The better half and I try to vacation at least three times a year — my birthday, his birthday, and our anniversary. This being the Internet, I won’t tell you which one occurred last week, but we weren’t able to get away, and so decided to celebrate at home, in New York City. Here’s what we did:
Wednesday: Dinner at Hell’s Kitchen, a trendy “progressive”-Mexican place in (where else?), Hell’s Kitchen. Being reluctant omnivores, we went for veggie choices. A recent trip to Italy had made us more aware of the lovely artichoke, which is not on enough menus in the United States, so we started with the poached artichoke quesadilla with idiazabal cheese, roasted sweet corn, and poblano crema. Yummy. For main courses we ate light and shared family style: We ordered huitlacoche with avocado, and mascarpone cheese. Hutlacoche for the uninitiated is a truffle that grows on corn — or in simple terms a fungus. It has a unique taste and texture, a bit smoky, a bit spongy. We are fans. Plus the cheese didn’t overwhelm the dish, which is one difference between “progressive” Mexican and run of the mill. The crispiness of the taco created a perfect balance of textures. As a second main, we had the burrito with wild mushroom, guacamole and poblano sauce, which was also well balanced and delicious. The mushrooms tasted like they might have been sautéed with a teriyaki sauce, giving them a steak-like flavor. We split a dessert, banana empanadas with chocolate sauce and fresh whipped cream. The cream was unsweetened as it should be to help offset the sweetness of the sauce and the banana. There were other dessert choices that sounded equally good.
Then we walked up to the Metropolitan Opera House to see La Traviata directed by Will Decker with Natalie Dessay, as Violetta, Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky is Germont, I am an opera ignoramus. The decision to go to the opera was made by my better-half, based on its being on both our bucket lists. Neither of us had seen live “grand” opera before, except maybe once or twice on PBS. We are now both fans, trying to figure out what we can sell to pay for season tickets next year. We were expecting to be entertained. We were expecting “theater.” What we got was an emotional wallop. Even in the back of the orchestra where we were, when Gourmont slaps Alfredo and you hear him fall, there was more than a murmur in the audience. To train the human voice to do what they do and do it while dancing, laughing, running and crying is amazing. To do it while acting is a miracle. While we were expecting the tragedy of the lovers, Hyorostovsky’s nuanced performance made us feel Germont’s guilt and regret for separating them as well. The stark set with its surreal clock ticking away the minutes of Violetta’s life, and the contemporary dress created a sense of timelessness. This wasn’t a story about a nineteenth century courtesan, but about life, death, love and regret.
The following evening was theater night. Ducking work, we got to TKTS at 2:20. The main line was already huge, but the Play Express line was short. By 3;15, we had two FRONT ROW seats to the Clybourne Park, which had opened earlier that week. On the one hand, we were amazed at our luck; on the other, hand, it’s scary that almost all the non-musical plays had availability. The play, itself has been described as a “sequel” to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. More accurately it’s a re-imaging, with a first act taking place in 1959, the time when the original is set, and the second act fifty years later. It’s been described as an “uproariously funny” comedy. While it is that, it’s also an explosive drama. There are several points at which violence seems imminent, and we weren’t prepared for the tragic tone of the first act. When the curtain came down for intermission, my better half said, “After this, I’m going to need a drink.” The second half is funnier, broader, more satiric, dealing with gentrification and reverse integration, but that too moves into dangerous territory.
We ate after the theater at Marseille, an unpretentious but stylish, French bistro on ninth avenue. We ordered snails, of course. Going carnivore, I ordered the honey glazed duck breast. The better half had the mussels with fries. Lots of mussels, and the best fries either of us had ever tasted, ever, in our lives. We tried to figure out what made the fries so perfect. Garlic might be one answer, but there was also the lack of grease and perfect crispiness. The desserts are a bit more extensive than what’s on the posted menu. We had something mousse-like with dark chocolate, so intensely rich that we were satisfied with just a few spoonfuls (rare for us).
We hardly left the house over the weekend, except for errands and long walks to local parks — Central Park, Fort Tryon, Morningside and Riverside, where everything seemed to be in bloom. Saturday night, I started to read Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir of her time in New York as a bookstore clerk/struggling artists/poet and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. I kept reading into Sunday morning when I finished. I mention it here because like our two nights out, the book could only have taken place in New York, although the New York, Smith writes about where young artsy types could somehow eke out enough of a living to afford the smallest room in the Chelsea Hotel is long gone as are the bookstores where she worked Brentano’s and Scribner’s. Argosy somehow survives. Gotham Books which published her early work, gone as well.
Smith, herself, has been quoted as saying that New York is now beyond the means of struggling artists who would be better off going elsewhere. Still for those of us, artist and non-artist who remain or are just visiting, and have limited incomes, some discounts are available. Our two front row theater seats costs were about $60 a piece at TKTS, and though we paid full freight at the opera, discounts and standing room are available. Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen offers many reasonably priced restaurants. Walking is still free, as is browsing, and books remain here and elsewhere the most affordable form of entertainment going.
For those of you who might not make it to the Met this year, here’s a clip: