Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The insanity continues: Shopsin's General Store

Many of you may be familiar with Shopsin's General Store, known simply to most as Shopsin's. For those who don't, Shopsin's is a "diner" run by the classic New York character Kenny Shopsin. The original Shopsin's was a Village staple, back when the only "Village" in New York was Greenwich Village. (If you ask my father he will tell you it still is the only "Village." For him, there is no such thing as the "East Village").

Shopsin's is a favorite of Calvin Trillin, who wrote the forward to Kenny Shopsin's cook book and did a profile of him and the restaurant in the New Yorker. A documentary has been made on him as well.

A few years ago Mr. Shopsin moved his diner to the Lower East Side, inside the Essex Street Market. One can imagine that this area of Manhattan reminds him more of the Village in 1973 than the "West Village" of today does. The mix of low and high food sellers in the Essex Street Market feels like a perfect fit for Shopsin's, where his "Slutty Cakes" sit on the menu near the "Saxelby" egg and cheese sandwich, clearly named for his neighbor in the Essex Market, Saxelby Cheesemongers.

Shopsin's is open five days a week from 9am till 2 pm (except Sunday, when it opens at 10am). The menu is huge and dense. It is estimated that there are over 900 potential dishes available. This is coming out of one of the smallest kitchen's in New York. My guess is that at least 500 of the items available don't exist anywhere else on the planet. The crazy concoctions Mr. Shopsin has developed over the past 40 years knows no equal. You can see the menu here:

It is worth perusing before you go because it takes five minutes for your eyes and brain to adjust to what it is seeing and 10 minutes to start understanding it.

Shopsin's does not accept parties of more than four people. The interior of the diner only holds six people with a few more tables out front. And don't expect inexpensive diner prices. Shopsin's is not cheap. But chances are that if you clean your plate you will not have to eat for the rest of the day.

What can you expect from your meal here? Insanity. Literally and figuratively. There will be a ton of profanity. There will be multiple loud conversations going on between the regulars who all seem to know one another. There will copious amounts of food, some of it in combinations that have no business being together but are delicious none the less. There will probably be a mix of classic rock and Heavy Metal on the stereo.

Here, in a snapshot, was my meal this morning (be warned, much profanity and offensive language is about to follow. Seriously.):

Seemingly genteel woman in a straw hat sitting near me - "The fucking Flying Nun. You didn't get that reference?"

Seemingly nice, sweet guy with glasses - "No. I got it. The Flying Nun. That was a stupid fucking idea for a show."

Gilligan's Island and other stupid shows are discuseed. Then the woman in the straw hat mentions she thinks she likes the new Pope. That is discussed, with Mr Shopsin saying is it somehow analogous to hiring a cheif of police who likes to drink.

A guy walks in and joins the woman in the straw hat. One of the staff mention how skinny he looks and asks if he has cancer. His response is "Funny, the last time I came in you asked me if I had AIDS."

And so the meal went, veering from movies to politics to local gossip to the scourge that is McDonalds. I sat and listened, eating my breakfast.

So, my breakfast. It comes from the section of the menu called "The Petes" and "More Petes" which has ten dishes all named for various Petes (and two that aren't for some reason). I ordered the "Swee'pea." That is kind named for a Pete, right?


Sweet cornbread topped with three poached eggs, maple bacon (perfectly cooked), cheddar cheese and sweet peas. It is insane and a stunner.


I can't believe I ate the whole thing.

Be sure to ask for hot sauce. It is house made and excellent.

There was a moment when I was eating my Swee'pea and listening to the shouted conversations around me that all was right with the world. Or, more correctly, New York City. Black Sabbath's "The Wizard" came on the stereo. I chewed, swallowed and sang along. I thought, "I should bring my kids here." Then I thought, "No, I probably shouldn't." Then I smiled. It was nice to know that despite the efforts of our outgoing Mayor a few places like Shopsin's still exist in Manhattan.

Loud, crass and absolutely unhealthy, Shopsin's is a slice of bygone New York. Before calorie counts on menus, before precious salads foraged from Brooklyn rooftops, before soda bans and bike lanes. This is a piece of the crazy, vibrant, slightly dangerous and very lude and crude NYC of my youth. If you are easily offended Shopsin's is not the place for you. If you pine for a less clean, antiseptic version of New York, you will find yourself a home at Shopsin's. Maybe I will take my kids there after all.

Shopsin's General Store - 120 Essex Street, located inside the Essex Street Market

Monday, July 29, 2013

Bill Traylor: An American Original

Even with the American Folk Art Museum losing its home, the dust up over its old building and the fact it almost closed its doors the museum soldiers on in what is essentially a big lobby space at 2 Lincoln Square. The museum's current exhibit makes a strong case for why the museum should survive.

The current exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum is Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and Montgomery Museum of Fine Art. It is the first retrospective of the artist in New York and long overdue.

Bill Traylor was born into slavery in Alabama in 1854. After emancipation he and his family continued to work on the plantation into the 1930s. At the age of 85 he moved to Montgomery, AL, and for the first time he started to draw. He used found materials like pencil stubs and pieces of cardboard to draw the scenes he saw on the street of Montgomery and his memories of life on the plantation. A local artist, Charles Shannon, met Bill Traylor and encouraged him, buying him supplies and collecting his art.

Over the next four years Bill Traylor turned out between 1200 and 1500 drawings. 63 of them are collected in the museum show. They are remarkable.

At first glance they are simple drawings of people and animals but closer inspection reveals a great understanding of color and space. There is remarkable life and humor in Mr. Traylor's work and his ability to translate life in Montgomery on on the plantation to paper shows the gifts of a natural artist born with a gift.

The term "outsider artist", which has been over used, abused and watered down, was coined for artists like Bill Traylor. He was not only outside the mainstream of the art world but outside the mainstream of society. As an 85 year old man with no formal art training he decided to pick up a pencil and draw. What resulted can stand shoulder to shoulder with any "recognized" artist and should be considered part of the canon of American Art.

Don't believe me? Read Roberta Smith's review in the New York Times:

Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and Montgomery Museum of Fine Art is on view at the American Folk Art Museum until September 22nd. This is the must see show of the summer. Do not miss it.

American Museum of Folk Art - 2 Lincoln Square (Columbus Avenue @ 66th Street)


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Artistry, tradition and vegetables - Kajitsu

One of the many reasons we are blessed to live in New York City is that we have a restaurant for just about every possible situation. Do your parents travel the world eating at the finest restaurants while your spouse's swear by Yellowtail Chardonnay and Olive Garden? Chances are we have a restaurant that will make them both happy.

In my case I have a sister who is a Vegan. This greatly reduces the number of restaurants we can enjoy together.  I wanted to take her out to a special dinner for her birthday. This turned out to be a problem easily solved. The answer was Kajitsu.

Kajitsu is a Japanese restaurant that serves Shojin ryori cuisine. Shojin is a vegetarian cuisine that originated in Zen Buddhist monasteries. The entire meal is plant based. There are no animal products involved at all. All the of the food is seasonal and changes monthly. Kajitsu serves their food in multi-course meals known as kaiseki.  Every course is thoughtfully prepared and designed to highlight the ingredients. Even the serving ware is chosen to enhance and compliment the dishes.

Kajitsu recently moved from a small space in the East Village to a larger two story space in Murray Hill. The restaurant itself is austere and serene. Blond wood abounds with minimal decorative touches. Service is warm but unobtrusive and very professional. A team of two served us, bringing each drink and dish one by one with the placement of every glass and bowl deliberate. Every dish was described in detail with suggestions on how to eat them. We sprang for the Sake pairing, which was well worth it. Each pairing was brought to the table before the corresponding food course came and a description and origin was given.

The food at Kajitsu is a wonder. The range of tastes, flavors and textures amazes. Some of it is challenging, some of it is sublime. The various versions of tofu that Chef Ryotu Ueshima prepares are worth a visit alone. If you have an adventurous palate and an open mind Kajitsu will delight you. If you are a dedicated meat eater it will open your eyes.

Kajitsu offers 3 different menus. A four course "Kaze", an eight course "Hana" and an eight course "Seasonal" menu. At $55, $85 and $100 respectively they are not inexpensive, but this is not your local ramen or sushi joint. This is the opportunity to experience a master, Mr. Ueshima, at work. Kajitsu combines great food, an artist's eye and Japanese tradition resulting in a memorable experience.

To do the meal justice I want to finish this post with photos of the meal, the restaurant's descriptions and just a few notes from myself. But before that I have few observations. Being a typical carnivore, I was worried I would be hungry after the meal, even at eight courses. I was a fool. I was incredibly full when the long, leisurely meal was over. This was a fullness I had not experienced before. Unlike the fullness you get eating Barbecue or too much Chinese delivery, there was no food coma, no feeling that my arteries were clogging or that my heart was going to stop. I was not sleepy or bloated. I was just, simply, full. They next morning, I was was still full. I was not famished. I was not craving carbs or sweets. I was full. Perhaps there is something to the idea of eating more of a plant based diet. Just don't tell my sister I said that.

We had the"Hana" menu at Kajitsu. Please note it will be different by August 1.

Course 1 - Chilled Paprika-Tofu

Green bell pepper, fava bean, tomato-fu, basil

Course 2 - Yuba Wrapped Morel Mushroom and Hijiki

Nori, scallion, fried tofu

Fried pockets with morels in a deep, rich stew. Once the wrap and tofu are eaten, your pour a warm seaweed broth into the bowl which transforms the stew into a soup. Heavenly.

Course 3 - Astuage Steak and Rolled Summer Hakusai with Grilled Tomato

Tofu, white mushroom, pak choy, scallion, daikon, ginger, eggplant, potato, zucchini, broccoli, snap pea, fennel, red bell pepper, nappa cabbage, jicama

The grilled yellow tomato, lower left, was stunning. Juicy, warm, salty and acidic, it will have me scouring the green markets in search of local tomatoes. I will be grilling tomatoes all summer trying to recreate this one bite.

The tofu on the upper left of the plate was tremendous. Fried and served with a sharp, savory relish it will make the case for tofu for every carnivore who tastes it.

Course 4 - House Made Soba with Tempura

Umeboshi, rikyu-fu, shiso, fig

Earthy, cold soba noodles. Exemplary. Tempura. Eggplant, wheat gluten, shiso leaf and fig. Four flavors, four textures. Perfection.

Course 5 - Assorted Early Summer Vegetable and Sushi "Somin-Shourai"

Sun dried tomato, kanpyo, black sesame, teared kombu, myoga, plum, sweet onion, white asparagus, chayote, daikon

Remarkable. The sweet onion jellee was incredible.

Course 6 - Sukiyaki Donburi

15grain rice, konnyaku, scallion, choji-fu, cabbage, sansho powder, mountain yam, nori flake, morning radish

A deeply satisfying rice bowl. With every bite I wondered how it could be so rich and savory with out any trace of beef or pork.

The chef's house made pickle that accompanied the Sukiyaki. White asparagus. Subtle and delicious. A green leaf. Sour and pungent. Plum. The plum was one of the single most strange, challenging, unique and enjoyable things I have ever eaten.

Course 7 - Match-Yokan

Azuki-bean, tapioca

Course 8 - Matcha with Candies by Kyoto Kagizen-Yoshifusa

Slightly sweet.

Matcha green tea. Thick, frothy and green. Surprising and good. A perfect ending.

Kajitsu - 125 East 39th Street (between Park & Lexington) -