Monday, February 18, 2013

Times Square & Chinatown

Today marks the first time I've had off of work on President's Day since high school, so while this weekend is three days long instead of the standard two, I'm just taking the extra day to relax. It's lovely.

Saturday I got more visitors from Michigan! My mom and stepdad stopped by and got to see my apartment. After breakfast (more bagels!) and the "grand tour," we headed down to Times Square for some tourist-y entertainment. We had lunch at the homage to Forrest Gump, Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.

We had tickets for both exhibitions just around the corner at Discovery Times Square - Harry Potter and Spy: The Secret World of Espionage. We'd just missed the Phelps brothers' autograph session, but it was probably for the best because it wasn't crowded. (They play the Weasley twins in the movies.) We first took in the spy exhibit, and while it was awesome, it was soooo long. We were in there for close to 3 hours. And, unfortunately, it was a no-photos-allowed exhibit, maybe because of all the "top secret" stuff we got to see.

The only picture I was able to sneak in, ironically
After an exhaustive (and exhausting) spy tour, it was time for Harry Potter. Primarily visual, there was a lot less reading and it took us less than an hour to get through. Of the two, this is the one I enjoyed the most. It was really cool to see the actual props and costumes that were used to make the movies. Having the opportunity to act in those movies or even be on set must have been quite an experience. Again, no pictures, but I took this in the gift shop (mostly for Nora).

Four Hedwigs, wearing hats from the four Hogwarts houses
On Sunday, with my mom and stepdad back on their way to Michigan, Steve and I took a trip to Chinatown to celebrate the Lunar New Year with the parade. It started at 1, but since we couldn't get there until after 12:30, we took position towards the end of the parade route. I'd worn layers but maybe not enough - it was freezing! The parade showed up sometime around 2.

Our spot

The parade wasn't everything I thought it would be, but perhaps that was due to our location. We were near a few people visiting from Virginia who said they come to NYC every year at this time just to see the parade. So, either they're very hard up for parade entertainment, or it's usually better or it's just better closer to Mott St. where it starts. The red dragons (above) were the highlight of the parade for me.

Then, wholly unprepared, Steve and I plunged headfirst into our first dim sum experience. We walked over to Jing Fong on Elizabeth and it was completely packed.

Lobby @ Jing Fong

We actually only ended up waiting for about 15 minutes before we got a table, which I thought was a minor miracle, but it just turns out the dining room upstairs is humungous. Not knowing anything about dim sum or any of the Chinese language, we were a bit out of our element. We were seated at a table with a party of 3 before our waiter came over with tea pots and cups for all. No sooner had he set down our empty plates than we were greeted by a server with a cart of unfamiliar-looking food whose names we didn't know and couldn't understand. We accepted a few different kinds of dumplings (I think they were seafood, pork and veggie) and dove in. On other rounds, we picked up shrimp noodles (basically just shrimp in noodles), an unknown kind of meat that we couldn't figure out how to eat (our best guess was frog legs), an egg-tasting roll-up of sorts, and then another mystery or two. I'd guess that the whole dim sum experience is probably better with someone who either knows what's going on or with servers who are able to communicate to you what it is that you're eating. I'm not in a rush to go back, but that's not to say I'll never take the plunge again. 

Year of the Snake here we come!

Nemo Weekend: A Bit Random

Winter Storm Nemo put a bit of a wrinkle in this weekend’s plans, but I was actually rather happy to take it easy, considering last weekend was insanely busy. The disgusting weather started on Friday morning (sleet-y rain) and then turned into snow and continued until Saturday. My roommate had a visitor in for the weekend, and she made it, even though her bus was cancelled, before the trains shut down.

We went out to dinner on Friday night just a short walk from the apartment to Maison Harlem. We’d been there once before, for brunch, but this was our first trip for dinner. Delicious. We had appetizers of marinated olives and fried calamari. For my main course, I had the seafood pasta (clams, mussels and shrimp with a garlicky, herby, slightly creamy sauce) and I would absolutely get it again. It was well-balanced and perfectly portioned. For dessert, I got the lemon tart and was a little less impressed. The filling was really good, and though the crust had good flavor, it was super hard (to the point where I was hacking at it to get a bite). Like most of Manhattan, we spent the rest of the night in, watching movies and enjoying some of our alcohol supply.

On Saturday, the three of us ventured out to get bagels (72nd St Bagel again) and then to wander around Central Park.

I feel like I saw more kids out and about that morning than I’ve ever seen in a single outing before. Sleds were everywhere. Then I had to hustle back to the apartment for a video chat with some college friends, while the other two went in search of cupcakes and musical tickets.

We opted for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, still in previews, based a little bit on one of the actresses’ appearances at our dueling pianos celebration last weekend. Before dinner we went to Carnegie Deli, home of humungous sandwiches, especially the famous pastrami. Pictures of celebrities (and what appeared to be nobodies that signed their pictures anyway) covered the walls. We got to eat next to Britney Spears.

I really enjoyed Cinderella, even though the story developed differently than I expected. (Spoiler alert: Cinderella doesn’t leave her shoe at the ball!) I was familiar with some of the music, having repeatedly watched and thoroughly enjoyed the Brandy/Whitney Houston version as a child. I have to say, those songs were my favorite. The costume changes were almost like real-life magic, and the actress playing the Fairy Godmother did an amazing job.

The forest - loved the set

"Glass slippers are so back"

Monday, February 4, 2013

Birthday and Tourism Overload (Days 2 & 3)

Saturday began with a walking tour of Central Park, or more specifically a foodie walking tour. We met our tour guide, Giovanni (from Better Adventures) just in front of the Museum of Natural History at 10:00 am. Of the 10 people who were supposed to be on this tour, we were the only two who showed up. Possibly because the temperature didn’t make it above 30. So, in addition to a much more personalized tour, more food for us!

Breakfast came first - tasty (and warm!) spinach/cheese and ham/cheese stuffed croissants from Zabar’s on the UWS. All of the food was brought along from Zabar’s and it was all amazingly delicious. I will be making a trip...or twenty. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed breakfast wasn’t the ever-famous New York bagel, but we remedied that the next day.

The walking tour was basically the entire south half of the park, from 81st all the way to the bottom, at 59th. Giovanni shared a wealth of information along the way, including some background as to why Central Park was created in the first place - to put it simply, all of the packed-full tenements of the time were producing crazies. And with the population exploding at the time, people took to hanging out in cemeteries as a way to get away from all the noise in the city. Not ideal. People need nature and open-air spaces in their lives, and so this refuge in the middle of Manhattan was created.

Shakespeare Garden
(all of the plants are mentioned somewhere in a work of Shakespeare)
Sundial / View of the city from Shakespeare Garden

Fun whispering bench
We came upon Belvedere Castle and, because our “group” was so small, got to go all the way to the top. From there, Giovanni pointed out all sorts of interesting things, including the Great Lawn where many a concert are held and the Delacorte Theater where Shakespeare in the Park is performed in the summer. Atop the castle, we dug into the rest of the food. It was Nora’s first experience with Jewish food and, judging on how much we managed to eat (3 of us eating food meant for 10), it won’t be her last. We stuffed ourselves with as many blintzes, knishes and latkes we could. It’s making me hungry just thinking about it, so I’ll move on.

Looking down on Belvedere Castle
Turtle Pond and the Great Lawn

We walked through The Ramble, which Giovanni explained to us is so wooded in the height of spring and summer that you can’t see any buildings through the trees. Obviously, people often get lost. Since we happened to be there in the dead of winter, we weren’t fooled to feeling like we were in the wilderness. Still, birds could be heard chirping incessantly and we even found what Giovanni thought was Pale Male (pronounced by him as Pall Mall), a Red-tailed Hawk that lives near the park. He is one of the first known one of them to have nested in a building rather than a tree and is famous for creating a little population of urban-dwelling Red-tailed Hawks.

Pale Male
Pale Male lives in a nest above the middle window on the top floor
(on 5th Ave, overlooking Central Park)
The landscape architects who designed Central Park originally intended for it to showcase nature with no sculptures and minimal buildings present. But, there did come a part of the tour where we stumbled upon sculpture after sculpture.

Alice in Wonderland
Me and the Ugly Duckling! (and Hans Christian Anderson)
We also strolled past the Central Park Zoo and took a gander at the Delacorte Musical Clock and the seals. Right near there is the Arsenal, which is a building older than the park itself. It was originally used to store arms and ammunition and was, therefore, fireproof. Because it was fireproof, P.T. Barnham, who had lost several of his circus animals to fire, once used it to store the animals before the zoo became the zoo.

Leaving the zoo brought us to the southeast-most corner of the zoo, which is also one of the busiest entrances. So, we veered right and walked under the Inscope Arch, better known as the arch where Kevin meets the Pigeon Lady and escapes from the bad guys in Home Alone 2. It’s also where Nora and I got a cool picture.

This was all Giovanni's idea
Then we were at The Pond (full of soooo many ducks!) and the famous Wollman Rink, as we made our way to The Mall. The Mall is one of the more iconic areas of Central Park, and under nicer weather conditions, would have been a bit more picturesque. It was intended to be a “literary walk” lined with statues of great writers, but after the fourth statue was made much larger than the three that were already there, the architects got frustrated, put it somewhere else, and called the whole thing off. Those three statues are still there, at the beginning of the wide path.

The Mall, minus all the pretty leaves
At the end of The Mall is Bethesda Terrace and through that Bethesda Fountain, featured in the Disney movie Enchanted, among many others. The terrace has some interesting imagery on the outside, with an opposites theme of sorts. On the right side when you walk in (“in” in this case being towards the fountain from The Mall) is a rooster and a sunrise, signifying day; on the right side, an owl, witch and the moon represent night. Coming out of the terrace, more carvings depict different seasons. The fountain is probably one of the most well-known fountains in the world and is one of the largest in New York. The angel on the top of the fountain’s one arm is outstretched to bless the water. It commemorates when fresh water was first supplied to New York City in the mid-nineteenth century.

(Pardon my finger)
Fountain with the Boathouse in the distance
We headed further west towards the Bow Bridge, walked past a statue of Daniel Webster (the one that was too big for the literary walk that never was), and into Strawberry Fields. This area of the park is a living memorial to John Lennon, as he and his wife Yoko lived just across Central Park West in the Dakota and it was one of their favorite spots in the park. It was named after the Beatles song “Strawberry Fields Forever” following his assassination. Several countries donated their native plants to grow in the park, but because they weren’t native to New York or the United States, many of them didn’t last. The Italians, however, wisely donated the now famous Imagine mosaic that indicates the center of Strawberry Fields. And, two and a half hours later, that was the end of our Central Park walking tour with our super awesome tour guide Giovanni.

Bow Bridge (The Dakota is the building towards the left with green pointed roofs)
Central Park then (photo, held by Giovanni) and now

Next on the agenda - the Museum of Art and Design. On the way, though, we stopped and got an oh-so-famous (and sub-par) hot dog from a street vendor. Is there a vendor somewhere that has really great hot dogs? Why are these such a big deal? At least it’s off the to-do list. We also stopped into the Time Warner Center, mainly for a warmth and a bathroom break, but we also ended up poking around Williams & Sonoma and eating a few yummy samples. We took another quick detour at Argo Tea for some warm beverages and then we made it to the museum.

I will admit I was a bit more excited about the museum going into it than I actually ended up being during the visit, but the exhibit that propelled me to want to go in the first place was pretty great. “The Art of Scent” explored twelve different scents from the 1800s to the present and how perfumes are created and how they were originally transformed by the addition of synthetic ingredients. It was more cool in the way it was presented - everyone had to go up to a large head-shaped indent in the wall, and while you hovered, some of the scent sprayed up from the bottom so you could smell it. Each scent was accompanied with a little description of its notes and creation.

We went to a literal hole-in-the-wall on the UWS, Sal & Carmine’s, for dinner. I found it on a list of Best Pizza in NYC on (one of my go-tos for NYC events and bests and whatnot), so I thought why not? Definitely not somewhere to go for the atmosphere, or manners really. The service was gruff and the selection minimal. I’m not sure if you’re able to request additional ingredients or not, but Mr. Grumpy (Sal? Carmine?) wasn’t really encouraging me to ask any questions. The pizza was good, but not even close to the best I’ve ever had. Next time Nora comes we’ll have to get her some better pizza.

My birthday celebration (officially, anyway) kicked off later that night. My roommate Steve, Nora and I headed down to the Financial District for a dueling pianos show at Brick NYC. Due to some unforeseen subway changes (remind me to download the app for that), we didn’t get there as early as we’d planned and sat a few tables back. Maybe that was best in the end because they were calling up anyone with a celebration to be had and, let’s be honest, I’m not one for public humiliation or displays or whatever they happen to be. The pianists were very entertaining and one, Brad, was especially nice. He had come around prior to the show and talked to us for a little while; his birthday was that day. Yay birthdays! By the end of the night, we’d abandoned our table all together and were dancing/jumping around and singing along with everyone else.

Surprise performance by various Broadway actors!

Having had two very full and exhausting days, and having not poured into bed until around 4am, we weren’t exactly chomping at the bit on Sunday morning, so we took the day a bit slower. I may sometimes disagree about New York pizza - I’ve had pizza here both good and bad and have had very good pizza in other parts of the country too - but I am wholeheartedly a fan of the New York bagel. Best in the world. So, naturally, Nora had to try one while she was here. We started the day with a trip to 72nd Street, which is apparently the closest place to my apartment to get a non-Dunkin Donuts bagel. It was worth it - very good bagels. And, bonus, they had black and whites (cookies), so my cousin got to try one of those too.

After some present opening and video chatting and then really rushed getting ready, we ventured back out into the city. We took the A down to 14th St and walked to Marble Lane on 16th St, where the three of us had reservations for lunch (more Restaurant Week). The ceiling decor was nifty, the booths were comfy, the music was totally random, and the portions were generous. It’s one of the few times I’ve been to a Restaurant Week meal in my life and have had leftovers. We all started with a Caesar salad. For the main course, Steve and I got a Kobe Patty Melt with fries (so good!), while Nora played it a little healthier and more elegant with edamame ravioli (also very good). Then, I tried to force myself to eat dessert, which was probably the biggest piece of cheesecake I’ve ever seen. I finished about half. The other two got Rocky Mountain Chocolate Cake which was served with some kind of gelato and had a caramel popcorn garnish.  

Marbles on the ceiling

Edamame Ravioli

Rocky Mountain Chocolate Cake

Huge Slice of (NY Style) Raspberry Cheesecake
As I write this, it seems like the day mainly revolved around food, but that’s okay. When we got back to the apartment after lunch, there wasn’t much time before the Super Bowl began. And, that was pretty much it - the rest of the day was relaxing with movies, TV and somehow even more eating. Not a bad way to wrap up my birthday weekend, I think. :)

It was obviously awesome having my cousin visit, but having someone visit who had never ever been here before was also a great excuse to play tourist to the extreme. Overall, a fabulous weekend and thanks so much to Nora for letting me drag her all over New York.

Birthday and Tourism Overload (Day 1)

(This weekend has been split into 2 posts.)

Kicking off February and month two of excursioning (yes, I’m making up words), I had my very first NYC visitor! My cousin came in from Michigan, and having never been to this lovely city, expectations were high. It was also my birthday, so I really like to do it up...or something like that. Either way, big things happened.

My cousin got in late on Thursday evening, so her only real NYC “experience” was the ride from the airport to my apartment and then the shockingly small apartment that is mine. (This ain’t no Friends rent-controlled apartment.) Friday got much better.
We started the day with her very first subway ride down to the Staten Island Ferry. I’ve never taken the trip but it was recommended by a few friends from work, and it seemed a suitable substitute for Liberty/Ellis Islands, which are still closed because of Hurricane Sandy. Plus, it’s free. The ride over to Staten Island was a bit of a bummer because we happened to get on an older ferry that had no outside access for passengers. We had to make due with looking at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island through our dirty-windowed cabin. (We did try taking pictures, but the dirty windows prevented any sort of “wow” factor.) 

Nora gets her first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty

Luckily, the ferry back proved to be a newer model, so we immediately went up to the top and outside. We took in the Manhattan skyline, the always regal Lady Liberty and Ellis Island. We braved the cold and wind to snap a bajillion pictures and even got a nice guy to take a few of us together.

After our ferry ride, we had tickets to visit the 9/11 Memorial at 11:30 - our timing turned out to be pretty perfect. We made it through the many security measures and ventured onto the site of the former World Trade Center. Like most memorials, it was a solemn experience (not many “highlights” to report). The North and South Pools were really quite amazing as was the story of the Survivor Tree. The museum was under construction, and I’m not sure when it’s scheduled to open. Of course, the buildings are still being worked on as well.

Me learning about the Survivor Tree:
It was planted in the original plaza in the 1970s. It was found by firefighters in the wreckage after 9/11 reduced to an 8' stump.
It was nursed back to health in a park and grew to 30' until in March 2010 it was uprooted by severe storms. Still, it survived.
Since December 2010 it has been on this site, embodying resilience and the story of survival.  

We wandered into a nearby restaurant from lunch - BLT Bar & Grill in the W Hotel. Surprisingly, not a single BLT on the menu! There was a BLT Burger, but I still maintain that that doesn’t actually count. We split some fried calamari to start. Note to readers: the fried garnishes are lemon slices and green tomatoes. (Imagine my cousin’s surprise when she bit into what she thought was a french fry / potato chip thing.) For lunch we split two pizzas - Margherita, which is admittedly a bit boring and tasted just alright, and Brussels Sprouts, which was amazing. It was topped with butternut squash, bacon and cipollini in addition to the sprouts. 

Delicious pizza
Before our next scheduled stop, the Empire State Building, we headed over to SoHo so my cousin could check out a little NYC shoe shopping, though it ultimately was unsuccessful. We popped out of Penn Station and made our way to the tall landmark. I had pre-purchased tickets, not knowing whether it would be busy or not, but the place was practically empty.


Here we are!
We were through security and to the top in less than 15 minutes. Again, we wasted no time getting outside to take it all in. We were relatively shielded from the wind on the east and south sides of the observation deck, but yikes! was it intense on the other two sides. Pictures were taken and then we ran back inside to un-freeze.

Chrysler Building
West (look really far for Michigan!)

Reallllllly windy and cold
Hey, NYC!
We wandered over to the famous New York Public Library and poked around a bit. (I still have yet to find a normal bookshelf in there...) Then, we hopped on the subway and headed home to prepare for a night on the town.

For dinner, we had reservations at Ouest on the Upper West Side as part of Restaurant Week, which luckily just-so-happens to fall around my birthday every winter. (Yay me!) The menu took us a bit by surprise, since it didn’t match what we’d seen online but we adjusted. For our appetizers, I had the duck liver pate while my cousin had a raviolo, filled with what exactly I can’t remember, and then we both got the hanger steak, served with fingerling potatoes, greens and a cream-based sauce, as our main course. We also split a bottle of Chardonnay from what was possibly a clearance section of the menu (going going gone...). Capping off a pretty rich meal, I chose the mango and raspberry sorbet for my dessert; my cousin got the dense chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream.

Dinner was followed by Nora’s first trip to Broadway - Disney’s Newsies at the Nederlander Theatre, which also happened to be a part of 2-for-1 Broadway Week. What luck! Neither of us had seen the movie, so we went in not really knowing what to expect. I originally wanted to see it because an Ithaca College alumni was playing the lead, but because he got a TV role had stopped performing in the show late last year. Still, I noticed another IC alum in the program who happened to be making his
Broadway debut as Davey. In fact, according the program, the majority of the cast were making their Broadway debut in this show, including some of the leads. We both really enjoyed the performance. The dancing was amazing and everyone did a great job.