Friday April 26, 2013

Everybody needs a vacation. A time to get away from the routine, relax a bit, expanding your horizons and exploring a little. A time for unwinding and rejuvenation. I wait for our vacation times with much anticipation, trying to plan the right balance of down-time and new experiences. I love the time spent with family and friends and am always left with mixed feelings after returning home to the familiar -- a bit deflated and yet happily energized.

This past week we spent a bit of time in New York City, again visiting family and checking some more "must-sees" off our list. New York is lovely in April -- not too hot, not too cold, a bit greener and more spring-like than here and certainly full of things to do. We spent a bit of time shopping at the American Girl store (8-year-old Margot), some time in Central Park, a great rollicking dinner with my husband's family, a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado" as well a great trip to the Bronx Zoo.

As always, great food (Fetch on 3rd Avenue where, if you bring them a framed picture of your dog, they will hang it up) and traditional snacks (honey-roasted almonds and hot dogs from the food carts outside of the 66th Street entrance to the Park) are part of the package. I have mentioned before that there is a great little café just around the corner from where we stay where we feel as though we are almost part of the neighborhood and not just tourists.


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Every morning spent in New York we have respectively staggered (adults and teen) and skipped (age 8) our ways in for cups of coffee, hot chocolate, oat scones and chocolate croissants. Running into Uncle Bill getting his cup of coffee, seeing our friend Vince across the street walking his dog and the older couple sitting in the same seats reading the Times (did they even move from our last visit?) becomes part of the usual. It's a wonderful way to start your day, waking up while people-watching and feeling enfolded in a substitute neighborhood. There is certainly something to be said for vacationing in a familiar place.

This trip, Marielle, our 13-year-old, and I spent some more time exploring other neighborhood restaurants. We had some leftovers from Thursday's big dinner, and added to them for Friday's supper by visiting a local Chinese restaurant on the corner. We then supplemented those leftovers for Saturday lunch from the gourmet deli around the corner (ah, the options feel endless!). While on one of our forays, we noticed an interesting restaurant and bakery -- a few café tables outside, loaves of breads shelved behind the counter and long communal tables, bare and unfinished, flanked by chairs of the same. We looked at the menu posted next to the front door and both thought that we might just need to try something new for breakfast.

Arriving back at the apartment we made our announcement -- tomorrow's breakfast would be at a new spot and we weren't telling where. Margot (the 8-year-old) wasn't exactly happy heading out into the wide blue yonder and skipping out on our usual café for the unknown, but eventually agreed once we assured her that would still be chocolate croissants on the menu.

We walked into Le Pain Quotidien the next morning, time seeming to slow down as we gathered our family around the end of the long table nearest the window. Coffee and hot chocolate were ordered, along with pastries, soft boiled eggs, fruit and a bread basket. When the morning beverages arrived we realized just how much small changes to the simplest, most everyday things can have a very large impact, changing the way you feel and affecting your whole day.

The cups were of thick glazed ceramic, shaped like deep bowls, and had no handles, wonderful to cup hands around while inhaling the lusty smell of strong coffee. Much to her surprise, Margot was served a bowl of hot, frothy milk and a small pitcher of rich, thick melted dark chocolate. She looked at it skeptically, but as it dawned on her how this hot chocolate worked, she became so excited she didn't want to pour the jug of chocolate lest she spill a drop.

It was this simple change, this mysterious luxury replacing the usual that made a huge impression on her, and the rest of us as well. She was transfixed at first, and then began to relax, enjoying this new ritual that had been introduced. A far cry from the cocoa usually served at our kitchen table back home, she drizzled the thick chocolate over the creamy milk, stirring and tasting and adding a bit more to taste. We all slowed down, sat back a bit further in our chairs and shed another layer of our "usual" selves.

We finished breakfast slowly, taking time to enjoy both the food and one another's company. Somehow we all managed to escape a little bit more that morning. I will admit that I thought about replacing our oh-so-average mugs at home with handle-less bowls and buying a milk steamer / espresso machine in an effort to recapture the feeling of relaxation and decadence at home. But whether we trade in our mug collection, it was a wonderful reminder to try new things and take the time to revel in the everyday.

We'll certainly return to this Le Pain Quotidien on 1st Avenue. We'll also continue to frequent our original café around the corner, Gotham, pick up more take-out at the Wok n Roll and Le Gourmet and go back to Fetch. We'd also like to make it back to brgr, a restaurant we found in December during our last visit, try Alice's Tea Cup and continue to expand our list of new places to eat. But no matter where we eat, in New York, at home in Brattleboro, out in a restaurant or in our own dining room, I hope that we remember the lesson of that breakfast: being open to changes, slowing down and savoring every moment.

Julie Potter is a wife, mother of two, avid gardener and passionate cook who believes good food doesn't have to be complicated. Share your thoughts with her at jpottercooks@gmail.com.