We Ate in New York City – My Interview with Sxip Shirey (Sasabune, New York, NY)

Chantrelle and Sxip Shirey

Chantrelle and Sxip ShireyWe were in New York City for a family event. Neil Gaiman has been telling me for I don’t know how many years now to go to Sasabune so I made sure I got reservations while we were there. My husband, 7 year old son and I were all going but I made the reservation for four people knowing I’d be able to fill that seat. Not only did I fill the seat, I filled it with the talented, fun, remarkable Sxip Shirey.

We made our way through the rain and found Sasabune. An unimposing, somewhat hidden sushi bar at 73rd and 1st. There are very few tables. There are no menus. The sign on the wall says, “Today’s Special: Trust me.” I did. Fully. We sat down, ordered some tea and sake and got down to food talk.

The first dish out was albacore in a soy marinade.

Sxip: This is fascinating. This is very fascinating… [takes a bite of the albacore] Oh my God… Oh my God. I really like eating raw flesh a lot.

Chantrelle: Me too. I’m a big fan.

Sxip: In Germany for breakfast they have a kind of raw pork on bread.

Chantrelle: Raw pork is something I haven’t had and I’ve only ever heard of it being served in Germany.

Sxip: It’s really good. This is so lovely.

So, let’s talk about food. I’m a big fan of whatever is the moonshine of whatever culture. When I travel and tour, old men come up with this crooked finger like “come hither” and they pull out some bottle. I was on tour with Gentlemen and Assassins, which is Brian Viglione, Elyas Khan and myself.

Chantrelle: I know I just helped Kickstarter your project.

Sxip: It’s going to be great. I mean it’s three bull clowns on stage. It’s great. Anyway, we were in some French village in a great venue. I got their local grappa but it was called something else—wine turned into hard liquor. I don’t remember the name…not marc.

And then in North Carolina, I really, really love drinking moonshine. Moonshine isn’t like any other alcohol. You feel really awake.

Chantrelle: That’s a dangerous game.

Sxip: You don’t feel like it’s bad for you. In Hungary and those places you get rakia. It can be like battery acid. It’ll come in empty Pepsi bottles. It usually has a slight color to it. And then there’s Slivovitz. It’s plum-based. Rakia is also plum or cherry-based.

You have to have the clear stuff. Rakia isn’t totally clear and it really… Yeah… The first time I had it was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Years ago. I got a crush on a Serbian girl. We hung out and her guys give me a shot of it. I never had it like this again. It literally numbed my tongue. You swallow it and it hits you a second later. It’s Bugs Bunny cartoon alcohol. Your eyes bug out. That was the first time and I was like, “What the hell was that?” But I do really like it. I’m glad it’s not around me regularly. I don’t have moonshine readily available.

Luminescent Orchestrii was touring and I let it be known that I like moonshine. There’s this great festival called Shakori Hills in North Carolina. A guy put a little mason jar of moonshine on the edge of the stage. Then I took it to a brass band—I love brass bands—I love the brass band scene. To me it is the punk scene of this time. People doing music for the fun of it. Huge bands: Mucca Pazza out of Chicago, Killsonic at of L.A., Hungry March Band from New York (kind of the grand mammy-pappy of a lot of them), Black Bear Combo out of Chicago, there was Infernal Noise Brigade, What Cheer Brigade out of Providence. They’re really great. Internationally too: the Pink Puffers out of France.

Chantrelle: I’m totally ignorant of that entire scene.

Sxip: It’s amazing. Once you see it, it makes amplified music seems stupid. It does. Amplified music is stupid. We are so far away from understanding that. It is so not cool—it’s the reverse of cool. It just makes people distant from music. I obviously use amplification when I play, but I always have to have an acoustic thing too.

Maguro and Toro

[Here comes more food. Yellowfin tuna and Toro. With each dish, we’re instructed: “No soy sauce.” or “Soy Sauce.”]

Sxip: Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Wow, what is that?

Chantrelle: Toro. The fatty part around the belly of the tuna. It’s like fish butter.

It’s like if meat was ice cream.

Sxip: It is like fish butter.

There’s this restaurant in North Carolina, in Asheville. Lumiis are on tour. We go and eat there. It’s from the Veracruz region of Mexico. It is the best Mexican food I’ve ever had

Chantrelle: In North Carolina?

Sxip: Yes, in North Carolina. And Benjy is from L.A. and says the same thing. It’s not fancy stuff, it’s tacos, soup. It’s in a grocery, right? And the beef cheek tacos. It’s like if meat was ice cream.

Chantrelle: How did you discover that place?

Sxip: Three of the bandmates are really into food and Benjy and I are really into finding tacos. Real ones. When we go there, he eats with his eyes shut. It’s really amazing. And he’s from L.A. He said it was better than anything he’d had in LA. There’s great food in LA. But it’s probably regional. Why would this be different? The cook is a mom and it’s probably a regional cuisine. But those beef cheek tacos…Of course a lot of people in town don’t even know that place exists.

It’s also very common that people like to feed me meat. I put out a vibe of hard liquor and meat.

I put out a vibe of hard liquor and meat.

Walking down in the East Village by a meat pie store, this guy runs up and goes, “Sxip!” He’s a fan of mine and I don’t know him but he gives me a free meat pie. I was really obsessed with meat pies. I’d go to England and I learned to talk about it on stage:

Imagine a world where you have pie and you love pie and you have meat and you love meat. But in this world there are no meat pies. Imagine someone who loves pie and loves meat coming to a magical place where they fused the two together into something wonderful.

I’d say this on stage to explain to the English why I love meat pies. I guess if someone said “you have bread and you have ground beef and you put it together magically.” That’s what it’s like.

The best one though—we played on the Isle of Jersey. The Isle of Jersey is a tax haven on the English Channel. The Rolling Stones manager used to go there with suitcases full of cash. We did a show and I got really drunk with these puppeteers afterwards.

Chantrelle: Not a sentence many people utter.

Sxip: Yeah, I have even weirder sentences when I’m talking about circus life.

There were some locals there that knew me through Amanda I think. And I was like, “I want to eat meat pies.” And they were like, “It’s late but we’ll hook you up.” Apparently it’s late for the licensing for the bakeries and all the bakeries are shut. But what they do is sell illegal meat pies out the back door.

Chantrelle: Black-market meat pies!

Sxip: Yeah. So I’m in a line behind this bakery and there’s a line of drunk people by the gate. There’s a slot in the gate where you shove money through and they shove meat pies back.

Chantrelle: Like a speakeasy for meat pies.

Sxip: I’m really drunk and eating these meat pies. Cheese ones, all these meat ones. And I remember the kid looking at me and he said, “I thought you’d be cool.” I’m like, “No man, you’ve got the wrong guy!”

Chantrelle: You thought wrong!

Sxip: I’m not going to fit into your adolescent-needs-social-order-internal-instinct.

We performed in Grenoble, France. The cheese center of France. They make the best cheese. Gentlemen and Assassins tour a lot and we want to do it right. We were only going to countries that have good food.

Chantrelle: That’s the way to do it.

Sxip: Brian and I were talking about doing a food blog every day on this tour.

Chantrelle: Do it! I’ll read that.

Sxip: We were like, “Give us local stuff.” The cheese I ate made me see god. So complex. It’s probably not pasteurized.

Chantrelle: It’s tasting you while you eat it.

Sxip: Exactly. That the cheese was amazing. There was this one goat cheese. I grew up with goats and if it tastes goaty I don’t like it. But my dad says if you feed them right it doesn’t taste goaty. I can’t eat goat cheese in this country because it tastes so goaty. That cheese was amazing though. It made your brain skip a beat. It is getting so much information. The oldest part of our brain is dedicated to olfactory senses and it’s the largest part. Maybe the newer parts are more complex.

Plate after plate

[More fish arrives: butterfish (soy sauce), fluke (no soy sauce), red snapper (soy sauce)]

Sxip: Yeah…mmmmmmm, that snapper!

Luminescent Orchestrii played in Bath England. Bath is an interesting town because it was a Roman town. The beer in that region—I’ve never had such good beer. You come back and drink craft beers here…

Chantrelle: It’s the water.

Sxip: It’s not just that though we mistake hoppiness for sophistication. “Ooh, it’s so hoppy.” It’s like beets. You can put lots of beets in something and you just have a lot of beets, not sophistication.

[More fish comes, warm…No soy sauce]

Sxip: I’m just going to stop talking for this…… Wow. Yummy. Oh wow. Eat that. This is just delicious. That sauce!

Chantrelle: I should never go to sushi that Neil doesn’t recommend!

Sxip: Yeah, this is so good.

[More fish comes. Uni from Catalina Island included on Sxip’s plate. I said I didn’t want Uni when we arrived. Sxip did not.]

Sxip: In my personal mythology, there are only two things I don’t like: Swiss cheese and sea urchin.

Chantrelle: I’ve tried it multiple times and have given up.

[Sxip tries the urchin]

Sxip: I went from neutral to No then I liked the after salty taste. I tell people, don’t make me a sea urchin Swiss cheese patty melt. [not sure how often that would come up!]

Chantrelle: I’m a foodie but there are all these things you’d expect a foodie to be into, like cheese, that I won’t eat. It’s been such a hassle. We’ll go to someplace, get the tasting menu, and we don’t know what’s coming out so we’ll tell the waiter, “Don’t bring us this, that, and the other thing.” And then it’s this game of telephone or we forget something. So I got this idea to just have a card. Hand it to the waiter and then it’s done.

[Sxip looks at the card]

Sxip: No organ meats, that’s a shame. We should talk about foie gras. I finally had it in France. It’s evil food.

If you want to imagine what that looks like, imagine duck hearts on a plate.

Luminescent Orchestrii were at this great little arts festival in this ancient walled city in France. We performed there… Actually I have a great story. There’s this French accordionist who is doing regional French accordion music. We went to lunch. It’s France so it’s very meat oriented. You can either have the steak or the duck hearts. This is my only meal of the day and I’m an adventurous eater but I got the steak. I get the steak and I go sit down and this guy has a plate of duck hearts. If you want to imagine what that looks like, imagine duck hearts on a plate.
Exactly how it sounds. He looked at me with this look of concern, slight anger, and confusion and said, “Why would you get steak when you can have duck hearts?” He piles a bunch of the duck hearts onto my plate. The duck hearts are amazing. They’re like the tenderest steak you’ve ever eaten. The steak pales in comparison…Pales in comparison.

Chantrelle: What’s the texture?

Sxip: Like meat. Soft. It’s a blood rich muscle—the strongest muscle in your body.

Chantrelle: I’d have to have someone give that to me not knowing what it is.

Sxip: You can’t not know what it is, it looks like a heart! I like parts to look like parts.

Then at the end of our trip someone found out that our bassist, Benjy, had never had foie gras. This guy had foie gras he’d canned himself. Then Benjy is talking to this woman he just met and said, “So you kind of torture the duck to do this?” And she’s like, “Oh no… They like it.”

Chantrelle: Right, they run to the funnel.

Sxip: So he said, “What do the farmers do?” She said, “They hold the duck down and put the tube down their throats.” Benjy’s like, “Wait, how is it they like it if they have to be forced?” I went to Benjy and said, “That’s why the hearts are so big. The farmer’s giving the duck love. He’s holding it because he loves it. The heart gets bigger and bigger and then they feed us the hearts too!”

We had a few days off and we went to see this American woman and French guy. They have a theater retreat where they live with their child in France and there are all these lavender fields. It’s like van Gogh land. Sunflower fields too. They find out we have foie gras and they serve it with great pomp. I was thinking about that foie gras 3 days later. It was amazing. I wish I could have it all the time… No I don’t, I can’t for moral reasons.

Chantrelle: I had it at the French laundry and didn’t like it. I figured if I have it there and don’t like it I’m not going to.

Sxip: At a laundry?

Chantrelle: No, the French Laundry. Thomas Keller’s restaurant in Napa Valley. I give everything a shot once.

Sxip: The other thing about that dinner was we made burritos. We make burritos, we set the whole thing on the table and then we don’t eat for 2 hours! We didn’t understand this. No one said we are going to do this so it sat and got cold. We sat drinking for 2 hours then eating. Then drinking for 2 hours then having the foie gras.

This is the big lie about the French: “The French don’t drink to get drunk.” What fantasy land do you live in? Do you ever hear this from people? They don’t drink to get drunk? They drink with food. Yes, they do, but they drink for 2 hours before, drink during the food, then afterwards and then for breakfast probably and then lunch.

Chantrelle: It’s not that they don’t appreciate their alcohol. They appreciate it in quantity.

Sxip: The French people are thin but that’s because they don’t eat crap.

Chantrelle: People say that to me. “How are you so skinny and a foodie?” I eat food! I don’t eat crap. I eat good food.

Sxip: If you don’t each shit with corn syrup in it…

Chantrelle: …or deep-fried processed crap.

Sxip: I eat a lot. I eat fat. I eat all that stuff, but I don’t eat processed foods. I love fatty meat. I lived in Texas for 3 years. Texas brisket—oh my God, there’s nothing like it! It ruins you for barbecue anywhere else. They cook it for 10 to 15 hours. It’s got this layer of creosote. There is this one place, I walked in and it was all firefighter sitting there, I thought this is going to be good. When I ordered, the woman grabbed a knife and cut a big piece of creosote soaked fat for me to gnaw on…not even gnaw on, for it to melt in my mouth while she goes in the back to get me my brisket. Texans don’t do much well but they can cook meat like nobody else on the planet. There are certain things I really love and that’s great.

[Crab rolls come… An uncut maki filled with blue crab and rice. Long pause of moaning and breathing]

Sxip: This is such comfort food somehow.

[More breathing and moaning]

Sxip: Next time you’re in New York, go to Fatty Crab. Sit at the bar and get the pork and watermelon salad. It’s incredible. It’s watermelon and green shoots of something and crispy pork skin and big piece of pork fat. Amazing. Fatty Crab I love. Whenever I have a really good gig I take some and there as a treat. [We went the next night, it was heavenly. The watermelon and pork salad was absolutely to die for.]

I think I told my best food stories….Oh wait…Neil and Amanda flew me and the Luminescent Orchestrii to their family wedding party on the Isle of Skye. It was so lovely. He gave me as a gift a jar of extra strength, extra aged Marmite. I finally got it the other day…you have to overtoast the bread a little bit, use Irish butter—slather it on there—then you put the right amount of Marmite. The butter and Marmite fuse into one flavor and it’s just like heaven exploding in your mouth.

[I make a totally disgusted face]

Sxip: You’re a foodie??! I wish my house was closer, I’d make you go back and try it! I’m going to make you Marmite.

Chantrelle: I’d try it.

Sxip: The thing about Marmite is it’s going to last forever but it gives you the sense that you’re eating meat. Triggering something in your brain. You mix that with the fat of the butter and the toasted piece of bread so you have the heat. You’re sinking your teeth into some animal. Easy to chew animal.

I wish I lived near here. I’d so make you Marmite perfectly. I’ll make you Marmite with Marmite from Neil Gaiman.

Chantrelle: We’ll have to make a date.

Sxip: People love to love it and love to hate it. So it creates a great dynamic.

Chantrelle: Some people even write songs about it…well Vegemite at least.

Sxip: The other thing I got from Neil was amazing by the way. He has bees and he gave us jars of his honey. I grew up with bees too.

My father says he remembers cutting the honey and my brother and I would reach over, there would be tinfoil on the table while he was cutting the comb and we would get some on our fingers and it would still be warm. It was so nice. My father was a mathematician who was obsessed with having a giant, gigantic garden that I worked in. We had a lot of these very visceral food experiences. That’s why can’t eat vegetables anywhere. They don’t taste like anything.

Chantrelle: What is your best childhood food memory?

Sxip: My best childhood food memory is standing with my brother. My dad had just made yogurt. He’d pull out a spoonful of yogurt and I’d run up and get a bite then run back in line and my brother would get a bite. I remember that specifically.

Chantrelle: If you could only eat food from one region in the world, including alcohol….

Sxip: [without hesitation] Japan.

I really love English food. Basic meat, a good piece of cheese, good beer. I love it. There’s a Colombian restaurant called Bogota. Really good Colombian food.

Chantrelle: I don’t think I know what Colombian food is.

Sxip: Very good. I suggest that place. I mean I love Indian food and was really in love with it when I first got here. There’s a restaurant called Hummus here that only serves hummus. Amazing. Hummus and one soup. Really good.

As an answer though, Japanese food. I could eat that all day.

Chantrelle: Japan’s great because you can also still get beef.

Sxip: I just love eating raw meat and fish…and I love ginger.

Chantrelle: And sake…Next question: What is your favorite comfort food?

Sxip: Right now a jar of Paul Newman’s spaghetti sauce and Amy’s broccoli and spinach pizza. I put the sauce on there and cook it. For a mass-produced thing, the Newman’s sauce is good. And the Amy’s thing is decent but their whole thing about pizza is not having tomato sauce on it so I add the sauce. Then I watch a movie and eat that. My comfort food right now… Bachelor comfort food

Chantrelle: What do you want your last meal to be?

Sxip: My choice I won’t be able to have because she won’t be around unless I die early, is my mother’s borek or peta. It’s like spanakopita. They make it in Serbia/Eastern Europe. You hand roll thin pieces of bread—a little thicker than phyllo dough—roll out the dough and fold it and fold it. Each layer has butter and it’s filled with cottage cheese and egg. My family calls it peta which means bread. If I could have that that’s the food my Albanian grandmother made and my aunts made. I love it. It’s the most comforting food. My mother came here and I had a bunch of people from the Balkans here. I’m really into music of the Balkans. A bunch of the ladies came over and my mother gave a lesson on how to do it. She doesn’t like it so much, she thinks it’s boring but she makes it because all of her children love it. She went to Aunt Helen who came over here with my Grandma Panny. My mother went and figured out the things my grandmother did that she wasn’t doing. One of the things is that after you roll the dough, you do this thing to the dough with the dowel rod…Not a rolling pin, a dowl…And put in these hash like air pockets in the dough. My mother also wouldn’t knead the dough with her hands, she would use a spoon. My aunt was like, “You’re using a spoon!” Horrified. It makes a difference like all things, like Indian fry bread uses the same materials but it’s how you stretch the bread and give it a mouthfeel of something different.

I would have peta, or as the world knows it, borek.

Chantrelle: It’s your turn to cook dinner, what do you make?

Sxip: I do a pizza that’s olive oil, walnuts and blue cheese. With maybe thinly sliced peppers and maybe thinly sliced tomatoes as a slight flavoring but mostly its about the really good, good olive oil.

More commonly in New York I’ll find a place that has really good sausage and buy some Eastern European pepper spread: Ajvar. Take that to a potluck with a big hunk of sausage.

Chantrelle: The classic food porn question: What do you consider the sexiest food?

Sxip: [very quickly] Mangoes. Who doesn’t?

Chantrelle: You’d be surprised at the answers I get to this question.

Sxip: I lived in Texas for 3 years. One of my late-night things was I’d walk from my house past Mi Madre’s which had the best breakfast tacos.

Chantrelle: That’s what my friend Adri misses about Texas! She almost didn’t move to San Francisco because of those breakfast tacos.

Sxip: Shredded potatoes, cheese, egg and salsa. God damn I remember exactly what it tastes like. We were poor and my girlfriend would sneak them because we had a budget.

I would walk late at night, buy 2 mangoes for dollar, and sit in the parking lot and eat mangoes with my hands. I never taste mangoes like that here. You can’t get them.

Chantrelle: We had mangoes everyday in Australia. The were unbelievable.

[More toro comes]

Sxip: This is intense because the fish is so cold and the rice is warm.

Oh, there’s one thing that’s sexy. If you share a whole chicken with a woman… My God.

I had a date. I went out with this woman and we had one good date. Advice to young men: ask a woman to tea and they’re charmed by you. Ask a woman to tea and they’ll never say no.

Chantrelle: Coffee, eh… Drinks, hmmm.

Sxip: Tea! If a woman is more interested in you she’ll say, “Let’s get whiskey instead.” Always. We did the tea date. We met at a tea shop, made it adventurous. It throws them off their guard which is what you want to do. Get them out of their habit.

Chantrelle: “He’s so sophisticated, he asked me to tea!”

Sxip: Exactly. This is the kind of thing that even if a woman knows your plan she’s still going to be charmed.

Chantrelle: Brilliant!

Sxip: The next time we met at her house and decided to make a meal and we made a chicken. And then we just started eating the chicken with our hands and then continued with that taking apart of things and consuming them. It was a really good.

Chantrelle: Nice.

Sxip: Probably one of the best dates I’ve ever had in my life.

Chantrelle: Very visceral.

Sxip: It traveled from there. We were on her couch because she didn’t have a dining room table. It was perfect. I’m advising all young men out there: Tea then chicken. No utensils.

Chantrelle: “Oh darn, forgot the forks!” I love the answers to that question because people tend to start at one thing…

Sxip: Then they remember what worked!

Have you ever eaten mofungo? A lump of plantains infused with stringy pork. You can’t eat it more than once or twice in your life because it sticks with you. My two favorite food names are mofungo and muffaletta. You have to try mofungo. Look it up, find a Cuban joint—I think it’s Cuban, maybe Spanish. Super comfort food. Don’t fool yourself, go there and share a plate. If you need more food, order afterwards. I get that and a Cubana sandwich and am always like, “Why the hell did I get the sandwich?”

This was lovely.

Chantrelle: It was so good! No wonder Neil has been recommending us for so long.

Sxip: Man I love eating raw meat. You have to eat foie gras… No you don’t, I feel bad saying that. You know what’s great? Those Vietnamese sandwiches that have liver paste on them…Do like those?

Chantrelle: I haven’t tried them.

Sxip: It’s on a baguette with the liver paste, radishes and carrots, great pork with great sauce. That I love. Look it up but make sure it’s a good place.

Chantrelle: There is a great pho place I go to, I wonder if they have those. They do pho with tripe and things like that.

Sxip: Supposedly stomach/tripe soup when it’s done well is amazing. I just haven’t had it yet.

Chantrelle: I grew up in a little farm town in central California and we had a lot of Mexican influence there but I just never liked tripe soup.

Sxip: I’ve had haggis and I like it okay. But blood sausage/black pudding, God I love it! It’s so good. The best comfort food ever.

Chantrelle: It’s really rich.

Sxip: Not that… I mean it’s oatmeal and blood.

Chantrelle: That’s rich.

Sxip: I love it. It’s the thing I love most about English and Scottish breakfast.

Chantrelle: I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone so enthusiastic about food from that part of the world.

Sxip: I’m pretty enthusiastic about food wherever I go.

Yes, he is. We had such a wonderful lunch with so many stories. There were many times that I’d just laugh at references or explanations like “I was with these pyrotechnic clowns from Canada.” There wasn’t a dull moment and he truly loves food from every corner of the world. Unfortunately, we had to wrap up lunch. I’m glad I could find another enthusiastic eater to chat with and it just so happens he’s also an amazing musician.

Someday, I will try Sxip’s marmite toast…I’m not optimistic, but I’ll try.