Saturday, May 27, 2017

Food Blindness

The vibrance of New York often makes me forget the interesting places I've eaten. But I think I just get a little blind sometimes. Here are some things I'm looking back at now that were great, and I just haven't given credit where it's due.

Village Yokocho is up a set of ominous-looking stairs inside a glass-doored vestibule that's mysteriously always open and just sort of beckon you from Stuyvesant Street. It's actually the restaurant in which famed cocktail bar Angels' Share resides, but it's also a bustling spot in its own right. Village Yokocho serves Japanese food, not sushi, though you can get some sashimi. HanOre and I strolled in there one night craving some tasty treats, and we were not disappointed. There are pages upon pages of goodies to choose from, in small plates and large. We shared an eel bowl, marinated octopus, salted clams, and beef tongue with bean sprouts and left happy, with our wallets still in tact. 

There have been pickle joints on the Lower East Side since time immemorial, and The Pickle Guys is perhaps the most well-known today. SE and I took a brief trip there recently and were greeted by barrels upon barrels of deliciousness, from the traditional (half-sour pickles) to the sublime (pickled pineapple). We ended up with both the traditional and the sublime, and ate them as we walked through the neighborhood. The pineapples were spicy sweet; they made my hands a little sticky, but it was totally worth it. 

Maybe I'm supposed to tell you about Fig. 19, and maybe I'm not. But here goes. It's a cocktail bar in the back of The Lodge Gallery on Chrystie Street. I had been in the gallery so many times, and when HanOre suggested we go, I had no idea she was talking about. We showed our IDs to the bouncer who asked what we were doing there. "We're here for the bar," HanOre said. "What bar?" The bouncer asked. "Fig. 19," I responded, and he nodded and let us in. I had a drink with egg whites, vanilla, cinnamon-infused gin, and some other delicious things I can't remember right now, but it was fantastic. Sometimes speakeasy bars can be gimmicky and awful, but the drinks here were actually good. 

I had heard about Springbone Kitchen a while ago, entranced by its healthy options--cauliflower rice instead of regular rice, zucchini noodles instead of pasta, and countless others. SE and I went one evening and sidled up to their counters, eventually diving into hearty bowls of goodies. I had the Meatballs and "Spaghetti" which was made with those aforementioned noodles and a hearty tomato sauce, and it hit the spot. I left with a cup of vanilla mushroom tea--yes, that's tea made from mushrooms--which was so weird and wonderful, sort of nutty but earthy but very subtly sweet. 

At the French-Hungarian spot Cafe Dada in Park Slope, AR and I ordered tea. But it was what they call their Immuni Tea, so it was hot water in a tumbler with lemon, mint, honey, fresno chili pepper and fresh lime juice. At the time, I opted for just the lemon, mint, and honey, but it was a soul-warming experience nonetheless. We chatted while a jazz band played, surrounded by the restaurant's dark, wood-paneled bar. 

Dear Sweet Jesus. These cookies are so good. Thick and soft with huge chunks of chocolate, Bang Cookies are usually baked to order. When I had them, they were being sold at the Coffee and Tea Festival in Brooklyn. I had only the smallest sample of the Sea Salt Chocolate Chunk cookie at the festival and I thought my brain was going to fall out. I stood at their booth saying "Oh My God" for about five minutes. In between breaths, however, I found out the company is based in Jersey City, and every so often will come in for a street fair to sell their wares. I'm hoping to track them down soon, or have some delivered since it's really just that (dangerously) easy. 

Also at the Coffee and Tea Festival SE and I found ourselves at the Chai Mookie booth sipping cups of chocolate chai tea blended with milk. It was all the great things about chai and hot chocolate but not weird together and not exploding with calories. I had never sipped anything like that in my life, and bought myself a cup after tasting it. SE went for a full bag. It was the perfect antidote for a day of shitty weather and now, months later, I can still taste it. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Stephen Chan

There are people in this world who, if you don’t like them, there’s something wrong with you. I have met three in my life. One of them is Stephen Chan. 

Stephen and I met almost 10 years ago at our university on the first day of his freshman orientation, when I was an orientation counselor. We have not been able to get rid of each other since. 

Any nice thing I try to write about Stephen will be an understatement, so I don’t know if I should bother trying. I will say he is so kind, hardworking, patient, warm, and genuine he makes me want to be a better human and that will have to do. His fiancé Jesse is a lucky man. 

When Stephen is not a Product Manager at advertising technology company LiveIntent, he seeks to fill his life with even more creativity. He has recently taken up playwriting, sitting for hours at Caffè Bene in the East Village working on scenes for his playwriting class. He also has a finished play he will soon be revising. 

We meet at Caffè Bene on a cloudy Saturday, a salute to his favorite place to write. “Do you like kombucha?” he asks me. I’ve only had it once or twice, but I affirm. We sip first pomegranate then ginger versions and talk about the future. Is it supposed to be smelly once you get to the bottom of the glass?

We walk down Avenue A to thrift store Buffalo Exchange. Stephen smiles mischievously at a shirt that says “Let’s Get Drunk” and another with a drawing of a bald Britney Spears, the phrase “It’s Britney, Bitch” underneath. Eventually, he makes other selections and heads to the dressing rooms. 

The first shirt he tries on is a baseball-style shirt with “Boston” printed on it. Stephen was born just outside of the city. The shirt looks good, but it will stay in the store. “I think it’s too butch for me,” he says, amused. He ultimately chooses a pair of white shorts and black shirt that says “This is what a feminist looks like” in white letters. 

We leave and try to walk down the west side of Avenue A, but are diverted by a closure on St. Marks for the New York Dance Parade. We cross over to the east side of the street by Tompkins Square Park, where the parade empties out, and get lost in a sea of young dancers in aqua sequins and tulle waiting to be picked up by their parents. I make it out first, but Stephen gets stuck and the side-eye he throws me makes me burst into fits of laughter. 

We finally arrive at bar Amor y Amargo and order some expertly made cocktails. Stephen chooses the Renaissance Man, a drink the menu tells us is “earthy with rhubarb and smoke.” He sips and swoons, pausing to really savor it. We sit and talk even more this time, effortlessly, the way we always have. 

Follow Stephen on Instagram.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Jay Miriam

“Actually, I don’t really feel like listening to Queen,” Jay Miriam says as she puts a record back into its sleeve. It is a gray, rainy Sunday afternoon and she’s feeling more of a Nina Simone vibe. Shortly, Nina purrs a cover of Hall & Oates’s “Rich Girl” from the wooden phonograph and the sound fills Jay’s kitchen. Her cats, two elders and three two-month-old kittens, sleep in the background. We sit on stools by the counter and Jay cuts into Polish pastries procured from a local bakery, one a poppyseed danish and the other a rose jelly donut. They’re sugary and fluffy and “they’re meant to be eaten with wine, so I hope you’re ready,” she smiles, pouring us each a glass of red. 

Jay is a painter. She has shown work all over the world, as far away as Australia and as close as the Half Gallery in New York. Her work, dreamlike yet rooted in memory, explores intricacies and ideologies of femininity with subtle humor and thick coats of color. She has been featured in The Paris Review, Forbes (which called her a “painting wunderkind”), Time Out New York, and many others. I am in her home, a railroad apartment whose center space she converted into a painting studio. In the corner of her studio, there’s a bright white light on a stand that Jay keeps lit when she’s working. It duplicates the light a gallery may put on a work when it’s hung and it shows the colors in their actual tones and vibrancy, where the darker overhead light already in the apartment may not. 

In her soft, honey-like voice, she talks about some of her works in progress: a large, emerald oil painting where witches dance around what will eventually be a hat, which the devil is said to have worn to hide his horns; a woman balancing between lightness and dark, life and death; a nude whose face Jay has scraped away countless times in hopes of getting the features and expression just right. It seems to be on its way, but she’s not sure. 

Jay will soon begin a new work by stretching her own canvas. She wears painting clothes, a ripped tank top and black paint-splattered sweatpants with a giant hole in the knee over cutoff denim shorts. She worries she’ll look awkward in the pictures I’m taking, but there’s something about her I think looks just fabulous, simultaneously messy yet elegant, as a young, professional painter would. 

Jay starts by laying the gray raw linen on the floor, cutting it to match the shape of a wooden frame. A long time ago she became interested in the way Renaissance painters made canvases of their own and resolved to do so ever since. She bends the linen over the wooden frame, solidifying it in place with a giant stapler. The kittens play inside the frame, and every so often she gently picks one up and moves it so she can continue working. 

Follow Jay on Instagram.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Bar Mitzvah You Never Had

If you have never been to a bar or bat mitzvah (or never had one, like me), perhaps you are not familiar with the traditional Jewish celebration of a young person becoming an adult. To say there's lots of singing and dancing and food is accurate but a wild understatement. We're Jews, so we know how to party like the world is coming to an end because there are so many times for us when that has actually happened. We don't just dance, we do the hora, where we hold hands and spin in a circle to a seemingly endless degree. We don't just say prayers, we sing them and clap along in rhythm. We don't just pat celebrants on the back, we lift them up and down in a chair above our heads to music. In my opinion, to be Jewish means to have an appreciation for all things over-the-top and loud, even if one isn't over-the-top and loud oneself, because it's having an appreciation for life being lived to the fullest: not quietly, not with hesitation or reservation, not in hiding. "By living life to the fullest," Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum writes, "we justify the gift that is life." 

With all that being said...a place in New York where you can experience this very Jewish fullness of life that one might experience at a bar or bat mizvah without actually attending one is at Sammy's Roumanian Steakhouse on the Lower East Side. Before last night, I had previously only heard tell of the restaurant, known for its dancing and parties, but hearing about something is very different than experiencing it first hand, as we did for JT's birthday. 

Sammy's has been on the corner of Delancey and Chrystie Street since 1929, when the neighborhood was still largely comprised of Jewish immigrants. It serves classic Jewish foods like stuffed cabbage, chopped liver, kishke, kreplach, and a host of other roasted and grilled meats (and the occasional vegetable), and every table is provided with a container that might normally hold maple syrup but is instead filled with schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat (sometimes it's goose fat). This is a leftover tradition from kosher cooking, where one couldn't use a fat like butter in preparing a meat dish because meat and dairy couldn't be mixed, so one used schmaltz instead because it was a fat with which one would still be able to cook. 

The sign above Sammy's by this point must be ancient, its mustard backdrop with red and blue Hebrew-style letters faded from years of sun exposure. And you don't walk into it, you walk down to it, into a room lit from above with fluorescent lights, whose wooden walls are pasted with a collage of images from decades past, the occasional college pennant or wedding invitation or faded, peeling photograph just barely holding on. It's almost like being in a more excitingly decorated Elks Lodge, long tables covered in white cloth smushed against walls and into corners, around which sit iron and wooden chairs tightly squeezed together. On these white tables are wooden bowls filled with pickles, teeny white plates, paper napkins, utentsils and, of course, Sammy's signature schmaltz. 

When SE and I enter, most of the people in JT's birthday party have already arrived, and we squeeze ourselves like a close family onto a long table by the DJ booth. There are bottles of vodka in front of us frozen inside ice and placed inside white plastic tubs, tiny glasses for shots and carafes of cranberry juice for chasing. The DJ is maybe in his early 70s, grayish, balding and slightly frail at first sight, but throughout the night he takes us from traditional Jewish anthems like "Hava Nagila" (to which the entire restaurant danced the hora, and our party separated to raise JT--wearing a crown and a Sammy's shirt given to him by the restaurant as a gift--up and down like at the bar mitzvah he had 17 years ago) to Billy Joel's "Piano Man" to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" to The Fontaines' "Build Me Up, Buttercup" and ultimately, Flo Rida's "Low" and Nelly's "Hot in Herre." We're all soon singing along at a loud, vodka-fueled volume, instantly friendly with the other party guests, only some of whom we knew. We're literally rubbing elbows and so-and-so I just met asks me if I would like some deep-fried kreplach or a potato latke or the chopped liver, into which a large smattering of schmaltz has just been ceremoniously poured for all to see by a well-trained waiter. People dig in with gusto. That's what you're meant to do here, after all. 

Photo by Steve Silberman
Vodka continues to flow, and after a brief dance break, our entrees make our way to the table with a resounding thunk of ceramic onto plastic wood. We pile slices of juicy steak and salmon and roasted chicken, slide thick potato chips or heap mashed potatoes onto delightfully mismatched plates. I swear I could have eaten the entire plate of the salty, tender steak but alas I had to share. All the while, music continues to play, we sing, we eventually put on party hats and sunglasses, getting up to dance in a tiny space in a corner of the restaurant. The rest of the parties at the restaurant do the same, the small spaces between each of the tables becoming tiny dance floors for both older patrons in floral dresses and younger patrons in platform shoes. 

It's a sense of celebration and vibrance I have often associated with being Jewish, and it comes naturally to many of us at the table that evening. It's the bar mitzvah we never had. Without even thinking about it, I know this is the way you proceed with joy: with laughter, with singing, with dancing, with so much food you can hardly stand and, if you're lucky, with a little bit of schmaltz.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Lane Moore

Lane Moore is constantly moving. Even when sitting, she waves her hands expressively, speaks vibrantly and rapidly, and throws her head back in laughter. It’s a perfect metaphor for her life, really, where she is always on the next hustle.

Instead of asking “What does Lane Moore do?” it’s easier to ask “What does Lane Moore not do?” A comedian, she hosts New York’s popular Tinder Live! comedy show, where she hilariously scans the notorious dating app in front of an audience, which she is also now touring around the country and, soon, the world. She writes all of her own material, including a book in the works that will be published by Simon & Schuster and a comic book called Smarty Pants Lydia. More of her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, and Playboy, among many others. Once an editor at Cosmopolitan, she won a GLAAD award for furthering queer visibility at the publication. She was also nominated for the White House LGBT Champions of Change Award. As an actor, she has been on HBO’s GIRLS, and as a commentator, she has appeared on VH1 and MTV.

Lane is also the singer/songwriter of the band It Was Romance, featured in Vogue, Pitchfork, i-D (in an article by yours truly), and more for their garage/blues/soul/experimental stylings. She is backed by Danny Moffat on guitar, Angel Lozada on percussion, and Jeff Connors on bass.

Tonight at Irving Plaza, It Was Romance is playing “Gold Dust Woman” at the 27th Annual Night of 1000 Stevies, the world’s largest Stevie Nicks fan event. They go on at 1 am. In the meantime, Lane and the band do soundcheck then go to eat. By the time I meet up with them, Lane’s pale yellow hair with dark roots has already been twisted into braids and knots, her makeup smoky and anime-inspired with big false eyelashes making her green eyes pop. We eat at vegan restaurant Peacefood Cafe, close to Irving Plaza.

Backstage, Lane tests the sound of different Stevie Nicks-printed tambourines to play during the song. She then gets into costume, a satiny black dress with matching cape made for her by designer Steve Markson of Brooklyn Bespoke. On the back of the cape, Steve has spraypainted the band’s name in gold. Lane shimmies into her fishnets and applies a swipe of red gloss to her pout. Jeff warms up his bass while Lane dons headphones and curls into a ball on the couch. In a few minutes, they will all head downstairs. Go-go dancers in Stevie Nicks regalia sway to Stevie Nicks remixes while the band gets ready. The room is packed to the brim with people. Soon, the lights come up a greenish yellow and It Was Romance starts to play. Lane purrs into the microphone, dancing and flicking her lace-gloved hands to the beat. She is on another planet. As Stevie would say in "Rooms on Fire," there is magic all around her if I do say so myself.

Follow Lane on Twitter and Instagram.
Follow It Was Romance on Facebook.

Lane's costume by Brooklyn Bespoke and makeup by Neal Pittman.