Articles by

<Cara Cannella>

04/28/14 10:51am

Paul Holdengraber, Founder and Director of LIVE from the New York Public Library

  • Jocelyn Chase

Director David Lynch will open himself up to Paul Holdengräber—New York City’s most lively, multi-lingual, and erudite conversationalist—on the stage of BAM’s Opera House tomorrow night to a sold-out crowd of more than 2,000 people. As founder and director of LIVE from The New York Public Library, Holdengräber engages influential public figures from Wes Anderson to Brooklyn Brewery cofounder Steve Hindy, usually when they release a new film or book. The Lynch event, however, is part of no press tour. Traveling to Brooklyn from his home in Los Angeles, the filmmaker will explore his overall vision and creative process with Holdengräber, who last interviewed him in 2012 at the Grand Palais in Paris. More recently, Holdengräber facilitated the Paris Review’s first interview with a psychoanalyst for its Spring 2014 issue. He took a break from his deep, and often disturbing, immersion in Lynch’s body of work—including Eraserhead, his first feature, the Oscar-nominated Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr., and the haunting television series Twin Peaks—to take the seat of interviewee, for a change.


What can the audience expect from your conversation with David Lynch?
I don’t quite know, which is exciting. Lynch, as you might know, is reluctant to ascribe meaning to work he has created—to say, “This means that.” He finds it limiting to do so. With that in mind, and with his very keen sense of the limits of language to describe our feelings, I want to find a trigger—a trigger for him to talk about beauty, and how his concept of beauty contains the concept of ugliness. Horror is part of beauty. What is repulsive is part of beauty. There’s a lot of emotion in his movies, and a near incapacity, in my case, to see them, because they’re really troubling. But trouble is what happens when we look in our soul and enter that space behind the skull. I want to find a way to talk about what moves him.
He once joined you onstage for an interview in Paris. What was that like? 
Yes, in November 2012, I interviewed him in front of a very large audience at the Grand Palais, and we spoke about images. He was asked to choose 100 images from thousands among the Paris Photo exhibit there, and he agreed to do so on the condition that the show’s curators would send them without captions. I found that to be extraordinary. This is a man who relies on something volatile, and which people don’t often rely on, which is taste. I would like him to talk about the things he loves. I may, for instance, show an image by the painter Francis Bacon, whom he loves very much, and ask him to respond to it.
As you’ve done with music. 
I did this to great effect with Jay-Z. When his parents split up, they split the record collection in two: Mother’s and Father’s records. I played records from each collection, which was a good way to have him talk about his parents. There’s nothing in my interviewing which is meant to be a trap. Ever. I’m interested in bringing out the best in people, which might not always happen with a journalistic approach.
How does it feel to interview an artist who’s not promoting a new project? 
It’s so magnificent to interview someone with nothing to peddle. I contacted Lynch, and he said yes. He nearly never does this, and I hope he’s doing it because he trusts the process. I’ve done events before at BAM, interviewing actors after performances. My being at BAM is a wonderful way to introduce people in Brooklyn to the New York Public Library, where my position is one of eliciting from people their stories.
What does BAM represent to you? 
It represents 550 steps from my home, so the commute is easy. It represents one of the most outstanding cultural centers in New York. I love it. It’s a fantastic place to see theater, and the movie theaters are greatly important to me. I took my two boys to see Once Upon a Time in the West, the great Morricone movie. It’s wonderful to see such things on a massive screen. It’s an embarrassment of riches to be able to show clips from Lynch’s work in that full capacity, projected behind us at the Opera House, where more than 2,000 people can be exposed to it.
Having lived all over the world, why do you choose to live in Brooklyn? 
There’s a Latin phrase, festina lente, which means, “Take haste slowly.” There’s a pace of life in Brooklyn, and where we live in Fort Greene, that somehow manages to temper the madness of New York’s electrical energy.
How is the experience of raising kids in Brooklyn? 
When I take them on the subway to school, I feel that their vocabulary expands greatly. Growing up in Brooklyn, they don’t have real nature, in some ways. They have culture, rather than agriculture. They have Greenlight Bookstore. Our only form of Shabbat is that every Saturday or Sunday, or both, we end up going to Greenlight, and they always have the ability, as long as it’s not some silly sticker book, to get a book. I love the fact that the neighborhood is a neighborhood. They go to public schools in Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, and I think they’re learning something.
How would you describe your work at the main branch of the New York Public Library? 
It’s fabulously interesting. In the coming weeks, we’ll have George Prochnik talking about Stefan Zweig, Kara Walker with Jad Abumrad of Radiolab, Geoff Dyer, and John Waters, who will speak about the year he spent hitchhiking. It’s just endless. What is great is that I’m able, in some way, to be the curator of public curiosity. One wonders, what is a library for today? In part, it is to inspire people to think. And to enter into the space, metaphorically, or in reality, or both, of the Reading Room. The Reading Room is sort of the Ellis Island of New York City in that it’s an entry point. In that grand space, people are both alone and together.
Follow Cara Cannella on Twitter @caracannella

Disclosures: This interview has been edited and condensed. The L‘s parent company publishes the programs for BAM.

05/11/11 4:00am

Verde Coal Oven Pizza

254 Irving Avenue, Bushwick

Rating: 4 out of 5 L’s

It’s the middle of the day at Verde Coal Oven Pizza: men stroll in like they have all the time in the world and greet one another with kisses on the cheek; warm, buttery light spills through the windows; the waitress offers me more cannoli. Life is good. If Keith McNally of the Balthazar empire could bottle and sell this, he would.

Located deep in Bushwick, this glowing ember of a restaurant stands out among the concrete blocks stretching along the border with Queens. Although its prices are low for artisanal pizza (pies are $7 to $15, with toppings up to $3 each), the neighborhood might not be ready for it. That doesn’t seem to faze Sicilian-born owner Charlie Verde, who owns the building and seems to operate the business as a labor of love. His hospitality and attention to detail are nearly fanatic, and one wonders what he might have done with his life had he not discovered the more-than-century-old coal-fired oven in the section of the basement that extends under the sidewalk, causing steam to rise from it at street level. A note on the menu explains that the building was once a bakery that provided “fresh bread daily to turn-of-the-century Italian immigrants of the neighborhood.”

The neighborhood’s immigrants now come from elsewhere, but the oven once again fires up Italian breads used on two simple sandwiches (veggie and mortadella, both $7), from ciabatta to perfectly moist focaccia. The eleven pizzas on the menu are on the small side, about ten inches across, with a hearty crust that stands up well to toppings, including Lucky’s beefsteak tomatoes and two types of mozzarella (used for balance, since one is more watery than the other, we’re told).

I prefer a crust that’s a little more charred and flaky—the oven could have been hotter—but the subtle smoky flavor from the coal fire lends a delicate depth to the dough. Our request to add cheese-and-parsley sausage to a simple margherita pie of tomato, mozzarella, basil and olive oil was met cheerfully, and its juicy snap enlivened every bite. The plentiful kick of the Diavolo pie topped with hot sopressata and basil olive oil was almost overpowered by a generous sprinkling of chili flakes.

And those cannoli? I would make a special trip back to Verde just for a single bite of the cinnamon-tinged, slightly tangy ricotta filling—and I wish I could bring my Sicilian grandma back from the dead to join me. She’d feel right at home in this simple and quaint place with its wall-mounted crucifix, exposed brick, bright marble, and generously sized upholstered chairs. While it’s still BYO, pick up a bottle of wine at nearby Vinos en Wyckoff (150 Wyckoff Ave), and settle in for a trip back in time.

04/27/11 4:00am

The Emerson
561 Myrtle Ave, Clinton Hill

Rating: 2 out of 5 L’s

“We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Think too long and hard on the quote above, and you might need a drink. If you’re drawn to the new bar in Clinton Hill that bears the poet-essayist’s name, beware: it lacks the sense of character one might expect from a bar with bookish aspirations in Brooklyn, a borough so overrun with aspiring literati it was recently described as “cancerous with novelists” by former poster boy Jonathan Lethem.

The Emerson’s attempt to serve that audience falls flat. Its literary leanings feel more arbitrary and convenient (one of its cross streets is Emerson Place) than heartfelt. Sure, there are photos of writers on the walls and a plethora of literary-inspired cocktails (The Sir Walter Scott with Hennessy, Bacardi Light, triple sec, grenadine, and fresh lime juice, $12; The Longfellow, Hornitos tequila, cucumber, cilantro, pineapple juice, $11), but don’t be misled by the gimmick. It feels at least one step removed from Brooklyn’s thriving community of writers, like the Epcot Theme Park version of a literary haunt. Even the jukebox is strictly decorative. What a tease!

The bar’s proximity to Pratt lends it a somewhat arty air by osmosis. Although it features rotating solo exhibitions, its confused aesthetic is anything but artful. A red sparkly bar juxtaposed with wooden tables that appear to be stolen from a log cabin; a menu with a grilled sandwich of American cheese and Bac-Os on one side and an ambitious cocktail list on the other—something doesn’t compute, especially for a place that seems to be trying to reach the slice of Brooklyn that has such (sometimes obnoxiously) high standards for all things related to literature, design and food.

The cash-only bar, opened by a team including a co-owner of the Myrtle Avenue establishment Maggie Brown‘s, is better situated and seems more comfortable catering to the nearby college crowd with a lively happy hour (2-for-1 drafts and well drinks, and $2 off cocktails) and community events like the April Fool’s Day Silly Dance-Off Contest, judged by burlesque performers. Who doesn’t love a little cabbage patch or funky chicken to go with a fine selection of East Coast beers on tap?

Another, literally, bright spot is the generously situated pool table toward the back of the bar, illuminated by an over-hanging lamp that makes me want to interrogate someone before potting the eight ball. Although I’m no pool shark, even I appreciate all the square footage surrounding the table—fears of hitting my funny bone against the wall in an awkward one-eye-squinted-shut contortion are non-existent.

With its weak and strong points, this bar is on its way to finding its voice. And, as any writer knows, that process, often navigated by trial and error, can’t be rushed.

04/13/11 4:00am


127 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn Heights

Rating: 5 out of 5 L’s

Colonie, which occupies an airy space on a quiet block of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Heights, has inspired awe and gratitude in its neighbors, hungry for a decent dining option in an otherwise rich neighborhood. With dinner service seven nights a week and indoor stroller parking at weekend brunch, the elegant and relaxed restaurant—and its locally driven seasonal menu—cultivates an air of authenticity to match the name, an homage to the territory known as “Bruykleen Colonie”on pre-Revolutionary War maps.

Opened in February by a team from downtown Manhattan restaurants Public and Double Crown, Colonie exceeds expectations generated by pre-opening buzz (it was funded in part via Kickstarter). When locals who invested in the restaurant during its construction phase return to experience the fruition of their contributions, they’re greeted, literally, by growth—the décor hinges on a giant living wall comprised of lush plants including edibles (basil, mint, marjoram) used on-site. It’s a sophisticated jungle in there.

Already, the restaurant balances the coolness of an impressive destination—with counter seating at a theatrical open kitchen and a flexible menu for romance at all price points—and the warmth of a community gathering place. Cheese comes from Anne Saxelby‘s Red Hook cave, and bread from Roberta’s Bushwick oven.

When, on a recent weeknight, I couldn’t detect the subtle citrus in a bergamot margarita, the bartender wafted the fresh fruit under my nose. The chef sent over an amuse-bouche of quail egg over grainy polenta and pork belly, a rich, earthy combination that provided grounding for the fried brussel sprouts with bacon and cranberries ($8) and grilled pork with grits and glazed root vegetables ($23) that followed.

A dry, barely pink rosé from the Hamptons’ Channing Daughters ($9 per glass) and its hint of sunshine brought the meal into spring. Colonie’s tap system is New York only, with three beers (from Ommegang and Sixpoint) and five wines (from the Hamptons, North Fork and the Finger Lakes). Yes, that’s right—keg wine, a growing trend due to its economic and environmental benefits, along with its novelty factor.

A server tried to explain the logic behind foie gras doughnuts with a sour cherry glaze (complicated just enough by star anise), but I still don’t understand how goose liver made its way onto my dessert plate. Sticky date cake with salted crème fraiche ice cream was so perfectly executed it caused time to stop—allowing me, during the pause, to take in the tinkling sound of the dining room against upbeat, unobtrusive music and that dreamy balance of salt-sweet that everyone is going for these days, few so successfully.

Despite some slow service at peak times, Colonie is exceedingly well adjusted. It has achieved, at this early stage, what New Yorkers—in pursuit of therapy, cleansing, Pilates, transcendence, you name it—want more than anything: the beauty of youth, the grace of experience, and comfort in its own skin.

03/30/11 4:00am

Freddy’s Bar
627 Fifth Avenue, Park Slope

Rating:4 out of 5 L’s

In the epic 21st-century tale of greed and corruption that is the Atlantic Yards, Freddy’s Bar is the displaced underdog protagonist with a heart of gold; Bruce Ratner, the power-mongering authority figure; Borough President Marty Markowitz, his bumbling sidekick; and Freddy’s bathroom graffiti, the Greek chorus—a collective voice commenting on the drama.

You can tell a lot about a bar’s patrons by the scrawls on its walls. At the resuscitated Freddy’s, open since early February, there’s already plenty of material to keep you entertained while you tinkle. The witty and passionate nuggets adorning the walls of the two single-occupancy co-ed bathrooms range from base—”Ratner has a hamster dick”—to more politically charged—”Hey Marty! Hey Marty! Eat shit!” with annotation by a responder: “He would if it was a photo op.” Tell me how you really feel, bathroom bombers.

The iconic Prohibition-era establishment Freddy’s Bar and Backroom—hub for artists, thinkers, performers, and generations of cops from a neighboring precinct and voted among Esquire‘s “Best Bars in America“—closed last April to loud protest from its intensely protective and devoted following. Boxed out of its longtime Prospect Heights home at Sixth Avenue and Dean Street by the Ratner-driven development project centered around an arena for the New Jersey Nets—the “Death Star we know as Atlantic Yards,” according to a blog post by Freddy’s bartender-turned-co-owner Donald O’Finn—the original bar was a symbol of all that the “Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn” movement holds dear.

After a nightmarish real estate hunt and relocation process, the bar finally has a new home on a somewhat ragged stretch of Fifth Avenue in South Slope. From the look of things, the three new co-owners—O’Finn and fellow Freddy’s bartenders Matt Kuhn and Matt Kimmet—have no plans to leave anytime soon. They brought with them the old wooden booths and tables and original red mahogany bar, enveloped by a string of metal links known as the “Chains of Justice.” At old Freddy’s, patrons hand-cuffed themselves to the bar to protest eminent domain abuse; at new Freddy’s, the chains serve as a reminder of their fight.

Despite all of these growing pains and heavy talk, Freddy’s is still just a bar, and a great place to get drunk and knit (as part of their knitting circle) or check out live music and performances including Diva Night (where opera amateurs belt their hearts out to a heckling audience) and the stand-up hour “Ed Sullivan on Acid” with guests including Angry Bob from HBO’s Bored to Death.

There are plans to get a player-piano going, and basic pub food is on the way. O’Finn’s artistic vision is manifested everywhere, from his frenetic but tightly edited video collages streaming constantly on mounted TVs to his “digital fishtank” with subtle background footage of male nudes from a homoerotic movie. Permanent installations include wallpaper hand-made from flesh-colored flock and glitter by Brooklyn artist Nancy Drew, and, of course, an homage to layers of bathroom graffiti from old Freddy’s. This exchange—”I fucked your mother,” followed by “Go home, Oedipus”—is etched into granite, and that pretty much sums up Brooklyn’s most eclectic, smarty-pants and resilient bar.

03/16/11 4:00am

Mable’s Smokehouse and Banquet Hall

44 Berry St, Williamsburg

Rating: 3 out of 5 L’s

My name is Cara, and I’m a recovering vegetarian. I grew up in Connecticut on lentils bought in bulk and zucchini cake for birthday parties, far from any intimate knowledge of the sacred fire pit, from which the term barbecue derives. If that familiarity were a prerequisite for entry into Mable’s Smokehouse, opened in January by a husband-and-wife team from Oklahoma and Kentucky, respectively, I would be the last person allowed in.

With Williamsburg barbecue joints (Fette Sau, Fatty ‘Cue, Pies-N-Thighs) popping up like, well, pop-up shops, it was just a matter of time before I’d have to brace myself and meet the meat craze head-on. I walked into Mable’s and saw Velveeta & Ro-Tel Queso Dip and State Fair Frito Pie on the menu and was a little scared. “What’s Ro-Tel?” I asked my friend, a fellow Yankee and no help at all. The young woman who took our orders at the counter handled our questions with such patience on a bustling Friday night I wondered if they named the Sweet Tea after her. (Ro-Tel is a brand of canned tomatoes with chiles.) An hour later, I had a belly full of delicious St. Louis ribs and a stupid, satisfied grin on my sauce-slathered face; no cattle prod needed to make me clean that plate on my cafeteria-style plastic tray.

Although most of the restaurant’s recipes come from one of the owners’ actual Grandma Mable, the meats, especially the tender beef brisket and almost- juicy pulled pork, are more reliable than the sides. Just the sight of potato salad drowning in a creamy sea of mayo was appetite-inhibiting, and mac ‘n’ cheese arrived cold and congealed. The vegetarian Sloppy Joe, swathed in a sweet-salty sauce that made me thirsty for more cheap beer, had the taste and texture of the real thing. After polishing off most of the platter ($14.95 includes one meat, two sides, slaw, pickles, jalapeños, sliced onion and Wonder Bread; the DeLux platter, with three meats and three sides, is $24.95), including collared greens as token roughage, we were too full to try the daily pie of peanut butter with whipped cream and chocolate.

The restaurant’s high ceilings, communal tables, and easy-going country tunes make for an airy, festive atmosphere that’s good for large groups. The skeptical New Englander in me finally recognized that the place is not wrapped in kitsch (despite the taxidermy mounted on wood-paneled walls). If there were Wrangler-clad men with cow-dung on their boots around these parts, this is where they would talk tumbleweeds while downing pitchers of Coors ($16, $4 a pint) and shots of basic bourbons. The multi-tiered speedrack stocked with bags of Wonder Bread in plain view of the dining area says it all: there’s nothing clever about Mable’s Smokehouse, and therein lies its charm.

03/02/11 4:00am

(Nameless Bar)

597 Manhattan Ave, Greenpoint

Rating: 5 out of 5 L’s

Is it possible for a still unnamed bar to be the place where everybody knows your name? This three-month-old spot with the unmarked wood-paneled exterior—subdued yet conspicuous on the commercial strip of bodegas and bakeries—isn’t trying to be your Cheers, but it just might become it.

In a borough overrun with preciously muddled this and infused that, the simple bar setup is refreshing. With $3 cans of Gennesee, five respectable but not especially crafty beers on tap, a well-stocked liquor shelf, and a non-existent cocktail list, this is a place to indulge in a straightforward drink.

Left to her own devices when asked for suggestions, the bartender’s creations ranged from classic (a perfect Old-Fashioned) to casually inventive (ginger liqueur mixed with sparkling wine). The staff’s warmth is a little surprising, given the bar’s established badass lineage. Co-owners include the team behind nearby motorcycle shop Works Engineering and the sometimes raucous Bar Matchless, just down the block.

The drinks might be standard, but the space is not. Entering is like stepping inside the tidy jigsaw of someone’s imagination—one that is both humble and rich and smells like the inside of a cedar chest. While there’s nothing nautical about the entranceway tapestry depicting a bighorn sheep or benches upholstered with embroidered textiles, the efficient use of space and planked wooden ceilings evoke the interior of a boat.

Overall, the vibe is modernist opium den—a place where Spock, Lord Byron, and Rumi might mingle. Details are eclectic, ranging from the thoughtfully homespun (light fixtures made from repurposed sieves, burlap sacks tacked to the walls) to slick 70s gloss in the heavily mirrored upstairs bathroom. Latticed metal divides sections of banquette seating with graceful curves.

I step over a dog lazing on the floor to sit at the bar dotted with fresh flowers. At the end, there’s a shrunken booth lit by a green banker’s lamp, where DJs start at 10pm. Acoustics are clean and warm, and the music selection—like the design—is wide-ranging yet discerning. Themed nights include Reggae Tuesday and Metal Saturday,and the sound of Mick Ronson (via iPod) is intimate and immediate, as if heard through headphones on loud.

The building boasts a yard that dwarfs the bar itself. Discovering it is like falling for someone, then finding out they’re rich, too.In the ski-lodgy back room, a curved couch overlooks a floor-to-ceiling window with a view of a giant tree. There might as well be a fireplace with all of the make-outs bound to happen in that cozy nook. There are plans for a summertime pagoda out back and rumors of a basement pinball machine and food offerings including beef jerky and noodles. This is the type of place where things unfold organically—from snacks to neighborhood friendships to a name.

02/16/11 4:30am

Octavia’s porch

40 Ave B, East Villlage

Rating: 3 out of 5 L’s

The low-key and elegant Octavia’s Porch, opened in early December by the very pregnant former Top Chef contestant Nikki Cascone (Season 4, Chicago), is trying to be many things.

With exposed white brick and soft lighting, the atmosphere is innocuous. High ceilings, chandeliers and a view of the sleek copper bar make you want to sit up straight in your banquette and wish you’d run a comb through your hair before setting out. The music, from Air to MGMT, is gauzy and dreamy.

The food brings you back down to earth. The restaurant’s “global Jewish” cuisine is ambitious in its wedding of old world tradition with new world flavor, but the melting pot approach can be disorienting. Sweet soy-scallion dipping sauce with beef and veal kreplach—huh? A little context or menu annotation might help.

The restaurant, located a stone’s throw from the once mostly Jewish enclave of the Lower East Side, is named for a street in Rome’s Jewish ghetto. Recipes reflect the Jewish-Italian heritage of both Cascone and her husband and business partner, with North African (lamb stew with curried lentils and root vegetables) and South American (mushroom, jalapeno and fennel ceviche) influences tossed in.

In the casting of this wide culinary net, some classic Jewish-Italian dishes, like carciofi alla giudia (fried artichokes), are missing. But, hey! There’s gefilte fish with radish, lime and fresh horseradish—a combo that makes me want to root for Cascone.

Riffs on classic dishes found at New York delis—like a herby wild mushroom knish with beer mustard and an espresso egg cream for dessert—are playful. While the kitchen isn’t kosher, neither pork nor shellfish is on the menu. The complimentary homemade challah with honey-butter makes you wonder if there’s a Grandma in the house.

To start, we had the hearty and overly salted potato and escarole soup, chicken liver salad over rye matzoh (so hard it could hurt someone), and a perfectly balanced red quinoa salad with green beans, pumpkin seeds, oranges and balsamic. The brisket on rye—with bland meat and soggy bread—made me feel sorry for any brisket served in this city since Mile End opened. We found relief in the tender and gently spiced lamb stew and the Temperance—a cocktail made with beer, bourbon and ginger ale. Prices are reasonable but no bargain (entrees range from $14 to $22; cocktails $10 to $12).

More than a destination, Octavia’s Porch is a neighborhood spot gaining its footing. While Cascone won’t be getting the reality show dismissal to “Pack up your knives and go!,”it will be interesting to see whether this experiment indicates a lack of focus or a brave new vision. With her new baby in tow, maybe the 37-year-old Staten Island native will settle in and make a home.