Thursday, August 27, 2009

See you in Sept

We're going on hiatus for a little while, but we'll be back in mid-September with even more reasons why this is the greatest city in the world. Thanks for reading.

Mountain Gorilla Diorama at AMNH

In 1921, American Museum of Natural History taxidermist Carl Akeley --- the man who invented habitat dioramas in the late nineteenth century --- traveled to what was then the Belgian Congo to collect mountain gorilla specimens for the museum.

That November, he killed the silverback that now graces the Akeley Hall of African Mammals. While this was a boon to the museum (gorillas in general were little known at the time, and the mountain gorilla in particular had only been scientifically documented 18 years earlier), it threw Akeley into a moral crisis. In his journal, he described "feeling like a murderer" and compared himself unfavorably with the dead gorilla, writing, "Of the two, I was the savage and the aggressor."

He left the Congo determined to convince Belgium's King Leopold II to create a sanctuary for the mountain gorilla. ("I am really fonder of him than I am of myself," he said of the silverback.) In 1925, Leopold, persuaded by Akeley's persistence, created the first national park in Africa, which today is split among the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda.

Without Akeley, there would be no mountain gorillas today. The "murderer" wound up being the best thing that could happen to them.

Four years and 364 days after his conscience awoke, and in virtually the same spot on Mount Mikeno where the silverback fell, Akeley died of a fever. His bones are there still.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Three Tarts

This summer we didn't go to the beach, we didn't go a-weekending, heck, we barely even had any picnics due to the unusually wet weather. But, as it turns out, we didn't have to, because we discovered Three Tarts instead. This Chelsea emporium sells high-end, cutesy housewares (like halter-top aprons), makes its own lovely, tiny desserts, and specializes in frozen treats, including the banana-and-chocolate cake and lavender-honey-lemon ice cream sandwiches we selected.

It perfectly resembles the kinds of stores you find punctuating the Hamptons or the Cape, but it's much much closer and far less chi-chi. When we were there, we overheard a chef-customer talking to the chef-owner about how to incorporate corn into sweets and watched a pre-teen devour "The Meat Club for Girls." And then we went back to our business, licking another summer away.

Monday, August 24, 2009


To many people, Indian food means dairy-based curries and tandoor cooking. Delicious though they may be, they're only a small part of the vast Indian culinary repertoire, one originating in the northern reaches of the country. If you want North Indian food in New York, you can go to virtually any neighborhood Indian place or, full the full immersion experience, to Jackson Heights, in Queens, which is predominantly North Indian. If, however, you want to sample the glories of South Indian cooking --- largely vegetarian, based around lentils and rice combined in myriad forms --- you have to go to Curry Hill, the stretch of Indian restaurants bordering Lexington Avenue in the East 20s. For whatever reason, this micro-neighborhood has become the hotbed of dosas, idli, vada, utthapam, and other irresistible treats.

One of the most celebrated restaurants in the area is Saravanaas, a branch of a hugely successful global chain based in Chennai. There recently, we started our meal with idli (cakes made from fermented lentils and rice) and vada (crispy lentil donuts) served with sambar, the ubiquitous South Indian vegetable soup. The idli were soft and savory, and the vada was some of the best we've ever had, thick and fresh with a great peppery crunch.

We followed with two different types of dosas: vegetable, stuffed with thinly sliced and subtly spiced cabbage and onions, and masala, the most popular variant, filled with a soft potato curry. Both had great flavor and fillings, though the dosas were a little more well-done than we would have liked. (Only one side --- the exterior --- of a dosa is cooked, so the perfect balance of crispness and softness is difficult to achieve.)

In any given year, we pretty much eat our weight in dosas, and while these aren't our very favorite, Saravanaas is a corner of South India we will definitely revisit.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Morris-Jumel Mansion

Built in 1765, the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights is one of the city's only remaining Palladian structures. More famously, George Washington briefly used it as his headquarters in the autumn of 1776. (The British and the Hessians took it over after they drove out Washington's army and occupied New York for the remainder of the war.) With its creaky floors, period furniture and housewares, and stately air, the house still stands as a place of lovely calm in the bustling city that surrounds it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Brooklyn (Bridge) Flea

The city's favorite flea market spends Saturdays in Fort Greene and Sundays in DUMBO, which isn't a bad way to pass a summer weekend, actually.

You can't beat the location, a parking lot beneath the Brooklyn Bridge that affords views of architectural wonders both above and across the East River. And yet, somehow the concrete ground meshed with the concrete sky and combined with the vendors' plastic tents to transform the day from merely sweltering into Dante territory. In other words, much too hot to shop.

It's never too hot to eat, though, especially when fried-to-order fish tacos are involved. We also sampled surprisingly scrumptious margherita pizza cooked in a portable, 900-degree coal oven. A portable coal oven! Rather than stand in line for papusas, we opted for a sweet treat: greenmarket-fresh, very grown-up blackberry-and-cantaloupe and sweet melon popsicles. A wise decision, even if popsicle quickly became slushee which quickly became juice which quickly disappeared.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Atlantic Avenue Tunnel

Built in 1844, abandoned and supposedly filled in during the 1860s, and rediscovered by 18-year-old Bob Diamond in 1981, Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue Tunnel occupies a prominent place in New York folklore. It has allegedly been the home to giant man-eating rats, bootleggers, pirates, mobsters, and German saboteurs. (The latter rumor was taken so seriously that government agents broke into the tunnel in 1916. No Germans, but they did hang an electric light and leave some graffiti behind.)

Our friend Emily clued us in to the tours of the tunnel, so we met up and descended through the manhole at the intersection of Atlantic and Court along with dozens of other people who wanted to spend a sunny Sunday underground. (Flashlights are a must.)

The tunnel is a cavernous space nearly half a mile long. It dead-ends at a pile of rubble, beyond which may lay the remains of an old locomotive. The ground is rutted with the old railway ties, the walls are cold and clammy, and the years have left strangely beautiful patterns on the walls and ceiling. And unlike the bright city above, the tunnel is a place where lights struggle against the darkness, flickers from another time.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Blue Marble Ice Cream

I scream, / You scream, / We all scream for ethically sourced, fairly traded, organic, hoping to open a second shop soon in Rwanda, hand-crafted strawberry and cinnamon ice cream!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Summer at the Bronx Zoo

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Treasures from the Afghanistan National Museum at the Met

It's a cliche to describe Afghanistan as the country where the West meets the East. It's also true. For thousands of years, Afghanistan has been the site of collisions between Europe and Asia, and it has developed its own rich culture out of the mingling of these disparate influences. The staff of the National Museum in Kabul improbably and heroically managed to save many of the most beautiful expressions of that culture through the tumult of Afghanistan's recent past, and many of these artifacts are now on view at the Met. This splendid exhibit, full of gorgeous and affecting objects, speaks to the indispensable role museums play in the preservation of our shared heritage.

Photo: thanks

Thursday, August 13, 2009


In food, as in all things, context is key, which is why a visit to Swagat was unexpectedly delightful. When we want great Indian food, we usually head here. But the next time we're uptown with a craving for samosas, we'll be back here for textured aloo tikki, heavily spiced vegetarian samosas, tangy kaju califlower (even if this was missing the promised cashews), and the nicely balanced sauce-to-dumpling ratio in the mali kofta. Don't let the modest pictures fool you: there wasn't much left to truck downtown at meal's end.

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