Sunday, July 04, 2010

[Travel] Memorial Day in NYC

Memorial Day in NYC: There are few things in the world cooler than being in Manhattan. (There are also few things more expensive.) If you are feeling dead and defeated, Manhattan will almost certainly change your outlook. This is especially true on Memorial Day weekend, on the cusp of summer. The weather was perfect. The city not too packed -- despite the fact that it is Fleet Week, a healthy portion of locals take the opportunity for a long weekend to get away, leaving the city not especially overcrowded. I hope to make this a Memorial Day tradition.

A strangely uneventful flight on Delta and an equally uneventful cab ride from LaGuardia brought me to the Doubletree Metropolitan in Midtown East: a decent enough hotel -- friendly and courteous staff, the rooms generic, but functional, although the concierge was not particularly accurate. After checking in I engaged in my standard re-acclimation of hoofing it over to Times Square.

I mentioned how expensive Manhattan is, yet one of the things I enjoy most about it are the options for cheap food. In the past I have salivated over the Bahn Mi at Saigon Bakery. Bahn Mi is a Vietnamese-style, pork-based, submarine-sized sandwich. Saigon Bakery is one man a carry-out operation on Mott St. in Chinatown in the back of a crap jewelry store. A Bahn Mi is about $4 and it's one of the tastiest things you will ever eat. A good choice in Midtown is the gyro cart on the corner of Sixth Ave. just across and down from the Museum of Modern Art -- awesome fresh lamb and rice, big enough for two at a whopping $6. The Hidden Burger Joint in Le Parker Meridien hotel used to fall into this class, but it has been packed from open to close every time I have tried to go there in the last three years, so I'm taking it off the list for now.

The first of two discoveries this trip was Xie-Xie, a sandwich shop on 9th and 45th just a block off Times Square. Just a small place next to a painfully hipster-looking nightclub, they serve up a handful of different sandwiches -- fish, lobster, pork, beef, chicken -- all with a delicious Asian twist. I had the BBQ Beef with carrot kimchi. Seriously good. Sandwich, bag of chips, and soda for under $10 in most cases. I would be very surprised not to see these places nationwide in a couple of years.

Anyway, as always, the journey across Midtown to the neon carnival spectacular of Times Square at night makes everything seem just right. The world is OK when I am in Manhattan.

Next day, Miss Kate rolls into Penn Station on the Acela from DC and in short order we are walking Park Ave towards the Upper East Side, eventually settling into a brasserie called Bistro 60, for a tasty light late lunch. From there, a lovely spring stroll through Central Park.

Central Park is always a joy. A lovely place in and of itself, the fact that it is an island of wooded quiet (relatively speaking) surrounded by the majestic contrast of the skyline and activity of the city just outside makes it unforgettable. It's easy to spend a day just wandering in the Park. We didn't spend and entire day but cut a somewhat meandering path over to the West Side, pausing briefly at the boathouse to watch the peddle-boaters the ambled past the hippies at Strawberry Fields and exiting near The Dakota. From there a long hoof back to the hotel, but not without a stop at Whiskey Blue in the W where Miss Kate vowed eternal devotion to the espresso martinis.

With the evening came a Broadway show: Promises, Promises. It's a fun, musical, romantic comedy starring Sean Hayes, who you'll remember as "Just Jack!" from Will and Grace, and Kristin Chenoweth, who you'd probably recognize from somewhere if you saw her, most recently she had a role in a couple of episodes of Glee. The story is based on the classic Billy Wilder film, The Apartment, and was scored by Burt Bacharach, the most prominent song being "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." It's all very nicely done. A solid B+ performance that's kicked up for a couple of scenes at the start of the second act when Kate Finneran steals the show with her hilarious portrayal of a lascivious barfly.

Broadway shows are prohibitively expensive -- to the point where you don't want to risk seeing a dud or being disappointed. The cost is too high. Promises, Promises is a safe bet. I can't imagine anyone being disappointed other than by their inability to get "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" out of their head for the next few days.

Post-theatre dinner was at Bar Americain, a Bobby Flay joint with some delectable variations on American-style bar food. Bobby Flay is sometimes disdained by serious foodies, but I've never had less than a great meal from his restaurants -- either Bar Americain or Mesa Grill in Vegas. (Are you getting the impression that this trip was all about food? Strange.)

The next day it was up bright and early to journey to Brooklyn for a walk across the bridge. The bridge walk is a great way to start the day. It only takes about 20 to 30 minutes and gives you a beautiful view of the Lower Manhattan skyline, but it's important to do it in the morning so as to have the sun to your back and the oblique light on Manhattan. (The reverse walk is less desirable as the Brooklyn skyline is nothing to write home about.) You can get a subway there; it lets you off a couple of blocks away but there are signs indicating the way. A quicker but more expensive alternative is to cab it over which actually results in a longer walk since the cab will likely let you off a bit deeper into Brooklyn that the subway. (Aside: this was one of the things our concierge screwed up.)

As you exit the bridge in Manhattan you are essentially within shooting distance of anything in Lower Manhattan. A good choice is the Seaport, which will be off to your left. Been there, done that for us, so we chose to dash west and troll around Soho and the Village past NYU and Washington Square Park.

Which leads me to my second cheap food find: Joe's Pizza, generally considered to be the best place in the world for a walk-in slice of NY pizza. I don't have a full spectrum of experience with NY-style pizza to judge that claim, but Joe's was awfully good. Top notch ingredients and noticeably exceptional crispy crust. In fact, while we were sitting there, some tour group stopped in for a slice -- perhaps it was a "taste of NYC" sort of tour. It's a place of that sort of renown. It goes on the cheap eats list for the rare occasions I make it down to the Village.

Time for one more espresso martini before bundling Miss Kate back on the Acela south. As for me, I didn't have to leave until the next day, so I was off to Birdland to catch a jazz set. (How's that for hip cat lingo?) Hilary Kole is a terrific vocalist with a healthy dose of Ella Fitzgerald in her style. She got hot band, a weekly gig at Birdland, and fine CD called "Haunted Heart". Recommended if you like vital takes on standards mixed with newer and original material. I prefer her swing numbers to the ballads, but you may differ. Good show, and the $20 cover is a deal in NYC.

The next, and last, morning I was feeling unambitious so I grabbed a Jamba Juice and walked to the park where I found a nice sunny spot on the grass and spent an hour watching life pass in the center of the world. I followed this with a brief visit to the Apple store just to see what the techno-hip were up to -- it was packed, not an iPad was going untested.

Another surprisingly uneventful plane ride from Delta got me home. If it wasn't for the pain and suffering in the wallet, I would be spending a lot more time in Gotham. I've really got to figure out a cheap way to do this. For restoration of the soul, it can't be beat.