Saturday, January 31, 2009

Fleur de Sel

Our final stop for Restaurant Week was Fleur de Sel, which specializes in the cuisine of Brittany and which never fails to be described as a hidden gem, due to its small size and low profile on the New York dining scene. Unlike ilili and Spice Market, the portions here were definitely on the small side, not surprising given that they normally charge twice as much for lunch as they do during Restaurant Week. But the space --- softly intimate and bathed in golden light --- is attractive, and the food, while not sensational, was well-executed.

The Restaurant Week menu only had two options for each course, so we ended up ordering everything they offered. We started with a butternut squash soup and a mesclun salad topped with duck prosciutto. The soup was unexpectedly sweet, and the soft prosciutto played well off the sharpness of the greens.

Our mains were a tender cod with orzo in a tomato cream and a rich veal breast with oxtail ravioli. Neither dish was something we would ordinarily order, but the veal in particular was a hearty welcome on a nasty, snow-spitting January day.

We finished with a trio of sorbets and a plum bread pudding. The sorbets struck us as an odd choice for a winter dessert, but we couldn't fault their taste.

The virtue of Restaurant Week is that it gives diners an opportunity to eat in restaurants they otherwise might not. We won't be rushing back to Fleur de Sel --- at the prices they regularly charge, there are better choices --- but we're glad to have had the chance to try it out.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Marlene Dumas at MoMA

Have you ever been at work and talked with someone who worked in another department and realized that your department and his/her department were kind of like the proverbial two hands that don't know what the other is doing? That's a little bit like what it's like to move from the fun, feminine Rist installation to the dark, depressing Dumas installation --- a difference of four floors and an entire spectrum of tone.

This is not an exhibit for the faint of heart.

Dumas's smallish portraits, painted from photos of friends and family, are brutal and carnal. Even the exhibit's title --- Measuring Your Own Grave --- causes distress. Children are naked, with paint-splattered hands, their genitals at the viewer's eye level. Adults look stunned and swollen. Blues, grays, and blacks predominate, in the drippy style of a kid's watercolor. What was particularly chilling was the way Rist's music floated from the atrium to the sixth floor, totally changing in tenor as it traveled: downstairs the music seemed like part of a really cool rave; upstairs the music was funereal and soft.

Maybe Rist is right. Maybe much of the art made in the past 100 or so years requires meditation, relaxation, preparation. But Dumas herself is arguably reacting to her own version of the canon, in particular the abstract work that so dominated the late 20th-century art world. At any rate, here's something to think about: there are two special exhibitions by women at MoMA right now. Maybe those hands understand each other after all.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Pipilotti Rist at MoMA

Pipilotti Rist’s site-specific video installation, Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters), casts the normally austere MoMA in a warm, fuzzy glow --- literally. Her trippy images, projected on the gallery's three walls, feature supreme close-ups of grass, apples, pigs, women (and their lady parts), flowers, and other objects in nature, along with a soundtrack rooted in electronica and trance. Gone is the metallic, phallic Broken Obelisk, replaced by a huge purple couch. A sign encourages visitors to sit down, take their shoes off, and make new friends; the space, reconfigured in every way, is Rist’s attempt to encourage visitors to meditate before heading through the museum’s other galleries.

When we visited, the place was packed, as if people were just too relaxed (having too much fun?) to bring themselves to tackle the harshness of most of MoMA’s permanent collection. Critics too have delighted in the Swedish artist’s work: Jerry Saltz argues that it’s a response to the museum’s misogyny; Karen Rosenberg claims that it “reflects an obsessive curiosity about nature.” Both like what she’s done with the place. And we did too --- to a point. The light splashes and oozes, filling the huge atrium (the cubic measurement mentioned in the title) with color and movement, but then the visual-and-aural combo can suddenly become too much, necessitating a retreat into the cool, orderly galleries above.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Lunar New Year Celebration at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden rang in the Year of the Ox with performances, crafts for kids, and a flower market. The horticulturists also identified certain plants with special red-and-white labels, listing the name and Asian country of origin. You're still not allowed to touch the BONSAI, though, just in case you were wondering (emphasis most definitely theirs).

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Our second stop for Restaurant Week was ilili, a vaguely clubby Lebanese restaurant near Madison Square Park. As was the case at Spice Market, we got an inordinate amount of food for our $24.07. The place was almost empty during a weekday lunch, which was too bad as the cooking was quite good, but we were glad to see that celebrity chef Bobby Flay was one of the other diners. Maybe he can give it a positive mention on Throwdown.

We started with a special drink they were serving in conjunction with Restaurant Week, a cucumber and basil lemonade, which was delicious but so summery as to make us wonder if they forgot to turn the pages in their calendar.

The service was very friendly and enthusiastic, but, oddly, they brought all of our dishes at the same time, so we went from having an empty table to having more food than we knew what to do with. Our appetizers were a hearts of palm and artichoke salad that had a snappy lemon flavor, and a bowl of tabbouleh, a little heavy on the parsley but still satisfying.

As mains, we got a choice of sandwich or kebab plus side. We went with what turned out to be a very tender lamb dip, a huge portion of falafel on flat bread with mint and spicy tahini, Phoenician fries with garlic whip on the side, and grape leaves drenched in oil. It was too much!

And yet we valiantly made room for dessert: awaimat, Lebanese beignets drenched in orange blossom syrup, and the ilili candy bar, a slab of chocolate served with pistachio and fig caramel smears and a little pot of more chocolate. Maybe all the oil dulled our taste buds, because the chocolate was textured but curiously unflavorful. The donuts, in contrast, were syrupy and perfect.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Checker Cab at the Villard Houses

The Villard Houses, on Madison Avenue between 50th and 51st, were one of the earliest projects by famed New York architecture firm McKim, Mead, and White. Completed in 1884, they now house the offices of the Municipal Art Society, Urban Center Books (a great architecture and urban studies shop), and the New York Palace Hotel. The building has achieved new (and perhaps less estimable) fame as a recurring location in the Gossip Girl television series, but walking past today we saw in its forecourt a more charming piece of New York history, a Checker Cab.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Spice Market

We hit a home run in our first 2009 Restaurant Week foray --- brunch at Spice Market. The Bento Box special featured some highlights from the menu, including samosas stuffed with minced chicken, beef satay, sticky rice, ginger and butternut soup, and miso cod plus a choice of nonalcoholic beverage. We picked a sweet cherry soda and an explosive ginger beer.

We don't love the huge restaurants that characterize the Meatpacking District, or the suburbanite crowd they attract, but Jean-Georges Vongerichten's paean to Southeast Asia knocked it out of our park. We particularly liked what we termed the Temple of Darkness (hence our gloomy pictures), where JGV himself supposedly got married. Female servers wore sexy backless tops, but male servers and runners wore what looked like a cross between hospital scrubs and pajamas. A little silly, like many other things in this neighborhood, but the food made us forget the Vegas glitz.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fishs Eddy

Fishs Eddy specializes in dinnerware (such as plates decorated with floorplans), flatware, cupware, serveware, and irreverence. It's working, even in these tough times.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Superhot Cast-Iron Radiators

The radiator's on full blast, and someone is very excited. Not pictured: Allo staring into the cast-iron depths, Allo putting her tail between the rails, Allo trying to manuever her fat cat body beneath the radiator.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Cripple of Inishmaan

For the last decade, Martin McDonagh has been able to do no wrong on the stages of New York. His plays The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and the The Pillowman have all been critical and commercial hits, earning a handful of Tony wins and nominations. Not a bad record for a playwright still on the short side of 40 whose bleak works deal primarily with the vicissitudes of Irish life. And now, with the staggering economy shutting down big-budget shows like Hairspray and Spring Awakening, a new production of McDonagh's 1996 play about a disabled teenager in the Aran Islands in the early 1930s has been such a hit that its run has been extended.

We lucked into great seats for a recent matinee, and it quickly became apparent why McDonagh resonates so well with New York audiences. His play is full of black humor, sudden shifts in tone, and an even mix of optimistic yearning and cynical realism. McDonagh leads you to believe you have his characters figured out -- you peg Helen as a slatternly miscreant, and JohnnyPateenMike as an exploitative gossipmonger -- only to reveal their complexity in moments that are both organic and shocking. And while the jokes are intimately tied to the play's impoverished rural setting ("Ireland must not be such a bad place if sharks want to come here"), their sardonic darkness is a perfect fit for troubled times in the big city.

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