Saturday, May 3, 2014

Heaven Is For Real

Dinner and a Movie

Of Heavens and Hardings

By Steve Herte 

In my restaurant review this week you’ll see that I termed the last two days as “macrobiotic.” These are days when my food intake is out of my usual control. Knowing what I do on Fridays, I try to keep my caloric ingestion to a manageable level. I learned from my first few weeks of employment (back in 1973) that eating a main course (like a hot meal) for lunch can give you secretarial spread in really short order - especially in an office setting - because it was happening to me. And the myth of Chinese food not being fattening is just that. I was having Chinese food for lunch daily and getting fat on it. Lord, the things we believe when we’re young and stupid!

Anyhow, Thursday we had a group meeting and that was accompanied by Dunkin’ Donuts, Rugelach and these huge cookies. That evening was pasta night at my house, sheesh! Then Friday, the AARP Coordinator who partners with us organized a celebration luncheon in our building and invited me to partake of various “wraps,” fruit salad, Italian antipasto and cheeses. Yikes! I had to keep moving the whole afternoon to work it off and be ready for dinner after the movie. And there are leftovers in the office fridge. I’ve always said that when I die I want to go face down in a plate of lasagna but this is ridiculous. Fortunately, it is only once a year.

I survived. Enjoy!

Heaven Is For Real (Tri-Star Picture/Screen Gems, 2014) - Director: Randall Wallace. Writers: Chris Parker & Randall Wallace (s/p), Todd Burpo & Lynn Vincent (book). Cast; Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church, Connor Corum, Lane Styles, Margo Martindale, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Danso Gordon, Rob Moran, Nancy Sorel, Darcy Fehr, & Ursula Clark. Color, 99 minutes.

Is Heaven just a hope, or is it as real as here?” Thus posits the voice-over at the beginning of the film. The camera focuses on a young girl deeply involved in painting a single bluish-green eye on a large canvas set on an easel. The caption: Lithuania – present day.

The scene flips to the heartland of America and the caption changes to Nebraska – present day. There are endless fields of gold and a big sky above. We meet the Burpo family (yes, I had to do a double take on the name myself). Todd Burpo (Kinnear) is pastor of the local Wesleyan church. He and his wife Sonja (Reilly), daughter Cassie (Styles), and four-year-old son Colton (Corum) live their lives in a typical Midwest small-town where everybody knows everybody else and nothing amazing ever happens. Todd’s salary as pastor is hardly enough to support his family and he does fix-it jobs around town. But being a good-natured reverend, he often accepts goods in place of cash, which does nothing to get his family out of debt, especially when he breaks a leg playing softball and adds a huge medical bill to the pile.

Sonja talks him into taking the family on a road trip to Denver as a change of scenery and diversion from their monetary woes. They go to a butterfly zoo where Colton is fascinated with the many colored fluttering forms, but will not hold the tarantula, although his sister bravely volunteers to do so. When they come back, both children get sick but Cassie recovers quickly while Colton’s fever increases. Sonja recognizes the symptoms of appendicitis and they rush Colton to the hospital (not exactly around the corner in rural America). The doctor diagnoses it as a “ruptured” appendix and rush Colton into the operating room where we hear “We’re losing him…” after a short period.

Todd goes to the chapel and rails at God for possibly taking his boy from him, while Sonja calls all the friends and relatives to pray for Colton. Somehow the doctors are successful: Colton pulls through and goes home with his grateful parents. Little by little, the adorable child reveals to his dad his adventure in Heaven during the operation, how angels sang to him, how he sat on Jesus’ lap and how Jesus has a horse. 

Todd doesn’t know what to make of this but he knows his son doesn’t lie. It’s when Colton tells him that he met grandpa (on Todd’s mother’s side) and identifies him from an old photo when grandpa was young that Todd starts taking stock of what his son has seen. It begins to affect him and his preaching and the church board begins to wonder if he can effectively perform his duties as pastor. When Colton’s revelations reach a local newspaper it becomes severely troubling to the board members. “I don’t want our church to become a circus,” says Nancy Rawlings (Martindale).

Sonja keeps trying to rationalize the fantastic things her son is saying, trying to explain each concept by some experience or teaching Colton has been exposed to. That is until he tells her about his sister “who died in your tummy, Mommy.” He describes a girl who hugged him in Heaven who had no name because they didn’t give her one. He also tells her that Jesus has “markers,” pointing to each of his hands and each of his feet.

Word travels to the local media and a television station wants an interview. Todd invites them to his church on Sunday where he gives the best sermon of his life about the reality (or not) of Heaven and his child’s visions. (By the way, bring a handkerchief or tissue; you’ll need it.) Bottom line, that’s how far it goes – no circus, no miraculous changes – but everyone in the town now understands how he feels and what he’s gone through. Later on, Todd is on his computer and he sees the young girl from the beginning of the movie finishing her painting of a man with a small beard and moustache, long swept-back hair and piercing bluish-green eyes. Colton takes one look at the picture and says, “That’s Him.”

Based on the book, Heaven Is For Real, written by the real Todd Burpo, this movie is moving and deeply emotional for the whole family. The young Lithuanian girl is child prodigy Akiane Kramarik (Clark), who had a similar experience of the afterlife and painted a series of canvases describing what she saw. The story is beautifully told and brilliantly acted (especially Corum – he’s either an incredible natural talent or has an excellent acting coach) and neither promotes nor denies the existence of Heaven, leaving it to the audience to decide. I found it very comforting and loved Colton’s simple description. “It’s like here, only more beautiful.” And after hearing the Billy Joel lines, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun,” I definitely prefer the “better place” idea.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

32 East 21st Street (between Broadway and Park Avenue), New York

The stately dark wood-trimmed glass around the entrance to Harding’s suggests Old New York and the simple shingle-style hanging sign with the name in gold letters over the door adds dignity to the image. Inside, the décor is almost colonial – very simple, dark wood (black walnut), a muted-salmon-colored wall, few hanging pictures, a large American flag draped over a wall in back, and spidery bare-bulb chandeliers painted egg-shell white.

The young lady at the Captain’s Station asked if I would like to sit at the bar (it was quite large and had room) but I told her that it doesn’t feel like dinner unless I’m seated at a table. She led me to a table just past the bar in the back – which was perfect – from which I could see all the comings and goings, the wrought iron balcony over the far wall, and the antique mirrored servers’ station.

When my flamboyant waiter, Antonio, arrived, he brought me the menu and wine list, and took my water preference I knew it was going to be a fun evening. He reminded me of a character straight out of The Producers. I told him I was a slow diner and would need a cocktail to sip while mulling over the menu. I chose the Sazarac – a bewitching deep orange-colored combination of rye, cane sugar, bitters and absinthe. It was a definite “think drink.”

Harding’s menu is simply divided into Starters (10), Mains (8) and Sides (3). I quickly figured out that a three-course meal would involve 2 starters and a main. The half-dozen West Coast oysters with sparkling wine and pickled vegetable mignonette became my first course and the strawberry and spinach salad with goat Feta cheese the second. It was then between the Shortribs and the Filet Mignon. I told Antonio that I liked both but that the accompanying vegetables for the Filet were more attractive than the celery root and potato puree that came with the Shortribs. He recommended the Shortribs with just the grilled turnips (no potato puree) and with a side of the grilled vegetables. Perfect. I ordered a bottle of the 2010 Zinfandel “The Federalist” from Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma, California. “I’ll bring that when you finish your Sazarac,” blossomed Antonio. I thanked him and off he went to put in my order.

The oysters arrived when I finished the cocktail (which reminded me of New Orleans) and they were delightful, though remarkably small. I wondered about that because the last time I ordered West Coast oysters they were delicate little things as well. They didn’t need the lemon that came with them. Frankly, I still don’t know why people need lemon on any seafood, but I guess it’s a matter of taste. As promised, Antonio was there to pour the wine after the last drop of the cocktail. My maxim still held with the first taste of the wine, that I’ve never had a Zinfandel I didn’t like. I commented to Antonio about the picture of Alexander Hamilton on the wine label and asked if he ever had Marilyn Merlot. I swear he almost levitated at the thought but I convinced him it was a real label back in time. “I’ll just have to Google it,” he effused.

The strawberry and spinach salad was a respectable but manageable mound of fresh baby spinach with juicy strawberry slices and slightly salty cubes of Feta cheese and lengths of Bermuda onion in light fruity vinaigrette. Again, it was wonderful (especially after the macrobiotic two days at work) and easily finished. The bread plate was a few slices of fresh baguette and creamery butter daring me to finish it was well. (And I did.)

The Shortribs made their appearance under a cloak of Béchamel sauce and yielded submissively to my fork. The deep beefy flavor combined with the sauce was delicious. The turnips were tender packages of not-too-soft, not-too-hard, melt-in-your-mouth wonder. But the grilled vegetables, a combination of cauliflower and halved Brussels sprouts, all just browned around the edges, would have made a vegetable lover of the most stubborn child.

I couldn’t help but notice the turn-around in the patronage at Harding’s; everyone was young and good-looking (no, it wasn’t the wine). In fact, there was one girl at the bar wearing a dress that could have been cut from the same cloth as the play suits from The Sound of Music. But I didn’t want to reveal this to Antonio for fear of his reaction. Two young ladies were occupying the table to my right as Antonio brought the dessert menu.

Of the five selections, the Griddle Cake sounded the most interesting, and I almost had to tie Antonio down when I ordered it. When it arrived, all golden brown and glistening with maple syrup and topped with moonshine ice cream and lemon zest, it caught the eye of one of the ladies to my right. “What is that?” And I explained. “It looks great!” And it was – to the last bite.

I ordered a double espresso and, since my cocktail had absinthe in it, I asked Antonio if they could make the “proper preparation” of absinthe as an after-dinner drink for me. He thought it a fantastic idea and swept away to accomplish it, only to return with the news that they were out of absinthe. There must have been a run on Sazaracs, I said. I thanked him and was happy with what I had.

Open since November of 2012, Harding’s (formerly known as Gravy) has striven to keep a patriotic image ever since Superstorm Sandy delayed their opening. I’ve just learned that the 45-star flag on the one wall is 117 years old and that there are Civil War bullets embedded in the walls. I not only had a great time there but I have to go back and see (and eat) what I’ve missed.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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