Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Five to try

New York is a pizza town, but it's also a burger town, which is great because I'm a burger guy; click here and here for more on my burger adventures. I'm also a list guy, so it was fun reading this list of Alan Richman's Five Favorite Burgers in New York City. They are, in no particular order, burgers from Shake Shack, Big Nick's, Blue Smoke, Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien, and Peter Luger. I've had the Shack burger, which was almost as good as a burger from a true paragon of fast-food, California's In-N-Out, but not any of the others. (I did eat a steak dinner at Peter Luger many years ago, but I obviously have to return for the burger.)

Let's see how quickly I can go through Richman's list, shall we?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The loudest band in New York

I love free concerts. A free concert is like free food, except better, because when Ben & Jerry's gives away ice cream on Free Cone Day, you get a paltry, unsatisfying dollop of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough that lasts about three minutes on a hot day. A free concert is like an ice cream that lasts all evening. And depending on who's playing the show, you might end up with a natural high and a headache at the end of it, just like an evening-long ice cream.

The South Street Seaport is but one place in the city that you can see bands perform for free on a weekly basis. I wrote about the final show of last year's Seaport Music Festival here. Compared to last year's lineup (which included The National and Battles and Menomena and Au Revoir Simone), this year's list seemed less than exciting, but one band jumped right out at me: A Place to Bury Strangers.

You may never have heard them, but you've heard of bands like them -- bands whose reputation precedes them. I still remember one spring night in 2004 when I first heard of a band named Mute Math from my buddy Won. "You gotta listen to these guys," he said, handing me a demo CD. "They're probably the best band I've ever seen." Listening to the demo was like taking a shower on a weekday afternoon: unexpected and invigorating and optimistic.

In the case of A Place to Bury Strangers (APTBS), I'd heard one thing about them that's supposed to tell you everything you need to know about them: The Loudest Band in New York. Virtually every review I've read contains this description, but who can say who originated the phrase. Maybe the band made it up themselves. Maybe it's not important. But if you know me, you'll know that it's impossible for me not to seek out a band that lays claim to being the loudest in a city full of loud bands.


Apparently, this is a band so loud that the cops once shut down one of their shows, but not until an NYPD officer declared, "This band is sick."

So three Fridays ago, I went to see them at the Seaport Music Festival. The first opening band was Black Acid, who were just finishing their set when I got there. It's hard to feel bad about missing a band called Black Acid, so I didn't. Then the most bizarre band in the world took the stage -- a second opening act called King Khan and the Shrines. (Do not visit their Myspace page unless you're sure you want to.) These guys are so obscure they don't even have their own Wikipedia entry. It was their first show in the United States, apparently, so nobody knew any of their songs, but that didn't stop them from rocking out. They played a hyperactive blend of ska, '50s rock-n-roll, and punk, if you can imagine that. Oh yeah, they had a whole brass section. And a go-go dancer who belly-danced and waved gold pompoms on stage during the entire set. And their drummer had more facial hair than ZZ Top. And -- get this -- the lead singer was a foul-mouthed Indian man who sounded like Screamin' Jay Hawkins and looked like he'd just walked off the set of a Bollywood blockbuster.

This band was a menace to the public, who, against their better judgment, began dancing in the middle of Pier 17 like the maniacs dancing on the stage. King Khan was inscrutable and indefatigable and hilarious; for forty-five minutes, he whipped the crowd into an awe-struck frenzy of laughter and herky-jerky hopping.

Now, this was interesting. These guys were supposed to open for APTBS, which struck me as a tad dissonant. This became evident when, at about 8:30 PM, APTBS took the stage to a long, metallic rumble from lead singer/guitarist Oliver Ackermann. In my mind, there are three things to understand about Ackermann:
  1. He makes his own guitar pedals.
  2. He is the only guitarist on the band, which means he has to make the most noise.
  3. He does not interact with the crowd at live shows very much at all. He didn't even address us when the band started the set, which is not that weird once you realize that APTBS is just a shoegaze band that happens to play very loud music.
When APTBS really got going, things started getting dangerous and weird. Dangerous because the band really is, quite possibly, the loudest band in this city. Weird because a band that straddles the two genres of shoegaze and noise rock is bound to attract different kinds of people who may not necessarily get along with one another. This became clear when three young people who looked like they'd just stepped off a plane from the Glastonbury Festival began moshing in the front, bumping violently into people in the process. Two guys standing directly behind them decided that this was rude behavior and weren't afraid to say so, at which point the wild trio stopped just long enough to shrug their shoulders and went right back at it. This was weird because I'm not usually conflicted about what constitutes proper behavior at any given rock concert. I mean, when you're at a rock show, you rock out. But when you're at a shoegaze rock show, and the stage lights remain dim for most of the set, are you only supposed to gaze at the musicians gazing at their shoes?

At one point, the music was so loud that even the press photographers (who were standing behind the speakers, not in front of them) had to cover their ears. I have never covered my ears at a rock show before; to me, that's like closing your eyes if the view at a tropical beach becomes too beautiful. I looked around at the people standing next to me and 75% of them had their fingers in their ears. The other 25% looked back at me in a funny way, as if to say, "Our ears won't be okay in the morning, will they?"

APTBS played a blistering 40-minute set, during which Ackermann destroyed his red Fender Jaguar and then hurled it over his head by its strings. Then, with a muffled "thank you" and a rapid brightening of the stage lights, it was unceremoniously over. The crowd dispersed quickly, dazed and slightly disoriented.

I couldn't hear much for the next 24 hours.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Duck and hen

Tonight, I did two things I've never done before, and both were done at the Marshall Stack, a beer-and-wine bar in the Lower East Side. Hang on a minute, I asked incredulously the first time I heard of the place. There's an actual bar called "The Marshall Stack"? We must go there immediately! I mean, seriously: I can hardly think of a better name for a bar.

The first thing: I ordered a duck sandwich. I didn't do this blindly, in case you were wondering. Marshall Stack's duck club sandwich has been talked up by Gothamist as one of New York's standout sandwiches. It was delicious indeed -- a greasy assemblage of sliced duck breast, crispy bacon and Romaine lettuce drenched in horseradish sauce. I ate it standing at the bar. Price: $11.00.

The second thing I did tonight: I had an Old Speckled Hen. Not another sandwich, but an English ale. The Stack has an appropriately extensive and eclectic beer list -- even Sapporo is available -- but you just don't pass up the opportunity to try something called Old Speckled Hen. It turned to be a beautiful golden ale, with a caramel texture, if perhaps a tad too much sweetness. Delicious, nonetheless.

If it wasn't already obvious, the moral of today's blog post is: I'm a sucker for a good name.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Short notes: Fourth of July Edition

Some notes about this past weekend:
  • I attended no barbecues, witnessed no fireworks and barely saw any sunshine, but it still felt like a pretty decent Independence Day weekend. Usually, staying at home would hardly be an appropriate prescription for the long weekend, but I needed the rest, and the weather was terrible anyway. One thing helped: I bought a pack of hot dogs (not the nitrite-free kind that they sell at Whole Foods, but the ones made from floor sweepings -- you know, the really good kind) and had my own hot dog eating contest, in which I competed against myself. Okay, perhaps it wasn't as extreme as this one, but you have to understand that I don't eat many hot dogs any more, so this was a special thing for me.
  • Lesson learned the hard way: If you want the most satisfying hot dog-eating experience, never buy whole-wheat buns.
  • Summer time would seem incomplete without seeing a Will Smith film, so to honor the tradition, the wife and I saw Hancock. It was aight.
  • That reminds me of an idea I had for a blog called One Word Film Reviews. For example, the review for Wall-E would be: Heartbeeps.
  • On Thursday night, we went out with some friends to Corner Bistro, where I was out-eaten by a 98-lb film actress and out-guzzled by a Maori guy who named his dog after a New Zealand pale ale. Details will definitely not be forthcoming.
  • The weekend ended on a good note. By "good note" I mean that the Yankees beat the Red Sox 5-4 in extra innings tonight. Yes, I have officially become a Yankees fan.
  • And finally, a shout-out to my buddy over at Wonkitime who, along with his lovely wife and kids, took us to a Thai restaurant in the Upper West Side for lunch today. I ordered pineapple fried rice (with chicken) and spent the better part of two hours trying to figure out what made it taste so good. It didn't hit me until I was on the 2-train heading downtown, still licking my lips. We never used much of this in our kitchen growing up, but lots of Malaysians did: Maggi Seasoning Sauce.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Three New Yorks

Excerpted from "Here is New York" by E.B. White, written in 1948 but so true that it could have been written yesterday:
There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter--the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last--the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion. And whether it is a farmer arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh yes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company. ...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

When ballers play soccer

I'm not the regretful type, but today, I really wished I had a genuine Spalding basketball. You see, if I'd owned one, I could have brought it down to Nike Field in Sara D. Roosevelt Park this evening, whereupon the likes of Baron Davis, Jason Kidd, Leandro Barbosa and Steve Nash would have gladly signed their names on its bumpy leather surface.

Alas, all I had was a France national soccer team t-shirt, and Thierry Henry left before I could persuade him to autograph it.

See what I mean by regret? How often does Steve Nash organize a free charity football match in New York's Lower East Side in which some of the NBA's best players rub shoulders with international soccer stars like Henry, Salomon Kalou, Claudio Reyna, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman?

Okay, I'm not entirely disappointed. After all, I got to pat Baron Davis's sweaty shoulder (yes, I had to reach up to do so).

Maybe the problem was that I got there too late. The game started at 5:30 PM, and by the time I arrived, there were only ten minutes until halftime. It took me all of halftime to wriggle my way to the front of the crowd of several thousand who were clinging to the fence surrounding the field (if you've never seen an urban soccer field before, it's basically a small pitch with no bleachers and a twenty-foot fence on the perimeter).

Everyone stood to watch, but it was worth it -- some of the world's best athletes were playing the beautiful game right in front of us. Steve Nash, a wizard with any rolling object, scored multiple times, athletically so. Fellow Phoenix Sun Leandro Barbosa, aka The Brazilian Blur, was on the same team, playing a sport he must have seemed destined to excel at growing up until sidetracked by basketball (of all things). On the other team, Jason Kidd wasn't half bad, but Baron Davis was by far the weakest player, lumbering around in orange Reeboks, black-rimmed glasses and a baseball hat. To be fair, everyone seemed to be having fun, especially Davis, who jawed with the crowd amiably. And it was hilarious to watch basketball players out of context. That defender looks really familiar. Hey, that's because he's Raja Bell!

It almost goes without saying that the pro soccer players performed well, but Thierry Henry seemed out of it, despite hearing pockets of the crowd chant his name. Kalou was the most active, scurrying all over the pitch and playing give-and-go with Kidd.

At the end of regulation, I didn't even know or care what the final score was. The small crowd that was allowed to sit within the fence quickly rushed the field and surrounded the players, Sharpies and jerseys in hand. I squeezed through a hole in the fence and tried looking for Henry, but he'd already been whisked away into a large black SUV. If I'd gotten to the game earlier, I would have noticed the SUVs were the best place to wait for players post-final-whistle. Kidd and Nash were being mobbed, but since I had nothing for them to sign, I decided to leave. Baron Davis evidently had the same idea -- he walked out the gate just as I did. I didn't have anything for him either, so I simply patted him on the shoulder (twice), wiped my hand on the France t-shirt, and said, "Good game, Baron," as the mob implored Davis to move to New York and play for the Knicks.

Yes, I know what you are thinking, and it is true: I now have Baron Davis's sweat on my t-shirt. Yes, I am wearing it right now. Who needs Thierry Henry's autograph?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Yankee dandy

Man, I'm over the moon about this one: Last night, I went to my first Yankees game at Yankee Stadium, where, perhaps for the first time in years, I felt like a kid again.

It's the lights that got me. I arrived at the stadium, handed my ticket over, pushed through a turnstile, walked down a tunnel, and was suddenly confronted by a battery of white floodlights. Then I utterly forgot that it was raining, that I'd spent $5 just to check my bag in a locker, that I'd be spending many more dollars on hot dogs and chicken fingers and beer, that my seat was all the way in the upper deck. This was Yankee Stadium, the House that Ruth Built, the home of champions. Everything around me was a reminder of the dominance of the New York Yankees, the most successful North American franchise in professional sports history. I felt small and inexperienced and apprehensive. Do I belong here? I wondered. Do I know enough about the sport of baseball to enjoy this? Am I going to witness history tonight? Where are the bathrooms?

There's somewhat of a backstory to this. For most of my life, baseball had been nothing but a stereotype -- "America's favorite pastime" -- with impenetrable rules. About the only thing I knew was that a guy throws a ball, another guy hits the ball with a wooden bat and runs around a diamond, stepping on bases as he does so, and if he's lucky or good, he gets back to home plate and scores. But I knew virtually nothing else. I never had to; I grew up on the baseball-free island of Borneo, where the favorite pastime is watching American documentaries about Borneo just to laugh at the way Westerners pronounce "orangutan."

The last two years of my life I spent teaching myself the ins and outs of the game, mostly because I felt ashamed for being an American resident who was completely ignorant of baseball. [A similar shame prompted me to learn, among other things, the rules of American football, how to sing "America the Beautiful", and how to identify American Idol winners by hairstyle.]

I don't claim to know that much about baseball, but one thing I know is that you can learn an awful lot, even if you're as ignorant as I was, just by watching Yankees games on TV. So until last night, that's exactly what I'd been doing for two years.

But man, nothing beats going to a game in the Bronx. My co-worker and friend CSG had two free tickets and offered one to me, and even though I'd already made plans for the evening, there really wasn't a question of whether I should take the ticket.

The thing about baseball is that if it's raining hard enough, they'll delay the game, which is how we found ourselves sitting in a summer downpour waiting for the clouds to roll off. About an hour after the game was supposed to have started, a rainbow appeared over the stadium, and the sky cleared up. Game on!

If you really want to know how the game went, read the Associated Press recap here. I'm here to tell you about the things I didn't know from simply watching a game on TV:
  • The best deal on concessions is the chicken fingers, by far. I mean, they weren't cheap -- this is a pro sporting event, after all -- but they're a better deal than a $5.25 no-frills hot dog. Even the New York Times agrees somewhat. Here's a list of great ballpark food (go here and click on New York).
  • The beer sellers only call out "last call!" to get you to buy beer. They stuck around at least 45 minutes after "last call."
  • If you buy a bag of Cracker Jacks for $5.75, just give the vendor $6.00 and tell him to keep the change.
  • The people around us all seemed to know each other. At first, I thought they were one big family who'd come out to see the game together, but then I realized that they were all season-ticket holders and had come to know each other as neighbors.
  • During the rain delay, the stadium played "Soak Up the Sun" by Sheryl Crow over the PA system. It seemed like a cruel joke. But then they played some Springsteen and Sinatra and all was forgiven.
  • Women in the Bronx have really big chests. It sort of makes it hard for them to climb up to the nosebleed seats in the upper deck.
  • Yankee Stadium feels like it was built for champions. The outfield grass is immaculate. The upper deck rises sharply around the field, almost majestically, like walls of a canyon. Even I, a mere spectator, felt like a champ.
  • It was also thrilling to hear Bob "The Voice of Yankee Stadium" Sheppard announce the players over the PA, especially when he pronounced Derek Jeter's name. "Now batting for the Yankees... shortstop... number two... Derek... Jeetuh... number two."
  • It's sort of a cliché, but you know what else you can hear? The sound a bat makes when it smacks a ball out of the field for a home run -- one of the greatest noises in sports.
You know those Japanese or Singaporean or Filipino people who grow up listening to Elvis Presley and then decide in their old age to make a pilgrimage to Memphis just to see where The King lived and died? That's not how I felt when I went to Yankee Stadium. I didn't grow up watching baseball. I didn't even try to make it out to Yankee Stadium in the four years I've been in New York. I don't worship the likes of A-Rod and Jeter. Jorge Posada is not my favorite Puerto Rican.

But when the Yankees won the game, and Sinatra's "New York, New York" came booming out of the speakers, and thousands of jubilant New Yorkers sang along, I couldn't help but join in. It was a great day to be in the greatest city on earth.