Monday, January 21, 2013

A Day in New York

Last week I took a business trip to New York.  The business reason for the trip aborted, but in New York there is always the chance for a great visit.

The original reason for the trip was to accompany Jane Perez, whom I had represented in the Virginia Supreme Court against a preliminary injunction requiring her to change unfavorable reviews she had posted on Yelp and Angie's List about a contractor who then sued her for libel.  After the Virginia Supreme Court overturned the injunction,  I helped her find a pro bono lawyer, but she was still facing the prospect of significant our-of-pocket expenses, and was conducting an online campaign to raise funds to continue her defense.  (I urge readers to donate to that fund).  The Anderson-Cooper daytime talk show expressed an interest in having her appear on the show along with the contractor, and given the history between the two – he had shown up at her door demanding to “talk to her” after his previous lawsuit against her had been dismissed — she was nervous about appearing without her lawyer present.  So my purpose in going was to provide some reassurance while she made her case on the air.

Our appearance was derailed, in the end, by the exceptionally broad release that the show apparently exacts from each of its participants, including a confidentiality clause so sweeping that, if we had seen a guest offering payola for inclusion on a broadcast, or seen a rape while backstage, we would have been forbidden to talk about it publicly or even to tell our friends or law enforcement officers about it.  I tried to get an explanation for the sweeping secrecy pledge, but could get nothing more detailed than that every daytime talk show allegedly imposes similar requirement, and that the parent company for the Cooper show, Time Warner, does not want to have public discussion of its company business.  I remain curious about what the producers have to hide that requires them to demand such sweeping confidentiality clauses.  Beyond that,  Anderson Cooper soils himself by allowing his program to be associated with confidentiality requirements that any serious journalist would oppose.

In the end, I did not have the opportunity to learn what they have to hide because, while my client and I were on the train to New York, we got a call from Anderson Cooper’s producers telling me that, because of my strenuous objections to the confidentiality requirement, they were cancelling the segment.  By this time, it was too late to go back to DC, so I decided to make the best of the situation by sampling New York’s delights for a day.  After all, it was Restaurant Week in New York (actually, more like Restaurant Month, because it lasts from January 14 to February 8) and although I have frequently taken advantage of the DC restaurant week to try places that would strain my normal dining budget, I had never tried New York’s similar event.

On arriving in New York, I guided my client to the Hudson Hotel on 58th Street near Ninth Avenue, where the Cooper show had booked rooms for us and quickly took off for the Yerba Buena, a pan-Latin place in the East Village where I was to meet my cousin Elisa for dinner.  The plan to visit this restaurant had begun on a disturbing note, because when I made a reservation for the place on Open Table, the confirmation message informed me that the reservation was not eligible for the Restaurant Week menu.  I called the restaurant to ask about this, but because the place is open only for dinner, I got a recording instead — and the recording informed me that no reservations were being taken for Thursday through Sunday!  That left me feeling nervous, so I made a backup reservation by telephone at Dévi, a very interesting-sounding Indian restaurant up near Union Square.  But when I reached Yerba Buena by phone later in the day, they assured me that Restaurant Week would be honored, and in fact they were very flexible, letting my dining companion  two appetizers instead of an appetizer and main dish, and offering her a dessert that could not be found on the Restaurant Week menu.  (I'll have to try Dévi the next time I am in New York)

And the food was excellent (although the print on the restaurant week menu was so light (lighter than the regular menu) that I could barely read it).  We began with an excellent beet and spinach salad and a pair of crispy shrimp empanadas.

Shrimp empanadas at Yerba Buena

Beet / Spinach Salad at Yerba Buena
 I had the seafood stew as my main dish – it featured fluke as well as shrimp and other shell fish.  Because Elisa avoids red meat, she opted for a second appetizer, tuna tartare served on a "potato salad" that was much more like mashed potatoes; the potatoes were too spicy for Elisa’s taste, but I liked them.  I had the coconut mousse for dessert — more of a cake, I thought— and  Elisa chose an off-menu selection, the chocolate souffle.  I thought it was quite good — almost as good as the flourless chocolate souffle that I make at home from time to time.
Chocolate souffle at Yerba Buena

 After dinner,  I walked back to West Fourth Street the long way, passing by DiRobertis’ Pasticceria on First Avenue and Eleventh Street where Nancy and I used to spend evenings when we were living in Chelsea back in the 1980's. I would have been tempted to stop in for a pastry just to admire the ancient tin ceiling, but I couldn't eat any more after dinner.

I went back to the Hudson Hotel.  The first impression on entering the lobby is a fine one, with the ceiling and walls covered with vines, but I cannot recommend staying at this hotel, at least in a cramped regular room like the one I had.  The bed was so close to the walls—barely one foot on one side, and less than 20 inches on the other side—that it would be a disaster for the claustrophobic.  Had I been there as a couple it would have been unbearable.   The bathroom was even worse, because the toilet bowl was so close to the wall, with less than a foot of space, that I could not sit straight because my legs would not fit.  I found the thermostat inadequate—it often cooled off too much before reheating.  One nice feature of the room—the bed was exceptionally comfortable.  As for the staff: the lobby staff were accommodating without being cloying or unduly intrusive, but I could not say the same for the room cleaning staff.   There was a knock on my door before 9 AM, asking when I would be checking out so that the room could be cleaned, and then another knock before 9:30 for the same purpose.  The advertised checkout time is noon, so I have to assume that the cleaning staff is given so many rooms to clean that they simply cannot get the job done without urging guests to get out of their rooms immediately.

Taking my own sweet time, I left the hotel a bit before ten, walking uptown for a day of museum visiting with a Reed College friend.  I could have taken the subway or bus, but unless time is pressing or I have to carry heavy luggage, I always prefer to walk in New York to admire the architecture and to soak in the atmosphere of the city streets. 

We began at the Guggenheim Museum where we saw an exhibition of Picasso works in black and white.  We passed up the free audio tour because just after we arrived, a docent was beginning a guided tour.  The fifteen or so participants were drawn into a lively discussion of the either works, two sculpture and six paintings, on which the tour focused.  After the ninety minute tour, we had just enough time to walk slowly through the rest of the exhibit, and we had to skip a Kandinsky exhibit that I had hoped to see as well, because we wanted to get down Fifth Avenue to the Metropolitan Museum in the hour that remained before the lunch reservation that had been our original plan for getting together when I had expected to spend a few hours on the Cooper show.  At the Met, we entered for a dollar apiece, taking advantage of the “pay want you want” policy that is familiar to most New York natives but, apparently, mysterious to everybody else, whereby $25 is only the “recommended” admission price; visitors are actually free to pay what they choose and thus can treat the entire payment as a tax-deductible donation.  Living as I do in a city where all the public museums are free of charge, I have a principled opposition to paying $20 for admission to an art museum, instead of making a separate donation.

We started with an amusing small exhibit on Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, and then proceeded to the piece de resistance, a comprehensive Matisse show.  We didn’t have nearly long enough to see either show, but then, the Met is such an astonishingly rich museum that there is never enough time – you have to take this museum in (comparatively) small doses.

Finally, we took the bus down Fifth Avenue and walked across town on 59th Street to reach our final destination, A Voce Restaurant.   The restaurant is on the third floor of the mall portion of a corporate office building, normally not an auspicious location for a fine restaurant, but I was pleased with our selection.   We began with a nice broccoli soup
Broccoli Soup at A Voce

and through a miscommunication, ended up with both a green salad (which my dining companion would have preferred, although the combination of the greens and the dressing made it a bit bitter to me taste) and the pecorino-stuffed ravioli that we actually ordered.  For me, the main dishes were the highlight of the meal, a delicious dorade served with blood oranges and beets, and braised short ribs served with farro.  Dessert was also good – a peppery chocolate cake served with mascarpone, and zuppa inglese.

Sadly, we had to rush through this last portion of the meal, because I was worried about getting to Penn Station in time for my train home.  Still, I left the restaurant stuffed and happy, and in the end made it to my train with enough time to spare that I was able to turn on my laptop and check my email before boarding.