Sunday, 29 October 2017

So good they named it twice

Anyone who knows me reasonably well will know that I don't like flying. Over the years I've grown to tolerate it though. Strangely, however, I was more excited than scared before our recent visit to New York. Partly due to excitement about our destination, partly because of the prospect of flying in a bigger and better aeroplane than I'd flown in before. For whatever reasons, there was far less dread than usual as we soared into the sky to head over the Atlantic on our way to the Big Apple.

Day 1

Seven hours later. Well, that wasn't so bad. A bit wibbly-wobbly due to strong winds on our final approach, and some pretty sharp braking once we'd touched down onto the runway, but on the whole the flight wasn't too unpleasant. Going through customs took a while but soon we were on the metro en route to our hotel. Upon arrival we checked in and made our way to our 20th floor room. Peering out of the window, the scale of New York started to hit me. Normally in a room so high up you'd be looking down on your surroundings, yet here the nearby buildings still dwarfed us. A quick wash and brush-up later and we were strolling down 7th Avenue to our dinner destination for the evening.

View from the room

7th Avenue by night

Virgil's Real Barbecue was recommended to us by a friend who'd visited a few years previously. Upon arrival and being shown to our table it was instantly appealing - the archetypal American diner with the well-stocked bar taking up one of the walls. As we'd been well-fed during our flight we didn't go for starters and only ordered a couple of mains and accompanying beers - of which my nitro stout was deliciously thick and creamy.

The black and blue burger looked great, nicely charred with a pink middle and generously coated with blue cheese. My Maryland crab cake was fantastic. Crunchy on the outside, soft and delicious in the middle with a lovely strong flavour of crab. This was served with a cornbread muffin, coleslaw and a choice of two sides. Of these I went for the mashed potato and gravy and the collard greens, and very nice they both were too. Service was bright and breezy and the whole experience was just great, and a brilliant start to our visit. Happily full we headed back to our hotel to sleep before our first full day.

Day 2

So, this is what jet lag is like. Though still tired from the day before I was wide awake at before 5AM and just not able to drop back to sleep. Ah well, it's not like there wasn't going to be anything to do today! A quick coffee for us and pancakes for James and it was back on the underground to the Staten Island Ferry. The bright but cold day allowed us great views of the Statue of Liberty on the ferry journey out and the immense Manhattan skyline on the way back.

No caption required

Manhattan skyline

Next up was a detour to see the incredible new World Trade Centre building (and a quick scoot round Century 21 for some bargain hunting) before grabbing a sushi lunch and heading back uptown. As we were still pretty pooped from the day before we spent a couple of hours in the afternoon snoozing (with a beer break in the middle) to make sure we were fresh for our evening at the basketball. We were off to the Barclays Centre to see the Brooklyn Nets host the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The new World Trade Centre

En route to Brooklyn across the Manhattan Bridge with the Statue of Liberty in the distance

The Barclays Centre (well, Center)

I know next to nothing about basketball but our resident expert James informed me that the Nets weren't the best of teams. Indeed, upon arrival at the very impressive Barclays Centre it seemed to me there were more Cavs fans around than Nets. Certainly the Cavs' star player LeBron James received a bigger cheer upon his introduction than any of the home players did!

The Brooklyn Nets cheerleaders (the Brooklynettes!) warming up the crowd

The match was really exciting, with the result being in the balance until literally the final minutes. The lead changed hands several times before the Nets finally prevailed, and the whole evening was incredibly enjoyable. They really know how to hype up the match with the announcer being particularly funny in the way he greeted every Cavs score gloomily but every Nets one with nothing short of hysteria. Our hotdogs were great too, but the beer was ridiculously expensive, so we made sure to nurse it through the whole match. Beer and basketball done, it was back on the metro and back to the hotel to refresh ourselves once again.

Day 3

Thankfully we all managed a bit more sleep this time round! Before hitting Central Park we refuelled our tanks with breakfast at the Times Square Diner and boy, were our tanks refuelled!

The Times Square Diner had got really good write-ups and the queues outside suggested it deserved them. Thankfully though we weren't waiting long before being seated and treated to a breakfast to remember. Waffles for one of us, French toast for another and for me the Loaded Times Square breakfast: four doorstop-sized hunks of French toast with egg (scrambled in my case), bacon, sausage and ham. Oh, and potato hash with onion too. Lordy. I managed most of it but the hash was just one carb too far. All this was washed down with mugs of pleasingly strong coffee and it all served to set us up nicely for the day ahead.

Breakfast of champions (and tourists)

Another hop on the metro took us to Central Park for a very pleasant wander around Strawberry Fields and a nosey at the lake and the boat house. Then after running the gauntlet of cyclists and squirrels we made our way to The Met to check out the Van Goghs and Monets. The Met is huge and you could easily spend a whole day there alone. That wasn't our plan though - we'd finished seeing Monet and felt like spending money instead. So with this in mind it was off to 5th Avenue for Bloomingdales and Macy's. Our evening meal was booked in pretty early today so we couldn't spend too long at the stores - which was probably just as well - so after a quick nap and change back at the hotel it was off to Greenwich Village to the Minetta Tavern.

Van Gogh's self portrait at The Met

We wanted to have one special meal during our visit to New York but we didn't want to go too contemporary, so after a bit of research it seemed like Minetta Tavern would tick our boxes. The menu seemed very traditionally American and - as we discovered when we arrived - the setting most definitely was too. With its checkerboard flooring and wood-panelled walls it looked like the sort of place that Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci would've rocked up at in Goodfellas. This is a good thing.

Minetta Tavern

As we were booked in for the earliest sitting at 5:30PM and arrived a little early we were ushered through to the small bar area for a drink first as the tables were still being readied. Once all was set we were shown to our table and presented with the menus and wine list. The grilled oysters looked good for starters and indeed they were, lightly seared and coated in chilli butter. The special of the scallops was also delicious, served cold and plump with a vegetable garnish.

After having read so much about the black label burger it was the only choice (well for two of us anyway, with the other going for the Minetta burger instead). Our waiter advised that the burgers tended to be cooked under rather than over so we went for medium rare to be on the safe side. This proved a wise choice as the burgers were all still very pink. Indeed the black label burger was more like a steak tartare than a burger, albeit one with a beautifully seared exterior. It was served with a lightly grilled and not too hefty bun, a generous helping of crunchy fries and a nicely sharp gherkin. No foams or airs here - just perfectly cooked food.

We accompanied our meal with a couple of excellent cocktails and finished off with a foamy cappuccino each - it somehow seemed more fitting given the surroundings. The evening wasn't cheap but the food was delicious and I think it's great that Michelin recognises this. You don't always need frills and fancy presentation for a dinner to be memorable - and our dinner at Minetta Tavern was just that.

Day 4

Our last day. Boo. The time had gone far too quickly and there were so, so many things we hadn't yet done. One of these things was sampling some authentic New York cheesecake, so after a bit more retail therapy and a walk back up sunny 7th Avenue we paid a call to Junior's.

The cheesecake defeated us all

Once we'd eventually found it (thanks for nothing Google Maps) we ordered nothing but cheesecake. Three portions in fact: one red velvet, one carrot cake and one traditional New York vanilla. When the slices arrived they were enormous! Particularly the carrot cake and red velvet. I tried to finish mine - I really did - but it was just too rich and creamy to manage. Still, our excellent waiter reckoned we'd made a decent effort so that was enough for me. The cheesecakes were all delicious and I'd recommend Junior's to anyone wanting to sample a taste of New York indulgence. And that was pretty much that. It was back to the hotel to collect our luggage and wait out the time until we needed to get back to the airport.

Oh yes, our hotel - the Sheraton Times Square. It was really rather good. The location was fantastic - a few minutes walk from both the heart of Times Square and Central Park - and also close to a number of metro stations, one of which was perfect for the journey from and back to JFK Airport. Check-in on the first night was quick and efficient and our room was spot on. A decent size with an impressive view onto 7th Avenue.

The Sheraton Times Square

Wi-fi wasn't advertised as free but when we asked to buy some we were given it free of charge, which was a very nice touch. The room was quite warm but the aircon soon cooled it down if required. We had been told we'd have a free bottle of mineral water left in the room each day but we never found it, and consequently made the mistake of taking a bottle from the mini-bar thinking it would be free. Let's just say we were wrong! Still, as we hadn't been charged for the wi-fi we couldn't really complain. There was also a room available to leave our luggage which was great as we didn't fly until the evening. A small charge was required for this service but it was worth it for the convenience.

When we visited Venice a few years ago I remember feeling that the experience was somehow surreal, and I felt the same about New York. The sheer scale of the city is astonishing - the buildings, the roads, the press of people, the food helpings! - all of it is almost a bit daunting. However it's also very easy to get around and there's just so much to do that I doubt I could ever feel bored there. The flight time seems like nothing more than an inconvenience rather than a thing of horror. I really can't praise New York much more highly than that.

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