Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Strangely New York: If You're Serious About Ice Cream, Get in Line

By Mitch Broder

This space is too stark and forbidding even for a bank, so there’s just one thing it could possibly be:

A fashionable ice-cream parlor.

Note the spartan décor, meant to stimulate prompt product-selection. Note the copious lighting, meant to ensure efficient purchase-delivery. Note the grave atmosphere, meant to convey critical brand importance. Note the cop, meant to discourage any random escape of emotion.

For in fact, this is not an ice-cream parlor. It’s a gelato lab. It’s Il Laboratorio del Gelato, the nerve center of creamology. Step in, order, eat and leave, or better yet, leave and eat. If you eat in, you’ll be standing up or sitting on a slab of steel, and that’ll teach you.

OK, I’m done. I’m not here to knock a man’s business, and besides, sarcasm’s exhausting. The truth is, online reviews suggest that the desserts here are delicious. I just couldn’t eat any, because as soon as I walked in I felt more depressed than I ever had in a store created for pleasure.

I get the lab concept. Making such great ice cream is a science. On Ludlow Street you can look through the window and watch the scientists work. The window says that you might see them peel peaches, pit mangoes, core pineapples, juice lemons, roast pistachios, or wrinkle prunes. I made that last one up.

But inside, it’s antispetic. I thought someone would come take my blood. It made Baskin-Robbins feel cheerful, and that takes diligent grimness planning. As people stepped up to the counter I thought of the Soup Nazi stand in “Seinfeld.”
Maybe that’s why I didn’t order: No sorbet for you!

As usual, I’m out of touch. This place is clearly popular. It was on Orchard Street for years, and this new store is much bigger. The clinical motif dovetails with the digital life, yet has the bonus of old-fashioned marketing strategy: Ice cream from a laboratory must be good for you.

But I still say the joint is bleak. Not to mention pricey. A small serving is $4.25, a large is $6.75, and so is a milkshake or an ice-cream soda. If you’re ever on Long Island, visit my idea of an ice-cream parlor — Krisch’s, in Massapequa, which is where Seinfeld grew up, which may be ironic.

Meanwhile, absolutely step into the lab. After all, it was founded by the same guy who founded Ciao Bella. It has 200 flavors (not at once), and I’m sure they really are delicious. They need to be, if they’re going to lift the despair you fell into when you walked in.

Experiment at Il Laboratorio del Gelato, 188 Ludlow Street, at East Houston Street, in Manhattan.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The New York Public Library: They Got Their Claws Into This Show

The three exhibition photos are courtesy of The New York Public Library. The paw is courtesy of Charles Dickens.

By Mitch Broder

There’s a good chance that I will never write anything like “David Copperfield.”

But at least there’s no chance that I will ever open my mail with my dead cat’s foot.

These were my fleeting thoughts when my esteem for Charles Dickens was fleetingly shaken, at the centennial of the New York Public Library. Among the artifacts on display are one of Dickens’s copies of that novel — and Dickens’s letter opener, whose handle is a paw from his pet cat Bob.

My technique as a writer is to feel inferior to other writers, but Dickens, in his greatness, allowed me a moment to stand tall. I, too, loved my dead cat — in fact, all three of my dead cats — but I’d sooner festoon my bicycle seat with his fluffy tail than head to the mailbox grasping his disembodied paw pads.

Of course, a paw handle wasn’t quite as creepy in Dickens’s day. Death was more rampant then, and people routinely did things like take pictures of their dead relatives and make brooches out of their hair. Still, I felt evolved, even if I haven’t yet thrown out my dead cat’s snack dish, not to mention my dead grandfather’s epsom salts.

You can experience your own evolution at the centennial exhibition, cagily titled “Celebrating 100 Years.” It’s filled with surprises unearthed from the library’s collections. (It marks not the founding of the library, which occurred in 1895, but the opening of its grand main branch, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.)

The show is curiously divided into four themes: Observation, Contemplation, Society, and Creativity. The first three address topics like The Heavens and Earth; Self-Reflection and Spirituality; and Political Movements Around the World. That’s why I headed straight for Creativity. It’s the theme that comprises the Beatles trading cards.

I saw the Royal typewriters of S.J. Perelman and E.E. Cummings, and wondered if changing my first name to initials might help. I saw a handwritten score by Beethoven, and wondered how he was able to create such masterpieces with nineteenth-century music notation software.

I saw a lock of Mary Shelley’s hair, and the Beatles card where they have crewcuts. I saw a dime novel, some dance cards, and a letter to Cocteau from Piccaso. I saw the prompt copy of “David Copperfield,” which Dickens used for public readings. And I saw the letter opener. It’s engraved “C.D.  in memory of Bob 1862.”

Despite its company, it is probably the most diverting piece in the show. Needless to say, other visitors are creeped out by it daily.

But I can’t judge a great writer for having a macabre souvenir. And I certainly can’t judge him for loving his cat. I can judge him only for his role in making me feel inferior. And, more important, for naming any cat Bob.

“Celebrating 100 Years” is at the New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Streeet, through December 31.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Strangely New York: Will Masala Twist Be the Next Kung Fu Bing?

The new Masala Twist.

By Mitch Broder

If you miss having bings in a toilet, go and have kababs in the same toilet.

The Chinese pancakes are gone, but the urinal seats live on.

The late Kung Fu Bing.
A month ago I wrote of the demise of Kung Fu Bing, a Chinese fast-food restaurant on the Lower East Side. It had hoped to do for the bing, or pancake, what hamburgers did for the bun. It didn’t succeed. It failed first in Chinatown, which is like the latke failing in Borough Park.

It was gone so fast that I didn’t have a chance to eat a bing, though based on review words like “gummy” and “greasy,” I would have been a fan. But I was more fascinated by its seats, shiny white bowls on conical pedestals, which bore an uncanny resemblance to a modern male relief station.

More important, they looked uncomfortable, a condition that’s clearly trending in the gimmick-grounded fast-food joints that seem to open here hourly. I suggested that the plastic chairs played at least a subliminal role in the death of Kung Fu Bing. I praised New Yorkers for their refinement.

The Toto Toilets Model UT104E#01. 
But no sooner did I post than Kung Fu Bing was replaced by an Indian fast-food restaurant called Masala Twist. The owners, of course, changed the menu. They changed the signs. They changed the décor. Sort of. But they kept the seats. I reacted rationally. I took it as a personal attack.

Though it may be thrifty, it seems imprudent to furnish a fledgling restaurant with conspicuous reminders of a conspicuous predecessor that flopped. Twice. And it still seems imprudent to me to invite people to eat on things that evoke the opposite of eating. I will never give up.

Masala Twist has a compact menu with economical selections like Chicken Tikka, Shami Kabab, and Eggplant Masala. I think it hopes to do for masala, or spices, what Kung Fu Bing didn’t do for the bing. Its Web site suggests that they’d like you to refer to the store as “Twisty,” which I believe is Indian for “Mickey D’s.”

The Web site also says: “When you eat at Masala Twist, it is just like eating at households throughout India.” I have not eaten at households throughout India. But I’ll just bet that the residents don’t take their meals on leftover Chinese-pancake seats that look like they belong behind a door marked “Men.”

Size up the seating at Masala Twist, 189 East Houston Street, between Orchard and Ludlow streets, in Manhattan.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Paul Molé Barber Shop: Does It Still Have NYC's Hottest Haircuts?

Adrian Wood chats with a client in a barber chair from the '50s. The client is the newsman Allan Dodds Frank.

By Mitch Broder

I’ve spent a lot of time at Paul Molé Barber Shop. Someday I may spend some money. I just have to conquer my aversion to paying. And my fear of a charbroiled head.

The boys' chairs are downstairs.
The aversion is defensible, since a wash and cut would run around forty bucks, which is eighty times what I paid as a boy, and I thought that was too much. The fear is less rational, but it’s based in reality. The shop’s namesake got famous for cutting hair with fire. I don’t even like hot water.

The century-old business is owned by a genial gent named Adrian Wood. Paul Molé has been dead for decades; he is no longer a threat. But his legend lives on in framed clips on the walls that tell of his renowned “flame cut.” Reading the walls is one of the ways I spend time there without spending money.

Molé hoped to be an actor but became a self-promoter, back in the days when those were two separate things. He upstaged his celebrity clients and got on TV igniting hair with candles. He claimed to be reviving an ancient Egyptian art. You can see apparent disciples in videos like “Fire Hair Cut.”

When Adrian talks of Molé, I think of a parent shaking his head at a child who’s just shown up wearing a shaving-cream hat. Molé was cheeky. Still, his clients did range from Fred Astaire to Joe DiMaggio, John Steinbeck to Benny Goodman, and Tennessee Williams to Bing Crosby.

Adrian has his own famous clients. But he knows the value of his forerunner. And he knows the value of his forerunner’s traditions. Like Molé, he hires barbers, not hairdressers. Like Molé, he keeps a masculine atmosphere. Unlike Molé, though, he does not torch hair. He told me so. I want to believe him.

Three members of his family work at the shop, including his son Michael. I’ve spoken a lot with Michael. He seems very creative. One day as we spoke, he unearthed a box labeled “Barbers’ ‘Singe’ Tapers.”

The box was very old and dusty. And yet I could feel my ears burning.

Cool your heels at Paul Molé Barber Shop, 1031 Lexington Avenue, at 74th Street, in Manhattan.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Strangely New York: Our Loving City Still Has Its Flower Children

By Mitch Broder

You probably don’t expect to be welcomed to New York City by perky girls handing you flowers. And you shouldn’t.

That is, unless you happen to emerge in New York City from the Spring Street subway station. Then you should.

If you step around the railing and face 65 Spring, at least one girl will give you a flower and say, “This is for you.” She will not ask for anything in return. You, though, can ask for whatever you want. Curb your expectations.

The first time I got a flower I imagined I’d been specially chosen because the perky girls saw in me what so many others had missed. Then I noticed the baskets stuffed with hundreds of other flowers and realized that anyone who shows up gets one, whether he’s special or not.

The scene of this unconditional love is a store called Tierra, which was born on the Canary Islands yet found its way to SoHo. It’s a woodsy little place dripping with gaily colored accoutrements including jewelry, bags, and scarves, made by presumably perky artists.

Diana Moreno, the store manager, told me that the flower idea came from the store founder, Francisco Javier Rahim Gil. “His philosophy is that to be able to get anything back, you have to give,” she said. “The flower is a welcoming gift. It’s easy to connect with somebody when you’re gifting them for no reason.”

It worked for me. Even though I knew that Tierra would prefer something back, getting a flower from a smiling woman made me feel better. 

The flower was a fake daisy, but within hours, I swear it wilted. I also swear it smelled, and Diana later confirmed that it did. “It’s dipped in an Asian fragrance,” she said. “It’s top-secret. The smell lasts over three months. You can always smell it and remember us.”

It’s just the kind of thing I would do.

Sniff out Tierra at 65 Spring Street, between Crosby and Lafayette streets, in Manhattan.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pennsylvania Station: The New York City Mistake That Won't Die

By Mitch Broder

The New York City symbol of man’s contempt for himself is Pennsylvania Station.

Either one.

The magnificent original was a monument to civility. It declared us all worthy of elegance. It was demolished.

The sweaty substitute is a monument to debasement. It’s a basement. It’s demeaning. It stands — that is, squats — to this day.

It’s also, incidentally, a testament to my passion: As a kid, I climbed in and out of that dump to get to New York from Long Island. But in its dinginess, it spawned the reprieve of, among other things, Grand Central Terminal. Man’s contempt for himself wasn’t such that he could miss the boat at two train stations.

Farley Post Office.
It’s fitting, then, that the survivor host a remembrance of the casualty. It’s an exhibition called “The Once and Future Pennsylvania Station.” It takes you back to the graceful station — and to its slow, haunting murder. And it takes you forward to its resurrection in the Farley Post Office Building.

I never feel more mortal than when I consider my actual chances of seeing that project completed within my first three lifetimes. But it’s nice to read about — as is the original station, which, as the show reminds us, was “an architectural masterpiece and a major enhancement to the lives of people throughout the region.”

It didn’t enhance every life. It displaced an entire neighborhood, even if it was “an infamous neighborhood with brothels, saloons, casinos, and dancehalls.”  Now we’re short on dancehalls. But the loss was worth it, at least from 1910 to 1963. Then we had no great Pennsylvania Station as well as no dancehalls.

The exhibition includes a few ruins, including a lamp globe, an iron railing, and a glass-block floor tile. But they are disembodied, and don’t evoke much in the way of grandeur. What ended up moving me more were words — words of wisdom and warning, echoing from the regrettable past on the exhibition’s video screen.

 “It’s a building which makes man feel noble, which gives him a sense of space and dignity,” says the art and architecture critic Aline Saarinen. The architect Philip Johnson then completes the thought: “And if you have to — as you will in the future, when they tear it down — come out of the Pennsylvania Station as if you’re in a subway station, how degrading for the entrance to what we like to think of as the greatest city in the world.”

The exhibition continues through October 30th at The New York Transit Museum Gallery Annex and Store at Grand Central Terminal. Admission is free.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Signing Off: Maybe I Should Just Become a Naming Consultant

By Mitch Broder

I have probed the issue of store names that may have sabotaged their stores but, of course, New York is a city that is forever topping itself.

Thus, as I kind of suspected it would, the time has come to give a send-off to Dodo.

I take no delight in its departure. Though it was not a vintage treasure of the kind I celebrate in this blog, it seemed like a nice little shop, staffed by nice friendly people who appeared merrily unaware that in English the word dodo is rarely affirmative, no matter how you pronounce it.

Dodo may be another of the victims of the demise of Tower Records, along with the joy of shopping for music without a computing device. Tower’s landmark store at Fourth Street anchored Dodo’s stretch of Broadway, whose fortunes have declined along with the pleasures of the last century.

Then again, Dodo may be another of the victims of a bad name. You don’t want to step into Dodo. You don’t want buy from a Dodo. A few years ago, there was a Dodo Café, which is arguably worse than a Dodo accessory store. Some people said the food was good. It went out of business anyway.

Still, this city is never short on successful places with dopey names. Conversely, Tower had a good name, and look at it now. Its upstairs is a gym called Blink and its downstairs is a stunt called the MLB Fan Cave, in which two guys are watching 2,430 baseball games, which just goes to show what happens to people when there are no more record stores.

In short, I can’t say for sure whether Dodo’s name killed Dodo, but just in case, let its death not be in vain. There’s a steakhouse on Broadway at 88th Street, for instance, which I somehow find less than inviting. Maybe it has to do with being old enough to miss records. I wish the place well enough, but before it expands further, I suggest it give serious thought to its name...

Vintage New York wishes good luck to the people of Dodo.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Rudy's Bar and Grill: How I Will Live in NYC When I Am Broke

By Mitch Broder

The Clinton Chronicle ran an item congratulating Rudy’s Bar and Grill “for once again taking the top prize as the City’s BEST DIVE BAR!”

It didn’t mention who awarded the prize, and I don’t need to know because it doesn’t matter. What matters is they won it.

More important, they are proud, which itself is commendable, since even the best dive bar, by strict definition, is anything but good. But by affectionate definition, of course, a dive is a joint without pretense. A place where you feel at home. At least if your home’s upholstered in duct tape.

Rudy’s banquettes are about 90 percent duct tape, which isn’t bad for a place that’s been open since 1933. And its beer is incredibly cheap, because a dive sells drinks at prices that leave you money for food, though that doesn’t apply at Rudy’s since they give food away.

For years, they’ve been giving hot dogs away, and they recently switched to Hebrew National, which is a very nice brand to give away. In honor of the top prize, I went to Rudy’s to celebrate, and also to see if I could get a free hot dog if I only bought a Coke.

It’s not that I’m cheap. It’s that I giggle. When I drink beer, I giggle. Which is sort of all right in my kitchen but not right at all in Hell’s Kitchen. So I ordered a Coke and asked for a dog and was told “We’re not supposed to,” just seconds before the wiener arrived on the customary white paper plate.

There was television to watch, there were newspapers to read, there was Willie Nelson to listen to. And as always, outside the window, there was the six-foot pig.

The bartenders were nice ladies. My tab was $2.

If that doesn’t deserve a prize, I just don’t know what does.

Dine at Rudy’s Bar and Grill, at 627 Ninth Avenue, between 44th and 45th streets, in Manhattan.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Strangely New York: California Cupcakes Join the Cupcake Capital

By Mitch Broder

I just read a story suggesting that the New York City cupcake thing may be over.

It was in The New York Times.

In 2008.

So imagine my surprise when I arrived at the newest New York City cupcake store and found it packed to the door with people who don’t read three-year-old New York Times stories.

The new New York City cupcake store is the old Beverly Hills cupcake store named Sprinkles Cupcakes, which calls itself “The Original Cupcake Bakery.” It opened at the site of the beloved Gino restaurant, which was not “The Original Italian Restaurant” but had been there since 1945.

I was alerted to this opening by Brooks of Sheffield in a January post showing the gay Gino façade replaced by Sprinkles construction plywood. The post ends with this cogent thought on the changing of the guard: “The world does not need a single additional cupcake joint, I say.”

The world does not, as long as New York City is around. If the cupcake thing has ended, that’s the way I’d like to end. Take the vicinity of the new cupcake store, which I did on the day of my visit. Within a few blocks you can find enough cupcakes to exempt at least Europe and South America.

Baked by Melissa.
At Grand Central Terminal, joining the cupcakes of chains like Zaro’s and Junior’s are the three-dollar (and a quarter) cupcakes of the chain Magnolia Bakery. It’s Magnolia, which began in the Village, that is said to have launched the cupcake thing when it guest-starred in a girly TV show that glamorized overpaying.

Step out onto 42nd Street and step into Baked by Melissa, a cupcake chain that distinguishes itself by selling itty-bitty cupcakes. The cakes are too tiny to have cups; for $3 you get three in one cup. They’re cupcake Munchkins, except that Munchkins are fifty for $9.99 and Melissas are fifty for $37.50.

Crumbs Bake Shop.
Turn the corner onto Lexington Avenue and enter one of what now seems like the hundreds of branches of Crumbs Bake Shop, a chain built mostly on its — cupcakes. Here the cakes top out at $3.75, not counting the Colossal Crumb, a monster Hostess Cupcake replica that costs $35.

Admittedly, you must leave the street to find other latter-day cupcake showrooms with actual names like Buttercup and Sugar Sweet Sunshine, but stay on Lex till just past 60th and you’re at the latest of them, Sprinkles. There are lulls. You can get in. And here the price is back down to $3.50.

When I got in I saw two grown women sitting on little cupcake tuffets at a little round table, eating cupcakes off brown paper with wooden forks. There were five cupcake-tuffet seats, a cupcake walk of fame, and cupcakes in flavors like ginger lemon, salty caramel, and peanut butter chocolate.

You could also buy a shot of frosting for 75 cents, a little cupcake for your dog for $2.50, a cupcake tray for $25, a Sprinkles T-shirt for $25, and a Sprinkles baseball cap, also for $25.  If you bought four cupcakes, two shirts and two baseball caps your tab would be $114. Not including tax and Pellegrino.

Though The Times may have jumped the gun, cupcake shops will jump the shark, just like cookie shops two decades ago, when New York was Mrs. Fieldsville. Incidentally, I live for pastry. But at these cupcake shops I wonder how people eat those things. You can get a delicious rational cupcake at a bake sale for 50 cents if not a quarter, I say.

Of course, Sprinkles didn’t kill Gino. In fact, they’ve acknowledged Gino. In its honor, they’ve installed  a wall’s worth of Gino’s famous dancing-zebra wallpaper.

What killed Gino is the cultural preference for Sprinkleses over Ginos.

And in the face of that, we have just two choices: Abstain, or have a peanut butter chocolate.

If you don’t abstain, find Sprinkles at 780 Lexington Avenue, between 60th and 61st streets, in Manhattan.