Friday, April 25, 2008

National Art Gallery, Ottawa

The National Art Gallery in Ottawa is a gorgeous building by Moshe Safdie. This photograph was taken from the Peace Tower. I apologize for being didactic, but notice how the cupolas echo those on the lovely old Parliament building:

Here is the cupola from the inside:

Do you, by the way, notice a similarity with this skylight?

This one, which you might recognize by the surrounding forms, is at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Another thing you might notice is that odd concrete angle in the glass wall on the right side. I'll come back to that in a moment.

Here is the glass wall close up.

Inside, the angle that you saw earlier (and immediately above) is revealed for one of these lovely transitional ramps which takes you from level to level. This is another one, with a skylight above:

The detail on the wall above is ceramic pieces like this:

And two of the skylights cap courtyards like this one:

The only thing in the building that made me seriously grumpy was the stupid painting by Barnet Newman, "Voice of Fire". Three stripes, the outer ones of the same colour. Less interesting therefore than the French tricolour, which at least has three colours. Of course, this is "minimalism": the philosophy that contrary to Aquinas, more is not better. Newman was perhaps the least interesting of the New York expressionists -- he doesn't express anything.

Looking at "Voice" close up, I discovered that the colour from each stripe had bled into the next one. Newman didn't seem capable even of the house-painter's art of painting a clean edge:

A three year old could have done that, right?

In the audioguide, a moronic curator -- you really have to hear him -- explains that if you fixate on a point on the ragged edge, you experience a brightening on one side, and then if you shift your gaze to the other side you get a brightening on that side. A sort of dancing, coruscating effect. This is supposed to account for Newman's title 'Voice of Fire'. The coruscation reminds this curator of fire apparently. Presumably, it is an elementary adaptation effect on retinal cells: you fixate on a point on the boundary and the long-wave cone cells on the red side get adapted. Then when you shift to the blue side, the short-wave cells at the same location get excited, making the blue side look a purer blue. You don't need a painting worth a million and a half to prove this: a little demo in the lab would do. It is certainly interesting if somehow the ragged edge contributed to this -- but I would venture to say it still doesn't make this a work of art.

Nirvana Mississauga

Barbeque is different everywhere. In the southern US, where they use tomato sauces and plenty of sugar, the meat has to be basted on late in the grilling process -- otherwise, it gets bitter -- and the result is a wet sticky coating that some people affect to like -- perhaps they have never tasted anything else; perhaps, they like sweet, sticky stuff. (See the posts on Cluck, Grunt, and Low, and Miga, below.) In Brazil, it is tender and sweet.

In India, tandoori dishes -- Indian barbeque -- have two essential ingredients. First, they are marinated in spices and yoghurt -- the spices include ginger and garlic, as well as cumin and red pepper, and other things depending on taste, including coriander seed and the like. Second, they are cooked in a tandoor, a pear-shaped clay oven that is typically situated underground. People make a big deal of how specialized such an oven is, but I remember that in my high school, when a bunch of Indian Army officers visited, they constructed a tandoor on the spot, especially for their meal. (Indian Army engineers would do wonders for restaurant cuisine in far-away North America, where there are still cities that haven't experienced a tandoor. Come take Canada: please!)

Nirvana Mississauga is to be found on the east side of Hurontario Street at Brunel Drive, one block south of Britannia, which in turn is just south of the 401. As you park, you hear the heavy traffic coming in to runway 06L at Pearson Airport, every two minutes another big Airbus or Boeing. Inside, the restaurant is attractive enough: I suspect the paintings are pretty bad, they do exude an early 20th century elegance. They never hung in any haveli; they may be laser reproductions; but they are pleasant to look at anyway -- at least for me.

The tandoor is manned by a chef who rolls out the dough for naan, spreads it on a convex plate covered by a wet cloth, and uses this contraption to affix the dough on the inside of the incandescently hot tandoor oven. The result is slightly crispy flatbread, quite different from the spongy stuff you get in most restaurants and in Loblaw's (President's Choice Naan, or whatever they call it.)

Here is the tandoor chef, though I didn't catch him very sharply:

He also has long skewers of meat, which he inserts into the hot oven. This man moved slowly and deliberately. He clearly was a man of method.

Andre and I went to Nirvana for the lunch buffet. As Sergio says, Nirvana's contribution to the buffet-concept is to negate it. What you get is better called a prix fixe: appetizer plus four dishes with naan, plus dessert for 12$. No choices. In our case, the appetizer was tandoori wings. (Andre is not eating in an Indian-approved way. I'll explain another time how that is done.)

Here, tandoori cuisine was at its best. The yoghurt marinade had penetrated deeply into the meat which was tender though slightly friable. A nice crust, tender inside, and a gingery overtone to the chicken. At least A-, perhaps that's a little ungenerous.

The buffet included a pleasant but unmemorable saffron rice, potatoes with okra (aloo bhindi), makhani dal (quite good), and chicken curry. A solid B: maybe that's a little generous, but it is a prix fixe. We washed it down with two Kingfishers (each). The main meal didn't match the tandoori chicken, but it was a fun afternoon.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Saravana Bhavan, Mississauga

In some cuisines, dishes are ways of cooking things. A coq au vin indicates how the chicken is cooked and presented. Coq au vin tastes different wherever you get it, reflecting the chicken you use, the wine, the amount of salt, the kind of bacon, and so on. Even with bread making, a name indicates a process, not a product. Brioche is an eggy bread that feels somewhat crisp in the mouth. Can you predict anything else? No: Brioche is made from different flour/egg/milk proportions.

In other cuisines, dishes are quite rigidly prepared and presented, so you know exactly how they are going to look and taste. Italian cuisine is more in this direction than French: German noodles are not recognized as a version of pasta. Pasta can't cooked too soft. It must be made from hard durum flour; it must be al dente. A ragu bolognese must taste of carrots, celery, and onion; the meat must be cooked in milk.

Still, there is room for variation even within these rigid rules.
A pasta carbonara isn't ruined because the combination of cheeses is wrong, or the kind of bacon.

South Indian vegetarian cuisine leans much more to the predictable end of things than does French, or even Italian. A dosa is not merely a crepe made of rice flour: it must taste and look the same wherever you get it; similarly an idli, or sambaar, or rasam. You do not make a coriander chutney out of parsley, or a rasam out of limes. (The great mathematician Ramanujan died of lead poisoning, says David Leavitt in his racy novel The Indian Clerk, because when he was at Trinity College in Cambridge, he cooked rasam in a leaden pot. But his broken heart probably got him first, because he could not get tamarind in England and had to substitute lemon. Ugh!)

Saravana Bhavan (apparently misspelled on the sign outside) is a restaurant at Hurontario and Eglinton in Mississauga. It is tucked away next to the Toys R Us. It has an authentically Tamilian feel, with fluorescent lighting -- which, in India, would have taken the form of naked tube lamps. The waiters have beautiful and authentic Tamilian Brahmin manners: reserved though attentive; nicely spoken but not smarmy.

Tamilian cuisine is unique, even in India. The dosa is its best known product: a thin crepe made from rice and urad dal. Not so famous, but equally deserving of attention, is the idli, a steamed cake made of a similar batter. At Saravana Bhavan, these things are served in the right way -- you don't drink or eat from anything that isn't made of metal -- and they taste just right. The dosas are exactly as you would get them in Madras (or Chennai), and the paper dosa is the especially crisp version. Some small criticisms: the filling in the masala dosa is a little too heavy on onions; the tomato chutney is a little too sweet.

Now, let's speak about sambar. According to Wikipedia: "Sambar is essentially a pea and vegetable stew or chowder based on a broth made with tamarind and toomar dal." True, I am sure, but the important point is that it has to taste (almost) exactly like a sambar, and at Saravana Bhavan, it does.

Finally rasam. This is a spicy lentil and tamarind "soup" -- lots of black pepper that hits you at the back of the throat. At Saravana Bhavan, I am tempted to say: it is divine. This is not high cuisine. Not everything that is truly delicious is. And it tastes very much like what I encountered at my mother's table. (Poor Ramanujan!)