Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Tasting Room: Haute Barnyard Dining

SUBJECT The Tasting Room's Colin Alevras


What to eat has suddenly become as important a question as where to eat. Until recently, all we needed to know to eat healthy was that fast food is bad, cooking at home is best, and a night out at a well-regarded restaurant meant a quality gastronomic experience. No longer. With all the investigative reports coming out about our food industry, even savvy eaters find themselves faced with a major dilemma when it comes to eating a decent meal. While shoppers wander around the grocery story perplexed with questions of quality and origin, those who don't cook have an even more complicated mystery to solve - detailed information about ingredients isn't generally disclosed on restaurant menus, and when you ask a waiter he often has no idea where the ingredients have come from.


While localvores believe they have come up with the best solution, time and convenience remains a major issue for those who can't realistically pass the "localvore challenge" on a daily basis. This is why I began searching for restaurants in New York City that claimed to be local-organic. As of late April, not many can present a menu that comes anywhere near a localvore's standards. I feel lucky if I can find a lonely grass-fed burger on a menu. That's partly why The Tasting Room has become my new standard for dining out. Welcome to Haute Barnyard Cuisine.


The Tasting Room's co-owner and chef, Colin Alevras, presents an amazingly complete, wonderfully imaginative dining experience. He and his wife, Renée, opened their first Tasting Room Bar & Cafe November 29, 1999, with a menu of fine wines paired with smaller dishes. Expanded in 2006 to a second establishment, Renee now runs the dining room and business end of their restaurants, while Colin is left to experiment with every culinary oddity he can get his hands on. His curiosity is his guiding principle; his menu changes nightly to reflect his finds. Colin loves the process of hand picking the best ingredients in New York City's farmer's markets and goes out weekly to get most of his produce from local, organic farmers. He's fascinated by the rarest flavors that genetic diversity can provide and prides himself on working with farmers who still use the older, heirloom lines of plant seeds and livestock. The venison he uses, for example, is an old species of the Royal Scottish Red Stag which one of Colin's New York farmers imported to raise as an exotic. Now, this line of deer is threatened in its native Scotland due to accidental hybridization, making purebreds of this variety hard to find. 


Colin gets his seafood from a local Japanese fisherman who often offers him local fish he's never seen sold at market, mostly due to lack of mass popularity (this has the additional benefit of encouraging biodiversity by avoiding the over-fished popular varieties). But this particular fisherman can only offer the names of the fish to Colin in Japanese, which poses some difficulties when trying to prepare a menu. He'll usually jump on the Internet and figure out what it is, what it tastes like, and a way to serve it. More than fish, his Japanese vendor brings him unusual herbs and vegetables from Japan that add new flavors to his menu. Colin has no problem with using items from other places around the world as long as they're not grown here. "People used to trade goods they could not get locally," Colin shrugs. 


Colin and Renee's exquisite taste extend beyond his cooking. When sitting at the bar, I noticed that the coaster my drink sat on, which appeared to be made out of recycled brown paper, oddly began collecting a smudging of wine-colored glass rings. But I wasn't drinking red wine - I was sampling Tasting Room's pale homemade cola-soda, (a recipe that tastes better than Coca-Cola, to this palette anyway). The rings are, in fact, engineered - Colin and a friend designed the coasters to imitate red wine stains as they become wet. The Tasting Room logo, too, is a pattern of red wine stains, something they came up with after a night of wonderful food, red wine, and good friends. The paper on the table at which they'd been sitting was marked all over with red wine glass rings, which in Colin's mind was a sign that the meal had been thoroughly enjoyed.  


Above the bar hangs what I like to think of as the restaurant's mascot - a life-sized coelacanth fish cast in amber created by Rachel Burwick. And that is not the only notable artwork on the walls. The collection is curated by artist, Michael Joo, and includes works by notable artists such as Damien Hirst. The collection comes off as playful and fun, some pieces bordering on childlike (the Hirst looks as if it were made on a children's  Twirl O Paint machine). And especially in this setting, with the raw wood floors and brick walls, the large, heavy silverware, the country-style chairs, and the tables covered in craft paper, the artwork takes on a natural and comforting feeling. Colin pays for his art collection in food, giving the artists a restaurant tab equal the value of their work. 


One need not consume much of this kind of food to feel fully satisfied. At the end of a meal at The Tasting Room I experienced a euphoric high. This is something I've noticed fresh, nutrient-rich food does to me. The highly researched, labor-intensive dishes do not come cheaply, however. I can only afford to get the full three course meal experience on rare, celebratory occasions. But the prices can only be considered fairly when you consider what you're eating: there's rich gustatory history in every bite; the highest quality hand-selected ingredients; a lifetime of vino-cultural experimentation in every glass of wine; museum-worthy art to rest your eyes on; and so many other well thought-out details to absorb and contemplate. When the bill comes I can only think of the amazing value that I've received. When I'm really craving the quality of The Tasting Room (and I do so pretty often) without a huge dent in my wallet, I will go in and treat myself to their Old MacDonald Burger. At $23 it's something of a bargain. And while I'm at it, I'll have one of their home made sodas. If nothing else, I suggest just coming in one day to try the coffee, which I promise you will be an exceptional experience in itself.   

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Balancing Act

charu sitting majestic

PHOTOGRAPHER Victor Gutierrez
ALL CLOTHES thrift store finds

My model, Kiran, is a perfect example of a lady who can maintain her poise while connecting to the many influences of contemporary life. She comes from a traditional South Asian family, but is a first generation American. She recognizes the need to honor her family's cultural traditions; surrounding herself with textiles and tapestries with ethnic distinction and ancient spiritual references, and maintaining much of her mother's traditional cooking as a major part of her diet. 

charu thinking

Yet she also wants to create her own path. She's influenced by the American society around her, where women have taken on new, powerful roles in the many relationships in their lives. She regularly re-evaluates where her traditional and modern values clash to create harmony within herself. As she likes to put it, she's "expressing her diverse cultural identity: to be both South Asian and American... one culture does not have to negate the other."

charu w bell

Kiran works as a teacher, where she's confronted daily by the newest generation of students. In her attempt to encourage her students' interest in learning, her work requires her to embrace the culture of a new generation. She also needs to keep the students' and her own emotional states in check and her classroom in order. She needs to be - and appear to be - a professional, authoritative figure. Her personal interests can often diverge from this classroom persona. In the classroom, she generally wears heels and professional separates, while her weekend appearance, with it's ethnic-hippie flavorings, might jar her students who look to her expecting stability and sobriety. Thus there are times when she feels her clothes are at odds with her complete being, giving her a bit of a wardrobe identity crisis. 

charu final pink dress

I offered to help 
Kiran address this issue, creating Spring looks that express her personal interests and passions using color, textiles, and accessories, while mixing in structured, tailored silhouettes to address her professional need to look stately, mature, and polished. I see no reason why the two can't be in harmony all week long if approached the right way. I suggested that she ask a couple of questions when she got dressed for school: Do I look like a caricature of one of my high school teachers? On the weekend: Do I look too New Age-y in these combinations? Do I look like too typically "Indian" in this outfit? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, I suggested she follow up with: What item is pushing this outfit too far in the direction of either stereotype? Once the troubling item is pinpointed, trade it out for something from the opposite side - if leaning toward school marm, throw on a colorful batik scarf. If leaning toward hippie, throw on a blazer. Mix it up so no one theme overwhelms any other. After all, there's no one obvious theme resonating within most people's being.


She may not be wearing tie-dyed tights to class anytime soon, but I hope that our experiment encouraged a new way for her to look at dressing for work and life. There's no reason why anyone should ever feel disconnected from themselves while they're trying to keep up with other people's expectations.  The more in line your appearance is with your heart, mind, and soul, the better the universe will know how to receive you in an appropriate manner.  

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Bohemian Gold

SUBJECT Petra Aurelia Langerova

You see before you Petra Aurelia Langerova, a captivating woman with deep, mysterious waters swirling beneath the surface. Her unique style could be described as abstract-modern with flashes of the surreal. But it's the many ways she expresses this style that point to her true bohemian nature.

Upon entering Petra's home, one encounters a number of curiosities. Most of the art works on the walls are random objets trouvés that she has transformed: discarded card stock from denim pattern-makers, balls of packing straw, little bits and bobs of antique lace... Petra somehow has the ability to give a beautiful second life to things that look like rubbish to other people. 

Maybe being raised by a Slovak family with long cultural and intellectual history has something to do it. The Patriarch of the family, her grandfather, was an activist, idealist, scholar, and philosopher. As the founder of a Slovak human rights organization, he devoted this life to fighting for humanity and justice. This led to his exile to Vienna. From Vienna, he communicated to his family regularly via letters, directing his family's religious, moral and philosophical training. Petra actually never met the man during her childhood, but he had a huge impact on her upbringing and beliefs. She was named by her grandfather, who felt her name would be an integral part of the woman his granddaughter would become. "Petra" is Greek for the word rock, and "Aurelia" is Latin for golden

Her Father functioned similarly in her family, upholding as an ideal the pursuit of creative inspiration and purpose. He is a rare breed of craftsman and sculptor, who devotes his life to creating and restoring the architectural detailing in many of the older Royal family homes of Eastern Europe.

With the men of the family busy, Petra's mother and grandmother raised the next generation. Her mother, a ceramic art teacher, chose to let her children grow up in a way that would give them a mindset without boundaries, and the freedom to explore their imaginations. She reinforced the ideals that her husband lived by: follow your heart's desire, and pursue creative expression as the utmost priority in life. Her Grandmother, with her traditional Catholic beliefs, directed Petra to lead a life on the moral high ground, daily reinforcing messages that Petra's grandfather sent in the mail. And while one would never know it by her constant expression of individuality, Petra has a twin! This fact is only hinted upon in the rare occasions Petra mentions the emotional pangs and dreams she and her sister experience while the other is going through difficulties on the other side of the world.

Some of Petra's tales sound more like fables than real life:
There's the story of Petra at age 17, when she decided to visit a friend in London whom she had met while wandering Slovak streets. The two of them had made a verbal agreement that they would meet in London on a certain street, at a specific time in a year. With the near arrival of that date, Petra told her mother she was going to London. She climbed on a boat alone as her mother waved goodbye, and landed in Glasgow, Scotland. From there she hitch hiked her way to London. On her arrival in London she paused momentarily and thought, "How did I get here? What am I doing in this foreign city?" Shortly thereafter, her friend showed up just as they had agreed, and the girl whose dirty, dishevelled appearance she had pitied when they first met was actually British aristocracy! 

Petra's ability to break through boundaries has led her into some unusual life experiences. In need of a place to stay, she moved in with a friend's Muslim Pakistani family who adopted her and her first child as honorary family members. She often found herself wondering how this family could let her into their lives with such generosity and kindness. Not only was Petra an active family member, helping with the cooking and daily chores, but she ended up becoming someone that all the family members could freely confide in!

Petra's audacious spirit has her constantly looking for new experiences in life. Her biggest adventure started when she was a year away from graduating Architecture School in Slovakia. Luck handed her a chance to study in United States and her curiosity could not turn down an opportunity to see the world. After she finished her year study, instead of heading home as per the original plan, she headed to New York City. Upon arriving at the airport, she didn't have a penny to pay for the cab she rode in. Again, she paused to ask herself, "How did I get here? What am i doing in the foreign city?" But she was too inspired to be discouraged. To this day, she has yet to return to Slovakia to finish her Architecture studies. Life in New York has taken it's own course, and Petra's swum along with it!

Her intuitive heart, romantic abandon, and exceptional upbringing has made her who she is today - a fair-minded but shrewd businesswoman, an amazingly talented designer, and a wonderful role model as a single mother to her two children. She raises her kids in her family's proud tradition; to inspire creativity, freedom, and fearlessness with a plan for making their future a bright adventure. 

Looking at her, I get the feeling she is living out a beautifully written, intriguing tale with a preordained destiny. But regardless of destiny, Petra will continue to march into her future looking straight ahead. And on the path behind her will be a trail of golden dust.

I hope my readers found this portrait as inspiring as I find my dear friend, Petra. Please feel free to add your comments  and suggestions about how to lead a golden bohemian life.

Best wishes,

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Return of The One-Piece Swimsuit

MODEL Katherine McLeod

What has happened to the one-piece bathing suit? It seems to have disappeared from pool sides, sea shores, and swimsuit racks around the world. While there was a time when it epitomized chic, it's now only reserved for a select few soccer moms, plus-size women, or seniors who would rather not show everything off. Are these the only women with any modesty left?

Recently, I decided it was time to join the ranks of the modest few, though modesty had little to do with it. The reasoning behind my decision? If everyone else was going to wear bikinis, then a one-piece had to be most stylish the way to go. Don't get me wrong, I've been known to don an itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny, but after seeing women, their babies, their mothers, and their mother's mothers wearing skimpy bikinis I came to the conclusion that this trend has run its course.

There was a time when girls around age 12 understood that wearing a bikini signified their passage into teen-dom. But that time is no longer. Back then, little girls ran around in a one-piece suit or just bottoms dreaming about the day their mothers would allow them to wear bikinis. Now, there seems to be no age requirements, as tots happily strap on flappy little triangle tops that never seem to stay in place for the obvious lack of anchorage.

The same goes for women. Ladies used to draw a line somewhere around age 25 that signified their ascension into Womanhood. Once out of their early twenties, they decided that it was much more dignified to wear a one-piece suit. Dignity? Who needs that? We've got freedom! Where has it gotten us? Well, for one thing, women are left in a rather awkward position when ordering a drink at the poolside bar with everything just hanging out. If that woman is not you, then you're most likely staring at her.

In this respect, the one-piece is the true liberator. You don't have to worry if anything is falling out, or if anyone has noticed the way your tummy wobbles when you walk. You can relax and be the image of self confidence every woman should be when showing their figure off. And let's face it, wearing a one piece is not exactly the same thing as wearing a curtain. When asked, men like ladies in bikinis, one-pieces, nude, whatever. Most guys aren't that picky. The female figure is sexy however you want to display it.

But aside from the freedom from self-consciousness, the one-piece offers several other advantages: for a lady who is more well-endowed the physical support that many one-piece suits have to offer is unmatchable in a bikini top. Some one-piece suits come engineered with additional structure built in to help avoid that unflattering chest flattening, and to help support our feminine form. Secondly, many one-piece suits present a woman's figure as athletic even when she is not so inclined. The one-piece is still the silhouette of choice for Olympians and ballerinas alike. That reference to health and fitness is one most women should love when putting on a bathing suit.

Then there is allure. Admittedly, most women want to draw eyes when they put on a swimsuit. But in a sea of bikinis and belly buttons, there are very few women who actually can draw any attention without making a spectacle of themselves. However, the one-piece bathing suit strikingly stands out amongst all of the bikinis with its bold, block silhouette. It creates mystery, leaving much to a viewer's imagination. I'd rather leave people wishing to see more than begging to see less.

Here's where many of my readers might say, "But I'm wishing for more..." sun, that is. The biggest argument most women have with the one-piece is the tan line. I'm personally too fair to bother with tanning, slathering on 30+ sunblock in order to avoid skin damage, wrinkling, and cancer. But for those ladies who do tan, I would suggest trading out multiple suits with different neck and back lines to avoid the same tan line repeatedly. Same rule applies for your bikinis, and you could even interchange your bikinis and one-piece suits to make sure that you get that even tan you're working towards.

I hope this has gotten some of you ladies out there to reconsider the one-piece swimsuit as an option. Please let me know if any of you still wear a one-piece. I'd be interested to hear about any additional benefits that I've overlooked.

Best wishes,

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Bespoke Bride

MODEL Bella LaGosi
DRESS, ACCESSORIES, HAIR & MAKE-UP Starbuck Sister Collaboration

For many brides-to-be, picking their wedding garb is an intense process. What a woman wears to begin her new life can say a lot about her, but quite often finding the right wedding gear is nearly impossible. Many dresses lack originality and fail to describe the brides that will be wearing them. And when one actually finds a dress that does express something of oneself, it usually costs far more then any reasonable bride would spend. Much of the wedding industry counts on the likelihood that brides will be utterly unreasonable.

This was the dilemma that this young woman faced. In the end, she decided to make her own dress and asked for advice on how to go about doing it. Hers was going to be a beach wedding, so she wanted her dress to be comfortable, and not so tailored or formal. But this is a Lady of Luxury, and polish, so casual was not going to cut it either. 

First step: INSPIRATION. She began to collect ideas, pulling magazine pages, searching for heroines that she identified herself with, and finding scraps of fabric for colors and textures that she liked. After weeks of gathering images and materials, she finally landed on her inspiration from a rather surprising source: Jessica Lang as the Bride of King Kong.

Not typical by any means, but she liked the tribal styling of the gorgeous, revealing gown. We also thought this look was achievable because it allowed us to approach the design in a Paul Poiret way: simple in form, with the fabric, color and embellishment being the main emphasis (coincidentally, Poiret - like my sister - claimed that he could not sew well). She ended up choosing champagne colored silk charmeuse for the base with a matching silk gauze for the accent to add a light and airy effect.

Next came the construction. For years, I've kept long wide panels of silk on hand as main accessories; they could be turned into turbans, sashes, and even halters when necessary. I decided we could start with the easy-to-sew sash structure to create the base for the drape of her dress. I instructed her to buy 6 yards of wide fabric, cut it directly down the center, length wise, and make doubled tubular panels out of each half. This gave us 2 sashes to work with that were about 1.5' x 6 yards in dimension.

To drape it, we put one sash over each shoulder, extending them evenly down her front to the floor. Then we made knots at the high point of each shoulder to make the panels narrower through the bust. From there we decided to attach the two panels together at the front from the waist to the floor so that the skirt would be closed down the center front.

At the back of the dress, we criss-crossed the panels under her shoulder blades and wrapped them in opposite directions around her waist, creating a sash and a trim waist. While wrapping her waist, we made sure to leave enough fabric for her train to be at the desired length. We tied a knot at her center back, tucking and overlapping the two panels into the sash to make the appearance of one center back panel. The knots all played a crucial role in anchoring the dress and keeping it from shifting while allowing us to avoid extra sewing, zippers or other closures.

This drape left us with a loin cloth effect at the skirt, and we decided to use the silk gauze to create hip panels. We attached the silk gauze to a shell-beaded belt, to go over the skirt of our dress and cover her hips in a feminine, flattering way. The end result was a skirt with four full panels that overlapped enough so that the dress was demure when she was standing still in the ceremony, but would move and give flashes of her legs when she danced at her reception.

The last details were the accessories. She decided that a feathered headdress would best suit her style. I offered to make this part of her wardrobe, since headdresses happen to be a passion of mine. With purple being her favorite color, we decided to incorporate purple into the braiding of the headband, and felt that albino peacock feathers would be a good replacement for a white veil. To complete her look for the actual wedding, she incorporated the sea theme by adding shell bracelets and a long strand of black fresh water pearls clustered around her neck.

I hope this gives viewers an idea of how it's possible to create your own vision, even with a normal budget and minimal sewing skills. All it takes is inspiration, a small amount of know-how (or the advice of someone with it), and the determination to see your project through. If you have any questions about how-to or any other examples of home made dresses, please add them to the comments. Bella completed her dress in one month's time. Not bad for someone who's about to get married! 

Congratulations Lady!
Best wishes,