Remembering The Good Of 2016

The prevailing sentiment among my social circle as we end a year of celebrity death, dismay, and non-stop electoral insanity is “fuck 2016”. With each day bringing some new blunt emotional trauma, I get and fully understand it.

On personal reflection, though: it’s not been a bad year. It’s been a surprisingly decent year. And I’ve been terrible at keeping track of the year that was here, as opposed to other social mediums. I’m reasonably worried about losing track of the year and just writing it off as “that year Trump won and every celebrity died”.

So, with that in mind, some personal highlights from the year that was.

I started walking everywhere. It was commonplace for me to identify Manhattan’s density and generally understandable street grid as one of the things I love about the city. But up until 2016, I rarely took regular advantage of it.

No more: I have walked, and walked, and walked some more. I built in extra walks into my morning commute. I started learning the streets in areas I hadn’t regularly traversed: the Lower East Side, the east end of Chinatown, Tribeca, the waterfront of the West Village. A regular work day has me clocking 4 miles; a busy weekend day has me moving towards 10. And while I can’t get away with saying “the city is my gym!”, it’s a constant adventure to find out just how close everything is.

I returned to a semi-knowledgable state about restaurants. With schedules being what they were, I had gotten into a bit of a rut with restaurants. Fighting for reservations seemed like a waste of energy, and I had missed a lot of places during the “OMG SO HOT RIGHT NOW” phase, which is when I would’ve previously been trying to get my foot through the door. A comfortable pattern of a few routine places where we were treated well had kept me going for a few years, but my ability to arbitrarily recommend restaurants was suffering.

(Pro-tip: Foursquare is the secret to practically any restaurant tip I’ve given anyone over the last four years. The recommendation engine is top-notch, the list and recommendation function indispensable, and it rarely leads me astray. Followers welcome.)

I made it a point this year to try as many new places as I could. That took me to Momofuku Nishi on opening weekend, with chicken & dumplings (above) I still dream about. I visited High Street on Hudson, for a underrated roast pork sandwich lunch. I partook of fancy vegetarian food at Nix and tried Jersey City’s latest at Matthews. I got in on the ground floor at Superiority Burger and in ordering from Ando thanks to working in Midtown East. I scarfed tingly noodles while balanced on a windowsill at Very Fresh Noodles in Chelsea Market. I verified the clam pizza as Pasquale Jones was as good as everyone said (possibly better), and joined the hype train at Emmy Squared, which is undeniably the best pizza in NYC right now. And not two weeks ago, I got welcomed with open arms into the newly reopened Union Square Cafe (also above).

It wasn’t just new places – I finally caught up on the old as well. Bobwhite Counter blew me away after three years of sitting on my to-do list. Mr. Taka (above) cemented itself as my go-to ramen spot, even in the same year I finally dragged myself to Ippudo. I doubled up on Danny Bowien’s spots (Mission Chinese and Mission Cantina were both worth the trips) and on Major Food Group’s places (Santina does great brunch; Carbone is life-changing at lunch). I finally got to try Betony not long before they announced their closure, and got that weird deja vu when you go to a restaurant that used to be another place you frequented (RIP, Shelly’s). I often went small: I loved the low-key charms Superiority Burger (somehow I developed a taste for veggie burgers in 2016?), the basement hideaway that is Sakagura, and the quiet Japanese joy of Hi-Collar. I even finally put a flag down for “regular dim sum spot” at Shanghai Asian Manor on Mott Street, right by Chinatown Fair.

Somehow in all of this, I also managed to achieve “regular” status at Momofuku Ko, which is quite the accomplishment given my documented struggles of 2008. If I had to choose, it’s my favorite restaurant for special occasions in NYC.

I cooked plenty, too. I got bolder with my home cooking: peppermint chocolate bars, strawberry pie (above), spring chicken soba, sous vide duck breast, pasta sauced with sweet corn, and mapo ragu. I’ve passed the point of slavishly adhering to the recipe book, and feel more comfortable throwing things together that I know will work. I’m a long way from marveling myself at being able to put together a tasty BLT sandwich, which happened less than a decade ago.

I doubled down on being a cocktail nerd. My increasing love of cocktail culture didn’t slow down in 2016, and like the restaurants, I ticked a lot off my list. Blacktail spun off many of our Dead Rabbit friends to a new cuban-styled destination, and I can’t think of a better place to grab a daiquiri or a highball. Suffolk Arms is the high-end pub of my dreams. And in the catch-up bucket, I can finally count Angel’s Share, Amor y Amargo, Porchlight, and Ex-Patriate (in Portland) as having been conquered.

I’d be remiss in not mentioning that something had to balance out all this high-end drinking, and that turned into a steady embrace of Mother’s Ruin. Mother’s straddles a lot of lines, starting with its location: within the neighborhood edge of hyper-trendy SoHo, but practically (and atmospherically) on the Lower East Side. It can feel like a dive bar (dressed Tecates are the most common order), but it’s not sleazy (Sunday mornings feature remarkably chill acoustic guitar sessions by a friend of the bar’s). It’s fun (crazy drink names! a slushy machine!) and fast (free-pour everything!) while still having cocktail sensibilities. It can be blisteringly busy or incredibly chill. And most importantly: the food is great, the drinks are delicious, the staff are some of my favorite human beings, and Santacon is banned. Dead Rabbit will always be our impress-the-out-of-town-guests spot, but Mother’s is our weekend hangout spot.

With a steady rotation of drinks comes a desire to make more of them at home, and I’m gradually becoming a better home bartender. Replacing my awful shortcut margarita (tequila + triple sec + limeade) with an actual properly built margarita was overdue. Our home bar now almost has as many shelves of modifiers as it does base spirits. I even managed to modify one of Sasha Petraske’s recipes into something I could batch into a flask, take on a train trip over the holidays, and quickly stir over some ice for some extra holiday cheer.

I went to exactly one soccer game. The good part here is that the number was just that: one. There was no intention to go cold turkey this year; I kept waiting for the day to come where I missed the sport enough to trek to any stadium. But that day never came, and the one game I attended (the third-division championship USL Cup) was more out of convenience than anything else. Perhaps I was too busy with all these other activities? Any concern that I would have regret the decision to step away from the game is completely gone. I keep up with the sport but don’t find much reason to care, other than making sure my friends aren’t suffering the same burnout I did.

I still remain active on soccer social media (to the confusion of many), but if you haven’t noticed how much my tweeting has slowed, perhaps you aren’t paying attention.

I fell in love with music again. How cliché is it to be a thirty something white dude that started collecting vinyl because he missed the “physical nature” of music? Sadly, I’ve made that exact case on multiple occasions this year.

I started the year having just received my turntable and a small pile of records; now, my collection stands north of 150 albums. It’s part nostalgia tripping (the NIN, Prodigy, DJ Shadow, and Orbital albums of my teenage years), part making up for lost time (albums from Smashing Pumpkins and Weezer I had failed to pick up at the  appropriate time), and partially new exploration (Clams Casino and Gold Panda were both on heavy rotation this year).

I started traversing record stores not just in NYC – following some closures mid-year, Turntable Lab and Rough Trade are my two mainstays – but anywhere I traveled. Angry Mom Records in Ithaca was a pleasant surprise, Amoeba Records in LA was everything I had hoped and dreamed, and I took an afternoon in Portland to do a four store crawl before promptly walking into a FedEx store to ship everything home.

My revived desire to go to concerts continued. I managed to catch the debut US show of Aristophanes, a Taiwanese rapper who’s music is impossible to encapsulate in a few sentences. And we loved the Manhattan debut of a friend’s wonderful concept band where she and her husband cover Ryan Adams songs in the style of Taylor Swift. (It’s a long story.)

With friends, I beat Moonwalker in the arcade. $5 of tokens across the three of us was enough to take down a game that had been a thorn in my side for over 25 years. Take THAT, Mr. Big.

Most importantly, I reconnected with close friends and made a few new ones.

It was left unsaid when I retired from the soccer beat last year: I had grown more distant from my friends. Soccer coverage in a theee team market doesn’t give you lots of room for socializing; so many of our plans were made around games rather than the other way around. And while I’ve always contended that not seeing friends for months (or years) in NYC is completely normal, this was bordering on sad.

So this year, I’ve made amends. We’ve scheduled as much time as we can on weekends with friends. We’ve done quarterly karaoke. We’ve gone to guest shifts at other bars. When we’ve travel, most of our day to day plans are seeing old friends who live locally.

I know I get overly emotional about my friends at times, with gushing words seeming out of place against my general air of stoicism and realism. But I know how lucky I am to have all these wonderful people in my life, and it’s what keeps me going every day. So forgive my sap as I call out two specific groups of friends.

Kathryn Yu and Dan Budiac have been the source of so many adventures this year: constant excursions to bars and restaurants and places we wouldn’t imagine. Dan was my partner-in-crime for my first Record Store Day; Kathryn constantly leads the charge on immersive theatre adventures. We’ve been friends for over 10 years, but to have spent so much of 2016 with them (in various states of food and drink comas, like the above New Years celebration at Momofuku Ssam Bar) has been a rare treat. I can only pray there’s more of this in 2017. Love you both.

And last but absolutely not least: we became friends with Stevie Wilson in 2016, and that in and of itself made it a good year.

The other half of #TeamUnicorn, Stevie went from bartender we recognized to bartender who knew us (a toast of “here’s to people who don’t suck” may have been the start of our relationship), to an acquaintance we were always happy to see, to a friend we cajoled out post-shift, to a good friend we hung out with on days off, to the sort of close friends that get scheduled to meet significant others within 24 hours of their arrival. Somewhere in there, I learned she was an incredible artist, author, and all-around person. This was in just over six months.

There will be a longer post about Stevie in 2017 – we know she’s not long from a west coast move, and I’m saving my emotional outpouring until that point in time. But for now, I just want to remember the wonderful whirlwind of her becoming one of my best friends.