Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Dinner and a Movie
Friday Fantasy and Fish

By Steve Herte

St. Patrick’s Day came inconveniently on a Tuesday this year and effectively nixed my normal karaoke night. Thanks to my friend Henri, who learned about the event from his friend, I was invited to a Saturday evening Karaoke Coffee House event at a Knights of Columbus hall in Jackson Heights. The hosts, a married couple with endless personalities whom I would have expected to have met at Woodstock, knew of Gabby O’Hara’s and my regular KJ, Dave, as well as many of the more famous karaoke friends I’ve made.

It was an evening of animated features and CGI this past Friday. The art of animation has definitely improved on Disney’s side of the equation, though Warner’s will forever retain the comedy crown. But computer graphics are gradually insinuating formerly impossible characters into “live” movies with greater accuracy and believability. Now all we need are better writers and actors who can do justice to the scripts.

Frozen Fever (Walt Disney Pictures, 2015) – Directors: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee. Voices: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, & Jonathan Groff. Color, 8 minutes.

In this animated short, it’s Anna’s (Bell) birthday and Elsa (Menzel) wants to celebrate it in grand style, but she’s coming down with a cold (fancy that). Every time she sneezes, she creates little snowmen that constantly try to eat the multi-layered ice-cream cake she prepared. Olaf (Gad) the snowman and Kristoff (Groff) along with Sven the reindeer try to help with the set-up but wind up constantly guarding the cake and herding throngs of cute little snow people. Olaf is so taken with his new “little brothers” that he names all of them and eventually escorts them to Elsa’s ice palace for safekeeping.

The party is a big success but the biggest gift of all for Anna is taking care of Elsa as she succumbs to a fever (definitely fantasy – the Ice Queen with a fever) and must be put to bed. It’s a charming but silly story with beautiful animation and a new song, “Making Today a Perfect Day.”

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Cinderella (Walt Disney Pictures, 2015) – Director: Kenneth Branagh. Writer: Chris Weitz (s/p). Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, & Eloise Webb. Color, 105 minutes.

Just when I thought it was safe to watch a Disney movie . . .

This is a remake of Cinderella as a non-animated film, and quite unnecessary. I was perfectly happy with the original 1950 animated version and the 1965 production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical. They are delightful. Nevertheless, I went to see this film wondering what new things could be done with the story.

My lack of expectations was rewarded with a back-story at the beginning of the movie. Narrated by Carter, who later turns up as a slightly ditzy Fairy Godmother, it describes the happy life Ella (Webb), at 10 years old, had with her father (Chaplin) and mother (Atwell) in their lovely house on the outskirts of the kingdom.

Even at this early age, Ella was able to communicate with animals, computer generated creatures that were the one marvel of this film as they were seamlessly integrated with the live actors and yet retained their identity as animals (never speaking). Ella’s mother taught her daughter to believe everything, especially magical things. Her father loved to be with his daughter but was compelled to be away from home on long trips to provide for the family, much to Ella’s dismay.

But all is not always rosy. Ella’s mother develops an undiagnosed fatal medical condition, which leaves a very sad husband and daughter. With her dying breath she gives her daughter the sage advice, “Always be courageous and kind,” a phrase that will be repeated ad nauseam throughout the movie.

Ella grows up to young womanhood (James) and all is nice again until one day her father announces that he intends to wed a recently widowed woman with two daughters of her own. It’s his “second chance” and Ella is happy for him. Cue the entrance of the soon to be stepmother (Blanchett), Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger). From the onset, these three highborn wannabes have nothing but disdain for the house, its furnishings and Ella.

Then, one day, father has go on another of his trips. Drisella and Anastasia ask him to bring back parasols and beauty cream. Ella asks only for a piece of the first tree branch that brushes his shoulder. Her gift is the only thing that makes it home.

With no money coming in, the stepmother dismisses the household staff and replaces them with Ella. When Ella offers her bedroom to Drisella and Anastasia she’s curtly thanked and relegated to the attic, which is too cold in winter, so Ella sleeps by the dying embers of the fire in the kitchen. The ashes on her face the next morning inspire Drisella to call her “Cinder-Ella.”

The three continue to mistreat Ella until one day in frustration she gallops away on a horse into the forest where she’s confronted by the largest computer-generated stag I’ve ever seen. Hearing huntsmen in the distance, Ella tells the stag to flee and it does. Something spooks her horse and they gallop off, only to be rescued by the Prince (Madden) himself. He’s captivated by her from the start but conceals his royalty by introducing himself as “Kit” the apprentice. The rest of the story you know.

One of the few high points of the movie – and the only humorous part – is when the Fairy Godmother does her magic. “Have you any fruits or vegetables? Squash? Kumquat?” “We have pumpkins.” Using the Disney-requisite “Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo!” she turns a pumpkin into a coach (while still inside the greenhouse – bad idea), the mice (one named Gus) into four white horses, two lizards into footmen (one played by Tom Edden) and a goose into a coachman (Gareth Mason). “I don’t know how to drive one of these – I’m a goose!”

Most of the dialogue is sappy and trite. It’s a wonder they managed to get Jacobi to play the king. The music is spectacular, soaring and beautiful and goes perfectly with the elaborate – almost baroque – sets. Otherwise, Cinderella is an over-the-top fashion show set to a fairy tale with great CGI effects. The costume department is to be commended – probably will win the movie’s only Oscar – for pushing the envelope to the breaking point in design. It’s a wonder the prince doesn’t trip over the acres of blue gown Cinderella wears to the ball. It’s also a wonder that that dress fits into the carriage. Her glass slippers looked as if created by Swarovski.

It’s the perfect film for little girls and Barbie dolls. As for acting, Blanchett did a sterling job considering the stock lines she was given and Jacobi was marvelous. All else, well, they were there.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Cull & Pistol Oyster Bar
75 Ninth Avenue (in Chelsea Market at 15th Street)New York

Aside from it being a seafood restaurant, the very name of this small oyster bar tucked away in New York’s Chelsea Market was an intriguing come-on. On the website I learned that both are fish monger terms. A cull is a lobster that has lost one of its claws. A pistol is a lobster that has lost both of its claws, probably due to predators. Appropriately, the Cull & Pistol Oyster Bar is located next to a restaurant called The Lobster Place.

Being a snowy night (hopefully the last we’ll see for the season), I took the 14th Street “L” subway line from the theater to Eighth Avenue (the last stop). The snow made walking problematic, and it took me a while to locate the correct corner. But where was the restaurant? It had to be in the Chelsea Market. I wandered a little through the shopping-mall-like space and asked the security guard, who replied, “Straight ahead, on your right, next to the waterfall.” They have an indoor waterfall? I followed his directions and didn’t stop until I heard the sound of gushing water. In a corner “grotto” made of bricks was more like a broken water-main pipe leaking into a pool below. This is a waterfall? Only in New York.

As I entered I saw two gentlemen. One asked if I had a reservation. I said had one at 7:45 pm, which it was at that time. He led me to the last stool at the bar and proudly indicated the coat-hooks located under the tin-covered surface. For this I made a reservation? It was a backless stool, but one without a table or a wall to lean on, bolted to the floor and therefore immobile. I had to arrange my stuff and myself to achieve a modicum of comfort while purging my brain of the thought that I had just been cleverly insulted (again).

But, as I’ve stated before, and must keep reminding myself, I’ve been to the best, now I’m going to the rest. My server, perky, dark-haired Jess, who reminded me of a young Liza Minnelli with a pierced lower lip, brought me the menu and wine list, along with a jug of water with the restaurant name emblazoned on it. I asked what gins she had. Surprisingly I’ve never heard of any she listed, mostly organic or herbal. But then she suggested Hayman’s London Dry Gin. How have I not heard of an English distillery that has been in existence since 1863? It was excellent and the resulting martini (I didn’t have to tell her “stirred, not shaken”) was equal to any Beefeater martini I’ve had. Things were looking up.

Although the restaurant was not particularly dark per se, I had difficulty reading the menu. The bold black font used for the dish titles was small and just about readable on the cinnamon brown background. The normal font describing the dishes was even smaller and might as well have been invisible. I considered getting my mini-flashlight out, but that was inside my shoulder bag, which was hanging on the hook under the bar and was trapped by my coat hanging over it. Too much effort was involved in extracting it. I used the votive candle in front of me. Still, it wasn’t easy, and I told Jess how difficult it was to read the menu.

From the menu I gathered that most New Yorkers do not observe Lenten abstinence; nearly every seafood appetizer was paired inextricably with ham, bacon or pancetta. When Jess told me the special of the day, it also paired fish with meat. I was beginning to feel trapped again. I explained my dilemma to Jess. She seemed to understand and pointed out dishes where meat did not figure as even a garnish. I selected three courses.

The wine list was equally cryptic to me and before my eyes crossed permanently, I asked Jess for a chardonnay. She consulted the resident expert and they recommended the 2012 Heroine Chardonnay from the Iconic Winery on the Sonoma Coast. It was exactly what I wanted, crisp, golden and light but with a sturdy flavor and an intriguing label featuring a Batgirl-like visage.

My first course was an endive salad – with valdeon bleu cheese, ruby red grapefruit slices, watermelon radish thinly sliced into fans, fried almonds, and lemon dressing. I love endives. They make a salad into finger-food. You can scoop up the other ingredients on a leaf of endive and enjoy all the flavors together. I found out that almonds (not my favorite nut) taste a lot better when they’ve been fried. That with the marvelous pairing of bleu cheese and grapefruit made this salad fun as well as delicious.

The second course was the hearty scallop and mussel chowder – house-smoked scallops, leeks, purple potatoes, celery root, and chili oil. “Did you see bacon listed under the ingredients? I didn’t either,” I commented to Jess. “It’s OK,” she said, “You didn’t know.” It was wonderful, though not a quite authentic, chowder. The purple potatoes, though tasty, were a little jarring but the mussels were sweet and tender and the scallops were appropriately unassertive except for their smoky flavor. The bacon ruled.

On Jess’ recommendation, I chose the salt baked whole fish – Mediterranean Dorado (they used the more colorful but affected term “Dorade”), lemon thyme, and garlic marinade as a main course over the Lobster Pho (pronounced “feu,” meaning fire) – a Vietnamese dish with vermicelli noodles, mussels, hake, chili, Vietnamese coriander, mint, lime, and bean sprouts.

The headless fish was served, skin on, atop a bed of salt with its tail end buried in golden-baked salt. Sprigs of thyme were stuffed inside the fish. The meat was pure white, juicy and tender, not as salty as I expected or as over herbed from the thyme, just perfect. I have one caution about this dish, well, actually two. The first is to be constantly aware of small bones. They turn up around the edges of the fish unexpectedly. The second caution is to be aware that the fish is resting on pure sea salt, which is the same color as the fish flesh. Be careful what you pop into your mouth. I got a couple of mouths-full of salt – not pleasant. However, do be sure to attack the meat on the underside of the rib cage. The better half of the fish is there. I had a great time.

I sided the fish with Brussels sprouts with caramelized shallots and aged Gouda cheese sprinkled on top. Excellent.

I was rapidly becoming sated, and the wooden stool was reminding my body that it was still there. So, in order to relieve the numbness I was beginning to feel in my nether parts, I eschewed dessert and after dinner drinks in favor of paying the check and leaving. Cull & Pistol is a great place to eat providing you are of age 20 to 35 and arrive (with a reservation – the place was packed the whole time I was there) in a group of four. There are no tables for two and certainly none for one. More than likely I will not return to this place because of the uncomfortable seating, but I thank Jess for her efforts to make me less so.

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