Final day in the U, S of A – cheese and cupcakes

My final (sob!) day in New Jersey didn’t get started until gone midday, due to our impromptu late bedtime the night before. We took our time having breakfast and getting ready before heading into Manhattan for the main event of the trip: Murray’s Cheese Bar. Jen had told me about this place a couple of weeks before I arrived and I’d been eagerly anticipating my visit ever since.

Originally set up as a cheese shop, six months ago Murray’s opened its cheese bar where, for a very reasonable price, lovers of cheese and wine can find utopia. The bar itself, located on Bleecker Street, is decked out in pine with red detail. Diners can sit at tables but the best spot is along the bar that runs the length of the room, where the ultra-friendly staff (our server, Brad, was a great character) can chat to you as you sample the fare.

Murray’s does provide a range of starters, mains and desserts but the jewel in its crown is the cheese boards, which can either be selected from the menu or recommended by the knowledgable staff (we sampled Brad’s favourite cheese as part of our five-cheese board and both agreed it was the best of the lot).

And then there’s the wine. Since arriving here I’ve been amazed by the quality of the wine, and not a little embarrassed about the relative rubbish I’ve hitherto been consuming back home. It’s true that wine is more expensive in bars here than in England (a glass will set you back on average £8 or £9 compared to about £4 or £5), but the standard is noticeably higher so it really is worth it. At Murray’s you can have your cheese board paired with different wines in faster form or select one wine to drink throughout. We opted for a 2010 Argentinian Malbec which was just beautiful.

Our cheese board comprised one Camembert, a dolce latte, a blue cheese and two hard cheeses and they were, without exception, the most delicious cheeses I’ve tasted. Each board comes with a selection of bread, crackers and olives which the staff are happy to top up as required. The total bill set us back $100 including a $20 tip (I’m only just getting used to the 20% tipping system, but now I understand how little staff are paid in restaurants here I’d never consider not paying it) and it was worth every penny. We were even given two fresh baguettes to take home on our way out.

After Murray’s we decided one final culinary blow out was in order and walked over the road to Patisserie Rocco, but were dismayed to find it closed. Fortunately Jen recalled the name of another nearby patisserie, Sweet Revenge, which (as it happened) was also the place my friend had recommended I visit but whose name I myself had been struggling to remember – it must have been fate!

Sweet Revenge blows Magnolia Bakery’s cupcakes right out of the water. It’s only a small place but it has a lovely ambience and a mouth-watering selection of treats. Best of all, they offer a wine and beer pairing menu to help you choose the perfect alcoholic beverage to accompany your cupcake. I had the self-titled house speciality cupcake, the Sweet Revenge, which had peanut butter frosting and chocolate in the middle, and it was the most delicious cupcake I’ve ever tasted! It was paired with the same Malbec we had enjoyed in Murray’s.

After our cupcakes we rounded off the evening with a decaffinated cappuccino. Just before we left we offered the bar staff our baguettes as we knew we wouldn’t eat them and didn’t want them to go to waste. We were delighted when they not only accepted but promptly brought out a plate of cheese from the fridge and sat together to eat it with our bread. It was a particularly lovely moment given it was Easter Sunday-we joked about the irony of us having had our last supper before breaking bread with strangers.

Back at Jen’s we had one final picnic on the floor (now somewhat customary!) with peppermint tea and s’mores before turning in. As I write this it’s seven hours later and I’m sitting at Newark airport waiting for my flight back to London. The past six days have been nothing short of perfect, I’ve really loved every single second and don’t feel we could have done anything better if we’d tried. Jen’s been the perfect host and I’m now in no doubt whatsoever that we will be friends for life-amazing given that when I arrived here we’d only met once before in an Indian ashram two years ago, where our shared love of wine and food didn’t even come to light! I know we’ll support one another in achieving our writing goals, and I hope I’ll have an opportunity to repay her generosity in London if she makes it over anytime soon.

It’s been the best holiday and I’ll be smiling at the memories for a long time to come. I love New York! 🙂

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Day four, Stateside – brunching, shopping and good old-fashioned boozing

The novelty of waking up without a pancake or alcohol hangover got day four off to an excellent start. Jen had booked a table at her favourite brunch spot in Manhattan – The Park – for midday so we took the Path train to 14th street and walked there in glorious sunshine. The Park is a stunning restaurant with a large outdoor conservatory area where diners can sit and enjoy their meals as birds tweet and fly around above them. The food is as much of an experience as the setting, with The Park famed for its delicious brunches and complimentary banana bread. We had Mimosa cocktails (the same as Bucks Fizz) and I tried French toast with vanilla maple syrup for the first time (which was absolutely heavenly).

After brunch we crossed the road to the High Line, a raised walkway that runs across several blocks allowing visitors to take in the city from a different viewpoint. We walked up and down for the best part of an hour, stopping to bask in the sun and chat to a couple who were taking their five month old baby out for his first experience of spring weather (particularly poignant when you consider in his short life he’s already lived through a hurricane ripping through his city).

With the High Line ticked off we strolled the few blocks to Jen’s workplace where I left her and carried on to the central shopping street of Broadway. Within minutes of walking into Bloomingdales I felt overwhelmed and hastily beat a retreat back out onto the street. Captivated by a top in the window of Guess I wandered in and was promptly attacked on all sides by overbearing shop assistants asking if I needed any help. My stress levels rose instantly and, far from feeling assisted I actually felt more stressed than I ever thought it possible to feel in a clothes shop. Fortunately I managed to hold my nerve and resist most of the purchases suggested by Edwin, my flamboyant assistant, but I did succumb to three little tops that will be oh-so-perfect for Glastonbury in June….

I emerged from Guess feeling thoroughly drained and desperate to get off Broadway, so started making my way to Jen’s restaurant for a drink and something to eat. Unfortunately en route I was distracted by a Calvin Klein sample sale and somehow coerced into buying two dresses (neither of which I could really afford, but they were half price and designer…)

The restaurant Jen works in is a lovely little French bistro called Vin et fleurs. I settled myself at the bar and ordered a glass of Chardonnay and a cold plate of vegetables with a side of the famous mashed potato with truffles that Jen had told me I had to try. I got talking to JD, a friend of Jen’s who works locally and regularly comes into the bar for a drink, and the lovely bartender Daniel, and before I knew it the evening was drawing to a close and Jen’s shift was about to end. Barry, who was in the area, popped in for a drink and when Jen finished the three of us headed down the road to M’Ladys bar for a nightcap.

When we walked into the bar, however, we saw JD, and half an hour later Daniel walked in so rather than having one drink we ended up having quite a few and not leaving until 3am! It was such a fun evening and I’m so glad I got to experience a typical night out in downtown Manhattan with the locals. 

One thing’s for sure: I’m really going to miss this place and all the people I’ve met here. 

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Jen and I on the High Line in Manhattan

Day three, Stateside – revenge of the pancakes

Day three brought with it an unwelcome hangover from the evening before, but it was nothing brunch at a traditional American diner wouldn’t cure. Once we’d managed to pull ourselves together and get ready we walked ten minutes to the Brownstone Diner. Settling into a booth, we ordered coffee, pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausages, French fries and smoothies and sat back and waited for our massive haul to arrive.

When the food did arrive I was taken aback by the sheer volume of pancakes before me – three plump doughy pillows half an inch thick and almost as big as the plate upon which they sat. My sausage, bacon rashers and two poached eggs sat on a separate plate beside them and the strawberry and banana smoothie was topped off with lashings of whipped cream. Suddenly my confidence in being able to finish everything on my plate vanished. And, sure enough I was defeated with one and a half pancakes still to go, my dreams of being a competitive eating champion shattered all around me.

Wonderful as the Brownstone Diner experience was it left us desperate for a lie down, so we headed back to the apartment for an hour’s rest before getting ready to go back out. Jen was working a shift at a restaurant in Soho so I went along with her and settled myself in a lovely little place around the corner called Sanctuary T, where I whiled away a pleasant few hours sampling speciality teas, writing and watching the world go by. When my appetite finally returned I treated myself to a delicious kale salad with truffle oil, hazelnuts and Parmesan accompanied by a glass of Malbec (which, I have to admit, made me feel terribly grown up).

On the walk back to the Path train I couldn’t resist popping back into Patisserie Rocco for a post-dinner cappuccino and mini pastry, where I proceeded to read my book by candlelight and do a spot more people watching. Afterwards, caught up in the sights and sounds around me I walked a block too far and had to retrace my steps to find the train.

When I got back to the apartment I was horrified to find a two-inch long centipede on the bathroom floor. Immobilised by fear, I backed out of the room to find my phone and Googled it to see if they were dangerous. Fortunately the answer was no; apparently ‘house centipedes,’ as they call them, are commonplace in the New York area, and whilst they’re not particularly pleasant bedfellows they are harmless and they even help control other pests like spiders (given that spiders are my worst enemy in the insect world, I suppose that means centipedes should really be considered friends?).

All in all another eventful day in the U, S of A…

Day Two, Stateside – the adventure continues

Day two of my New Jersey adventure dawned bright and clear. After our enormous dinner the previous evening we opted for a tummy friendly start to the day with some granola and yoghurt before walking the short distance to another of Jen’s favourite coffee shops/writing spots, the warehouse coffee shop. The sun hit the decking exactly where we sat so we basked in it for a while as we sipped our coffees before heading to the Path train for another river crossing to Manhattan.

Today’s activities, we had decided, would begin with a traditional tourist activity: A jaunt up the famous Rockefeller building to see the amazing panoramic views over the city. We didn’t get off to the best of starts after spending a not insignificant amount of time circumnavigating a building that we thought was the fabled Rockefeller looking for the entrance, before realising with some embarrassment that the actual Rockefeller centre was a block further along.

Fortunately we took a last minute decision to visit Dunkin’ Donuts before ascending the tower, as what we’d anticipated would be a quick up and down visit inevitably turned into a tourist honey trap full of inescapable opportunities to purchase bits of crap (a t-shirt with a metro map on it – really?) and have your photo taken in front of ridiculous backgrounds for the price of a small condominium. The views more than made up for the tourist crap, however.

By the time we were done at the Rockefeller we were ravenous (obviously), so immediately sought out the nearest Two Brothers pizza joint for a slice of one dollar (one dollar!) pizza. Seeing us struggle to eat our giant slices of pizza a British hedge fund manager sitting next to us handed Jen a napkin and said he hadn’t realised eating pizza could be so funny. We told him he should see us eating donuts, which shut him up.

After Two Brothers we decided to walk off the pizza and head to Soho on foot. But not long after we set off it started to rain so we ducked into Grand Central Station, where we saw posters advertising an art installation by Nick Cave comprising brightly coloured horses made of corn husks that twice a day are ‘brought to life’ by human performers. We spent some time wandering around the central concourse looking for the horses before realising (again with some embarrassment) that they were in fact located in the next room, and would not be performing for the rest of the day.

After the non-performing horses we walked the 30 or so blocks to Patisserie Rocco in Soho where we had the most delicious peanut butter cheesecake I have ever tasted and a cup of coffee before continuing on home to Jersey City. After a rest we walked (surely all this walking is offsetting all the food consumption – surely?) along the waterfront, taking in the glorious view of the Manhattan skyline by night, until we reached Teak restaurant in Hoboken.

Teak is a stunning sushi restaurant and bar with theatrical statues of lions on the walls and a giant fish tank running the length of the bar. As it was the start of Easter weekend the place was heaving, but after a half hour wait we managed to procure a table and settled in for some serious (and I do mean serious) sushi action. Afterwards we met Barry, a friend of Jen’s, who took us to a traditional American bar for some post-dinner drinks (cider beer’s a new one on me). Another all-American dream day 🙂

Day One, Stateside

My first full day in New Jersey began in Jen’s favourite hangout, the Beechwood Cafe, for bagels and coffee. Once fortified we walked to the Hudson riverfront to look at the amazing view of the Manhattan skyline before jumping on the Path train under the water to Manhattan.

After disembarking at 33rd street by Macy’s we walked through Times Square and almost 30 blocks (!) to Central Park, picking up cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery and blonde roast coffee from Starbucks along the way (naturally).

By the time we reached Central Park the sun was shining and the clouds were fluffy white puffs in the sky. We sat and sunbathed on a rock for quite some time before walking off our cupcakes around the boating lake. Then, greedy as ever (!), we bought a bag of sugar coated almonds for the walk back to 33rd street (what? It was a long way!) and got the Path train back across the water.

We had a rest and a snack (are you sensing a theme here?!) before catching the train back over to Manhattan, this time heading to West Village in the meat packing district to meet Jen’s friend, Erin, at Jane Hotel for drinks in the ballroom (where we had the most incredible rose wine) and dinner (a cheese starter followed by a tower of cous cous with vegetables and warm chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream rolled in crushed pistachios to finish-heavenly but utterly, utterly gluttonous, and a stretch even by my capacious standards of eating). Afterwards we rolled ourselves back to Jersey City and into bed. A perfect first day 🙂

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Me and Jen by the boating lake in Central Park.