Dinner and a Movie Archive

Spider-Man: Homecoming

By Steve Herte

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Marvel/Columbia, 2017) – Director: Jon Watts. Writers: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers (s/p). Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley (story). Based on the comic by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko. Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Bokeem Woodbine, Tyne Daly, Abraham Attah & Hannibal Buress. Color, Rated PG-13, 133 minutes.

If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it.” – Tony Stark.

This beautifully done direct sequel to Captain America: Civil War (2016) has the 15-year-old Peter Parker (Holland) bubbling with enthusiasm over assisting The Avengers as Spider-Man and at the same time coming to grips with his age and inexperience.

At 2 hours and 13 minutes, the film is a little long but worth it. Yes, Peter develops a crush on Liz (Harrier) but he can’t court her like a normal teenager because of his “internship” with Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.) which gives him opportunities to fight crime as Spider-Man. This doomed relationship is further complicated by the fact that Liz is the daughter of Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Keaton), the main antagonist in the picture, and Tony has assigned Happy Hogan (Favreau) to be a kind of babysitter to Peter, making sure he doesn’t do anything Tony doesn’t want him to do.

The film links up nicely to the Battle of New York in The Avengers (2012) as Adrian’s salvage company is attempting to clean up the mess at the Avengers’ Tower but is interrupted by the U.S. Department of Damage Control (D.O.D.C.) – a Stark operation – and are put out of business by Anne Marie Hoag (Daly). Adrian and his crew swipe as much Chitauri alien technology as they can before being ousted and they use it to hybridize weapons for sale on the black market.


Peter find that keeping his identity a secret is harder than he thought when he sneaks back into his Queens apartment and is discovered on the ceiling by his roommate Ned Leeds (Batalon). Peter swears him to secrecy but throughout the remainder of the movie we see Ned bursting at the seams with his knowledge. He only blurts out that Peter knows Spider-Man once, giving Peter and himself – and Spider-Man – invitations to a party at Liz’s house. Of course, it ends in embarrassment for Peter.

Stark entrusts Peter with a high-tech tricked-out Spider-Man suit with all sorts of capabilities and firewalls to keep him from using them. Peter figures out what Adrian and his cronies are doing, tries to contact Happy but is rebuffed, and goes against the ring alone. Ned helps him hack into the suit to remove the GPS tracker and enable all the marvelous features (some deadly) of the suit. But when a Chitauri grenade malfunctions and the Staten Island Ferry is sliced in two from stem to stern, Tony takes back the suit.

The whole movie is a push and pull of emotions. Peter has to win Tony’s trust (and Liz’s heart – much easier), stop Adrian’s business, and keep his identity secret. This last one is the hardest. When Spider-Man saves Liz and fellow students from a plummeting elevator in the Washington Monument, Adrian concludes that Peter is indeed Spider-Man. And, when Peter arrives to pick up Liz for the Homecoming Dance there is an incredibly awkward scene as he and Adrian recognize each other. Adrian drives the couple to the dance and, though grateful for saving his daughter’s life, gives Peter the ultimatum of non-interference with his business before letting him out of the car.

To say the movie was a thrill ride is an understatement considering I saw it in 4DX. Not only was it in 3D but every move onscreen was translated to a movement of the individual seats in the theater. Every swing from a spider thread, every bash into a wall, every bullet whizzing by, was felt by the audience. The scene atop the Washington Monument was made even more dizzying and perilous by this fourth dimensional feature. As if the special effects weren’t amazing enough. Tom Holland is great as a student “friendly neighborhood” Spider-Man with all the goofs and mistakes as well as the triumphs. Robert Downey Jr. is a past master of his role. He’s got all the confidence, arrogance and tough love Peter can handle. Michael Keaton is once again fabulous. You despise him for what he’s doing but you understand why he’s doing it. He’s still a kind of Batman – one of the best in my opinion. Laura Harrier is sweet and seductive, but she’s sensitive and almost unlimited in forgiveness. The only character who fails is Marisa Tomei, and I think I commented on this in the last Spider-Man movie. She looks and acts nothing like the Aunt May from Marvel comics. You expect her to be dancing on a go-go platform rather than making apple pie and cookies. She’s too young. Gwyneth Paltrow got a little skunked in this movie, short time onscreen, but she made the best of it. And who knows, there may be a wedding between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts in the next one.

I started enjoying this film when I heard the powerful orchestration of the familiar Spider-Man Theme Song written by Robert Harris playing at the beginning credits. It was also fun to hear the pop tunes placed appropriately according to the action onscreen such as “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” by the Rolling Stones and “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones. Be sure to stay through the credits to hear an interesting exchange between a prison mate and Adrian and see Aunt May almost drop the only “F” bomb when she walks in on Peter (in costume without the headgear).

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Russian Vodka Room
265 West 52nd St., New York

Dorogie Tovarischi! (Dear Comrades!) Welcome to the “Home of hundreds of vodkas!” This quote from their website says it all but still doesn’t say enough.

My 14th Russian restaurant has none of the flash and folklore of the previous 13 (and none of the inflated prices, either). In fact, I breezed right by it before finding the entrance. On a long, polished, black granite wall there’s a picture window with the logo in red – a Soviet star made out of a martini glass with the hammer and sickle as the olive – and a single open door surmounted by a simple sign. Next to it a framed menu hangs from a chain on the black wall.

Lika, the woman who seated me and would become my server, asked if I wanted a drink, indicating the extensive list on the menu and leaving me to choose. The specialty cocktail list featured one that made me file the infused vodkas in my mind for later. I ordered the Filthy Russian martini, one of two I thought were politically incorrect (the other was the Red Bastard). Basically, it was a “dirty” martini made with ZYR vodka and olive juice and garnished with gorgonzola-stuffed olives. It was salty, but even James Bond would have liked it.

I told Lika that I was choosing three courses and when she frowned I knew I had chosen too much. She described the Herring under the coat as layers of herring and salmon and I concluded it to be a kind of fish lasagna. She directed me to a smaller appetizer and I was set.


Another server brought the bread basket – full of slices of dark and light breads warm and moist. I tasted a slice of sourdough and sipped my martini as I waited for the first course. The smaller appetizer was not exactly small and it was very filling. The Herring with Potatoes Russian Style was an oblong platter with a good-sized strip of fresh, silvery herring in the center, two large potatoes on one side, a row of sliced beets and a row of sliced red onions on the other, with a garnish of parsley. I wondered if every dish would match the overhead lighting as well as this one did. It was excellent. The fish alone was delicious, but combined with the other ingredients it was a simple, yet elegant dish, and I told Lika.

I was ready for my first infused vodka and couldn’t resist the garlic pepper and dill flavor. For those who don’t like garlic, stay away from this one. It was garlic supreme with dill accents and the power of a good vodka and spicy pepper aftertaste backing it up – made only for sipping. It would last through my next two courses and make each one that much better.

My second course was written simply, Russian Meat Dumplings, though from experience I know they are properly called Pelmeni (That’s when other places raise the price.). Similar to small wontons with more meat and less dough, they were served in a bowl with a side of fresh sour cream. Again, wonderful. I was feeling the atmosphere of this restaurant. The piano player had just started singing Russian songs, which helped.

The main course was a dish I haven’t had in maybe 20 years and remember loving from childhood. Served the Russian way, the Beef Tongue in Sweet and Sour Sauce was nothing like mother used to make, but in some ways better. The meat was invisible in its brown ceramic crock under large slices of yellow bell peppers. There was an avalanche of kasha taking up most of the square plate guarded by a slice of toasted baguette and slices of tomato and sweet pickle. The sweet and sour sauce was understated, not like the sometimes glutinous Chinese version. The tongue was a little overcooked for my tastes and tasted more like a steak, but I had no real problem with it. The memories still flooded back. The peppers were what made the dish. Together with the meat, it was heavenly. A surprisingly simple preparation. The garlic vodka added flavor to the relatively bland kasha.


Lika recommended the Honey Cake for dessert. The six inch by four inch slice of multilayered goodness topped by glistening raspberry compote made me wonder what the whole cake looked like. It was so sweet, a little tart, creamy, but definitely a cake. I’ve rarely enjoyed an unfamiliar dessert like this one. How can you top a confection like that? With more vodka, of course! Lika brought me the black current infused vodka, “on the house,” she said. It was almost opaque, dark, and tasted fruity and tart. I loved it.


I can tell how much I enjoyed the Russian Vodka Room by the fact that I neglected to get a business card as I usually would do. That only means I have to make a return visit to try some more of those remarkable foods and infused vodkas. Nostrovia!


Transformers: The Last Knight

By Steve Herte

Transformers: The Last Knight (Paramount, 2017) – Director: Michael Bay. Writers: Matt Holloway, Art Marcum & Ken Nolan (s/p). Akiva Goldman, Matt Holloway, Art Marcum & Ken Nolan (story). Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, Laura Haddock, Santiago Cabrera, Isabela Moner, Jerrod Carmichael, Stanley Tucci, Jess Harnell, Liam Garrigan, Reno Wilson, Martin McCreadie, Rob Witcomb, Marcus Fraser, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Erik Aadahl, John Hollingsworth, Ken Watanabe, Daniel Adegboyega, Frank Welker, Peter Cullen, Gemma Chan & Ben Webb. Color, Rated PG-13, 149 minutes.

Yes, I’ve seen all four previous Transformers movies and they ranged from exciting to dizzying and entertaining to silly. This one fits somewhere in between all categories.

Six movies ago, I saw a strange twist in the legend of King Arthur with Arthur: The Legend of the Sword where Merlin had no part. Now I’ve seen a movie that claims the Cybertronic robots (the Knights of Iacon) aided a very drunk charlatan Merlin (Tucci) by forming a colossal three headed dragon (a challenge for King Ghidorah) that was instrumental in King Arthur’s (Garrigan) war against the Saxon lords. (Oh, brother!)  

We hear Oxford Professor Viviane Wembley (Haddock) instructing a group of children in Arthurian legend, “When all seems lost, a few brave souls can save everything we’ve ever known. That, of course, is bull--it,” She has no idea what she’s about to experience and learn.

This is the fifth movie in the live-action series and the immediate sequel to Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014). After the disastrous Battle of Chicago in the last movie where several iconic buildings suffered damage (not to mention innocent bystanders), most of Earth’s countries have deemed transformers persona non grata (or should that be robota non grata?) and the TRF (Transformer Reaction Force) has been formed to eradicate any robots found roaming around or any human abettors. 


But new transformers are arriving on Earth with more regularity than a city transportation system and one crash lands in Chicago. A group of kids sneak into the ruined baseball stadium scene of the crash and are confronted by a TRF squad. They are saved by resident Izabella (Moner) and robots Sqweeks (Wilson) and Canopy and later by Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) and Bumblebee (Aadahl). Unfortunately Canopy gets killed  and, with his last dying breath (or should that be exhaust?) the knightly transformer in the crashed ship gives Cade a metallic talisman, saying, “This will protect you.” The talisman attaches itself to Cade’s body and he can’t give it back. But this exchange is observed by Barricade (Harnell), a Decepticon minion of Megatron (Welker).

Cade is sheltering the Autobots Bumblebee, Hound (Goodman), Drift (Watanabe), and Daytrader (Buscemi) at his auto junkyard in South Dakota. The Decpticons, released to Megatron by former Autobot sympathizer Colonel William Lennox (Josh Duhamel), find him and so does TRF. In the resulting melee Cade meets Cogman, a loyal robotic “man’s man” to Sir Edmund Burton (Hopkins), who brings him to England. Sir Edmund has also enlisted the services of French Autobot Hot Rod to kidnap Viviane Wembley. Then the story gets weirder.

Sir Edmund is a member of the Witwiccan Order, guardians on the secret history of transformers on Earth, and he reveals not only that Viviane is the last descendant of Merlin (who was real) and that, with the talisman, Cade is the Last Knight of the Round Table (which was also real, as was Arthur and the rest of the knights). Together, they need to find the Staff of Merlin, given to him by the Knights of Iacon to save the Earth from imminent disaster.

What disaster? When Optimus Prime (Cullen) returns to Cybertron, it’s a devastated mess and broken into pieces. The Sorceress Quintessa (Chan) convinces him that she created him and brainwashes him into believing himself responsible for Cybertron’s destruction. Then she sets him on a murderous journey back to the “Arch-Enemy,” Unicron (Earth) to retrieve the Staff of Merlin and rebuild Cybertron. But secretly, she just wants to destroy Earth and absorb its life force. To ameliorate the image of Unicron, Earth is growing mysterious cybernetic “horns” at focal points on the globe, which, if Pangaea was rejoined would be surrounding Stonehenge at the center. This is where the life force will be drained.

While the rest of the audience were oohing and ah-ing at the great special effects provided by (surprise!) Industrial Light and Magic and dozens of others, and laughing at the lame jokes being flipped by the Autobots, I was once again mesmerized by the soundtrack. Steve Jablonsky’s music team were amazing. The majestic background orchestration kept the corn in the dialogue from seeping through the whole film. Also, the visuals were dazzling.

My favorite quote came from Anthony Hopkins: “One hundred billion trillion planets in the cosmos. You want to know, don’t you, why they keep coming here?” The answer could be provided by Mel Brooks, “Merchandizing!” The one comic twist I liked was that Cuba was the only country not to outlaw Transformers and Santos (Cabrera) was a great comic relief.

The rest was, you’ve seen one transformer movie and you’ve seen them all. Lots of huge robots slamming other robots, parts flying everywhere. The one interesting part was where Bumblebee reassembled himself. I didn’t know they could do that. But when the talisman transforms into Excalibur…? That’s entertainment.

There will be another sequel (I’ve heard there are two in the works) because if you stay through the credits you’ll see why. I’m still wondering the same question.

 Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Red Cat
227 Tenth Avenue, New York

Aside from a small white sign with red lettering in the front window, it’s hard to identify The Red Cat from a distance. The Red Cat has been in business for 13 years and their cordial staff oozes with people experience. The young lady at the Captain’s Station led me back to a table in the cozy dining area where there were a dozen tables at most.

The most appropriate cocktail for a first-timer like myself was the Red King – Dorothy Parker gin, radish slices, grapefruit, lemon and Cocchi Bianco (a quinine-laced aperitif wine). Served over ice in an old-fashioned glass, it made a nice citrus, martini-esque start and the red radish slices reminded me of two owl’s eyes watching me.


I chose my first course for the sheer uniqueness of the recipe. All the gazpachos I’ve had in the past were red. This one was a white gazpacho with cucumbers, green grapes (in halves) and almonds clustered in one small arc of the black bowl. I loved it. Very different, light and smooth. The three main ingredients vied for my attention, but the grapes were the stars of the dish.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a nice Syrah with my meal and I chose the 2012 Eden Road Syrah from New South Wales, Australia. It was a rich translucent garnet with an intense and inviting nose. The flavor was dry, but not too dry; fruity, but not sweet, with a touch of spice that I enjoyed with every sip. I wondered how it would go with my second course.

Phillip, my waiter, had cited the specials of the day and, among them was a ricotta cheese cavatelli (one of my favorite pastas) with a rabbit ragout. I noted to him that there was a tie with another dish and Phillip recommended the House-made Pappardelle with a light mushroom cream sauce, morels, fiddleheads, and thyme. The pappardelle was a perfect size, but seemed to be a little over-cooked. Homemade pastas cook in very little time. It broke every time I tried to twirl a noodle onto my fork, but was spectacular in flavor. The earthy mushrooms mixed with the forest-y green of the fiddlehead ferns and with a touch of thyme transported me to a lovely glade in a summer woods. The Syrah added the notes the pasta needed to make the experience delightful.


My main course also had a bit of the unusual about it: Slow Roasted Duck Breast, sliced with cherries, olives (yes, olives), and pistachio in a port wine sauce. It was wonderful, with the tender, juicy duck buried under a salad of green and red leaves and made crunchy with the pistachios. But it was the combination of dark cherries and Spanish olives that made the dish. I thought they would compete for center stage, but they complimented each other, with the sweet balancing out the briny to add a savory taste to the almost gamy duck. 

Phillip brought the dessert menu, and it didn’t take me long to choose. First on the list was the Chocolate Olive Oil Cake, a sturdy cylinder of dark chocolate cake on the first and third floors and with a rich, dark chocolate mousse in between and a globe of house-made olive oil ice cream. I know some recoil from an ice cream made with olive oil, but it was really good, not salty or oily at all. It just had the flavor, and it went well with the chocolate.

My usual double espresso followed and I noticed a grappa I’ve never tasted on their list of eight. The Zenato Grappa di Amarone from Veneto was not the rocket fuel some grappas are. It was very dry, of course, but I could taste the fruit in it as well. A very nice finish to an unusual meal. I almost considered a second glass.

The Red Cat was a bit of a hike from Union Square, but was well worth the walk. Chef Jimmy Bradley’s innovative recipes and “non-attitude” staff make it a comfortable atmosphere with good food. To quote the chef, “As long as there’s good food and good people, good times are sure to follow.”


Wonder Woman 

By Steve Herte

Wonder Woman (WB, 2017) – Director: Patty Jenkins. Writers: Allan Heinberg (s/p). Jason Fuchs, Allan Heinberg & Zach Snyder (story). William Moulton Marston (characters). Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Lily Aspell, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Emily Carey, Ann Wolfe & Ann Ogbomo. Color, Rated PG-13, 141 minutes.

Ever since Gal Gadot's appearance in Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) I’ve been anticipating this movie. I know, technically, it’s not a long time, but to a fan it’s almost an eternity. When I first saw her I knew this version would expose the television series as candy-coated cartoon. 

In the ‘70s, we accepted Lynda Carter as a really close approximation of the DC Comics original right down to her star-studded satin hot-pants. We even bought the cheesy disco theme song which, heard today, makes “Ghostbusters” sound like a masterwork. Not this time.

Diana, princess of Themiskyra, daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta (Nielsen), queen of the Amazons is no smiling do-gooder who mugs for the camera every chance she gets. She is serious about helping mankind, even when they do not deserve it. (And this caution is repeated by several characters, including Hippolyta.) We see her as a child of eight (Aspell) watching the women train to fight and mimicking their moves, though the queen disapproves. Eventually, the queen relents and instructs Antiope to train Diana until “she’s better than you.” Diana excels beyond her trainer’s dreams.

The background story told by Hippolyta to young Diana is that Ares, the god of war, killed off all the other gods and battled Zeus to the death. But before Zeus died, he gave the power to kill a god to the Amazons and moved them from an area in present day Libya to the island city of Themiskyra, placing a shield around the island to make it impossible to find by sight. Hippolyta shows Diana the sword, called “the god killer” in its special tower. 


Now an adult, Diana (Gadot) witnesses a plane crashing through the protective barrier and into the sea near her island. Pilot Steve Trevor (Pine) fails to unlatch his seat belt and is in danger of drowning. Diana dives in and saves him. He’s the first man she’s ever seen. He tells her about The War to End All Wars (World War I) being fought outside the barrier as the German soldiers follow his plane into the invisible shield. Bad idea. They are slaughtered to a man by the Amazons on the beach (bows and arrows against guns, these gals are good) but Antiope is shot mortally.

Hippolyta knows she cannot stop Diana from returning to the war with Steve – she’s already swiped the sword, shield, armor, and the lasso of truth from the tower – so she makes her a gift of Antiope’s headdress (which is never used as a boomerang in this film) and kisses her goodbye. Diana sees her mission as simple: find Ares, kill him and stop the war. Of course, it’s not that simple for she is entering a world where women are secretaries like Etta Candy (Davis), or stay at home mothers or, in the rare case, evil scientists like Dr. Isabel Maru (Anaya), whose physical disfigurement must have set her on the path to create a deadlier form of mustard gas that not only kills instantly, but melts any gas mask created to protect against it.

Steve has stolen Dr. Maru’s notebook and takes Diana to the British High Command in London. The stodgy group of men refuse to let her into their confidence until she proves she can read ancient Sumerian. But it’s still not that simple, for there is an armistice being drawn up and the end of the war is in sight. Not so, however, for General Erich Ludendorff (Huston). Convinced that once Dr. Maru’s gas is perfected and successfully demonstrated, Germany can win the war. When she learns this, Diana is sure that he’s really Ares. Her mission is clear, but she needs some help.

With the financial assistance of Sir Patrick Morgan (Thewlis), Steve gathers up a team consisting of Sameer (Taghmaoul), a spy and master of disguise, Charlie (Bremner) a hard-drinking Scottish marksman with PTSD and The Chief (Brave Rock) a smuggler working both sides of the war. “Great,” says Diana, “a thief, a liar, a drunk and a smuggler!” The five arrive at the western front in Belgium and with Wonder Woman drawing the German fire, manage to break through the lines into enemy trenches. Now they only have to find and destroy the factories making the gas and stop Ludendorff from flying an enormous biplane loaded with the gas into London.

Several things about this movie were revealing and enjoyable. The prolog scene at the beginning shows Diana Prince, working at The Louvre in Paris, and receiving a special briefcase from “Wayne Enterprises,” which turns out to be the glass plate photograph taken of her, and Steve’s team when they freed the people of a small town called Veld. It links up nicely to the previous movie as well as to Batman and the Justice League (still to come). During the film, it mentions that the Germans were losing the war because ammunition was running out, and so was food and water for the soldiers.

Still, the time flew by, with lots of action, ninja-like slow-motion fight scenes, amazing stunts and 3D special effects. Gal Gadot combines the incredulous reactions of Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeanie with a strong, single-minded drive to accomplish her goal. She’s funny, lovable, extremely sexy and dangerous. Chris Pine is delightful as the man who is learning that he doesn’t have to protect this woman (though he still tries to) and is falling in love with her. Lucy Davis is a jewel that sparkles with humor each time she’s on screen and Danny Huston would make a great X-Men mutant, though I never believed he was German at any time in the film.

If you loved the television version, you might be shocked by this one, but if you think of Lyle Waggoner’s character being Steve Trevor Jr., you might find that it links up (with slight timeline problems). I had a great time watching this film. I would buy this one for my collection.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 martini glasses.


Maggie’s Place
21 East 47th Street, New York

New York City has a reputation for guaranteed change. Nothing old is new again, except on Broadway. For instance, I’ve dined at the same address six times with six different cuisines in the space of ten years. To find a place that’s been in continuous operation for forty-five years is rare. Maggie’s Place tells the romantic story of its owners on the menu with a certain charm. Its two-story charcoal grey street façade, with a terrace trailing ivy from potted pansies speaks of old world comfort.

Two young ladies with lilting Irish brogues greeted me and gave me a choice of dining downstairs at the bar or upstairs. I chose upstairs and was delighted to get one of two tables on the second story terrace. I’m a people-watcher and this was a perfect location. Kelly, my server, saw my reaction and let me settle in, before returning to take my order for the perfect martini.

The menu stated that the chef is an alumnus of The Culinary Institute of America, which interested me. The appetizer list offered several intriguing selections and Kelly cited a nice soup of the day. But the entrees didn’t call out to me, so I asked Kelly for help. She suggested either the roasted chicken or the grilled rosemary chicken. Sadly, I’m rarely in the mood for chicken and I wasn’t that night. Then she noted the most popular dishes and I had my choice made.


My “thinking dish” was the Über Bavarian Pretzel, with “mother’s milk” mustard and IPA (India Pale Ale) cheese sauce. Pretzels are one of my guilty pleasures and this one was heaven. The mustard was a bit too sharp but the cheese sauce was divine. Kelly held off my second course until I was ready. I broke up the remainder of a pretzel (it was impressively large, but warm, soft, and delicious) and made my own bread plate out of it.

Then Kelly brought my wine. A 2015 Pulenta La Flor Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina, it had a woody aromatic nose with a touch of spice, a medium body, fruity and earthy. A surprise for a two-year old Malbec. It went wonderfully with the next course, yellow split pea soup. A special of the day, it was filled with vegetables, had a nice thick consistency and a good hot temperature.

The BBQ Baby Back Ribs – Slow Roasted (“Till they fall off the bone”), served with their own fresh Idaho potatoes (fries) and creole cole slaw, was my choice of entrée. It looked marvelous on the plate and the pork really did fall off the bone. It was tender and tart and crispy on the outside. After the first few bites, however, I found myself reaching for the wine and my water glass for moisture. The meat was dry. I asked Kelly for more barbecue sauce. It only helped for a little while, as the sauce became too much. I finished the spare ribs and the cole slaw but left half of the fries, which became uninteresting. Maybe I should have chosen one of the chicken dishes.


Up until then everything was fine. Kelly cited two desserts and I chose the Crème Brulée. It’s been a long time since I’ve had one and it was very nice, creamy, sweet with a thin, glassy caramelization and topped with a juicy strawberry. I accompanied it with a double espresso, my usual. Later, I saw that they touted their Irish coffee at the bottom of the menu. Maybe next time. I ordered a shot of Jameson’s Irish whiskey as an after-dinner drink. Smooth.


I was very comfortable at Maggie’s Place and Kelly was very helpful. Maybe next time I’ll go with a dinner of appetizers and bar fare (where the pretzel was).


The Mummy

By Steve Herte

The Mummy (Universal, 2017) – Director: Alex Kurtzman. Writers: David Koepp, Dylan Kussman & Christopher McQuarrie (s/p). Jenny Lumet, Alex Kurtzman & Jon Spaihts (story). Stars: Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Marwan Kenzari, Simon Atherton, Stephen Thompson, James Arama, Matthew Wilkas, Sohm Kapila, Sean Cameron Michael, Rez Kempton & Erol Ismail. Color, PG-13, 110 minutes.

Despite some resemblances, this film is not a remake of the original The Mummy (1932) with the genders reversed. The only thing shared by both is that the title character is mummified and buried alive as punishment for their sins. The rest is a mish-mash of several sub-plots, one of which throws a serious time anomaly into the mix.


Princess Ahmanet (Boutella) was next in line for the throne of Egypt after her father, Pharoah Menehptre. But Pharaoh’s wife gives birth to a son, sinking Ahmanet’s dreams of glory. Piqued, she makes a deal with the god Seth, much like a modern day witch. Out of it she gains supernatural powers and his dagger – a wicked looking, curved blade with a cheap plastic ruby on the hilt that glows menacingly. She uses this to slay daddy, son and wife (you don’t really see anything), and tries to use the dagger on her lover to make him the embodiment of Seth. But, Pharaoh’s guards intervene, kill the boyfriend, and mummify her alive. She is buried in Mesopotamia in a lake of mercury (a known witch-proofing substance).

Nick Morton (Cruise) and best friend Chris Vail (Johnson) are soldiers of fortune. Nick has stolen a map from archeologist Jenny Halsey (Wallis) that leads them to a small town near Mosul, Iraq (once part of Mesopotamia), where they hope to find great treasure. But the town is crawling with insurgents, and after dodging dozens of bullets and grenades, Chris calls on Nick’s superior, Colonel Greenway (Vance), to send in a drone airstrike. The bad guys run away and a gaping hole opens up, revealing the semi-final resting place of Ahmanet.

Meanwhile, in London, during the construction of a new “crossover” tube in the Underground, a huge boring machine breaks through a wall into a subterranean burial chamber dating back to the Crusades. There is a flashback to that time and we see a large plastic-looking ruby being entombed with one of the Crusaders. The construction crew are outed by an official looking man in a gray suit who takes over the site. We later learn his name: Dr. Henry Jekyll (Crowe). What’s a fictional character from 1886 doing in present day London?

Back in Iraq, Jenny catches up to Nick and Chris, identifies the sarcophagus they accidentally hoist up from the pool of mercury as New Kingdom Egyptian, and wheedles Colonel Greenway into loading it onto a transport plane back to London just before the insurgents return and a major sandstorm hits. Nick, bitten by a camel spider (yes they do exist, but are neither true spiders nor venomous) in Ahmanet’s tomb, is now under her control. He stabs Greenway fatally and tries to kill everyone else. Nick shoots him and he’s gone (but not forgotten). A huge cloud of crows smashes into the plane, setting it on a crash course for an abbey just outside London. Thanks to Nick, Jenny escapes with the only parachute. Nick doesn’t. He awakens later in a body-bag on a slab in a morgue. How? Why? He’s Ahmanet’s new “Chosen One” and next in line to be stabbed with the Dagger of Seth.

The creators of this film must have been great stew cooks. If an ingredient was available, in it went. Dr. Jekyll has to periodically inject himself with a multi-pronged needle to keep him from reverting to the murderous Edward Hyde (and he does once). Chris becomes a comical undead visitor to Nick, warning him and advising him much like the friend in An American Werewolf in London (1981). Jenny turns out to be an agent of the Prodigium (supernatural artifact collectors) and works for Dr. Jekyll. For devout followers of George Romero, Ahmanet reanimates an army of corpses to be her slobbering, shambling army of to bring Nick to her. As I said, a little bit of this, a pinch of that.

There was one scene of scientific accuracy, however. Ahmanet commands forth the sands of the desert in London and every pane of glass reverts back to its original element, quartz, i.e. sand. Hence, she’s able to re-create the moment in 1999 version of The Mummy, where Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) created a colossal image of his head in the resulting sand storm. Still a great effect.

There is a mythological inaccuracy: Seth is repeatedly called the god of death, and though his name rhymes with the state. He’s actually the god of storms, chaos and evil. Of the animal-headed gods, he the only one who is such an amalgam, it’s unidentifiable. Anubis is the proper god of death.

Sophia Boutella makes for a sexy Egyptian princess no matter what she’s wearing. Tom Cruise is not exactly another Indiana Jones, but adds a strange comic lilt to the story. Russell Crowe is hilarious as Dr. Jekyll and even funnier as Mr. Hyde, and Annabelle Wallis looked like she enjoyed the weightless scene in the plummeting airplane.

My favorite quote was from a voiceover: “Death is only a door. Those who die are not buried forever.” There are other lines that I liked which lightened the mood of the movie until it almost seemed like a comedy. Surprisingly, with all the forms of violence shown there was minimum gore and love scenes were brief. Young, sophisticated children – not toddlers – might actually like this film.

As for me, I had a good time watching in disbelief. Nothing was scary, nothing made me jump, I could predict each moment when something would happen.

Rating: 3 out of 5 martini glasses.

Marta
29 East 29th Street, New York

Ever choose a restaurant for a singular, unique appetizer? That’s exactly what I did with Marta. Though other restaurants were closer to the movie theater, this two-year old sister restaurant to the fabulous Maiella won out.


From the street it looks more like a classical museum: tall windows framed in white marble and pink granite, and a colonnaded entrance. Only an understated fuchsia neon sign gives the name in script. Inside, the entryway is lined with illuminated panels showing New York memorabilia and sites. The twenty-foot plus ceilings are a must to house the twin, colossal, black bricked pizza ovens on the back wall.

Mark, my server, asked if I wanted a drink. I chose the Cynar Spritz – Cynar, Cocchi Americano (a vermouth), orange bitters and Prosecco (Italian champagne). It’s been a long time since I even saw Cynar (an amaro made from artichokes) on a menu, and this brew was wonderful. The Prosecco took the bitterness out of the Cynar, as did the vermouth, giving it an almost candy-like quality. I mentioned the rarity of seeing Cynar in any restaurant to Mark and he pointed out the shelf behind the bar where I could count 18 amaros. I was agog.

With Mark’s help, I was able to choose three dishes. My first course was the reason for coming to Marta: the Fennel-spiced Sweetbreads with Duck Offals, rosemary and lemon. It was delicious – garlicky and lemony. It was a lovely duck liver, second only to goose. It could have been any organ meat, but I gambled and won.

The wine list was impressive, with many Italian wines I’ve seen in only a few places and some I did know existed. This menu had four red wines from the same region. I was instantly intrigued. The sommelier just happened to be passing by and Mark caught her and introduced me. She explained the flavors and strengths of the Lazio reds and I chose the 2013 Cesnese del Piglio Costa Graia, a blend of three crus (different batches from different sections of the vineyard). It was just as crisp and refreshing as a Frascati with a delicate nose, light tannins, subtle spice and blackberry fruit. Viva Lazio!


The second course was one of my all-time favorites, ever since I first tasted it in Montecasino, the Cannelloni stuffed with mushroom ragu, ricotta, pecorino and béchamel. It was sweet, lightly cheesy and, I guess it was the mushrooms, but I could swear there was a green vegetable involved. There was only one but I could have finished another.

Another thing I’ve never seen in an Italian restaurant is a sausage platter. German, yes, but Italian? The Salsicce Miste: Chicken, Duck and Pork sausages over broccolini with roasted garlic and a dollop of mustard, was as much a surprise to taste as it was to see. All three sausages were homemade and I could taste it. The duck were flat, crispy rounds that were the perfect match for the yellow/brown mustard. The chicken sausages were narrow curled sweetness better savored alone. However, the pork was comparable to the best head cheese ever. The broccolini was garlicky and tender and did not distract from the three sausage flavors. It was magical.

I understood from Mark that authenticity is the goal for the owner of Marta and that led me to the trio of gelato or sorbetto dessert. I chose Peach Bourbon and Roasted Strawberry Basil Sorbetto and Amarena Cherry Chip gelato. After one taste of each I chose the Peach Bourbon first. I could taste fresh peaches and the hint of Kentucky bourbon. The Roasted Strawberry Basil was amazing, with a rich, full flavor of wild strawberries with a smoky quality and the heady aftertaste of basil. But the creamy, crunchy Amarena Cherry Chip gelato was the winner. The “chips” are (of course) chocolate, and the almond and cherry flavors vied for attention in every spoonful.


Mark explained that all their espressos were double. Excellent. Now, for the after-dinner drink. With 18 amaros, I couldn’t choose. I asked Mark to check with the bartender as to which one was the least ordered. Soon I had a glass of Sfumato Rabarbaro (literally, Smoked Rhubarb). It was very similar to the Cynar but with a fruitier, headier flavor. It brought my whole meal full circle. Now I can say I’ve dined with two amazing sisters, Maiella and Marta.


The Fate of the Furious

By Steve Herte

The Fate of the Furious (Universal, 2017) – Director: F. Gary Gray. Writers: Chris Morgan (s/p), Gary Scott Thompson (characters). Stars: Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Charlize Theron, Kurt Russell, Nathalie Emmanuel, Luke Evans, Elsa Pataky, Kristofer Hivju, Scott Eastwood, Patrick St. Esprit & Janmarco Santiago. Color, Rated PG-13, 136 minutes.

Keeping up with this series of movies based on international thefts and ridiculously equipped car races is about as easy as racing the main character, Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and winning. 

It’s the seventh sequel after The Fast and the Furious (2001), 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), Fast & Furious (2009), Fast Five (2011), Fast & Furious 6 (2013) and Furious 7 (2015). All of them promise an insane amount of action, incredible heists and excitement and all deliver an incredible amount of wrecked vehicles, though I would propose that this latest one tops them all. I was gripping my seat arms nearly throughout the film and only occasionally wondered where (and when) it would end.


After honeymooning in Cuba, Dom Letty ‘Ortiz’ Toretto (Rodriguez) rejoin the team, comprised of Dom, Letty, Roman Pearce (Gibson), Tej Parker (Ludacris), and beautiful, computer genius Ramsey (Emmanuel) are recruited by Diplomatic Security Services Agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson) to assist in swiping an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) device in Berlin. But unknown to the other team members, international cyber terrorist Cipher (Theron) has convinced Dom to “go rogue” and they make off with the device.

The team are now on Interpol’s Ten Most Wanted List (except for Roman, he’s number eleven and is insulted by the fact) and Hobbs is imprisoned in the same high security prison holding Deckard Shaw (Statham), who still holds a major grudge against Hobbs for putting his younger brother Owen in a coma (Fast & Furious 7). A prison break is staged and both Hobbs and Deckard are recruited by Frank Petty/Mr. Nobody (Russell) and his slightly inept assistant, Eric Reisner/Little Nobody (Eastwood), whose lack of diplomacy almost gets him killed by Hobbs. Through Deckard they learn of Cipher and her capabilities with the EMP, the Nightshade Device she employed Owen to steal (it can blackout an entire country) and the team uses Ramsey’s program – dubbed “God’s Eye” – to track Dom down. Unfortunately, they track him to the same building they currently inhabit and Dom and Cipher break in and steal the God’s Eye program. Things are looking worse. Now Dom cannot be tracked.

We learn that Cipher is holding Dom’s previous lover, Elena Neves (Pataky) – she lived with him in Fast & Furious 6 – and she now has his infant son with her. Both are threatened with death unless Dom does Cipher’s bidding. Dom hangs the cross pendant he got from Letty on the bullet-proof wall enclosing Elena and son. Now Cipher wants a nuclear football containing the codes for all Russian missiles possessed by the Russian Minister of Defense, currently in transit in a motorcade in New York. To cripple the security police, Cipher hacks into the computers of all autonomous cars in the area, literally making it “rain” cars from a multi-level parking facility onto the motorcade. Dom only has to threaten to explode the gas tank to get the briefcase.

The plot? Cipher wants “accountability.” Any nation that does something she doesn’t like will be nuked. Though Ramsey’s computer skills are formidable, it takes the rest of the team to disarm the nuclear missile controls on a submarine Cipher manages to hack and launch remotely. And the chase is on across the ice over the Barents Sea near Alaska.

Though the threat to the world seems dark, the flip levity scattered throughout lightens the mood and the sheer improbability of the computational powers adds an element of fantasy. Take that and Roman’s insistence on driving a $100,000 neon orange Lamborghini Murcielago across ice while being pursued by a nuclear sub and you cannot help but laugh.

The team fit their roles admirably, but the acting nomination goes to Charlize Theron. She is perfectly evil and hateful in her confident arrogance. And there’s an element of class. Helen Mirren cameos as Magdalene Shaw, mother to Deckard and Owen, and assists the team.

Fate of the Furious has multiple explosions, gunfire scenes, as well as huge piles of twisted metal from vehicle crashes. With all the violence, there is surprisingly little blood. It moves with the force of a hurricane with only a few slower moments to give the audience time to breathe. And the surprising twists that enable the team to succeed were masterful. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I’ve heard that Dwayne Johnson is interested in making another one. Stay tuned.

Rating 2.5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Sugar Factory
1991 Broadway, New York

From the street, the 20-foot-high, all-glass façade of The Sugar Factory is deceiving: a hospital white interior with a few tables hinting at nothing but an incredibly sanitary sidewalk gelateria, almost like dining inside a refrigerator. Walk to the back of this cavernous ice cube, however, and one finds the Captain’s Station. I was led to the main dining area (another high-ceiling room) and was seated on a black leather banquette at a white marble-topped table, where the white and black motif is continued throughout with red accents. A huge crystal chandelier shares the ceiling with the largest gold disco ball I’ve ever seen. Naya, my server handed me a thick, plastic coated menu book and soon I understood why.  

On almost every table there are six-inch diameter goblets filled with dry ice and ingredients. The servers pour the drinking contents over the ice and they smoke like cauldrons in an Addams Family episode. There are several pages in the menu devoted to these oversized cocktails, which can be alcoholic or not. But I just found them too conspicuous. 


I hesitantly ordered the “Sour Apple Lolly.” It was a pleasing shade of green, and there was no doubt about the sour apple flavor, but it was sweet and what vodka may have been in it was barely detectible. The sweetness was increased by the bright green sugar rimming the glass and, what looked like a cherry was really a sour apple lollipop.

Since the first drink was so mild I decided to try another flavor. The “Watermelon Burst” was undoubtedly watermelon flavored, but the drink had no kick whatsoever, and the garnish was two jelly candies shaped like sugar-coated watermelon slices. Now I knew why there was so much activity among the many children celebrating birthdays there, always with a flare-like sparkler in whatever dessert they chose. The restaurant is well-named, as there is sugar everywhere.

As it was time for food, I chose the “Baked Brie Wrapped in Puff Pastry,” served with apricot jam, apple slices and a warm toasted baguette. The cheese was wonderful and warm, the bread crispy and the apple slices great. The apricot jam was intensely sweet. I liked it, but it was filling me too soon.

I told Naya that it was time for a serious cocktail. They didn’t have my favorite gin (no surprise) but they did have Stolichnaya vodka. The resulting martini was watered down (again no surprise). I figured that I should have a main course before I filled up on sugar. Having waffles or pancakes for dinner is not my style and the Monster Burgers did not attract me. Crepes? Maybe. 



But I saw the dinner on the table to my left and chose the “Mediterranean Chicken Pappardelle,” with sun-dried tomatoes, sautéed artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives, fresh herbs, lemon, extra virgin olive oil, roasted garlic and toasted pine nuts. It was the best thing I tried. The pasta was obviously not pappardelle but it was al dente and the combination of ingredients was flavorful and filling.

It was so filling I feared ordering a dessert. Instead, I asked Naya what her favorite chocolate martini was. She chose the “S’Mores Chocolate Martini” – marshmallow and chocolate liquor with graham cracker rim and flaming marshmallows garnish. Nice gimmick, but it was back to sugar again. I was finished.


There was definitely no room for Ice Cream Sandwiches, Chocolate Fondues and especially not the Insane milkshakes. They’re not kidding. These eight-inch-tall glasses not only have a milkshake inside, but a chocolate coating on the outside of the glass and a tall candy garnish towering over the rim. Diabetics, be afraid, be very afraid. If your health can handle it, the Sugar Factory can take you back to your childhood, literally. Would I go back? Maybe for breakfast.


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

By Steve Herte

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Disney, 2017) – Directors: Joachim Ronning & Espen Sandberg. Writers: Jeff Nathanson (s/p). Jeff Nathanson & Terry Rossio. Based on Characters By: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie & Jay Wolpert. Stars: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Lewis McGowan, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Angus Barnett, Martin Klebba, Adam Brown, Anthony De La Torre, Giles New, Orlando Bloom & Keira Knightley. Color, Rated PG-13, 129 minutes.

I loved this episode, though it could have improved if I could understand everything that Johnny Depp said. His lines were largely slurred as his character was mostly drunk. I get that. But he had a lot of funny lines I missed because of that (I learned them later on).

The film starts with 12-year old Henry Turner (McGowan) rowing out to visit his cursed father, Will Turner (Bloom) at the bottom of the ocean on the Flying Dutchman. Will tells him to find the Trident of Poseidon, a talisman that breaks all curses and Henry vows to do so. He knows that he has to find Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) to do so.

Nine years later, Henry (now Thwaites) is slaving away on a Royal British navy ship headed for the Devil’s Triangle. He tries to warn the Captain but is locked up for his efforts and the ship is boarded by the dead Captain Armando Salazar (Bardem) and his ghastly crew in various stages of decomposition. They slaughter all on board but Henry. Salazar always leaves one man alive to “tell the tale” because – see the subtitle. He tells Henry to find Jack Sparrow and warn him that Captain Salazar is coming to get him and his compass.


Meanwhile, on the island of St. Martin, the people are gathered around for the opening of the new bank, one that is impregnable and pirate-proof. The soldiers open the doors to the bank revealing a huge safe with a combination lock (mind you, this is the 18th century, 100 years before the modern combination lock was invented). The safe is opened to reveal Jack Sparrow asleep in a drunken stupor. The soldiers line up to shoot him but hold their fire when a woman also exits the vault. “Is that your wife?” someone asks the governor. Then the action begins as Jack’s men have a team of horses tied to ropes attached to the safe and, instead of breaking through the back wall of the bank, it takes the entire building on a wild chase through the town.

As this is happening a young woman scientist Carina Smyth (Scodelario) has been accused of witchcraft (women did not do science at that time) and has managed to escape her prison cell. Deliberately ducking into a door marked “No Dogs, No Women” she is immediately attracted to the large brass telescope in the room. “Get your hands off my Herschel!” says the proprietor. Then Jack bursts in with “Have you seen my bank?” And we see it crashing by outside. Both Jack and Carina run out after the careening building. Remember, the door of the safe is still open and all of its contents spill into the street during the chase.

When it’s all over, only a single doubloon is left and Jack takes it before his crew can see. They desert him and he foolishly trades his compass for a bottle of rum, freeing Salazar, his crew and his ship from the Devil’s Triangle. Jack and Carina are captured by the British for execution, he on a guillotine and she at the gallows. A speech Carina attempts to make turns into an argument with Jack and is just enough of a distraction for Jack’s men (who prior to this scene deserted him for lack of payment) to rescue them both along with Henry and they sail away in the Dying Gull.

Where is Jack’s ship, the Black Pearl? As of the previous installment, it was shrunken to the size of a ship-in-a-bottle carried in Jack’s inside jacket pocket. Carina knows how to find the Trident of Poseidon from a notebook given to her by her father. Linking it to her scientific knowledge of the stars, “I’m an astronomer!” Pirate: “Oh, you raise donkeys?” No, she explains, she studies the stars and it’s by the stars they will locate the trident. “I’m also a horologist” (knowing glances all around) Pirate: “So’s me mother, but she doesn’t go all proud about it.” No, she explains again, she studies time and has a chronometer that will tell her how long it will take to get there.

The British navy also want the trident, believing it will give them control over the seas, as does pirate Captain Hector Barbossa (Rush). The British commander consults a real witch, Shansa (Farahani), who gives them the compass and the chase is on.

The rest is all action, fun and flashbacks. We learn how Jack Sparrow got the little bird name. It was when he first made an enemy of Captain Salazar while he was trying to rid the seas of pirates. Young Jack Sparrow (De La Torre) was taunting him from the crow’s nest and it sounded like a sparrow to Salazar. But then, in a completely Disney scene, Jack tricks Salazar into entering the Devil’s Triangle by lassoing a convenient rock outcrop and forcing his entire ship to do an incredible U-turn at the mouth of the triangle.

The special effects crew literally went overboard with this movie. The rag-tag look of Salazar’s crew, missing various body parts and yet still moving was amazing. Salazar’s hair alone was a miracle. It moved as if it were always under water, even when in the fresh air. The best scene effect left the crossing of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments in the dust. It was a complete dividing of the ocean and the Black Pearl had to sail along the edge of a cliff of water to rescue our heroes. Jaw-dropping.

All the acting was excellent on all characters. I never lost belief at any time and the two hours and 14 minutes flashed by. The only thing that kept it from being a perfect movie was, as I said my inability to understand a lot of funny lines. 

Though there are innuendos, there is no sex, gore or vulgarity in this episode, which I found refreshing. I even thought I might get seasick at one point, but it was more of a thrill ride. I was having such a great time I almost missed Sir Paul McCartney’s cameo as Uncle Jack. But be ready for another Pirates of The Caribbean. The post-credit shadow of Davy Jones promises another sequel.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


L’Express
249 Park Avenue South, New York

I’ve been aware of L’Express for a while now and they’ve been in business for twenty-seven years, but I like to take my time when I dine, especially on rich foods. Express food doesn’t attract me, unless it’s take-out. But L’Express surprised me.

I found it to be a charming French bistro, airy and friendly and only fast if you want it that way. The online menu promising a Lyonnaise Bouchon was a big plus and some of the dishes were especially intriguing. When my server, Ayman, brought the single-card menu with drinks on the reverse side and the daily specials card, I was surprised to see the “crispy tripe” not listed. Ayman explained that it’s a seasonal dish and the menu changes with availability.

Asked if I wanted a drink, I chose the Elder Flower Martini – Absolut pear vodka, St. Germain and champagne. The St. Germain provides an elder flower flavor and makes the usually unpleasant pear-infused vodka delightful. A purple pansy floating on top added an arty look. Ayman assured me that my dishes will be arriving at my pace and they did.

My first course was a classic Escargots á La Bourguignonne. The aromatic sauce of butter, garlic, parsley and shallots completely hid the tender snails in their individual cups on the serving plate.

The wine I chose was a beautiful 2013 Domaine Le Couroulu, a ruby red varietal blend of 60% Grenache, 30% Syrah, and 10% Mourvedre from the southern Rhone region of France. Its fruity, medium body accented every dish and never overpowered.


My second course was another classic, Frogs Legs Persillade. Served with parsnip puree, it was lemony, garlicky tender and transporting. I even had a small discussion with Ayman over what frog’s legs tastes like. It’s a more delicate texture and more of a light fish flavor than the heavy flavor of chicken and this dish was perfect.

Keeping with the Burgundy theme, my main course was Short Ribs á La Bourguignon, with mushrooms, parsnips and carrots. It was almost a stew, a hearty, meaty, savory stew with big chunks of vegetables and beef tender enough to cut with a fork. Excellent again. The side dish, Charred Brussels sprouts was the only drawback. It was almost boring compared to the other dishes. The only flavor was what was intrinsic to Brussels sprouts. Sometimes that’s enough. Not this time. I left half.

Dessert more than made up for the side dish. I told Ayman that this Tarte Tatin with Crème Faiche was the best I’ve ever had. I’m not a fan of apples, but this caramely sweet/tart hot dessert was sheer wonder. I loved it. Along with a double espresso, it was the definitive way to conclude a lyonnaise feast. L’Express taught me the old maxim about not judging a book by its cover is true. It was an authentic, classic French experience, complete with all the care in preparation and service. I would definitely return.


King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

By Steve Herte

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (WB, 2017) – Director: Guy Ritchie. Writers: Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram (s/p). David Dobkin & Joby Harold (story). Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Jude Law, Rob Knighton, Djimon Hounsou, Eric Bana, Aidan Gillen, Freddie Fox, Craig McGinley, Tom Wu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Neil Maskell, Jacqui Ainsley, Annabelle Wallis, Oliver Zac Barker & Geoff Bell. Color, Rated PG-13, 126 minutes.

With all the movies made about King Arthur and the legendary sword, “Excalibur” there is nothing like this tale. It’s jarring, exciting, shocking in places, offensive in others, myth shattering, unbelievable and a bit too long. There is nothing charming or comical in this film. Everything is dark. Merlin is only mentioned in passing (he lives with the other mages somewhere, far off) and the residents of Camelot do not trust the mages.

And why not? Because Mordred (Knighton) has made an unholy alliance with Vortigern Pendragon (Law), pretender to the throne, to share increasing magic powers and dethrone Uther Pendragon (Bana). And you thought Arthur and Mordred were the same age. Not here. Mordred conjures up Godzilla-sized elephants to help attack Uther’s castle. One easily destroys a high viaduct. But with Excalibur, Uther succeeds in entering Mordred’s howdah, beheading him. That breaks off the attack, but there is still his brother to contend with. He hurries his wife and two-year-old son Arthur (Barker) down to a pier in the bowels of the castle to get them to safety. But Vortigern has murdered his wife as a sacrifice to three sea witches to summon up a demonic, fiery warrior who kills Uther’s wife and bests Uther in battle. Arthur runs for the skiff and is sent drifting downriver to Londinium (the old Latin name for London) and is picked up by prostitutes and raised in a brothel. This could be a play on the Moses story, except for the brothel.

Arthur (now Hunnam) learns to fight from a kung fu master, George (Wu), and becomes quite skilled. (I said this is a very strange version.) He amasses coffers full of coinage from the patrons and from those who refuse to pay. Unfortunately, one of those was a Viking guest of the crown and Arthur has to flee Vortigern’s “Blackleg” army. However, he is quickly caught and forced onto a shipload of men of similar age.


Mysteriously, the tide went out in a cove near the castle revealing a sword embedded in a stone. The legend is known that he who pulls the sword free is the true “Born King” and Vortigern is monitoring the trials so that he can kill whoever succeeds. We think we know the rest, right? But when Arthur slowly (agonizingly slowly) extracts the sword, the power emanating from it reveals scenes from his childhood and his escape from Camelot, and he passes out from the exertion. 

Meanwhile, a very serious, almost bored, female mage (Bergès-Frisbey) and follower of Merlin (the only time his name is spoken) meets with Uther’s general, Bedivere (Hounsou) and convinces him to help her rescue Arthur from execution. Between her magical manipulation of animals and his battle savvy, they succeed.

But Arthur doesn’t want to be king (Ever read The Reluctant Dragon?) He has to be convinced. Bedivere, despite his misgivings, accedes to the advice of the Mage and leads Arthur to the “Blacklands,” (the area in every fantasy story where nobody dares go) where he’s forced to fight off every manner of vicious creature (giant bats, giant rats, wolves, etc.) just to stay alive. It’s here he learns of Vortigern’s crimes and Mordred’s source of power. But we already know that. As the film begins there’s a strange scene with what looks like an Aztec pyramid carved out of the side of a mountain leading up to a tower shaped like an elaborately carved firehose, with a roaring flame at the top. That’s Mordred’s Tower of Power (a little corny, but effective). Merlin destroyed that one, but Vortigern is building a second one.

In Londinium, Arthur has gathered a small contingent of comrades and they learn from Vortigern’s maid Maggie (Wallis) that he will be meeting with the major land barons and they plot to kill him. It fails, but in his anger at seeing the Mage at knifepoint, Arthur unleashes the full power of Excalibur and slaughters a troop of blacklegs in an alternating slow-motion/riotously quick battle scene.

Discouraged by the failure, Arthur hurls the sword into the sea, where it is retrieved by (who else?) the Lady of the Lake (Ainsley). Dragging him through a mud puddle to her world, she shows him the future if he doesn’t take action and assume the throne. Now you think you know the rest. But there are still some outrageous surprises ahead.

Though King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword is indeed exciting in many parts, there are several scenes that detract from the forward motion of the film and, if cut, would make it just as effective in under two hours. It’s immensely imaginative and disregards the traditional noble tale of the mythical king. The 3D special effects had me blinking several times, especially in the slow-motion battle scene where an arrow or a spear would come right at the audience. It was too long at two hours and nine minutes, and often the thick British accents obscured the dialogue, especially the use of idioms. I would have to see it again to catch everything that was said.

Amazingly, for all the carnage and violence in the film, there was a minimum of bloodshed, but I would not take my kids to see it until they reached teenage. I enjoyed most it but was distracted by the mish-mash of architectural styles. I loved the Roman look of Londinium though. It even had a Colosseum being built.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Martini glasses. 


Fonda Chelsea
189 Ninth Avenue, New York

Lately, Mexican chefs are working to raise the status of their recipes in the eyes of the pooh-poohers while at the same time retaining their authenticity. Fonda’s Chef Roberto Santibaῆez is doing just that. The website claims that all the dishes are 100% Mexican while tantalizing jaded New York tastes and prejudices.


Outside, there is a small sidewalk café under a black awning with the name in white gothic letters. Inside, it’s flaming red walls, butcher block tables, black banquettes, startling artworks and brouhaha. The hostess seated me at a window-facing table in the bar (the entire first floor). Up a narrow, steep flight of stairs is another equally sized room with more seating and the rest rooms. 

My server, Jhon, brought me the menu with a single-card beverage menu tucked inside. I decided that the Piñata Margarita – Silver tequila, pineapple, lime juice, orange liqueur, and a spicy chili rim – was for me. Served over ice in an old-fashioned glass, it was definitely citrus with the kick of the tequila and the smoky spice bite of chipotle, a good starter.

I chose the Zarape de Pato. Having dined in over 100 Mexican restaurants I was not prepared to be amazed. The soft corn tortillas filled with tender, shredded braised duck were invisible under the thick, spicy, roasted tomato-habanero cream sauce, with each bite an adventure. 

The wine list was very small, but reasonable. I chose the 2014 Alto “3” Reserve Malbec from Catamarca, Argentina. I don’t know if “organically grown grapes” had anything to do with it, but this potent, velvety-smooth, dark red embraced the flavor of my spicy appetizer like a lover.

When Jhon came back to see how I was doing I told him how great the duck was and ordered my second course. I love Sopa de Tortilla (tortilla soup), but this one was superior. Made with roasted tomato pasilla (a species of chili), chicken broth, chunks of grilled chicken (both light and dark meat), Chihuahua cheese, avocado and creme, it was almost a meal in itself. I asked Jhon for his help on choosing a main course.


The Pescado con Calabacitas was an achiote (another chili) marinated Chatham cod fillet over creamy stewed zucchini with jalapeῆos, corn kernels and cilantro. Admittedly, cod is not among my favorite fish, but this was delightful, as the marinating process transformed the sometimes salty fish into a sensory wonder. The meat, tender enough to cut with a fork, was mildly spiced and served really hot. All the vegetable ingredients were perfectly cooked. The zucchini still had a crunch to it and the cilantro was not overstated. I was glad I didn’t order a side dish, because refried black beans and scallion-topped white rice accompanied the dish.

The ladies at the table to my left ordered the only dessert that sounded interesting (the Budin de Banana – a bread pudding with guava and cajeta sauce), but when it arrived, I was not impressed – not enough guava. I chose instead the Trio of Helados, a rich, creamy vanilla, an impressively semi-sweet dark chocolate and a luxurious salted caramel. I don’t eat ice cream often, but I really enjoyed these.

When I ordered “regular coffee,” I was pleasantly surprised to be served Café Press. It was very good coffee – no milk or sugar required. Jhon brought back the beverage list for the after-dinner drink and I picked the Milagro Reserva Reposado Tequila. It was just as velvety smooth as my Malbec and ended my dinner like a well-scripted play.


Fonda has three locations in Manhattan. I took a business card to remember that I have two more to go.


Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

By Steve Herte

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (Marvel/Disney, 2017) – Director: James Gunn. Writers: James Gunn (s/p). Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning (based on the Marvel comics by). Steve Engelhart, Steve Gan (Star-lord created by). Jim Starlin (Gamora and Drax created by). Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby (Groot created by). Bill Mantlo, Keith Giffen (Rocket Raccoon created by). Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Dave Bautista, Sean Gunn, Tommy Flanagan, Aaron Schwartz & Laura Haddock. Color, Rated PG-13, 136 minutes.

Having seen the first installment of Guardians, I eagerly anticipated the sequel. I know and like the characters and wanted to see what adventure awaits them. It turns out there wouldn’t be an adventure if it weren’t for my favorite character, a genetically engineered raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Cooper), who by the way, hates being called raccoon.

The unlikely team consists of Quill, an Earthman, Rocket, Gamora (Saldana), a sensual green woman with flaming red hair, Drax (Bautista), a hulking muscular purplish-gray man with red scrollwork tattoos, and Baby Groot (voiced by Diesel), a tree creature who sprouted up in the previous film from his own dying self. Groot’s only line is “I’m Groot,” and only Rocket can understand what he’s saying. Toward the end of the movie Rocket tells him, “We definitely have to work on your language skills.”

As the movie opens I couldn’t help but recall the 1984 film Starman, as extra-terrestrial Ego (Schwartz) drives Meredith Quill (Haddock), Peter’s mom-to-be to a place in a forest where he planted a mysterious alien flower. We hear her favorite song playing in the car and through the scene, Looking Glass’s “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).”

Then it’s “34 years later” and the Guardians are defending a platform belonging to the golden Sovereigns, a race of perfect (so they insist) beings, from an inter-dimensional monster whose sole intent is soaking up the power from the Sovereigns’ batteries. Quill, Rocket, Gamora and Drax battle the enormous, tentacled, triple-jawed creature while Baby Groot dances through the opening credits to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” It’s more a hilarious spoof than a tense battle scene.

Even if you haven’t seen the first installment, you get the idea that the Guardians actually enjoy danger and never take themselves seriously and the plot follows suit. In payment for their service, the Sovereigns release Nebula (Gillan) to them. She’s the adopted cyborg sister to Gamora who only wants to kill her, and Gamora wants her locked up. When Rocket finds the temptation irresistible to steal the Sovereigns’ batteries, their leader Ayesha (Debicki) summons a fleet of drones to destroy the escapees.


In an effort to lose the drones, Quill and Rocket fly the ship into a “Quantum Asteroid Field” where the going gets tougher as asteroids pop into existence randomly, trying to make it to a jump gate. But the drones go around the field and meet them on the other side firing from all directions and causing serious damage. Time for a Deus ex Machina. After a mysterious stranger in the ship shaped like Mork’s birth egg destroys the drones, they are able to crash land on the nearest planet.

The egg lands near them, a port opens organically, and we meet Ego (Russell) a second time, along with antennaed empath Mantis (Klementieff). Ego introduces himself as Quill’s father and takes Quill, Gamora and Drax back to his home planet while Rocket repairs the ship and watches over Nebula and Baby Groot.

Ayesha hires Yondu Udonta (Rooker), a former “Ravager” exiled by Stakar Ogord (Stallone) for child trafficking when he took Quill from Ego and raised him as his own. Yondu and his pirate crew find Quill’s ship but are not prepared for the riotously funny set of booby traps set by Rocket. But using his telekinetic arrow, he captures Rocket, Nebula and Groot. When he appears soft by not killing his prisoners, his right-hand man Taserface (Sullivan) leads a mutiny, destroys his telekinetic crest and imprisons Yondu with Rocket and Nebula. Groot is held in a bird cage and made a source of amusement by the crew, much to his chagrin.

Meanwhile, Quill, Drax, and Gamora arrive on Ego’s self-created planet with Mantis. It’s almost baroque in its design and organic at the same time. Ego tells the story of his travels throughout the universe, finding and falling in love with Meredith. He mesmerizes Quill, but Gamora doesn’t trust him. She’s right. Ego is well named. The alien plants he established on all the worlds he’s visited will reform them into extensions of himself, eliminating all existing life in the process, when he finds a celestial like himself. (You guessed it, Quill.)

The rest of the movie is a series of captures, escapes, attacks, surprise bondings, alliances and discoveries that will keep the audience guessing. Kraglin (Gunn) is the only surviving member of Yondu’s loyal men. Rocket actually drops his aggressive attitude and sheds a tear. We see a series of cameos, including Howard the Duck (Seth Green), a mainframe computer with the voice of Miley Cyrus, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Zardu Hasselfrau (David Hasselhoff) and an astronaut (Stan Lee). Why David Hasselhoff? Quill told all of his childhood friends that Hasselhoff was his father.

The soundtrack,“Awesome Mixtape 2,” includes the pop favorites mentioned before with “Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell, “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac, “Come A Little Bit Closer” by Jay and the Americans, “Bring It On Home to Me” by Sam Cooke, “Surrender” by Cheap Trick, and “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens.

My favorite quote is from Drax, “There are two kinds of beings in the universe: those who dance and those who do not.” He’s referring to the “unspoken thing” between Quill and Gamora. Volume two is a wonderful romp through intergalactic space and a fantastic, colorful special effects and CGI delight. The humor is kind of raunchy, but not out and out vulgar, so parents, take that into consideration. And…be sure to stay through the credits for hints of things to come. There definitely will be another.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Foragers Table
300 West 22nd Street, New York

Foragers Table is the four-year-old extension of the Foragers Market on the corner of 22nd Street and 8th Avenue in Chelsea. All food is delivered fresh daily from farms in the Hudson Valley and you can definitely taste it when you dine there. 


Outside, what looks like two gigantic floor-to-ceiling windows on the outside framed subtly by slate gray wood are really six panels each of double-paned glass joined by a flexible polymer. Inside, everything is simple and a bit rustic inside the single room dining area, with 15 to 20 bare-topped tables with votive candles; a bar with extra seating that takes up the wall opposite the windows; and simple globe lights shining from the unfinished ceiling. The old-fashioned wooden chairs are comfortable enough and had sufficient support for me and, by the window, there was ample light.

Jill, my server, brought the drinks and food menus. I ordered the London Calling Cocktail – Breuckelen glorious gin, ginger beer, Cointreau, lemon/limeade, bitters – an interesting mix of many unusual flavors. I sipped it while Jill cited the soft-shelled crab special and the beef and lamb entrée specials, leaving me to decide.

Another server brought the most delicious, fresh focaccia I’ve had in a long time. It didn’t need butter or tapenade and wasn’t served with any. It had a nice, fluffy texture, was a little bit salty, and was browned golden on top.

The Foragers Farm Salad – sweet gem lettuce, heirloom mix, sunflower sprouts, olive dirt in a sherry vinaigrette – while not aesthetically presented (just simply piled in a white bowl), was amazing. I’ve had edible flowers before but the sunflower sprouts were a delight. The dressing was understated and let the salad greens stand out with an olive-salty accent.

The wine I chose was the 2014 Gothic vineyards Nevermore, a Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley, Oregon. It’s a beautiful deep ruby red, medium bodied wine with light tannins that proved itself worthy of all my dishes.

The bright green English Pea Soup was a good one. The bowl was set with pea hash, sour cream and a thin slice of prosciutto in the center and the server poured a soup that could have been the pride of the Emerald City around it. I love English peas for their sweet, bold taste, unlike the flat-tasting ones in the canned goods aisle. Jill was excellent with timing. No two dishes arrived simultaneously. 


The main course, the Long Island Duck Breast, came with a spiced honey glaze and was served over wild rice, tatsoi (aka spinach mustard), fiddlehead ferns, ramps and morels. The duck slices were medium rare, tender and juicy, with a crisp skin and just enough fat to make them decadent.

As I was enjoying my meal, the manager arrived at my table. We had a short talk on European travel and he asked me if I was ready for dessert. I mentioned that I love ripe cheeses and he helped me choose three cheeses: a firm, buttery white, a crumbly cheddar, and a bleu.

Jill brought me a mug of Earl Grey Tea, and I asked if they had any good sipping tequilas. She listed three or four, mentioning there’s one nobody ever orders. That caught my attention. The Chinaco Reposado Tequila, an 11-year old luxury tequila made from 100 percent blue agave, has a smooth, woody flavor with none of the bite of younger tequilas, a perfect after dinner drink. I felt sorry for anyone who didn’t order it.

The business card from Foragers Table primarily advertises the market (which I have visit soon). If the produce is as wonderful as the dishes made from them, I can’t wait. 


Born in China

By Steve Herte

Born in China (The Walt Disney Co., 2017) – Director: Chuan Lu. Writers: David Fowler, Brian Leith, Phil Chapman & Chuan Lu. Narrators: John Krasinski & Xun Zhou. Color, Rated G, 76 minutes.

It’s not often I see a documentary with as many contrasts as this one. 

The scenery is as breath-taking as it is austere and dangerous; the photography equally stunning and in-your-face jarring, with the wildlife coming across as much loving and nurturing as predatory and cruel. The narration, excellent most of the time, lapses at times into the silly occasionally, but not inappropriately.

A satellite image shows the entirety of China at night with all the glare from the major cities ringing a large, dark area in north central China. That’s where the camera takes us at the beginning of Born in China. With narrator John Krasinski, we begin with a flock of cranes and the Chinese belief that, when a crane takes flight, it carries the soul of a deceased creature to the next realm.

Next we follow Dawa, a snow leopard on the Quinghai/Tibetan Plateau, the highest in the world, bordering Xinjiang Province, as she raises her two cubs. Her ordeal against rivals and the fight for survival itself is remarkable. The yaks are too big and dangerous for her, the Chiru antelope are too fast, but the blue sheep, or bharal, are her natural prey.


The Chiru antelope lead us to their calving grounds and John takes us to the bamboo forest where we meet YaYa the giant panda and her adorable cub MeiMei. YaYa is described as a “helicopter mom,” constantly hovering over her baby and cuddling with it every chance she gets – even when MeiMei wants to explore and eventually, climb her first tree.

From there we soar to a forest in west-central China to visit a troop of golden sub-nosed monkeys and meet TaoTao, a young male, who has been ousted from his family group by the birth of his little sister. After trying several times to be the center of attention once again, he leaves to join a group of other young males, some his own age, whom the narrator calls “The Lost Boys” (a la Peter Pan) supervised by an adult male named Rooster.

Born in China starts in spring and goes season by season, switching from family to family and how they are coping with the situations they face. There are stand-offs and posturing (leopards), comic rolls downhill (pandas) and violent fights over territory (monkeys). Disney has definitely learned that not all stories have happy endings and we see that graphically, but with minimal bloodshed. With all the relentless pressure nature inflicts on these creatures, they survive, even flourish, or die. The camera angle of a goshawk flying head-on in its swoop to capture a baby monkey is impressively daunting.

When one thinks that wild animals do not pose for the camera we marvel at how many hours it took to just make a 76-minute documentary. Be sure to stay through the credits and meet some of the photographers who briefly describe their experiences, such as the unpredictable weather. “Right now, it’s hailing. But wait a few minutes and it could be sunny, or foggy, or snowing,” says one bundled-up cameraman. Born in China is a true family film and is just “Disney” enough for small children. As an additional incentive, Disney Corporation promised to donate some of the proceeds from each ticket sold to environmental causes. I enjoyed it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Bob’s Steak and Chop House
19 East 52nd Street (5th Avenue), New York

Bob’s is the first restaurant in New York of a popular Texas chain of steakhouses. As the dining spot of the Omni Berkshire Place Hotel, it effectively debunks the myth that a hotel restaurant must be second rate.

Outside, the polished brass-framed glass doors set into a solid granite wall under a heavy-looking metal marquee, setting a serious tone. Inside, though, all is friendly and family, from the hostess Jolie to my server Thomas. The dining room is typical steakhouse décor: dark wood, touches of brass, white tablecloths and huge globe lights overhead. Bits of Americana adorn the walls and there’s even a painting of the old Polo Grounds.


In the center of my table sat a large apothecary jar filled with dill pickles and pickled red peppers. Thomas immediately uncapped it, offered me a pair of claspers, and encouraged me to partake. I chose a large green garlic dill and was transported back to Delancey Street and the kosher pickle barrels that used to line the sidewalks. After learning from Thomas that they had Beefeaters gin, I ordered my favorite martini and Thomas brought a Texas-sized cocktail to my table, perfectly made. A large pickle jar and an immense martini. What would the food portions be like?

As Thomas cited the daily specials I stopped him at the lobster bisque. I know a good lobster bisque when it’s hot and yet forms a thin skin on the surface if undisturbed and has bits of lobster in it. Thomas brought over the pepper mill to make it even more inviting. It’s been a while since I had a soup as rich as this one. I could taste the cream in it. And, strangely enough, it was of a normal size.

I always enjoy a salad in a steakhouse setting and the bleu cheese salad with romaine, crumbled bleu cheese dressing, chopped egg and pecans was begging me to try it. The four-inch high mound on a dinner-sized plate almost stopped me in my tracks, but then I thought, “Pace yourself, it’s all good.” It was indeed, with tangy bleu cheese in every bite. The Romaine was fresh and crisp and the pecans were always a surprise delight.

It was time to order wine. I chose the 2013 Six Sigma Diamond Mine Cuvee red blend of cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo and syrah from Lake County, California. It’s a satisfying dark red, medium-bodied wine with deep fruits and a lightly spicy aftertaste. An excellent wine without being pretentious or overpriced.


The filet mignon was listed on the menu in three weights and I chose the 16-ounce with glazed carrot and skillet-fried potatoes topped with sautéed onions and peppercorn gravy. The steak was exactly as I like it, crispy black on the outside, red and juicy in the center. The glazed carrot was quite large and imposing in the center of the platter, and yet tender enough to cut and crunchy enough to not be over-cooked. It also served the purpose of keeping the spicy peppercorn gravy on the potato side of the dish. The potatoes were thin-sliced and crisp fried, but the gravy soon took that feature away with the onions appearing now and then to break up the rich gravy. I finished the steak and most of the potatoes, and it was now time for dessert.


For ultimate decadence, the banana nut bread pudding served with dark rum custard has no competition – crisp and nicely browned on the outside, soft, hot, fruity and wicked on the inside. With a double espresso, it finished a proud moment in my dining career. Bob’s not only gave Jack’s a good run as far as quality, service and value goes, it took its place proudly as my 100th steakhouse.


Life 

By Steve Herte

Life (Columbia/Sony, 2017) – Director: Daniel Espinosa. Writers: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick. Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare, Jesus Del Orden, Allen McLean, Hiroyuki Sanada, Leila Grace Bostwick-Riddell, Mari Gvelesiani, David Muir, Elizabeth Vargas, Camiel Warren-Taylor, Haruka Kuroda & Naoko Mori. Color, Rated R, 104 minutes.

Life will never be the thriller Alien (1979) was no matter how many parallels they use. The crew of divas cannot compare with the equally “expendable” low-paid flunky crew of the Nostromo for depth of character or comedic relief. You find yourself rooting for the alien life they awaken.  

After American engineer, Rory Adams (Reynolds) makes an almost-tense catch using the robotic arm of the space station, the crew is in a celebratory mode. British biologist, Hugh Derry (Bakare) eventually finds a microscopic single cell, which he obsesses over and nurtures back from dormancy. It’s cute in its early stages and he feels parental. (Aww!) They now have physical proof of extraterrestrial life. Sponsors on Earth are thrilled. A naming contest among schoolchildren results in the name of “Calvin” for the life form.


Japanese pilot Sho Murakami (Sanada) is more concerned about his pregnant wife Kazumi (Mori) and proudly shows the newborn Mei on his tablet to his fellow crew, Quarantine Officer, Dr. Miranda North (Ferguson); Crew Doctor, David Jordan (Gyllenhaal); and Mission Commander, Ekaterina Golovkina (Dihovichnaya). But Hugh is more concerned with his Martian baby after a malfunction in the isolation chamber causes little Calvin to become inactive. He chooses (perhaps unwisely) to reanimate it with an electric shock. Ryan makes a sarcastic reference to the movie Re-Animator (1985) that proves to be all-too prophetic. Not only does Calvin reanimate, he clamps onto Hugh’s hand (fortunately in a thick rubber glove) and crushes every bone in it before Hugh can extricate himself. If someone awakened me with an electric shock, I’d be pissed off too. Calvin then uses the broken electric probe to pierce the glove and escape.

From there, the movie quickly goes downhill, swinging from long dull scenes where nothing is happening but background music to predictable action scenes where one of the cast is killed by Calvin. They don’t even use strobe lights. Calvin grows each time he kills and appears to be an amalgam of octopus, starfish and jellyfish. One character comments, “Every cell is either muscle, brain or eye.” They soon learn how strong and how smart Calvin is.” The audience gets to “see” from Calvin’s point of view in a couple of scenes and it’s definitely his weakest sense.

Eventually we learn that this form of life is why there is no life on Mars and only the lack of an oxygen-based atmosphere kept it in dormancy. It must not be allowed to get to Earth.

Life is violent in parts and quite gory. It goes for the gross-out effect a couple of times, as when Calvin forces himself down Ryan’s throat and consumes him from within while Ryan spouts gobbets of blood in zero gravity. Speaking of zero gravity, which exists throughout the film, it’s mostly done well. But there are scenes where one can guess where the wires are by the tenting of a character’s pants in the rear. My favorite scene is when Calvin devours a captive lab rat.

Maybe it was good acting, but I found myself not caring about any of the crew and rooting for Calvin. Jake Gyllenhaal looked like he was about to fall asleep from start to finish. Ariyon Bakare played a silly role but you believed he was in genuine pain. Hiroyuki Sanada was almost a Samurai stereotype until he thought he was being rescued toward the end. The other three were eminently forgettable. The worst part is, there’s probably going to be a sequel. Go, Calvin, go!

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.
 
Kiin Thai Eatery
36 West 8th Street, New York
www.kiinthaieatery,com

This informal village restaurant is housed in a modern-looking building with a large LED lit, Broadway marquee-style sign on the outside glass. The wall behind the glass is paneling of faux birch wood, as are the second set of doors in the entrance and the walls inside. A blackboard near the bar announces Kub Khao (shared dishes), a traditional Thai meal serving style, with all dishes made “medium” size so that several diners at a table can sample several at a time. 

Kiin (pronounced Kyin), which  means “eat” in Thai has been open a little over two years. Part of its allure is their claim of authentic Thai cuisine from centuries ago, some dishes being rare to experienced diners.


When my server, Nook, handed me the specials, drinks, and food menus I decided to take my time and consider all possibilities. I ordered the Koh Paradise – Grey Goose vodka, Bacardi rum, Bombay Sapphire gin, Patron tequila, Blue Curacao, lime juice and ginger ale – because I’m attracted to blue drinks. Readers may recognize that it has virtually the same ingredients as a Long Island Iced Tea, except it has ginger ale instead of cola and the added Blue Curacao. It’s a potent drink, but fruity and deceptively mild. Not for the unprepared or the non-drinker.

I was surprised at how many dishes had either chicken, pork or beef in the recipe and how few were seafood or vegetarian. I told her I had plenty of time and that if the dishes could be spaced in time, it would be preferable.

I chose two that I’ve never seen before and one that was familiar.

 My first appetizer was shrimp cake “Todd Mun”  ground shrimp deep-fried in yellow bean/egg tofu and bread crumb coating served with a house made sweet plum sauce. The plum sauce was served in a small bowl with a spout to facilitate drizzling it over the shrimp. Sweet and delicious.

Nook brought out my wine, a 2013 Malbec, Domaine Bousquet from Mendoza, Argentina. It’s a nice red, not as full bodied as other Malbecs I’ve had, but with a slightly spicy after-taste. It was another surprise from a screw-cap bottle and went well with my meal.


Hot on the heels of my first appetizer was my second appetizer, “Vegetarian Golden Bags” – potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, water chestnuts, corn, green peas and cream cheese wrapped in rice paper. After confirming with Nook that this dish was finger-food, I picked one up and dipped it into the accompanying sauce and ate. It was lovely. All the main ingredients are contained in the little bulb formed by the wrapping process and the rest crackles and breaks like a Chinese fortune cookie. Tastes like one too. Unusual and great at the same time.

I had finished the shrimp and most of the vegetarian dish when my main course arrived. When a restaurant labels something as a “signature dish” it’s an added attraction for me. Kiin’s Signature Green Curry (listed as “spicy”) was a bowl full of pale green curry in which floated Thai green eggplant, finger root, sweet basil, long hot chili peppers, coconut milk and salted egg yolk, with fish balls below the surface (a “local” favorite which adds a “bouncy texture” to the dish). 

It was plenty spicy for me. I could see the sliced, bright red chilies swimming in the bowl and avoided eating them. There was something I did not recognize at all, a single stem about three inches long with little green nodules all along it, which Nook identified as peppercorns. (I didn’t think the chilies were alone in supplying the heat.)

 I took a spoonful of the white rice supplied separately and placed it on my plate, then spooned fish balls, basil, and green eggplant over it with the coconut-y sauce. It was delicious, but not for the uninitiated to spices. The fish balls were like small dumplings with a yellow center. They were neither fishy nor doughy, just right. For a soupy kind of dish, it filled me quickly and soon I was being more selective in what I dispensed over my rice. 


Another adventure, and a new dish for me, was “Num Kang Sai” Icy Mountain – milled ice with red syrup cream soda topped with sweet milk served with four condiments; red bean, coconut sticky rice, palm seeds, and sweet corn, while resting on a half of a sweet bread roll. I think with my serving they forgot the four condiments as they were nowhere to be found. But I was filled with wonder at this extruded mound of ice tasting like a combination of strawberry and watermelon. As I ate it, it put out the flames in my mouth from the previous dish. I was happy for that.

Normally, I would have tea after a meal like this, but I was quite full. I had experienced new sensations at Kiin Thai Eatery and am curious about the meat dishes. 


Power Rangers

By Steve Herte

Power Rangers (Lionsgate, 2017) – Director: Dean Israelite. Writers: John Gatins (s/p). Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Michele Mulroney & Kieran Mulroney. Creators: Haim Saban & Shuki Levy. Stars: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Tyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G., Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, Bill Hader, Matt Shively, Cody Kearsley, David Denman, Robert Moloney, Anjali Jay, Sarah Grey & Morgan Taylor Campbell. Color, Rated PG-13, 124 minutes.

One of the best things I can say about this film is that it’s much better than the 1993 live action television series in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, an adaptation of the 1992 Super Sentai Japanese production. It was geared toward children and thus, incredibly corny, with the villains often looking like rubber-suited actors. Thanks to advances in computer generated special effects, the baddies in this story are all too convincing. There is still the element of corn sprinkled in the dialogue and the name (and acting) of the chief antagonist, Rita Repulsa (Banks).

The beginning of the movie explains that 65 million years ago, as a giant meteor was headed to Earth, the original crew of Power Rangers fought Rita for dominance of the planet. Red Ranger Zordon (Cranston), an Eltarian wizard, has his robot Alpha 5 bring the meteor down before breathing his last and blasts Rita into the ocean. From there the movie zaps into the present, in a small mining town called Angel Falls.


Five high school teens meet in detention for various offenses. Jason Lee Scott, soon to be the new Red Ranger (Montgomery), has blown a promising career as a football quarterback and wears a criminal ankle locator. Billy Cranston, the future Blue Ranger (Cyler), literally blew up his lunchbox. He’s a computer nerd and manages to trick the ankle device, thus freeing Jason. In return, Jason drives him to the gold mine outside of town where Billy believes he can set an explosive charge and free a lot of gold. Instead, he uncovers a wall of alien glass with five glowing crystals embedded in it. The other three, Kimberly Hart, the next Pink Ranger (Naomi Scott), Zack Taylor, who will be the Black Ranger (Lin), and the mysterious Trini Kwan the Yellow Ranger (Becky G.) each get the crystal matching their future IDs. These Power Coins give them super-human strength and agility.

Trini doesn’t want to be a part of a group and leaps over a very wide, extremely deep ravine to get away from them. Zack mimics the leap to get her back, followed by Jason and Kimberly. Billy hesitates and almost doesn’t make it. But in his ecstatic gyrations he falls backward into the ravine. The others think he’s a goner until they hear, “Guys! You’ve got to come down and see this.” At the bottom is a body of water with a top surface and a bottom surface. The group discovers a spaceship buried underground and wander into the Power Chamber where they meet robot Alpha 5 (Hader), who has uploaded Zordon’s consciousness into the computerized wall. Zordon awakes and tells the five that he buried the power coins at the end of the Mesozoic Era until they found the next set of Power Rangers.

He tells the story of Rita’s betrayal of the former crew (she was the Green Ranger then, not the witch she is portrayed as in the TV series) and she wants to exterminate all life on Earth. If she finds the Zeo crystal, she’ll have the power to do just that.

Meanwhile, Jason’s dad, Sam (Denman), a commercial fisherman, has to quickly take his last haul of fish onto his ship when a dangerous storm hits. Sorting out the catch, he finds the desiccated body of a woman (Rita), who, of course, is not dead. Now the Power Rangers have to train and train fast so that they can “morph” into full power armor, hop into their “dinozoids” (mechanical vehicles that look like prehistoric creatures) and stop her from calling up her titanic servant Goldar and finding the Zeo crystal (located beneath the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop). I told you there was corn sprinkled into this movie.

Power Rangers is actually the third movie in this genre following Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995) and Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie (1997). It is entertaining, with only a couple of slow spots. It has some clever humor as when Jason says, “Sorry Bumblebee!” after the Rangers’ Megazoid (all of the dinozoids in one huge transformer) steps on and throws a yellow Camaro during a battle scene. Or when Jason and a friend smuggle a bull into the school locker room and the friend claims he “calmed” the animal by milking it. Otherwise, this movie is clean in language and though the battles are violent, no blood is spilled. Kids will love it. I found it a little long at two hours and four minutes. Stay through the credits and see the obvious indication of a sequel. The principal is calling a Tommy Oliver to his office, a locker explodes and fans know the Green Ranger is on his way.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.
  

Fabio Cucina Italiana
214 West 52nd Street, New York

If you’re looking for somewhere special to dine, Chef Chicco Asante has just the place at Fabio. Though located in Midtown Manhattan, it’s far enough east to be almost secluded. I was surprised at the nearly empty main dining area at 7:30 pm on a Friday. The hostess gave me three options for seating and told me they were having live music that evening. I chose an alcove off the main area from which I could see the singer and hear the guitar, as well as admire the grand room. 


Across the room from myself, the marble wall had three sentences inscribed on it in Italian: Non si può avere la botte piena la moglie ubriaca. (“You cannot have your cake and eat it too.”), L’acqua fa male e il vino fa cantare (“Water hurts and wine makes you sing.”), and A tavola non si invecchia. (“A table does not age.”)

Vincent, my server and a man whose face bespoke a career of dining wisdom, brought me a perfect Beefeater martini and recited the day’s specials. When he confirmed that they made half orders of pasta I knew what my meal would be. After Vincent went to relay them to the kitchen, another server brought the bread basket filled with different slices of toasted bread and an olive tapenade in the separate dish.

Not too long after the singer had finished two songs in French, “La Vie En Rose” and “C’Est Si Bon,” Vincent returned with my 2013 Podere Castorani Montepulciano D’Abruzzi “Cadetto.” The deep dark red wine had a fruity, full bodied character that I loved. We left the wine to breathe as I still had some of my martini left. The singer sang a couple of songs in Portuguese (curiously, never in Italian) and my first course had arrived.

The appetizer was new to me. Called the “Panella Tartufata,” it’s a Sicilian fritter made from chick peas with a light avocado salad on top. The salad dressing was also very light and there was not enough of it to dampen the crisp fritter hiding beneath the greenery. At first, I thought they had the dish wrong, until I found it. Considering I had ordered four courses, I was glad that salad and appetizer were one dish.

In cold weather or hot, I love a good soup, and my next course was a daily special, “Cannellini Bean,” a hearty, honest soup, not too thick or thin and surprisingly, not flavored with any kind of meat. The beans were tender and not over-cooked and it went well with the wine.

Next came a half-order of “Tortelloni al Pomodoro,” fresh-made pasta purses filled with three cheeses and served in an equally fresh-made tomato sauce with basil. They were al dente, decadently cheesy, and graced by the sauce with small chunks of tomato.


My main course was another special – red snapper with scallops and crab meat in a pink sauce, accompanied by roasted potatoes, cauliflower, carrots, string beans, pearl onions and parsley flakes. It was a true taste of the many flavors from Fabio’s chef. The snapper filet was moist and delicate, as were the scallops, and the crab meat was a sweet little addition to the dish. The vegetables were excellent, with a crunch to their texture, and all had their characteristic flavors. Again, nothing was over-cooked and nothing was heavy. The Montepulciano accented everything nicely.

As I had room for dessert, I ordered the creamy cheesecake. It must have been made in a cupcake tin because that was the shape of it on the plate, next to a floret of whipped cream and a garnish of mint leaves. It was a very nice ricotta cheese cake. As I lingered over my double espresso and a snifter of Frangelico I noticed the Ultima Cena (the Last Supper) painting over the door to the kitchen and the copy of a Renoir where I sat. Fabio Cucina Italiana is a class act from start to finish. 


Kong: Skull Island

By Steve Herte

Kong: Skull Island (WB, 2017) – Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein & Derek Connolly (s/p). John Gatins (story). Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbel, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Will Brittain, Miyavi, Richard Jenkins, & Eugene Cordero. Color, Rated PG-13, 118 minutes.

Despite the attractive trailers, I was still wondering why this movie had to be made. Why would the story of King Kong need a prequel? But I was not expecting to be knocked back on my heels by this film. The story was told convincingly, the cinematography was stunning and the soundtrack powerful and entertaining. The special effects crew pulled out all the stops, introducing us to brand new monsters and titanic creatures. It even gave some plot explanations that were revealing.


The film starts with a dogfight over the island in 1944 and both fighter pilots have to parachute out of their disabled planes. Hank Marlow (Brittain) and Gunpei Ikari (Miyavi) continue their battle on the beach until Hank runs out of ammunition. He runs into the jungle chased by Gunpei and stops at the edge of an impossibly high cliff. But their conflict is interrupted by two immense ape hands gripping the cliff edge and Kong’s head rising up over the ledge like a hairy sun. The two flee and the audience is taken by the camera into the pupil of one of Kong’s red eyes.

As the opening credits roll, the years advance in the background and stop at 1973. The Vietnam War is virtually over and Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson) is looking at his collection of medals wondering what they were all for.

Meanwhile, Bill Randa (Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Hawkins), a noted seismologist and geologist, are trying to obtain backing from Senator Willis (Jenkins) for an expedition to an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean called “Skull Island,” discovered by satellite imaging. The island’s name is appropriate, since it’s shaped like a grinning skull in profile. The senator is extremely reticent, knowing Randa’s track record of hunting fantastic beasts and failing. It’s not until Brooks uses the unknown species and possible cures for disease argument that Willis gives in. The last thing Randa asks for is a military escort.

Preston Packard is delighted to be back in action and he and his Sky Devils helicopter squad are enlisted to accompany the expedition (though the men thought they were going home after Vietnam).

Randa enlists expert tracker, British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Hiddleston) to lead the intrepid caravan and photographer Mason Weaver (Larson) to record all findings. None of the men expected Mason to be a woman though. Lastly, he recruits eminent biologist San (Jing) – remember her from The Great Wall (2016)? – and Victor Nieves (Ortiz) a Landsat employee to ensure location of the island.

And now, the interesting science fiction. Skull Island has remained uncharted by a vicious, perpetual electrical storm surrounding it which cuts out all communication devices. Everyone in the crew with a brain is wondering why the supplies include seismic bombs and ample ammunition (including napalm) and are given the explanation that they’re needed for geologic surveys. With about a dozen military helicopters on board, the ship Athena (which, in actuality didn’t sail until 2003) sails for Skull Island. 

The apocalyptic circle of storms is daunting to most on board, especially Victor Nieves, but they plow through a calmer spot on the south side. Once on the other side, and everyone gets over how beautiful the island is, the soldiers start dropping the seismic bombs. Guess who notices the commotion? Kong devastates the entire flying fleet defending his turf. The survivors, which include all the major characters, divide into two groups to hopefully make it to the north side of the island where they have plans to be picked up.

On the way they encounter various native fauna; a Kaiju, a giant buffalo rises from a lake, (an amphibious prehistoric and fantastic beast with huge forked horns), the soldiers are best by a spider with legs exactly like the bamboo forest – dubbed “Mother Long-legs.” Nieves is aerially drawn and quartered by pterodactyl-like creatures called “Leafwings" with saw blades for beaks, and Major Jack Chapman (Kebbell) sees Kong wrestle a giant squid and have his own version of calamari sushi before sitting on a giant stick insect and getting eaten by a Skullcrawler.

The civilian crew are ambushed by the Iwi natives, a fearsome tribe with spears and ferocious facial makeup. But just when they think that all is lost, Hank Marlow (Reilly) appears and sets things right, telling them the story of his stranding in 1944 and how Kong rules the island. He named the lizard-like skull-headed creatures from the depths of Skull Island Skullcrawlers and informs the group that they haven’t seen “The Big One” that killed all of Kong’s family.

At gunpoint, Randa reveals to Packard that he’s working for a secret organization called Monarch which specializes in hunting “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms.” He’s the only survivor of the U.S.S. Lautman, attacked by Kong in the past and that’s his motivation for this mission. Packard wants revenge on Kong for killing his men and will not be dissuaded. Meanwhile, Mason and Conrad learn the truth about Kong and want to save him from Packard and his men. But all want to get off the island alive.

Lots of excitement, action, moments to startle you, gratuitous and bloody violence and good use of 3D effects are in this movie. The acting is generally believable, even though Samuel L. Jackson is a bit over the top in his vengeful zeal. John Goodman is actually trim; he’s lost a lot of weight and looks like he’s enjoying every moment. There were no slow sections even with a tense standoff toward the end. I found myself gripping the arms of my chair at least twice. Henry Jackman’s music is awesome and the selection of pop tunes mixed in the story – “Time Has Come Today” by The Chambers Brothers, “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane, “Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)” by The Hollies, “Bad Moon Rising” and “Run Through the Jungle” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Ziggy Stardust” by David Bowie, and “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn – are the original tracks and are appropriate where they are inserted. It kept my toes tapping.

The only flaw was a temporal one. I checked when the original movie was released. If King Kong was kidnapped (or rather ape-napped) in 1933 and brought to New York, where he died, how did they only discover him in 1944? Forget about 1973. Otherwise, the film was great, including the minimal interaction between the non-existent Kong and live actors. I would definitely recommend it to everyone who would not get nightmares from seeing scary creatures, especially in 3D. Forget about the time problem and stay through all the credits for the de-briefing scene with Conrad and Mason with its innuendos of Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah. In the words of Randa, “This planet doesn’t belong to us. Ancient species owned this earth long before mankind. I spent 30 years trying to prove the truth: monsters exist.”

Rating: 4½ out of 5 martini glasses.


Sushi Seki of Times Square
365 West 46th Street, New York

I thought I’d been to every restaurant on “Restaurant Row” (46th Street) but this one opened 15 months ago and, one thing for certain, nothing is as sure as change in New York dining.

Besides the food, the most important part of a restaurant is its servers. They can make or break one’s dining experience. Fortunately, I had Nini, who helped my through the menu and explained the specials as we assembled my dinner. For my cocktail I chose the Koubai – Hendricks gin, plum wine, campari, rice vinegar and sea salt, a beautiful shade of rich orange in a ball-shaped glass with a hefty twist of lemon peel and a brownish-red Chinese Bay berry suspended over the drink. The plum flavor was dominant and the juniper of the gin gradually insinuated itself into the mix and the citrus from the lemon combined with the sweetness of the campari to make it an intriguingly delicious cocktail.

Choosing a sake was not easy – the list was so long, but the sake I chose was in a category by itself on the list: Ichinokura “Taru” sake, aged in cedar barrels with a subtle cedar accent to the smooth flavor of the sake.

My first course was a favorite, Shumai (ground shrimp wrapped in delicate, tender rice flour dumplings steamed to perfection and topped with flying fish roe). They were so fragile it was a challenge to pick them up with chop sticks, but I managed and savored every bite.


The next course was a joint selection. I chose the Uni (sea urchin) sushi because it’s my favorite (and I learned later, it’s also Chef Seki’s favorite) and she chose the King Salmon Sushi topped with a slice of roasted tomato. Both were amazing. The slightly earthy Uni is the only sushi one cannot dip upside-down into the soy sauce. To do so will cause the sea urchin meat to fall out. The salmon sushi mixed with the tomato almost tasted sweet.

My soup arrived with the sushi. Akadashi (Aka=red, Dashi=bean) – red miso soup, with little cubes of tofu, strands of seaweed and Nameko mushrooms (slender-stemmed with heads the size of small peas). It had much more bean flavor than regular miso, made from mung bean curd. And, as with so many Japanese dishes, it was not heavy, almost a broth.

The main course was as stunning to look at as it was to taste. Aji Sugata-Zukuri – horse mackerel sashimi with ginger and wasabi. The sliced, shiny, silver-skinned meat glimmered on the plate next to a row of thinly sliced lemons. The main attraction was the remainder of the mackerel, whose head was positioned looking up, while the rest of its body swept over it like a ballerina’s arm ending in the tail overshadowing the head! And when I tasted the fish I was surprised at the lack of fishy flavor. It was tender enough to melt, almost sweet and very delicate. My sake tasted strong in contrast. 

When I finished the sashimi another server took the dish for its second preparation. The remaining flesh on the bones and head were crisped tempura-style and re-served looking like a star on the plate. It was indeed a stellar dish, the crunchy coating made the flesh taste similar to bacon. And though I had to remove several small bits of bone and scales.


That may sound like a lot of food, but still, I was hungry. Nini brought back the menu and made a few suggestions, but I knew what I wanted. The Spicy Tuna Roll, a California style sushi with the rice on the outside, was the right choice to fill me up. Though each piece had wasabi in the roll, after tasting one, I added more to each, making it really spicy. The red tuna meat inside was excellent, tender, but firm and flavorful.

I always leave room for dessert and Sushi Seki had one unique recipe that Nini pointed out: the White Sesame Panna Cotta, flavored with rhubarb and served with red bean paste and fresh berries (raspberry, blackberry and kiwi, in this case). It was a delicate, mousse-like pudding. The tart flavor of the rhubarb was merely a hint in the sesame goodness. Nini brought me a beautiful ceramic cup of hot green tea and the bar tender brought a bottle of plum sake flavored with apricots. I had come full circle from my rich orange cocktail to my dusty orange after dinner drink.



Sushi Seki has three locations in Manhattan. Where I dined is the flagship and there’s one in Chelsea and one on the Upper East Side. 


Logan

By Steve Herte

Logan (20th Century Fox, 2017) – Director: James Mangold. Writers: Scott Frank, Michael Green, James Mangold (s/p). James Mangold (story). Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Richard E. Grant, Eriq La Salle & Elise Neal. Color, Rated R, 137 minutes.


What was all the hoopla about this movie? It’s two hours and 17 minutes of plodding through the culmination of Hugh Jackman’s 17 years portraying Logan, The Wolverine. Action scenes are miserly sprinkled between tiresome dead spaces where the audience speaks the lines before Logan manages to open his mouth. And when he does, the f-bomb appears frequently among other expletives. Even Patrick Stewart as a decrepit Professor Xavier has a shocking couple of bouts of profanity. This film will go down in movie infamy with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in the category of Why Was It Made? And to add insult to injury, it starts with a clever plug for the next Deadpool movie, which is much more entertaining than the entire film, with the exception of the final forest battle scene.

The year is 2029, Logan is a not-so-mild-mannered chauffeur who drives a 2024 Chrysler limousine in Texas for hire. He’s obviously aging, drinks profusely, staggers when he doesn’t limp and his power to self-heal is diminished by the poisonous effect of his adamantium skeleton. At a rainy funeral interment he’s confronted by Gabriela (Rodriguez), who recognizes him as Wolverine and begs him to go on a mission. He wants no part of it.

He drives back across the border into Mexico to an abandoned smelting plant in the middle of nowhere desert country, where Caliban (Merchant), the albino mutant tracker, and Charles/Professor Xavier are just getting by. The X-Men as a team are disbanded and as far as they know they’re the last of them. Charles is holed up in a toppled water tower and suffers from seizures (think telepathy gone wild) that paralyze normal people and cause severe pain to mutants unless he gets his medication. Logan uses the money he makes to score the drugs to control these seizures.

Long story shortened, Gabriela has smuggled several mutant children out of a laboratory belonging to Alkali-Transigen Corporation who were a part of a breeding program to control mutant behavior. The idea was to make them into weapons, but children will be children. There’s no controlling them. She brings Logan to meet Laura (Keen) who has a DNA similar to Logan’s and we learn soon on can sprout blades from her knuckles as he does. One difference, though, she can also generate these weapons from her toes.

Gabriela and Laura are pursued by Daniel Pierce (Holbrook) Transigen’s security chief and his robotically enhanced army of “reavers.” When they brutally murder Gabriela, Logan takes her seriously and brings Laura back to the hideout. Charles recognizes Laura for what she is immediately, but Logan refuses to believe that he could have a daughter.

Nevertheless, an attack by the reavers and Pierce forces Logan, Charles and Laura onto a journey to join her with the other mutant children in North Dakota. From there they hope to cross the border into Canada to a safe place called “Eden” extracted from a Marvel comic book. On the way, they make the acquaintance of the Munson family, Will (La Salle), his wife Kathryn (Neal) and their son Nate (Quincy Fouse) when a highway accident causes their horses to escape the Munsons’ trailer. Charles uses his telepathy to corral the horses and the Munsons invite the three mutants to dinner. Charles tries to use this opportunity as an example of how endearing family life can be to Logan but he doesn’t get it. The movie is not the only thing that’s slow here.

Pierce has captured Caliban and tortures him with sunlight until he agrees to use his mutant tracking power to find Laura, Logan and Charles and soon, they’re at the Munsons home and the poor Munsons get the worst part of that deal.

At one point toward the end of the movie, Logan confesses to Laura: “Bad things happen to people I care about.” And he’s right. Bad things happen to nearly everyone in this picture. It’s more like Marvel Comics meets Stephen King. The fight scenes are wildly violent and bloody, more than one head is lopped off or run through. If you like gore, this movie has it in spades. In fact the violence is so gratuitous it didn't impact me and eventually I didn’t care who won the battle, who was the hero and who was the villain. I found it tiresome. It could very well have been done in under an hour and 45 minutes, possibly without the vulgarity. But I do know there will be another episode centering around the children. Maybe it will be better. They’re cuter.

Rating: 1½ out of 5 Martini glasses.
Pondicheri Café
15 West 27th Street, New York


More like a bistro than a formal restaurant, Pondicheri has high ceilings, an open kitchen, plastic stools at the bar, aluminum chairs at the tables and cushion-less bare wood banquettes. The menu is a single laminated card with food on one side, drinks on the other. 

My server, Rafael, asked if I wanted a cocktail. He assured me the Crocus Sativus was made with gin and could be made with any gin they had. Beefeaters it is! The menu touted it simply as a saffron spin on a wet martini. A very attractive topaz yellow, it was a little spicy, a little lemony and a delicious martini.

Rafael helped me navigate the menu, loaded with strange categories like To Share…Or Not, Thalis (a kind of dinner sampling on a tray), For the Table, and Sides. He explained each category, pointing out the full-sized skillet on the next table as the Aviyal, a For the Table selection (impressively large). I knew what to do and ordered my meal and wine.

For the wine I chose the 2014 Bedrock Zinfandel from California. A beautiful dark red, full bodied with a definite blackberry flavor and soft tannins, it had peppery finish that would accent any spice on any dish.


My appetizer arrived. The khandvi was a dish I’ve never seen in any Indian restaurant and I was glad I ordered it: soft dough made from savory chickpeas rolled into pinwheels stuffed with coconut, cashews, sesame, herbs and spices, sliced and served in a yoghurt pomegranate sauce. The coconut was just a flavor and the cashews, finely minced, added a nutty flavor, but the sauce was the amazing part. The creamy smooth yoghurt had a spicy tang to it, moderated by the tart flavor of the pomegranate. A delightful finger-food complimented perfectly by the zinfandel.

After a little while my soup was delivered. Called red beet soup, it was roasted red beet soup with coconut, ginger and mustard seeds and a paneer (Indian home-made cheese) cutlet poking its head above the soup. It was blood red, a little viscous, and had a hearty, sweet flavor. When combined with a piece of the cheese and other ingredients, it was a marvel of cuisine and an almost erotic experience.

Since I know someone from Kerala (pronounced care-uh-luh) I chose the Kerala shrimp – shrimp and winter squash sautéed with coconut, sesame, kari (curry) leaf and a ginger masala. It was delicious, but I could not detect a hint of masala (spice). The shrimp were tender and fresh and the shells on the tails came off easily. The squash was still crunchy and flavorful but the overall taste was more sweet than spicy. The rice was not basmati rice, and though colored by turmeric, it was not flavored by it and was a little over-cooked. Otherwise, it was good. 

The bread, however, was amazing. The pistachio and apricot naan was totally new to me. (I had Peshawari naan before and it’s the closest match to this nutty, sweet bread.) The mint chutney accompanying it gave the bread a minty, spicy accent.


Though I finished my main course and the bread, I had the remainder of the rice boxed up to go home as I needed to save room for dessert. And what a dessert! The signature dish for Pondicheri Café is chai pie, made with a Parle-G crust (an Indian biscuit dough), and a combination of caramel and chai (spiced tea) pastry cream whipped into a dense, custard-like filling (almost as dense as firm ice cream) and topped with fresh whipped cream and candied cashews. It was dreamy. I got so involved in the flavors of caramel and spice and tea that I didn’t need my usual hot tea.


Rafael told me that Pondicheri has been doing business for eight months now and I could see by the clientele that they are successful. I thanked Rafael for his wonderful service, picked up my takeout and was about to leave the restaurant when the hostess offered me a unique pastry. She placed it in a white bag and I popped it into my takeout bag. The nearest thing I can compare it to is a blueberry biscuit, though it looked like a fruitcake/stollen hybrid. It was crunchy and sweet and had a crunchy sugar topping. Very nice. The next time I dine at Pondicheri I will bring a friend. I want to try their version of my favorite Indian dish Lamb Roghan Josh, one of those large For the Table dishes.


The Shack 

By Steve Herte

The Shack (Lionsgate, 2017) – Director: Stuart Hazeldine. Writers: John Fusco, Andrew Lanham & Destin Daniel Cretton (s/p). William P. Young, Wayne Jacobsen & Brad Cummings (book). Stars: Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Tim McGraw, Radha Mitchell, Derek Hamilton, Megan Charpentier & Gage Munroe. Color, Rated PG-13, 132 minutes.

When searching for that element I affectionately call “The Wow Factor” in a movie, it’s sometimes surprising to find it in a film classified as a “Christian Drama.” But that’s what The Shack had in spades. The story, though a little long, (two hours and 12 minutes) only lagged in a few places but was interesting throughout. It never contradicted the Catholic dogma I was brought up in so much as interpreted it in a very simple, comforting way.

MacKenzie “Mack” Phillips (Carson Reaume later, Worthington) is the product of an abusive father (Nicholas Holmes later, Hamilton), an “elder” of their church, and an abused mother (Tanya Hubbard). He leaves home at age 13 and starts a life of his own.

He has his own family, wife Nan (Mitchell), son Josh (Munroe) and daughters Kate (Charpentier) and Missy (Amélie Eve). Missy is the apple of his eye. They all go to church on Sunday, but Mack is noticeable as the only adult who doesn’t sing with the congregation.


One weekend, Mack takes his children on a camping trip to Wallowa Lake (somewhere in Oregon) and things are going great. Missy is happily coloring at a picnic table while Josh and Kate row a canoe on the lake. That is, until Kate stands up in the canoe to show off for her Dad and overturns the canoe, dumping Josh into the water under it. His life vest is caught in the canoe webbing. Mack rescues Josh and uses CPR to bring him back, but while everyone’s back is turned, a serial killer makes off with Missy.

The police investigation ends at an abandoned shack in the woods where they find Missy’s blood-stained red dress. Mack goes into a depressed state, Kate blames herself and becomes distant, and the whole family is rocked and changed by the horror and loss.

Then one wintery day, Nan is off with Josh and Kate, and Mack is clearing the snow from his driveway when he slips and falls, temporarily losing consciousness. When he come to, he sees a letter in his open mailbox, no postage, no return address, and no tracks in the snow. It’s an invitation from “Papa” (the name Nan uses to refer to God) to spend the weekend at that very same shack where he found Missy’s dress.

His best friend Willie (McGraw) offers to go with him, but after sending Willie to get fishing poles, Mack drives away alone. On the way, he nearly gets killed in a crash with an 18-wheel trailer truck. Willie packed a revolver in the car “just in case” and Mack is sure he’s going to meet his daughter’s killer at the shack, but no one’s there. He throws an angry fit and lies down on the floor. A noise rouses him. It’s just a deer. He walks outside and sees a man approaching (Avraham Aviv Alush). Instead of retracting in fear of the man pointing a gun at him, he beckons Mack to follow him into a sunlit, flowered place where the shack is fully repaired and furnished and has a rambling rose climbing its porch.

Mack is stupefied. This should be snow-covered Oregon, but every kind of flower is blooming here from every season. Inside the shack he meets a woman he knew briefly as a child who introduces herself as Elousia (Spencer) and a beautiful Japanese woman named Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara). Mack’s amazement increases when he figures out that Elousia is “Papa” and the author of the note he received. The man is introduced as her son and Sarayu is introduced as his “Spirit.” Together, the “Trinity” work to heal Mack’s troubled soul and change his life for the better. Jesus leads him to a cave where he encounters Sophia (Alice Braga) who calls herself “Wisdom” and Papa, as a father figure (Graham Greene), leads him to where Missy’s body is hidden.

But did all this really happen? Mack wakes up in a hospital. The crash was real!

The Shack is based on the book of the same name by William P. Young written in 2007. The movie is all about Mack’s burden and how it is lifted by supernatural powers of healing. It is remarkably well acted, and dazzlingly photographed. The special effects are magical. The only thing that causes this film to pale are the oft-times mumbled or whispered dialogue which becomes unintelligible. Octavia Spencer is marvelous. Sam Worthington, even with his unheard lines, was a Pandora’s box of mixed emotions. And if I ever met Jesus, I would like him to be like Aviv Alush. As I said at the beginning of my review. The Shack left me saying, “Wow!”

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

The Oyster Bar at Grand Central
89 East 42nd Street, New York

The Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station is a New York icon and one of my favorite restaurants. With the Lenten period beginning I decided that a familiar place would be a great place to start.


The restaurant’s entrance is entirely glass surmounted by a graceful arch where the restaurant’s name is seen in elegant black letters with the menu posted between the doors under the familiar logo “Oyster” in blue, green, yellow, orange, red and purple letters.

Inside, vaulted ceilings are lined with incandescent bulbs and tiled in a herringbone pattern. The restaurant is a-buzz with conversation and it seems like every table is occupied. After a short wait, my lovely dining companion and I were seated opposite each other with a stereotypical red-checked tablecloth between us. We toasted each other with a Kir Royal (champagne and cassis) and a Beefeater martini while we set to the task of reading the menu.

The menu at The Oyster Bar is a large single sheet of paper with food on one side, drinks on the other. Anyone reading it for the first time is mesmerized by the baffling amount of choices, for it seems like every fish in the sea is listed, as well as soups, stews, salads, desserts, sides and about 30 to 40 species of oyster. It took a little while for us to decide. Though the lobster cocktail was enticing, my companion chose the jumbo shrimp with yellow tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil pesto oil. It was beautifully arranged on the plate and looked like a lighthouse manned by shrimp. The yellow tomatoes were crunchy and fresh, not as acidic as red tomatoes. The mozzarella was creamy and soft and the shrimp perfect.


I chose oysters Rockefeller, a favorite of mine. The spinach, cheese and seasonings combined with the fresh oysters in a savory, slightly salty mix that sometimes took two forks full to eat. They were excellent. I ordered a glass of chardonnay to go with the main course. 
Our two main courses were broiled monk fish with jade blend rice and string beans for the lady and broiled shad roe with roasted tomato and string beans for myself. People say that monk fish is “the poor man’s lobster,” but I would not denigrate it that way. It has a much better flavor than lobster and you don’t have to work hard to eat it. The texture is similar to lobster, but that’s where the similarity ends. 

The rice was a fluffy mixture of brown and white rice, the string beans crisp and garlicky. But my special treat was the shad roe. Though it looks like some internal organ from an autopsy on the plate, the two pods contain millions of tiny beige fish eggs with a nutty, only slightly fishy, flavor. It tastes even better with bacon but, this is Lent. This was my companion’s first taste (and sight) of the dish and, after a sample, she asked for a second. I might have made a convert.


After the Delmonico’s experience, I think my lady has become hooked on baked Alaska, because she ordered the flourless Kahlua chocolate baked Alaska with blood orange compote – a tangy, sweet twist on the original recipe. Since I don’t order it often I thought it was time for me to again experience a New York cheese cake. It’s a dense, creamy cheesecake, simply made and served with a plume of raspberry sauce on the plate. I had almost forgotten how good it is.


After a while, the crowd around us thinned out and we didn’t have to raise our voices to be heard above them. We enjoyed our coffee and double espresso while finishing our desserts. The best part of dining at the Oyster Bar is that neither of us had to go out in the cold to travel home. The subway is linked to Grand Central Station by a separate passage at the top of the ramp. Just another reason why The Oyster Bar has seen me so many times and will in the future.


Lion

By Steve Herte

Lion (The Weinstein Company, 2016) – Director: Garth Davis. Writers: Luke Davies (s/p), Saroo Brierley (Book, A Long Way Home). Stars: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman & Rooney Mara. Color, Rated PG-13, 118 minutes.

As a statement of the plight of many poor children in India who get separated from their families and lost in the bilingual system, this film is almost a docudrama. Based on the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, it tells the story of how he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and how it took 25 years before he saw his mother and sister again.

Five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) enjoys helping his big brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) swipe coal from a hopper car on a freight train to sell for two small packets of milk for his family. Neither of the boys tell their mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose) or their sister Shekila (Khushi Solanki) how they got the milk. At bedtime, later that day, Guddu gets ready to leave for “night work” and he cannot talk his brother out of joining him. At a train station in Khandwa province, Saroo falls asleep on a bench and Guddu tells him to stay there, promising to be back when he’s finished. Saroo wakes up, boards a train, finds a cozy corner and falls asleep again, only to awaken trapped on a fast moving train to Calcutta, 1600 kilometers away.

Saroo only speaks Hindi, while everyone else speaks Bengali, and no one can understand him to help. Finally, he meets a woman named Noor (Tannishtha Chatterjee) who gives him shelter and food and introduces him to Rama (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a “very good man.” When Rama sizes Saroo up like a piece of meat, Saroo concludes that the two only have sleazy purposes for him and runs away. He retreats to the corridors of a railway station but is caught by the authorities who are clearing out the many displaced children sleeping there. He winds up in this large ruined building posing as an orphanage with hundreds of other children and makes friends with a little girl named Amita (Rita Boy).

One day, Mrs. Sood (Deepti Naval), an adoption counselor, arrives and tells Saroo that they have not been able to locate his real family or his town of Ganestalay, but they have found a mother and father for him in Australia. John Brierly (David Wenham) and his wife Sue (Nicole Kidman) take Saroo to Tasmania and raise him as their own, along with another boy, Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav) for a brother. Mantosh has a syndrome that causes him to act up in stressful conditions and needs special care.


Twenty years later, Saroo Brierly (Dev Patel) is a young man on love with Lucy (Rooney Mara) but haunted by memories of his childhood home in India. Conversations with Lucy and his friends lead him on a quest using Google Maps to find his way back. Mantosh Brierly (Divian Ladwa) is also a young man but he lives apart from his parents because of his condition.

It’s amazing how Sunny Pawar stays so calm through all his adventures while other children would become hysterical. It’s almost as if the wisdom of the ages resides in him. Nicole Kidman’s performance is heart-wrenching as the philanthropic mother who chooses to adopt rather than have her own children and endure the cultural difficulties involved with it. Dev Patel takes on this tough role of a man who loves his adopted parents but has an aching longing for his birth mother and family in India. You feel every frustration he experiences trying to locate his home using a 1600-kilometer circle centered on Calcutta, with the hundreds of train stations within it. I missed him in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), but I saw him in both Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies (2012 and 2015) and Chappie (2015) and heard him in The Last Airbender (2010) and I’ve been very impressed. This role is his greatest I've seen.

I especially enjoyed the scenic photography in this movie. The aerial shots, videos on a moving train and the excellent use of ground-up camerawork which helped this story achieve an almost epic quality. The soundtrack is also excellent. Nothing to interfere with the story, only to accent the scenes and underscore the dilemma.

Lion is a little long but I was never bored. In fact I learned a few things. Saroo mispronounced two things until adulthood, his town, Ganesh Talai (which means the pond of Ganesha, the protective elephant-headed god) and his name, Sheru (meaning “Lion”), hence the title of the film.

I enjoyed Lion much more than I expected and recommend it to all parents and couples considering children. And remember to bring a box of tissues.

Rating 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Mykonos Blue
127 W. 28th St., New York

Friends have expressed concern over my choice to dine alone on my first time at a restaurant, but it has its advantages. If I don’t like the food, you have only myself to blame. I get a pretty good idea of what the service would be like should I bring friends and, if I get the address wrong or can’t find the place, the adventure’s mine alone and not my companion’s frustration.

Mykonos Blue is a case in point. At 127 W. 28th St. it’s part of the Hayden Hotel, an establishment I’ve never heard of. Nowhere did I see the number 127, either. I saw 131 to its left and 125 to its right and deduced the correct address. Only a chalkboard stand on the sidewalk announces Mykonos Blue’s presence, with a white chalk arrow pointing into the hotel.

Inside I was greeted by the lobby staff. When I asked about the restaurant a young man pointed to a marble corridor to the right of the hotel elevators and poof! There it was. No name above the door or on a sign anywhere. 


The restaurant was empty at 7:45 pm on a Friday, which I put down to it being a hotel restaurant in a hotel nobody knew about. Spyros, the young man and my server, gave me a choice of tables and I chose one where I could sit on the white leather banquette and have a full view of the entire 18-table dining area as well as the bar. 

Spyros explained that the restaurant has only been open for two days after “renovations,” by far the youngest restaurant I’ve ever visited. As I was the only diner, he took me on a short tour, starting with the selection of fresh fish available for dinner, all neatly arranged on ice.

On our way past the bar he asked if I wanted a cocktail and I told him I was a martini man. “Vodka?” “Sure, how about flavored vodkas?” “We have orange, raspberry and fig.” “Fig? Really? Let’s make a martini out of that with a twist of lemon.”

Figenza vodka uses figs from Greece and Turkey and is produced by the Behn Family of Eckernförde, Germany, on the Baltic coast. It was delicious, a little too sweet but an interesting spin on the martini.

Spyros and I conferred on my dinner choices. After 54 Greek restaurants I told him I was interested in the unusual dishes, even though the menu featured some of my all-time favorites, like youvetsi (lamb shank) and moussaka. I settled on two appetizers and a grilled fish entrée.

First was seftalia, grilled Cypriot-style meatballs on a bed of tzatziki (yoghurt, cucumbers, garlic and oil), garnished with chopped tomatoes, onions and cucumber surrounded by more olive oil. They were tender enough to cut with a fork, well-cooked at the medium-rare level and delicious.

The second appetizer arrived at the same time as the first, but in Greek restaurants, that’s not surprising. It’s always fun to switch between dishes and compare flavors. Halloumi is a dish I’ve had several times before and I’ll order it whenever I go Greek. It’s that addictive – grilled Cypriot cheese topped with capers in a citrus-mustard vinaigrette. It was a little salty, a bit chewy (a good thing) and crisp where the grill marks were. 

Spyros and I had decided that before the main course was ready I would select a wine. He suggested the 2015 Nykteri wine (made from Assyrtico grapes) from Spyros Hatziyiannis vineyards on the island of Santorini. It was perfect, with an iodine-like nose and a crisp, dry, resin-like edge.


Normally, when I order fish in a Greek restaurant I get the whole fish intact and I’ve become adept at de-boning my own dinner. The chef here does that for you. My lavraki, a whole branzino (Mediterranean sea bass), was virtually boneless and butterflied on the plate. Just the head and tail and a plateful of flaky, sweet fish with the tang of capers and olive oil. Spyros even used my dish to demonstrate the filet techniques to the diet debaters. I chose the leek rice as a side and it was wonderful. The rice was a large, fluffy grain and the tender, flavorful leeks were visible throughout. The Nyteri accented each dish in classic Greek style.

Dessert was a selection prepared ahead of time, only a yes or no decision. Baklava, chocolate mousse and galaktoboureko (a custard cake made with filo dough) all shared a single plate. All delicious. Spyros asked me if I’d ever been to Greece because of my pronunciation. Sorry, no. Just restaurants. I ordered sweet Greek coffee and a glass of Ouzo to finish my meal, again, very good.

When word gets around, Mykonos Blue will be quite popular. I heard someone in the lobby say, “They’re open?” when I entered. I also found out that they also have a rooftop dining area for warmer weather (it’s open to the sky). A good enough reason to return, but then there are all those other favorite dishes to try.



By Steve Herte

The Great Wall (Universal, 2016) – Director: Yimou Zhang. Writers: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro & Tony Gilroy (s/p). Max Brooks, Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz (story). Stars: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Lu Han, & Pedro Pascal. Color, Rated PG-13, 3D, 103 minutes.

Have you ever said, “I don’t want to see that movie because he (or she) is in it?” That was unfortunately my approach to The Great Wall. Matt Damon has done nothing in his career that has impressed me so far and I went to see the movie expecting nothing.  What a surprise!

Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro gave him a script he could handle with minimal lines and short sentences and it worked perfectly! That, and their ingenious teaser at the beginning – “The Great Wall took 1,700 years to complete and stretches for 5,500 miles and this is one of the legends.” – blasted apart all my misgivings and caught my interest right away. It even made me delve into Chinese history.


The earliest record of the building of the Great Wall was in 771 BC in the Chu Dynasty.  1,700 years later would be 929 AD. The story in the film takes place some time during the Song Dynasty (960 to 1129 AD). William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal) are mercenaries from Europe who, with a band of 20 men were traveling to China in search of “black powder” to make their weapons more deadly. More than half of their group is murdered in attacks by Khitan bandits and they are still on the run. They divide up the supplies of their fallen comrades and William makes sure to keep a large piece of magnetite – which he calls simply a magnet – to hopefully make into compass.

One night around the campfire, the remnant fellowship are beset by strange, voracious beasts and William kills one and lops off one of its forelegs. Against Tovar’s advice, he keeps this as well. With the bandits in hot pursuit, the two top a ridge and find themselves swiftly surrounded by a circle of arrows rained down from a titanic wall manned by hundreds of archers and soldiers. Wisely, they surrender and are taken to Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) of the Nameless Order, a specialized division of the royal army, commissioned by the royal court to defend the Great Wall. No one believes that one man killed the beast they call Tao Tie (pronounced “Dow TeeYeh” – although it was misspelled Tao Tei in a couple of places in the movie). The two are manacled together and prepared for execution when hordes of the creatures attack the wall.

Rather than let them die in the fearsome jaws of the Tao Tie, Peng Yong (Lu Han) frees the Europeans and they prove themselves in battle, William with his bow and arrows and Tovar with his axe and quick movements. William further proves his archery skill at a banquet held in their honor. They learn from Strategist Wang (Lau) that 2,000 years ago, probably in the Zhou Dynasty, the emperor misused his power and was punished by a green meteorite which crashed into Gouwo Mountain, releasing the Tao Tie. The Tao Tie attack every 60 years (hence the building of the wall). The Nameless Order is trained from birth in their various (color-coded) skills.

Those wearing black are foot soldiers the “Bear Troop” melee-specialists, those in red are archers, the Eagle Troop (those in blue, all women) are bungee jumpers with spears, the Crane Troop (in yellow) the siege-engine specialist Tiger Troop. The fifth troop, the horse-mounted “Deer Troop” is also in black. I couldn’t help wondering why no one was wearing green.

They also meet Sir Ballard (Defoe), who has lived with the Nameless Order for 25 years and who taught Commander Lin English and Latin, but who still dreams of escaping with “black powder.” He now sees his opportunity with the two mercenaries.

Commander Lin and William strike up a cautious friendship. He tells her of how many armies and “flags” he fought for and how many causes. She tells him of the concept of “Xin Ren” (“trust” in Mandarin). When a couple of Tao Tie mount the wall one night and mortally wound General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), they decide to capture one of the beasts to figure out the most efficient way of killing them. William’s “magnet” pacifies the beast and cuts off communication with the “Queen” (the Tao Tie have a hive mentality and she directs the entire horde).

The biggest mistake they could have made is to take the creature to the capital, Bianliang (actually Bianjing) to place before the Renzon Emperor (Karry Wang). As near as I can figure, of the eight emperors of the Song Dynasty, the closest one to his youthful appearance would be Emperor Zhezong, who ascended the throne at age nine and died at age 24. Well, things go south from there. The monster awakens when the magnet is taken far enough away and it signals the Queen, and she and the horde attack the capital via a huge hole they’ve excavated in the Great Wall – one of which the Nameless Order were completely unaware. (They heard nothing?)

It’s understandable why The Great Wall had a $150 million budget. They had to build their own Great Wall sections for sets because the Chinese government forbade them to shoot on the actual wall. That, and paying the hundreds of extras needed to defend it, made it the most expensive movie shot in China. Filmed in Qingdao and also New Zealand, the countryside scenes are amazing, with the colorful hills and valleys.

The powerful music by Ramin Djawadi emphasized the dire situation and the strength of the remarkable creation. There was even a suspenseful quiet moment with a sudden action that made the audience jump, as without warning a Tao Tie attacks. The 3D effects were put to good use – several things come at the audience (including a few jaws full of sharp teeth).

Mandarin with English subtitles is used throughout the film to add authenticity. The acting is nowhere near Oscar quality but is never unbelievable. Matt Damon, as I said, is at his best. But Tian Jing outshines him in majesty as well as beauty. The Great Wall is an action-packed fantasy providing a far-fetched (but hey, why not?) reason for the wall’s existence. I was never a fan of history as a subject, but this movie had me researching the Dynasties of China. I was fascinated.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Cut by Wolfgang Puck
99 Church St.New York

Downtown Manhattan has been in a continuous state of flux since 9/11 and the block facing Church Street between Barclay Street and Park Place seemed like it would always be vacant. Suddenly up popped an 82-story skyscraper in that spot. Nobody paid any attention because we have so many large buildings in this neighborhood. In September 2016, the brand new Four Seasons Hotel opened its doors to the first 24 floors. (The remainder is luxury residences.) In October of 2016, Wolfgang Puck opened his first New York restaurant, Cut, on the Church Street side.


I knew what I was getting into from the start. It would be a jacket and tie night; it would be expensive; and, having dined at other Chef Puck restaurants, I knew it would be good. Outside, a simple brown awning looking like it was made from I-Beams has the name of the restaurant on all sides in white lettering slashed horizontally to further accent the meaning of the word. The glass doors lead to a lit display of wines behind glass and from there to the Captain’s Station. A turn to the left and I was in the dimly lit main dining area.

Every table was occupied with the servers bustling back and forth. I received the cocktail and wine list and had a good laugh at the sheer number of three- and four-digit wine prices. My server, Carly, asked if I wanted a cocktail. When she confirmed that they had Beefeater’s gin I ordered my favorite martini. It was very near perfect.

The sommelier noticed my constant page turning of the wine list and asked if I needed help. To which I replied that I had already chosen my wine, the 2014 Flam winery “Classico” – a varietal blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Syrah from the Judean Hills in Israel. I chose it as much for its uniqueness as a blend, as a conversation point later on and for its affordable price.

Another server brought a black oblong box with thin cheesy breadsticks protruding and a small napkin-lined basket containing three of the best garlic-knots I’ve ever had. Carly was very helpful with choosing my courses and with her help I narrowed three appetizers down to two. Then she asked me a question I’ve never heard before: “Which filet mignon will you be having?” There were four different cuts, sizes and beefs. Another server arrived with a selection of meats all wrapped in white linen and stacked on a tray. Once she explained the differences I made my choice.

The young lady who brought the beef was also the bread lady, and she carried a selection of five breads. I chose pretzel roll, and sour dough with raisin and focaccia. I would have chosen all five but they didn’t fit neatly on my bread plate. Later on I ordered two more pretzel rolls (very addictive).

The sommelier had poured a taste of my Israeli wine and it had a delightful fruity nose hinting of spice, and an equally fruity, medium body taste with a slight peppery aftertaste. Excellent. My first course had arrived. The homemade tortelloni with black truffles were stuffed with kabocha squash and pumpkin and were in a sage butter sauce and sprinkled with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top as well as shaved black truffles. It was totally heaven and I said so to Carly.


The second appetizer was the Maine lobster and Maryland blue crab “Louis” cocktail with tomato-horseradish dressing. This was nothing like a run-of-the-mill shrimp cocktail, but more like a fluffy crab cake/ceviche hybrid. The shredded crab meat was the main flavor with vinegary overtones. The deconstructed “sauce” surrounded the main part of the dish and only accented it if you chose to let it.

I mentioned that there were four different filet mignons and the American Wagyu 6 oz. appealed to me. It was served with four dips: sea salt, Chinese mustard, Dijon, and red wine bordelaise. Surprisingly enough, the Chinese mustard worked best with the tender, juicy steak that was nicely blackened on the outside, while red on the inside.

The side dish was another of those experiences you wish there was more of: wild mushrooms sautéed with Japanese Shishito peppers. It had all the wonderful earthy flavors of nicely sautéed mushrooms; not overcooked, but still crunchy and with the added kick of the peppers.

For dessert they might have gilded the lily a bit. The Boca Negra chocolate dessert was served on a deep chocolate–colored plate. The tiny, rich cake was topped with glazed chestnuts and sided with a dollop of whipped cream and a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. Twin wafer cookies sprouted from it like wings. Very nice, but I would have liked it to be bigger.


Downtown Disney in Orlando, Florida, was where I last experienced Wolfgang Puck’s style of cuisine and I remember enjoying it. It was definitely brighter lit than Cut. Cut is equally up to his expertise. 


Split

By Steve Herte

Split (Universal, 2016) – Director: M. Night Shyamalan. Writer: M. Night Shyamalan. Stars: James McAvoy, Anna Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Sebastian Arcelus, Lyne Renee, Ameerah Briggs, Betty Buckley, Izzie Coffey, Nakia Dillard, Dann Fink, Jerome Gallman, Kash Goins, Brad William Henke, Rosemary Howard, Neal Huff, Kate Jacoby, Robin Rieger, M. Night Shyamalan, Julie Potter, Peter Patrikios, Christopher Lee Philips, Ukee Washington, Robert Michael Kelly, & Emlyn Morinelli Macfarland. Color, Rated PG-13, 117 minutes. 

The broken are the more evolved” – Dennis (James McAvoy).

Even though there have been movies about young girls being abducted and locked in underground, spooky places, and films about multiple personalities, this one stands out. Maybe it’s because it goes for the Ripley’s award of most identities contained in a single person. Maybe it’s because it proposes a new theory about multiple personae, “An individual with multiple personalities can change their body chemistry with their thoughts,” says Dr. Karen Fletcher (Buckley). Or, maybe it’s M. Night Shayamalan’s Hitchcock touch, where a scene builds the audience up for something scary and leaves them hanging, only to deliver the knock-out punch when they least expect it.

I will admit I was glued to my seat wondering what will happen next, even though the trailers gave away more than I would like them to have done. The opening scene introduces us to Claire Benoit (Richardson), a high school student whose father Dennis (Huff) is waiting to drive her and her girlfriend Marcia (Sula) home from school. Casey Cooke (Taylor-Joy) stands by the window and it looks like her ride isn’t coming. Casey is not like Claire and Marcia as Claire is quick to point out, that she’s been in detention every day that past week. Nevertheless, Mr. Benoit offers to take Casey home too and she accepts. He loads up the trunk of the car while the girls get in, we hear a thump and the trunk closing and Dennis sits in the driver seat. Donning a particle-filter mask, he sprays Claire and Marcia with something to knock them out and later sprays Casey when she attempts to open her door, and drives away.


The girls wake up in a locked room without windows, obviously underground and meagerly furnished. Dennis is strange and brooding and they have only minimal ideas of what he wants with them. Claire and Marcia are near panic-stricken but Casey is oddly calm and detached. Claire wants to rally all three to attack Dennis and escape, but neither she nor Marcia can get Casey to join their cause.

Meanwhile, in another part of Philadelphia (Shyamalan’s seeming favorite city setting) Barry, a talented fashion designer, pays an unexpected visit to Dr. Fletcher, his psychiatrist. Obviously to the audience and to Dr. Fletcher, this is the same man who is Dennis, and she tries to speak to Dennis but Barry will not let her. She humors him, knowing there are 22 other personalities “sitting in chairs” deep down inside him, including the original one, Kevin Wendell Crumb.

We are later treated to several flashbacks in Casey’s life to explain her attitude or lack thereof. She’s five years old (Coffey) and on a deer hunting camping trip with her father (Arcelus) and her Uncle John (Henke). Her father teaches her to shoot a rifle and a shotgun and her uncle teaches her pedophilia and is nearly shot by her for doing so. But Casey is trapped. Her father succumbs to a heart attack and she’s stuck with no recourse but to live with her lecherous Uncle John.

Though there are 24 personalities abiding in Kevin, the audience only gets to meet eight of them, including The Beast. Dennis and Patricia (another of his personalities) have been preparing the way for The Beast and the girls are a part of that preparation, the grisly end. The only personality we see for any length of time is Hedwig, an awkward, shy nine-year-old boy with a distinct lisp whom Casey tries to befriend in hopes of escaping. Later, we glimpse Orwell and Jade on Kevin’s computer and we see the other names in video files on the screen.

James McAvoy does a splendid job switching among his varied personae with an obvious mental effort that seems almost painful and he keeps the attitudes and facial differences so distinctly, you know who has just “entered the light.” Anya Taylor-Joy runs the gamut in acting, displaying at times restrained terror, interested shock, veiled concern and sly bravery. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula are the perfect opposites from Anya with their over-the-top fear displays and fool-hardy actions. But the great Betty Buckley is my favorite. I remember her from Cats on Broadway. She’s excellent as a psychiatrist, complementing, cajoling, always smiling and concerned, while trying to get Dennis to reveal his (and Patricia’s) secret plans.

As Hitchcock always did, so does M. Night Shyamalan. Look for him as Jai, a young man who loves going to Hooters’ restaurants. Another cameo you can’t miss is Bruce Willis, at the end of the film, answering the question, “Wasn’t there that guy in the wheelchair 15 years ago? What was his name?” with “Mr. Glass.” Split is one of M. Night Shyamalan’s better films. Having seen 10 out of his 14 so far I would put it way above The Village (2004) and Lady in the Water (2006), but just below Signs (2002) and Unbreakable (2000). Though not for the whole family, the gore is kept to a minimum, sexual content is only hinted at and vulgarity is nonexistent. Quite an accomplishment for a 2017 horror/thriller. As I said, I was riveted to my seat. The only negative I can think of was the scene where McAvoy, as The Beast, starts climbing a vertical wall and it’s obvious that there was some kind of wire pulling him up that was edited out – his left foot slides up the wall rather than gripping it. Other than that, I enjoyed it.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Thai Villa
5 E. 19th St., New York


Ever since my parents took me to see The King and I on the big screen I’ve been fascinated by the architecture and ornamentation of classical Siam, now Thailand. That architecture is replicated at Thai Villa, from a large tree with golden leaves etched on it in a circle on the outside to the main dining area, shaded by thousands of shimmering gold leaves, and continuing the image of this mythic tree. 

My server, a slight, friendly young woman named Aui, brought a three-sectioned leather-bound food menu along with a wine list. On the left side on the menu were listed the Classic Thai dishes. In the center are the “Privileged” Thai dishes – gleaned from the royal days of old Siam. And on the right are the chef’s Signature dishes. Looking at the cocktail list I ordered a Pandan cocktail – Old Tom gin, green chartreuse and citrus juices garnished with a pandanus leaf. Very nice. 

While I was choosing my meal another server brought a shot glass of soup as an amuse bouche that tasted like a light pea soup with hint of green curry and yellow lentils. Again, very nice.

The place was nearly full and the servers were bustling back and forth. The next time I could get Aui’s attention, I ordered my dinner: one classic appetizer, one privileged appetizer and an entrée from the same central section. I chose the 2013 Old Vine Garnacha from Breca vineyards, Spain, a beautiful, medium-bodied deep red wine with a peppery after taste.

I’ve always loved Thai curry puffs, filled with minced organic chicken, potatoes and onions, cooked with curry powder and served with a sweet cucumber relish for either dipping or pouring over. The spice level was low and only added a hint of the exotic, while the rice flour shell of the puffs was delicate and crisp and the insides soft, warm and savory. With the sweet cucumber relish it was a great combination.

The “Royal” appetizer was Ray Rai Nah Phu – minced shrimp and rice noodles with curry paste in betel leaves, topped with lump crab meat and garnished with a ring of red chili pepper. I asked Aui if this was finger-food. She said yes, you just wrap the individual contents in the leaf and eat it as if it were a taco. It was amazing. Everything was so minced together I couldn’t distinguish the noodle part, but the shrimp and the crab asserted their flavors and the curry and chili pepper merely added a touch of spice.


My main course was the royal pad Thai, consisting of prawns, shallots, beansprouts, chive leaves, peanuts, bean curd, and dried shrimp wrapped in an egg nest pancake and resting on a red banana leaf and garnished on top with parsley. This dish is never spicy in any Thai restaurant and I’ve had it in several, but not like this. I had a great time with this dish.

Not surprisingly, there were only four desserts, including a selection of sorbets. I wanted to continue in the exotic style and ordered the banana crepes. Nothing like a French crepe, these were closer to Chinese fried bananas, but with a crepe-like, crispy coating and vanilla ice cream. The plate was artfully drizzled the both white and dark chocolate sauces. Excellent. 

In the time I was there, the couple to my left had ordered a spicy tea as a cocktail before their meal and it was served in a beautiful glass teapot with matching glass cups and saucers. I had to have tea after my meal. Aui suggested Oolong tea and I agreed. The teapot had a central repository for the tea leaves and you could watch as your tea slowly darkened as you finished your dessert. I waited until it attained a deep golden color. It was delicious without sugar or milk. I ordered a glass of Bulleit Bourbon to finish off this truly royal meal.


I love restaurants that provide a transporting experience and Thai Villa lived up to everything it promised online. I can’t wait to go back and try some of the “spicy” dishes.


La La Land

By Steve Herte

Given a choice of Monster Trucks and La La Land, which would you choose? Of the movies playing at the right time in the right location, that was my dilemma. I’m that rare kind of guy who loves a good musical. Yes, they’re often sappy and sometimes a stretch to the imagination, but just as often they can be memorable and even endearing. When this happens, situations in life recall a show tune and make one laugh in a sad time or get misty in a happy one. Granted, some of them make you wonder what the producers were thinking but, thankfully, those are few and far between. Enjoy!

La La Land (Lionsgate, 2016) – Director: Damien Chazelle. Writer: Damien Chazelle. Stars: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Amiee Conn, Terry Walters, Thom Shelton, Cinda Adams, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Claudine Claudio, Jason Fuchs, D.A. Wallach, & Trevor Lissauer. Color, Rated PG-13, 128 minutes.

Growing up I’ve been accused many times of being in “La-La Land,” a kind of disoriented state bordering on confusion and indecision. So naturally I took the title of this film to indicate a crazy, anything-goes trip set to music and I delayed seeing it. Then I heard that it won all seven Golden Globe Awards it was nominated for and that piqued my curiosity. On top of that, it was nominated for a record-tying 14 Academy Awards. Hoping it was a parody or a satire on Hollywood musicals, I took the chance.

The movie opens on a traffic jam on the on-ramp to a Los Angeles freeway. No vehicle can move. So what do they do? Get out of their cars and start the big opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” of course. All the drivers can sing in harmony, dance lightly between and on the cars, skateboard and bicycle to the joyous music coming from nowhere and everywhere. The typical opening for a typical Hollywood show and mildly humorous considering the situation.

However, the film coasts downhill from there. It follows a familiar formula with a few twists. Boy meets girl, girl snubs boy. Girl meets boy again, this time he snubs her. They meet a third time and gradually fall in love. They tell each other their dreams and give each other encouragement. The dreams don’t sync with each other. Boy loses girl and they both dream about how it might have been if they could do it over. That’s it.


Sebastian (Gosling) is a jazz pianist and purist who wants to open his own club, not just anywhere, but on the spot occupied by a Samba/Tapas restaurant. He resents the concept, especially because the building has historic jazz heritage. Mia (Stone) is not exactly the stereotypical waitress auditioning for parts in plays. She’s a barista in a coffee shop on a Hollywood lot and doesn’t have to walk far for her auditions. She’s been at this for six years and wants to put on a one-woman play she wrote, which is doomed to failure.

Needless to say, including musical numbers, this movie should not be two hours and eight minutes long. Especially, when the featured song, “City of Lights” insinuates itself into every scene after its first appearance, like “Lara’s Theme” in Doctor Zhivago. If it was as good as “Lara’s Theme” it would not be that intrusive. Yet it won the Golden Globe. Randy Newman, where are you this year? At least his songs are memorable.

I was squirming in my seat telling myself, they can’t be serious. It must be a spoof. But aside from the opening, it’s didn't pull me in like a hooked fish. The dialogue is hokey and should evoke laughter but only does so occasionally. The acting is forced and the choreography (with the exception of the waltz) was cramped and clumsy. I understand that Ryan Gosling learned tap dancing just for this role. It was good for the three seconds he got to demonstrate his expertise. There were many missed opportunities for glory, late dance steps (even in the waltz through the stars in the Griffith Observatory) and too many dead spaces that had me mentally shouting, “Move it!”

Gosling was a believable character most of the time, but despite her big eyes, Emma Stone’s wooden acting could have been accomplished by a department store manikin.

The one song I did like, “(What a Waste of) A Lovely Night,” sung gazing at the typical view of L.A. from the Hollywood Hills, was cheapened by the dance routine involving (for some, hopefully comic reason) dragging of feet as a part of the “style.” If this was parody, it wasn’t funny.  

Did I have a favorite character? Yes, when J.K. Simmons shows up as a restaurant owner who fires Sebastian for disobeying his rule of “Christmas songs only” at his establishment. La La Land promised more than it delivered and could have been a really great comic musical with the right stars, choreographer and editor.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Havana NY
58 W. 38th St., New York

With the change in relations between the governments of the U.S. and Cuba, and the nearness of this restaurant to my theater on a rainy night, I chose to visit my sixth Cuban cuisine restaurant. Havana NY advertises itself as “authentic” Cuban food and has been in operation since 1991 for good reason. It’s that great.


A cool blue glow emanates from the bar on the left as I confirmed my reservation. I was led to the main dining area, a beautiful room made to look like an arcade with faux fieldstone arches leading to a street scene in Havana, complete with a parked 1950’s style car, and was seated on a leather banquette facing the arches on the opposite wall.

My server, Jesus, introduced himself and asked if I would like a cocktail. I asked him what a typical Cuban would order. “Mojitos, of course!” I agreed to this refreshing cocktail (meaning “a little wet” in Spanish) consisting of rum, lime, mint leaves, sugar and club soda. As I generally eschew the flavor of mint except in certain dishes, I was careful where I order this drink. It was excellent and I told Jesus it was the best one I’ve ever had. (I just didn’t have the heart to tell him it the first one I’ve ever had.) Jesus beamed with pride.

I mulled over the many selections on the two-page menu while sipping my drink. And just when I had my choices made, another server appeared to take my order. The efficiency was impressive. No wonder no table sat vacant for long, even though I viewed this crowd as theater-goers who would disappear in a half-hour.

I wanted to choose dishes new to me, and since black bean soup was familiar, I chose Sopa de Frijoles Rojos (red bean soup). It was the definition of “hearty” with a thick broth, chunks of potato, onion and of course, lots of red beans. Very good.

Obvious to me was my choice of wine, a 2014 Campo Viejo Tempranillo from Spain (I really did look for a Cuban wine, but there were none) and it was delightful. The delicate spice of the nose and the medium body red accompanied all of the dishes with a flamenco flair.

My second course was new to me. The Papas Rellenas de Carne – potato puffs stuffed with beef – was as unusual as it was tasty. Imagine mashed potatoes formed into a ball around ground beef and then deep fried, served with a creamy dressing, and garnished with red cabbage and corn. People have asked me if it was spicy. No, none of my dishes were spicy in the least. Just good, honest, natural flavored food. The closest Cubans get to spice is garlic. These were wonderful. I was rapidly becoming full and I knew what was yet to arrive. Both of the people at the next table had ordered it and I saw the size of the portion.


As Jesus had listed the specials of the day, the last one hooked me: a fist-sized pork shank served with a mesa of browned rice and black beans and garnished once again with red cabbage and corn. The meat was tender enough to fall off the bone and just fatty enough to be rich. The rice and beans were a little dry, but mixed with the meat and the dark gravy, they were great. I finished the pork shank and bravely challenged the remaining rice and beans, but even with my wine, could not finish them. I had to save room for dessert.

Jesus was enthusiastic about dessert and touted the Churros (think sugar-coated doughnuts formed into logs with a sweet dipping sauce). They would prove too heavy for me. 

Then he cited the Pan Leche as being very good. I agreed. A true Pan Leche is a sweet bread made with milk and looks something like a Parker House roll when finished. This was actually a Tres Leches cake with a white icing made also from milk on a beautiful square white plate decorated with a white and dark chocolate sauce skillfully placed to look like an ornamental border. The cake was moist, sweet and was heaven when dipped in that attractive scrolls of the sauce.


I asked Jesus if there was such a thing as Cuban coffee and soon I had the cross-breed between espresso and cappuccino, a dark Cuban Espresso with a foam topping. Next to it was a sweet confection made from coconut. Very nice. And how to finish off an authentic Cuban dinner? Jesus knew, and brought me a snifter of Vizcaya VXOP rum, a true taste of old (19th century) Havana. I think, If I liked cigars and they were allowed, I would have been totally Cubanized. The manager gave me a nod and offered to get me a second glass. I took a rain check on that for my next visit.


Hidden Figures

By Steve Herte

Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox, 2016) - Director: Theodore Melfi. Writers: Theodore Melfi & Alison Schroeder (s/p). Margot Lee Shetterly (book). Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa, Kurt Krause, Ken Strunk, Lidia Jewett, & Donna Biscoe. Color, Rated PG, 127 minutes.

A superb cast, brilliant directing and scripting make this uplifting film one to catch, as its two hours and seven minutes go by in a flash.

The year is 1961 in Langley Research Center in a still segregated Virginia (the property was originally a plantation). The Russians have launched four versions of Sputnik and America is desperately playing catch-up. NASA is recruiting the finest minds as “human computers” to get a man into orbit before the Russians.


Enter three young black women, Katherine Johnson (Henson) a widow whose husband died of a brain tumor and mother of three daughters, Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) a single mother with two sons, and Mary Jackson (Monáe) wife of Levi Jackson (Hodge) and mother of one son and a daughter. They join a group of about 30 other talented black women working in the west wing at Langley, computing and checking figures that come from the all-white, all-male east wing.

Katherine is a prodigy whose love of numbers and abilities with analytic geometry soon get her transferred to the east wing where she not only has to prove her superiority in deciphering and factoring, but she has to deal with being the only black woman in the building other than the custodial staff. Al Harrison (Costner), the director of the Space Task Group and her boss, soon recognizes her capability and sets her to the task of checking the figures of Paul Stafford (Parsons), his number one mathematician. Despite the excessive redaction Paul makes on his work, Katherine correctly concludes that the Atlas rocket is better to put a man into orbit than the one used to put Alan Shepard into low-Earth orbit. The pressure increases when the Russians launch Yuri Gargarin as the first man in orbit.

Dorothy is a natural leader and finds herself delegating the work assignments in the west wing without the title of supervisor, no matter how she explains it to her boss, Vivian Mitchell (Dunst). She learns about the IBM mainframe being built at Langley and how it can put all of her ladies out of a job. She “borrows” a book on Fortran programming from an all-white library before being asked to leave, learns it and can operate the mainframe before the the IBM Technicians can figure it out. She also teaches the west wing ladies how to operate it.

Mary has the mind and heart of an engineer. She also has the schooling credits to be one, until NASA adds one more class at the last minute. “Every time we get a chance to get ahead they move the finish line. Every time.” She sighs. But Mary has the encouragement of her co-worker, Karl Zielinski (Krupa), a Polish/Jewish man who is working on the design of the Mercury capsule with her. She gets her case heard in court and is granted permission to attend night classes at an all-white engineering school.

Though Hidden Figures is about higher mathematics, physics, and engineering, it is never dry. Though it’s about segregation and racism, it’s never oppressive. The dialogue and the sometimes humorous lengths the three women go to get their work done keep the forward motion of the film barreling ahead. For the life of me, I don’t know how Taraji ran back and forth from the east to the west wing in high heels (once in the rain) just to use the segregated restroom while carrying an armload of paperwork. The three portrayals are a delight to watch and their characters are true role models for young girls.

Bring a box of tissues. This film has multiple tender moments, most poignantly, Lt. Colonel Jim Johnson’s (Ali) marriage proposal to Katherine. John Glenn, convincingly portrayed by Glen Powell, relies on Katherine’s figures before he will board Friendship 7. My favorite moments? When Katherine uses Euler’s formula to calculate the reentry of Friendship 7, we hear, “That’s ancient!” from Stafford. To which Katherine replies, “But it works.” And when it takes Katherine 45 minutes to race to the restroom across the compound and back, Harrison takes a crowbar and removes the “Colored Women’s Room” sign saying, “Here at NASA we all pee the same color!”

This is a very special movie, to be seen by everyone. It gets all of its lessons across cleanly and effectively, and gives us a peek not the history we were never taught in school.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Henry’s End
44 Henry St.
Brooklyn Heights, NY

Some think that in order to be good, a restaurant must be expensive, luxurious, in a posh location and impossible to get a reservation. I could go on and on about the devastating faults of many such places. Though Henry’s End doesn’t take reservations for parties under four, I’ve never been turned away. It may look like a bricked-up hole-in-the-wall from the outside with just its bright red neon scripted name in the window, and confusing décor inside (some say it has none), but I’ve never been more comfortable. The only thing close to the first description is that the people of Brooklyn Heights consider their neighborhood to be posh. No matter, for every time I go to Henry’s End I’m greeted warmly, if not by Manager/Chef Mark Lahm, then by one or more of the staff. They remember how I like my martini and duplicate it each time. This is my version of Cheers.

This is why I make it a point to start every New Year with a dinner at Henry’s End. This year, I had two lovely ladies joining me for dinner, one of whom has not experienced the remarkable cuisine and intimacy of the place. We got a table almost halfway down the length of the restaurant, between the makeshift nook that serves as a bar and the wine dispensary.

October starts the Annual Fall/Winter Game Festival at Henry’s End (even though, by popular demand, certain dishes are on the menu year-round) and I was eager to see which ones my dining companions would choose. Let’s start with the appetizers. 


The newly initiated tried the Kangaroo Potstickers, which was more like tender ravioli than dumplings and was served Japanese style with chives and mushrooms and a soy dipping sauce. If you’ve never had kangaroo, this is the place to try it: light in flavor, and the texture more like pork.

My more adventurous companion chose the Game Charcuterie Plate – country game pate, wild boar belly, and rabbit sausage. Even though I was eyeing the pate, I didn’t get a taste before it was gone. I’m guessing it was really good.

I had gnocchi with buffalo short rib ragout over mashed potatoes. It seems redundant to have a pasta made from potatoes and then rest it on more potatoes but this dish worked. The ragout infused the gnocchi with its savory taste and the buffalo meat was juicy and tender. The mashed potatoes were creamy and performed the part of an accent to the dish.

We ordered the Pan Roasted Vegetables — corn on the cob, carrots, Brussels sprouts, onions, baby eggplant and artichoke hearts with fresh herbs, polenta, goat cheese and balsamic vinegar glaze for the table and enjoyed every bite.

In the same order, our neophyte chose the Salmon Moroccan – grilled salmon steak topped with a spiced compound butter and served with mashed potatoes. It was flaky and moist, lightly spiced, and, though I’m not a fan of salmon, I liked it. The lady born under the sign of Aries, just newly introduced to lobster, picked the Penne with Lobster Tomato Cream,  chunks of lobster in a brandy tomato cream sauce. It looked fantastic.


I had the Blackbuck Texas antelope with braised red cabbage in a juniper sauce, over mashed potatoes. I’m very particular about mashed potatoes; if they’re not right, I don’t eat them. But at Henry’s End. Mark flavors them so that they’re irresistible. The antelope is the only game dish on the menu I’ve never seen or tried. It was like a fine steak marinated in that wonderful juniper sauce – very tender and juicy, and easy to cut, nicely seared on the outside and pinkish-red on the inside.

Martinis, though perfect, are not the only drink at Henry’s End. I ordered a glass of Troublemaker varietal (Petit Syrah, Mourvedre, zinfandel and grenache), a deep dark red with rich tannins and tart fruity flavor.


Surprisingly, two of us had room for dessert. The newest person to Henry’s End was sated, but the other chose the Dark and White Chocolate Mousse – half Valhrona white chocolate and half bittersweet. My dessert was the Banana Bread Pudding with vanilla ice cream. All it needed was rum, but I took care of that with my after dinner drink: Kirk and Sweeney 23-year old rum, served in a snifter. It was almost like a fine grappa, but not as strong. The ladies were already planning a return trip to try more of the exotic game dishes and I’ll probably join them. After all, it is my version of Cheers.


Sing

By Steve Herte

Sing (Universal, 2016) – Directors: Christophe Lourdelet & Garth Jennings. Writer: Garth Jennings. Voices: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth McFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly, Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson, Garth Jennings, Peter Serafinowicz, Nick Kroll, Beck Bennett, Jay Pharoah, & Nick Offerman. Color, Animated, Rated PG, 108 minutes.

Although this is a story that’s been oft repeated, it makes classic film lovers think back to the Mickey Rooney and Bing Crosby days with a certain nostalgia. Buster Moon (McConaughey) has loved the theater since he was a little koala sitting with his Dad in the balcony watching a grand performance on stage.

Buster’s Dad worked his whole life to get enough money to buy Buster his own theater and he’s never had a hit show. Now, he’s virtually broke. Still, with blind optimism and extreme chutzpah he tells his best friend, Eddie Noodleman (Reilly), a sheep, that he intends to host a singing contest to revive the failing theater.

Buster dictates a flier to his elderly chameleon secretary, Miss Crawly (Jennings), but before she prints it, her glass eye is blown out of its socket and hits the zero key on her computer, changing a $1,000 dollar prize into a $100,000 dollar prize. She copies it into a stack of papers taller than she is and the wind blows the entire stack out the window and around the town. It turns out to be a very successful method of dissemination and there’s a long line of creatures waiting outside the Moon Theater on audition day.

Here’s where the subplots come in. After hearing snippets of dozens of songs performed by animals ranging from spiders to giraffes and snails to elephants, Buster chooses his finalists for the contest: Rosita (Witherspoon), a harried mother pig with 25 piglets and a husband too tired after work to pay attention to her; Mike (MacFarlane), a white mouse who swindles a trio of bears in a card game and buys an expensive car to impress a girl mouse; Ash (Johansson), a teenage porcupine who only sang back-up vocals with her boyfriend Lance (Bennett) in a punk-style band; a troop of acrobatic frogs; a quintet of bouncing Chow-Chow dogs who only speak Chinese; an operatic camel; and Johnny (Egerton), a young gorilla whose father, Big Daddy (Serafinowicz), leads a gang of thieving gorillas. Meena (Kelly), an elephant with stage fright, tries out but bombs because of her fear. Later, after she assists Buster in pirating electricity from a neighboring building, Meena becomes a stagehand.


The rehearsals are not without problems. Buster pairs Rosita with Gunter (Kroll) as a song and dance routine, but she doesn’t really dance. He gives Ash a sappy song and costume that really doesn’t suit her style and he convinces Johnny to play piano while he sings, even though he hasn’t played since early ape-hood. Buster assigns Miss Crawley to be his piano teacher. To make rehearsals, Rosita builds an elaborate Rube Goldberg contraption to take care of her family while she’s gone. Ash has to deal with Lance singing “sell-out” songs to her and taking up with a new girlfriend, Becky, and Johnny misses a rendezvous with his father’s gang as getaway driver on a gold heist and his Dad and gang are arrested.

But that’s not all. When the electric company cuts off the theater’s lights, Buster gets an idea to use bioluminescent squid to light his stage and invites Eddie’s wealthy grandma, Nana Noodleman (Saunders) – who looks and acts like an ovine Norma Desmond - to the preview show. The bears come as well to collect on Mike’s debt and crack the glass tanks holding the squid and flood the theater, literally bringing the house down.

What would Mickey Rooney do? The old-time memories brought back by this remarkably computer-animated film are dwarfed by the amount the producer probably had to pay in royalties. Over 60 classic pop songs are sung in part or in entirety, including the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight,” Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” and Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing.” And none of the songs are forced into the plot.

Other voices in the cast feature Jennifer Hudson as a young Nana Noodleman, Jay Pharoah as Meena’s grandfather, Laraine Newman as her grandmother and Leslie Jones as her mother. The cast, the animation, the pathos and the nostalgia combine with the music to make Sing a top-notch contender for Oscar nominations. Along with the familiar songs, there are also two new ones; “Faith” an original song by Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande and “The Way I Feel Inside” written by Garth Jennings and David Bassett. It will get your feet tapping, it’ll make you laugh, and you’ll tear up. Two words: see it!

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Zengo
622 Third Ave.New York

When you have a restaurant with a chef who combines elements from Cuban, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean cuisines you have to have some ‘give and take,’ precisely what Zengo means in Japanese. Opened by Richard Sandoval and Placido Domingo in April 2011, this cavernous corner space houses the restaurant proper and a tequila lounge upstairs with a library of 400 tequilas, presided over by New York’s only tequila librarian.

My server Ferenc greeted me with a broad smile and took my cocktail order. The Cucumber Serrano Martini – El Silencio mescal, muddled cucumber, serrano chili and citrus – was a perfect starter, a refreshing cool drink with a spicy rim on the glass and a slight kick. I selected three courses and told him to stagger the dishes in time, along with a bottle of the 2011 Flechas De Los Andes Gran Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina. The Malbec was a beautiful deep ruby color, medium body with a spicy aftertaste to compliment my entire meal.

The first course caught my attention when I viewed the menu online. The pork & caviar Shumai dumplings was a combination I couldn’t resist. Normally, Shumai are made with shrimp. Replace the shrimp with savory pork and slightly salty caviar and the Japanese dumpling becomes Cuban and, in a light soy jus with chopped chives, it was pure delight. 


Another basically Japanese course, the volcano roll – salmon, spicy crab and cucumber, all wrapped California-style in rice and topped with bright red caviar – was a festive dish. The spice was light and didn’t interfere with the salmon’s sweetness and the crab’s fishy texture. After tasting one segment unadorned I tried the next with a bit of the wasabi and the flavor exploded!

Next, a Chinese-style dish, the Shanghai strip steak over broccolini in a caramel-soy sauce. The steak was medium rare, juicy and full of marinated flavor, tender, and easy to slice. Though broccolini would never be found in a Chinese recipe, it provided a wonderful accent to this dish and the caramel sweet leveled out the soy salty. The side dish of taro fries topped with a lemon aioli added fun to the meal. After two dishes eaten with chopsticks, it was great to use a knife and fork and have a finger-food side.


Ferenc took my entire meal into consideration before recommending the chocolate tres leches – salted caramel and chocolate sauce. The large Latino wedge of soft, soaked chocolate cake was coated with a chocolate pudding-like substance, topped with white chocolate extrusions, drizzled with chocolate sauce and cocoa crumbles and garnished with a bright yellow edible pansy. A coil of chocolate cookie added a nice touch to the dish while making it more interesting in the presentation. I loved it.


I was in the mood for an after dinner drink, and with 400 tequilas in la biblioteca, I asked about the two beautiful ceramic decanters, one white with blue filigree, the other black with gold, on the top shelf of the bar. Ferenc brought the list of tequilas and indicated those I was interested in and then recommended a third, pointing it out on the same shelf. After his explanation I chose the dark one, they were both Clase Azul tequilas, but the one I chose was Ultra Anejo (very old) and was described as ‘grassy’ with a hint of pineapple. I could smell the grassy aroma in the nose and taste the pineapple with each sip. Fabulous! Ferenc was pleased and commented on my being his favorite customer. He told me what I was already thinking, I must come back to Zengo.


Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

By Steve Herte

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Lucasfilm/Disney, 2016) – Director: Gareth Edwards. Writers: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy (s/p). John Knoll, Gary Whitta (story). George Lucas (characters). Stars: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Guy Henry, Forest Whittaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Valene Kane, Anthony Daniels, Jimmy Vee, Alastair Petrie, Genevieve O’Reilly, Ben Daniels, Dolly Gadsdon, Beau Gadsdon, & Paul Kasey. Color, Rated PG-13, 133 minutes.

Back in 1977, I became a Star Wars fan. I collected the action figures as they were available and I read “Bantha Tracks,” the fan club newsletter. Six movies later I began to become jaded. What new creatures, what new effects, what new anything could Star Wars impress me with? I tried not to have any preconceptions of this film but the trailers only promised more of what I’d already seen, and, for the most part, that was true.

Similar to Episode 4, A New Hope, this movie starts with a strangely barren planet, not a desert planet like Tattooine, but remote and unpeopled. An Imperial ship skims the horizon of Lah’Mu and heads for a farm (yes, the only green spot on the world – don’t ask me why) run by Galen Erso (Mikkelsen) and his wife Lyra (Kane) and tended by their daughter, Jyn Erso (Dolly & Beau Gadsdon). Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn) and a few robotic Stormtroopers debark and command Galen to come with them and build the future planet-exterminating Death Star. Galen knew they would come and had instructed Jyn on where to hide and how to escape. Lyra is not so lucky. She’s killed by a blast from one of the robots. Rather than cause any more trouble, Galen goes.

Jyn (now Felicity Jones) essentially spends the remainder of the first hour of the movie either captured in a cell or on the run until she becomes a part of an unlikely team with Cassian Andor (Luna), a rebel who feels Galen betrayed the cause; K-2SO (Tudyk), a seven-foot-tall Imperial droid who has been reprogrammed by the resistance; Chirrut Îmwe (Yen), a blind believer in The Force; and his best friend Baze Malbus (Jiang). They seek out Bodhi Rook (Ahmed), a pilot who has a secret message from Galen. But Bodhi has been captured by Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), a tough, but aging leader of the resistance, and is now on planet Jedha. The holographic communique tells of a flaw intentionally built into the design of the Death Star which, when neutralized, will destroy the entire weapon.

Unfortunately the Death Star needs a testing and the target is Jedha City, the capital of the planet of the same name and the message source is destroyed along with everything and almost everyone on that side of the planet. Jyn and her crew escape and must convince the Rebel Council on Yavin 4 of the need to attack the Imperial stronghold on the planet Scarif to steal the Death Star blueprints and gain the advantage for the Rebel Alliance. The council doesn’t believe her and thinks it’s too risky. She and her “team” steal an Imperial cargo shuttle that soon becomes known as “Rogue One.”


Are you still with me? I know. I nearly fell asleep in the first hour. But I stuck it out. Granted there were no new special effects and only one new creature who looked like a giant fake octopus, but there were surprises in the cast. Peter Cushing was remarkably replaced as Grand Moff Tarkin by Guy Henry. I had to look twice. And it was good to see Jimmy Smits reprising his role as Bail Organa, Princess Leia’s father. The head of the Rebel Council, Mon Mothma, was again ably and regally played by Genevieve O’Reilly and we got to see cameos of C-3PO (Daniels) and R2-D2 (Vee). The part of Darth Vader took three actors this time, Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous for the character and, of course James Earl Jones for the voice. But the biggest surprise was Ingvild Deila as Princess Leia. I was convinced it was Carrie Fisher.

The musical soundtrack, which will almost certainly be nominated for an Oscar, had me convinced that John Williams was still at the helm. But it was Michael Giacchino. Still, the same glorious and powerful orchestrations (without, mind you, repeating the Star Wars Theme).

At two hours and 14 minutes, the film could have been shortened and the story would be intact, especially the sleepy first hour. It’s not until halfway through the second hour that the title comes in. The best scene is the climax of the battle over Scarif when Admiral Raddus (Kasey) of the Mon Calamari (yes, they are evolved from squids) sends a Hammerhead ship against a disabled Imperial Battle cruiser. Other than that, everything is familiar to fans.

The good part of Rogue One is that it neatly ties Episode 3 Revenge of the Sith to Episode 4 A New Hope. In fact, if you didn’t get the idea, the word “hope” is the most used word in the dialogue. It was an interesting film and I’m glad I waited for the crowds to thin. But I’m looking forward to Episode 8.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Delmonico’s
56 Beaver St.New York

2017 is the year Delmonico’s celebrates 180 years of serving fine steaks with Italian flare. When you talk of chicken a la king, lobster Newburg, eggs Benedict, Delmonico steak or baked Alaska, this is the source you’re referring to.


When my lovely lady arrived, she ordered a Kir Royale. We toasted the New Year and friendship, and explored the menu together. Frane listed the specials and we both agreed on the New England seafood chowder. It was not white like New England clam chowder but had a tangerine tint to it and was full of vegetables and tender fish. I gathered that the color might have been from paprika. We both enjoyed it.

Next, we split an order of living greens salad (leaf lettuce in a tangy, creamy dressing). The sliced radishes and red onions added a holiday touch to the various greens, all crisp and fresh. At this point my lady switched to a glass of Pinot Grigio and I had a glass of chardonnay. Another server brought a silver basket of hot, fresh-baked rolls and a silver ramekin of butter.

I’m always surprised when I hear that someone has never tasted lobster. When she expressed an interest, I suggested lobster Newburg served with broccoli rabe and fingerling potatoes. After a brief lesson in how to extract the meat (the shells were all pre-cracked and ready to eat), I think she loved it. She didn’t even offer me a taste.


I ordered the filet mignon with bleu cheese topping and a side of bacon fried rice with a glass of cabernet sauvignon. Every time I dine at Delmonico’s the food improves and this steak was perfection: almost two inches high, perfectly seared on the outside and beautifully rare and juicy on the inside. The side dish was not as bacon-y as I might have expected, but it was still moist and delicious with bits of fried egg and shredded carrots.

Again, I heard “I’ve never had…” and the classic baked Alaska – walnut cake, apricot jam, banana gelato, and meringue created by Charles Ranhofer in 1867 – was ordered. The meringue puffs were artfully singed and the apricot jam was formed like planets orbiting a white sun on the plate. I chose the chocolate raspberry fondant – dark chocolate ganache and raspberry ice cream. The alternating sweet and sour made it an exciting dessert.

We both had tea after dessert, she a peppermint and myself Earl Grey. We weren't overly full nor hungry. Just happy. Delmonico’s proved itself once again as a great way to ring out the old year. 


Passengers

By Steve Herte

Passengers (Columbia, 2016) – Director: Morten Tyldum. Writer: Jon Spalhts. Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Lawrence Fishburne, Andy Garcia, Vince Foster, Kara Flowers, Conor Brophy, Julee Cerda, Aurora Perrineau, Lauren Farmer, Emerald Mayne, Kristin Brock, Tom Ferrari, & Quansae Rutledge. Color & 3D, Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.

The Starship Avalon, owned by the Homestead Corporation, is on its 120-year course for the Homestead Colony – an Earth-like planet on the other side of the galaxy – with 5,259 people in stasis pods. The ship looks remarkably like a piece of the double helix of DNA attached to a hypodermic needle that emits a force field umbrella from its tip. This is not its maiden voyage. It’s been there and back before. And yet, in the vast emptiness of space, this time it encounters an asteroid field and the audience sees one particularly large rock heading straight for the ship. 

We hear the computer send out a warning of “Imminent Collision” in red letters, but no one is awake to act on it. Apparently, evasive maneuvers were not programmed into it. The rock hits the force field and breaks up, the Avalon is shaken and various computer screens light up red. One by one they turn green as the computer makes repairs, all except one.

Jim Preston (Pratt), a skilled mechanic, is awakened from his 120-year sleep with 90 years left for the journey. There is no way to repair his pod, and even if there were, it is not equipped to put him back into stasis. A 3D hologram of a stewardess directs him about as if the ship were arriving at its destination. He’s baffled and after a year of reading manuals and trying to get onto the bridge of the Avalon and failing, he decides to upgrade his meager cabin to first class by forcing his way in. All about him, things flicker on and off and cleaner robots malfunction one by one. His only company is Arthur (Sheen), an android bartender, who is human enough from the waist up.


Jim falls in love with Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a writer, still safely in her stasis pod. He wrestles with his conscience and discusses it with Arthur, but decides to read another manual, short out her pod, and awaken her. After swearing Arthur to secrecy about his tinkering, he courts Aurora and they become a loving couple, even to the point of doing the nasty on the breakfast table. Things are still misfiring and malfunctioning around them, but they’re having a high old time anyway. Until Arthur malfunctions and reveals Jim’s secret to Aurora. Now she hates him for “taking her life away.”

It’s not until the breakfast machine spews gallons of wet cereal on Aurora and she nearly drowns in the pool when the gravity suddenly switches off that she realizes that she and Jim need each other. And then another pod malfunctions and Gus Mancuso (Fishburne), a part of the crew is awakened. Now they have access to the bridge, but all systems look OK from there. Gus however, is not OK. He’s coughing up blood. A short session in the AutoDoc machine and they learn that he has hours left to live. It’s Laurence Fishburne’s shortest time on screen, almost a cameo. But before he dies he tells them, “Search the ship. Look for something broken, something big.”

The audience cannot help but laugh, knowing the immense size of the Avalon. The Grand Concourse alone looks like Foxwoods’ shopping area if it was designed by the crew of Lost in Space. If it weren’t so comical, Passengers might have been a romantic space love story. But the love scenes are clumsy.

Forget the science accuracy. Gus’ opening line is “Who the hell planted a tree on my ship?” Jim somehow opened a hole in the floor of the Grand Concourse and planted a small, obviously artificial, oak tree to impress Aurora. (You can see the wires in the leaves as she admires it.) The zero gravity pool scene has a major problem. Most of the water in the pool forms a huge globule, as water would do in zero gravity, but another part of the pool water forms a breaker wave that slaps Aurora down when she swims to the surface. Not possible.

Come Oscar time, Passengers will probably be nominated for set design (they are fabulous) and perhaps for costume design (Jennifer’s bathing suit is a point for that), but very little else. My favorite quote was from Arthur, “I was laughing at the man not wearing pants, then I realized, I have no legs.” And speaking of cameo appearances, we only see Captain Norris (Garcia) briefly at the end. The film is entertaining and almost believable in parts, but too close to comedy to be taken seriously.

Rating: 2½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Autre Kyo-Ya
10 Stuyvesant St.New York

French and Japanese cuisines have been melting together for a while now, using ingredients from one and presentations from the other, but this is the first time I’ve found a restaurant where the name is both French and Japanese. 


Surprisingly, at 7:00 pm on a Friday, this restaurant had only two of its 12 tables occupied. Walking around the block before entering I noticed many other Japanese-style places on the same block doing lively businesses, and it made me wonder. My smiling and highly informative server, Kazuya, explained that the restaurant has only been open for a little less than a year, and their first Kyo-Ya was already well known. Hence, the Autre, which means “other” in French. He loosely translated Kyo-Ya as a place for people, music and enjoyment. 

Asked if I wanted a drink, I remembered our location was on Stuyvesant Street and chose the Stuyvesant Cocktail: Laphroaig 10-year single malt scotch, fernet branca (a type of amaro, a bitter tasting Italian spirit), and yukari powder (dried and pulverized red shiso flakes, an herb in the mint family) and garnished with a large shiso leaf. It was an interesting flavor, as I’ve never had Laphroaig mixed with anything else. However, the resulting taste was smoky, slightly bitter, but pleasant.

Kazuya walked me through the menu and helped me select three courses and a side dish. When he returned I selected the 2013 Vinium Cellars Chenin Blanc from Clarksburg, California. It was another impressive wine from a screw-top bottle. The crispness of this white wine went well with all my courses.

My first course was a signature dish for Kyo-Ya: sea urchin consommé gelée – onsen style (slow-cooked at low temperature) egg, citrus aroma, and parsnip purée. The sea urchin flesh was on the surface of the parsnip purée in five points, topped with edible flowers. Below the creamy parsnip was the gelled urchin. I’ve had sea urchin before and I love the sweet-briny flavor of them.


Next, the house smoked octopus – sliced charcoal grilled octopus, celery root puree, and smoked soy sauce. It was beautifully white and pink with bright green pea pods on top and beyond tender and moist. The sauce formed a foam around the pieces of octopus, increasing the attractiveness of the dish.

I originally wanted the branzino, but Kazuya told me it was a dish for two people, a whole fish. I selected the roasted Australian lamb instead, with basil chili, fingerling potatoes, seared nasu eggplant (a long, narrow Japanese variety) and halved Brussels sprouts. The lamb was perfectly cooked to my specifications, juicy, tender, and medium rare. The eggplant was a novel flavor – a little spicier than more common eggplant. The basil chili added an unexpected zip to the meal. The side dish, roasted beets with yoghurt and pistachio, was a cooling effect after the chili.


My dessert was quintessential Japanese: the Azuki Yokan: a little, flourless red-bean jelly cake topped with gold leaf and swirled round by a sweet green tea sauce. This was a light finish to a diverse dinner. Normally, I would have tea after a Japanese meal but this time I asked Kazuya for his favorite sake. He pointed it out on the impressive list and I ordered it. I could taste the plums in this wonderful sake. I thanked Kazuya for widening my knowledge of sake and his meticulous help throughout my dinner. 


Collateral Beauty

By Steve Herte

Collateral Beauty (WB, 2016) – Director: David Frankel. Writer: Allan Loeb. Stars: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Naomie Harris, Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore, Ann Dowd, Liza Colón-Zayas, Natalie Gold, Kylie Rogers, Shirley Rumierk, Alyssa Cheatham, & Benjamin Snyder. Color, Rated PG-13, 97 minutes.

Children don’t come from you, they go through you.” “You don’t need her permission to be her father.” “You’re losing someone? Don’t forget to notice the collateral beauty.”

This multi-moralistic movie starts slow and plodding with Howard Inlet (Smith) being introduced at a corporate meeting by his best friend and partner, Whit Yardsham (Norton). He asks the assemblage what their “why” is. Why did they come to the meeting (aside from being fired if they didn’t)? Then he goes on to discuss the three constants: love, time and death. Yeah, yeah, and so on and so on. A good corporate speech.


Then, as the plot progresses, we learn that he lost his six-year-old daughter to a rare form of brain cancer. Howard clams up, discontinues his charismatic leadership and spends all of his office time setting up elaborate strings of multicolored dominoes and knocking them down. He’s completely withdrawn and the company is floundering, about to lose a mega-million-dollar contract. Whit and Howard’s two closest compatriots, Claire Wilson (Winslet) and Simon Scott (Peῆa), are at a loss as to how to get Howard back on track. A private investigator, Sally Price (Dowd) reveals he’s now writing letters to the Universe, addressed to his constants, love, time and death.

At an audition campaign, Whit meets a young actress, Aimee Moore (Knightly) who impresses him with her reversal of a tag line to “Shed your skin and find your life.” He follows her to a small repertory theater where she and her two fellow actors, Brigitte (Mirren) and Raffi (Latimore), are rehearsing a play. An idea is born. Whit, Claire and Simon contract the three actors to play parts in the most outrageous intervention of all time. They are to represent the personifications of the three constants and answer Howard’s letters. Brigitte will play death, Raffi time, and Aimee love. The scam is carefully worked out to appear as if nobody can see them if they don’t want to be seen and they are digitally removed from the video taken by the private investigator. All it will cost them is $20,000 apiece.

As the plan is set in motion, the film picks up the tempo as one by one, the actors interact with Howard, while at the same time becoming closer with their respective “coaches” – Brigitte with Scott, Aimee with Whit and Raffi with Claire. A double bonus is achieved as Howard’s problem is being solved for each. Whit’s daughter blames him for his divorce with her mom, Simon hasn’t told his family that his cancer has reappeared and is fatal, and Claire has always wanted children but never succeeded.

Aside from the slow start, Collateral Beauty is an excellent film. Will Smith will make you cry as he struggles with his internal fears. Helen Mirren is fabulous as the consummate actor playing a consummate actor. And the twist at the end involving the leader of an encounter group for people who have lost someone to death, Madeleine is played tenderly and capably by Naomie Harris. I enjoyed Collateral Beauty despite the fact that the trailers led me to believe that death, time and love actually visited Howard. It would have been more spiritual, but wouldn’t have worked out in the long run. This movie is a must see.

Rating:  out of 5 Martini glasses.


Jue Lan Club
49 W. 20th St.New York

Jue Lan Club bills themselves as serving “Chinese food for people who do not like Chinese food.” That would be a turn-off for me if I had seen it before dining there.


Pronounced “U” Lan, the restaurant name means “determination to create change” and hails back to a club founded by avant-garde artists in the early 1930s in Paris. The entrance is a lit, white enclosed awning leading to twin red doors. Inside it’s dimly lit; votive candles flicker on all the bare wood tables and the semi-circular, green velvet banquettes surround the tables conspiratorially. There are several rooms and I was led to the first table in one of them. The brick wall on one side featured three stained glass windows and the wall to my back was papered with a burnished gold Asian design.

I found the food menu and the wine list already on the table and as I perused both I asked my server, Geo, if there was a separate cocktail list. There was. I told him I was in the mood for adventure and asked for the most unusual drink. He suggested the Lady Dragon cocktail – Grey Goose vodka, fresh lemon juice, and rosemary-infused agave. The main flavor was lemon but in the background were the rosemary and the slight sting of the vodka. A good drink.

While I was thus engaged with the menus another server brought an amuse-bouche, a crisp little bishop’s cap filled with crab meat in an orange sauce. Very nice. Geo asked if I had decided on an appetizer and I gave him the two first courses to put in.

I ordered my entrée and wine. They were out of the one I ordered, but Geo brought me a 2013 Albert Boxler “Reserve” Pinot Blanc from Alsace. A lovely wine with the crispness I wanted, it was chilled perfectly and had a slight acid tang with a beautiful golden color.


It went perfectly with the short rib Bao buns wrapped around chunks of short rib with jalapeno, pickled cucumber and shredded carrots. The second course, crab and pork soup dumplings with beef broth, arrived almost simultaneously with the buns, but they were in a bamboo steamer and would stay hot longer than the exposed Baos. I finished the Bao buns first as they were rapidly getting cold. I love the texture of Chinese buns, a spongy, almost bread-like quality. The jalapeno was just there for an accent and did not mar the savory short rib flavor.

The soup dumplings did indeed remain hot in their steamer and weren’t there too long before I started eating them. They came with a soy dipping sauce, but didn’t need it. The crab and pork ground together made a good, tasty combination. But where was the beef broth?

I chose the main course for its description. The green prawns with Chinese water spinach, chili, red peppers and cashews did, remarkably, have bright green prawns. How did they get them that vivid color? They were tender with a slight crunch and a spicy aftertaste, which the wine accentuated magically. The entire dish was a marvel and changed my mind about prawns. I had always thought of them as an “Eh!” seafood, not too special. These were special. It was served with a bowl of sticky white rice, just as one would expect in a regular Chinese restaurant.

You will never find a dessert called infamous chocolate mousse – dark chocolate, mirror glaze, red berry compote, flourless sponge and green tea gelato – on any menu in Chinatown, much less anything chocolate at all. But this was a lovely dessert, simple, yet decadent and just the right size. If anything, it was more French than Chinese. The Earl Grey tea I ordered to go with it clinched the non-Chinese atmosphere. Then it hit me. None of the servers were Asian and neither were the patrons. I guess the motto got around. I’m almost glad I didn’t order the Peking duck. Still, Jue Lan Club is a charming bistro with comfortable seating, romantic lighting and good food and wine. It just isn’t Chinese.


Jackie 

By Steve Herte

Jackie (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2016) – Director: Pablo Larrain. Writer: Noah Oppenheim. Stars. Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson, Beth Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Max Casella, Sara Verhagen, Helene Kuhn, Deborah Findlay, Corey Johnson, and Aidan O’Hare. Color, Rated R, 99 minutes.

“Every First Lady must be ready to pack her bags.

It’s 1963 in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Jacqueline Kennedy (Portman) is being interviewed by an unnamed journalist (Crudup) on the porch of the Kennedy home. He’s trying to write an article of her version of life in the White House up to and just after the assassination of John F. Kennedy (Phillipson). She is cautious about what should be printed and what shouldn’t. As she lights up one cigarette after another, she tells him, “I don’t smoke.”

The White House was never my home, any more than this place is,” referring to the mansion where they sit. She describes how nervous she was before conducting her “Tour of the White House” broadcast on Valentine’s Day in 1962. Flashbacks in grainy black and white to simulate television quality back then add verisimilitude to Portman’s portrayal.


Over the course of the interview several topics arise, such as Pablo Casals performance at the White House, the cost of restoring the Lincoln Bedroom to its former grandeur, and of course, the gruesome assassination itself, done twice in graphic, gory detail. Jackie describes how protective Bobby Kennedy (Sarsgaard) was, even to the point of not informing her when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot and how angry she felt with him at the time. We see an intimate scene on Air Force One in the intense Dallas heat as Lyndon B. Johnson (Lynch) insists on being sworn in as president before leaving the plane (or even turning on the air-conditioning). We hear Lady Bird Johnson (Grant) cattily suggest that Jackie change out of her blood-stained pink suit before debarking into the public view.

I want them to see what they have done...” is Jackie’s rejoinder. Of course, what the public didn’t see was her agonized washing of the gore from her face, which Portman made to look torturous.

The two people who could actually be called Jackie’s friends were her social secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Gerwig), a lifelong confidante, and, later on, her priest (Hurt), who helped her understand the tragic turn of events.

Among her non-friends, the part of Jack Valenti (Casella), LBJ’s right-hand man and planner for the motorcade route through Dallas, was slyly played. John Carroll Lynch was a foreboding and scary presence as the politically devious Johnson. I was actually surprised that he sat down when Bobby shouted at him to do so.

But above all, it was Natalie Portman’s acting that made this film. Though prettier than Jacqueline Bouvier, if you close your eyes, she took great pains to get her voice right. Her walk and poise were undoubtedly Jackie. Some may say her portrayal was a caricature and an insult to her legacy, but that is not true. Jackie Kennedy was put on a pedestal by Americans who wanted a royal family in the White House. The problem with that is, the higher the pedestal, the longer the fall from it. Here we see a human Jackie Kennedy, one who knew what she wanted, knew the consequences of wrong actions, and only pursued the positive in her husband’s legacy in the public eye. She was aware of John’s actions when away from her. “Jack would go into the desert to be tempted by the devil, but he always came home.”

She noted that “Camelot” was a favorite song of John’s and that the myth grew from there, but as all Broadway show-goers know, Camelot had its own internal problems and was not a utopia. As a whole, the film moved well and was interesting. The old-time television effect was well done if you were there to have actually seen it. My only complaint was with the musical soundtrack. The creepy glissandos up and down made it sound more like a science fiction movie than a biopic. It could be nominated for best film, but for sure, we’re going to see a best actress nomination.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Black Ant
60 2nd Ave., New York

According to Aztec mythology, the god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, transformed into the Black Ant (La Hormiga Negra) and found corn and seeds for his people, thus instituting agriculture and feeding them.


This two-year-old modern Mexican restaurant is presided over by master mixologist Jorge Guzmán from the Dominican Republic and Chef Mario Hernandez hailing from Cuernavaca, Mexico. Together, they create innovative potions and daring dishes in a friendly restaurant almost as dim as an ant’s burrow.

The adventure of my first time actually eating insects was integral in my decision to dine at The Black Ant, but, to tell you the truth, I did not notice anything radically different in any of the dishes.

I ordered the Climbing Ant (why not?) a tall glass of  Alacrán Reposado Tequila, aperol, melon, agave, lemon, mole bitters and sal de gusáno (worm salt, made from ground up tequila worms – more accurately, larvae) lining the glass rim, garnished with a bouquet of mint leaves. For those who are curious, there was no flavor other than smoky salt to the rim encrustation. The drink could have been one of many tequila-based cocktails, heady and fruity.

Abarca, my server, helped me select my courses. I chose two from the para las hormigas (for the ants, or small plates) section and one from the main course section. As there were only three red wines on the list, I chose one I never had, The 2014 Salento Susumaniello (a breed of grape) red wine, from Brindisi, Italy. It was remarkable. The deep red (almost purple) color, together with an edgy, fruity nose promised something special, and the smoky, smooth flavor with light tannins told me this was going to be amazing. When paired with my dishes, it stayed in the background with the sweeter foods and added an intriguing edge to the spicier ones.

My first course was a ceviche (marinated raw fish) of Kampachi (Hawaiian yellowtail), cantaloupe-habanero gazpacho, cacahuachintle (a corn like hominy), and ant powder (yes, made from ground-up ants – again, not noticeable). The main flavor was from the sweet and slightly tart cantaloupe sauce. The fish was sliced neatly and tender and the dish was garnished with cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumber, mini squash and cress.


My next dish, the croquettas de chapulín (grasshoppers), were yucca-manchego croquets rolled into balls and deep fried, then anchored to a square of black slate by a green chapulín salsa, sided with a ramekin of huitlachoche (a fungus that forms on corn, called a smut) sauce and garnished with fried grasshoppers. Not the big locust variety, these were more like large crickets. In fact, I didn’t even notice them; it could have been the lighting. They were bite-sized. I took one onto my fork, dipped it in the sauce and popped it whole into my mouth. I could taste the cheese and the earthy yucca, a spicy tartness from the salsa, and the wonderful truffle-like earthiness from the huitlacoche. Only a crunch identified the garnish.

On Abarca’s recommendation, I kept the remaining huitlacoche sauce for my main course. The buῆuelos de pato – crispy duck dumplings with fried plantains and topped with Oaxacan mole negro (a chocolate/jalapeno sauce) and queso fresco (fresh cheese) – was delightful. The sauce was poured over the dumplings after the dish was served and the cheese was crumbled over that. The dumplings never lost their crispiness and the duck was juicy and tender.

I almost forgot my side dish, the cactus fries, long, thin deep-fried fingers of cactus, breaded with more sal de gausano and chilpaya (chili pepper). Cactus does not have much of a flavor on its own (it’s a fleshy vegetable texture and a slight crunch), but the other ingredients make the dish stand out.




Choosing a dessert after that was not easy. The gansito – tortilla crust, frozen strawberry mousse, marshmallow and strawberries – had all the ingredients I love. But then I looked at the ice creams and sorbets. I could select one scoop or three and I chose three. The sweet corn ice cream was just that, a truly different flavor for dessert, The jalapeno-cucumber sorbet had a little spicy kick, but at the same time it had the coolness of cucumber. The prickled (I think they meant prickly) pear sorbet was a beautiful deep rose color and had the sweet/tart flavor of the cactus it was made from.


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

By Steve Herte

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (WB, 2016) – Director: David Yates. Writer: J.K. Rowling. Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Sam Redford, Johnny Depp, Scott Goldman, Tom Bentnick, Tom Clarke Hill, Tristan Tait, Colin Ferrell, Matthew Sim, Katherine Waterston, Samantha Morton, Dan Fogler, Ezra Miller, Carmen Ejogo, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Zoe Kravitz, Ron Perlman, Jenn Murray, & Cory Peterson. Color, Rated PG-13, 133 minutes.

How do you catch a beast you cannot see?” “With great difficulty.”

Indeed, trying to catch a “demiguise” when it’s invisible can be challenging but not for Newton Artemis Fido “Newt” Scamander (Redmayne), a magizoologist who is collecting and cataloging rare magical creatures and keeping them in his suitcase. (When visible, a demiguise looks like a blue-furred sloth with big, sad eyes.)


It is 1926 in New York City, 70 years before Harry Potter even got started, according to writer J.K. Rowling. Newt arrives by boat searching for a much rarer creature, a “Niffler" – in appearance, a short-tailed platypus – which has eyes for gold and sparkling things and a pouch to store them in. What he doesn’t know is that an “obscuros" is also loose in the city and it has already destroyed one building and torn up a street.

Newt’s plans are upset when he meets Mr. Jacob Kowalski (Fogler) a man with a dream of opening a bakery and who has an identical suitcase, but his is full of sample baked goods. The suitcases are destined to be switched (and are). Mr. Kowalski becomes curious when one clasp mysteriously pops open and he lets out a few of the creatures within, one of which bites him.

The escape alerts an agent of MaCUSA (The Magical Congress of the United States of America) – an organization of wizards in a parallel universe inside New York’s Woolworth Building. Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Waterston) arrests Newt for breaking the laws of the organization. Unfortunately, her status in MaCUSA is tenuous at best and her arrest makes no impression on her superiors, Seraphina Picquery (Ejogo) and the sinister looking Mr. Percival Graves (Farrell). It is only with clever trickery that they get themselves and the suitcase back to her apartment.

Tina helps Newt find Mr. Kowalski and they bring him to her apartment where Newt can cure him of the beast bite. But Jacob falls instantly in love with Tina’s roommate, a vivacious red-head. After showing Jacob the world he has hidden in the suitcase and demonstrating that these fearsome creatures are really gentle when treated right, the three go in search of the escapees, one of which is an “Erumpent” – a huge rhinoceros-like creature that is in heat and is tearing up the local zoo looking for a mate.

MaCUSA has their own major problem, as witnessed by the opening credits. The evil Grindelwald (Depp) has escaped captivity and threatens to start a war between the wizards and the No-Maj world (people with no magic, or Muggles in the Potter universe). In addition, a No-Maj named Mary Lou Barebone (Morton) is preaching against witches from the town hall steps with her children Chastity (Murray), Credence (Miller), and Modesty (Wood-Blagrove) and whipping up support for her cause.

When presidential candidate Senator Langdon Shaw is killed by the rampaging obscuros, his father joins the movement against witches. This makes MaCUSA’s situation even direr.

Newt, Tina, Queenie and Jacob have to set things right before armed camps form and more deaths result. Their searches take them to meet the mysterious Lestrange (Kravitz) and the avaricious gnome Gnarlack (Perlman) at the Blind Pig Speakeasy. Gnarlack’s information costs Newt his timorous leafy green Bowtruckle – a creature who can pick locks.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a stunningly beautiful film with remarkable special effects and must be seen in 3D, which it uses to full capability. The animation is excellent, the soundtrack powerful and the script is eminently quotable. My favorite line is, “Worrying makes you suffer twice.”

The only weakness in the movie is the delivery of lines. Eddie Redmayne plays the self-effacing and modest collector well but mumbles several sentences incoherently. If I were director David Yates I’d be screaming, “What did you say?” over and over. Katherine Waterston has this problem too. Otherwise, the acting is splendid and the characters are believable. Especially, the police who line up and repeatedly shoot at something that has no body to speak of. The two hours and 13 minutes passed before I knew it. I would like to see a sequel to this film.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Clock Tower
5 Madison Ave., New York

Did you ever wonder what happened to the iconic Metropolitan Life Building (the one pictured on all their stationary – with the golden pyramid on top) after the insurance company bought and moved into the former Pan Am Building? It’s now the Edition Hotel and houses an elegant restaurant called The Clock Tower.


An inducement for my choosing The Clock Tower was the menu. Billed as being British cuisine, the listings on the menu were anything but the expected fare in an English pub.

When I met Carla, my server, I had had just enough time to view the cocktail list. But I knew that there was no place else in the universe where I could get a perfect Beefeater martini if I couldn’t get one here and I was right. The menu had English ingredients in almost every dish but with a stylish twist. I could have had king crab legs as an appetizer, but I wanted to seek the extraordinary.

Like magic, the wine steward appeared and I told him what I had ordered and what qualities I wanted in a wine. He steered me to the red wines from Spain and I chose the 2009 CVNE Viῆa Real, Gran Reserva Rioja. I had specified an elegant, full-bodied red with deep fruits and this one definitely fit the description. It even brought out finer flavor in the first course.

I admit I’m not a fan of salmon. I like Nova Scotia lox and the occasional salmon sushi, but I never order a main course of salmon. But the London gin cured salmon with salt baked beets, fennel pollen, and horseradish ice was on another level of reality. The salmon was delicate and delicious and, when combined with the other ingredients, divine. When a taste of the rioja enhanced that, I was in disbelief.


Next was the “winter leaf salad,” with smoked figs, black walnuts, watermelon radishes and fresh honeycomb. It looked like a bigger portion than it was but that was only the excess of frisée. The figs were julienne cut and the walnuts were candied. The light dressing did not overpower the individual flavors and the occasional honeycomb was a tasty, sweet surprise each time.

The competition between the “Long Island duck” and the “pan-roasted striped bass” was tough but the Colorado lamb chops (medium rare) in a spiced pistachio crust, with mixed grains, caramelized yoghurt, and artichokes won my choice of main course. They were appetizingly crossed and leaning on the other ingredients, the perfect shade of pink, tender enough to cut with a fork and delicious.

My dessert was pistachio soufflé with a ball of chocolate ice cream served separately finished a truly delightful dining experience. I had my traditional double espresso but this time, I had a nice glass of green Chartreuse with it.


But it wasn’t yet over, for Carla brought out a tray of homemade cookies and candies. I haven’t been served like this in many years. I started wondering what it would be like to stay at this hotel and come down here for breakfast. Who knows? Maybe even this will happen.


Doctor Strange

By Steve Herte

Doctor Strange (Marvel/Disney, 2016) – Director: Scott Derrickson. Writers: Stan Lee, Steve Ditko (comic book). Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill (s/p). Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelson, Tilda Swinton, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Phythian, Alaa Safi, Katrina Durden, Topo Wresniwiro, Umit Ulgen & Linda Louise Duan. Color, Rated PG-13, 115 minutes.

I’ve been waiting for a long time for a movie to blow me away and this one did it in spades. The special effects alone are mind-boggling. I’ve never been on a drug trip, but I can imagine one now. Combine elements of a kung-fu film with an Escher masterpiece and sprinkle in a little Harry Potter, then put it all in a blender and splash it on the screen. It’s the first blockbuster to deserve the title this year. And to think the character Dr. Strange first made his appearance in 1963 in Marvel Comics when I was three years old.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), who bears a striking resemblance to Vincent Price, is a consummate neurosurgeon and he knows it. His operations are just as much a stage show as a life and death situation. When fellow surgeon Dr. Nicodemus West (Stuhlbarg) fails to accomplish a procedure, Strange publicly embarrasses him in the operating theater. Strange is super-confident and full of himself. That is until he drives way too fast in his sports car in the rain, and has a horrific accident which leaves his hands virtually useless.

Girlfriend and fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (McAdams) loves Strange and has been patient with him up to this point. But she leaves him when he seems completely out of touch with reality. Strange learns of a paraplegic Jonathan Pangborn (Bratt) who was completely cured after all medical knowledge failed him and begs him to reveal how. (Strange refused to operate on Pangborn because the case wasn’t high profile enough.)

Pangborn eventually tells him, but with a warning, to seek out the Ancient One (Swinton) who lives in a hidden compound called Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu, Nepal. He spends the last of his savings to get there, pretty much insults the Ancient One by expecting her to be a man, and is thrown out after getting a small taste of her powers. (She temporarily separates his astral form from his body.)

Kamar-Taj has its own problems though. Master Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) has led a small rebellion against the Ancient One and has stolen pages from a book of spells which will open up a doorway to the Dark Dimension and allow Dormammu, a powerful evil into the world. Of course this means killing the librarian at Kamar-Taj. Here the movie almost echoes Star Wars.


After nine days of entreaty and desperate banging on the door to Kamar-Taj, Strange is allowed in again and is permitted to train with Karl Mordo (Ejiofor). His impatience and thirst for knowledge lead Strange to the library and the new librarian, Wong (Wong) tries to dissuade him from learning too fast without knowing the consequences of this knowledge. But when the Ancient One strands him on Mount Everest and he’s forced to use his training to create a “portal” to get back, he uses this power to swipe books from the library.

As a part of his training, Mordo informs Strange that each master has a special weapon, and it’s the weapon that chooses the master, not the other way around. When Kaecilius and his followers attack Kamar-Taj, a red cape floating in a display case chooses Strange – the Cape of Levitation. There’s some hints of Harry Potter here as well. We follow Strange in his mystical progress as he unwittingly becomes a kind of superhero who uses the Eye of Agamotto, a pendant containing an infinity stone to reverse time and fight off Kaecilius and his minions.

Dr. Strange is a visually stunning, sometimes dizzying movie with the forward motion of a runaway train down a mountain. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the best role I’ve seen him in and nails the part. He has the kind of look you want to trust but know you shouldn’t, but you like him anyway. Rachel McAdams is good at portraying the long-suffering, faithful lover who would still do anything for this self-involved genius. Tilda Swinton is a great choice for the Ancient One. She’s inscrutable, yet vulnerable, intensely focused, yet tempted to distraction around Strange. And Mads Mikkelsen is such a stereotypical villain, one expects him to say, “Nyah-ah-ah!” and twirl a long mustache.

Like Tony Stark, Dr. Strange has all the comic lines and sarcasm in the well-written script and some of them are really funny. When Mordo shows Strange his room, he hands him a card on which is written the word “Shambala.” “What is this? My mantra?” says Strange. “It’s the wifi password. We’re not savages,” answers Mordo. The Ancient One gives new meaning to “It’s not all about you.”

The only thing this movie is weak in is pathos, otherwise it’s excellent. The 3D effects work well without throwing something at the audience, the blood is kept to a minimum and there’s no vulgarity that I noticed. Children who can understand what’s going on will love it. I kept thinking how the last scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey would go from lame to “Wow” with today’s technology. And…there will be a sequel. Stay through the first set of credits at the end for proof. My question is, how can they top this film?

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Tuck Room
11 Fulton St. – Third FloorNew York

It’s been four years since Superstorm Sandy devastated downtown Manhattan, with South Street Seaport and Pier 17 beating the brunt of it. The rebuilding process has been long and laborious as well as costly. Some businesses never reopened.

But one month ago, The Tuck Room was established in the newly-renovated Fulton Market Building in South Street Seaport. It was from the east side of this building that the Fulton Fish Market operated until it was transferred to The Bronx. I remember that I could still smell fish when I crossed South Street at lunch time. The three restaurants that were in the market building are long gone, but the place is bustling once again.


I saw the restaurant name in art deco letters over the entrance a little to the right of the main doors to the market. Two escalators later I was at The Tuck Room. The interior featured one wall completely made from stacked books. An artist had painted a dance scene over some of the bindings representing two women dancing with three men who had animal heads; a bear, a horse and an elephant.

A bubbly blond server, Larissa, introduced herself and presented the menu book, bound in leather. She gave me a little time to look through it before asking if I wanted a drink. I exclaimed that it wouldn’t be right to pass up a drink with a name (and detailed description) of Empire State of Mind Manhattan – Hillrock Hudson Valley Estate 20-year Oloroso Sherry, Cask Finished Solera Bourbon, Balsam New York State Single Vineyard sweet vermouth, homemade maraschino cherries and Truffe Amere Winter Black Perigord truffle bitters. It was everything promised, not your usual sweet flavor, but a mature, rich slightly tangy quality.

While waiting for the first course I selected my wine – a 2013 “Baby Amarone” blend “Palazzo Della Torre” from Allegrini vineyards in Veneto, Italy. It’s comprised of 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella and 5% Sangiovese grapes for an earthy, mild spice, all-purpose, delicious red table wine. The wine steward proudly brought it out for tasting and offered to decant it. I agreed. It was lovely.

The first dish to arrive was my appetizer. The six “Reuben Croquettes,” basically potato croquettes with crispy pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and a “Thousand Island” sauce provided an unusual twist to a fairly ordinary appetizer. I enjoyed them, very different.

I decided to test the restaurant for the next dish. I haven’t had a Caesar salad in a long time and the reason is that it’s never made right. The Tuck Room calls theirs the Classic Caesar with hearts of Romaine, garlic croutons, shaved parmesan, and Caesar dressing. It was almost perfect. The romaine was crisp and fresh, the cheese visible and sliced right, and the croutons fresh also, not hard as rocks. The best part, no anchovies in sight!


My main course was the Chinatown Duck – shredded with pickled vegetables in a hoisin-sesame glaze with scallions, garnished with watermelon radishes, sided with three ginger and carrot bao (Chinese buns) and served on a cutting board. It was almost like a deconstructed Peking duck and was as much fun to eat as to look at. The buns were exactly as the Chinese would make, soft and moist, the duck tender and savory and the pickled vegetables mixed with the tart/sweet hoisin sauce to create a circus of flavor.

The mixologist at the bar has a device called a Heizenberg that uses liquid nitrogen to cool the drinks and Larissa treated me to their “shot” with the main course. I tasted mild vodka and something like flat ginger ale. It was indeed very cool and it complimented the duck nicely, but I stayed with my lovely wine.



The three desserts on the menu all sounded too large; maybe next time. I was too interested in this Heizenberg thing. I ordered “the cocktail” as a dessert drink. It was strong, citrusy and refreshing and had a large slab of pineapple as a garnish. I definitely have to return, if for nothing else to explore the Market Building and possible movies.


Inferno

By Steve Herte

Inferno (Columbia, 2016) – Director: Ron Howard. Writers: David Koepp (s/p), Dan Brown (novel). Stars: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ben Foster, Ana Ularu, Ida Darvish, Paolo Antonio Simioni, Alessandro Grimaldi, Fausto, Maria Sciarappa, Gábor Urmai, Robin Mugnaini, Paul Ritter, Vincenzo Tanassi, & Alessandro Fabrizi. Color, Rated PG-13, 121 minutes.

If you’re looking for the Indiana Jones-style plot of The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009) in this third installation, get that out of your head right now. The cosmic nature of the first two films is lost in the down-to-earth terrorism of the third. It seems we can’t get enough of that today.

Robert Langdon (Hanks), a Cambridge professor and symbologist, awakes in a hospital in Florence, Italy, thinking he’s still in Boston. His beautiful doctor, Sienna Brooks (Jones) questions him like an FBI agent though it’s clear he has amnesia (even she admits that) and when assassin Vayentha (Ularu) arrives with guns blazing, she hustles him out of the hospital and into a cab with the efficiency of the Mission: Impossible team. The questions begin for the audience. What hospital door not only locks, but resists bullets from an automatic weapon?

Meanwhile, billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zobrist (Foster) is being chased by Christoph Bouchard (Sy) working for the World Health Organization to the top of a campanile (bell tower) of a church in the same town, from which he plummets to his death rather than be captured. It seems that Zobrist is obsessed by overpopulation and has engineered a plague that will kill off half of people on Earth (How in the world can he know that? It didn’t work that way in Stephen King’s The Stand.) and like all fictional sociopath geniuses, has given those who would stop him 24 hours to find it. With Zobrist out of the picture, Bouchard teams up with Elizabeth Sinskey (Knudsen), head of WHO and former love interest, to find Langdon, the only man who can read the clues and find the plague virus.

If that weren’t enough we have Harry Sims (Khan) who works for a mysterious company called “The Consortium,” Zobrist’s major competitor, and who “cleans up” messes (like dead bodies) leading a third team to find the poor, beset Langdon.


But Langdon doesn’t remember the last 24 hours and the memories are only coming back in several painful dribs and drabs. Sometimes they help and sometimes they make the mystery more confusing. The best part about it is that Langdon has learned nothing from the previous two movies. He should know not to trust anyone because no one is who they appear to be. But you know he’ll figure it out by the end of the movie.

The title refers to the name given the plague virus and it in turn was taken from Dante’s Inferno and his nine circles of Hell, depicted in a Botticelli painting. Langdon is in possession of a Faraday pointer which can project said painting on a wall. But the painting has been altered and the circles are in the wrong order. This gives him his first clue. It leads him and Dr. Brooks to the Uffizi Gallery to seek out the death mask of Dante. Marta Alvarez (Darvish), a pregnant curator familiar with both Langdon and the mask, leads them to the empty display case. The security tapes reveal that Langdon and his friend Ignazio Busoni (Urmai) are the ones who stole it. Now the Italian police are after him, along with the other three groups. This could be an old-time comedy with Charlie Chaplin with the right music.

Knowing that Tom Hanks has to stay alive until the end of the movie makes every getaway pedestrian and not that exciting, not even when the two are negotiating the ceiling rafters of the Uffizi. There is only one exciting scene and it’s at the climax of the movie during an orchestral concert in the cistern underneath the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. Up until that point I was shifting regularly in my seat. At two hours and one minute, it needs cutting, but I could not say where. Maybe the scene in the rain where Tom Hanks almost looks like John Wayne. The strange camera angles were not only distracting but at times dizzying; from the bottom of a car door shooting up, the tail of a plane entering clouds, and the like.

From what I’ve read of other reviews, the story is a radical departure from the book as well. Hmm. Aside from the one scene, Hanks is the best part of this film and the only draw. He is superb, but his character is a bit of a disappointment. The rest of the cast was just along for the ride. But on the positive side, there were only two four-letter words in the entire movie and they were justified. The gore is kept to a minimum though the sound effects of stabbing are unnerving. The cinematography is excellent and it brought back pleasant memories of my times in Italy. I came out of the theater with one quote from Zobrist, “Our population is spiraling out of control. Inferno is the cure.” But did I believe it? No.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Death Avenue Estiatorio & Zythopoielo
315 10th Ave., New York

Who in the world would name a charming Greek restaurant “Death Avenue?” I thought they might have used the Greek word Thanatos, which is much more romantic than the stark English word “Death.” But I admit, being so close to Halloween, it drew me in.


The restaurant gets its name from a time in New York when railroad tracks ran down 10th Avenue and was dubbed “Death Avenue” due to the number of fatal accidents. It has been operating successfully for five years with beautifully paneled wooden doors opening to cream colored walls, heavy, ornately gilded mirrors, and faux Medieval chandeliers..

My hostess led me through a mini-labyrinth to a hidden room in back. Only five bare-topped, polished wood tables were in the room with simple wooden chairs and equally bare-topped banquettes. As soon as I was seated I met my server, Michael, and ordered a Black Ink Martini – Singani 63 (a Bolivian brandy), agave, lime juice, sweet vermouth and squid ink. I know it sounds a little disgusting. It was limey-flavored and strong. I liked it.

Michael, my waiter, was invaluable in selecting my dinner courses. When we had the dinner order set, we discussed wine, and he asked what kind of wine I liked. He suggested the 2013 “Staphylus” blend of Xinomavro and Cabernet Sauvignon from Chatzivariti vineyards, Goumenissa, Greece, a new wine on their list, and offered me a taste. It was exciting, a nose of fine wood in an old library and a taste of deep tannins with a leathery smooth overtone. It was the taste of antiquity. He explained that Staphylus means grapes in ancient Greek and the name also refers to a legend on the back label of the wine bottle.


Michael and I had decided that the appetizer and side dish should arrive first and soon I was presented with the eight-hour octopus – sushi grade Portuguese octopus slowly braised in an earth oven for eight hours and flash grilled. Its artfully posed tentacles rested on a bed of red and white beans, onions and spices and all was coated with parsley leaves. 

The eight hours were well spent. The octopus was almost tender enough to cut with a fork. Octopus doesn’t taste like any fish. It’s closer to conch (that’s scungill to Italians) in flavor and texture and has the “dusty” consistency of chick peas.

The side dish was a new favorite of mine, fried pickles. Only this time, they were Greek style, served with tzatziki (a Greek yoghurt sauce), skordalia (mashed potatoes with lots of garlic) and barbeque sauce. 

Michael warned me about how hot this dish was, but after the first pickle, they were finger food. In fact, mixing the tzatziki with the barbeque sauce made a delicious new flavor. The pickles were sliced and simply breaded and deep fried.


Next was the entree: lamb shank braised over a light tomato sauce with chopped vegetables and home-made Hilopite pasta (otherwise known as orzo). Michael sided it with an extra order of skordalia because I raved over it. As expected, the lamb shank fell of the bones with the touch of a fork and was rich, tender and had just enough fat to enhance the flavor. My only comment was that the orzo was over-done and not solid enough. Homemade pasta cooks very fast and disintegrates if over-cooked.

By now Michael was asking me if I was Greek. He said I look like one and eat like one (and can pronounce the names of the dishes) and that was enough for him. It was dessert time and Michael listed only two. I asked which was more Greek. That’s how I got the “spiced fig bread pudding” with a big ball of vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup. Unfortunately, they did not make Greek coffee, and I settled for my usual double espresso. Michael was surprised that I ordered a glass of Ouzo neat. He commented that it was strong that way. I reminded him that it was the same thing he said about the martini and the wine and he told me the dessert, coffee and drink were on the house.


Michael and I were buddies now and he helped me negotiate the mini-maze to the rest room. I asked for a business card, we gave each other a bro-hug and I left feeling very content. Next time, I must try their tacos. I learned a history lesson and had a great meal at the same place.


Keeping Up With The Joneses

By Steve Herte

Keeping Up With The Joneses (20th Century Fox, 2016) – Director: Greg Mottle. Writer: Michael LeSieur. Stars: Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot, Patton Oswald, Ming Zhao, Matt Walsh, Maribeth Monroe, Michael Liu, Kevin Dunn, Dayo Abanikanda, Henry Boston, Jack McQuaid, Ying He, & Yi Dong Hian. Color, Rated PG-13, 105 minutes.


Jeff Gaffney (Galifianakis) lives in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, and works as a personnel relations manager for MBI Company. He and his wife Karen (Fisher), a home decorator, live in a charming house on a cul-de-sac. The day-to-day life includes cleaning up after Dan Craverston’s (Walsh) twin bulldogs. Dan is a rocket scientist who also works at MBI. The Gaffneys have just waved goodbye to their two sons as they're bussed away to summer camp. Coming home, they meet Dan’s wife, Meg (Monroe), a real estate agent, who has just sold the last property in the neighborhood for all cash. Karen wonders who would buy a house without using credit or putting a down payment on it. Her curiosity keeps her by the window until the new occupants arrive.

Tim (Hamm) and Natalie Jones (Gadot) are not only the most attractive couple to move in, they’re absolutely perfect. They’re worldly, he speaks fluent Chinese, he can blow glass, she raises funds for orphaned children in Sri Lanka, speaks Israeli and cooks like a professional chef. Inviting them over for coffee, the Gaffneys receive an elaborate glass sculpture from the Joneses, which proves to have a bugging device inside – Jeff’s boss, Carl Pronger (Dunn) authenticates it. Karen is sure there’s something strange about the Joneses.

Knowing the Joneses would be out for the evening, Karen drags Jeff to their house, using the spare garage door opener to get in. All seems too perfect until they go upstairs and find the computer room with MBI company ID badges displayed on the monitors for all the technical employees and Jeff. Now she’s sure. But Jeff picks up a silver retractable pen and unwittingly shoots his wife with a sedative dart. Switching between carrying and dragging her, Jeff manages to get her out of the house just as the Joneses arrive home.

The fun continues when Karen’s suspicious sleuthing involves her and Jeff in a gun battle between Tim and Natalie and the henchmen of Scorpion (Oswalt), the real bad guys. Jeff’s and Karen’s ordinary, safe life changes forever. In the process, Jeff dines at a snake restaurant run by Yang (Liu), a good friend of Tim’s and Karen, and learns the meaning of provocative lingerie from Natalie.

The comedy in Keeping Up with the Joneses is sophisticated and subtle with a little slapstick thrown in for good measure. There are no laughfests, which is good. The sound effects crew supply exaggerated sounds that make the audience wince when Jeff hits Karen’s head on a door-jamb while trying to hurry her out of their neighbors’ house. Then there’s the ridiculous situation of Jeff’s well-dressed boss living out of his van after a divorce. Absurdity, and funny. Add to that, Scorpion’s girlfriend’s (Zhao) reaction when Jeff recognizes him and reveals his true name. Very smooth humor.

Zach Galifianakis plays the role of the insouciant believer in talking things out almost to the point of being annoying but it works. Isla Fisher is great as the nosy neighbor who never realizes that a professional spy would instantly catch her following wearing a lame disguise. I would be shocked if Jon Hamm was not or is not tapped to be the next James Bond. He would fit the role elegantly. And Gal Gadot is drop-dead gorgeous in everything she wears, no matter how little. I can’t wait for her sequel to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as Wonder Woman, now in post-production.

Keeping Up with the Joneses is a unique comedy with a great concept. I enjoyed it. It entertained me without using vulgarity, nudity or sex, just sly, clever, and sometimes subtle humor. My favorite quote (from Tim to Jeff), “You tried to jump through a triple-paned window without breaking it first?”

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Chimichurri Grill
609 9thAve., New York

I have learned over the years that whenever I think I’ve seen or heard the strangest things, there’s always something stranger waiting around the corner. When I received my confirmation call (I thought) from Chimichurri Grill, imagine my surprise at being told that they do not accept reservations for solo diners! Gee, I just made one. This is the first time I’ve ever been instructed that I would have to sit at the bar for dinner. Then, if a table opened up (maybe), I could have it. I was ready to change reservations as the bar stools at this place are back-breaking, flat-seated, backless stools. The excuse I was given was that there is usually a Broadway show crowd occupying all the tables for two. Still having misgivings, I accepted the bar-to-table possibility even though I knew that logically anyone who had tickets would not be dining at 7:15 pm when I would be arriving.


Chimichurri Grill is not as brightly lit as several other restaurants in their neighborhood. In fact, one could miss it entirely. Its humble black awning with the name in white make it seem to take a step back from the sidewalk as compared to the garish lights of nearby, larger establishments. 

One look inside and I could see unoccupied tables with two chairs among the total of 14. The small bar in front limits the number of tables near the window, but confirmed the uncomfortable stools. I met the man I spoke with on the phone when I announced my reservation. As he seated me at a table in the center of the one-room restaurant he repeated the “no solo diners” reservation policy. I advised him to inform Opentable.com soon to avoid future embarrassments.

Arthur Schwartz advised me long ago to do everything at a restaurant with a smile, especially when entering and it took some effort, but I accomplished that. I told Wilmer, my server, that I would like to start with “El Gibson” – Nolet’s Silver dry gin, Noily Prat dry vermouth and house-made pickled pearl onions. Served in an elegant martini glass, it was a good drink, but not as dry as the two ingredients promised. I would like to own pearls as big as the two onions skewered on the swizzle stick. They were almost golf ball size and delicious.

The wine list was also quite impressive, with at least 20 Malbecs listed on the first page. But I pressed on to see what else I could find, eventually choosing a 2013 Almancaya Gran Reserva “Lafite Rothschild” Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon varietal. The two grapes worked well together (in equal parts) to create a rich, intense red wine, without being over-bearing or too dry.


The first dish to arrive was the Sopa Pescado “Patagonian” (seafood soup), made with clams, mussels onions, tomatoes and other vegetables. It was like eating an excellent gazpacho, but hot with just the right hints of spices. Though I don’t like clams in general, I had to rave about the ones in this soup. They were not rubbery or even excessively chewy with a pleasant flavor, not metallic. The mussels almost melted in the mouth.

Next came the appetizer, a “Trio of Chorizo” – Argentine pork, blood sausage and red Spanish spicy – served with red and green dipping sauces. All were excellent, especially the blood sausage: delicate, rich, earthy and savory.

My main course was the Ancho boneless ribeye steak topped with caramelized Vidalia onions. Served on a dark wood plate it was easily as good a steak as I’ve ever had. The side dish – Col Risada (sautéed kale in garlic and oil) was the best kale I’ve ever tasted, better than the best steakhouse spinach sides. Cooked to a little less than crispy and drenched in garlic, it still had that exciting “green” flavor of kale. 


In my dining experiences, the dessert with the longest name is usually the simplest and best after a very filling meal. This proved true again. The Queso de Oveja Manchego y Membrillowedges of Manchego cheese with quince preserve and raspberry sauce, was as much a delight to the eyes as to the taste buds. I prefer guava paste to quince but this was really very good. 

I saw the national drink of Argentina and ordered the Mate “Gaucho Macho.” I was a bit disappointed when it tasted like nothing but hot water – nothing “Macho” about it. I told Wilmer and he treated me to a glass of port wine, mumbling something about the mate not being the same as in Argentina. Mate is a tea drink, but no tea should be that wimpy.

I would really like to return to Chimichurri Grill, but will have to bring a dining companion the next time. I know just whom I would bring. I was surprised to learn later on that Chimichurri Grill has been in business for over 18 years and has a sister restaurant on the East Side. Except for the food and the wine, it seemed like their first year.


The Girl on the Train

By Steve Herte

The Girl on the Train (Universal, 2016) – Director: Tate Taylor. Writers: Erin Cressida Wilson (s/p), Paula Hawkins (novel). Stars: Emily Blunt, Hayley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, Darren Goldstein, Lisa Kudrow, Cleta Elaine Ellington, Lana Young, Rachel Christopher, Fernando Medina, & Gregory Morley. Color, Rated R, 112 minutes.

Not to be confused with the 2009 movie of the same title, this one is based on the novel by Paula Hawkins, the book that “shocked the world.” Frankly, it didn’t shock me. Classified as a mystery/thriller, it was neither too mysterious nor thrilling. It starts and ends in the worst way, with bland, slightly bored sounding narration by the title character.

Rachel Watson (Blunt) and her husband Tom (Theroux) are trying to have a baby, and failing. Even in vitro fertilization doesn’t do the trick and they are running out of funds to cover the cost. To ease the pain, Rachel slips into a bottle and becomes an alcoholic while Tom fools around with the real estate agent. Rachel’s blackouts afford Tom ample opportunity to accuse her of violence for the time she can’t recall until even she believes it. An explosive scene at a dinner party thrown by Tom’s boss Martha (Kudrow) appears to clinch her manic outbursts.

They get divorced. Rachel moves out of their house in Ardsley, N.Y., (the book is set in England) and stays with a friend, Cathy (Prepon). Tom marries Anna (Ferguson), the real estate agent, and they have a daughter, Evie.


Having been fired from her job due to her alcoholism, Rachel uses her alimony to ride back and forth to New York City on the Metro-North railroad to keep the illusion of still having a job to Cathy. When she passes the Ardsley station she sees Scott and Megan Hipwell (Evans and Bennett), who live a couple of houses down from Tom. She fantasizes them as the perfect couple, the ones who have what she never got, until she sees Megan kissing her therapist, Dr. Kamal Abdic (Ramirez). Rachel is outraged.

Megan babysits for Tom and Anna, but quits when she becomes bored of it, and disappears. When Rachel involves herself in the quest for Megan, her repeated appearances at her old house label her as a stalker and a person of interest to Detective Riley (Janney). When Megan turns up dead, all fingers point to Rachel.

The Girl on the Train is a mediocre Hitchcock wannabe with all the earmarks and plot twists, but none of the gorgeous suspense the master would include. The trailers are more thrilling than the actual film. Even Danny Elfman’s excellent music does nothing to add to the mystery and shock the movie should generate.

The hour and 52 minutes creep by and could be shortened to an hour and a half by cutting several scenes where someone asks Rachel a question and she just sits there with a blank expression on her face. I guess Emily Blunt is trying to convey mental overload at probing her blackouts but it doesn’t come across that way. 

The narration is uninteresting and fails to set up the movie for the audience. Justin Theroux, on the other hand, is the perfect cad. Haley Bennett plays the bored slut to the hilt and even I was not surprised that her character is murdered. I have no complaints about Luke Evans except that he got shorted on his part. And Edgar Ramirez had serious trouble keeping his Middle-Eastern accent.

If it weren’t for the many flashbacks, no one in the audience would have a clue as to what was going on. And then there are the “F” bombs whenever frustration arises, which are completely unnecessary. The most interesting parts for me were the two times Rachel returns to the Conservatory Gardens in the north part of Central Park and sits by the fountain sketching the nymphs and the final confrontation scene. All the rest was filler. I’ll stick with the book.

Rating: 1½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Gin Parlour (in the Hotel Intercontinental)
111 E. 48th St.New York

Inspired by Dutch and English gin bars of the 1920s” says the website of this six-month-old hotel bar, displaying a picture of cream-colored walls, a fireplace with the ornate gilded mirror above it, and a brocaded wing chairs flanking an oval cocktail table against a backdrop of striped curtains.


I had to ask a hotel employee if what I saw when I entered the hotel was actually The Gin Parlour, as it simply looked like a large oval bar set up a few stairs from the sweeping main lobby, with no indication of a title. 

There was no Captain’s Station. I walked past the bar and hoped that someone would see and seat me. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long. One of the servers seated me in a corner of the room facing the bar. The striped curtains were there but drawn back and inelegantly tied. I didn’t see a fireplace and there were no wing chairs. All illusion of charm was dashed, and the flat screen television playing sports on the far wall tossed the last of whatever atmosphere there was out the window.

So what was keeping me there? The fact that the website boasted 88 different gins in their stock. When I met Julio, my server, he corrected that total to 95 gins. In my dining experiences, I’ve only made the acquaintance of about a dozen of them. Julio presented me with the flip-style menu which included wines and cocktails, and, the gin list, which was most impressive. I almost wish there had been an entry listing a “flight” of gins to make comparisons. But I ordered my Beefeater martini and it was made perfectly.

In the food section of the menu there were categories of Bites, Shellfish, Small Plates, Greens & Entrées, Between the Bread (Burgers), and Desserts. I chose one “bite,” one “small plate” and an entrée, plus a Merlot from Long Island that seemed like a good choice to go with my meal. But I was informed they were out of the wine. So with Julio’s assistance I chose a lovely 2015 “Loca Linda” Malbec Mendoza Argentina. Usually Malbecs are too heavy for the dishes I chose but this one was lighter bodied, with full fruits and mild tannins and a beautiful red color.

Another server brought out the bread basket. The sourdough baguette was almost as difficult to tear as to chew. I switched to the seven-grain roll which was much more malleable and tasty.


The first dish was Alphabet City soft pretzels – truffle cheddar and garlic parsley soft pretzels with a Pork Slap beer (a New York brewery) mustard and cheese dip. It’s a weakness of mine, but I love pretzels and this was an adventure. The parsley was not intrusive in the flavor of the one pretzel and the cheddar did not overpower the other. The dip was just right.

Next was a dish I’ve seen nowhere else and just had to try it. The Broiled Oysters “Reuben” combined Gruyere, crumbled corned beef, Thousand Island dressing, and Barclay pickle relish with small West Coast oysters for a strange, but novel taste. I enjoyed it but would probably not order it again.

I’m basically a carnivore, so you know that when I order fish, the meat dishes were not crying out to me. The Montauk bass was served with chorizo, corn, local clams and summer squash in a beautiful piquant (lemons) golden sauce. The fish was delicate enough to cut with a fork and the combination with the Spanish sausage was remarkable. The two flavors worked together to create a savory whole. I doubt if the meat dishes could have compared.


Surprisingly, I did not order a side dish, because none were offered on the menu. Neither was one needed. The main course was quite complete. For dessert I ordered the “Chocolate Crunch” – dark chocolate mousse and pralines – which was almost too pretty to eat. It was like a large chocolate goose egg resting on a nest of pralines with silver and white pearls perched on top. The mousse was delicious, not the best I’ve had, but surely not the worst. A double espresso later and I was finished.

The Gin Parlour is not a bad place to dine. The food is good, at times unusual, the service is impeccable and friendly and I have to try some new gins when I return. They actually have a pink gin from Germany! Who knew? What I would like to have them recapture is the charm of the 1920s they tout on the website. But they’re young still. Hopefully, they’ll learn.


Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

By Steve Herte

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (CBS Films, 2016) – Director: Steve Carr. Writers: Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer & Kara Holden (s/p). James Patterson, Chris Tebbets (based on the book by). Stars: Griffin Gluck, Lauren Graham, Alexa Nisenson, Andrew Daly, Thomas Barbusca, Retta, Rob Riggle, Adam Pally, Luke Hardeman, Jessi Goei, Jacob Hopkins, Patrick Fagan, Isabella Moner, Isabella Amara, Madeleine Stack, & Efren Ramirez. Color, Rated PG, 92 minutes.

Variety’s review of this film included Francois Truffaut’s sagacious observation that adolescence leaves pleasant memories only for adults who cannot remember. I believe it. My schooling did not involve a Middle School per se but I do remember my experiences from sixth to eighth grades in my Elementary School. They weren’t the worst years of my life, but I wouldn’t want to repeat them.

This realistic fiction, based on the book by James Patterson and Chris Tebbets, reminisces Patterson’s time in Middle School. Hills Village Middle School represents the last chance for Rafe Katchadorian (Gluck), a sixth grader who has been expelled from several other schools. His mother Jules (Graham) works double shifts at a diner and considers herself a sous-chef. She also worries about him a lot, realizing that not having his father around (the film was not clear on where or when he disappeared) has affected his social skills. That, plus the loss of his younger brother to cancer probably contributes to his antics.

His sister Georgia (Nisenson) argues with him, providing and gives additional unwanted motherly advice despite Jules’ requests to leave the mothering job to her. If this weren’t bad enough, Mom is dating a self-centered loser named Carl (Riggle) whose hairiness provides the children a few laughs. Rafe’s only friend is Leo the Silent (Barbusca), and he’s imaginary (though this fact is not immediately apparent in the movie). His passion is drawing caricatures. He keeps a sketchbook with him at all times containing various cartoon characters he’s created and their adventures, languages and travels. He’s put a great amount of time into developing it.


Rafe’s first encounter with the obsessive Principal Dwight (Daly) is at the front door of the school where he’s informed of his breaking the dress code – too many bright colors, no floral prints. How obsessive is Dwight with winning on the test scores? He has a tall number one topiary sculpture planted in front of the school to represent the school’s consistent ranking on the B.L.A.A.R.T. test. When he sees the student body lined up like convicts in a prison, Rafe realizes something’s really wrong with this school, especially when Vice Principal Ida Stricker (Retta) tells him in no uncertain terms to stop loitering in the halls. He also meets the class bully Miller the Killer (Hopkins), who sits behind him in homeroom, kicks his chair, threatens him and refuses to pronounce his name correctly. The only relief from this is in his homeroom teacher, Mr. Teller (Pally), who recognizes Rafe’s talent for drawing and is somewhat of a rebel himself.

At a student body meeting to elect a class president, Rafe develops his first crush on Jeanne Galetta (Moner). Her platform is more leeway for the students and less rules, and he’s the only one who applauds her as Principal Dwight hurries her away from the microphone. But when he’s caught sketching in the assembly, Dwight destroys his sketchbook in the dreaded “yellow bucket” filled with acid. This drives him and Leo to set in motion Operation R.A.F.E. (Rules Aren’t For Everyone) and to break every rule in the book he was handed by Principal Dwight on the first day. The pranks are some of the funniest moments in the movie and include papering the principal’s office and school halls with colorful Post-It notes, putting pink hair dye in Dwight’s fedora, filling a utility closet with multicolored balls, and injecting blue, red and yellow dye into the fire sprinkler system before setting it off.

Though a comedy, this movie has some sensitive, emotional scenes and at the same time makes a statement about pigeon-holing children with standardized tests. It addresses bullying and unfair practices as well as not allowing children to be children. It skirts the scary and potentially dangerous issue of the “acid bucket” with clever dialogue. Scenes seesaw from reality to the imaginative animations in Rafe’s sketchbook, which are as real to him as his family. The animated scene where Carl becomes Bear is hilarious.

Andy Daly’s over-the-top acting keeps his character from being a hateful villain and modulates it into a strict but silly obsessive. Alexa Nisenson is a convincing crier and a great little sister. Rob Riggles succeeds in creating the guy you’d love to hit with an anvil. Griffin Gluck plays the perfect straight man to the unpredictable Thomas Barbusca.

At only one hour and 32 minutes long, the film is well timed, has no dead spots and has great forward motion. I never shifted in my seat. If you’re a student, teacher or a principal you will not find any of it offensive, only entertaining, and you’ll probably breathe a sigh of relief knowing your school’s not like this one. I enjoyed it so much I never expected the final plot twist.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Mastro’s Steakhouse
1285 Avenue of the Americas, New York

An unparalleled dining experience!” So boasts the website of this two-year-old New York steakhouse with a Broadway-style entrance, ablaze in bluish-white neon. 


Inside is a large space with dark walls, a chic bar on the left flanked by faux marble columns and tables with white tablecloths and little electric lamps with gold shades. As I confirmed my reservation, I was directed to a table toward the back of the long room with a comfortable leather banquette which (surprise!) had an armrest. I had heard live music and could see a trio off to my right playing mellow rock and swing style at just the right volume. I was charmed.

Soon my server Paolo arrived, oozing confidence and foodie knowledge and smiling conspiratorially while describing the intimacies of the menu. He presented me with the food menu and wine list, both bound in brown leather (matching the banquette).

When he returned I ordered a Beefeater martini. He acknowledged having all the ingredients and dashed off to the bar, returning to stir and pour my martini at the table. He noted that there would be more in the shaker once the glass was filled and how I was to hold it to pour the remainder. Nice touch, but unfortunately, even with the personal attention, it was more than a little watered down and didn’t have that familiar kick.

I told Paolo that I intended to have two appetizers and a main course. He recommended my choosing the wine first so that he could uncork it and give it time to breathe by my first course. I chose the 2013 Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel from Contra Costa County, California. It was a beautiful wine with a delicate nose but a disappointing lack in body. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t what I expect of a zinfandel. It worked with every course but didn’t speak for itself.


The two appetizers arrived within minutes of each other. The king crab stuffed mushrooms were served in a little silver frying pan along with a lemon half in yellow netting. They were delightful. The crab meat was only slightly hashed and not pulverized and the mushroom caps were tender with a slight crunch. The second appetizer was one Paolo tempted me with and won: a slab of maple bacon, fully 10 inches long and three-quarters of an inch thick with a maple sauce drizzled over it and a small cress salad.

Paolo confided that he would leave time for these dishes to “settle” before bringing out the main course, an 8-ounce filet mignon with its blanket of truffle butter in the middle of its plate and sautéed wild mushrooms (Shiitake, Cremini, and Porto Bello) next to it. The mushrooms were a mix of and were cooked to perfection losing none of their individual earthy characters. The filet was seared nicely on the outside and my kind of rare on the inside, juicy and tender. This was one time the meal outshone the wine.


As I had room for dessert, I ordered the pecan pie a la mode, a wedge that looked like a quarter of a pie and was crowned with a tennis ball of vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel and served with gobs of fresh whipped cream. I had to take part of the pie home, but it was good.

Mastro’s is my 98th steakhouse and was impressive in its way. But though it’s chic, has live music, both the food and service are excellent, it doesn’t quite come up to my benchmark steakhouse. Uncle Jack’s still reigns supreme. I would gladly return to Mastro’s to try several other menu items, but I’ll be more careful of the wine ordering and more specific in my cocktail.


Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

By Steve Herte

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (20th Century Fox, 2016) – Director: Tim Burton. Writers: Jane Goldman (s/p), Ransom Riggs (novel). Stars: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Georgia Pemberton, Milo Parker, Pixie Davies, Louis Davison, & Raffiella Chapman. Color, Rated PG-13, 127 minutes.

Based on a 2012 book by Ransom Riggs, this beautifully photographed film directed by Tim Burton is an intriguing adventure in time travel. It begins in Florida as Jake Portman (Butterfield) is being driven to his grandfather, Abraham “Abe” Portman’s (Stamp) house. Jake’s relationship with Abe has been much closer than with his Dad, Franklin Portman (O’Dowd), who is always too busy photographing and writing about birds for a book he’s composing. Abe has been telling Jake the stories of the children with special abilities protected by Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine (Green) and of the wights called Hollowgasts that would destroy all of them.

When Jake arrives this time, Grandpa’s house is in complete disarray and he finds Abe lying near death out back and missing his eyes. Abe’s last words implore Jake to find “the bird in the loop” for all explanations, including the monstrosity Jake glimpses in the everglades just beyond the house.

Franklin doesn’t approve of Abe’s tales and thinks that they have had a negative influence on the boy’s sanity and, as a result he takes Jake Mom to see psychologist Dr. Golan (Janney). Dr. Golan recommends taking Jake to Cairnholm, a small island off the coast of Wales, to hopefully disprove the incredible stories and bring about closure. His mom thinks it’s a good idea and may help with Jake’s bonding with his Dad.

While on a ferry from Wales to Cairnholm, Jake’s Dad points out a peregrine falcon soaring above them and Jake relates it to his grandfather’s yarns. But does this result in bonding? No. Dad can’t wait to get to the beach to a photograph birds for his book and Jake has a mission. With the help of a couple of local youths, he finds the bombed-out shell of the orphanage he knows so well. He explores the ruined grounds and sees what he thinks are ghosts of the children formerly living there. Scared, disappointed and disturbed, he runs back to the inn where he and his Dad are staying, but everything has changed. He’s looked upon as a spy by the pub crawlers now there. (Before, there was barely a person in the room.) It’s only with the help of two of the children that he gets out of the pub and back to the orphanage, now fully restored to its Victorian glory.


Jake doesn’t realize that he has traveled back in time to September 6, 1943. Miss Peregrine is there to greet him and introduce him to all of her charges. Emma wears lead shoes to keep her from floating away and she can control air. Millard is fully invisible, just a newsboy cap floating above his clothes. Enoch O’Connor (MacMillan) can bring inanimate objects or previously dead objects to temporary life by implanting hearts in them. Olive Abroholos Elephanta (McCrostie) controls fire and wears heavy rubber gloves. Fiona Fruanfeld (Pemberton) is sensitive to plants and can hasten growth. Hugh Apiston (Parker) has bees inside him and can make them do his bidding (he has to wear an apiary net over his head at dinner). Bronwyn Bruntley (Davies) and her brother Victor Bruntley (Davison) have the strength of 10 men. Alas, Victor was killed by a Hollowgast and remains in state in his bedroom. Claire Densmore (Chapman) doesn’t reveal her peculiarity until dinner, when she lifts her Shirley Temple curls and exposes the fierce jaws in back of her head. And Horace Somnusson (Keeler-Stone) is a human movie projector who can display his prophetic dreams.

Miss Peregrine tells Jake between puffs on her Meerschaum pipe that she’s a Ymbryne who can turn back time and thus create a “loop,” reliving the same day over and over again. This is why she is so strict with the children on timing. Not only does she have to fight off a Hollowgast every day, she has to be on guard against Barron (Jackson) and his minions, Wights who evolved from a Hollowgasts by eating the eyes of “peculiars.” There is a ghastly scene demonstrating this. Miss Peregrine and other Ymbrynes, including Miss Esmeralda Avocet (Dench) have set up “loops” in various parts of the world to protect children who might otherwise not be accepted in society or even feared (Abe has given Jake a map to find them). This is why she waits until the Nazi bomb almost reaches her house before reversing time.

Jake doesn’t know how to take all of this, but he is developing feelings for Emma. When he reconnects with his father, Dad seems genuinely concerned about his absence, but then insists Jake join him down at the beach the next day, where they meet the ornithologist (Everett), who is also writing a book. Franklin is so disheartened by the sophisticated equipment and the dedication of this new acquaintance that he gives up on his own book. It’s not until his Dad takes a mid-afternoon nap that Jake slips away and heads back to the orphanage. On the way, he discovers that the ornithologist, Dr. Golan and Barron are one and the same. Using Jake as a hostage, Barron convinces Miss Peregrine to transform into her bird form and he takes her away in a cage.

Now it’s up to Jake to protect the children. Fortunately, Miss Avocet is also there. The children team up under his leadership using their own peculiarities to help rescue Miss Peregrine.

I enjoyed Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children even though I think it would give all of my great nieces and nephews nightmares (including the nine-year-old). Eva Green is a slinky house mother with a sly grin and a killer frown. There’s also something sexy about a woman smoking a pipe. Samuel L. Jackson is a consummate villain, though I wondered how he could speak at all with that mouthful of pointed prosthetic teeth. His lisp was even more pronounced than when I saw him in Kingsmen (2015). Dame Judy Dench didn’t have that much of a part, but she did the most she could with it. As I said, the visuals were spectacular and the soundtrack excellent (even without Danny Elfman’s magic). The special effects crew list looks more like the New York City telephone book. My favorite scene was the Jason and the Argonauts retrospect battle between the skeletons and the Hollowgasts.

And…there is a lesson to be learned from this movie. It’s all about “seeing”and “paying attention.” Jake's Dad “sees” his son, but doesn’t pay enough attention to him, while Abe does. Thus, Jake’s peculiar specialty involves “seeing” and is intrinsic to the resolution of the film. As with other fantastic effects films, this movie will probably be nominated for technical expertise and maybe Eva Green will get a head nod, but otherwise it’s just a romp of imagination that, at two hours and seven minutes, is a little too long.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Vago
509 Third Avenue, New York

According to its website, the name Vago was “inspired by an historical term meaning ‘Beauty’ in old Latin.” Research as did, I could not confirm this, and I took four years of Latin. As a verb, it means “I wander” and as a noun, it means “vague.” But there’s nothing vague about this sleek, electric blue neon-lit restaurant with an elegant black latticed front window. Classified as Mediterranean, the cuisine is mostly Italian.


Inside the room was all beige with a beautiful bare wood floor interspersing dark planks with mostly lighter woods. Dark wood tables flanked by chairs with beige seats lined the left wall and marched down the center of the room. Faux-arched windows broke up the monotony on the left wall looking out on faux gardens.

I asked my server what was “great” here and I was able to compose a suitable set of dishes and choose a wine. I ordered a Malbec from France, but the manager arrived to inform me they were out of it. He suggested the 2013 “Le Sughere di Frasinello” from Tuscany, Italy. It was wonderful, with a spicy nose, a deep rich red color, and a full body that would go with every dish I ordered.

My first dish was eggplant rollantini, labeled on the menu as simply “eggplant” and described as eggplant rolls stuffed with ricotta cheese in tomato sauce garnished with organic parsley. The eggplant was easily cut with a fork and the ricotta cheese was not too sweet. It was just right and the sauce was delicious.

Next was the pasta, just called pappardelle on the menu. It was obviously homemade, al dente with a rich zesty lamb ragu. It was good. and my wine tasted delightful with it.


As it was my first time at Vago, I thought it only right to have the veal “My Way”: veal scallopini with artichokes, capers, olive oil and white wine, served with roasted potatoes. The scallopini were pounded flat and tender and propped up by the potato chunks. The sauce was almost like a Livornese but with only the hint of olives. The artichokes replaced the physical olive slices nicely. It was lemony, briny, and full of the flavor of the capers. I loved it.

When it came time for dessert, I eschewed the chocolate choices and ordered the assorted European cheese plate, which was not as diverse as the name implied. A couple of Parmesan, Romano, and Brie surrounded a few red grapes and a fan of thinly sliced Macintosh apple. My usual double espresso followed with a glass of Remy Martin XO cognac.

I must remember to return to Vago the next time I “wander” in that part of the Murray Hill section of New York. There’s still the risotto and the lamb shank waiting for me. Maybe they’ll have the French Malbec in stock.


Pete's Dragon 

By Steve Herte

Pete’s Dragon (Disney, 2016) – Director: David Lowery. Writers: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks (s/p). Malcolm Marmorstein (based on a screenplay by). Seton I. Miller, S.S. Field (based on a story by). Stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., Marcus Henderson, Aaron Jackson, Phil Grieve, Steve Barr, Keagan Carr Fransch, Jade Valour, Augustine Frizzell, & Francis Biggs. Color, Rated PG, 103 minutes.

This is one remake that was worth creating. The 1977 original only served to reconfirm that Disney corporation could mix animated characters with real-life people. But unlike Mary Poppins (1964), it was a silly fantasy with a dragon goofier than Goofy and nowhere near as funny. Today’s technology has provided us with a dragon-sized dragon complete with a wingspread capable of true flight to replace the pot-bellied caricature with the tiny pink wings. We now have a story where we can put aside our disbelief and just enjoy it.

Pete’s parents are driving their young son through the woods and explaining an “adventure” to him when a deer leaps in front of the car. Dad swerves and all we see is Pete’s reaction, securely strapped in, to a car rolling over and landing on its roof. It’s a heart-breaking moment when the two-year-old (we assume) cries when his parents do not answer him but bravely packs his storybook into his back pack and enters the woods. Strange sounds come from everywhere and he’s beset by wolves. Just before they attack we hear the familiar thudding walk of a giant creature (similar to the sound of the T-Rex approaching in Jurassic Park). The wolves scatter and Pete is confronted by a towering green, furry dragon. “Are you going to eat me?” he asks. Wordlessly we know the dragon communicates a no by putting out his left front paw palm up. Pete climbs onto it and the dragon places him gently on his back.

It’s six years later and loggers are working in the forest. Jack (Bentley) and his brother Gavin (Urban) have continued operations in a section of the woods they were not supposed to harvest and forest ranger Grace (Howard) is there to point out the infringement. Her daughter Natalie (Laurence) is with her, wandering around while Mom remonstrates with the foreman.


Now eight years old, Pete (Fegley) watches from the cover of bushes. Natalie spots him and chases him into the forest. They both climb a tree and it’s not until a branch breaks and both go tumbling to the ground that Grace hears her daughter’s screams. When Grace and Jack race in to find her relatively unhurt, she explains that she was chasing Pete and points him out. Pete is captured and the mystery begins.

In a prior scene, we heard Meacham (Redford), Grace’s Dad, telling the children the stories of the “Millhaven Dragon,” and that he himself saw it when he was young. This turns out to be the very dragon whom Pete accredits his survival to and has named him “Elliot” after the main character in his beloved book. Pete wants to get back to Elliot because, “He gets scared when I’m gone,” but Grace makes a deal with him. If he stays the night, she’ll take him back to his “home” in the morning.

Meacham joins Natalie, Grace, and Pete to the section of forest where Grace has never been. (She had claimed previously that, “I know this forest like the back of my hand.”) The three are awestruck at the huge, furry apparition that emerges from under a centuries-old tree, but Natalie steps forward to pet it. Again, wonderful wordless communication comes from the grunts, deep hums and throaty growls from Elliot and they are all convinced he’s friendly. That is, until Gavin bursts onto the scene. He’s terrified, scares Elliot with his rifle, and Elliot does a classic “bend the rifle muzzle back on itself” routine as Gavin retreats.

Gavin is undeterred, gathering the other loggers. Together, they sedate Elliot, chain him onto a flatbed 18-wheeler, haul him out of the forest, and lock him in a barn. But Gavin doesn’t know that Elliot can make himself invisible and he does so when Sheriff Gene Dentler (Whitlock Jr.) arrives. Pete and Natalie free Elliot and, with Meacham at the wheel, break Elliot free and the chase is on.

The new Pete’s Dragon is beautifully done, from the superb special effect of the dragon to the musical soundtrack ranging from tearful sadness to glorious themes in full flight. Both of the children playing Pete are adorable and convincing. Robert Redford does his usual spectacular job and Bryce Dallas Howard depicts the perfect Mom/Naturalist/Protector. The rest of the cast are Disney rubber stamps: predictable. But it’s Elliot who is amazing. The models that were built for the close-ups reveal a facial mobility that succeeds in projecting every emotion. I swore that at one moment he was going to cry.

I guess most New York children had already seen this film by the time I got to it, but the ones that were there were enjoying it quietly and without boredom. They were not scared when Elliot roared or breathed fire. That’s what a dragon is supposed to do, right? But I would also guess that covering him in luxuriant green fur makes him more accessible than the scaly look of a medieval dragon, and he did have distinctly dog-like features. (Remember Falcor in 1984’s The NeverEnding Story?) It reminded me of things I said about Disney films before The Black Hole (1979), where I first saw bloodshed. Before then, it was “survival of the cutest” and that phrase applies to this film as well. But beyond all that, it’s a well-constructed movie with no dead spots, humor mixed in with sadness, and a surprise at the end. I might even add it to my home collection.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Savour Sichuan
108 W. 39th St., New York

Even though this restaurant is across the street from Gabby O’Hara’s, where I go to sing karaoke every Tuesday night, I have never eaten there. The entrance, closer to Sixth Avenue, is garish, intensely Broadway-style, featuring a nearly blinding yellow sign with Chinese calligraphy in white and red. 


Inside, however, the decor is much more sedate, with everything in white walls with dark wood trim. The bar has tasteful Chinese paper and wood swags over it with a large fish tank containing tropical fish at the end of the bar.

My server, Jay, a lovely young girl, took my cocktail order: the Lychee Martini – Lychee-infused vodka, juice and simple syrup – because I wanted a drink served in the arty glass I saw on their website. The drink was deceivingly sweet, and contained two Lychees on a toothpick as the garnish.  

The service is super-efficient and before I had time to page through the food menu, Jay had opened it to appetizers. I chose Mini Crab Meat Soup Buns. Jay advised me that the dish would take five minutes to prepare and I assured her that I had all the time in the world. Another server noticed the length of time I was without and asked if I wanted to order. I assured her I had an appetizer order in. Jay returned when I closed the menu and helped me with my second and main courses. I chose a standard favorite of mine, Szechuan Sour and Spicy Soup, which arrived almost immediately. It was good, but it was standard, nothing special. 

The Mini Crab Meat Soup Buns arrived after I finished the soup, beautifully presented in a light wooden steamer tray resting on a leaf of lettuce and sided by a soy dipping sauce. Very good, but not up to my benchmark for this dish.

Lacking a true wine list, I chose a glass of the house cabernet-sauvignon to go with my main course. It was a nice red, medium bodied wine, suitable to many purposes.


My main dish was Fresh Frog with Pickled Ginger in Spicy Broth. I spooned some onto my serving dish making sure to get as much frog as I could find and started eating. I quickly realized they were not kidding when they labeled this dish “spicy.” It was one of the spiciest dishes I’ve ever had. As my eyes watered I enjoyed the tender white frog meat, scallions and slender mushrooms, carefully sipping my wine so as not to intensify the fire. When I mistook a yellow chili pepper for a piece of meat, I learned that there were three different kinds of chilies in the dish and soon was fishing through the dish with the spoon for the three ingredients I could eat without becoming a smoking volcano. It was most impressive, but the spice killed the delicate flavor of the frog, and  as the frog was hacked into small pieces, each containing a bone or two, caution was called for in the dining process.

After I finished the cabernet and ordered a glass of the merlot to go with the remaining rice and ingredients I could safely eat. A few relaxing breaths later and I was ready for dessert. The Gold and Silvery Buns were true “buns” (not like my appetizer). There were four golden-brown fried and four pure white steamed buns stuffed with almond and sesame paste respectively on either side of a teardrop-shaped bowl of sweet, caramel dipping sauce.

The fire was completely out and I was full. I think I will return, with friends whom I know like exotic foods. Frankly, I’m after that conch soup and tripe main dish. They do have dishes for people who like regular Chinese food, which I would recommend for those too squeamish for brains, intestines and fish maws. However, for those who are adventurous, Savour Sichuan is the place. 


Florence Foster Jenkins

By Steve Herte

Florence Foster Jenkins (Paramount, 2016) – Director: Stephen Frears. Writer: Nicholas Martin. Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Aida Garifullina, David Haig, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Stanley Townsend, Nina Arlanda, Christian McKay, John Kavanagh, Allan Corduner, Mark Arnold, and Nat Luurtsema. Color, Rated PG-13, 111 minutes.

It’s 1944, World War II is in its fifth year and the Verdi Theater is providing music to the elite of New York City to keep their spirits up. With the monetary support of Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), an heiress and wife of St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), an out of work Shakespearean actor, musical vignettes and tableaux are performed along with monologues for the Vanderbilts, Garmunders and other society people.

When St. Clair takes Florence to Carnegie Hall to hear Lily Pons (Garifullina) sing, she’s not only enraptured but she decides to revive her own singing career, even though at 76 she hasn’t sung in 50 years. She enlists the vocal coaching of Carlo Edwards (Haig) of the Metropolitan Opera and has St. Clair interview potential piano accompanists. The first applicant pounds out a passionate Chopin work and Florence complains that he’s “raping my ears” and he’s summarily dismissed. But when Cosmé McMoon (Helberg) plays “The Dying Swan” by Tchaikovsky, she’s totally enthralled and tells St. Clair to send the other applicants home. 


Florence warns Cosmé that “I work hard at my singing. One hour a day, sometimes two.” He agrees and arrives promptly for the first rehearsal the next day. But he is not prepared for what he will hear. As Florence joyously goes from gasping low notes to almost quacking the high ones, he has to control himself to keep from laughing. The audience, however cannot do the same. As Carlo enthuses over her, giving her encouragement and vocal tips along the way (which she basically misunderstands anyway) the scene is side-splitting. Later, in the elevator, Cosmé just cannot restrain his laughter, and the audience has a second helping of hilarity.

But every family has its ups and downs and Florence’s marriage is no exception. St. Clair and she do not have a physical relationship (for reasons we learn toward the end of the film) and he leaves her in Manhattan for his apartment in Brooklyn, which he shares with Kathleen (Ferguson).

Florence decides that she’s ready for a concert and St. Clair judiciously controls the ticket sales. Only “Music Lovers” are allowed to attend. This elite group of high society includes Phineas Stark (Townsend) and his new gold-digger type wife Agnes (Arlanda). The line of people is most impressed when Florence walks past them with Arturo Toscanini (Kavanagh). John Totten (Corduner), show critic for the New York Post tries to get a ticket but is put off when St. Clair offers him a bribe not to review it. At the concert, all are polite, but Agnes, not knowing how to react begins cackling and coughing and is removed from the venue as having had an attack of illness. Outside the theater, she’s still rolling on the floor laughing.

The concert goes so well that Florence makes a recording to give as a gift to her friends for Christmas. A new song, “Like a Bird” written by Cosmé is played on the radio and the fan mail pours into Florence’s apartment (mostly from servicemen). She surprises St. Clair by booking Carnegie Hall for a free concert to 1,000 servicemen to thank them for their sacrifices. Her usual coterie of friends is also invited along with Cole Porter (Arnold) who brings Tallulah Bankhead (Nat Luurtsema). Up until now, St. Clair has been able to control the outcome and feedback, but this time he sees the servicemen arriving drunk and among the audience is John Totten (who leaves early).

Whether or not it is intentionally funny, Florence Foster Jenkins is a sensitive recounting of a true story. Meryl Streep masterfully plays the eccentric lead character while channeling Julia Child (I could hear it) and Hyacinth Bucket (Keeping Up Appearances – BBC). Hugh Grant, though a little over-the-top in his monologues, is genuine in his love both for Florence and Kathleen. And, he does a mean swing dance with Agnes at a party. Simon Helberg is the perfect straight man. His mobile face tells what he’s feeling and the audience can sense it through him. After a near disaster, he’s still agog. “I played Carnegie Hall!”

Having seen Meryl Streep in Into the Woods, I know she really can sing (it’s proven toward the end of the film). Learning deliberately how to sing badly must have been a chore. I definitely recommend this film to families with children who will understand what’s going on on-screen. Small children will not. I also see a few Oscar nominations and hopefully a win for Florence Foster Jenkins.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Kristalbelli
8 W. 36th St., New York

Those who think that Kristalbelli is an Italian restaurant would be wrong. It’s a high-end, chic, Korean restaurant. From the street, all that can be seen is a red cedar paneled door with “8W” above it and the name in raised bronze letters across it. The door is subtly recessed into a wall of gray cedar shingling and is easy to miss if you’re not aware of the address.


Inside, all is sleek cream colors and black trim. I was taken to a room consisting of five tables, a wall of mirrors and rainwater-clear glass swags. Asked ahead of time if I was going to do their barbecue or order off the menu, I chose the latter and a table had to be readied for me, for all tables in this restaurant are cooking stations for barbecue. A pedestal houses a stove whose heating element cooks through a crystal bowl in the table top. This circular bowl forms the center of a brass Buddha’s belly, which rests on the marble tabletop, hence “crystal belly.” or Kristalbelli. A pun. 

To start, I ordered the Cucumber Sojutini, a refreshing mix of Soju (a distilled rice liquor whose name means “burned alcohol drink”), lime juice, muddled cucumber and a splash of soda garnished with a cucumber slice. The steel martini glass was the most attractive part of this deceptively mild drink.

As I was finishing my cocktail, my first course, the Shrimp Salad, arrived – warm, plump, spicy seriously spicy Tiger Shrimp liberally placed on fresh mesclun greens, frisé and baby spinach with a sweet mayo sauce dressing. I loved it.


The second course, the Full Moon Dumplings, arrived before I was two-thirds finished with the first. The dumplings look just like Japanese or Chinese fried dumplings, only these are lined up on the plate and are partially covered by a thin crispy crust, which gives the overall impression of a horseshoe crab on the plate. Given the choice of pork or vegetable stuffing, I chose pork. The server instructed me on how to separate the dumplings with the serving tongs and how to crack the crust and get the most enjoyment out of the dish.

While enjoying my two appetizers, my wine arrived, a 2013 Syrah “Ex Umbris” from Columbia Valley in Washington State: a deep, dark red, full-bodied and with a blackberry tone to the taste, perfect for the meal. 

A woman rolled a cart in with a platter of typical Korean side dishes including; spiced dried squid, sweetened beets, string beans, red cabbage and a savory tofu. On a separate plate, she placed a single oblong piece of the national dish, Kimchi (a Korean red pepper spiced cabbage).


I was enjoying tasting all of the side dishes between sips of my wine when the main course, Galbijjim, arrived. Served in a bubbling hot iron crock was the juiciest, tender braised beef short ribs (I could cut the pieces with my chopsticks) mixed with jujube (a fruit much like a date), rice cake and mushrooms in the most outrageous sauce I could imagine. Utterly delicious with an earthy overtone.

Would there be room for dessert? Actually, I was satisfied but not full. My waiter recommended two desserts, one as being the most popular and the other as his favorite. I chose the most popular one, again, because of the name, Nunedine, a dollop of caramel ice cream drizzled with caramel on one side of the plate and three crisp puff pastries at the other joined by a smear of chocolate sauce and a smear of caramel on the plate.


When I finished this meal, my opinion of Korean restaurants improved greatly. This was my 10th experience and a very pleasant one. Everyone on the staff was smiling genuinely and were happy to answer my questions. The big surprise was the demonstration on how to eat the dumplings. I’m not used to that. Kristalbelli, silly name or not, is number one in my Korean book.


The BFG

By Steve Herte

The BFG (Amblin/Disney, 2016) – Director: Steven Spielberg. Writers: Melisa Matheson (s/p), Roald Dahl (book). Stars: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jermaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Adam Godley, Michael Adamthwaite, Daniel Bacon, Jonathan Holmes, Chris Gibbs, Paul Moniz de Sa, & Marilyn Norry. Color, Rated PG, 117 minutes.

After the Orphanage Matron (Norry) fails to secure all the locks on the front door and leaves half the mail on the floor, we see Sophie (Barnhill) wrapped in a quilt, tip-toe down the main staircase to complete the unfinished tasks. In her monologue, we learn that the “Witching Hour” is not necessarily midnight, or even one or two o’clock. It’s three in the morning, the hour that only Sophie is awake, that she returns to her bed with a flashlight and her copy of Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. The other children in three rows of beds are fast asleep. Sophie’s bed is the last one in the center row, nearest the window.

Suddenly, she hears a clatter in the street below and she recites her mantra, “Do not get out of bed…(she does)…Do not go to the window…(she does)…Do not look behind the curtains…(again, she does)…and do not look over the railing!” She finds a few cats have overturned a garbage can.

However, a huge hand appears from around the corner and uprights the garbage can.


The giant (Rylance) hears her gasp, knows he’s been seen and plucks her from her bed, quilt and all, and speedily runs back to Giantland, which is somewhere in the North Sea, beyond Scotland.

Sophie learns that the giant doesn’t want to eat her (as most giants would), but instead eats a noxious stew made from the ugliest cucumber ever (called a snozzcumber). She understands that he’s friendly and because he wants to go about in secret, he kidnapped her to remain unseen. She redubs him BFG for Big Friendly Giant (he never reveals his true name).

Sophie soon discovers that BFG is the runt of a litter of 10 giants who refer to him as “Runt,” and are big enough to carry him like a doll. They have names: Fleshlumpeater (Clement), Bloodbottler (Hader), Maidmasher (Ólafsson), Manhugger (Godley), Butcher Boy (Adamthwaite), Childchewer (Holmes), Gizzardgulper (Gibbs) and Meatdripper (Moniz de Sa), and they do eat children.

BFG’s “job” is catching dreams in Dreamland and blowing them through his trumpet to sleeping people. But when Sophie insists on accompanying him on a hunting foray, the other giants find her quilt and smell her on it. They know BFG is harboring a “bean” (their word for a ‘being’) and when BFG takes Sophie back to London, they figure out his source of their ‘food’ and follow. What to do? Enlist the services of Queen Elizabeth II (Wilton), her aide, Mary (Hall), and Head of Household Mr. Tibbs (Spall). But this plan requires the revelation of the BFG.

The book, written in 1982 by Roald Dahl, was made into an animated film in 1989. This amazing live-action film’s screenplay comes from the pen of the late Melissa Mathison. Under Steven Spielberg’s able direction and with John Williams spectacular musical talents, this remarkably sensitive film needed a telephone book of people working on its stunning visual effects. I remember back when King Kong’s finger bent backward with the struggles of the beauty he caught. Not here. The giants are as real as Sophie and the close-ups are simply mind-boggling.

Frankly, I expected this movie to be silly, and in some short scenes, it was. But the sheer genius behind the production, the message behind the near-gibberish (you can understand it, but it sounds like Jabberwocky) spoken by the BFG and the superior acting by Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill bring this fantasy into reality. There was teary pathos and laugh-till-you-cry visual comedy. Even the most cynical child would be entertained. I know I will still laugh uncontrollably whenever I remember the green brew frobscottle, the volatile potable with downward-fizzing bubbles and explosive “Whizpopping” after-effect. My favorite line? “Dreams are short on the outside, but long on the inside.”

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Paramount Bar & Grill
235 W. 46th St., In the Paramount HotelNew York

The term “Hotel Restaurant” evokes shudders in some reviewers. They are often known for spotty service, so-so food and cheesy décor. But we all know it’s the exception that proves the rule.


The classy glass and brass awning over the entrance to the Paramount Hotel in midtown Manhattan raises expectations. The soft gold lighting and elegant use of mirrors and black walls makes it an inviting place to stay.

The young man at the station gave me a choice of two tables. I chose the one with more light and was seated on a comfortable gray leather banquette. The operative word at Paramount is comfort. Though obviously a bar, it’s also a stress-relieving lounge. There is an arty silver-gray wine rack on the wall facing the bar. The black, bare-topped tables melt into the overall décor and the white cloth napkins and stemmed water glasses add to the relaxed atmosphere.

My server Thomas arrived shortly and asked if I wanted a cocktail. Though the “Smoky Scotsman” was an attractive brew I went with my favorite martini when Thomas confirmed the availability of Beefeaters gin. It was well-chilled and well mixed.

When Thomas returned, I had chosen a salad but was torn between two main courses. He recommended one over the other but asked if I was really hungry because it was a large portion. I assured him I would pace myself.

While Thomas was registering my order, another server brought a silver basket with warm rolls resting on a napkin and the butter dish on the side. He noticed my finished cocktail and asked if I wanted another. I told him I was switching to wine and had a salad coming. He recommended the 2010 Chardonnay from the Santa Barbara Winery, California. A crisp, well-chilled, golden wine, it went perfectly with my Baby Spinach Salad.


My eyes popped from their sockets at the main course; a 14 oz. Berkshire Pork Chop, sizzling and beautifully browned. It sat majestically on a bed of bright green broccolini in a whole grain mustard cream sauce. It was a good five inches in diameter and a little over an inch thick. The meat was tender and white, not too dry, and savory where browned. I succeeded in slowing down and finished it.

The side dish, called “O’Brien’s Potato Hash,” was way different from hash-browns. Bite-sized wedges of baked potato along with chopped red and yellow peppers and a small dish of homemade catsup. Served Brit-style on faux newspaper, it was kitschy as well as delicious.


Thomas wondered if I had any room left for dessert and I asked him for a recommendation. The “Pastry Bread Pudding” caught my eye and that was his advice. The fluffy pudding was topped with a substantial scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel. It was good, but it was the only dish I didn’t finish. Thomas asked why. “Needs bourbon,” I replied. A double espresso later and my Paramount dinner was finished. I may even try to stay at the Paramount on my next stay-cation.


Star Trek Beyond

By Steve Herte

Star Trek Beyond (Paramount, 2016) – Director: Justin Lin. Writers: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung, Roberto Orci, Patrick McKay & John D. Payne. Based on the television series by Gene Roddenberry. Stars: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yeltsin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, Joe Taslima, Lydia Wilson, Deep Roy, Melissa Roxburgh, Anita Brown, & Doug Jung. Color and 3D, Rated PG-13, 122 minutes.

I have a confession to make: I’m a “Trekkie.” I have a complete set of action figures, starships for my Christmas tree and a Next Generation captain’s shirt. Though I don’t attend conventions, I followed the original Star Trek series, Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine and will probably follow the upcoming Star Trek Discovery next year. And yes, I’ve seen all 12 previous movies, with this 13th installment having both things to applaud and to wonder about.

We begin in the third year of the “five-year mission” and while relations between members of the crew are becoming strained, they’re heading for some “R and R” on an amazing artificial world dubbed “Yorktown,” described by Scotty (Pegg) as “a snow-globe with a city in it.” That’s putting it mildly. Yorktown is a gargantuan structure where skyscrapers sprout up, down and sideways, depending on which walkway one is using. Mass transit flashes by on a single rail and all “cars” fly (Jetsons, anyone?). A gate opens and the Enterprise flies straight into a tube leading to an internal docking point.

Captain James Tiberius Kirk (Pine) is being offered a Vice-Admiralty and Commander Spock (Quinto) is considering leaving the Enterprise for New Vulcan to continue the work of his father. Meanwhile, the crew gets relief from interstellar travel to meet and greet friends and family.


A distress call is received from a planet in an “Unstable Nebula” and the Enterprise is assigned to investigate. Forgive me, but I have always believed that nebulae were clouds of gas and dust illuminated by ionization, sometimes the result of a supernova, and where stars are born. All are expanding and none are truly what would be called stable. This one is more crammed with craggy rocks than the asteroid field in Star Wars V  The Empire Strikes Back, and looks more like an exploded planet than a star. But … this is science fiction.

Once past the nebula, the Enterprise is attacked by a huge swarm of jagged, pointy ships that easily punch holes in its bulkhead and discharge hordes of reptilian fighters. (Where are the Enterprise’s shields?) They’re looking for an ancient artifact called the Abronath that Kirk tried to offer to another alien race that looks like lions but are the size of pugs as a peace offering. This artifact is wanted by the fearsome Krall (Elba) to complete (what else?) the ultimate weapon to wipe out humanity. (Gee, that’s original.) It remains hidden until a traitor is unmasked, the alien Kalara (Lydia Wilson), who reveals the hiding place in the tentacles forming her headdress. The swarm of pointy ships slice and dice the Enterprise like an inter-galactic blender, the crew is taken hostage, the officers use escape pods and the ship crash lands on the planet Altamid. 

Sulu (Cho), Lieutenant Uhura (Saldana), and Chekov (Yelchin) are captured, but Sulu and Chekov later escape. Spock is impaled by debris when the escape pod carrying him and Doctor “Bones” McCoy (Urban) crashes. Thank goodness he had the doctor with him. Scotty lands near the edge of a cliff and meets Jaylah (Boutella), a skunk-striped alien who is also stranded. She leads him to her home, the old, warp-4 starship Franklin, formerly commanded by Balthazar Edison.

The dilemmas facing the heroes when they reunite on the Franklin are how to rescue Uhura, restart a grounded starship, and stop Krall and his minions from destroying Yorktown.

Though it sounds exciting, for Trekkies, there’s a lot of “been there and done that.” The cinematography is darker than a Thomas Cole painting (sometimes it’s difficult to see what’s happening), and the science credibility goes in and out of the fantastic. For everyone else, it’s a fast-moving picture with lots of action, relieved only in spurts by character development. Again, for Trekkies, it was good to see Kirk, Spock, Bones, Sulu and Chekov growing into the characters we know and love from the original TV series, right down to Doctor McCoy’s line, “In a pig’s eye!” Only Zoe Saldana has not grasped the majesty of being Uhura. I found it rather hilarious that the song “Sabotage,” performed by the Beastie Boys, is used to disorient the enemy fleet and more than a  little strange that Spock receives his own death notice as Ambassador Spock.

But it was good that, in this 50th Anniversary year, the film was dedicated to the late Leonard Nimoy and simply, “For Anton,” the late Anton Yeltsin.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Did you know? Pine's grandmother as Anne Gwynne, Universal actress and World War II pin-up.




Surya
154 Bleecker St., New York

Surya, which means “sun” in Hindi, is doing well in its new locale. Its previous site at 302 Bleeker St. closed in 2012 as a result of rent increases and damages from Superstorm Sandy. 


Inside, all is golden, with tasteful, minimal ornamentation – framed photographs of the past, mirrors and statutes of Ganesha and elephants.

A young lady greeted me at the door and led me to a table where Shradha, my server, presented me with the menu and took my cocktail order. I chose the “Summer Delight Cocktail,” made with cucumber-flavored vodka, mango juice and cloves. Not too strong, it was an appropriately named drink.

Colonial Indian” is how Surya describes their menu, from a time when England, Portugal, Spain and The Netherlands influenced Indian cuisine with their own.

A young man brought out the papadum (a bread like a giant potato chip) with mint and tamarind chutney. Sometimes mint chutney can be spicy, but not this time, and tamarind is always sweet. I chose as my wine a 2014 Clos Du Mont-Olivet Chateauneuf du Pape, a wine I haven’t had in a long time and one that goes with Indian food.

My first course was the smoked tomato soup – smoked ripe tomatoes and cinnamon sticks garnished with sour cream and cilantro. It was delightful, as I could taste the smokiness of a wood fire.


Next to arrive were two of Surya’s baby lamb chops, wrapped in aluminum foil for easy handling, nicely charred in the tandoor oven, and tender, marinated in yoghurt and served with a warm special house sauce and side salad of shredded cabbage and arugula.

My main dish was one I’ve never seen before on an Indian menu: Halibut Moli, sautéed halibut in a ginger and coconut sauce., served with Basmati rice. It was amazing, the sauce went well with both the fish and the rice, as I spooned out some of the rice to my plate and spoon cut the fish onto the rice. Then I added some of the sauce onto the rice and added a slice of the Onion and Black Pepper Kulcha (a flat bread made in the tandoor). Everything was deliciously balanced in flavor, nothing was particularly spicy and I would recommend this dish to anyone prejudiced against Indian cuisine.

The dessert menu featured several of the desserts I know and love but one stood out. While I’ve had pistachio, chocolate, and plain Kulfi, I never tasted Malai Kulfi. I enjoyed this true departure from the original recipe with chocolate, raspberry and strawberry sauces artfully painted on the serving dish. I followed this with Masala Chai (hot spiced tea) and since they did not have evaporated milk I drank it without milk. 


Surya proved to be an intriguing choice, and though I like my Indian food to be more traditionally Indian, this colonial style is sure to please even the most spice-o-phobic New Yorkers.


Ghostbusters

By Steve Herte

Ghostbusters (Columbia, 2016) – Director: Paul Feig. Writers: Katie Dippold & Paul Feig. Based on the 1984 film Ghostbusters by Ivan Reitman, Dan Ackroyd & Harold Ramis. Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Neil Casey, Sigourney Weaver, Andy Garcia, Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Zach Woods, Ed Begley, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Charles Dance, John Milhiser, Ben Harris, Cecily Strong, Karan Soni, Bess Rous, Steve Higgins, Dave Allen, Robin Shelby, & Katie Dippold. Color, Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.

Helene once told me to expect nothing and you’ll never be disappointed. That’s how I approached both my movie and my dinner.

What has oceans of slime, galaxies of neon blue and green lights and so-so acting? Only the third sequel I’ve seen this year that didn’t need to be made. Actually, it’s not a sequel. It’s a remake, and we know how they can turn out. The original team of Ghostbusters: Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson have been recast with Kristin Wiig as Erin Gilbert, Melissa McCarthy as Abby Yates, Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzman, and Leslie Jones as Patty Tolan. The original cast had Annie Potts for their not-so-good secretary Janine Melnitz and the new one has Chris Hemsworth as the totally incompetent but good-looking Kevin.

The story is different in a few places, however the end result is the same. The opening scene sees a tour group in the Aldridge Mansion and Museum and the tour guide, Zach Woods, gets a little more spookiness than he had written into his script.

Gilbert is a physics and mathematics teacher who is up for tenure at Columbia University when she learns from Ed Mulgrave (Begley Jr.), curator at the Aldridge Mansion Museum, that “Ghosts of Our Past” the book she co-wrote with Abby (and tried to squelch) is suddenly popular on the Internet and has sold more than the two copies she remembers. 

He came to her as an expert on the paranormal. When she confronts Abby about this potentially career-ruining publication, she meets the weird and wacky Jillian tinkering in Abby’s lab and has to make a deal with Abby to investigate the ghost sighting in the mansion.

The three go to the museum and meet the malevolent spirit of Gertrude Aldridge (Rous). Erin is convinced to join Abby and is subsequently fired when the news media airs the story. Abby and Jillian are booted out of their lab as well and the three abscond with the equipment. Where to go? They are shown the firehouse previously used by the original Ghostbusters team but the rental is way over their budget. They settle for the upper floor of Zhu’s Authentic Hong Kong Food.

When interviewing for a secretary, they meet Patty Tolan who tells them of the apparition she encountered in the mythical Seward Street subway station on the Upper East Side. They bring their ghost capturing tools to the subway but are unable to contain the electric phantom. However, Jillian knows how to increase the power of their equipment.

Meanwhile, the often bullied and constantly ignored Rowan North (Casey) is planning to open a portal to let all ghosts back onto the streets of New York to haunt the entire population. (Sound familiar?) He’s planted devices in several focal places, one of which is a rock concert in a venue similar to Irving Place.


The now quartet of Ghostbusters figure out the location and bring their improved capturing apparatus. The winged gargoyle is entrapped; the audience is thrilled beyond belief (they think it’s a part of the act), and the team members are arrested and brought before Mayor Bradley (Garcia) and his chief spin-doctor, Jennifer Lynch (Strong). Together, they give a cover-up story to the media and discount the Ghostbusters as a hoax. Does this sound even more familiar? (At the exit of the rock venue, look for a cameo by Ozzie Osbourne.)

If that weren’t bad enough, who shows up at their office but Martin Heiss the paranormal debunker (Murray). He pushes all of Erin’s buttons and she releases the gargoyle to prove they captured it. Bad idea. It flies at Heiss, pushes him out the window and out of the film.

Eventually, the girls figure out Rowan’s scheme and where “ghost central” will be – the non-existent Mercado Hotel (possibly the Conde Nast Building?) – confront Rowan, who appears to commit suicide by electrocution, and are able to shut the machine down. But once again, Lynch trumps their success as an obvious hoax, and the public is unaware of the disaster they just averted.

But wait, there’s more. Rowan’s ghost possesses Kevin and restarts the machine unleashing a torrent of ectoplasmic apparitions, including a ghostly Thanksgiving Day Parade of phantom balloons with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in the rear. (Hmmm) The girls have their work cut out for them.

Except for the special effects and the eye-popping 3D, this movie has a been-there, did-that feel. Instead of an ancient god releasing the ghosts, we have a disgruntled employee doing it. The re-orchestration of the familiar theme song was effective, especially the dance routine during the credits led by Hemsworth. A running gag in the film featuring Bennie the delivery boy (Soni) who repeatedly delivers the wonton soup wrong to Abby is fun, but most of the jokes fall flat from faulty delivery. I laughed five times in the hour and 56 minutes.

But seeing the original cast in cameo roles was refreshing. The desk clerk at the Mercado Hotel was Annie Potts, Dan Aykroyd was a cabbie (as well as being the executive director), the funeral director who unknowingly supplied the hearse – plated “Ecto-1” (Hmmm) – was Patty’s Uncle Bill (Hudson) and, at the end, Jillian’s mentor is revealed to be Rebecca Gorin (Weaver). I didn’t see any memorial or reference to Harold Ramis, and Rick Moranis was noticeably missing. It was cute that Slimer found a girlfriend in Lady Slimer (Robin Shelby) and Fox 5 News Anchors (Rosanna Scotto and Greg Kelly) were a surprise along with Al Roker playing himself.

If you don’t remember the first movie, you will find it entertaining. The dialogue is squeaky clean. Your kids would enjoy it without getting scared. Me? I just sighed and wished the original cast could have taken over.

Rating: 2½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Schilling
109 Washington St., New York

Sometimes the first restaurant you investigate is the one you want. But there are times when the right restaurant is the one located conveniently and has an opening at the right time even though it’s not the one you would pick first. 


Schilling is a two-month-old Austrian restaurant almost hidden away on the east side of Washington Street amid scaffolding and aged buildings. The location is a tenement building dating from 1871 and looks it. The once white exterior of a retractable garage door and the two columns flanking the door is faded and chipped. However, inside is a tastefully decorated bistro with a 24-seat communal table in the middle of the room leading to the aluminum bar at the far wall. Tables with white chairs and brown banquettes line the two side walls. Real votive candles and wildflowers in small vases line the center of the tables.

The young lady who greeted me would eventually become my server. When she asked if I wanted a drink, I chose the Aviation Cocktail – gin, maraschino liqueur, and lemon juice. It was citrusy and refreshing.

My first dish was roasted artichoke hearts with baby carrots and short ribs. It was delightful. The artichokes were crunchy and nicely blackened, the carrots sweet and tender right to the green tips and the pieces of short rib a little salty but juicy.

The accompanying wine was a fine 2013 pinot noir “Mayer am Pfaarplatz” from Austria, a very nice medium-bodied red that went well with all my dishes, especially the next one: grilled quail with sautéed marbled potato, broccoli rabe and dandelion pesto. The quail was crispy skinned, easy to pry apart and tasted wonderful. I have to admit, the potato and the broccoli rabe, which I would normally eschew, were equally good with the pesto.


My main course was something I would never expect on an Austrian menu: braised lamb shoulder with Israeli couscous, mustard greens, and cherry tomatoes. It was as delicious to eat as it was to look at. The attractive presentation left no doubt that it was one of the most popular dishes on the menu. The mustard greens were an inspiration. I ordered curried peas as a side dish, and to my surprise they were snow peas topped with filaments of fried onion and in the lightest curry sauce ever. Even someone who hates curry would love the taste of this dish.


For dessert I had apple strudel with fresh vanilla ice cream and strawberries. It was far from ordinary – delicate in both texture and flavor. I finished with a double espresso and a thistle glass of Austrian brandy. I found Schilling was worth every penny and way beyond its dowdy exterior. It deserves a return visit.


Kindergarten Cop 2

By Steve Herte

Kindergarten Cop 2 (Universal, 2016) – Director: Don Michael Paul. Writers: David H. Steinberg (s/p). Based on the film written by Timothy Harris, Murray Salem, & Herschel Weinrot. Stars: Dolph Lindgren, Fiona Vroom, Sarah Strange, Daria Taylor, Aleks Paunovic, Bill Bellamy, Enid-Raye Adams, Danny Watley, Rebecca Olson, Raphael Alejandro, Abbie Magnusen, Andre Tricoteux, Michael P. Northey, Jenny Sandersson, Dean Petriw, & Carolyn Adair. Color, Rated PG-13, 100 minutes.

After the success of the first movie in 1990 starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Agent Kimble, it took 25 years for us to be treated to this lukewarm sequel. FBI Agent Zack Reed (Lundgren) goes undercover as a teacher in a new-age, politically correct, over-protective kindergarten to find a flash-drive containing sensitive information on the Federal Witness Protection Program.

The FBI provides him with a glowing resume that impresses the Head Mistress, Miss Sinclaire (Strange) and gets him the job easily. He thinks that six-year-olds are simple to handle, but not with Cowboy (Alejandro), who is hyper-allergic to peanuts, and Molly (Magnusen), whose dad is having employment problems and is taking out his frustration on his family. Zack’s first day on the job is an almost total disaster, only saved by fellow teacher Olivia (Taylor).

Zack’s partner, Agent Sanders (Bellamy) and a parent himself. eventually convinces him to wear a communication device and things progress much better with his coaching. At the same time, the Albanian mob is also after the same flash-drive under the leadership of the merciless Zogu (Paunovic), who comes off like a second-rate Boris Badenov.


Another thing Zack isn’t prepared for is falling in love with Olivia, thus alienating fellow male teacher Hal (Michael P. Northey), who has called “dibs” on her. Frankly, if I were as roly-poly as Hal, I would not confront a muscular guy like Lundgren with such a childish claim.

With the exception of the kids, the acting in this film falls flat. It’s really all about them. They’re adorable. Lundgren is just as wooden as his chiseled good looks. His boss Mike Giardello (Watley) tops the boring scales with his overacting, but never quite evens out the balance. The audience is left with only the children to care about as characters, and they’re being natural.

There are several attempts at humor. Some succeed, some are ruined by Lundgren’s off-hand delivery. Maybe if he had an accent? The writing is good but only the six-year-olds and Sarah Strange know how to handle punch lines. Even at the climax of the film, it’s the children reenacting a scene from the Trojan War who save the day. But it doesn’t save the movie. There's a good reason it went straight to video.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Puerto Vallarta,
377 Boston Post RoadOrange, Conn.

After two days of touring the Catskills and a Chinese take-out dinner with my godson’s family, my sister, brother-in-law and I had our sights set on a lovely Italian dinner in Milford, but it was booked for the time we preferred. The search for a dining experience ran the gamut of places previously visited to places none of us wanted to visit. And then we hit upon a Mexican restaurant none of us has tried.


On the main road in Orange, Puerto Vallarta stands out. The adobe hacienda-style design of the restaurant is eye-catching and as the sun goes down, the strings of multi-colored twinkle lights edge every curve of the Alamo-like entrance. Inside the front door is a colorful mural of a welcoming señorita with carved dark-wood benches lined up around tall tables in both directions. Sun motifs are on the walls as well as brightly painted artworks framed by authentic Mexican tiles.

Our server, Lupe, introduced herself and offered the possibility of cocktails. I chose the Puerto Vallarta Cosmolito – a Mexican twist to an American favorite with Don Julio Silver Tequila, Grand Marnier, cranberry juice, and fresh lime juice. It was mostly sweet with a little tart overtone and that beautiful rosy color.

Not seeing a small appetizer-sized salad on the menu as a side, my sister tried asking for a “tossed” salad. I ordered the Sopa de Albondigas (meatball soup) – fresh-minted beef and pork meatballs, with seasonal vegetables in a clear broth, served with diced onions, fresh mint, oregano and warm tortillas in a ceramic crock. The salad was dinner-sized and enough for both my sister and her husband. My soup was just right for me, a good-sized bowl filled with sliced summer squash, cauliflower, green peppers and savory tender meatballs.

The Enchiladas Suizas – corn tortillas filled with a choice of cheese, chicken, ground beef, or “picadillo” (shredded beef) topped with green tomatillo sauce and Monterrey Jack cheese and sour cream – were a little disappointing and lacking in flavor for my brother-in-law and the refried beans were not to his liking. My sister had the Fajita Quesadilla – large flour tortillas filled with melted cheese, marinated grilled strips of chicken or steak, sautéed onions and bell peppers with guacamole, sour cream and Pico de Gallo. The meat was tender and well-cooked and flavorful. She enjoyed it but found the portion a bit too large.


My Chamorro Pibil – lamb shank marinated overnight in wine, wrapped in banana leaves and baked, served with white rice, beans and salsa verde (fresh tomatillos, avocado, chilies and special Puerta Vallarta spices) – was excellent. The meat fell off the two bones into the rich sauce. I took some of the white rice and mixed it with the beans and a little sauce and was very happy and the salsa verde added just the right touch of heat.

For dessert, my two companions shared the Tres Leches (three milks) Cake. It was moist, fluffy and sweet and just the right size. I had the Dulce de Leche Cheese Cake and it was amazing. There were three layers, the sweet milk on top, chocolate cheese in the middle and cream cheese on the bottom, all laced with caramel syrup and topped with a cherry. 

And for a finisher I had a coffee called Mexican Dream – coffee with Kahlua, brandy and Bailey’s Irish Cream. Even when I was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico I didn’t eat this well. I’m sure we’ll all return. 


Independence Day: Resurgence

By Steve Herte

Independence Day: Resurgence (20th Century Fox, 2016) – Director: Roland Emmerich. Writers: Nicolas Wright, James A. Woods, Dean Devlin, & Roland Emmerich (story & s/p). James Vanderbilt (s/p). Dean Devlin, & Roland Emmerich (characters). Stars: Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Jessie T. Usher, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe, Sela Ward, William Fichtner, Judd Hirsch, Brent Spiner, Patrick St. Esprit, Vivica A. Fox, Angelababy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Nicholas Wright, & DeObia Oparei. Color, 3D, Rated PG-13, 120 minutes.

We had 20 years to prepare – so did they.” So goes the catch phrase in the trailers of this unnecessary sequel. Yeah, we used the time to integrate alien technology into our construction, transportation and weapons systems. Now we have anti-gravity fighter planes, a ring of anti-alien ray guns in orbit around Earth, and a monster ray cannon on our moon base as well as a base on Saturn’s moon Rhea. And yes, the first movie was released in 1996. But where did the aliens come from and why were they here? We needed this film to explain that.

Dylan Hiller (Usher), son of the deceased Stephen Hiller (Will Smith), is being celebrated at the White House by President Elizabeth Lanford (Ward). We see a portrait of his father on the wall behind him as he enters the reception area. He’s been selected to lead an elite squadron of fighter pilots and thus, the world defense team.


Meanwhile, in Africa, the only alien ship to have landed in 1996 and thought to be out of commission, lights up. Earth Space Defense Director David Levinson (Goldblum) meets with Dr. Catherine Marceaux (Gainsbourg) and the formidable warlord Dikembe Umbutu (Oparei) to investigate. The ship was once a drilling operation (no one knew why) and is now sending out a distress call. Umbutu shares a headache with anyone who got too close to the aliens in the first movie.

Former President Thomas Whitmore (Pullman) wakes up from a hideous nightmare in the opening scene of being face to face with an alien. Dr. Brakish Okun (Spiner) is sprung from his 20-year coma by a similar nightmare. They, along with the warlord, all see the same symbol – a circle with a straight line bisecting it from the left. Umbutu can read the alien language, Whitmore translates the symbol as fear, and Okun draws a sphere from his vision.

On the moon, Jake Morrison (Hemsworth), former comrade-in-arms of Dylan, is still a space jockey, piloting a space tug to put the final enormous piece in place and completing the defense ray gun at the base. At first, it’s off center and starts to topple. But he recklessly uses his hyper-drive to muscle it back into its socket. Han Solo would be proud. 

But a communication is received that something really large is tugging on the rings of Saturn and that the base on Rhea is already gone. A titanic sphere emerges from a wormhole over the moon and hovers benignly over the base, as if watching it.

Panic strikes the leaders of the world and the new weapon is used to shoot it down. It was friendly, however. Jake ferries David to the moon and, using the tug, retrieves a piece of the sphere for dissection at ESD Headquarters in Area 51, Nevada. Another ship, this one unfriendly and 3,000 miles wide, starts creating havoc on the moon. The debris field it leaves after demolishing the new weapon is carried along with it as it heads for Earth. The theory proposed was that it was so large, it warped the fabric of space to acquire its own gravity. As it heads for a landing, it sucks up buildings, planes cars and people in Malaysia on its approach to the Atlantic.

Such a landing causes a tsunami on America's east coast where it just so happens Julius Levinson (Hirsch), David’s dad, is out on his boat. It dumps all the debris into the Thames (including the Petronas Towers) in London. It straddles the Atlantic and proceeds to drill the mid-Atlantic ridge to remove the Earth’s molten core. 

Jeff Goldblum, ever the voice of gloom and doom posits, “If they remove our molten core, we’ll lose our magnetic field and the solar wind will wipe out all life on Earth.” That is the one piece of science that is believable in this film. But he also gets a lot of the funny lines, making one wonder if this movie is secretly a comedy.

Brent Spiner is hilarious and has put on some weight as he uses alien technology to cut open the portion of the sphere and communicate with the virtually intelligent white sphere within. At least we learn that the sphere people and the aliens have been at war for a long time and the sphere promises greater technology for ensuring its safety (it’s the last of its kind, of course).

I chuckled several times at the absurdity of this sequel, especially when we learn that Cheyenne Mountain was destroyed, along with the current president and all of her cabinet, with General Joshua Adams (Fichtner) being sworn in. It was good to see Robert Loggia again, playing General William Grey in his last movie role (he died in December 2015). And, if the white sphere is correct, there will be another sequel (hopefully in 20 years).

Rating: 2½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Florian Café
225 Park Ave. South, New York

Of the 24,000 restaurants graded by the Department of Health in New York City, the third largest ethnic group is Italian at 1,035 (4%). American and Chinese form the bulk of this number. When I choose a restaurant, I space the Italians with other cuisines to keep the variety, though I could easily eat Italian every day of the week without regret. Florian Café is my 361st Italian.

Though only having opened in February 2015, this charming, friendly place brings the atmosphere of a 300-year-old trattoria in Venice. Bright red signs with the name in bold white letters are prominently posted on the scaffolding enveloping the restaurant. The entrance is a revolving door framed by backlit photos of wine and liquor bottles and topped by the name in bright white capital letters.


Inside, a high ceiling is supported by arches painted to appear as if constructed of two-tone stone blocks, with a spacious informal dining area opens to the right and a 12-seat bar is to the left flanked by four two-customer booths. In the middle of the bar, one cannot miss the bronze statue of a naked woman uncorking a wine bottle held between her knees. In back is a gorgeous, formal room dominated by a glorious crystal chandelier orbited by brass rings.

The Captain’s Station is a few steps into the restaurant from the door and the young lady there led me to the second to the last booth, where I chose to sit facing that fabulous emerald room. My server, David, appeared and I ordered a Beefeater martini. It was perfect, with three Spanish olives skewered on a stick suspended over it.

My first course was the Short Rib Meatballs in Sunday gravy: two delicious meatballs sprinkled with grated cheese in just about the richest red sauce imaginable – chock full of every Italian ingredient from garlic and basil to wine and cheese. 

At this point, I had David bring the wine, a 2012 “Dei” Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano, an amazing full-bodied red that can stand up to the strongest flavors in an Italian meal and still delight the senses. My second course was Pappardelle: broad, flat and long noodles served simply in eggplant parmigiana sauce and garnished with sprigs of fresh basil. I had David grind fresh pepper and fresh cheese over the top. Made in-house, the pasta was al dente and delicious. The baby eggplant scattered throughout the sauce added a sweet/tart flavor to the experience. 


Fridays in the Lenten season are usually my fish days but the next dish just had to be chosen. The Red Snapper Livornese, completely invisible under braised tomatoes, olives and capers and another lovely tomato sauce. And, to my surprise, no bones, Just delicious flaky fish smothered in savory ingredients (and more basil garnish, of course).

While I finished my wine, I looked around and saw a most unusual thing behind the bar (besides the naked lady) – a chalk board listing various bodily ailments, the kind of wine to take to cure them, and how many glasses, all in Italian. For instance, it takes four glasses of Barolo to cure anemia. I loved it.


For dessert, David suggested “Limoncello Pie.” How do I describe it? It was like a strong lemon mousse pie but the upper crust was like the glaze on a crème brulée. To go with it, I ordered a double espresso and a lovely glass of Barolo grappa. The charm of Florian Café is only equaled by its reasonable prices for both food and wine. Of course, if you want to go overboard, that’s available as well. As for myself, I’ll be back. Maybe for lunch someday.


Now You See Me 2

By Steve Herte

Now You See Me 2 (Lionsgate, 2016) – Director: Jon M. Chu. Writers: Ed Solomon (s/p and story), Pete Chiarelli (story), Boaz Yakin & Edward Ricourt (characters). Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, David Warshofsky, Tsai Chin, Ben Lamb, William Henderson, Richard Laing, & Henry Lloyd-Hughes. Color, Rated PG-13, 129 minutes.

Although this movie takes place one year after the first installment, it’s been three years since the first one was released. For those who did not see the previous film, a little background information may be necessary. (For the full review of the first film, click here.) 

Four incomparable amateur magicians are formed into a team by an unknown benefactor and call themselves the “Four Horsemen:” J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Harrelson), Jack Wilder (Franco), and Henley Reeves (Fisher). They perform in an elaborate Las Vegas show funded by Arthur Tressler (Caine) and their final trick is to empty the vault of the Crédit Republicain Bank in Paris of its recent delivery of euros and then shower the Las Vegas crowd with the money. FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) is assigned to investigate them. He turns to former magician, now magic debunker, Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) for help. In a later spectacular trick, they steal millions of dollars from Tressler’s private account and plant the money on Bradley, thus landing him in jail as well as making an enemy of Tressler. We learn that Dylan is the son of famous magician Lionel Shrike and he leads them to an elite and secretive group of magicians called The Eye.


A year later, Henley Reeves has left the infamous quartet and the remaining three are keeping under the public radar. But nature abhors a vacuum and illusionist Lula (Caplan) finds Atlas begging to be the fourth (and first woman) horseman. Dylan, still working for the FBI, and still unknown as the fifth horseman, inducts her into the group with a special mission. It seems that Owen Case (Lamb) has created a major bit of malware which can steal identities not only from computers, but from phones and other electronic devices. The Four Horsemen are assigned to discredit him. However, in the middle of their presentation, the scheme is thwarted by a mysterious intruder and the four run for their escape plan.

But instead of winding up in the truck they had waiting for them, they wake up in Macao. Asian thugs lead them to Walter Mabry (Radcliffe). Not only is he the one whose high-tech brilliance interrupted their show, but he’s the illegitimate son of Arthur Tressler. He wants the chip from Owen Cases’ machine (which just happens to be the same size as a standard playing card) for his own corporation’s uses.

Meanwhile, Deputy Director Natalie Austin (Lathan) and Dylan are seeking out the Four Horsemen to eventually arrest them, but the group’s public appeal as modern day Robin Hoods make it extremely difficult. Dylan breaks Bradley out of prison and, following the clues, wind up in Macao, where Bradley vanishes.

The first movie was spectacular, but the sequel easily outdoes it. There are several “Wow” moments, great dialogue, superb special effects, acting that makes you care about the characters and a super soundtrack. It was like watching a Penn and Teller show with a fantastic Mission Impossible story (virtually all the tricks performed are explained). It opens with the back-story between Dylan and Bradley when Young Dylan (Henderson) witnesses the death of his father, Lionel Shrike (Laing) in his final illusion – escaping an inescapable safe at the bottom of a river. Morgan Freeman’s performance was so slick you didn’t know if he was a bad guy or a good one. Daniel Radcliffe makes a greasy villain as compared with Michael Caine’s suave exterior. And I loved Lizzy Caplan as the new member of the team. She provides a lot of the comic relief, but you know she’s dead serious. And Woody Harrelson gets to play two parts, as the serious Merritt McKinney and his wacky twin brother, Chase.

I didn’t see any children in the audience but I’m sure they would be amazed, even without the first film. The language is kept clean almost throughout (only one goof and it’s a small one) and the short violent scene is bloodless. I came out of the theater almost tired. That’s entertainment!

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Perfect Pint
123 W. 45th St., New York

Casual is this Irish pub with the unusual menu items from Asian places. If you can’t locate The Perfect Pint by the pint-shaped neon sign three stories over the door, you might find it with the six-foot-high, three-dimensional one just above the faux-thatched awning over the entrance. 


Once inside, I confirmed my reservation with the hostess and she led me upstairs to a long, cozy room with perhaps 20 tables total. I sat at a central table about midway in the room and chose to face the bar. A true pub, none of the tables had tablecloths, but there were both charcoal and cream colored cloth napkins.

With a selection of 40 brews on tap, I was not about to order a cocktail. With Meabh, my server, I chose a three-course meal and the order in which each dish was to come. To start I chose The Perfect Pint Irish Red. This red beer had the creamy flavor and minimum bite for a refreshing start to my meal. 

As I mentioned before The Perfect Pint is an unusual pub in that interesting Asian dishes are mixed in with the standard Irish pub food. For my first course I chose the chicken lemon grass dumplings with ponzu (soy based) dipping sauce.

The dumplings were light, tender and aromatic with ginger and only a light flavor of the lemon grass. With it was a sprinkling of what only could be called kim chee, but not as spicy as the Koreans would make it. It was remarkable. With it, I chose the Magners “Angry Orchard” beer, boasting that 17 varieties of apple go into its brewing. It delivered the apple experience in spades.

I had considered the Newcastle Brown Ale to be perfect with my second course, the Irish onion soup – caramelized onions, stout, chicken broth, sage derby croutons and, of course cheese. It is sweeter and less salty than French onion soup and uses mozzarella instead of gruyere. The sage and the stout made it uniquely delicious.


On to the main course: crazy plum shrimp lo mein. I found it to be unlike any lo mein I’ve ever had in a Chinese restaurant; more like the Vietnamese would make it. The noodles were almost translucent with julienned green, red and yellow bell peppers, and the sauce was both spicy and sweet. The shrimp were cooked to that crunchy tenderness shrimp lovers enjoy.

To accompany it I chose Duvel Green – a full-flavored Belgian golden ale. Its spicy after taste almost interfered with the dish but it was an exciting combination.

Meabh then asked me what would my next choice of beer would be before dessert. I chose Hoegaarden – a white, Belgian wheat beer, spiced and fermented in the medieval fashion. It was rich, hoppy, and almost malty, but a good precursor to dessert.


While the Irish cream cheesecake was tempting, the Mississippi mud pie won me over. In addition to the rich, dark chocolate topping the normally cocoa/chocolate filling was imbued with Bailey’s Irish Cream and Jameson, making it irresistible on a chocolate, graham cracker crust.

Meabh was ready with my check, but I saw that they had specialty coffees. I asked if could have a cup of regular coffee. “Yes.” And I noticed that there were two single-malt scotches I’ve never tasted, Clynelish and Middleton. I ordered them both. Meabh identified which was which and I started my comparison. The Clynelish is smooth and unassuming, a good scotch for the non-scotch-drinker. The Midleton was my favored one; it had the character and the slight bite of a good scotch.


When I had paid the check and was ready to leave I asked Meabh how long the two Perfect Pints (there’s one on the East Side as well) have been in business and she responded, six years. I had a great time and I look forward to the chance of dining there again and trying more ales or beers.


Warcraft

By Steve Herte

Warcraft (Universal, 2016) – Director: Duncan Jones. Writers: Duncan Jones, Charles Levitt (s/p), Chris Metzen (story & characters). Stars: Travis Flimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Ruth Nega, Anna Galvin, Callum Keith Rennie, Burkeley Duffield, Ryan Robbins, Michael Adamthwaite, & Dean Redman. Color, 3D, PG-13, 123 minutes.

It seems more and more movies are coming out inspired by video games. Some really do not need to be made. This movie is one of them.

The problem with making a movie based on a video game is that of translation: will those who have not played the game be able to understand what is going on? Unfortunately, in this case, no. The film comes off as a sort of Tolkien-Lite (with a little Star Wars mythology added along the way), stealing his concept of Orcs, which are described as larger than goblins, hideous, warlike and not very bright. They are led by as spiky green shaman named Gul’dan (Wu), who wields a magical power known as “the fel,” which has the ability to drain or instill the life force within its victim. Because their world has been destroyed by some form of apocalypse, Gul’dan has opened a portal for his warriors to run through, beginning a war with a world called Azeroth, home to humans, elves, dwarves, and much more, though in this movie we’re mainly introduced to the humans.


Along the way, Gul’dan is busy subjugating other Orc clans to his will, such as the Winter Wolf Clan, led by Durotan (Kebbell) and his mate Drakka (Galvin). They are quick to figure out that Gul’dan is not only the cause of the devastation of Draenor, their homeland, but that the magic power he wields, “the Fel,” is evil. Later they will join the forces of Azeroth in opposing the evil warlord. 

The human kingdoms in Azeroth are led by King Llane Wrynn (Cooper), his faithful warrior sidekick, Anduin Lothar (Fimmel), and the Guardian Magna Medivh (Foster). When Lothar learns of the Orc invasion, he along with the Dwarf King Magni Bronzebeard (Adamthwaite) urge King Wrynn to summon Medivh to stem the threat.  After a quick flight to Karazhan, Medivh is enlisted and brought to Azeroth, Llane is convinced and a scouting party is formed.

The scouting party is beset by orcs and saved though the magic of Khadgar (Schnetzer), a wizard who abandoned his monk-like order. They capture a half-breed orc/human named Garona (Patton). Knowing Gul’dan is evil, she convinces Lothar and Llane to meet with Durotan to join forces against Gul’dan. But working against them is the fact that Medivh has been perverted by the fel and is working for the orcs. As the movie continued, I had the feeling that the plot was not headed for a resolution so much as a sequel.

The problem with Warcraft, as mentioned above, is that it’s directed to those who are serious and frequent players of the video game. Director Duncan Jones – son of the late, great David Bowie – who previously made the excellent Moon and Source Code, is better as director than co-writer, as the battle sequences are far more accomplished than any of the scenes in which characters stand around spouting various inanities concerning the fel.

Like so much of the fantasy jargon employed in the film, there’s absolutely no wider explanation of what it is or how it works; it’s just assumed that the audience should understand what’s going on. The film’s characters spout monologues about the “Guardian of Tirisfal” or the rules of ancient orcish battle rituals. The result is that things quickly become hopelessly muddled, and it’s impossible to keep track of what’s going on.  

One of the most annoying irritating aspects the film to me was that it plunged me right into its plot without a concern for those, like me, who have never played the game. The characters just begin talking about even more creatures I haven’t yet met. A good movies gives out its information carefully, trusting that those who don’t quite get what’s going on will be able to catch up without too much time having passed. Warcraft feels like it should be accompanied by a guide explaining what it’s all about.

Unlike Tolkien and unlike other fantasies, this video game adaptation has veritably no comic relief. We yearn for a wisecracking character like Han Solo to relieve the tension and the seriousness. The lightest moment in the movie is when Lothar is holding Durotan’s head by the hair with a short sword to his neck, threatening to kill him if his mount, an enormous, snarling white wolf, does not back off. It does, and Lothar says, “Too bad. It would have made a nice coat.” Other than that, there is no lessening of the direness of the situation.

On the good side, though there is gratuitous violence throughout, the gore factor is at a minimum, even when heads are crushed or removed. Parents, judge accordingly. The 3D effects are excellent and the action scenes are not dizzying. But seriously, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 team would have a field day with this film. The fact that the orcs’ hands were twice the size of their heads made me think of Wreck-It Ralph. At one point, the plot turns Biblical when Drakka, seeing no other option, commits her child to the river in a basket. (I’ll bet he’s renamed “Moses” or something similar.) Yes, there will be a sequel. Sure, why not? Hollywood has no new ideas and there are five chapters to the original sequence of Warcraft games.  

Rating: 2½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Azabu
438 Greenwich St., New York

Located along a lonely stretch of Greenwich Street, two blocks from Canal, is Azabu. The restaurant is one step up from the sidewalk, identified only by a white sign with its name. A sign on the door reads, “Open the green door to the left.” There are three. I tried two wrong ones until I found the correct one. 


Once inside, it’s a golden, simply decorated place with seven butcher-block tables on one wall and an eight-seat sushi bar on the other. Behind the sushi bar were two chefs busily working in front of a lighted, smoky lucite panel whose only decoration was a pictograph of a carp/catfish. The faux bamboo ceiling added to the Zen atmosphere. 

I was cheerily greeted by Su, whom I had spoken to on the phone confirming my arrival. She directed me to one of the only two open tables and I sat on the cushioned banquette facing the sushi bar.

Looking over the menu I noticed that, contrary to the information I gleaned online, the restaurant does not serve cocktails. Su explained that since they “lost” (she didn’t elaborate) the upper floor (meaning the ground level) they had to simplify their menu as well as eliminate the more complex cocktails. She recommended the sake, of which there were at least nine varieties. With her help, I chose one that turned out to be very nice; understated, but promising not to interfere with the flavors to come, and at the same time having potency.

Again with Su’s help, I was able to chart out a three-course meal that began with Wagyu Tataki (seared Wagyu beef with onions and a soy dipping sauce). For those not familiar with Wagyu, it’s as excellent and succulent as Kobe beef but with more marbling and more flavor. The bite-sized pieces of meat were served on a bed of thinly sliced white onions resting on a banana leaf in the long narrow opalescent platter. It’s a good thing chopsticks force you to eat slowly. I could easily have finished this dish in a minute.


Next came a six-piece sushi platter, consisting of O-Toro, the much-prized bright red fatty tuna (delightful and sweet), Kohadaa (Gizzard Shad, which was salty, not as sweet as the tuna, and a little denser in texture), Awabi (Abalone, which I first had at Foxwoods; once you try it you’ll be hooked.), and two Uni (Sea Urchin) from two areas of Hokkaido (believe it or not, there was a difference in flavor, with one being slightly sweeter than the other.) Last on the plate was Anago (Conger Eel), the only sushi served marinated in soy sauce. I love eel any way you prepare it and this was no exception.

I would like to call the next dish my main course from the way Su described it: Grilled King Crab with crab butter. Prying the crab meat loose with chopsticks was relatively easy. But calling the heavenly dressing simply “crab butter” was insulting to the herbal, rich flavor I received from this remarkable topping. The crab meat was perfect and tender and the whole experience was transporting.


I was still hungry, so I had Su bring back the menu (I believe she took it when we thought I was through ordering). I chose the Shiso Kanpachi Roll, a California style roll (rice on the outside). Six pieces were served on a shiny oval plate rimmed in gold and were comprised of Yellowtail, pickled radish and shiso leaf (a fragrant member of the mint family). Topping each piece with a dab of wasabi (hot Japanese horseradish) I alternated between sushi and slices of ginger and sips of sake. Very good. 

I asked Su about dessert and she cited various ice creams, sorbets and gelatos. I chose a combination of green tea and strawberry ice cream. Green tea, like red bean ice cream, is an acquired taste and I acquired it a long time ago. Such intense tea flavor! It outclassed the strawberry (usually my favorite) by a long shot and I told Su. No, they don’t make their desserts on site, they get them from a distributor who is very particular about the flavors.

Su’s only faux-pas was assuming I was finished then. She brought the check. There was no indication of any hot tea on the menu – odd for a Japanese restaurant. I had her bring back the drinks menu because I remembered “flavored sakes” as a category. I chose a glass of spicy plum flavored sake, thinking “how in the world could plum wine be spicy?” It was. The pinkish-orange beverage in the tall thin stemmed glass had a nice spicy kick to it.


Azabu may be in a lonely spot, they may have “lost” their ground floor, but it’s a gem to be found. A little on the expensive side, but when you consider that the fish is flown in fresh from Japan daily and the expertise of the staff, it’s worth it.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

By Steve Herte

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (Paramount, 2016) – Director: Dave Green. Writers: Josh Applebaum, Andre Nemec (s/p); Peter Laird, Kevin Eastman (characters). Stars: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, Laura Linney, Stephen Amell, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Tyler Perry, Brian Tee, Stephen Farrelly, Gary Anthony Williams, Peter Donald Badalamenti II, Tony Shalhoub, & Brad Garrett. Color and 3D, Rated PG-13, 112 minutes.

The second installment of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is full of action, has scenes for those who love explosions, is perfectly voice-cast, and equal parts comedy and drama.

In the first movie two years ago, we learned how four normal turtles and a rat became mutations from a lab experiment gone wrong and how the scientist’s daughter, April O’Neil (Fox), saved them from the fire by releasing them into the New York sewer system. It was also April who named them: Michelangelo (Fisher), Donatello (Howard), Leonardo (Ploszek), and Raphael (Ritchson). They keep to the shadows of night, as advised by their master trainer, Splinter (voiced by Shalhoub). 

Now, two years later, master criminal Shredder (Tee) is being readied for transfer into maximum security prison. With him are two lesser criminals, Bebop (Williams) and Rocksteady (Farrelly). Through April’s news reporting, the Turtles learn of this transfer. Donatello, the brains of the group, correctly concludes that the gang is hatching an escape plan. They board their high-tech garbage truck and race off to intercept the security detail, which is already under siege by ninjas riding motorcycles.
Shredder has found a component of an alien machine that creates a transport portal. As soon as he is freed, he disappears into it. On the other side, Shredder meets the monstrous alien Krang (Garrett), who convinces him to obtain the other two components, one located in the Museum of Natural History and the other is in the jungles of Brazil. To assemble the device, he needs the brilliant, but mad, scientist Baxter Stockman (Perry). Together, they will rule the world.

In need of accomplices with plenty of brawn but not too much intelligence, Shredder hijacks Bebop and Rocksteady from their favorite bar and brings them to Stockman’s laboratory. Dr. Stockman has developed a mutagen that “brings out the inner animal” in people and the two are forcibly injected and are transformed into an anthropomorphic warthog and rhinoceros. Strangely enough, though, Bebop retains his purple Mohawk hairstyle. What they don’t know is that April is hiding in the lab and swipes a vial of the mutagen. A chase scene later, the vial is in police hands, but one of the syringes makes it to turtle central.


Donatello’s analysis of the mutagen leads to the conclusion that, engineered correctly, it could transform them into normal people. He and Leonardo keep this a secret from Raphael and Michelangelo. But the latter two figure it out and are insulted by their brothers’ lack of trust. They convince April and Casey Jones to help them break into police headquarters and get the vial. With the added assistance of Vernon Fenwick (Arnett), who received the key to the city for “single-handedly catching Shredder” the first time, under the alias “The Falcon,” they make it in. But so have Shredder’s people. Chief Vincent (Linney) arrests April and Casey when they allow the turtles to escape.

Time is not on the turtles’ side. Shredder easily gets the second component from the planetarium and, by the time Donatello figures out that the next stop is Brazil, Bebop and Rocksteady are returning with the third component at the same time as they are flying south.

To understand their lack of coordination, keep in mind that these kung fu adept reptiles are still teenagers. For the rest of the film, Leonardo has to regain his brothers’ trust if he’s going to lead them as a team against an alien who is constructing a death-star-like machine arriving piece by piece through an open wormhole in the New York City sky.

The element of cartoon, however, is never lost. Knowing it’s obvious that no one can get seriously hurt, we enjoy the almost slap-stick horseplay and battles. Kids will love it. And the 3D effects were finally used to full potential: for example, a tank cannon is fired directly at the audience. Overall, it was an improvement on the first movie, which was lame in comparison. Even the soundtrack was light hearted, ranging from “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by the Hollies to “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice, to “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum, and, of course the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” television theme song during the credits.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Serenata
111 W. 17th St., New York
Usually when I choose a restaurant, I go to their website to get a feel for the place, the décor, and the lighting as well as the menu. But I chose Serenata, sight unseen, by its beautiful written menu.


A terra cotta banner with the name in bold white script hangs over a green awning with red and white stripes, which shades the black-framed glass entrance. Inside, the walls are covered in brightly colored murals. The open kitchen was right in front of me and was tucked into a corner of the dining area. The dark wood chairs are cushioned and comfortable and all tables have white cloths and napkins with colorful placemats and attractive red glass votive candle holders.

When I was seated, my server, Ibanez, handed me the menu and the wine and drinks list. Though it was not dark in the restaurant, the font was just a little small and it took some adjustment to read them.

I told Ibanez that I would like a cocktail and chose the Mexican Mule – Tequila Cazadores (100% blue agave), lime juice, simple syrup, and ginger beer, served in what looked like a Mason jar with a handle. It had an intriguing taste like a sweet margarita with a Caribbean twist.


Ibanez helped me to construct a three-course meal, beginning with the queso fundido – literally, melted Chihuahua cheese, with pico de gallo, corn tortillas and chorizo or vegetable upon request. I chose the chorizo. The little black iron skillet held my cheese and sausage mixture. Next to it was a cloth party-popper filled with eight soft corn tortillas and next to that was the pico de gallo sauce. The sauce name means “beak of the rooster” and refers to the spicy taste as likened to being pecked by a chicken. The portion was very good, not too much, the flavor was amazing, and it wasn’t as filling as I had expected. 

I had read earlier that the chef of Serenata has as his main objective making Mexican food healthy, such as including edamame in the guacamole upon request. Vegetables come with most dishes, rice is only a side and refried beans only accompany three menu items.

Next I chose the pescado (fish) ceviche – striped bass marinated in lime juice, leche de tigre (literally tiger’s milk, referring to the liquid that remains after the ceviche is finished), potato cream sauce, salmon caviar, and chile manzano aiol (a yellow chili pepper about twice as spicy as a jalapeno mixed with garlic). Served in a long black dish, it was vinegary, sweet, salty and delightfully fresh and crunchy with small round crackers mixed in. The manzano was not as spicy as I expected, but added a nice kick.

I told Ibanez to hold off serving the wine until the main course. It was now time. The 2012 “Redemption” Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley Vineyards, Sonoma California was full-bodied to the point of being husky. The bold flavor of the rich dark red not only accented the meal, it amplified the flavors. 


It was a perfect choice for my next course, enchiladas suizas de huitlacoche – fresh huitlacoche (a fungus that grows on corn and has a similar earthy flavor and texture to a truffle), onions, corn, epazote (an herb that adds a musky flavor to food), Oaxaca cheese, and creamy tomatillo sauce. This beautiful dish had the three pale green enchiladas, more than likely green from the epazote, drizzled with the cheese and accented by the tomatillo sauce. Finely chopped tomatoes, peppers and cheese on top form the base for a decorative purple flower much like a clover blossom. It looked like the Mexican flag on a plate. But it was so much better to eat.

When the wine was finished, it was time for dessert. I had a choice of churros or tres leches, one of my favorites. Vanilla ice cream on a crispy meringue with a milk cracker leaning over it. A string of chocolate beads was lined up at the side of the bowl on a thread of raspberry sauce as a garnish.

For one of the few times I can remember, I did not have coffee or tea. Something else caught my attention at the beginning: The Mole Margarita – herradura añejo tequila, St. Germain liquor, mole (spicy chocolate), mole bitters, sparkling rosé, and a walnuts “power rim” on the glass. Basically, a spicy, chocolatey after-dinner drink.

Instead of a business card, Serenata had a tripartite folded take-out menu with all their business information on it as well. It will serve as a reminder to return for more culinary adventures.


Alice Through the Looking Glass

By Steve Herte

I can’t understand how people say they’re bored when they retire. There’s always something to do around a house or even an apartment. With the warm weather came the responsibilities that my Dad used to assume. Now they’re mine. It’s remarkable how fast grass grows when the conditions are right. I’ll never say “about as exciting as watching grass grow” again. Not now that it’s up to me to mow it. And then there’s always something that breaks and a minor repair is in order. I just don’t think I’ll be bored when I do retire. As long as I can keep up my lifestyle at the same time. Karaoke, movies and dining out are a part of me. Enjoy! 

Alice Through the Looking Glass (Disney 2016) – Director: James Bobin. Writers: Linda Wolverton (s/p), Lewis Carroll (books). Stars: Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Lindsay Duncan, Leo Bill, Geraldine James, Andrew Scott, Richard Armitage, Ed Speelers, Stephen Frye, Alan Rickman (voice), Timothy Spall, Paul Whitehouse, Michael Sheen, Wally Wingert, & Barbara Windsor. Color, Rated PG, 113 minutes.

It was a long time ago that I read Alice in Wonderland, but I never got to the sequel and thus cannot confirm or deny anything I saw in this remarkable movie. All the characters I remember from Lewis Carroll were there with the exception that now they have names. Alice Kingsleigh (Wasikowska) is a skilled ship’s captain of the appropriately named “Wonder” who evades three pirate ships in the Straits of Malacca by going full sail in a storm and tipping over sideways through a shallow gap in the deadly shoals. This is 1875 and it’s her father’s ship, otherwise no one would hire a female captain.

She comes home to her mother Helen (Duncan) only to learn that her devious and spoiled cousin Hamish (Bill) has convinced Helen to sell her shares in the family company to him, and now they have the choice of giving up the ship or their home. Though uninvited, they attend a gala thrown by Hamish and his snooty new wife Lady Ascot (James) to hopefully discuss terms. Alice doesn’t help her case by wearing a gown which would be the height of fashion in China, but is only frowned upon by all the guests as a carnival clown costume.

Unable to change Hamish’s mind and disappointed in her mother’s lack of support (suggesting that a clerk’s job is more than a woman could hope for in 1875), Alice storms off and hears her name spoken by a blue butterfly. It’s none other than Absolem, formerly the Smoking Caterpillar (Rickman). He informs her that Hatter Tarrant Hightopp (Depp) is madder than ever (in a bad way) and needs her to help find his family. But weren’t they all killed by the fearsome Jabberwock? (For some reason they add the “y” at the end of the creature’s name.) Alice follows Absolem through a mirror to Wonderland, where she’s directed to open a door and to mind her first step, for it’s a lulu.


From high above, she plummets through a flowering tree, arriving with a plop at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. There she is welcomed by her friends Mirana the White Queen (Hathaway), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both Lucas), Bayard the dog (Spall), Thackery the March Hare (Whitehouse), McTwisp the White Rabbit (Sheen), the Cheshire Cat (Frye), and Mallymkum the Dormouse (Windsor). The Hatter is locked in his hat-shaped house, but he opens it to Alice and the two come to believe that a travel back in time would save Tarrant’s family.

Mirana tells Alice that in order to time travel, she needs the Chonosphere owned by Time (Cohen) himself, but the journey is very dangerous. It isn't for our Alice, the sea captain. She agrees and finds out that Time is making overtures to Iracebeth (Carter) the Queen of Hearts and Mirana’s sister, who only wants the Chronosphere for herself and her greater power. Her adventures include bumping into Humpty Dumpty (Wingert), causing him to fall off the chess table and break on the floor (again, he says). And, appropriately, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men (from the chessboard, of course) set to the task of reassembling Humpty. The most important thing Alice learns is from Time himself: you cannot change the past, you can only learn from it. After several mishaps in time, this finally gets through to her when Iracebeth gets control of the Chronosphere and nearly destroys Underland by confronting herself in a horrendous time anomaly.

It’s a tale of many morals, belief in real friendship, that sometimes the impossible really is just that, and the importance of family. The special effects in 3D were almost like a drug trip in this film. Sailing across the oceans of time was exactly that, oceans both above and below. The script, which could have been written by Lewis Carroll himself, was cleverly funny in several places. 

Congratulations to Johnny Depp in not mumbling his lines too often. Though this is a Disney production, Alice is quite the opposite character from the prim cartoon Alice in the gingham dress. The animation is beautiful and the voice match-ups excellent. Anne Hathaway was close to being over-the-top as the White Queen. (I almost expected her to start giggling like Billie Burke as Glinda.) Helena Bonham Carter, however, is great as the Queen of Hearts; at times performing a Bette Davis cover.

Though there were no characters I could identify with (well, maybe the Cheshire Cat), the characters were all believably done and I would have liked to meet any one of them (including the Jabberwock). Alice Through the Looking Glass is squeaky clean from a language and gore point of view. There are only a few intense scenes, but most kids today can handle them. The ones in my audience were imperturbable. It’s an exciting movie with no dead space and no jarring anomalies. Even the soundtrack kept its place and was non-intrusive. I enjoyed it, and as soon as I can, I’m reading the book.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Osteria del Principe
27 E. 23rd St., New York

The name of this restaurant intrigued me from the first. An “osteria” is an informal eatery featuring a long counter displaying prepared meats and cheeses. Principe means “prince” in Italian. So which is it: Fit for a commoner or for royalty?

Inside, the cherry-wood tables and oak-paneled walls kept the sleek look. The right side of the restaurant is dominated by the immense counter lined with modern, oak wood stools. Beyond a gauzy curtain at the end of the counter, one can see the party room or main dining area. I was seated at a table midway across from the counter and in direct view of appetizingly displayed meats.


Placemats with the restaurant logo have replaced tablecloths, but the votive candle was very real, as was the glassware, and the brown cloth napkin. Soon, my server, Carlotta, arrived reciting the specials of the day, all of which sounded wonderful. Carlotta is not just a server., but also a passionate foodie and a professional promoter of the dishes made by Osteria del Principe.

I perused both the menu and the drinks and wine list. When she returned I ordered a grapito cocktail. To imagine this cocktail, think of a mojito. Then replace the tequila with grappa and the mint with basil. It was a fascinating flavor and definitely an acquired taste.

Carlotta explained that the company hails from the Trieste Area of Northern Italy on the Adriatic Coast and the dishes reflect that regional influence. The way she enthused about food almost made me want to talk with her more, but then, I wouldn’t get to eat. I gave her my choices and she lit up my table with her smile and was off to submit the order.

First was the bresaola – a beautiful 14-inch diameter glass plate of thinly sliced, air dried salted beef with shaved bella lodi cheese, cherry tomatoes and arugula in a lemon/olive oil dressing. The tomatoes were cherry-sized and hidden under the beef at the center of the plate. They were deep red, sweet and fresh. I asked Carlotta if they were locally grown and she confirmed my suspicion. 

I realized I had forgotten to select a wine. I chose the 2012 Pinot Nero “Red Angel on the Moonlight” from Jermann vineyards, Venezia Giulia, Italy. Carlotta mentioned that my next course would be perfect with it.

She was right. The lasagna alla bolognese was not like any I’ve ever had. The house-made pasta was thinly layered with beef ragu and béchamel sauce, and graced with the flavors of rosemary and marjoram. The square of baked pasta was crisp around the edges, had grated cheese on top and a world of savory flavor inside. I noted the extra virgin olive oil made especially for the restaurant.


The main course displayed the Triestina influence with neighboring countries: Ljubljanska (pronounced Lee-oob-Yahn-skah) – veal, pounded thin, filled with ham and cheese, breaded, and pan-fried and served with salad and fried polenta. The dish, named after a town in Slovenia, was better than any schnitzel or scaloppini I’ve ever had. As with the lasagna, the crispy parts were just as good as the tender center. The wine helped and made additional flavor accents with it.

Carlotta then presented me with the dessert list. I had seen one of the desserts at the next table. It was the millefoglie (a thousand leaves) – pastry covered in mascarpone cheese and studded with strawberry pieces. Though it was tempting, I asked Carlotta about the cheese platter. “Only two cheeses?” “I’ll get you more,” she replied. In fact, she brought five: Asiago D’Allevo, Fontina, Bella Lodi, Taleggio, and Gorgonzola, accompanied by a raspberry sauce, sliced green apples and honey as palate cleansers.


Of course, a double espresso is de rigueur after a dessert like that, but Carlotta informed me that the bar stocked Strega, which I preferred. This restaurant that was previously an enigma passed every test I usually present to an Italian place. 



If that weren’t enough, Carlotta brought over these lovely chocolate drops filled with grappa. Again, not for just anyone’s tastes but perfect for me. I can’t wait to return, if not for Carlotta’s food passion, but for the special gnocchi and those prosciuttos.


Elvis & Nixon

By Steve Herte

Elvis & Nixon (Bleecker Street Media, 2016) – Director: Liza Johnson. Writers: Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal & Cary Elwes (s/p). Stars: Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon, Alex Pettier, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts, Tate Donovan, Ashley Benson, Kamal Angelo Bolden, Ahna O’Reilly, Ian Hoch, Ritchie Montgomery, & Nathalie Love. Color, Rated R, 86 minutes.

It’s December of 1970, and Elvis Presley (Shannon) is sitting in his television room at Graceland. Several screens are tuned to various news programs and show protests, drug busts, and hippies burning the American flag. Elvis takes out a pistol, shoots the nearest television and shuts the system down.

Like a teleprompter typing a script for a newscaster, we see words explaining that this month, Elvis went to the White House and spent a few hours with President Richard Nixon (Spacey). But no one knows what the conversation was like as it occurred behind closed doors. This clever film posits a possible scenario.



Elvis has just come off a major tour and his love of all things American fuels his zeal to destroy the “drug culture” that is destroying the youth of his homeland. He decides to fly to Los Angeles and see his best friend Jerry Schilling (Pettyfer) and reunite with Sonny West (Knoxville) to hopefully arrange a meeting with the deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs John Finlator (Letts) to volunteer as an undercover agent at large. But first he has to get on a plane from Tennessee. Though star struck when she first sees Elvis, Margaret the ticket agent (Benson) for American Airlines is appropriately terrified when he reveals he’s packing a sidearm. He’s held by security until Jerry can talk them out of this “misunderstanding.”

Though Jerry is reluctant to be “back in the business,” Elvis talks him into going to Washington, D.C., where Sonny joins them at their hotel.

The visit to Finlator proves futile and disappointing and the FBI is not an option. The next step is the president himself. Elvis writes his introductory letter to the president on the plane ride and soon, Jerry drives him to the west gate of the White House. There, the guards restrain their amazement at who’s visiting to do their job, but are eventually sweet-talked into delivering the letter. When it gets to presidential advisers Egil Krogh (Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Peters) and verified by White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman (Donovan), they are ecstatic at what a visit from Elvis would mean to Nixon’s image.

But Nixon nixes the idea of talking with a “rock and roller.” It’s not until Krogh and Chapin meet with Sonny and Jerry at “an undisclosed Washington, D.C., location” that the idea of contacting Nixon’s daughter Julie and that’s the key that unlocks the door to the Oval Office.

Elvis and Nixon is a subtle comedy of the meeting between two huge egos and what they could have talked about. Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Richard Nixon is frankly amazing. Though the caricature is close visually, his mannerisms and vocal accents make the role believable. Michael Shannon’s Elvis has Johnny Cash overtones but still is very convincing.

There is a funny scene at the Los Angeles International Airport where an Elvis impersonator mistakes Elvis to be a fellow impersonator and he demonstrates how he should act. Shannon applauds him and, as Elvis would, accepts the advice without correcting the error. And yes, just once, he says, “Thank you. Thank you very much.” Alex Pettyfer is wonderful as Jerry, a man who now has a life, a girl he wants to marry – Charlotte (Ferreira) – and a date he wants to keep with her parents. He manages to effectively juggle this situation with his deep friendship with Elvis until finally, Presley releases him to his future.

Aside from a few “F” bombs – two from Nixon and two from Krogh – the dialogue in this film is clean and well written. The script never verges on the incredible and the humor never gets silly. The whole concept of Elvis deeming himself capable of going around unnoticed and undercover is the main cause for laughter in the movie, especially when he wears an enormous gold belt into the Oval Office.

The end credits reveal what happened to each character afterward, the Watergate scandal and its results, and states “Elvis never went undercover.” I enjoyed Elvis and Nixon and hope it plays in more theaters (only two in Manhattan a week after opening). It’s a good film about the most requested photo from the National Archives: Nixon and Elvis shaking hands (and David's computer screensaver).


Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Cherche Midi
282 Bowery, New York

Somehow I thought this restaurant was a lot older than it is. In fact, the blue pinstriped awning only went up in June of 2014, a little less than one and a half years ago. Owner Keith McNally named it after the left-bank street in Paris where he once lived; a street famous in 1847 for a military prison built there. The name Cherche Midi means to search for midday. It comes from the popular French phrase, Elle cherche midi à quatorze heurs” – searching for noon at two in the afternoon. It's a way of explaining that a person makes a situation more difficult than it has to be. But there’s nothing easier than dining at Cherche Midi.


The entrance on Bowery Street leads straight to the Captain’s Station where my reservation was confirmed, I was seated by the window to the street and sat on a red leather banquette with my back to the wall. The room is spacious and lit with a golden glow from the globes suspended from the ceiling. The octagonal-tiled floor harkens back to a simpler time and the gigantic wine rack is made even more formidable by well-placed mirrors. The effect is calming: this is a place to meet, talk and dine in comfort.

When I was settled in, my server John greeted me and, after listing the specials, asked if I wanted a cocktail. I chose “The Ol’ Sour cocktail,” a mixture of Maker’s Mark Cask Strength bourbon, cognac, génépy (an herbal liqueur from the Alpine regions that, like absinthe, is made from wormwood), sweet vermouth, and a lemon twist. I like bourbon and I loved this drink. It had a subtler, “greener” tang to it and a sturdy kick.

After a brief session with John over the size of certain dishes, I was ready to order. Before he left he asked if I wanted bread. “What’s a meal without bread?” I said, and soon there was a lovely basket of bread and butter.


The first course was crispy tête de cochon (pig’s head), three croquettes stuffed with extremely tender pork and flavored with grain mustard on a platter with pickled vegetables (cauliflower, wild mushrooms, red onions) providing color as well as a contrasting taste.

When I saw that the restaurant served Zinfandel by the glass, I ordered the 2013 Three Valley Zinfandel, from Ridge Vineyards in Sonoma County California. It was a delicious, full-bodied red with a fruity nose and sturdy aftertaste promising a solid marriage to my meal.

The second course was the only one not a special, but something I look for in all “real” French restaurants. The frog’s legs were not served as I would expect. Instead of the traditional “cuisses” (looking like little pairs of pants on the plate), the bones were dislocated and served in a beautiful green garlic velouté with garlic chips and crisp parsley. It was almost too pretty to eat, but I got over that. 


Next came the pan-roasted halibut over tiny morels with fingerling potatoes and ramp beurre blanc sauce. When John described this dish he called the morels “mushrooms,” which is like calling a truffle a fungus. They are so much more than a mushroom: Their woody flavor melded with the flaky fish and the savory ramps and butter to create a major experience rather than “just halibut.”

Although I love crêpes suzette, the selection of cheeses was too enticing and, when I saw how they were displayed by the servers, with little name flags on a silver platter, I knew what my dessert would be. I chose the Moses Sleeper raw cow cheese from Vermont, the mimolettea hard orange cow choose from France and the fragrant bleu Colston Bassett Stilton. They were served with green apple slices, red grapes, honey, compote and almost black, toasted baguette slices. It was Heaven. I was so happy I forgot about an after dinner drink with my double espresso.

For such an excellent, innovative, yet traditional, French restaurant, Cherche Midi is in rather a strange location, but I’m not complaining. The prices are reasonable, the service is friendly, there are at least three other red wines I have to try, and of course, there’s the fantastic food. As Schwarzenegger once said, “I’ll be back!”


Captain America: Civil War

By Steve Herte

My choice of what movie to see was a no-brainer even though I had my “druthers” about it. After seeing Batman and Superman duke it out I was not ready for an all-out war, but consider the other option – Elvis & Nixon. Hollywood needs ideas. Enjoy!

Captain America: Civil War (Marvel Studios, 2016) – Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo. Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (s/p), Mark Millar (comic book), Joe Simon, Jack Kirby (characters). Stars: Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Marisa Tomei, Tom Holland, Daniel Brühl, & Frank Grillo. Color, PG-13, 146 minutes.

The term “hero” certainly has changed, having evolved from a mythical girl’s name to the main protagonist in a drama set against the villain, to something called an “anti-hero,” to this film’s definition. Here we have 10 “enhanced” human beings, each of whom should be a hero and yet, none of them are. Each one believes he or she is doing the right thing, but none of their decisions end well.

How many times does one hit a guy in the head before he goes down for the count? The answer, in this movie, is unlimited times, even with a fist made (literally) of iron. Unless you’re a fan of violent kick-boxing matches, you will get tired of seeing these so-called “good guys” pummeling the living daylights out of each other for two hours and 26 minutes. I, for one, made sure I saw it in a theater with super-comfortable seats. It was still hard to watch.

Even the one “bad guy” isn’t exactly a villain.

The film starts in 1991 with Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Stan) being given a string of Russian words that will program him into being a raving, merciless sociopath. He ambushes a Cadillac on a dark country road and kills the elderly couple inside. He opens the trunk revealing a metal briefcase with six mysterious blue packets inside. These he delivers to his master. When he’s not a larcenous lunatic with enhanced strength (and don’t forget that metal fist), he’s good friends with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans).

Captain America is still having difficulties wrapping his World War 2 way of thinking around the modern concepts of dealing with crime. His inability to resolve the “no collateral damage” with “use any means to stop the evil” is the main cause of the entitled Civil War.


After the severe destruction and loss of innocent life that were the results in New York, Washington D.C., Sokovia, and most recently, Lagos, Nigeria, several countries complained about The Avengers’ seemingly willy-nilly use of their powers. The United Nations convened and drew up an accord requesting the “enhanced” beings to submit to oversight and control. Tony Stark/Ironman (Downey Jr.) sees the wisdom in this action and he, along with Lieutenant James Rhodes/War Machine (Cheadle), Vision (Bettany), and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Olsen) sign the agreement.

King T’Chaka of Nigeria is a major proponent of this accord, but he is killed by an enormous explosion just outside of United Nations headquarters. His son, T’Challa/Black Panther (Boseman), an enhanced human being himself (surprise), swears to avenge his death. You seriously have to keep a scorecard in this movie. The security cameras reveal that it was the Winter Soldier who set off the bomb.

Captain America does not believe that his good friend Bucky (it comes from his middle name, Buchanan) would such a thing. He, and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Mackie), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Renner) disagree with the accord, believing that they are the only hope against super criminals running loose in the world. They recruit Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Rudd) to be a part of their team.

Stark and Rogers are supposedly good friends, but their ideals serve two different goals and their egos are way too inflated to reason with each other. When Captain America and Falcon go off on a hunting trip for the Winter Soldier on their own, Ironman sees it as a break of the accord (which they didn’t sign, mind you) and battle lines are drawn.

Tony sees that his side is one hero short, so he and Wanda pay a visit to the improbable May Parker (Tomei) and even they stare in amazement at how beautiful and young she is (really, this is such a stretch for comic book fans). Their purpose is to recruit her nephew, Peter Parker/Spiderman (Holland). Now the sides are even.

Captain America eventually learns the truth about the 1991 incident, that the blue packets were the means to create six more Winter Soldiers worse than the first and that the couple who were murdered were in fact Howard and Maria Stark, Tony’s parents. But does he discuss this with Tony? No, of course not. And the battle begins.

So who’s the real villain? Again, not a real villain at all. Zemo (Brühl) and his family lived just outside Sokovia before the disastrous upheaval there and he lost everyone. But he’s not evil.

Do you see my perplexity? Everybody deep down inside is good but nobody does the right thing. I was amazed that some people applauded this movie. For me, it just became a same-old, same-old thing. People zipping and zooming around, toppling structures and flinging each other into buildings, groaning in pain, but getting up again for more. It seriously became tiresome.

Chris Evans looks great bulked up in costume, but his wishy-washy acting style makes him dull and uninteresting. I was rooting for Robert Downey Jr. until his pompous, self-interested attitude became intolerable. Elizabeth Olsen was lovely and I wished everyone listened to her character’s reasoning. But then, the movie would only be an hour and a half long. My favorite characters were Paul Bettany (another character with the voice of reason who went unheeded) as Vision and Tom Holland who, though a little younger than I expected, did a great job as the ever-wise-cracking Spiderman (the one truly entertaining character in the film). Look quickly and you’ll see William Hurt as Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross.

Special effects, there were plenty, but nothing eye-popping. The 3D was just used to enhance the story, not to throw anything at the audience. Story? I’m not sure why it had to be that way. Comic book, for sure. Believable, no. Parents, if your child is used to gratuitous violence, they won’t be affected by this movie. If not, judge accordingly. There might be a sequel. You need to stay through the first set of credits to know why.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.


El Quinto Pino
401 W. 24th St.New York

Thinking about a place I could dine for the day after Cinco de Mayo, I found this promising Spanish/Mexican place in Chelsea only three blocks away from the movie theater. The Five Pineapples is a tiny bar that has just recently opened a new dining area called “El Comedor,” accommodating 12 tables of diners at most.


Inside, the small bar takes up most of the space in the first room with a couple of half-tables squeezed against the wall. The bronze chandelier however, is a nice touch and matches the sconces on the wall behind the bar. The wall behind the banquette where I was sitting is dominated by a huge wall-hanging incorporating weaving with a little macramé, It undulated across the space like dunes in the Sahara and matched the sandy color of the room.

One glance at the menu presented by my server, Georgi, and I realized that this was indeed a Tapas restaurant (several small dishes, no real entrees). She asked if I wanted a cocktail. I chose the Monserrat – Vermut Negre (a bitter herbal wine), Aperol (a bitter orange flavored aperitif), and Cava (a Spanish sparkling wine), garnished with a Spanish olive and brandied kumquat. With two bitter ingredients, it was surprisingly refreshing and fruity and a lovely reddish-gold color.

Georgi told me that most people choose three dishes for their meal, but there were so many interesting selections when the specials were included that I eventually decided on four, telling Georgi that I would be taking my meal one dish at a time. 


I started with the picos y taquitos – imported chorizo (a hard Spanish sausage), za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice mixture) marinated manchego cheese, house-made spreadable sausage, artisanal olive oil, and doughnut-shaped breadsticks. Using a knife to spread the menorcan sausage onto the crispy little breadsticks, I experienced a savory, spicy flavor like none before. When I combined a piece of cheese with a piece of chorizo, I was in cold-cut heaven.

My wine was a 2014 blend of equal parts Merlot and Syrah called “Lazarus” (from Somontano in Northern Spain), a deep red with a slightly acid nose. It’s fruity and medium bodied, perfect for a Tapas dinner.

My second course was pinchos moruno – Moorish spiced lamb skewers that are a favorite in Andalusia and Madrid. The two skewers were jammed into a slice of baguette.


Next I had the bomba toledana – “shepherd’s pie” style spiced beef croquettes, topped with habanero vinegar and set in sweet pea sauce. These soft, beefy patties explode in the mouth like small fireworks. Easily the most colorful dish, and although not extremely spicy, the spice is there.

Having once tried my hand at fishing, the title of the next dish intrigued me. It was one of the daily specials and was called crispy dogfish tostada. It was delicious – a nicely browned, soft tostada containing crisp, flakey fish beautifully placed along with lettuce and parsley. A spicy yellow sauce made the flavor jump out, and a slice of lime was provided to moderate the fish flavor, but the lime went unused. It was by far the spiciest dish I had but at the same time, the most fun.


My dessert does not translate into English. Called greitxonera on the menu, it was macerated pineapple and mandarin orange pieces with two scoops of French vanilla ice cream and a wafer cookie. Spanish desserts are usually simple and wonderful and this was no exception. A double espresso and a nice glass of La Garrocha Amontillado helped finish a lovely Tapas dinner.  


After I paid the check I asked for a business card at the bar and was presented with three, for it seems they have two sister restaurants, a Basque place called Txikito where I’ve already dined, and La Vara in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. The hospitality didn’t end there. The young lady at the Captain’s Station walked with me to Ninth Avenue, where she pointed out another sister restaurant that she claimed was “better” than El Quinto Pinos. I thanked her profusely.


The Huntsman: Winter's War

By Steve Herte

On opening night, I was glad to have an assigned seat in the movie theater, though it was nowhere near full. It was the same theater I where saw The Maze Runner featuring the Regal RPX sound system. A good feature providing there are no explosions on screen. The fun was spotty in the theater but started seriously at dinner. Enjoy! 

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (Universal, 2016) – Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan. Writers: Evan Spiliotopoulos & Craig Mazin (s/p), Evan Daugherty (characters). Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Jessica Chastain, Emily Blunt, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith, Alexandra Roach, Sope Dirisu, Sam Hazeldine, Sam Claflin, Robert Portal, Nana Agyeman-Bediako, Sophie Cookson, Conrad Khan, Niamh Walter, & Fred Tatasciore. Color, Rated PG-13, 124 minutes.

Until my waiter at dinner after the theater told me this movie is a sequel, I was confused by all the unexplained asides and non-sequiturs in the script. Now that I know that Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) is its predecessor, I’m even more confused. The knowledge explained some things but put others in question. Following so close on the heels of Disney’s Frozen (2013), I’m forced to separate the concepts of Snow Queen Elsa from the Ice Queen. Add to that the scene where Queen Freya (Blunt) leads her army astride a polar bear-like creature and I need to separate her from the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (2005) whose chariot was pulled by three polar bears. All three are wintery characters.

The narrator at the beginning of the film tells us there are stories we have heard over and over, but there are some we’ve never heard. And this story begins with the evil Queen Ravenna (Theron) killing her king (Portal) by remote control using a chess game. When she says, “Queen takes King…” she means it and the chess piece begins to bleed as the human king collapses.

Ravenna is still obsessed with her brass serving plate “mirror” and her vain good looks, but she’s turned to mind games rather than special effects to get her way. When the mirror tells her that her sister Freya will give birth to a child that will be more beautiful than she, she forces the father to destroy the baby (thank goodness we don’t see that). However, the trauma releases the magic powers in Freya, which up until now she has denied having, and she becomes the Ice Queen. She moves out, heads north (why not?), and establishes her own kingdom in a frozen wasteland. (Sound familiar, Disney fans?)


But Freya is not like Elsa. She’s ruthless and wants an army. She conquers the kingdoms around hers (with what?) and steals all the children, who will then be trained as her huntsmen. When one terrified child exhibits love for his parents, Freya scars his cheeks with her freezing fingers while lecturing him about love being an illusion and a weakness.

Eric (Khan) and Sara (Walter) excel in their training beyond the other children and gain her favor. They grow up to be Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain. Tull also grows up to become Sope Dirisu and their best friend. But when Eric and Sara fall in love and marry each other neck deep in a pool of water they incur Freya’s wrath. Freya has a white feathered Mardi Gras mask she wears when she spies on her “children,” and a ceramic snowy owl was perched above the marriage pool. Freya sets the rest of her huntsmen against Eric and Sara and, when it looks like they would successfully fight them all off, builds an ice wall between them, using deceit to drive them away from each other. Eric sees Tull kill Sara (something he knows in his heart Tull wouldn’t do), and Sara sees Eric abandon her and run away like a coward (also something she knows better than to believe). But they both believe what they saw. Sara is locked up in the queen’s castle and Eric is knocked unconscious, taken for dead, and hurled into the river. How in the world is he going to help Snow White regain her kingdom as he did in the first movie? Oh wait, from previous dialogue we learn that Snow White already has her kingdom. Maybe there’s a time warp here somewhere.

But it gets worse. Somehow, Freya has learned that her sister Ravenna is dead and she wants the magic mirror so she can be unstoppable. (Remember, she’s doing all this for the children.) For some strange reason, Ravenna’s brother Finn is neither mentioned in this film, nor does he inherit the mirror. It turns out to have been stolen by goblins.

Eric is not dead. He meets Snow White’s brother, William (Claflin), and is joined by two dwarves, Nion (Frost), one of the original seven from the first movie (eight, if you count the murdered Gus), and Gryff (Brydon). After a pub brawl that looks pretty dire, Eric and his dwarf companions are saved by a hooded figure that turns out to be none other than Sara! They’re both gobsmacked. He delighted she’s alive and she hates him for leaving her. Now they have to join forces to get the mirror before Freya does. On the way, they encounter two female dwarves, Mrs. Bromwyn (Smith) and Doreena (Roach), who know the way to the goblins’ lair. They want the gold and gems already there in payment for their tour guide service.

Hence my confusion? Some say it’s a fantasy and shouldn’t be taken so seriously. I say that it’s a story and the storyline should be consistent and whole; not broken up into whatever the writers want to throw in. The first movie has Eric’s wife as dead and Ravenna promising him to bring her back if he’ll kill Snow White (who doesn’t even appear in this movie). Ravenna doesn’t even consider Snow White when she conspires to kill Freya’s baby. And what would Sara say if she saw Eric give Snow White “true love’s kiss” in the first movie?

Eventually, I started ignoring the main characters except for the dwarves, who were much more real to me (and funnier), and paying more attention to the CGI background effects, which were marvelous – especially in the dark forest. If you decide to see this film, look for the python made of grass and white flowers, the large tortoise and the flitting pixies artfully woven into the scenes. On the good side, this film was 12 minutes shorter than the first one, but one still had to dig through Chris Hemsworth’s thick Australian-verging-on-Scottish accent to decipher what he was saying. Jessica Chastain also sounded like she was channeling his accent. Thank goodness Ravenna and Freya spoke clearly.

My applause goes to the costume designers and make-up artists once again for superlative work on Ravenna and Freya’s gowns and accoutrements. The CGI effects were top notch to the point that I wish this movie was in 3D. Parents warning: there is a good share of violence in this movie as well as bloodshed (did you know that goblin blood is like tar?), and then there’s the hokey love scenes. But the best part of all – there is no hint of another sequel.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


New York Yankees Steakhouse
7 West 51st St.New York

In the Sixties, I became a Yankee baseball fan and followed the careers of both Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. My uncle took me to ball games and I enjoyed being there. In the Seventies, I was still a fan when I joined the Westchester Golden Chordsmen Barbershop Chorus and found out that most of them were Yankees fans as well. My Dad was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan until they moved to California and disappointed him. He latched onto the New York Mets when they surfaced in 1962, but that’s another story.

When I started dining out and trying new restaurants, eventually, you know that Mickey Mantle’s restaurant on Central Park South near 6th Avenue (opened 1988) would be one of them. Unfortunately, it was geared to children who consider a hot dog with sauerkraut to be haute cuisine. I was not impressed. Though the food was solid and good, it wasn’t my kind of dining. Later, I gave the Mets equal time when Rusty Staub opened his restaurant on 39th Street and Fifth Avenue in 1989 and a sister restaurant on Third Avenue at 73rd Street. Pretty much the same thing. Mantle’s closed in 2012, Staub’s uptown place closed in 1991 and the Fifth Avenue one went out of business in 2011.


So one might guess I was leery about something called the New York Yankees Steakhouse, which is only entering its third year of existence. It’s said first impressions are the most important, and the flashy entrance to this restaurant made it look very important. Set back from the sidewalk and recessed within the building line, the 12-foot front windows flanked a snazzy steel awning stretching to the curb with the restaurant name in black raised lettering on both sides. OK, it has my attention.

Inside, the maple wood paneling and tastefully displayed Yankee memorabilia offset the dramatic stairway leading to the second floor. The bar on the far left had a canopy of silver, gold and copper chains swaying like fringes on a flapper’s skirt. Shirts with the number 6 (Joe Torre), 23 (Don Mattingly), and 44 (Reggie Jackson) were interspersed with two World’s Series Trophies in glass cases. There were flat-screen television monitors at several places showing baseball games, but they were not oppressive, just a part of the décor. The tables had white cloths and navy blue napkins (team colors), stemmed glassware, and unusual rock-like table lights (though it was bright enough to see without them). The atmosphere spoke “class” to me. This is not a run-of-the-mill sports bar.

Two young ladies at the Captain’s Station took my reservation and one led me up a second set of stairs to the right onto a level overlooking 51st Street. I sat on the navy blue banquette and settled in. I knew I wore my white shirt with the blue pinstripes for a reason.

Andrew, my waiter, appeared and handing me the wine and drink list and food menu. He recommended a cocktail that sounded interesting, but I saw one that was more appropriate. As this was my first time at the New York Yankees Steakhouse, I ordered the Yankeetini – Veev vodka, blue curacao, and white cranberry juice with a twist of lemon. Too bad there were so few patrons on my level, just three other tables of the possible 15. No one to notice that this drink was a vivid greenish-blue that even my camera couldn’t catch, but it was sweet and delicious, with blue sugar rimming the glass.

The menu read like a first class steakhouse menu (several of which are in the same part of town) featuring Raw Bar, Salads, Appetizers, Pasta, U.S.D.A. Prime Steaks, Butch Cuts, Fresh Seafood, and Sides. Andrew told me that Chef Braden Reardon is obsessive with freshness and can guarantee that everything I order will be as fresh as can be. 


He described many items and the myriad combinations and sauces, not once saying, “we’re all out of” anything. I liked that. After explaining that my table lighting was an actual block of salt used in curing the steaks, he left me to consider.

Meanwhile, another server brought something to the two gentlemen sitting window side that caught my eye. It appeared to be a stack of seven or eight fresh doughnuts held in place by a thin black rod. I learned from the server that they were indeed onion rings! I think I decided to come back then and there. After a short discussion with Andrew, I had my three-course meal ordered and he knew which would come out when. He recommended the house wine and I told him I’d let him know.


By now you might know that I am pretty predictable in a steakhouse and two of my dishes were just that. The appetizer, oysters on the half-shell, arrived first on a large stemmed stainless steel platter. There were three from the west coast and three from the east coast. On a separate oblong white dish were ramekins of cocktail sauce, horseradish, and herb oil. Talk about freshness, the east coast oysters were not in the least bit briny. They were all wonderful, and frankly, I couldn’t tell one coast from the other. They were almost the same size. And with the tangy sauces, they were perfect.

Deciding to go Yankees all the way, I agreed to Andrew’s wine recommendation and ordered the 2013 Paso Robles New York Yankees ‘Reserve’ cabernet sauvignon. It was surprising in many ways. There was a cork, it was a deep red, had a great nose, and was full-bodied enough to take on the rest of my meal. Another home run.

The crab bisque, an almost corn chowder/puree kind of soup of the day, arrived in classic style with blue crab bits in the middle of the bowl. The server poured the bisque around it from a stainless steel pitcher. It was a beautiful pumpkin-colored, savory delight that was not fishy at all and gave a nice spicy aftertaste. Did I mention they served pretzel-rolls? When Andrew asked if there was anything else he could get me, I told him to keep the pretzel rolls coming. (By the way, the bread dish was in the shape of a baseball diamond.)


Next, but not least, in presentation was the 12-ounce filet mignon, seared black and crispy on the outside, rare on the inside (termed Black and Blue – just the way I love it), accompanied by a dish of bleu cheese topping. Sheer heaven. This steak was comparable to the one I had at Uncle Jack’s (Look out Jack!). The Yankees hit another home run. To make it a triple header, there was the side dish, decadent truffled Parmesan fries with barbecue dipping sauce. Perched in a paper cone inserted into a stainless steel server, they were crisp, earthy, cheesy and tangy with the sauce.

By now I was becoming full. The colossal chocolate cake sounded beyond my capacity, so I chose the strawberry and chocolate-marshmallow gelato and mango sorbet trio. Again, another home run. It was bigger scoops than I expected but the mango was excellent and the two gelatos were creamy and just as good as ones I tasted in Rome. Once again, the predictable double espresso was mine and Andrew recommended the Taylor Fladgate 20-year-old port wine, the pinnacle of meal-toppers.

New York Yankees Steakhouse is a class act from beginning to end without being stuffy or pretentious. I mentioned the time when George Steinbrenner loaned real Yankee uniforms to my chorus for our competition package and another server was happy to tell me about George and his friendship with him. I wore Dave Righetti’s shirt and Dale Berra’s pants. (Remember them?) I had a great time, ate a grand meal and will be returning for those onion rings (among other dishes).


The Jungle Book

By Steve Herte

The Jungle Book (Disney, 2016) – Director: Jon Favreau. Writers: Justin Marks (s/p), Rudyard Kipling (book). Star: Neel Sethi. Voices: Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito, Garry Shandling, Brighton Rose, Emjay Anthony, Max Favreau, Chloe Hechter, Asher Blinkoff, & Knox Gagnon. Color, Rated PG, 105 minutes.

Do you like Kipling?” “I don’t know, I never kippled before.” Familiar lines from the Laugh-In television series. I was a pre-teen when I read “The Jungle Book” and I loved it. Of course I saw the Disney animated version in 1967 and the real-life remake in 1994. My favorite quote from 1994 is “Why do you suppose he (the panther) stares at us like that?” “Because to him, you are food.” The animated version was an entertaining, typically Disney bit of fluff that sugared the original story and topped it with a cherry. This time, Disney Corporation appears to be getting serious with the dangerous life of a child raised by animals in the jungle.


Mowgli (Sethi), as we learn from Kaa the python (Johansson) about halfway through the film, is the son of a traveler who is beset by Shere Khan the tiger (Elba) one night in their cave shelter. The father blinds the tiger in one eye and burns him with a torch before the tiger kills him. Shere Khan leaves the cave without noticing the orphaned child still there. The bewildered child is found by Bagheera the panther (Kingsley), who raises him and teaches him the ways of the wild. Eventually, he entrusts the “man-cub” to Akela (Esposito) and his mate Raksha (Nyong’o), the alpha male and female in a wolf pack. They care for Mowgli as one of their own cubs.

My ticket had a “4DX” after the film title. Frankly, I paid no attention to it when buying my ticket. I only wondered why this movie cost more than double what I usually pay. When I arrived at the theater, I saw a list of rules posted outside the door. Things like age limits, medical condition warnings, how to sit, what to do, and so forth. Sitting in my assigned seat I noticed a button on the armrest with “water on” lit. Not wanting to get wet, I immediately changed it. But I was not prepared for what was to come.

The movie opens with Mowgli running a race with his fellow wolves, he in the trees and they on the ground. Every seat in the theater followed his motions, up, down, back and forth. And when the tree branch broke under him you felt it on your left leg. When the breeze blew on screen, you felt it. When you saw flowers, you smelled them. And when it was misty onscreen, or when the vengeful Shere Khan kills Akela and takes over the pack, the audience is squirted with water.

Mowgli decides to leave the wolf pack and follow Bagheera to a “man-village” when he sees the pack in danger because of him. Separated from the panther, and alone in the misty rain forest, he’s saved from the hypnotic and hungry Kaa by Baloo the Bear (Murray). Up until now, the computer-generated animals are spectacular. They move like real beasts and talk with only a minimal movement of their mouths. Baloo even looks like Bill Murray, with the same sleepy eyes. But when Mowgli is captured by the monkeys and taken to the Hindu temple where King Louie the orangutan (Walken) sits on his throne, things get a little less believable.

King Louie is immense, very much larger than the largest male orangutan ever created. But considering his gigantic size, his head is disproportionately small. The effect is ridiculous.

Speaking of the ridiculous, I mentioned Disney “trying” to get serious in this film. The drama is not just broken, but outright dropped as Murray has to sing “Bare (Bear) Necessities” while doing the backstroke with Mowgli riding his chest, and even more laughable is Walken croaking his way through “I Wanna Be Like You.” Forgive me, but Phil Harris and Louie Prima they are not. Fortunately, Kaa’s song, “Trust in Me,” is left for the credits at the end and sung very well by Johansson.

When I was reading the book, all the characters were real to me, Bagheera being my favorite. I even liked Kaa, whom I totally misunderstood. It didn’t matter to me that this was a fantasy jungle. Nowhere on earth do you see tigers, wolves, bears, pangolins, orangutans, macaques, one lonely male peacock, rhinos, elephants, Ikki the porcupine (Shandling), and a giant squirrel together in one part of the world. I didn’t wonder why Mowgli could talk to all of the animals, though there are some in this film he cannot talk to, like the monkeys. Yes, it’s an allegory and a family film that teaches loyalty and right from wrong – great for viewing with children. However, I don’t believe the thrill of “being IN the movie” is worth the cost. I enjoyed The Jungle Book as a 3D movie with stunning CGI. I just want my seat to stay put and not to be spritzed with water.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Javelina
119 E. 18th St., New York

After a movie involving multiple animals, it was great to find a Tex-Mex restaurant only four blocks away with the name of another animal. A Javelina is a wild pig about the size of a large house cat. If you’re still curious, they have a stuffed one over the bar.


Javelina is striking at street level. The Southwestern cross-hatch pattern on the gray and white tiles framing the front windows is easy to see, and the name in big green letters on a wood background contrast nicely. Inside. I had to squeeze past the Happy Hour crowd to get to the Captain’s Station and then move downstairs to the bar itself past a lively crowd to the dining area. My server, Samantha, supplied me with both the drinks menu and the food menu, and a glass of water at the same time as an apology for quickly zipping off to take care of other diners. All 20-plus tables were occupied, and the piped-in music found itself seriously competing with the ever-growing chatter. I didn’t mind, though, for I had a good view of everything.

I was still reeling from the bucking bronco that was my seat in the movies when my eyes cleared up enough to find an interesting margarita on the cocktail side of the drinks menu. When Samantha was free, she took my order for a prickly pear margarita on the rocks and asked me what tequila I would like. I was speechless for a second; I’ve never had that kind of a choice. I thought of my favorite tequila, but didn’t think “Two Fingers” was being produced anymore. All I could say was “Wow!” 

She suggested a top-shelf brand, Casamigos Blanco, sang its praises, and added that although it cost a couple of dollars more, it was worth the extra price. Excellent salesmanship. I ordered it. I guess I made an impression on the man I took to be the manager who, at the time was assisting the bartender. He brought me the guava-pink drink with only half the rim encrusted with salt and a lime slice perched on the unsalted rim. It was beautiful and, I thought, very considerate to people who can’t have too much salt. Not only that, it was delicious.

The food menu is four pages long with several intriguing and different dishes I found nowhere else (such as brisket tacos?). I told Samantha that I liked everything and that I was putting together a three-course meal. I asked her about the size of the taco dishes and she answered that it depended upon how many I ordered. That settled my decision. I gave her my selections, she suggested the order they should come out, and I ordered a second margarita.


Another server brought the first course, tortilla soup – shredded chicken in pasilla (the dried form of the chilaca chili or chili negro) broth with tomatoes, avocado, creama (sour cream), fried tortilla strips and cheese. It was hearty, rich, and only mildly spicy. I remembered the last tortilla soup I had and made the suggestion of using blue-corn tortillas in the recipe. Samantha said she’d tell the chef. Otherwise, it was excellent.

I had kept the drinks menu for my wine choice and ordered the 2015 Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon “Alto” Riserva, Los Romeros, Colchagua Valley, Chile. When the manager/assistant bartender arrived with the bottle, he apologized for the screw-top bottle. As he poured I explained that quite a few times I’ve experienced wonderful “corkless" wines, and as I tasted it, said, “like this one.” Samantha had joined us and I told them about last week’s restaurant being all out of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon and the week-long craving that resulted. They both smiled and acknowledged that now, I have it. I knew it would go with the soup, but it had a poblano pepper “meaty” flavor, verging on spiciness as well as a deep cherry fruitiness that would match my main course perfectly.


My second course was one of the unusual dishes, fried oyster tacos wrapped in soft fresh-made tortillas, with shredded cabbage, tomato, cilantro and lime. Something weird happens to oysters when they are cooked. This dish recalled to mind my first taste of oysters at a Japanese restaurant called Kabuki (no longer in business). Then, as now, the cooking process brings out the metallic zinc flavor in oysters. I had ordered two of these tacos and, after finishing the first I dowsed the second in fresh lime juice, which helped a lot. I think I’ll stick to fresh oysters on the half shell.

No dish arrived at the same time as the previous one and I credit Samantha with a great job of choreographing the meal. In several places on the menu, the words chile and chili were interchangeable though they mean distinctly different things. The main course was an example. The chili (chile – their spelling) relleno, a large poblano pepper battered and fried and stuffed with beef picadillo (ground beef, onions, green bell peppers, garlic and tomatoes), and topped with melted cheese, toasted pecans, raisins and tomatillo sauce, was a wonder to behold. 

The colors of this dish were vibrant and the aroma enticing. I decided to start at the stem end of the pepper (where the spiciest part is) and discovered it was uniformly mild throughout. The chef made sure to exclude the seeds. Unlike the first one I had at the Caliente Cab Company in Greenwich Village, this dish did not make me empty the accompanying red rice dish or the refried black beans just to put out the fire in my mouth. It was savory, cheesy, beefy and wonderful throughout. I told Samantha that it reminded me one I had in San Antonio, Texas. She liked that.


Javelina has been open for a year now and has yet to get a dessert list. Samantha offered a complimentary sopapilla with a honey dipping sauce. A sopapilla is something like a cross between a fluffy doughnut and Italian zeppole, coated with brown sugar, and best eaten hot and fresh. Samantha asked how it I liked it and I asked for more. She brought two more. However, coffee was strangely missing from the menu, much less the fancy coffees I see in Mexican restaurants. But just as strange, I didn’t need any. I considered an after dinner drink but changed my mind. I was satisfied.


Midnight Special 

By Steve Herte

Midnight Special (WB, 2016) – Director: Jeff Nichols. Writer: Jeff Nichols (story and s/p). Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, David Jensen, Sharon Landry, Dana Gourrier, Sharon Garrison, Allison King, & Sean Bridgers. Color, Rated PG-13, 112 minutes.

I’ve been duped. The trailers for this movie promised more than it delivered. I saw glowing streams of light coming from a child’s eyes and fiery bolides falling from the sky and I was hooked. None of it prepared me for what I saw.

We have Roy Tomlin (Shannon) kidnapping (or escaping) with his eight-year-old son Alton Meyer (Lieberher) from a Waco-esque religious cult ranch in the dark of night. They are aided by Roy’s childhood best friend and ex-state patrolman Lucas (Edgerton) as they whisk away the boy while the minions of the fanatic minister Doak (Camp) give chase.

The question “Why?” besets this movie throughout and is rarely answered. Why does the child have goggles on; why is his last name different from that of his parents, and why does everything have to be done at night?

Roy and Lucas are on a mission to get the boy to a certain location by a certain date and time before his weakening “condition” causes his death. They are in a car accident and have to seek shelter with another former cult member, Elden (Jensen). But Elden cannot resist staring into Alton’s eyes for another jolt of those intense beams that appear to be hurting the boy. Why? He says he needs to see it once again.


We learn that Alton has special powers and can channel radio broadcasts and signals from orbiting satellites. The ludicrous “prayer sessions” held by the cult quote “readings” from the various “revelations” and numbers Alton has spouted while in their keeping. They would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that some people will believe anything. Even Pastor Doak believes Alton is speaking in tongues. And he does do a Spanish broadcast at one point.

Why is the FBI after Alton? It seems that some of the numbers he’s been speaking into scripture are top secret military locations and they consider him to be some kind of weapon. How did they even know he was speaking coordinates? That question is one of the unanswered. But when Alton brings down one of our spy satellites (the fiery bolides I mentioned before), they go all out to capture him.

Roy and Lucas swipe Elden’s van after they hear on the police radio that their car has been spotted and described by a motel manager. They make it to Roy’s wife, Sarah Tomlin (Dunst), and though she’s delighted to see Alton again, she knows they have more traveling to do.

The FBI have reluctantly recruited Paul Sevier (Driver), a psychological specialist who looks and acts like a young Jeff Goldblum. When the FBI raid one of the motels Roy, Lucas and Alton are staying at with Sarah, they capture Alton. But Alton will only speak to Paul and he convinces him to bring him back to his parents.

So now we have these parents and best friend and this strange child who gets weaker every time his eyes light up running to a destination at which they know not what will happen. And then Alton tells his “Dad” that he must go out into the sunlight. It’s one of only two scenes that are vaguely interesting in this film – this one and the second to last one – and surprise! It recharges his battery. He all well again, he knows who he is (that’s good because the audience sure doesn’t) and what he has to do. Can you say, “ET phone home?” Except, he’s not exactly an alien.

By the end of Midnight Special many, but not all, of the questions are answered. Two that are not answered are why this movie was made and how you got fooled into seeing it? Jaeden Lieberher is a beautiful, but serious little actor, Michael Shannon verges on non-believability as a character and Kirsten Dunst does what she does best: act shocked or concerned. Joel Edgerton is a strong, silent type, which is good. He does have not too many lines to remember and he mumbles those he does have. Adam Driver may grow up to be Goldblum if he studies hard. Jeff Nichols’ script probably fits on a single page for all the dialogue there is. Most of the interaction is facial expression changes and subtle nods.

Parents, if you have nothing better to do, this is a movie without vile language and a minimum of gore with flashy special effects, just none that you haven’t seen before. Its most redeeming quality is the spectacular computer-generated stage sets. But be aware. It’s an hour and 42 minutes you’ll never get back.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Tamba Indian Grill and Bar
103 Lexington Ave., New York

I was hoping this restaurant would be a landmark Indian for me because it was so good. I knew I was approaching a count of 150, but it was only my 144th. Tamba’s exciting and varied menu on their website is what drew me to make a reservation. Its location in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan is now more famous for Indian restaurants than East 6th Street in East Greenwich Village. 


Everything about Tamba is humble, right down to the exterior – a simple aluminum-silver framed front window with the name in lower case, soft-white neon lights. Inside, the simple string curtains lit by a single string of white twinkle lights flank the small bar. The most ornate decoration is here, a statue of an Indian goddess dancing. Otherwise the décor is low key, shades of brown and soft gold. Even the artwork on the walls is minimalist. There are at most 20 tables in the entire restaurant meticulously covered in white tablecloths and topped with glass water goblets in which are artfully folded cloth napkins.

There is no Captain’s Station and, with only two tables occupied upon my arrival, I had no problem being seated. The gentleman who seated me eventually became my server and was one of only three employees I saw during the entire meal. He went simply by the initials “B.G.” and I made no reference to the musical group of similar name. He brought me a glass of water, the cocktail card and the beer and wine list, and menu (neatly bound in leather).


The drink that attracted my attention first (and beat out a drink called the Kama Sutra) was the “Volcano Cocktail,” a sweet, bewitching combination of Demera rum, Kahlua, almond syrup and brandy. Why it has the name “volcano” I have no idea. It was cool, not hot or even spicy. I liked it, but decided not to have a second.

The food menu is extensive even for an Indian restaurant and it incorporates cuisines of Pakistan and Afghanistan as well. I was tempted by the Dosa, south Indian specialties rarely seen on Indian menus but are slowly coming into fashion. The nearest thing I can compare them to are crèpes in texture and shape, but the size of the largest chimichangas you’ve ever had. One Dosa is indeed a meal, stuffed with meat, vegetables and spices. I know, I had one long ago at the Bengal Tiger in White Plains. No way are they a side dish or an appetizer.

I looked for dishes I’ve never tried and I found them easily, though I took my time. B.G. wrote them down and after checking the serving order with me, he was off to the kitchen.

While he was thus occupied, I considered the wine list and decided on the Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. But B.G. said he’d check and did I have a second choice? Malbec was my second choice and soon he returned with a bottle of 2014 Frontera Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina. For an extremely young red it was assertive, a rich, dark red and had a respectably strong nose and big fruity flavor. It would be perfect.


The man I took to be the manager had been roaming from table to table and now I saw the third of the three employees, a tall thin man all in black, who served me the chicken pakoras, my appetizer – shredded chicken and onion fritters with mild spices – and the mulligatawny soup – traditional Indian soup with chicken, lentils mild spices and green peas. The reddish-brown, crispy fritters were served encircling shredded cabbage and had a delightful mixture of flavors. The soup was served in a square bowl and its delicious aroma filled my nose. It was all I could do to wait until I took pictures of both dishes before eating. 

Both were amazing.

By now you must know that I’m an eavesdropper. Not an intentional one, but I hear all the conversations around me. The round table in front of me was seated with six seniors from Texas and one asked where mulligatawny soup got its name. One woman looked it up, as did I. I guessed correctly that it is an English (or rather Anglicized) name cobbled together from the original Tamil (South India) words mulluga and thanni. The recipe is Indian but when the English got a hold of it, it intensified in spice content. B.G. asked me how I wanted my main course: mild, medium or hot. I told him to make it the way it’s supposed to be made. The way Indians would eat it. He agreed, medium – or as he said, regular.

Originally, my preference for main course went to one of the Tamba specialties, a ground lamb kebab involving cashew nuts and exotic preparation, but B.G. didn’t think that it could be made that evening. He didn’t say they were out of it, he said it couldn’t be made. I didn’t question it. 



The pepper mutton fry – dry mutton curry with hot spices in Chennai style – was my other choice and was exactly what I wanted. Chennai or Madras is sometimes called the “Gateway to Southern India” and for me, this dish was a portal to Wonderland. Though it had two good-sized, foreboding black chili peppers in the mixture, it was not by any means hotly spiced. Yes, there were three bones, but one expects that with mutton and goat. But the mouth-filling flavor was grand, savory, and just a little tart. The net effect was almost sweet.

My side dish was one I’ve never seen, sambar rice. Normally Indian restaurants serve basmati rice plain or with green peas and that would be enough. This dish truly gilds the lily by mixing it with sambar, a lentil-based vegetable stew (not unlike a chowder), using broth and tamarind. It is intrinsic to Tamil Nadu in southern India. The sambar turned an aromatic rice side dish into a flavorful party. And then there’s the bread: ghobi paratha (another bread new to me) was a flat bread, cooked in the tandoor oven and stuffed with (of all things) cauliflower! It was light and heavy at the same time. The ghee (buffalo butter) made it heavy, but its extreme thinness made it light.

B.G. and the manager came to visit several times, both commenting on how much I seemed to be enjoying my meal, and I was. The manager wanted to know where I came from. When I answered Queens, he lit up. “Where in Queens?” I gave him my location and he had a relative who lives five blocks away from me. B.G. and I shared a joke about the lovely couple who dined at the next table and who had just left. I told him that she should have known if she were bringing an Argentinean to an Indian restaurant that he would order chicken tikka masala. He laughed. To explain, chicken tikka masala is such a mild dish, I call it “Indian food for those who don’t like Indian food.” I had the remainder of my rice boxed to go so that my Dad could taste it.

I noted that there was a dessert on the list (again) that I’ve never seen, chocolate kulfi and I asked B.G. about it. He put on that face that I’ve learned and said, “I don’t know if we have it tonight,” but he said he’d get me pistachio kulfi if that were true. And it was. The bright green Indian ice cream (which isn’t really ice cream at all, made with condensed milk, white bread and cardamom with flavoring) was cold and definitely pistachio. Combined with a nice, hot cup of masala (spiced) tea, it was a comforting end to a perfect Indian feast.

Tamba is five years old and I’m sure it will last long enough for me to return and try the many new (to me) dishes on the menu, as well as the familiar ones. And I shouldn’t forget the Dosa.

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