Favorite Things Lately, Volume 2

1 Cake at Cafe Sabarsky: I’ve already sung the praises of this cozy Austrian cafe inside the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side–a lovely place to visit in winter. Here, the best part of the meal is always dessert. As a self-diagnosed dessert junkie, it helps that I can scout out my cake before I order it; whole cakes are displayed all around the dining room. The below hazelnut layer cake and pistachio-chocolate mousse cake were exactly what I needed on a cold, slushy, awful, just disgusting day. I believe my socks were soaked from walking around in the sleet, but while eating forkfuls of hazelnut and pistachio with freshly piped whipped cream, I didn’t even care.

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2. The permanent exhibit at Museum of the Moving Image: There’s a 6 minute movie of the best moments in cinematic history that plays on loop here, and, if you look closely, you’ll see a certain spark ignite in people’s eyes as they stop to watch. The movie is a microcosm of the emotional reach of the entire collection, called “Behind the Screen,” at this somewhat out of the way museum in Astoria, Queens. There are old projectors, cameras, TV sets and zoetropes. There are also costumes, masks and makeup, set displays, iconic photos and promotional tie-ins. There are interactive exhibits that let you dub music over a famous scene or your own voice over dialogue in the movie Babe or create a stop-motion movie that you can email to yourself. The sculpture below, called “Feral Fount,” advances historic zoetrope principles, morphing into a mind-melting scene when lit with a strobe. All in all, a reminder of the genius of the medium.

3. The Off-Broadway play Murder for Two: I knew nothing about this musical-ish comedy before the curtain rose, which in a way, was a good thing. There’s a gimmick, but it’s oh-so-clever. The plot revolves around the murder of a famous author, a cast of 12 suspects, and a police officer investigating the case. The catch? There are only two people in the cast; one playing the cop, the other playing ALL 12 SUSPECTS.  Jeff Blumenkrantz (who just left the show and has been replaced with an equally amazing actor, I’m sure) is incredible as a clingy psychologist, a regal ballerina, a valley girl-esque grad student, and many other distinct personalities. His face is cartoonishly expressive, and his mannerisms and vocal fluctuations make each character seem distinct. The screenplay is farcical and over-the-top, but also smart and with a macabre wit that’s often laugh-out-loud funny. Just another reason to love the thee-ay-tah!

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4. The Jungle Bird cocktail: One school of thought maintains that if it’s cold out, you want a cocktail that’s warming, soothing and comforting–an Irish Coffee, for example. But I often prefer the other school, the one that suggests the best cure for the winter blues is an escape to the tropics. One of my favorite tropical cocktails, the Jungle Bird, features a refreshing combination of dark rum (Cruzan Black Strap is preferred, though I only had Gosling), Campari, simple syrup, lime juice and pineapple juice, shaken and strained into a tumbler glass. Drink it and pretend like it’s not as cold outside as  it is inside your freezer.

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5. Softcover photo books from Artifact Uprising: About a year and a half ago, when I was working on my wedding album, it dawned on me that I hadn’t printed real, physical photos in over a decade. My most recent albums were from college–early college, back in the early aughts. I’m a naturally nostalgic person, and I realized I missed flipping through an album and just remembering. Clicking through old Facebook pictures didn’t really compare. Enter Artifact Uprising, a modern, environmentally conscious (everything is printed on recycled paper) and affordable photo book site. Since I discovered Artifact Uprising, I’ve been on an album binge, creating mementos not just of our vacations but, maybe more importantly, of my husband’s and my life together here in NYC.

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The Ultimate Hot Chocolate Roundup

When a polar vortex threatens, my beverage of choice is a cup of glove-warming hot chocolate. Thankfully, this city has a slew of places that specialize in liquified chocolate. Now, for the criteria. You don’t want it to be too watery; it should coat the inside of the cup. The chocolate should leave “tree rings” as you drink. Also, this is a bit vague, but the drink should taste layered–more than the sum of its parts. I drank a lot of hot chocolate for this write-up, so toward the end of my research, the most notable criteria was whether–after so much taste-testing–I wanted to keep drinking. Since all of the below are so different, and it’s hard to pick a favorite, I’ve assigned superlatives. I should also note that though hot chocolate usually means chocolate bits melted by steamed milk while hot cocoa is cocoa powder mixed with milk and often sugar, some places use the terms interchangeably, with hot chocolate being the catch-all.

Most Comforting: The Chocolate Room, Park Slope. For $4.75, you get a huge cup of hot chocolate. The added fresh whipped cream was $0.75 extra, but so worth it. The hot chocolate was milky, but not overly so, and intensely satisfying. The texture was more traditional and less thick than many of the more European, “drinking chocolate” places in NYC. I enjoyed it to-stay, with a complimentary amuse bouche of tiny dark chocolate-almond financier.
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Best Deal: Jacques Torres Chocolate, multiple locations. The classic or wicked (spiced) hot chocolate at one of the best chocolate shops in the city is still $3.25 for the small. If you want to try one of their other flavors, it’ll set you back $3.50. I went for the peanut butter. Yep, I said peanut- frickin’-butter. In hot chocolate. Awesome. The beverage itself is thick and molasses-y, in the best possible way. The whipped cream, spooned in from a bowl, is complimentary if you request it. Overall, a delicious and unique cup.
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The Classic for a Reason: The City Bakery, Flatiron. This place has been the hot chocolate go-to for years. They even have a yearly hot chocolate festival. (City Bakery is also home to the awe-inspiring pretzel croissant, NYC’s first hybrid pastry.) Yes, it’s busy and touristy, but the freshly made hot chocolate is sweet, rich and delicious. Like the Jacques Torres cup, it’s a thick drinking chocolate. The oversize house-made marshmallow, though not completely necessary considering how satisfying the chocolate is on its own, is pliable without being spongey or tasting chemically. Not the cheapest option at over $7, with the marshmallow, but I would argue definitely worth it.
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Simplest: L.A. Burdick, Flatiron. There aren’t many bells and whistles here, just a satisfying, drinkable cup of really quality hot chocolate. At $4.75 for the small mug pictured below, it’s also a cup you can actually finish on your own. Definitely one of my favorites. Plus, the cozy shop, with its handful of tables and delicious cakes by the slice is a great place to take a break on a chilly afternoon.

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Best Ambiance: MarieBelle, Soho. I was the only non-tourist at this elegant waitress-service hot chocolate salon in the the back of the brand’s retail shop. The espresso-sized adorable teacup below will set you back $5 ($7 if you want a normal-sized teacup), which gives this hot chocolate the distinction of being among the priciest on this list. The chocolate itself was sublime. Rich, very layered and compulsively drinkable. There are countless options and combinations for your chocolate: milk, dark, white, European, American, hot cold, flavored. There’s even a list of over a dozen specially-sourced chocolate drinks, including “Jefferson’s Hot Chocolate” from my home state of Virginia. My cup was milk chocolate and hazelnut. Instead of being added via syrup, which would’ve been the easiest option, the hazelnuts are actually ground and incorporated into the chocolate. And yes, it’s expensive, but it was the perfect size for me; I actually finished the whole thing.
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Fanciest: La Maison du Chocolat, multiple locations. When visiting an establishment during my research, I always asked for the drink to-stay, if it was an option, just to see what the presentation was like. French chocolatier La Maison went all out, which a small plate of cocoa-dusted whipped cream, a glass of water and a complimentary piece of chocolate. The cup itself was also the most expensive, at $8.50. After trying so many milk hot chocolates, I went for the dark (the other option was vanilla-infused dark) and it was intense, the thickest of all of the hot chocolates on this list. It almost had the consistency of the melted chocolate one would dip churros into.

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Best Presentation: Vosges Haut-Chocolate, Soho and the Upper East Side. This Chicago-based chocolatier sells unique and exotic chocolates in beautiful packaging and was one of the first to spearhead the whole bacon-and-chocolate trend. When I asked for my hot chocolate to-stay, I wasn’t sure what to expect, since at the Soho location, the sit-down area is just one long high table. It’s not really waiter service either, just a “sit and we’ll bring it out to you” thing. Which is why I was shocked when the below arrived, all included in the $5 price. The hot chocolate was served on hipster-y driftwood, with powdered sugar-vanilla-bean whipped cream and samples of their brand new peanut butter-salt-milk chocolate bar. It was smooth and drinkable, with a nice vanilla flavor. Other options include a multi-spice dark chocolate or a white chocolate.
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Most Homemade Tasting: Dessert Club, ChikaLicious, East Village. This dessert shop is known for its creative, hybrid pastries. (People love its unique puddings, flavored ices and ice cream sandwiches.) The hot chocolate–hot cocoa? (it’s listed at $5.05, but I was charged $4.75, maybe because of the off hour) is a solid contender. It comes pre-made from a heated vat and tastes almost identical to the kind of hot chocolate one would make at home, i.e. sweet, but not overly so, with just the right consistency. It’s not the fanciest or most complex cup, but it tastes great nonetheless.
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Biggest Surprise: Smile To Go, Soho. I wasn’t expecting much when I stepped into this gourmet prepared foods shop for a pick-me-up. It wasn’t even a part of my research. The melty chocolate was delicious and the milk was steamy but not overly frothy (which is categorically the worst thing ever). Plus, I finally got to experience a bit of latte art without having to order an actual coffee.

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Great for the ‘Hood: Nunu Chocolates, Downtown Brooklyn (top) and Leonidas/Manon Cafe (bottom), Financial District. Both of these establishments make very tasty if not extremely memorable cups of hot chocolate. Nunu Chocolates has been making single-origin artisanal chocolate in Brooklyn for years, and their cup ($4 for a small) features their quality chocolate, melted with milk into a satisfying, not overly thick blend. Leonidas makes fine Belgian chocolates and the no-frills cafe in the back of their Financial District shop delivers a sweet milk-chocolate-y cup (the milk is their standard; a dark or caramel is also available) with your choice of white, dark or milk chocolate candy sample. A small will run you $4.75.

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Also Really Good: Francois Payard Bakery (FPB), multiple locations. Okay, so that’s not a real superlative, but I’m running out of unique attributes here! Though the hot chocolate at this venerated French pastry chef’s bakery outposts is pre-made, it is incredibly thick and indulgent, owing to the heavy cream in the recipe. Split with a friend if you want a shot a finishing the entire cup ($5).

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The Rest: The Chocolate Bar, West Village (left) and Peels, East Village (right). Though the Chocolate Bar hot chocolate ($4.50 for a small) isn’t at the top of my list, the shop does score points for having a lot of flavor options, including peanut butter (which I had to go for again, obviously), peppermint, caramel, hazelnut and many others. The actual hot chocolate was a tad watery for my taste, but good for someone who doesn’t want an overwhelming cup.  The Peels hot chocolate ($3.50) had way too much milk, which could’ve just been a symptom of inconsistency. As you can see, it couldn’t be more different from the thick and fudgy hot chocolate the food website Serious Eats received when they visited a few years back. The house-made marshmallow is complimentary.

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Crowd Psychology in the City

A year and a half ago, I did something really stupid. I went out on a 101 °F day without properly hydrating. In fact, I hadn’t had a thing to drink all morning.  Oh, and to make matters much worse, I’d had wisdom teeth surgery the day before.

About 30 minutes into my outing I felt myself getting weak inside the post office, and then, with my head spinning, I starting racing back to my apartment a half mile away. I woke up on the sidewalk with my chin split open. I was surrounded by a crowd. Before I’d had a chance to assess what was happening, a homeless man was dragging me by the hand into a realty office. Inside, a worried office worker shoved water into my hand, gave me tissues for my chin and proceeded to call 911 before I’d had a chance to say a word.

Just as there were those who sprung into action, there were others who looked concerned but didn’t know quite what to do. I’ve admittedly been this person. This inaction is often referred to as the bystander effect, and it’s inversely related to the number of bystanders present. The more people there are who can help, the less likely anyone is to do something. People often look to others to see how concerned they should be and assume there are those who are more qualified to assist. It’s not necessarily a moral failing or a sign of value-deprived end times, it’s a psychologist-observed phenomenon that’s been proven via multiple experiments and across various cultures.

And while New York City is often held up as an example of the heartlessness of the metropolis, the place where 38 witnesses overheard a woman in distress but did nothing, people do help, and they help a lot, even if some are indifferent or would rather not get involved. This is the place that coined the termsubway hero,” after all.

On a trip to the city during college, a friend and I, tired and loaded down with luggage, saw a man stumble, pass out and fall onto the subway tracks. It was late, after 10 p.m. And while we were both paralyzed with fear, a tall man in a long coat appeared as though a super hero from behind a pillar. “I’m a doctor,” he yelled, as he and a few others jumped onto the tracks and lifted the unconscious man safely onto the platform.

Even when there aren’t those in the crowd who are psychologically wired to take immediate action, many try to help in their own way.

Last week, a woman started fainting in her boyfriend’s arms while on a moving subway train. At first, people weren’t sure what was happening, especially since the boyfriend didn’t show any signs of concern. Soon, two or so people ran over to help sit her down as many others vacated their seats in order to give her space. And while it’s true that half the passengers pretended nothing was happening, there were those who were concerned, but hesitant about how to proceed. I imagine some were also giving the couple the benefit of not being gawked at. My own thought was: “I wish I had water.” I then started eyeing every single person on the train, to see if they had water I could pilfer for this woman. And just at that moment, she came to, as if nothing had happened. The whole thing probably lasted less than 60 seconds. I imagine others were also wracking their brains for ways to help.

It’s a weird (some would say unnatural) sort of dynamic–being surrounded by strangers every single day and having them be the ones who would come to your aid in a time of need. I recently observed the tail end of a situation where a 30-something man, who’d fainted and was helped by a small crowd, sprint from the train without a thank you or even a cursory head nod. It seems overly simplistic to judge his actions as ungrateful. He was placed in a unique situation. As someone who probably felt at his healthy prime, he wasn’t prepared to feel so intensely vulnerable in front of total strangers. He wasn’t sure how to deal, which to me, seems all too human.

5173340326_f7148098a8_b(Image via divya_, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Small Pleasures: Deli Flowers

Fresh flowers breathe life into any living space. Here in New York City, many neighborhood delis happen to have extensive flower selections. It’s just one of the city’s quirks. And, they’re affordable! Subject to the laws of supply-and-demand, standard blooms (along with manicures) are cheaper in NYC than elsewhere. Bundles of tulips or hydrangea can be had for only $6 each.

Being able to pick up a bouquet along with ingredients for dinner? Pretty great.

A few tips:

Pick seasonal blooms. I’m not sure who their suppliers are, but delis often have pincushion protea, ranunculus and bulbous peonies when it’s the right time of year. No need to go to a fancy florist.

Stay away from the roses. I often see employees peeling off browning petals so they can pass off the bouquets as being fresher than they are. Such manipulation is harder to accomplish with, say, lilies.

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From Sea to Shining Sea

As an immigrant to this country, I tend to be fairly patriotic about the U.S. and feel lucky to call it home. There are many things I love: press freedom, diversity of people and ideas, innovation. I get most excited, though, when I travel to America’s many corners. Man, what a beautiful country. Just, wow. A recent family trip to California was the perfect antidote to the mopey urbanity of wintertime NYC. We stayed outside Los Angeles at the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. Each night, the surrounding mountain ranges would turn the most exquisite hue of hazy pinki-ish-purple. A day trip to Santa Barbara revealed lush coastline and cliff-side views. A picnic at a Malibu beach meant large rock formations and tide pools. I’d been to California many times before, but each time I return (and the same holds true for Vermont, the Blue Ridge Mountains and coastal Carolina), I am awed, as if for the first time, by America’s diverse landscape and beauty. (USA! USA!)

photo 1Sunset in the Valley

photo 3A cliff overlooking the Pacific at Douglas Family Preserve in Santa Barbara

photo 4El Matador State Beach in Malibu

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