Five Friday Reads: 29.05.2013

Naples

  • Looking at Appalachia Anew‘ from The New York Times. This series of photographs reinvigorates the presentation of a stereotyped American region, compelling the reader to reflect on their understanding of the country in which they live.
  • Home Advantage‘ from Monocle. Aremenia’s fortunes may have long been tied to Russia, but exploring Yerevan, the capital, reveals a face to the country that’s worthy of knowing independently.
  • ‘Chocolate Covered History’ from Lucky Peach (14)Most chocolate companies aren’t producing historically accurate chocolate bars. Mars does because of a man obsessed with chocolate’s American history.
  • Dante Turns 750‘ from The Paris Review. Not only does The Divine Comedy inspire multiple readings, Dante’s biography inspires analysis. Did you celebrate Dante’s might-have-been 750th birthday?
  • Why Coyotes Are Flourishing in New York City‘ from New York Magazine. There has been a record number of “coyote” sightings this year, revealing a new facet to the city’s identity.

Hyperreality Dines Here: Exploring Balthazar and Cherche Midi

Although New York restaurant critics might argue that fancy vegetables and small plates typify contemporary city dining, they say little about the crafted dining rooms where diners enjoy these trends. Keith McNally’s restaurants, the British-born restaurateur currently operates six restaurants in New York City, epitomise this trend. From The Odeon and Balthazar to Minetta Tavern and Cherche Midi, each entry in Mcnally’s empire transports the diner to a new mental space through a well-designed room, nourishing diners just as much on ambiance as on the main course.

Ever since Delmonico’s introduced New Yorkers to the thrill of dining out in the nineteenth century, restaurants have wooed diners with both food and design, forming the basis of the New York diet. If it’s true that New Yorkers define themselves by how and where they dine, as Mitchell Davis argues in his article ‘Eating Out, Eating American’, then the spaces where New Yorkers eat become secondary homes.[1] Thus, New York’s exclusive restaurants — like Delmonico’s and, more recently, the Four Season’s — entice patrons with a tempting menu and a room that reflects their desired identities. These were the highly-crafted, staid restaurants that McNally — along with his brother, Brian McNally, and business partner, Lynn Wagenknecht — were reacting to when they opened The Odeon during the 1980’s in then-desolate Tribeca. While the restaurant gained fame for housing drug-fuelled antics, the design transmitted its identity, “The Odeon was kind of retro, without being kitsch. It was one of the places that really defined the moment.” From the red leather booths to globe lighting, the elements that allowed The Odeon to exist in the nether region between retro and contemporary continues to mark McNally’s restaurants.

Whereas Delmonico’s was a warren of grandiose dining rooms that transported New Yorkers to grand European palaces, McNally’s well-designed spaces mimic other places to help New Yorkers escape city routine. Since these rooms satiate the diner’s European fantasies, these familiar spaces can be thought of as hyperreals. According to Umberto Eco, hyperreality describes a space or object that imitates an original to evoke an emotional response that alters the genuine product’s impact. Las Vegas’ Venice and Disneyworld’s Epcot are common examples, but hyperreality also appears in quotidian settings, such as a wax museum or the holographic poster of Munch’s The Scream in a dentist’s waiting room. The feeling these imitations generate embeds itself within the viewer’s subconscious and reappears whenever the work is re-presented. The emotions needn’t be charged. They simply exist and their presence alters the experience of real and fake.

Balthazar SoHo

Foodies frequently debate over this line between real and fake when discussing authentic pad thai and imitation Thai take away, but a space’s veracity is rarely argued. When disagreements do appear, they usually centre on a specific personality, such as McNally and his litany of hyperreal restaurants. McNally’s detractors argue that he serves up the same dishes across his stage-like restaurants, nullifying any claims to promoting tradition.[2] In order to communicate ‘France’ — or ‘Italy’ or ‘cool New York’ — the meticulous space must transport the diner away from New York’s proverbial rat race. The customer must believe in the hyperreal and accept its artifice.

As the diner walks into Balthazar, they immediately depart the New York dining orbit. The walls, a deep yellowy tan, are adorned with large mirrors, which reign over ego-hungry diners at small, dark wood tables — or over a booth for a VIP. Instead of a white tablecloth — a token of the fancy restaurant — layers of white paper placemats protect wood tables from inevitable stains and spills. Yet, these placemats aren’t flimsy diner table toppers. Heavy and embossed with a diamond pattern, they project an atmosphere of carefree nonchalance that separates Balthazar from other high-end French restaurants. While the city’s orchestrated chaos animates the room, each piece of the physical space can be read apart from New York, the occasional taxi horn-honking serving as the sole reminder of Soho’s continued existence beyond the wooden doors. These revised restaurant tropes hint at Balthazar’s artifice: the restaurant projects a veneer of casual chaos through an exotic French lens to deceive diners as to its expensive exclusivity.

Cherche Midi, the newest addition to the McNally’s roster, boasts a remarkably similar atmosphere, though the colours and layout develop a more structured and sober experience. Outside the restaurant’s door seemingly perpetual construction heaves on the corner of East Houston and Bowery. Yet the mayhem disappears upon entering the cream coloured space. Just-opaque lace curtains are drawn at the proper height to block out the city while permitting a view of the sky. The resulting view could be New York or Paris or London. No music plays. While mirrors decorate the walls at Cherche Midi as they do at Balthazar, these mirrors survey the room from the side, allowing the individual to scan the scene, while avoiding an artifice-shattering glimpse of him or herself. This engineered distance from New York reality permeates Cherche Midi, ensuring that all objects in the space support the French illusion the restaurant builds.

While design might seem secondary in forming the diner’s restaurant experience, examining reviews dispels any notions that the food would reveal a more accurate portrayal of McNally’s locales. From Ruth Reichl’s original 1997 review of Balthazar for The New York Times to Eater’s photo-packed write up of Cherche Midi, critics repeatedly highlight the restaurant’s physical space, suggesting that food supplements the diner’s sustaining fantasy. Reichl’s awe at Balthazar’s appearance surpasses her contempt for the restaurant’s forgettable food, “I didn’t much like [Balthazar’s food] when it opened in April. Oh, of course I liked the look of the place…”. By establishing a tension between eating and experiencing, Reichl insinuates that design and food respectively nourish the diner.

Balthazar

In Amanda Hesser’s revised New York Times review, she reinforces Balthazar’s beguiling combination of cuisine and theatre saying: “a dining institution needs more than just great food” [author’s emphasis]. This crucial ‘more than’ punctuates Hesser’s review, suggesting that design separates a good meal from an experience, which is composed of more than food. By arguing that the restaurant “seemed to be merely a simulacrum” with its “museum-quality distressed tiles” she insinuates that Balthazar becomes a stage for performing France. Thus, while Hesser might ultimately claim to be unable to tell apart “the real faded and the fake faded,” her depiction of Balthazar-as-performance sticks with the reader, even if they want to run and slip into their cocoon-like table. As Balthazar’s reviewers have repeatedly demonstrated, the space’s ability to reinforce the kitchen’s vision permits the restaurant’s continued success.

Cherche Midi capitalises upon the same dynamic between atmosphere and food to serve up a similarly immersive French-inspired space. In his generally positive review for The New York Times, Pete Wells zeroes in on the shared designs of McNally’s restaurants, insinuating that the hyperrealities they construct is not of ‘France’ or ‘Italy’ but of ‘McNally’, “for three decades, Mr. McNally has been rooting around in the same Lego kit: distressed mirrors, chipped subway tiles, bottles backlighted to look like stained glass.” These individual attributes, the tokens of McNally’s restaurants, combine to form a noticeably a McNally type of restaurant. Thus, the large mirrors and paper placemats at Cherche Midi work to create the feeling of being in a McNally restaurant, which authentically portrays not a foreign space, but rather New York dining.

Adam Platt, in his review for New York Magazine, comically highlights Cherche Midi’s manifestation of brand McNally, insinuating that the restaurant copies itself, “[the restaurant] feels like a Vegas version of Keith’s greatest hits.” While the repetition of key dishes — such as steak frites, Balthazar’s most popular menu item — likely emphasises the doppelganger affect, the unrelenting inclusion of token design elements completes the McNally-type restaurant.

Examining the menus at Balthazar and Cherche Midi, reveals a high frequency of repeated dishes, reinforcing the design’s responsibility for crafting the uncanny experience of an ‘other’ space. Both restaurants feature: a beet salad, a foie gras appetizer, steak tartare, ceviche, a pasta dish with mushrooms and pesto, moule frites, salade niciose, steak frites and a burger. Since the different chefs’ variations amount to switching a type of cheese or using a new mushroom, these dishes would be familiar to frequent diners at McNally restaurants. These similarities suggest that eating at Cherche Midi and Balthazar means eating ‘McNally’ food more so than ‘French’ food. Even at Morandi and Minetta Taver, McNally’s Italian restaurant and old New York Tavern restaurant, riffs on pasta-mushrooms-pesto and steak frites appear. Ultimately, these repeated dishes create a hyperreal not of a foreign space, but of a buzzy McNally space, one that performs its exotic atmosphere while existing within the diner’s frame of reference.

Although McNally’s restaurants appear to be hyperrealities of a foreign space — such as a French bistro or brasserie — examining the design of both the dining rooms and the menus suggests otherwise. Rather than strictly transporting the diner to Europe, Cherche Midi and Balthazar — along with McNally’s other restaurants — insert the diner into a McNally hyperreality. There’s the uncanny feeling of having seen those large mirrors, those paper placemats and those red leather booths before. Ultimately, these self-mimicking spaces create what it means to dine in a certain type of New York. McNally’s restaurants have become a type in and of themselves, destinations for diners to indulge their fantasies of eating at Balthazar, of eating at Cherche Midi.

[1] Davis, M., 2013. Eating Out, Eating American. In: A. Hauck-Lawson, and J. Deutsch, eds. Gastropolis: Food and New York City. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 293-307.

[2] When they are made, that is. Rather than make claims to authenticity, McNally’s websites declare that they are “Italian dining,” “continental comfort food” and “seasonal French”. The exception is Balthazar which supposedly serves up “traditional bistro fare”. http://www.balthazarny.com/index.php

Image Credits (from top): Eater, Flickr via Eduardo Pavon, Flickr via Robyn Lee

Five Friday Reads 22.05.2015

Seurasaari, Helsinki

  • Mercury‘ from The Paris Review (212). A fascinating short story from Ken Kalfus that complicates what it means to be a protagonist and antagonist.
  • Our readers really do write in their books‘ from The Guardian. While I may be on the fence about writing in books, these reader photos presents marginalia as an quasi-art.
  • Why are we so bad at imagining the food of the future?‘ from Washington Post. Hopefully people in the future won’t eat soylent, but will they really be eating the mundane foods that science fiction characters eat?
  • Around the World in Pancakes‘ from Serious Eats. If you think a pancake is a pancake is a pancake, this listicle shows that a pancake can be breakfast or dinner, sweet or savoury, flour or vegetable based. A pancake is a cultural product.
  • From Italy, the Truth about Pasta‘ from The New York Times. This article from ’97 gives dried pasta its due, making for a refreshing break from fresh pasta mania.

Happy Burger Time

Crispy Bacon and Cheese, Snack Fries - Grill'd QV AUD10.90, AUD3.60

 

Come over, it’s hamburger night! That’s what they say. Every day! An outside table is a splendid choice on this breezy spring evening. The rain stopped about forty minutes ago, I’d say. Pair your patty with french-fries and smother the crispy sticks in curry ketchup, chipotle mayo and sriracha mustard (shh, it’s a secret recipe). Would you believe we offer vegan and gluten free options for your wellness-warrior friends? Salads? Flip over the menu, they’re there — no, a bit further down — next to our French fry selection. Here’s the wine and beer list. After all, you did put in those late nights at the office this week readying up your company’s new financial planning app. Your girlfriend told me about it while she was waiting for the table. I’m looking forward to downloading it.

The wait won’t be long, about thirty minutes or so. It depends on how long our other guests spend chatting and eating. We don’t rush people. Your kids are hungry, aren’t we all! We will give you the same consideration when you’re seated, of course. We sympathise. Dad ran himself hoarse meeting with new clients and mom fought the hoards at the supermarket. Oh. No? Sorry. Mom can’t speak after the office and Dad’s back aches from the groceries. There is no Dad? The table on the left! They’re leaving now. I will just be a moment, have a complimentary glass of ice-cold tap water while you wait. Brooklyn’s finest!

The music? Let me ask the manager if we can lower it. I think that os Magic’s ‘Rude!’ playing. Well, no, I guess I never did think the line ‘marry her anyway’ was explicitly misogynist. Ah, the kids at table three. I do realise how grating those high-pitched shrieks become. Would you believe I stepped on a French fry the boy in the Beatles’ yellow submarine t-shirt threw on the floor? I’ll tend to the situation. Would you like some extra condiments while you wait? Curry ketchup? Chipotle mayo? Sriracha mustard? All three! It’ll only be a minute. Happy burger time!

Our take out counter is straight in the back. Yes, back there. A menu? Yes, the menu is back there as well. If you could use the rear door, that would be greatly appreciated. As you can see we’re utterly packed up here. No, unfortunately we aren’t currently offering the bison burger. The market prices might kill your appetite. And who would want that? I’m afraid the elk burger isn’t available for take out. Ooh, the ostrich, um, we discontinued that last month because we discovered some unsavoury facts about local ostrich farms. May I recommend the turkey burger or, my personal favourite, the black bean veggie burger? It’s gluten-free, high-protein and goes great with smoky chipotle mayo.

Ma’am? Hi, I’m sorry to bother you. I see that you’re reading; however, we ask that you please refrain from occupying a table until your entire party has arrived. He may have left the subway a few moments ago, but we have other customers patiently waiting. And they’re here. Right now. Really ma’am, there’s no reason to call him. Please, save your phone minutes for something more important.

Voila! Here’s your salad, sir. You asked for the cherry tomatoes on the side? Ah, yes, it’s here on the order. How did the kitchen mess that up?! My apologies. Between you and me, sometimes our chefs aren’t as considerate of an individual’s preferences as they ought to be. Dining out should be relaxing! You don’t want cherry tomatoes marring an otherwise refreshing dinner. Your new salad will be out in a moment. I would wash the leaves myself if that wasn’t a violation of New York City health code. By the way sir, those glasses? I’ve been looking for a thick frame like that myself.

A high chair? We have plenty. I’ll bring one over for you. Phhhh. Quick, I need a high chair for table eight. Wait, we ran out of high chairs? But we must have at least ten for Friday night! Ugh, I’ll need to email the manager tomorrow to let him know we could use a few more. I just don’t want to go tell the family in matching Birkenstocks that we don’t have any left. No, no, it’s okay. I’ll do it, I just don’t want to. Yeah, look at table eight. Their shoes do match. Scary, right?

Hi, ma’am, sir. I’m sorry but it seems all our high chairs are currently being used. Yes, I can see the little one is squirming. But, working here, I’ve learnt that a mother’s lap is often exactly where kids most want to sit. Or the father’s! What about if I sent over some chipotle mayo, eh? Compliments of the chef! Well, no, it isn’t vegan. How about some extra French fries? Or, um, pickles? I guess I could offer some sparkling water. Two bottles of sparkling water? Your server will bring them in just a moment.

We’re open until 10:30 most nights, sir. Sometimes we stay open later if patrons wish to hang around and have another drink, get another round of French fries. People can’t get enough chipotle mayo. It’s addictive! Do I eat it? I generally prefer Italian condiments: balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and the like. No, I don’t usually eat a burger during break. It would be too much, I wouldn’t want to work after that. I usually bring my lunch — a sandwich or salad. Sometimes I get a bagel from the shop around the corner. Yes, ma’am, the wait is still around thirty minutes. People relish sharing a meal after a hectic day! I don’t know what they talk about either, but the important thing is that we provide the place. Happy burger time.

Image via Flickr

Five Friday Reads 15.05.2015

Ateneum, Helsinki

  • Culinary Complicity‘ from The Paris Review. Even if you swear you could live off of tonic juices from Organic Avenue, you’ll be craving a slice of chemical-steeped wine cake after reading about the dessert’s family origins.
  • On the home front‘ from Monocle (83). Once a building created for Franco’s regime, today Madrid’s Edificio Principesa houses a diverse cross-section of the city’s population.
  • Was margherita pizza really named after Italy’s queen?‘ from BBC Food. Zachary Nowak investigates the oft-repeated myth about the naming of Italy’s famous pizza margherita, revealing that the history isn’t as straightforward as we’ve been lead to believe.
  • Finnish Pancakes with a Side of Canada’s Labor History‘ from The New York Times. Despite the restaurants origins as a canteen for a Canadian town’s Finnish population, Hoito has gained a reputation for their dense, eggy pancakes, helping to remind the region of the once-visible Finnish presence.
  • Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. While Currey’s book reveals cracks in the myth of artistic inspiration, Daily Rituals shines when illuminating the everyday in all its mundane importance.

A Trip to the Museum

Louvre Pyramid

You’re in a room, surrounded by pots. The walls are off-white grey, the floor a cool putty tile. These pots, or amphorae as they’re described, are old, but their meticulous preservation belies their years. You should look as good at 5,000 years old. Or is it 1,000? You amble over to the nearest display case and count five — no, wait! seven — specimens studiously exhibited. In between the matching jars sit various attractive artefacts whose utility remains obscure to the modern eye. A quick glance at a nearby placard — the same silvery-putty as the display’s base and the floor — reveals that the amphora in the upper left hand corner dates back to 420 B.C. from the Greek colony of Lucania in Southern Italy. And that small, colourful who-knows-what? It’s a carved gem from 350 B.C. Welcome to the museum, home to history, hidden wonder and society’s shifting cultural priorities.

We visit museums to absorb our material past, thereby engaging in a dialogue with humanity’s values. Stroll through the galleries at the Met, British Museum, Hermitage or Rijksmuseum and you see society’s prized possessions: we saved this, this matters to us. These ostensibly immortal relics allow us to believe that we, too, could live forever. Every pot and painting possesses a creator who, like us, once ate, drank and slept and continues to speaks their descendents. Once categorised in a display case, the trajectory toward eternity seems simple; exist, make something, die, exist through object. Yet, as the museum-goer circles in search of the galleries they want to see realises, the linear path from artefact to immortality is a tortuous maze.

Despite the museum’s unique ability to curate a vision of humanity across temporal, spatial and cultural boundaries, they’re battling to stay relevant in a spectacle-obsessed world. New York’s Museum of Modern Art highlights stunt installations to draw drama-ready crowds. The Met creates blockbuster costume exhibits to fashion an Instagram-friendly museum experience. As Jerry Saltz argued in his article on the new Whitney building for New York , modern museums must make sure their galleries and exhibitions are hospitable to social media-minded visitors in order to gain the free publicity necessary to ensure their financial viability. From advance ticketing to comically long queues, the modern museum boasts the crowds of a pre-Christmas shopping trip. On one hand, this could illustrate a broadened appreciation for connecting with history and culture. On the other hand, the hype may hide a superficial interest.

Art Museum, Berge

If we visit museums, in part, to increase our social capital and fulfil our duties as good citizens, then we can say that the museum’s space is as important — if not more so — than the works on display in crafting our artistic experience. As the recent debate on the introduction of a Guggenheim in Helsinki reveals, a museum has the potential to change the mental geography of a city’s inhabitant, rendering them variously more open and closed to money, politics, and power in addition to aesthetics. The same tension exists within the galleries, which dictates the flow of people through the space. Walk through the central rooms — well funded with prime real estate and culturally pertinent artefacts — and you battle for floor space. Stroll around the periphery and you commune privately with the lesser-known artists, whom the local economy and political and cultural beat has forgotten. This struggle between excitement and emptiness suffuses today’s discourse on museums; it’s the struggle between maintaining integrity and winning public attention.

Some museums may effortlessly woo crowds with their compelling and popular artefacts, but most — as Helsinki’s Guggenheim debate displays — must rely on something else to generate interest. There’s the thrill of corroborating Munch’s The Scream against the pervasive imitations. There’s the awe at seeing Michelangelo’s David in its towering, marble glory. But most museums can’t boast grand cultural touchstones and no museum packs every room full of stunning, recognizable works. In the absence of in-built awe, the museum attendee must unite their personal interests, the museum’s collection and what history has to present through whatever means are at their disposal.

Take a spectacular Bucchero drinking-cup on view at the British Museum. To a modern mind, this Etruscan bowl-like mug looks relatively ordinary, apart from its large handles and odd etchings scrawled on the smooth black surface. Nothing about the mug immediately belies its 2,600 years nor suggests the importance of its written engraving for Etruscan scholarship (the Etruscans are notoriously mysterious in part because they left behind no written record apart from what’s found on artefacts). Stop, read and contemplate: there are cultural marvels hidden in the mug’s form. The online description says the etching reads, ‘mi repesunas aviles’ or ‘I belong to Avile Repesuna’. Although it might be useful to know that Avile was a common name for the Etruscans and that Repesuna was a family name, these facts seem secondary to the object’s underlying truth: 2,600 years ago this cup was an important object for someone as alive as you and I are right now. It belonged to someone who felt it important enough to write out the name of their father/master/husband/other relation on their drinking cup. More than a purely aesthetic representation of past cultures, the British Museum’s Etruscan Bucchero drinking cup incites us to reflect on our humanity and our relationship with posterity.

Marithuis, The Hauge

Yet our sparse knowledge of the works on display prevents us from engaging in personal reflection in museum galleries. In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton argues that the ability to ask questions about our surroundings enables us to bridge spatial, temporal and physical barriers. Unfortunately, short token descriptions of amazing objects detract from the visitor’s ability to ask questions and relate a foreign object’s historical context to their contemporary web of meaning. A black handled chalice might inspire perfunctory awe, but understanding how the Etruscan’s favourite mug developed into your extra-large Cath Kidston-flower bedecked drinking vessel requires complex consideration. Perhaps increasingly entertainment packed exhibitions and emphasis on social media prevent the individual from seeing the wondrous division between their current existence and the human history of the objects on display.

The tension between knowledge, interest and relevance characterises the pressures on today’s museums, which must find new ways to engage those accustomed to spectacle while celebrating the artefacts on display. Whether we’re asked to take selfies or analyse thought-provoking exhibitions, today’s museums ask the visitor to for a new sort of participation in forming their art experience. Given this interaction between individual, space and object, the museum teaches us not only about humanity’s history, but also about our current social climate. It is the museum’s ability to display a spectrum of history that demands they participate in current viewing trends. As art’s social role shifts, the museum must react to the shifting viewpoints of its patrons.

Five Friday Reads 08.05.2015

Bergen

  • The Tesco years: My love affair with a supermarket‘ from The Guardian. Among Tesco’s aisles of ready meals and packaged biscuits, lives unfold in sometimes happy, sometimes terrible, anonymity.
  • The Art of Fiction: Elena Ferrante‘ from The Paris Review. After years of silence, the author who writes as Elena Ferrante discusses literature, her writing process and her choice to remain anonymous.
  • How to Eat a Cheese Sandwich‘ from The Guardian. Cheese sandwich eaters take note: hard cheese, sliced thinly, on good bread. No margarine. Ever.
  • A Mother’s Cookbook Shares More than Recipes‘ from The New York Times. Splattered sauces, torn pages, broken spines, Kim Severson argues that old cookbooks reveal a chef’s mental geography better than their cooking.
  • Diets Are a Lot Like Religion‘ from Science of Us. Just as religion provides people with a structured world view, diets provide us with a codified way of dealing with the minefield of eating.