Continued Explorations: Autumn in NYC

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal

Every so often I get the urge to revisit New York City. People always ask me why I go there as frequently as I do. The reason is because it’s a vibrant place to be, but one that I can easily leave behind when I want to go back to the more slow-paced lifestyle that is Edmonton.

This latest trip was one that had been discussed for sometime. However, due to other circumstances, it didn’t come to fruition until this year.

Over a decade since my friend and I had first traveled there together, we made plans to go back and experience the City that Never Sleeps from a more mature perspective.

Hearing that autumn is a gorgeous time of year there, we booked our holiday to run through the first week of October. Although the weather proved to work against us throughout part of our vacation (leading to itinerary changes), it still turned out to be a fantastic several days.

Only ever pausing to sleep in our room at the Seton Hotel, our trip was a mishmash of neighbourhood explorations, music, museums, culture and food as we clocked about 60 kilometers and over a hundred thousand steps through the streets of Manhattan.

The following is a daily account, with pictures, of our adventures. I hope they inspire some of you to explore restaurants and places that are a little off the beaten path.

DAY 1

Accommodations: Seton Hotel

The Seton is a clean, comfortable, renovated boutique hotel. We stayed in a premium room with two double beds and a private bathroom (a number of their rooms have shared baths). It is actually quite spacious if there are only a couple of people staying together. There are a number of spots to layout your suitcases without it feeling overly cluttered. The bathroom is also nice, and while they don’t provide any body lotion for use, they do supply soaps, shampoo, conditioner and packaged makeup wipes.

It’s important to note that your room key must be dropped off with the staff every time you leave the hotel. There is also no in-room safe (the front desk has one) or fridge in each room. But, they have a lovely lounge on the main floor. They also provide free tea and coffee as well as umbrellas that can be taken out on rainy days. On our last day there, the hotel held our luggage between checkout time and when we had to leave for the airport, which was handy.

As with most large cities, there is usually construction nearby and the Seton wasn’t immune. During the weekdays, workers typically started up with the jackhammer just after 8 AM. As luck would have it, we were always already awake, so it didn’t make much of a difference to us. Yet it’s worth noting that you may want to request a room towards the back of the hotel away from the street and the elevator.

The location itself was extremely convenient. Situated on 40th Street between 3rd and Lexington Avenues, the Seton was only a few blocks away from Grand Central Terminal and from Fifth Avenue. Although it was often quiet late in the evening, it always felt safe.

Staring at the art on the walls of the Cafe Duke

Staring at the art on the walls of the Cafe Duke

Nourishment: Bohemian

Bohemian is an exclusive, referral-only restaurant located in the East Village of Manhattan. It’s hidden behind a butcher’s shop. The address is actually quite easy to find online. However, you do have to obtain an invite directly from the restaurant or get the phone number from someone who has previously dined in order to make a reservation. Walk-ins are not guaranteed a table.

After a while wandering the neighbourhood to kill time before our 9 P.M. reservation, my friend and I opted to go with the 6-course tasting menu. It included a Farmer’s Fresh Vegetable Fondue, Uni Croquette, Washu-Beef Short Rib Sashimi, Pan Roasted Branzino, Washu-Beef Mini Burger OR Sashimi Rice Bowl and a Yuzu Pannacotta.

Needless to say, our starving bellies were more than stuffed after our two and a half hour dinner. By the time we worked our way through the majority of the branzino, we could have given up. But, we powered through like champs and finished the entirety of our meal.

The staff were great there and the food is worth the slightly increased effort required to book a table. It’s especially good value for the price – a drink and six dishes came to less than $70 before tax.

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DAY 2

Attractions: Central Park, The Met, Lincoln Center, The Book of Mormon, Times Square

The forecast called for rain, but we seemed to luck out in the morning as we strolled from Norma’s through Central Park to The Met. Having been to NYC several times, this was my first visit in the autumn, and the most time I’ve ever spent in the park. As we meandered through all the areas on the east side of the park between 59th and 85th Streets, we were surprised that the trees were still so green. It wasn’t quite the imagined yellow, orange, red paradise that we expected, but it was still a beautiful and relaxing respite from the rest of the bustling city.

Eventually, we made it to The Met where we spent hours perusing the maze of collections housed in its walls. The American Wing and European Paintings were my favourite. Sadly, the Costume Institute collection on the ground floor was closed off, so we didn’t get to see that, which is unfortunate. Their most recent exhibit, China: Through the Looking Glass, looked like a superb view on fashion, so it’s too bad that it closed before we arrived.

On our way back to midtown, we cut through Central Park. Unfortunately, we got caught in the rain. The trees helped to shield us a bit, but we were still a damp by the time we managed to make it to Lincoln Centre. My one wish is that we could have seen up-close the two large murals by Marc Chagall that hang in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House. The unmistakable style caught my eye through the windows of the building and I didn’t want to look away. If only it wasn’t pouring out, so we could have lingered longer.

A performance of The Book of Mormon at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre gave us a break from the rainy weather. Finally, after years wanting to see this show, I did. Was it worth the money? Probably not, but the Mormon song and dance numbers and the spun stories were highly entertaining, especially for those who are not easily offended.

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As we exited the theatre, our evening finished off in Times Square. Other tourists jostled past us as we found our way to the subway station and we called it a night.

Nourishment: NORMA’s, Whole Foods, Shake Shack

NORMA’s at Le Parker Meridien has been a favourite of mine ever since my cousin took me there for brunch back in 2009. Every trip since, I have made a point of going there. This visit did not disappoint. I’d been thinking about the restaurant’s Waz-Za Waffle for months and it was as good as I remembered. My friend’s Red Berry Risotto “Oatmeal” was hearty and scrumptious as well.

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Later in the day, after our long perusal of The Met and two lengthy walks through Central Park and photos at Lincoln Center, we made a quick pit stop at the Whole Foods at Time Warner Center. We had intended to buy a bit of sushi and eat in their food court area, but it was so full that we weren’t able to get a seat. We ended up trying to sit on the floor of the mall to eat until security told us we had to get up. The guard was nice about it though. He said we could stand and eat wherever we wanted.

The Midtown East Shake Shack just down the block from our hotel was perfect for quick late-night meals or snacks after shows. My friend’s featured bratwurst burger looked so tastily greasy that I was a little jealous when I decided to eat the chicken dog instead. However, the chicken dog was perfectly satisfying and light enough just before bed.

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Late night snack from the Shake Shack

DAY 3

Attractions: NYPL Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Grand Central Terminal, MoMA, Terminal 5

When I was last in NYC back in December 2013, I pretty much just stumbled upon the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library. Located on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, it was so close to our hotel that I had to take my friend there this time. Having studied to be a librarian, I knew that she would appreciate the building and the rooms housed within. We arrived before it opened to the public for the day, which gave us time to take some photos in the rain. So, as soon as the doors were unlocked, we booked it inside.

The NYPL provides free tours at 11 A.M. and 2 P.M. Mondays to Saturdays. Our original plan was to check out the library shop until the tour started, but we ended up skipping the tour because it was quite crowded and it was hard to hear the guides. Instead, we wandered around on our own and stopped to watch the excellent video about the building in the library’s theatre, which I would certainly recommend.

Following the NYPL, we headed over to Grand Central Terminal for a guided tour led by a docent from the Municipal Art Society of NYC. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable. She took us into different areas of the building while telling us about the history of the Vanderbilt family, the Biltmore Hotel, the decline of the terminal and Jackie O’s part in saving the landmark. Despite tired feet, the tour was incredibly interesting and worth it.

We took advantage of MoMA’s Free Friday Night sponsored by UNIQLO (if you’re tight on money, you can save a lot by hitting up most of the museums on evenings where entry is complimentary; check out their websites for information). Arriving shortly after 4 P.M., one of the museum staff members told us that the wait to get inside could be up to an hour and a half, but we stuck it out. Thankfully, construction scaffolding shielded us from the rain the majority of the time we were outside, and it really only took about 30 minutes for us to make it around the block and through the doors. That gave us about three full hours to view the top five floors, which we were able to do. Although it was packed in some of the galleries, it actually wasn’t too bad. We even managed to find bench seating every so often when we felt like taking a breather. Some of the rooms even emptied out enough to allow us more time and space to soak in the art.

Our day finished off at Terminal 5, a nightclub turned live music venue, where we saw The NBHD and Bad Suns. It’s a neat venue with three levels, but its sight lines aren’t the best if you’re not one of the people who gets a spot leaning against the railings.

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Nourishment: Cipriani Le Specialità

I wasn’t feeling all that well during the Grand Central Terminal tour, which I chalked up to hunger. Therefore, as soon as we finished there, we sought out a place to eat. The food court in the lower level was way too warm, so we went outside for some fresh air. Along the way, we came across Cipriani Le Specialità. It’s part of the Cipriani group of restaurants, but it’s a teeny little fast service eatery with a handful of tables where you can either eat-in or takeaway. The day’s feature steak and pasta was actually perfect for a quick meal and I felt much better afterwards.

Steak and pasta for lunch at Cipriani La

Steak and pasta for lunch at Cipriani Le Specialità

DAY 4

Attractions: Shopping at Century 21, New Yorker Festival

Original plans for the day had included a Watson Adventures High Line scavenger hunt. However, the company decided to cancel the event the day before due to the dismal weather. That left us with a fairly wide open schedule. This was the only day that we slept in at all. Thankfully, there was no noise from construction on the Saturday.

A subway performer packing up her things

A subway performer packing up her things

Once we finished lunch at Time Warner Center, we took the subway over to the Century 21 department store by Lincoln Center, which we had passed by a couple days earlier. It was not my intention to do any shopping during this particular trip, but entering Century 21 quashed that notion. I walked away with a few things, all useful to me, and a bill that indicated savings of over $350. That’s my attempt to look at my receipt with a glass half full.

A dancer practicing his moves

A dancer practicing his moves

Later in the evening, we went to a New Yorker Festival talk between Lauren Collins and Ellie Kemper. I had to pick up my tickets from will call and then we joined a very long line up. As it turns out, the line up was really for the Patti Smith event in the same venue, but none of the staff pointed that out to anyone. When we finally got to the front of the line, we were turned away and asked to wait outside until they started seating for Ellie Kemper. It still worked out though. If that hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t have spotted Damian Lewis of Homeland fame leaving from his talk, and the ticket taker made sure that those who were already at the door for Ellie Kemper were the first to enter. We ended up getting seats right in front of the stage. Ellie Kemper is absolutely hilarious and charming. It was great to end the night with some laughs.

Nourishment: Landmarc at Time Warner Center, Bouchon Bakery, Mira Sushi & Izakaya

As luck would have it, the cousin I stayed in NYC with back in 2009 was in town for a few days. He treated us to a wonderful lunch at Landmarc. We left the decisions to him and were met with delicious appetizers of fois gras terrine, fried calamari, and roasted marrow bones along with shared mains of certified black angus marinated skirt steak with chimichurri sauce and chicken sausage cavatelli. He always has the best suggestions when it comes to food.

Before we parted ways, he took us next door to Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery where we split a lemon tart and chocolate cheesecake between the three of us. As great as both were, the density of the second dessert really pushed us over the limit for lunch.

Dinner before the Ellie Kemper talk was had at Mira Sushi & Izakaya in the Chelsea neighbourhood. The restaurant was busy, but not entirely full when we arrived. However, we did make a reservation (on OpenTable) as did others. The Yuzu Lychee Sangria was a little pricey, but they didn’t skimp on the alcohol, ensuring that it wasn’t overly sweet. For our meal, we both ordered the salmon sampler set. The fish was fresh and the rice was perfectly prepared for the sushi. The spicy salmon roll was so tasty, but didn’t quite have the heat that we expected. What really made this supper memorable was the dessert. We shared a matcha green tea brownie s’more and it was heavenly.

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DAY 5

Attractions: The Cloisters, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Rockefeller Center, Hand to God

The morning didn’t go as smoothly as we hoped. The train that Google told us to take ended up being only an express train on the Sunday, so we had to switch lines part way there. The last stop was further removed from The Cloisters and we stopped to ask a tailor for directions.

We eventually made it to Fort Tyron Park, which seemed to have been taken over by a medieval festival. Rather than join the crowd, we bypassed it and followed the signs to The Cloisters building, eventually finding the entrance.

The museum is filled with medieval European art, including the famous Unicorn Tapestries donated by John D. Rockefeller Jr. We almost missed seeing them as we took a staircase down to the lower level of the building and ended up looping past the room all together. But, I made sure that we went back into the galleries before we departed. The gardens are also beautiful and tranquil. I’m not sure how busy The Cloisters is on a regular day, but it was clear that the festival taking place outside brought in more than usual.

When we were done at The Cloisters, we caught a bus (the coldest bus we’ve ever been on) down to the Cooper Hewitt museum. With exhibits that cover historical and contemporary design, there were some unique pieces on display. What I loved the most about the museum is the digital pen that you’re given for use during your visit. If you see something you like, you can press the pen up to the symbol on the summary cards and it saves it to a URL that is specific to your entry ticket. It gives you a chance to look back at what you saw and takes less effort to document the things that capture your eye.

Prior to our evening performance of Hand to God, we made a quick trip to Rockefeller Center to see if we could obtain a Dwight bobblehead doll from the NBC Experience Store. To our dismay, it was already closed for the evening (silly, considering all the tourists milling about at 6 P.M. on the weekend).

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Since that was a bust, we started walking towards Broadway in search of food. As soon as we finished eating, we met up with the TodayTix staff member who hand delivered the tickets that we ordered using the app. Hand to God, showing at the Booth Theatre is a new American play about an awkward teenager whose sock puppet seems to come to life, bringing to light the many issues that surround him and those closest to him. It was sad, funny and, as our shows often leaned, inappropriate. Hand to God will remain in NYC until January when it moves to London.

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Nourishment: Carve Unique Sandwiches & Pizza, Shake Shack

Food was kind of low on our list this day, so we were starving by the time we got close to Times Square. We tided ourselves over with slices of pizza from Carve. The thin-crust spinach and ricotta pizza was delicious and it hit the spot before the play.

Spinach and ricotta pizza from Carve

Spinach and ricotta pizza from Carve

Another night, another stop at Shake Shack before bed. I stuck to my tried and true chicken dog, but added a draught root beer (to be honest, the drink was nothing special). My friend got the ShackMeister Dog™. Again, I was slightly envious that I went the healthier route once more.

DAY 6

Attractions: 9/11 Museum & Memorial, The High Line, Bowery Ballroom

The day started with a somber visit to the 9/11 Museum and Memorial. When I was in NYC less than two years ago, the museum wasn’t complete yet. Now that it’s open, I thought it was important to see it, and while I still believe that to be the case, it is a tough one to get through. The exhibits have been carefully curated and are thoughtful despite the subject matter. I cried a lot. The museum covers one of the worst days in recent history and as a remembrance of the event and the people who were lost, it feels like a necessary reminder.

What I love about NYC is that there’s always something “new” to do. For me, this was the High Line park. We managed to fit this in on our last full day in the city. Unbeknownst to me, the park (phase one) was established as far back as 2009, but until this year, I hadn’t heard of it. Created from a disused elevated railway, the tracks from 34th Street and 11th Avenue all the way down to Gansevoort Street have now been transformed into a gathering place for citizens and tourists to enjoy the beautiful views of Manhattan’s west side. We spent a couple of hours spotting the public art, large murals and graffiti tags along the route. We people watched, stopped to watch bees pollinate flowers and saw the sun setting over the water.

Our final evening was spent at the Bowery Ballroom where we saw Geographer and Stars perform. Both were excellent. I walked in as a fan of Stars and left loving Geographer just as much. The Bowery Presents runs Terminal 5 and the Bowery Ballroom, and it may come down to the performer each evening, but I have to say that the Bowery Ballroom felt like a better fit for us. The venue was much smaller (a capacity of less than 600 versus 3,000 at Terminal 5) with just two stories and better sight lines. The crowd was closer in age to us and everyone seemed to be respectful of personal space. My only suggestion is that they add a bit more seating to the venue.

Nourishment: Bouley, KULU Desserts

When we met with my cousin for lunch on the weekend, he mentioned dinner with his colleagues that same evening at a restaurant called Bouley. He was lamenting the fact that he was in store for a 6-course tasting menu just two hours after eating with us. We couldn’t help him, but we were certainly intrigued, so we looked into Bouley later that night. What we found was the lunch tasting menu, which is an absolute steal at $55 for 5 courses compared to the $185 for the 6-course dinner. Once we found that, we immediately decided to book a table.

We were forewarned that Bouley, located in Tribeca, was more upscale, so we knew we had to dress up a little. I still felt slightly out of place (I packed appropriately to fit in with the Manhattanites, but not so well that I looked like I belonged in a fancy schmancy restaurant like Bouley). However, all of the staff we came into contact with were extremely friendly and accommodating. They made us feel like we were their best patrons. The food wasn’t too shabby either. Every dish I had was fabulous. Even the ones that seemed simple to execute surpassed my expectations.

On the way out of Bouley, the hostess grabbed our jackets for us and then promptly handed us a couple of gift bags. I heard her say something about lemon tea. As it turns out, the bag had a pamphlet about chef David Bouley’s empire and an entire loaf of lemon tea cake. I carried that cake around for the rest of the day because I really appreciated the extra thought that Bouley put into their diner’s experience.

Our dinner that evening wasn’t exactly a real meal. I had purchased a Groupon ahead of the trip for a place called KULU Desserts. The reason why I really wanted to try this place is because they make Asian fusion desserts like ones that I ate in Hong Kong and Singapore from Honeymoon Dessert. Talk about dessert ruining your appetite for supper. $20 worth of food was more than enough to fill the two of us up. We shared the Mango Pomelo, Black Sesame Paste, Matcha Sawdust Pudding and a Papaya Smoothie. Everything was great, but I’d definitely go back for the Mango Pomelo bowl.

Our dessert dinner at KULU

Our dessert dinner at KULU

DAY 7

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Nourishment: Zengo

Day 7 of our trip was pretty short. We made a quick, last-minute jaunt to the Library Shop at the NYPL Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, so my friend and I could pick up some gifts before we left. A bit of time was also spent circling the neighbourhood around our hotel because the restaurant we had our eye on didn’t open until 11:30 A.M.

Zengo, a Latin-Asian fusion eatery from chef Richard Sandoval, sat on the corner across from our hotel, so it was the perfect place to relax over a nice meal before we began our journey home. For a little while, we were literally the only people in the restaurant, so the service was excellent. The place did fill up quickly at around noon though, so it’s good to know it’s well frequented.

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I thoroughly enjoyed my bento box, which consisted of the Angry Zengo Roll (spicy tuna), grilled skirt steak, wok vegetables, green papaya salad (not my favourite due to the addition of cilantro) and jasmine rice.

The deconstructed key lime pie was the perfect finish to lunch and, in a way, a good visual of what our vacation was. A mishmash of various flavours and textures that, when brought together, created magic.