Big Apple Food Adventures: La Isla Restaurant, Williamsburg

One day, I’m at Margon in Times Square (having Cuban/Dominican food) and the next day, I’m to Puerto Rico. Or the Dominican Republic. I’m not sure. Yelp calls it both. Zomato votes Dominican.

For a quick lunch in Williamsburg before I head to the airport, I stumble across La Isla Restaurant (I was tempted again by Mexico 2000 but there was not a soul inside). All sorts of tasty greasy fried things in the window.

What was hilarious was that even if I do speak some Spanish, I couldn’t get on their wavelength. No menu was offered. I tried to say, cheerily, in English (thinking my Spanish wasn’t good enough), what should I have? The two guys just looked blankly at me, and then would look away and deal with other customers. All of the ladies on one side were having a sort of stew or soup with pork hock. Someone came in and asked how much the rice and beans were ($4) so I decided to go with that (yellow rice and beans of a brown colour rather than black beans) and some chicken stew.

It was delicious really, tender chicken stewed for ages, though again, too much food. I read on reviews on Yelp that I should have gone for the roast pork (pernil). And I’m curious what those fried things were!

La Isla Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Big Apple Food Adventures: Margon, Times Square

Just a last adventure before I leave New York City (drizzling and cold, a good day to leave) and the adventure is food from islands where they speak Spanish. This review in the New York Times for Margon made it irresistible for me to visit.

Originally a Cuban restaurant, and taken over by owners from the Dominican Republic, it serves up humble, traditional food. So, a long line-up at the counter and then the difficulty of trying to figure out what to order. I often go for oxtail but thought I’d try their beef stew.

Chose beans and yucca as my sides and really, this was an enormous amount of food. I have to remember that I like yucca a lot when it’s fried (yucca fries, in fact), but boiled it’s kind of bland. And the stew, well, it was stew. I have the feeling I should have tried their famous octopus and prawn ceviche, or the Cuban sandwiches which looked perfectly constructed. Anyways, it was a fun place to visit, though more fun with more people so you can try different things, and try to figure out a standout dish.

Margon Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Book Review: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Forgive me, but I’ve become apathetic these days. I used to watch foreign movies with subtitles, and now most often watch Hollywood blockbusters. I watch less hard-hitting documentaries and rather too much reality TV. So, while I meant to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s much-lauded ‘Between the World and Me’, it took me a while to get to it. A trip to New York City was the perfect reason.

And yes, it is heavy. But god, this is a beautiful book. It shouldn’t work as well as it should. The conceit of a letter to one’s child has the danger of both sentimentality and sameness of tone.

But the advantage is honesty and emotion and a sense of urgency and mission. The writing sings out of the page. He is really a beautiful writer. It is horrifying, of course, and hard to understand for anyone really, if you haven’t experienced it, how having a black body marks you out for discrimination, violence and the possibility of incarceration and premature death, at the hands of the instruments of the state, of a system that has done this historically and is doing it deliberately. It is hard to read about it; bearing witness to it, or fearing its consequence permanently is… terrible.

And yet, the violence is so horrible, the urgency so great, that while it struck me as an alien world, I could also relate to it (and if you’ve read my book reviews before, this is one of my themes: great books teach me about something I’ve never thought of, but also touch me in a way that is personal and allows me to imagine it). I thought of the terrible violence done to gay men, and that continues to be done, and the immense loss of lives to AIDS and the inaction and prejudice that exacerbated the loss.

It was interesting that Coates writes of Paris, and of France, as a way to look at his own experience from outside of himself. It’s a tool, but not unrealistic. He acknowledges racism in France and in fact how the country was built on colonialism but as a tourist how he is at one remove. For contrast, I also read, while in NYC, Edmund White’s latest novel about France, and while as one of the world’s pre-eminent gay writers, he could be writing about difference and power relations, the novel is mostly gossip. This made me appreciate Coates’s book even more: it is vital and important and I want other people to read it. Yet it is so beautifully written and expressed I don’t feel I am imposing a moral chore or obligation on them. So, read it. That’s my recommendation.

I’m conscious that some African-American reviewers of the book on Goodreads feel that Coates is getting too much attention or being seen as THE voice of black America; I need to be empathetic to that, in the same way that I was fed up by seeing only gay white authors represent what ‘gay’ meant i literature. But I don’t detect he’s laying claim as a spokesperson, though that is the role that is perhaps being laid upon him. At least, to me, he seems intelligent, eloquent and kind. That’s the kind of spokesperson that I’d want.

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Theatre Review: Spamilton, an American Parody, the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre

OK. I missed taking a photo of the marquee but this seems appropriate, casually laying my programme down with a glass of (draft?) Chardonnay in Harlem to write a little review, as this show was a little more casual, and lighter, than the others I’ve seen.

Though I don’t need to really do a review. There are some fine reviews out there already, such as this one in Cabaret Scenes and this recent one in the New York Times which is actually an update of an older review.

In any case, I figured that since I wouldn’t be able to see Hamilton while in NYC, I might as well see Spamilton (and I missed the rush tickets for Little Foxes).

I’ve seen at least one of Gerard Alessandrini’s Forbidden Broadways before (and heard more soundtracks). He’s witty, funny and talented… and a keen observer of Broadway. So turning his attention to the hottest show of the century is appropriate.

He combines the songs and structures of Hamilton with a larger commentary on the success of the musical itself and the fame of its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and how Hamilton fits into or doesn’t into the Broadway canon.

The more you know musicals, the funnier it gets, with ample snippets of Sondheim, and references to new and old musicals, as well as various celebrities. I laughed sometimes as much in recognition as humour, and I wonder who else recognised ‘NYC’ from Annie, or the jokes about Sondheim’s Assassins (certainly not the young Hamilton fans sitting at the top).

Still, I think there’s enough humour and amazing performances whether you recognise the jokes and songs or not. I loved Glenn Close disguised as the witch from Into the Woods begging for Hamilton tickets (just as I was begging for them). There were some hilarious mashups (Avenue Crucible, the Lion King and I). Blink and you’ll miss references to choreography from certain shows, some lesser and more famous shows, or various talents. I liked the potshots at British musicals. The way Annie appears in the show is clever and memorable (particularly as the last time I saw a show, he’d worked in Annie, I think it’s one of his favourite jokes.) The actors were amazing with powerful singing voices and parodying talents.

I was familiar enough with the Hamilton soundtrack (as I couldn’t get tickets to the damn show) to appreciate the parodies and riffs on the various songs, ‘My Shot’ and ‘I’ll be back’ (made into a song about how ‘straight is back’ and gay themes and musicals are out of fashion).

Really, a very fun hour and a half.

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Book Review: Jack Viertal’s The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built

The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are BuiltThe Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built by Jack Viertel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you’re a fan of musicals, this is a fun book, for have you ever really stopped to ponder what makes a musical work well? And why you like them? And why the ones you may not like as much don’t seem right, or have some random comic number near the start of the second act?

This book is written in a straight-shooting tone of voice, by someone who has long experience in the industry, is a lifelong lover of musicals and has both practical experience but also has put a lot of thought into the subject, honed by actually teaching courses on the American musical.

I enjoyed it, learned from it, and enjoyed his passion and whimsy. It put into words for me something that I’ve felt but been too shy to express: as ridiculous as it may seem to some people, people breaking into song, in musicals, that are well-structured and created, have the ability to reach for the heights of emotion and the most beautiful parts of human nature.

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Big Apple Food Adventures: Amy Ruth’s, Harlem

   I didn’t think I’d get to eat Soul Food again before I left New York City, but I took an express train in the wrong direction and ended up in Harlem. Seriously. So, after chilling out at Mist with wine on tap and my laptop, I headed to … which Yelp told me was top rated, even higher than the famous Sylvia’s.

On Sunday night at 7pm, there was a short wait (of 15 minutes or so) and a woman who fainted or had some attack on the sidewalk. There were people all around her though thankfully, three of them were nurses. A fire truck pulled up eventually, and the siren kept flashing during most of my meal. With only one stomach, I was worried about choosing the right thing, but most reviews (and the waiter) confirmed that fried chicken is the most famous. You get to choose between breast and leg (I’m a leg man) and two sides.

After the tasty complimentary corn bread, served with three little packets of butter (just enough) and a very full glass of pinot grigio (I ordered a carafe but thankfully they only had enough cold wine for a glass; the waiter told me the rest was ‘hot’ and they could put it on ice for me. I declined), the food arrived… in about two minutes. I scored 50% on my orders of the sides. The macaroni and cheese was tasty and soft and comforting. Not al dente. Not a strong flavour but nice. Cheesy. However, I’ve made this mistake before: candied yams are simply too sweet for me. I don’t see the appeal.

As for the chicken, it was delicious. A very crisp batter. Completely tender inside. Scrumptious. It wasn’t a wow chicken moment (like really good Korean Fried Chicken, or the unbelievable homemade roast chicken that Tracy made the other night), but it was very, very good. US$25 all up, $30 with a tip, and right now, I’ve very, very full.

Amy Ruth's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Big Apple Food Adventures: Mexico 2000, Williamsburg

As a devoted foodie, my regular recommendation is that people do a little research and follow trusted friends’ recommendations in order to not waste a food experience. Why eat bad food if instead you can eat good food? So, NYC constantly surprised me to find not just good but AMAZING food when I am not following my own usual advice.

This hole in the wall is minutes away from my AirBNB and after a play on Broadway (Sweat), I was rather hungry (even though I’d had matzoh ball ramen earlier). So, I stop in this place, playing Mexican or Latin American pop music, and darkly lit and looking like it could have the most terrible food in the world and instead the waiter introduces me to an excellent Mexican beer, Victoria (I asked for something Mexican but not Corona), I get free tri-coloured corn chips with a delicious tomato salsa and then. And THEN:

I’ve tried tamales before and not understood the appeal. Made of a corn-based dough and then steamed in a banana or corn leaf, I now understand that I’ve had these not quite at the right temperature. If they are microwaved or too cold then the dough is a little too hard. In any case, I’ve not found them pleasant. But this time, the filling tastes light and addictive and tasty, and then inside that was a perfect piece of fatty pork, the fat melting into the filling, and a generous portion of hot green sauce. Oh my god, it was good. In fact, it reminded me mostly of a Cantonese rice dish, Zoong, a triangle of sticky rice wrapped in leaves and steamed. They do put some corn mixture into it and it tastes of both home (an imagined home, a warm and cozy home) and the yummy savoury place that I like to hang out it (crispy pork belly, that’s my home, baby).

Yes, these were the best tamales I’ve ever had. I liked it so much I went back the next night and had the same thing (actually, I had the chicken mole, which was good but not as good). I also, the first night, had a huitlacoche quesadilla, this is some sort of corn fungus, and I mainly ordered it because it is not easily found outside of Mexico and certainly not in Australia, and is a bit unusual, but I admit that I couldn’t readily identify the flavour. It was nice enough, but the tamales… Those are to die for.

Mexico 2000 Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Theatre Review: Groundhog Day, August Wilson Theatre, NYC

I liked this musical. I never saw the movie… but I read a good review in the NYT and I saw that it was nominated for Tony Awards. So, I thought it was worth a shot (and I could get a discount ticket to see it; second row to the front on the side, pretty great!).

I’ve been reading the book ‘The Secret Life of the American Musical’ by Jack Viertel, which is a very interesting tome about how musicals are or should be constructed for success. So, there were a number of elements of this musical which were confusing, compared to other musicals. There really are only two main characters, the weatherman and Rita, his love interest. The narrative drive, or conceit of the musical, is quite strange: will the weatherman ever get out of this time warp of waking up in the same day, every day? At the end of the first act, that was the only question for me, as I didn’t really care about the characters enough. Phil Connors doesn’t actually begin his moral and emotional development until the second act.

But I like Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics, he of ‘Matilda’ fame, an Australian who also acts, and did a fabulous political song about how the morally corrupt George Pell should be brought back to Australia to answer to the charges of him being in authority when numerous Catholic priests were abusing children (‘Come home’, a minor hit).

I read a review that excoriated Minchin’s writing: he hated the imperfect rhymes and that he reached too much. But I like them. The lyrics are slightly quirky, slightly reaching. They seem to both poke fun at our everyday lives but reach for something more, just like a good number from a musical should. I like them because they are NOT typical. On the other hand, they are recognisable. He has a certain melodic structure that I recognise from Matilda, but happen to like. They’re simple, but have some sort of drive and emotion, as Viertel would call in his book, an ‘I Want’ song. Like ‘When I Grow Up’ from Matilda’, he seems to specialise in this in-between place: ‘If I had my time again’ for example. And I found the other songs tuneful: ‘There will be sun’, ‘One day’ and ‘Seeing you’ though I couldn’t hum a bar of them if you asked me.

Interestingly, the musical kind of took a philosophical turn in the midst of the comedy. With so few characters, it gives not one but two torch song numbers to minor characters to ponder on identity (Nancy’s song, ‘Playing Nancy’) and the hapless Ned, a widower’s, song ‘Night Will Come’. Really surprising to suddenly spotlight minor characters, but sort of spirals the themes of the musical to a bigger place: What does it mean to live life? To have a life worth living? If you lived the same day over and again, what would you do with it?

Andy Carl was charismatic… and sexy. Barrett Doss, as Rita, was lovely: natural, sexy and sweet – a much more developed love interest character than in many a story.

If you only have time for two or three musicals in NYC, this wouldn’t make my list. I thought it was more interesting for the question of how to make a musical out of strange source material. And yet, it did have a lot of charm. It would be in my second rank of recommendations.

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Book Review: Edmund White’s Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris

Inside a Pearl: My Years in ParisInside a Pearl: My Years in Paris by Edmund White
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I bought Edmund White’s Inside a Pearl almost as a reflex action. I was at Sydney’s gay bookstore, The Bookshop Darlinghurst, and like to try to make purchases there to support them. It was on sale. It’s about Paris. I was going on a long trip where I’d have more time for reading. And it’s Edmund White.

But most of the way through the book, I thought: why do I do things based on what I used to do (i.e. I’ve been buying and reading his books for almost three decades)? Doesn’t it show a lack of growth, or even imagination?

These are the things that I liked about the book:

White illuminates different aspects of Paris and French culture in a way that is witty, intelligent and engaging, and in doing so, illuminates American culture, and even parts of NYC, where I’m reading the book.

He often does this by repeating something that he’s learned from someone else, but he attributes it, and that’s a skill in itself. I enjoyed sharing with my husband some of his observations of the French that we’d picked up.

In the meantime, White can often summarise a person, or a situation, with a few sharp words, in a way that I find engaging. A glass-eyed virgin hovers above their guest bed in Provence: ‘We had to put underwear over her head if we wanted to sleep or have sex’. Lauren Bacall is simply a ‘loud, opinionated harridan’ to which he tries to reconcile with his remembrance of her ‘iconic slender body and huge eyes’.

Similarly, he can sketch out character studies in a few paragraphs, and what characters they are! His gossip and observations, rapportage of conflict and jealousy: this is all that Jonathan Galassi’s boring ‘Muse’ wasn’t. The details were witty and true, rather than trite and possibly about someone who we should know, but might not.

But while I was interested in the book to begin with, particularly how his friends, for example, his adored M.C., the first wife of the creator of Babar, represented a particular type of Frenchwoman, the book descended into a clutter of names and celebrities, all of the famous and infamous people White has met and socialised with.

I have a complicated relationship to Edmund White’s writing. I adored the first two books of his gay trilogy so much that they served as inspiration for my own writing. His candidness, his yearning, his storytelling: all of these represented something exciting about my identity as a gay man. And I simply loved his words, long, crafted sentences that didn’t lose their way. It was strange to read right at the end of the book that my observation was right that his style has changed over the years. His current writing is pretty sharp and succinct, which he admits was a consequence of living in two languages and an impatience, as the French have, with ‘long sentences and sinuous syntax’ (though on the other hand, French formal correspondence is so long-winded and courtly compared to English used in the business world).

When living in Brussels, a friend of mine, a journalist John, had also read his earlier book on Paris, Le Flaneur, and we loved his gossipy tales and imagined stalking him in Paris to crash a dinner party, and enjoy the pleasure and intellect with which he engaged his acquaintances.

Yet in the same period, we started a book club and I chose his book of essays: Skinned Alive. My pals David and John just weren’t very impressed; it was not a problem with the writing itself. They just didn’t really like him as a person and what he was saying. I had to admit that it wasn’t a strong work.

Years later, in Sydney, I asked him a question after his reading about the nature of fame. I was perhaps prompted by something he’d said. In front of a sold-out audience at the Sydney Theatre as part of the busy Sydney Writer’s Festival, he remarked ruefully that a famous gay writer is not really famous at all. I think I had him sign a book afterwards, and I gave him a copy of one of my own. Kindly, he emailed me, though I think that evidence is lost in an IT disaster from years ago. He didn’t comment at all about the writing, but simply asked was it really so hard to be an Asian man on the gay scene? This from someone who has lamented so often about how he’s worried about how his ageing and weight gain makes him less desirable, and seems keenly aware of differences in social power and the way homosexuality marks out difference.

These two issues – a desire for fame, and a sort of tone-deafness to issues of power and privilege – kept coming up for me during reading this book.

The endless parade of names seems to be a fascination not only with intellect and literature but with wealth and power. After a while, it was boring. He references endlessly whether people have given him a good review or not for various books (and proudly notes that he’s friends with people who gave him bad reviews).

But perhaps I shouldn’t be so harsh. He does seem to be kind to people in his social circle, and introduces his huge cast with admiration, as handsome, or erudite, charming, of fierce intellect, well-dressed or faithful in friendship. But it is a whirligig of social activity and connections: only those who love this themselves will connect with it.

He can criticise friends and acquaintances with simple phrases, too drunk, or crazy or hopeless or lacking in self-confidence, but he stands back at a strange distance, without judgement when talking about certain lovers and issues: French writers who defended pedophilia; a masochist lover who beat up gay men when not having gay sex. He admits being out of touch when criticised about his selection of white authors for a gay short fiction anthology, but considers this is an example of how politically correct America is, not a reason for him to think about diversity and race.

His own relationships of power seem remarkably free of analysis. He’s happy to hire sex workers or buy things for lovers. It’s alluded that a number of lovers were attracted to his wealth and fame. But he doesn’t offer the same observations of himself that he makes of so many other people.

It’s a strange world that he inhabited in Paris: wealthy and famous gay men, and their toy boys and lovers, how each party discards each other for better options (though to be fair, he also describes a share of strange straight relationships). Emotional connection, something called ‘love’ doesn’t seem to figure: ‘in the battle of love the vanquished is whoever gets dumped first’. His longest description of a relationship, with Hubert, reveals little about any shared affection but in the end much of how unpleasant Hubert was. Perhaps his deafest statement was ‘how often straight guys must be accused of rape’ because of being stoned or drunk and assuming other person wants the same thing as you.

The biggest theme in the book, I think, and probably in life, is an obstinate resentment about not being more famous. He laments often about not being recognised in America as writers are lauded in other parts of the world: ‘the writer’s loss of prestige and the public’s neglect’. It comes up over and again, and has obviously been a lifelong issue: not to be satisfied with the fame and success he has, but to want more. He is obviously disappointed that Princess Di’s death consumes the media… and ruins coverage and interviews for his book ‘The Farewell Symphony’.

I started writing notes for this review before I actually finished the book so was surprised at how prescient I was: he ends the book with more lament, of not being considered a ‘good American writer’ in France, of whether he was known by peers, by the elite or by the general public.

In the end, I don’t think this book added much to his considerable oeuvre. Was it a contractual obligation? Or simply a habit: to write. It covers some of the same ground as Le Flaneur, and touches on parts of his life already fictionalised. One could propose that an interesting theme is someone who is caught between two cultures, and how that experience provides insight on both cultures. But what comes through and than dominates that possible narrative is a curmudgeonly dissatisfaction with one’s lot, no matter where one is living. His last comment, that he came to discover he was American when he first moved to Europe, could have aspects of revelation or gratefulness, but after the complaint before it carries an element that is sour and unpleasant.

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Big Apple Food Adventures: Blogging!

It’s been an interesting experience food blogging in NYC. Certainly, when one is on holidays, one eats out a lot more, so there’s been a real opportunity to try all sorts of food, from the very elegant (Del Posto) to any of the many diners and fast food places I tried, and places in between.

I really have found it amazing that with little research, I stumbled across some of the best tacos I’ve ever had (Street Taco), the best tamale I’ve ever had (Mexico 2000), the best traditional Korean food evah (Cho Dang Gol) not to mention great Soul Food (Bobwhite’s Lunch and Dinner Counter) and kick-arse happy hour drinks (Huertas).

In the meantime, I discovered that my preferred food review site, Zomato, is just not that popular in NYC. I think they never managed to make inroads on the much more popular Yelp, but something’s weird too that I don’t understand as some listings have many scores but no actual reviews or only a few, spread out over years. Many new restaurants, as I discovered, are not listed, whether they’ve been open two months or six months. They don’t seem to have anyone who is researching new restaurants; so new listings just go up based on the free labour of bloggers like me…

Why do it at all? I am prey to companies that have gamified my life… and the good thing, for me, is that because so few people use Zomato, I’ve popped to the top of their leaderboards. It’s astonishing. I’m higher-ranked than in Sydney…

Leaving New York City, I am currently their #3 foodie (i.e. regular reviews, no blog)

View my food journey on Zomato!

And #7 blogger

View my food journey on Zomato!

And even the #11 photographer (though I imagine these widgets will show different numbers as my ranking drops after I stop reviewing in NYC). In Sydney, I’m currently a top ten blogger (with some effort), but #76 in photos and #365 in reviews (I prefer blogging which allows me to get into the top ten, and use my website; but I could never compete with all the food reviewers in Sydney).

People in NYC must really not like Zomato. On the other hand, if there are any other Zomato fans who come to NYC, perhaps they’ll find my reviews useful…

There haven’t been any scales in the places I’ve stayed, but I’m hoping that all the walking I’ve been doing and that I usually limit myself to a nice meal a day will ensure I don’t return to Sydney round as a donut. Still, there’s so much junk food here. Walking back from Smorgasburg in Williamsburg today, a food fair of sorts (I’d say market, but there weren’t any goods for sale, it was all food stalls), people are out in the street eating… desserts and ice creams and cake and sweet things. It would be hard to eat properly in this city!

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