A dad and his daughters, loving life in New York City

Tuesday, June 7

Scoboco's back.... and tumbling!

Food, art, music, movies, books, and, especially, scenes from all over this beautiful city.

Tuesday, January 29

Spread's Spreads / Crumbs's Cupcakes

She may not be much of a dessert person herself, but my ever-gorgeous girlfriend Debbie definitely knows how to make me and my daughters happy. Case in point: last Saturday night, when she came over to our place and provided all the makings for a sweet-treat tasting spree.

First came the chocolaty, nutty spreads from Spread, an organic restaurant in San Diego that sells a seemingly endless number of varieties of the stuff online. The four of us sampled three different flavors, eaten straight from the jar or spooned onto shortbread and some excellent chocolate cookies from Grandaisy. By far the best—or, at least, by far the most deliciously desserty—was the White Chocolate Espresso almond spread: sweet, thick, the flavors deep and rich, the espresso beans adding a pleasant, bitter crunch. The Dark Chocolate Chile peanut spread was as good as this sort of thing gets, but we all had a hard time getting past the whole sweet-spicy trend/gimmick (I have the same problem with the wasabi truffles, et al, at Vosges....). Yes, it sets off an interesting little party in your mouth, but it doesn't really satisfy as a dessert.

Speaking of not dessert, the Cinnamon peanut spread turned out to be nothing more than unsweetened, roasted ground peanuts, liberally infused with the aromatic spice. A disappointment after dinner... superb with raspberry jam on my raisin english muffin this morning.

Then it was time for Dessert: Part 2. Now, Crumbs may be second tier when it comes to cupcakes in this town, but it certainly knows how to put on a good show. Plenty sugary and often filled with some sort of creamy surprise, the assorted mini-cakes in this lively 12-pack were as much to fun eat as they look like they would be.

You can find more information about Spread's spreads here. There are a half-dozen Crumbs Bakeshops in the City; I believe the cakes we ate came from the one on 8th Street between University Place and Broadway.

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Monday, January 28

Community Food & Juice

Craving some comfort food on a cold night last week, I decided to check out Community Food & Juice, a newish, homey, fresh-ingredients-driven spot up near Columbia. It's run by the Clinton Street Baking folks, so I figured that at least the bread would be good, but I must say I totally enjoyed everything I ate... and, since the place was packed by 7:00 on a Tuesday, that seems to be pretty much the norm.

I started the proceedings with a crock of rustic White Bean and Cerignola Olive spread—rich, fluffy and with a surprising bite—which I slathered over warm slices of Peasant Wheat. This was one of four bread-and-spread combos listed on the menu, any one of which seems to be the sensible way to begin your meal here.

Next up was the stunningly good Lotus BBQ Chicken Wings, the plump—but not steroid-y plump—and juicy bird bits grilled in sweet hoisin, beautifully balanced by a heavily salted lemon dipping sauce. It'd be tough not to order this again.

For my main course I went the mollusk route, and was rewarded with four plump and lovely Pan Roasted Diver Scallops, full-flavored and nicely "medium rare", holding their own against the generous accompaniment of bitter turnips and smokey ham. Maybe this dish was a tad too much of a good thing, but I'll take that over bland or boring 100 times out of 100.

Community Food and Juice is located on Broadway between 112th and 113th Streets. All of my many servers were smiley and efficient, and they fixed a gaffe—initially, all three of my courses were delivered at the same time, which is never ideal, but especially since I was dining alone, made me feel like Albert Brooks during the "nine pies" scene in Defending Your Life—in an unhesitating, professional manner. The atmosphere here is comfy and convivial, the prices gentle, the neighborhood crowd thick with students, including the friendly, chatty trio who "joined" me at my end of the communal table halfway through my meal. I'll definitely be back, with Bo and Co, and hopefully soon.

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Friday, January 25

While I Was Gone by Sue Miller

You know those books that sit on your shelf for years, for various reasons left unchosen each time you pick out your next read, until the by-now overly familiar spine makes all the potential magic inside seem almost too tired to even bother with?

That's one of my favorite things about books... how you never really know what's inside until you actually start reading. Take Sue Miller's late-1990s novel about an inexplicably (even to herself) restless middle-aged woman, While I Was Gone. I bought this, used, at a school fair probably six years ago, and only picked it up earlier this month. Now, this is definitely not a masterpiece or anything—the central plot conceit is asking too much of us, I think (and, frankly, lets our heroine off the hook at little too neatly); and for all the time Miller spends on the daughters, they remained vague and largely irrelevant through to the end—but I must say I've made my way through dozens of books I enjoyed far less during the time this has sat there on my shelf, patiently waiting.

Our narrator here is Jo Becker: early 50s, fun, fit and pretty; successful veterinarian; nice house in rural Massachusetts; three basically happy grown-up daughters; a good-looking, decent, loving husband. And yet.... when an old roommate re-enters her life—a man who knew her back in the late 1960s, a time when she learned so much about herself, and probably felt the most free—Jo finds herself obsessing about the events of that nearly-forgotten time, both the very good and the staggeringly ugly. How she deals with this unexpected plunge into the past is sad, liberating, funny, heartbreaking, necessary.

I had never read Sue Miller before—she has a relatively new book out in hardover now, The Senator's Wife—and greatly admired her smart, often subtle observations about relationships, the nature of love, family, identity, freedom, and fantasy, as well as her deft sense of timing and brisk pacing. If you, too, have While I Was Gone waiting unread in your home, you might want to consider it among your next-up options.


Thursday, January 24

Winter Movies: Part 2

Somewhat surprinsingly for mid January, it's been a very good—if somewhat light—couple of weeks at the movies.

Written and directed by Alex Gibney (who did the same with the excellent Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and who was also involved as a producer for the pretty excellent Mr. Untouchable and the amazingly excellent No End In Sight), Taxi to the Dark Side is a scathing, deeply affecting documentary of America's systematic use of torture—to the point of murder—on prisoners, held without charges, in Afghanistan (at Bagram), Iraq (at Abu Ghraib) and Guantánamo Bay. The film takes its name from the story of an Afghan cab driver named Dilawar who was picked up by soldiers in 2002 for transporting "terrorists", brought to Bagram, and beaten to death—his legs almost literally pummeled into mush—by Army interrogators. Gibney is a superb storyteller, and here he uses astoundingly frank interviews with Bagram personnel, archival footage of the smug-ass richboys of the Bush administration, and the insights of interrogation experts, to convey the undeniable truth that the Army's policy of torture comes from the top, and that the policy is both a moral travesty as well as a tactical disaster. Next up for Gibney? The presumably much lighter Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Can't wait.

Katherine Heigl is a total movie star. 27 Dresses—about a lovely, selfless woman who's been a bridesmaid 27 times, who secretly loves her boss, who watches said boss fall for her younger sister, who only slowly realizes that the perfect man has been right there in front of her, all along—will not once surprise you with its plotting. And yet Heigl is so appealing as the lead, so goofy and sweet, so incredibly watchable, that I loved nearly every moment of this romantic comedy... especially, of course, the Bennie and the Jets sequence. Also well-played: James Mardsen as Mr. Right. Yes, I laughed, I cried, I heartily recommend this, if this is at all your thing.

You've almost certainly already read waaaaaay too much about Cloverfield, so I'll just say this: sit in the back or risk extreme nausea; disregard both the annoying first act (which worked beautifully as a setup in the trailer, but seems interminable here) and the logic/geographic holes; enjoy the technical, aesthetic challenge, successfully, at times thrillingly, met, of telling such a huge story—a monster attacks Manhattan—with a single camcorder; keep your expectations low; walk home afterwards even more in love with this amazing City.

Although Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona trots out many of the usual scary-movie suspects for The Orphanage—playground equipment that moves slowly, squeakingly by itself; kids who shouldn't be there, standing at the end of hallways, looking totally freaky; a (beautiful) woman who refuses to get the hell out of what is clearly a very haunted house—he does use them all to good, creepy effect. Add a story that's emotionally honest, a respectable performance as a mother-gone-mad from Belén Rueda, and a great first "ending" (followed by a much weaker second ending, followed by a third that's weaker still), and I was willing to forgive whatever silliness came on the screen and enjoy the horrorshow.


Tuesday, January 22

Beard Papa's

Though far from a new idea—these cream-puff parlors have been around for a few years now, and my daughters and I definitely enjoy wolfing a couple of their creations every now and again—popping by Beard Papa's for a sweet treat potentially got more interesting with the recent addition of the Cookie Crunch puff. Also new, available this winter only: the Mont Blanc puff, featuring a dollop of French Chestnut cream atop a regular vanilla custard puff.

Unfortunately, neither of Beard Papa's new species adds much to the admittedly already quite satisfying sugarbomb experience. In fact, in a rigorous side-by-side taste test conducted late last Saturday night in my kitchen, I can confidently say that there is absolutely no difference between the Beard Papa's regular and the Beard Papa's Cookie Crunch puff (at right and in back, above). No difference in flavor. No difference in texture. Nada.

Not that either puff was bad—in fact the special Caramel custard that filled my puffs was pleasantly rich, sweet, and butterscotchy—but they really need to rethink how to crunch these babies up, if that's the direction they're going in (maybe add cookie bits to filling?). As for the Mont Blanc, the unapologetically unsophisticated take on chestnut cream did add a certain amount of new flavoring to the puff, but mostly it just doubled up the gloppiness factor.

There are several Beard Papa's locations in the City. On this night, I got my puffs on Broadway between 76th and 77th streets.

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Monday, January 21

Reggie Watts: Disinformation at the Public Theater

No question, Reggie Watts—he of the shaggy head; still, handsome face; stunningly flexible vocal chords—is a smart, creative, dynamic and often quite funny performer with a lot on his mind... the way we communicate, for instance, and language in general, and technology worship, and identity, corporate/authoritarian doublespeak (whether delivered by lackeys from the fictional conglomerate Carnaidesai—"There's not much future left, but we're using all of it..."—or a Star Wars-inspired "Dark Lord"), and the seemingly imminent destruction of our planet, and self-righteous bullshit of all kinds.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to snag a seat at Watts's almost-one- man-show Disinformation (he was joined by some dancers for what I thought to be the night's weakest moments), directed (and co-written?) by Tommy Smith, playing at the Public Theater as part of their annual Under the Radar Festival. Given the breadth and depth of Watts's concerns, and the energy and spark with which he conveys his many themes, I was surprised that I found the whole thing a bit repetitive, and was much more engaged—and laughed a lot more frequently—during the hour-long show's first half.

That said, Watts is a compelling stage presence, who excels at, for example, delivering empty phrases with such conviction that you're tempted, for a second, to ascribe them with meaning (he explains that a piece of sound equipment on stage "does everything it's been engineered to do by the people who created it"); mangling words for comic (deeper?) effect (in one bit, he tells of taking his "grainfather" to "Sweatserland" and pushing him off the "bal-CONE-y"); and telling shaggy dog stories that somehow remain interesting even as they spiral out of control with ever-more ridiculously unimportant details.

Best of all, Watts is a superb human beat box, creating on-the-spot, multi-layered looping rhythms and melodies with a delayer, and then overlaying the mix with often hilarious rap/soul-ified improvised lyrics. My favorite: the insanely intricate, rapid-fire description of his camouflage suit.

Disinformation's Under the Radar run ended yesterday, but you should definitely try to catch this man's stage show the next time he comes around, no matter what he's doing. Until then, there are lots of Reggie Watts videos online. Here's one of the best.

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Friday, January 18

The Ottimo™ Ciao Bella® Ice Cream Sandwich at Eleni's®

It was Debbie and her daughters who first discovered these beauties, tucked away inside the Chelsea Market, and later she brought a bagfull over to my place for me, Bo, and Co. Since then I've gone out of my way twice for more, a sure sign that, even in a town packed with excellent on-the-go treats, these sweets—basically, intense Ciao Bella gelato sandwiched between soft Eleni's cookies—will remain in our steady dessert rotation for some time to come.

The multi-branded Ottimos come in four flavors, the best a toss up between the refreshing Strawberry—the fruity filling an unexpectedly perfect pairing for the cinnamony Snickerdoodles—and the rich, aromatic Espresso, nicely complemented by Chocolate "Neat" Cookies, which I guess means "studded with cakey bits and white chocolate chunks." Really, both of these are pretty much ice-cream-sandwich heaven; choose to suit your mood.

Also good, if much less crave-able, are the super-sweet Chocolate/Chocolate Chip, and the somewhat blandly sophisticated Lemon/Lemon Poppy. These will do in a pinch, but are definitely second tier.

Eleni's is located in the Chelsea Market, which can be entered on either Ninth or Tenth Avenues, between 15th and 16th streets. Eleni's is probably best known for its impressive selection of creatively, temptingly decorated cookies and cupcakes, though I've found these to be only serviceable.

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Thursday, January 17

Cafe Katja

You've probably already heard good things about this newish, tinyish, cheapish spot... but you might as well get used to it. For a certain mood, and a certain type of food—cured meats, various wursts, all veggies pickled—Cafe Katja dead-on hits the spot. A couple of nights ago I had a hankering for sausages and such, and couldn't have asked for a more satisfying dining experience, the Austrian comfort food matched in its simple appeal by the cafe's friendly, neighborhoody atmosphere.

I began with a (very early) candidate for shareable starter of the year, a heaping Aufschnitt Teller, which included two types of speck (one similar to prosciutto, the other more like bacon); two salamis; several slices of a beautiful blood sausage, studded with fat; an intense, creamy, garlicky mound of Liptauer cheese; a hunk of gamey liverwurst; a "salad" of pickled vegetables; and a pile of chewy, buttery slices of dark rye. Basically: a ton of delicious snacks, and plenty for two, or three, but all of which I somehow managed to finish by myself.

Every restaurant in town seems to serve a Beet Salad these days, and Cafe Katja is no exception. I thought the addition of caraway seeds might differentiate this version, but, honestly, this is just another well-executed take (lots of goat cheese on vinegary sweet beets and frisee for crunch) on a dish that's tough to prepare poorly. Finally, I wolfed an excellent, juicy Bratwurst on a mountain of heavily pickled sauerkraut and sweet mustard.

Cafe Katja is located on Orchard Street between Broome and Grand. I showed up at around 6:30 on a Tuesday and got a table right away, but there aren't many seats here, and I bet it gets crowded.

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Wednesday, January 16

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn

The central, and essential, emotional moment of Nick Flynn's memoir: Nick is working the "cage" in a men's homeless shelter in Boston, and in staggers his long-estranged father—alcoholic, bank robber, ladies-man, self-proclaimed "brilliant" poet and writer—needing a bed. Everything that leads up to that night, and all that follows, for both son and father (for this is as much about Jonathan Flynn's life as it is about Nick) makes for a wrenching, funny, raucous, brisk, occasionally even inspiring read from a terrifically creative writer. Although I did want to hear more about Nick's life than he was willing to reveal, and the final act goes on a bit long, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is an original, utterly devourable addition to the by-now groaning shelf of modern memoirs well worth reading.


Monday, January 14

La Rural

It's a little confusing, entering the spanking "new" La Rural, located where Pampa used to be, all of the former tenant's decor still in place, the Argentinian menu pretty much—maybe exactly?—the same. When I asked the owner about the relationship between the two restaurants, he replied "the only thing the same is the meat." I assume he didn't mean the actual, physical meat I'd be eating that night, but you never know.

Anyway, new or not, the same or different, my daughters and I feasted on a excellent meal at La Rural this past Saturday night, the food much better than I ever remember having the three or four times I ate—and left disappointed—at its predecessor. We started slowly with some nicely addictive Aceitunitas Rellenas, green olives stuffed with almonds, goat cheese and parmigian, nearly submerged in oil. We probably could have eaten three times what they gave us, but at least the oil did double duty as a dip for our bread.

Next up: grilled meat, including a generous, if inconsistent, serving of Molleja, or sweetbreads, some bites divinely rich and tender, other bites a tad chewy (I had to chuckle, though, watching my kids bicker over who would get the bigger piece of pancreas); and two kinds of sausage, a lovely, juicy, spicy Chorizo (my daughters' favorite), and a hefty Morcilla, which was good for blood sausage—dense, aromatic, tangy—but though Bo and Co gave it a go, its gamey mushiness won't win any converts to the subgenre.

More friendly, and a total table-pleaser: the Empanadas, fried and crispy, our Pollo moist and flavorful (maybe a bit too many peppers for my taste), the Caprese—mozzarella, tomato, basil, all fresh and far more liquid than stringy—a total success, and not at all the "Pizza Hot Pockets" you might expect.

Finally, my daughters split a bowl of Penne Bolognese—the noodles had bite, the sauce was garlicky, sweet and spicy, the dish a huge hit all around—while I tucked into a spectacular Bife De Costilla, a 22-ouncer, beautifully charred, intensely, deeply meaty, and, given its almost-too-rare appearance (I had asked for medium rare), stunningly tender. Really? I'd be surprised if there's a better $20 T-bone in town.

For dessert, we of course ordered the Panqueques de Dulce De Leche, the chewy, caramelized crepes oozing pools of Argentina's national food. Panqueques: fun to say; even more fun to eat.

La Rural is located on Amsterdam Avenue between 98th and 97th Streets. As of 1/12, they did not a have liquor license, nor were they accepting credit cards. We arrived at around 6:30, and though we were seated immediately without a reservation, the place was already pretty full and definitely festive.

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Friday, January 11

Winter Movies: Part 1

Twenty-oh-eight begins with stragglers from aught-seven. Here's the standard quick look...

The first half of I Am Legend is riveting, with Will Smith as the last man alive tearing through the stunningly-rendered abandoned streets of my beloved city, hunting and scavenging for food, tools and entertainments, accompanied as he goes by the last dog alive, the rest of humanity (and canine-anity?) dead for two years, the world trashed, sad, weedy. And then when we first get a glimpse of the undead, rabid, only-come-out-at-night zombies—apparently the only other "survivors" of the plague that wiped out everyone else—twitching in their nest in a blacked-out MePa warehouse? My God, I thought, now THIS is a fun movie. And then, for reasons I won't reveal, the movie's dynamic changes, Smith's ingenious, likable, exceedingly capable Dr. Robert Neville completely changes, all for the much worse, and my enthusiasm and admiration for the film died as swiftly and as terminally as… well, you can guess the simile here.

Debbie and I both loved The Kite Runner, the book, and so approached the movie with more than a little trepidation, especially after several viewings last fall of the bland, feel-good trailer. We were pleasantly surprised, then, by how much we liked director Marc Foster's faithful, even occasionally unsentimental, adaptation for the screen. Of course, Foster has to hurry a bit over several key plot points, and the story's intitial betrayal lacks the gut-busting pain I remember from the novel (though I admit the ending truly soars), but overall this is a satisfying, nicely-played, genuinely emotional drama. Not Top 10 material, but definitely worth a viewing, especially in this no-new-releases, early winter season.

Maybe we were just desperate for some on-screen frivolity to close out the "serious season", but Debbie and I both totally enjoyed P.S. I Love You, the Hilary Swank romantic comedy about a woman whose beloved husband sickens, dies, and then speaks to her from the "grave" in a series of letters, delivered posthumously, all directing her to do things that involve having fun, moving on with her life, finding her true self, etc.. No question, the basic plot mechanics were pretty ridiculous, but Swank turns on the charm (to go with her usual guts), the script is sharp, and the supporting cast, especially Lisa Kudrow and Harry Connick, Jr., steal nearly every scene they're in. If you're in the right mood, you can definitely have some fun—and some tears—with this one.

I knew Sweeney Todd was going to be gory; the Times did compare it to Saw, after all. But what I didn't realize was just how bleak, how classically tragic this story is, the lightest, cutest moment of the entire two hour spiral into hell coming from Helena Bonham Carter crushing cockroaches into her meat pies. The setting is Tim Burton's relentlessly gloomy 19th-century London—where, it seems, bad things happen to all people—the songs are terrific, the singers less so (no one embarrasses themselves, but no one brings down the house, either); Johnny Depp is perfectly cast as the haunted, doomed serial killer. Just don't go in expecting Hairspray.