Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Great American Adventure: Part Three

New York: Conquering the Concrete Jungle

Day One:

Your heart pounds a little faster once you first step into New York. It feels like you're moving to the beat of the city that never sleeps. It's so amazing and magical; you can't believe you're actually here. New York baby, I have arrived!

Well, that is I arrived after a series of navigation mishaps which caused us to reach much later than expected. Navigation on the US trip is being fully handled by the brother, and it is apparently clear that he is no better than I am at directions. Guess bad orienteering runs in the blood. 

So we only got in at at around 7pm, and checked into our rented apartment on west 56th Street, between 8th and 9th avenue. 

A very rare personal picture. That's momsy and pops and the sister in the background, just to show you how comfortable the apartment was. 

Our apartment was much bigger than what I'd expected. Because we were staying in Manhattan, I thought we'd be living in a shoebox where we'd be jostling for space all the time. But nope, we had a living room and kitchen, a master bedroom and another smaller bedroom, with plenty of room for all five of us. 

We were pretty excited to go exploring, so we were soon out the door and walking towards the direction of Times Square!

Ended up at this place called TSQ for dinner. It had a pretty good view of the all the lights and signs in Times Square, which was the selling point for us!

The interior was really pretty, with gold and black baroque wallpaper and black chandeliers, but it was far too dark for a good picture to be taken. So we settled into a comfortable leather booth, and the sister and I decided we were in the perfect place to order a cocktail. 

Side note here, I have the alcohol tolerance of a...oh who am I kidding I have no alcohol tolerance. My entire face and body turns red from a few sips of shandy. So a few sips of the Cosmopolitan was enough to leave my head pounding for the next hour. 

I should know better. Bad Jules, bad. I did get a kick out of saying I was drunk in New York City though.  

This was how dark the place was, that photo-taking was impossible. 

Mom, sis and I split a rack of ribs and a pasta, which wasn't bad at all. It was much better than could've been expected from eating at a location right beside a tourist hotspot. 

After that, it was time to head up the Rockefeller Centre! We were initially supposed to do both observation desk of the Rockefeller and Empire State, but it was too late by that time, so we could only do one. Since both essentially offered the same view, but the Rockefeller would have a shorter line, and we could view the Empire State, it seemed an easy choice. 

Hello Empire State, all lit up in blue!

What can I say, it was just buildings and city lights as far as the eye can see. Very pretty, but I guess observation decks have never been my cup of tea. I always thought buildings look better from the ground, because they all look the same from above. I've never gotten the "yay I'm on the top of the world!" feeling on observation decks; probably because I'm terrified of heights.

Surprisingly though, I think such places are very romantic for a city date. Where you and your loved one watch the hustle and bustle of city life from your slow-paced love bubble, sigh. I think the Empire State has the better reputation for a proposal/reconciliation hotspot though, with so many movies glorifying it as such. 

We called it a night after that, because by then it was past midnight, with a long day ahead the next day!

Day Two:

Good morning Upper East Siders!

Had a cranberry muffin and a fruit smoothie for breakfast, and both were gooood! Definitely a perky start to the day, which as you'll see, I definitely needed. 

Yesterday, my brother dropped his phone and the screen cracked, so he headed out early to get it fixed, leaving behind instructions for the rest of us on how to get to a dim sum place for lunch. 

Now to get there, we had to take the subway for the first time.  

The New York City Subway is an experience all it's own. The subway is dark, dirty, smelly, and really rundown. I would dare say it's even worse than the Malaysia KTM system that I abhor so much. There are also numerous lines, and they're scattered about all parts of town. You'd need to spend a long time looking at a map before you can figure out how you're gonna get anywhere. 

And even after that, you'd have to figure out how to get on your train. There's no clear signage on the platform, and trains going in the same direction will stop at opposite sides of the platform, which do not have signs on them saying where they're headed. For an outsider, the system is really overwhelming and intimidating. 

You meet all kinds of people too. There are doomsday preachers and all sorts of musicians on the platforms, and even a man that started randomly playing some sort of string instrument on the train. 

So here's the Golden Unicorn Restaurant (insert eyeroll at typical American name for Chinese restaurants) that we ate at. 

It turned out to take us 3 hours to reach here. The brother of course gave us inaccurate directions, so we ended up walking the whole of lower Manhattan in a vain effort to find a restaurant that wasn't there, simply because he told us it was on Broadway Street instead of East Broadway Street. Please take a second to imagine how grumpy and hot we were feeling those fruitless hours of walking around in confusion. 

To add insult to the injury, when we finally got there, the dim sum didn't turn out to be so great. It wasn't bad, but I can easily get much better dim sum back home in Malaysia. 

And guys! The day gets worse!

It had started drizzling while we walked to lunch, and it kept intermittently drizzling when we walked to take the subway (ugh), and then walked another 30 minutes to the edge of the island. 

We boarded a cruiseboat from Circle Line City Cruises to take a Liberty Cruise that would let us pass by the Statue of Liberty. When we boarded, the rain had already stopped for a while, so we excitedly aimed for a good spot at the side of the open deck. 

And it's really no surprise what happened next. 

Before the boat even pushed off, the rain picked up again. But it wasn't drizzling this time, it was a full on thunderstorm, that refused to let up the whole hourlong cruise. 

So noone could pose in front of Lady Liberty, and everyone was pretty grumpy and upset about it. Unsurprisingly, the rain lifted significantly once we docked, allowing us to have little trouble getting back to the apartment. I guess Lady Luck really wasn't smiling down upon Lady Liberty that day; maybe they had had a bitch fight. 

But no getting lost and bad weather could possibly prevent me from getting excited about our night plans! We were in New York after all, and who could possibly leave here without experiencing Broadway? 

We went to see Wicked!

And guys, it was amazing!! I love musicals, and I can't imagine it being possible to dislike them. I mean, it's singing and dancing and storytelling all in one! All things that I love to do!

The storyline was pretty good. I'd gone in thinking it was just a love story, but it turned out to encompass much, much more. I won't spoil anything, but I love that it showed us how there are always two sides to a story, and that we may be forcefed entrenched lies about how events transpired, to fulfil someone else's selfish agenda. Kind of like the Malaysian History we learn in public school. 

Happy, excited faces!

We were really blown away by the calibre of talent the cast had! The singing was incredible and never out of pitch, even though I noted one miniscule out-of-breath note, and the chemistry between the characters was completely believable! 

Two years ago, I had desperately wanted to experience my first musical, so the family headed to Singapore's Marina Bay Sands to catch The Lion King. And I was really disappointed with everything. There was nothing lifechanging about that half-assed performance, there was an apparent lack of props, and the acting of the travelling cast was uninspired. 

No such mediocrity with New York broadway! After this, I will never, never watch broadway outside of New York or London ever again. If its not the main cast, trust me guys, it's never worth your money. 

I went back that night with my soul fed. That night more than made up for the crappy day!

Day Three:

Today's events are pretty picture-heavy. We were signed up for a Food on Foot tour! So for the first half of the day, we would be guided around New York to try apparently some of the best cheap foods around. My brother had already been on the same tour once before and really enjoyed it, so with that endorsement we were all pretty excited!

We were to meet the tour guide at Grand Central Station. I couldn't figure out how to take a picture to do the lobby justice. It was just really beautiful and romantically built, with high marble ceilings and large chandeliers with orange lighting. I love this type of architecture!

So it was subway time again (yuck) to our meeting point. And after a relatively short series of walking around in circles, we finally found our group, with the tour guide Corey!

This animated and energetic guy would become one of the best tour guides I'd ever experienced. 

We had a short briefing beforehand, where Corey explained basic safety rules and told us we were to head over to East Village to experience food there. The brother was pretty impressed because his previous tour was on the Middle West, so I guess Corey likes to keep things interesting. 

The group had about 30 people. At first glance, everyone was a white person, so I thought we would be the only non-locals, but as it turned out in the introduction bit, over half of them were European, even though our Asian faces still stuck out like a sore thumb. We were encouraged to mingle with everyone, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a lot of them were very friendly. 

All right, now onto the food! We were scheduled for 4 food stops and 2 sweet stops. The tour was approximately 3 and a half hours, and we were told to share portions to make sure we could finish the whole tour, instead of becoming to stuffed partway. 

First stop out the subway was at Vanessa's Dumplings, for of course, dumplings! 

Now once we heard the first stop was Chinese food, my sister and I immediately exchanged a look. I mean, Malaysian food and dim sum on the trip had already turned out to be disappointing. We've had great dumplings back home before, and it was unlikely these would be on par or could top that. 

We had two kinds of pork dumplings, one with chives and one without. 

And it was not bad! Not the best we've eaten and I thought the skin was too thick, but I guess it did taste like an authentic Chinese pork dumpling, so it wasn't a bad start. 

Rating: 3/5

Next stop, pizza at Artichoke

Under Corey's recommendations, we got  a slice of the crab pizza (left) and the signature artichoke pizza (right). 

The first thought that came to mind when seeing the portion size, was that there was no way we could finish that. But after the first bite, we were beyond grateful for such a large portion, or else it'd be impossible to share. 

This was literally the best damn pizza I've ever had in my life, and I'm salivating now just thinking about it. The crust was crisp and crunchy but not overly so, and the cheese and other toppings just melted in your mouth and made love to your taste buds. Everything was so juicy and rich and bursting with flavour!

I preferred the crab one, which is not always available so we were lucky to get it. There was a liberal spreading of actual crab meat tossed with some mindblowing spice combination, that made every bite just oh so good. The artichoke one was amazing too though!

I'll miss this pizza so bad once I get home. It will be so impossible to stomach other mediocre pizza after this!

Rating: 5/5 

Third stop at This Little Piggy Had Roast Beef. How adorable is that name! 

This was a really small joint, which I believe was a converted garage. The entire interior was decorated with drawn on dollar bills, which I guess are from hundreds of satisfied customers. The bills snaked all over the walls and ceiling and front door. 

This place had the most interesting decor out of all the others, just because of all the dollar bills. Though as an Asian I cringe to think of how much money was wasted just for this. 

So the thing everyone was supposed to try was a pastrami on rye sandwich. 

Umm, it was a good sandwich, no doubt, but it just stayed a mere sandwich because I think they intentionally kept it really homey. The coleslaw and mustard sucked, but it helped with reducing the strong beef flavour. The pastrami itself was really juicy and tender though, but wasn't enough to make this stop particularly memorable. 

Rating: 3.5/5

Fourth stop was a sweet stop at Butter Lane for cupcakes! Yay sugar! 

We could choose our base from either vanilla, chocolate, or banana. Then we could choose our own frostings from over 10 options, but the choices were more traditional flavours instead of wacky. 

We got four to share, which seems like a lot, but they were pretty small. Clockwise from top left: banana with French chocolate, vanilla with strawberry, chocolate with maple pecan, and banana with sea salt caramel. 

The reason there is two bananas with chocolate is because the sister and I clashed when choosing the chocolate topping. I love sea salt caramel, and they managed to make that topping really well, but I'm not a fan of how it paired with the banana base. I think chocolate with sea salt caramel would have been the bombdiggity!

The rest were good too, though I didn't like the strawberry topping because it tasted too artificial. Overall, cakes were soft and fluffy, and the frosting smooth and creamy. The cupcakes were only 4 for $10 (before taxes), which made them a nice value for money. If I lived in these parts, I would definitely be a regular here!

Rating: 4/5

Last food stop was a hotdog joint at Crif Dogs

Two of the tables here were actually pinball machines, and we managed to get one! How creative is that! But I was pretty disappointed to find out the coin slots were blocked, so we couldn't play while eating.

We were recommended to try the Tsunami hot dog, which had the sausage wrapped in bacon and topped with pineapples and green onions, as well as their homemade corn dogs. I've never had a corn dog, though I've seen people in movies enjoying them countless times. Apparently they're just hotdogs coated in flour and then deep fried, but Corey insists these are good here. 

Ok, maybe it's just me, but I hated the food after one bite of each, and refused to eat any more. 

The bacon around the hotdog was so salty it cancelled out all other sensations. The corndog tasted only of dough, and honestly was pretty disgusting to eat. I don't think anyone really liked it, and I suspect this dump may have paid its way into the tour. 

Rating: 1/5

Last stop on the food tour was Veniero for more dessert! 

At this point, we were pretty stuffed, so we just got some cannolis, which is what the bakery is supposedly famous for, and I split a blueberry tart with the sister because there were so many tarts on display I couldn't resist. 

The tart was very yummy, with the custard base being light and not overly sweet, and the blueberries fresh and tart. The cannolis on the other hand were really bad. There was an overwhelmingly powerful taste of cinnamon, and not much taste from anything else. It was not exactly the best way to end the food tour. 

Rating: 2.5/5

And that concludes my virgin attempt of being a food blogger. Overall, I think the food tour was a great experience. And if I seem harsh, it's only because I'm rarely impressed, so I'm trying to be as honest as possible. 

So anyway, for Food on Foot, you get to be guided around town by a local who explains the sights and recommends you his favourite foods, you get to make new friends from all over the world, and you get a satisfied tummy at the end of it all. I really enjoyed the experience, would highly recommend everyone to do this short 3 hour+ tour, because its damn well worth it!

Ok so during the food tour, the wind and rain had been picking up, with the temperature steadily dropping. I'm abnormally sensitive to cold temperatures, so I was literally shivering the whole time we were outside walking. A guy from Wisconsin was nice enough to let me wear his windbreaker, but after the tour ended I was back to shivering unprotected. 

So we shivered along to the next location, the Museum of Modern Art. I know I've said I'm not a big fan of abstract art, but I wanted to check out some pieces by the big guns like Van Gogh and Picasso.

MoMA was mad crowded when we went! Probably because admission was free and everyone wanted shelter from the rain. So from the beginning it wasn't a pleasant viewing experience, because you were literally being crowded and shoved along by the thousands of people there, and it was just so annoying. 

But the biggest annoyance was what people recognised as "art" nowadays. Lots of pieces were all crap; merely canvases covered with a few lines, random squiggles, or in at least 20 cases a single block color covering the whole canvas. It was just so ridiculous that we wrote off the whole 6 storey building within an hour, because there was no way I would recognise that shit as art. 

I even took a picture of the famous Andy Warhol soup cans. If you read my previous post, you'd know I strongly oppose taking pictures of paintings out of respect for the medium. Well, no respect needs be given to MoMA turd. 

Because we left so early, we had quite a bit of spare time, so we shopped a little around the area, and even braved the winds and rain 20 minutes to head up to Bloomingdales. Everything was on sale for Memorial Day weekend! Yay!

After killing a few hours and spending some money, we headed to Brooklyn for dinner. At this point, the rainy weather was so cold that the subway, that had seemed so disgusting earlier, now became something of a haven because of its warmth. After a few rides, the subway honestly doesn't seem that unpleasant anymore anyway. 

Dinner was at Katz's, some apparently famous Jewish food place. We had pastrami (again), knoblewurst, and brisket. This place was highly recommended by Corey and the brother, but to me it seemed like a tourist trap. 

I did not enjoy the food at all. It was just a mound of salty meat on bread, and nothing else. There was homemade mustard provided, but a squirt of mustard isn't enough to cushion the overwhelming amount of meat. This place does not deserve its hype! 

Not the best last meal to have in New York, but it is what it is. After shivering even more back to the apartment, we checked and discovered the temperature outside had dropped to 7 degrees Celcius!! And we were outside in just our cotton shirts and jeans!

We were ill-equipped and completely unprepared to handle fluctuating temperatures. Just the previous day the weather had been a balmy 27-ish, so it was so crazy unexpected that the temperature would drop so steeply! So much for "the US is going through summer, it'll be just like home!" that other people fed me with. (Just kidding, I know my friends meant well!)

The next day, we had a flight at 9.50am to catch, so it was byebye to NYC!

Honestly, I think New York is a pretty interesting place to visit. It's at first so intimidating and unwelcoming, but I think once you get attuned to the beat of the city after a few days, because it does groove to its own beat, then you'll truly be able to enjoy all the city has to offer. 

New York has character. There's nothing glamorous about the city as I had previously envisioned, but you get big streets lined with gorgeous skyscraper buildings such as 42nd street, then you head out to Brooklyn and see graffitied rundown bits of town, and each part is an attraction all it's own. There's just so much to see and shop and eat out here!

The people in New York though, are exactly like what we hear. Not that they doll up while walking in the streets like the movies (remember I said NYC isn't glamorous!), but they really are unfriendly and always in a hurry and somehow come across as having fake personalities. They're the most welcoming bunch, but half of New York is made up of immigrants, so there were no outstanding racism issues either. 

I'll be back one day for more, New York! Until then, on to the next adventure; next stop: LAS VEGAS! If you will, please imagine that name in bold red letters rimmed with bright lights, because that's exactly how I'm picturing it in my head. 

See you in Sin City!

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