Ambling across Amsterdam

Amsterdam prevails.

Weighing Budapest against Amsterdam for my next trip, the Netherlands won out ably after effortless contemplation that sprung to mind peerless European art, worldly cuisine, cobblestone, canals and cannabis. 

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Compared to the striking Hungarian capital, there’s more to see and do in one of Europe’s most bristling cradles of culture, a smallish, quintessentially Old World setting marbled with a pungent contemporary tang. (And naughtily dubbed Sin City for its legal prostitution and lax marijuana laws.)

Once, in the 1600s, it was the world’s richest city; port-centric commerce flourished. Now, it’s a reservoir of humanistic riches — art, food, style, architecture. Friends of mine are so taken with the city that they’re moving to Amsterdam from Manhattan ASAP.

It’s been years since I’ve visited Amsterdam, and those times had the brevity of stopovers. Budapest’s Gothic spikiness and post-Soviet chill can wait. My destination offers popping pastel charms, including an iconic fretwork of canals lined by trees and spindly, leaning houses that seem to be jostling for room on the banks. And now there’s a lot more time.

No tulips or bicycles for me (and, alas, no Anne Frank House: tickets are plum sold out during my stay, though I’ve been there twice before), but I’m all about the hazy gold and brown Rembrandts — a personal favorite — and cornea-sizzling Van Goghs gracing the majestic Rijksmuseum, the Rembrandt House and Van Gogh Museum, plus the spread of classic modern art — Haring to Kruger — at the recently reopened Stedelijk Museum. 

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Gourmet stuffed pancakes, Indonesian bites (of which Holland is a hotbed), Dutch dishes, frites with mayo, pickled herring, European lagers and gin, or, in Dutch, jenever — that’s my menu. Cafes, pubs, maybe a sooty “coffeeshop” — those are where I will recharge. 

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Museum Vrolik, grisly, glorious.

Out of touristic obligation I’ll trot the tawdry and corny Red Light District, which stings the nostrils with damage, despair and possibly disease, and get out fast to catch a 90-minute canal boat tour run by the cheeky Those Dam Boat Guys, who encourage you to bring whatever ingestible vice you’d like. “Bring all the wine you have,” they exclaim. “Sure, it thins the blood and will kill you quicker, but I’ll be damned if it don’t make you forget the nippiness. We’ll provide the best cheap, shitty, plastic cups not very much money can buy!”

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After that, a heady spin through the Heineken brewery seems mandatory, as does the Museum Vrolik, a shuddery repository of the “normal anatomy of humans, but also pathological anatomy and congenital malformations.” Meaning, contorted skeletons, chubby jarred fetuses, outlandish taxidermy and all things squishy and wrong. 

I blush at how this reads like a breathless brochure by a lackey at the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce. Part of the unseemly boosterism, the unbridled optimism, comes from the vim of nailing down a destination and the kick of anticipation. Of the simple notion of travel and gulping the exotic. Of being able to finally say: Amsterdam. Yes.

A few things keeping me afloat

A glass half-empty sort of fellow, I maintain a suspect relationship with reality, an existential leeriness that has proven keenly unhelpful. Though I’ve fought it, I’m kind of stuck with it, a black and blue complexion not unlike a bruise. 

The world’s not helping — Trump, Syria, Israel, Bolton, the EPA, fires, flooding, shootings — but I’m still able to locate an array of things to be glad about. Small, but good.

I could mention the pleasures of last week’s birthday, my family’s sound health, my sister-in-law’s spiffy new car or the dog’s chewy glee over the pig’s ear I got him. I could mention my niece’s turquoise hair, my friend’s marriage or how the Stormy Daniels affair is closing in on the president like a vice. 

But I won’t, even though I just did. 

Here are a few other things currently leavening my oft-smudged outlook:

  • Last week saw the release of “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History,” a book this circus freak-show fanatic had to get, and did as a birthday present. Yunte Huang’s widely praised biography of famed conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker is a vast, panoramic narrative of the twins’ bizarre, unlikely life (wives, numerous children, slave ownership) in 19th-century America that deftly weaves details and personalities from U.S. history into a rich, fluttering tapestry. Elegant prose twins with magnificent detail.

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  • The giddy anticipation of mulling world travels is a reliable endorphin. I recently posted my dual urges to go to Budapest and Amsterdam — the former I’ve never been to, the latter I’ve visited in quick, couple-days spurts. Always looking ahead, with one eye on the calendar and one on the map, I get a jolt just thinking about strolling new streets, eating exotic cuisine, ogling art, architecture and people. It’s already April. Time to start some serious research. (Spoiler alert: I’m leaning toward Amsterdam.) 
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Amsterdam
  • I’m captivated by the film “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library” by that doyen of documentarians, that genius of fly-on-the-wall observation, Frederick Wiseman (“High School,” “La Danse”). Released last year and running a whopping three and a half hours, the movie is a leisurely, painstaking amble through the hallowed marble halls, offices, shelves and auditoriums of the NYC institution. Wiseman’s eminent pointillist eye and febrile curiosity fashion an immersive experience inside everything from folios to fundraising, e-books to behind-the-scenes bureaucracy, programs to performances, community outreach to the organization’s pumping inner organs. Almost defiantly, “Ex Libris” is culturally kaleidoscopic. 

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  • Another birthday gift whacking the sweet spot is a squat, artisanally stylish bottle of Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin, a German, handcrafted, batch-distilled, 47-percent alcohol (94 proof) beverage that tastes like an Everlasting Gobstopper in liquid form, swirling and multi-chromatic — fragrant, aromatic, smooth, rich and tangy. My brother was scanning the gin shelves and three individuals, one who worked in the shop, voluntarily told him that Monkey 47 was the best gin they’ve had. Three random people. He was sold. Now we both are.

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One wedding and a birthday

So I let myself get a little worked up and twisted about yesterday’s big birthday. But it mostly flowed like any other day, except, and this is remarkable, I wore a dark blue Hugo Boss suit, purple striped tie and black and purple Cole Haan wingtips the whole day. It was the very first time I’ve worn a suit, unless you count the three times in my life I’ve donned tuxes (one prom, two weddings).

Worrying about one’s birthday is futile, frivolous, fun-free. Age truly is, as the maxim goes, just a number. I don’t like my new number one bit — it’s ugly and has fangs — but fretting over it is so much twaddle. Life blunders forth. Let us proceed.

Some boldly aver, “Bring it on!” but that’s a scary invitation. I’m not welcoming the disease and decrepitude waiting to pounce as time advances. Death I’m not uptight about. I could use a few extra years of uninterrupted slumber. But hospital beds, catheters, sippy cups, hospice — I’m having none of it. I have given notice. 

But life was lived on my birthday. As noted in a blog dated one day before the monumental occasion, my friend happened to slate his wedding for the same day, so my brother and I hit Manhattan, natty in suits and ties, for the connubial affair, which was intimate and lovely and all manner of florid, fortuitous festivity. 

Set at the tweedy, incomparably cool Library at the Public Theater in the East Village — book-lined shelves, leather sofas, dim lighting, no windows — it was resplendent. The open bar was hugely appreciated by all. (That’s what I call a birthday present.)

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The Library at the Public Theater.

Following the afternoon nuptials, we walked long and far across the city, down Broadway and into the Saturday farmer’s market in Union Square (I bought the dog a pig’s ear), past the Flatiron Building, where selfie-takers swarmed and giggled, to the Todd Snyder shop, where my brother, an incorrigible clotheshorse, shopped for eons. 

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The Flatiron.

As I reclined in a chair while he agonized over product and prices, an employee, kind of crazily, offered me a snifter of The Balvenie Scotch whisky — liquid gold. I accepted. When finished, he offered me another one. I accepted. I told him it was my birthday, to give his lavish generosity meaning. He shook my hand. His name is Carlos. He is heroic.

More walking and a subway ride took us to dinner at Tom Colicchio’s ritzy Temple Court in the Beekman Hotel in Lower Manhattan. Exquisite whiskey sours, divine tasting menu, ultra-classy service, including several congratulations on my birthday. Dessert arrived speared with a candle and the server assured me they would not be singing “Happy Birthday.”

Something clicked yesterday. What was it — the lovely wedding, the big city, the complimentary whisky, the sumptuous dinner, the mindfulness of the staff not singing that goddam tune that made me think: birthdays, they’re not so bad.

The rising OK-ness of a table for one

“We love our single diners!” gushed the genial manager at Girl & the Goat in Chicago on a recent Thursday night. I believed her. She was sincere, direct and almost giddy.

I was eating alone, again, as I do when I travel solo, which is 99-percent of the time. Have no pity. This is something I relish, the quietude and solitude of dining companionless. Not that I don’t like eating with others. I do. But solo is its own sensation — cool, uncluttered, zen.

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Look at this guy. He’s dining alone, and he still looks suave.

I’ve eaten alone in restaurants around the world scores if not hundreds of times. What once might have been a mite squirmy and self-conscious is now a cinch, and a joy. Like going to the movies alone (the best way), eating singly is woefully underrated. (Haunting bars solo is a lonelier proposition, but it’s still totally doable, at times even rewarding.)

Eateries have evolved and they are now equipped, ready and happily accommodating of the one-man show. I have no, er, reservations about making a reservation for one, and the staffers on the other end never pause, hiccup or flinch when they hear that some weird single guy is coming. Nowadays a table for one is entirely normal. Any uncomfortable vibes are coming from your end only. I’ve never felt strange or alienated dining out with me and myself.

9Go. Relax. Be seated and order a cocktail or a glass of wine. I used to bring reading material to the table, a magazine or travel guide — like the hapless fellow in “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” — but no more. (For one, it’s invariably too dark to read anything. I’m at the point where I have to use the light of the table’s feeble candle to read the menu.) And I’m not one to obsessively tap, scroll and stare hypnotically at my smartphone. So I instead observe, look around and listen — the time-honored sport of people watching.

When it’s early, well before the dinner crush, I’m known to sit at the bar with my laptop and have a small bite and a beer, which I did last week at Longman & Eagle in Chicago, a winsome gastropub with a kicky, rustic flair. I emailed ahead for the best hours to pull out a computer and to confirm the place has free Wi-Fi.

Any stigma attached to the idea of lone dining is dated and moribund. At Avec in Chicago I sat at the bar with an unbroken row of single diners. A few chatted with the stranger next to them, others (me) kept to themselves and saved conversation for the empathetic, fiercely attentive server who coddled me just enough that I didn’t feel fawned over.

There are perils to eating out alone. Servers tend to have the urge to rush the meal, so if I’ve ordered three courses, instead of staggering them leisurely, the server will pile them on, and I wind up with three full plates waiting to be tackled at once. I call this shoving food down your throat and shoving you out the door (this has happened to me at least three times recently). Rushing the plates, it’s as if the lone eater cannot be left without something in front of him, lest he perish from loneliness.

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View from the bar at Frenchie in Paris. Close to the action, with great, personalized interaction. That’s owner, head chef and all-around mensch Gregory Marchand. I had the best seat in the house.

Tip: Sit at the bar. Servers tend to be more attentive and personalized and there’s less of a chance of a plate pile-up because the area is busier and service slows somewhat. Communication, from illuminating details about the menu to cordial chit-chat, reigns.

Plus, the scenery at the bar is superior — a stool with a view. If you’re lucky, there’s an open kitchen, where you can witness the artful commotion of chefs in the tentacled frenzy of culinary creation. Bodies swerve and dodge, flames lick the ceiling, delicacies are chopped and seared and tossed, plates are decorated as meticulously as a Buddhist sand mandala. Art happens. For the wide-eyed foodie, it’s the frisson of salivating spectacle, a bonus main course, with extra dessert.

Eating, walking, rocking, Chicago style

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View from the 95th floor bar-lounge in the John Hancock Building.

The first thing I did in Chicago was get a drink. There for fun from last Thursday to yesterday, I took the elevator in the famed Hancock Building (at a clip of 22 mph), which was smack next-door to my hotel in the lake-kissed Gold Coast, and landed in The Signature Lounge on the 95th floor.

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My hotel abutting Hancock Building.

It’s all about the eye-popping view. But after the hassles of airport travel, it was as much about a decompressing dram. Like the view, the drink prices were waaay up.

The catch: Going one floor higher to the official observation deck costs a smidge more than a Signature drink. So it works out: same view, less money, plus a cocktail and a seat at the window. My blackberry gin and tonic, mighty fine, cost a few cents less than $19, pre-tip. Ghastly, sure. But again, a better deal than what the higher (and dryer) chumps upstairs got.

It was a refreshing and dazzling beginning to the trip, which would take me on a three-hour walking food tour (very good, but too many sweets), Millennium Park, the International Museum of Surgical Science (shoutout to blogger Jessica — you would love this place), the Art Institute of Chicago (boo — no “American Gothic”; it’s on loan), Frank Lloyd Wright’s world-famous Robie House, an exhilarating play about teenage-girl soccer players called “The Wolves” (it was a Pulitzer finalist), an iffy concert of all-female punk bands at legendary dive bar The Empty Bottle, and a superlative array of eateries running the gastronomical gamut.

Yes, I did, as sworn, order and devour the fabled roasted pig face — and it was amazing. That was at the charming and bustling Girl & the Goat, where I also ate calamari bruschetta and grilled broccoli, all of it savory and spectacular.

Chicago is like a cozier New York with a tang all its own — a little Midwest, a little metropolis. It’s thronged and noisy, but contained and sleek, despite ragged edges any city worth its urban bona fides possesses.

The “El” trains will deafen you, while its uber-original hot dogs and pizza will soothe and sate. It’s got a lake so big it looks like an ocean and it’s steeped in cracked-leather tradition that makes so much of it seem early-20th century old school. Like Al Capone old school. Like lots of restaurants called Joe’s. But it’s also ever-changing, of course, with farm to table bistros, elegant bars, hip cafes and cutting-edge art. Its modernity is palpable.

It is, in its sneaky little way, deeply seductive.

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Roasted pig face, succulent layers of meat with potato crisps under the runny egg. This signature dish at the adamantly popular Girl & the Goat was the highlight of the night, and perhaps the trip.
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Calamari bruschetta (clam baguette, goat milk ricotta, goat bacon, green apples) at Girl & the Goat. Perfectly firm yet silky squid with the creamiest, velvet-like ricotta. Kaleidoscopic flavors, sweet, tart and savory — a tastebud tango.
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Pricey drinks, priceless views, 95 stories high.
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Anish Kapoor’s glistening Cloud Gate sculpture, aka the Bean, in Millennium Park. People swarm the ginormous orb, gazing at the skyline and themselves in its curved silvery skin.
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Same, in the Loop district of the city, Millennium Park.
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Butcher steak at the phenomenal Avec, a massively in-demand Mediterranean-tinged joint that hit every note just right, with music to spare. The must-have dish, which I had and almost wept over, is the chorizo-stuffed dates. Divine. Meanwhile, this steak, piled with tender fennel, was marvelously otherworldly.
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Frank Lloyd Wright’s elegant Robie House was finished in 1910 and is part of the iconic architect’s Prairie period. It’s simple yet granular in its considered details that only Wright was doing at the time — from windows and furniture to lighting and rugs. It’s one of the most important examples of residential architecture in America. Undergoing renovations, it can be a little musty in some rooms, but the informative tour highlights what makes the building a grand marriage of form and function.
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The sublime Art Institute of Chicago boasts one of the largest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world, as well as such masterstrokes as Seurat’s giant pointillist gem “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist,”  Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and a flotilla of other indelible works by Degas, Magritte, Dali, Warhol, Giacometti, et al, not to mention exhibits of African and Asian art and a large spread of Chicago’s specialty, architecture. Huge and handsome, the venue is like a combo of NYC’s MoMA and The Met — a magnificent aesthetic amusement park.
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The perfect classic Chicago-style hot dog, or “red hot,” that’s been, as they say, “dragged through the garden.” It overflows its poppyseed bun with celery salt, a dill pickle spear, peppers, tomatoes and onions. For three bucks at famed Portillo’s, it was a thoroughly delicious snack.

Tippling, Russian style

In St. Petersburg, Russia, recently, no one in a bar bumptiously offered me a shot of vodka as I had been cautioned they would. (Sad face emoji.) The only offers came from poised waiters in nice restaurants — not from chummy, drunky, rambunctious imbibers who wanted me to be their new American comrade in guzzling. This, surely, is a good thing.

I took it slow and easy, tossing back my first shots of the typically clear, but sometimes amber, libation in the controlled environment of the illuminating Russia Vodka Museum, an expansive and engrossing shrine to Russia’s national beverage.

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Guide Veronica explaining the vodkas I was about to gulp.

In a brisk and fact-packed 30 minutes I was shown the place by the delightful, fluently-English Veronica as my personal guide. I learned scads about the history of Russian vodka, from pre-Ivan the Terrible days in the 12th century to Putin’s relationship with the gullet-stinging spirit. The museum is top-shelf, full of text (in Russian, alas), colorful bottles, distillery artifacts, Stalin-era propaganda and unintentionally comical human wax figures. It’s thorough and classy.

If you opt for it — and you must — the tour concludes with a vodka tasting of three regional samples, and includes “chasers” of pickle, herring and onions and something else that escaped me but was fishy and delicious. The tour and tasting cost barely more than $10 US, a steal.

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Three shots, three edible chasers.

Before my only official shot of vodka in a bar-restaurant setting, I became a regular at the enchanting Dead Poets, a relaxed, stylish gastrobar where the bartenders are hipster mixologists with expert instincts and eye-crossing dexterity. They fashion quite the concoctions — like my favorite, the whiskey sour, which they do with care and panache — that are elaborate and fanciful but just the right amount of modest and unembarrassing. Nothing was too fru-fru, too tawdry, despite the simpatico bartenders’ twee haircuts and rococo facial hair.

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Best whiskey sour, ever. Notice the egg-white froth.

No, my sole shot of ice-cold vodka (curiously, the shots at the museum were room temperature) occurred at the acclaimed Duo Gastrobar, a tiny, mid-range restaurant, serving delectable meals, like amazing bone marrow with ginger sauce and crunchy apple pork rib.

Dessert menu? Pass. Let’s move on to liquid pleasures. For about $4 Duo offered one kind of vodka, the classic Beluga Noble, in a shot. Vodka in Russia, they say, must be served chilled, otherwise send it back. This was a frosty, good-sized shot, with lemon slices to bite after quaffing it down. Vodka, of course, is the smoothest liquor to shoot, as it tastes of hardly more than alcohol fumes. It has character if scant flavor.

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The lone chilled vodka shot in Russia.

As he delivered it, my server volunteered his confusion as to why vodka is his country’s national drink when tequila and whiskey, for instance, contain so much more texture and nuance. True, I nodded, and we laughed. But it was bracing and fine and if I wasn’t heading over to another bar, the youthful, disco-lighted Mishka, where drinks are two-for-one during a very long happy hour, I’d have ordered another. When in Russia …

How to drink vodka (or not) with that Russian swagger

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It sounds like the most rancid cultural cliche, but I keep hearing that vodka shots are a compulsory part of visiting Russia if you go to local bars, which I most surely am. Ritual reigns. Toasts, garrulous and heartfelt, are mandatory. Friendships are forged over the clear, biting liquid. Backslaps, perhaps high-fives (please no), succeed the flaming gulps. Vodka is a social lube, a social glue. After a week in St. Petersburg next month, I fear that I’m going to have made dozens of new (bibulous) friends and wind up with the squinchy elfin aspect of this fellow:

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“The national drink is an inseparable part of Russian social life. Vodka is drunk everywhere, with the intention of breaking down inhibitions and producing a state of conviviality Russians refer to as dusha-dushe (soul-to-soul). When a Russian taps his throat, beware: it’s impossible to refuse this invitation to friendship.”

So writes The New York Times. “Impossible to refuse this invitation to friendship”? I will find ways. I can be terrifically anti-social. I don’t want to be around too many guys who “taps his throat” as an alarm bell to guzzle a shot I might not want. I get more than two shots from these tipplers, well, then, comrade, my nice relaxing night at the bar may quite be over. I’ll take a beer, sir, and the check, and … who in hell pays for those shots? I have a stinky feeling I’m getting stuck with the bill.

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I hate Russia. I hate vodka.

Not really. Indeed, I have firm, jazzed plans to visit St. Petersburg’s newish Russia Vodka Museum, dubbed “excellent” by Lonely Planet, a glassy, liquidy historical survey of the beverage through storied, stumbling Russian yore. A 30-minute guided tour in English and sizable samples of three vodkas with traditional Russian snacks — pickles! herring! — is about $10, and I’m dimly gobsmacked. That sounds pretty fine.

I love Russia. I love vodka.

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Russia Vodka Museum. Looks like a well-stocked vodka bar. As it should.

Vodka in Slavic means “little water,” but it seems more like big water in Russia. Supposedly invented in Poland, the drink’s name was first recorded in Russia in the late 1700s. Today there are hundreds of brands of vodka available there, though I doubt my go-to, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, a Texas upstart, moves many units.

Imbibing the spirit, as I said, is a ritualized affair, almost a drinking game, freckled with frat boy machismo and cornball sacraments. The Times notes the dubious “vodka procedure,” which entails guzzling a nice big shot, neat, of course. It continues: “Prepare a forkful of food or chunk of bread. Inhale and exhale quickly, bringing the food to your nose. Breathe in and tip the vodka down your throat. Now breathe out again, and eat your food.”

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I don’t think so. That sounds a bit like yoga for alkies. Can’t I just order a vodka tonic, a Cape Cod, a, huh-hum, White Russian, vodka martini, or something divine and aquamarine, conjured magic-potion-like by a multi-tentacled mixologist? Of course I can. And I will.

But I also want Russia’s traditional, unalloyed vodka experience. I’ll do a shot or two, hopefully with guys who don’t whoop a lot or slam their glasses down on the table and beat their chests. I can’t speak a lick of Russian, so who knows what kind of rigamarole I might find myself.

I’ll just say this: Temperance is golden, abstinence is mournful, more than five shots is suicidal, and eating herring with your vodka is, plain and simple, foolhardy. Na zdorovie!