Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why You Should (or Should Not) Have Your Next Party at Hill Country

7/26/11 - Dale Watson stops by Hill Country for an impromptu show
There are a lot of places in New York City that claim to provide "authentic Texas BBQ," but many of them do not deliver. Hill Country Barbeque Market (located on W. 26th Street between 5th & 6th Ave), however, is one that never disappoints. From ribs to brisket to mac and cheese, the possibilities are endlessly scrumptious and succulent.

And while the prices may be a turn off for some, there are always deals to be found at Hill Country, such as their weekly specials and daily dine-in specials. My personal favorite deal is the $12 Longhorn Brisket Chomp, which comes with 1/3 lb of lean brisket, warm cornbread with the most amazing spiced-butter this side of the Mississippi, and choice of a side item ($1 extra for "specialty" sides such as the mac and cheese, but it is a $1 well, well spent!). Top the brisket with some of Hill Country's sweet and tangy barbeque sauce, and your mouth will be watering for more.

With two large floors, it seems like the perfect place to host a party, right? Well, there are both positives and negatives.

The positives: Not only does Hill Country serve up finger-licking good food, have two full bars, plus lots of televisions for watching big sports games (it's a favorite for UT alums -- Hook Em' Horns!), but there is live music nightly in the downstairs bar area, and it's hard not to have a rockin' good time. On Tuesday night, alt-country singer, Dale Watson, happened to be in town and decided to play an impromptu show at Hill Country. Clearly influenced by various genres, including country, blues and rock, Watson's style and talent had me dancing in the aisles and visualizing a man after the hearts of Cash, Twitty and Haggard themselves. After Watson played for nearly two hours, Hill Country continued with its regularly scheduled Tuesday night programming, Rock N' Twang Live Band Karaoke.

The negatives (for large groups who want to enjoy a sit-down meal): Making reservations for a dinner party larger than 12 becomes extremely difficult. If you have 12 people or less, you can make a regular reservation and everyone gets a meal ticket when they arrive, and can order whatever they want. The meal ticket is also a great option for large groups because you never have to deal with the awkward "let's just split it... no wait, I only ordered a soda..." debate, as everyone automatically pays for exactly what he or she ordered. However, once you have more than 12 people, if you want advance reservations, you will be required to book a party package, and a full meal package does not come cheap (you could always choose to wing it and hope they'll have room for a larger party without making reservations, but it's a popular place, especially with live shows nightly). Expect to pay at least $30+ per person for party packages, not including beverages, tax or tip. This may be a great idea when someone else is paying, such as for a corporate event, but it's not the best for a large dinner among friends. The set-up is also not the best for mingling, as large groups tend to be placed at a long table where socialization with anyone except the person sitting next to you is just way too much of a strain.

Overall, I would highly recommend Hill Country as a barbeque restaurant and live music scene. It also works well for smaller parties, but you may want to look elsewhere for your larger group.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Join the Polaris Project For a World Without Slavery

This Thursday, July 28, at 8pm, Polaris Project, an organization dedicated to combatting human trafficking and modern-day slavery, will be holding a benefit show, the "For a World Without Slavery Concert," in Lenox Hill (near the southeast corner of Central Park) at Weil, Gosthal Manges LLP Dining Room, 767 Fifth Avenue (between 58th & 59th Streets).

The event will feature the New York City Bar Chorus, an all-legal community outreach vocal group, among other special treats. The award-winning City Bar Chorus serves as goodwill ambassador for the New York City Bar Association. There will be uplifting musical entertainment running the gamut from classic rock to jazz to gospel to Broadway! It all begins at 8pm.

Get your tickets in advance now. All proceeds will go towards supporting the worthy and critical services provided by Polaris Project in its New Jersey office. Advance tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children. If you buy in advance you get the benefit of a lower-cost ticket and a quicker entry through security into the event. Tickets at the door are $20.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Summer Saturdays are Heating Up at Long Island City's MOMA PS1

If you haven't felt enough heat from the NYC temperatures lately, perhaps you need to spend a Saturday Warming Up at MOMA PS1's Saturday outdoor performance series. Housed in an old school building in Long Island City, PS1 is an affiliate of The Modern Museum of Art, and is full of contemporary exhibits from international artists, many of whom are lesser known than their counterparts at MOMA's midtown headquarters.

Playing Foosball at PS1's Courtyard
The annual Warm Up series gathers experimental musicians, DJs and other performers at the courtyard of PS1 (entrance at the corner of Jackson Ave and 46th Ave), where, for only $15, patrons can spend all day jiving to the live music, playing ping pong, foosball or chess, or relaxing in a variety of ergonomic lounge areas. No outside food or drink is allowed, but there are food and drinks (alcoholic and non) available for purchase in the courtyard, as well as at PS1's indoor cafe. The series kicks off every Saturday at 2pm and goes until 9pm, getting more and more crowded as the set list moves along to the better known performers by the end of the evening (e.g. last Saturday ended with a DJ set from trancey, dancey group, Gang Gang Dance). 

Set by The Miracles Club
In between sets, make sure to visit the museum itself, as admission to the galleries is included in the price of your Warm Up ticket. The museum's rotating exhibitions showcase photography, abstract art, videos, paintings, sculpture and more. One of my favorite recent exhibits (ended July 24) was a showing of Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1973 cult flick, The Holy Mountain, a weird, gross satire that goes above and beyond sacrilegious as it follows a young man who resembles Jesus on a sort of spiritual, baptismal journey... I had not heard of Jodorowsky before, but I will certainly be seeking out his films and graphic novels. 

An Indoor, Open-Air "Skylight" is Among the
Museum's Unique Draws
Another exhibit that is really striking, and which is currently on display through August 8, is Laurel Nakadate's Only the Lonely. Though various mediums, including self-portrait photographs and videos, Nakadate reveals an over-sexualized, self-destructive persona, a woman so beautiful and yet so poignantly sad and lonely. Through some interactions with strangers she works to "exorcise" her sadness (seen on video footage and in photographs). As you peer into some of her photographs, you feel as if you are looking in on a secret world of vulnerability and you cannot help but be captivated by it. 

If you choose to explore all of PS1's rotating exhibits, be sure to set aside a few hours to walk through all of the galleries, and still have time to play outside in the courtyard. Next Saturday's Warm Up schedule features a DJ set by Das Racist, as well as live sets from other performances. See the full schedule here

Bonus tip: MOMA members (excluding corporate members) and Long Island City residents get into Warm Up for free! 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Support the Arts and Celebrate Brooklyn with Bands Like "Animal Collective"

For the 33rd year, BRIC Arts|Media|Bklyn brings summertime music, dance, theater and film to the Prospect Park Bandshell. I have had the pleasure of taking in all sorts of shows at the Bandshell, from a flamenco dance ensemble to concerts by cult indie favorites such as The Swell Season (that duo from "Once") and Blonde Redhead. Every summer, talented artists, many unknown to the larger public (yet always drawing long lines and large crowds), are showcased as part of BRIC's Celebrate Brooklyn! festival, and the majority of the shows are free. This year's Celebrate Brooklyn! lineup has more than 20 free performances on the bill, plus six "benefit concerts" to raise money for the arts (free shows do have a "suggested" $3 contribution and I encourage readers to donate the $3).

Although performances began June 10 with singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, Andrew Bird, the Bandshell is just beginning to heat up, and will continue to bring spectacular artists to Brooklyn through Celebrate Brooklyn's final night this summer, a benefit show headlined by electronic blazers, Cut Copy.

Animal Collective Stage -- Picture by John H.
One band that really heated up the stage recently was experimental rock band, Animal Collective, during a benefit show at the Bandshell on July 12. Animal Collective's polychromatic setup fused lights, animation and sound together, creating a non-stop kaleidoscope of neon beats that make you wish you had some glowsticks and/or could cause you to break out into "the robot" at any moment. Although the mellow-rock sounds of their lengthy discography are often quite lyrical, the live Animal Collective experience was more about jamming to smooth music infused with moments of bizarre experimental electronica. The melodies were fresh and fluid, and it was often difficult to discern where one song ended and another one began, as each beat blended into the next. Although the band did not play what is arguably their most famous song, My Girls, the audience did not seem to mind as they continued to be whisked away into the psychedelic sounds of Animal Collective.

Of the upcoming free Celebrate Brooklyn! performances, I would recommend The Feelies and Real Estate show this Saturday, July 23,  at 7pm, and/or Ra Ra Riot on Friday, August 5, at 7pm. I am also tempted to look into this Thursday's West Side Story "Dance and Sing-Along," which kind of sounds amazing ("In this unique participatory screening of one of Hollywood’s greatest musicals, the lyrics will be shown on Brooklyn’s enormous outdoor screen and “Officer Krupke” will teach audiences some of the famous steps. Sharks enter at 11th Street, Jets at 9th"). Leave a comment if you go to any of these. 

A few things you should know to make the most of your time at the Bandshell shows, whether free or paid:
  • The venue is outdoors. It is a perfect setting, with grass for picnicking and blankets nestled among shady trees toward the back, and plenty of standing room in front. But don't forget your bug spray, sunblock (if you get there before sunset) and water (essential -- at the Animal Collective show, the vendors ran out of water, plus, it's better for the environment). 
  • You may also want to bring a flashlight (to find the bathrooms and/or food and drink vendors after dark).
  • There is always a long line for port-a-potties and you should probably bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer, because that goes quickly too. 
  • There are Emergency Medical Technicians on-site in case you run into trouble (again -- water, water, water!!)
  • Finally, look UP -- there are bats and birds (and sometimes stars) abound. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Robbie Gil Rocks Rockwood Music Hall.

While trying to decide whether to spend an evening at Rockwood Music Hall last night, I stumbled upon the above You Tube Video of emerging indie artist, Robbie Gil, which convinced me that a visit to the Music Hall was in order, as he was playing a set there at 8pm.

Sporting an unmistakable folky singer-songwriter image-- complete with a wicker hat and a (real!) beard--, Gil found a beautiful, comfortable balance between rock, folk, and even jazz. Although the set was intended to be a solo performance, Gil had promised "special guests," which he delivered. Members of "the Band" showed up to play piano and string-bass for assorted songs. Gil himself not only sang, but also often played guitar or piano, while his unique, hearty voice vibrated powerfully over the audience. His original songs ranged from music one might typically expect to hear sitting around a campfire, according to attendee Max P., to fast-paced, wholesome rockabilly toe-tapping. Keep your eyes (and ears) on Robbie Gil. He is next playing in Milford, Connecticut (only a train ride away from NYC...), but I hope he returns to play more NY shows soon.

Robbie Gil Sings and Plays Acoustic-Electric Guitar
As for Rockwood Music Hall, it is a cozy venue for emerging artists like Robbie Gil. There are two main stages and many shows are free, with a one drink per set minimum, although donations for the artists are always appreciated. The Music Hall's performance schedule is updated weekly.

Jing Fong -- A Must See (er, Eat) for Dim Sum Lovers.

Various Dim Sum Items
You haven't really lived the New York dream until you've gone to Chinatown on a Sunday morning for a "dim sum" brunch. Dim sum is a Cantonese tradition that, at least in America, involves a smorgasbord of dumplings, shumai, pork buns and other small Chinese dishes that are typically wheeled around on push-carts from table to table while brunch patrons pick and choose their favorites. Most restaurants that offer dim sum also include hot tea, and the dim sum dishes range from $2-5 each. Each plate is designed to be shared, and chances are, on a busy weekend, you will even end up sharing a table with some strangers (although you do not typicaly share your food with them, you may be expected to engage in some pleasant small talk).

Sunday Dim Sum Lovers Wait 20+ Min for Jing Fong
One of the best places at which I have enjoyed the dim sum experience is Chinatown's Jing Fong restaurant, located at 20 Elizabeth Street, just south of Canal. The dim sum is served piping hot, and the meat and seafood fillings are tasty and fresh. And, despite a dining room that can hold more than 700 people, the wait staff is fairly attentive, at least when it comes to serving food. While you may have to search out a waiter with enough patience to bring water for your table, when it comes to food dishes, you will practically feel accosted by the aggressiveness in which servers try to convince you to try whatever is on their cart.

Opulent 750+ Person Dining Area

Jing Fong is the largest restaurant I have ever been to in Chinatown, and by far has the best dim sum around (runner up: Ping's Seafood). My favorite dish is "dim sum 64." I have no idea what the actual name is, whether in Cantonese or English, but it is basically a sweet beef confit cooked into a thin, crepe-like wrap, and smothered in something that looks like soy sauce but is even more delicious. Many people also enjoy the "pork buns," fluffy dough balls filled with minced pork.

Although the dim sum experience itself may be fast-paced, be prepared to wait 20 minutes or more at popular restaurants like Jing Fong. I promise the wait is worth it.

Pork Buns

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter, Yvonne, I now know what "dim sum 64" is -- a rice noodle roll! Yum!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Put on Your Dancing Shoes & Head to Lincoln Center By July 16

It is currently July 7 and Lincoln Center's annual Midsummer Night Swing is in full swing (pun intended).  This summer season dance event began on June 27, and has only eight evenings left, with the final dance lesson and promenade happening on July 16.

For $17 per dance (pay at the door for single tickets), or $90 for a 6-dance pass or $160 for a season pass, Midsummer Night Swing invites guests of all ages and dancing abilities to dance outdoors, in various styles, right next to Lincoln Center's famed Metropolitan Opera House, at Damrosch Park, located on West 62nd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. 

Each evening begins with a group dance lesson, taught by expert dance instructors, from 6:30 p.m. sharp until 7:15 p.m. (dance floor opens at 6:00 p.m.). Following the lesson, a different band will be featured each night, providing live music for guests to dance until the stars come out. There is a different theme each night, and the lesson for a particular evening will focus on the style of music that the accompanying band best represents. While Midsummer Night Swing once really was only  for Swing-dancers, lovers of other dance styles such as Tango, Samba, R & B, Salsa, Blues, Rock & Roll, Jazz, New Wave and more can now find an evening they can enjoy. 

Western Swing Dancing Demonstration
(Picture by Miki S.)
Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a "Hot Jazz, Western Swing" night with a close girlfriend, Miki S. (who, incidentally, took most of the photos in this post). She told me to wear "cute shoes," and I obliged. I had never attended a Swing night before, and when I arrived I expected that Miki and I would be dance partners for the group lesson, and throughout the evening. 
Miki S. Dances With a Western Swing Partner
(Photo by WGINY/Heather K.)
To my surprise, when I stepped out onto the dance floor, shortly after the lesson had already begun, Miki was busy dancing up a storm with someone else. As this is New York, there is not necessarily any rhyme or reason to who dancers should partner up with, except that one person should be a dance "leader" and the other should be a "follower." To be blunt, if you are straight and fall into the typical dance roles society has come to expect of you, where the man is the leader and the woman is the follower, I suggest coming with someone of the opposite sex. If you gay or lesbian, then decide beforehand who will lead and who will follow, and bring your partner.

Even if you are single or cannot find a dance partner to accompany you, there is no need to worry as, once the lesson ends, the evening eventually comes to resemble something like a junior high school dance -- single gals (and some guys) waiting on the sidelines waiting for a boy (or anyone who is a "leader") to ask for their hand. And arriving with a dance partner does not in any way mean that you will dance more than a few songs with him or her. It appeared to be commonly accepted that everyone just switched partners throughout the evening and danced with strangers. It was a great way to not only meet new people, but to really learn the dances, as each person you partner up with will have a different skill level and may even teach you a thing or two. Throughout the evening, there are also designated professional dancers stationed around the floor who can help you with your moves and/or share a dance with you.

The dancing begins at 7:30 p.m., following the group lesson, and the band then plays until approximately 8:30 p.m. before taking an intermission and then starting up again from 9:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

Last night's featured band was the Western Swing trio, Hot Club of Cowtown, who are from Austin, Texas, but are currently touring. Hot Club's fresh, folky-country style was the perfect accompaniment to the dance moves we had learned during the lesson.

"Hot Club of Cowtown" Provides Some Western Flair For Dancers
(Photo by Miki S.)
One last caveat: leave your briefcases at home, if possible, and put your keys/cellphone/money/ID in a clothing pocket. There are absolutely no bags allowed on the dance floor, not even tiny, tiny purses. You will be required to check your bag(s), for a $3 fee, before entering the floor.

For more information about Midsummer Night Swing, click here.

See the full schedule here.

Not to Worry, Someone WILL Ask You to Dance
(Picture by Miki S.)