Optimistically Cautious

Friday, December 21, 2007

New York City: Day 6

Our last full day in New York began with our earliest wake up call, and a journey to the Lower East Side. We had to wander a bit first, through what had to be the very (seedy) edge of Chinatown, to finally reach the place I had in mind for breakfast: Clinton Street Baking Company, renowned for their pancakes.

At Clinton Street Baking Company

Demonstrating another instance of our good timing, we were able to snag a table as soon as we walked in, and a window seat nonetheless (the wait steadily grew to half an hour as our stay wore on). Clinton Street didn't have a brick wall (heh), but the bright lighting, bar stool counter, and cozy booths more than made up for that. Of course, like every other New York dining establishment, space was at a premium, so walkways were narrow and tablemates were close.

Dining interior

Enjoying that all-important first cup of coffee

Mack searches again for WiFi (notice the "Zagat Rated" stickers - they were everywhere in NY)

I just had to order the house specialty, while Mack was easily swayed by the combination of eggs and goat cheese and opted for the omelette. Our food arrived quickly (high table turnover is key in places like this), and we were both buoyed by the massive quantities of food we found in front of us.



My plate was nicely garnished with additional blueberries, to remind me of the fruit sandwiched in between my stack of pancakes. As for how they tasted, I am happy to report that Clinton Street deserves every bit of praise garnered for its pancakes - moist, fluffy, with just a hint of sweetness, they went well with the tart blueberries. The accompanying maple butter was a unique accent, but I actually would have preferred plain old maple syrup. Mack thoroughly enjoyed his omelette, which was served with hash browns, a side of toast and (very good) raspberry preserve.

Before departing, we asked the hostess to direct us to the nearest subway station, and to our surprise, she was able to provide us with a set of detailed instructions. En route, we passed by Katz's Delicatessen, site of Meg Ryan's faux-gasm in When Harry Met Sally (and home of arguably the best pastrami sandwiches in Manhattan). It was already pretty busy inside, even though it wasn't yet 11.

Katz's Deli

The first stop on our shopping blitz was Union Square. I was itching to check out their four times weekly greenmarket (Manhattan holds 27 greenmarkets, 11 of which operate year round). Obviously, we weren't planning on taking any produce home with us, but I was curious to see the variety of products represented. The standard winter vendors, offering apples, baked goods, honey, and plants, were present, as well as a British gentleman hawking a "miracle" vegetable peeler (like those more common at tradeshows).

Union Square greenmarket

After picking up a pound of pretzels for my sister, we wandered over to the adjacent Holiday Market to take a closer look at the merchandise. If I hadn't already finished my Christmas shopping by that time, the market would have been a great place to pick up gifts to suit every taste and lifestyle. From hats, scarves, clothing and jewelry, to handcrafts, toys and artwork, the market was much like a cooler, outdoor incarnation of Whyte Avenue. Next to Bryant Park, it was my favorite place in all of New York that we had visited. I bought a fairly pricey necklace, while Mack picked up a gift for his sister.

Shopping at Union Square

Before heading back uptown, we did stop by a few of the surrounding stores, including Whole Foods. The only grocery store we visited all week, I was really impressed by the selection and the number of tills available. A quick visit to DSW Shoes was sadly fruitless.

We spent the next few hours on Fifth Avenue, popping into a Lindt store (where there was absolutely no room to move around), Crate and Barrel (it's a really good thing we don't have this chain in Edmonton, otherwise, the amount of useless kitchen accessories I'd accumulate would be ridiculous), and of course, Tiffany's (they have 5 or 6 floors, and an "express" elevator to boot).

At Build-A-Bear, we joined a very long line so Mack could build a Friendosaur for his Mum. The whole idea of creating your own stuffed animal is so ingenious and so lucrative that while I wouldn't spend the money, I can see why many, many people do.

With the Build-A-Dino options

Mack stuffing the Dino

Creating its birth certificate

Meet Smarties the Triceratops! (you would never believe the amount of "awww" type comments Mack received from Smarties, so listen up boys - if you don't have a young child or a small dog, just bring along a stuffed toy to wow the ladies)

After returning to the hotel to drop off our purchases, we walked to what would be our last quintessential New York experience - skating in Central Park. Along the way, we picked up $2 hot dogs from a street vendor, and found them to be disappointingly pedestrian, only rating them a notch above Ikea's 50cent variety.

The Trump-operated Wollman Rink, featured in Serendipity, was beautiful. Situated in a valley of sorts, surrounded by aged trees and the majesty of gently lit skyscrapers, it epitomized the romance of New York City - an opportunity to appreciate nature (however man made) against the backdrop of bustle, structure and noise.

The Wollman Rink

That said, such an opportunity didn't come cheap - in Mack's words, "Trump cleaned us out." Admission and skate rentals totalled $34, while it was another $3.25 for a locker. At the end of the night, it worked out to nearly $20 per person for the hour. But like most things when travelling, money is a necessary conduit for priceless experiences.

In this case, my fear of skating caused that universal pit-in-your-stomach feeling, which only intensified as we waited for the Zamboni to finish its rounds. There were no cameras allowed on the ice (though you couldn't count the number of people defying that rule), so there isn't much proof of my eventual ability to "skate", but I did it, with the help of Mack's triple cocktail of encouragement, positive feedback, and distraction tactics.

Mack standing tall

Holding on for good measure

On the ice!

On our way to dinner, we took a few pictures of Central Park. It's a shame we didn't have the time to explore the space during the day, but if anything, I know I will make that a priority on a return trip in the future.

The view from Central Park

We had dinner that night at Gramercy Tavern, one of restaurateur Danny Meyer's eleven establishments, and a Chowhound favorite. Something (like the affinity of Chowhounders for prix fixe lunches, or their adoration for Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten) should have tipped me off to the fact that Gramercy = fine dining, but the entree prices in the Tavern fooled me. As such, we were quite under dressed and out-of-place in a restaurant equipped with a coat check, 18 foot ceilings, and a team of wait staff with differentiated duties. While Becco made us feel at home, at Gramercy we felt like awkward guests at an opulent dinner party.

That said - the service and food were excellent. Mack's Bacon-wrapped Trout was a great combination of savoury and supple, while my Stuffed Meatball was perfectly cooked - pink and oozing with velvety fontina. For dessert, we ordered the Chocolate Hazelnut Banana Tart and Earl Grey Creme Caramel. Mack's tart was the clear winner here, though the garnish of a fried pastry on my Creme Caramel (the name of which escapes me even today), reminded me of the ones my Mum used to make when I was young (realized in a moment not too far removed from that experienced by the food critic in Ratatouille).

Comfortably full, we returned to the hotel to pack, and (sob) prepare for the trip home.

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