Tuesday, June 22, 2010

America's Least-Known Small Art Town

Vision, love, commitment, personal passion... these are the qualities necessary to create something truly great.

Even the great group projects—the Internet springs to mind—rely fundamentally on the love and passion and personal commitment of individuals, just, lots and lots of them all tuned to the same spiritual channel. Anytime I stumble across something wonderful, it has been made by an individual, and reflects that person's priorities instead of those of the market, and I'm grateful for it.

This leads me to my favorite small museum in America, the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, MA.

Icons, for those who don't know, are Russian religious art, usually painted by anonymous artists on wood panels and used to give orthodox churches their eerie every-surface-painted beauty. You know those onion domes you see in photos of Moscow? The inside of the dome is usually painted with eyes and a face, representing God looking down. Ceilings, walls, etc. are all hung with icons depicting religious stories. The gleaming, dark-painted, cyrillic-emblazed, gilded panels are also used in orthodox homes, where there will be a spiritual "icon corner." And they're given as gifts for important life events such as the birth of a child, in that case, it would be an icon representing the child's name-saint.

Like most religious art, with icons, god is in the details. You need quite a bit of cultural context and narrative to understand and appreciate a panel, and this has always been a problem with how icons are displayed in Russia. I've seen several wonderous collections that are either not explained, or explained by guides with poor English and a grasp only of tourist cliches and apocryphal anecdotes. Under those circumstances, once you've seen a few icons, you've seen them all.

Well, enter the newish Museum of Russian Icons in the sleepy country town of Clinton, Mass. This is a beautiful small museum in a renovated mill building, staffed by amazing docents who hop up and start chatting with you when you enter the room. The museum is enhanced by every modern art educational tool—video, audio, etc. Individual magnifying glasses are mounted with each artwork, allowing the viewer to peer at every tiny jewel-like detail. And unlike every museum I've been to showing icons in Russia, the work here is properly lit.

The project is the idee fixe of a local entrepreneur, who started collecting icons in the 90s, when
Russia was in disarray. This is stuff that definitely wouldn't be allowed out of the country now—that it ever made it across the borders is controversial, and upsetting to Russian art lovers. The entrepreneur is from Clinton, made his icon-collecting money in manufacturing in Clinton, and decided to give back to the town with the museum, despite the fact that this is an utterly weird place to have such an esoteric collection, the largest and best outside of Russia, and the best-presented of anywhere on earth.

I think it's a must-see daytrip for anyone visiting Boston, or in the Boston area. The little town also has a good Italian restaurant and some fun thrift-shopping, if you're into that.

Here's me and Ada here over the winter:

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Clubs and bars in St. Petersburg, Russia

Every time I've gone to St. Petersburg, I've been frustrated by how difficult it is to find good places to go out at night. It's one of those towns that you know has a cool scene. Russian-language reviews mention tantalizing items such as "the fashion of minimal techno and rowdy parties in teahouses on Nevsky. " But such things are almost entirely hidden from tourists. The following list includes a few places I've been myself, and a few that sound good from their listings on trusted Russian-language sources. As usual with things Russian, the websites/ phone answering is slim, and hopefuls will have to make do with optimism and an address. I plan to make it to St. Petersburg this summer, and will be able to make this entry more reliable, but in the meantime, this info will still be better than anything else online in English on the St. Petersburg nightlife scene. If you know to the contrary, please comment (below).


12 Sadovaya St, +7 812 925 40 o0
A cafe during the day and possibly a glamtrash bar at night. From the restaurant group that does Mari Vanna in NYC, London and Moscow, as well as many other cool, nouveau-tasteful places in St. Petersburg.

Chinese Pilot (Kitaiskii Lotchik)

7 Pestelya, +7 812 273 74 87
I'm assuming this is a St. Petersburg venture from the owners of Chinese Pilot in Moscow. The Moscow version, way back in the day, was opened by one of the managers of the original Krisis Genre and is still going strong as a music venue, cheap restaurant and late-night drinking venue with a young, bohemian clientele. St. Petersburg version looks to be cut from the same cloth.

Druzhba ("Friendship")

39 Ligovsky Prospekt
Tiny and very cool DJ bar with chilled-out music and backgammon that recently appeared in a cellar under an art gallery. Also serves crispy waffles with condensed milk.

Efir (Ether)

Small Ave. PS 54-56, Friday and Sat only
A big, splashy new venture by many pedigreed Petersburg nightlife folks. Techno music and a kitchen concept—cheap Chinese-inspired— that hopefully is better than it sounds. Translation of Afisha review here.

Et Cetera

9 Belinkskovo; +7 904 551 00 25
Nice design, seems to be affiliated with an experimental theater and may have interesting cultural events.
Translation of Afisha review here.

Fish Fabrique

53 Ligovsky Prospect
The first bar-club in the city, famously located in a squat and to this day a mix of students, local intelligentsia come for the concerts and exhibitions, and tourists. Divey with cheap food.

Club Griboeydov
2a Voronedzhskaya; +7 812 764 43 55
Another very old, casual, underground club and music venue. Listing at the moment is for an acoustic jazz jam.

22-24 Fontanka Embankment, in the courtyard; +7 812 275 05 20
Russia's violence and homophobia makes any openly gay person or venture an act of resistance. I'm always both nervous and thrilled to see one, especially one with a great name like this. Papa Protif could be roughly translated into 'father is against it.' There maybe be a sexier play like there would be in english with 'daddy against,' or I may be stretching it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Two Perfect Meals and one Disappointment, NYC: Omen, Red Hook Ballfields, Sripraphai

Well, I had a near trifecta of perfect meals this weekend, starting on Friday night when meeting Ivan for dinner in Soho.

Soho is not a location I'd ordinarily seek out, but we were going to a party later at 60 Thompson. The problem is that the restaurants haven't changed much since the '90s, when I worked in the neighborhood and got sick of every-thing. Stumped, I checked Salmaland, but didn't find a suggestion right for the moment. Finally I remembered Omen, a place I used to frequent with a friend in yes, the 90s, but always loved. And man, it has only gotten better. The sushi was of higher quality than any I've eaten in NYC in recent memory, including Blue Ribbon, Nobu, Japonica and 15 East. And Omen isn't really even a sushi restaurant, it's a Japanese restaurant that has sushi among a menu of other options. We ordered a tempura and a mushroom and vegetable dish, both of which were divine. The vegetables, served warmish in a puddle of mild broth, were the kind of vegetables like my Canadian friend Jason Logan made one night at a dinner party and I've never forgotten, vegetables more like vegetable-shaped jewels. Vegetables with dense or rich or creamy textures like no vegetable you've ever eaten. Like some elaborate hoax where the vegetable has been sculpted out of hot custard. But no, they are just vegetables, cooked in secret Canadian or Japanese ways.

Omen is also nice because it's a small restaurant with a beautiful interior brick wall and exposed shelving holding an eclectic collection of pretty little Japanese dishes, deployed with flair for matching the food. And the clientele is romantic and subdued in an old New York, almost Woody Allen way. Loved it.

The second stellar success was the Red Hook Ballfields, about which so much ink has been spilled, I need not add any more. Latin American food carts out every Saturday in the summer with the stuffed-tortilla papusas from El Salvador, tacos, slathered-and-spiced grilled corn, horchata, sickly sweet aqua fresca, etc. A great summer day trek from Ikea or pre-Fairway. Probably because I live in Red Hook, I've been less than a convert to this phenomenon. It's way hot over there and the lines are long. However, this weekend, I became a true believer. The lines weren't that bad, and the papusas from the Salvadorian cart were the world's most perfect marriage of flaky-light tortilla, shredded meat and gooey cheese. Also, my picky little papoosa ate an entire one, and was begging for more.

The disappointment was Sripraphai, another super-cult New York place, this time for Thai, and buried deep in Queens. Ivan and I go here pretty regularly, and for a while I have been contending that it doesn't live up to the hype. Yes, it is better than most NYC Thai restaurants. They load on the chilies in real Thai-style, salads have that stinky fish-sauce funk, meats are battened in sugar.... But, it's still restaurant Thai, that is, junky, somehow unwholesome Thai. We are spoiled because we are better Thai cooks than you'd find in any restaurant. But we don't think this restaurant is really worth the long subway ride out to Queens.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Natura Korean Spa L.A., even more of that West Coast decadence, great massage

Visiting my friends in L.A. is visiting my alternative, better life. In this sunnier existence, it's all about spa-going and parties and shopping and cooking and drinking, and all my friends are lesbians in the film industry or sex educators. To me, this is heaven. In my L.A. home-away-from-home, there is a Meyer Lemon tree in the back yard and a peach tree in the front. And people are inclined to take the day off work, just to hang out with me.

Like, Friday, LD and I went to the Natura Spa which is her favorite Korean spa. She likes it primarily because it has a mugwort bath of the right, hot-but-not-too-scalding temperature, and because most of the clientele is Korean. (Funny: we were surrounded by a group of three Korean women around our age at one point, who were speaking in English about breast-feeding and co-sleeping, and I was like, ha, conversation the same across all cultures!) I love Natura too. It's big, totally clean, gives you free admission when you order a spa treatment (we do scrub and massage), and has a wonderful dry sauna, an aromatic steam room, a large hot pool, the mugwort and an icy plunge pool. There's also a radiant heat floor in the chill out room where people take naps after, or sip hot or iced barley tea. Delicious.

Mugwort, by the way, is supposedly good for the menstrual cycle and uterus, eases aches and pains, and has benefits to digestion.

The scrub, which I highly recommend, is effected on a blue-vinyl table in a room off the main area, by a one of a fleet of Korean women in their black bra and underwear and is excruciatingly painful and takes off probably a pound of skin. It's a mystery to me how something so rough and agonizing can also put a person to sleep, but that's always the end result for me. It's like being intensely beaten into relaxation, which as a New Yorker, I need.

The massages, in these places, are not usually the most trained, but this weekend I had a life-changing one (ask for Jenny). Also heard a woman in the locker room talking about how determined her masseuse had been to get out her knots.

So, that's one of the secrets of my L.A. The spa is in Korea town and makes a good segue into Korean dinner at one of the cool BYO storefronts with delicious tofu or noodles.