EMPIRE STATE OF MIND
Exploring the Big Apple
W hile New York City is made up of five boroughs, I had a chance to keenly explore Manhattan and Brooklyn on my five-day jaunt here. Landing into JFK International Airport, we made our way to Lotte New York Palace (read the review on page 20), a hotel in midtown Manhattan. Security seemed heightened as there was a “very important diplomatic guest” at the property, however hotel staff refused to reveal who it was.
My escalating excitement from being in this city was rewarded when I checked into my room on the 52nd floor and drew open the curtains. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a decorated Neo-Gothicstyle Roman Catholic cathedral church, alongside towering high-rises filled my vision.
When we speak about the high-rises in New York, One World Trade Center — the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere — deserves a special mention. Completed in 2013 to fill the void left behind by the fallen towers after the 9/11 attack, it depicts the rising spirit of relentless hope with its unique triangular shape. A visit to its observatory on the top floor is highly recommended to understand the geography of the city — perhaps a good way to start your trip. The 360-degree glass viewing chamber offers exceptional views of the city’s various islands, bridges, boroughs and skyscrapers.
Next morning, jet lagged and operating as per Indian time, I was up rather early. Stepping out for a casual stroll around the area, I walked around St. Patrick’s Cathedral, snapping the surrounding skyscrapers. And quite unexpectedly, within minutes I stumbled upon the Rockefeller Center. The large complex spread across 22 acres looked glorious with its latest art installation. It was a 45 feet inflatable nylon sculpture of a seated ballerina that looked delicately daunting as it towered above Prometheus, a bronze sculpture and permanent fixture that adorns the Rockefeller Center. The ballerina is the creation of Jef Koons, an American artist known for his vivid interpretations of popular culture objects.
The Rockefeller Center, I was told, comes alive in the winters when it converts its courtyard into an ice-skating rink. If you’re here around lunch, you could visit Sea Grill (open Monday-Saturday 11:30am10pm; patinagroup.com/the-sea-grill), known for its exemplary seafood preparations that we tasted later one afternoon. Whether it’s corporate soirees or celebratory family luncheons, Sea Grill has over the years acquired a reputation of being an insider’s haunt in New York City.
After a brief escapade with the city’s foremost borough, it was time to explore New York City’s unconventional district — Brooklyn. From Grand Central Station we alighted a train to the neighbourhood of Williamsburg. The vibe of this hipster neighbourhood is certainly vivacious. Walking through the streets of Williamsburg, expect to come across avant-garde vintage fashion stores, offbeat coffee shops and walls sprayed with evocative wall art that touches on world affairs to social issues. Since it was raining, we spent a few hours surfing through an indoor flea market called Artists and Fleas, which takes place on weekends (open 10am-7pm) at this Williamsburg outpost. It provides a platform to creative entrepreneurs to showcase their unique offerings from antiques, handmade jewellery, natural soaps to essential oils. Brooklyn is known for many such entrepreneurial enterprises that specialise in artisanal products ranging from wine to chocolate.
Our agenda, however, was to dive into the borough’s dynamic food scene, and so, our final destination was the outdoor food market of Smorgasburg (open weekends 11am-6pm, AprilOctober). From spaghetti doughnuts at Pop Pasta
(poppasta.com) to churro ice-cream sandwiches at Dulcinea Churros (dulcineanyc.com), this bustling bazaar brings together some of the most innovative vendors from all over America. I enjoyed a very spicy (on request) burrito from Burrito Juarez
(facebook.com/burritojuareznyc) and a strawberry and basil popsicle from this little ice cream stall called People’s Pops (peoplespops.com). It is best to visit here with a group of friends, pick up a number of eatables and share them on the benches that overlook a striking view of lower Manhattan across the East River.
While you’re in the area, don’t miss the quintessential chocolatiers of Brooklyn — Mast Brothers (open daily 9am-8pm, mastbrothers.com). In 2007 when this borough saw a sharp upward trend in its artisanal chocolate scene, Rick and Michael Mast recognised the opportunity and selfstudied the art of “bean-to-bar” chocolate-making. The Brooklyn-based artisanal chocolatiers soon received global acclamation for their beautifully packaged single-origin bars (pictured below) made
from the likes of Tasmanian and Peruvian beans. The brothers have since opened outlets in Los Angeles and London, and have a retail presence at speciality food shops around the world. Being in their very minimal Williamsburg “chocolate-factory” definitely brought out the “Charlie” (from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) in me as we understood the nuances of the complex “bean-tobar” process, and sampled many pieces.
Fortunately, the rain had stopped by the time we departed for and reached Brooklyn Botanic Garden (open 8am-6pm Tuesday-Friday, from 10am Saturday-Sunday; bbg.org) for a tryst with nature. I quite enjoyed the serene walk through Shakespeare Garden. If you’re a fan of William Shakespeare, you may have fun identifying the 80 plants written about in his poems and plays. Brooklyn Botanic Garden also houses a Cherry Esplanade that comes alive with delicate cherry blossoms during Sakura Matsuri, its annual cherry blossom festival at the end of April.
Later that night, though I was still dealing with some serious jet lag, I managed to sleep quite early — only to find myself wide awake at 4am. Walking around aimlessly on the streets at this time can be a unique experience. I was surprised at an evident peak in energy when I arrived at Times Square. It was still abuzz with tourists and food vendors, even at that hour. It is the most obvious sightseeing destination of the city, and I love this place for its unparalleled vibe. Horses ridden by NYPD officers trotted around, as nocturnal folks indulged in the variety of signature NYC food options including doner kebabs, falafels, hot dogs, Greek gyros, and halal chicken and rice. Check out The Halal Guys (thehalalguys.com) that stand on Theatre District in Sixth Avenue, but be prepared for long lines and flavours that are quite fiery for international standards.
The next day was dedicated to exploring two other fascinating neighbourhoods of Manhattan — Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. Our jaunt began at Chelsea Market (open daily 7am9pm) that’s situated at the former National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) factory complex — the birthplace of the Oreo cookie. It bears a rustic yet contemporary feel with its bare walls and bright lighting. From once being a biscuit factory to an urban market today, the place has evolved into an indoor oasis housing a number of independent restaurants, cafes, fashion outlets and confectionery shops. These are what make Chelsea Market one of New York City’s hippest places to spend an interesting few hours at.
We tasted the best of this market on a threehour food tour operated by Foods of NY Tours
(foodsofnytours.com). Cindy, theatre actor turned tour guide, deserves an applause for uplifting our spirits with her excellent wit through the experience. Our food tour began with scrumptious fried Oreo pancakes with Ronnybrook’s (a dairy farm in New York) whipped cream from Creamline
(creamlinenyc.com). It is known for its classic American fare made from locally sourced ingredients. Next on the list was Tuck Shop’s (tuckshopnyc.com) kale salad with Australian beef pie — a highly recommended dish for its incredible textures and flavours. At Cappone’s Salumeria (capponesnyc.com), I called for seconds of the mortadella sandwich — an exquisite taste of Italy in NYC.
Our next stop was High Line Park (thehighline.org), an elevated park built on a section of a disused New
York Central Railroad line in the Meatpacking District. Walking through the park, Cindy pointed out to the very spot the Titanic was supposed to dock on the Husdon River and continued to elaborate on the area’s dramatic history. During the 1900’s, this district was inhabited by over 250 flourishing slaughterhouses and meatpackers. Businesses saw an eventual downfall, converting the area into a hub for illegal activities, thereby tarnishing its reputation. The face of the Meatpacking District changed in the late 1990s, when visionary designers such as Diane von Fürstenberg, Christian Louboutin, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney opened high-end boutiques here. This latest hipster hotspot also saw an upsurge in restaurants and nightclubs, eventually transforming the area into one of New York’s most fashionable districts.
Later that evening we experienced another facet of New York City — Broadway. It was overwhelming to watch Phantom of the Opera — especially since the production celebrates 30 years of Broadway this year. Another interesting theatre performance I enjoyed here was Shakespeare in the Park. It’s not Broadway and takes place between May and August at the open-air theatre in Central Park called Delacorte Theater (publictheater.org). While it was Julius Caesar that I signed up to watch, I didn’t expect what actually came my way. It was a contemporary version of the Shakespearean play that depicted the current political affairs in the United States. The president of America was “Julius Caesar”, making this play a very controversial happening in New York. Although the performance was disrupted twice by republican protestors, the NYPD ensured that the show must go on. ■
Left and right: the skyline of New York City; and One World Trade Center
Left to right: sushi spider roll at Sea Grill; Mast chocolate; the Smorgasburg food market; and Times Sqaure
Top to bottom: Creamline; Chelsea Market; and High Line Park