Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Dinner and a Movie

Lincoln At City Hall

By Steve Herte 

Planning Friday night's Dinner and a Movie involved the special two holiday hours granted to us at the office. That got me to the theater for the 3:30 show and the restaurant for a 6:15 reservation. Three hours later (yes, it was a leisurely dinner) I was heading for home. All considered, it's been a great holiday season even if my greeting cards will be way late. So, enjoy!

Lincoln (Dreamworks, 2012) - Director: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Chase Edmunds, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, Jared Harris, Christopher Boyer, Gloria Reuben, & Gulliver McGrath. 150 minutes.

Judging by the 15 people who eventually joined me in the theater, I’m not the last one in New York to catch this wonderful film. While I’m generally not into historic movies or biographies, Steven Spielberg went to great lengths to present our greatest president at the most difficult period of his administration. Having the incomparable John Williams create the powerful musical score adds to the grandeur and emotional peaks and valleys depicted throughout.

The year is 1865 and Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has already made his Emancipation Proclamation and is now starting his second term in office. The Civil War has been raging on for over four years and he feels the weight of being Commander in Chief as well as the father of a son killed in the war, Willie (Chase Edmunds). The urgency of passing the 13th Amendment, freeing the slaves, now adds to this burden with all the politics and speeches, cajoling and reasoning (and in some cases bribery) he must go through with the various capricious members of the House of Representatives. (The bill has already passed the Senate.) If that weren’t enough, his second son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to enlist in the Union Army, something neither he nor Mary Todd (Sally Field) approved. In fact, they have a huge argument about it during which the two actors display their best talents.

Spielberg tells this story in a palpably sad, gray, almost colorless film whose seemingly hopeless quest crescendos with the bill being signed by a two-thirds majority. Then, the glorious bubble pops with Lincoln’s assassination – announced at a play his son Tad is attending, not from Ford’s Theater. But hope is not lost. The movie ends with a positive reflection back on Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address in a powerful scene on the Capitol steps, delivered most capably by Day-Lewis.

I was convinced that this was indeed Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln (even though both actors are better looking than the originals) by their superb portrayals. David Strathairn plays Secretary of State William Seward convincingly, but I have to wonder if he and Lincoln were always at such odds. Hal Holbrook might as well be a historic character as he’s played so many and here he’s Preston Blair. The make-up job done on Tommy Lee Jones (the bags under his eyes have bags) to become Thaddeus Stevens is very impressive and his mean-spirited character is one of surprises, right up to the end when he gets in bed with his black housekeeper. Jared Harris makes a good, but strangely sober Ulysses Grant and Christopher Boyer made a wordless appearance as Robert E. Lee astride a white horse at Appomattox Court House. Lincoln’s pre-teen third son Tad is played by Gulliver McGrath and is actually given a few clever lines. Gloria Reuben does an exemplary performance as Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd’s dressmaker/maid, who is always by her side, even in the balcony of the House of Representatives. Her expression when the 13th Amendment is passed was genuine joy.

Taken as a whole, Lincoln is a good candidate for an Oscar and the male and female leads even more so. (Maybe not a boatload as Jon Gallagher wrote in November) My only concern was hearing the “f” word twice in the film, leading me to wonder first if it was an anachronism, second, why it was necessary? Counter balancing this, I found the ever-present stories told by President Lincoln charming (though infuriating to other cast members). And this, plus Lincoln’s obvious wit was noted in Smithsonian Magazine’s November issue. As Spielberg is quoted, “I did not want to make a movie about a monument. I wanted the audience to get into the working process of the president.” That you did, Mr. Spielberg. That you did. 

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

City Hall
131 Duane Street (between Church and West Broadway), New York City

You may have heard me rave about this restaurant before and, if you’re one of my co-workers you’ve heard me recommend it for all luncheons. City Hall has easily become my favorite restaurant in Manhattan for several reasons. When you make a reservation, they call you to confirm. The staff is well trained to not only be pleasant, polite and make you feel at ease; they go the extra mile to learn your name and greet you as a family member returning home. Then there is Chef Meer, whose recipes are mouth-watering and good, flavorful comforts, especially on a winter’s night.

After you pass the sidewalk café backed by the gracefully arched windows of 14-year-old City Hall you step up to the main entrance of the 1863 neo-classical building and through the door to the Captain’s station. Their 2012 Award for culinary excellence is noticeable on the wall to the left as is the glassed in ice display of shellfish. Straight ahead is the elegantly cozy bar. After checking your coat you are led through the doors to the left of the award into the high-ceilinged main dining area with its bare-topped tables and scroll-shaped booths. The lighting is provided by cast iron circular swags with bare unfrosted incandescent bulbs set to a warm glow.

The kitchen is visible at the far end of the room and it has its own bar in the corner straight ahead. To the right is the gently curving seafood raw bar. I was seated in a familiar booth I’ve occupied several times. My waiter brought me a glass of water, the wine list, the menu and a tray of raw carrots, celery, radishes, stuffed olives, pickled tomatoes and dill pickles. He took my martini order (I never have to go into detail as to the preparation) and left me to read the single long card of culinary delights. It’s divided into Oyster Bar, High Rise Seafood Towers, First Courses (chilled seafood, light fries, tartars), Second Courses (soups and salads), Main Course, New York Steaks, Steaks for Two, Market Specialties (appetizers and mains), and Sides to Share.

My waiter reappears with a perfect cocktail and tells me about the specials, all of which sound great, and continues to the next table of customers. As I’m deciding I see Colorado Lamb Chops on the menu and I recall a conversation I had with the chef a year or so ago when he demurred on serving Colorado Lamb Chops because of the amount he would have to charge for them, yet there they were. Then I heard my waiter offer the “last order of Colorado Rack of Lamb” and my head popped up. As he came past my table again he apologized for not having mentioned it to me, asked if that was what I wanted and put a hold on the dish when I said yes.

Assured by my waiter that I could take my time, I selected the raw oysters (3 East Coast, 3 West Coast) served on a bed of ice with two dipping sauces; a horseradish/tomato and a vinegar/onion. They were all tender, a little sweet with a touch of brine and the sauces accented them nicely. I selected a 2006 Zinfandel from Joseph Swan Vineyards in Forestville, California, to accompany my meal. Its deep red color and full-bodied flavor peaked with the main course.

Next I chose one of the specials: a spinach and goat cheese salad with slivered endive topped by a goat cheesecake – delightful. At this point I realized I hadn’t ordered a side dish. Normally this would have just been a faux pas. Not in City Hall. The Curried Onion Rings is a signature dish I crave every time I’m there. It was not too late, whew!

The main course arrived, six delicate, tender lamb chops in a rack topped by a zesty, crisp, slightly salty bread crumb drizzle and accompanied by a ramekin of creamy horseradish dipping sauce and watercress salad topped with (guess what?) another fried onion ring (the buttery kind). The Curried Onion Rings were mounded in a wire basket and begging to be eaten. Just as an aside, if they served these instead of popcorn in movie theaters, I would definitely being seen eating there. I felt decadently happy.

Dessert time rolled around as I finished the main course and was more than halfway through the onion rings (which were packed up for home). Another special sounded great to me. It was baked pear compote with both pumpkin and French vanilla ice cream. The flavors were tart and sweet, creamy and frosty nutmeg, altogether wonderful. Then a tisane of Earl Grey tea (a tea press) and a glass of dry sherry later and I was ready for the New Year to come. City Hall has done it again.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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