Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Film reviews: "The Spectacular Now" and "Mud"

I recently had the chance to see two very strong additions to the "Coming of Age" genre, Jeff Nichols' latest southern tale, "Mud", and James Ponsoldt's story of a High School alcoholic, "Spectacular Now". These films could not be more different, yet they have many of the tropes of their genre in common, and both take place in the American South.

"Mud" often feels like a period piece. It reminded me just a touch of something I caught on TV a few months ago, a '50's coming of age movie called "Goodbye, My Lady". I started watching this "boy and his dog" movie because the music was written and performed by Laurindo Almeida, the great master of Brazilian guitar. It's a very sad and wistful film, and surprisingly it drew me in with subtle, straightforward acting and storytelling. "Mud" is the same kind of presentation. Nichols' first two efforts, "Shotgun Stories" and "Take Shelter" have a bit more obscurity to them; at times you struggle to understand if what you are seeing is real or not, or what a character's motivation is in a certain situation. This is not the case in "Mud". The central mystery of why the title character is in hiding is revealed early on.

The film centers more around the relationships between the two young friends, the boys and their families, and the boys and Mud himself. The story of Mud and his erstwhile woman, Juniper, becomes more of a learning parable for young Ellis, as he battles his parent's imminent divorce, and falls for an older girl. This is what works beautifully about the film. What seems a bit forced, however, is the plot itself. Much of the film is standard indie style pastorale, slowly paced and small worded dialogue. When it morphs into an action film, complete with heroic rescue, bad guys and a shootout, the result is a feeling that the director is out of his depth. It's not that the action is clumsily done; on the contrary it is quite professional. The film, however, has not been leading us to these moments, and it is reminiscent of the last part of "Adaptation", wherein Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze satirize the arc of popular film with a potboiler ending. Mud goes from being a kind of deluded, pathetic, lovelorn loser to acting like his CIA trained father figure, who just happens to live across the river from Ellis.

Don't  misunderstand--I enjoyed "Mud" very much, and recommend it without reservation. What really shines in the film is the cast, headed by a strong turn from Matthew McConaughey as Mud. He seems to be resurrecting his career by avoiding RomComs and going indie. I have recently enjoyed his performances in "Killer Joe" and "Bernie" very much. The kids, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are both believable and unforced, and much of the supporting roles are superbly played. Standouts are Ellis' father, played by Ray McKinnon (Vern, from "O Brother Where Art Thou") and Nichols' "house player" Michael Shannon as Galen. The two big names, Reese Witherspoon and Sam Shepard are as you would expect; up to the task of support players without dominating the film.

On the subject of dominating a film, Miles Teller, as Sutter Keely in "The Spectacular Now" is on screen every frame, it seems, from start to finish. This is a good thing. He is maybe the best young actor in this generation. I was made aware of him through the painfully poignant "Rabbit Hole". Without prior knowledge of the film or it's performances, I came away thinking that he was the main reason to watch it. This is only somewhat true of "The Spectacular Now", due to a fine script, perfect casting, and some of the best ensemble acting in recent memory.

The film tackles an interesting subject; what happens to the popular guy in school when he graduates and loses his status? When people begin to look towards their futures, and not just on where the next party is going to be, or who is the hottest guy/girl to date? Now add into this mix that our hero's undoing begins with being dumped by his hot, popular girlfriend for the over-achieving football/academic star, and that one of the reasons he is being dumped is his incipient alcoholism, and we've got an original character study.

Sutter rebounds with the geeky Aimee, who is played brilliantly by the lovely Shailene Woodley. Casting Woodley as a geeky girl is more than a stretch, she is gorgeous and luminous. I kept thinking about Emma Stone in "Easy A", and how hard a time I had picturing her as the high school loser. These girls would have been the Mt. Everest of MY High School. I guess we need to get past this in contemporary film. Regardless, Woodley and Teller have such a natural chemistry and flow, that it seems like we are watching Cinema Verite at times. Their scenes together are as good as this stuff gets. When Aimee is at a dinner party, and offhandedly describes her father's death to a pill overdose, it is done with that understatement of someone delivering shocking news that they themselves have become inured to. The camera shows the shocked reactions of the dinner guests, and never shows a close-up of Aimee. It is unnecessary. Her voice tone and delivery carry the impact. This is where both you and Miles recognize the depth and strength of Aimee's character. We collectively fall for her.

Sutter and Aimee make a pact to stand up to their (single) mothers, and when Sutter finally does by going to confront his absentee father, you find out exactly what is the source of his alcoholism. What follows is a scene between Sutter and his mother (played by one of my favorite actresses, Jennifer Jason Leigh) of tremendous power, wherein Sutter's mom explains how he is different from his father. This is the big moment, and Jennifer Jason Leigh does it justice.

The script, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber is original and thoughtful. There are few, if any, false notes. This is the team that brought us "500 Days of Summer", a re-working of "Annie Hall" that was very entertaining albeit a bit shallow. "The Spectacular Now" shows some growth, for certain. The film may not be as funny as "500 Days", but it will stay with you a much, much longer time.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Little Serow-- Komi's much hyped, much cheaper sibling

Our experience at Komi was so excellent, that it seemed a no-brainier to check out Johnny Monis' hugely popular and well-reviewed Thai themed restaurant, Little Serow. Yes it was somewhat a daunting task for two middle-aged foodies. The process is need to arrive about 4:30 to get on line outside the unmarked door on 17th St. Then you wait for an hour or so until they invite you in, party by party. If you want to eat later, you can put your name on a list, and will be seated in the second seating (usually about 7:30).
There are no garages in the area, so you need to find a meter if you want to eat right away, which is what we did. While we waited on line, it drizzled a bit, but we had some nice conversation with a young woman who was right in front of us.
The other daunting part of the meal for us oldsters was the content of the food, which has a reputation for being fiery hot. I happen to love hot food, so I wasn't scared, but my wife was not looking forward to it. I will let her vent her side of the story, but suffice it to say she doesn't like Thai food to begin with, so was truly indulging me. It was a bit of an easy indulgence, since she ranked Komi as a top 5 meal of her life! At $45 per meal, Serow also seemed much easier on the bank account than it's Greek neighbor.

Once inside, we were greeted cheerfully by the hostess, who sat us at a two top nearest the rear of the place. It offered a nice view of the staging area, so we could see what dish was approaching. The seats were raised stools, and the table was barroom table height. Not comfortable at all. The restaurant feels like a dinner party at someone's sparsely decorated home. The music playlist was bluegrass and country music; like Komi, it was selected by Anne Marler, Monis' wife and partner. It seemed kind of homey, and even though I am not a fan, I felt it counteracted the pretentiousness of the table getting process. Our server was happy and informative, but was more like a part of a huge serving organism that seemed to take plates to your tables regardless of assignment. All were very up on what was being served, and my water glass stayed filled all night, thank GOD!

We ordered a bottle of Rose Provençal, which I thought would be appropriate for the kind of food and August weather. The Rose came out nowhere close to chilled properly, which made me wonder if they were going whole hog on the Thai thing, where refrigeration is always an issue.
First course and Side dishes

Speaking of hog, our first plate came out, which was basically lighter than air pork rinds and hotter than Hades pepper dip. Accompanying for the full meal was a bamboo container of flavorless sticky rice, and a basket filled with undressed raw veggies. The veggie assortment was interesting, beetle lettuce(?), watermelon radish slices, Thai basil bunches), and also uninteresting, (Bibb lettuce, cucumbers, romaine). As for the chip and dip, it had its pleasures. The dip was reminiscent of Baba Ghanoush in texture, but way more subtle in flavor underneath the heat.

Next came out two dishes representing a salad course. I can describe one as pork candy in cilantro, and the other as corn salsa from hell. They both had a similar sauce, but the pork candy made that dish more enjoyable. Both were hotter than our pepper dip, and had a lasting burn I found difficult to quench until much later in the meal. I don't associate cilantro with Thai food, thinking it more indigenous to Vietnamese cooking, but it seemed a major part of this meal. I happen to love it, but it is quite a divisive herb. My wife detests it, sadly. I finished the pig candy, but left most of the corn salsa, finding it pretty damn boring. After this course, my mouth was pretty enraged, lips stinging and eyes running. That's ok. Nothing wrong with an endorphin rush. The water was being consumed at record pace.

Our next dish was a kind of lettuce cup and chopped chicken take, that was pretty similar to a P.F. Chiang dish, but much more unique in flavor. The chicken was mixed with liver, and I thought it was great. Instead of lettuce, there were cabbage leaves for cupping. Also, Thai basil took the place of Cilantro, making the plate safe for Cilantro haters, but not safe for Liver haters. This was a hot dish, but much less fiery than the three predecessors. Things were looking up!

So far the sauces were consistently redolent of fish sauce, with varying amounts of lime to sour things up. Next came a very different flavor and texture. A mushroom dish topped with a fried egg. The sauce was sweetly rich. I loved it when I could take a handful of sticky rice and dip it in there.
The mushrooms were small and slightly crispy, and breaking the softly cooked egg enriched everything with yolk. This was another fine dish, and a nice left turn in the flavor parade.

Ribs in Mekong Whiskey and Dill
The last plate featured short pork ribs, surrounded by a sauce with Mekong Whiskey (go figure--the Southeast Asian version of Jack Daniels Ribs) and, of all things, dill. Yes the ribs were perfectly cooked, crispy and falling off the bone, but i have to say the sauce was not something that fell under the category of different. The dill was a surprise, but not enough to make the sauce thrilling.

This place won a James Beard award? Critics from the Washington Post and Washingtonian Magazine rank it in the top 10 of the area? I'd trade that whole meal for a plate full of Queen Bee spring rolls. Damn how I miss that joint. OK, that's a bit harsh, but I was expecting something far more exotic and surprising. 

There was one final unannounced treat, coconut custard on a small square of sweet sticky rice. It was good, but not remarkable. Which is pretty much how I'd sum up the entire meal. Of these hottest restaurants in the DMV area, only Komi has lived up to the hype so far. Minibar was a close 2nd. Let downs have been Le Diplomate, Volt 21 and sadly, Little Serow.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Our Night at Komi

Many times I have read a series of raves about a place, gone and forked over a ton of cash, and when totally underwhelmed with the experience, wonder what I missed. Worst case scenario so far- Volt Table 21. The bill was astronomical, and the experience was not amazing. Don’t get me wrong—there were some fantastic bites in there, but also some that I found either dull or just something that the juxtaposition of flavors didn’t work for me. Minibar, on the other hand, was great, worth the money and a totally satisfying trip into glutton heaven. Better still was my meal last night at Komi, a top rated small course restaurant near DuPont Circle.

My wife and I arrived at 6:00 on the dot, and found no valet or parking on the street. I pulled my ex-New Yorker routine and landed something on a side street with some illegal moves.
The space is spare and not lushly decorated. It’s on one floor of a townhouse, with wood floors, stucco walls and wrought iron appointments. It’s dimly lit, and, once filled, pretty noisy. Older people like myself can’t really hear normal conversation when sound isn’t deadened somehow. This is a conceit of the younger generation of restaurateurs—they want their places to seem lively, so no carpets, wall hangings, drapes, etc. What you end up with is cacophony, and not conducive to an intimate dining experience. Lisa, my wife and dining companion, said the background music playlist was excellent and eclectic, but they could have been playing “The Candyman” on endless repeat for all I could tell.

The place hadn’t filled yet, so for the first half of our meal, we could enjoy conversation without raising our voices. And there’s plenty of time to talk. The full experience took 2.5 hours. That’s not to say that you spend a lot of time waiting for your food. On the contrary, it comes out exactly when you want it.

Our main server, Mary, was a delightful and well-informed presence all night. An ex-policy wonk, she decided to blow it off for the world of high level dining, and she seems very happy. We each ordered one glass of red wine, which we nursed through the meal. This served a dual purpose. First limit the cost of a verrrry pricey meal, and second, I had a gig afterwards and wanted to not be completely groggy for it.

Before our food began coming out, Mary asked us about food allergies and preferences. Lisa is not a fan of cooked fish, I have a problem digesting eggplant (not a small problem in a Greek themed restaurant), and we both detest beets. That was no problem, and the dishes we received were very appropriate to these tastes.

Now for a plate by plate broadcast:

Our first taste was a small spongy ball of bread topped with some sour creamy/yogurt substance and a small spoonful of trout caviar. We were told that this was their “Taramosalata”, and it was a perfect opener. Light and refreshing, with a few nice textures.

Next came the re-imagining of Spanakopita. No filo here, instead, a fried ball of cracked wheat or bulghur and inside a soft, warm cheesy substance. I didn’t get the textural sensation of spinach, but the flavor was there. It was a kind of kibbe with pureed creamed spinach inside. This was a standout, and we both raved about it so much, that Mary later on brought us a second taste each!

Sashimi of Coho Salmon followed, and was as fresh and flavorful as that gets. Interestingly sprinkled with tiny cocoa pellets, the mix worked both in flavor and texture.

What followed was a baby turnip, which was cute as can be, served over a small smear of uni, and the sauce was an “uni zabaglione”. I guess that means some liqueur and cream foamed with the uni. Whatever, it was a beautiful combination with the bitterness of the turnip.

The first swing and miss from the kitchen was a still attached to the shell bay scallop, tiny and sauced with a scant lemon butter. This was really not very different from a sauce you’d get in a so-so seafood stop near the shore. Very uninspired. Also, detaching the mollusk from it’s shell was troublesome, and shredded the scallop on Lisa’s dish.

Gnocchi was next, and time for some redemption for the kitchen. Made from Yukon Gold potatoes, the gnocchi was the lightest and fluffiest I have ever had, served with Vermont butter sauce and baby chives. The single best pasta dish I have ever tasted. Literally at the moment I was thinking this, one of the waiters saw my expression of rapture, and commented, “It’d be nice to have an “Olive Garden” sized portion of that, right?” No shit!

Another success came out, a bit riskier but fully realized nonetheless. Rabbit Liver Mousse served over a sourdough soft crouton. The mousse was light and flavorful, and not too livery. The crostini was from pain de campagne type bread, obviously flavored with oil and garlic. Tiny minces of some kind of gherkins added a sweetness and contrast to the gaminess of the pate. A home run!

Sweet onion filled dough, described as Baklava, served adjacent to a small slab of Foie Gras was next, and the plate was dotted with the most powerful tangerine jelly you can imagine. I expected more of a flaky filo type encasement of the sweet onions, but it worked nonetheless. They shouldn’t refer to it as Baklava. This was good, but following the previous two acts was difficult at best.
Mascarpone filled Dates

Our first taste on the sweeter side came out, a mascarpone filled date, warm and comforting, exactly when your palate was ready for a directional change. Exquisite!

Now for the other pasta: two kinds of ravioli, and respecting Lisa’s wish, she received a non-fish version, filled with sunchoke puree and delightfully rich in a light veggie cream sauce. Mine was salt cod filled, and very airy, with a sauce that complemented the fish well. Typically, we each liked the other’s dish more, but I generally appreciated both of the raviolis more than Lisa did.
Roast Goat
At last the main dish came out, and this is what separates Komi from all the other small course places, they give you their choice of a substantial serving of a protein. If you are lucky, or hint at it, you get what we got; the roast goat. It is pretty much the best souvlaki you can ever imagine---fork tender goat meat with a crispy outer layer, served with fluffy grilled pita rounds and garnished on the side with fresh lemon, red pepper rings, basil salt and ultra-creamy tzatziki. I literally could not get enough, but I was also getting a telegram from my stomach that it was “fine now, and could I please stop?” My mouth shot back, “shut up, fool.”

Desert followed in three plates:

We started with honey mousse, served over delightfully crunchy nuts and a crackle of some sort. This was a standout. Unlike any desert I have had in both flavor and texture.

Then came a greek donut, which was a bit thick and dull, the only other misfire from this kitchen beside the scallop. The donut was served on a ricotta cheese bed, which usually does nothing for me anyway, so all in all, it didn’t work for me.

But hope was not lost, for the finale was a plate of salted caramel and chocolate variations, one a small slab of toffee coated with chocolate, a millionaire’s Heath Bar.
In the middle was a peanut butter caramel and chocolate petit four, that was probably the best sweet I have ever had. In the middle of it was a crunchy peanut brittle substance, and the top was soft caramel with fleur de sal on it. Screw Olive Garden, I wanted a Coldstone Creamery “Love It” size of that!
Then, wrapped in a box (supposedly for a birthday present- although this was not really my birthday dinner) was another caramel in a chocolate cup, but this had a spicy flavor, later identified by Mary as Cardamom. Brilliant!!

Was Komi one of the top 5 meals of my life? Yes, without a doubt. Not ranking them, but they are; my first meal at Inn at Little Washington (1990), a perfect evening of steak, etc. at Peter Luger in Williamsburg, Minibar, and a Rive Gauche discovery, Café Constant.