It’s a beautiful day as I rise early and find myself sitting on the train heading for New York City for a re-do of the Greenwich Village/Soho self-guided tour I did last year, tomorrow is Memorial Day and a barbeque will keep me busy half the day so today is just for me. I saw this morning before I left that my French “Haricot Vert” string beans have poked their heads up out of the ground, as well as some “Babette” carrots, in a week I will be planting Heirloom tomatoes as well as Thai basil and some Mervielle lettuces, a diverse group of plantings this year. This is a quiet car filled with perhaps sleepy people like myself ( I had one too many glasses of wine last night) who probably needed a few more hours of shut-eye, just the rhythmic pattern of the wheels on the track to hear. But soon the relative quiet is broken by a guy who gets a call on his cell phone. He loudly tells the person on the other end that he’s “out pretty far” (we just passed Mineola next we’ll be out of Nassau County and into Queens County) and he won’t get there till about 10:00 o’clock. I’m guessing that he would consider my little town close to the “bush” and the East End of Long Island; with its farms and vineyards a step back in time. We pass a big brick building with faded lettering you can just make out Rull Coal & Ice, it’s funny to think that before modern refrigerators, people used ice boxes and that company delivered blocks of ice that slowly melted into a drip pan under the fridge that had to be emptied periodically, and heating with coal too was a sooty mess until the modern oil burner was available to everyone, we take for granted our modern conveniences like refrigeration and electric stoves.
Lately, I have been voraciously reading a series of books written by Peter Mayle documenting the transition with his wife from bustling Londoners to country bumpkins in Provence, France. The first book “A Year in Provence” is a funny look into the purchase of a 200-year-old farm-house and the trials and joys of restoring it and the property to the glory of a working farm while they learn about how things are done in a place very different from London or New York. I highly recommend these books. The fame it brought him in France with several more books like Toujours Provence, French Lessons, Encore Provence, etc is immeasurable and he has also written a few fictional novels set in places like Provence, Paris, Spain, etc which I haven’t read yet. The latest one involves the heist of a cache of wine and is a chase /action read, a good “caper” book. So I have a new hero to worship, a man who lives the life I would love and has made a fortune doing what he loves to do.
Speaking of hero’s my old pal Anthony Bourdain got himself in a little hot water with his Republican fans on a talk show called Anderson Cooper where he refered to the Tea Party members as a “bunch of angry white men” and compared them to the prejudiced men of the sixties who opposed Martin Luther King and his followers. The reaction from fans was that about seven people said they wouldn’t watch the show anymore or participate in the discussions. Well that’s funny because at least one of them called himself “usedtowatch” and had only posted once! Which means he never participated in the first place and that was his first and final post! This particular group seems to want to go back to the way things were when good ol Georgie W was in the White House and the Republicans had control for eight more years of war for profit, a tanking economy, and people losing their homes and jobs while the fat cats just grew more wealthy. So I wouldn’t worry Tony (not that you are) you don’t need them anyway.
I get out at Penn Station and go down to the subway station, it’s amazing how few people are around compared to other days. I take a quick glance at the subway map and that’s where the best laid plans of mice and men start to go astray. It was supposed to be easy just take the subway up to 42nd st and then take the 7 over to the 456 line and take it down to West 4th street. But I got my signals crossed and was leading myself to the Lower East Side again instead of the West Side. I get out at Spring St and realize my mistake, in my overconfidence and slightly hungover tiredness I have given myself a chore to walk over to my starting point on the other side of Manhattan! So I begin my walk and while I do I stop to read menus posted for today in restaurant window’s. It being Sunday many places are offering brunch, and as I read one to the other I begin to notice that no matter what the cusine, brunch consists of the same food no matter where you go! The humble omelette, French toast, bacon and eggs (any style), Granola with fruit, hot oatmeal and coffee or tea is the food du jour of today with no variation or anything to make it interesting or different. I could easily make any of this at home with my eyes closed standing on one foot! Well… maybe with one eye open. I really get mad at myself when I find that I’m all the way down on Canal St going in the wrong direction! Now I have to pull out the map and get my bearings again, I turn the map so I can see exactly where I am and decide to try for Thompson St as that will be the most direct route.
I walk along in the warm sun cursing myself for screwing up and quickly realize that it will be hot, I’m starting to think I should just go back home, I mean I’m just not on my game today. I remember Peter Mayle’s references to the unbearable heat of August in Provence, a time when many leave the region for cooler points north and those that stay do little or nothing! I zig zag keeping to the shaded sides of the streets like Tony Bourdain did in Provence Episode of “No Reservations” until I come to Thompson St and take it north to Washington Square Park. I see the fountain is in full operation shooting water high in the sky turning off I walk to Macdougal Street to find food. I have had nothing all day except for decaf coffee and I need to eat, maybe a good breakfast at home was the way to go, but dad was up and I can’t abide morning news at max volume. I like my mornings quiet and thoughtful.
I feel at home on this street, it has been the subject of many a story of mine as walk down looking over at the Cafe Reggio, all tables taken out front so I continue on walking past Meskerem, the Eithiopian place where I had a lunch years ago. I walk a little further and see an unexpected sight, the old Minetta Tavern that closed down over a year ago is all clean and polished and the door is open! I quickly cross the street to find it offering a brunch and open for business! I walk in and am immediately greeted by two people at once and as I look around I feel as if I stepped back in time. Black and white alternating floor tiles harken back to my parents days and then some, good wood all around on the bar and wainscot , walls covered in hand drawn portraits of the stars who ate here in a bygone era. My waiter a nice middle-aged man takes my order of decaf coffee and suggests the special, a omelette with goat cheese, chanterelle mushrooms and asparagus served with frites and leaves me to make a decision, so when he comes back I decide to order the special and add an appetizer of duck hash. Then I go to the loo for a wash up and put myself right for my meal. When I emerge from the bathroom a man in a smart suit says brightly “Just in time sir your food has just been laid out for you.” So I thank him and sit down to tuck in, the duck hash is beautiful big pieces of meat and redskin potatoes fried till golden in a little duck fat with a confit of onion. My omelette is small but delicious with bright green asparagus cut in small pieces easy to chew with chewy chanterelles and goat cheese my new favorite thing and a huge mass of frites, honestly I would have rather had a field green salad instead of fries but that would be extra. My waiter comes over and asks if I’m enjoying my meal and I look up and say ” The only thing that would do this justice is a glass of house red.” He nods and gets me a glass and a small pour to try, now this has never happened to me before. I swirl and sniff and taste, it is good enough for me so he pours me a glass and I happily sip away washing down mouthfuls of food while listening to the man in the nice suit tell two staff about his humble beginnings, I can’t hear everything he says above the music which is an awesome mix of Parisian Cafe, old American standards and more modern rock. But he talks about going to chef school, spending time in France and coming to New York.
Indeed he speaks French with a cute blonde bartender in her late twenties as he moves about the room checking on me as well. When I’m about half done he comes over and picking up my wine glass gently he apologizes but says he has to take it away, when I ask why he tells me that due to a stupid law they can’t serve alcohol before noon, but he promises to bring it back full and free as soon as the clock strikes 12:00. He tells me that the waiter didn’t know that which I find hard to believe, but I won’t argue with a man who is promising free wine. I pick at my food and wait the ten minutes nessesary to get my wine back which he laughingly brings with a smile, somehow I think they were just treating me special because I came in so stressed, sweaty and having a bad day that they wanted to do something nice without making it obvious. I ask the waiter about the history of the place and he tells me a little the rest I found myself.
Minetta Tavern was opened in the 1937 and was named after the Minetta Brook that ran southwest from 23rd St to the Hudson River. The original owner retired in 2008 so the restaurant entrepreneur Keith McNally along with Executive Chefs Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr who have worked together on three of New York city’s best, Pastis, Balthazar, and Schiller”s then decided to partner on this new venture and after closing for complete overhaul of the guts of the place re-opened in 2009 to rave reviews. They kept the original pictures on the walls and the old boxing murals in the back dinning area and restored it to its original look from long ago, now you can feel the spirits of Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, and the famous Bohemian Joe Gould, with a little Frank Sinatra thrown in from the days when it was Italian all the way. Now it is considered a French Bistro, Italian influenced Steakhouse featuring the famous Black Label Burger a sinfully delicious burger made with prime cuts and dry aged beef coming in at $26, and a Cotes du Boeuf for two at $104 served with marrow bones and salad to mention a few. The staff is great and treat me well, right now I’m the only one here but now that it’s after noon people start to come in and sit down while others make reservations for tonight. I love it here, it just goes to show me again that good things come from bad starts. I’ve had a good time in a small space and can go home happy with my discovery.
I stop the guy in the suit and say to him “Your one of those famous people from the food industry aren’t you?” He laughs and says not really. “What’s your name?” I ask extending my hand. “Arnold Grossman” he says shaking my hand and asks me for my name. I tell him about myself and my work on WordPress and he is suitably impressed so I give him my web address for WP and he thanks me saying he will check it out. My waiter comes over and asks me if I want dessert but I decline and ask for more wine instead, wishing only to write and keep the moment alive as more and more people come. They are so busy at night, they are turning people away and reservations are hard to come by, but my waiter assures me if I arrive at 5:30 sharp when they start dinner service he can get me a table. This is a trendy place where it’s possible to meet celebs almost any night, a place to see and be seen. I have to come back cleaned up and better dressed for dinner I think as I sit and write and finish my wine. I am sooo happy I came here, this is the life for me! I pay my tab and leave refreshed and relaxed.
I walk down to Washington Square Park and take some video of the fountain and the musicians, people are everywhere enjoying the sun. Some are laying out in bathing suits and others just sit and read or talk, people jog or pedal past you as your eyes take in the swirl of colors around you and you see a pretty face, an old black man, a toddler with daddy, a serious hipster looking for someone while on their cell phone. The stories they all must have to tell about themselves boggle the mind and bring out the journalist in me. Who are they?, Why are they here?, What do they want from life? I begin to wander in the general direction of my starting point, the wine is working on me just a little, just enough to feel light and fluffy like a piece of Angel Food cake that has been dusted with crack. I’m kidding of course, by roundabout ways I come to find Warehouse Wine and Spirits featuring the most extensive selection of French wine I have ever seen. It’s mind boggling really as I wander around reading labels and checking prices. I soon find myself talking to the owner who came from Nimes in the south of France at 19 and although he goes back for visits he has made his life here. I tell him of my love for Paris and France in general and my desire to travel to Provence, he too knows Peter Mayle’s books very well. I say “I wish I had $1000 to spend and a team of mules to take it home!” and he says to me that “People come from as far away as Florida with a U-Haul to stock up because my prices are so good.” He bids me a “Merci” and goes about his work in the busy store, I get a business card to take with me. I will be back…soon. Now all I need is a wine cellar and I’ll be all set. I walk a few more streets and find a kitchen store called the Broadway Panhandler filled with an amazing array of pots and pans and every tool a chef could want, I look at copper pots that delight me with their shine and depress me with their prices, I can see why they chain them to the wall. I enjoy wandering around in the cool space and look at everything. I almost buy some nice cheese plates but decide that I don’t want to carry them home so I buy a cheese knife with a phony wine cork handle to take home. I always liked souveniers, it’s the kid in me I guess.
Leaving the store I need a loo so I walk down to the Au Bon Pain, a chain of coffee, pastry, soup and sandwich shops that we have all over and after a wash I get a decaf and a little lemon tartlette and sink into a comfy chair by the window and read the latest Village Voice and watch the world go by. I read an article about the life and death of Coney Island, such a tragic and sordid history for a parcel of land so dear to so many. There’s a movie or a play there somewhere I just know it…I wish I had more time and money and was also a better writer, there is something deep and artsy and powerful to be made. I just don’t know how to go about it…yet.
I’m a little tired now, it’s 2:45 and I think I should head back home. The sun is hot as I walk up to 14th st and I stop to buy a small coconut ice, a rare treat as these vendors usually are found only in Brooklyn or so I’m told by a friend. Then moving through the crowds in Union Square market I make my way down to the subway and wait for a local train, it’s stuffy and hot so I wait for a second train when the first one comes in loaded like a sardine can. The next one comes a few minutes later and I get on, at least I can sit down on this one! I get off on 33rd St and move topside. Soon I am walking past vendors of every description, selling everything from Cd’s to fresh mangos on a stick to cold water and sugared nuts hot out of the pan, and let me tell you they are doing a heck of a business today I can hardly get past the squeeze of people and get to my destination. I squint in the glare of a late afternoon sun as a young guy gets an airbrushed tatoo on his bicep-something to show off at school next week I guess, but it will rub off with time. The entrance to Penn Station is a welcome sight and I descend into it’s cool air and see my old watering hole Tracks in the distance, it’s familiar blue logo pulsating as I walk toward it. I decide to skip a beer as I have only sixteen minutes to get to my train, so instead I walk down to a new Papaya King I spotted earlier this morning. It’s where I can get a simple good thing. A 20 oz papaya juice drink, cold, fresh and frothy… it’s just what I need right now. So I walk down through growing mobs heading home to track 17 and find an express train, only two stops till mine. I sit and write on the train as we move along, stopping at Jamaica Station I see the airtrain leaving for Kennedy Airport and wonder when I’ll be boarding a plane for England or France again. It all seems like a dream now, being so far away and so free.
In these quiet moments always think great thoughts about rising above my bad habits, and turning over a new leaf. But in my day to day life it’s not so easy, to be so many things to so many people wears on me and I turn to food and wine for comfort and enjoyment and escape. Unfortunately I have been a bit of an ogre lately at home, work has been like a funeral procession where the mourners are all angry and just had it with everything too, and sometimes I bring that home with me. Except of course the owner who is happy to be alive and doing so well in a bad economy. But if you ask for a rise there’s no surprise their giving none away. My Mom is always saying be happy you have a job and there is no doubt that being unemployed would be hell right now. So I have to keep looking and working on my angles for getting out and doing something else, in the meantime I have much to do and little time. Today might have been screwed up and hot but I made some more contacts, people who will know my name and what I do, I’ll make sure of that.
I might complain often and some might say too much. But in my busy world the time lapse between these trips of mine feel like a year apart, I know that sounds strage to some folks but it’s the way time moves for me. On balance I had a good time today. Despite all the foulups I made the most of things. A trip back in time, a coconut ice and cool fruit juice…
At the end of the day that’s all you can hope for.