There’s something singular about springtime in Manhattan – great food, great art and great energy.
A steady shower of white flower petals filled the air as the April wind blew along the brickwork and brownstones of the Upper East Side, from one river to the other, across a city set at full-speed ahead. It’s spring in New York City. The tulips are a blaze of color all along Park Avenue. Every flower box on every stoop and under every window is a vibrant explosion of color. The weather is still a little iffy — sunny days quickly give way to clouds and showers — but there’s no mistaking the season that takes us into summer.
I’m here for a psychic energy boost and exposure to the dimensional arts: sculpture, functional and non-functional, most of it blurring the lines between commercial art and fine art. Sure, there’s plenty of art in Los Angeles, avant-garde and cutting edge, but after you’ve driven all over town to catch a couple of galleries, eat lunch and maybe get stuck with a parking ticket or two, you’re exhausted. A more pleasant experience awaits you in Manhattan, land of efficient “cigar tube” public transportation that hurtles you off to new and exciting adventures in “Culture City USA.”
My adventure started with the opening night of SOFA (Sculpture Object Functional Art) at the Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side. The show runs for five days and happens every spring. It’s an art fair with 60 of the best galleries from around the world showing and selling dimensional art, both functional and non, with a major emphasis on design and handwork (what used to be called craft).
The big names are here: Ruth Duckworth in ceramics; Chihuly and Lipofsky in glass; William Hunter and Phillip and Matt Moulthrop in turned wood. There are fiber artists like Karyl Sisson and Judy Mulford and emerging artists like Jennifer Falck Linssen who works in cut paper — just to name a few.
Another amazing show to catch in New York this spring is at MAD (museum of arts and design). “The Art of Viola Frey” which runs thru the beginning of May is a must see if you are into the roots of California’s “funk school” of ceramics, when then-emerging California artists such as Robert Arneson, Clayton Bailey, Peter Voulkos and Frey were a huge influence on the newly blossoming school of non-functional ceramics during the late 60s. Frey, early on, used glazes to paint her characters in dynamic colors. She created colossal clay figures often depicting “domineering men and over-wrought women” in situations focusing on gender and power issues.
The Viola Frey show is running concurrently with a retrospective show entitled “California Dreamers” showing the work of the aforementioned “funk school” artists. This show alone is worth the trip. Run, don’t walk to catch it!
Okay, enough brain food — now it’s time to eat. New York is a foodie’s paradise, although you might suffer some hearing loss after eating in the many hole-in-the-wall restaurants. But who needs conversation when the food tastes so good?
Here’s a sampling; Hands washed, napkins on!
Dinner after the SOFA opening was a late night visit to a great Antipasto Bar called Café Fiorello, located across from Lincoln Center on the upper West Side. Moderately priced for New York, the fresh antipasto bar has a colorful variety of fresh mozzarellas, cured meats, fresh vegetables and seafood. The bar was packed, so I grabbed a table in a corner where I could eat and observe.
The baby arugula and caramelized pear salad was fab-u-lous and the goat cheese fritter with a black current vinaigrette (note dressing ordered on the side) was amazing, I was literally wiping the remaining dressing out of the carafe with my finger! OK, so I’d been up for 40 hours and my manners were slipping, but it was so good! That was followed by a basic Margherita pizza, thin crust, buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes — perfect Napolitano style.
I saved the best for last. Forget about the tiramisu, the NY cheesecake or the profiteroles and sorbets. Go straight to the Limoncello tart. Holy crap! (Can I say that while talking about food?) This was incredible (I don’t use the “to die for” thingy because that’s absurd, but this might qualify!) A good sized slice, a wedge if you will, of lemon tart with a brûléed caramelized crust on top and a graham cracker crust on the bottom with a dollop of crème fresca on the side.
Day two of this springtime adventure found me gallery crawling in Chelsea. The “score” visit was the Flag Art Foundation gallery on West 25th Street near the High Line to see a show called “Size DOES Matter,” curated by Shaquille O’Neal. Yes, that Shaq, who when interviewed about the show said, “I can curate!”
It was an interesting collection of odd works of three-dimensional sculpture with some flat work, paintings and photography. There are some 44 pieces in the show including the microscopic work of Willard Wigan, who sculpts scenes into the eye of a needle, yes your basic sewing needle. In this show, Wigan does homage to both Shaq, and to the Obama family (in separate needles of course). Most of the work plays with your head in one way or another, either by distorting your perceptions of the dimensional objects in front of you, or by pushing your values with some questionable depictions of underage females but still worth a visit. The show is up until May 27.
While in Chelsea, check out the High Line. It’s an urban renewal project where an old overhead rail line runs along the west side of lower Manhattan from the West Village all the way up to the Javits Center on 34th St. It’s being restored as an elevated park and walkway with a wild land restoration project that will bring back native plant varieties. With views of the Statue of Liberty at one end and the Empire State Building on the other, it will be a great walking tour when completed. And while you’re in Chelsea, check out the Empire Diner, for a classic “railcar” diner experience with a delicious blue cheeseburger experience with homemade potato chip fries.
For a great bar encounter, meet up with friends at Chow Bar on West 4th St. in the Village — very friendly staff and very interesting drinks. Ask Richard, one of the bartenders, for his “special” — a lycheetini, now my favorite. The Ginger Cosmo is good too. Sixty bucks will get you a real nice buzz and a guaranteed DUI if you were driving! They have food of course, Asian fusion with lots of interesting choices.
One great item on the menu, Chow Chow Fun, is just like it sounds and I recommend you try the stir-fried Brussels sprouts. For dessert: green tea ice cream sandwiches with gingersnaps and caramelized mango or crispy chocolate won tons with mint ice cream topped with crushed almonds. Yum! It’s a great little bar restaurant, and very reasonable.
The last food report for this whirlwind weekend to the Big Apple, not counting a stop at Grays Papaya for a couple of hot dogs, was dinner at Po Restaurant, 31 Cornelia St. also in Greenwich Village. To get there, you will pass by the most incredible cheese shop: Murray’s “We Know Cheese” and indeed they do.
For Po’s be sure to make reservations. It’s a very small restaurant and sound levels are horrible, but the food is fantastic. I started with a white bean bruschetta followed by roasted asparagus toasted almonds and fontina fonduto. For my first course, I had the orecchiette with sweet sausage ragu and broccoli rabe. This was actually really good but the rabe should have been seared a bit longer as it was a little bitter. Otherwise, the pasta and sauce was delightful. At this point, the noise level on my iPhone dB meter was pegging at about 130dB — time to go!
New York is one of the great cities on the planet; one of my favorites, great architecture, art, food, people and springtime in the Big Apple is the best time to be there. I call it the Goldilocks season, not too hot, not too cold — but just right!