Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Marcus samuelsson live … punjab in hell’s kitchen … 3 one-acts by horton foote ... & a new novel

Following the publication of Yes, Chef: A Memoir, Marcus Samuelsson is appearing all over New York – with a lengthy profile in The New York Times (Sunday, August 5th, by Adrienne Carter, the Business section) to articles and interviews online –  really, all over cyberspace – and all over the physical world, too.  The Times presented his “frenetic life” in pretty fare depth & detail, “as a media-savvy chef, author, food impresario and entrepreneur” [italics mine] … with “Six restaurants, four cookbooks, two Web sites, and, soon, a cookware collection.” And Gourmet Live has written the following about this celebrity chef:

Samuelsson needs little introduction these days. The multiple James Beard Award–winning chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, philanthropist, Top Chef Masters winner, and pioneer of Scandinavian cuisine in the U.S. has most recently been hailed for his latest restaurant endeavor, Red Rooster, in Harlem (since it opened in December 2010, it has topped critics’ lists, including The New York Times’ Sam Sifton’s Top 10 Restaurants of 2011).

So, of course, we simply wanted to witness this culinary phenomenon in the flesh, ourselves, having eaten with great fondness his pan-Scandinavian food a few years ago at Aquavit ...  And see him we did last Wednesday in the Rare Book Room at The Strand (Broadway at 12th St., the 3rd floor), over wine & finger food, as he chatted it up for over an hour with Amanda Hesser, the NY Times food writer, and, apparently, sometime friend of the chef himself.  He pretty much told us his life story in several thoughtful, pleasant, friendly & even outrageous anecdotes, at times answering the interviewer’s questions, at times riffing solo on his life & work, culinary education & current doings.

The interview proved a memorable & electric experience, and Mr. Samuelsson was extremely generous with his time, his memories, his, well, life … from his youth in Ethiopia to Sweden to New York & all kinds of high-powered haute training venues in between (in Switzerland, for example).  Now, all we need do to round things out is experience his latest culinary creations at his newest restaurant venture (est. 2010) – Red Rooster – uptown at 310 Lenox Avenue, between 125th & 126th, in Harlem. And we shall, indeed … perhaps in the fall. 

Getting back down to earth, though, we’d like to share our experience (this past Sunday evening) at a lower key resto in Hell’s Kitchen called Punjabi Tadka Kebab, just a few short blocks from the Theater District, and billed in their PR material as an Indian restaurant serving “authentic” Punjabi cuisine (at 688 10th Ave. & 48th St.). The resto proper is pretty much a non-descript smallish rectangular room with a brick wall on one side and tiny buffet area, with no table cloths and (only) plasticized plates & bowls, and plastic utensils. But the chef produces a bit of wizardry out of their small kitchen and his dishes are truly complex – moderately spicy, rich, plentiful & luscious, and, apparently, this state of affairs has been the case for some time according to consistently sterling patron reviews found online at Menu Pages.

Punjabi Tadka, I should also point out, is a BYO establishment and just next door there is, quite conveniently, a shop with an entire wall-length refrigerator of cool beer (in cans & bottles) reflecting every imported & domestic variety you could hope for.  (We opted for a few cold cans of Tecate & Modelo.)

The menu (in-house & take-out) at Punjabi Tadka is broad, eclectic, and, overall, very appealing indeed. There are large lists of appetizers, salads & soups & vegetarian dishes; unusual chicken & lamb dishes; paneer specialties made with homemade Indian cheese; seafood items; and basmati biryanis served with raita. There are kebab plates from their tandoor oven served on a bed of grilled onions … and various breads to choose from – including tandoori breads, white flour & whole wheat breads. There is also a short list of desserts & beverages (yogurt-based mango lassi, for example).

Our meal began sharing a large portion of the Veggie Pakora, an abundant plate of crispy veggies lightly battered in gram flour & a stimulating seasoning mix (@ $3.75) …  a very tasty and very crunchy appetizer. I selected the Chicken Tikka Masala (@ $11.95), a perfectly appealing, somewhat spicy mix of marinated chicken broiled in the tandoor and smothered in creamy tomato sauce replete with onions & bell peppers (another abundant dish, with a rich, thick & silky consistency, ready & waiting for dunking our crispy naan bread into and just savoring). My wife ordered the Bhuna Shrimp (@ $15.95) and well worth the price what with nine tender & juicy “colossal” shrimp stirred in a sauce of mustard seeds, onions, tomatoes, garlic & coriander. An extremely generous & equally appealing shrimp dish which we had never experienced before in any number of Indian restaurants in New York or London (in curry for example, the shrimp are generally small, tough & overcooked). Not so at Punjabi Tadka! The basmati rice, accompanying our mains, proved plentiful, moist & tasty, as well; and, it should also be noted, we were asked a few times by a pleasant & accommodating waiter if we needed more!

We ended our exceedingly successful culinary “adventure” to the Punjab region (northern India) sharing a jumbo Mango lassi ($2.95) and a portion of baklava ($3.25) for two (you know, the small, multi-layered pastries filled, classically, with pistachio, nuts & honey).

In all, we would highly recommend this Hell’s Kitchen resto ... with virtually no ambiance but featuring a talented chef, his carefully crafted Punjabi dishes, and very friendly & nicely paced service!  Try it out before your next venture to Broadway & the theater.

And, speaking of the theater …

Three one-act plays by Horton Foote – jointly entitled Harrison, TX – will shortly open at the 59 East 59th Theaters (between Park & Madison).  The plays – “Blind Date,” “The One-Armed Man” & “The Midnight Caller” – are currently in previews and have been scheduled to kick off the new theater season at Primary Stages. The plays, though crisply directed by Pam MacKinnon (Clybourne Park) and well acted by an extremely talented ensemble cast (including Hallie Foote, Jayne Houdyshell, Devon Abner, Jeremy Bobb, Andrea Lynn Green & Evan Jonigkeit, among others), rarely rise beyond the trivial though aim, of course, much higher.  Exactly why these three plays have been resurrected and offered as a unit – even if all three are set in Harrison, Texas and all three have small-town (Texas?) themes or emphases – is anybody’s guess.

But, however solid the acting and the direction, however carefully designed the sets, these are not memorable examples of Horton Foote’s art, nor of his often quiet dramatic power to move an audience and the individual theatergoer. The three one-acts are full of clichés, dialogue that doesn’t seem fresh, mundane content, and just a heavy foote (sorry) behind the truncated dramatic “action.”  My wife and I left the theater thinking we had endured – other than for a moment here or there of interest, humor, or potential electricity – a series of stale events & minor conflicts that might have been (in some evanescent way) drawn from, or reflective of, aspects of the playwright’s memories and experiences of life in small-town Texas.  Nothing there, really, to register with us except, perhaps, our sincere and utter disappointment in these three short plays ... and knowing that these three items are not among Horton Foote’s best dramatic products!

I certainly wish our experience this past Friday evening had been otherwise.

Fortunately, though, I could simply & easily leave Horton Foote’s Harrison, TX (town & plays) behind and, shortly, decamp to the novelistic world of Capital (W.W. Norton, 2012), a hefty new volume (over 500 pages!) by John Lanchester (an editor at The London Review of Books and author of such books as The Debt to Pleasure and Mr. Phillips). This powerful, rich, kinetic & humorous Dickensian sort of novel, peopled with a broad array of characters – the inhabitants of one Pepys Road, South London – explores a world of exploding property values, financial crisis, immigrant life, terrorist potentialities, neighborhood threats (“... we want what you have”), love & hate, death & dying.

Lanchester’s new work is a sprawling, fast-paced novel examining the intersecting lives of a wide swath of people (their doings, their conflicts, their aspirations, their inner worlds), which is, as Colm Toibin notes in a jacket blurb, “filled with the news of now.”  This is a highly enjoyable fiction, with strikingly memorable characters (Roger & Arabella Yount, Petunia  Howe, “Smitty,” Mickey Lipton-Miller, Zbigniew "the builder," the Kamal clan, Freddy & Patrick Kamo, Detective Inspector Mill), and with considerable depth & punch, irony & fun … a novel not to be missed! 

Have a gander; you’ll probably be hooked!

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