Alinea, Revisited

Food 5 Comments »

Frankly, I was a little apprehensive as I approached Alinea’s unmarked door several weeks ago to meet my close friend from high school, Ageless Dr. M., and his partner G, in town from the East Coast, for our dinner reservation. Despite, arguably, being the most talked-about and most written-about restaurant in Chicago, and a true dining destination (anecdotally, I’ve heard that around 60% of the restaurant’s nightly reservations are from out-of-towners) I haven’t been back in close to three years – since my wondrous, mind-expanding dinner with BFF Rene which landed at the top of my most memorable dining experiences of that year.  With the financial and time commitment it requires, it’s not like you can go to Alinea any old day of the week because you don’t feel like cooking or you feel like celebrating a good performance review or a Cubs win.  I also feel that dining there is such a singular experience, creating wonderful new memories and strengthening old ones, that you want to have the right dining companions to savor its pleasures and surprises with; the unexpected, daring, yet thoughtful connections it makes between food, chef, and diner over the course of several hours.  Ageless Dr. M is one of my oldest friends from the Philippines and is passionate, like me, about all things culinary (and, unlike me, is quite the home cook), so during his and G’s visit to Chicago, Alinea needed to be part of the weekend itinerary, no question about it.  But part of me still wondered – would Grant Achatz’s acclaimed “molecular gastronomy” cuisine still blow me out of the water and into the stratosphere, the second time around?  Might those still-vividly etched memories of my first encounter with his food lose some of their burnish because this next go-round would feel somewhat familiar or comfortable?  I’m glad to say, though, that dining at Alinea in early April was like dining there for the first time once again (a very welcome culinary Ground Hog Day) – astounding, breathtaking, horizon-broadening, thought-provoking, definitely not familiar nor comfortable, and yes, delicious to the last bite.  The big Chicago food news this week was of Alinea being voted #7 in the world and #1 in North America in Restaurant Magazine and San Pellegrino’s “World’s 50 Best Restaurants”, finally overtaking a restaurant owned by Achatz’s mentor, Thomas Keller, as the best in the region (either The French Laundry or Per Se had occupied the top regional slot since the list’s inception in the early 2000s).  I couldn’t loudly, whoopingly, agree more, and with my recent experience, I’m pretty convinced Alinea would crack that top 5 (all held by European restaurants) pretty soon.  I think that unmarked, nondescript black townhouse on Halsted St. contains, behind its doors, what 21st century fine dining is and should continue to be.

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Lost in Translation

Theater 5 Comments »

It’s been more than a week already since I saw it, but I’m still mulling over how to respond to Steppenwolf’s current production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.  It’s gotten some of the best reviews of plays currently onstage in the city, which is always so heartening for me as a Steppenwolf subscriber and a member of the theater’s Auxiliary Council.  It is a near-flawless production – Frank Galati’s masterful direction brings out the comedy and the echoes of family dynamics in this Theater of the Absurd classic about a man who can’t stand, his servant who can’t sit down, and his parents, who may or may not be imagined presences, who live in trash cans, all seemingly the last people in a world surrounded by endless water (all played in pitch-perfect fashion by Ensemble members William Petersen, Ian Barford, and Martha Lavey and Francis Guinan, respectively).  It is a near-flawless production, if you get Beckett.  But in 2010 Chicago, how many people, who are not theater critics, theater practitioners, and theater and literature majors of some form at some point in their lives, can actually say that they get Beckett? 

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Wilkommen!

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For an arts-savvy city like Chicago, arguably one of the most important cities for theater in North America, I find it odd that many of the musicals I’ve seen staged in this town in recent years tend to ply the safe and conventionally sound route.  I guess we like our straight plays bold, risky, and gutsy, while, other than a few exceptions (Adding Machine: A Musical comes to my mind), we like our musicals dazzling, uplifting, and sing-along-to bombastic.  So I was really looking forward to seeing The HypocritesCabaret, guest directed by the House Theater’s Matt Hawkins, because this is one Chicago theater group that’s probably not going to take musical theater on any of its usual terms.  I went in with some trepidation, though, for several reasons.  First, this is one of my most favorite musicals of all time, ever since, as a teenager, I was captivated by the Bob Fosse/Liza Minnelli film, which I saw over and over again on VHS.  I’d be devastated if songs were truncated or re-arranged or messed with in the spirit of “re-invention”, something the Hypocrites have been known to do with dramatic material in the past.  Second, there’s already that iconic Sam Mendes “re-invention”, the revival co-directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall, which transferred from the Donmar in London to Broadway and lasted for 6 years and 2,377 performances.  I saw that production several times, once with the acclaimed original cast of Alan Cumming, Mary Louise Wilson and Ron Rifkin and the first replacement Sally Bowles, Jennifer Jason Leigh. No one who’s ever seen that show in New York, or the touring production that came to Chicago several times in the ‘naughts, will ever forget the indelible ambisexual explosiveness and searing political commentary that Mendes drew out of the text.  It’s so unforgettable, I guess, that the Chicago Tribune’s terribly dismissive review of the Hypocrites’ work used it as the guide to point out how this version of Cabaret failed (memo to the Trib’s theater section:  Mendes had one interpretation, not the definitive interpretation).  I’m glad to disagree with the Trib once again:  I think the Hypocrites’ and Hawkins’ Cabaret is terrific, astounding, confidently and boldly amped-up, a play with songs, more Brechtian annotation than Sidetrack “Showtune Sundays”, a musical, finally, that this sophisticated theater city deserves.

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No Happily-Ever-Afters, Albee version

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I’ve been spending so much time in basements the past couple of weeks, you’d think it’s Gay Pride weekend already (oh, please, for those of you fake gasping, I know where you troll!).  After seeing Pinter in an actual apartment building basement one week, I was at the Chopin Theater basement studio the next to see Backstage Theatre Company’ s production of Edward Albee’s The Play About The Baby, which, curiously, has not been seen in the city since it’s Chicago premiere at the Goodman in 2003.  I saw that Goodman production and remember it mostly for Linda Kimbrough’s belly-achingly funny Woman; I also remember the play as too much of Albee showing off as the smartest guy in the room. And I’m a big Albee fan!  I don’t think Backstage tempered any of that Albee showboating, but, through solid performances and a clear-eyed directorial hand from Artistic Director Matthew Reeder, I think it clarified for me some of the incisive points that I missed during the earlier production.

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No Happily-Ever-Afters, Sondheim version

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The last production of Into the Woods that I saw was the Broadway revival in 2002 where Vanessa Williams’ super campy, deliciously fag-haggy Witch looked like it served as a beta version of her more fully realized Wilhelmina Slater character in Ugly Betty (which, lamentably, just ended its  four-season run, sigh).  For me, a devoted Stephen Sondheim acolyte, this show probably belongs in the middle of the pack of the Great One’s dazzling body of work – although it contains some of Sondheim’s most beautifully haunting songs (“Children Will Listen”, “No More”, “No One Is Alone”) and bittersweet insights about the relationship between parents and children, I’ve always felt it to be a little audience-distancing given its messily-constructed interweaving plotlines and complicated musical rhythms.   Which I find quite ironic, given the fact that the musical has, as its main characters, some of the most beloved fairy tale characters ever, Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, not to mention a Baker and the Baker’s Wife.   So I was interested to see what Porchlight Music Theater, which does Sondheim like no other in this city in my opinion, would do to make this work more accessible.  Although I liked some elements of Porchlight Music Theatre’s Into the Woods, directed by Artistic Director L. Walter Stearns, I still didn’t come away thinking this work is transcendent Sondheim, unlike so many of his other works.

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Word Less

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When I found out that an evening of Harold Pinter plays was going to be performed in the basement of an apartment building at that defiantly urban corner of Broadway and Lawrence, where latte-sipping hipsters mix it up with both drunken alt-rock fans stumbling out of the Aragon theater, and gang members who still ply their procure and pay trades in the dark alleys of Uptown, I said I’m there!  The intrepid Slimtack Theatre Co. had a lot of buzz five years ago with their production of John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.  Staged in Artistic Director Mike Rice’s second floor apartment in the same Uptown building, the audience moved from room to room as the play progressed, and at one point, the lead actor leapt onto the ledge outside the apartment to perform a scene, naked as a jaybird, jolting all the hipsters, sweaty drunks, and gang members trolling below.  But the theater group disappeared for a while, and has now resurfaced, literally underground, with Death to Fascism, Freedom for my People:  A Basement of One Acts by Harold Pinter, an hour long collection of late Pinter works, directed by Rice, which share a theme around the use, misuse, or non-use of language in authoritarian societies.

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