Tag Archives: Joseph Ferris

Keep It Simple at Sticky’s

Chicken fingers. Chicken tenders. Chicken nuggets. Call them whatever you want, but growing up, school cafeterias were home to some of the saddest things called white meat I have ever laid eyes on. Housed under grayish-yellow lighting that purportedly kept them warm. The breading was less a finishing touch and more a paint job. Ketchup was not a condiment for these pieces of “food.” They barely made it palatable.

Given the schlockiness of the food served in public schools across the nation, it is no surprise frozen, mass-produced chicken nuggets from conglomerates like Weaver and Perdue seemed like organic, artisanal, hydroponic manna from the skies.

20130208-stickys-finger-joint-chicken-06-thumb-625xauto-304478If NYU’s cafeterias are anything like my colleges were, the chicken nuggets are a few degrees better in condition and temperature than what we got in K through 12. That being said, just a few blocks north of Washington Square Park, where West 8th and MacDougal intersect sits an institution that could incite a public school lunchroom revolution based on how good some of their offerings are. I can’t imagine a ten-year old having a chicken tender at Sticky’s Finger Joint and then being ok with school “chicken nuggets.”

The ’92 Clinton campaign coined the phrase, “Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS)” to describe how they should talk about the economy to voters. And it worked. It took me three visits to Sticky’s to realize this phrase also applied to their menu.

When Sticky’s goes minimal or adds an extra layer or two of detail to their offering, the chicken finger is better than good. The problems arise when Sticky’s tries to go big. The results are middling at best, problematic at worst.

The standard option on the menu – and the best one if you consider yourself something of a chicken tender traditionalist – is the Finger. You can get it Naked or Crunchy. Go Crunchy. I never even dabbled with the Naked. We’re talking about chicken tenders here.

All I’ll say is that each time I went, I got at least one of these. Fresh, tender white meat is paired up with deep fried batter. The space is so small, I could hear them drop my order into the deep fryer. On my first visit, I ordered three. I was full by the time I was finishing up the last finger. Consistently delicious, pair this order with the Sticky’s BBQ sauce and you won’t be disappointed.

thumb_600There are some specialty chicken fingers that are worth ordering. It is simply a matter of Sticky’s achieving more when trying to do less. This is what makes the Buffalo Balsamic Maple and Classic General Tso so appealing. Taking one, or at most two distinct flavors, they manage to complement the white meat and open your eyes to taste combination you might have never thought of before. After having the Buffalo Balsamic Maple one Sunday evening, I spent the next day telling friends that the combination of buffalo and maple with balsamic should be utilized more often. The General Tso provides the requisite hotness thanks to the “Slightly Spicy! Chili Peppers.”

The Fiesta is an odd duck. Unlike the other fingers I had, this piece of chicken looked more like a chicken breast. It also came out far crisper – almost like it was overcooked – than the other options. This is a result of the crunchy crushed tortilla chips coating that does nothing for the eater. The toppings were all the things you might associate with a Mexican plate – pineapple salsa, jalapeno mac sauce, and fiesta glitter. For all those ingredients, the Fiesta is surprisingly tepid and far from the party for your taste buds the menu promises.

Real trouble, unfortunately, is found with the Bada Bing. With all the trimmings of a chicken parm, this should have been right in my taste wheelhouse. Instead, I came away with the feeling this was something that could have been concocted and produced at a Pizza Hut R&D facility. Imagine combining the theoretical underpinnings of a calzone with a chicken parm and you would have the Bada Bing. The mozzarella and Parmesan seem almost lifeless inside the chicken and it was only until the last bite or two that I came across chicken that was as fresh as the Crispy.

Sticky’s is the type of the place that has no qualms playing unedited Kanye while a grandmother is bringing her young grandsons in for a Saturday snack. It’s a laid back place run by friendly, chill people. They take their chicken seriously though. That’s evidenced by the painted sentence on the wall of their Village outpost that reads “The Best Fried Chicken in NYC.” It’s also on their website.

The best is a lofty claim, but when Sticky’s keeps it simple, they turn out food that makes those revered Weaver tenders of childhood look like school cafeteria offerings.

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I Can’t Get No (Salad) Satisfaction at Sweetgreen

 

It was one of those summer afternoons where everything smells awful. The people standing next to you at the intersection. The piles of garbage waiting to be picked up. Even the sides of buildings reeked.

Maybe on a normal day in the olfactory department, Sweetgreen’s Earth Bowl salad wouldn’t have stood out. But this day, it smelled like the tortellini pesto my mom made when I was growing up. It smelled amazing. With quinoa, arugula, chickpeas, corn, broccoli, chicken, and a pesto vinaigrette in it, the first bite matched the expectations that came with the smell.

And then it all fell apart. The salad isn’t bad in that way that you don’t like the taste or that the vegetables are not fresh. It is a different level. Outside the occasional bite where the zip of the pesto vinaigrette appeared, it all rather blah. Even worse, the chicken seemed dry and in comparison to other high-volume salad places in the area like Chop’t, Hale & Hearty, and even Pret, it paled in comparison.

I initially chalked this up to the salad’s name. Maybe the Earth Bowl was going to lack taste, but a salad that tastes like nothing shouldn’t find itself on the list of best new cheap eats.

This weekend, I returned to Sweetgreen and tried the other salad that was recommended – the Kale Caesar. Taking advantage of what could very well be the last nice day before winter arrives, I had my lunch on a Madison Square Park bench across from the dog run. With an croc-wearing Oliver Stone-doppelganger playing an acoustic guitar, I gave SweetGreen another shot.

20130819-sweetgreen-kale-caesar-thumb-610x457-347166The Kale Caesar has more going for it than the Earth Salad….but not by much. The first is the combination of the caesar dressing and the fresh squeezed lemon juice. In the bites where these two flavors come together, regardless of whether it is with just kale, or some cheese and the parmesan crisp, the creaminess and the zest bring the salad to life. But those bites are too few and far between to make a difference.

The soft crunchiness of the crisp is a nice addition to a salad that is sparse on tomatoes, those dry pieces of chicken, and anything that isn’t kale.

The lunch time crowds keep lining up for these salads so maybe they are doing something I’m missing, but when NY Mag says, the place has figured out how “to make salad satisfying,” I think it is high time we keep the search for satisfying salads going. Satisfaction won’t be found at Sweetgreen.

A Tale of Two Slices

Forget six degrees of Kevin Bacon. Try six degrees of pizza. If you’re anything like me you can connect most people or events in one’s life to pizza.

What did I eat when I was at a party at the Watergate in High School? Pizza.

Where did my mom take me and my third grade bully in a bid to close the rift? A pizzeria.

Why did I rock the RIF competition in 4th grade? Because you got a free personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut if you read a certain number of books per month.

Even after we left the pizza mecca that is Brooklyn and our church that was Pino’s, Pizza Friday remained a staple during my teen years in Vermont. It is safe to say for a long time we wandered in the desert – from Pizza Hut to Little Caesar to Domino’s until two guys from New York opened a pizzeria in Rutland – Ramuntos.

sicilianGrowing up, I was a slice kid. I know there is a small contingent that embraces the Sicilian – otherwise known as the grandma. And while our homemade pizzas took the rectangular shape of a Sicilian, they lacked the height and crustiness of the grandma pie.

With gourmet pizzerias popping up on a regular basis, it is easy to lose track of the fact that a pizza is at its core a pedestrian food. Three ingredients, an oven, and you’re all set. That’s why Crocodile Lounge near Union Square is a personal favorite. Buy a drink, get a free personal pan pizza. There is no love put in the pies. But the cost is built into your alcohol. It is also why I would drunkenly shake my head when I’d leave and see a line of drunk people across the street waiting for a slice at Artichoke.

In the past month, I made two trips to Artichoke. The first was to try the namesake slice – one that was panned. The second was to tackle their Sicilian. It was a tale of two slices.

It is easy to slam something that has been razzed in a widely read publication like New York, but it must be done. In our world of culinary portmanteaus, one might thing that a pizza that tasted like macaroni and cheese would be an invention one would be thrilled to discovery. After the second bite eradicates your initial quizzicalness, said person would realize the folly of such a concoction.

There is bad pizza and then there is disappointing pizza. The artichoke slice manages to be both. While the combination of mozzarella and pecorino romana cheese is a nice touch, it is overwhelmed by a heavy cream sauce and a slice that is double the typical crust. On top of that, my generously-sized slice had just one smallish artichoke on it. The artichoke slice has the trappings of a special concocted by the culinary whizzes hired by Olive Garden and Papa John’s.

About two weeks later, I returned with my eye on the Sicilian slice. The first bite was promising. It was the following bites that answered the question as to why people would line up across the street from “free pizza.”

While I noticed some variation in the cheese coverage in the Sicilian slices on the tray, my slice was partially covered which gave greater attention to the sauce which had a trace of tang to it. This zip, paired with the just crunchy crust and the cheese that was on there was enough for a Sunday night dinner.

Artichoke has a great slice and they have an awful slice. Don’t let the name fool you.

Sonic Monday: Heartbreaker by The Walkmen [Video]

By the time your second semester of freshmen year at college rolls around, you known both your limitations – that sixth can of Natty Light in the last 90 minutes was one too many – and how far you can push the envelope – waiting till the night before a ten-page paper is due to start writing: yes; waiting to study for a mid-term till the night before said exam: not so much.

All suited up and it’s a school inservice day – Via Pitchfork

Routines also become easier to fall into. Once a week during the spring semester  of my freshmen year at Seton Hall, one of my roommates and I had the same hour-and-a-half block of time in the afternoon free. Invariably, we would play Grand Theft Auto and listen to whatever new CD I’d purchased in Hoboken. One of those felonious afternoons, we listened to Electric Version by The New Pornographers. For some reason, while unleashing utter destruction in GTA, we unknowingly sketched out a very intricate mumblecore movie about the folks living in our dorm suite, using each song in the album as a plot point. This cinematic crafting hadn’t happened before and never happened again, but it gave me an appreciation for songs that sound like they should be in a movie.

From the opening chords of “Heartbreaker,” one of the songs off The Walkmen’s forthcoming album Heaven, to the lyrics and the pacing of the drums, this song sounds like it should play during the opening credits of a good movie.

I’ve been listening to The Walkmen since 2004. Every one of their albums that consists of original material has explored similar sonic terrain while highlighting the variety of sounds that exist in that space. “Heartbreaker” signals a change to that method. Compared to songs off of Bows + Arrows and You and Me, “Heartbreaker” is downright upbeat. Lyrics like, “I’m not your heartbreaker/ Some tender ballad player,” have a vitality and energy to them. Hamilton Leithauser’s vocals have always been powerful and emotional, but in an angry, somber or resigned way. When Leithauser sings “These are the good years/ Ahh the best, we’ll never know,” it’s call to embrace the present, enjoy what we’ve got in front of us and who we’ve got around us. Much the same way, the heartbreaker/ballad player lyrics are both a promise of what he won’t do and also a quick acknowledgment of what he won’t be.

The unique thing for me about this song is that the order in which I heard it is totally backwards. Typically, I listen to the album (and song) ad nauseam leading up to a show, hearing the way the band’s studio intentions before seeing how the tune lives in an open space, performed by folks who’ve really only got one take to get it right. I heard “Heartbreaker” for the first time sitting in the front row of the balcony at BAM. This and other songs off of the upcoming album were totally new to me. I had no preconceived notions of what the lyrics meant or how the vocals would interplay with the instruments in a live setting. Maybe, most important, these songs had yet to make or leave their mark on me emotionally. Sitting in the breathtaking Gilman Opera House at BAM for The Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival, I was a blank canvas when these songs played.

The Walkmen, Circa 2004 – Via Clashmusic.com

Even when it was just Hamilton on stage with an acoustic guitar singing “Southern Heart,” a song about a guy who has bourbon in his blood and other Southern characteristics, there was an unexpected peacefulness in the band’s sound. I recently read an interview in Pitchfork where Leithauser discussed the new album. It came up that ten years in, all the guys in The Walkmen are now married and have kids. Is there any possibility that these new sentiments appearing on Heaven come from those changes in the band members’ lives? The utter despondency of “Thinking of a Dream I Had” – lyrically and sonically – has been replaced by a mindset that isn’t teetering on morbid depression and has a far healthier grasp of the world.

One last thing about this song is the still image The Walkmen put on the YouTube video. The photo is of Pete Bower, the band’s bassist, and his wife and two children. As someone who lives in Park Slope, I see elementary school students wearing geek chic on weekends and toddlers who probably think my green chucks are so high school. Maybe so, but the kid in the picture, all suited up, looks like he is on his way to the best 1920s-themed pre-teen birthday party ever.

Done With Dean

In 2004, Dean's days of screaming for free were numbered. Gotta pay the big bucks these days. Via MediaBistro

It was easily past midnight. After a week of long hours in the New Hampshire winter cold, little sleep, and eventual disappointment, we should have all collapsed from a combination of exhaustion and the figurative gut punch delivered to our candidate and us by the Democratic voters who turned out for the New Hampshire primary.

Instead, we found ourselves standing around an empty parking lot in Concord, New Hampshire not wanting to lose the sense of camraderie we had shared through the travails of being a volunteer on a well-financed presidential campaign in the dead of a New England winter. As we began to part, we promised not only to stay in touch, but meet again soon. One of us boasted, maybe it was me, I no longer remember, that we’d all see each other on January 20 the following year for the swearing-in of our candidate. I remember little about the fellow college student from Missouri, or the native from New Hampshire, or anything about the third person who made up our early morning survivor’s rally.

The man who brought us together that night and for the six days leading up to the primary had been Howard Dean.

Unlike most other volunteers on Dean’s presidential campaign in 2003 and 2004, I knew of the man for more than a decade. He had served as governor of Vermont for more than 10 years – eight of those when I was growing up in the state. In 2002, he began crossing the the Connecticut River to New Hampshire to speak to small crowds about the need for health care reform. That was to become the centerpiece of his campaign in the Democratic primary.

Then the lead-up to the Iraq War happened. With many Democrats in Congress falling in line with President Bush on the war, Dean came out against the war. In February 2003, he ordained himself the representative of the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” His campaign took off as he spoke out against the war in Iraq.

Eventually, the campaign faltered. Dean’s loss in Iowa was compounded by his now infamous Dean Scream. With all his hopes now set in NH, he lost there and dropped out in February. In the years following his run, he maintained his reputation for being an outspoken voice for the Left. As DNC Chairman, he helped bring Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

When Dean Stood For Something - Via Time

When you are paid staff on a campaign, it is your professional reputation on the line. As a volunteer, especially on a presidential race, you put your pride and sense of self as a citizen on the line. You step into the political arena and try to do what you can to persuade fellow citizens that your candidate is best. And if you lose, but have fought righteously, you’ll be numb and sad and shaken. The morning after the loss, I rode Amtrak from Boston to New York in a daze because I not only thought we had a chance (note the first person plural – there is an ownership factor on campaigns), I thought Dean was the best person for the job in 2004 and that the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire had done a great disservice in depriving the rest of the country from having him as a choice.

That ownership and pride can stick around long after the campaign is over and other election cycles have come and gone. Earlier this week, a friend of mine sent me an article from Salon that opened my eyes to a simple fact: 2004 was a very long time ago. And it led me to a conclusion: I’m Done with Howard Dean.

According to Salon, Dean has been trading on his reputation as a darling of the Left as a DC lobbyist. While I was partially aware of Dean’s biopharmeceutical dealings during the health care debate, Salon’s article, “The Seduction of Howard Dean,” is the damning portrait of a man who once promised to be a different type of political figure.

During the 2009 debate over health care, Dean came out in support of biotech firms that wanted to bar biopharmeceutical generic drugs for 12 years. This would have made these drugs far more expensive for consumers. The consulting firm Dean works for, but is not registered as a lobbyist, just happens to represent the very biotech firms Dean supported in an op-ed he wrote for The Hill.

Dean’s non-lobbyist lobbying isn’t limited to fields he is well versed in, such as health care since he is a doctor. As a “strategic advisor” who does spend time talking to members of Congress, Dean has also become an outspoken and paid supporter of  the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian militant group. Since 1997, the MEK has been on the State Department’s Terrorist list and is considered by many to be a cult and carried out the Saddam Hussein ordered massacre of the Kurds in 1991. Reading some of his comments about the MEK, and you’d think he was the court sycophant.

Playing "The Price is Dean." Howard suggests you go higher! - Via Zimbio.com

The Washington Times asked Dean about his relationship with the MEK and he acknowledged that he had been asked to speak with them, but he knew nothing about the group. So he did his research on-line. Now he receives $20,000 a pop for ten minute speeches. Maybe Dean hasn’t heard of Wikipedia, because the MEK page is a pretty well sourced run-down of the MEK’s super shadiness and litany of human rights violations.

I’m not naive to the fact that people get paid to front groups they know little about or put their name on causes they don’t necessarily believe. It is just a fact of life in that moral swampland we call the Beltway. I think the charge against Dean that stings most for me is that he isn’t registered as a lobbyist. When Dean ran for president, he ran as, Salon put it, a plainspoken doctor. Dean for America seemed strikingly close to the West Wing’s Bartlett For America. Dean ran on issues, but he brought people to his campaign on this promise of being something different, something better than what we’d been getting from politicians of both parties. Now he ducks rules and transparency by not registering as lobbyist.

Less than a decade later, Dean is not just no better than those politicians. He is worse. As one of the many supporters, contributors, and believers in Dean for America, the reality is far bleaker. It is now, Dean for Dean. And for that reason, I’m done with Dean.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey Lost Me – The Book Blitz, Vol. 29

Author Zachary Mason - Via The L Magazine

The first semester of my sophomore year in high school left something to be desired. At my school, progress reports went out half way through each quarter. My lack of effort in all of my classes was pretty evident when my grades showed up at home. Not only was I failing geometry, I was pulling a solid D in  English, and a gentleman’s C in one other class. These were all honors courses.

Looking back, I can’t put a finger on where my motivation, or I should say lack of motivation, on the school front originated. What I can pinpoint though, is lost experiences due to my academic negligence. That first month of school, my English class read The Iliad. I wasn’t doing my assigned reading after getting home from school. Instead, I waited for my mile long walk to school in the morning to thumb through The Iliad. Suffice to say, reading an epic poem while making sure not to get run over while crossing street is not the most direct route to good grades and incisive analysis of Homer’s work. I lost interest in the poem and with it, any serious understanding of Greek mythology. This literary Achilles heal of mine made its re-acquintance with me as I read Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

While The Iliad tells the story of the war between Athens and Troy after Helen is kidnapped, The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus’ struggle to return home to his wife and family in the years after the war. Mason’s book, filled with purportedly lost books of the latter tale, starts with a preface explaining what is to come.

It seems as if Mason’s work is intentionally disjointed. It was hard, at least from my perspective to find an internal logic to its structure. The different books jump back and forth in time and story, leaving a novice reader of Greek mythology easily lost. There were times where I felt like Odysseus himself, stranded in the middle of this mythological universe filled with different worlds represented by the different chapters.

Admittedly, my area of expertise is Greek Mix-ology - Via Kaboodle.com

It is only after you keep going and get further and further into this mythological eco-system do signposts and language in the form of descriptions start to seem familiar and does it become apparent that among these seemingly disparate chapters is there the making of a handful of different tales going at the same time. My personal favorite, which gives nothing away, is the scenario in which Odysseus is an inveterate liar who made the whole odyssey up. The Lost Books of the Odyssey can at times be frustrating as some stories don’t go anywhere, and there are moments where clarity would only be available to those with an academic’s background in Greek mythology. Nevertheless, the moments of clarity, and the books that do hum with Mason’s crafty storytelling are worth, what I promise will not be a 10 year trek on the open seas.  Just don’t read it while walking to school, ok?

The Book Blitz: Vol 27 – Bound by Antonya Nelson

Bound by Antonya Nelson - Via Bloomsbury USA

Hovering throughout Antonya Nelson’s “Bound” is the real life story of the BTK Killer. The serial killer, who murdered 10 people, was dubbed BTK because he would bind and torture his victims before killing them. The novel is set in the mid-2000’s when the serial killer returns from his hiatus, and it novel flashes back to when BTK began his murders in the mid-1970s. Despite this plot device, the BTK killer drifts in and out of the primary story.

The main story in “Bound” is about the power of friendship. Two women who were best friends growing up in 1970’s Wichita eventually drift apart, due in no small part to their post-high school decisions and their family backgrounds. Catherine, daughter of a university professor, graduates from college while her friend Misty, who lived with her poor grandmother drifts away in the wake of a series of bad decisions. Eventually, she settles down to raise her daughter Cattie. We learn all of these events through flashbacks as the novel opens with Misty dying in a car crash in Colorado.

Cattie, now a high schooler, is at a boarding school in Vermont. Upon hearing the news of her mother’s death, she disappears from school, hiding out in the house of a classmates’ sister in Montpelier.

As this part of the story unfolds, the reader meets Catherine and her much older husband Oliver. Nearly seventy, Oliver is on his third wife and believes he has just found the next love of his life in a young woman working at a restaurant he owns. The only reason Catherine finds out about her old friend’s death is because Misty’s will made her guardian of Cattie. Catherine and Cattie.

BTK Serial Killer - Via Frances Farmers Revenge

Reading “Bound,” I assumed that at some point the BTK Killer would rush to the forefront of the story. This was due in part to the opaque references to the serial killer and the fact that Cattie used to take long walks at night back home in Houston. Maybe I’ve become accustomed to TV/movie style foreshadowing. On top of that, I guessed that is what the bound in the title referred to.

The strength of the novel lies in the true meaning of bound and the role it plays in the plot development.  Some relationships start and end. Others develop unexpectedly. We are bound by the connections we’ve made in the past, we are bound by the decisions we make, the consequences of those decision, and in some cases, bound by the actions of others.

These bindings are evident in the relationships scattered throughout the story. It is crystal clear in the way Oliver deals with his two ex-wives, setting one up with a business and being a participant in an on-going art exchange with the other. These connections criss-cross. As Catherine’s relationship with Oliver sours, he and her mother, nearly the same age, enjoy a thawing of feelings.

While Cattie and Catherine’s relationship becomes the center of attention by the end of the book, it is Cattie’s exchanges with her classmate Ito and housemate Randall that take up a good deal of the early sections of the book. Ito is the only classmate Cattie connects with at the boarding school. He is the one who provides her with the chance to escape the school and stay with his sister after news of her mother’s death reaches Vermont. For as withdrawn as Cattie is, Ito is the opposite.

Antonya Nelson - Via REAaward.org

She meets her match in Randall, a housemate whose experience in the army has left him as solemn as he is quiet. Eventually, they decide to leave for Houston, Cattie’s hometown. The trip doesn’t go as planned. And, one of my few critiques of the book is that once Randall leaves Cattie to find help, he disappears from the story with little resolution.

The most moving connection, in my opinion, is the one between Cattie and her mother. Misty was a recovering alcoholic who had on a few occasions fallen off the wagon. It is her voicemails, left on Cattie’s cell, that are one of the last ties she has to her mother.

In such an emotionally powerful novel, it is surprising that Nelson devotes the first and last pages of the book to Cattie and Misty’s dog. Now that isn’t the bitter complaint of a cat person who believes Bound would have been better if the canine companion had been switched out for a feline. To this reader, it slowed the book down and the side story of the women, hiking with her boyfriend, who finds the dog seemed extraneous to me. Nevertheless, Bound is a good book that is well worth your time.