Eating Badly in New York

Since there seem to be plenty of sources to help one find great food in NYC, I thought it might be useful to maintain  a running log of bad meals.  In part, coming from London, one often arrives with an inferiority complex, so I thought I’d test the assumption that food here is generally better than back home.  I mostly avoided the NYT’s higher-rated places, therefore this post focuses on more humble local joints (not necessarily cheap, especially when you include the 23.875-28.875% tax & tip wedge).

I started this 9 December with 3 entries, let’s see how many times I need update it…

Rego Pita (Rego Park): what was advertised as chicken breast sandwich, was nothing like.  Slimy pieces of thigh, possibly under-cooked (or juicy depending on whether you’re making it or fated to eat it), in a lumpen white doughy pita.  A steal at $10 apparently.

Boulevard Bistrot (Harlem): so I asked the waiter what the turkey meatloaf was made of – white meat or dark meat.  He answered, as if to say ‘you’re an idiot for asking such a stupid question’, that ‘well it comes as ground, how do I know whether its white or dark meat?’.  Or maybe he thought I was asking a politically incorrect question.  Anyway, I went ahead and ordered it, and got 2 rather dessicated slabs back, none of the touted wild mushroom gravy in evidence.  The meat itself, whatever went into it, was about 10% gristle, so I guess it was mostly dark meat – from the claw.  Or perhaps, this was soul food interpreted by a Japanese chef – tsukune (chicken meatballs) intentionally have cartilage in them to give them crunch – and they’re delicious. The beans, peas, and ‘tatoes were good, so maybe I was unlucky as the place looked promising and was recommended.  Total cost: $18

Boulevard Bistrot's freeze-dried ground-gristle-loaf garnished with ketchup and mushroom slices
Boulevard Bistrot’s freeze-dried ground-gristle-loaf garnished with ketchup and mushroom slices

Shalimar Diner (Rego Park): this is a bit unfair, as the place is sweet, and I will return.  But, again, the poultry was the culprit: instead of gristly meat, this was zero-texture turkey.  Really quite remarkable, 6 or 7 giant slabs of what could be reconstituted soy protein, on a rather good stuffing, all slathered in some unrecognisable flour paste garnished with liquified turkey-fat – I wouldn’t insult the venerable British white sauce by calling it that.  Again, to be fair, that is pretty much what American turkeys taste like, when I remember back to Thanksgivings as a child – and to some extent I’ve been spoiled by excellent free-range poultry in London – turkey, guinea fowl, and chicken.  Good martinis.  Cost: $18 (?)

Shalimar’s soy protein roast

Arunee Thai (Jackson Heights): Elmhurst/JH/Woodside are full of Thai places, and this place is a trendy take on the cuisine (flat long stone bar, nice lights, cocktails).  Lunch specials are $8-8.5, and include soup or salad.  I had a rice noodle with chicken and basil, and it wasn’t bad (though with enough fish sauce, soy sauce, garlic and grease, anything can taste passable).  My main issue was that both the noodles and the soup had chicken with a funky smell, like it had been cooked the day before or maybe two, and was slowly being warmed up for  the lunchtime punters by (what looked like a non-Thai) quick-order chef in the back.  On the whole, then, I thought style had trumped the food; instead, go to the lovely Khao Kang canteen on Woodside Ave instead – much more authentic, just as clean, and 100% Thai staff and mostly Thai clients.

Mission Chinese (LES): My basic gripe with Mission is that, for all the hype and queues, it just wasn’t that impressive, and more specifically, smothered with enough salt for the passage to hell and back.  It was perhaps unfortunate that I had eaten at the Mission pop-up on Bond Street a couple years back, and thus had something to compare to.  And perhaps lunch for one isn’t where the menu shines.  But still, you gotta have standards: I ordered the fried rice, beef dumplings, mapodofu, and celery dish.  The fried rice was fine, but unexceptional – for all the artisanal smoked bluefish in it, it was a refined Chinese takeaway staple.  Pock-marked Mother’s Chen’s tofu was pretty decent, but lacking in the Sichuan peppercorns which is, somewhat the raison d’etre of Sichuan food – and if the late lamented Grand Sichuan (on the Northern approach to the Manhattan Bridge) used far too much, this had practically none.  No notable trace of chili either – so perhaps it was  toned-down for the Midwestern palate that famously is part of Danny Bowien’s shtick.  The beef dumplings were mush – so whatever shin, tail or ear they used, they definitely cooked it to the consistency of gelatin.  The broth had a scent of dill, which I suppose is a conceptual nod to Ashkenazi-Jewish dumplings, but let’s just say no one, other than third-tier New York food writers, rushes to acclaim that food as a culinary paragon – and this version wasn’t particularly nice.  The celery with hazelnuts sounded interesting, and wasn’t a bad start.  Then, somewhere between the rice and the celery, I started hitting clusters of salt, and nothing was the same after.  Overall – Bowien had, at one time, a good concept, and remains a great showman.  Most importantly, the food was good when it was a scrappy, small, cult operation.  Now, with copious financial backing, and the pressures of being on the painfully trendy LES with its hordes of identikit entry-level office workers in Canada Goose coats, seem to have sapped quality and invention in his kitchen.


Oh I forgot to mention the idiotic website: a screenshot of a 1st gen web-browser that is ‘oh retro…awesome!‘.  Any click, say on the ‘Girl Skateboards’ link takes the hapless viewer to something called Reserve.  Reserve is an app, seemingly entirely in champagne for the inhibited rapper in you, that has to be downloaded.  It is the only way to book at the restaurant.  It might even require the bill to be settled on the app, and only Bowien the God knows what data it collects.  I wandered in off the street, as did the next table, but I’m sure the Canada Goose crowd has Reserve downloaded to their Fitbits, so no trouble there.

One good thing – the white wine – a Portuguese Moscatel was fab.



So after a few hours of walking the streets of Red Hook, Bushwick, and Ridgewood to see how far this ‘gentrification’ everyone bangs on about had gotten, I was delighted to finally find ‘Houdini Kitchen Laboratory‘ on Decatur Street in what looks like a large ex-factory studio complex.  The take-away is that the pizza was decent, soup great.  The reason to go is cultural: this is a very Italian place, in unexpected ways, and a fantastic addition to a benighted area.


I had just stopped in for a drink at Roberta’s, the avant-garde in Bushwick that is still best-in-class, despite crowds and slightly uber-cool attitude.  Between the two pizza joints was the opportunity, on Myrtle Avenue, to eat lots of fried pig unmentionables, fried plantains, stewed cow unmentionables, and so forth.  I quite carefully missed all that – save it for next time.

Anyway, I had been at Pioneer Works, in Red Hook, another ‘up-and-coming’ – that has no transport links with anything.  It was a fantastic day-long class on Software for Artists and so maybe I had Houdini on the brain.  The subtitle ‘Kitchen Laboratory’ reminded me of the contemporary trend, to bring art, and to a lesser extent, technology, into the restaurant.  Massimo Bottura in Modena is of course the Italian poster-child of this, who has received death-threats for his efforts. He in turn, has been influenced by Wylie Dufresne, Ferran Adria, and countless others, within and outside the molecular gastronomy crowd.

Houdini had, I’m afraid, nothing of the laboratory that I could tell.  It was a good-looking pizzeria in an industrial building.  But this observation serves to introduce my topic: a deconstruction of a pizzeria. Having spent some time in medium/small-town all over Italy, I thought the parallels fascinating – it really has nothing to do with the food.

Negroni: This seemingly simple drink is served in a multitude of ways across Italy – from the vast soda-glass pours of the Veneto that ‘cut like a knife and leave you more dead than alive’ (from The Art of Eating quoting Luca Veronelli, albeit on Sicilian wine) – to the perfection of the most humble Roman bar.  The pricing varies – cheapest has been €4 in Molise, and the national average is €6.  The Houdini version did a great job picking off the worst features of Italian negronis and giving them a NYC-boost: a smallish pour in a very nice glass, with an enormous fat shard of ice that wetted my nose every time I sipped, and, for grip, a fine layer of sticky Campari juice on the outside.  The iceberg is apparently a mixologist’s trope – not content to leave a 96-year-old, adequately functional, recipe alone – trained cocktail bartenders insist on molesting it with ‘barrel-aged bourbon’, fancy vermouths (Cocchi di Torino), and most painfully, massive blocks of ice that never melt.  Anyway, the price at Houdini – keep in mind, in a pretty grim bit of town – was $12.50, which with tax and a presumptive 15% tip, makes it $15.5.  Obviously NYC and Italian prices are totally different, but that gets to €14.35. More comparably, the London equivalent is £10.26, probably the most expensive I’ve had in the UK other than Dukes.


Lentil Soup: excellent, thin, no fat, not over-salted, basically perfect.  This is a staple of winter cookery across much of North-Central Italy, but particularly well-done in Padova and the cities of Emilia-Romagna.  It’s highest form, in my view, is when the soup is made exclusively of vegetables (a soffrito of carrots and celery, plus good lentils, say of Castelluccio [Umbria]), not relying on porky bits for flavour.

Migration: One of the most interesting, and encouraging, aspects of how Houdini was run was the demographic.  My order was taken by a lady who looked and sounded (in English) Chinese, but who seemed to speak fluent Italian.  The Chinese incursions into Italy are one of the lesser-known success stories of immigration – from textile workers in Tuscany to owners of hotels and cafes stretching from San Remo to the Veneto – they have even spurred a documentary (being in Italy, it’s structured as a reality-TV show).  In the kitchen was a man who was African or African-American, but spoke Italian, I think.  Interestingly, Italian kitchens are rarely staffed by Africans – the kitchen and flower-seller trades are the preserve of South Asians. The clientele was a happy mix of young (white, professional) people, an elderly English couple with perfect cut-glass accents and hair to die for, and, unlike at Roberta’s, a number of (apparently) working-class Hispanic and African-American diners.  My bill came to $50 before tip for 2 drinks, soup and pizza.

That ain't 'nduja

Pizza: The pizza itself was good for Ridgewood, but would be distinctly sub-average in Italy itself.  It was not greasy, nor slathered in nasty cheese.  Yet, for sporting a wood-fired oven, they weren’t getting the best out of it: the dough was not bubbly, chewy, or particularly charred.

Localvore: The idea of making food locally took Brooklyn by storm a few years ago, and has spread to East London, Berlin, etc.  Why it’s a great idea to make basic ingredients (sausage, cheese, wine, etc.) that depend on a particular terroir, and exist in a well-defined cultural context, in cold, wet, snowy cities, is debatable.  Anyway, I ordered ‘nduja on my pizza.  When it arrived, the ‘nduja was basically just spicy crumbly sausage, and tasty too.  I called the owner (dressed in the obligatory distressed, close-fitting, precisely ripped jeans that are the carapace of the some Italian males) over to discuss, and he tried to emphasise proudly that it was home-made, but after I invoked Cosenza, Metaponto, and Reggio Calabria, he admitted it wasn’t ‘nduja at all, because he couldn’t get the spices, pork, or preservatives.  After that, I didn’t dare ask what cow (never mind, buffalo) produces the ‘home-made’ burrata.  Having said all that, they get points for effort.

Lambrusco: To their credit, it was a tart, deeply violet, bubbly drink, pretty much as it should be.

Cash-only: The last small-town Italian giveaway was the cash-only, paid at the front table.  For whatever reason, in a city that almost universally takes cards in any decent restaurant, this was a cash joint – with a ($1.50 charge) cash machine in the back.  No further comment.

A Few Exhibitions in Chelsea – December 2014

I did my annual pre-Christmas peregrination around Chelsea’s commercial galleries: it would appear that Manhattan’s nexus of money and art is alive and well.  NYC’s tendency towards big, colourful, expensive, object-centred art is perhaps the subject of anguished navel-gazing and hand-wringing amongst certain corners of the art world.  Yet, the Chelsea galleries still are able to deliver exhibitions of a size, scope and brashness that other cities rarely match.  In contrast, London, for instance, conveys a distinctly provincial but charming feel, and intimate scale, in the quaint Georgian precincts of Mayfair (admittedly this is changing as the likes of Marian Goodman and Sadie Coles increase their footprints).

Navid Nuur
Navid Nuur
Group show at Andrew Kreps (Dianna Molzan on the far wall)
Group show at Andrew Kreps (Dianna Molzan on the far wall)

First off, after a failed attempt to find a decent espresso bar in Chelsea, I hit a group show at Andrew Kreps, the most interesting work at which was Navid Nuur’s light sculpture.  There were some rather unexciting deconstructed paintings by Diana Molzan (think wrapped stretchers, nets, grids, referencing Modernist tropes).

Martin Puryear


Martin Puryear
Martin Puryear

Then onto the Martin Puryear show at Mathew Marks, which was built around the shape of the Phrygian cap, that of the French Revolution and similar also to a Venetian Doge’s hat.  He explored the shape in an exhaustive range of materials, most of which were exquisitely fashioned in wood, tar, bronze, wire, paint.  His thing is the use of traditional craft techniques, like joinery, to produce unashamedly beautiful sculptures.  While the physical manifestation of Puryear’s skill was very impressive, the show as a whole didn’t really rise above a demonstration of virtuosity with materials.  There wasn’t enough of an overall narrative, although the PR made references to colonialism, ethnicity, etc., to make it work for me, particularly in comparison to some of the other shows (see below).

High-end condo complex going up on 22nd (?) street
Yet another high-end condo complex going up on 22nd (?) street

Gagosian ran a large show of Picasso photographs, drawings, films, objects, and paintings.  As expected, it was museum-quality, and staffed by burly, yet perfectly civil, security guards. About 30 of them.  The show itself was mesmerizing, drew on John Richardson’s scholarship, and was yet another step in Gagosian’s contribution (after the London show in 2010), or exploitation depending on your view, of the Picasso art-industrial-complex.

RH Quaytman Fibonacci installation
RH Quaytman

One of the best exhibitions was R.H. Quaytman at Gladstone.  She considered, effectively and eloquently, the vexed question of ‘how to take painting forward’?  Her works sat squarely on the border of painting and sculpture, via the path of installation and architecture.  They were system-based, linked back to the Fibonacci sequence, so had enough for the mind, while being firmly aesthetic, manual, and physical in their presence.  Their was an obligatory social-critical aspect, the show having originally being made for an installation in Inhotim Museum, Brazil.

RH Quaytman

While on the topic of painting I should mention the MoMA survey of the future of painting, which includes a number of recent acquisitions of younger painters, such as Oscar Murillo. Unfortunately, it hadn’t opened yet to the public, but the review in The New York Times was not a full-throated endorsement. 

George Condo
George Condo
George Condo


George Condo’s exhibition at Skarstedt was of all-new work, and notable for the increased emphasis of erasure and deletion of the image, than in much of his earlier oeuvre.

Hans Haacke piece relating to Koch fountains at the Met


Hans Haacke
Hans Haacke maquette/plans for Trafalgar Square

Hans Haacke at Paula Cooper was mostly of older work, however, in a side room, there was a deep-dive display, with drawings, resin casts, text, and photographs, into his commission for the Fourth Plinth of Trafalgar Square in London.  Nothing drastically new here, but a mute yet visible reminder that money and art are, and have always been, more-or-less two sides of the same coin.

Thomas Scheibitz
Thomas Scheibitz
Thomas Scheibitz
Thomas Scheibitz


Thomas Scheibitz at Tanya Bonakdar was another strong show that considered the borders of painting.  Unlike the Quaytman show, his references seemed more internal to art history, specifically the artist’s studio, rather than to the world-outside-art, and if I had only seen the ground floor large, neon-coloured abstract paintings, I might have walked out disappointed.  However, on the second floor, he extended his painterly idiom into reliefs, sculptures, installations, and a large wall-mounted mural on plastic.  His materials were diverse: wood, plastic, fabric, canvas, metal, resin.  Both this and the Quaytman were superior to the Puryear, IMHO, because of their more effective connection of material and form with concept and narrative.

Franz West sculptures for Documenta 9
Franz West sofa
Franz West bar
Franz West


But David Zwirner carried the day with Franz West, Richard Serra, Neo Rauch, and Christopher Williams, which I guess explained why he was walking about beaming and expansively welcoming well-heeled European collectors. The Franz West works were mental, and this was as much a retrospective of Zwirner’s relationship with West, as of West’s oeuvre itself.  The original, massive white heads from Documenta 9 (1992) were there, and a roomful of brilliant coloured sculptures, 2 couches to be sat on, and 2 Passstucke to be handled.  There were examples of West’s incorporation of other artists’ drawings and paintings, and even a small bar with materials for a Negroni (the guard didn’t let me make one sadly).

Franz West
Franz West
Christopher Williams
Christopher Williams
Christopher Williams, note removed wall section
Christopher Williams, note removed wall section

Christopher Williams’ show followed on the MoMA retrospective, and continued with Williams’ threefold concerns: an exploration of photography via photography; the institutional structure of art display; and the book as art-form.  Various walls in the gallery had been re-sited, and in the MoMA show some of the walls from his previous exhibitions had been transported into the MoMA space.  The photographs continued his, to paraphrase Peter Schjedahl in The New Yorker, nerdy interest in the process and, increasingly archaic, relics of photography, of Agfa, Fuji, Ciba and Leitz.  Lastly, his new picture book was completely devoid of any text, a counterpoint of the MoMA catalogue, which had almost no pictures.  It was hugely covetable, albeit dear at $120, before tax.

Zwirner’s Serra show was distinctly disappointing, the drawings being small (about 150x60cm), and giving an impression of moderately-priced objects sold to discerning collectors who can’t afford, or house, one of the larger drawings, not to mention the sculptures.

Neo Rauch
Neo Rauch at David Zwirner

Lastly, Francesco Clemente at the Rubin was a homage to India. It didn’t particularly touch me, and certainly paled in comparison to the Himalayan art, and the Marc Riboud photographic exposition. I was reminded of the Rauschenberg Jammers show at Gagosian in 2013, which, with its vastly reduced formal vocabulary, gave much more of a sense of India than Clemente’s figurative and naif paintings.

Francesco Clemente
Francesco Clemente
Marc Riboud’s Leica M6 at Rubin Museum


Marc Riboud at Rubin Museum
Marc Riboud: workers in China
Marc Riboud: Le Corbusier buildings in Chandigarh, India
Marc Riboud: armourer in Peshawar, Pakistan



NYC Gallery Review December 2013

It’s always fun to see what’s doing in the New York City gallery scene, particularly the great big Chelsea barns on 19-24th street off 10th Avenue.  I’m personallyless keen on either the stuffiness of the Upper East Side galleries, grand as they are, or the acheingly hip but still pretty grim scene in Bushwick.  In any case, there are too many to see, so this is a sampling.

First, Richard Serra at Gagosian – Larry uses his space well: three massive rooms filled with massive structures, that however don’t have the  precarious balance, and associated frisson, of the sculptures at (for instance) Hauser in London.

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Franz Erhard Walther, in his first showing of new work in NYC in 22 years, at Peter Freeman.

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Isa Genzken’s retrospective at MoMA: while I personally preferred her early work to the more recent pieces, one has to admire her ability to successfully juxtapose and assimilate such radically different source material, often taken from that bugbear of our time, popular culture. Her amazing creative bandwidth transmutes what is ostensibly a rag-bag of cultural detritus,  into something potentially great, though it still may be an acquired taste for at least one viewer.

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Ad Reinhardt’s lovely, surprising, transcendent black paintings atDavid Zwirner.  It would be easy to walk in and out and dismiss them as monochromes, but these rewarded careful looking as browns, purples, greys, blues, reds all pulsed in and out of the perceptual field.  I didn’t love the cartoons and drawings, in comparison, but there you are…

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The star for me was Thomas Demand’s Dailies at Matthew Marks.  Similarly to his earlier practice of re-constructing interiors from photographs in news magazines which are then photographed, here he fabricates out of paper scenes based on his own cheap cell-phone photos: theatrical sets of banal scenes.  These are then photographed, and then printed using the dye-transfer process, and obscure and difficult art mastered by, amongst others, William Eggleston.  The result are richly coloured, yet somehow flattened and unreal or surreal; and it doesn’t really matter if one knows the scenes are entirely fabricated.  The effect is almost painterly, in its geometric emphasis, flatness, and abstraction (almost complete evidence of anything personal, dusty, dirty, etc.)  The scenes are still vaguely familiar, any of us could have taken them with our iPhones, but of course they wouldn’t look anything like these.

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Cyprien Gaillard fills Gladstone with digger buckets.  The buckets are separated from their context, and it would take more of a specialist in diggers to work out whether these are actually all real buckets (note the funny shaped ones on the right).  The surfaces of the buckets, the teeth, and so forth, are re-worked, cleaned, oiled, soldered, and again it’s hard to establish what is original and what is an artistic intervention.  The pins that would have attached the buckets to the diggers have been replaced by onyx rods.  A presumably expensive production, but mesmerising, at least if you like heavy metal.

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Alexandre Singh at Metro Pictures.  These are bronzes of the heads and masks, drawing from Attic theatre and the comedies of Aristophanes, that the chorus of his play The Humans wear.

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Reinhard Mucha’s show at Luhring Augustine was pretty crazy, with his trademark vitrines that look like cross-sections of insulated windows.  Here he also had an elaborate train-set based sculpture.

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Jacob Kassay’s show at 303 Gallery was okay, if you want to see slightly tired conceptual discussions about deconstructed paintings played out on a gallery wall.  Lots of broken up stretchers, covered with canvas, in non-rectangular shapes, and obscure books with pieces of perspex stuck in them.  Quoting from the PR, “Kassay has reproduced the stretchers initially built to conform to these discards…for entirely new paintings….[he] applies an atomized acrylic paint…the paintings’ surfaces simultaneously condense as solid textures and diffuse into a depth-less fields [sic] of pixels. Oscillating between these dimensional states…”  You get the idea.

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A fine show of Gary Hume at Matthew Marks

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Metro Pictures also had a rather good show by Isaac Julien, about the relationship between money and the art world.  The show was made up of a large film, PLAYTIME, that had beautiful shots of the desert and Iceland; as well as a smaller two-monitor film KAPITAL that actually made Marx a bit less dreary.  There were also a number of large-print photographs.



In Bushwick, Luhring Augustine showed Michelangelo Pistoletto’s earlier work (starting in the 1960s), of considerable breadth when compared to the mirror works that somewhat dominated his 2011 show at MAXXI in Rome.  One of the below wasn’t exhibited at Luhring !

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There were upwards of 20 dealers, project spaces, rent-a-spaces, etc. in the Lower East Side, some of which had pretty forgettable work.  An exception I thought was Sangram Majumdar’s show Peel at Steven Harvey.  It had a number of strong paintings that remained firmly within the boundaries of traditional painting.  The fact that they didn’t rely on performance, tedious text or conceptual frameworks, video, sound, carpets, steel girders, and so forth, gave them economy of means and thereby a formally constrained power. All the more laudable in the current context of painting’s much-exaggerated demise.

missingpieces step right up

Two final comedy scenes – the one on the right being the queue, in bitterly cold conditions, to see Yayoi Kusama’s installation at Zwirner.

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