Saturday, March 5, 2011

Thursday in the East Village

One of our favorite activities when traveling abroad simply entails wandering about an unfamiliar neighborhood with no clear destination in mind, partaking, perhaps, of street food as the spirit moves us, or just popping in and out of random pubs and cafes, absorbing our surroundings, and trusting in serendipity to make the whole experience worthwhile. And yet, much as we enjoy such experiences when out of the country, we seldom spend time like that when we’re in the States, and I’m not really sure why. So last Thursday, when we found ourselves with several hours to kill in downtown Manhattan, we decided to treat several blocks in the East Village as if they constituted an unfamiliar neighborhood in a foreign country and play at being strangers in a strange land.

We visited our littlest grandkids, Macey and Jonah, at their home on 5th Avenue and 14th Street, around noon that day (as we usually do on Thursdays), but our visit was foreshortened since the kids had a date to go swimming at 2:30 PM. We, on the other hand, had tickets to the opening night performance of Iphigenia at Aulis at The Wild Project on East 3rd Street at 8 PM that night. So we decided just to wend our way from 5th Avenue and 14th Street to Avenue A and East 3rd Street, however the spirit moved us.

We were a bit hungry, having skipped lunch to spend time with the grandkids, so we figured we’d stop in for a bite somewhere along the way. We both enjoy most Asian food and anticipated coming upon some small Thai, Chinese or Japanese restaurant en route. But then we happened on Song 7.2 (so named because it is located on the corner of 2nd Avenue and East 7th Street), a Korean restaurant which bills itself as having “The Best Korean food in NYC.” We hadn’t had Korean food in years and there are few Korean food restaurants in our neck of the woods on the Upper East Side, so we decided to try it. It was not a bad decision.

Lunch is served at Song 7.2 between noon and 4 PM but by then it was close to 3 PM and the restaurant was relatively empty. No matter – the restaurant was clean, different and inexpensive. We both opted for Bento boxes on the Lunch Special: Sue got the sliced beef and I got the pork belly and both were good but not great (it really is an overstatement to call this “the best Korean food in NYC” but it wasn’t bad. Both orders came with side dishes of kimchi, spinach, soup, salad, steamed egg pancake, fresh carrot juice (as a palate cleanser) and green tea. The service was terrific and, all things considered, it was fun and we’re glad we went.

When we left the restaurant, it was still early and, after walking for another few blocks, we were a bit cold, so we decided to duck into someplace for a quick cup of coffee – which explains how we ended up at a McDonalds on 1st Avenue where we had two cups of coffee for $1.72. We felt as if we’d slipped through a time warp - paying only 86¢ apiece for our coffees! –and the feeling was reinforced as we looked about us. It was as if we had entered a senior seniors’ community center and, though septuagenarians ourselves, we felt like youngsters in the restaurant. The people around us all seemed to be hanging our as if they were in their neighborhood pub, nursing coffees rather than beers, with little else on the tables before them, and we found it hard to fathom how that particular McDonald’s outlet survived economically.

But the day was not yet over. We continued on our trek to the theatre although it was only about 5 PM and we still had about three hours to kill. Then, serendipitously, we found it – the restaurant-bar that made our whole excursion worthwhile. There on Avenue A, between East 2nd and East 3rd Streets, was Mary O’s, a cool, stylish, inviting restaurant-bar, with a limited menu in the window that just suited our needs of the moment: onion soup for Sue and Buffalo chicken strips for me (there was little doubt in my mind that I’d be able to snag a Guinness as well once we were inside and I was right).

Looking through the window into the restaurant, we saw few patrons – it was too late for lunch, too early for dinner, and the cocktail hour hadn’t quite begun – but we didn’t let that dissuade us. Within minutes, we were seated at a comfortable table with Sue’s soup and my chicken and Guinness before us and it was delightful. The restaurant’s ambience is eclectically modern - mostly Italian modern, I’d say, and yet it’s clearly an Irish pub with no pretensions. We couldn’t quite figure out what made it all work so well until we met the proprietor, Mary O’Halloran - and then we understood.

Mary, the owner of the restaurant bar, stopped at our table to chat and she really is an extraordinary woman . A comely Irish lass, young enough to be our daughter, she, herself, is mother to five children, ranging in age from 1 ½ years to 7 ½ years. How she manages to run a successful restaurant and care for five young children is beyond me, but she does it and my hat’s off to her! And, get this, she does it all while her husband, a West Coast longshoreman, is away for weeks at a time on one of the outermost Aleutian islands off the coast of Alaska! Meanwhile, to keep busy, Mary volunteers at her kids’ school. (The next time I complain about being too busy or not having enough time to do something, just remind me of Mary and I’ll shut up, I promise.) Anyway, Mary is an absolute delight – and we had a wonderful time chatting with her. (She and Sue, by the way, have at least one overwhelming interest in common – their child-centeredness – which seems to be the one interest that’s sufficient to bring any two people together, no matter what their other political, social, economic, ethnic or other differences might be).

Before we left Mary O’s for the theatre, Mary mentioned that the restaurant runs an Irish music entertainment on the first Wednesday in the month. We just missed the one in March but we’re sure going to try to get to the one scheduled for April.

And yes, in case you were wondering, we made it to the theatre on time and thoroughly enjoyed that too. I reviewed the play we saw, Iphigenia in Aulis, in my last post.

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