Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Tale of Two Restaurants

Last week, blessed with both Thursday and Friday night off, I decided to treat myself to a couple of wonderful dinners with friends. To start my dining excursion I met my good friend Esther and a Locale regular at LIPS restaurant on the Upper East Side. Not always located on UES, this is not your average restaurant. Part show and part dinner, LIPS specializes in the very best of "drag dining." All of the servers, bartenders, hosts, and, of course, performers are drag queens. Clearly, this was a "must" on my NYC to-do list. After a few failed attempts and some botched planning, we settled on Thursday as our date with LIPS. Formerly situated in the West Village, I expected something kitschy, campy, draggy, bitchy, and maybe even a little dingy and musty (what do you think is happening under all that makeup, hair, and padding?). While the décor was certainly draggy, it felt more like Medieval Times on ecstasy, very faux glamorous, disco balls a shining. Situated in its new location across from the Outback Steakhouse most often frequented by Liza Minnelli, its new neighborhood gives it distinctly, corporate, unbelievably conservative feel. If I am at a drag show in New York City, one wants tits, dicks, drugs, and swearing, right?

As we made our way to our table, not only did we realize that we were arriving late to the part, but also the memo that everyone else in attendance would be a white girl under the age of 20. Now, we all love young white girls, but they are not my typically accompaniment to a quality drag show. When asked if we were celebrating anything special this evening, I simply retorted, "Thursday." Unbeknownst to us, everyone seemed to believe this was the perfect location for a bachelorette or 18th birthday party as opposed to a dressed up Thirsty Thursday. "Oh Jesus," I thought, as I ordered a Frozen Cosmo, their signature cocktail. This drink proved a metaphor to the restaurant itself: tacky, supersweet, icy, and overpriced. The food was a big OK, living somewhere in between good bar food and average hotel fare. My sole with crab was tasty, but only so because of lots of butter and salt, with unfortunately unexciting texture. Esther found her pasta primavera, the only vegetarian option on the menu, decidedly bland and leaving her wanting more. As for the service, well you know I love me some queens, but they did seem a little preoccupied (we didn't arrive early enough for the balloon show - who eats dinner before 9 anyway?). As one of the only males in the room, I feel I received more than my due personal attention (aka one of them humped me), but how do you raise a fuss with a 6 foot drag queen when your friend doesn't receive a dessert menu? The show itself was entertaining, the highlight being Jesse Volt's fabulous Joan Rivers monologue and Morgan Royale's dead-on Mary J. Blige (it was celebrity impersonation night). However, I was left wondering where would these "girls" be without their glitter, gowns, and jewelry? One has surely never had this thought about yours and mine favorite Tiffany Simone Alexander. At the show's conclusion, Ester and I quickly found the check and attempted to make a somewhat quick getaway, dessert or no. After dishing out more cash than I anticipated, we ventured to our next venue, New World Stages, for the final round of Karaoke Idol, starring my good friend Alissa (who as first runner up, was ROBBED). Causing our usual mix of mischief and ruckus, we popped in and out of the bar, saying hello to friends and locating Esther's dessert just in time for Alissa's fabulous performance. Sure she had the prize in the bag, I politely excused myself, noting the next day's early film shoot. Though perhaps not wowed, this was a fun night in NYC, one I won't soon forget, and a bonding experience for me and the dessertless Esther. She now is working in a macaroon shop and doing quite well.

The next night was quite the different experience. After a day of extra work on Law & Order: SVU, I had plans to meet my good friend Ali (Velma Von Tussle in Millbrook's Hairspray) for dinner. Taking advantage of a special deal on, we decided on Essex Restaurant in the Lower East Side, serendipitiously close to the day's film shoot. Finishing filming a bit early, but without enough time to go home, I wandered around LES for a while, before deciding to step into the restaurant. Soft, loungy music playing, candles already lit, I informed the hostess who I was and that I would be camping out at the bar. After an extended bathroom trip that not only included emptying my bowels but also changing clothes, I reemerged fresh and ready to dine. Citing a corner barstool, I opted for a glass of Brüt and whipped out my usual ensemble of book, notebook, and magazine. After cautiously sipping my first cocktail (I didn't want to overshoot the runway after all), my dining companion arrived just as I was polishing off my glass. Escorted like VIP to our table, my suitcase in tote (it was a "wear 1, bring 2" day at L&O), we settled into our little corner table on one of the restaurant's upper decks. I immediately knew this was going to be the perfect quiet (well except for our respective cackling), intimate dinner after a long day's work. Oozing with gossip and lots of long time no sees, we eventually opened our menus and began to plan our dinner. Drinks, the first and most important matter settled, I decided to stick to Champagne while Ali cocktailed it to her heart's content. Eyeing their oyster selection, we couldn't resist starting with 6 of each, raising our glasses to a very fun evening. After more gossip and storytelling, we finally decided on our dining strategy. After trading favorites ("I'm feeling the duck" "I had salmon for lunch"), sharing stratagems ("If you do the scallops, then I'm doing the crab cake), and pairing palates, we established the course of the evening. "To start," I said, "We are going to share the scallop appetizer and the trio of tartares, and you know what, we better get the calabaza salad as well for something green? Then for the entree, we are going to split the duck." "Medium?" she asked. Mischief in our eyes, we replied, "Medium-rare," throwing caution and credit card balances to the wind. The oysters were delicious, slipping down our hungry throats with the coolest of cool, dressed up with hot sauce, red wine vinaigrette, or simple lemon juice. It was decided that in this battle of East Coast vs. West Coast, the West was the winner, as Ali snagged the majority of those rocky wonders (smart girl). A tray of ice and empty shells remaining, we exchanged our defrocked mollusks for our round of appetizers, thinking that perhaps our eyes were a little bigger than our stomachs. The scallops were perfectly cooked, soft, melting in my mouth, complemented by summer peaches, water melon, croutons (which I could have done without), and balsamic. Ali's trio of tartare was a little intimidating, served with tortilla chips to encourage dipping. The salmon was fresh and lemony, the tuna spiced with just enough scallion and horseradish, both sitting well on a crunchy tortilla chip. The steak tartare, while good, was a little too extreme for both of us, looking a little too much like dog food, and not tasting quite good enough to forfeit our remaining calories (as if we were counting). The salad was unique and yummy, arugula and mixed greens served with sheep's milk cheese, pumpkin seeds, and roasted pumpkin. Creamy and rich, the salad was good, but probably didn't belong amongst all of our summer seafood. Next time, we will know the wiser and order in November. Slowly eating, gabbing away, we finally finished our appetizers to see our duck was on its way. I informed the waitress that would be needing a midcourse of tobacco and nicotine, and to please keep the duck warm. Of due note: smoking kills and if we were at the Locale under my own supervision, a customer's entree never arrives until the appetizers are finished, cleared, and silverware replaced. (Become a fan of Locale on Facebook and read our smashing new review!) After puffing away, taking in the cool (thank God) night air, we returned to the table to gorge on our duck. The duck was tender, perfectly cooked and dressed with a soy-ginger sauce. The accompanying bok choy was yummy and refreshing, though the egg roll was a little to be desired. Then again, perhaps it was crispy and delicious 10 minutes before when it arrived at our table. Licking up the last bits of duck and sauce, we settled for dessert in a glass for our final course, Ali trying their Blood Orange Mojito while I opted for their Green Zinger (green tea vodka, lime, mint, and Pimms). Buzzed, but not falling down, we saddled up with our server Valerie, and headed out into the New York air. Decidedly content, we caught our appropriate trains, one returning her to Brooklyn, one taking me to Queens, having experienced a marvelous, if perhaps a little expensive, evening together. That night I slept very well, waking Saturday refreshed by my two days of galavanting, ready for another long day at the Locale.

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