Perplexed

Food 6 Comments »

No one with even a passing interest in food and restaurants could have missed Chicago’s palpable, almost manic anticipation for the menu that would follow the highly-lauded “Paris 1906” opening menu of Grant Achatz’s Next restaurant.  When it was announced days after Paris 1906 closed that the next three-month concept for Next was a “Tour of Thailand”, I was a little taken aback.  First, I thought that Next’s whole raison d’etre was to portray the cuisine in a location during a specific time period.  Tour of Thailand didn’t sound at all like that.  Second, and more worryingly for this particular diner, Achatz, arguably the best chef in the US currently, Chef de Cuisine Dave Beran, and their talented team, would be treading onto “dangerous” territory – other than Los Angeles, there is no other city in the US (yes, kids, not even New York City), in my mind, that has the diversity, the energy, and the authenticity of the Chicago Thai restaurant scene.  Between TAC Quick, Spoon Thai, Aroy Thai, and Sticky Rice and their widely-consumed “secret Thai menus”, not to mention Arun’s (Chef-owner Arun Sampanthavivat is widely-credited with introducing elevated, white-tablecloth Thai cuisine in the country in the 1980s), Chicago ain’t a city of pad-thai-and-crab-rangoon-eating queasy-palated Midwesterners.  The educated diners in this city (some of whom are, hopefully, my blog readers as well), know their Isaan sausage from their som tom.  The bar, the expectations, would be set so high.  So when someone posted a “review” of the opening weekend of Tour of Thailand in a widely-read Chicago culinary chat board and commented on the seeming lack of heat and “funk” (the non-technical term the poster used for the salty, musky, embracing flavors of fish sauce and shrimp paste, integral elements of Southeast Asian cuisine), I responded back with:  “I have been to Bangkok multiple times and I have eaten through Aroy’s, Spoon’s, and TAC’s Thai menus, so what is the compelling value proposition for me to try Next? Is Next’s Tour of Thailand menu then targeted towards those who have passing or limited knowledge/exposure to Thai food? The lack of heat and “funk” seem to be indicative.” 

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Shining City

Theater No Comments »

When I moved to the US from the Philippines for graduate school in the mid-1990s, I never thought I would end up living in Chicago.  I’ve visited it before then since I had cousins who lived in the city, and although I liked it, I always thought that if I stayed in the US, I would find myself ultimately settling down in New York City or San Francisco, the two American cities that personified first-world sophistication and hipness to those of us who grew up in the developing world.  But a great job opportunity presented itself, and I moved to Chicago in 1998 and have not left since.  Over the years, I have come to deeply love Chicago’s cosmopolitan buzz and sprawl, its diversity and rich history, its Midwestern plainspokenness, its thriving, confident arts and culture scene- this blog was initially conceived as, and continues to be, my love letter to the city.  But I’ve also been pragmatic enough to embrace its infuriating inefficiencies, its constant politicking, its defiance at not covering up its warts and scars.  In my mind, 13 years living in Chicago have made me an expert of its urban psyche and landscape, so I initially didn’t pay attention to the mailings from Chicago Shakespeare Theater about en route, described as “an extraordinary journey through downtown streetscapes, building lobbies, and cafés—guided by audio tracks and mobile phone communication—as (the audience’s) shifting perceptions make and remake the city they inhabit.”  I’ve walked and driven all over this city, and have gone on so many Chicago Architecture Foundation tours that I could probably ace the docent exam, so my initial reaction was “no thanks” to what, on paper, seemed to be another city tour, but with a theatrical bent, devised by the Melbourne-based theater company one step at a time like this.  But after raves from the Tribune’s Chris Jones and Timeout Chicago’s  Kris Vire which unequivocally stated en route’s exhilarating uniqueness but intriguingly did not give anything away, I was, well, intrigued.  So I scooped up one of the last tickets for en route, and boy, do I feel fortunate that I did.  As a passionate lover of theater, of culture, of urban space, and of Chicago, en route has been one of my most indelible cultural experiences ever.  It is truly, uniquely unmissable.

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Storefront Summer

Theater No Comments »

The big theater news of the 2011 summer have centered around the critical and popular success of the world premieres of About Face’s The Homosexuals and the Goodman’s Broadway-bound Chinglish, two shows that I admired but felt ambivalent about, and the polarized reaction to the Chicago debut of Will Eno’s quirky, moving Middletown at Steppenwolf which I liked a lot (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I am President of the theater’s junior board and a Trustee).  But the storefront theater scene is hot and hopping as well; over the long holiday weekend I managed to catch the latest productions from two theater companies I’ve raved about on this blog over the years:  I’ve followed The New Colony since their Frat days and way before they won Broadway in Chicago’s Emerging Theater Award, and have always loved their fearless, bungee-jumping-adrenalin-infused approach to new work;  Redtwist Theatre gave me one of my most indelible theatrical productions of the past two years with their searing and claustrophobic The Pillowman5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche from The New Colony and That Face from Redtwist Theatre, although I have some reservations on both, should be welcome alternatives to the usual Chicago summer diversions of Ravinia lawn picnics, Lake Michigan sailboat cruises, indistinguishable street fairs, and endless rooftop deck partying.

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Wires Crossed

Theater 1 Comment »

I can safely say that David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning M.Butterfly is one of the plays that shaped my love for theater.  I saw several local productions when I was growing up in Manila in the 1980s and I was just deeply impressed by the stylized approach to live performance and the impeccable, impactful, very clever use of language.  The major themes of M. Butterfly- the tension between Asian and Western cultural norms and perspectives; the nature of sexual identity – were important, resonant themes for a gay kid growing up in an Asian city that was often called the most Western city in the Asia-Pacific Rim, a city filled with multi-national corporations, expatriates, and the enveloping presence of American pop culture. But I have always been unsettled by Hwang’s portrayal of Asian, specifically Chinese, culture in M. Butterfly – how Song Liling, the Peking Opera singer who turns out to be the opposite of what she has purported herself to be, trafficked, both explicitly and subtly, in deception, ambition, and power plays, and how the culture she inhabits condones these traits and the grey ethical areas they inevitably create.  And pity the white guy, Gallimard, clueless, weak-willed, trapped.  Many theater critics and aficionados have lauded Hwang’s portrayal of Sing Liling, and Chinese culture by extension, in M. Butterfly as brazen – Asia finally portrayed not as some exotic unknown but as powerful, willful, and able to subdue the machismo and hubris of the West.  Well, uhmmm, ok.  I personally don’t think cultural relations can be reduced to powerful vs. non-powerful, moral absolutes vs. moral ambivalence.  Cross-cultural discussions, because of context and history, will invariably always be complex.  So though I liked a significant amount of Hwang’s new play Chinglish, now in a world premiere production at the Goodman Theatre before it transfers to Broadway in the fall, it still seems to have some of the same value judgments that bothered me with M. Butterfly.

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