Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Next Stop: Grand Central Station

Grand Central Station doesn't appear on many of our visitors' to-do lists. It's understandable -- among the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Times Square, the Empire State Building and all of New York City's other must-sees, it's difficult to fit in a trip to a train terminal.

So when Paul's mom suggested a visit this weekend, I was eager. I'd been there only two or three times myself.

We didn't spend long in the main concourse, but 10 minutes is more than enough time to be awed by the architecture and especially the gigantic windows. It's almost enough to make me wish I lived in one of those commuter towns listed on the boards. Almost, but not quite.

Monday, March 28, 2011

My Latest Ride on the Staten Island Ferry

The Staten Island Ferry is the not-so-secret way to get the best views of the Statue of Liberty for free. Paul and I took yet another trip across Upper New York Bay this past weekend when his mom and our 10-year-old nephew, Conrad, paid us a visit for a few days.

I've lost count of the number of times I've ridden the ferry, but I don't really mind. It's relaxing and a nice rest from the constant walking the remainder of New York City invites. Besides, the views really are pretty spectacular.

As I've said before, I also enjoy seeing New York from a visitor's perspective, and Conrad is the youngest visitor we've had. He's a great nephew -- polite, smart and funny to boot -- so I was especially eager to hear his take on the city. The adventure started the first night, when he was surprised (1) that we were crossing the street when the sign said don't walk and (2) we had to park our car three blocks away from our apartment. Welcome to New York.

The views of the Statue of Liberty, however, didn't disappoint. I, on the other hand, pointed my camera off the other side of the boat, toward Brooklyn and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Friday, March 25, 2011

NYC Restaurant Picks for All Tastes and Budgets

No sooner do I finish one meal than I start thinking about the next. Since when did not liking to cook mean not liking to eat?

And even though Paul counts cooking as one of his favorite hobbies, we both share a love of trying new foods and new restaurants -- even if they're new only to us.

On that note, I've started a page on where to eat in New York City -- my observant readers will have noticed that a link to the page appeared last year, on this blog's homepage, just above the most recent post. (Go ahead and scroll up -- you'll see it there.) Since then, I've added even more listings.

Currently the page include 39 restaurants, delis, dessert shops and more, split into groups by location and cuisine. Each listing also includes a link to my review.

In addition, I have included special lists of my top picks based on your budget, taste and occasion. 

The page will be regularly updated. Expect to see more listings from my very own Bay Ridge.

Yes, this page includes only a small fraction of the thousands of eateries New York City offers. But consider this a curated list of the places I know, love and would gladly eat at again. Whether you're paying a visit to me or to New York City in general, bon appetit!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The World's First PB&J Art Exhibit

Anyone who has seen me eat lunch in approximately the last 20 years knows I like peanut butter. Love peanut butter, in fact. When I packed my lunch in school -- which was almost every day starting in junior high or so -- I can't remember ever having or wanting any other entree. And when I pack my lunch for work -- again, almost every day -- it's still what I crave.

Yes, it's cheap and I'm a cheapskate. But that's not why I eat it. I truly, genuinely love it. Sometimes I'll even eat it on the weekend, too.

So when I heard about an event being billed "the world's first pb&j art exhibit" there was absolutely no doubt that I was going to go.

The Nutropolitan Museum of Art was a three-day-only exhibit at Openhouse Gallery, the same location of the indoor pop-up "greenspace" Park Here earlier this year. It was really more of a big advertisement for the specialty restaurant Peanut Butter & Co., but I was fine with that -- especially since we got a coupon for a free jar of their gourmet peanut butter as we left the gallery.

The exhibit basically consisted of more than a dozen photos of nutty peanut butter creations. Here were some of my favorites:

The exhibit also included a space to "create your own pb&j art," but alas, it closed shortly after we arrived. I saw a boy with a slice of bread slathered in peanut butter and sprinkled with what looked to be M&Ms. I was jealous.

Monday, March 21, 2011

My NYC Hamantaschen Quest for Purim

I've learned a lot about Jewish holidays since moving to New York, but I first heard of Purim in Ohio.

That's also where, roughly four years ago, I first encountered hamantaschen. I've been craving the three-cornered jelly-filled treats ever since.

I had a weekend shift as a reporter at the Springfield News-Sun, and I was assigned to cover the Purim celebration at the local temple. I was immediately fascinated by the mix of costumes, games, food and religion -- it felt like my old elementary school's annual fall festival, with the Book of Esther thrown in.

I heard Esther's story in Springfield and later read it on my own. The biblical book itself is pretty short and reads much more like a fairy tale than many of the other books (I'm looking at you, Revelation). But, to make a short story even shorter, Esther and Mordechai thwart Haman's plans to kill the Jews.

At the Springfield celebration I had my first -- and up until this month, only -- hamantaschen. I'm normally not a fan of jelly on cookies, but for this I make an exception. The dough-to-jelly ratio was perfect, and the shape of the cookies added to the whimsy. Hamantaschen -- variously translated as Haman's hat, ears or pockets, I've heard -- are always triangular.

Purim this year began at sunset Saturday and continues through today. To mark the occasion, I was determined to sample some New York City hamantaschen.

Unfortunately, I determined this on Saturday -- the one day of the week many strict Jewish businesses are closed. But I would not be deterred. Introducing Russ & Daughters hamantaschen.

Russ & Daughters is much more famous for its fish and lox, but its desserts are nothing to sneeze at. In fact, Tablet Magazine named Russ & Daughters' hamantaschen tops in a taste test of bakeries in six cities in five states.

But when I got to Russ & Daughters on Saturday afternoon, the hamantaschen were all sold out. I combed a 10 block area on the Lower East Side without luck before making a last ditch effort at Whole Foods. None there either.

Finally I started calling bakeries in Bay Ridge. I found success on my second call. Bay Ridge Bakery, a mere two blocks from our apartment, had some left.

I rushed home from the Lower East Side and picked out a prune hamantaschen 15 minutes before the shop closed. (And a piece of chocolate-covered baklava because -- well, why not?)

The look was a bit off -- usually you can see much more of the jelly filling on top -- but I can't complain about the taste. The shortbread-like pastry had a slight lemony taste, and the prune jelly was so good I could have eaten it plain.

Final thoughts: we Catholics could learn a few things about desserts.

Friday, March 18, 2011

An Evening at Balthazar

Paul and I celebrated Christmas two and a half months late.

For the third year in a row, we decided not to exchange Christmas gifts and instead treat ourselves to a nice restaurant we wouldn't otherwise visit.

Year 1: Aquavit
Year 2: Russian Tea Room
This Year: Balthazar

Paul happily took charge of choosing this year's spot, and he picked a classic French restaurant and bakery in Soho with the trifecta of diners: locals, tourists and celebrities. No celebrities when we were there -- at least none that I noticed -- but lots of good food.

We were seated just minutes after we arrived for our 6:30 p.m. reservation on a recent Saturday -- an early seating by New York standards, but it was either that or about 10 p.m. when Paul made the reservations two weeks in advance. Nevertheless, Balthazar was full, and we made sure to eat an early lunch so we would be hungry.

Paul ordered a glass of wine, and even I splurged and got a glass of cider -- it was Christmas, after all. We were curious to try the chicken liver and foie gras mousse as an appetizer, and placed an order. When our waitress went to check if it had nuts, however, another member of the staff returned and couldn't offer any guarantees. We went without hors d'oeuvres.

But nevermind -- our meals were more than filling. Paul chose the steak au poivre, which came with Balthazar's famous french fries. I got the duck shepherd's pie -- the rich gravy was laced with large chunks of moist duck, topped with a thin layer of mashed potatoes. Delicious.

Duck shepherds pie

But the star of the show was surely dessert. Paul let me choose, and it didn't take long to choose the most chocolatey dessert Balthazar offered: the chocolate pot de crème. Thicker than a standard pudding or custard, it was more like a melted candy bar that had been reformed in a small dish. It was so thick that a candle easily could have stood in the pot without the slightest fear of it falling -- a perfect birthday treat, for sure.

The atmosphere was lively, and our table was close enough to those on either side that we easily could have partaken in their discussions (I suspect the couple to my right were vacationing from Australia). But Balthazar's slight inconveniences were more than made up for by the delicious food and, of course, my good company. And so another Christmas season passes ... just before spring begins.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Living in Bay Ridge, According to the NY Times

Bay Ridge. Photo by Emily K.

The New York Times features a different tri-state neighborhood each weekend in its Real Estate section, and last Sunday I was pleased to see that Bay Ridge was in the driver's seat.

The weekly article is much more of a neighborhood guide than a feature story, as indicated by each article's heading: "Living In / [Neighborhood]." Every article follows the same format, with short sections on what residents there do, what they pay for housing, how the schools compare to averages, the typical commute time and a mini history.

And so on Sunday I found out what the New York Times had to say about Living In / Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and I found out a few things about my neighborhood in the process.

Read the link above for the full article, but here are the highlights:
  • Bay Ridge has a population of about 80,000. 
  • Bay Ridge is three square miles.
  • The neighborhood is largely Italian and Irish, and 9 percent have an Arabic background.
  • New York City honored Bay Ridge's Scandinavian roots in 1969 by renaming part of the Belt Parkway "Leif Ericson Drive."
  • The average selling price of a Bay Ridge single-family home last year was $812,000.
  • Fort Hamilton, at the southern tip of Bay Ridge, is the city's only active military base.
  • The fort was built in 1831 because of the fear of a European invasion.
  • And what might do the most to convince people to visit us ... "Bay Ridge has 113 places to grab a drink."

Monday, March 14, 2011

Why Yesterday Was One of My Favorite Days

Yesterday was one of my favorite days of the year.

Better then the first day of spring. Maybe even better than the first day of summer. Almost definitely better than my 30th birthday will be in a few months.

The occasion? Daylight Saving Time began.

The sun is up year round by the time I wake up, a consequence of living on the eastern edge of the time zone as well as the late hour of my alarm -- 8 a.m.

The evening, however, is another story. Even if I leave work on time at 6 p.m., the sky is nearly always pitch black all winter long. A couple of weeks ago I left work about a quarter after 6 and saw just a glimmer of light reflecting against a skyscraper, set against a deep, deep blue sky. I was excited, but of course it had long since disappeared by the time I exited the subway in Bay Ridge nearly an hour later.

Of course, there is one downside to Daylight Saving Time: one less hour of sleep. But the many more hours of sunlight I'll now be enjoying will more than make up for one evening of heavy eyelids.

Friday, March 11, 2011

$1 "Mini Cakes" in Chinatown

As Sarah and I strolled through Chinatown, from Prosperity Dumpling to the subway, one specific food cart caused me to do a double-take.

It seems that most New York food carts offer one of three things: hot dogs, sugared nuts, or some unknown foodstuff that smells really burnt. But in Chinatown you can get 20 mini cakes for $1.

I didn't get a real good look at how they were made -- when I forked over my dollar, the lady immediately handed me a white bag pre-stuffed with mini cakes and I got out of the way. But from the photos I was able to snap, it looks as if the cake batter is put into a special molded skillet (see the photo above), heated up, and then emptied onto a tray and broken apart.

The vanilla cakes really were mini -- about the size of your biggest toe -- but warm, and at the very least, fun to eat. The only thing missing? A vat of frosting in which to dip them.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Chinatown Dumplings: Prosperity Dumpling

Why is the "open" sign flipped over? We'll never know.

When I was wracking my brain for a quick, easy, cheap place to eat with Sarah, I immediately thought of Vanessa's Dumpling House, where Paul and I ate to overflowing for $15 last month.

But then I had an even better thought: why not give its competitor down the street a try? So after Sarah and I explored Chinatown, we meandered over to Eldridge Street so I could conduct a taste test at Prosperity Dumpling.

The first thing I noticed was Prosperity Dumpling's size. It's a cubbyhole, really. I think office cubicles are generally bigger than this place is. Small counters line two walls. One counter has enough room for two short stools; the other has no stools, probably because the opening door keeps bumping into whoever is standing there. This is definitely a to-go type of place.

But it was cold, and I didn't know a good place to take our food. We took our chances and got our food to stay. By the time it was ready, we had snagged a spot in the corner, between the trash can and window.

Luckily, the space doesn't influence the food. I fell in love with the sesame pancake with vegetables at Vanessa's, so that's what I ordered. The sesame pancake at Prosperity was definitely good (and, at $1.25, certainly cheap), but not as tasty as Vanessa's.

Sesame pancake -- more like a Chinese pizza, really

Sarah opted for the Chinese vegetables and pork boiled dumplings (10 for $2). I declined her kind offer of a sample, but they looked pretty good.


So while I can't give a complete review and comparison, I know I'll return to Vanessa's Dumpling House before going again to Prosperity Dumpling. A better sesame pancake + more seating = Winner.

Monday, March 7, 2011

An Afternoon in Chinatown

It's almost always fun to explore New York City with out-of-town visitors, but I've rarely had as good a time as I did with Sarah, my college roommate who came to town a couple of weekends ago.

We hadn't seen each other in at least four or five years, so we had a lot of catching up to do. And as we were catching up, we walked. And walked and walked.

First we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. Then we walked up Broadway and explored Chinatown. Then we took the subway to Times Square and walked up and down the corridor until Sarah had to catch her bus back to Philadelphia.

What made our walk so interesting -- aside from the talk -- were Sarah's observations. Graffiti, signs, business names -- nothing escaped her notice or her camera's lens. I'm not as attentive, and I'm sure my photos are necessarily more boring. Nevertheless, this week's blog posts are dedicated to the neighborhood where we spent most of our Sunday afternoon: Chinatown.

Even Flat Stanley made an appearance!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Why I Chose My Dentist ... and Hairdresser

I had minor oral surgery at the end of January. (I'm fine, thank you.)

The dentist wanted to follow up in three weeks. I generally try to make my appointments with the dentist on Saturdays, but he wasn't in the office at the three-week mark. That left only a weekday appointment. He was in the office only in the afternoon, so I took the latest slot available: 5 p.m.

I got there about 10 minutes early and was in the chair promptly. The dentist took a quick look around. I was fine. And I was home by 5:20 -- nearly two hours before I would normally have been home from work. It felt like a mini-vacation.

That's a perfect example of why I love having so many doctors and dentists nearby. I chose this dentist's office specifically for its location -- a mere block and a half away from our apartment.

In fact, its proximity came in handy for the oral surgery itself. The dentist became sick the day I was to have it done, and I had to reschedule for a couple of weeks later. That was bad news for me, who wasn't particularly looking forward to the procedure and just wanted to get it over with. Then, on the Saturday following when the surgery was originally supposed to be, I got a call. There was a last minute opening -- could I come in at noon?

I looked at the clock. That was a mere 40 minutes away, and I hadn't even taken a shower yet. Nevertheless, I agreed. I took my shower -- I wasn't even particularly in a hurry -- and made it there with time to spare.

The convenience isn't limited to doctors and dentists. My new hairdresser works catty-cornered from our place and takes walk-in appointments. I regularly wave to her on my walk to the subway in the morning.

I dont think I would put my health (or hair) in the hands of someone purely for their nearness. And I can think of a few cases in which being able to walk to the doctor would not be an advantage. For example, I was put under in college when I had all four of my wisdom teeth extracted. I'm glad Paul was there to drive me home instead of having to lead me by the arm and walk me home.

Nevertheless, the proximity of my current dentist was a giant selling point and makes my teeth cleanings just a little more bearable.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Feast of Midwestern Delicacies

Surveying the damages after everyone had left!

The second annual Erwin winter shindig was last Saturday, and the only casualty was a clear plastic platter.

At the party's peak, when about two dozen people were crammed into the kitchen scrambling for food, it felt like I might be a casualty, too. But of course everything went smoothly, with enough food and beer -- the essentials -- for everyone.

This year's theme: A Feast of Midwestern Delicacies. The menu:
  • Cincinnati-style chili, with spaghetti, cheddar cheese and oyster crackers
  • Chicago-style deep dish pizza
  • Sausage gravy and biscuits
  • Fried cheese curds
  • Green bean casserole
  • Cheesy potatoes
  • Homemade bread with herb butter
  • Spinach salad
  • Popcorn
  • Pretzels
  • Buckeyes
  • Graham crackers with vanilla frosting
  • Freshly fried donuts
We didn't have too much left over -- enough sausage gravy for a couple of meals, some Buckeyes, a few spoonfuls of the casseroles. And a lot of salad. Our guests must have known that true Midwesterners will always go for the chili before the salad.

The two dozen friends who appeared traveled from three of New York's five boroughs and three states -- a co-worker came from New Jersey, and one of my college roommates, Sarah, even came from Philadelphia (more about that next week!).Surprisingly, quite a few had Midwest connections -- they either grew up there, went to college there, or both. I was happy to see how many people wore theme-appropriate shirts. I wore my "OH How I Love You" Ohio shirt, but my favorite was probably Sarah's-- a pink t-shirt that proclaimed "Ohio-licious." I wish I would have taken a photo.

Five hours after the party started, after a good half of the crowd had departed, I finally got out my photo and snapped a few shots. Oh well. I enjoyed the party nonetheless, and I guess I don't need pictures to prove it.

Last year's party was smaller, with just a few of my coworkers. This year we opened it up, and I'm glad we did. It was fun to see all of our friends all mixed up together -- my coworkers, Paul's coworkers, college friends, other friends and even friends of friends.

I'm already contemplating next year's theme.


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