Tag: East Village

Setagaya at last

Saturday, March 1st, 2008 | All Things, Arts, Eats

At the Public Theater tonight for Unconditional, a new production by Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz’s LAByrinth Theater Company. The play, written by Brett C. Leonard and directed by 1992’s OBIE Award winner Mark Wing-Davey, is a study in racial tensions and urban isolation, played out in the overlapping stories of nine New Yorkers. Any synopsis of the complicated relationships would best be conveyed by diagram; the play’s natural comparison would be to the 2004 film Crash… another entry in the “everyone hates everyone else” genre. In Unconditional, though, the tensions are mostly confined to between blacks and whites, with one fiery Latina thrown into the mix — probably the most entertaining of the miserable bunch.

The staging was in the round, with scenes played out amidst sliding panels and in every nook and corner of the stage, which made for interesting, if occasionally obstructed views. It all began with a jolting bang (a Confederate flag burning and a hanging) and ended on a somewhat more hopeful note (a wedding). In between there were all kinds of brutality, and quite a bit of sex and swearing. The sprawling cast and rapid-fire series of vignettes made it difficult to invest much emotion into any of the characters’ plights; as a result, the violence and loss did not resonate as intended. What should have been horribly shocking, felt contrived, or worse: gratuitous.

Variety called the play “clever, attention-getting and not very nice”; The New York Times assessed that “the whole adds up to less than the sum of its parts.”


After such depressing fare, we went in for the comfort of ramen noodles. Months ago, we were thwarted in our first attempt to visit much-hyped Ramen Setagaya; this time out, the newness had worn off sufficiently for us to be seated with no wait. (Well, also, it was 10:30PM.)

The narrow glass-enclosed restaurant on First Avenue is the first U.S. location of a popular Japanese ramen chain — just part of a larger Ramenaissance afoot in the city. (See also: newly-opened Ippudo.)

Setagaya Ramen

To start, vegetable gyoza. Store bought (beware!), but nicely pan crusted:

Setagaya Gyoza

Setagaya’s signature ramen is the shio, or salt, ramen. I found the noodles pleasingly firm (there is a row of cooking timers on the kitchen wall to ensure this) and the toppings fresh — grilled-to-order pork slices (which I removed), seaweed, marinated bamboo shoots, julienned green onion, and half a soft-boiled egg, which had just the right custardy consistency. The super-authentic broth is “10 percent meat and 90 percent ingredients such as dried anchovies, clams, scallops, mushrooms, ginger, garlic, and (the secret weapon) Vietnamese salt, all boiled for five to six hours every morning.” It was light, with a complex, distinct seafood flavor which I rather enjoyed; those like my friend who prefer a heartier broth may be better served at Minca. (For what it’s worth, New York magazine likes Setagaya’s ramen the best.)

Setagaya Ramen

Oh, and on the way home, I met my first ever Academy Award winning director — riding the 2 at midnight with his son and Academy Award winning wife, no less.  Stars… they’re just like us!

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Back to the ‘roots

Friday, February 15th, 2008 | All Things, Drinks, Friends

At Grassroots Tavern tonight for SYB’s birthday celebration. CF and I headed to the East Village straight from the office and were among the first to arrive. Eventually, though, the revelers would total over 40 – all there to toast the man of the hour.

Grassroots Tavern is, not to mince words, a dive — “the only honest dive on one of Manhattan’s most gimmicky streets,” according to Time Out. Located in the basement of the landmarked Daniel LeRoy House, the bar has been around in its current incarnation since the mid-1970s, though its history as a drinking den dates to the 1940s. Cheap booze, low lighting, tin-pressed ceilings, battered wooden tables, dartboards (BYOD, though), an actual phonebooth by the front door and scary bathrooms…. the unpretentious vibe is a main reason that in 2007, Grassroots Tavern was named one of the 100 best bars in America by Esquire. There’s even a resident dog and cat prowling the grounds usually, though I didn’t see them tonight.

Worlds collided over mugs of beer, which was a fine thing… for the most part. And here, pitchers start at $9 – Bud, but still! – a price point rapidly going the way of the Noo Yawk accent. We sprung for the somewhat more upmarket Brooklyn Lager: it was a special occasion after all.

Grassroots Tavern

$1 baskets of popcorn were not going to tide us through this night. We weren’t nearly inebriated/college-aged enough for Mamoun’s next door, and the neighborhood’s tiny ramen joints probably wouldn’t accommodate our group of seven for dinner. We opted in the end to keep things simple by merely crossing St. Mark’s to Je’Bon — a newish noodle shop with a Thai, Japanese, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Cantonese menu. Usually I find such culinary schizophrenia suspicious, but the hour was late, and we were starving, so I was willing to make an exception here. And maybe it was the hunger, but my Pad Thai with Mixed Vegetable was surprisingly decent, and at just under $9, a bargain. I’ll remember this place for the next time I “trek through the tacky.”

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