I must begin with an apology: I am sorry, New York. I know you are very proud indeed of your bagels, and have indoctrinated millions – possibly billions – around the world into believing they are superior to all other bagels, but I am not convinced. The bagels I have had so far either lack the chewy deliciousness London’s Jewish bakeries have taught me to know and love, or have the consistency of a hockey puck.
Like doughnuts, bagels are everywhere. I have yet to meet a New Yorker – either abroad or on their home turf – who isn’t terrified of carbs and I am beginning to understand why. In this country, one is assaulted by carbohydrate from all sides, to an overwhelming degree. The result is a city of people who beg for protein while chugging back coffee and diet sodas.
Take breakfast as an example: the bakery supplies my office with four bagels, pastries and muffins for each person. Because these items are twice the size I’m accustomed to at home, I eat half a pastry, half a muffin and a bagel with cream cheese and feel slightly sick. The leftovers leer at me from reception every time I head to the loo, making me feel queasy.
The one innovation I do like is the coffee box. Our helpful Baked Goods Partner has brought roughly five gallons of coffee in the sort of cardboard boxes my European colleagues and I usually associate with wine. Or, as the Italian among us says “the sort of boxes I see them drinking wine from in cartoons (because I would never be seen dead drinking wine from a box).” This, I have to try. But only after I’ve had my tea. For one heart-stopping moment, it looks like one of the boxes – the one that’s marked differently – might contain some sacred leaf, but it turns out to be decaff.
Today’s delight is the view from the office window, which takes in Madison Square Garden. During our infrequent breaks, I take photographs and wonder how many blocks I need to walk to burn off a bagel.
The only things that are smaller here than in Europe (apart from the number of atheists) are the squares. Every time I go for a walk, I am utterly nonplussed by Google Maps indicating the presence of a “square” where I only see something that looks like the forecourt of St-Martins-in-the-Fields. Herald Square is one of these – it’s also where all the evangelists hang out, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons rubbing shoulders with one-woman cheerleading squads for Jesus.
Lunch is another carb ordeal, with salad on the side. 25 ciabatta sandwiches, cut into halves that are each larger than my size 7.5 glove-wearing hands, arrive accompanied by two large drums of green and goat’s cheese salad. My half steak sandwich is delicious, the salad is very nice, but at 12.30pm, the prospect of dinner at 6.30 is already making me queasy. I suggest to my colleagues that we stop off at our hotel and then walk to dinner to pre-empt the assault on our stomachs. We wander across to East 32nd St, stopping off at a Korean cosmetics shop on the way to purchase some cutesy handcream and face masks. I get honey and cucumber cleasners for me, fox and panda moisturising masks for my youngest sister, and pig and cow masks for my middle sister, mostly to make the youngest sister laugh. On leaving the shop, I discover we’re in entirely the wrong part of town (thank you Google Maps!) and one of my colleagues bundles us into an Uber to the Meatpacking District.
Our destination is a seafood restaurant in a trendy area of town that reminds me of Shoreditch, but in a nice way. It’s on the second floor, water drips from the distressed ceiling and the DJ plays tracks carefully selected from the period 1975-1985. The clientele dining alongside us resemble models, the women favour thigh gaps and Botox and the staff appear to have been trained in customer service skills by Parisian waiters. They bring menus for only half the party, it takes them 30 minutes to deliver half our drinks, and they tantalise patrons by hovering nearby but refusing to make eye contact. My colleagues address these by commenting loudly on how terrible the service is, how undeserved the money that will be spent, how clearly they are distilling the gin, filtering the sake, growing the grapes for our wine.
We are instructed not to order starters as these have been selected for us, but to have whatever we like for our main. I skip over the $80-90 grills and select something that looks small: scallops on a bed of sautéed cauliflower. The appetisers arrive: grilled octopus, crispy fried rock shrimp, chicken lettuce wraps, tiny delicious pretzel rolls. I dig in, enjoying the delicious flavours.
And then they bring the seafood towers: two tiers of lobster, shrimp, salmon tartare, clams, mussels and oysters for every four people present. I nibble a couple of shrimp, enjoy a juicy lobster claw, sample a sliver of salmon and have three mussels before my appetite fails me. For the next 25 minutes I sit looking at the leftovers and wondering whether anyone ever finishes a meal in this place, feeling overwhelmed and slightly sickened by the amount of food being wasted simply for the sake of display (you simply can’t take raw fish home in a doggy bag). The staff, displaying their usual disdain, bring us our plates only once we have finished eating.
By the time my giant scallops and glass of Sancerre arrive I feel a little ill. I eat two scallops accompanied by a forkful or two of cauliflower morsels flavoured with pistachio and tamarind. It’s tasty, but the delicate flavour of the scallops is overwhelmed by rich sauce and in the end I can’t swallow more than half of it. I accept defeat, and offer the rest around. For the next hour I make small talk with colleagues while worrying that I may be about to vomit. The colleague on my left describes himself as “Irish through-and-through” despite being born in Long Island and warns me that Mexico is not a good place to visit, despite never having been there. To my right, my boss’s assistant tells me she things films from the ’80s and ’90s are the best. I disagree and she takes her conversation elsewhere, to someone who concurs with her. Unable to decide whether it’s the obscene quantity of wasted food on the table or impending food poisoning making my stomach churn, I suggest to my London colleagues that we leave, and we stroll through the meatpacking district before heading along Ninth Avenue towards our hotel. A stop into Duane Reade for earplugs leads to the discovery of a cosmetic pencil sharpener that’s better than any I have found in London and educates me on the existence of disposable cups with a clip-in compartment for snacks. For those who cannot contemplate carrying both a drink and a packet of crisps. One of the truly fascinating things about America is that there is a product for everything you can imagine.
The walk from 13th St to 36th dispels some of my nausea and walking up the stairs to my hotel room helps even more, but I feel queasy enough that I’m beginning to suspect the food here doesn’t agree with me: too rich, too salty, too voluminous. I consider emailing the colleague who organises breakfast to request a plate of fruit and resolve to drink more than I eat at dinner the following night.