New York City weekend, March 2008

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Pictures and stories from our trip to New York City, March 20–23.

Preparation

We decided to book the flight on points. It proved much more complicated than we expected to get a Thursday morning departure flight and a Sunday night return. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of flights at both those times, but point rules meant that:

  • We had to be on the same airline for both departing and return flight.
  • Newark was out because it’s in New Jersey, which is not an “adjoining” state.
  • Not all flights are eligible for point use.

So it took some time for the agent to find us suitable itinerary, but we did get one, on American Airlines, to JFK.

Booking the hotel was also very confusing. We wanted to stay in Manhattan, pay no more than $200 a night, but not be in a dive. The number of websites offering options and the fact that prices literally changed daily was a bit mind-boggling. We finally went with the recommendations from the Frommer’s website, and booked at one of the Apple Core line of hotels, the Red Roof Inn. Frommer’s was quite helpful in telling us there were two ways to reserve online at that hotel, and prices weren’t always the same. So we tried both and indeed, found that one was cheaper.

We also booked a Toronto hotel for the night before—the Carlingview Inn.

Finally, restaurants. We had the red Michelin Guide. In a bid to ensure we had a couple memorable meals there, but weren’t tied down completely by restaurant reservations, we booked just a couple in advanced: dinner Thursday at Fleur de Sel and lunch Friday at Gotham Bar and Grill. More on both later.

Getting there

The night before, we had to go to London for a Business Awards dinner. The company President was receiving an Icon award. I was concerned about this keeping us up late when we did have a relatively early flight the next day, but I must say, those awards were very good at running everything on time. It even finished 10 minutes early! It was also a pretty nice dinner, and good to see Jean’s company recognized.

The weather cooperated for driving, and the Toronto hotel was fine; very friendly, and they supplied breakfast. Our plane was tiny, but that’s OK. The takeoff was just a little delayed because of airport traffic. That caused some problems at the arrivals end, though, because at that point, several planes were lined up to take off, and several more to deplane. We ended up spending an hour slowly making our way around the tarmac before finally de-planning. Oh well. Must say that’s much easier to take on a one-hour flight than it would have been after a long one.

Day 1: Architecture, park, and tasting menu

We took a taxi to our hotel, and found that the hotel was quite nice. Our room was not huge, of course, but it had some floor space, and a king-size bed and flat-screen TV. We were up on the 16th floor, so we got a lot of light as well.

We decided to just do some walking the first day. We started at the Empire State Building (about a block from our hotel), which had huge lineups of people waiting to go up, then headed up Fifth Avenue. We saw Macy’s—didn’t go in—and the gorgeous New York Public Library building, which we also didn’t go in. We did turn down 42nd Street and enter Grand Central Terminal, which is beautiful.

We then had lunch at a bustling Italian place called Osteria Laguna. Jean was amazed to discover that he liked the supplied olives, as he’s not normally a fan. But those olives were unusually fresh and good. He also really enjoyed his entree of “homemade ravioli filled with wild boar and sour cherries, port wine reduction,” while I appreciated my thin-crust “pizza in four quarters: prosciutto cotto, artichokes, black olives, and fresh mushrooms.”

We then went into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where I convinced Jean to take some pictures.

St Patrick's cathedral

St Patrick’s, a massive Gothic cathedral dedicated in 1879

We saw some other interesting sights along the streets, including some statues. We stopped in the Museum of Modern Art briefly, partly just to check out the building, but decided not to tour the exhibits this day.

Love statue

I’m sure I’m the first person to think of posing this way…

We ended up in Central Park and walked around its East end, seeing the rink and so on. We spent some time trying to find the Zoo, then when we did, decided we didn’t feel like paying the admission fee. So we just had some hot chocolate, and actually concluded that a nap before supper would be good.

Central Park view

Another Central Park view

The park in the City


But first, we had to walk back. We decided to go down Broadway and through Times Square for that. Much like last time I was here, it was very crowded! We managed it by speed walking through. Still, I noticed there were a lot of interesting-looking shows on. We also saw David Letterman’s studio.

And the city in the City!

So we did nap, once back at our room, and then we got ready for our 8:00 dinner at Fleur de Sel. Here we had six-course tasting with matching wines. There were choices all along the way, so we decided to each have different things, which meant we each “had” to order our own wines instead of splitting them, as we usually do at such things. I thought I’d end up pretty tipsy as a result, but that didn’t actually happen.

The food was very nice. Highlights included Jean’s lobster, my seared scallops with spinach, my escargot with polenta, the amazing four-option cheese course—all American cheeses; turns out they do make some excellent ones—and the silky desserts. Particularly memorable wine was the 1990 Vouvray,
slightly caramelized, that accompanied the cheese. We also both got a Vinho Verde from Portugal to start; something we never got around to trying while in Portugal.


Day 2: City neighbourhoods and sushi

Our hotel included continental breakfast. It was actually quite decent food, but crowded! We had to grab our food and cart it up to our room to eat, as no seats remained.

We’d started really noticing how “international” New York really is. You constantly heard people speaking in so many languages—French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, German… English speakers almost seemed outnumbered.

Activity 1 on this sunny but windy day was a walk on the Brooklyn Bridge. This included our first foray into the subway, and this first ride went just fine.

The Bridge is impressive. And crowded, at least for the first part. But you do get very nice views of the city from there.

Coming at ya…

View of a bridge from the Bridge

Concluding we didn’t have time to go into Brooklyn, we then walked past City Hall and to the World Trade Center site. It’s changed since last time I was there, not only in the construction being further along, but in the exhibits are no longer displayed outside, but in a small memorial museum. We were scared away from that area by the lineup (are you detecting a theme?). After a brief stop at a famous discount store that we didn’t realize was famous and probably should have spent more time at, we went up to Greenwich Village. (I believe this is where a nice New Yorker helped us with the subway. We hadn’t realized that some were express trains that zoomed past several stops. We had to get off and backtrack at one point.)

Greenwich is a really nice neighbourhood. The building style reminded me of Montreal. And this is where we had lunch at Gotham City Bar and Grill. Their claim to fame is a $31 prix fixe three-course lunch, and that’s what we had. I started with a blue cheese and pear salad, then had an amazing duck confit, and finally a beautiful, light flourless chocolate cake. Jean had to content himself with soup (featuring foie gras), wild mushroom ravioli, and sorbet.

We’d been doing a lot of walking, and at this point Jean’s feet were, frankly, a mass of blisters. He concluded that he couldn’t go on without new shoes, so that became the next order of business. Fortunately, it did not prove that complicated to find a suitable store selling a suitably comfortable pair of shoes. Jean just wished he’d done it earlier.

Then next planned stop was Chelsea, but we first did a pit stop back at the hotel and tried to make some more dinner reservations. Aquagrill proved impossible to get into before 10:00, which prompted a slightly frantic hunt for another seafood restaurant that a) we could get into and b) we could afford. We finally succeeded—albeit with an 8:45 dining time—and then we decided that sushi would do for this evening. Lots of options there, so those reservations were made as well.

In Chelsea, an art gallery district, we made the mistake of only going to the galleries recommended by Frommer’s. That was a mistake because the Frommer’s book was a bit old, and things change rapidly in the gallery world. Some were closed; others just weren’t that interesting. We would have been better off just picking some ourselves, but by the time we realized that, they were all closing for the day.

Supper was more successful. We went to Matsuri, and had, seriously, the best sushi we’ve ever had, and that includes Vancouver. Apparently much of it is flown in very fresh from Japan. One of the starters was arctic char sushi with lime and ginger, and that was wonderful. So were the kumamoto oysters topped with really nice flavourings. And Jean’s main course of assorted sushi was just one taste sensation after another. My only regret was ordering tempura. Not that it was bad tempura; it just didn’t match up to the sushi. This was one of our best meals, and one of the cheapest.

Afterwards, we attempted to go up the Empire State Building. We were, however, informed that the wait to get up there was 2 hours. So we changed our mind about going. But I did overhear the tip that first thing in the morning was the best time to try.

Day 3: Museums and oysters

But there would be no Empire State Building this morning, as we slept in, missing our hotel breakfast window. We grabbed breakfast at a nearby place that turned out to be… pretty crappy, actually. How do you mess up eggs and fried potatoes? Anyway…

Back the subway, where we planned to visit the Guggenheim. This is an architecturally intriguing building; unfortunately, it was under renovation, so it was hard to appreciate that. And, there was a big line-up to get in, so instead we turned to the nearby Cooper Hewitt Design Museum.

It’s housed in a beautiful building, built by Carnegie, where unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any pictures. There were a couple small exhibits on, but the main one was called “Rococo, the Continuing Curve,” and we decided to join a guided tour for that. Rococo refers to very ornate, curved style of design that favours form over function. A lot of the old pieces were certainly impressive, but my favourites were the newer items by artists such as Gehring. This Museum also had an interesting store full of intriguingly designed items. We bought a birthday gift for our niece here.

It was kind of late lunch time, and we had decided we wanted more sushi. Though New York teams with sushi restaurants, finding one in the right neighbourhood, not too pricey, and open for lunch on Saturday was a bit challenging, but we decided on Tokyo Pop. This meant crossing the Park and over a few blocks more. We actually overshot the mark some, and ended up seeing part of Harlem. We didn’t feel unsafe, I don’t think, but it was pretty apparent what neighbourhood we were in.

Tokyo Pop was very quiet when we were there, as it wasn’t peak meal time. We ordered assorted sashimi, sushi, and rolls. It was very fresh and good, though without the interesting varieties that Matsuri offered.

Then we took the subway back down for a plan to walk across the park again, and to the Frick Museum. On the corner there, Jean noticed a beautiful apartment building. A look in the guidebook revealed that this was the Dakota Building, most famous as the location where John Lennon lived and was murdered. We also passed near the Strawberry Field site on our way to the Frick.

The Frick Collection (no pictures allowed here either) was another gorgeous building built for industrialist Henry Clay Frick to both live in and house his art. His collection includes works by Titian, Gainsborough, Turner, Rembrandt, El Greco, and Goya. Free audio guides were available. Jean loved the building, the Turners, and some of the other works, but felt that Frick had far too much fondness for portraits. I generally agree that portraits aren’t usually my favourite type of painting, but I did find the audio commentary added a lot to these and gave me better appreciation.

We had some time to kill before dinner—the restaurant was also in the Central Park area—so we decided to take a carriage ride. Our driver was a bit hard to understand—both volume and his accent—but he mostly seemed to be pointing out where rich and famous people lived. No mind. It was still a nice little romantic thing to.

New York… To that tall skyline I come

Carriage ride

On our amble to the restaurant, we passed by a bunch of designer clothing shops. They were all closed, but I don’t think that mattered, as I doubt we were potential customers, and we could still admire their lit windows of gorgeous items. The only thing we did buy on the way were Mallomars, a chocolate-marshmallow cookie made in Canada but sold exclusively in the US, and a couple bottles of wine. (We’d done no research on what wines to look for, so we just went with familiar French regions that were a
better deal than buying them here.)

Atlantic Grill was incredibly crowded, with tables packed into every conceivable space. We were grateful to have a side seat and not be in the middle of everything. But the food and service were great. We started with a dozen oysters, and liked those so much, we ordered six more. Naturally, we had New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with this. We then both had specials of the day, mine featuring sesame-encrusted cod, Jean’s snapper, both wonderfully flavoured. Desserts were a “banana tower” for me (a hazelnut “cone” with bananas and ice cream, and marshmallow sauce) and a great carrot cake (with a sauternes wine to accompany) for Jean.


Day 4: The great sights and some more Italian

The bottle of Sauvignon Blanc the night before prevented us from sleeping well, but that did make it easier to get up at 7:30. Not only was it much less crowded in the breakfast room then, but we finally made it up the Empire State Building. (Why the persistence? Well, we’d bought the tickets in advance.)

It was quite the production getting up there. First was the big security line, then an elevator line, a line to get your picture taken, a platform line… All told, at this “best” of times, it still took 45 minutes to get up there. The whole time they were trying to sell us things—audio guides, books, maps, pictures… But the view at the top was pretty cool. And seeing it after you’ve been walking around New York for three days does make clearer what you’re seeing. We have tons of cool pictures from up here… Here are a couple. (As you see, it was a nice clear day.)

View from Empire State building

Another view from Empire State building

Views from above

We’d basically concluded now we weren’t going to be doing any shows on this trip. Part of it is just that we take in a lot of plays and concerts right in Waterloo. Though I realize New York shows would be better quality, I still don’t feel a huge compulsion to see a bunch of concerts while on vacation.

What we did instead was go back to the subway to get down the docks (took us a while to figure out what train to take), where we planned to take the free Staten Island Ferry to get good views of Ellis Island and, especially, the Statue of Liberty.

View from the ferry

View from the ferry

And high up above my eyes could clearly see… The Statue of Liberty

Once arrived at Staten Island, everyone had to get off the boat. It was quite funny to see that the vast majority then proceeded to get right back on the boat and head back to Manhattan.

Afterwards we walked through Battery Park and into the Wall Street district, where we saw the famous Bull statue. We had lunch at another Italian place, Gingino at Wagner Park. It was very crowded when we got there, but they managed to seat us, literally by bringing in chairs and table from the outdoor patio and finding a little corner spot for them. Food, once again, was quite nice. We started with a shared order of grilled calamari, very nicely done, then it was my turn to go for the ravioli while Jean had the delicious lamb special. Dessert was chocolate strawberries on zabaglione for me, bread pudding for Jean.

Finally, time for one more big walk through New York neighbourhoods—Soho, Chinatown. Then we subwayed back to the hotel for our stuff, and took a cab to the airport. All went smoothly on the flight and drive home—though it’s one heck of a wait in Customs when you arrive right after a big Air Korea flight, as we did.

Also available: Smugmug pictures

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