Tuesday, October 26, 2010

New York, No Holds Barred: Part One

Warning: This is probably an extremely self-indulgent post, written primarily so I don’t forget every last detail of this trip. Feel free to skip, skim, and mock my narcissism.

First, I had to swear to my husband that I would not plan the trip to death, that there had to be room for spontaneity. It seemed like a novel, rather exciting approach, so I agreed. One the other hand, there were some big items on our list that would require a certain inflexibility in terms of timing. So I had to give up on the idea of squeezing in a bunch of visits with New York friends: this was our big vacation of the year, and our mission was to relax. Yes, relax: in the biggest, busiest city in the country.

To that end, we each cashed in five years worth of American Express reward points to stay at the St. Regis Hotel. Built in 1904, the building (at Fifth & 55th) is beautiful, and the rooms are plush. Service is beyond extraordinary: butlers! Fresh fruit every day! Tea/coffee service at wake-up! A bowl of hotel chocolates! Soft silence in the hallways and rooms; I never even saw a housekeeping cart, and yet the room was freshened twice daily. And—very cool—a TV that rose up out of a console that could be flipped around and be viewed from bed or from the silk-upholstered sofa. (Unfortunately, my TV watching was not very classy, as I became obsessed with a show on the Travel Channel called "Man v. Food," in which a husky guy travels around, taking on food challenges like eating seven pound burritos or 29 pieces of fried catfish.)

While checking in, Cal Ripken came up to the front desk. Yes, Ironman CAL RIPKEN, my baseball idol. Steve recognized him, and I’m not usually starstruck but this time I totally was, so I had to say something. My clever line: “Excuse me, can I just say hi to you?” He shook my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Cal.” Oh, so endearing….! I (cleverly) said, “I know.” I would have been content with that exchange, but then he said, “Are you checking in?” I said we were and, emboldened, asked if he was checking out, and he said he was in for the baseball games (Yankees vs. Texas in the ALCS). I asked him who he was rooting for, and he (probably desperate now to get back to his room) said that as an analyst he couldn’t have favorites. I (way too emboldened now) said, “I know what’s in your heart.” I mean, honestly—there’s no way Mr. Oriole could be cheering for the Yankees! No way!! He sort of laughed (nervously?) and said that he was hoping for a good series. So diplomatic…and off he went (relieved?). I spent the next six hours and four days reliving the experience with poor (patient) Steve.

Then we headed to the Grand Central Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station for a late lunch: oysters on the half shell, fried clams, and lobster stew. It all tasted fine at the time—especially the oysters—but in retrospect, it was probably our least successful meal.

Walked around—walked around some more—and after a few episodes of "Man v. Food," went off to the original P.J. Clarke’s for an amazing cheeseburger. Steve got Brussels sprouts, but with all that bacon we can hardly call that healthy, and we shared an order of home fries. It takes years of cooking to get grease that good (established 1884)….followed by a quick drink at our famous hotel bar, the King Cole Bar. (You can see a picture of the mural behind the bar here.)

A late morning and then off to Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King (since 1908), on the Upper West Side for scrambled eggs, onions, and smoked salmon & sturgeon and a sandwich on a bagel: salmon, sturgeon, cream cheese, onion, and tomato. I wouldn’t normally get the tomato, expecting that it would dilute the flavor of the smoked fish, but the tone in the waiter’s voice made me think I needed that tomato, and, actually, I did. The combo was perfect! We had a brief chat with The Sturgeon King himself—maybe? Definitely an owner type—who, alas, didn’t share any juicy tidbits to share about Jon Hamm, who, with Tina Fey, filmed a scene of "30 Rock" in the restaurant. (Note: They ship their fish!)

More walking (this is why we didn’t get totally fat on this trip!)—winding our way through Central Park, landing at the (Model) Boat Pond (you might remember this from a fabulous and funny chapter in the book Stuart Little). Knowing Steve had a secret desire to captain his own remote controlled boat, I marched us over to the rental area and we quickly were the proud “owners” of Number 55. Sails snapping in the light breeze, Steve quickly picked up the skills needed (trickier than it looks!) to send the lovely 55 up and down the pond, and even engaged in some subtle racing with a 10-year-old boy. (Steve was victorious, and quite pleased about it.) Proving that boys are always boys, he also chased some ducks with the boat for a moment. I wasn’t such a good captain, as my time at the wheel led to the boat sitting dully in the middle of the pond.

And off to Lincoln Center, for our backstage tour of the Metropolitan Opera—which I TOTALLY recommend. The ninety-minute tour was incredible: we learned about the magnificent sets, sat in a dressing room (not that fancy), watched costumes being sewn, and peeked into ongoing rehearsals. I didn’t know what to expect, so it was sort of amusing to see the crowded, messy hallways—boxes of fake wine goblets everywhere, a stack of swords, racks of elegant dresses jammed next to dusty boxes.

And then…the event of a lifetime: going to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time! We raced home and fancied ourselves up, then got to Lincoln Center with plenty of time to have a bit of champagne and admire the lobbies (and the people). It was all beautiful…they say everything is beautiful at the ballet, but I think it might be even more beautiful at the opera. We had excellent seats for La Boheme, featuring tenor Vittorio Grigolo, another “the new Pavarotti,” as Rudolfo, and it just was all AMAZING…amazing. There was a gasp when before the orchestra started, a woman came onstage to announce that the woman who played Mimi had a cold…but she was going to sing anyway. Whew. I’m not an expert, but she sounded great to me. Sets (30 years old!)—stunning. Music—stunning (duh). Singing—stunning. Fancy-looking couple sitting across from us wearing couture and expensive plastic surgery—stunning. Night as a whole—stunning. Just…all…stunning. As noted, I’m no expert, but the crowd seemed to feel that the charismatic tenor Vittorio Grigolo was something special—and I totally agree. An expensive thing to do, yes—but TOTALLY worth every penny.

To be continued…


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.