Jersey City, New Jersey and New York City, New York, USA
28.07.2006 - 30.07.2006 28 °C
Given my recent luck with flights, I suppose it was only a matter of time before it would occur that I couldn’t leave a place before I needed to be back there.
And so it was, on Thursday of last week, that my flight to Toronto was cancelled, and then the flight I was put on later in the day was cancelled as well. I got a flight on Friday, which was cancelled mid-day Friday, and I was put on a flight on Saturday morning at 6:25am.
Around 6pm on Friday night, I got a call from Air Canada. “Hello Mr. Wesson, this is Robert from Air Canada,” said the agent, a touch of trepidation and fear in his voice. I can only imagine that he had to deliver the same line to a number of travellers in the past few minutes, and had probably taken a few amount of abuse for it. “I’m sorry to say that your 6:25 am flight tomorrow has been cancelled.”
“Of course it has,” I said. I had expected no less. Given that every flight on Friday was cancelled, it would be impossible for my flight to leave at 6:25am in the morning. For a flight to take off, you see, they need an airplane, and with no flights coming into Newark, there would be no airplane upon which to put passengers at 6 in the morning.
“We have you rebooked on a flight at 10am on Sunday,” Robert informed me. I, knowing that I had a 7am flight on Monday to take me from Toronto to Newark (where I was standing at the time), did some quick math. I’d land at noon on Sunday, assuming there were no delays, which wasn’t an assumption that I would have put much stake in. From noon Sunday until 7 am Monday is 19 hours. It hardly seemed worth flying home for 19 hours, especially when I would spend 6 of them sleeping, and 3 or 4 of them in the airport in Toronto.
Instead, I told Robert to cancel the Sunday flight and send me a refund. I then spent a couple of hours securing myself a place to stay for the weekend, and changing my flight and car reservations for the Monday morning. By 8pm on Friday, it was confirmed that I would be spending the weekend in Jersey City, New Jersey, just a two stop subway ride from Manhattan.
Jersey City is a nice enough place, at least by the water in the “Newport” area where I stayed. Newport is a recently developed area of high rise condos, trendy cafes and restaurants, high end shopping, a number of high-rise business buildings and a nice little harbour. My hotel, the Courtyard Marriott Newport was right beside the entrance to the NY/NJ Port Authority’s subway system, the PATH. The PATH is a 24 hour train that runs from Newark into Manhattan, one line running to the World Trade Center site, and the other line passing through the Greenwich Village before heading north up 6th street to wind up at 33rd, just a block or so from the Empire State Building.
I didn’t do too much on the weekend. I had to shop for some clothes, as I had nothing but business attire and the weather called for shorts, sandals and a t-shirt. I wandered around Newport and downtown Jersey City, plus spent time in Chinatown, Little Italy and Greenwich Village in New York. I rode the PATH subway back on Saturday night at 2:30am, which was an interesting study in levels of drunkness of the passengers, from the joyously buzzed to the passed out sleeping.
Sunday night I had dinner at Les Halles, a French brasserie on Park Ave in mid-town Manhattan. It was very reminiscent of my time in Paris last year, in both cuisine and atmosphere. I drank Kronenberg 1664, a beer that featured quite largely in my Parisian adventures. I had a starter of the Terrine Du Jour, and a main of the Steak Frites, billed as the signature dish of the restaurant. Steak Frites is very common in Paris, consisting of a thinly sliced steak with French fries and a salad. Les Halles’ version of the steak frites was good, but I made the mistake of ordering medium rare, which spoiled the illusion of my meal in Paris. When I was in Paris, I was never asked how I wanted my steak, and it was always brought bloody red rare.
I was drawn to go to Les Halles for its former executive chef, Anthony Bourdain. Chef Bourdain, in addition to being a cook, is also an author of fiction, non-fiction and cookbooks and host of Food Network TV shows like A Cook’s Tour and No Reservations. I haven’t read any of his fiction (I’ve heard it’s not great) or his cookbooks (I don’t cook much myself), but one of his books has a major place on my reading list. A Cook’s Tour documents his journey’s while filming the Food Network show of the same name, where Tony and a camera crew travelled around the world in search of “the perfect meal.” The chapter on Tokyo and Japan, in fact, was one of the two reasons I choose Tokyo as my last vacation destination – the food just sounded awesome and the experiences alien to North American palates but also familiar and friendly and comforting. I have read and re-read the book, and have not tired of it yet. It is a common travel companion with me, and has been in my backpack or suitcase as I have visited 10 countries across 4 continents.
In the end of the book, Chef Bourdain discovers that the perfect meal is no one set meal, but is rather any time the combination of food and atmosphere and company and timing is right. It can be as upscale as a multiple course meal at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa Valley, or a casual as bare-footed toes squishing sand at a beach bar in the Caribbean.
I think it is that way for many travellers. People, especially those that go on cruises or to all-inclusive resorts often ask me what was the best thing I’ve ever eaten while travelling. It’s too hard a question to answer, both because there are so many choices and also because it has seldom been the really expensive and classy restaurants. I have had a few really good, expensive meals in my day, from the Palms restaurant in San Antonio where we ran up a $5,000 tab for 14 people to a night at the Senator in Toronto that started with rare steaks and ended with cigars and Remy Martin’s Louis XIII cognacs. But those meals are more impressive for the sheer ostentatious size of the bill than any other reason. The meals and food I remember tend to be much more simple. Fresh fish fried for breakfast by my uncle, special because I, as a 10 year old, caught it on a misty lake at 6:30 in the morning. Eating Thanksgiving dinner off a picnic table dragged inside my uncle’s cottage, as their weren’t enough indoor tables to hold my extended family. Hot dogs and beer at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, connecting my Canadian hockey loving heart with the American passion for baseball, and driving a desire to see more baseball games in person. Deep fried Turkey and football at an American Thanksgiving celebration. Slipping the waiter a twenty dollar bill at a beach restaurant in a resort in Cuba, which brought the table all-you-can-eat Steak and Lobster. A 1/2 bottle of wine, a sausage appetizer, a 10 oz filet (that was the small one!) and a side salad at El Boliche de Alberto in Bariloche, Argentina, for only $16. Trying durian fruit in Tanzania, which made my pee smell like rotting flesh for the next two days. Sharing freshly grilled skewers of seafood with a mangy looking cat at the Forodhani market in Stone Town in Zanzibar. And, most recently, sitting at a Yakatori bar underneath the train tracks in Tokyo, feeling like Deckard from Blade Runner.
Eating at Les Halles put me in mind of Anthony Bourdain’s book, and I spent the evening thinking of all those great meals (and many more), including a meal at a Brassiere with a similar look to Les Halles last September in Paris. I was sitting outside, at one of the dorky little tables all the cafes in Paris have, facing the street (as all the seats face the street). I had finished off a stringy piece of steak with soggy salad, and was now enjoying a cool night reading and drinking pints of Kronenberg 1664. The book was short travel stories, and I was reading about a hiking trip into the wilds of Patagonia in Argentina. It reminded me of my own trip to Patagonia, and I was suddenly struck by the fact that I was reading about an amazing place I had been (Argentina) while sitting in another amazing place (Paris), and knowing that I would soon be travelling on another amazing trip (trans-Mongolian to Russia, Mongolia and China), and I was so happy that I actually almost cried. Sitting on a busy street in Paris, eating and drinking and enjoying life, it was the perfect meal, at least at that moment.
I couldn’t help but compare my Les Halles experience with that Parisian meal, and while the food was much better at Les Halles, it lacked the atmosphere and timing of that meal in Paris. Les Halles was good, and I would recommend it to someone looking for a good meal in mid-town, but it probably won’t go down on my list of memorable meals above.
Now, if Anthony Bourdain had been at the restaurant, and he’d sat down at my table and we spent the night drinking beers and swapping travel stories, I bet that would have made the list.