Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Dinner and a Movie

Entranced With Vietnam

By Steve Herte

After one of the busiest weeks at the office, including filing my taxes as well as my Dad's, it was good to feel like a celebrity at the Cannes Film Festival and see a movie of substance without ever having seen a trailer. Then, dining at a fine restaurant in existence for 28 years was sheer pleasure. Indochine was only my sixth Vietnamese restaurant but it won't be the last. Well, you'll see. Enjoy!

Trance (Fox Searchlight, 2013) Director: Danny Boyle. Cast: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel, Danny Sapani, Matt Cross, and Wahab Sheikh. Color, 101 minutes.

“We’re playin’ those mind games together, pushin’ the barriers, plantin’ seeds…”
--  John Lennon

After seeing Trance I’m sure I don’t want to find out if I’m susceptible to hypnotism. The movie starts with a training exercise at an auction house to prepare for a possible robbery. Everyone has their place to be and their job to do to protect the valuables as well as the patrons. The painting on display is taken to a side room and placed in a zippered protective sleeve and dropped in a secret slot in an underground wall from where it slides into the vault. The man in charge of this function is our lead character, Simon (McAvoy). He is the inside man involved with a gang of art thieves intending to steal Goyas “Witches in the Air” and hoping to get a fraction of the millions of dollars it could get on auction.

The robbery goes without a hitch, tear gas is used to disperse the patrons and the painting in the protective sleeve is intercepted just before disappearing into the slot. However, the leader of the group, Franck (Cassel) decides to open the sleeve to check the painting and our lead man teases him. For this action he receives a violent clout to the head with a shotgun, which decks him. The thieves leave with their prize only to find out that the painting is no longer in the frame. Nick, Dominic and Riz (Sapani, Cross, and Sheikh) pick up Simon for questioning and torture. They determine that only he could have stolen and hid the painting but the conk on the head has wiped his memory. Rather than kill him and go through the ordeal of finding the painting, they decide to have him choose a hypnotherapist and hopefully regain his memory.

He chooses Elizabeth Lamb (Dawson) “because I like the name.” The scene switches to her office where she’s helping various people with multiple mental and memory problems. She’s confident as well as beautiful. To keep their theft from being discovered by the therapist, Simon poses as a Mr. Maxwell and wears a wire so that his cronies can listen in and give him a loud signal on his cell phone if he should reveal too much. Lying that he’s trying to find his car keys (instead of a Goya painting) she puts him into a trance, which leads him to the wardrobe of his apartment (previously trashed by the gang members) and there they find . . . his CAR KEYS.

Now the film becomes complicated: Elizabeth has seen the wire sticking out of Simon’s shirt. Not only that, she recognized him the minute he stepped into her office as the love affair that went brutal in her past. She used hypnosis to make him forget her but he falls in love with her all over again just the same (remember the conk on the head?) and doesn’t know why.

Trance is described as a thriller and it is just that. It’s also a clever mystery with several dream and trance sequences that are difficult to tell from reality until the last minute. There are sensual love scenes, nudity and foul language (but not unexpected). The characters are all believable thanks to the flawless acting talents of the cast. The music is used to heart-stopping volume at crucial scenes and is quite effective in building excitement. The cinematography cleanly melds reality with dream to the point that the audience has to shake themselves to tell the difference. There’s even a flaming car crash for the Bruce Willis crowd and a surprise ending for the “who done it?” fans.

I was involved for every second of the hour and forty-one minutes of this film. It never dragged, there were no dead spots, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. I didn’t even mind the smaller-than-usual screen size in the Angelica Theater. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

430 Lafayette Street (between Astor Place and East 4th Street), New York City

There’s a faux Vietnamese jungle inside an unprepossessing white stone building on Lafayette Street in Noho. A few steps up from the street and through the door one is transported to a garden outside a mansion built by a French colonist way back when Vietnam was a part of Indochina, encompassing Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (now Kampuchea). The greenish-beige walls have crossed banana palm fronds, there are tall Dracaena (dragon) trees pretending to be palms, and large bouquets with fragrant white lilies, Bird-of-Paradise, and ginger flowers backed by palm fronds. The lighting is muted from the black disc-shaped swags hanging from the ceiling.

An incredibly slim African woman in a floor-length batik skirt and black blouse led me to my table in the back portion of the restaurant, just past the bar. My leggy, short-skirted brunette waitress, whose moniker was “Ford F,” appeared shortly bringing a glass of water, the menu, wine list and drink menu. When she returned I chose the Cucumber and Chili Martini – an enticing drink with vodka, crushed cucumbers and chilies and apple juice. It was just exotic enough to fit the atmosphere at Indochine and only slightly spicy.

The menu is a tripartite fold-out with Soups and Salads on one third, Appetizers in the center and Main Dishes and Sides on the third section. I started with a traditional Vietnamese soup called Pho (pronounced like the French word for “fire,” feu), which in this case was a clear golden beef stock with thinly sliced filet of beef, rice noodles and bean sprouts, garnished with a sprig of fresh basil. The presentation was lovely – the two-handled shiny metal bowl was set into a dark wooden base – and the flavor, wonderful. I finished every drop (the handles helped in drinking the remainder of the broth). At this point let it be said that Pho is not a set recipe. In Vietnam, one can go to restaurants where you can choose which ingredients you wish to have in your soup and you can make it as wild or as mild as you want.

The wine list had several affordable choices but since I was having a modicum of spices I chose the 2008 “Mo-Zin” from Spann Vineyards, California – a varietal that is 67% Zinfandel, 23% Mourvèdre, and 10% Syrah – an exciting combination of fruity and full-bodied flavors without being too dry. It virtually shook hands with every dish I chose.

The appetizer (which accidentally arrived at the same time as the soup, but was taken back to the kitchen when I commented on the fact) was Steamed Vietnamese Ravioli – filled with chicken, shrimp, bean sprouts, shiitake mushrooms and fried shallots – and had to be re-made fresh by the time I finished my soup. It was served in a bamboo steamer with a spoon hooked under the handle to make opening it easier. For once, the four delicate, eggroll-shaped dumplings inside bore no resemblance whatsoever to Italian ravioli. The light, rice-based dough was a translucent pale green. They were so delicate that it was difficult to lift them out with chopsticks, but I managed. After dipping them in the sweet, fruity, delicately spiced sauce they were heavenly.

On to the main course, Glazed Duck Breast – served neatly sliced and perfectly cooked on a bed of long-stemmed Bok Choi in a baked Vidalia onion broth – tender and succulent. A side dish of Sautéed (not fried) Rice with shrimp, green peas and egg was a delightful accompaniment to the duck (although difficult to pick up with chopsticks). The flavors were unbelievable and surprisingly I finished it all.

Is there room for dessert? Of course. The Roasted Banana was perfect. Add to that a fresh brewed Earl Grey tea and a glass of fine Grappa di Barolo, and Indochine has proved itself to be an excellent dining experience. My only regret was that it took 28 years for me to be in the right neighborhood to dine there. There will definitely be a return visit.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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