Sunday, November 3, 2013

Spinning Plates

Dinner and a Movie

The Spinning Spice Merchant

By Steve Herte

Playing catch-up at work after the silly government shutdown was difficult but I’m almost current. The anticipation of Friday night keeps me focused during the week (after karaoke on Tuesdays, of course). This past week ended with a few novel experiences. I had my will drawn up, a healthcare proxy, and a power of attorney - three necessary documents at the close of a lifetime. Not that I plan on going any time soon. I tried once or twice doing these by myself but unsuccessfully. Luckily I have a brother-in-law who is a lawyer and he’s married to my sister (the nurse). All three documents were done, signed, witnessed and notarized in one afternoon. Helene had none of these when she passed and I witnessed the horror that resulted. The latest novelty for me is reviewing a documentary (which gives you an idea of the attractiveness of the movies that opened this past week). This week there are two movies I’m interested in, one animated and one a sci-fi - it’s either feast or famine. Friday was a feast both ways. Enjoy!

Spinning Plates (Film Arcade, 2012) – Director: Joseph Levy. Writer: Joseph Levy. Cast: Grant Achatz, Cindy Breitbach, Mike Breitbach, Thomas Keller, Francisco Martinez, & Gabby Martinez. Color, 93 minutes.

What do you do if you have a chi-chi Nouvelle Cuisine in Chicago and your chef develops fourth stage tongue cancer? Or if you have a successful country-kitchen-style, three-meals-a-day restaurant in Iowa that burns to the ground twice in 10 months? Or if you’re struggling to keep up the mortgage payments on your house as well as maintain a family owned and operated Mexican restaurant in Arizona? These are questions answered by the skillfully filmed and well-timed documentary Spinning Plates.

The movie follows the progress of three diverse cuisines, locations, and management styles of Alinea (pronounced Ah-leen-ee-ah) in Chicago, Breitbach Country Kitchen in Balltown, Iowa (yes, I said “Where?” when I first heard the location too) and Cocina di Gabby in Tucson, Arizona. There is no narrator; the owners/chefs/managers tell their own stories and histories.

We learn that Grant Achatz, the 39-year-old Chef of Alinea got his start at “The French Laundry” in California, a restaurant he reveres to this day; worked as Executive Chef at “Trio” in Evanston, Illinois, where the manager boldly told him he would be a nobody if he didn’t “make it” at Trio; and yet he opened Alinea in 2005 and pursued his “molecular gastronomy” there aspiring for a coveted three-star Michelin rating. Thomas Keller, owner of The French Laundry and a good friend, also has a speaking part.

In Balltown, Iowa, Mike and Cindy Breitbach own and run an attractive two-story restaurant that has been open for 150 years and which is at the same time a neighborhood meeting place and a draw for regular customers as far away as Omaha, Nebraska. Several people in the town assist the family in running Breitbach’s: opening it in the morning, lighting the lights, and starting the coffee. Everyone knows everyone else and it’s like one big extended family.

Francisco Martinez, on the other hand, is not making enough at his own business to cover the mortgage payments on the family home he shares with his wife Gabby, his toddler daughter, and his mother-in-law. Gabby loves to cook and she convinces him to open Cocina di Gabby in Tucson, Arizona, to help with expenses.

The three stories are linked by the passion for creating food that makes their customers comfortable: one by “food as art,” one by familiarity and savory goodness, and one by traditional cooking done well. All three have emotional anecdotes and “family album” teary moments when they relate the varied obstacles that had to be overcome making them palpable for the audience. This is not a fact-by-fact, boring documentary. It’s sheer human interest in depth. We are shocked by a Chef disabled for three months by the treatment for his cancer, agog that after the townspeople all pitched in to rebuild Breitbach’s after the first fire it burns down again in 10 months, and our hearts break to see Francisco and Gabby’s daughter grow sullen when, being restricted to the restaurant, she cannot go outside to play.

Spinning Plates tells us that restaurant owning and operation is not an occupation, it’s a lifestyle: You have to love it to succeed; you need the support of your family and friends; and most of all, you need perseverance. If any of these are missing, as we used to say in Barbershop Quartet singing, “Go bowling.” Serving good food to your customers is a joy and it helps them to relax and interact with each other in a way they might not do so on the street.

Spoiler Alert: The film ends with what eventually happened to the three. Grant Achatz won his three Michelin stars and opened a second restaurant “Next” which features a different cuisine every few weeks. The Breitbach’s daughter celebrated her wedding on the spacious grounds surrounding the second re-built restaurant. Lastly, Francisco and Gabby sadly had to close their restaurant with hopes of re-opening again. The dedication of the movie is “to my grandfather, who would have loved to eat at all three restaurants.” For a documentary, it was beautifully presented. Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

The Masala Wala
179 Essex Street (near Houston Street), New York

On the outside, this tiny, two-year-old, 10-table storefront Indian restaurant looks glitzy, with its large golden lettering over the door, bright lights and shiny glass. Inside, the four or five servers bustle to keep the food coming to their guests seated on bare wood benches on the side walls and plain dark wood chairs at bare dark wood tables. The walls have paintings of Indian street-food vendors, while a shelving unit featuring Indian art and knick-knacks graces the back wall. To the left of the shelving unit is the open kitchen and to its right, the restrooms.

When I made my reservation online, the photo led me to believe the place was much larger. It occupies the location of the former ”Mumbles.” “Masala Wala” means Spice Merchant (or Trader) in Hindi and the restaurant logo is a golden coin with a man’s profile in the center. After the surprise of the size wore off, the laughable location of my “reserved” table took its place. It was a chilly autumn night and, dead center in the room, directly in front of the door was my table. The other tables were occupied so there was no place else to go. Fortunately I was wearing my black leather blazer, which makes a decent appearance on or off; I left it on, put my hat, bag and scarf on the other chair and sat with my back to the door (not the way they expected me to sit).

I reminded myself to smile; after all it is my favorite cuisine. My server, Mohammed, greeted me with a glass of water and presented me with the menu and wine list. He asked if I would like to start with a beer. Knowing Indian beers to be quite good I agreed to a Kingfisher. “Small or Large?” “Large.” “What the heck, it’s Friday!” I also know that Indian beers come in large 650ml bottles. What I learned later on was that they also had Lion Stout from Sri Lanka. Oh well, I was still getting acclimated.

The wine list was a single card featuring five reds and six whites, with the most interesting being the Bodega Goulart Classico Malbec from Mendoza vineyards, Argentina. I decided to order it by the glass during the meal. Mohammed was soon back for my decision even though I had not seen more than two pages of the six-page menu. I explained that I like to make a “feast” for myself whenever I dine on Indian food and he understood. Seeing no dish that was unusual on the menu I chose to order several of my all-time favorites as many of them were flagged as “chef’s specialties.”

My soup, the Golden Chariot Lentil (a very fancy name for Mulligatawny Soup), arrived first and it was every bit as delicious and smooth as the best one I’ve ever had (mind you, this is Indian restaurant number 131 on my life list) but the appetizer, Chicken Malai Kebab – tandoor-grilled boneless chicken marinated in a savory cream sauce – arrived soon after. This was my fault because I didn’t specify that they should space my dishes in time. Still the chicken was tender enough to cut with a fork and the sauce was delightful. I even finished the mini-salad it came with.

The main course was Lamb Rogan Josh – a classic Kashmiri dish made with tomatoes, spices and slow-cooked boneless lamb – and it was marvelous. The rich tomato-y sauce was just spicy enough that the Malbec accentuated it nicely, the lamb was tender and juicy and the basmati rice served with it was aromatic and perfectly cooked. I usually have Raita with my main course (a yoghurt relish, normally made with cucumber, but this time with other vegetables) and it moderated the spices just as well.

The Onion Kulcha (onion stuffed flat bread baked in the tandoor) was also a copy of the best I’ve ever had. I was happy and glad I kept my jacket on, what with the front door opening and closing behind me and letting in gusts of cold air. I was surprised that I finished every bite before it got cold and was ready for dessert. Many times there is too much rice or the main dish is so large that I cannot finish the bread. Not this time. The manager came to my table to ask about my enjoyment and I complimented the food highly.

Mohammed seemed impressed with my progress through my feast. I ordered the Rabri Ras Malai (home-made cottage cheese dumplings in sweet condensed milk, garnished with rose water and pistachios), which was served in a lovely stemmed red-wine goblet, the Masala Chai (spiced tea) and a glass of the Willowglen Port from Riverina, Australia. The dessert was so good I forgot to take a picture of it before it was gone. The port arrived first, followed by the dessert and then, when I thought Mohammed forgot about it, the tea arrived. All were excellent. The port was a little too sweet but it was adequate. 

I called the manager over for two questions. He told me the restaurant was two years old and before I could ask the second question he presented me with the business card. I commented on his slyness and he said, “I AM THE MASALA WALA!” Looking at the business card featuring the same logo as the one on the wall I realized the profile was his. I shook his hand and left thinking how great a take-out meal would be from The Masala Wala. If I ever dined in again it would be in warmer weather.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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