Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Taking a bite out of the Big Apple

My wife and I spent quality time in New York before the WSO's performance

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NEW YORK CITY -- It was simple serendipity, really.That's how my wife, Athina, and I found ourselves in New York City over the last week, acting as a couple of advance scouts for hundreds of fellow Manitobans who have travelled to the siren-screaming, car-honking heart of Manhattan for tonight's Carnegie Hall appearance of our own Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

Actually, Athina was there on business, so I tagged along and took notes, which is what people in my business do wherever we go.

What follows is a kind of small serving of our experiences and observations in NYC.

A tasting menu, of impressions about some of people we met, places we went, and the restaurants we can now recommend to those of our fellow travellers to New York City.

Actually, since on any given visit one can only take small bites out of all the Big Apple has to offer, on this trip Athina and I tried to concentrate on the culinary.

Our first and only other trip to New York had been an unplanned, jet-lagged disappointment on the way back from Europe a few years ago.

So this time we engaged the assistance of a friend -- Winnipeg's foremost, yet least-known travel-guide expert. Fort Garry Hotel managing partner Richard Bel, a Renaissance man and foodie whose advice on where to sleep and eat, what's hip -- or even what's hipster -- is always impeccable.

But before we began following his restaurant road map from Manhattan across the East River to Brooklyn, I did some exploring on my own while Athina was in meetings.

Of course, everyone is drawn to sprawling Central Park, but I chanced upon a smaller, more inviting green space in the centre of the city: Bryant Park at Avenue of the Americas and West 42nd Street.

It's a six-acre rectangle of lush lawn and walking paths, visited by 15,000 people on good weather days and populated by even more tulips and trees. It's a place where New Yorkers go to visit an outdoor reading room, play board games, table tennis, or just take their lunch.

A placid park even with the background noise of the sirens and horns.

But I promised you restaurant recommendations and celebrity sightings.

We were lucky to get a last-minute Saturday lunch reservation at Babbo Ristorante in Greenwich Village, one of the celebrated eateries of celebrity chef Mario Battali.

I don't recall what I ate, only what I wrote on the comment card.

"Unpretentious perfection."

Oh, yes, I also remember who we saw. There was a woman from California seated beside us who promptly informed us actor Willem Dafoe was seated just two tables away. She said if this were L.A. there would be people interrupting his meal, demanding a photo with him. But New York is different, she said. People are more respectful. Whereupon she let it be known that, if she had her way, she would be sitting in his lap.

We sampled another Battali restaurant, a small place with no more than 40 seats by my count.

It had a vibe as good as the food, and neither place was especially expensive, even by Winnipeg standards. Just over $100 with wine.

Then there was NoMad, which is not to be confused with Nomad, as we did when we made our initial reservation. We still managed to get a dinner reservation for Saturday night. I was too busy enjoying the meal to take notes, but by the end of the evening I told Athina how I rated it.

"If I were to die tomorrow, I would want this to be my last meal."

What surprised us about New York City?

Well, for one thing, how no one at the restaurants we visited pulled out their cellphone.

But more importantly how welcome we felt and how helpful and friendly everyone was, from cops we asked for directions in Times Square, to passengers on crowded subways, to cabbies and strangers on the street.

In fact, even the woman who nimbly nipped in front of us in the Hilton Hotel concierge line was friendly.

She smiled at me.

And I stared back, dumbstruck.

Not at what just happened, but who she looked like.

"Are you Canadian?"

"Yes," I said.

It was Micha´lle Jean, our former governor general. She was in town to speak at the United Nations.

There are said to be about 700 or more Winnipeggers in New York now for tonight's concert.

But we only bumped into one Winnipegger in six days, and that was wine merchant Tina Jones of Banville & Jones who spotted us in the hotel lobby and ran over to say hello.

Oh yes, we also greeted Jim Ewen, the WSO's big-bearded contra bassoon player just as he was arriving at LaGuardia Airport Tuesday and we were leaving.

Yes, we had to fly home before the WSO's big night at Carnegie Hall.

Alas, the only concert we heard during our stay was the constant serenade of sirens and horns.

The never-ending New York Street Symphony.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2014 A6

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