Saturday, January 23, 2016

Norm of the North

Dinner and a Movie

Artic Ice and Mexican Spice

By Steve Herte

I suppose you might have already guessed that I’m an animation maven. And with technology improving rapidly, the movies are becoming more realistic and less cartoon-y. But I love them anyway. Only two I saw last year are nominated for Academy Awards this year, Inside Out and Shaun the Sheep. I guess I have different tastes than the Academy.

The first animated feature of the New Year was an obvious choice, but a Mexican restaurant cradled in Chinatown? Definitely a must-do! Enjoy!

Norm of the North (Lionsgate, 2016) – Director: Trevor Wall. Writers: Daniel Altiere, Steven Altiere, & Malcolm T. Goldman. Voices: Rob Schneider, Heather Gragham, Ken Jeong, Bill Nighy, Colm Meaney, Loretta Devine, Michael McElhatton, Maya Kay, Gabrial Iglesdias, Salome Jens, Charles Adler, G.K. Bowes, Eric Price, Debi Derryberry, Kate Higgins, Ben Diskin, & Keith Ferguson. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 90 minutes.

Norm (Schneider) is a polar bear living in the Arctic with his father and mother, his grandfather (Meaney), his girlfriend Elizabeth (Higgins), his best friend Stan (Iglesdias) his mentor Socrates (Nighy), an intellectual seagull, and a card-playing caribou (Price). Norm is different. He’s one of two polar bears who can speak to and be understood by humans (the other is his grandfather). He’s next in line to be “King of the North” after his father but he can’t even hunt. When he catches a potential seal dinner, instead of eating it, he makes friends with it. Frankly, it’s a wonder how he got so big and fat.

Vera (Graham) is a promotional advertiser for the evil Mr. Greene (Jeong). She’s desperately trying to organize a film crew making a commercial to sell futuristic condos in the Arctic. Her success in this campaign could mean funding for her daughter Olympia (Kay) to attend the right school for her advanced learning capabilities. She’s not sure she believes in Mr. Greene’s wacky scheme but she needs the money. When Norm and his troop of “indestructible” lemmings (one challenges him to stomp on it and pops back up after a “Wait for it” cue from Socrates) sabotage the film crew's set-up, she’s left to do the filming herself.

Norm sees Vera as the ice sheet beneath her feet is cracking and he charges to help her. Vera thinks it’s just a polar bear charging her and films it. When she’s safe due to Norm’s efforts she sends the footage to Mr. Greene, who is delighted. He needs a polar bear to promote his scheme. As the condo is being lifted off the ice and onto the boat going back to New York, Norm and three lemmings leap aboard, following Socrates’ advice that he’s the only one who can stop this project.

New York is a terrifying place for the bear and his lemmings but he soon realizes that a talking bear is not out of place. He meets Laurence, the actor (McElhatton), who is on his way to Mr. Greene’s building to audition for the polar bear part. Mr. Greene’s secretary is unimpressed with both characters and directs them to sit with the other bear wannabes. She’s only mildly shocked when the lemmings use the fish tank as a toilet. But, obviously, Norm gets the part, especially when he roars and then dances his way into Mr. Greene’s greedy heart.

Norm makes friends with Olympia and she agrees to help him win his home back. Using her advice, he ingratiates himself with the New York populace and raises Greene Homes’ approval rating from 5 percent to 85 percent. At this point he plans to make a public announcement about Mr. Greene’s true motives, but Greene uses voiceprint matching to turn his words into an approval for condos in the Arctic. At this point, Greene no longer needs Norm and has figured out that he’s a real polar bear by his smell (Grandfather bear has already tried to stop the condo scheme and is locked up in a cage down in Greene’s sub-basement). He’s convinced Councilwoman Klubeck (Jens) that his plan is feasible and Pablo (also Iglesdias), a rich investor, to fund the building of four condos.

It’s up to Norm and a hilarious trio of rodents to free Grandfather and stop the condos from reaching the Arctic while exposing Greene’s plot to the public through the media.

Lionsgate Productions has proved that Pixar is not the only studio that can create great animation with this entertaining film. It only fails at one point when Grandfather’s mouth shapes do not match what he’s saying. Other than that, the animation is excellent. The plot is silly while trying to be relevant. When the huge piece of glacier calves off from under Vera’s feet and causes her to exclaim “waterfront property” the audience may get a hint of a climate change message. But that’s the extent of it.

Rob Schneider’s voice is a natural for Norm’s character but Bill Nighy’s talents are underused for the lines given to Socrates. It was good to hear Colm Meany for the first time since Star Trek: Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. But all the major characters pale when compared to the comic lemmings that move the film. They’re cute, ferocious, funny, crude, and sing like angels. They even play musical instruments a la Titanic when the barge holding the four condos is swamped by an enormous wave.

Norm of the North, though close in plot to The Lion King and other disinherited themes, is clean fun for all ages if you don’t pay attention to its inaccuracies. The six other people in the theater might have enjoyed it if they understood the funny parts. One father and child left before the film was three-quarters finished. It lacks the element of pathos and doesn’t try to endear any of the characters to the audience. I don’t seriously think there will be a sequel.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

11 Doyers St. (between Bowery and Pell streets)Chinatown, NY

Having worked in downtown Manhattan and visiting Chinatown many times, I know Doyers Street. It is the only el-shaped street in Chinatown and opens onto the Bowery and Pell Street. The Chinatown Post Office is the largest building on the Bowery side and the Nam Wah Tea Parlor is the largest (and oldest in New York) Chinese restaurant on the Pell Street leg.

How then could I have passed Pulqueria by twice without finding it? Simple, it’s tucked away in the crook of the el formed by Doyers Street and lies in the dark shadows cast by the lights of Nam Wah right next door. An undistinguished overhang painted in dull blue and white zig-zags and a dark stairway leading down is all you see until you notice the mustard-colored sign reading “Pulqueria – Tequila Bar Restaurant.” As I descended the stairs into the dingy bowels of Chinatown and encountered the blue door, a song line ran through my head: “I know a dark secluded place, where no one even knows your face,” from Hernando’s Hideaway. I expected trap door to open and swarthy figure inside asking me for the password. I opened the door.

Inside, it’s dark, but not too dark to see the Aztec dragons deeply engraved on the terra cotta wall. To the left is the bar, already almost full of young professionals drinking and chattering. To the right, the dining area and the Captain’s Station where a young lady acknowledged my reservation and led me to my table in one corner of a very strangely shaped room. It was like a truncated wedge with a handle at the far end occupied by a semi-private booth. Candlelight on the tables is the main lighting for the room, but a soft glow emanates from the “beams” supporting the woven palm frond ceiling.

Just as I thought I recognized a tune playing from the speakers (it was “Light My Fire,” only in Spanish), Jonathan, my served appeared from around the corner, poured me a glass of tap water from an antique bottle and presented me with the menu card (food on one side, beverages on the other).

Jonathan was very busy with a table of four behind me. When he returned and asked if I wanted a drink, I was ready. “I’m in a pulqueria. I’ll start with pulque! I’ll have the Tijuana Flashback – Pulque, Vida Mescal, Tomatillo, Cilantro, Habanero bitters, and lime.” Pulque goes back in time over 2,000 years to be the preferred drink of Aztec elders, priests and warriors. With it they made libations to the lightning gods. It is the fermented juice of the agave plant. Pulqueria is the first and only Mexican restaurant in New York not only to serve it, but also to batch it in-house.

The food menu features Platos Primeros (first dishes in two categories, for the table and appetizers), Tacos, Platos Fuertes (literally “strong dishes”) and Acompañamintos (sides). When Jonathan took my drink order, I nearly accidentally ordered a bowl of chips and guacamole (almost an assumption at Pulqueria), but I corrected that. I explained to him that I wanted to construct a unique three-course meal without going over the top and ordering too much food.

From their website, I learned that Executive Chef Steven Menter selects his ingredients from New York farms to “create vibrant dishes that change with the season.” I was very interested to see what would come to my table. The first course was the Ensalata De La Casa – baby greens, avocado, Queso Oaxaca (a lovely crumbled cheese), and spiced (and sliced) almonds, in smoked tomato jalapeño vinaigrette. The bowl placed before me was mounded high with salad and I wondered how big the remaining dishes would be. But it was wonderful. The greens were fresh, it was not too spicy, not too sweet (yes, there were sweet accents in it as well) and the avocado pieces were accents, not the main attraction. The cheese was scattered throughout and made it an excellent dish. I haven’t enjoyed a salad like that in a long time.

The second course was something I would usually not order in Mexican restaurants because of how messy it is to eat. But here, I was intrigued. The Tacos Costilla – short ribs (Costillas) braised in red wine, with caramelized onion, chipotle salsa and jalapeño – served with a side of black beans and rice. It was not like any tacos I’ve had before. Two homemade soft corn tortillas sat on a plate mounded with short rib cubes and greens and were accompanied by a steel ramekin of the salsa. OK, this is going to be messier than I thought. Tacos are usually in a crisp tortilla “shell” and are easy to pick up but not to eat. This dish was a challenge both ways. I gingerly sought the edges of one tortilla and folded it carefully around the other ingredients. Then, holding it in one hand, I poured a little of the salsa over it and took a bite. It was amazing.

The meat almost melted in the mouth and the salsa was only lightly spicy. The corn tortilla proved to be more durable than the fragile shells I know. Yes, it was messy, but I loved it. And surprise, the dish was smaller than I thought it would be.

By now a Margarita Clasica – Milagro Tequila, Cointreau, and fresh lime – had replaced my pulque and it was on to the main course. I have loved mixing chocolate with spices since my first taste of a classic Mole sauce and this dish was the most interesting of the four Platos Fuertes. 

The Mole Poblano (or Negro, depending on which menu you’re reading) was a roasted chicken leg and breast in house-made traditional mole sauce with dark chocolate and poblano chilies in a special blend, served with rice and market vegetables (potatoes, carrots, green peppers, and string beans), all served in a charming terra cotta crock. The rice was in a matching bowl on the side. When I unfolded the napkin perched on the dish under the crock, I discovered more fresh-made corn tortillas! I cut up the chicken, took a tortilla, spooned in a little rice, added a piece of chicken well-coated in sauce, folded it over and had a great time. The mole was perfect.

Everything was planned just right and all the dishes were the right size for my appetite. That means dessert was a must. The most unusual dessert was the Tres Leches Cake, a sponge cake soaked in rum, with evaporated milk as well as condensed milk and coated in heavy cream. It was a galaxy of sweet dairy products and gone in an instant. Jonathan was back. “Do you have coffee?” “No sir.” “What?” “Sorry.” “Well then, I’ll just have to have more tequila.” The woman who sat me heard this and agreed heartily. They have 112 tequilas, 30 Mescals and their own pulque, but no coffee. Go figure. I ordered a drink called the Paloma (dove): Milagro Tequila, lime, and Mexican Squirt soda; sort of a sweet Margarita.

I learned from Jonathan that Pulqueria has been open (and effectively hidden) for five years, but not anymore. I just have to get them a coffee maker. Then they’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

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