Posted by: JLG | 6 January 2016

Holidays 2015/16

I have never been especially fond of Christmas or New Year’s. When I was a kid, Christmas Eve was fine, since it was my parents’ anniversary, so we’d invariably go out to dinner (often it was Chinese, as is traditional for Jewish families) and to a movie (I remember seeing Young Frankenstein one year, and thinking my dad was going to die, he was laughing so hard at all these jokes I just was too young to understand). But on Christmas there was never anything to do, and even when I eventually started to get invited to join friends for their Christmas parties, I always felt a bit like a fifth wheel. And I never felt that New Year’s had much point, and as someone who hates crowds and doesn’t like to get drunk, it was always hard to find something appealing to do.

Now that we live in New Zealand, where the year-end holidays fall in what is supposedly “summer”, the locals go hog-wild about Christmas, counting how many “sleeps” remain until the big day, and then shutting the entire country down for the day, even going so far as to legislate a ban on shops being open that are not completely essential (or geared to travellers), which makes me wonder how grocery stores can be considered inessential, since they are 100% shuttered on Christmas Day.

Given that we are a traveller-oriented business, we are allowed to be open, and since I could not care less about the holiday, I am only too happy to have people here on the Big Day, though it means planning ahead to be sure to have absolutely everything I could possibly need on hand since it is not possible to run to the store to fill any gaps that could arise.

This year we were fortunate to have a full house pretty much every day from 23 December to 2 January, and to have a wide range of guests during that time. A few of these caused us to be a bit wary prior to their arrival–in particular, the range of people staying on Christmas and Boxing Day had us a bit nervous, since we were expecting a family of six Orthodox Jews from NYC whose dietary restrictions were pretty intense; a former Australian Foreign Minister and his wife, whose fastidious eating habits are mentioned in the Wikipedia article about him; and a gay couple from Pennsylvania who we figured would be a piece of cake. As it turned out, the Orthodox family were wonderful, and the dietary restrictions were not as bad as we were led to expect. The Australian guy and his wife–who stayed for a week–were also fantastic, and after dining with us on their arrival night, they ended up adding dinner four more nights, so we appear to have satisfied his requirements. But the gay couple were a real handful–needy, persnickety, and not quite what I’d call seasoned travellers, but despite a few hiccups caused by their travel agent failing to notify them that dinner with us was not included on Boxing Day (fortunately we were able to rectify the situation) they seem to have left happy with their stay.

For the Orthodox family, whose religious observance meant that they could not do anything more than do a walking tour on Boxing Day (since they not only had no car, but would not have ridden in one on the Sabbath anyway), we organised a guide and prayed for nice weather to allow them to make the most of their time with us. Happily, our prayers were answered, their walking tour was a hit, and we even managed to convince a few places that were officially closed to open for their tour. They loved the fact that for their Shabbat dinner I had made a loaf of challah (though I only made one, not realising that they should have had a pair of them), and wanted to share images of their meals on a kosher gourmet website, though of course the Sabbath restrictions meant they could not take any photos (lucky for them, I took shots of all their dishes).

Boxing Day had one little surprise for us–a pipe in the Elizabeth Room (where the Australian FM was staying) burst, necessitating a call to the plumber to come fix it. Luckily for us everyone involved took it in stride, but we cannot get it properly fixed until things reopen in mid-January.

On the 27th, the last of our newly reupholstered sofabeds was returned to us. The sofabeds as delivered were so horrible that we quickly realised that we’d have to get someone not just to change the fabrics on them, but also do something to improve their comfort. The upholsterer did a fantastic job, turning what were pretty unappealing pieces of furniture into something that we can be proud of.

For New Year’s we had a family of Americans who live in China, a pair of Americans from Georgia, along with some British guests and a pair of non-resident guests who just wanted to come for dinner. We made a really celebratory menu, centred on things like oysters, Beef Wellington and Sachertorte, though it turned out that one guest was dairy-intolerant and another was gluten-free, so we had to make two “deconstructed” Beefs Wellington and a quick meringue-based dessert. Most of the guests went to see the penguins after dinner, which meant–I thought–that I’d get to bed early, but that didn’t work out, since everyone wanted post-dinner drinks, and the American guy working in China, who has been there 20 years and has a Chinese wife but still speaks no Chinese, wanted to sit with me long past midnight to nut out what his exit strategy from China should be.

I got to bed a bit after 1am, and hoped to have a decent sleep before getting up for breakfast prep, but the Chinese wife wanted a Chinese breakfast (I had not counted on that) so I had a very fitful sleep and finally at 5am decided enough was enough and got up to start preparing it. I was pretty worthless the rest of the day, and had counted on letting Ashley run the show for that night’s dinner, but of course she called in sick so I was on my own. Luckily we finished their dinner pretty quickly and I was in bed by 9:30.

With that the holidays were technically over, but the celebrations continue in NZ until at least the fourth, with some places not reopening until the 11th (including the plumbing place…). We continue to have a load of guests, including a wedding party who took over the lodge for two days this week, so 2016 appears to be starting off pretty well. Long may it continue!

Here’s wishing you all a very happy new year–may it bring you all that you hope for!

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Vintage car to take our bride to the church

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Garden Room with reupholstered sofa

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Sabbath dinner table with my 6-strand challah

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Beef Wellington

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Vegetarian starter “Beetroot Symphony”

Posted by: JLG | 10 December 2015

Getting Ready for my Bees

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In my beesuit (on the right) with my friend Iain

Early in the year, I was made aware of a Kickstarter (or Indiegogo, I can’t remember) campaign to support a newfangled beehive, one that allows ignoramuses like me to raise bees in a much easier-to-use hive that even allows the honey to flow relatively freely without having to disturb the bees. The campaign was looking to raise $60,000 or so, but by the time I learned about it it had already exceeded that figure so the device was sure to come to fruition. I decided to back the project and get in on the ground floor, committing to the full-fledged package that consists of everything you need to start my first hive. By the time the campaign was over, they had received pledges in excess of $1,000,000, making the Australians behind it crowd-funding celebrities. (You can learn all about it at their company’s website: http://www.honeyflow.com)

The campaign ended in April, and with the huge number of orders they had to leap into action to be able to start fulfilling orders, even going so far as to set up a production facility in North America, where presumably most of their orders came from. Luckily for those of us near Australia, we will be supplied from the Australian factory, and sooner than the others, though we still had to wait till December to receive our hives.

In the meantime, we have started to collect books about beekeeping, but we haven’t really done much more than that to prepare ourselves for the arrival of the hive. But then a few weeks ago we learned that the Waitaki Community Gardens were going to host a beekeeping seminar one morning so we planned to attend.

The event was pretty low-key, and amounted to a local beekeeper telling us about the things to look out for when raising bees in the area (varroa mite is a problem here, so that’s the main concern), but then a few lucky people–basically the people who could fit into the beesuits that they had around–got to go with her to inspect her hives. Happily for me, there was one large suit, and no one else that size was up for getting up close and personal with the bees.

Putting on a beesuit for the first time was a bit odd, though it’s really just like wearing a set of protective clothing like when you go into an operating room or a sterile production area, and the hood reminded me of a fencing helmet. But as odd as that was, even odder was the sensation of walking toward a pair of hives that were quite literally buzzing with activity. Normally I am a bit wary of bees, but here I was, blithely walking toward them and eventually peering into their hives as the beekeeper opened it up to show us their workings.

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I’m second from the left

The bees were fascinating to watch. It’s quite early in the season, so there was not much honey in the first hive; instead the cells of the frames were filled with much more interesting things to see–eggs, larvae, hatching baby bees, pollen, and nectar. I had never realised before that the cells get used for all those activities, nor did I realise that drones are all born in a separate section of the frame (always on the periphery), and that the lifespan of a bee is determined more than anything by how far it flies, with the result that in summer the bees tend to live only 5-6 weeks, while in the winter (when they don’t fly as much) they can live for 5 months or more. A bee basically dies when its wings wear out.

The second hive, which the beekeeper was afraid might not be thriving since she had the impression that its queen had left, was in fact thriving. Given the presence of a lot of baby bees, larvae and eggs, it was clear that the hive had created a new queen who was busy populating her hive. And unlike the first hive, this one even had honey, and quite a bit of it, too!

When we got home I got to work looking for a beesuit for us, eventually opting to order one from the people who sold me the hive, which will come with gloves, hood and even a bee tool (used to move the frames around and pry open the boxes) and should arrive with my hive. I’ll keep you posted as things develop!

Posted by: JLG | 29 October 2015

Whoops

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.

Lupa

Lupa

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.

IMG_0906

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…

At PDT

At PDT

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!

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