Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Dinner and a Movie

International Intrigue and Riparian Entertainment

By Steve Herte

While on vacation, my mission, unless I try to get out of it, is to continue what I only started last month: explore and straighten up the workroom. Good thing it’s in the basement because the weather person says it’s going to be hot again. No big deal. I’m a summer person. I’m taking two of my karaoke friends to the Museum of Natural History. One hasn’t been there in a long time. I can’t wait to see her amazement.

Dinner and a Movie night was an adventure as well. I joined the last of the New York crowd in seeing a movie I’ve put off seeing because I had trouble not associating it with the TV series it was based on. But you’ll see if I accomplished that or not soon. The restaurant was also a discovery and a pleasant one. Enjoy!

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (WB, 2015) – Director: Guy Ritchie. Writers: Guy Ritchie  and Lionel Wigram (s/p). Jeff Kleeman, Guy Ritchie, David C. Wilson, & Lionel Wigram (story). Based on the Television Series by Sam Rolfe. Cast: Henry Cavill, Arnie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris, Christian Berkel, Misha Kuznetsov, Guy Williams, Marianna Di Martino, Julian Michael Deuster, Andrea Cagliesi, & Riccardo Calvanese. Color, PG-13, 116 minutes.

We are at war with Russia!” If the opening slides showing maps of Europe with a divided Germany, and an equally divided Berlin do not convince you that it’s the 1960s, this line (spoken soon after) does. The focus is on Checkpoint Charlie as Napoleon Solo (Cavill) calmly walks up to the guard and gains admission to East Berlin. His mission is to extract defector Gaby Teller (Vikander) and bring her back to CIA headquarters. He manages to get her out and past all the Russian guards except for the “giant” known as Illya Kuryakin (Hammer), who pursues them relentlessly with the speed and strength of a Terminator. (He tries to stop their car by holding onto the trunk handle and dragging his feet.)

Safely zip-lining into West Berlin and dropping Illya neatly on the other side of the wall, Napoleon returns with Gaby to headquarters and his superior, Saunders (Harris). Solo thinks his job is done when he learns the true complexity of his ultimate assignment. Gaby’s father Udo Teller (Berkel), a scientist allegedly working for the Nazis, has been kidnapped by a private organization and is being forced to assemble a nuclear warhead for them. But first, he needs to take Gaby to Rome and learn of Udo’s whereabouts from her Uncle Rudi (Groth).

The organization is run by Alexander Vinciguerra (Calvani) and his wife Victoria (Debicki) – an interesting and appropriate surname meaning “victor in war” – who have a small army in their employ and are extremely difficult to contact, much less visit. Speaking of difficult, M16 agent Alexander Waverly (Grant) tells him that the CIA and KGB have a tenuous agreement in working together on this mission and Solo must work with Illya Kuryakin to accomplish their goals. Unbeknownst to both top operatives, both CIA and KGB want to obtain Udo and the nuclear warhead for their own purposes and both instruct their respective agents that the other is totally expendable upon completion.

Neither Solo nor Kuryakin are likeable characters; they hate and mistrust each other, and each points out the other’s dubious backgrounds on their first (non-fighting) encounter. Solo is a self-involved, over-confident thief and pickpocket who thinks he’s too suave to be caught – and yet he falls for the oldest trick in the book, “Will you have a drink?” says Victoria (she’s drugged every bottle in her private bar). Illya is a stolid Communist stereotype with severe anger management issues and deadly skills who is never “wrong.” But the gods of prequels demand that they work together with Gaby.

But all is not serious in this film. There is a sort of running gag starting at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome when a test is performed on Illya and Gaby. His cover occupation is architect and he must allow himself and Gaby to be mugged by two street thieves, who steal his father’s watch. Every time Illya thinks he sees that watch he goes after it. There’s a Bugs Bunny-like scene where Illya is being fired on and chased back and forth in a motorboat, even to the point of it exploding, while Solo swims ashore and hides in the cab of a truck, sipping wine and eating a sandwich from a convenient picnic basket left on the front seat. Later, after electro-torturing Solo, Uncle Rudy winds up in the hot seat (thanks to Illya), but it malfunctions. When Solo and Illya go into an adjacent room to discuss what they should do with him, he struggles and the power comes back on. We see Solo and Illya facing us and debating while, in the background Rudi is being barbequed.

Solo rescues Illya from drowning. Illya rescues Solo from electrocution and in the end they receive the team title U.N.C.L.E. (per the TV series, the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). The private organization is not named; ergo there is no T.H.R.U.S.H. (Technical Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity) – yet. But neither character is endearing still. The soundtrack was spectacular in this film. There were many songs I’m not familiar with that I enjoyed and their placement in the movie was perfect. The cinematography was exceptional when the screen wasn’t being divided into thirds, quarters and smaller fractions to show several views at once – which became dizzying at best. The costumes were good attempts at copying 60s-era styles but without the hairdos to go with them (strange). The acting and dialogue was acceptable, though there were no standouts.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a good action film; clean enough for the whole family (no vulgarity) and no gore. If you go to see it and can empty your mind of any memory of the TV series, you’ll enjoy it.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

450 East 29th St. (1st Avenue)New York

Any time I begin to think I’ve dined at all the best restaurants in New York City, a new one pops up. Restaurateur Tom Colicchio has had eight successful restaurants in New York previous to Riverpark (not surprisingly, I’ve already dined at six of them, not knowing he was in charge), and for six months his Executive Chef, Bryan Hunt, has been preparing Sisha Ortúzar’s recipes at the east end of 29th Street. Ensconced in an unassuming glass and steel building with a lovely garden outdoor café, Riverpark overlooks the East River with sweeping views to match.

The sign for the restaurant is posted outside, but it doesn’t indicate which door is the entrance, and the restaurant proper cannot be seen immediately. A gentleman outside kindly directed me to choose a door, continue down the hall past the reception desk, and turn right at the end, where a graceful spiral staircase led to who-knows-where. I didn’t need the staircase. There was a black door with the name of the restaurant in lights on its side.

Inside, a large squarish bar dominates the room with a galaxy of mini-spot lights in military formation above it. All around are tables, some occupied. The Captain’s Station was to my left and I announced my reservation. “Outside or in?” “Inside, please. It’s still too humid to dine outside.” A young lady led me to a table by one of the floor to ceiling windows facing the river.

The wine list arrived before the menu and Alan, my server, took my water preference. I noted his Australian accent and filed it away in memory. When he returned with the water he asked if I desired a cocktail. Upon learning that they did indeed stock my favorite gin I asked for my signature martini. He returned with a chilled glass and a small carafe from which he poured one of the rare perfect martinis in Manhattan.

The food menu is right to the point and lists dishes as First Course, Pasta, Main Course and Sides. However, the selection was such that it was difficult to choose. When I expressed my indecision to Alan he called over a second server who helped with my order. There were dilemmas in every course but he solved each one expertly.

For instance, the fluke crudo – with pickled strawberries, nasturtiums (an edible flower), hazelnuts, jalapeños, and lime sounded equally good to me as the grilled quail – with corn, charred tomatoes, okra, black-eyed peas, and thyme. The young man advised me to have the quail (one of his favorite dishes) and, he was right, it was wonderful. The juicy quail was cut in sections for easy eating and it rested on a bed formed by the other vegetables. The okra was halved and charred but tasted better than any I’ve had before.

I asked him about wines because the wine list was quite extensive. Once we narrowed it down to reds and he said the magic word “zinfandel” I told him to stop there. But, which zinfandel? They have 14 on the list. He recommended the 2012 “Old Vines” and offered to give me a taste. It was delightful but I didn’t think it would stand up to all the dishes I would be having. I needed something with more tannins. We settled on the Turley Farms “Kirshenmann Vineyard” Zinfandel 2013, Lodi, California. It was delicious with the quail – intense but a little sweet and fruity.

Three of the four pastas interested me. It was between the zucca pasta (shaped like the end of a zucchini) – with (appropriately) summer squash, basil, squash blossoms, and ricotta salata, the saffron spaccatelli (thin, curved straws) – with mussels, jamòn mangalica (a Spanish ham), dill, and fresno chilies, and the cavatelli, which came with smoked lamb, shishito peppers (a green sweet chili), corn, and merken (merquén, a red spicy Chilean pepper, usually ground).

The cavatelli won hands down and when it arrived, the tiny purple flowers decorating it added to its appeal. When I first tasted the tender pasta, the lamb flavor mixed with the sweet and spicy chilies for an absolutely transporting experience. A sip of the wine later and I was in Heaven. The dish made the flavor of the wine literally explode! It was eye opening and I told my server when he came back to check on my progress. He agreed on the effect.

Why do I keep forgetting to mention the bread? Another server kept me in mini-baguettes and ramekins of sweet butter, which I used in each course to get all the sauces.

Another three dishes had to be chosen from for the main event. Online, the grilled cobia – with manila clams, bok choy, onions, miso, and in a lemongrass broth sounded excellent, but then there was the fazio farm rabbit – with plums, daikon radish, honshimeji mushrooms (a small capped, long stemmed mushroom that usually grows in clusters, like the Hen-o-the-Woods), and togarashi (a Japanese red chili blend) – was just as attractive. Then there was the pekin duck breast – with French breakfast radishes, chanterelle mushrooms, blueberries, and nasturtiums.

Again, with help, I chose the rabbit. Again, the wine tasted different but still a perfect match. The rabbit meat was served in small tender cylinders among the rich brown mushrooms and sprinkled with the togarashi, wonderful. And who could turn down a side dish called fairy tale eggplant – in oregano balsamic? The little eggplants were served halved, grilled and slightly vinegary – the right accompaniment for the rabbit.

After my second server checked up on me again, Alan came back and I told him how great everything was. He explained that he handed me off to the other man because he was a better “Somahlyer”. “He’s from Somalia?” I said. “Oh, no. He’s good with wines.” “Oh, a sommelier! Yes he is.” We both got a laugh out of that.

Dessert I didn’t need help with. There was only one unusual confection and I ordered it. The olive oil cake – with strawberries, vanilla crèmeux (a dense, soft pudding), and a ball of pistachio ice cream – was nothing like I anticipated. It was not salty and had only a slight flavor of olives coming through the sweet cake, vanilla and pistachio flavors. Lovely. A cup of hot Earl Grey tea finished the meal nicely.

Through my window I could see picnic tables, which I thought were unusual for a classy restaurant. But, this restaurant is proud of its “fresh-from-the-farm-to-the-table” reputation and they feature a farm dinner menu, – for parties of 4 up to 10 or 16, seated at picnic tables outside (weather permitting) – a three-course family-style feast at $85 per person. A new idea for sure.

Needless to say, there are several dishes I would come running back to try at Riverpark and who knows? I might even try outdoor dining.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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