Starry Tables: My Best Meals of 2014

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nahmIt’s a big, tasty world out there.  I know, I know, this sounds like quite the headscratchingly obvious statement, but sometimes, as I go through my daily perusal of online articles and social media, I’m just flummoxed at the number of Twitter fooderatis and food writers who seem to think the holy triumvirate of New York City-Chicago-San Francisco provides all the food-related news fit to print (or tweet or Instagram or happy dance to). Oh well, to each his or her own I guess. I’ve always been preoccupied with culinary context and as I said in last year’s dining roundup, I don’t believe you can really fully understand the cuisine and its historical, cultural, and sociological influences and associations unless you’re eating it within the geography it’s from. Fortunately, my life and job allowed me to eat well and thoughtfully this year in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco (yep, so I did traverse the triumvirate this year as well too, so, uh, sue me), Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, Macau, Manila, Washington DC, Austin, San Diego, and Milwaukee.  I was lucky to eat at many great places this year, but though some of them had Michelin stars and World’s 50 Best restaurants rankings, my meals there were memorable and compelling because they were not only exceptionally delicious, but they clearly represented and illuminated the place of cuisine – ingredients, cooking techniques, the relationship of cooks and purveyors – within the larger cultural and historical framework.  Here then are my best meals of 2014:

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Shining Through

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I’m back! And no, I wasn’t cocooned inside Noma’s Nordic Food Lab trying to make edible moss or permanently ensconced as family butler in the Dustin Lance Black-Tom Daley household for the past few weeks. I was jaunting around Asia visiting family and friends, and sampling, as always, some of the best food you can have on the planet (stay tuned for my soon to drop Best Dining of 2014 to read about some of my Asia culinary adventures).  I was particularly intrigued by what I was hearing from both friends in the Philippines and Pinoys passing through Chicago that my hometown of Manila has started to see a burgeoning chef-driven restaurant scene.  Don’t get me wrong, Manila has always offered an abundance of culinary pleasures (as Anthony Bourdain wisely sampled) , but in my  annual trips over the past five years, I’ve always been to restaurants that served hearty, rustic Filipino food, either traditionally or with slight, modern twists to them.  Unlike Hong Kong and Singapore, and now increasingly Bangkok, Manila’s thriving, energetic restaurant scene hasn’t always been known to contain many bright examples of places driven by a single chef’s vision, ambition, or drive.  But with the Philippines experiencing impressive GDP growth averaging around 7% annually, second only to China in the region of the world that economists, wealth managers, and savvy businessmen have anointed as defining the 21st century, it would logically follow though that more disposable income and a more affluent professional class would exist in the country’s capital city. And that Filipinos who have studied, lived, and cooked in the US, Europe, and developed Asia, would come back to a booming, ambitious, opportunity-filled metropolis and open their restaurants. I managed to visit a couple of them during my Manila trip, but Mecha Uma which presented the unique cuisine of 25 year old wunderkind Chef Bruce Ricketts (the closest I can describe it as is Filipino-Japanese-global) gave me one of my most memorable meals of the year, blowing away without a doubt some of the meals I’ve had in Chicago.

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What Lies Beneath

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atc the humansWe’re very fortunate that Chicago has become quite the incubator of new plays for the national theater scene. But that’s a double-edged sword: as I’ve said on this blog over the years and over at the Twitterverse, many of the new plays we Chicago theater-lovers see are truly new plays, needing rewriting, editing, tightening, and improving based on how a playwright sees and hears his or her words performed by actors and received by live audiences for the first time.  Sometimes though we get lucky and come across an August: Osage County or an Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, fully-formed and perfectly-realized works, but they do come far and few between. Most of the time, we’re suffering (quietly and heroically because we do love supporting new work!) through something like Ask Aunt Susan.  Several years ago, I was blown away by American Theater Company’s world premiere of Dan LeFranc’s luminous The Big Meal which traced the life, loves, and heartbreaks of a middle-class American family. It went on to raves off-Broadway but seeing that play without any knowledge of previous productions was exciting for me.  Lightning can strike twice it seems, since ATC is at it again with another superb world premiere of a family drama, Stephen Karam’s achingly beautiful The Humans which will receive a New York production in Roundabout Theater’s 2015 season. This is a great, memorable production directed by ATC Artistic Director PJ Papparelli, and you should be able to tell your pesky New York theater aficionado friends that you’ve seen it first. Because I can bet you they will run to get tickets for it, and love it as much as you do.

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Women on the Verge

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court iphigenia in aulisIf you’ve been around these blog parts for years, you’d know I’ve outed myself as an inveterate lover of Greek tragedies years ago. One of the most indelible and enriching cultural experiences I’ve had this year (as well as within the past five years), was The Hypocrites’ All Our Tragic, the 12-hour adaptation of all 32 existing Greek plays staged earlier this summer which reinforced for me the fact that all the stories I love and admire right now, from my guilty pleasure How to Get Away with Murder (doesn’t the flawed Annaliese Keating have uhmm, buckets, of Antigone’s stubbornness and ferociousness?) to box-office sensation Gone Girl (isn’t Nick Dunne as clueless and isolated as Oedipus?) can trace their roots back to the dramatic convolutions and character motivations of the Greek tragedies.  (Full disclosure: I am a Board Member of The Hypocrites and have chosen not to write about the critically-acclaimed All Our Tragic because of my role with the theater). So if there’s a Greek classic playing somewhere in Chicago, for the most part I’m there faster than anyone can say The Furies.  So last week I was at Court Theatre for its production of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis in a new translation by its former Artistic Director Nicholas Rudall and directed by its current Artistic Director Charles Newell, set to kick-off a three-year cycle of Greek texts about the House of Atreus (Rudall’s new translations of Aeschylus’ Agammemnon and Sophocles’ Elektra will be staged in subsequent seasons).  Iphigenia in Aulis is intense and riveting with some stellar acting, so it was definitely worth the trek to Hyde Park for this Chicago northsider; however, I’m somewhat perplexed by some elements of Newell’s production which in my view dilutes some of Euripides’ powerful playwriting.

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Tough Mudder

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silk road hundred flowers projectIf you’ve been hanging out in these blog woods for a while, you know I’m never one to shy away from a challenging theatrical experience. Over the years I’ve cheered and rabble-roused for plays that many theatergoers, even those who go regularly, have been intimidated by – from Calixto Bieto’s madhouse take, a cross between American Horror Story and David Lynch’s nightmares, on Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre at the Goodman to Elevator Repair Service’s seven-hour Gatz which mixed an actor’s reading of the entire book of The Great Gatsby with scenes from the novel staged with office furniture and supplies at the MCA Stage.  Experimental theater? Bring it on. Abstract, inscrutable, ambiguous? Great adjectives. The power and beauty of these plays though lie in the fact that even if they’re difficult to comprehend or follow at first, they ultimately tell their stories and unveil their aspirations with clarity and insight.  That’s what you call craft and artistry, folks. I think there is craft and artistry in Christopher Chen’s bold but puzzling and ultimately unsatisfying The Hundred Flowers Project, now receiving a Midwest premiere at Silk Road Rising, which is also admirably one of the few Chicago theater companies that don’t shy away from provocative, boundary-pushing material.  Unfortunately though, despite all good ambitious intentions in attempting to tie together intriguing themes about Chinese history, the impact of social media on current society, and human beings’ propensity to create narratives to suit their self-interested purposes, Chen isn’t able to successfully convey why they should be tied together. The Hundred Flowers Project is a tough mudder of a play, straining the audience’s patience and endurance without really clearly communicating why.

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Hit List, Part Two: Titanic

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Griffin Titanic musicalContinuing my musical theater queen recertification process (not that I ever lost my designation as beloved BFFs and theater buddies can attest), the third musical I saw this past week was Griffin Theatre’s staging of a new, minimalist take on Maury Yeston’s Titanic, the 1997 winner of the Tony for Best Musical, a version that was widely acclaimed in London last year when it was staged by Southwark Playhouse. Interestingly, I was actually planning to see a planned North American premiere of this version in Toronto last summer, billed as a pre-Broadway tryout, which was then subsequently cancelled due to the lack of an available Broadway theater for the 2014-2015 season (looks like this pre-Broadway Toronto run has been re-started for spring 2015 though with opera superstar Ben Heppner headlining as reported here).  So I was beyond thrilled when I heard that Griffin Theatre was going to go ahead and stage the North American premiere (hooray for Chicago theater!) though a very small part of me couldn’t help but wonder: could a Chicago storefront theater, even one such as Griffin with a highly-regarded track record of artistic success, match the aspirations and vision of a production that was being primed for Broadway? Well, that little nagging voice could go bury itself back inside that skeptical second-city insecurity box it sprung from, because this surprising, superb, stirring production of Titanic, elegantly and richly directed by Scott Weinstein and performed to heart-breaking perfection by 20 of Chicago’s best actors is one of the can’t-miss shows of the fall. I don’t think the Toronto production could have done any better.

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