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Posts tagged ‘lower east side’

the ghosts of New York past…

My recent trip to NYC was especially memorable as I spent time with three different friends, each one from a different decade of my life and each friendship established via totally different circumstances… but all of whom came together – without actually meeting! – back in 1996.

As I mentioned, in 1995 I decided to fly to NYC to meet up with my friend David who was working in Saudi Arabia at the time.  Only scientists knew how to use the internet back then (you actually needed to know things like DOS commands to use computers 🙂 so we arranged the trip via fax.

It was a roaring success so I went back the following year.  In July really cool people are in the Hamptons but I am never going to be cool so was happy just to be there in my cheap sweaty midtown hotel room.  My friend Sarah was working in DC at the time so came up for the weekend and we ran around in NYC imagining what it might be like to live there.

It was how I learned to love Negronis.  I figured it would be fun to play at being cool so I had read about a place called Pravda somewhere.  It was a bar in the emerging Nolita district of Manhattan too hip to actually have a sign so we had to wander around a bit and finally descend down a staircase and open a mysterious black door… but we found it.  And I suggested we order a Negroni since

bar ngorongoro crater lodge

bar ngorongoro crater lodge

said they were the hot drink of summer 1996.  Our cool factor may not have been really high but at least we were trying hard to not just be typical tourists…

And I really liked the Negroni!  In those days, I didn’t drink cocktails so was always stumped when there wasn’t a cocktail list.  So I started ordering a Negroni.  It took me years to remember what was in it.  It was purely accidental that I discovered it was one of those classic cocktails that gets you respect from the bartender.  Ordering a Negroni almost makes me seem cool 🙂

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negroni

There have been lots of memorable Negronis over the years but it will be hard to top the one I taught the bartender how to make at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in Tanzania.  The lodge is a bit much but it was my last night in Africa and it was so fancy I could dress up.  I had forgotten though that it would be pitch black when I left the main building to go back to my Versailles-like hut so I freaked out my Masai warrior escort gingerly picking my way along the path in heels.  But I told him I had the balance of an impala – and we made it there without him having to catch me in his arms.  The wood was warped so the door stuck.  His job was to make sure I got into my room so he had to open it – it took some effort!  It had all been a delightful way to end the night – and my Serengeti adventure – so I blew him a kiss.  He blew me one back.  It’s not every day you have a Masai warrior blowing you a kiss 😉

http://www.ngorongorocrater.com/

I haven’t met any Masai warriors in NYC but there has been some kissing there over the years…

Including that week back in 1996… Sarah went back to DC and I was supposed to spend the next Saturday doing a bar crawl on the Upper West Side with my friend Despina.  I had read about all these new bars on the upper West and I had been there before with friends so figured it was a safe neighborhood for us to wander in and maybe have a bit of adventure.  But she had a new job so had to work on Saturday night to meet her Monday deadline.

It was my last night in NYC and it seemed wrong to stay in my hotel room.  At that stage, I hadn’t done much wandering in NYC alone but the neighborhood seemed pretty easy and I figured I would just stay alert – and drink lots of cranberry juice in between cocktails.

It was how I discovered the pleasures of having dinner at the bar.  I bonded with each bartender so I knew they had my back if I needed it.  I chatted with random people who sat next to me.  I eavesdropped on conversations and got a much clearer sense for the culture of the place.  That was also how I met my Mr. Big 🙂

It was the last bar.  I was just having a final cocktail and thought I would likely head home before it got too late.  But a guy came in and sat next to me and we started talking.  He was a junior investment banker.  For the first few years, they work practically around the clock so he was finishing work and having a drink in a local bar before going home to bed.

What really bonded us was that he was Canadian.  It seemed like fate…  going on a random bar crawl alone on your last night in New York and then meeting a fellow Canadian on the Upper West Side far from other tourists just as you were both planning to go home… so we didn’t.  He wondered if I wanted to go to a club in SOHO.  That seemed much more fun than my hotel room and we would be in a taxi so I could just get out if I needed to…

In the end, my attempts at personal safety ended up being quite hilarious.  I thought I shouldn’t let him know where I lived since I didn’t know him very well so I got out of the taxi a couple of blocks before the hotel and walked by myself at 3am on the streets of New York.  At the time, I didn’t realize he had the taxi follow me to make sure I would get to my hotel safely.  And that’s how apparently flowers showed up at my hotel the next day – but I had already checked out.

And – despite evidence to the contrary – he didn’t think I was completely insane and a grand, bi-coastal romance blossomed.  I don’t date people unless I really like them so we have stayed friends and try to meet when I am in NYC to catch up on our lives.  It’s been really wonderful to watch him change over the years.  Even cocky junior investment bankers can mellow into caring dads 🙂  It’s a crazy business with a lot of questionable ethics but that chance night on the upper West has allowed me to see that not all investment bankers are evil 😉nyc 324

I have known Despina the longest.  Our friendship began as pen pals at age 15.  When I was a teenager, I felt closer to her than most of the people in my actual community.  We finally met in person in the early 90s.  She is an artist so our lives have run on very different paths but we both love food and art so we incorporate that into our joint adventures.

We likely know more about each other’s romantic adventures than anyone else in our lives as we have been talking about boys since the point at which we were lamenting no one would ever ask us out on a date 🙂  What has been most interesting is the strange parallels in our intercontinental criss-crossing.  We have both lived in Australia.  When she was living in Paris, I was in Germany so could hop on a train and come to visit.  Now she is back in New Jersey so getting together in person is easier but she is an incredible writer so we still have letters travelling back and forth – they are just electronic now.  I cherish them.  They are full of newsy detail and personal thoughts – far removed from a tweet – and my life is so much richer for it.

And Sarah now lives in NYC!  She has made good on our wild imaginings about what it might be like to live in NYC.  It’s not what we would have imagined back then.  She is married with children now – and the cool factor has migrated beyond Nolita to the Lower East Side.  She’s brilliant and insightful so it was fascinating to hear her initial impressions of life in one of the most famous cities on earth.

And it will make it easier to visit her!  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, most of my friendships have an unusual genesis.  Sarah and I became friends because she was my roommate for 6 weeks in Calgary during the summer of 1983.  I was living in the University of Calgary student dorm so the facilities were pretty limited and her sister lived in town so I barely saw her but our few chats really intrigued me so I made sure we exchanged contact information.  Neither of us has ever had much free time and it’s a bit incredible our paper correspondence survived before the internet.  She is a scientist so she was my first email!  There have been many since.  And some live encounters to supplement the flow of bytes.

The message?  You never know what life has in store for you.  And how random people in your life might align and create new adventures.  If you meet someone you find interesting, be sure to get some contact info – and then just see what happens…  All three of them opened up my world and changed my life – for the better.

 

p.s. one final restaurant recommendation that didn’t fit into the stream of consciousness…  Nomad (from the brilliant guys at Eleven Madison Park)

http://www.thenomadhotel.com/#/dining

how the alphabet has changed!

Technically I am home now but I have a series of posts that developed in my head while I was in New York City so we will continue the travelogue for the next few posts…

Almost twenty years ago I made my first visit to Alphabet City.  Alphabet City refers to the avenues in the Lower East Side named by alphabet (i.e. Avenue A, B, C…).  Not that many years before I had seen a movie (Mixed Blood) about the rampant drug dealing in Alphabet City and how they used underage kids because they couldn’t be prosecuted.  But, by the mid 90s, Alphabet City was being gentrified and it was the latest cool place to hang out.

I wouldn’t have been brave enough to venture down there on my own with the images in my head of packages of drugs being lowered on ropes out of tenement windows but I was hanging out with my friend David from Australia who was fearless.  We connected with my friend Despina and then met up with her sister on Avenue B.  Her sister lived in the neighbourhood so knew what was OK for tourists.

It was still pretty edgy at that time, though, and gave me a little bit of street cred.  Or so I thought, possibly delusionally 🙂   It definitely inspired me to continue further exploration in that part of the city.

nyc 192Each time I come to New York I try to stay somewhere different.  I started doing this years ago because it just seemed the right approach to the city.  I go to Paris to escape into the past and explore history.  I go to New York to see what all the rest of us will be doing next 😉

A couple of visits ago I decided to up the ante a little and not just stay in a new hotel but also start staying in new neighbourhoods so that I could expand my knowledge and experience of the city.  My friend Sarah has recently moved to New York and is living in the Lower East Side. I had already thought I would likely stay there on my next visit so that sealed the deal.

I stayed at the Thompson LES and would definitely give it a thumbs up.  The price was really reasonable for New York, I wasn’t looking into a wall, a parking lot or someone else’s room, and there were some great amenities inside and right outside the hotel.

http://www.thompsonhotels.com/hotels/nyc/thompson-les

The trip started off on a great note.  I got some sage advice from Daniel and got a drink and some excellent food at the Stanton Social Club.  My server was wonderful – and remembered me when I took Sarah back there the next night.

http://thestantonsocial.com/

I was planning to just go back to the hotel and get some sleep after that but I was intrigued by a venue right next to the hotel where a live band was playing to an enthusiastic crowd.  The bouncer seemed not so enthusiastic but consented to let me in.  The band on stage was really good and I was disappointed to learn that they had almost finished their set.

Because I had only caught a couple of songs, I went up to the lead singer and asked if I could buy a CD.  I figured I could at least listen to their music even if it wasn’t the same as a live show.  He didn’t have any change so I got 2 CDs – and an invitation to join them for a drink in the backstage lounge.

He had a whole entourage so I wasn’t expecting him to remember me but I know it’s always fun to have a little adventure when one travels… He was a really gracious guy so I met some members of the band, some of his friends, his girlfriend… and the chance to say I hung out with the band after the show 🙂

Just in case anyone is coming to New York, the venue is called the Rockwood Music Hall.  I ended up there every night for a short while after my friends had gone home.  There was an eclectic line up of musical talent but universally talented musicians.  And I didn’t even need to take a coat with me!

http://www.rockwoodmusichall.com/

You might also want to check out the Jamie McLean Band.  He is apparently from Connecticut but spent lots of time in New Orleans so his accent and his music have a definite southern flair.  And we agreed – as a musician, it just sounds better if you come from New Orleans…

http://jamiemcleanband.com/

The neighbourhood offered lots of opportunities for distraction 🙂   Saturday night I also hit the nightclub on the 7th floor of the hotel and proved I could actually dance in my new 5 inch heels!  You definitely want to stay pretty sober though when you are walking in shoes like that.  But 60% off at the temple to shoes that is the Saks Fifth Avenue shoe department is pretty hard to resist… it is so large it has its own zipcode!  And the shoes are Nicolas Kirkwood red sequined platform heels so I am sure I will get lots of Wizard of Oz references from strangers…

http://www.saksfifthavenue.com

http://www.nicholaskirkwood.com/

The coolest part of buying the shoes was the chat Sarah and I had with the shoe salesman.  I am of course a little shoe obsessed so chatting with shoes salesmen about how Nicolas Kirkwood shoes are better designed than Jimmy Choos… and how Christain Louboutins used to better… and my addiction to Rodolphe Menudier…  it’s just natural but it started a lovely conversation about the effects of Hurricane Sandy, some restaurant recommendations for my friend Sarah… He said we’d made his day.  He certainly made ours.  I am always energized by random conversations with strangers in this impersonal, wireless world of ours.

Another note-worthy adventure – which also involved talking to a lot of random strangers – was our dinner at WD-50.  I told Sarah I wanted to take her out for a special dinner and she wanted to support the neighbourhood, which had been through a lot of rough days thanks to Sandy.  I had always wanted to go to WD-50 so it wasn’t hard to convince me 🙂

http://wd-50.com/

We drank a bottle of fabulous champagne and worked our way through the giant tasting menu.  As part of their tenth’s anniversary, the chef changed the menu and it is now two tasting menus – a giant one full of mad scientist culinary creations dreamed up by Wylie or a smaller one that is comprised of some of the greatest hits from the restaurant’s last ten years.

This isn’t really an official foodie blog and I wasn’t taking notes while we dined because I wanted to catch up with Sarah so I would recommend you go yourself to really understand the experience.  But how can you not love a meal that involves three desserts? 🙂  And includes pine needles that they made in the kitchen.  Like the potato that looks like bone marrow.  I didn’t hear the description properly so left it on my plate as I don’t typically chew on bones… but the servers are as fantastic as the food so he wondered why I wasn’t eating my potato… which looked exactly like the bone in bone marrow…

Those of you who know me are familiar with my issues with funghi.  So you will understand how wowed I was that they didn’t just leave the mushrooms off my steak; they made me an entirely different – funghi free – dish!  As you can tell, I am saying that you should definitely check it out on your next trip to NYC 🙂

Another place to check out is Torrisi Italian Specialities.  No molecular gastronomy but the kind of vibe that I think WD-50 had when it first opened.  If I have the story straight, it started more as a deli-great-sandwich kind of place (called Parm and now next door) but it was so popular they now have a teeny tiny wonderfully unique experience restaurant.

http://www.torrisinyc.com/

If you book on-line and have a party under 4, they say they may seat you at the counter.  But, since I was booking long distance, I figured I would take the chance.  And, having done it, Despina and I would say you might want to sit at the counter!  We got to watch the chef and entourage working the magic.

Like WD-50, it’s a very limited menu.  It’s written on a chalkboard so I think it changes every day with the whims of the chef and the fresh produce available.  You get four compulsory appetizers.  Then you get to choose from two pastas and two mains.  Since nothing involved mushrooms, we decided to do everything on the menu and divide the two choices down the middle.

It was a fantastic meal!  Everything was fresh and wonderfully prepared.  The mad scientist element was quite subdued but it was inventive Italian cuisine… not your grandmother’s spaghetti 🙂   And at the end they gave us a box of treats to take home!  All wildly delicious.  I was really impressed because they actually gave us a second box since we were going to different homes in different countries.  The most exotic was a rainbow cake.  I’m not even sure how they got all the colours but I am sure no toxic red dye was involved.

I also spent a small amount of time wandering the streets near the hotel and popping into a few shops.  They have a Maje and Sandro, faves from Europe.  And Sigerson Morrison is still alive and kicking, in a slightly different location.  The aesthetic looks the same though and the shoes look like they would be comfortable (I had already bought too many at Saks).  When Sigerson Morrison was brand new, I actually got photographed as part of a journalist report on the new brand so have been following them since the beginning…

While the Lower East Side is likely not as squeaky Disney clean as the cleaned up Times Square, I had no problems and saw no heroin being lowered in a basket from a window.  It feels fresh and exciting and I would encourage everyone to check it out.  I know I will be back for further exploration…

I read on the plane that there is a Standard Hotel Lower East Side in the works… on the site of the old CBGB.  As one of the disciples of David Byrne and the Talking Heads, when my friend David excitedly told me his favourite band from Sydney was playing at our first night in New York, there was no question that we would go!  And they were awesome.  I bought the CD and promoted The Cruel Sea in Canada.  One of the tracks even made it onto my iconic 50th birthday soundtrack…

And I had a lot of adventures when I stayed at the Standard in the Meatpacking District.  You may well hear about them at some point… but right now we are trying to get you to check out the Lower East Side – and witness the transformation of New York City for yourself…

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