Sunday, September 9, 2012

Hope Springs

Dinner and a Movie

Hope Springs Gordon Ramsay

By Steve Herte

Hope Springs (2012)

Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep star as Arnold and Kay, a husband and wife who have not had sex or even touched each other for five years (they even sleep in separate bedrooms) and Kay wants her marriage back. She reads a book entitled “You Can Have the Marriage You Want” by Doctor Feld (Steve Carell) and decides to enroll in his counseling sessions. After much cajoling and arguing and threatening to go alone, the two travel by plane and car to Clear Hope Springs, Maine.

The process is not an easy one. Dr. Feld has to first get them to talk about their sex life, fantasies, and issues before he gives them “exercises” to try back at their Econo-Lodge room. The first exercise is to spend time with their arms around each other, which at least gets them into the same bed - but it’s a rough road. The smile on Kay’s face as she wakes up in the morning speaks volumes.

Tommy Lee and Meryl are excellent. More often than not they express their feelings wordlessly. But when they have lines, they deliver them superbly. They both go from inhibited to more open, angry, apologetic, embarrassed, adventurous, and they finally do fall back in love. There is a hilarious scene in a movie theater where Kay tries to be intimate with Arnold while watching Twins in French but can’t see what she’s doing and popcorn and soda go flying.

Guys, take your favorite gal to this movie and forget about the shoot-‘em-up, blow-‘em-up films. She’ll love you for it. Gals, be warned. It’s a three-handkerchief flick. The performances are beautifully believable. Carell is in the movie, but plays more of a narrator part, straight-faced and analytic, until the end. Speaking of the end, don’t leave when the credits start scrolling because the movie’s not finished. Arnold and Kay renew their wedding vows on the beach (Kay’s fantasy) through the entire credits and it’s delightfully funny as well as emotional. Hope Springs is a definite go-see movie. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Gordon Ramsay at The London
151 West 54th Street, New York City (2007)

Some restaurants go right to your top 10 - this one did not. Entering through the hotel lobby, the first person you meet is the coat checker whose station is outside the restaurant (which, by the way, is unmarked – it could be anywhere except there's only one place to go) and I even confirmed with him that it was indeed Gordon Ramsay's. I went halfway through the bar and found the hostess who smilingly led me through the room full of tables and through an imposing glass door to the "Inner Sanctum" (restaurant proper) and on to my table where my girlfriend Helene was already seated. (The table was near the waiters’ station, otherwise known as Siberia.) Having been required to make the reservation two months in advance, I found this surprising. Ramsey's own rule # 1. BROKEN: The restaurant should be clearly visible and accessible, not hidden.

The room is an ice palace of mirrors, glass and steel with gray leather wrap-around swivel chairs that could not accommodate posteriors larger than mine (or Helene's), and which get rather warm after a while. The only color in the room is from the pinkish shades on the chandeliers and the yellowish glow from the wall sconces. It may sound pretty but it was not comfy. What were they thinking with the little swivel chairs!?? The service is polite, affable, and condescending until they take your order. Then you won't see them again until they have something to bring to the table. Forget about them asking if you want another glass of wine when your glass is empty. That would rate a big negative rating from me immediately. That shows no customer service or even consideration. I had one cocktail, a Cosmopolitan, which was a little on the tart side but served correctly.

The menu has two options; $120 seven-course tasting menu with $80 wine pairing or $90 three-course meal, a la carte with $55 wine pairing. We both chose the latter as it was more interesting. I did the wine pairing; Helene had a glass of Riesling. Good choice, Helene. The pre-appetizer of two cheese balls and two codfish balls was on the table when I arrived and though good, was cold. Helene assured me they were hot when they were served. The amuse-bouche1, a butternut squash velouté2 was delicious. My appetizer, Mullet with Escargot was tasty but lukewarm (should have been hotter) and by the time I tried to sop up the gravy with the multigrain bread, the sauce had chilled to a hard crust on my plate. Yup that's a sure sign the food was COLD.

Helene's Sweetbreads were excellent – good texture inside with a nice crunch outside. Too often they are excessively sweet or semi-gooey. These were substantial. My main dish, Black Cod with Pig Tails was much better than my appetizer and the plate was heated (yes, I said real pig tails, chopped up and not recognizable, tasting bacon-y). But I still had to rope somebody to bring me more bread for the gravy. Helene's lobster was better than most I've ever had (I don’t care for lobster), out of the shell, tender in texture and in a light white sauce.

The palate cleanser was a fruity custard-like concoction with a minty layer and coconut foam (very nice). We both chose the cherry soufflé for dessert, which was perfectly prepared, but again, not hot and chilled further with coconut ice cream. By this time I'm thinking that I'm paying $55 for three half-glasses of wine (the wine pairing) and indeed I was.

But wait, there's more! Throughout the meal I'm facing the cheese cart and I see many varieties I would like to try. Then they bring around the candy cart with chocolate truffles, macaroons and other sweet things. We each had two chocolates and two macaroons - very good. I was still not full and longing for the cheese. They brought Helene her cappuccino and my double espresso (again, not hot AND missing a twist of lemon - which I had to ask for). Then, when Helene went to the ladies’ room and I had finished my espresso, finally, someone asked if I wanted another. I took the opportunity to ask about the cheese and we ordered a selection of five. I loved number four. Helene liked one, three, and five (in strength order, the last being a bleu cheese). My second espresso was also minus the lemon twist.

No one asked how everything was. The check came promptly (well sure, it would) and $400 later we left. It's no Morimoto. They failed a lot of simple tests. I probably would not go back. The lack of customer service or appreciation in a place gives me a very negative experience when I was anticipating a great experience that I would cherish for many years. This place may be resting on its laurels or maybe they need an attitude adjustment.

Gordon Ramsay at The London (redux, 2011)

I’m a big believer in second chances, so imagine my amazement when the restaurant which formerly required reservations one month in advance gave me a reservation one day in advance on The elegant eatery belonging to the star of Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares went to great lengths to dispel the disappointment of my first dining experience there.

I arrived a few minutes early and was informed politely by the hostess that I could wait at the bar (which was already hopelessly crowded). So I retired to the lobby of the London Hotel (but not out of sight) and decided to retrieve my voicemail messages. Upon finishing, I removed my coat and the hostess was at my side ready to check it and lead me to my table.

My table this time was on the opposite side of the restaurant, by the windows, but still near the waiters’ station (apparently there’s one on each side of the entrance doors). The room is a rectangle with the main door in the center of one long side and the entrance to the wine cellar and kitchen in the center of the other long side and the tables arranged in between. The “windows” can be either visible or not by turning mirrored panels on edge or flat (the head waitress demonstrated it for me). Otherwise, the décor still looks like an ice palace to me but it seemed warmer somehow this time.

The dominant color in the room is a muted flaxen shade accentuated by the chandeliers (which look like ice sculptures with shades). The sculptured glass panels on the walls, and the mirrors and polished metal all around contribute to the icy feeling. The chairs are actually a sea green (I thought they were grey the first time) leather and comfortable, though they swiveled (still distracting, but I worked with it).

I was definitely not ignored this time, being attended by the sommelier, two or three waiters, the “bread and bon-bon” man (who was very enjoyable – he even giggled) and the head waitress (who looked like the female lead in “V” – she had a good sense of humor, I got her to say the line “We are of Peace, always.”) After the sommelier brought me an absolutely fabulous martini, an amuse-bouche was presented to me while I read the wine list. It was cucumber/almond soup with a slice of jicama3 on top and a crisp made of Romano cheese.

The bread man brought me a selection from which I chose the bacon/rosemary roll (repeatedly) and the date-nut bread. Then my waiter brought the menu and explained the choice of the seven-course meal (vegetarian or meat) and the three-course meal - either could be done with wine pairings. I decided to be different. The three-course meal had several items on the appetizer side that I wanted to try, so I asked if I could have more than one. “Of course”, said my waiter, for an additional charge. No problem. Can I also have it wine-paired? Yes indeed. So, I chose: 1. the artichoke heart filled with delicate little red onions, asparagus tips, baby carrots and other tiny vegetables including a baby bok choy; 2. the rabbit loin with braised endive, shallot confit, salsify and blood orange vinaigrette and kidney; and 3. the saddle of venison (entrée) with celeriac pavé, beetroot and apple strudel, Ras el Hanout (which means “Top of the Shop” in Arabic and is a Moroccan seasoning consisting of up to 30 ingredients).

My waiter advised me to order dessert in advance because several desserts take time to prepare, so I chose the chocolate mousse (since the bon-bon cart was already staring me in the face and I was going through chocolate withdrawal).

Another amuse-bouche preceded all this – a lovely piece of fluke (the fish, not the worm) and sea urchin with glass-like wings of spun sugar and unbelievably thin chips made of aged dry beef. The wines accompanying each dish were also amazing, especially the Austrian white served with the rabbit and the Italian red that arrived with the venison.

The rich Venezuelan chocolate mousse was like none I’ve ever had and not served in the traditional glass but on a plate, artistically formed by the passion fruit in the balsamic reduction and accompanied by yogurt sorbet. The waiter also gave me a taste of the “quark” ice cream (I fussed about sub-atomic particles and desserts), which would normally be served with the raspberry soufflé (I hate raspberry). It was citrus-y flavored and did not compare with the crème-frâiche on the mousse. An espresso and a fine cognac recommended by my sommelier finished off a lovely dinner.

Thinking back though, none of the dishes one would have expected to been served hot were actually hot – not the rabbit, not the venison – but it didn’t matter. I seemed to have made friends this time and, if not for the price I would return (be ready to start at $110 without drinks). The only complaint this time concerns the dish that held the rabbit. It was a 14-inch by 2-inch ceramic “hollow log” canoe that was difficult to eat from without spilling sauce on the tablecloth. However, that sauce was excellent and my bread made it disappear.

Gordon, you have redeemed yourself.

End notes

1. A single, bite-size hors d’oeuvre that differs from an appetizer in that it’s not ordered from the menu, is supplied free of charge, and according to the chef’s selection alone.

2. A sauce originating in French cuisine. It comes from the French adjectival form of velour, meaning velvet. Tomato and Hollandaise are but two examples.

3. Also known as Mexican Yam or Mexican Turnip.

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