Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Food Lover's Weekend In New York...Part III

After enjoying a relaxing, fun afternoon carriage ride through Central Park, Michael and I headed to afternoon tea at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel's elegant Lobby Lounge. The hotel's lobby is located on the 35th floor, adjacent to Time-Warner Center. An expansive, panoramic city view greets you as you enter The Lobby Lounge...featuring Central Park, Columbus Circle, and part of the Midtown Manhattan skyline. 
From the second you’re seated, you know you’re in for a very special experience. With floor-to-ceiling windows, natural light and cushiony couches, this is a lovely and peaceful setting to unwind and enjoy afternoon tea! We made our tea selections and admired the gorgeous view below. Before we knew it, a tower of traditional tea goodies arrived, including ginger scones with marmalade and Devon cream, and an assortment of beautiful tea sandwiches. 
Everything was expertly prepared, beautifully presented, and quite tasty. After about 20 minutes, the sweets plate arrived. It contained a variety of handmade shortbread, tarts, nougat candy, and a mini cupcake. The two-bite desserts  were not overly sweet, and they paired nicely with our tea. I have to say that afternoon tea at The Mandarin Oriental is a perfect pick-me-up! Soothing and restorative, it’s a perfect break from the hustle and bustle of the city below.
After tea, we headed to The Casablanca Hotel. This Library Hotel Collection property has a lot going for it: colorful Moroccan-themed décor, amazing guest amenities, and a fantastic location. Our room was spacious and comfortable, and it featured the included amenities we had come to appreciate at the other Library Collection properties during our trip: complimentary WiFi, an afternoon wine and cheese reception, a business center, and morning continental breakfast. If you want to be near the action in the heart of Midtown and Times Square, but you want a peaceful place to escape to afterward? The Casablanca is an ideal choice! We loved that we could be right in the middle of the action in seconds, but also had a peaceful place to return to when we had had enough of the neon lights and crowds. The Casablanca truly gave us the best of both worlds! The hotel is literally steps away from Times Square. Simply walk out the front door, turn right, and walk to the corner. Look up, and boom: this is your night time view! 
The Casablanca is a small boutique property, so it feels very intimate. The decor is earth-toned and features lots of wood and intricate tile. We thought the atmosphere was very warm and inviting. From the second you walk into the cozy lobby, it's easy to understand why The Casablanca is one of the most popular hotels in the area.
It was our last night in town, so we headed out for dinner and a performance at The Blue Note Jazz Club. Our dinner that evening was at Chef Charlie Palmer’s upscale Aureole. Even better, it was a short 3-minute walk from The Casablanca. Aureole offers a fantastic  three-course dinner menu on Sundays that's called Big Mag Boeuf. For just $49 per person, you’re served a fresh seasonal salad, crispy pommes frites, sautéed spinach, and a bone-in roast rib of beef for two that's carved table side. That price also includes a classic dessert and a glass of delicious Bordeaux wine poured from large bottles. Between the wine being poured and the beef being carved table side, this dinner features a lot of showmanship! The steak was perfectly cooked and fork-tender.
Aureole is decorated in a modern style, and the service is friendly and attentive. For the quality and amount of food you receive with this meal, it’s a fantastic bargain. After dinner, we hopped into a cab and headed to jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval’s second set at the legendary Blue Note jazz club. The Blue note is located in The Village, and it's one of the best places in the world to see live jazz. We’ve been fortunate to see several shows here, and it’s always a great time. If you don't have time to grab dinner before your show, they offer a full menu of cocktails and food. Arturo Sandoval put on a fantastic show, and were lucky enough to score a table right in front of the stage! When the show was over, we made our back to The Casablanca, detouring to snap a few last pictures of Times Square. Since it was well after midnight by then, the crowds were much smaller. That allowed us to walk around and take a lot of pictures. This is one of my favorites.
An hour or so later, we walked back to The Casablanca and settled in for some much-needed sleep. As you can see, the Casablanca motif extends to the creative do-not-disturb sign for the door! We thought that was a very nice touch. We had one final day in New York before heading home to Texas, and we had a pretty ambitious agenda! Michael slept in a bit while I took a walk through Midtown to visit with chocolatier Kee Ling Tong at Kee’s Chocolates. For more details on that delicious experience – and lots of other sweet treats – read my article The Sweet Side of New York. After my chocolate tasting, I walked back to the Casablanca, and we packed up our bags. The friendly, helpful bell man and front desk staff held our bags for safekeeping while we headed out for a few final big-city adventures.
Our first stop was Empanada Mama, which serves a wide variety of inexpensive and tasty empanadas 24 hours a day. Here in Texas, empanadas are mostly sweet pastries, so this restaurant was totally different empanada experience for us! If you’re looking for a well-prepared and flavorful meal or snack that won’t blow your food budget, this small Hell’s Kitchen restaurant is a perfect choice. Empanada Mama offers a wide variety of both savory and sweet empanadas, as well as cocktails and a variety of  appetizers. The average price for each empanada is about $2.75, so you can easily satisfy your hunger for a very reasonable price. We started out with their popular guacamole and plantain chips while the kitchen prepared our empanadas. The guacamole was perfectly creamy, and the slightly sweet plantain chips were a nice change of pace from the usual tortilla chips.
Our savory empanada selection included a baked corn empanada and two fried empanadas. We selected a couple of sweet dessert empanadas to share too. Being a huge chocolate fan, the Belgian Chocolate-Banana immediately caught my eye. Our host Gustavo asked if he could make a recommendation. He hadn’t steered us wrong so far, so we let him pick our second flavor. He selected the Romeo and Juliet, filled with mozzarella cheese and guava puree. I was a bit skeptical about how mozzarella cheese would taste in a dessert, but I was right to trust Gustavo. It was amazing! The guava puree was tart, which played perfectly against the mild gooey cheese. A dusting of powdered sugar on top provided just a touch of sweetness. This savory-sweet empanada was one of the biggest culinary surprises of our trip.
After our empanada brunch, we headed over to Rockefeller Center to pick up a few souvenirs. From there, we headed a few blocks up the street to visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The church is undergoing a major renovation, but we were happy to maneuver around the scaffolding to see the inside of this large and ornate church. We love to visit historical churches, and St. Patrick’s definitely is that! We admired the artwork, as well as the gorgeous altar. The pictures below include a wide-angle shot of the ornate altar, as well as the large shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. We plan to visit again once the renovations are complete, but this visit was one of the highlights of our trip. 
It was mid-afternoon by then, and we had one final culinary experience on our agenda: late lunch at Restaurant Thalia. I could keep Thalia as my own personal New York culinary secret, but that simply wouldn’t be fair. It’s too good not to share! Thalia is located in the Theater District, so it’s very convenient for grabbing a bite before or after a show. They also offer a reasonably priced two-course lunch that lets you pair an entrée with either an appetizer or a dessert for only $16.95. I really can’t say enough good  things about Thalia! They serve excellent food that’s reasonably priced, and the restaurant is beautifully decorated in shades of deep red. We opted for to share a starter, order two entrees, and share a dessert. The starter was a flavorful iceberg salad that featured Serrano ham, ricotta salata, toasted walnuts, and a tangy bacon dressing. It was fabulous! This was sort of like a deconstructed wedge salad.
For our entrees, we chose a frittata and a burger. The frittata was moist and full of flavorful ingredients, and the burger was cooked perfectly and topped with a variety of tasty ingredients. The fries served on the side were perfectly crispy and not at all greasy. For dessert, we shared a cheesecake topped with berries and a passion fruit sauce. It was perfectly creamy and a lovely sweet ending to our lunch.
In an area that is mostly populated by chain restaurants, Thalia really stands out. Their staff is also some of the nicest people you'll ever meet! If you're not in the area during lunch time, no worries. Thalia also offers a prix fixe pre-theater dinner, a very popular Happy Hour from 300-600 p.m., and a $1 oyster special evenings after 700 p.m. 
With that, our time in New York was officially up. We headed back to The Casablanca to collect our suitcases and hop into a taxi headed to LaGuardia Airport. We had a great time exploring some of New York’s best culinary offerings, attending fabulous music performances, and enjoying the lovely Spring weather. I've visited New York at different times of the year, but I have to say the weather in late April was just perfect: cool, but not cold. I hope that our Food Lover's Weekend In New York helped you discover some culinary adventures to try when you visit New York.

Disclosure: Our hotel stay and meals were hosted by The Library Hotel Collection and the featured restaurants to facilitate inclusion in this article. All opinions expressed are mine, and all photographs are copyrighted by Michael K. Garcia. They may not be copied or otherwise used without permission.

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