Dec. 31: So, it’s 2017. Pretty groovy. And I am in New York City. Even groovier. And having a travel adventure with my son Woody. Icing on the cake. But I need to go all the way back to 2016 to do this blog post justice.
Woody and I flew from Portland to JFK five nights ago, so we could visit my parents. They still live in Long Island, where I was born and raised. They are older and can no longer get around like they used to, but we managed to get them out and about to do a few fun things.
Eating at Pastrami and Friends, our favorite Jewish deli was top notch. Everything is homemade and tastes like I made it myself. Who says matzoh ball soup can only be enjoyed at Passover? Woody partook in his ritual of chowing down on an oversized pastrami and tongue sandwich. One has to open their mouth as wide as they can in order to take a bite. Even then, it’s difficult to encompass the sandwich.
Another highlight was the New Year’s party at Gurwin, the assisted living facility where mom and dad live. It happened on the 29th of December and wound down by 9:30pm. That aside, how sweet was it to see a bunch of people in their 80’s and 90’s boogieing to Neil Diamond and other classic tunes? I had a ball myself and worked off some of the heavy carbs that are so abundant in NY food.
So this morning (technically yesterday morning) we hugged and kissed my parents goodbye and returned the car at JFK, where we took public transportation into the city. We mapped our route to our Airbnb in Chelsea and got off at the subway station just blocks from it. Carrying suitcases through the subway turnstiles was a trip.
We didn’t meet our host Christian, but he gave me instructions involving a padlock outside the apartment so we could get the keys. Perfecto! We had a modest, but cute loft. A bed up top that I claimed as my own and Woody made himself right at home on the couch that pulls out to a bed.
We thought it would be best if we decompressed a bit before heading out to paint the town red on New Year’s Eve. That was certainly the right choice. Showered and refreshed and well dressed, Woody and I hit the streets around 4pm. Chelsea has its own distinctive charm. It has seen many incarnations through the years, but currently it buzzes with art, food, and nightlife culture. Yet it still has a residential feel. Leaving our loft and heading due east, we bumped right into Union Square, an uber hip park at the edge of Greenwich Village.
One cannot help but get absorbed into the scene there. The Square throbs with activity and motion. A subway stop is constantly disgorging people up the staircase and onto the street. Tonight there were a couple of women who were yelling loudly in protest against Donald Trump. In short, they were trying to get people to come to a rally to oppose his becoming president in three weeks. It would be held at Columbus Circle at 8pm. I may have attended, if we didn’t already have dinner reservations.
Another activity on the Square that we got absorbed into was the chess scene. There were perhaps half a dozen men sitting at tables with chess boards. They basically wait for tourists to walk by and sit down for a game. Woody had recently gotten into chess and selected a random man to play against. Woody asked about his ELO score and he said “about 1600.” Woody responded that his was about 1200. I was unfamiliar with what an ELO score was, but assumed that the man’s was higher than 1600, as this is his hustle.
They played a couple of matches in the midst of the political activity and the swirl of pedestrians coming up from the subway. Both of the matches were set with a clock. They had three minutes each of play time and so whoever runs out first loses, regardless of what the chessboard looks like. The key here is being able to analyze quickly what’s up and respond effectively and fast. Woody lost a game and then lost the next game as well. We both had fun, but I was thinking to myself that it must be hard to actually learn anything about chess when things are moving so fast. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Heading uptown, but still in Union Square, we saw the Farmer’s Market winding down. Funny, but when we arrived in Union Square last August after walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, it was also winding down. Anyway, there was lots of great stuff to buy, if I was going to be cooking myself. But the coolest thing I saw was a booth selling lamb from Merino sheep. Yes the same critters that yield that luxurious Merino wool. I had never seen such a thing. And I surely figured, if it existed, I would have seen it at a west coast farmer’s market.
So, they had LOTS of wool yarn, dyed every shade imaginable. And scarves made from this gorgeous thread – also in all sorts of color combinations. Very rustic and earthy looking, yet elegant and distinctive. I inquired about the meat. Does it taste different than more popular breeds of sheep that are bred solely for their meat? The farmer said essentially not, the meat is similar in taste and texture. But by raising the sheep for their wool, she gets additional products from the animals. She began to explain to me what Merino wool was and I lifted up my sweater and showed her that I was wearing Merino woolens as an under layer as well as gloves. I love the stuff and if I ever encounter the meat again, at a time when I have access to cooking, you can be sure I will pick some up!
We didn’t have all that far to walk to get to Eleven Madison Park, but time ticked away at Union Square and we actually needed to swing from the hips to get up to 23rd street, at Madison Square Park. We joined the crowd who also was there for the 5:30pm seating. My friend Dan had told me about Eleven Madison Park, as it is one of the six Michelin *** in NYC. Last year Woody and I had the pleasure of having lunch at Le Bernardin another of the Michelin***. One could split hairs comparing the restaurants in this relatively small category, but suffice it to say, they all promote themselves as a not to be missed experience. We were certainly eager to have our own experience and on New Year’s Eve to boot.
The maître’d greeted us and showed us to our table. We could tell the service would be very formal. And it was. It was pretty impeccable. Since the dining room filled up all at once, we watched in awe for the next couple of hours the well-orchestrated dance that the servers engage in.
There was a set menu, a prix fixe, if we are going to be official about it. This is a common format in this type of establishment.
We started off with Daniel Humm’s haute cuisine version of New York’s famous black and white cookie. Firstly, it was the size of a quarter, instead of the size of a hand. But instead of being sugary, the shortbread was savory and incorporated cheddar cheese into it. I grew up eating black and white cookies and loved how he had his own spin.
The foie gras terrine was another unique spin. From the outside, it looked like a slice of foie gras. It was essentially that, but it concealed a sweet surprise within. It was filled with maple syrup that slowly spilled out of it. So rich, it was fit for a queen!
The sommelier and Woody built some rapport, as Woody had gotten the wine pairing and explanations with each glass. It was fun to see Woody building his appreciation and understanding of the nuances of pairing wines. I had instead opted for a single glass of sparkling wine. I had gone back and forth in my own head between the Loire Valley wine and the Long Island wine. Tradition versus local, I just wasn’t sure. The sommelier recommended the Long Island sparkling wine, as it was bolder overall. And since I was leaning toward that one (due to its unique location), I went for it without hesitation. It indeed was bold and complemented each dish rather well.
When we were first seated, we were asked if we wanted still or sparkling water. Woody said still, I said sparkling and so it was. We traded seats after the first course, as I am a lefty, he is a righty and there was no need for us to keep knocking elbows. It took a couple of times for me to put it together, but after we were each given the incorrect water, I realized they marked our request by seat and our switching seats threw their system off. I mentioned this to the water pourer and he corrected it. At another point, when the water was poured according to the old seating, this same server appeared seemingly out of nowhere to correct it. That really impressed me. This is how buttoned up the service was. They have eyes in the back of their heads, or something to that effect.
So around 7:30pm one of the servers thanked us graciously and handed us the bill. Let me say, this was a truly delightful meal. The menu was creative, each dish was a marriage of what seemed to be the correct flavors in the proper amounts. Daniel Humm is well regarded and justifiably so. And again, the service was impeccable.
It was a great privilege to dine at such an establishment. So I should stop there and say no more. But I will say more. Our experience seemed a bit rushed. We were out the door in two hours and fifteen minutes. A meal like that is generally about three hours. Also, while the food was extraordinary, there was not enough of it. Haute cuisine is based on the concept of small portions and my expectations were aligned with that concept. Even so, their website stated that there would be eight to ten courses and we had six. We were given one piece of bread. It was light and fluffy and sumptuous, but did nothing to fill me up.
The short story is that what we did experience was excellent, but I honestly felt like it was just cut short. It would be like going to see a film, getting engrossed, and when it’s 75% finished, shutting it off and sending everyone home. At that moment, I realized there was a price to pay for eating out on New Year’s Eve at Eleven Madison. The price is that the experience was streamlined and rushed. This allowed the 9pm seating to show up, so those people could sip champagne when the clock struck midnight.
After dinner it was back to Madison Square Park. Something had caught our eye before dinner and now we had time to explore it. There were these arches about ten feet tall, lots of them, crisscrossed over a segment of the cement. Suspended from them were hammocks! It was a bit of an oddity seeing people bundled up in sweaters, swinging from hammocks. But hey, we never claimed not to be odd, so we waited in line and got our time in a hammock. Kids were running around, lovers were holding hands, families were bantering, and spirits were running high. And the Empire State Building could be seen in the background, changing colors frequently, gifting us with an additional light show. Totally fun.
We went back to our apartment and took off our nicer clothing and switched gears, now dressing for comfort. I did not want to be cold standing around at Times Square for hours. I’ve done that before and it is difficult to enjoy the scene when all you can think about is that your feet may freeze. This time I came totally prepared with Merino wool garments, layers, and I even picked up hand warmers and extras for our shoes, a tip I picked up in my last visit to Alaska. However, it just so happened NY was having a warm spell. The days were getting up close to 50 and the nights in the mid-30’s. That is just not all that cold, so we ended up being bundled up and sweating!
We walked toward Times Square. Somewhere in midtown, the police started directing foot traffic to certain areas. Showing up as late as we did, I was thinking we would be ushered back toward Central Park. But we ended up around 40th, two blocks south of Times Square, instead of seventeen blocks north of it. It was a pretty cool scene, but we were behind the official ball and couldn’t actually see it.
Now this is the fourth time I have gone to see the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. I already knew it was totally overrated and, if I lived in NYC, I likely wouldn’t go. But coming from Oregon to be here, it seemed essential to partake.
Here is the funny part. Everyone was asking everyone else, when was the action going to start. Anyone who asked me, which was quite a few people, I told them “this is it, you’re looking at it. I know, it’s overrated, but now you can say you did it!”
The final moments of 2016 ticked away and all I could see in front of me was hands holding cell phones taking videos and pictures. As I said, we couldn’t see the ball and we never officially heard the countdown. Fireworks went off and when they died down, I looked at my phone and it was 12:02am. Woody and I embraced with a New Year’s hug.
Another cool thing from the evening was that Woody had managed to befriend some young men. Woody is the outgoing, social type and when we were standing shoulder to shoulder, he was quick to start up conversation. It turns out two of the men were from Israel and one of them grew up in Paris. They are all currently living in Brooklyn for four months. I got a lot of amusement when I watched them follow each other on Instagram and Facebook, before the night was out. Global connections are created so quickly in today’s world. It can and does make my head spin!
The police barricades opened up and the hordes of people spilled out to 6th Ave and the nearby side streets. I have not been a night owl for years, probably a couple decades now, but I wasn’t ready for bed quite yet.
My friend Brendan told me about a Ukrainian deli in the East Village that is open 24 hours a day. I found Vesleka online and felt like going, just for the novelty of it all. I figured it would be very cool and it was! The décor was that of an older diner. The food was nothing unique and no spices were used, but the energy of the place ran high and was contagious.
First off, it was packed, as if it were 7 pm with a dinner crowd. The wait staff was a lot of fun – casual for sure, but friendly, engaging, and prompt service. And truly, there are a handful, if that many, places in this world you can get seven flavors of pierogis at 1:30 am, freshly browned in butter and served with a smile. The borsht – now that was actually something to write home about. I don’t know their secret, but it probably comes from someone’s great great grandmother way back who lived in Ukraine and grated beets all her life.
Sitting by the big windows, we took in the party scene that was permeating the East Village. New Yorkers know how to get the party started and how to keep it going.
We were a mile or so from home. While we walked, we wove ourselves into the fabric of New Year’s Eve in the Big Apple and eventually arrived in Chelsea. Our loft was the perfect place to retreat and drift off in the city that never sleeps.