Wednesday, May 14, 2014


Dinner and a Movie

Chefs Vic and Anthony

By Steve Herte

Still no progress on the baby blanket I’m knitting. The instructions are too cryptic. At work I’ve hit the 2,018 mark with “thank you” letters and certificates for the volunteers. This week I’m particularly excited to be seeing “Amaluna,” the new Cirque du Soleil show, at their Citi Field location in Flushing. Maybe I can make a circus theme to my karaoke songs. Friday was a special night for me, what with the combination of a food-oriented movie and my 2,600th restaurant. Yes, you read that right. I finally have my database as up-to-date as I think it can be and that’s Friday’s number. Of course it pales in comparison with the fact that at any one time there are over 7,500 restaurants in New York City alone, but I’m kind of proud of it. Enjoy! 

Chef (Open Road Films, 2014) - Director: Jon Favreau. Writer: Jon Favreau. Cast: Jon Favreau, Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, John Leguizamo, Dustin Hoffman, Sofia Vergara, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony, & Gloria Sandoval. Color, 115 minutes.

A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring…”

Alexander Pope wrote these words in 1711 as a part of his “An Essay on Criticism.” Quoted by Albert Einstein and most recently, Jeff Goldblum in the remake of The Fly (1986), these poetic lines could be the moral of this light comedy about a chef trying to break out of the mold set by the restaurant owner.

Directed by, written by, and starring Favreau, this film is almost Shakespearean in the true definition of a comedy. Favreau is a chef in a successful restaurant owned by Riva (Hoffman), who believes in “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” His Sous-chef, Tony (Cannavale), and Head Line Cook, Martin (Leguizamo), are not only his team but his best friends, and Molly (Johansson) the hostess is his confidante and part-time psychologist. His divorce/separation (not really clear which) from his wife Inez (Vergara) leaves him only part of his time with his 10-year old son Percy (Anthony). Things are going well until word gets out that the biggest restaurant reviewer and blogger, Ramsey Michel (a great character name amalgamation), played by Platt, is coming to review the restaurant. Favreau wants to show the critic what true marvels he can perform in the kitchen and Riva, afraid he’s going to put “guts” (his term for sweetbreads) on the menu again (no one ordered them) forces him to keep to the same menu he’s always had. Michel not only pans the food on Twitter, but also literally calls it excrement. Needless to say, Favreau is shocked and angry.

Here’s where Pope’s quote comes in. Knowing nothing about Twitter, Favreau gets the rudiments of it from his son. He answers Michel via a snide tweet thinking it will only go to him, but being ignorant of the ways of Twitter, he unwittingly sends it to everyone he knows. From there it goes to hundreds of thousands of Michel followers and Favreau is instantly infamous. In an attempt to get out from under all this negative publicity he invites Michel back to his restaurant with the promise of a whole new menu.

The day comes, he’s bought all the new ingredients, the restaurant is packed, and Riva denies him the opportunity to prepare the new menu. He essentially quits, leaves Tony in charge of the kitchen, and Michel is astonished to be served the exact same food he trashed in his previous review. His next tweet calls Favreau “needy” and “unimaginative.” When Favreau sees this he storms back into the restaurant and unleashes a tirade in front of all the customers – one of whom catches it all on video, and the video goes viral on the internet. Now he’s out of a job.

Inez convinces him to come to Miami to talk to her former ex-husband Marvin (Downey Jr.) to hopefully start up a food-truck business. It takes some doing but he does and Marvin provides him with a horrendously whitewashed (you can still see the lettering from the previous owner on the side), absolutely filthy (Percy notes that it smells like something died in there) truck. Percy adores his father and agrees to help him clean and renovate it and essentially gut it of all useless equipment. It’s not until Martin shows up and uses his contacts to load the new equipment and spiff up the exterior that the business of “El Jeffe,” purveyor of Cuban and Latino specialties, is rolling.

Since Percy is on his summer break from school, he gets Inez’s permission to accompany his dad on the maiden voyage of the food truck. Not only does he learn a lot of what the line cook’s work is all about, but also teaches his dad about social networking while the two bond.

Chef is a wonderful story that could be based on real life. The humor is mostly visual with the exception of two Woody Allen-esque moments. The photography is beautiful and the dishes prepared throughout the movie mouth-watering. The mostly Latino soundtrack is great, including the songs “I Like It Like That” by Pete Rodriguez and “Sexual Healing” (a heart-thumping trumpet version by The Hot 8 Brass Band). The special effects are cute (yes, there are special effects). Every time someone tweets, the words are visible on-screen, and a little blue bird goes flying off on its mission. The performances were believable by the entire cast and at times brought tears to the eyes of the audience. As far as family entertainment goes, beware. There is a lot of strong language in the film (which I can understand, having read about what goes on in restaurant kitchens) which might be hard on sensitive ears (I still don’t see what the need is for it – ½ a Martini glass in my rating was lost because of it), so I’ve said it before, parents use your good judgment before bringing kids to this one. Otherwise, Chef is an excellent film.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Vic & Anthony’s Steakhouse, 233 Park Avenue S. (at 19th Street)
New York

This sleek two-year-old restaurant, occupying the space that formerly housed Angelo and Maxie’s, entices visitors at the door with the warm red glow of its lights and the backlit script name over the door. The décor is shades of black and silver with satanic red accents such as the two red Lucite ceiling fixtures twinkling through strands of red glass beads over the main dining area. The young lady at the Captain’s Station led me to a perfect table facing one of their two imposing wine racks lit in pale blue and set between the bar and the dining area.

I was only admiring the surroundings a short while when Patrick, my server, arrived to get my water preference and cocktail selection. That was easy once I learned they had Beefeaters. Patrick left me the menu, the cocktail list and the wine book, and it wasn’t long before I met George, the Sommelier. He essentially assured me he would be delighted to assist in my selection for dinner.

First surprise, my martini arrived in a chilled frosty glass! That doesn’t happen often and it’s something I would do at home. The bread arrived second, swaddled in a napkin like a newborn baby with a ramekin of fresh butter. I must admit that I was charmed. Here, the appetizers are called “Mix and Mingle.” Then there are Soups and Salads, Steaks, Chicken & Chops, From the Sea, and Sides. George caught me paging through the impressively extensive wine list, trying not to go slack-jawed at how many three-figure wines were listed. I had stopped at the page listing 25 Zinfandels and felt like a kid in a candy shop. I told George the three-course meal I had planned and he helped me choose the 2010 Turley vineyards “Dogtown” Zinfandel from Lodi. Then he was off on his mission.

Meanwhile, Patrick returned and I was ready. I ordered the Steak Tacos – fresh corn tortillas stuffed with braised beef short ribs, Monterey Jack cheese and served with a chipotle mayo & roasted salsa, the Beefsteak Tomato and Onion Salad with Roquefort cheese, and the 10-ounce Filet Mignon done “Black and Blue,” (seared on the outside, cool and red on the inside) topped with Bleu Cheese Bacon Butter (totally decadent) and a side of Chips and Strings – waffle-cut potatoes fried crisp with deep fried onion strings. Patrick was pleased and dashed off.

George reappeared with the wine and a carafe to decant it. He explained that it was a good idea both for aeration and to eliminate any sediment. The wine had a formidable nose and a rich, edgy flavor smooth as well as tangy. It was perfect. I had George hold off pouring until the food started to arrive.

Normally I do not order tacos anywhere because of the way they’re usually made. You take one bite of the crisp fried tortilla and the entire contents lands in your lap. Not these. The three caballeros were wrapped in soft tortillas and held upright in place on the dish by a long toothpick. The spicy deep orange salsa was served in its own stainless steel ramekin and could be poured over the taco as one eats it. Surprise number two: I’ve never enjoyed tacos as much as I savored these, and they were fun to eat. And…not one drop wound up in my lap.

I was not quite finished with the tacos when the salad arrived. No problem, as I noted to Patrick, there’s no worry about a salad getting cold. The beefsteak tomatoes were chopped up with other colorful salad ingredients (clever, I thought, they could be any kind of tomato), the bacon and cheese and threaded through with Bermuda onion rings. It was delightful, fresh and flavorful to the last bite.

I had time to enjoy my wine before the Filet arrived, a beautiful two and a half inch dark tower of tender juicy beef topped with the tanginess of bleu cheese, smoky bacon and butter. A manager passed by my table asking how I enjoyed it. I just sighed languorously and he understood. The Chips and Strings was a hefty portion of onions mounded high with crisp potato chips strewn about like flat boulders on the mountainside and came with a ramekin of catsup. It proved to be an excellent finger-food and added to the decadent nature of my dinner. Alas, though I did finish the Filet I was growing too sated to finish the side and had it boxed to go.

Patrick brought the dessert menu and, though they all looked inviting, they also looked too heavy to finish. Besides, the after-dinner drink menu was much more enticing. I chose a lovely German Ice Wine and a double espresso and that was all I needed to be happy.

Judging by my benchmark steakhouse, Uncle Jack’s, Vic and Anthony’s did very well. The service was just as impressive and caring, and I felt a personal connection with both Patrick and George. The atmosphere is more relaxed than Uncle Jack’s and the chairs a bit more comfortable. The food was every bit as good, served hot when necessary and timed well so that the meal was not rushed. Good job Vic and Anthony’s! No wonder you also have locations in Houston, Las Vegas and Atlantic City. I would return just for that wine list.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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