Wednesday, October 28, 2015


Dinner and a Movie

Goosebumps in a Black Barn

By Steve Herte

It's autumn so I've closed up our attic for the winter. We've had cold weather but not a hard freeze yet (the dahlias are still green and growing). My Christmas cactuses are back in the house and the little one has at least 10 buds on it already. The trees are just starting to turn color and the evenings have that beautiful glancing sunlight and warm smell of leaves. I'm ready for Halloween.

Speaking of Halloween brings me to the movie this past Friday night. Several good costume ideas there. Unfortunately, I'm not built like the werewolf. But I had a good time watching him. And where else can one enjoy an autumn dinner than in a barn? Enjoy!

Goosebumps (Columbia, 2015) – Director: Rob Letterman. Writers: Darren Lemke (s/p); Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski (story). R.L. Stine (Goosebumps books). Stars: Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee, Amy Ryan, Jillian Bell, Ken Marino, Halston Sage, Steven Krueger, Keith Arthur Bolden, Amanda Lund, Timothy Simons, Karan Soni, R.L. Stine, & Caleb Emery. Color and 3D, rated PG, 103 minutes.

In the opening scene we see a car with a U-Haul trailer heading down the highway to Madison, Delaware. Gale Cooper (Ryan) is driving and her son (Minette) sits wondering what kind of a nowhere place they’re moving into. His Dad died a year ago and now he has to move, start a new school and meet new friends and neighbors. Upon arrival at the house, Zach is unloading boxes when one dumps its contents on the sidewalk through the bottom. The window in the house next door opens and Hannah (Rush) welcomes him to the neighborhood. Zach is pleased to see such a pretty girl next door, until a crazy, stern man (Black) replaces her at the window and warns him to stay away from her and he or “something very bad” might happen.

No sooner do they enter the house and they’re surprised by Aunt Lorraine (Bell) – Gale’s kooky sister – and immediately Zach is inspired to unpack his things in his room. Gale has been hired as the new vice principal of the high school Zach will be attending and, on the first day, he begs her to give him a 60-second lead when he leaves the car so that the other kids do not see the “new kid” walking in with the new vice principal.

Champ (Lee), probably the least popular kid in school, makes the acquaintance of Zach during orientation in the gymnasium. It seems they are destined to be best friends. Champ feels that if he hangs around with Zach he may have a chance with Taylor (Sage) for the school dance (though she already has a boyfriend, played by Caleb Emery – who may or may not be on the football team but is definitely a jock).

Back at home, Zach is taking out the garbage one evening and Hannah appears behind a loose board in the fence between their houses. They talk and she’s inspired to show him somewhere special she goes to be alone. He follows her reluctantly through the forest to a semi-cleared space. She flips a switch and the lights of a long-abandoned carnival amusement area turn on, including a large Ferris wheel. She gingerly climbs the ladder and the structure to the highest gondola and Zach follows, still wondering about tetanus from the rusty ride. At the top, he’s impressed by the view but concerned about how to get down.

The next night, Zach hears Hannah shouting with the strange man next door. When he hears her scream, he calls the police. But when the man answers and denies the presence of Hannah in the house, goofy Officers Brooks and Stevens (Lund and Simone) are satisfied but Zach is suspicious. The following evening, he recruits Champ with the promise of a double date to the dance and tricks the next-door neighbor into reporting to the police station. They enter the house through a basement full of bear traps and find a room with a shelf full of locked books by R. L. Stine, the “Goosebumps” series. Curiosity gets the better of them and Zach finds the key (conveniently located in plain sight) and opens one just as Hannah enters the room.

A powerful flash of light and shock wave send the three to the floor around the room and they look on helplessly as the words on the pages coalesce and a 10-foot tall abominable snowman rises from the book and hits his head on the ceiling. Hannah warns them to be quiet but the clumsy Champ topples a lamp and the creature sees him. When it lunges, Zach pulls Champ out of the way and the snowman goes out the window into the forest beyond. Hannah follows it and the boys chase after Hannah, not knowing that the creature has toppled another book onto the floor in the dangerous open position.

Where else would an abominable snowman go but to the local ice skating rink? This is where the three wind up trying to get the monster back into the book. They fail, but the crazy man next door, who is indeed R. L. Stine, succeeds. In the car driving back they learn that the characters in his books became more than just words on a page, they became real; hence, the locks on the books. Back at Stine and Hannah’s house, they see the other open book and Stine realizes with horror what character has been set free. It’s Slappy (voiced by Black) the evil ventriloquist’s dummy – who, by the way, hates being called a dummy.

Slappy is the most dangerous character because he’s able to teleport quickly. He snatches the book from Stine’s hands and burns it to prevent his returning into it. Then he somehow swipes the rest of the books, escapes in a car (don’t ask me how he reached the gas pedal, he admits later on that he can’t reach the brake) and simultaneously opens and burns them all over town, releasing a giant praying mantis, a werewolf, a crowd of malevolent garden gnomes, the invisible boy, zombies, the snowman, and a myriad other creepy crawlies, including the “Blob that ate everything.” Slappy is taking his revenge for being locked up for so long.

Stine realizes that, with all the burned books, the only way to get all the monsters back into captivity is to write another book. But it must be written on his special typewriter, which is currently on display in a trophy case at the high school. The group manages to fight off various creatures and obtain the typewriter and Stine retreats to the auditorium stage to start writing. In the car, Champ insulted him by accusing him of “playing Stephen King” and now he has to sit on a stage set of The Shining.

Zach, Hannah and Champ set off to warn the rest of the town’s populace, who are all at the school dance, about the disaster that has occurred and they eventually make it to the DJ’s stage. But no one believes them. That is until the giant praying mantis smashes the window and reaches in, snagging a heckler. From this point on, it’s panicked people trying to stay alive until the new book is finished.

Goosebumps is based on the book series written by Stine who appears in the movie and claims that the character played by Black is “just not me.” My first exposure to it was the television series. I dismissed it as kids have incredible, silly adventures. Buffy, the Vampire Slayer seemed like a more mature version of the theme. Though there are many monsters in this movie, none of them are particularly scary, not even the clown. The werewolf, a beautiful CGI representation, stupidly grabs a piece of meat from the frozen food section of the supermarket and tries unsuccessfully to tear into it, and then “woofs” before chasing the kids. Have you ever heard a werewolf “woof?” It’s disheartening at best, even when he’s the only character to come straight at the screen in 3D. I would have preferred they used the 3D to make his jaws come out into the audience. But no, this is a kiddie film. The small crowd of kids in the audience didn’t believe it.

The giant praying mantis not only uses its “praying” limbs for walking (like crutches), but jabs with them as if they were knives. I liked the garden gnomes. If shattered, they could reassemble themselves. Still, Columbia Pictures, coupled with Sony Animation, did a great job bringing these multifarious monsters to life. I can’t blame Disney for this one.

As far as acting goes, Black outdid himself and eclipsed the other characters that were merely following the script. He was a raving lunatic in the beginning and he mellowed out into a distinguished professor toward the end. Speaking of the end, I’m hoping there won’t be a sequel, but there probably will. The Invisible Boy (also voiced by Black) was still around to type on Stine’s typewriter, “The Invisible Boy’s Revenge.”

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Black Barn
19 East 26th St. (between 5th and Madison Aves)New York

A barn, in New York City, across the street from Madison Square Park, is a concept so outré that I just had to try it. When I learned that it replaced the old eatery SD26 and was a little over a month old, my mind was made up.

Though it has a large window on the street, Black Barn does not reveal itself all at once, for the glass is smoky. Inside, there is a cozy bar with several small tables occupied by young people all engaged in conversation while low-down blues slinks from the speakers. The walls are black and the tables are black wood. The fiberglass armchairs are a rusty deep red.

The young lady at the Captain’s Station took my reservation and politely asked me to wait until the hostess returned to seat me. The hostess greeted me cordially and, while I followed her down a short corridor, she asked if I’d dined with them before. I said no. She said, “Prepare to be amazed!” I love a challenge.

The corridor opened onto the main dining area, a cavernous open space dominated by muscular blonde-wood two-by-fours arranged overhead as if supporting a roof. But one could see that the ceiling was much farther above. It was black, so where the walls. To the left is an open kitchen sparkling in silver and aluminum. Next to it is a table for perhaps 16 called the “Kitchen Table” where a special five-course prix fixe menu with wine parings is served to adventurous groups. It was unoccupied that evening. Above the kitchen, I could see the windows of their private room, referred to as “The Loft.” The hostess seated me at a table toward the end of the blonde-wood superstructure and across from the booths at the back. Various rustic farming tools decorated the walls behind the booths. OK, I was charmed, so much to see.

Soon, Jorge, my server, appeared and handed me the single-card food menu nicely framed in a leather blotter and took my water preference. I had already perused it online, but you never know what can change in a short time. When he returned with the water he asked if I would like a cocktail. I said yes, and he placed an electronic tablet in front of me indicating that I should touch the word “cocktails” and, when I scrolled through them and found one I liked, I just had to touch the price and return the tablet to him.

I chose the “Pear Necessity,” a bewitching brew of Bar Hill gin, Merlot Pear liqueur, absinthe and fresh lemon served in a gorgeous stemmed glass. I loved it. When he had served the drink, Jorge noted the specials and announced a truffle festival. One of the pastas and one of the entrées could have truffles included for an additional cost. I expressed my love of truffles without gasping at the thought of adding $20 to any of the dishes and thanked him. (The pasta dish alone would have been $61.) But now I knew the caliber of the restaurant I was in.

The food menu is divided into the following categories: To Share, Appetizers, Garden (salads), Ocean (seafood), Slow Cooked, Wood Grilled and Sides. Though there were only four entries in each category, it was a tough choice. When Jorge returned I told him that, since it was my first time there, I wanted to go with the most exotic signature dishes. He was pleased with my choices and went off to input my order while retrieving the tablet for the wine.

Other servers brought the bread basket with two slices of fresh crusty bread, a soft roll and two spicy, thin breadsticks, a ramekin with a cube of sweet butter surrounded by cooked garlic cloves, and the amuse-bouche, a crispy wafer with a seafood and chive mousse. It and the buttered and garlicked soft roll that followed it were delicious.

The appetizer arrived next. The Tarentise (properly, Tarentaise, a unique cheese from Vermont) Cheese Soufflé was served in its own little crock and was golden brown on top. The server lovingly parted the top with a tablespoon and carefully poured the hot speck-chive cream into the center. It was heavenly, a crisp crust over soft, hot zesty cheese inside. The cream sauce made it erotic. The bread sticks helped get the last of the sauce from the small, black pitcher.

Jorge returned with the tablet and I scrolled through the ample selection of wines and found the perfect pairing. The 2011 Proprietor’s Blend “Ernie Els” from Stellenbosch, South Africa, a full bodied cabernet sauvignon with a smooth but assertive flavor and fruity aftertaste. It was excellent with all my dishes.

My salad was next. But this dish was a couple levels up from the basic salad. Even its name, Curried Cauliflower Steak, was a cut above. Imagine a thick slice of cauliflower cooked, cooled and dusted with curry powder, then surrounded with crisp salad greens, halved plum tomatoes and topped with a slice of Bermuda onion, then sprinkled with pickled white raisins and dressed with a cilantro yoghurt raita. The result is cauliflower exploding with flavors I never conceived. Later, the chef arrived at my table and I raved about this dish. He echoed my amazement.

My main course was from the Slow Cooked section of the menu. The Vermont Shivanne Farm Baby Goat was an impressive mound of sliced rare-cooked, juicy meat over roasted rosemary potatoes and braised artichokes. Sided with a lovely red ceramic bowl of sautéed mushrooms it was sheer delight. And for the first time in a long time, I didn’t finish the dish. Jorge wrapped the remaining vegetables and mushrooms to go in a fashionable Black Barn tote. Even the take-away was beautiful. But I had my eyes on dessert.

Hold onto your spoons! The Chocolate Soufflé with vanilla sauce topped with rum butterscotch ice cream crowned a royal meal nicely. It was everything I expected, warm, chocolatey, sweet and homemade. The double espresso and thistle glass of Galliano were just sprinkles on the sundae.

Black Barn is named after a property in the Hamptons of Long Island owned by designer Mark Zeff, a friend of co-owner John Doherty (the chef I spoke to). The cuisine is described as an American restaurant serving local, artisanal food in the comfort of a modern barn. True and definitely worth a return visit.

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