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03.16.09 My Top Ten RIGHT NOW

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1. FOOD Scuderia
This modern trattoria is serving extremely tasty and fresh Italian food in a casual setting with modern twists here and there to keep things lively. Starting off with the polpette (meatballs with fresh tomato) and arancini di riso (fried rice balls with beef ragu), you’re immersed in deep flavors, hearty meats and the richest of sauces. For something incredibly rich without overpowering, get the pepper pappardelle with beef cheek ragu. The meat was so tender and juicy and the pasta freshly made in the kitchen all soaked in a wonderful smoky sauce. The squid ink noodles with mussels, shrimp and octopus was delicious. The skirt steak was well prepared, but the three dipping sauces were a little lackluster, save one very green sauce with lots of horseradish. To finish off the meal, try the tiramelosu, a deconstructed version of the classic dish. They serve five ladies fingers, a small cup of espresso and a low dish of mascarpone, mix it all together and amazingly you really do have a tiramisu. But the true gem is the coppa Scuderia, which is just a whip cream topped ice cream sunday with the most delectable vanilla ice cream and large swathes of peanut butter. Seriously, every bite of that dessert brought a new incredible flavor.

2. DANCE The Desire Line at the Joyce SoHo
From the brain of Deborah Slater comes an hour-long dance performance filled with striking movements, beautiful compositions, fantastic partnering and an all around athleticism that can only be described as gorgeous. Taking her inspiration from the paintings of Alan Feltus, this dance peace is filled with delicate poses (starting with dancers posed around the performance space as you walk in) that quickly bursts into amazing twists of the body, synchronized movements among, violent eruptions of arms and legs, grabbing everyday objects, chairs and pieces of paper, and incorporating them into extraordinary balancing acts. The opening of the piece resonates so clearly as one dancer grabs a suitcase, using it to throw, grab and stand on in ways you would never dream. I was also a big fan of the modern score from Jonathan Segel that perfectly suited the mood of the piece.

3. MUSIC Easy Come, Easy Go Marianne Faithfull

On her 22nd album, Faithfull brings us saloon singing by way of a rock concert, New Orleans jazz club, and about every other music genre you can come up with, all tied together by Faithfull’s remarkable husky rasp of a voice. Her song choice is equally as varied, from Randy Newman to Merle Haggard, Neko Case to Bernstein/Sondheim. An odd but good choice comes with a very true-to-the original-cover of The Decemberists “The Crane Wife 3,” but of course, when you add her voice along with guest vocalist Nick Cave, it’s anything but faithful (pardon the obvious pun). Also boosting her vocals are the equally strange voices of Rufus Wainwright and Antony, the latter appearing on an excellent rendition of Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh, Baby Baby.” But the true gem is her cover of Dolly Parton’s “Down from Dover” which opens the album in a spectacular dark bluegrass vibe.4. DVD Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway (2008)
I will preface my immense enjoyment of this DVD by saying that Rent, for better or for worse, is a huge part of my life. I remember when it opened on Broadway, the first time I saw the traveling cast in Chicago and my classmates in 5th grade singing the entire score in the courtyard of our school. Getting to witness the final performance on Broadway through this very sufficient document of the stage play was hugely poignant, the excitement of Mimi’s “Out Tonight,” the incredibly energetic group performance of “La Vie Boheme” all reminded me of how truly wonderful a musical it was. Sure, the Lower East Side didn’t look like that at the time, and the characters are often hard to take, but Angel’s death still makes me cry, and the story of these friends coming together and coming apart always gets to me as they sing that final “no day but today.” Definitely check out he bonus featurette on the days leading up to the final performance which really tugs at the heartstrings, getting to see how many people were touched by this show and the amazing thought that Jonathan Larson, the mastermind behind it all, never got to see his work in its finished form.

5. MOVIE Fados (2007)
Carlos Saura is a master of depicting dance and song on film. His work is stunning in its ability to capture the essence of performance, translating what should be a live experience and somehow maintaining that life on screen. Fados is no different as he applies his talent to the folk song tradition of Portugal, bringing out a range of performances from classic interpreters to the more modern interpreters of the art. On the modern end of the spectrum there’s a lovely performance by Mariza as well as the incomparable Lila Downs. But the scene that captured my heart takes place in a fantastically surreal taverna, the walls filled with posters from concerts, as artists trade of different songs in almost a competition. It is in there that you feel the heart of this cultural tradition and feel like you’re peaking in on a world that very few ever get to see. I’m so glad this film is finally being released to a wider audience after playing the festival circuit.

6. FOOD 10 Dowing Street Restaurant
The airy dining room of the restaurant is covered in wonderful pieces of current art and filled with little tables all warmly lit by candles creating an intimate if noisy dining experience. Starting with a delectable meat platter, duck proscuitto and a variety of pâté is an excellent way to get the juices flowing as is the duck meatball cassoulet steeped in flageolet beans, vinegar and toasted spices. But it is the main courses that truly shine, including a well-cooked arctic char in the most delicious herbed mussel broth, braised bacon and artichocke. I’d also recommend the hearty gnocchi with wild mushrooms, butternut squash and Sardinian sheep cheese. And what’s a good meal without dessert, for which I recommend the chocolate soufflé that is so well prepared that the outside is nice and crisp while the inside is a lava flow of sweet and luscious chocolate all matched with a simple but perfect vanilla ice cream.

7. MOVIE The Class (Entre les murs) (2008)
Never have I wished I could speak French more than watching this movie (that’s an exaggeration, it would have helped when I was lost in Paris too). Much of the first thirty minutes is spent on the intricacies of the French language, as a classroom full of inner-city kids demonstrates a distinct inability to speak without heavy reliance on slang. And so the themes of the movie are set, a teacher struggling to enliven his students with telling their own stories in their own language while still trying to teach them how to use the language. The film should have been a documentary, and that’s certainly the look that they were going for, and I could have been more forgiving with the lack of narrative had it been. But the performances still feel real, especially from the teacher (who in fact is a real teacher who wrote the book based on a year of his teaching that the film in turn is based on). So, it’s a convoluted pseudo-documentary that I found engrossing in that fly on the wall (or between the walls) sort of way.

8. MUSIC Sara Watkins Sara Watkins
The fiddle playing singer songwriter, mostly known for her work with the bluegrass outfit Nickel Creek, is in excellent form on her first solo album. Opening strong with “All This Time,” a slow shuffle ballad with hints of slide guitar, her voice is sweet and rings clear with a surprising amount of depth. The album floats between singer/songwriter ballads and music that is steeped in that southern blue grass tradition. “Any Old Time” has a great Patsy Cline feel and “Bygones” captures a haunting spiritual tone with a fiddle repeating chords to accompany an affecting harmonizing of three voices. The album takes an odd but welcome turn toward something more pop oriented with “Too Much” Thanks to stripped down production, bringing Watkins’ voice to the front, you feel as if you’re included on an intimate performance with musicians that have been playing this music forever.

9. SONG/MUSIC VIDEO “Mad World” by Gary Jules
I first heard this song when it accompanied a video game advertisement for Gears of War that played before the movies and it never left my memory (it’s a fantastic commercial). I spent a good deal of time searching for it, and finally found it on YouTube. The simple piano melody is surprisingly heartbreaking; the movement back and forth between contemplative chords matched with the quiet vocals. It’s the perfect music and lyrics to accompany any moment in the city, that amazing sense of being surrounded by people everywhere and feeling completely separate, knowing that everyone is human, we’re all much the same, and yet in some overarching way, we’re all alone. And you can’t argue with the genius of the chorus, “When people run in circles, it’s a very mad world.”

10. BAR The Lobby Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental
I love places that have incredible views of the city, and this past week I found a new favorite looking out from that monstrosity known as the Time Warner Center. From the lobby bar at the Mandarin Oriental you look down 59th street all the way to the East River and north over that beautiful green expanse of Central Park. I was there on an amazing night in which the pale blue sky was spotted with clouds that slowly turned bright pink as the sun set (thank you pollution in NJ!) As the sky darkened, the lights of the city flickered on and an almost-too-big-to-believe-it full moon slowly rose through the clouds. Now is that not the perfect thing to accompany a good glass of champagne?

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