5 Treasures: Cocktail Fights & Johnnycakes

16 Dec

The Finals

Tracy Latimer of jm Curley knocks out Ran Duan of Sichuan Garden in the final round

Best Event: Cocktail Fight

On a recent Monday night, Espolon Tequila and Nick Korn turned Union Square’s Precinct Bar into a COCKtial FIGHTING ring, complete with chicken wire and bookies in green visors collecting cock dollars. In a Speed Rack meets Iron Chef competition, 12 bartenders entered the ring to create delicious Espolon drinks featuring secret ingredients in record time.

The Competitors

The Competitors

While Tracy Latimer of JM Curley was busy knocking out Ran Duan of Sichuan Garden in the final round to clinch the belt, the rest of us were drinking Sangrita and eating Frito Chili Pie. Adding to the excitement was the ability to bet on bartenders to win swag. While my prediction proved right when the math fell apart in the end, that’s expected when the drinks are flowing.If I was looking to do an event, I’d hire Nick Korn. Since leaving behind the bar of Citizen Public House to start Off-Site, he’s the hardest working non-bartender in the business right now. “This event was predicated on the idea that cocktail competitions are stupid.  COCKtail FIGHT was the brainchild of the same people that brought us Remixology and was based on the same concept: that competitions should be fun and bartenders should have to put on a show,” Korn tells me.
Tracy Latimer of Jm Curley
In addition to upping the entertainment factor, Korn wanted to showcase great bartenders that usually skip cocktail competitions. “I wasn’t afraid to leave the city, and strove to highlight some of the amazing people fighting the good fight out in the suburbs (Brookline, Billerica, Lexington and Woburn were all represented).  The unintended consequence was that we ended up with a field in which no two competitors were from the same town.  I challenge you to point to another competition or other event where this has ever been true.” Keep an eye out for this event to go national next year!
Judge Jon of Beantown Drinks

Judge Jon of Beantown Drinks

Jon Berkowitz of Beantown Drinks served as one of the judges and gave me a typical Jon diplomatic quote that helps explain why I’m never asked to judge. “Cocktail Fights was more of a battle than a competition. All the competitors put on a great show and made some very tasty drinks. Judging a cocktail competition with such energy and improvised moments makes for a truly enjoyable event.”
MC Crazy Dan on Left

Left: MC Crazy Dan, a man who should never be given a microphone, a date, or an invitation to be among civilized company

The only thing I’d change about the event was the MC. Crazy Dan of Howl at the Moon was trying to get cheap laughs, but instead he confirmed how Howl at the Moon got named one of the douchiest bars in Boston. He resorted to very offensive and sexists remarks, such as when he was announcing that one of the two female contenders wasn’t going to make it to the next round. “Even though both girls are lovely and I’d take them home and do naughty things to both of them…” Luckily, Tracy is a professional and countered with piercing insults, but no one should have to put up with asshats like Dan. I got so fed up with Dan I had to leave for awhile to grab a drink at nearby cocktail sanctuary backbar. I returned because I wanted to see Tracy prove Dan wrong that a woman wasn’t going to make it to the final round because we weren’t “playing poker.” Mad respect to Tracy for winning it all with class.

Best Bite: Buttermilk Johnnycake at Neptune Oyster

Asians Taking Pics of Food

LA Son authors Roy Choi, Tien Nguyen, and Natasha Phan document the fresh uni in the window

With so many underrated dining spots in Boston, I find few places are worth the wait. Neptune Oyster is the rare exception, especially when you have good company visiting from out of town.

Natasha Phan and Roy Choi at Neptune Oyster

Pictures of Asians Taking Pictures of Food: Natasha Phan and Roy Choi clean their plates at Neptune Oyster

Friends Tien Nguyen of LA Weekly, Kogi maven Natasha Phan, and Chef Roy Choi were wrapping up their East Coast book tour of LA Son and celebrating a 45-minute NPR interview. After watching Roy cook up Korean braised short rib stew and ghetto donuts utilizing a can of Pillsbury dough for a roomful of students, he asked me where we should eat. He had dinner reservations for Island Creek Oyster Bar already, but I knew he wouldn’t mind another Boston seafood must-try.


Natasha Phan, Tien Nguyen, Me, and Roy Choi celebrating the release of LA Son so far from home

Lobster rolls, clam chowder, oysters… Chef Michael Serpa of Neptune Oyster blew us away. However, one dish I had never tried before stood out above the rest: the buttermilk Johnnycake with honey butter, smoked trout tartare, and California sturgeon caviar ($16). It was a treat listening to Roy dissect each dish and compare the transcendent experience of eating the best oysters in Boston to LA’s best tacos. Roy has one of the best Twitter feeds and is apparently “LA’s Street Food King” according to the NY Times, but he’ll always be known simply as Papi to those of us lucky enough to eat his food regularly in LA.

Roy Choi Cooking Demo

Roy Choi Making Ghetto Doughnuts from his book LA Son

Random Musing: Tasty Burger

Tasty Burger has got to be the most profitable restaurant in the city between 2 am and 4 am. The Harvard Square location of Franklin Restaurant Group’s fast food burger mini-chain is insanely packed as soon as the bars close. Next door bland burrito institution Felipe’s has been unsuccessfully gunning for this 4 am license for years because they know how profitable the drunk college kid market is. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve ended several nights at Tasty Burger, and started several too since they have a surprisingly hip craft beer bar downstairs complete with a pool table. It’s hard to say no to a “starving student special” featuring a burger, fries, and tall can of beer for $10.

Tasty Burger was hoping to change Central Square too, taking on Moody’s Falafal Palace as the best drunk food in the square, but the city wouldn’t grant it a liquor license. That was a deal breaker for Tasty. It’s a great option in Harvard Square, but it’s soon to have competition. I’m curious to see what will happen when Shake Shack opens in the old Om space. Sure, the opening of a location in Chestnut Hill didn’t catch fire, but Harvard students seemingly can’t get enough burgers. Charlie’s Kitchen and Tommy Doyle’s were already doing burger and beer combos, and Flat Patties nearby is still going strong, but Tasty Burger is the new it place.

I’m curious to see how well Shake Shack does. It will help that Tommy Doyle’s is closing next door and that Tasty Burger can take forever to move a line even with a large staff working. The real question: is there a demand for more expensive but higher quality burgers?  It reminds me of the In N Out vs. Shake Shack debate. I’ve always found the debate strange since you are comparing apples to oranges. Shake Shack uses superior ingredients, but is also a lot more expensive. I think Shake Shack is a superior burger, but I’ll always choose In N Out because it’s a better value.

Looking forward to seeing how the burger wars shake out when Shake Shack opens at 92 Winthrop St. later in December.

Best Drink: Far From the Tree at Backbar

Far From The Tree: Bols Genever, Berentzen apple liqueur, and bitter lemon syrup

Far From The Tree

When I took a break from Misogynistic Dan at the Cocktail Fight, I was rewarded with this delicious drink created by Joe Cammarata, Principal Bartender at Backbar. Featuring gin and apple liqueur, the drink marries the best parts of a classic martini and an “apple-tini.” Bar Manager and co-owner Sam Treadway tells me “the joke for the name was how it was quite quite different from a sour appletini inspiration.” I passed the time with a great conversation with Backbar’s Alice Serenska, and felt infinitely better by the time I finished the cocktail (ok, and a mezcal pickleback shot). Just another reason I consider Backbar my cocktail sanctuary.

Far from the Tree

2 oz Bols Genever gin
0.75 oz Berentzen apple liqueur
0.25 oz bitter lemon syrup*

stir ingredients with ice and then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. garnish with a lemon twist.
* bitter lemon syrup is made by steeping lemon wheels with sugar and water on low heat for 1 hour.

#DTO: Dueling DTOs at Park


Donnie Wahlberg Judges our Dueling DTOs

For the uninitiated, DTO stands for Daiquiri Time Out. This Boston phenomenon recognizes that whether you are having a rough day or celebrating, there is no bad time to take a break and enjoy a daiquiri. If you ask for a DTO, you may get a straightforward daiquiri featuring rum, lime, and simple syrup. Other times, your bartender might have fun with it by adding his or her own touch.

At the end of a Harvard Square mini-bar crawl, Jen Sutherland and I ordered dueling DTOs from Park Restaurant. She went with Berkshire’s Ragged Mountain Rum and I went with Privateer Rum, and we let Donnie Walhberg decide which local rum does it better.


The real winner? Donnie’s rattail

Monday Madness: 30 Under 30, Silvertone, Brick & Mortar, & Hong Kong Cafe

11 Dec


Bartender Kenny Belanger of Kirkland Tap Dances on Brick & Mortar’s Bar

Boston’s been my home for 16 months now. With only one semester left in my masters program, my future is uncertain. I’ve grown to love this peculiar town, and am not ready to leave. I owe most of this to the incredible people I’ve met in Boston’s hospitality industry. Even if my career takes me elsewhere, I won’t let it take me too far because a shot of Fernet and a pony of High Life just wouldn’t taste the same without the company of my Boston family.

I’ve recently ended a couple freelance gigs so I could spend more time writing about Boston bars, restaurants, and events. There are great things happening here and I want to do a better job of documenting and sharing it. I’ve gotten to the point where I’d rather write for free about people and places I love than scrape together a living from writing about whatever an editor tells me.

Monday December 9 was a great example of how grateful I am to be part of this scene. There were at least four major celebrations held all over the city.

Silvertone Industry Holiday Party

Brian Mantz at Silvertone Holiday Party

Brian Mantz unwraps his Secret Santa gift at Silvertone Holiday Party with pro photographer Drea Catalano

Brian Mantz of Angel’s Envy threw a lovely holiday party featuring ugly sweaters, a gift exchange, crab cakes, and lots of bourbon. Jen Sutherland of Berkshire Mt Distillers introduced me to a bunch of new folks that she worked with back in the day at the Beagle, but the real highlight was catching up with Silvertone owner Josh Childs for an hour. Those of you who know how busy and popular the man is, you know what a treat that is. In addition to being universally regarded as the nicest lifer in the business, Josh is one of the founding fathers of Boston’s craft cocktail scene, along with other legends like Brother Cleve, Misty Kalkofen, Jackson Cannon, John Gertsen, and Tom Mastricola. This holiday season, I’m thankful for spots like Silvertone and the Hawthorne that have great private rooms available for us to take over. It was a great party, but I felt a little bad for Brian because he planned this a month ago and attendance was less than expected because of the competition.


I didn’t mean for this to turn out so much like a Xmas card portrait. Jen Sutherland of Berkshire Mt., Josh Childs of Silvertone, Me, and Meaghan Murphy of Audbon (center)

30 Under 30
Zagat Boston threw a party honoring their 30 under 30. Several of my favorite young and talented bartenders were nominated: Katie Emmerson of the Hawthorne, Sabrina Kershaw of Franklin Restaurant Group, and Kevin Mabry of jm Curley. Also named were Neptune Oyster Executive Chef Michael Serpa and Andrew Foster of Fairsted Kitchen, two must-visit restaurants. Last year’s honorees included Patrick Gaggiano formerly of Trinas Starlite and now of Fairsted Kitchen, Heather Major of Hungry Mother,  Josh Taylor of West Bridge, and Sam Treadway of backbar.

Hong Kong Cafe
Others were enjoying a Tiki Monday at Hong Kong Cafe in Fenway, enjoying one last hurrah before the place closes. Eater’s Drew Starr was not in the mood to celebrate according to his twitter, “Too sad about losing my shitty Chinese delivery place of 15 years to be at the Tiki Hideaway farewell. #RIPHongKongCafe.” He added “Losing my shit over Hong Kong Cafe. My delivery for 15 yrs” and “Kind of weird people are nostalgic about a place most of them didn’t know existed.”

Evan, Kenny, John DJ B&M 2 Year

Guest DJs Evan, Kenny, and John Gertsen keep the party going

Brick & Mortar Two Year Anniversary

Every Monday evening, Brick & Mortar invites a guest DJ and creates cheeky drink specials for their “Spin the Bottle” series. This past Monday’s Spin the Bottle was extra special and chaotic thanks to the Central Square craft cocktail party spot celebrating their two year anniversary.

Get a Room

This couple refused to get a room, allll night

While John Gertsen was drinking Guinness, we were drinking “Jerkin Yo Gertsen,” a can of Coors Banquet and a Woo-Woo shot. As always, the music was on fire thanks to guest DJs Evan Harrison of Highland Kitchen, Kenny Belanger of Kirkland Tap & Trotter, and Gertsen of Drink. Brick and Mortar Bar Manager Matt Schrage also hosted special guests Joy Richard and Sabrina Kershaw of Franklin Restaurant Group.


The classy drink list signed by the guest DJs

IMG_9928-MOTION (2)

Me, Guest DJ Evan Harrison formerly of B&M & now Highland Kitchen, and drinking buddy Dr. Andrew Rausch

One Fund, Three Pigs, & 1 Scary Night

19 Apr


Andrea Novak, Bar Manager Ryan McGrale, Bruno Prado, and John Henderson

There’s nothing I can add to help convey how tragic this week’s events in Boston were, nor do I care to relive them. One thing that is worth further reflection is how the Boston community rallied together, presenting a strong and proud face to the world.


Chef Ian scoops out pig brains for happy guests

Not enough can be said about the great professionalism of the city’s law enforcement and emergency first responders. Neighbors, friends, and strangers provided material as well as emotional support to those in need. And to be honest, most of us were in need of emotional support.


Andrew Bosquet of High and Mighty Brew keeps everyone’s red cups full

Even though I have only lived in Boston since August, I’ve grown to love this peculiar city. While I love my classmates who are recent transplants from around the world, when shit hits the fan, I always seem to surround myself with cocktail and restaurant friends.

Last Thursday evening, I was exhausted – stress and sorrow can really wear a man down. However, I was so impressed that instant hit restaurant Tavern Road decided to host a fundraiser for The One Fund benefiting Boston Marathon victims, I mustered up the energy to cross the river to Boston.


Birthday boy Chef Sean happily shares cookies with full patrons, and here with Manager Graciele Maiden

I made the trek because it is important to be around family during trying times. When I looked at the Facebook event, I longed to see the many familiar faces. For those I didn’t recognize, the list appeared to be industry folks, and anyone willing to attend an 11 pm pig roast and drink Fernet cocktails for charity is someone I wanted to be around that night.


Thanks piggy – I’m a stress eater

Which brings me to my second reason for going. The $20 door donation got you unlimited access to three roasted pigs. Brian Wang greeted friend Maureen Hautaniemi of Lush Life with the juicy tip that pork cheeks was the cut to get. When I asked Chef Ian if he had any pork cheeks left, he looked around, shrugged, and said, “As long as you don’t mind fingers in your food.” He then proceeded to violently rip off the cheeks with his fingers, scraping up every tasty morsel. He then ripped off the snout, tossed it on my plate, and said, “Here, suck on this snout.” A lucky guest after me scored the brains. Now that’s hospitality.


Andrea Novak, Bar Manager Ryan McGrale, Bruno Prado, and John Henderson

Between money collected at the door and $5 drinks courtesy of Fernet Branca, High & Mighty, Dickel Rye, Jim Beam, and 90+ Cellars, the event raised over $7,000 for Boston Marathon victims.

Sadly, the tragic story continued to unfold during the fundraiser. After friends Drew Starr, his fiancee Rachel, Maureen, and TJ Connelly all said goodbye, I decided to head to the bar and close my tab. There was something unsettling about seeing TJ, in many ways the heart, or at least the beard, of the Boston cocktail community look shaken and a little lost. I was ready to get home to Harvard Square.


Dan Lynch of the Hawthorne gets the dance party started

As I was waiting to close out, my phone went berserk. I got text after text, from new friends, loved ones, and several from my LA cocktail family. The first one read: “Stay inside. Something is happening in Harvard. There are talks about grenades. Don’t come back. Tell everyone.” I was startled, but I looked around at the people around me, and felt grateful. I knew I was better off here than alone in my Harvard Sq. apartment.


Nothing goes to waste

With bartender Jason Cool of Citizen, I was able to alternate between expressing my anxiety and distracting myself with talk of trivial things like the under-appreciation of blue cocktails (he’s going to hate me for calling that trivial). I got to admire Nicole Lebedevitch of The Hawthorne’s fabulous new look, short hair just in time for Spring. I got to enviously watch an especially generous Dan Lynch, also bartender at The Hawthorne, dance the night away. I was moved by how Becca Jane and Andrew Bosquet of High and Mighty Brew were so happy to be able to contribute to the event, and joyously joined in a rendition of “Sweet Caroline” with bartender Steve Schnelwar.

Even John Gertsen stopped by for a nightcap after closing cocktail sanctuary Drink across the street. I also got to admire Tavern Road’s great service despite the crowds, and the hustle of the talented bartenders. I’m not at liberty to say much, but I must admit that bar manager Ryan McGrale has better intelligence contacts than anyone I know, and I go to a government school.


Ezra & Jason Cool of Citizen Public House sharing his love of blue cocktails

By 2 am, I had little choice but find my way home. Eventually I found a cab driver to take me home, but unfortunately he tried to drop me off at MIT instead of my apartment. As I passed countless police cars and a couple crime scenes, I couldn’t help but feel a little disquieted. However, as I hid safely under the covers, and listened to the endless parade of police sirens (which I must admit did make me oddly homesick for LA), I felt grateful that I experienced this tragic evening with a generous and loving group of people.

Tavern Road
343 Congress St
Boston, MA 02210

A Beer Cocktail to Celebrate Boston Beer Week

11 Mar

Privateer Rum distiller Maggie Campbell enjoys a beer cocktail at Park

Privateer Rum distiller Maggie Campbell enjoys a beer punch at Park

Happy Boston Beer Week!

Bars and restaurants are finally tapping those special kegs they’ve been hoarding for weeks, so it’s time to ignore that Smuttynose 6-pack you got at Trader Joe’s and try something new. Here is a schedule of events to entice you, or just search #BOSBW on Twitter.

Beer Punch at Park

I couldn’t wait to kick off my Boston Beer week, so I started a day early at my go-to bar next to school, Park in Cambridge. I was grabbing drinks with Privateer Rum distiller Maggie Campbell, who will be supplying the rum punch on Mar. 18 for the unparalleled art fundraising organization Opus Affair

After interrogating the always delightful Chris Balchum on what kegs they were planning to tap for beer week, he surprised me with one of the best beer cocktails Maggie and I have ever had. It featured two of Ipswich’s finest exports: Privateer Amber rum and Notch Brewing Saison. Chris said it was a riff on a previous beer cocktail creation by Park Bar Manager Chris Olds. Here’s the recipe  

1.5 oz Privateer Amber Rum
3/4 oz King’s Ginger
3/4 oz lime
1/4 oz Limoncello
1/2 oz cinnamon syrup
Notch Saison

Celebrating Beer Week at Deep Ellum

Before heading to the Veronica Falls and Cold Showers concert at Allston’s Great Scott, I stopped by Deep Ellum for a few special pints. I started with one of my absolute favorite beers, Lost Abbey Deliverance. It’s the perfect blend of Brandy Barrel Angel’s Share and Bourbon Barrel Serpent’s Stout, and goes down way too easy for 12.5% ABV. Staying in the barrel aged family, up next was Firestone Walker’s Sucaba, a barrel aged barley wine at 13% ABV. I completed my California trilogy with Stone’s Enjoy By IPA. This batch wasn’t quite as hoppy as previous entries I’ve tried in Stone’s Enjoy By ultra-fresh IPA series, but enjoyable in its own right. Since Deep Ellum is one of the few spots in this city offering sours on tap, I finished the evening with a Brouwerij 3 Zwet.Be, a Belgium Porter sour. Maybe it was the high ABVs talking, but I felt like I was in (beer) heaven.

If you are interested in trying the Sucaba, Lower Depths in Boston’s Kenmore Square is tapping a keg for a beer social on Tuesday Mar. 12.

Any Boston Beer Week highlights you’ve had or are looking forward to?

Boston Art Museum Preview

26 Feb

It may already be February, but it’s not too late to resolve to make art a bigger priority in 2013. Below are four suggestions to start you off on the right cultural footing:

MFA Boston

testino - demi-moore-nude

Mario Testino photograph of Demi Moore

As you embark on your journey to explore Boston’s eclectic cultural offerings, The MFA Boston will serve as your home base. We are fortunate to have the fifth most visited museum in the US right across the river. If you’ve never explored the expansive museum, it’s worth reserving a full day just to explore the permanent collection. As you’d expect from one of the largest museums in the US, the permanent collection of 450,000 objects covers everything from the ancient to contemporary, textiles to musical instruments, and a comprehensive look at artistic achievements from every corner of the globe.

If your heart is set on seeing many of the MFA’s most iconic masterpieces, however, you may leave disappointed. As is common practice, the museum has lent several works to other museums to flesh out special exhibitions. That’s not all that is missing, however. Joining other exalted museums including the Phillips Collection in DC and most recently the Baltimore Museum of Art, the MFA Boston is engaging in what is shamefully becoming too common place: renting paintings to private companies and institutions for large sums of cash.  Select works are already back on the walls, but between the loans to other museums and the revenue-raising leases to private companies, don’t expect to see all of your favorites.

Fortunately, the MFA Boston has several worthwhile special exhibitions to keep you busy. From 1900 until the widespread adoption of radio and the telephone, Americans and Europeans went crazy for postcards. For The Postcard Age, curators selected 400 of the 100,000 postcards in the Leonard A. Lauder collection to illustrate why so many people became obsessed with collecting these tiny canvases.

While many famous artists at the time produced postcards, the exhibit’s charm comes from seeing how many uses were found for postcards. From the commercial (advertising Dutch railway schedules and trying to sell home electronics to women) to the political (one work depicts a little girl sitting on her father’s lap asking, “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?,” others compel patriots to buy war bonds), the exhibit attempts to shine a spotlight on the forgotten postcard craze.

Also worth your time is “Art in the Street,” a look at the original street art. At the same time Europe experienced the postcard craze, it went through “poster mania” with colorful posters advertising consumer products at the turn of the century. Be sure to take advantage of the rare opportunity to see Cezanne’s The Large Bathers, on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

If you missed the electrifying fashion photography exhibit “Mario Testino: In Your Face,” which I’m assuming most of you did since attendance was disappointingly low until the very last weekend, his portrait series of the British Royal family is still on view. It may not be quite the same experience as seeing larger-than-life prints of nude celebrities like Demi Moore and Naomi Campbell (full disclosure: this was the first time I’ve ever been aroused at a museum), but it will serve as a useful introduction to one of today’s most important photographers.

Even if you have an allergy to paintings and sculptures, the MFA can offer you a month-long retrospective of the films of legendary director Stanley Kubrick including “Dr Strangelove” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Finally, I’m tempted to remind you not to miss the Dale Chihuly sculpture in the lobby, but considering the icicle tower is 40 feet tall, weighs 10,000 pounds, and is lime green, you won’t have a choice but to pass by it. The MFA Boston is free for Harvard students.

465 Huntington Avenue, Boston

Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

David Hammons, "How Ya Like Me Now?," 1988. Photo courtesy of John Kennard/ICA

David Hammons, “How Ya Like Me Now?,” 1988. Photo courtesy of John Kennard/ICA

While the MFA requires several full days to do every gallery justice, the ICA asks for just an hour or two of your time. This Seaport District contemporary art museum has produced exciting shows such as the first solo museum exhibitions of street artists Shepard Fairey and Os Gemeos, but only a small fraction of the building is dedicated to displaying art.

In addition to offering one of the best views of Boston’s Seaport, visitors will be treated to the first major US museum retrospective exploring the art of the 1980s. This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics doesn’t shy away from hot button political issues such as the HIV/AIDs crisis, globalism, and the dominance of mass media. Among the 90 artists on display are Robert Maplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, Keith Harring, and Jeff Koons.

You’ll get the most out of your ICA visit if you attend First Fridays on Mar. 1, two days before the 80’s exhibit closes. For $15, you’ll be treated to a screening of Oscar-nominated short films, invited to roam the galleries, and be rewarded with pizza and popcorn in the café. Advanced reservations are recommended.

100 Northern Avenue, Boston

SoWa Artist Guild

If you prefer to peruse contemporary art while juggling a glass of wine in one hand and a cheese plate in the other, then make your way to the South End on the first Friday of each month. Over 60 artists in the SoWa Artist Guild open their doors monthly from 5-9 pm to bring the art-loving community together. During February’s event, not only was I impressed by the breadth of local talent, but delighted by the extensive opportunities for people watching. Impromptu tango classes anyone? Best of all, the affordable and essential Boston restaurant Myers + Chang is a mere two blocks away if you didn’t fill up on free cheese.

450 Harrison Ave, Boston

Ed Ruscha Standard

Ed Ruscha, “Standard Station” (1966)

Rose Art Museum

Asking students to leave Cambridge’s comforting bosom to make the quick jaunt into Boston is a tough enough sell, but students willing to make the 45 minute journey by train to Brandeis University will be rewarded with a stellar retrospective of Ed Ruscha. This comprehensive survey spanning the 60 year career celebrates one the most prominent living artists with 70+ paintings, photographs, prints, and films drawn from the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). You are guaranteed to leave with a better understanding of how this artist closely associated with Pop Art and Los Angeles continues to influence architecture, graphic design, and modern art. Admission is free for the general public.

415 South Street, Waltham

Avi Roth: Coffee as Art

26 Feb

Dinner and theatre, whiskey and female rock bands, art and extreme sports. When two of my favorite things are combined, I sit-up and take notice. That’s why I just had to see what artist Avi Roth was doing with coffee.

For Roth, coffee doesn’t just fuel his creativity – it’s his medium. About the process from Pardon my French, who presented Roth’s work to benefit the Armory Center for the Arts in my native LA:

“Artist Avi Roth uses coffee as his medium to create truly iconic images. Coffeegraph® – the process of applying coffee grinds and coffee by-products as organic pigment without a binder to solid and porous surfaces by way of staining, layering and water burning. Subsequently the artwork is converted into digital data, from which limited edition impressions are reproduced by various printing methods. Coffegraphs are storytellers, communicating images of imagination that engender contemplation between the seen and unseen, between thought and feeling.”

Avi Roth’s own site waxes poetic about our special relationship with coffee:

“For centuries, the most intimate kind of conversations has taken place over a cup of coffee. In many urban centers around the world, from the coffee houses of London and the terraces of Rome to the bohemian haunt of the Latin Quarter in Paris, intellectuals, lovers and dreamers came to share their feelings and secrets. We will never know their discourse, but the spirit of reticence lingers deep in the coffee cups that brought them together. When those precious moments were over, the spell was broken and memories were wandering in the obscure and distant valleys.

“Through an encounter of events and with the passion, creativity and aesthetic sense of an artist, Avi Roth has connected with those wandering memories and created with them his own dimension of personal space and creative expression. It has become his canvas. A canvas of tales conveyed by forces of nature.

“Hidden at the bottom of every coffee cup is an image of what was. The swirls and patterns of coffee reveal the secrets veiled by time through a silent language of their own. It took the creative genius of Avi Roth to discern these hidden messages and become the pioneering liaison of a new universal vocabulary. Roth, a graduate of the London Film School and an international photographer of unique and extravagant objects, was drawn to these quaint formations, and after years of rumination he began to understand how to channel them into a space of light and shadow. Hence, preserved is the language of Coffeegraph®.”

Can’t wait to gaze at Avi Roth’s work in person and contemplate where my life would be without coffee and art. In the meantime, I’ll be at Voltage Coffee & Art in Kendall Square.

Star Power Illuminates “The Glass Menagerie”

16 Feb

The Full Cast of the Glass Menagerie (Image courtesy of A.R.T.)

The Full Cast of the Glass Menagerie (Image courtesy of A.R.T.)

A version of this review previously appeared in The Citizen newspaper

This may come as a bit of a shock, but in the 32-year history of the American Repertory Theater, the celebrated pillar of the local theatre community has never staged a Tennessee Williams play. Armed with some serious star power thanks to Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield and Zachary Quinto as her son Tom, Tony Award-winning director John Tiffany is delivering the production of William’s most autobiographical play Cambridge has been waiting for.

Neither Jones (Awake, Ocean’s Twelve, 24) nor Quinto (Heroes, Star Trek, 24) are strangers to traversing between the stage and small screen. The challenge and inimitable beauty of live theatre, especially one featuring a small and talented cast, is recognizing that the audience’s own experiences and openness to emotionally engage allows for a play set in 1937 to feel fresh and urgent.

Sometimes an audience member’s ability to draw upon personal perceptions and experiences can work in an actor’s favor. From Amanda’s elegant dresses that have seen better days, to the way her tired hair struggles to maintain its curls while she effortlessly strings together a series of biting criticisms, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own grandmother.

Born in 1920’s Winona, Mississippi, my Grams will never let you forget that she’s a true Southern Belle, representing the last of a dying breed even though life hasn’t always been so kind to her. Just as Amanda exhumes a faded, ostentatious dress from her charmed youth when expecting company, my grandmother still primps for hours and talks wistfully of her modeling days before heading to her job as a WalMart greeter.

Watching Jones gracefully float across the cramped apartment, I can see why Tiffany was so insistent on recruiting her. There are few actresses still in the game who grew up among these larger than life Tennessee matriarchs, and it’s quite the coup that Jones agreed to come to Cambridge.

Conversely, the audience’s previous experiences can give an actor an unfair disadvantage. Quinto delivered a solid performance, but as he lurked in the shadows generously provided by gifted lighting designer Natasha Katz, I wanted to shout “Watch out Laura! Sylar is about to cut open your head!” Fortunately, I think a majority of the audience remembers him from the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot, and unless Quinto throws on some pointy ears, there’s no confusing the tumultuous Tom with the stoic Spock.

As Tom warned in the opening monologue, the play shifts tone when he brings home a coworker (Brian J. Smith) to meet his sister Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger). “Being an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from,” the Gentlemen Caller’s unbridled charisma brightens up the drab apartment. As he attempts to psychoanalyze the emotionally crippled Laura, the chemistry between the two is undeniable.

The strong cast worked well together, but the true star of the play was the set designed by Bob Crowley. The one constant throughout the play is an imposing and winding fire escape that serves as a constant reminder that restless Tom is forever trapped in this suffocating apartment because of his love for his sister. This beautiful sculpture dominates the sparse set, and wouldn’t look out of place next to the Chihuly currently in the MFA Boston’s lobby.

Besides the rare but distracting line flubs, first by Jones and the next night by Smith, there’s little to criticize. Instead, I’m compelled to consider the missed opportunities. Tom emphasizes the surrealist nature of the play at the very outset, “Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings.” The illusion of Laura seamlessly slipping through the couch to enter and exit the stage reminds us that each character eschews the real world in favor of the safety of their preferred illusions – going to the movies for Tom, glass animal figurines for Laura, and Amanda constant retelling of the time when she received 17 gentlemen callers in a single day. I’m glad the focus was on the strong performers and the script by Williams, but perhaps too much restraint was shown and a few more whimsical touches would have further developed the memory play theme.

Another unexploited opportunity was utilizing the placid reflecting moat meant to emphasize how the characters and apartment exist only in memory. Considering how much effort must have been spent on creating a reflecting pool with black goo, a few more risks by the director could have made this a definitive production of this iconic Williams’ play.

Fortunately, the Loeb Drama Center isn’t afraid to take a few risks by allowing audience members to enjoy a cocktail from their seats. As an agitated and inebriated Tom stumbles about, you will be grateful you got that Berkshire Mountain Corn Whiskey on the rocks so you can get in the spirit and toast to a praiseworthy production.

The Glass Menagerie at the Loeb Drama Center runs through March 17. Tickets available at ART.

‘The Nutcracker’ Gets a Dazzling New Paint Job by the Boston Ballet

10 Dec

The Nutcracker Prince's Kingdom by Robert Perdziola

The Nutcracker Prince’s Kingdom by Robert Perdziola (illustration courtesy of Boston Ballet

A version of this review previously appeared in The Citizen newspaper

I’m not sure why I originally decided to see Boston Ballet’s new production of The Nutcracker at the Boston Opera House. It’s never been a favorite of mine, but perhaps I wanted to be there opening night to experience the unveiling of the much buzzed about new costumes and sets.

Lately, I’ve gravitated towards bold, modern, and masculine ballet. The most powerful theatre experience  I experienced this year was the West Coast premiere of Benjamin Millepied, of Black Swan and Mr. Natalie Portman fame, choreographed performances by Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève and featuring Marc Jacobs costumes.

How would an old standby like the Nutcracker compare? As the nights get colder, I was craving something to jumpstart my first New England winter holiday season. By this measure, The Nutcracker was a wild success. In a way, it is a sleeker, bolder Nutcracker. With the old sets and costumes put out to pasture after 17 long years, and mostly new choreography by Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen, this reliable holiday ritual has a dazzling new paint job.

Calling sets jaw-dropping is normally a hyperbolic crutch for hungover reviewers on a deadline, but my mandible really did come dangerously close to becoming unhinged once Robert Perdziola’s brilliant set was fully unveiled. It enabled me to recapture the holiday spirit and innocent joy I first experienced when I saw the Nutcracker 18 years ago.

Mouse King by Robert Perdziola (illustration courtesy of Boston Ballet

Mouse King by Robert Perdziola (illustration courtesy of Boston Ballet

With over 200,000 jewels used in the costumes, they definitely sparkle, but they act to accentuate the dancer’s elegant movements, not conceal them like many Nutcracker pageants as ballet you’ve experienced. Nissinen’s new choreography admirably attempts to return more focus to the dancers in the second half, but the dancing never quite shines as bright as the costumes and sets. Surprisingly, the strongest performances were by Brittany Summer and Lasha Khozashvili in the Arabian dance featuring old choreography. Fortunately, the quaint racism of the Chinese dance was kept short.  Other performances were fine, but never soared.

As much as I appreciated the efforts to update and reimagine, we can’t lose focus that it is still the Nutcracker. Every time a child did a little twirl on stage or a dancer completed a simple lift, the crowd erupted into applause. The Nutcracker is like catnip for white people. You probably already know if you want to see it. If you equate the Nutcracker with the holiday season and go every year, you won’t be disappointed. Ballet-lovers seeking something daring and fresh, wait until March when Boston Ballet brings three iconic works by Czech-Nederland’s choreographer Jirí Kylián. For the rest of us, it’s like an old book you pull off the shelf every five years. With even the Opera House’s lobby bursting with boughs of holly, this new edition is worth a reread.

The Nutcracker runs through December 30, 2012 at the Boston Opera House. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased online or over the phone at 617.695.6955. A limited number of student rush tickets are available for each performance.

Music Monday Mixtape: Turkey Drop Edition

26 Nov

“Take Care of Yourself” – a projection of a breakup email received by artist Sophie Calle

It’s been four months since I started graduate school and I’m still adjusting. Not only is the life of a grad student quite different from my several years in the 9-5 cubicle life (how I miss those paychecks!), but differences between an undergraduate education at a public behemoth like UCLA and the experience of a grad student at an Ivy League deserves a blog of its own.

One thing that hasn’t changed from my transition from undergrad on the West Coast to grad school on the East Coast is the Turkey Drop. If you’ve never experienced the time-honored tradition of the Turkey Drop, it is when someone in a relationship starts school, and after months of struggling with the distance, the relationship ends when the couple reunites for the first time around Thanksgiving. I remember being trained as a Resident Assistant at UCLA on how to deal with an influx of breakups among my residents.

Sadly, several of my beautiful and brilliant friends went home this past weekend fearing that they would fall victim to this phenomenon. Knowing that words can only do so much, I decided to make a mixtape. Before I joined the indie masses scouring Pitchfork for music news (and to a lesser extent Paste), I wasted countless hours of my youth on AbsolutePunk.net whose mantra is “Music Mends Broken Hearts.” With that universal truth in mind, here are 30 songs to help you on the road to recovery.

Download the mixtape here

The above image is by French artist Sophie Calle who received an unexpected breakup email from her lover. She didn’t know how to respond to the letter, so instead she gave the letter to 107 woman of different professions and asked them to interpret it in their own way. It resulted in a dancer interpreting the letter through dance, a teacher correcting the letter’s spelling, and a secret service analyst encoded the letter, etc…

In Sophie’s in words, “I received an email telling me it was over. I didn’t know how to respond. It was almost as if it hadn’t been meant for me. It ended with the words, ‘take care of yourself’. And so I did. I asked 107 women, chosen for their profession or skills, to interpret this letter. To analyze it, comment on it, dance it, sing it. Exhaust it. Understand it for me. Answer for me.  It was a way of taking the time to break up. A way of taking care of myself.”

To my friends near and far who are experiencing heartbreak, please take care of yourself and remember that I’m always there for a hug or a stiff drink.

Weekend Reading: Nov. 23, 2012

23 Nov

Damien Hurst Skull

For the Love of God by Damien Hurst: A real skull with 8,601 diamonds


Gold, Golden, Gilded Glittering: Representations of Value, or the Unexpected Double History of Banking and the Art World

This brilliant piece about high art and finance by Sarah Lawrence College Professor Rachel Cohen is lengthy, but the best thing I’ve read this week.

“Suddenly people began to see paintings as representations not only of age-old values but of future values. And once they began to look at them that way, it mattered less how much time they’d withstood the test of. What people became interested in was not what the pieces were worth a hundred years ago but what they might be worth tomorrow. All through the twentieth century, prices for contemporary artwork were rapidly catching up to prices for works by old masters. Now, the first time a Damien Hirst is sold, the price is at a level only the greatest works of the past have achieved after being sold and resold for a century or more.”

Diversify or Die: Why the Art World Needs to Keep Up With Our Changing Society by Ben Davis at Art Info

“Among those who frequented art museums, a stunning 92 percent identified as white, and only 16 percent identified as a minority… It would represent a huge failure of vision, however, if art were to remain confined to just the cultural group that originated it, and could never transcend this context… Culture at its best should be about the dialogue by which diverse strands of thought become relevant to diverse people, and that is a matter of actively connecting art to the realities of people’s diverse lives. Right now our cultural sector seems to be failing at that mission, to its own detriment.”

Bruno Munari on Design as a Bridge Between Art and Life by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings

“The designer of today re-establishes the long-lost contact between art and the public, between living people and art as a living thing. … There should be no such thing as art divorced from life, with beautiful things to look at and hideous things to use. If what we use every day is made with art, and not thrown together by chance or caprice, then we shall have nothing to hide.” Bonus: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Hollywood Bowl



9 Musicians Discuss Chronic Illness by Max Blau at Paste

Patrick Stickles, lead singer of one of my favorite bands Titus Andronicus, discusses his struggle with Selective Eating Disorder. There are 1,400 known cases of SED and the cause is unclear. He’s eaten the same 15-20 foods in his life and “I have never eaten a meal that was not a disgusting chore.” Is it a disease of the brain, a response to manic depression, or a result of his parents hiding Ritalin in his food when he was four years old?

“For example, Selective Eating Disorder is my disease, but the practicality of living with it has resulted in me having certain bulimic tendencies. How does that work? Well, you remember how I said my eating disorder makes eating, even eating my ‘favorite’ foods, a waking nightmare? Well, that leads me to put off doing it for as long as I can. The fact is, though, my body knows it needs food, so when I do finally open up the gullet, usually well after midnight, my body says, ‘At last!’ and next thing I know, I am at the tail-end of a full-blown binge, and physics being what they are, you can only binge for so long until you purge.”

Watch Titus Andronicus perform “Food Fight!” and “My Eating Disorder” in a Brooklyn Pizza shop

The Best Cocktails of 2012 by Tasting Table

Some great recipes in there, including the Fino Swizzle by Boston’s The Hawthorne.

Every Dollar Oyster in Boston by Eater Boston

This article sells itself. I see copious amounts of oysters in my future.
News and Policy

King David: Why Generals Shouldn’t Run the CIA by Stanford Professor Amy Zegart

“The American military prides itself on having a hierarchical, can-do culture. When the boss gives an order, subordinates are expected to follow it, no matter how great the odds of success or how dangerous the circumstance… The CIA has a different cherished value: speaking truth to power. Analysts and collectors are supposed to present information and assessments even if they know the boss won’t like it. No one salutes inside Langley…

It is also telling that Petraeus didn’t sleep with just any woman. He slept with his ‘biographer,’ someone he knew would be likely to write hagiography. Broadwell had no writing credentials but plenty of hero worship. That should have raised some red flags as well as eyebrows: A man who selects someone so unqualified to speak the truth of his own life might have difficulty speaking truth to power or rewarding others who do.”

Napster, Udacity, and the Academy by Clay Shirky

Napster disrupted the music industry, and the music industry never adapted. Will higher education adapt to cheap online education?

“Higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup.

We have several advantages over the recording industry, of course. We are decentralized and mostly non-profit. We employ lots of smart people. We have previous examples to learn from, and our core competence is learning from the past. And armed with these advantages, we’re probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did.”

No Laughing Matter: A Look at the European Debt Crisis Through Cartoons a video by PBS
“Lee Buchheit, a lawyer who helped mastermind Greece’s debt restructuring earlier this year, and investor Hans Humes explain the wrangling behind-the-scenes of Europe’s debt crises to economics correspondent Paul Solman, all with a little help from some cartoonists.”

States as Laboratories for Marijuana Policy by UCLA Professor Mark Kleiman at SameFacts.com

“But those of us who try to study the issue scientifically find ourselves in a world of doubt. How much lower would legal prices be than current illegal prices? If there were heavy taxes, how much evasion would there be? Would buyers in a legal market favor possibly more dangerous high-potency varieties, or would lower-strength products dominate the marijuana market as beer dominates the alcohol market? Would legalization greatly increase problem marijuana use? Use among teenagers? (That might depend on the price.) Would there be an increase in auto accidents due to stoned driving? Would problem drinking decrease – or increase – as result?

All of those questions matter. None of them can be answered by abstract reasoning, or by studying small variations in marijuana policy such as decriminalization of possession for personal use. The only way to find out how legalization would work in practice is to actually try it.”

Can the 24/7 Sobriety Project Reduce Problem Drinking and Improve Public Health? by RAND’s Beau Kilmer

“Alcohol consumption can impose enormous health and safety costs on individuals and society. Problem drinkers account for a disproportionate share of these costs. Although millions of problem drinkers pass through the criminal justice system each year, reducing their alcohol consumption has proven difficult.

South Dakota’s innovative 24/7 Sobriety Project requires those arrested for or convicted of alcohol-involved offenses to take twice-a-day breathalyzer tests or wear a continuous alcohol monitoring bracelet. Those who fail or skip their tests are immediately subject to swift, certain but modest sanctions—typically a day or two in jail.”