There's nothing quite like New York during the holidays--especially if a visitor avoids a blizzard, as we did. And even in a blizzard, Joe is quick to point out, Manhattan building superintendents shovel sidewalks faster than you'd think. Still, there's serious slush; if you go during the winter, plan on waterproof boots. We like to be there in December, when the lights are gorgeous, and every time we visit, they are more dazzling. And this time, even for a former Brooklyn kid and his New York-loving wife, it seemed as though the natives' mood is lighter, more jocular, friendlier and altogether happier than we've ever seen it.
Not surprisingly, we ate. We ate near where we were staying, we ate in the Theater District, we rode the subway downtown and walked uptown, we took buses across town.
For the most part, we did quite well. A report:
In the midtown Theater District, next to Shubert Alley, is a recent outpost of Junior's, a venerable Brooklyn restaurant particularly known for its cheesecake. Their first branch was in the Grand Concourse of Grand Central Station, where we'd grabbed a quick bite several years ago and were, to put it politely, extremely disappointed. But circumstances this particular day called for Food Right Now, and there we were. Warm welcome, extremely efficient staff, and at 2 p.m. on a non-matinee day (matinee days are otherwise known as Wednesday and Saturday), the crowd was as much locals as it was tourists. Our advice is to treat this place as though it was a traditional New York delicatessen. Sure, there's barbecue and seafood, but we figure those are there as a courtesy to the unknowing visitor. When we go to a seafood restaurant in New Orleans, we don't order corned beef; there's no sense in going to this sort of restaurant and ordering ribs.
Why? Because one sip of the matzoh ball soup will convince anyone that this is a real New York experience. The soup itself is rich and flavorful and hot enough, the matzoh ball the perfect point between a floater and a sinker. An excellent version of the classic. A chopped liver sandwich on an onion roll came as two small rolls, almost slider size, with huge scoops of the chopped liver, moist rather than gluey, nicely oniony. For the half sandwich, offered on the menu with a bowl of soup, after much deliberation, we chose smoked tongue. Folks who go for lean meat should think about it as a delicatessen possibility, and Junior's version was excellent, moist and tender, thinly sliced and as lean as a tenderloin.
Yes, there are egg creams, the legendary drinks that contain neither egg nor cream. Chocolate syrup, preferably Fox's U-Bet brand, a splash of milk, and then seltzer, stirred to make something much like the liquid in a chocolate ice cream soda. And in an uncharacteristic fit of good behavior, our cheesecake was the sugar-free variety, but nevertheless wonderfully tasty. Many of the New York-style cheesecakes are very dense and dry, but not this guy. Creamy, and light without actually being fluffy, it satisfied.
You can do a great deal worse in this neighborhood.
1515 Broadway (West 45th St.), New York
Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair
Sandwiches and Entrees: $7-$23
Very much not a tourist-type place is Barney Greengrass, technically also a delicatessen, but nearly everyone comes here for smoked fish. If the almost ancient interior with its strange New Orleans wallpaper isn't fashionable, no one cares. (Careful viewers may recall seeing it in movies and several episodes of “Law & Order”) The crowds waiting outside on weekend mornings are clearly locals and former locals making a pilgrimage to the self-styled Sturgeon King, now past the century mark. We seldom visit New York without a breakfast-or-brunch stop here.
Warning: Servings are immense; an appetizer usually suffices unless you're planning on sharing. But on the other hand, the menu offers temptations for almost everyone. Running well into three figures are caviar presentations, but but there's also that strange item sometimes found on deli menus, small cans of tuna and salmon. We stay away from both those extremes. On this visit, we had only one kind of smoked fish, whitefish, the only smoked item to properly rival the house's legendary sturgeon. Some cream cheese, some onion, a few black olives, a bagel and a toasted Bialy alongside. A Bialy is a peculiarly New York bakery item, a little like a bagel, a little like an onion roll, not really either, named for Bialystok, a town in Poland where it originated. Whether it's the skill of the baker or the quality of the water (claimed by some), Bialys are not worth eating in the many American restaurants Joe has tried.
For the rest of the meal, we sampled a couple of new things, both of which were great. For those who like sushi restaurants' offerings of broiled mackerel or salmon jaws, head directly to the broiled jaws and "wings" of Nova Scotia salmon, rich and oily and impossible to eat with any delicacy at all. For lovers of big fish flavor, they're a joy. And after listening—okay, eavesdropping—on several folks while we waited our turn on the sidewalk outside the store, in the rain but under an awning that only leaked a litttle, we tried the Greengrass blintzes, The crepes were tender and fried to a crisp, packed full with parcels of sweetened white farmers' cheese, it was a fine contrast of tastes and textures, some of the best blintzes we've found in New York.
There's usually a family member behind the cash register, dealing with customers buying at the retail counter. The casually dressed employees deal with the weekend crowds better than the cops in Times Square on New Years' Eve.
541 Amsterdam Ave. (West 86th St.)
Breakfast, lunch and early dinner (closes 6 p.m.) Tues.-Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor
Sandwiches and Entrees:$5-$400
Another return visit was to the Neue Galerie's restaurants. The elegant Cafe Sabarsky spoke of a 45- minute wait, so we went downstairs to the Cafe Fledermaus, not nearly so handsome but with the same excellent menu. The goulash soup was named one of the city's 50 best by New York magazine last month, and we'll vouch for that. The elegant russet-colored dish is full of subtle, lovely flavors, with a note of real paprika and just a wee bit of caraway--exactly the thing for a cold day. Bratwurst with sauerkraut, roasted potatoes and mustard was fun, and so was the warm spiced wine. But it was the desserts and the coffee that really came up to the standard set by the gulaschsuppe, to give it its proper spelling. Real Viennese coffee-house style choices like an einspanner, a double espresso with whipped cream, are available, and the exquisite desserts, most of which arrive mit schlag, or with whipped cream, demand attention. We've tried several over the years, liked them all, including this visit's rehrucken, a chocolate almond cake in a special pan, along with the housemade orange jam.
You can read what we wrote about upstairs, along with some photos, here . And they still serve breakfast, a nicely eccentric touch; the menu is on the museum's website.
Cafe Fledermaus and Cafe Sabarsky
1048 Fifth Ave. (East 86th St.), New York
Breakfast & Lunch Wed.-Mon, Dinner Thurs.-Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair to Good
Sandwiches and Entrees: $12-$28
Drifting toward the opposite end of the budget spectrum from Barney Greengrass, but equally casual is Nyonya. On the edge of Chinatown, which keeps creeping north into Little Italy, it's moved across the street but kept its large, relatively inexpensive cash-only menu, and its youngish clientele. The kitchen turns out dishes from Malaysia and its many influences, and there are almost too many options, especially for the adventurous eater. No reservations for a party of fewer than six, by the way, so there's the possibility of a wait.
Still, around 7 on a weeknight before Christmas, we were seated immediately. The new dining room is larger than it looks from the street and even veers toward elegance. While we've heard stories of service glonks (a glonk, of course, is larger than a glitch), our experience was speedy and pleasant. It was obvious that we were doing a lot of people-watching, and no one made us feel rushed.
We began with one of Nyonya's most popular appetizers, roti canai. Roti, a thin Indian bread described here as a crispy pancake, arrived with a dipping sauce of chicken curry, with far more full-flavored, tasty, slightly spicy sauce than chicken; using the roti to pick up chicken pieces was impossible until real utensils arrived. Our other appetizer was a baby oyster omelet, something Joe pounced on without any hesitation. Puffy and crisp on the outside, flavored with what we think were some garlic chives inside, the oysters were fresh, not canned, and came alongside some sweet chili sauce that was rather superfluous.
For a main course, a special that night was a seafood soup with a ruddy, thick liquid showing a considerable amount of fire—the server did ask about our heat tolerance—shrimp, mussels and scallops and a fried shrimp cake atop some noodles in mid-bowl. (Similar soups are available on the regular menu.) Nasi Lemak, a rice and curried chicken dish arrived in a small bowl atop a plate that held two other bowls of vegetables, one the chili anchovy promised on the menu, along with some onion, the other some mixed and very spicy vegetables. Also riding shotgun were a few slices of cucumber and half a boiled egg and a generous serving of rice. While the chicken was nice, a good combo of sweet-hot-salty, it was the rice that blew us away. Perfectly cooked, yes, but wonderfully flavored with coconut, just a hint of cloves and screw pine or pandanus leaves. Absolutely addictive.
If you've ever wondered how much fresh coconuts are appreciated where they're a native fruit, dessert can be a whole coconut, carved up a little, cut in half and served with a spoon to dig out both the soft jelly-like flesh, and the firmer meat as well.
A couple of notes on the menu: Yes, it really is large, and has some startling items on it like “dried curry fish head” and “sting ray wrapped with banana leaf.” Other items, rather than giving details, merely add “Please ask server before you order!” Many of the choices in the vegetarian section are not actually minus animal protein, while chicken broth rice is described as meatless. Beef is listed in the poultry section, and proving that Malaysia really is a multicultural society, there are several pork entrees. Lots of seafood—we're hoping that next visit we can find something that approximates the chili crab we ate in Singapore.
199 Grand St., New York
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: No
Wheelchair access: Fair
And almost by accident, we ended up at another Malaysian restaurant, but a very different one, a few nights later. We'd eaten at Fatty Crab downtown when we were in New York a couple of winters back, and had been extremely impressed. Since then, the restaurant's success has led to a larger branch on the Upper West Side, which we discovered while strolling down Broadway. Happy memories flooded back and we changed plans. The uptown location makes a considerable effort to be cutting-edge hip, but happily, the food quality matched our memories. In addition, the uptown outpost, unlike its smaller downtown sibling, takes reservations.
The room is dark, and the music cranks up to rather annoying levels, but the young servers are knowledgeable and eager to help. The bar is serious about cocktails, and that menu deserves attention, too. Beer varieties are intriguing, too, there are 10 wines by the glass, and if that's not enough, watermelon juice and fresh coconut water are also served.
Jalan Alor chicken wings are named for a formerly raffish neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur that's now apparently a foodie paradise. Grilled with garlic, ginger, soy and sesame, they're sticky and delicious, hefty joints of succulent meat. The steamed buns are puffy little wraps with a pork filling laid atop them, a spicy sauce between bun and meat, and another one, with sweetness and more heat, into which they're dipped. Killer bites, absolutely killer. The green mango salad was nice, clean-tasting and fresh, a wonderful crunchy contrast to the other dishes. One of the Crab's signatures is the watermelon pickle and crispy pork, pickled red flesh of watermelon and fair-sized dice of pork belly cooked until crisp. The pickling is light and doesn't overwhelm the piggy flavors. Good, but not as tasty as we recall it being.
Still no desserts, although the chef's mom is a chocolatier and there's an offer of a delicious chocolate-chili-almond bar instead of the mochi rice candy square that arrives with the check. (Mochi is free; chocolate bar is not.) It was interesting to note that despite the, uh, deeply contemporary feel of this place, it's surprisingly kid-friendly, even to the point of including a children's menu. Nice to see, and a pleasure to watch two young gents dining near us who obviously had been here before and were knocking back dumplings as if they'd been doing it since they cut their baby teeth.
2170 Broadway (West 77 th St.), New York
Lunch Mon.-Fri., Dinner Mon.-Sat., “Supper Sundays” 12 noon-10 p.m. (that's what the website says)
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Sandwiches and Entrees: $12-$25
Break out the bubbly to celebrate survival!
And how about something new and slightly different. . . . and inexpensive, too.
Our latest discovery is a sparkling wine whose French producers claim it precedes Champagne by more than a century. As we all know, in France the only wine that can be described as Champagne must come solely from the region in the northeast part of the country. Anything produced anywhere else must be labeled "sparkling wine." Producers from other nations are not bound by French law.
The newcomer for the upcoming New Year's Eve is called Blanquette de Limoux, by Saint-Hilaire, and it's a brisk, nicely fruity, light-hearted sparkler that tastes good and teaches lessons in history, geography and linguistics at the same time. It's priced at less than $15 a bottle, and is fine for toasting, or to accompany a meal.
We first tasted it at Monarch, where Matt McGuire, recommending it highly, was serving it by the glass. A few weeks later, we were at Overlook Farm in Clarksville, Mo., and chef Tim Grandinetti was pouring it as an aperitif.
The story of the wine is fascinating, even if it may have improved through the centuries by some judicious editing.
Limoux is a small community in the Languedoc-Roussillon district of Southwestern France, adjacent to the Pyrenees Mountains, which separate France from Spain. According to Beau Davis, a blogger at a site called basicjuice.com, Benedictine monks were making wine at their Limoux monastery in the early days of the 16th century, using the Mauzac grapes that they grew. They called it Blanquette de Limoux, with Limoux the site and Blanquette the Occitan word for white. Occitan? We'll get to that later.
Limoux, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, is cooler than many of its neighbors in southwestern France. The monks harvested and pressed the grapes, stored them in wooden casks. The wine began to ferment and the process stopped as the weather changed. In spring, warmer weather started the process again, and the carbon dioxide gas produced during the second fermentation, gradually and escaped, unnoticed, through the wood. In the 1530s, however, the monks began using glass bottles, from which the gas could not escape. And when a monk uncorked a bottle, he discovered that carbonation had arrived and what came out of the bottle was very different from what had gone in.
When Thomas Jefferson was ambassador to France, in the early 19th century, he stocked up on French wine, and reportedly liked it so much that it was the only sparkling wine in his cellar.
Today's Blanquette de Limoux must be 90 percent of the Mauzac grape, with Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc for the remainder. The sparkling wine I have shows a little Chardonnay in the finish. The wine is crisp, with a touch of apple in the aroma and on the palate, too. The bubble is small and even, and it has excellent flavor and it quite dry, though not as dry as some versions of Champagne.
I bought my Saint Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux at the Wine Merchant, but I'm certain that other wine shops will have it or can get it for you.
And that brings us to Occitan, the home language for Blanquette. Occitan is a form of Provencal, a dialect spoken in Limoux and other towns in Languedoc and a descendant of the vulgar, or common, Latin spoken by the Caesarean legions that occupied southwestern France for centuries. It also is close to the Catalan language spoken across the Pyrenees in southeastern Spain. Languedoc, the name of the region, comes from langue d'oc, which denoted a language using oc for yes, from the Latin hoc, in contrast to French, the langue d'oil, which used oil, or the modern oui, for yes. (This information is courtesy of Google.)
Anyway, a happy, prosperous and healthy New Year to everyone out there, and whether the history of language or of sparkling wine is important -- or even interesting -- we send all the very best from our house to your house.
-Joe and Ann
Movies are made to be a lot of things. They can be quiet, introspective, thoughtful stories that deal in relationships and philosophy, tense tales of murder and mystery, struggles over life and property on a wild frontier. One of the things they do best is to serve as a setting for a spectacle, big and splashy, full of color and excitement, sometimes rather messy but always bringing entertainment to the filmmaker's world, and to ours.
"Nine" is a great spectacle; I found it exciting, musically and choreographically delicious, filled with beautiful people in showing off their talent. It's a fascinating contrast with another of this holiday season's big movies, "Avatar," also a spectacle but with so much emphasis on "Look at me, I'm a spectacle!" that it's all about special effects and without any interest in such important elements as story or acting.
"Nine" is a cinematic version of the play of the same name; both pay tribute to a 1963 movie, "8 1/2," written by Federico Fellini and with Marcello Mastroianni as the libidinous genius, Guido Contini, surrounded by beautiful women like Claudia Cardinale and Anouk Aimee. Twenty years later, Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit turned it into a Broadway musical with Raul Julia, Karen Akers, Anita Morris and Liliane Montevecchi. Twenty years after that, it was revived with a cast led by Antonio Banderas, Mary Stuart Masterson, Jane Krakowski and Chita Rivera. And now, another movie, directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall, with a screenplay by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella.
Daniel Day-Lewis, a consummate actor with Oscars for "My Left Foot" and "There Will Be Blood," is the power-hungry Guido, his lusts different in target but not in intensity from those of the oil wildcatter, Daniel Plainview. Watching him in a very different role, realizing the range that he can show, is a fascinating experience.
He portrays a film director, with all the ego that goes with the territory, and he's surrounded by women. As in all the earlier versions, they are beautiful and love him deeply, but they want to take as well as give. Five of them have won Academy Awards, led by the ageless beauty (she's 75), Sophia Loren, who won in 1960, before most of the rest of the cast was born. She's his mother, with all the conflicts that role can bring. Other Oscar winners include Marion Cotillard, his long-suffering and most put-upon wife, Luisa; Penelope Cruz as his mistress, Carla. Nicole Kidman is a Nordic ice princess; and Judi Dench is his costume designer and confidant, with whom he shares all his problems. Other women in the mix are Kate Hudson as a reporter for Vogue trying to interview Guido, and Stacy Ferguson, better known as Fergie, as Saraghina, the leading prostitute in the town where he grew up.
Day-Lewis' interaction with this septet is well done; the actor almost inhabits a different character for each relationship, and the women are excellent, too, with Dench hitting a high spot with her song, "Folies Bergere."
Marshall's choreography is splendid, exciting, but his direction is often on the sloppy side, as if he thought that singing and dancing would be enough. Unfortunately, they aren't.
And yet, watching beauty and talent sing and dance is enough to make "Nine" an enjoyable experience.
At multiple locations.
"The Young Victoria," a modest entertainment, stars Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend as Victoria and Albert, but true to its title, we see the wedding, but little afterward, and to be frank, Victoria was not the same person in later life. Blunt and Friend are quite good, and he shows his love for the woman who will be his superior throughout his life. He will be a guest in his own house for his entire life.
Victoria, a grand-daughter of King George III, was in the midst of royal intrigue from the time she knew the meaning of the word. Sir John Conway (an excellent Mark Strong) was a protector who helped prepare her, and Lord Melbourne (a wonderful Paul Bettany) was another key player, along with Jim Broadbent. Victoria's first cousin, King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann), was a key matchmaker for the German prince and the English queen, though it's obvious they were deeply in love. Miranda Richardson, as her mother, the Duchess of Kent, also is a delight in support.
But while we may know a little about the activities of Queen Victoria, the film, pleasantly written by Julian Fellowes and nicely directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, does't show enough about Victoria. Of course, most of what she did came after her ascent of the throne and the untimely death of Albert, but we need to know more about the Queen.
Opens today on multiple screens.
Kirkwood, with its nice old houses and a bustling downtown populated largely by locally owned businesses, is especially appealing at this time of year, when it feels like one of those New England suburbs that decorate the front of a Christmas card. One expects to see a parcel-loaded Barbara Stanwyck bump into S.Z. (Cuddles) Sakall and nearly take a tumble into a snow bank.
However, we'd hope that Barbara would have taken time to stop and catch her breath and a margarita at Amigos Cantina, and then have a nice lunch. We did just that recently, and were exceedingly happy with what we got. It will be worth further exploration to find out about how the Amigos handle things like crab cakes and the tamales advertised in the window. Service was affable and unrushed, and though lunch hour made the dining room increasingly busy, meals arrived with proper timing, led by excellent margaritas, made with top-shelf ingredients; even better, there was none of the icky artificial lime that flavored the green lollipops of our childhood.
The Monday lunch special is a chile relleno, lightly battered and quickly fried. Gooey cheese, a relatively mild chile, and a little textural contrast from the batter: What else could you ask for on a gray day? The tomato rice that came alongside was fluffy rather than soggy, but took second place to the beans. There's a choice of black beans or pinto beans, which is nice, and made even better by the fact that the beans are not refried, just cooked gently until the natural juices thicken. The black beans were excellent, full of flavor, tender but not exploding. We generally prefer them to pintos, but in this case, the pintos won out, displaying a wonderful smokiness and a little heat, taking them far beyond most of their family.
Tacos are offered in three styles, “Americana,” offering beef, pork or chicken in crispy or soft corn or soft (wheat) flour; “traditional Mexican,” providing a greater variety of fillings,including mild or spicy fish with Napa cabbage, fajita steak with sauteed onions and peppers, pork with roasted peppers and marinated chicken; or “taco puffs.” Unable to resist the name, we ordered them and received two flour shells that had been deep fried until they were as crisp as a sopapilla, and then topped with the same ingredients as the "Americana." We chose chicken and pork, which were accompanied by satisfactory guacamole, sour cream and a salsa verde that was nicely tart and tangy, with mild-to-medium level of spice. The chicken was shredded and lightly seasoned, properly moist but not outstanding, especially as compared to the pork, which was chopped into small chunks, tender, very juicy and just made for this dish --- which was, we admit, tricky to eat gracefully, as shatteringly crisp as the tortillas were. Still, a dribble of the salsa verde and all was forgiven.
120 W. Jefferson Ave., Kirkwood
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair
There must be something about the end of the year that makes people -- grown-up people -- get into a list-making mode. Perhaps it's a behavior left over from childhood, when lists were made for Santa Claus. But people who write, whether for newspapers, the electronic media or the internet, are busy making lists. Political writers, sports writers, satirists, op-ed columnists, entertainment writers all do it.
As a general rule, I don't. When I was writing about film and theater for the Post-Dispatch, I resisted doing so. Most of the time, I didn't compile a 10-best list. When my boss won a battle of wills, I did. I'm not going to do it this year, but as a member of the St. Louis Film Critics, a group of 37 people who define themselves as such, I'm going to share our winners with a vast group of readers.
With one caveat. . . .
Our group voted "Up in the Air" as Best Picture. I didn't agree, voting for "Hurt Locker." But I wonder how many of our membership would have made the same choice if the George Clooney film had shot no scenes in St. Louis but had filmed them in Phoenix or Denver or Kansas City or Little Rock.
The other winners. I agreed with some selections, disagreed with some. But here they are:
Best Actor--George Clooney, "Up in the Air"
Best Actress--Carey Mulligan, "An Education"
Best Supporting Actor--Christoph Waltz, "Inglorious Basterds"
Best Supporting Actress--Mo'Nique, "Precious"
Best Director--Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"
Best Screenplay--Scott Neustadter anjd Michael H. Weber, "(500) Days of Summer"
Best Cinematography--Dion Beebe, "Nine"
Best Visual Effects--"Avatar"
Best Foreign Language Film--"Red Cliff"
Best Documentary--"Capitalism: A Love Story"
Best Comedy--"The Hangover"
Best Animated Film--"Up"
Most Original, Innovative or Creative Film--"Avatar"
Favorite Scene--"Up," for its opening marriage montage.
And one more thing (or two, since I decided two were equally awful)--My nomination and vote for Worst Movie of the Year, "Avatar" and "2012"
And on to another year in darkened rooms.
William Sidney Porter, generally known as O. Henry before the candy bar was created, may have been this country's finest short-story writer. He wrote in the early days of the last century for dozens of magazines. Two of his best-known tales have been adapted, with music, and put together as "An O. Henry Christmas," in its final weekend at Avalon Theatre Company's Crestwood Court performance space.
The difficulty with the play (or plays), adapted by Peter Ekstrom, who added the music and lyrics, is that O. Henry's genius lay in his rare talent to tell a story and get out, usually with a charming twist. In trying to expand a short story into even half of a play, Ekstrom wraps the nugget of the story in so much extraneous matter and so many songs that the tiny gem of O. Henry's genius is lost.
"The Gift of the Magi," a loving, sentimental tale, serves as the first act, but with only two people and no chance to expand the action, Leah Berry, as Della, and Stephen Rich, as Jim, become extremely repetitious, especially with Ekstrom inserting nine songs and a reprise of one. The composer does it for comic effect in "Your Hair Is Gone!" but the comedy runs out of gas in a few minutes. Berry offers a pleasing voice and a nice sense of presence, but Rich is less vital.
"The Last Leaf," a tale of keeping hope alive and the power of positive thinking, involves Berry and Rich again, plus Jennifer M. Theby and Jerry Vogel. Ekstrom expands things, including a sub-plot, and Vogel is effective in an over-the-top portrayal of a gin-soaked German painter. Theby and Berry are artists starving in a Greenwich Village garret; Rich is a doctor who also serves as a narrator. He's more secure, and Vogel is always strong, but he'd be more effective with a little less gin. The relationship between the women is unclear, but neither is memorable. Larry Mabrey's direction seemed to slip out of focus from time to time; Kevin Kurth's musical direction was fine.
An Avalon Theatre Company production at Crestwood Court today and tomorrow.
We have only a fortnight before 2009 comes to an end, and it took us all this time for a truly execrable movie, the worst of the year, to hit local screens. But "Avatar" opens today as the latest piece of too-long, too-dull, too-violent claptrap to come from the imagination of James Cameron, and it wins by a wide margin. I had given worst-movie honors (or whatever they're called) to "2012," another end-of-civilization fiasco, but "Avatar" takes the cake, including platter and knife.
At 2 hours and 42 minutes, it's also about an hour too long, but Cameron never has been known to rein in his ego. He obviously believes that every frame of film he shoots is its own little masterpiece.
A team of American metallurgists and miners, working for a huge corporation and with the Army, Air Force and Marines all providing security, is on the planet Pandora where a marvelous metal called unobtanium (the movie's funniest line) can be mined for some military purpose. The planet is home to fierce, strange-looking, violent beasts and birds, each an artist's dream and, more likely, adapted from sketches made in grade school. There also are human types, simple, two-legged, yellow-eyed, funny looking creatures who worship trees and plants. Obviously they are standing in the way of the militarists and businessmen who run the American government and should be exterminated. They're in the same class as the lilies of the field who toil not, nor do they spin.
Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a Marine confined to a wheelchair filling in on the space voyage for his late twin brother. He's been promised new legs that work better as part of his pay. Because Pandora and Earth are not compatible, the Americans go into a box that looks like a coffin and after a few minutes, they pop up like pieces of toasted bread, ready to go into action and looking a lot like the Pandorans, a few of whom could be called Pandorables.
Of course Jake meets a female Pandorable, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who also happens to be the king's daughter and handy to have around when the natives get restless. And yes, Virginia, the natives and their animals get very restless as the military weenies, almost indestructible in their fancy garb, fly around in fancy helicopters under the leadership of Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the most militaristic military man since the days of Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) and his associates Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden), Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn) and King Kong (Slim Pickens). Lang is a total and complete caricature, and there's little inkling that Cameron has a sense of humor. There are occasional moments, however of what Cameron sees as thigh-slapping levity. Sigourney Weaver provides some as a scientist, but she adds little to the story. More interesting is Michelle Rodriguez, a helicopter pilot who likes to crack wise.
Jake soon realizes that his fellow Marines are interested only in turning Pandora into killing fields, and he also discovers that he rather likes Neytiri and her mother as we build to the final battle when super-modern, futuristic tanks and planes are partially done in by bows and arrows, proving that the Pandorans are farther advanced, militarily, than the Sioux of Sitting Bull.
"Avatar" is a mindless hymn to death and violence, though Cameron cuts back a little when he shifts gears into 3-D that doesn't scare anyone and is mostly a waste of time and effort. It's a truly awful motion picture, but Cameron knows that one way to become a star director is to follow the motto that "nothing succeeds like excess."
Opening today at multiple theaters.
Ole Christian Madsen, director and co-writer with Lars K. Anderson, makes good use of newsreel clips to set his stage as German troops occupy Copenhagen, their jack-booted pace thundering through the streets. But many resistance groups fought them for the entire period of the occupation. One of them was sparked by our title characters, the red-headed Flame (Thure Lindhardt) and the dour, sardonic Citron (Mads Mikkelsen), whose preferred tactic was face-to-face assassination when it came to wreaking havoc among the Nazis, who were led by Christian Berkel, excellent as the SS commander.
Flame has a girl friend, the gorgeous Ketty (Stine Stengade) and Citron has a loyal wife, Bodil, who cannot handle the strain of his job. Madsen is light on analysis, but he puts things out there for the viewer to judge on his own.
The action occurs in the spring and summer of 1944, when the Allies are beginning to assert their strength, but in a small occupied state, like Denmark, the Germans still wield considerable strength. Madsen builds his story well, with considerable tension and conflict along the way, and both Lindhardt and Mikkelsen contribute superior acting.
Opens today at the Tivoli.
Madison Square park is about 15 blocks from Madison Square Garden, the sports arena/convention hall on top of what is still called, with complete lack of logic, Penn Station, though the Penn Central railroad line has gone the way of dial phones. The park is formed where Broadway crosses Fifth Avenue, and at one corner, in a handsome space that was once part of the Metropolitan Life Building, stands Eleven Madison Park, possibly the head of the restaurant class created by former St. Louisan Danny Meyer and his Union Square Hospitality Group.
What began on a wing and a brilliantly-thought-out prayer at the Union Square Cafe some 15 years ago has grown to eight restaurants, plus five more casual operations, including one at Citi Field, nee Shea Stadium, and a catering company. And in our experience, they are not producing factory food anywhere, so don't let the expansion fool you.
It's prix-fixe only at Eleven Madison Park, so plan on dinner as a full-evening's entertainment. It will be a totally worthwhile experience, and while dinner begins at a celebratory $88, lunch is a real bargain beginning at two courses for $28.
Chef Daniel Humm shows imagination and an elegant sense of restraint in his work. In the last few months, the restaurant was awarded four stars by the New York Times, and while we were in New York early in the week, we thought it time to revisit in the company of some friends. It was a marvelous experience by every possible test.
A cocktail before dinner was accompanied by frequently refilled saucers of warm gougeres, the Burgundian nibble of choux pastry with plenty of cheese beaten into it. After our group had assembled, hors d'oeuvres arrived on a narrow oval plate; six vegetarian items, wee bites of things like a remarkable marshmallow made of beet, and a macaroon flavored with Meyer lemon. Three layers of cracker so thin they were translucent made friends with slices of goat cheese. And each nibble was tiny enough to have served as a marker on a Monopoly board.
Bread was served with two butters, one of goat and one of cow (the former of a slightly stronger flavor), with flakes of sea salt for a sprinkle if desired. They arrived just before an amuse-guele of a foamy celeriac soup, feathery-light, its celery-like flavor mild enough to charm even someone not crazy about the vegetable, with a light fruity note that was hard to define. The garnish was an undulating strip of sweet-salty hazelnut tuile.
By then we finally were getting to the part of the meal we'd actually ordered. Hawaiian prawns arrived in a roll, dressed with a lime-laced, thick, rich yogurt, bits of Granny Smith apple for some crunch, all gently wrapped in paper-thin slices of ripe avocado, barely heavier than air on the tongue. And then there was the egg. Described on the menu as “slow poached with autumn mushrooms and Everglades' frogs legs,” the egg sat atop a serving of tiny, savory mushrooms. The bits of meat looked like white meat of chicken, the cooking juices were hanging around in their aromatic way, and three slices of truffle jumped in for the sheer glory of it all. The yolk was just beyond soft-cooked, slightly runny but with a firm white, and the egg acted almost like a hollandaise sauce, helping to mesh and carry the other flavors. It was a dazzling dish, despite its quiet palette of brown and white.
One of the entree options was a roast Muscovy duck for two, and part of our group took advantage of that. Surprisingly for a New York restaurant, there's a goodly amount of finishing and plating at tableside, using guerdons the way Tony's and some other fine, old-line St. Louis restaurants do. In this case, the duck, glazed with lavender honey was carved tableside, and was served with gently braised fennel and black figs. The breast was sliced and presented, along with the vegetables, and another, separate dish, offered a confit made from duck legs. (The rest of the carcass was whisked away, prompting musings about taking it home for duck soup.) Our photo of the carving is by Barbara Mandel.
Venison worked beautifully with roasted pears and bacon, the meat moist but un-fatty, cooked medium-rare as ordered. Boneless chunks had a wonderful sear, but the meat was extremely tender, and not at all gamey, just carrying that slightly different flavor of farm-raised deer. Black trumpet mushrooms garnished the plate.
But the star of the entrees was the suckling pig. One piece was pork belly, with a skin so crisp, it literally crackled, the meat falling-apart tender, and the other piece seemed to be pork loin, cooked more briefly but moist, pinkish and with a flavor showing the differences in various parts of our piggy pals. Small rounds of sweet potato topped with crumbs of amaretti cookies came alongside, as did buttery brussels sprouts about the same size, and the sauces for the meat, one a puree of sweet potato, the other of tart plums giving good contrast. All the components worked well, both separately and together.
The wine list is in a leather loose-leaf binder thicker than a volume of the Arabian Nights and with more than enough bottles to last for the entire thousand-and-one nights. Wines from everywhere number in the hundreds, and provide an elegant, high-priced feast for a wine-lover's reading. Ordering can be a chore, but a kind, competent sommelier made things easier. When asked to compare a couple, she favored the less expensive bottle, pointing out that it came from a better vintage and was several years older. When she spoke highly of a couple and I told her they were out of our price range, she went back into the book, recommended a 1999 Gigondas from the Rhone Valley that was rich and excellent.
Choices are no easier at dessert time, but two of us succumbed to the Tahitian vanilla souffle made with quark, a soft, slightly tangy cheese, and with a layer of passion fruit puree at the bottom, which really made things sing. We miss souffles in restaurants, and it's so nice to see the traditional treat done in new ways to create new fans. The chocolate lovers leaped upon Symphony No. 2, a chocolate caramel tart topped with a few flakes of Maldon salt and with a dense chocolate ice cream alongside, the whole thing richer than one thought possible and displaying a beautiful crust under the tart. Three small medallions of yogurt cheesecake surrounded an oval of cranberry ice cream, and wore a garnish of candied cranberries, plus a generous shower of gingerbread crumbs.
Yes, the coffee is good, not surprisingly, and the decaf really is decaffeinated. And with the coffee arrived plates and a young server bearing a tray of six or eight different kinds of mini-macaroons. We tried chocolate-guava, sesame seed, pumpkin pie and ---oh, dear, more delicate, delicious bites lost in the mists of time. And then, as we prepared to leave the table, the women were presented with small boxes of chocolates. One of the few good things about sexism?
There is no question that the other major thing that sets Danny Meyers' restaurants apart is the service; it's eager and pleasant, but neither subservient nor condescending. This crew fit right in with our experiences at all his places, both planned and drop-in. It's a well-oiled operation with carefully chosen and trained staff. We can't say enough about them.
Not an inexpensive meal, but one well worth the money. No smoking, as in all New York restaurants for several years. And no cell phones, a policy Meyer pioneered.
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave., New York
Lunch Mon.-Fri., Dinner Mon.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
There are several ways to look at "Irving Berlin's White Christmas," which opened a two-week run at the Fox Theatre last night:
1--It's a heart-warming nostalgic look back to the days of World War II, when war was a good thing; it features Irving Berlin's songs, almost always a joy; it has good dancing; a cute child; it leaves a residue of good feeling; any four-year-old will understand it.
2--It's a poorly written, silly story that has no depth; it looks too reverently at the military; it features some of Irving Berlin's most forgettable songs (anything more forgettable is already forgotten); it has an obnoxious child, inserted only to add cuteness, succeeding rarely; it is populated by characters who have no depth; intellectually, it neither gives anything to nor asks anything from an audience; it lifts easily recognizable business from other musicals, like the "hat, no hat" number from "A Chorus Line," and Paul Blake, who wrote the book, even has someone mime the line; it does not have an ending, but kind of runs down and lets a dance number serve as a curtain call. A few moments later, it has another curtain call. Then it ends.
As almost anyone can tell by now, I didn't find "Irving Berlin's White Christmas" very entertaining. I like Irving Berlin's music too much to have it commandeered to support a 55-year-old book that has not aged very well.
Some of the songs are delightful, like "Sisters," "How Deep Is the Ocean?" "I Love a Piano" and "Let Yourself Go," but the Berlin charm was missing from "The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing," and "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun."
Walter Bobbie's direction was passable, Randy Skinner's choreography a little better. Megan Sikora and Kerry O'Malley were fun as the Haynes sisters, and Sikora's dancing was splendid. Her duet and dance with David Elder to "I Love a Piano" was a high spot of the evening. Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney were the Haynes sisters on film. Stephen Bogardus and David Elder were fine as Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, respectively, played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye on screen, with Kaye replacing an ill Donald O'Connor, who had replaced an ill Fred Astaire. Lorna Luft was fun as the woman who was running the inn where all this came down, and there also were delightful moments from Kilty Reidy and Richard Pruitt.
"Irving Berlin's White Christmas," at the Fox through Dec. 27
The title is a dead giveaway: "Invictus," which opens today, will be a simplistic, but highly dramatic movie, like practically all movies that bear Clint Eastwood's fingerprints. It will show a world where there is a wide chasm between good people and evil people, and the good people will win, but the evil people will become better because of the influence of the good people.
The poem, which all school children had to learn when I was a child, is by William Ernest Henley, and it begins, "Out of the night that covers me, Black as the Pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be, For my unconquerable soul." Later, it notes, "My head is bloody but unbowed," and it concludes, "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul."
Given those lines and Eastwood as director and a masterly performance by Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, we immediately see the arc of the film. And, of course, there is a sports connection, tied into the winning of the World Rugby Cup by South Africa in 1995. The Springboks, the national champs, had been a white-only team, pointed in their policies of exclusion. But Mandela, a new president, convinced Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, very hunky) that the team could do wonders for the country if it won the world title.
That neatly turns "Invictus" into a sports movie, with hours (or so it seemed) of scrums and kicks and players running with a ball. And then, of course, there is the title match between the Springboks and the New Zealand Blacks, and that takes a long time, too. But you already have enough information to decide who won the match.
Along the way, there are heart-warming scenes of the Springboks conducting a rugby clinic for little South African kids from the shanty towns, and the incumbent white bodyguards of the former president learning to work with the incoming black bodyguards of the Mandela administration.
Freeman is wonderful; he inhabits Mandela, and if he had been blessed with a better script than the one Tony Peckham wrote, he might have been even better. But for someone who likes rugby and adores heart-warming, here's a holiday treat.
Opens today at multiple theaters.
The restaurant Lemongrass, which was farther south on South Grand Boulevard until a few years ago, is in two storefronts on a corner, and has a large area in front for outdoor dining when the weather returns to clemency. (Though until last summer's surprising mildness, Joe insisted there were only nine days a year when St. Louis was sufficiently clement.) Inside, it's simple and warmly lit, with plenty of servers zooming around. The menu is surprisingly large, and veers over into the kitchen's take on Chinese food as well—General Tso's chicken, anyone?
In light of that, we investigated its version of wonton soup. And we were glad we did, too. Small dumplings of pork and shrimp wrapped in thin, delicate dough lolled about in a bowl of chicken broth that would have been remarkable even sans wontons, so full-flavored was it. And the wontons themselves were tender and meaty, delicately seasoned and not overcooked, all in all a fine bowl of soup on a winter night.
On the other hand, a Vietnamese pancake, or bah xeo, seemed greasy and its filling consisted mostly of bean sprouts with an occasional bit of shrimp and slightly more chicken. The promised lemon sauce turned out to be nuoc cham, the usual tart-sweet-salty dipping sauce. The outside of the pancake was crisper than we've usually come across, a pleast touch but not enough to save it from forgettability.
From the entree list of rice platters came lemongrass shrimp. Most dishes in this category, incidentally, are offered as rice platters or dinners, the latter being about $3 more. The difference? “They're bigger,” said our server with a shrug. Our shrimp were small but sweet, not overcooked, and were accompanied by green and white onions and a few carrots. The flavor was predominantly lemongrass, with a very light hit of chilies, and the sauce had plenty of tiny bits of minced lemongrass itself, whose texture reminds one of a very chewy coconut, quite fibrous.
In several dishes, the menu speaks of something mysteriously described as brown sauce. Pork with mushrooms and baby corn in brown sauce proved to be a winner, with first-rate pork, tender and full of pigalicious flavor, baby straw mushrooms (which don't, of course, look like straws, but more like wee dwarf caps) and pieces of corn in a sweet-and-tangy brown gravy that put the pork flavor even more in the foreground. Altogether, a first-rate dish.
No time for our usual Vietnamese coffee or the desserts Lemongrass offers, like sweet potato flan or bananas, either broiled or in a pudding, since we were off to a theater in the neighborhood. Next time.
3161 S. Grand Blvd.
Lunch & Dinner, Tues.-Sun
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair
When King Henry VIII of England fell for Anne Boleyn in 1526, it began a romance that turned Europe upside down. Henry already was married to Catherine (or Katherine) of Aragon, daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. About three years later,Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, declared the Henry-Catherine marriage null and void and Henry prepared to marry Anne, who was already pregnant (some things just never change and Henry would have four more wives). Meanwhile, Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor and a man revered for his honesty, refused to go along with the annulment.
The struggle set up by More's reaction to the actions of Henry and Cranmer is the basic tale of "A Man for All Seasons," Robert Bolt's wonderful play that opened over the weekend as a production of the St. Louis Actors Theatre, on stage at the History Museum to run through Dec. 20.
Bolt, an English writer, first dealt with the topic in a television tale for the BBC, then wrote it as a play that ran 18 months on Broadway starting in 1961. He did it again as the screenplay for a 1966 movie. He and the play earned both a Tony and an Oscar, as did Paul Scofield, who was More on Broadway and in Hollywood. The film, directed by Fred Zinneman, had a cast that included Wendy Hiller, Leo McKern, Robert Shaw, Orson Welles, Susannah York, John Hurt, Corin Redgrave and Colin Blakely.
The Actors Studio production, directed with grace and power by Milton Zoth, who battled some difficult problems with the theater's layout and design, but made it work on Patrick Huber's simple, understated set which proves that less can be more. Huber also designed the lighting, which suffered because of the conditions of the theater. Michele Siler's costumes also proved the value of simplicity, but went all out in several cases, using the clothing's flash and filigree almost as set decorations.
William Roth was a most effective Thomas More, showing his idealism and his legalism, which clashed often along the way. It's a long, tough role which demands he show dominance in most of his scenes, and he does it well. Theresa Doggett was a splendid match as his wife, understanding her husband's choices but resisting them, wishing he would go along with the king to give them a happy, well-designed life. Charlie Barron, as the Common Man and as several Uncommon Men, delivered beautifully, finding the differences to distinguish one personality from another, trying to show feelings for More, but always having to hide them.
Christopher Hickey, as the weaselly, sneaky Richard Rich, made his thinking a little too obvious from time to time, but mostly was very effective. Kevin Beyer, as Thomas Cromwell, the king's prosecutor and fighter for the break with Rome and the Pope, is devilishly clever and a man who understands entrapment and coercion in the style made famous by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in his witch-hunts of the 1940s. "Your loss of innocence," he sneers to Rich, "If you just noticed it, it could not be important." It's a solid performance, and he pairs very well with Larry Dell, who is absolutely splendid, doing outstanding work as the Duke of Norfolk, loyal friend and supporter of More.
But More violently rejects compromise, as we know he will.
Accents vary here and there; some actors use them well, some not so well and some wisely decided not to bother.
Bolt's story of passion and loyalty, of idealism and truth, is a superior play with numerous parallels to what it is going on here and in other places in the world, and while it is set in the 16th century, it's as new as tomorrow morning. I was mesmerized as I have not been for a long time, and though the play runs two hours and 45 minutes, it just zipped by for me.
A production of the St. Louis Actors Theatre at the Missouri History Museum, through Dec. 20.
When Sister Mary Ignatius made her first St. Louis appearance some 30 years ago, all Hell, or maybe Heaven, broke out. The always open and progressive Missouri Legislature considered bills to ban it, or anything like it, from the state's stages. The usually liberal and academic-freedom loving Washington University reneged on an agreement and refused to allow a production at the Edison Theatre. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen retreated behind the tizzy it goes into at the first sign of anything controversial without a check attached.
But space was found, and the late, lamented Theatre Project Company, led by Fontaine Syer and Bobby Miller, mounted the production. The sun rose the next day. No one's life was ruined, and no proof ever was offered that a single ticket buyer ended up in Heaven or Hell because of attending or decling to attend.
The play has returned. "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You" opened a three-weekend run on Friday in Tower Grove Abbey -- once a church -- and St. Louisans barely noticed. The Stray Dog Theatre production was certainly satisfactory, though the play itself remains a poor example of Christopher Durang's writing talent. More important, the earth of South St. Louis did not open up and swallow a cast and audience of obvious sinners. And some people actually laughed when Catholic doctrine and dogma were the subject of satire and mockery, if not downright ridicule.
Durang, author of "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" and many other plays, has admitted he wrote about Sister Mary as a response to some of his own Catholic school experiences, and high school resonated in some of the writing. It's a lot harsher than "Late Night Catechism," for example, but at least Sister Mary didn't castigate a critic (not I, thank you) for chewing gum while walking down the aisle and point out to another (guilty, your honor) that his middle name clearly indicated that he was not a Catholic.
Margeau Baue Steinau did nice work as Sister; she showed excellent timing, the proper anger and talk show hostess-level animosity, single-mindedness and casual acceptance of truth. It's a good performance.
The former students who invade the classroom in the later going, first to put on a funny Nativity "pageant," involving Joseph, Mary and a camel, then to finally complete a plan to embarrass a teacher they've hated for several decades, have been created as two-dimensional characters, each providing Guare with an opportunity to vent his spleen, and vent it he does.
Jenn Bock is Diane, who has had two abortions; Stephen Peirick is Gary, who is gay; Colleen M. Backer is Phillomena, a single mother and B. Weller is Aloysius, who has been suffering from bladder problems ever since Sister refused to excuse him from class. Young Adam Steinau was a young pupil well-trained in his responses to catechism, a touch too fast in his delivery from time to time, but as obedient and well-mannered as if he were responding not just to a nun, but to a superior mother which, in truth, he was.
The play has weakness, but it has laughs, and an audience of obvious heathens, obviously destined to spent eternity in a dark and fiery place, enjoyed the production, nicely directed by Gary F. Bell.
A Stray Dog Theatre production at Tower Grove Abbey, through Dec. 19
Before Garrison Keillor invented Lake Woebegon, Minnesota, many of us heard tales of Hohman, Indiana, which in truth was Hammond, Ind., where Jean Shepherd grew. Shepherd was a raconteur, like Keillor, with the same leavening touch of homespun humor and the same universal appeal of stories from small-town America
Shepherd's most famous tale, "A Christmas Story," has been on paper, on radio, on small screen, on big screen and on stage, and the rich, charming, delightful show, written by Philip Grecian but based on the 1983 movie opened at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis last night to run through Dec. 27.
Interestingly, a musical version billed as a world premiere opened at the Kansas City Rep last weekend and the run already has been extended. Kansas City critics praised the show, which has a book by Joseph Robinette, music and lyrics by Scott Davenport Richards, and mentioned that there are plans -- or at least hope -- for a Broadway engagement next year.
The St. Louis version focuses on the story, of Ralphie Parker's yearning for a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas and his plotting to win over his parents. Of course, he has all the requisite adventures, struggles in school, dealing with parents, a younger brother and a pretty blonde who is so attracted to him she cheerfully accepts a toy spider as a gift. Ralphie even has a fight with the neighborhood bully and while he suffers adversity, he also learns valuable lessons.
Director John McCluggage, a St. Louisan making his Mainstage debut, uses not only the stage but also the aisles for dramatic effect, and his work with children was especially strong. Robert Mark Morgan's set design, using the stage's turntable to give us inside and outside action at the Parker house, was fine. Dorothy Marshall Englis' costumes were just right, and hilarious in a dream sequence. Ralphie's pink bunny pajamas were another highlight. And Rusty Wandall's sound design highlighted action and dialogue throughout.
Jeff Talbott, strong a year ago as David Frost in "Frost/Nixon," stands out brilliantly as the grown-up Ralph Parker, reminiscing about a long-ago childhood. He's the narrator, the story-teller, and his pacing is just right. It's a terrific piece of acting.
Equally good is Jeff Gurner as Ralph Senior, generally referred to as "the old man." Irascible, short-tempered and assured that he is correct in every decision, Gurner battles clinkers in the coal furnace, wins the ugliest lamp in Western Civilization in a contest and thinks he's won the Mona Lisa. He appears to be less-than-deeply interested in his son, like sit-com fathers through history, but he proves that he is interested and does understand. So does Ralphie's mother, a fine, understated performance by Marnye Young, who is a perfect contrast and a perfect complement to Gurner. Susie Wall, as Miss Shields, the teacher, turns in a well-disciplined, tightly controlled, excellent performance.
The children do fine work, led by Jonathan Savage as young Ralphie, but don't overlook Caden Self, as his younger brother. The second grader has instinctive talents as a clown, which he displays so well when his winter clothing gets the better of him. The other four children Taylor Edlin and Jarrett Harkless, as Ralphie's friends and classmates,Flick and Schwartz, respectively, are fun, with Edlin successful with a running gag about his "sore arm." Julia Schweizer as Esther Jane and Sarah Koo as Helen echo the charm of the writing by Shepherd and Grecian. Drew Redington has the unhappy task of being the bully, only villain in the piece.
"A Christmas Story" is a fine choice for this time of year, more for what it is not than for what it is. For example, it is not maudlin or mawkish, it doesn't push one religion, or any religion, for that matter, as the be-all and the end-all. It's fun, and it's gentle, and it's a fine way for a family to spend some time together.
"A Christmas Story," by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis at the Loretto-Hilton Center, through Dec. 27.
Iraq and Afghanistan have been the focal point for many movies this year, some of them excellent, almost all of them depressing. "Brothers," a new film from director Jim Sheridan ("My Left Foot") is the latest, but he and writer David Benioff use the Middle East as a device, not a necessity. The plot could have been used in any stressful situation, not necessarily a war zone, but the five-year-old Danish film, "Brodre," from which this one is taken, involves a war.
Tobey Maguire is Sam Cahill, a gung-ho Marine like his father, a Vietnam veteran played stylishly, as always, by Sam Shepard. Jake Gyllenhall is his younger brother, Tommy, recently released from prison. Sam, an officer, wants to return to the Middle East and his men, and does, but he soon is captured and tortured in sequences that are frightening in their intensity.
During his captivity, the Marines have told his wife that he is dead.
However, he is rescued and returns home, where he discovers that Tommy seems to have his life back in order, remodeling Sam's kitchen, bonding with his children, taking care of his wife, a badly underwritten role for Natalie Portman. The children, played by Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare, are simply wonderful, and a tribute to director Sheridan.
Sam is a physical and emotional mess, but he's a gung-ho Marine and doesn't want psychological help, he wants to return to combat.
And, of course, he's certain that Portman and Gyllenhaal have been having an affair, so the baggage cart just gets heavier and heavier. The drama is overpowering, sometimes overwhelming, but rarely satisfactory.
On multiple screens.
Remember "Waitress"? That was a charming little film a few years ago, written and directed by Adrienne Shelly who, unfortunately, was murdered shortly after it opened. Well, Shelly had written another screenplay, "Serious Moonlight," now directed by Cheryl Hines, a friend and member of the "Waitress" cast. Keri Russell was the third of the trio of waitresses.
"Moonlight" is not another "Waitress," just a silly matrimonial tangle that involves Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton. Kristen Bell, dumber than a box of rocks, is the interloper, carrying on with Hutton (who does not play golf, by the way). Bell and Hutton were to travel to Paris together, and Hutton had been decorating his country house for a pre-flight evening as if roses were wild oats. As they headed for the airport, Hutton was planning to leave a note telling Ryan he was departing with another woman.
But Ryan, a lawyer, returns a day early from a business trip and discovers the plot. Moments later, Hutton is wrapped in duct tape and the two begin to talk, and argue, and talk some more. Much of the film involves two taped-up people, by dawn's early light, with too much to say to say good-night, as the old song almost goes.
Bell, stood up at the airport goes to Hutton's house and soon joins the group of tapees. The conversation continues. There are a few funny moments, but it's mostly a drag.
On multiple screens.
Now is the time of year for music, regardless of the adjectival prefix of choice, and the Black Rep is the first local company out of the musical starting blocks with "Black Nativity," in which the story is secondary to the music, and the music is splendid. It opens tonight, to run through Dec. 27. I saw it at a preview last weekend, when Leslie Johnson was ill and did not perform.
The show is a mixture of classical, folk, religious, contemporary and traditional music and, as usual, there were many wonderful voices on display. Ron Himes directed simply but effectively, Diane White-Clayton, a Washington U. student who worked on the show when the company produced it 20 years ago at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park, handled the musical direction with skill.
Langston Hughes is credited with the book, but his work seems more collection and arrangement than anything else. Music credits are a different story. George Friedrich Handel composed some, White-Clayton composed and wrote lyrics for others. And there are psalms, spirituals, African and American folk songs, the hymns of Thomas A. Dorsey.
The first half is set in Africa, among Reggie Ray's rich and colorful costumes, and the story, such as it is, reflects the Nativity. Two couples portray Joseph and Mary, with Herman Gordon and Janessa Morgan the singers, Iyun Harrison and Heather Beal the dancers. All are fine, with Gordon's rich voice standing out in solos of "No Room at the Inn" and "What Will You Bring the King?" and in a duet with Mesha Brown, "Special Gift." Brown also covered the numbers that Johnson will be singing. We're more contemporary after intermission when we leave the African village and move into a church, with Kevin Bailey as the active minister, singing, dancing and leading call-and-response rhythms in a bright red robe.
A trio of youngsters, Dominique Milam and sisters Alexis and Tyler White, stand out as singers and as personalities in several numbers and Nakischa Joseph led a rousing first-act finale with "Clap Praise," melding White-Clayton's music and lyrics from Psalm 47 into a rhythmic, delightful routine with the entire ensemble working together beautifully. Other standouts were Jennifer Kelley with "I'll Tell It Wherever I Go" and Chuck Flowers, Joel King and Brian Owens in "Late-Night Shepherds' Blues."
And as good as the soloists are, they take a back seat to the rousing voices of the ensemble, which joins in most of the songs to take them far over the top, drawing delightful, enthusiastic, hand-waving responses. It's a fine evening of entertainment.
"Black Nativity" by the St. Louis Black Repertory Company at the Grandel Theatre through Dec. 27.
The story of a man escaping his boyhood and his heritage is nothing new for a playwright. Eugene O'Neill did it, Arthur Miller did it, Tennessee Williams did it, Herb Gardner did it. Donald Margulies tried in "Brooklyn Boy," which opened at the New Jewish Theatre's Clayton home last night, but his writing has no surprises, plot twists so weak that what should be a roller-coaster ride feels like one in a baby carriage.
There are some good lines and some good performances, and Bobby Miller's direction is fascinating, his on-target focus emphasized by Scott C. Neale's set and Maureen Hanratty's lights. As sound designer, he chose absolutely perfect music for the between-scenes interludes. The play's six scenes take place in as many different locations, and the performers work their way from one end of the theater to the other while the audience sits on either side. A few pieces of furniture, a couple of props are enough to delineate each space. A fine staging touch.
Eric Weiss (the always impressive Jason Cannon), fleeing his family and his Jewishness from the day he learned to run, has grown to be a successful author with his third book, which includes a movie sale and a first-class book tour, with an interview by Katie Couric on the "Today" show (the play is set in 2002). He visits his hospitalized and obviously-dying father (Peter Mayer, who plays angry better than anyone I know), searching once again for a word of praise. "Oh," says Mayer, "your book is No. 11. Aren't you glad the list goes to 15 now?"
In the hospital cafeteria, Eric runs into a boyhood friend (outstanding work by R. Travis Estes), a delicatessen owner who still envies the boy who was taller, better-looking and smarter. The synagogue, domesticity and four children are his escape, in the tradition of "church, kitchen and children" that was a part of German family philosophy for so long.
Then he visits the woman who soon will be his ex-wife (Cannon's real wife, Sarah, in what has to be a difficult acting experience), and at times they seem near to a breakthrough and a reunion, but the closer they get, the farther apart they are. In Los Angeles, after a reading, he returns to his hotel with a very available graduate student, and the play begins to fall apart. Paris McCarthy, unsure of her maturity, something ill-defined both by the actress and the playwright, challenges Eric and herself. Margulies' dialogue falls short here.
A scene involving Eric with a Hollywood producer (Kate Frisina) and a young star who wants to break out of his mold as a sex symbol (Justin Ivan Brown) has plenty of laughs, but they're cheap and easy laughs, right from the nearest sit-com, and they leave both Cannon and this audience member embarrassed. It's downhill from there, though another fine scene with Mayer is still to come. Margulies, who owns a Pulitzer Prize for "Dinner With Friends," can write better and has written better. Miller and his cast have worked hard, but it's very difficult to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
A New Jewish Theatre production, through Dec. 20, at Clayton High School.
Chilean movies don't come around very often, but with Catalina Saavedra in the title role, "The Maid" is a very strong, often funny film that has universal application. Raquel, frumpy, virginal and not at all pretty, with unkempt hair and a slouch in her walk and her attitude, has worked for a wealthy family some 20 years. She's enough of a family member that they have a party for her birthday, though the gifts are of the hand-me-down variety.
Raquel takes care of the family and its house, cleaning and doing laundry and dishes, cooking and minding four children whose adolescence is setting in, to the point where she is washing sheets almost daily for the boy and trying to keep some sort of control over a group of strong-minded girls.
There are parents, though Dad (Alejandro Guic) does nothing but play golf and build model sailing ships while Mom (Claudia Celedon) has lunch with friends and visits with her mother.
But Saavedra is more territorial than a lioness, and when she has health problems and the family hires a helper, Raquel makes her life miserable and manages to avoid suspicion. We go through several maids, starting with the meek Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva) and on to the fiery Sonia (Anita Reeves), literally driven up the walls by Raquel, and finally to Lucy (Mariana Loyola), who is not intimidated by Raquel, befriends her and opens what may be a new life for her.
Sebastian Silva directed with a light, impressive touch, and also wrote the screenplay with Pedro Peirano. It's a charming movie.
Opens today at the Tivoli.
It isn't really a conspiracy, nor is it with sinister intent, but children often decide to keep information about one another from parents. Eventually, parents usually find out. It's part of life, and something to make a movie about. "Everybody's Fine" has been made twice, 20 years ago in Italy starring Marcello Mastroianni, now in the U. S. with Roert DeNiro, and it hasn't really worked either time.
DeNiro, as Frank Goode, a retired electrical wire maker, has been grieving about the death of his wife for eight months. His health isn't very good, and against his doctor's orders, he decides to visit his four children, David, an artist in New York; Amy, an ad agency owner in Chicago; Robert, a musician in Denver; and Rosie, a dancer in Las Vegas. The trip was made necessary by the children calling and reporting that they cannot visit him for the reunion he had planned and they had promised to attend.
Goode has worked on an assembly line and lived modestly, dreaming of the children's success. Traveling by bus is not a big deal; he daydreams as the wheels spin and the miles of telephone wire, some of which he might have touched, go racing by.
Writer-director Kirk Jones avoids subtlety at all costs. For example, before DeNiro leaves, we see him address envelopes to each of the children. He starts in New York, but is unable to find Robert. We're allowed to see the inside of the apartment, which is empty, because Jones wants us to know DeNiro slides an envelope under the door. Kate Beckinsale, as Amy, is successful but not really happy. Sam Rockwell, as Robert, is a tympanist with an orchestra and not the conductor he said he was. We can guess that Drew Barrymore, as Rosie, is not a ballerina in Las Vegas, and sure enough, she isn't.
It's a story that could have shown some warmth, some aspects of relationships, some truth, but neither Giuseppe Tornatore, who wrote and directed the 1991 version, nor Jones seems interested in peering beneath the surface of his characters. A shame.
Opens today at multiple locations.
The Scottish Arms bar staff proved to us that Real Men Wear Kilts. Now the kitchen is demonstrating that Real Men eat quiche, too, and quite happily.
We never thought we'd be gurgling with delight about quiche, which at best we always have seen as just an okay thing and at worst...oh, you don't want to know. But the just-west-of-Grand Center restaurant and pub has put its own stamp on it, available at Sunday brunch and an absolutely don't-miss item. The dark, cozy spot, a little better lit on the white-tablecloth dining room side, has plenty of regulars, occasionally getting vocal over a soccer or rugby match, since one or another always seems to be running on the television sets in the bar. On the plus side, the sound remains at reasonable levels, low enough to carry on our own conversation.
We've written before about the hearty oatmeal pancakes, a perfect match for the warm maple syrup served alongside. There's a fruit compote du jour or marmalade available for an extra charge, but to our taste, they're superfluous. The house is curing its own bacon now, and the slices, thick and meaty, arrive looking almost like long strips of ham, the cure mild and pleasant. The bacon, cooked a little more crisply, also stars in the BELT sandwich, bacon, egg, lettuce and tomato on toast with a spicy aoli, adding up to a swell combination, with the aioli providing just enough bite. It's a little gooey from the eggs, but leaning over your plate to eat is no sacrifice when the sandwich is this winning. The runny-yolk-ophobes can ask for the eggs to be hard-cooked, of course.
A platter called the Highland Hangover (Ann offers a nod in the direction of her late, great friend, the ex-cop from Glasgow, who took the biggest exam of his life in said condition) offers a collection of nibbling-type things that are just right for absorbing the whisky of the previous evening or bloody Marys from the make-it-yourself bar at the front window. A Scotch egg, a standard bar snack in the UK, is a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat and deep fried. Sausage rolls offer sausages far meatier than their authentic Caledonian counterparts, nice and juicy, wrapped in flaky, tender pastry. And forfar bridies, called baby bridies here, are another recipe from the land of lochs and glens. Basically, it's a small turnover filled with chopped beef, spiced up with a little onion and, we suspect, some dry mustard. Very munchable. Add to that a generous rosette of smoked salmon and some crostini and you have ballast enough to get through a busy Sunday. The same sausage and bacon are part of the very authentic English breakfast, with egg, grilled tomato, toast and beans, except that it arrives warmer than most we've had overseas.
And then the quiche. The size of a large slab of cheesecake, fully two inches high, the flavors vary from week to week, but the creamy, delicate texture seems to be a constant, a fine mixture of just the right proportion of egg to liquid and the right time and temperature in the oven. Even the crust, which is puff pastry, an imaginative touch we applaud, is remarkable. Craveable quiche: Who would have thought it?
Pleasant, easy-going service, and an overall sense of leisure permeate things here. It's a gastropub in the best, most unpretentious sense of the word.
The Scottish Arms
8 S. Sarah Ave.
Brunch Sun. 10a.m.-2p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Satisfactory
Entrees (Brunch): $8-$14
City living is something we both consider the proper environment.
Joe grew up in Brooklyn and figured out rather quickly that the country might be bucolic but it was a place to visit and not to sprout roots. Ann's from a small town and knew that while she was in a good place to be a kid, she wanted to be a grownup in a big city, thank you. And so when we heard about a restaurant called Urban Eats, it seemed to be a natural visit. Urban Eats is not the sort of place that wants to pretend it's in New York or Shanghai or Potosi. It goes out of its way to be a participant in the community, both its immediate neighborhood, which is Dutchtown, and the larger St. Louis one.
It's a small place, comfortable but not cutesy-cozy, with tables and chairs, stools and counters, a sofa and a meeting room next door. It hosts book signings and meet-ups, political gatherings and charity fundraisers. Officially a cafe and bakery, Urban Eats offers late breakfasts (after 10 a.m.), with espresso drinks and muffins, which can be ordered “stuffed,” meaning a squirt of vanilla cream cheese filling. Lunches and a separate selection of happy hour snacks are served until 7 p.m.
The way it works is to start with a decision of whether you want your food to come inside something, like a panini or a wrap, or on top of something, like a bowl of rice or a flatbread, which means pizza. Next is a question of style, as in Asian, Italian, Southwestern, Mediterranean or American, which still means pizza, and finally a decision on filling, involving chicken, turkey, salmon, pepperoni and bacon, hummus or eggplant caponata. There are several sides, too, described as "yummy extras," like chips or fruit, or "really yummy extras," like soups or salads or noodles.
We went for a wrap, made with a large whole wheat tortilla, in its Mediterranean version, with black olive tapenade, mozzarella, and lemon-pepper mayo, holding hummus and its partner portobello mushrooms. And we were very glad we did, too. The cheese was warm and gooey from the grilling, with a little spicing and just enough filling to fill the mouth but not ooze out the other end. A little baby spinach was an extra benefit. Quite yummy.
At the opposite end of the carnivore spectrum, a flatbread made with a long piece of the Indian naan, dressed with the “American sauce,” which still meant pizza, but with a tasty sweet-basil sauce (we passed on the mozzarella that usually rides shotgun). Topped with lots of pepperoni and bacon, it was a good combination of sweet and salty, crisp and chewy. Our sides were a bowl of Thai ginger noodles and another of white chicken chili. The noodles were pleasant but mild, not as spicy as the word “Thai” might imply, and lightly peanutty. A little more ginger would have improved them. On the other hand, the chili was a real winner, lots of meat, relatively few beans, threads of what appeared to be leeks lacing the thick, spicy soup. Just fine for a gray, wintry afternoon, warming and cheering.
Muffins and cookies head up the sweets, along with bread pudding and gooey butter cake. Eschewing our usual bread pudding, we tried the GBC. Chewy-gooey, just as rich as it should be, our only complaint was that it was a little dry in the base. But the good and surprisingly fresh coffee, just the regular stuff, not a specialty drink, made up for that.
Urban Eats is extremely child-friendly, with booster seats and a high chair, but an alcohol license and a drink menu that includes smoothies with rum or vodka, as well as beer, lots of things to read, art work on the walls and a system that calls for visiting the counter to order. The food is then brought to you. Just a really comfy, well-lit, third-place sort of spot.
Urban Eats Cafe
3301 Meramec St.
Late Breakfast and Lunch daily, early dinner Mon.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Difficult