sexiest mango ever

IMG_2145A rose is a rose is a rose, but a mango in any hands other than those of Empellon Cocina chef Alex Stupak wouldn’t taste nearly as sweet. The popular combo of mango, chili and fresh lime so often found hawked on street corners by machete-wielding Latin American women is upended by this chef into an ethereal, yet composed, plate of paper-thin ripe mango mounded into a pillow of sorts, dusted with chili powder, and accompanied by a bracing lime foam and dollops of chili sauce. But that’s not all: hidden beneath the fruity pillow – like a gift from the tooth fairy – is a peeky toe crab salad, which manages to elevate an elegant fruit plate into a savory-sweet appetizer that tickles every part of the tongue.

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playing hooky with james turrell

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it’s too darn hot

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there’s a bright golden haze on the (sheep) meadow

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video: by the cool, blue triangular water

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tease: driving with the top down

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at the theatre: orphans

orphansLyle Kessler’s Orphans is a curious little play. The story of two brothers – one a grifter, the other a shut-in – and the mysterious gangster that upends their lives has long been a regional theater favorite. It’s slight, but affecting, and the three roles have enough meat to give any actor interested in delving deep into a character study a lot to chew on. (Maybe that explains why chunks of the play so often turn up as audition pieces.) But to be impactful as an evening of theater those three actors need to be evenly matched, which is not the case in director Daniel Sullivan’s production debuting on Broadway at the Schoenfeld Theatre. Tom Sturridge, an actor heretofore unknown to me, gives a performance of such feral specificity as Phillip, the autistic shut-in, that it leaves you wondering what might have been had his partners in crime been able to rise to his level. As Treat, Ben Foster, who replaced Shia LaBeouf after a surreal and very public spat involving creative differences, has his moments but lacks the urgent desperation which comes with assuming the mantle of being his brother’s keeper after Mom and Dad…well, we really don’t know what happened, but it’s obvious that Treat and Phillip have been left to fend for themselves for a long time. Treat gets by as a petty criminal, without any aspiration except to provide for him and his brother – a couple of orphans clinging to each other and enabling their own askew reality in a seedy Philadelphia neighborhood. (The City of Brotherly Love, natch.) Enter Harold, played by Alec Baldwin, a dapper, connected “businessman” lured home from a bar after a night of serious drinking by Treat, who’s hatched a cockamamie plan to hold Harold hostage for a tidy ransom. After passing out Harold wakes the next morning to find himself tied to a chair and it seems that perhaps the ridiculous plan was indeed sublime. Yet playwright Kessler subverts our expectations: Harold easily escapes his ropes, and rather than flee becomes a surrogate father to these two lost boys. You could say he gives them a lesson in self-actualization, helping Phillip to conquer his fears of the big bad world beyond the front door and giving Treat a job, along with a taste for fine suits and bourbon. Suffice it to say this happy domestic arrangement doesn’t last long and things don’t end well. There’s no emotional payoff, however, if we don’t believe these boys are fully invested in Harold. Which brings us to Mr. Baldwin. It’s disconcerting to watch an actor of such estimable talent stumble so demonstrably. His stylized shuck and jive often comes across as funny but it’s emotionally hollow, leaving you to question Harold’s existence as anything other than a metaphor made flesh. And his rapid-fire delivery a la Jack Donaghy too often threatens to turn this production into an extended sitcom – albeit one with an unfortunate ending. What subtle thrills this play provides should come from the shifting dynamics of power in the family love triangle but Baldwin is clearly the alpha male here and his persona can’t seem to find the backseat. Maybe ShiaLaBeoufwas right after all. Or maybe he was just too terrified by the dizzying bar set so high by Mr. Sturridge.

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at the theatre: pippin

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 11.11.41 AMHell isn’t other people; it’s a revival of Pippin. Does that make me sound cynical? At the risk of drawing the ire of community theatre groups and teenagers everywhere, I can sum up in two small words the particular reason why this show hasn’t been revived on Broadway until now. And no, they are not “Bob” and “Fosse” – but more on that later. It’s crap. There, I said it: the elephant in the room. Despite an infectious easy-like-Sunday-morning score and high-concept theatrics, Pippin, at its core, is an amateurish bore. It isn’t so much a musical as an EST training run amok at Ye Olde Renaissance Faire; an exercise in self-actualization wrapped up inside the comforting embrace of that familiar trope: hey kids, lets put on a show! Would it originally have been produced without Fosse at the helm? I doubt it. But Fosse being Fosse – I told you we’d come back to him – did more than slap a bit of lipstick on a pig. He twisted the unforgivably earnest story of one young man’s (one very privileged man, I might add) quest for purpose into something tailor-made for a generation dabbling in consciousness raising, creating a surreal and disturbing metaphysical entertainment that seduced its audience with the director’s trademark hot and cool razzle-dazzle and a healthy dose of social commentary. (A confrontational style that would reach its apotheosis, I might add, three years later in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago.) Director Diane Paulus doesn’t seem so interested in the meta-theatrics of her production at The Music Box, except when it’s convenient – or unavoidable. But she does take the instructions of the title song quite literally: “we’ve got magic to do.”  The show-within-a-show conceit of this Pippin is not some mysterious white-gloved performance troupe, but a big top circus, providing Paulus (and a very game company) ample opportunity to distract and amuse us with feats of strength, illusion, and derring do.  Life as a circus is a tenuous metaphor; a wholly non-threatening 180-degree turn away from the original production, but that’s the beauty of shows like Pippin and its precursor, Godspell: they are skeletons on which a director can boldly stamp any theatrical vision. Paulus takes advantage of this without ever connecting the storytelling with the style and throws everything but the kitchen sink at the audience, served by an athletic and adventurous group of acrobats and a (mostly) top-drawer cast of leading players. Only Matthew James Sweet, as our titular hero, fails to impress. Terrence Mann as Pippin’s father, King Charlemagne, Charlotte D’Amboise as his conniving stepmother, Rachel Bay Jones as his love interest, and Andrea Martin as his show stopping grandmother are a quartet of perfect foils for all the navel gazing going on. It’s hard to banish thoughts of what Ben Vereen brought to bear as The Leading Player, but a devilishly sexy Patina Miller more than holds her own. I just wish Paulus had allowed her to show some of the menace in between all those jazz hands. Yet that’s what makes this production so unusual: for all the hoary shtick, it’s irony free. Instead of finding its corner of the sky, Pippin just wants to be loved.

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top 100: gordon ramsay at the london

IMG_1444Gordon Ramsay‘s noxious, narcissistic television persona might put you in the mind that he’s more clown than chef, but the man and his various entrepreneurial gambles collectively boast an impressive 14 Michelin stars, considered by many to be the ultimate benchmark in the hospitality industry. (To wit, there are only four 3-star restaurants in all of the UK, one of which is Ramsay’s flagship.) The bad boy of British cooking might be an unbearable bore, but his cooking is the real deal – even if Gordo is rarely seen in any of his kitchens these days. His first, and so far only, foray into the hyper-competitive world of New York fine dining was greeted with bemused detachment when he arrived with yet another eponymous restaurant inside the former Rhiga Royal, newly christened as The London hotel. Who was this Glasgow footballer-turned-chef come to teach New Yorkers about French food, the foodie demimonde decried. The reception – to be kind – was cool. Yet despite the collective ennui of my neighbors, I must give Ramsay some props. As fine dining it’s all too pretentious, let’s just get that out of the way. The presentation may be classically – and meticulously – French but the complexity of flavor doesn’t always hit the mark. And neither does the suffocating ambiance, which feels more like a temple to Ramsay’s unmitigated ego than one dedicated to dining. But that doesn’t mean the food isn’t often delicious, because it is. The secret is counterintuitive to how Ramsay see himself: treat his dining room as a relatively casual pre or post theater dinner spot. Get there early or late and order off the prix-fixe menu; it’s fantastic and a relative bargain. The simpler the plate, the better, like a perfectly poached hen’s egg over artichokes and basil puree. Or crispy skate wing with roasted fennel. Ramsay is at his level best when he’s humble with his ingredients, proving that sometimes less really is more. Does anyone dare to try and tell that to the chef himself?

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top 100: torrisi italian specialties

torrisiBuzz can be a great thing for any restaurant that’s finding its sea legs, but it really puts the kibosh on the element of surprise. Since opening in the spring of 2010, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone’s homey Torrisi Italian Specialties has been greeted with the kind of lavish praise that has helped make it one of the tougher tables to procure in this city. (It doesn’t help matters that the slip of a dining room seats only about 20 diners at a time.) Which is why I found myself having dinner recently at the ungodly hour of 5:30pm. On a Saturday, no less. Naturally I arrived with expectations. In a city littered with half-assed Italian restaurants, the promise of something revisionist, or just plain properly executed, gets a man salivating quicker than you can say red sauce. I wanted to love Torrisi. Moreover, I wanted Torrisi to love me for loving them. But the feelings of Sunday supper evoked by storefront windows hung with lace-curtains and an elegant, old-school script end outside the door. Despite the kitschy charm of warm wood interiors set off by mismatched china, it’s business as usual inside. (Perhaps there is something to be said about the downside of success.) That’s not to take anything away from the food, which is delicious and lovingly executed – just imagine your good luck to have an Italian Grandma with a degree from culinary school – but the hipster wait staff is efficient to the point of being brusque, it not downright condescending. Feed the myth, Torrisi: where’s the old lady in her sauce-stained apron? The four-course tasting menu varies seasonally, and I expect now that spring has sprung the chefs will be taking full advantage of baby this and baby that, but I hope for your sake the warm, made-to-order mozzarella is a constant. A puddle of barely-set cheese, drizzled with olive oil, it’s like slurping primordial soup. Earthy, silky, and bubbling with the beginnings of fermentation, it’s intoxicating to say the least. Three more appetizers arrive in succession – you have no say in the matter – and while pleasing, they’re not nearly as hypnotic as the mozzarella: blackened tuna with eggplant; crisp, savory potato millefoglie; and oddest of all, a grilled Boar’s Head sandwich with pickles that reminds me of a concoction I might have dreamed up as a child. Fusilli in a dirty duck ragu is a toothsome pasta course, not nearly as rich or as heavy you might expect, but wholly satisfying. (And properly portioned, thank heaven – enough to sate, not stuff.) Both choices of entrée were winners: country pork muffaletta served with roasted and pickled variations of cauliflower, and monkfish in a zippy pepper marinara with shellfish. For dessert, it’s hard to pass up a rainbow cake, which, though not extravagant, provided just enough sweet to round off the meal in that particularly almond-flavored, Italian way. For the quality of the cooking Torrisi’s $75 set menu is a bargain, plus the wine list is equally reasonable. God knows I’ve had much lesser meals at three times the price. And for all my griping about sitting down to dinner before the sun sets, there was an upshot: I made it to Midtown for an 8pm curtain with nary a hitch.

made to order mozzarella

potato millefoglie

fusilli dirty duck ragu

country pork muffaletta

monkfish, pepper marinara

rainbow cake

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at the theatre: the testament of mary

IMG_1547There’s something thrilling about watching a great artist dangle on the precipice of a cliff, walking the razor’s edge between sublime and ridiculous. Fiona Shaw is such an artist. An actress of fierce conviction and commanding presence, I expect it would be mesmerizing to watch her read from the phone book, such is the power of her craft in plumbing the depths of truth out of even the most banal material. Fear not Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theater, mind you, where there is no need to worry about the quality of the writing being strained. Playwright Colm Toibin, whose elegiac novels revolving on themes of personal identity rank among some of my favorite, has fashioned a demanding, intelligent play out of the twinned myths of religion and fantasy. The Last Testament of Mary is no gnostic gospel, but it does imagine the later life of the Blessed Virgin as a woman in self-imposed exile. Mary does not believe that her son was the son of God and furthermore she refuses to co-operate with those simpletons – the writers of the gospels – who insist on visiting her. Mary is a mother, first and foremost, who had the misfortune to have a son who let things go to his head. It is the mother’s paradox for her to simultaneously grieve his death yet curse his megalomania, which turned the unforgiving spotlight of iconography on herself. This Mary wants none of it. And if she were left alone on a bare stage to tell us her story, we would sit enrapt. Yet director Deborah Warner, whose often visionary collaborations with Ms. Shaw stretch for more than a quarter century, will have none of that. For ninety minutes this Mary is a ceaselessly fidgety fuss bucket: moving a chair here, an amphora there, forever arranging then rearranging props and tables with an unlit cigarette dangling from her mouth. If the action is meant to underscore some greater emotional reality it’s not entirely convincing. In fact, Mary’s vulnerability is at its most ferocious when words become too much and the inability to communicate vents itself through the painful stomping of her feet, like a child caught in a tantrum. Designer Tom Pye is complicit with Ms. Warner, littering the stage with enough detritus – not to mention symbolism – to keep an actor busy for two plays, let alone the single act which makes up this evening. It’s too on the nose: the barbed wire, the ladder, the tree which dangles from the sky, its roots not touching the earth. We can’t help but be riveted by Ms. Shaw, who commits to her character so completely that even an act of gratuitous nudity does not take us out of the world of the play. Yet it’s the viewer’s paradox to both applaud the fearless conviction of an artist and wish someone had the good sense to leave her well enough alone.

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top 100 (off shoot edition): sushi of gari 46

sushiMy go-to Japanese has long been Sushi of Gari. Simple and unpretentious, with a meticulous presentation that borders on wizardry, it’s an Upper East Side anomaly hidden on a sleepy side street. When it comes to omakase (letting the chef decide what you eat) it’s easily the best deal in town, too. The only drawback is that the room is tiny, making a casual drop-by almost impossible. Over the past year, however, chef Gari has grown his humble one-off into a mini fish empire, opening branches in Tribeca, the Upper West Side, the Theater District, and even the food halls underneath The Plaza Hotel. Can Gari’s reputation for quality and fastidious attention to detail hold up across so many outlets? If Sushi of Gari 46 is any barometer the answer would be no. The setting is more refined, the lighting more forgiving, but there’s a chain mentality at work here that seems to be less about divinely sliced fish and more about herding people in and out as quickly as possible. The front of house is brusque, the servers even more so. And while you’d love to linger longer over a sweet, unfiltered nigori which comes to the table in a beautiful flask of blown glass, subliminally you’re waiting for a not-so-subtle cattle prod to signal your time is up. The sushi and sashimi are respectable, if not sublime – and certainly not worth making a special trip. But it is the atmosphere, which borders on aggressively hostile, that is so off-putting. Part of the allure of the east side original has always been that it’s very much a neighborhood joint, albeit one where the man with his name on the door is the one behind the counter wielding the shokunin. Sushi of Gari 46 might have style to spare, but it lacks the appeal that comes with having soul.

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hakkasan

IMG_1093Part of the allure of Hakkasan is that you’d walk on by if you didn’t know it was there. A large steel door on a grotty stretch of 43rd Street – which was not too long ago a major thoroughfare for the dispossessed, the deranged, and the deviant – is your only clue. In fact, I strolled past not once but three times, wondering if I had gotten the location right. It’s a peculiarly British fashion, this ramshackle exclusivity designed to be enjoyed like a secret among those in the know. In Hong Kong the idiom reaches a highpoint as a lingering legacy of a restrictive class system: the city is pockmarked with private dining clubs secreted down blind alleyways and atop skyscrapers, where the price of admission demands a secret knock or password. Though an import from London – with outposts in Las Vegas, Doha and Mumbai – Hakkasan feels less like the former and much more like the latter. Opening that steel door is akin to Alice falling down the rabbit hole. A long, ghostly illuminated hallway leads you to a check-in desk, watched over by a pair of grinning Cheshire cats. You wonder yet again if you’ve come to the right place and suddenly have a sinking feeling that perhaps you might get turned away because you don’t know the password. No worries, this is New York: democracy and dollars rule. You have a reservation; you’re warmly greeted and ushered through an expansive marble-clad bar area, thumping with techno music, turning past the kitchen and down another hallway before arriving in the land of the lotus eaters. It’s disorienting, but I expect that’s the objective; you’re so relieved to be seated that the excessively priced menu doesn’t make you blanch: an $888 plate of Japanese abalone? $345 for a Peking duck, albeit garnished with caviar? What, no shark fin or swallows nest soup? Searching for reasonably priced items while sipping an $18 glass of Sauvignon Blanc you’ll recall the wise words of Confucius – not to mention Chinese chowhounds: the less you pay, the more satisfying the meal. A traditional Hakka dim sum platter made for a colorful start: scallop shumai, prawn and chive dumpling, black pepper duck dumpling, and har gau, all pretty to look at – and even tastier to eat – and at $28, or roughly $4 per dumpling, what passes for a bargain here. Udon noodles ($18) are nothing out of the ordinary and skimp on the advertised shredded roast duck but they’re satisfying dressed in plenty of spicy, seafood-rich XO sauce. The Assam Seafood Claypot ($42) is perhaps the most successful plate of the night. Studded with chunks of fish, shrimp, and squid in a savory curry broth, it’s big enough to share and even budget friendly if you load up on rice. Pak choi are bright and crispy but really, $15 for a side of veg? When the bill comes it’s a bit of a shocker, despite best attempts at avoiding anything approaching excess: $200 with tip. For a pre-theater meal it feels like a bit of a rip-off. Then again if I was with the high-rollers in Macao, or above the clouds and looking down on the Hong Kong skyline, I wouldn’t think twice. Perhaps that’s the best way to approach a meal here: close your eyes, drink the potion, and embrace the fantasy of being in a place far more magical than midtown.

assam clay pot

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iconic nyc: tram-a-lama-ding-dong

roosevelt island tram

59th street bridge

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the eating of the green

green bagel

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