Monday, August 11, 2014

Vacation (The Sequel)

End of summer blues: posting an old 2011 piece on New York. Part one is here; the sequel is as follows:

My forays into New York aren't always about eating, and aren't always about film; sometimes I just want to re-visit locations that for me define the city, or at least define some of the most memorable ways man has put stone and steel to use. 

Take Grand Central Terminal, shown below:
The soaring ceiling, once looked overgrown with dark moss, is now a bright green, thanks to an extensive restoration job; the at one time dull-brass stars are now gleaming constellations (a little hi-tech help from LED bulbs)--you think of gold coins glittering from the bottom of an upturned aquarium. The brass four-faced clock perched atop the center ticketing booth, the sunlight streaming down from barred cathedral windows--this Church to the Railway Gods with its unceasing buzz (it houses forty-four platforms connected to sixty-seven tracks, the largest train station in the world) is a drama few filmmakers can resist shooting (it's one of the most common images of the city on film). Not everyone has managed to justify their use of it, though; some of the most memorable include Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King (which magically transformed Grand Central into a grand ballroom full of waltzing commuters) and maybe Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way (which turned the terminal's escalators and tunnels into playground setting for a deadly game of tag).

Sometimes I feel like something quieter:

The Cloisters in upper Manhattan seem like another world--you step out of the subway station, see a playground across the street, climb stone steps, find yourself in Fort Tryon Park. You take winding paths past flower beds and giant trees (surrounding rocky fort battlements with breathtaking views) to the highest elevation in the island, and finally to a monastic castle in part assembled from pieces of actual castles and monasteries, brought to the country stone by ancient stone. 

The museum has an extensive collection of Medieval art and crafts including intricate silver and gold pieces (a gold-plated salt cellar, an early silver-and-rock-crystal fork with an uncomfortable resemblance to a dagger); it has a garden planted and laid out exactly as in a monastery, with plenty of herbs and medicinal plants (monks were a practical people who expected long periods of isolation, if not outright siege); it has beautiful examples of stained glass (including grisaille and bright-colored windows, some of which contain unforgettably vivid shades of deep yellow); and playing cards, oblong shaped and intricately drawn and colored (reminding me of Tarot cards--and why not? One's fate or fortune, decided by a draw from the pack).

Some of the most memorable sights uptown aren't found inside The Cloisters, but here:

A view of the Hudson River and George Washington Bridge from Fort Tryon Park. I doubt if all the vegetation or forest is native to the area, but you do get some sense of what the island must have looked like before the settlers took over.

And sometimes the fascination doesn't involve an entire castle or river or park; sometimes it can be a detail as small as a subway sign--
--complete with Braille dots and mounted for some reason on cork. Possibly one of the oldest in the city? Possibly.

Calling Katz Deli an institution doesn't help, does it? Even if Katz is a repository of New York Jewish foodcraft and artifacts, it's hardly a museum--not when people throng inside actively interacting with and consuming said artifacts.

I've tried other delis; love the fatty tenderness of New York pastrami, the richness of their chopped liver. It's just that Katz's hand-slices the pastrami (meaning the meat is just that much thicker yet oh-so-tender, and the outside crust of peppercorns crumbles and falls between the slices), and the chopped liver has...something (Liver? Boiled egg? Schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat? A combination of the three?)...mixed into it that makes it that much sweeter. A varied plate of pickles, a bottle of Dr. Brown's Celery Tonic (the vegetable-y soda offsets the taste of deli flesh), a slice of cheesecake (thick and creamy and faintly flavored of vanilla) and yes, I can die a happy, happy man. 

And, yes, sometimes it isn't bad to spend a little money. We called M. Wells Diner, one of the hottest new restaurants in New York for a reservation.

"Ten o'clock?"

"It's the only one available."

"In the evening?"

"We'll call you back if anyone cancels."

In retrospect, I suppose we were lucky to get a reservation that same day. I remember listening to one man--he'd just finished dinner and was talking to the hostess--make a reservation for four in October. 

At around 9.30 we took the 7 train, stepped out at Hunter's Point, looked around--and we were there. An old building offered steak and seafood, all shuttered up, and right beside it was this tiny diner car, all gleaming stainless steel. Pushed in the diner doors and were told we were too early. 

So we sat outside, and waited. And waited. Ordered a lemonade, sipped it. Waited some more. Ten on the dot we stepped back inside, and no, the table still wasn't ready, so we waited at the entrance. 

Mind you, that's just the time aspect, which felt infinite; I haven't even begun mentioning space, which was anything but. The diner was tiny, about the size of a sardine can if you took out all the sardines. The booths were jammed with customers, the counter seats stuffed with customers; the only appreciable free space was behind the counter, and with all the waiters and cooks and hot appliances bubbling and hissing and running about I doubt if our presence would be appreciated there either. I wondered stupidly: why don't they move into the building next door if  they were so crowded? Knock out a wall, connect the two spaces, voila! Instant gratification. Wouldn't be the same, I suppose. A critic suggested the whole thing was 'performance art,' and I wouldn't be surprised; all that's missing is a gang of young actors hanging in a unisex restroom, lighting it up and talking about their next gig... 

We were finally seated, some half an hour later--and here I might as well present a bit of history and philosophy: M. Wells is the brainchild of Sarah Obraitis and her husband Hugue Dufour, formerly of the famed Au Pied de Cochon, in Montreal. Dufour cooks and decorates his little eatery according to the principles of what you might call 'casual minimalist.' Just click on his website above: all you get is a photo featuring their name, their hours, phone number, address, email address, and not much more.

Note that they're open for brunch, but not weekends; according to one article, they don't have the facilities to serve the 200 diners weekend service would involve. Ballsy statement, assuming two hundred people would want to come on a weekend to what looks like an industrial neighborhood, all shut warehouses and not much else beyond the Long Island Expressway roaring nearby.  That said, with this much crowd sitting and waiting to sit, you tend to believe them.

The menu was divided into small plates, big plates; we ordered four small, three big. The tomato tart was fresh tomatoes on nutty cheese on crackling crust--a perfect little pizza, only tastier. The Russian breakfast was blinis--crepelike pancakes--with caviar, creme fraiche, smoked sturgeon, simple and fresh. The lobster roll was chunks of lobster  in a perfectly toasted roll (the textures--chew of lobster, creaminess of brown butter (with a hit of tarragon), crispness of bread--played like a light melody on the tongue). The escargot and bone marrow with shallots and red wine puree, served on half of a shank bone, was a spectacle to both eye and mouth: toothsome mollusks in the richest meat butter in the world, substance and style in every bite. 

Big plates were exactly as advertised, really big food served in what I can only describe as ceramic tubs. This included roasted mackerel with fried gnocchi and ratatouille--not the little fish they stuff into cans; we had a huge slab of smoky fish draped into and barely fitting the little bathtub with firm, flaky flesh, the texture nicely offset by crisped gnocchi, the flavor by earthy vegetables. 

The saddle of lamb with tahini and pomegranate molasses (what on earth is a 'saddle?' The pelvis?) is amazing--each slice has a different texture and flavor, from dark, smoky crust to sweet and juicy pink to tender chewy translucent tendon. It's like the roast transforms with every tap of the knife, the trick performed against a backdrop of slightly bitter tahini (say the main ingredient aloud, and the cavern opens into a subterranean wonderland) and tangy-sweet molasses (for contrast, and Middle Eastern flair).

Then there's the BibiM Wells, their version of the classic Korean bibimbap. The bibimbap I ate in Jeonju was Korean comfort food, sliced-and-diced vegetables and shredded beef over broth-flavored rice, with a fried egg on top for richness. This version was a seafood bounty: razor clams, scallops, gravlax, accompanied by julienned vegetables and fried yam chips that I kept mistaking for crisped bacon (I was thinking all the while that it was an odd if welcome touch, the addition of pork to the dish), all over fluffy steamed rice. Instead of fried egg for richness, foie gras; to tie it all together is the mildly spicy sweetness of a maple chili sauce.

"How is it?" the waitress asked.

"This shouldn't work," I said. "Gravlax, clams, scallops and foie gras? It's crazy. It should never work. But it does."

The waitress didn't seem pleased. Maybe I was babbling; maybe I came across as thoroughly pissed. I meant well.

I suggested dessert, but everyone was stuffed; they wouldn't hear of it. I pointed out that the blueberry pie behind us, doing a good imitation of a manhole-sized disc of cracked asphalt, was constantly shrinking as waitress after waitress hacked off hunks for customers. C. replied that all he wanted was to get up and walk a little or he would burst, literally. I suggested the maple pie, or how about the Paris-Brest, "a kind of funnel cake?"  Everyone groaned in protest.

"Do waitresses get paid a lot?" La. asked.

"No, but add the tips and it's a decent wage. Why?"

"Because I'd like to work here someday."

Postscript: according to recent articles, M. Wells Diner will be closing down at the end of this month. Two thoughts come to my mind with the new: first, we were lucky to actually eat there, and second: that guy who made reservations for four in October--what's he going to do now?


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