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

Thursday, November 3, 2016

SOUND: "Breather" room in Rockefeller Center at Christmastime

It’s December in New York. You’ve walked, you’ve shopped, you’ve dropped something off and picked something up, you’ve seen a doctor, a show, a movie, you’ve waited on line, grabbed a drink, taken a walk—and now all you want is a few moments of quiet. What if—in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world—you could pay by the hour for a few square feet of solitude?


Enter Breather, an app that allows you to rent a private space in the city for between half an hour and several hours. You can use the space to work, take a nap, make a call, have a meeting, take off your shoes, charge your devices—or simply to breathe, as suggested. The simple and tastefully furnished rooms come equipped with pencils, chargers, free WiFi, a candy jar, A/C, and a yoga mat. At your appointed time, you unlock the door with a code sent to your phone.


On the afternoon of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony, I reserved a room in a “well-appointed office center” at Sixth Avenue and Forty-fourth Street (app description: “This hidden gem in the heart of midtown is the perfect place to host a meeting before catching a train back to the ‘burbs’”) and was soon pushing my way through tourists in Santa hats, panhandlers with soggy cardboard signs, and jewelers mumbling deals into cell phones.


The lobby was the paragon of anonymity, complete with “Wet Floor” signs and snowflake decorations. The room was appointed with an easy chair, table, a rack of light reading, a yoga mat, and a classic New York view of a brick wall.

I closed the door and was immediately encased in those two rare New York conditions: silence and solitude. If I pitched my ears I could hear the soothing whir of what might have been a white-noise machine implanted in the ceiling, the faint scratch of a speaker-phone conference call down the hall, and distant sirens and horns, but for the most part I experienced a few moments of serene, anonymous stillness.

Suddenly, I was struck by a frantic urge to take full advantage of the $14.50 I’d paid for half an hour in this 102-square-foot space. I unrolled the mat, did some stretches—then grabbed a throw pillow and lay down on the floor for a rest. I was checking things off a to-do list—no different from what I’d be doing outside.


I was even starting to feel a little lonely when I noticed that through the glass panel next to the door, a man in a blue V-neck was peering at me from his office across the hall. Feeling self-conscious, I hopped up and grabbed a photo book about cats from the wall rack and settled into the armchair beneath a duet of succulents in wall planters.

Time was running out and I realized I hadn’t yet used the table or looked at all the books. I swapped the cat book for How to Find Fulfilling Work. I checked the elapsed time on my phone, hopped up again, and craned my neck past the brick-wall view. I could imagine the sounds in my mind, but it was like watching a silent movie: police setting up barricades, crowds pushing through toward Fifth Avenue, Salvation Army Santas ringing bells, throngs of honking taxis in light rain. I saw the reflection of my quiet room, coat hung on the door, set against the city.


My phone alerted me that my Breather time was almost up. I threw my ID badge into the trash (other contents: a Dentyne Ice package and a Starbucks napkin) and exited down the hushed hallway.

Out on the sidewalk, I got trapped behind a pack of girls and women decked out shades of pink and purple, headed toward the tree lighting.


“We have to make sure we don’t lose Grandma or Laurie,” the little girl’s mom said.

“Why?” the girl asked.

“It’s just a busy place, that’s all.”

“New York never stops,” said the little girl, with awe and exasperation.

“That’s what they say,” her mom replied.








Tuesday, November 1, 2016

TASTE: The lost autumn flavor of Hungarian gesztenyepüré

With autumn in New York comes the iconic Midtown smell of roasted chestnuts warmed by incandescent light bulbs in foil pans hung from hot-dog carts.


But a lesser-known urban chestnut experience is a relic of New York’s immigrant history: gesztenyepüré (pronounced “GEST-en-yay-pur-day”)a traditional and still-popular Hungarian dessert of pureed chestnut paste mixed with a splash of rum and vanilla, pressed through a potato ricer into vermicelli-like strands and topped with whipped cream. In the early 1900s, gesztenyepüré was a menu staple at the Hungarian restaurants on the Upper and Lower East Side. As far as I know, today gesztenyepüré is served at only one remaining restaurant in New York: Budapest Café and Restaurant, also known as André’s Café and Bakery, at Eighty-fifth Street and Second Avenue in the heart of what was once New York’s Little Hungary.


Walking into Budapest Café on a recent afternoon, I was greeted by an almost entirely Hungarian clientele, hunkering down over plates of chicken paprikash and queuing for fresh bread and strudel at the front counter. The warm chestnut tones of the narrow dining room—which features brick walls decorated with photos of Budapest and a pressed faux copper ceiling—quickly whetted my appetite for this sweet incarnation of the city’s favorite street nut.


When the glass dish of gesztenyepüré and a spoon were finally slapped down on my table by the harried waitstaff, it was a sight to behold: at once beautiful and hideous. You could appreciate it as a nest of golden, delicate chestnut noodles spilling over the brim and crowned in whipped cream—or as a dish of delicate dog food (crowned in whipped cream).


The taste is also a paradox: gesztenyepüré is at once ethereal and leaden. Though they look dense, the chestnut vermicelli are actually fluffy, almost Styrofoam-like, dissolving under the lightest touch. But the flavor is rich and heavy: a sweet, grainy nuttiness, a faint tangy kick of rum and vanilla, melding with the smooth whipped cream, here both on top of and below the pile of chestnut. The dessert appears moist but on first bite is dry, quickly becoming saucy as it melts into mush. It looks like it might be warm, but is in fact chilled. It appears crumbly but is actually squishy.


It’s rare to find a dessert that inspires as much mid-bite rumination as gesztenyepüré. In New York City, the flavor of chestnuts signals autumn, but to a Hungarian immigrant a hundred years ago, the flavor of chestnuts must have signaled home.