You may think that my trip to New York City was about dessert and dessert only. Well, I did manage to squeeze in some sightseeing in between all the munching. First, let's take a look at the hotel room where we stayed. I found a very reasonable deal with this newly opened boutique hotel in downtown Brooklyn. Normally, traveling for skating trip means utilitarian hotels to keep our expenses low. However, being my birthday weekend, I was in vacation mood so I decided to go with a boutique hotel instead. The minimalist decor is pleasing to the eye. The free WiFi and modern bathroom fixture do not hurt either. However, the most "interesting" part of the room was the lack of a bathroom door. There was a door to make the toilet a private space and there was a frosted glass door that enclosed the shower but the sink/vanity was a semi open space that looked right into the rest of the room. It was a little inconvenient if, like me, you are more used to doing all your primping in a private space.
My last day in New York City was spent by myself and I took the opportunity to explore the city to my heart's desire. My first stop was Jacque Torres' chocolate boutique in DUMBO Brooklyn for a taste of his famous Wicked Hot Chocolate. Looking for the store was an adventure in itself because my GPS led me to some roads in the city that was not so pedestrian-friendly. The boutique was tucked in a street lined with cobblestone and it was a nice change from bustling Manhattan. As soon as I stepped inside the store, I was surrounded by the sweet smell of chocolate. I bought a box of chocolate with some interesting flavours but I'm saving that for enjoyment back home. Fortunately, it was a nice cool day so walking around the city with a box of chocolate was alright (chocolate does not like temperature fluctuation). Being a cool windy day had another advantage of course. It meant sitting outside the store with my cup of hot chocolate was a great relaxing experience instead of a sweaty one! While I waited for the hot chocolate to cool to comfortable drinking temperature, I messed around with my camera for a bit before finally deciding that it was practically impossible for me to take a decent self-portrait drinking hot chocolate. I waited for some time before a nice group of visitors came out of the store with chocolate in their hands. Lucky for me, one of the guys had a fancy camera around his neck and I asked him to take a picture of me with my camera. It was that moment that I came to the discovery of one VERY IMPORTANT RULE of single traveling: Always look for guys with fancy cameras to take picture of you. In the very least, you will not end up with pictures like this. With a bit of luck, you may even end up having some of the most excellent pictures during your trip! As for the hot chocolate, it was nice though not quite the European-style hot chocolate that I've come to expect. I can't wait to taste my box of chocolate though once I get home.
I got lost for a bit before finally giving in to asking directions at a coffee shop. I wanted to find the walkway entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge but it was not as easy as it seemed. Sure the bridge was looming large over the harbour but it was not obvious how to get there unless I was in a car. When I got there at last, it was well worth the effort. The walkway was divided into two halves, one for pedestrians and one for cyclists. There were tourists like me but there were also joggers and cyclists going about their own business so it did not feel like a tourist trap at all. The rain from the last few days was gone and the clear sky offered a fantastic view of the Manhattan skyline as I slowly walked along the bridge. I love the geometric lines created by the criss cross of the cables. It reminded me of all the graphs we drew in math classes back in school and the strength created by such symmetry. It was also cool to listen to the roaring engines of the cars below as they sped away.
Once I got to Manhattan, I proceeded along Lafayette St to Soho. On my way over, I passed through Chinatown...the noise, the sights, the crowds...doesn't seem that different than Chinatown in downtown Toronto. It actually felt kinda strange, like gentrification in a parallel universe. I had lots of fun browsing in the boutiques in Soho but one store caught my attention. It was the Helen Wang boutique! And it was store-closing sale up to 70% off! I bought a dress from this designer a couple of years ago and I still love it today. Out of a whim, I tried on a floor length black satin slinky dress with a double-sided bolero jacket in black velvet and hot pink satin. It was stunningly beautiful. I was not really shopping for a party dress but I was seriously tempted by the bargain. However, as I was checking the dress for defects, I found a tiny hole in the front of the dress. Well, that made for an easy decision...until the store clerk showed me the same dress in a deep sapphire blue in my size. Obviously it did not go well with the jacket but as it was still rather expensive, I decided to think about it over lunch.
I looked at my watch and was alarmed to see how much time I spent at the store. It was less than 10 minutes until my reservation at Le Bernardin on 51st St. There was simply no way that I could arrive on time if I take the subway. I jumped into a yellow taxi and off we went. As the taxi weaved between the busy traffic on 6th Ave, it felt like a Hollywood moment. There I was in a cab, hurrying to a fancy restaurant for lunch after shopping at a boutique in Soho. The whole experience was rather surreal.
I arrived at the restaurant merely five minutes late but as soon as I stepped inside, I totally forgot the stress of arriving late. As one can expect, the service at this calibre of restaurant is impeccable. The need of the diner was met almost before the I felt the necessity to ask. This kind of pampering reminded me of my first Michelin 3-star experience at Taillevent. However, as for the food, Le Bernardin is to seafood as Arpege is to vegetable. The care of preparation and the highlight to natural flavour of the ingredient really shined through. My meal began with a salmon spread made with both raw and cooked salmon. The contrast of texture for the fish was delicious. For my appetizer, I ordered the Black Bass tartare Mediterrean style served with olive, citrus, fennel, and majoram. One often see tuna or salmon given the tartare treatment at restaurants but it was the first time I tried it with black bass. The dish was very refreshing and the more delicate flavour of black bass matched well with the citrus flavour. Although it was served with slices of bread, I did not feel the need to enjoy with the bread at all. It was tasty all on its own. My main course was poached halibut with marinated almond, pistachio, and a blood orange verjus. It went without saying that the fish was cooked just right. It was a bit theatrical when the waiter pour the bright red sauce over the fish tableside but it soon became apparently why. Perhaps because of its cooking method, the fish sweated some water into the sauce which clouded the colour. For aesthetic purposes, it made sense to delay the mixture of sauce and fish until the last moment. I love the fruitiness of the blood orange and the rich taste of the nuts. The flavour of this dish was well-balanced.
The reason that brought me to Le Bernardin was the fame of their executive pastry chef Michael Laiskonis. After the main course, I was served a cute intermezzo of an egg shell filled with chocolate and caramel cream with a bit of fleur de sel and a touch of maple syrup for garnish. The flavour combination is a classic one and the cream was smooth. It was a nice preview of what was to come. After much consideration, I decided on the Chocolate Sweet Potato dessert made with dark Amedei chocolate ganache, sweet potato pearls and sorbet, pistachio, palm sugar, and vanilla salt. The waiter gently warned me that the dark chocolate ganache is very chocolatey and some people may find it surprisingly bitter. Being a fan of Amedei Chocolate myself, I've come to expect that. The ganache was lightly set and resembled the texture of a bavarois. Yes, it was indeed very chocolatey! What was most memorable was the taste of the sweet potato sorbet. I enjoyed sweet potato in many form but sorbet and pearls was a first for me! It was fun but at the same time, very skillfully made. My lunch concluded with a cup of espresso served with various mignardise including warm financiers.
Time was ticking away and I had yet to visit Chikalicious. I knew that I already missed my chance to visit their Dessert Bar for a full dessert tasting experience but I still wanted to drop by the dessert club to try some of their simpler dessert. However, Le Bernardin was practically next door to the Rockefeller Center so how could I possibly not walk over for an I-was-here photograph? I circled the buildings a few times before finding the crowd of tourists around the famous golden statue. It really looked exactly like it did on television (yup, that's the country bumpkin in me talking)! Too bad it's still too warm to have the skating rink in place...
I made a quick stop at La Maison Du Chocolat to pick up a box of assorted dark chocolate. It is one of my favourite chocolate boutiques so stocking up was a bit of a must-do in NYC. :) While I was waiting to pay for my purchase, a lady beamed with happiness as she received her cartons full of La Maison Du Chocolat wedding favours. It was quite a sight to see hundreds of those signature brown boxes...
I didn't know how but I did manage to visit Dessert Club, ChikaLicious. I sampled the vanilla steamed pudding and the upside down cheesecake. My impression of both dessert was the strong Japanese influence. Sure the taste was classical but they were made in such a way that reminded me of the French pastry shops in Tokyo and Kobe. They were well made and I regretted that I could not visit the dessert bar on this trip.
P.S. I returned to Helen Wang even though I was seriously running out of time to arrive at the airport on time...I got the dress and made it to my flight alright. :) It would have been really bad if I miss my flight because it was the last flight out of Newark to Toronto and I had an early flight to catch the next morning to Hong Kong!