Monday, August 31, 2009

Outer Borough

Just when I thought, especially after relentlessly pounding its now familiar streets with my sister over the past week, that I had pretty much seen everything there was to see in the City, an outer borough excursion showed me that New York as a whole has so much more to offer and plenty of surprises still in store for me.

Laurie and I headed to Brighton Beach, at the very end of the Q line in Brooklyn, this past Sunday. It is better known as "Little Odessa" because its patchwork of residents are primarily from former Soviet Union territories such as the Ukraine and Latvia. We landed in a bustling market street as soon as we exited the subway, filled with people shoving each other (and us) out of the way to get to the best fresh produce and haggling for them in Russian. In fact, we hardly heard any English being spoken ... the journey from the Upper West Side may have only been 20 miles but culturally we were thousands of miles away and I regretted not learning how to say "hello" and "thank you" in Russian ahead of time (the two expressions I always make a point of learning in the native language of whichever country I am visiting).

After fighting our way through busy Brighton Beach Avenue, we opted to have lunch at Cafe Glechik, a traditional eaterie frequented almost exclusively by Russian locals. We sampled a plate of pickled vegetables (incredibly garlicky and including pickled watermelon which was surprising to say the least), pork Pelmini and potatoes and mushrooms Vareniki (both are types of dumplings) to the nostalgic sounds of gypsy music - making the experience even more "out of this world", especially when the bill came to just $7 per person for what was a very generous meal.

We walked off lunch by heading towards the sea and the boardwalk which leisurely stretches to Coney Island. The latter has never been on my list of places to see - I had very low expectations and anticipated a run-down and tacky amusement park, possibly full of shady characters.
But perhaps it was the strolling in the sea on the way there (which made me feel on holiday), or the brilliant sunshine or maybe the company (Marie and her friend L had joined us by then) ... whatever it was, I was won over by Coney Island.
Sure it is indeed a little tacky with its arcades and fun rides and there are plenty of colourful characters meandering about, but it all made for fantastic people watching. It was also surprisingly clean and friendly and I loved the small booths lining the boardwalk, each playing different types of music that people danced to in broad daylight without an ounce of self-consciousness. My favourite was the open air karaoke which made American Idol's worst contenders almost sound talented. A bumpy ride on the Wonder Wheel was (quite literally as it stands 150ft tall) the high point of our visit as it offered unbeatable views of the Ocean on one side and the distant Manhattan skyline on the other.

I may well have become one of those annoying Manhattanites who dread leaving the safety and familiarity of their tiny island, but after this taste of an almost entirely different universe I am more determined than ever to stop whinging about the long subway rides and absence of taxis and get to the business of seriously exploring New York's more culturally authentic boroughs.

* While the "shoot the freak" photo may alarm some of you, fear not - it's only a paintball game ... catchy name though.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Memory Bank

My sister is visiting from France for two weeks and, as previously mentioned on this blog, there is nothing I love more than having people staying over and making the most of the City with them. It makes me fall in love with New York a little more every time.

Laurie and I are actively building up a pretty cool memory bank of experiences together ...

Visiting the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition at the Guggenheim with Libs ...

Followed by oysters at Ocean Grill.

Fighting our way through the crowds at the first Japanese street fair hosted in NYC ....

And chilling out at Cipriani's in Grand Central afterwards, the calm and serenity of which still amaze me to this day.

A stroll through wonderfully tiny Chelsea Market ...

And walking the High Line on a perfectly balmy evening.

Cutting shapes to Britney Spears' "Womanizer' at Madison Square Gardens with a bunch of girlfriends.

And enjoying amazing bruschetta alfresco with some chilled Pinot Grigio at Oscar in Soho last night.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Transient City

As I attended not one but two farewell parties this weekend, I was reminded of the transient nature of New York City. Both friends felt their time was up - one is moving back to London while the other has decided to try his luck in Thailand and enjoy a more sedate lifestyle for a while.

I believe that transience is quite unique to New York and an intrinsic part of the social dynamics in the sense that it changes the way friendships are formed (and perhaps one could argue also the volatile nature of romantic relationships). I met most of my friends here through shared UK connections - it is very natural for people to meet up with friends of friends if they have just moved to the City and quickly include them in their own social group. There is a common acknowledgment that the City can be a big and daunting place if you don't know anyone. It makes building new friendships in the City a much faster process but it also creates a fairly tight knit expat community as I am finding now that a lot of my friends here are British.

It is with a little sadness that I am facing this first wave of departures but I also have long been preparing myself for it. As with any expatriate community, a lot of people have no real sense of how long they will be staying in their new adopted City. But I also know first hand that true friendships can withstand geographical distances.

At least, goodbye parties make for memorable evenings. K's party on Saturday night was a pretty wild affair - we started with drinks at Madame X, a small and dark Soho bar modeled after a bordello with crimson walls and odd paintings on the walls, before hopping in a taxi to Fat Baby. We danced relentlessly until four o'clock in the morning and although I paid the price for it dearly the next day, I still have the awesome beats of DJ Kool's "Let me clear my throat" running through my head and putting a smile on my face two days later!

On the other hand, S had opted for a relaxed dinner gathering on Sunday night to bide her farewell to New York. A group of about ten of us went to Public, which may well become one of my new staple restaurants in Noho. We opted for the amazing Sunday tasting menu and were in for a little surprise ... The restaurant was primarily filled with the head chef's friends (who happen to include the actress Julia Stiles who was sitting at the table next to us) for a special screening of his appearance on Iron Chef America, where he won the challenge ... with the exact menu we had just sampled!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Lover

One of the things people most often ask me about my life in New York is what dating really is like in the City.

The thing is that I don't really do dating. Primarily because I seem to only possess an on/off relationship switch with nothing in between - I either fall in love (which has only happened to me twice) or I just want very casual fun. In the latter instances, I am terrifyingly commitment phobic and basically run away before anything even resembling a relationship can materialize.

But in the anthropological experiment that is New York City I recently met a strange and rare species, the Relationship Guy, and somehow fell into the dating trap. I certainly fought against it and most of my friends only know him by the nickname I gave him from the start: "The Lover". But I enjoyed his company and therefore decided to at least try for a change .... or my own dysfunctional interpretation of trying anyway.

I was very clear and honest with him from the start about what this was for me - I wanted to keep seeing him but I didn't want us to be a couple. I found excuses not to meet his friends and never gave him the opportunity to meet mine. I usually only made time for him in my schedule once a week, normally after I had already been out with my friends (I believe the technical term is "booty call" - ha ha ha) and I turned down his offers of doing couple things - even when they included innocuous activities like going to the cinema together.

Despite what should have been obvious warning flags, the Lover moved very quickly through the relationship cycle all by himself and much to my horror and panic. A few hours after we first met and upon telling him that I was here on a visa, he made me google the words "Green Card". By our 3rd meeting, he was telling me how much he wanted to meet my family. By the 5th, he told me he was in love with me (I completely freaked out) and by the 6th I had to have the cliche and awkward "it's not you, it's me" conversation.

Even after that, he stuck around with the patience of a Saint or perhaps more accurately that of a mad man. And at the exact point when I was wondering whether I should give him a proper chance or end it once and for all, he went from Relationship Guy (albeit a scarily intense version of him) straight to your garden variety New York man - he stopped calling and basically vanished into thin air with no explanation.

I felt relieved that everything came to an end without anyone's heart being broken. Neither his as, despite his grand words he knew exactly what was going on and I am convinced that I did not hurt his feelings - I was on the wrong side of unrequited love once and would never wish it on my worst enemy, let alone put someone through it knowingly. Nor mine as I never invested myself emotionally in the relationship.

However, this latest experience does nothing to change my perception that New York men are, quite frankly, complete freaks. I hate to generalize but I can't think of any other reasons why I just do not understand them and all my single girlfriends feel the same way.

Of course, I am far from being perfect myself and I carry my own complex emotional baggage, my own little dose of freakiness. But I am more convinced than ever that having a straight forward relationship in New York, one that unfolds at a standard pace or without undue complications, is nearly impossible.

So dating in New York City? Not for the faint hearted although it does provide plenty of funny stories to share with girlfriends over a few glasses of wine ... The key is simply to lower your expectations quite substantially and to keep your heart well out of it!


I haven't written about my new restaurant finds in quite a while. It's not that I don't discover new places anymore, but I guess New York is not quite the brand new adventure playground that it used to be for me. I have lived here for two and a half years now and it is home so I don't feel the urge to try as many things as possible with the same sense of urgency as I did before.

I have also very much come to terms with the fact that I am an Uptown girl and a lot of my regular eateries now are either on the Upper West Side (where I live) or in Tribeca (where I work). Both neighbourhoods are a little more "homely", less showy and trendy than Soho or the Meat Packing district, and therefore suit me far better.

Sushi of Gari - Columbus Avenue btw 78th & 79th, UWS
I'm a huge fan of sushi and cannot wait for my trip to Japan next month, where I hope to sample the best in the world at the Tsukiji fish market. In the mean time, Sushi of Gari, located near the National History Museum, will more than do. It is by far the most inventive and delicate sushi I have tried and considering that I have had the chance to dine at Nobu, it is no small feat. The decor itself is fairly non-descript and minimalist in a rather clinical way, but this is not your average corner sushi restaurant - the Okamase (which I heartily recommend) and a bottle of wine will easily set you back $150 per person. It is well worth the treat - the waitress will bring you each of the chef's specials of the day until you beg for mercy. With a bit of luck, they will include the simply amazing tuna nigiri with a dollop of creamy tofu puree and salmon nigiri with roasted tomato on top amongst many other delicacies.

Mermaid Inn - Amsterdam Avenue btw 87th & 88th, UWS
This is one of the places that Marie & I regularly frequent, especially if we are feeling lazy as it is only a couple of blocks away from our respective apartments. The Mermaid Inn is famous for its mainly French inspired cuisine and has a compact but fail safe menu of perennial seafood classics. The atmosphere is incredibly laid back yet refined, the service attentive but not pushy and the beautiful vintage maps adorning the exposed brick walls set your mind traveling to distant shores. We both prefer to eat at the bar counter, perched up on the high stools and invariably order the same thing: a bottle of the delicious house Rose, half a dozen local oysters and the tasty pan-fried skate wing. I also love the complimentary cup of dark chocolate mousse they offer at the end of the meal.

Hi Life - Amsterdam Avenue btw 84th & 83rd, UWS
Hi Life is very much my go-to neighbourhood restaurant and bar. The food is good, plentiful and affordable and spans anything from American classics (burgers and fries) to sushi - while this is normally not a good sign, it works there as they execute every type of cuisine perfectly. The bar area has a speakeasy feel which is particularly cosy during the cold winters. In the summers, I like to sit outside and watch the world go by. It's quite a famous little institution here on the Upper West Side as the bar played a central role in an independent movie of the same name. I just like the fact that I can go there wearing yoga pants, a little white vest and not a scrap of make-up (like I did last Sunday) and not feel out of place or self-conscious.

Flor Del Sol - Greenwich btw Harrison & Franklin, Tribeca
I have a sentimental attachment to this place as my friend Fionuala and I have made a habit of meeting there for tapas when we want to have a long, leisurely catch up. We always sit at the same table in the minuscule outdoor patio, set right on the street on a lovely corner of Tribeca. And we also always order the shrimp ceviche, ham croquettes and the pan-fried chorizo with plenty of bread to mop up the smoky juices, along with our favourite Chardonnay of course.

Ivy's - Greenwich at Moore Street, Tribeca
My friend Kim introduced me to Ivy's a couple of months ago and I loved it straight away. This is my kind of place - small and intimate, with a tiny outdoor area and friendly service by what seems to be young wannabe actors (it reminds me of LA in that way). Their traditional Italian fare is hearty, generous and delicious. Many evenings have been spent there with a bunch friends since, sipping wine on balmy evenings while sharing their fantastic brushetta and antipasto or filling up on spicy sausage pasta.