Some sad news. Another great retro spot is biting the dust.
Good news. The St. Louis Media History Foundation’s new exhibit at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum is now open. And it’s about food. We – I’m on the board of the Foundation and I helped curate this exhibit – are showing off some fascinating and sometimes quite handsome stuff from the Foundation’s collection.
Most of what we have is advertising from local companies, some forgotten and some still very much with us. We’ve got a loop playing of a cooking program from the early days of St. Louis radio. There are some restaurant ads, some blowups of newspaper stories and covers of magazines.
It’s a lovely building, although, alas, not wheelchair-accessible. The room that the Karpeles has given the Foundation is air conditioned, another plus.
St. Louis Media History Foundation Room
Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum
3524 Russell Blvd
Tues.-Sun. 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
The boys from Jersey are back. Nah, it’s not the guys from the Bing. It’s Frankie Valli and his pals who made up the Four Seasons, in “Jersey Boys”, currently enthralling folks at the Fox. For my peers, it’s the soundtrack of our youth.
The show was here two years ago, but this version turned out to be worth a return visit. The music itself, from the four principals and the orchestra – which is what most of us would refer to as a band including a brass section that’s featured – is particularly well done. It’s the tale, abbreviated and adjusted with dramatic license, of how the group came and how they went. Valli, of course, went on to have a solo career using band member-composer Bob Gaudio’s songs.
These are middle-aged guys looking back (although some look younger than others), which is a nice casting choice. All eyes are on the Valli character, who’s Aaron de Jesus, feisty and with a fabulous voice, nailing the falsetto that made Valli’s reputation. Matthew Dailey’s Tommy de Vito, who founded the group, easily flashes back and forth between charming and not-so-much. Gaudio, played by Drew Seeley, is a much quieter guy than the first two, but clearly brilliant – he’d written a #1 hit before he was 16 – and Seeley carries his self-assurance like it’s in his genes. The bass in the group, a key player in the doo-wop-ish songs that they began with, Keith Hines as Nick Massi, charms from start to finish, occasionally bringing a touch of Jack Nicholson to the role. The harmony in their singing and the group interaction is mirror-smooth.
A warning: When you can’t understand the opening scene, it’s not the Fox sound system. It’s in French. Otherwise, things were under good control in that department. The set, simple steel piping with lots of room to roll furniture in and out, from Klara Zieglerova, works perfectly, and music director Taylor Peckham’s efforts pay off. There are two drummers, although only one is credited in the program, and two separate drum kits on movable bases. The drums float around as part of things. Serious lighting work from Howell Binkley is a major contribution to the feel of the evening. And then there’s the costume design from Jess Goldstein. Once upon a time, teen idols performed in suits and ties, kids. Extra points for the brocade jackets, a perfect example of what it really looked like in those days.
There are times when even serious theater-goers just want to be entertained. Here’s their chance.
through May 22
527 N. Grand Blvd
PaPPo’s Pizzeria and Pub just feels right. A St. Louisan raised in Midtown and now gone, except for brief visits, for 25 years or so looked around the premises as he waited for his pizza. “It’s perfect. If you put me down here no matter what city it was in, I’d feel like I was in walking distance of St. Louis University.”
I knew what he meant, although neither of us could quite put our finger on it. Brick walls, slightly dark interior, lots of wood. (No ferns; RIP Caleco’s on Laclede.) No neon that I remember. But there are a couple of stainless steel tanks, not standard issue at any college bar. Pappo’s brews their own, at least at this location. The original PaPPo’s in Springfield, MO, and the one in Osage Beach have to make do with a large selection of craft beers.
There’s a long bar, several television sets, of course, booths and tables that seem to draw groups ranging from after work to multigenerational families. (This time of year, the college trade has getting out of Dodge on their minds, but otherwise they’d surely be among the faithful.)
The house salad is fresh and crisp, using mixed greens, mozzarella and parmesan, red onion, a little sweet red pepper, and artichoke hearts, all lightly touched with a balsamic vinaigrette. Eat with care; it’s a generous serving in a relatively small bowl and the greens can leap onto the table if not approached thoughtfully. Nevertheless, this is above average for a pizza place.
Wings, too, change things up a little. Instead of being deep-fried, they’re oven-roasted, upping their chances for staying juicy. And that they do, not as chewy as the fried version, but moister and happy to loll in one of six sauce styles. The Kickin’ Hot was medium intensity, and good enough that one longed for bread to mop the last of it up. Instead of blue cheese dressing alongside, there appeared a house-made ranch dressing bordering on splendid. Very desirable wings.
The pizza? Available as St. Louis style thin crust or a hand-tossed version, the thin is more than acceptable, but the hand-tossed is marvelous. This isn’t Neapolitan-style, so it doesn’t have the charred bubbles on it, but it’s chewy-tender, not the sort of crust whose edges get left on the plate. Of course there are options to create your own, so if your idea of heaven is anchovy and avocado, go right ahead. But there’s a passel of specialty pizzas from the merely elaborate to the near-shocking – I’m looking at you, sausage and sauerkraut. Available sizes are 8”, 12” and 14”, the first offered also as part of a lunch special.
A Sicilian from the specialty menu includes tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, Italian sausage, capicola (or gabagool, if you’re from Jersey), salami, banana peppers and red onions. All this balances out wonderfully, a little heat here and there, no palate-monopolizing overdose of fennel, a very good choice. Another option is the American Cheeseburger pizza. I hadn’t had hamburger on a pizza since I was a kid in Desloge learning on Chef Boy-Ar-Dee with the nearest pizzeria in the next county, but here it was, with a light tomato sauce, bacon, mozzarella and cheddar, and topped with slices of dill pickle. It is, of course, served with mustard and ketchup on the side. It would be a fine pizza for the hesitant eater, certainly, with familiar flavors. For the rest of us – well, it’s surprising what a bite of dill pickle does to something like this, the crunch and acidity punching things up very handsomely. The ketchup and mustard seemed superfluous – but there’s nothing wrong with a sprinkle of the crushed red pepper wafted across the top.
Sandwiches on the menu, too – the Little Italy Cold Cut holds Canadian bacon, more of that capicola, Genoa salami, Provolone, onion, tomato and is dressed with an Italian dressing. It was a very meaty sandwich of good quality salume, but suffered from bread that was past its prime.
Service is casual, but very pleasant, and at off-hours, the place is a fine place for a conversation. I suspect at peak, it’s pretty noisy. I can imagine parking near the Fox early, strolling down for a pizza and returning back up Grand before curtain time.
PaPPo’s Pizzeria and Pub
3690 Forest Park Blvd. @ Spring
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair
Dough is the story of a kosher baker in a transitional neighborhood in London. He's a widower, his only child, a son, is a fancy-schmancy barrister and his apprentice has just politely resigned to go to work for the chain store next door. His grandfather started the business - what's a chap to do? Sell the shop to the sleazy guy who owns the chain?
Jonathan Pryce (who's currently on Broadway in The Merchant of Venice) is Nat, the owner, a nice guy, maybe a little volatile, but when your family business is threatened, what do you expect? He ends up hiring the son of the Eritrean woman who cleans the shop. Ayyash (Jerome Holder) takes the job under some duress, but is - sort of - working out, when Nat discovers him on the floor, praying. It's sunrise, and the mother and son are Muslim. Nat's wearing a tallit, the prayer shawl, and tfillin, the bindings, both traditional, when he finds Ayyash, so it would seem to be an even encounter, but Nat's upset.
Still, the kid seems to be working out. And then there's an upsurge in the number of customers after he accidentally dumps some marijuana he's reselling into a batch of bagel dough. The senior baker has no idea, of course, but things roll (or bagel) prosperously along until Mr. Sleazy Chain-owning Neighbor puts two and two together. Needless to say, havoc ensues.
Who would have thought that a film about drugs and religious conflict could be almost gentle? And yet it is, coming close to downright charming at times. There's even a little romance in it. Me, I would have liked to have seen more work being done in the bakery, but that's just my professional instincts coming out.
Plaza Frontenac Cinema
The St. Louis Rooming House Plays has four more performance left, and as I write this, there are a few tickets left before it disappears into the air. At 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., an old house in Grand Center holds a remarkable group of performances, part of the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
It’s a collection of short plays – some very short, indeed – that are staged in different rooms in the house. The audience is broken up into groups and moved from room to room, becoming voyeurs to Tennessee Williams works that hardly any of us have seen. The close views of actors moving – excuse me, I need to pick up my jacket – is fascinating, and we are mostly invisible to them.
Peter Mayer, in a hat whose last owner may have been Jimmy Durante, trudges up the stairs as a traveling salesman, glowering and glowing. Julie Layton struts and stalks, an actress who’s seeking escape from a life on the road. Eric Dean White and Julia Crump have at it as a behind-closed-doors couple with enough energy to charge a mobile phone. Anita Jackson looms as Bertha, a working girl, and does battle with Donna Weinsting , her just-slightly frowsy madam. There’s music in the parlor from Henry Palkes, with Ben Nordstrom and Christian Chambers, who’ve also been working upstairs trying to fend off Layton.
It’s an absolutely amazing experience for this town. Get online at Metrotix, get in gear and go. You won’t regret it. Not wheelchair accessible, and little actual seating, fyi.
The St. Louis Rooming House Plays
closes tomorrow, May 15
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
3508 Samuel Shepard Dr.
And more breaking news:
The Midnight Company will extend the run of its production of Tennessee Williams’ THE TWO-CHARACTER PLAY after its one-week run at Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis. It will play Fridays and Saturdays, 8pm, May 27-28 and June 3-4 at the Winter Opera Space St. Louis, 2322 Marconi, 63110, on The Hill. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased at BrownPaperTickets.com, with sales beginning Sunday, May 15. Tickets will also be available at the door, cash or check only.
It’s a mark of, well, something that when the average person hears the title Yentl, they think of the Barbra Streisand movie. What’s being staged at The New Jewish Theatre isn’t that Yentl. Both of them are based on an I.B. Singer short story, but this one began as a 1975 play from Leah Napolin with Singer. It ran on Broadway. In 2012, the play, in a collaboration between Napolin and Jill Sobule, was revised and music from Sobule added.
The setting is a shtetl in Poland in the late 1800’s. A girl, Yentl, wants to study Torah. But custom and practice forbids that. When she’s orphaned, she sets out to somewhere she’s not known, disguised as a boy, to join a school to study.
This is not a cross-dressing comedy, although there are a fair number of funny lines. It turns out to be a serious examination of gender roles that says plenty to modern-day society, both East and West. Yes, some people do get uncomfortable with that, even in a lighter setting. (Remember Tootsie? The women I know who saw it loved it. The men I knew, except the one I eventually married, all had negative reactions.) Most of the examination is by example rather than in the lines, once the initial exposition is done, so it doesn’t hit the audience over the head with it. But in this day and age – hello, North Carolina? – it’s hard not to see the transgender question involved here. All this in a time frame more than a century ago. Fascinating stuff.
It’s a very large cast as NJT productions go, everyone but the two leads playing multiple characters. Yentl is Shanara Gabrielle, a fine performance that encompasses both genders smoothly. She’s totally believable without stooping to stereotypes. Her classmate who becomes her best friend, Avigdor, Andrew Michael Neiman charms – he’s been dumped by the prettiest girl in the village and unloads his woes on his pal. Lots of fine, familiar faces zipping through various roles: I’d forgotten, for example, how much fun Terry Meddows is as a song-and-dance man. Peggy Billo reigns as the matriarch of bewitching Taylor Steward, the pretty girl, who soon becomes attached to Yentl-in-trousers.
The score is a great deal of fun. Jill Sobule (who also wrote “I Kissed a Girl”, by the way) was in the house for opening night, and deserves much credit for it. Live music from Aaron Doerr, Adam Anello and Dana Hotle, and music director Charlie Mueller all took fine care of her creation. Costumes from Michele Friedman Siler must have kept her busy for a good while, but they were splendid, some elegant, some just tatty enough. The set, a village and household, worked well, the work of Peter and Margery Spack. NJT’s artistic associate Ed Coffield directed this large, busy ensemble and kept a fine pacing and spirit to the work.
Good stuff, especially because it’s not what one might expect.
through June 5
The New Jewish Theatre
Marvin & Harlene Wool Theatre
Staenberg Family Complex
Jewish Community Center
“The Two-Character Play”, one of the first offerings from Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, was written in 1973. It’s not one his more well-known works, coming later in his career as he was complaining that critics didn’t appreciate his style as he evolved. It is, in some ways, rather reminiscent of absurdist theater, things like “Waiting For Godot”, language and emotions flying, relevant information coming (and occasionally going) in bits and pieces in sometimes-odd places.
The Midnight Company brings it to us, putting it in the hands of two of St. Louis’ most accomplished actors, Joe Hanrahan and Michelle Hand. They play sibling actors, struggling with careers that reached “failing” status some time ago, partially due to alcohol and pills, but beyond that they seem pretty dysfunctional on their own. The show uses the play-within-a-play idea, and the characters in the play are also siblings who are not in a close relationship with reality. It’s hard to tell which pair are more whacked out, but it really makes no difference, the sliding back and forth from one reality to the other is part of the game. Both Hand and Hanrahan are both utterly superb. Neither character would appear not to call for much subtle work; there’s a lot of scenes with what in other plays might be called scenery-chewing. But Williams’ characters seem to almost inevitably bring over-the-top emotions. Despite the OTT, there’s a considerable amount of less obvious work on view in these characters. Director Sarah Whitney orchestrates things beautifully.
Mark Wilson’s sets and lighting are deeply evocative of an aging theater somewhere in the hinterlands. That seems particularly relevant here, since the venue is The Learning Center on Westminster at Taylor. In a building designed by Theodore Link, best known for St. Louis Union Station (and across the street from Second Presbyterian Church, another of Link’s works), it was originally the Wednesday Club. Built in 1908, several of Williams’ early works were staged there. One of the places his family lived – there were quite a few – was in the next block west.
It’s a remarkable setting from an historic stance, perhaps not the most comfortable auditorium, but the evening is a worthwhile one. See a later Williams work. See remarkable acting. See a singular venue.
The Two-Character Play
The Midnight Company
through May 15
The Learning Center
The Glass Menagerie may be the most frequently staged of any of Tennessee Williams' plays. The St. Louis references and setting are accurate and evocative. It's a play many theater-goers are familiar with.
So how does a company go about staging it without seeming merely to put the play on life support, pounding on its figurative chest and trying to breathe life into it? It's a major challenge, especially as we begin the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis with Williams' work is under public scrutiny. Upstream Theater has risen to the challenge with its version, which will run through May 15.
Director Phillip Boehm has given us a different Wingfield family - same characters, same conflicts, but a different aura. Theoretically, this is Tom Wingfield's play, the autobiographical character of the author. But functionally, it belongs to Amanda, the frightened, struggling, aging belle of a mother around whom the play revolves. Linda Kennedy's Amanda is less the termagant and schemer than she's usually played. Her charm is more real - the telephone calls soliciting subscriptions to a magazine sound almost conmpletely uncontrived, for instance. All this without masking the drive, indeed desperation, that motivates her every day - and every evening when her son comes home from his job at a warehouse.
Tom, Amanda's son, is J. Samuel Davis. Tom appears as the narrator, talking about the events in hindsight - this is, as Williams himself said, a memory play - and as a younger self. Davis' opening monologue as the narrator, shuffling and using a walker, is close to hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck, with the lines that are so familiar and now almost completely new. The whirl that changes him into a much younger man yields a guy almost completely beaten down by a job of drudgery, financial responsibility for the household and the urge, no, the need to write. But not quite altogether beaten down, no - his eruption to Amanda when it finally happens is a fierce, unrelenting flow of lava.
Sydney Frasure plays Laura, and she, too, is drawn from a different angle. This isn't the Jane Wyman-esque delicate flower of subtle emotion. Frasure's Laura allows us to see the total panic when she realizes who the evening's dinner guest will be and then, even more vividly, when he sits down to talk to her after dinner. These days she would be diagnosed as having severe social anxiety; this is clearly more than what even Tom, who clearly dotes on her, calls being "awfully shy".
It's frequently forgotten that The Gentleman Caller is also a character who's had a good deal of disappointment in his life already. He was a big man on campus at Soldan High School, destined, according to the yearbook, for great things. Now he, too, works at the warehouse, only a step higher up the ladder than Tom. Jason Contini's portrayal is neither deeply swaggering nor, towards Laura, patronizing. When he kisses Laura, it feels an honest gift he's giving, not a manipulation.
Boehm has deliberately chosen open casting, not just color blind - the cast is evenly divided racially - but beyond that. Frasure's vintage wheelchair is not just a prop, she has limited mobility. All this quickly becomes irrelevant in the story-telling, swept up in Joe Dreyer's background music (and occasionally Frasure's very good voice) and the lives we watch with renewed interest.
Forget the cliches. Go see this. Fine acting and a whole new vision of an old, familiar work.
The Glass Menagerie
through May 15
Kranzberg Arts Center
501 N. Grand Ave.
Much credit has to go to a restaurateur who opens a new place in the face of serious traffic disruption. But Cha Cha Chow's brick-and-mortar location, begat by its food truck, is just across South Kingshighway from O'Connell's. Local foodists will know that means a detour coming in from the south to get there, since for now Kingshighway is closed for construction between Shaw and Southwest Avenues.
It's the eastern portion of a building that now also houses Gaslight, a new bar with a built-in recording studio. (Please note this is not the Gaslight Theatre, which remains on Boyle in Midtown, as we always referred to that neighborhood.) The restaurant itself can scarcely be called that; it's a counter where one orders, part of which holds a shelf and a couple of stools. The food can be taken into the bar via the connecting door. It's a dark, quiet room that made me think it would be perfect for a hangover morning.
It's a very small menu, five kinds of tacos, a burger, three sides and pupusas, which are a sort of stuffed fat corn tortilla. These tacos are soft, a little larger than the Mexican street tacos found in Cherokee Street spots. All three I had used flour tortillas, perhaps five inches in diameter or a bit more.
Shredded chicken was very moist and nicely piquant. Described as citrus-marinated, it also had some salsa verde on it, and the tomatillos also surely contributed to the piquancy. Who can fault a taco whose meat is so juicy it dribbles out the downhill end? The fish tacos seemed more to be about the generous serving of crisp red cabbage slaw that rode atop things. Very fresh and crunchy, a little hit of cilantro in there, its chew a little different than that of the couple of fish nuggets they covered. I would have preferred more fish on board myself, but....
And then there was the sweet potato taco. Sweet potatoes are enjoying a quiet renaissance in the greater world of sandwiches. They're appearing in New Orleans in vegetarian poor-boys, for instance. Bravely putting their marshmallowed past behind them, they're bravely going forth to serve the land they love. In this case, they're curried - but this is not the pinch of curry powder that Aunt Margaret used to make a dip for potato chips. This curry is southeast Asian-influenced, spicy but not hot, with some fruity notes, perhaps from some tamarind. That's white cheddar cheese on top, carrying more flavor than Mexican cotija cheese does, and some grilled onion. Good stuff. Outstanding stuff, in fact, a remarkable dish.
Then there was the pupusa. Compared to that sweet potato taco, it's not a sophisticated offering. A disc roughly the size of a saucer arrives wrapped in aluminum foil. Less than half an inch thick, it's basically two patties of fresh masa, the cornmeal mixture from which tamales and tortillas are made, sandwiched together with cheese or cheese and pork, the edges sealed and the whole thing griddled. It's not handsome, certainly. But my goodness, is it tasty. The masa is chewy-crispy-soft, the corn flavor is present, punched up with the traditional lard (nope, not vegetarian, even in the cheese-only option), the cheese slides right in, and the pork is tasty. Outside the average American eating experience, but rather addictive, especially if you're a texture geek. It comes with slaw and a salsa on the side.
The only desserts are ice cream sandwiches custom made by Maggie's Lunch Box in Fenton. Forget the rectangular little slabs of childhood - these are soft cookies with good ice cream and they're not so hard they can't be bitten. (Nor are they so soft they melt before you're done.) I had a chocolate-chili cookie with caramel ice cream, the most exotic of the available options, and it was great - just a nice bit of heat, nothing incendiary, some cinnamon in there, too, I think, and surprisingly tidy to eat.
Drinks from the adjacent bar, non-alcoholic options available at the taco counter. Saturdays, they're offering breakfast tacos, although not breakfast hours. And nice guys to take your order. I have a feeling there may be outside tables to come before cold weather hits again.
4916 Shaw Ave.
Lunch and Dinner Tues.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Tacos, etc.: $4-$9
I had lunch with a friend from Kansas City today, and took her into La Patisserie Chouquette afterwards. Simone Faure's work is always dazzling, of course. Just take a look at the cakes she's doing for Mothers' Day. Alas, they just stopped taking orders for them as we stood at the caisse ready to pay for the armload my pal was taking on the westward trek home. But as Toni was signing for her goodies, I spotted this. And, yes, it is a cake.
There's a sitdown area and beverages available to go with individual servings of her treats.
La Patisserie Chouquette
1626 Tower Grove Avenue
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Smoking: Of course not
On Sunday, May 15, the last day of the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, Slide Piece Food Truck is making a guest appearance. From 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. they'll be near Strauss Park in Grand Center, offering sustenance to theater-goers. That's a busy afternoon, with four different matinee performances, a couple of lectures, a final 6 p.m. play and, for a perfect closing day, the Stella Shouting Contest (sponsored appropriately enough by Stella Artois), which will be in Strauss Park at 2 p.m.
Besides some items from their usual menu, which is available here. they'll be serving festival-themed sandwiches like "A Slider Named Desire", "Lamb on a Hot Tin Roof" and the enticing-sounding "Summer and Smoke", which is a pork steak with goat cheese sriracha, pickled vegetables and cilantro.
Pork steak and goat cheese sriracha...Tennessee Williams wouldn't recognize us these days, would he?
The Sound of Music has just opened at the Fox. The return of the old warhorse surely drew sighs from frequent theater-goers, but they needn't have worried. To the surprise of even the most cynical, this new national touring company production is a charmer, and not unbearably saccharine. At least it's as un-sweet as something can be with seven children singing. We tend to forget that in many of the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, there's looming darkness, whether it's little (Jud Frey in Oklahoma!) or large (World War II in South Pacific). Here, it's Nazis coming into Austria, a very sober touch that in reality somewhat balances the mostly uplifting score - which is what most of us remember the show for, anyway.
A very young Maria - Mary Martin opened the show on Broadway in 1959 at age 44 - works beautifully here. Kerstin Anderson was a sophomore at Pace University when she was cast. A great voice, and natural, unaffected acting gives us a very believable Maria. Ben Davis, whom St. Louis loved at the Muny in Oklahoma! and South Pacific, is Captain von Trapp. His von Trapp is more nuanced, a little less the martinet than is the usual version, and particularly pained in the scene at the festival.
Melody Betts is the Mother Abbess, and tears it up. All the children are delightful, the oldest, Liesl, being another Muny veteran, Paige Sylvester. Frau Schraeder, Teri Hansen, gives us a softer, more human take on the character. And Merwin Foard, playing impressario Max Detwiler avoids the broad, almost slapstick, possibilities in the role, giving us a guy just trying to keep his job.
All this, including the snappy pacing, comes from director Jack O'Brien. That pacing is helpful; like many shows of its generation, it runs more than 150 minutes, including intermission. Douglas W. Schmidt's scenic design is outstanding, not just the mountains but the interiors as well. It's aided and abetted by Natasha Katz's lighting. A live pit band, hooray, and traditionalists will be happy to hear the original orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett, who had worked before with Richard Rogers.
Good stuff, but if you're going, check your tickets. This is another of the 7.30 curtain shows at the Fox, done for what I assume are the most family-friendly shows. And this is pretty G-rated, to be sure, only a couple of fast double entendres. Good stuff, even for the jaded.
The Sound of Music
through May 8, 2016
527 N. Grand Blvd.
The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis kicks off May 11. It's going to be a long weekend that's a whirlwind of interesting things to see and hear. There's the familiar, The Glass Menagerie from Upstream Theatre, and a public screening of the film, A Streetcar Named Desire, which will run on a continuous loop. But there's also a number of the lesser-known works, like A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot and Midnight Company's The Two-Character Play. Actress Olympia Dukakis comes in for an evening discussing her work and giving us monologues from Williams' works, including The Rose Tattoo. Lots more, of course; see the website for details.
Is there a food connection? Tennessee Williams was not known as a food writer, although his play A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur has a fair amount of it, including the immortal line, "Which came first, fried chicken or devilled eggs?" (I did discover that there's a Tennessee Williams cookbook out there, although an homage rather than a collection of Miss Edwina's recipes.) There may be an aggregation of food trucks during the festival, but that's still not confirmed. Nevertheless, it should be A Lovely Weekend for St. Louis.
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
It's been a long time since St. Louis had a large group of immigrants arrive in a relatively short period of time. We've certainly had them before, the Germans, for instance, and the Italians. But that was several generations back, and for most of the area, the arrival of Bosnians has been a new experience. Or perhaps it hasn't been an experience at all. For many people it's outside their daily or even monthly lives, something to read about, perhaps, or vaguely remember.
That alone is a good reason to see Bosnian/American: The Dance of Life. Written by Deanna Jent and presented by Mustard Seed Theatre, it's their current show, offering a look at the immigrant experience right here in the Gateway City. Gleaned from interviews done for Fontbonne University's Bosnia Memory Project, it looks at what life was like during the conflict, the process of immigration and how the young ones who came and then grew up here have experienced life.
Sound stodgy? Not nearly. This a fast-moving montage back and forth in time and back and forth between reality, memory and and fable/metaphor. They pack in a great deal for their 55 minutes. There's a little music from Amir Salesevic to start things off gently and then the whirl begins. Families under stress, armed militia, a dead-serious "Who Do You Trust?" game, seemingly endless plane trips, and then life in St. Louis. Oh, and sheep. Delightful, occasionally funny, then serious sheep. For those who have followed the news over the years, perhaps the most interesting parts are those devoted to the children who arrive and go into the schools here.
Three of the cast are newcomers, or almost, to the stage, Salesevic, Elvedin Arnautovic, and Arnela Bogdanic, and they acquit themselves with considerable honor. Melissa Gerth, like most of the cast, has more than one role, in this case, the primary lamb and a mother. Her dancing is a feature, nicely done. Andrew Kuhlman excels as the wolf - who is definitely not wearing sheeps' clothing - menacing even behind a mask. The group works very well as an ensemble, and much credit to director Adam Flores for that, and the excellent pacing.
Last weekend, the play opened with two performances at Grbic Restaurant's banquet hall, and now is at Fontbonne's Fine Arts Theatre. Set designer Kyra Bishop has clearly taken Grbic as her model; the set is an homage to that interior, which was designed and built by the family who owns the restaurant. And watch the stained glass; it's part of the story.
This is a play that could, and probably should, be seen by groups around town, schools, clubs, that sort of thing. I hope it lives on.
Bosnian/American: The Dance for Life
through May 1
Mustard Seed Theatre
Another food movie is opening April 29 at the Plaza Frontenac. DOUGH is about a failing kosher bakery in London and the search for an apprentice. I haven't seen it - yet - but in the meantime, here's something to whet our appetites.
There's a local promotion being done in several markets where the movie has or is about to open, each involving a local bakery. In St. Louis, it involves rugelach from Sugaree Baking Company as part of the prize package. Pat Rutherford-Pettine' rugelach are, well, wondrous is a pretty good description, flaky and swooning on the tongue. All an entry involves is liking and sharing their Facebook page:
It doesn't look like it's a case of "You must be present to win," either.
If it isn't salvation, it certainly is salivation.
If someone had moved back to St. Louis after an absence of a couple of years - if that someone had gotten their daily coffee at the shop at Laclede and Sarah - if that same someone decided to drop by Retreat Gastropub...well, their jaw would drop. 6 North was the coffee shop (It's still in existence at the Market Street and Ballwin locations.) but what Travis Howard, the owner, has done to create Retreat at that location is pretty amazing. Very handsome, very rugged feeling, yet cozy, and absolutely totally unrecognizable from its previous life.
Brunch is offered on both Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. An 11.20 arrival revealed several empty tables, but by 12.45, things were hopping and people were occasionally having to wait for seating. Now that the weather is at least intermittently pleasant, there are a few outside tables, covered seating at least partially out of the wind, to expand things a little.
Poutine seems to be becoming what beets were ten years ago: Ubiquitous. I'm still a little curious about the dish, and since the Potato Queen was gracing us with her presence, it seemed like a logical thing to order. Actually, the menu listed "poutine slinger", an interesting try for localization. So it wasn't french fries, it was the house "breakfast potatoes", those chunks of deep-fried seasoned potatoes working their way to ubiquity, cooked with sauteed onions and mushrooms, some cheese curds folded in and topped with a spicy chili-implying mushroom gravy and a fried egg. Pork or chicken confit, had we gotten some, brings a $4 upcharge. Of course a Canadian wouldn't recognize it as poutine, and it really isn't a slinger, but it tasted good, and the gravy is vegetarian, so it satisfies on several levels.
Interestingly, on the menu, the dish is called salmon cake "benedict" with only the word benedict in quotes. There isn't an English muffin, and the eggs are described as sunny-side up rather than poached. The lack of muffin means it's far easier to eat without sawing through what's often a too-tough piece of carbohydrate, certainly. The salmon cake itself was fat and well-seasoned, the eggs carefully cooked, although over easy rather than up. Unfortunately, the hollandaise seemed to be made without lemon and salt. Those breakfast potatoes showed up here, too.
Braised pork hash (shown below), generously chunky, used the potatoes again, with both poblano and sweet red peppers and a swoosh of spicy aioli underneath it all. Nicely porkish it was, with the poblanos punching things up just a tad, and eggs that were indeed sunny side up, yolks glistening. Breakfast tacos come as sausage and egg and potato and egg. Ever since I first had potato and egg tacos in Texas, I've been a sucker for them. The sausage they use is chorizo, which is certainly a point in their favor, but I went for the potato and egg. Wrong choice, alas. Those breakfast potatoes and some rubbery, browned scrambled egg in two flour tortillas - and more breakfast potatoes alongside - were uninspiring. Ketchup and a rather mild roasted tomato salsa, both ice cold, came alongside, and the salsa, perhaps two tablespoonsful total, wasn't enough to rescue the pair of tacos. The tortillas did, however, serve in lieu of bread for one of the group who prefers a bit of it to use as a pusher; toast or its equivalent isn't available on the menu.
Very good coffee and very good service, moderate noise levels that rose to a little more at times, but a pleasant atmosphere overall. Just not quite hitting the mark on the brunch food right now.
6 North Sarah
Lunch Mon., Tues.-Fri., Dinner Tues.-Sun.,Brunch Sat.-Sun
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Brunch entrees: $10-$14
The Shakespeare season is about to start here in St. Louis, and to mark its opening and the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death, Schlafly has created a new brew.
And it's delicious. You can read about it here, including the interesting variety of hops that make the beer quite singular. It's well-known that I am a wine drinker, not a beer drinker, at least most of the time, the exceptions being with Indian food and a shrimp-extra-onions-fried rice order. But this is good stuff, and you should go out of your way to try it. Only found at St. Louis Shakespeare venues, and not at all of them. Quick, before the season closes.
In Girl Crazy, Ira Gershwin wrote, "With love to lead the way, I've found more skies of gray than any Russian play could guarantee." St. Louis Actors' Studio's current offering, Anton Chekhov's Ivanov isn't depressing. It feels more like it's about boredom, at least for most of the play, when it's a frequent complaint among several characters.
But it certainly isn't a boring play. Ivanov (Drew Battles) is an intellectual semi-aristocrat running a large experimental farm, and running it, so to speak, into the ground. He's deeply in debt. His farm manager Borkin (Dave Wassilak) specializes in hare-brained schemes to make a fast ruble. Four years ago in the throes of love at first sight, Ivanov married a Jewish wife (Julie Layton), who converted, but now she's very ill. The doctor (Reginald Pierre) visits frequently and upbraids Ivanov for his seeming distaste for aforesaid wife, explaining that he speaks up because it's in his nature to be very honest. That's a self-description we will hear often. (Chekhov, himself a physician, may be excusing his own behavior?) The household, at least above stairs, is completed by Shabelsky (Bobby Miller), a penniless count who's Ivanov's aging uncle.
Ivanov has borrowed money from Zinaida (Teresa Doggett) and her husband Lebedev (B. Weller). Even though deeply in arrears, he visits them nightly to socialize - he and Lebedev are old school chums. Is he really unaware that their teenaged daughter Sasha (Alexandra Petrullo) has been making googly eyes at him for ... well, years?
Possibly. What at first seems to be the boredom he claims and his hair-trigger temper eventually rise to a pretty accurate picture of clinical depression. He certainly meets the criteria for feeling helpless, hopeless and worthless. Even when Sasha declares her love, he seems unable to respond in either direction with much energy.
Director Wayne Salomon keeps things moving briskly. More importantly, he's assembled a crackerjack cast. Battles' volatility from apathy to rage to dispair is fast and on the money. Reginald Pierre as the doctor, for all his studied insistence on honesty, is almost inscrutable. We begin to wonder if perhaps he's fallen in love with the wife.
To the modern eye, the women's roles in the play - first performed in 1887 - are dated and narrow. Still, Layton as Anna, the wife, shows Ivanoff wide-eyed adoration despite his incomprehensible distaste for her, and Petrullo as the girl who's crushing on him offers him a fierier version of the same. Good work in limited roles.
Attention must be paid to Miller's masterfully crochety count, funny and unpredictable, and to Wassilak. He manages to make his schemes sound completely logical. In addition, he wears jodhpurs better than anyone I've ever seen.
Theresa Doggett not only seethes as Zenaida, she created the delicious costumes. Patrick Huber's set, deceptively simple with wood and blue lights, is a serious asset and his lighting design keeps rapid pace with what's going on onstage. Salomon has chosen to put nearly the entire cast onstage for most of the play, either facing the stage or with their backs to it, a move that enhances the intimacy of the evening. The script is the Tom Stoppard translation and Stoppard's gift with words is, as it often is, stunning. There are also bits of French and German and/or Yiddish thrown in to add to the flavor.
It's not a perfect show - some of the speeches do go rather long, for instance - but it's fascinating multi-layered theater.
through May 1, 2015
St. Louis Actors' Studio
358 N. Boyle Ave.
Ah, the Fedora Cafe at Union Station and what we learned from it. Modern American first reared his head about then. Union Station was the place to be, for strolling, stopping, eating and drinking, and Fedora, an early outpost of the Gilbert-Robinson group, led the way. I had my first interview with a nationally-known cookbook author there, Barbara Olney, who was doing a demo of her book on chocolate. It was more like a conversation than a formal interview, as it turned out. We were both single women, and at one point when we were talking about men, she said of a former (oh, definitely former) swain, "He wouldn't let me cook for him. Can you imagine?"
There's a school of pizza thought that believes there is no bad pizza, just that some pizza is better than others and a few are waaay better. Then there is the other, much larger school at the other end of the scale, those who believe there is no pizza but the True pizza, usually the one they were raised on; all others are worthy of little but scorn. Many people are amazingly loyal to their chosen favorite. It's one of the two foods I won't argue about. (The other is barbecue.)
That said, it's a pleasant surprise that the different styles of pizza now being offered here in Proveladelphia are managing to prosper reasonably well. Other than the so-called designer pizza (Wolfgang Puck has a lot to answer for), the first to really shake things up may have been the Neapolitan style from the sadly departed The Good Pie. Now, Scott Sandler, a second-career pizza guy, has turned a quiet corner in Soulard into Pizzeoli, a fine producer of first-rate Neapolitan pies.
Pizzeoli's lovely, deceptively simple interior, brick walls and pressed tin ceilings, doesn't pretend to be anywhere but in an old St. Louis neighborhood. There's a bar and a few tables along one wall of the first room, but taking pride of place is the half-dome of a wood-burning oven, its tile exterior announcing the restaurant's name. Sandler forms and tosses his pizze on a counter in front of the oven, right by the door that leads into the second dining area; if pizza-tossing isn't one of the magical arts to you, you're way more blase than I.
The single offering to ease your wait is a salad, a far cry from the bagged iceberg mix that is often found hanging around pizza purveyors. Fresh, leafy greens, a few grape tomatoes and pieces of parmesan wear the thinnest coat of a vinaigrette. The serving is generous, enough for two to nibble at while they wait.
Pizzas are 12 inches only. Studying the menu, it takes a while to realize that this is actually a meat-free house. Persist; there's enough flavor and texture here to satisfy all but the obstinate. (Vegan parmesan, pepperoni and sausage are available.) The crust , very thin, remains soft in Neapolitan style, the edges chewy-tender and intermittently charred from the high heat. And there are several white pizzas, as those without tomato sauce are referred to.
If it's Neapolitan-style pizza that we're talking about, it's logical to kick things off with a pie titled Napoli. Tomato sauce, both regular and smoked mozzarella, a nice hit of garlic, a drizzle of olive oil, some shaved parm and arugula, the whole thing given a light shower of black pepper, it was a charmer. The tomato sauce is both sweet and tangy, a nice balance, and that crust is almost seductive.
A funghi, or mushroom, white pizza was almost buttery in its flavors from the mozzarella and a little hit of bechamel sauce. Vegan sausage was very mild, not at all greasy, and the fresh thyme added a nice note, but it was mostly about those mushrooms, roasted beforehand to concentrate their flavors, I suspect. It's a fungophilic kitchen - all three sections of the pizza menu, including the vegan one, have mushroom options. The pomodorini pizza, also on the bianca section, started with mozzarella cheese and fresh basil, some halved grape tomatoes and a little garlic and olive oil, very simple, very good.
After one lunch, we asked about having a scoop of the Clementine's ice cream on the short dessert menu and a hit of the Sump Coffee over it. "Oh," said the bartender/waiter, "You want an affogato", which, of course, is the Italian name for this dessert. Just right, too, after this meal.
Pleasant, patient service, and pies that balance their flavors very well. Good stuff.
1928 South 12th St.
Lunch & Dinner Tues.-Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
BRIEFS: A Festival of Short LGBTQ Plays opened last night, Friday, at the Centene Center. This is their fifth year, and they continue to evolve.
There are a lot of laughs in this year's collection, even when the subject is a serious one - after all, just because you're in the middle of a mess doesn't mean a wisecrack can't happen. And the collection of contributors to the effort, from playwrights to actors, helps a great deal. Some of local theater's best-known names, from Todd Schaefer to Donna Weinsting, are on stage, and directors like Pam Reckamp and Christopher Limber are among those credited.
Perhaps the most notable of the eight short plays is "When Oprah Says Goodbye", by Dan Berkowitz. Thomasina Clarke lives in some sort of an extended care facility and gets a new roommate, Peggy Calvin. The two were part of a love triangle many years ago. It's sharp and poignant, with good work from all, including director Fannie Belle-Lebby.
The corseted cohorts of Weinsting, a nineteenth-century ladies' literary society, become entranced when someone recites a paragraph from Gray's Anatomy. (That's the book, of course.) Lavonne Byers tears it up as the wife of A Great Artist in Scott C. Sickles' "I Knew It", with a collection of lines that are almost etched with a scalpel.
"The Grind", a first play by winner of the Ken Haller Playwriting Competition for LGBTQ and Allied Youth Max Friedman, looks at young adults in the era of the app, gently exposed by actors Jared Campbell and Kai Klose. Stephen Peirick wrote and directed "A Comfortable Fit", in which Kim Furlow is looking for some kitten heels in a size 11 1/2.
Overall pacing is very good - this is an evening that moves quickly - and while close examination could reveal questions about a plot or two, most of those questions are the result of the brevity of the offering. More time would have given the opportunity for further exposition, but that's the tradeoff sometimes. Definitely adult humor, but plenty of it.
Three performances left, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. today, and a 2 p.m. Sunday brunch with food catered by Hiro, the restaurant downtown.
That Uppity Theatre Company
3547 Olive St.
The little stretch of Tower Grove Avenue between Vandeventer and I-44 continues to be an incubator for interesting food spots. Joining its distinguished neighbors is Union Loafers, a bakery-cum-eatery. To be specific, it's a bread bakery, the day's wares on display at the north end of the room and samples out for trying.
But we're here to eat now, thank you. They're only open for lunch, with a menu as curated as a good wine list, not long, but painstakingly chosen. The interior with its long, L-shaped counter behind the tables, is almost Scandinavian in its simplicity and use of light. Weekdays, one sees some casual business lunches among the customers; a Sunday lunch visit brought out a completely mixed crowd in terms of ages and genders, many of whom seemed to be regulars.
Newcomers are particularly advised to check both sides of the menu, so as not to miss the section labeled Snacks. Snacks is a good word - they're a little too generous to be an appetizer unless they're shared. The pretzel is large and soft and warm, obviously freshly baked, chewy rather than crisp, and tasty enough that the accompanying coarse mustard is pretty much unnecessary. A pal had tipped me off to the cheesy bread and I really did mean to try it - foccacia-ish with cheese and crispy crumb topping - but I got a look at the pizza rossa and succumbed to it. Very much like the daytime pizza bakeries in Rome sell and popular there as a morning snack, thick squares are topped with tomato and drizzled with chili oil. Eminently craveable, the two good-sized squares in a serving are more satisfying than a lot of pizzas I've had.
Soups, salads and sandwiches form the bulk of the offerings. At the head of class is the kale and garbanzo soup. A little bit of kale goes a long way for many of us, to be sure. But this soup is an easy one to love. Beyond the vegetables in its name are carrots and potatoes, the whole cooked to a creaminess that's wondrous. Even the small pieces of kale - which will retain a little resistance even when cooked for hours - fit right in, changing the texture just enough. It's topped with a dribble of olive oil and a generous grind of high-grade black pepper. That pepper seems to be the key to holding the flavors together, and the result is spicy, well-rounded and altogether satisfying. It's a fine example of what can be done without needing animal products, dairy or egg - this babe is totally vegan. It comes with a chunk of the good house bread.
What the menu terms an endive salad also contains frisee and radicchio, along with beets, candied pecans and blue cheese. The vinaigrette uses champagne vinegar, and maybe just a wee bit of sugar to balance the slight bitterness of the endive and the result is more than satisfying in this lightly-dressed and very handsome dish. From the sandwich list comes the braised beef on ciabatta, essentially a pot roast sandwich with gruyere cheese, an onion jam and a very light hit of pickled peppers. It's the single warm sandwich on the menu, rich and sparkling with flavor beyond the beef. It's the sort of sandwich that half-way through the first half, one thinks, "I'll take the other half home and have it tomorrow," but somehow the second half manages to be consumed with scarcely any hesitation.
The coffee is from Blueprint, and it's excellent, strong and fine, a variety from Colombia, although be prepared for the cost, $4.50 for a bottomless cup. This isn't McDonald's, but you knew that already. Delightful service from knowlegeable folks, relaxed-seeming but on their game. And do grab some bread to take home with you.
1629 Tower Grove Ave.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
It's noisy - but the overall vibe is great.
The food isn't consistently wondrous - but I'd go back again in a sec.
There's an energy, a momentum to The Copper Pig that's almost irresistible. Located along the stretch of Macklind south of Chippewa that's turning into this decade's Restaurant Row, its decor deceptively simple, the place simply buzzes unless you arrive very early for their Sunday brunch, when it's quiet enough to honor a hangover. Eat quickly, though, if that's your situation; the joint soon goes back to jumping. Plenty of industry types - which is to say, restaurant industry - can be seen. For instance, if a table of four twentysomething guys wearing various chapeaus are drinking wine by the bottle, they're probably in the biz.
Someone out there has probably already referred to poutine as Canadian nachos. If you haven't come across it, it's french fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. The Pig offers it in three variations, standard, with duck confit and with a red curry sauce and paneer, the soft Indian curd cheese. The latter was pretty close to brilliant, the soft paneer a nice contrast to the crisp-chewy potatoes, the curry markedly spicy. If there had been enough left over, it would have made a great addition, chopped up a little more, to a fritatta the next day. The duck version will have to wait for a return visit. Beet fries, quarter-inch batons of beet were lightly battered and deepfried, served with whipped goat cheese. The beet-goat cheese pairing, long a standard, doesn't live up to its potential here unless it's for people who aren't beet fanciers; the cooking process for the vegetable mutes its flavors considerably.
The Korean rice dish bi bim bap contained bulgogi beef, plenty of vegetables, and a generous serving of the Chinese sausage lop cheung, plus a fried egg, the yolk meant to be broken and mixed with the rice. Definitely some garlic in there, and of course kimchee, another of-the-moment thing, which gave a nice kick. This kitchen isn't afraid of vigorous spicing, which is a swell approach. There's also an unstingy ratio of rice to everything else, which may not be authentic, but is appreciated by the American palate.
Avocado tacos have nothing to do with authenticity, of course. But they come wrapped in flour tortillas, some slaw for crunch to add to that of the panko crumb coat on the avocado. The slaw has just a little kick to it, but also some sweetness, making this a very approachable dish for someone who's just starting to broaden their dining horizons, whether vegetarian or otherwise. Instead of the suggested sides of fries, tater tots or salad, we went for the brussels sprouts with bacon, which turned out to be a brilliant move. The quartered sprouts are roasted at a very high heat, which crisps up some out the outer layers like autumn leaves, a new texture for many diners, and the bacon, nice fat pieces, chimes in. Excellent stuff.
Speaking of bacon, that takes us to brunch. They use good bacon, thick and smoky, particularly noticeable in skewers of bacon intertwined with blue-cheese stuffed dates that are grilled. Good stuff, and a reminder that not all that goofy-seeming cocktail food out of the Fifties was disgusting. Avocado toast on English muffin halves wore poached eggs on top with what seemed to be some smoked paprika, a good presentation of avocado toast, an instant classic on both coasts. The eggs were properly poached, none of this steamer-basket stuff.
On the other hand, the pulled pork eggs Benedict missed the mark. One might asume that pulled pork was barbecued, but not in this case, just cooked til tender and semi-shredded in a sweet-ish sauce. Putting it on a waffle is okay. But the hollandaise sauce over the egg, pork and waffle was seemingly totally unseasoned. The result was bland and the most unexciting dish of all the ones I'd tasted.
From the dessert list at dinner, a bread pudding made from doughnuts. (No dessert menu at brunch, by the way, but several sweet options like pancakes and French toast creme brulee.) A crunchy chewy top, a tender, moist interior, slightly yeasty from the doughnuts, a fine balance of flavors and textures. Let's hope it stays on the menu.
Delightful service, relaxed but attentive to the mood of the table, and very knowledgeable. Put up with the noise and you'll probably eat very well indeed.
Lunch & Dinner Mon.-Sat., Brunch Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Tower Grove Abbey has been turned into a cabaret-cum-dive-bar for Stray Dog Theatre's version of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch". That includes a little rearranging of the theater itself. Not the seats - the former pews are, shall we say, set in their ways. But the bar has been moved to just in front of the stage, and those sliding doors that separate the lobby from the house remain open from start to finish. That's the first clue that this is an out-of-the-ordinary evening.
Theater fans know that "Hedwig" is the story of an East German who had a botched gender reassignment surgery. One could get deeply into the questions of gender fluidity that are raised here, and I'm sure others have, but when those questions are brought up as lyrics to the glam-rock score, one tends to get caught up in the moment rather than ponder Aristophanes. Not that there's anything wrong with that - and that's not meant tongue in cheek. This is a show that wants the audience to be in the here and now, and Stray Dog Theatre's version emphasizes that. Guests are encouraged to come up to the bar anytime during the show, just as they would if they were really at the bar where Hedwig is performing that night. The opening night audience was a verbally participative crowd, adding to the atmosphere.
Hedwig is Michael Baird, who tears it up as the diva who tells us her story and sings, cabaret-style, Marlena Dietrich gone mad in a Kansas trailer park. It's a demanding role and Baird fills every Spandexed inch of it. Her husband, Yitzhak, originally a Zagreb drag queen, brings us Anna Skidis Vargas, whose singing pleases and whose appearance reminds one of Steven Van Zandt.
The Angry Inch - the name given to Hedwig's band as well as an anatomical reference - are front and center on stage and more than do justice to the score. It's M. Kuba, A.J. Lane, Bob McMahon and music director Chris Petersen bringing it, despite their goofy character names.
By nature, it's a raucous show, with lots of heavy rock and sexual humor, and it lived up to expectations, exceeding them in many ways. The frequently troublesome sound at the Abbey was almost perfect, allowing these lyrics, important to the full story line, to be heard. Rob Lippert's deceptively simple-looking set works perfectly with Tyler Duenow's imaginative lighting. Costume designer Eileen Engel and makeup and wig stylist Priscilla Case must have been salivating at the prospects here, and they're wonderfully, tawdrily fulfilled. My only question was why Hedwig was totally bare of jewelry.
Director Justin Been does it again. Go, just don't expect anything calm.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
through April 16, 2016
Stray Dog Theatre
Tower Grove Abbey
For anyone who's ever struggled to stay awake during a performance after they've eaten a good-sized meal, thereps a spot in Grand Center with an answer. Of course, it's good news, too for those of us who would rather have three different little dishes instead of one giant entree.
The Dark Room offers more services than that. There's an extensive wine list - so large, in fact, that the website puts the food offerings at the bottom of the wine list. They serve as a photography gallery. And they're offering live music, mostly but not exclusively jazz, many evenings. Some of the best seats in the house are at a broad counter that faces onto Grand, allowing for good people-watching, but there are tables as well, and a space that I suspect could be/might be/sometimes is used for dancing. Still, we're here for the food.
Maybe hummus is a cliche, but I consider it a blank canvas that can be graced or disgraced by the way it's handled. The Dark Room's full-flavored version uses smoked paprika to punch things up a little, pieces of roasted pepper resting atop the smooth mixture and the drizzle with good olive oil finishes things off. Wedges of warm, fresh pita came with it, and when we had used those all up, more arrived promptly upon our request. Some old vine Garnacha, rather uninteresting when it first arrived, opened up beautifully and made a great pairing with the hummus. It's available by the glass.
While the serving of hummus was generous, the entrees are more conservative in their relative size. The Catalan meatballs, five of them a little bigger than an inch in diameter and made of beef and pork, sport a chunky tomato sauce with garlic and almonds. The meatballs were moist and properly tender, the sauce pleasant and not overgarlicked, but one was grateful for the two slices of bread that came with it, since there are no vegetables or other starches on the plate. A nightly special of mushroom risotto was likewise restrained. Nevertheless, it was very good, very mushroomy with crispy mushrooms tumbled atop it and a few generous shards of cheese as well. The texture was nicely creamy, none of that rice-with-sauce business here. We're told the chef does a fine gnocchi but on this visit, none were ready yet.
The only semi-serious quibble was with the olive oil cake for dessert. The individual cakelet wore a very light glaze with a note of Grand Marnier. It was drier than olive oil cakes usually are, but that was remedied with the scoop of slightly citrusy sour cream that came alongside. The most charming thing on the plate, however was a fat slice of an orange that had been sprinkled with sugar and slid under a broiler long enough to melt and caramelize the sugar, just as is done with a creme brulee.
Service was attentive without hovering, and the server knew the menu well. This spot can be a boon to all kinds of people.
The Dark Room
615 N. Grand
Dinner Tues.-Sat., and Sundays "during high theater season"
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Starters & Entrees: $8-$15
"City of Gold" is not a film about the explorer Francisco de Coronado. It's about another explorer, one who finds other kinds of treasure in unexpected places. His name is Jonathan Gold, and he writes about food, mainly restaurants, for the Los Angeles Times. Gold is the first food writer to win a Pulitzer Prize. This documentary gives a whole new-to-most-of-us perspective on Los Angeles, both as an eating city and as a collection of neighborhoods.
He's a casually dressed guy of generous girth and a nimbus of hair, tooling around LA in a Dodge pickup truck, exploring what seems to be an infinite number of mostly small restaurants in ethnic neighborhoods. And being LA, that ethnicity ranges far and wide. Oh, he does the high-end stuff, too - there's a meal at Ludo Lefebvre's hot resto Trois Mec, and an interview with Lefebvre - but it's mostly his familiarity with family-owned strip mall spots and the eternal taco trucks and such that has made his reputation, and deservedly so. Until Gold, the newspaper restaurant critics in the biggest cities in the United States just didn't cover places like this, with rare exceptions. (In the next tier down, it was a different story, of course. Long before I acquired this last name, Joe was writing about such places for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Just ask the folks at Cafe Natasha, for instance.)
Gold is probably an obsessive, but that's fortunate for us and it doesn't appear to interfere with his life much - food is a subject that it's impossible to know everything about. His casual writing style manages to inform without condescending, which is probably another secret of his success. Despite his admitted tendency to procrastinate, he has an immense output every year, including writing for outside venues like the magazine Lucky Peach. We see famous food faces like Ruth Reichl and Calvin Trillin, people like his editors at the Los Angeles Times and Lucky Peach, and multiple small restaurant owners.
The film manages to make Los Angeles look good without resorting to tourist shots. The scenes of restaurant kitchens and plating are real-world appetizing, not the remove-that-tiny-irregular-piece-of-cilantro sort of stuff that we've seen way too much in movies recently.
It's nice that the film opens with an MFK Fisher quote. It's even nicer that Gold talks about how important Trillin's work in the early '80's, starting with American Fried, was to his thinking about food and the people around the food, a seminal theme in Gold's own body of work.
You'll leave this movie hungry.
City of Gold
opened March 25, 2016
Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema
I made a fast run to New York City the other day, and took advantage of the brief visit to go to a place I'd been reading about. Since it was a weekday morning, I thought it wouldn't be impossible to get a seat for breakfast at Russ & Daughters Cafe.
The cafe is an outgrowth of an old New York appetizing store - that's the phrase there, "appetizing" referring to appetizers - that began in the early years of the Twentieth Century on the Lower East Side. Joel Russ had no sons, but he had three daughters who joined him in his business. They were the first business in the country to have " & Daughters" in its name. They sold - and still sell - smoked fish, salads, bagels and bialys, the traditional Jewish foods. Eventually they added caviar. Lines still run out the door at their retail store two blocks from the cafe, which they opened in 2014, the hundredth anniversary of the store.
When the doors opened at 10 a.m., a half-dozen of us were in line. (They open at 8 on Saturday and Sunday.) I sat at the counter, the best place to watch the action. It's a menu full of temptations. Lots of kinds of smoked fish in variations, including platters to serve several people. Three kinds of herring, and I'm hard-core enough that the sampler called to me. Smoked whitefish chowder. Salads. Blintzes, of course. French toast made with babka, the Eastern European filled sweet bread that's having such a revival. Eggs with all kinds of things, scrambled with lox and onions, the same with sturgeon, a "Benedict" with smoked salmon and spinach. I tell you, it was agony.
My decision process was lost in the haze, but I ended up with something called the Lower Sunny Side. Two eggs, sunny side up, Gaspe nova smoked salmon and latkes. And a bialy, please, toasted with butter. A bialy? Yes. Unlike bagels, bialys are not boiled first, and there's only a depression in the center, not a hole. Often the depression contains chopped cooked onions or poppy seeds, or (these days) other things, but this one was plain. They're more tender than a bagel, and they're flatter.
The salmon was paper thin, which is how the really experienced fish guys at New York deli counters do it. The texture was somewhere between silk and velvet, as tender as the egg white on the sunny-sides. But it was the latkes that stopped me in my tracks.
They were not - quite - the size of hockey pucks. Their shape and even the color brought the comparison to mind. Very thick, almost an inch, and dark brown from a trip through a deep-fryer. Deep-frying a latke? What heresy is this? I'm sure I must have glared at them.
Don't judge a latke by its looks. These were wonderful. Plenty of onion in with the potato, something that's always been a sore point with me on latkes. There may have even been a little garlic. The insides were creamy but not mashed-potato-like, with shreds of potato both distinct and disintegrating. Latkes are not part of my culinary heritage, so I can't address the authenticity question, but these were utterly beguiling.
By the time I left, cameras were rolling - the woman who made the film about the Russ daughters, "The Sturgeon Queens", was working on another project there. No wonder she came back for seconds. I certainly will.
They do take reservations. They've just opened a branch in The Jewish Museum uptown, too.
And a bonus recommendation: The Tenement Museum is a half block south on Orchard Street at the corner of Delancey. Even if you don't go to the museum, which is fascinating, it's got one of the best shops in the city.
Russ & Daughters Cafe
127 Orchard St., New York City
Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Sometimes things just fall into place. I had just committed to a trip to Southeast Asia when I discovered an interesting-looking book about to be released. It was called Vietnam: 100 Unusual Travel Tips. Its author turned out to be someone with whom I had a professional connection, a fellow foodster who, like me, contributes to www.foodiehub.tv . (Formerly known as Chowzter, this has led me to all kinds of interesting people like my buddy Joe DiStefano , the real King of Queens.)
Barbara Adam is an Australian who moved to Vietnam for a break and never left. She's acquired a husband, a child and a lot of working knowledge about things there. Her first book isn't a guidebook - those tips in the title are not things like "For the best photos of the Xa Loi pagoda, stand at this corner." Barbara, whose blog can be found at thedropoutdiaries.com, also runs Saigon Street Eats , food tours led by her and her husband Vo.
She's covering more universal questions, many of which never occur to most visitors until they arrive. For example, I never thought about crossing the streets, although I did vaguely know the traffic is notorious in Ho Chi Minh City, where she lives. No walk lights, apparently. The trick seems to be just keep moving, but if you haven't the nerve for that, just cross with a local. How small do clothing sizes run? Where can you buy diapers? What about social norms - how close do people stand, what kind of questions do they ask and what's that body language? Not surprisingly, there's quite a bit on food, the ettiquette of eating, particular dishes to try, and the suggestion to avoid using the word "yum" because it sounds a great deal like the Vietnamese word for "horny".
There are some sightseeing tips, yes, but because the full title includes "and a Guide to Living and Working There", there's also discussion of housing, what it's like and the vagaries of working in the country, also pretty interesting, if only to feed into those daydreams many of us have from time to time.
If you're one of those folks who won't leave your hotel without a guide, this may not be the book for you. If you are a troglodyte like me who likes the big fat guide books, even though you may not carry them out in the street with you, or if you download from the internet, this is a great supplement. It's especially valuable for folks who want more of an understanding of what's going on around them in daily life in Vietnam.
The book can be found on Amazon, both in paperback and Kindle versions.
Vietnam 100 Unusual Travel Tips and a Guide to Living and Working
Barbara Adam and Vu Vo
Paperback $15.99, Kindle $6.99
What becomes a legend most?
"Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing", now at the Repertory Theatre, pays tribute to the legendary pitcher who made his major league baseball debut at the age of 42 in 1948. Before that, of course, he was tearing up the Negro league teams and playing in Cuba, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. He also barnstormed with a group Bob Feller created, his all-black team against Feller's all-white, the two teams comprising some major names of the day - including Stan Musial.
The play focuses on him and on on several of his fellow players during a visit to Kansas City. Sports are difficult to depict on stage, and the opening scene at a field outside of town is almost modern dance. It's Jackie Robinson's rookie year and Paige is deeply, painfully aware that it was not he that broke the color barrier in baseball. But the rains come and the group of players reassemble at a boarding house in town.
It's a lovely place, run by the widow of "the first Negro dentist in northwest Missouri", as she proudly declaims. She's helped by her daughter, who has aspirations as a singer, and a cook. The widow and Paige were lovers in the past and perhaps are again. Rather surprisingly for the time, it's a mixed-race group this evening. Feller and a young up-and-coming player are white, the rest, who include Buck O'Neil and another young up-and-coming player are black. On the living room radio, Robinson is playing in the World Series, and he's just appeared in a Wheaties ad. In addition, hormones are surging in the young ones.
Paige was not a man unaware of his own talents, to be sure. In addition to his athletic ability, he was, by history, financially pretty sharp. In the play, we find him quoting Homer to his friends - although we discover that the widow quotes Homer, too. (Did he learn it from her or vice versa?)Still, someone else younger has been chosen to be the pioneer, and now his friend O'Neil has gotten an offer from the Chicago Cubs to be a scout - the first black scout ever.
Paige is Robert Karma Robinson, tall and rangy and mimicking Paige's distinctive pitching style pretty well. Robinson lets us understand that baseball is Paige's life; everything else is secondary. Widowed Mrs. Hopkins, Vanessa A. Jones, is absolutely in charge of things, elegant and deliberate and self-controlled until she hits a breaking point. The two young stags fighting for the attention of her daughter, Peterson Townsend and Sam Wolf, begin to almost reek of testosterone between the discussion of salaries and talent intended to woo the lady. O'Neil, Michael Chenevert, controls his excitement at his news very well out of respect to his friend but we can see he's thrilled. And Feller, Kohler McKenzie, treats Paige as a peer, with little if any racial condescension.
The play is described as a celebration of baseball and jazz, and the action is pulled together by Jazzman, a saxophonist who's also something of a griot. He's Eric Person, a hometown kid (Normandy High School!) made way, way good in New York. But there are only two songs in the whole show to add to the bars of Bobby Watson's original score that Jazzman gives us. Oh, the kids discuss the clubs nearby and Paige gripes about Charley Parker and his be-bop, but that's it.
It was difficult to assess the dialogue because opening night was one of the most difficult evenings for sound I've ever had at the Rep's Mainstage. Many of the lines were blurred, and it was mostly hard to tell if it was the actors or the mikes. I noticed people leaning forward trying to hear better. The tale of why O'Neil was called "Nancy" mostly worked very well, but the older woman giving the younger one a serious dressing down on the subject of men lost about the last fifteen percent or so, unfortunately, because it was an interesting speech.
Scenic designer John Ezell and lighting designer Victor En Yu Tan's work showed off well, and the clothing from Lauren T. Roark, costume designer, was a delight. The play is by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan and Khan directed it himself.
It's a baseball play, not a music play. And I'm sure they'll work on the sound.
Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing
through April 10
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis