Earth, air, fire and water: the vital components that make up our living world were the inspiration for a special night at National Sawdust (80 N 6th St) last Thursday, where musicians collaborated with acclaimed chef Patrick Connolly of neighboring restaurant Rider and mixologist Allen Katz (NY Distilling Company) to compose an immersive performance harmonized with food and drink. The inventive evening included avant-garde music spanning several genres (jazz, electronic, folk, world), eclectic performers, and an exceptional food and cocktail pairing set in an informal salon atmosphere.
National Sawdust is a beautifully designed black box theatre with acoustics that rival the Sydney Opera House. If you’ve been to NS more than once, you’ve likely experienced a variety of stage setups. The auditorium layout was designed to play a little Tetris, with the stage location and seating arrangement tailored to each performance and always sounding incredible no matter what the scenario. Last week’s show was no different; with tables and chairs arranged cabaret-style to face the stage and corn husks as our plates, the night had a casual vibe nestled in an intimate high-end venue.
Our pre-dinner cocktail was an infused rye on the rocks, sipped as guests mingled and entered the futuristic space. Imagine an orchestra tuning up their instruments one by one. Then imagine that orchestra forming a complete piece out of that exercise, and that’s how the evening gradually began. The house lights were intentionally left up but low as the musicians joined the stage piecemeal, the sound of each building onto the next. The cellist started out chugging along with his bow close to the bridge; the pianist plunked slightly erratically but with purpose; and the drummer helped the piece take form. Eventually, other ensemble players arrived to the stage, and finally a chef—chopping vegetables with his table mic’d—set an unorthodox metronome for the piece Chopping Music.
Earth: the first course
The Earth music felt cacophonous, growly and experimental, while the food was palpably Earth-y, with a roasted shiitake mushroom and chevre bite paired with a refreshing gin, vermouth and chartreuse cocktail. Then beverage director Allen Katz, plainly decked out in a George Costanza normcore look, asked the audience to smell and taste the juniper berries left on the table. Juniper defines the flavor of gin, the star of all the evening’s cocktails. Katz, joined by jazz singer Magos Herrera, then began a passionate spoken-word piece about the origins of the humble juniper berry: “They grow alone. Wild.”
Air: the second course
For the second course, the atmosphere of the room very literally changed. Clouds were projected behind the performers, as Yuka Honda (of experimental art band Cibo Matto) created synthy airy tones. A server greeted us with zucchini blossoms—stuffed with mozzarella, honey, seeds, fennel pollen and petals—of which I could have eaten about a dozen. The cocktail “Ragtime” used rye, gin, lemon and pomegranate to create a light sensation that was in sync with the music and the food.
Fire: the third course
Then the heat got turned up on both the audience’s and the stage’s energy. The music grew sensuous and more structured, and the gin cocktail for this round smelled and tasted purely sexy—perfectly balanced with clean fresh lime and spicy cinnamon and hellfire shrub. The food for this course was a simple yet provocative and complex bite of smoked char and grilled corn with pepita sauce sucked off a piece of cinnamon bark; the most epicurean of the night’s bites. The chef approached the stage with a plate of fire, which Herrera set off with a spark as the crowd cheered. “This is New York!” she exclaimed, encouraging the crowd to clap along. And we couldn’t be stopped—the cinnamon scent and fire in the air was intoxicating.
Water: the final course
Yuka Honda joined the band on stage again for the fourth and final course of the night, where, to the delight of music nerds in the crowd, she blasted experimental rhythms from a handheld Tenori-on. The final bite to pair with the slinky synth-y sounds was an uncomplicated yet considered oyster with an ice wine mignonette. The cocktail to finish the evening was simply pink gin. By the very end of the performance, the audience was standing, clapping, dancing, toasting and hugging each other, thankful for the performers and collaborators to have brought us on a dreamy journey through nature’s four elements.
National Sawdust is a grown-up, sophisticated space that doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as such, and their programming reflects that. Last Thursday’s Elements of Time + Taste performance was part of their NS+ series, where they bring in feature guests from non-music worlds, like performance artist Marina Abramovic or astronomer Mario Livio. There is never one typical performance at National Sawdust, and the music ranges from world music to jazz to rock to opera and beyond. The next NS+ performance is Thursday, October 26th, with Wide Angle with Gene Smith: An evening with Sam Stephenson + The Paris Review.
National Sawdust’s neighboring restaurant Rider (80 N 6th St) serves globally-inspired American fare Tuesday through Sunday and brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. They were recognized by Michelin as a Bib Gourmand in their 2017 guide.