Tag Archives: movies

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RIP White Chocolate

I’m still in shock that Philip Seymour Hoffman died.  He was a colossally talented chameleon of an actor, probably among the two or three best actors working today. I took a quick look at his IMDB page and just shook my head; he was great in everything.

The guy could be freaking hilarious, too. Along Came Polly is a mediocre movie, but it has its memorable moments, thanks mostly to Hoffman. He plays Ben Stiller’s off-kilter friend Sandy. Two things about Sandy: he introduces a new word into the pop culture lexicon (“sharted”), and he’s quite possibly the world’s worst basketball player (though he doesn’t know it).

Here, he gives Stiller weird sex advice while managing to make pizza look gross.

No food in this next clip, but it does feature Hoffman, who despite a profound lack of basketball skills, dubs himself as “White Chocolate.”

I loved this scene, and damn, I’m gonna miss seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman in more movies.

RIP White Chocolate.

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A Documentary Worth Savoring: “Step Up to the Plate”

The documentaries “Step Up to the Plate” and “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” have a few things in common; both touch on the relationships between fathers and sons, the elusive pursuit of perfection and the idea of food as an art form. And both feature chefs operating twenty levels higher than the rest of us mortal home cooks. Make that thirty.

I loved “Step Up to the Plate,” but I realize it won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. The leisurely paced film takes place over the period of a year, as it follows chefs Michel Bras and his son Sebastien. Michel is a revered three-star Michelin chef, who’s preparing to retire and hand his renowned restaurant over to his son. As you can imagine, that’s a lot of pressure.

The movie makes you feel Sebastien’s strain. He doesn’t so much say it, but you can see the weight of it in his eyes. When you’re at the top, there’s nowhere to go but down. The transition is equally as hard on his father, who has a legacy to uphold and can’t imagine a life away from the kitchen. Both men come off as thoroughly decent, and you want them to succeed.

The whole movie is sort of quiet, subtle and beautiful. The chefs’ attention to the tiniest details are astonishing; they fuss about herbs and texture and plating. (Wait’ll you see the way these guys plate — there’s a sequence right at the top with a salad, and I’d never even heard of half the ingredients.)

Hands down my favorite scene — when Sebastien walks into the restaurant’s test kitchen alone and creates/tests a new recipe. No background music, no dialogue, barely any sound at all; just the hum of the kitchen and the sight of a chef in full concentration. If you’re really into food, this scene’s gonna hook you. It’s utterly fascinating — like observing an artist in his studio — only instead of watching a painter paint, you’re inside the mind of a chef.

Like “Jiro Dream of Sushi,” “Step Up to the Plate” affirms the values of hard work and dedication to a craft. These guys aren’t celebrity chef sellouts, they care. You get the feeling that even though Michel Bras is retiring, his restaurant is in good hands.

Damn do I love movies about food.

Watch the trailer here.

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Dreaming of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”

During the credits of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I let out a small sigh of contentment, like I’d just eaten the greatest meal of my life. Except, I hadn’t actually eaten it, I’d only watched it being prepared on a movie screen.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi had me mesmerized from the opening frame to the last credit.  The new documentary (currently playing at E Street Cinema) is a must-see for anyone with a passion for food, or a passion for anything, really. It profiles Jiro Ono, considered by many to be the world’s greatest sushi chef. His tiny 10-seat Tokyo restaurant has earned a three-star Michelin rating, and even seasoned food critics speak reverently of the place.

I remember seeing Jiro’s restaurant featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations a few years ago. Bourdain was unsurprisingly awed by the food, but we learned little about the impassive Jiro himself, mainly due to time constraints and the language barrier. Here, the filmmakers reveal what makes him tick. And he’s a pretty fascinating guy. He’s got stories, he has some sly personality, and at times, he’s quite funny.

You also haven’t seen sushi prepared until you’ve seen this movie. Jiro has devoted his entire life to his craft. Literally, his entire life; he was on his own and got his first job at the age of nine. Nine!  Now 85, he lives, breathes and sleeps sushi. The movies captures his never-ending quest for perfection (some may call it obsession), a drive that he’s instilled in his two sons, both of whom are following in their father’s footsteps.

I could watch Jiro and his kitchen staff all day on a continuous loop.  The dedication, precision, nuance, and attention to detail must be seen to be believed. You could probably count on one hand the number of people with that sort of singular focus. It’s like watching the last of a dying breed. Jiro doesn’t seem to care about money or fame. He just wants to make the perfect sushi. One gets the sense that if he ever retired or were unable to work, he’d quickly slip away. Without your single passion in life, what else would there be to live for?

There’s a section of the movie where a food critic compares Jiro’s tasting menu to a concerto. That leads to a sublime scene of stirring classical music, beautiful cinematography and shot after shot of gorgeous sushi. It was thoroughly moving. My eyes actually welled up. Yeah, that’s right. I got teary at a movie about sushi.

What can I say, I dug the movie. It’s inspiring watching a true artist at work. It’s inspiring hearing someone talk about the sacrifice and dedication it requires to achieve greatness. It’s inspiring seeing people who take such immense pride in their craft.

And damn, the food… We all walked out of the theater with one thought on our minds: Where can we get some sushi??

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An Uneven “Forks Over Knives”

It occurred to me about halfway through the new documentary Forks Over Knives that the movie was a disguised call to veganism.  The word is never uttered; instead they use the phrase “whole food, plant-based diet.” I’m imagining the filmmakers at a pitch meeting saying, “Yeah, this movie’s about veganism, but we can’t say that word because viewers will think it’s about a bunch of PETA fanatics.”

I eagerly walked into Forks Over Knives, having just finished reading In Defense of Food, a similarly themed book. While I’m far from vegan — as exhibited by blog posts on over-stuffed, pork-filled tacos — I do primarily cook vegetable-based, healthy meals at home, am dead serious about fitness and have an interest in nutrition. In short, I was a prime candidate to enjoy Forks Over Knives.

Unfortunately, it’s a so-so movie.

The central thrust of Forks Over Knives is this: The Western diet is killing people slowly but surely, creating a raft of chronic illnesses and diseases that could easily be reversed if people would stop consuming meat and dairy, and switch to a plant-based diet.

It’s a fascinating topic and no doubt there’s serious merit to the information being presented. But the movie is so darn clunky, presenting an avalanche of facts without cohesion or a clear narrative, lacking certain specifics, relying on an overuse of dull narration and awkwardly careening from topic to topic. At one point, the subject of erectile dysfunction abruptly pops up out of nowhere (no pun intended), and you just think, What? Where did that come from??

I’ll hand it to the movie though, it’s certainly convincing. We meet a series of people whose health drastically improves in a matter of weeks or months, simply from switching to a vegan diet. After a while though, the testimonials start to come off like a PSA or a bad infomercial.  We see their point A and point B, but not enough of what’s in between. What exactly were they eating? How much? How was it being prepared? Did they start exercising? These were all things I wanted to know.

As someone who’s interested in my own nutrition, I also left the theater feeling somewhat confused, with a ton of questions. For instance, according to the doctors, dairy is a huge no-no (it’s explained that the animal protein may induce the turning on of cancer cells, and that calcium may in fact cause osteoporosis).  How then would the doctors  explain the longevity of people who consume a Mediterranean diet, which includes cheese, like feta? Or the low incidence of heart disease in the French, who indulge in cheese and wine?

Oils are mentioned as another food to avoid, and in one shot, you even seen a bottle of olive oil in the picture. No olive oil? Again, what about the Mediterranean diet?

And how about fish? Can’t eat that either?  The Japanese diet, high on fish, has been shown to be one of the healthiest in the world. What gives?

I didn’t dislike Forks Over Knives, but it frustrated me. If anything, I’d recommend first seeing the documentaries Food, Inc. and Super Size Me, and reading books like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. All of them tell a better story and are much more engaging.

Meanwhile, I’m going to keep doing what I do and eat a well-balanced diet. And yeah, I cooked with olive oil tonight. Liberally.

The Westchester Food Oscars

Another year — and decade! — of eating has come to an end, and with it, I have a few 2009 food honors to hand out.  This is movie award season after all, and being a huge movie nut (Avatar is mind-blowing and Up in the Air fantastic, by the way), it’s only fitting to present these awards in the style of the Oscars.

(Note: By no means is this a fair and comprehensive list; because my pool of contenders were limited to places where I’d been, there are undoubtedly dozens of worthy restaurants and dishes left out of the mix.  A man can only make it to so many eateries in a year.)

Without further ado, let’s hand out some awards…

CINEMATOGRAPHY (aka Most Scenic)

Nominees: X2O, Blu, 42, Half Moon

Winner: 42

The Hudson River/Palisades views are breathtaking, but 42 takes top prize for its striking decor and stunning, panoramic 360-degree view — from 42 floors up.  Is this Westchester or Manhattan?

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FOOD

Nominees: Khan’s Indian Kitchen, Juarez Restaurant, MED Empanadas, Pablo’s Deli, Turkish Cuisine Westchester

Winner: Pablo’s Deli

It’s not so much that the food at Pablo’s Deli was better than the rest — though I quite enjoyed my churrasco — but that I’d stumbled in by accident, expected nothing, and walked out smiling.  Plus, Pablo was darn nice, and took obvious pride in his Chilean offerings.

BEST SUPPORTING FOOD

Nominees: Lefteris’s gigandes, Spadaro’s peas, Via Vanti!’s gelato, Outhouse Orchard’s cider donuts, June & Ho’s latkes

Winner: Lefteris’s gigandes

A murderer’s row of side dishes and snacks that I’d gladly devour any time, any day. But the gigandes at Lefteris — giant white beans in tomato sauce — are so good, so soft and creamy, they could be a meal all on their own.  Who needs souvlaki and gyros? Bring me a salad and a bowl of gigandes.

BEST DISH IN A LEADING ROLE

Nominees: Umami Cafe’s pork and peas, Bakery at Four Corners’s Cuban sandwich, X2O’s roasted venison, The Cookery’s pork osso buco, Johnny’s Pizzeria’s plain pie

Winner: The Cookery’s pork osso buco

A dish that makes diners a little verklempt.  According to Liz Johnson’s video on The Cookery, the Berkshire pork shank is deep fried, rendering it unimaginably tender and sheathed in a crispy skin.  Take an extra Lipitor if you must — it’s worth it.

BEST DIRECTOR

Nominees: 42′s Anthony Goncalves, The Cookery’s David DiBari, Tarry Lodge’s Nusser/Batali/Bastianich, X2O’s Peter Kelly

Winner: Peter Kelly

Kelly is simply the man: wildly successful restaurateur, Iron Chef winner, participant of numerous charitable causes.  Eating at X2O was special, and meeting him at the Hudson Valley Restaurant Week kickoff, a privilege.  I lost out on my cheese wheel, but gladly took the chance to shake Kelly’s hand.

BEST PICTURE (or restaurant)

Nominees: 42, The Cookery, Bird & Bottle Inn, X2O, Tarry Lodge

Winner: The Cookery

I know, I know, ho hum, everyone loves The Cookery.  But really, with its moderate prices, rustic coziness and big-flavored Italian comfort food, The Cookery demands a visit, bringing together all the elements of a great restaurant.  And the osso buco… oh, the osso buco.