Search This Blog

Friday, February 19, 2021

Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours

From the Food Vault Dept.: Schenectady’s restaurant profile has never matched its demographics, but every now and then a dining establishment pops up that strays from the white-bread norm. How nice to see a New Orleans-inspired eatery appear a decade ago on a stretch of Union Street that was threatening to become a vital restaurant row; how tragic to see the place shuttered a few years later because of unpaid taxes. At the space now is a restaurant called Malcolm’s, diligently struggling through the pandemic.

                                                                                    

RECOGNIZED – AT LAST! I maintain an impressive anonymity at this job, despite frequent in-print descriptions of my size and usual dining companions, not to mention a scattering of likenesses in the webosphere. But, compared to many other markets, Capital Region restaurateurs don’t worry as much about reviews. They don’t post photos in kitchens; they require no need for pseudononymous credit cards.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
So it was with a mixture of pleasure and regret that I saw many eyes turn towards me at Café NOLA a few nights ago, sudden surprise in their eyes followed by a sense of wonder. And even as I began to allow myself to bask, I realized that their focus was on a spot somewhat above and to the side of my left shoulder. I turned to look.

Perched, or I should say newly landed on the service counter, across which all of the restaurant’s finished dishes are passed, was a strange amalgam of flying saucer and hero sandwich. It was large – about 12 inches in diameter, and half of that high if you measure to the top of the toothpick securing each of the sandwich’s quarters.

This is the muffuletta, a sandwich that may exemplify New Orleans better than any other single item. It’s a true melting-pot item, for starters, one that literally came together at the French Quarter’s Central Grocery early in the 1900s, named for the style of Sicilian loaf used for the sandwich or for one of its original customers.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Vienna Then, Brooklyn Now

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Capitol Chamber Artists presented 50 seasons of intimate works throughout the Albany, NY, area. Not surprisingly, their activities were put on pandemic hold. Here’s a look back at one of their charmingly themed events, this one from 1985.

                                                                                       

Capitol Chamber Artists continues to prove that you don’t need to import a glamour group from Europe for a fine chamber-music performance. In fact, the community-based ensemble provides a sense of neighborly informality that contributes a lot to the fun to the group’s concerts.

Aaron Copland
The ensemble amended its Sunday afternoon program at the Albany Institute of History and Art from “Vienna Then, New York Now” to “ ... Brooklyn Now,” because the two New York-based composers represented both hail from that borough.

Introduced by violinist Mary Lou Saetta and flutist Irvin Gilman, the opening work was Louis Haber’s “Six Miniatures for Flute and Violin.” Haber, himself a practicing violinist, wrote the piece while working on the Broadway show “Subways Are for Sleeping,” Gilman explained.
The six movements, which range from a march to a pastorale to a delightful South American dance, combine the instruments quite skilfully, and offer each a chance to display its voice. The performance, all the way through the fast perpetuum-mobile finale, was first-rate.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Valentine for Handel

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Another sweep of the classical-music offerings in the Albany, NY, area in early 1985. And you can see my review of the Munich Chamber Orchestra concert here.

                                                                                   

WE’RE BEING GIVEN a valentine all this year thanks to a year that was “portentious to the annals of music,” as an old source book (from which I once copied a school-assigned report) began. In 1685. Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti were born, and this year the classical-music boys are going berserk with celebrations.

George Frideric Handel
There seems to be more of a hangup about anniversaries with classical music than with any other creative field I’ve noticed – these 40th-anniversary-of-the-end of-World War II type of things seem more journalist-on-deadline-inspired than anything else – and make me wonder if there’s some problem in offering the music solely on its own artistic merit. You don’t need an excuse to listen to Bach (unless it somehow embarrasses you for social or political reasons, but this is the sort of pontifical twaddle that informs too much classical music writing).

There’s a Handel Spectacular slated for this weekend, a tribute to the big German-English composer by the Capitol Chamber Artists. (They say that Handel was in a restaurant in England once where he ordered a huge meal, then waited and waited for it to be served. He asked the waiter about the delay. “I thought I should wait for the rest of the company,” the waiter explained. “De gompany!” Handel bellowed. “I am de gompany!” (This story comes from the same source book from which I stole that phrase in the opening sentence.)

Monday, February 08, 2021

Eliza’s Husband

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome, at his debut in this blog, the very prolific Barry Pain (1864-1928), whose series of Eliza books are among the funniest books in the English language, certainly influential precursors to P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome. Here’s the opening chapter of the first book.

                                                                                    

“SUPPOSE,” I SAID to one of the junior clerks at our office the other day, “you were asked to describe yourself in a few words, could you do it?”

Barry Pain
His answer that he could describe me in two was no answer at all. Also the two words were not a description, and were so offensive that I did not continue the conversation.

I believe there are but few people who could give you an accurate description of themselves. Often in the train to and from the city, or while walking in the street, I think over myself—what I have been, what I am, what I might be if, financially speaking, it would run to it. I imagine how I should act under different circumstances—on the receipt of a large legacy, or if for some specially clever action I were taken into partnership, or if a mad bull came down the street. I may say that I make a regular study of myself. I have from time to time recorded on paper some of the more important incidents of our married life, affecting Eliza and myself, and I present them to you, gentle reader, in this little volume. I think they show how with a very limited income—and but for occasional assistance from Eliza’s mother I do not know how we should have got along—a man may to a great extent preserve respectability, show taste and judgment, and manage his wife and home.

Friday, February 05, 2021

My Little Dumpling

From the Food Vault Dept.: Albany’s Dumpling House was a revered institution during its two decades of operation, an old-school sit-down restaurant a little off the beaten path, but near enough to a Interstate exit to make it a convenient destination. Here’s a snapshot from two decades ago. The “Ron” who’s named as dining companion in the piece was actually Metroland’s founder and then-publisher, Peter Iselin.

                                                                                     

THE STORY OF CHINESE FOOD in America, like that of most other cultures whose cuisine is here embraced, is one of evolution. To put it another way, it becomes less about Asia and more about what this country likes to eat.

This was the basis of a backstage discussion I had recently with my friend Ron, a fellow actor in a show we’re currently rehearsing. He was lamenting the lack of the truly authentic, while I wondered if there were an authentic benchmark left anywhere in the world, so pervasive has our culinary so-called culture become.

Take the case of General Tso’s chicken. An immensely popular Chinese dish, it was born in the U.S., although it still (as far as I could determine) has a murky history. According to one source, General Tso is a historic figure who has taken on the aspect of a bogeyman – “Behave yourself, or General Tso will get you.” Another source suggests that the recipe originated in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

I once worked with a chef who studied Asian cookery and decided that you could make a reasonably authentic-seeming Chinese dish by sauteeing garlic and ginger with a dash of sherry in a wok, add meat and vegetables, season it and finish with a little cornstarch. I suspect that this philosophy was behind the creation of the Chicken of General Tso.

Monday, February 01, 2021

Bad Boy Goes Good: George Antheil

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Here’s a little snapshot of the Albany, NY-area concert scene at the beginning of 1985, when the Albany Symphony was weaving more recent works in with the classics (as it still, admirably, does), and when top-flight artist would land in the area for a performance or two.

                                                                                
           

GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL doesn’t share the reputation as troublemaker which both Beethoven and George Antheil had; still, his “Royal Fireworks Music” shares a place in the popular repertory with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, a place that Antheil’s Sympbony No. 4 doesn’t enjoy. So you don’t have to be a troublemaker to insure lasting attention to your music, although it might help.

George Antheil
Antheil’s symphony was written during the European beginnings of World War II; the piece was intended as a response to some of the brutal events that were taking place. First performed in 1944, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the NBC Symphony, the piece won enthusiastic critical response, yet it hasn’t received a place of any permanence on the schedules of symphony orchestras since then. Perhaps Antheil’s reputation, sparked by a single piece, has dogged him and aided this obscurity. The piece, “Ballet Mechanique,” scored for eight pianos, anvils, bells and a host of other contraptions, was written in the 1920s when machinery was being widely celebrated in music: Carpenter’s “Skyscrapers” and Honegger’s “Pacific 231” were among the other such works.

But Antheil outdid them for sheer noisiness. He spent many years in Europe, particularly with the Berlin State Opera. When he returned to the U.S. in 1933 he worked for a while as a journalist before traveling to “Mecca” (read “Hollywood”) to compose for movies, although his most often-heard score was for a British film, Ealing Studio’s “The Lavender Hill Mob,” which starred Alec Guinness and featured scenes in a fiery casting foundry.

Friday, January 29, 2021

From Munich with Hans

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Back when daily newspapers covered classical-music events, I often had the assignment both to preview and review an event. That’s what you see here. First the review, which had to be kept annoying brief, then the preview, which, with no interview available, became a rewrite of a press release. I’d say, “It was a living,” but I didn’t even make a living off of writing this stuff.

                                                                                             

THE PERFORMANCE by the Munich Chamber Orchestra at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall confirmed what listeners who’ve been able to find this group’s recordings already know: It’s a superb little group, led (as it has been for the past 30 years) by Hans Stadlmair. Although best known for performances of music from the Baroque and Classical periods, the orchestra also presented a very contemporary work in this concert, giving a nice variety to its programming.

Hans Stadlmair
Michael Haydn, brother of the illustrious Franz Josef, has gained a reputation for his prolific output only in recent years. His Notturno in F, which opened Tuesday’s concert, is a short, four-movement symphony with a lot of charm and nothing terribly memorable about it; it benefits most from skillful execution, and so it came across well.

Bach’s “Ricercare for Six Voices,” from “The Musical Offering,” requires very precise playing, laying bare, as it does, so many individual instruments. Again, the orchestra served it well, but so slowly that it verged on a dirge rather than a royal celebration.

Violinist Young Uck Kim has gained a notable reputation during the past 20 years, but his performances of Mozart’s Concerto No. 5 wasn’t the sort from which good reputations are made. Perhaps he’s more at home in the romantic works for his instrument. Mozart seemed to get a heavy dose of the romantic laid upon him, whereas a more successful approach would be to treat the piece as you would a Mozart aria: Discover its character and sing it through the notes rhather than try to twist the notes into a foreign characteristic.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Nevermore the Twain

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: At the beginning of 2019, the 92-year-old Hal Holbrook announced that he was retiring his one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight,” probably the grandaddy of all solo shows, and certainly the one most people think of when they consider the genre. Holbrook performed it for 63 years, accumulating enough material – all truly culled from Twain – that he could vary his performances at will. Now, a year after that announcement, Holbrook has joined Twain in wherever it is such talents posthumously meet. Here’s my review of an appearance in Schenectady 35 years ago.

                                                                                    

HAS HAL HOLBROOK’S ONE-MAN SHOW “Mark Twain Tonight” been overexposed? It’s been on TV, there was a commercial recording, and his presentation of it at Proctor’s Theatre Thursday evening was his third Twain appearance there.

Well, there are those, such as myself, who hadn’t seen the act before. And, based on the excellent quality of it, there must be those eager to see it again.

Because of the nature of the show, it is possible for Holbrook to vary his material so he has the freedom of a stand-up comic to play to the particular house he is addressing.

But that improvisational nature is tempered by the material itself: it’s all Twain’s. It’s up to the actor to affect transitions and delivery but he must be true to his sources.

Friday, January 22, 2021

The Raindancer Reigns

From the Culinary Vault Dept.: Now it’s 40 years for the Raindancer Restaurant in Amsterdam, NY, an area institution that is holding its own in these pandemic-straitened times. A modest, reliable place for a casual meal or more fancy fare, it offers seating – but check the website so you’ll know the current protocol. Here’s my review from a decade ago.

                                                                                  

IN MY NECK OF THE WOODS, which is to say rural Montgomery County, the big city is Amsterdam. Don’t even start with me about “Smallbany.” For over 30 years, the Raindancer Restaurant has dominated Amsterdam’s culinary scene, and with good reason. It’s a classic steakhouse, clinging to a tradition that has otherwise vanished. It has reasonable prices, contrasting ironically with the recent area phenomenon of pricing the stuff out of sight. And it’s family run, which gives it a friendly personality that chain restaurants never can achieve.

I wrote about the Raindancer 20 years ago and again ten years later. Except for the pricing and some physical expansion, little has changed. The salad bar still goes strong. The prime rib ($30) is still a hearty seller. The lighter-fare menu that was in place a decade ago gives lighter alternatives. A new emphasis on wine means that more of it is available and that periodic wine-tasting events are well attended.

The youthful servers are friendly and attentive, so there’s a comfortable sense of being in good hands. So let me quickly get out of the way the one problem I encountered.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Chair-Man Dances

From the Theater Vault Dept.: Life during social sequestration has inspired a torrent of movie-musical watching, the more vintage the better. Which set me to reminiscing about the worthy stage shows I’ve seen that seek to emulate such spectacles. Here’s my review of a 2007 tour of “The Drowsy Chaperone” that landed in Schenectady.

                                                                                         

BACK WHEN PORTER AND GERSHWIN AND KERN were cranking out their early scores and Fred Astaire was a stage star only, the American musical had a daffy innocence that took European operetta conventions of mistaken identity and social status conflicts, added a dollop of racial stereotyping and rolled it into a tuneful romp.

Could escapism be any more compelling, with live actors singing and dancing their way through their problems? Not as far as one lonely apartment-dweller is concerned – and he’s drawing inspiration from a scratchy LP of a musical devised nearly 80 years ago. This musical is, of course, The Drowsy Chaperone, and it boasted a cast of vintage stars whose lives are of just as much interest to the Man in Chair as is the show itself.

He sits in an overstuffed armchair in his cluttered urban apartment, and addresses us in the wry tones of one whose loneliness has long been leavened with wit. Musical theater is his salvation, and he wants to share with us this long-forgotten show. And so, easing his record player’s tonearm into the opening grooves of side one, he notes the familiar crackle – and then the rousing overture. Soon enough, the sound transforms into the music of a live orchestra, and the apartment is invaded by the high-stepping cast.

Friday, January 15, 2021

On Ice

From the Vault Dept.: Back in the day, I was eager to write about anything. When there was nobody else available or willing to cover a 1986 Ice Capades show in Troy, NY, I jumped (sans skates) at the chance, and got a pair of pieces out of it: A review of the performance itself, and an interview with then-star Scott Hamilton, who would be unceremoniously dumped by the corporate powers a couple of years later – but that impelled him to start the skating-performance group Stars on Ice. Now let’s go back a few years . . .

                                                                                     

THERE WERE MOMENTS during the opening-night Ice Capades performance Tuesday when you couldn’t be sure who was doing the “oo-ing”: kids or adults. The RPI Fieldhouse was filled with both to witness the latest in the ever-changing Ice Capades spectacle – and none was disappointed.

A special feature of this year’s program is Olympic gold-medalist Scott Hamilton, who performed two contrasting solos. Hamilton’s reputation certainly preceded him and he wowed the crowd with that blend of skating, dancing, and acrobatics that is unique to him.

He’s got some pretty good competition, too: solos by Robert Wagenhoffer, Priscilla Hill, Vicki Heasley, and Jeff LaBrake were top-notch, and there was superb partnering by the teams of Tony Paul & Terry Pagano and Burt Lancon & Tricia Burton.

In fact, Lancon & Burton, who threatened to steal the show at the end of the first half, returned to top that effort with an unexpected comedy routine.

Comedy is a staple of the Ice Capades program, and the British team of Biddy & Baddy brought to the ice a knockabout routine in the admirable tradition of Laurel and Hardy. It runs in the family: each has a son, and Dave ‘n’ Joey presented a sketch titled “Romance of the Vagabonds” that suffers no pretensions to highbrow humor. Appropriately, the four teamed up for yet another comic sketch.

Monday, January 11, 2021

87 Dance in Review

From the Terpsichorean Vault Dept.: Early in my arts-reviewing days, I covered a lot of dance, which was a joy. Then it became apparent to my editors that one person isn’t supposed to cover dance AND music AND theater AND food because ... well, you’re just not spozed to. But here’s a rundown of what I enjoyed in 1987.

                                                                                    

WHEN THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF DANCE in Saratoga Springs inaugurated its Hall of Fame last summer, it affirmed the region’s claim on dance as a summer institution. Happily, this sort of thing continues all year, and 1987 gave us excellent examples of that great variety.

The idea of the dance museum itself makes a lot of sense when you consider the similarities between dance and professional athletics. Both require top-notch physical conditioning. Both create individual stars. Both have the cult followings necessary to make a museum work.

National Museum of Dance
And what would a museum be without a hail of fame? The roster ranged from the back rooms of vaudeville to the elegance of classic ballet, and comprised Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Agnes De Mille, Isadora Duncan, Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Lincoln Kirstein, Catherine Littlefield, Bill Robinson, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn and Charles Weidman.

The inductees were honored in a ceremony on July 11 by former New York City Ballet member Maria Tallchief, who made a presentation that formally opened the Hall of Fame.

Friday, January 08, 2021

Amassing the Maestro

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Conductor Arturo Toscanini’s legacy lives on in an endlessly recycled set of recordings he approved for release, and an even greater number of bootlegs that circulate on various European labels and via collectors. RCA, then BMG, now Sony, offered a complete edition in jewel cases with a specially designed glass-door case, then supplanted it with a cardboard-sleeve version. Between those events, they put out a dozen two-CD sets that applied some newfangled digital technology to wrench a more pleasing sound from the recordings, which was achieved with mixed success, although the ones considered below came out nicely. Here’s my brief review of two such sets.

                                                                                    

THE LEGEND OF TOSCANINI the firebrand conductor is well documented by the recordings he approved for release by RCA Victor, most of which were made from rehearsals or radio concerts with the NBC Symphony from the 1930s to the ’50s. RCA, now BMG Classics, offered a once-and-for-all CD issue of all those recordings, available as a set or in individual volumes (you can pick up the set at a good price at the Berkshire Record Outlet, by the way).

So why a new series of Toscanini recordings on CD? Milking the catalogue is usually profitable for record companies, but this also has given the engineers a chance to unleash computer enhancements on the sound. The original recordings were made in Carnegie Hall or NBC’s studio 8H (where Saturday Night Live now lives), and they’re notoriously dry sounding. With the passing of certain guardians of the Toscanini legacy, BMG is free to alter the sound the maestro once approved, and the result is generally pleasing. They’re a little warmer, less harsh.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Have a Critical New Year

From the Vault Dept.: I started the new year, back when the year was 1996, with a list of sardonic resolutions that I, then in the midst of my restaurant-reviewing career, would heed. Did I? I doubt it.

                                                                                      

THE CALLER WAS EMPHATIC. “You’re too nice,” she said. “Some of those places you write about are so awful they should just be out of business.”

It’s not my job, I explained, to drive them under. I’m supposed to offer a considered opinion, based on my experience both as a frequent customer and a former waiter and cook. Like anyone who enjoys eating, I have my preferences and peccadillos, and you may well groan at the thought of them if you’ve read this column often enough. Possibly you don’t care if there’s glass on the tabletop. But to sit at that restaurant table silently sharpening my journalistic knife defeats the purpose of dining out. It’s supposed to be fun and relaxing, and I try to have a good time in spite of the serious efforts many places make to defeat that purpose.

Not that I’m unsympathetic to your pain. You go someplace everyone’s been raving about, you order a meal that’s going to set you back a bundle and everything seems to go wrong. Nobody takes your order for a stomach-churning eternity. When it does get taken, the server gets it wrong. The food takes forever to come out of the kitchen. Even then it’s not right. The server is arrogant about it, or just too stupid to be believed. It appears that management fled early in the night. And as you sign your credit card receipt, you grit your teeth and think, “I hope somebody reviews this place and really gives it hell.”

Friday, January 01, 2021

Kitchen for the Holidays

From the Food Vault Dept.: One of the joys of skidding into the year’s end was diving into the cookbooks that crossed my desk. Being no fan of televised cookery, I avoided the celebrity-driven titles, although, as you’ll note below, I wasn’t immune to the lure of such celebrity chefs as Ferran Adrià (whose elBulli restaurant closed in 2011) and Heston Blumenthal (whose Fat Duck restaurant continues to operate west of London). Here is the roundup I wrote in 2008.

                                                                                        

COOKING AND COOKBOOK READING are separate activities in my house, and I’m a devotee of both. Where others plunk themselves in front of the cacophonous Food Network, I prefer to enrich my culinary ambitions with the quiet majesty of the page. Then I photocopy the recipes that intrigue me so that the books themselves remain as pristine as possible.

Shopping from my list, therefore, puts you in no danger of presenting a loved one with some overhyped celebrity-driven screed. The celebrities we’ll meet are the chefs themselves, generally as insane as any A-list actor or music star, but at least proffering actual nourishment.

Heston Blumenthal, for example, injected one of his sous chefs with hot pepper essence and studied a brain scan of the result in order to pinpoint where the hotness hits. Dedicated? Insane? You might as well ask the same of Van Gogh or Beethoven. Blumenthal’s The Big Fat Duck Cookbook (Bloomsbury, $250, bloomsbury.com) celebrates the intricately creative fare at his Berkshire, England restaurant, a perennial Michelin three-star winner. Not surprisingly, this big fat book is to cookbooks as a Blumenthal entrée is to more standard fare: unpredictable and gorgeous, with a spectacular design by artist Dave McKean.