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New York: A Whirl of Holiday Windows and Exotic Spices; Black Satin Manolos

Chefs behaving badly: In Barneys' holiday windows, is it a fantasy feast or food fight? Mario's head is on a platter, Daniel Boulud overturns the table, Bobby Flay squirts ketchup.

Chefs behaving badly: In Barneys’ holiday windows, is it a fantasy feast or food fight? Mario’s head is on a platter, Daniel Boulud overturns the table, Bobby Flay squirts ketchup.

“…I did everything with that great mad joy you get when you return to New York City.” Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler.
Friday night, after stepping into a swirl of tiny snowflakes outside La Boite a Epice, I hailed a cab and we headed downtown.

As we stalled in the 23rd Street gridlock, the driver apologized for the traffic. “It’s not your fault,” I murmured automatically.

“It’s the tourists,” she exclaimed, hitting the steering wheel with one hand. “Every Christmas they pour into New York. They want to see the store windows and they want to go shopping. And you know what? They could stay home in their own little towns and get the same stuff for less money.”

Ahem.

I admit it. When it comes to New York, I’m a tourist. Or at least half a tourist. B is a New Yorker—just listen to the way he says “La Gwaaadia”—and we lived happily in the city, mostly in Greenwich Village, for the better part of a decade before decamping for the sticks. Angus and Serendipity were babes when we left, but it’s still true north for them.

Now whenever I return, I feel giddy. All I have to do is join the crowds on the sidewalk—especially at dusk when the lights twinkle on—and I get a rush of adrenalin.

My “to do list” would take months to actually finish, but I dive in with that “great mad joy” Jack Kerouac felt when he returned to New York. The city never stops evolving. So your favorite antiques shop has vanished, there are three more in Brooklyn to discover. Have you been laid off? Just take your grannie’s recipe for whoopie pies and reinvent yourself at a kitchen-for-rent in Queens. There are perfumes to try, shoes to buy, a dozen new restaurants to visit, friends to call up—

And don’t forget the fantastic holiday windows, Scroogish reports to the contrary. Here’s what I did—and saw—last week.

Wednesday

4:47 PM: Frosty air outside the terminal stings my cheeks and I take a deep breath of exhaust fumes mixed with jet fuel. Fabulous! Time to attack the city.

7:32 PM: Love, love, love Eataly, Mario Batali’s (and partners’) temple of all things delicious and Italian. Big white open space, high ceilings, worn tile floors, cleverly laid out to lead you through alleys of artisanal rigatoni and Ligurian olive oils, past platters of aromatic white and black truffles, into a fresh market filled with mountains of raddiccio di Treviso and exotic citrus.

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In one window a parody of a grocer’s display: Stacks of cans, ostensibly filled with “D.O.P.” San Marzano tomatoes, bear photos of Italian glitterati, everyone from Annette Funicello to Sinatra and Bernini.

What to eat? Eleven open-plan eateries offer Piemontese beef carpaccio, bagna cauda, spaghegtti alla chitarra. We put our names down for Joe Pasternak’s fish joint Il Pesce—hey, just a 45-minute wait—and we join the throngs wandering the aisles with glasses of wine in hand. So civilized! Screech to a stop at the little book store where Slow Life in a Tuscan Town absorbs a good 10 minutes. Scoop up two Eataly 2011 diaries, in Italian of course, one for me and one for Serendipity, who also snares a T-shirt inscribed: “La Vita Est Troppo Breve Per Mangiare Male.” Amen.

Note to Eataly: You really should start shipping the stuff you sell. There’s only so much a girl can carry.

8:38 PM: “Foie of the sea,” quips the waiter. He’s not wrong: Monkfish liver, served with dates, black Venetian rice, and a tangle of vinegary greens, is buttery and soft with just a whiff of the ocean. Across the table Serendipity is savoring her branzino alla piastra, a small but pristine pan-seared sea bass with roasted lemon. A woman at the next table eyes my boots, but I’m eyeing the truffles across the way–$6/gram, 5 to 6 grams per serving…

9:29 PM: At Café Lavazza, sipping ciocolato con panna and watching skaters warm up at the espresso bar, skates slung over their shoulders. More panna please!

Thursday:

9:30 AM: Up bright and early, well sort of. Get fabulous haircut and, um, a little color at Frederic Fekkai. I love this place: Giovanni and Brooklyn are Italian and gorgeous and there’s always someone to make you a cappuccino or to carry your bag around for you. Oh, and my hair looks great, even if I’m suddenly a lot poorer.

12:38 PM: Lunch at BG, Bergdorf’s very girly seventh floor cafe, all pale blue and silver, overlooking Central Park. Light lobster salad is sumptuous, but leaves room to try on clothes. Shopping for Christmas ornaments, we find a golden Buddha, a peacock with iridescent tail feathers, a richly caparisoned camel. I check out John Derian’s uptown outpost, where an irresistible assemblage of decoupaged red poppy plates is, gulp, a cool $3,000. Very high impact.

2: 25 PM: Yes, that’s Ina Garten slinking into the gift shop at E.A.T., striped muffler pulled up over her nose.

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3:04 PM: At Maison du Chocolat, surprised by the uninspired chocolate and candy cane Christmas tree in the front window. But inside Madame fills a chic brown bag with luscious pate de fruit, candied orange peels dipped in chocolate, plain dark chocolate truffles and pour moi, a tiny bag with spice-infused ganaches: Zagora (fresh mint), Cannelle (cinnamon), and Garrigues (fennel).

3:20 PM: Secret Santa stop at Bang & Olufsen…sssshhhh.

3:42 PM: Frigid cold. Naturally every taxi is off duty. Weather or early shift change?

3:50 PM: Walking over to Fifth. Icy wind, feels like a wintry blast from Siberia. No cabs here either, just fleets of black Cadillac Escalades idling at the curb…

3:53 PM: Steal lone on-duty cab from angry woman on the corner of 65th and Madison. Bad girl reverts to her city ways, generating bad karma.

3:54 PM: Attempt to reclaim good fortune by giving cab to Serendipity who has a meeting downtown. Walking past Hermes, my head swivels.

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Photo credit: The New York Times

Yes, Santa, I’d love a Birkin bag, but in the meantime, how about that divinely twiggy cottage in the window? The rustic table is set with Les Maisons Enchantees, tempting new china adorned with Francois Houtin’s dreamy sepia engravings “of magical forests, childhood memories, tree houses….” All that’s is missing is Mole from Wind in the Willows

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4:01 PM: Hilarious windows at Barneys spoof Food Network shows and celeb chefs. But first, there’s this glittery gown constructed of metallic Illy espresso pouches and paper cups. In the glare, shades are just the right accessory.

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4:02 PM: What’s this? Cat fight in the kitchen? Martha, Ina, Sandra and Paula are squaring off…

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4:03 PM: Food fight or Rabelasian feast? Bobby Flay wields a squeeze bottle of ketchup, Mario’s head is on a platter, Daniel overturns the table.

Enough! I retreat inside to the relative calm of $6,000 handbags. In perfume a saleswoman anoints my wrists with Frederic Malle’s new Portrait of a Lady. I glide back upstairs in a lush cloud of Turkish rose, black currant, cinnamon and white musk.

4: 28 PM: Back at Bergdorf’s for a little power shopping. Try on delectable black suede Manolos, but they’re out of my size. “Settle” for classic black satin evening slingbacks, while eavesdropping on fellow shopper whispering into her phone: “I feel so much better. I bought two pairs of suede boots and some Louboutins on sale. Now I’m shopping for the boys. “ Three women tell me I smell wonderful. It’s Malle’s perfume of course, but it’s way too cold to walk back to Barneys.

4:49 PM: Return to John Derian. No, not for the mega-buck poppies, but for a modest pair of decoupaged plates with friendly camels posing under palm trees.

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5:16 PM: Mesmerized by the luminous holiday windows offering fantasies of romantic travel–a fur clad woman on a winged horse….

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“silver-clad galaxy hopper” in a scene out of Jules Verne…

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Craving this Oscar de La Renta rose-embroidered gown and tartan wrap, but then I’d also need the retro red caboose to carry me through the icy steppes.

9:32 PM: Tandoori-spiced Chatham cod with fenugreek foam at Café Boulud is a letdown, exotic fruit dessert more so, but I adore the warm mini-madeleines that come to the table wrapped in an intricately folded napkin. And the people watching is pretty good: We’re particularly taken by a woman of a certain age wearing a red-dyed fur: The staff waves goodbye as she clambers into an elderly maroon limo.


Friday

9:30 AM: Whipping down the East River Drive on the way to Shibui, wonderful Japanese antique store formerly based in Santa Fe, now relocated to a warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Dazzled by tansu chests made of rare woods, elaborate hardware, one with a “ninja” drawer that pops open when another drawer is firmly closed.

Dane tells me he has never had such good stock. I’m looking for a merchant’s cabinet to use in the library as an occasional bar, with storage for glassware underneath. But of course the one I really love is an elegant 19th century lacquered clothing chest with drawers, not exactly bottle-friendly. Need to think….

10:47 AM:
Back in the city. Dipping into Kalustyan’s for bags of Turkish pepper—urfa and maras, plus a jar of pepper paste from Gazantiep to try. On the way out, I add Turkish pistachios and tart cherries to my basket, along with a tube of Taste No. 5 Umami, a blend of tomatoes, black olives, anchovies, porcini mushrooms, said to boost the savory quotient of soups, stews and salad dressings.

11:06 AM: Sprinting through crowds in Grand Central to Penzeys, where I replenish my depleted stock of Special Extra Bold Indian Peppercorns. What else? Forgot my list, but just in case, I get Madagascar vanilla beans, coriander seed, and Ceylon cinnamon along with a little jar of mahlab, sour cherry kernels used in Middle Eastern cooking.

1:30 PM: Lackluster crab noodles, strange brown chili jam at Kin Shop in Greenwich Village. So how is it that “Top Chef” alum Harold Dieterle’s new Thai-American joint won two stars from Sam Sifton a few days later? Were we at the same restaurant? Oh, OK, Sifton did say the crab noodles were “fiery and bland at the same time.” But still…

2:30 PM: Fun afternoon checking out studios near NYU. Great location for someone I know, except that not one of them has a kitchen, only hotplates and mini-fridges. I see lots of ramen and cereal in her future. Baking? Not bloody likely, as her aunt is wont to say.

3:35 PM: Trudging up and down four flights of stairs in eerily deserted townhouse in the mid-thirties. Three studios/one bedrooms, all occupied by residents scheduled to decamp within days. Hmmm….could it have something to do with the construction notice on the door?

5:22 PM. Snow flakes are drifting down 11th Avenue, but I’m sipping wild mint tea with Lior Lev Sercarz, an Israeli-born chef and spice expert who’s just opened the chic gallery/shop, La Boite a Epice. Starting in January the shop will sell 40 spice blends he’s created from a palette of 120 herbs and spices, plus tins of exotically flavored biscuits. The space will also host exhibitions by artists such as the Columbian painter Marcela Caldenas whose works are currently on view.

The heavenly scent of Vadouvan, a curry-like mixture he devised for a chef at Daniel (where he cooked for four years), wafts across the table. “This is my own version,” he says, explaining that the coarse blend of 16 or 17 ingredients was inspired by the cooking of French colonists in the Indian Ocean. “It’s not a typical Indian curry. There are sweeter notes, the taste of fruit, which makes it more Thai or Indonesian. “

Note to self: And there are 39 more blends to try. Place order for winter kitchen experiments now!

6:48 PM: Here’s the thing about ABC Home: At first, it looks so beautiful in a glittery sort of way that I want to buy it all: crystal chandeliers, mossy doves, creamy French tableware, distressed metal crosses, lots of flickering votives.

Then I see that the Virgin Mary statuettes are covered with actual glitter, the concrete birds are lumpen, and I’d have to buy at least a dozen chandeliers to get the same luminous effect. And hire a stylist to pull it all together.

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But I love the Christmas cards featuring a snarky fox mulling over his Christmas menu: “ Two turtle doves, three French hens…..” And like a moth to the flame, I’m drawn to the glimmer of the sleeping chamber in the front window. Fall asleep in that magical, diaphanous room and you’ll dream of a winter wonderland…

9:02 PM: Dinner at Craft. It’s probably been months since Tom Colicchio set foot in the kitchen, but the food is nearly as wonderful as when the restaurant opened 8 years ago. Swordfish lightly braised in olive oil, served atop thin slices of roasted lemon, is succulent, hen of the woods mushrooms roasted in butter (and lots of it) are so voluptuous I almost forget to eat the delicious shishito peppers. Not a spice in sight, and absolutely delicious. The girls at the desk even hand out little bags of muffins for breakfast in the morning.

Can we sleep here too?

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