Thursday, February 14, 2013

Awesome Last-Minute Valentine's Day Experiences

On Valentine’s Day, many sweethearts pride themselves on ferretting out something truly creative to gift on this day of romance.  These are among the best that I've seen, but don't wait to book, as space is very limited.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore wants you to share Valentine’s Day evening with more than 16,000 animals.  One of the showpieces of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and a wonderful place to visit any day of the year, The Aquarium invites you to wander through its rooms of seahorses, jellyfish, sharks, and other swimming and land creatures, in between enjoying a buffet dinner and cocktails.  The price for the evening is $135 per couple ($95 if you’re a member of the National Aquarium).

National Aquarium, 501 East Pratt Street, Baltimore MD, 410.576.3800

Also taking the "dine with the animals" theme to heart, the Miami Seaquarium has created a “Dine with the Dolphins” evening for lovers.  For $398 per couple, you’ll enjoy a four-course candlelight dinner under the stars in the company of dolphins, overlooking the Seaquarium’s Dolphin Harbor.  His-and-her animal-lover gifts are included: two Sea Trek Reef Encounter (helmet diving experience in the park’s reef aquarium) and two Dolphin Odyssey (1 ½ hour in-the-water feeding, touching and dolphin learning experience) gift certificates (good for one year), plus two annual passes to the park for any visit through the end of the year.  Definitely a fantastic deal!

The Miami Seaquarium, 4400 Rickenbacker Causeway, Miami FL, 305.365.2501

Have you ever thought of your significant other as a budding starlet?  Indulge her dreams with Broadway Fantasy Camp’s “Chicago” Day in New York City. On April 13, your lady can become Velma for the day, learning the musical’s vocal and dance numbers from a professional director and choreographer.  The transformation continues with a professional headshot, lunch with fellow students and Broadway pros, and a meet-and-greet with Amra-Faye Wright, the current Velma on Broadway (as well as other surprise guests).  After an afternoon break, the “new star” will travel to the Ambassador Theater with a VIP ticket to “Chicago” and end the evening with champagne at Sardi’s, the consummate Broadway restaurant. Her rehearsal bag goes home with her, too.  Experiences like these don’t come cheap: the full-day experience is $995.  Call and mention that this is a Valentine’s Day gift for 10% off.

Broadway Fantasy Camp, 300 West 55th Street, New York NY, 212.713.0366

This one’s really last-minute, but you can still book it TODAY. The Conrad New York’s “Love Is in the Air Valentine’s Day Package” is a real dream for two.  You’re guaranteed to experience Manhattan like never before, with a private helicopter ride for two around Manhattan, accommodations in a riverview suite, and a three-course dinner for two at the hotel’s Atrio restaurant.  A Valentine’s Day Flirtini cocktail is included.  And, if that’s not enough, your suite will be decked out with a beautiful floral arrangement from BLOOM to admire while savoring French macarons from Payard Bakery and sipping your choice of wine or champagne from Vintry Fine Wines.  New Yorkers or out-of-towners, jump on this special now.  It’s too wonderful to pass up.  All inclusions mentioned here are available on February 14, but the package can be extended beyond.  Prices start at $1799 per person.

Conrad Hotel, 102 North End Avenue, New York NY, 212.945.0100

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sledding in New York City: Grab Your Flexible Flyers and Snow Tubes

Another day of weather alerts has us salivating for great sledding in New York City. The city's parks offer some of the best from Central Park and Riverside Park in Manhattan to Prospect Park in Brooklyn and pretty much all of Riverdale in the Bronx.  If the snow sticks and it isn't too wet, I'll be at either Cedar Hill or Pilgrim Hill.  Here are some other great spots to choose from that might be closer to you, especially since mass transit is a bit slow today, train service has been cancelled, and many streets are closed.  Don't forget to bring your cross-country skis as well.  You never know.

Here’s where to find some snow sports action in New York City:

Central Park on the East Side and Riverside Park on the West Side are the destinations of choice for snow action:
Cedar Hill - Central Park
  • Cedar Hill in Central Park on the Upper East Side (Fifth Avenue between 76th and 79th streets)- my favorite despite the throngs
  • Pilgrim Hill in Central Park on the Upper East Side  (Fifth Avenue and 72nd Street) – my other favorite, also crowded
  • Near the Metropolitan Museum on the Upper East Side (Central Park, Fifth Avenue and 81st Street) – gentler slope that’s great for little kids (behind the Ancient Playground)
  • Riverside Park on the Upper West Side, Riverside Drive at 103rd Street – for adults and kids alike
  • Riverside Park on the Upper West Side, Riverside Drive at 91st Street – much scarier; not recommended for children
  • Fort Greene Park – steepest area is at the back part of the hill leading down to Myrtle Avenue; smallest hill is near Willoughby entrance of Myrtle Avenue.
  • Prospect Park has many choices:
    • 9th Street and Prospect Park West, a good downhill run
    • The Nethermead, rolling hills in the Picnic House area
    • The Long Meadow Slope—Tennis House Area in Prospect Park
    • Vanderbilt Playground – off of Prospect Park Southwest
  • Bay Ridge – Owl’s Head Park at Colonial Road and 68th Street.  Hill is at Shore Road and 97th Street.
  • Sunset Park (enter at 41st/44th Street and 5th Avenue.  Great views of the State of Liberty, too)
  • Owl’s Head Park in Bay Ridge (at Shore Parkway, Shore Road, Colonial Road and 68 Street)
  • Brooklyn Heights’ dog park by Harry Chapin Playground
  • Clumber Corner in DUMBO near the BQE and Washington Street
  • Forest Park – sledding is popular on the golf course with its three hills and at the Mary Whale Playground at 79th St and Park Lane
  • Juniper Valley Park at 75th Street and Lower Highland Park
  • Clove Lake Park – a family destination, Martling Avenue at Slosson Avenue
  • Dead Man's Hill in Silver Lake Park
  • Ewen Park – a steep hill with the added benefit of stairs to climb back up, Riverdale Avenue at 231st Street
  • Van Cortland Park – Also in Riverdale, shallow hills but lots of area
  • Yet another Riverdale spot, Henry Hudson Memorial Park that will challenge you with its drops straight down to the Hudson River.  Kappock Street near Palisade Avenue
  • Crotona Park at Fulton Ave between Crotona Park North and 172nd Street – a great area for kids of all ages

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Where to Celebrate Valentine's Day Around the US (Outside of New York City)

With Valentine’s Day just around the bend, there are lots of interesting dining and travel-related experiences that make wonderful gifts for your sweetie.  Today I begin a series of some of the most intriguing "dates" that I’ve found, starting with ones outside of New York City.  I’d love to know your thoughts.

If you plan to be in the U.S. for Valentine’s Day (but not in New York City), take a look at these that are certain to wow:

Las Vegas

How about a twist on the usual Afternoon Tea found at many upscale hotels?  The Mandarin Oriental Tea Lounge in Las Vegas adds a romantic touch with their Valentine Afternoon Tea.  Heart-shaped, house-made gourmet chocolates finish off the sweets selection.  $45 per person.  3752 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, 702-590-8882.


Courtesy of The St. Regis Atlanta
Sit at the bar at the St.Regis for a special Valentine’s Day “Pink of Perfection” cocktail.  It’s available all February (a nice touch – Valentine’s month), and is one part tequila, ½ part simple syrup, 3 dashes orange blossom water, with fresh lime juice and soda.  What gives it its name?  The pink rose petals that sit on top.  You can increase the aphrodisiac quotient with the Oysters and Caviar Pearls special, a sensual combination of tempura oyster frites and osetra caviar sabayon created by Executive Chef Joseph Trevino, paired with Heidseck Champagne.  88 West Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta, 404.563.7900.

San Francisco

Maybe San Francisco should really be the city called “Sin City.”  Check out this two-day Valentine’s Day special being offered at MoMo’s restaurant on February 14 and 15.  With Valentine’s Day offerings on two back-to-back days, GM Paul Cardinale has you covered if you forgot Valentine’s Day on the 14th or if you need to come with two special someones on separate days.  No matter what, he’ll make sure you’re taken care of with complimentary roses, chocolate and champagne.  760 2nd Street, San Francisco, CA, 415.227.8660.

Washington, DC

Blue Duck Tavern
True to its nature, the Blue Duck Tavern isn’t offering any frills or gimmicks for Valentine’s Day, just a terrific regionally focused menu.  Featuring local artisans and farmers, Executive Chef Sebastien Archambault and Chef de Cuisine John Melfi have created a four-course prix fixe menu with swoon-inducing dishes like seared foie gras with warm carrot cake, candied walnuts and carrot juice reduction; poached lobster open ravioli; and a wood-oven fired dry-aged ribeye.  To finish? A decadent chocolate ganache hazelnut cake with Giorttines cherries and cocoa sorbet, a perfect finish with a glass of red wine or port. 1201 24th Street NW, Washington DC, 202.419.6755.

On the other hand, BelgaCafé is all about getting into the spirit of the day with love-themed cocktails and desserts.  Try the “Love Potion” with chocolate vodka, framboise crème liqueur, port, and sweet cream; or a “Sparkling Love” of cava and pomegranate liqueur to set the mood.  Then tuck into a “Peck on the Cheek” with nude oysters, followed by a “First Kiss” of scallops with cupid’s asparagus arrows and love dust.  Two entrée choices follow, and all is consummated with a “Good Night Kiss,” made of Belgian chocolate passion with other sweet ingredients, of course!  514 8th Street SE, Washington DC, 202.544.0100.

Los Angeles

Susan Feniger in 80s Wig

Music inspirations pair with food at the super-creative 80s Mixed Tape menu at Susan Feniger’s STREET in Hollywood.   

With four courses named and inspired by chefs Susan Feniger and Kajsa Alger’s favorite tunes, this restaurant tops the list for originality:  First Course – Cyndi Lobster (pot stickers), Pet Chop Boys with Duranch Duranch Dressing (salad), Morri-Sea (oysters on the half shell); Second Course – U2na Tartar (sashimi), Spamdau Ballet (homemade “spam” with caviar and egg), YAM! (yam tempura); Third Course – Def Peppered (ribeye steak), Bao Wow Wow (steamed bun), Soy George (pot pie); and Fourth Course – Choco Kahn (chocolate torte), Violet Femmes (baklava), Chile Vanilla (cookies).  Each of these fun choices has a long list of ingredients beyond the base listed here; you’ll have to visit yourself to get the full experience of STREET’s global food combinations.  The prix fixe dinner is $65, and vegan choices are included.  Just like the title of Feniger's new book, the dishes are “crispy, creamy, crunchy, spicy, sticky, and sweet.” 742 N. Highland Avenue, Los Angeles, 323.203.0500.

Cyndi Lobster potstickers at STREET


Valentine's Day Dessert at bistro 24, Ritz-Carlton, Phoenix

Piano music and romance set the tone for bistro 24’s Valentine’s Day menu at the Ritz-Carlton, Phoenix.  The emphasis here is on curating elements from different regions of the United States, elements that are not typically prepared together.  On Sous Chef Matthew Ludwig’s special four-course prix fixe menu you’ll find enough aphrodisiacal treats to set your evening in motion from oysters and caviar to chocolate and passionfruit.  The dinner and entertainment evening is a bargain at $79 per person, with Nicole Pesce on the piano all night long.  2401 East Camelback Road, Phoenix, AZ, 602.468.0700.


You and your sweetie can learn how to make a wonderful Valentine’s Day meal at Mercadito Chicago with Chef Patricio Sandoval showing off his favorite romantic dishes.  An interactive experience for couples, this Valentine’s Day Cooking Demo will be held twice on Valentine’s Day, from 5:30-8pm and 8:30-11pm. Plan to come hungry (and thirsty): you’ll enjoy  these fabulous dishes as well as special cocktails for $75 per guest. 108 W. Kinzie Street, Chicago, 312.329.9555.

Chicago warrants a second entry here, with this humorous Valentine’s Day evening event.  At Hoyt’s restaurant at Hotel 71, you can win prizes galore.  Draw a Valentine from a heart-shaped fishbowl for a discount on your bill or free drinks for the evening, or, better still, a month-long “happy hour” with 50% off all drinks in February.  Feeling really creative (or really stupid)?  Submit your worst Valentine’s Day stories for a chance to win a one-night stay at Hotel 71 with a bottle of champagne.  The contest is appropriately named, “Stupid Cupid.” 71 East Wacker Drive, Chicago, 312.346.9870.

Lockwood Restaurant at Palmer House
Looking for something more luxe?  Lockwood Restaurant at the gorgeous Palmer House Hilton has two tasting menus that border on orgasmic with multi-ingredient dishes like lobster and truffle with truffle custard, poached lobster and lobster cream; a pre-dessert of Bertha’s brownie Sunday lollipop; and the raspberry passion dessert made with rhubarb, olive cake and guava sorbet.  Prices range from $120 ($145 with wine pairings) to $155 ($180 with wine).  17 East Monroe Street, Chicago, 312.917.3404.


After all this eating and drinking, you’re going need to chill out, right? I had to include one special Valentine’s spa experience.  The Valentine’s weekend special at the Hotel Halekulani is just for couples: for $390 for both of you, you’ll enjoy champagne by candlelight in the Jacuzzi in the SpaSuite, a side-by-side couples’ massage, tea and fruit on a private terrace, and a special gift. 2199 Kalia Road, Honolulu, HI, 808.931.5322.    

Sunday, February 3, 2013

New Orleans and New York City: Hurricane Survivors and Mardi Gras Revelers

My First Mardi Gras (that's me on the right!)
My First Mardi Gras Krewe
New Orleans and New York City have a special connection this year: they’re both hurricane victims (and survivors) as well as Mardi Gras fans.  Neither Katrina nor Sandy can dampen the spirit of these two great cities, and the upcoming Mardi Gras celebrations in each testify to our strength in the aftermath of adversity.  For New Orleans information, parade routes, and other useful information, visit for everything you need to know (except for securing accommodations and air tickets).   I’m especially partial to the Zulu krewe – these pictures were from when I attended way back when….

Mardi Gras Revelers (nope, I wasn't at this one)

For some ideas on ways to celebrate in New York City, keep on reading.

Village Pourhouse – I love the trinkets, foods, and beads you get when you go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  Village Pourhouse’s Fat Tuesday Party won’t disappoint me, with Hurricanes in commemorative cups, beads, and a fun array of activities, foods and drink.  You can stuff your face in a crawfish-eating competition, dance all night to zydeco music, and, of course, party like you’re in New Orleans.  Or, you can simply hide by wearing decorative masks all night long.  There are two prices for this event: $25 to enter and enjoy a Hurricane with a take-home Mardi Gras cup, or the $40 splurge with gets you into the party and two hours’ of open bar with the souvenir cup as well.  7pm until…..  Buy your tickets now!
64 Third Avenue (at 11th Street), Manhattan, (212) 979-2337.
City Grit – Celebrate Fat Tuesday with new friends and great food at the city’s dinner event series, hosted by one of “America’s Greatest New Cooks” according to Food & Wine, Sarah Simmons.  Set in a culinary salon in Nolita, the gathering of like-minded foodies and New Orleans celebrants will indulge in a dinner worthy of any of New Orleans’ acclaimed chefs.  Po’boys, etouffé, gumbo and biscuit beignets await along with beads… you didn’t think they’d forget about those, did you?  Reservations are required and there’s always a waiting list, so don’t wait.  $65 per person, drinks additional, 7:30 pm, 
38 Prince Street (between Mott and Mulberry streets, Manhattan, (646) 580-5720

Teddy’s Bar and Grill – You might remember this Victorian pub from Boardwalk Empire and other TV shows.  The 125-year old Brooklyn pourhouse holds what Time Out New Time Out New York calls “the best Mardi Gras party in the East,” on Tuesday night.  George Kilby Jr.’s Mardi Gras Review will set the tone for the evening with performances by his own blues band and music by local fave DJ Strafe.  The menu is as spicy as the music with Sazerac cocktails to keep the moves flowing.  Reservations are strongly recommended.  8pm.
Jimmy's No. 43 Does Mardi Gras Right!
96 Berry Street (corner of North 8th), Brooklyn, (718) 384-0787
Jimmy’s No. 43 – This is another crowd-pleaser, the annual prix-fixe NOLA Mardi Gras dinner event at Jimmy’s No. 43.  Five courses await diners including such New Orleans inspirations as baked oysters with creole aioli, BBQ shrimp, shrimp and grits, crayfish gumbo, and flaming bananas foster for dessert.  As Jimmy’s is dedicated to the promotion of craft beer, the selection for the evening will be interesting and appropriate, with each course paired with French and Quebec beers.  Wine is also available.  Tickets are required, 7-9pm.  $45 (excluding tax and tip).
43 East 7th Street (near 2nd Avenue), Manhattan, (212) 982-3006

Le Poisson Rouge – A five-hour entertainment and dinner extravaganza to benefit for the Lower Eastside Girls Club, The Two Boots Mardi Gras Ball, hosted by Rosario Dawson, offers a line-up of musicians and performers to keep you rocking all night.  What would Mardi Gras be without body painting, stilt walkers, and comedy to pepper the evening?  And, did I mention:  Cyndi Lauper is performing along with a line-up of 10 brass, funk, gospel, and hip hop artists including the Middle Church Choir and PitchBlak Brass Band.  The $125 VIP ticket price covers all entertainment, unlimited food and drink, and seating in the VIP section.  General admission is also offered for $25.  7pm-midnight. Ticket information.
158 Bleecker, Street, Manhattan, (212) 505-3474

Friday, February 1, 2013

Big Day for New York City News: Mayor Koch, Grand Central and Water Main Break

Grand Central turned 100 years old today with a mega-birthday party lasting all day, former Mayor Ed Koch passed away, and there was a huge water main break at 23rd Street and 5th Avenue which flooded out the subway station on the N, R line.  I'm not sure how to feel about today.  Watch this amazing video of the subway flood.