Sunday, July 19, 2015


Dinner and a Movie

Minions with Élan

By Steve Herte

Have you ever had a week where your timing was perfect, people agreed with you, and even traffic lights were in your favor? I knew it couldn’t last but that was last week. Even work projects worked out right. I was not anticipating the project involving crawling around my hot attic trying to find a broken wire (our dining room chandelier had no power going to it), but my brother-in-law helped and we found it (luckily, but with a little expertise in using a Voltmeter) soon and repaired the problem. Let there be light, and there was.

On the other hand Dinner and a Movie night was one I had anticipated for a while. I loved the Minions in the first two Despicable Me movies and wanted to see what they would do on their own. It was great, as you’ll read. The restaurant also lived up to its name, as you’ll also read. Enjoy!

Minions (Universal, 2015) – Directors: Kyle Balda & Pierre Coffin. Writer: Brian Lynch. Voices: Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, Geoffrey Rush, Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Katy Mixon, Michael Beattie, Hiroyuki Sanada, Dave Rosenbaum, Alex Dowding, & Paul Thornley. Color, 91 minutes, Rated PG.

As the movie opens, we see the enormous word “Universal” familiarly orbiting the Earth, but instead of French horns blaring the fanfare music, we hear the voices of Minions singing it. The audience gets a chuckle right from the start. Through the opening credits we see the evolution of Minions from single-celled sycophants following ever bigger, badder creatures, until one crawls out on the land and they emerge from the sea as well. Throughout, the narrator (Rush) explains the whole purpose of their existence. All the Minions are wearing seaweed on their lower half except the last one, who is naked. He hastily picks up two starfish and wears them like the top half of a bikini. The narrator comments, “All the Minions know what they are here for…except Norbert. He’s an idiot.”

We progress through the ages as a T-Rex gets accidentally tossed into a volcano, a caveman gets eaten by a bear when a Minion replaces his club with a fly swatter (“La Piñata!”), an Egyptian Pharaoh and his people are flattened by a pyramid built upside-down, Napoleon is shot by one of his own cannons, and Dracula is turned into dust by the sunlight streaming in from a drawn curtain.

It seems that every villain the Minions turn to is exterminated one way or other and they take refuge in an icy arctic cave. But they become bored. That’s when Kevin (voiced by Coffin, as are all the Minions) decides he must leave the cave and find a new master. He recruits Stewart and Bob and they make a long journey that, just on the verge of starvation, leads them to New York City. After chasing the ever-fascinated Bob around a department store until after closing time they discover news of “Villain-Com” being held in Orlando, Florida.

Another trek begins and soon they are tired out. They see a hitchhiker displaying a cardboard sign reading “New York,” get a ride and eventually figure out how it’s done and write “Orlando” on the reverse side. Kevin’s attempts fail much to Stewart’s hilarity. Bob nearly is run over but succeeds. A “woodie” station wagon stops and the three meet Walter and Madge Nelson (Keaton and Janney), their fat son, and villain-avid daughter, who are also going to Villain-Com.

It turns out that the Nelsons are a family of villains as they rob a bank and a gas station on the way. Kevin endears himself and his brothers to them when he misfires a rocket launcher, toppling a water tower and effectively stopping the police pursuit.

Villain-Com has a secret entrance, which Walter negotiates smoothly and they’re in – so many villains to choose from. One, Professor Flux (Coogan), has built a time machine and is committing trans-temporal crimes and bringing back multiple versions of himself. That is until he accidentally kills his original self and they all disappear. But one exhibit stands out above all the others and that one belongs to Scarlett Overkill (Bullock).

Scarlett makes a spectacular entrance onstage and announces that she’s looking for henchmen. All they have to do is steal a large ruby from her outstretched hand. Several baddies attack from all sides but she fights them all off efficiently and easily – even a Sumo Villain (Sanada). Kevin and his boys also take the stage, but Bob loses the teddy bear he’s carrying and in the scuffle, Kevin swallows the ruby. When he spits it out Scarlett declares him the winner.

Back at Scarlett’s lair, the Minions meet her husband Herb (Hamm) and are led to a painting of Queen Elizabeth II. “Do you know who this is?” Scarlett asks. “La Cucaracha?” Kevin ventures. And Scarlett reveals her plot: Steal Queen Elizabeth’s crown, make Scarlett Queen of England, and they will be her henchmen for life.

On the way to London, Kevin telephones the rest of the Minions who, by the way, have already found a “Big Boss” in the Abominable Snowman. It’s short lived though, for during the celebration, a Minion blows a blast on a tuba. The sound loosens a huge ice stalactite and it comes crashing down on the snowman’s head. Fleeing the snowman’s angry henchmen, the rest of the Minions head for London.

Stealing the crown is not as easy as it seems. Herb gives them weapons he created; a hyno-hat for Stewart, a lava gun for Kevin and a super stretch suit for Bob. The three successfully get inside the Tower of London, but in the chase scene that follows, Bob pulls Excalibur out of the stone and becomes King of England.

Scarlett is furious. The Minions still want to serve her, and so Kevin changes the laws of England to enable him to turn the throne over to Scarlett. In gratitude, she locks them in the dungeon to be tortured by Herb, masquerading as an executioner. Needless to say, none of his tortures work.

Left on their own, Kevin, Stewart and Bob escape the dungeon through the sewers of London, where Bob befriends a rat he calls “Kitty.” They first surface at a funeral service where one swipes a wreath with a banner reading “Sorry.” They amend it to say “Sorry Scarlett,” thinking this will help get them back into her good graces. They arrive at Westminster Abbey, but have to scale the walls to get in. A bee has followed Bob, who is wearing the floral wreath on his head, and he leaps onto an immense iron chandelier (just happening to be directly above Scarlett as she awaits her coronation). Stewart chases Bob swatting at the bee and their motions are causing the chandelier to unscrew from the ceiling.

The titan lighting fixture eventually falls on Scarlett. Herb is devastated. But Scarlett is not gone. The firepower loaded into her hoop skirt enables her to blast out from under the chandelier. And she comes out fuming, capturing Bob and Stewart, but Kevin makes it into Herb’s secret lab where he enters a chamber bearing signs saying, “Do not push this button,” “Do not pull this lever,” and “Do not blow into this hole” – all of which Kevin accidentally does.

Outside the tower of Scarlett’s lair, we see the walls cracking and toppling to reveal a Godzilla-sized Kevin who goes to battle against Scarlett. It’s a hilarious scene because Kevin has trouble negotiating the narrow streets of London in his new monstrous size while Scarlett is zooming around above him firing at him. The remaining Minions arrive shortly before the interchange leading Scarlett to exclaim, “Are you kidding me?”

After many crazy volleys, Scarlett is defeated (kind of) and Queen Elizabeth (Saunders) is very grateful – even to the point of knighting Kevin. But her crown is gone again. Who has it? Scarlett – but not for long. She and Herb are caught in an ice ray that freezes them in place. Who takes the crown? A little boy named Gru (Carell). The prequel is now complete.

Minions is a wonderfully funny film and remarkably so because the heroes only occasionally speak intelligible English. Most of it is either Spanish or random words that sound something like comprehensible speech. Through it all, the audience knows what they are saying by their tone and body language. Sandra Bullock is great as a wicked villainess and Jennifer Saunders makes a very funny Elizabeth. The animation was fabulous and, most amazing, were the voices of the minions, all done by one man. Be sure to stay through the ending credits (which, by the way, are the only things that come directly at the audience in 3D) because there are extra scenes with the Minions interacting with the young Gru. Parents, this is another safe film for all.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

43 East 20th St. (Park Avenue South)New York

How many of you remember the restaurant Chanterelle? The upscale, expensive (but worth every penny), hard to get a reservation, gauzy French draped, downtown venue on Hudson Street at Harrison was ruled for nearly 30 years by Chef David Waltuck. Unfortunately, it went out of business shortly before its anniversary and has been gone for six years.

Chef Waltuck opened élan a little over a year ago to rave reviews. Some called it “a French Bistro with Asian accents,” and some dubbed it “New American with French influence.” The elements of all three (American, French, Asian) are obvious in the outré combinations Chef Waltuck serves. At the outset, I have to suggest, if you go to this restaurant and do not say, “I never thought those would go together.” Then you have not been to élan.

When I arrived for my 6:30 pm reservation, I was struck by the simplicity of the façade: a simple maroon banner with the name barely readable in a strange shade of red hangs over the front windows (now open to the street). The unadorned front door is to the right as is the Captain’s Station inside. The young lady noted my reservation and led me down a hall comprised of a long spartan bar to the right and large artworks on the wall to the left. This opened onto a dining area with maybe 15 or so tables, all empty except for one. I chose the left-hand corner in the back for a full view of everything.

In no time Nanci, my server, arrived, took my water preference, and handed me the cocktail and drink list along with the menu. I had no trouble choosing a cocktail. “The Pickled Ramptini” – Citadelle gin, Cocchi Americano (an aperitif wine from the Asti region of Italy infused with herbs and spices), Dolin dry vermouth de Chambéry, and pickled ramp garnish was too intriguing. It was an interesting new flavor. The gin was detectable but the pickle and herbs moderated it. The ramp (a relative of the onion) extended jauntily over the edge of the glass. After tasting it, the ramp was also gone when the drink was finished.

The menu had several choices I wanted to try in every category. There were “starters for the table,” appetizers, main courses, sides, cheese, and desserts. Nanci described the specials of the day and these were tempting as well (especially the rabbit main course and the “chilled” Vidalia onion soup). But she was very helpful when I was torn between two or three dishes.

The drinks menu only listed wines by the glass and I had Nanci get me the wine list. While many of the wines were overpriced, there were a few reasonable ones, and one I loved. It was the 2012 Monte dall’Ora Valpolicella – a fruity red, the color of fine Burmese rubies with the motto on the label, “Oltre al cuore abbiamo messo solo questo” (In addition to heart, we put this only.) It was indeed the heart of the meal.

Another server brought the bread dish – a single freshly baked pretzel roll (still warm) and a dollop of herbal butter. The roll was so good it didn’t need the almost over-powering tapenade and I commented that sweet butter would have been better. The herbal butter was more suited for sourdough bread. This was the only point Nanci begged to differ with me on.

Though the “Foie Gras Roulade” beckoned with its figs and Prosciutto, I chose (with Nanci’s help) the unusual sea urchin guacamole – with taro root chips. Presented with the guacamole in a bowl at the center of the dish and the large chips surrounding it, it looked like the giant Rafflesia flower I saw at the Bronx Zoo. But what a flavor! You can taste the sea urchin throughout but it never diminishes the avocado and mild spices. The chips were a delicate unsalted taste (much better than poi) and were perfectly matched to the dip. There was even a strip of sea urchin on top of the dip to show the contrast of orange and green.

Wanting to test a theory, I put some of the guacamole on the pretzel roll and went straight to Heaven. I didn’t tell Nanci.

The next course was a small war between the “Potato Potstickers with Summer Truffles,” the “Grilled Seafood Sausage,” and the dish I eventually chose (again with Nanci’s wisdom) the “Crisp Ricotta Gnocchi” – with corn, tomato and basil. The presentation was lovely. The main ingredients were floating on a small lake of corn purée and the colors were bright. Compared with the first dish, this one was on the sweet side, but the gnocchi were indeed crisp and delightful.

Later Nanci broke a three-way tie on the main course. I was drawn to the “Rabbit Special” and the “Kung Pao Fried Chicken with Peanuts, Chilies and Pickled Watermelon,” but the “General Tso’s Sweetbreads” – with leeks, orange and chilies – won hands down. Way too unusual! The lazy, long, leeks cradled the slightly spicy and crisp sweetbreads while the oranges added a festive color and citrus flavor to a most beguiling dish.

There was no contest over side dish. The “Duck Fat Hash Browns” appealed to my hedonistic side, delivering satisfaction in spades. It was a plate-filling golden brown swirled pancake that burst with good potato-y and rich buttery flavor. Mmmm!

Chef Waltuck came to my table to ask how everything was going and I raved over the “Taro Chips,” remarking that my first taste of Hawaiian poi was “Yuck!” But these delicate chips combined with the exotic sea urchin guacamole thoroughly redeemed the root for me.

And where does one go from here? No contest again. The “Camembert Cheesecake” – with apricots, strawberries and hazelnuts was like no cheesecake I’ve had so far. It was tart and a little sweet, fluffy, yet dense. The fruits and nuts made it complete Nirvana.

A double espresso and a glass of green Chartreuse later and my meal came to a close. That is, until Nanci brought out a rich, quarter-sized chocolate cookie that tasted like the most decadent Oreo ever.

Though stark in décor (the lighting is from nine light-sabers suspended from the ceiling), élan (Yes, they spell it in lower case) exhibits the exuberance and energy of its name and the bizarre – yet brilliant – imagination of its chef. My hat is off to you, sir! I wish you another 39 years. Thanks, Nanci! I shall return.

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