Monthly Archives: January 2015

Charlie & Houellebecq

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I pay my deepest respects to the staff at Charlie Hebdo. In the same breath, I mock the cowardice of the gunmen that gunned them down. The free press is everything, satire first and foremost.

Roped loosely into the conversation around the killings is the new novel by the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, released in France on the same day as the attack. The cover of Charlie Hebdo this week satirizes Houellebecq himself, caricatured, declaring, “In 2015, I lose my teeth. In 2022, I will do Ramadan.” The premise of Houellebecq’s new novel has a moderate Muslim politician winning election as France’s president in 2022 and, with monetary backing from the Gulf States, transforming French culture in that image — women completing their education at age 11, readying to serve their household; polygamy becoming legal; and society itself becoming economically successful as it absorbs and internalizes these cultural transformations.

I can’t speak to Houellebecq’s new novel, which is titled Submission. I assume it will take a year or so until it is published in English, in translation. But I’m a completist of his work until now. I read — I think we all read, back then? — The Elementary Particles, in the late 1990s. The themes of that book, his first novel, inform Houellebecq’s fiction in general. It was his second book, Platform (2001), that made me think this might be the writer of our age. Two of his more recent novels, The Possibility of an Island (2005) and The Map and the Territory (2010) deal with issues of cults and belief (Island) and art and fame (Territory) — though those brief summaries do no justice to the novels themselves, even as I found the latter to be a vital accompaniment to The Goldfinch, which I pushed myself through around the same time a year or two ago.

If you’ve never read any Houellebecq, I’d break with the conventional wisdom and suggest starting with The Map and The Territory, then moving on to Platform. Maybe. All of Houellebecq’s novels are raw, misogynist, and brutal to digest. But as the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris remind us, so is life itself.

CES Past and Present

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[Verge trailer at CES in this afternoon's fading sunlight.]

I attended my first Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 1997. Six months earlier, fresh out of college, I’d started a job as an associate editor at a new consumer electronics magazine called Wideband. Our boss, an industry legend named Richard Ekstract, had created and sold a number of trade magazines, and Wideband was his latest effort. With an eye towards differentiating it from the other tired trade magazines in the space, he staffed it exclusively with 20-somethings.

The merits and pitfalls of this staffing strategy were never more evident than when Richard announced that, en masse, the staff would be heading to Las Vegas to cover the Consumer Electronics Show. We stayed at The Aladdin, a hotel that would promptly be imploded after we checked out. (It’s where Planet Hollywood stands now.) I had no idea what I was doing, so I scheduled interviews with company executives in different convention halls, leaving myself 10 minutes between appointments that in actuality took more like an hour to navigate. I sweated like crazy, filled tiny notebooks with notes, and even got some stories. Then each night, after walking all day, our Wideband crew would hit the town, gamble and drink until dawn, then crash and repeat the cycle. It was one of the most memorable weeks of my life.

All of which might explain my fondness for the Consumer Electronics Show — and Las Vegas in general — that others seem to lack. By my math, this is my eleventh CES. I’ve moved to that place in my career where I’m really just here for the schmoozing, but The Verge has an entire trailer and most of the staff on site and they’re reporting hundreds of stories a day and creating a ton of amazing video. (I’m typing these words from inside The Verge trailer. It has an unforgettable odor.) If you want to read one good thing about what’s up at this year’s show, I’d recommend this one by Verge editor in chief Nilay Patel: Gadgets are Back.

Speaking of Nilay, a few minutes ago, I was standing outside The Verge trailer talking on my phone when I spotted Nilay approaching. He was stopped by a fanboy for a selfie, which he obliged. Then he ambled up to me, backpack over his back, plastic container holding a hamburger in one hand. “This week is fucking weird, man.”

True. But also kind of the best.

The Year in Eater

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[The garden at Narcissa. Photo: LS.com]

Every year, Eater asks its colleagues and friends to sum up the year that was in New York City dining, and publishes the results in the week leading into the new year. Here now, my selected responses excerpted from the full shebang:

Top Restaurant Newcomer
I tend to binge on restaurants when they open, which is what I did this summer at Bar Primi and Claudette, and this fall at Dirty French and Marta. Love all those spots, but my newcomer of 2014 is the restaurant I wish I’d dined at way more often: Narcissa. I first ate at John Fraser’s reinvention of the haunted Standard East Village restaurant space in January, right after it opened, and was blown away. I dined there again early in the summer, and then outside, tucked into the garden, in early September. Each meal was among the best I had all year. Three times just didn’t cut it; I’m doubling down on Narcissa in 2015.

Top Restaurant Standbys
My lunch standbys rarely change from year to year — Lure and Rosemarys, now and forever — but my wife and I did discover a new dinner standby in 2014, right under our noses: Mark Joseph Steakhouse, on Water Street in the South Street Seaport. Living in the neighborhood, we’ve long been fans of Mark Joseph, a chophouse cast unapologetically in the Luger tradition (albeit with better wine and drinks). But we’d never made a go-to move of dining at the bar at Mark Joseph as often as we did this past year. Becoming a regular at a steakhouse is a strange and wonderful thing, good for the soul if not necessarily the diet, but I expect us to be perched there as often next year as we were this year past.

Best Dining Neighborhood
Midtown West. When Eater HQ relocated from its longtime perch near Astor Place to the Vox Media offices on West 40th Street near Bryant Park last spring, let’s be honest: we feared for our stomachs. First we sussed out Culture and Cafe Grumpy, two real solid coffee shops. The sandwiches and salads from Maison Kayser almost made us forget Il Buco Alimentari. (Almost.) Then someone figured out that Szechuan Gourmet delivers, a fact which changed the life of Eater’s head of product, Eliot Shepard, and everyone on the 10th Floor forever. Toss in this fall’s opening of the Midtown outpost of sandwich shop Alidoro, and well, dude, it’s all happening in Midtown West.

Single Best Meal of the Year
A year of eating across the country and the globe proved again that we’ve got the best of it in New York City. My meal of the year came unexpectedly in November, when a group of old friends gathered for a new monthly tradition of enjoying dinner at a restaurant deemed special by one member of the group. Our first month’s organizer deemed that we’d dine at the original Blue Ribbon on Sullivan Street, for all the reasons that are obvious to anyone who’s ever dined there. They gave us the big circular booth near the front of the room, and oysters, and from there it unfolded into the kind of night that confirms why we dine out so often in this crazy, beautiful city.

A few additional notes that didn’t make it onto Eater: I haven’t dined at Bâtard, Drew Nieporent’s upscale Tribeca addition to the New York City dining scene, but it topped Pete Wells’ list of the 10 best restaurants of the year and, back in November, won the Eater Award for NYC Restaurant of the Year. I’m pissed I haven’t made it to Bâtard yet; Drew Nieporent is pretty much the fucking greatest.

That said, it’s now clear that the NYC Restaurant of the Year is Cosme. That it didn’t open until September cost it from consideration in the Eater Awards, and Wells hasn’t even filed his review. I didn’t make it in for my first proper meal until early December, when Ben Leventhal invited me to join him and Charlie Bird impressario Robert Bohr at Cosme for dinner. We ate practically the entire menu, hit after hit. This is Mexican cuisine like I’ve never tasted in this city, which explains why this has become one of the toughest reservations in New York recent memory. The move: the bar, of course, which recently started serving the full menu. When we showed up at 8:45pm for our 9pm reservation, we easily grabbed two bar seats.

(You know this, but the restaurant of Winter 2015 is the new Mission Chinese on East Broadway. Haven’t been yet. Who’s in?)

My top meal of the year regardless of locale was, yeah, Noma. Other nights that register strong in the memory in the five boroughs: a January night at Blanca, the tasting restaurant behind Roberta’s; my first meal at River Cafe since Sandy, with ice floes floating by on the East River; an ribeye large format at Momofuku Ssam Bar with a big fun group in the spring; and the string of meals at Dirty French in September and October when I almost made good on my plan to dine there 93 consecutive nights.

Beyond NYC, I remember sushi omakases in Los Angeles at Sushi Zo and Sushi Park that reminded me why it’s almost not worth it to bother with serious sushi omakases on the east coast; my two meals at April Bloomfield’s Tosca Cafe in San Francisco, which might be the most perfect dining room in the country; the fascinatingly odd dinner at Odd Duck in Austin (Eater’s restaurant of the year); every meal ever at Hominy Grill in Charleston, the best pure southern restaurant in the south, for my money; a summer-finishing meal at Portland, ME’s new standout, Central Provisions; and everything in Nashville.

(Final bonus/new year thing: I contributed a thought to Doree’s What People in Media are Excited About in 2015. Now, enough recapping and predicting; on with it.)

Welcome 2015

A photo posted by Lockhart Steele (@lock) on

Last night, the wife and I rang in the new year at Kate Lee and Zach Seward‘s wedding at Liberty Warehouse in Red Hook. I’d never been to a New Year’s wedding before, but it turned out to be a perfect way to spend a night that’s all about endings and beginnings.

The night was also a great opportunity for various friends to hassle me about the status of this blog — something that came up the night before at Tom & Jerry’s, when Harryh asked me, “How many blog posts do you think you’ll have written by the middle of 2015?” “I dunno, about 100?” I answered. Harry and Rex both cracked up. “Give us a number we can at least take seriously!”

This daily blogging thing: it’s harder than it looks. But it’s really not that hard; it just has to get done, the way so many other things also have to get done. So, on this first day of 2015, I’m diving back in. As mantras for 2015 go, I could do worse than Just Do It.