Wednesday
May122004

Fulton Street Transit Center

The MTA has posted the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Fulton Street Transit Center (FSTC). This is one of the major transit projects receiving Federal funding as part of the post-9/11 aid package.

The FSTC is a massive reconstruction of the Fulton-Broadway-Nassau station complex, the 9th busiest in the subway system, where the Broadway (2,3), Lexington (4,5), Eighth Avenue (A,C) and Nassau St (J,M,Z) Lines meet. It was originally four separate stations, constructed early in the 20th century by three competing companies that had no interest in working together. Free transfers between the lines were added when the city took over the entire subway system at mid-century, but the design of the complex was never rationalized. It is a bewildering array of ramps and staircases, with dozens of entrances, many of which are poorly located and far too narrow to accommodate peak passenger loads.

As part of this project:

  • The 2/3 and 4/5 stations, which are basically unchanged since they were built in the early 1900s, will be rehabilitated.
  • The A/C mezzanine will be totally rebuilt, eliminating a confusing series of ramps, and improving connections to the 2/3 and 4/5.
  • The whole station complex will become ADA compliant.
  • There will be a new "grand point of entry" on the east side of Broadway, between Fulton and John Streets. Five buildings on that block will be demolished, with only the historic Corbin Building (on the corner of John and Broadway) surviving.
  • There will be new entrances Broadway and Maiden Lane. The entrances on the west side of Broadway will be totally rebuilt, including a new headhouse at the corner of Dey and Broadway (with the low-rise building on the south corner of that intersection demolished). Most other entrances will be widened and made more accessible.
  • There will be a new underground passageway along Dey Street, connecting the complex to the World Trade Center.
  • There will be a new free transfer between the N/R and the E at the World Trade Center.

     

    The MTA considered ten alternatives, of which two will receive further analysis in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) later this year. The two surviving alternatives differ mainly in how they deal with the Corbin Building at the corner of John and Broadway. In one alternative, the Corbin Building is untouched; in the other, the Corbin building is acquired as part of the project, and integrated into the new entrance building along Broadway. The description in the DEIS strongly suggests that the MTA prefers this latter option.

    Construction is set to start in late 2004, with completion in 2007.

  • Wednesday
    May122004

    Clueless Chowhounds

    There are two online food boards that I follow regularly: eGullet and Chowhound. Both have discussion forums organized by geography. You’ll find eGullet’s New York board here, and you’ll find Chowhound’s Manhattan board here. (Chowhound management tosses a hissy fit if you mention Peter Luger on their Manhattan board, even though Luger is economically part of the Manhattan market. They insist it belongs on an “outer borough” board.)

    eGullet is superior to Chowhound in almost every respect. It has a more intuitive user interface, it is easier to find things, and the average post is considerably more sophisticated. This is not to deny that you sometimes find useful comments on Chowhound - otherwise I wouldn’t bother to read it - but they’re fewer and far between.

    I am particularly amused by clueless Chowhound posts like this one yesterday:

    Looking for recommendations for good eats (dinner) in the West 50’s. Scene/buzz/beautiful people _not_ of interest; just wonderful eats.

    All cuisines are in the ballpark except for Mexican and Indian (thanks to spice allergy).

    Now, there are hundreds of restaurants in the West 50s. Menupages lists 274 of them, and of course not all restaurants are on Menupages. So to ask for “good eats” in the West 50s, with the only requirement that it not be Mexican or Indian, is an idiotic question. I mean, I’m pretty tolerant of those who are intellectually challenged, but this is just not a thoughtful question. And there are a few howlers like this on Chowhound’s Manhattan board almost every day.

    And am I the only one who finds the ridiculous word “eats” totally unnecessary? I’m alright with “foodie” (another recurring word on these boards), as there is no other word of comparable length that conveys the same meaning. It is, in other words, a useful addition to the language. But “eats” merely means “food,” as far as I can tell, and both are four letters.

    Wednesday
    May052004

    Lower Manhattan Projects Advance

    It has been a busy week for the Lower Manhattan rebuilding program. In a speech today before the Association before a Better New York, Governor Pataki gave his semi-annual report on progress downtown. As usual, he took the occasion to make a bit of news:

    • Freedom Tower. Construction of the 1,776-foot skyscraper will begin on July 4, 2004, about two months earlier than previously announced.
    • The Memorial. Schematic drawings will be completed by the end of 2004 and detailed drawings by the end of 2005, with construction to begin by 2006. Some $350 million will need to be raised to pay for it. Major League Baseball got the ball rolling with a $1 million contribution.
    • Fulton Street Transit Center. Design of the new transit hub that will link 12 subway lines at the corner of Fulton & Broadway will be unveiled on May 26, 2004.
    • Deutsche Bank Building. Demolition of the crippled shell that was once Deutsche Bank's (and, before that, Bankers Trust's) downtown headquarters will begin in the fall and be completed in 2005.
    • West Street Promenade. The project intended to turn West Street into New York's version of the Champs-Elysee will begin in September, and the first section - from Washington Street to West Thames Street - will be complete by the end of 2005.
    • South Ferry Terminal. A new subway terminal at South Ferry has completed initial design and should open by 2007. The project will replace an antiquated subway station dating from 1905, and will also provide a new free transfer to the Whitehall Street Station on the Broadway Line.
    • Battery Park Ferry Terminal. Construction on a new Battery Park City Ferry Terminal has begun, with completion scheduled for 2006.

     

    Pataki also elaborated on plans leaked to the press earlier in the week for a JFK-LIRR-Lower Manhattan Rail Link. The Governor favors a new East River tunnel, which (along with infrastructure on either side of the river) would cost at least $6.0 billon. No one yet knows where such a vast sum would come from, but Pataki pledged to begin the environmental review process this summer, and to find the money somehow before that process is completed. The study will also consider using the existing Montague Street Tunnel, which serves M and R trains today, but has some spare capacity. The Montague option, although less expensive, would severely constrict the subway system's capacity to grow or adapt to service outages.

    The Governor believes the new tunnel could be operational by 2013. He says it would carry 100,000 passengers a day and would result in an increased economic output of $6 to 8 billion annually in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, and as much as $9 to 12 billion in the region as a whole. You can expect that there will be plenty of skeptics wondering where those figures come from.

    Tuesday
    May042004

    Famous Oyster Bar

    Note: In January 2014, Famous Oyster Bar closed after 55 years in business, after it lost its lease.

    *

    Last night, a friend visiting from out of town invited me to join him for dinner in midtown. Restaurant plans were loose, and I cringed when he suggested the Famous Oyster Bar. The neon “Seafood” sign suggested it catered to tourists who are looking for something a bit better than Red Lobster. I’m sure the clientele is nearly all walk-ins staying at hotels like the Sheraton and the Milford Plaza.

    The restaurant has been there since 1959, and it probably hasn’t had a renovation since then. Not even Zagat has noticed it. The décor is a trite assemblage of maritime detritus (a life preserver, an oar, etc.). The laminated menus are worn and and frayed, with a predictable offering of steaks, seafood, pasta fra diavolo, frutta di mare, clam chowder, and so forth. When you’ve finished your diet coke, the server brings an iced tea refill (that is, when she manages to notice you need one).

    There are specials written on a board, and it is here that the Famous Oyster Bar comes alive. A whole trout stuffed with crabmeat was a pleasant surprise, crisp on the outside, and succulently moist inside. This was an entrée that actually required some thought, and they managed to get it right. My friend ordered soft-shell crabs and was also pleased.

    We both had clam chowder to start; although unremarkable, it was a bargain at $3.95 for a cup. The seafood entrées were generally in the $19-23 range. The bill for two came to $82 (with only one of us drinking alcohol).

    I’m willing to try anything once, and the Famous Oyster Bar managed to exceed expectations. It helps to have expected nothing.

    Famous Oyster Bar (842 Seventh Ave at 54th Street, West Midtown)

    Food: *
    Service: Satisfactory
    Ambiance: Fair
    Overall: *

    Tuesday
    May042004

    Silverstein's Loss is Lower Manhattan's Gain

    Yesterday, developer Larry A. Silverstein lost yet another battle to collect a double insurance payment for the loss of the World Trade Center towers. Silverstein, who signed a lease for the property six fateful weeks before 9/11, argued that each airplane attack was a "separate occurrence," entitling him to a double recovery. Had that argument prevailed, Silvertstein would have been entitled to a whopping $7.0 billion payout, which he would have used to erect a glut of office space in Lower Manhattan.

    The property was covered by a consortium of insurers, and the dispute has turned on which of two coverage forms, or "binders," was in effect on 9/11. It's a complex skein to unravel, because Silverstein negotiated with many insurers simultateously, and each one might have had a different understanding of what they were agreeing to cover. But one after another, courts and juries have held that Silverstein's insurance treated 9/11 as a single event.

    There are still a few insurers for which the issue has yet to be decided, but even if Silverstein wins every remaining battle--which is highly unlikely given his track record thus far--the most he could collect is $4.68 billion. However, he has aleady collected $1.9 billion, of which $1.6 billion has gone to legal fees and rent payments.

    The bottom line is that there will be far less insurance money to rebuild the World Trade Center than Silverstein and the Port Authority had expected. While that's undoubtedly bad news for Silverstein, it's good news for the city. As it is, Silverstein has two massive projects underway at the site: 7 World Trade Center (already under construction) and the 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower (to be started shortly). Neither has attracted a principal tenant. The last thing we need is for Silverstein to continue this glut of construction, as he had every intention of doing, despite the clear lack of appreciable demand.

    Silverstein swears that he will continue to rebuld anyway, up to the 10 million square feet of commercial space he controlled previously. But no bank will lend Silverstein the money for more office towers until it's demonstrated he can fill them, and for the foreseeable future that seems highly unlikely.

    Last year, the Port Authority bought out Westfield America, who had held the lease on the retail mall at the Trade Center. Westfield was balking at plans to build street-level retail, preferring to duplicate the subterranean mall that was on the site before 9/11. Getting rid of Westfield simplified matters for everybody. With Silverstein now losing money hand over fist in lease payments to the Port Authority, and with no chance of him rebuilding all of the lost space anytime soon, Silverstein becomes increasingly irrelevant.

    I wouldn't be surprised to see him out of the picture, or with his influence severely curtailed, by year's end.

    Friday
    Apr302004

    Edinburgh Dining Journal

    Scotland is cool. Scotland is hip. Major food magazines are discovering Scotland, as well they should. You can eat like a king in Scotland, and the scenery ain’t bad either.

    By way of background, I’ve been working off-and-on in Edinburgh for the last ten months. For much of last year, I was there three weeks out of every four. Lately, it’s one week out of four. I’ve eaten in dozens of different restaurants, and on each trip I sample at least one place I haven’t been before. This week, I took in three restaurants that were new to me.

     


    Oloroso (33 Castle Street), which is only about two years old, won Tony Singh “Scottish Restaurant Chef of The Year” in 2003. The website observes:

    Oloroso, which is Spanish for aromatic and is also a style of sherry, occupies a key top floor corner site on Edinburgh’s bustling George Street. Due to its unique position, the large roof terrace provides stunning views across both the Firth of Forth and Edinburgh Castle.

    The décor is modern, sleek, and spare. As there is no street entrance, Oloroso’s foot traffic is probably next to none. Nevertheless, it was comfortably full on my Monday night visit, so the word has gotten out. Note that the lifts go only to the third floor, so you need to be able to climb a flight of stairs.

    Until Oloroso, I had found only two types of fine dining experiences in Edinburgh: Scottish and French (or some mixture of the two). Singh finds his own way, and this alone makes Oloroso worth a visit. A few of the dishes have an obvious Indian inspiration, but it is not an Indian restaurant. I ordered crawfish and asparagus risotto to start, followed by filet of ostrich. If you haven’t had ostrich, it’s a red mea tasting somewhat like venison. It came with a tangy dipping sauce, which is perhaps a nod to Singh’s Indian roots.

    The menu changes daily, with most appetizers priced around £7 and most mains around £17. There is also a grill menu offering several cuts of Scottish beef. My dinner, with one drink and without wine, came to £31, including tip. To sample the work of a fine chef like Singh, this is an extraordinary bargain, and there seems to be no other restaurant in Edinburgh quite like it. Oloroso is definitely worth a look, both for the food and the scenery.

     


    Edinburgh has just two Michelin star restaurants: Number One, in the basement of the Balmoral Hotel, and Martin Wishart, at 54 The Shore in the port district of Leith. I’ve been to Number One several times, but Tuesday was my first trip to Martin Wishart.

    While Wishart’s food may be comparable to Jeff Bland’s at Number One, the surroundings most assuredly are not. Enter Number One’s basement location, and you are instantly transported. In Wishart’s storefront on a busy street, the food must compete with noisy distractions.

    Martin Wishart’s mission is to persuade you to order one of the tasting menus. The five-course tasting menu is priced at £48. (There is also a six-course menu.) Order an appetizer and main course a la carte, and it will set you back about £40 before dessert, so you might as well take the tasting menu. The waitstaff hints disingenuously that Wishart sometimes throws surprises into the tasting menu, but in fact everything they served was available a la carte. I compared notes with some colleagues who’d been to Wishart’s recently, and they had the same experience of “surprises” hinted at, but not delivered.

    Every course arrives with an essay-length oration about what you are eating. Nothing at Martin Wishart is simple. The amuse-bouche was four tasty bites, all different, arranged like an art sculpture. Amusing indeed, but I forgot the essay and had no idea what they were. A starter of asparagus and tiny strings of calimari failed to impress, but the next three courses were all winners: rabbit terrine, monkfish over a mackerel puree, and duck (marinated for two days, we’re told). All of these came with similar essay-length descriptions that I cannot recall. The meal ended with a “pre-dessert” (some kind of yogurt confection) and a small dessert course (cherries, pistachio ice cream, and something else from the bakery oven that tasted absolutely heavenly).

    As with most tasting menus at restaurants like Wishart’s, the sommelier will happily recommend a different wine for each course, but that’s more wine than I can take on a work night, or indeed on most any night, after I’ve already had a pre-dinner cocktail. He did recommend a sensible glass of white to go with the first part of the meal, and a côte du rhone to go with the end of it.

    All of this cost about £71 for one, including tip.

     


    I have seldom found a truly impressive steak in Britain, but I keep trying to find one. The search has ended. Champany Inn cannot be bettered. Located in the town of Linlithgow, Champany is about 30 minutes’ drive from Central Edinburgh. It’s run by a husband and wife team, Clive and Anne Davidson. Anne is visible all evening long, while Clive heads the kitchen.

    This quote is from the website:

    The buildings at Champany Corner that now make up Champany Inn, date from the 16th Century and the time of Mary, Queen of Scots. These buildings now house sixteen luxury bedrooms, the Main Dining Room specialising in Aberdeen Angus beef and Shetland Salmon and our award winning cellar which has been voted the Best in Britain on two occasions. The smaller Chop and Ale House offers bistro style meals and serves probably the best hamburger in Britain.

    The ill-defined Michelin ratings claim that one star is “worth a stop,” two stars is “worth a detour,” and three stars is “worth a trip.” By this definition, Champanys is a two-star experience. It is without doubt worth a detour, and indeed a very significant one. Given that it is located in the middle of nowhere, many have obviously found it worth a trip on its own. This is the most memorable meal I have had in Edinburgh, and I have had plenty of very good ones.

    The restaurant will happily offer you a choice from any number of non-beef dishes, such as duck, salmon, langoustines, or lobster. But beef is Champany’s raison d’etre, and it’s beef that all four in our party had. Three of us chose the porterhouse, one the sirloin. Champany’s offers a variety of cuts, including stip loin, ribeye, Pope’s eye (ever heard of that), or chateaubriand. Whichever you choose, you get a thick, hearty piece of meat cooked to perfection. The website explains:

    Clive Davidson is proud of his meat. He selects his beef from herds of prime cattle grazing off acres of lush Aberdeenshire countryside. The carcasses are hung for a full three weeks during which all the succulent flavours that have made Scottish beef such an internationally renowned delicacy, are held and matured.

    Before placing on the grill the beef is first dipped into an exclusive sauce created specially by Clive for sealing the meat so that none of the precious flavours escape. As he explained, “All steaks should be sealed before grilling, and you can do this quite simply by sprinkling them with brown sugar. Once on the grill this will caramelise, sealing the meat and encouraging the outer flesh to cook quickly while the inside remains pink and moist”. However, Clive’s secret recipe for his sauce contains other special ingredients that will enhance still further the flavours of the naturally tender meat.

    Starters are similarly impressive. Champany’s smokes its own salmon. Served hot, with hollandaise sauce, the taste is exquisite. As at many steakhouses, portions are enormous. This so-called “starter” could have been a main course at many restaurants. Quoting the website again:

    Words almost fail me to describe the subtle excellence of the hot smoked salmon. Fleshy and succulent, it can be cut with a fork which breaks it into pungent morsels of sublime Scottish salmon warm and aromatic with a surprisingly gentle woody bouquet.

    Champany’s is elegantly decorated, with its oak panel dining room and candle-lit tables. Service is luxurious. To go with the ample wine list previously mentioned, Champany’s has an impressive selection of liqeurs, aperitifs, and single malt whiskys. They even distil their own cognac (while of course offering many others), which we found surprisingly good.

    Dinner for four, including before and after-dinner drinks, appetizers, steaks, side dishes, and two bottes of modestly-priced wine, ran to £370.

    Friday
    Apr232004

    Marc on Landmarc

    Note: For a more recent review of Landmarc in TriBeCa, click here. For a review of Landmarc at the Time-Warner Center, click here.

    Landmarc is the latest cool restaurant in TriBeCa, a neighborhood that already has plenty of them. It’s named for chef-owner Marc Murphy, who cut his teeth at Le Cirque, La Fourchette, Layla, and Cellar in the Sky, among other places. Landmarc has more humble aspirations than these temples of haute cuisine. It has the feel of a neighborhood hangout, with exposed brick walls and waitstaff in black t-shirts. The menu offers a range of French, Italian, and plain old American comfort food.

    I ambled into Landmarc today for lunch. It was about 1pm, and the restaurant was around 1/3rd full. It actually got a tad busier by the time I left, but the downstairs was still well under 1/2 full. I took a look upstairs, where only two or three tables were occupied. There is a gorgeous 3/4ths-enclosed booth that the manager said is available for parties of 6.

    I don’t like to drink before the evening. The ample selection of half-bottles of wine was duly noted, but the staff did not mind that I preferred tap water. I ordered the asparagus soup (yummy) and steak au poivre. Not much can be done to improve an age-old recipe like steak au poivre. Landmarc served a thick piece of meat, crusty on the outside and cooked to a perfect medium rare on the inside, topped with onions. The pepper sauce got the job done, but it was a bit runny and soaked the bottom layer of french fries. The fries that the sauce didn’t get to were crisp and medium-thickness. Landmarc offers six choices of desserts for $3 apiece, or you can have one of each for $15. I was far too full to try even one, but it has to be the best dessert bargain in town.

    Service was attentive and efficient at the beginning of the meal, but visits to my table seemed to tail off near the end. They kept me waiting for the steak a bit longer than they should, but all was forgiven once I tasted it. The manager did make a point of coming around to every table and saying hello.

    For a place that doesn’t take reservations for parties less than six, both the placement and the size of the bar seem to be a miscalculation. It’s at the back of the restaurant, so patrons who want to wait at the bar before their table is ready have to pass through the downstairs dining area. There are only five bar stools, so I suspect it will get crowded back there, potentially a distraction for those who’ve already been seated.

    I don’t know if Landmarc will take a cell phone number and call you when they’re ready. If so, I suspect Buster’s Garage, the NASCAR-themed sports bar across the street, will pick up a lot of the overflow. I read in the minutes for Community Board 1’s March meeting that there have already been compaints in the neighborhood about the noise at the newly-opened Buster’s.

    It hasn’t been open long, but Landmarc is already a destination restaurant. In an LA Times article yesterday, “Dining Frenzy Takes Gotham,” Landmarc was listed as one of eight hot new restaurants in New York. Amanda Hesser’s review in the NYT gave Landmarc one star, which seemed to me correct (in a system that doesn’t allow half-stars).

    Landmarc (179 West Broadway between Leonard and Worth Streets, TriBeCa)

    Food: *½
    Service: *
    Ambiance: *
    Overall: *½

    Thursday
    Apr222004

    She's Fired....Again!

    The Apprentice's villainess extraordinaire, Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, has managed to lose yet another job. Clairol had cast her in a shampoo commercial, but the company issued an abrupt about-face after receiving a torrent of complaints, concluding that a serial liar wasn't a good spokesperson for their products. The undaunted Omarosa did land a cameo on the NBC-TV soap opera, Passion.

    Tick-tock, tick-tock, Omarosa's fifteen minutes are almost up.

    Wednesday
    Apr212004

    Baluchi's In TriBeCa

    Am I the only one who thinks “Baluchi’s” should be an Italian joint? Well, it’s not. Baluchi’s is a chain of about a dozen Indian restaurants, with locations all over town. The newest branch is at the corner of Greenwich & Warren Sts, in the southwest corner of TriBeCa.

    The site hasn’t been a lucky one. It’s a bit far from the TriBeCa dining mainstream, situated across the street from a parking lot and caddy-corner from a grade school. Some of the apartments of southern Battery Park City are just a few short blocks away, but Baluchi’s doesn’t seem to be drawing crowds yet. Its predecessor on that site was a nice Mexican restaurant that closed after 9/11.

    After a late night at the office, I wandered in to find Baluchi’s empty, except for a large table of about 15 investment bankers, who no doubt were happy to be able to talk shop without annoying anyone. That they bypassed the nearby, and better known, Salaam Bombay, is a clue that Baluchi’s is attracting the smart money.

    The authentic décor is tastefully done, while avoiding any of the usual Indian restaurant clichés. Dark wood tables give a feeling of solidity, and they’re a comfortable distance apart. The laminated menu is a liability, reminding one of a coffee shop. The magic begins when the food arrives, served in individual copper pots. Salmon curry was exceptionally tender, perfectly cooked, and accompanied with a flavorful sauce. The waiter even threw in the basmati rice for nothing. The dish disappeared off my plate all too quickly. The service was attentive, but with the restaurant practically empty it had damned well better be.

    Baluchi’s in TriBeCa is one of those hidden neighborhood gems that will never get a newspaper review, but quietly delivers the goods. If you’re in TriBeCa and in the mood for Indian food, it’s worth a detour.

    Baluchi’s (275 Greenwich Street at Warren Street, TriBeCa)

    Food: *
    Service: **
    Ambiance: *
    Overall: *

    Monday
    Apr192004

    Common-Sense Airport Security

    Cross your fingers. Pittsburgh is about to be the pilot for a long-overdue overhaul of airport security rules. If it's successful, picking up and dropping off passengers might just get a whole lot easier.

    Since 9/11, only ticketed passengers have been allowed past airport security checkpoints, with only limited exceptions (e.g., adults accompanying minor children). Anyone else had to say their hellos and goodbyes outside of security. Pittsburgh Airport has been lobbying hard to get the rule changed, because sales have slumped at an upscale shopping mall that resides entirely inside the security checkpoint. And because Pittsburgh has just one large checkpoint for the entire airport, it's an ideal place to try loosening the restrictions.

    Mind you, it's not that I'm overly sympathetic to the fate of a Pittsburgh shopping mall. But I long for the good old days when you could escort a friend or family member all the way to the gate. And when arriving in an unfamiliar city, it's a lot easier to meet at the gate than to make your way to a confusing meeting point somewhere beyond baggage claim.

    If the rule is to be changed, the major sticking point is ensuring that the added traffic through security doesn't slow down the process for the people who really need it--those who are traveling. Frankly, I think a number of related policies need to be re-examined at the same time. At airport security, the two most time-consuming requirements are: 1) Taking laptops out of their briefcases; and, 2) Requiring most passengers to remove their shoes. I have traveled extensively in Europe, where you are required to do neither, and I don't think the Europeans are lax about security. They're just smarter.

    The security staff also check boarding passes a few too many times. Depending on the airport, and which way the wind is blowing, boarding passes and/or IDs are checked up to three times before you get to the gate, but it isn't consistent--sometimes, they only check once. You never know when it's safe to put your ID away.

    The 9/11 terrorists have changed air travel forever, but I think the system can get a lot more convenient without sacrificing security. Many of the post-9/11 restrictions have since been lifted, as officials became more comfortable with the risks. This is, I hope, yet another example.