Return to New York City

by ZviDon't Worry About the Vase15 min read15th Mar 20216 comments

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Personal Blog

This past week, I had my first opportunity in a year to visit New York City, to get my vaccine shot, to look at potential apartments and also to finally visit the city. This is my report of the trip.

I Love New York

This city is my home, and I will fight to defend it. It is the best place. 

In particular, downtown Manhattan, the area between Spring Street and 23rd Street, is my home. The Upper West Side is where I grew up, and it has its advantages, but it isn’t quite home. It’s a different kind of home, but I’d still feel like I was going home when I got in the subway in the morning to go downtown, rather than feeling like I was going home in the evening when I returned to the apartment.

There is nothing like being at the center of the world, within walking distance of all the things, everything at your fingertips. Simply being there brought tears to my eyes. 

We took the car down to a place on Lafayette and 7th Street. Amazing location. I met the man checking me in, and climbed four flights of stairs to the penthouse. It opened to a gorgeous artist’s penthouse, which would have been a great place to stay except for the parts where it was up four flights of stairs, it was a studio that had been advertised as a one bedroom, the hot water wasn’t that hot even after giving it ten minutes, the kitchen was so tiny the refrigerator was a tiny extra unit in the main room and the rest of the kitchen was mostly non-functional, and the chairs at the dining table were so uncomfortable for my back I can only assume that discomfort was the design goal. There was a homeless man sleeping in the doorway, and that led to the installing of a second downstairs door that prevented anyone from being able to buzz in if it was actually locked, which was presumably why it usually wasn’t and the homeless man still got to sleep downstairs anyway.

None of that mattered. I was home. I put on Welcome to New York and New York, New York and My Way and the other New York, New York and New York City and King of New York and New York State of Mind and danced, because f*** subtlety. Later I’d put on my playlist of favorite songs on my headphones and walk around the neighborhood, every song about the city and its joy. A hell of a town.

Vaccination Station

The big moment of the trip was when I went to get my first shot of that sweet, sweet Pfizer vaccine. I had a 9:15am appointment, so I stayed overnight with my father, who was already vaccinated and thus giving me a safe ride to Aqueduct Racetrack, which is close to JFK airport and about an hour away from any place I’d otherwise have wanted to be, then we got up early to be absolutely damn sure not to be late. Traffic wasn’t great, but it also wasn’t all that bad. My dad is in love with this app called Waze that reliably sent us on lots of weird streets claiming that it knew what the fastest route would be based on current traffic. It’s hard to know counterfactuals, but on only one occasion all week did it seem to clearly make bad decisions, instead making constantly quirky decisions that involved a lot of turning and odd streets but not all that much traffic.

We got there around 8:45am. I got the doctor’s note that I knew I didn’t need but I’d still gone through a lot of trouble and paid $200 for an appointment to get, along with my appointment information, and went inside. The guy at the front took my temperature with a scanner, told me it was 93.3, and didn’t seem to think this should be of any concern to anyone, waving me on. They directed me up to the second floor, and right away called me over to table 14. 

As I walked in and the shot became more real, I started thinking about when I’d be able to move on with my life. And I realized something that somehow isn’t being mentioned, which is that a risk reduction for 10 days after measures test results and illness, and thus in terms of behavior one can back that out by subtracting the incubation period. After 7 days at most, you’re as protected as the numbers say you’ll be after 10. Not that it will matter much for me, because I’ll be in Warwick watching the kids with no risks I could usefully take, but it still feels better.

Administrator was behind a glass screen but most definitely not six feet away. At one point she removed her mask to cough, and had me fill out some additional paperwork and take in my information, which was painless. I accidentally gave her the doctor’s note without her asking when she asked for my other documentation, she noticed it was there and didn’t say anything. I was quickly passed along to the nurse. The nurse had me roll up my sleeve, told me it would be like the flu shot, gave me the shot, and gave me a vaccine card, an appointment for three weeks later since I’d gotten the Pfizer shot, and an instruction to wait for 15 minutes. That happened at 8:59am. 

We were given a large but indoor area in which to wait the 15 minutes. Good spacing, but it quickly became clear both that the 15 minute wait was quite pointless especially given I had a ride, and also that no one was checking to see how long we stayed, but I still stayed exactly 15 minutes because I was in exactly no rush and it seemed less stressful that way or something like that, and read Matt Levine columns on my phone. Then I walked away, got in the car and my dad took me back to base.

All in all, quite a good show. No lines, no prolonged exposures, all seemed very efficient. Exceeds expectations.

Rumors of Demise Greatly Exaggerated

Our real estate agent and my father both warned me that coming back to New York would be a rude awakening. It would feel like a ghost town, a shadow of its former self. The whole thing was depressing.

Some things could be further from the truth, but not that many. New York City lives. 

Walking around the city for miles and miles was even more joyous than I remembered it, because I’d gone so long without it. We’d planned to have to investigate carefully how much of the city had been lost or damaged, and we quickly realized no, we didn’t need to do that, it’s our city.

The streets had fewer people on them than normal, but still plenty of people, and if anything the reduced foot traffic was actively pleasant. Car traffic wasn’t much different from before, because the people who stayed often bought cars to avoid public transit and taxis.

Some restaurants and other stores have closed over the past year. That’s true. It’s also true of every other year, and somehow it didn’t seem like this past year did appreciably more damage on that front than normal. Nor did it seem like new places were failing to open. There were slightly more empty store fronts, especially on the upper west side, but nothing too bad. The thing that seemed most likely to close, of all things, was banks. Banks are expensive to maintain and there’s no real reason you need one that close by in the internet age, so once they weren’t useful for fighting for market share, the banks closed many of their branches down. 

That’s the opposite of a suffering-small-business story, and also the opposite of a neighborhood-destructive story. Banks are mostly a waste of valuable retail space making everything worse, and now a lot of them are gone and free to be replaced by better things. This is actively good. I also noticed that there was an even bigger than normal quality gap between things that closed and things that didn’t, and the vast majority of things worth keeping are still around. All my favorite higher-end things survived, and most of the lower-end things did as well, with the ones that didn’t being nice but almost entirely fungible. There are two fast casual restaurants I’ll miss a little, which I’d say is a damn good year.

Most importantly, the whole place still felt like New York City. There was no air of sadness or despair. There was no ghost town. It was The City, the one from the amazing Pretend It’s a City on Netflix, still going strong.

The biggest change was seeing all the outdoor dining booths. The funniest of them was at the original Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, which has actively changed its seating to be less safe because makeshift outdoor walls have become normalized where it previously had open-air chairs and tables. We were planning on trying to outdoor dine once if the weather got warm, but due to logistics it never made sense. 

Masks Everywhere

Manhattan mask compliance is something like 99%. During the trip I finally learned how to wear my mask without fogging up my glasses almost at all, I never saw anyone inside without a high quality mask (Surgical, KN95 or N95), and it was very rare to see anyone without a high quality mask outside. Distancing on lines wasn’t always fully six feet but it was pretty damn good.

When we were touring on the Upper West Side, many buildings had Covid forms for us and a few had temperature checks. Getting a delivery at my parents apartment meant getting it sent up in the elevator and picking it up contactless from there. Most elevators were one household at a time. Precautions were not messing around up there. The downtown precautions were not as robust, but still felt more than adequate.

Various real estate agents had various levels of respect for distancing and various paranoia levels about surfaces and such. One agent in particular kept getting way too close, starting a ‘why are you starting over there?’ when I was trying to avoid her standing in a corridor blocking the rest of the apartment, and continuing from there. I don’t think it was at all a coincidence that the place in question was on 30th Street and thus in the seediest neighborhood where we looked. 

Going to Brooklyn briefly at the very end of the trip was a clear contrast. While masks were still universal, it was clear that they were having none of the six feet principle. I needed to be on line at RiteAid, and the average distance was well under six feet. One person asked to go ahead of me saying she had an ice cream cake, but I didn’t want to spend one second longer in there than I had to so I was having none of it, also as I told her “this here is literally ice.” She proceeded to tailgate me something like a foot behind until I pointed out rather starkly there were literally signs on the floor telling this person not to do that, which finally got that person to back off. I felt unsafe in that store in a way I didn’t feel at all unsafe any time in Manhattan, sufficiently so that I regretted not insisting that someone else who was already fully vaccinated do the job instead.

The ice was important, though, so we could make sure all our delicious New York City food made it back intact.

A Weeklong Feast For a King

We made a clear decision up front before we headed out that when it came to food, money would be no object. Given we didn’t want things like high-end sushi or Japanese wagyu steak, the other costs of the trip would be much bigger, and it was best to take advantage of this opportunity to enjoy ourselves as best we could.

That’s not a principle someone of my nature can entirely honor. Highway robbery remains highway robbery, and at some point choking on the price will happen no matter what I in principle decide, because I’ve been trained over many years and generations to not put up with such nonsense. Still, mostly, we managed to stick to getting what we actually wanted, from the places we wanted most.

And it was glorious. I eat twice a day, so in addition to fabulous breakfasts and desserts, I got effectively eight non-breakfast meals in New York City. Six out of seven were truly amazing. The seventh involved eating at home on the Upper West Side in my parents’ kosher-only apartment, and also ruled out paying stupidly high prices due to social awkwardness, which together narrowed the options, but was still something I’d be super excited to have available back in Warwick. 

It’s presumably possible to do somewhat better feasting for a week, but it’s pretty damn hard. 

For breakfast, the focus was where it needs to be, on the New York Bagel. I went so far as to have bagels shipped in once via Goldbelly, but that meant they were already a day old when they got here, and also you can’t get good cream cheese in Warwick either, let alone lox. Not the same, you gotta get ‘em fresh. 

So the first thing we did, upon arriving in the city, was walk down to Absolute Bagels on 107th and Broadway, and get us the real thing. They weren’t fully hot, but they were fresh, and oh my was it great to have the real thing again. Then later we went to the even better Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee on 8th street, and got their bagels fresh and hot, and that was our bagel source the rest of the week. We ended up going with bagels four times, which seemed about right for a one week sprint. Make sure to always get whatever is hot, nothing else matters half as much, and to stock real cream cheese, whether or not you go for the lox as well.

Our other breakfast source was Dominque Ansel Bakery, whose best stuff is out of this world. It’s possible you can do better somewhere in Paris, but if so I have no idea where. Their pastries are on a different level than everywhere else. The Cronut earns its full reputation, even if it’s richer than some others would like, and as a result I like to keep it to 1-2 a month to keep it special. Their chocolate croissant in particular is the best croissant anywhere, with their plain close behind. Their other stuff is also universally great when I’ve tried it. Their DKAs are great, but actually there I still prefer the Koing Annan from La Maison de Macaron when they’re making it, which they aren’t always doing, and I also think La Maison has the superior Almond Croissant. La Maison also has fabulous seating, so there’s room for both to coexist. Here in Warwick, we have a cafe that produces pretty good croissants that are usually fresh and hot at 8am, which was a huge upgrade when it opened up, but definitely not the same.

If there wasn’t a pandemic I would have gone to Clinton Street Baking Company for at least their pancakes, but it’s not something that travels. 

My other plan for breakfast was to get the amazing bread and accompaniments at Il Buco Alimentari and Vineria, but that’s a whole day’s worth of food when we do it at home, and also we do have reasonable similar (but not as good) abilities in Warwick in some ways, so I ended up not finding the room for it, even though it’s kind of the best breakfast of them all. 

For desserts, our focus was of course on Levain Bakery and its cookies. Some day I’ll give the rest of their products a fair shake, but this was not the week for that. Bring on the Double Chocolate Chip, the Chocolate Chip Walnut (which does get some bonus flavoring and texture from the walnuts, but in exchange you have walnuts), and the Chocolate Peanut Butter Chip. The Double Chocolate is fine for variety but an inferior good, and the Oatmeal Raisin is the best Oatmeal Raisin anywhere but still primarily used to fool and dismay children and others not paying sufficiently close attention. Don’t let that happen to you. The cookies are always fresh and hot, and even more special that way, but they remain good for several days after. We went three times, the third to pick up supplies for the road.

We also stopped by Billy’s Bakery at one point, picking up a slice of chocolate cake and a few assorted cupcakes. On reflection we should have stuck to cupcakes to conserve space, as this wasn’t as special as our other options. It’s relatively easy to bake a great cake. 

Here’s a list of the places we went outside of breakfast and dessert. We were ordering for two adults

Via Carota is The Truth. No place I know about has better food, period. The catch at Via Carota is that they don’t take reservations period, and it is common knowledge that they’re super awesome, and such places never raise prices sufficiently to clear the market, so in the past it’s been quite the wait to get a table most of the time. That made it hard to go that often, because not that many people want to wait an unknown amount of time for a table, even for the best.

Caviar delivery service to the rescue. While I try under most circumstances to minimize the use of internet delivery services to avoid them taking too big a cut from restaurants, in this case the logistical help from their tracking of delivery was definitely worth what they charge, so I used them and to compensate we tipped generously.  

From Via Carota we got the Poll Alla Griglia, which is the most flavorful amazing chicken I’ve ever had anywhere, and the Tortelli and Tagliatelle pastas, both above and beyond as well. We supplemented with the bread (which is from Sullivan Street Bakery) and Laura got the Carote out of curiosity, which she described as the most delicious carrots she ever had but which does not turn out to have any relation to the restaurant’s name. 

I can confirm that their other pasta dishes (Pappardelle and Tornnarelli) are also amazing, although I do think we ordered correctly. I still haven’t had a chance to try their other mains or appetizers. 

Next up was Tao Downtown. Technically we’d never tried them before, but we’d been to the original Tao many times, and the menus are similar. Delivery distance matters. We got Crispy Orange Chicken, Beef Mongolian and BBQ Duck Fried Rice. The Crispy Orange Chicken is by far the best version of that type of thing I know about. The duck fried rice was very good and full of flavors. The beef mongolian was good, but not on the same level. They don’t include any Jasmine Rice with your order automatically and charge $8 for it, so we ended up only having the fried rice, which turned out fine since the portion was generous, but in future we’d make ourselves some rice. Their white rice is quite good, but not $8 instead of using rice cooker levels of good. We’ve been very happy with uptown Tao’s shabu shabu and their steak and Buddist Delight but those menu items were different here, and I didn’t think the steak would travel so well. Still need to explore the rest of the menu, as this trip focused on exploiting things we hadn’t had in a year.

Katz’s Delicatessen was up next. Get the pastrami on rye and don’t ask questions. One sandwich can often serve two people, but not if I’m one of those two people on this kind of trip. We also got a jar of pickles and a mustard to take home with us. Now that I know I can get their mustard I think that’s going to be my permanent default mustard source. Katz’s has other sandwiches available, and it’s likely that a full optimized rotation involves sometimes getting the Brisket, Corned Beef or Roast Beef or what not, but not so often, and that’s not what this trip was about.

The fourth night was when I was stuck uptown, and we ordered from Cafe Viva on 96th and Broadway. I got a Sicilian Pie well down, which I consider the clearly correct order there, and others got an Azteca pizza, which is definitely not my style. Cafe Viva isn’t the best pizza in the area, that’s either Mana’s Too or Sal and Carmine’s, but sometimes compromises need to be made. The actual best pizza, the one I wanted to order, was Prince Street Pizza, but we didn’t get the opportunity in the face of all our other options. I’ll hit ‘em up next time. I think my favorite pizza is still Keste, but Keste wouldn’t travel well. Lots of great options.

The fifth night we went back to Italian and got Osteria Morini. I was originally planning on going with Carbone, but they’ve shrunk their menu a bit and there was only the one dish (Penne Alla Vodka) that was really speaking to me there, so we went with Osteria Morini instead. A fine choice indeed. They’re pasta specialists. Their secundis are good, but not on the same level. We got a Set of 5 Batillardo all of which were great and super generously portioned (at that price, of course, they kind of better be, and likely fine to just get Prosciutto and the Parmigiano-Reggiano, or whatever most appeals to you, under normal circumstances), then the Rigatoni, Cappelletti and Tagliatelle. The Rigatoni and especially Cappelletti were great, if not quite as good as Via Carota, although the whole no-top-end-pasta-for-a-year thing could be causing bias there. The Rigatoni wasn’t bad or anything, but it wasn’t on the same level.

In terms of other dishes there that we’ve tried, the Meatballs are good, and I alas don’t remember the other pasts too specifically but I think the spaghetti pomodoro, fusilli and gramigna were all good but not quite on the level as their top stuff. I also remember their steak being quite good, if not quite top steakhouse tier, and you can get better supplements here than at most steakhouses. I haven’t gotten a pizza from Nicoletta, which shares an ordering menu with them.

The sixth night was Tamarind Tribeca. Tamarind is at least on par with the best Indian I’ve found anywhere, although they do charge accordingly. Like Tao, you need to order the rice separately, which we did this time, along with Garlic Nan, Milagu Curry and Chicken Tikka Masala. That’s a highly safe order that’s leaving some value on the table, but there’s actual no reasonable access to Indian in Warwick at all, so we went to the most reliable wells even though it was somewhat of a waste at this quality level. Portions were crazy generous, and everything delivered and gave us what we came for, although the quality difference with the standard fare isn’t as high as it is with Italian or Katz’s.

Our son didn’t want Indian, so we also ordered some burgers from Shake Shack, gave one to him and split the other one for variety. We’ve fully adapted the Martin’s Potato Rolls they use, which you can buy in most supermarkets around these parts, but there was still something special there, and when we ran this back the next day, I supplemented myself another burger, this time with the mustard from Katz’s. Worth noting they’re ponying up for the Simply Heinz ketchup. Shake Shack really is by far best in class.

For the last full day I went with Tortaria, source of pretty damn great Mexican, and got the Steak Arietta torta and Tacos al Pastor. The correct order when possible is instead the Braised Short Rib torta, but that wasn’t on the delivery menu. Before the pandemic there was no reasonable way to get delivery from them at all, so I was happy to take it. I also approve of their lamb torta, and of basically all their tacos depending on your preferences. Their guac is fine but not what’s exceptional. What I love most about Tortaria most is I can have a distinct enjoyable meal where I feel satisfied without consuming a lot of calories doing it.

The last day was shopping day for taking things home, during which we secured lunch at good old Eataly. That link is for caviar, but to get their true value you want to go there and get things hot and fresh slash use them as a grocery store. Having them for delivery is still cool, but a lot of their best stuff isn’t on that menu, you need to use other means. At the sandwich shop we got a Top Round sandwich, and it was somehow simply perfect. I used to usually get their Prime Rib sandwich instead, which was the original thing they always had, but this was actively better than that. Many of their other sandwiches are also great, especially Pork Arista, and their rotisserie chickens are the best version of that thing I know about by a wide margin. The panini section is distinct from the sandwiches, and isn’t my thing. 

If you were ordering off the delivery menu, I’d say avoid the Italian-style pizzas because they likely don’t travel well. They’d good but not top-tier if you get them in the store, but Italian-style needs to be consumed on premises without delay. The roman style pizzas could reasonably be ordered and aren’t bad, very high quality ingredients, but likely not your best overall pizza option. 

What are the best options, including for delivery? They are a great source of bread, so the Otto Tondo Bread is a good choice for delivery, as would be the focaccia even though I’d sad that due to the pandemic you can’t get the mozzarella and tomato version at the moment even in store. If you’re in store I like the Ciabatta and Rustic even better. The prosciutto is excellent, with or without mozzarella on the delivery menu, if you’re in store they’re sold separately and both great. The burrata I haven’t had as such but it has to be great. If you’re in-store, getting their parmesan and especially ricotta is highly recommended.  

Their pastas are much better values if you buy them as fresh pasta and make them yourself than if you buy them as dishes, but the dishes are still the real thing, if a tad behind a Via Carota. Tagliatelli, Pappardelle, Ravioli, Agnolotti and Lasagna would all be good choices, depending on what you’re craving.

I’ve never tried their main dishes as such, only their pastas and pizzas. No doubt ingredients are very good, as their butcher and their fish are both great. I love their strip steaks especially, their ribeyes are also quite good. I find the Wagyu here to not be worth it.

Other places that I seriously considered but ultimately passed on were Fiaschetteria Pistoia, Scarpetta, Da Umberto, Strip House (if we actually wanted a steak), Mighty Quinn’s, Hunan Bistro, Brick Lane Curry House (those last two were basically the ‘humble’ version of Tao and Tamarind) and Joe & Pat’s Pizza, as well as good old Magnolia Bakery if we hadn’t walked past Billy’s. There’s tons of good choices out there, even if you can’t sit down the way you’d like.

The Return

The other great thing we were reminded about is Central Park. There’s nothing quite like it, and we seriously considered going to the Upper West Side to have easy access to it. Ultimately we decided against that, and since the places downtown weren’t currently a good fit, we’re still waiting to see if the right place pops up. If it doesn’t, we’ll rent. Either way, we’re at most a few months away from our triumphant return to the city. 

In the meantime, I have my second shot on the 30th, so I’ll at least be back for that.

I can hardly wait.

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6 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:36 PM
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When enthusiastic New Yorkers say things like "everything at your fingertips" I want to ask what they mean by everything, since it seems subjective, based on what sorts of places one values? In this case: restaurants and parks?

I think the answer is: actually everything, minus a few odds and ends.

There are some things that are not available, mainly having to do with physical reality, like: hiking trails, suburban life, buildings as old as in some other places. But if it's something related to human culture, you'll find it. Food is the easiest dimension to talk about because it's everywhere, but if you're looking for art, history, books, NYC has you covered with multiple galleries, a museum it would easily take you a few days to get through, and the 4th largest library in the world. If you are searching for teachers or mentors, you'll find plenty of classes and workshops, including the very best ones. I was surprised that 2 or 3 of the best BJJ gyms in the world are located in Manhattan.

So, to answer your question, New York generally has everything you need to satisfy a curiosity. 

Museums I'll give you (when they are open again).

For bookstores, in these days of electronic books, I don't think it matters where you live. I remember the last time I went into Powell's. I looked around for a while, dutifully bought one book for old time's sake, and realized later while reading it that I was annoyed that it wasn't electronic. I still go to a local library (when there's not a pandemic) but it's mostly for the walk.

Teachers: that's something I hadn't considered. Since getting out of school, I'm mostly self-taught.

I can’t remember exactly what the order was, but there’s a way they do cornbeef sandwiches at Hymie's and Murray's in Philly (where my wife is from) that if you ask for them that way at Katz’s they always ask “oh? Hymie’s or Murray’s?”

In Denver we have The Bagel Deli and New York Deli News. The latter of which is trying too hard to be New Yorkish, but the former has real character and is old school Denver... and Just feels more like a real deli.

I have only two complaints about The Bagel Deli — What I would like is if they had the halva floss instead of (or in addition to) the bars.... also their kugel is pretty sad. Everything else is great down to the celery soda.

Fun as a travelogue and description of eating great food that is making me long for eating at places that I really love again too. Mainly having non stop Mexican next time I go home to California again -- Mexican food really, really, really just isn't the same in Budapest.

Though if you ever are in Hungary, you need to try langos.

Congrats on getting back, getting your shot, and enjoying your trip.