Thursday, September 19, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Dinner and a Movie 
Blue on Blue

By Steve Herte 

At work during the week I tell my co-workers that my job is never boring because there’s always something that surprises me each day or something I can learn.

When I first started going to restaurants I learned from each one of them, flavors, combinations thereof, international cuisines, wines and such. I learned most of all from Arthur Schwartz, my guru and most-respected reviewer. Why did I respect him and not the more popular know-it-alls like the ever-mutable Gael Greene and the other big-name writers? Arthur was consistent, proved true to his word by experience and a great public speaker. Knowing how varied the opinions of movie reviewers were (and are), I read a few in the early days and discarded them all when I found out that none of them were remotely accurate in predicting my reactions to a movie.

The same can be said for Blue Jasmine. As you’ll see by my latest Dinner and a Movie I had to struggle between the genius of Woody Allen as a comedian and as a director/writer.

Blue Jasmine (Sony Pictures Classics, 2013) – Director: Woody Allen. Writer: Woody Allen. Cast: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Richard Conti, Joy Carlin, Daniel Jenks, Max Rutherford, Michael Stuhlbarg, & Louis CK. Color, 98 minutes.

It’s extremely rare to find a movie where every actor performs brilliantly. How do I know this? There was not a single likeable character in the entire one hour and 38 minutes. There were no heroes and one almost villain. There are a thousand shades of grey and no color.

Jasmine (Blanchett) is married to Hal (Baldwin), a Bernie Madoff kind of man who “invests” unsuspecting people’s money – including Jasmine’s sister Ginger (Hawkins) and her husband Augie (Clay) – without giving any returns. They live in high style with the rich and the famous until Hal’s extramarital affairs become too numerous and too obvious for the “I have no head for finance and I trust my husband” Jasmine. She turns him in to the FBI, he’s put in jail and he commits suicide while there. Now the penniless Jasmine takes a first-class plane ticket and her Louis Vuiton matching luggage to her sister’s extremely humble apartment on a dingy street in San Francisco, but not until after blathering about her whole life to the woman in the seat next to her (Carlin). The woman’s husband (Conti) meets the shell-shocked woman at the airport where she tells him, “All I said was, ‘I’m fine, thank you.’”

Ginger’s husband has left her after Hal lost all his money and took a job in Alaska. Now she’s living with her two sons Matthew (Jenks) and Johnnie (Rutherford) and is going with Chili (Cannavale), a two-time loser who looks more like a member of Sha Na Na. She convinces Jasmine to get a job in order to make enough money to take computer lessons, buy a computer, finish her college education online and get a decent job. In the process, she takes a job as a dental secretary to Dr. Flicker (Stuhlbarg), quits when he falls in lust with her, takes her sister to a party where Ginger meets  Al (CK) who gets her in trouble with Chili, and meets Dwight (Sarsgaard) who leads her to believe she’ll return to “society” again.

All through the movie, Jasmine is drinking copious amounts of vodka and popping Xanax like it was breath mints. It’s a wonder she didn’t die halfway through the film. In addition, she has these moments when she blinks out of reality and starts talking to herself, which become more frequent towards the end. This, by the way is the only forward motion the movie has. Is it a tragedy or a comedy? Neither is true in the Shakespearean sense. Does it make you laugh or cry? No and no, judging by the audience reaction – or rather non-reaction. It didn’t even have a noticeable climax. The best thing I could compare it to is watching the heart monitor of a dying hospital patient. It moved steadily with an occasional “blip” and then went back to flat line.

I saw Allen’s signature in the clumsy love-making attempts of Dr. Flicker but I wished Woody had done the part himself. He’s much better at it. Having enjoyed Sleeper, Bananas and Annie Hall, I guess I expected too much of Blue Jasmine. Woody wrote and directed this marvelous cast in a slice of life that starts nowhere and goes nowhere, but I’m glad I saw it. It gained one credit in the rating for the acting, one for the wonderful jazzy soundtrack featuring the excellent trumpet playing of Louis Armstrong and the half was for the only character who I might have liked, the cab driver played by Glen Caspillo. Come back on-screen Woody and stop the infernal use of “Jesus Christ!” as a substitute for profanity. Rating: 2½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Lotus Blue
110 Reade Street (near West Broadway) New York

Noted businessman, hairdresser and make-up artist Tony Dong Tian Li opened Lotus Blue in April of 2012 to give New York a taste of “modern Chinese cuisine” featuring the Yunnan style of preparation and borrowing flavors from Burmese and Thai cooking.

From Reade Street you see the name in red lettering on the front window. The casually elegant establishment replaces the former Amin, an Indian restaurant, but retains some of the décor – the one brick wall with several wooden faux arches painted gold at the top framing bronze lion door knockers. The bar is in back and the lighting is provided by three elongated Chinese Lantern-style swags with long gold tassels. At the time there was a table of 12 to the right of the entrance having a lively dinner party, a table for 18 set up in the middle and tables for two on the left by the arches. Eventually both tables were filled in while I was there. I couldn’t help but notice I was one of five non-Asian dining that night. A young man led me to my table near the window and in front of a table for four. From where I sat I could see other tables for two in the back by the bar.

A server brought me a glass of water and the large, two-sided, single sheet menu (food on one side, drinks, wine, and beer on the other). My waitress, Angie arrived and I ordered a cocktail called Peppercorn Blossom – Sichuan Peppercorn infused gin, Campari and Sweet Vermouth – an interesting combination but not as spicy as the name implies. The selection on the menu was so extensive it was difficult to choose. Usually I love a soup at Chinese restaurants but, with the exception of two, the nine soups were four-person servings – too large for a three-course meal.

Online, I saw a dish in their “Cold Plates” section of the menu that I had to try and I ordered it first. The Vinegar Jellyfish Salad was served in a mound on a flat, square yellow plate and was tossed with shredded carrots and scallions in vinegar and ginger with a sesame oil dressing. I’ve had jellyfish before and already knew that it is the tofu of the sea. It has virtually no flavor of its own and will take on whatever flavor you add. In this dish the jellyfish assumed the flavor and color of the vinegar, ginger and sesame while retaining its slightly crunchy, spaghetti-like texture. There was also a spicy quality to the dish, which kept my mouth entertained.

My first cocktail was finished and I ordered one to accompany the jellyfish. The Apple Chili Kick – Thai Chili infused vodka, sour apple liquor, fresh lime and pineapple juice – a pleasingly green drink with a bright red chili pepper floating in it not only complimented the spicy flavor of the appetizer, it competed with it. Before I knew it, my taste buds were dancing.

My second course was chosen from the “Small Plates” section of the menu. Ever on the search for the different and unusual, I chose the Wood Ear Mushroom Pot Stickers, which were served with a “crisp crust” – actually the caramelized drippings from the frying dumplings. It looked like an upside-down crèpe when it arrived but I could see the individual dumplings under the crust and could easily separate them with my chopsticks and dip them into the soy sauce. I liked them better without the sauce, which was a little too salty for my tastes. At this point I gave Angie the OK to bring the wine, a 2009 Thalvin (Alain Grillot) “Syrocco” Syrah from Zenata vineyards, Morocco. It was marvelous! The fruity, herbal, full flavor with overtones of sandalwood added a wonderful Mediterranean taste to the meal.

Even though I tried to avoid my habit of ordering the main dish with the longest name, one fairly jumped off the page and into my lap. It was Steamed Pork Belly with Imported Yunnan Candied Plums, tender, nicely marbled pork belly slices (previously tied with a traditional cotton cord) steam cooked and served in a sweet Yunnan candied plum sauce and garnished with (of course) a whole Yunnan Plum. The pork was a little chewy but delicious and the bowl of traditional white rice helped absorb the sweetness. As I progressed to the bottom of the dish I discovered something that was not pork. It tasted something like potatoes, but I’ve never seen potatoes in any Chinese restaurant. Upon asking a server I learned that it was cubes of taro. I was really surprised. It tasted so much better than my first taste of Hawaiian poi (yuck!).

Finishing the main course, I was ready for dessert and Angie presented me with the menu – written on a Chinese fan! If I wasn’t charmed already, this sealed the deal. Of the five desserts listed the only one that intrigued me was the Durian Turon. Now I know the Durian fruit has a bad reputation for its foul smell but hey, how much worse than Limburger could it be? I love smelly cheeses. It was not smelly at all, but more sweet than starchy and rolled into Spring Roll dough and deep-fried. I loved it. Instead of tea (too ordinary) I ordered a glass of “The Chook” Sparkling Shiraz NV from South Australia. The two flavors did a lively polka on my tongue and I enjoyed every second. I’ve had sparkling burgundy and zinfandel so I was ready for sparkling Shiraz.

Lotus Blue turned out to be a great find and with 40 main courses on the menu, it’ll be a while before it becomes boring. And…I forgot to order a side dish of Stir-Fried Morning Glories! I’m definitely going back. Did I mention I was wearing blue?

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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