The Next Great Weekend Getaway: Norwalk, CT

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Amongst NYC’s many great failures of infrastructure and urban planning, the lack of worthwhile public spaces connecting the citizenry to the city’s waterways is a particularly glaring one. But what if you could simply jump an MTA train, head an hour north and be around all sorts of watery wonders?

You’d be in Norwalk, of course – one of Connecticut’s most urbane, good-looking harbor towns, and arguably a still under-considered getaway from Gotham.

Tri-Staters, obviously, have the tendency to make for New England every spring and fall for all the obvious reasons. But we’ve been popping up to Norwalk for as long as we can remember, especially for its restaurant-rich, historic SoNo district – which also happens to be right on the harbor.

Come spring, the beaches, bicycling and boating opportunities are like siren songs for stressed out urbanistas. But we recently made a well-fed winter weekend of it, complete with one of the prettiest snowfalls we’ve ever experienced.

Here’s what we did.

(Check out the Fairfieldista Instagram page before you go.)

 

Pedego Sono

Proprietor Mike Heslin has a plan: he wants to make the word “Pedego” a verb. In other words, “Let’s go Pedego today!” And once you try these exceedingly cool electric bicycles, you’ll wonder why it took so long for someone to make this a…”thing.” The bikes themselves have compelling names like the Interceptor, the Trail Tracker and the Boomerang – and they’re actually quite stylish rides. Essentially, you can shift constantly back and forth between peddling them like regular bicycles, and throttling them like motorcycles – so, obviously, it’s a ridiculous amount of fun, especially trekking around water’s edge.

 

 

Simple Sono

Admit it, there have been innumerable times when you just thought to yourself, “How can I get that dashing, cultivated Jeremy Irons or Kate Winslet look?” The elegant Simple Sono boutique answers that and many more of your most pressingly urbane fashion questions. To be sure, there’s almost something of an Anglophilia at work in their stylistic mission. They stock men’s and women’s – quite a bit from Europe – and you’ll find labels like Adriano Goldschmied, Majestic Filatures, and Calleen Cordero accessories. Don’t forget to pick up one of the ethereal LAFCO candles.

 

 

Factory Underground

This is a great diversion from the usual, especially for music geeks. Book a tour of this thriving studio, and enjoy the anecdotes of owner Ethan Isaacs and his amiable staff. You’ll get a behind-the-scenes peek at vintage guitars being repaired; perhaps meet the next great singer-songwriter singing or writing that next great song in one of the rehearsal rooms; and watch raw video footage being edited into something exciting. Check with them about the occasional on-site special event.

 

 

El Segundo

Despite the Latino moniker, El Segundo is actually a thrillingly international affair. The menu is broken up into continents, so you can make a meal of Venezuelan arepas, Vietnamese banh mi, and Portuguese style grilled sardines. Pair it up with a Japanese Road Soda gin cocktail or a Jamaican Red Stripe, and it’s like doing an epicurean world tour. We loved the Indian curry soup and the insanely delicious esquite shaved corn with cotija cheese. The crowd is cool, the music is well chosen reggae and dub.

 

 

Beach House Sono

If you’re counting the days until summer, this is a great place to wait it out. The decor is appropriately breezy and beachy, the vibe totally laid back. No surprise, seafood dominates the menu, from organic Scottish salmon to seafood risotto to rock shrimp tempura. Landlubbers should try the truffle mushroom flatbread and goat cheese wontons. Chef Kane Xu also lords over the super-trendy Beach Cafe, the sister restaurant in Greenwich.

 

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Cigar Factory Outlet

A top international cigar seller, their lounge is one of the few places that you can actually still sit and enjoy a luxurious smoke and sophisticated tipple. We loved kicking back with an Oban single malt and a super smooth Oliva Serie V Melanio Figurado, 2014’s Cigar Aficionado #1 pick (they also recommend the Oliva Serie V Belicoso, and the Padron Serie 1926 No. 2 Natural), while owner Brian Shapiro explained to us that the highest quality cigars are now coming out of Nicaragua, and not, as generally assumed, Cuba. They also offer their own El Cobre line from that country, and boast an in-house hand roller, Daniel Cruzeta, for the ultimate bespoke experience. They’re planning more nights with live music and / or DJs.

 

 

Peaches Southern Pub & Juke Joint

This will automatically be one of your favorite restaurants ever. Run by the charismatic Greer Fredericks, the bar up front is a totally buzzing local scene. And in the elegant main dining room, you could actually score big points for atmosphere on date night. The Southern-influenced food is just ridiculously good: the Cajun confit wings are almost indescribable, as are the truffle grits and the pulled pork mac ‘n’ cheese – which might just ruin you for everything else you ever eat. There are also unexpected dishes like roasted butternut squash & burrata salad, or the crispy pork shank cassoulet. Bonus: enjoy a hipster-free live music scene at the wood-beamed, exposed-brick upstairs venue.

 

 

Washington Prime

This is as good a steakhouse as any we’ve been to in the last year. And though they’ve got a ribeye that might just change your life, you’ll literally swoon over the steak tartare with truffle vinaigrette and quail egg, or the thick slab bacon with their signature sauce. Specialties also include the roasted duck and the crab-stuffed filet of sole. Their happy hour, particularly, is totally aces: come for specially priced Copp’s Island oysters and littleneck clams, as well as nicely priced signature cocktails. Atmospheric interiors are rustic-industrial chic, with hanging vines wrapping around dangling bulbs.

 

 

Even Hotel Norwalk

A new Intercontinental brand devoted entirely to health, the vibe at the Even Hotel Norwalk is somewhere between cool, retro airport lounge and casual, contemporary spa – all done in soothing, mellow earth tones. There’s a top class Athletic Studio in house, rooms with workout equipment (including fitness channels on the television) and eucalyptus fiber bedding for that special calming effect. The Cork & Kale Market Bar, which also has organic grab and go food items and awesome breakfast smoothies, is replete with comfy, wi-fi-equipped public spaces for working or just people watching over an evening cocktail. A concept hotel that actually does what it says on the label. (There are outposts in Brooklyn and Manhattan, with Seattle, Pittsburgh and Miami on the way.)

 

 

And Yet More Sono…

Stop in for a Deep Chill session at Saraswati’s Yoga Joint; pick up Game of Thrones worthy accessories at Knotted Bone Leatherworks; do some kitschy Euro food shopping at A Taste of Holland; hit trendy Mecha Noodle Bar for pho and ramen, Match for great classic cocktails, Barcelona Wine Bar for happy hour tapas, and Troupe 429 for the city’s best LGBTQ nightlife scene. And do not miss Norwalk’s amazing Maritime Aquarium.

 

 

BlackBook ‘Rooms With a View’: Kimpton Hotel Palomar Philadelphia

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There are so many reasons we never tire of weekending in Philadelphia. And this time out we were beside ourselves with aesthetic joy, as we were graced with a not insignificant snowfall, turning Center City into a sparkling winter wonderland.

It only served to highlight the genuinely festive ambience of our chosen hotel: the cozily stylish Kimpton Hotel Palomar. Positioned as it is along the buzziest stretch of an always buzzing S. 17th St, it put us within a few blocks ramble of so many of our fave Philly hangs: nouveau British pub Dandelion, bougie-chic a.kitchen+bar, Italophile hotspot Tredici Enoteca, and punky-charming wine bar Vintage. Though our genuinely most treasured moment was meeting a darling little French bulldog named Layla, during the hotel’s spirited evening wine social (in this case, nicely wintered up by the inclusion of whiskeyfied hot toddies).

But we must admit to actually spending way too much time upstairs in room 802 – in good part to simply gaze tirelessly upon the awe-inspiring view just outside our window. It is one of the Palomar’s plush “Spa Rooms,” so the view gloriously extends to the luxurious and picture-windowed bathroom – which you really must see to truly appreciate. (It flaunts a marble-trimmed bathtub that might make Marie Antoinette jealous).

It all looks ethereally out onto the former First Baptist Church, now the Liberti Church, dating all the way back to 1900. Replete with dramatic Roman and Byzantine influences (there are interior references to Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia – make sure to have a look), it appears more like a house of worship you’d stumble across somewhere in the Yorkshire countryside. Completing the architecturally sensational view is the historic Allman building (dating to 1910, by Baker and Dallet), just across the street.

It’s all so inspiring as to make you simply not want to leave the room. And thusly, we recommend just staying in and ordering up some Thai curry mussels and crab-avocado toast from the hotel’s Square 1682 restaurant, who can pair up it up with a bottle of their actually quite good namesake Cabernet or Chardonnay.

Alas, despite the holy proximity, personal redemption is not included in the room rate.

 

An Utterly Transcendent Food + Wine Tour of New Zealand’s North Island, Part II

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On our recent epicurean visit to New Zealand, we ate and drank our way across the North Island landscape to rapturous effect. Truly, the level of excellence we encountered could hardly be conveyed.

Part I of the story detailed our time in Auckland and Waiheke Island. The second half of the trip took us to Wellington and Hawkes Bay.

 

Wellington

If, as we exclaimed within our first hours of arriving in Auckland, Seattle is the American city that most comes to mind when taking in the curved harbor and overcast skies of NZ’s largest town, then Wellington, the country’s capital, is its Portland. Also situated on the banks of an expansive body of water – in this case Wellington Harbour – it exudes a more streetwise and bohemian vibe than its cosmopolitan northern sister; and as such, the food and wine offerings took us down a more adventurous road.
Our digs for the night were the hip QT Museum Wellington, and on our first evening there we took shelter from the rain and wind – the town has actually been dubbed the windiest city on Earth – at their opulent Hippopotamus bar and restaurant. Situated on an upper floor with views of the harbor, the dazzling space, with its mirrored bar, gold chandeliers, stuffed peacock, and Louis-the-something style armchairs sort of transported us to the Ancien Regime era; we may or may not have ordered absinthe. While the dinner menu leaned traditionally French, with escargots, lamb rump, braised Wakanui beef cheeks, and gratin dauphinois dominating, we were excited to see they had vegan options, and opted for the simple and delicious salade végétalienne of quinoa, pinenuts, goji berries & baby spinach – along with an impressive bottle of NZ Pinot.

 

QT Museum Wellington
The following morning we set out to explore downtown, and were met with further evidence of the city’s mind-meld with the Pacific Northwest: its obsession with coffee. Our meeting with John, the manager and bean specialist of Mojo Coffee, had us inundated with more information on the various ways one can make, drink, and basically live a caffeinated existence than we would ever have thought existed. That the company has over 30 outlets in a city of 400K (two thirds the size of Portland) was testament to the populations’ serious caffeine jones.
A charming development in downtown Wellington has been the refurbishment of various alleyways into colorful and art infused ‘laneways.’ As traversing these walkways between streets is a great way to navigate the city, having them splashed with color and street art has brought the crowds; bars and restaurants have naturally flourished.

 

 

It was in one such vestibule that we found the perfect lunch spot in Egmont St Eatery, a light-filled modern café packed with well-dressed millennials and hipsters on laptops; as does Brooklyn and Portland, so does Wellington, apparently. The menu was a delight and we tried the fried fish tortilla with avocado mousse, cabbage, and horopito sauce, and braised paua with dirty rice, shiitake, and crispy shallots.
That evening, following an afternoon exploring the downtown shops, and then a drive into the hills to the very cool Zealandia bird sanctuary, we hit another hip laneway for dinner at the excellent Shepherd – which had us wondering if we were ever to have a questionable dining experience in NZ. Our feast of fried rice with kale, ginger, kimchi, sesame, peanuts, and fried egg and sous vide fish with miso glaze, carrot, ginger, turmeric, and saffron aioli left us in genuine epicurean contentment.

 

 

 

Hawkes Bay

For our final stop on our week-long tour, we took a 55-minute flight northeast of Wellington to the serene vineyard-and-animal-sanctuary-studded region of Hawkes Bay. Distinctly Mediterranean in look and feel, and with the best weather we encountered on our trip, HB was where the enormity of NZ’s Tolkien-like terrain was most apparent.
Lunch at Elephant Hill Winery was our first order of business, and after a delightful tour of the place with CEO Andreas Weiss, we settled in to an elegant repast of oysters and grilled game fish, squid, nam jim, bok choy, fried shallots, and pineapple, accompanied by an 2016 Elephant Hill rosé; Hawkes Bay was quick to show us its sophisticated side.

 

 

The history of HB and its largest city Napier is punctuated by a devastating event; in 1931 a cataclysmic earthquake not only leveled much of the town, but raised the land as much as eight feet, adding close to ten thousand acres of newly dry land to the area. Napier was rebuilt in the style of the time, namely art deco; and while many buildings have been subsequently remodeled, the place remains one of the most intact deco towns in the world.
It was along this quaint pastel backdrop that we strolled on our first evening, eventually alighting for dinner at the thoroughly 21st Century restaurant Bistronomy. Chef James Beck guided us through the menu, which verged on the molecular, without being too ionospherey (Parks & Recreation reference). Sections named Protein, Raw, and Minerals sounded more daunting than they were – our grilled flounder with beetroot & horseradish hollandaise was pretty much as advertised, and wonderful, while the chocolate brownie with lavender, sour mousse, and condensed milk sorbet, while equally amazing, did actually verge on the surreal.

 

 

The following day had us up and out of our rooms at the charming art deco (natch) Masonic Hotel, for a tour of the town, which culminated in lunch at Mister D. To say that this writer is a Rolling Stones fan would be to dredge up that annoying trope about the Pope and Catholicism; we were thusly thrilled that the restaurant was named for their song “Dancing With Mister D” – they even throw annual Stones-themed dining events. Having thus decided this was the best restaurant on Earth, we almost forgot about the food. But we were delighted with their novel takes on the basics: rocket salad, roast fish, poached eggs and the like were all treated with reverence and a touch of whimsy – and their signature doughnuts were a huge hit.

 

 

On our last evening on the island we were treated to the most opulent epicurean experience of the trip, in the form of a progressive dinner. For the uninitiated a “progressive” is where you go to a different restaurant for each course, which may sound like a bit of work; but when the places you go are all highly-regarded wineries – and you’re ferried around in an SUV by a bloke named Gareth who keeps filling your champagne glass – you easily rise to the challenge.
We started with bubbly at the top of a mountain range and progressed through antipasto at Vidal, entrees of Te Mata mushroom and Comté pithivier with wild weed salad and Hohepa haloumi, vine roasted beetroot and burnt honey at Craggy Range’s Terroir restaurant, all accompanied by signature selections of vino, before succumbing to dessert at NZ’s oldest winery, Mission Estate. Established in 1851 by French missionaries, the estate is in the grand tradition of mansion wineries, with a plantation style great house with wraparound terrace, where we took our crème brulee and port, for a final look at the cascading mountains in the distance. It was not the first time we’d thought of postponing our flight home.

 

 

 

72 Glamorous, Artistic Hours in Doha

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Considered to be one of the wealthiest and fastest growing cities in the world, Doha is also surprisingly liberal. And significantly, Americans can now visit without a visa.

Though Qatar became a sovereignty only 46 years ago, it now has the highest per capita GDP in the world – which goes a long way to funding  a flourishing arts and cultural scene, to match an ever expanding landscape of plush hotels, high-end restaurants and other opulent attractions in the capital. With its convenient proximity to Asia and Africa, Doha is often seen as a convenient transit point to exotic destinations such as the Seychelles or Bali; but there are also plenty of reasons to stay and visit this dynamic and modern metropolis – especially if you’re feeling like a few days of unapologetic luxury.

 

See

The Museum of Islamic Art is an architectural marvel designed the by the legendary I.M. Pei, set spectacularly along the waterfront. It houses a comprehensive collection of masterpieces collected from three continents dating from the 7th to the 19th century – but it’s worth going for the architecture alone. Powder and Damask: Islamic Arms and Armour, runs through May 2018.

 

 

Another waterfront gem, the Katara Cultural Village is the center of Qatar’s most important arts and cultural programs, and comprised of a complex of galleries, theaters, and concert halls. It hosts international festivals, performances and exhibitions. Currently, Melodies at Katara’s Premises allows anyone to register and present their musical talents.
At the heart of Doha’s flourishing contemporary art scene are The Fire Station Artist in Residence program and Garage Gallery. In 2012, this – yes – former fire station was converted to a creative space that offers a nine-month residency program to emerging artists from around the world to develop and complete their individual projects.

 

 

Experience a taste of Bedouin culture at the bustling Souq Waquif, designed after traditional Qatari architecture. Explore the labyrinth of small shops selling traditional clothing, souvenirs, spices, perfumes, and other curiosities – including falcons – and savor authentic Middle Eastern dishes from one of the many intoxicating street stands.
Just an hour outside of Doha lies one of Qatar’s most impressive natural wonders: the Khor Al Adaid / Inland Sea, where many Qataris spend weekends cooling off by the coastline. Explore the desert on an adrenaline-fueled Desert Safari, a.k.a. Sand Dune Bashing, in a 4×4 that speeds along the peaks of sand dunes and descends down the slopes, as you explore uncharted territory. See the infinite horizon of the desert and then cool off in the crystal waters of the Inland Sea that reaches the desert.

 

 

Dine

While there are a number of Western dining establishments that cater to the expat community, Doha’s most memorable culinary gems are those that actually reflect the flavors of the region.
Experience the exotic tastes of Afghan cuisine at Ard Canaan, in the Katara Cultural Center. The beautiful and dramatic interior echoes the architecture of the Al Aqsa Mosque, with vaulted ceilings, stained glass and columns crafted from limestone imported from the Holy City of Jerusalem. Enjoy a range of delicious Middle Eastern mezze and traditional Afghani and Palestinian dishes.

 

 

Considered to be Doha’s best Lebanese restaurant is the seven star Al Mourjan. Whether dining alfresco or inside the lavish glass-walled dining room, their prime location on the waterfront offers panoramic views of the illuminated skyline and Arabian Gulf. The renowned gastronomic menu includes a range of authentic Lebanese dishes, with fresh seafood and exquisite barbecued meats to sate the appetite. It’s a favorite amongst celebrities, royals and international foodies.

Play

With all the money kicking around Doha, there are naturally the requisite exclusive hotspots, catering to the rich, famous and beautiful.
Though it is considered a ‘members only’ nightclub, booking a table with a minimum spend will grant access to Illusion, the city’s most glamorous nightspot. Perched atop the opulent Marsa Malaz Kempinski Hotel, under one of the soaring cupolas, the cube shaped space is decked out like a plush English gentlemen’s club, with rotating international dance music DJs, aerial acts and smoke machines that lend drama to it all.

 

 

Across the rooftop is the lush Secret Garden – a chic, alfresco restaurant and lounge offering panoramic views of Doha. Dine amongst a beautiful trellised terrace, or enjoy a nightcap under the stars. Thursdays are the most popular night, which officially kicks off the weekend in the Gulf States.

Stay

Though most of the five star hotels are located in skyscrapers in New Doha, the luxurious Ritz Carlton Sharq Village & Spa is nestled on a private beach in Old Doha, and designed as a tranquil and lush retreat that reflects traditional Qatari architecture. Their spacious suites are appointed with antique Islamic furniture and ensuite balconies and are spread amongst 14 two story villas, with center courtyards, landscaped gardens and infinity pools. Make sure to book dinner at the opulent Parisa Souq Waqif restaurant, serving signature Persian dishes.

 

 

One of the highlights of the property is the renowned Six Senses Spa, which is known for its extensive wellness center. Paying homage to the original homes and architecture of Doha’s origins as a fishing village, it exudes a zen-like feel, from its color palette to the ochre stone floors and walls. The 70,000 square foot spa includes a state of the art fitness center, beauty salon, relaxation areas, quiet pools, and prayer rooms. Treatments begin with a 45 minute wellness assessment, which gives a detailed snapshot of your overall health. Their 250 unique and exotic offerings and rituals reflect the healing powers originating from the Far East and Arabic tradition.

 

 

Getting There

The fastest and easiest way to travel to Doha is via Qatar Airways, which offers daily non-stop flights from JFK. Recognized by Skytrax as offering the best business class seats and service in the world, the airline not only offers the most luxurious and comfortable surroundings, but also the most state of the art technology in their latest A350 jets. For full privacy, book a Business Class QSuite, which converts into a two-to-four person private suite, if traveling with family or colleagues.

 

Image by Hillary Latos

Richard Jenkins On His Role in ‘The Shape of Water,’ One of the Year’s Biggest Oscar Contenders

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Guillermo Del Toro’s new Oscar contender The Shape of Water is many things: a love story, a sci-fi thriller, a period piece about a mutant fish-man. But at it’s heart the movie is a story about loneliness, and the lengths people will go in order to attempt an escape from the crushing weight of a life lived in self-imposed isolation.

The film tells the tale of (spoilers ahead) Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman working as a janitor in a large science laboratory in the 1960s. While at the lab, she finds and falls in love with a strange fish-man captured by scientists in South America. Giles, played by Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under, Olive Kitteridge), Elisa’s next-door neighbor and best friend, helps her to rescue the creature from the clutches of scientists bent on destroying it. Giles himself is a homosexual, and clings to the fantasy that a local pie shop server who says “Y’all come back know, ya hear?” whenever anyone leaves the cafe might be interested in him.

While Jenkins himself is neither gay, nor living in the 60s, nor well-versed in interacting with fish-human hybrids, he actually found a great deal he could relate to in the character.

“He’s alone,” Jenkins explains. “And I was an only child, so I understand being alone. I understand it can be a creative time, or it can be a really lonely time, depending on how you use it. And at the same time, I’ve been infatuated with someone who I’ve had no chance of getting with. I understand that. So the guy says ‘Y’all come back now, ya hear?’ And Giles thinks, ‘He told us to come back. You heard him say it!’ So yeah, I understand that.”

It’s that aching loneliness that made Jenkins know he could bring something great and personal to the part, and that assuaged any fear he might have had about stepping into a world so different from the one he knows in real life.

“When you read a part sometimes you think, ‘I don’t have anything to offer this person. I think other people can do this better than me.’ But sometimes you read a part and you go, ‘I can do this. I understand being at a point in your life where you don’t know what to do, or where to turn.’”

 

Richard Jenkins, director Guillermo del Toro and Sally Hawkins on the set of THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

 

Portraying Giles with integrity and humanity was crucial, particularly since Jenkins, a self-identified heterosexual, would be bringing a queer character to a screen assured to be seen by an enormous audience, thanks to the clout of its director and cast, which also includes Olivia Spencer and Michael Shannon.

“You want to make this a real person,” Jenkins explains, “not a caricature, but a human being. So that’s what I was trying to do. This is a man who happens to be gay. That’s just how I played him. Love is love. So I didn’t try to play a character, I tried to be personal. That’s what I always try to do when I do a part.”

Another unusual challenge Jenkins faced in signing on to this film was that his main scene partner never spoke a word – she’s, as mentioned, a mute.

“I found I was looking at [Hawkins] more – sometimes when someone is talking to you you aren’t looking at their face, you’re looking to the side, or whatever it is you’re doing,” he says. “But I found you just get lost in those eyes. We rehearsed for a couple of weeks, and became really good friends. I would say, ‘I have my lines, and I have your lines. It’s great! What’s not to like here?'”

The script fell into Jenkins’ lap in an unusual way for Hollywood standards: Del Toro sent him a personal email asking him to read it and play the part of Giles. Obviously, Jenkins eagerly accepted. He soon found himself on a set full of incredibly emotional scenes, where new additions were being tacked on to the story right up until the end. One moment in particular – his voiceover narration, which closes the entire film – wasn’t brought into the script until the final two weeks of filming.

“Guillermo found a poem in a bookstore,” explains Jenkins, “by an anonymous poet, that was his love letter to God. ‘I see you all around me, you are everywhere.’ About two weeks before we finished shooting, he brought it to me. Every time I see that moment, I think of that, and how fortunate we are where this landed.”

 

Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

 

Jenkins had to immerse himself in all sorts of impactful moments while filming: at one point he operates a van in a high-speed car chase, at another he denies his best friend the thing she most desperately needs. But visually, he considers his first interaction with the fish-man to be perhaps the most moving scene.

“For me, seeing the creature for the first time – I didn’t know what I was going to do with that. Because the first thing he says about the creature, after I’ve just talked about him as a fish in a tank, is that he’s beautiful. So you first see him, and it’s scary. Startling. And then you realize – especially, this guy is an artist – and he sees this piece of art rising up out of a laundry basket. I think his relationship with the fish-man really evolves. He feels like a kindred spirit sometimes, because he’s always been alone. I know what it’s like. They kind of understand each other.”

The Shape of Water opens in New York on Friday, December 1. Check out the trailer below.

 

The Coolest European Cities You Don’t Know, Part II

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Above: Tallinn Old Town

 

We’ve been plenty busy in 2017, museum-hopping in Paris, flirting in Rome and clubbing in the Berlin Kreuzberg underground. But cultivated Europhiles that we are, we’re always feeling the call of some of our less-trodden, yet still favorite cities on the Continent.

Nothing beckons us to Europa quite like the turning of winter, with its exhilaratingly crisp evenings, stylishly scarfed locals, and those transcendently evocative fragrances that fill the air of each city (the latter a particular treat for those forced to breath the noxious fumes of New York and LA every day).

Part I took us to Antwerp and Maastricht. Next we head further east, to the Estonian capital of Tallinn, and to Austria’s second city Graz.

 

Tallinn

 

Clockwise from top left: Hotel St. Petersbourg; Tallinn streets; Kaerajaan restaurant; Kumu Museum

 

There was a moment around say 2005 – 2007, when Tallinn, bolstered by the success of companies like Skype, became sort of the new Prague: a former Soviet satellite which was now drawing young dreamers from the US and Britain. Only this time they were tech geeks rather than boho literary aspirants.

Now, we would probably love the Estonian capital if only for the fact that it’s home to the Depeche Mode Baar (quick, guess the theme). But its Old Town is as strikingly beautiful and symmetrical as any in Europe – and just strolling the streets is reward enough in itself. There’s also a bright, gleaming modern city (the City Centre) right outside the medieval walls.

On the culture tip, the Kumu Museum is one of the largest in Northern Europe, showcasing two centuries of Estonian art (with an impressive collection of Socialist Realism), as well as special exhibitions of top international contemporary artists. Cold War enthusiasts should check out the KGB Museum, actually located inside the Hotel Viru.

Tallinn is also a considerable epicurean city, with chefs drawing on the considerable bounty of the Estonian countryside (their local black bread is to die for). Art Priori is the avant-garde choice, focusing on creatively realized (mostly) vegetarian dishes in a stunning, art adorned space; MEKK specializes in inventive seafood plates, and its sophisticated bar is a bit of a scene; for something a bit more…Middle Ages, Olde Hansa cooks up wild boar, elk and venison, in an interior that could only be described as 13th-Century chic.

Stay in Tallinn: Both the Telegraaf Hotel and the Hotel St. Petersbourg combine classical elegance with cool postmodern design, and each has a notable restaurant (Tchaikovsky and Heritage, respectively.) The chic Three Sisters hotel has strikingly theatrical rooms – one even has its own grand piano.

 

Graz

 

Clockwise from top left: Island in the Mur; Graz City Hall; Hotel Wiesler; Kunsthaus Graz

 

After losing its Empire in the wake of WWI, Austria pretty much keeps to itself now, content to have traded influence on the world political stage for more, shall we say, sybaritic concerns. Yet the fact that right wing demagogues have been angling for power there does genuinely matter within the scope of the wider EU situation.

The country’s “second city,” Graz, is actually one of its bastions of left-wing ideology, home to more than 30,000 university students, out of a total population of 270,000. A UNESCO City of Design, its rather imperial looking city center, with its elegant baroque edifices, is complemented by some of Europe’s most radical works of contemporary architecture.

Indeed, the Island in the Mur is literally a steel island in the middle of the river of the same name that splits the city, with a designy cafe and amphitheater; the Chapel of Rest is a stunning minimalist cathedral by Hofrichter-Ritter Architects; and the Dom im Berg is a spectacular performance space carved literally into rock. The Kunsthaus Graz contemporary art museum (by British architects Colin Fournier and Peter Cook) is the city’s showpiece, and looks like a giant blue heart and valves.

Not much of a foodie destination, Graz is more of a cafe town – and you’ll find dozens of boho spots as you stroll the streets, many packed with students. Mitte is one of the artier ones, while Aiola Upstairs has a chic crowd and awe-inspiring views. Design junkies should hit the Kunsthaus museum’s namesake cafe. For nightlife, there’s great bar-hopping around the area nicknamed the Bermuda Triangle.

Stay in Graz: The Augarten Hotel (a member of Design Hotels) has stylish, loft-style rooms, and a pool that doubles as an art gallery. The Hotel Wiesler‘s Philippe Starck designed restaurant hosts a “soul brunch” every Sunday, while the rooms have a cool-minimalism and river views. And Hotel Daniel has affordable rooms, a lobby espresso bar and Vespas available for guests.

 

 

An Insider LES Nightlife Guide, According to The Knocks

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The Lower East Side of Manhattan was, not all too long ago, a neighborhood of gritty, intimate rock & roll clubs (The Mercury Lounge, Arlene’s Grocery, Pianos), broken up only by Katz’s Deli, and one actual restaurant: El Sombrero. Yet in the past decade-and-a-half, it has been invaded by trendy hotels, upscale boutiques, and, yes, even Michelin-starred restaurants.

But the shambolic, down and dirty soul of the neighborhood is still there, if you know where to look. And downtown dance mavens The Knocks can usually be found hanging out in many of the places that give it that soul. The duo have been on the scene since 2010, and were already known for their inimitable remixes for the likes of Katy Perry, Ellie Goulding and Sky Ferreira. But their wildly eclectic 2016 debut album 55 – which actually featured 55 collaborations, including the likes of Fetty Wap, Carly Rae Jepsen and Justin Trantor – hit #2 on the US dance charts and sealed their status as hot commodity. An ongoing creative relationship with Wyclef Jean has only served to up their profile.

To fete their new single and video “House Party” (with Captain Cuts), we asked them to take us through some of their fave LES spots – none of which, we’re happy to say, require the use of a Platinum Card.

 

 

ForgetMeNot

ForgetMeNot is the go-to date spot in the LES if you want to have a couple of margaritas and eat amazing Mexican-meets-Mediterranean food. It’s a place that transforms you, and makes you feel as if you’re weirdly somewhere tropical in the middle of the New York City winter. The staff is super friendly, giving it that totally neighborhood vibe, in the sense that everyone always seems to know each other. In the summer, you can sit outside and people watch, while dining until 2am – which is a definite game changer.

An Choi

We probably eat at this Vietnamese spot 2-3 times per week – An Choi is easily the best Pho in the city, as well as the best vibe. They also play the most incredible gangster rap, mixed with completely chilled-out hip-hop tunes. The head chef Matt is a good friend and a huge music fan. You can catch him at all of the good parties, and even the warehouse late nights.

 

 

Cheekys

When you walk by Cheekys you may not notice that it’s a restaurant. The signs are hand-written on paper with small drawings of chicken and fish…but if you know, you know. They make the best chicken biscuit, and once you have one you will be back for four more that same week. The beef and pork sandwiches are also popping. It is dangerous having this place so close to our studio because after a full day of work, it’s hard not to hop over and eat one of these fried masterpieces.

Goa Taco

Goa Taco is a new addition to the LES… and has since become an instant hit in the neighborhood. They make large tacos in Paratha shells, that are unlike any you’ve experienced before, filled with lamb, beef, tofu, chicken – and each one is perfect. The staff is super cool and they always listen to Drake, which is another win in our book. Better yet, their guacamole can hang with the best.

 

 

169 Bar

Forever a staple on the LES – although recently it has definitely blown up a bit. It can be quite crowded, with a line out of the door on weekends; but if you go there during the week, you can still get that original energy that it’s had for years and years. They have great shot + beer deals, along with incredible drunk snacks like pork mac & cheese, dumplings and even oysters. The pool table in the back has cheetah print and there’s a T-Rex head framed on the wall. Back in the day we would host weird acoustic shows there because they have an upright piano along with a DIY karaoke stage. One of the best features: you can text message your order to the bar and they will bring it straight to your table.

Mr. Fong’s

Mr Fong’s is one of the best bars in the LES/Chinatown area right now. It’s a watering hole for the cool kids and always features really good music. Late at night, a wild guy with dreaded hair will spin vinyl 45s of all dancehall jams; other times, a really hip girl will be on the 1s and 2s playing indie-rock classics. The drinks are Chinese-inspired, and the strong ones will really get you going.

 

 

A Loupe Art Guide to San Francisco, With Street Artist ‘The Apexer’

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SFMOMA

 

Amongst the marquee US cities, San Francisco is a lot of things (best Asian food, most awe-inspiring views, strangest strange people) – but leading incubator of contemporary art has not necessarily seemed to be one of them.

Street artist The Apexer would surely beg to differ. One of SF’s most prolific muralists, he’s part of the city’s Mission-District-based Gestalt Collective, and his work has been included in group exhibitions at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Luggage Store Gallery and the Pacific Asia Museum (Pasadena). He’s also a featured artist on Loupe, the game-changing new art app that has made it possible to stream art anywhere that you can carry a screen (so, actually, everywhere.) It represents top level art talent from Atlanta to Berlin to Sao Paulo and everywhere in between, making their work accessible to anyone who simply downloads the app.

As part of an ongoing BlackBook/Loupe series, we asked The Apexer (real name: Ricardo Richey) to guide us through the some of his fave art scene spots in SF, from the galleries to the streets to those places where artists can usually be found hanging out with other artists and creative types.

“It’s constantly changing,” he observes, “just like the people moving in and out. It’s always nice to find places that hold their own character through it all, the kinds of places that transform your emotions and sense of space as soon as you walk in. There are a few of those gems hidden in plain site in the city.”

If you haven’t yet done it, you can download Loupe here. You’ll wonder how you ever did without it.

 

 

  • Colorful Hayes
  • Mission Portal
  • Outside Lands 2014
  • Outside Lands 2015
  • LA Style Bubbles

 

SFMOMA

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art just reopened after a remodel that included an additional large building. It now has one of the most extensive modern and contemporary art collections in the world. The outdoor spaces are a highlight for me while at the museum, from living walls to forgotten corners. Make sure to keep a look out for “Where’s Waldo,” as you might find him hanging out on a roof or two.

Ratio 3 Gallery

This gallery is hidden behind a matte black storefront exterior in the Mission District, and once you enter you feel like you’ve just walked through a Willy Wonka trick door. The space is massive, with beautiful lighting from the skylights, and they have great shows from artists like Barry McGee and Ryan McGinley. The unexpected aspect of the location and the quality of the exhibits make this gallery a must visit.

 

 

Apexer Mission Portal

This work of mine explores a lot of different ideas, such as geodes and compasses. In the piece you can see my classic crystal terminated points, as well as some gold rings. It is right on a busy intersection in the Mission District, and I wanted to give the public a moment of reflection – a moment to take a deep breath, look at the mountain in the background and see the juxtaposition of the houses and sky. To appreciate the beautiful area.

Andy Goldsworthy Wood Line

If you enjoy the outdoors and nature then you will love Andy Goldsworthy’s work. Wood Line is a group of cut trees placed on the floor of the forest in the Presidio Park; the trees create a long S-curve sculpture going down a gentle slope. This piece will take you out of the city without having to leave the city; as you walk along the sculpture you can smell and hear the forest in the wind. In the late afternoon the sun creates some amazing shadows.

 

 

La Taqueria

This taqueria is a cornerstone of the Mission District. Locals have enjoyed the food here way before the TV shows found it and labeled it the best taco in America. When you go, make sure you get the crispy taco with the soft shell taco inside of it, and whatever you want inside of that. While you’re in this neighborhood, there are also a lot of different murals that are cool to check out.

Caffe Centro

This is a little walk up coffee shop in the SOMA District, in an old warehouse area. I recommend ordering the cortado, which is in between a macchiato and a cappuccino. There is an old loading dock across the street that people sit on to enjoy their coffee in the good weather. If you’re hungry there’s a soul food restaurant next door that has a walk up window as well. Just cool vibes all around this shop.

 

 

Golden Boy Pizza

Classic square pizza in the North Beach District, with a walk up window and inside sit down area. The inside has stickers all over the place, from bands and artists. At night most people choose to use the window, and that becomes a scene of its own. If you go, I recommend getting a corner or side pizza, because it has more crust on it.

Benjamin Cooper

This is a great hidden bar in the heart of the touristville of Union Square, that you wouldn’t expect and probably couldn’t have found. The door looks like a service door for a restaurant that only has a small sign. You then walk up some stairs to find a perfect bar that can make some of the best drinks (and oysters) you’ve ever had. The vibes are good and it’s a breath of fresh air from Union Square.

 

 

BlackBook Interview: Talking Grappa and Perry Farrell With The Bloody Beetroots

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If the name didn’t immediately give it away, The Bloody Beetroots are electronic music’s reigning punks – the barricade-storming descendants of the likes of The Prodigy and Digital Hardcore. And the level of secrecy and media-sleight-of-hand that surrounds the sole constant member – of the stately sobriquet Sir Bob Cornelius Rifo – has only served to heighten the drama and intrigue connected to the name.

The awesome new TBB album The Great Electronic Swindle (note: cheeky Sex Pistols reference) was released this week by Last Gang. It convulses with fury and indignance at our despicable socio-political reality, from the the savage opener “My Name is Thunder” – with the boys from Jet conspiring to crank the proceedings up to ear-splitting heights – to the sinister, sludge-ariffic closer “Crash.”

In between, the listener is taken on a visceral rollercoaster, from the romantic tension of “Nothing But Love” (with Jay Buchanan delivering a breathtakingly operatic vocal) to the chill-inducingly majestic “Future Memories” (featuring Crywolf) to Perry Farrell’s explosive performance on the thrillingly insurrectionary “Pirates, Punks & Politics” (Jane’s Addiction fans will love it). TGES is a masterclass in music-as-emotional-pile-driver, an unflinching catharsis/confrontation at a moment when nothing could be more exigent or timely.

It’s also music that really must be experienced in a live setting. And TBB will indeed be storming into a town near you, kicking off a 10-date tour at The Music Box in San Diego this Friday, October 27.

We caught up with Sir Bob just before the mayhem was about to be unleashed.

 

 

Why the four year gap between albums?

Time is a necessary tool to create quality.

You seem to be going a bit metal on “My Name is Thunder.” Did working with Jet sort of inspire that?

Metal is a strong word. I would like to use “rock and roll”. My will was to create a sonic bridge between opposite music scenes. Jet was a perfect match for the purpose as I believe Nic Cester is one of the most interesting voices of the last fifteen years.

How did you come to hook up with Perry Farrell?

He’s a good friend. We originally planned to collaborate in 2014, but the strong desire to take position on the current state of politics in the US finally made it a reality.

The song, “Pirates, Punks & Politics” seems almost an homage to Jane’s Addiction. Are you a fan?

Yes, I’m a great fan of Perry and the story behind his life and music.

Will he appear live with you on the tour?

Who knows? You might just have to come to the shows to find out! There could be many surprises…I think that might be an official exclusive announcement!

What were some of the other collaborative highlights on The Great Electronic Swindle?

Definitely Jay Buchanan. “Nothing But Love” has a particular power over me. That said, all TGES songs deserve to be heard, as each of them has a story to tell.

 

 

Your live shows have been pretty explosive. What can people expect on this tour?

It’s a very intense show with a strong exchange of human physical energy. It brings together the past and the present of TBB in eighty minutes. Definitely a journey you must experience in person.

You’ve managed to remain impressively anonymous. Do your LA neighbors know who you are?

Few know my face; but everyone respects my choice of staying anonymous to focus the attention on the music.

You’re from Bassano del Grappa, Italy. Do you actually drink grappa?

I love sipping grappa on winter Sundays, after a good espresso. There’s also a thing we love doing with pleasure called “Rasentin” – which is mixing the coffee left in the cup with some drops of Grappa. Try it and let me know what you think.