Two Weeks in New York

Times Square

December 21, 2007 – January 4, 2008

Photo set on Flickr

I am not very keen on vacationing in cities, much less during the heart of the winter. The only exception would be New York City. Almost each year my NYC-based friend Mitchy would head back to Hong Kong during Christmas and her apartment would be empty for two weeks, presenting me with a perfect time to visit without spending a fortune on accommodation.

I stayed for two weeks in NYC this time with my girlfriend, spanning from several days before Christmas to a few days after New Year Day. December’s subzero temperature might cause many to reconsider visiting the East Coast in the winter, but that’s the only season of New York I am familiar with.

Since both of us have been to New York before, we took a very lenient time management approach. Sightseeing was very low on our agenda. We would spend the whole morning cleaning up the apartment or went grocery shopping the entire afternoon. To save some cash, we stocked up on beer and food and often stayed in for meals. In a nutshell, we were trying to make our apartment in Kips Bay our home away from home for two weeks.

December 21, 2007

Manhattan’s Kips Bay district, our temporary home for two weeks

Before we could get inside my friend’s apartment, I first had to retrieve a set of spare keys from Man Chiu, Mitchy’s friend who lives several blocks away. What was supposed a brief introduction turned out to be a long chat over dinner at a nearby Mexican fusion restaurant. Aside from the keys, we received two other items from Man Chiu that would influence the rest of our stay – a map with markings of some of his favourite restaurants (he is half-Chinese and half-Japanese and his girlfriend is Japanese, so not surprisingly Japanese restaurants have a very skewed representation) and his Museum of Modern Arts (MoMA) year pass. And we also borrowed his laptop.

Here is another big thank you to Mitchy for letting us crash at her place and Man Chiu for helping us out.

December 22

Chinatown

I have a soft spot for Manhattan’s Chinatown. Last time I stayed at Mitchy’s apartment back in December 2004 she was still living on Canal St. And during that time Chinatown was where I got all my grocery and often my meals. The food might not taste great but was generally filling and relatively cheap.

Compared to just three years ago Chinatown appeared to have encroached further into the adjacent Little Italy. It is far from a pretty neighbourhood. There is a reason, beyond blatant racism, why Chinatown is the setting for so many Hollywood crime movies. What lacks in aesthetic appeal is compensated by its vitality – Chinatown is always full of shoppers no matter the hour.

This was the last weekend until Christmas. In SoHo people were out in full force to do some last minute shopping despite the bitter cold. The atmosphere was contagious – my girlfriend was slowly overtaken by a desire to buy gifts and clothes. Luckily I reminded her that we would be going to Woodbury Commons Premium Outlets in a few days time and limited our consumption at the window-shopping level.

December 23

Times Square

A fifteen minute walk from our place is Koreatown, an ethnic enclave featuring numerous restaurants that serve traditional Korean cuisine and some fusion fare. The heart of the neighbourhood is the stretch of 32nd Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway.

This is where we frequented for lunch. Initially not a fan of Korean food, I gradually warm up to it as more and more Korean open restaurants in Vancouver. My Korean friends said Vancouver’s Korean food is respectable, but to me Koreatown’s is much better in comparison.

Walking north along the Seventh Avenue my girlfriend and I engaged in a conversation about gentrification. Times Square was our example and I thought the homogenized area has become a shell of its former self, with nothing but chain stores and giant billboards in sight.

But what’s so bad about being safe and family-friendly? Her view was that Times Square is merely progressing from its shady past, when the area was full of porn theatres, into one of the most recognized strip of land on earth.

It turned out to be a long conversation, or was the walk shorter than expected? Either way, before we knew it we arrived in Times Square. And there was absolutely nothing for me to do except for taking some random snapshots. I hastily dragged my girlfriend away until I found a refuge in Radio City Music Hall where we took a tour.

After having some mediocre pizza for dinner we went to Junior’s for cheesecake.

December 24

Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, MoMA (Taken on December 30)

Today we acted separately before meeting up for dinner. Without a second thought I headed straight to MoMA.

Why?

Because MoMA is the best modern art museum in the world. By a wide margin. And it was free since I was holding Man Chiu’s year pass. I could easily spend much of the day scrolling around, which was exactly what I happily did.

December 25

Dinner at Aburiya Kinnosuke

Christmas Day. Almost the entire town was closed down. I had a sudden bout of upset stomach after lunch in Koreatown, but we couldn’t find a single café or shopping mall opened for business until we walked all the way to Times Square. My endurance prowess amazed even myself.

We didn’t plan to be in Times Square. It was a clear sign we had run out of options when we shelled out thirty bucks each for the intolerably tacky Ripley’s Believe it or Not “Museum”. Our Christmas was shaping up to be rather forgettable.

Hopefully dinner would reverse the tide a bit. I had made a booking for Aburiya Kinnosuke, an upscale izakaya near Grand Central Terminal. The food didn’t disappoint. On our way out a well-dressed, middle-aged Japanese man was very exaggeratedly expressing his displeasure to the likewise Japanese captain waiter. The louder the customer raised his voice, the lower the captain bowed his head, until finally kneeling down in front of the increasingly agitated man.

We watched Will Smith’s I am Legend at a theatre in Times Square. One of the early scenes had Will Smith walking his dog past our exact location in a CGI created post-apocalyptic Times Square. The movie started off with some promise but totally fell off a cliff in the second half, just like almost every other Will Smith sci-fi flicks.

We needed a few drinks afterward to recover from my inconceivable decision to watch a Will Smith movie in theatre. On Christmas, no less.

December 26

Ground Zero

Another proof of our lack of priority was spending half a day in Newark, just because I wanted to say I have been to New Jersey. In hindsight, it would be a better use of time if we spent the whole day watching Jon Stewart reruns than going to that charmless city of monotonous commercial buildings.

After we took the PATH train back to Manhattan, we took a short walk around Ground Zero. Ten years ago at this very location I overlooked the whole of New York at the South Tower’s observation deck; three years ago there were still debris littered at the site; now construction workers are busy laying the foundation of the Freedom Tower.

We concluded our unproductive day watching HBO at home while eating dinner bought from a Greenwich Village food market.

December 27

Harriman Train Station, Orange County, NY

We spent the entire day at Woodbury Commons Premium Outlets, a 1h 20m train ride from Manhattan. This one is by far the largest of the several Premium Outlets we have been to.

December 28

Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty is visible from many parts of Manhattan, but to actually visit it on the Liberty Island would require taking a Statue Cruises in Battery Park. The ferry ticket combines stops on the Liberty Island and the Ellis Island. Not knowing we could buy the ferry tickets online, we ended up spending the entire morning waiting in line.

The Statue of Liberty dominates the tiny uninhabited Liberty Island. We didn’t climb to the crown of the statue; the special ticket requires booking months in advance. Without the New York Harbour in the background, looking at the colossal bronze sculpture at its base is one of the least interesting angles possible. In fact, the best view I had of the Statue of Liberty was onboard the free Staten Island Ferry.

The Great Hall, one of the filming locations of Godfather II

If the Liberty Island was a little underwhelming, the Ellis Island and its immigration museum more than made up for it. Millions of European immigrants had passed through this tiny island on their way to a new beginning in the New World. It doesn’t get more hands-on than to be in the same halls and rooms where the past generations first arrived to America and had their future prospects determined by the inspection officers. Standing in the Great Hall, I could only imagine how many Don Corleones once passed through here.

For dinner, we tried Basta Pasta, a Japanese-Italian fusion restaurant in Union Square. We ordered Sauteed Scallop with Baby Mussels and Potato, Seafood Broth, Grilled Squid Salad, Spaghetti with Parmigiano Reggiano and Parma Prosciutto, Linguine with Sea Urchins and for dessert the Chocolate Layered Cake with Gelato.

Preparing Spaghetti with Parmigiano Reggiano and Parma Prosciutto

The appetizers and soup were fine, but those were merely fillings before the pasta dishes. Basta Pasta’s crowd-pleaser is Spaghetti with Parmigiano Reggiano and Parma Prosciutto, served in front of the customers by stirring some freshly cooked spaghetti inside a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, then serving the pasta with the melted cheese as part of the sauce. The spaghetti was al dente but lighter in taste than the strong smell of Parmigiano Reggiano would suggest.

On the other hand, the Sea Urchin Linguine’s pink sauce was much thicker and somewhat covered up the freshness of the sea urchin. The chocolate cake was passable. The bill was $65 before tax and tips.

Overall I wouldn’t say I dislike this meal, but consistent with my experience I tend to find fusion cuisine to leave something to be desired.

December 29

Menchanko – Tei

Today was especially cold. Craving for hot food, we embarked to Menchanko-Tei (yes, Japanese again. I don’t even know why) on W 55th St for lunch. This place’s specialties are ramen and spicy miso hotpot.

Even after a hearty lunch, we still didn’t feel like spending too much time in the cold. We spent the rest of the afternoon hopping shop to shop in Midtown.

According to Man Chiu, there’s a Japanese restaurant called Fukumatsu (closed) on E 52nd St that holds a 50% discount for all sushi on Saturday. Sushi wasn’t too enticing in the freezing weather, but given we were already in the neighbourhood, cheap sushi it was for dinner.

Cucumber, Tuna, Salmon, Yellowtail Sashimi Roll at Fukumatsu

We had a cucumber sashimi roll, Matsu sushi combo, uni sushi, toro sushi, hotategai sushi and saba shioyaki. The cucumber roll was a little gimmicky and the other sushi was not very fresh but still acceptable. Probably we should have tried other types of cuisines that are less common in Vancouver.

December 30

Williamsburg, Brooklyn

To show how much I love MoMA (when it is free), I was there again, less than a week apart from my last visit. This time my girlfriend joined too.

To maximize Man Chiu’s membership card, we had lunch at Café 2 at the museum, which granted 20% off to all members. The food was decent but would be a little pricey without the discount.

One of the most fascinating things to do in New York is to observe the city’s ever-continuing gentrification cycle across different neighbourhoods. Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, which used to be a manufacturing and light industry district, has turned into an upscale residential area since being rezoned in 2005.

Cheap rent in the past has attracted many artists and supposed hipsters over the last decade, turning the once working-class neighbourhood and gaining a reputation as an indie art and music hub. I didn’t have anything concrete in mind; my intention was simply to check out the different layers of changes in action.

We began at the Marcy Ave station and made our way to Bedford Ave under a light drizzle. As expected, there were no recognizable chains in Williamsburg; most of the boutiques, shops, restaurants and bars were independently owned. The street was totally devoid of pedestrians in this early evening, robbing us the sighting of heavily pierced and tattooed individuals who always linger around here.

On this stretch of Bedford Ave, the longest street in Brooklyn, a two-decade old Polish diner stood next to a small boutique selling Nepalese clothing, each representing a different era. Tower cranes used in constructing multi-story upscale apartments were visible a few blocks toward the riverside, signaling the future.

The shops began to close at a surprisingly early time of 20:30. Not feeling like eating in Williamsburg, we rode the L Train back across the Hudson for a late dinner at home.

December 31

Went shopping after lunch at Koreatown, then stood in the cold for nine hours for the countdown celebration at Times Square. (Read full entry here)

January 1, 2008

Bryant Park Skate Rink

For the first meal of 2008 we had cheesesteaks sandwiches at Carl’s Steaks on Third Ave. The beef was quite tough.

Since 2005 Bryant Park has staged a free ice skating rink called Citi Pond from October to February. If not for the long queues I would like to try if I could still ski after not putting on a pair of skates in almost a decade. Looking at the joyous scene in front of me it seemed a little far-fetched that Bryant Park was a haven for drug dealers in the 1970s.

I don’t know where we got all our energy from after standing for the whole day yesterday. We passed by the Flatiron Building before spending the rest of the afternoon wandering around Chelsea.

While eating dinner at home, I suddenly came to an idea of taking a day trip to Washington DC. My girlfriend curiously didn’t object to my out of the blue suggestion, so we quickly went online to see if the there was still availability for the cheap Chinatown bus departing later in the night.

Two spots still remained for the 23:40 bus. Without any preparation, we set off to Chinatown.

January 2

Spent the whole day in DC. (Read full entry here)

January 3

Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts

After having lunch in Union Square, we headed south to SoHo and Tribeca and before ending our long walk in Wall Street. It was a trading day at NYSE but the financial district was eerily quiet; perhaps many bankers were still on their holidays.

Our evening’s event was catching a New York City Ballet repertory called Dance for Joy, a quadruple program that included Brandenburg, Carousel (A Dance), Zakouski and The Concert.

We both knew nothing about ballet, so the “happy but lightweight” program as described by the NY Times review was precisely what we were looking for.

January 4

Steam Buns with Pork Belly, Scallions, Hoisin Sauce and Pickled Cucumber at Momofuku Ssäm Bar

After the ballet performance we took a cab to Momofuku Ssäm Bar in the East Village. On Time Out New York’s year-end issue the steam buns with pork belly of the Momofuku group was voted as the town’s best eat by the magazine’s panel.

We ordered Santa Barbara Uni, Crispy Pig’s Head Torchon and the famous steam buns. It was just past midnight when the first dish, the Santa Barbara Uni – a bowl of uni and blended taro, came to our table.

Santa Barbara is supposed to produce the best sea urchin in the States, but this dish was not any better than the umpteenth other uni dishes we had over the past two weeks. Maybe most restaurants sourced their sea urchin from the same location?

The Pig’s Head Torchon was a fun dish. The texture of the meat was like a more tender version of pulled pork.

At last the steam buns arrived. Again it was a playful dish – a fusion of Japanese and Chinese cuisines. The pork belly was very fatty and meshed well with the sauce. The bun was chewy and slightly sweet.

Overall everything was quite tasty. But for the steamed buns to be the best eat in New York I expected a little more, something that was more earthy. A little too hyped up perhaps?

We celebrated the end of our holiday by washing down the food with some Stella Artois. So long, New York.

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