New York City Ballet’s The Nutcracker 2016

I’m gonna swoon here.  First, allow me to establish that I’m no ballet expert.  Though I’ve been to more than a few, and generally make a point to take in a performance or two each year, I could scarcely tell you what plie means.  But greatness is something I pride myself on recognizing on sight.  And this production is simply stunning!

The very idea that there were empty seats at the Tuesday night performance is a travesty.  My companion and I spent most of the time wowing, slapping each other’s legs in excitement, and generally (at least in my case) being transported back to those giddy days of Christmas past when my chest could scarcely keep my bursting heart caged.  No, really.  The stunning pageantry of the sets and costumes themselves are a sight to behold.  With gasps, of course.  The dancers’ execution is impeccable, right down to the children executing silent, elegantly playful moves perfectly in character.

A few words on the individual dancers from a neophyte.  The character Coffee that night was simply ravishing (either Megan LeCrone or Claire Kretzschmar, says the playbill).  Her every move an exquisitely sensual expression.  Lithe.  Indelible.  The power and grace of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Sterling Hyltin) and her Prince (Andrew Veyette) made of itself a whole other character – a ballet within a ballet.  Each time Veyette landed a jump, or Hyltin, one got the impression that he possesses the power to negate gravity:  not even the hint of a thump, landing like a feather each time.  In fact, I caught myself leaning forward as if in anticipation of a critical play in a sporting event – straining the ears and eyes in disbelief at the gentleness of each landing.  I could go on, at least if I knew what all the characters and movements were named.  Suffice to say that soon after the curtain rose an elegant older woman slipped into the seats to my right and spent the night whispering comments to herself with each difficult move, punctuated with physical spasms of delight.  I watched for her outbursts out of the corner of my eye and am quite convinced that she knew the dances, dancers, and ballet personally and expertly.  Suffice to say she exploded in emotion at the end.  So, you need not rely only simply on my thumbs up.

koch-theaterA couple of hacks.  The ground floor bars will always have a line.  Go up one flight of stairs where there are many more bars, much more space, and more than a few displays of costumes from performances past worth perusing.  You can ask for an intermission pre-order form at any of the bars and have your champagne and cookies waiting for you.  Sip your champagne, toss your head back in a haughty laugh, and wink at all the poor saps wasting their intermission waiting in line.  If, like they were for us, neither the weather nor clock are cooperating, hop across Columbia and pay Patrick a visit at PJ Clarke’s for a quick, but lovely, serving of prosecco and oysters and to swoon and chatter over the magnificent spectacle you were so lucky to have just attended.  You are welcome.

A small part of me was bummed that no photography of any type is allowed during the performance.  At least until I realized I could rely on the pre-installed recording equipment in the brain.  In our rush to constantly document everything, it was nice to recall that the explosive images the dancers and musicians created; the sense of excitement that made the air nearly vibrate; the lighting and stage-craft (Ronald Bates, Mark Stanley); and, of course, dashing brilliance of the conductor (Andrews Sill) and choreographer (George Balanchine) all married together in a perfect cocktail of memories that only my companion and I have the privilege of ever enjoying.  But you, dear reader, can take this much away:  if it’s remotely of interest, go.  Go and enjoy one of the most gorgeous of holiday celebration activities that money can buy in the finest place on earth to do so . . . New York City Ballet will never fail you.

The Nutcracker, New York City Ballet, David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center Plaza, New York City

Un Je Ne Sais Quoi, Washington, DC

I generally avoid reviewing places in cities that I live in.  There are a few reasons.  First, I’m a jerk and don’t want my favorite spots to get so overwhelmingly popular that I can no longer get a seat.  Second, honestly, I still consider the mean quality level of offerings in DC to be so far behind other cities that there’s just no point.  There are exceptions, and consider this the first instalment of my reformation.

This is my new jam.  The owners Aude and François-Yann Buisine hail from northern France.  At this point, I have never seen anyone working the counter but the two of them.  Aude always greets me with a warm, smiley “bonjour” and does not reserve the warmth only for me.  The space lends itself well to the reading of books and the writing of things that do not require internet connectivity.  That translates to a blessed lack of laptop-clogged tables with clickety-clacking self-important millennial types doing their startup gigs.  Instead, you hear conversations, enjoy soft, elegant seating, and Illy brand espresso drinks made with care and a glaring lack of hollered, mispronounced names.

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Croissants so good they have to put them in jail

But what of the baked goods?  They make a range of exquisite-looking pasties and deserts, but I can only vouch for the non-sweets.  Listen:  the plain butter croissants are the best I have had since the DuPont Circle Farmer’s Market made the monumentally stupid decision to chase Baltimore’s Bonaparte bakery out of their market (I have never gone back since this move – anything else I ever bought there was simply by virtue of its proximity to Bonaparte’s luscious wares).  These croissants compare favorably to anything you will find in Paris, Lyon, Nice, or beyond.  The brioche has the dense but airy consistency that I want from a brioche.  In a word, both the croissants and the brioche are a perfect “A” note.

Epilogue:  after my summer away, there now is more counter help, WiFi, and a bustling trade.  At least I know they won’t be closing soon.  Thus far, the quality has not dropped off one bit!

Un Je Ne Sais Quoi, 1361 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC  20036

El Club del Vino, Malaga, Spain

Sometimes you just get lucky.  I happened upon this place with only an hour or so to go in my visit to Malaga, having given up on having any singular food or drink experience to speak of.  (Yes, I tried to go to El Pimpi, Oleo, and several other places that were either closed or just meh.)  I noticed the promising signage and decided to take a swing.

The owner, Bernardo, is quick with conversation and background knowledge on his stock.  As with Nuno and his crew at Castelo in Lisbon, Bernardo communicates a deep-seated passion for the wines he offers, making a point to note that he sells nothing that he doesn’t first enjoy personally.  There’s no script here; Bernardo can riff on any of the wines, giving fascinating background on the vineyards, wine makers, and character of each bottle.  Like most Argentinians I know, Bernardo and his spot have a certain style and aesthetic that I struggle to describe as sleek traditional:  wood, leather, and metal come together in a no-nonsense design with clean lines and, like the menu, reminiscent of a time when simple was good.

If you want a good bottle, a copa of sweet respite from the Andalusian heat, or to fill up on down-home Argentinian bites (and bife!), this is the place to visit.

El Club del Vino, Calle Pedro de Toledo 2 Local B, Malaga, Spain

Le Canon du Maréchal 2014 – Cotes Catalanes, France

This wine was gifted to me and proves that sometimes you just get lucky.  I will admit to being a fan of dry muscats, which, incidentally I have only ever found in the French Catalunya region.  The golden, straw color of the pour barely hints at the bursting fresh melon, stone fruit pits, apricot, and passion fruit that explode on the nose and palate.  An interesting heaviness to the mid-palate, with a tight vanilla-like finish.  Luscious and delicious, I’d buy this one again . . . even if I didn’t buy it the first time.

  • Rating: Everyday White
  • Name: Le Canon de Maréchal 2014
  • Winery: Domaine Cazes
  • Region: Cotes Catalanes
  • Country: France
  • Varietals: 40% Muscat d’Alexandre; 40% Muscat de Petit Grains; 20% Viognier
  • Price: ??
  • Where to Buy: ??

 

Gilles Barge Cote Blonde 2013 – Cote-Rotie, France

So Georges dos Santos explained to me that Cotes Blonde is an indication that the winery chose only the best of the best fruits to produce a selection.  I have to take his word for that, and you should too.  Red fruits and thyme (yes, thyme) on the nose.  Light peppery notes, more red fruit, and a strong tannin finish.  I could have let this one lay down for a while – wish I’d known (OK, 2013, I should have known, but was too excited and jet-lagged to think about it please stop picking on me, thanks).  Spice, white pepper, and green herbs on the finish.  A lovely full bodied wine that, yet again, belies France’s reputation for almost exclusively producing finesse wines.

  • Rating: Impressive
  • Name: Gilles Barge Cote Blonde 2013
  • Winery: Gilles Barge
  • Region: Cote-Rotie
  • Country: France
  • Varietals: Rhone blend, certainly including Syrah?
  • Price: 50 Euros
  • Where to Buy: Antic Wines, Lyon, France

12 Volts 2013 – Mallorca, Spain

I admit to expecting something different when I popped this one open.  Bright red fruit on the nose, gave way to elegant, silky vanilla flavors and bright sour cherries.  This was definitely a lighter wine than I had expected, but the bright (notice the theme) and luscious notes on both the palate and the nose made for a lovely little wine.  I picked this beauty up in San Sebastian or Barcelona some time in 2015, but it appears that T. Edward New York is bringing it in to the U.S.

  • Rating: Impressive
  • Name: 12 Volts 2013
  • Winery: Apol-lonia Viticultors S.A.T.
  • Region: Mallorca
  • Country: Spain
  • Varietals: 50% Callet; 30% Syrah; 10% Cabernet Sauvignon; 10% Merlot
  • Price: 30 Euros
  • Where to Buy: Edward New York

Arenes Sauvages 2010 – Cornas, France 

Another Georges dos Santos selection.  Complex, intense nose of roses, vanilla, old wood, and fig.  An acidic kick to the front of the palate, with more wood, intense florals, with a hint of cocoa.  I find myself reaching for the name of a flavor that just eludes me.  Tannins come in with hints of slate and red fruits, in a deep, powerful attack.  Just wow.

  • Rating: Impressive
  • Name: Arénes Sauvages 2010, plot selection
  • Winery: La Cave de Tain
  • Region: Cornas
  • Country: France
  • Varietals: Syrah
  • Price: 30 Euros
  • Where to Buy: Antic Wines, Lyon, France

 

Winebar do Castelo, Lisbon, Portugal

OK, I’ve kept this place semi-secret long enough.  Put simply, this is my favorite wine bar on the planet at the moment.  Why, you say?  Though the location, ambience, and stock selection are definitely critical pieces of the puzzle, it is the style and quality of the service you will get here that truly sets this place on a pedestal.

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Nuno carries more than a few delicious choriço

Nuno Santos, the driving force behind it, takes enormous pride and care in ensuring that patrons have an unparalleled experience on their visit.  Whether Nuno takes care of you personally or one of the several other highly trained and passionate servers here is your guide, you can expect to be led toward the perfect selection with passion, knowledge, and an attention to detail that’s rare these days.  Unlike so many wine bars where you are greeted by a service professional who has memorized the most recent tasting notes from Robert Parker or James Molesworth, the staff’s love and intimate knowledge of the stock here is evident.

Reminiscent of how a guitar player feels about his different axes and each of their own quirks, imperfections, and sublime notes, no matter who takes care of you, you are going to get the straight dope on all of the wines you care to ask about.  On at least one occasion, when asked about a bottle in his stock, Nuno didn’t hold back his true opinion, and in the process educated the hell out of us.  The team is so dedicated to honesty in selection that, in fact, they steadfastly refuse what would be a very lucrative revenue stream in guiding winery tours.  Why?  It might create a conflict of interest; they don’t want to find themselves sending clients toward the highest bidder.

I could blather on here.  But just do yourself a favor and go visit Nuno’s team.  You will find yourself joining their legion of fans, and becoming so much smarter in the meantime.

Winebar do Castelo, No. 13 Rua Bartolomeu de Gusmão 11, 1100-000, Lisbon, Portugal

Emmanuel Darnaud 2014– Crozes-Hermitage, France

So here’s a wine I was not going to review.  I picked this up on Georges’ recommendation, from Antic Wine.  Georges is, in a word, the man.  I talk about Georges more in the Antic Wine entry, but much of what you need to know about Georges you can pick up from the way he marked this bottle in the photo.  antic-pricingWhen I first opened this wine, I shouldn’t have.  But I came back the next day and found that she is a delicious beauty of blackberry pie, cherry tart, autumn leaves, moss, and dusty dried flowers, with a perfectly balanced tannic closing, to boot.  Wow.  I haven’t had a French wine do this for me in a while.

  • Rating: Impressive
  • Name: Emmanuel Darnaud 2014 Crozes-Hermitage
  • Winery: Emmanuel Darnaud
  • Region: Crozes-Hermitage
  • Country: France
  • Varietals: ?Syrah?
  • Price: 15 Euros
  • Where to Buy: Antic Wines, Lyon, France

Restaurante O Murta, Faro, Portugal

This place was a very lucky find and a huge treat.  We dug this one out of an old guidebook and, after much arguing and discussion with the cab driver, who had no idea it existed, we were happy to arrive.  You need one word and one word only to dine magnificently here:  cataplana.  I freely admit to not previously being aware of this transcendent dish:

cataplana-2
Another angle

Cataplana!

O ye of fishy savor

Of all the salt and wind of the sea

Of all the earthy flavor of plant and seed

Of all the dreams I’ve yet to dream

Cataplana, “oh, sim!”

I’ll have the Cataplana, please.

I just made that up, but you should follow the instructions and order Cataplana and be happy to wait for such perfection to be delivered to your table.  It is a traditional dish of assorted seafood and vegetables such as peppers, onions, and potatoes.  And, like many traditional dishes, one that is far too overlooked lately.  As a huge paella fanatic, I must admit that if the Portuguese ever figure it out, they’ll give the Spaniards a run for their saffron-flavored money with Cataplana.

The owners here have been doing this for a long time:  thirty-plus years, as the patriarch of the family told me.  The service is very homey – they only serve dishes that make them proud to smile, and generally eat exactly what you do.  As in, you will see them around the corner chomping away on their own portion, if you, like us, go too late.  For my money, Murta runs like a well-tuned instrument:  each note is perfectly tuned with each inch and you almost cannot go wrong ordering any combination on the menu.

bacalhau-murta
The bacalhau wasn’t bad either!

I already wrote a poem here.  What else do you want to know?  In the last several months the Cataplana is probably the best meal I have had, whether Barcelona, Sevilla, Lisbon, New York, LA, Zurich, Geneva, DC, Chicago, or Miami, this little granny-ran hole in the wall in the south of Portugal beat them all.  So, go!

Rua Infante Dom Henrique 136, 8000-256 Faro, Portugal