Friday, September 30, 2011

Fine dining

Recently, my lovely wife and I were invited to a friend's birthday party. A real adult thing. Sure, we know the honoree and her husband because of our kids (their eldest son and daughter have roughly the same ages, interests, and locations as The Boy and Q), but this night out was kid free.

The 16-person dinner was held at the restaurant Blue Hill, a city satellite of a full-on farm, 30 miles upstate in Pocantico Hills, that grows its own everything. Blue Hill New York lounges in the garden level of an old row house near Washington Square, a space once occupied by a speakeasy.* The couple had reserved the restaurant’s "Garden Room," a remote, lovely space just back of the compact kitchen and a row of waitstaff queued like planes waiting for the runway at LaGuardia. When we arrived, a slight (thoroughly non-farmer) waiter butlered hors d'oeuvres of raw and remarkably sweet grape tomatoes from a white bowl, and rows of lettuces, vivid miniature squashes, and carrots sprouting greens from a line of nails in a foot of barnwood. They were obviously proud of their ingredients, and rightly so.

The rest of the tasting menu didn't disappoint either. Each dish (beets, poached eggs, lamb — they kept coming) reacquainted us with how good food in New York can be, with the possibilities of gustation when really talented people dedicate themselves to it. The time itself was just as delectable. We all knew each other in different degrees and ways, and in between bites and wine sips, everyone talked around their kids as much as about them, working instead on the unknown and forgotten. One of the party was off to her 20th high-school reunion the next day, which, predictably, triggered ripples of recollection of once big events and looks that now to our older selves appear proper sized and ludicrous.

The meal closed with small scoops of rose hip ice cream on a plate as big as a shield. Dots of fruit complemented the ice cream, and together we determined they were strawberries. It was as if each berry had been delicately peeled or buffed lovingly by an angel or anyway cooked super slowly right up to the point of collapsing into the idea of strawberries. When all the dishes were empty, we hugged and kissed and wished well and caught a ride with friends home to our kids who had been asleep for hours. A truly lovely evening.

My wife and I don’t go out adult-wise all that much, and under our usual metric, the Blue Hill party easily banked us about six months' worth of big-person time. But then more good friends that we don't see often enough invited us out to join them and another couple for a birthday dinner. How could we not go?
This time we went to Le Cirque, a New York fixture from the 70's, the kind of place where the menu items come sourced with creation dates and chef names. My wife had been to Le Cirque years ago when the restaurant was still in the Palace Hotel on 50th and Madison, when she was still at a large law firm, and when firms like hers still used the city’s finest menus as recruiting tools. I remember her bringing home this delightful chocolate stove, complete with two miniature pots filled with some kind of fruit reduction.** We both thought the whole thing too pretty to eat, and we stashed it in our miniature West Village freezer until the cold burned the flavor out of it.

Le Cirque now occupies a grand chunk of the Bloomberg building's bottom floor on East 58th Street. The interior manages to look simultaneously modern and old money (which it is). But when our seats were ready, we passed through the curved dining room to a lone table in the kitchen. My wife and I knew we were there for the chef's tasting menu, but we didn't know we'd be in sight of the chef while tasting it.

Unlike Blue Hill, Le Cirque's kitchen was massive and populated. Directly behind our table ran a long stainless steel counter, and for hours we watched the chef and sous-chefs assemble and wipe drips off the rims of dishes that waiters took out, shot-put style, on heavy silver trays. The guy off to our right spent the night piling parsley-flecked fries into bowls that went, along with beautiful sliders, to people who were sadly not us. Still, our meal — all six courses — was its own revelation of hard choices: lobster salad or raw tuna with clementines, foie gras ravioli or lobster risotto, scallops layered with slices of black truffle the width and breadth of half dollars, Wagyu beef or baby chicken.***

Our dining companions were old friends from our first days in New York 18 years ago, and it didn't take long for us to eat away the time that had passed since we were last together. We remembered ourselves before and after kids and asked each other whether we preferred making to eating good food. (Myself, I'm almost always taken with process over product, and I particularly appreciate the mysterious alchemy of kitchens.) And we drank lots and lots of wine chosen for us by a woman with a French job title.

We completed our recent menu of fine dining experiences with our anniversary dinner. We celebrate our anniversary each year with a family night out at nice place, and this year we went to Kittichai, an upscale Thai restaurant in the Thompson Hotel in SoHo. Our kids love a good restaurant almost as much as we do (and The Boy, given his ever sharpening eye for design, probably even more so), and my wife and I genuinely enjoy their company. The space was super cool, all provocatively bottom-lit golden silk and teak, and in the center of the main dining room, a pond with candles on lily pads circling magically and endlessly. Orchids were everywhere, including the one that garnished Q's puckery lime drink and, later, her ear. We ate ourselves silly again, this time short ribs in whiskey barbeque sauce, chicken in green curry, chili-smoked hanger steak, and Valrhona chocolate cake served in a banana leaf. By the end, only the creased leaf was left.

After Q and The Boy took their time marveling over the rows of orchids in jars at the restaurant's entrance, we staggered out into the day’s last light. At first, we wanted to walk home along the river and the sunset, but on our way west we saw that with just a little wait we could catch a bus home. Q cradled three orchid blossoms and The Boy talked lemongrass and longbeans as the bus made its way back to our own kitchen, the one with the red stool that helps them participate in the doughs and the dishes.

And if I had room for another dessert, I might have a little of the two "Le Cirque" Stove Cakes still sitting on the top shelf in our fridge.

*Funny that so many restaurants claim to occupy former speakeasies. Exclusivity and myth power New York as much as anywhere else.
**Originally conceived of and crafted by the deliriously skilled chocolatier Jacques Torres.
***Okay, everyone opted for the beef over the chicken without hesitation or regret.

Monday, September 05, 2011


The coverage came in long before the storm.  Several days out we watched a variety of Weather Channel pundits point, over and over again, at the red stripe that Irene was likely to follow, and New York was squarely in the red.  As Irene grew broad and began lumbering up the coast, those pundits spoke about New York in lower tones.  Then a Weather Channel correspondent — one of those guys who reports on location from driving rains — starting filing segments from our neighborhood.  Cue the nervous laughter. 

Our concern really began to swell, though, when the mayor started saying things, too.  We live in northern Battery Park City, an area full of new buildings, and I didn’t worry that much about whether our building would withstand the wind.  The neighborhood, however, sits right on the Hudson and squarely in what the city calls Hurricane Evacuation Zone A, or the area at greatest risk for flooding during a hurricane.*

As the week progressed, the red stripe didn’t bend out to sea like usual, and on Wednesday the mayor began encouraging residents of Zone A to find other places to sit out the storm.  The kids and I went in search of purpose and new flashlights, and my lovely wife and I started thinking about where we could go.  The Weather Channel correspondent still filed from our neighborhood, but now he held his hand up as high as he could when talking projected storm-surge levels.  A picture of Irene from space made the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, looking like a big ball of cotton hanging out of the continent’s ear.  We canceled our weekend beach and U.S. Open plans.

Then things got real serious.  The mayor said that if projections held for a category 1 Irene to roll up 5th Avenue, the city was going to shut down all subway and bus service — a precaution never taken in the transit system’s century+ existence.  The mandatory evacuation order for Zone A came down from City Hall on Friday morning, and it was official.  We had to be out of our apartment by 5 p.m. Saturday.

We don’t have any family nearby, so we thought of those most familiar.  Many good friends in the city  quickly and happily opened their homes to us.**  We also received an invitation from our good friends who live in northern New Jersey.  Given that Q and The Boy love their kids, have more or less grown up with them, and had already stayed overnight at their house, we thought that was the best choice.  And if a huge tree fell across their roof, I could help hang tarp or something similarly man-related.

All day Friday the city was pushing people to leave their homes well in advance of the mandatory deadline and the transit shutdown.  My wife had taken the day off, and I left work early so that we could have emptier trains out to New Jersey.  We filled a single bag with just a few clothes, a camera, our stash of passports and certificates, and the hard drive that contains a copy of our entire digital life, including over 260 GB of photos.***  Q stuffed her backpack with her important blankets and some books; The Boy packed several flashlights and books, including 100 Most Dangerous Things on the Planet and 100 Most Awesome Things on the Planet, each with the hurricane page sticky-noted.  We walked out of our apartment and our neighborhood, at least half expecting never to see either in the same state again. I said that we were leaving on our "evacuvacation" in an attempt to joke everyone into feeling a little safer.

Friday and and most of Saturday in New Jersey were weirdly beautiful.  We watched the news on TV and our phones constantly, watched people (stupidly, I think) talking about how bad the storm was as they struggled to stand against it on beaches in North Carolina and then Virginia.  We ordered in pizza. Our friends have a pool and a trampoline, and the kids jumped one way and another.

The rain came in Saturday afternoon, soft at first, and then strong and steady, and then stronger still.  Irene spun like a pinwheel firework throughout the night and Sunday morning, flinging bands of yellow and red weather all up and down the Mid-Atlantic, but the winds never picked up enough to take down the trees. To our kids' disappointment, we never had to rely on the flashlights.

By Sunday afternoon, the rain moved north and a stronger wind finally came around. My wife and I took all the kids for a walk around the neighborhood to have a look at any damage.  There wasn’t much to see, a few smaller branches brought down here and there, maybe a streak of dirt where the heavy rain took some lawn down a storm drain.  The lack of damage was almost shocking, especially compared to what we had seen happen to the north and south of us.

When we returned to Zone A and our apartment on Monday afternoon, not a leaf looked out of place.  We slid the important papers back into their place, reconnected the hard drive to our main computer.  As we downloaded the photos from the weekend, we saw instead of moments of loss, kids caught smiling mid-bounce, a group of them mixing up biscotti dough together in the warm kitchen, pairs walking hand in hand in the sun, even the finished Scrabble boards from the two nights the adults played.  (My wife and I were crushed by our hosts both times.)  We really had been treated to something like a vacation, the very opposite of worry.

I set the computer to back itself up; we wanted to take this weekend with us should there be a next time.

*We’re definitely going to have to move before all the glaciers melt. The place is eventually doomed.
**For a stay of who knows how long in smallish to definitely small apartments. Really incredible people.
***See?  Serious.