Eating Out – Part Two

One of the Gantrys

Eating in New York is a festival every day; such is the variety of cuisine available. When I first came here I was struck by the ease with which you can buy food to take out, or to use the NY expression “to go”. In New Zealand no-one has thought of the obvious advantages of choosing your food and then just weighing it at the checkout – it makes so much sense. No “Drumsticks are $1.50”, “Eggs 50c each” etc – just choose what you want and it gets weighed. It’s very easy to buy buffet food here – not just the in the delis but also my local supermarket, Foodcellar, on 47th Road near Center Boulevard. Not only do they have great pizzas but you can buy meals at any time of the day (7:30 – 10:00) – choosing from some great meal combinations in the buffet as well as the deli counter. It’s not just the range and quality, though, as the staff are friendly, always available to help out and, especially at the cooked meats and cheese counters, to advise on the range and offer tasters. The soups are really tasty too. You can take the food away or eat at the tables provided.
It’s so useful having such a resource close to home, yet (unlike most New Yorkers it seems)I do like to cook and Foodcellar has a good range of fresh meats, fish and vegetables, with organic options offered as much as possible. The frozen food section is rather small, but you can shop elsewhere for the kind of bulk frozen foods that you would want to put in your freezer – there’s a Costco and Freshdirect in the area for that kind of thing. A big plus is that they offer a great 15% discount if you are over 60!
Having said that I like to cook, I should also say that I do like to eat out, with the range of cafes and restaurants in the area offering a pretty good choice of options. In my last “Eating Out” blog I talked about a few of the places locally, some of which I go to more often than others. As you will be aware, I like Cranky’s and am gradually working my way through their menu. Cranky’s (www.crankyscafe.com) is a mix of bar, cafe and restaurant with a speciality in Creole dishes. To date I have not been able fault these. The seafood gumbo soup is rich and flavoursome and the “Steamer” is a fresh-tasting combo of vegetables, andouille sausage and seafood. Ask for the mussel soup, not on the menu but sometimes available – Atlantic mussels in a red wine based Creole soup mix. What I like about these dishes is that they are made fresh to order, not taken from the refrigerator and micro-waved so you get great tastes of the herbs and spices in the sauces. This betrays owner Mina Haddad’s Parisian background – an insistence on well cooked quality food, aided by her chef Alan – a man with an intuitive sense for flavour combination.
I see that Cranky’s are offering a New Year’s eve menu, and including jazz from local musician Martin Kelley – a welcome return of music to this venue, even if, for the moment it’s just a one-off.
Just up the road from Cranky’s is a place that I have only just discovered, Manetta’s Italian restaurant , 10-76 Jackson Avenue. I think there was a psychological divide for me that meant I didn’t go further than Vernon Boulevard when I first arrived here, but I’ve recently ventured further afield as I felt less of a need to go over to Manhattan for food and entertainment. When you enter this place you leave LIC and enter Italy. This restaurant has been established here for nearly 20 years but seems timeless. It is old fashioned in the best sense. It feels right that Manetta’s doesn’t have a web site or a facebook page – google it and you get reviews and mentions in most of the guides that cover NYC. This is a busy place with lots of attentive staff, an open fire and an eager hubbub of customers who don’t need to be fed with piped music in case they couldn’t find anything to say to each other.
Manetta’s has a large menu of traditional Italian dishes. You could spend a long evening here eating a traditional Italian meal, with all the courses, I think I would starve for a day in order to have this experience, but most often I will chose a pasta or entree with a salad, and rarely a dessert. Apart from the menu there is always the little speech from the waiter as they go through the specials for the evening. Not being Italian (in order to translate the broad accent), nor blessed with instant replay aural memory I find it hard to remember all the options in these situations and wish for a small printed list that I could savour along with the standard menu. Yet this could be too much choice and I might lose that sense of experimentation from the intuitive, non-logical moment when you decide to have what appealed to you most when you listened – or what your eyes rested upon on the printed menu.
I’ve eaten at Manetta’s twice now and both times had one of the specials – first the home made rigatoni in a squash and speck sauce, and (last night) a zuppa di pesce. Having had my fingers (or wallet) burnt over in Manhattan I always check out the price of the specials (not given in the waiter’s speech, but which could be on a little printed list) – but have found the specials prices at Manetta’s to be fair in comparison with the rest of the menu. The zuppa was fresh and tasy, large in portion, but being fish, not too filling. The sauce was a thin tomato mix with just enough garlic to enhance and not overpower the subtle flavours of the clams, monkfish, mussels, shrimps, squid and octopus. You can’t prepare fish in advance so this was all freshly cooked and appeared at just the right moment after our entertaining house salad (in a “bowl” made from long cucumber slices). It compared well with the Rigatoni I’d had a couple of weeks before, which was a delicious dish of fresh pasta in a soft, slighly sweet tomato and squash sauce, with enough pieces of speck to add a subtle flavour without making it too salty.
Manetta’s feels like a true Italian family restaurant, last night it was full of pre-Christmas friends and family groups. It was cold enough for the fire to be lit and the whole place had a festive feel. I imagine that, even out of holiday season it would be just as welcoming.
Amongst other local italian retaurants are Testaccio and Bella Via on Vernon. I’ve only eaten at Bella Via once and was underwhelmed, thinking that the food I had was quite ordinary for the price. Also I’m not that keen on restauarants with big windows that make for a fishbowl feel as you sit eating your meal. This is a corner site so there are floor to ceiling windows on two sides. I understand, though, that they make really good pizza and will make a point of trying it out sometime.
I’ve eaten at Testaccio (www.testacciony.com ) a few times and it used to be my choice of favourite local restaurants to take visitors. I’ve found, though, that it has highs and lows and wonder sometimes whether the food I have had was reheated rather than prepared that day. I had the Saltimbocca (veal) all Romana on my first visit and was seriously impressed by the quality of the cooking, when I had it again a month or so later it was not so good, as if it had been re-heated from the day before. The Chittarra all vognole e bottaga (spaghetti with clams and mullet roe) on another occasion was clearly feshly made to order and was absolutely delicious, but the Porchetta (suckling pig) I had most recently was not as “melt in the mouth” as it could have been, in fact it was rather chewy – once again as if it had been reheated. Maybe it’s not reheating, just different staff in the kitchen – but I would expect my porchetta to be soft and tender, with perhaps crisp, not soft, crackling. Testaccio has good attentive staff and an excellent well-priced wine list. It also has a bar with bar snacks that is worth a visit, especially if you like football (soccer that is), which is often available on the TV screen over the bar. Tesaccio is possbly the only venue locally to have this as an alternative to American football and baseball. I like the way the bar is separate from the main restaurant area, so don’t get distracted by the TV visuals, or the excitement of the bar customers as they celebrate a goal from AC Milan or Roma. So in that way Testaccio has a real Italian feel, in a sort of upmarket rather than family Trattoria way.
So that’s my selection of local eating places for this week – check them out and decide for yourselves.

Reflected Sunrise from Hunters Point

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Honoring Lennon in LIC plus……………..

Tribute at LIC Bar

I was fortunate to visit John Lennon’s childhood home in Liverpool a couple of years ago. It left a lasting impression on me as I felt the similarity with the London suburban home of my grandparents, a house which must have had the same design – shared around Britain in the 1930s as part of massive investment in housing that was the Keynesian solution to the great depression. I knew where the small bedroom would be, and the bathroom ; and also the downstairs kitchen where my grandmother found her husband, dead having collapsed whilst shaving at the kitchen sink. Of course it was not Lennon’s parent’s home it was his mother’s sister’s, his auntie Mimi had given him a home away from his mother’s troubled life and eventually her death in a road accident. His father was absent. These experiences and the the way he made sense of them, found expression in his music. You don’t have to have had the exact experiences to be touched by songs like “Mother”, it speaks to the experience of all who have been parented, and who may be parents themselves. This is the gift of the artist, to speak for all of us. Younger artists who interpret his songs and make them their own are passing on his art in ways that connect with our familiarity with the music, and yet offer the opportunity to hear something new.
So, when a group of diverse musicians get together to pay tribute to a man who died 31 years ago you can expect something special. It doesn’t matter that most, if not all, of the musicians would never have seen Lennon play. But the power of his, and the Beatles music still survives enough to inspire committed performance and, in the case of 14 year old girl in the audience, a kind of fan worship that would not have been out of place in 1964.
The John Lennon tribute at LIC bar on Wednesday 7th Dec went on late into the night, fittingly moving from a tribute on the eve of the anniversary of Lennon’s death, just a couple of miles away, to a jam session of his music that gathered an energy that reached high into the cosmos as it moved from one day into the next. It certainly left me with a sense of the energy of live performance in clubs that Lennon will have known and that I have appreciated since being a teenager in London in the mid sixties.

LIC bar isn’t a club it’s a pub, with, a small performing area. Curator/impresario Gustavo Rodriguez had organised a collection of musicians to perform a selection of songs from Lennon’s time as a Beatle in Liverpool, Hamburg and the world to his time in New York City; the city that was a witness to his death and which still carries a sense of being Lennon’s home. The mix was diverse, from local singer Audrey Leopard’s first public appearance ( top marks for her confidence and interpretation) to Kathy Zimmer’s vocal trio and Gus himself (under his performer identity of Silbin Sandovar, singing and playing a Lennon-style retro  guitar loaned by Gibson NYC) both as part of the programme and eventually leading the jam session – his responsibility as a curator finished for the night.

Gustavo Rodriguez

I don’t want to talk about the individual performances one by one. There were some that were under-rehearsed but beautifully done, others that were perhaps over ambitious. There was real talent there last night and some gems of performance that remain in my memory. I’m thinking of Pauline Pisano’s “Come Together” and “She Said, She Said” – which she made entirely her own,and Alicia Lemke’s “Real Love” and “Imagine”.

The “formal” part of the evening ended with “All you need is love”– when the musicians all got up on stage and were joined by the audience in song – and then there was the ‘Apple Jam” – in which Gus, Neil Nunziato on drums, Anthony Cekay on tenor, Antony Rizzo on guitar and sundry other artists from the floor let their hair down well into the next day. Yes, there was a lot of love here, not just for Lennon and the Beatles but also around the venue and the undaunted efforts of Gus Rodriguez in bringing these people together.

Another kind of Tribute

Gus was fêted the weekend before at what could only be described as a celebration of his talents as an impresario and as a singer/songwriter. There’s a small venue in Brooklyn called “Pete’s Candy Store”, which I guess used to be one before it became a bar and venue. At the back is what can only be described as a railway carriage with a small stage at one end. Here Gus sang 12 songs, each in duet with one of his female proteges. Such was the size of the place that Gus, supported by Dan Ke’entaahal on Bass and Neil Annunzio on drums, plus the 12 women, nearly filled the place on their own!  Some I knew and others were new to me – it was a great pleasure to be there that evening and to hear a range of talent in such a co-operative venture. Highlights for me were Shelly Bhushan – what an amazing soulful voice she has, Julie Kathryn and her little xylophone, Alicia Lemke and Rachel Swaner (normally an accordian/piano player) with her melodiya.

Rachel Swaner and Gus

A different kind of girl band

Another spin-off of this grouping was the appearance, later that evening, of four of the women – Michele Riganese, Little Embers, Jeneen Terrana and Shelley Bushan in another cooperative venture, billed as the “Queens of Queens” at “The Living Room” in Lower East Side. This is a nice venue, with good sound and lighting, plenty of space for audience, including tables and chairs. There’s a band every hour and  the Queens were on early, at 7pm.

(One of the risks of these venues is that the people who come to hear the band before you start to leave as you begin your set, but then you do get the advantage of the crowd for the next band arriving half way through your set – so it’s a bit of moving audience.)

Jeneen Terrana and Michele Riganese

This is a group of four very different voices and characters. This is what makes a great band, the interplay between them providing a tension that gives an occasional positive edge to the performance. Basically this is a group that is in its early days – they provide harmonies for each others’ songs, many of which will be familiar to fans in the audience, but in doing this they are offering new arrangements. I’d like to see them moving on from this to joining each other instrumentally as well as vocally – this takes time but will be well rewarded as their group identity becomes another vehicle for their talents. I’d particularly like to see some lap steel guitar, Michele rested her guitar in that way but it remained silent.

"Queens of Queens"

Little Embers

Shelly Bhushan

Jazz in small spaces

I’ve always liked Jazz but haven’t been “into” it – it’s a separate crowd, who always appear incredibly knowledgeable and can reel off names of obscure players and compare styles with what sounds like a high degree of listening and musical skill; not an easy world to break into without seeming an imposter, fool or an outsider. So when I approach jazz events in this neighbourhood I have been careful about not getting into too deep a conversation with people who, I assume, know a whole lot more about what is being played than I do. I realise that this, in itself is a stupid position and am now boldly going forth and enjoying long conversations with talented and knowledgable folk!
I’ve heard Jazz at the LIC Bar, the Domaine Bar à vins (www.domainewinebar.com)and at Cranky’s. I’ve also caught some brilliant Jazz/Gypsy violin playing at the Madera Cuban restaurant (www.maderacubangrill.com) from a player whose name escapes me for the moment but who is playing there again in a couple of weeks . This is alomst a secret location, they don’t advertise their musicians anywhere but, like many cafes and restaurants around New York you can often be surprised by the quality of musicians finding a way to earn their keep in a highly competitive market. Madera has a nice little bar and the food is good and the welcome is generous, as are the cocktails. Musicians play on Friday nights.
The main Jazz venue here is Domaine, where you can often catch a band on different nights of the week, sometimes by surprise as you leave the subway station and are tempted in by the sounds and the thought of a pleasant glass of wine and a selection of cheeses and or charcuterie (you can even get $1 oysters in their happy hours, but no live Jazz at these times.). This little bar has a great selection of wines that are “off the beaten track”. Certified sommelier, Cipriani (“Chip”) Toma will guide you through their interesting cellar and make matches with the wide range of great European and American artisan cheeses that are available on the menu. You can expect attention to detail which matches the very high quality of the jazz. Why go to Manhattan when there is this standard so close to home?

Sam Trapchak

Domaine is a venue for the Long Island City Jazz Alliance with a jam session every Monday night (www.licja.org ). There are some regular artists that you will catch around the area. I especially like the rhythm section of Christian Coleman and Sam Trapchak, two very talented composers and performers. They play with various instrumentalists like Broc Hempel (keyboards), Greg Ward, Martin Kelley and Anthony Cekay (saxes). Sam writes great tunes. You can hear some of his compositions on the album Lollipopocalypse , featuring one of Sam’s bands “Put Together Funny” (http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/samtrapchak). I especially like “Precious few”, a track that starts off meandering around and then settles down into a really nice melodic line. Christian doesn’t play on this album but has joined Sam with this band when they have played at LIC Bar, check out his CD “Pigments” – available very soon.

Christian Coleman - a mean drummer - the best

Greg Ward (www.gregward.org) is a very impressive sax player, you can tell that he is in the music and the music is in him. It was a great joy last night to hear him play with Broc, Sam and Christian at the Domaine accompanied by an interesting Malbec, a Cotes de Rhone and a taste of my favourite (as Chip remembered) Gaillac ( and I mustn’t forget cheese to die for). Check out this clip of Hempel, Coleman Trapchak at the Domaine – www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWAdDFHRLTw

LIC bar often has some great jazz. I was fortunate to catch a great line-up a few weeks ago -three bands fronted by differently gifted women, two singers and a violinist with three different cultural origins, Belgium born Israeli, Japanese and English.
I arrived later than I would have liked and entered in the middle of Tammy Scheffer’s set. I was immediately sorry that I had missed some as she grabbed my attention as soon as entered the door. Tammy has an extraordinary pure and accurate voice that could hold its own in any genre. Her preference is for jazz, presenting a mix of improvisation/scat, arrangements of standards and songs that she has written herself; often with their origins in Hebrew folk tunes. She was supported by a small tight band of bass, drums and guitar. Tammy has an album “Wake up, Fall asleep” which shows off her talents as a singer, composer and arranger. (check out http://www.tammyscheffer.com/

Tammy Scheffer at LIC Bar

Another singer, Emily Wolf (emilywolfjazz.com/), ended the evening. English-born and living in NYC, Emily showed her roots in a classy Sarah Vaughan/Cleo Laine range of styles, a mix of standards, lots of scat and s sassy attitude. In the cause of following the previous Hebrew and Japanese themes, I wanted her to connect with the cultural themes and present some material that had English origins, remembering jazz interpretations of songs from Shakespeare such as those in Cleo Laine and John Dankworth’s classic 1960s album “Shakespeare And All That Jazz”. Emily has a great smile that connects her with her audience, she knows how to put on a show and to pull together her band.

Emily Wolf

Tomoko Omura (tomokoomura.com/live/), is a clever jazz violinist and composer who creates compositions that draw on folk songs from her native land. She plays in a brilliant, but not flashy style that extends the violin beyond the not insignificant legacy of Stephane Grappelli. Supported by a talented group of bass, drums, guitar and keyboard. It’s hard for a violinist to front a band, playing it is often an introverted activity. Tomoko did well to connect with attentive audience and gained deserved approval for her music.

Tomoko Omura

Well that just about wraps it up for today. I’ve had a busy weekend music-wise, a lot to report on in the next music blog. I’m off to the LICJA jam session tonight at the Domaine – looking forward to hearing Amanda Monaco on guitar.

Eating Out – Part One

LIC is undergoing rapid gentrification, bars, cafes and restaurants are springing up, especially in the Hunters Point area. There’s a medium range of cuisine – French, Italian, Asian, American, Creole. Latin and Cuban is the spread to date. You need to go further afield for Indian, Greek etc. I’ve not visited them all (yet) and can only comment on what I’ve seen and tasted so far.
Newest on the block are Alobar (Vernon Blvd), Skinny’s Cantina (Center Blvd) and Alewife (51st). It’s always a risk eating in a new place in their first week, and it’s also a risky time for the owners. That’s when they make their mistakes and hopefully start learning from them and eventually win back any reputation that the mistakes generate. I’ve been to two of these and look forward to trying out Skinny’s when their initial rush dies down.
Alobar (alobarnyc.com) has taken about a year to open, it’s always looked tempting with its continental style and faux French window s. It was good to see it full on the night I dined there as it’s a little further up Vernon from the main restaurant area. It’s not a big space and has regular tables plus side areas which can accommodate larger groups. There’s also a bar area. I like this combination, where you can drink and snack, as well as more formally sit down at table. The menu has a “Tapas” mix of small plates and large plates – meeting a demand for more taste, less bulk. It’s also a very interesting menu – Octopus and Oxtail looks a tasty and unusual combination, and roasted bone marrow. I wasn’t massively hungry so opted for the arugala salad with chicken, with my wife opting for the wild mushroom toast, with duck egg, with a Fennel and Salsify side between us. The salad was tasty and the chicken fresh tasting and nicely cooked with a slight BBQ edge. The salad comes with cheese – cambozola – and walnuts. I’d have chosen a different cheese for this mix as the soft blue cambozola was, I feel, lost in the more rustic mix. A better choice would have been crumbles of Roquefort or a strong goat feta. My wife’s mushroom toast was nearly cold on serving and the “duck” egg might just as well have been a hens egg as it had no particular flavour, cold sunnyside up eggs on the mushroom toast was also not a very appetising appearance. (The heat issue is apparently being addressed by the management). The real treat was the Fennel/Salsify side, cooked to softness in what I take to have been butter made for a real contrast to the other dishes. The dishes weren’t cheap but also not too expensive. This area has to compete with Manhattan and has to avoid Manhattan restaurant prices.
Alewife bar and restaurant (alewifequeens.wordpress.com) has clearly set itself up as a gourmet beer bar with food at Manhattan prices. The selection of bottle and draught beers is certainly impressive, it’s good to see the alcoholic strength indicated in their beer list, very necessary as some get close to wine strength! For those who like taste rather than volume they do “flights” – sampling trays of four beers. This is a great idea and means that you can be quite discerning. This is a big space to fill with upstairs and downstairs – in fact it might the biggest “pub” in the area. As such I guess the owners will have to work hard to keep it full. I’ve been twice now and seen that it can get very busy. Most of the dining is upstairs, but you can get bar snacks/pizza etc. There is bar and waiter service, with an attentive staff. On my second visit we were a group of 8, and able to sit around a single bar-type table (high stools). We enjoyed the selection of beers and had a few snacks. We were, at the end of the night a little shocked at the check – averaging out at $50 each, yes that’s a $400 night – just drinks and snacks.
My favourite Hunters Point venue is a little corner cafe next to the church on Vernon, “Cranky’s” (crankyscafe.com). This is a real local community cafe/bar, with casual tables and seating, sofas, bar stools etc. There is local artwork on the walls and books, games and newspapers. The Wifi is free, so this is a place where you can hang out drinking excellent filter coffee (two types),espresso, specialist teas, sangria, draught beers and French wines. The owner, Mina, her manager Lindsey and the excellent staff are great at offering a warm welcome and making sure that there is always a conversation to be had. They’ll introduce you to other customers and you can easily spend a great evening discussing everything from politics to the merits of American poets. This cafe attracts an interesting and creative clientele and you will never be lost for debate. The food menu has breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner options with a speciality, very tasty, Creole dinner menu and a nice selection of crepes and croissants. I can recommend the Turkey burgers, the “Clucker Sandwich” (chicken, pear and mushroom), the Caesar Salad, the Creole “Steamer” and the daily soups. There is a Happy hour each weekday evening, with some nice house wines and beers (domestic and French) on offer.
Mina likes to offer movie nights and as I write these will be presented on a Wednesday evening. The movies are usually stimulating and we are invited to discuss the movie at the end of the night. Cranky’s has had music but a need for soundproofing in the ceiling has meant that this is temporarily suspended. In the past, though we have had great jazz, Brazilian guitar and Flamenco.

Flamenco at Cranky's

Across the way, next to the Queens-bound subway entrance is Domaine Bar à vins, ( domainewinebar.com) a narrow bar decorated as if it were in a French village, with white tiles, exotically designed plumbing and a mix of high and low tables and chairs. I like this bar for, in spite of its occasionally cramped feel, it offers simple plates (oysters, meats, paté and cheeses) and excellent wines and beers. It’s also a great jazz bar, with performances on many nights of the week. The bands have to be small, as the space is small – you have to squeeze past the bass player to get to the rest room, but the music can be great.

More of this in my next blog………