A Gay Oasis, With Beer and Barbecue

First published in The New York Times on August 11, 2011. Read the original here.

WALK past the low-ceilinged bar, the jukebox and the pool table. Keep going, beyond the stage where “Queeraoke” erupts every Tuesday, and right out the back door. Feel the sunshine on your face and inhale the relatively fresh air (this is New York, after all) that makes Metropolitan the most popular gay hangout in Brooklyn on summer Sunday afternoons.

For the past nine years, casual backyard cookouts every Sunday from Memorial Day to the end of September (this year, to early October) have drawn local and farther-flung devotees to this small oasis, at 559 Lorimer Street in Williamsburg, a few steps from the L and G trains at Lorimer Street and Metropolitan Avenue.

Here, buying a $2 Bud will get you a ticket for a free burger (or a veggie version), potato salad and a relaxed evening that is the antithesis of the high-priced, high-strung New York gay life celebrated on the reality show “The A List.”

“It reminds me of places I would go in Berkeley or San Francisco,” Damon L. Jacobs, a marriage and family therapist, said at one recent gathering. “More homey, cozy fun than the pristine, plastic scenes one might get in Manhattan.”

The patio does have a homespun feel, with unfinished wooden benches and a corrugated fiberglass roof shading one half. But with two levels of seating and room for dozens of people, it is a home far from the usual space constraints of Brooklyn.

Mr. Jacobs, 40, who lives a few blocks away, absentmindedly played with a yo-yo, one of many he was giving away to entice patrons to take part in a new H.I.V. vaccine trial. For nearly two years, Metropolitan has let him promote the clinical work of Project Achieve at its cookouts, part of a larger pattern of community involvement that gives the bar its welcoming feel.

“It’s like your surrogate family’s weekly barbecue,” Mr. Jacobs said.

Your surrogate family, that is, if you were adopted by a group of gay men in their late 20s to early 40s, wearing tight black cutoffs and bright, stylized T-shirts. But even those who prefer wide-legged jeans have a place here.

“I survive off of this barbecue,” said Jackie Carlson, 28, a dancer and acrobat who has come nearly every Sunday for four years. “It’s definitely the most diverse, I feel, of the bars I’ve been to.

“But I do like my gay-boy bars,” she admitted with a smile.

While women may be in the minority at Metropolitan, they are by no means unwelcome — lesbian or straight.

The bar creates special events for its various constituencies, said Troy Carson, the owner and manager of Metropolitan and Sugarland, another bar in Williamsburg. Ms. Carlson frequently attends Girls, Girls, Girls, Metropolitan’s Wednesday night lesbian party, whose patrons she described as “gays, whatevers, lesbians, everybody.” The bar also hosts craft-making workshops on Saturday afternoons and twice-monthly comedy nights.

“I don’t know any other bar that’s as much of a staple,” said Devon Hong, 31, an advertising art director, as he described Brooklyn’s gay nightlife to a friend visiting from Toronto. “It’s kind of the place you go before you go out anywhere else.”

Mr. Hong and his friend had been in a back booth waiting for the food to be served since 4 p.m., the cookout’s scheduled starting time. But the grill generally doesn’t get fired up until 5 or 5:30. By 7, the line for food can snake around the patio and back into the bar.

Luckily, “happy hour” starts at 3.

Fall Getaways

First published in Westchester Magazine's August 2011 issue. Read the original here. I contributed three pieces to this round up: (Rox)bury Your Cares AwayLife's a Beach, and Tons of Fun in Bennington.


Even from a distance, it’s easy to see that The Roxbury is not your average Catskill Mountain motel. The vivid green detailing on the white wooden walls, the elaborate mosaics and murals, the scintillating LED displays that light up as the evening crickets begin to chirp—taken together, they hint at the delights and surprises that await inside this unique destination hotel. No two visits to The Roxbury are the same because no two rooms are the same. Suites range in style from a baroque dream of gold and mirrors (“Amadeus’ Bride”) to electric disco fabulousness (“Tony’s Dancefloor”) to Swinging Sixties chic (“The Mod Pod”). No element—from the lighting fixtures to the bathtubs—has gone unconsidered. It is this attention to detail that allows visitors to immerse themselves fully in the fantasy that each theme room evokes. Those seeking added luxury can visit the on-premises Shimmer Spa (open from 8 am to 8 pm). At night, guests are welcome to build a bonfire in the Motel’s fire pit, or borrow one of the many movies and games available in the main office. All rooms also come with HD flat-screens and cable.


The town of Roxbury seems like a Catskill Mountain theme room itself, with its beautiful Victorian homes; babbling brooks; and small, local radio station. It provides the perfect counterpoint to the stylized richness of the Motel, and everything is within easy walking distance. Visit the adjacent Public Lounge for a specialty house cocktail, like the Flaming Cosmo, a deceptively smooth mixture of pomegranate juice and vodka. For a delicious meal, visit Peekamoose Restaurant (845-254-6500, peekamooserestaurant.com), located in nearby Big Indian. Owner Devin Mills has worked in some of the most famous New York kitchens, including Gramercy Tavern and Le Bernardin. If antiques and handicrafts are part of your fantasy vacation, visit the nearby towns of Margaretville and Andes. Ski trails, zip-lines, and hiking paths all are located within a 15-minute drive, and The Roxbury’s friendly staff is happy to make recommendations or reservations.

The Nitty-gritty: Rooms range from $99 to $345 per night. Access to The Shimmer Spa is $20 per person, and 55-minute massage treatments range from $100 to $135.

Dining Dilemma

First published in Westchester Magazine's August 2011 issue. Read the original here.

My parents’ dining room table is early 20th-century mahogany, with solid columnated legs and comfortable seating for six—eight if necessary, 10 on desperate family occasions. In the morning, it’s newspaper sprawl and pots of coffee. In the afternoon, laptops and lunch. Family dinner, whether for two or twelve, is always at the table. It is the anchor to which life in the house is tethered. When I think of living in Westchester, I think of that table.

Since leaving home, I have, by conservative estimate, lived in nine New York City apartments. Not one has had a dining room table. In fact, not one has had a dining room. For years, I dreamed of four walls dominated by a massive wooden slab and a dozen hard-backed chairs, blaming space and money and time for my lack. When I could fit a table, I couldn’t afford one. When I could afford one, I was worried I would soon move and need to transport it. And always, always, always, there was the question of carving a dining room out of my already too-small apartments.


But in truth, my lack of a dining room table wasn’t about space. When I’ve had spare rooms, my roommates and I dedicated them to work areas, storage, or awkward things we didn’t want elsewhere, like litter boxes and sentimental trash. (I’m looking at you, poorly framed photo of my college dorm.) My current apartment is a converted loft that could fit my parents’ table three times over, but we make do with a breakfast bar and two small tables that we shove together when needed.

A good home, small or large, city or suburban, has a place for everything and everything in its place. This doesn’t just mean a drawer for silverware or a great shoe rack. It means a room for every daily purpose: sleeping, cooking, showering. A dining room and its table are a physical manifestation of an expectation: that dinner will be eaten here, by many people, most days of the week. It is a way of looking at the world, an inward focus that my life in the city rarely has.

To live in New York City means to live in public, gloriously and pathetically, hilariously and tragically. It means schlepping dirty laundry three blocks while wearing pajamas, and summertime stoop-side hangout sessions with temporary neighborhood friends. It means dinner in a different place, at a different time, with different people, every single night. It means no room for a dining room table, not because of crowded space, but because of crowded lives.

Island Creek Oyster Bar Review

First published in The New York Times on January 14, 2011. Read the original with comments here.

Island Creek Oyster Bar brings a special twist to the trend of farm-to-table restaurants: the small farms carefully listed next to each dish on Oyster Creek’s menu specialize in aquaculture, the raising of seafood and shellfish. But that’s not all: the restaurant itself is an extension of Island Creek Oysters, a farm founded in 1992 in nearby Duxbury, Mass. So it’s no surprise that though the menu is long and varied, at Island Creek, which opened in October, oysters take pride of place.

On a recent visit, 12 varieties were on offer, mostly from Massachusetts, but with a few from California, Washington and Canada. Our waitress recommended the Island Creek oysters themselves and the Dodge Coves, from Maine. Both are from the same batch of seed oysters, so tasting the two side by side emphasizes the importance of “merroir” — a term the oyster community uses in place of terroir. The Island Creek oysters were large and finished with a melonlike sweetness, while the Dodge Coves were more briny.

“Our nursery is in a saltwater river, where the water is warmer,” said Skip Bennett, the founder of Island Creek and a co-owner of the Oyster Bar. As the oysters mature, they are moved closer to the ocean. Their gentle upbringing produces large oysters with a sweet ocean taste. Shigoku oysters, from Bay Center, Wash., also stood out as particularly bright and flavorful.

Raw isn’t the only option, of course. More oysters, battered and fried, are served as sliders on sweet brioche buns. (The fried versions lack the seawater brininess of the fresh ones, making them a good dish for kids or squeamish novices, but disappointing for true aficionados.)

Island Creek’s seafood preparations extend beyond the oyster. An appetizer of steamed Duxbury littleneck clams, flavored with orange, basil and garlic, was delicious, with a pleasingly firm texture.

Jeremy Sewall, the executive chef and a co-owner, is equally adept at handling terrestrial ingredients, and there is a small section of the menu titled “From the Land.” The Vermont burger with Cheddar and house-cured bacon on a sweet caramelized onion roll is delicious. But it’s no competition for a neatly composed main dish of seared scallops with kuri squash, black trumpet mushrooms and kumquat. The acid in the kumquat brightens and brings together the deep umami flavors of the scallops and mushrooms. It is this attention to flavor composition and ingredient sourcing that elevates Island Creek above the recent spate of new oyster joints.

Island Creek Oyster Bar; 500 Commonwealth Avenue; (617) 532-5300; islandcreekoysterbar.com. Meal for two, about $100 without drinks or tip.

4 Towns, 4 Tasty New Reasons to Visit

First published in The New York Times on November 17, 2010. Read the original with comments here.

Preston Hollow

Bees Knees Cafe

For nearly 200 years, the old farmhouse on Broome Center Road has been the heart of Heather Ridge, a working farm in the Catskills town of Preston Hollow. For the last year, it’s also been home to the Bees Knees Cafe. Open only for lunch on Saturdays, it is a culinary showcase for local farmers, beekeepers, cheese makers and butchers.


As you’d expect in a farmhouse, service is relaxed. On a visit in July, we placed our order in the kitchen, grabbed a pitcher of fresh black currant lemonade and staked out one of four picnic tables to await our food. Many of the preparations were simple and highlighted the freshness of the ingredients: a panini of thinly sliced, delicious beef, served rare, with a farmstead cheese and grilled onions; a hearty beef and pork chili over a fresh-baked corn muffin. But there was also complexity, as in the smooth summer squash and chèvre custard, which we paired with a refreshing cold cucumber, yogurt and dill soup.

Food and Wine Interest Guide

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Carol Clement, a co-owner of Heather Ridge and Bees Knees, made an announcement: “We’ve got five new goat kids.” She invited us to see them after lunch.

When asked what on our plates wasn’t local, it took her a moment to respond. “The lemons,” she finally said with a laugh.

Between Memorial Day and Columbus Weekend, Bees Knees serves food on the front lawn, which overlooks the peaks and valleys of the Catskills. The menu changes weekly. During the winter (or inclement weather), the tables are moved inside, and a smaller menu features a selection of hearty soups, stews and breads. In warmer weather, a tour of the farm is offered one Saturday a month. In the winter, tours can be arranged on an informal basis.

Many of the dishes and their ingredients are available in bulk at the farm store in the same building. We took home a quart of chili, two pints of currants, a dozen eggs and a backpack full of meat. When we exclaimed over the honey-vanilla ice cream that topped a hot slice of blueberry cobbler, Ms. Clement said she could make us a pint if we gave her a day. (Customers can also order ahead via phone or e-mail.)

But one of the most welcome things at Bees Knees is not on the menu, and cannot be taken home with you: there is no cellphone reception. The only buzzing comes from the beehives on the back porch.

Bees Knees Cafe, 989 Broome Center Road; (518) 239-6234. Average meal for two, without drinks or tip, about $25.

New Orleans

Mike’s on the Avenue

Vicky Bayley, a co-owner of Mike’s on the Avenue, believes the New Orleans post-Katrina, post-spill restaurant scene is stronger and more innovative than ever.

“Sometimes when you lose everything, you take more chances, because you’re not afraid anymore,” she said.

If anyone can speak to the evolution of New Orleans restaurants, it’s Ms. Bayley. Together with Mike Fennelly, chef and co-owner, she opened the original Mike’s on the Avenue in 1991 and was credited by many with bringing Asian fusion to New Orleans. After a successful decade, they closed Mike’s to pursue other projects. Now, 10 years later, the two have reunited in the same location, right off the bustling French Quarter.

“It was like coming home,” Mr. Fennelly said. “I had done my wanderlust and ran all over the world — and I got sick of it.”

New Orleans has welcomed them back with open arms — and mouths. Memory, however, exerted a pull. During a visit earlier this year, two months after they opened, they said they still had patrons looking for favorite dishes from the old restaurant. “Where’s your oyster burrito? And where’s the brioche bread pudding?” were common questions, Ms. Bayley said. (They’ve adjusted the menu multiple times, and the bread pudding has mounted a successful comeback.)

But this Mike’s on the Avenue has also evolved. Mr. Fennelly cites his travels, including five years spent in Hawaii soaking up Polynesian culture, as his inspiration for the current menu. The rich sweetness of lilikoi, a Hawaiian variety of passion fruit, is infused in several dishes, including a dense and delicious cheesecake and a green-tea mint-rubbed double-cut pork chop with a lilikoi glaze. And contrary to what you might expect in New Orleans, all of the fish used for sushi is flown in daily from Honolulu.

But while the menu reflects Mr. Fennelly’s travels, it also melds them with the flavors of Louisiana. Mike’s crispy duck may feature shiitake mushrooms, but it’s served over brown rice with chunks of tasso, a Cajun ham, and andouille sausage. And the sushi box appetizer includes a Cajun crab roll.

Although the location is the same, the space, too, has changed. Half of what was once Mike’s is now Twist Cocktails, a bar and private event space. Serving half the number of patrons was a conscious choice, Mr. Fennelly said. “As a chef, doing 100 people at a time versus 200 is much better. We have so much more control.”

Like New Orleans itself, Mike’s is back — just a touch smaller and with a twist.

Mike’s on the Avenue, 628 St. Charles Avenue; (504) 523-7600; mikesontheavenue.com. An average dinner for two, without drinks or tip, is about $70.

The Blind Pig

First published in The New York Times on August 8, 2010. Read the original here.

At the Blind Pig, Joseph Frase, the chef and an owner, smokes his own sausage in the backyard — appropriate for a restaurant in Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood. His menu reflects the working-class history of the area, with upscale renditions of pan-European peasant fare like spaghetti alla putanesca and shepherd’s pie. Unlike their humble ancestors, however, the dishes at the Blind Pig use simple preparations to highlight the strong, natural flavors of the ingredients.

“We pay a little more attention to the more traditional qualities of food,” Mr. Frase said, “instead of trying to do something new or inventive.”

And, indeed, “housemade” and “fresh” are two of the restaurant’s primary bywords. “The only thing in our freezer is ice cream,” our waiter told us joyfully during a recent visit, before explaining how best to sample the housemade bitters (including flavors like celery and coffee). The drinks menu highlighted classic cocktails like a French 75, but also featured a strong list of beers whose regions of origin are listed as well.

Before opening in March, Mr. Frase and Michael Grider, a co-owner, gutted the space. The floor joists found new life as tables, while the building’s original facade was rescued from the basement and the reclaimed wood was transformed into a bar. The art on the walls is by the assistant manager. This sense of place and pride — of craftsmanship and quality — is at the heart of the Blind Pig’s deceptive simplicity.

The most prominent medium for the attention-to-tradition philosophy is meat — more specifically, pork. Indeed, the (literally) strong of heart can eat an entire meal of it. Start with a smooth, dense ramekin of pork rillettes topped with a thick layer of duck fat; follow that up with a heaping portion of sausage, duck and white bean cassoulet; finish with a dessert of vanilla ice cream fritters and pecan-bacon brittle; and wash it all down with a bacon-infused Manhattan. (Is it possible to have a pork hangover?)

For the less piggishly inclined, the lamb-and-bison shepherd’s pie is well spiced and topped with a crisp layer of creamy mashed potatoes. The chicken bouillabaisse fell a little flat, its light flavor too delicate to compete with the hearty savoriness of the other dishes. But, then again, who orders chicken at a place called the Blind Pig?

The Blind Pig, 1076 East Washington Street, Louisville, Ky.; (502) 618-0600; theblindpiglouisville.com. An average meal for two, without drinks or tip, is about $60.

In New Orleans, New Life By the River

First published in The New York Times on June 27, 2010. Read the original, with photos, here.

For residents of the blue-collar Bywater-Marigny area of New Orleans, access to the Mississippi River has been blocked for years by decaying industrial buildings. But it won't be much longer, thanks in part to R. Allen Eskew, an architect whose firm has been hired to turn a mile and a half of piers and wharves into a riverfront park to open in fall 2011, Step 1 in the nearly $300 million Reinventing the Crescent plan.

The park is one of many projects, small and large, growing in the fertile soil around the Mississippi. Amid colorful shotgun houses (left), tucked away on streets named Piety, Desire and Independence, a wealth of cafes, boutiques and bars offer a calmer alternative to the excesses of the French Quarter, just upriver.


Satsuma Cafe
3218 Dauphine Street
(504) 304-5962

Satsuma, which opened last year, takes its name from a popular local citrus fruit. The menu changes regularly, but you can't go wrong with their pancakes of the day ($5) and a cup of smooth chicory coffee ($2).

Cake Cafe & Bakery
2440 Chartres Street
(504) 943-0010

Nothing says New Orleans, city of excess, like a boozy cupcake. This cafe has multiple varieties - flavors include Champagne, mimosa and Sazerac - which can be ordered by the dozen ($25). Or drop in for a nonalcoholic version ($1.75), in flavors like wedding cake and red velvet.

The Lost Love Lounge
2529 Dauphine Street
(504) 949-2009

For some relaxed night life, head to this dim and sprawling dive bar, which opened in March. Lost Love features $2 High Life specials and a small Vietnamese snack menu. Five dollars will buy a sizable shrimp spring roll.

The Bargain Center
3200 Dauphine Street
(504) 948-0007

Down the street, a hodge-podge of antique furniture, paperbacks, and vintage costumes sprawls on the sidewalk like a life-size Joseph Cornell diorama. Welcome to the Bargain Center, a cavernous thrift shop that sells everything from Jadeite teacups ($10) to a handmade "Cajun camp style" dollhouse ($200).

Chemisière Louisiane
3811 Chartres Street
(504) 948-9989

In May, David Dartnell opened this 3,000-square-foot boutique and studio, which houses his new clothing line of the same name. Designed for "women of the South," the fashions feature loose, lightweight fabrics and bright colors. Most items range around the $200 mark.

Pigs' Blood in Cigarettes?

This gallery was originall published on The Daily Beast on 5/25/2010. Read it in its entirety, with comments, here.

As Vegetarian Week kicks off in the U.K., it’s more difficult than ever to observe it faithfully. From horse fat in fabric softener to crushed insects in fruit juice, Hugh Ryan locates animal products in 11 unlikely places.

1) Fabric Softener
What could possibly make your sheets feel more Downy fresh than a nice schmear of rendered animal fat? Dihydrogenated tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride—a roundabout way of saying fat from animals like horses and sheep—is used by some commercial fabric softeners to coat your clothes with a soft, fluffy layer of lipids.

2. Pink Drinks
Cochineal, natural red 4, crimson lake, carmine, carminic acid—call it what you will, but the additive that gives many drinks their distinctive pink color, from wine coolers to ruby-red grapefruit juices, is made from crushed South American bugs. The female cochineal insect has been harvested for dye since the era of the Aztecs. Depending on the way in which the insect is killed (methods include boiling alive, exposure to sunlight, steaming, and baking), it produces a range of reddish tints. It takes approximately 70,000 insects to make one pound of dye.

3. Wine & Beer
Some people drink like fish. Others just drink fish—or at least, the dried, ground-up swim bladders of fish. Isinglass, derived mostly from sturgeon and cod bladders, is used to clarify and remove impurities from many varieties of wine and beer. Small amounts of isinglass remain in the products when finished. For thirsty vegans, the website Barnivore maintains a list of animal-friendly wines, beers, and spirits.

4. Flu Vaccine
A variety of vaccine rumors and conspiracy theories abound. One true one, however, is this: flu vaccines aren’t vegetarian. Fertilized chicken eggs in the embryonic phase are used to cultivate the inactivated flu virus that is injected into millions of people every year. The vaccine was originally developed by the U.S. military for use in World War II, to help prevent a recurrence of the Spanish Influenza that killed 50 million people in the wake of World War I.

5. Cigarettes
The multitude of sins that can be hidden under the phrase “processing aids”—a catchall term for ingredients used to control tar and nicotine content in cigarettes—apparently includes pigs’ blood. New Dutch research from March of this year has found traces of porcine hemoglobin in the filters of some brands of cigarettes. In blood, hemoglobin bonds to oxygen to transport it throughout the body; in filters, it bonds to passing toxins and removes them from the smoke before it enters the lungs.

6. Lipstick
Some shimmery lipsticks owe their twinkle to a rather lowly source—fish scales. According to The Straight Dope, a syndicated question-and-answer column published in over 30 newspapers nationwide, herring scales, a byproduct of commercial food fishing, are processed into a product called “pearl essence,” which can be found in lipsticks, nail polishes, ceramic glazes, and other sparkly stuff. The fish are caught in giant nets and pumped into boats, a process that flenses the scales from their bodies, often while still alive. The scales are then sold to cosmetic companies.

7. Sugar
When it comes to sugar, the phrase “bone white” isn’t a metaphor. According to the non-profit Vegetarian Resource Group, cane sugar is often bleached using bone char from horses and cows, a.k.a. “natural charcoal.” Bone particles don’t end up in the final product; rather, the bone char is used as a filter, like a piece of cheesecloth made from ponies. An average sugar filter contains about 70,000 pounds of bone char from approximately 7,800 animals. To avoid bone char entirely, buy sugar derived from beets, not sugar cane.

8. Hormone Replacement Therapy
Premarin, the popular estrogen-replacement drug for menopausal women, takes its name from its main ingredient: PREgnant MARes’ urINe. Since 1942, female horses have been impregnated and fitted with the equine equivalent of colostomy bags. These gather their urine, which is then processed to produce estrone, equilin, and equilenin. Historically, the foals were eventually sent to slaughterhouses, though today, many pregnant mares’ urine (PMU) operations also act as traditional horse breeders.

9. Bloody Marys
Sometimes it’s the ingredients in the ingredients that make a product not vegetarian. Bloody Marys, the reliable brunch standby, are usually made with tomato juice, vodka, celery, and Worcestershire sauce, which contains anchovies, making it literally bloody. Some Bloody Mary recipes also call for beef consommé. There are vegetarian Worcestershire sauces out there, so just ask to see the label before you order.

10. Heparin
The anticoagulant drug heparin is derived from the slippery mucosal tissue found in pig’s intestines and cow’s lungs. Used to treat blood clots, it was originally isolated in dog livers in 1916, and has since been found in a long list of animals, including sand dollars, humans, camels, whales, mice, fresh-water mussels, lobsters, and turkeys. Its natural purpose in the body is still not fully understood.

11. Green Motor Oil
“Green” doesn’t always mean animal-free. Some companies have taken to replacing traditional petrochemical-based motor oil with cow fat. Companies claim to be able to make as much as one barrel of oil per barrel of tallow, as compared with the three barrels of petroleum needed to make one barrel of traditional motor oil.