Philomena and Rayuela
By Steve Herte
People ask me if I miss Helene. After five years I still think of her daily. There’s always something there to remind me (Hmm ... good song title) and my friends could tell you that her name comes up at least once in every conversation. I miss her most at dinner, when we would discuss each other’s day, laugh at the dumb things we saw other people do or the typos on the menu (this one I just dined at had “Slamon Rellenos” instead of “salmon”), admire the sexy people around us, and explore and enjoy our food. She was my intellectual equal, the other half of my brain. When I couldn’t remember something, she did. Now I have to rack my brain more often or look something up on the computer. She seriously would have loved the movie I saw this week and would have been a puddle of tears at the end. As for the restaurant, I can hear her saying, “Estoy es Vivir!” (This is living.) Enjoy!
Philomena (BBC Films, 2013) – Director: Stephen Frears. Writers: Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope (s/p, Martin Sixsmith (book). Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Michelle Fairley, Charles Edwards & Charlie Murphy. Color, 98 minutes.
It is a shame that this film based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith premiered in only two theaters in Manhattan. More people should see it and realize what superb acting really is, and what kind of movies get nominated for and win the most Academy Awards.
Dame Judy Dench plays the title character, an Irish woman who had one brief ecstatic moment with a boy while in her teens at a fair and who paid for it with 50 years of her life. She became pregnant and her parents locked her in a convent where she breech-birthed her son Anthony. Only allowed to see their children one hour each day she and her best friend Kathleen (Murphy) soon notice that Anthony and Kathleen’s daughter Mary are inseparable. Therefore, when the adoptive parents come to the convent for Mary, Anthony goes with her and Philomena is devastated.
Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a journalist for the BBC who is fired over an email he didn’t send, is looking for work. He meets Sally Mitchell (Fairley) who gives him a “Human Interest” assignment – a kind of reporting he’s not used to – and it’s Philomena’s story. A trip to the convent reveals a tale of a “great fire” that destroyed all the adoption records and yet they produce the one document proving Philomena’s waiving of all rights to her child. This makes Martin very suspicious. Further digging discloses that the Hess family in America were the adoptive parents, and Martin and Philomena travel to Washington, D.C.
While Philomena frets about whether her son thinks about her or about Ireland or if he’s homeless or perhaps obese (from the large portions that are served in America) Martin learns through his laptop that Anthony succeeded in becoming a lawyer and was a consultant to both Presidents Bush and Reagan before dying of AIDS five years before Martin and Philomena arrived in America. When Martin tells Philomena that her son was gay she simply says, “I know” and explains her suspicions by his actions as a toddler. The only ones left to talk to are Anthony’s adoptive sister Mary (Winningham) – who tells them of the unpleasant childhood they both had – and Anthony’s gay lover David (Edwards).
After a rocky start they learn from David that Anthony returned to Ireland looking for his mother and that the nuns sidetracked him into believing that his mother had given up on him. They also learn that the “great fire” was an intentional bonfire just for the records and not an accident in the convent. Lastly, the major revelation is that David had to fight the adoptive parents to fulfill Anthony’s dying wish – to be buried in Ireland.
“Well, we’ve come full circle,” says Philomena to Martin as they drive through the entrance gates of the convent once again; and after a highly emotional scene – Martin is furious – they discover that Anthony is buried on the grounds of the convent.
Dench is a marvel in expressing the hopes, misgivings, heartbreak and happiness of the various stages of this film. Coogan is perfect as the man who is only there for the job but who becomes the friend, confident, and defender of Philomena’s rights. Clark plays young Philomena and gives a heart-wrenching performance as she watches Anthony being taken away. Jefford has a brief but brilliant moment as the arrogantly righteous Sister Hildegarde defending her actions.
In this day of vampires, zombies, werewolves and terrorism movies it’s refreshing to see a beautifully produced, well-acted drama with a timeless story. Philomena is more than cinema. It’s art. Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.
165 Allen Street (between Stanton and Rivington Streets), New York
Rayuela: f., n.(ra'jwela) 1. the children's game; pitch and toss, hopscotch 2. the title of renowned novel by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, an introspective novel written in Paris in 1963 where readers can hopscotch into multiple endings 3. the restaurant featuring Estilo Libre Latino Cuisine, a culinary journey where traditional dishes of Latin America, the Caribbean and Spain are redefined and borders crisscrossed and hop-scotched to infuse the ingredients of each country into every plate.
Thus reads the website as well as the reverse side of Rayuela’s business card. According to the press releases, Rayuela has been serving great food since May of 2007. I almost feel remiss in not discovering it until now.
The first thing you can’t miss when you enter the restaurant is the tree in the center of the floor. There is no evidence that the tree is alive but obviously the two-story space was constructed around it. The stairway to the second floor is just beyond it and seems to be supported by a wrought iron lattice decorated with votive candles, as are the two sidewalls.
The young lady at the Captain’s station led me to my table behind a gauzy curtain just beyond the tree. The chair was low-backed and looked uncomfortable so I chose to sit on the banquette with a pillow. Senior citizens, be warned – this is not more comfortable. The cushion on the seat was wider than my upper legs are long and the pillow provides no support at all. When I leaned back I was almost reclining. Not good for anyone with back problems. The tables are more like large folding snack tables and are difficult for anyone less limber than I to navigate. What I eventually did was push the table far enough away from the seat cushion to allow me to perch on the edge and eat. When I leaned back with my glass of wine I felt more like an ancient Roman aristocrat. However, this is my only negative concerning Rayuela.
When my waiter Angel took my water preference I was in the mood for an original cocktail and there were several interesting choices. But since I was in an “Estilo Libre” (free style) restaurant I ordered the Estilo Libre Rye cocktail – Black pepper infused Sazerac Rye, Domaine de Canton ginger liquor and lemon – spicy with a kick. Establishing that it was my first time at Rayuelas and that I would like to try several things Angel recommended the five-course tasting menu. He assured me that I would remember each dish and promised to explain each. He noticed my interest in red wines and recommended the 2009 Museum Crianza Tempranillo from Spain which was on special that night ($39 a bottle) and I agreed. One taste and I was hooked. The wine (14% alcohol) was a beautiful deep ruby color and had a tart, tannic first taste. But sometime before it hit the throat there was an explosion of rich flavor that elicited a “Whoa!”
A server who obviously has eaten all of his meals at Rayuela several times since its opening served me a single, small cheese-stuffed bun and a triangular dish of chimichurri – a garlic, parsley, olive oil, dipping sauce – delightful (good thing he stopped serving them after two because I could have eaten more, to the detriment of the rest of the meal).
The next dish to appear was an amuse-bouche, a dainty cake about the diameter of a silver dollar topped with a light crab salad and set in a pale green mayonnaise-like sauce. Two bites and it was gone; I used half a bun to get that wonderful sauce.
Rayuela has five different Ceviches – marinated cold seafood, usually in a vinegary sauce – and the next dish was the Ceviche Mixto. The sliced octopus, bay scallops and shrimp were swimming in an emerald green cilantro and clam juice sauce which burst upon contact with the tongue in a fireworks display of jalapeno. It was excellent, amazing and just spicy enough.
In contrast to the ceviche, the next dish, Bollos con Gambas – a kind of dense Spanish corn brioche flavored with smoky chorizo sausage topped with sautéed Tiger shrimp in a Chipotle and yellow corn cream sauce – was erotically delicious. I seriously cannot look at an ear of corn the same way after this dish. I told Angel that if I met a woman as good as this dish I would do anything she asked. He smiled and said, “I told you. Every dish here is full of flavor.” He didn’t lie.
The main course (or Plato Fuerte if you will) was Solomillo a la Parrila – a grilled, juicy, tender Filet Mignon topped with Chanterelle Puree, Glazed Red Pearl Onions, Tempura-style Fried Green Asparagus and in a Membrillo Sauce (made with quince paste). If I thought the previous dish was erotic, this one almost set off a feeding frenzy. I had to control myself to eat it slowly and savor every bite.
In the style of the famous chefs the next course was a palate cleanser, Passion Fruit Sorbet, the perfect lead-in to the dessert course. Usually, if there is a more interesting dessert on the menu I would not choose flan. Really. Custard is custard, no? No! This flan was the queen of flans, obviously spiked with rum, topped with fresh pineapple, a swirl of whipped cream and garnished with a crisp cookie. I loved it.
Then, a double espresso and a glass of Pedro Ximenez Osborne Sherry and I was completely comfortable despite the seating. Rayuela made up for that in many ways, the excellent food, the eclectic background music, the sexy atmosphere (even the tree) and the wonderful service.
I was even charmed by the steel sinks filled with decorative river stones downstairs which served both the men’s and the women’s restrooms. Rayuela was quite a find, even if it took me six years to do it. But now I know where it is.
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