Tip #8: At the New York Botanical Garden, time-trip to 14th century Granada by visiting the Alhambra exhibit. Watery reflections offer a transparent illusion of coolness.
It was like a furnace in New York last week. The moment I pushed open the door at La Guardia, a blast of hot dry air—like a hair dryer on high—hit me right in the face. The sidewalks radiated heat right up through the soles of my sandals. I took to carrying bottles of water as if I were on a grueling Gobi trek.
Still, there are ways to stay cool, even when the heat hits triple digits. Here, my own 8-step guide to surviving the summer in the city:
1. Dress for smoking hot sidewalks.
First, consider your feet: Ditch the stilettos. Flip flops are fine, but the truly chic are wearing gladiators and cut-out ballerinas Think ventilation, but watch out for strange substances baking on the concrete.
As for the rest of your garb, go for city shorts, mini skirts, bottom-grazing dresses—but remember that it’s also the summer of long billowy skirts. When the sirocco blows, you may balloon up like a sail but you’ll be air-cooled underneath.
2. Spice up to cool down.
Photo from http://www.junoonnyc.com/
After walking 18 sweltering blocks, Junoon, a dreamy Indian restaurant where carved sandstone Tree of Life panels flank a long reflecting pool, materializes like a desert mirage. Chill out with a rosemary-infused white rum Daiquiri; muddled fennel seed gives it a spicy South Asian twist. Extra points if you drink your cocktail perched on one of the bar’s antique wooden swings, hand carved of Burma teak.
There are over 250 spices in Junoon's spice room. Front row, left to right: nigella seed, a wooden spice box, Lucknow fennel seed and sulphurous Himalayan rock salt.
The epicenter of this posh eatery may be the open kitchen with its panoply of gleaming copper pots and rambunctious cooks—but its real heart and soul is the downstairs spice room where jars of Indian spices, wooden boxes and a granite mortar and pestle are displayed behind glass like so many rare jewels. Every morning chef Vikas Khanna, a native of Amritsar, turns this aromatic cave into an atelier where he weaves together the pungent spice blends that flavor Junoon’s menu of dishes from across India.
I’m a big fan of grazing on hot summer nights. The Five Elements Tasting Menu lets you collaborate with the kitchen to orchestrate a quintet of dishes cooked in very different ways that play with spicy heat and flavor. You could start, as I did, with tender, batter-fried cauliflower, crispy crust scented with aromatic housemade garam masala, and a dollop of garlicky tomato chutney on the side. Then kick it up with monkfish tikka, three succulent chunks of fish marinated in yoghurt, cooked in a tandoor, heat courtesy of serrano chiles, mustard seed and bright cilantro chutney. By the time the curried duck—rich, gamy dark meat simmered in a sauce of incendiary black peppercorns, sour tamarind, and fresh curry leaves—appears, my mouth is aflame.
Right on cue the server brings a dish of cooling mint-yogurt raita strewn with pomegranate seeds and mango. I order another glass of effervescent Raventa Cava Rose 2007. There’s nothing like bubbles to quench the fire.
I’ve been watching Khanna (voted "Hottest New York Chef" at ny.eater.com) keep his slightly unruly cooks on track. There’s a bit of sass and backtalk, but it’s all good-natured. Suddenly Chef McDreamy is at my elbow. I notice he’s wearing a black elastic bandage on one wrist and that he has kindly eyes.
Khanna presents three small bowls of lentils, whispering, “This is the food closest to my heart.” I spoon the first—three-lentil shorba or soup—into my mouth. Flavored with fresh turmeric, cumin and cilantro, with a curry leaf floating on top, the velvety broth is pleasantly peppery and entirely delicious. Next I take a bite (and then many bites) of daal makani, creamy black lentils with ginger and roasted onions. By the time I get to the buttery yellow daal tadka, flavored with green garlic, cilantro, and cumin, I’m hooked. I like lentils, but have never understood, till now, the nature of the Indian addiction. These are amazing and I can’t stop eating them until I’ve scraped the bowls clean.
My whole body is aglow with the heat of the spices I’ve eaten. The line of least resistance would be to quench the flames with frozen cubes of kulfi, the dense, milky Indian ice cream—the pandan leaf has a peculiar, herbaceous flavor, but the cardamom is fantastic, its cool, aromatic flavor heightened by the cold cream. If you can swallow one more morsel, the buttery date pudding cake, doused in caramel, buttermilk ice cream on the side, is a sure winner.
Khanna walks me to the door. When I compliment his lentils, he smiles sweetly and puts his hands together over his heart.
Miraculously it’s raining outside.
3. Cut your hair short but chic. The next morning I almost fall asleep at Federic Fekkai, lulled by the low lights and the pleasure of letting wonder-boys Giovanni and Brooklyn tackle my overgrown locks. Scissors whirl, blonde streaks emerge, and three hours later, I’m a new person. Happy but a little perplexed. Who exactly is in the mirror?
Photo from http://www.artisanparfumeur.com/
This calls for retail therapy. Breezing down the stairs, I pause at L'Artisan Parfumeur where I plunk down an egregious amount of money for a burnished terracotta amber ball. Hand carved in France, it’s peppered with tiny holes which release the warm, golden fragrance of amber crystals hidden inside. As the aroma slowly swirls, I start drifting to another world, maybe the cool, misty hills of Darjeeling.
4. Losing your memory? Don’t sweat it.
Am I the only person who doesn’t have a 00 Philips screwdriver stashed in her Alexa bag? All things are possible in New York, so I haul my creaky laptop to the wunderkinds at Tekserve, where, I believe, a resident genius recovered all of Carrie’s disappeared files in an episode of Sex and the City. Two gigs memory, $129 installed, while you wait.
Excuse me? My hard drive is about to crash? And I need to update the operating system? And maybe I’ll loose all my photos? And the total cost will be…$479? Gulp.
As my great aunt Gertrude said, “They’re round. Let’em roll.” She spent all her pennies on matching head-to-toe outfits in lavender, yellow and red, plus the most fabulous collection of bizarre sunglasses ever. (She was a California girl, you see.) As for me, Apple seems to get it all.
5. Recover your senses at Il Laboratorio del Gelato.
I head to Ludlow Street to soothe my frazzled nerves with some ice cream from Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Only $4.50 for 2 scoops from a menu of over 140 inventive flavors (just 20 or so are offered on any given day). I could try obvious summer coolers like honey lavender or watermelon—but then I spy the holy grail: two kinds of peppercorn gelato. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to make pepper ice cream, or how many times I’ve thrown it out.)
White peppercorn is fiery hot, punctuated with small chunks of coarsely ground pepper, but pink peppercorn is a dreamy lick of cool cream infused with finely ground specks of sweet and hot pink peppercorns. Clearly gelato's lighter base is an idea I need to try.
The laboratorio is in the back, but you can watch what’s going on through the windows around the corner. Lots of unusual flavors here, from Thai chili chocolate to dinosaur plum and grapefruit campari. Just don’t fall for the flavorless dulce de leche. Whatever were they thinking?
6. Get Rid of Your Headache: Oysters at Balthazar
Way too many Ning Slings at the Salon de Ning last night. Lethal combo of lychee juice, orchids and romantic mist swirling outside the Penninsula's 23rd floor. But Serendipity has snagged a noon spot at Balthazar and our name is on a table in the corner. Just the sight of those big smoky mirrors, whirling ceiling fans and white tile floors makes me feel better.
I toss principles to the wind—eat local, only eat oysters in “R” months—and slurp half a dozen West Coast Kumamotos, tiny but plump and sweetly briny, on a bed of glittering ice and seaweed. Follow with the Balthazar Salad: Chopped romaine and radicchio with asparagus tips, haricots verts, avocado and a sliver of ricotta salata in a lemon zest-infused vinaigrette.
Is that a cool breeze I feel?
7. Seek out the illusion of coolness.
The new kid in town (one of them) is Brushstroke, a much-anticipated joint effort between David Bouley and Yoshiki Tsuji, head of a illustrious culinary academy in Osaka. All blond wood and granite countertops, the look is curiously bland. But check out the bar: the wavy sculptural walls are actually made of paperback books, a sort of drunkard’s library.
We have reservations at the counter where I order the Japanese Cucumber. More glacial elixir than cocktail, it’s a refreshing blend of vodka, muddled cucumber and fennel root, a splash of simple syrup and a few drops of lime. It’s all poured over big square ice cubes and, lest you forget what you’re drinking, garnished with a bit of unpeeled cuke and feathery fennel fronds.
We could get sushi in the bar, but here at the counter, our only choice is whether to have the 8 or 10 course kaisecki tasting menu. The Japanese are famed for cooking seasonally, never more so in the summer when coolness, real or illusory, distracts from the relentless heat. One of the strategies here is to play with small warm and cool dishes, creating gentle fluctuations of temperature and flavor.
To begin there’s seabass kobuime and field mustard with pickled plum sauce, a cold appetizer with layers of tangy/salty flavor and soft/crunchy textures. Next comes a warm, gossamer-light dumpling of scallop and sweet lobster in cherrystone clam broth that gets its luscious umami flavor from a floating tempura fried oyster mushroom.
And cool again: An ethereal sea urchin and asparagus terrine—jellied dashi (seaweed broth) atop chunks of sweet, tender green and white asparagus and cold, silky uni. A puddle of cauliflower puree is so smooth and creamy that it bears no resemblance to the cruciferous vegetable.
A nothing-special plate of black cod in sesame miso gives way to the surprising highlights of the menu. Rich, tender, smoky slices of grilled duck salad are paired with a chunk of Japanese eggplant cooked until soft and nearly translucent, a brilliant combination.
But the bird is eclipsed by unctuous stewed pork cheeks with green apple puree and an apple cider sauce. After the restraint of the earlier dishes, the pork’s fatty deliciousness is positively seductive, a reminder of just how fabulous salt and fat are together, especially with the contrast of sweet and tart fruit. “The chef is really excited by the meat, “ confides our waiter breathlessly. No kidding.
The only dud—bits of lobster steamed with rice, both boring and slightly repellent—was redeemed by the dessert: silken soy milk pannacotta. On the bottom, sweetened red beans; on top, a dollop of matcha green tea sauce and a flake of edible gold leaf. To the side, crisp rice paper wafers, sweetened and studded with pine nuts. Contrast rules.
Along the way, I’ve fallen in love with the uniquely different plates and bowls on which each course is served. These dishes, many of them rustic and hand thrown by a professor at the Tsuji Culinary Academy, may be for sale soon. Check Brushstroke’s site, once it gets up.
8. If All Else Fails, Leave Town
Dreaming of summer vacation in Granada? It’s cooler to go to the Bronx.
Here’s how you do it: Get up early so you can arrive at the New York Botanical Garden a little before the 10 AM opening. Pay your $20 and wander through the four-season gardens to the magnificent conservatory, where under a soaring glass roof, you can immerse yourself in Spanish Paradise: Gardens of the Alhambra, an “exhibit” curated by famed British garden guru, Penelope Hobhouse.
It’s only an evocation of the actual Alhambra, of course, but the 15,000 square foot space so perfectly captures key elements of the Islamic gardens that you feel as if you’ve time-tripped to the 14th century. Water, for instance. Burbling in fountains, spilling from basins, rippling down a narrow channel, its trickling sounds can alleviate the heat of sweltering summer days, a “trick” well known to the Moorish caliphs who once ruled southern Spain. The reflection of the glass ceiling in the water offers a transparent illusion of coolness.
Then there are the lush, Mediteranean plantings and the intoxicating fragrances I remember from our sojourn in Granada. Pale pink Eglantine roses are paired with fig trees, climbing jasmine with bitter orange. Neroli oil comes from rind of the citrus, while its acidic juice is used in cooking. There are cypress and palms, perfumed Damask roses, lavender, juicy pink lemons, and acanthus with flowering spikes seen in gardens all over Andalucia. In the “distance,” a view of arches and red-tiled roofs create the illusion that you might actually be in Spain.
Well, never mind. But before you return to the Bronx, wander the brick paths of the walled herb garden. It is as close to perfection as a small garden can be, and just standing there, looking at the boxwood parterres and standard bay trees, thinking about my own struggling tarragon and lemon thyme, I feel a big wave of dark green envy surging.
Of course, there’s always the shop. No they don’t sell those 6-foot bay standards, but look! There’s an Indian umbrella for your own garden, dangling brass hearts and other charms. I'll take the red one please, and send it right out.