thus joined the previous day’s pain au chocolat as the biggest waste of calories of the trip so far.

After lunch I had to get back to the Financial District to meet a friend from the hospital in Beijing at Korin, the Japanese knife shop, to help her shop for a kitchen knife. The same salesperson who helped me the previous week helped her, giving her several knives to choose from and letting her gauge how they feel in her hand, advising her on the merits of each and finally giving her the choice of several versions of the one she picked out (since they’re handmade, each one is unique). Then, while waiting for that one to be sharpened, she picked out another one (one that I also got), proving that this is a hard store to leave without overdoing it. And thus ended my three-day weekend, the last free days before my meeting schedule resumes with travel agencies. Not a bad way to spend it!

On the Wednesday of my first week in NYC I parted ways with my rental car. Having a car in NYC is a bit like having a bicycle in a submarine–it may be useful on occasion, but for the most part it just gets in the way. So I was happy to be rid of the damned thing, and return to the mode of transportation best suited to NYC, public transportation and good shoes.

Since the days when I lived here, the MTA has wisely come up with token-free entry, now making use instead of far more advanced credit card-style tickets that allowed the introduction of reduced-fare passes. For just $31 you get unlimited transport for a week on all the city’s subways and buses, a steal as long as you take more than two rides on any given day, since the single-trip fare is $2.75. I hopped on the subway and made my way to the Financial District, since I had booked a ticket to visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum with an entry at 11:30.

Korin's entrance

Korin’s entrance

It is a mysterious fact of life in NYC that no matter where you start, or where you are going, it generally takes 45 minutes to get there. Sure enough, this bore out on this trip, too, and I got to Chambers Street at 10:30, too early to go to the museum. But there was a store nearby that I wanted to visit, so I headed there first. The store is Korin, a small store on Warren Street that I somehow had never visited before, despite it’s having been there since 1982. Walking in, and being greeted by a very friendly Taiwanese salesperson and seeing the beautiful array of Japanese ceramics, cookware, and other kitchen goods, I concluded that it would be overpriced, but I decided to give it a whirl. To my surprise and delight, the prices were extremely reasonable! Throwing caution to the wind, I even dared to ask the salesperson, a lovely woman named Wendy, if they offered trade prices, and wouldn’t you know it, they do! And not only that, they were in the middle of a sale–15% off just about everything! How could I resist? (I couldn’t.) But there was so much that tempted me, and so little time to spend before my ticketed time at the museum, that I had to tear myself away prematurely, but not before pointing out a few things to Wendy for her to price out, including shipping to New Zealand, while I visited the memorial.

"The Last Column"

“The Last Column”, 9/11 Memorial Museum

No sooner did I leave the shop for the 10-minute walk to the 9/11 Museum than the heavens opened and torrential rain fell on me. The rain kept up while I joined the queue to enter the museum, and only eased as I got to the canopy at the entry (typical…). Once through the security procedures at the entry, I was in (and FYI, no one checked that I was entering at the right time) and ready to explore the museum. I was very surprised at how emotional I got during at the museum, my eyes welling up at several points during my nearly two-hour visit. You start off by learning about the buildings themselves, seeing some of the impressive engineering that went into building what was at the time the two tallest buildings in the world in a somewhat marginal piece of land where the proximity to the Hudson River posed significant challenges. You then get to the impact of the attacks on the buildings, and learn about what went on in the buildings (and elsewhere in the US) on that fateful day. Then they go into what led to the 9/11 attacks, exploring the socio-political issues that propelled the growth of Al-Qaeda and the emergence of extremism in the Middle East, and finally into the post-9/11 world. I emerged from the museum wondering at how we managed to go from a situation where the entire civilised world stood with the US to one in which we are a virtual pariah state. Thank you for that, George Bush and Dick Cheney!

I think you could make a lot of money opening a bar near the exits from the 9/11 Museum, since I certainly could have used a drink after that experience, but none was to be found and besides, I was kind of hungry. I had heard that there was a good Italian sandwich place nearby on Nassau Street (Pisillo’s),

Napoli sandwich

Napoli sandwich, Pisillo’s

so off I went to check it out. When I got to the address I thought it might have closed, since it was not immediately apparent, but it was there, just a lot smaller than I had imagined. Fortunately for me, I was there a bit late for the lunch rush, so I avoided a line, and placed my order for a Napoli sandwich (prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella and arugula/rocket on a semolina roll) quickly. I was a bit surprised that the sandwich would cost as much as $11.90, somewhat steep, I thought, but when the sandwich was delivered I changed my tune. Not only was this easily the best sandwich of the kind that I had ever had, reminiscent of the ones I used to have with my dad at a small place in Ozone Park (where John Gotti used to wander around in his bathrobe, trying to persuade the authorities that he was a lunatic instead of an organised crime mastermind), but it was also enormous, providing me with lunch on this day and the next, too.

Selecting my knife at Korin

Selecting my knife at Korin

I returned to Korin, fully expecting the price of the stuff I had picked out, with shipping, to be far beyond affordable, but was pleasantly surprised that it was pretty reasonable. Still, I reduced the range that I had chosen here and there, making it even more of a steal, and thus added a number of items to our batterie de cuisine and our tableware at the lodge. Among the things I chose were two knives, since Korin is at heart a knife store. The first is a Masamoto Shiro-ko Hongasumi Yanagi for slicing fish, and the other is a Togiharu paring knife. The former is a beautiful knife, perfect for slicing salmon (either raw or smoked) and came with a demonstration by one of their sharpeners on how to keep the knife in tip-top shape. I can hardly wait to use it!

From Korin I walked from the Financial District, through TriBeCa and SoHo, toward Union Square to meander through the Union Square Market, a fantastic farmers’ market that offers an exceptional range of local foods. If only the Oamaru Farmers’ Market had such a range!! From there I made my way to meet up with my cousins Jane and Mary, whom I last saw in–wait for it!!–1975. Through the power of Facebook I reconnected with Jane, and we arranged to meet for a coffee on Irving Place at 4pm. They were there when I arrived, and we immediately got into catching up on what we’ve been up to the past 40 years, comparing notes on the family’s history, etc. Before we knew it, three hours had slipped by and it was time to move on, but we had a lovely time together and with luck we will not wait another 40 years to get together again.

Kitchen brigade at Casa Mono

Kitchen brigade at Casa Mono

Since I was in the area, I treated myself to dinner at one of my favourite restaurants, Casa Mono just a block away from where I was. This is a tiny little place that serves Spanish cuisine, kind of like a tapas bar, along with a long list of Spanish wines and sherries. It’s owned by Mario Batali, a chef who became famous on TV and who now owns a raft of restaurants in NYC and elsewhere. Under their current executive chef, Anthony Sasso, they even have earned a Michelin star. There’s one dish that I always order here–a simple concoction of a fried duck egg atop fingerling potatoes with mojama (shaved, dried and cured tuna) and truffles. In the dish’s simplicity, the quality of the ingredients is paramount, as is the skill with which the components are prepared, and here they always get it just right. I only had one other dish, creamy eggs with uni, which was also a simple dish, just soft-scrambled eggs with blobs of sea urchin (and a bit of lemon juice), but it was delectable! (While waiting for a table at the restaurant, I had a glass of sherry at their neighbouring bar, Bar Jamón, where I also had a dish of spicy chickpeas with octopus, which was also excellent.) I decided to treat myself to dessert, and opted to try their version of crème brûlée (here it’s called crema catalana), and I was pleased that it compared favourably with my own, so it was not a wasted order.

The next day offered up much nicer weather, perfect for visiting New York, with bright blue skies and pleasant temperatures. I kicked off the day with a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my fourth landmark museum of the trip. Unlike the three previous museums, all of which charged a fixed entry price of $25 (ok, the 9/11 museum was $24), the Met, while “recommending” a ticket price of $25, actually lets guests pay whatever they wish. As I waited to buy my ticket, I saw loads of tourists facing the quandary of what to pay when confronted with this choice. All of them, with one exception, opted to pay something embarrassingly low, including one couple who paid $1 each! The one exception, a pair of students, opted to pay more than the recommended $12 per person.

Hokusai's Great Wave following me to NYC

Hokusai’s Great Wave following me to NYC

There is so much to see at the Met, and the building is so enormous, you really cannot hope to see much of it in one go. Fortunately, having grown up with the Met so close, I have seen most of the collection, so opted to focus on a few visiting exhibitions, including a fascinating one called “China Through the Looking Glass”, which examined how the West interpreted Chinese forms and styles in its own arts, fashions and household goods. One of the interesting tidbits was a dress by Dior that was covered with Chinese calligraphy that turned out to be a letter written by a poet centuries ago about a stomachache that he was suffering from! Little surprise that this exhibit was extremely popular with Chinese tourists, hundreds of whom were angling for the best angles to take their photos. (Why is photography allowed in museums in the US?? It causes a lot of disturbance and leads people, I think, not to take time to view the pieces, but rather to collect their ‘trophies’.)

I also visited the Japanese collection, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and where I saw another copy of Hokusai’s Great Wave, which I also saw in Boston, as well as the armour section, which I always loved as a kid. After spending several hours in the museum, I deserved a treat, and thus I found myself at the new-to-me-but-apparently-very-old William Greenberg Desserts on upper Madison Avenue. This is the perfect place for a post-Met treat, located nearby and offering the best only-in-NYC black-and-white cookie that I’ve had in years. If you haven’t seen a black-and-white, they featured in an episode of Seinfeld and used to be found at just about every NYC bakery. But in recent years their quality has deteriorated, making them completely missable. But the ones at Greenberg’s are just as they should be, with a moist cake base (they’re really cakes, not cookies) and a rich fondant icing, half chocolate and half vanilla. Just what was needed to fuel my walk to my next stop, Kitchen Arts & Letters, the source for any cookery book you could possibly want. While I didn’t find any cookbooks here, I did discover a new journal on Chinese cookery, The Cleaver Quarterly, which I could not pass up.

I needed to get to Midtown in time to meet a friend for dinner, so I started walking south, and before I knew it I was at Grand Central Station, not far from my destination, so I had time (and the appetite) for a few oysters and a beer at the Oyster Bar. The oysters here are as fresh as can be, and they have dozens of varieties to choose from. I opted for three from Cotuit, on Cape Cod, and three from Skookum, in Washington State, and a Brooklyn Lager to wash it down. The oysters were stupendous (I think I preferred the Pacific ones…) and the beer went great with them. It was a quick walk from here to the Chinese restaurant that my friend had chosen, Lan Sheng, a Sichuan place on E39th Street. I didn’t expect much from a Midtown Sichuan place, but it was the real deal, full of Chinese diners (couldn’t tell if they lived in NYC or were visitors) and Mainland servers. The dishes we ordered were all excellent, and it’s not too expensive, so if you’re craving Chinese in Manhattan, it’s not a bad choice.

The selection (a small portion) at Kalustyan's

The selection (a small portion) at Kalustyan’s

The following day was just as beautiful as the one before, perfect for meandering among the shops that I had on my list. I kicked it off with a stop at Kalustyan’s, the cavernous spice emporium where you can find absolutely anything you need to cook whatever you could possibly want to prepare. I had a few orders to fulfil here (black cardamom for my sister, cinchona bark for a friend in Wellington), and a few things I wanted for myself, including some of the best Medjool dates you’ve ever had. Next stop was a sort of corollary to Korin, a shop on Third Avenue and 45th Street called MTC Kitchen. Whereas Korin seems very geared to professionals and eager enthusiasts, MTC Kitchen is perhaps a bit more suited to casual cooks and lovers of Japanese crafts. The service is very friendly, and they also have an impressive range of knives, ceramics, cookware, etc., and prices that are a bit higher than Korin on some things, lower on others (and if you ask nicely, like I did, they might just offer you a 15% discount, too!).

Knives at MTC Kitchen

Knives at MTC Kitchen

Ramen at Totto Ramen

Ramen at Totto Ramen

It was time for a late lunch when I emerged from MTC Kitchen with my new sharpening stone and fish boner (there has to be a better way to say that…) so I asked them to recommend a place. “Do you like ramen?”, I was asked. “Was the shōgun Shinto,” I should have answered, instead of just saying “uh huh”, so they directed me a few blocks north, to 52nd between Second and Third Avenues, to Totto Ramen or Hide-chan next door. The difference between the two, apparently, is that Totto Ramen uses a chicken broth, while Hide-chan uses a pork broth. Both are owned by the same people, but there was a longer wait for Hide-chan so I went to Totto Ramen, getting a spot at the counter right away (the others in the queue were larger parties). The kitchen is tiny, but is lined with several cauldrons of bubbling soup, a cooktop with boiling water to cook the noodles, and a handful of cooks assembling the bowls as customers placed their orders. I ordered their signature miso-laced soup with pork, and was given a bowl of pure, 100% deliciousness. I was reminded of the movie, Tampopo, in which the hero, a truck driver with a passion for ramen, helps a struggling ramen shop (whose owner he is smitten by) to up her game and perfect her recipe, eventually producing the best bowl of ramen imaginable. I have never had a better bowl of ramen, and for just $11.50, it’s a steal.

After lunch I headed to JB Prince, the cookware store in an otherwise unremarkable office building on E31st Street. Normally I have no trouble finding things to buy here, but on this occasion, having found so many goodies at MTC Kitchen and Korin, I left empty-handed. I even found nothing at NY Cake, which offers a huge selection of baking supplies (and yet neither of these shops had either of the two things I’m looking for–an 8″ square mousse ring, and a Petit Beurre biscuit cutter).

One more stop before calling it a day–the enormous Mario-Batali-owned Italian emporium Eataly on 23rd Street and Broadway. I visited the Chicago branch a few weeks ago, and thought I’d bring some supplies back to my mom’s to make into dinner, scoring some chanterelles, soppressatta and prosciutto. Back at mom’s I sautéed the chanterelles with some shallots and garlic, and served them with snow peas and grilled steak, making a pretty decent dinner, I’d say!

The name of this blog, NYtoNZ, is meant to represent the fact that I have moved from New York (City) to New Zealand (that was clear, wasn’t it??). Having grown up in New York (I only moved away after college), the City is always going to be “home” in a spiritual sense, if not in actual sense (J2 would never allow us to relocate to NYC, even if we hadn’t found our Eden in Oamaru). So I always look forward to opportunities to return to NYC, though I usually have to make do with just a few days here and there, since there are often other destinations waiting, and J2 can barely stand to spend a week there. (To explain: J2 thinks that NYC smells bad [you get used to it], is full of rude people [screw you if you don’t like the smell], and doesn’t offer enough green space to keep him happy [nature should be kept where it belongs, far away]). So, with J2 staying behind in NZ this trip, I decided to spend a lot more time in town, devoting a full 16 days here!

My chirashi of sea urchin, crab and caviar

My chirashi of sea urchin, crab and caviar

I drove down from my sister’s place in CT on Sunday morning, taking advantage of my last few days with a car to visit a few spots that are not easy to reach by public transportation. My first stop was Edgewater, NJ, home to the Mitsuwa Japanese shopping centre. I have known about this place for years, and used to visit from DC when I lived there, but this time the objective of visiting was to get some replacement Japanese dishes to use for serving canapés at the lodge. The main draw at Mitsuwa is the enormous Japanese grocery store that anchors the complex, where every conceivable ingredient used in Japanese cookery can be procured. There I restocked my limited stash of Yuzu Kosho but found that the selection of ceramics was both overpriced and limited in range. (Interestingly, though the complex has a large range of electrical appliances, none was available for sale on Sunday, owing to Bergen County NJ’s antiquated blue laws.) I have to confess that, despite having had a huge “holiday breakfast” prior to leaving my sister’s place, I could not resist having lunch here, since among the offerings at the grocery was a sort of chirashi sushi bowl with sea urchin, salmon roe and king crab meat atop vinegar rice. Excellent!

Decisions to be made at the Pickle Guys

The next stop on my trip was the Lower East Side of Manhattan to visit the Pickle Guys on Essex Street to pick up some pickles for my mom and me to enjoy during my stay. This place is the replacement for the famed Guss’ Pickles, and is nearly as good as the original. One of my favourite things about the place is that, as they prepare your order out of the dozens of large barrels that occupy the small shop, they invariably ask if you “want one for now”, which they hand over gratis. Having been turned on to the idea of pickled okra during my stay in Cohasset, I decided to give their version of this oddity a try, in addition to the usual stand-by of sour dills (the verdict: the commercial variety is superior, alas).

Next stop was Brooklyn Heights, to make a stop at Sahadi, a venerable Middle Eastern spice-and-food shop in the heart of this diverse neighbourhood. Finding parking here was virtually impossible, but finally I landed a space just a few blocks away. Unfortunately, when I got to the store, it was shuttered, since it’s closed on Sundays! Oh, well.

The cookie display at Joe’s Bakery, Middle Village

By the time I got back to my car, the traffic towards my mom’s place in Queens was looking to be terrible on the main roads, so I followed Waze’s advice and took local streets through the depths of Brooklyn and Queens, eventually finding myself right near Middle Village, an Italian neighbourhood that used to be home to one of my favourite NYC bakeries, Catalano’s. Back in the day, we used to get C*A*R*E packages from my parents with an assortment of Italian cookies from Catalano, usually comprising regina cookies (little cookies covered in sesame seeds); anise toasts; and my favourite, brutti ma buoni (literally, “ugly but good), a sort of crispy meringue cookie with hazelnuts that sometimes come half-dipped in chocolate. We would always stop by at the bakery during our visits to NYC, but last year the unimaginable had happened–the place was all closed up as though it was out of business! No information was obtainable from nearby shops, the internet or anywhere else. My world got just a bit bleaker as a result. So here I was, just a stone’s throw from the bakery’s location, and I decided to chance it and see if it was there. When I arrived, I found no Catalano’s, but in its place was a new bakery called Joe’s. Risking everything, I stopped in to see what the place looked like, and was heartened to see that it looked exactly the same as Catalano’s did. A friendly salesperson came out to ask what I wanted, and I explained my situation–I live in NZ, visit Queens once a year, used to buy from the shop all the time, etc etc. She explained that the shop was sold to a new owner, but the baker is the same as before. So I asked if they had brutti ma buoni and got the response that they only make them in the winter (?!?!?). She did offer the phone number of the baker so I might get the recipe from him (!!), however, so I figured I’d get a box of my other favourites. As I looked at the display, what did I espy but my beloved cookie! I may have emitted a high-pitched shriek of excitement, and probably started gushing something like “oh my God, oh my God, oh my God”, causing perhaps a bit of concern on the part of the salesperson that she was about to witness a grand mal seizure. When I regained my composure and said to her “there they are!!” she said something like “Oh, is that what those are called!?’, adding a few to my order. I am pleased to report that they are exactly as they used to be.

Mom was waiting for me when I got to her place, and was thrilled that I had brought lobsters from CT for dinner, which I threw together. I’m pleased to report that she is doing well, looks good, though her hearing is a bit iffy (nothing new there). After dinner, I treated myself to a dessert of Italian ices at the famous Lemon Ice King of Corona, a true hallmark of a Queens childhood.

Pirozhki and other pies for sale

Pirozhki and other pies for sale

On Monday, taking advantage of my having the car still, I headed out to do some more errands, venturing back to Brooklyn Heights to actually see Sahadi on the inside (unfortunately I found nothing I ‘needed’). From there I made my way to Brighton Beach, the Russian enclave, where I got not only to practice my Russian, but also to sample treats that I miss from my days in Moscow and Leningrad. First off, I had a khachapuri from a place called Toné-Café, a small Georgian restaurant where there was no evidence of English being spoken or understood (the guy who served me addressed me just as I’d have expected back on the streets of Moscow–gruffly, and in Russian). But the khachapuri, a flaky pastry about 5-inches square filled with a salty melty Georgian cheese called suluguni (Stalin’s favourite) was exquisite, even better than back in the USSR. Afterwards I wandered along Brighton Beach Avenue, popping into store after store selling Russian delicacies, wondering how so many stores, all selling more or less identical items, manage to stay in business. But, this being a Russian neighbourhood, and a largely Jewish one at that, there is no doubt that there are loads of factions living there, and each is partial to one store or another, and wouldn’t be caught dead going into the others. In front of one store there was a lady dressed like a typical Soviet-era bakery vendor selling a selection of hot pastries. In addition to the standard cabbage-, meat- or potato-filled pirozhi, she also had cheese-filled vatrushki as made in Ukraine and Georgian meat-filled chebureki. I ordered a few to supplement my khachapuri and again was transported back to the old country. Last stop on this part of my trip was at a branch of a very venerable old Istanbul baklava maker, Güllüoğlu, which now has branches in the USA and Canada. The baklava is indeed excellent, and the service friendly (and available in English!) so if you’re in the area and have limited Russian, this could be a place for you.

Making dumplings at Nanxiang

Making dumplings at Nanxiang

My last destination of the day was in Flushing, Queens, home to NYC’s latest Chinatown. Here you find far more authentic, and less touristy, Chinese restaurants than you find in Manhattan’s Chinatown, since it is largely here that the city’s newest wave of Chinese from the Mainland and Taiwan live. Parking and driving here is an absolute nightmare, though. I’m not saying that the stereotype about Asian drivers is true, but being saddled with a car here is a true ordeal and one that the uninitiated should not attempt to face. But, as not just a NYC-trained driver but also one who has lived amongst the Chinese for a long time, I was not afraid and braved the onslaught. To cap it off, I even know of municipal parking lots where spaces can usually be found at a reasonable price. Sure enough, I landed a spot in no time at all, and soon was meandering amongst the shops and elbowing the grannies aside with the best of them. I had offered to bring a Chinese dinner back for mom and me, but realised shortly into the process that her tastes and mine differ, particularly on the question of spice. So I decided to put together a bit of a hodgepodge of dishes, leaning heavily on dumplings (one of her favourites) and spare ribs (ditto). For the dumplings I went to Nanxiang Dumpling House, ostensibly an offshoot of the very famous (and touristy) spot in

Wosun for sale

Wosun for sale

Shanghai, choosing their stalwart soup dumplings and my favourite, sheng jian bao, a sort of hybrid between a steamed bun and a pan-fried dumpling. Then for the spareribs I chose a random roast meats vendor on Main Street, and added a savoury zhongzi (a steamed concoction made of sticky rice and a variety of flavourings, including peanuts, pork and vegetables, wrapped in dried bamboo leaves and steamed) from another vendor for good measure. Finally I popped into a produce stand to buy some vegetables to put alongside, scoring a pair of wosun, which is one of my favourite Chinese vegetables. Dinner was not too bad, though the dumplings suffered from not being served hot from the kitchen, and mom seemed to enjoy it.

On my last day with the car I focused my attention on shopping errands, visiting a shopping centre on Long Island. I thought I’d have lunch at a Persian kebab place, but when I got there and found it shut, it dawned on me that it was Ramadan, so of course it’d be closed. So instead I ventured back to Flushing (not really nearby) and had lunch at the wonderful Xi’an Famous Foods stall in the basement of a shopping plaza on Main Street. We used to love visiting Xi’an when people came to see us in China, not so much for the Terracotta Warriors (yawn!!) but for the amazing food, the likes of which you only ever found in Xi’an. Only late in our time in China did Xi’an restaurants start to make their way to the big cities, and we used to enjoy having some

Rou jia mo (spicy lamb “burger” at Xi’an Famous Foods

of our favourites for lunch on weekends. Now New Yorkers and visitors to the city have a number of branches of XI’an Famous Foods to try, dotted as they are all over the city. But the original one is this horrible little stall in the dank, disgusting, dirty basement of Golden Shopping Plaza. There is no way on God’s green earth that I could persuade most members of my family to eat in this place, but it’s one of my happy places. I ordered a lamb rou jia mo (what they call a “Chinese hamburger”, since it’s meat–in this case slices of cuminy lamb–served in a vaguely English-muffin-like roll, though it’s got more heft to it than a Thomas’) and Mount Qi Pork Hand-Ripped Noodles, a bowl of handmade noodles with pickled cabbage, pork and a rich, vinegary sauce. Normally I’d have ordered Spicy Cumin Lamb hand-ripped noodles, but I decided to mix things up this time and try something new. Both items were delicious, and it freaked the noodle maker out when she called my number in Chinese and I dutifully approached the counter to snag my bowl. She then tested me out, asking me, again in Chinese, if I wanted napkins, and when I answered she beamed a huge smile. I was suddenly their

Mount Qi Hand-Ripped Noodles with Pork Belly

favourite customer of those ten minutes. (It probably didn’t hurt that the only other non-Chinese in the stall was a Japanese family, in which the elegant middle-aged mother tried valiantly to seem like she was in her element when she clearly was not. Her husband and two daughters, who seemed to be nurses working nearby, were much more comfortable, and went through a huge number of the stall’s dishes during their stay.) The young Chinese man who sat opposite me at the very narrow table, was also intrigued by me, since I suspect he figured that I, too, was nothing more than a daring lao wai, eager to try out the hottest thing on NYC’s dining scene, but later realised that I was an actual cognoscento, and earned a big grin from him (and a “candid” shot from his cellphone, which I presume he sent to his friends, spinning a tale about the weird Chinese-speaking foreigner he met at lunch).

To cap off my day I visited Rego Park, the neighbourhood where I grew up (from birth through 1977) to see my old building. I did not venture inside, since there is now all sorts of security there, and I figured I’d probably be depressed to see it from more than the street. But I took a picture to share with you anyway.

Come back later to experience the next few days of my NYC sojourn!

Park City Estates, Rego Park

Park City Estates, Rego Park

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