Ruth Reichl’s “Garlic and Sapphires”

There are many types of celebrities in the food world, including chefs, restaurateurs, and network hosts. Another group, and one that is almost counterintuitive to include among these revered connoisseurs are the critics who write about food.

One of the most well known critics in the United States is Ruth Reichl. Currently the Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet, previously the restaurant critic at the New York Times, and before that, the food editor at the Los Angeles Times, she has garnered a reputation of “democratizing” expensive eats and even expressing guilt about her indulgence in the face of those who can’t afford food at all.

I remember seeing her name here and there, especially on Ganda’s blog, but I didn’t really know that she had written anything other than brief columns until I saw her most recent memoir, titled Garlic and Sapphires, in Barnes and Noble in New York. I bought a copy upon my return to Edmonton, and actually managed to finish the book (my idiosyncrasy as of late is an inability to complete books I begin…shame).

A narrative about her stint at the NY Times, it is a journey through the many disguises she dons in attempts to hide her true identity from restaurants seeking to woo her with the hopes of striking a good review. In the process, she uncovers personalities within that she didn’t know she had.

That arc, in my opinion, is enjoyable, but is also the weakest link of the book. It’s easiest to relate to Reichl when she writes as the fun-loving, down-to-earth woman who simply enjoys good food. But it is also a bit contrived, the reviews and dining experiences carefully chosen to demonstrate the gradual development and learning Reichl went through over her six years at the paper.

That said, I have much to learn from Reichl – beyond wishing for her impeccable palette and appreciation for the expansive edible spectrum New York has to offer, I would imagine many also strive to capture the essence of food with words the way she does. Those who know my tastes know that I do not eat sushi, but after savouring Reichl’s descriptions of the authentic Japanese eatery Kurumazushi, with fresh fish sliced so thin it literally melts on your tongue, even I would consider changing my stance on raw seafood.

Some things I could have learned elsewhere, but was easier within the context of Garlic and Sapphires:

  • Daniel Boulud and Jacques Torres both worked at Le Cirque;
  • Chilean sea bass is also known as Patagonian toothfish; and
  • before handing down a verdict, Reichl would dine at a location at least three times, if not more. This allows a restaurant to have a ‘bad night’, especially when a negative review from the Times can really tip the fortunes of a place, but boy, what a luxury (more than multiple visits by one person, I favour one visit by many people, as can be found in Frank Bruni’s recent review of the Second Avenue Deli).

Even amongst anecdotes of four-star pampering, evenings amongst the elite crowd, and a position that saw Reichl accepting phone calls from Hollywood celebrities to ask for restaurant recommendations, I found myself most drawn to her quiet moments with her too-precocious pre-school son Nicky. Ever-supportive of his mother’s wild guises, and always eager to lend a helping hand in the kitchen, his presence ground the story – and her life – as more than just a byline.

At the end of it, Reichl and I both on the same page on the absolute non-negotiable aspect that eating out is an experience, and any restaurant not catering to this sort of theatre and hyper reality doesn’t understand its diners. In the next few months, I would like to try out some of the recipes included (which she deliberately substituted in place of photos), and (fingers crossed) finish reading her second memoir, Comfort Me With Apples.

New York City: Day 7

After leaving our luggage with the Pod Hotel staff, we walked to Bar Americain, one of Bobby Flay’s three New York restaurants. Before Becco, before S’MAC, before any of the places I researched when it was decided that we were coming to New York, I knew I wanted to have brunch “with” Bobby Flay. In particular, I wanted to have a biscuit at one of his establishments – those of you who have seen him make one on Iron Chef America will know why.

We had some time to kill before our 11:30am reservation, so we loitered near Times Square for a while.

“Mack in the City”

“Pass the Cheer,” I say

Mack disagrees

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting the outside of Bar Americain to look like, but when we arrived, I can tell you I wasn’t impressed. Red awnings alongside a non-descript business building? I expected more from you, Bobby Flay.

Outside Bar Americain

Once inside, we were greeted by the restaurant’s host and swiftly brought to our table. The interior is exactly as pictured in the website – a mile-high ceiling, an impressive mirror-backed bar, and immaculate white linens. I have written in the past about my very narrow definition of the atmosphere that makes a good brunch, and although the dining room was grand, I can’t help but think such formality and scale would have worked better for a nice dinner as opposed to a weekend breakfast.

The bar


Showing off the menu

I had known for weeks what I wanted to order (Miss Stephanie’s Biscuits & Cream Gravy, Artisanal Ham, Sausage & Scrambled Eggs), while Mack decided on the Open-Face Omelette with Fire-Roasted Peppers, Wild Mushrooms, Goat Cheese and Parsley.

Unfortunately, we found that the service wasn’t as attentive as what we had received at either Becco and Gramercy Tavern. Mack also wasn’t floored at the fact that his orange juice was priced at $4.50 per glass (but then again, we did find out that juice in New York was expensive, period).

The food – Mack’s omelette was essentially a baked egg dish with a fancy name, while mine was presented exactly as advertised. The biscuit was the best thing on the plate – crispy on the outside and soft and warm on the inside. The gravy was rich, and not a bad garnish on the creamy eggs, but I could have done without the meats. The ham was much too salty, and the sausage patties were tough and chewy, a result of being overcooked.

Mack’s Omelette

Miss Stephanie’s fixings (my assumption is that the “Stephanie” referenced is his wife, as she loves his buttermilk biscuits)

I can’t say that I was wholly disappointed in my experience at Bar Americain, but it didn’t quite live up to my (admittedly high) expectations. I would go back, but probably for lunch or dinner instead.

We took the “scenic route” back to our hotel – partly because we had some time but also partly because we didn’t want to leave.

Radio City Music Hall (there were always masses of people around the building; even when there wasn’t a show on)

Mack being silly

The Waldorf…one more time

We decided in the end to take a taxi to LaGuardia (or “shady town car” as arranged for us by the hotel staff), which made the end of our trip transfer as efficient as our arrival. Besides a slight delay in Ottawa, we made it back to Edmonton without any trouble whatsoever.

In documenting my trip to New York, I have had time to think about not only what we were able to see, but to take note of what we didn’t. This exercise has brought me to the realization that we left so much untouched that I can’t quite say that we did the city justice (if one assumes that a tourist can ever really “know” a city well enough to make adequate judgments). In that regard, I see the potential of so much more of the city to discover that a return trip is not only desired, but necessary.

E.B. White, in an essay titled “Here is New York”, writes, “New York is nothing like Paris; it is nothing like London; and it is not Spokane multiplied by sixty, or Detroit multiplied by four. It is by all odds the loftiest of cities.” I have no other words.

New York City: Day 6

Our last full day in New York began with our earliest wake up call, and a journey to the Lower East Side. We had to wander a bit first, through what had to be the very (seedy) edge of Chinatown, to finally reach the place I had in mind for breakfast: Clinton Street Baking Company, renowned for their pancakes.

At Clinton Street Baking Company

Demonstrating another instance of our good timing, we were able to snag a table as soon as we walked in, and a window seat nonetheless (the wait steadily grew to half an hour as our stay wore on). Clinton Street didn’t have a brick wall (heh), but the bright lighting, bar stool counter, and cozy booths more than made up for that. Of course, like every other New York dining establishment, space was at a premium, so walkways were narrow and tablemates were close.

Dining interior

Enjoying that all-important first cup of coffee

Mack searches again for WiFi (notice the “Zagat Rated” stickers – they were everywhere in NY)

I just had to order the house specialty, while Mack was easily swayed by the combination of eggs and goat cheese and opted for the omelette. Our food arrived quickly (high table turnover is key in places like this), and we were both buoyed by the massive quantities of food we found in front of us.



My plate was nicely garnished with additional blueberries, to remind me of the fruit sandwiched in between my stack of pancakes. As for how they tasted, I am happy to report that Clinton Street deserves every bit of praise garnered for its pancakes – moist, fluffy, with just a hint of sweetness, they went well with the tart blueberries. The accompanying maple butter was a unique accent, but I actually would have preferred plain old maple syrup. Mack thoroughly enjoyed his omelette, which was served with hash browns, a side of toast and (very good) raspberry preserve.

Before departing, we asked the hostess to direct us to the nearest subway station, and to our surprise, she was able to provide us with a set of detailed instructions. En route, we passed by Katz’s Delicatessen, site of Meg Ryan’s faux-gasm in When Harry Met Sally (and home of arguably the best pastrami sandwiches in Manhattan). It was already pretty busy inside, even though it wasn’t yet 11.

Katz’s Deli

The first stop on our shopping blitz was Union Square. I was itching to check out their four times weekly greenmarket (Manhattan holds 27 greenmarkets, 11 of which operate year round). Obviously, we weren’t planning on taking any produce home with us, but I was curious to see the variety of products represented. The standard winter vendors, offering apples, baked goods, honey, and plants, were present, as well as a British gentleman hawking a “miracle” vegetable peeler (like those more common at tradeshows).

Union Square greenmarket

After picking up a pound of pretzels for my sister, we wandered over to the adjacent Holiday Market to take a closer look at the merchandise. If I hadn’t already finished my Christmas shopping by that time, the market would have been a great place to pick up gifts to suit every taste and lifestyle. From hats, scarves, clothing and jewelry, to handcrafts, toys and artwork, the market was much like a cooler, outdoor incarnation of Whyte Avenue. Next to Bryant Park, it was my favorite place in all of New York that we had visited. I bought a fairly pricey necklace, while Mack picked up a gift for his sister.

Shopping at Union Square

Before heading back uptown, we did stop by a few of the surrounding stores, including Whole Foods. The only grocery store we visited all week, I was really impressed by the selection and the number of tills available. A quick visit to DSW Shoes was sadly fruitless.

We spent the next few hours on Fifth Avenue, popping into a Lindt store (where there was absolutely no room to move around), Crate and Barrel (it’s a really good thing we don’t have this chain in Edmonton, otherwise, the amount of useless kitchen accessories I’d accumulate would be ridiculous), and of course, Tiffany’s (they have 5 or 6 floors, and an “express” elevator to boot).

At Build-A-Bear, we joined a very long line so Mack could build a Friendosaur for his Mum. The whole idea of creating your own stuffed animal is so ingenious and so lucrative that while I wouldn’t spend the money, I can see why many, many people do.

With the Build-A-Dino options

Mack stuffing the Dino
Creating its birth certificate
Meet Smarties the Triceratops! (you would never believe the amount of “awww” type comments Mack received from Smarties, so listen up boys – if you don’t have a young child or a small dog, just bring along a stuffed toy to wow the ladies)

After returning to the hotel to drop off our purchases, we walked to what would be our last quintessential New York experience – skating in Central Park. Along the way, we picked up $2 hot dogs from a street vendor, and found them to be disappointingly pedestrian, only rating them a notch above Ikea’s 50cent variety.

The Trump-operated Wollman Rink, featured in Serendipity, was beautiful. Situated in a valley of sorts, surrounded by aged trees and the majesty of gently lit skyscrapers, it epitomized the romance of New York City – an opportunity to appreciate nature (however man made) against the backdrop of bustle, structure and noise.

The Wollman Rink

That said, such an opportunity didn’t come cheap – in Mack’s words, “Trump cleaned us out.” Admission and skate rentals totalled $34, while it was another $3.25 for a locker. At the end of the night, it worked out to nearly $20 per person for the hour. But like most things when travelling, money is a necessary conduit for priceless experiences.

In this case, my fear of skating caused that universal pit-in-your-stomach feeling, which only intensified as we waited for the Zamboni to finish its rounds. There were no cameras allowed on the ice (though you couldn’t count the number of people defying that rule), so there isn’t much proof of my eventual ability to “skate”, but I did it, with the help of Mack’s triple cocktail of encouragement, positive feedback, and distraction tactics.

Mack standing tall

Holding on for good measure

On the ice!

On our way to dinner, we took a few pictures of Central Park. It’s a shame we didn’t have the time to explore the space during the day, but if anything, I know I will make that a priority on a return trip in the future.

The view from Central Park

We had dinner that night at Gramercy Tavern, one of restaurateur Danny Meyer’s eleven establishments, and a Chowhound favorite. Something (like the affinity of Chowhounders for prix fixe lunches, or their adoration for Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten) should have tipped me off to the fact that Gramercy = fine dining, but the entree prices in the Tavern fooled me. As such, we were quite under dressed and out-of-place in a restaurant equipped with a coat check, 18 foot ceilings, and a team of wait staff with differentiated duties. While Becco made us feel at home, at Gramercy we felt like awkward guests at an opulent dinner party.

That said – the service and food were excellent. Mack’s Bacon-wrapped Trout was a great combination of savoury and supple, while my Stuffed Meatball was perfectly cooked – pink and oozing with velvety fontina. For dessert, we ordered the Chocolate Hazelnut Banana Tart and Earl Grey Creme Caramel. Mack’s tart was the clear winner here, though the garnish of a fried pastry on my Creme Caramel (the name of which escapes me even today), reminded me of the ones my Mum used to make when I was young (realized in a moment not too far removed from that experienced by the food critic in Ratatouille).

Comfortably full, we returned to the hotel to pack, and (sob) prepare for the trip home.

New York City: Day 5

If Wednesday was characterized by food, then Thursday will be remembered for the cold.

To start off the day, we grabbed breakfast at McDonald’s, where they offer a Sausage Biscuit! Not really something to get excited about I suppose, especially when it really paled in comparison to Tim Hortons’ version (the biscuit itself was overly greasy), but it was something we couldn’t get back home! (For the record, Mack vehemently disagreed with my assessment.)

A good old American breakfast

Onto the subway, where we inadvertently made it to a borough, an item on Mack’s New York to-do checklist. We accidentally got on the train heading North, and as we stepped up onto the street, it was obvious we weren’t in Manhattan anymore. The New York subway system really isn’t clear when compared with the Tube – the latter of which features reliable, recorded announcements of line names and upcoming stops, accessible maps at each station, and electronic signs indicating the wait time for the next train. Still, besides our little sojourn to Queens, Mack was a very solid “navigateur” throughout the week. So much so that I really didn’t have to think for myself at all. Done again, however, I do believe I would have paid more attention to signage and directionality for future reference.

Subway (an aside – this was also the day that we saw two rats on the tracks, christened Remy 1 & 2 by Mack. Their fate, after the train passed over their scavenging bodies, remains unknown to us.)
We returned to Times Square (again) to Madam Tussauds to redeem our Explorers Pass for the Liberty Island Ferry. It was also the site of Mack’s “meeting” with Shaft himself.

Looks real, doesn’t it?

Hopping back on the subway, we just made it back to the southern tip of the island to join up with a free walking tour through Manhattan’s Financial District (a great list of free tours is here). Led by a PhD student (specializing in medieval manuscripts, of all things), the tour provided many interesting facts about the area’s architecture, history, art history, and personalities. Highlights included an overview of the statues representing the continents at the U.S. Customs House, the famous bronze bull figure, and the pockmarks on a building that remain from the very first car bomb.

Our tour guide

U.S. Customs House Statue

Wall Street Bull (notice the discoloration on its, er, most prized possession)

Pockmarks from the world’s first car bomb

We didn’t spend too much more time on Wall Street following the tour, except to snap a few pictures. Observations: the New York Stock Exchange looked exactly like it does in the movies; the pedestrian traffic in that area was crazy at lunch time; and there were a noteworthy number of fitness clubs and gyms surrounding Wall Street.

Mack on Wall Street


With the NYSE Christmas tree

We decided to have lunch that afternoon at another Pax-like chain, Au Bon Pain. It was slightly cheaper than its counterpart and had a better food selection, but for some reason, we still preferred Pax.

Mack searches in vain for free WiFi at Au Bon Pain

After lunch, we walked to Battery Park and joined the line for the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Ferry. Following another security check point, we boarded the ferry and headed straight for the third deck. It was *cold* and all the more so when the boat got going, but it provided a good view of both the Manhattan skyline and the approaching Statue of Liberty. Mack used the word “underwhelming” to describe the experience, and I couldn’t have agreed more. The Statue was cool to see, but as Mack mentioned on his blog, we needed to request a Time Pass in advance in order to climb the monument, so we weren’t able to take full advantage of our visit.

On the ferry

At one with the statue

With Miss Liberty

I should also mention it was bloody cold on Liberty Island, and waiting to take the ferry back to Manhattan wasn’t fun. It goes without saying that I was happy to be back at Battery Park.

Battery Park at nightfall

Next, we headed to the World Trade Centre site. We couldn’t locate the memorial, but we were able to take some shots of the ongoing construction.

Peering in on the construction

Just outside the fence

Near the site was the Century 21 Department Store, touted as a must-visit for their discounted designer duds. For whatever reason, I wasn’t expecting such an organized store, with racks and shoe shelves clearly labelled by brand name (a floor resembling Winners or Value Village, with sections of random sweaters and shirts was the image I was holding onto). We didn’t spend too much time there, however, and like most merchants known for obscure “finds”, it would have taken more than a cursory glance to uncover good deals.

We headed uptown to Union Square, taking some time to explore the multi-level Barnes & Noble, where Mack picked up some reading material for our journey home. It was massive, but well-organized with the most effective tills we had seen in New York thus far (they had an employee who was essentially a traffic cop, directing customers to the next available cashier).

We also took a picture of a curious “countdown” clock which spanned the Circuit City and Virgin Megastore building. I looked it up, and it turns out that it is an art installation piece titled Metronome, “an investigation into the nature of time.” Gleaned from a blog:

“The 15 numbers of the digital clock display time going and coming relative to midnight. Read time going left to right and time coming in the opposite direction. So, if the clock reads 070437000235616 it means that it is 7:04 A.M. (7 hours and 04 minutes since midnight) and that there are 16 hours, 56 minutes and 23 seconds remaining until midnight. The three numbers in between are a blur of moving numbers.”

Metronome (and if you’re curious, it cost nearly $3 million dollars)

We walked a number of blocks to reach our dinner destination that night – S’MAC (or, Sarita’s Macaroni & Cheese), a place I had read about in Time Out New York. Only serving variations of macaroni and cheese, S’MAC was just too novel to pass up (especially given Mack’s affinity for the dish).

Mack at S’MAC

The restaurant was pretty small to begin with, but packed to the brim when we walked in. We were lucky to snag the last few seats at the counter, but we didn’t mind not having our own table at all. With a brick wall (yes, another), funky orange light fixtures and bright plastic chairs of the Ikea-variety, S’MAC seemed very much like a new-age diner – fun, unpretentious, and best of all, cheap!

Dining area

Mack didn’t hesitate in his selection of the All-American (a blend of American and Cheddar), while I took a little more time before deciding upon the 4 Cheese (Muenster, American, Gorgonzola and Cheddar). Our orders appeared almost too cute to eat, served in their own individual cast iron pans (complete with a handle sleeve), bubbling, with a wonderfully cheesy aroma. I’m sad to say that the taste of Gorgonzola was much too strong in my serving (blue cheeses tend to have that power), but I did enjoy sampling from Mack’s dish. S’MAC was, in the end, Mack’s favorite of the restaurants we visited.

Our orders

After dinner, we called it a night. Our last full day in New York would, predictably, put our soles to more work.

New York City: Day 4

When we returned to the Pod that night, Mack’s first words were, “I feel like I’ve gained one hundred pounds today.” It was without a doubt our gastronomic peak in New York, but it started out innocently enough.

Before heading over to the theatre district, we wandered over to the United Nations Headquarters, overlooking the East River. As expected by now, we were asked to go through a security check point before entering, and to discard all food and drinks in hand. That was the second cup of coffee in two days that I had to throw away (and as Mack would say, it was “coffee abuse”). I’ll be sure to sip faster next time!

With the flags

It almost looks like it could be autumn in New York!

The lobby was quite grand, projecting the idealism claimed by the organization. We walked around, taking in a political cartoon exhibit celebrating the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, photos documenting the effects of global warming in Antarctica, and of course, the gift shop downstairs.


Political cartoons

UN flag retrieved from Iraq

At the UN

Then, after remembering to retrieve the tickets for the show, we took the subway to the Gershwin Theatre. On the way, we picked up a pretzel for breakfast from a street vendor (it tasted not unlike those available in the McNally cafeteria), passed by the Ed Sullivan Theatre (home to the Late Show with David Letterman), and saw Rupert Jee working the counter at the Hello Deli!


Ed Sullivan Theatre

Hello Deli

The Gershwin was buzzing when we arrived for our matinee of Wicked. Having never been to a true Broadway show, I had no idea we would receive a free Playbill when seated inside the theatre, so I ended up buying a $20 full color souvenir program upon entry (even though it was twice the price, it was a better purchase than the program I purchased for the show I saw in London’s West End). Just before curtain, Mack had an unfortunate accident with his camera, leaving us with just one photographic device (without the all-important image stabilizer feature) for the rest of the trip.

With the promotional poster (minus image stabilizer)

Wicked stage

For those of you unfamiliar with Wicked, it’s a Tony-award winning musical, adapted from the novel by Gregory Maguire called Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (a book I will be reading soon, might I add). From the website, as they describe it better than I ever could: “Long before Dorothy dropped in, two other girls meet in the Land of Oz. One, born with emerald-green skin, is smart, fiery and misunderstood. The other is beautiful, ambitious and very popular. How these two unlikely friends end up as the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch makes for the most spellbinding new musical in years.”

The show was, in short, amazing, and in my opinion, was worth every penny of the $134.80 I paid for the ticket. Stephanie J. Block, who played Elphaba, the eventual Wicked Witch of the West, was the standout (even garnering applause the first time she appeared on stage). Her mannerisms of a neglected, shunned wallflower were dead-on, and her voice had the range and power to carry the production. Annaleigh Ashford, in the role of Glinda (with a silent “guh”), was every bit as cute and naive as she needed to be. The supporting characters were a mixed bag – Carole Shelley (as Madame Morrible) was wonderfully evil, while I felt Derrick Williams’ performance as Fiyero was the weak link in the cast – in both singing and acting. The songs were also much better than those from The Producers (my only Broadway-esque comparison). My favorite piece was “For Good”, a beautiful number about the positive influence of friendship (a solo version of which was sung by Kristin Chenoweth at West Winger John Spencer’s funeral). Wicked was all I was expecting from Broadway and more.

Dinner #1 that night was a Frommers discovery – Becco. A joint enterprise by Lidia Bastianich (well-known from her PBS television shows) and her son Joseph, this little Italian eatery was famous for their $21.95 unlimited tableside pasta as well as an extensive selection of wines priced at only $25 per bottle. I had made a reservation weeks earlier, and good thing too – we were greeted by a logjam of people in the mandatory coat check, and were let into the restaurant only after I verbally verified that we did indeed have a reservation. As our entire party was present, we were immediately directed to a cozy table opposite the bar, and were seated tin-can style very close our dining neighbours (it reminded me a lot of the division of space in TZiN). The decor was lovely – a brick wall, framed mirrors, and hung copper pots of various sizes bestowing a homey feel.

We didn’t end up taking any pictures inside, as the restaurant was a lot fancier than I had originally anticipated (Mack was really impressed with the fact that they called long distance to confirm our reservation that afternoon, and allowed him to dine in jeans). As a whole, Becco provided us with one of those surreal, New York experiences that epitomized how the convergence of ambiance, good food, and excellent service can amount to a perfect meal.

Mack ordered the tableside pasta special ($21.95), which came with the choice of an antipasti or Caesar salad, while I decided to try the Osso Bucco ($29). Service was swift throughout (one busboy in particular was superhumanly efficient, while our waitress was patient, professional, and put my Italian pronunciation to shame), and our entrees arrived in no time. My order of braised veal shank was huge, cooked to the point where the meat literally fell off of the bone. Mack was offered three different types of freshly-prepared pasta from roving busboys, with my favorite being the gnocchi semolina. Without a doubt, Becco was my favorite of all our dining experiences in New York.

Perfect shot!

We were certifiably stuffed upon our exit from Becco, and decided to shun the subway in the hopes that walking to our next dining destination would help stimulate digestion. Though Mack, tongue-in-cheek, chided me for making two sets of reservations that night, there was good reason for it – Serendipity 3 was shut down in November until further notice by the Health Department, and I wanted our night out at the theatre to end with at least one scheduled dinner. Lucky for us, it reopened on December 4 (with the Health Department’s blessing).

At Serendipity 3

Like the Waldorf Astoria, the restaurant was used in the film Serendipity, so of course, a visit for the featured Frrrozen Hot Chocolate was a must (for the record, I had to double check how many letter “r”s were included in the name). Reservations were secured in early November, if I remember correctly, which probably garnered much hatred from the walk-ins who had to wait at least 45 minutes for a table (we were seated within 10 minutes of our arrival). It was smaller and dimmer than I was expecting from the movie, but quite charming and festive, dressed up in pine wreaths and multi-colored lights.

Upstairs dining area

Huge menu – literally!

To start, we ordered French Toast ($9.50) and a side of fries ($3.50) to share, as reservations were apparently forbidden for those interested in dessert only. Made with Challah, the toast was springy, sweet, and delicious, and probably would have made a pretty good dessert all on its own. The fries we could have probably done without – they were a Poor Man’s version of Red Robin’s fries.

French Toast

Last but not least, we asked our server (who resembled, to us, an out-of-work actor) for a single Frrrozen Hot Chocolate ($8.50). It was the caloric pinnacle of the day, but worth every sip. There is a cookbook for sale which features the recipe for the famed dessert, but I’d almost rather not know how it was made in order to maintain the mystique of the experience.

Mack with the Frrrozen Hot Chocolate

We were barely able to make it out the door, and I did develop a cramp on the way back to our hotel. But I wouldn’t have traded that Wednesday for the world.

New York City: Day 3

A few observations:
  • Native New Yorkers, like any familiar with the ebb and flow of traffic in their city, are unbelievably daring when it comes to crossing the street. Even before the cars are safely on the other side of the crosswalk, they’re off, and nonchalantly so. Mack had quite a bit of fun with this portion of learning to be a local, while it’s safe to say I wouldn’t have taken such “risks” on my own, heh.
  • The Salvation Army bell ringers must have an internal competition on who can collect the most money – their bells can be heard for what seemed like miles.
  • There was a surprising amount of scaffolding surrounding the buildings in New York. Ongoing construction and repair was something I expected in old world Europe, but for some reason I thought Manhattan would be immune.

To start off the morning, we grabbed coffee at my new favorite non-Starbucks, Dean & Deluca. Just around the corner was our first stop that day – Rockefeller Centre. For a great day view of the city, we redeemed our Explorer Pass for the Top of the Rock attraction (a must-see in the opinion of Giada de Laurentiis).

Top of the Rock

Yes, there was another cash-grabbing green-screen photo op here too (styled like the famous shot of construction workers sitting atop a girder), and like the one at the Empire State Building, we bypassed it and immediately boarded an elevator that took us to the 80th floor. It turns out there were three separate observation decks, each surrounded by glass panelling as opposed to metal bars, providing a more unobstructed view when compared with the Empire State.

Amazing view (and perfect day to take advantage of it)

Central Park

Looking down

Another viewing deck

One of my favorite photos from the trip

It was breathtaking – and though the relative warmth of the daytime, glowing sun and smaller crowd had a lot to do with it, I would still recommend the Top of the Rock to future NY visitors over the Empire State. While the visual of the Chrysler Building is partially blocked, the clear photo path to the Empire State and Central Park makes up for it somehow.

Following that, we grabbed lunch at the speediest McDonald’s that we had ever been to. Seriously, Mack was handed his bag of food as soon as he finished putting change in his pocket. Dean & Deluca could learn something.

Mack enjoys a Big Mac (hee)

Next up was the NBC Studio tour, something Mack had been looking forward to for a while. Unfortunately, there were no photos allowed, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

Outside NBC Studios

Before embarking on the actual studio visits, we watched a brief video of the history of NBC. Then, once through a security checkpoint (that would make it three thus far, not including the airports), the good stuff.

Conan O’Brien‘s studio was up first – it was tiny, with a seating capacity of only 189. To make up for the smaller number of people present at tapings, the audience is actually miked to amplify laughs (or silence, depending on the joke). Camera tricks of never shooting both Conan and his band lead Max Weinberg also help contribute to the look of a far bigger stage than in reality. The Saturday Night Live studio, on the other hand, was at least twice the size of Conan’s, with double the number of lights (500). Interesting fact: the seats are of the same variety as those found in Yankee Stadium.

The tour guides we had were informative and friendly, but Mack was right when he said that the spiel sounded very rehearsed. With tours departing at least every half hour (as opposed to the twice-daily SaTC tours), it just wasn’t as personal as it could have been.

In a detour that would allow us to gorge ourselves the next day without guilt, we tried to redeem our Explorer Pass for a City Lights Cruise. En route, we passed by an industrial/storage/auto shop area of New York probably not meant to be seen by tourists. After a few wrong turns, we finally reached the NY Waterways office…only to find it closed, 2 HOURS EARLY! We thought about going back later in the week to try again, but in the end, decided against possibly repeating our pedestrian nightmare. Next time, for a free (and reliable) view of the Manhattan skyline at night, I will be looking to ride the Staten Island Ferry instead.

At our wit’s end at the water’s edge (though I did manage to throw a nickel into the Hudson River for Anna!)

We hitched a ride on a shuttle bus back downtown, and made our way to Macy’s for some shoe shopping (visitors are given an additional 11% discount). As Mack can also attest, it was absolute madness, as it happened to be the date of their “one day sale”. Some may have viewed the place as shoe heaven, with generous discounts on everything in stock, but really, it was shoe hell for me, as they didn’t have any of the boots I was admiring in my size. As a result, Macy’s was disappointingly fruitless.

I hadn’t planned on a dinner location that night (as we were supposed to be on a cruise), so we resorted to wandering towards Times Square to explore our options in that area. As tempted as I was by the idea of breadsticks at Olive Garden, we ended up at Ruby Tuesday, a casual, family-friendly chain comparable to Moxie’s here in Canada. Our meal was a mixed bag – the Southwestern Spring Rolls (chicken, vegetables, beans, cheeses and cilantro wrapped in crispy tortillas) were surprisingly good, while my Gourmet Chicken Pot Pie was anything but. Resembling an upside-down, shorthand version, the chicken, vegetables, and cream sauce were spooned over a puff pastry square. Typically, the crust of the pie is the best part, but here, the pastry was bland and flavourless. The mandatory 18% gratuity (or, in their words, a “convenience charge”) was hard to swallow, though I will admit that our server (and what must have been his shadow-in-training) was attentive, and did an excellent job of cleaning up nearby tables, not only wiping down the booths but sweeping up those hard-to-reach corners.

Southwestern Spring Rolls
Mack’s Bacon Cheddar Burger
Gourmet Chicken Pot Pie

On our way back to the hotel, we walked through Bryant Park and briefly considered joining the line for free skating, but were deterred by the number of people ahead of us.

The Pond at night

Christmas tree at Bryant Park

Our final sight to see that night was the Rockefeller Tree, which Mack got some great shots of. As a bonus, we were also treated to a light show on the side of the Saks Fifth Avenue building.

The Rockefeller Tree by night


Saks light (and music) show

After an exhausting day for our feet, we called it a night. Wednesday was to be Wicked, followed by more culinary adventures than should be allowed in one evening.

New York City: Day 2

To start off day 2, we snapped a few photos on the fourteen floor of our hotel, then made our way to the NBC Experience Store (in Rockefeller Centre) to pick up our Explorer Passes, something we purchased prior to our arrival in the city. While my main rationale behind buying the passes was to save money (5 attractions would end up costing less than $20 each), I’m not sure I would do it again; in the end, we only ended up redeeming our cards for four attractions, and it seemed to restrict our treks in a negative way.

Mack on the Pod’s rooftop patio

The Rockefeller Tree by day

A Zamboni cleans the rink at Rockefeller Centre…again

In any case, once that errand was complete, we went hunting for coffee to accompany the bagel I picked up at our neighbourhood Pax (where the addition of butter to a bagel costs 15cents). Spotting a Dean & Deluca coffee shop just across the street, we joined a very long line to give their house blend a try. It was quite good, actually, and their second balcony was excellent for people watching. But in terms of service efficiency, there was much to be desired, with a dire need for more tills and division of labour between the baristas.

Plain buttered bagel from Pax


We’re not in Starbucks anymore…

View from the balcony

Emboldened by caffeine, we walked to Fifth Avenue to redeem our Explorer Pass for our first planned activity – the Sex and the City tour that Mack has been excited about for weeks (heh). On our way there, we passed by the main Humanities branch of the New York City Public Library (where I felt the need to take pictures for Bettina’s sake :), as well as the famous window displays of Bergdorf Goodman and Saks. The latter’s were actually staffed by two people and lined with crowd dividers – Saks definitely means business. The stores are, of course, nice, filled with the fuss that you’d expect, but the merchandise sold within were way out of my league, and I felt out of place (as I did in Selfridges in London).

With one of the lions in front of the library

A hallway (more museum than library, the hallowed marble halls seemed more fit for Parliament than a place of open learning. If anything, however, this is the type of place I would associate with the birthplace of Humanities 101.)

They have books, too!

A window at Bergdorf’s

The windows (and line ups) at Saks

At the SaTC ticket office, located in a fairly non-descript building near the Empire State, we were greeted by quite an informal operation. As opposed to a traditional reception, we opened the door to find a director’s chair full of paper and a woman who looked surprised that anyone would stumble upon her work space. For a pretty well-known and successful tour (having been featured in many of the major publications in the country), we were expecting something slightly more organized.

Empire State Building

Killing time before our 3pm tour, we stopped by the world’s largest store – Macy’s. It was sheer madness inside, though really, not as crazy as it would be on the occasion of their “one day sale” later on in the week. It really reminded me why I typically start Christmas shopping in September.

Approaching Macy’s

Inside Macy’s

We had lunch at a different Pax, a kind of place with fresh deli offerings that Mack wished Edmonton had more of. Mack picked up a wrap while I decided to give their salad bar a try. I think it would take me a while to get used to how fast you need to move in New York – with service personnel barking out questions in order to get through customers as quickly as possible. In any case, in addition to a base of romaine lettuce ($2.95), I added cherry tomatoes (50cents), grilled chicken ($2), and a low-fat vinaigrette. The salad was very filling and definitely worth my money.

Turkey BLT

Customizable Salad

Heading back towards Fifth Avenue, we walked through Bryant Park, another one of those marvels of Manhattan – a greenspace in the midst of looming, claustrophobic skyscrapers. In addition to a free(!) skating rink (brought to you by CitiBank), there was a small holiday market, with vendors selling unique gift items. Bryant Park turned out to be one of my favorite places in New York that we were able to see.

A very random Ontario, Canada tourism snowglobe (since when can you snowboard in Ontario?)


The Pond (just so picturesque, no?)

Just before meeting up with our tour group, we stopped by FAO Schwartz. Chock full of children (much like the rest of Manhattan – especially school groups on field trips), the toy store would have captivated me at a younger age. The recently released film The Golden Compass seemed to have developed numerous deals with local companies. FAO for one was filled with posters and movie merchandise, and even had costumes used in the film on display (the Top of the Rock Observation Deck even included a trailer for viewing before going up the elevator).

With a friendly FAO door greeter

Golden Compass display

With Harry, Hermione, Ron and Hagrid (similar to a display in London’s Legoland)

“DarthMaq”, as he was calling himself

Loading up the buses for our SaTC tour was a bit of a gong show, as there were two full coach loads of people ready to go, but we eventually got up and on and were introduced to our very energetic, enthusiastic tour guide. Stephanie was what Mack labelled a “nerd”, as she could quote the show with the best of them, but I appreciated what was a very obvious appreciation for Sex and the City.

Mack and I before the tour

The bus departed from a key location used at the end of Season 2 – the Plaza Hotel where Carrie bids adieu to her Hubble. It was one of the more memorable visuals, as most things they pointed out were either non-descript exteriors (Samantha’s front door in the Meat Packing District) or forgettable interiors (Sushi Samba, Takishimaya, ABC Home).

The stops were the definite highlight (though I probably could have done without The Pleasure Chest – location of Charlotte’s Rabbit purchase), and it was too cool to take a picture on Carrie’s apartment stoop (the street was as quiet and as serene as one would expect from the show).

The Pleasure Chest

Free souvenirs (the fine print: “Only to be used as paint stir sticks”)

The stoop! The stoop!

The block on which the stoop sits

After the photo, we were given the opportunity to wander (stores on the block included James Perse, Ralph Lauren, and Marc by Marc Jacobs), but we elected to go to Magnolia Bakery to pick up non-cupcakes, as we were being provided with one each on the tour bus. There was actually a line up around the store, and a door person who controlled traffic into the very small space, only allowing individuals to replace those who had just left. Mack chose a double chocolate brownie while I decided to give their apple crumble a whirl (Mack’s brownie was excellent – soft, chewy, but not too sweet, while the crumble was a ho-hum dessert).

Waiting outside Magnolia

Our cupcakes from Magnolia (definitely provided a sugar high)

Playground where Miranda trips just before meeting Steve’s Debbie

Back on the bus for more show clips and bad sex puns (e.g. “We’re all getting off…the bus”), we drove to Scout, or, as it is known in reality, Onieal’s Speakeasy. The Cosmo they gave us was small, and not worth the supposed cheap price of $8, but when in Rome, right?

At Onieal’s

The most hilarious moment of the tour occurred when we drove past the storefront that was used as Aidan’s furniture showroom. Now being remodelled for an architectural firm, the new owner held up a sign in the window as we drove by. It read “Still (heart) Carrie” on the front, and on the back, “Big is small”. It was too funny that the man would get up in the middle of his work day just to make a bus full of women laugh. Wait a minute…

The tour bus dropped us off at Grand Central Station, where we were treated to another “like in the movies” locations. With the holiday light show in the main terminal, it was one of the coolest free sights we had seen so far. Similar to Bryant Park, Grand Central offered its own holiday market, which we walked around as well. There as so many alternatives to your run of the mill shopping mall that it boggles the mind!

Just outside of Grand Central

Light show

Terminal at Grand Central

Holiday market

We decided to have dinner at the Grand Central dining concourse. Two Boots was a pizza vendor that I had read about, and their slices did not disappoint. The thin crust was baked with a sprinkling of corn meal, resulting in a light but filling portion.

Pizza from Two Boots

We then took the subway to the Empire State Building. Not an option in our Explorer Pass, we decided we couldn’t skip out on it, and relegating the Top of the Rock view for the daytime, we decided to plan for the Empire State after nightfall. Numerous start-stops later (thankfully there was no real need for all of those rope lines), we were on the 86th floor deck, complete with a bitter wind chill I thought was confined to Edmonton winters. The view was pretty, but besides the recognizable Chrysler Building, it could have been taken from any other major city.

At the Empire State Building

Too many ropes!


View part deux


Our last stop of the evening was Times Square. One of Mack’s favorite places in the city, it was all flashy lights, blinking advertisements, and was accompanied by the general excitement part and parcel of such an assault on the visual sense. As iconic as the Square is, I must say I much prefer the regal elegance of the Fifth Avenue promenade instead. Still, no visit to New York is complete without a trip to the Square.

Mack at Times Square

At Times Square

One of the very recognizable columns

We took some time to visit a few stores (we were clearly in the wrong part of town the night before; most merchants in this area shut down at midnight or later), including the massive Toys ‘R Us, complete with an operational Ferris wheel, a Virgin Megastore, and the M & M’s World. For those interested in the unusual, I also toured the Charmin promotional bathroom, a marketing gimmick I had read about a few weeks ago. Beyond surreal, the escalator up revealed a sight that must have been dreamed up by a PR firm on hallucinogenics: an usher with an airhorn, a dancing cheerleader, a snow facade for pictures, and an odd tissue-scented air. Only in New York.

Ferris wheel at the Toys ‘R Us

Looking down at the M & M’s World

In the Charmin Bathroom (interestingly enough, Mack received the most comments for these pictures posted on Flickr)

We called it a night (Mack will tell you that I would quickly get accustomed to the nightly USA marathons of Law & Order: SVU), and hoped the next day would be just as fulfilling.

New York City: Day 1

Our flights (first to Calgary, then to New York), were relatively painless. The in-flight entertainment system was glitched on our second flight, but I did manage to watch No Reservations (the head chef in a kitchen of that size wouldn’t also be the pastry chef). There wasn’t any food served, however, so I settled for a $2 Cup of Noodles.

We reached JFK earlier than anticipated, and queued up for a taxi right away. It was pricier than the $7 transfer from AirTrain to the subway, but we thought it be worth it on night one. Besides, a ride in an iconic yellow cab was a must at some point. $45 plus tolls and tip later, we arrived at what would be our home for the next six nights – The Pod Hotel.

Mack in the taxi

In front of the hotel

Easy to miss, we were immediately greeted by a doorman who took our bags (unfortunately for him, we had no small bills to tip him with). Up on the twelfth floor, our room was a lot bigger than the photos on their website suggested. The safe was a handy feature for Mack’s electronics, as was the desk/workstation. Downsides: the room was bloody hot (we ended up keeping the bathroom window open throughout the week), the walls were paper thin (which did allow for some comedic eavesdropping on our second neighbour, a glass salesman from the Midwest), and the shower was peppered with fruit flies (still better than cockroaches, shudder).


Our room


After a quick peek at the very cool rooftop patio (spying on neighbours, a la the Naked Man in Friends, was a possibility), we headed to the nearby Waldorf Astoria. This was the first of a few Serendipity locations we would visit, a testament to Mack’s love of the movie.

Mack at the Waldorf (looking nothing like it did in the movie)

With doormen seemingly blocking the entrance, we snapped a quick photo and vowed to return on another day.

Next was dinner at the Burger Joint, which was, as I had read about, unassumingly located behind a brown curtain in the lobby of Le Parker Meridien. It had the feel of a “best kept secret”, with dim lighting, faded media posters on the wall, and bustling business. Our fries ($3) were served in a small brown paper bag, and resembled a less salty version of those found at McDonald’s, while Mack’s grilled cheese ($5) and my custom cheeseburger ($7) were wrapped up in paper. The meal was good, but really not worth the price.

Mack at the Burger Joint

Me and food (photos like this will form a pattern)

At Starbucks (photos with the Red Cup will also become the norm)

Then, after more walking on the too-blustery streets of New York (reminding me very much of London), we arrived at Mack’s Mecca – the Fifth Avenue Apple Store. We posed outside the famous glass cube, then walked down the winding staircase to the floor. It was after 10pm, but full of customers (probably because nothing else in this area of the “city that never sleeps” was open). Mack played around with a few gadgets, then left happily with an iPod Touch (paid for by Santa, minus the 8.375% sales tax).

Late night browsers

Mack checks on Podcast Spot

One happy customer!

We made our way back to the Pod, and “buttoned down” (tm glass salesman Daniel Sherman) in preparation for our first full day in New York.

Back from New York!

Clearly, this is backdated, but I wanted to optimistically introduce what I hope will be a series of posts covering my trip to the Big Apple. I wasn’t so successful with blogging the details of my sojourn to Europe this summer (I made it to Day 4), but I will do my best to recount all of the sights that Mack and I had the privilege to see over the past week.

In sum, I had a wonderful time. I have wanted to visit New York for as long as I can remember, and I can honestly say that the city did not disappoint me. There is just too much diversity in a city the size of New York to see in six days (we left the boroughs virtually untouched, as well as most of the eclectic neighbourhoods like SoHo and Greenwich Village), but I think we did a fairly good job of covering both the tourist-must-sees and sampling some of the more local-oriented sites. I hope I will be able to return soon!

Happy reading!

Off to New York!

I’m leaving for New York tomorrow! It’s funny – I think I overdid the research and planning portion of this trip much too early; it’s been at least two weeks since I have really touched the set of travel guides on my desk.

At any rate, we’ll see what happens when we get there. I haven’t yet decided if I am going to blog while I’m there (I prefer to use paper/pencil while traveling), but you can be sure Mack will be posting. Check his blog and Flickr page for updates.

Enjoy your week!