Friday, January 10, 2014

Balthus at The MET; Beyoglu / Mediterranean ... upper east side Turkish resto

If you've been thinking about heading for The Metropolitan Museum (The Met) @ 5th Ave. & 82nd St. (tel. 212-535-7710) intent on seeing the spectacularly luminous Balthus exhibition - entitled "Cats & Girls--Paintings and Provocations") - you would do well to venture over to The  Met very soon, indeed, as the show is scheduled to close on January 12th.
Portrait - Thérèse Blanchard

According to The Met's web site, Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski, 1908-2001) was a modern Polish-French artist "best known for his series of pensive adolescents who dream or read in rooms that are [seemingly] closed to the outside world." The Met's current Balthus show comprises some 35 of these, and other, striking, somewhat enigmatic portraits - mainly of young teenage, female "models" (Parisian friends or neighbors), some of which were (are still?) provocative - from what is considered to be his most fertile and memorably creative period:  the mid-1930s to the 1950s

Portrait  - Thérèse Blanchard
I would suggest that these serious, or seemingly serious, young girls are depicted by Balthus in a manner that tends to bracket them in what amounts to some kind of narrative - or "episode" - there, in a sense, to be unraveled by the viewer. Moving through the three (or so) rooms of these predominantly earth-toned portraits, we just might be continually asking ourselves a series of questions triggered by the paintings (the narratives, the episodes) ... and achieving little real closure in the process. For example:  What, exactly, are these young girls thinking about ... and why?  Why has the painter decided to focus so intensely upon adolescent girls with such serious (stoic, impenetrable) facial expressions? What precipitates so strong an interest in, and relationship with or connection to, the myriad cats we see in these portraits?

In all, we learn that Balthus as an artist was, at one time in his lengthy career, consistently fixated on a few youthful models, their mystical & mysterious (even unknowable) lives, their "adult," somewhat enigmatic expressions that, perhaps, only he would (could) capture via his portraiture. 

Children, 1937
In explanatory-biographical material accompanying the exhibition, The Met curators inform us that between 1936 and 1939 Balthus produced his singularly acclaimed series of portraits of Thérèse Blanchard - on view at the beginning of the show - who he painted frequently by herself, at times with a cat, or with her brothers. During the Second World War he had moved (escaping from the Nazi occupation) to Switzerland where he produced considerably "more colorful interiors in which different nymphets daydream, read, or nap." By the 1950s (reflected in the concluding portion of the show), Balthus had returned to France, to Chateau de Chassy (in the Morvan region), where he "adopted" Frédérique Tison as his preferred model and produced images of her with his chateau as backdrop.
Balthus - 1996 (D. Pettigrew)

Hopefully, you will have seen the Balthus exhibition before reading through this current post. If not, well, you will have missed - for now, at least - the work of a thoroughly engaging & idiosyncratic 20th century master whose paintings are truly rich in visual provocation!

Beyoglu, Istanbul District
And speaking of visual provocation, we turn now to a rather different order of perception ... combining the visual & the olfactory:  yes, the culinary!  We recently visited an appealingly contemporary Turkish resto, Beyoglu / Mediterranean, not far from The Met at 81st & 3rd Ave. (1431 3rd; tel. 212-650-0850). 

Taking its name from a district (Beyoglu) on the European
Vegetarian Meze Platter
side of Istanbul, across the Bosporus from the historic old city on the northern shore of the Golden Horn, this establishment whips up a wide variety of authentically tasty Turkish fare - from soups & hummus & falafel to all kinds of meze ($5 to $8), including cacik, a thick homemade yogurt with cucumber & garlic; or ahtapot salatasi, char-grilled octopus marinated in olive oil, lemon & vinegar; wonderfully fluffy & light Turkish bread;
Turkish Bread chez Beyoglu
Mediterranean salads (including Beyoglu salad (@ $9.50), combining a good-size mix of crisp lettuce with cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, peppers, feta cheese & grilled chicken with lemon vinaigrette; to fish specials like kilic sis ($17), a char-grilled swordfish kebab served with rice pilaf; AND a variety of kebabs & char-grilled lamb & beef & chicken "daily specials" (from $14.50 to $17... for the mixed meze platter).

Beyoglu - External View from across 3rd Ave.
After a brief review of the Beyoglu menu, we determined that my wife would order a couple of  meze dishes (appetizer size); we would share a third; and I would order an entree-size plate ... all coupled with a few Turkish beers - Efes - which seemed to blend particularly well with the miscellany of items we had just ordered. 

Specifically, we began with a shared "batch" of small,
Turkish Beer!
circular lightly pan-fried crab cakes accompanied by a mayonnaise-based piquant sauce, with a bit of lemon, olive oil, pepper & vinegar (@ $8). Following the shared plate of crab cakes, I chose  the iskender kebab ($15) ... a large plate of "vertically grilled" thinly sliced lamb & beef atop a bed of sliced pita bread, with yogurt, tomato sauce, and a grilled jalapeno pepper right smack at the center of the dish. A veritable Turkish delight, nicely seasoned,nicely spiced ... abundantly showcasing the overall "trickle-down" effect of succulent tomato sauce and the jalapeno pits & "juices" contained therein. 

Iskender Kebab
As I scarfed down the iskender kebab, my wife was busy with two meze- (or tapas-) size dishes: the patlican domates soslu ($7) which proved to be a mix of lightly pan-fried cubes of eggplant topped with stuffed fresh tomato; and sucuk izgara ($7) ... a plate of cumin & garlic spiced cured beef sausages, along with chunks of lightly fried potatoes chopped in small squares. And the Turkish bread we were served - well, let's not forget that tasty, freshly baked item - was used to soak up every bit of the various spicey sauces still speckled on our plates.

We chose Turkish coffee & Turkish tea to accompany our dessert ... a very sweet piece of kadaif ($6) ... a classic Middle Eastern dessert composed of shredded phyllo dough tossed until crispy & thin, noodle-like, along with a vanilla sugary syrup, walnuts & pistachio & baked until golden brown. Indeed, our Beyoglu meal, now complete, added up to an utterly satisfying experience; we, therefore, welcome another opportunity to dine again, equally well, at this lively, friendly & unique upper east side Turko-Mediterranean venue. You simply must try it for yourself, that is, if you are in the vicinity of The Met and an aficionado of Turkish or Middle Eastern cuisine! Or, if you just happen to enjoy fresh, flavorful food at reasonable prices ...