Monday, December 28, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea

Dinner and a Movie

Melville’s Mentor and Kimchi Overload

By Steve Herte

For the first time since I’ve been writing reviews, I went to dinner before the movie. It was a little difficult to time.

The reason for this change was that the movie was only playing later in the evening and it was opening night. (Some opening night – there were three other people in the theater besides myself.) Then, the restaurant had to have an early reservation time to give me time to dine comfortably and to walk to the theater. It worked out. But here's some advice: Never see a movie involving Herman Melville and then ride the New York subway home. I learned that it was his schedule for his horse-drawn coach/bus system in Staten Island that MTA uses to this day. You cannot count on it.

But I digress. I tried reading Moby Dick back in high school. Believe me I did. But I failed – too long, too boring. That's why I was glad this movie came out. Enjoy!

In the Heart of the Sea (WB, 2015) – Director: Ron Howard. Writers: Charles Leavitt (s/p & story), Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver (story), Nathaniel Philbrick (novel In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex). Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland, Paul Anderson, Frank Dillane, Joseph Mawle, Edward Ashley, Sam Kelley, Osy Ikhile, Gary Beadle, & Jamie Sives. Color, Rated PG-13, 122 minutes.

Director Ron Howard’s first Warner Brothers film is visually stunning, beautifully photographed and technically perfect. The camera angles both above and below the waterline add to the excitement of the conflict between man and beast on the high seas. The special effects group went to great lengths to create a believable reason why a sperm whale could be mistaken to be “white” (callosities such as routinely exist on humpback whales) and the make-up and costume departments made the viewers believe that the actors were sunburned, starved, desperate men who have been stranded at sea for 90 days.

Then, there’s the small problem of casting and acting. Herman Melville (Wishaw), a writer who has not broken into the big time of notoriety that his idol, Nathaniel Hawthorne, already enjoys hopes that by visiting Thomas Nickerson (Holland) he will get enough material for a significant work of fiction. Melville’s a fairly small part in the story and played insignificantly enough to be forgettable. Nickerson, one of the survivors of the wreck of the Essex in 1820 is better acted as he begrudgingly relates the events leading up to and resulting from an enormous, seemingly vengeful, sperm whale destroying the ship and all but one of the lifeboats.

Owen Chase (Hemsworth) is the extremely good-looking seasoned seaman who wishes to be captain of his own whaling ship, but, since he is not wealthy or connected to the Pollard family, he doesn’t achieve this dream until the end. Disappointed, he still accepts the first mate’s assignment on board the Essex. Though he climbs rigging as agilely as a monkey and shouts commands with authority, Hemsworth is no Errol Flynn. He was much more convincing toward the end of the movie.

Captain George Pollard (Walker), who received his command by birthright rather than knowledge of navigation and hunting whales, was portrayed as merely incompetent and not quite as arrogant as a rich man’s son should be. Again, an almost forgettable character.

The youngest crewmember, Tom Nickerson (Gleeson), was perhaps the best characterization in the cast. He saw what was happening on board the Essex, the leadership tug-of-war between the captain and the first mate, the growing obsession with killing the huge whale, and the increasing desperation of the crew, but was helpless to do anything about it.

Aside from Thomas Nickerson’s occasional narration, In the Heart of The Sea would survive intact without dialogue and with only the musical soundtrack (which was excellent). When the first whale was harpooned, I said to myself, “Someone’s going to say, ‘Nantucket sleigh ride.’” Those very words were spoken a second later. It was gratifying that no one used the phrase “Thar’ she blows.” Instead, I heard, “White water off the port bow!” to indicate the presence of whales.

It was the computer-generated whale that gave the best performance. His single cameo as he eyed the men on the Essex, spoke volumes without a single word. The female lead, Mrs. Nickerson (Fairley), gave a good, solid performance. She performed her homely duties while occasionally injecting her concerns for her husband’s sanity and well-being. She knew it would be best for him to get his story out into the open, especially because Captain Pollard and Owen Chase nearly lied to the company owners of the Essex rather than admit defeat by an animal.

What makes this film interesting is the historic angle. It’s the fact that whale oil was an important commodity for fuel and lighting before the discovery of oil from the ground (mentioned at the end of the movie). And considering that a ship sails from Nantucket and continues down the coasts of North and South America, around Cape Horn and up into the Pacific just to get a hold full of whale oil, one realizes how valuable this item was back then. The “year long trip” seems more like an economic commitment than an adventure.

But this trip was indeed an adventure, one the crew of the Essex never could have predicted. Believability aside, salty language absent, it’s a great viewing for the whole family just, as I said from the technical point of view. The capper at the end is when the credits reveal that Moby Dick was published in 1850 and Hawthorne hailed it as the American Epic. It almost makes me want to try to reread it.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

77 Hudson St. (at Harrison StreetNew York

I can’t resist a challenge. When a restaurant bills itself improbably as a Japanese/American Pub and includes the boast “We do ramen right!” on their website, I’m compelled to take them up on it. Probably the last word in Japanese cuisine and certainly the last in alphabetical order on my database, Zutto occupies an impressive corner property complete with a wrought-iron railed sidewalk café and bright red awning. Now decorated with white twinkle lights for the holiday season, it’s an inviting site.

Inside, a small Captain’s Station is to the left, flanked by an equally small bar riotously bedecked with multi-colored twinkle lights. Under the black ceiling, bare-topped tables occupy most of the crescent-shaped dining area, wrapped around a state-of-the-art sushi bar culminating in a Christmas tree ablaze with more rainbow lights. The young lady tending the Captain’s Station led me to a table about midway on the far wall and facing the sushi bar. She presented me with the food and wine menu and a single well-worn card featuring the specialty drinks.

Being early in the evening, there were not too many customers beside myself and I had the experience of two servers vying for my attention. Araya arrived first and took my water preference and drink order. I told her that after the busy day I had I could use a Corpse Reviver Cocktail – gin, Cointreau, Lillet, absinthe, and lemon juice, garnished with a slice of lime. This mildly potent concoction adequately served its purpose.

The food menu was divided into two parts, equally interesting; 1. Kitchen: with Steamed Buns, Small Plates, Ramen, Ramen Toppings, Plates, and Sides, and 2. Sushi: with Appetizers, Sushi and Sashimi, Maki Zushi (special rolls), and Chef’s Selection Plates. Both Araya and a second server came to my table asking if I wished an appetizer. 

I told whoever was first that I wanted to try the Gangnam Style Buns – spicy pork, kimchi, scallions and spiced mayonnaise – not just because of the fad-dance tune name, but because of the fusion of ingredients. I love Chinese pork buns and Korean kimchi (spiced cabbage), and having the two together sounded too good to be true. But it was true. They were heavenly. The fluffy, soft, neutral flavored buns were wrapped around zesty, tender pork pieces and squares of medium-spiced kimchi and sprinkled with chopped scallions. Combined with the mayo sauce, it was a party for the taste buds. There were two in the serving but I could easily have eaten more.

Considering how much I love sushi, I decided that I would have a “small plate” before ordering two sushi rolls. I had the Zutto roll (crab stick, avocado, shiso, and cucumber with spicy crawfish on top) and the animal roll (short ribs, jalapeno and garlic with a soy glaze) destined to be my main course. Knowing this, I didn’t want to fill up on my next course.

I ordered the Zutto fried rice, made with chorizo, kimchi, and pastrami and topped with a fried egg. The four-inch square bowl, easily two inches deep arrived filled with small-grained fried rice and smelling wonderful, but… This is a small plate? I ordered a glass of Tres Palacios Chardonnay from Maipo Valley, Columbia, to go with it and paced myself. The combination of the strongly flavored chorizo and the kimchi was amazing, a savory, almost musky experience and an unusual mixture of spices. Fireworks were exploding in different parts of my mouth. Araya asked me how I liked it and I raved about the dish. She told me that kimchi is too spicy for her, but I assured her that this kimchi is nowhere near as spicy as you would get in a Korean restaurant.

The one glass of wine lasted halfway through this “small” dish and I decided to make the dinner a wine-tasting as well. I ordered a glass of the I Casali Pinot Grigio from Venezia, Italy, to act as both an accompaniment and palate cleanser. I was impressed that the two wines, so different in taste – the chardonnay was crisp and light and the pinot grigio golden and tannic – both were good with the dish.

When I had finished the fried rice, the second server arrived to ask if wanted any sweets. She must have seen other people fooled by the heftiness of this dish. But I told her I was not ready for dessert yet and was considering the sushi rolls. Still, my appetite was waning as a result of the filling rice and I had to demur on my original choice. Instead, I chose two of my favorite sushis, flying fish roe and uni (sea urchin). It was good to see the Sushi Chef brighten up. He was preparing his display meticulously until I finally ordered (only two people were at his bar, one designing a holiday flyer on her laptop and the other drinking).

Soon, a long, narrow white plate with an azure center was brought to me holding the four beautiful pieces of sushi, some shaved ginger and a small mound of wasabi. I used my chopstick to add a little wasabi to each and went to pick up the first. Surprise! The supporting structure was not the traditional rice wrapped in nori (seaweed), but a slice of cucumber! How novel. But is it still sushi? I guarantee you that it was all delicious and delicately flavored but I wondered about the nomenclature. I ordered a glass of Groth Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley California, which complimented it perfectly. Araya laughed because I kept switching wines.

Normally, I would not order anything chocolate in a Japanese restaurant, not to mention one that considers itself also a pub, but there was one intriguing dessert I had to try. The chocolate pots de crème (actually it should be singular) made with burnt sugar, maldon salt, and Grand Marnier and topped with whipped cream was a singular delight. It had wild contrasts of creaminess and graininess, sweetness and saltiness and the hint of orange, which made it a unique attraction on the menu.

Araya offered a mug of hot green tea on the house to go with it. It was exactly the right thing. Zutto has been operating for at least eight years and when I checked my database, I had dined there before. But it was not memorable. There was a major revival of the restaurant in 2013 with a new chef and new concepts (unknown to me) and I’m glad there were. I may go back there on a lunch break to try those two tempting rolls. And let’s not forget that ramen they brag about. Heck, I will definitely return.

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