iconic nyc: apollo theater

apollo theaterThe world-famous Apollo Theater is more than a historic landmark, it’s a bastion of African-American culture and achievement. Built in 1914 as the New Theater, it started life as a burlesque house. And as at many American theaters of the time, African-Americans were neither allowed to attend as patrons, nor take the stage as performers. A campaign against the growing licentiousness of “the burly-q” in the early 1930’s led to its closing down, along with theaters across the city. After a lavish renovation, however, it re-opened as the Apollo, with the intention of exclusively showcasing black entertainment for the growing African-American community in Harlem. (The idea was more self-serving than altruistic: colored entertainers were cheaper to hire.) The Apollo grew to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance of the pre-World War II years. Billing itself as a place “where stars are born and legends are made,” the theater became famous for its Amateur Nights, launching the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Jackson 5, Patti LaBelle, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King, Mariah Carey, The Isley Brothers, Lauryn Hill, and Sarah Vaughan, who all, according to tradition, would touch the Tree of Hope to ward off “the executioner” – a man with a broom who would sweep performers off the stage if the highly vocal and opinionated audiences began to call for their removal. The Apollo also featured the performances of old-time vaudeville favorites like Tim Moore, Stepin Fetchit, Moms Mabley, and Pigmeat Markham, dancers like the Nicholas Brothers, Berry Brothers, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and jazz greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonius Monk. In its heyday it could safely be said that you hadn’t made it if you hadn’t played the Apollo. Not one to rest on its laurels, the non-profit theater today continues to advance emerging creative voices, presenting concerts and performing arts, as well as education and outreach programs which serve the greater community.

tree of hope



live blog: if beale street could talk

As a teenager I discovered the writing of James Baldwin. His novels, plays, and essays fictionalized the fundamental intricacies of a mid-century America teeming with racial, sexual, and class distinctions. Individuals were placed in the context of complex social pressures which seemed to thwart their integration at every turn. Young and confused myself, I ate it up: Giovanni’s Room, Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Fire Next Time, Another Country, and Blues for Mr. Charlie – works saturated with outrage, unrest, and a melancholic disappointment founded on a promise left unfulfilled. Yet one book has remained on my bookshelf unopened for some twenty-plus years: If Beale Street Could Talk. I’m not exactly sure why it’s gone unread for so long but that’s going to have to change after this trip. Beale Street was once the lifeblood of Memphis’ African American community, a National Historic Landmark and Home of the Blues. To quote B.B. King, “When you walked down Beale Street, you felt you really had something. Because you could get work on Beale Street. You could get justice on Beale Street. You could get whatever was available to people on Beale Street.” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination near Beale Street, however, and the unrest that followed hastened the street’s decline. By the early 1970’s a disastrous experiment in urban renewal cleared most of the area’s old buildings to make way for a projected renovation that never materialized. I can only imagine how Baldwin would have reacted to such a scenario. Today, Beale Street is at the center of an economic revitalization happening all around downtown Memphis. The juke joints are once again lively and the food is too. Blues fills the air like a trumpet of triumph, not tragedy; making me wonder all the more what tales this street might tell, if only it could talk.


under the spell of amber

My first Michelin-starred meal in Hong Kong turned out to be quite the doozy. Under the guidance of Dutch chef Richard Ekkebus, Amber at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental has two of those coveted stars. But wait, there’s more:  the San Pellegrino “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” Awards ranked the eatery at number 37 earlier this year. Not only is it the only Hong Kong restaurant on the list, it’s the only restaurant in Hong Kong to have made the list since 2005. (I’d been told the city is emerging with enormous gastronomic energy – this factoid only served to solidify my stomach’s growing expectations.) Needless to say lunch at Amber did not disappoint. From the amusing amuse of foie gras lollipops shellacked with beetroot to the perfectly-formed olive-studded focaccia, my meal was a languorous mix of creative aesthetics and fresh, contemporary flavors grounded in traditional French technique. Dungeness crab with crème fraiche, avocado, Granny Smith apple and cucumber was so composed I almost hated to mess the plate. Line-caught Atlantic cod was roasted with the skin on and served with salted celeriac and Iberian pork neck in a Cabernet reduction that perfectly played off the meatiness of the fish. For dessert a terrarium of tiramisu was inspired – so, too, the cheese trolley – yet the  bliss of dark chocolate gunaja with speculoos crumbs was downright genius.  This wasn’t at all what I expected of Hong Kong – but I’m so happy to have had my expectations thoroughly upended.


vip arrival

One of the many benefits of staying with The Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong is their VIP meet and greet service. After a sixteen hour flight from Newark it was a pleasant surprise to be met at the plane by this lovely lady who whisked me through immigration to baggage claim and into a taxi to the hotel. I barely had time to register my disorientation. Welcome to Hong Kong!


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