Category Archives: new york

On the commute

Stockholm metro

I enjoy my commute. It takes approximately thirty-seven minutes: ten minutes walking to the subway, four minutes waiting, sixteen minutes riding the train (with three of idyllic Brooklyn Bridge views), seven minutes walking to work. During this spell the city fades away and I exist in my own orbit together with others existing in theirs.

Enjoying your commute isn’t a given: its daily repetition threatens to quash happiness. Commuting exists within a nebulous neither/nor time. You are neither working nor playing. You are neither productive nor unproductive. You exist. Commuting time is passive time. It shouldn’t be. Articles arguing for a better commute insist upon actively savouring your ‘me time’. But the word’s Latin root suggests otherwise. ‘Com’ means altogether while ‘mute’ signifies mutare, to change. Thus, commuting is a shared transitional activity. It’s a concentrated period during which individual citizens share time, space and routine to shape their city.

Commuting together forms a group identity. By moving in a specific way in a certain place, you assert your identity and build a shared one. Your non-relationship with the person you always see on the subway demonstrates how these different layers of identity form passively. You don’t speak and you don’t know their name, but you share a space, a time and a moment. You share the pole, the delays and the stench of other passengers. You make up stories about this regular traveller, recognize them and invent a name for them. Through sharing in time, space and routine you passively develop a relationship. This non-vocal relationship constructs your commuting persona.

Although these bonds shape how we feel about our routine movements, they form without recognition. Their hidden nature subordinates the commute in our daily movements. Riding the subway and walking to work aren’t inherently disagreeable, but ignoring the commute’s nuances turns these minutes into nebulous, so-called lost time. In a culture where “time is money” such undefined instances become evil through their lack of remuneration. If we adopt an active attitude toward our routine movements, we can acknowledge communal relationship we form and appreciate commuting.

I read. Through books I actively participate in the subway reading community and appreciate the role I adopt within it. Through these self-identity affirming actions, I perceive my thirty-seven minute commute not as lost time, but as daily moments of routine interaction with my city. These actions compose the fabric of my identity and work to form the fabric of a community. I enjoy my commute as shared active time and personally productive space.


For a Fresh Metaphor on Coffee, Add Cardamom to your Brew


For a fresh metaphor on coffee, I add cardamom and cloves to my brew. The spices’ impact is obvious from the moment the hot water hits the beans. Vegetal and sweet and floral: I drink my coffee newly alert.

I first tasted spiced coffee at a stand at Smorgasburg, Brooklyn’s food flea market. The operator — Bunna Café an Ethiopian restaurant in Bushwick — promised Ethiopian coffee made authentically with cardamom and cloves. I sipped timidly. But soon I was slurping at the drops between the melting ice cubes. The coffee was barely sweet, simultaneously light and rich. Bunna’s twist on my favourite summer coffee reinvigorated my reaction to iced coffee.

That’s what Bunna wants. The restaurant frequently holds coffee ceremonies to acquaint customers with the Ethiopian mindset. Coffee is crucial to Ethiopians. It is a key export, daily ritual and cultural touchstone. The coffee ceremony welcomes guests, fueling conversation as the beans — toasted immediately before serving — are subject to three rounds of brewing. From plastic cups of iced coffee to cultural events, Bunna presents Ethiopian culture as a fresh metaphor on coffee.

But adding cardamom to coffee isn’t a new habit, nor is it uniquely Ethiopian. Cardamom-growing countries — from Thailand to North Africa — infuse it into their coffee to refresh their brew. But the spice’s high price tag reserves these preparations for unique occasions and special drinks. Sometimes entire pods are ground along with the beans, other times they are left whole and chewed as a breath freshener while sipping. The resulting coffee may be drunk black, with sugar or condensed milk. Since a single pod will transform a pot of coffee, the brewer may share their wealth without being ostentatious. Like the coffee ceremony elevates the daily rite of coffee drinking, including a new spice in a cup retrains the taste buds, forcing a re-examination of the daily ritual of coffee drinking.

If you have coffee and cardamom, you too can celebrate. Choose your coffee — Ethiopia, as the birthplace of coffee, has more indigenous varietals than other coffee growing regions.[1] Just before you dump the warm water over those grounds, add the spices. You need less than you think. Then brew. And smell: slightly musty, floral, and warm. Drink. It’s coffee, but there’s something else. There’s a fresh metaphor.

[1] Freeman, J., 2012. the Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee: Growing, Roasting and Drinking, with Recipes. New York: Ten Speed Press. pp. 22-23.

Drinking Iced Coffee in a New York Summer


When June’s humid haze descends, New Yorkers drink iced coffee. Commuters grasp their squishy clear cups, condensation running down their wrists. Cafes measure days in plastic lids. In New York, iced coffee isn’t a simple summer drink — it symbolizes the New Yorker’s commitment to the city.

Whether from Starbucks, Blue Bottle or the cart on the corner, New Yorkers buy more iced coffee than any other city in America. The environment demands it. Crowded streets amplify the heat and poorly ventilated apartments offer little relief. But a city that esteems its velocity requires fuel and so cool coffees replace hot ones. The switch is simple. Brew coffee, chill it in the fridge and throw in ice cubes before serving. This formula unites New York’s diverse iced coffees.

New York boasts more iced coffee variations than Starbucks does simple syrups. Add ice cubes made from coffee; buy cold brew concentrate from the grocery store; sip on New Orleans-style iced coffee infused with chicory; or wait for a pricey cold brew. If New Yorkers embrace cold-brew mania, it’s because their coffee shop serves it. Unlike hot coffee’s litany of extras, choosing iced coffee is the choice. The guy in plaid shirt clutches a Starbucks cup, the girl in the black dress one from Joe and the kid with the afro grips one sans-logo. Together, they’re New York’s iced coffee drinkers.

Whereas warm coffee inspires debates as to flavours and the best cafes, iced coffee elicits these arguments for a few weeks at the start of summer. During this time, AM New York and The Daily News publish a flurry of stories about cold coffee mania. But iced coffee isn’t a trend. Personal preferences are established before the summer’s first cup. He automatically poured in milk, she mechanically drizzled in agave and the kid instinctually added nothing. While clear plastic cups reveal these changes, the underlying brew unifies the differences. It’s iced coffee and the motivation for drinking remains the same: struggling through a New York summer, trying to keep it together.

Hyperreality Dines Here: Exploring Balthazar and Cherche Midi

Although New York restaurant critics might argue that fancy vegetables and small plates typify contemporary city dining, they say little about the crafted dining rooms where diners enjoy these trends. Keith McNally’s restaurants, the British-born restaurateur currently operates six restaurants in New York City, epitomise this trend. From The Odeon and Balthazar to Minetta Tavern and Cherche Midi, each entry in Mcnally’s empire transports the diner to a new mental space through a well-designed room, nourishing diners just as much on ambiance as on the main course.

Ever since Delmonico’s introduced New Yorkers to the thrill of dining out in the nineteenth century, restaurants have wooed diners with both food and design, forming the basis of the New York diet. If it’s true that New Yorkers define themselves by how and where they dine, as Mitchell Davis argues in his article ‘Eating Out, Eating American’, then the spaces where New Yorkers eat become secondary homes.[1] Thus, New York’s exclusive restaurants — like Delmonico’s and, more recently, the Four Season’s — entice patrons with a tempting menu and a room that reflects their desired identities. These were the highly-crafted, staid restaurants that McNally — along with his brother, Brian McNally, and business partner, Lynn Wagenknecht — were reacting to when they opened The Odeon during the 1980’s in then-desolate Tribeca. While the restaurant gained fame for housing drug-fuelled antics, the design transmitted its identity, “The Odeon was kind of retro, without being kitsch. It was one of the places that really defined the moment.” From the red leather booths to globe lighting, the elements that allowed The Odeon to exist in the nether region between retro and contemporary continues to mark McNally’s restaurants.

Whereas Delmonico’s was a warren of grandiose dining rooms that transported New Yorkers to grand European palaces, McNally’s well-designed spaces mimic other places to help New Yorkers escape city routine. Since these rooms satiate the diner’s European fantasies, these familiar spaces can be thought of as hyperreals. According to Umberto Eco, hyperreality describes a space or object that imitates an original to evoke an emotional response that alters the genuine product’s impact. Las Vegas’ Venice and Disneyworld’s Epcot are common examples, but hyperreality also appears in quotidian settings, such as a wax museum or the holographic poster of Munch’s The Scream in a dentist’s waiting room. The feeling these imitations generate embeds itself within the viewer’s subconscious and reappears whenever the work is re-presented. The emotions needn’t be charged. They simply exist and their presence alters the experience of real and fake.

Balthazar SoHo

Foodies frequently debate over this line between real and fake when discussing authentic pad thai and imitation Thai take away, but a space’s veracity is rarely argued. When disagreements do appear, they usually centre on a specific personality, such as McNally and his litany of hyperreal restaurants. McNally’s detractors argue that he serves up the same dishes across his stage-like restaurants, nullifying any claims to promoting tradition.[2] In order to communicate ‘France’ — or ‘Italy’ or ‘cool New York’ — the meticulous space must transport the diner away from New York’s proverbial rat race. The customer must believe in the hyperreal and accept its artifice.

As the diner walks into Balthazar, they immediately depart the New York dining orbit. The walls, a deep yellowy tan, are adorned with large mirrors, which reign over ego-hungry diners at small, dark wood tables — or over a booth for a VIP. Instead of a white tablecloth — a token of the fancy restaurant — layers of white paper placemats protect wood tables from inevitable stains and spills. Yet, these placemats aren’t flimsy diner table toppers. Heavy and embossed with a diamond pattern, they project an atmosphere of carefree nonchalance that separates Balthazar from other high-end French restaurants. While the city’s orchestrated chaos animates the room, each piece of the physical space can be read apart from New York, the occasional taxi horn-honking serving as the sole reminder of Soho’s continued existence beyond the wooden doors. These revised restaurant tropes hint at Balthazar’s artifice: the restaurant projects a veneer of casual chaos through an exotic French lens to deceive diners as to its expensive exclusivity.

Cherche Midi, the newest addition to the McNally’s roster, boasts a remarkably similar atmosphere, though the colours and layout develop a more structured and sober experience. Outside the restaurant’s door seemingly perpetual construction heaves on the corner of East Houston and Bowery. Yet the mayhem disappears upon entering the cream coloured space. Just-opaque lace curtains are drawn at the proper height to block out the city while permitting a view of the sky. The resulting view could be New York or Paris or London. No music plays. While mirrors decorate the walls at Cherche Midi as they do at Balthazar, these mirrors survey the room from the side, allowing the individual to scan the scene, while avoiding an artifice-shattering glimpse of him or herself. This engineered distance from New York reality permeates Cherche Midi, ensuring that all objects in the space support the French illusion the restaurant builds.

While design might seem secondary in forming the diner’s restaurant experience, examining reviews dispels any notions that the food would reveal a more accurate portrayal of McNally’s locales. From Ruth Reichl’s original 1997 review of Balthazar for The New York Times to Eater’s photo-packed write up of Cherche Midi, critics repeatedly highlight the restaurant’s physical space, suggesting that food supplements the diner’s sustaining fantasy. Reichl’s awe at Balthazar’s appearance surpasses her contempt for the restaurant’s forgettable food, “I didn’t much like [Balthazar’s food] when it opened in April. Oh, of course I liked the look of the place…”. By establishing a tension between eating and experiencing, Reichl insinuates that design and food respectively nourish the diner.


In Amanda Hesser’s revised New York Times review, she reinforces Balthazar’s beguiling combination of cuisine and theatre saying: “a dining institution needs more than just great food” [author’s emphasis]. This crucial ‘more than’ punctuates Hesser’s review, suggesting that design separates a good meal from an experience, which is composed of more than food. By arguing that the restaurant “seemed to be merely a simulacrum” with its “museum-quality distressed tiles” she insinuates that Balthazar becomes a stage for performing France. Thus, while Hesser might ultimately claim to be unable to tell apart “the real faded and the fake faded,” her depiction of Balthazar-as-performance sticks with the reader, even if they want to run and slip into their cocoon-like table. As Balthazar’s reviewers have repeatedly demonstrated, the space’s ability to reinforce the kitchen’s vision permits the restaurant’s continued success.

Cherche Midi capitalises upon the same dynamic between atmosphere and food to serve up a similarly immersive French-inspired space. In his generally positive review for The New York Times, Pete Wells zeroes in on the shared designs of McNally’s restaurants, insinuating that the hyperrealities they construct is not of ‘France’ or ‘Italy’ but of ‘McNally’, “for three decades, Mr. McNally has been rooting around in the same Lego kit: distressed mirrors, chipped subway tiles, bottles backlighted to look like stained glass.” These individual attributes, the tokens of McNally’s restaurants, combine to form a noticeably a McNally type of restaurant. Thus, the large mirrors and paper placemats at Cherche Midi work to create the feeling of being in a McNally restaurant, which authentically portrays not a foreign space, but rather New York dining.

Adam Platt, in his review for New York Magazine, comically highlights Cherche Midi’s manifestation of brand McNally, insinuating that the restaurant copies itself, “[the restaurant] feels like a Vegas version of Keith’s greatest hits.” While the repetition of key dishes — such as steak frites, Balthazar’s most popular menu item — likely emphasises the doppelganger affect, the unrelenting inclusion of token design elements completes the McNally-type restaurant.

Examining the menus at Balthazar and Cherche Midi, reveals a high frequency of repeated dishes, reinforcing the design’s responsibility for crafting the uncanny experience of an ‘other’ space. Both restaurants feature: a beet salad, a foie gras appetizer, steak tartare, ceviche, a pasta dish with mushrooms and pesto, moule frites, salade niciose, steak frites and a burger. Since the different chefs’ variations amount to switching a type of cheese or using a new mushroom, these dishes would be familiar to frequent diners at McNally restaurants. These similarities suggest that eating at Cherche Midi and Balthazar means eating ‘McNally’ food more so than ‘French’ food. Even at Morandi and Minetta Taver, McNally’s Italian restaurant and old New York Tavern restaurant, riffs on pasta-mushrooms-pesto and steak frites appear. Ultimately, these repeated dishes create a hyperreal not of a foreign space, but of a buzzy McNally space, one that performs its exotic atmosphere while existing within the diner’s frame of reference.

Although McNally’s restaurants appear to be hyperrealities of a foreign space — such as a French bistro or brasserie — examining the design of both the dining rooms and the menus suggests otherwise. Rather than strictly transporting the diner to Europe, Cherche Midi and Balthazar — along with McNally’s other restaurants — insert the diner into a McNally hyperreality. There’s the uncanny feeling of having seen those large mirrors, those paper placemats and those red leather booths before. Ultimately, these self-mimicking spaces create what it means to dine in a certain type of New York. McNally’s restaurants have become a type in and of themselves, destinations for diners to indulge their fantasies of eating at Balthazar, of eating at Cherche Midi.

[1] Davis, M., 2013. Eating Out, Eating American. In: A. Hauck-Lawson, and J. Deutsch, eds. Gastropolis: Food and New York City. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 293-307.

[2] When they are made, that is. Rather than make claims to authenticity, McNally’s websites declare that they are “Italian dining,” “continental comfort food” and “seasonal French”. The exception is Balthazar which supposedly serves up “traditional bistro fare”.

Image Credits (from top): Eater, Flickr via Eduardo Pavon, Flickr via Robyn Lee

Authenticity Is Trending: What Indikitch’s Salads Reveal about American Taste

Paneer tikka feast, Indikitch


If the perfectly engineered food juxtaposes crunchy and chewy, soft and crisp, spicy and cool, this modern meal reaches its acme as a saag paneer salad from Indikitch, a fast casual Indian restaurant in New York’s Flatiron District. At $9.50, tax included, it’s one of the area’s bargain meals and, with salad and spinach and onions, ranks among the neighbourhood’s healthier lunches as well. And, while there’s no doubt that the meal contains a multitude of less-than-virtuous oils and preservatives, these unpleasant ingredients don’t reveal the keys to the dish’s success. For that, it’s the trends that illuminate salient truths on how to transform a routine meal into a memorable dish.

News outlets of every sort routinely announce Indian food’s eminent likeability. Packed full of juxtaposing and complementary spices, Indian-style dishes present an unprecedented range of flavours in each bite. While some argue that Indian food hasn’t saturated the market sufficiently to be labelled a trend, the recent rise in Indian restaurants suggests that Indian food is increasingly accepted as a way to get one’s ethnic food fix. Thus, a budding group of Americans embrace Indian fast-casual restaurants, pre-packaged curry sauces and pillow-y naan as a means for interacting with popular contemporary flavour.

Despite its appealing flavours and growing visibility, Indian food must shake off its reputation as dirty and unhealthy to conquer lunchtime. To battle these notions, Indikitch prepares all hot mains to order in front of the customers and includes a salad on their menu. Combining New York’s chopped salad mania and India’s sauce-y curries, Indikitch’s so-called Live Fire salads seem custom designed to appeal to image conscious New Yorkers. The salad begins with a bed of chopped lettuce —romaine hearts from an off-brand bag — and shredded red cabbage. To this a lemon-y coriander dressing added, giving the salad a much-needed dose of creaminess. On top of this one of the hot, made-to-order, mains adds a chewy textural contrast and the requisite punch of Indian flavour. A dusting of crunchy chickpea chips gets sprinkled on top, completing the crisp-chewy-crunchy trinity. Fully composed, the salad recognizably belongs to New York’s health-conscious mania, but boasts sufficient tweaks to masquerade as an ethnic, desirable fast food dish.

Despite the salad’s cleverly crafted cravability, it’s blatant pandering to New York tastes complicates what it means to eat Indian in the city. Shouldn’t good ethnic eater — those astute culinary colonisers — order an ostensibly authentic meal to honour Indian food tradition? Perhaps a Feast Plate with a side of daal and carrot salad or a dosa filled with Goan fish curry. Yet, proclaiming to adore Indian food is a statement as misguided as swearing to love Italian food; regarding each country’s respective cuisine as a cohesive entity is an unabashedly foreign construction. Just as canederli and sfogliatella remain marked as Northern and Southern respectively, a more accurate picture of Indian cuisine would reflect the different sub-groups present in one of the world’s largest and most populous countries. If so-called Indian food was consumed without engaging in culinary colonialism, menus would list Punjabi tandoori chicken and Tamil uttapam. But this doesn’t happen. Consequently, representations of Indian food in the US suggest that Americans are eager to interact with foreign cuisines only when they possess recognizable elements.

Crunchy, chewy, creamy. Sweet, sour, spicy. These combinations build a magnetic sphere of attraction around a specific dish. They make irresistible crisp potato chips dunked in creamy sour cream and legendary salty-hot French fries plunged into thick-cool milkshakes. If creating a trendy food requires finding the pre-existing market niche into which a new product can fit, Indikitch presents Indian food as cravable as a plate of nachos or pile of General Tso’s chicken. In order for a dish to dominate lunchtime, it must easily integrate into the area’s culinary lexicon; it’s easier to sell a new type of sandwich to a population that already consumes sandwiches than it is to convince the sandwich-eaters to adopt the thali.

Manufacturing the aura of healthiness through salad helps. Although eating at Indikitch allows the diner to indulge their ethnic food curiosity, the salad, as a recognizable token of New York healthy, ensures culturally agreed upon virtuosity balances mouth-watering flavour. Indikitch isn’t limited to an authentic portrayal of Indian cookery because the diner already possesses an inkling that the country’s cuisine is too diverse to be elegantly articulated in through a choice of six dishes. But don’t say Indikitch’s Live Fire Salad isn’t authentic; it is. The salad is an accurate portrayal of what it means to consume a quick-trendy lunch in New York in 2015.

Image credits: Flickr via Garrett Ziegler