Café Forant

Café Forant has four two-top tables inside and two four-tops.

So: 16 people total. Not even enough for two baseball teams. Another two-top table and two two-top bar-stool-height tables on the sunken patio (protected by an all-weather plastic canopy) means that only 22 people can fit into this snug bistro on 51st Street near 10th Avenue, which I found only after realizing that my decision to catch up on some work by finding a coffee place in the Time Warner Center on a Saturday two weeks before Christmas was as smart as whistling a tune into a hurricane. I had first tried Universal News (not a coffee location, as Yelp had claimed), then Dean & Deluca and another cafe at Time Warner, then Jazzman’s Café at Fordham (closed and not indicated per Yelp), then BKaffie (ditto).

Yelp led me here, though, so I’ll make sure the app stays synced through iTunes.

photo: {manda}


Dining in an automat, alone

For years after I returned from college in 1985, Dad hounded me to go to the automat at 42nd Street and Third Avenue. Horn & Hardart. Now a lost brand name, like Edsel, or Moxie. Well, not so much the latter; I often say my wife has it.

“It’s the last one in Manhattan,” he would tell me.

He would go there in the 1960s and ‘70s when he worked on Madison and 40th selling out-of-home advertising space. His company, with the pedestrian but functional name Transportation Displays Incorporated, was owned by the Winston Network. People referred to it as “TDI,” so when my second grade teacher went around the room asking each of us what his father did for a living, I—having no other context than one of the popular TV shows at the time—replied innocently, “He works for the FBI.”

As I recall, my teacher didn’t correct me, and my classmates didn’t challenge me. Badass kid, I was.

Eventually the company went through a leveraged buyout and Dad, who was VP of Sales, was not aggressive enough in his forecasts. He was forced out at age 64 and sued the company for outstanding commissions as well as punitive damages on the basis of what he and his lawyer argued—rightly or wrongly—was age discrimination. With a $46,000 settlement, he went into a decline that lasted 13 years until my mother and brother and I found him dead in his bed with an empty bottle of pills and a drained gin bottle next to him on a silver tray. Plastic bag over his head fastened with a rubber band around the neck. Now 12 years after his death, as I pore over books on urban design in the mid-20th century and about neighborhoods with automats, I realize I am walking through his life in print. Questions sprout from each page like tender shoots—“Was the chopped steak dried out?” “Did you all think that this was the future of dining, like in a Jetsons cartoon?” “What kind of people would you meet there—were they lonely?”—only to wither under the unremitting sun of my father’s silence.

[to be continued]

photo: Hernan Hernandez

It turned out to be nothing

The 12-year-old boy at the table next to ours grabbed his throat with his left hand and started coughing. His coughs turned to choking, his cheeks filling with now-threatening under-chewed food, his eyes protruding like those rubber dolls you squeeze for stress.

He looked past his father, who sat across from him, and off to an unknown horizon as his mother did what later I realized was a symptom of the problem: she slapped him repeatedly on the back. I reviewed instantly and autonomically my knowledge of Heimlich’s—where on the sternum to hold my fist, how hard to press/pull…. I would launch this food to the glass dessert case 15 feet away if necessary.

The boy somehow swallowed his food, and the mother let into him. Nagging him with a mouthful, the mother spoke in the direction of the father—“Now you’ve done it…”—while the boy took another bite and he, too, responded to her in the middle of a mouthful of food. She turned her attention to her husband and, as she spoke, her cheeks puffed outward with unchewed food and her words escaped only as through cake batter. Her consonants, especially T’s and D’s, sounded like Th’s and Dz’s. Her eating style had spawned new phonemes.

Moments passed and the husband, who I could see least, since he was parallel to me and not across, started choking and holding his napkin to his mouth to reduce the sound, which was now part of a Table Symphony that dominated the small café.

“Oh, he always does that,” the boy reminded his mother. “And it turns out to be nothing.”

The father ate through the choking, and no one died while Karen and I were there through two quiche lorraines, a cappuccino cheesecake and a chocolate mousse layer cake (no coffee, just tap water, please).

This was a family who choked a lot in public. All three. All the time. All talking with their mouths full. All the time.

You’d think they’d learn.

Had there ever been a fourth?

photo: lion kim ball

Not exactly calf fries

Dining at The Lakehouse in Kerrville last night, 7-year-old Teak stared down at my freshly delivered plate of fried catfish. Five pieces of light beige deliciousness.

Always curious at his age about anatomy, human and otherwise, and not knowing much about fish, he pointed to two round objects next to the catfish, both about one inch in diameter.

“Are those the balls?” he asked.

“No, Teak. Those are hush puppies.”

photo: mobtownblues

Rosa offered me camarones

Rosa offered me camarones, but I didn’t know what camarones were. She says she wants to bring me one of her favorite ceviches that she eats in her native Ecuador. I speak broken Spanish and she speaks broken English every day when I pick up my towels at the gym before I go into the locker room to change.

111009.stefanShe has four daughters and I have celebrated with her that she recently passed her driving test at the DMV and recovered from a successful surgery and have prayed for her suegra (who has vascular problems) and her suegro (who fell and broke his hip). I tell her about my boys and what we do on weekends.

She, in a typical exchange: “El sabado…I cooking, cleaning, comiendo, a little bailando—” confiding laughter—“then, el domingo, choich—” and she presses her palms together in front of her lips, and her sentence ends there. Her laughter turns to a gentle smile and her brown eyes go soft.

But today, after her offer: “Rosa, que significa ‘camarones’?”

She purses her lips and looks at the ceiling over my head to the left, which she does when she is trying to think of a word in English. My Spanish is better than her English. We speak Spanish more often.

“Emm.” And she looks back at me with a smile and holds her fingers up and wiggles them next to her lips, indicating many legs.

“Shellfish?” I ask.

“Yes…. Maybe, yes.”

She flips open her cellphone and speaks quickly after dialing. “Camarones” comes up quickly several times. Then she hands me the phone. It’s her teenage daughter.

“Hi,” I say, “It’s Howard. I work out at the gym where your mother works.” I know she has three sisters, one of whom who has a baby, and a sick grandmother and grandfather, who will likely die soon, and probably around the same time. I know that her parents send money back to Ecuador often. Rosa’s husband, the son of the dying grandparents, is the only one in his family who is in the United States.

“Hi, it’s Doris.”

“I didn’t know what ‘camarones’ were.”

“It’s shrimp,” she says with a laugh that I recognize.

“Great; that sounds familiar now. Thanks! Here’s your mother.”

Quick goodbye between them, and then I say, “¡Me gustan mucho camarones!” I told her I liked a lot of shrimp instead of saying, as intended, I liked shrimp a lot.

Rosa will bring some for me on Thursday—“el jueves”—and I must show up at 11:00 or so. Usually, I say each day, “¡Mañana, por la mañana!” And she says “¡Por la mañana!” And that’s that. Sometimes, though, I come in the afternoon, and she leaves at 2:00.

Today she’s the mother. And she’s bringing lunch in a couple days.

photo: Stefan

Donuts Burgers Sandwiches

3 Star Coffee Shop on 86th Street and Columbus is at least as old as the era in which three stars defined the apex of Upper West Side dining experiences.

The lower line on the white plastic storefront sign promises “Donuts Burgers Sandwiches,” with unnecessary white space between the letters and each word.  When Teak and I ate there a few weeks ago—its fried sirloin fragrance and blue-purple smoke spewing from a vent to the street drawing me in—the one waiter for all ten tables wore a black silk vest over a slightly frayed white shirt, its collar dirtied but not so much that I felt it affected the food. 1980s rock hits played on the radio, a 14-inch-wide black-and-silver “boom box” with dented speakers at either end that sat on a shelf near the kitchen so the cook could hear it, too. The menu offered omelettes, burgers, and sandwiches of every variety, probably using the same eight or so ingredients in varying combinations. All day, every day. The facade of the corner restaurant is a faux brick flagstone pattern, with large picture windows facing Columbus and also 86th Street.

Teak ate his burger, fries and pickle. As he chewed, his dimples deepened and I thought he might be humming. He smiled when he saw that I was watching him, pieces of meat and bun stuck between his front teeth.

Leaving Herald Square

“Hey! Is that a pearl snap shirt?”


“No,” my coworker answered after coming to a stop in the hallway.  We blocked the entrance to his office.  Moments before, I ostensibly had something to do that was more important than admire what I thought was a pearl snap shirt.

052309.ellecer“Oh.” I said.

“But I used to have one. I lost it.”

“I’m sorry.” Awkward pause. “Was it white, like that one?”

“No, blue.”

The conversation went on, in this tantalizing fashion, until he referred me to H&M Clothing, on 34th Street and Broadway, steps away from the office.  Ostensibly, he had something to do that was more important than discuss pearl snap shirts.

I exited 1359 Broadway and walked the two blocks south, my mind anticipating finding pearl snap shirts in New York that were not the $100+ kind sold by Billy Martin’s Western Wear. At said establishment, on Third Avenue at around 62nd Street where — I can attest from having grown up just a mile north — there are no cowboys loitering or yodeling, the purveyors have outfitted with “upscale…Western-inspired” clothing the likes of Madonna and Mikhail Gorbachev. Need I tell you the horror of picturing in my mind Gorbachev riding along the prairie in pearl snap shirts, a tree branch catches the material, the shirt breaks open at the snaps the way the cowboys intended it to (so that they wouldn’t have to sew the button back on), and out pops… Mikhail. This is a scene that Remington did not envision, nor shall I.

And yet, my search for pearl snap shirts in NYC has been as fruitless as has been the search for authentic Tex-Mex cuisine, the most recent outing (twice) to Tequila Chito’s on West 23rd producing somewhat favorable results for me and my dining partners, but I anticipate would not be up to snuff for my wife, whose loving contempt for my last choice has not yet been lived down.

Having ascended the escalator to the third floor Menswear department at H&M, my suspicions were stirred when there was more chrome and black lacquer on the fixtures and racks than oak and pine. In Kerrville, Texas, where I buy all my snap shirts (at the Cowboy Store, where Jason Aldean shops), the guy at the front has a Jesse James-like pointed beard and dons a Stetson. He says, “Howdy!” which is in fact my childhood nickname, and so I feel right at home. Here, in NYC, sales tax is 8.375% and increasing to something like 8.625% (as if they need the five-thousands’ worth); in Texas, while there is sales tax, there is no income tax. I plan — in the future, sometime after retirement, maybe when I’m 90 — to show the statistical correlation between taxation and authentic pearl snap shirt offerings. I know it’s not scientific to come to a study with a conclusion in mind — I am supposed to follow the data — but in this case, there seems to be a preponderance of evidence proving that the overhead for stores like Billy Martin must certainly require the sale of shirts so outlandishly priced that only a rock star or former Soviet leader can afford them. (After all, we know that ommunist leaders are absolutely loaded, because everyone else in their countries is dirt poor.)

I did two laps around the floor, spying only some flat-fronted khakis that the Lovely K would have approved of (but which I didn’t need…I needed a pearl snap shirt) and a couple of dress shirts that were suitable for a meeting of which I have yet to conceive. No snap shirts. On one rack, partially blocked by two large 20-something males whose pants some stranger obviously had rudely and just moments before yanked down to within inches of their knees, I saw a short-sleeved collared shirt made of grey brushed cotton that had a matching thin tie around it. I recalled how my mother made my father a tie of green and white checkered gingham to match a sport coat he had bought at the St. George thrift store on Second Avenue. Yet he wore this set to cocktail parties at Point O’ Woods, Fire Island, where the object was to get drunk while discussing Woody Allen movies and stumble down sidewalks with no fear of powered vehicles running you over. What H&M was selling was clothes that you would have to wear sober enough not to fall onto subway tracks coming home from a rave.  This seemed an inordinate expectation.

The search continues, as it does also for Tex-Mex in New York. But don’t tell Karen.

photo:  ellecer