Tuesday, September 9, 2014

As Above, So Below

Dinner and a Movie

Creepy Catacombs and Cantonese Cuisine

By Steve Herte

I'm finally getting used to all the strange faces and unusual voices at the office, even befriending a few and assisted them with the office equipment. Our phone system was upgraded and they weren't given either notice or training in how to use them. Typical. Occasionally, I even feel sorry for them, for I remember how I felt when I was told that my position was obsolete 13 years ago. Fortunately in my case, I'm a known quantity. The Labor Day week went quickly and leads to my final vacation week, which I affectionately call my harvesting week. If my tulips, hyacinths and irises are delivered this week, they will all find places in my garden. Then next year it will be a riot of color instead of my usual red, white, blue and gold. I can't wait to see the black iris and the purple tulips. Friday was my first viewing of a horror film in a long, long time and my equally long timed visit to a new Chinese place. Enjoy!

As Above, So Below (Legendary Pictures/Universal, 2014) - Director: John Erick Dowdle. Writers: Drew Dowdle & John Erick Dowdle (s/p). Cast: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, francois Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar, Cosme Castro, Hamid Djavadan, Theo Cholbi, Emy Levy, & Rober Van Hool. Color, 93 minutes.

Theater 13, in the Regal E-Walk movie complex on 42nd Street in Manhattan, is not only unique for its wide, curved stadium seating, but also for its sound system, RPS (Regal Premium Sound). As I entered the theater, the arresting bright blue lights announced something special, and when I sat down at a comfortable distance from the screen, I prepared to be blown away by the upcoming feature as the sound effects from the trailers were rippling my shirt and shaking my seat.

After Blair Witch Project, Quarantine, and Cloverfield, one would think I would be ready for another “hand-held camera” movie, and I was (ready to close my eyes whenever the herky-jerky to wildly-sweeping movements made me dizzy).

As Above, So Below begins with an introduction by the lead character, Scarlett (Weeks) being filmed be her loyal cameraman, Benji (Hodge). She acknowledges she’s a PhD student in archaeology who speaks three languages and two dead ones. Unfortunately, Aramaic is not one of those languages.

She travels to Iran seeking “the key” to translating the tombstone of Nicholas Flamell and thus finding the “Philosopher’s Stone” (or as Harry Potter fans know it, the Sorcerer’s Stone), which can turn ordinary things to gold and will thus endow her with healing powers and eternal life.

The parallel to The Exorcist (1973) of starting in a Mid-East country (said movie began in Iraq) was not lost on me. Scarlett has a very nervous friend, Zed (Marhyar), who leads her to a secret underground passageway. There she discovers a large Babylonian-style bull sculpture with Aramaic characters covering its body. Tense moments abound as she photographs the whole creature using her “smart phone,” while an increasingly terrified Zed begs her to leave before the “soldiers” find them. They make their escape . . . but just barely.

The scene changes to Paris. Scarlett picks the lock on a church door to climb the bell tower, finding her friend, George (Feldman), busy fixing the clock and the associated bells. He wants nothing to do with her until she tells him she found the key. He agrees to translate for her. Flamell’s tombstone is hanging on a wall in a university museum, and George’s connections obtain access for them. The cryptic inscription reads like a poem when translated and Scarlett notes that the pictures on the stone are also clues. One character is carrying a key on his back. This makes her convince George to help her remove the tombstone from the wall and lay it down on a bench. It’s blank. But, fortunately, the cleaning lady left her cart handy, and Scarlett mixes a couple of cleansers together, spreads them on the reverse side of the tombstone (to George’s horror) and then sets it afire with a lighter. More writing appears as a result of this, and they translate it.

The words indicate that the Philosopher’s Stone is hidden somewhere in the Catacombs of Paris (yes, they do exist. I looked them up), and they go on a tour. The tour leads them to a sealed-off area where no one is allowed. It seems that several parts of the catacombs experienced cave-ins in the past, and this section was the last. Scarlett (naturally) is determined to enter this section. She learns of an explorer nicknamed “Papillon” (Civil) who knows how to get into this section and, with the promise of “treasure,” they assemble a team, adding Souxie (Lambert) and La Taupe (Castro). The six descend into the caves despite protests from George (who we later learn has a justifiable fear of underground places, having been trapped in one as a child) and their adventure begins.

As Above, So Below accomplishes its scariest moments with special effects and an amazing soundtrack. Soon after the troop enter, the gendarmes arrive and Papillon sets off explosives to shut them out. He notices a hot votive candle and concludes that someone else is down there with them. It’s an entire creepy choir singing something that sounds like Gyogy Ligeti’s “Requiem” (selections from which are heard in 2001, A Space Odyssey - 1968). Shortly after, they crawl through a small hole filled with human bones and Benji gets stuck. He starts to panic as the eerie chorale crescendos. The audience sees nothing, but is terrified.

Once through, they discover a dusty upright piano. Scarlett asks the obvious question, “How did someone get a piano in here?” George notes that it resembles one his family had but on which they only could play one tune (“Those Endearing Young Charms?” No.), “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” and that one key was broken. When he plays the last eight notes from the song the same note is still broken. It seems that the rest of their adventure involves something frightening from each of their pasts, especially when they pass through the Gates of Hell, identified in writing by Dante’s “Despair, all ye who enter.” (But it’s important because of the poem marking its pivotal location.)

Yes, they do find a room full of treasure (much to Scarlett’s surprise) and they do find a Philosopher’s Stone, which becomes handy in healing two of their members’ serious wounds. However, one by one they meet their doom until only three are left. (Stephen King would only have left one.)

The RPS system put the real “chill” in this chiller accentuating the terrific sounds emanating from various corridors. For a hand-held camera horror flick it compares well with Blair Witch Project in that it never shows you the “monster behind the door.” It only infers that one is there, an excellent horror technique. The acting was only semi-believable, but who cares? The soundtrack did it all. As for gore, how about an entire pool of it that makes Scarlett really scarlet (a la Amityville Horror – 1977) when she falls into it while running through dark corridors to retrieve the stone to heal George? But seriously, though I joke, I was impressed by how creepy it was. Parents, as always, judge accordingly.

I won’t spoil it by telling you, but the final scene, though far from the scariest, is the most visually impressive in the movie. I’ll tell you this much: It mixes in a little of Inception.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

311 West 43rd Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues)New York

With 12 locations worldwide and annual Michelin stars since 2003 (won by the original London location, established in 2001), Hakkasan is a surprise in many ways in New York City. Almost tucked away from Times Square, one would have to know it’s there to find it. The four dollar-sign notation on OpenTable.com seems to contradict what New Yorkers associate with a Cantonese-style restaurant. There’s also the online challenge from its website offering world-class mixology and transport to a new world.

The New York restaurant opened in 2012 and I have only my own inhibitions to blame for not discovering it sooner. I guess the location, coupled with Cantonese (not my preferred Chinese cuisine) and its Japanese-sounding name leads me to think it was something else. I stand completely corrected.

The best way to find Hakkasan is to look up. The black flag with 311 West 43rd Street emblazoned on it in white is the first clue. Then note the formal doorman at the elegant burnished bronze door. The name is in raised letters to the right of the door. Upon entering, the pale blue light instantly calms and intrigues as you walk the long marble corridor to the Captain’s Station. The three young ladies attending the station confirmed my reservation, and one led me past the pale blue-lit glass wall of the kitchen on one side and the beautifully ornamented lounge area on the other to the equally appealing main dining area. The dark, bare-wood tables reflected the arabesques and lattices of dark wood room dividers with blue backlighting. Phoenixes are embroidered into the leather banquettes and the lighting is subdued but sufficient to see, read and admire.

My waiter, Fernando took my water preference while presenting me with the Cocktail/Sake menu, the Wine List and the Food Menu, all bound in soft leather. The Cocktail List had Zen-like divisions of “Character,” “Elegance,” “Strength and Grace” and was followed by the various Sakes and Beers, House Liquors, Bellinis and Non-Alcoholic Drinks. Being a “Strength and Grace” kind of guy I chose the drink called “Blood and Sand” – Hakushu 12-year-old Japanese Whisky, Martini Gran Lusso Vermouth, Cherry Herring (I didn’t know anyone even had this spirit anymore), Satsuma Godai Umeshu (Sake), orange juice and orange wood smoke infusion. Fernando said one word as he took the order, “Smokey!” 

I had no idea what he meant at the time – thought it was his name. It was served in a large snifter and arrived, literally smoking. I thought it would be hot, but it was cool to the touch. I noticed the glass ball floating in the orange liquid. I took a drink. The orange wood smoke filled my nose as the amazing liquor tantalized my tongue. “Did you just light up a cigarette?” the girls at the next table wondered. Yes, it was pungent. But since I was not coughing I figured I was safe. It tasted better as I got used to the evanescent aroma of smoked oranges.

The dinner menu had simple categories: Soups, Small Eat, Fish, Seafood, Poultry, Meat, Vegetable and Tofu, and Rice and Noodles. Fernando helped me choose a three-course meal with only a slight caution that I may have ordered too much food. I started off with the Crabmeat and Sweetcorn Supreme Soup, a lovely smooth and pleasantly yellow bowl of chunky crab pieces with corn kernels in a creamy broth. (So far, nothing too surprising for Cantonese, but delicious.)

I ordered a wine to go with the next two courses. The mark-up on the wine list was shocking! They ranged from $33 to $2,998 a bottle and more than half of the entries were over the $100 mark. This did not stop me from finding a reasonable-priced varietal, a 2009 “Por Que No?” from Tres Sabores vineyards, Napa Valley, that was perfect (predominantly Zinfandel and Petit Syrah with Cabernet Sauvignon and a touch of Petit Verdot). The pleasing ruby color and the fruitiness (but not without a touch of tannin) made for a wine that would stand up the boldest of Asian spices.

Now we get into the area of “This is Cantonese?” The second course, the Hakka Steamed Dim Sum Platter combined two pieces each of Scallop Shumai topped with red caviar, Har Gau (a traditional shrimp dumpling), Prawn and Chinese Chive Dumpling, and Chicken and Corn Dumpling. It was as delightful to view as it was delicious to eat. The pure white scallop shumai with crowns of bright red fish eggs flanked the bright orange/pink of the chicken and corn dumplings, and the vivid green of the Prawn and Chinese chive dumplings while the gracefully scalloped, white Har Gau waited to be devoured. The traditional soy sauce was served on the side along with hot pepper sauce and an even spicier sauce. I made good use of all three. The dish was amazing and, pacing myself with sips of wine, finished without any evidence that the bamboo steamer was ever filled. Fernando looked impressed.

Meanwhile, the girls at the next table had received their main courses and, noting the size of the portions, I was not worried about mine. The Wok-Fry Lamb Tenderloin arrived artfully arranged in a Lotus leaf platter, garnished with crispy fried noodles and delicate mint leaves in a chili bean sauce. Accompanying the lamb (by recommendation of Fernando) was a bowl of Jasmine rice. This dish was as far from my memory of Cantonese cooking as Indian food is from French. It was aesthetically appealing, tender and flavorful to the last bite. I even used the remainder of the rice to soak up that beautiful chili bean sauce. Wonderful!

Did you save room for dessert?” Fernando asked. “Yes indeed!” He tried to steer me toward one of the lighter desserts but I told him how much room I had. Then he recommended his personal favorite, the Summer Cherry Chocolate Marquis – an unbelievable quartet of sour cherry sorbet, frozen yoghurt sorbet, an Emperor Roll (chocolate/vanilla) and the most delightful chocolate cherry (complete with stem) stuffed with chocolate mousse. (Definitely not Cantonese.)

A double espresso capped off the dinner nicely and a glass of Ben Rye – Passito di Pantelleria, from Donnafugata vineyards in Sicily – a golden sweet wine brought the meal full circle to the cocktail.

I had a lovely time and wished this restaurant had been my 2, 630th instead of the last one because Hakkasan merits its every accolade and Michelin star. Yes, it also deserves the term “expensive,” but I believe it’s because several of the dishes are a bit over-priced. (Don’t get me started on the wine list.) Still, it’s an enjoyable dining experience, complete with atmosphere that can be had without emptying one’s wallet. And . . . I read scathing reviews by local New Yorkers that they turn you away if you are not dressed properly. No shorts and sandals here. Good, I say. I’m tired of being the only one dressed to dine.

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