Monday, February 2, 2015


Dinner and a Movie

Mortdecai Has His Head in Da Claudio

By Steve Herte

Tax season, being the “busy time” in my life, is perpetually an ongoing affair. How busy was I? Well, I wanted to get a ranking of my top 10 movies of 2014 in before the Oscars (as if my choices matter) and I had to write it on the back of one of my movie ticket print-outs while riding the subway to work. At home, my usual chores were enhanced by my obsession to get rid of “stuff” and, after a couple of hours of that, not only do I find things I forgot I had, but I’m too brain-dead to write. And then I had the added chore of shoveling snow for the first time this year. Do you wonder why I treasure my Friday evening adventures? They’re the only time I have completely to myself. What about karaoke night, you say? Almost, but not quite – I’m entertaining other people rather than just satisfying myself. I’m on-stage so to say. I love it, but not as much as Friday. And this past Friday was a landmark restaurant and an entertaining (admittedly silly) movie. Enjoy.

Mortdecai (Lionsgate, 20515) – Director: David Koepp. Writers: Eric Aronson (s/p), Kyril Bonfiiglioli (novel). Cast: Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan Mcgregor, Paul Bettany, Olivia Munn, Jonny Pasvolsky, Michael Culkin, Ulrich Thomsen, Alec Utgoff, Rob de Groot, Guy Burnet, Jeff Goldblum, Antti Hakala, Paul Whitehouse, & Norma Atallah. Color, 106 minutes.

You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile. And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife. And you may ask yourself, ‘How did I get here?’”
–  "Once in a Lifetime," The Talking Heads

How indeed, especially when you’re flat broke and owe eight million pounds in back taxes to the Queen of England? This is the situation that Charles Mortdecai (Depp) finds himself in as he and his wife Johanna (Paltrow) sell off pieces of art in their estate just to get by. A possible way out of debt arises when he learns from Inspector Martland (McGregor) that a rare lost painting by Goya has been stolen and he would be well paid to get it back. But being a dealer in fine art, Charles also knows that this particular painting has the secret bank account number of famous Nazi leader Goering inscribed on the back. But so do ruthless dealers from China and Russia.

Charles is not the James Bond type. He’s haughty as a David Niven with the over-the-top accent of Terry-Thomas, the outrageous flamboyancy of Austin Powers (without the Mojo), and the drunken, effeminate mannerisms of Captain Jack Sparrow. If it weren’t for the fierce loyalty of his manservant Jock Strapp (Bettany), it’s doubtful I would have made it to the end of the movie. Jock is a one-man army and he stays with Charles, tolerating his inane questions even after being accidentally shot by him several times.

Johanna adores her husband but wishes he would shave off the ridiculous little handlebar moustache he’s currently sporting and obsessively grooming (much like Hercule Poirot). It makes her gag whenever they kiss, which makes Charles gag sympathetically. This is literally a running “gag” throughout the film.

After many chases here and there, Charles is forced to sell his Rolls Royce to major art competitor Krampf (Goldblum), and deliver it personally to his mansion in Los Angeles. Unknown to him, the painting has been stowed in the headliner of the Rolls. Krampf throws a gala party for the unveiling. When Charles and Jock decide to steal it, the problem of disposing of it has to be solved. An elaborate (and impossibly complex) plan is hatched involving hiding it behind a hunting scene in Charles’ mansion, selling it at auction for a ridiculous price, and recovering the Mortdecai family status at the same time as paying off the back taxes.

Mortdecai is a silly, funny romp that provides the perfect backdrop for Depp’s maniac acting talent. For once, I could understand most of his dialogue (only occasionally mumbled) and was able to get the tacky sexual innuendoes throughout. The violence is minimal and Jock is the usual brunt of it. It’s interesting to see Paltrow in a comedy and she carries it off with aplomb. McGregor plays the “other man” in Johanna’s life smoothly, and right under the nose of an astonished Charles. Parents, make sure your child is able to handle the sexual side of this movie before taking them to it. I for one enjoyed it once I dismissed my scientific side. It’s a totally fictional tale featuring a totally outrageous character.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Da Claudio
21 Ann Street (one block from Park Row)New York

Back in 1973 when I began my work career, I found a Chinese take-out place on Ann Street where they made the greatest Pork Lo Mein and Curry Chicken and I would get my lunches there. Shortly after, I noticed I was rapidly getting fatter (yes, you can get fat on Chinese food). I stopped visiting them and changed to a lower calorie lunch. Soon, the restaurant went out of business and the building it was in was torn down. The space remained empty for years. As Ann Street only exists for two blocks in downtown Manhattan, I wondered about the location of my 2,650th restaurant.

Not even on the same block. This two-month-old Salumeria (Italian cold cuts store)/Ristorante has been shining a bright light on Ann Street where darkness existed before. The windows are lined with white incandescent bulbs and the name is decaled on the windows in gold lettering. If that weren’t enough, there’s a pinkish orange-lit sign with “Da Claudio” hovering above the center window. Inside, all is white (including the massive counter where the cheeses and various meats were kept cool) with copper ball-shaped swags, polished bare-wood tables and gold banquettes. 

A collage of Tarzan comic book stills dominates one wall (in Italian, of course), and this is where the young lady at the Captain’s Station sat me. At the next table were three college professors enjoying a lively conversation.

After a courteous amount of time to get settled in, my server, Izabella, took my water preference and presented me with the specials list and the menu – a single card with the wine and drinks list on the reverse. When she returned I asked her if they had Beefeaters gin because none of the cocktails (with the exception of something called a “Fumatto”) were enticing. She produced a list and I ordered my usual martini made with Tanqueray Ten. The bartender must have been impressed because he delivered it personally stating that it was “perfect” (which it was in a surprising and tasty way, and I told him so).

Izabella was wonderful in planning my three-course meal. Prior to her assistance, I was torn between three appetizers, two pastas and two main courses. Even though I’ve had it many times before in other Italian restaurants I chose the Carpaccio di Bresaola – thinly sliced filet mignon with shaved Romano cheese and capers drizzled with olive oil. The presentation of this dish was very impressive. The platter nearly was as wide as my table. It looked like too much, but when I tasted it, the subtle mix of flavors made it disappear slice by delicate slice.

The first martini was so good I decided on a second to go with the next course. On Izabella’s recommendation I chose the risotto with sausage and wild mushrooms. This time the bowl made the good-sized portion look small in comparison. The delicate pale browns of the mushrooms and sausage were attractive in the shiny, almost glutenous (but sensual), arborio rice. Then, when it was covered with a blizzard of grated parmesan cheese, it was ready to be adored. It was hot and sweet, cheesy and earthy and I enjoyed every bite. Another server had brought the most wonderful olive bread (no doubt home-made) and included a wooden spoon on which was a dollop of olive spread. Delicioso! No one can gild the lily like the Italians.

My main course was Stinco di Maile, or pork shank served with crisp apple slices. I toyed with the idea of adding escarole as a side dish but upon seeing the portion size I was happy I didn’t. I paced myself with the tender meat and juicy apples, saving the roasted onions for last. I cleaned the plate as well as I could with another serving of olive bread. A busboy commented cleverly that, from the empty plate, I must not have liked the dish at all. With this dish it was time for a wine and of the two hearty reds I chose the Montepulciano. Excellent!

I told Izabella that I like to choose my dessert over a glass of wine and for that job I chose the other red, a Pinot Nero. It was just as wonderful as the previous wine, but lighter and more of a decision-making wine. My dessert was the Frutti di Bosco (fruits of the forest) and my hopes for this dish were correct. The plump raspberries and strawberries were nestled in the lightest, sweetest Zabaglione I’ve had in a long time. And, there was a wedge of chocolate brittle as a garnish! No complaints here. Then, a double espresso and a glass Nonino Amaro Quintessentia, and my Italian feast was complete. I even spoke with the trio of professors because one of them, the woman, looked familiar. I asked her if she attended the performance of Iolanthe at Pace University. She said no, she doesn’t work there, one of the other two does, but she loves Gilbert and Sullivan, and enjoyed watching me effuse over my dinner.

Da Claudio is a gem on Ann Street, and improves the location immensely. I must return to try the other dishes that tempted me.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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