Thursday, April 02, 2009

Manhattan Mange

Manhattan Mange: This trip to The Apple turned out to be primarily about stuffing my face. I was officially there for a workshop arranged by my day job, so all week the evenings were filled with big family style dinners for roughly 12-15 colleagues at some of the tastier places in and around Manhattan, such as...

• Rosa Mexicanos. From the name you'd think it was a standard issue frijoles and burrito spot, but the food was a cut above, highlighted by fresh guacamole made at our table. Good Margaritas, natch.

• Becco. In restaurant row on 46th, killer pasta and lots of it. This is where you want to load carbs before your marathon. Not to mention a deadly dessert called Zabaglione con Marsala di Florio. Que Bella!

• China Grill. Not terribly original but still tasty. I managed to secure a bit of Sake, which is always a treat. Good lobster pad thai. I've eaten at the China Grill in Vegas and this was basically the same. Excellent professional service. Good quality food, but nothing all that memorable. Overpriced but fun and reliable.

• Bar Americain. I was on my own for this one, so I just did my usual travel dinner thing and snagged an appetizer at the bar. This is one of Bobby Flay's places, and while most serious foodies sneer at Flay, I find his twists on everyday dishes to be excellent. I settled on the shellfish cocktail sampler -- the traditional shrimp got a tasty tomatillo sauce, the crab cocktail came with a creamed corn (better than it sounds), and lastly a lobster, avocado and egg cocktail. Seriously good stuff.

Naturally, once the workshop was over, I stayed on and was able to get a full day of Manhattan time on my own. Now off the company expense account, that meant street food and cheap eats. I typically try to hit the Hidden Burger Joint but unlike back in '04 when I could just waltz into the place at will, it's become quite the tourist target and I haven't been able to get near the place in the last few years. That's fine; in the end, tacky-fun atmosphere aside, it's still just a burger and fries.

Better than that, the Halal cart guy on 53rd and 6th whips up an awesome gyro for $4 and you can sit on the steps of nearby building and look downtown at the Radio City Music Hall sign, or east to the Museum of Modern Art, or uptown towards Central Park and just get that rush of energy that you can only get in the center of the universe.

I finished the evening with a nightcap at the well-known Oak Room in the Plaza hotel. The Oak Room has a long and storied history and is generally thought of as an old-school throwback to the days of sophisticated New York drinking. It has plenty of wood and comfortable furniture and hand painted murals all over the walls. But it's just a veneer. As bars go it is strictly run of the mill. I got a decent sidecar, but it's not like it came from some old-time world-weary bartender. It was just a cocktail from a twenty something with other things on his mind. And the place was loaded down with loud drunks. And tourists (I was expecting silver-haired bluebloods). And it smelled (truly it did). A better choice for the long lost drinking experience is Bemelman's Bar in the Carlyle.

The main new experience this trip was the walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Wise folks claim the way to do this is to make the walk from Brooklyn into Manhattan so that the more pleasing Manhattan skyline is the in view for your walk. True enough, although the walk itself is not that long. It's hair over a mile so it's fairly trivial to walk back and forth from Manhattan. I had extended plans so I took a morning subway ride into Brooklyn to the base of the bridge. The subway let's you off a short walk from an area known as Dumbo (meaning Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) where there are some cafes, shops, bars, etc. A good plan for the future would be to walk over from Manhattan, grab something to eat in Dumbo and stroll along the East River before re-crossing back into Manhattan.

My one way trip was a stunning as expected. Views of the Statue of Liberty, the imposing buildings of the Financial District, the tall ships in the Seaport: awesome. It was the one time I regretted not bringing my camera on this trip. I did get stopped about five times to take snaps of other folks. Next time I'll bring my camera and try to get there for early morning light and maybe sunset too.

Exiting the bridge I made a bee-line to Chinatown for it is there that my ultimate NYC cheap eats exist: the Bahn Mi. Specifically, the Bahn Mi at Saigon Bakery. If I lived in Manhattan, I would eat Bahn Mi pretty much constantly, and the dude at Saigon Bakery -- which is in the back of a jewelry store on Mott St. -- prepares an awesome one. $3.75 and my favorite meal of the trip. (Serendipitously, Gridskipper recently posted on Bahn Mi in Manhattan. For Saigon Bakery click number 2.) Ann Arbor needs Bahn Mi desperately.

Tummy full, I made for the Upper West Side for a visit to the American Museum of Natural History. I gotta say this place is a huge disappointment. It is presented as a science museum, but the actual science is getting more and more out of date. The origin of the universe and the story of human evolution are right out of convention wisdom from the '70s. Much of what the place is devoted to is science mythology and dogmatic environmentalism -- they have spent plenty of time and money putting up plaques with scary missives about global warming, or maudlin quotes of third word folk wisdom, but there is very little actual science here. There were holding some kind of water conservation festival -- a children's band was going to perform songs about how it is important to preserve water in a multi-cultural manner. Or something. The AMNH is a tiresome place with messed up priorities. Give it a miss.

My last day I rose and checked out of the Hilton (this is the one on Sixth Ave.) where they have policy of charging you to store your bags for the few hours until your flight leaves: $3.50 per bag. This is the only hotel I have ever encountered that does so and it is, quite frankly, below them. Shameful. One of the few times I have been really disappointed in Hilton.

I went for a morning walk up Madison Ave and made my way to the Metropolitan Museum and caught a clever photography exhibit and a bite to eat. The Met Museum doesn't disappoint, but it had been a long week and after trolling around a bit, I was ready to go home. I had eaten everything in the universe and was tired out in that terrific way Manhattan has of tiring you out.

Of course I exited to what was probably the first real Spring day of the year, not just a less cold than usual for Winter day. The sun was out; everyone was walking their dogs; the inline skaters and Frisbee jockeys were showing off; musicians of all sorts were on every corner. I stopped for a small bag of toasted almonds and sat on a bench to watch the world pass for a few minutes. Sure enough, 10 minutes in Central Park moved me from ready-to-leave to wanna-stay.

But that was not an option. I had to get to Newark Airport. And therein lays a rant.

The cab fare from Newark Airport (EWR) into Manhattan is fixed at $55 plus tunnel/bridge toll which is another $8. So $70-$75, with tip depending on how smelly your driver is. It's a lot, but acceptable in my mind, especially since my company was paying for it. The cab fare in the other direction, to EWR from Manhattan, is metered (about $70 from Midtown), you still have to pick up the toll (another $8), and they pile on a $15 surcharge only because it is illegal to beat you with a tire iron. Bottom line, the ride back will cost you well over a c-note. Even with access to my company's deep pockets, I refused to pay that. I have no doubt a healthy percentage of that is going to Tony Soprano anyway.

There's a cheaper alternative. Take a cab to Penn Station ($10, with tip); hop the NJ Transit train to EWR ($15 -- leave every 20 minutes, no reservation needed); catch the Air Train from the train station to the terminal (free, with your NJ Transit train ticket).

It's a pretty sweet deal and it works well until you get to the Air Train portion. In all my travels I have never ever see anything as fundamentally fubar'd as the Air Train at EWR. You arrive and stand at a platform waiting for the Air Train, which is really just a monorail shuttle of the sort many airports have. And you wait. And you wait. Meanwhile more and more people are pouring on to the platform. You wait more. When the train finally arrives, you are told that you will have to exit at the first stop and then another Air Train will take you to the terminal. Meanwhile, so many people have been waiting on the platform that it's eat or be eaten to actually fit on the Air Train. A good third of everyone waiting couldn't fit and was facing another interminable wait. Finally the Air Train whizzes off toward the terminal with the blazing speed of a sloth in molasses. Halfway there it stops for no reason, or perhaps it's just to extend the sardine experience that much longer. It literally took longer to cover the mile or so to the terminal than the cab ride and train trip from Manhattan to the airport.

When you finally arrive at the stop -- the one where everyone is supposed to get off and hop another Air Train to the terminal -- it's utter bedlam. One employee is laconically giving instructions on a PA system that nobody can hear. Voices are raised as everyone starts asking everyone else if they heard what they were supposed to do. Everybody is worried that it's going to take another half-hour for a train to arrive. Finally folks move in a lemming like fashion outside the station and across some scary airport roads in a brave overland exodus to the terminal rather than go through another nightmarish ride.

Un-frickin-believable. This barely qualifies as a form of transportation. How hard can it be to move people the mile or so from the train station to the terminal? Why not just run a couple of busses back and forth? I would suggest the Air Train authorities should be ashamed of themselves but no one with any sense of shame would associate with such a disaster to begin with. The lesson I take from this: It's OK to fly into Newark if you get a really cheap flight, but never fly out of Newark. Again, I'm sure Tony Soprano had a hand in the contracting for the Air Train.

One day, I will get an NYC trip exactly perfect. Then I'll be able to die happy. Until then, I'll have to keep going back.