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A hot weekend in cold Gotham

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Winter in Manhattan. The Radio City Rockettes have packed in the Christmas spectacular. The ribbons and lights hung by the cash registers with care have been sold at 50% off. The Bronx may still be up, but the mercury is way down.

There's a way to enjoy New York's delights — the shows, the shopping, the fine dining, the posh hotel, the cheesy behind-the-scenes tours that you secretly love — without freezing while trying to hail a cab.

So, leave the Eskimo boots at home. (Uggs are so last year.) If you're so inclined, you can spend a weekend wining, dining, shopping and getting your culture fix without ever leaving the building — if your building happens to be the Time Warner Center.

The $1.7-billion, 55-story center, completed a year ago, is New York's most ambitious skyscraper project to be built since the 2001 terrorist attacks. Perched jauntily on Columbus Circle where Broadway meets Central Park South, the twin-pronged center soars 750 feet and contains one of the most expensive apartments ($45 million) sold in New York City.

If you're a tourist who wants to come in from the cold and stay in, the center holds almost everything you'll need — the Mandarin Oriental hotel, the CNN backstage tour, the Samsung product showcase, a high-end shopping gallery, half a dozen of the best restaurants in town and a large dose of haute culture, courtesy of the new Jazz at Lincoln Center theater complex.

Such creature comforts don't come cheap, however. A weekend spent exploring the Time Warner Center could test your credit limit. On the bright side, you'll save on taxi fare.

A blizzard, you say? Why, it's so cold out that you just may feel compelled to snuggle under the covers and order up a hot toddy from room service. Here's my New Yorker guide to a hot winter weekend in cold Gotham.

Inside the hotel The high rollers who stay at the Mandarin Oriental don't settle for low floors with brick-wall views. That's why the guest rooms start on the 38th floor and soar skyward from there. It's all part of the my-skyscraper-is-bigger-than-yours mentality that drives New Yorkers. Gazing out the bathroom window with its commanding Central Park view, I couldn't help but wonder why I didn't have a deep, Japanese-style marble soaking tub in my own apartment. Come to think of it, why is this bathroom with its dual vanity, separate tub and shower, and tastefully hidden toilet roughly the square footage of my entire apartment? Well, because I'm a New Yorker whose last name isn't spelled T-R-U-M-P.

I like the rooms at the Mandarin Oriental because, like any regular Joe, I think having several flat-panel LCD TVs in my suite is swell. Besides, it's fun to stare out your floor-to-ceiling glass windows while reclining on a posh settee. A high-art book arranged artfully on the low accent table reminds me that a stay at the Mandarin Oriental isn't just about swanky excess; it's about tasteful swanky excess.

The only thing better than the rooms may be the hotel's immaculate spa with its steam rooms, exercise equipment, treatment rooms and aerie minimalist pool. The weather outside may be frightful, but who cares when you're floating in a cloud-level pool of blue? Post-swim, you can take a break from all that leisure in a relaxation room equipped with cushy white chaise longues and a water cooler infused with floating citrus that looks as though it were snatched from a SoHo art gallery.

The Time Warner Center caters to two of my interests. I'm a news junkie. And, as with most men, my hands get sweaty and my heart beats faster when I get to stare at and play with the latest high-tech gadgets.

Inside CNN, modeled after the CNN studio tour in Atlanta, gives guests a chance to go behind the scenes at the first 24/7 news network. It's like the walk-along version of the Universal Studios tour but substitutes Larry King for the shark-attack sequence.

Evening tours (5:30 until the final 8 p.m. departure) are the best times to see such broadcasters as Lou Dobbs, Paula Zahn and Anderson Cooper. The tour I took wound past glassed-in CNN memorabilia (think Ted Turner's original office telephone) and provided a glimpse of an egalitarian Cooper sitting among his staff and doing journalistic-type work. I resisted the urge to bang on the glass to get his attention.

After the tour and the inevitable gift shop stocked with every form of T-shirt and stuffed fluffy object a heart could desire, I stepped into the Samsung Experience next door. It's not a store, it's an "experience" — really — because you can't buy anything.

All I could do was drool over little silvery cellphones that are several seasons out of date in South Korea but won't hit the States for months. Anyone who thinks his Blackberry is as good as it gets should spend 20 minutes seeing the phones that South Koreans have. They play videos, record video, make you dinner. OK, so they don't make you dinner yet, but you can get a glimpse of homevita, an Internet-enabled home network and automation system due to appear stateside this year. It'll let you control your dishwasher or dial down your air conditioning from the office.

If you'd prefer to browse through a product showcase where you can actually buy stuff, the Shops at Columbus Circle on the bottom levels of the skyscraper oblige with several floors of goodies from the likes of Godiva, Bose, Williams-Sonoma, Coach, Tumi, Joseph Abboud, Hugo Boss and Tourneau.

If I had spent as much time window shopping on Fifth Avenue, I would have been cold and hungry. In the heated Time Warner Center, I was just hungry. So I skipped down a few escalators to the mammoth Jamba Juice-equipped Whole Foods Market food court in the basement. There, I settled on Indian food and lunched next to a mod wall of pulsating, shifting colors. You could always take your food back to your hotel room too. The commute is easy; just hop in the elevator.

After lunch, sweat off the calories in the Mandarin Oriental's clubby workout room or go back downstairs (one level below Whole Foods on Concourse Level 2) to the Equinox Fitness Club, where classes include Anusara Yoga and Cardio Sculpt.

As galling as it is for us New Yorkers to admit, our city has taken a cue from L.A. Although we've always professed bafflement at your tradition of hiding your best restaurants in mini-malls, we've surrendered to the idea and stashed some of the country's best chefs on the top floors of the center's mall.

Indeed, we not only stole the concept, we even stole two of California's best chefs. OK, we have Thomas Keller only part time; he now runs both the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se in New York. But we really did lure Masa Takayama from Beverly Hills to Manhattan full time, and he rewarded us with the most expensive fixed-price menu in town: Omakase feasts at Masa start at $350 or so a person. Per Se's no slouch in the money category either, but there are other, less financially stratospheric, options for fine dining in the Shops at Columbus Circle.

Pooh-poohing largely negative press, my girlfriend, Rie, and I tried local star Jean-Georges Vongerichten's V Steakhouse. On the bright side were the splendid appetizers of butternut squash soup and the ribbons of raw tuna with avocado, radish and ginger. Main courses of steak and a server-recommended pork chop arrived tableside before we had finished our appetizers and were unremarkable. A dessert of apple beignets with a tiny cup of hot cider reminded me of hot Munchkins from Dunkin' Donuts. At $60 per person (before tip, not including wine and with only one side dish to share), V Steakhouse did not impress.

The next night, one floor down and across the mall, we had a far better experience at Gray Kunz's Café Gray. For years, Kunz held sway as top toque at New York's French food temple Lespinasse. Ever since Lespinasse closed five years ago, New Yorkers have mourned the loss of Kunz's cooking.

At Café Gray, the famously neat, perfectionist chef holds court in an open kitchen that sits at arm's length from diners lucky enough to get a front-row seat. It's worth eating there just to watch Kunz's crew prepare your meal. Consider it dinner theater of the most delicious sort.

The food itself is marvelous and surprisingly affordable (around $30 for nearly all the main courses). I ate my mushroom risotto appetizer with my eyes closed to better focus on the earthy, loamy taste. The short ribs were delicious, something meat lovers should try before they die. Service was impeccable — simultaneously formal and friendly; a second plate of petit fours magically materialized after dinner when our check was slightly delayed.

Jazz with a chaserSatiated with the last bite of your chocolate marquise from Café Gray, you could toddle over to the elevator and zip up to bed. But I suggest you take in a show instead.

Lincoln Center Jazz has built the Frederick P. Rose Hall, the first-ever education, performance and broadcast facility devoted to jazz, right inside the Time Warner Center. Three venues — the Rose Theater, the Allen Room and Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, named after jazz great Dizzy Gillespie and a certain soft drink, natch — offer plenty of jazzy entertainment choices seven nights a week.

The bar for a late-night show in Dizzy's wood-clad, curvaceous room gave me a seat with a triple front-row view ($30 plus a $5 minimum): one to the musicians, a trio led by organist Joey DeFrancesco; another to the "Rear Window"-like backdrop of Broadway's apartment buildings; and a third to the twinkling skyline of the Upper East Side above the serene darkness of Central Park.

Catching a show at Dizzy's feels almost too warm, too clean, too classic to be real. It's like being in a commercial about New York City where Paul Shaffer, band leader for "The Late Show With David Letterman" just happens to drop by to hear the show — he did — and legendary reed player David "Fathead" Newman just happens to sit in on a performance of "Hard Times." (He did.)

Who cares if the wind's howling outside? Inside, only the saxophone's blowing, and you're digging into a sumptuous Touch of the Blues blueberry tart and dreaming of your turned-down bed and the macaroon on the pillow only 40 stories away.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Exploring the Time Warner Center

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, American, United, Delta and America West fly nonstop to JFK Airport. Northwest has connecting flights (with change of plane).

To LaGuardia Airport, US Airways and Spirit fly direct (stop, no change of plane). American, United, Northwest, Delta, Air Tran, Continental, US Airways and ATA have connecting flights (change of plane).

To Newark, N.J., Continental, American and United fly nonstop. America West, Northwest and US Airways have connecting flights.

To all airports, restricted round-trip fares begin at $258.

Time Warner Center, 10 Columbus Circle; (212) 823-6300.

WHERE TO STAY:

Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 35th floor; (212) 805-8800, http://www.mandarinoriental.com . Doubles $625-$12,595.

WHAT TO DO:

Equinox Fitness Club, basement level C2; (212) 871-0425, http://www.equinoxfitness.com .

Inside CNN, third floor; (866) 426-6692, www .cnn.com/insidecnn. Tours start every 10 minutes from 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Adults $15, seniors $13 and children 4-12 $11.

Jazz at Lincoln Center, ground entrance; (212) 258-9800, http://www.jalc.org . Prices run up to $150 in the Rose Theater and the Allen Room, but unreserved seating at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, (212) 258-9595, is $30 (plus $5-$10 bar/table minimums).

Samsung Experience, on the third floor; (212) 823-9520, http://www.samsungexperience .net. Features South Korean tech toys.

WHERE TO EAT:

Asiate, 35th floor; (212) 805-8881, www .mandarinoriental.com. Franco-Japanese cuisine. Fixed-price dinners $69. Tasting menu $95.

Café Gray, third floor; (212) 823-6338, www .cafegray.com. Modern French cuisine. Entrees $23-$29.

Masa, fourth floor; (212) 823-9800, masa nyc.com. Omakase dinners, in which the chef chooses for you, start at $350 per person, not including drinks.

Per Se, fourth floor; (212) 823-9335, http://www.frenchlaundry.com/perse/perse.htm . Fixed- price dinners $175 per person.

V Steakhouse, fourth floor; (212) 823-9500, http://www.jean-georges.com . Entrees $19-$66.

— Aaron Dalton

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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