Day 104: The Man and the Cabinet of Curiosities; ‘Urgent’

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The audience is closer to the stage than in any other Cirque show in history, with the stage being only two feet high.

If you are in the New York area any time between now and Nov 27th, you urgently need to go see Cirque du Soleil’s big top touring show, Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities! If you miss out on it here follow them to Miami, FL; Dallas, TX; or Houston, TX where they will continue their tour because this is by far, hands down, one of the most incredible, exciting, gorgeous, and exhilarating Cirque performances I have ever seen.

Kurios features one of the 10 smallest people in the world. Antanina Satsura, who plays Mini Lili, is 3.2 feet tall.

Though my review and post comes to you late, I can assure you it is not for lack of sharing. I have made every possible effort to spread the love for Kurios whenever and wherever I can, with friends and family alike, and I absolutely had to make sure you all knew about it too. I saw Kurios on Friday at Randall’s Island Park in New York, the same place where I saw Ovo, another of their big top shows, back in 2010. The setting is gorgeous, a little island park getaway right outside of Manhattan. The Grand Chapiteau, with its brightly colored spiral tent, is, much like the show, a magical and fantastic setting seemingly out of place and straight out of one’s imagination running alongside the concrete jungle of FDR Drive.

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It takes six days to set up Kurios and two days to bring it down to get on the road.

I’ll be honest with you, I knew little to nothing of this show coming in. I was with my friend and her family, who are much more informed and follow Cirque’s productions a bit closer than I do. It was they who told me about Kurios and I was with them when I saw Toruk which I reviewed earlier [here]. I had this preview video to go by and my friend’s assurances that, after researching the show and following some of the performers on social media, Kurios promised to be one of the best productions in a while, harkening back to such phenomenal performances as Alegria (which in my opinion had some of the best music and clown acts) and Ka (which remains my favorite of all-time with its set and martial arts elements). I knew that the acts would be of a certainly high caliber, and my friend’s brother was particular excited to let us know about the acro-net, a very different performance than their trampoline tracks.

Kurios includes 426 individual props, the most of any show in Cirque’s history.

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From the very moment you enter inside the Grand Chapiteau you realize that this is way more than just talk and hype. For such a limited space Kurios makes use of every bit of valuable real estate. The set is gorgeous and members of the audience had an opportunity to get even closer to the action by walking on a suspended walkway that went over and through the stage. The steampunk element is gorgeously done with these fantastic set pieces that inspire the imagination and immerse you in the world of fantastic possibility. Truly I have to commend the designers of Kurios on the incredibly elaborate set pieces, the whimsical costumes, and the stage design. There was simply not enough time just to dedicate to taking in every little element and appreciating the worksmanship and contribution it gave to that feeling of being inside the mind of an inventor and all of his gadgets and machines.

An 8-person live band performs right on stage during the performances. You can often find the singer at the top of the tunnel and the musicians in various spots during the show.

Of course I must speak of the music, which incidentally I am listening to right now to help put me back at that performance on Friday. The 8 person band that plays for Kurios consists of vocalist Eirini Tornesaki, a drummer, percussionist, guitarist, violinist, cellist, accordion player, and band leader. The music is fantastic, especially if like me you are into jazz and/or swing. Almost reminds me of Caravan Palace, which is a French electro swing group. Live music always has a bit more life and energy to it and the pieces all reflect the mood of the acts and help to transition one to another. It is through music that we really get the most communication between the show and ourselves and the message is always delivered clearly, effectively, and engagingly. I could listen to the soundtrack, which is available by the way, all the time during my free time and feel the energy of the performance again and again in my blood.

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Kurios features 46 performers from 14 different countries, all of which are represented by flags displayed outside the Grand Chapiteau.

These acts are incredible, I’m telling you. Absolutely breathtaking. Each act ramps up the excitement and is just even more unbelievable than the last. We’ve seen certain elements of these acts before. Cirque shows commonly feature aerial straps like the ‘Siamese twins’ of Kurios. We’ve seen contortion acts, but perhaps none as flexible with as limited space as the four artists who use the base of a giant mechanical hand to twist and balance and support on top of each other. The clowns are of course always a wonderful feature in any Cirque production and in this more than most I’ve seen recently they are indeed wonderfully entertaining and essentially and critically humorous. The two clown acts, the ‘Invisible Circus’ and when a clown takes a member of the audience on a date at his ‘place’, were unforgettably funny. I was quite literally doubled over in laughter when the clown’s ‘cat’ plays with the audience member. But there are three acts in particular I would like to focus on.

Upside Down World.jpgUpside Down World – Not to be confused with the nightmarish setting of one of my favorite new series Stranger Things, the Upside Down World in Kurios is perhaps the most breathtaking and awe-inspiring act of the entire production in my opinion. A dinner party turns into a fantastical acrobatic balancing act when one of the guests is tasked with reaching a seemingly out of reach chandelier. Meanwhile, completely mirroring their acts, another dinner party takes place above the audience’s guests upside down as the upside guest races to reach the same chandelier. A beautiful ballet of balance and wiring. The very inspiration and spot on execution of such an elaborate piece deserves special commendation.

Acro Net – Past Cirque Acro net.jpgperformances have used  trampolines and trampoline tracks before to show incredible feats of flips and jumps but the acro net in Kurios is of a completely different caliber. Whereas traditionally trampoline track acrobats would use their own weight and the tension of springs to catapult themselves into the air, the performers in Kurios’s acro net act use the combined weight of almost ten separate acrobats synchronizing their jumps to send one poor unfortunate soul flying so high up you fear they’ll pierce the roof of the Chapiteau itself. How they manipulate the air with such ease and confidence is not only exciting it’s also terrifying. I didn’t know whether to cheer or to scream but I knew I was absolutely enjoying every minute of what I was watching.

Hand Puppet.jpgHand Puppetry – I remember as I was watching the performances I would sometimes be distracted by the shadows cast on the tent’s walls. See one of the interesting aspects of a big top setting is how close you are to everything and how intimate each act becomes. You are never so close to the performers as when you are all under this giant tent. As the spotlight followed the performers it would cast these larger than life shadows on the wall and sometimes I was just mesmerized by watching the shadows dance on the wall. I wondered if this was perhaps intentional or just a happy by-product of our setting. Then I saw the hand puppetry act and I knew that someone somewhere definitely realized the artistic and aesthetic value of playing with light and shadow in this setting. There were no big dangerous or exciting aspects to the hand puppetry. No one was flying ten feet in the air or displaying any particular level of physical strength or baffling flexibility. But still, there was magic in this act. In the delicate way the music framed the scene, the focus and elegance of each puppeteer’s movements, and in the way they played with and manipulated the camera and distance and space, this act, perhaps most of all, spoke to me on a deeply personal level. It’s such a risk to take all this amped up energy and adrenaline and excitement and suddenly punctuate it with this intimate and surreal theatre piece. But Kurios did not disappoint and did not take this risk needlessly. Such grace and skill and deftness, to portray so much emotion and life through just the hands. There is not a single moment during the entire show that you are not surrounded by beauty.

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Kurios is Cirque du Soleil’s 35th production.

In the Seeker’s attempts to create a machine to manipulate time and space, in the steampunk retro elements of the set, in that 20s era jazz and swing music, and in the variety and caliber and dedication of each act, Kurios is definitely sending a very strong message not only of the history of Cirque du Soleil but also of its promising future. I’m not going to lie I definitely love certain Cirque shows more than others and there are a few I could live without. But I could never live in a world without Cirque at all. Productions like Ka, Alegria, Kurios, these speak to me on so many levels. There is a sense of community and possibility when you see how artists and performers from all over the world come together to make these incredible productions that highlight the best of what we have to offer. In focusing on going back to Cirque’s roots Kurios achieves a level of production that will stand triumphantly on top for a very long time looking forward. I cannot sing its praises with enough enthusiasm or eloquence. I just sit wide-eyed and marvel at what the show has accomplished. And when it is done and the performers come out on stage to take their bows, you can be assured I will be one of the very first, urgently rushing to get up, to give them a standing ovation.

Day 104

Man: 84 Loneliness: 20

Day 75: The Man and the First Flight

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The first time I saw a Cirque Du Soleil production was in 2010. It was at Randall’s Island Park in New York. I saw Ovo, which was one of their touring shows, under a big circus tent in summer and I was in awe. No people flying out of cannons. No motorcycles. No lions, tigers, or elephants. Just a marvel of acrobatics and human strength, skill, grace, and flexibility. Since then I’ve been a huge fan catching most of their permanent residency shows in Las Vegas. Mystere at Treasure Island. Zarkana at the Aria. Ka at MGM Grand. O at the Bellagio. Didn’t get to see it in person but I also have La Nouba and Alegria on DVD. Alegria still gives me shivers.

I was surprised to find out that the Cirque team had paired up with the team behind James Cameron’s Avatar to create Toruk: The First Flight. But even more surprised that a) it would be touring at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ for only two days and b) that absolutely no advertising was done for it. In fact if it weren’t for my other friend who’s actually even more into Cirque than I am, I wouldn’t have caught the show with her and her family.

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But I’m glad I did.

Toruk takes place before the events of the first Avatar film, and it tells the story of the very first Toruk makto, a Na’vi who is strong enough and pure enough to ride the great toruk, the largest and most powerful predator in the skies of Pandora. It is a time of great danger to the Na’vi, the Omaticaya clan’s shaman foresees a great fiery disaster falling on the sacred Tree of Souls. Their chief sends his two sons, one by birth and one adopted, on a quest to retrieve five talismans from five Na’vi clans that will aid them in their quest to find the toruk and save the Tree of Souls, their connection to Eywa. During their journey they, and we, will encounter some of the animals and landscapes that captured our imaginations in the movie and witness some incredible feats by the people of many tribes.


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Toruk’s Pandora is just as awe-inspiring as Avatar‘s. Using a very minimal set design paired with some high-level CGI and camera mapping the designers of the show transport us to Pandora in a very real and immediate sense. I watched the Omaticaya dance and celebrate with drums and singing at the initiation of two young men into adulthood. On the very same stage not ten minutes later they turned the ground into a flowing roaring river with turtles and a canoe. They can make lava pour from the ground and they can create earthquakes so realistic you grip your chair. As the set pieces move the images projected onto them flow and change with it so you never lose that immersion. The set and costume design were absolutely terrific. I am impressed by how far we’ve come with mapping technology and so excited to see its future use in more productions. It is a bit bittersweet for me though as, while I do not take anything for granted in the skills of the programmers and designers, I hope I don’t lose the physical artistry and craftsmanship of the old-school sets. The costumes were bright and colorful (blue, mainly) and their tails seemed alive and springy, not just limp fabric or stiff tubing.


Even more impressive than the set and costume design, for me anyways, was the puppetry work that brought the wild animals and majestic beats of Pandora to life. The first ones we saw were the direwolves running in a pack chasing our protagonists. Each direwolf was controlled by one person. They ran together in unison like a real pack. They circled our heroes with that predatory sense of ferocity. When they ran the puppeteers were able to recreate the wave like motions of the direwolves’ bodies. You could almost see the ripple of muscle and sinew controlling their powerful legs as they raced across the stage. I also loved how adorable the turtles were in the river scene. Absolutely adorable. Flippers moving back and forth. Sliding across the stage floor with ease. But the toruk itself…the legendary ‘last shadow’…it was a behemoth of wonder that took five people to control. This is the show’s centerpiece. The journey and the reward. If the toruk didn’t invoke power, grandeur, strength, fear, and nobility then it just wouldn’t be the same. When the toruk puppet first appears it takes your breath away. Large powerful wings flapping. Fierce jaws snapping. We are witnessing the king of the sky in person. I was half-focused on the size and scale of the creature, in admiration of the design and colors, and half-focused on the team of highly skilled puppeteers orchestrating each movement and pulling the puppet along.

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The music, as always, is one of the show’s greatest strengths. Powerful deep drum pieces. Lots of woodwind instruments to create the illusion of lightness, swiftness, and flight. I don’t speak Na’vi. And I don’t really plan on ever learning it. So I have zero clue what the hell anyone was saying or singing the entire time. But it was still just so good. I don’t care, I’ll hum or make guttural noises to sing along. The soundtrack is on Spotify and most probably YouTube so I highly recommend checking it out. The acts are…appropriate. This is more of a story and plot driven piece and the acrobatic acts incorporated into the story are exactly that. Just parts of the story. They could never stand alone in comparison to other productions but they add a wild Na’vi sensibility to the story. So be wary, those of you who are Cirque fans and are accustomed to a certain level of act. These are markably tamer but still fun nonetheless. But control expectations in terms of aerial acrobatics. (Take note though that Kurios, Cirque’s other touring production, promises the best acts of all, going right back to the true high-flying roots of the human acts.)

I enjoyed this production very much. I would recommend those of you who have the opportunity to definitely watch it. If it came down to this or Kurios (which I have not yet seen but plan on attending in October) I might tell you to reserve yourself for Kurios but if you want to see amazing set design, incredible puppetry, a plot-driven story, and moving musical pieces, then fly to Turok.

Side note: HOW AWESOME IS THIS. CIRQUE LIKED MY TWEET!

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YEEEEAH!

Day 75

Man: 57 Loneliness: 18

Day 67: The Man and The Defense of the Dark Arts

The title is an especially cheeky homage to a fellow blogger friend but it is also a reminder of what really is the root of Mechanic: Resurrection. The ‘mechanic’ is the one you call when you have a particularly big problem to fix and the mark of a good ‘mechanic’ is to leave none at all once the job is done. It is a clever misnomer for the knife in the dark, the skilled silent killer.

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No one asked for a remake of the original Charles Bronson film. It wasn’t particularly successful to warrant a guaranteed interest nor was it particularly terrible that unsatisfied fans were waiting for a better approach. For the most part the original Mechanic had a captivating enough premise that was done justice by Bronson’s honest performance but ultimately marred by uninspired boring action sequences and the director’s oversight in developing Bronson’s character relationships.

If the remake were to fare any better it would have to recapture the gravitas of the main protagonist Arthur Bishop, develop more convincingly the ‘father son rivalry’ between him and the son of his last mark Steve, and create truly exciting and interesting action sequences. The new Arthur Bishop would be played by Jason Statham (of Transporter and Guy Ritchie film fame) and would-be assassin in training Steve would be played by Ben Foster (I first saw him in the underrated comedy Big Trouble but he also had notable roles in X-Men: Last Stand and 3:10 to Yuma).

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The remake was up-front, direct, unapologetically macho fun. It was simple in its approach and handling of the material but delivered that in-your-face immediate and dangerous appeal of the life of a professional hitman. Ben Foster has the convincing look of a dangerously neurotic and unpredictable electrical wire. Again I feel that the real dynamic between a grieving son and a guilty assassin could have been better utilized. The action sequences were momentously more involved, intricate, and inspired. The problem it has, which it shares with its successor, is that while the action is indeed well-done and exciting, it is…purposeless.

You have to remember that we are supposed to be watching the world of an assassin. Their specialty is not just to kill but the art of the kill. They thrive in secrecy and subtlety. So is a guns-blazing mad shootout with an army of private guards really supposed to be their forte? Quality over quantity should be the mantra. We should see incredibly choreographed fatal ‘accidents’ that make us wary of starting our cars or accepting packages from strangers. What we get is an ambush and a guard shootout that are equally entertaining but much less fitting. The dark art of contract killing can be fascinating without being over the top. Historical dramas love the story of the rise and fall of mafia hitmen. Old film noir of hardened killers being softened by damsels in distress capture the true tragedy of romance. Assassins need their rightful place in the action movie genre.

Statham Dancing.gifI like Jason Statham, I really do. I think he was a great find in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Revolver. His Transporter series is a guilty pleasure (especially the first with the breathtakingly stunning Shu Qi). I even liked him in the 1980s Erasure music video. I am not ashamed to say I think he’s got the looks and he’s a decent actor as well. Do I wish that he would get chances to stretch his range and play more than just the muscle in dime a dozen action films with aged action stars? Absolutely. But what he does get he does well, even if the material doesn’t give him much chance. I think he needs a new agent who can sell him on more than just his body but if that’s what we’re going to get I’m still pretty confident in his skills so yes I’ll keep watching and keep supporting his career.

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So that’s how I approached Mechanic: Resurrection. See the sequel has a few things already going for it. First of all, there was no sequel with Charles Bronson’s Bishop, which frees Resurrection from the burden of comparison and allows it to explore a whole different range. Second, it brings back Statham to continue his rendition of the lonely hitman. This would be a new start, a fresh take, and a second chance. Third, it pairs Jason Statham with the best accessory of all, some eye candy in the form of wholesomely sexy Jessica Alba (Sky Kids in a skimpy blue bikini).

So what did they do poorly? One word should just about sum up the biggest stumble in the movie: knowledge. There are too many characters with too much knowledge who do too little with it and there are yet still others with too little knowledge who are capable of too much. Bishop knows why Gina (Alba’s character) is there. He correctly predicts and anticipates his enemy’s moves and he STILL falls for the girl and the trap with little resistance or countermove. He knew! The movie had an incredible opportunity to flip audience expectations by calling out the norm and instead it…followed through? Gina is supposed to be a retired military spec ops operative. She should know how to defend herself and handle herself in a confrontation. So why are we watching her flail about in a loose sundress? We know little to nothing of the antagonist’s origins or motivations. Yet he seems to command a mini army who are able to track and kidnap Bishop regardless of his many identities and exotic locales. The final mark (a hilarious minor role for a very major actor) knows little of Bishop or his true intentions yet fully trusts him in orchestrating the final confrontation.

Oops.gifThe movie felt rushed and misprioritized. There is quite literally a scene in the middle of the movie on the antagonist’s boat that accomplishes nothing, does nothing to plot, and distracts from the main objective. It was a distraction to raise the movie’s body count at what I can only imagine is a legally required interval of time between action sequences. Great action? Absolutely. Some great gun play and combat but ultimately not necessary. They missed an opportunity to get what they paid for. Jessica Alba is undoubtedly beautiful and stunning. But she’s not a good actress. She convinces me of very little of her role. But they spent the money to put the international star Michelle Yeoh in this film as well. I wanted to see so much more of her as Mae. Who is she really? What is the nature of her and Bishop’s relationship? Would she ever get involved in the chaos? I really thought if you wanted to get to Bishop you’d go for the long-time friend, not the five-minute fling.

To be fair though, I do want to say that overall I enjoyed the film. They did do a number of things right for what I was expecting and hoping to get. No one is saying Mechanic: Resurrection will redefine the action genre. But we can say it is an effective example of what the action genre should deliver to its audiences. As I said before I enjoy Jason Statham and he does not disappoint in his role as Bishop. He is professional, efficient, effective, and deadly. He has the ability of comedic timing and the convincability of deadly lethality. The movie itself is a gem to look at. We are taken to some of the most beautiful settings in the world when we are taken to Brazil, Thailand, and Australia. The water scenes are large and expansive and the height scenes are dizzying. There are some great colors in the film in the settings and costumes that really make the movie pop visually. The action scenes, again though at times out of place, are well choreographed and adrenaline pumping. It’s a ‘bang bang boom’ kind of movie that delivers the right amount of bangs and booms. I could very easily settle into my chair with a bag of popcorn and allow myself to indulge in some Hollywood style violence. I might even find myself inching closer to the edge of my seat at times.

Overall I’m satisfied that I got what I expected. Again Resurrection benefits from very little expectation and nothing to compare to. It takes a very safe route cinematically and a very conservative take on the assassin action movie but it is a tried and true type that it fulfills completely. It’s a fun movie. It’s a silly movie. It’s a good movie.

Day 67

Man: 50 Loneliness: 17

Day 60: The Man and the Two Strings

If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see, no matter how unusual it may seem. If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.

-Kubo

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The first time I saw the trailer for Kubo and the Two Strings I immediately felt a shiver up and down my spine. My breath caught in my throat. I knew I was watching something that was meant for me.

Kubo and the Two Strings is an animated movie about young Kubo, a boy with a strange and fantastic magical power that brings paper to life with his shamisen. He cares for his ill mother by telling stories in his village of samurai on quests for magical armor and evil kings with monsters. His peaceful life is upended when he realizes his stories are more than stories and he embarks on a quest to protect himself against those who would want to control him and his power. Along the way he is joined by Monkey and Beetle and together Kubo discovers the true strength of memories, love, and compassion.

Kubo Group.jpgThe story is wonderfully crafted if just a little bit shallow in an attempt to maintain appeal to younger audiences. It does an excellent job of paying homage to traditional Japanese themes and motifs without being blatantly ‘Hollywood Chinatown’. Though samurai beetles and wise monkeys are a common theme in Asian cinema, it was exciting to see it done so well and with such reverence in an American studio. The movie takes us to a place of incredible magic and beautiful settings. There are lessons to be learned in each interaction and the story tenderly captures the feelings of loss and the importance of family. The ending was a bit too…Disney, for me, but even then still, it is a very mature version that deals with true sacrifice. The dialogue is humorous when needed and sentimentally honest the rest of the time. The characters are believable and have just enough layers of complexity and motivation to remind us of real connections.

If you listen to the trailer the trailer song should be immediately recognizable. It is the beautifully haunting While My Guitar Gently Weeps by George Harrison done on the shamisen. I could not stop grinning when I first heard this cover and I knew immediately I’d have to get the movie’s soundtrack. The rest of the movie’s score certainly does not disappoint. It is fittingly epic and yet subdued with traditional Japanese string commanding most of the sound. In much the same way that the movie deals with matters of the heart with delicateness, so too does the soundtrack deal with setting tone and mood. It is gentle, like a breeze, and lifts you to a new place with effortless ease. I highly recommend listening to Story Time from the soundtrack and While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

Kubo Paper.gifThe movie is animated by Laika Studios, the same studio that brought Coraline and Boxtrolls to life. Two movies by the way, that I also happen to love as examples of effective children’s movies that do not necessarily need to be that cloyingly saccharine sweet type. Movies that center around children and the way they view the world and process their surroundings in a genuine, realistic, and yet still optimistic way. Coraline, Eggs, and Kubo are all very fully realized children with hopes, dreams, insecurities, strengths, and overwhelming weakness but are supported with such structure and care that they find their potential to be great. They promise that struggle
and loss are parts of life but that we are all strong enough to overcome. The other reason why I have such respect and admiration for Laika is their commitment to stop-motion animation. I find it so much more visually appealing to witness an animated film that is not only engaging for its plot but also for its aesthetic. In almost every sequence in Kubo Birds.gifthe epic samurai saga of Kubo I have to take a moment to ask myself ‘how the hell did they do that’. I have huge respect for the artistry and skill involved in making an animated movie in the way they did and have done for their past four projects. There is dedication but also history and heritage here that keeps a certain beautiful form alive.

Overall this was an incredibly stunning film both visually and auditorily. The story was compelling and delivered wonderful moments of wonder and awe. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and I hope that many of you give it a glance. I certainly hope the best for Kubo because I have to ensure that Studio Laika can continue to make beautiful films with such care and unique detail for many years to come.

Day 58: The Man and the Road; Chicago, IL

I’ve just finished a lovely meal here in Pittsburgh that I want to share with you all but before I do it has reminded me to bring you back in time to my first trip to Chicago. I had been meaning to write about this meal ever since I had it but right soon after was the craziness of retreat, meditation posts, weekend with friends, and busyness in Pittsburgh. There is some finally some quiet and peace in my life and so I’d like to revisit what I have to tell you all, with no exaggeration, was one of the best meals I have ever had. Chicago is now permanently engrained into my memory because of the fantastic food scene in the city and the gem that is…

Quartino in Chicago, IL.

Quartino is located three blocks off Chicago’s famous Magnificent Mile, very close to the equally famous Pizzeria Uno, originator of the deep dish pizza. It is a two-storey building with seating on both levels and an outdoor patio. When I was there it was hustling and bustling and with the temperature not nearly cold enough, I opted for a seat inside. Eschewing my normal post at the bar I took a seat at a table in the main dining room.

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I am a big proponent of the open kitchen. I think it allows diners to engage with their food long before it arrives at the table and I believe people should know more about their meals. A look, even a cursory glance, at the amount of skill and the techniques used to coax out every incredible flavor heightens your awareness of the dish and informs your senses in a very tangible way. What I love about Quartino’s layout is how comfortably casual and intimately informal it is. The seats and tables are all wood and the plates are piled high for you to grab and share with the people you’re with. In the back you’ll see the full kitchen and can watch as the chefs shuffle from station to station preparing orders. In-between is their charcuterie and fromagerie. All kinds of incredible imported and house-cured meats hang from the display window and their entire selection of cheeses is housed there as well.

Ambiance and the best scenery aside, it was time to get to the meal itself. Before diving into the dishes, it is important to note one of Quartino’s key appealing features. The restaurant addresses the age-old dilemma of reconciling the fact that the best Italian restaurants serve family style, meaning to share, but with portion sizes so large that often times diners who wish to try a lot are limited to only one or two or three (depending on company) dishes. Borrowing from their neighbors, Quartino serves some incredible Italian dishes in a very Spanish way, as tapas-sized portions still meant for groups to share and enjoy. Or you know, one very hungry man. This meant a lot of dishes and a lot of good drink. Now did one affect the other, perhaps, but you can’t break up a good pair.

On to round 1!

Quartino Round 1

Drink: Negroni

Dishes: Angus Beef Carpaccio and Taleggio

If possible, and especially in Italian restaurants, I like to begin my meals with a classic, THE cocktail of Italy and perhaps the world, the timeless Negroni. To me this is the best cocktail in the world. Perfectly balanced sweetness and bitterness to open the palate and excite the appetite.

The Angus Beef Carpaccio was served with a crunchy, bitter salad of shaved celery and arugula. A generous helping of shaved Parmiggiano Reggiano and a drizzle of EVOO to add that richness and salty creamy tang. The beef was so toothsome. A wonderful play of textures. Tender but meaty slices of Angus beef. Crunchy crispy celery and soft arugula. The thin slices of Parmiggiano Reggiano crumbling and melting in your mouth.

The taleggio, made from cow’s milk, was complex and tangy. The aroma of the cheese fills your head when it arrives at the table. There was a nutty, earthy, slightly bitter taste in the rind that holds together a semi-soft almost creamy texture of cheese on the inside. It spread so tantalizingly on their house-baked rye bread and the apricot jam paired beautifully. The sweetness of the jam balances with the rind and the rest of the cheese rounds out the flavor.

The thing about carpaccio and formaggi is that there is very little involvement in the kitchen with the preparation of these dishes. But it is a great indicator of the level of quality and attention to ingredients that the restaurant chooses to present. I knew very quickly from these two dishes that I was not going to be disappointed. The meat was fresh and flavorful with a strong taste and texture. The cheese was pungent and aromatic.

On to round 2!

Quartino Round 2

Drink: Coletta

Dishes: Wild Arugula Salad and Pappardelle

The Coletta is a very versatile pre-or-post meal dish of bourbon enhanced with vin santo (an Italian fortified wine often served as desert) and Ramazotti, a type of Italian bitter. Much more spirits forward with less sweetness than the Negroni and a wonderfully velvety feel as the bourbon coats the mouth and lingers on the tongue. The drink is smooth and silky with just the right amount of body.

I am not usually a salad man but I love arugula and could not resist. That bitter peppery bite is just so irresistible and Quartino further enhances that with oranges, farro, hazelnuts, and a house-made goat’s milk ricotta. You need no further dressing as the oranges give off their sweet aromatic juice and the ricotta spreads as you press down with your fork. The hazelnuts were such a good addition to the dish. They were slightly roasted to give warmth and smoothness.

Housemade pastas are very difficult to prepare properly. If you’ve ever made pasta from scratch you’ll know that the big difference between that and dried pasta is you can never fully get yours to al dente. Still their housemade pappardelle was thick, broad, and had just the right texture. You could hold a ribbon between your fingers and feel that bounce and firmness to the touch. I am usually not a fan of tomato sauce but this was almost like having a meat dish. Shredded juicy chunks of braised beef short ribs were all over the sauce. The tomato sauce was just tart enough to separate the flavors of all the ingredients. You could pay attention to the pasta and the sauce independently and see that both were prepared with care.

I absolutely could have knocked myself out just gorging on their selection of housemade and imported pastas. The portions were as advertised and so I knew there was still more left in me to continue. I’m glad I ordered the salad because the lightness and freshness of the vegetables and fruits lifted the heaviness of that beefy meaty robust tomato sauce and thick pappardelle.

On to round 3!

Quartino Round 3.jpg

Drink: No Nino of Mine

Dishes: Roasted Baby Octopus and Procini & Truffle Risotto

Sticking to the whiskeys, my third cocktail was a mix of amaro, rye, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, and bitters. Sweeter than I would have anticipated or liked, perhaps wrongly times in my meal, but still a strong cocktail.

Let me tell you, this was the best round of all. I could have contented myself to repeat this course tenfold, forgetting all the rest. It all came together right here. Clearly, as you can see in the picture I had forgotten myself and dug in before I could take the pic. The aroma of the truffles in the risotto was so luxurious. The porcini with the intense flavor. That firmness of the mushroom compared to the creaminess of the risotto. There was bite in each smooth mouthful. Luxurious and rich yet light enough to enjoy more than once. I usually feel with truffle dishes the aroma drowns out other senses and it becomes heavy on the palate. Luckily the cocktail and the octopus were able to cut that. But man alive, that octopus. I miss it already. Just…they should have sent a poet. There was just enough char to make the edges of the tentacles crispy and smoky. I loved the feel of the crunch on each tentacle, especially over the suckers as that was where they had the most interesting surface area and char. The meat was tender but spry. You would take a bite, there’d first be the charred surface and then this wonderful texture of flesh. Not at all rubbery or runny. I love when my meat has just enough fight to make the eating interesting. I couldn’t decide if I preferred the thinner, crispier ends of the roasted octopus or the slightly chewy meaty part closer to the main body. Underneath the tentacles are some braised escarole as well with some thinly sliced red chilis that invigorate and revitalize. One main taste seriously lacking in the meal up until this point was heat and the chili provided just the right amount.

I loved every course of that meal. I think there were some real stars though. That octopus blew me away. The carpaccio was a delight to the senses. Such a pleasure to bite into. The salad captured my attention and my imagination. The added complements to the arugula were so intelligently chosen. If you are ever fortunate enough to be in the Windy City, please do visit Quartino and see for yourself. I have not even begun to scratch the surface of their offerings.

Day 34: The Man and the Nightmare Experiment P.1

Two days in a row of thinking about nothing but Beautiful. It’s been rough on the mind and the body. I feel lethargic and lack energy or enthusiasm. Need to bring myself back to center. Easy enough. One of my go-to resets is a good movie. As fortune would have it my hotel is five minutes from a movie theatre so I knew I could fit one in tonight. The question then had to be, what to watch?

I remember my post from before, and decided to put my money where my mouth is. I want a good nightmare. A wake up sweating and heart racing kind of nightmare that makes you happy to be awake and alive. So I’m going to do everything within my power to try and induce one tonight, and write the rest of today’s post tomorrow morning while the dream, whatever it might end up being, is still fresh in my mind.

The movie itself was actually pretty decent. I still think the hardest part for any horror film is to find an appropriate and satisfying way to end. Most either go the ‘the end…or is it?’ route to either set up a sequel for more money or to insinuate that the nightmare isn’t over and it’ll leak from the screen to your home. I find it cheesy and unsatisfying. Empty Regal.jpgWhat it really does is make you feel like you haven’t had the full experience. The story isn’t over. You know, your Screams, Saws, Day of the Deads, etc. The other way they usually end is to just…end. They give up. The writers spent so much time creating an elaborate yet plausible reality where horror is real and they build this suspense and grip you to your
seats and run out of juice by the time they need to figure out the ending. Your Insidiouses are infamous for this. The beginning is great and the context of the story is certainly possible and enough to capture, but the ending was just…suddenly we’re in the demon world and am I watching an action movie version of The Exorcist? I half expect to see Arnold Schwarzenegger with a Super Soaker filled with holy water. Your one-offs are often like this as well. Deliver Us From Evil, for example, or Crimson Peak.

Lights Out.jpgLights Out delivers on its promise to make you afraid of the dark. It is wonderful at setting up suspense and doesn’t rely too heavy-handedly on jump scares to find its way into your soul. See jump scares punctuate the horror. If it’s all jump scares, you can convince yourself it’s just a movie and that the story ends on the screen. But Lights Out creates a world where the dark is sinister and you never know where it will spread. If every second I was being startled, I’d never worry. But the suspense is there and it stays, subtly, in the background. Sometimes it delivers because it’s a horror and we expect to be scared but most times it just…dwells in environments. Environments similar to our own. For this I am appreciative. I am sitting in my hotel room surrounded by light but I know that eventually I’ll be turning them all off voluntarily, and for the first time in a long time, I will wonder what dwells in the dark once more. The world is minimally but essentially constructed and the idea of the monster is great. Like the Doctor’s angels, it is something that exists when we cannot perceive it. It exists in the unreality, which means we can never confirm nor deny it is even there. Where the movie lacks is its details. The origin story of the monster, critical for any original work, here is treated with half-hearted care and lazy convenient writing. It is a five second distraction from an otherwise convincing monster. The dialogue at times, especially for the young brother, is also hard to digest. Writing for children is always difficult because adults do it and they forget what children sound like. What they can and cannot process. What parts of the world they cannot access. At times the dialogue was cringe-worthy and took away from the investment and suspension of disbelief.

Overall though the movie did what it wanted. Created a new avenue to be scared. Put a name to the fear. It was a fun thrill and I’m hoping to cash in on the rewards.

Let’s take inventory. I just watched a scary movie and have been reading some scary stories and haven’t though about anything other than nightmares for the past two hours. I’m hopped up on caffeine, salt, and fried. My hotel is in the middle of nowhere. My window overlooks nothing but an empty field. The nearest building is about three miles away. The window is huge in my room. Almost the entire wall. I was tempted to leave the blinds open for possible shadows moving but the light of other hotel rooms and the parking lot would seep in. Instead I’ve closed all the blinds and when I go in for the night, I will be in complete darkness. Not even the light of the laptop will provide a safe anchor. At the same time though, I know my day was filled with thoughts of Beautiful still. I am still working out a lot of issues that I’ll need to express eventually. A lot of insecurities and memories. These both have equal possession of my mindset. Last of all, I am going to sleep (relatively) earlier than usual to give myself more time to hit the REM cycle and get the most vivid dreams.

All I know for a fact though, is that no matter what happens, I’ll be drawing my breath in with just that bit more fear and hesitance when I turn out the light tonight.

See you all on the other side of my nightmare.

Day 34

Man: 25 Loneliness: 9

Day 22 & 23: The Man and the Power of Routine, Executing a Plan P.2

FLLAirport.jpgWritten at 4pm in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport waiting for my flight back home.

Well, day 2 and 3 in Fort Lauderdale, and this time when it comes to my delay, I was more busy dying than I was living. To be honest the days themselves weren’t that bad. But the after effects leave a bitter taste in my mouth and I am none too proud of how I’ve spent my time. In relation to goals, plans, and priorities, I fell completely by the wayside. And for what. In pursuit of temporary fleeting comforts and indulgences.

We begin with the night of the 18th, end of Day 1. I can’t sleep. Thinking too much of plans and schedules and as the night goes on, my mind wanders to thoughts I’m better off pushing back til daytime. Why is it that the night brings up so many of our fears and insecurities. What is it about the night that I love and live for and thrive in that, given the chance, it would turn on me and punish me with past memories, past hurts, future worries. To stave off the impending panic I go online in search of movies. I remember last week in Massachusetts I caught a bit of the animated film ‘Book of Life’ and it looked interesting. So at 3am I begin ‘Book of Life’. It will run for about two hours, and I am supposed to be getting up at 6am.

This obviously does not happen. In fact I do not wake until 9am, on my own accord. I have missed my morning exercise on Tuesday and breakfast at the hotel has already finished as well. I am left with naught but some of the cookies I took courtesy of the hotel lobby the day before when checking in. I get up and prepare for my day and check my emails. Apparently the store I visited the day before has asked for an additional visit today, and my fatal mistake was letting them know my schedule. They know I am available and demand of me like it is their right. Maybe it is, I’m not sure. I don’t really know how to classify my position in the company anymore. I am no longer a consultant, I’m off the front line and part of the bigger corporate machine running in the back. In some ways I believe I am supposed to be higher than them but if the nature of my position is to be their support, perhaps I am nothing but their lackey, a glorified IT guy whose purpose is to continually coddle and babysit and hand-hold them through all of the new changes. I find my patience recently has dramatically decreased. When the program first started I understood that the nature of my position was to coach teams with the new systems. I knew the stores I was visiting were just starting the new system and so would need my help and guidance to navigate the changes. But it has been two months. It is unbearably irritating and grating to walk into a store of people who have still yet to touch the new program. That to me is unacceptable. It is unprofessional and shows a disregard for any proper work etiquette. I do not want to reward this behavior with the same full thorough walkthrough I provided in the beginning. The nature of this, and next, month’s visits are supposed to be to review CatfishDewey.jpgand strengthen an already existing grasp of the system, no matter how weak. It just must already be there. This frustrating and unforeseen obstacle, compounded by the extra store visit, pushes back my schedule by three hours. I find myself lacking the time and energy to commit to the afternoon session in the fitness center. Yet, for the sake of my happiness and self-indulgence, I still go to Catfish Dewey’s for their AYCE specials.
That night I opt for the AYCE snow crab legs. It comes with two sides and with a variety of choices like steamed broccoli, coleslaw, corn, collard greens, string beans, and the like, I shamefully go for mac and cheese and hush puppies. In what I perceive to be a futile attempt at balance, I do not go for some beers and instead drink unsweetened iced tea. How reasonable. The mac and cheese is incredibly decadent, with thick al dente noodles and that rich baked cheesiness. The hush puppies are light, fluffy, crisp and pair perfectly dipped into the melted butter that accompany my crab legs. The crab legs are brought out fresh from the steamer, warm and bursting with flavor and juices. They are clean and fresh and the flesh slips readily out of the shell. I pride myself in how expertly I can extract whole legs with no breaks cleanly from the shell. I alternate between pure sweet crab and dipping into the luxurious melted butter. Again, at the sake of some long term goals and benefits, I have proven how good I am at answering my needs and wants to be happy in the moment. For truly, in the moments of my meal, I was enjoying each cluster of legs as they came out of the kitchen. I feast for a good hour and a half, until the flesh, originally salty-sweet and complicated in its taste, is nothing more than soft salty flesh, lacking of any pleasure. Still in the moment I have no regrets as I have eaten to my heart’s content and stopped at the precise moment that the routine of cracking the legs becomes more burden than Zen. I at least have made sure to stop at the peak of enjoyment. I return to my hotel room and still there is the opportunity to exercise, as the fitness center is 24 hours. But I am full of crab and am enjoying the lull of a food coma. Amazon Prime recommends some great classic Stephen Chow films, and I oblige. It is 2am by the time I fall asleep, and yet still I believe that my day of indulgence will be reconciled with my 6am wake up Wednesday to visit the fitness center, avail myself of a warm breakfast, and then enjoy a movie before my flight.

Shallows.jpgNope. I wake at 10am to the persistent knocking of the housekeeping. No fitness center. No breakfast. Well, let’s be honest here. No breakfast because they stopped serving. No fitness center because my movie is at 11:30. Now here’s the situation: the fitness center is still there, still open, and as a Gold status member I have a late checkout for 2pm. Plenty of time to exercise, shower, leave the hotel, and arrive at the airport with time to spare. The option was there. I just…didn’t take it. I brush my teeth, pack, and sans shower, head out to catch my movie because a morning movie reminds me of the freedom I used to have and it makes me feel good. But I feel groggy and slow and I cannot wait to get home to take a long shower. Until then, I arrive at the movie theatre and am pleased to find that no one wants to watch The Shallows a month into its run at 11:30am on a Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale. I’ve hit the jackpot of movie watching experiences. For an hour and a half I enjoy Blake Lively’s performance, though ‘single woman seeking adrenaline on her own’ rings a bit too true to Beautiful and I am reminded, watching her struggles and how she obliviously walked into EmptyTheatre.jpgher own danger, of the life that Beautiful wanted that I could not condone nor join her for. Still it is enjoyable and not too tiredly clichéd and I have a sweet iced tea and shrimp carbonara flatbread to pair with it. The AMC was a dine-in. With some extra time to spare I wander about the mall, catching some Pokemon and visiting a few stops before heading back to the airport to return the rental car and await my flight.

I have been waiting at the airport now for about an hour, and my flight is about to board. And with the end of this trip I have to realize…I’ve done nothing, accomplished nothing, followed through with nothing. The self-indulgence has to end. The pursuit of momentary pleasures needs to give way to more structured long-term goals and priorities. With tremendous effort and growth, one day I hope to not just be a single, lonely, heartbroken man. And when that day comes, I want to be better than the man I am today. There must come a time in every person’s life when they realize the horizon is further than just what their eyes can see. I know I am an expert now of personal indulgences and self-care. If I want to treat myself there’s no doubt in my mind no matter where I am or what I am doing I will find a way. But what do I have to show for it. How am I better today than I was on Monday. How have I grown or improved. If anything, I’ve taken a few steps backwards. I am fuller, bigger, and the truth of the matter is my past behavior of self-indulgence has now left me with feelings of disappointment and regret. I must be better than this. The question I ask myself is, how have I made myself better? Do I know more than I used to? Am I more experienced, worldly, healthy in mind or body? There is a recovery stage, to be sure, after a breakup. I need to lick my wounds and slowly learn to get up. But I think I am past that stage now. I know I haven’t been able yet to fully comprehend and process the events and my emotions but I can do that along the way, on my road to betterment. The truth of the matter is the best thing I’ve done for myself long run so far has been starting this blog, and even then, I could devote more time to it. I will. I will be better. Not for her. Not for anyone else. Not for any future. But for me.

Day 22 and Day 23

Man: 17 Loneliness: 6

P.S. After a bunch of complications I am finally on the flight home, posting this from on-board WiFi…AT 11PM! Supplemental will explain the madness that ensued.

Day 13: The Man and the Best Seat in the House

Whenever possible, always sit at the bar. Though I can’t speak to personal experience for every case, I imagine that this should ring true regardless of whatever form of bar you find yourself in.  I guarantee your experience will be that much more fulfilling and engaging if you find yourself in the heart of the action, at the very front of the bar, in what I consider the best seat in the house.

OldEbbittWhenever I am anywhere that has the option to sit at the bar, next to where all the creation takes place, I jump at it. When you’re seated that close to both the artist and the audience, you have a very different experience.

Today I want to talk specifically about the experience sitting at the bar for a good, strong cocktail and some incredibly comforting and honest food. The sushi bar experience, just like the cocktail experience, deserves its own attention one day.

The bar represents controlled chaos, a hectic frantic frenetic vortex of energy and booze. It is the heart and the nexus of the restaurant, connecting the haves with the have nots; the wants with the unwanted. Though the façade may be different, architecturally, spiritually, emotionally, each bar is essentially the same. Firstly, there is your seat. Your grounded connection to the physical world. Secondly is the counter where you lay down to rest your arms, your drinks, your hopes, your dreams, your ambitions, your fears, your doubts, and your insecurities. This is why good counters are designed to carry hefty loads. Lastly and most importantly, is the forbidden land behind the counter. It is only at the counter that we get a glimpse of the man behind the curtain and watch him work his magic. From the order to the pour, you are witnessing firsthand every drop, every nuanced addition, every calculated measure. You don’t have to be Dale Degroff or Tom Cruise in Cocktail to appreciate what is happening right in front of you. You only have to experience it once for yourself to understand, as I have understood these past five years, that there is nothing like being that close to the creation of something just for you.

HoneyHillA good bar is a connection between many disparate peoples, and a good bartender is a skilled ferryman. It doesn’t matter how exciting or innovative or distinguished the ship may be, it goes nowhere without a good captain. To appreciate the special kind of tortured artistic soul that is preparing your dirty martini, you first have to understand what kind of sick twisted person could possibly enjoy a job like this. A job that, were I less responsible, more transient, less spoiled, and more reckless, I would have loved to have. A good bartender must be part guru, part rock star, and of course, part chef. Make no mistake, for the uninitiated who have never bought their own home cocktail kit, a well-constructed cocktail requires no less than the same utmost attention to detail than the meal you enjoy with it. The guru is who we want the bartender to be when it is too late and we are too poor for a proper psychologist. Frank Sinatra has sung songs about the virtues of man telling his woes to the bartender and the Chairman of the Board never lies. The rock star is the man you engage with. The man who makes it seem like second-nature to be able to tell a joke to the person to your right, make the drink of the three people behind you, settle the tab of the person to your left, and still somehow make you feel like you and he are the only two people in the bar. I don’t need flipping liquor bottles or three foot long arching pours. I just expect my bartender to be able to be actively engaged with his or her patrons and to carry the spirit of the bar. I think it is fundamentally harder to be an authentically involved human being than it is to learn a parlor trick. Call me old-fashioned. (Get it. Old-fashioned. Like the cocktail. You know what I’m talking about Don.)

OysterShooterHad I not sat at the bar of Mid-Atlantic Seafood I still would have enjoyed my clam strips, my crab legs, and my steamed shrimp. I would not have struck a conversation with the two men next to me over the very picture you see here. I would not have met two people who
had similar job as I, travelling up and down the East Coast to train and promote their small electrical wiring company. I would not have talked to my bartender about the freshness of oysters. He would not have invited me to test for myself. We would not have taken oyster shots together. I wouldn’t have ordered a dozen to split with my new companions to teach them how to enjoy the briny delicacy. I wouldn’t have been reminded of the value of even fleeting, temporary, inevitably doomed connections.

Had I not sat at the bar of the Old Ebbitt Grill I would Negroninot have gotten to talk real shop with the seasoned veteran bartender who appreciated my Negroni. I would not have discovered the Honey Hill martini, a drink I now cannot wait to prepare and share with my friends. I would not have heard the people next to me ask the people next to them if the shrimp were any good. Then I would not have seen them, emboldened by the recommendation, order a dozen. Which then inspired me to order as well. And when they ordered the Blondie with vanilla ice cream…if I had not sat at the bar I would not have had the opportunity to ask them what they thought of it and they would not have offered me a spoon to try for myself.

Sitting at the bar is an experience of your own will and creation. All of the necessary components of whatever night you are looking to have are set before you. Pick the right bar, and it is very easy to have a quiet, solitary, singularly focused night of drinking to set your mind in the right place or to Zen it out of place completely. Pick just about any bar really, and your night of socializing can range from the meeting of minds and like-minded souls to a soul-ripping Pandora’s Box of raucous and rowdy romps. Through it all will be your spiritual guide, your bartender. There are times when I have contented myself with the passage of time and alcohol and others when my restlessness gets the better of me and I look to meet and make connections with my fellow bargoers. Purpose, proximity, and patience. Much like real relationships, the bar offers a microcosm for you to experiment with. Take your time and remember why you are here. Sit down. Get comfortable. Feel your feet on the stool. Feel your arms on the counter. Is it warm, like wood and leather, or is it cool, like glass and metal. Take in the senses. If you were at a table, you wouldn’t hear the ice being poured into the shaker. Smell the different liquers and infusions that imbibe your cocktail with life. Feel the electricity of a thousand things happening all at once. See the sureness of the fingers that pour your ingredients and the peaceful concentration of the bartender. Taste the cocktail at its freshest, when it has been thoroughly mixed and chilled without any chance of the flavors dulling down or the ice melting. At least once, and if your party size allows it, gift yourself the experience to see what it is like in a real bar with a real bartender making real drinks and understand you are part of a theme, a motif that occurs and reoccurs across all nations and cultures and times. Where there is good drink to be had, there is good company and good times as well.

Day 13

Man: 10 Loneliness: 3

Day 9 Supplemental: The Man and the Man Vs Pho

Pho Saigon in Catonsville, MD

It was, at one point in the day, 100 degrees outside in Baltimore. I packed a couple bags of popcorn as late night snacks for my hotel room, and during the drive in I could have sworn I heard them popping in the back. I sweat more than a pregnant nun at confession.

So why the hell am I having pho for dinner today?!

Pho is more than just soup. It’s comfort and nurturing for an Asian boy in very non-Asian lands. It’s really very easy to explain. Some people have their chicken noodle soups, I have my pho.

Soups are big in Asia. They’re big in my family. I love my wonton noodle soup from HK Wonton Garden in Chinatown. I love soondobu from BCD Tofu House in Fort Lee. Ramen from Mitsuwa in Edgewater. Don’t judge, but I love my instant ramens too. Dosirac. Bowl Noodle. Gomtang. But none hold as much significance as pho.

First time I had pho was actually with Beautiful in Philly. She took me to this place her family always went to and ever since I have strongly advocated that Pho Ha in Philly serves the best pho in the country. No trip to Philly is complete without stopping there, regardless of the season or the temperature.

It’s about more than just the taste or the ingredients. It’s about the practice of eating pho. It is like zen meditation with a hint of ginger and star anise.

PhoBaltimoreIt’s all about the timing and the preparation. You have to understand that to eat pho you have to be part of the process of making it. There is a mandatory aspect of audience participation and it follows a logical and satisfying process that promises incredible rewards.

Behind the scenes, the chef is perfecting the broth. Without good pho broth you have beef in water. Good pho broth is an investment of time and attention. The master broth is simmered for at least 6 hours and it is where all the flavor and power is derived. You trust your chef to provide you with good broth as he trusts you to finish the product.

You can choose whatever you want to have in your pho. Traditionalists will only want those rich, meaty, thin slices of super flavorful brisket, delicately placed on top of your piping hot broth, cooking in the residual heat to a tender medium rare. Ever the iconoclast, I always order mine packed to the brim with flank, tendon, tripe, and beef balls.

As your bowl of pho is being prepared in the back, your waitress brings your accouretrements. A generously piled plate of raw bean sprouts, Thai basil, jalapeno slices, and lime. Meanwhile you take a small plate and place equal amounts of hoisin sauce and hot sauce on the side. With everything prepped and laid before you, you are ready to receive your bowl of pho with all your meat and those deliciously slippery rice noodles. It is now your turn to take over. The timer is ticking as your soup gradually goes from blisteringly hot to a perfect soul and stomach satisfying warmth.

Before anything else, you must lean in, smell the broth. Like a fine wine, search for those taste notes that will inform you of the journey you are about to take. Smell the pure beef richness. The freshness of the ginger. The complicated candy-spice of the star anise. The earthy pungency and funk of salty fish sauce. The smell of a well-seasoned and powerful broth is unmistakable.

Now, as your soup is still at that too-hot-to-handle stage, customize your pho. Add handfuls of the bean sprouts and watch as they slowly poach in the broth. Punctuate the richness of the beef with the sweet aroma of Thai basil as you tear the leaves and scatter them in the bowl. Add freshness and zest with the lime. Some jalapeno wouldn’t hurt either if you are able to handle it.

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. This is why you were prepared from the very beginning and had all your ingredients in front of you. It is exactly at the moment you finish adding your ingredients that the broth is ready to taste. Take that first pure sip of broth and let the warmth and flavor transport you.

Now you begin your ritual. Enjoying pho is very active and requires attention and due diligence. You alternate between rich, filling sips of that incredibly unctious broth, enjoying tender rare pieces of beef, and slurping those slightly chewy, satisfyingly slippery, luxuriously lengthy, rice noodles. Forget the temperature outside. Forget the sweat that gathers at you brow and threatens to freefall off your face. Forget everything and engage in your meal and actively be a participant in its enjoyment. Broth, sip. Beef, dip in that combination of hoisin and Sriracha. Noodles, slurp. Repeat. Enjoy. Zen. Be.

Before you know it, you’re at the bottom of your bowl. You don’t want to believe it. Your spoon presses against the deepest part, hoping to gather from the depths enough for one more fulfilling sip. Chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other. When your hands are full you can’t hold onto a cell phone. When your mind is engaged you can’t hold on to regrets and fears. There’s no time to steal away. Your pho is getting cold, and you cannot miss the golden time in between. You can’t really recall the last time a meal demanded so much of your attention and returned so much satisfaction.

You can’t mess up good pho. If the broth is good and the meat is fresh and the noodles are al dente and the vegetables are crisp, life is good. Even sub-par pho is still in its essence incredible for the stomach and the soul.

Pho Saigon is good pho. Pho Saigon is honest pho. Pho Saigon is an opportunity in Catonsville, MD to experience Zen. The portions are generous, the meat is toothsome yet tender and flavorful without being too fatty.

And if a satisfied soul isn’t as important as a satisfied stomach to you, forget everything I said because they also have the Man vs Pho challenge which is quite literally two pounds of beef, two pounds of noodles, and like a gallon of broth.

Day 6: The Man and The Swiss Army Man

I needed to recover from yesterday’s loss. Being an introvert, I also needed to recharge from all the energy of meeting new people and being sociable, engaged, and entertaining. I really don’t mind or dislike socializing, it just takes a toll on me.

Watching movies has always been that recuperative escape for me. It allows me to be alone but still have company. To be around others but not have to socialize. For a couple hours I get to see and be part of someone’s life without having to participate or engage. Experience someone else’s victories and losses. Live with love and happiness and process heartbreak and hurt. I have been going to the movies all my life and it is one of my favorite past-times either with friends, family, loved ones, or by myself. I’ve spent many nights on my own at the theatre. It was one of the first places and first activities I learned to love by myself without feeling strange for it. Sometimes I even purposely wait to watch a movie until it’s been out for a month, then pick the latest showing on a weeknight, go to the quietest theatre in my area, just to have the whole place to myself. I don’t feel afraid being alone when I’m here.

Today I wasn’t though, so that was fun. One of my best friends is just as crazy about movies as I am and we’ve met up a lot to watch films our other friends didn’t have any interest in. Today was one of those times and the movie was Swiss Army Man. I mean, believe me I get it. Have you SEEN the trailer for this move? (Link below). It’s weird. It’s trippy. It’s just my type of indie, unpredictable, surreal life flick. But I didn’t know it was also a love story.

I’m a huge anti-spoiler stickler. So I won’t give much away or talk about the movie itself. I will however absolutely vouch for this film and recommend it to any of you readers who are interested after watching the trailer. If there is even a spark of interest, a slight possibility you feel you might be interested, if the absurdity and the surrealness of the situation hasn’t turned you off immediately, you have what it takes to go and enjoy and appreciate this film. This is a movie that was made for a specific audience and it loves and cares and pays attention and respect to that audience and delivers everything it asks of. It was humorous, light, poignant, yet heavily relevant and incredibly relatable, strange as it may seem. It never lingers on the impossible. Never emphasizes the ridiculous. It treats every aspect, the pain of isolation, the hope of connection, even the projectile flatulence, as all equally real, equally important, and equally integral. You never really have time to question the absurd because you believe it as much as you believe that a man can feel sadness and despair and loneliness. And you hope for it just as much by the end as well.

But I didn’t know it was a love story. I didn’t know it was going to also be about unrequited love. Or confused love or just…obsession or dedication or want of love and need of love and…hunger…for love. And I wasn’t ready to relate to another person, real or not, in such a deep way so similar to the pain I have been trying to process. Every feeling was a memory, every pain was already a scar. Every hope had already been dreamt.

My other friend’s girlfriend used to be an English major like myself. We had a brief chance to control the conversation and steer it to our interest and she mentioned how she believed that there were no more original stories left in the world. That every plot, every tale, every dream had been formulated already and whatever we could feel or perceive had already been done. ‘There are no more original stories’. What does that mean for my love, my pain, my loss, my insecurity, my fear? I still have a story to tell. I still have to process everything by sharing and throwing my experiences out into the void hoping it will catch on someone else’s journey and help guide them. Derivative though it may be, my one-of-a-million story is important and seeks the same justification and legitimization as all the stories of the past.

I wanted to share my pain with my friend. I couldn’t stop the tears from falling during the movie. When the credits rolled and the few other members of the audience had left and I was desperately trying to brush away the tears as discretely as possible my friend was pondering how any of the movie could have been possible, trying to ask the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ and questioned the origin of the ‘multipurpose tool guy’. I couldn’t care less. I believed in the man because I believed the emotions he felt and therefore all his actions were real too. I felt a connection and a camaraderie I wasn’t expecting and caught fully off-guard I indulged in a few tears and emotions I hadn’t faced in a little while. I wanted to explain to her why I was crying. I wanted to share my story, share this blog that none of my family and friends even know I’ve started. But it’s too early still in my journey. The pain is still raw, my process is still being made up as I go along, and the words are still too rash and untested. I’m not ready to show where I am so far. I need to grow more.

I’m glad I got to watch Swiss Army Man. I’m glad it was a love story. I’m glad it allowed me to live by proxy through its story to express some sadness and pain and loss because I haven’t allowed myself to feel that way thoroughly and honestly and openly. They did a spectacular job. There is something in this movie for you if you are reading this. If my message has ever resounded with you in any way, you’ll find a part of me, a part of you, in this film. Loneliness is not the end of our story. Absurdity is the joy and plot of our lives. You don’t need to figure out who or what or where or why or even how. No one ever really questions the multipurpose tool guy. It is, like anything else, just another way for one of us to learn to cope and survive and live, and hopefully one day happily love. There is no reason why any one of our stories of searching and loneliness should be any more absurd than any other. We learn to love. We seek love.

Thank you, Swiss Army Man.

Day 6

Man: 5 Loneliness: 1