Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Just What the Apothecary Ordered

So yeah, it might seem frivolous to still blog on about food, wine, and drink while, perhaps, America as we love it gets coated in Fascist Cheeto Dust. But there are several good arguments against such a claim. First, you'll take my delicious delights when you pry them from my cold dead fingers. Second, all protest and no rest and relaxation makes George a crazed boy. Third, as the Titanic went down, Ben Guggenheim, after putting his mistress in a lifeboat, returned to his stateroom and re-appeared dressed in full evening wear. Rumor has it he also sent this message along with one of the few survivors: "If anything should happen to me, tell my wife in New York that I've done my best in doing my duty." (You read those two sentences correctly, promise.) He then had a cognac and a cigar.

Welcome to Apothéke. Hidden in the warren that is Manhattan's Chinatown (next to the oldest continually serving dim sum place in town, actually, and also recommended), it's in a spot that looks backlot, with its corners and buildings so perfectly out of Rear Window almost. But it's far from low rent: The Prescription List, as they call the menu, doesn't have prices, so there's that (drinks turn out to be $16-$18); if you can't afford the medicine, welcome to the world of Trump (bye bye ACA!).

The interior is speakeasy delightful with scientific touches (let's not call it steampunk so I can feel better about it)--rich wood floors, padded walls, low banquets, some brick, a dark tin ceiling, and lights made with apothecary-style bottles. The bartenders wear lab coats and you don't talk to them, even if you order from the bar; they are better than you, and their drinks will prove it. A good half the menu attests to their devotion to absinthe, which of course adds to the thrillingly cool "is this the last bar one of Jack the Ripper's victims imbibed in" vibe.

Apothéke's drinks do something that's hard to do--surprise yet still remain drinkable. Sure, someone could spin up a never-before-tasted concoction of navy strength gin, peaty scotch, a vermouth you've never heard of, egg white, and shrimp paste, but then you realize, "Hey, there's a reason I never heard of this." And your next thought is, "And where's the bathroom?"

While adventurous, Apothéke nails balance every time in drinks that sum up their parts as opposed to give you a series of waves of tastes. Take the Faerie's Tale, made of absinthe, gin, cucumber syrup, honey, lemon, egg white--nothing too unexpected, but then also--muddled green bell pepper and watercress. That green gives the drink a striking color greener than any absinthe could, but also grounds the drink, giving it a pleasing pepper core (that watercress is peppery too).

They like their farmers market, they do; take the Stolen from Eden, made with gin, snow pea, dill, basil, pink and black peppercorn, lime, and agave. I'm not sure exactly their process in juicing the veggies, or marinating them, or whatever the process, but they consistently manage to get flavor highlights that sparkle and please without ever getting any fibrousness, or even any of the off-characters a green pepper can bring to alcohol (just ask a winemaker with too much pyrazine in their cabernet).

And how could you go wrong with a Catcher in the Rye of rye, Amaro Nonino, hand-made honey and chamomile cordial, and peated scotch mist, or with a Paid Vacation of mezcal, tequila, hickory smoked pineapple, muddled cucumber, agave, habanero bitters, and fresh lime? These are drinks just familiar enough, but then even more complex than their more familiar cousins (chamomile! hickory smoked pineapple!).

They also garnish cleverly and inventively, with a pineapple frond in that Paid Vacation, a green pepper round in the Faerie's Tale, a basil leaf balancing pink peppercorns in the Stolen from Eden like a cocktail decked out early for Christmas.

And then we had to try this one, after realizing we were in the hands, and shakers, of masters--the Siren's Call of Ford's gin (that's the house gin), roasted seaweed, cucumber, squid ink, fresh ginger, with a smoked black sea salt rim, plus a mussel shell with a pearl that turned out to be rock candy. A bit murky in look but not as black as you might guess from the squid ink, it had a bracing oceanic oomph to it while still staying in balance, with the smoky notes helping--delightful firewater, you might say. Fascinating.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Figuring the Falls

Five days after the election that couldn’t have happened, I’m standing at the edge of the Great Falls in Paterson, NJ. It’s a subtly spectacular place, as befits New Jersey, 77-feet of drop. That’s enough to be second to Niagara east of the Mississippi as something, but still almost paltry, too. You have to keep sneaking up on it to see its widest spill, so at first it’s sort of ho-hum. But you also can’t miss the noise, the thud into thunder, the basalt’s back ever broken. It’s little surprise one might decide to turn its tune into a manufacturing hum. (We’ll get to Alexander Hamilton in a sec.)

Still, trying to wrap my mind around the words President-elect Trump, it’s easy to imagine my country tumbling down the cataracts that were the heart of the nation’s original industrial core, just as this city itself fell from manufacturing grace. Paterson might be the first oxidized stop on the Rust Belt if it hadn’t just kept accepting immigrants – the turn of the 20th century Italians gave way to African-Americans to Peruvians to Turks to Muslims from across the Arab world – it’s even nicknamed Little Ramallah. My guess is they didn’t vote Donald.

But of course at the right angle the Falls’ spray wisps into vivid rainbow, so there’s that. Always the soupçon of hope. Of course we’re visiting in the fall, so the Falls themselves are less great than they can be post winter run-off, but as a Californian now, a lack of water simply seems the norm. Everything American that should be abundant has seemed to run dry – care for others, community reaching to larger community, common sense, and out west, even water. Like the clouds can’t even bring themselves to cry for us.

But Paterson is a practical palimpsest of almighty America. It really was the cradle of U.S. industry, largely thanks to Hamilton’s vision and the elegantly named Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, shorted to the acronym SUM even though it didn’t quite fit (and somehow that’s American too). Lin-Manuel Miranda has done the rest of the work for Hamilton, of course, but as the National Parks pamphlet puts it, “In Paterson, Hamilton created what we have come to call the American Dream.”

The town was Silk City into the early 20th century, it manufactured so much fabric, looms zipping with hydro-power, immigrants finding jobs, owners wanting more and more. So, of course, strikes. These did not go well – police bashed strikers mostly fighting for an eight-hour day. And manufacturing got too good for workers, as even then they got replaced by machines, or their jobs got shipped south. Nobody made them any protected trade deals.

But there’s more, for also near the Falls sits Hinchcliffe Stadium, either a ruin or a National Trust for Historic Preservation rescue – only time will tell, although time might need to count on more private than public donations in the years ahead (does a Trump administration, led by a man who thinks things dipped in gold are the height of style, seem like a source for funds for preservation?). This decaying Art Deco stadium housed two different Negro Leagues teams over the decades, and was where Paterson-born Larry Doby, the first African-American to play in the American League, got his start.

And then there’s William Carlos Williams, as we, of course, need to add poetry to race to religion to labor to history to sing our American tune. Not only from the town, he penned a poem after it, nearly 250 pages long (in its final form). They let him have a quote painted on a wall across from the Falls, painted as tall as the Hamilton statue, although no Broadway show has extolled the dear doctor. Even I have to admit his Paterson is a tough literary nut to crack, despite so many wonderful runs in it. And now we’re to be led by this deeply unserious man, one for him reading a book seems Herculean, let alone poetry. Even the most erudite of presidents never got the country to love the word (did you know Jimmy Carter is interviewed in a documentary about James Agee, just as a fan?).

Have I said I was born here, too? Across Route 80, but our interstate system didn’t exist then, at St. Joe’s. And my dad long co-owned a machine shop in town, a perfect sort of US history circle – he, son of a coalminer, got his share knowing a family whose patriarch worked machine parts in the silk mills.

Why does it seem to me all this Paterson matters now? How could it not, a sum of all we’ve democratically dreamed. The question becomes does that dream look forward or back. Here’s how Williams put it:
Doctor, do you believe in
“the people,” the Democracy? Do
you still believe – in this
swill-hole of corrupt cities?
Do you, Doctor? Now?

                                     Give up
the poem. Give up the shilly-
shally of art.
And a bit later in the poem:
                          The fact
of poverty is not a matter of argument. Language
is not a vague province. There is a poetry
of the movements of cost, known or unknown .
That odd floating period of his. Must we wait to end? Or must the end wait for us?

We live in a land where many are pissed. The hopeless fly-over country that elitist me is not supposed to get. Yet I understand these people are tired of promises, especially since politicians haven’t even done that of late. So it’s easy for them to turn to the one who doesn’t really promise, as he has no plans. He just asserts, and all those not wanting to trek miles over a map – why should they go anywhere? – applaud the “you are there” they’ve felt they had and lost.

My fear is there’s something before the period, though.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Sound of Your Voice Yanks My Neck on Its Chain

Can't wait to see Neko Case, tonight, at UCSB Campbel Hall (thanks UCSB Arts & Lectures!). Even better, Eric Bachmann and Jon Rauhouse are opening--their duet album just out is lovely.

So here's a review I posted of a Case show--with Bachmann opening--back in 2007. I still feel the very much same.

It's hard not to half suspect if you see Neko Case live she won't be able to pull it off. If I have to explain "it" you just need to go listen--there's a reason her 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood floated onto so many album of the year lists, and that reason begins with her voice. It's one thing to list all the different folks it can suggest, from Patsy Cline here to Dusty Springfield there, but its sum is much more than any reference. Somehow she can intimately belt, draw you near and blow you away all at once. Of course there's beauty to it, but there's ever an edge, a bend or a smear of that perfect note, another woman's voice (and not just any woman, usually Kelly Hogan, a fine chanteuse herself) joining in to up the volume, ante up the angst. It's easy to imagine she pulls this off through studio trickery, or at the least through endless takes added up to get that seemingly simple effort (if I remember right, that's how they had to piece together Linda Thompson's vocal for "Walking on a Wire" on the incomparable Shoot Out the Lights, as she was suffering from panic/anxiety attacks).

Well, Case can do it live, folks, and how. This Saturday at the Henry Fonda in Los Angeles she performed a flawless set, to the point of running through back-to-back-to-back songs that would have been enough of a show for me: "Maybe Sparrow," "The Tigers Have Spoken," and "I Wish I Was the Moon." That's: a moving metaphor folk tune with some surprising force about how the world is tough for little things (and I didn't cry, but my throat lumped but good at song's end); a jangly (it's an overused term, but nothing fits that catchy guitar figure better) alt-rock song about how the world is tough for big fearsome but tender things; and a country torch and twang number about how the world is tough on Neko Case, but she can sure still belt about it. Those "be the one"s that repeat near the end of "I Wish"--how could any lover forsake her? Perhaps they are just too much need for one to survive in life, if not too much for performance, and it's a real danger to mix the two.

Opening act Eric Bachmann had the nerve to perform while so many concert-goers were trying to have conversations. It's a real shame, though, for Bachmann has put out many of the best songs of the past 13 years, first as the leader of Archers of Loaf (the Voidoids of the '90s), then as the major digit of Crooked Fingers, and now his first true solo album (and that's ignoring the two Barry Black discs that are terrific instrumental forays). He performed solo, but still projected, speeding up his acoustic-guitar based songs just a teensy bit. He's sort of become an American Richard Thompson 20 years younger--made his name in a band, writes great songs, plays electric and acoustic marvelously, has a voice that's not pretty (in Bachmann's case, think Neil Diamond's pipes bristled with Brillo), but matches perfectly with the songs. Plus he closed with "New Drink for the Old Drunk," one of the grandest wallows in recorded music.