Twenty-three nights ago, I arrived in Portland to moonlight as an anthropologist. My mission? To find out if Portlandia exists.
I spied chin beards on boys, glasses on hot girls, and anorexic jeans on both sexes. Might as well have been in Williamsburg, or any city dotting the map of Hipsterdonia. Nay, my quest required extensive research. I had to go deeper.
That’s what he said. (Snap.) My investigation led me into a thicket of locally grown evidence…confirming that the below portrayal is nothing but authentic.
The top ten signs Portlandia is REAL:
10. Urban chickens. Basic and advanced urban chicken keeping classes are in full effect. Hint: It’s free if you purchase a copy of the “Chicken In Every Yard” guide book. Thank me later, I’m late for class.
9. Bird Art. During its annual fundraiser last month, local NPR station OPB offered a canvas tote bag. And guess what…they put a bird on it.
8. Clowning. If I had a dime for every time I heard someone say, “I gave up clowning years ago.” Nobody likes a quitter, especially one with a hand buzzer. Fly to PDX and turn that dirty clown frown right upside down. Register here.
7. Feminism. In Portland, feminists don’t just belong in feminist bookstores. They belong in mother nature.
6. The dream of the ’90s is alive and well. Exhibit A: Those construction barriers won’t stop Goth Tammy or Skinhead Sam from shoppin’ for some Docs.
5. Friendliness. Everyone here is as friendly and concerned as this waitress. It is equal parts refreshing and startling. An old woman on the sidewalk tapped me on the shoulder to let me know she’d be passing. She didn’t want to startle me. (In hindsight, why are the elderly out-walking me?)
4. Dogs. They really are treated better than people in this town. These pup snacks were hotcakes at the Saturday Market.
3. Cats. Felines aren’t far behind on the spoil factor. When’s the last time you bought your lover a hump-worthy catnip body pillow dildo? Exactly.
2. Nests. Humans here build bird nests in their spare time.
1. Organiclocalsustainableveganglutenfreedeliciousdidimentionlocal? Where else can you grab an organic pesto pizza roll, organic local stuffed squash with organic millet pilaf, organic local roasted roots, two organic gluten free vegan gravies (one uses local ‘shrooms!!), organic local green chili enchilada pie, AND wash it all down with a gluten-free beer, all in one shop?
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. In this case it’s local. Welcome to Portland.
Could a trained elephant slip through a bustling West Village dining room without so much as tipping a glass of red wine?
With business thriving in the 1960s, Fedora Dorato weighed the trade-offs of expanding the namesake restaurant she opened in 1952. Doing so meant it would double as an entryway for her neighbor’s elephant, Champagne. According to Ms. Dorato, the pet’s owner called her an “ass” for turning down the deal.
While Champagne never darkened Fedora’s door at 239 West Fourth Street, a thinning legion of regulars continues to visit this untouched window into the past. The tin ceiling, the rotary payphone, the wooden bar Ms. Dorato’s father-in-law once stood behind are not throwbacks to a bygone era; they never left.
On July 25, nearly 60 years after Ms. Dorato and her late husband Henry served their first plate of prawns Florentine, her staff will dish up their last.
Medical procedures have done little to ease Ms. Dorato’s relentless back pain, and she is finding it increasingly difficult to walk, let alone pour cocktails five nights a week. Still, the 89-year-old’s watery blue eyes dance when she speaks of her restaurant.
“I love the business. It’s very hard work if you’re fussy. I’m fussy,” said Ms. Dorato. “Sometimes a tablecloth is crooked. I pick it up and start from scratch.”
Since her husband passed away in 1997, Ms. Dorato has been in charge. While the dining room is quiet these days—patron Bill Shubick remembers a line to get in on his birthday in 1957—it remains a stubbornly unchanging source of camaraderie for a devoted group of silver-haired New Yorkers.
One Saturday night recently, Jerry Farley, a regular since 1974, entered the ground-level door carrying a martini glass in bubble wrap.
He unwrapped the glass at the bar. “Gin. I’m into gin tonight, a couple of olives,” he said to George Malmend, one of two waiters. Ms. Dorato sat nearby, resting her legs. Mr. Farley made his way to the sole round table—the “death table” he joked. It’s where he spent countless Saturday nights with friends who are no longer alive.
“This was an anchor for everybody,” he said. “Our friendship revolved around Fedora. When I come in here, I feel young again. Everything is just as it was.”
Later that evening, Rollerena—legendary in the 1970s for roller-skating with a magic wand in hand—walked in wearing a veiled hat, cat eye glasses, and baby blue fingerless lace gloves. The self-proclaimed “Queen of Studio 54” arrived after 8 o’clock, missing the warm applause that greets Ms. Dorato as she makes her entrance.
The petite restaurateur, though modest, adores the traditional ovation. “Sometimes I step back out just so I can hear it again,” she admitted with delight.
Ms. Dorato enters her establishment the way she wants everyone to feel: welcomed. Such a cordial atmosphere was difficult to find for gay men in the 1950s and 1960s. Villager Michael Rooney first came to Fedora more than 40 years ago with another young man. “She made everybody feel special,” he said. “She doesn’t bat an eye. It’s something everybody strives for but very few people accomplish.”
Ms. Dorato’s outlook is uncomplicated. “If you’re nice, I’ll go along. That’s about it,” she said.
After Mr. Farley finished his martini in his custom glass, he stepped outside to smoke a Cuban. “This is the best part of my night,” he remarked, grinning under the neon green and pink sign reading Bar Fedora. “And this is such a great place—we should all get together and buy it.”
According to Ms. Dorato, Gabriel Stulman, who opened Joseph Leonard in the West Village last August, will be renting and renovating the space. She said he intends to keep the neon sign and the name Fedora intact. Mr. Stulman declined to be interviewed.
Younger customers do not often appreciate the restaurant’s storied history. One review on Yelp equated a visit to “entering an episode of the Twilight Zone or booking a room at the Bates Motel.”
The longevity of the establishment is a feat considering Ms. Dorato had to cajole her husband into opening Fedora (the name was his idea, she said).
“Henry didn’t like the restaurant business. He grew up in it,” Ms. Dorato recalled. When he was a child, his father ran a place called Charlie’s Garden in the space Fedora now occupies. It was a speakeasy in the 1920s.
It took a couple of years for Fedora to blossom, its growth aided by model Burke McHugh, who took over Ms. Dorato’s role as host for a few months in 1954. “My husband fired me,” she deadpanned. “I resented him at first.” Meanwhile, Mr. McHugh sent postcards to hundreds of neighborhood friends, inviting them in.
As Fedora caught on, celebrities including Kay Francis and Julie Andrews made appearances. Ms. Dorato remembers the time her husband mistook Lauren Bacall for Lucille Ball. Ms. Bacall’s response now hangs on the wall, next to Hollywood portraits, family photos, and a poster of the Italian opera Ms. Dorato was named after. Ms. Bacall’s note reads: “Henry, Never mix celebrities. Nice food.”
The menu has changed little over time—Italians standards offset classics like ice box cake. Ms. Dorato still prepares some meals. “I never had a cookbook,” she remarked. Born in Florence, Italy and raised in Greenwich Village, she grew up poor. Her mother didn’t let the children help in the kitchen, lest they ruin the food.
“Cooking is fine. I find it very relaxing,” said Ms. Dorato. “But my joy is mixing in with the people.”
Her customers frequently bring in fresh flowers. Red roses are Ms. Dorato’s favorite. As she winds down nearly six decades of running her namesake establishment, she admits to being ready for a break.
“I like my little place, I really do. But my body can’t take it anymore,” she said. “That’s the end of my story.”
Ms. Dorato will remain close by, however. She lives on the third floor of the brownstone. Her son runs his dental practice in the building as well.
For Ms. Dorato’s regulars, the coming days at Fedora will mark the end of an era with their favorite restaurateur—a woman who welcomed them long before many of her neighbors did and who treats newcomers just as warmly.
“She was always ahead of her time,” said Mr. Rooney before paying his bill. “If the whole world looked at things the way she did, it would be such a pleasant place.”
Horse Feathers. Another folk-tinged indie group solidifies Portland’s music chops. And it does so with the ease of a ballerina.
I was introduced to the band just last month, when they played at Mercury Lounge. Front man and songwriter Justin Ringle kindly agreed to an interview with me for Popten.
Read the interview for the story behind his band’s new album Thistled Spring. Justin also weighs in on his musical inspirations, band mate Nathan Crockett’s saw-playing abilities, and a repressed childhood memory involving Pink Floyd.
My friend Victor recently asked me to contribute to Popten—a site he and friends founded in 2008 to celebrate and quantify pop culture, often in lists of ten. For my initial post, I chose a subject close to my heart: Neko Case.
Narrowing down her top ten was akin to what I would imagine it feels like to separate orphaned siblings. After much contemplation, the final outcome: The Top Ten Neko Case Songs.
Originally published in Greenwich Village Block Association News
Ninety Bedford Street once occupied a shoe store. An interior door led to former speakeasy Chumley’s (which is rumored to reopen). Today, that address is home to The Little Owl. If you’re in the right seat, you can look out the window to see how the restaurant got its name. At Bedford and Grove sits a wooden building—the oldest one in the West Village—and on the corner of the roof is a statue of an owl.
When owner and executive chef Joey Campanaro was renovating, paper covered the windows. When he pulled it down, he saw the statue and settled on the name. Because the building is landmarked, the red walls and blue awning that preceded the eatery remain intact. You might recognize them from Friends—the location was used as the exterior setting for the sitcom.
Despite the economy, the place is always full—reservations are taken up to a month in advance (and are wisely suggested). You can of course take your chances without one. Of the 32 seats in the restaurant, the four at the bar can’t be reserved.
While it lacks the legacy of many West Village establishments, The Little Owl has quickly woven itself into the fabric of the neighborhood. I recently sat down with Beverage Director Tracy Gribbon to learn more about what makes the establishment so damn charming.
One thing you’ll notice is that the menu—a reflection of the space—is tiny. It’s manageable…selective. An emphasis on quality, seasonal ingredients stems from longstanding relationships with food purveyors and specialized distributors. “The product is really important to us,” says Tracy. Specials are dictated by what’s freshest and most readily available.
Dishes like the whole fish reveal the Mediterranean influence that is Joey’s specialty, although the gravy meatball sliders are the most coveted item on the menu. The recipe is included here, compliments of the chef.
If you crave a martini before the sliders, you’re out of luck. Your options are beer or wine. Licensing was the initial reason for not offering hard alcohol. But management soon realized they enjoyed the ease of serving only beer and wine. Besides that, a full bar would require expertise in spatial configuration. Tracy has concocted a handful of wine-based cocktails. The Fraise Passé, a blend of lemonade, vin blanc, sparkling wine, and fresh strawberry juice is particularly refreshing.
While she’s held nearly every position imaginable in the industry, Tracy started out at a Jewish deli in Atlanta. Fourteen at the time, she was relied on to deal with a few ornery regulars (and she was good at it). Now responsible for the entire wine selection, she enjoys getting to know winemakers and reps. After meeting with Kyle MacLachlan, she added his cabernet sauvignon, Pursued By Bear, to the offerings. You’re more likely to see celebrities dining rather than promoting wines, however. Barbara Bush showed up not long ago.
Regardless of any luminary appeal, The Little Owl remains friendly and unassuming. Joey’s team is a close one, which explains the affable respect with which they treat their customers. As Tracy says, “We’re in the business of providing a good time, so we should enjoy it.”
The Little Owl’s Gravy Meatball Sliders
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground veal
1/2 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
1/2 cup water
8 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, divided
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
6 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup (packed) fresh basil leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
1 14.5-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
Arugula leaves (optional)
18 small soft rolls, split horizontally
Mix all meats, panko, 1/2 cup water, 6 tablespoons cheese, egg, egg yolk, 1/4 cup parsley, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper in large bowl. Form into eighteen 2-inch-meatballs.
Heat vegetable oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, fry meatballs until brown all over. Transfer to plate. Pour off drippings from skillet. Reduce heat to medium. Add olive oil to skillet. Add onion, garlic, basil and fennel seeds. Sauté until onion begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Add all tomatoes with juices. Bring to boil, scraping up browned bits. Reduce heat to low, cover with lid slightly ajar, and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.
Puree sauce in processor until almost smooth. Return to same skillet. Add meatballs. Cover with lid slightly ajar and simmer until meatballs are cooked through, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes longer.
Place arugula leaves on bottom of each roll, if desired. Top each with 1 meatball. Drizzle meatballs with some of sauce and sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons parsley and 2 tablespoons cheese. Cover with tops of rolls. Makes 6 servings.
“The fact that it’s pink is not a big deal to me,” says Julie Janklow, referring to the interior of Sweetiepie. She and Luke Janklow opened the restaurant last December. And it is pink…endlessly so, due to the mirrored walls and ceilings. The first time I walked in, I thought to myself: So this is where Wonka dines when the Oompa-Loompas go on strike. Tufted pink cushions offset stark white tables and marble flooring. Gumballs and swirled lollipops sit next to crystal decanters. Fanciful, indeed.
Located on Greenwich Avenue between 10th and Charles, it’s the kind of place you’d expect to find pastel-colored micro wedding cakes and a $75 dessert called the Sweetiepig. This monstrosity involves 18 scoops of ice cream, bananas, strawberries, fresh cream, hot fudge and sprinkles. For good measure, there’s a slice of cake in it too. But these treats are outliers on a menu that’s otherwise focused on comfort food like mac and cheese, roast chicken, waffles, tuna salad and tater tots. The home-style cooking is a throwback to the Sixties and Seventies—food that is nostalgically simple and satisfying, especially in the current state of economic sludge.
Inspired by eateries that shaped her LA childhood—the Brown Derby, the Luau and (the original) Schwab’s, to name a few—Julie wanted a place where she could take her six-year-old son, August. Set designers were often responsible for crafting the theatrical look of such Hollywood relics. Julie, who designed her talked about townhouse on 12th Street, did the same at Sweetiepie. She wanted something whimsical but still suitable for adults. “It’s a hybrid of many restaurants that I grew up with,” she says, also mentioning the Fountain Coffee Shop and the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotels as atmospheric muses.
Julie has a spirited, dreamy way of talking, bouncing from thought to thought, often interrupting herself. She is quick to point out that Sweetiepie welcomes everyone. Neither exclusive nor inclusive, she compares it to a hotel, in terms of both clientele and food. To that point, the menu offers anything from burgers and milkshakes to beet risotto and absinthe.
Executive Chef Humberto Guallpa spent a day with Julie in LA, eating at places that captured the cuisine she had mind. Kind and soft spoken, he takes pride in cooking and loves opening restaurants. This is his fourth (the others being Capitol Restaurant, the Forum and BLVD). He grew up on a farm in Ecuador, where his family raised their own food—fava beans, carrots, peas, potatoes and the like. His mother moved to New York when he was a child. Raised by his grandparents, he followed suit several years later. Like countless New York chefs, he started out as a dishwasher.
And then there is the giant brass birdcage in the window. This aviary has welcomed anyone from hyper toddlers to birthday revelers to indie rockers (Julie used to be in an alt rock band). “It’s nice when you can implement something from your imagination,” she says, noting that this was one of her more fantastical ideas that came to fruition. In case you’re curious (like I was), you can reserve the birdcage in advance. While the décor speaks foremost to children, and perhaps secondarily to flamboyant adults with a hankering for sugar, the restaurant is open until midnight. Once the kids are asleep, it takes on a darker mood. Think less ice cream, more alcohol.
Opening a business during a recession is not entirely without benefits. It places constraints on what you can do, driving the use of your imagination. I think this might work to Julie’s advantage. She says friends in the industry have kept her lateral, providing no shortage of advice. Still, the self-described greenhorn says that “ignorance can be a valuable asset.” Sweetiepie wasn’t planned out entirely in advance. It was born out of a desire to have a kid-friendly but sophisticated establishment that smacked of old Hollywood glam. Her imparting words of advice: “Like anything else in life, don’t think it out to the end, because it’ll scare you into doing nothing.”
A string of red bulbs hangs over the bar. An antique cash register houses the night’s earnings. The décor conjures up days gone by…I feel like calling my grandpa just to say hello.
You’ll no longer find jumbo shrimp for a quarter, but little else has changed since this restaurant opened in 1952. The crowd may be sparser, or at least less glamorous. Still, folks visit today for the same reason Lauren Bacall did. She wears Chanel No. 5 and shares the name that illuminates West 4th Street in neon letters.
A radio is playing classical music. I snack on pretzels at the bar. Shortly after 8pm, Fedora walks in. The regulars scattered throughout the dining room applaud. This endearing gesture is standard practice, I soon learn. Tonight she is wearing a gold broach. A floral scarf drapes her petite frame. Behind her, liquor bottles stand next to framed family photos and a letter from Rudy Giuliani wishing her a happy 80th birthday.
Fedora is now 88. “I’m imported,” she tells me, though she’s been living in New York since the early ‘30s. Born Fedora Nannini in 1921, she was named after the Italian opera. She informs me that Nannini is a common surname in her native country—this, she learned from Sirio Maccioni, owner of Le Cirque. She changed her name upon marrying the late Henry Dorato. I ask her how they met. “I flirted,” she says.
As I’m sipping my drink, I get to know a couple of seasoned patrons—Sari and Roger. Sari’s preferred cocktail is Kir, a French libation of white wine and crème de cassis. Fedora serves it on the rocks in a brandy snifter. I learn that earlier in the evening a young woman left without her purse. She ordered chopped liver, paid in cash and walked out. Fedora has the purse behind the bar but only looks inside after our meddlesome request. “Three dollars, is all,” she says.
Later on, her son Charles drops in. He runs a dental practice upstairs. Photos of his granddaughter—whose middle name is Fedora—adorn the walls of 239 West 4th Street. Family ties have long since graced the building (Fedora lives on the top floor). When Henry was growing up, his dad too ran a restaurant on the ground level: Charlie’s Garden. For a spell in the ‘20s, it was a speakeasy. True to name, it had an open air space in the back. Charlie eventually closed the outdoor area—in part due to city regulations—and enlarged the bar. You can still see the line where it was extended.
In the late ‘40s, Charlie retired. For a brief while, it became Bill and Jerry. After that closed, Fedora and Henry (who had been an army chef in the Philippines during WWII) decided to give their own restaurant a try. That was 57 years ago, and the doors are still open. Fedora has always been involved in some form, whether bookkeeping, cooking or managing behind the scenes. But since her husband passed more than ten years ago, she’s been running the place altogether, six days a week.
The menu—with dishes like sirloin steak, baked prawns Florentine and eggplant parmigiana—hasn’t changed much. When she was growing up, her mom didn’t let the children cook because food was too precious to risk wasting on mistakes. “I didn’t even know how to boil water,” she deadpans. In the kitchen, Fedora relies on common sense, nothing more. As I’m walking home, I get the feeling she applies this notion to life.
I return a week later. The forgotten purse is still here. I take a seat next to Sari and Roger and order a glass of white wine. There’s a full moon tonight and a lively cast of characters to greet it, including a jovial man in a purple tie. He introduces himself as James Dean. “I’m a rebel without a car,” he says in (what I think is) a British accent. He buys a round on his way out. To my right, two large, grizzly men in flannel and beards order a pair of Manhattans. Fedora serves their drinks straight up. They cost $7 apiece. An hour passes and I meet a literary agent who is reciting the Shakespeare sonnet that’s tattooed on his back.
I ask Fedora about the restaurant’s early days. “When you don’t speak English, you make a lot of mistakes,” she says, describing how she used to keep a calendar of staff vacation schedules. She’d write “Larry off,” “Jimmy off,” and so on. This system proved satisfactory until an employee named Jack requested time off. Nuance is easily lost in translation.
I find her understated manner and anecdotes charming—like the one about an elephant named Champagne. This animal was her neighbor’s pet in the ‘50s. The owner welcomed publicity and wanted to expand his backyard to give Champagne more room to perform. He offered Fedora a larger dining room and kitchen if she would relinquish part of her yard. She refused. The elephant would’ve had to parade through her dining room to get to the yard. Her neighbor called her a “stupid ass” for turning his proposal down.
On one of my return visits, a baseball game is airing on the corner TV. Roger mentions a sketch a young artist once drew of Henry, who loved ballgames. Fedora retrieves it from behind the bar and brushes the dust off. It’s dated 1994 and shows him sitting with an elbow propped up on the bar, a melancholy expression on his face. Fedora doesn’t like the drawing. “He was always happy,” she explains. 1994 was the year an intruder entered the restaurant, robbed Henry and hit him with a pistol. He died three years later. After putting the sketch back behind the bar, Fedora tells me it’s more important to like each other than to love each other.
Her back has been giving her pain lately. “She’s not the type to sit,” says George, one of the waiters. I ask her if she ever considers retirement. “I don’t even think about it, but I know one day I’ll say ‘enough…basta.’”
The woman who ordered the chopped liver never did come back for her purse. I can only suppose this is because she came for dinner, nothing more—and left far too soon.
Oh, the many sweets to be found in the West Village—chocolate chip bread pudding at Blue Ribbon Bakery, profiteroles at August, “banoffee” pie at the Spotted Pig, the list goes on. There is one West Village treat, however, that is far superior to all others. It makes Jacques Torres hot chocolate seem rather ordinary and turns Magnolia cupcakes into dog scraps.
This dessert, though served at Café Cluny, is baked in TriBeCa and shipped, ever so gently, up to the neighborhood. I speak of my beloved dark chocolate torte. If you have yet to try it, drop this paper immediately and find your way over to the corner of West 4th and West 12th Streets. It is a rich slice of heaven, topped with a dollop of mascarpone.
Because of Café Cluny’s pint-sized kitchen, the torte is made farther downtown at sister restaurant, the Odeon. Both are owned by Lynn Wagenknecht and partners, as is Café Luxembourg. Jackie Zion, pastry chef at the Odeon, invited me into the kitchen to learn how to make this delectable treat.
As she prepped her station, I learned about Jackie’s first job, one that you might say set her down a culinary path. At age 14, she worked at a Dairy Queen in Bergen County, New Jersey. In between making Blizzards, changing mixers and decorating cakes, she realized how much fun she had bustling around a kitchen and learned a valuable lesson early on. “When you see somebody with an ice cream cone,” she said, “they’re just so happy.” This simple truth stayed with her.
Jackie went on to study fine arts but became disenchanted with the growing emphasis on digital techniques. She yearned for something more tangible and soon enrolled in the New York Restaurant School to study as a pastry chef. “I’m a bad cook,” she said with a laugh, explaining that what she loves about baking¾as opposed to cooking¾is the precision it demands.
Aside from making all of the desserts for Café Cluny and the Odeon (their menus have little overlap), she makes ice cream for Café Luxembourg. Jackie enjoys making this versatile sweet because it gives her a chance to explore myriad flavors. The day of my visit, I helped her fold melted chocolate into mint ice cream to make mint chocolate chip. She had steeped mint leaves in the milk and cream to give it an exceptionally refreshing flavor.
The dark chocolate torte has been on the menu at Café Cluny for about a year. One of the restaurant owners had shared with Jackie a recipe that she began toying with. The original called for solely unsweetened chocolate. She instead balances equal parts unsweetened and 72% chocolate. Her favored brand is San Francisco-based Guittard. Coincidentally, my former boss (and the woman somewhat responsible for my move to New York) is now part of the Guittard family. The chocolate remains one of my favorites and is ideal for baking.
If the choice of Guittard wasn’t enough to earn my loyalty, Jackie’s comment that “white chocolate is not even chocolate” swiftly did so. She doesn’t strike me as a snob on any front, but when it comes to chocolate, let’s be honest, dark is best, milk has its place, but white is just wrong.
As Jackie made the dessert, I picked up a few insider tips, like relying on superfine sugar because it dissolves better and using kosher salt for its taste. Now, any pastry chef worthy of the title knows that water and chocolate don’t get along well. Jackie employs an unconventional method to get around this. First, she combines water with butter and sugar over heat. She then removes the mixture from the stovetop and folds the chocolate to smoothly melt it in.
The torte is less complicated to make than I had anticipated, and the finished product is delicious. As always, it is the perfect blend of bittersweet flavor and a creamy, almost ganache-like texture. The accompanying mascarpone is unsweetened, though Jackie had me try it sweetened, which is her preference. It’s nice, but I am partial to the former. Be warned, this dessert is incredibly rich. You may want to split a slice. Or, if you’re like me, pair it with a glass of red wine and have it for dinner. It makes for a brilliant entrée.
Café Cluny Dark Chocolate Torte
6 oz. 72% chocolate
6 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1 cup plus 2 Tbs. superfine sugar
8 oz. unsalted butter
1 cup water (plus more for water bath)
Pinch of kosher salt
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Whip eggs with 1/3 of sugar and pinch of salt for ten minutes or until size quadruples. Heat rest of sugar with water and butter in small saucepan. Once melted, remove from heat and add chocolate. Whisk until chocolate has melted. Combine with egg mixture, blending until smooth. Pour into 9-inch pan, bake in water bath (add water to height of batter) for 30 minutes. Let set once it is out of the oven. Serve warm (microwave if needed), sprinkled with powdered sugar. Place a dollop of mascarpone on each slice.
The store is long and narrow, like the interior of so many New York City buildings. But there is one thing that sets it apart: the music lining the walls from floor to ceiling. All in all, House of Oldies holds about 700,000 records, including the 45s. I wonder how he keeps it all organized.
Bob Abramson seems to have a knack for scouring the stacks. I was in his shop a few weeks ago looking for music by the late blues guitarist Big Bill Broonzy. It took Abramson all of maybe 15 seconds to pull out a small assortment. He tells me ninety-nine percent of the store is organized by artist. The genres are all mixed together, aside from a few compilations.
House of Oldies has been around for more than forty years, though it resided on Bleecker Street before relocating to Carmine Street. Original owner Richard Clothier put the store up for sale in 1968. Back then, Abramson was a customer. He borrowed money from a couple of his uncles so that he could take his rightful place on the other side of the register.
Every time I step inside the store, Abramson is sporting his navy blue ball cap. He loves his Yankees. You wouldn’t guess that he grew up a mere three blocks from Ebbetts Field, once home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. To avoid the torment of his neighboring foes, he took to sprinting by them. Despite the constant risk of getting beat up, the sway of Mickey Mantle proved enduring.
Abramson grew up poor. His family didn’t have a TV. There was, however, a tiny radio in the tenement courtyard. While the other kids were cheering on the Dodgers or doing their math homework, Abramson would just sit and listen. With a notebook in hand, he’d write down the tunes that were climbing the charts. I suspect even if that radio didn’t exist, he would’ve found another one.
You might think that a man who sells music for a living would be drawn to obscure or rare artists. “I’m very boring with my musical tastes,” he says matter-of-factly, as he takes a sip of his coffee from The Grey Dog, which is just next door.
I suppose that is only natural, since he has spent a lifetime listening to popular music. In the ‘50s, that meant artists like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Joe Turner and Perry Como. WWRL, a predominantly African American station, introduced him to Little Richard, LaVern Baker and early doo-wop. Today, his favorite artists are ones who were born out of the classic rock era — the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and Bob Dylan. Dylan is his favorite. In fact, it is his son’s middle name.
Abramson found most of his records at yard sales over the years. If it was clean, he bought it. In other words, he’s been stockpiling for ages, which has turned out to be a blessing given the resurgence of music that younger generations, including DJs, are interested in. He’s been rotating secondary artists to make room for a revival of ‘70s and ‘80s artists like Depeche Mode and U2. Frankie Avalon records, which sell maybe one per year, now reside in the basement.
Abramson is a down-to-earth fellow in every respect. But when it comes to record quality, he is somewhat of an elitist. That’s what makes House of Oldies stand out — its dedication to quality. Nearly every single record is in mint or near-mint condition. Scratched vinyl has no place in his shop. “You really gotta have the goods,” he says. It’s the only place around that specializes exclusively in vinyl.
He has seen the shop change over time. Thirty years ago, it was packed on weekends. It’s quieter now, but as he kindly said to me, it is a labor of love. He handles everything on his own, aside from the legal work and accounting. Still, when he heads into work, he likes to say, “I’m going to my hobby.”
House of Oldies has outlasted many of its neighboring businesses. With the influx of high-end luxury boutiques, it is more-than-ever a treasured rarity. When asked how the Village has changed throughout the years, Abramson is quick to say, “The people haven’t changed. People are people.” That’s a nice reminder. As rents get higher and recordings go digital, there will always be a core set of folks who prefer the sound of needle on record.
The sun is creeping behind the Hudson all too soon. Trees stand almost naked, embarrassed as their leaves crack underfoot. Winter is near.
But I’m going to let you in on a little secret—one that will help you enjoy autumn and prepare for the cold. I refer to the fine art of pairing piping hot soups with cold alcoholic beverages.
This combination leaves one feeling toasty warm and slightly buzzed. And suddenly the telltale signs of Jack Frost don’t seem so bad. He might even look cute in that oversized wool cap.
There’s something almost hypnotic about following a spoonful of lobster bisque with a swig of Guinness. The steamy broth is chased by an arctic tidal wave of hops and barley.
Now don’t think you can just grab a can of Campbell’s and a Miller Light. As I said, this is an art—one that will require practice and perseverance. But I have faith in you, and I’ve created a game to help. Before long, you too will be a connoisseur of coupling soup with the appropriate tipple.
Match each soup with the most enticing and complimentary beverage:
a. Stella Artois
c. Sauvignon Blanc
d. Calvados on the Rocks
f. Pilsner Urquell
Ready for the answers?
Garlic Soup When I first was told about garlic soup, I envisioned despondent vampires conversing over tea. This amazing broth dish, full of large, homemade croutons, is common in the Czech Republic. I find it goes best with a frosty mug of Pilsner Urquell, which, by the way, is cheaper (and tastier) in Prague than Coca-Cola.
Tomato Barley Soup This is the perfect answer to those vicious afternoons when the wind slaps you across the face. It’s one of the few soups I prefer with wine. A light, crisp sauvignon blanc is a lovely choice for this hearty, healthy dish.
Chicken Tortilla Soup To bring out this soup’s hint of lime, I recommend Hatuey, named after an Indian chief who helped fight for Cuba’s independence from Spain. It was first sold with free blocks of ice so that it remained chilled.
French Onion Soup When done well, with onions caramelized to perfection, French onion soup is tough to beat. My one complaint is how the cheese clings to the spoon, transforming into a piping hot gruyere lollipop! Worse yet is how it dangles between mouth and spoon like a tightrope. My beer of choice here is Stella Artois. The golden lager makes for a refreshing balance to this satisfying dish.
Ramen Noodles Ditch the microwavable packets and head over to Kenka in the East Village. My companion here is a tall bottle of Asahi Super Dry. Yeast is particularly important in this brew, as its role in separating sugar (into alcohol and carbon dioxide) leads to a super dry beer.
Turkey Chili A bowl of turkey chili is most at home with a Miller or a Pabst. The lack of pretense behind these Milwaukee beers jives with this comforting dish. Plus, these brews are on the lighter side, should you want seconds.
Chicken Noodle Soup Okay, trick question. Nobody I know even drinks Calvados on the rocks. Besides, this is the go-to soup if you’re under the weather. If that’s the case, replace French apple brandy with apple juice. The sniffles will subside in no time.
Whatever your soup of choice, I hope there’s an aptly chosen cold mug alongside it. Cheers, kampai, salud…to autumn.