Two layers of cashmere sweaters, boots, fuzzy scarf and gloves, topped off with a three-quarters length leather jacket barely took the edge off the 20-something degree early morning temperature, as I briskly walked down Fifth Avenue last December, against the flow of the humming Midtown Manhattan morning commuters, sliding onto the sidewalks from the streets on the patches of ice which, still in the skyscrapers' shadows, had not yet thawed.
I ignored the cold, even though my cheeks were a garish shade of pink. I was a California girl on a unique mission: I was in search of a television-perfect Manhattan Holiday weekend, complete with extravagant holiday windows, gourmet delicacies flown in from Paris, and ice skating at Rockefeller Center.
I’d come into the city on a red eye flight, and dropped my bags at my Grand Central area hotel, grabbed a vanilla latte, and set out on my quest. The gleaming art deco Rockefeller Center was my first stop on my whirlwind holiday tour. Metal barriers kept tourists from cutting through the plaza, as the television crewmembers rushed around what would be the set for that evening’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony. I was lucky to still able to get in a few tranquil minutes of watching those more graceful than myself skate on the festively decorated, below-street level Rockefeller Center Skating Rink.
First opened on Christmas Day, 1936, the Rink has attracted over a quarter million people each year, and has been featured in countless movies, making it a must-see on my quest to take in NYC holiday traditions. The skaters, gliding around the rink in circles or figure eights, appeared to be blissfully unaware of the screech of the electrical tape and the sound checks going on amongst the crowd above them.
Rockefeller Center was a good launching point for my holiday windows tour. The holiday windows of Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman, and Saks Fifth Avenue, noted by multiple friends as the most imaginative in years past, were my key stops. Simon Doonan’s “Sex in the City” inspired windows at Barney’s, were funny (comedy is always a key aspect of his window designs). But it was Linda Fargo’s "A Holiday Dream" window, with its opulent nighttime landscape of black and white swans, Swarovski chandelier, and huge baroque mirror at Bergdorf Goodman that really grabbed me.
A morning of window-shopping in windy cold conditions called for a lunchtime respite at Fauchon’s tea salon. After a short wait in the doorway, I was rewarded with perhaps the best table for people watching. While I waited for my my pot of Earl Grey with flowers tea and petite yet perfectly filling foie gras sandwich ($27 with tip), I leaned back in the reclining gilt-covered chair, with the signature Fauchon pink-and –white striped upholstery, to enjoy my unobstructed view of Madison Avenue’s lunchtime shoppers.
The narrow salon was packed with couples enjoying a romantic interlude in the middle of the workday or after some serious site seeing, plus several independent women enjoying pots of tea and an array of pastries. While I was halfway through my tea, an older woman was seated at a table in the corner, with her back to the storefront wall, facing my table. It became clear after her conversations with the waiter that she was a regular, and that I was seated at her regular table. Full of holiday spirit, and anxious to start my holiday shopping in the attached shop, I chose not to linger at the table, and flagged down the waiter for my check.
This Fauchon storefront had a comprehensive selection of the products the company markets in the United States. Contrary to what the store manager tried to convince me of, it does not, however, include the same range of products as the Paris shops. Most notably, the “potted duck” (duck rillettes in a pantry-ready glass jar) was absent. I snatched up a dozen small jars of unusual condiments (such as the mustard with cocoa), and the milk jams (vanilla, caramel, coffee), plus several pink tin canisters of individually wrapped madeleines (a treat I’d fallen in love with the previous Spring in Paris), and decided this year’s presents would have a culinary theme.
A nap back at the hotel was a necessary luxury before hopping on the Metro at Grand Central and heading to SoHo for additional window-shopping and dinner at Slow Food favorite Savoy. After a failed attempt at a meet-up with a local friend, I decided to still try for dinner at Savoy.
Savoy is a cozy, two-story jewel box of a restaurant on Prince at Crosby. Despite my lack of reservations, I was allowed to sit at a tiny round table next to the picture windows in the front of the downstairs bar. I ordered a glass of house red wine and the charcuterie plate ($12) to start, which featured a few paper-thin slices of Serrano ham, their own house cured sopressata, which was good, and their house cured mortadella, which was amazing. These treats were accompanied by house-made condiments (pickles and a scarlet colored mustard made with figs that was as attractive as it was delicious), and a tiny taste of a house-made pork rillette, and little toasted bread slices. They had also brought me a breadbasket with three presumably house-made breads) but it was mostly neglected due to the temptations provided by the charcuterie.
My entree decision was easy to make -- as soon as my affable waiter started to say that the night's special entree was venison ($28). Venison is one of my all-time favorite treats, and exemplifies the holidays to me. I was pleased he didn't ask me how I wanted it cooked; that small detail, on the heels of the impressive starter, gave me a certain level of certainty it was going to be marvelous, as well as instilling my faith in the chef and the restaurant.
The venison came out with dark edges and the requisite/desired non-bloody but still vibrant red-pink middle, surrounded by a light sauce of its own drippings, on a bed of roasted brussels sprouts and roasted chestnuts (for that perfect winter touch), and a big fluffy bed of pureed and whipped parsnips that looked exactly like a mound of mashed potatoes but had all the rich earthy taste I'd expect from parsnips. I savored the bites of this meal.
My final holiday “to do” was to meet up with a friend from home, Greg, who happened to be in town, so we could see the Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To beat the crowds, we met right as the museum opened, and made a beeline for the tree. For the past 35 years, the museum has decorated an immense tree with a unique and growing collection of eighteenth-century Neapolitan angels and cherubs scattered across its branches, and a colorful array of crèche figures flanking a Nativity scene at its base.
Standing in the Medieval Hall, looking up at the 50 large, individually decorated angels suspended from the tree, surrounded by the smiling faces of the tourists and locals alike who had made the pilgrimage to this shrine to the spirit of the holidays, I received my first gift of the season: Greg escorted me to the café overlooking the Central Park, where we enjoyed a cup of coffee, and a lively conversation about our childhood holiday traditions, which was an ideal way to wrap-up my holiday whirlwind tour of New York.
The Ice Skating Rink at Rockefeller Center is open October to April. See www.therinkatrockcenter.com. or call (212) 332-7654 for hours of operation and cost.
Holiday Windows. The major concentration of holiday windows with the most lavish decorations tends to be on Fifth from 53rd to E. 59th, and Madison from 57th to E 81st. For an armchair tour of NYC holiday windows past, visit the Fashion Planet website (http://www.fp1.com/) and choose the 2003/4 holiday windows link.
Fauchon, The Madison Avenue outpost has closed, but the Park Avenue location (442 Park Avenue at 56th Street, is still open.
Savoy, 70 Prince St. (Between Crosby and Lafayette Sts.) (212) 219-8570.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street. (212) 535-7710. Annual Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche, November 23, 2004–January 7, 2005, Medieval Art, 1st floor .