A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Friday, May 4, 2018

TASTE: A secret freight entrance lunch counter

I exit the sidewalk off West Thirty-Seventh Street and duck into the freight entrance of number 236, exchanging a knowing look with the man by the laundry cart and sidling past the UPS guy’s trolley. Pulling open the second pair of industrial doors, I feel like a member of Club El Sabroso, a diminutive lunch counter tucked into the back corner of this building’s loading dock.


El Sabroso is wedged between a newsstand and a coffee shop. A couple of faded signs and menus give a nod to its presence, but among the cacophony of the Garment District—with its windows crammed with bolts of fabric, its trucks disgorging racks of evening gowns—this is one place that’s not trying to lure you in.


At the six-seat counter, a few men in work jackets perch on mismatched stools, hunched over plates of meat and rice. No one speaks; the only sounds are the scraping of plastic forks against styrofoam and the buzz of a small TV propped in the corner, playing daytime soaps. In the far corner, a few messengers sit on boxes by an empty hand truck, waiting, waiting. Waiting is what you do in a freight entrance, after all—unless, that is, you happen to be eating your lunch.


El Sabroso has a basic setup: a few pots and some burners, a Bunn coffeemaker, boxes of Swiss Miss and instant oatmeal wedged between stacks of cups and napkins, a metal gate that rattles down after hours. It’s presided over by Tony Molina, who, like his restaurant, manages to be both welcoming and taciturn. Patrons know the routine and require few words, in English or Spanish. The offerings are basic Latin American comfort food: a selection of meats so tender they fall off the bone, all served with yellow rice and beans and “salad” (shredded iceberg lettuce). There’s a fridge with sodas—no diet options here. As a vegetarian, I order rice and beans and a fried cheese empanada, then find a seat at a folding table.


The empanada is a hollow slab of fried dough filled with a few chunks of mild melted cheese, but the rice and beans are superlative: firm, salty beans that melt into softness, moist grains of chewy, buttery yellow rice in satisfying clumps, all offset by the shards of crisp and cool lettuce. I heap on the smoky hot sauce from the communal tin pot: it injects tangy heat into each bite.


The concrete floor is streaked with wheel marks from carts rounding the corner. This is, above all, a place of transition. But to El Sabroso’s loyal customers—who include construction workers in hard hats and office workers in cardigans—it is a still point of calm and comfort.





Tuesday, April 10, 2018

MULTISENSORY: Celsious luxury laundromat

“What’s a modern laundromat?” a girl asks her friend as they stop before a slick new Williamsburg storefront. Outside, tulips peek out from behind millennial-pink railings. Inside, palo santo incense wafts over a display of raw chocolate and facial mist, hip-hop thrums faintly, scrolls of soft hand towels rest above a sink, live plants dangle their tendrils over reclaimed-cork walls, and a sign advertises today’s special: bone broth. 


In the doorway stands Theresa, co-owner with her sister, Corinna, of Celsious, a self-described “modern, sustainable, and luxurious” laundromat that is reimagining the way New Yorkers do their laundry—or at least aspire to do it.


Laundromats are an essential but demoralizing fixture in most New Yorkers’ daily lives. As the Snorri Bros. observe in their photo book about laundromats across the five boroughs, public laundries are one of the few industries that have held out against chain takeover, and their mom-and-pop signage is a ubiquitous feature of the streetscape. They also function as social and sartorial melting pots, where strangers of all backgrounds engage tube-sock-to-negligee in one of our most intimate chores.

Photo of Nice Laundry at 332-2 Hooper Street in Brooklyn from Laundromat by Snorri Bros. (PowerHouse Books, 2013)
Celsious, on the other hand, is the antithesis of the typical Launderama—it’s a laundromat revolution.


The high-powered, energy-efficient Electrolux appliances have you in and out within thirty minutes, for one. And though you can feed quarters into slots the old-fashioned way, these machines take credit cards and Apple Pay.


But a thirty-minute cycle is hardly enough time to enjoy a locally sourced turmeric latté in the Clean Café upstairs, take advantage of the WiFi on the back patio, or peruse the events listings (talks on “Design, Policy, and Progress” and organic skin care) while waiting for your machine to text you when your cycle is done.


Ethereal and soft-spoken “laundry gurus” pad about in canvas aprons, proffering lavender-infused wool dryer balls ($1 to rent), glass jars of three-ingredient eco-detergent (complimentary), and washing advice (key lesson: cram in the clothes for optimal friction). When you thank them, they don’t say “You’re welcome” but murmur “Of course.” (There is a tip jar.)


One load of washing and drying at Celsious costs between seven and nineteen dollars, depending on the setting—considerably more than your local Stop ’n’ Wash. There are cycles for wool, down, and even one called “active” (“for when you have your whole load of Lululemons,” I was told, which speaks to the clientele). You can even sanitize the basins before loading your clothes, obliterating the previous occupants’ cooties and any chance of having to pluck out a stranger’s damp underpants.


Walk into Celsious on a Saturday afternoon, however, and one thing is conspicuously absent: customers. During my two visits, empty carts and silent machines gleamed beneath the globe lights. Despite their obligatory blue IKEA bags, these were not your typical laundromat patrons: all were stylishly dressed, and most appeared to be European, or tourists, or both. I was, admittedly, a tourist myself: I am lucky enough to have my own washer-dryer but had come to Celsious for the experience.


But at least I had brought laundry. At least once every five minutes, a passerby would peer in the window, or step in to ask, “What is this place?,” to which one of the sisters would patiently explain, “It’s a laundromat! But our dryers are the best on the market—they save gas, electricity, and water—so you can get your clothes washed and dried in thirty minutes.” The voyeurs would reply, “Cool! We’ll have to stop by with some laundry!” and exit into the afternoon.


Despite the vision of customers folding their clothes in the sun on the reclaimed-stone tables out back, or sipping the foam off a latté while treating their clothes to DIY pampering, perhaps New Yorkers—with all their other aspirations—just don’t have time for this one, and it’s their loss. You can, after all, drop off your laundry for bespoke garment care, and rest assured knowing your clothes are being treated to the “thoughtful folding” that’s part of the Celsious promise.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

TOUCH: Three minutes in a -230 degree cryochamber

I shed my bathrobe and step into the -230 degree chamber, closing the door behind me. Instantly, my breath crystallizes, clouding my view of the single small window to the world outside this four-by-four-foot closet. I can barely make out the face of my guide, Milla Jouravleva, the owner of the Fuel Stop, smiling and waving three fingers at me through the glass: three minutes to go.


The Fuel Stop, which bills itself as “Your urban anti-spa,” is a bright and cheerful facility located in a basement suite off Central Park South. Its cryochamber, where I’d come to freeze myself for 180 seconds, is New York City’s only natural-air, nitrogen-free, full-submersion cryochamber; other places have a tank that leaves the head exposed and use nitrogen to chill the air. People use cryotherapy to strengthen the immune system, reduce pain and inflammation, build endurance, increase collagen production, and improve mood and energy. Since this was my first time, I had signed up for the Refuel Intro Circuit, which includes time in the cryochamber, a cryofacial, and a shot of “brain floss,” a brain-enhancing nonalcoholic cocktail. Having just come off a transcontinental red-eye, I was hoping for some of those salubrious effects.


After a brief tour, a man named Fernando handed me a plastic tote with the necessary supplies for my experience. Besides these protective covers for my extremities, all I’d have on was underwear, since the cold, dry air is supposed to make contact with the whole body to work its magic.


I am not a dancer, much less someone who dances in front of a stranger, while standing half-naked in a -230 degree closet wearing fleece earmuffs, wool mittens, a paper face mask, and tube socks under red rubber slippers, so I cringed when Milla presented me with a playlist of dance songs to accompany my time in the chamber and perkily suggested Taylor Swift. But once I stepped inside, I realized I had no choice but to dance—vigorously—in order to maintain some semblance of circulation. The chamber consists of two small rooms: a pre-chamber, which is slightly less cold than the main chamber, and the cryochamber itself. The door opens easily (I tested it), and Milla had said I could let myself out at any time, but I was determined to stick it out.


I also hadn’t realized how poignant the song I chose would be: Angie Stone’s “Wish I Didn’t Miss You.” Though I’d thought I would feel self-conscious having a spectator, I clung to the image of Milla’s encouraging face through the clouds of frosty air and to her three fingers disappearing one by one until only one remained.


It’s safe to say it was the longest three minutes of my life. The first minute passed easily enough, but halfway through I felt frost collecting on my eyelashes, and my skin began to feel like gelatin, or as if the entire surface of my body had fallen asleep and was no longer connected to me. I couldn't feel myself touching my own skin. In fact, this is what is supposed to happen: the extreme temperature causes the blood to retreat from the surface of the body to protect the internal organs. I didn’t think I’d make it through the final minute, but once Milla's last finger disappeared, I fled through the door and she was waiting with my robe and a mug of dandelion tea. She led me, as I trembled violently, to a vibrating platform, where I stood for a few minutes to get my blood flowing.


With tingling skin and a very red nose and ears, I went into a small room for my “cryofacial,” which began with Milla smearing purified snail goo on my face. Then she took a hose connected to a machine filled with moist air chilled with nitrogen. She covered me with a fleece blanket and aimed the nozzle of the hose at my face. At -280 degrees, this air was even colder than the air in the chamber, but because it was moving around, it felt like skiing downhill, leaving me slightly out of breath but refreshed. Between these cold blasts and the aftereffects of the chamber, my pores were dancing.


Finally, I got dressed and made my way to the bar, where Fernando had prepared a shot of “Brain Floss,” which allegedly acts as a brain detox, slowing down cognitive decline, increasing altertness, and protecting neurons from oxidation, among other things. I’m not sure about all that, but it tasted like lemon and ginger and turmeric and honey and was the perfect warming antidote.


As for the effects of my cryotherapy experience: My jet lag and faint headache disappeared, and I felt awake and clear-headed. My skin had a dewy glow. As I made my way through the Midtown winter afternoon, I continued to tremble, but in a new way: the cold was coming from the inside out.

The Fuel Stop is located at 200 Central Park South, https://thefuelstop.com/. Thanks to Milla for the photos.

Monday, February 5, 2018

TASTE: Waffles with jam at the Norwegian Seamen's Church

On a recent afternoon, I stopped by the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in Midtown, not for religious services or to consult a nautical chart, but for a traditional snack of waffles and jam served with coffee. 


Each of the twenty-nine Norwegian Seamen’s Churches worldwide has a signature waffle recipe, inciting good-natured rivalry among the outposts. The New York City church makes waffles with a hint of vanilla and serves them on a platter with a divot for a coffee cup, emblazoned with the Norwegian Seamen’s Church logo.


One could be forgiven for being uncertain if the Norwegian Seamen’s Church—housed in a modern building on tree-lined Fifty-second Street—is a church or a café. Though the vaulted main room features a beautiful, light-filled nave overhung with a model schooner, most of the space is filled with round tables set with candles in Scandinavian luminaria.


On this afternoon, however, the chairs in the nave and around the tables are empty, but I hear a buzz of conversation from the back of the room, where a family from Florida is eagerly perusing shelves stocked with Norwegian foods—and a certain floor cleaner called Krystal, whose pine scent, I am told, reminds Norwegians of home.


As it turns out, though the international nonprofit organization of Lutheran churches was originally founded to serve Norwegian seamen living abroad and at sea, and though it continues to offer weekly church services, its twenty-nine churches have evolved into social and community spaces for Norwegian expats (and curious interlopers). 


Despite the nautical decorations (a church kneeler abuts a giant wooden ship’s wheel in one corner) and racks of Hjem magazine (hjem means “home” in Norwegian; the publication appears to cater to Norwegian seamen), few sailors swing through the doors these days. Chaplains do still visit Norwegian oil rigs stationed in the North Sea, however, so the organization has kept true to its nautical mission. 


When I inquire about the famous waffles, an affable blonde named Anya, wearing a pink sweatshirt, disappears into the kitchen and returns a few minutes later with a plate of several warm waffles covered in a cotton towel. She tells me the waffles are always heart-shaped to symbolize Norway’s heart reaching out to its countrymen. I spoon on a dollop of strawberry jam and pour a mug of coffee and cream, which she says is a traditional accompaniment.


Just then, a man in a striped sailor shirt with swept-back gray hair approaches me, and I think perhaps I’ve chanced upon a genuine Norwegian sailor. As it turns out, he is the church’s hospitality director, Jan. He follows me to one of the candlelit tables, where we chat as I dig into my waffles. Or, rather, I mostly listen and focus on the waffle, which is warm, spongy, and thin, with the church’s proprietary notes of vanilla. The tangy aftertaste, Jan explains, is from sour cream, and it’s balanced by the sweet clumps of whole strawberries in the jam and sips of the bitter, creamy coffee. At the church’s annual Christmas fair, which I’d attended, the waffles are served with sour cream, which adds a cold, creamy swirl to the jam.


As I spear tiny pieces of waffle with my fork,  Jan tells me that he will soon return to Norway to live on a farm with his family. Life there will be very different from New York, he muses, gazing toward an abstract painting the wall. Our conversation drifts to the popular Norwegian trend of slow TV: seven-hour one-frame shots of fires burning or train trips through the mountains. “Sometimes we need more of that—the slowness,” Jan says. Silence settles between us, and I wait for him to continue. For a few moments, the only sound is the hum of the overhead lights. I realize this is the kind of palpable silence rarely found anywhere, much less in New York and between two strangers. We both look at the abstract painting. When I stare at it long enough, the shapes resolve into two ships crossing a sea.


I exit past the gift shop, where I notice heart-shaped waffle irons and waffle mix are among the offerings. I wonder if Jan will take some with him when he returns home.


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