THE BLOG
03/11/2015 11:51 pm ET Updated May 11, 2015

On the Culture Front: Minton's, The Audience and more

The best evening out that you probably haven't heard about is going on every Wednesday night at Minton's, an old-fashioned supper club with equal emphasis on both words. Upon entering through a narrow door on 118th street, you become enveloped in an atmosphere that's elegant yet inviting. JC Hopkins Biggish Band fills the long narrow room with brassy bebop, evoking the spirits of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus who all played at the club's original incarnation. In the middle of the second set, Hopkins and co. launched into the standard "Moanin'" to my great delight. I first heard it on Mingus' "Blues and Roots" as a teenager and to this day its driving riff makes me giddy. Another surprise of the evening was jazz tap dancer Michaela Marino Lerman, who joined the band on a few songs with a hurricane of rhythm so tightly syncopated it caused many jaws to drop.

The refined soul food menu features many highlights as well, beginning with biscuits that are delicately flaky with just the right amount of salt accompanied by sorghum (the maple syrup of the south) butter. Appetizer highlights include an inventively plated steak tartare around a pair of thin onion rings, a savory mac and cheese, and a crab cake with black-eyed peas. The low country gumbo with Carolina rice makes for a perfect mid-course share because it would be a shame to miss their fried chicken, which rivals neighbor Red Rooster. A country ham vinaigrette adds a layer of complexity to the comfort food staple. The smoked praline pork chop was quite tasty too and paired nicely with bourbon yams. A side of creamy grits I ordered never came, but it might have been a blessing as I was pretty stuffed. For dessert, you only need to know three words: fried apple pie. The cocktail list pays tribute to jazz legends and features some very cool flavor combinations. My favorite was the Satchmo, a blend of peaty Laphroaig 10 year single malt scotch, Bulleit bourbon, and Bittermens mole bitters - a survey of whiskey in a glass. I had two.

Downtown, Jimmy Carbone's beer dinners are as strong as ever with the addition of guest chef Matthew Garelick, who cut his teeth at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon and Adour Alain Ducasse. The five-course meal paired a pastrami crusted tuna with The Bruery's Oude Tart and a monkfish tagine with Jolly Pumkin's Fuego de Ontono, a wild yeast saison. Luckily dessert, a chocolate tea ganache, was more of a palate cleanser and blended effortlessly with Maine Brewing Company's King Titus porter. Jimmy's other beer week events included a Mardi Gras party with a chili cook-off hosted by Matt Timms and the signature Brewers Choice event at a cavernous space in Clinton Hill. Freshly shucked oysters with freshly shaved horseradish and Bridge and Tunnel's Bound By Chains double IPA were among the highlights.

On the theater front, "Lives of the Saints" is a kaleidoscopic ride through the mind of David Ives, one of the most gleefully absurdist playwrights working today. In half a dozens shorts, we meet a man who's given his heart to a washing machine, one whose mother makes post-deathbed confessions, and another who gets to peer at what his life would have been if he never left his hometown, Chicago. Manic word play abounds, especially in "Enigma Variations," a madcap identity farce with two pairs of doppelgangers. It's a delight to watch if just a tad bit exhausting. And that sums up the evening, the theatrical equivalent of downing six powerful cocktails, each is distinct and can stand on its own but the combination can overwhelm. The absurdly talented cast (Arnie Burton, Carson Elrod, Rick Holmes, Kelly Hutchinson, and Liv Rooth) is more than up to the task under the nimble direction of John Rando.

Jeremy Duncan Pape's darkly absorbing "Woyzeck, FJF" re-envisions Georg Buchner's unfinished classic as a condemned man looking back on how he blew up his life. Pape weaves existential drama seamlessly with absurdist comedy to create a layered portrait of insanity and loneliness that's both terrifying and unabashedly human. James Kautz as Woyzeck and Evangeline Fontaine as his wife Marie have a volatile chemistry that makes the show's final moments all the more disturbing.

I wanted to feel more than I did at the Flea's new musical, "The Nomad", an occasionally gripping story of a fascinating young woman who left a privileged upbringing in Switzerland for war-torn Algeria at the turn of the 20th century. While she died at the mythic age of 27, Isabelle Eberhardt did a lot of living and Erin Courtney's book is a celebration of that, except the passion that she and composer Elizabeth Swados feel for their subject never reaches to the audience despite energy and talent that abounds from the members of the Bats, the Flea's resident acting company.

It's fair to say that Dame Helen Mirren steals the show in "The Audience," Peter Morgan's carefully crafted dramatization of conversations Queen Elizabeth II had with prime ministers spanning from Winston Churchill to David Cameron. Mirren, under the direction of Stephen Daldry, conjures the Queen with every muscle and bone in her body, so much so that she can pick up a tea saucer four times and have each one signal different thoughts. She convincingly plays Elizabeth through many decades of her life with little more than a wig change. The process is astounding, making it tempting to forget Morgan's subtle structure is what makes it all possible. Also of note: Dylan Baker's turn as conservative John Major, who oversaw Britain's longest period of continuous economic growth and Richard McCabe as liberal Harold Wilson, who was responsible for many social reforms, including the abolition of both the death penalty and theater censorship.