Wednesday, June 11, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Dinner and a Movie

Mutants in a Paella Bar

By Steve Herte

People have asked me if there is any food, dish or recipe I would not try and each time my answer is an emphatic “No!” This doesn’t mean I like everything; it means I would try anything (even if it means closing my eyes before eating it).

When I was growing up at home the selection of foods was limited to the costs, the tastes of my parents, my Mom’s expertise (which regrettably wasn’t passed down from her mother) and what was available. I remember hating bananas after eating a bad one. Now I can tolerate them cooked or with strawberries in yoghurt. I also remember dreading the Lenten season and meatless Fridays when the horrid “Baked Macaroni” was served. This disgusting dish was served in a long aluminum pan and topped with blackened, crusty slices of Velveeta cheese and tomato sauce. The noodles were always overcooked or burnt at the edges. I still shudder at the memory. I hated pasta for the longest time (except for tuna macaroni salad, made with elbow macaroni).

But when I joined the Barbershop Society in 1973, the food world was opened up to me. My friend Renate introduced me to escargot and from there it was easy to try frog’s legs (both of which I love.) My friend Tony introduced me to sushi at a place called The Galleria in a White Plains mall, and I wondered why anyone would cook the flavor out of a fish. On a trip to Italy, I discovered the wonder that is pasta in all its myriad shapes and sauces. On a trip to Paris with my brother, I learned that the worse a cheese smells, the better it tastes. Suddenly food was something I wanted rather than needed. Ham hocks? No problem. Sweetbreads? Wonderful. How about baby eels in garlic butter (Angulas)? Exciting. (Forgive me, Dave. It’s what I’ve become.)

I’ve tried strange dishes in England (fish burgers), Iceland, France, Italy, Germany (pork Tatar), Mexico, Canada, Bermuda and Montserrat (Mountain Chicken – really a large frog). Granted, a few would not get a second try (like the fish burgers) but I gave them a chance. So it’s no surprise that the cuisine of Spain and the new Tapas dishes joined the list of favorites, hence my restaurant choice. As for the movie, my first name is Animation and my second name is Science Fiction/Fantasy and that’s what it is. Enjoy!

X-Men: Days of Future Past (20th Century Fox/Marvel Entertainment, 2014) - Director: Bryan Singer. Writers: Simon Kinberg (s/p). Jane Goldman, Simon Kinburg, & Matthew Vaughn (story). Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Shawn Ashmore, Omar Sy, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Mark Camacho, & Bingbing Fan. Color & 3D, 132 minutes.

New York is in ruins. The camera takes us through a hole in a skyscraper to a tortuous cityscape in depressing shades of gray. The scene changes and we realize that this has happened all over the world as the voice of Professor X (Stewart) explains. An army of robots initially intended to wipe out mutants has gone out of control and mankind has become “collateral damage.” He and the remaining X-Men, Magneto (McKellen), Logan/Wolverine (Jackman), Storm (Berry), and only a handful of others are all that’s left and they travel to a remote monastery in Tibet for safety. Together they reason that if they could keep Raven/Mystique (Lawrence) from shooting Dr. Bolivar Trask (Dinklage) in 1973, they could avoid annihilation. Kitty Pryde (Page) has the power to send one’s consciousness back into the past to inhabit one’s younger self but can only do it safely over a span of weeks (This cleverly also avoids temporal anomalies created by sending oneself back). Wolverine’s healing powers make him the only one who could survive a journey spanning years.

Knowing that “people skills” is not one of Wolverine’s strong points, Professor X gives him his instructions: Find his younger self, Charles Xavier (McAvoy), convince him to lead the effort, locate Peter/Quicksilver (Peters) to assist in breaking Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender, the younger Magneto) out of his concrete prison deep below the Pentagon and together find and stop Mystique. “It won’t be easy. I was a different person then…” cautions Professor X. Kitty performs her magic on Wolverine and he suddenly wakes up to the tune of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack. He learns early on that he doesn’t have his Adamantium skeleton when he has to battle his way out of the bedroom of a girl he’s supposed to be protecting.

He locates Professor Charles Xavier’s university, now overgrown with vines and weeds. As it is closed he has to get past Hank/Beast (Hoult) to see Charles, who is not only drunk but not confined to a wheelchair. Hank has been administering a serum to counteract Charles’ psychic mental power that allows him to be ambulatory. Only by revealing personal knowledge of past and some future events does Logan win Charles over, and the three find Peter and set off to invade the Pentagon. Up until now this has been a dead serious movie. Hank manages to hack into the security cameras and sets them all to display Sanford & Son videos. Quicksilver uses his hyper-fast speed not only to break Magneto out but to foil the army of guards shooting plastic bullets at them in the final scene. (If you saw Over the Hedge, you would recognize it.) The world slows down so we can see Peter zipping around the room, posing all the assailants as to knock each one out and individually repositioning each bullet so that they miss their targets. It’s hilarious as well as a great special effect.

Erik is harder to convince than Charles but they manage (almost crashing their plane in the process) and they locate and stop Mystique from killing Trask at the International Leaders meeting in Paris. But this does not deter her, nor does it stop Trask. In a confrontation between her and Erik, he shoots her in the leg and Trask’s men scrape up the blood for her DNA (the last ingredient he needs to create invincible robots – remember, her power is to be able to transmorphose into anyone).

Trask takes his campaign to Washington, D.C., directly to President Nixon (Camacho) – who by the way does a beautiful job – and sets up a demonstration of his prototypes. Little does he know however that Magneto (Erik) has already semi-hijacked the train the robots are being transported on and has filled them with metal from the shredded tracks the train has already cleared, so that he can control them.

It becomes a bit of a nail-biter from then on. Charles is pinned by a piece of baseball stadium Eric has levitated to surround the White House, Wolverine is sent to the bottom of the Potomac and, in the future, the Sentinel robots have located the last hideout for the mutants in Tibet.

If you love X-Men, this movie is for you. The violence of certain scenes is a little difficult to take, so judge accordingly before taking small children. The language is surprisingly restrained except for two small occasions of vulgarity. Otherwise, the cast plays brilliantly, and the special effects (especially the 3D ones) are eye-popping and sometimes dizzying. The soundtrack is consistently reinforcing the action on-screen and we even get to see a cameo of Kelsey Grammer as Beast toward the end. Be sure to stay through the credits. There is one more pertinent scene. I enjoyed it and look forward to the (obviously) next installment.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 martini glasses.

259 West 19th Street (7th Avenue)New York

When I choose a restaurant I’m very cautious of the word “Bar” when used either in the title of the establishment or in its description online. Very few bars qualify as restaurants (decent food, adequate seating, table service), just as calling something a “restaurant” (the McDonalds chain erroneously does this) does not magically transform it into something better than a fast-food joint. Socarrat, which opened nearly seven years ago, calls itself a “Paella Bar.” I love Paella. Adventure time!

The word “socarrat” means “to singe” in Spanish, and refers to the crusty layer of rice at the bottom of an iron Paella pan. When I arrived at the quaint NYU neighborhood it was a little difficult to photograph the exterior because all the front windows were open to the street (a feature they call “natural air-conditioning” in southern states and not one of my preferences).

I entered the glass door emblazoned with the restaurant name and met the young man at the Captain’s Station. He confirmed my reservation and asked if would like to sit at the bar, which was all that was visible at the time. I stated my belief that eating at a bar makes one look like a loser and that I would rather sit at a table. He smiled and took me into the next room (the one open to the street) and down a long table – looking very much like a bar – and indicated the plush stool third from the end. (What? Hey Steve, it is called a Paella Bar, so what did you expect?) He indicated hooks just under the bar surface to hang my bag and jacket and I swallowed my pride and hefted myself onto the stool, eventually locating a position for it and myself where it did not rock me off and I was semi-comfortable. If you have a bad back do not dine here.

Open brick walls give the place a rustic look, as does the bare-plank wooden ceiling. The black enameled wooden bar reflects the tulip-shaped swags overhead while jars of noodles, spices and various Tchotchkes are arrayed on a shelf overhead. My server introduced himself as Miguel and brought me a glass of tap water, the wine list and the menu. The specialty cocktails were listed on the wine menu (although the word “cocktail” was missing the “k”), and one interested me. I ordered the Oaxaqueño – Mezcal, cucumber, Royal Combier (an orange-flavored French Grand Liqueur mixed with cognac and known to combine the flavors of aloe, nutmeg, myrrh, cinnamon, cardamom and saffron), basil, and jalapeño. It was amazing! The taste was reminiscent of a Marguerita, but with herbal overtones and the sting of hot pepper.

I asked Miguel what people usually do in a dinner setting here. He cautioned against the Paellas (there are eight different recipes on the menu) because the minimum order is for two people. I was slightly crestfallen having built up my hopes to have paella. Miguel advised making a dinner out of the Tapas list (just above the Paella list on the menu) and gave me some time to read and decide which ones looked interesting to me. I had a choice of 21 small dishes and with Miguel’s help decided on two to start with and go on from there according to my appetite.

The first dish I ordered was Alcachofas Fritas – fried artichokes, oven roasted kale, lemon and Spanish caper aioli. It was a larger portion than I expected with the crispy kale floating on top like the wings of a fallen angel. The fried artichokes were crunchy, not over-cooked and nicely flavored with the lemon and capers; surprisingly easy to finish. I decided to switch drinks to red wine and chose a glass of 2006 Cerro Añón Reserva, a lovely varietal of TempranilloGarnacha (Grenache), and Rioja. I began to like the place and forget the stool I was perched upon.

The second dish was Milhojas De Cordero – a Lamb Terrine with spinach cream and peppers topped with shoestring fried potatoes in a lamb reduction sauce. The earthy, almost musky flavor was heady and sexy. The potatoes were a surprise, which I noted to Miguel. When a menu only states “potatoes” one can’t imagine what one will get. The wine complimented this dish as well.

I still had an appetite after finishing the lamb and was ready for choice number three. The Pulpo a la Gallega – Charred octopus with Pimentón (Spanish paprika), Olive oil and potatoes (this time in small soft cubes) – was served in a small mound on a black square of slate, which accented the red of the paprika, the white of the tender octopus meat and the black of the crispy grilled edges. For the umpteenth time I wondered how anyone could make octopus so tender and delicious.

It was now time to switch wines (there were six reds by the glass) and I chose the An/2 – 2010 Callet Mantonegro Syrah from Fogoneu, Mallorca. The flavor was rich and slightly piquant but on the sweet side with a wonderful aftertaste. It made a perfect introduction to the fourth dish: the Cochinillo Asado – roasted suckling pig with spinach, potatoes and chestnuts in a pork sauce reduction. When it arrived there was only one image I saw. It looked like the robot “Kronos” (from the 1957 sci-fi flick) standing in a pool of blood (but that could have been the effect of the reduced lighting). The pork, potatoes and chestnuts were molded into a block atop the spinach, surrounded by the sauce. It was a challenge to cut because the pork shredded easily with a fork but the entire experience was sheer delight. A small steel bowl was supplied with three slices of crusty bread to get all the sauce. (I wish I knew they had that when I was eating the lamb dish. That sauce was very good too.)

Four Tapas later, I was amazingly ready for dessert. Miguel presented the dessert menu, but I had my own ideas. I read it dutifully and it did show some promise, but I went with my own instincts. I ordered another Tapa, the Datiles – Bacon-wrapped Dates stuffed with almonds, Valdeón (a Spanish bleu cheese from León) and apple purée. I told Miguel that no man could resist this dish, and it did make a very good dessert. I mentioned after-dinner drinks and Miguel pointed them out at the bottom of the dessert list. One caught my eye right away. Miguel said, “I want to buy your after-dinner drink. Knowing that you like to eat I have the perfect one for you.” Guess what? It was exactly the one I wanted, the Hidalgo “Triana” Pedro Ximenez – San Lucar de Barrameda, a sherry from Andalucia, Spain. Smooth, sweet and delicious. I didn’t need any coffee.

After I paid the check Miguel advised me to come again at lunch, when they make the paellas for one person. “After all, you MUST taste the Paella!” I had to agree (although I don’t know when I’ll be in that neighborhood for lunch). The excellent food more than made up for the less than adequate seating at Socarrat and I saw the Aroz Negro (black rice) Paella. It looks divine.

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