Monday, November 30, 2009

The Old Bailey

I'm a great fan of Rumpole of the Bailey, both the books by John Mortimer and the TV adaptations featuring Leo McKern as Horace Rumpole. I generally don't go in for the lighter side of crime, I'm more the hard-boiled type, but something about Rumpole tickles me. So, when I was in London I decided to make a pilgrimage to the Old Bailey. All right, it wasn't much of a pilgrimage. I was strolling from St. Paul's to Waterloo Bridge, passing time before a concert, and the Old Bailey happened to be en route. The Old Bailey, in case you don't know, is London's main criminal court. I always thought it was named for some old guy named Bailey, perhaps an eminent jurist, but a little research set me straight. Old Bailey is the name of the street it stands on, named for the fortified wall, or bailey, that once stood there.

I was charmed by the inscription on the building.

"Defend the children of the poor & punish the wrongdoer." I imagined those words being intoned in the stentorian tones of the great Leo McKern, perhaps as he snuck a guzzle of his favorite low-rent claret, Pommeroy's Plonk, watching with one eye for the approach and eventual reproach of She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My Worst Thanksgiving and Other Matters

My worst Thanksgiving was the one where I ate a Swanson turkey TV dinner, alone.  I think I was about nineteen at the time, and in the midst of a brief depression.

My brief depression lasted about fifteen years, roughly from the ages of eight to twenty-three. I won't go too much into the gory details, but I was a miserable kid, adolescent, teenager, young adult.  My moods ranged from unhappy to inconsolable despair.  I made several (probably half-assed) suicide attempts as a teen, one of them in 1970, after attending the first Earth Day festivities at Union Square.  Now Earth Days fill me with relief mixed with a twinge of nostalgic misery.

From a bright, outgoing, skinny kid I turned into a chubby recluse.  I started gaining weight during a hellish summer at sleep-away camp, when I was eight. By around ten or eleven I was pretty much a hermit, keeping to my room, refusing entreaties to come out and play.  I wanted to be invisible.  I used to walk down the street staring at my shoes.  By junior high I made a new set of "friends" and discovered pot and alcohol (and antiwar demonstrations).  LSD was reserved for special occasions, like concerts at the Fillmore East or all-night Marx Brothers marathons at the Elgin Theater, on Eighth Avenue.  There was a crowd I hung out with, till all hours, but I wouldn't say that more than a few were real friends, though I remember some of them quite fondly--brilliant, funny kids, all troubled in different ways.

Things got a little better when I got to college and started discovering my voice as a writer.  But my psyche was still fragile.  I think I may have turned down a Thanksgiving invitation when I was nineteen and chose to "celebrate" alone with my Swanson TV dinner.

The real turning point in my life came when I moved to the East Village, in 1979.  For a Brooklyn kid, finally getting to Manhattan was a triumph.  I felt I finally had control of my life.  And I was fortunate to dive headlong into one of the most vibrant literary and performance scenes the city has ever known.

I don't think I've ever been really, truly miserable since.  I joke that I've had more than my quota of misery.  Even when I was unemployed for the greater part of a four-year period, not so long ago, I didn't despair.  People would ask if I was depressed.  "Not really," I'd say.  "I'm anxious all the time and unhappy some of the time, but I'm also happy most of the time, at the same time.  I'm emotionally multitasking." 

You can't second-guess or judge anybody's misery.  You can't tell a depressed teenager that they have everything, or that they're being selfish, or that things will get better (even if they usually do). Their despair is real, I know.  If I could tell a teenager on the brink of suicide anything it would be: hang in there, I know it's unbearable, but there'll come a time when you can call the shots, when you can tell all the people who are fucking you over to go fuck themselves, or ignore them, it'll be your choice.

And this Thanksgiving, if you know anybody who's lonely and depressed, invite them to dinner. They might even liven things up.  Some of the funniest, most entertaining people I know are miserable. 

Hey Pete! Let's Eat More Meat

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dumbed-down Southeast Asian Food for Trendy New Yorkers

I'm just back from lunch at OBAO, serial restaurateur Michael "Bao" Huynh's new noodle bar in Midtown East.  I had a bowl of bun bo Hue.  Actually, I had a bowl of what they called bun bo Hue.

My only previous exposure to Bao's growing empire was a takeout spicy catfish banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich) from a branch of his Baoguette chain (he goes in for cutesy names for his restaurants, like Pho Sure, which if pronounced correctly would be something like "fuh sure," which would be OK in New York, I guess).  The sandwich was pretty good, though it didn't hold a candle to Ratha Chau's catfish num pang.  In addition to not having tried Pho Sure, I haven't tried Bar Bao, Bia Garden (yes, a beer garden using the Vietnamese word for beer), or Mai House.

When I started working in the East 50s I was worried about finding decent lunch places.  Then I discovered the block of 53rd Street between 2nd & 3rd Avenues.  Four of my favorite lunch places are on that block: Marrakesh for Middle Eastern sandwiches and platters, Tadka for their fabulous vindaloo and shrimp curry, Mantao for Chinese sandwiches, and Ariyoshi for their always enchanting deluxe boxes.  OBAO is on the same block, and just opened this week. While some might consider it unfair to judge a restaurant in its first days, I'm of the opinion that a restaurant shouldn't open until it's ready, because people like me are going to write about it.  Anyway, my job isn't to be fair, it's to write mildly amusing blog posts. 

I was thrilled to see that the restaurant was serving bun bo Hue, because I was really in the mood for a spicy, flavorful noodle soup.  Bun bo Hue originated, as the name implies, in the central Vietnamese city of Hue.  "Bun" refers to rice noodles and "bo" to beef.  The soup is made with a beef stock flavored with lemongrass and chili oil.  It almost always comes with a pigfoot and some sliced flank steak, often with a piece of oxtail, and sometimes cubes of congealed pig's blood (I prefer to deny myself the latter, a rare asceticism on my part).  The noodle is a round, spaghetti-shaped rice noodle similar to the ones used in Malaysian laksa and Yunnan-style noodle soups.

I had an excellent bun bo Hue in Hue itself.  How can you go to Hue and not eat bun bo Hue? Perhaps the best version I've had in North America was at the Montreal branch of Pho Bang NY; the broth pushed the lemongrass limit, just the right side of overpowering, and it was wonderfully sinus-opening spicy, with a delightful greasy red sheen from the chili oil. Respectable versions in New York can be found in Chinatown's Pho Tu Do and Sunset Park's Thanh Da.

When OBAO's bun bo Hue arrived at my table I thought they had brought me the wrong item. It had sliced raw beef ("tai," or eye round steak) and the broth looked just like pho, with only a few dots of orange oil clinging to the side of the bowl, which took close inspection to find.  In addition to the beef there were slices of pork leg meat (though the menu promised "pig feet"), and it did include the proper kind of noodle (rather than the flat pho rice noodle), but the broth was pure pho--it took a moment of reflection and a lot of imagination to realize that there was indeed a hint of lemongrass and chili oil, the kind of hint one would expect from the vermouth in a very dry martini. It was evident that what they were passing off as bun bo Hue was just their pho bo slightly altered at the last minute.  Nine dollars' worth of pure mediocrity.

If his restaurant names weren't enough evidence, a Michael Huynh interview in the Village Voice convinces me that he's pathologically conceited.  Huynh said, "We have pad thai, pad see ew, but we make it better. We've also got Singapore noodles, which I make with black soba; it's better than the original one with vermicelli. We'll have a full liquor license and open kitchen there. It'll be like Republic, but better."  Like it's rocket science to be better than Republic, the mediocre, trendy noodle bar on Union Square.

OBAO's bun bo Hue is sort of a pho tai timidly trying to be a faux bun bo Hue for timid American palates . . . but worse!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Peruvian Aviation Authorities Even Stupider than American Ones

Update: If the comment from my friend Al, below, is true, which I don't doubt since he's a reliable source, I owe the Peruvian aviation authorities an apology.  

Let's face it, the wannabe terrorists who've had the most impact on frequent flyers are the schmuck who tried to explode his shoe and the nincompoops who tried to smuggle explosive liquids onto a plane. So now, while guns and all sorts of dangerous items can slip through the cracks of airport "security," regular folks like you and me have to take our shoes off (like we can't have explosives hidden in our underwear?) and pay exorbitant prices for water after we've made it though security and proven that we didn't have any of that dangerous H2O on our person or in our carry-on luggage.

When I made my connection from Lima to Cusco I thought the Peruvian authorities were more level-headed. After I had cleared immigration I had to go through security again for my domestic flight. I had a bottle of water in my carry-on, and nobody made any attempt to confiscate it, and there were no signs announcing that one couldn't bring water through security. I thought to myself, at least the Peruvians aren't afraid of water.

Then, 8 days later, when I checked in for my Lima to New York flight everything was different. There were collection bins before security to discard water bottles in. Fine, just like the U.S.A. So I bought a couple of bottles of water after security for the flight. But as I was about to board the plane, airport security personnel were checking everybody's carry-on bags. They found my bottles of water. "You can't take these on the plane," they said. "But I bought them after security," I said. "I threw out my other water before I went through security."

"Sorry," they said, "no liquids allowed."

"That's ridiculous," I said. "If that's the case they shouldn't be selling them, or at least there should have been signs somewhere." But I didn't want to hold up the other passengers, so I gave up my water and boarded the flight. Next time I'll know enough to transfer a half liter of water to six 3-oz. plastic bottles and put them in a 1-qt. ziploc baggie, thereby rendering my water harmless.

So it looks like the Peruvian authorities don't give a shit if you plan to bomb a domestic flight with a bottle of water, just one that's leaving the country.

As I told the flight attendant when I asked her for a glass of water so I could down some downers for the overnight flight, "There are bigger things to worry about than bottles of water."

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I Dreamed a B Movie Last Night

It was in black and white, and the only part I remember is where a hysterical Beverly Garland is claiming she was raped by a Martian in Las Vegas. Her detective husband, played by Simon Oakland, doesn't believe her. He shakes her and says, "But you weren't in Las Vegas!"

Beverly Garland in a similar situation

Oakland, the skeptical husband

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dining Among the Ruins

What does one do with a 7-hour layover in Lima? I decided that dinner at Huaca Pucllana would be the best bet.

Huaca Pucllana is the name of both an excavated pre-Colombian ruin in the heart of Lima's Miraflores residential district and the upscale restaurant beside the site.

Really, my layover was just enough time for a couple of drinks at the nearby Doubletree hotel followed by a leisurely dinner, as it's a 45-minute cab ride from the airport to Miraflores, and I still had to give myself enough time to check in for my international flight home.

I wasn't otherwise spending any time in Lima. I had read that, except for some world-class museums and good restaurants, it's not an especially inviting place for a traveler. It's a big, polluted city with constant fog, rampant poverty and lots of crime. But the last flight from Cusco leaves mid-afternoon, and most flights back to the states leave at 11:30 PM, so I researched dining opportunities. Among upscale restaurants Huaca Pucllana, though generally garnering positive reviews, might not be the top choice for food alone (from what I've read that honor usually goes to Astrid & Gaston), but it certainly has the most dramatic setting. Dining on the terrace one has a prime view of the floodlit ruins.

As it was my last meal in Peru, I opted for the chicharon de cuy as my appetizer. After all, finding a guinea pig appetizer in New York isn't so easy. For my main course I chose the red quinoa-crusted corvina (Pacific sea bass), since the only fish available in Cusco had been trout. The fish was excellent but the accompanying mix of artichoke hearts and asparagus was somewhat of an uninspired jumble.

There were many interesting-looking, fairly elaborate desserts on the menu, but I was pretty full and opted to try some lucuma ice cream. Though lucuma is a fruit, the ice cream actually had a flan-like flavor. The Wikipedia entry describes the flavor of the fruit as a cross between maple and sweet potato.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Love that Larb

It was a Saturday afternoon. I had arranged to meet Manda on the 7 train for a trip to Flushing, to try some of the stalls at the Chinese food courts, where little English is spoken and hard-to-find specialties from many parts of China are represented. Neither of us had ever done the Flushing malls before.

But our train was held up at one of the earlier Queens stations for quite a while, and as usual it took at least ten minutes before we got an explanation. And then the announcement came: a sick passenger on a train ahead of us. Jesus, I thought, the sick passenger goes out on weekends too?

We were told the train would go as far as Broadway-Roosevelt, then turn back to Manhattan. Subsequent trains, they claimed, would go all the way. But by the time we got to Roosevelt, in Jackson Heights, we were starving, so we decided to get off and eat in the neighborhood. After all, there were plenty of options nearby. We could do the Flushing malls another time.

Where to go in Jackson Heights? We didn't want Indian or Korean. So we headed to Zabb, a place we'd both liked in the past, for Northeastern Thai. But Zabb, it turns out, is closed for lunch on weekends. I didn't suggest Himalayan Yak, down the block, because I think Manda didn't particularly care for it when we went with a group.

Finally we decided to take a short walk to Elmhurst, to try a Javanese noodle joint on Whitney Avenue, a few doors down from Minangasli (which has apparently changed ownership since I reviewed it). But as we turned onto Whitney from Broadway Manda noticed a Thai restaurant with a window full of rave reviews. "Do you want to try it?" she asked. Sure. We'd already set the Flushing malls aside for another day, we'd already had our original Thai hopes dashed, surely we could put Mie Jakarta on the back burner and give Chao Thai a try.

We ordered four dishes: a duck salad, a chicken larb, and two "over rice" dishes. The rice dishes generally consist of a smaller portion of a main course served on a plate with rice, so I figured two really counted as one. Still, it was a lot of food.

The duck salad was Manda's first choice, as it's her favorite dish at Zabb. Chao's version was good, but very different from Zabb's--a much higher meat to salad ratio at Chao Thai. She also wanted a green vegetable, so we ordered the pork with Chinese broccoli over rice. Quite good, with lots of garlic. My rice dish of choice was the pig leg, a favorite of mine at Sripraphai. I found Chao's didn't compare, yet Manda preferred this version. It was served with a fruity, slightly spicy side sauce; I prefer the star-anise laden brown sauce at Sripraphai. Thai pork leg dishes can be delicious, but prepare yourself for lots of fat.

And then there was the larb.

Larb, or laab, is an Isan (Lao and Northeastern Thai) dish, extremely popular in those places, and also a standard menu item at Thai restaurants everywhere. It's made with minced meat or fish, dressed with fish sauce and lime, and flavored with chilis and mint as the main seasonings. Ground toasted rice gives it a bit of crunch. It's traditionally served warm--not cold, not hot.

The chicken larb at Chao Thai was probably the best larb I've ever had outside of Thailand. It had a perfect balance of hot spice, tartness, astringency and mint flavor. A good larb is all about the balance. The temperature was just right, too.

I've had larbs where the chili spice overwhelmed the other components or where the tanginess was too much in the mix, but compared to some those were decent. I've also had larbs that were flavorless, that were served cold and obviously mass-prepared in advance, and at least one where the meat was shredded instead of minced and served with a sweet-spicy red sauce.

Based on the world-class larb and the quality of the few other things I tried, Chao Thai is definitely on my list for further exploration.

Chao Thai
85-03 Whitney Avenue
(718) 424-4999