Sunday, February 16, 2014

Washington’s Restaurant Scene Continues to Delight

Inside The Hamilton: Credit Bill Rockwell
When it comes to American cities known for their culinary prowess, New York, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco and Los Angeles lead the pack. But each time I visit our nation’s capital, I am wowed by the new and exciting restaurants I keep discovering.
On a beginning of the new year visit to Washington, I got to dine in three restaurants that couldn’t be more different from one another, but each gave me an amazing culinary experience. First off, at 600 14th Street NW, The Hamilton.
When I walked into The Hamilton for New Year’s Eve dinner, I couldn’t believe how big the place is. Covering the entire first floor of a city block-wide building, the restaurant is sectioned into eye-catching spaces that lead easily from one to another. Each has its own stylish decor, and every one of them, as well as the bars, is decorated by paintings, murals, prints, photos and sculptures of birds, largely because the owners are avian-philes.
The culinary style is described as contemporary with influences drawn from around the world. Some of the dishes my companion and I tried were Octopus Ceviche, a Beet Salad, the Fire Dragon Sushi (with spicy tuna, eel, avocado,  smelt roe and scallion) and  a Red Snapper and a

Fire Dragon Sushi at The Hamilton: Credit Bill Rockwell

Chile Braised Short Rib that fell apart with the slightest touch of a fork.
After our meal, Michael Kacmar, director of employee training and development, took us on a tour that included a look at the downstairs state-of-the-art showroom that could have been right out of Vegas. Later that evening, Dr. John and The "Queen of Rockabilly," Wanda Jackson, were scheduled to ring in the New Year with a sold-out concert.  For a complete schedule of events, visit website
Kacmar arrived on the Washington food scene from his home in Southwestern Pennsylvania 25 years ago, a time he said when only Georgetown and Adams-Morgan had restaurants worth dining in, plus a couple more comparable eateries downtown. But, as the city neighborhoods started to gentrify, chefs followed  them to places like the U Street Corridor, Logan Circle, Chinatown and more.
"Now we have fine restaurants not only downtown, but they also extend out into the suburbs," he said.
One factor that led to the city’s restaurant renaissance was the arrival of celebrity chefs from places like New York. These included big names like Danny Meyer from the Union Square Restaurant Group, Wolfgang Puck, and Jose Andres who established a restaurant group with locations across the U.S. and especially Washington, DC.
Even before 9/11, Kacmar said big name chefs started coming in to DC, but the pace picked up even more after tragic events of early September 2001.
"Maybe because of all the government workers here, we’re kind of recession proof," he said. "Even after 9/11 we recovered rather quickly from the fallout of the aftermath."

Inside Zengo: Credit Bill Rockwell
On New Year’s Day, I meandered over to Zengo, located at 781 Seventh Street, one of several of chef-owner Richard Sandoval’s restaurants of the same name scattered across the country. I was there for the "Bottomless Brunch," offered every Saturday and Sunday.
Sandoval, holder of a "Bon Appetite" title Restaurateur of the Year, has a way of creatively blending Latin and Asian cuisine and flavors. It’s a phenomenon I experienced at brunch which features an entire menu of small plates (order as many as you like) and beverages (ditto) that include four mimosas (traditional, passion fruit, guava and pomegranate) - all for $35 per person.
The vibrant, colorful decor is a match for Zengo’s  flavorful dishes. At brunch I counted 25 small plate choices on the menu and, between me and my companion, we must have tried two-thirds of them. Starting off with salted edamame, we savored the shrimp ceviche, the angry zengo roll ( tuna, avocado, cucumber and wasabi), a green papaya salad, shrimp and vegetable potstickers and Thai chicken empanadas.
:I liked the small portions because they let us try a lot of different preparations, each one a work of art and culinary creativity. The Peking Duck chilaquiles, for instance,  were excellent, but even they took a back seat to the steak and eggs tostados, a melange of black bean puree, sesame, guacamole and pico de gallo underpinning a fried quail egg and a dollop of melt-in-your-mouth Wagyu beef.

Bok Choy Kinchee at Zengo: Credit Bill Rockwell
While brunch is a definite culinary adventure, director of operations and business partner, Ivan Iricanin, introduced me to Zengo’s test kitchen menu, offered at dinner. It seems that every quarter Zengo chefs get together and focus on one region, city or country in Latin America and pair it with an Asian counterpart. The chefs then create new recipes influenced by both. At the moment, Mexico and Japan are in the spotlight. For a look at the menu, log on to
Iricanin arrived in Washington in 2005 and since that time he said he’s seen great changes in Washington’s dining scene.
"When Zengo opened in the 14th Street area in 2009 it was the first chef-driven restaurant in the district," he said. "Now there’s close to 30. New restaurants. bars and coffee shops are also developing in other neighborhoods as well. The competition is intense, but there are enough patrons to support us."
One big asset Washington Restaurateurs have is DC’s proximity to Maryland and Virginia which help make the city a big restaurant scene player on the national level. With all its diversity, there’s a lot of good food and interesting options to choose from.

Interior at 701: Credit Bill Rockwell
A Restaurant Empire Builder
Owner of nine DC area restaurants, Ashok Bajaj has been involved in the Washington culinary scene for 25 years and was named the city’s 2013 Restaurateur of the Year. His restaurants have received several James Beard Foundation nominations. And in 2012 both his restaurants and chefs have won 12 RAMMY Awards, presented by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.
In an August 12, 2013  edition of the New York Times, Tom Sietsema, The Washington Post’s restaurant critic, said: "People look at Washington as an important place to eat in a way that they didn’t even four or five years ago. Ashok has certainly contributed to that."
My first encounter with the Bajaj culinary empire came about nine years ago when I dined at his Bombay Club, an upscale Indian restaurant that’s got to be one of the best serving that savory cuisine in the U.S. Just a few blocks from the White House, the restaurant, (as well as other Bajaj establishments), is noted for serving the nation’s power elite, including Condoleezza Rice during the era of my initial visit and George H.W. Bush even earlier.
Since it opened in 2005, Rasika seems to have eclipsed even the Bombay Club as a presenter of high end Indian-American cuisine. Sietsama has since given Rasika a four star rating and titled it "the best Indian restaurant in the country."
On my last DC visit, I managed to dine in 701, named for its location on Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and the Capitol. Large and spacious, yet intimate enough to evoke the warmth and seductiveness of a private club, 701 serves contemporary American cuisine with global influences, often to the accompaniment of live jazz.

Sake Glazed Salmon at 701: Credit Bill Rockwell
In a mid-January interview, Bajaj said there’s been an explosion of restaurants in the nation’s capital with 70 opening just last year (more than 100 if you factor in the smaller eateries). One of the factors contributing to this culinary renaissance is the proximity of a prestigious culinary school.
Founded in 1976 by Francois Dionot, l’Academie de Cuisine in nearby Gaitherburg, Maryland, has been providing new talented chefs, who have been moving into various city neighborhoods. The influx of chefs from overseas has also had a hand in developing the nation’s culinary reputation.
"Over the years, Washington’s cuisines have gotten extremely diverse," he said. "You can now find almost any world cuisine somewhere in town."
To support the burgeoning restaurant scene, Bajaj said that the combination of locals, government people and tourists have proven to be a successful blend of clientele.
"I feel that every American should visit Washington because of its array of free museums, the Smithsonian, the monuments, the history and now, the cuisine. Washington is more than just taking in the marvelous sights. It’s has become a food destination in and of itself."

Friday, February 14, 2014

At City Theatre, Duo Bares It All - Well Nearly

The Skivvies - Credit Daniel Robinson
Like the song from “Gypsy” says, “You Gotta Have a Gimmick.” And that’s just what the Skivvies have.

Half way through their first number on opening night at Pittsburgh City Theatre, the musical/comedy team cast off their clothes down to their underwear - and unabashedly at that.  When you’ve got an act like this,  just think of what you can save in costuming.

Very talented musicians and a scream as comedians, Nick Cearley and Lauren Molina as the Skivvies (have you figured out their name yet?) don’t need a gimmick. Their close harmonies on pop songs, some of which date back to the 60s, and their cleverly composed ditties and sometimes bawdy ballads are enough to make them headliners in clubs and theaters across the US. Add to the mix a talented percussionist, a man not shy about adding to the levity by wearing some hilarious hats and getup, and you’ve got yourself an evening of entertainment to remember.

Versatile enough to be able to switch to a variety of instruments during the show, they are proficient on cello, glockenspiel, ukulele, guitar and melodica. The act is extremely polished down to the whimsical facial expressions that Cearley is a master of and the high notes that Molina brought down the house with midway through the performance.

A look at the crew’s credentials include Broadway’s “Rock of Ages,” “Candide,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Marry Me a Little” (Molina) and the first national “All Shook Up (Cearley), who also did the acclaimed one-man show “And Then I Wrote a Song About It.”

While stage appearances and acting roles in plays still continue to be a part of their modus operandi, they spend a good portion of their professional time as Skivvies playing clubs, bars, and theaters across the US.

Did I mention that there’s an additional gimmick that adds to the enjoyment? The duo invites guest artists to join them in their flesh baring antics and accompany them in song. For their four performance run at City Theatre, they brought in fellow Thespians Hayley Nielsen, Bria Walker and Michael Campanya on opening night and will change to an all new line up for the three remaining shows.

From the ease with which Nielsen, Walker and Campanya fit right into the act, you’d never know they accomplished this “miracle” on a single day’s rehearsal. As I understand it, along with supporting cast changes, the entire repertoire will change as well throughout the run. You’ve got to be talented to pull off this Herculean task and the Skivvies seem to have it coming out of every pore.

You can bet, if and when they play a nudist colony, they’ll be the best dressed couple there, wearing their unmentionables and definitely putting on a performance that’ll be well worth mentioning.

The Skivvies are at Pittsburgh City Theatre at 8 p.m. tonight and at 8 and 10:30m p.m. tomorrow, February 15. Tickets are $25. Phone 412-431-2489.

Monday, February 10, 2014

"Madagascar" - A Play as Exotic as the Island

Scene from Madagascar - L to R Melinda Helfrich, Helena Ruoti and Larry John Meyers

    "Madagascar," a play by J. T. Rogers, is a poem splayed apart and refitted in theatrical form. It’s a simple, sad story told in an amazingly convoluted way. Like a pointillist painting, it takes shape bit by bit, but instead of dots of color as its medium, it relies on sonnets of seemingly unrelated, random monologue to coalesce, eventually, into something comprehensible.
    Now getting an extended run in the Quatum Theatre’s newly found venue, the play is mounted in what was once a bank in a former incarnation and is currently undergoing a makeover as a condo named the Carlyle, located at Wood and 4th Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh. (Quantum, as regular theater-goers may know, is unique in that it has no permanent home and seeks out suitable spaces to present its work).
    As some dramas are, "Madagascar" has a dream-like, moody quality made even more so by the fact that its three actors are on stage at all times but inhabit the space in different time periods. They rarely speak to one another but to the audience, remembering, sometimes agonizingly so, the past deeds (or deeds left undone) that have brought them to a state of anguish and remorse.
    The three actors form a triangle of intertwined relationships that slowly reveal, piece by piece, the mesmerizing tale. However, two absent referents, revealed only through the dialogue of the others, are pivotal figures around which much of the story revolves.
    One is Arthur, a much admired economist who spent a good deal of time in Madagascar trying to lift the impoverished nation up out of its economic woes until his untimely death. The other is his son, Gideon Paul, an enigmatic lad who disappearance has a profound effect on the onstage actors.
    The set is mainly a large ornate and elegant bed meant to represent a hotel room in Rome. Lillian, Gideon’s mother, is shown occupying the room five years ago. Her daughter and Gideon’s sister, June, occupies the room a few days ago. Nathan, Arthur’s friend, fellow economist and adoring sycophant is shown in the present.
    The play runs for ninety minutes sans intermission. It’s an arrangement appropriate for delicate theatrical universe artfully created and enveloped in an experiential bubble that, if burst, would disrupt the mood and momentum of the unfolding secrets that make up the mystery. As an antidote to the noir elements, an underlying aesthetic provides an undercurrent of bouyancy that lifts the atmosphere of the play.
    As Lillian, Helena Ruoti makes her Quantum debut as a son-obsessed mother, intelligent, introspective, and anxiety prone. Her daughter, June, has a more lyrical presence as played by Melinda Helfrich, but she, too, bears the scars of her dysfunctional family. Larry John Meyers, the third cog in the ill-fated wheel of fortune, has conflicting relationships with the family and suffers in almost King Lear-like fashion as he wrestles with his past.
    As the playwright, Rogers must have great organizational skills to pull off such an intricate narrative, even throwing in abstruse references to classical mythology that just might serve as a prototype for the mother-sister-brother triad formulated in the play. In a way, Rogers composes a sort of quasi-musical sketch in that the three voices form the chords of a hauntingly melancholic air.
    If Ruoti, Helfrich and Meyers capably sing the melody, director Sheila McKenna sets it to the right rhythm, giving the pauses, the segues and the interludes just the right duration. But just like music, "Madagascar" is ephemeral, intangible, and impalpable and I appreciated it more for its mood and emotional evocation than its cerebral insights.
    "Madagascar" runs through Feb. 22. Phone 412-362-1713.

Friday, February 7, 2014

"French Kiss" - An Exciting Pairing of Two Beautiful Works

Bach Choir of Pittsburgh

       Lovers of great music, the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh has come up with a concept for a concert of outstanding French works sure to add delight to your Valentine’s Day plans.

     "A Mass Affair - French Kiss" will showcase the Requiem Masses of both Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) and Maurice Durufle (1902 - 1986), but with an interesting twist. Artistic Director, Thomas W. Douglas, plans to intermingle the various sections of both masses rather than play each straight through. This means that the Kyrie from Durufle's’s mass will follow directly after the Kyrie of Faure. The same holds true for the other sections of both masses, including the Credo.

    Both composers are French with 60 years separating their masses. (Faure’s "Requiem’ was written between 1877 and 1890 while Durufle’s was written in 1947). The concert will enable the audience to compare the two works, look for musical contrasts and assess their differences and similarities.

    The following Question and Answer segment about the concert took place between myself and managing director, Matthew Dooley.*

Q: The Faure "Requiem" happens to be one of my favorite pieces in the classical repertoire. I have it on recording and once managed to hear a live concert version at the Catholic Cathedral in St. Louis.
Unlike Mozart’s somber "Requiem," Faure’s is much lighter in tone and is often referred to as "the lullaby of rest." Faure himself said the work is "dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest." He also said that he saw "death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience."
Do you feel that Durufle’s "Requiem" shares Faure’s sentiments and musical attributes - or is his more on the somber side like Mozart’s?

Like Faure, Durufle believes the Requiem Mass speaks to final rest and should not invoke the "Day of Judgment" feeling found in other treatments of the texts.

Q: Will any sections of either Requiem be left out? And, because Faure’s is the older of the two works, will his sections be performed before those of Durufle at the concert?

No, the movements of both, although combined in somewhat different ways, line up very well and allow the Choir to place one section next to the other in all cases.

 Q: How will the breaks between the various sections segue into one another? Will there be simple pauses with some sort of narrative explaining the process at the beginning of the concert - or will the conductor announce each section as the concert progresses?
A: Thomas Douglas will provide remarks at the beginning of the concert. The translation of the text is printed in the program for patrons who want to follow the words. Other than that, we will let the beauty of the music and the performance of the choir and orchestra provide the experience for the audience.

Music director, Thomas Douglas
Q: Most people don’t normally think of requiems as being romantic. Why are these two works thought of as being appropriate for presentation around Valentine’s Day?

The choice of Valentine’s Day for the first performances was to play off the "Kiss" part of the title, while the two "French" composers have a very definite warm and inviting musical style.

Q: How many members of the Bach Choir will be singing at the concert? The program lists baritone Thomas Octave as soloist. Can you say a little about him?

There are 85 members in the choir, each of which brings their own special musical ability to the performance. Baritone soloist, Thomas Octave is a former singer in the choir and served as an assistant conductor several years ago. He now conducts his own Westmoreland Choral Society and is the director of the music programs at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. He is a terrific singer and a good friend of the Bach Choir.

Q: The musical accompaniment will be provided by the Academy Chamber Orchestra, Warren Davidson, concertmaster. Can you talk a bit about the orchestra?

The Choir has worked with the Academy Chamber orchestra many times over the past few years. Warren assembles a terrific group of orchestral players and Thomas has a very good rapport with them. Over the years we have performed such works as Messiah, St. John Passion, Mozart’s Requiem, and Israel in Egypt with the ACO.
Q: The concerts will be performed at the First Presbyterian Church in Downtown Pittsburgh. What would you say about the venue in relationship to both the music on the program and as a vehicle for showcasing the voices of the Bach Choir?

First Presbyterian Church has several features that make it a good venue for this work. The acoustics are excellent, and they have a wonderful pipe organ. The organ part in the Durufle Requiem is real tour de force and important to the overall sound of the work. In addition, the available balconies will allow the choir to be positioned on either side of the chancel, providing a wonderful ethereal atmosphere for the audience.

Q: I understand that Music Director, Thomas Douglas likes to search out for intriguing venues in which to present the Bach Choir concerts. Many years ago, much before his time, I was privileged to attend a concert featuring "Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony" outdoors in Bedford Springs near the now beautifully restored Omni Bedford Springs Resort. Where else in the past have you staged your concerts and where might you present them in the future?

We are always looking for interesting and different venues in which to perform. Past spaces have included the Hunt Armory in Shadyside, the Hazlett Theater, St. Agnes Center at Carlow University, Regent Square Theater, and the Hillman Performance Center, as well as several other churches, synagogues and theater spaces.

Q: I see that the season ends in April with the intriguing sounding Jazz Mazz, which will feature the "Mass of Hope" by Pittsburgh’s own guitarist extraordinaire, Joe Negri. Care to let us know what might be in store for those who attend the concert?

Joe, too, is an old friend of the Choir, and a few years ago we commissioned him to write several jazz pieces based on poetry from the Harlem Renaissance. We are delighted to be working with him and his quartet again to present his Mass of Hope. The performances will be at the Hazlett Theater on the Northside, and will feature soprano soloist Maureen Budway and our own artistic director Thomas Douglas singing the baritone solos. Also included on this program will be a wonderful piece entitled Missa Kenya by Paul Basler. Performances are on April 26 and 27, 2014. Hope you will be able to join us for that.
    The Bach Choir of Pittsburgh will present "A Mass Affair - French Kiss" at the First Presbyterian Church, 320 Sixth Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh at 8 p.m. on Friday, February 14 and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, February 16. Ticket prices range from $10 to $30 and can be ordered online at or by phoning 1-888-718-4253 More information is available at

    *Matt Doolry brings over 25 years of experience as a non-profit executive, consultant and board member to the position of Managing Director. In this role he helps meet the challenges of organizational capacity and sustainability. His areas of expertise include fundraising, board development, marketing, short and long-range planning.    In addition, Matthew serves as adjunct professor teaching courses in nonprofit management at both Carnegie Mellon University and Duquesne University. Prior to becoming an independent consultant to nonprofits, he was Senior Consultant with First Side Partners.
Matt served as Director of Administration for the Pittsburgh Opera from 1992-1997. Before coming to Pittsburgh in 1992, Matt was the Executive Director of Young Audiences of Eastern PA for 12 years. This followed an exciting earlier career as an operatic and concert baritone.

Monday, February 3, 2014

"The Mountaintop" - Where a Flight of Imagination Takes an Unexpected Turn

City Theatre's "The Mountaintop" L-R: Albert Jones and Bianca LaVerne Jones Credit Kristi Jan Hoover

    The day before he was murdered on the balcony of a budget motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a prophetic speech in support of striking sanitary workers. One of the speech’s most poignant lines serves as the theme for "The Mountaintop," a play by Katori Hall, now getting its Pittsburgh debut at the City Theatre.
    "Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead," King so impassionately intoned. "But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. . . And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land."
    With a revered historical figure featured as one of the play’s two characters, you might expect a somber look at the last hours before King’s tragic assassination at the age of 39. Far from it. The playwright pairs him with Camae, a sassy, sexy Black woman who enters his motel room with the cup of coffee he ordered from room service. Immediately, she jump starts a 90-minute long dialogue that digs deeply into King’s psyche, explores weighty issues like race relations, the Civil Rights Movement, the role of Black women and more as seen through both King’s eyes and the filter of a low wage African-American female with a comedic gift that’s a match for her resourceful way with words.
    Not intended to be a documentary or a biographical narrative, the play is a vehicle for Hall’s robust imagination, one that takes the audience along a path that explodes conventional impressions and ingrained stereotypes about King.
    Hall capitalizes on prevalent rumors of King’s marital infidelities by leading us to expect some sort of erotic fire will develop between the protagonist and his flirtatious room service visitor. Toying with our anticipation, she then cleverly delivers a whammy that strikes like one of the thunderbolts flashing outside King’s motel room during a Memphis storm. This jarring revelation takes the play into another dimension, a strange and surreal scenario that’s both insightful and exhilarating.
    The play’s dialogue has a wide range of textures, and the subjects covered are just as varied. Hall’s is a gravely script, full of thematic bumps and abrupt changes of focus. One minute King and Carmae seem headed down the road toward having an amorous tryst; the next they glide back into an earnest discussion of racial politics. Moments of soaring nobility glide easily into episodes of Camae’s down-home sass, peppered with a touches of raunch and words any mother would wash out of their child’s mouth with soap. In what might seem an impossible task, director Peter Flynn manages to make the conversations flow as smoothly and gracefully as a lark on wing on a spring day.
    As good as the playwright is, the actors are even better. As Camae, Bianca LaVerne Jones is a living dynamo whose every word and movement feel spontaneous, natural and unscripted. Her energy is amazing, especially when you consider that I saw her perform on a Saturday evening after she’d already done an earlier matinee that same day.
    Albert Jones has the more challenging role in that he has to portray a immensely significant historical figure whose image is emblazoned in the human consciousness. While there were many moments when he seemed to speak with King’s sonorous tone of voice, his rendition of the civil rights leader is almost unrecognizable. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because Hall gives us the off-camera King, where he’s free to "be himself" and, more importantly, the flesh-and-blood person the playwright’s active imagination envisions.
    I’m not so sure how those who see King as a noble and saintly martyr to the cause would react to see him cavorting so playfully with Camae (I cringed at the pillow fight which seemed a bit too far over the edge for my tastes), but I applaud Jones’ commendable portrayal of King as a man with the same fears and aspirations as the rest of us as well as a nobility to which we can only aspire. The audience seemed to share my appreciation for the actors’ work by giving them a spontaneous standing ovation at the end that continued for a longer duration than most.
    Prolific set designer, Tony Ferrieri, ( I wish I had a dollar for every time I mentioned him in a past review) recreates the rather austere budget motel room in which King spent the last night of his life. Years ago on a visit to Memphis, I had the privilege of visiting the Lorraine Motel, which is so nondescript that I have trouble re-envisioning it. So I can’t say how close Ferrieri’s set comes to replicating it.
    What I can say is that Ferrieri creates a surprise of his own at play’s end, when the modest room he creates falls apart to reveal a screen on which a panoply of images is projected that retrace historical events important to both the Civil Rights Movement and American society in general. They underscore the fact that King’s work lives on and that the baton he so bravely carried has been passed on to future generations.
    "The Mountaintop" runs through February 9. For tickets, phone 412-431-CITY (2489).

City Theatre's "The Mountaintop" L-R Bianca LaVerne Jones Credit Kristi Jan Hoover