New York City Transit broke new ground in North American rapid transit when it procured a radio-frequency-based Communications-Based Train Control system on the Canarsie “L” line. The innovation apparently hasn’t stopped with CBTC, because the L was recently the scene of a unique dining experience. Though not approved (or for that matter, appreciated by) the New York MTA, the event, as reported by The New York Times, was typical of the many unusual and offbeat things that make the Big Apple’s subway system unique in the world.
We would like to add to The Times’ coverage of this event by clearly stating that, in our opinion, it would not have gone off with such precision and success without the smooth train operation afforded by the Canarsie line’s state-of-the-art CBTC system from Siemens. In full ATO (Automatic Train Operation) mode, the L’s CBTC system as deployed on the Kawasaki Railcar USA R143 cars provides far smoother, more-consistent acceleration and braking profiles than manual operation. So, a hearty toast (non-alcoholic, of course) off to the railway supply industry and the engineering consultants that support it for making CBTC feasible and affordable, and fine dining on the L train just another typical day on New York’s subways. Read on.
—William C. Vantuono, Editor
Aboard the L Train, Luncheon is Served
By Melana Ryzik
Published in The New York Times, May 3, 2011
Photo courtesy of The New York Times
In the era of pop-up restaurants and speakeasies, flash mobs and social stunts, it was perhaps inevitable that a formal luncheon for a dozen people would be staged aboard the Brooklyn-bound L train. Inevitable, but still impressive.
“So, is there a dining car?” one of the guests asked, as the group descended into the subway station at 14th Street and Eighth Avenue on Sunday, shortly after 1 p.m.In fact, there was. Within moments, a car of the waiting train was transformed into a traveling bistro, complete with tables, linens, fine silverware and a bow-tied maître d’hôtel. “Is this your first time dining on the second car of the L train?” he asked, as guests filed in.
They had been lured by the promise of a clandestine dining experience. (“Please go to the North East Corner of 8th Ave and 14th St,” read the instructions e-mailed early that morning. “There will be a tall slender woman there with jet black hair who is holding an umbrella. Please just go up and introduce yourself. Her name is Michele and she is quite lovely, but no matter how hard you press she won’t tell you about the adventure you are going on.”)
The event was the work of several supper clubs, and the menu they devised was luxurious: caviar, foie gras and filet mignon, and for dessert, a pyramid of chocolate panna cotta, dusted with gold leaf. All of it was accessible with a MetroCard swipe (Michele handed out single-ride passes) and orchestrated with clockwork precision. The six-course extravaganza took only a half-hour.
It wasn’t rush hour, so seating was easy. The tables (lap-width black planks, with holes cut to fit water glasses) were tied to the subway railings with twine. Tucking in behind them felt something like being buckled into a roller coaster. At 1:30 p.m., a few minutes ahead of schedule, the train lurched off.
“Remember, if you see anything, say something,” said the maître d’hôtel (actually an auctioneer who gave his name only as C. K.). He added, “This train will be making all local stops.” Assistants decorated the tables with sprigs of lavender and offered water, sparkling or still.
At the next stop, Sixth Avenue and 14th Street, the chefs and main organizers, Daniel Castaño and Michael J. Cirino, of the supper club A Razor, A Shiny Knife, hopped on, joined by gloved waiters with trays. They presented the first course, an amuse-bouche of fluke crudo with bone marrow mayonnaise and trout roe, served in porcelain spoons borrowed from the pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini.
“We might mention that we really love the slow food movement,” said another bowtied host, Jonathan Cristaldi, “but today we’re not really about slow food. So eat quickly.”
Because of a few no-shows, there was room for walk-ups (or rather, passengers). “We’ll show you to your table right now,” C. K told Nicolas and Ana Brandstader, a brother and sister from Buenos Aires heading to Williamsburg who stopped and went wide-eyed as helpers rigged up another plank.
Paul Smith, a CUNY professor, encountered the meal on his way home to the East Village and was invited to join. “I had this fantastic lunch,” he said, “very exquisite. And then I thought, am I going to get arrested?”
There was no sign of the police or even a conductor, but officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, reached on Monday, were not amused. “A dinner party on the L train?” said Charles F. Seaton, a spokesman for the authority. “No. Subway trains are for riding, not for holding parties.”
In deference to the authority’s rules, the hosts did not offer alcohol. This did not assuage Mr. Seaton. “No beverages at all with open containers,” he said.
(Editor’s comment: Sorry Charles Seaton, but even though we know you must follow official MTA policy, you're being a REAL party pooper!)
At Third Avenue came foie gras en brioche, with pots of homemade port-and-raisin jelly. Guests scrambled for knives and salt cellars that slid around the tables. As the subway rumbled, water refills sometimes missed the mark, and C. K. got on his knees to stabilize the tables and proffer wet wipes. Other riders gawked or — this is New York, after all — continued staring ahead and listening to their iPods.
Under the river and out to Brooklyn, where, at the Lorimer Street stop, the soup got on: purée of ramps, poured warm from a silver teapot, over black garlic, morels and a prosciutto crisp. Among the guests was Helena De Pereda, who is helping open a members-only club in SoHo and was considering hiring A Razor, A Shiny Knife for events. “They wanted to impress me,” she said. “They got the job.”
Like some counterparts in the underground dining scene, Mr. Cirino and Mr. Castaño aim for a punk theatricality. Halfway to the last stop, in Canarsie, Mr. Cristaldi, who performs as Jonny Cigar and hosts an itinerant wine saloon, began reading aloud from a copy of “The Great Gatsby” that he pulled from the pocket of his bespoke suit. The subway luncheon was his idea.
Naturally, it was heavily documented; at times the photographers outnumbered the staff. Mike Lee, of the dining club Studiofeast, the chef in charge of the entree, arrived at Morgan Avenue with a video camera strapped to his forehead. His runners carried boards with precisely plated cubes of filet mignon, swipes of mashed potatoes and pickled asparagus tips.
Mr. Lee had drawn a map of the Morgan Avenue platform, complete with the benches he used as work stations, and clocked dry runs of assembling his dish. Like the others, it was cooked at an apartment along the L route. Timing was crucial, but waiting for the right train was torture. “It was 50 minutes of sitting around and 10 minutes of sheer terror,” Mr. Lee said.
In a final flourish, the last two courses — a gooey spoonful of St. André cheese and the dessert — were finished aboard the moving train. As the L rose above ground and the car filled with sunlight, Mr. Cirino added a raspberry coulis from a whipped cream dispenser to the panna cotta; plates were quickly spooned clean. The Argentines gloated over their good fortune. “You expect crazy things to happen in the subway, like people getting naked, but this ... ” Mr. Brandstader said, trailing off.
With the dirty dishes packed away and the tables stacked, the organizers took stock at a beer garden in Williamsburg. The whole event involved more than 50 people and the cost to the hosts was about $1,600, Mr. Cirino estimated, not including donated supplies (Mast Brothers chocolate for the desserts) and prep space (courtesy of the Brooklyn Kitchen).
Tickets were $100, but the money was refunded as a sort of good-will adventure gesture. “We wanted to challenge ourselves,” Mr. Cirino said. “We raised the bar,” Mr. Castaño added. Coming from a crew whose idea of a meal out is recreating a 20-course Thomas Keller-Grant Achatz feast and serving it in three cities, this is high praise. Over lagers and sausage they toasted a future filled with sizzling hot pots.
“Next year,” Mr. Lee said, “we do shabu shabu. What could go wrong?”