Photography: Seven Days

I got tagged on this Facebook “seven days” thing.

Seven days.
Seven black & white photos of your life.
No people, no explanations.
Challenge someone new each day.
I was challenged by …
I challenge …

I couldn’t go out and shoot anything new because my priority at the moment remains my job search. This meant I had to dig into my archives. The “no people” part was especially challenging since I love shooting musicians and street photography is generally shots of people.

I did come up with seven photos. Now that I’ve posted them all on Facebook, I thought I’d share them here.

Continue reading “Photography: Seven Days”

Upcoming Trip to Chicago and New York

In just a couple of weeks I’ll be making my annual pilgrimage back to Da Bronx to see my mom and catch up with some other family members and friends.

But first, I’ll be spending 4 nights in Chicago. That’s business, though I’ll have at least a day and a half on my own before the meetings start. I’ve only been to Chicago once before and that was for 2 nights, at least 25 years ago. Let me tell you how much that trip sucked:

  • First night: We arrived late and hadn’t had dinner. We found one open place. The boss (Aldous Huxley’s grandson, as it happens) insisted on ordering soft shell crabs for an appetizer, took one taste and told us they were horrible and said we couldn’t stay there, cancelled the rest of the order, and we couldn’t find another open restaurant. I think my dinner that night was a bag of Oreos.
  • Second night: On my own, thank Buddha, but no idea of where to go. I ended up in some bar where the bartender not only decided that I had to be Chris Elliott, he also needed to confirm it with everyone else in the place. My “celebrity status” yielded me no ill-gotten gains as no one else there had any idea who Chris Elliott is.

So, any recommendations for the place gratefully appreciated – probably mostly places to eat Chicago hot dogs and ribs, places to walk around with a camera in hand, perhaps a bit of night life/blues bars if I’m not too jetlagged.  (I’m staying in the Magnificent Mile area.)

Since I’ll be in NYC for a full week this time (but as always will spend most of my time in The Bronx), I’m hoping to be able to sample a bit more of what appears to be a burgeoning food scene there – Latino stuff, Asian stuff, and hopefully a visit to Arthur Avenue for some of the Italian American food I grew up with. And of course at some point a pastrami sandwich and roumanian tenderloin steak (which I have made in HK but have a hard time finding hanger steak here). I know my mother will never try sushi but I think she’ll enjoy pho.

Tremont Restaurant, NYC – Food Is Bond

While in New York, one of the things I had to do was have dinner at Tremont Restaurant, corner of West 4th and Bank Streets in the Village.  The reason for this was simple – my cousin Jeremy Blutstein is the executive chef there and I was eager to try his food.

Since I only get to New York once a year and my visits are relatively brief, it’s been more than 10 years since I last saw Jeremy.  In the interim, he learned to cook, worked at some places near his parents’ home in the Hamptons, spent some time under Mario Batali, and now is running the kitchen in this wonderful spot.  Of course I’m biased but you can also check out the reviews on Yelp and in the Wall Street Journal. The restaurant was also a semifinalist in the Best New Restaurant category in the 2012 James Beard awards.

Tremont has a bright corner location.  The large windows, high ceilings and clean interior make up for the relatively small space.

Jeremy was aware we were coming and I assume the staff also knew this – plus the cousin I went with (author Glenn Kurtz) had been there before and the staff clearly knew him.  Both waitresses were extremely friendly and patient with us – but based on the reviews I’ve read and what I observed at other tables, that’s just how they are.  It’s a friendly, relaxed vibe and the 3-1/2 hours we spent there flew by.

We ordered three starters – and were sent 6. Most of them were memorable – what surprised me most was that the dish I expected to like the least was probably the most memorable of the night – Truffled Polenta Croutons, with 3 kinds of mushrooms and Parmesan cheese.  It may be why I didn’t get a good photo of this dish, because my expectations were so low.  When I finally tasted it, my eyes popped open – but there wasn’t enough left on the plate to get a good photo.  It had the strongest combination of flavors and textures of any dish on the table and I love it when caught by surprise like that.

Other starters that we had included Crispy Heritage Pork Belly (pickled radicchio, caraway, New York State apple bourbon chutney) and one of the specials that night, tuna crudo.  The pork was tender and full of flavor, the tuna as you can see was as fresh as it gets with a very nice combination of flavors.

We also had braised octopus (smoked andouille sausage, fennel, preserved lemon, calabrian chile, spiced pecans) and aside from the sophisticated flavor combinations, I was knocked out by how tender the octopus was.  There was also a special salad that night – sorry, I forget the list of ingredients in it.

After 6 starters, the three of us were actually feeling rather full!  Jet lag was getting to my appetite as well as the glass of red wine I’d had at the start – lately red wine and I do not get along and I keep forgetting this.  At any rate, at this point we ordered another starter – their take on mac and cheese (seems like every modern American restaurant in New York has to include this on the menu) – and just one main dish, seared sea scallops with crispy brussel sprouts, grapefruit, pine nuts.  The scallops were perfectly cooked and a light enough dish rather than going with some of the things that I had hoped to get to, in particular the apricot glazed pork shoulder, which will have to wait till my next visit.

We took a long break at this point.  I was getting my second wind and when the kitchen sent us three desserts, I didn’t complain.

This was the unexpected winner, a pear tart with rosemary gelato.  Rosemary gelato?  Completely blew me away.  (Jeremy told me that the woman doing their desserts has a way of working with savory ingredients that’s unique and I’d have to agree.)  The other two desserts weren’t shabby either:

Those donuts were amazing too!

The bill came and we were of course only charged for the items we ordered and not the other dishes that were simply sent to us.  For four appetizers, one main dish, 5 or 6 glasses of wine, 3 coffees, it was an amazingly reasonable US$170.  (We guessed that if we’d been charged for everything we ate, the bill would have come to at least $300 and so we tipped 20% of $300 and not $170 – the staff deserved it.)

Cousin or not, free dishes or not, take this with as many grains of salt as you want, if I lived in NYC, I know I’d be going back there many, many more times.

I’d asked Jeremy if it was okay for me to bring my camera and get some photos of him at work.  I was picturing some huge kitchen with a dozen staff working away, he warned me it was a tiny space with just him and one other person and he wasn’t kidding!

So while I had this idea that I could stand in some corner and capture him as he cooked and assembled various dishes, I realized it simply wasn’t going to be practical.  I grabbed a few quick photos and then got out of everyone’s way.

I really thought about this a lot since then.  Look at that kitchen.  It ain’t big, there’s no windows and I’m sure it’s hot as fuck in there.  The restaurant does lunch 3 days a week and weekend brunch as well as dinners and I know he’s doing those day time services too.  The restaurant may be small but I understand that on many nights the tables will turn 3 or 4 times.  So he’s on his feet in that small space how many hours per day?  Turning out 100+ dishes per day, day after day?  Can you imagine how hard that is, physically?  The work ethic that’s involved with that?  Plus he absolutely loves what he’s doing.  It seems like he ends every post he puts on Facebook with the phrase “food is bond.”

I mean, yeah, I know this is common in the restaurant industry (one reason I don’t go there myself) but it’s really uncommon in my family!  I’m so impressed with the work he’s doing there and so very proud of him.  Yes I’m biased but I’m convinced he’s going to be on TV and going to have his own cookbooks.  And then I’ll be able to say, “I told you so.”

 

Hey, I'm In New York

I arrived in New York City a few hours ago, a one week trip to visit my mother and catch up with a few friends and family.

I flew Cathay Pacific’s new-ish Premium Economy class.  The deal is that you get a seat that’s slightly wider and reclines slightly further than regular economy seats; most important (for me) is the extra legroom you get.  The food is probably a bit better than pure economy, you get the same entertainment options as business class, and you can check in and board on the business class lines.  Cathay’s pricing options for economy are many and confusing – four different ticket prices but the options aren’t that well differentiated.  They were having a sale on the Premium Economy – just a couple thousand (HK$) higher than the top economy ticket price.  So adding on the fact that the only economy tickets available were center seats, it made this choice a relative no-brainer for me.  I didn’t sleep as much as I would have liked on the 15 hour flight but over all it was comfortable and went by quickly enough.

While here, of course I’ll have a pastrami sandwich, some NYC pizza, a Grey’s Papaya hot dog and I’ll also have a chance to have dinner at my cousin’s James Beard award-nominated restaurant and attend a high school reunion (though it’s not clear how many people from my graduating class are also going to make it).

But for right now … well, the flight touched down around 7:45 PM, I got to my mom’s place just after 9, I fell asleep at 10:30, woke up at 2:30 and have been up since then.  Hopefully I will get a few more hours of sleep before we do our pilgrimage to Costco.

For those who are curious, I am traveling alone.  It would be next to impossible to get a U.S. visa for my gf.  She’ll get her own home (Philippines) trip later this month.

Aside from that, well, if I’ve been quiet of late, it’s not for lack of free time.  It’s now four months since I held a full time job.  I’ve been working part time and also doing some work on personal projects.  I think I’m close to an offer but “close to” is not the same as “have” and I also have been spending a lot of time thinking about my options should I not be able to find something within the next month or two.  Move to a much cheaper flat in HK?  Move to the Philippines?  The answer should hopefully become clearer by November.

BTW, it cheeses me off that 3 HK is charging HK$168 per day for data roaming in the U.S.  That’s almost US$22.  3 is not to blame alone on this, I’m sure that their U.S. partner AT&T should take at least some of the blame, plus the fact that in general this insane pricing for international roaming still exists.  Some global rationality is long overdue. The way I see it is that right now this pricing exists because (a) it’s a global thing so there is no single government body that has any power over it and (b) it is profitable because of business people traveling who get reimbursed by their company, people who are too rich to care and people who are too stupid to notice till the bill comes in.  Someone needs to run the numbers though – if it was just $10 a day, how many more people would use it and wouldn’t the revenue/income stream actually increase, not to mention the level of good will (or at least less hatred) generated towards the telcos?

The High Line

I’m home now.  An unexpected free upgrade to business class made my return flight that much nicer.

Distance makes the heart grown fonder.  It’s now 16 years since I lived in the NYC area and for the past couple of years, each time I go back I find a few more things to like.  It could be that for many years I was only traveling there during winter while last year I was there in autumn and this time I was there in summer.  Or it could be that NYC is really getting better.

This trip, the highlight was the High Line.

Here’s the deal.  In the 1930s, NYC built an elevated freight line in lower Manhattan.  They stopped using it in 1980 and for years, this thing just sat there unused and rusting.  When the decision came in 1999 to tear it down, a group called Friends of the High Line was started. The result in 2010 was a new elevated park called the High Line and it’s simply amazing.  30 feet above the street, it’s a true urban oasis.

I went walking along a small stretch of this park on Monday, a beautiful sunny day in NYC.  I wasn’t the only one there.

It’s evidently clear that both local residents and tourists love this.

Some great views from the park as well.

 

It’s unfortunate that Hong Kong seems incapable of the same sort of out-of-the-box thinking that produces results like this.  I guess our closest equivalent would be Hullett House in TST.  (I don’t include the Wanchai redevelopment in this category because keeping just one three story space while knocking down everything else in the surrounding streets isn’t my idea of creative redevelopment.)

It’s all part of what I see as the renaissance of the lower west side of Manhattan.  Here’s the corner of 14th Street and 9th Avenue, the heart of what was the falling-apart Meat Packing district (a name that came to have a double entendre meaning because not only was it the center of the wholesale meat business in New York, in recent decades it was also home to some outrageous gay sex clubs).

On the corner is a three story Apple store, which of course was crazy busy, even on a Monday afternoon.

Then there’s this stretch of 10th Avenue between 15th and 16th Streets.  Once only famous for transvestite street walkers, drugs and muggings, now you get the block-long Chelsea Market complex and dozens of new shops and restaurants including these three high end spots:

Colicchio and Sons, the latest venture from Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio.  (I believe the NBC on the building was not for the National Broadcasting Company but for the National Biscuit Company.)

Just up the street, Mario Batali’s Del Posto.

Directly across the street, the entrance to Iron Chef Morimoto’s self-named restaurant.

I would guess that there are some who will say that this area has become a playground for the rich.  I have no doubt that eating in any of the above three restaurants (or any of the other nearby ones) or shopping in the area’s new stores would be stretching my budget to the breaking point and possibly beyond.  But it also did a better job of maintaining the original character of the neighborhood -as opposed to the Disney-fied destruction of Times Square.

A few more shots of possible interest from Monday:

If memory serves, the above used to be Gerdes’ Folk City, the place where Dylan first performed live in NYC.  I saw a lot of great shows here back in my NYU days.

Directly across the street, the Blue Note keeps on keeping on.

How could you not love the sign on this bar, found on Third Avenue just north of St. Marks Place?

Maybe a few more pics from my trip to be posted in the next day or two.

R. Crumb Drawn by Drew Friedman

How great is this?  A portrait of one great American artist, R. Crumb, by another, Drew Friedman.  This was done for Vanity Fair and Friedman gives a brief explanation here.

On March 25, 2011, the Society of Illustrators hosted the opening for a huge Robert Crumb exhibition, curated by Monte Beauchamp, with Mr. Crumb in attendance. The legendary underground cartoonist certainly needs no introduction, but here goes anyway: R. Crumb is the creator of Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, “Keep on Truckin,’” the cover art for Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills LP, and hundreds of other iconic images he’d probably rather forget. He’s also attempted to put Terry Zwigoff’s documentary Crumb behind him, having moved to France, grown a beard, and forever given up wearing straw hats.

….. It was enough to inspire me to draw the now 67-year-old R. Crumb walking through a modern, glitzy Times Square—a fish out of water.

Not difficult to guess what Crumb probably thinks of the Disneyfication of Times Square.

Heard a joke this morning, can’t recall from whom.  Guy A says, “If you hate the U.S. so much, why don’t you leave?”  Guy B responds, “What?  And become a victim of U.S. foreign policy?”

Silly Study Results in Silly News Item

Two economics professors studied a mountain of data to determine a scale of American happiness, ranked by state.  New York State came in dead last, ranked 51 out of 51.  “Americans who described themselves as satisfied tended to live in places where the quality of life was good by most standards — where the sun shone a lot, the air was reasonably clear, housing didn’t leave you busted, traffic wasn’t too fierce and so on,” says the New York Times.

Here’s the stupid bit in the article:

It falls to a New Yorker to ask how it is, if this is such an unhappy place, that more people are living in the city than ever before: an estimated 8.4 million. “That’s a very sensible point,” Professor Oswald said. Many people, he said, do indeed think of states like New York and California as “marvelous places to live in.”

New York State is not New York City.   The population of NYC makes up about half of the population of the state.  From my perspective, as someone born and raised in the city, if I lived in New York and lived in Buffalo or Syracuse or Rochester or points in between, I’d be pretty pissed off too!

But overall, I’d rather be in Hong Kong.