Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Sunburnt Calf

When we arrived at Gus and Gabriel’s, it was closed. Permanently. Technically in transition to another location, but regardless it was not in the place it was supposed to be on, 79th and Broadway.

Disappointed, we walked back to the corner. But first we paused in front of a window display with a big plastic calf encased in a box of red light. Above it, perhaps ironically, beamed the red neon words “The Sunburnt Calf.” We peered into the tiny doorway. A set of four small stairs led down to a shiny, dark-wooded bar filled with orange light, and a line of chrome chairs. It looked pretty neat, but what was the menu like?

The Sunburnt Calf was an Australian restaurant, we learned, where we could actually get kangaroo if we wanted to (none of us did, but still). But we could also get chicken, lamb, pork, and burgers, which were perhaps more our style, for a very reasonable price. Okay, why not.

We went inside and were promptly greeted with a delicious shot at the bar, before we were shown to our table by the Aussie bartender (accent and all). Clear and peach-colored, it tasted like strawberries. I’m pretty sure vodka was involved in what turned out to be a refreshing and sweet little concoction. Off to a good start!

The dining room was also lit in this orange light, and the backdrop of the room was a giant panorama of the famous geographical Australian landmark Ayers Rock. We were by no means the only people there, but it also wasn’t too packed with people the way many little restaurants in New York can be.

We consulted the menu, which had some more gourmet takes on traditional foods (burgers with fried eggs, beets, and pineapples for one). I wound up ordering the 5-Spiced Lamb Salad. Truth be known I am notorious for ordering strange foods, but I usually only order them if they sound good to me, and this one certainly did. It was tossed with wax beans, daikon radish and cilantro, and served with a watermelon salad covered with a wasabi cream dressing. Yes, it definitely sounded strange, but it also sounded delicious. But I wasn’t the only one that night who was thinking a little outside of the box. For appetizers, we ordered the Balinese Spiced Chicken Sticks with Coconut Yogurt and the Calamari OZ Style, with kiwi and jalapeno salsa. TL ordered the aforementioned burger, NP ordered Steak Diane, and EL ordered Shark Pesto Rigatoni.

I was excited, and I hadn’t been properly excited about a meal in a long time. I think food should be an experience, not just something you shove down your throat. It’s so wonderful to go out to a restaurant and be delighted by good food and good company. The experience doesn’t happen as often as I think it should, but tonight it did.

The appetizers were gone as soon as they arrived. The calamari was absolutely unreal, probably the best I think I’ve ever had. It wasn’t covered in thick heaps of batter like it is in most restaurants, but rather thinly coated in an almost panko-like crust. It was light and smooth, complimented with the sweet but subtle kick of the kiwi-jalapeno salsa. The chicken skewers were also yummy, sweet and salty. Their taste was almost Indian and according to my Indian roommate NP, “they taste brown!” The best was yet to come, however.

Served in a deep, white, square dish (almost a bowl), the lamb salad looked strange when it arrived. One corner of the dish featured the shredded lamb, radish, and beans, and the other held the watermelon salad. I plunged my fork into the lamb and was surprised to find that it was soft. And upon tasting it I almost died. In a good way.

It was sweet, salty and, dare I say it, succulent. I am by no means a foodie so I cannot tell you what the flavors were, but my god was it delicious. It floated in my mouth, and the crunch of the radish and wax beans only made it that much better.

And then there was the watermelon salad. I have never almost cried in a restaurant because the food was so good, but upon popping a watermelon cube covered in wasabi cream dressing into my mouth, I swear I was near tears. It was so simple—cold, light, and sweet blended with creamy, tangy, spicy—and it was so beautiful.

I slowly, slowly made my way through my dinner, pausing to chew and think and really taste my food. I didn’t want it to end. I picked up a forkful of the lamb salad, then some watermelon, then some lamb again. At one point TL said to me, “I feel like you’re having a relationship with your food right now.” He was completely right. We were both there to make the other happy and enjoy the other’s company. We really appreciated each other. It was the best date in the history of dates.

Then, at the end when I thought I had finished everything, I was honestly a little bit sad. There were two pieces of bread left, and I lifted them up to find: another morsel of watermelon! Another morsel of lamb! I smiled and gasped enthusiastically, “Oh, look, there’s more!! I’m so happy!” Strange, but true. True, but delicious.

What was nice is that all of my friends enjoyed their meals that evening. For a while, all you could hear at the table was the sound of forks and knives on dishes, punctuated with an “Mmmm,” and “Oh man, that’s good.” You would’ve thought we were…doing something else.

I couldn’t believe it. This completely random restaurant had turned out to be a culinary goldmine and a fantastic evening out. The restaurant had only been open since April, and I hope it stays open for a long time, avoiding the fate of many small New York restaurants that close before they can get anywhere. But The Sunburnt Calf is one of three restaurants owned by the New York-based MooLife restaurant group (the other two being Bondi Road and The Sunburnt Cow) so hopefully it will last a while. I know I will certainly be back. If you’re in New York, I highly recommend it. No matter how adventurous your palate might be, your tastebuds will definitely thank you.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sparkle Plenty

I knew it was love when I saw the wigs in the windows. Wigs from the 1960s—short, long, blonde, brown, black—sat atop mannequin heads painted with thick, cat-like eyeliner and pale pink lips like Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. Around them lay vintage hair products in faded, frayed Crayola-colored boxes, paying homage to the place’s former glory.

The place is Beauty Bar, located at 231 E. 14th Street, and I firmly believe it is what I would look like if I were a bar. Originally a hair salon, the black-and-white tiled floors are graced on the left with a long row of metal hair dryer chairs, a silvery space-age salute to the early 1960s and the beehives that likely once sat under them. The walls are painted white and seafoam green, lacquered over with layers upon layers of silver glitter. Pictures of early '60s girls with teased out helmets of hair and crazy updos smile, pageant-like, from the walls. Cutesy plastic chandeliers hang from the ceiling and profiles of ladies with updos line the mirror over the bar. Being here felt like the grown-up equivalent of playing dress-up and having a tea party, except with martinis (dirty, with three olives for Mr. Bear, and a Cosmo for Barbie, please).

I originally found Beauty Bar online at the end of May. During this time, I probably should have been looking for an apartment instead of looking at all the different bars in New York Magazine’s restaurant section, but as soon as I found Beauty Bar, I forgot what I was supposed to be doing. The place was a vintage-inspired girly fairyland that gave martinis free with a $10 manicure. Beauty Bar became a place I had to get to when I got to New York (Incidentally, if you’re not in New York, there are nine other Beauty Bars around the country, so find the one that works for you!).

Luckily, on my divine roommate’s birthday, she was in the mood for a manicure. The hours for Martinis and Manicures are Monday through Friday from 6pm to 11pm and Saturday & Sunday 7pm-11pm, so we hopped on the 6 train fairly early, arrived at the bar and purchased our manicure tickets (be sure not to lose it or you won’t get your nails done!), sipped our cocktails got our nails did. Oh heyyy.

Not everyone goes to get their nails done, of course. A mostly hipster clientele, ironic platinum blonde mullets, pinup girl tattoos and all, sit at the bar perhaps in deep discussion of Kafka’s most influential works. If they are doing that, I don’t know how it’s possible because the bar is practically the love child of Jayne Mansfield and Elton John. I prefer to just sit and laugh and slowly make my way through my martini, one olive at a time. Why would you want to take yourself so seriously when you’re sitting in a pile of glitter, anyway? All you can do is sparkle plenty.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Cucumbers and the East River: Or, A New York State of Silence

I remember once being inside this church in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of East Liberty, at around 1pm on a Thursday, of all times. A friend and I went inside to check out the architecture and it was completely empty. Even in the daylight hours, the room was entirely gray. Textured concrete underfoot absorbed the shuffle of our feet as we just looked up into the building and heard nothing. Silence so thick you felt it on your arms, like you could possibly cut through it with a knife if you really wanted to.

Until recently, I had yet to experience so profound a silence, a silence you can somehow hear echoing around you as if you were caught in the middle of a parade of ambulances and had suddenly gone deaf. But I heard this brand of silence again the other night, here in New York, the very last place I expected to hear it.
My roommate was out of town for the weekend and I was sitting having a snack of sliced cucumbers in our living room. It was around seven o’clock in the evening. I sat down on the futon and started snacking and thinking about life. All of a sudden I heard the crunch of each bite of cucumber echoing in my ears, as if it was in surround sound or something equally ridiculous. It was only when I heard the green vegetable’s cool crunch that I realized how thick the silence in the apartment was, and as I kept crunching I felt that much more aware of it. The crunch tore through the apartment like a chainsaw and I realized how empty it was.

I heard on more than one occasion that New York can be such a lonely place, but I never really believed it until that moment. But I wasn’t lonely, per se; I was just especially aware of the fact that I was alone.
I wonder if these moments are the rare ones in New York, where there is always some kind of noise that is a part of what I will call “the New York Silence.” “The New York Silence” is the complete quietness of everyone inside the subway train while the outside shakes and rattles and bumps and thumps on the outside. It is this kind of subway silence where people find themselves able to read or even balance their checkbooks, but it’s really not silence in a true sense of the word at all. Even so, I find it quite beautiful and something so expressly New York. The noise gives me a feeling of safety, as if when you don’t hear anything is the time you should maybe begin to worry.

I experienced another kind of “New York Silence” this weekend when my friend EH came to visit me. After a rather raucous evening out, we woke up Sunday morning/afternoon and went for a walk along the East River, a body of water snuggled (nay, spooned) closely by FDR Drive and Queens (down by where we walked, anyway).

The gray-green water splashed and crashed on this semi-windy day. Bikers and runners and walkers like us made their way up or down the path by the river, which itself was sandwiched between FDR Drive and the river. A busy, highway-esque thoroughfare a la South Florida’s State Road 84, FDR Drive is no quiet place. When you sit down on a bench on this path by the East River, cars are whooshing and zooming almost literally behind your head as you stare over the serene, crashing waters which, anywhere else would be surrounded by silence. But in New York, you are always repeatedly sandwiched between noise and silence—it all depends what you’re willing to hear.

Tonight, after a rather lovely and inspiring conversation with MS over the most enormous slices of pizza I’ve ever seen in my entire life (Koronet Pizza in Morningside Heights—go. It’s delicious.), I’ve been enlightened of a way to live in New York. A dilemma New Yorkers face, MS says, is how to balance the 90,000,000+ things to do in the city with achieving their personal goals. It’s so easy to get distracted that we have to keep ourselves centered. Sometimes we have to seek out the silence, as difficult as it may seem. We have to crunch the cucumbers in an empty room, no matter how scary the prospect of doing so might be. Because of this, I would venture to say, we are not only growing into New Yorkers, but into adults.