72 Hours in New York
“One belongs to New York instantly,” author Tom Wolfe once said about his beloved city. New York has the best of everything, and if time is a constraint, here’s a three-day itinerary.
By Sumanto Chattopadhyay
The High Line
This railroad, which ran about thirty feet above the ground, was used for shipping raw materials and goods to and from factories in the city. Much of the High Line was demolished as it fell into disuse, until a couple of railroad enthusiasts decided to convert it into a linear park. They preserved sections of the old tracks along with the trees that grew between them — a wonderful example of the reappearance of the wild in an abandoned urban space. They created pathways, planted more greenery and installed art. The park has helped transform Chelsea from a gritty neighbourhood into a swish one, attracting high-end commercial and residential development. As I strolled through it, I spotted, among other things, an artist painting pictures and a fashion photographer shooting a model.
One World Observatory
This is the resurrection of the World Trade Centre, destroyed in the 9/11 tragedy. The 360-degree view of New York from the top of this building is something to behold — time your visit to witness a spectacular sunset.
As the elevator takes you up to the 102nd floor in under a minute, a video comes alive on its walls, showing the changing face of the area from early days to the present. Make sure it is a clear day before you buy a ticket, otherwise you may be disappointed, and note that after dark, the internal lights reflected in the windows will interfere with your phototaking. Conspiracy theorists abound — be sure to stop by their protest area next to the tower. You may be amused by them — or even come away converted by their beliefs.
Grand Central Terminal
Fred Astaire danced on its platforms. Cary Grant eluded spies inside it. Robin Williams hallucinated about it and Al Pacino — well, he missed his train there. Yes, Grand Central has been the location for many a movie scene. In fact, if you look hard enough, you will find Lex Luthor’s lair hidden away in one of its tunnels. In the 1930s, you could spot movie stars in the flesh at Grand Central. The Twentieth Century Limited, a world-famous luxury train that plied between New York and Chicago, drew the likes of Bette Davis and Bob Hope to the station. The beautiful Beaux Arts building was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1913. Vanderbilt was a railroad and shipping tycoon who started out as a poor boy captaining a humble ferry boat. ‘From the acorn grows the mighty oak’ was his family motto. It is worth taking a guided tour through this icon of New York. You get doses of history and interesting anecdotes as you take in the remarkable architecture and history of the station. When all the walking makes you thirsty, stop by the Oyster Bar — which is as old as the station itself.
When you realize that Grand Central had fallen into disuse and disrepair at one time and may well have been demolished were it not for the efforts of heritage conservationists, you sense what a loss that would have been. Structures like this give New York its unique flavour and prevent it from becoming a conurbation of uniform matchbox structures, with no rootedness in the past.
The Whitney Museum of American Art
‘Astro Noise’ is the term for the faint static of thermal radiation left over from the Big Bang. Edward Snowden used it as the name for his encrypted file containing evidence on mass surveillance, and now Laura Poitras has used it as the title of her exhibition on the same theme. Snowden shared his file with Poitras; her exhibition is partly inspired by it. On at the Whitney right now, Astro Noise is a series of inter-related installations. The catalogue for it has the lengthier — and more telling — title Astro Noise, A Survival Guide For Living Under Total Surveillance. It is much more than a mere catalogue, with contributions from the likes of Ai Weiwei. Poitras has herself been an object of surveillance, with an FBI file on her thanks to her meeting with Snowden. Her direct experience with it informs her work.
The MET Breuer
The brief life of Nasreen Mohamedi seems like a romance with the straight line. Her work is austere, geometric and rhythmic, extraordinary for an Indian artist, given that she was surrounded by colourful figurative work. Perhaps it was her stints in Kuwait and Bahrain that gave her canvases their de-saturated, desert-like quality, with the lines of Islamic architecture distilled into their nonrepresentational minimalism.
From Mohamedi’s diaries, we know that Kandinsky was her major influence. Her cosmopolitan upbringing in Mumbai and the resulting eclectic world view shaped her unique visual vocabulary. It is apt that her work is on display as one of the inaugural exhibits at the newly-opened MET Breuer on Madison Avenue. This museum is dedicated to the exploration of 20th and 21st Century art. The lines of this beautiful building seem to echo Mohamedi’s aesthetic.
Food, Glorious Food
“Here it is!” — that’s what Obicá means. The phrase is used in restaurateur Silvio Ursini’s native Naples to describe something made fresh, right before your eyes. Obicá is the only mozzarella bar in the world, located in the Flatiron district, and flies in its mozzarella daily from Campania in Southern Italy. The full name of the cheese is mozzarella di bufala DOP. Bufala is the water buffalo whose milk is curdled to make it. DOP is short for Denominazione di Origine Protetta – which means the cheese is made the traditional way in its region of origin. Obviously, you can sample mozzarella in many different dishes here, but there are many items without the cheese as well. Notably, Obicá does not use onion or garlic in its cooking, because Ursini believes that the two alliums drown out the subtle flavours of other traditional Italian ingredients. Try the mozzarella affumicata and classica, the Porcini mushrooms, the rosemary pasta with Tuscan duck and the glorious tiramisu.
Benjamin Steak House
The thought of ‘old’ meat might put you off, unless you have eaten dry-aged beef, which is what I did at Benjamin Steak House. They shut away prime beef in aging boxes at optimal levels of coolness and humidity. A month or so later, they take it out, cook it and put it on your plate. That is how I found myself looking down at my USDA prime rib eye steak on the bone. Marbled with tasty white fat and cut from the relatively unmuscled primal rib of a steer, it is juicy, tender and very tasty when cooked right. I had ordered my steak medium rare, so the crust looked perfectly brown but where I cut into it, it had a pinkish hue. The dry-aging process had concentrated the flavour and Chef McLeod had cooked it to perfection.
On a cold winter afternoon, you step into Spice Market and suddenly you are in the tropics. French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten was inspired by the street food of South East Asia to create this restaurant.
A sort of Balinese sensuality permeates the place. Its wood, stone and fabric interiors in an earthy colour palette blend a sense of style with a feel of comfort. If you’re Indian, the papad with tomato kasundi will make you feel at home from the word go, as will the spiced chicken samosas with cilantro yoghurt. The spicy Thai slaw salad is excellent, as is the pan-roasted cod with Malay chili sauce. A must-try is the Ovaltine kulfi, and the Thai Jewels with fruits (a sort kheer made with sago) is great too.
An Afternoon Outing
Spend an interesting afternoon on the Lower East Side, before you live it up at the Mehanata. It used to be a slum, but is now one of the more fashionable neighbourhoods of Manhattan. Very little remains of the old Jewish stronghold, but try out the pastrami at Katz’s Delicatessen and the smoked fish from Russ & Daughters, a family-run ‘appetising store’ opened in 1914. Walk down to the Russ & Daughters Café, a stone’s throw from the store. It was opened two years ago by the fourth generation of the family, to commemorate 100 years of the store. Enjoy a home-made soda from the soda fountain, or a cocktail, if you are in the mood for something stronger. Try out their knishes, varnishkas, pastrami and other delicious eatables.
Mehanata Bugarian Bar
Bras hang from the ceiling of Mehanata, the Bulgarian club in New York’s Lower East Side. It also boasts a sign saying, “Get Naked, Get A Free Shot”. If you are lucky, a gypsy band will serenade you from the balcony. If not, you can rely on the DJ to play a spectrum of international music, from Balkan to Bhangra. It can get sweaty or frigid at Mehanata, depending on what you choose to do. You could dance your rear end off to the eclectic music, or pay $20 to go into the ‘ice cage’ where you get to spend two minutes, clad in a Russian military uniform and a fur cap, drinking as much vodka as you can glug out of shot glasses made of ice. If vodka is not your drink, try the Bulgarian beer Astika at the bar.
If you are in the mood for a shambolic night out, surrounded by expats, hipsters and sundry other revellers, this is your club.
When this club opened in 1949, it was headlined by Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker, hence the name. It has a supper club format, and I showed up with a friend, not knowing what to expect. As we settled down to our sliders and chardonnay, the programme started. Only then did we realize that the evening’s act was Molly Ringwald, the Bratpack actress known for films like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, back in the eighties — she sang her own takes on classics like Yip Hardburg’s Brother Can You Spare a Dime and Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain. Her romantic yet raw tonality alternated with witty banter and, mixed with decent food, wine and a low-lit jazz club atmosphere, made for an excellent evening.
Broadway, where New Yorktheatre was born in the early 1900s, is a road that runs the length of Manhattan, from Bowling Green in the south to the Bronx in the north. Its history is older than the city itself — it started out as a Native American path. When you step out of a show at night, you are fooled into thinking it is daylight outside — such is the brightness of the neon signs. The Phantom of the Opera, which opened in 1988, is its longest running musical. Others that I have enjoyed are Chicago, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Lion King, Mamma Mia and, most recently, An American in Paris. While Broadway has, to a great extent, been about light hearted musicals, one also sees serious drama there — such as Eclipsed.
Using her Oscar-fuelled star power, 12 Years a Slave actor Lupita Nyong’o, helped bring it to Broadway. Eclipsed is important because it is an African story and African stories have largely been absent on the world stage. In fact, Eclipsed is the first all-Black, all-women play on Broadway. Its authenticity comes from most of the cast, the director and playwright having direct roots in Africa. The backgrounds of these women mean that they care deeply about the story and have a deep understanding of the characters.