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!

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

Posted by: JLG | 18 July 2015

Boston and Connecticut

When I left Canada I made more-or-less a beeline for Boston, or to be more precise, to the charming town of Cohasset on the South Shore. Passing through the US-Canada border was fairly easy, despite my having a few tonka beans in my possession (I was not sure if they were permitted or not at the time; I now understand that they are perfectly legal), and as soon as I crossed into American territory I filled my tank with fuel, taking advantage of the much lower US price. I had great plans to get some maple syrup in Vermont, but nowhere did I see evidence of a maple syrup emporium, so my plan was thwarted. I had no particular need for anything else along the route, and would have made it to Cohasset in hardly any time at all, were it not for a near-repeat of last year’s rental car problem.

Regular readers of this blog will remember that last year, as we approached the Whitestone Bridge to enter NYC, our rental car broke down. We wound up having to wait in the Bronx for nearly two hours for a replacement car to be brought to us. This year, my “check engine” light illuminated about half-way to Cohasset, so I called the company and was told to bring the car to the nearest depot for an exchange. A quick Google search told me that there was a branch not too far off my route in Massachusetts, so I headed there, but when I arrived I learned that the depot belonged to a different company, and while that other company owns the company I hired through, they could not help me. My only option was to go to Logan Airport, something I desperately did not want to do, since a) the airport is a nightmare to manoeuvre around, and b) it would put me right in the middle of the afternoon Boston rush hour. But in fact the exchange was only a bit more difficult than I had hoped, but the traffic was better than expected, despite it being the Friday of July 4 weekend, and I got to my friends’ house in reasonable time.

My time in Boston was mostly spent with my friends Cindy and Paul and their kids, a rare opportunity to spend quality time with these old friends. Cindy is an excellent cook, and knows of my fondness for oysters, steamer clams and oysters, so she prepared an amazing meal for July 4 comprising all of these, along with a delectable cherry pie–how much more American can you get?? We even managed to make it out to near Cape Cod one day to have a mini-reunion with another grad school friend, Pam, and her husband and one of her kids.

But my visit was not all about fun and games, since there were meetings to go to once the holiday weekend ended. But those are hardly interesting enough to bore you with! When my meetings were finished, Cindy and I did something we haven’t done in ages–we visited the Museum of Fine Arts and went roaming around the North End of Boston just the two of us, visiting her old haunts, checking out the food and kitchen goods shops, and even popping in to the Paul Revere House, Old North Church, and the print shop that produced the Massachusetts edition of the Declaration of Independence. We capped off the day by having an excellent dinner at Il Panino, a place that J2 and I nearly dined at last year, but passed up, fearing it would be too touristy. Sure, it probably was a bit touristy, but the food was also excellent, and our waiter was a real charmer.

I left Massachusetts and headed down to Connecticut to visit with my sister and her family, again having a rare opportunity for the two of us to spend quality time together. She, too, organised lobsters for one of my dinners, and we even had a stupendous lunch at the Chamard winery right near where she lives. Any prejudices I had about Connecticut wines were dispelled by that amazing meal.

We managed to make time between meals, shopping and my meetings to see two movies, too. First my sister and I saw Inside Out, which I found really charming and endearing, and then my niece joined us to see Jurassic World. Little did I know that my niece–who is only seven years younger than I am–is a HUGE dinosaur fan, so much so that on the way to the cinema she recapped all that happened in the original three films just so that we should be up on the story in case it would be critical to an appreciation of the movie (it wasn’t–they offered sufficient exposition). Still, it was a fun movie, and we all enjoyed it, especially since the cinema was one of the new generation with luxury reclining seats. We capped off the visit with a barbecue at my niece’s and one of their famed “holiday breakfasts”, complete with French toast casserole and baked ham.

This one of my favourite visits to New England in a while, since it was the first time in ages that I got to spend time with two of my favorite people without too many distractions. I wonder when the next time will be??

Posted by: JLG | 18 July 2015

China Chilcano photos

I’ve been chastised for omitting images from my lunch at China Chicano in DC at the beginning of this trip.  Here at last I aim to make amends!! 

    
    
    
    
 

Posted by: JLG | 7 July 2015

Oh! Canada!! (And the US, too)

After leaving Queenstown and the wedding of the century, I commenced my North America marketing trip. Coming without J2 made the flight over a bit less fun, but there was one upside to solo travel–since I had no seat mates on the Air NZ flight from Auckland to San Francisco, I was able to turn my economy seats into what they call a “sky sofa”, allowing me to more-or-less stretch out in something akin to comfort for the 12-hour flight. I wouldn’t say it compared with an actual 180-degree flat seat, but it was close enough, and at the price I paid, quite acceptable.

Arriving at Dulles at just after 1am, I of course missed my car rental agency’s opening hours, but lucked out by being able to convince a rival agency with 24-hour service to rent me a car for about 8 hours at a pretty good price. Unfortunately, I was pretty exhausted and out of it and not only started to drive up the wrong side of the road but also managed to head in the wrong direction on the Dulles Toll Road, causing me to pay not one, not two, but three unnecessary tolls to get from the airport to my friends’ house.

God Bless America! This much gas would cost NZ$60!

God Bless America! This much gas would cost NZ$60!

In DC I mostly got to see friends and do some shopping, there being no agencies to meet with there. So much has changed even in the year since our last visit that I can hardly believe it, from the construction of new neighbourhoods in Northern Virginia to the opening of new interesting restaurants. I did not manage to see all the friends I’d have liked to see there, but I made a good dent, and we’ll just have to try to see the people we missed when we come back next year.

My first meeting of the trip was up in Philadelphia on the Friday of my arrival week, so rather than “waste” a night up there with no one to see, I turned it into a day trip. Fearing the traffic on I-95 I left DC around 6am (for an 11am meeting) and of course got to Philadelphia just around 9am, giving me plenty of time to kick around and wait for my meeting time. The meeting was with an agency whom we’ve seen before, both in the US and in NZ, and they are frequent sources of guests for us, so it was really a “catch-up” session. Happily, not long after the meeting, during which I spelled out all that we’re changing to our three annex guest rooms, they booked a two-night stay in two of those rooms. Ka-ching!

After returning to DC for another two nights (and experiencing a classic summertime thunderstorm on my last night in town) I left on Sunday morning to kick-off my road trip, heading to the tourism hotspot of Dayton, Ohio. That’s a good eight-hour drive from DC, a drive that I anticipated with some dread, fearing that I would not have enough podcasts to keep me entertained between NPR stations, but my friend Ken, who himself was taking a 10-hour drive to Nashville that weekend, recommended downloading an audiobook, which I dutifully did. What a great idea!! I listened to Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, about the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the country’s first documented serial killer as I headed in the direction of the Windy City (and beyond) and was riveted. There’s nothing like gruesome murders (told in a very subtle way) to make the time pass by.

Dayton is a town that I probably could have happily lived my life without ever seeing, but the meeting that I had there was more than likely worth the trip (I hope), and I surprisingly found a pretty good sushi bar for my dinner there. Sushi is one of those things that I just cannot find easily in NZ, so I am happy to take any opportunity outside of the country to indulge in one of my favourite treats.

Chicago Skyline from Bucktown

Chicago Skyline from Bucktown

From Dayton it was a relatively easy drive to Chicago, though I had to cross through the State of Indiana. This was my first time visiting Indiana, and if it is my last I would not mind at all. The state of the highways in Indiana is scandalous, with more potholes than even New York City can muster, and loads of debris on the road, including a truck tire just sitting in the middle of the roadway that I came extremely close to hitting (thank goodness Waze had warned me of a “hazard ahead”, and I caught sight of it milliseconds before I’d have hit it).

In Chicago I once again stayed at my friends’ beautiful house in Bucktown, a really convenient place to be based. My meetings there were all excellent, and I not only got to have more sushi, but also some really excellent Mexican food, and it’s all quite reasonably priced. I even found time to experience some culture, visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, a museum that I cannot recall ever having visited before. (The ticket price to get in–a whopping $25–may explain some of that.)

Culture!

Culture!

Next stop after Chicago was Motor City, though to be fair I never actually set foot, nor even see, the city itself. Instead, I based myself in the suburbs, with the sister of my friend Kris, whom I’ll see later in LA, stopping en route in Ann Arbor to visit the famed Zingerman’s Delicatessen for lunch (and having a quick catch-up with a high school friend, who saw me “check in” there on Facebook and popped by to chat while I had my sandwich). Again, very good meetings in the Detroit area, including several that were organised for me by Kris’ mother, who told her travel agent friends that our lodge was a “must” for their wealthy clientele.

Leaving Detroit on a drizzly and miserable Saturday morning I headed into Canada toward my first stop in Toronto. Crossing the border at Port Huron I was surprised to get a bit of an interrogation at Canadian immigration (I think I surprised him by saying i live in New Zealand, despite showing him a US passport and driving a Tennessee-registered car). But the process was quick and before long I was in the Great White North, speeding east on the really nice Canadian highway and stopping for a break at a really nice Canadian rest stop to have my first order of poutine (which was not really nice).

The Bean in Chicago

My base in Toronto was the home of a friend of mine from Beijing days, a Chinese-Canadian who is a real Chinaphobe and who now works for a cigarette company though he does not smoke. He warned me many times that he has three young kids, and may not find it a very restful place to stay, but his daughters (ages 5 and 7) and his 2-year old son were absolutely delightful, the five-year old really taking to me, much to my surprise.

I had the Sunday of my stay to use to explore Toronto a bit, so I headed into town for a wander, taking in a bit of the Pride parade while I was at it. This was my second-ever Pride Festival, and the first of course since SCOTUS legalised same-sex marriage in the US the previous Friday, and the atmosphere was truly electric, and the entire city was covered in rainbow flags, much to my surprise. The parade went on for several hours, despite persistent drizzle, and the rain did nothing to dampen the mood of the revellers, the vast majority of whom were almost certainly straight.

Fireworks

Fireworks

While in Toronto I also got to go to a Canada Day fireworks display in downtown, probably one of the best I have ever seen (take that, Beijing Olympics!), and since my friend’s tobacco company was a sponsor we got to go to the VIP viewing area and slurp oysters and drink lovely Canadian wine during the show.

On Canada Day itself I drove to Montreal, figuring that I wouldn’t be able to have any meetings on the holiday, and the traffic would be light. I had not really figured on just how far Toronto is from Montreal, though, and was surprised that it took more than six hours to get there. Still, I arrived in plenty of time to walk from my B&B to the famed Schwartz’s for a lunner (since it was my lunch and dinner in one) of smoked meat on rye with a side of fries, a pickle and a Cott’s Black Cherry cola. This is a quintessential Jewish-Montreal experience, and it did not disappoint–in fact, I was a bit relieved that the sandwich was not anything like as big as a NYC pastrami sandwich, so I did not feel quite as gluttonous for having it.

Toronto Pride 2015

Toronto Pride 2015

I only had one meeting in Montreal, first thing on the morning of the 2nd, so the rest of the day was free for me to explore this city that I last visited in college in the mid-1980s. How I wish I had taken the time to visit during the intervening 30 years, since this is a great and very visitable city! Not only is getting around really easy, thanks to a C$10 all-day transit pass and good walking shoes, but there are loads of lovely neighbourhoods to explore, and some fantastic markets. I had thought the St Lawrence Market in Toronto was impressive, but it pales in comparison with the markets in Montreal! The first one I visited, the Atwater Market to the west of the downtown area, was relatively small, but still had a huge range of stalls, and a large selection of ready-to-eat stands. (I had lunch at a place serving the cuisine of Reunion Island (a French overseas department near Madagascar), which was sensational, making me wonder why that island is not better known for its food.) But the second one I went to, Jean-Talon, is the city’s largest and reputedly the largest outdoor market in North America. And what a market it is, too! Loads of vendors selling beautiful produce, meats, seafood and everything to go with them, and at very reasonable prices. I could not resist the allure of the oyster bar, where about a dozen varieties were on offer, and where they put together a degustation platter for me of six varieties (all of which were excellent), and the gelato place had some really interesting flavours, including a burnt maple caramel one that I had to try. But the best find of the market was the spice shop. As I entered, I asked the person who greeted me (and who turned out to be one of the owners) if by any chance they had mastic, and she said something like “what kind of spice shop would I be without mastic?!” before producing a beautiful tin of the stuff. When the guy handed her the tin to pass for me, she asked what I planned to use it for, and when I said it was to make ice cream, the two of them exclaimed excitedly and we embarked on a lengthy chat about cooking, spices, New Zealand, etc etc. I wound up with not just the mastic, but two varieties of pepper that I had never heard of (probably since they are imported from the source exclusively by this little stand) and several unique versions of things like cardamom and fennel that they source from top-notch growers. I spent about 90 minutes with them, and left feeling like I had made new friends. (The young guy who was helping me for most of my visit happens to have just moved back to Canada after living in Suzhou for 6 years, and is a food geographer, something I never heard of before but that I wish I had studied to become myself.) And they do mail order! (you can visit them at www.epicesdecru.com or, in English, www.spicetrekkers.com).

At Épicerie de Cru

At Épicerie de Cru

I hated to leave Montreal, but there was an enticing carrot at the end of the road, a visit with Cindy and Paul in the Boston area. Driving back into the US I had an even more strict interrogation than at the entry into Canada (being asked “why did you visit Canada” in an accusing tone really startled me, as though there was something wrong with visiting our friendly neighbours to the north), but it was efficient at least.

On the way south through Vermont, though, my “check engine” light came on, making me fear that I was going to go through what happened last year once again, with my car giving up the ghost at the most inopportune time as I entered the city or something. So I phoned the rental agency and was told to go to a nearby Dollar Rent-a-Car to exchange the car. Googling yielded a location more-or-less on my route in the Boston suburbs, but when I got there all I found was a Hertz location, and they could not help me (but Hertz owns Dollar, so that’s why it appeared as such on the map), and they said Dollar only has depots at the airport, so off I went to Logan. Manoeuvring Logan Airport is bad on foot, but doing so in a rental car that you are trying to exchange is virtually impossible, since I had to take the car not to the rental return area, but to the rental pick-up area, and you can’t there from here. I literally circumnavigated the depot building six times before finally giving up and having one of the return guys guide me to where I needed to be (it involved going through an “employees only–severe tire damage if you cross this line” area, which naturally put me off when I encountered it), an undertaking that took nearly 90 minutes in total. Luckily, I still managed to miss traffic and I got to Cohasset just around 6pm.

July 4 Feast, Cohasset-style

July 4 Feast, Cohasset-style

On July 4 we had a quiet day, doing not much other than my favourite thing in New England–preparing and enjoying a seafood feast comprising not just lobster and steamers, but also oysters that we picked up at the Whole Foods nearby. These New England oysters even surpassed the ones in Montreal, especially the ones from Cotuit, which I’ll have to seek out again sometime. Cindy even made a cherry pie, making it a truly American celebration. It’s always great hanging out with Cindy and Paul and the boys, and this year was no different.

My stay in New England continues for a few more days, and then I’ll be in NYC for a whopping two weeks, visiting with my mom and attending to some business and shopping in the city. The story of that part of the visit will follow!

Posted by: JLG | 14 June 2015

Heading Off Again

It’s early winter here in the southern hemisphere, so of course it’s time once again for me to head northwards and do the annual marketing/holiday trip. This time, however, I’m going to be travelling solo, since J2 is staying behind to work on the long-planned expansion of our three Annex rooms. We applied for the building consent some time ago, hoping that it would be approved by late May, but due to a few minor hiccups with the architect’s responses to the council’s questions, there has been a slight delay. The builder, however, has assured us that once we got approval from planning (which came a few weeks ago) we could safely start the demolition work that has to precede the construction, so J2 got right into action, stripping out all the rooms’ fittings first (which could have been easily put back if need be) and then, a week or so ago, ripping out the drywall, 2x4s and other bits and pieces. The result is that we are now pretty close to having bare walls ready to be turned into our new mini suites, with work set to start in a week or so.

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image

I have been utterly useless in this whole endeavor, other than helping bash out some nails from the 2x4s that we plan to reuse (in a cost-saving move, we are recycling the 2x4s, the toilet basins, and some other bits and pieces, leading our builder to ask whether I was also going to work on straightening the nails that we’ve removed so we can reuse them, too). Even doing that little task wore me out, so I have to hand it to J2 for doing all that he has done so far, and will continue to do while I’m gone.

I left Oamaru on Friday afternoon, taking the intercity bus to Queenstown via Dunedin. This is only the second time that I have taken the intercity bus in NZ, and it’s not a bad experience. The only issue I had was that the bus was late leaving Oamaru, since two passengers took their time reboarding the bus after their lunch break, which in turn meant that we were late pulling into Dunedin and causing me nearly to miss my connection. The connecting bus to Queenstown was chock full of people, too, so I had a crowded ride for the better part of four hours, with a large Maori guy sitting next to me until a stop an hour outside of Queenstown. The bus stopped about half-way to Queenstown, in the small town of Roxburgh, for a toilet-and-tea break. These were the most high-tech toilets I had seen in NZ, with everything automated (and a warning that the door would open after ten minutes, ready or not!), but the rest of the town was definitely low-tech, and there was not a thing that I wanted to eat in the lone teashop that was open when we pulled in at 4:30pm.

Eventually we got to Queenstown, where I had a brisk walk in the freezing cold evening from the bus stop to the hotel. There I was surprised that they had no reservation for me, despite my having booked it through the travel agent when I booked my airline tickets. A little digging yielded the fun fact that the agent booked my room for the 12th to 15th of May instead of June! Happily they had a free room, even though the hotel was crawling with wedding guests and Chinese tourists, and it was the opening day of ski season, and I eventually managed to get the travel agency to sort out the situation so that I won’t have to pay for the room again.

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Lake Wakatipu

The wedding I’m here to attend is between the daughter of Oamaru friends Toni and Derek, Sally, and her rugby-playing fiancé, Nick. The couple live in London, where Nick plays for the Harlequins, and apparently he’s a bit of a celebrity, since we were all told in the buses heading to the wedding venue that we were forbidden from posting any images in public fora because of a contract between the couple and Women’s Week magazine. Thus I will not be sharing any photos from the wedding, despite it being in a beautiful winery outside of Queenstown on a very pretty (but pretty) afternoon. The celebrant was a friend of the family who has celebrated a few weddings at the lodge, and a lot of the guests are people I know from Oamaru. I was seated at a table for the reception with no one I knew, but we quickly found enough common interests to get a good conversation going. And better still, all the tables were named for parts of London, and I got Park Lane! Ka-ching!

Because the wedding was a good 30 minutes away from Queenstown, we were dependent on buses to get us back and forth, and the return buses were only leaving at midnight, so I had a pretty late night. And, since this was a Kiwi wedding involving a good number of Scots, there was a lot of alcohol consumed, and my bus ride back was a rollicking, song-filled booze cruise. Surprisingly, most seemed none the worse for wear the next morning when the group reconvened for a casual lunch, complete with a haggis that was welcomed with a recitation of Burns’ Ode. Happily, there were other things to eat besides the haggis (but the haggis actually tasted pretty good, even though the stench that emanated from it when it was pierced during the ode was really foul).

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The Haggis

The wedding now is over and I look forward to heading to the US tomorrow afternoon, and to seeing friends, family and having some meetings with travel agents. I’ll post updates from the road, for sure!

Posted by: JLG | 17 May 2015

A Trip to Wellington

Barely more than a week after getting back from our Auckland trip, I was on the road again, this time to get to Wellington for a Chaine event. J2 stayed home this time to look after the boys, and also to work on a website thing he’s doing for our lodge group. Wednesday morning I got in the car and took the three-hour drive to Christchurch where I took care of a few errands, such as trying out beds for the new rooms (the ones we’re buying are commercial, and there is nowhere to experience them other than the factory, apparently), picking up sample fabrics for our sofa beds, and looking at wooden furniture at a hardwood furniture factory. I even managed to find a bamboo tea tray for serving our pu’erh tea, something I’d been looking for for ages.

On Thursday morning I left drizzly Christchurch for the flight to Wellington. Wellington is notoriously windy, of course, so flying in can always be a bit of an “experience”, but this time the weather was just a bit wet. In fact, they were having a thunderstorm, so we were somewhat delayed landing, and then once on the ground we had to wait a bit before the lightning abated and they could let the ground crew remove the checked baggage. Still, I managed to get to my hotel in good time to get to a meeting I had organised to see one of the travel agents that we work with regularly to update them on news at the lodge.

After the meeting, I was collected by a fellow Chaine board member who had picked up another two board members already and who planned to drive us to her house for a meeting before we would head out to a dinner event. Unfortunately, a massive rainstorm was hitting the area, shutting down the highway that we needed to take, along with the commuter rail service, and causing businesses all over the area to close early, throwing thousands of people onto the already congested roads and turning what should have been a 20-minute ride into what would take at least two hours. We took a quick decision and cancelled the meeting, but the dinner was decided should go on, since a) the restaurant had already prepared for the expected 60 guests, b) the event was a fundraiser for the young chef who won the competition that we held a number of months ago so that she could afford to attend the international competition to be held in Budapest in September, and c) people (like me) had flown in for the event.

As we inched along the highway, however, all our cellphones were going crazy with people phoning us, us phoning people, and everyone trying to see whether the roads were clearing, getting worse, or alternate routes were opening up. To say the least, it was an interesting afternoon. We finally got to the house, where the four of us quickly changed into black tie for the dinner, and when we got to the restaurant we were shocked to find that out of the expected 60 guests, 57 had actually made it! The evening was going to be a success after all!

The dinner was a six-course affair, with each course prepared by either our competitor or her chef, who had just joined the Chaine. Happily for us who were involved with the competition, the dishes prepared by the competitor were the best of the evening, in particular a lamb Wellington dish that was just delicious. Unfortunately, and for reasons that I cannot quite comprehend, I did not make it to the dessert course, since something either did not agree with me or perhaps I was taking in more alcohol than the limited amount of food I had had that day could absorb (the sum of food I’d eaten before the dinner amounted to a few pieces of toast at breakfast and an apricot bar that we grabbed when we fuelled up the car for the drive). Not a wonderful sensation, especially since I was on photo duty, and did not want anyone to know that I was in a bad way. Happily it passed quickly enough, and the drive back to my hotel was far shorter than the one out so before too long I was back in bed and feeling fine.

The next day the newspapers were full of news of the floods and chaos in Wellington, but the weather had passed and was not too bad. I had another couple of meetings in the morning with more travel agents, but the rest of the day was mine to do what I wanted. I took the chance to visit the Te Papa National Museum to see their exhibit on the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli  landings. What an excellent exhibit it was, too, with enormous models of a number of soldiers made by the Weta Workshop folks and loads of interesting information that was completely new to me. It really did help somewhat to make it clear why Anzac Day is such a big deal here, despite the fact that the battle was a rout for the New Zealand (and Australian) forces and it was against a foe with which NZ (and Australia) had absolutely no argument.

In the evening I went out to the house of some friends (guests from last year who now come to Oamaru twice a year for the Steampunk and Victorian festivals, staying with us for up to a week at a time) for a wonderful dinner and an opportunity to sample some options for a signature cocktail they have offered to design for the lodge (they still have some work to do). It was so nice that they did not go on and on about being nervous cooking for me, but instead just put together a really tasty and clever meal, starting with “fish and chips” (though theirs comprised little fried whitebait and chips–when I steal this idea I’ll do it with shoestring potatoes so it’ll look like a cute miniature version of the iconic classic) and then moving on to beef Wellington (meaning I had meat Wellington both nights of my stay in Wellington).

It was overall a lovely visit to the capital, despite the weather and my bout of stomach issues, and I look forward to going back in October to judge the next national Jeune Chef Rôtisseur competition.

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