Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Penguins of Madagascar

Dinner and a Movie

From Madagascar to the Ukraine

By Steve Herte

After a wild week of wind, rain, freezing temperatures, Thanksgiving and necessary yard work I finally got the garden set for winter.

Call me crazy, but I find physical work rewarding. There's always a visible result at the end of it for everyone to appreciate. Not always so with mental work. Both can be tiring, but with mental work (both at home and on the job), the results are not usually visible to anyone but me. That's why I look forward to my Fridays, for it's time to put all work behind and just enjoy. This weekend in particular had a strong anticipatory feeling since I've been addicted to the Madagascar films, and the penguins are a big part of the comedy in that series. On the dining side, Ukrainian restaurants are rare, and my memories of the few I've been to have created a childlike hope that old-world style still exists. Enjoy! 

Penguins of Madagascar (Dreamworks, 2014) - Directors: Eric Darnell & Simon J. Smith. Writers: John Aboud, Michael Colton & Brandon Sawyer (s/p); Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath (characters). Voices: Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovitch, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare, Andy Richter, Danny Jacobs, Sean Charmatz, Werner Herzog, Stephen Kearin, & Kelly Cooney. Color and 3-D, 92 minutes.

The camera pans over the frozen wastelands of Antarctica at the beginning of this Madagascar spin-off (and, technically, sequel) as the voice of Werner Herzog drones on about how desolate and lifeless it seems except for penguins. An egg goes rolling down the hills of snow and ice and passes by a line of penguins marching who-knows-where and we find out that they don’t care. “We lose eggs all the time,” says one, “it’s part of nature.” When he hears this, baby penguin Skipper (McGrath) declares, “Then I reject nature!” to the shock of all on line and he and his nest-mates Kowalski (Miller) and Rico (Vernon) chase the egg in hopes of saving it. It falls off a cliff and lands on the deck of an abandoned ship. As the three are watching, a leopard seal emerges from a hatch, devours a roosting seagull and, with two others proceeds towards the egg.

The three stare while, behind them the Documentary Filmmaker (Herzog) appears Cousteau-like with a mike citing how terrified the baby penguins are of the cliff and the certain death beyond. Then he gives his soundman a cue to give the trio a push, and off they go on the adventure of their lives. They acquire the egg (Rico swallows it) and make their getaway on the business end of a harpoon gun. Dubiously safe on a drifting iceberg, the egg hatches, producing the fourth member of the team, Private (Knights). “Hello, are you my family?” To which Kowalski replies, “You have no family and we’re all going to die.” Skipper gives him his first warning about inappropriately negative truths.

The scene changes to a circus motif and we see the shadows of Alex the lion, Marty the zebra, Melman the giraffe, and Gloria the hippo all still dancing to “I Like To Move It,” which moves us to the present. The four penguins are now the size we remember from the last Madagascar movie and Skipper expresses his dislike of the song by proposing a plan to leave using the clowns’ cannon and a part of the tent as a para-sail. They glide into the wall (literally) of Fort Knox and successfully break into the vault where all the gold is kept. But they’re not after the gold. It’s Private’s birthday and they’re headed for the vending machine at the far end of the corridor, which is stocked with their favorite snack, Cheese Dibbles (exactly like Cheese Doodles).

When Private is reaching unsuccessfully for his bag of Dibbles, a tentacle reaches out of the machine and grabs him. Other tentacles grab the others when they try to get Private back. Eight tentacles sprout from the bottom of the vending machine as it runs to the exit, where a passing helicopter hooks it. Dave the Octopus – also known as Doctor Octavius Brine (Malokovich) has captured the penguins. He has been snatching penguins anywhere he finds them in a vengeful mission to turn them into monsters using a secret potion he’s concocted.

The penguins make their escape in Venice, Italy where there is a hilarious gondola chase scene until they hit a dead end alley. Cue the arrival of The North Wind, a polar vigilante group led by a Husky whose “name is Classified” (and hence he is called “Classified” for the remainder of the film). The group consists of a seal named Short Fuse (Jeong), a sexy snowy owl named Eva (Mahendru), and a Russian polar bear named Corporal (Stomare). Onboard their jet-powered flying machine, Classified (Cumberbatch) touts the virtues of The North Wind’s fighting for poor defenseless animals such as penguins while the egotistical and sarcastic Skipper only half-listens and crunches loudly on Cheese Dibbles. As Classified ends his sermon with, “No one breaks The Wind!” Skipper has had enough and he leads the team in an escape, but they are drugged by a dart gun, sealed in a box marked “Madagascar,” and put aboard a mail plane. Knowing that Rico swallows everything, they escape the box with a cutting tool he coughs up and, opening the bottom hatch of the plane, plummet down to two other planes in the hope of catching one going where Dave is going, but unsuccessfully.

Fortunately, one of the boxes that fell out of the first plane contains a life raft and they inflate it (Skipper rejected the parachutes that Private found). All seems lost, Kowalski is seasick, Rico keeps trying to eat him, and Dave has captured Private (dressed as a mermaid). Skipper has no other choice but to work with The North Wind.

If you’re looking for an animated feature that has everything: adventure, action, incredibly clever writing, realistic camera angles, excellent photography, great 3-D effects, believable characters, and both sophisticated and slap-stick humor, this is it. Kids will not get bored and will laugh as much as the adults (although to different aspects of the movie).

My favorites were when the penguins are in Shanghai, China and Skipper thinks they’re in Dublin, Ireland. Hence they blend in doing their version of a “River Dance” and Dave’s great lines: “Nicholas, cage them,” “Drew, Barry, more power,” and Hugh, Jack, man the weapons!” I don’t remember when I’ve come back from a movie remembering so many lines. The simple storyline of taking revenge on all penguins because they stole the limelight from an octopus at the Central Park Zoo is even funnier when you realize there never was an octopus at that zoo and penguins didn’t arrive until about ten years ago. Also, Kowalski’s assessments are hilarious (just the concept of a penguin named “Kowalski” is crazily funny). After they try using their flippers to fly, he concludes, “There’s no use. We’re flightless.” But then he gets seasick when we all know penguins can swim. It’s just great.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Korchma Taras Bulba
357 West Broadway (bet. Grand and Broome Sts.), New York

Established in 1999 in Moscow and Kiev, and then in New York a year and a half ago, Korchma Taras Bulba is a window onto the culture and cuisine of the Ukraine. Similar to Russian dishes and Eastern European cuisine, Ukrainian food is still quite unique – and rare. This is only the fourth Ukrainian restaurant I’ve ever found.

Outside, it looks like any other storefront restaurant, with a maroon awning and sandwich chalkboard to announce daily specials. Inside, the white walls are decorated with colorful murals, faux windows and legends and stocked with antique household items. I counted five clothes irons (the sort that had to be heated on a wood-burning stove before use). The ceiling is decorated with farm implements, while the staff dresses in embroidered Ukrainian costumes: woven straw hats on the men, flowers and ribbons on the women. It’s almost kitschy, but at the same time overwhelmingly charming.

Right at the door was the Captain’s Station and once announced, my table was right behind me, giving me a full view of the restaurant and the bar on the left. They were doing a lively business but it was not noisy. Ukrainian folk music played overhead as well as contemporary Ukrainian pop and rap. A Ukrainian soap opera was on a video screen behind me (over the front window) and a Tara Bulba cartoon was on a video screen in the back (it looked remarkably like a Popeye cartoon).

My lovely, soft-spoken waitress Liya brought me a glass of water, the cocktail list, menu, and wine list. She only had the slightest accent and was perfectly understandable. After an appropriate amount of time she returned for my cocktail order. I said I would be remiss if I did not have the Tara Bulba Cocktail – vodka, absinthe, Limoncello, mint syrup, lemon and pineapple juice, and Sprite. It was the answer to the question, “What’s tall, green, icy cold and tastes like a Christmas tree with the kick of a mule?” I liked it, but after reading the drinks menu stopped after just one.

The menu is quite extensive and categorized into Cold Appetizers, Hot Appetizers, Salads, Soups and Entrées, as well as “From the Grill,” Ukrainian burgers, Vareniki (Ukrainian Dumplings), Perozhki (Small Savory Pies), Blinis (similar to Blintzes), Sides, Desserts, and Beverages. I would have loved to taste their Borsch (Borsht), but there were several more interesting items on the menu. I told Liya that I was making it a three-course dinner and cited my choices. She agreed that they were “very traditional”.

My first course sprang off the page at me because I have not had this delicacy in at least thirty years. Calf’s Tongue – a thinly sliced poached tongue in a spice rub, served with choice of Ukrainian horseradish or Russian mustard, and garnished with bacon-wrapped grape tomatoes and kale leaves – was remarkable and brought back pleasant memories of my childhood. The spice rub accented the tender meat, but the Russian mustard set a flame in my mouth. I learned to respect it right away. I even finished the lovely garnish. The cracker on which the mustard was served I saved in the breadbasket for later.

The breadbasket itself consisted of two long triangles Russian black bread with a homemade olive spread. More memories.

Although the Perozhki called my name I went with the Vareniki – assorted pork, beef, cabbage, or cheese in a thin dough dumpling, boiled and served with sour cream, topped with fried pork and apples. They were dreamy in their shiny dark terra cotta earthenware bowl, almost too tender to pick up with a fork but each with melt-in-the-mouth texture and flavor. My cocktail was now long gone and I told Liya I would start working on their flavored vodkas. My first was a Bacon-infused vodka served with a pickle (gherkin) wrapped in pork fat as a chaser. (Did I mention that people with high cholesterol should beware of this place?) I was having a great time, and whoever the reviewer was who couldn’t taste the bacon, I would suggest getting a taste bud transplant.

My entrée brought back memories of my Aunt Katie and trips to Stamford, Connecticut (later re-zoned into Darien). The Stuffed Cabbage Rolls – minced meat, rice, onion, carrot rolled into cabbage leaves, braised until tender in a tomato sauce, and drizzled with sour cream – was nothing like my Aunt Katie’s (she used sauerkraut as part of the sauce and no sour cream), but similar enough to conjure up good times with food. To go with this dish I tried the Sea Buckthorn-infused vodka. Sea Buckthorn is a hardy, cold climate plant of China and Russia whose red berries are touted by Doctor Oz as a weight-loss superfood. Frankly, I didn’t care about the weight loss part. It was just lovely; a sweet, yet strong, vodka.

After finishing every bite of my stuffed cabbage and soaking up the last of the sauce with my delicious black bread, Liya arrived and asked if I was ready for dessert. I looked at the list while she described several of them but only on one did she use the words “imported from Kiev.” That one was the Kiev Cake – “one of the most famous cakes in all of USSR” per the website – two airy layers of stiff meringue with walnuts, chocolate glaze and a buttercream-like filling. This dessert was light while being rich and sweet and the beautiful florets in pink and yellow on top made it visually appealing as well. And what best to go with this lovely dessert but a glass of chocolate infused vodka! Nostrovye!

Until Liya reminded me of coffee or tea I thought I was finished. “Ah, yes! In Ukraine we drink tea!” I said in my best Boris Badenov voice. Liya listed the teas, and though it’s not particularly Eastern Europe, I chose Earl Grey. It was delightful. While sipping my tea I started reading the legend on the wall. It said, “For many centuries the Korchma (a kind of tavern an inn) used to be a place for entertainment and merrymaking during large scale fairs and holidays in Ukraine.” It’s a good place for informal gatherings as well. And then there is the altruistic part of the menu. I read that with every order of Borsch they donate $1 for a child to eat at their Kiev restaurant. I’ve never seen that anywhere else.

After paying the check, taking care of the necessaries and thanking my waitress for a wonderful evening, I knew (by the location of my table near the door) what was coming next. In the Ukraine it is a tradition that before you leave a restaurant you have a glass of vodka in a toast. Who am I to break with a tradition like that? The young lady instructed me to say “Budmo, Hey!” I did with gusto and drank the vodka and ate the proffered pickle and walked toward Canal Street humming “Lara’s Theme” (Aunt Katie’s favorite song).

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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