The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Found Love
By Steve Herte
With Mardi Gras comes the Lenten Season when restaurant selection on Fridays gets an added limitation of no meat for me. The restaurant I chose featured crepes and a seafood crepe was among them. Ideal. I tried to recall the last time I had a crepe and the memory came flooding back. It was on the Upper West Side, near Lincoln Center, when La Crepe still existed and I was in a quartet called “The Craftsmen.” La Crepe made crepes the old-fashioned way on a special griddle. The cook wore traditional country French caps and costume. I ordered Crepes Suzette for dessert and I should have taken a warning when my young waitress enthused, “Oh goodie! My first time!” She brought the crepes and slathered them with Grand Marnier, even dribbling it on the tabletop. Then she lit it with a match and started singing “Stars and Stripes Forever” (obviously not French) as the blue flames danced from the dish across the table heading for me. Suddenly she noticed her error and my shock and tried to put it out with the napkin. The napkin caught fire. Together, we finally extinguished the flames. “Let me try again. I’ll get the Grand Marnier!” “NOOO, thank you. It’s fine as it is.”
I’ll never forget that. But I still love crepes and the adventure was before me that night. Enjoy!
Kingsman: The Secret Service (20th Century Fox, 2015) – Director: Matthew Vaughn. Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn (s/p). Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons (comic book The Secret Service”). Cast: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Mark Hamill, Jack Davenport, Sofia Boutella, Samantha Womack, Jonno Davis, Mark Strong, Sophie Cookson, & Alex Nikolov. Color, 129 minutes.
What do you get when you take a good James Bond movie, bring in the suave, umbrella-toting gentleman John Steed from The Avengers, make it all commonplace with liberal vulgarity, include the inconspicuous storefront entrance to the underground headquarters from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., toss in a few outrageous weapons and mention the shoe-phone from Get Smart and, stepping up the gore, borrow a Stephen King story (in this case, “Cell”) for the villain’s plan? Answer? Kingsman: The Secret Service.
From the beginning I frankly couldn’t tell if the makers of this film were trying to be serious or comedic. The movie opens in Afghanistan with two men attacking some (assumed) terrorists on the ground while dangling from ropes on either side of a helicopter. Their main target is a fortress and the opening credits roll off the building after each explosion. It was a nice special effect but it also looked comical.
The scene switches to a remote part of Argentina where another terrorist is loudly interrogating Professor Arnold (Hamill) who cowers under his assaults. Suddenly, Lancelot (Davenport) – a Kingsman (they’re all named after Knights of the Round Table) – appears and dispatches the terrorists. There’s another knock on the door and swish! Lancelot is bisected from head to toe and the two halves peel apart – much like the cow in Stephen King’s Under the Dome. The beautiful but deadly Gazelle (Boutella), a girl with swords for feet is to blame. She and her men take the hapless Professor Arnold to her boss, the slightly effeminate and lisping, multi-billionaire Valentine (Jackson).
Back in London, the Kingsman organization headed, logically, by Arthur (Caine) need to replace their fallen Lancelot. Their remaining main operative, Harry Hart/Galahad (Firth) seeks out 12 candidates for the position, finishing his search with Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Egerton), the unlikely son of a Kingsman living with his mom, Michelle Unwin (Womack), his little baby sister and the abusive thug and gang leader Lee (Davis) taking the place of his dad.
It takes some convincing, but after a pub fight where Galahad subdues a roomful of Lee’s goons, Eggsy follows him to the Kingsman Tailor Shop, where they enter a changing room and, with a pull of a clothes hook descend into the bowels of the secret organization. A high-speed vacuum tube ride later and they arrive at the mansion headquarters outside of London, where he meets the technical genius Merlin (Strong). Merlin leads him to the “dorm” room where the other 11 are waiting, gives them his orientation speech and ends with, “On each of your beds there is a body-bag. Fill out the slip attached with all information, including next-of-kin, because only one of you will survive to be a Kingsman.” (Did I hear a similar line in Hunger Games?)
The 12 are put through grueling tests to prove their worthiness. All fail the first test when the dorm room fills with water, the test of Teamwork. Marksmanship goes a little better. They are told to pick a puppy (where you go, it goes). Eggsy chooses a pug thinking it’s a bulldog and that it will get a lot bigger, much to the amusement of the others. After several eliminations Target Skydiving leaves only Roxy (Cookson) and Eggsy. When asked to shoot their dogs, only Roxy succeeds and becomes the new Lancelot. Eggsy goes home. But not for long.
Meanwhile, Valentine is rounding up all the leaders of the world, intelligentsia, movers and shakers (some whether they want to or not – those who don’t are locked up in dungeon cells), including a brief scene with President Obama. (We assume. We only see his back and a shot of the White House.) He brings them all to his Arctic hideaway inside a mountain and is implanting a special chip at the base of their skulls. This chip will make them immune to his second chip, which he markets to the whole world in the form of a SmartPhone with free Internet, free minutes, free texting, FOREVER! There are lines all over the world and people eagerly snap up these free phones. Little do they know that Valentine plans to send a “pulse” through these phones that will turn each of them into a bloodthirsty killer, which will consequently wipe out most of the Earth’s population. (Remember the book, Cell? Same story.), He explains this as, “Global Warming ith the Earth developing a fever to kill off the viruth (people) that is making it thick. I’m just providing a thervice to the Earth.”
After a test of this pulse on a white-supremacist church where Galahad – also affected by it – slays the entire congregation (extreme gore), he exits only to be shot by Valentine. Eggsy is horrified. Then he discovers that Arthur also has the chip implant. Using sleight of hand to switch glasses of poisoned brandy (a Get Smart routine) Eggsy finds that it’s up to him, Merlin and Roxy to “save the world.”
This was the movie the guys wanted to take their dates to for Valentine’s Day last week? I admit, I thought it would be better than it was. I admire Samuel L. Jackson’s never losing that ridiculous lisp and voicing the best two lines in the movie, “Beijing? You would think the Chinethe would have a better thecret title for their thecret thervice,” and “This ain’t that kind of a movie.” No, it wasn’t. I’m surprised that Michael Caine agreed to do this movie but he did so elegantly. Like I said, I didn’t know if it was comedy or serious drama. Any class the movie had was brought low by the repeated vulgarity and returns to the gross-out factor. Parents, be aware. The fast action violence is graphically slowed to accent the brutality and blood involved almost to ludicrous extent. I’m glad I saw it, but I would never own it.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.
Love Café and Bar
430 2nd Avenue (between 24th and 25th Streets), New York
When I looked at the menu online I concluded (rightly) that this seven-month-old restaurant was indeed Ukrainian. When I arrived at its neon-lit front windows I wasn’t too sure. The two front windows announced “Delicious European Cuisine,” “Crepes, Belgium (that’s how they spelled it) Waffles, Perogies, Chicken Wings, Home Made Corned Beef, Chicken Kiev…” and other international delights.
There was no Captain’s Station, but there was no room for one. Around a large central column that appeared strong enough to ward off a category 8 earthquake, there was only space enough for the bar on the left and eight tables on the remaining walls. The young woman who greeted me at the door led me to a table as far away from the front door as possible, but still in the front window. I found out why. The front door doesn’t close all the way by itself. With every entrant a gust of arctic air swept in and continued until someone (usually my greeter) closed it completely. However, I didn’t mind. I was dressed for cold.
To those not familiar with Polish decorators (yes, she told me the nationality of the decorator), the room might seem garish. The walls and central column are festooned with large, folksy floral patterns and the bar bedecked with bold clown stripes. Under the glass topping, the tables are beautiful rose patterned tablecloths. The globe swags lighting the place look as though they might have been formed by a pastry chef’s icing extruder. Last, and best, the flat-screen television on the back wall is playing non-stop hilarious Russian music videos. The songs included “I Will Survive” and “Ochi Chornya” and sung with gusto by impressive vocalists, but with a Benny Hill-like comedy. You didn’t need to understand Russian to laugh.
Having supplied me with the all-inclusive menu and a glass of water, my greeter became my server and asked if I preferred a drink to start. I ordered the first thing that caught my eye, the Old Rasputin Imperial Stout (9% alcohol) – North Coast Brewing Company, California – focusing on the name, not the place of origin. It was impressively delicious and full of flavor without any bitterness. I explained to my server that I was considering a three- course meal and she agreed to stop me if I’d ordered too much. When I asked how many perogies were in a serving she answered simply, “Twelve.” “Twelve?” I queried. “We are not Polish, we’re Ukrainian. They’re small.” Good enough for me. I made my order, finishing it with my wine selection, a 2012 Casarena Malbec from Mendoza Vineyards Argentina. The selection of wines, while not large, was of sufficient quality and the prices were excellent, especially for this nicely balanced red.
My meal started with Hungarian cream of mushroom soup – sautéed mushrooms with light cream, Madeira wine, chopped dill, sour cream and a pinch of Hungarian paprika. The soup was served in a bowl I recognized from my own home collection. It was a stemmed affair with two lion heads as handles, only this one was a bright lipstick red. The soup was hot, thick and loaded with juicy mushroom slices – definitely not from a can – and slightly red from the paprika. I loved it.
The perogies came next and were served in a similar bowl garnished with cooked cabbage and onions with a bacon-y flavor. They were mixed, as requested, with stuffings of potato and fried onions, potato and mushrooms, potato and cheddar cheese and potato and bacon – all al dente and delicious with a little sour cream.
The main course arrived before I was finished with the pirogies but fortunately both dishes retained their heat despite the front door problem. The seafood crepe – mussels, scallops (bay), sautéed shrimp and crabmeat served with house-made seafood sauce (creamy and green, tasting of chives) – was a perfect Lenten dish. It nearly covered the tomato-red plate it was served on and was soft, but not too sweet. The seafood inside was cooked to succulence and was so good (even the shrimp) I nearly forgot my wonderful wine.
My server asked how everything was and I commented on how excellent the soup was and how happy I was with the perogies and crepe – I hadn't had either in a long time. It was then I learned from her how long Love has been on Second Avenue and that their original restaurant was in Florida. (She still did not reveal her name.)
She asked if I wanted dessert, and when I nodded, she brought back the menu indicating the dessert crepes. I chose the Lord Michael Dessert Crepe – strawberry preserves, vanilla ice cream and chocolate “designer” sauce. It was equal in size to my main course but it vanished quicker. I adore strawberry preserves as much as I love a good crepe. When she asked if there was anything more she could bring I said, “Let’s see. What is traditional? Tea!” “With honey or lemon?” “Honey.” She brought a selection tray and told me the Papaya Tea is her favorite. I chose it. No wonder it was her favorite. I’ve never tasted anything like it, only slightly floral with a good strong tea flavor. And with the honey, it was excellent.
I was ready with my I-Dine gift card when I received the check, but when I discovered that, with tip, the bill was still under $100 I didn’t use it. I was amazed. I dined like a Tsar. I will definitely be back, probably on one of my stay-cations for breakfast. But with only eight tables I’m sure I’ll have to make a reservation.
The menu at Love reads like a diner menu – breakfast first, with Belgian waffles, lunch sandwiches, Zakuski (hors d’oeuvres) including 8 ways of serving chicken wings, soups and salads. Their Hungarian Goulash is served in freshly baked bread, the meat dishes include Beef Stroganoff, and of course there’s one of my all-time favorite poultry dishes, Chicken Kiev. For vegetarians, there is a dish called a Taste of Tbilisi (the capital of Georgia) served over Basmati rice.
Yes, they are true to their claim on the front windows. They serve Crepes Suzette, Veal Schnitzel, Italian Wedding Soup, Norwegian Pickled Herring, and Mac and Cheese, truly international. And, after my movie, I was the spy who came in from the cold.