The Travel Issue: New York in April

Christopher Hirst
Saturday 02 February 2008 01:00 GMT

Taking advantage of the palsied dollar, most European visitors to Manhattan hotfoot it for the retail delights of Macy's or Bloomingdales, but the highlight of my trip was a destination where your credit cards stay in your pocket (mostly). I had not visited the Museum of Modern Art since it re-opened in virtually new premises in November 2004.

A six-floor atrium acts as a knock-'em-dead introduction to the $450m MoMA revamp. At the top, a helicopter hangs high above Rodin's craggy statue of Balzac on the ground floor. Upstairs, your eye is caught by a vast Jackson Pollock. After half a century, Jack the Dripper's epic One, Number 31, 1950 contrives to be both exciting and cool: a paradigm of New York. Upstairs, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon attracts a circle of admirers trying to decode Picasso's definitive statement of modernism.

The sliding dollar comes in handy on the opposite side of W 53rd Street, where MoMA has a design shop. A half-hour browse fulfilled most of my gift requirements and my haul included a Japanese knife-sharpener and the world's most stylish vase in aluminium and plate glass (the Ribbon Vase, $48).

But man cannot live on art alone. An easy stroll away at E42nd St, the Oyster Bar in the bowels of the Grand Central Terminal is my favourite dining place in the world. Fortified in this white-tiled heaven by a dozen foam-fresh bivalves from both US seaboards, I utilised an express subway for a trip to McSorley's Old Ale House (Est. 1854) on E 7th St. It was my first visit to the city's oldest tavern and also my last, occupied as it was by a rolling scrum of maybe a hundred boozed-up twentysomethings.

Compensation came later in the day when I took a stool at the King Cole Bar of the plush St Regis Hotel on E55th St. It was here that the Bloody Mary, bowdlerised as the Red Snapper, was introduced to America. A definitive version continues to be served by the head barman Michael Regan, who has worked here for 30-odd years but sounds as if he has just arrived from Ballyhaunis, County Mayo. Under Maxfield Parrish's raffish mural of the Court of Old King Cole, an appropriately quirky gathering sipped the night away: a pretty young thing by no means objecting to the advances of a slick-suited shark; a couple in the silica business refuelling en route from Rome to Cleveland; a blasé publishing exec, stood-up by her date, seeking solace in margaritas. The King Cole is Manhattan in a nutshell.

My final surprise of the day came at suppertime. Walking through the lobby of my hotel, Le Parker Meridien on W57th St, my nostrils were lured by a hamburgerish whiff that seemed at odds with the vast mirrors and Damien Hirst abstraction. A narrow corridor led to a pleasingly down-at-heel hamburger joint. Noting the accent as I ordered the last of the 1,000 or so burgers sold there daily, the manager came up with a name for my order: "Yo King Arthur."

Though a temporary Manhattanite, I followed local custom on Sunday by heading for Central Park. The floating jostle on the crammed boating lake was reminiscent of Laurel & Hardy. Curvetting balletically, rollerbladers displayed their skills on the Mall. A dog-walker wearing a T-shirt "Fuck You – I've got enough friends" – was a reminder that New York acts as a corrective to the geniality of middle America.

Sadly, the transient nature of my residence was underlined during my visit to Zabar's, a raucous outlet on the Upper West Side that virtually defines the word "deli". Surveying its rolling landscape of smoked salmon, pastrami, chopped liver and gefilte fish, I felt impotent. What good was the power of the pound if you didn't have a kitchen? But the spread was too wonderful to ignore. Despite the danger of damage in transit, I bought a dozen cartons of fish products: crab salad, lox... The risk proved well worth it. Back in London, these piscean souvenirs delivered a last, lingering taste of the Big Apple.

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