Monday, May 08, 2006

 

Makeda, New Brunswick, NJ

Sometimes, good restaurants don't even have silverware. No, I am not talking about McDonald's (although I always loved Taco Bell and KFC for their sporks). Makeda, an outstanding Ethiopian restaurant in lovely downtown New Brunswick, is one of them. It's a place where you eat with your hands, or more accurately, with the thin, sour Ethiopian bread. It's a place best enjoyed with friends whose hygiene is up to par, although the restaurant does helpfully provide heated wet-naps, not unlike those handed out in economy class on translantic flights. The food is nothing but first class.

Friday, April 28, 2006

 

In the Times: Dinnerware with Corners

Not only do we have the upcoming Cooper-Hewitt exhibition on tablewares coming up next week, the Times airs the phenomenon of square plates:
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/26/dining/26square.html

Not that anything said in that article is news. Tablesettings reflect aspirations of status? No way!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

 

The Staff Cafeteria, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

One can dine very well at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (and, dare I say it, providing a feast for the body as well as for the intellect), although the Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie is probably the best museum dining in town. Nevertheless, the Met impresses with dining options that rival the breadth of its collections. For the fancy, there is the Trustee’s Dining Room (to which the great unwashed is not admitted; they can eat in the subterranean Cafeteria). The American Wing Café and the Petrie Court both have lovely views Central Park, while drinks are served on the balcony bar on Friday and Saturday nights. I just wish the drinks were as good as the location.

The staff, too, gets its very own dining room. In retrospect, I realize how very lucky I was—I just didn’t appreciate the staff cafeteria for its glories when I was a Met employee. The staff cafeteria feeds its underpaid staff and not-at-all paid volunteers for a very reasonable price, with options—let me say it again—that rival the breadth of its collections.

Both the public and staff cafeterias are relegated to windowless spaces underground, and the food is mostly the same (although I have a theory that stale baked goods are brought over from the public cafeteria to be sold to the staff). In fact, the casual visitor will never see a lot of the Met, even cursory visits to each gallery would take far more time than the average tourist is willing to spend, but because of the vast, hidden infrastructure supporting the institution. Tunnels connect the various wings of the buildings, several stories descend to house one of the best art history libraries in the world, and the conservation labs have a very charming balcony.

The staff caf’ shines in food quality and price (especially for the Upper East Side), but its décor and table settings are (literally, considering the location) subpar. On the walls are (poor) reproductions of paintings featuring scenes of eating and drinking; one wonders why the Met couldn’t spare some decent, real art to decorate the walls for its employees. I haven’t been back in a while, but in spring 2005, unfunctional napkin dispensers appeared, to dispense napkins not worthy of Moscow in the 1930s. The plasticware is some of the worst I've encountered. Snap! Snap! Snap! No, that is not the sound of Rice Krispie’s, popping and crackling, but the sound of the end of my fork flinging across the table. I am not strongest person, but I continually broke the forks while trying to eat. I’ve never even done that at KFC.

The peanut butter cookies, however, absolve the Museum of all of its sins against design and functionality. And for those, at least, you don’t need any tableware at all.

 

Cafe Mogador (East Village), NYC

Cafe Mogador is an extremely tasty Moroccan restaurant (and, unlike many other extremely tasty restaurants here, is actually quite reasonably priced). At first, I thought the name sounded like something evil from Lord of the Rings. It's not, and the food is insanely good.

The food was so good, in fact, that I will not complain at all about the silverware, which, obviously is one of my favorite activities. It was a Sheraton-derived Winco, in other words, completely and utterly unremarkable. If I were still in grad school, I might try to spin some tale of the persistence of classicism, or the co-existence of orientalisms and classicisms. But I'm not, so I won't. I think I'll go read gawker instead.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

 

Culture Wars: Tablescape vs. Set Table

I watch a lot of Food Network: Not because I particularly like the Food Network, not for a particular love of cooking shows, but because it's the only network (well, the only one aside from CBS and occaision foreign-language programming) that comes in.

Now, Who Wants to Be the Next Food Network Star? is scary enough (although I do wish they'd do an entire series of Morimoto mocking the cooking abilities of mere mortals... I see it now... Morimoto Makes Your Italian Grandmother Cry...mmmmm), but it does not even begin to compare with their mid-afternoon delight, "Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee."

Sandra Lee always finishes her show with a presentation of "tablescapes," what otherwise sane Americans might refer to as a table arrangement. Since watching the Foot Network, I have learned the value of "plating" (although silverware always gets short shrift... yes, it is nice when food is pretty and appetizing on the plate, but let's not underestimate the value of the silverware that plays such an integral role in the eating process). Given how much that term is thrown around [Iron Chef America and even the deps on the Who Wants to Be... show got graded on it (after being sliced and diced by Morimoto)], it is apparently a real term with some validity.

Tablescape is not. It is a sign of the decline of civilization (more or less).

A chapter of my dissertation was, in fact, about table settings (specifically, those made for a 1906 exhibition in Vienna). The chapter title also lent the title to this blog (I had extremely good chapter titles, and I am proud to say that there was no punctuation in my title, which was a glorious six words long). I know of what I speak.

At any rate, the proper term for an artfully designed table is "set table," alternately known as a "laid table." (These terms are quite common in German-- particularly etiquette literature-- in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as "gedeckter Tisch" or "gedeckter Tafel").

Now, Sandra Lee's designs are inane and it's rather questionable if she can cook (there's too much Cool Whip and frozen strawberry action, but she does occasionally make tasty-looking, trashy cocktails), but at least in the stupid idea of the tablescape, she draws attention to the importance of properly decorating the table.

In many blogs, she is rightly mocked for her tablescapes. But by even featuring tablescapes, Sandra has drawn attention to the enormous weight issues of design and decorating assume in today's culture. This renewed interest in design has been attributed to many factors: an oversatiated consumer base looking for ways to distinguish itself and a turn to domesticity are two oft-cited factors. This is not new.

The early twentieth-century, particularly in central Europe, was the glory days of the artfully decorated table. It was taken extremely seriously across all levels of society (for upper-class women, it was a diversion like needle-pointing, the lower middle-class used it to express their class aspirations. Reformers emphasized the proper table as useful for imparting proper bourgeois morals and upholding culture).

“The art of decking the table is not so small, as some suppose, and also not generally so widespread, as many would like to claim," Ludwig Hevesi wrote for the Fremden-Blatt, the Viennese newspaper for which he was the art critic. The Fremden-Blatt, moreover, was the official paper of the Habsburg bureaucracy, and as such was read by Emperor Franz Josef and his ministers on a daily basis.

Design mattered very much in Vienna. Yes, there are persuasive arguments that this emphasis on superficial and minor aspects masked the society's inability to tackle monumental issues or produce an art for the ages. But, despite the critics decrying the fact that architecture had been reduced to napkin folding, these objects have endured (and command serious prices on the art market and are appreciated in major museum collections). The Food Network's tablescapes, however, fail to inspire and fail to last.

The difference between the tablescapes of Sandra Lee and the turn-of-the-twentieth-century "set tables" in Vienna is, to my mind, no better, very visible indictment of how low our culture has sunk.

 

Report from California: Spago

Spago (yes, Spago) uses Oneida's Astragal as well, also in the 18/10 version (like Artisanal). Cheap-o's.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

 

---

There has been little silverware to write about these days: my days of being wined and dined seem to be over. I even had to cook-- two nights in a row!-- last week for the person who was previously charged with feeding me. Sigh.

I also cannot write about lunchtime silverware, since I work in the middle of nowhere....no, let me rephrase...the margins of nowhere. The Olmsted Center cafeteria does not even have plasticware most of the time. I bought some plastic spoons at a dollar store, but, as bored as I am, they're not really worth writing about.

If I got manicures, I could write about my hands. But I don't, and, quite honestly, my hands aren't all that thrilling. I have a few papercuts.

Georg Jensen beat out Tiffany silver though earlier this week in the cake cutting department. Score one for modernism.


Thursday, January 26, 2006

 

The Modern, NYC

The Modern is a restaurant of impeccable taste. It advances the mission of the Museum to which it is attached and demonstrates that forward-looking design (which is stylistically rooted in designs a century old and theories of reform that are older still) is fully appropriate for the haute bourgeois table. The Modern—and throughout I speak of the formal dining room—is a glorious celebration of the power of modern art to confer distinction. Just like in Vienna, around 1900 (but that is another, much longer story).

It is not a stretch to suggest that the tables at the Modern have been curated—in fact, many of the place settings, water jugs, coffee creamers and other accoutrements are in either MoMA’s permanent collection (the Museum gets a hefty bit of sponsorship from various Danish cultural authorities, which may—or may not, one shouldn’t be too cynical about these things, because northern design is just better in the end)—be reflected in the tendency towards Scandinavian modern on the tables) or the gift shop (i.e., the Design Store).

My favorite setting came with an amuse bouche, a lovely procession of shrimp presented on WMF Happy Spoons (available at the shop). The coffee service put Starbucks to shame: I don’t sugar my coffee, but the variety and beauty of the sugar presentation almost persuaded me to try, just this once. That is, in fact, the power of good design, and why reformers have very vocally and very adamantly insisted on maintaining certain standards on the table, because the shape of a silverware pattern or the manner of presenting tea alters behavior. “Good design” was never morally neutral, and the Modern, the restaurant, completely embraces the taste-building and educational mission of the Modern, the museum.

One might argue that the Modern is preaching to the converted. Especially at the prices (it was $78 for the 3-course prix fixe, excluding all drinks; coffee is $6, and, at that price, it damn better come with a selection of sugars) involved, those eating at the Modern probably aren’t the ones that need to be coaxed aware from their tv trays. But the reception of much of the modernist table settings throughout the twentieth century and into today documents the tension between advanced design and bourgeois taste. The most popular sterling patterns are not modernist, and most fine dining restaurants shy away from advanced designs, as well, favoring variations on classical English motifs.

But, the Modern is perfectly named. It is modern, not avant-garde, nor is it contemporary (even though some of the objects used were produced within the last decade). It shares this with MoMA itself, which has been criticized as a backwards-looking institution. MoMA not the place people go to see cutting edge contemporary art, particularly in architecture in design. And the Modern is not the place to eat to experience cutting edge design, either. But perhaps herein the Modern could play a role by redesigning its tables to include more radical interpretations for the table, things that get dismissed for being impossible to eat with, and even using modern materials. And I’d certainly book another table the day the Modern puts great plasticware on its tables.

Friday, January 20, 2006

 

Chance, Carroll Gardens (Smith St.), Brooklyn, NY

Chance, as the name suggests (not, as I misunderstood on the phone, “Champs,” which is a crappy sports-related restaurant? store? I’m still not sure. There’s probably one in Ohio, however) is a lovely Chinese French restaurant on Smith Street. There’s lots of glossy, Memoirs of a Geisha red, a bar that prompted a good quarter of an hour of discussion (note, here I mean the physical structure of the bar itself, not bar in a more general sense, although the drink menu was quite fine).

At any rate, Chance put some effort into creating something aesthetically distinctive, and, like the food (mmmmmm Peking Duck), it rises far above the neighborhood take-out. The silverware had a naturalist form, like flowing water; the pattern was titled “Rome,” rather inappropriately, but I suppose nobody expected that anyone would be checking out the silverware in so much detail. Fools. Had they more money to spend, I would have suggested the lovely Tiffany & Co. Bamboo pattern (or a cheaper knock-off, Crate & Barrel used to do one, I believe). All Asian restaurants, it seems, serve their food on square plates; Chance is no different. Is there actually anything historically relevant about square plates? If I weren’t so lazy these days, I’d do research. As it is, I don’t see myself hanging out at NYPL to find out. I do see myself eating more green beans at Chance.

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