Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Dinner and a Movie

From Bears to Benares

By Steve Herte

My 35 years of knowing Helene have made several of her best traits a part of me. She could finish my sentences, interpret my dreams and appreciate the many strange things I like. But the best of her attributes was her ability to proofread almost at a glance. I realize that it was her job to read transcripts from court cases and translate them into readable English that made it so automatic for her. But it was always fun when we both read a menu and would see who could find the most typos – some hilariously funny. I remember one time she just glanced at a menu after a difficult day’s work and she immediately handed to me. “I can’t read this! There are too many errors and I can’t concentrate on ordering food.”

I miss her most of all when I laugh at a “Chocolate Mouse” (instead of Mousse) or a “Cheese Bugger” (believe me, I’ve seen it), or just recently, a “Bread Chicken” (instead of Breaded). Most famously, I was in a restaurant not too long ago on the top floor of a building overlooking the Baltimore Harbor where the word “Chesapeake” was misspelled. All they had to do was look out the window and see the Chesapeake Lightship docked there with bold white lettering on a bright red background.

The Bread Chicken was one of the lighter moments of a very busy week. Between breaking in my new boss and trying to keep ahead of work, I was ready for a special Friday night. This included a movie I did not have to think about, just enjoy, and my favorite all-time cuisine, Indian. Enjoy!

Paddington (StudioCanal, 2014) Director: Paul King. Writers: Paul King (s/p/, story), Hamish McColl (story), & Michael Bond (character “Paddington Bear”). Cast: Tim Downie, Madeleine Worrall, Lottie Steer, Geoffrey Palmer, Theresa Watson, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon, Ben Whislaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin, Michael Bond, Matt Lucas, Nicole Kidman, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, & Julie Walters. Color, 95 minutes.

Cleverly, this film begins with a black and white “newsreel” relating explorer Montgomery Clyde’s (Downie) foray into “Darkest Peru,” where we immediately enter the realm of fantasy. There, he discovers an extremely rare species of bear (suspend your beliefs, mammologists) and aims his gun to collect a specimen. But he’s thwarted in the attempt when the male bear saves him from a scorpion and obviously demonstrates intelligence. Then, when the bears begin to imitate speech, he befriends them and leaves his bright red hat as a gift of friendship. We learn later on that the Head Geographer (Palmer) has ousted him from the Explorers’ Club in London for not bringing back the specimen, and he and his wife Agatha (Worrall) and daughter Millicent are embarrassed and ignored.

In the next scene we see a young bear picking oranges (in Darkest Peru?) and he’s very excited that they’re ripe enough. He runs to tell his Aunt Lucy (Staunton) and Uncle Pastuzo (Gambon) that it’s time to make marmalade. All three have British accents and have learned from the records Montgomery left behind. All three love everything British, hoping to visit London someday. But suddenly, an earthquake occurs and Lucy and the young bear make it to the shelter, but Uncle Pastuzo is not so lucky. Their forest is destroyed and the red hat is passed down to the bear who will come to be known as Paddington (Whishaw).

Lucy decides that it’s time for him to “find a welcome home” in London while she goes to the Home for Elderly Bears. She puts a mail tag around his neck that states “please take care of this bear,” and kisses him goodbye. Paddington stows away in a lifeboat of a freight ship and then in a mail sack and winds up on the platform of Paddington Station, London, where commuters, coming and going, buffet him about, obviously with no time for an orphaned bear. That is until the Brown family happens by.

Henry Brown (Bonneville) is suspicious of all strangers (especially bears) that he encounters on train stations. His wife Mary (Hawkins) is moved to pity for the bear when she sees the tag and convinces her husband to bring him with them to ultimately find him a proper home. Daughter Judy (Harris) is desperately afraid of being embarrassed by her parents, especially in front of her new boyfriend and schoolmates. She already believes her family to be weird but doesn’t want to be seen as such. No bear for her. Son Jonathan (Joslin) wants to be an astronaut and go exploring and trying new (and possibly dangerous) things but his father countermands any of his attempts. He’s all for the bear coming home with them. Upon learning that the bear’s true name is impossible for humans to pronounce, Mary dubs him Paddington after the station where they found him.

At the Brown home, Mrs. Bird (Walters) the housekeeper is the voice of reason, but is rarely acknowledged for her wisdom by Henry. Neighbor, Mr. Curry (Capaldi) is perplexed and a little scared when he sees a bear has moved in with the Browns.

Meanwhile, at the Museum of Natural History, the curator of Taxidermy, Millicent Clyde (Kidman), daughter of the now deceased Montgomery, learns about this unique bear coming to London. She correctly concludes that this was the species her father refused to bring back and thus shamed her family. She begins plotting how she will capture – and stuff – Paddington. She concocts a scheme with Mr. Curry using her feminine wiles to have him call her when the Browns leave Paddington alone and vulnerable.

After flooding the house from the upstairs bathroom and nearly burning it down when left home alone (Millicent actually caused the latter when she attempted a capture and failed), Paddington’s image has not improved in over-protective Henry’s eyes. Mary takes him to Mr. Gruber’s (Broadbent) antiques shop to hopefully determine the source of Paddington’s unique red hat and thus, who bought it. “M. Clyde” is the answer. The telephone books yield a long list of M. Clydes and Mary has everyone ready to search for the real one when the fire breaks out.

Paddington hears Henry’s intense concern about the safety of the family and decides to leave with the list and search on his own. The last one on the list is – you guessed it – Millicent Clyde. Mr. Curry learns that Millicent is only interested in him to get the bear and when he sees her panel-truck door reading “Taxi” close to fully read “Taxidermy” he understands. He makes a hilarious “anonymous” phone call to the Browns alerting them of the bear-knapping of Paddington. And the chase is on.

It’s a delightful tale of an adorable character very much like the movie Stuart Little and it plays similarly to opening one of those giant children’s books you read at bedtime. The animation of Paddington is beautifully done but, like the story, the actors’ performances are not believable. Bring the kids. They’ll love it when Pastuzo puts on the hat and gets a headful of marmalade. Anyone who grew up with the story of Paddington bear will experience fond memories. For those of us who didn’t – like myself – it’s a nice film, full of fluff and minimal substance.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Benares Tribeca
45 Murray Street (between Church and Broadway), New York

Having dined at the original Midtown location of Benares and having enjoyed it thoroughly I had big hopes for its sister restaurant in Tribeca. The brightly lit exterior with the name in hot pink neon clued me that photography would not be difficult. Once inside, it was considerably darker but not horrendously so. The blue ceiling with a symbolic meandering “Ganges River” pattern evoked the holy city of Varanasi whose modern name is Benares. Then, one’s eyes travel down the red panels on the walls to the mustard-colored banquettes, the polished bare-topped tables, and equally shiny hardwood floors. The young lady at the Captain’s Station led me to a table near the back at a curving banquette (where I chose to sit). She presented me with the menu and the wine and drinks lists, both in neat leather binders. Another server took my water preference. The noise level from the chatty patrons was high when Dipen, my waiter, arrived to get my cocktail order. I almost had to shout. I had noticed that the second best English gin, Bulldog (the first is Beefeaters, of course) was used in the special cocktails list and I ordered my martini made using it as the main ingredient.

Dipen had trouble hearing me and the bartender soon arrived to confirm my order. It arrived soon after but was puzzlingly watery. It’s not the first time my martini was wrong so I ignored it and set to the task of composing my meal. The imposing size of the dishes on the table next to mine made me cautious. The menu was divided into familiar as well as unfamiliar categories: Appetizers, Vegetarian, Vegan and Tandoor Main Courses, Entrées, Biryanis (rice dishes), Sides, and Desserts.

I learned from their website that the cuisine of Benares emphasizes the Western Indian state of Utter Pradesh, known for vegetarian dishes (there were a good many representations). Chef Peter Beck, who doesn’t sound in any way Indian, is nonetheless famous for the Baluchis and Tamarind restaurants successes. The listed dishes were varied indeed, some from Goa in the south, Kashmir in the North and one from Tibet. By the next time Dipen returned, I had my feast orchestrated.

Even after instructions – which I’m sure he heard – my second martini was exactly the same as the first. Oh well, no time to teach, time to dine. Dipen seemed amazed at the list of dishes I ordered but when I explained that it would be a feast, he smiled brightly. He was about to run off before I ordered the wine, a 2012 Broquel Malbec from Argentina, but I caught him. The wine list gave hints as to what one would experience with each wine and this one proved true, “aromas of black fruit jam and liquor and a touch of smoke, vanilla and chocolate followed by sweet full-bodied tannins with a long and pleasant finish.” A lovely wine.

I tried to find dishes that ran the gamut of meats on the menu. Thus, my appetizer was Machali Ke Gole – three ball-shaped fish croquettes on a bed of garlic, ginger and a lemongrass/tomato sauce. The two girls at the next table were impressed by the presentation. I loved the tender fish in the crispy crust on the rich sauce. No ingredient outdid the others. It was perfect harmony.

My soup (the only Tibetan dish) arrived with the appetizer and I had to make the decision of which would get cold sooner. The Thukpa – a “Spicy” Tibetan noodle soup with cauliflower, French beans, tomato and chili, served with lamb – was not really spicy at all but flavorful. The vegetables were crunchy and the noodles (actually a thin spaghetti) were tasty and slippery, but I managed. It was hot enough that I could finish the croquettes first.

So far I had fish and lamb. The entrée was Punjabi goat curry – a North Indian goat delicacy with onion and tomato gravy – and was served in one of those large oblong dishes I saw previously on the next table. The gravy was a pleasant pumpkin orange and the goat meat tender and almost sweet; again, a non-spicy dish. It came with peas, Pulao rice – Basmati rice cooked perfectly - and the bread I ordered, Chicken Tikka and Cheese Kulcha – a flat bread cooked in a tandoor oven stuffed with both chicken and cheese. Yummy! My feast was amazing and delicious. Anyone who doesn’t like curry would not recognize it in this case. I finished all the meat and the bread and had the remainder of the rice and curry sauce packed up to go. I was ready for a new dessert (rare in Indian restaurants).

The Karonji – fresh coconut, poppy seeds and nuts in a pastry shell with a vanilla/honey sauce – was like a puff pastry turnover with delicate, sweet-flavored interior. I loved it. With a hot cup of Masala chai (spiced tea), my Indian feast was finished and I was delighted. Benares Tribeca had lived up to the standards set by Midtown with the exception of the cocktail. Maybe I’ll make the short jaunt from the office to encourage them to perfect the recipe. Then I can sample some of the many other dishes I’ve not seen on any other Indian menu.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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