Sunday, January 19, 2014

Calling All Creative Writers: Get Inspired at Gotham Writers' Workshops.

If you have any interest in writing and you live in or have visited New York City during the past 20 years, odds are you have seen a flyer, advertisement, or course catalogue for “Gotham Writers’ Workshop,” a private creative writing school operating in New York City since 1993.

I recently dropped in for a Friday night “Write-In” session at Gotham Writers’ headquarters in midtown Manhattan. Every Friday night from 6:30-8:30pm, Gotham Writers’ offers a creative writing, brainstorming and socializing session at 555 8th Avenue, between 37th & 38th Streets. There is also a recurring Saturday afternoon “Write-In” at TwoMoon Café in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Friday Night "Write-In" Class at Gotham Writers' Workshop
I wasn’t sure what to expect from my Write-In as I entered a small classroom alone with my notebook around 6:15pm. Several writers were already there, socializing and bonding over mutual interests, or rendezvousing with acquaintances they had clearly made from attending past Gotham Writers’ courses. A few others sat nervously playing with their cell phones or perusing Gotham’s Winter 2014 Program Schedule, not yet ready to make eye contact. Finally, as 6:30pm drew nearer, our instructor, Alexis, began the introductions. About half of the writers in a room of approximately fifteen had participated in a Write-In before, while the rest of us were first-timers. A second class of approximately the same size was also working nearby. As I found out later, at least one person was "on holiday," and had found the Write-In by searching on-line for drop-in writing courses. 

After our introductions, Alexis explained how the Write-In was structured. She would provide us with a writing prompt, a word or phrase we could use for writing inspiration, though we were free to not use the prompt. We would have fifteen minutes to write about anything we wished, and then we would have the opportunity to share and discuss. There were two main rules: consider that anything you hear from another writer is fiction, and provide only positive feedback to encourage maximum creativity. The stop and go writing format was like a great brainteaser, or mental exercise, and there was a welcome twenty minute wine and snack break in between the writing sessions, included in the cost of the Write-In.

The first writing prompt we received was “freeze”. I took this literally, and within fifteen minutes had written two short poems about feeling “frozen,” metaphorically of course. At the time, writing quickly, I was sure that my poems were unfinished and unpolished, and required more work. However, the comments I received at the workshop helped me to realize that both of my vignettes generated full and interesting images for a reader or listener, and did not need anything more. Our second session prompt was "held breathe," a phrase that I also took somewhat literally, as I embarked on a short story about an experience two pre-teens have by a pool, while challenging each other to hold their breathe underwater. I hadn't written creative prose in years, yet, surrounded by fiction writers, I felt  inspired to do so. I did not finish my story in the allotted fifteen minutes, but I did finish it that evening when I returned home. 

There was enough time for each person to share once, and as we shared what we had written, it became clear that no two people had interpreted the prompts in the same way. For example, stories from the "freeze" prompt included a humorous dating anecdote, a poignant Holocaust tale, and a sweet short story about a child contemplating misbehaving during Christmas, but fearing that her mother would alert Santa. In just a short time, some of the writers created very complex characters, and while much of the works written that evening could stand alone, several could have been a springboard for longer compositions. 

The instructor herself was very helpful in encouraging us to share and discuss our work, and she provided helpful feedback to each person who chose to read aloud. In a room full of strangers judging me, I felt surprisingly at ease, and I appreciated that others the room were not shy to share what they had written. Every person contributed to the discussions at least once, even if just to give a comment or praise. Having others compliment my writing style, pick out certain words or phrases that created an emotion for them, or tell me how they related to my work was very satisfying. I was especially taken aback when an unexpected revelation in the last line of one of my poems caused everyone in the room to gasp.

If you have writer's block and need a little push, if you want to exercise your brain (and your pen/computer/tablet), or if you just want to meet other writers, the Write-In is a fun, productive experience. You can register in advance or just drop-in (cash only at door). It's $20 for one session or $45 for a three session pass, payable at the door. Interested in a longer writing endeavor? Gotham Writers' Workshop offers a wide range of writing courses as well as on-line classes. For a limited time, enter code "SAVE20" to save $20 on a writing class package.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

El Maguey y La Tuna: Authentic Mexican Food From Family Recipes at This Lower East Side Restaurant.

If you’re looking for authentic Mexican food in New York City, consider El Maguey y La Tuna, a cozy family run restaurant in the Lower East Side. The inside of El Maguey y La Tuna is designed to resemble a quaint Mexican village, decorated with ceramics and art from Puebla, Mexico. The menu features a wide variety of tempting cuisine, whether you prefer to stick to classics like jumbo stuffed burritos or “quick bite” quesadillas, or you want to branch out and try the more traditional Mexican-style “Especialidad de La Casa/House Specialty” varieties of mole sauce dishes (hint: branch out!). 

Mole Poblano at El Maguey y La Tuna
Although “Mole Poblano” may seem like a familiar option in a city inundated with Mexican chain restaurants, “mole” can mean so much more, and El Maguey y La Tuna keeps in mind that, within Mexico, moles are often reserved for special occasions such as weddings and other “fiestas.” As you’ll learn at El Maguey y La Tuna, with the correct combination of ingredients, blending chiles and spices, one can prepare a unique chocolate dark mole sauce (such as what’s used in “mole poblano”), a hot green mole, or a milder red mole, chipotle chile mole, and more, and you can find dishes highlighting each of these at the restaurant. What’s most interesting is that the same type of mole may vary slightly in taste depending on what region of Mexico the recipe is from. At El Maguey y La Tuna, many of their mole recipes date back generations, handed down from grandmothers to mothers to daughters. In fact, while Maria Luisa Cortez and her father manage the restaurant, Mrs. Cortez can often be found downstairs mixing fresh moles. This is a unique draw for El Maguey y La Tuna, as most other local restaurant order moles shipped from Mexico. As a result, each batch is special and you can really taste the blend of 20+ spices in the mole poblano or the 5 chiles used in the chile mole. No actual blenders are used and everything is mixed, made and mashed by hand, right down to the ground sesames used in the mole poblano sauce. 

WGINY recently attended a press dinner at El Maguey y La Tuna on a cold winter day and was delighted to be greeted with a cup of their warm apple cider, spiced up with a splash of rum, which was just enough to give the drink a kick, but not overpower it (cider also available with tequila). Moving on to appetizers, although it’s not currently on the regular menu, we sampled the spicy green mole sauce by way of soft corn tamales filled with pork. This was contrasted nicely with crispy, crunchy, finger-sized chicken flautas. Topped with creamy guacamole made in-house, the flautas were a perfect introduction to the rich family recipes that keep customers returning to El Maguey y La Tuna. Don’t be afraid to use your hands here. Most main dishes are served with black or red beans and rice, and can be accompanied by fresh corn tortillas, also homemade. The taste and texture of the tortillas reminded me of those I’d tried at a small panadería I visited while traveling in Guatemala, a country that shares a border, and some cuisine, with Mexico. 

Chicken Flautas with Guacamole and Pico de Gallo
Other notable house specialities included: zesty “Tacos de Pescado,” tilapia-based fish tacos, sauteed or fried with green mole sauce; traditional “Chile Rellenos,” described as roasted poblano peppers stuffed with cheese and simmered in roasted homemade tomato sauce; and the distinctive, if not lesser known, “Adobo,” a smoky Mexican delicacy consisting of tender pork marinated in a chipotle mole sauce made with garlic and cumin, among other spices. The Cortez family enjoys presenting cuisine from their own town of Puebla, but also prides themselves on preparing other regional Mexican cuisine. The “Tacos de Pescado,” for example, are more typically found in coastal towns, whereas Puebla is inland. Both the tacos and the “Chile Rellenos” are heartily made with a heaping of cilantro. The sweet, simmered tomato sauce on the rellenos is also based on a family recipe, and the soft queso blanco filling will certainly fill you up. If you’re looking for a vegetarian option, the “Chile Rellenos” are your best bet. Each chile is individually roasted, turned out, battered and fried, and the preparation process can take two hours. Don’t worry though, several batches are made fresh each morning so you won’t have to wait when you’re ready to eat. 

Chile Rellenos
As for drinks, El Maguey y La Tuna mixes up more than six varieties of margaritas, served frozen or on the rocks, and showcasing tropical Latin American fruits, such as guava, tamarind and papaya. Since the restaurant is known for its chiles, there’s even a fiery jalapeño margarita. Not a tequila fan? A lighter option might be the fruit-infused “Maria’s Homemade Sangria,” served red or white, and created by Maria Luisa Cortez herself. When you’re ready for dessert, it wouldn’t be a Mexican meal without flan, and the custard here is smooth and velvety and cooked just right. Try it with a side of café con leche. 

The lunch/dinner menu at El Maguey y La Tuna is available all day, but if you’re dining between 11am and 4pm, you may want to try the very reasonably priced Mexican Brunch menu. For $11.95, you can get Chilaquiles, Huevos Rancheros, Breakfast Enchiladas and other “comida típica,” accompanied by a rejuvenating beverage such as a Bloody Mary, Sangria, or Mexican Hot Chocolate.

If you hail from Williamsburg, you may recognize the name “El Maguey y La Tuna.” The restaurant first opened there in 1992 and was a neighborhood staple until a fire closed down the business in 2001. With a little reimagining, “El Maguey y La Tuna” moved to its new Lower East Side home in 2003. Presently, El Maguey y La Tuna is located at 321 E. Houston Street, between Attorney and Ridge Streets, and is open for brunch, lunch, dinner and drinks, Tuesdays to Sundays from 11am to 11pm. Neighborhood delivery is available (10% off for first-time customers with online promo code 4D3D0). El Maguey y La Tuna can also host private parties at the restaurant, and is available to cater your offsite party or event.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

SingleCut Beersmiths: A Flight You Need to Take.

5 Beer Sampler at SingleCut Beersmiths
Just a few blocks north of the Astoria/Ditmars subway in Queens, in an unassuming semi-industrial area, stands a relatively new but noteworthy entrant into the New York City beer scene. SingleCut Beersmiths, born on December 8, 2012, is the first micro-brewery to open in Queens, complete with a tap room to showcase the rotating draft beers available. All beers are brewed on site and you might even be able to procure a brewery tour if the tap room isn’t too busy.

An assortment of year-round and seasonal drafts. Ask the bartender to surprise you!
SingleCut Beersmiths creates hoppy ales and lagers, or “lagrrrs!”, as they call them. Try a flight of any 5 beers, in 5 oz tasting glasses, for only $10, served on a tray with an informative insert, like a box of chocolates. Some of the beers really focus on piquant savor, such as the dark stout, “Eric! More Cowbell Milk Stout,” with a sharply sweet chocolate taste, or the “Pacific NW Dean Mahogany Ale,” featuring caramel and toffee flavors. Give these darker beers a few tries if you’re not used to the style. The Mahogany Ale especially surprised me as it began somewhat bitter, but became more pleasing with each sip. Having tried ten out of twelve available drafts, the most solid options for the avid beer drinker seemed to be the golden “Billy” IPA varieties — an “18 Watt,” “Half-Stack,” or “Full-Stack,” with varying levels of hops and ranging in alcohol volumes from 5% to 8.6%, and the robust signature lagrrr, “19-33 Queens Lagrrr!” Find your favorite flavor and take it home in a 32 oz Growlrrr!

The softest pretzel you'll find in New York City, at SingleCut Beersmiths.
There is also a small variety of bar food available to accompany your beer. WGINY recommends the soft pretzel, one of the softest you’ll find in NYC. Try dipping the pretzel in mustard before your next sip, and watch the beer flavor instantly merge with the aftertaste of the spicy yellow mustard. Some of the other food choices available include Shepard’s Pie, bratwurst, and a cheese plate.

SingleCut Beersmiths is located at 19-33 37th Street, Astoria, NY, 11105. The tap room is open Thursdays from 4pm-11pm, Fridays from 4pm-1am, Saturdays from 1pm-1am, and Sundays 1pm-8pm. Brewery tours, when available, are Saturdays at 3pm and 7pm and Sundays at 4pm. Inquire within for private parties.

All photos in this post are by WGINY. The main text of this post was originally published by at  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

"The Commons of Pensacola" is Worth a Second Look.

Actress Amanda Peet has taken her first foray into full-length playwriting with The Commons of Pensacola, currently featured at New York City Center, on the Manhattan Theatre Club Stage. The Commons of Pensacola examines the twisted dynamics of a somewhat broken family following the downfall of its patriarch, who had perpetrated a wide-ranging fraudulent financial scheme on innocent investors. Sound familiar? Though it is initially confusing when the play commences, the pieces of the puzzle slowly come together as you realize whose story you are watching, with the inspiration for the characters apparently coming from none other than the family of one Bernie Madoff.

Despite less than glowing reviews from Variety and Daily News, I am more apt to agree with the NY Times that The Commons of Pensacola is full of "rich material" performed in "excellent form". The set is a retirement condo in Pensacola, and the design by Santo Loquasto impeccably captures the atmosphere of the "active adult" residence that is so commonplace in Florida. Veteran actors Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker command the stage as "Judith," the seemingly frail, aging wife, and "Becca," the slightly misguided daughter, of an unnamed white collar criminal who never appears on stage, yet is the central focus of the play. Blythe Danner transcends into her character's spacey, kooky moments just as simply and naturally as her more calculated ones, and her performance is both raw and melancholy. Ironically, and perhaps not surprisingly, Sarah Jessica Parker, whose character is a struggling 43-year-old actress, commences her role with a bit too much overacting, but her expressive outbursts fit her character by the play's resolution. Also appearing in the cast are Michael Stahl-David as Becca's young boyfriend, "Gabe," Ali Marsh as Becca's sister, "Ali," Zoe Levin as Becca's niece, and Ali's daughter, "Lizzy," and Nilaja Sun, as "Lorena," Judith's maid and caretaker. Keep your eye on Zoe Levin, a New York stage newcomer who demonstrates an adept acting talent and is surely a star on the rise. (Levin had a highly regarded supporting role in the 2013 film, The Way Way Back, though I have not seen the movie yet).

In The Commons of Pensacola, Becca and Gabe have ostensibly come to visit Becca's mother, Judith, for Thanksgiving, but it is revealed early on that they have an underlying motive -- to convince Judith to participate in a documentary television show in which she would publicly apologize to her husband's victims for his crimes, despite her own lack of knowledge of his financial misconduct. Also visiting for Thanksgiving is Becca's brash 16-year-old niece, Lizzy, with whom Becca at first seems to have a silly and juvenile relationship with. Enter Becca's sister, Ali, who is convinced that Judith knew more than she admitted to when she testified in the criminal proceedings. Ali has therefore not spoken to her mother in months, though Becca had steadfastly stood by their mother. When Judith has a medical scare, Ali temporarily puts her quarrel with Judith aside and hurries to Florida. Ali is shocked to find Lizzy at the condo, as the teenager had told her mother that she was traveling with friends for the Thanksgiving holiday. However, still convinced that Judith is hiding assets, Ali turns her attention on that and goes rampaging through the condo looking for evidence. Throughout the familial struggle that unfolds on stage, the maid, Lorena, offers both serious and comedic interludes as she tries to assist Judith with some confusing and complicated medical regiments. The resulting interplay of the characters, their emotions, suspicions, and seductions, is startling.

The Commons of Pensacola opened in November and runs through January 26. Individual tickets for the limited engagement are currently sold out, but you can still attend by joining Manhattan Theatre Club. According to the show's playbill, "MTC"  is currently celebrating its 43rd anniversary season "as one of the country's leading nonprofit producers of contemporary theatre." MTC's Artistic Director, Lynne Meadow, who also served as Director for The Commons of Pensacola, has been overseeing productions at MTC for more than 40 years.

All photos for this post are courtesy of Manhattan Theatre Club.