Midtown Stock Photo

New York City - September 2005

A Kaleberg Report

We tend to avoid New York City in the summer. The place may be a summer festival, but the weather is simply East Coast summer which means hot and sticky. This year, we just couldn't weasel out of it, so we made an early September trip, and we loaded up on urban summer gear, including a pair of remarkable Cool Vests. These are rip stop nylon vests loaded with cold packs, but not the food cooling kind. These cold packs were made from modified chicken fat, or so we were told, and they kept one cool, not frigid. The only downside was that we couldn't take the subway. Wearing a padded vest on a hot day does make one look like a bit like a suicide bomber. Instead, we took taxis, and even then we had to explain our vests to at least one curious driver.

As it turned out, we were lucky with the weather. The temperature didn't get out of the mid-80s, which means it wasn't much worse than one of the outer rings of hell. The humidity was also moderated, so we didn't have that step out into a wall of steam effect that we associate with Queensland and New Hampshire. The vests don't keep one from feeling the heat, but they do keep one from suffering from it, and they lived up to their advertising well. We got a bit over two prime hours of cooling and then another half hour or so before meltdown. They chill with ice water in the sink at the hotel, and many restaurants would just pop them in the freezer for us while we ate. These vests are definitely in our urban wardrobe now.

Thanks to our protective environmental gear we were able to wander around a bit, including a nice long walk along the Hudson River where a really fine park is emerging. They've cleared out a lot of construction gear along the route, so the views are better than ever. Down at the Battery, we got to see Oudolf's Memorial Garden in full bloom, or perhaps in full awn. Oudolf uses a lot of grasses in his gardens to create a broad tapestry of colors and textures. They are pretty enough in the winter, but in the summer, the grasses are in blossom, and the effect is quite spectacular.

We also checked out Madison Square Park which was overrun by the U.S. Tennis Open coverage including a giant television showing the match and refreshments from Danny Meyer's Shake Shack and from his Tabla which is right across the street.

Dinosaur Exhibit at the AMNHThis was a cultural trip, so we walked up to the American Museum of Natural History and saw their new dinosaur exhibit which emphasizes the new research techniques being used by paleontologists. Radioactive dating is old hat. Researchers are now using GPS tracking, CAT cross sectional scanning, finite element analysis, and environmental reconstruction to learn not just the beasts themselves, but how they lived. Figuring out how a dinosaur moved requires understanding bones and linkages and energy budgets. The dinosaurs didn't have magical muscles. They used chemical power just as we do. They also didn't drag their tails, or we would have found tail tracks, and their footprints reveal how they walked and how they congregated.

We were particularly impressed by a number of Chinese fossils, many of which revealed distinct skin and feather patterns. We had seen pictures of some of these in magazines, but there is nothing quite like pressing one's nose against the glass and marveling at the 100,000,000 some odd year old feather prints in stone. Some of the skin puckered like ostrich skin, just like the skin on the Hans Koch bag we were carrying, though the evidence was still out as to whether dinosaurs were ever chartreuse.

Extreme Textiles at the Cooper HewittAnother day we trooped uptown to the Extreme Materials exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. This is a design oriented museum, so a lot of the exhibits are a bit esoteric for us, but we are interested in materials technology. After all, this is the golden age of materials science. In truth, the exhibit was fun, and they did gather a lot of neat materials and even let us touch and play with some of them. It lacked a bit from our point of view since it was almost completely usage oriented. The exhibit explained what the fabrics could do and how they could be used, but didn't talk much about how they were made and how they worked as materials. Still, it was fascinating, and we could fill in many of the blanks from our outside knowledge.

St Regis HotelsWe stayed at the Sheraton St. Regis figuring that it was worth burning down some of our Starwood points now that the Essex House, our favorite Starwood property in New York City, was being sold to Jumeirah, a Dubai based chain and the operators of the Wild Wadi Water Park, which sounds kind of neat. We are sort of wondering if Sheraton is planning to sell the St. Regis itself. The hotel sort of had that disinvestment feel that one gets when the main corporation is losing interest in the property. The service was as good as ever, but the remodeling in progress lacked a certain sense of place. The St. Regis has been a flagship property since the 1930s, and our first stay back in the early 80s was rather unpleasant, what with the loud party next door and all the marijuana smoke blowing under the door.

Its most recent incarnation in the 1990s was quite impressive, but it is always a bad sign when they put a canopy over the head of the bed. We know that this may sound romantic, especially if you are fond of drapes, but we remember the Stanford Court in San Francisco among others going the canopy route and things flowing downhill from there. Consider the St. Regis. The draping of the canopy made it hard to read using the bedside lamps. To fix this, they put in a weird snake-like lighting system with a brightly glowing box at the base and two long light pipes running out of it at the head of the bed. We never could figure out how to use it, and the fact that the base unit had been pulled out of the wall by brute force before we arrived suggested that some previous occupant of the room had similar problems.

Our criteria for a hotel are rather simple. At night, when we sleep, we like it to be cool, dark and quiet. There are hotels that can do this for $50 a night, and there are those that cannot do this for $500. In fact, our first stay at the St. Regis was as refugees from the Four Seasons which did not run its air conditioning plant during the shoulder season. The St. Regis does do quiet very well. If you are on a high floor or away from the street, the triple glazed windows keep out most of the noise of the urban canyons.

It used to do dark and cool very well, but this trip it shows signs of slipping. The new air conditioning controller arbitrarily stops the cooling at 65F which means insufficient drying during the shoulder season. It was almost cool enough, but way too humid in the room. If they had simply let us set the cooling on maximum, that is, cool until the room is as cool as the cooling water, we would have been fine.

The real prize is the new lighting system. This consists of from six to eight LEDs located around the room and a new room lighting control system that is not quite there yet. We always travel with duct tape, so we were able to block out the TV controller LED, the room light LED, the "Do Not Disturb" LED and a host of others. Unfortunately, there was that snake-like lamp we never figured out, and several times it turned itself on around two o'clock in the morning waking us.

Kalustyan'sWe made our obligatory trip to Kalustyan's and bought all sorts of herbs and spices, including some dried Christmas lima beans, candied anise, za-atar, Indian Chinese mirch, Italian farro and La Perdida paella rice. Mirch is a chili spice mix associated, we gather, with Chinese food in India. We also discovered that barhi dates were ripe and bought a few twigs of them. The fresh ones were crunchy and a bit astringent, but they get much sweeter as they ripen, and they ripen rather suddenly.

We also tried out two new restaurants, Cru and Esca. We didn't actually eat at Cru, though we did try, but we did have three of our meals at Esca. With Cru, the problem was with the structure of the menu, though we are going to give it another go. Esca, an amazing Italian fish restaurant, has turned into our favorite Italian restaurant in New York City. Read our reviews of Esca and Cru to find out more.

This isn't to say that all we do in New York is go to museums, sleep in our hotel, shop in stores, and walk around in Cool Vests. We also saw a couple of plays, visited family, and came home exhausted with a two week sleep deficit. Despite the physical toll, we had a great time, but CoolVests or no CoolVests, we are going to come back when it's cooler.

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