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Dining in the Big Apple
By Ralph Collier

New York can be the most intimidating of cities for the first time visitor but that does not infer that it needs to corrode anyone's budget. Instant savings begin with reasonable ccommodations for the savvy traveler with limited resources diagonally across from Pennsylvania Station, the Amtrak hub at Seventh Avenue and 31st Street at the former Governor Clinton Hotel. It has been renovated and renamed Southgate Tower, the largest all-suite hotel in Manhattan and each unit includes a modern kitchen, in some cases two baths and for those with athletic desires, there is an expanded fitness center. All this at reasonable rates when compared to the hotel biggies. Being across the street from Pennsylvania Station and Madison Square Garden also spells savings in cab costs. Take caution as you walk, as 31st Street is no wider than other side streets with cars parked on both sides. You know you could not squeeze a tube of toothpaste through there but here come cars and vans and buses barreling down on the arriving traveler as 'though he (or she) were the last gas station between here and the end of the city. Fear not, the Southgate Tower's doorman comes to the rescue.

The world in the foreseeable future will rely more on the preference of Americans than any other single factor. Our small group's inclination, following lunch at Mickey Mantle's on Central Park South is to look at and participate in our own wide world of sports, New York's mega gym, a few blocks west of Southgate Tower. Chelsea A Pier, on the banks of the Hudson is a rambling sports and entertainment center on a quartet of piers encompassing some 30 acres. One of the piers is a 1000 foot golf driving range, the first Japanese style range in the US - there are four in all - with 160 foot high containment nets strung between huge vertical steel girders. The net catches balls from 50 driving stalls stacked 4 stories high, a Tokyo-ishly similarity.

Feeders automatically raise each ball into place and all tee areas are covered and heated for year round participation. Unlike country clubs in the burbs, Chelsea Piers does not know the meaning of the word snobbery nor exorbitant membership costs. Even non-members can participate at the cost of a mere $25.00 per day.

Among the pierís restaurants, there is lunch at the Chelsea Brewing Company where visitors munch al fresco fashion with the mighty Hudson as a backdrop - the fare is the obligatory burgers and salads as one of the crowd wonders whether the menu is more varied aboard the Forbes yacht, The Highlander, which is docked just a few yards from our site. There are picnic tables and benches in the megamall of health and fitness, which has earned a secure place in the Big Apple's Bible of Superlatives.

Back at the Southgate Tower, time to change and a walk to Madison Square Garden to watch the New York Liberty playing the Houston Comets. Both belong to the WNBA, Womenís National Basketball Association. Photos of the players, not long ago, were traded like the Indonesian rupiah but times have changed and 19,000 enthusiastic fans enjoy modest ticket prices and the fast action of these unpampered players.

Another hot playing field, this one on Times Square, a mecca for entertainment is the site of the Official All Star Cafe. Precisely what makes it official is difficult to determine - nor does one really care - but it is a larger and louder than life tribute to sports that have transformed jocks into carefully planned corporate legends and games into national past times. The music is ear-splittingly loud, non stop, and waiters as well as diners try to lip read one another as the kitchen turns out food that makes the tired catchall "American Fare" sing.

For dinner on our final evening, we throw budget considerations to the winds and hop a cab to a restaurant that New York Magazine refers to as one ideal for 'fishful thinking'. SONORA is on the ground floor of another Manhattan East Suite Hotel, the Eastgate Tower on East 39th Street where the versatile Chef Rafael Palomino has redefined the all-pervading raw bar by substituting the creative Latin American seviche - citrus cured raw fish appetizers. They arrive in a giant Martini glass, shrimp and tuna in a tomato & lemon amalgamation served with popcorn & plantain chips. They are not excessive and the sauce is of such profundity and fulfillment that it controls your entire attention.

It is hard to say how SONORA looks at lunch but in the evening it morphs into a highly atmospheric piece of Manhattan landscape, the contiguous buildings are the perfect backdrop for this intimate outdoor extension of the restaurant; it will be glass enclosed for the fall and winter months. This eveningís menu is clearly a sampler designed to titillate our 'out of town crowd's' palates. In a city where waiters choose to discuss their autobiography rather than the menu, the local staff comes across as a group of pure saints. Captains do not go off in search of a busboy to get you some bread when they are free to get it themselves, wines are poured properly and upon inquiry, their origin and vintage are revealed without fuss or feelings of staff superiority. Silver is constantly replaced as needed and questions by the staff as to whether a dish came up to expectations are so cordial that a diner shakes his head and mutters "this in New York?"

Beef is back in big fashion and one of the courses is Empanada, sirloin imported from Columbia, served with avocado, safely wrapped in puff pastry. It is delectably on target. Next a Chilean salmon tartar, chopped salmon in miniscule bites with more cilantro and a hint of citrus flavoring served with yucca chips, a lime heightens the overall flavor and chive infused oil. It is the chefís ode to the recipes from Chile, Columbia and Ecuador that he knows so well. The intermezzo is a mango sorbet and after a decent interval, the staff serves a Chilean salmon, in this instance one seared in a Chardonnay sauce - it boasts a bright seafood flavor and charms everyone's tastebuds with its enchanting huitlacoche sauce. That's Mexican for mushrooms. Actually, any fish on hand you may have any way you desire: steamed, fried, or broiled.

A minor flaw here is the lighting, which is nil after dark. Tiny lamps placed on tables are more decorative than helpful. Take the provenance of most dishes on faith - it is nearly impossible to see what you are eating, a pity since we eat with our eyes as much as with other parts of the anatomy. Another sirloin adventure is an Argentinean steak grilled with what we learn is a chimichurri sauce with chili peppers; all this is further flavored with a touch of tequila, proving that the menu is as inventive as the restaurant's sober decor.

Nobody is boisterous at this New York restaurant whose spare geometry and sober appointments, even outdoors, verge on the monastic. You are not to be faulted if you avoid desserts normally, but the pastries and creams that make up SONORA's fancy dessert carts are smooth and moist, fresh and airy, in particular a feather cheesecake with guava and a delicate fresh raspberry topping. Admittedly, SONORA may not be part of a budget conscious wallet watcher's weekend, but neither must you be the King of Saudi Arabia or a Bill Gates type to foot the bill. An Irish businessman making his annual pilgrimage to New York had some timely wise advice pronounced with a Dublin brogue: "Come and live a little now. You'll be dead for a very long time".

Ralph Collier is a member of the American Society of Travel Writers, and has guided thousands of vacationers and business travelers to rewarding adventures with his widely syndicated radio series and newspaper columns.




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