The Empire State Building, Viewed from The High Line in Chelsea.
It was time for a change of venue, so we made our way to New York City last weekend for a little rest and relaxation, which for us means experiencing the bustle of the place, looking at things and people (many of whom, frankly, appear on the verge of choosing between the Scylla and Charybdis of self-destruction or madness), but most of all, culinary adventures without peer. New York, like Paris, is a place to stroll, because there is no better way to experience the city even in this bitter cold. We won’t recount the entire weekend — just a handful of noteworthy highlights.
We stayed in Midtown, and while there it’s impossible to escape the overarching presence of the iconic Empire State Building. We love how it’s massive without being imposing, though it is a wee bit self-important. The title of this post borrows from a line in a movie, that enduring love story that Hollywood saw fit to make three times — the first, Love Affair in 1939, with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, the second, An Affair to Remember in 1957, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, and again in 1994, again called Love Affair, with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. The first two are nearly identical, having been made by the same director (Leo McCarey) using the same script; the last took some liberties). At the end of the film an infirm Terry McKay is reconciling with her paramour, Michel (in the first movie) Nickie (in the second) Mike (in the third), who thought he had been spurned when she failed to appear for a long-planned rendezvous at the top of the Empire State Building, but she was struck by a car just outside of the building and left a cripple. ”It was the nearest thing to heaven, and you were there,” she said.
It’s hard to think of all the movies that building has figured in as star, plot point or background, or obliterated in any number of science fiction movies by less sentimental aliens. Such a perfect expression of Jazz age optimism and brio is definitely something to be proud of, and as cultural icons go, there is no better. We spent most of the weekend in its shadow, so a trip to the top seemed inevitable.
We had just two night and two days, and packed in just enough to keep things interesting. Arriving at noon on Friday, after a lunch at a Thai restaurant on 34th Street we decided to spend the afternoon at the Morgan Library and Museum on Madison Avenue.
Even though its one of the smaller museums in New York (and we love the smaller ones, as opposed to the monumental Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art), you can take it all in in a single afternoon; the holdings of MoMA and the Met are just too vast and require repeat visits. Feeling a tiny bit under the weather with a lingering cold, it was the perfect pace for a wintry afternoon.
The museum rests on the bones of John Pierpont Morgan’s palatial brownstone, which had been built in 1852/53 by the Phelps Dodge family, who derived their fortune from mining. There were three adjacent houses on Madison Avenue purchased by Morgan over the years — his house, acquired in 1881; the neighboring house in 1903, which was demolished to make way for a garden, and the northernmost house, which he acquired for his son in 1904; that house survives; after an interlude of ownership by the Lutheran Church, it was acquired by The Morgan in 1988 and incorporated into the complex. Morgan’s personal residence was demolished in 1928 to make way for the Annex, which was necessary for furthering the mission of the museum. The complex has been constantly added to and is now unified by the Italian Renaissance inspired but thoroughly modern addition designed by Renzo Piano in 2006.
The heart of the complex, is, of course, the library wing that was completed in 1906. Designed by Charles McKim of the firm McKim, Mead & White in a Renaissance Revival style, it is what every bibliophile lusts for: an expansive, bright space with three tiers of bookshelves constructed of Circassian Walnut. Access to the upper levels is through a staircase hidden behind a bookshelf (its a bit fun to try to find it), with sumptuous murals gracing the ceiling. On the other end of the addition is Mr Morgan’s enormous study, where in 1907 he famously summoned all the bankers in New York and locked the doors until a solution was found to end a banking crisis. His command of the situation horrified many (so much power concentrated in the hand of a single person), and resulted, ultimately, in the founding of the Federal Reserve. Besides being a banker, one forgets that after buying out Andrew Carnegie in 1901, he controlled the U.S. Steel Corporation, which was at the time the largest corporate enterprise in the world and it controlled half of the United States’ steel making capacity.
Morgan Library by Graham Haber c. Morgan Library.
The institution’s primary mission is to preserve, interpret and grow Mr Morgan’s astounding collection. On his death in 1913, he left the disposition of his estate to his son Jack, and many works of art were scattered among numerous institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum (Morgan had been a trustee since 1888 and its president from 1904 until his death), the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. His holdings were vast — paintings, drawings, armor, sculpture, you name it. He spent $60 million on art, which is about $900 million in today’s dollars. Henry Clay Frick purchased several items that are now part of The Frick Collection. The bulk of his smaller scale works — books, cylinder seals, illuminated manuscripts, landmarks of printing (they have three Gutenberg bibles), and autographs, in the sense of an author’s written manuscript. We saw, for example, Oscar Wilde’s handwritten manuscript of his only published novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray in an exhibit exploring Edgar Allan Poe called Terror of the Soul, which just closed. It was his son Jack’s decision to create and endow the library as a public institution and open the collection to public study and enjoyment.
Dinner that night was contemporary Mexican at a place called Pompano. It was a bit incongruous to be in tropical decor with the temperature seven degrees outside, yet strangely appropriate to see a brightly lit Christmas Tree on the terrace outside of the second floor dining room. We started with the most amazing ceviches, followed by braised roast pork and black sea bass. New York has so many fabulous restaurants its difficult to go wrong.
Pompano, 209 East 49th Street, New York, New York (212) 751.4545
Saturday we decided to try something completely different and spend some time in Brooklyn. But first, breakfast — several online guides pointed to a hole-in-the-wall a couple of blocks away, and this place fits that description in spades. The restaurant is all of 12 feet wide, one long counter with a dozen stools and two small tables in the back. In the back it appeared there was another room with a range in it. The view is the short-order cooks hard at work, producing the usual diner favorites. This being breakfast, we settled on a Western Omelette and a “Lumberjack Special”, which included three pancakes the size of dinner plates, bacon and eggs. Clean, quick, efficient – perfect.
Johny’s Grill and Luncheonette, 124 W. 25th Street, New York, New York (212) 243.6230
The Great Hall in The Brooklyn Museum.
From there, we were headed to Brooklyn to visit the Brooklyn Flea Market, but happened onto an indoor flea market right thee on 24th Street, spent a few minutes there, then amid a dusting of snowflakes made our way to the train then over the East River to the Williamsburg neighborhood. A visit to Brooklyn calls for a visit to see the world-class collection of Egyptian antiquities at the Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn is fascinating, with its Hasaidic Jewish residents brushing up against its modern-day hipsters. Brooklyn was an independent city for its first 250 years, joining the other boroughs to form the city of New York in 1898.
Colicchio & Sons.
Fast-track to the end: our last morning after checking out of our hotel and depositing our bags at Penn Station, we made our way to Chelsea and visited the Chelsea Market, a lively indoor space right across from our destination, Colicchio & Sons. We were a bit early, so we took a stroll on mile-long High Line, a re-purposed rail line spur now tricked out as a park – sort of like “rails to trails,” but in the city. This “horizontal park” was designed by the celebrated plantsman Piet Oudolf. Many more hands were involved in its design, of course, with benches, platforms, lawns, places to gather, and places to eat. And many more hands are needed to maintain it, and that work is done largely by volunteers; Oudolf’s designs typically include numerous perennials in need of dividing and renewal. There’s nothing like it, anywhere.
So we settled in for a leisurely lunch, starting with a Beef Tartare with a Smoked Egg Vinaigarette and Baguette Toasts and a Butter Lettuce Salad with Radishes, Blue Cheese and a Buttermilk Dressing, accompanied by Bloody Marys. The Tartare was perfectly seasoned and the salad surprisingly refreshing. The main was Prawns with Fried Green Tomatoes and Pork Belly (pictured) and a Niman Ranch Pork Chop with Escarole, Piquillo Peppers and Pickled Chili Jus. We selected a spectacular Riesling from the New York Finger Lakes, Hermann J. Weimer Magdalena Vineyard 2011. Weimer’s Magdalena Vineyard is reputably one of the warmest mesoclimates in the Finger Lakes, on Lake Seneca. The citrus and apple perfectly complemented everything. And for dessert, Lemon Thyme Glazed Donuts and a trio of ice creams, including malted milk. Totally yummy.
Colicchio & Sons, 85 10th Avenue, New York, New York (212) 400.6699
We had a bit of time to kill so we decided to go to the top of the Empire State Building. Neither of us had been since childhood. Since it isn’t the high tourist season, we figured it wouldn’t bee too crowded — and mercifully it wasn’t, though getting up there is quite the production through the exhibits, videos, photo opportunities, and gift shops. We hadn’t been since childhood, so why not? Bloody expensive, but well worth it for the unparalleled views. Unlike modern buildings that are built to sway with the wind and seismic forces, this one feels rock solid, like it will be there forever.