Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Jersey Boys

Dinner and a Movie

Jersey Dines in D.C.

By Steve Herte

Visiting our nation's capital is always an adventure. No matter how many times you go, there's always something new to see.

This year I had an ambitious schedule of sights and I actually saw most of them. The lesser known Hirshhorn, Freer and Corcoran Galleries proved they had wonders to reveal that the big museums didn't. The tiny German American Heritage Museum was as charming as the crowded Holocaust Museum was horrific. The Old Stone House in Georgetown may be difficult to get to but it's worth it. It's the oldest building in Washington, D.C., and Thomas Payne and George Washington both used it at one time or another. The National Archives is worth the wait on the security line to see the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and surprisingly, a copy of the Magna Carta.

On a beautiful summer day, the United States Botanic Garden is a must. I usually wait for a cloudy day with rain threatening to go to the National Zoo because the animals are more active then. We didn't have rain until Saturday but it cooled off nicely on Friday for my trek there. And Saint Matthews Cathedral had me awestruck with its glittering mosaics and memorial to John F. Kennedy on the floor of the center aisle (his funeral was held there). I loved my hotel, the Omni Shoreham, the first time I stayed there and I loved even more this time when I found out it was haunted. However, the only thing that seemed haunted was my television. When I tried to watch a movie on it the image kept freezing, going black to "no signal," and becoming totally pixilated. I gave up on it and eventually found myself at Gallery Place where the Regal Cinemas are located and was able to see an uninterrupted movie. Enjoy!

Jersey Boys (WB, 2014) - Director: Clint Eastwood. Writers: Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (s/p, musical book). Cast: Vincent Piazza, John Lloyd Young, Steve Schirripa, Christopher Walken, Katherine Narducci, Lou Volpe, Johnny Cannizzaro, Erich Bergen, & Michael Lomenda. Color, 134 minutes.

It begins back in 1951. Everyone knows Francesco Stephen Castelluccio (Young) has a great voice, even the Don, Gyp DeCarlo (cadaverously played by Walken), says it’s a “gift from God.” Tommy DeVito (Piazza) introduces the movie as the “true story” behind the formation and success of the Four Seasons. Based on the Broadway show of the same name, the film begins with the charmed teenage life of the kid who would become Frankie Valli (he’s 16) even though his buddies involve him in several criminal activities. “Charmed” is the word because he’s the only member of the original group “The Four Lovers” who manages to stay out of the New Jersey jail system (he later gets his turn in Cleveland with the group).

The story takes us through the labor pains that were necessary for the group to be born: Tommy’s controlling attitude and eventual half-million dollar debt to loan sharks, the turbulent introduction of Bob Gaudio (Bergen) to the group as songwriter, Frankie’s marriage and the family of three daughters, the need to change the group’s name (a cute little Deus Ex Machina from a diner fluorescent light sign) and the ultimate creation of the song “Sherry.” But along the remarkably rough road are the mob connections, unrest within the group, wild parties and extra-marital affairs. Even the songs sung in the early part of the movie divert the audience’s attention away from the hits they will eventually sing.

Tommy stated that this story is “the truth” (and we all know that sometimes the truth hurts) and Jersey Boys doesn’t skimp on shouting, vulgarity, and physicality. Parents, be aware of this before taking children to see it. Frankie’s marriage fails because of his time spent away, his youngest daughter dies (an overdose of pills is suggested) just after she enters the entertainment business guided by her dad, his girlfriend leaves him and the group breaks up. Tommy is exiled to Las Vegas by the mob, and Nick Massi (Lomenda) quits the group, leaving Bob and Frankie to their own future.

Not all is grim in the movie, of course. The songs and partial performances (several songs are sung as excerpts, which can be a bit disappointing) are often glorious. The intermittent but annoying recurrence of one or another of the group breaking character to talk to the audience can be unnerving when you want to hear the music. But all the characters do a wonderful performance and are believable. That is until the final scene at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction when the make-up department failed by obviously dusting their hair with chalk to gray them up a bit (cheesy).

Having been in 14 quartets (and being the top tenor in all of them) I know the joyous as well as sad moments and can identify with the characters portrayed in the film. There are indeed times when you love them more than your family and there are those other times when you wish serious harm on them. This is the tale Jersey Boys tells and Eastwood’s direction makes it real. With all due respect I can see why my Helene walked out on the Broadway show. This is not how she wanted to remember the Four Seasons because she was in a quartet with me and remembers our highs and lows. But once that moment happens (as Frankie says toward the end) “there is only the music” you cherish it forever. I didn’t think I would enjoy this movie as much as I did (in spite of the language) but good story telling, credible characters, and Eastwood’s direction made it better than expected.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Dining in D.C.

Originally I had planned to conduct my own restaurant version of a Miss America pageant as my dining article this week but the eight new restaurants I’ve had the pleasure to visit seem to be in an eight-way tie for first. They were all wonderful from first to last. What I’ll do instead is give highlights of each and the dishes that stood out in my memory as superb.

District Kitchen
2606 Connecticut Avenue NW

This cozy and friendly place a block away from my hotel welcomed me to D.C. and set the high level of gustatory enjoyment. Their chef’s innovative recipes from the chilled corn soup with English peas, to the Octopus Ceviche and the homemade Cavatelli with asparagus and peas were all delightful. But when I had the goat cheese cake on a graham cracker crust overlaid with dried cherries in a sweet cherry sauce I was totally blown away.

Taberna del Alabardero
1776 I Street NW

Celebrating 25 years as a restaurant in D.C., this traditionally decorated Spanish restaurant has good reason to wave their flag. I would challenge anyone to finish every dish on their “tasting menu” because you choose the dishes, not them. And if one of those dishes is the Crispy Sweetbreads followed by Arroz Negro (rice blackened with squid ink) Paella with squid and baby octopus (yes, I had octopus two nights in a row) it will be a challenge indeed. 

Le Mirch
1736 Connecticut Avenue NW

I always include an Indian restaurant in my itinerary as it is my favorite cuisine, and although this one has a French-sounding name, make no doubt about it, it’s Indian. However, they also have innovative dishes such as the Aubergine Tower appetizer, a remarkable construction using eggplant, mild spices chickpeas and crackers. Though difficult to eat without destroying it, I loved it.

Plume at The Jefferson Hotel
1200 16th Street NW

Jackets are preferred on gentlemen dining in this sumptuous formal restaurant where the waiters do not ask if you will have a cocktail to start with, they ask you if you wish for some Champagne. Yet they never get snooty and will gladly answer any questions. Here I would find it difficult to choose whether I enjoyed the Blue Crab Risotto more or the local rabbit tasting with its “box” made of potato and filled with asparagus, string beans and carrots, like an edible crate.

601 Pennsylvania Avenue NW (Entrance is actually on Indiana Avenue)

The décor of this Italian restaurant is quite striking, between swags seemingly made of alabaster from Majorca suspended by ropes in hangman’s knots to the highly polished wood tabletops. The bewitching taste of their homemade papardelle with veal ragout topped with a scroll of prosciutto vies successfully with the Spanish Branzino graced with paddlefish caviar and topped with a “sail” of crisped skin from the fish (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it).

2275 L Street NW

Another very friendly place was this cream-colored and dark wood accented window on a D.C. street. They serve a cocktail called “Mystique” mixing Plymouth gin, Skinos Masthiha Liqueur and dry vermouth that only needed a blue tint to remind me of the character from X-Men. Likewise, their Basque Cheese Agnolotti with orange flavor and green olives, chorizo and garlic was fabulous. And don’t get me started on their rack of lamb with its comical tree of rosemary!

Le Diplomat
1601 14th Street NW

Surprise, surprise! None other than Stephen Starr, the pride of Philadelphia (think Morimoto and El Vez), owns this delightful French bistro. I loved the mixture of French and English on their menu. For instance, they present Moules Frites (fried mussels) but next to it on the menu is “Beef” Bourguignon. Their Escargots in the traditional crock topped with little puff pastry hats were excellent, as was the Endive and Roquefort Salad featuring spiced poached pears. Friday’s special was Bouillabaisse and was it ever special!

Occidental Grill and Seafood
1475 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

I chose this restaurant as a seafood place but it became so much more. Again I was treated to honest, friendly service. The walls here are covered with framed photos of famous people who have dined at Occidental (most of whom I’ve never heard of). But the southern-style cooking is fantastic! There is no breadbasket; you get your own hot corn bread in an iron skillet. The Porcelet Pork Chop and Belly on a bed of braised red Russian kale in a puree of sweet white corn, with pickled white peach slices, crispy grit cakes and morel mushrooms was so sinfully delicious it would have made Jack Spratt commit suicide.

You may be wondering why all of these restaurants addresses end in “NW” for Northwest? Washington D.C. is organized around the Capitol Building and all streets and avenues radiating from it are divided accordingly into northeast, southeast, northwest and southwest. Since I never needed to journey east or south of that particular building, that’s the reason.

Now I hope you can see why I couldn’t choose one over the others when all of them had vertiginous standards of care and excellent food. If you don’t believe me, try them yourself next time you’re in D.C.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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