Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Real Service

A while back I read what I thought was an absolutely fascinating book called Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster. The author's main point was that items that we often consider "luxury" are often just middling quality in disguise. Multi-thousand dollar purses are routinely made in factories in Asia out of substandard leather, $800 pants fall apart after just a few wearings, and as my wonderful, very stylish friend Tim just learned, the heel on a $500 pair of men's dress shoes sold proudly on Madison Avenue can quite frequently fall apart in a matter of months.

A tragic knock-on effect of all of this dumbing down is that customer service has fallen by the wayside as well (Tim learned this when he tried to pursue a remedy for his broken heel). As one of the people interviewed in the book said about a particular high end New York department store, these are $5,000 dresses and they're just hanging on racks. And you have to try them on unaccompanied. With virtually no help. Quite. I don't think this was the main point of the book, but it is the one that stayed with me.

I find the whole state of affairs appalling. I often am teased about being cheap, but the truth of the matter is that I'll pay for quality. Sadly there just isn't much of it out there these days. But this past weekend, thanks to a little help from some friends, I was treated to some very serious quality.

photo via NY Journal

A dear friend was turning 30, and his ladyfriend (also a dear friend) had the good sense to book the communal table at Mas (farmhouse) for his friends and family.

photo via NY Journal

I'll admit my hopes were not high...I had passed by this place before and written it off as pretentious and overpriced. As it turns out, this is not the case at all.

The decor has a wonderfully soothing feel to it, perhaps due to all of the soft tones and natural materials. Right down to the porcelain, which I covet intensely.

The food in a way matched the decor. It was beautiful, simple, fresh and unfettered. My mind wasn't necessarily blown by the sheer inventiveness of the dishes, but one is not always seeking an intensely challenging culinary experience. Rather, I was happy to have my mind was blown by the sheer competence on display. Everything was cooked perfectly, composed perfectly and arranged perfectly. The highlight? My sinfully crispy guinea hen skin. I swoon everytime I think about it (and I think about it often).

But really it was the service which made me fall in love with this fine establishment. Although we all ordered the tasting menu, we were told not to feel the need to adhere to the list provided...we could substitute any dish the restaurant served for any of the courses. Want an entree as your appetizer? No problem. Don't want mustard on your mustard rubbed lamb? No problem. Not even a blink, a problem, regardless of the request. As a certain butler once said, great customer service means never hearing the word "no". Mas (farmhouse) clearly (and thankfully) adheres to the same philosophy.

Never did the waiters allow a wineglass to go dry, never did they allow those awkward pauses that occur when some diners have their dishes and some do not (all arrived at exactly the same time, each and every time), and never did they make us feel rushed, despite the fact that we had gotten a late start. It was our night, and they clearly felt that they were there to make it excellent.

So when the bill came I was happy to fork over practically any sum of cash for my gorgeous experience, and I can't wait to go back. All businesses, struggling or otherwise, please take note: this is how it is done.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Deluge

You may have noticed that things have been a bit quiet here lately. I promise it is not because I've been feeling uninspired or lazy. No, rather I've been recovering from what Paul now refers to as "the dreaded leak".

Last week, as we were preparing to receive one of our favorite dinner guests (i.e throwing stuff in the bedroom that had been littering the living room), we discovered a thoroughly soaked bed. Gazing upward, we saw a ceiling mangled by a leaky pipe and a slow but steady stream of water dripping onto our already wet sleeping spot.

Paul did his fellow Brits proud and kept an admirably stiff upper lip, and I had no choice but to follow his good example. We sat down to enjoy some delicious ginger miso chicken with Alex. Mirth and good conversation ensued, and presently we received an email from our landlord telling us to check into a hotel that night on him. And thus we found our silver lining...the discovery of a charming, reasonably priced hotel mere blocks from our apartment.

Gild Hall is a gem hidden on a tiny downtown Manhattan street. With a hunting lodge motif and quiet location it feels like a country retreat.

For those who are uncomfortable with taxidermy, I promise the hunter theme does not extend far enough to include actual heads. The antler chandelier in the entry hall and the faux rhinoceros in the lobby are the extent of it.

And, whether they are real or not, the ubiquitous books throughout the lobby, bar and restaurant, lend a feeling of intellectually acceptable rest and relaxation to the hotel experience.

The bright red hallways with white wainscoting hearken back to a few traditional pubs that I've had the pleasure of staying at while in England.

The vast leather headboards do exude quite a "thrill of the hunt" vibe, especially with the attendant hardware reminiscent of a horse's bridle. I shall avoid any discussion of the implication of a headboard and a bridle here in this post, but please do feel free to discuss in comments.

A plaid throw was a welcome invocation of weekends away in Scotland. Not quite Balmoral material, but perhaps representative of the red-headed stepchild version.

And, being a Thompson hotel, hip reading material is on hand. I loved that they provided V Magazine. I always find inspiration in that publication.

So happily, after a great experience with the hotel, I do not hesitate to recommend the spot to those out of town visitors seeking a sleeping arrangement that does not include my blow up mattress.

Although as lovely a spot as Gild Hall was, Paul and I are thrilled to be back in our apartment. A fabulous new bed (courtesy of our landlord) delivered and my daffodils blooming, it is good to be home.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Women

I like to think that if only I had the clothing budget, I would most certainly be devastatingly chic. I would have all sorts of edgy $3,000 blazers and no end of over the knee boots (the cool kind, not the Pretty Woman kind). Instead I must make do with the odd sample sale best find being my Henry Duarte leather jacket which gets a lot of use when I feel like upping the tough-but-feminine vibe. But mostly I live vicariously through sites like Garance Dore and Jak & Jil Blog, admiring the look of those who have either more money or innate style (or sometimes both) than I.

As I troll these sites I've gotten to recognize the characters that inhabit the impossibly chic worlds that are being documented. There are many beautiful people, but only a few who really stand out to me, who stick in my mind even after their images are no longer in front of me. Emmanuelle Alt is one of those I just can't get out of my head.

Whether she is being ladylike...

or distinctly edgy...

...the Fashion Director of French Vogue is always compelling to watch.

I love this punk-yet-ready-to-take-on-the-world aura she has going here. I am officially obsessed with the shoulders on that jacket and the idea of the strategically ripped t-shirt.

And I point this image out only because I adore this Balmain jacket (one of the ones I would own had I the budget of course).

The most beautiful image of this woman is over at Garance's site, I trust you agree she is stunning?

Anna Dello Russo, the fashion director of Vogue Nippon, is another one of these hopelessly cool woman that I just cannot get enough of.

She's outrageous,




and just frilly enough to intrigue.

As I pored over images of these women, I stopped for a moment to consider why I was doing so. What made them so interesting to me (and also, apparently, to the loads of bloggers who document their movements)? The closest I could come to an answer is that, tempered with a clear intelligence, they project a stunningly high level of comfort with themselves, which is incredibly rare to see.

They obviously care about their appearance, and they like how they look. They are happy to wear outrageous or unusual outfits, unafraid of the reaction. They show off their bodies without fear (although frankly, with legs like those there's not much to be afraid of). They go out without much makeup and with undone hair and look better than those who've spent hours in hair and makeup. And most importantly, they haven't fallen prey to that terrible affliction that has befallen so many New York and Los Angeles women of a certain age, a reliance on various facial fillers and other injectables. Their faces look like their own and it makes them absolutely irresistible.

Carine Roitfelt, the editor of French Vogue, falls into this category of effortless, smart cool as well I think. I love her roots.

As does the luminous Tilda Swinton. I could gaze at her face for ages.

And Cecilia Dean, one of the founders of V Magazine, is totally fascinating to me. She's gorgeous but I've never seen her with a spec of makeup or her hair in anything other than a bun or ponytail, and she seems totally unconcerned with her innate coolness (which she has in spades).

And last but not least, the fabulous Daphne Guiness. If nothing else she challenges us all to get a little more creative with...well, everything.

So, a very belated New Year's resolution. I will be daring, I will be unconcerned, and I will somehow, someway, find a way to get that Balmain jacket in my closet. Are you with me?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Friends Online

I have to admit that when I began blogging, I felt a bit sheepish about it. I wasn't (and still am not) a huge technophile. I'm a pathetic Facebook member, I rarely gchat anyone and I just realized that now that Paul is out of town I won't be listening to any music until his return as I have no idea how to turn on our stereo system. Clearly, I was not a natural blogger.

But I quickly found that I enjoyed the whole culture of the blogosphere. The connections I've made online with all of you have made the whole experience so wonderful for me and trolling for new blogs is now one of my favorite pastimes. But funnily, none of my "real life" friends have that much to do with any of this. A few of them are devoted readers, but for the most part the two worlds remain separate for me. Until now.

One of my most witty and erudite friends has started his very own blog! My favorite Toronto resident Rob was apparently so impressed by my breadmaking adventures that he was compelled to purchase a breadmaking book several months ago.

He was so intent on learning everything in the book that he never quite got around to the actual baking. But as he has titled his blog "Rob Making Bread" I can only assume he has serious plans to turn out some crusty loaves. So Rob, here's your official welcome to this wonderful world, and here's hoping that your second post won't be too long in coming.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Do As the Pros Do

I have been known to profess a hatred for shopping. But really, I do not harbor any serious aversion to the act. Rather, I hate going from uninspiring store to uninspiring store in search of...I'm not sure what exactly. I'm not someone that loves to shop for shopping's sake, wandering through a mall just to be in the presence of things for sale. But I do love having a roster of fabulous little establishments from which to pull items that perfectly perform a function that I might suddenly have the need to fulfill.

I come by this honestly. Put my father in a department store and his face immediately contorts into an expression of extreme pain, but put him in his favorite local hardware store in search of an obscure wall anchor and he practically glows with anticipation. In the same vein, my mother is not a fan of large chains, but can also shop for hours in smaller specialized establishments.

I was taught to shop this way as well, to seek out functional, well priced items, no matter how far off of the beaten track it might take me. Often, this means going to where the professionals shop. Restaurant supply stores, for instance.

Check out the prices at East Bay Restaurant Supply (a haunt of my youth) or any of the myriad of spots on the Bowery (haunt of my adulthood) and you'll never step foot in a William Sonoma store again. Take a trip to Ray Beauty Supply over on Eighth Avenue and Ricky's will become a faded memory of a time when you actually paid retail. And next time you're tempted to head over to Home Depot, give Prince Lumber Company on West 15th Street a try to find out what real customer service is. As I happily discovered, real customer service is never letting a clueless woman attempt to carry a box of bricks to Ninth Avenue to catch a cab. Insist that the box is much too heavy for her to carry (it was physically impossible for me to lift), bring the box to the curb, hail a cab, and load up the car for the ignorant lass.

New York lends itself to shopping in this way, as the city is organized into a series of micro-neighborhoods, many of which are devoted to one specific industry. For instance, the garment district is well known (and the location of my best sample sale experiences), but I recently discovered that a subset of the area is devoted almost entirely to fur. And there is of course the diamond district (it sounds much more romantic than the reality, I assure you) and the theater district (exactly as romantic as it sounds). These types of neighborhoods are fading (the meatpacking district being a prominent example of one that has faded completely away) but those that have endured are wonderful to wander through.

And so the other day, as I was walking from one meeting to another, I routed myself through the flower district on West 28th Street in search of a bit of floral-based inspiration. There was much foliage out on the street, but it was inside Jamali Garden that I really found bliss. I actually have heard of this establishment many times before, as it seems that anytime I see some trinket that I like cited online it is attributed to this place. Why it never occurred to me that the store was in my own backyard I'll never know, but I'm so happy it has all been straightened out. Inside I was confronted with stacks upon stacks of large planters, tiny votives, hanging strands of crystals and dishes and platters of all shapes and sizes. And among this bounty I found an item that I had been searching for for ages...

...a tray to contain my kitchen sink accoutrements, for the low low price of $4.99. Exactly how much something like this ought to cost, I think. Now off to the orchid store to score some sub-ten dollar blooms.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

On the Cusp

I perhaps spoke to soon when I said that sun had returned to New York.

Although I believe fervently that the weather as a topic of conversation is one of the more tiresome options out there, to be relied upon only as a last resort if you find yourself in an impossibly dull and awkward exchange, this past weekend's mercurial weather system was quite a thing to see (and talk about). Mad gusts of wind and pelting rain kept me indoors for most of the day, commiserating with various friends about our shared desire to avoid crossing any thresholds that led to to the outdoors.

I suppose this means that it is the beginning of the "cruel" season, in the way that T.S. Eliot described April, that is. Bouts of warmth and sun bring with them optimism and joy for the glorious time of year that one (falsely) believes to be upon us, only to be dashed by violent storms and incessant rain, reminding us pitilessly that intensely colored days and balmy nights are not nearly as close at hand as we think.

But I take comfort in the idea that we all are on the brink of spring. Liberty of London is filling Target with flower bedecked merchandise for heavens sake, and the pop up store in Bryant Park was completely sold out less than two days after it had opened (much to my dismay as I had trekked up there in the rain in heels ready to purchase some spring-like prints!). People feel that we are upon it, animals feel it, and nature feels it. Every bit of my (very damp) trip to the Greenmarket in Union Square reassured me of this fact.

The daffodils, tight and closed to the world when I bought them, are just beginning to open in sunshine hued bursts.

And the peach tree branches that I bought and then plunked in my new stoneware planter, which was not large enough to accommodate any of my many windowsill pots but stands in quite happily as a vase, are covered in tight little "almost" buds,

primed and ready to explode in a deliciously pink blossom.

The ramps and peonies (my two personal harbingers of spring) cannot be far behind!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Regular readers know much I love the idea of a well run home, of never having to scramble for basic supplies, clean clothes, fluffy towels or crisp sheets. I am far from that reality, but I have my little ways of reaching towards this goal, between regular deliveries and periodic visits from a housekeeper who is kind enough to wash the clothes and bedding. And I lose myself in a (fantasy) world of orderliness in books like Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management and Colin Cowie's Chic: A Guide to Life As It Should Be.

Always on the lookout for other outlets for fantasy, I could hardly resist the temptation to hop over to the blog The Butler Does It when Emily Evans Eerdmans mentioned it on her site the other day.

The Butler Does It is indeed a bastion of refinement, good manners and other components of the "good life". Written by an estate manager to the mega rich, this engaging blog covers the appropriate bar components (all bases should be covered so you have on hand the drinks of others in addition to your own), appropriate behavior to exhibit as a guest in one's home (never forget the home is not, in fact, your own) and good customer service (it means never hearing the word "no"). And as the butler in question is, in fact, also a fabulous chef, he graces his readers with the odd panoply of recipes on occasion.

My life is getting a bit closer to "good" with every post I read!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Shopping Spree In The East (Villlage)

This weekend the sun graced New York with its presence. I won't say that it was the beginning of spring, but it certainly signaled the rumblings of the new season. After months of dreary cold, it was a welcome change. I flung open the apartment windows, thrilled with the idea of fresh air in my living space again. It was off with the winter coat and back to weekends spent wandering through the city. Bliss.

Job one was to get some color back in the apartment, so when I saw this bouquet at the farmers market, I simply couldn't resist. Despite the vaguely garish easter egg vibe of the arrangement, I felt quite strongly that it belonged in my (rather tarnished) mint julep cup on my bathroom sink.

Not more than an hour after I had put the blooms in water they began to open, exuberantly it seemed.

Perhaps the tulips are as excited for spring as I am?

Later in the afternoon it was off to one of my absolute favorite stores in New York, SOS Chefs. I had taken stock of my spice cabinet and found it wanting, so felt it was an appropriate excuse to make my way to Avenue B for a bit of shopping.

I left the treasure trove of a store with a shopping bag full of goodies...

...spices of course, but I could not resist this amber colored chestnut honey

nor this satchel of fragrant chai.

I've been consistently fascinated by the black facial soap that Atef, the owner, has shown me on occasion, both due to the unusual appearance of it and the fact that her own skin (on which on she tells me she smears the dark gunge) is remarkably luminous. I finally caved and purchased a jar.

I hope that I don't one day mistake it for molasses or some other sweet and lovely foodstuff.

Although Atef was not in the day I visited, her male counterpart was just as warm and generous as she and insisted that I take home a mixture of lemon verbena and saffron with me to make some tea.

Deep in the recesses of my brain I recalled hearing somewhere that it is not uncommon to add saffron to tea in the middle east and north Africa, but it had seemed a terribly indulgent idea given the high price of saffron when I heard it initially. But this is a different type of saffron than I am used to, with shorter fibers, a lighter flavor and lighter color (and a smaller price tag).

I realized after accepting this generous gift that I had been sold a bunch of the same type of saffron when I was in Istanbul years ago. When I got it home and attempted to use it as one might use normal saffron, I was disappointed. No brilliant color, the taste was too light to detect...I had been ripped off! I tossed the bag in the trash in disgust. Now I realize I was just expecting the wrong thing from my stash. In food, it must be added early, and simmered at some length to release the delicate flavor.

But I had never even thought to try it in tea, a situation I remedied quickly.

I've always loved lemon verbena in tea, especially in combination with Earl Grey tea, but the saffron added a wonderful softness,

perfect for a late afternoon or pre-bedtime tisane. I for one plan to indulge in one as often as possible!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Armchair Travel

I like to think of myself as a fairly responsible, together person. I pay bills on time, am pretty faithful with my bi-annual dental checkups and don't forget appointments. But I will admit that when it comes to my library books I can be a bit laissez-faire.

For instance, I've had Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found out from the library since August. Yes, appalling I realize.

In my defense I did actually renew it several times, so it wasn't as egregious a lapse as it sounds. But you can only renew so many times (5 times as it turns out) and then things become illegal. And the formerly pleasant librarian starts sending you annoyed emails.

Why didn't I simply return it you might wonder? I couldn't bear to, it just looked so fascinating that I didn't want to let it out of my apartment without having read it. I finally sequestered myself for a few evenings and a weekend to finish it (and subsequently return it) and was thrilled to find that my instinct had been correct.

Suketu Mehta, who returned to the land of his birth for a few years both to write about the experience and to reconnect his young family with their culture, did not just wander about the city commenting on the hustle and bustle, describing charming markets and purveyors. Oh no. Although the book starts out mildly enough with the tale of getting an apartment (a nightmare beyond comprehension) it quickly moves to deeper, darker material.

Mr. Mehta goes to the ground, hanging out with gangsters, suicidal bar girls, policemen (both corrupt and not), slum lords and slum inhabitants, the upwardly mobile...the intimacy with his subjects is absolutely startling. After a few years in Bombay he knows the city far better than I know New York, despite spending the better part of a decade here.

While reading the book I alternated between yearning to visit Bombay and yearning to stay far away. The mark of a true city I think...that love hate relationship. And the mark of a fantastic book, the reader connecting enough with the material to feel something about it.
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