Exiting the Penn station subway three days before Christmas I feel at once assaulted in all directions by the NOOOOW YAAAAAARRWK nes of it all. There’s none of that false English politeness as I’m barged aside irreverently, over stuffed rucksack knocked off my shoulder, teams of screaming kids tear up station steps whilst others bellow into mobiles and shout over my head. Reaching the sidewalk offers no respite as we’re hurled amongst tough harried locals and hoards of tourists, we ricochet and dodge, weave and whirl the ten-ish blocks to our hotel. The streets feel alive; those iconic yellow taxi’s screech past beeping horns, the ground literally reverberates under foot as trains rumble not so far below and all around are the twinkling, sparkling lights that are a permanent fixture in a City, that to my mind at least, is perennially Christmas no doubt in part due to my love of such festive movies as Die Hard and Home Alone. My first and only visit around nine years ago was undertaken with an whopping Australian jet lag which numbed the experience somewhat and left me feeling completely undewhelmed, this time I’m seeing things with a new clarity and added culinary slant.
Our hotel may have been expensive but it is utterly magical, walking up the forecourt of the New York Palace is like walking into a Disney fairytale of Christmas; a huge tree is festooned with glistening decorations and the hotel is laced inside and out with twinkling lights, glitzy chandeliers and festive flowers. It’s also ridiculously central, just a short walk to Times Square, The Rockefeller Centre and numerous Subway Stations. Manhattan I find is populated with a disturbing number of Starbucks, I’ve heard Joe’s is good but somehow fail to find it, we do however discover a Dean & Deluca deli round the back of our hotel that, as well as stocking Donut Plant doughnuts and some very tasty food made in-house, serves a not too terrible espresso. Handy.
Our first evening is spent roaming the streets in an aimless body clock addled daze in an attempt to quench a suddenly raging hunger, I’m aware of the futility of this as I picture NY versions of ourselves circling Picadilly Circus in much the same way. By 2am body clock time, my limbs are heavy, head is fuzzy and the bitter, face numbing wind has rendered me a slurring drunk despite none of the warming hug from actual liqueur. I spy a glorious looking pizza on a billboard that calls simply to the most basic of instincts and we brave streets turned icy wind tunnels to reach Don Antonio. Who knows whether or not the pizza was actually any good ’cause there’s catagorically no room at the cosy Italian Inn.
Dejected we decide only chilli will warm us and we set off again eventually finding a large Mexican which we choose over Five Guys mainly on merrit of seeming cosiness against clattering noisiness of the burger joint next door. It’s a bad decision. The food is as bad as you might imagine, we have a whole bell pepper stuffed with cheese and deep fried, which actually doesn’t sound so bad now I’m typing it, but the batter is soggy and greasy and unbelievably grim. What might have been a redeeming guacamole made cringingly in front of us at the table is sadly lacking in seasoning and a first round of margheritas we’re sure are missing tequila, this highlightd by the fact that a second round puts hairs on our chests. We return to our hotel feeling slightly deflated and knock back a Negroni nightcap (thanks duty free) before passing out.
Of course the next morning we wake with fresh enthusiasm and plot out ambitious routes, the Metrocard is our friend and we used it every day to navigate our way around the sprawling City, admiring the beautiful stations that house mosaics, art deco design, ironwork and quirky staues and appear to make up for unimaginative train line names that are simply numbers and letters.
It’s hard to organise the trip into blog posts but I’ll try, by starting central as that’s where we’re staying, then moving onto some of the other places I enjoyed. Of course Manhattan is tourist central and impossible to avoid, there’s no denying it does ”The Holidays” very well; ice skating at the Rockefeller, the be-ribboned Cartier building that emmits festive tunes, the Saks light show that draws you in wide eyed, giant bauble sculptures and much more. Despite ourselves we end up lurking frequently around the area as it’s so close to the hotel, drinking in atmosphere with fists thrust in pockets, eyes skywards.
Christmas Eve we find ourselves ambling again with no clear idea of where to go until we hit Grand Central and The Oyster Bar suddenly became the obvious choice. Ok, maybe not an obvious choice for a non seafood eater, but for old school retro fabulousness and the fact it was one of the few things on the boys list to visit, and as generally a non ‘food tourist’ I really couldn’t deny him this one. The restaurant is vast and glamorous, located underneath the main concourse, we eschew table seating for a spot at the long bar where we watch chefs at work under tiled arches and drink in pregnant Christmas Eve buzz along with pink fizz and sea salty aroma. The boy treats himself to a whole platter of horror and I wince as I watch him slurp oysters with delight, we share excellent crisp and crunchy french fries. Whilst we’re sat there, two couples occupy the spot to our left and both tell us proudly that they’re regulars, visiting the bar every year as a Christmas Eve treat, it’s enough to warm ones cockles.
We come over all touristy as we leave and whisper sweet nothings to each other across the low arches of the whispering gallery. Lingering once again in the Times Square area I can’t help but eye up the street food trucks for a cheap protein fix; I have my heart on a knish but can’t quite quantify the deep fried potato, and go for a chilli dog instead. It comes not as I’m expecting topped with chilli, but as a chilli spiced kosher beef dog, it’s just the right size though I could do with it being more than luke warm in temperature, but as we huddle in the cold, snow busts out of the rain and tumbles down magically as if on cue.
Christmas day itself is spent mainly locally where I’m at first overcome with horror that so many of the shops are open, my poor little brain doesn’t quite comprehend as we wander around all confused, but we quickly acclimatise. We take the subway down to the Tribeca/Soho area to have a little mooch and although I’m aware the lack of any crowds makes it rather unnusual, the clean wide pavements, raised shopfronts and focussed shopping vibe give it a very LA feeling, clearly being out of the tourist zone not much is open, but I’m keen to try Everyman Espresso – I don’t make it back sadly.
With most of the places I’m dying to try for food closed we decide it’s the perfect opportunity to try one of the delis that line the streets; not a deli as I would describe one, more a local convenience store, each has a central buffet island and a long counter filled with a wide variety of tempting sandwiches ready to be toasted. The boy has an oriental selection from the buffet priced by weight, I go for a Siciliana sandwich combination that includes mozzarella, prosciutto, ham, sundried tomatoes, and I think bizarrely (and unadvertised), lashings of mustard. After some more walking – we do a LOT of walking – the streets get mental busy, I’m not sure what everyone’s doing but they’re ALL out, we retreat back to the hotel for a gin & blood orange San Pellegrino (yum). A trip to the hotel bar for a rather large martini allows me to tick off my New York cheesecake box with a very tasty pumpkin version along with a great spicy cinnamon ice cream and very pretty sugar crystal slipper. The rest of the evening is spent back in our hotel room with plenty of red wine and a carpet picnic of cheeses and bread from Chelsea Market.
Magnolia Bakery is a bit of an institution and on Christmas morning, in fact all day, we can’t get within feet of the low key looking building, so we pop back on Boxing Day for another attempt. The shop looks busier than it is, though it *is* busy due to just a narrow gangway and no seating, with customers loitering over decisions, confusion over the queueing system, and some huddled near the door attempting to inhale their chosen treat. Behind the counter is a production line of sugar, we watch mesmerised as vast trays of cupcakes are piped with lurid frosting. It’s not just the popular cupcakes on offer though and we select a slice of pumpkin pie and a brownie from a range of other cakes in the counter. I have to say that although the shop is an impressive hive of confection, I’m not overly wowed by the goods; the pie which is pleasingly heavily spiced, has a filling that seems a little loose, maybe it’s supposed to be like that? The brownie is a touch dry although it works quite well with the white chocolate fudge topping, I still prefer mine really gooey.
We also pop into The Bouchon Bakery, who’s book I covet, which is a rather more sophisticated affair with lots of macarons, cookies and foie gras dog biscuits (I am sorely tempted….). I choose from here a creme puff that is completely wonderful; light choux pastry is lined with caramel and filled with thick chantilly creme and creme patisserie swhirled togther.
Finally in this post, yes I’m nearly done for now, we make the seemingly obligitory pilgrimage to Shake Shack. After hearing such great things about the burgers I’m pretty excited and frankly bully the boy into going on our second evening, worse I make him stand in line for twenty minutes ish. And, I can honestly say I don’t really get it. Yes, the burgers were ok, I really liked the cheese filled mushrooms and the buns were amazing. I loved the super crispy crinkle cut fries topped with squeezy cheese, I also loved the idea of the dessert concretes, though my doughnut and jelly one was a little stale, and the fact you can get booze with your burger. But I just don’t think it’s worth the amount of hype it garners. They’re certainly better than our high street burgers but there’s simply no comparison to our best; Lucky Chip, MEAT…., Patty & Bun, Byron etc. It’ll be interesting to see how they fare when they launch here next year.