Thursday, January 24, 2013


Dinner and a Movie

The Quartet at the Bar

By Steve Herte

I was really happy that the movie I wanted to see was showing at the Paris Theater on 58th Street. It's a bit of old New York, a classy venue with pearl gray velvet seats and matching curtain (yes, an actual curtain that opens before the movie). It's not a mega-plex, only shows one movie at a time, one has to wait a short time on the ticket-holders line and there are no previews and no commercials. What a delight! 

As much as the theater was nostalgic, the restaurant was a vision of the future. So please enjoy the latest Dinner and a Movie.

Quartet (Headline Pictures/BBC Films, 2012) Director: Dustin Hoffman. Cast: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtney, Michael Gambon, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, and Michael Byrne. 98 min.

As I might have mentioned before, I go to the movies for entertainment. I do not find current events entertaining. Otherwise I would spend more time watching the news. Biographical and historic movies are rarely a source of interest for me. Today’s “comedies” depend way too much on vulgarity to be truly funny and the whole werewolf/vampire silliness is just a waste of time. That said, this week the only movie attracting my attention was Quartet. Yes, I know it’s not about a Barbershop quartet but you can see how the title caught my eye.

I love all forms of music, be it rock and roll, blues, jazz, country, classical or opera and this movie (Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut) is about music and the way people feel about it. The setting is the Beecham Home for Retired Musicians, a stately palatial residence on a hill surrounded by the beautiful walled fields of the English countryside. The occupants are the elderly of the professional opera, orchestras and musical theater. (I would love to retire to this place.) Every day there is someone playing a cello or clarinet solo or singing an aria or popular song from the Music Hall days. The rooms are elegant and the lifestyle easy and dignified. Each year the residents perform in a “gala” (this time to celebrate Giuseppi Verdi’s birthday) and sell tickets to outsiders to defray the costs of running the establishment. Fortunately, many of the retirees were famous in their time and are a draw to this annual show.

This particular year is different, however, because it is the year that Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) becomes a member of the august group. In her heyday she was a member of a quartet that performed the most acclaimed version of the Quartet from Rigoletto. The other three – Wilfred Bond (Bill Connolly), Cecily “Cissy” Robson (Pauline Collins) and Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) – are already ensconced in the Beecham Home and everyone is abuzz about the new resident. Upon learning who it is, they all gather on the balcony above the entry hall and applaud Jean as she walks in the door. She’s delighted but prefers to keep to herself and stays in her room.

However, not everyone is delighted that Jean has arrived. We learn that two marriages ago she was married to Reggie for seven hours before she had a fling with Frank White (Michael Byrne) and he has not forgotten it. He, on the other hand, never married again. So what we have is a bittersweet love story of a couple rejoined in their latter years and how they eventually rebuild their bridges and come to forgive each other. Still it takes most of the movie to convince Jean that she should rejoin the quartet and recreate that thrilling moment of musical excellence.

Quartet is a charming tale with beautiful scenery and some of the most wonderful pieces of music tying the clever dialogue together. (The main melody to the quartet from Rigoletto is played in several variations from time to time.) The acting is superb (as I might have expected) and the lines are delivered clearly. I didn’t expect suspense in this movie, but it was there nevertheless. Everything builds up to the “gala” and whether or not “the quartet” would be the crowning performance, right up to minutes before they are due onstage. At this point, Cissy has a moment of dementia and has to be talked out of “going home” and into going on with the act. I was nervous about whether Smith (or for that matter, any of the four of them) would actually sing and yet I was a little disappointed when, to tumultuous applause, the four lined up onstage and the scene tastefully changed to an aerial view of the building and a quartet of seasoned professionals began singing off camera at the end of the movie.
But that was not why the film lost a half a martini glass. I don’t classify myself as a prude but this movie was neither a gangster film nor a war film nor even a low-class western and the “F” word had no place in it – much less twice. It cheapened the whole tone of the movie. There are several colloquial expressions Smith could have used after, “I’m going to say something quite rude to you.” 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

222 East 58th Street (2nd/3rd Avenues), New York City

One thing I’ve noticed as my number of restaurants grows is that the choice of new places in any one location shrinks proportionally. It took an hour to choose my reservation. This one was too brightly lit, that one didn’t have enough choices on the menu, another had uncomfortable-looking chairs…etc. At bar.vetro (that’s the way they spell it – vetro means “glass” in Italian, supposedly for the “floating” pale green glass near the ceiling) I found an Italian restaurant that defied tradition. The décor is minimal – everything is silver gray or black and white with small spot track lighting on the ceiling. The crowd is quite young; in fact my presence significantly raised the median age, whereas it lowered it at the theater.

The manager greeted me at the door (there is no Captain’s station and no room for one) and shook my hand, immediately turning it over to admire my rings before having a girl check my coat and bag and leading me to my table. Even though the table was small and the chair appeared to be made of cast aluminum, I was comfortable. The noise level from the crowd in the one-room space was a bit distracting – to the point of my absent-mindedly leaving off the word “martini” in my drink order, but the waiter was savvy enough to know what I meant. It turned out to be pretty good.

The single-page menu is categorized into Bruschette (there are four different toppings for the toasted Italian bread), Antipasti (appetizers), Primo Piatto (pastas), Secondo Piatto (entrées), Contorni (sides), Insalate (salads), and Per La Tavolo (for the table – shared sides). I saw two pastas I liked and also noticed that there was a way to have both as a combination. Upon the advice of Johnny (my waiter) that an appetizer, this combination and a main dish would be too much food, I settled on the combination and main dish only. My choice was Fusilli Calabrese – tossed with fresh vegetables and Cavatelli with sausage, cannellini beans and escarole. Both dishes were obviously homemade and fresh because of the texture and al dente quality. Both were delicious – the peppers, tomatoes and peas in one crisp and perfectly cooked and the sausage crumbled just right in the other. My only comment was that the Fusilli was really Strozzapreti (priest strangler pasta), two very different looking pastas. Fusilli looks like spaghetti curled like a pig’s tail and strozzapreti is a longer version of cavatelli, a hand-rolled pasta. No complaints were made because they were both excellent. At least they didn’t give me rotelli.

I couldn’t believe they had Fontana Candida Frascati (2010) on the wine list. I ordered that fresh, crisp Roman white for my meal remembering my first taste of Frascati on my last trip to Rome. It was perfect with both pastas and was a crowning achievement to my main course, Filet of Grouper prepared with a spicy Fra Diavolo style tomato sauce and served with a twist of linguine. Since I already had two pastas I had Johnny substitute spinach with garlic and extra-virgin olive oil. The grouper was pure delight and yielded to the fork nicely (no knife needed here) and the spinach tingled with garlic just as it should.

What to have for dessert, I wondered. Oh look! They have a combination dessert too! I just had to choose the fluffy mound of milk chocolate mousse side-by-side on a plate with another fluffy mound of zabaglione. Normally I prefer fresh-made zabaglione (egg yolks, sugar and Marsala wine whipped into a froth and poured over strawberries) warm, but this pre-made fluff was still better than the chocolate (which was wonderful). Then a double espresso and a nice glass of grappa, and I forgot that the restaurant looked like the inside of my freezer compartment. I was even entertained by the conversation at the table behind me. One man ordered Blackfish and wondered what it was. The other told him it was Black Sea Bass. I had to chuckle – two very different fish.
When I return to bar.vetro maybe I’ll teach them what fusilli really is, maybe not, but I’m definitely curious about the Italian Disco Fries (with creamy Gorgonzola Cheese, Pancetta and Truffle Oil – ooh!).

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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