Look for a new post the first week of every month!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

TASTE: Eight random delights

1. Borscht and challah at B & H Dairy Restaurant
Cold or hot, the soup from the famous East Village diner is tangy and sweet and flecked with dill. It’s served with a dollop of sour cream to swirl into it, transforming the red into magenta, and two thick slices of crusty homemade challah slathered with butter. 

2. Russian pastries from the Brighton Beach sidewalk
Unless you read Cyrillic, you never quite know what you’re going to get when you select one of these flaky, cheesy, jammy pastries from the bin, which is part of the fun. Whatever it is, it’s offered simply on a paper napkin and is the perfect accompaniment for the elevated train ride home from the beach.

3. Sri Lankan roti at New Asha Restaurant
Flaky and buttery and deliciously chewy and stretchy, this bread from the Staten Island hole-in-the-wall is pretty much impossible not to keep eating, peeling off morsels and folding them into your mouth. The best part is the thick, rounded edges, where the bread is still doughy inside.

4. Mango with salt and hot sauce from a street cart
Meltingly sweet and stringy, with a bite of salt, sting of bottled lime juice, and spike of hot sauce, eaten with a plastic fork out of a ziplock bag. The carts--usually metal grocery carts filled with mangos and topped with a tray of condiment bottles--are parked on sidewalks throughout the city, especially in the spring.

5. Lahore Deli samosas and chai tea
This Pakistani cabbie takeout spot on Crosby Street serves the perfect snack 24-7: a vegetarian samosa reheated in the microwave (crisp edges, mushy middle) and a cup of milky-sweet chai tea (ask for two sugars).

6. Charlotte Russe from Leske’s Bakery
This push-up dessert from the Bay Ridge bakery is a Brooklyn speciality: layers of dryish sponge cake layered with real sweetened whipped cream and topped with a maraschino cherry, all encased in a cardboard sleeve with a movable disc at the bottom. Lick around the cream, push the cake up, lick again, and bite, creating the perfect messy ratio of cake to cream.

7. Orwasher’s New York rye
This loaf from the nearly century-old Upper East Side bakery epitomizes the iconic bread of New York City: it’s tangy, chewy, and dense, with the crunch and prick of licoricey caraway seeds and a crisp crust that clips the tongue with each bite and peels off satisfyingly in a single strip.

8. Peanut Punch from Sybils Bakery and Restaurant
This Richmond Hill Guyanese spot’s peanut drink packs a punch with hints of vanilla, almond extract, brown sugar, milk, and honey, and the chill and consistency of a milkshake that’s okay to drink for breakfast.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

TOUCH: Ice Fantasies

Joe O’Donoghue—ice artist to the stars—drinks his coffee hot. When I arrive at the door of Ice Fantasies, his ice-sculpture carving studio in DUMBO, to meet “Joey Ice” on a recent sweltering morning, I find him outside, smoking a cigarette and sipping bodega coffee. Above him is one of his kinetic ice sculptures: metal letters spelling ICE and an arrow pointing to the door. The letters are coated in water that alternately melts and refreezes, at the flip of a switch, and on this morning they are already dripping.

The basement ice studio does not provide much of a chilly relief. Josh Kalin, who does the bulk of the carving (Joey Ice is the “artist, designer, and producer”), wears a T-shirt beneath his rubber overalls, and the cement floor is slick with puddles. As Josh explains, ice is easier to work with if it has been tempered in warm air for an hour or so. “It makes it less brittle. Summer is a nice time of year to work, but you have to move fast.”

Josh is about to get started carving a liquor-bottle holder for a party at the Pierre Hotel. Before he breaks out the chain saw, though, he unhatches the door to the fifteen-degree walk-in freezer, which this morning houses a set of frozen speakers, among other ice creations. As I stomp through a drift of ice shavings, I and feel the hairs on my arms bristle.

Joey Ice sets down his coffee to show me the freezers where he makes his own giant ice cubes.

Though Joey Ice loves collaborations (his favorite project, in 1997, was transforming Harlem’s Cotton Club into an ice cave for Versace and Absolut Vodka), these days, business is less about carving shapes than creating functional ice “décor,” like ice trays, and freezing objects into ice, like the speakers. “I haven’t had a bride ask me for a swan in a long time,” he says. He did, however, offer me a peek at an icy rendition of the Brooklyn Bridge.

It's time to make the bottle holder. Josh wrangles a block of ice onto a plywood platform, scores the surface with a knife, then revs up the chain saw and hacks into the cube. Ice chips fly into the air.

Once the shape is cut, he flips the ice over and bores into the surface with a drill to make a row of liquor-bottle-sized holes. Cylinders of crushed ice rise out of the holes and crumble to the floor. 

As we pass through the studio, Joey points out the slabs of plywood, used as a base for all the carvings, scored with happenstance chain-saw marks, water stains, and dirt: tactile footprints of his craft. He’s begun selling the wooden by-product as art in its own right.

Outside, Joey Ice douses his kinetic sign with a fresh layer of water from a Pepsi bottle. Ice is an unpredictable medium, he explains: you can design and plan and produce all you want, but it keeps changing until it disappears altogether. (Hes even designed a special drainage system for his sculptures to prevent floods.)  “There’s an adrenaline to figuring stuff out,” he says as the frosty air rises from the letters. “There’s a yabba-dabba-do to getting it on with ice, but it ain’t over till it’s taken down.

Follow Sense & the City on Instagram @senseandthecity.

Many thanks to Joey Ice for the tour of Ice Fantasies.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

SMELL: The secret beaches of Manhattan

Riding the Q train through Midtown one Sunday night, I noticed a small mound of sand on the seat beside me. Ah, someone returning from a day at Coney Island, I thought, struck by the fact that in our city you can travel from sandcastle to skyscraper in just enough time for your bathing suit to dry.

Many New Yorkers don’t realize that it’s not necessary to travel to Coney Island to dip one’s toes in some sand. There are actually two sandy beaches right on the island of Manhattan—one on the East River and the other on the Hudson (though you might not want to build a sandcastle on either). 

The first beach—visible only at low tide—is at the end of East Twentieth Street, where it meets the East River (not actually a river but a saltwater estuary). After you cut through a parking lot under the FDR Drive, you’ll find yourself in Stuyvesant Cove Park. Joggers bounce past; men sun themselves on the boardwalk. The smell of rose hips fills the air. 

If you approach the railing and look down, you’ll notice a triangle of sand and some old dock pilings. The air smells of tar and saltwater and seaweed—and the waftings of Chinese takeout from a woman sitting on a nearby park bench. 

Leap over the fence and all of a sudden your toes are sinking into warm sand. You can even beachcomb! On the day I visited, I found a seashell, a small crab, and a piece of sea glass (estuary glass?). 

Add your bare footprints to the duck prints. 

Close your eyes and listen to the waves lapping—mingling with the thrum of the FDR drive just behind you.

Looking back toward the shore, you’ll notice a large rusty pipe jutting out from beneath the boardwalk: as it turns out, storm water from the city’s gutters flows out onto this beach. Suddenly standing barefoot in that white sand doesn’t seem quite so magical. Leap back over the fence and try your luck across town. 

Manhattan’s other sandy beach is in on the freshwater Hudson River, in Inwood, at the very end of Dyckman Street, tucked between a marina and an exit ramp off the Henry Hudson Parkway. An old mulberry tree shades the beach, and Canada geese wade in the shallows.

Goose droppings and crushed mulberries mingle in the gritty sand with sea glass (river glass?) and, on the day I visited, even a clamshell.

The breeze here smells lazy, like river water and plants—with the tracings of marijuana from a group smoking up in a grove that overlooks the beach.

There’s some sort of quasi-habitation or junk pile under some tree roots off to the side, but that doesn’t seem to concern anyone on this lovely morning.

Sit on one of the benches under the trees and watch an old man dancing on a rectangle of nearby grass, a harmonica around his neck, shaking a bouquet of maracas. The parkway roars past overhead, but it's no match for his music. He’s grinning at the water, the Palisades, the geese, and anyone who happens to know about this little beach on our big island.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

SOUND: The steam engines of Pratt University

On a recent Saturday afternoon, ten strangers carrying bags of cat food gathered beneath a smokestack in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. In about half an hour, passersby might have noticed puffs of white smoke issuing from the chimney and drifting over the rooftops of Pratt Institute.
Belowground, Conrad Milster, age seventy-nine, chief engineer of Pratt’s Victorian-era engine room, had just fired up the oldest steam-generated power plant of its kind in the northeastern United States. The room features an observation balcony overlooking three immaculately restored steam-powered generators from 1888.
The direct-current generators ran daily at Pratt until 1977, and they still run during the winter months, when their exhaust steam is fed into the university’s heating system. The steam is heated by an oil-burning boiler.

The engine room is also home to a crew of award-winning stray cats, who curl up among the pipes and in the corners. Conrad has suggested that his three generators have distinct personalities, much as his cats do, and he tends to both species with the same devoted affection.
Pratt’s chief engineer since 1958, Conrad has lamp-chop sideburns, aviator eyeglasses, and a hunched back. As he talks, he gesticulates with graceful fingers that one can easily imagine manipulating the levers and gears of the turn-of-the-century machinery.

Among the many impressive aspects of the Pratt engine room (the vintage chandelier and marble switchboard, the smell of steam and cat food), the most striking are the sounds.
A low, continuous hiss of steam fills the wood-paneled room, like a kettle kept on low boil. When Conrad switches on the generator by turning a spigot, water slaps onto the metal and then fizzes into steam. The pistons rumble and click into action, and the flywheel spins, faster and faster, chugging like an old steam train. The governor clangs; the flywheel wobbles. The gears turn in a wheezing singsong.

Conrad’s steam-powered gadgets extends beyond the generators. Each New Year’s Eve, for about fifty years, he played his collection of steam whistles, which includes train whistles, a handmade calliope steam-organ, and a whistle from the ocean liner Normandie. Today, he runs a stick over the cylinders, creating a cascade of metallic notes like a xylophone.
When he’s not tending to his full-size generators, Conrad creates scale-model generators in the machine shop below the power plant. The scale models replicate the sounds of their full-size cousins upstairs, but this afternoon they have to compete with strains of opera radio. “They’re playing Trovatore today—one of my favorites!” he says.

As the tiny generator begins to spin, it illuminates a strand of Christmas lights. Conrad is retiring this year. He expects that it won’t be long before the engine room is demolished; if that happens, he doesn’t want to know about it. He’s keeping one foot in the Age of Steam. Today, as he puts it, “the world isn’t what you’d want it to be.”
In the lobby next to the engine room sits the movement of a clock-tower clock that Conrad restored. Its steady ticking is the last sound today’s visitors will hear.

Many thanks to Atlas Obscura for organizing a tour of Pratt's engine room.