Monday, June 4, 2012

Horror in the east village … Asian art on the upper east side

This past weekend we covered a lot of ground – from the East Village’s smallish, pedestrian-saturated streets to the seemingly wider walkways and bustling boulevards of the upper East Side. 

We began our weekend urban sojourn in the East Village aiming to attend an evening theatrical event at The Kraine Theater (85 East 4th St.) – two Radiotheatre stories, classical radio-type dramas, “inspired by the artistry created during the Golden Years of Radio,” directed by the multitalented Frank Zilinyi and presented as part of the H.P. Lovecraft Festival (now in its fourth year!). 

If you enjoy the horror story genre – the creepy, the shocking, the eerie, the ominous – then you owe it to yourself to visit one or more of the festival events.  We attended Program A and heard & saw Lovecraft’sThe Call of Cthulhu” and “Reanimator.” Both stories were extremely well read (well narrated), carefully & cunningly interpreted, and heftily & spookily acted by Mr. Zilinyi, Don Puglisi, and R. Patrick Alberty.  And Don Bianchi’s creatively elegant sound effects and complementary spine-chilling musical accompaniment add the kind of power and depth to the performances that are reminiscent of what we all once heard via the great radio shows of the 1930s and ’40s, including Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre productions (e.g., “Dracula,” “The 39 Steps,” “The War of the Worlds”). Tickets for the festival productions are dirt cheap – at about $4.00, or so, per ticket – and you will, indeed, be entertained, stimulated, and perhaps even terrified!

Prior to trundling down & over to The Kraine Theater for the Lovecraft story performances, we dined at the recently & widely hyped Empellon Cocina, the East Village (105 1st Ave. at 6th St.) outpost of the “Empellon” restaurant duo (the other being the Empellon Taqueria located in the West Village).  While we love so-called high end (sophisticated?  gourmet?) Mexican cuisine in all of its variety and complexity, as well as carefully prepared Tex-Mex food, Empellon Cocina proved only moderately tasty, nicely spicy, and inordinately expensive per the amount of food each small plate delivered (at, roughly, between $16. & $22. a plate).   

Based on The New York Times attention to this resto, we anticipated a true culinary gem. It is good, but not great; the small plates proved, well, a bit too small and unadorned, in some instances, to fully absorb their subtle contents, although they were, for the most part, interesting, quirky, moderately aromatic, and piquant.  We did, however, enjoy the small portion of guacamole with pistachios, chicharonnes & tomatillo-caper salsa, and masa crisps (not your pedestrian chips) for scooping up the bowl’s nicely prepared contents; the tangy roasted carrots dish enlivened with mole, poblano yogurt & watercress; and the chicken meatballs with masa polenta & tinga poblana.  A shrimp dish, too, was on the slight side, but intricately prepared with crispy masa, sea urchin mousse & lettuces.  Perhaps the Empellon Taqueria might be worth a try if you are looking for “… a Taqueria that is pushing to be so much more.” You’ll find it at the corner of 4th and West 10th Street.

We decided to skip the dessert offerings at Empellon and head out to the venerable (since 1894) Veniero’s Pasticceria & Caffe – at 342 East 11th (between 1st & 2nd), for coffee and Italian pastries … simply a terrific (relatively inexpensive) establishment with all manner of cakes (including a light & creamy Neapolitan cheese cake), fruit tarts, pies, and coffees. Try sharing a few of the 20 available small-scale, “miniature” creamy or mixed fruit-endowed pastries – the hazelnut, for example, is satisfyingly sweet – along with a latte and an extra shot!  Indeed, there are pages filled with individual cakes & tarts, Italian pastries (large & miniature cannoli, plain or strawberry flakey millefoglie), and coffee drinks (hot & cold) of all varieties, along with red & white wines, dessert wines, liqueurs, cold beverages, and gelato & sorbetto.  Quite a spot for cakes & coffee, amidst all of these other dessert possibilities!

On Sunday, we ventured up to the Asia Society & Museum (725 Park Ave. @ 70th St.) to catch the latest exhibition – Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong (April 25th thru August 5th).  If you’ve never been here, it’s a real treat … and this particular exhibition is a must; it is truly dazzling, utterly Chinese, but many of the ink paintings suggest to the viewer, and recall some of the elements contained in, the works of such notable Western painters as Jackson Pollack, Joan Miro, and even Wassily Kandinsky.  Curated by Melissa Chiu (of the Asia Society Museum) and Lu Huan (of the Shanghai Art Museum), this major retrospective exhibition is broad and deep, featuring richly detailed, emotion-laden, delicate, finely textured ink paintings by an artist who “… revolutionized the medium at a time when few artists were working in ink following the Cultural Revolution.”  

In short, the exhibition celebrates Wu Guanzhong’s prolific career from the mid-1970s through the early 2000s, displaying some 40, or so, ink paintings and ink drawings  – from abstract paintings (two entitled “Wisteria” prove of interest in terms of their emphases on blacks, grays, and other bits of color … turquoise, salmon, snowy white … and seem to be major works) to somewhat more realistic and impressionistic (even ghostly, imagist) paintings of buildings, towns, architectural “celebrations,” an islet, a harbor with small boats (in all blacks & white background), a forest of date trees, a “tiger mountain,” and even a colorful and abstract take (in various intensities of browns and oranges, among other colors) on “The American Grand Canyon.”  Some of the larger, Pollack-size ink paintings displayed will take your breath away on first viewing; others will simply and calmly seize your attention so fundamentally that you will return to them, linger over them, and they will, magnetically, pull you back to gaze at them again and again. (Wu, it should be noted,died in Beijing at 90 in 2010.) 

When you visit the Asia Society Museum, be sure to stop in at the Garden Court Café (which, according to Forbes magazine, is a  "Culinary Shangri-La secreted inside the Asia Society Museum building ...") and at the Museum store  AsiaStore full of exquisite scarves, ties, jewelry, arts & crafts, cultural artifacts, books, magazines & catalogues (you will, indeed, be very impressed!), as well as the equally exquisite catalogue published on the occasion of the current exhibition,"Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guanzhong."

Following our visit to the Asia Society, and between thunderstorms, we traveled uptown, just a brief way, to Sojourn (at 244 East 79th Street, between 2nd & 3rd Ave.), an imaginative New American restaurant and wine bar, and, overall, a very friendly, casual, and enticing place to dine. (It was our second visit to this eatery and we all loved the food, the wine, and the service on our initial visit.) We started with Manchego & chorizo croquettes in a red pepper emulsion (@ $13.), a few glasses of a light & fruity Sicilian white wine (@ $9. each), and a glass of Don Maza Malbec, 2006 (@ $11.), while waiting for the 4th member of our crew.
When we were all on hand at the table, we ordered a dish for each of us … for sharing, specifically (guided, of course, by our individual likes & dislikes and the suggestions of our knowing & patient Dominican waiter, who, we recalled, had served us on our first visit):  we had the “black pasta” linguini with lobster arrabiatta, an unusually appealing & smoothly textured, olive-oil infused pasta dish (@ $18.); the roasted salmon, with morel & crimini mushrooms, asparagus, and truffle oil (@ $16.); an organic boneless half chicken, succulently prepared in a rosemary white wine jus, accompanied by a side of crispy potatoes; and, finally, a juicy & flavorful, medium-rare skirt steak, coupled with Asian pear, soy marinade, and scallion fried rice (@ $18.). We added the hand-cut French fries, with ginger ketchup (@$7.), were served a basket, or two, of crunchy rolls for dipping into olive oil and everything else, and we quaffed an additional two glasses of an enticing Chanson Pinot Noir, 2008, from the Languedoc (@ 11), and an imported beer or two … and then, after a brief waiting period filled with literary and political chattering, on to a shared dessert:  this time something a bit different – the rhubarb “upside-down” cake with vanilla bean ice cream on the side (@ $10.), and a coffee or decaf for all.
A particularly lovely & well-paced meal … at a fabulous and still very friendly place!  We will return for a 3rd visit, to be sure, in the not-too-distant future.

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