What I Learned (and Loved!) from my First Dîner en Blanc New York

"I like large parties. They're so intimate. At small parties there isn't any privacy."
- The Great Gatsby 

Last Tuesday, we joined 5,000 intrepid New Yorkers for the biggest Dîner en Blanc in the world to date. Dîner en Blanc started in Paris and is best described as a flash mob pop-up dinner with thousands of revelers dressed in white dining under the stars in picturesque city locations. Dîners en Blanc are held in some 55 cities spanning the globe in cities as varied as Shanghai, Honolulu, London, Johannesberg and Sydney. This was the fifth Dîner en Blanc to be held in New York City.

Dîner en Blanc New York 2015

Dîner en Blanc may be for you if you're someone who doesn't mind trading in a measure of inconvenience for an extraordinary experience. It takes work to attend Dîner en Blanc, that's for sure—but we found that a great deal of the fun was in the preparation. Partygoers are requested to dress entirely in white and many go out of their way to do so elaborately—we're talking forehead to waist-length feathered headresses, LED-lit hats and skirts, and Marie Antoinette-style wigs. We didn't go that far but we definitely had fun jazzing up our white outfits. J opted for a dapper vest and tie, while I went with this fun feathered fascinator. We confused quite a few people on the train (and on social media) who thought we had gotten hitched! Dîner en Blanc organizers, I may have a spin off idea for you: fancy a 5,000-person Mariage en Blanc?

Dîner en Blanc New York 2015

But I digress ... back to the particulars of Dîner en Blanc planning! To make a flash mob pop up dinner possible, revelers must bring their own tables, chairs, linens, china and stemware to the secret location, which is revealed just shortly before participants set up. Partygoers meet in groups of up to 200 in locations spread throughout the city before heading to and converging at Dîner en Blanc's chosen location. Given these conditions, you need to strike a balance between how pretty you want your table to look and how much stuff you're willing to lug from home to meeting point to secret location, recognizing that each location may be in drastically different parts of the city. Our meeting point was only two short subway stops away from the location but some people started out as far away as Lincoln Center and Cadman Plaza.

Hustling through the subway with all our paraphernalia was mildly stressful and losing our group leader along the way, even more so. But we followed the tsunami of white-clad revelers and easily arrived at this year's Dîner en Blanc location: Pier 26 at the Hudson River Park, with views of One World Trade Center to the south and a beautiful sunset over the Hudson River to the west. 

Dîner en Blanc New York 2015

With one Dîner en Blanc under my belt, I thought I would share the lessons we learned from our experience—not because I think I'm some kind of authority on the topic but because as newbies, our own experience was made that much bettter thanks to tips shared by those who came before us. So here's my 10 cents to add to the mix on how to have a great Dîner en Blanc experience in New York:

1. Go big or go home. 

What makes Dîner en Blanc magical is how invested participants are in the experience. It is a highly sought-after event with a waitlist of 35,000, so it seems a waste to show up then half a*s it. Flaunting the rules and sitting there eating out of a takeout plastic container really does detract from the overall experience, so I implore you: if you're going to participate, please do it right!

2. Turn that white outfit up. 

While you don't need to spend an arm and a leg, you'll be happy that you added a little something special to your white outfit once you're amidst a throng of spectacularly dressed Dîner en Blanc attendees. You can make your own headdress if you're crafty or scour Etsy for beautiful headbands, fascinators and headdresses. For those on a budget, try Amazon, where I found my feathered flower fascinator.

3. Bring out the good china.

Tablescaping turns into a something of a sport at Dîner en Blanc and I reckon you do not want to come in at last place. Some people go through great lengths to have a spectacular table, going as far as bringing in trellis canopies with hanging lanterns. You need not break your back; it makes a world of a difference to have elegant china, proper stemware, fresh flowers and flameless candles (these silver art deco ones are perfect). You can go cheap on items like the tablecloth and napkins (I got mine for a song through Amazon here and here). But because table real estate is scarce, every other piece you bring should enhance the overall aesthetic of your setting.

4. Oh ye culinarily challenged/lazy, let Todd English cater to you.

While it is not the absolute best food one will ever eat, Ca Va Brasserie provided a well-thought-out and generous selection of appetizers, salads, entree and dessert. What you are paying for is really the luxury of not having to shop for, cook and carry an extra few pounds of food on top of all the other things you are BYO-ing. Should you opt for this option, I would advise you to send one of your party to pick up the food immediately. Upon arrival, J made a beeline for the picnic and wine pick-up while I set up our table. He did not need to line up at all but by the time we were sipping our first glass of the bubbly, the pick-up line had extended halfway across the pier.

5. Watch your weight.

Given the commuting-with-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink part of this exercise, you would do well to pick the lightest table and chairs you can find. Ikea's $7.99 white Gunde chair fits the bill perfectly at just 4 pounds apiece. We used the Ikea Tärnö table but wished we had gone with this Coleman table, which weighs just 5 pounds, rolls up into a convenient carrying case, and has a larger surface. While the Tärnö table is the cheapest option, it's a touch too small and its slatted surface resulted in champagne spills every time glasses were set down slightly on the edge. The light, portable and sturdy Coleman table is worth the extra $10 and will probably be much more useful outside of Dîner en Blanc.

6. Practice makes party-perfect.

A week prior to the party, I did a dry run of my tablescape at home and realized how very little can actually fit on the surface of a folding table. Doing so was a reality check that stamped out my urge to continue shopping for beach-themed tchotchkes. This also ensures that you don't carry one thing more than necessary.

7. To cart or not to cart?

That remains a question. J thought we would have been better off with a luggage trolley or no cart at all since he found it cumbersome to carry our loaded shopping cart up and down the subway stairs. He did concede however that walking on the streeets was a breeze because we could just pile everything into the shopping cart. On hindsight, I think the luggage trolley might have been the more convenient purchase because it's easier to store and we could've used it for other events like the Jazz Age Lawn Party. I can concede this much: while insist the cart was a godsend, it may well be that it was the man carried the cart up and down subway stairs who deserves that credit!

To get on the waitlist for next year's Dîner en Blanc New York or
to find out whether there's a Dîner en Blanc in your city, click here

Urban Farming at Brooklyn Grange

New York never fails to surprise me. Last Saturday, we tagged along with my cousins to the Brooklyn Navy Yards to check out an event at the Brooklyn Grange. I was floored to discover a flourishing urban farm on a Brooklyn rooftop with the New York skyline as its backdrop.

Urban rooftop farming at the Brooklyn Grange with New York skyline views
Sunflowers on the Brooklyn Grange rooftop with a view of the New York skyline

The Brooklyn Grange bills itself as the biggest commercial rooftop farm in the world, with two farms located in the Brooklyn Navy Yards and in Long Island City. They sell their produce at the LIC farm on Saturdays and at Greenpoint's Down to Earth Markets on Sundays, as well as select online and local retailers. Brooklyn Grange shares the joys of urban farming with a wide range of audiences, including urban youth, refugees and immigrants. Apart from all its admirable do-gooing, the Brooklyn Grange's urban farm is a sight to behold. Its lush rows of dinosaur kale, tomato vines heavy with plump fruit, and cheery sunflowers look utterly surreal set against stunning views of the Empire State Building and One World Trade Center.

The event we attended last Saturday launched a partnership between Everlane and Edible Schoolyard NYC. Their goal is to raise $50,000 to bring better food and knowledge about where food comes from to the city's school children. Everlane teamed up with five chefs to design a range of market totes, which are currently available for purchase at Everlane. Profits will benefit Edible Schoolyard NYC, which partners with public schools to build gardens and kitchen classrooms so that school children can have a stronger connection with food, health and the environment.

Everlane and Edible Schoolyard tote
Lavender cocktails on the Brooklyn Grange Navy Yards rooftop
Urban rooftop farming at the Brooklyn Grange with New York skyline views

We had a really lovely time sampling lavender-spiked cocktails, touring the farm facilities and getting to know a bit more about these amazing New York initiatives. There's probably nothing more Brooklyn than sipping lavender cocktails on an urban rooftop farm—but at the same time, it's finding out all the amazing things Brooklynites and New Yorkers are up to that makes it so great to be a part of this community.

Cooking with Blue Apron

As someone who only learned to turn on a stove at the age of 22, I have a bit of a complex when it comes to cooking. While I have grown leaps and bounds since the day when even making instant ramen was an intimidating thought, 12 years later I am still just about getting comfortable in the kitchen. I thought throwing myself in the deep end by endeavoring to cook a 5-course dinner for my 30 Before 30 Project would do the trick, but to be honest I haven't cooked a single one of those dishes again since crossing it off my list! Some might call that trauma; I'd like to think that I just learn new skills differently.

What seems to be working at making me feel more at ease in the kitchen are curated meal subscription services. If you haven't come across them yet, these services make cooking at home a convenient and stress-free affair by delivering a recipe and every ingredient you need to cook a great meal straight to your doorstep. I've developed a mini obsession with these services, trying different ones to see which works best for me. I wrote about Plated earlier this year, but over the past few months, the service I've ended up ordering the most from is Blue Apron. In terms of cost and recipe choices, it suits me well. The ones I still daydream about are the Pork Dan Dan Noodles (top left) and the Za'atar-spiced Steaks with rutabaga-barberry tabbouleh and labneh (bottom left).

My Blue Apron meals: Pork Dan Dan Noodles, Za'atar-spiced Steaks with rutabaga-barberry tabbouleh and labneh, crispy catfish

My Blue Apron deliveries were key when I was in lockdown mode while writing my Master's thesis. Immersed in research and writing, I didn't have the brain power to spare to think about what I would eat, so it was great to recieve boxes of goodies just waiting to be cooked. It was also great as stress relief to cook a nice meal without having to worry about tracking down obscure spices and herbs. It made me realize that it's not so much cooking an exotic meal that I find cumbersome but the actual hunting down (and inevitable forgetting to buy) all the necessary ingredients. I can imagine what a different experience that 5-course meal project would have been had I been able to order the whole thing from Blue Apron! Maybe a Blue Apron dinner party should be on my next to-do list ...

The Netherlands: An Ongoing Love Affair

Amsterdam canals

Whenever I'm in Amsterdam I find myself wondering with no small measure of frustration, "Why don't I live here?" This is especially true during the summer, when I can easily imagine an alternate life in which J and I spend our days sipping machiattos on sunny terraces; sailing through the canals with cold Heinekens in hand; biking through the charming cobblestone streets; cozying up on the couch with Indonesian takeout; marathon drinking in the lively bars; and dancing til dark in music festivals. While the picture is crystal clear in my mind, life has yet to get on with my imagined programme ... so for now, I have to be content with living out bits and pieces of the Amsterdam life I've envisioned whenever I can get away. 

Amsterdam rooftops
Beer and bitterballen by an Amsterdam canal

I spent the loveliest week in Amsterdam with (mostly) gorgeous weather: not too hot (as it was this week) nor too rainy (as it was the week prior). It was as if this charming city was conspiring to make me fall even deeper in love. We spent our days having beer and bitterballen by the canal; exploring the city by foot and by boat; hanging out with friends; and squeezing in as many dates in our favorite spots as possible.

Pretty red Amsterdam doorway
Pretty Amsterdam doorway
Vintage record store in Amsterdam

We also took a little trip out to the suburbs to visit family and indulge in classic Dutch poffertjes—heaps of tiny pancakes toped with sugar, butter and, if you please, even a generous splash of Grand Marnier. While I'm not quite sure that I'm cut out for Dutch suburbia (or that Dutch suburbia is ready for a little Asian firecracker like me!), it's always fun to imagine what life could be like in these parts.

Poffertjes restaurant in Dutch suburbia
Dutch suburbia
Holland windmill

Now that I'm back in New York, I am suffering from severe Netherlands withdrawal. I guess there's only one thing to do: Channel all that frustration into finding my way there! Wish me luck ...

Amsterdam canal
Amsterdam canal

America is Hard to See at The Whitney

America is Hard to See at The Whitney
America is Hard to See at The Whitney

To kick off the 4th of July weekend, my friend Avery and I added a dash of soul food to our typical gastronomic expedition through the city. Fittingly for the weekend, we ended up at The Whitney, a museum dedicated to showcasing twentieth century and contemporary American art. Its new location at the heart of the Meatpacking District is a work of art in itself.

The Whitney Museum, Meatpacking District, New York
View from The Whitney Museum, Meatpacking District, New York

The Whitney boasts lovely views of the city but if you can tear yourself away from the balcony, you'll find some pretty cool things inside. In the past, I visited The Whitney to view specific exhibitions like Yayoi Kusama and Jeff Koons. This time, The Whitney has drawn pieces from its collection to put together America is Hard to See, which provides a glimpse of America's story through its artists. The issues that have touched the country are evident in the themes touched upon, which extends from the Great Depression of the 1930s to terrorism today. Many of pieces I enjoyed drew me in through form and technique: Willem de Kooning's abstract expressionism, Jay Defeo's stunning use of texture; Thomas Downing's command of color; Jackson Pollock's exhuberant drip painting; and Chuck Close's impressively detailed hyperrealism. Some of the commentary resonated with me too: Andy Warhol's ever-present ode to American consumerism; Donald Moffett's critique of Raegan's inaction over the spread of AIDS; and Barbara Kruger's jab at a gendered trope with We Don't Need Another Hero. Viewing The Whitney's collection provides an opportunity to reflect on America's story on the day we celebrate its independence. 

America Is Hard to See is on view until September 27, 2015. For more information, visit whitney.org.

At the Whitney Museum: Willem de Kooning, Jay Defeo, Jackson Pollock, Thomas Downing
Andy Warhol at the Whitney Museum
Chuck Close
Barbara Kruger, We Don't Need Another Hero

Pleased to meet you, Eastern Algarve

Don't you just love discovering a place where time seems to have stood still? That was the impression we had of the little hamlet of Cacela Velha, tucked away in Portugal's Eastern Algarve and seemingly unmoved by everything else that is going on in the rest of this crazy world. Hugged by lush orchards on one side and the aquamarine waters of the Ria Formosa on the other, its cobblestone streets lined with whitewash-walled homes continue to be quiet and mercifully bereft of tourist throngs.

A house in Cacela Velha
Cacela Velha, Eastern Algarve, Portugal

Looking to unplug after an unbelievably hectic year, we spent most of our vacation in a charming villa nestled between orange and olive groves in this tranquil pocket of the Algarve. It was a blessing of sorts that the owner has so far refused to have wifi installed. Disconnecting from work emails, social media and television left lots of space for reading books, having lots of conversations over glasses of delicious Port, gazing at the vast and star-filled sky, and perhaps developing a slight obsession over watching ant colonies go about their day (I'm convinced it's as entertaining as an episode of Game of Thrones ... though it may have been an effect of all the cold Sagres and warm summer sun!).

Cacela Velha, Eastern Algarve, Portugal

When we did venture out, it was to explore places suggested by my Portuguese friend Ana, who was kind enough to jog her stepfather's memory and then translate his recommendations. We took the shortest of drives to Restaurante Marisqueira Fabrica do Costa for a languid seafood lunch with a lovely view of the ocean. While some may find the service slow, to a New Yorker it was positively luxurious to feel unhurried through our meal of grilled cuttlefish, tuna stew, vinho verde, and 1 euro espressos. We also explored the busier beachside town of Manta Rota, which was in full tourism development mode but still interesting to see. We took a stroll on the long and sandy beach before escaping to Sem Espinhas for a snack of fish soup, jamon com melão and beer.

Manta Rota, Cacela Velha, Eastern Algarve, Portugal

We also visited the nearby city of Tavira, which is a touch busier and more touristy. But it was not difficult at all to find pockets of stillness in its cobblestone streets—whether it was to take a walk in a garden nestled in an old fort; to quietly gawk at hand-shaped doorknockers gracing each home; to enjoy a lovely dinner at A Ver Tavira (its specialty evident in its name); or to sit on a bench by Rio Gilao listening to music from a bar on the opposite bank, tearfully laughing at the realization that cover bands tread a very thin line between mimicking Louis Armstrong and actually sounding like Cookie Monster.

Tavira, Portugal
Tavira, Portugal
Tavira, Portugal
Doorknockers in Tavira, Portugal

We had the most wonderful time in Portugal and I reckon we'll be coming there for years to come. It feels like a place that is still our little secret ... so do come dear readers, but don't go telling everyone all about it now okay? *wink*