Saturday, January 12, 2019

FILM: On The Basis Of Sex

Not one but two films this year illustrate what a fascinating and dramatic life Ruth Bader Ginsberg has lived. In June, we loved RBG the documentary, but last night we really enjoyed On The Basis Of Sex, a dramatization of formative episodes in her early years. The film begins with a great shot of a sea of young white men in dark suits striding into Harvard Law School, and then amidst them, one woman in a blue dress. We get to see young Ruth in law school, and what it was like being one of a handful of women in one of the first years women were admitted at all. Including a scene where the dean of the law school asks her to explain why she chose to go to law school and take up a spot that could have been given to a man! We heard some of these same stories in the documentary, but it’s something else to see them dramatized. We see her own experiences of sex discrimination challenges and indignities in her own early job search, her being a law professor at Rutgers teaching progressive young students in the 1960s, and then her first case with the ACLU that was the genesis of her later amazing career in a string of cases challenging gender discrimination. But the heart of the film is the whole family dimension, the amazing way that she and her husband Marty supported each other, and their relationship with their growing daughter and son, for whom Ruth and Marty wanted to set a great example as well as make a better world. While the climax is a dramatic courtroom procedural, strong in its own right, it gains even more emotional heft from the family and love story behind it.

Friday, January 11, 2019

FOOD: Destroyer

If you're daunted by a $$$$ tasting menu at Vespertine, fortunately you can sample some of Chef Jordan Kahn's inventive cuisine at the much more casual Destroyer across the street. As you're standing in line to place your order (yes, it's that casual), you can peruse the menu, projected on the wall, divided into categories of "cold", "hot", "sweet", and "ready". And while you'll recognize nearly all of the individual words and ingredients in the menu descriptions, the way they are composed will be completely unfamiliar. Smoked egg cream? Pickled mushroom? Roasted strawberry? Berries paired with meats and vegetables? You just need to pick something you're not allergic to, and trust in the mad genius of the chef. When the food arrives, it mostly comes in ceramic bowls, and you learn that Kahn likes to layer things, with a top cover so that all is not revealed at once. It adds to the sense of discovery that you can't immediately recognize what you're looking at, and you probably have to dig under one ingredient to see the rest. You ordered chicken and it appears they brought you a salad? Dig down. Under those spiky greens (spigarello), you'll pull up forkfuls of tender chicken confit with a flavor that's really good, but you can't quite put your finger on it. That's because you've never before tasted what happens when chicken is mixed with heirloom grits and roasted strawberries. Another bowl arrives, and it too looks like a salad. But plunge in, and you'll find beef tartare lurking beneath those radish sprouts, with pickled mushrooms and smoked egg cream. A third bowl arrives, a dark bowl with a heap of creamy white powder that looks like a bowl full of finely grated parmesan. A tentative taste of the mysterious substance and you discover that it is cold, like snow, and has a little bite, as if snow were made not of water but of frozen horseradish cream. Catching on to the game, you dig under the snow drift to discover chunks of beets. But wait, there's something sweet too. It's blackberries. And that crunchy bit? Pumpkin seeds. You contemplate the comparison of vegetable sweetness with fruit sweetness, punctuated by pumpkin seeds and spiked by creamy horseradish. And the frozen horseradish snow keeps the whole thing chilled, which, you realize, affects the brightness of the taste, because it would be different if it were all warm. The roasted yams come on a plate with avocado, but you don't see either of those things right away, because the avocado is covered by yogurt and the yams are carefully concealed under endive leaves, along with a handful of fresh green herbs and a flower, in a very Instagrammable presentation. Kahn has referred to his flagship Vespertine as a spacecraft, and as you gaze across the street at that remarkable architecture, you begin to see why. But as you enjoy the delicious tastes of things you'd never have imagined meeting in the same bowl – vegetables and fruits, cooked and raw – you also realize he's transporting you to a whole new planet, fundamentally composed of known elements, but in otherworldly formations. (Fittingly, this whole neighborhood in the northeast corner of Culver City is filled with dot-com hipster ultramodern architecture, so as eye-popping as Spacecraft Vespertine is, it's not out of place.) Go with a sense of discovery.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

FOOD: Bestia

When friends told us they had snagged a reservation at Bestia, we jumped at the chance to join them. The setting is quintessential DTLA Arts District, in an old warehouse in the shadow of the 7th Street bridge, its name painted on corrugated tin, an industrial skylit patio, a line of people outside, and a buzzy vibe inside. The menu reflects daily market variations and offers rustic Italian cooking, mostly simple preparations letting exceptional ingredients perfectly cooked speak for themselves. Much is house-made, as showcased on the salumi board featuring two kinds of salumi (one with a peppery bite, the other more mild), prosciutto, mortadella (studded with pistachios, and so not your childhood sandwich meat), and a spreadable pate on grilled bread. Housemade sausage gives a warm meatiness to the cavatelli alla norcina, thick little ropes of ricotta pasta, graced with black truffle and grana Padano. A refreshing wintry salad combines cucumbers with Fuyu persimmons, fresh dill, mint, and marjoram, on a smear of mascarpone. Chicken gizzards were pan-roasted to perfection, tossed with roasted beets and endive, and topped with shaved capra sarda (a goat cheese). Charred Brussels sprouts have a hit of lemon and Aleppo pepper. A whole branzino is perfectly grilled with charred seasoned skin and moist white flesh, with fried herbs on the outside, and bright baby greens stuffed inside where they essentially steamed. Even the cocktails were redolent of the rustic Italian kitchen. My old fashioned had lardo-infused bourbon with a big chunk of smoked ice. And we were guided to a very crisp Sicilian white wine to compliment the fish. We shared two desserts. Generous chunks of Hachiya persimmon and pistachios colored and flavored a creamy rice pudding, while a crumbly dark cacao crust cradled a rich chocolate budino, which we chased with a Quinta do Infantado LBV.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

FOOD: Omar's Xinjiang Halal

Xinjiang, which literally means “new frontier”, is an autonomous province in the far northwest of China, along the Silk Road, the center of waves of cross-cultural pollination from Persia, Mongolia, Turkic tribes, and the neighboring ‘Stans. One of the main ethnic groups there are the Uyghurs, an Islamic people. This being LA, its own cultural cross-roads, of course there’s a restaurant for Halal Uyghur food. And of course I heard about it on KCRW's Good Food show. So I went to check it out. Delicious! I went for the “lag man”, thick hand-rolled noodles served in a hot broth with celery, peppers, and slices of lamb redolent with cumin and chili (modest heat but not tongue-scorching). The noodles are soft and chewy, thick enough that the bowl comes with shears to tame them. For traditional beverage, I took the milk tea, which comes served in a bowl with ladle-like spoon. It was like a really good chai, but with a distinctive hit of salt. A unique blend of broth and tea. For dessert, there’s a house made yogurt which was lovely, naturally sweet from the milk and without a strong fermentation tartness. I want to come back and try more! As an added bonus, while I was eating, who else came in but Evan Kleiman with her KCRW show team including Nick Liao and Abbie Fentress Swanson who produced the Uyghur segment. I was a bit starstruck, but said a quick hello and thanks - so cool to meet them!

Sunday, December 16, 2018

ART: Rauschenberg's 1/4 Mile

A visiting friend provided a great excuse to check out Robert Rauschenberg's "The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlongs" at LACMA. Rauschenberg was a renowned late 20th century American artist whose work was exemplified by assemblage of photographs, printed matter, and found objects, combined with overpainting. "The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlongs" is a single work comprising 190 panels, plus some sculptural objects and some audio tracks, which if laid out linearly would actually be almost 1/4 mile long. The work grew over the course of 17 years (1981-1998) and is kind of a self-contained retrospective of the artist's career, with references to many of his other major works and showing an evolution of styles and phases, a creative array of visual stimulation running the gamut from murky to boldly colorful, and from purely abstract geometrics to human and natural forms. It was intriguing to contemplate the variety of colors and forms in the various panels and other bits and pieces, and also intriguing to think of it as one huge work rather than 200 individual works, and just how that makes you view it differently. I found myself thinking more about order, relationship, and juxtaposition as we wandered through it.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

FILM: The Favourite

What a sassy, saucy period drama about two clever strong-willed women who contested the position of the Queen’s favorite. While men may have thought they were pushing the women around, it was these women who ruled England. Creatively based on a real historical rivalry, The Favourite provides intrigue worthy of Game of Thrones (and protagonists every bit as formidable as Daenerys and Cirsei), but also tempered with a wry sense of humor at times. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are both breathtaking in their performances of these incisively-written characters, complimented by Olivia Colman’s fragile, mercurial Queen Anne. The visuals are lush of the Jacobean opulence, while reminding you that even the most powerful were never too far from the mud, and the sanitation and medicine were more medieval than modern. The direction, along with an intense soundtrack (sometimes more sounds than music), was impressive and made for some memorable scenes. The rivals’ conversations over pigeon-shooting had subtext you could cut with a knife, and the scene of Emma Stone’s honeymoon night is startingly funny. The ending was unexpected (compounded by my knowing just enough of the actual history to be confused), but the sort that forces you to go back and rethink what you thought about all of the characters. As in Game of Thrones, there is unexpected nuance to all of them, and even those who may seem black-or-white are grayer than you first think.

Monday, November 12, 2018

BOOKS: Letter To My Palestinian Neighbor

Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor” is an extremely thoughtful and personal plea for dialogue from an Israeli Jew wanting to reach out to his Palestinian neighbors. Halevi lives on a hill in Jerusalem with a view from his apartment to another hill across the way where Palestinians live, a very short distance away as the land lies, yet vastly separated by politics, not to mention a physical wall. He imagines a neighbor on that other hill, and what he would like to tell him about his own life and beliefs. Halevi is a religious Jew and devoted to Israel, but also very open-hearted towards the Palestinians, among whom he had traveled and made some friendships in the years before it became no longer possible for a Jew to travel safely in the West Bank. He has written other books about those travels, but in this book, he starts from the premise that any hope for reaching a common understanding has to begin with hearing each other’s stories and really understanding where the other is coming from. This book is his attempt to start that conversation, articulating in a very personal and sensitive way the Jewish Israeli perspective, including some great insights on the Jewish connection to the land of Israel, the sense of being a distinct Jewish people, and the tensions inherent in a Jewish democratic state. Many of his letters are written on a particular holiday, and begin with his observations on that holiday. He does an amazing job of staking out his positions in a way that is very honest, personal, and non-confrontational, always keeping in mind a respect for the Palestinian he is addressing. Even though these letters are not written to a specific known person, his device is to imagine a specific hypothetical neighbor on that other hill, and to address that neighbor personally, one on one, rather than being more generic. The device works well, I think, to keep his letters very personal and heartfelt. I learned a lot from this book, both about Judaism and about Israeli politics. While the situation remains grave, the fact that there are Israelis like Yossi Klein Halevi strengthens my hope for a path forward.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

FILM: Boy Erased

Boy Erased is a well done film, tightly written, with strong performances from its leads, particularly Lucas Hedges as a 19-year old Baptist preacher’s son in small town Arkansas who attempts a Christian ex-gay conversion therapy program. It’s hardly a spoiler alert to say that the program doesn’t work, but the core of the film is showing what actually goes on inside those soul-sucking places, interspersed with flashbacks of experiences that lead him there. While it could have easily slid into tendentious exposé, this film avoids that danger by presenting its characters with complexity. The boy goes into the program willingly, wanting to change, and his parents are not monsters, but loving parents who want the best for him. The evolution of their family dynamic provides the emotional frame to drive the storyline. The other participants in the program also provide a thoughtful variety of attitudes and reactions. Parts of this film are horrifying to watch (and could well be triggering for anyone who’s actually been subjected to these programs), but it’s ultimately satisfying and leaves you with hope that even LGBT kids from fundamentalist families in small-town Arkansas can turn out all right.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

FILM: Bohemian Rhapsody

Absolutely epic! This film totally rocked!

Friday, November 02, 2018

Dia de los Muertos Festival in Grand Park DTLA

After dinner downtown, George and I wandered up to Grand Park where a Dia de los Muertos festival has been going on. The park is filled with offrendas, altars to departed loved ones piled with photographs, favorite foods, flowers, and memories. The first large, colorful one we came upon was by the local Oaxacan community. A few were personal, to a single person or family. But most of them were made by various civic groups, connecting specific remembrances to general themes, like one from a Latino LGBT group remembering those who had been ostracized by their family and had died way too young. Some extended the theme outside its original cultural roots, like one from a local group of Yemeni immigrants remembering their family members who have died back in war-torn Yemen. It reminded me a bit of the AIDS Quilt, in the power of a large scale built up out of particulars. So many photos of beloved grandparents or those cut off young, each with their own story. And it was also wonderful to see the people wandering the park engaging with these offrendas. Many of them were dressed up, in white skeleton faces, black dresses and suits, women with marigolds in their hair. I saw a father with a young son, the little boy in skeleton face and red hoodie, looking just like the kid from Coco, and the little boy was at an altar reading a placard with the story of the person pictured. It was so sweet. So glad that we came upon this. (View photo album.)

Samgyetang and Ai Weiwei

Today’s off-Friday explorations took me to Koreatown for lunch, and then to the Ai Weiwei: Zodiac exhibition at the new Jeffrey Deitch Gallery. In Koreatown, as I’ve learned, many of the really good places have one dish that they specialize in, and which may be all they offer. Today was one of those. Buil Samgye Tang (the signage was mostly in Korean) serves only samgye-tang, a chicken rice soup loaded up with all sorts of roots and herbs that are meant to cure colds and hangovers and assure good health. The basic model is a hot iron pot of boiling broth with a ginger-and-garlic-stuffed whole young chicken, rice, mung beans, jujube (a Korean date), and ginseng. The more deluxe versions add various other folk pharmaceuticals such as milk vetch (an herb) and ground deer antlers. A bowl of sea salt on the table allows you to season to taste. And as if a whole chicken rice pot isn’t enough, the meal comes with a traditional Korean plate of banchans to start – kim chee, pickled turnips, chicken gizzard bites, and crudites with a spicy-sweet soy paste. Ginger tea is served to wash it all down. The Korean staff were assiduously polite, with lots of smiling and bowing. 

After lunch, I headed to the new Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in Hollywood. The gallery is in a former warehouse space that has been lightened up with paint and indirect natural light for optimal viewing in one very large space. Which is just what the featured Ai Weiwei work, Stools (2013), required. The work comprises nearly 3,000 wooden stools from the Ming and Qing dynasties collected from northern China. Most of the stools have the same basic three-legged design with a round seat, but every so often one varies in shape, design, or material. There are subtle differences in dimension, age, wear, and so on. The work fills an area 72-feet square. It gives the impression of a crowd where at first everyone in the crowd looks the same, but then you start to notice subtle differences. Its vastness invites you to engage with it from all sides, and to approach it at different levels, the pattern of its ordered arrangement creating all sorts of lines. It's surprising what a simple concept can do.
On two walls enclosing the stools are twelve very large works representing the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac overlaid on world landmarks from major cities. These works read initially as paintings, but a closer examination reveals them to be constructed from LEGOs. One wonders if there is particular meaning in which animal overlays which city. The dragon overlays Beijing, with a small self-portrait of the artist worked in, swearing. A rather rabid looking dog overlays the White House. Hmm. On a third wall is a work entitled The Animal That Looks Like a Llama But is Really an Alpaca (2015), which is literally wallpaper. At first glance, it looks like classic French ormolu patterns, gilded objects in ornate designs. On closer inspection, one discovers that the objects are handcuffs and surveillance cameras, an ominous illustration of the artist's years of house arrest in his native China. Along this wall are five sculptural works, each a cube exactly one cubic meter in dimension, but each of different materials. Here Weiwei plays with the concept of a cubic meter, a standard measurement for shipping cargo, but each cube is of very different materials. One is wooden and forms an elaborate puzzle box. Another is a dark mass, which when you get close enough to see and smell it, turns out to be a huge block of tea. Another is perhaps the world's largest crystal, perfectly transparent, and bending light in all sorts of fun ways that beg for investigation. A solid white marble cube has brain coral-like carvings in it to give it texture. The fifth cube is a frame, made of exquisite blue-patterned porcelain. Near the front, Grapes (2017) takes a few more of those wooden stools, but reassembles them into an integrated spheroid, legs all radiating outward, looking almost like a creature that could start rolling. It's fascinating to look closely at how the stools were integrated, like a chain of Siamese twins, with the third leg of one being the first leg of another, and so on.

I was thrilled to enjoy these works of such a remarkable artist, and to enjoy them in an appropriately lit and capacious space, and frankly to have had the gallery nearly to myself for a time. Though I have to confess I'm still new to the private art gallery thing, and a bit intimidated. I mean, it's not a public museum, so isn't it really meant for people who might conceivably be thinking of purchasing thsee works? But in exhibitions like these, are the works even really on offer? I mean, some of them are monumental. If one is rich enough to buy something like Stools from a world-renowned artist, then I suppose one is rich enough to build a space to house it? Off to one side of the gallery entrance, there was a small desk where sat Jeffrey Deitch himself (I recognized the former MOCA director from photos in the LA Times) and a couple of assistants. I didn't approach them, and they didn't approach me. But at some point, I did notice that when certain other people entered, he would pop up and greet them. And at one point, I was close enough to overhear some conversation. They were breezily talking about who they'd met at Davos or the latest TED talk, or how they just had lunch with Frank Gehry. Deitch asked one woman if he had a current address for her. "Oh, well sometimes I'm in New York," she replied, "but sometimes I'm in the house in France, or in Switzerland. It's best just to mail me at the Foundation." Wow. Different circles than I'll ever run in. But I guess it's because of people like them that galleries like this can exist, and I can get to enjoy them.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Chichen Itza, King Tut, and PYT

Another great "off Friday" exploring LA, today with the adding bonus of being joined by my husband who decided to take a day off. I introduced him to the Mercado La Paloma foodie food court by USC, where we lunched on a Yucatecan feast of panuchos, tacos de poc chuc and cochinita pibil. Then we wandered over to see the King Tut exhibit at the Calif Science Center. The exhibit features many great artifacts from the tomb, some of which have never before left Egypt. It is beautifully laid out, presenting the artifacts in the context of King Tut's journey through the underworld into the afterlife, the reason all these dazzling treasures were crafted and placed in his tomb. When the tomb was first being opened and Howard Carter first peered in, Lord Carnarvon eagerly asked, "do you see anything?" "Oh yes," he replied, "wonderful things!" We did indeed see wonderful things today. (The exhibit runs through Jan 6, so still time to catch it!) This evening, we went into DTLA for dinner at the vegetable-forward PYT. Even our cocktails featured veggies - a celery margarita and a bourbon with beet.