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A string trio in Central Park.

Almost a year to the day after my last carload of belongings disappeared into the Lincoln Tunnel and left Manhattan forever, I found myself approaching the island on the Z train from Jamaica with just a small suitcase at my feet, gazing out the window at the Empire State Building as I had on so many arrivals before. I’d always thought the best ways to experience the Empire State Building were from the observation deck on the 86th floor and from a great distance. Even from my apartment building’s rooftop on 29th and Lexington, just a few blocks away, it never seemed as tall and majestic as it did from Queens.

I needed to see New York again. Living there was never going to be permanent — I had eyes for California — but my fifteen months there inevitably felt like a negligible scratch compared to the deep etchings so many others leave on New York’s weathered surface.

The wet, salty smell of the Lower East Side awaiting me when I got off the train was immediately comforting. Added to it — umbrellas, sweat, and the earthy aroma of food and wares from Chinatown. I excitedly tugged my suitcase to the apartment of a dear friend’s on Eldridge Street, who had generously invited me to stay with her, and after a quick shower to wash away my red-eye flight, she whisked me off to Maialino for a late lunch.

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Curry Hill.

My old neighborhood is what I might call Curry Hill to most who asked, with an ebullient description of the Asian spice shops and restaurants on my block south of oft-frowned-upon Murray Hill, but for the select few I felt the need to impress, it was north Gramercy. I walked around the park as often as I needed to go to Union Square on beautiful days, and after Maialino opened, I always admired the abundant loaves of bread in their south window — and congratulated myself for the time I charmed my way into the exclusive rooftop Jade Bar at the Gramercy Park Hotel looming overhead.

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Reflections outside Maialino.

Lunch there was pleasant, and a taste for simplicity will be rewarded. I loved their Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe, thickened beautifully with Pecorino cheese. The Malfatti Al Maialino, suckling pig ragu, was very likable, but the ingredients weren’t as elevated. It’s also unfortunate that the restrooms are adjacent to where servers congregate, because I was privy to a discussion of shifts while in the privy.

Predicted rainstorms held off until we were safely inside the restaurant, but I had to put my MTA umbrella to good use for the rest of the day. I said goodbye to my friend then scurried into the 23rd Street 6 train station and weaved my way over to the Upper West Side, underground, until I arrived at the subterranean entrance to the Museum of Natural History.

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Museum of Natural History.

A lifelong frequenter of museums, and a huge fan of the “Night at the Museum” movies today, I wandered aimlessly, intentionally and very happily. I had a MoMA membership when I lived in NYC, and I used it at least monthly, and also visited the Met and Whitney, the Museum of the City of New York, and even the inadvisable Museum of Sex (a mere gimmick compared with the extensive Ancient China Sex Culture Museum in Shanghai), but I was wistful about the ones I had not seen in my time living there.

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Dioramas!

I loved seeing the gem collection, dinosaur fossils, and most of all the dioramas of African animals. I was so engrossed in this last exhibit that I dropped my new camera case, and three laps around the diaramas didn’t recover it. The museum was closing early for a big event, and we were all being gently directed to the exits. I made my way to the Security office for the unlikely chance that someone had turned it in to Lost and Found. And not a half hour after I dropped it, in one of the most visited museums in the world, there it was. New York, full of surprises.

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The rain stopped just in time for me to see the museum’s beautiful exterior before leaving.

Later on that evening, I met a girlfriend for drinks at Turks and Frogs, one of my favorite beautiful and dimly lit places to go for a glass of wine in the West Village. It was amazing getting to catch up on life in person. I love Facebook for enabling me to keep in touch with long-distance friends, but it’s not the same.

From there, I sprinted with my umbrella down Hudson and ducked into Takashi, a new-ish restaurant that earned New York Magazine’s prestigious designation of “best offal” in its 2010 Best Of issue. I had to go.

People generally grimace and stick out their tongues when I tell them my favorite food — sweetbreads. If I had an ounce more pluck, I would congratulate them on guessing my second favorite food.

New York Magazine’s write-up mentioned a dish called the “tongue experience.” Takashi’s website confirmed they had sweetbreads too, as well as the first and fourth stomach, large intestines, heart, and various other beef cuts. If an appetite for sidemeat is your Achilles’ heel, try the Achilles tendon!

Imagine my surprise, though, when I was sat at the bar around the chefs’ prep area with a personal grill in front of me, and realized I would be barbecuing these meats myself. It’s hard not to think about the animal when I’m handling raw meat, but enter the menu: the first page specifies exactly where the meat is sourced from (farms in upstate New York and Oregon), how it’s raised (grass fed, hormone and antibiotic free, and pasture raised), and who distributes it (Dickson’s Farmstand in Chelsea Market and Pat LaFrieda).

As the grill heated up and began to warm my face, I was served bowls of very bright, pungent, spicy kimchee; bean sprouts with a fantastic umami quality; and cabbage salad with a sweet ginger miso dressing that was so delicious I would later use it as a dipping sauce–probably much to the staff’s dismay, but they’d never show it. My spunky server never left me waiting, wondering what would happen next, and she didn’t hover either.

The “tongue experience” included four to six pieces each from the front of the tongue, back of the tongue, and bottom of the tongue, seasoned with salt, garlic, and sesame oil. I’ve always had tongue sliced all the way through, so this proved to be an experience for my tongue too. The bottom was the most tender.

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Sweetbreads before the barbecue at Takashi.

The sweetbreads will last in my memory for years to come. Ten slices (or what I think amounted to five sweetbreads as ordered from most restaurants) laid in a platter of Takashi’s sauce, a savory and sweet barbecue marinade, with green onion and sesame seeds. I was encouraged to cook them two minutes per side, but rather than use my cell phone timer, I gauged doneness with my body clock, and the look and texture of each piece. I learned a lot of the sweetbreads I’ve eaten are overcooked, and I found an entirely new appreciation for this playful food.

I had brought a New Yorker to read during my meal, but in more than an hour I only read a couple of pages. This food was seriously fun. And for the tongue experience, sweetbreads, a large Sapporo, and a grateful tip, I still only spent about $50.

The rain had let up by the time I finished, so I actually walked the whole way back to the Lower East Side, with a quick stop in the Pegu Club for a delicious nightcap fizz and a little journaling.

And despite that once-familiar symphony of screeching car brakes several floors below, I slept very, very soundly.

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Russ and Daughters!

The next day, the sun was out, and so was I. My friend lived just a block away from Russ and Daughters, and I knew I would find something to fuel a long day of walking ahead. When I walked in I was hit with a briny, sweet aroma. The deli was packed with people who actually knew what to make of the colorful display cases in front of them — herring many ways, glistening cream cheese, several kinds of roe — and I tried to see what they did before taking a number for myself.

“Would it be too much to order the Super Heebster on an everything bagel?” the woman next to me asked while I waited for my number to be called.

“I think,” the gentleman behind the counter said, pensively, “that would be a very good idea.”

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The Super Heebster. I should have taken a shot of the cross-section.

And so I also had the Super Heebster — baked whitefish and salmon salad, horseradish cream cheese, and wasabi roe — on an everything bagel, as well as a container of herring in sweet mustard and dill sauce.

The only thing richer than that spectacular sandwich was the rich Jewish culture I observed and felt around me. You can read biographies of the lab coat clad staff on the website, and I love this from Alina Sheffi: “Even if someone just wants a sandwich, there’s a conversation that happens and we get to share a moment with that person.” I love knowing the staff enjoys this as much as I did.

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Upper East Side — a gorgeous apartment building, a fluffy white dog eager for her walk, a businessman in a good suit.

From there, I walked down to Canal Street then took the 6 train all the way up to 86th Street to do my usual tour of Central Park — except this time I paid more attention. I paused to read dedication placards on benches as I walked, and I stopped to listen to a harpist and a string trio playing near the Bethesda Fountain. I took a little pleasure in the realization that the carousel was playing music by Blondie, and relief in seeing that the horses drawing carriages weren’t breaking a sweat.

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One of my favorite views…

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This must have been thrilling!

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The harpist.

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Cute couples in Central Park.

From there, I took the 1 train down to the West Village, walked the High Line as I have many times before, and meandered through the tiny side streets lining the Hudson River — one of my favorite things to do, now and always. I ended my tour at Sweet Revenge, where I picked up cupcakes for my parents. They are my entire family’s favorites.

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West Village.


Seventh Avenue in the West Vill.

I raced back to my friend’s apartment to shower and change, and the rush hour train traffic set me back a half hour to meet up with another friend for a drink at the University Club. I felt terrible for making her wait, but I was so grateful to experience the club — particularly its rooftop terrace, from which I had a perfect view into the sculpture garden at MoMA! I’ve sat in the cafe and courtyard so many times, wondering what the big blue umbrellas belonged to, and I finally knew.

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MoMA from the University Club.

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Empire State Building optical illusion from Fifth Avenue. It’s at least twice the height of the rest of the buildings in this photo.

After that, I walked all the way to 29th and Lexington, just to see it — the old place — and then around the corner to Iron Sushi. I used to order a salmon roll, eel avocado roll, and side of spicy mayonnaise at least weekly. When dine-in business is slow, Dennis, the owner, plays pop music on the restaurant’s stereo and pulls up the lyrics on his laptop computer so he can sing along to the music, and one night, I joined him in singing Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight.” After that, whenever I called to order, he would greet me with the chorus.

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29th and Lex.

Happily, Dennis was as excited to see me when I came in as I was to see him. We sang “Take Me Home Tonight” together again, and he treated me to a glass of wine and salmon roll (with a side of spicy mayonnaise) on the house. It reminded me of a wonderful anecdote in E.B. White’s “Here Is New York” about a shop vendor who tells a longtime patron who has moved a few blocks away that he thought he’d never see her again. It was a very special homecoming.

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Iron Sushi.

Then, dinner at Riverpark with my host friend and her boyfriend.

Imagine my sadness when, only a few weeks after I moved from my apartment on 29th and Lexington to LA, I learned that Tom Colicchio was opening a restaurant at 29th and 1st Avenue. I had wanted to eat at Riverpark ever since I learned about it, and when I finally did, the experience was a little bittersweet. It didn’t quite feel like a Tom Colicchio restaurant to me.

In many ways, though, it did. I’ve found bar staffs to be wonderfully generous at Craft, eager to offer a glass of bubbly for the inconvenience of a wait to be sat, for example, and my bartender welcomed me back to New York with a wonderful glass of North Fork Chardonnay on the house. The decor is similar, too — modern, muted, minimalist. Like Colicchio and Sons on the Hudson River, Riverpark is situated on the East River, though it uniquely offers diners gorgeous views from inside the restaurant and an outdoor terrace.

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Riverpark’s view across the East River.

And Riverpark’s menu is the kind of food I love most — innovative new American cuisine with Mediterranean influences and nontraditional ingredients. This is food I generally love, even at risk of it feeling corporate. And yet. I took a bit of time to eat my breadstick, and it quickly became very hard. The mushroom consomme appetizer was excellent, and fans of Craft’s butter braised mushrooms would enjoy them in this dish, but my appetizer sweetbreads were small and uninteresting and overcooked compared to, again, Colicchio and Sons’. I loved the entree size squid ink chitarra, and the repeat ingredients of lemon and Fresno chile were much more prominent here. The taste and texture of the spaghetti was incredible and transported me to the Adriatic sea, but I would have loved more, or larger, shrimp and calamari. The duck and scallops were cooked very well — just a bit predictable. We loved our wines, and an accidental pouring of one’s into another’s glass was amended quickly with fresh glasses for both. This restaurant is still finding its footing. And I know it will.

As it happens, there’s a reason why it felt different from Tom’s other restaurants — we learned it’s more of a joint-venture with Chef Sisha Ortuzar, who has been with Tom dating back to Gramercy Tavern. No wonder it feels different. It should.

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Healthy appetites in New York City.

The couple took a train to Brooklyn, and I returned to the Lower East Side. She had recommended a nightcap at Mary Queen of Scots, so I took her up on it. And then I wandered some more. There was karaoke. A New York night, to be sure.

And just like that, my day and a half in New York City were over. It was just enough. And it was just what I needed.

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It gets me every time.

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