Thursday, July 17, 2014

Earth to Echo

Dinner and a Movie
Echoes of French Cuisine

By Steve Herte

I woke up this morning with a song lyric in my head: "When the wint'ry winds are blowing and the snow is starting in to fall, then my eyes turn westward knowing that's the place I love the best of all..." Only a few Barbershop singers could tell you those are the first two lines of the intro to the song "California Here I Come." I guess they popped into my head because, One, it was the first song I ever sang in a quartet (as a Lead singer, Tenor was a little later), and Two, Hollywood seems to be running short of novel ideas for movies. We live in an era of spin-offs, sequels, prequels, revivals and mash-ups. On Broadway they use the excuse that "there's a whole generation that hasn't seen this and show, so we're bringing it back. Well, guess what? They still haven't. The revival of Pippin is ridiculously different from the one I saw in 1970. I don't get it. But I do know what I like and won't be fooled by yesterday’s leftovers. Neither should anyone else. Enjoy!

Earth to Echo (Disney, 2014) - Director: Dave Green. Writers: Henry Gayden (s/p and story), Andrew Panay (story). Cast: Teo Halm, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Reese Hartwig, Elle Wahlestedt, Jason Gray-Stanford, Alga Smith, Cassius Willis, & Sonya Leslie. Color, 89 minutes.

Have I ever mentioned that Hollywood has run out of ideas for new stories? Take the general plot from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, add a dash of Stand By Me, Goonies and It (for sibling interactions only); modernize the technology behind the mechanical owl in Clash of the Titans, and you pretty much have 90 percent of this film. Add to that the annoying hand-held camera photography of  The Blair Witch Project, Quarantine, and Cloverfield, and the remaining 10 percent is covered. Then take away the element of surprise because all of the best scenes (including the spectacular ending) are in the trailers. Granted, it’s only an hour and 29 minutes long, but trailers should generate interest – not give the whole thing away.

The story is simple. Three best friends, Alex (Helm), Tuck (Bradley), and Munch (Hartwig), are planning their last night together in the same housing development because they all have to move out for a ‘Freeway’ that is coming through. They notice that their smart phones ‘barf themselves’ or display a messy pattern on their screens whenever they visit Munch’s house. It doesn’t take them long to figure out that the abstract image is a map of the desert outside their neighborhood. They decide to give their parents cross-instructions of sleepovers and video game playing at each others houses and take their bikes out to find where the “map” leads. Fortunately, all their parents are too preoccupied with moving to take notice. Tuck is the cameraman, carrying a pair of “camera glasses,” which are essential to scenes after the authorities eventually catch them.

The map leads them to a “No Trespassing” area where they find what appears to be a small, unexploded bomb. It reacts to Alex’s voice and indicates where it wants to go next on their smart phones. They name the creature Echo because it repeats any amount of syllables they speak to it. Little by little it adds pieces to itself at each destination until it is able to open up, revealing the adorable alien creature inside. It can understand them if they ask simple “yes” or “no” questions. One of the destinations is the house of Emma (Wahlstedt), a girl on whom they all have a crush. When she discovers them in her bedroom, Emma becomes a part of the team.

They learn that not only is there not going to be a freeway built through their neighborhood, but that the U.S. government has shot down Echo’s ship. They are searching for it and its driver to dispose of both.

The kids travel back and forth by bike and other vehicles: dodging, being caught, escaping the authorities, and helping Echo find the necessary parts to resurrect his space ship (which is enormous and buried beneath the housing development).

If it weren’t for the other movies contributing pieces to this, it would be a charming adventure: it’s well written, well acted, and fun for the whole family. The humor is subtle and the special effects are dazzling, sometimes frightening (supported by the musical background) in their suddenness. I had a special sense of identification with the story because, shortly after we moved to where I live now, we learned that the city was planning to extend a highway right through our new house. Thankfully that never came to fruition. My advice for viewers of Earth to Echo is, bring the kids and sit back and enjoy.  Go for ice cream afterwards.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Racines NY
94 Chambers Street (Between Church and Broadway)New York

Nobody at my office is going to believe that there is an excellent French restaurant at this location. I didn’t believe it myself. The block of Chambers Street between Church Street and Broadway in downtown Manhattan is littered with “bargain” junk shops, Chinese take-out places and funky bars. Not exactly restaurant row. Being a savvy New Yorker, I know that even numbers on streets are on the south side and I walked from the highest address end of Chambers Street (at the West Side Highway) down to where I hoped to find Racines. I missed it twice before I found it. And no wonder: the number 94 is not visible, but next door, the number 94A announces the Chinese take-out place. The name of the restaurant is nearly invisible on the glass door, which is recessed from the rest of the glass front at the sidewalk and is printed in charcoal gray, two-inch block letters.

Inside I met Gaetano, who seated me and split his time between being my server and being the captain/greeter. I dubbed him the “Greeter-Seater” which he liked. He presented me with the menu and wine list and both a glass of tap water with a bottle to refill it. The décor is simple Bistro – open brick wall on one side, white painted wall on the other, white tin ceiling, and the kitchen and “chef’s table” in the back. Simple bare bulb swags provide the lighting. I chose to sit at a table in the front window (my usual preference, when available).

The menu is a single page featuring five appetizers, four entrées, the cheese plate and three desserts. Each description is minimal and concise (usually an indication that great care is put into the creation of each dish). After a short interrupted discussion with Gaetano (he was still changing hats back and forth) I decided on two appetizers and an entrée. Gaetano enthusiastically approved. Racines’ wine list is most impressive and has an extensive collection of French wines, but when I saw the 2006 Cubillo Crianza, a wonderful varietal of Tempranillo and Garnacha I was sure this was the one. Again, Gaetano approved.

While Gaetano was off putting in my order, another server brought the breadbasket and butter (Fresh, crusty sour-dough bread, yes!) and the Amuse Bouche – a lovely little creation using purple cauliflower in piquant green foam with toasted pine nuts. At this time, the bartender brought my wine, again enthusing over my choice. It had a strong personality in its nose, a beautiful deep red color and tasted bright and fruity at first and then warm and mellow as I swallowed it, perfect!

My first course arrived, the Veal Tartare, mixed with tarragon and pine nuts, under a blanket of warm fresh mayonnaise and crowned with marbled home-made potato chips and water cress. I commented to Gaetano that it was all I could do to not eat all the chips separately. But when combined with the other ingredients it was heavenly.

The second course was (I thought) a bit expensive for an appetizer ($35) but since I had a gift check I splurged. Anyway, Morels are my favorite fungus after truffles and this dish was Foraged Oregon Wild Morels (frankly, I’ve never heard of tame ones) in fresh, homemade Mozzarella from Di Palo’s in Little Italy, and aged balsamic vinaigrette. The earthy tender mushrooms combined with the fresh, only slightly chewy cheese and the vinegar was so sensual I told Gaetano that I didn’t need sex that night. This dish already provided that release. My wonderful Spanish wine kept pace with both dishes admirably so far.

My main course, simply described as lamb with shaved fennel, on a bed of artichoke and black olives and sided with a dollop of salsa verde didn’t come close to the gustatory bliss it provided. I generally do not like the flavor of fennel, which usually is overpowering, but here, combined with the salsa verde and the tender, juicy filet of lamb the net effect was the best Foie Gras! Yes, believe me. There was no goose liver on the plate but the flavor was there. I told Gaetano that if Scooby-Doo and Shaggy had tasted this dish they would give up junk food forever. He was pleased and proudly told me that they get their lamb from Pennsylvania.

Then, with a gleam in his eye Gaetano asked if I wanted dessert. But of course! This decision was not easy as all the desserts interested me. But after due consideration the Pistachio Parfait was my choice. Now you must get the image of a tall dessert glass and a long spoon out of your head because that is not what arrived. The pistachio parfait was served molded (in a cup of some sort) and placed centrally in a bowl and surrounded by fresh raspberries and poached rhubarb. I loved it.

There are only a few meals where coffee does not add to the experience and Gaetano knew it. He presented me with the after-dinner drink list and I chose the Ravignan Bas-Armagnac. In no time, I had a large snifter in my hand and was enjoying the heady aroma and tastes of the best of French distilling.

Will I return to Racines? Sure, why not? With such a small menu, it has to change over time and I can pretty much guarantee that everything on it will be wonderful, especially if Bouillabaisse becomes a feature. I learned from Gaetano that Chef Frederic Duca is from Marseilles (where it was invented).

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