Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Crimson Peak

Dinner and a Movie

An Evening with the Cleavers

By Steve Herte

Over the years I've been writing the Dinner and a Movie column, the most frequent question I’ve gotten is, “Why do you write restaurant reviews for a movie blog?"

My answer is that I'm primarily a gastronome who loves movies. I feel the column is a part of what makes Celluloid Club unique, and for those that don't like unique, there are thousands of other blogs out there without restaurant reviews.

I love what I'm doing and enjoy my movie and dinner night. Sometimes things go wrong; sometimes everything is perfect. It’s my foray into the unknown. In this case, it was a director that drew me to the film and a mostly unfamiliar menu that led me to the table. Movies are my escape from harsh reality and dining out provides me with an excuse to say whether or not I like a certain dish with authority. And I cleave to these principles. Speaking of cleavers, enjoy!

Crimson Peak (Universal, 2015) – Director: Guillermo del Toro. Writers: Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins. Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray, Emily Coutts, Alec Stockwell, Brigitte Robinson, Gillian Ferrier, & Tamara Hope. Color, Rated R, 119 minutes.

Ghosts are real. This much I know.” Edith Cushing.

It’s 1901 in Buffalo, New York. Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) is writing ghost stories and trying to break into the man’s world of authorship. Her editor doesn’t care if her story is good or not. He believes that a woman should be writing love stories. He doesn’t know that Edith writes from experience. Fourteen years prior, her mother died and visited her as a creepy blackened ghost with long claw-like fingers to warn her about avoiding “Crimson Peak.” As a child, Edith had no idea what her mother meant, she was too busy being terrified.

Her father, Carter Cushing (Beaver) and her childhood friend, Dr. Alan McMichael (Hunnam) both wonder why a young, pretty girl would rather write books than go to parties. Alan’s mother, Mrs. McMichael (Hope), along with all the society girls, chides her as being a “Mary Shelley.” All the girls are abuzz about a newcomer to town: a charming young Baronet from England who will be attending the latest soirée.

But Edith will have none of that and she stays home while her father and Alan leave. It’s a rainy night. Her maid announces that a man is here to see her, and he has been standing in the rain until her father left the house. She reluctantly agrees to see him and, when she meets Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), there is immediately something chemical between the two. He talks her into going to the party and, if her arrival isn’t enough to set the gossipers chattering, he demonstrates the waltz with her while holding a lit candle. “If you dance the waltz properly, the flame never goes out.” And it doesn’t.

Thomas’ sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Chastain) plays the piano while eying her brother and Edith with a strange, predatory expression that changes to condescension whenever she speaks with Edith. Edith doesn’t notice any of this; she’s falling in love with Thomas.

Thomas, an inventor as well as a baronet, has created a digging machine made for mining the red clay near his home in Cumberland, England. He is trying to get funding to perfect the machine and eventually sell it to mining operations. He approaches Carter Cushing at a board meeting with his proposal but Carter has already done his homework and found that Edinburgh, Milan and Paris have already rejected the offer. Also, Carter has taken an immediate dislike for Sir Thomas, deeming him unfit for his daughter.

Edith’s mother visits her a second time, repeating the warning about Crimson Peak, but Edith is too frightened to take heed. (If my mother came back looking like that and talking like Doug Jones – who plays all the talking spirits in this movie – I would be frightened, too.)

Carter writes a check to bribe Thomas and Lucille to return to England and leave Edith brokenhearted. After a dinner party at the Cushing house Thomas does exactly that, sending Edith in tears to her room.

But this is a formula gothic horror film and we know Edith will follow Thomas and marry him. Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger ambushes Carter in the bathroom and bashes his head against a sink, killing him (and breaking the corner off the porcelain sink). The verdict is that he must have slipped and fell. (Repeatedly?)

Edith is now a wealthy woman and free to join her new husband on a trip back to England. Carter’s accountant, Ferguson (Gray) is taking care of her monetary transfers while she rides in a carriage over the blood-red clay to the enormous decaying hulk that is Allerdale Hall. There is a hole in the roof over the main entryway and various detritus (as well as snow) constantly rains through it. Edith is still clueless when she steps on the floorboard and the gooey red clay oozes out beneath her feet. The house itself is sinking into the clay and makes grotesque breathing sounds as it does so.

There is a cage-like elevator to get to the upper floors as well as stairways and Thomas tells her never to go below this level. (But we know it’s only a matter of time before she disregards this advice.) Whenever she’s alone, Edith meets various blood-red apparitions (must be the clay), including one that arises from a bathtub with the cleaver still lodged in its skull and Thomas’ mother, Lady Sharp (Doug Jones again). Only she can see them.

Back in America, Alan hires private detective Holly (Gorman) to get historic information on this Sir Thomas. Learning that other young women in Edinburgh, Milan and Paris have been married to Thomas and all have disappeared after a prolonged sickness due to poisoning, he chases after Edith.

Edith learns these same facts when she swipes a key engraved with the name “Enola” from Lucille’s key ring and opens a steamer trunk she found in the lower levels of Allerdale Hall. Shortly thereafter, she’s ill and coughing up blood. When the snow falls and footprints made in it show up bright red, Thomas confides that the townspeople have dubbed Allerdale Hall “Crimson Peak” because the clay underneath stains the snow red. (What townspeople? This house is all alone out in the middle of nowhere.) You suddenly see the realization in Edith’s eyes. She’s clueless no more.

Sounds good right? Guillermo del Toro’s direction sets forth a classic gothic horror tale in the beginning but it deteriorates into slapstick comedy at the end. In the final face-off between the white-gowned Edith and the almost black, blue-gowned Lucille is a duel of cleaver and shovel. (Yes, it makes the satisfying ‘Wang’ sound when it comes down on Lucille’s head.) The entire audience laughed. I did, too, but I also felt sorry for a good movie that has gone bad. The special effects are well done, but many are familiar from previous films. The best and most amazing things were the stage sets. The house itself is incredibly over-ornamental. The corridors have arches that appear to have teeth, as if you were passing through a shark’s jaws. The music also was excellent, building and then falling silent when something scary was about to happen. While the film was chilling in parts, it couldn’t retain that mood. The writing by del Toro and Matthew Robbins followed suit with the visual, becoming comic at the end.

There is plenty of gore for those who crave it and a couple of new ways to make a kill, but no foul language (a definite plus). There’s a ludicrous bed scene where Edith and Thomas consummate their marriage that could have been alluded to and cut. Parents, take this to heart if you’re planning to see it before it disappears like the artistry at the beginning. Did I mention the great costumes? The only possible award nomination.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Calle Dão
38 W. 39th St. (5th/6th Avenues), New York

Cuban restaurants are rare (this is only my fifth) and Cuban-Chinese cuisine (my second) even rarer. Calle Dão means “Knife Street” – half in Spanish, half in Chinese – and the symbol they use on their entry sign is a cleaver. Seemed like a perfect segue from the movie I just saw, especially with the crimson doorway and awning at the entrance.

Inside, it’s dimmer than Allerdale Hall. The walls, painted half a sea green and half white on the right, have bare-topped tables lit only by a single votive candle. The bar on the left glows from a golden backlight behind shelves of bottles and is only dimly lit by swags shaped like the headlights from a giant’s truck. Beyond an ornamental wrought iron gate is the small main dining area, already well populated by chattering people, while speakers blast out salsa music.

The young woman at the Captain’s Station noted my reservation and led me to one of the single tables midway through the bar. I suddenly felt like Ernest Hemmingway at Sloppy Louie’s in Key West. She left me the two laminated cards, which were the food menu and the drinks menu. With a little effort and positioning of the candle, I was able to read both.

Anis, my server, soon appeared and took my water preference and the same girl arrived to pour it. When Anis returned, I ordered the “Revolucion!” cocktail – a habanero-infused tequila and Ginger Canton (a liqueur) concoction with absinthe, sweet corn kernels, pineapple, agave and lemon. The red salt lining the martini style glass was festive against the golden, spicy, fruity brew I sipped as I read the food menu.

The selections on the menu were simply grouped as Raw Bar (ceviches, oysters and clams), Appetizers, Entrées, and Sides. I explained to Anis that I was almost unfamiliar with most of the dishes on the menu, but that I had a good appetite, was a slow eater, and wanted to construct a three-course dinner. He agreed to let me know if I had ordered too much food and that the dishes would be spaced according to the time it took me to finish.

When I gave Anis my choices he said plainly that I may have ordered “a ‘little” too much food, but I agreed to take home anything I couldn’t eat and thanked him for his help. I was ready for adventure with my choices, and they did not disappoint. Another server brought me a basket of taro chips – thinly sliced taro root, fried crisp and lightly salted – with a ramekin of dipping sauce. I’ve had these before and loved them, and had to remember not to consume the whole basketful before my meal.

The first course, pig’s ears, sounds horrendous, but looks nothing like its name. Think of Szechuan lamb. The meat was shredded, rice-floured and fried crisp, then mounded on a plate and bathed in the sesame chili sauce, garnished with sprigs of cilantro. The texture was similar to a good calamari and the taste was spicy, sesame pork. It was a hefty portion as well and I knew what Anis meant by a ‘little too much food’.

When I finished my cocktail I ordered the 2014 Malbec “Agua de Piedras” Mendoza, Argentina, which complimented the pig’s ears perfectly. It was surprising how such a young red could be so assertive.

I have come to love empanadas and when I saw duck empanadas on the menu, I knew I had to try them. Anis almost pooh-poohed this dish, stating, “If you like duck.” He was enthusiastic over my other choices, though. The three crescent-shaped pastries arrived encircling a ramekin of ginger sauce. The pastry was crisp and tasty and the duck inside shredded nicely, not too moist and not too dry; just a little overly flavored with ginger. The manager came over to my table at this point and I told her about it. I also complimented the concept of merging Cuban and Chinese cuisines. The empanadas were gone before I remembered to take a picture of them, as is my wont.

The manager told me that Calle Dão has been doing business for a little over a year and a half. She left my table pleased. In a little while the main course arrived. It was another adventure. The spiced goat neck, touted to have been rubbed with Calle Dão house spices, was on a bed of baby bok choy, garnished with cilantro and sided with tostones (deep fried plantain chips). The first taste of the goat meat was spicy, but afterward the heat diminished, allowing the natural gamy-sweet flavor of the goat to take over. Again, the portion was respectably large, and the meat was surrounded a single neck vertebra (yes I know what one looks like). The bok choy was cooked well and still crunchy. It was the best goat I’ve ever had. The manager passed by again and I raved about the dish to her.

I was able to finish everything except the tostones and taro chips, and I had Anis wrap them up to go home with me. It was dessert time. I chose the newest dessert, the sesame panna cotta. It was as pure and delicate as the finest blanc-mange, with blueberries and sliced strawberries accompanying it in a light, sweet sauce. I loved it, but the change in flavor volume from my previous dishes was almost shocking. The manager, knowing it was a new dish, visited me again. I told her of the delicacy of the dish and how it was such a wild contrast to everything else. “Perhaps you will try our flan – on the house?” I agreed. It’s not often I have two desserts.

The flan, the traditional Spanish caramel custard, was served in a spicy crema sauce with cracked peppercorns on top. There was no doubt this dessert could stand up to the flavors of the meal I just finished. My only comment was that the panna cotta was creamier than the flan, which tasted grainier rather than smooth. Still, it was amazing. A Café Cubano later I was satisfied.

Though the menu was not large, it was rife with dishes foreign to my experience. Helene always said she could never eat a dish called “mofongo,” but there it was, in three different preparations. And I’m not a vegetarian but there are two vegetarian dishes that are intriguing: the pan-fried noodles which one can have with or without your choice of meat, and the barley paella, with okra, grape tomatoes, sunchoke, wild mushrooms, root vegetables and fermented bean curd.

The next time I visit to Calle Dão I think I’ll bring along a flashlight.

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