Sunday, June 29, 2008

Happenings: New Amsterdam Market & Waterfalls

So, I should have been working today. I know it's Sunday, but I have some deadlines looming ahead of me. But I had to take some time out this morning to walk over to the old Fulton Fish Market and check out the rarely convened New Amsterdam Market. What is it? It's like a Greenmarket in that it draws local producers of food, dairy, meet and cheese, but the focus is less on produce than it is on foodstuffs and prepared foods from local chefs.

It's like a foodie bazaar. Interesting experience. Lots of yummy samples. Maybe it was the hot weather that made me eschew the bread, cheese and meat, but for some reason I didn't buy much, though I really wanted to--just some birch beer from Heartland Brewery and some lavender cookies and peanut butter cookies from Milk and Cookies Bakery. Here are some pictures.I love the idea of buying locally, but when cherries are $9 a pint, it's difficult to justify. Anyhow, they're trying to make it a permanent thing.

Also, from where we were, we had our first glimpse of Olafur Eliasson's Waterfalls. These hazy pictures don't do them justice.

I'm going to go back one night so I can see them in all their lit-up glory. I hear Circle Line Tours is giving an "official tour" of the waterfalls by boat. Wonder how much it costs.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Real Estate: A Tale of Two Williamsburg Waterfront Developments

Today we visited the sales offices for two new Williamsburg waterfront developments: The Edge and Northside Piers. Two adjacent developments, similar in many ways--floor to ceiling windows, state of the art amenities, including pools, with views of Brooklyn, the Manhattan skyline and the East River.

But different in some other significant ways: The Edge, which only went to market in March 2008 and isn't going to be ready for closings until late 2009, has a beautiful sales office with a dazzling model kitchen and bath and interactive kiosks loaded up with photos and every floor plan in the entire 575-unit phase one development. And beautiful flower arrangements, like this one: Curbed did a good job of featuring this sales office in all its glory on their blog. I guess you need to be pretty when you're trying to get people to buy in this market based on their imaginations alone. Because The Edge is a Silver LEED "green" development, even the Sales office abides by those rules, offering filtered water in washable "Edge" inscribed cups, rather than in plastic bottles and sending you home with brochures in an environmentally friendly "Edge" canvas bag. The front: The back:Nice touches like that make me want to buy, but as expected, the units do not come cheap. We're going to wait a bit to see how sales go for them and hope they drop their asking prices in future releases (me with the real estate lingo--I'm learning!).

...which Northside Piers, now at the end of its sales cycle for Tower 1 of three, is doing. The nice thing about this development is that they're ready to negotiate. That's Tower 1. Looks a little ominous with all those clouds forming in the background, eh? Sales have been sluggish apparently and they're only 65% sold after being on the market for a year and a half. The NY Times has a nice write-up on the situation. The thing is Tower 1 had a number of less than stellar features--the two subsequent towers are going to obstruct a lot of the currently limitless views of the river, not to mention the Edge on the north border, the amenities are not as great (The Edge has a basketball court, on-site resident only spa, indoor/outdoor pool), the kitchen and bathrooms are nice, but I've seen much nicer. The attention to detail that we saw at the Edge was just not there. And they're not a green building. Plus, they didn't give us a nice canvas shopping bag. Just kidding.... On the plus side, we got to walk some model apartments and works in progress, and the floor plans are nice and roomy. The walk-through really sold me with the views....but it's hard to know how much of your views will be obscured by future development.

Well, those two appointments took about 3 hours to complete. We were hungry and exhausted and though the original plan was to walk around Billyburg and get a feel for the area, we just beelined it to North 6th St and went to Sea, a Thai restaurant, for lunch. Funny, I've only been in Williamsburg three times before, and one of those three times I ate at Sea with City Guy. Anyhow, we sat next to the Buddha: ...and tried to cool down with a thai iced tea with litcheeand talked about how nice to floor plans and the views were in both developments, but for the prices per square foot and the high costs and risks of buying into a new development in this market in a part of Brooklyn that is going to be under construction for years and years to come (the beautiful waterfront park you see in renderings is not even built yet - it's just industrial yards and construction), we might be better off limiting our search to Manhattan for now.

I guess we thought Brooklyn would give us that waterfront view at a couple hundred thousand less than we'd pay for an equivalent place in downtown Manhattan, but we were wrong. Maybe prices will drop. They should, as the inventory is overpriced considering the variables, but eager beavers might not care. One thing's for sure: with both developments planning future phases, there will be inventory for years to come.

After our 45-min schlepp back home and recovering from my heatstroke, I was so grateful to be living in Manhattan. I picked up the Battery Park City Broadsheet and Downtown Express, two pubs that are always at the doorman's desk for the taking, which I've ignored before, and started reading--lower Manhattan is such a cool area. "Did you know there's a free bicycle lending program? And a community center with a pool and yoga lessons? And outdoor bootcamp in the park? And sailing?" I said to City Guy.

And of course, there's the incomparable Battery Park City esplanade. The lease renewal for our lovely rent-stabilized apartment (it's rent stabilized b/c it's a NYC historic landmark--just found this out today!) had been sitting around for a few days. "3% increase in rent? We're so lucky,"I said. We have a gym, a deli, doorman services, dry cleaning, a great space, a great neighborhood, and we're just across the street from the waterfront.

Plus, I read this enlightening article on why you should rent, not buy.
When the housing market slumps—as it has every 10 or 15 years for the past several decades—homeownership becomes little more than renting, from a bank. Without appreciation, buying a $400,000 house—instead of renting the same property for, say, $2,000 a month—can turn into an expensive, potentially money-losing proposition. Assuming home prices come out of their death spiral (prices fell 4.5 percent in the third quarter compared with last year), they would still have to appreciate at 4 percent every year for a decade—even if rents climbed well above the rate of inflation—before a family would save more owning than renting.
The economics are clear: investing in the stock market, hell, investing in Treasury Bills, is less risky and more profitable than investing in the housing market at this point. Sometimes you got to wonder...City Guy signed the lease an hour ago. Until we find a good deal, we're saving money and that makes me feel savvy. We're in no rush.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Stuff I've Learned: Don't Believe the Hype

I'm just as excitable as the next gal...perhaps more so. I did used to live in LA. When someone says there's a hot new [insert food trend] restaurant in town, I think, Could this be the one? The food equivalent of true love? Will I eat there once and be unable to forget the delectable pleasures?

I have this reaction despite of the fact that I have been burned by this town too many times. When I first moved here, I ate at all the hot spots of the moment--Mixx, Public, Town, BLT Fish, Del Posto--and you know what? I've never gone back. I went through a bit of a mourning phase. This town's all glitz and show and no substance, I thought. Nothing I could sink my teeth into, literally.

I learned that the greater the hype, the fancier the digs, the more celebrated the chef, the greater the expectation, the higher chance of disappointment. This is not to say some restaurants don't live up to the hype. When they do, you really want to shout it from the water towers, "This is amazing!!" Eleven Madison Park did that for me. Megu and Le Bernadin too. That's why you keep slogging through, eating at culinary equivalents of plane movies, just to find that one gem.

I had that "no big whup" experience a couple times this week. First, ordering burgers from the newly opened Wall Street Burger Shoppe. I was all set to post a glowing review. It's not every day a new eatery opens up in the FiDi. But the patty was dry and the bun flaccid. The sauce was underwhelming, and there wasn't even a tomato or onions. Just shredded lettuce. If I find myself saying I'd rather have a Big Mac, you know I won't eat it again.

I also tried another dessert bar this week--Kyotofu. It's a beautiful space, and the food is presented beautifully, as you would expect from the Japanese. But if I find myself saying I'd rather be eating at the Mitsuwa food court, you know you've got a problem. It wasn't bad. I had the lavender tea (pretty good) and the dessert prix fixe. Every course was tasty, but I guess when I paying $30 for dessert, I guess I expect more. I want to be transported. I want to leave craving the food. Thus, the catch-22, as stated above. I probably won't be going back.

In fact, I'm sick of this dessert bar trend. I can't even remember what I ordered at Room4Dessert, over a year ago. That's how memorable it was. Sometimes, the simpler, the realer the better the food. Sometimes pretty plating and fancy furniture doesn't add to the experience. When it comes to food, the only sense that needs stimulating in the end are the taste buds. Everything else is gravy...

So, score is NYC: 2, The Girl Next Door: 0. But that's part of being a New Yorker. Knowing you'll get had 4 times out of 5, but boy, is that 5th time worth waiting for.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Escape From NYC: Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater, NJ

This may be a blog about my life in NYC, but living in NYC means sometimes getting out of the five boroughs. Leaving gives me fresh perspective on the city, even if it is just by going across the river. So, I've started this new category for whenever I leave NYC, and my first entry is about Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater NJ, a Japanese-food supermarket chain/mecca, which I used to frequent in LA.

Miss Fashion, who lives in Hoboken and has a beautiful car (ah! how I miss driving!) was kind enough to take me. We were like two kids in a candy store--almost literally. My taste buds were raring to go the minute we entered the store. Could be because there's a food court filled with udon stands, curry places, bento shacks, bakeries....the list goes on...right at the entrance.

We started off getting matcha manju at the mochi place. Check out their wares:The matcha manju we had were wrapped up like so.......and put in a pretty little bag for us.
Gotta love the Japanese--every little thing is done beautifully. The motchi was sooo perfectly flavored--mild, with a hint of the more astringesnt matcha--and the softness of the motchi combined with the silky manju inside was just heaven, and heaven is a good way to start any trip.

The stall next to the mochi store sold French-style Japanese cookies (like everything else, the Japanese have made French pastries all their own). Creme-filled pirouettes, financiers....yum!
We also had some black sesame soft serve ice cream--nutty, sweet, but not too sweet--so good!We finally made it out of the food court and into the market part of store. The fish selection at Mitsuwa is amazing, and Miss Fashion did stock up on her sushi fish, but let me tell you, by the time we made it to check-out, our shared shopping cart was filled with a kaleidoscope of Japanese junk food. After gorging on yummy sweets, you'd think we'd have had enough, but I alone came home with shrimp chips, lychee candy, sweet green tea powder, spicy cuttlefish, rice crackers, chestnut manju, green tea chocolate, green tea McVities, some banana shaped cake thingy that Miss Fashion vouched for and a few non-snack items, including ume (mmmm!), enoki mushrooms, a bento lunch, a curry vegetable kit, and two boxes of mabo tofu, which we sampled here:In true Japanese supermarket-style, Mitsuwa had at least 3-4 sampling stations available on Sunday. Who doesn't like samples? As you can tell from my excessive use of "yum!" and superlatives, I left happy. I wish shopping for groceries were always this much fun.

At the end of th day, I had forgotten my grandma cart at home, so it was me impersonating a pack mule again...and that PATH train is slow on the weekends! I complain about the MTA a lot, but after taking the PATH, I think I found a newfound love for the subway system. Going to Mitsuwa made me nostalgic for my car and for the days I could load the trunk up with a couple weeks worth of groceries and drive home. Anyhow, it was pouring like crazy when I left Hoboken, but the gods were shining on me. By the time I got to Manhattan, the sun was shining and there was not a drop of rain. It was good to be home. :)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Great Find: Happy Family and Babycakes

Before I sign off, I have to share two things from last night.
  1. I went to a reading in Nolita at McNally Robinson (if you haven't been there and you love books, you're missing out) for my friend Wendy Lee's Happy Family a novel about a recent Chinese immigrant who becomes a nanny for a Chinese orphan adopted by a white Manhattan family. The reading was packed! It's a lovely, thoughtful book that's funny at times and also sad, so support your local fiction writer and buy it!
  2. Afterwards, Miss Fashion took me to a vegan bakery in the Lower East Side she's been raving about. As a recovering vegetarian (NYC made me a carnivore, but that's a story for another time), I've steered clear of vegan anything for a while. When she said Babycakes would kick Magnolia's ass, I was skeptical. But let it be said I had three cupcake tops and 1.5 chocolate brownies before calling it a night. All their baked goods are moist and delicious and will make you wonder what they put in it besides agave syrup (that's what they use instead of sugar) to make it taste soooo good. How can this be healthy?

Things I Love About New York: Henri Bendel

Yesterday I went to Henri Bendel, which I think of NYC's answer to LA's Fred Segal, another store that absolutely dazzles me with girly loveliness every time I visit. The people working there are so solicitous, like old school shopgirls, fussing over you, complimenting you on your dress, your shoes. I guess that could get annoying after a while...but I enjoyed myself.

The Chocolate Bar, which has recently closed it's West Village shop, has a beautiful little cafe on the third-floor. I, of course, stocked up on their signature "retro" bars--salty pretzel, my favorite (the salty-sweet thing is such a weakness), and their popular peanut butter caramel for City Guy. Yummy-o!I usually prefer clean, minimalist decor (think Richard Meier) but I was strangely drawn to this rococo-style arrangement of mirrors and chandelier in the cafe area:
I really do love the chandelier and the mirrors. Everything about the place is so cute and well-designed!
I got a kick out of this display wall in Bendel's book area--all books on fashion, make-up, style, and being a girl, of course.The quotations crack me up, especially this one by Louisa May Alcott (from Little Women, I presume): "She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain."I love these note cards and dolls too...oh and the tea set in Bendel signature 's brown and white stripes.BTW, the little pink book is called "This Little Piggy Went to Prada." It's a children's book! What a hoot! Might not help if you're trying to raise well-adjusted , non-materialistic kids though...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On My Mind: 5 Reasons I'm Grateful To Be In NYC

Today, I'm happy to be a New Yorker. Today, the city feels open and full of possibility. So, thank you, NYC, for....
  1. City Guy, my husband whom I adore. This is the city that brought us together, and without him, I would never have become as interesting a person as I am today.
  2. Being a foodie heaven. LA has great food and a diversity of flavor, but New Yorkers just take their love of food more seriously. Food festivals, world-class chefs, world-class culinary institutes, greenmarkets....what joy!
  3. Having a competitive running culture. You don't get to run along the beach, and the weather isn't cooperative most of the year, but I feel myself taking my running more seriously here. I certainly never ran so many races living in LA. And I'm so looking forward to running the legendary NYC marathon this year!
  4. Bringing anything and everything here. No matter how niche my interest or desire, I know I'll find what I'm looking for somewhere in the city, and if not, it will come to NY eventually.
  5. Always keeping me entertained and teaching me new things. I know I'll never get bored living here!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Real Estate: Open House Post-Mortem

Yesterday afternoon, City Guy and I spent four hours traipsing around in the hot, humid weather to visit SEVEN buildings in the FiDi. Fun, but exhausting. I have mixed feelings about buying after all this. Things I've learned:
  • It's going to be hard to get everything we want. We'd ideally want a 2 bedroom or 1 bedroom with home office (that we could convert into a nursery down the road), but even in this market, we're looking at a million (maybe $800-900K if we're willing to give up certain things, like location or amenities).
  • Based on running the numbers in a handy dandy mortgage calculator, based on what we're paying for rent right now between the two of us (on the low side), buying doesn't make financial sense, even with the tax savings. However, the minute we compare the cost of renting a two-bedroom to the cost of buying a $850K place, for instance, we can justify the expense.
  • I feel poor. When you go to these open houses, you see the same faces over and over...there are a lot of bankers with a lot of money still buying in this market and they don't seem to blink at the prices.
  • We're going to start considering Brooklyn. The Williamsburg waterfront developments, for instance, would satisfy my jonesing for a water-view and the units are bigger for the money. Check out The Edge.
  • Even with the glut of condos in the area, developers are planning even more. 50 West St is scheduled to open in June 2010, for example.
  • There's no rush. Like with everything else in life, I must be patient.
  • If we buy, we might have to stay in NYC for the next 5 to 7 years.
  • We need a good mortgage broker.
  • We need a good real estate attorney.
  • NYC real estate is no joke.
Real estate is vexingly on my brain. I've already scheduled three appointments for next weekend. We're going to check out The Edge, Northside Piers and the beautiful green condo development in Battery Park City, Visionaire. Wish us luck!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Real Estate: Condo Search 101

As I mentioned before, City Guy and I are new to the NYC condo market, and it's my job as the one with the more flexible hours and the greater background in real estate (my family) to do the homework.

Today, I took advantage of this stormy weather to stay indoors and get organized. I spent forever on Street Easy, looking up condos in the FiDi (Financial District for you newbies), and just by looking through all the listings and the new development listings, I feel confident that I now know all the major condo developments with available units in our price range--about 25 in all. I made a spreadsheet! I know--pretty nerdy--but I love Excel for organizing my life!

Tomorrow, we're going to try and hit up 5 or 6 open houses. Should be fun.

Other steps we've recently taken to get organized:
  1. The other day, City Guy and I made a "condo wishlist" which I think was another good way to figure out our baseline expectations as a couple for our new home. It was good to know we were on the same page.
  2. We figured out our money situation, which means now I know what to look for in terms of price, common charges and taxes.
  3. We ruled out Battery Park City, which I've loved from afar for a while. I just love the waterfront and all those "green" buildings! But the common charges and taxes are ridiculous - almost $2000/month sometimes and I'd happily walk a few blocks to get to water if it means saving a chunk of change.
  4. We agreed that our first choice in neighborhoods is FiDi. Both of us have lived in this area for many years. We've seen it evolve and we believe there's great growth potential in the next 5-7 years. I found out today that living in FiDi, our future kids would have a great school district - PS 234--and we'd be close to the waterfront parks, which I would take over Central Park any day. Plus, we believe it's our best bet for finding a place for less than $1000/square foot downtown.
  5. We're giving ourselves a 6 month to 1 year time frame for purchase. That gives us time to really do our homework.
  6. If we don't find a place in Manhattan, we'll start looking in Brooklyn. Williamsburg has some very nice waterfront developments, though they're a hike from the nearest subway stop. Brooklyn Heights is also very nice.
  7. I got a little folder to keep all my floor plans, info sheets and other real estate stuff in one place
Oh, and I found a couple more condo resources (in addition to the ones I listed before):
Hope it doesn't rain tomorrow so I can see how the light streams into those southern exposure units!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Word on the Street: The New York Times On Noise Canceling Headphones And The Rise Of The City

The New York Times Magazine had an article today ("The Silence Generation: Technology adapts to eliminate the clatter of city life one person at a time"by Rob Walker) on how those of us perturbed by the constant din of city life can use noise-canceling headphones to drown out the madness. Apparently, the one to get is Bose's $350 QuietComfort 3 model, which folds flat so you can stick it in your purse.

Walker opens the piece by saying "One thing that makes city life inspiring is also one thing that makes it oppressive: other people." I would definitely agree, as my experience yesterday can attest, and I am intrigued by the idea of getting a pair of overpriced headphones, esp when I think about how ear-piercing the subways have gotten lately traveling those under-oiled tracks.

Still, maybe I'd only use it on occasion b/c after all, if you block out all the noise, you'll be blocking out one whole sense and with it, the sense of being alive. It'd be like watching a movie without the soundtrack. Could get boring.

The article appears in the magazine's Architecture issue, which provides some interesting stats on NYC and the global urbanization trend:
  • NYC is the fourth largest metro area in the world,with 18.7 million people, after Tokyo and Mexico City and Mumbai
  • NY is the city with the most subway stations - 468
  • NYC was the second richest city in 2005 (by GDP); Tokyo being first, LA second, Chicago & Paris tied for fourth
  • NYC is ranked 114 in the list of cities with the highest population density, with 5,309 people per sq. mile; surprisingly, LA is no. 90, with 7068 people per square mile. I guess I figured with all the skyscrapers in Manhattan, NY would be more densely populated...but I guess the four other boroughs offset the density of the island
  • 50% of the world's population will live in cities by the end of 2008; 75% in 2050
So I guess maybe it's a good thing I've lived in cities all my life, and now the Big Bad Daddy of the US. At least I'll be prepared for the future. By 2050, when the entire world looks like something out of Bladerunner, maybe I'll have grown used to and perhaps even fond of the traffic, the crowds, the noise, the communal living, lack of green and the dirt.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Happenings: Big Apple BBQ Festival

Today City Guy and I met up with some friends at the event NY carnivores look forward to all year--the Big Apple BBQ Festival in Madison Square Park. It attracts pitmasters from around the country, including some hard core pork and beef from places like:
....out of Texas, for which people were already waiting in wrap-around theme park style lines a half hour before the festival opened. Getting a taste from some of the most popular pitmasters, like this one, meant sometimes waiting for an hour in 100+ weather. Boy was it HOT! and HUMID! today.
But for $8, you could get brisket and sausage with coleslaw from Texas:
Or pulled pork shoulder from Alabama: Beef ribs from Los Angeles or more pulled pork from Mississipi or the Carolinas:Crawfish and okra hush puppies from Mississippi: And so much more! There were 16 pitmasters in all. Don't worry, City Guy and I didn't eat all this ourselves. We had lots of help. Our friends took turns standing in lines, while others of us chowed down on a picnic mat under the trees in the park. Unfortunately, the park was not only HOT! and HUMID! but teeming with people. It was a mob scene. Last year, they had 120,000 people, and I'm sure this year rivaled that number. Can you imagine? Every square foot of the park was populated with BBQ lovers These photos do not do the crowd justice:Anyhow, we loved the food - my top three choices of the day were:
1> the sausage from Salt Lick BBQ, Texas
2> the beef rib from Mr. Cecil's California Ribs, California
3> (a tie) the smoked crawfish and okra hush puppies from City Grocery, Mississippi and the pulled pork and awesome vinegary cole slaw from Big Bob Gibson BBQ in Alabama

Having a picnic with friends was also great. And how cool that in NYC, all these awesome pitmasters come to me! In how many other cities do you get to eat world class cheese one night and then world class BBQ the next day? Still, the crowds are a bit much--I always feel like an ant when I'm around thousands of New Yorkers, all my individuality squashed. And did I mention how HOT! and HUMID! it was today? In any other city, people would have run for cover on a day like today...New Yorkers are hard core, as they say.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Great Find: Murray's Cheese Shop

Just got home from my Cheese 101 course at Murray's Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village.

I've been trying to take this course for a while, but if you don't sign up right when they post their new class schedule, the course fills up quickly and you're SOL. Anyhow, I did it right this time. City Guy was supposed to go with me, but he had to work. :(

I had never actually even set foot in this store before tonight. It's a world of cheeses, breads, olives, dairy...lots of specialty yumminess here. And the best thing is if you're a newbie to cheese, like I am, the guys behind the counter will advise you knowledgeably and even let you taste the cheese before you decide to buy.I thought Cheese 101 was going to be a comprehensive course in cheese and selecting cheese, but I should have known you can't cover all that in 2 hours. It was different from what I expected...but still good. The instructor, Jessica, was very sweet, energetic and knowledgeable. She had picked out five representative cheese, as seen here, and used them to teach us about cheese types:Starting with the mayonnaise-y looking one at the top and going clockwise, we have:
1. Burrata, a fresh cow's cheese from Italy, a lot like mozzerella
2. Haystack Peak from Colorado, a goat's milk bloomy rind cheese with the characteristic tanginess and chalky texture of goat cheese
3. Epoisses, a washed rind "stinky cheese" from France with a complex milk sharpness and saltiness - my favorite
4. Nisa, a raw sheep cheese from Portugal, semi-firm
5. Gourmino gruyere from Switzerland - sweet and nutty - my second favorite
5. Persille de Mazieu from France, a blue cheese with a major salty, spicy, sweet kick. I usually hate blue cheeses, but this was pretty good.

They provided champagne, red wine, water, baguette slices, walnuts and dried fruit to pair with the different cheeses. The class runs from 6:30-8 and afterwards they let you shop for an hour before closing the store. I bought the Epoisses - $17.99. Expensive, but I wanted City Guy to try it.
...and some yogurt from White Cow Dairy - mostly b/c the packaging was so cute, but then Jessica the Instructor told me the farmer who produces it is trying to save his farm by making yogurt. Apparently, you can email him and he'll email you back. She highly recommended the Vanilla, so I bought one for me and one for City Guy. Ever since our trip to France, we've lamented how hard it is to find good yogurt in the US.
As I was coming home, I thought, how cool that in NYC you can find rare cheeses, yogurts, and other from small farms around the world. How amazing that there are all these niche stores where people with such specialized knowledge work to share their passions with you.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I've been up on the City lately. It comes and goes. Right now, I'm excited to try all this dairy! Bon soi!