Friday, May 30, 2014

Monkey Business, Malamud at 100 & Good: Two literary events & a quality restaurant experience

Joyce Carol Oates
New York, you all are very well aware, is a town just inundated with writers, publishers, editors, literary festivals, readings, literary discussions & symposia with critics, reviewers & writers ... not to mention the omnipresence of readings by writers, book-oriented events, and interviews with novelists & poets featured at museums, universities, various libraries, bookstores, coffee houses & bars. Most of these "writerly" events are interesting, enlightening & fun ... and many are free!

Howard Jacobson
I recall two such events, among many others, that, for many reasons, proved memorable: the first, at John Jay College, CUNY featuring Richard Ford reading from a new novel & interviewing Joyce Carol Oates and Oates, in turn, reading from her latest fiction & interviewing Ford. Along with most of the large audience, I was mesmerized by the depth, richness & honesty of the conversation between these two fiction writers, two literary luminaries ... in all, a special type of literary event with a poignancy that we rarely witness; the second (fairly recent) event involved the British (Jewish) comic novelist, Howard Jacobson, in an interview-discussion with NYPL's Paul Holdengräber, the director of the public program series Live from the New York Public Library. This discussion was also probing, entertaining & (seemingly) quite revealing on the part (& subject) of Mr. Jacobson, his role in British literature and his idiosyncratic preoccupations, his personal tastes (including his professed skill & interest in ping-pong), and his novelistic inclinations.

Paul Holdengräber
While these events go on all year long, virtually non-stop, during every season, my favorite time of the year for these sorts of literary to-do's is Spring. Somehow, a great many seem to be publicized, brought unceasingly to our attention, and, thus, made readily available & accessible to those interested in literature in all its forms & guises. Spring, too, is the season for PEN America's conference of International Literature - the Festival of World Voices ... this year celebrating its 10th anniversary (from April 28th thru May 4th). More than 150 writers from some 30 countries gathered in venues all over New York City (most in Manhattan) to read from their utterly diverse bodies of work, speak out for "their art & beliefs," and interact with each other, the press. and with conference attendees.

To give you the feel of the PEN festival I offer a description of one program, a strikingly successful & alluring one, indeed. 

New Writing from Japan
Hosted by the Asia Society (70th St. & Park Avenue), the program - "Monkey Business, sponsored both by PEN & The Japan Foundation - was the brainchild of the editors of the annual journal Monkey Business which publishes new Japanese writing and sometimes juxtaposes the Japanese writers & texts with their counterparts in the United States and the UK. And that was how the program was structured for this occasion (Saturday, May 3rd) ... where two young Japanese writers were paired with new(-ish), non-mainstream (?) American writers with some common narrative characteristics or stylistic tendencies. Each member of a "duo" of writers (a Japanese paired with an American) read from one of his (this time only male, by accident & not design) characteristic or new work(s) and then questions were posed to the writer by his opposite number. And vice versa ...

Writer - Hideo Furukawa
Following the interactions of the "teams" of Japanese/American writers, the two editors of Monkey Business (one Japanese; one American) commented on what had transpired and also asked a few probing questions attempting to establish links between the post-modern texts from each culture. A number of questions were also elicited from members of the audience focusing on such variable elements as literary translation, content, reflections of culture(s), narrative voice, form & genre. The program, a bit unusual but ultimately solid in structure, proved absorbing and candid, an interesting "cross-cultural experiment" in literary dialogue. The writers asked valuable & relevant questions of each other marking both differences & similarities in such concerns as style, tone, thematic content, character delineation, length of a work, type of narration. 

Prize-winning writer - Toh EnJoe
As was advertised in the PEN conference brochure, the multiple conversations between Japanese & American writers & editors resulted in an exceptionally lively, honest, and  personally & artistically revealing interaction. In all, the event - moderated by the Monkey Business co-founders & current editors, Motoyuki Shibata & Ted Goosen - proved to be the "provocative cross-cultural encounter exploring the writer's voice in Japanese and English" that the Asia Society publicity promised it would be. Kudos to the organizers of the event; to the enthusiastic, hardworking & efficient (yes, female!) translator; and, finally, to the writers themselves - including "genre-bending" novelist Laird Hunt (Kind One, 2012), Matthew Sharpe (You Were Wrong, 2010), Akutagawa Award-winning novelist Toh EnJoe (Harlequin's Butterfly) & Fukushima-born writer Hideo Furukawa (Belka, Why Don't You Bark?).
Haruki Murakami

Note:  Admission to this event included a complimentary copy of the latest issue (#4) of Monkey Business. Earlier issues were on sale (discounted for attendees) in the Asia Society's shop, AsiaStore. One back issue (#1) includes Furukawa's lengthy, complete & comprehensive interview (entitled "Pursuing 'Growth'") with the acclaimed fiction writer, Haruki Murakami

Bernard Malamud
Another marvelous, memorable, (even) magical literary event we recently (May 1st) attended at The Center for Fiction (17 West 47th, just off 5th Ave.) celebrated the life & 100th anniversary of the birth of the inimitable fiction writer, Bernard Malamud.

The program - entitled, simply, "A Tribute to Bernard Malamud" - was organized by the young novelist, Boris Fishman, who assembled a panel of distinguished writers, reviewers, critics, editors & "old friends" to reminisce & reflect on various aspects of Malamud's work and dedication to his craft & his students. Fishman's panel offered up personal anecdotes & commentary on a wide swath of Malamud's output (over 50+ prolific years of writing & teaching) ... focusing on such major works as The Fixer, The Natural, and the story, "Rembrandt's Hat." 

In organizing & moderating this Malamud tribute, Fishman, according to Center for Fiction publicity, decided to repay "a debt to an author who taught him perhaps more than any other" as he worked on his own debut novel (entitled A Replacement Life, out in June). The diverse group appearing on the panel featured:  Alan Cheuse (writer & NPR books reviewer); Philip Davis (Malamud's biographer & editor of the 3-volume Library of America - Complete Malamud); Clark Blaise ("owner of 'Bern's' Smith-Corona electric," author of 25 books, and long-time Malamud friend & confidante); Liesl Schillinger (New York-based critic & translator, enamored of The Fixer and the "male-female dynamics" found therein); Téa Obreht (a fiction writer moved, or provoked, by "Rembrandt's Hat"); Bharati Mukherjee (author of eight novels and numerous essays on immigration & American culture, and Malamud friend, "disciple," devotee); and Malamud's grandson, Paul Malamud, who revealed via anecdote, a variety of thoughts & feelings about his grandfather, the Malamud family, and Malamud's essentially humble origin & equally humble but dignified nature. 
Philip Davis reflected on all aspects of Malamud, the writer, and the individual in the context of the works. Clark Blaise reminisced about speaking with Malamud on their walks in Bennington "which always started with a visit to Robert Frost's grave."  But the anecdote related by Alan Cheuse - concerning how Malamud once paid a traffic ticket  for Cheuse when he was caught rolling through a stop sign one night on his way to a party at Malamud's home - revealed Malamud's notion of friendship and genuine goodness.

This recent May event, hosted by The Center for Fiction and deftly moderated by Mr. Fishman - celebrating the life & work of an American "master" of the form of fiction - will surely be identified by attendees and etched in their memories as one truly magical evening!  Indeed, my wife and I will certainly recall the evening that prompted us to return to Malamud's multifarious Collected Stories ... stories which reflect, according to Cynthia Ozick, "suffering, loneliness, lust, confinement, defeat ... [which] tremble with subterranean fragility ... in [a] voice ... unlike any other." (The New York Times)

Not exactly a footnote:  After having attended the Monkey Business program at Asia Society (on Park Ave., the upper East Side), we and two other couples were scheduled to meet for an early dinner at good restaurant (89 Greenwich Avenue; situated near Bank St., a short walk down from 8th Avenue; tel. 212/691-8080). Good is described as an "eclectic eatery" serving what they identify as "modern American" cuisine. And so we chose to sample their menu, well, as "eclectically" as we were able, given 6 diners ... and why not?  We ordered a Heidler Gruner Veltliner, a medium dry yet fruity white wine (@ $39; & a 2nd bottle a bit later with our mains). Surely the rich soils & steep slopes of Austria's Kamptal region have contributed to what one wine aficionado designated an "interesting, texturally compelling wine." We all thought so, too, hence the purchase of that 2nd bottle!

good restaurant - interior shot
Good offers a few options for dinner: one can order from the "early supper special," 3-course (appetizer, main, dessert) prix-fixe menu @ $25, nightly, between 6:00 & 7:00. And four members of our party did just that ... each selecting a different trio of appetizer, main & dessert, with little or no overlap.

Escarole & farro salad w/pecorino & vinaigrette
The appetizers list, a first course on the "early special" menu, contained enough variety, solidity & depth to satisfy us all - standouts included the scallion pancake with herb falafel, cucumber yogurt salad, cilantro & pea shoots; a fine rendition of a chicken liver pancetta crostini, drizzled with capers, parsley & lemon; and, finally, the escarole & farro salad, replete with smoked almonds, red onion, pecorino & garlic-anchovy vinaigrette. This last appetizer selection being a very fresh and extremely well integrated salad, a very congruent admixture of ingredients, indeed!

Overnight roasted Hampshire pork
We sampled a variety of mains - the "autumn mushroom" cavatelli, the roasted Bell Evans chicken, the "market fresh" fish tacos & the overnight roasted Hampshire pork. All mains were reported as tasty & flavorful and each of us had overflowing plates with all sorts of supplemental "goodies" (pardon my usage of the word in this context). The market fish tacos, for example, came with red onion cabbage slaw, basil creamed corn (scrumptious, indeed!) with the fish & a lime cilantro sauce packed in good-sized grilled tortillas; the roasted pork was accompanied by small mounds of peach preserves, summer beans & walnut spaetzle in natural jus. Glorious mushroom slices saturated the cavatelli and suffused the roasted chicken plate, the latter a tried & true item which was further garnished with sugar snap peas, fregula (a pasta from Sardinia) & currants.

Duck confit
Our two companions who chose to opt out of the prix-fixe arrangement, selected the seared garlic calamari (with grilled organic rye, cabbage & parsley) as their shared appetizer, and then each selected a main (but refrained from dessert). One diner from this "hold-out" duo ordered the brook trout, a plate comprising spinach, crisp baby artichokes & preserved Meyer lemon salsa (@ $24); the final member of our six-member dining group sampled the duck confit ($21), which seems to have proven a very ample & pleasant culinary indulgence, what with the tender slices & silky texture of the meat.

Bread pudding w/vanilla ice cream & caramel syrup

Desserts - the final course on the special prix-fixe diner - were, on the whole, sweet, varied, rich, creamy & abundant: my favorite consisted in the warm banana chocolate chip bread pudding, with vanilla ice cream & caramel syrup; a strong runner up must have been the Key lime pie panna cotta, pistachio cake, further complemented with lime sorbet & berries. The coffee served - enjoyed by the 1/2 of our party who ordered it - was dark, rich & robust ... a perfect accompaniment for the rich desserts we had chosen for our finale! Of the three remaining diners, one ordered a double (dark!) espresso, another a latte, and the third selected an herbal tea.

The early evening dinner for six at good lasted about 90 minutes (or so) and went as smoothly as could be done with one couple heading for an off-Broadway show (not far way) and another heading down to the Film Forum to see Ida, a complex & somewhat emotionally sterile (at best neutral) new Polish film that has received a good amount of attention.
good restaurant
A low-key eatery that is vibrant, friendly, pleasant ... good presents a relatively modern, enjoyably "eclectic," creative American cuisine.  In short, good made a great impression on us all!  And, consequently, we'll all arrange to dine here, once again, in the not-too-distant future!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Fukurou, "Buyer & Cellar" & a "note" of praise for Mes Reves ...

We were on our way to see the "smash hit" Buyer & Cellar (currently running at the Barrow Street Theatre @ Barrow & 7th Ave.) but first stopped for an early dinner at the compact & bustling West Village Japanese eatery, Fukurou (87 MacDougal St.; 212/388-0013). Luckily, we arrived at about 5:00 when things were still relatively calm & nearly empty. 

Fukurou Interior
Fukurou = Owl (Hoot! Hoot!)
Despite the  somewhat frenetic atmosphere that increases gradually as the evening progresses, the resto is a comfy, friendly, delightful spot in which to dine on authentically creative Japanese cuisine. Indeed, during the time we spent at Fukurou, I must emphasize that our waiter was a very helpful, eager-to-please "guide" to the wide variety of items on the menu ... and to identifying & navigating the various levels of spices and types of sauces the "open" kitchen prepares. Actually, this izakaya-style ("pub" or "tavern-like") resto is the first outpost of a trendy Japanese chain to open in the USA.

Mango Cheesecake
Sesame Ice Cream
We were two couples dining on this occasion and so, to get the feel of a semi-exotic menu, we decided to concentrate on the small, tapas-like plates they specialize in, figuring that about six of these would do for us, accompanied by Asahi drafts (@ $3.49 each), a Luigi Bosca Malbec (for one of our group; @ $4.49), green tea ($1.99), and two of their dessert offerings (one, the black sesame ice cream, at $2.49; another, the wonderfully delicate, lightly sweet mango cheesecake, at $2.55). All of these items - the small plates, as well as the desserts - were shared amidst a few good-sized bowls of white rice.

Stewed Pork Belly
Zuru Teba - w/Bamboo Skewers
With the input & guidance of our waiter, we managed to order our six items; and since my wife had studied various posts by previous diners providing suggestions, the "negotiation" proved relatively easy. We began the meal with Fukurou's signature (and popular!) plate, the Zuru Teba ($5.99), mildly but strikingly & appealingly spiced grilled (very tender & meaty) chicken wings which you simply twist and eat with bamboo skewers ... and not with your fingers! Next, we were served another of the resto's popular (also signature!) dishes, the stewed "black" pork belly ($4.99), a very tasty - neither greasy nor fatty - and perfectly prepared rendition of this complex small-plate creation.  

Seared Toro "Fatty" Salmon
Toro salmon (seared "fatty" slices of salmon; $4.99) came to the table next (and made a big hit!), along with a nicely done order of dumplings ($3.99), followed directly by grilled beef tenderloin slices in a tangy garlic sauce. 

Omu Yakisoba (noodle base)
Our 6th and final tapas-style item - with which we ended the 6-course "small-plate" sequence - was the Omu Yakisoba ($5.99), a large bowl of stir-fried noodles filled with chunks of pork and an assortment of vegetables in a light & flavorful brown sauce - all "blanketed" over with a loosely cooked egg(s) appearing much like an omelet in overall texture & form.

Grilled Beef Tenderloin Slices
We enthusiastically concluded our initial dining experience at Fukurou with the two desserts mentioned above:  the black sesame ice cream & the mango cheesecake. They were both scarfed down breezily ... and both dessert selections were winners!  (Sorry, no coffee at this izakaya-style establishment; and that proved a bit disappointing.)

So off we went to Buyer & Cellar, a one-man show ... a mostly light but, at moments, rather dark comedy. The show currently features a very talented and engaging Christopher Hanke in the role of Alex More, a struggling, underemployed LA actor. Alex has taken a job working in Barbra Streisand's cellar, "managing" (pretty much consistently alone) a personal shopping mall that an eccentric Streisand has designed for herself & visits, periodically, to shop, bargain, negotiate items, terms & pricing, and to make occasional human contact - with Alex, her (inner) self, her past. 

Jonathan Tolins, Playwright
The play - all fiction, of course, written by Jonathan Tolins & directed by Stephen Brackett - juxtaposes a gay Alex and a straight, but strange & insecure Streisand. Throughout most of the play Alex is alone on (& off) stage offering up a funny - sometimes purely hysterical, sometimes outrageous - but calculated monologue "stew" about his life, his lover, his prospects, his new (basement) job employed by Barbra Streisand. But somehow, while also fun & funny, their subterranean meetings (mildly or purely ritualistic "confrontations" involving Streisand as a "mall" shopper & Alex as salesperson) devolve into murky, shadowy regions where the fun ceases. And that's where the play ends up - the light comedy turning dark, discomfiting, disturbing. You simply must see the play for yourself to witness, to
Christopher Hanke - as Alex More
comprehend, the movement of Alex's narrative (and his theatrical character) from the lively & comical - at once self-mocking, witty & confident - into dark and ambiguous territory. (Should I tell you why Alex ultimately loses his job?)

Christopher Hanke's performance is stellar; the direction is first-rate; the set & staging are minimalist yet still  imaginative, even appropriately imagistic; the play, well, interesting, and worthy of our attention, for the manner in which it so cleverly intermingles moments of hilarity, honesty, ambiguity ... and kitsch.

Finally:  A special note on Mes Reves, a high quality French (or, French-inspired) bistro in Essex County, NJ (located at 407 Broad St., Bloomfield; 973/429-4888) which we have dined in, at this point, on several pleasant occasions - both by ourselves and with friends. On our most recent visit, celebrating a wedding anniversary, we were musing about just how fortunate we are, indeed, to have such a fine eatery, among many nearby, almost in walking distance from our Glen Ridge home.

Mes Reves - Center View
Mes Reves is a moderately informal, particularly inviting, commodious BYO enterprise ... owned & operated by Quang & Tammie Tran. With CIA training, Quang Tran is a  chef who produces top-notch fare reflecting his superb talents, instincts & skills. This is a restaurant that generally doesn't dazzle or "experiment," but, rather, performs consistently, provides sufficiently abundant & carefully prepared food, maintains high standards, and fields a friendly & attentive wait-staff. You owe it to yourself to dine here: for the excellent food, of course; for the friendly, low-key environment; and for the simple, tasteful "modernist" decor.

Margalit - Special Reserve
Mesclun Salad
On this special occasion, we brought along two wines to accompany our complete dinner; one for the meat eater, a fine Margalit Cabernet Sauvignon / Special Reserve (Israel, 2007); the other for our pre-meal aperitif and for the fish eater, a Paradise Peak Riesling (Washington State, 2012).  We shared our favorite Mes Reves appetizer, the crispy sweetbreads (@ $14) made with haricots verts, horseradish & shallots in a Bordelaise sauce and (also) ordered a mesclun salad ($10) featuring cranberries, goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, croutons, walnuts & shallots with a vinaigrette dressing. Their crispy calamari salad (@ $12) is superb, as well.

Steak au Poivre
Seared Sea Scallops
For our mains, I selected the steak au poivre (@ $29), a tender New York strip cut with green peppercorn Bordelaise sauce & truffle fries (perfectly done!) while my wife chose one of the daily specials, the seared sea scallops ($27), with tomato concasse, shiitake & fried leeks in a saffron cream sauce. But, what's more, if you're still with me, just have a look at the elegant menu offerings - e.g., pan-seared duck breast ($26), pork tenderloin ($20), roasted Cornish hen ($20), sautéed skate ($22) - for a listing
Sautéed Skate
& descriptions of their other enticing
Bread Pudding w/Ice Cream


We waited a while before ordering our dessert & coffee. We knew from experience what we would select: the rich & scrumptious bread pudding (@ $5), along with cups of robust black coffee ... a perfect combo with which to wind down our small celebration!

Bravo, Mes Reves ... et Merci bien.

PS: The bistro offers a very nice & varied prefix menu (@ $25) weekdays, from 4:45 to 6:30.

(Photo of the external front facade.)