Dinner and a Movie Archive


By Steve Herte

Mountain (Madman Entertainment, 2017) - Director: Jennifer Peedom. Writers: Robert Macfarlane, Jennifer Peedom. Narrator: Willem Dafoe. Color, NR, 74 minutes.

Under the eloquent narration of Willem Dafoe, Mountain follows the history of man’s fascination with mountains from ancient times of reverence and fear to modern times of recklessness and flagrant disregard. A quote from the story says it all: Mankind’s view of the forbidding peaks went from “Mystery to Mastery,” but not without the mountains taking their toll of revenge.

A lama worshipping in a Tibetan monastery ties the whole tale together in well-placed flashbacks. The historical footage was well researched and in some cases I wondered who filmed that. The modern day cinematography is stunning and sometimes dizzying and terrifying. There were several stomach-dropping moments. For a documentary, it had many “Wow” moments besides the majestic aerial scenes that changed with the lighting.

And time-lapse photography? Splendid! Evergreens filled with snow and thawed right before your eyes appearing to do a weird dance. The exhaustion of the climbers was heart-rending, as were the occasions when they missed their footholds and fell, only to be caught by their ropes.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra supplied the musical backdrop to the film and, though they played some of my favorite pieces by Vivaldi and the musical insertions were appropriate, Mountain would have been a major feature without the music, only the narration. And this is from a reviewer who doesn’t care for narration. In some instances, the music cheapened the experience and detracted from the natural majesty of craggy peaks marching away from the viewer in all directions.

An excellent documentary, worthy of nomination in the category. I would see it again.

Rating: 4 out of 5 martini glasses.

Baar Baar
13 East 1st Street, New York

Every restaurateur knows that one of the selling points of a restaurant is location, location, location. In New York City we add property taxes, property taxes and more property taxes. Chef Sujan Sarkar seems to have had both of these considerations when he opened Baar Baar (the name means Again And Again in Hindi) 6 months ago. It’s five blocks removed from New York’s “Little India,” sometimes called “Curry Row” on East 6th Street between 2nd and 1st avenues. A large presence fronted completely in glass with an outdoor café area next to the main building draped in short blood-red awnings with the name in white block letters.

Called the “first of its kind Indian Gastro Bar” (at least in New York), the title is borne out by the imposing bar area surmounted by five tiers of shelves stocked with every kind of liquor you can imagine. The food is classified as “Contemporary Indian” (meaning you’re going to see things on the menu you won’t see in any restaurant on 6th Street). Chef Sujan considers New York to be behind the times as far as Indian cuisine goes.

From the food menu I chose my meal with a little help from my waiter, Karla. The wine list had a good selection of affordable wines and I chose the 2015 Lioco Medocino “Sativa” Carignan, from California. A medium-bodied red with nice deep color a fruity nose and rich blackberry flavor and mild spice that would be perfect with all my dishes.

My first course was the Cauliflower 65 with curd-rice mousse, peanut chutney and Podi (a coarse powder mixture of spices) masala was a delightful, crunchy, exciting appetizer and an innovative departure on the traditional pakoras (fritter). The flavor was spicy but not too hot and a bit sweet and the mousse had pureed cauliflower in it as well.

My second course was another first for me in any Indian restaurant, the Veal Sweetbread Koliwada (kolis are fishermen in Mumbai) with lemon aioli and Sirka (pickled) onion. It tasted way better than it looked, with a crisp outside and melt-in-the-mouth inside. Sweetbreads is always a rich tasting dish and this dish had that aspect but with the feathery spice flavors of India.

The Lamb Shank Nihari (a stew of slow-cooked meat) with fresh ginger, rose, cilantro and chili oil filled that need. The large bone rested on the burnt orange Nihari sauce and the tender meat fell off the bone with a touch of a fork. It was heaven: juicy, a little spicy, savory and sweet at the same time.

A meat never seen in Indian restaurants is duck, but I had the Kashmiri Duck and Apricot Kulcha with bitter greens and shredded parmesan cheese. Wow! The puffy bread was stuffed with moist, duck meat and sweet-tart apricots and frosted with shredded parmesan. When I needed a break from the spice, this was where I went.

My side dish was Brussels Sprouts Foogath (a stir fry curry). The sprouts were shredded and mixed with carrots, cabbage, string beans and other vegetables, lightly spiced and served in their own red crock. Lovely!

No serving was too large and finishing everything was easily done. For a rocky start, Baar Baar had proven itself worthy with the food. I found a dessert I’ve never had – the Thandai (usually a cold drink prepared with a mixture of almonds, fennel seeds, magaztari seeds (watermelon kernel) rose petals, pepper, vetiver seeds (a grass native to India), cardamom, saffron, milk and sugar) cassata (a sponge cake moistened with fruit juices or liqueur and layered with cheese). The oblong cake was sandwiched taco-style in a sweet, flakey white shell that shattered at a touch. Multiple flavors came through at tasting; fruit, cheese, mild spice, flowers and milk. A truly unique twist on an Italian concept.

Masala Chai (tea) was served in a beautiful little ceramic teapot fully prepared and needing nothing but pouring into the matching cup and enjoying. As an after-dinner drink I decided to order the cocktail I first saw online and was attracted to, the New Delhi Sour – Medley Bros. 102 Proof Bourbon, rose hip shrub, citrus, egg white and bitters, garnished with a thin orange slice. It was not that sour and a beautiful preparation as well.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

By Steve Herte

Solo: A Star Wars Story (Disney, 2018) – Director: Ron Howard. Writers: Jonathan Kasdan, Laurence Kasdan (s/p), George Lucas (characters). Stars: Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau, Linda Hunt, Ian Kenny, John Tui, Anna Francolini, Andrew Woodall & Warwick Davis. Color, Rated PG-13, 135 minutes.

It’s easy to get confused with the timeline of the Star Wars movies, ten of which have been released and two of which are coming soon in 2019 and 2020.

Here we have a young Han Solo (Ehrenreich) who desperately wants to be the best starship pilot ever and will do anything to achieve that. He didn’t even have a last name at the outset of the film. It was given to him by a recruitment officer. In the opening credits we learn:

It is a lawless time. Crime Syndicates compete for resources - food, medicine, and hyperfuel. On the shipbuilding planet of Corellia, the foul Lady Proxima (Hunt) forces runaways into a life of crime in exchange for shelter and protection. On these mean streets, a young man fights for survival, but yearns to fly among the stars…”

Forced to steal for a living Han and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Clarke) manage to break away from a notorious gang and think that a vial of coaxium (hyperspace fuel) will get them passage on a transport. It works for Han but not for Qi’ra. Han becomes a flight cadet with the Imperial Navy but, we all know Han Solo and rules, gets expelled. In a battle scene, Han tries extortion on gang leader Tobias Beckett (Harrelson) and is arrested for desertion and “thrown to The Beast for its dinner.”

The beast in this case is Chewbacca (Suotamo), a 190-year-old Wookiee who is just as eager to escape as Han is. Fortunately, Han speaks Wookiee (yes, he does utter those strange, gurgling roars and is understood). Their escape impresses the hot-and-cold-running Beckett, who recruits them on an exciting coaxium train robbery on planet Vandor. But the plan goes awry when the Cloud Riders not only cost them two of their crew members but the entire shipment of coaxial as well. 

As with any gang story, Beckett is not the capo dei capi. He’s working for Dryden Vos (Bettany), who works for the Crimson Dawn Syndicate. And who winds up being Dryden Vos’ right hand person? Qi’ra, of course. To pay off Beckett’s debt to Dryden Vos, she accompanies them to steal highly unstable, raw coaxium from the planet Kessel and take it from there to the refinery on planet Savareen a feat never accomplished in time without hyperdrive. Qi’ra introduces the men to smuggler Lando Calrissian (Glover) a cheater at card games who eventually agrees to pilot them aboard his Millenium Falcon. Lando’s copilot is a smart-mouthed, attitude-ridden droid named L3-37 (Waller-Bridge) but without whom, even when mortally damaged, the “Kessel Run” would not have been accomplished in record time. (Han Solo’s boasting point in later episodes.)

From there it’s another double-cross from Beckett, a clarification of who exactly the good guys are, the famous Sabacc card game that wins the Millennium Falcon for Han and a brief encounter with Vos’ superior and the link-up to Episode IV is complete as Han and Chewy head for Tatooine.

Though under the able direction of Ron Howard this is a particularly noisy film. Emilia Clarke’s half mumbled lines are lost most of the time. You have to depend on the visuals to get what’s happening whenever she speaks. Alden Ehrenreich is perfectly cast as the over-confident swash-buckling Han Solo. I could see him becoming Harrison Ford. It was good to see Warwick Davis as Weazel, a member of the Cloud Riders and hear the voice of Anthony Daniels in another droid named Tak.

The two hours and fifteen minutes, though a bit long, passed without discomfort. The young boys I heard reviewing the movie after leaving the theater were kind of lukewarm about it. They enjoyed it but had serious doubts about (spoiler alert) Ray Park appearing near the end as Maul (not yet Darth Maul). So did I. Nevertheless, any Star Wars fans will love it and will be anticipating Episode IX, the last of the series and an anthology film about Boba Fett. Who knows? In 2021 you may be able to see all twelve films in order, if you’ve a severe case of insomnia.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 martini glasses.

44 & X
622 Tenth Avenue (at 44th Street)New York

Nothing in New York is as sure as change. The name of this restaurant intrigued me. It’s the location: the corner of 44th Street and Tenth Avenue. I was a little dismayed when I saw the side panel of the brown and white awning dangling out of place. However, the name etched onto the windows said “elegance” and the simple blond wood, bare-topped tables with white chairs and banquettes spoke volumes in their basic beauty. The single yellow rose on each table was the only color in the room. I told the hostess that I enjoyed people-watching and she chose a corner banquette by the window.

The cocktails are all “Tony Award Themed” and I chose “Frozen” (“Gin never bothered me anyway.”) made with Death’s Door gin, St. Germain, Cointreau, Blue Curacao, fresh lime juice, and a snowy sugar rim “nose.” It was potent and citrus and a beautiful sky blue.

My server, Kevin, informed me that 44 and X has been in business for 16 years. (This always amazes me. I should get to this neighborhood more often.) He explained the sizes of various dishes and gave me enough time to choose. It wasn’t easy. The selection included many foods I love.

The 2015 “Sinister Hand” red wine from Columbia Valley, Washington was my choice for dinner and it worked well with all my dishes. It’s a complex medium body red wine with lots of fruity flavor and a satisfying tang on the aftertaste.

The Goat Cheese and Pistachio soufflé with julienned Asia pears and pomegranate jus was the center of a star made of endive leaves. The juicy pear strips were hidden by the light, fluffy, nutty goat cheese.

The first time I ever had oysters they were fried and tasted metallic, but I loved the Polenta-crusted oysters, baby California frisée salad with crispy pancetta, and buttermilk ranch dressing. The oysters were good sized, tender and light flavored, nothing metallic and the coating was crispy and tasty. Normally you could drive me from the room with frisée but this was different. The ranch dressing gave a nearly flavorless, boring green a reason to be enjoyed.

44 and X is not a steakhouse, but after consulting Kevin I ordered the pan-seared filet mignon, with potatoes au gratin, tart tomato jam topping, and port wine jus. The filet was cooked perfectly to my specifications, tender on the inside, crispy blackened on the outside. The tomato topping did not overwhelm, just accented the meat. The potatoes were thin sliced and stacked on one side of the dish. They had a light, cauliflower-like taste that fooled me into forgetting they were potatoes. And the bright orange carrots siding the dish were crunchy and fresh. I greatly enjoyed it.

Any dessert that mentions peanut butter will be my choice. The peanut butter mousse tart with caramel sauce, topped by vanilla, chocolate, and malted milk ball ice creams, was light yet rich, sweet and nutty. The caramel sauce formed a stretched-out spring design on the plate. Peanuts scattered around the mousse were a light-hearted garnish.

My usual double espresso this time was accompanied by a glass of Andrew Quady Essencia Orange Muscat – orangey, citrus and heady. My meal was wonderful from start to finish. As I said before, I really have to get to Hell’s Kitchen more often. The care with which the food is served permeates the staff. When I discovered that the first roll I was served was a little stale, another was rushed to my table without a word from me. That was very impressive. 44 and X is a class act.

Ready Player One

By Steve Herte

Ready Player One (WB, 2018) – Director: Steven Spielberg. Writers: Zak Penn (s/p), Ernest Cline (s/p and novel). Stars: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen, Ralph Ineson, Susan Lynch, Clare Higgins, Laurence Spellman & Perdita Weeks. Color, Rated PG-13, 140 minutes.

The last time a movie made me want to read the book was 2001, A Space Odyssey. I came out of the theater saying, “What was that all about?” Especially, the psychedelic ending. When I read the book, I received clearer insights. 

This time, it’s the reviewers who read the book of the same title by Ernest Cline back in 2011 and who saw the movie after, who compel me to go to the source. Their reactions ranged from disappointment in Steven Spielberg to outrage.

Nearly everyone in the cast has two persona, one in the real world and one in the virtual world. 18-year-old orphan Wade Watts (Sheridan) lives with his mother’s sister Alice (Lynch) and her abusive boyfriend Rick (Ineson) in 2045 Columbus, Ohio. It’s decades since the collapse of society, and Earth’s denizens escape the desolation by donning goggles and escaping into the virtual world of the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) developed by James Halliday/Anorak (Rylance) and his partner, Ogden Morrow (Pegg). It’s a place where you can be anyone or anything you wish, do anything you can imagine and go anywhere.

The late co-creator of the OASIS, Halliday, announces a quest in the OASIS for three keys which will lead to an “Easter Egg” hidden there. Whoever attains the egg will gain full control of the OASIS and a great sum of money. No one so far has found the first key or even made the scoreboard. The first trial is a race with hundreds of other contenders on a highway that keeps changing, breaking up and reshaping. If that weren’t bad enough, contestants have to get past the T-Rex from Jurassic Park and King Kong. Wade (aka Parzival) and Samantha Cook/Atr3mis (Cooke) are the only two who get to the last stage but can’t get past Kong.

Wade goes to the Halliday library and figures out the riddle to getting the key. From there, a group dubbed the “High Five” comprised of Wade, Art3mis, Aech, and two of Aech’s friends, Sho (Zhao) and Daito/Toshiro (Morisaki) continue to the next level.

This attracts the attention of Nolan Sorrento (Mendelsohn), CEO of IOI (Innovative Online Industries). Nolan wants total control of OASIS as his company manufactures all the hardware keeping the program running. He sends a bounty hunter named I-Rok (Miller) and his tech-savvy gal-Friday, F’nale Zandor (John-Kamen) to stop Wade any way they can.

Wade and his group learn that another key means another riddle. The second level takes them into a freakish version of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining  reproduced in meticulous detail. The object is to find Karen “Kira” Underwood (Weeks) who appears in the famous photo of the ballroom with Halliday.

The soundtrack is great and features a variety of pop songs by Van Halen, Rush, Twisted Sister, A-Ha, Hall and Oates, Joan Jett, Tears for Fears, the Temptations, and Blondie, among others.

But what it scores in flashy special effects and pop references it fails in dialogue and award-winning capability. The characters are not developed to endear them to the audience; at two hours and twenty minutes, there was enough time to do so. We don’t care what happens to whom as long as it happens and it dazzles us. Also, the 3D is once again not used to its fullest.

Like I said, it’s entertaining, but I’m going to read the book.

Rating: 2 out of 5 martini glasses.
Ortzi by Jose Garces
120 West 41st Street, New York

Basque cuisine is becoming more popular in New York City. Once, only a few restaurants were dedicated to it and now several Spanish restaurants are incorporating Basque recipes into their menus. This one-year-old on a street divided in half by Bryant Park and the main branch of the New York Library is a stand-out.

The electric blue lit awning is striking and below it is a large front window completely open to the street where one could see patrons enjoying themselves at the bar. I was cheerily greeted by a young bearded man and had my reservation checked. He led me past the bar and to the dining area in back featuring an open kitchen.

A young woman presented me with the menu, pointing out that the drinks were on the opposite side of the food menu. I ordered the Hirune Cocktail – Greenhook Ginsmiths American Dry Gin, Maurin Quina (a Liqueur made from macerated cherries, quinine and bitter almonds), and Priorat Natur Vermouth and garnished with orange zest. I found it to be quite pleasing, fruity and citrus with a slight gin kick.

Having previewed the food menu online I wondered where the main courses were until Freddy, my server arrived and noticed I had the wrong menu. He dashed to the far corner of the room and returned with the correct one. Once I established which dishes were small or large (it was as easy as left side, right side) Freddy helped me compose a three course meal.

The appetizers Freddy helped me choose arrived when I had finished the Amuse Bouche as did my wine. The sommelier had to assist me with wine choice because they were all out of the Basque wine I wanted. The 2014 Bernard Baudry Chinon “Les Grézeaux” from the Loire Valley more than made up for the missing vintage. It was a deep red color, technically a cabernet franc, and had a smooth, semi-full-bodied flavor that accented all my dishes.

The Bonito Del Norte – (preserved Spanish tuna) Remoulade, caper berries and sliced cornichons – reminded me of a fancy version of the tuna salad I make at home. It was creamy, with just enough tuna to dominate and had the nice vinegary tangs from the capers and pickles. It was served in a bowl on a wooden board along the three crisp fingers of crust-less bread.

The other appetizer was Brochetas De Cordero – Lamb loin Brochettes – Eggplant, bacon and Sherry jus. These were heavenly from first bite to last. It was hard to tell where the bacon ended and the lamb began, they were that closely wrapped. The sauce was a masterwork in itself.

My main course was listed under Cazuelas (a South American term, Spanish for “cooking pot”) what we might call a casserole dish. But this was no casserole in presentation. The Costillas De Cerdo (Pork ribs) – Alubias de Tolosa (Black beans with chorizo), and Guindilla peppers – was a black and brown mound with white globs of sour cream and crowned with vegetable ribbons and shredded carrots. It was a savory, rich, slightly spicy dish cooled by the sour cream with the exciting crunch of the vegetables. So this is Basque cuisine? I love it.

Cuajada means “curdled” in Spanish and partially explains my dessert., a mix of fresh cheese with cherries, formed into balls and topped with apricots, cinnamon and black cherry compote. It was lovely and light at the same time.

The Garces and Sons coffee was excellent but a Lustau Solera Brandy afterward topped off the meal in grand style. I’m getting used to “hotel restaurants” surprising me and breaking the bad reputation. I might even stay at the Luma because of Ortzi.


By Steve Herte

Rampage (New Line, 2018) – Director: Brad Payton. Writers: Ryan Eagle (s/p & story); Carton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal & Adam Sztykiel (s/p). Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Marley Shelton, P.J. Byrne, Demetrius Grosse, Jack Quaid, Breanne Hill, Matt Gerald, Will Yun Lee, Urijah Faber & Bruce Blackshear, Color, Rated PG-13, 107 minutes.

All you gamers know that this film is loosely based on the video game of the same name.

The game and the movie attempt to portray a worst case scenario of genetic engineering gone horribly awry. Scientists employed by Claire (Akerman) and Brett Wyden (Lacy) co-CEOs of Energyne, are creating genetic mutations on the Athena-1 Space Station when (of course) things go downhill fast. A huge mutant rat (about as big as a puma) is tearing up the laboratory and killing off the crew. A lone scientist, Dr. Kerry Atkins (Shelton) manages to make it to an escape pod with three canisters of the genetic pathogen labelled “Project Rampage,” but not before the rat fractures the porthole glass. Poor Ms. Shelton has a very small part.

The space station explodes, the glass implodes and the escape pod breaks up on reentry sending a canister to a wolf pack in Wyoming, a second one to the Everglades and a third to the San Diego Zoo. 

Primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson) works at the zoo and has raised an albino gorilla named George from babyhood. He’s even taught the ape to sign. George finds the canister, it sprays something in his face and he grows. As he grows, he gets fiercer and more uncontrollable. Black Ops sends Agent Harvey Russell (Morgan), to capture George, who by now has escaped the zoo after killing a full grown grizzly bear, for observation. They think keeping him on tranquilizers will keep him docile.

Former employee of Energyne Dr. Kate Caldwell (Harris) lies to Davis about having a cure for George, but we find out it was her work that the Wydens have stolen and made into a weapon. Davis distrusts humans because they lie. Animals don’t. Eventually, the circumstances force them to work together as the only two people with the knowledge to stop the Wydens.

Meanwhile, in the Sears Tower in downtown Chicago, Clair Wyden has reprogrammed the antenna on top to send out a signal any mutant beast cannot resist, because it annoys them. When Davis and Caldwell tell Colonel Blake (Grosse), whose soldiers are trying to kill the giant flying wolf, to evacuate Chicago, he of course ignores their warning. That is, until a giant spiky crocodile swims up the Chicago River (how it got there from the Everglades I’ll never know) and overturns a double decker tourist boat before hauling itself onto the street.

Then it’s Chicago’s turn to be destroyed as George, Ralph (the wolf) and Lizzie scale the Sears Tower to get at the antenna. Davis and Caldwell race to get the antidote from Clair and Brett to bring George back to their side.

Though based on a video game this movie doesn’t have the fake “video-game” look. The camera angles are superb and the cinematography is excellent. The computer generated creatures move naturally (for mutants) and the 3D effects are convincing but not used to the fullest. At first I couldn’t understand why the crocodile was so much bigger than the wolf or gorilla, but then I remembered. The crocodile swallowed the canister while the other two were merely sprayed by it. The acting was surprisingly good for an action film and Dwayne almost cried. He’s getting better. George accuses him of crying but we didn’t see it. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s fake Texas drawl gets annoying after a while, but it doesn’t ruin the movie.

I liked Rampage for its wild action, great special effects and wry humor, “Of course, the wolf flies.” More like a flying squirrel than a bird, it was a novel thing to see a gnarled-tooth canine with porcupine needles in its tail gliding toward Davis. I particularly liked the scene where Davis and Caldwell swipe a Medivac helicopter and she asks if he can fly it. He stalls it twice before they get off the ground. Remember Dwayne’s occupation in San Andreas (2015)? That’s funny.

Rating: 4 out of 5 martini glasses.
Butcher and Banker
481 Eighth Avenue, New York

Ever dine in a bank vault? This six month old, miniature steakhouse is in the lower lever of the newly renovated Hotel New Yorker, now a Wyndham. The vault was built in the 1930s and was operated by Manufacturers Hanover Trust until 1980.

Outside, a separate entrance to the restaurant has a sign asking patrons to use the main entrance to the hotel. In the lobby I saw a Butcher and Banker sign over an elevator to the left and threaded my way through the hotel guests.

The cocktail lounge is literally in a cage of bars with the gate next to the captain’s station. On the right, the massive, round vault door stands open and the hostess led me through it to a table next to a garish, lime green, quilted wall splashed with bright red peonies. The opposite wall is armored with safety deposit boxes and keyholes. The bar is in the back.

The “Our Bountiful Martini” made with Dorothy Parker gin and Dolin dry vermouth seemed like a good idea. I asked my server if I could adjust the drink, he heard my specifications and noted them down. He returned with an excellent drink in an elegant, etched glass.

I was ready to order wine. There were four Zinfandels on the wine list and I picked the one that was out of stock. Fortunately, I had a second choice. The 2013 Crauford Old Vine Zinfandel “Kilt Lifter” from Napa Valley, California, had a spicy nose, a deep garnet color and a full, fruity flavor with a zesty kick that put the exclamation point on my Crisp Piri Oysters “Rockefeller.”

Normally, Oysters Rockefeller doesn’t have a “crisp” crunch. These oysters were lightly fried before resting on the spinach and it was great. My second appetizer, the Banker’s Bacon Double-Thick with serrano pepper honey glaze and charred serranoes is a bacon lover’s paradise. The blackened crisp parts exploded with smoky flavor and adding the serrano glaze put the fire to the dragon. It was exciting to savor both. I was anticipating the main course – strangely enough, not my usual filet mignon.

My main course was the Five-Spice Duck Steak with crispy skin, sour cherry jus and smoked cheddar grits. Two thick, meaty pieces of tender, perfectly cooked duck with a blackened crunchy crust waded in a thick, tart cherry sauce. The cheesy grits, nicely browned on top were served separately in their own iron skillet and were obscenely rich. My side dish, the Thrice-cooked French Fries, were deliciously crisp and wonderful. By now I was approaching full. I had my server pack up the remaining fries and grits for home and asked for the dessert menu.

What to choose? The Lemon Meringue Curd Tartlet with blackberry lemon confiture said, “Pick me!” It was very simple, the lemony shortbread tart on the right and the whipped cream nest filled with sweet berry sauce on the left. But they were meant to be combined and enjoyed as a whole. It was light and rich at the same time.

What could top that? I ordered the Montego Bay Coffee – Myers dark rum, coffee liqueur, whipped cream and cocoa dust. What was really great about this dessert coffee was the fresh whipped cream. This never came out of a can. It was an honest, lovely coffee.

Butcher and Banker may be the tiniest steakhouse in New York but it’s big on service and great food. It may be situated in a 1930s vault but the recipes are today. I think I would return to actually have steak there.

Phantom Thread

By Steve Herte

Phantom Thread (Focus Features, 2017) – Writer and Director: Paul Thomas Anderson. Stars: Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Sue Clark, Joan Brown, Harriet Leitch, Dinah Nicholson, Julie Duck, Maryanne Frost, Elli Banks, Amy Cunningham, Amber Brabant, Geneva Corlett, Juliet Glaves & Camilla Rutherford. Color, Rated R, 130 minutes.

It’s London in the 1950s and Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is at the top of the fashion designer heap, creating dresses for the rich, the famous and the royal. He’s regimented, driven and set in his ways. Women are attracted to his fame hoping to be his number one model. His current amour, Johanna (Rutherford), is sitting at breakfast while he ignores her and sketches his latest design.

Reynolds leaves Johanna behind and goes to the English countryside for a change of scenery. There he meets Alma Elson (Krieps), a waitress who trips and nearly falls when she see him. Alma is the perfect size, the perfect look, and soon she’s living with Reynolds, his sister Cyril (Manville) and ten professional seamstresses. He designs dresses on Alma, features her as a model at fashion shows and ignores her at breakfast. Cyril does all the bookkeeping while managing his affairs. She’s a businesswoman to the core and doesn’t fear her brother’s moods. (“Don’t pick a fight with me, you certainly won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through you and it’ll be you who ends up on the floor. Understood?”) She also sees what’s going on between her brother and Alma.

Not only does Alma love Reynolds, she will not be passed over like Johanna. When Reynolds gets an attack of fatigue she nurses him back to health and realizes that he’s most vulnerable in that state. The next time his work pushes her out she poisons his tea with mushrooms she found in the forest. Their relationship is great while he’s sick. Alma turns his schedule upside down with his realization that he’s in love with her. After they have a major disagreement, she makes him an omelet with the same mushrooms included and we see the light go on in his mind. “Kiss me before I get sick,” he tells her.

Though I usually balk at narrated films, Alma’s occasional narration was not intrusive under the guise of an interview with Dr. Robert Hardy (Gleeson). The two hours and ten minutes could easily have been shortened by clipping the many scenes where nobody is saying anything but just staring at each other. (There is an admission early in the film, as Alma says, “If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.” The opportunity presented itself often and both were pros at staring.)

Overall, the acting was exceptional. After seeing Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln I was surprised that his normal accent is British. Too bad he announced his retirement after the completion of this film.

The time passed a little faster with the sprinkling of sophisticated humor. Phantom Thread is a well put-together movie and a moving drama. It was one of the strangest love stories I’ve ever seen, but the costumes were fabulous.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 martini glasses.

Maysville Food and Bourbon
17 West 26th Street, New York

Named after the Kentucky port city on the Ohio River where bourbon was exported, this five-year-old restaurant is the first “whiskey bar” I’ve ever dined at.

Inside, warm shades of milk chocolate on the walls go up to a glowing beige geometric art ceiling, making for a comfortable atmosphere. Large drawings of horses peacefully grazing add to the serene décor while lively conversation is everywhere and rock music plays unobtrusively. 

The bar displays most of their supply of 150 American and international stock of whiskeys and bourbons, most impressive.

The informality of a bare-top, butcher-block table accentuates the relaxed nature of Maysville. Being a gin drinker, I was mesmerized at a spirit list that was much longer than the wine list. But by the time my server Ryan asked, I was ready to order a Sazerac – rye, sugar, Peychaud’s bitters, absinthe and lemon. I’ve had this cocktail in other restaurants and it only varies a little. This one had a spicy quality that I enjoyed along with the sweetish rye flavor.

I didn’t have to look far for the unusual appetizer. The Crispy Grit Croquettes with Smoked Ham and Aged Cheddar were four golden brown logs stacked to look like a hash-tag from above on the plate. I started liking grits on my last trip to Atlanta and these tasted like a breakfast made into finger-food. The corn, ham and cheese flavors mixed with the crunchy coating to create a fun as well as tasty dish.

When I saw the wines-by-the-glass list it was easy to choose one for my dinner. The 2014 Qupé (pronounced Kyoo-pay, the Chumash word for the California poppy) Syrah from Central Coast winery is an unassuming red with a delicate nose, deep red color and almost tart fruit flavor. 

It enhanced the enjoyment of my next dish, the Gumbo – chicken, tasso ham, andouille sausage and Basmati rice. This gumbo flashed my taste memory back to New Orleans. It was thick with disintegrated okra, a rich brown and sharp with cayenne. The wine lit a fire to the spice already there. 

I saw what the couple sitting at the table to my right ordered for dinner and the gentleman’s dish got my attention. The Dirty Rice Risotto with duck bits, pork sausage, and charred red onion was not like the dirty rice one would find in New Orleans but it had all the ingredients plus some. I could taste the liver flavor in the background of the savory notes from the duck and pork. The Arborio rice and glutinous consistency made it obvious that this was a true risotto. When another server set it before me he stated that I was in for a treat. He was right. From the first forkful it was delicious.

The dessert list was surprisingly small. I’ve become jaded with Crème Brulées, but the Maple Bourbon Crème Brulée with Sugar Cookies seemed the right choice for the place. It was excellent.

To accompany the Double Espresso I asked what whiskeys or bourbons would be appropriate. I received a list of about twenty. The last one on the list called out to me. The Yellowstone Bourbon may have a Wyoming-sounding name but it’s from Kentucky. The brand goes back to the 1800s, and was as close to a cognac as a bourbon could come.

Before I left, I asked the gentleman at the next table if he agreed with me about the risotto. He said he wished there was more too. To the server who presented it to me I suggested that with all this bourbon in the house, one of the desserts should necessarily be New Orleans Bread Pudding as made at the famous Brennan’s restaurant. He agreed.

Pitch Perfect 3

By Steve Herte

Pitch Perfect 3 (Universal, 2017) – Director: Trish Sie. Writers: Kay Cannon (story & s/p), Mike White (s/p), Mickey Rapkin (book), Stars: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Hailee Steinfeld, Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee, Kelley Jakle, Shelley Regner, Chrissie Fit, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins, Michael Rose, John Lithgow, Matt Lanter & Guy Burnet. Color, Rated PG-13, 93 minutes.

Though it didn’t have as much exciting routines as the first two, this sequel was still a fun movie. What was sung was done well and choreographed nicely.

Now graduates of Barden College, the Barden Bellas are all in situations and occupations they would rather be out of and back together as a group. An invitation is sent out by Emily (Steinfeld), now a senior, to Beca (Kendrick), Fat Amy/Patricia (Wilson), Chloe (Snow), Aubrey (Camp), Cynthia Rosa (Dean), Lilly (Lee), Ashley (Regner), Flo (Fit), and Jessica (Jakle) to a “reunion” at Barden to hear the new Bellas she leads. The girls jump at the chance to sing together again and arrive in matching outfits only to be told they won’t be singing, only watching the new group.

Dejected, they gather at a bar when Aubrey hatches an idea to join a USO tour through an invitation she’s sure she can get from her father (Rose). The element of a competition arises when the group learns that DJ Khaled (himself) will be on the tour to choose the best new musical act to open for him. The next thing you know, they’re in Spain, where they meet their serviceman guides.

In a huge helicopter hanger the girls meet the other groups, all who use instruments. Also in tow are the two goofy commentators from the previous two movies, John (Higgins) and Gail (Banks), eager to do a documentary of the final failure of the Barden Bellas. (No American group has ever won this competition, much less an a cappella group.)

A riff-off (pick a topic and sing a song relating to it back and forth) between groups fails at the sound check. Amy’s dad Fergus (Lithgow) appears at their hotel trying to be “a better father” to her while working on his own criminal agenda. Beca becomes enamored with DJ Khaled’s promoter Theo (Burnet) and Chloe links up with Chicago. A surprise visit to DJ Khaled’s party ends badly when Aubrey accidentally sets the suite on fire.

With seemingly no hope of winning the competition the Bellas rally around Aubrey’s suggestion to sing for the sheer joy of it and do several well-received performances in other countries. But DJ Khaled only wants Beca when Theo plays him a tape made by her on his vintage mixer before the party went up in flames.

Fergus kidnaps the group, minus Beca and Amy, and promises to dump them overboard from his yacht if Amy doesn’t come back to him. An outrageous rescue is in order, a competition is to be won and a series ends with a big number.

Though a little light (compared to one and two) in the a cappella performances, this film almost makes up for it in the humor, full of sexual innuendo. Not what I would call a vulgar humor, but close. Aside from the harmonies sung by the actual actors, the most jaw-dropping scene is Rebel Wilson becoming a one woman army, doing all her own stunts and martial arts moves. Second to that is John Lithgow’s Australian accent, which was flawless. I’m almost sad that this was the final movie because I’ve come to like the “group that could” even while being put down by their competition and the constant jibes by John and Gail. Ciao Bellas!

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 martini glasses.

1065 6th Avenue, New York

When I saw the location of this restaurant I wondered how I missed it when I pass this way every Tuesday. The restaurant has been in existence for two years and, before that, was known as Coffeemania.

Right across 6th Avenue from Bryant Park, this is a winner of 40 national and international awards for coffee excellence – a place with a French name, Russian food and American recipes. The large front windows are hung with elaborate paper snowflakes. Inside, the warm wooden paneling and the golden glow from the small hanging swags and insets on the wall reflect off the shiny bare-wood tables.

Seated on a comfortable banquette facing inward, my server suggested a “dirty” martini (one with olive brine added) and I agreed. Using the only gin I’ve never sampled, The Botanist Islay dry gin, we concocted a satisfying cocktail.

Soon I was able to choose three courses and a wine. The wine was the easiest, a 2009 Pinot Noir Spätburgunder from Philipp Kuhn vineyards in Pfaltz, Germany. It had a light nose and tart berry flavor with light tannins and a beautiful ruby color. It was the perfect accent for all my dishes.

First up was cauliflower soup with a soft poached egg and chili garlic oil. The flavor was redolent of bacon and the garnish looked like a carnival with yellow from the egg yolk, red from the chili, pink from thinly sliced cauliflower and green from a sprig of cress. Every spoonful was a delight.

Next came a roasted beet salad with quinoa, goat cheese croquettes, and a honey champagne vinaigrette arrived lined up on a long oval dish like a float in the rose parade. Three slices of watermelon radish added a festive target-like decoration. It tasted every bit as good as it looked: nutty and rich, with cheesy surprise accents on a red carpet of savory beets. Kind of Russian, very American, with French style.

My main course was easy. I love Pelmeni – traditional Russian dumplings stuffed with beef and pork. Here it was served with salsa and crème fraiche instead of sour cream, making a spicy accent to the delicious, savory ground meat in the tender pasta-like pocket. The black plate was a dramatic contrast to the white dumplings. And if that wasn’t enough, a side dish of truffled fries with Parmigiano Reggiano, chives, white truffle oil were served in a paper cone inside an aluminum cylinder and were accompanied by a fresh catsup dipping sauce. I haven’t had such great Pelmeni since the restaurant Pushkin closed.

Every dish had a unique combination of American, French and Russian and the dessert was no exception. Smetannyk is the most ordered dessert here and I could see why when I tasted it. This Russian 11-layer sour cream cake was rendered more American with crushed graham crackers between the layers. It was sweet, tart, crunchy and delicate all at once.

I followed this with Moscow’s bestseller, Raf Coffee. The unique thing about this coffee is that it has the taste and texture of melted ice cream while being one of the best cups of coffee I’ve had in a long time. Sweet, creamy and with a true coffee flavor.

Distilled in copper from rye and wheat grains, my after dinner drink, Rye & Wheat No. 1 from Polugar, Russia, is a unique vodka (not made from potatoes, as regular vodka is) with a strange bread-like flavor. It was exactly the right drink to finish an American/French/Russian dinner.

There are several other Russian-inspired dishes on L’Adresse’s menu which would have me running back. But it also has French delights and American comforts.

The Post 

By Steve Herte

The Post (Universal, 2017) – Director: Steven Spielberg. Writers: Liz Hannah & Josh Singer.  Stars: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Justin Swain, Matthew Rhys, Curzon Dobell, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Bruce Greenwood, Alison Brie & Zach Woods. Color, Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.

Looking back at the scope of the Pentagon Papers encompassing the history of the situation in Vietnam from 1945 to 1965, 7,000 pages and years of compilation, it’s incredible that Steven Spielberg could squeeze the story, as told from The Washington Post’s side, into a little less than two hours.

Katharine “Kay” Graham (Streep), heiress and owner of The Washington Post, is dealing with her husband Phil’s suicide, raising her children and keeping her “cash-poor” newspaper afloat. She views it, appropriately, as a family newspaper passed down through generations and decides a partial solution would be going public on the American Stock Exchange.

Ben Bradlee (Hanks) is the paper’s editor and he wants news that will increase readership. In a restless time when America is waging a seemingly hopeless war, the opportunities for major headlines pop up daily. But The New York Times always gets the scoop first. He notices the lack of columns from investigative reporter Neil Sheehan (Swain) and concludes that he’s working on something big. He is. Twenty years of lies told to the American public about Vietnam.

Military Analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Rhys) saw firsthand in Vietnam how things were not getting better or worse, but just remaining the same. In secret, he and his friends copy 43 volumes of the papers, clip off the “Top Secret” from the bottom of the pages and present them to The New York Times. But upon first publication, President Richard Nixon (Dobell) blocks any further publication as a felony against the United States.

Assistant Editor of The Post Ben Bagdikian (Odenkirk) locates Ellsberg in his motel room and flies the papers back to Washington (he needed to purchase two airline seats to do it). As he’s strapping them in the stewardess says: “That must be very precious to you.” “Oh, just government secrets.” They both laugh it off. Ben brings his co-workers together in Bradlee’s home and together they sort through the miles of paper without page numbers (snipped off with the “Top Secret” designation) and put together a story for the paper while Tony Bradlee (Paulson) serves sandwiches.

Now Kay has a problem. She’s good friends with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Greenwood), creator of the Vietnam Study Taskforce, who will look really bad if this goes to press. She trusts her editor’s instinct for a spectacular headline and the paper’s survival. But she also knows through The Post’s lawyers that if the source is linked up with the source from The New York Times, they could be held in contempt of court and go to prison.

It’s one of those movies where you know how it ends because it’s mostly true to historical facts, but it’s also exciting in how the story is told. The sword of disaster hangs over every scene and you can feel it in the acting, which is superb. Meryl Streep is her usual excellent self, a Grand Dame of the movies, and Tom Hanks is somewhere between Perry White and J. Jonah Jameson. The obvious “Freedom of the Press” overshadows the whole film but it’s constantly in danger from a dictatorial government. I enjoyed it thoroughly even though I was not riveted to my seat. I guess John Williams’ musical soundtrack helped that. There’s no doubt about several Oscar nominations and possible wins here. And, almost as a hint to a sequel, the film ends with the discovery of the Watergate break-in. Maybe?

Rating: 5 out of 5 martini glasses.

Le Zie 2000
172 7th Avenue, New York
Though this restaurant opened in 1999, I guess 2000 was a better number to put in the title. In this age of specialization I reviewed a Sicilian restaurant not too long ago. This one specializes in Venetian cuisine. Could Calabrian be far in the future? Seriously, Le Zie was a class act from start to finish.

The burnt orange outside awning featured the name in clear, white letters. Inside, all is golden. I was seated at a table by the window, choosing the banquette side looking in because the window was half obscured and I would not be able to see out. It turned out for the best because the heating pipe was in the wall behind me and it felt really good on a cold night.

I ordered my favorite Beefeater’s martini as I perused both the menu and the restaurant. Looking around the room I estimated twenty tables, a small restaurant. But I was informed they have three other rooms – a patio, a lounge and a galleria.

There were many dishes to choose from, which took me a good while. The wine list alone had over 200 vintages. I opted for a 2014 Lucente Merlot/Sangiovese varietal from Luce Della Vite vineyards, Montalcino, Toscana. An excellent wine with lots of wild berry flavor, a tantalizing tartness, deep red color and medium body. 

My first course was the Cara Cara Orange (a breed of naval orange) Salad, with basil, avocado, red onion and goat cheese. I would never have thought these ingredients went together but they did. The citrus blended with the fatty sweet of the avocado and, moderated by the tangy cheese, was delicious.

Next came a pasta dish. I’ve been hooked on cannelloni since my last trip to Italy and their hand-rolled veal cannelloni over spinach with béchamel and tomato was excellent. The pasta and its well-ground filling melted in the mouth and the spinach was just right, tender with a slight crunch.

For my main course I chose the Bacon-wrapped Monkfish, with polenta, shaved Brussels sprouts and apple salad – a dining adventure. The almost two inch diameter cylinders were filled with tender, juicy monkfish filets and wrapped with savory, crisp bacon. The polenta was lovely, but nothing on the plate upstaged the fantastic fish.

Desserts were the only category on the menu with a limited choice, so I went with a favorite: Tartufo – chocolate and vanilla gelato centered with sliced nuts and a cherry and embraced in dark chocolate. It was served cut in quarters on the plate like a four-petal flower, and good to the last.

My standard double espresso followed, accompanied by a Nonino Picolit Grappa. Apparently, this is a “legendary” grappa, made from the Picolit white grape of Friuli, pressed at Benito and Giannola Nonino’s vineyard, Venetia. I found it delicious, more of a grape explosion than a liquid experience. A special ending of a really impressive Italian (excuse me, Venetian) feast. Don’t know when, but I’ll be back for the lasagna. It must be exceptional.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

By Steve Herte

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Lucasfilm/Disney, 2017) – Director: Rian Johnson, Writers: Rian Johnson (s/p), George Lucas (characters). Stars: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Justin Theroux, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro & Frank Oz. Color, Rated PG-13, 152 minutes.

This film has all the twists, excitement, surprises and magic Episode VII lacked. There were special effects I’ve never seen, new, imaginative creatures, a little bit of political correctness and a lot of familiar characters. I still miss Harrison Ford, but he was killed off in the last episode (this did not add to its entertainment value).

What do I look for in a Star Wars film? The George Lucas “gifts” inserted into scenes, C-3PO acting bewildered, wise cracks from the cast when he gets flustered, dizzying action scenes and of course John Williams’ grandiose music. It was all there. Opening with the familiar crawler that disappears into the starry distance to the trumpeting Star Wars theme, the best part is that it explains a lot of what bewildered me in the previous movie.

The movie opens more or less where The Force Awakens left off. Young would-be Jedi, Rey (Ridley), has traveled to enlist Luke Skywalker (Hamill), who lives like a hermit on a remote island on the planet Ahch-To (where there is a Jedi temple and a library of sacred Jedi books), to train her as a Jedi. He sees the great power in her, but is afraid he’ll create another Kylo Ren. (Apparently, Luke’s entire class of Jedis have been wiped out and their temple destroyed.) We know why Kylo Ren (Driver), the Darth Vader wannabe who has a complex and tortured history with Luke, turned to the dark side from Luke’s training. But the spirit of Yoda (voice of Oz) shows up to turn the tide in Rey’s favor.

Carrie Fisher is now General Leia Organa (though some characters still refer to her as “Princess”). She and X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Isaac) have their hands full. The First Order, under hideous Supreme Leader Snoke (Serkis), is chasing the Rebel Resistance to erase them from existence. Besides a new and improved battle cruiser called the “Dreadnought,” they possess a new tracking device from which the rebels cannot escape.  

Stormtrooper-turned-rebel-hero Finn (Boyega), along with rebel mechanic Rose Tico (Tran), with whom he falls in love, travel to Canto Bight to find the Master Codebreaker (Theroux), who will help him infiltrate the First Order flagship and turn off the tracker. But instead, they wind up with the two-faced hacker, DJ (Del Toro), who betrays them, and they are captured by Captain Phasma (Christie), a female Darth Vader in a chromium costume.

The seemingly hopeless situation for the Resistance (outgunned, outnumbered, and reduced to hiding in a cave on planet Crait with only one entrance) is lightened by moments of humor. When Leia finally sees Luke she says, “I know what you’re thinking. I changed my hair.” There is a mutiny on board the resistance flagship that is put down by Leia after having been blown out of the bridge by enemy fire (a surreal scene indeed). And of course, a grand final battle involving aging, obsolete speeders against the titanic Imperial walkers (how the First Order set so many of them up on planet Crait in such a short time is one of the mysteries in this film).

Carrie Fisher was wonderful throughout the film, and her last acting job is superb. She even tells C-3PO (Daniels) to “wipe that bewildered look off,” something he obviously cannot do. We will remember her forever.

The only character I had a problem with (and so did Supreme Leader Snoke) was Kylo Ren. One minute he’s trying to be another Darth Vader and fails at that. Snoke tells him he looks like a child in a mask. Another time he appears vulnerable to Rey’s good intentions. And still another time he’s a raving lunatic intent on killing Luke. Adam Driver’s acting was confusing. He reminded me of a juvenile Severus Snapes from the Harry Potter series. Not a true villain.

Otherwise, the acting was great, the scenery amazing, the action heart-stopping in 3D and it was all wonderful, Star Wars sci-fi fantasy. Now I can’t wait for the final film.

Rebellion is born today, the war is just beginning, and I will not be the last Jedi” – Luke.

Rating: 4 out of 5 martini glasses.
186 9th Avenue, New York

I wanted this restaurant to be special, it was my 2,800th. And it was. Pastai, which means “the pasta makers” or “the pasta sellers” in Italian, is the first restaurant to be classified as Sicilian (at least in my searches). Not only that, it’s my first gluten-free pasta and wine bar.

Inside the unassuming glass entrance to this cozy little bistro, white tile wall and white tin ceiling frame a large pasta bar festooned with rolling pins of all sizes, shapes and materials. I was led to a bare-topped butcher block table next to the bar, perfect for observing, where my server Elvis (yes, that was his name) was eager to help me select from the many choices or explain any dishes.

I decided to start with an unusual cocktail, the “Huckleberry Basil Limonata,” made with North 44 Huckleberry Vodka, Basil, Lemon Juice and Club Soda. The primary flavors were the basil leaves which made it look like a tall Mojito, the berry accents taking a back seat to the lemon. Very refreshing.

When in Sicily, have a Sicilian wine. The 2014 Planeta “La Segreta” red varietal from Sicily is 50% Nero d’Avola, 25% Merlot, 20% Syrah and 5% Cabernet Franc. This bold red is made in western Sicily and is a deep ruby color, has a spicy nose and a tannic berry flavor I loved.

My first course was the “Polipo con Patate" – charred octopus over fennel citrus salad, red onion, oregano and olives in a lemon extra virgin olive oil sauce. Everything was obviously so fresh right down to the peeled grapefruit slices and the vivid green arugula. The single octopus tentacle was crispy on the outside, tender and moist on the inside. I always marvel at well-prepared octopus. The flavor was like nutty calamari.

Next, a dish I’ve had many times, the “Carpaccio di Bresaola” – thinly sliced air-cured beef, artichokes, arugula and truffle oil. The only negative comment I had was “too much arugula.” The mound of green on the delicate pink of the meat hid the artichokes as well. Otherwise, it was excellent. The artichokes were slightly vinegar-y and there was a slight salty taste to the almost translucent beef. A perfect dish.

My pasta was one I’ve never seen or tried, “Reginette al Ragu,” a long, curly pasta like a broad fettuccine with a ruffled edge and combined with a braised short rib ragout, more arugula and grated Sicilian Pecorino cheese. The ragout was tender to the almost shredded point and succulent. The pasta was deliciously al dente with the surprise slices of grape tomato. This time, the arugula was just a garnish.

One of the simplest of Italian desserts is also one of the best in my humble opinion. “Affogato,” a single scoop of vanilla or chocolate gelato, plain chocolate cookies and warm espresso not only looks lovely in a lily-shaped dessert glass, it tastes classy. My usual double espresso followed.

To finish off my evening I had a snifter of Absinthe as an after dinner drink. Previously, I had tasted this vaguely licorice-flavored concoction prepared poured over ice in a perforated spoon as it turned milky. But this time I had it “neat” and the green color was bewitching, as was the kick it packed.

I’ve never seen you here,” said the manager when he visited my table. First time, but not the last. Pastai has been in business for five years and I’m glad I discovered it.

The Shape of Water

By Steve Herte

The Shape of Water (20th Century Fox, 2017) – Director: Guillermo del Toro. Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor (s/p). Guillermo del Toro (story). Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton, John Kapalos & Morgan Kelly. Color, Rated R, 123 minutes.

It’s difficult to say if Guillermo del Toro is preaching to us or trying to make us laugh but his new fantasy does both in this retelling of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) with echoes of Beauty and the Beast and a hearty guffaw at La La Land (2016).

It’s 1962 and we meet Elisa Esposito (Hawkins), a rather plain-looking, mute girl who works at government nautical research center as a cleaning lady with her best friend Zelda Fuller (Spencer), who is her intermediary with the speaking world. Zelda more than makes up for the vocalizations Elisa cannot manage.

Elisa lives in an apartment over the Orpheum movie theater with her next door neighbor Giles (Jenkins), an accomplished artist who is being phased out by photography. Aside from Giles and Zelda, Elisa’s life is lonely and her job thankless.

Then one day, Fleming (Hewlett), the director of the research facility, announces a new and exciting addition to the center’s assets, and a huge tubular tank is rolled in similar to an iron lung filled with water and equipped with windows. Elisa is instantly drawn to the container and the loud banging and growling sounds of whatever is inside.

Enter Richard Strickland (Shannon), who captured the Amphibian Man (Jones) in the Amazon (same locale as the 1954 movie) and who is not on the best terms with it. His attitude is militarily insensitive toward it and carries a cattle prod to “keep it tame.” His character may look like a Tommy Lee Jones type but he spouts religious epithets and gives equal time to racial slurs like an Archie Bunker.

Strickland is under orders from General Hoyt (Searcy) to capture, kill, dissect and learn from the creature how it can breathe both in water and in air. The goal is to adapt a man to space travel. The space race has already begun; Yuri Gargarin has already accomplished his mission (1962).

Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg) is horrified that the government wants to kill the beast and argues to keep it alive and study it. He’s overruled. But he’s also a mole for the Russians (his real name is Dmitri) who want the creature destroyed.

As you might surmise, the plot is bizarre and crazy to begin with and the characters exaggerated. But it get more outrageous. Elisa sneaks into the lab where the creature is kept and makes friends with it, using hard-boiled eggs. Eventually, she teaches it some American Sign Language and (surprise!) falls in love with it. She sees Strickland’s cruelty and the creature’s loneliness and learns of the plan to kill it, so she hatches her own plan. She and Giles, Zelda and Dr. Hoffstetler join up to free the creature from the facility and smuggle it to her apartment, where she has a bathtub ready filled with salt water. Also, my mind was hearkening back to the movie Splash (1984) where a man brought a mermaid into a similar living condition.

Definitely del Toro, and it get even more surreal. Elisa plans to release the creature to the ocean when the rains fill the nearest canal and the gates are opened. This is before she falls in love with it and floods her bathroom so that they can have an intimate moment and Giles loses one of his cats to a hungry Amphibian man.

You’ll Never Know” is sung by Vera Lynn on a television show Giles is watching with admiration and it soon becomes the theme for the oddly matched, interspecies couple. Elisa has a dream sequence where she can sing the song and dance with him in an elaborate Hollywood musical. Again, very del Toro.

The story is told with humor but is neither a tragedy nor a comedy. Elements of both exist. It’s entertaining and the underwater scenes are exquisitely done. Sally Hawkins does a superb acting job and Octavia Spencer proves that she can play God and a cleaning woman equally well. Michael Shannon plays a convincingly hateful villain, the kind you hope “gets it in the end.” The Shape of Water is an arty, sexy, adult fantasy that used today’s technology to improve on a classic horror film.

Rating: 4 out of 5 martini glasses.

Freud NYC
506 LaGuardia Place, New York

Named for Sigmund Freud, this contemporary Austrian restaurant surprised me with the quality of its food. Inside, it’s all bare-topped tables, open brick walls and a shiny burnished copper-colored ceiling reflecting the brick red tiled floor. Two autumnal floral displays were the most ostentatious part of the décor, otherwise it was quite simple.   

I was brought a single piece of dense, homemade bread on a slab of slate and a dish of green olive oil with pepperoncini sprinkled into it. After consulting with my server I learned that some of the “shared” dishes were too large, so I adjusted my selection accordingly. I started with a bowl of cauliflower soup. It was an appealing café-au-lait color and had the most amazing flavor. In contained pureed cauliflower with in bacon highlights and a herbal mixture blended into the cream. A startlingly lovely first course, with the slightly salty deep fried cauliflower bits garnishing it adding to the experience.

Next were six oysters on the half shell with apple balsamic mignonette. The oysters themselves were wonderful, not too briny and the mignonette accented the flavor nicely, but the green garnish however, added nothing positive to the dish. In fact, they detracted, were too assertive, and I removed them from the oysters following the first one.

Austrian cuisine is almost as noted for its richness as is French cuisine and the main course provided a perfect example. The roast duck was cooked perfectly, with a nice blush color to the slices. It was accompanied by pumpkin custard, green string beans, savory whipped cream and pecans. The pumpkin custard was outrageous – devilishly sweet and tempting. It had competition, though. A side dish of Brussels sprouts with curry mustard vinaigrette was like vegetable candy, though the sweet onion crisps sprinkled over the top gilded the lily.

The wine list was small and simple. I found a lovely 2014 Rufete, a Spanish/Portuguese wine from the Douro region. Its assertive nose and dark ruby color were as attractive as its tart tannic taste and fruity finish. It balanced the sweetness of my meal nicely.

For dessert, the Austrian Style Chocolate Soufflé, with apricots, candied grapes, and nuts was not like any soufflé I’ve had before. It was more of a light, fluffy cake surrounded by the sweet fruits and crunchy nuts. I followed my usual double espresso with an elegant thistle glass of Schladerer Williams Birne Pear Brandy from Austria. A very pleasant finish to an exciting meal.

When I was about to leave, I was presented with not one, but three business cards. The sister restaurants are Shilling (downtown near my office) and Edi and The Wolf in Alphabet City on Avenue C only presented a small challenge. I’ve already dined at Shilling. Now to try Edi and The Wolf.


By Steve Herte

Geostorm (WB, 2017) – Director: Dean Devlin. Writers: Dean Devlin & Paul Guyot. Stars: Gerard Butler, Jim Sturgess, Abbie Cornish, Alexandra Maria Lara, Daniel Wu, Eugenio Derbez, Amr Waked, Adepero Oduye, Andy Garcia, Ed Harris, Robert Sheehan, Richard Schiff, Mare Winningham, Zadie Beetz & Talitha Eliana Bateman. Color, Rated PG-13, 109 minutes.      

It’s 2019 and due to climate change Earth’s weather is even more unpredictable and the storms much more severe. Seventeen countries have agreed to create an enormous grid of satellites in space to regulate the earth’s weather. Dubbed “Dutch Boy” after the tale of a child in the Netherlands who saved a town by sticking his finger into the dike, this grid can defuse hurricanes and tornadoes.

Designer and builder Jake Lawson (Butler) is not the easiest person to get along with. In fact, he’s being grilled by Senator Cross (Schiff) at a Senate subcommittee hearing about activating satellites without permission. He’s taken off the project, replaced by his estranged brother Max Lawson (Sturgess) and relegated to his trailer home in Cocoa Beach, Florida, where he lives with his daughter, Hannah (Bateman).

Three years later, Dutch Boy, in U.S. control since going online, is about to be released to worldwide custody with a UN committee responsible for keeping it operational. But “operational malfunctions” are starting to happen. An entire village in Afghanistan is flash-frozen. 

When an Indian crewman aboard the International Climate Space Station pulls the equivalent of the black box from the defective satellite and stows it in a locker, he suddenly finds himself trapped in an airlock and blown out into space.

Cheng Long (Wu), Max’s man in Hong Kong, reports his terrifying obstacle course drive to avoid major gas line explosions in the streets caused by microwaves from the Hong Kong satellite. Long makes it back to the states but is pushed into oncoming traffic on Dupont Circle and dies before speaking to Max.

Secretary of State Leonard Dekkom (Harris) recommends that Max get Jake to return to the ICSS to fix the problems. Justifiably miffed at his brother, Jake agrees to go. On his arrival he meets the other members of the operational crew, Ute Fassbinder (Lara) from Germany, Al Hernandez (Derbez) from Mexico, a rather ill-mannered Duncan Taylor (Sheehan) from Australia, Ray Dussette (Waked) from France and Eni Adisa (Oduye) from Nigeria.

When the Hong Kong satellite is retrieved, a malfunction in the robotic arm flails the satellite about like a demented amusement park ride. Another satellite causes softball-to Volkswagen-beetle-sized hail to fall in Tokyo.

Looking for the answers, Jake and Ute find a massive hard drive stuck in the cables of the space station. When they retrieve it, Jake’s jet pack malfunctions and he has to eject the drive in order to regain control of his movements. Unknown to the remainder of the crew, however, Jake palmed the heart of the hard drive before losing the larger part of the device. He suspects a mole on the ICSS and only tells Ute.

Back on Earth, Max has lost login access to the satellites and he links up with Dana (Beetz), a computer hacker for the Department of Defense to find out why. Soon he learns about Project “Zeus,” where a series of malfunctions can lead to an unavoidable, world-destroying geostorm.

Max and Jake come to the same conclusion – Dutch Boy has been made into a weapon. This could only have come from the highest levels of U.S. government, and both suspect President Andrew Palma (Garcia), the only person who has the kill codes for the satellites. They learn that, with fingerprints and retinas, he is the kill code. Max teams up with lover Secret Service Agent Sarah Wilson (Cornish) to kidnap the president while Jake and Ute seek out the mole who planted the virus on the ICSS that triggered the auto-destruct sequence.

Back on Earth the weather is reaching a crisis stage. Tornadoes march across Mumbai, a beach in Rio de Janeiro has been flash frozen, and a titanic tidal wave hits Dubai. At the Democratic National Convention in Orlando, a powerful lightning storm hits. And the countdown is ticking until the “geostorm” continues.

The movie throws everything it has at the audience except for the debris flung by the four tornadoes. The effect is noticeably better than the tornadoes in London in The Avengers (1998) and I noted that no one scene overplayed its time. The special effects were well directed. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed, though I’ve seen a few of these effects before. The buildings toppling like dominoes in Hong Kong was a bit hokey and almost cliché, but otherwise good.

The acting was surprisingly good all round except for Robert Sheehan, who made it obvious that he was a troublemaker. I liked Andy Garcia as the president. He looks good in the role.

Aside from being totally unbelievable, Geostorm is entertaining and a good disaster film. With the exception of Hong Kong, the models were convincing and the story was engaging. One could believe a power-hungry, enemy-hating politician would concoct such an elaborate scheme and almost wipe-out the entire planet.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 martini glasses.

Temple Court
5 Beekman Street, New York

Located in a building that goes back to 1761 and is one of only two red brick “skyscrapers” in downtown Manhattan, Temple Court has been in business since October 2016, along with its neighboring eatery, Augustine. 

The entrance at 5 Beekman Street in between Corinthian leads to the elegant bar between the restaurants. As I was led through a doorway into Temple Court I noticed a large photo of Edgar Allen Poe in the bar. 

From my table I could see three elaborate, multi-tiered, shaded chandeliers and stained glass panels lit from behind. No sooner had I settled in than my server, Forhad, appeared and asked if I would be interested in champagne or caviar to start. I politely demurred, explaining that I would rather make my selections from the menu before doing something impulsive.

The wine list also had cocktails named after famous architects and builders. I chose the Casimir Goerck Cocktail – Boodle’s London dry gin, Aperol, Dolin Dry, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. It was a pleasant burnt orange color and almost an apricot-like flavor moderated by the juniper of the gin. (Casimir, by the way, was a city surveyor from 1788 to 1798 who helped lay out the street plans for New York.)

While sipping my cocktail, another server brought Amuse Bouche, a squash panna cotta with chopped nuts and green garnish. It was an interesting and sweet two bites. As I began studying the wine list, beverage director Jarred Roth arrived to assist. After deciding the French merlots were way too pricey I found one from New York, a 2010 Merlot Reserve from McCall winery on the North Fork of Long Island that was perfect. The tannins were light and the blackberry fruits were very tasty.

Ever since the restaurant Fresh closed I haven’t seen Belon oysters on any menu. The two large oysters were prepared Rockefeller style with watercress, spinach, fennel and bacon. If you’ve never had Belon oysters, they are a unique taste experience. Unlike regular oysters, they are not briny and look more like a solid piece of seafood. I enjoyed having them again.

When a restaurant under-describes a dish on the menu, I know it will be better than just a surprise. The sweetbreads with Brussels sprouts, bacon, and chanterelles didn’t mention that the sprouts were shaved paper thin or that the dish was topped with visible shaved black truffles. The sweetbreads were well cooked, not crisp and not mushy, the equivalent of al dente in pasta. Combined with the earthy truffles it was ambrosia.

For my main dish I consulted Forhad. The bacon wrapped rabbit mortadella sounded really great, but I had seen another dish on the Chef’s Tasting Menu. After Forhad checked with the kitchen, he said I could have that dish as my main course. The venison Wellington with chestnuts and Brussels sprouts was equal to my best memory of Beef Wellington. The meat was tender and juicy and the flavor of liver accented the space between the meat and the flaky pastry crust. The chestnuts were little gems to be savored between slices of venison.

Even with my third loaf of bread I still had room for dessert. I chose especially the Gateau Basque with figs, walnuts and rosemary, and it was another unique foray into dining. The semi-crisp fluted cake was moist, gingery with a hint of cinnamon. The figs, combined with vanilla ice cream, made for a totally unassuming and perfect dessert.

I decided to forego may usual espresso for their Cortado coffee (espresso with warm milk). It made for a nice change, and to accompany it I chose a 2013 Zweigelt Eiswein from Austria. Eiswein (ice wine) is made in small batches when the weather suddenly turns cold on a grape vine and intensifies the sugars. It’s great as an after dinner drink.

I don’t know what impressed me more about Temple Court, the cuisine or the fabulous décor. Tom Collichio did a stellar job with the menu, organizing it with a nod to the antiquity of the building and the renovations made afterward.

Blade Runner 2049

By Steve Herte

Blade Runner 2049 (Columbia, 2017) – Director: Denis Villeneuve. Writers: Hampton Fancher (s/p & story), Michael Green (s/p), Philip K. Dick (novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). Stars: Ryan Gosling, Dave Bautista, Robin Wright, Mark Arnold, Vilma Szécsi, Ana de Armas, Wood Harris, David Dastmalchian, Tómas Lemarquis, Sylvia Hoeks, Edward James Olmos, Jared Leto, Sallie Harmsen, Hiam Abbass & Mackensie Davis. Color, Rated R, 164 minutes.

Blade Runner 2049 is a spectacular visual concert interrupted by a dull movie. For those who haven’t seen the original, or just forgot, there is an explanation in the opening credits of what has happened in the thirty years that have elapsed between the original and the sequel, and just what a “Blade Runner” is. Blade Runners are members of the LA Police Department who track down and “retire” (kill/destroy) older models of android or those who have been insubordinate.

Nexus-9 LAPD Officer ‘K’ (Gosling) is assigned to “retire” older Nexus-8 replicant Sapper Morton (Bautista) on his protein farm where he grows large grubs. A dead white tree on the property (there are no trees in 2049) has a date inscribed on one of its roots that matches the date on the bottom of a carved wooden horse K has had since childhood (or so he remembers). X-rays reveal a box underneath the tree among its roots containing the remains of a female Nexus-7 android who was (horrors!) pregnant. Androids are not supposed to be able to reproduce.

Analysis of the bones add a name, Rachel. Those who saw the first Blade Runner will remember that Rachel was the android who evoked emotion in Rick Deckard, who has been missing for thirty years. Further analysis gets K to thinking that his childhood memory is real and that he may be the son of this union.

K’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Wright), assigns him the task of finding the child and destroying all evidence of it before a war breaks out between the replicants and the humans. He leaves the love of his life Joi (Armas), a holographic girlfriend, and goes on his quest. He torches the grub farm and checks his memory to confirm that it’s real. That takes him to a ruined orphanage in San Diego where he actually finds the wooden horse where he remembers hiding it and has it analyzed. The radiation in it leads him to Las Vegas, where the air is orange and Rick Deckard (Ford) lives alone with a scruffy old dog. Only then does the action finally begin.

Besides Harrison Ford, one other actor reprises his role from 1982 and that’s Edward James Olmos, who plays Gaff, another LAPD Blade Runner. The movie plods along with flickers of action here and there while zooming through colossal sets with heroic, futuristic music until Deckard finally appears onscreen. At that point all is explained, sort of. Ryan Gosling’s acting style is appropriate for an android. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker he “runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” But in my opinion he is only reprising his role in La La Land.

It’s the kind of movie without heroes and a truckload of villains. There are a few clever lines such as Luv: “You can’t hold back the tide with a broom.” And Deckard: “Sometimes, to love someone, you got to be a stranger.” Other than these the dialogue is forgettable.

If you’re planning to see this film, I suggest bringing a comfy cushion. The two hours and forty-four minutes seem endless and the only thing that will keep you awake is the thunderous, booming soundtrack (Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch) which is actually, along with spectacular cinematography by Roger Deakins, the two best parts of the movie. The acting is lackluster, except for Mr. Ford and Ms. Hoeks, the lines are often mumbled and the story confusing and uninteresting.

Hollywood amazes me. Why did the original Blade Runner need a sequel? But then again, why are they contemplating re-making Dune? It’s a mystery. But thank goodness for Harrison Ford!

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 martini glasses.

Rocco Steakhouse
72 Madison Avenue, New York

How many steakhouses does a city need? As I dine at my one hundred and first I realize I still have more to visit. And there are more opening every day.

Rocco Trotta owns this two-year-old establishment and has staff formerly from Wolfgang’s Steakhouse (been there). From the street we see towering windows framed in sleek stone and the name backlit in blue neon above them. There are also two impressive maroon banners with the name in yellow hanging above everything.

Inside, all is dark wood, tasteful, unassuming wallpaper and orange sconces. The ceiling lighting emanates from large “picture-less frames” suspended from the actual dark-colored ceiling. All very inviting and obviously steakhouse décor. Every table – there were about twenty beyond the bar – was occupied, a good sign. I was in the mood for all my favorites and a very traditional meal.

Steakhouse menus generally do not vary much and depend on the innovation of the chef. In this case the entrées had a touch of Italian and featured Osso Buco along with sirloin and lamb chops. Knowing that sometimes appetizers can be huge, I went with oysters on the half shell. My server, Daniel brought something I didn’t expect, a separate plate filled with crackers, a ramekin of horseradish and a bottle of hot sauce. A nice touch.

The six tasty shellfish and three lemon wedges were served on ice on a silver platter and surrounded a small bowl of cocktail sauce, which I tasted. It needed more horseradish. Quickly remedied. The oysters were fresh, only a little briny and tender.

Rocco’s has an Italian influence and that was reflected in the Minestrone “Soup of the Day.” But this was not like any I had had before. The vegetables in it were like fresh picked, crisp and very brightly colored in a golden broth. Everything about it said fresh made. All I asked for was some grated cheese to make it perfect.

My standard entrée in a steakhouse is filet mignon and Rocco’s is serious about steak. My filet was a little more than two inches thick, browned and crisp on the outside, juicy and red inside. Daniel served some of the creamed spinach onto the same platter the steak already occupied. The filet was heavenly, easily sliced and delicious. The creamed spinach was incredibly well blended, no juice escaped it, and the flavor was excellent.

The Zinfandel I was drinking accented every dish and lasted beyond the entrée. When Daniel brought the dessert menu, my eyes stopped when I saw tartuffo. Again, the Italian touch. The chocolate and vanilla gelato engulfing crunchy hazelnuts and armored with dark chocolate was standing in four wedges on the plate. This is one of my two favorite Italian desserts and I loved every bite.

Knowing me, a double espresso is de rigueur. Hopefully, I asked Daniel if they had Strega, but no. He recommended the Green Chartreuse and it was more than adequate.

Rocco’s Steakhouse is worth a second visit. The service approaches my benchmark and the food is well prepared and well timed. The soup was a delightful surprise, as was the extra horseradish. I would recommend Rocco’s to anyone.

Wind River

By Steve Herte

Wind River (The Weinstein Company, 2017) – Director: Taylor Sheridan. Writer: Taylor Sheridan. Stars: Kelsey Asbille, Jeremy Renner, Julia Jones, Teo Briones, Apesanahkwat, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Olsen, Tantoo Cardinal, Eric Lange, Gil Birmingham, Althea Sam, Tokala Clifford, Martin Sensmeier, James Jordan, Tyler Laracca & Shayne J. Cullen. Color, Rated R, 107 minutes.

Wind River is a mystery that has to be solved by minimal personnel with even less resources than their wits.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife tracker Cory Lambert (Renner) is called to the Wind River Indian Reservation by Dan Crowheart (Apesanahkwat), who has lost a prized steer to a mountain lion. Cory believes the kill was made by a female teaching her cubs to hunt, but as he tracks the big cats he finds the frozen, shoeless body of Natalie Hanson, an 18-year-old Native American. She has blunt trauma to the head and has been brutally raped. The girl reminds him of his own daughter, lost three years ago, found the same way after a party at his house while he and his Native American wife were out of town.

Cory reports his find to Tribal Police Chief Ben (Greene), who notifies the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the FBI. The FBI sends rookie agent Jane Banner (Olsen) with the promise of back-up once cause of death is determined. But the circumstances are so indeterminate that medical examiner Dr. Whitehurst (Lange) cannot in good conscience put it to paper.

Time is not with Cory and Jane. It is late winter with erratic snowfalls and below zero temperatures. Once Natalie’s identity is established, Cory and Jane visit his good friend Martin Hanson (Birmingham) and his grieving wife Alice (Cardinal). Jane’s clumsy questioning does not go well with Martin and Alice is too overwrought to answer anything. Cory asks about their son Chip (Sensmeier) and learns he’s a drug addict living with Sam Littlefeather (Clifford) and his brother, both dealers. “My son is lost to me,” moans Martin.

But they do learn that Natalie had a boyfriend named Matt who works with the security team at an oil drilling site nearby. On another search for the mountain lions, Cory finds the den and another body, severely preyed on by wild animals. It turns out to be Matt Rayburn (Jon Bernthal), and the search leads to the drill site, where the mystery is played out in a flashback and solved after a deadly gun battle. But rapist Pete Mickens (James Jordan) escapes. Where does he think he’s going to go with tracker Lambert on his tail?

Wind River is a well-constructed film with a impressive element of truth in it and an unfortunate fact revealed at the end regarding the unknown number of Native American women who go missing and the few that are found. The soundtrack, cinematography and on-site camera work are all effective. There were only a few scenes where the hand-held camera made me dizzy by bouncing up and down. The acting was serious and somewhat tragic in nature (as was the story). The only flaw I saw there was broken sentences in one of Cory’s monologues to Martin which I imagine were supposed to be emotional, but they came off as broken sentences with lengthy pauses between words.

Though not a film for the whole family, Wind River keeps your attention and has a powerful message. The violence and gore underscores the remote, almost lawless stretch of mountainous land where “…there’s nothing harder to track than the truth.”

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Wine: 30
41 East 30th Street, New York

Pan Fried Cigars. It sounds unappetizing and maybe a little unhealthy; something Guy Fieri would relish or Anthony Bourdain would seek out.

It’s but one of the unusual dishes on the menu of this “Wine Bar” on 30th Street. The name not only tells diners where it’s located but advertises that any time is “wine thirty” and appropriate for imbibing.

I found my wine before looking at the food menu, but checked the drinks list (on the reverse side of the food menu card) first and saw that they made a specialty cocktail with Bulldog London Gin. Tuncay, my server, arrived and I ordered my favorite martini. Alas, they were out of Bulldog and the other gins were of a lesser quality. I switched James Bond gears and found Stolichnaya Elit to be an apt substitute.

Wine: 30 has been in business for at least eight years and Tuncay’s service reflected his three-year experience. I had time to peruse the food menu while the bartender mixed my cocktail and found three courses I liked. When Tuncay returned, he started recommending two of the three dishes I had already selected, as if he knew me. After he noted my choices I was ready to order the wine but he wisely cautioned me to wait, relax and enjoy my drink. No waiter has ever done that before.

First to arrive were the Pan Fried Cigars mentioned above. Composed of Phyllo rolls stuffed with prosciutto, sun-dried tomato, mozzarella and basil filling, they were accompanied by a yoghurt dip mixed with walnuts. The cheese dominated the texture of the filling, and the basil did the same with the flavor until a “cigar” was coated with dip. Then the yoghurt/mayonnaise took over and the crisp phyllo crust added its own flavor.

Tuncay’s timing was remarkable. Halfway through the cigars I finished my drink and I ordered my wine, a  ruby red with deep black raspberry accents and nice, medium body and bold aftertaste.

The next dish was the Zucchini Pancakes – shredded zucchini deep fried with cucumber-dill Yoghurt sauce (also containing walnuts). The sauce was almost identical to the dip on the first appetizer and worked just as well. The pancakes were as crisp as latkes but sweeter, a new and pleasant experience for me.

There were only seven main courses and the one that appealed to me was the Roasted Halibut. It came with broccoli rabe, and roasted red potatoes, in a lemon-chive crème fraiche. At first glance it looked like a large, rectangular fish-stick one might get from a Mrs. Paul’s box. As I dug out the flakey fillet from the coating I found it to be delicious with the lemony sauce and tender potatoes. In fact, the coating was not necessary; it detracted from the flavor of the halibut. Thankfully, the broccoli rabe was more a part of the sauce than an actual vegetable addition.

Only one of the desserts interested me until I saw the cheese selection. On the menu, one could choose three cheeses and two “meats,” I asked if I could substitute two cheeses for the meats and Tuncay agreed. It was great. Along with a fruit compote and some red grapes I delighted in Kunik (goat’s milk with Jersey Cream), Brillat Savarin (cow’s milk brie style), Moses Sleeper (raw goat’s milk camembert style), Dunbarton Blue (raw cow’s milk cheddar and bleu) and Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from Vermont, all arrayed in order of potency. Tuncay brought a large basket of fresh sliced bread to go with it.

The double espresso was great. With a nice glass of Grappa Poli Sarpa Barrique my dinner was finished. What I would like to do the next time I visit is to have a wine tasting. Many of the three hundred were completely affordable while some were over-priced, but I think I could get a decent sampling. Not bad for a wine bar.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

By Steve Herte

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (20th Century Fox, 2017) – Director: Matthew Vaughn. Writers: Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn (s/p); Mark Millar & Dave Gibbons (comic book, The Secret Service). Stars: Taron Egerton, Edward Holcroft, Gordon Alexander, Mark Strong, Hanna Alstrom, Calvin Demba, Thomas Turgoose, Tobi Bakare, Julianne Moore, Keith Allen, Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, Emily Watson, Channing Tatum, Tom Benedict Knight, Colin Firth, Michael Gambon, Sophie Cookson, Pedro Pascal & Bjorn Granath. Color, Rated R, 141 minutes.

The sequel to Kingsman: The Secret Service in 2015 is more of the same. The same outrageous weaponry, a world-saving mission, violent battles and sadistic villains. But this year’s movie has more special effects, tends closer to Austin Powers than James Bond and it has Sir Elton John doing high flying kung fu kicks wearing silver platform shoes and a feathered outfit that makes him look like a canary who lost in a paintball war.

Though it’s been two years, the time of this movie is one year after the first edition. Hero Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Egerton) starts off battling arch nemesis Charlie Hesketh (Holcroft) in the back seat of a Kingman cab while being chased by four cars full of machine gun toting baddies. Eggsy survives though his driver does not and Charlie is flung through the wind screen (windshield in America) and his mechanical artificial arm is torn off (an appendage he acquired in the first movie). Our hero makes it to safety by driving into Hyde Park Lake holding his breath all the way. But the mechanical arm remotely plugs into Kingsman’s computer system and uses Eggsy’s password to find the location of all Kingsman properties.

When Eggsy gets cleaned up he meets with his best friend Jamal (Bakare) and Liam (Turgoose) and his girlfriend, Sweden’s Crown Princess Tilde (Alstrom) before attending a dinner with her parents, the King of Sweden (Granath) and his wife.

Meanwhile, on the top of an extinct volcano in Cambodia Poppy Adams (Moore), CEO of a worldwide pharmaceutical company and a major world drug dealer is in her own diner in “Poppyland” and she’s testing her newest henchman Angel (Knight) for his obedience by having him put henchman Charles (Allen) in her meat grinder and feeding him a hamburger made from the result.

As Eggsy enjoys success impressing the King and Queen at dinner, stinger missiles are destroying all Kingsman headquarters in the U.K., killing Arthur (Gambon) and his best friend, Roxanne “Roxy” Morton aka Lancelot (Cookson). The only one besides himself who survives the onslaught is tech genius Merlin (Strong). Together they must execute the Doomsday Protocol, which leads them to a bottle of Statesman Kentucky bourbon. Not recognizing the clue until they’re both plotzed, they eventually travel to Kentucky to meet their American counterparts, the Statesmen.

In England, the Kingsmen were all named after Knights of the Round Table. The Statesmen, on the other hand are named after spirits and drinks, having made their profits in the liquor market. After a brief scuffle with Tequila (Tatum), they meet Chief Champagne “Champ” (Bridges) and his aide Ginger Ale (Berry). Eggsy and Merlin are also shocked to see their old comrade Harry Hart/Galahad (Firth) at the Statesman compound who they assumed dead when Raymond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) shot him in the first episode. But Harry has amnesia and wants to be a lepidopterist until Eggsy brings back his memory by threatening to shoot a cute Yorkshire terrier puppy, reminding him of his dog, Mr. Pickles (currently stuffed and sitting on his mantle).

They learn Poppy’s plan. She’s infected all the drugs she’s distributed with a deadly virus that causes a blue rash, mania, paralysis and death in a few days. She wants the President of the United States to legalize all drugs before she releases a fleet of drones carrying the antidote. When Tequila comes down with the blue rash, Ginger puts him in cold storage and Champ replaces him with Whiskey (Pascal), whom Galahad mistrusts.

Together, they have to get the antidote from the plant atop Mont Blanc in the Italian Alps, fight off an army of Poppy’s minions and travel to Cambodia to save Tequila, Liam, U.S. Chief of Staff Fox (Watson) and Princess Tilde, while the problem is being ignored by the President, who thinks he’s getting the druggies off the streets.

Like a James Bond film, it’s action end to end. Unlike a James Bond film, the word suave is just a joke. Harry keeps having visions of butterflies at critical moments and Tilde has somehow managed to lose the Swedish accent she had in the previous movie. It’s silly, but tries to be serious. There are chuckles and one big laugh after a perilous situation that is unexplainably averted. Where did that parachute come from and how did Eggsy know it existed?

I enjoyed Kingsman: The Golden Circle (which explains the title with the solid gold tattoo brutally injected onto all Poppy’s minions) but still think it could have been cut down to less than two hours easily and could have minimized or eliminated the ubiquitous vulgarity (the R rating is well deserved). The special effects and soundtrack would have carried the film by themselves.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.
206 9th Avenue, New York

When I learned that aRoqa has only been open for about three months I could understand why (or how) my reservation was not on the tablet held by the server in charge of reservations. Thank goodness I keep a printout of my confirmation specifically requesting a regular table.

Per their website aRoqa has been “merging Indian flavors with the global palate.” The menu reflects this blending. All of the dishes have Indian titles while incorporating ingredients from other cuisines.

Michaela, my server, apologized for being so busy and left the menus. The restaurant is rather narrow and has ten tables (tops), most in the bar area and a few in the back. My table was just beyond the end of the bar with a view of the sparsely decorated rear room. I guess that’s why they keep it so darkly lit. I had to use my flashlight to read either menu.

When Michaela returned I ordered the Persephone cocktail (gin, pomegranate juice, rosemary simple syrup and lime juice, garnished with mint leaves). It was refreshing and citrus-y (didn’t know the gin was there) and a great attitude adjuster. I needed that after the goof with the reservation.

Michaela explained that all the all the appetizers were tapas-sized as well as the dishes classified under “From the Chef’s Table,” and that a person with a good enough appetite could conceivably have three before the main course. After a few questions and a couple of recommendations from Michaela, I had made up my mind.

I finished my first cocktail and wanted a more serious drink, so I ordered the Silk Road cocktail (bourbon, curry infused yellow chartreuse and fresh lemon juice). The exotic flavor and spiciness of the drink was the perfect precursor to an Indian dinner. The wine list, though short, was impressively well-priced. I chose the 2014 Prieler Blaufränkisch Ried Johanneshöhe from Neusiedlersee, Austria. A deep burgundy with a delicate nose and bold blackberry and cherry accents. It formed a blanket around my first dish and tasted like the two should always be served together.

For my first dish I decided to go for the Vindaloo Momos – pork dumplings, bacon crumble, and green apples in a vindaloo sauce. The three dumplings were tender and meaty with that wonderful bacon flavor and just a tang from the apples. The rich brown sauce added fire to the dish, but not so much as to create a volcano in your mouth. And, as I said, the wine embraced the spice without increasing it as a Zinfandel would.

My next two dishes were recommended by Michaela: Kataifi Mushrooms – three different wild mushrooms wrapped in crispy saffron shredded phyllo dough as croquettes with goat cheese elish. They were remarkable: earthy, sweet, tangy and tart all at the same time, but mostly a mushroom-y delight.

Next was the Parsi Chimbori – beer battered crab, tomato pickle relish, garnished with a slice of pickled red pepper. The crab meat was butter-smooth and the coating crisp and delicious. The relish just added a touch of tartness to the normally sweet flavor. I loved it.

My main course, the aRoqa Duck Leg Confit, shared the plate with Mappas coconut curry, string hoppers (a hot water dough pressed out in circlets from a string mould onto little wicker mats and then steamed, a kind of noodle) and poppadums, garnished with purple pansy petals. At first glance I thought, “Is this all the duck? Just the leg?” But it was surprisingly enough with the very-filling string hoppers and excellent creamy sauce. My bread dish was the Shikampuri Kulcha – stuffed with minced lamb. Perfect. It came with a tangy dipping sauce that I used sparingly because the bread itself was so flavorful.

Only one dessert had the restaurant name on it and, being a first-timer, I had to try the aRoqa Daulat Ki Chaat – saffron milk foam, baba au rum, and blackberries. The white crock it was served in was smoking with dry ice in the lower half making it look like something the Addams family would serve. As most Indian desserts are, it was sweet and delicate and the berries were the right hint of fruit.

Another server asked if I needed anything else and when I started to order the Matcha Superior tea, he shocked me by revealing that there was no coffee or tea because “the machine” had broken down. Somebody tell me, who depends on a machine to brew tea? I wanted to run into the kitchen and give them the recipe. And the menu listed seven interesting teas and seven coffees. Good thing I still had some of my wine left.


By Steve Herte

It (New Line, 2017) – Director: Andy Muschietti. Writers: Gary Dauberman, Cary Fukunaga & Chase Palmer (s/p). Stephen King (novel). Stars: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Jackson Robert Scott, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes, Geoffrey Pounsett, Pip Dwyer, Mollie Jane Atkinson, Steven Williams, Elizabeth Saunders, Megan Charpentier, Joe Bostick, Ari Cohen, Anthony Ulc, Javier Botet, Carter Musselman, Tatum Lee & Edie Inksetter. Color, Rated R, 135 minutes.

We all float down here, you’ll float too,” said a possessed Georgie Denbrough (Scott) to his heartsick big brother before the malevolent clown rose from the sewer water.

As terrifying as the 1990 television miniseries was, this remake is more so. The special effects technology that hadn’t been developed 27 years ago was used to full effect in this chilling movie. And at two hours and fifteen minutes, it’s only half the story.

For those who are not “of the body” in Derry, Maine, we have the Losers Club (though they never refer to themselves that way). The club consists of Bill Denbrough (Lieberher), Ben Hanscom (Taylor), Beverly Marsh (Lillis), Richie Tozler (Wolfhard), Mike Hanlon (Jacobs), Eddie Kaspbrak (Grazer), and Stanley Uris (Oleff). They’re brought together by being the victims of the town bullies, led by Henry Bowers (Hamilton). But these guys take the term to the next level, as Ben, the new kid in Derry, gets the name “Henry” carved into his belly with a knife at the hands of Bowers.

But Ben is a bookworm who discovers that every 27 years a rash of child abductions breaks out in Derry and a voracious lunatic clown is at the bottom of it. Bill’s younger brother Georgie is the first one to see Pennywise (Skarsgård) when his paper boat floats down an open catch basin drain. When the clown holds it out for him, he makes the mistake of reaching for it and eventually follows it down in the most brutal manner.

They all see manifestations of Pennywise cloaked in their own individual fears (Richie is afraid of clowns, Beverly is afraid of her lecherous father, etc.), and band together under Bill’s firm resolve to find his brother and overcome their fears and stand against the evil monster. They even make a pact to return in 27 years.

I read the book several years ago but this film brought it all back with a few twists I don’t remember but liked. For instance, one kid’s fear was of the Modigliani painting hanging in the family home. Pennywise makes sure that painting comes alive in the worst way. The casting is excellent. All the characters are recognizable and you can’t help but be drawn into the action of this version. The soundtrack alone is terrifying, tense and shocking. And, like the grand master of the macabre, the effects do not shy away from excessive gore and the gross-out factor. I don’t think I’ll look at a red balloon in just the same way ever again. I hope the sequel comes soon.

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 Martini glasses.

35 East 21st Street
New York

After a dark, violent movie, where do you go for dinner? Obviously, a dark, “Mexican-inspired” restaurant that was once a strip club.

Yes, I learned that Cosme, under the guise of innovative Mexican dishes was previously a “Gentlemen’s entertainment venue.” When I ordered the Striptease cocktail – Vida Mezcal, Dolin Blanc vermouth, guanabana lime, and absinthe salt – my server Xavi clued me in. It wasn’t quite as dark as Wolfgang Puck’s new restaurant, though. I could read the menu without a flashlight. The drink was similar to a margarita, but drier and with that strange wormwood flavor.

The menu featured a whole section of vegetarian dishes that, though interesting, did not appeal to me. I decided on two in the “seafood” category and one of the main courses for my dinner. The wine list was one of the most varied I’ve seen. I ordered the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Vena Cava from the Guadalupe Valley, Baja California, Mexico. It was fabulous, medium-bodied and with deep fruits, and held its own with the subtle and not-so-subtle flavors of my meal. And it seemed a logical title after a bloody movie.

First up was a combination I’ve never seen in any Mexican restaurant, the “Uni Tostada” – sea urchin, avocado, bone marrow salsa and cucumber garnished with cilantro and slices of jalapeno on a crispy tostada. It was a delicious and unusual combination, as the sweet of the avocado is mixed with the delicate taste of the sea urchin and the savory salsa to create a fiesta of flavors. Carefully using a knife and fork I managed to get all the layers into each bite. Instead of bread, Cosme serves a single large, homemade blue corn chip and a mildly spiced bean salsa. Very nice.

My next dish was “Fluke Aguachile,” featuring Chicatana ant (yes, a Mexican insect), with sesame seeds. The “chili water” surrounded the sushi-grade filets of fluke and made them come alive with spice. The ants were not obvious, nor was the dish crawling with them. They were there just for the nutty flavor.

The main course was a beautiful strip of “Short Rib” with scallions, Cipollini onions and avocado, served with a basket of fresh warm homemade blue corn tortillas. The avocado part of this dish was a spicy puree that I spooned onto a tortilla around pieces of tender short rib and a slice of onion before wrapping it and taking a bite. A little messy, but fun and delicious.

Mexican desserts are usually predictable and limited, but not at Cosme. The “Blueberries with lavender Semi-freddo” was an eye-opener as well as a delight. Think of a pond frozen over with lavender ice, broken up and almost covering large juicy sweet blueberries and garnished with a purple flower. Heavenly.

To finish this unique dinner I chose a “Carajillo,” a Spanish drink combining coffee with brandy, whisky and anisette. Perfect. Cosme successfully followed an awesome movie with an awesome dinner. 

Annabelle: Creation

By Steve Herte

Annabelle: Creation (New Line Cinema, 2017) – Director: David F. Sandberg. Writer: Gary Doberman (s/p & characters). Stars: Anthony LaPaglia, Samara Lee, Miranda Otto, Brad Greenquist, Lulu Wilson, Tabitha Bateman, Stephanie Sigman, Mark Bramhall, Grace Fulton, Philippa Coulthard, Tayler Buck, Lou Lou Safran, Joseph Bishara, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Lotta Losten. Color, Rated R, 109 minutes.

Sometimes you get lucky and see a prequel before the sequel. But have you ever seen a prequel to a prequel?

Annabelle: Creation ends pretty much where Annabelle (2014) begins and that sets the scene for The Conjuring (2013) and The Conjuring 2 (2016)The Conjuring series is based on the real life cases of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. And, if you missed any of these movies, there are two spinoffs in the works. Hopefully they don’t involve the creepy doll.

This film starts with the creation of said creepy doll by master dollmaker Samuel Mullins (LaPaglia) whose dolls are much in demand. In fact he’s just finished an order of 100 dolls (hopefully not the same as the star of this movie). It’s 1943 and Sam, his wife Esther (Otto) and daughter Annabelle “Bee” (Lee) get stuck on the way home from church by a flat tire. One of the lug nuts rolls into the road, Bee goes after it and is run over by a speeding pickup truck.

It’s said love can make one do stupid things. Apparently grief can perform the same function. Sam and Esther make a chance acquaintance with a demon spirit they think is their lost daughter. It convinces them to let it inhabit a creepy doll with a porcelain face and over-sized staring eyes. When they finally realize that it’s not their sweet “Bee” they lock it in a closet under the stairs wallpapered with pages from the bible.

But the stupidity doesn’t end there. Twelve years later (1955) they think it’s safe enough to allow Father Massey (Bramhall) to bring Sister Charlotte (Sigman) and six orphaned girls: Linda (Wilson), Janice (Bateman), Carol (Fulton), Nancy (Coulthard), Kate (Buck), and Tierney (Safran) to live in their home. This is exactly what the demon wants and he selects poor Janice, who has been crippled by polio. Linda is Janice’s best friend and hopes to get adopted with her someday. The rest of the girls are just there for the ride and the screaming.

If some of the special effects in this movie seem familiar it’s not surprising. We’ve seen levitations, bodies being thrown into mirrors, victims being dragged by their ankles while they claw at the floor, victims being shot straight up in the air and faces changing from innocent and cute to evil, charred black and fanged with a turn of the head.

I was pleasantly surprised that I was not able to predict the outcome of one climactic scene toward the end of the movie. Rather than a spectacular special effect, Janice/Annabelle disappears and is adopted by Pete and Sharon Higgins. The film advances another 12 years and the direct link to Annabelle.

Most of the film is silly (a couple of times I thought, “Don’t go in there!”) but I did get chills up my spine in several places. Anthony LaPaglia and Talitha Bateman are tied for the best acting jobs, followed closely by Lulu Wilson. The rest were only so-so. For a horror thriller, the gore factor was amazingly low and the gross-out factor almost non-existent. I applaud that. Though it will never become a classic, it was entertaining.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

250 West 47th Street, New York

Scarlatti is marked by bright red banners and white lettering on the entrance. Though a little bit obscured by New York’s proliferation of scaffolding, the red was still visible.

Inside are open brick walls, white tablecloths over the blue checked ones and peaked napkins. Traditional carafes of oil and vinegar stand ready on each table. As restaurants go, Scarlatto is quite large (about 30 tables) and the theater crowd occupied most of them when I arrived.

I was seated at a table in the back near a charming fireplace, from which I could see the 2012 five-star Diamond Award plaque for hospitality on one supporting column and a black and white framed poster of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday on the adjacent wall.

I ordered my favorite martini from my server, Ricardo. Though not served in the traditional stemmed glass, it was close to perfect. Another server brought the bread basket with an herbal, basil-flavored tapenade on the side.

For an appetizer, Ricardo recommended the Burata (fresh Italian cheese served with tomato slices), but I went for the Caesar Salad instead. It’s been a while since I had one, and the menu didn’t mention anchovies,  which ruin it for me. It was fresh-tasting and crisp but it severely needed the main ingredient, garlic. Ricardo solved the problem by bringing a small dish of freshly sliced garlic cloves to mix in.

Many of the wines on Scarlatto’s list were reasonably priced and I was delighted to find two of my favorites. I chose the 2012 Franco Amoroso Barolo. Made from nebbiolo grapes, it has a full-bodied flavor, excellent deep red color and aromatic nose. This is a wine that can stand up to Roman Italian flavors.

Ricardo told me that they don’t do half-orders of pasta, making the gnocchi too heavy to order. Instead, I chose the Tagliolini all’ Agnello: a fettuccini-like pasta with lamb ragout. It was al dente and savory and Ricardo made sure to sprinkle some freshly grated cheese on top. The portion size was exactly what I wanted.

Even though the lamb Osso Buco was calling my name, I decided to go with another favorite entrée, the Vitello Saltimbocca – veal loin, Prosciutto, sage fontina, and sautéed spinach. This dish is different every time I have it. The cheese completely obscured the pounded, tender veal and prosciutto beneath it and the spinach peaked out when I cut slices to eat it. A very good dish; the Barolo made all the flavors bounce.

Ricardo came around when I had finished everything and announced, “Now it’s time for the best part.” I thought everything was pretty good already, but then I was served Scarlatto’s tiramisu. Almost three inches high, it was undeniably homemade and fresh. The double espresso was an afterthought in comparison. Very good coffee, but just a side-kick to the dessert.

Over its 12-year history, Scarlatto has received raves and jibes to both ends of the scale. I was fortunate to be there on the cusp of the theater crowd attendance and learned how the service improved when they were not being harried. Even the second martini improved. I had good food, great conversations with Ricardo, a wonderful wine and a laugh with the two ladies at the next table. What more could I ask for?

The Dark Tower

By Steve Herte

The Dark Tower (Columbia, 2017) – Director: Nikolaj Arcel. Writers: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen & Nikolaj Arcel (s/p). Stephen King (novels). Stars: Katheryn Winnick, Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Jackie Earle Haley, Abbey Lee, Nicholas Hamilton, Dennis Haysbert, Claudia Kim, Tom Taylor, Fran Kranz, Jose Zuniga, Victoria Nowak, Ben Gavin, Stephen Stanton &  Michael Barbieri. Color, Rated PG-13, 95 minutes.

I do not aim with my hand. He who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I aim with my eye. I do not shoot with my hand. He who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I shoot with my mind. I do not kill with my gun. He who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father. I kill with my heart. The Code of the Gunslinger.

When I started reading the Dark Tower Trilogy by Stephen King, I was wrapped up in the saga of The Gunslinger, Roland Deschain of Eld, and how he traveled worlds through “portals” to recruit his three traveling companions in the second book, The Drawing of the Three and their adventures in The Wastelands the third book. I was eager to see how it all ended when the third book had all four companions in an exciting, life and death situation right to the last page, where it stopped.

After a brief rant at the author for not finishing a story, I continued on through four more voluminous, hard-covered books (the first three were paperback) until I reached the conclusion in the seventh book, The Dark Tower. The other three were Wizard and GlassWolves of the Calla, and Song of Susannah. I thought I was finished, but then King produced an eighth book whose story fits between numbers four and five entitled The Wind Through the Keyhole, and I found a short story, “The Little Sisters of Eluria,” which fits between five and six.

The Dark Tower is obviously King’s magnum opus spanning over thirty years of his life –The Gunslinger was published in 1982 and The Wind Through the Keyhole in 2012. I followed the fascinating tale through Mid-world every step of the way and was very interested to see what the first movie would produce visually, to compare it to the images in my mind.

I never expected Idris Elba to play the role of Roland. I pictured more of a Clint Eastwood/Lee J. Cobb type. You know, the gangly, tall, scruffy outlaw who outguns all the bad guys but never gets the girl? He doesn’t even wear a plainsman’s hat. But I was pleasantly surprised how well Elba performed (with the help of some fabulous stunt-doubles, special effects and slow-motion photography).

At one hour and forty-five minutes I knew that the whole series would not, could not, fit in the time span. Indeed it was only the first book, The Gunslinger with some cinematic enhancements to make the portals more fantastic than in the book, as well as the terrible magic powers of the evil sorcerer, The Man in Black (McConaughey). Both were impressive. Matthew McConaughey plays a perfect villain, confident, heartless and cruel to both friend and foe. Why Stephen King gave him the name Walter O’Dim, I’ll never understand.

Jake Chambers (Taylor) has been a misfit in his New York school as well as his home since his father died a year ago. He envisions a strange dark tower and a man in black trying to destroy it and a gunslinger trying to protect it. His stepfather and mother Laurie Chambers (Winnick) and various psychiatrists pooh-pooh all this and accredit it to trauma. Then one day a pair of “workers” from the psychiatric clinic (sent by Walter) arrive to take Jake away, he knows who they really are and escapes to an abandoned house he saw in one of his visions and finds a portal to Mid-world, where he meets Roland.

At first, Roland wants nothing to do with Jake, but as they travel together, he realizes that the boy has something special about him, the thing that Walter wants, “The Shining” (sound familiar?). Yes, Jake has superior mental telepathic powers, and, if hooked up to Walter’s doomsday machine, could destroy the Dark Tower. The rest of the movie is the push and pull to see whether or not that happens.

I found the film engaging and just as exciting as the book, even with the enhancements, i.e. the portals having to be powered up and created rather than just mysteriously “being there” and the monsters who finally reveal themselves and have to be fought off. An excellent cameo was performed by Dennis Haysbert as Roland’s father, Steven. Toward the end of the movie the “Wastelands” is mentioned and reference is made to a character who will be discovered by then, my favorite, a “bumbler” named “Oy.” There’s even humor in the movie. At one point, Jake hands a hotdog to Roland, and gets the reply, “Savages! What breed?”

The violence is virtually bloodless and the story is relatively close to the book. Though not a tale for little kids, it might entertain pre-teens. I’m looking forward to any and all sequels and hope they are made for the big screen, not for television.

Rating: 4 out of 5 martini glasses.

10 Murray Street, New York

Working downtown, I’ve passed this one-year-old Northern Indian restaurant several times before the opportunity presented itself to dine there. Formerly, the uninteresting Muscle Maker Grill, a health-food oriented eatery, it avoided my attention for many months.

The menu was truly varied and several dishes were new to me. Prashant, my server, dropped off a basket of Papadum with mint and tamarind chutneys, a traditional pre-appetizer I haven’t seen in a long time. The papadum was crisp, the mint chutney was mildly spicy and the tamarind chutney was sweet and tart at the same time. He suggested I start with an appetizer or soup.

I ordered a nice bowl of mulligatawny soup – chicken, lentils, coconut and curry leaves – and recalled the first time I ever had the soup and loved it. It was mildly spicy and had a good body without being thick. There was a lemony flavor that precluded using the slice of lemon accompanying it. Per Prashant’s recommendation, my appetizer arrived simultaneously with the soup. The seekh kebab, made with sautéed ground lamb was amazing! Tender enough to cut with a fork the tubes had spices that were tantalizing and the meat was savory and delicious.

Having had many opportunities to speak with Prashant I learned that they have two tandoor (clay ovens), one for bread and one for the meat dishes. My main course was something I haven’t had since that first restaurant in the 1970’s, the “Tandoori Mixed Grill” – assorted grilled meats, lamb and chicken two ways each. It was served with saffron rice and a mild spiced sauce. Everything was juicy and not overcooked, redolent with spice and crisp from the oven. Not to gild the lily, I ordered the steamed Basmati rice with peas, cooked to perfection. And, I made apologies for ordering the Peshawari naan stuffed with dried fruits and pistachios. Why? Because I know Peshawar is in Pakistan, not India. Still, it was delicious.

Prashant and I learned that we lived near each other in Queens as I ordered the White Chocolate Rasmalai for dessert. Rasmalai is homemade cottage cheese, but it was the white chocolate sauce that made the dish unique and wonderful. And no Indian dinner is complete without a cup of Masala Chai, mildly spice tea. I could taste the cinnamon and cardamom.

Aahar only has a beer and wine license to date but Prashant could tell I was a foodie and gave me a taste of his favorite cabernet as an after dinner drink. It was very good. 

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.

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.

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.


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

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. 


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.


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. 


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.


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.

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.

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. 


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

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. 

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