The Beast, with a little help, takes Manhattan

The Beast was weary, like many before him, about turning 30. He had bouts of depression and anxiety over the milestone birthday, which he’s tried to alleviate by just looking fabulous and which I tried to remedy by taking him to New York City. We talked about going somewhere together, just the two of us, to lift his spirits. After all, eight years ago we celebrated my 30th birthday in Grand Bruit, NL, with a cake that the Beast made from a box, and the wind howling so fiercely outside that it felt like our little house might blow away to sea. We threw around destinations as diverse as Las Vegas to renting an isolated cabin in the Shenandoah Valley. In the end, Manhattan won.

He’s only been once before. I took some of his requests, like the American Museum of Natural History, into consideration but he left the rest, including restaurant reservations, up to me.

When I travel I follow roughly the same formula: Quick and easy breakfast, followed by museums and galleries, while you’re still fresh-eyed, followed by lunch, followed by explorations, which may include a cocktail or espresso stop, followed by adventures, some of which should be unplanned, and more explorations, followed by refreshing up at the hotel, followed by a late-night dinner. We didn’t exactly plan that these late-night dinners would be well after 10:00 p.m. every night, but those were the only reservations available.  In the end, it worked out perfectly because we were never ready to eat at 7 p.m., or even 9.

There were celebrity sightings, no breakdowns, meltdowns or fights, plenty of laughs, a few blisters and one or two stops that we didn’t make it to. All in all, “The Beast Takes Manhattan at 30” trip, with a loose theme of “let’s pretend like we’re early 20th century millionaire industrialists cocktailing, wining and dining about town, with a side of Uniqlo every day,” was a success.

Here’s our itinerary, photos and recaps, which I will try to keep short.

Day 1

During the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, actress Greta Gerwig  asked me for a light outside of a hotel. As we smoked a cigarette together, she wrote down a list of her favourite New York destinations for me. One was Murray’s Bagels, where the Beast and I headed after dropping off our luggage early on Day 1 at the Jane. From there we took the subway straight to the Natural History museum where there was a special whale exhibit. There were also many children. I am just regaining hearing in my left ear as I type this. Their squeals and screeches were charming. But after 30 seconds of it, I glared darkly at the adults who let them run around hitting each other and uttering noises as abrasive as the taxidermied animals and extinct skeletal remains of dinosaurs that they tried to climb on must have made. A walk through Central Park from the west side to the east side of the city cured all. And lunch at the Papaya King–an 80-year-old hot dog joint–reinvigorated us. Walking into Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel, where we rested our tired dogs and sipped on cocktails while surrounded by walls painted by the creator of the classic storybook Madeline, felt like walking backwards in time, as cliched as that may sound. Afterwards, we walked across the street to look at some black and white photographs taken by Dennis Hopper at the Madison Ave. Gagosian Gallery. A couple of candid Paul Newman portraits reminded both the Beast and me of our friend Nick Edwards. From there we made our way back to our hotel to check in and freshen up before dinner at the Michelin-starred, Mario Batali restaurant Babbo. I will not include any blurry, under-lit photos of our meal, which was incredible. Like some reviews, which never fault the service or food, we were unsure of the music, which included Nirvana and Led Zeppelin. But it didn’t seem to bother anyone else. Maybe because the food is just as good as everyone says it is: we ate grilled ramps with mozzarella di bufala, lightly fried soft-shelled crab, grilled artichokes, gnocchi with braised oxtail, ravioli stuffed with ricotta and served with asparagus and mint. That would have sufficed, but we went the distance by ordering a secondo of skirt steak with salsa verde and contorni of peas and roasted potatoes. (We brought most of that home.) Oddly, perhaps, the peas are the thing that I remember most. And a beautiful bottle of 2006 Sassi Neri montelpulciano from the Fattoria Le Terrazze.

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Day 2

After a simple breakfast of croissants, which we kept saying over and over again in the French fashion, and coffee, we took the subway uptown to the Frick. The Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick’s collection of art, housed in his Fifth Avenue mansion, continues to be one of my favourite spots in the city. It never overwhelms, like the Met or MOMA sometimes can. And where else can you see three Vermeers and paintings by Duccio, Bellini, Whistler, Goya and countless others under one incredible roof? Staying on track with visiting New York art collectors’ homes, we headed straight for J.P. Morgan’s mansion and adjacent library. This banker, who after the 1907 crash went door to door to ask his rich friends not to pull their money out of the stock market and thereby lessoned the impact of the panic, loved the Renaissance. He even imported a coffered wooden roof from Tuscany to adorn his library, which is filled with Renaissance paintings and sculptures. The displays are always changing here. Last time I saw a draft of the Declaration of Independence and letters written by J.D. Salinger. This time we saw one of three Gutenberg bibles that Morgan owned (there are only 50 in the world), plus the Lindau Gospel, a letter written by Jane Austen, countless Medieval manuscripts and a special exhibit prepared by contemporary artist Matthew Barney, who I used to be obsessed with. It was an incredible morning. After a quick espresso at the Cipriani Bar in Grand Central Station, we walked to the Uniqlo, which everyone says is like the Japanese Gap, across the street from the Empire States Building. We spent too much time here. We were hungry and tired afterwards. I took the Beast directly to Shake Shack, which has almost become a rite of passage for anyone visiting Manhattan, as the constant line-up in Madison Square Park attests to. I did the waiting, while the Beast secured us a table and just looked fabulous. We then made a quick walk through Eataly and then while I got a manicure and pedicure (we had a wedding to attend in Bethesda, MA in a few days–it was necessary), the Beast walked around the West Village smoking and just looking fabulous. We made our way back to our hotel and dropped off our Uniqlo purchases and had a cocktail in the ballroom of the Jane. Then we went to a place recommended to me by two different people the day before we left: Chez Sardine. And thank goodness, too. It was a perfect meal, and we’d learned a valuable lesson at Babbo the night before: start off small because you can always order more aftewards. We began with oysters, cod fritters and a pork and unagi handroll, followed by a selection of sushi and more soft-shelled crab, and washed it all down with a crisp and minerally bottle of Gruner Veltliner. The nicest part was when the owner, who used to live in Montreal, came over to chat with us after he found out we were Canadian. The Beast and I were so proud that we didn’t over-order that we decided to walk over to Carmine St. for a slice of Joe’s Pizza. But then the kitchen messed up a plating of a special dish and decided to send it over to the over eager Canadian couple at the bar, instead of throwing it out. The dish was a whole salmon head. When something like this happens, you’re obliged to eat the whole thing. Lucky for us, it was delicious–including the eye ball, the Beast assures me. We didn’t make it to Joe’s.

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Day 3

Everybody talks about the High Line in a sort of OMG YOU HAVE TO LIKE GO THERE way like they talk about Shake Shack. Sometimes there’s a reason for this, other than hype. What a glorious thing it is. We walked from the start, which was just around the corner from our hotel, and got off at West 21st St. to take a peek at some monumental Anselm Kiefer paintings at the Gagosian in Chelsea, then we got back on and walked to the end of the high line at West 30th St. From there we walked across town to jump on the subway line that would take us to the Met. We knew pretty much what we wanted to see: late 19th and early 20th century American paintings, followed by old European masterpieces, followed by late 19th and early 20th century European paintings, followed by the Roman gallery, where the 2,000-year-old paintings from the Boscoreale Villa blow my mind every time I see them. It’s astonishing that they survive and that the degree of naturalism and perspective they contain was lost for so many years, only to be brought back again some 1,300 years later by the giants of the Proto Renaissance, like Giotto and the Lorenzetti brothers. Lunch was at the uptown diner Soup Burg, another Greta Gerwig suggestion that didn’t disappoint. Back in the West Village, we had an espresso at Bar Pitti because I recently read in the New Yorker that Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach hang out here. We didn’t see them. But the Beast spotted Gilbert Godfrey pushing a kid in a stroller and said, “YOU!” to him. He also spotted Owen Wilson in Soho leaning up against a store front while sitting on his bike and talking on his cell phone. As we passed him the Beast said, “Now THIS is incredible! Big fan, big fan!” Wilson nodded and smiled. Mortified, I had to pull the Beast away. After one last stop at Uniqlo on Broadway, we intended to venture into the Lower East Side and the financial district, where the Dutch first settled the island and where millions of immigrants passed through to live in tenement housing, to, you know, authentically feel authentic history. I even thought about taking the Beast to the street where they shot the Godfather II scenes of Vito Corleone in New York. But our feet, covered in Band-Aids by now, got the better of us and we went back to the hotel where we had a quick cocktail at the Cafe Gitane bar before heading back out for our final New York meal at The Dutch, chef Andrew Carmellini’s Sullivan St. place dedicated to American food. We decided on a light meal of oysters, followed by an 18 oz. bone-in New York strip steak with sides of broccoli, French fries and asparagus, followed by a piece of coconut cream pie. We chose an Oregon pinot noir to accompany the memorable meal. The only component that disappointed was, well, the rest of the crowd eating there, or at least in our vicinity. The Beast noted that it felt like they seated the non-New Yorkers–the sort that talk on their cell phones through dinner, split an appetizer and a pasta and order a couple of beers–in the back portion of the restaurant, which was as beautiful a space as the section that opened up onto Sullivan St. But there was an egotistical part of us that felt as though we’d been miscast in our own New York City narrative. “WE ARE NOT LIKE THEM EVEN THOUGH WE WENT TO SHAKE SHACK,TOO!”

In the end, though, I suppose we are all alike: We come from away desperate to for a taste of everything that makes New York  maybe the most unique and exciting city anywhere in the world; desperate to feel New York, through and through. Although, there was the time when we were on the Upper East Side and a family from Ohio apologized profusely because they thought they stole a taxi from us. “We’re not from New York. We are so sorry!” And there were the two young women from the U.K. who we passed on Bleeker St. and asked us where they should venture to next “that would be cool, because you two look like you would know.”

OMG that was pretty fabulous. (And good thing they didn’t see me tell the Beast that I would not go and ask the dude who was a dead ringer for Rod Stewart for a photo with us, perhaps my only real regret of the trip.)

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5 responses to “The Beast, with a little help, takes Manhattan

  1. Gillian Channer

    Thank you for this marvellous post. I feel, somewhat, like I had a trip to NYC myself. So very happy for you both. xo G

  2. william c, allen

    FABOOLIS/FABOOLIS plus/plus perfect time recounted! My, my! yrpop

  3. This post made me swoon and salivate in equal measure. What an utterly perfect NYC getaway! And a dreamy way to spend a 30th birthday. The Beast sure is lucky to have you 🙂

  4. sarainamerica

    I loved reading every bit of this!

  5. thepaulcarlinPaul

    Yes yes yes yes yes

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