Thursday, June 19, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Dinner and a Movie

Dragons Hitched to a Trading Post

By Steve Herte

The wonderful part of writing my reviews from our nation's capital (yes, I'm in Washington, D.C.) is that my Clear Hotspot is working lightning fast. It still takes time to write them because my brain is a little bit slower. But never mind that.

The trip down was uneventful, just as I like it, but I didn't get to meet any interesting people on the way. Good thing I had my Kindle Fire to entertain me. The Omni Shoreham Hotel is just as genteel and gracious as the last time I stayed there only this time my room is in the West Promenade. Last time it was the East, overlooking the garden and pool. Prior to leaving I scheduled and reserved all my dinners and the first one was a big, wonderful surprise.

The District Kitchen is a quaint little place with an outdoor café on Connecticut Avenue, a block away from my hotel. One would never suspect that an innovative, amazing chef creates wonders there. The chilled corn soup with chorizo and English peas was a delight, as was the octopus ceviche with sliced avocado and taco chips. Then the homemade Cavatelli with asparagus and peas in a Spanish paprika sauce was divine. I hope this isn't making you too hungry. I'll let you go with goat cheese cake on a graham cracker crust, dried cherries and sliced almonds in a sinful cherry sauce. OK, I'll stop. No wait! I have to tell you about the lemon-flavored grappa! Wow! The level for dinners has been set high, I'll admit, but why not. Likewise I had a high level of anticipation for my movie Friday night and it sailed right over it easily. Not so the restaurant, but you'll see that. Enjoy!

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (20th Century Fox/Dreamworks, 2014) Director: Dean DeBlois. Writers: Dean DeBlois (s/p), Cressida Cowell (book). Voices: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Kit Harrington, Djimon Housou, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Chrstopher Mintz-Plasse, & T.J. Miller. Color and 3D, 102 minutes.

The exception proves the rule, right? The rule is that sequels rarely are as good as the original movie. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is every bit as amazing and joyous as the first installment. It even weaves in a bit of ecology (if fantastic creatures count as a part of the ecosystem).

Once again we are taken to the rocky land called Berk where Vikings ride dragons and the two species live in harmony with each other. Stoick the Viking Chief (Butler) is preparing for the day that his son Hiccup (Baruchel) takes over the business (they’re dragon-saddlers) and become Chief of the Vikings. Hiccup has other plans. He wants to go flying on Toothless, his Night Fury and discover and map new lands.

One day he and his friends stumble across the lair of a band of dragon-hunters led by Eret (Harrington) and almost have their dragons given over to the infamous Drago (Housou) who is determined to control all dragons and rule the world (sound familiar anyone?)

On another of his flights he finds a spikey land of ice and while exploring is attacked by a mysterious figure riding a four-winged dragon. The struggle is unnecessary because when the mask is removed, the figure is none other than his own mother, Valka (Blanchett) who left him as a child, located an “Alpha” Dragon (If you think dragons are fantastic creatures, wait ‘til you see this one! I would bet on the Alpha in a battle against Godzilla.), and with its help (It breathes ice rather than fire) created a haven for hundreds of dragons. She had no idea that the Vikings of Berk would ever get along with dragons, much less ride them. When Stoick arrives to “rescue” his son he and Valka renew their love and she agrees to come home.

Bad plan. Drago has amassed an army and a fleet of ships to take over the ice land and the battle begins. That is until he reveals his secret weapon, a second Alpha which battles and kills the first one. Alphas have the power to “will” all other dragons to do their bidding and, one by one the familiar dragons’ pupils turn from ovals to slits and they follow the Alpha, even Toothless. In the fray we lose Stoick and go through a Viking funeral.

In their short time together prior to the battle Valka teaches Hiccup many things she has learned about dragons in their time apart and he teaches her as well. “Every dragon has a secret” she says, as she presses a scale on the back of Toothless’ neck and a double row of ridge plates pops up on his back (much to his surprise), “now he’ll be able to make those sharp turns.” We also learn why his name is “toothless” – he has retractable teeth.

It all looks hopeless until Hiccup uses his special bond with Toothless to “will” him back. At which point the Alpha buries both of them in solid ice. Valka is horrified. But if you’ve ever heard the phrase “never make a dragon angry” you’ll understand the transformation that comes over Toothless.

The two films are based on Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon book series, and I’m seriously considering looking those books up. If they’re half as entertaining as these films I will enjoy them as much as I did Anne McCaffery’s Dragon-Riders of Pern series. The animation is smooth and credible, in particular the eyes and facial expressions. It’s not as digitally detailed as Monsters Inc. but it still caught me up in the story. The musical soundtrack is almost classical in the choral works set against heroic orchestration. If your children have wild imaginations, this movie is for them. If they have no imaginations, it may give them one. I laughed, I shed a tear and I enjoyed the entire hour and 42 minutes.

And, since I bought my ticket online, I received a bonus from iTunes – three additional short features downloaded to my computer: The Gift of the Night Fury (a kind of Christmas story on Berk); The Book of Dragons which tells the tale of Bork, the Highly Misfortunate and how he became Bork the Bold; and The Legend of the Bone Napper, a dragon even considered a myth by the Vikings. Together they made a delightful source of background for the two feature films.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses

The Trading Post
170 John Street (South Street)New York

Until two and a half years ago, this piece of prime real estate in Manhattan - a block away from South Street Seaport - was the Yankee Clipper, an excellent seafood and steakhouse. It’s different now.

The first thing one notices about the Trading Post is the weathered look of the wooden sign bearing its name, the black wrought-iron handrails on the stairs and the shiny lacquered doors and windows. Inside, you’re transported to a seaport inn with simple wooden tables (though polished) and leather cushioned chairs, dim single swag lights with simple tin-parasol shades and blood-red walls decked with period art-works and subjected to a black-tin ceiling. The young lady at the Captain’s Station asked if I had a preference for seating and I told her I preferred a table to sitting at the bar (especially not during World Cup; all the crazies were at the bar). She found me a moderately quiet table in the back after I turned down one with high stools adjacent to an internal window facing the bar. I say moderately quiet because I still could hear the noise of the bar fans, but they didn’t bother me. I could still make out my favorite tunes on the Musak, and the two delightfully spoiled little girls at the next table were the only disturbance. (Mommy looked harried indeed as she sipped her wine.)

Jordan, my waiter, appeared (he looked big enough to take on the bouncer who let me in the front door) and took my water preference as he handed me the menu and wine list. One of the signature cocktails on the reverse side of the wine list mentioned Beefeaters gin and I knew what I wanted. Jordan was either a meticulous server who wanted to make sure he got an order correctly or he was partially deaf. I had to raise my voice to describe my martini preference and he repeated it (missing one ingredient). I don’t like shouting and I was not surprised that my martini had olives instead of a lemon twist, but it was well made – not great, but well made. I asked Jordan how people normally ordered dinner (especially with a good appetite). The menu had classifications of Bites, Bowls and Boards (Appetizers, Soups and Cheeses), Raw Bar, Salads, Flatbreads (a new fad, like a fluffy pizza), Large Plates and Sides. He explained that the lobster mac and-cheese is a filling dish to start with and did not recommend it as a part of a three-courser. That set me thinking. It was the only interesting appetizer. But I did choose.

When I suggested the classic onion soup as a starter and the salt-roasted beets with baby arugula and aged goat cheese as a salad, he suggested that they come out together. I saw no problem there but I warned him that I’m a slow eater and the main course should be held off until I’m ready. He agreed.

The soup was indeed a surprise. It was the recipe I’ve loved in the past topped with melted Gruyere cheese (I didn’t even have to taste it – I could tell by the aroma.) Dark bread was used for the crouton inside and it was chock full of onions in a flavorful broth. The beets were tasty and almost as sweet as Harvard beets but with a slightly salty flavor and buried under a mound of baby arugula – all this topped with two teaspoons of impressively gamey goat cheese. Jordan had warned me that there would be cashews in the salad and I had told him not to worry. I have no food allergies and I love cashews! They were walnuts. Disappointing, but still good.

I wasn’t even halfway through the soup and hadn’t even touched the salad when the main course arrived. Making my astonishment known loud enough for Jordan to hear (I had already ruled out the meticulous-server notion and added a different option) I sent it back. Jordan apologized and implied someone didn’t listen to his instructions. Hmmm.

As soon as he noticed that I was almost finished with the beets, Jordan asked if he could “put in” my main course order and I told him yes, of course. The New York Sirloin was a nice thickness but it was the smallest cut I’ve ever seen. I was tasty and done almost to my specifications but it had a sinew that diminished the enjoyment – it ran the length of the piece of meat. I was glad the peppercorn sauce was served on the side. I tasted it with morsels of steak a few times and decided not to pour it over the meat. It was spicy enough to burn a fakir’s beard off. The steakhouse fries were served in a paper cone stuffed into a ceramic cup and were crisp enough and better when dipped into the ramekin of catsup that accompanied them. A glass of 2010 Numanthia Tempranillo from Spain added a touch of class to the meal.

By this time the two squealing darlings at the next table had their daddy join them and were now orbiting their table and crawling all over him. But soon they all left and I noticed the soccer fans had gone as well. It was time for dessert. Jordan recommended the Blue Marble trio of sorbets over the apple-rhubarb cobbler and he was right (Yay!). The black raspberry, lemon, and blood orange sorbets were as intensely flavored as their names (and their bright colors) implied. That was one highlight. The double espresso was uninspired but the 30-year-old tawny port made up for its shortcomings.

Unfortunately, the Trading Post has replaced a very good restaurant with a very charming bar in a rustic, historic location. I shall miss the Yankee Clipper.

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