From the “Kingdom of the Shades” to a Kingdom of the Sea

Last year, when I posted my review of Swan Lake, I wrote that it is my favorite ballet as well as M’s. Well, I am herewith amending that statement. Swan Lake and La Bayadère are both our favorites. We’ve seen Swan Lake more often for only one reason: it’s on ABT’s program every year while La Bayadère is on the bill about every other year.

ABT's "La Bayadère"

This year marks the 30th anniversary of La Bayadère first being performed by ABT. On Saturday, May 22nd, J, the P.G., M, and I attended a matinee performance.

Set to the music of Ludwig Minkus, La Bayadère has it all: an atmospheric tale set in ancient India of romance, intrigue, betrayal and vengeance. Nikiya, a temple dancer (bayadère) and Gamzatti, daughter of the Radjah, both love Solar, a warrior. Solar has pledged his eternal love to Nikiya; however, the Radjah decrees that he must marry Gamzatti. When Gamzatti poisons Nikiya, Solar turns his back on the dying bayadère and goes off with Gamzatti but then suffers bitter remorse the night before the wedding. To escape the reality of his plight, he smokes from the hookah, falls into a drugged sleep, and dreams of once again being with Nikiya.

It is at this point that we are witness to what is considered the greatest choreography ever created for a corps de ballet, the opening sequence of Act 2’s “Kingdom of the Shades.” I can still remember seeing it for the first time and being mesmerized by its profound beauty. No matter how many times I’ve seen it since, it still has that same effect on me.

Keeping in mind that nothing can equal seeing it in person, here it is being performed by the Royal Ballet Company.

The (literally) explosive Act 3 begins with the fabulous Bronze Idol solo, which always elicits huge cheers from the audience.

As the High Brahmin (who loved Nikiya but whose jealousy led him to be complicit in her death) blesses the marriage of Solar and Gamzatti, the gods unleash their vengeance. The temple is destroyed, all are killed, and Nikiya and Solar are united forever in The Kingdom of the Shades.

Until defections from the Soviet Union, the West had never seen a production of La Bayadère. In 1963, Rudolf Nureyev staged “The Kingdom of the Shades” for the Royal Ballet. In 1974, Natalia Makarova did the same for ABT. However, audiences had no context in which to place this magnificent choreography until 1980, when Makarova undertook the task of staging the entire ballet for ABT. In addition to that monumental task, she also danced the role of Nikiya. M and I were fortunate to see her do so. She was, needless to say, amazing!

Since then, we have seen many wonderful dancers in the role of Nikiya. This time, it was Julie Kent. An ABT veteran who joined the company in 1986 and was named a Principal Dancer in 1993, she gave a beautiful and faultless performance. Juan Manuel Carreño, who joined the company as a Principal in 1995 gave a splendidly solid performance as Solor. Plucked from the corps de ballet, Hee Sao danced Gamzatti with assured grace. Carlos Lopez’s performance as the Bronze Idol was impressive and impeccable. And, of course, there was that glorious trip to “The Kingdom of the Shades.”

"La Bayadère":  Taking Their Bows
Taking Their Bows (L to R): Alexander Hammoudi – The Radjah Dugumanta; Hee Sao – Gamzatti; Julie Kent – Nikiya; Jose Manuel Carreño – Solor; Carlos Lopez – The Bronze Idol; Roman Zhurbin – The High Brahmin

Curtain Call:  Julie Kent and Jose Manuel Carreño
Curtain Call: Julie Kent and Jose Manuel Carreño

Our souls completely satisfied, it was time to satiate our growling stomachs. So, off we went to have dinner at what could properly be dubbed a “Kingdom of the Sea”: Oceana.

Oceana Bar Room

M and I had dinner once at Oceana in its original townhouse location on 54th St., many years ago. (Rich Moonen was the executive chef at that time.) The dining room there was relatively small with the look and feel of a dining room aboard an ocean liner. The restaurant moved last year, and its current location on the street level of the McGraw Hill Building couldn’t be more different. The space is vast! The very large front area houses a raw bar, a long regular bar with bar seating, and several tables.

Oceana Dining Room

The dining room is even more capacious, but the designers did a masterful job of avoiding the feel of an airplane hanger. The open kitchen encompasses a large area on one side of the room. There is a mix of banquette seating, booths, and free-standing tables, all nicely-spaced. Colors are muted, there are gauzy drapes with light blue side panels on the immense windows, and attractive lighting fixtures cast a warm glow. There is a private room behind a curtained glass wall, and now that summer weather is upon us, there is also seating on an outdoor terrace.

While this was a first-time ever at Oceana for J and the P.G., M and I had already been to the new location twice, for dinner and a quick pre-theater lunch. Let me say up front that during those two meals, we received special attention. Assistant Manager Tyler Vaughan is married to Meghan Vaughan, Service Director and Maitre de Fromage at Eleven Madison Park, and as many of you know, we are regulars at EMP. Those facts clearly explain the reason. I should also add that after our lunch, Tyler took us into the kitchen to meet Chef Ben Pollinger. All that said, while Tyler is a truly delightful person (Love the bow-tie!), and we enjoyed meeting Chef Pollinger, if his food had not appealed to us, no special treatment would have mattered, and we’d have been reluctant to return. Happily, we thought the food during that initial dinner was top-notch. (Click here to see photos of that dinner and here to see those from our lunch.)

When we checked in at the reception desk for our post-ballet dinner, I asked if Tyler was in and was told that he was away on vacation. Nevertheless, the service we received couldn’t have been better. I have no idea if our server, Steven, knew of our connection to Tyler. But in any case, Steven was everything you want a server to be: personable, knowledgeable about the menu, and attentive to our needs.

During our previous dinner, M and I had intended to order the Roasted Stuffed Branzino for two, but it was not available. This time, it was. The sizable fish arrived, head on, and cut into four large sections. (I was a bit surprised that the whole fish was not presented to us first before being cut up.) One of the servers spooned some flavored olive oil around it and left the rest in case we wanted to add more. The fish didn’t really need much more adornment since the very flavorful flesh was extremely moist. Plus, there was the delicious mushroom, spinach, and olive stuffing.

Roast Stuffed Branzino

The Wild Alaskan King Salmon, which the P.G. chose for his main course, was from the “Simply Prepared” section of the menu, and so it arrived unadorned. However, the diner gets to select one of four sauces. The P.G.chose the bagna cauda. When he cut open the salmon, it was obvious that a very deft hand had been at work because the lightly seared (?) outer rim housed a gorgeous medium rare interior. He had high praise for both the fish and the sauce.

Wild Alaskan King Salmon

J had only raves for her Pan Seared Walleye Pike, and after tasting a piece, I had to agree that it had a lovely, mild flavor and had been cooked to succulent perfection. The pike was the only main course ordered that came with plated accompaniments. I didn’t taste them, but nothing says early spring like ramps and fava beans.

Pan Seared Walleye Pike

We ordered two sides and knew from our first dinner that they are served in portions large enough for sharing. The Sugar Snap Peas chosen by the P.G. were some of the best I’ve ever tasted. True to their name, they were sugar sweet and had been cooked so that they retained their delightful snap. M decided to revisit the Sautéed Green and Yellow Beans we’d had the first time. They were cooked to crisp perfection and were enhanced by the roasted onions and savory flavoring.

Sugar Snap Peas

Sautéed Green and Yellow Beans

The P.G. is a huge oyster-lover and J likes them as well, so they started the meal with them. Steven was very helpful in guiding them as to how many to order. They settled on 12, which were split between them in two trays. They requested kumamotos and then left it to Steven to select the rest. There were three sauces for the oysters. I’m not into oysters. M tasted one kumamoto. J and the P.G. said all the oysters were first-rate.

Oysters

While they were slurping away, I was busy polishing off a delectable bowl of Manhattan Clam Chowder. Plump clams, sausage, potatoes and bits of carrots were mounded in the center of the bowl. The broth, poured table-side, was light with just the right balance of clam and tomato flavor.

Manhattan Clam Chowder

M chose to start the meal with Chilled Shrimp. There were four. He ate three, and I ate one. (He also tasted some of my chowder.) The shrimp were good-sized, pristine and delicious, and the cocktail sauce had a nice spicy kick.

Chilled Shrimp

M and the P.G. finished the meal with some of Oceana’s enticing assortment of sorbets. Both chose the dark chocolate and the rhubarb, the P.G. added the guava, and M’s third was the coconut lime. Although I didn’t taste any this time, M and I shared a selection of sorbets when we had lunch, and so I can say from personal experience that Oceana’s sorbets are top-notch.

Sorbet

Both J and I closed out the meal with the Frosted Pound Cake Soufflé, which arrived puffed and golden brown. If you had been standing within earshot of our table, that sound you would have heard was the two of us moaning with delight as we spooned up the ethereal interior containing a crème fraiche center and small chunks of pound cake. Adding bites of the yogurt sorbet draped in caramel increased that flavor profile to even greater heights. Another sidekick, frozen lemonade ices sitting atop chopped frozen strawberries, provided a wonderfully light combination of tart and sweet.

Frosted Pound Cake Soufflé

I would be remiss not to mention the bread service. Oceana does not use an outside purveyor; instead, all breads are baked in-house. At both dinners, we were served two types of rolls, sourdough and honey wheat, which arrived warmed. The crusts had just the right crispness while the interiors had a fine texture and delicious flavor. In a word: Addictive!

Breads

Oceana is not an inexpensive place to dine. But the prices are, in my opinion, commensurate with the exceedingly high quality of the fish and seafood and the exceptional skill with which they and everything else are prepared. In every way, this Kingdom of the Sea delivers an excellent dining experience.

The entire set of photos from this meal can be viewed here on my Flickr page.

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