Sunday, September 30, 2012

Two signal – & reliable – events that affirm for us that fall is here …

There are two fall events that signal to me – reliably, like clock-work – that summer has ended and fall is just around the proverbial corner, if not here already:  the OSPAC Jazz Festival (Sept. 22nd , 12:30 to 8:00 p.m.) at the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center in West Orange, NJ, AND the Brooklyn Book Festival (Sept. 23rd 10 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.) on the Plaza in front of Brooklyn Borough Hall & spread out at various venues throughout the immediate Brooklyn Heights area. Two fall events that (annually) prove reliably interesting, entertaining & diverse!
Vic Juris Quartet
This year the OSPAC Jazz Festival turned 10 and the event proved as rollicking & fine as ever – featuring the likes of Bill Charlap at the solo piano playing a mixture of standards and jazz-inflected show tunes; the guitarists Dave Stryker & Vic Juris, and their bands (the Juris Quartet including Tim Hagans (truly outstanding!) on trumpet, Steve Wilson on sax, Ed Howard on bass & Anthony Pinciotti on drums; a slew of jazz vocalists (male & female), showcasing the imposing & energetic Holly Ross & the soulful, Ray-Charles-inspired Antoinette Montague doing standards (“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”) & crooning widely from the Great American Songbook in a “Vocalist’s Medley”; Nat Adderley, Jr. and his band, with Don Braden on sax; the idiosyncratic singer Kevin Burke, who can, at will and on demand, craft his voice in a manner depicting trombone & other brass sounds so authentic that you hardly recognize the human voice behind them; the vocalist and  Grammy Award nominee, Ms. Roseanna Vitro, and her “all-star quintet” composed of Mark Soskin on piano, Sara Caswell on violin, Dean Johnson on bass & Tim Horner on drums.
Bill Charlap
Kudos must go to Kate Baker who has, for years, organized, inspired & often participated in this enthusiastically well-attended, diverse & dynamic (annual) jazz fest and to Gary Walker, of WBGO/88.3 (Newark’s Jazz 88), who always seems to lend his support and, in his inimitably large, humorous, generous & avuncular manner, emcees the proceedings from beginning to end.
Nat Adderley, Jr. & Band

Food vendors dot the periphery of the festival grounds for every patron’s convenience … and we, just before our Chinese takeout (purchased at a local resto outside, in Essex Green) was consumed were sold on the Mexican food stand where an absolutely simple & tasty guacamole & chips plate has been available for several years running.

Be on the lookout for the OSPAC Jazz Festival next fall when number 11 rolls around … reliably suggesting the end of summer & commencement of fall!

Another major event – the Brooklyn Book Festival – which, as I indicated just above, was held the very next day … also suggests the end of summer and signals fall a-coming.  Underwritten & “presented” by Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn Literary Council & Brooklyn Tourism, the event is growing larger and more in-depth every year. This year’s “cultural & programming partners” included such organizations as BAM, Cave Canem, London Review of Books, PEN America, the Poetry Society of America, The Nation, the New York Review of Books & The Center for Fiction; and, according to the online “Official Program Guide” to the festival, some  280+ authors would be on hand, “more than 104 [free!] panels” offered, and an extremely large number of book & print-oriented vendors – far too numerous to mention even a quarter of them – would be (and, indeed, were!) lined up along the walkways of the Borough Hall Plaza, an almost endless sequence, everywhere, of publishers, journal & magazine representatives, and literary organizations. Among the authors represented were the high-profile and the less-well-known … including the likes of Paul Auster, Joyce Carole Oates, Sapphire, Pete Hamill, Colson Whitehead, Judith Viorst, Gish Jen, Walter Mosley, James Lasdun, Terry McMillan, Christopher Hayes, Billy Collins, Baratunde Thurston, Mark Leyner, Phillip Lopate, Carol Higgins Clark, Philip Levine & Edwidge Danticat.
Ben Lerner

Following a bit of meandering around the Plaza, listening in on author-interviewer conversations, and chatting with various vendor representatives about their wares (mainly books & periodicals), we were able to earmark a couple of hour-long panels that seemed particularly  interesting. Among those we selected (but not, however, in chronological order) were the following:  The Poet Novelist” which would showcase three poet-novelists, including Ben Lerner, a young but relatively prolific & experienced poet whose first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, has been drawing all kinds of attention here in and around NYC and has secured a lengthy (fairly positive) review by Sheila Heti in the London Review of Books (Vol. 34, No. 16; 30th August 2012).  (In her review, though, Heti suggests that … “[t]he book seems less like a novel, a public performance, than an inward-looking text [a poem?] to which we have been given access, something like a diary, or notes towards a future work.”) The panel, which aimed, or so the program blurb stated, to “explore the boundaries, possibilities, divergences, and intersections of poetry and prose,” offered a brief presentation/reading by the poet-novelist Sapphire (The Kid; Push: A Novel) and by Eileen Myles (Inferno: A Poet’s Novel), along with that of Mr. Lerner, reading from the beginning few pages of Atocha Station.  

And, next, we sat in on “Isabel Wilkerson in Conversation with Amy Goodman,” an unmediated conversation during which Ms. Goodman – host & executive producer of NPR’s Democracy Now! – posed a handful of questions to Ms. Wilkerson prompting her (the latter) to speak in some depth about specific (memorable) people and incidents described in her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns. In this volume Wilkerson focuses in very great narrative detail on racial & socio-cultural aspects of the Great 20th Century Migration(s) of Afro-Americans from the rural American South to the northern cities of, primarily, New York, Chicago, Detroit & LA.  The book, praised highly by both readers and critics during the past half-dozen years, or so, is considered “an epic [an archetypal] tale of immigrants journeying to new and unfamiliar lands” much akin to the somewhat earlier journeys of other immigrant groups to the United States from, say, central Europe, Russia, Italy & Ireland. And Ms. Wilkerson, with her numerous stories of pathos and humor made that point strikingly clear!
Curry Heights - Indian Cuisine

Needless to say, as thought-provoking as the panel discussions – and the entire Sunday book festival – proved  to be, by 6:00 pm we were, yep, focusing (yet again) on food ... & rather hungry. We had, fortunately, planned ahead … having arranged to meet our friend, Olivia, for dinner at a local Brooklyn Heights Indian restaurant, Curry Heights, at 151 Remsen St., just across from the St. Francis College Auditorium, a major festival venue. This spot turned out to be well worth our while – what with a solid selection of (imported, ethnic) Indian beer, a wide variety of appetizers to choose from, and three well-prepared entrees to follow.  We each chose a special dinner, from the “two-course deal” menu (@ $13.95/person) … consisting of appetizer, main course, naan bread & basmati rice (quite a deal for food cooked with such delicacy).  We ordered a mix of three appetizers (onion bhajia, meat samosa & chicken pakora), and then our three mains: a very tender & juicy chicken tikka (a Tandoori BBQ entrée); an equally tender lamb vindaloo (with a sauce perhaps too punishingly hot); and a salmon tikka (another Tandoori BBQ dish, also tender & moist).  Each of these plates was presented with care & in a generous portion … and a large bottle of Indian beer proved sufficient to complement our 2-course meal, including an extra order of basmati rice (at no charge) & a very large portion of naan bread.  

We left the resto – which we highly recommend as a friendly & welcoming Brooklyn Heights budget spot! – and the book festival with enough “exotic” Indian comfort food (yes, an admitted oxymoron), books & book talk to wend our way happily back over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan ... and beyond.

A quick note:  If you’d like to receive a poem a day (all kinds of poems, by contemporary, modern & “classical” poets) via e-mail, or simply read or listen to a new poem every day – a service provided by the Poetry Foundation (publishers of Poetry Magazine) – just click into the following web site, scroll down the home page to RSS feeds, and simply sign up: You’ll clearly be glad (on a daily basis!) that you have done so!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Up, up and away … in & around manhattan’s flatiron district

Manhattan’s “Flatiron District” – an area bounded by Gramercy Park, Chelsea and Greenwich Village – is, as many of you well know, a neighborhood replete with all kinds of commodious parks (Madison Square, for one; see my earlier blog post), public spaces, restaurants of every ethnic variety & cuisine, cafes, great and small buildings & somewhat atypical architecture. We tend to gravitate to this neighborhood for one or another reason … a comfortable park in which to read & relax on a sunny summer afternoon, or simply to make it a destination for an outdoor concert, or lounge, or an (indoor) resto.   

All this – we did, twice during the past week, or so.
Once, high up above The City on the 20th floor rooftop garden of 230 Fifth (a lounge and resto at 230 Fifth Avenue & 27th St., open year round, from 4:00 pm to 4:00 am; no minimum, no entry charge!) where we had sun, sauvignon blanc, soft winds, and a wide variety of Pan Asian specialties:  from softly sautéed shrimp & pork dumplings in a mild chili vinaigrette “sauce” … to spicy beef short ribs “Rendang” cooked in coconut milk with coconut rice & Malaysian herbs; an oyster omelet with cilantro, chili vinegar & bean sprouts; calamari with a sweet chili sauce; and a bowl of (seemingly) Thai-inspired veal & pork meatballs simmered in a turmeric curry gravy.  

But the raison d’etre of 230 Fifth consists, surely, of the breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline, including that of the Empire State Building which you feel you can almost touch a little way off in the clear blue, pre-fall, late afternoon sky, while facing just northward from this rooftop lounge. Despite the extensive tourist trade which obviously & regularly packs the place – and amid the throngs of people coming in and leaving on an hourly basis – meeting friends for an early dinner and some extensive sipping (exotic drinks or just a few glasses of white wine or pinot noir) in a quiet corner of this king-size, sky-bound, space above 5th Ave. proves just the treat to please us deeply on occasion … and, with views among the borough’s best, to rejuvenate us jaded urban inhabitants with the magic, & within the magical world, of Manhattan … up, up and away.  (When you visit – tourist or no – you just might want to have your digital camera at the ready!)

Away, but ground level this time, and a short walk in another direction (almost directly west on 22nd Street), you will find the newly opened (since late May) Silk Rd. Tavern, featuring an Asia-based menu constructed by Executive Chef Leo Forneas (born & raised in The Philippines & a graduate of the CIA) who brings, as the restaurant web site proclaims, “his extensive global experiences to create dishes that showcase playful and unique Asian & American flavors, while paying homage to tradition with unexpected fresh and sustainable ingredients.”  We took up residence here for a couple of hours just the other night (Wednesday, the 19th) for a 7-course tasting menu at $45./person, featuring a hearty, rich & (even) delicate blending of the restaurant’s specialties and coupled with an equally interestingly exotic selection of beers (e.g., oyster stout, Atlantic lager, imperial porter) supplied by Flying Dog Brewery (of Frederick, MD). The match – the paring – with each of the seven courses was, proverbially speaking, as well as in the consummation itself, right on target.

The 7-course dinner “event” – each dish presented with care, creativity & attention to detail – began with an “amuse” of crispy spice clam strips mingled with ginger & a scallion tartar sauce (mayonnaise-based, of course), and served with a Horn Dog barley wine; next, we received an organic Scottish salmon carpaccio, along with edamame amidst sprinkled (smallish) baubles of a Kalamansi ponzu jelly, and accompanied by an In-Heat Wheat Hefeweizen.  So far, well, so good … with another course soon to be placed before us … a big-eye tuna tartar in a sea urchin vinaigrette dressing, pared with a Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout. We were now beginning to get the hang of the meal – the pace & structure of the dining event … as well as of the tangy & unique flavors of the food, along with the distinctive tastes of the brews presented with each course. We would move on, ahead … awaiting the “official” 3rd course, a rather large, unexpectedly sumptuous, Korean-inflected  bowl of  “mac & cheese” (with Korean rice cakes incorporated into the mix instead of the usual macaroni noodles), suffused with a Vermont cheddar & a New York sharp cheese & topped with bits of crunchy (panko?) “crumbs” … all to be washed down with a Snake Dog IPA. (Two additional courses – and dessert – still to be tasted.)
A soy-glazed portion of “melt-in-your-mouth” pre-cut pieces of pan-fried Long Island skate – with pickled shallots & scallions mixed in & around the bone – would be next, and delightfully pared with a Wildman Farmhouse IPA. BBQ Braised short ribs with lightly fried kimchee Brussel sprouts & “sunny-side up” egg followed, and, along with an Under Dog Atlantic Lager, proved our final (savory) course, prior to dessert. And, finally, accompanied by a Gonzo Imperial Porter functioning as our end-of-dinner coffee, an enticing dessert appeared capping the preceding meal:  a peanut butter tart, with a small ball of milk ice cream & caramel nuts atop the tart. A very nice, not cloyingly sweet, low-key finale for an evening’s 7-course extravaganza!  
Not too much to eat, not too little, and not overwhelming in heft … but, as is often trumpeted, just right!   

We’ll return to Silk Rd. Tavern in the near future … and try other items posted on their relatively short, circumscribed, but intriguing dinner menu! We certainly, eagerly, look forward to tasting the veal breast ‘n buns (in mint & Thai basil), the curry coconut mussels, the Singapore chili crab pot pie, the Sichuan petite filet (with spinach & black garlic), among other tempting items that are suggested. And, perhaps, more "limited  release" beer selections, too, from Flying Dog!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Garlic festival & gefilte fish – recent peregrinations ...

The Pocono Garlic Festival – now in its 18th year! – took place over Labor Day weekend, a two-day tribute to garlic in all of its manifestations.  The Garlic Festival, now residing at the Shawnee Mountain Ski Area (in the East Stroudsburg/Delaware River vicinity), has become, according to the official festival web site, “a Labor Day weekend must for thousands & thousands of people [who] know a good thing when they smell it.”  And thousands of people of all ages did, indeed, show up for this iteration of the Festival. Gates opened at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday Sept. 1st and Sunday, the 2nd (tickets @ $10. at the gate, $7.50 in advance) and all activities – cooking demonstrations, health & food presentations, crafts booths, garlic & assorted food & specialty vendors, music performances – would continue throughout each day until 6:00 p.m. 

We sampled a good deal of garlic-based food (dips, spreads, noodles, sausages, sliced/shredded pork, cheeses), attended a cooking demonstration where freshly made pasta would be infused with various garlic-based sauces (cream, tomato), and heard Bluegrass bands and Zydeco, too.  Local wines & beers & lemon-based cold drinks were available, as well, to both complement and wash away the garlic tastes that had accumulated. 
In all, the Garlic Festival is a very intense, large, bustling (but extremely well-organized) outdoor event that tends to lure locals, weekend guests/tourists & others to the area for a worthwhile weekend, or day, of fun, foods & informed discussion.  If you have a penchant for garlic, in all its forms, shapes, sizes … bite-sized and otherwise, you owe it to yourself and your friends to attend this event at least once; so, mark this Pocono festival on your calendar for Labor Day weekend, 2013!  By the way, there are a variety of “things” going on at this festival to attract and entertain your kids, too … so be sure to bring them along.

And, once again, as the online festival program continues to proclaim:  “… Food is abundant and in keeping with the reason for the Festival, very much garlic-oriented [italics mine].  About 25 restaurants, ‘maverick’ cooks and chefs would dazzle Festival-goers all day with their creations.”

Just for the record, we based ourselves at the comfortably elegant Academy Street B & B (528 Academy St., tel. 570.226.3430, & owned by Michele & Manuel Rojas), about 45 minutes from the Garlic Festival grounds in Hawley, PA, a quaint small town, replete with all kinds of eateries, antique shops & idiosyncratic stores (at least three of which sell high quality, homemade ice cream) in the Northeast Poconos region bordering Lake Wallenpaupack, the largest lake in the Poconos region.  We did, in fact, schedule a late afternoon (near-sunset) “patio-boat” cruise around this huge lake and were very fortunate to have had a great young local guide to share with us his knowledge of the immediate area and all aspects of this man-made lake. A very relaxing & leisurely ride in and around the nooks and crannies, inlets & outlets, of the “Big Lake.” 

Following our rustic lake cruise, we (four of us, that is) dined on the outdoor terrace of The Settler’s Inn, a chef-owned, “farm-to-table” restaurant featuring “regional” cuisine. We began with the local peach & blueberry salad (@ $10.50), with warm goat cheese, a mint vinaigrette dressing & toasted almonds, followed by four interesting mains:  a plate of seared shrimp & diver scallops, with citron saffron vanilla sauce, preserved cherries & black “forbidden” rice (@ $34.); a crispy herb-stuffed chicken leg roulade, finished with fresh figs & fig chutney, along with corn & green-bean salad amidst a small gathering of bok choi (@ $24.); a Hudson Valley Farms duck breast in blueberry ginger sauce, fennel pecan rice & Napa cabbage salad (@ $34.);  and, finally, an order of farm-raised, lavender-crusted salmon, with buerre rouge, coconut rice & heirloom tomato (@ $26.).  Along with the salads and mains, and to aid us in our digestion processes (of course!), we chose a couple of glasses of wine, one Riesling (a Fritz Windisch, 2005, Rheinhessen, from Germany, @ $9.) and another a mix of Zinfandel, Merlot & Cabernet (Folie a Deux, Ménage a Trois, 2007, from California, @ $8.75), a Lindemans Lambic Framboise (Belgian ale with raspberries added, @ $11.), and a Duchess de Bourgogne (traditional Flemish red, fruity ale with a cherry finish, @ $9.50).  And, finally, for dessert, we selected a dish of English toffee “pudding” cake, with warm caramel sauce & whipped cream (@ $6.50), a small assortment of fresh fruit sorbet (local blueberry, if I recall, dominant among them), coupled with cups of robust, flavorful French-press coffee, and a cappuccino. 

After our filling culinary adventure on the terrace, and after a brief discussion of our visit that afternoon to the Dorflinger Glass Museum (full of glass art objects & artifacts of the famed local glassmaker & housed within a wildlife sanctuary and hiking trails just outside Hawley), we lingered in the commodious “arts & craft” lodge-type lobby of the inn over a not-very-contentious game of Scrabble and a glass or two of port; my wife beat us all, but not by much!

Upon returning from our Pocono Garlic Festival diversion to the New York Metro area, we (four of us) rested up a bit in anticipation of Thursday evening’s (Sept. 6th) Center forJewish History (CJH) “Gefilte Talk,” a panel discussion and tasting of “gefilte [fish] variations, both classic and new,” part of a series entitled “Deconstruc- ting Jewish Culinary Mythology, One Dish at a Time.”  The moderator, Mitchell Davis, an executive VP of the James Beard Foundation, cookbook author (The Mensch Chef, Kitchen Sense), and food journalist (contributor to Gastronomica and The Art of Eating), posed a variety of questions (& problems) to the members of the Gefilte panel – e.g., why gefilte fish still remains a popular Jewish food; how best are we to prepare it; and how best should we present it?  What is it you prefer to serve with it … say, spicy horseradish, or, maybe, mild? – and solicited questions and reminiscences from the panel and members of the audience, as well.

DoverD - "Gefilte Talk" logo
The event was organized by the newly appointed CJH culinary curator, Naama Shefi, and the panel was composed of Liz Alpern & Jeffrey Yoskowitz, co-founders of Brooklyn-based The Gefilteria (specializing in preparing & serving “the robust, colorful, fresh flavors of Ashkenazi cusine”); Zach Kutsher, grandson of the founder of Kutsher’s Country Club in the Catskill Mountains and now the creative force behind the relatively new restaurant with the eponymous (family) name, Kutsher’s Tribeca; Jack Lebewohl, sometime lawyer, co-owner & counterman at the celebrated 2nd Ave. Deli; and Omer Miller, young owner of at least two well-known restaurants in Tel Aviv serving Israeli cuisine, the highly successful Hadar Haochel (The Dining Hall, an “interpretation of a kibbutz communal dining hall”) & the newer but equally well-known Shulchan (Table), located in a trendy area of central Tel Aviv. 

Following the panel discussion, event attendees participated in a tasting session in the space just outside the CJH auditorium where three varieties of gefilte fish – one traditional (the 2nd Ave. Deli) and two nouvelle (The Gefilteria & Kutsher’s Tribeca) – were represented, with wine and a beet & gin punch served up by Recanati (an Israeli artisanal winery).  In my humble opinion the winner was clearly that gefilte provided by Kutsher’s Tribeca, though my wife and one of our companions liked the traditional flavor and consistency of the fish served at the 2nd Ave. Deli.

Tra-La-La Juice Bar & Bakery (120 Essex St., the Essex Market; tel. 212.982.8585) – creators of unique cakes & artisan muffins – supplied cookies in the shape of a piece of gefilte with carrot slice atop, along with dark, beet-red coconut shreds mirroring the red horseradish that frequently accompanies traditional pieces of gefilte … These cookies were absolutely delicious morsels of faux gefilte fish that tasted, well, like freshly made cookies … and I couldn’t help eating several of these little gefilte-shaped gems!

According to the CJH event handout, “the winning recipe will be documented in … [their] newly created video archive of  Jewish food.” Just check out their web site within the next couple of weeks to see which rendition of gefilte and which chef-creator won this important socio-cultural contest!