Bienvenue à la belle ville

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Montréal was a city that I loved. It has everything in a footprint small and compact enough that whizzing from one side of town to another is never a problem. It also has this edgy, grungy, neo-punk aesthetic (in a lace-up leather boot and trench coat kind of way) and patina that keeps things funky and interesting. In comparison to stodgy and staid Washington, Montréal was a breath of fresh air.

The streets are loaded with people, walls full of street art, restaurant patios and terraces packed with happy, jovial people, drinking beers, taking coffee breaks, and munching on artisanal sandwiches. Underground parties take place in warehouses in post-apocalyptic industrial wastelands; hipsters breeze along boulevards in demarcated bike lanes. Potbelly-having ethnic whites, often Portuguese, Italian, and Greek immigrants sip espressos outside of old country boulangeries and patisseries. The city feels alive and festive – and with a myriad of riots and demonstrations, even a tad bit anarchic – giving me the impression that people are genuinely happy to be there (i.e, they moved there to be there, not for a job or career).

Personally, I found the whole “Petit Paris” thing totally hyped up and blown out of proportion. Aside from the touristy, cliché Vieux Port area, most of Montréal is North American in architecture, layout, and overall appearance. The city has lots of greystone rowhouses, with most of them having second-story, spiral staircases. The music you hear in cafés, movie posters you see (even if they are forcibly dubbed into French), and popular culture one is exposed to, etc., is decidedly North American. Sure, you hear people speaking French (and they all speak English, too), and see small cars, and perhaps, a few cobblestone lanes or scenes otherwise reminiscent of France, but these things do not make Montréal some European enclave in the New World. I was impressed by the bilingualism, though, even if it makes me even sadder that most Americans have enough trouble properly speaking and writing English, let alone mastering another, entirely different language. That said, the bilingualism is the result of quasi-totalitarian state policies that some may view as overreaching.

The city is also surprisingly diverse, but in the Canadian sense that immigrants (at least their children) are well-integrated into society, speaking French (and English, and many times, a third native tongue, such as Haitian Creole or Arabic). Haitian cabdrivers; leather jacket-wearing, shisha-smoking Mahgrebian exchange students, nightclub and dépanneur owners; the Colombian host of the place I stayed at, separationist Québécois; French expats; Chinese students; and Hasidic Jewish bakeries and judaica shops. The exception to the integrated feeling were the poor, angry-looking black and Arab kids in the city’s rough-and-tumble northern sector; torn between the country of their parents, and that in which they live in, with neither quite feeling like “home,” they seemed more like the discontent, disillusioned, utterly angry youth one finds in Paris’ banlieus. Very reminiscent of La Haine, a great French film that should be on everybody’s “to watch” list.

And on a Parisian note, the Brutalist architecture and, in particular, Métro station designs, are wonderful, and evoke the futuristic feeling typical of the mid-20th century. And on another Parisian note, Montrealers love their cigarettes! In fact, so many people there smoked, that cigarettes seemed to be another layer or part of their wardrobe and associated appearance. Still no Paris, though. But that is fine with me; I am perfectly content with Montréal as is (that being edgy and semi-dysfunctional, but still easy to love and find highly enjoyable) something of which led to it earning a place on my list of favorite North American cities.

California Love. Petite Italie.
Mansard roofed greystones, Outremont.
Waitress, Croissanterie Figaro. Outremont/Mile End.
A woman waits for meat to be packaged. Boulevard Saint-Laurent.
Station Georges-Vanier. Saint-Henri.
Charming house. Avenue Laurier.
A latté at St-Henri Torréfacteur Café
The legendary smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz's, a classic Jewish deli and institution.
Canadian bad-ass.

The still-futuristic Stade Olympique, built as the main venue for the 1976 Olympics.

Rotisserie chicken at Romado's, a popular Portuguese carryout joint known for its herb-roasted chickens.
Typical "spring" scene in the city.
The pre-Shabbos rush at Cheskie's, a Jewish bakery on Avenue Bernard.
Spiral staircases in Outremont.

NYC for Spring Break: A pit stop

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Last week, I spent the first couple of days of my spring holiday in New York City, resting a few days before the long, arduous train journey to Montréal. I was there for roughly two days, and, somehow, within that limited timeframe, I covered a surprisingly large amount of ground. Williamsburg (brunch @ Egg, and coffee @ Blue Bottle), Long Island City (the postcard views of Manhattan from the Long Island Piers), the lively West Indian ghettos of Flatbush and the serene, tranquil Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. In addition, I visited the decidedly unwelcoming bizarre, Hasidic Jewish parallel universe that is South Williamsburg, the unsure of itself Lower East Side, and the claustrophobic, United Nations-like multicultural hustle and bustle of Jackson Heights. Too, I went to SoHo for some much-needed spring shopping and wardrobe renewal.

It was nice to break out of the Brownstone Brooklyn “trap” that often seems to characterize my New York City trips. Not that I spend all of my time there, but it certainly seems so. Funny enough, Williamsburg is always derided as being post-hipster and passé, though to me, it still seems very hipster, on both its north and south sides. Still, I acknowledge Bushwick is the new “destination” for them. Who knows, but at any rate, it is still probably the most “hipster” neighborhood in the country. And its dining scene packs a big punch for Brooklyn, meaning it still commands some relevance.

I love the loud, rambling elevated trains that area central to the quintessential Brooklyn backdrop and scenery. The same goes for subway stations, as dirty and often downright appalling as they can sometimes be (looking at you, 21st. St.). And the brownstone and limestone-lined blocks in places like Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Bed-Stuy (my favorites for brownstones), and Crown Heights (my favorite for limestones) never cease to pique my New York City imagination. Of course, I cannot forget Manhattan’s West Side’s infamous sleaziness; it is one of the few places in Manhattan that truly harkens me back to the much celebrated and misunderstood “Old New York.” Given its location, the lack of development and investment is somewhat puzzling. Long Island City has highly enviable, head-on views of Manhattan, visible from anywhere in the neighborhood, but especially along the waterfront. Even little random things, like the Chinese restaurant workers zooming around on motorized bicycles. All of these make for a unique, memorable atmosphere.

The diversity of NYC is what always gets me. Particularly, how unexpected and in your face it is. Guatemalans in Bensonhurst, Mexicans in East Harlem, Tibetans/Nepalis in Jackson Heights, Ghanaians in the West Bronx, and a medley of West Africans of several nationalities (in close proximity with Bengali-owned “halal” convenience stores) along Fulton Avenue in Bed-Stuy. NYC isn’t what it always seems, and things are constantly changing. The warp speed with which places change is fascinating. While the change I am most familiar with Crown Heights, I have seen noticeable changes and improvements everywhere. A few years ago, when I first visited Crown Heights, aside from the ubiquitous Trinidadian roti and doubles take-out joints, there was little in the form of restaurant or dining options. Now, a few years later, there are gourmet, new-wave Neopolitan-style pizzerias, trendy coffee shops, and gastropubs serving microbrews to scruffy hipster types. Impressive.

The drawback to getting to know a city like NYC is that after the first couple of visits, the “magic” wears off. It is both a good and bad thing, though. Sure, after that veritable magic wears off, one can further his/her understanding of the city and its people and places through repeated visits. Developing a reasoned and logical understanding of a dynamic, complex city as NYC can only come with time. To deepen my understanding of the city, on recent trips, I have visited off-the-beaten-path places such as Elmhurst, the Lower East Side, Jackson Heights, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens/Flatbush, Hell’s Kitchen, Long Island City, Highbridge, and the Bronx’s splendid Art-Deco-y Grand Concourse.

My favorite part, of course, is the food, with my most recent trip exemplifying that. While I can still never seem to make the legendary Di-Fara’s work (most recently, they were closed on Tuesday), I did do Tom’s Diner, Barboncino, Ample Hills Creamery, Egg, Blue Bottle Coffee, Sweetleaf Coffee, V-Nam Café, and Delhi Heights. Ample Heights Creamery, located on Prospect Heights’ Vanderbilt Ave restaurant row, had an absolutely delectable salted cracked caramel and malted vanilla (among other flavors) ice cream. Hell’s Kitchen’s restaurant row on 9th Ave has the largest concentration of Thai restaurants I have seen, at least outside of a college ghetto or Thai Town in Los Angeles. Keeping in line with Southeast Asia, Sweetleaf (Vernon Blvd/11th ave) has really, really good iced Vietnamese coffee. And Dehli Heights’ Indian platters were both well-priced and tasty.

Without delay, here are a few photos from the trip:

The stunning Midtown skyline, as seen from Long Island City.
Graffiti along Manhattan's Bowery.
A man donning traditional Mexican cowboy (vaquero) attire. South Williamsburg.
The aforementioned salted cracked caramel and malted vanilla ice cream from Ample Hills Creamery.
The New Museum, also along Manhattan's Bowery.
Street art. Houston Street, Lower Manhattan.

A pair of Lower East Side residents:

Vintage storefront. Bowery.
Spanish-tiled rowhouses. Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.
A hybrid Art-Deco/Gothic building. Ocean Avenue.
Yoko One. Egg, Williamsburg.
Apartment blocks in the Jackson Heights Historic District.
Bengalis near the 74th/Roosevelt train station in Jackson Heights, Queens.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Rosemary shrimp pesto pasta
Deco and Moderne influences on the door of a charter school. U Street.
Jaw-dropping levels of detail on a Dupont Circle residence. Dupon Circle has, by far, what is DC's best architecture.
A favorite mansard of mine. Florida and 13th St., NW..
A man and his pitbull. Check the pink nail polish.
A rather notable sunset, as seen from Logan Circle (one of my favorite places to relax and enjoy a coffee from Peregrine Espresso).
The Lamont Lofts. Park View/Pleasant Plains. I was walking on this street with a white (female) companion, when two black men yelled: "Yo! That's a good look! I see you, son!"
The ever-rare DC hipster. Qualia Coffee, Petworth.
Residential architecture along 16th St., NW. This type of architecture is somewhat reminiscent of that along Prospect Park and Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.
Wardsman rowhouses in Edgewood. Northeast.
I loved his "palm tree" hairstyle.

Spring in Washington, DC

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

It has been a while since my last blog post. All is well here in DC, where we are nearing the end of an unseasonably mild winter. Certainly a strange winter season, to be sure; there have been only 3-4 snow days, along with, perhaps, two dozen 55f+ days. I have been in DC for about seven months now, meaning more I am more comfortable with my position and understanding of the city. With that, comes a greater urge to share a few thoughts and observations

First, I thought I would share a few of my favorite restaurants and coffeeshops. Most of the time, I cook, as it is much cheaper and is actually fun once you know how to cook. DC is short on the kind of cheap, hole-in-the-wall restaurants that characterize the dining scene in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, or the good, mid-level places prevalent in Chicago, Philadelphia and Portland. Anyways, I definitely approve of the following: Blind Dog Café (U Street), El Pollo Rico (Arlington), Amsterdam Falafelshop, the toasted marshmallow shakes at Good Stuff Eater (Capitol Hill), and the flawless pain-au-chocolat at Le Caprice (Columbia Heights) are all regular haunts of mine. I also enjoy Mandalay (Silver Spring) for delicious, exotic Burmese food, the Drunken Noodles at Siam Thai (Cleveland Park), and the filling Afghan kabob platter at Food Corner Kabob House (Dupont Circle).

As previously mentioned, I have never been to a city where everybody is so focused and devoted to their work. The large, looming government influence is highly pervasive, and is difficult to avoid. Sure, people like indie craft beers and exotic hot dogs and such, but very few people rise above the fray and actually stand out. Often, I feel as if Washingtonians are one big Northface, J Crew and leather boot-wearing crowd of anonymous simpletons from New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Far too many people are of the “common garden variety,” with little in the way of unique identities; a group of people too obsessed with work, and utterly lacking in individuality and creativity (as seen in the city’s local art, culture, fashion, and music scenes; I am not counting the Federal-funded Museums and Galleries). I suppose that is the reality when a city is full of people whose ambitious is channeled into working and efficiency, and when the city’s employers actively discourage unique, distinct personalities and qualities.

Still, spring is beautiful, and that satisfied much of my needs. I am perfectly content spending my days doing nothing other than hanging out in cafés, bouncing around between compact, urban neighborhoods that are human in scale, and offer a lot for the pedestrian. The parks and public spaces also light up, filling with people (and their dogs). Too, restaurant patios and rooftop decks open up. Logan Circle, Malcolm X Park, and the SE Waterfront are three of my favorite Spring recreation hangouts. For visual stimulation, the cherry blossom-lined, eclectic rowhouse blocks in Columbia Heights, Bloomingdale and, especially, Dupont Circle, are my picks.. It feels as if the city has, at last, woken up.

European-influenced architecture along Embassy Row in Dupont Circle.
A variety of architecture styles seen along Embassy Row.
The mansard roof-clad, French Revival Pakistan Ambassador's Residence.
The Portland-esque Lacey Condominiums. 2250 11th St., NW.
Silje. Florida Ave, NW, Ledroit Park.
Church-funded condominiums. Mt. Vernon Square/Shaw,
A bike passes by on 11th St., NW. Columbia Heights.
Office and residential development in a recently-constructed part of NoMa.
Friendly patrons at the Blind Dog Café.
"What are you doing behind that bush?!"
Dereliction. Florida Ave, NW.
On the H2 bus. Columbia Heights.
Pho at Pho Viet. Columbia Heights
New and old rowhouses on W Street, NW. U Street.
A new luxury development near Florida and W St, NW.