Friday, August 28, 2009

Summer 2009: the Season That Killed

Fall can't possibly come soon enough for me this year.

Not only is summer my least favorite season, and this year, it is certainly going out like a lion with days upon end of still air and lethargy, but this one keeps killing good things.

First there were the big celebrity deaths that just kept coming. The phrase "The End of An Era" has been proclaimed something like six times this summer, and deservedly so.

But what was far worse about this summer, was the impact of the economy on the city, and the loss of three of its best restaurants.

In June, we lost both Jarnac and Alfama. Just last night we lost Elettaria.

Jarnac was the personification of comfort and coziness. Nestled (I use that word sparingly) on the corner of W. 12th St. and Greenwich St., it had a small dining area with pretty windows and quaint fixtures, and a menu comprised mostly of Southern French classics with a slight Southern American spin. It felt like dining at a French Provencal "boite," not like being squeezed into a noisy den of fabulousness. The food was rich, flavorful and soothing. The British owner, Tony, is like meeting Basil Fawlty's charming nephew. Instead of being anxious and cranky, he is good humored, gracious and attentive. Yet there is something wonderfully sarcastic underlying each compliment. For instance, if you arrived late: "Oh thank goodness you're here. We couldn't possibly start our entire dining service without knowing you were safe!" he'd say with a wink. I was first introduced to Jarnac via Sunday brunch and was so torn between corned beef hash, duck mole tamales with poached eggs, a wonderful savory french toast toast concoction that was called something like "egg on a brick" or fluffy french toast and bacon. Luckily we were in a big group and ordered everything; I could taste it all (but definitely had duck envy). Our coffees and mimosas were bottomless. We ate and drank like our stomachs and livers were too. The waiter was funny and conscientious. They also had a well-chosen, eclectic wine list that was half off on Sundays.

I finally started coming for dinner only this year at New Year's. Considering what a chaotic night that can be, Tony gentlemanly as always. Our waitress was calm and sweet. The prix fixe menu had tons of delicious options like salads of seasonal veggies and cheeses, soups and charcuterie. Entrees were a fabulous cassoulet (perfect for that icy night), venison and chicken roasts, braised fishes and pasta. Desserts were big and festive, bread pudding (but not dense), chocolate terrine, tarts. The champagne kept flowing. Daniel Radcliffe was at a nearby table entertaining a couple of babes. Helium balloons hanging everywhere. We all had noisemakers and mardi gras beads. Just after midnight, Tony and the staff went outside to let a bunch go, as was their tradition, and the balloons immediately got stuck in a nearby tree. The corpses of those dead balloons were still hanging up in that tree in mid June when we had our final meal on my birthday. They promise to re-open in some manifestation, but no word yet as to when and how.

Alfama was a Portuguese restaurant on the corner of Hudson and Perry Streets. It prided itself on being a mix of tradition and new world flair and succeeded beautifully. My first visit was on a Wednesday night with a few friends. What we didn't know when we first decided to go that night that Wednesdays were for fado, the traditional story-telling Portuguese singing, accompanied usually by a single, loud guitar. It is considered very rude to speak through a fado performance, so this made our usually convivial a little awkward. But the food was so good it didn't matter, and they took breaks often to let diners chat. We had port-soaked chourico cooked ourselves over a flame, baked clams with more chourico, pork and duck meatballs with ginger dipping sauce (a nod to the island of Macao), bacalao with cod and shredded potatoes, shrimp and other roast fishes. We had mine and John's favorite Portuguese wine, Casa de Santar, and a round of ports from their extensive menu of vintages, rubies and tawnies. John was especially impressed they carried a variety of white ports, which he had only seen in Portugal. We ordered a dessert of molten hazelnut chocolate cake with rum ice cream, which we devoured in seconds. It was so fantastic, the four of us ordered another one despite the wait, and gladly consumed another round of ports.

It wasn't till a couple of years later that a new group of friends who coincidentally were also avid patrons of the place, introduced us to the co-owner Tarcisio, who besides having a knack for hospitality, is an accomplished cocktail maven. New to the menu were a list of inventive cocktails using Portuguese spirits such as licor beirao, which he used in a drink he called "Calhambeque," which is Portuguese for "Jalopy," aka, a Sidecar! He was also starting to incorporate new ideas into the cooking. My new favorite dish was a slab of high quality filet mignon which had been marinated in garlic, brought to the table raw on a hot stone slab. So you cooked it yourself and then dipped it into sauces, accompanied by fingerling potatoes and greens. Simple and amazing. To date my favorite steak ever in the city. After this initial dinner with the new mischpucha, we formed what we called the Alfama Rectangular Table, and returned quarterly on a Monday night, with a revolving group of good friends old and new. But sadly, Alfama too too lost its lease due to a greedy landlord, and closed the same late June day as Jarnac. Again, with promises of a new beginning, but still no word as to when and how.

Then the unexpected shock of Elettaria's sudden close just yesterday! In its original inception, it seemed like it was here to stay. My friend John Isom, who I used to work with at Astor, was the beverage guru. Another Astor alum, Jessica Tantillo, was brought by chef Akhtar Nahwab from EU as his sous-chef, and Noel Cruz was the warm, hospitable co-owner and manager. The concept, (the name means the genus of the cardamom seed) was gourmet classics infused with spice and bold flavors without over-complication. My two favorite things were the revolving fresh scallop dish, which changed seasonally, and usually involved some sort of yummy pork ingredient and caramelized onions, served over greens. And the heavenly donuts, with sweet Indian spices, a fragrant, light syrup, and cardamom ice cream. It was something I proclaimed the first time I ate it (and immediately ordered seconds with my friend Ruth), that I wanted served to me on my deathbed.

The cocktails were clever riffs on pre-Prohibition classics, using high quality spirits and fresh ingredients and the wine list was well-chosen to match the food, affordable and playful. Diners sat right in front of the open kitchen, where we used to wave to Jessica before she sadly had to move back to Texas a few months ago. The bar was comfortable and social. The people behind it were constantly coming up with new ideas to keep it fresh, including a fantastic Violet Hour cocktail time every night, with great bar snacks. People I brought there always had fun. My only complaint was that it was so easy to get utterly schnoggered at the bar since you wanted to order everything, and the trip to the restroom required a a concentrated poise as you tried not to wipe out on the hardwood floor while walking the gauntlet across the crowded dining room, a right at the open kitchen, and down the stairs. I usually remembered to wear shoes with good traction. I couldn't bring myself to take part in its final night last night. Just too sad to see this happen to such a talented and gracious staff, but I heard it was fun. Good on you for going out in style, Elettaria!

Again, rumor has it, another greedy landlord situation. More promise of a new incarnation. Another culinary heartbreak. If it could, my stomach would dim its lights for you three. You will be dearly missed.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I Read the News Today Oh Boy

Well, this has been quite the week for outrageous headlines.

Here's one from this week's NY Times Dining Section. It gives me this overwhelming urge to gather every single fucking ice cream truck in the city, all boroughs, and make them converge outside this woman's Park Slope house, simultaneously chiming "Flight of the Valkyries." Idling engines evil environment-killer? Absolutely. Shame on them. There has to be a way around that. But to use that as a scapegoat for one's parenting inadequacies? Unacceptable fun-killer. Granted, I am lacking in baby-making abilities and maybe this doesn't give me the right to protest, but I have had enough of these over intellectual parents who blame outside sources for the hard fact that their Little Dylan or Emma (what ever happened to Jennifer or Adam?) is simply a stuck up, bratty hellian. A terror on sneaker wheels who is that way because you don't use your power of denial. You don't want to give your kid ice cream? Say no. Move on. As my good friend Liza pointed out on Facebook, "Our kids are gonna hate us [for one reason or another] anyway. It's not the ice-seller's fault."

The part of this debate I am most relishing, though, is that one of the leaders of this anti ice cream truck movement, or NAMBLA (No Abortion Means Blame Life Attitude) is Vicki Sell, who owns the Chip Shop. Yeah, because frying everything, including CANDY BARS, is definitely a symbol of wholesome nutrition. So you don't let your kid eat at your own restaurant? Yeah, didn't think so. I so want to get a group together to throw ice cream scoops at her glass house.

Image here, by the way, is the notorious ice cream truck from the 1976 John Carpenter classic "Assault on Precinct 13." If you don't get the reference, see the movie. 'nuff said.

In other news, Whole Foods at Columbus and 98th is opening a wine shop. I have a few wine industry friends who aren't happy about this. I don't see this as a huge threat to downtown wine and spirits commerce, per se. Yeah, you will be able to legally buy bitters in the same place as your wine, which until now has been impossible in NYC unless you frequent a place that bends the rules and doesn't advertise they're bending 'em. And fresh ingredients and mixers to go with it. But they can't sell spirits. And think of it this way, you can now buy overpriced organic wine uptown and get the same rude and uninformed shop assistance you endure when you buy your $10 organic tomatoes at their food store. Enjoy your NY State sulfite-free Chardonnays, Uptowners! I'm off to Astor or Smith and Vine for some yummy Txakoli. Mmmmmm. Spanish Sulfitttttttes. Aaalllllllllgggghhhh.

But perhaps the biggest outrage yet this week is the release of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi from a Scottish prison, where he had been serving a life term for taking part in the December 21st, 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. He was the only person ever convicted of the bombing and served only 21 years of his sentence, having always maintained his innocence. There are many over the years who agree that this man never really had a fair trial and has been the scapegoat since no can find any of the other alleged co-conspirators alive. Much like the Guildford Four, or the Birmingham Six, who all served jail time for terrorism in Ireland and Great Britain, BUT who were all eventually cleared of their respective charges and set free. In speaking to John about this today, he pointed out that his release is being put solely on the Scottish government, which in essence is supposed to represent all of the UK, yet the Royal They are not calling this a British decision, but a Scottish one. Perhaps out of guilt because they know they've been keeping an innocent man? I find it hard to believe they let him go out of sheer compassion for his illness. It's not like John Gotti got out of prison to die. It's all very weird and sets a terrible precedent.

Be that as it may, his, (let's say "alleged" for sake of argument) intent was to kill the Americans on board that Pan Am flight toward NYC, as supposed retaliation for President Reagan's order to bomb the Libyan cities of Tripoli & Benghazi in 1986. This in retaliation for killing a bunch of Germans & TWO (count 'em) US personnel in a Berlin nightclub. On it goes. Ali al-Megrahi has been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, supposedly given only three months to live. He will remain under house arrest upon his return to his Libyan homeland. Where he will have the privilege of saying goodbye to family and loved ones. All I can say here is did my family friend Vanessa, then a teenager in high school, have the chance to bid farewell to her mother as her life was violently ended 4 days before Christmas? Or the families of the other 269 victims? Did the BRITISH people who had even less association with the Tripoli bombings, whose houses the fiery plane bits randomly fell on after the midair attack, get any sort of warning or compassion? Even if the Scottish government is back pedaling for some sort of cover-up, this simply makes no sense. Politically, metaphysically, karmically, philosophically, judicially, psychologically and most of all, fundamentally. Either stand by your conviction or come out and admit your mistake. Give a better reason for this. You cannot have it both ways and you are insulting the victims of this tragedy. Whoever is at fault, there were 270 innocent people killed by terrorists in 1988. Gee, nice ratio for the 72 virgins in heaven. Hey, no one told you what kind they would be, did they, assholes?

Where's Octomom when you need her?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


I just did something I never do. I went for a walk without wearing lipstick or carrying a purse.

After finishing off and cleaning up after a meal of whole wheat pasta with garlic, hot pepper flakes and oil and tossed with fresh Jersey tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, I went down to take out the trash with just my keys (fully clothed, you cheeky monkeys!) Feeling the first coolish breeze since last week and having been cooped up all day with still no work and feeling useless, I decided to take a walk. Just around the block, on the residential side, I thought. But after 2 blocks, I'd walked 10, then circled back up another avenue, the long way to head home, but detoured on a pretty 3-block "place street" and by then had gone about 20. It felt good to move and feel the air move with me.

Along the way, guess what, no one cared about my lack of dolled up-ed-ness, no one needed my money and I certainly had no urge to make or receive a call or text. I passed dogwalkers and smokers, last minute grocery shoppers on their way home. Couples. Couples hand in hand, couples arguing, couples walking together but apart. The ubiquitous stroller and anxious toddlers, of course. People in lycra en route to and from the gym. An old man with a cane calling up to someone I couldn't see, inside his house.

There was a hipster on a stoop. Alone. No headphone or cellphone, just staring into the street. Thinking. And from his face, it seemed like more than just contemplation of which ironic bowling shirt, skinny jeans and fedora to wear tomorrow. It made me wonder what other town he'd come from. Maybe I have it wrong and his family lives in the brownstone upstairs.


I mistakenly walked too far on the street before mine and had to circle back on the bustle of Court St., past the new restaurant on the corner. All I can ever smell from there is ketchup. Yet it's alway busy, while the French place down the block that I know has good food, service and wonderful smells was empty as always.

Today, during the day, as yet another week of unemployment set in, I wondered if I should just cut my losses and move someplace where my rent money is more valuable. Tonight I learned I'm just not ready for another place to empty my trash on a breezy August night.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Veiled Attempts

I attended a bridal shower yesterday, and it made me realize, I pretty much suck when it comes to the marital arts.

Not martial arts (my roundhouse kick is pretty good, I must say), mar-i-tal arts. You know, the various *"mandatory fun" events that accompany weddings, usually on the bride's side. The engagement party, the wedding shower, the bachelorette party, or hen night, etc. Even though I'm 8 years divorced, it's not that I hate weddings or the idea of marriage. Usually I'm very happy for the bride, and I want to help them celebrate. But these gatherings are so awkward for me.

The bridal shower for instance. You're supposed to invite all the female guests for an afternoon gathering of presents and parlor games. Both things I like a lot, but somehow these don't turn out to be two tastes that taste great together. I don't have much money these days. My friends always tell me they don't expect a gift from me, but my cultured upbringing commands that I never arrive at any sort of gathering empty-handed. And at my poorest, I can provide one of two things they can always enjoy: booze or jewelry, which is usually purchased or assembled that very morning while hungover. When I arrive at the gathering, I'm asked to place my sad little package or bottle against what inevitably turns out to be the fucking Versailles of gift packages. Some massive box with intricate wrapping, bows, secret passageways and trapdoors. The gift within is either some expensive trinket from the gift registry I could never afford, like a cuisinart and then a whole god damn library of celebrity chef cookbooks, that are also packaged with some fancy paradoxical gadget like a digital bookmark and a recipe stand with an egg timer. Or, it's some lovely, creative homemade sentiment like a scrap book of favorite family recipes and pictures. A gift that is likely months in the making with contributions of photos and letters, sent from family and friends the world over. It was lovingly pieced together in late night sessions following a long workday and gym attendance. The bride always gets teary-eyed, and so do the guests. This gift will keep on giving. And then the bride rips the foil off my bottle of Cava, smiles, cocks her head, and lets me know how thoughtful it was of me to bring this symbol of fleeting gratification that will remain longer in the recycling bin than the happy couples' actual memory of drinking it.

Then, let the games begin! By now, the bride is wearing a hat constructed of a paper plate with bits of the giftwrap carnage stuck to it. The maid of honor will clap her hands and pick teams. While sucking down sugary cocktails through penis straws, we will play charades acting out words associated with weddings that we've all written on slips of paper and tossed into a bowl. These are supposed to be joyous words, things like "celebration" or "honeymoon" or "forever." The happiest word I can come up with is "pedicure" and then I have "accountant" and "therapy."

The bachelorette night is another story. WHY do most bridesmaids feel it necessary to subject the bride to humiliating gauntlets of kitsch? I'm not sure how this evolved, but somehow, in the 21st century, Chippendales has been replaced with 80s nostalgia. There is usually some sort of kitschy 80s dance contest or veil-wearing mechanical bullride or an off Broadway play about high school proms or a boozy cruise (with 80s music) or worse yet, bowling. With veils. There is often an expensive meal involved, usually consumed at some theme restaurant none of us would ever choose on a normal night. Yet for our beloved friend or relative, we are expected to shell out hundreds of dollars on greasy egg rolls served up by Asian drag queens, sashaying to 80s tunes, natch. Stripping embarrasses me, but I'd still take a guy in a thong over this shit. At least it's more, well, genuine.

I am thrilled for my betrothed friends, knowing the stories of tortured heartbreak endured till they finally met the man who is worthy of their love. When all this has died down, I'll be happy to treat them to an expensive meal at a great restaurant with a fab wine list. They won't have to wear a veil while eating it, and nary a penis straw to be found.

*Manditory fun is a phrase that was coined in Northeast Music Camp during the summer of 1983. Used to describe the night time activities that were conceived for us, like "color wars" and song contests, in lieu of just hanging out. I have used it ever since.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Don't You Forget About Me

Yesterday, right as I was leaving my salon after a haircut, I got the text from John, "John Hughes dead at 59."

I was saddened by this news, but the full impact didn't hit me till the next morning, today. Last night when the news broke, I had plans to see a "Purple Rain" sing along in Prospect Park. Melinda and Dave had VIP passes. The weather held. The crowd was totally into it. I even managed to snap one of my favorite photos ever with my iPhone (another posting, doesn't fit here).

This morning, as has become my habit, I put on to stream music while eating breakfast, catch up with emails, think about how to justify not working out again and contemplate my day.

John in the Morning has this great mix that starts around 9am our time. I tuned in around 9:20. By 9:30 I guess he had so many requests to play music off of John Hughes soundtracks, that he decided to go for an all 80s theme for the rest of the show. This sort of thing requires great finesse, but he handled it beautifully. "Dancing Horses" went to "Hardest Walk" into 'Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You") to "Let Me Go" to "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want." And so on. Some songs that were featured in his movies, others that just represented that time and place. "If You Were Here, "Under the Milky Way," "Walls Come Down," "I Could Be Happy," etc.

Suddenly I was transported to my parents' old kitchen in CT, before the drastic 90s makeover. Sunset orange walls, grapefruit colored countertops, orange and yellow flowered wallpaper, Tweeter singing in his birdcage, Woofer asleep at my feet (yes, we had a canary named Tweeter and a Golden Retriever named Woofer). The tiny portable radio had to be positioned just so, corner of the kitchen near the stove, the antenna resting against the window, so I could barely get WLIR out of Long Island to play. All my teenage dramas playing out as I was introduced by that radio station to The Jam, Love and Rockets, Violent Femmes, Depeche Mode, David Sylvian, the Smiths, the Cure, Jesus and Mary Chain, Siouxsie and the Banshees, basically every band I came to love, respect and turn to for comfort for decades to come.

Downstairs, below the kitchen, my best friends from high school, Gabrielle, Monique, Ken, Brian, Sarah, Linda, Anne, Maria, Jenn (now Jenna) would come over every Friday for dinner and we'd screen John Hughes movies, among many others, probably taped from cable, as another soundtrack boomed from upstairs, my dad practicing the piano, Tweeter chirping along. Somehow we all learned to drown out the noise and hear the TV. No one seemed to mind that much, or we would have picked another house. When my dad had his first recital, I remember the few friends who attended would say something like, "That's the theme to Pretty in Pink!" when he was playing Schuman or Chopin or Beethoven.

I was enjoying this wave of nostalgia today. Listening to the music, reading the Facebook entries, the Tweets. But when KEXP played "If You Leave" and my friend Justin posted a link to the video around the same time, I actually broke down and cried. My parents have sold the house, Tweeter and Woofer died within months of each other in 1988, some of those friends I probably won't ever speak to again for various reasons. That world is long gone for me. But still, I will miss John Hughes. A man more than 20 years my senior, whom I never met, who somehow understood everything I was going through as a 16 year old female. Now I know what people really mean when they say someone meant the world to them.

Deciding whether to work out or keep listening. I opted for both. After all, in the words of Ferris Bueller, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you might miss it."

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Don't Stand, Don't Stand So, Don't Stand So Close To Me

See this? Why do rock shows have to feel like THIS all the time now?

Last night I went to see the Mekons, one of John's very favorite bands of all time. He's been talking about them for years, and we finally had a chance to see them together, at the Mercury Lounge on the Lower East Side. Singer songwriter Megan Riley, a talented act that John's friend, Sue Garner, produces was opening for them. So it sounded like a great night of music.

After a wonderful meal of South American tapas and cocktails at Macondo (the tapas had delicious layers of flavor without being goopy and the cocktails used South American spirits with fresh purees and herbs to great effect) and a stop at Donnybrook, we were excited to see and hear the music. We stayed in the bar for the first act, but it was starting to get crowded already. When we went to the main room to hear Megan Riley, close to the stage right, it had become rather stuffy, literally. John was wearing a new t shirt that friends had made for him, with an image of Rick Astley emblazoned with "Never Gonna Give." People infront of us complimented it, which was cool. But when the music started, other people were loudly talking through the music and getting pushy. The air conditioning was becoming increasingly less effective, something that I suddenly remembered from my last experience there, when we saw Alejandro Escovedo and all emerged utterly marinated. I remember thinking at the time I would search for another venue to see the lovely man next time. Well, that was a while ago and guess I forgot.

Between Megan Riley and the Mekons, people were pressing up against each other, rudely elbowing their way to the stage. John had gone for a beer. This woman behind me thought it was necessary to wedge her purse into my ass. Did she think I was going to shit coins into it? I shot her a dirty look and she just shrugged. I knew it could only get worse once the music started, and I was in no mood to fight, so I made my way to the back. A perplexed John saw me and claimed there was no way he was standing all the way back where I was, so he maneuvered up front without me. The music started right after and suddenly all these people I didn't know and who therefore I'd never screened for STDS, were pressing up against me and breathing hot, germy beer breath right onto the back of my neck. I kept trying to move away and maintain some sort of no-touching boundary, but by the 3rd song I realized it would be impossible. This was just NO fun, no matter how good the music was.

I gave up and went to the bar. Stayed there a long time and tried to hear the music, as people I could only recognize from the feel of their clothing and acrid breath kept coming back to the bar for more beer and then shoving back into the crowd. Lots of people were clustered at the door between the bar and performance space, so it was apparent the show was way oversold and that the air conditioning could not cool this many music fans. I kept seeing angry people birthed out of the crowd into the bar, cursing and storming out. I managed to last way back there until a couple of encores in. But the onstage banter, unintelligable from my vantage point, was getting longer and it seemed like it could still be a long time before it ended and John and I could go for a nightcap at the Grass Roots, so I just texted him and went home.

I had a similar experience last week seeing the Flamin' Groovies at South Paw, but at least once I expressed how uncomfortable I was, people stopped touching me. But the fact they thought it was OK to even attempt it before I protested is a little alarming. I KNOW I have spent the better part of 23 years going to rock shows without people pressing up against me, unless I purposely bopped around in the mosh pit. Have I finally outgrown this or are people just more rude these days?

Or maybe I just lost my capacity for having total strangers up against my rack?

Either way, this isn't rush hour in Tokyo, people. This is supposed to be easy fun and good tunes.