Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Last Days of Mars

Dinner and a Movie

The Last Days of a Martian Nomad

By Steve Herte

This was a strange week indeed. Karaoke night had me feeling like the most interesting man in the world because people I didn’t even know were coming over to talk with me. The host never went off my list of songs (and believe me, that’s unusual). I was able to loan out six more printers from my office to our volunteer income tax preparer partners – thus giving me more space. My dad developed an upper respiratory infection (that’s what they call it when they don’t know what you have) but it cleared up in time for Saturday’s 60th birthday party for my sister Terry at this lovely place in Westbury, Long Island, the City Cellar. It counts as my 2,575th restaurant. I’m learning to use a Kindle Fire and am progressing nicely. Friday’s fun balanced out 50/50. Hey, they can’t all be five-martini glass movies. Enjoy!

The Last Days of Mars (British Film Institute/Magnolia Pictures, 2013) – Director: Ruairi Robinson. Writers: Sydney J. Bounds (short story), Clive Dawson (s/p). Cast: Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Olivia Williams, Johnny Harris, Goran Kostic, Tom Cullen, Yusra Warsama. Color, 98 minutes.

The trailers for this movie were so promising. Five men and three women make up the staff of Tantalus Base on Mars on a 16-month mission to search for life. It is now less than 17 hours before their shuttlecraft from space station Aurora comes to pick them up and they have found nothing. They are exhausted, frustrated and getting on each other’s nerves. Marko Petrovic (Kostic) talks the mission commander Charles Brunel (Koteas) into letting him and Richard Harrington (Cullen) go out to a particular site for one more look just as Vincent Campbell (Schreiber), Kim Aldrich (Williams), and Lauren Dalby (Warsama) return empty-handed. Marko never told the others of his discovery of a possible life form which Kim uncovers by using his computer.

At the site, the ground opens up beneath Marko and down he goes. No one can see the bottom of the dusty, steamy hole so Brunel consults Aurora Station on procedure leaving Dalby at the site with specific orders not to venture down the hole. Dalby has developed a feeling for Marko over the six months, so guess what she does? When Aurora Station approves the retrieval of the assumed-dead Petrovic and the rest return to the site, no Dalby. Campbell is lowered into the hole but he develops an anxiety attack remembering an incident (which is never explained) involving an airlock and Rebecca Lane (Garai) on Aurora Station, and they reel him back up. Brunel goes down and discovers what looks like a white spidery fungus that appears to be living at the bottom of the pit along with two sets of footprints.

It doesn’t take long for them to realize that not only are Petrovic and Dalby dead, but they have been reanimated by the Martian life-forms, can exist without helmets on the Martian surface and are now blackened, blood-thirsty interplanetary zombies who infect anyone they cut. Needless to say, everyone (including the entire crew of the shuttle craft) is cut or infected one way or another. If there is any other way to cheapen a potentially good science fiction movie into the depths of the “B” category, I don’t know it. Campbell is the only survivor at the end but he concludes that he’s infected as well and the film ends with the audience knows that he’s going to burn up the shuttle craft in Mars’ atmosphere in an intentional re-entry. He does achieve orbit after a fight with mission psychiatrist Robert Irwin (Harris) when the shrink turns zombie on board.

The positives for Last Days on Mars include the convincing orange stage sets, the special effect of an approaching Martian dust storm, and the musical background, which provided most of the excitement. The dialogue written by Bounds and Dawson is dingy and dull and delivered in such a mush-mouthed mumbled British dialect in the first half hour that only the “F” word is clear. The characters act like underpaid federal employees on a garbage detail to the point where the audience doesn’t care who gets killed.

Robinson, the director, didn’t do his science homework because the several hundred foot high dust storms were nowhere near as violent inside the rovers as they should have been and in one scene, when the sun rises over Mars it’s the same size as an Earth sunrise. Whoops! Credibility disappeared altogether when Irwin stabs and penetrates the faceplate on Campbell’s space helmet toward the end as if it were made of cheap plastic.
There was no applause from the five other people in the audience that night. I hope the producers make back the money spent on this movie but I doubt they will. Rating: 1 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

78 Second Avenue (between 4th and 5th Streets), New York

When a restaurant classifies itself as “Mediterranean,” one never really knows what to expect. Any one of (or combination of) a dozen countries’ cuisines could be involved. With Nomad however, if the crescent shaped blue calligraphy over the glassed front doesn’t clue you in, the décor will. All the lighting fixtures are intricate stained glass wonders, the bar is elegantly carved with Moorish-style designs and lit from behind, the benches have colorful complex woven fabrics covering them and there is a wooden camel statue near the flatbread oven and a photograph of Humphrey Bogart enshrined behind the bar. If the ambient ululated, minor key music doesn’t help and you’re not an imbecile, you’ll know you’re in a Moroccan restaurant.

After three choices, I settled onto a bench toward the end of the bar between a table of three women and one of three men. I could see the corridor leading to the rear dining area and one or two more tables on the way. There was an elegant mirror with a gracefully shaped and scroll-worked golden vase in front of it on the wall just to the left of the corridor.

My tall, lanky waiter Mezi asked for my water preference and took my order for a Peach Bellini – Peach Schnapps in Champagne – and presented me with the menu and the drink list, which included the wines.

While perusing the menu I learned firsthand what it feels like to dine while sitting on an active San Andreas Fault. The bench was not anchored to the floor and every time the heavy-set woman on my left or the portly pontificating man on my right moved, the whole thing rocked forward and back jarring me along with it. It gave Mezi a good laugh when I told him about it after they left.

Trying to orchestrate a three-course Moroccan meal without every dish containing lamb was an interesting challenge (I wanted as much variety as possible), but with Mezi’s help it was accomplished. I opted for the Collard Green Soup to start with rather than the Harrira Soup (it had lamb meatballs). It was a lovely lentil-based soup with carrots and collards as co-stars in a dark broth. The collards were not over-powering and the consistency was perfect.

I saw a 2010 Syrah from Morocco called “Ouled Taleb” for a reasonable price and ordered it. What a wonderful wine – deep ruby color, rich fruity flavor and low on the tannins! It complimented the whole meal.

The second course was the Duck Pastilla a l’Orange – ground duck with almonds and light spices in a filo-dough pouch baked golden with a honey glaze. It was served with a fennel/mandarin orange salad. The delicate flavors of both were amazing – even the oranges.

The main course was truly impressive. The Cous-Cous Royale was served in a large white bowl. On the bottom was the cous-cous, then a layer of chickpeas and on top, the tender chicken leg, dark meaty lamb on the bone, merguez (spicy) sausage, slices of squash, carrot and potato. The dark meat broth was served separately so that one could control the level of moisture in the dish. I definitely took advantage of that feature and little by little, between sips of that lovely wine the entire serving vanished. Shortly before I finished I remembered the spicy Moroccan sauce Harissa, which Mezi brought with all haste. All that was left after using that was the glistening white bowl. Mezi asked if I was finished with a wry smile.

I didn’t have to see the dessert menu. Mezi knew what I wanted and said, “You have to try our home-made baklava!” and I agreed. The beautifully golden wedge of nuts, filo dough and honey was easy to cut with a knife, sweet, slightly crunchy and delicious. It came with a small bowl of chocolate ice cream, which unfortunately melted faster than I could eat it. How to finish? I asked Mezi if there was such a thing as Moroccan coffee. “We have Greek coffee.” “No” “How about Moroccan Mint Tea?” “Perfect!” “With perhaps, a glass of Port?" "Excellent!”

If I didn’t already feel as if I were in Morocco, this last course clinched it. The lovely stemmed glass of ruby Port wine arrived first, followed by the delicately tapered tumbler filled with fresh mint leaves. Mezi then poured the tea from an ornate antique silver Moroccan teapot and I was charmed. The mint added only a light, pleasant flavor to the tea and the Port topped it very nicely.

There are many more dishes on Nomad’s menu that I would like to try begging a return visit. I was surprised to learn from Mezi that the restaurant is three years old. I had a great time. Even at the door, as I was about to leave, the sweet young girl at the Captain’s station presented me with not only the business card, but a postcard advertising their belly-dancing nights (Woo hoo!), and a card with QR codes (the new codes Smart Phones can read) for special scanning to win discounts. I love this place!

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