24 November 2015

"Old Times"; More Rachmaninoff; Lower Manhattan

November 21 and 22 - another full weekend in NYC. Lots of cuisine extraordinaire, a Broadway play, Bryant Park holiday market, the NY Philharmonic, and a day with dear friends.

First stop on Saturday was Eataly, a piece of Italy in New York. This food paradise is a combination of market stalls and restaurants intended to totally indulge and pamper people who love and can afford fine food. This month truffles are in season and a pop up restaurant here will be serving a selection of truffle dishes. At La Pizza we smashed a bubbling, crispy pizza that arrived out of a colorful giant beehive shaped wood fired oven, and tasted just like the pizzas we loved in Italy. A dry but fruity white wine paired beautifully with it.
The weather was crisp as we sauntered up Broadway to our hotel in Times Square. "Old Times", a Harold Pinter play on Broadway, provided excellent mid afternoon entertainment. Clive Owen was one of the 3 actors. A compelling performance rendered the play far more arresting than it actually was. (It could easily have been painful with less skilled acting!)
We spent the early evening strolling through the Christmas market in Bryant Park. Even though I have a strong dislike for the holidays, the atmosphere was quite lovely. We were so impressed at the numerous vegan food vendors that we decided to have dinner at the park. We ate al fresco like the locals, braving the late November chill! A tasty seitan burger, Belgian fries, and a mushroom chickpea soup warmed us up. From our table we had a lovely view of the newly unveiled 7 Bryant Park skyscraper lit up in French flag colors.
At the David Geffen Hall on Saturday evening we were 4 rows from the stage. Daniil Trifonov, the 24 year old Russian pianist, sent us to music heaven with his rendition of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 4, a piece rarely performed. We were also enthralled by the NY Phil's performance of Rachmaninoff's other less popular work, Symphony No 1. Earlier in the week, when I was preparing for this concert, I found the piece pretty inaccessible. It took me a while to appreciate it, and then I just fell in love with this symphony. It was really special to witness a live performance by one of the world's best orchestras, and be so close to the stage!

Our hotel room overlooked Times Square with its gigantic flashing screens and ridiculous crowds. Luckily, soundproofing and curtaining allowed us a peaceful sleep.
Sunday morning started with breakfast at Bouchon Bakery, at an outside table in late November (yes, it was brisk!), and we enjoyed it. English couples at tables on either side of us livened up the conversation.
Late morning we headed downtown to see our friends Lee and Lucy who live near City Hall. From the balcony of their 23rd floor apartment we had a great view of Frank Gehry's building, one of the tallest residential towers in the world. Terrific views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges from their living room window too.
What do locals do for lunch on Sunday? Dim Sum in Chinatown, an obvious choice for us, since it involved a 5 minute walk from their home. Two hours at a vegetarian restaurant on Mott Street gave us a chance to do a lot of catching up. Lee and Lucy are such energizing company and our conversations are always satisfyingly intellectual. The food was splendid too - dumplings filled with watercress, a plate of greens, a tofu stir-fry with lots of vegetables ...
Our afternoon stroll took us past all the noteworthy attractions of the Lower Manhattan area. Zuccotti Park, of 'Occupy Wall Street' fame; the Woolworth Building, and lobby for a glance at its mosaic ceiling. Trinity Church, Wall Street, Customs House then to Battery Park and the tip of Manhattan where the East and Hudson Rivers meet. Walking along the esplanade we had views of the Statue of Liberty. Then into the World Trade Center Winter Garden Atrium, awed at the plushness - palm trees, marble floors, an art installation.

Upstairs, we checked out the various fine food restaurants and gourmet market. Through the glass walls we had lovely views of the new buildings on the site of the old World Trade Center. A white tiled subterranean passage - like walking through a contemporary painting (reminded Daryl of an Escher painting) - brought us to the WTC Memorial buildings. The Observatory with its facade of triangles and reflective glass, dominated the skyline throughout our stroll.
Leaving the WTC area we entered TriBeCa, which had a quieter, neighborhood vibe. Lucy pointed out the cast iron buildings that the area is famous for. From Duane Street we continued past the Federal Courthouse and African Burial Ground before returning to their apartment.

What a joy to stroll through Lower Manhattan. To get a guided tour with wonderful friends is even more joyful. How lucky we are!

17 November 2015

11/13/15 Paris and NYC Weekend

We awoke to a dismal Saturday morning, after tragic bombings in Paris the night before. It was the first really chilly day of the season with the mercury hovering in the upper 40's.

I opened the blinds and looked out at the landscape of nearly bare trees. Not my favorite time of year!

A gloomy mood took possession, my thoughts on innocent victims of brutality all over the world.
Since we were heading into NYC for an evening classical concert at the David Geffen Hall, we looked into $25 rush tickets for the midday opera at the Met. We lucked out, snagging excellent seats for Tosca. Before the performance, the entire cast got on stage and sang La Marseillaise. We all stood up and using the lyrics provided, sang along. At the end there were cheers and shouts of "Vive la France." It was not a moment to be critical of the French National Anthem, or the policies of western leaders. It was a time to show solidarity, especially in New York, where a sense of vulnerability pervaded.
With Placido Domingo conducting, the opera was terrific. The famous arias from Tosca - "Viss d'arte" (I live for art, I live for love) by the soprano and E lucevan le stele (And the stars shone) by the tenor before his death were sung so beautifully. Heartbreaking. Appropriate for a day when a sombre mood prevailed in the city, and I'm sure around the world.

Dinner at Sapphire, a pretentious, overpriced Indian restaurant two blocks from Lincoln Center, was a disappointment with its bland fare. We were in the mood for spicy, robust flavors, which was why we chose an Indian restaurant!

The NY Philharmonic on the other hand, was spellbinding. Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto no. 2 and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini warmed the depths of our souls.
We had front row seats, with a fantastic view of the passionate Russian pianist, 24 year old Daniil Trifonov.

We splurged on a room in a terrific midtown hotel near Rockefeller Center, to avoid a late night train ride back to Princeton. After a restful night's sleep, we marched over to Bouchon Bakery just across the street from us. It was a lovely fall day, 10 degrees warmer than the day before.
This Thomas Keller establishment must serve the best breakfast pastries in town. It goes without saying that the almond croissant and cranberry scone we had were exquisite. Through the window we watched people standing outside the NBC studios watching a live recording of The Today Show.
After a lazy morning around the Rockefeller Center we had lunch at Le Pain Quotidien. The place was packed and service was painfully slow. But we did enjoy very much the caramelized brussels sprouts soup and salad of farro, roasted squash, pecans, and other veggies.

We took a long stroll, first along Broadway, where a Christmas market was being set up. Then into Chelsea with its numerous fancy food places, and ended up in Greenwich Village. An attractive café lured us in for a coffee and almond tart. It was great to rest our weary feet and escape the city's bustle. Later, a wander around the haunts of the Beatniks, then Christopher and Bleeker Streets, ending in Washington Square gave us a good feel of this interesting neighborhood. So different to Midtown.

With the sun low in the sky we were ready to head to Penn Station for our train to peaceful Princeton.

10 November 2015

Philly Fun

November 9
Wandering the very walkable streets of downtown Philadelphia on a remarkably mild November day, fall foliage lingering amongst historic buildings, and multi-ethnic locals smiling with evident pride, I thought this isn't just a city with a drama filled past, but a city with soul. Few American cities evoke that sentiment. It has a metro system, it's walkable, the Old City has charm, buildings from the 18th century abound, there are cobbled roads, pretty parks, a gracious visitor's center with clean public restrooms, non chain cafés serving strong java and high quality baked goods, and this is a foodie city.
Liberty Bell - used to call the Pennsylvania Assembly to meetings; adopted by abolitionists, suffragists, and oppressed groups as their symbol. The Liberty Bell Center was built especially to give this icon a permanent home from where it could be viewed by the public.

Independence Hall - dating back to the 18th century. This is where the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. It's also where the 1st and 2nd Continental Congress met to draw up the Constitution.

Roasted Gold Beets with Smoked Tofu and Avocado
 The upscale Vedge Restaurant, with their unique take on gourmet vegan cuisine, definitely showcased Philly's impressive culinary scene. We were so exhausted after all that walking, and so appreciated the comfortable sofa seat and inviting ambience. We sat back, enjoyed a vodka cocktail, and perused the delightful menu. There's a lot to be said for classy, unrushed service, while you savor delicate flavors and textures served with artistic flare.
City Hall - couldn't get over that stunning faćade - beautiful sculpture and columns
Caught only a glimpse as we rushed past this largest municipal building in the country. Night had fallen and time to head back to Princeton.

08 November 2015

Turandot, too much dessert, and Joshua Bell

November 6 and 7
It's been an incredible weekend! Don't even know where to begin. Let's start with the highlight: Turandot, a scintillating Franco Zeffirelli production at the Met in NYC on Saturday. Wow!
Sumptuous staging; resplendent costumes; and Puccini's accessible music in the hands of talented singers and a fantastic orchestra - of course we were dazzled. And yes, it was an excellent Nessan Dorma! Resounding audience applause for it!

The next highlight would have to be our 3 Michelin star restaurant experience at Per Se, arguably New York's best and most famous restaurant. Their focus on fine vegetarian cuisine aroused our interest. When we found out that we could be seated in their salon section without a reservation and order a la carte we thought, heck, let's check it out. We'd order modestly and if afterwards we were still hungry we'd grab a slice of pizza on the way to Penn Station. So we arrived promptly at 5:30 when doors opened. First, they handed Daryl a black jacket to wear. Chuckle! Chuckle! Then we got seated on an elegant sofa at the best salon table - by a window with fantastic views of Columbus Circle, Central Park, and the lights of midtown Manhattan. Yes, it was pretentious, most notably in the names and descriptions of their fastidiously inventive dishes. But, hey, when you've grown up in poverty in a racist country, there's something very gratifying about being fussed over by overly polite WASPy looking tuxedoed waiters focussed on making you feel indulged. There was a mood present - one of relaxation, and "you are here to have a truly memorable time". They served us two amuse bouches - first, a pastry encased ball of melted gruyere, then a little while later a cornetto filled with beets and creme fraiche. Yum! The arrival of warm, crusty breads arranged in a basket assured us we would not go hungry!
MASCARPONE ENRICHED BUTTERNUT SQUASH "AGNOLOTTI" Chestnut "Confit," Crispy Sage and Black Truffle Emulsion

Presentation of their industriously crafted cuisine is all important. Every dish that landed on our table was a work of art. A clear effort to engage all senses was apparent - lots of textures, colors, fragrances - and yes, it was all magnificent. But most unforgettable was dessert. When Daryl decided to go for the full dessert deal, it meant an elaborate event. One involving several (we lost count) courses of "I must have died and gone to heaven". Each distinct dessert was served on what appeared to be contemporary art - pyramidal layers of plates, then shapely bowls, then flat plates of various sizes and shapes. You just had to take the time to admire every aspect before demolishing the dish. Even though I'd ordered a solitary dessert item - an exquisite chocolate mousse - they brought us both silverware for each of Daryl's dessert courses, forcing me to join him in his decadence. This attitude of "we will accommodate whatever works for you" is beyond pretension! When we thought it was all over, and felt ready for it to be over, a selection of dainties - macaroons, truffles, nougat and toffee appeared. Then a waiter arrived with a big box of house made truffles and described each one to us. We then got to choose whatever and however many we wanted. Overkill? Definitely! Daryl beamed the whole time. Dessert is a religion for him, and this was his Mount Olympus. Thankfully we live on the West Coast!

Joshua Bell performs music from the documentary Einstein's Light at IAS. Marija Stroke is the pianist.

Imagine having the celebrated violinist Joshua Bell come to you to perform? That's exactly what happened on Friday at IAS. In an event that culminated a two day General Relativity at 100 conference, Joshua Bell performed 5 pieces of exquisite music. He was accompanied by the pianist, Marija Stroke, who shared with the audience that she was conceived on the night her father had returned from a meeting with Einstein! The composer of the pieces, Nickolas Barris, was also present and later, in a discussion on the intersection of music and science, he explained how he used Mozart and Bach in the compositions. These pieces were composed for the documentary Einstein's Light, created for this conference, and was later screened for us. In the movie we learned more about Einstein's discoveries and his use of imagination. Music is woven into the story to show an interdependent relationship between the arts and sciences.
The 2 day conference to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Einstein's general theory of relativity created a lot of excitement here on Thursday and Friday. To kick things off there was a live presentation called LIGHT FALLS on Wednesday night. It was presented by the physicist Brian Greene at Princeton University. We were thrilled to be able to attend this very entertaining work which combined acting, animation, narration, and projection techniques to trace Einstein's journey toward his greatest contribution to our knowledge of the universe.
And finally, I should mention that the weather all week was glorious. We started each day with a walk in the woods. The paths are carpeted with leaves and the trees are almost bare. 

01 November 2015

Halloween in NYC

Another Saturday morning, another magnificent opera at the Met. This time we braced ourselves for Wagner's Tannhäuser. The serious stuff. Everything on a grandiose scale. We prepared well for this opera, ready to enter the life of the tormented title character as he makes his choice between the lustful pleasures of Venusberg and chaste love of the real world. We loved every moment, from the first delightful notes of the famous "hymn theme" overture, to the final act's Rome Narrative and Venus Song arias. All the singers displayed impressive voice range and richness. The orchestra, led by the legendary James Levine, sounded sublime throughout the three and a half hour performance. 
The outstanding cast of Tannhäuser take their final bows. Johan Botha, the South African born tenor in the title role, sang with fluidity the wide range of notes in the demanding arias of this opera.

It was Halloween. Lincoln Plaza was crowded with costumed kids and their families when we arrived at midday. After the opera, the plaza was quiet again. We strolled into Central Park to enjoy the mild autumn late afternoon. A newly set up skatepark framed by skyscrapers and trees yielding to fall hues, drew our attention briefly, until we noticed the sponsor. Yuck! We turned around and continued our stroll through the park.

We watched daylight fade over a vodka cocktail called the Santa Barbara and IPA beer from a top floor bar in Columbus Circle. Through the glass walls in the Times Warner Building we enjoyed views of Central Park and the action around the circular fountain in the square down below. The bar atmosphere felt classy, very Manhattan-like. Munchies of peanuts, pretzels, and wasabi peas were a nice touch.
For dinner we tried out the famous Neapolitan pizzas at Don Antonio in midtown. Wood fired, with a smoked cheese and zucchini topping, I was won over. Daryl's soggy crust was a little disappointing, but we realized it was due to a generous topping of vegetables. We could hear Italian spoken, and we spotted the clay oven, so we figured it was all authentic. Our first pizza in Pisa, though, will always be our gold standard.

Returning to IAS we realized we are currently living in a sort of Venusberg. One where academic lust is boundless!