Footloose and fancy free in the Big Apple

Unbashed fans of superstar Shahrukh Khan, my daugther and I set out on our personal pilgrimage, retracing the various places in the city where he has serenaded his leading ladies in smash hits including Kal Ho Na Ho and Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna.

It has been over a decade since Shahrukh, resplendent in white, brought much stardust to Brooklyn Bridge as he rested his slight frame against the iconic structure and sang the title song from his hit film Kal Ho Na Ho. It was annoying to be pushed and jostled by his other fans as we walked on Brooklyn bridge but I swear I could almost feel Khan’s presence under the bridge’s towering arches and iconic steel cables.

By the time we arrived at the Brooklyn end of the bridge it was well over an hour so it was a blessing in disguise to stumble across the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, a quaint hang out of the locals, tucked away inside a restored fireboat house. We feasted on  heavenly butter pecan and a refreshing peaches and cream ice cream as we wandered around Brooklyn’s beauteous waterfront that has a kind of haunting beauty about it that was just right for the somber beginning of another SRK hit, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna.

Next stop for us was near Lower Manhattan’s Pier 17 building, known as the South Street Seaport but it was worth the trudge to be at the location where SRK and lady love Rani Mukherji had their secret rendezvous in KANK. It was almost magical that evening as we sat eating delicious dulce de leche topped crepes bought at a waterfront kiosk and admired the sight of the Manhattan skyline across the river, bathed in a soft pink glow from the fading sunlight.

Heading back into the city, I was glad we were pampering ourselves a stay at The Pierre, a magnificent neo Georgian style luxury hotel in the Upper East Side Historic District of Manhattan with unrestricted views of iconic Central Park. And even though we could not even dream of checking into one of its famed Grand Suites, we loved the small luxuries in our room including an indulgent chocolate model of the Statue of Liberty and melt in the macroons that we polished off before sinking into the silken comfort of our bed.

The Pierre, the US flagship of  Taj Hotels is a heritage hotel from the 1930s and we spent a couple of hours next morning admiring its art collection , marveling at the hotel’s signature room,The Rotunda, bursting with quaint Renaissance style paintings and murals and its restored trompe l’oeil ceiling, created in 1967 by American artist Edward Melcarth. The hotel’s stunning Grand Ballroom, Cotillion Room and Garden foyer are often the venues of chic gala’s and parties thrown by New York’s rich and the famous. Remember Al Pacino’s unforgettable Tango scene from The Scent of a Woman? To my mind it is one of the most romantic scenes ever and it was shot in The Pierre’s Cotillion Room.

Walking across the street into Manhattan’s green lung, Central Park we were treated to the sight of a young couple rehearsing their wedding ceremony at the famed Bethesda Terrace and its resplendent fountain, accompanied by a gorgeous bridesmaids in wine-coloured dresses. The bride looked radiantly happy in a billowing white gown and the groom looked, well, terrified.

Elsewhere, an appreciative crowd applauded when a poet perched on a folding stool conjured up a love poem within minutes of a request from a blushing teenager who gifted it to her boyfriend. Central Park is many things to many people. For some it is yoga in the park while for others it is precious family time with their pets in tow. Those in love take refuge and find a few peaceful moments under the canopy of trees.

At sunset we walked back to The Pierre where we dined at legendary restaurateur Sirio Maccioni’s eponymous Sirio restaurant known for its classic and contemporary Tuscan cuisine. One of our pet peeves while travelling is the absence of good vegetarian options in restaurants. That evening, the vegetarian spread by Sirio’s Italian Executive chef, Massimo, was nothing short of brilliant. Suffice it to say that for almost two hours we ate in reverence as course after course arrived at our table, plated beautifully and served with impeccable courtesy. We began with a beautiful salad of raw endive, radicchio, asparagus, heritage carrot, lola rosa lettuce, drizzled with hazelnut vinaigrette and moved on to an innovative first course of broccoli puree, a riot of multi-coloured cauliflower, baby turnips , carrots, and burrata cheeses with a lemon and vinegar infused honey.  Next was a divine Spaghetto al pesto di noci (spaghetti with 5 nuts pesto, pistachio vinaigrette, pistachio powder, fresh ricotta cheese, lemon zest) and a Risotto Primavera Dessert was a trio of tiramisu, aaffogato and a brilliantly executed Bavarese al mango that had us wishing we had more room in the tummy.

Walking into the old-fashioned Magnolia Bakery at Columbus Ave was like walking into the cupcake version of Alice in Wonderland. Magnolia’s charming Chief Baking Officer, Bobbie Lloyd told us she sought inspiration for the bakery from her mother’s old world recipes. Even though it is famed for its pretty cupcakes, the true star in the bakery is the Banana pudding, so airy and light we finished off an entire jar in minutes. Later, Bobbie convinced us to eat her favorite Chocolate chunk sea salt caramel cookie, a decadent offering full of gooey chocolate and salted caramel,  layered in between the perfectly chewy cookie.

Having always been intrigued by the idea of the Waldorf Astoria- former US Presidents Herbert Hoover and Dwight D. Eisenhower lived there until their death- we visited the hotel on our last day in the city. It was the Waldorf Astoria that set the trend of allowing single women to stay at the hotel without an escort when Hollywood diva Marilyn Monroe stayed there, alone, for several months in 1955 before running out of funds. Today the imposing Art Deco hotel is an official New York City Landmark.

At lunch we had the Waldorf Salad, the most famous item on the menu, created by legendary maître d’hôtel,Oscar Tschirky, in 1896. There was something awe inspiring about eating the salad in a bustling restaurant full of similarly awed tourists gaping at its ancient but fabulously restored furniture and walls full of photographs of Oscar when he was a celebrity in town. Later, we relished individual portions of Waldorf Astoria’s iconic Red Velvet cake — legend goes that the cake was created in this hotel in 1920 as a tribute to the glitterati who walked the flaming red carpet in the hotel’s lobby. Such is the star value of the hotel that the hotel’s lobby restaurant, Peacock Alley, is the best place for a spot of celebrity watching even today!

Our own Waldorf Astoria experience culminated with a visit to the 20th floor rooftop garden and beehives, with Chef de cuisine, Matt Schindler. Dozens of hives buzzing with activity on the rooftop is where they produce Top of the Waldorf Honey used in premium honey-infused cocktails at Peacock Alley, in salad dressings and in expensive spa treatments. We left with two tiny bottles of the honey — recently judged the best artisanal honey in New York city, tucked in our bags to be relished back home.

Suffice it to say that it was a fitting finale for three days of indulgence in the Big Apple.

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