Wednesday, February 29, 2012

New in New York: Watch Your Lip at Pie Face

Smiling meat pies welcome you at the New in New York restaurant Pie Face

By Mitch Broder

I only eat things that aren’t smiling at me, which leaves most of my friends at risk, but I made an exception for a pie. Still, it was tough to stick a fork in its face.

I actually ate most of six pies, all of which had faces, because they were the pies of New York’s first Pie Face Bakery Café. Pie Face is the Australian fast-food chain founded on the reasonable premise that meat pies that can upstage fashion models must have a global future.

Catch a glimpse of the Ed Sullivan theater right around the corner from the New in New York Pie Face

New York’s first Pie Face is on Broadway at 53rd Street, and it has people lining up daily for its expressive pastries. This is partly because it faces the people lining up to see David Letterman, but also because it has pie that you can justify as food.

The idea is not new in Australia, where meat pies sell like hot cakes, and where Pie Face already sells them in seventy jolly stores. It’s also not new in New York, which has for a while had Tuck Shop, which I wrote about when I thought it would be my one meat-pie post for the season.

But Tuck Shop is proud to have grown from one store to three in seven years, while Pie Face has the unmistakable look of an aspiring hand-food empire. It plans to turn New York into Pie City before turning America into pie country, its emotional crusts vanquishing our impassive burger buns.

A full tray of meat pies with unique faces artfully displayed by the artists of Pie Face a new in new york restaurant

I almost believed it could happen after a representative named Colbern Uhl presented me with a tray of six fresh hot Mini Pies. Not all of them were smiling, and one was missing an eye, but they were all delicious, including the ones I would never have ordered if I’d had to pay.

The pies’ various fillings are identified by their various mouths, which is why only one has the trademark smile, since the smile is also a C. The C identifies the Chicken & Mushroom Pie, which tastes like the one meat pie Americans embrace, which is chicken pot pie. If you’re intransigent, get that.

A Pie Face cook splashes on the egg wash that gives the meat pies their signature look
Kevin Nieves, the store manager, egg-washes your pie.
If not, try the S mouth, the Chunky Steak Pie, which tastes like chicken pot pie would taste if it were steak pot pie. It’s the most popular. Or try the M mouth, the Mince Beef & Tomato Pie, which is said to taste like shepherd’s pie but which I thought tasted like pizza pie.

The X mouth is the Mexican Pie, since the M was already taken. I expected it to be spicy, perhaps because it has jalapeño. But it wasn’t. The spiciest pie was the Tandoori Vegetable Pie, and even that wasn’t very spicy. It has a V mouth because a T doesn’t make a good mouth.

Unbaked pies at Pie Face await people looking for a yummy treat when dining in New YorkThe O mouth is the special, which is currently the Thai Chicken Curry Pie, which like the others that sounded spicy is instead mild yet flavorful. I asked Colbern why its mouth is an O. “It’s saying, ‘Wow! I’m the special!’” she explained. “They talk?” I asked. “They talk,” she said. “If you want them to.”

Apparently, some customers would want them to, so that the pies could explain themselves. Colbern said that patrons are often baffled by savory pies. “They like them ’cause they’re smiling at them. But they want to know what a meat pie is. Once they have one, though, they come back for more.”

That’s what Wayne Homschek and Betty Fong discovered as the creators of the Australian fashion label Paablo Nevada. At a show, they thought it would be ironic to serve lowly meat pies with their high fashion. It was ironic. The crowd got more excited by the pies than by the fashion.

So the clothing designers became meat-pie entrepreneurs, taking branding inspiration from a smile face someone drew on a napkin. As an incidental irony, “pie-faced” is not exactly a compliment. But this is clearly the restaurant chain that could turn that around.

It's not just about Pie Face meat pies, the shop also has soups and sandwiches for ever palate of person dining in New YorkAlong with the Mini Pies, Pie Face has regular pies, and along with the savory pies, it has sweet pies. The apple has an A mouth, the blueberry has a B mouth, and the cherry has a C mouth. Still, no one confuses it with chicken & mushroom.

The shop has soups, sandwiches, and sausage rolls, and coffee coded with scary faces. And it has stacks, which are meat pies topped with mashed potatoes, gravy, and peas. What it doesn’t have is a place to sit. You can stand at a counter or eat walking. Pie Face wants you to have an authentic Australian experience.

To that end, it also has an authentic Australian dessert called a lamington. It’s cubic sponge cake filled with raspberry jam and coated with chocolate and coconut.

I didn’t try it, since I ate six pies. And it doesn’t seem to be heavily promoted.

Maybe it won’t be. Still, be prepared for New York’s first Cake Face.

No visit to Pie Face would be complete without a picture of tourists

Get your fill at Pie Face, 1691 Broadway, at 53rd Street, in New York City.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Old New York: "The Fantasticks" Makes Long-Runs Look Short

The Old New York stage show The Fantasticks

By Mitch Broder

“The Fantasticks” seemed like a show you could count on seeing once a decade, so imagine my disappointment when it closed in its forty-second year.

A couple of the actors in the old New York production of the Fantastics
Cast photos courtesy of John Capo Public Relations. 
Sure, it outlasted losers like “The Sound of Music,” which opened in the same season yet closed forty-nine years ago. Then again, “The Fantasticks” didn’t have any Nazis. And indeed, it did come back. Though it closed in January of 2002, it reopened in August of 2006, and just like old times, it’s still running.

It has thus played for forty-seven years if you include the current run, and even if you don’t, its world record is foreseeably secure. This month, the longest-running Broadway show ever, “The Phantom of the Opera,” played its 10,000th performance. On its closing night, “The Fantasticks” played its 17,162nd performance.

“The Fantasticks” is Off-Broadway, but it’s still the longest-running musical in history. That alone, I decided, made it worth a fourth viewing. My third was on that closing night, when I had the distinction of getting out of F. Murray Abraham’s way so he could get to the stage to make a closing-night speech.

The original home for the old New York production of the Fantastics at the Sullivan Street Playhouse
Where the Playhouse was. 
The show’s original run was at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, in the West Village. The new run is at the Snapple Theater Center, or per the awning, the All Natural Snapple Theater Center. The center, though all natural, does not have the old-Greenwich Village charm. Then again, for Times Square, it’s as charming as it gets.

The show’s home, which is at the Center, is the Jerry Orbach Theater. Orbach was in the original cast. The lobby, fittingly, is a Museum of “The Fantasticks” and Jerry Orbach. It has posters from Broadway shows that starred Orbach, like “Chicago,” and from “Fantasticks” productions like one that starred Liza Minnelli in Connecticut.

The new home of the Old New York production of the Fantasticks is the Jerry Orbach Theater
The interior of the theater eerily resembles that of the Playhouse. I checked to make sure that I wasn’t blocking F. Murray Abraham. It has 199 seats, just over fifty more than before. It has the same tiny plank stage with the same white-sheet curtain. Maybe the exact same.

Everything is simple, for it is a show about simplicity, and the bonehead things everyone always does to complicate it. It’s a little love story, punctuated with tenacious burlesque humor and sprinkled with gentle, wistful songs that might be quaint but aren’t dated.

The set consists of six black poles, a bench, a chair, a box, and a trunk. The props consist of a watering can, shears, wooden sticks, and confetti. The cast consists of eight actors. The orchestra is a harp and a piano. The whole lot would fit in the chandelier at “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Characters from The Fantasticks perform in the stage production of the Old New York classic
The show opened with its tinkling overture, the fluttering rainbow confetti, and the actors introducing themselves to the audience. Luisa, aka The Girl, popped up to me and cheeped “Hello!” I cheeped hello back. Whenever I go to this show, I play a pivotal role.

My moment with The Girl would be the highlight, of course, but the show continued anyway, leading off with its most famous song, “Try to Remember.” The show proceeded as I remembered it, though maybe even more leisurely paced. A couple of those comedy scenes took enough time to do them twice.

But you don’t come to this theater to see falling chandeliers or dancing animals or flying spider-men or even flying nannies. You come to see a little show that opened on May 3, 1960, and hung on long enough to pay its investors a return of 20,000 percent.

The Fantasticks is narrated by this man
Most of the credit goes to the creators, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, for whom this was a follow-up to a college musical called “Hipsy-Boo!” Ever devoted to his masterwork, Jones directed the current production and for a long time played The Old Actor — which he had played in the original cast.

But a musical needs more than its music to be running — even with a break — since the top salary in the major leagues was $80,000. “The Fantasticks” takes you back to simpler times yet remains timeless. Unlike that salary, which, if you’re wondering, was the take-home for Willie Mays.

My fourth visit took me back, though not as far as my first three. But I blame that on the girl next to me who kept texting in her purse. She was a rude reminder of digital antisocial behavior.

She wouldn’t have got away with that at the original show.

Eisenhower wouldn’t have stood for it.

Posing in front of the Fantasticks curtain

Try to relax at “The Fantasticks,” at the Snapple Theater Center, 210 West 50th Street, at Broadway, in New York City.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Old New York: Chez Napoléon Ducks the French-Food Canards

The New York City dining room of Chez Napoleon
By Mitch Broder

Broadway patrons have abandoned French restaurants for places like Steak ’n Shake and Shake Shack, because cheeseburgers, milk shakes, and fries don’t have all those rich sauces.

A classic red sauce simmers on the stove of the Old New York restaurant Chez Napoleon
It’s been tough on the bistros, if indiscernible to the bypass surgeons. But for the daring few who would gamble on comforting food in a comfortable place, there is still Chez Napoléon, which actually also serves fries, since, as we know, they are French.

It’s an increasingly rare New York outpost for brain, liver, and thymus, cleverly translated into Cervelle de Veau, Foie de Veau, and Ris de Veau. But it’s more than organs and glands. It has all the less-functional classics, like Boeuf Bourguignon, Canard à L’Orange, and Bouillabaisse (though that does have mussels).

Not only that, but the food is cooked in a cozy French kitchen, often by a cozy ninety-year-old French grandma.

Not only that, but the meals are served in two soothing dining rooms with soothing thematic accents like guns and battle scenes.

A photo of a young Elayne Bruno, owner of the Old New York restaurant Chez Napoleon
This is Elyane with a fox.
Not only that, but they have a jigsaw puzzle menu. Burger joints don’t even have a crossword puzzle menu.

Stirring this cassoulet is Elyane Bruno, who bought Chez Napoléon with her mother — the grandma chef — thirty years ago, when it was twenty-two. To celebrate the anniversary, she told me, she plans to do nothing. It’s that sort of prioritizing that keeps escargot alive in a nachos world.

The restaurant began as La Gérbe d’Or and became Chez Napoléon in 1960. It was not named for the emperor; it was named for the owner, who was nicknamed for the emperor. He was called Napoléon, according to the restaurant’s Web site, “due to his short stature and even shorter patience.”

Elayne's mother Marguerite helps to run Chez Napoleon
This is Marguerite with a cat.
The patience ran out in 1969, when he sold to a French couple, and the couple’s ran out in 1982, when they sold to Elyane. Elyane had been a waitress at Chez Napoléon, and before that at L’Esterel, her family’s first restaurant here. Working for your parents prepares you for anything.

Elyane’s father, Alfred, died in 1992, and as for her husband, she says: “I sent him back to France in 1985.” So she runs Chez Napoléon with her mother, Marguerite, who is known as Chef Grand-Mere, and her son, William Welles, who is known as the bartender and the creator of the jigsaw puzzle menu.

It is not a jigsaw puzzle of a menu. That would hamper turnover. It is a menu of French-themed jigsaw puzzles. It offers entrées like the 6,000-piece “The Coronation of Napoleon” ($80). Some of William’s finished puzzles are on the walls with the guns and battle scenes.

A framed jigsaw puzzle adorns the wall at the old New York restaurant Chez Napoleon
This is a jigsaw puzzle.
Despite this abundance, Chez Napoléon has had its own battles. When it opened, for instance, its neighbor was Madison Square Garden, until it moved away eight years later, taking all the gourmet boxing fans. For years, the Garden’s site was a giant parking lot, and American cars have always been snobby about eating French food.

Even worse, Americans became snobby about eating French food, probably around the time that Elyane took over the restaurant. “I think people have this idea that French food is too rich and too heavy,” she says. “But French people are not obese like here.”

The theater district, she says, once had many French restaurants, but now it’s down to a few. “Other restaurants opened,” she says. “Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Mexican, so many different cuisines — what they call cuisine — so there’s more competition, and little by little they all disappeared.”
Signs notify patrons of what they can expect at the Old new York Chez Napoleon

She has lost office workers to office cafeterias, not to mention to shrinking lunch hours. And she has lost a little of everyone to the burger stands. But she still has regulars and she still has theatergoers, and she still has the place itself, as long as she doesn’t lose it to richer and heavier rent.

And she still has another attraction that you hardly ever see: a bar that invites you to sit down and drink by yourself. Its one stool is a rest spot for Chef Grand-Mere. But otherwise, Elyane says, it is the centerpiece of “the singles bar for people who want to stay single.”

One stool provides the perfect spot for a quick drink at the Old New York establishment Chez Napoleon

Shake off the shakes at Chez Napoléon, 365 West 50th Street, between Eighth and Ninth avenues, in New York City.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Signing Off: Farewell to Hot Spots That Can't Take the Heat

900 Degrees has closed it's New York City doors
By Mitch Broder

Actually, this winter is not as warm as you think, since the city has lost places that could have made it a lot warmer. All of them might have lasted if they'd only hung on till January. But maybe they didn't hang on till January because no one needed heat in July.

The above pizza joint, for instance, held some appeal on a chilly night but a lot less when the outdoor temperature rose to a tenth of its name. Then again, according to its sign, that name was 900 Degrees Degrees. So it could have been doomed by double talk. If not by its 900 competitors competitors.

Melt Gelato Bar has closed it's sweet doors in New York City

Melting is another concept that's of marginal allure in the summer, and one that would seem unwise to link with ice cream anytime. There are nine Melt Gelato Bars in California, not to mention one in Tucson. But out there, they're used to stuff melting. In New York we like things firm.

Home fo the Famous Hot Water is no longer aligning the streets of New York City

The Home of the Famous Hot Water — Holby Valve — has moved to Newark, which prompts me to be content with hot water that's obscure. The complete sign reads: "Home of the Famous Hot Water Temperature Control Valve." But I hadn't heard of the valve till I saw the sign, and by then it was too late.

Passion has closed it's doors

You wouldn't think there could be too much passion, but this place proved that wrong. Too bad, since this sort of heat tends to sell in any season.

The Boiler Room in the East Village of New York City has stayed open as a spot for dining in New York

Fortunately, The Boiler Room in the East Village is still boiling. I'm not sure why it has succeeded while the others failed. But I'm guessing they at least keep the beer cold.

Like almost every New Yorker, Vintage New York has no complaint with this winter.