Thursday, February 24, 2011



1.    This ode to New York is based on a pre-9/11 visit.
2.    World Trade Centre was very much a part of our reality then.
3.    Global terror had not reached its current proportions.
4.    It was much easier and more pleasurable to travel across the Atlantic. No body scans, no overly suspicious security checks.
5.    The Pierre was a Four Seasons Hotel and not a Taj Hotels managed property, which it is today.
6.    The prices listed are dated to that visit and no longer valid now.
7.    Gai Brodtmann, my ex-boss and dear friend is now a Member of Parliament in the current government in Canberra, Australia.
8.    Pierre Jochem, my other ex-boss in now the Regional VP & GM at the Raffles in Singapore.

‘You will simply love New York’, friends proclaim to me as I experience the best of Americana, both along the east and the west coast.

And true to its reputation, the Big Apple, the City of lights, the City that never sleeps is as trendy and as glitzy as they come.

Nothing, not even my two and a half months long stay in the US prepares me for New York.  And to add to the glitter I am staying in Manhattan, easily the best burrough in New York, the ‘IN’ place to be located in.  My address for the Four-day long stay is going to be ‘The Pierre’, the most elite and exclusive Four Seasons hotel located on the trendiest Fifth Avenue.  The name is enough to add oodles of glamour to the introductory lines of my conversation, raise many an envious brow and catapult me from the identity of a commoner to the Ivy League of jet-setting, globe-trotting clique that sets an Armani cash register ringing.   But more on The Pierre later, the Hotel that embodies the big-ness, the High-Profileness of New York in superlatives, that is a residence to scions of some of the famous business families including Rockefeller, whose list of regulars include names like Naomi Campbell and where it is easy to spot the Casanova of modern-day love ballads, Michael Bolton cradling his favorite drink in the Hotel’s unobtrusive Bar.

You can arrive at New York by getting into either the JFK airport near Queens or at the Newark airport in New Jersey.  While a cab from Newark into New York would cost you about $80, a cheaper and easier (given the infamous NYC traffic jams) way could be to get on to an airport shuttle and get dropped at the doorstep of your destination.  As against the daylight robbery of a cabbie I pay an affordable $16 for a comfortable 1 ½ hour-long ride into the Big Apple.  The only sore point was a bit of ego bruising.  Here’s what happened. Upon being reprimanded for not knowing the directions to The Pierre like the back of his hand my shuttle driver admits that ‘this’ is the most posh area of New York and that he’s never had the reason to be here before. He further adds that ‘anybody who stays at The Pierre, I don’t think comes by a Shuttle’.  I am slightly hurt by the driver’s blunt statement but soon forget the insult as the gracious doorman takes my hand to help me step down.    The jarring comment soon becomes a matter of the past as I step into the legendary Hotel and am made to feel absolutely at home by the warm and courteous hotel staff.

New York is easily the world’s ‘Action’ capital.  There’s something happening for everybody all the time. If you are the ‘arty’ kind then NY presents ample opportunities for you to get lost in the world of museums. A guide to New York states that you could devote an entire month to museums in the city and still not do them justice.  But if you are hard-pressed for time, like I was, then I would recommend that you see definitely two of the biggest that New York boasts of.  The Museum of Modern Art that prides in itself for housing one of the world’s best and most comprehensive collection of modern art. And The Metropolitan Museum of Art, popularly called ‘The Met’, which is the biggest in the Western world. The treasures of “The Met” include a vast collection of American art and more than 3,000 European paintings, including masterpieces by Rembrandt and Vermeer.  There are also many Islamic exhibits, and the greatest collection of Egyptian art outside Cairo.

When time is of essence, one of the most intelligent things to do, I have discovered, is to get on a guided daylong city tour.  While it may leave you ‘not fully satisfied’ it still manages to give you a fair snap shot of the city.  Plus you can easily make a claim to the fact that you’ve been there and done that!  I got onto one of those conducted by Grayline Tours on my second day in the city.

After a sumptuous breakfast of toast, bagel, cream cheese, egg white omelette with herbs and tomatoes, fried potatoes, Blueberry pancake, Grapefruit juice and coffee, I take a cab for the Grayline Terminal in time to start off at 8 sharp.  (Contrary to what I had been told, cabs within the city are not that expensive and cost anywhere between $6 and $10 on an average.  However, a 10-15% tip to the cabbie is considered mandatory). 

The tour begins at Saint John the Divine – the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world.  A magnificent building, currently under renovation, the Cathedral has some beautiful stained glass works.  Since the “Manhattan Comprehensive Tour” is resolved to pack a lot in the day, the first half of the day is a quick drive through the famous Harlem (known for its glorious heritage as the intellectual, political and artistic capital of black America); Museum Mile (stretching from the Carnegie Mansion to the modernistic Guggenheim); Rockefeller Center (home to Radio City Music Hall and famous for its giant Christmas tree and ice-skating rink); Times Square, Greenwich Village & SOHO (the trio to which I return later, with a vengeance); Little Italy (offering both casual outdoor cafes and fine restaurants featuring food from every Italian region); Chinatown (a bustling, multicultural “city within a city”, Chinatown contains more than 150,000 residents, making it one of the largest Chinese settlements outside Asia.  Personally, I much preferred its counterpart in San Francisco and found it to have more vibrancy and character). 

With one half of the ‘Touch and go’ tour over at the stroke of half past noon, we are right in time for a 3-course lunch in a traditional restaurant in the heart of China town.  Spring-rolls, fried rice, vegetable noodles – Cantonese style, pork spareribs, chicken Manchurian-style, dry chili lamb, Chinese green vegetables (with the over powering presence of PakChoy)  all washed down with the oh-so-American coke, diet and regular and rounded off with delicious mango ice cream and fortune cookies (mine reads ‘you speak beautifully,’ putting a smile on my face, perhaps also having met with its purpose).

Soon after lunch we drive, on a balmy afternoon that is increasingly becoming warm, to one of the tallest buildings in the world.  The twin buildings of the World Trade Center at 110-storeys are simply overwhelming.  The World Trade center is home to 450 businesses and 50,000 workers.  For a tourist, however, the main activity involves a visit to Top of the world for breathtaking views from the 107th floor (the express elevator takes just 58 seconds to reach this level) of the Center’s glass enclosed Observatory and 110th floor outdoor deck.  The view of Manhattan, the beautiful skyline (immortalized by scores of Hollywood films) and the majestic Empire State Building is awesome.  A movie about the history of New York in the Center’s Simulation Theater is yet another major attraction.

The second half of the Tour begins with a Ferry ride over the Hudson River to the world-famous Statue of Liberty and the historical Ellis Island.  The Statue of Liberty, declared a national monument, is the most American of Americanisms.  Anyone who sees this spectacular Green Lady is astonished by its beauty (sculpted in a thought provoking manner by Auguste Bartholdi) and gigantic size (height from ground to top of the torch – 305 ft, 1 inch). While the museum in the vortex of the ‘Lady' could keep you occupied for a couple of hours (with easily an hour or so going away in queuing up to get in), a ‘must do’ is the strenuous climb up the 354 steps to the Lady’s crown.

Before returning to the Battery Park, the Ferry takes a detour to Ellis Island entrenched in the Immigrant American history.  More than a hundred million Americans can claim ancestors who came through Ellis Island.  A movie on the epic Immigration, a museum, audio tour, The American Immigrant Wall of Honor and live performances make learning about American History fun and informative.

Battery Park, to which you return after the second half of the day well-spent, is a hub of activity – carts selling hot-dog & pretzels, street musicians, interesting sculptures and excellent portrait artists abound.

The Tour ends with a quick passing through Wall Street (‘The’ place of green bills in the Finance Capital of the world), United Nations and South Street Seaport (a restored historic district which has restaurants and shops located in and around the piers overlooking the East River and Brooklyn).

My second night out in New York is spent dining at Amaranth – ‘the’ place to dine in, currently, in Manhattan.  Amaranth (an imaginary flower that never fades) at 5th Avenue on 21st East, 62nd Street, true to its reputation, is buzzing with activity thronged by trendy New Yorkers draped in latest designer wear.  While Amaranth may be making waves, it had a set of discerning guests to please that evening.  My host for the evening is Pierre Jochem, the handsome and debonair Hotel Manger of The Pierre together with his young, strapping son Cedric who is currently interning at the other Four Seasons Hotel – considered an institution in Hospitality circles.  Pierre insists we are seated in front of the restaurant.  “Being seen and being noticed is an integral part of dining out in New York,” he explains to me.

Pierre, who was the Food & Beverage Director for Hyatt International at the age of 25, is a tough customer and chooses the menu for the evening as if he was buying a masterpiece.  Cradling our welcome drink of Champagne with guava and peach, Cedric and I engage in some looking around leaving Pierre to select the wine for the evening (Cennatoio Chianti Classic 1997) and the food.  Forking in our choice of appetizers (Baby Arugula salad with shaved Pecorino Toscano, Caprese salad, Buffalo Mozzarella with tomatoes and basil and Prosciutto di Carpyne served with Figs) we see Paparazzi narrowing down on a couple seated near the entrance, hidden behind dark shades in that evening hour.  ‘It is not uncommon to chance upon well-known TV and movie stars in restaurants on 5th Avenue or Madison Avenue,’ Pierre tells as I forget my Gourmet meal desperate to find out ‘who’ they are.  As we weave our way through the carefully selected main course of Tagliatelle with mixed wild mushrooms; Four cheeses Raviolini with butter and sage and grilled Halibut with extra virgin oil and vegetable relish, I am delighted to be the center of attention for one of the paparazzi whose flashbulb focuses on our table.  Pierre tells me that the man mistakes me for a ‘Maharani from India’ but Cedric and I are certain that Pierre, with his movie star good looks, is the real object of the lensman’s desire.

Feeling pretty important and adequately noticed we round off our meals with Apple Tart with Sherbet; Lemon, Raspberry and mixed fruit sorbet and Biscotti with a Berry coulis and vanilla sauce.  Pierre makes his wallet lighter by 205 $ as we sign off a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

On my third day in New York I have this strange sinking feeling of there being a vacuum – a queer sensation of emptiness.

So far I’ve touched New York but not felt it.  So, I decide to get on to a walking tour of the ‘Happening’ City (walking in New York is certainly one of the best ways to see the city and let its essence sink in).

I take a cab from The Pierre to Café Riviera on the West 4th Street, which is New York’s oldest neighborhood dotted with beautiful, brown-stoned Town houses, small cafes, salons and unique shops.  Many famous movie stars live on this street.  Walking towards 8th Avenue I make a left on hitting the 8th into Bleecker Street.  With its set of unique shops, bookstores and café’s, this is the main shopping street in Greenwich Village.  I find an exquisite Asian art shop from where I pick up a unique fruit bowl from Bali made in antiquated wood.  I’m sure it will make a nice farewell gift for a friend.

Having trudged purposefully some more I find myself on the Crossing Christopher Street in the Greenwich area, known to be world’s most famous “Gay” street where Gay Pride began.   

I am in the vicinity of New York University with its impressive building and thickly shaded boulevards.  I turn right on La Guardia Place onto West Houston or West Broadway (the same street changes names) and find myself in South of Houston (pronounced ‘Hows’ ton) filled with the trendiest shops, unique NYC designers, cafes and some of NYC’s most exclusive art galleries.  Popularly called SOHO and once the neighborhood for New York’s budding artists, it is known for its chic boutiques, popular art and photography galleries and make up salons. Cobblestone streets give this neighborhood a very European feel.

I moved through some more cafes, galleries, antique shops and designer boutiques on Spring, Green and Grand streets before turning right to the 6th Avenue.  The walking tour through the Greenwich, University and SOHO areas took me about an hour and a half. 

And if you were to take a No. 6 bus to 45th street and walk west you would find yourself walking through the Theatre District.  Broadway gave us Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Neil Simon, Eugene, O’Neill ……….., who in turn gave us Carousel, Gypsy, Oklahoma, Annie Get your Gun, Sound of Music, West Side Story, Phantom of the Opera……..  A ticket for Broadway show costs anywhere between $100 and $250 depending on the popularity and the show’s novelty.  However, if you have the patience to stand in serpentine queues at the Times Square or the World Trade Center you can get the same day show tickets for half the price.

Walking through the crowded Broadway Street I bump into a friendly Gladiator.  He obliges me with some pictures and I walk ahead finding myself face to face with that much-hyped monument to man’s modern mindset. Times Square, a place of intense activity, has been described as a “wall of light and color, urging the onlooker to chew gum, drink beer, see the world’s most beautiful girls………”

For most of the last 100 years, the Great White Way has had the biggest, the gaudiest, the most remarkable signs in the world.  While I am looking around, I see a couple of American Indian musicians set up shop at the Square and start playing to the passing crowds.  Quite a few like me stand to listen and sway to their music and upon leaving either drop a dollar in a box or buy their CD (Angel by the duo called UMBRAL, mixing sounds of guitar and a traditional wind instrument, is one of my favorite CDs).  In a typical tourist fashion, I also buy some ‘I love NYC’ T-shirts for $2 at the Square.

After my official meeting at the Marriott Marquise a stone’s throw away from Times Square, I wander around the stylish Madison Avenue before taking the bus back to The Pierre. You must remember that the buses in New York only accept 1.50$ and all in coins.  

The Pierre, as I mentioned earlier is a very exclusive hotel and a home to several kings and queens, Heads of state, Corporate big wigs and movie stars.  The day I was checking in, the Hotel was swarming with black-suited security personnel in attendance for the Israeli Prime Minister.

The Hotel brochure states, “From the multilingual Concierge, to the elevator attendants, to the housekeepers who visit twice daily, guests enjoy quiet, unobtrusive service with a standard-setting degree of personalized attention.”  I couldn’t agree more.  In less than four days I am addressed by name and my preferences are already finding their way into the Hotel’s guest profile.  I am staying in the beautiful Boudoir room that comes for $ 950 plus taxes a night and located on 37th floor offers a breathtaking view of the NY skyline anytime of the day but much more spectacular at night.  The Hotel uses Bvlgari range of cosmetics and offers complimentary newspaper and shoeshine service.  Marked a VIP guest, I also get complementary bottles of Evian Natural spring water, S.  Pellegrino sparkling natural mineral water and a plate of chocolates or petit fours depending on the Patissier’s creativity.

In the evening I am connecting with Gai Brodtmann, my ex-boss and friend who’s also in New York to attend a conference.  Gai insists that she will take me out for dinner provided I can find an excellent Indian restaurant.  I entrust the task to the Hotel Concierge who come up with the name of the current hot favorite - Tamarind.  

Gai, looking ravishing in black pants, a pink body hugging high neck, black stilettos and a pair of her favorite Gucci sunglasses, meets me at The Pierre Bar to catch an early drink before we walk through the famous Plaza Hotel, diagonally opposite to The Pierre and now a landmark for the movies such as Pretty Woman and Home Alone that were shot there. 

We hop into the taxi (the fare comes to about $8  including the tip but Gai decides to leave a cool $10 bill) and race towards ‘Tamarind’, located at 41-43 East, 22nd.  Tamarind, run by Restaurateur Avatar Walia, has been voted the finest Indian Restaurant to open in New York in almost a decade and is featured regularly in Crain’s New York Business and New York Times. 

The restaurant opened four months back and has climbed to the top in this short time.  Avatar Walia is a proud owner as he tells me that even “Lord Lichfield from England voted us the Best Indian Restaurant in the World.”

Tamarind’s clientele is upper class, hip and younger and a fair mix of Indians and Americans. Its décor is minimalist, consciously moving away from loud, in-your-eye Indian and with aesthetically placed Rajasthani screens, traditional textile prints from Gujarat and temple bells. Its kitchen is run by Chef Raji Jallepalli–Reiss who hails from Hyderabad and Memphis and whose extensive menu is multi-regional. 

We choose Fume Blanc, Robert Mondavi ’99 and the unavoidable beer (for Gai) for the evening and enjoy the most authentic and delicious Indian meal this side of the Atlantic. Our choice for the evening – an assorted Appetizer platter of Raji’s aloo tikkiyas, vegetable samosas and bhel puri’ jhinga angarey (Jumbo prawns marinated in yogurt and roasted with chili and cilantro)’ Raji’s machli tikka’ Chicken shahi korma, paneer makhni, achari mushrooms, Tamarind rice, assorted breads and kheera raita (passing off the dessert completely) – came to us for $130.  Apparently the pricing is also right at the Tamarind with an average check for two running upto $40-50 for lunch and $80-90 for dinner.

While the current Mayor has done wonders to New York’s reputation and cleared up the streets, earlier unsafe with criminal activities, it is still possible to get mugged in the Big Apple.  Being careful and vigilant are the buzzwords.   The other trick is to totally avoid risky neighborhoods – Bronx and Central Park at night are not the safest places to be in.  Also avoid taking buses and walking alone at night.

There is a certain, specific way of hailing cabs in New York.  Get off the kerb, onto the road in full vision of the cabbie and stretch up and flail your arm(s) as far as it goes.  If you are lucky you get one in 5-10 minutes, otherwise be prepared for a 20 minutes wait especially at night.

In the day, however, it is really convenient and economical to bus it in New York.  And it’s not even down market as you find men in business suits, well-turned out older ladies and the younger crowd in trendy outfits using it as a preferred mode of transport.  Given the scenario, shuttling between the Fifth Avenue and the swanky Park Avenue and back to the Central Park is a cakewalk.

While in New York, one of the musts that you just have to do is to walk through the legendary Central Park.  Stretching from 59th to 110th streets, the urban park spans 843 acres.  Highlights include the Central Park Zoo, the Wollman Memorial Ice-skating Rink, horseback riding, Belvedere Castle, Bethesda Terrace – the formal center of the park with the famous Bethesda Fountain, the memorial to the Late John Lennon and a battery of caricature and portrait artists.  The Park also is a jogger or walker’s delight.

It’s my last day in New York.  I’ve seen New York but not enough of it.  I’ve already spent four glorious days but a few more would have been nicer.  I’ve had one helluva time in the Big Apple and as an icing on the cake on my final day, I am lunching with Pierre Jochem at The Pierre’s famed Rotunda – the Hotel’s renowned signature room with its intimate, private clusters of seating and loveseats, splendid trompe l’oeil murals and ceiling, created by American artist Edward Melcarth.

My lunch comprises of orange juice, the classic Pierre salad followed by vegetarian Risotto for the entrée capped off with cappuccino (given the good living in New York, no dessert for me please).  Pierre picks up the soup of the day (a special sea bass soup) and crab cakes and washes it all down with two cups of Espresso.  As I look onto another table I can swear that we have Christina Aguilera as our lunching companion that afternoon.

At the stroke of five, having packed and rested a little, I find myself comfortably ensconced in a chauffeur driven, shiny black limo with compliments of The Pierre racing towards JFK airport via Queens with Pavarotti for company.

(Picture courtesy - Google Images & Flickr)