A Dinner with Complete Strangers

New York is not a place where you–willy-nilly–engage people whom you don’t know. If tourists are lost and confused, you might ask them if they need help and guide them to where they need to go. If something especially strange is happening, people might murmur about it between themselves. You might even have a bit of small talk with your local business owners or the girl reading the same book as you on the train. (Scientist think these brief interactions make people happier.) All of these conversations have two things in common, however: they’re short and they’re non-intrusive. Small-town folk might call us rude. We view it as a courtesy extended to us by fellow city dwellers–in a place with almost no privacy, you let people have theirs in public.

Except we broke those rules, as did the total strangers we were dining with a few weeks ago. My husband and I bought tickets to a crab boil at Back Forty, a locavore restaurant in the East Village. Seating was communal, and we were sat outdoors with two other parities of two. We introduced ourselves and after my husband gave a crab-eating tutorial, dug in. I think we all expected to go back to our intimate conversations after that, but we didn’t. For two hours we talked to one another as though we were at a mutual friend’s wedding. We learned about each other’s careers, backgrounds, thoughts on living in the city. A member of the party was from Dublin, and he taught me a fun new idiom: “chin-wag”–meaning a chat or conversation.

It felt very un-New York and very New York all at the same time. These are probably not people I’d be lifelong friends with; I don’t even remember any of their names. It was a nice evening, though, and it reminded me how, in the right setting, a conversation with strangers can be almost as satisfying as one with old friends.

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Summer Date Ideas by Neighborhood: Brighton Beach and Coney Island

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No, summer’s not winding down, and I have proof! This past Tuesday, September 2nd, was the hottest day of the entire season. This means summer plans on sticking around for a while longer. Venturing out to Brooklyn’s iconic Brighton Beach and Coney Island neighborhoods is one of my favorite ways to capture the spirit of a summer in NYC. The two neighborhoods offer food, people watching and entertainment–the trifecta of a fun night out. Brighton Beach and Coney Island are about a 10-15 minute walk from one another along a nice, wide boardwalk.

1. Eat: There’s pizza! There are hot dogs! There is mediocre Russian food (I’ll explain below)! Let’s start with the pizza. One of the best pizza parlors in the city, Totonno’s, is in Coney Island, not too far from the boardwalk. This is a classic New York pie. If you’re going to sully it with toppings I suggest crowd pleasing fresh garlic and pepperoni. Consistency varies, but on a good day, the pizza here is nearly unbeatable. Last seating is at 7:30 p.m., practically an early-bird dining hour in NYC.

(Image via Liz, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

(Image via Liz, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Then, of course, there’s Nathan’s Famous, home to one of the best hot dogs in the world and the yearly Hot Dog Eating Contest. I’m a sucker for the chili dog, but the original, topped with sauerkraut and onions is great, too. The dog itself is meaty with a satisfying snap. A bit of advice: go to the sprawling original location instead of the smaller oceanside outposts. Though the service there is painfully slow, the original has the freshest inventory.

Courtesy of Andrea Hubbell Photography

Courtesy of Andrea Hubbell Photography

And then there’s the riskier Russian food option. If you decide to go this route, make sure to follow my rules exactly. First, it’s better to go at night when the restaurants aren’t clogged with beach goers. Second, get a small bottle of chilled vodka at a liquor store on Brighton Beach Avenue, below the elevated subway track. Most Russian restaurants in Brighton are BYO, and we were actually once admonished by a waitress for paying for a few shots instead of bringing our own (it was late! the stores had all closed!), and thus, according to her, wasting our money. Next, grab an outdoor table at one of the Russian boardwalk cafes. If you’re primarily after great food, go to inland cafes Oceanview or Skovorodka. Since it’s summer, ambiance is probably more of a priority. There are only three boardwalk options (Volna, Tatiana and Tatiana Cafe) and the quality is fairly comparable between them, so need to fret about this decision. Now we’ve come to the most important guideline. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, order from the “American” section of the menu. Just don’t do it. “But I’m really craving a burger,” you say, “and “it’s hard to mess up, so I just thought I’d…” NO. Please, for the sake of all that is holy, do not do this. I can’t even guarantee it will be edible. Get traditional Russian (or Russia-appropriated) things like blini with caviar, fried potatoes with mushrooms, shashliks, etc. Those dishes will be good, if not life changing. Next, sit back and enjoy some of the best people watching in New York City. Russian families celebrating, elderly men and women walking arm-in-arm, surly Russians being surly. It’s a fascinating slice of Brooklyn that feels almost entire removed from the rest of the city. It’s like a wormhole to seaside Odessa circa 1975. Another point: expect your service to be slow and probably somewhat rude. It’s okay, you’re using them for their location. You’ve got a 375ml bottle of chilled vodka, the sweet company of the person you’ve brought with you and the salty breeze blowing off of the Atlantic. You’re good.

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A recent meal on the boardwalk

2. Play: Aside from the preternaturally entertaining boardwalk and beach, you can indulge in a bit of minor league baseball or in a few amusement park rides.

The Brooklyn Cyclones play in MCU Park, which abuts the boardwalk and overlooks the old parachute tower. Personally, I love everything about baseball except the actual game. I love the spectatorship of it, the beer drinking, the Dipping Dots eating. Did the Cyclones strike out again? Ho-hum. The Brooklyn Cyclones are also an organization that knows how to have fun with theme nights. This past July they hosted a Seinfeld-themed night, marking the show’s 25th anniversary. There were creative costumes, inventive signs and even a marble rye fishing competition. After every Friday and Saturday evening game the stadium puts on a fireworks display that rivals the pageantry of any small town July 4th show. Sounds fun, right? Well, unfortunately, the Cyclones’ season is over so save this idea for next summer!

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Luna Park, Coney Island’s amusement park, is still open on weekends through October. Come and ride the famed 87- year old Cyclone (not recommended for those with frail bones or the easily bruised) or the makeout mecca Wonder Wheel, a Ferris wheel with fully enclosed passenger cars for privacy. More than just a collection of historic rides, Luna Park also features brand-new coasters and rides that spin a full 360 degrees. Me? I’m more of a ride observer. My own coaster riding days are behind me, but it’s fun to watch the youngins’ have a grand time. I prefer the arcade sports–basketball and skeeball. Just leave me a bunch of tickets and check on me every few hours. Oh, and don’t forget to buy me a funnel cake.

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Ice Cream Sandwich Roundup, Updated

Last summer I posted a comprehensive roundup of the best made-to-order ice cream sandwich in NYC, and there were plenty of formidable contenders. This season brings a few new examples that up the ice cream sandwich ante.

1. I mentioned a version of the brioche-gelato sandwich before, but the Italian-by-way of Brazil gelato shop A.B. Biagi does it one better by offering their take. The Pain Gelato features a choice of three brioche flavors–chocolate-chocolate nibs, orange blossom and regular–sourced from stellar Brooklyn bakery Bien Cuit. Each pairs well with a different gelato flavor. My stracciatella (similar to chocolate chip) went well with the chocolate brioche, which I wasn’t at all angry about. They place the brioche and gelato in a special, waffle-press-like contraption until the sides of the brioche are sealed. The result is a warm, crisp pocket filled with cold, silky gelato. There’s something especially indulgent about eating dessert in the form of a sandwich. There are two caveats–one, at $8, it is pricey and two, because they don’t want the gelato to leak out of the sides, the scoop is pretty small.

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2. Dominique Ansel Bakery is best known for the perpetually imitated Cronut, but the shop’s signature item is a smaller version of the classic Breton pastry kougin-amann. The pastry is flaky, layer-y and sugary, similar to a croissant, but with a more pronounced caramelized, rather than butter, flavor. For their version of an ice cream sandwich (which technically isn’t new, but it’s new to me!), they take a DKA (Dominique’s Kouign Amann), cut it in half and fill it with two scoops of ice cream. The prailene ice cream creation below, for $6.75, was, for lack of a better word, awesome. The pastry is solid enough to hold the ice cream in place, and it’s sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, providing a perfect complement to the richness of the ice cream.

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3. So this creation from recently featured ice creamery Hay Rosie Craft Ice Cream Co. is utterly insane–in the best possible way. Referred to as “the barnburner,” and costing a reasonable-for-its-size $8, this take on the ice cream sandwich incorporates ice cream nestled between a rotating roster of bookends. The day I went there was a choice between slabs of raw chocolate chip cookie dough or actual PB&J sandwiches. After assembly, both the filling and the shell are placed into the very same machine used to create the Pain Gelato, above. The chocolate chip cookie dough barnburner, which I paired with Grape Nuts ice cream, was rich. Like, this-is-really-good-but-I-can-only-eat-a-tenth-of-it rich. The dough had been warmed just enough to create some crispiness, but its DNA was still very much dough. I indulge in a bit of raw dough eating every now and then, but it’s not my absolute fave, the way it is for some. If that means you, you have found your kryptonite.

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4. Newish Park Slope bakery Buterrmilk Bakeshop specializes in homestyle desserts, and their take on the ice cream sandwich reminds me of the sort of satisfying concoction you’d create in your own kitchen. Pick any two of their cookies–I went with one peanut butter and one chocolate chunk–and add a scoop of their homemade ice cream–I opted for coffee almond. The cookies are soft, buttery and crumbly, which makes the sandwich easy (no rock-hard cookie to fight your way through), albeit very messy to eat. At $5.50, it’s also a pretty good deal in the NYC ice cream sandwich market.

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Summer Date Ideas by Neighborhood: Park Slope

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I’ve often employed the following rigidly tested formula for NYC events: NYC + seems fun + free = usually not worth it. Free events, especially really fun-seeming ones, tend to be uncomfortably crowded. There are, however, ways around this. Mainly, don’t go directly into the scrum. One of my summer bucket list activities is sitting outside a show at the Prospect Park Bandshell. True, the acoustics aren’t amazing, but you can still make out the words to every song, and you have all the space in the world to spread out. There’s only a little over a week of performances left ! Media darling St. Vincent, preforming on August 9th, is sure to draw a big crowd.

1. Picnic: Before you head over, you need provisions. If you’re coming from central Slope, grab a few classic banh mis at neighborhood staple Hanco’s.

If you’re trekking from North Flatbush, El Gran Castillo De Jagua makes an extremely filling Cuban sandwich. It’s less than $7, and big enough for two. Or, you can go all in with a rotisserie chicken dinner and sides.

There’s also R&D Foods (from the team behind 606 R&D restaurant) in Prospect Heights, which offers a wide assortment of sandwiches, veggies and sides by-the-pound, drinks and sweets.

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Sandwiches and sides from R&D Foods

A word about alcohol consumption: it’s technically illegal to drink in public in NYC, but many people do it anyway. I think colorful beer cans that resemble soda–21st Amendment Hell or High Watermelon beer–are a good bet and are safer than glass bottles in terms of attracting the least amount of attention. The key is to be discrete. My husband once witnessed a group of corporate softball league players in Prospect Park get tickets for consuming Brooklyn Brewery beers. Those rowdy hooligans!

2. Concert: Now it’s time to settle in. I prefer the north side of the bandshell, near the ticket entrance. The ground is flat and easy to sit on and there’s ample grass coverage, which isn’t always true for the south side of the stage. The major caveat is you have absolutely no view of the performance.

But! There is a major advantage to sitting here. When we parked ourselves outside the National concert a few weeks ago, multiple people came by to give away free tickets (why? I don’t know). We had the chance to enjoy the second half of the show from inside the concert area, free of charge. There are no more paid shows (well, technically every show asks for a suggested $3 donation) on the Celebrate Brooklyn! schedule for this summer, but definitely something to keep in mind for next year.

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Thank you, random stranger, for the free National tickets

3. Drink: Leave before the end of the show to beat the crowds and grab a seat at The Double Windsor, a nearly perfect iteration of what a cozy neighborhood bar should be. They have over a dozen craft beers on tap, in addition to well-made versions of beloved cocktails like Dark & Stormys. The also serve a truly delicious Pat LaFrieda beef burger if you’re still hungry post-picnicing.

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Favorite Things Lately, Volume 5

Garry Winogrand exhibit at The MetPhotography often elicits the most visceral reaction of any art form. A single shot can invoke beauty, joy, struggle and serenity, all within the same image. When people are the subjects, the photographs become a kind of mirror, reflecting ourselves back to us, conjuring and illuminating the entire of spectrum of human emotion. I, admittedly, hadn’t heard of Garry Winogrand until this exhibit (on view through September 21st), but now count him among one of my favorite photographers. I especially loved his vibrant shots of late fifties and early sixties NYC, which showcase the beautiful, controlled chaos of the city’s streets. What’s amazing is how many of these photographs were printed posthumously, so we as an audience get to experience the power of the shots he took but was never able to fully digest. An evocative quote accompanied one of his images: “Sometimes I feel…the world is a place I bought a ticket to. It’s a big show for me, as if it wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t there with a camera.”

Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984) New York World's Fair 1964 Gelatin silver print San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Dr. L.F. Peede, Jr. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984)
New York World’s Fair
1964
Gelatin silver print
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Dr. L.F. Peede, Jr.
© The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

2. Buffalo chicken sandwich at Bobwhite Lunch &  Supper CounterSome people search the city far and wide for the best iteration of a burger or New York-style pizza or even soup dumplings. For the past 10 years, I’ve been on a quest for one of my favorite dishes ever–the most mundane of suburban staples: the Buffalo chicken sandwich. It’s easy enough to find in small-town USA but nearly impossible to track down here.  All of this is why I may have shed a tear when I bit into Bobwhite’s version for the first time last summer (and then a few more when I had it again a few weeks ago).  The chicken, usually subdivided into large strips, is incredibly flavorful–Bobwhite brines their chicken overnight in sweet tea!–and is coated in tangy-hot-buttery Buffalo sauce. It’s technically a special, but I’ve seen it on the menu every time I’ve come in.

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3. The Falls cocktail at Weather Up in Brooklyn: I’m not sure why this is the case, but fancy cocktails tend to taste better in the summer. Perhaps it’s because a good drink is best enjoyed outdoors, basking in the warmth of a summer evening (or, desperately swatting at ferocious mosquitos hellbent on your destruction; potato, po-tah-to). Weather Up in Prospect Heights serves one of my favorite drinks I’ve had this season. It includes all of the best things in the world: honey, lemon, bourbon, mint, ginger and, since it’s a fancy Brooklyn cocktail bar and including these is the law (see Sec. 102.3 of the libation code), Angostura Bitters. They like to change things up every few weeks, so it’s technically no longer on their official menu, but they’ll make it for you if you ask nicely.

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4. New catch Holland herring at Russ & Daughters Cafe (and original shop): My love of herring was instilled in me from an early age while crowded around celebratory tables filled with Russian delicacies. I didn’t know what herring could be until I had this variety. New Catch Holland herring is to regular old herring as pasta at the best trattoria in Italy is to Chef Boyardee. This herring is salty and buttery in a way only the best fatty fish can be. The newly opened cafe serves it the same way as the original takeout shop has for years, with chopped onions and chopped cornichons, and with an optional hot dog bun. It’s a seasonal specialty and only available for a few more weeks.

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25 Years of Seinfeld’s New York

Seinfeld, probably the greatest sitcom of our time, premiered on NBC 25 years ago, on July 5th. Though ostensibly a show about nothing, Seinfeld proved to be about nearly everything. It had a unique way of honing in on every kind of social triviality, lending the most mundane interactions a comic ridiculousness and relatability. At its heart, it was a show about who we think we are versus who we really are. Jerry, George and Elaine all longed to be viewed as decent people and to pat themselves on the back for their good deeds all while doing some pretty reprehensible things. As an example: George buys a chair for a security guard so the guard doesn’t have to stand all day, and, in a separate episode, pushes children and the elderly aside so he can be the first to escape a fire. Kramer, on the other hand, was the foil, content to be just who he was.

Elaine Benes is one of my favorite female TV characters ever, despite being a not-so-great person. She could hang with the boys without having to emulate them. She was sexual without being sexualized. And she was funny. Like, really funny. And not funny by doing gender-specific schtick. Just, well, funny. I’d say, punch for punch, she landed some of the best zingers on the show. The character is a testament to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s range as an actor.

It was also a show about New York City. Yes, the situations were relatable no matter your zip code, but NYC dwellers had a unique window into the world of Seinfeld. A few storylines that would garner knowing nods from New Yorkers:

  • Elaine giving a false address in order to have really good Chinese food delivered to her apartment. (“If we deliver to you, then what, 85th Street, Wall Street, Mexico, 84th Street…?”)
  • George, Elaine and Jerry’s ultimately fruitless hunt for the perfect apartment
  • Elaine’s screaming inner monologue when the subway breaks down
  • Elaine leading a group that includes a pregnant woman and a priest under a set of bleachers in order to find an escape route out of the Puerto Rican Day parade
  • Elaine and Jerry’s determination to bring a chocolate babka to a party (“You can’t beat a babka.”), then settling for cinnamon.
  • Kramer telling Jerry that if he doesn’t want to be a part of society, he should move to the East Side.
  • Kramer, lost and scared, calling Jerry and telling him he’s in the “Nexus of the Universe”: the intersection of 1st Street and 1st Avenue. (“How can the same street intersect with itself?”)

 

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“Cinnamon takes a backseat to no babka”

The Artisanal Ice Cream Takeover of NYC

Back in October of 2012, my husband and I heard Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein speak to an audience of New Yorkers. The stars of the affectionately-hipster-satirizing IFC show Portlandia were asked what trendy import from Portland we New Yorkers could expect in the immediate future. Fred answered that weirdly flavored, super-popular, hyper-local, small-batch artisanal ice cream didn’t really seem like a big thing here in NYC, and that Portlanders were waiting in block-long lines for flavors like goat cheese-marionberry-habanero at purveyor Salt & Straw and many others around the city. “Ice cream is on its way,” he had declared.

Like a self-consciously ironic plot line straight out of Portlandia, he turned out to be right, off-handedly predicting NYC’s next big dessert trend. Is Fred Armisen some kind of soothsayer? Or are we just that predictable? American culinary ingenuity doesn’t always start here, the way we’d like to think it does. Small town shops across the country, like Jeni’s in Columbus, Ohio, have been doing this sort of thing for years, and it seems New Yorkers were ready for a deluge of some high-brow ice cream of their own.

Stalwart shops like Sundaes and Cones in the East Village (and before that Bay Ridge) and Cones in the West Village, both with impressive rosters of unique flavors, had been open for decades, but the wave really began about a year before Fred’s pronouncement, with the opening of Ample Hills Creamery in Prospect Heights in the spring of 2011. The shop, with addictive flavors like Salted Crack Caramel and Bubblegum, was so popular it had to close for a bit soon after opening in order to re-stock its ice cream supply. Ample Hills also had the pedigree of being one of the only shops in the country at the time to produce all of its ice cream, including the base, entirely from scratch, on-site. Very Portland-esque, indeed. The shop is now expanding to Gowanus, the site of their new production facility, and has an outpost at Brooklyn Bridge Park as well as a new cookbook.

I guess Fred saw the writing on the wall? After his pronouncement, Oddfellows Ice Cream Co., with flavors like Chorizo Caramel Swirl and Cornbread, opened in Williamsburg in the spring of 2013 and recently expanded to the East Village. Here are three more artisan ice cream shops, all opened since last summer, the last two just within the the last month-and-a-half.

1. Davey’s Ice Cream, East Village According to Grubstreet, David Yoo, owner of Davey’s Ice Cream is a former graphic designer whose true calling was ice cream. He quit his job and enrolled in Penn State’s ice cream short course. (Incidentally, it’s the same course taken by Ample Hills founder Brian Smith, who was a Sci-Fi writer in his pre-ice cream life.)  Per EV Grieve, David, like Smith, produces all of the ice cream from scratch right in the his tiny shop and with local ingredients like Battenkill Valley Creamery cream and milk. There’s a cast of permanent flavors like Strong Coffee and Mexican Vanilla Bean as well as a handful of rotating, experimental flavors. I missed out on Ultra Babka from a few weeks ago (the babka is supplied by Moishe’s Bake Shop, a block away-not sure you can get more local than that), but enjoyed the below super-chunky Brunch! flavor filled with brioche French toast, cinnamon-maple syrup and coffee-glazed bacon. daveys2 Daveys

2. Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream, Lower East Side Started by restaurant alum Nick Morgenstern, who’d amassed an ice cream-lover following thanks to a cart outside Fort Greene’s General Greene restaurant, this parlor kicks things up far higher than a notch. A few nights ago I observed NYC’s own “Mr. Chocolate” Jacques Torres sampling the Durian Banana ice cream. He remarked that it had “a very distinct durian flavor.” Durian is a Southeast Asian fruit often banned from public spaces because of the offensive odor it produces when its studded exterior is cut open. Also on the menu: American Egg ice cream, a Jungle Bird cocktail sorbet and dozens of other flavors. My husband was angling for the Szechuan Peppercorn Chocolate. The ice cream is eggless and low in sugar (for flavor-not health-reasons, per Grubstreet), but doesn’t taste discernibly less rich or flavorful than standard ice cream. The below Chocolate Oat ice cream in a waffle cone was a winner. morgensterns3 morgensterns2

3. Hay Rosie Craft Ice Cream, Carroll Gardens I wasn’t 100 percent sold on the encompassing nature of this trend until I walked over to this brand new shop two weeks after it first opened. It was around 3 p.m. on a beautiful early summer day-in other words, prime ice cream time. The door was locked and a sign hanging outside the shop read “sold out,” invoking the great Ample Hills rush of 2011 and proving that New Yorkers have a seemingly insatiable appetite for uniquely crafted small-batch ice cream. Shop owner Stef Ferrari, like Yoo and Smith, is also an alum of the Penn State ice cream course, and churns out everything-from-scratch eggless flavors like Sriracha popcorn, which is distinctively hot, and the satisfying Bananas Ferrari (bel0w), with brown butter, Muscovado sugar, bananas, salt and malt. Her focus is on manufacturing, with the shop functioning as a tasting room on weekends.

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Summer Date Ideas by Neighborhood: Prospect Heights

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I love summer in the city as much as the next gal, but there’s something about it that for New Yorkers can be, well, a tad anxiety inducing. It’s more than the obsession with getting the most we possibly can out of the warmer months, it’s also that fact that New York in the summer is almost too awesome. There’s so much to do, and so little time in which to pack it all in. Every non-humid 80° F day feels like a gift from the heavens, one that must be enjoyed to the fullest, lest we conclude that the day –and if the day, then the week, the month, and obviously the season–has gone to waste.

In order to help, I’ve started a new series focusing on summer dates, whether romantic or plutonic, that take full advantage of the city’s neighborhoods in a low-key way.

Prospect Heights is a Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhood northeast of Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Take advantage of both the park and gardens, if you’d like, or, escape the heat at the Brooklyn Museum, a large, stately museum with one of my favorite permanent collections. Currently on view is an exhibition featuring more than 40 works by subversive modern Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Head to the museum for First Saturdays (the next one is July 5) to enjoy reduced admission to the Ai Weiwei exhibit as well as music and entertainment from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.

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After museum-ing, take a 2-minute walk up Washington Avenue to craft cocktail bar Tooker Alley. Enjoy inventive cocktails (in the $11-$12 range) and a short menu of small bites in their low-lit bar or in the spacious backyard (open until 10 p.m.). Free jazz on Monday evenings if that’s your thing. Check on the wait time at Bar Corvo (below) so you can imbibe a few drinks al fresco until they call to tell you your table’s ready.

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Bar Corvo, a neighborhood-y Italian restaurant, is a more casual offshoot of the insanely popular Park Slope spot Al Di La. The food here is hearty and delicious. I’m especially a fan of the anchovy-and-breadcrumb cauliflower and their pasta dishes (tagliatelle, squid ink, semolina gnocchi). The string light-illuminated backyard is a romantic spot in which to wile away a summer night over a glass of red.

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NYC Oddities: Grand Central Dirt Spot

There is something magical about Grand Central Terminal. Perhaps it’s the large windows or the vaulted ceiling or the people scurrying around the central axis of the clock perched in the middle of all the chaos. For me, it’s the aqua-and-gold-colored depiction of the night sky’s constellations. The colors are pure and vibrant, and they lend the space a kind of incandescence. It wasn’t always this way. Before the interior’s restoration–completed in 1998–the ceiling and surfaces were grimy, stained with decades of tobacco smoke and dirt. The restorers left a reminder of the ceiling’s previous condition–a patch of grime left untreated in the northwest corner of the open-air terminal, right neat the Cancer constellation. It’s a vow to never again let the building deteriorate to such a state.

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An Insider’s Guide to a Russian Food Store

New York City is rich with ethnic enclaves. This means culture-specific restaurants, bookstores, and perhaps most excitingly, food markets. If you’re not well versed in that specific culture, stepping inside can be a tad intimidating and overwhelming. Where to start? How do you make sure you’re picking up the right products?

As a Russian immigrant, I often go to Brooklyn’s beachside Brighton Beach neighborhood to fill up on provisions. One of my favorite grocery stores is Brighton Bazaar. It’s clean, expansive and easy to navigate. Here are some of the things I like to pick up when I make a trip.

1. Pickled things are the antipasti of Russian meals. The cabbage is tart and refreshing as are the full sour and half-sour pickles. You can also pick up pickled mushrooms, tomatoes and even watermelon.

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2. The hot bar is a cornucopia of Russian specialties, from bread pockets to meat cutlets to mayonnaise-y salads. The meaty, fatty, flavorful borscht is hearty enough for a full meal.

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3. The aroma emanating from the sliced meats counter reminds me of the sliced bologna and salami we indulge in during family gatherings. For salami, I’d suggest one of the more expensive varieties, like Hungarian (Vengerskaya) or Tzar’s (Tzarskaya), or, if you don’t eat pork, an all-beef salami referred to as “Jewish” (Evreyskaya). I have a soft spot for the alarmingly cheap Doctor’s pork bologna (Doctorskaya), which is smooth and strangely refreshing. My husband insists my love for it is a product of misplaced nostalgia, but I would still recommend it for the Russian food novice–it has a universally appealing taste that’s much less gritty than the Oscar Meyer variety.

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4. Apparently this shop’s bakery department orders their breads all the way from Germany. It makes sense; German bread is renowned in Russia, and the varieties offered here are top-notch. The darker breads are dense, delicious and perfect for sopping up sour-cream drenched things. I usually get the “crusty bread”, which is on the lighter side of dark, and has a nuanced sourdough quality. Feel free to pick up a poppy seed roll–the favorite dessert of every Russian father–if you’re looking for something sweet.

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5. There are a few varieties of dried fish in the seafood section. The one I’m most familiar is vobla. It’s the fish of post-banya meals and lazy afternoons. It requires a a bit of softening, so you can either hit it against the table a few times or bend it back-and-forth until it’s pliable enough to pick at. It’s salty, so pair it with a refreshing beer–a Baltika, maybe?–for a truly Russian experience.

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6. Buckwheat kasha or grechnivaya kasha (on the floor) is to Russia what French fries are to the United States. It’s a a staple side in nearly every home and restaurant. It’s not only a side, though. Add some sauteed mushrooms for a complete meal. My favorite dish as a child was buckwheat kasha mixed with cutup hotdogs.

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7. Russian-style dumplings or pelmeni are my go-to frozen entree when I don’t have time to cook. There are over a dozen varieties to choose from, including sweet versions with cherries, often referred to by their Ukranian name, vareniki. I usually go for the chicken dumplings, but the most popular are “Siberian”-style, a mixture of beef and pork. Boil until tender and top with a spoonful of sour cream or melted butter.

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8. When I was younger, one of my favorite items from the Russian food store was a bag of pryaniki, Russian gingerbread honey cookies. There is an abundance of choice when it comes to picking your favorite. Do you like them smaller or larger, with a more pronounced gingerbread flavor or a more pronounced honey flavor, with more sugar glaze or less? They’re delicious, but also a bit of an acquired taste. They tend to be slightly drier than American-style gingerbread cookies and may require a dunk into tea or coffee.

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 9. There’s no American food product my parents hate more than factory-made marshmallows. They’re convinced American marshmallows taste of chemicals, and well, they’re kind of right. On the other hand, they love zephyr, a Russian dessert with a similar texture. It’s made with fruit puree, sugar, egg whites and some type of gelling agent. It’s airy, pliant, sweet and even better when covered in chocolate.

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10. Let’s get one thing out of the way: Russian chocolates look better than they taste. And well, that’s okay, because they still taste pretty good. The packaging is the star, though, especially in the case of the awesomely retro paper-covered chocolates. All feature bright Soviet-era illustrations, some inspired by Soviet realism, others by 70s-era children’s books. They’re mostly chocolate-covered and the interior is usually a wafer or a nutty nougat filling.

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11. Russians tend to prefer their desserts less overwhelmingly sweet than many Americans. They love flaky, buttery, Napoleon-style French pastry, and go ga-ga for layered meringue cakes, like the crazy-popular Kiev cake. The oblong, walnut-looking sandwich cookies (below, middle) called oreshki (the Russian diminutive word for “nuts”) are a wedding staple, made from a mayonnaise batter and filled with caramel cream and crushed nuts.  The long, purple, candle-looking dessert is called churchkhela and is popular in the Caucuses. The long spokes are made from nuts which are repeatedly covered in a gelling fruit juice mixture and left to harden.

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