Alcoholic Saints and Wine Bars
By Steve Herte
All my work this week was done in anticipation of Thursday and Friday. I moved my dinner and movie night to Thursday because, after about six and a half months apart, my quartet, The Majestics, had scheduled a reunion in White Plains. Once again, it was held in the atrium just outside the Cheesecake Factory. I don't like to limit this talented singing group by calling them a "Barbershop" quartet, although we formed from a barbershop chorus and that was our original style. But we also perform Doo-Wop songs, Jazz, Broadway and Pop songs. It always amazes me how much of our repertoire we all remember (we had over 100 songs on our list at one time). But I kept tabs and we sang 33 of them before, during and after our dinner at The Cheesecake Factory. It's fun to see the reactions of the shoppers as they pass by or stay to listen, or even are moved to tears, as was one woman when we sang "This Is The Moment" from the Broadway show Jekyll and Hyde. We also performed songs made popular by The Mills Brothers and Edith Piaf, among others, as well as a few songs in anticipation of the holidays.
Our current goal is to meet with a coach in December and get his opinion on our chances in the Senior Quartet contest (yes, we're old enough) held by the Barbershop Harmony Society. Who knows what may come of it? I think we're pretty good, awesome in moments. Meanwhile, you get to see the results of this momentous reunion in an early Dinner and a Movie. Enjoy!
St. Vincent (The Weinstein Company, 2014) - Director: Theodore Melfi. Writer: Theodore Melfi (s/p). Cast: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, Jaeden Lieberher, Kimberly Quinn, Lenny Venito, Nate Corddry, Donna Mitchell, & Dario Barosso. Color, 102 minutes.
Vincent McKenna (Murray) is a hard-drinking, quick-witted, wise-cracking reprobate who is over-drawn on his bank account, in deep with loan sharks, and drives a broken-down 30-year-old woody K-car convertible. His only companion is a white Persian cat named Felix and a pole-dancing Russian “lady of the night” named Daka (Watts), that is, until moving day next door. The previous night he drunkenly backs into his driveway, breaking off his mailbox and destroying his own picket fence. In the morning, the movers back their truck into the tree in front of his property breaking off a large limb, which comes crashing down on his car, partially shattering his windshield and seriously denting the hood.
The shouting of the two movers wakes him from his stupor on the kitchen floor, where he fell that night after slipping on the ice he was breaking apart with a claw hammer (injuring his hand in the process) and slamming his head into a cabinet on the way down. Of course, being broke and clever, he blames the shattered fence on the movers as well and confronts his new neighbor, Maggie (McCarthy). Needless to say their first meeting isn’t pleasant, and he insists she pay for the damages.
Maggie is currently going through a painful divorce and trying to raise her son Oliver (Lieberher) as well as keep a job at the hospital, where she’s continually kept late because of short staffing. Oliver is a puny little guy whose first day at school is traumatic to say the least. His teacher, Father Geraghty (O’Dowd) has him say a morning prayer before the class even after Oliver tells him that he’s Jewish (actually he says, “I think I’m Jewish”). Then, in gym class, the bigger boys swipe his wallet, keys, phone and clothes, and he has to come home in his gym uniform. Now, with no way to contact his mother, he sits on the front stoop until Vincent comes out and he reluctantly asks to use the phone. Unfortunately, Maggie has to work late again and Oliver is treated to the limited hospitality of the curmudgeonly Vincent. Vincent, on the other hand sees it as a moneymaking opportunity as a babysitter.
As the days go by, Oliver and Vincent not only become pals, but also learn from each other. Vincent teaches him a self-defense move that he uses to great effect in the gymnasium, breaking a kid’s nose, and Oliver uses his uncanny logic to win a trifecta at Belmont for Vincent. All this is kept secret from Maggie, along with trips to bars, the strip joint where Daka dances, and the nursing home where Vincent’s Altzheimer’s-stricken wife Sandy (Mitchell) resides, and where he gets his laundry done for free, thanks to the lovely Nurse Ana (Quinn). The secret is kept until Maggie’s husband has a detective follow Vincent and Oliver around taking photos and sues her for custody, winning his son back 50 percent of the time.
The loan sharks visit Vincent intending to get paid or to beat him up, and Vincent has a stroke. Oliver finds him on the floor and calls 911. Everyone helps him through the recovery, re-learning to speak and walk. Daka loses her pole-dancing job due to her pregnancy and cleans up Vincent’s home (for a fee). The only thing Vincent can say is, “Where did you put all my dirt?”
Back in school, Father Geraghty is teaching his class about saints and gives them an assignment to find someone they know who exhibits the qualities of sainthood for a stage presentation before their parents and relatives. Oliver sees through Vincent’s crusty exterior in their escapades and interviews everyone he’s met along the way.
On the day of the school presentation, Daka fakes her labor pains to get Vincent to the school where he hears the wonderful way Oliver has transformed him into a saint. (Bring a handkerchief for this scene.)
St. Vincent is a well-constructed, well-written slice of life. The characters are ordinary people and completely believable. Murray should definitely get a Best Actor nomination out of this. He really worked the part, especially the frightening fall scene and the entire recovery from the stroke scenes. Lieberher has moments when you think he’s way older than his years and then he easily slips back into innocent childhood. Maggie: “Do you know what ‘Lady of the Night’ means?” Oliver: “She works at night?” Young children might get bored with this film because it is geared to adults, but baby-boomers will wax nostalgic with the soundtrack. In a bar scene, Murray dances to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” In another, we hear Brewer and Shipley’s “One Toke Over The Line,” and during the credits he’s watering his dirt patch (you can’t call it a lawn) and dead potted plants while singing along (almost) with Dylan on “Shelter From the Storm.”
Notable Quote: “Me, I’m Catholic, which is the best of all religions because we have the most rules.” (Father Geraghty)
Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses.
130 West 46th Street (6th /7th), New York
When I arrived at NIOS I had a terrible feeling of déja vu. It didn’t look as if it were open. Nothing was lit, no doors open, no signs. All was dark, black and glass. Maybe, I thought, the entrance is through the Muse Hotel next door. There was one, and in it was a stand with a sign saying that they were “partially closed for a private party, see the custodian.” The awful feeling came back. It was Aspen Social Club all over again. I strolled over to the front desk of the hotel and mentioned that I had a reservation at NIOS. The young man assured me that NIOS was indeed seating customers in the back. The party was mainly in the bar. He made a phone call and the lovely custodian appeared to lead me to the back dining area.
Inside, it was a cozy, intimate, 12-table room with gray-on-gray patterned wallpaper, comfortable armless chairs, and soft lighting emanating from the black sconces on the walls and occasional spots in the ceiling. The custodian led me to a table and then thought better about a different one in the corner. It had more light, and I agreed. Only two other tables were occupied, which was fine with me.
Shortly thereafter, my waiter, Victor, arrived with a glass of water and the single page Theater Menu. He asked if I would like a cocktail and, once he confirmed that they had Beefeaters gin, I ordered my martini. The prix-fixe dinner menu is three courses, appetizer, entrée and dessert for $48, or one can pick and choose from it in an a la carte fashion. I thought it was apropos that they called the courses Acts One, Two and Three since the restaurant is easy walking distance to several theaters.
The prices were reasonable and I decided that two of the appetizers would make a great start, then a main course and dessert. I chose the corn bisque with lobster and “pee wee” potatoes, and the smoked duck with frisé, wild mushrooms, Manchego cheese, black fig compote, and truffle oil.
Victor apologized for being out of the Rack of Lamb but proposed that the Sirloin Strip was just as good. It was truffled with potato purée, baby spinach, miso, and grilled trumpet mushrooms. I took his advice and added it to my order.
Surprisingly the wine I chose, the Shinn Red Blend from a vineyard on Long Island was (like the lamb) not in stock, but equally surprising was when Victor produced a bottle of 2012 Penfold’s Bin 8 Cabernet/Shiraz blend from Southern Australia for the same price. It was delicious with the meal, not too assertive, a rich red color and a fruity, slightly tannic flavor.
Having told Victor that I had all the time in the world it was a little unnerving to see the soup and the duck arrive together, but Victor’s charming apology and promise not to “rush” my dinner after that was completely acceptable. The duck was indeed smoky in flavor, tender and easy to slice. But when combined with the fig compote, it was heavenly. The little potatoes in the corn bisque were like coals, keeping the soup hot until I was ready for it. It was a tasty combination of textures with the bits of lobster meat, the potatoes, and the creamy corn purée.
The main course was everything Victor said it would be, juicy, tender and perfectly browned, with earthy overtones from truffles. It was the best sirloin strip steak I’ve ever had. The baby spinach was not over-cooked and retained its crispness and the mushrooms and potato purée (and did I detect onions as well?) made the dish sheer delight. Oh, and did I forget the bread basket? How could I? Pretzel bread sticks with a tapenade dip. They didn’t last long.
Cueing in from his knowledge of steak (and his accent) I asked Victor if he was from Argentina. “Close,” he said, “Ecuador.” Of course I had to mention my charming Ecuadorian lady-friend who was not able to dine with me that evening. He noted that Ecuadorian women had high standards and I had to concur.
When I first looked at the menu I considered having dessert first, the choices were so enticing. But on advice from Victor I chose the warm chocolate cake with French vanilla ice cream, candied cherries, fresh strawberries, and blueberries, accented with a rich, dark chocolate sauce. Wonderful! And you might think I had espresso, but this time you would be wrong. Victor turned my head to Earl Grey tea with honey (in its own little pitcher). I loved it. The only after dinner drink that could possibly top this was the glass of Lustau Manzanilla sherry.
On my way out I asked about the name of the restaurant and was told it was a Grecian Island. That makes sense with the adjoining Muse Hotel but none of the restaurant staff is Greek and the food certainly is not. They feature wines “around the world” but not from Greece. I looked up Nios and all indications are that it is a small island in the Cyclades off the coast from Athens (usually not marked on a map). A mystery, but a good restaurant.
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