The Been-There-Done-That Guide to NYC

There’s much more to this city than Central Park and a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s. (Though both of those things are wonderful.) If you’ve visited a number of times and have exhausted the travel guides, or if you live here but haven’t yet had the chance to really explore, then read on.  I’ve been here 12 years, and I still come across surprises. These are some of my favorites.

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Walk the length of Broadway: Sure, you’ve seen a show on Broadway, but have you walked the entire length of the thoroughfare, starting at 220th street and ending at the Battery? It’s a 13.2 mile walk, so make sure to schedule food and drink stops along the way. Celebrate the finish line with trays of square pepperoni pies at Adrienne’s on Stone Street.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park: Some of the best views of Manhattan are found off the island. Take the tram to Roosevelt Island (view from the tram pictured above), and walk to the southern tip. You’ll pass the former smallpox hospital, one of the most haunting buildings in the city. The park itself is pristine and sprawling. The trees are saplings and don’t provide much shade, so wait for a not-scorching day.

City Island: Eat your way through piles of fried seafood on City Island, a picturesque New England-like village off the coast of the Bronx mainland. In addition to being home to a handful of destination restaurants, the main street, City Island Avenue, is lined with familiar small-town spots, like ice cream and candy shops, art galleries and antique stores. Incredibly, it’s all within city limits.

The Morgan Library: Recently named one of the 50 Most Beautiful Places in America by Condé Nast Traveler magazine, the Morgan is something out of a fairytale. (I’m reminded of Beast’s castle library in Disney’s Beauty & the Beast). This once-personal library of 19th century financier Pierpont Morgan features a trove of rare materials like early children’s books and music manuscripts.

Unisphere and Queens Museum: Visiting the Unisphere in Queens’s Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, one gets a taste of what it must have felt like to see the structure for the first time at the 1964 World’s Fair. There is a futurist’s optimism to the design; it looks like something from a sci-fi film, one in which all nations work together to conquer challenges. Next door, the Queens Museum is home to the Panorama of the City of New York, a to-scale 9,335 square foot model of the city.

Morbid Anatomy Museum: Was Wednesday Addams always your go-to Halloween costume growing up? Do you obsessively look up strange and obscure medical ailments? Are you still not over that whole 90s witch trend? Have I got the museum for you! The Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus features a fascinating collection of obscura in its gift shop, rotating exhibits upstairs and an intriguing lecture series. Oh, and taxidermy classes, if that’s your thing.

Wave Hill: This former estate on the banks of the Hudson River is a schlep to get to if you live south of Midtown, but the pristine gardens and the Jersey-cliff views make up for the out-of-the-way location. I’d venture to say this Bronx park is one of the most beautiful spots in the five boroughs.

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Nargis Cafe: This Uzbek restaurant in Sheepshead Bay has quickly become one of my favorite spots in South Brooklyn. Everything here is delicious, but I especially recommend the plov (rice pilaf with lamb), fried manti (Uzbek dumplings), Tashkent salad (lamb and radish salad), lagman soup (spicy noodle soup), and ALL OF THE KEBABS. It’s BYO whatever, but there’s a $5 corkage fee per bottle, so spring for the larger size and bring a crowd. It’s always lively, especially on weekends.

Villabate Alba: Cannoli, made with ricotta imported from Sicily, is what to get at this Sicilian bakery in prime Bensonhurst. I’m also partial to the lobster tails and to gawking at the brightly colored cakes, cookies, and pastries lining the sprawling display shelves.

Taqueria El Mezcal: The tacos at this tiny Sunset Park shop are flavorful and authentic, but what really won me over was their cemita. Made on a traditional, fluffy, sesame seed-covered sandwich bun with avocado, shredded queso, black beans, and, in my case, moist al pastor pork, it might just be the perfect sandwich.

Coppelia: There’s something very old-school New York about this 24-hour Cuban diner (pictured above) on 14th Street. Past midnight it services a cross-section of nighttime revelers, from those out clubbing in the nearby Meatpacking District to local residents out for a late dinner. Dishes and drinks are inventive and way better than they need to be for a 24-hour joint.

San Matteo Pizza and Espresso Bar: This small, authentic Italian restaurant and sandwich shop is located in an unlikely spot on the Upper East Side. The Neapolitan pies are pretty good, but it’s the panouzzi, sandwich-calzone hybrids made from pizza dough, that are the real standouts.

East Harbor Seafood Palace: Come hungry and with not much money in your pocket to this Bensonhurst dim sum hall with a seafood-inflected menu. It’s the size of a small shopping mall, so while the weekends are busy, the waits are bearable. The shrimp dishes–fried shrimp wrapped in bacon, shrimp dumplings, rice noodle rolls stuffed with shrimp–are winners.

Goa Taco: The pork belly taco as this fusion-y spot on the Lower East Side (with weekend showings at Smorgasburg) was one of my most memorable recent meals. It was perfectly constructed: tender, crispy-skinned pork belly, buttery paratha (an Indian flatbread), red slaw. The entire dish is a master course in how to make fusion cuisine that elevates instead of dilutes.

Wangs: I’m still confused about why this Park Slope takeout spot isn’t a bigger deal. My husband and I have to restrain ourselves every time we walk by, and we’re usually passing by after a filling dinner. Their specialty Korean jumbo fried chicken wings are sticky, crispy, spicy, heavenly. Get them, and the cornbread with salted scallion butter and Thai chili pepper jam, and prepare to fall in love.

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Luckydog: This low-key bar on Williamsburg’s Bedford Avenue is a dog- and beer-lovers’ dream. It’s an specially good spot for gawkers who don’t actually have a pet of their own. The adorable back yard is like those dog runs you’re only allowed to observe through a chainlink fence, except here, you’re face-to-face with an array of fluffy puppy butts. On a recent weekend night, the place was filled with as many as a half-dozen pooches, from terriers to Pomeranians to labs. Oh, and the beer list is pretty good, too.

The Double Windsor: I’m a huge fan of this comfortable, airy Windsor Terrace bar, and not just because it’s less than a 20-minute walk from my apartment. It’s the rare spot where one can get an expertly made cocktail, a sought-after beer, and a stellar burger.

Blueprint: “Laid back” and “craft cocktail” aren’t words usually used to describe the same spot. The cocktails at this Park Slope bar are as good if not better than those at more sceney lounges. There’s also a lovely little backyard and a very generous happy hour until 7 p.m.

Covenhoven: There’s absolutely no pretension at this beer nerd’s haven in Prospect Heights. Pick a bottle from their expansive fridge (price vary depending on whether you’re taking out or drinking in) or try something on tap. The backyard, with its small, elevated grassy expanse and iron cafe chairs, is perfect for wiling away summer afternoons.

Ear Inn: Billed as NYC’s oldest bar, this Hudson Square institution has been slinging alcohol continuously since 1817, even during Prohibition. Most out-of-towners go to McSorley’s and miss out on this eccentric spot. Here’s why it’s a can’t-miss: the atmosphere is classic New York, the drinks and food are simple and well-made, and the crowd–a mixture of low-key locals, a post-work crowd, Soho deserters, and a smattering of tourists–is a microcosm of the city.

Red Hook Bait and Tackle: This eclectic Red Hook bar pairs well with a visit to the Morbid Anatomy Museum, mentioned above–the welcoming interior is covered in tchotchkes and an array of taxidermy. It’s not just about the decor, though. It’s also standout for its friendly, laid-back vibe. This bar is the kind of watering hole every neighborhood wishes it had.

Sweets I Crave Most

A few months ago, I collected my most frequented pizza spots in one helpful post. Yes, pizza is one of my favorite foods, but a girl can’t live off just one type of simple carb. (That would be unhealthy, obviously.) What of dessert? If you, like me, prefer gluten-based sweets, read on. New York City is swimming, nay, drowning, in exemplary bakeries these days. And these are the treats I choose when I need an afternoon pick-me-up or a post-meal pastry. Best of all, most are under $5.

1. Pretzel croissant at The City Bakery: This original hybrid pastry–introduced nearly 20 years ago–has stood the test of time. Supremely flaky and quite salty, with a pliant, buttery interior, it seems tailor-made for pairing with the bakery’s decadent hot chocolate.

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2. Poppy seed danish at Breads Bakery: Nearly everything at this Jewish-inflected bakery is terrific, but when I crave pastry, few things satisfy more than this airy danish stuffed with poppy seeds. As a Russian and lover of all things poppy, I know to look for the one with the most seeds.

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3. Chocolate chip cookie at Smile To Go: Large discs of Guittard dark chocolate and a hefty sprinkling of sea salt make this chewy CCC one of the best in the city.

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4. Plié au chocolate at Maison Kayser: This monstrous pastry solves the there’s-not-nearly-enough-chocolate-in-this-pain-au-chocolat problem. Featuring pastry dough folded over a very generous sprinkling of chocolate chips and a slather of pastry cream, this concoction will satisfy the neediest sweet tooth.

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5. Any chocolate pie at Four & Twenty Blackbirds: Whether it’s the chocolate julep pie pictured below (chocolate, mint and bourbon), the chocolate chess pie (chocolate custard) or the black-bottom oat pie (chocolate ganache and oats), the chocolate-focused offerings at this demure pie shop on an industrial stretch in Gowanus live up to the media-generated hype. The fillings are luscious, but it’s the buttery, crackly crust that really makes these slices stand out.

 

6. Nutella cookie at Buttermilk Bakeshop: Close your eyes. Are they closed? Okay, good. Now imagine the perfect cookie: an underbaked, super-moist, brownie-like chocolate creation with a large dollop of Nutella and a sprinkling of flaky sea salt. No, this isn’t a drug-fueled fantasy. It’s real life.

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7. Chocolate chip pudding at Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery: I wrote about this pudding years ago, and I still haven’t wavered in my love. The softened chocolate chip cookie chunks evoke cookies dunked in milk, childhood, home, family and the existential beauty that defines life itself. In summary: it’s really good.

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8. Brooklyn Blackout doughnut at Doughnut Plant: How do I love thee, Doughnut Plant? Let me count that ways. We can start with this sensational chocolate cake doughnut, which is arguably the moistest cake doughnut I’ve ever had. A thin filling of chocolate pudding and a topping of cake crumbs make this dessert suitable for chocolate-craving emergencies.

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9. Signature bars at Mah Ze Dahr Bakery: The namesake treat from this mostly-online bakery (choice items are also sold at Intelligentsia Coffee inside the High Line Hotel; a brick-and-mortar West Village outpost is slated to open any minute) is all about the ingredients. They’re simple–butter, oats, cream, pecans, fleur de sel, semisweet chocolate, brown sugar, flour, vanilla extract–so it’s a testament to their quality and the expert way in which they’re combined when the result is so delicious.

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Favorite Things Lately, Volume 7

1 The Whispering Gallery in Grand Central Terminal: Stand in the corner of the domed chamber outside the entrance to Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant, diagonally across from a friend a loved one. Whisper a question. Listen as they answer back, their voice traveling across the ceiling through the power of reflected sound waves. It’s a magician’s parlor trick rooted in the science of physics. The gallery hosts a steady stream of people, whispering to one another, looking up and smiling.

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2. The park bench plaques in Central Park: Whenever I find myself alone in Central Park, I like to wander around and read the engraved plaques that decorate many of the benches. Mostly, they speak of loved ones lost and the deceased’s appreciation for this most beautiful of city attractions. I imagine the immortalized taking the same steps I’m taking. Did they love to people watch as much as I do? Did they find the park loveliest in the spring or the fall? What stories could they tell? Central Park’s Adopt-A-Bench program was born in 1986, and currently, a plaque will set you back $7,500 ($10,000 starting Jan. 1). The endowment is used to maintain the benches and conserve the landscape.

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3. Christmas Morning Cereal from Dominique Ansel Bakery: After excitedly munching on this dangerously delicious treat, my husband inquired as to how much it was, since the world-famous bakery is known to be pricey. My expression betrayed me. “$10?” he asked? “$12?!” his face growing more incredulous. “No way it was more than $15!” he said. “$15.50,” I blurted out. So, that’s the major caveat. Here are the positives: this “cereal” is everything I want out of a post-dinner dessert: sweet, salt, crunch, texture. It features a balanced combo of Rice Krispies, caramelized milk chocolate, sugared hazelnuts and mini cinnamon meringues. You only need a handful or two to feel sated. When you look at it that way, it’s almost a bargain, right?

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4. Spiked everything: I believe it was Jean-Paul Sartre who said that everything tastes better when spiked with Maker’s Mark. Or was it Socrates? The holiday season is the absolute best time to add alcohol to your favorite foods and drinks. My favorite wintertime beverage is a bourbon-spiked hot chocolate. It has a double-warming effect. Plus, well, there’s chocolate! I also recently added bourbon to this pumpkin cheesecake recipe per the offhand recommendation of a commenter (thanks, stranger!), which gave it added complexity. One of my favorite baking successes is this chocolate pecan pie with bourbon. If it could speak, it would say, “I love winter, the holiday season, and you, sweet friend.”

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A Sweets Tour of the Upper East Side

Now that it’s finally beginning to feel like spring outside (knock on wood, spit thrice over your left shoulder, pray to the god of your choosing), it’s time to let your hair down and once again set out on foot across this great city. What better place to start than the Upper East Side? Yes, that Upper East Side. While we weren’t looking the buttoned-up ‘hood has transformed, with the help of a few longtime standouts, into the greatest dessert destination in NYC.

Bakeries and Patisseries

Maison Kayser:  The flagship NYC location of a Parisian-based patisserie, this shop is known for breads and pastry and a healthy collection of American treats like cookies and brownies. A sit-down restaurant is filled with ladies-who-lunch enjoying open faced sandwiches and salads. If you’re sitting down to lunch or dessert, make sure to ask for a bread basket filled with an assortment of bread samples; they won’t bring it to you otherwise.

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FB Patisserie: The fancy older sister to Francois Payard’s downtown bakeries, this location specializes in mousse-based pastry, tarts and French macarons. It’s a best-of compilation of French pastry. In front, there’s a casual cafe perfect for enjoying an eclair and a coffee, while the back is host to an upscale full service restaurant–with prices to match.

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Lady M Confections: This slim minimalist shop is home to one of my favorite cakes ever, the original mille crêpe cake, shown below at right. It’s not cheap ($7.50 a slice), but with 20 paper-thin crêpes and light, not-too-sweet cream layers, it’s an ideal celebratory indulgence. There are other flavors and other cakes, but the original is the superstar. The guidebook writers seem to think so, too, as the shop was packed with tourists during a recent visit.

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William Greenberg Desserts: This shop has been an Upper East Side institution for nearly 60 years. Their famous black-and-white cookies are made in the traditional way (more spongey cake than cookie, fondant icing) and are customizable when ordered in large quantities. They also specialize in Jewish desserts, which for the next two weeks or so means kosher-for-Passover favorites like chocolate-covered matzoh and flour-less brownies.

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Glaser’s Bake Shop: Open for over 100 years, this no-frills shop harkens back to the Upper East Side of yesteryear, back when Yorkville (the name of the eastern section of the neighborhood) was filled with central European immigrants. The influence is evident in their large selection of Danish pastries, but the bakery also specialize in American favorites like cupcakes, brownies, pies and layer cakes. The customer favorite is the black-and-white cookie, which, in contrast to William Greenberg’s they top with fondant and buttercream frosting.

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Orwashers: Our tour of the historic bakeries of the Upper East Side continues, and this one’s a real gem. Orwashers–opened in 1916– churns out award-winning artisan breads; their French baguette was recently declared the best in NYC by Serious Eats. They have pastries, too, as well as filled-to-order doughnuts (chocolate or sugar) with your choice of one of 5 fillings. The red raspberry ($4.25) was everything a jelly doughnut should be.

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Two Little Red Hens: This all-American bakery is extremely popular with the locals, even now, when it’s situated on the wrong side of Second Avenue subway construction. On a recent visit, the shop was out of a lot, and patrons were crowding in to enjoy oversize buttercream-topped cupcakes. The Brooklyn blackout cake is a favorite for birthdays.

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(Image courtesy RichardBerg, Flickr.com; made available via Creative Commons license)

Specialty Bakeries

Canelé by Céline: This tiny adorable bakery specializes in mainly one thing–canelés. These ridged French pastries are marked by a soft, custardy center and a browned caramelized exterior. The shop sells unique flavors like caramel, dark chocolate, raspberry and rum, and even a few varieties of a savory canelés, with chorizo or parmesan cheese. It’ll set you back $4.90 for a pack of three.

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Ladureé: It’s hard to overstate the importance of Ladureé in the Parisian collective consciousness. The mint-green bag is ubiquitous around the city, and Charles de Gaulle airport even has an outpost of the famous shop. The speciality here is French macarons in a rainbow of flavors. The Upper East Side location is the first in the U.S. (one recently opened in Soho as well) and the macarons are just as good as the ones overseas–light meringue, flavorful filling. Their raspberry macaron ($2.80 a piece) is the macaron by which I judge all others.

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Sprinkles Cupcakes: This L.A. transplant is all about the cupcakes ($3.75 a piece). Yes, the cake is moist and the frosting is flavorful, but I think what people are drawn to most is the minimalist design of the shop, something mostly absent from American throwback-style bakeries. Next door is a 24-hour cupcake ATM, which is exactly what it sounds like. You pick your cupcake from a touchscreen, swipe your card, and within seconds, a little door opens with your cupcake of choice enclosed in a to-go box (add $.50 for the convenience). Is it at all necessary? Absolutely not. But it sure is cool.

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Dough Loco: There’s some debate about whether this shop’s location, on Park Ave. and 97th St., constitutes the Upper East Side or East Harlem. We’re not concerned with realtor definitions, just with dessert. The doughnuts ($3 a piece) remind me a lot of the ones from Dough in Bed-Stuy. Both shops feature yeast doughnuts topped with unique coatings. The ones here are smaller, though more dense. Flavors include maple miso, blood orange, raspberry Sriracha, and the below, peanut butter and cassis. Blue Bottle coffee products help you wash them down.

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Le Churro: I have a soft spot for churros. After all, what’s not to love? Freshly fried dough drenched in sugar and served with a chocolate dipping sauce. The ones here (4 for $3.95) are thin and light, in contrast to the heavy churros of the subway platform and Costco cafe (hey, if you’re in a bind…). They offer multiple dipping sauces (chocolate hazelnut, sweet mocha, to name a few), chocolate covered churros, bite-sized churros and even filled churros, for those too lazy to dip.

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Ô Merveilleux Belgian Meringue: I had never heard of Belgian meringues before, but they’re the specialty at this quaint new Second Avenue shop. These treats, which come in two sizes, layer meringue and whipped cream and are topped with chocolate shavings or speculoos cookie crumbs. The small, at $2.70, is plenty sweet to satisfy a serious dessert craving. They have other offerings too, including cupcakes, croissants, cakes, cookies, brioche and tarts.

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Favorite Things Lately, Volume 3

1 Chocolate chip pudding at Sugar Sweet Sunshine: This sugar bomb is definitely not for the demure dessert lover. Packed with whipped cream, butterscotch pudding, and hunks of spongey chocolate chip cookie, this treat is as straight forward as they come–which is why I love it so much! But who needs nuance when you can have an indulgent cup of everything that makes life worth living? And for $4 for a standard 10 oz. cup, it’s more than enough for two people. The bakery is open until 11 p.m. on weekends, making it one of the only post-dinner casual dessert destinations on the Lower East Side.

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2. Eating at the bar: A few weeks ago, my husband and I ate two of our weekend meals at the bar. The first was a date night drinks-and-apps-style dinner at expansive French restaurant Lafayette. The second was a hearty brunch at Ditmas Park favorite The Farm on Adderley (below). I’d forgotten how much I enjoy the casualness of bar eating. You never feel rushed. No one is trying to upsell anything. You can always get the bartender’s eye if there’s something you need. Plus, you get an insider-y view of the restaurant’s goings on.

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3. Brooklyn’s Chinatown: After a decade in the city, I sometimes feel as though I’ve seen nearly every corner of NYC, my own borough especially. I am, of course, wrong. There is so much left to explore. For years I’ve been meaning to check out Brooklyn’s Chinatown, which is home to one of the biggest Fujian immigrant enclaves in the city. Starting at about 42nd Street and 8th Avenue, right below Greenwood Cemetery, the strip is 20-plus blocks, densely packed with bakeries, hot pot restaurants, noodle shops, dim sum parlors, grocery stores, fried fish carts (below) and so much more. On a Saturday afternoon it was certainly more crowded than Manhattan’s Chinatown on a regular weekend, and the latter gets a bump from tourists, who were nowhere to be seen here. My husband and I had a delicious báhn mi at the bare-bones Ba Xuyen, one of the Vietnamese restaurants sprinkled throughout the ‘hood.

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4. Panorama of the City of New York at the Queens Museum: First conceived as an exhibit for the 1964 World’s Far, this room-sizes panorama is the highlight of the Queens Museum‘s collection. The model is beyond impressive, featuring every building constructed before 1992, the year of the last full update, with a few additional buildings added sporadically since 2009. There are all sorts of small, inventive details, including a plane on a nearly invisible wire that lands and subsequently takes off from the scale version LaGuardia airport. Every few minutes, the city goes dark and small bulbs illuminate the panorama.

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Happy 100th Birthday, Russ & Daughters!

There are certain places in New York that, 10 years on, still have the power to turn me into a giddy , I-heart-NYC proselytizer. There is Central Park on a sunny spring day, the Strand bookstore with its tall shelves of aging books, and a certain 100 year-old appetizing store on the Lower East Side. What started as a pushcart at the turn of the century has grown into one of the most iconic and longest surviving institutions in the city, all while keeping it in the family.

Stepping into Russ & Daughters means more than just a shopping excursion or a lesson in the Jewish history of NYC; it’s a sensory experience. It hits you right as you open the door: the wafting scent of smoked fish. It is incredible–one of my favorite smells in the world. The impressive smoked fish selection is supplanted with an equally impressive case of sweets and dried fruits. Russ & Daughters is the rare establishment that’s been able to maintain relevancy in the new millenium while holding on to its old-world sensibility. They care about the customer and about keeping the tradition of classic Jewish appetizing alive. And, well, have you tried the herring?

My Top Five Russ & Daughters items:

Holland catch herring: Around mid-to-late June, Russ & Daughters imports the year’s best catch directly from Holland. This creamy herring comes with its tail still attached. I love it as a sandwich, served on a brioche hot dug bun with chopped onions and pickles.

Beet, apple and herring salad: This is a staple in my and my husband’s home. A surprisingly light and refreshing salad, with a hint of saltiness, thanks to the herring.

Sable: We rarely get this because it’s pricey, but when we do, it’s such a treat. Melty, mild and delicious, it’s a worthy accompaniment to smoked salmon on a bagel sandwich. (Yep, it’s all happening).

Scottish smoked salmon: So buttery and smoky. Ask for it sliced super thin (“thin enough to read a newspaper through” as advised by assistant manager Chhapte Sherpa, also known as the Lox Sherpa), so you can layer the smoked salmon on top of a bagel and schmear (with onions and capers, obvs).

Babka (small): Yes, this is the same Green’s babka that’s sold around the city. Russ & Daughters is one of the only places, though, that allows you to get a small hunk–the perfect size to split among 2-3 people post-lox and herring gorging.

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Creating Traditions

Big city living can take a toll on friendships. I sometimes go weeks or even months without seeing certain friends. It’s not something I’m proud of. The reasons are varied: people (including me) get busy with work.; we travel; we don’t want to deal with a long commute home, especially on weekdays; we feel sluggish, especially in this weather.

A good friend and I have come up with a solution. We’ve adopted traditions–events for which we have a standing date, spread out over the course of the year. And we keep adding events to the list. We see each other more often than a few times a year, but we both love knowing that if it’s February, we have a guaranteed date at the Lower East Side’s Clinton Street Baking Company for flavored pancakes as part of their annual pancake month. (This year we chose raspberry pancakes with almond brittle and vanilla bean whipped cream, pictured below, mid-devour.) We even have a favorite bar with 2-for-1 sangrias where we sit out the wait.

If it’s fall or spring, we’re at a New York City Ballet performance.

If it’s summer, we’re indulging in limited-time-only individual ice cream cakes at Quality Meats in Midtown.

If it’s late September/early October, we’re probably going to New York City Center’s Fall for Dance, a multi-day festival showcasing a variety of the most prestigious companies dancing in a range of styles, from flamenco to modern.

(Our friendship seems to have a bit of a dancing-and-desserts theme.)

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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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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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