Friday, April 27, 2012

At The Hotel Chelsea

In 1884 it was the tallest building in New York. It's storied past as a haven for artists and bohemians is well known. Sid Vicious's girlfriend Nancy Spungen was stabbed to death there. Edie Sedgwick set her bed on fire there. Charles R. Jackson, the man who wrote The Lost Weekend, committed suicide there. A bunch of artists too numerous to mention lived there. It is haunted with bohemian spirits.
Now The Chelsea as we know it is no more, another victim of the relentless advance of the future, or as it is called today, developers. Of course the new owner wanted to build a rooftop bar, which was immediately nixed by the area's community board.
Yesterday, I got a chance to get one last glimpse into its phantasmal vibe. The occasion was The Quality Of Presence, a collective art exhibit in the soon to be vacated apartment of one of its residents.

Wagging tongues were saying that Patti Smith, who once lived there, had been invited by new management to make her home there. Who knows if this is true. Being a complete cynic, I wouldn't be surprised. Once you are successful, you can no longer be a bohemian. She cancelled a private concert she was going to offer for the new owner, developer Joseph Chetrit, after longtime residents raised a stink. 
One could not expect this idiosyncratic, quintessential New York landmark to remain unscathed after so many years of benign (for artists) neglect, particularly when the entire town threatens to become the Meatpacking District. But that doesn't make it any less painful.
I was never inside it before, which I deeply regret, and I feel lucky that yesterday I was able to get one last glimpse before it is turned into some soulless, painful pastiche that will try to bank on its ineffable cool, and miserably fail. All we can hope is that the ghosts of bohemians past will scare the living daylights out of the new guests.
Of course, there had to be a no pictures policy in the building, which of course we disregarded. I took bad iPhone pictures:

What will become of fabulous El Quijote next door? I hope it is a landmark too. Losing it as well would be too much to bear.

Friday, April 20, 2012

To Add Insult to Injury

Check out the google ad my friend Cynthia got in Puerto Rico.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
Not funny.

Mexican Food in NY City

I moved to NY City in 1992 and the panorama of Mexican food in the city was appalling: nachos, watery frozen margaritas and burritos the size of Sherman tanks. A guacamole made from a single puny avocado would set you back 9 dollars (still a fortune, in my view) at Rosa Mexicano, which was decent but outrageously expensive for food Mexicans eat at home every day.
Luckily, things have changed, and with the influx of many Mexican restaurant workers and the realization that Mexican food is serious gastronomic genius, New Yorkers now have many much better, more authentic options to enjoy.
Still, I am extremely hard to please because I am a stickler for authenticity, or at least coherence. People ask me what is my favorite Mexican restaurant in NY. To be honest, I rarely eat Mexican in town. It tends to either exasperate (the added gringo preciousness) or disappoint me (the lack of understanding of the genius of the technique and the ingredients. The cluelessness). 
My standard response so far is, I really like the appetizers at Hecho En Dumbo. They are very good. The rest of the menu is also good, if uneven. But you can't go wrong with their sopes, carnitas and tamarind margaritas (the only exception I will make to the classic margarita). My problem is that food that you can have on the street in Mexico for a handful of dollars becomes adds up expensively when served at a NY restaurant. La Superior in Williamsburg does decent tacos, but again, it lacks the schmutz, the grime, the proletarian aspect of the real thing (Wait. Apparently now they have a taco truck). And I have yet to schlep all the way to Queens in search of a decent taco. I hear they are not very good.
Several years ago, La Esquina promised to make my dream come true: a place where you can get a quick taco fix after the movies or after bar hopping. I really like their sopa de tortilla, which may not completely pass muster in Mexico, but is very dignified here. Some of their tacos are quite good, and so is the quesadilla de huitlacoche. However, their taco de acelgas (swiss chard) is overwhelmed with lime, for no discernible reason. Not all tacos go with lime. Beef and pork tacos go with lime, stewed vegetable tacos don't. But La Esquina still does not replicate the Mexican taquería experience, because of the ordering system, because New York has yet to understand and refine the fine art of being a taquero, which slings perfect tacos at breakneck speeds to hungry crowds. The good news is, since we are fast becoming a Third World country with rising inequality, and NY is becoming more expensive by the minute, we might yet see the advent of cheaper, better food for us plebes. The rise of the food truck is a sign. Soon nobody will be able to afford to eat in a restaurant anymore.
Ever since I moved here, my dream was to open a torta joint in NY, so that my fellow citizens could learn the meaning and magnificence of a truly spectacular sandwich. I imagined my place as a tiny hole in the wall, with maybe 6 seats, no decor but the best sandwiches in town. It may happen yet. Recently, Tortaria, a torta and taco place, opened in University Square. Tortaria is also one of those joints which can satisfy the need for a quick taco or torta apres le film or avant la debacle, so we gave it a try. The food is tasty. But there are concessions I do not understand. I imagine, much to my chagrin, that many of the compromises one sees in Mexican joints all over town are due to some of the ridiculous hygiene regulations of the city, like not being able to have food hanging around, and who knows what other unduly paranoid rules. But it's the creative flourishes that annoy. The bread at Tortaria is like a brioche hamburger bun, which is very good, but it is not the classic torta bread (bolillo or telera: the closest thing is a Portuguese roll). Then the fillings are good, but too fancy. Braised short rib torta. I know it sounds petty to complain about this, which might even be very good. But the point of a torta is that it is simple. The point of a torta is that you can have ham and cheese, or eggs and ham, it does not need to be caviar. Also, the point of a torta and its attending tortero (the guy who makes it) is that you can choose your own combos. So if you want to have chorizo with potatoes and egg, they can make it for you. Still, we had the torta de milanesa, (schnitzel torta, a Mexican classic) and it was very tasty, with a chipotle mayo, avocado, beans, etc. But the crust of the schnitzel was burnt and the whole thing was not exactly a classic torta. Their steak tacos are pretty good, and they make the tortillas in house, which is great, but I am tired of people calling carnitas to stuff that isn't. Carnitas are the height of Mexican street food. This was just stewed shredded pork. It's like calling tapioca caviar. Don't. Plus, their sopa de tortilla is absolutely inedible.
I've been to Tacombi and was disappointed, not so much by the flavors, but by the tepid temperature of the tacos. Tacos are served piping hot. Pleasant La Camelia on Bedford street is very tasty, but you almost need a microscope to see the tacos, whose tortillas are made in house but end up resembling sopecitos more than a taco. Dos Toros, which is a better Chipotle (utterly abject), has good tacos, but not very authentic. They're from San Francisco.

So the closest to a real taco experience are the now ubiquitous taco trucks. Not all of them are good, but now there is one, Mexico Blvd., that I really like. I must disclose that the owner, Jorge Loaeza, is a very good friend of mine, and the man who gave me my first job in advertising in Mexico City, back in the Pleistocene period. Yet if his tacos, tortas and guacamole were not splendid, I would feign madness and avoid talking about them. I am happy to report that the tacos and tortas of Mexico Blvd. are delicious. The tortillas from Tortillería Nixtamal are very good, the fresh salsas are awesome. They found this perfect torta bread somewhere in upstate NY and it is delivered to them every day. Jorge and his son Jordi have developed some secret guacamole method that manages to keep it green and fresh without overwhelming it with lime juice. My only nitpick is that I would love the chips to be plain and not the lime and chili chips they provide. I am that vantz of a purist.
Because they are food lovers and Mexicans (which is actually one and the same), the Loaezas understand the essence of Mexican food, so theirs is pretty authentic. They don't invent fancy stuff. You can recognize the truck by its elegant black and gold design. I love eating my tacos and/or tortas right there, and washing them down with a cold Sidral Mundet (Mexican apple soda), as in a true taquería. Mexico Blvd.'s customers get most everything to go, but I would invite them, now that the weather is nice, to eat standing by the truck. It may be the closest to the Mexico City taco experience you can get in NYC.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Human Kindness

Why is it that when I fall on the streets of Manhattan no one ever picks me up, but when my iPhone is about to be crushed by a rush of cars, several bystanders attempt to stop traffic in order to save it? When I fall, everybody averts their gaze, but an iPhone lying in the middle of the Bowery brings concerned spectators on both sides of the street.
I'd like to believe it's because iPhones are incapable of human embarrassment, whereas aiding a fallen Enchilada can be a tad cumbersome and awkward.
But it's not because we place a higher value on our gadgets than on clumsy humans. Right?

Now Showing At A Theater Near You

We Have a Pope and luckily for us, it's Michel Piccoli.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Oh Sugar

I saw that report on sugar by Dr. Gupta on 60 Minutes. I think he should be locked away and never heard from again. What irresponsibility, what vile yellow journalism, to demonize and slander one of the few pleasurable delights mankind still enjoys in utter innocence; one of the few pleasures rich and poor can enjoy equally.
To make people feel like pariahs because they want to enjoy an ice cream cone or a piece of cake. To compare sugar to freaking heroin! That is criminal.
But such is life in this crazy country, where no one has ever heard of NUANCE. Everybody talks about moderation but they wouldn't know it if it bit them in the ass. Yes, if you wash down your junk food with 5 liters of Coke a day, you may be signing up for limb amputation; but geez, stop treating food and drink as if they are poison.
There are other more poisonous stuffs in our midst. (Our current Supreme Court is one of them. The other is Republicans).
Sugar? Sugar is a honey.
Food and drink are sources of pleasure and culture and civilization. They are not out to get you. 
Sugar is not gonna kill you if you enjoy it in moderation. In fact, it may add years of happiness to your miserable, puny life.
The other day I went to Italian gelateria Amorino and had the medium ice cream cup (manifesting heroic restraint by avoiding the large size and the crispy, sugary cone, which I'm definitely having next time).
I had their chocolate hazelnut, which they modestly call L'inimitabile, pistachio and banana ice cream. The first two are bliss on earth. Happiness in a cup. All is well with the world. Life is beautiful. Orgasm of the mouth. The banana is just good.
One lick of that heavenly creamy L'inimitabile ice cream and I was ready to forgive everybody everything. I sat there licking my bliss in a more zen meditative state than any mantra could possibly achieve. That ice cream almost restored my faith in mankind (not that I ever had any to begin with). This has got to be better than crystal meth, no?
Dr. Gupta informs us that sugar raises dopamine levels in the brain, which is the substance that makes you feel good. Voilá! What could possibly be wrong with feeling good? Has Dr. Gupta tried the banana cream pie at The Dutch? The pain au chocolat or the financier at Millefeuille? A Ladureé macaron? Probably not. Otherwise, he wouldn't dare cast these libelous aspersions. Otherwise, he'd be a happy man.
So don't make it like a little dessert is a worse enemy than a lethal drug, you scaremongering vantzes.
We all know that sugar gets stored in the body as fat. You don't need to make it sound like Adolf Hitler has risen from the dead and is coming back to get us.
All you need to tell people is to get off their ass and try to eat more varied stuffs that are more natural. When it comes to refined sugars, exercise some sort of human restraint, is all we need to do. I do believe that high fructose corn syrup is more addictive than cane sugar, regardless of what 60 Minutes says. So have Mexican Coke instead of American Coke.
Sugar? You are going to have to pry it from my dead, cold hands, as they say.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

End Of The Rainbow

Now playing on Broadway, End of the Rainbow is an account of the last days of Judy Garland. The only reason I went to see this is because Tracie Bennett, channeling miss Garland, has incredible buzz and I was curious.
I read Garland's biography when I was barely a teenager. Poor Judy was brought up to become a great star and also a basket case. A performer from the age of two, she was adored by millions but never healed from the emotional wounds inflicted by her exploitative mother and all the pills she was given by MGM. They worked her hard. However, in this superficial, crowd pleasing show, except for Bennett's ferocious performance, there is no attempt to do anything but skim the surface. No interest in dwelling on the reasons why this talented woman was so damaged. Not that we need flashbacks, but there are no ghosts, no memories, no feeling of a life lived and suffered, and in many ways, wasted. Instead, there are feeble jokes about her serial husbands and The Wizard of Oz.
Bennett is much better than the play and the production. Even without comparing her to the real Garland, I suspected that the whole thing was way over the top. Garland was a wreck by the time the London Talk of the Town concerts came about in 1969, and probably reality was even worse than what is believable on stage, but the play would have benefited from a bit more fragility. There was something sweet and breakable about Garland that is almost missing in Bennett's brassy performance.
She allows us to see it at times, but the whole thing seems to be designed to raise the barn.
The actors who play opposite Bennett seem to have had whatever remnants of an edge or any personality leached out of them by the pandering, easy direction. Michael Cumpsty plays Anthony, her long-suffering, devoted, closeted gay pianist and Tom Pelphrey plays Garland's last husband, Mickey Deans, a questionable character much younger than her. Although Garland's greatest enemy was herself, it would have been better if she had characters she could relate to, not just scream at. This is true particularly of Pelphrey, who has an unfortunate resemblance to Jim Carrey and a bad seventies wig. From his shapeless, annoying performance it is impossible to tell whether he is a cad, or he loves her, or is a loafer or what he wants from her. Cumpsty fares better as the chubby, sweet pianist, but watching an unrelenting doormat is never interesting. He seems to be channeling Jim Broadbent at his cuddliest. The direction wants to hit all the high notes and pander to the audience with easy gay jokes. The production is spirited and energetic but what is missing is a stronger undercurrent of heartbreak.
The production design is nicely done, with one curtainless set that alternates an ornate suite at The Ritz in London with the stage where Garland performs, with a live band, the series of Talk of The Town concerts she gave in 1969. It's a great visual metaphor that blurs the private and the public, right for a life that was lived by performing. The illusion works best when Garland performs on stage and the current audience is used as a stand-in for the London audience.
Bennett is astounding in her ballsy, no holds barred performance. She inhabits a performer who is performing, a woman who even in private cannot stop performing (imperious diva, helpless creature, tease), half the time out of her wits, ebbing in strength but with superhuman energy, tearing her heart out every time. She has the voice and the delivery, but lacks the addled, doe eyed, fragile warmth that Garland's fans adore. She starts the show with a massive amount of energy and escalates from there. For even when Garland is in decline, Bennett's performance is way over the top, and out of her sheer devotion, energy and talent, it works. As with Marion Cotillard's channeling of Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose (another tiny giant diva), you gotta have ovaries of enriched uranium to step into the shoes of enormous artists like these two dames. Onstage, this is a feat of physical and emotional courage.
I can't imagine what it must be like to be performing like a trained seal since the age of two. What it must be like to be asked to be this frozen icon (Dorothy), that symbolizes so much joy to people, even as you've outgrown her long ago and while it may bring you waves of pain. Of all the train wrecks in the history of showbiz, Judy Garland seems to hold the record for endurance, and there are flashes of this in Bennett's performance. What Bennett understands best, because she shares it with Garland, is that enormous life energy that a performer needs to summon and spit out in order to be loved in return. It is so intense, particularly when an enormous talent needs to be unleashed, that it tends to burn out fast.
Bennett's commitment and her emotional generosity astound. There were a couple of times that I was truly moved by her. She does a rendition of Garland on stage, high as a kite on pills, which is manic, tragic, a wreck and horribly funny. And when she sings Over the Rainbow she will break your heart. Unfortunately, the production insists on showing a silver lining and ending on some sort of happy note that is completely unnecessary, and to me, offensive. This relentless enforced optimism exhausts me. Why can't we just celebrate human tragedy? It's not gonna kill us. It may make us stronger.