Holiday shopping in urban Iowa – Des Moines’ East Village

If I stumbled upon Des Moines’ East Village in another city, I would be all over it, excitedly popping into one interesting shop after another but because this East Village is so nearby, I tend to take it for granted. Big mistake. I don’t shop there (or anywhere) often but when I do I always find something new and worthy, and visit several standbys that have withstood the test of time. So today’s visit was great. We were originally going only to Raygun, our favorite witty-snarky T-shirt shop, to buy gifts, but ended up wandering around on an unexpectedly balmy December day when more stores than usual were open, for a Sunday, due to the holidays.

At Allspice, I used up the gift certificate I received last Xmas, refilling my bottle of fig vinegar and buying a few spices and rubs as gifts. Then onto petal and moss, which was like entering a tiny jungle full of mossy plants (we bought an unusual orangish-pink poinsettia). And we finally tried a “Dirt Burger” at the restaurant of the same name, which specializes in veggie burgers. The dirt burger looked like a meat burger and sort of tasted like one. I liked it. Dirck, the unrepentant meat eater wasn’t quite as impressed. We both liked the crispy pencil-thin fries a lot and I would like to try other menu items. Certainly preferred the place to zombie Burger, which used to be our favorite burger spot in the East Village but during our last few visits we have been disappointed by the service and the food.

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Holiday shopping in rural Iowa – Earlham

We decided to spread our holiday shopping dollars around, beyond the Internet, and found a pleasant outing in the process. Earlham is a small town 30 miles west of Des Moines, with a still viable little downtown, about 2 blocks long and one block deep with well-preserved old one- and two-story brick buildings. There’s also some entrepreneurs, the two best known being RJ Home which used to be a vintage/salvage store and now is also gussied up as a gift shop with reasonably-priced ceramics, furniture and other housewares. It’s only open one three-day weekend per month except in December when it’s open two Friday-Saturday combos. (The last one in December is 10-11; check its website.) And there are two locations, south and north, one on each of the two blocks downtown.

Downtown Earlham, with a Christmas tree in the middle of the street

The other highlight is Beans and Beignets, a sweet coffee shop/cafe in a lovely old two-story redbrick corner shop. The coffee and beignets were good, as was the Cobb salad and chicken salad sandwich. It shares space with another little gift/home goods/floral shop. The breakfast and ice cream options looked good too.

We skipped the Interstate on the drive there and part of the way back, driving on backroads and sometimes dirt roads, past tidy old farmsteads, exurban mansions and, increasingly, burgeoning subdivisions rising from former cornfields.

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Gramercy Park, East Village, Dumpling Man, Surprise food trend— NYC

On day two of wandering in NYC, my favorite city activity, I set out for Fotografiska, the New York City outpost of the famous avant-garde photography museum I loved in Stockholm but the weather was walkable, despite a little wet snow, so I opted to neighborhood wander, this time through Gramercy Park, which I haven’t been to in years. Lovely old townhouses surrounding an elegant gated park. Reminded me of London. I ended up in the East Village where I found more empty storefronts than I’d seen in other neighborhoods, perhaps not surprising. But several little independent shops, including one full shop full of lovely Japanese paper products, have survived Covid, so far. Good to see. I had the six-piece sampler (seared) at Dumpling Man, a hole-in-the-wall spot on St. Mark’s Place, perhaps in the same spot where my London friend Anne had a gift shop, The House of Uncommons (geddit?) in the mid-1980s. (Francine, are you still reading?) My favorites were the shrimp (with corn) and the pork. The spinach-green veggie dumpling with a vague green tea flavor won the “most different” prize.

Do you know Dumpling Man?

In addition to dumplings, another perhaps more unlikely trend appears to be something familiar to Iowans or any visitor to the Iowa State Fair…

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Sona, Dominique Ansel, Nolita — NYC with Myra!

Monday was Myra Day, one of my favorite days in NYC (or anywhere else). We met at Grand Central, which looked a bit diminished without its annual holiday market and the Scandinavian food court, both presumably casualties of Covid, but the rest of the city was hopping with holiday cheer. We wandered through Soho and NoLita (north of Little Italy, east of Sogo, primo streets:Mott, Elizabeth), both pleasant backgrounds for our annual epic get-together. I returned to Dominique Ansel Bakery, this time for a light lunch (chicken salad with pistachios on a delicious croissant) and these crazy “milk shots,” little chocolate-lined “shot glasses” made of pastry dough, filled with milk. They got a bit soggy but were a delicious take on milk and cookies.

Masked at Grand Central

The holiday market was ON at Union Square, and full of good gift options, from Scandinavia hand towels to Turkish pottery to Ecuadorian scarves. Dinner was at the very chic Sona, a very different Indian restaurant on 23rd street, with different takes on traditional dishes (and much higher prices.) The butter chicken looked the most familiar and was delicious. The chicken korma was unrecognizable – three conical shaped fried dumplings in a shallow pool of creamy green -colored sauce, served with a cheese-filled naan reminiscent of a quesadilla. The best innovation was the saag paneer made with Swiss chard rather than the usual spinach. All served by attentive staff in stylish surrounds with tables that quickly filled with chic New Yorkers who apparently thought nothing of dropping considerable cash on fancy Indian food on a Monday night. I ❤️ NYC.

P.S.across the street from Sona: a popular new Italian restaurant called Rezdora.

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Wedding in Union Station, the Wolverine Amtrak to Detroit, the 3rd Coast , Chengdu impression, Pianto Pronto— Chicago

The first thing I saw when I entered Union Station around 12:30 pm on a Sunday was a bride, alone at the top of a white marble staircase, dressed in a sleeveless white dress, holding a bouquet and waiting expectantly. We exchanged smiles through our eyes since I was wearing a mask. This was not what I expected on the Wolverine Amtrak train from Chicago to Detroit (or in my case, Dearborn in suburban Detroit.) I’ve always wanted to ride this train. I love trains, so here I am. For five hours on a cold, grey, damp day with the occasional snow flake.

Very comfortable seats and all seats taken. My only complaint is very dirty window so it’s hard to see beyond it. Also makes a grey gloomy day even greyer and gloomier.

Indiana scene via Amtrak

Apparently for a fee, you can have your wedding photos taken in the grand lobby of Union station, which is what was happening when I arrived, and for a presumably higher fee, you can have your wedding there.

We didn’t do much of tourism note, beyond hang out with our grandsons and their parents. But we did have a good diner-type lunch/brunch (tuna melt, but, Greek omelette) at 3rd Coast, a somewhat hidden neighborhood hangout near my aunt’s on the Gold Coast that somehow I’ve never heard of in the 35 years or so that I have been visiting her.

We also had excellent takeout Szechwan Chinese food from Chengdu Impression, in Lincoln park (I think) which made me think of a friend who grew up in that city and still lives there so I sent her greetings and a photo of the restaurant via WhatsApp, which she got a kick out of. And we picked up a sandwich (dolce di Parma) to go Andersonville at Pianto Pronto

A highlight of our visit
The other highlight

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Rainbow Room, Central Synagogue, Little Island, Whitney Museum, High Line- NYC

If I lived in NYC, I might attend Shabbat services a lot more than I currently do…if said services were at the Central Synagogue on Lexington and 55th. There is so much singing, and live instrument playing, Broadway caliber, that I am truly transported. maybe not to God but somewhere otherworldly, especially in the magnificently ornate Moorish temple.

On little island

After my cousin’s bar mitzvah performance (bravo Casey) we had quite the party at The Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center, way up in the 65th floor where we posed for photos outside on the deck with the Empire State Building twinkling in the background. The place was sufficiently elegant inside with lots of fancy well-dressed New Yorkers and lively 13-year-olds. I danced the night away, often in the company of very energetic party motivators and by the end of the evening I could barely walk but it was worth it, I think.

After a little fika at the Swedish bakery, fabrique, (which we discovered years ago in Stockholm, lily and I visited the Stunning “little island“ off the west side Highway near the Whitney Museum. A lovely little well-landscaped oasis in the Hudson River with more incredible views of the downtown skyline, the Statue of Liberty and New Jersey. The Whitney’s Jasper John’s show was worth a visit but my favorite painting- with a broom wasn’t there. I really liked his US maps. We also. Handed upon a show by Jennifer Packer, that I really liked and a fun craft as art show, and then more glorious views from the various balconies of the Whitney, followed by a walk north along the High Line, always a favorite. The subway has a new pay option (or new to me) — you can pay by tapping your credit card or debit card rather than buying a MetroCard. Pretty dandy.

View from Whitney
Little island
At the Rainbow Room

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Train ride Up the Hudson, Salt Point, 13 Hands Equine rescue – glorious Dutchess County, NY

I’m on the Metro North Hudson Line train heading back to NYC after a quick but lovely and overdue visit with my old friends Merida and Chip. I’ve been visiting their charming 1840s farm house on a hill overlooking a rolling wooded valley for almost 40 years, lucky us.

The train trip is about 2 hours hugging the Hudson which looked stunning yesterday in the fall sunshine. I got off at the end of the line in Poughkeepsie and Merida picked me up and whisked me off to the country where we took long walks through the woods and pastures, past ponds and streams, tromping in the muddy grass in borrowed Wellies with two sweet white dogs who reminded me of my lab Millie. Chip took me over to visit the rescue horses at 13 Hands equine rescue center he volunteers at on a spectacular hillside overlooking a wooded valley with a sweet white farmhouse.

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No time for The Met when you need a Covid Test in NYC – lessons learned at MedRite Urgent Care (testing center)

Because I need proof of a negative Covid test (as well as proof of vaccination) in order to attend a family bar mitzvah here, my priority today was finding said test. Not hard but some tricks to it. The first two testing centers turned out to be private pay. One cost $250! I guess that’s to be expected in a well-heeled neighborhood (upper east side), sort of concierge Covid care. Not surprisingly, it was easy to get in, few customers.

But I opted for the much cheaper (I hope) insurance-pay option at one of many MedRite locations (mine was on Second avenue in mid 80s) although I’m not sure if my insurance will pay and like so often with health care, no one could give me an answer when I asked, “hey, what does this cost?”) I did gather it’s free for people without insurance. Damn right!

I had to fill out a few forms, wait about a half hour with about 6 other people in a spanking clean, large white-walled waiting room. The staff were pleasant and patiently answered my questions. The test took a few minutes and no long a-tip inserted way up toward my brain, just a little swirling around each nostril. I ended up getting the rapid test (a text with a negative result popped up on my phone about 15 minutes later) and the more accurate PCR test with results in 24-48 hours via a portal I had to join with a pin and password. Apparently I can check tomorrow morn. The bar mitzvah invitation stipulated that either a PCR within 72 hours of the event or a rapid antigen test within 48 hours were my options but it was tricky working it into my schedule, which included an overnight visit to see a friend in Dutchess county, which I didn’t want to spend searching for a Covid test in the countryside.) I got the PCR test results (negative) 24 hours later.

This adventure left me with no time to visit TheMet, as planned but no matter. I happily window shopped and people watched while strolling along Lexington and Madison avenues on a perfect sunny fall day. A late breakfast/lunch was had at Tal Bagels, at 81st and lex, which has a great selection of bagels, cream cheese spreads, plus tables outdoors and inside separated with plexiglas and a bathroom. My first stop, h &h bagels on 2nd had only counter service.

Celebrating my negative rapid antigen test, ny style at Tal bagels

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Dominique Ansel Bakery in soho, “flat knife noodles” in Chinatown – looking good NYC

So great to be back in NYC for the first time since the pandemic began. I expected the place to look more battered than it is given all it’s gone through but I sensed the same vitality on the streets as always. I did what I love doing best in this city (and several others with walkable successions of neighborhoods including San Francisco, New Orleans, London, Paris and Rome). I got off the subway at Prince Street (a shouting, shoeless street person in the car propelled me to depart…the city still has its problems) and wandered east and then south and then back north and a little west back to the 6 subway line at Union Square that leads back to my wonderful Aunt Shelby and her upper east side apartment where I am lucky to stay.

“Tasty hand-pulled Noodles” shop in Chinatown

I wandered up and down streets near soho (I think that’s where Elizabeth Street is), the lower east side (hello Russ and daughters deli, sadly the cafe was closed, maybe more limited hours due to the labor shortage caused by the pandemic?), Chinatown, Little Italy, soho, Greenwich village,/Washington Square (hello tons of kids in Halloween costumes) and Union square (hello Mutsu apples at the green market).

I can’t tell you which streets I walked on. A map of my movements would not look logical or like a route to anywhere. I like it that way. I chose streets that grab my attention with their potential for interesting window shopping or architecture-admiring. I did chance upon a tiny Chinatown street, Doyers street, that had almost turned into a pedestrian alley thanks to the dining huts now in the street (a pandemic feature) with tables and red plastic stools where people sat, slurping noodles, so I joined them. Reminded me of the street food stands in Vietnam but with higher tables and stools and this was Chinese noodles (I had flat “knife cut” noodles, flat and wide with sharp cut, also somewhat resembling the shape of a plastic knife…with shrimp and chicken. Very basic, fresh, starchy, filling.)

Pasties and masks in Soho, I think

At the southern end of soho, I think, on spring street, I found a bakery/cafe full of young people in a long line so I joined them, which turned out to be wise. Dominique Ansel knows her pastries. I particularly liked a crispy chewy pastry I first discovered in DC in May called kouign-amann ( “queen a-man”). Akin to a “caramelized croissant,” Kouign Amann is a Breton pastry with a crispy, caramelized crust. The bakery Aldo had pretty French macaroons,cronuts, sandwiches and fanciful creamy creations. My favorite was a pink bun (the top looked like a little beret) with a big blob of white cream in the middle dotted with big red blobs that looked like giant cut strawberries.)

A set from a Wes Anderson movie? Nope, real place in Chinatown on Doyers street.

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Plum Market, Zingerman’s, Papa Joes and now…Leo’s Coney Island – fine dining at the Detroit airport

With four hours to kill between puddle jump flights (Des Moines to Detroit, Detroit to Ithaca) we discovered all kinds of dining options to make a former a Michigan native and her Kansan happy. Leo’s was the latest discovery, a favorite in Royal Oak Michigan. During our outbound four hour layover, we tried both Papa Joes (perhaps the smaller of two outposts) and Plum Market/Zingerman’s (which had a much bigger but pricey selection, compared to Papa Joes).

The gift shop was also full of Michigan goodies from Cherry Republic to Sanders to Made in Detroit tees.

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