Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Julia Child turns 100 ... Montclair jazz festival turns three!

During the past couple of weeks you’ve probably noticed that Julia Child is getting all kinds of attention. Julia turns 100 about now and there are all kinds of celebrations and “special events” celebrating her 100th birthday. We happened to attend one of these events – “Julia at 100” – in DUMBO (Brooklyn) this past Wednesday at the powerHouse BooksArena. Several chefs and cookbook authors were on hand (including Deb Perelman, Matt Lewis & Tamar Adler) to reminisce about “Julia Child-oriented” experiences they had had in the recent or distant past … and wine, cookies & cakes (from Baked Elements & One Girl Cookies) were shared while a slide show of Julia Child was projected onto an extra-large, otherwise blank wall … and prizes were distributed for answering Julia Child trivia questions (I had an immediate answer to one of these questions verified as correct:  Pasadena, CA, the town where Julia was born).  

Appropriately, my wife and I happen to be Julia Child fans from way back … we’ve even journeyed to her kitchen now at The Smithsonian and have collected first editions of her most celebrated cookbooks, including her very first, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (New York: Knopf, 1961), signed by Julia and replete with the following inscription:  For Lawrence Miller – La cuisine sans vin – c’est rien – Bon appétit.” Additionally, as part of our own mini-celebration, my wife prepared her own rendition, just for the two of us, of the Julia Child classic, “Chicken with Tarragon” (Mastering the Art, pp. 249-251) to be eaten en plein air on our garden patio this past Sunday. Along with the chicken were steamed cut green beans with minced garlic and gobs (a la Julia) of unsalted organic butter and jasmati rice instead of the recommended sautéed potatoes.  A wonderfully crisp, large mixed salad with vine-ripened tomatoes accompanied the meal … and I served a cashew wine from Belize (a gift from my son & daughter-in-law who recently vacationed there) as an aperitif and a Reverchon 2010 Saar Riesling with the tarragon chicken. Absolutely delicious (leftovers to be consumed for lunch today)!  I think Julia Child would have been pleased to share this delectable version of her time-tested concoction with us. At least, I hope so.

And while we’re speaking of great food, it is sad to report on the obvious deterioration of Sammy’s Noodle Shop & Grill (at 453 6th Ave., in the Village, between 10th & 11th).  We used to love the place. The sautéed scallops with garlic sauce dish (@ $12.95) we ordered – prior to our trip to DUMBO (see above) – were tasteless, the mixed vegetables and the gooey sauce bland with no “kick” or flavoring whatever.  While the appetizer order of 8 mixed fried dumplings (@ $8.95, a dollar extra for the frying) were good (but not great!), we’ll try our best to avoid another dinner at Sammy’s Noodle Shop any time soon.  Prices there have increased, service merely OK, beer warm, and the food, well, no longer high quality as far as we could tell from our limited sampling.

This past Saturday (August 18th), the MontclairJazz Festival (Montclair, NJ) turned three!  Just a terrific annual one-day musical feast, with free admission … and great acts all day long (noon to 7:00 pm) at a very comfortable outdoor venue (Nishuane Park, 240 Orange Road). This year, with a new & very professional open air stage, the “queen of hang,” Ms. Sheila Anderson of WBGO-FM, providing introductions & program ballast, the festival featured great performers, all kinds of  jazz – even showcasing sophisticated young performers from Montclair’s Jazz House Kids school (founded by the vocalist Melissa Walker) – and lots of food & soft-drink vendors cooking up all kinds of fast foot tidbits, including my own favorite, organic fresh fruit smoothies (deliciously sweet/sour & thirst-quenching on a hot summer afternoon).

The tenor sax giant Joe Lovano could be heard in a trio along with the notable bassist Christian McBride & drummer Billy Drummond; guitarist Dave Stryker headed up an octet featuring a group of outstanding musicians (bassist, drummer, trumpet, trombone, saxes & pianist) currently teaching at the Jazz House Kids school ... just an energetic, bouncy & “heavy duty” set with the inimitable Dave Stryker and the bevy of wonderfully talented musician-instructors offering up continual & complementary solos; and a variety of student jazz musicians, including a set (or so) demonstrating the skills of the members of their advanced big band.

But, in my view, by far the hottest and most interesting performers present at this year’s festival – and playing late in the afternoon, as the sun set & the temperature grew cooler – were the members of The Bronx Horns, an all-star Latino jazz & salsa ensemble featuring top-notch musicians, all …. former members of the late Tito Puente Orchestra, and protégés of Tito Puente & Mongo Santamaria. The group, comprising two saxes (including the legendary Bobby Porcelli on alto sax), flute, trumpet (the sizzling Pete Nater), piano, congas (Frankie Vasquez), drums, bass – and led by sax & flute player Mitch Frohman, a veteran of 25 years with Tito Puente. Their music is inspiring – it is rhythmic, fluid, romantic, steamy, staccato and, of course, syncopated.  After listening to their music – most notably the lyrical riff on a tune by James Moody, and derived from “I’m in the Mood for Love,” entitled “Moody’s Mood for Love” – I knew I would have to purchase their CD, Catch the Feeling, for long-term listening.

All told, a rollicking, fun-filled, jazz-intensive afternoon … all of it very memorable, indeed! What a broad spectrum of talent to see & hear in one place, on a single summer day in the NYC ‘burbs!

PS  A note on a new Canadian movie written & directed by Sarah Polley (Away from Her) with a title – Take This Waltz – that echoes the mood and perhaps even the ambiance reflected in the song,  of the same name, by Leonard Cohen. The film, set in Toronto, casts Michelle Williams (most recently seen as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn) in the key role of Margot, the quiet, somewhat nervous, somewhat imaginative, at times distant, young wife of Lou (Seth Rogan), a writer of cookbooks composed solely of chicken recipes. Margot meets the sexier, more mysterious, Daniel (Luke Kirby) when traveling and, it turns out, he lives just (diagonally) across the street back in her quaint Toronto neighborhood. And thus, as you can guess, a quirky love story is set in motion.  This film, shot in bold colors with lots of varying shades and intensities of blue (royal, turquoise, peacock), and lots of deep reds, is one part romantic comedy, another part  21st century love story … and the whole a bit of an odd, eccentric film that explores (not all that deeply or clinically) the lives of this, ultimately sad, though not clinically depressive, threesome.

Take this Waltz
Though the film’s sound track is steeped in the music of Canadian icons – like Leonard Cohen, Feist), Polly’s film is not typically Canadian. Polley attempts to portray the excitement & emotional toll that an illicit love affair exacts on a seemingly happily married young woman. This age-old topic undergoes a candid, subtle, and non-judgmental treatment. Polley employs ordinary unassuming household activities – e.g., baking, brushing teeth, showering, and, yes, even sitting on the pot – to  convey the variety of moods & guilt feelings that surface in Margot throughout the film. And, what’s more, the chemistry between the two “accomplices” – the low-key & halting Michelle Williams and her persistent doe-eyed seducer, Luke Kirby – elevates this film to believable story worth watching.

There are cute scenes, funny scenes, even kinky sex scenes, the continual return to beds slept in (those blue sheets expressive of equally blue moods) & (often) the prolonged exploration of bodies, and lots of chat.  Daniel, well, tends initially to stalk Margot, or, at the very least, tends to explore his inordinate infatuation with Margot in varying sequences & on various “dates,” exercising an almost magical-mystical attraction to her. And Margot, equally attracted to a man (rickshaw driver,  artist-designer, loner filled with the capacity for intelligent talk & creative work) who is not her sweet, stable & reliable husband, finally leaves the brother-like husband for what seems to be a more sexually fulfilling and impactful life with Daniel. 

Best scene in the film:  Daniel and Margot are sitting at a high table in a local bar-hangout where, having been served their martinis but not even touching them, Daniel explores Margot’s body (and also her psyche) verbally … ending up making love to her, at this point, with only his verbal skills & conversational expertise. Indeed, we witness the physical act(s) in sufficient depth later on in the film with a sufficiently lingering camera focusing on the pair; but, at this point a bit more than halfway in, we witness love-making only via the linguistic talents of Margot’s lover, Daniel.

Exactly how this new, “post-marital” relationship metamorphoses, I leave it to you to guess … or else to witness on screen in all of those bold, deep colors.

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!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Music & a movie … in & around manhattan

Most readers are fully (and experientially) aware that New York City is a summer festival featuring all kinds of outdoor events & mini-festivals occurring on a regular basis all summer long in or near parks throughout the 5 boroughs …  and reflective of the areas of dance, theater (free Shakespeare in Central Park now for a 50th season at The Delacorte Theater!), food (are you booked yet for the current NYC Restaurant Week, July 16th - August 10th ?), music, literature & literary talks, and more. A great many of these events are free and major “acts” and major talents appear weekly not only in Central Park … but in Bryant Park, Battery Park, Rockefeller Park (the River to River, or R2R, Festival, for example), Prospect Park, and Tompkins Square Park (the upcoming Charlie Parker Jazz Festival).

But the venue and weekly event we seem to love the most – at least this summer – is the Madison Square Park outdoor concert series – The Oval Lawn Series – with FREE world class performances on Wednesdays from June 20th through August 8th.  This past Wednesday evening, August 1st, the scheduled event, “An Evening of Folk,” with Suzzy & Maggie Roche, Sloan Wainwright & Lucy Wainwright Roche, was, miraculously, not cancelled despite the periodically intense (& scattered) thunderstorms, but was, apparently, moved to a covered (sheltered?) area near The Shake Shack, closer to the 23rd Street & 5th Ave. entrance to the park.  (We never made it, however, having determined that we’d be drenched even before arrival.)

We were on hand at Madison Square Park on Wednesday, July 25th (7:00 pm, sharp) for one of our favorite performers, Ms.Regina Carter (called “one of the finest violinists of her generation”) and a program entitled “Reverse Thread(also the title of her latest CD). With her new group, including accordion and kora (a 21-string West African harp, “traditionally played by village storytellers”), the focus was on a range of traditional & contemporary African, Latino & (so-called) Worldrhythmical music, with tones, color, harmonies & beat rarely heard in the world of western jazz, and calling to mind the work of the Kronos Quartet (and African composers like Dumisani Maraire) and their album, “Pieces of Africa,” and, also, the lively, notable, “gorgeous & tough” work within Paul Simon's celebrated South African-inflected album, “Graceland. 

Kudos, of course, go to Regina Carter, herself, and to Yacouba Sissoko, the kora virtuoso she brought in to help recreate and reinforce the traditional aspects of a kind of native narrative music superbly soothing & simply intriguing to the western ear, and, according to the website notes, rendering a “haunting & beautiful compliment to Regina’s sumptuously seductive violin.”  Indeed, it proved to be a sumptuous evening, in all, just sitting on our blankets soaking in this unique, lively & accessible music performed almost non-stop by these exquisite performers!

Draft beer and a short list of interesting sandwiches & small plates are available in the park (right near the Oval Lawn stage) and provided, not inexpensively, by Fatty ‘Cue (I chose the smoked Brandt beef brisket, with cilantro, roasted mushrooms, charred onions & chilies on a soft roll and a Belfast Bay “Lobster” ale).  

The Shake Shack, the allegedly outstanding & “major” food source in Madison Square Park (not your typical burgers, shakes, cold drinks & fries), is, unfortunately, a decidedly negative option at peak times … owing to the incredibly (seemingly never-ending) lengthy line of would-be customers extending, perhaps, a ½ mile in front of the purchase-order window.  Maybe next time, though, and just a bit earlier ... to sample a cheeseburger topped with Niman Ranch, all-natural applewood-smoked bacon, a stack of crinkle-cut Yukon fries, and a Hopscotch shake (with vanilla custard, caramel sauce & chocolate truffle) … at The Shack!

On another note entirely, and on another rain-clogged night in Manhattan, we very recently saw the new Benoit Jacquot film, ”Farewell,My Queen.” Told from the point of view of the Queen’s young (female) “reader,” the film bears witness to the final days of Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) – and the decayed & increasingly decaying members of the Ancien Regime residing for years at the Palace of Versailles – following the taking of the Bastille in July, 1789, and just prior to the storming of Versailles itself in early October of the same year.

The film focuses, primarily, on the “noble”-women and serving women surrounding, and ostensibly attending to, the needs (and physical demands) of the otherwise hated Queen. While we do see the King (Louis XVI) in a very few of the film’s frames, a passel of male members of a government in decline, and the male royal archivist, M. Jacob Moreau (Michel Robin), this film is, centrally, an examination of the women at Versailles (including the Queen’s lover) ... those that worship her, those that love her, those who would die for her … and those, en attendant, that seethe with hatred & envy of this, to them, egotistical monster.

But, forefront, is the Queen’s reader, a young woman, Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux), who adores the Queen, her proximity to the Queen, and her proximity to the center of late 18th-c. French power.  She simply cannot fathom – and will not believe – that this privileged world will shortly come to an end.  (In fact, she, the reader – Miss Laborde – will survive it all as she poses, late in the film, as the Queens’s lover, Mme. de Polignac [Virginie Ledoyen], and in the clothes of that lover, so that Mme. de Polignac will escape the coming deluge, just as the Queen would have it.)

If you are interested in the early days of the French Revolution – and, possibly, in the “infected” royals (we see an image of a dead rat in this film more than once), and royal hangers-on, inhabiting a rotting & debilitated Versailles – then this naturalistic treatment of the place, period, and its inhabitants are a must for you to witness. The acting, all around, is superb; the photography stellar, precise (in some frames a bit washed out, in other frames lusciously inviting & colorful); and Ms. Seydoux’s own performance as the devoted & somewhat naïve reader, Sidonie Laborde – who suggests literature or journals to entertain the Queen, selects specific titles for her from the palace library, and reads snippets of prose or drama to her each morning – pitch perfect.

(“Farewell, My Queen” is based on an historical novel of the same name by Chantal Thomas.)