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A Week in Manhattan

My dad worked in Manhattan for something like a dozen years, and lived in a building that had free guest rooms (awesome!) so I’ve been to NYC dozens of times, but since he retired and the free room and board went bye-bye, I hadn’t been back in 7 years or so.  Things are going well, and I had tickets to the Porcupine Tree concert at Radio City Music Hall (see post here), so I decided, what the hell, let’s make it a really expensive week long vacation.  And it’s easier to post than send emails sometimes.  As a solely personal post, those looking for technical content can safely skip it.

Driving into Manhattan

I’m not quite John Madden like in my dislike of air travel, but I like long drives.  Perhaps it is because as a kid, I lived in Canada while all of our relatives were in Michigan or Missouri, and so I got used to it.  It helps me to clear my mind and think deep thoughts (that’s a joke).  In any event, I like them and so drove out from Chicago to NYC, stopping off in Pittsburgh to catch a Pirates game for the hell of it (they won, which doesn’t happen often, and featured a post-game fireworks show, which included at one point fireworks being shot off to the dulcet tones of the Cookie Monster singing “C is for cookie.”  I guess you had to be there.

<digression> Satellite radio is fantastic for long drives, especially on weekends during any sports season.  The Sunday I drove into Manhattan, I had the joy of listening to the Steelers beat the Titans (which is hard not to do when the opposing team has seven turnovers, though the Steelers tried, by going into a prevent defense and giving up a late touchdown and an onside kick…).  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the Steelers’ radio broadcast crew has to be at the top of the list for “Worst Broadcast Team, any sport, any medium.”  I don’t even want necessarily to know who the announcers are, and let them live on in their anonymous horrific-ness.  The lead announcer had a remarkable inability to follow what was happening on the field (“I think the QB just fumbled the snap, I’m not sure, it sort of looked like it, and an incomplete pass….not a sack!”), properly identify the players making plays (“And that was a heck of a tackle by James Harrison, he nearly took his head off!!!  James Harrison is proving once again that he is not only one of the greatest defensive players of our generation, but possibly up there with the all-time greats….<pause>….no that was, Woodley, Woodley with the hit), or otherwise allow you to easily visualize the individual plays, which is normally considered an important part of the job of a lead announcer.  The color commentator was sort of typical, with the random hyper yelling at odd times, and for no apparent reason.  The best part of the broadcast was the (I assume) ex-jock sideline reporter, who was generally unable to provide any useful information whatsoever.  After one fumble, they tossed it down to him…’So, were you able to see who recovered the fumble?”…”No, I’m blocked here by the people on the sideline, so I couldn’t see anything, but once the offensive line starting hooting and hollering and putting on their helmets, I figured something good had happened.”  His best line, when commenting on the heat during a lull, was something like “It’s so hot here, it’s like you could smoke a turkey in the Sahara!”  Um, well, typically when smoking meat, you want to do a slow, low…wait a minute, what? 

It was three plus hours of pure broadcasting fantastical-ness.  At least I got to listen to the broadcast of a game played by Charlie Batch, the greatest QB of our era.  But I digress</digression>

Driving into the city, I discovered that you could actually send and receive text messages while in the Jersey Tunnel, which was a surprise (don’t text and drive kids), but the real fun came once I got into the city.

Like I said, I’ve been to the city many times, and driven into it often as well.  But, since I’ve gotten a GPS-enabled vehicle, I’m pretty much totally dependent on it, and rather lazy.  I didn’t bother to print out directions or anything, I just plugged in the address of the hotel and let er rip.

One problem is that some of the streets in Midtown were blocked off to traffic.  They opened them up later in the week, so I don’t know if it was a special event, something they do every weekend, or what, but some of them happened to be streets that GPS really wanted me to use. 

Then, and I’m not sure how this is even possible, but it did happen, the GPS had the directions of cross-streets reversed, and so kept asking me to drive the wrong way down one way streets, which isn’t a good idea in any city, much less than Manhattan. 

At this point, I was kind of screwed, since all I had bothered to look up is that the hotel was on Broadway, and somewhere between 45th and 48th.  Finally, I just found a city garage and parked there, and moved it to to the hotel valet parking the next day.

Note to self: have a backup plan for when GPS screws up.

Staying in Manhattan

A pretty common refrain I’ve heard from other people who’ve visited the city is that the hotel rooms tend to be glorified walk-in closets, which isn’t surprising.  The smallest hotel room I’ve been in was in hotel, with a king sized bed, and then maybe 3-5 feet clearance around it.  And a bathroom.  So, I was expecting something like that, but hoping for better.

Much better.  The Mariott Marquis ain’t cheap, but the room was worth it.  King sized bed and enough room for a lounge and a sofa.  And over looking Times Square.  Expensive, and valet parking was more expensive, and ESPN HD occasionally locked up on the tv, but what the heck.  It was worth it.

Walking in Manhattan

Some people might be appalled at this, but you could argue that I spent a week in one of the greatest cities in the world, doing essentially nothing.  Having been to the city so many times, I’ve been to most of the museums, at least all of the ones I care about (I have to admit, and this will shock some people, I’m not necessarily that much of a museum guy).  And I don’t like theater shows that much (I already have culture coming out the ying-yang, obviously), and there was nothing playing that would make me really want to see anything (they made a musical based on the music of Green Day?  Seriously?  Wow, sign me up….).  So, I did what I’ve often done, and that is walk, walk around as much of the city as possible, stopping in shops and just enjoying the sights.

For instance, the first full day I was there, I took the subway down to Battery Park and from there, walk up through the business district to Wall Street, then head east over to the South Street Seaport and Pier 47.  From there, it was back across the city to the West through Trinity Church and over to the World Trade Center site, and a view of the new Freedom Tower, then over to the World Financial Center.  After that, it was back across town and then up through Chinatown and Little Italy (which was in the beginning of the Feast of San Gennaro), and then a walk all the way up Broadway back to the hotel, in time to relax a little bit before dinner (more on that below).

On other days, I crisscrossed the city, starting at 32nd St and 8th Ave and heading East to Park Place, then up a block to 33rd and back West.  Depending on which street it was, I might go more East or West.  I wanted to go to the UN, but the General Assembly was in session.  I did get to see one of those all black vehicle motorcades as they jetted some diplomat across town while automatic-weapon toting security stood watch, which you don’t see everyday.  Anyway, I did this crisscrossing all the way up to Central Park South, and on another day, took a two hour walk through most of Central Park itself.  I also walked through Greenwich Village, Soho, and Tribeca.  On another day, to get off my feet for a while, I took the 3-hour Circle Line boat tour around the Island, which I hadn’t done in quite a while.

When doing a walking tour like that, it’s really important to have comfortable shoes.  Being in shape helps (note to self: get in better shape).  And, let’s just mention one word..chafing.   Let’s move on.

Eating in Manhattan

The other main thing I did was eat.  I’ve never been to culinary school (though I know someone who graduated from CIA), but I did work as a cook through much of college.  These days, I tend to watch two things on TV: sports and the Food Network.  Because of this there were various places of chefs I’ve heard about, and I used OpenTable to get reservations at a bunch of different places that I had wanted to go to (since I didn’t confirm till about a month before I was going, I had to shot at getting into the main places of anyone, except one).  There was a risk of having full multi-course meals everyday, but walking 10+ miles a day helped to increase the appetite and keep the calories off.  Most of them.  Here’s the places I hit:

Lupa

Lupa is one of Mario Batali’s places, serving up rustic Italian food that was delicious, and, relatively speaking, cheap.

  • Prosciutto di Parma
  • Clams with Frugola and Basil
  • Ricotta Gnocci with Sausage and Fennel
  • Braciola
  • Sweet Corn Gelato

The only purely ‘casual dress’ dining place I went to (though I’m pretty sure every place and someone in jeans, etc.), it was a great way to start the week, the night I drove into town.  The prosciutto smelled as good as it tasted and the clams dish was something I could make easily enough at home, nice flavors.  The braciola is one of those things that in theory is easy enough to make: take pork shoulder, stuff it with whatever, wrap it up and then braise it in tomatoes and wine for a week and a half (or whatever) till it’s practically melting.  And the sweet corn gelato was one of the most surprising dishes of the week, a definite winner. 

Overall, very good, and easily the cheapest of the week, half of the most expensive meal.

Bar Americain

Bar Americain is one of Bobby Flay’s places, and was probably the least impressive of the trip (though that’s pretty relative).

  • Three Shellfish Cocktail Sampler: Lobster-Avocado, Crab-Coconut, Shrimp-Tomatillo
  • Gulf Shrimp and Grits, Bacon, Green Onions, Garlic
  • Fulton Fish Market Cioppino
  • Bourbon Praline Profiterole

If you watch any of Bobby Flay’s 97 shows on TV, you know he’s known for big bold flavors, which is why the meal was the most surprising.  The Lobster-Avocado cocktail didn’t have any avocado that I could tell, and the Crab-Coconut had no discernible coconut flavor (though the mango was good).  They weren’t bad, of course, but didn’t really jump out.  The Shrmip-Tomatillo was quite good though.  Similarly, while the shrimp and grits was good, it was sort of bland, not very pronounced.

Apparently, the Cioppino was made in SF and then flown out or something.  I kid of course, and I’m not sure I necessarily would have noticed (I like long drawn out meals, and just drinking some wine and thinking my deep doctorate thoughts (joke again)) , but both the waiter and the manager came to the table to apologize that they were having difficulty ‘finding’ my cioppino.  Couldn’t find it?  Did it miss a connecting flight in Dallas?  Anyway, it wasn’t that late, and more than made up for the appetizer’s blandness, a spicy winner worth the wait.

The ‘loser’ of all the dinners, it was still rather enjoyable.

BLT Prime

BLT Prime is one of the steakhouses from Laurent Tourondel, this was the most expensive meal of the trip.

  • Seafood Platter (Oysters, Little Neck Clams, Crab Claw, Shrimp, 1/2 Lobster)
  • Wagyu Ribeye
  • Cheesecake with Blackberries and a Cornmeal Crust

Since I cook so much steak for myself (less than I used to, damn Cholesterol), I tried to avoid having steak every night, but decided that this would be the night for it.  I went pretty classic here, a separated surf n’ turf.  The seafood platter was good.  Well prepared and tasty.

Was the steak the greatest steak I’d ever had, the Wagyu head and shoulders above anything (save Kobe beef from Japan perhaps) I’ve ever tasted?  Probably not.  Were the sauces I chose (horseradish and chimichurri) a revelation?  No, not in and of itself.  But combined with a glass (or two) of a really fantastic Cabernet, this was one of those “savor each bite” indulgent, f%&k it I’m enjoying this meals.  Small bite of steak, small sip of wine, enjoy.  Wait a minute.  Rinse and repeat.  I can’t say how long I stretched it out, but at one point the manager came over and asked if everything was all right, or if I needed more sauces.  No, I’m fine, thanks.

A meal worth tipping well over.

Bar Boulud

Bar Boulud is one of the many places that server classic and classy French food from Daniel Boulud, probably the best overall meal I had.

  • Terrine of Slow Cooked Spiced Leg of Lamb, Eggplant and Sweet Potato
  • Spanish Iberico Belotta Ham
  • Corn and Mussel Chowder
  • Aïoli – Olive Oil Poached Cod, Louisiana Shrimp, Mussels, Garlic Dip, Quail Eggs & Vegetables
  • Black and White Boudin Tasting
  • Venezuelan Chocolate Grand Cru Tart, Cocoa Leaves, Ivory Crémeux, Raspberry-White Chocolate Ice Cream

Somehow, I got the cross-street on this one wrong, so was momentarily confused.  Then, when I arrived, I sort of noticed by didn’t pay attention to the fact that the hostess put down a second menu at my table, so the waiter didn’t speak to me for 15 minutes until asking if I wanted something to drink while waiting.  And the initial cocktail was tiny.  Not exactly an auspicious start.  But from there, it was terrific.

The terrine is one of those things that any good French chef can probably put out in his sleep, but it’s something you don’t eat everyday, and the taste was outstanding.  The imberico was not quite as good as the prosciutto as Lupa, but that’s quibbling.  The corn and mussel chowder was terrific, the Aioli so good, I actually ate the vegetables, and the boudin just one of those things to enjoy.

Just a great French meal.

Morimoto

Luckily, the $30 an ounce Kobe beef steaks were off the menu, making the choice of the chef tasting menu at Morimoto’s an easy one.

  • Tuna Tartare
  • Fluke Carpaccio
  • Albacore Tuna Caeser Salad
  • Oyster with Foie Gras in Miso
  • Sushi course
  • Wagyu Filet and Garam Masala Lobster
  • Chestnut Cake with Green Tea Sorbet

Morimoto’s was the hardest to find, though in retrospect it should be pretty obvious that a building fronted by very large colorful curtains is probably not a bank.  The most visually distinctive place, I was happy that the ‘omakase’ menu was a recommendation.  The tuna tartare and Sushi were just ‘basic’ well executed Japanese food.  The oyster with foie gras was probably the best single taste of the week, and the Indian couple on their first date at the table next to me was envious of the Masala Lobster.

One obvious ‘problem’ with a meal like this was pairing wine with it.  No problem, there was an ‘omasake’ drink pairing.  For every dish.  Every single dish.  Sure, they weren’t huge drinks, but that’s 7 courses and 7 drinks (plus the obligatory pre-meal martini).  Let’s just say it’s a good thing Daddy took the subway.  The best of the lot was a ‘smoky’ sake that tasted like scotch. 

Another memorable meal.

Day of Lunches

The day of the concert, I didn’t have any dinner plans, so I had a few lunches.

  • A hot dog in Central Park
  • A couple of tacos at Taco Taco in the Upper East Side
  • Freshly shucked clams in Little Italy
  • Pepperoni Pizza in Little Italy
  • Beef Fried Rice in Chinatown

Just a whole bunch of (relatively) small lunches, including authentic Italian and Chinese.  Well, the fried rice was small in the sense of price.

Summary

Since I’ve been to NYC so many times, I briefly wondered why I hadn’t done this sort of thing before.  Oh, that’s right.  It’s expensive.  Most of the previous times I visited, I was broke.

I took in one of the comedy shows they ‘hawk’ in Times Square ($10 plus 2 drink minimum), which was marginal.  I also hit a couple of lounges, including the hotel lounge and the BlueFin.  It always surprises me that places shut down in Times Square by 2AM.  South Beach never shut down, though, of course, if you know where to go, Manhattan is always open.  I’m not as young as I used to be, and I dodged a cougar-attack one evening (if you know what I mean), so it was probably just as well.

If I did this every year, would I enjoy it as much?  Well, hell, yes, obviously.  Am I likely to do it again soon?  Probably not immediately, there’s always too much work and other things going on.  I have an eye on a west coast hockey tour in the spring.  You never know when you will have the chance to take this sort of vacation.

Overall, it was a great trip.  Especially since the first week back, I had to deal with emergency production migrations.  But I digress.

posted on Monday, October 04, 2010 8:45 PM Print
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