Thursday, December 28, 2006

Sonorexia Reunites for 15 Minutes of Infamy

Shamelessly capitalizing on the current vogue for all things eighties, I've decided to reconvene all two original members of the legendary downtown avant-vaudeville band Sonorexia, myself and Elliott Sharp, for the first time in over twenty years and for one performance only. The occasion is an event to celebrate the publication of Up Is Up, But So Is Down, next Thursday, January 4 at the Bowery Poetry Club. We'll be doing a short set in an evening that also includes a reading by Ann Rower, a film screening by avant garde godfather Richard Kostelanetz, and a literary-musical performance by New Randy (Holly Anderson & Lisa B. Burns). We're calling the event "Downtown Like It Used To Be."

You can listen to Sonorexia here.

Downtown Like It Used To Be
Thursday, January 4, 10 PM
Bowery Poetry Club
308 Bowery, NYC
(212) 614-0505
Five bucks

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

So Long, James Brown

The obits and eulogies for the Godfather of Soul have all been taken care of by now, so I'd just like to share an anecdote.

About fifteen years ago I was at San Francisco International Airport waiting for a delayed flight back to New York. I can't remember what the problem was, but the ground crew were unable to give any indication of when our plane might be arriving. There was one woman who kept trying to get information from the woman at the check-in counter, or to get put on a different flight in order to make a connection. The woman pleaded, "I need to make that connection to Paris. My husband is the road manager for James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. I need to get to Paris and meet the band. I have to get on the tour with the Godfather of Soul."

The airline employee, who was about as white and midwestern as they come, replied, "Madam, I realize you want to see your godfather, but there's really nothing we can do at this time."

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Uighur Fare

I wanted to like Cafe Kashkar, in Brighton Beach. After all, the existence of a Uighur restaurant in Brooklyn is something to get excited about. Unfortunately, my recent meal at Cafe Kashkar was rather disappointing.

The Uighurs are the Turkic Islamic people of China's western Xinxiang province, which borders eight countries, Kazakhstan being its most accessible neighbor. The Uighurs themselves do not acknowledge the sovereignty of China and call their homeland East Turkestan. Uighur cuisine can be situated within a continuum of Silk Road cuisines that includes Turkish, Afghan and Uzbek (which I wrote about earlier). There are overlapping food names and preparations in all these cuisines, with local variations.

I first tried Uighur food this summer, at Montreal's excellent Uyghur Restaurant. As I was dining alone, I could only scratch the surface of their large menu. Luckily, several of their appetizers, such as samsa (baked meat pie) and manty (steamed meat dumplings), were sold by the piece. A stunningly delicious and luxuriantly fatty lamb soup that was boldly seasoned with garlic and kumin was one of the great soups I have known. The soup was served as an accompaniment to the lamb shank, which is apparently cooked in the soup, but served on the side.

Cafe Kashkar paled by comparison. This time I had the opportunity to try a number of dishes, as there were eight of us. Unfortunately, several staples of the cuisine, such as samsa and pilaf, were not available. At Montreal's Uyghur Restaurant the pilaf is called polo, which is probably closer to the local name in East Turkestan. I believe the Uighur version is pretty similar to the Uzbek plov, rice cooked with lamb and carrots.

We started with a couple of salads. The shredded carrot salad with vinegar and sesame oil was quite good, as was an eggplant salad that would have been at home at a Turkish or Georgian restaurant. The manty at Kashkar were rather bland. A little more interesting was the khanum, manty skins stuffed with potato. The "national bread," lepeshka, was overly salty, so it tasted like a not-so-good soft pretzel.


We had noticed a large sausage-like item in the refrigerator case and asked the waitress about it. She said something about how it wasn't available, but that it was the same thing as a dish called naryn, which was available but looked different when it was served. Despite the cryptic description, we ordered it. What we got was a weird dish of bland cold sliced meat with slivers of cold bland dough. Also very bland was nokhat, a hot plate of chick peas with boiled lamb. We shared a variety of kebabs, and none really stood out.


I was a bit happier with the geiro lagman, a spaghetti-like noodle with meat and vegetables, than were most of my dinner companions. I liked its star anise seasoning, which set it apart from the rest of the flavors (or lack thereof) at the meal. Lagman is commonly served in a soup, but it might not have been available that night, and at any rate this drier version was easier to share.

Geiro Lagman

There was only one dessert available, chak chak, which was a block of fried noodle and honey. One of them shared by eight of us was more than enough.

Cafe Kashkar has gotten some good reviews in the past, so perhaps it was an off night. Still, I'm not really inspired to give it another chance.

There's another Uighur restaurant in New York, Arzu, in Queens. Perhaps I'll give that one a try.

On general principle, I will say it's a good thing that there are two Uighur restaurants in New York. After all, when I was growing up in Brooklyn, in the sixties, we could never say, "Let's go out for Uighur."

Café Kashkar, 1141 Brighton Beach Ave. (between 14th & 15th Streets); (718) 743-7832.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Box Man

I remember the Box Man of Pell Street. He lived in a cardboard box on the corner of Pell and Bowery in Chinatown. He lived there for years, in the old days, when homelessness was an anomaly, or so it seemed. He was a landmark, a constant. In a strange way his presence was reassuring. And then, one day, he and the box were gone. Those of us who were used to seeing him whenever we visited our favorite restaurant (Ting Fu Garden, long gone too, alas) were worried and concerned. Where had he gone? Was he still alive? Was he safe? We wondered.

We wondered because, in a sense, the homeless are our quintessential neighbors.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Reading Comprehension

Fast food is good for you. Not only is fast food delicious, it is also nutritional. Fast food contains many of the nutrients all human beings require to lead active, healthy lives. Some fast food also contains vitamins, and everybody knows how important vitamins are.

Fast food comes in many forms. The most common kinds of fast food are hamburgers and hot dogs, but there are many other varieties. Fish and chips has been popular in England for centuries, and now Americans too are enjoying this wonderful, nutritional delicacy. If we take a little time to examine the history of fast food we can learn a lot about many different cultures. For instance, did you know that a Chinaman invented pizza?

There are many people who feel that fast food is not good for you. They have a right to their opinions, because America is a free country, but they are wrong. They are wrong because fast food is good for you.

1. A good title for this passage would be:

a) America, Land of the Free
b) Foods of the World
c) The Truth About Pizza
d) Eating Sensibly

2. The main idea of this passage is:

a) Fast food is good for you
b) Vitamins are important
c) Free speech is an important right which many people abuse
d) You can have your cake and eat it too

3. Fast food contains:

a) Nutrients
b) Vitamins
c) Fish and chips
d) Many different cultures

4. America is a free country because:

a) Ignorant people have the right to their opinions
b) Fast food is good for you
c) Fast food is free
d) Americans can eat other people's food
e) a, b & d

This was originally published in Condensed Book, along with other reading comprehension quizzes. It was, of course, inspired by the educational materials of my Cold War youth.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Has Midtown Trumped Chinatown?

Over the last couple of years Manhattan's Chinatown restaurants, in general, seem to have taken a decided downturn in quality. Perhaps it was coming for some time, but it has become especially apparent recently.

My last couple of meals at Ping's, which for several years was the best Hong Kong-style seafood place in the city (the Times gave it two stars), were rather unsatisfactory. They still pulled off the simply prepared live fish and shrimp dishes, but anything with a more complex sauce had become a major disappointment. You can get some wonderful seafood and vegetable dishes at Great N.Y. Noodletown, but the place is rushed and claustrophobic, so I can't bring groups there. Congee Village, on Allen Street, may be one of the best Cantonese overall, but I've found them to be somewhat uneven. I will say that both Noodletown and Congee Village prepare baby bok choi in ways that make a compelling case for it being one of the world's great green vegetables.

In addition to Chinese, some of my Southeast Asian standbys have gone way downhill. Nyonya, once my favorite Malaysian place in Manhattan, now serves bland, mediocre food. Happily, their Brooklyn branch still shines. Nha Trang Centre, once a superior Vietnamese spot, is now a dog. There has been less deterioration at Pho Viet Huong, a place I've frequented for over twenty years, but they seem to be slipping too.

All in all, I just don't think of Chinatown as a great food destination these days.

Perhaps it's due to a change in demographics. Though Chinatown always served a transient, tourist clientele, the fact that middle-class Chinese people are now more likely to settle in the outer boroughs may have tipped the balance. Perhaps, as with Little Italy, if you're not relying mainly on repeat customers you worry less about quality and go for the quick buck. Also, most of the recent Chinese immigration to New York has been from Fujian Province. There are a number of Fujianese restaurants on East Broadway, but I haven't tried any recently. Fujianese is not one of the great cuisines of China. It's rather unrefined; in food terms, Fuzhou is to Hong Kong or Canton as Bratislava is to Paris.

I've been having much better luck with Chinese food in midtown. Sichuan cuisine, which really can't be found in Chinatown, is well represented in Midtown. Grand Sichuan, on Ninth Avenue, would itself be something to write home about if there were not several better choices. I've written glowingly several times about Wu Liang Ye. A second visit to Szechuan Gourmet convinced me that it's in the same league as Wu Liang Ye. While my benchmark dishes of dan dan noodles, ma po tofu, and tea smoked duck didn't dethrone the versions at Wu Liang Ye, they were all superb. Several dishes were transcendent. The steamed pork dumplings in hot sauce, topped with a paste of minced garlic, were spectacular. The crispy lamb with chili pepper, which had a breading that was seasoned with cumin (undisclosed on the menu), was quite simply one of the best things I've eaten all year.

Phoenix Garden, another place I had written about earlier, is probably as good as any Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown, and it's not that much more expensive. These days many of Chinatown's better bets are Shanghai-style. But the best of them, like Shanghai Cafe and New Green Bo, can be cramped and hectic. I much prefer the more relaxed atmosphere at Evergreen. It's somewhat pricier, but the food is excellent.

Perhaps Chinatown quality goes in cycles, and we're just in a culinary recession. Or perhaps I just haven't found all the great new places. Or perhaps I need to get off my ass and travel to Flushing more often.

Phoenix Garden on UrbanspoonSzechuan Gourmet on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Ayam What Ayam

Don't you just hate those cutesy, punning restaurant review headlines?

All right, ayam is Indonesian for chicken, and this piece is about Indonesian food.

I love Indonesian food, but until recently there weren't any especially good Indonesian restaurants in New York. The one in Brooklyn is horrendous, and the three in Manhattan are nothing to write home about, though Bali Nusa Indah, on Ninth Avenue, will do in a pinch.

In the last several years a number of Indonesian restaurants, both Sumatran and Javanese, have opened in Queens, the borough that could stand on its own as the most diverse ethnic restaurant city on the east coast. I rarely get to Queens, despite its many temptations. Living in Brooklyn, working in Manhattan, and not owning a car, I kept making excuses not to make the trek. In recent months I've remedied that in a systematic fashion. I contacted a group of friends and we agreed to a monthly Queens dinner outing.

The first three have been to Asian restaurants: Sripraphai, the most raved-about Thai restaurant in the city; Spicy and Tasty, the Sichuan restaurant in Flushing that was recently awarded two stars by the Times' Frank Bruni; and Minangasli, a tiny Indonesian place in Elmhurst. I haven't written about the first two. Sripraphai was excellent, but I didn't have anything to say that hasn't been said already. Spicy and Tasty was quite good too, but I feel I need a wider sample of dishes before I commit. I will tell you about Minangasli.

It's a tiny place in a neighborhood bustling with Asian restaurants, and the cuisine is Sumatran. Sumatran food is one of the most popular cuisines in the vast nation of Indonesia. I've never been to Sumatra, but you'll find Nasi Padang restaurants all over Bali and Java. Padang, Sumatra's largest city, is famous for its incendiary cuisine. Nasi means rice in the Indonesian language (Bahasa Indonesia), and Nasi Padang restaurants are usually humble places that will serve you a plate of rice with your choice of a number of prepared dishes. Nasi Padang was, I believe, the inspiration for the more formal, genteel Dutch-Indonesian Rijsttafel.

Minangasli serves a la carte, but the food is Padang-style. Six of us dined there, so we had the chance to sample a bunch of dishes. A number of them were indeed spicy, but somewhat less hot than those prepared by Nasi Padang places in Indonesia. It's pretty hard to find Southeast Asian cuisine in the U.S. that maintains the spice level of the home country, even in "ethnic" neighborhoods.

The most popular dish with my group was the ayam balado, shown above. It's fried chicken with a fresh red chili sauce. I don't know how, or if, balado differs from sambal, as the sauce is known in other Indonesian and Malaysian restaurants. The chicken itself was incredibly moist, plump and flavorful, and the sauce had a flavor complexity that gave it dimensions other than heat.

A favorite Indonesian dish of mine, which we ordered as an appetizer, is martabak, sometimes spelled murtabak. It's a thin pancake stuffed with a mixture of chopped meat, egg, green onions and cilantro. Mianangasli makes theirs with beef, but I believe some I've had in Java were made with lamb. The martabak was tasty, but I prefer one that is more meaty than eggy. A better version can be found at Philadelphia's Indonesia Restaurant.

Our lamb satay was pretty good, but the skewers were already swimming in a spicy peanut sauce when they arrived. I prefer satay with sauce on the side. The beef rendang was a standout. This dry curry dish is a cornerstone of both Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine. I was a big fan of the jackfruit stew in a coconut milk sauce, but it met with mixed reviews from my friends. The one real dud was a steamed snapper that came out rather soggy and was served with an unexceptional sauce on the side. We also had an udang (shrimp) balado that didn't commune with the sauce as well as the chicken did, and ayam gulai, chicken in a coconut milk sauce that, while good, was not up to the standard of the best items.

There's no question that Minangasli is far superior to any of the Indonesian restaurants in Manhattan. Now I have to try some of the other Queens Indonesian places to see where it stands in the majors.

Minangasli is at 86-10 Whitney Avenue, Elmhurst.

Minangasli on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Hey Pop, I'm in The Forverts!

Up Is Up, But So Is Down, the anthology that inspired my recent downtown memoir, received a rave review in Friday’s edition of the Jewish Daily Forward, which currently happens to be a weekly, despite the name. The paper, now published in English, was known in Yiddish, in the old days, as The Forverts. Reviewer Joshua Cohen graciously awarded me pride of place in his final paragraph:

The best last word here regarding such an intelligent and ironically lavish enshrining of an underground is supplied by Peter Cherches, a former performance artist and a downtown writer of fiction. At the end of his piece, Cherches writes of his relationship with a lover that might as well be mainstream, millennial New York : “We tried to put each other into words. But words weren’t enough. So we put each other into sentences. No good. Paragraphs. Unsatisfactory. Chapters. Not quite right. A book. Books. Volume upon volume upon volume. It just wouldn’t work. Nothing was enough, everything was too much.”

My maternal grandfather, Harry Posner, would be so proud. He was a religious reader of The Forverts, even if he wasn’t religious. My brothers and I called my grandfather “Pop,” and our grandmother, his wife, was “Gran.” Pop called Gran "Mama." Gran called Pop "Pop."

Gran’s maiden name was Annabelle Richmond, and she had a thick, almost brahminical Boston accent despite the fact that she, like Pop, was a Russian Jew. Gran had come to this country as a small child, and with that name and that voice you’d think she was D.A.R. She was a small, thin, gentle woman, and she never had a bad word for anyone, even when they deserved it.

Pop and Gran were night and day. Pop was a heavy man−he weighed about two hundred and fifty pounds for most of his life and he wasn’t at all tall. He spoke with a thick Russian-Jewish accent. Though I loved Pop, I remember him as a crabby, cantankerous old man who wouldn't hesitate to say a bad word about anyone, whether or not they deserved it. He had many enemies, but he was devoted to Gran.

Gran died in a nursing home, at the age of eighty-three, when I was thirteen. Pop died about a year later, 1970, at eighty-four. He just threw in the towel and stopped eating. With his wife gone he had lost the will to live. During those final months he always had a tear in his eye, and in his voice, and a memory about Gran, “a saint.” When Pop died he weighed ninety-eight pounds, about the same weight as Gran when she died.

Hey Pop, if you were alive today you’d be 120 years old, and I’m in The Forverts.

Friday, December 01, 2006

At the Japanese Restaurant

We go to a Japanese restaurant, myself and five friends. We all order the same dish, a mixed seafood salad. The salads arrive and they are quite a sight to behold−enormous bowls filled with seafood of all varieties: shrimps, clams, octopi, squid, salmon slices, fish heads, sea horses. There is only one problem, a minor one to be sure, but a problem nonetheless: there is one item missing from the salad of one of my friends, the man directly to my right. All of the salads except for his contain a rather large squid head, acting as a sort of garnish, in the center of the bowl. I call the waiter to the table, to alert him to this discrepancy. I explain the problem of the missing squid head and the waiter says, "I will correct this." I assume that the waiter will take the salad in question back to the kitchen and replace the squid head, but he does not do this. Instead he starts to shift food around from salad to salad, taking a shrimp from one bowl, a salmon slice from another, mixing the salads up in a seemingly random fashion.

"What are you doing?" I ask the waiter.

"I am correcting the situation by making all things equal," he says.

"That's not what I had in mind," I say. "You should be getting my friend another squid head."

At this point the waiter begins to get angry, raising his voice. "Are you telling me how to do my job?"

My friend, preferring to avoid further difficulties, says to me, "Listen, the squid head's really not that important to me. Why don't you just drop it?"

"It's a matter of principle," I tell him.

Meanwhile the waiter is continuing to mix up the salads, completely destroying the integrity of any individual salad.

"You're making a mess of everything," I tell the waiter.

"You think you know everything, don't you?" says the waiter.

"All I know," I reply, "is that five salads came with a squid head, and one came without it."

After a short silence the waiter looks me straight in the eyes and says, "One missing squid head! And to you that constitutes a majority?"

This was the opening piece in my pamphlet of dream stories,
Between a Dream and a Cup of Coffee (1987). Copies are still available.