09 December 2007

That'll do, salt pig. That'll do.

So, last night Camille went out on a company excursion to an LA Kings game that involved alcohol, a party bus, and a luxury suite at Staples Center. I stayed home to write and bake cookies.

It did not occur to me until this morning that, basically, Camille went out for a late night of boozing and sports with the boys, while I stayed in the kitchen and baked.

That's right, I am a domestic god.

In other news, those Nestle Tollhouse break-and-bake cookies are the bomb.

So, my latest purchase from the Church of Williams-Sonoma: a salt pig. It's basically a wide-mouthed container for kosher salt, providing easy access to the flavor-enhancing mineral whenever I'm in a pinch. (Get it? Salt in a pinch? Tip your waitresses.) As it is a pig, I've decided it needs a name. The product is manufactured by Emile Henry, so a quaint French name will do.

I thinking Toulouse.

06 December 2007

Scorsese's "Key to Reserva"

There's a new nine-minute pseudo-documentary by Martin Scorsese that's actually a long ad for a Spanish wine. It's a funny bit in which Scorsese preserves a "film that has NOT been shot" by shooting a short film in Hitchcock's style. Good times. Have fun spotting all the Hitch references.

30 November 2007

Cinematical's Asian Sensations (sort of)

Cinematical has a list of Asian-American actors on the cusp of kinda sorta stardom in a steady-roles-that-aren't-generic-bit-parts way. Aw, shucks, Cinematical... you make me semi-ashamed for being a white-washed fan of mainstream Hollywood. Thanks for the shout out.

14 November 2007


Asking me for my favorite film is an exercise in futility. Even a Top 5 is tough, as it often just depends on my mood. If there's one thing I've learned about the moving picture, it's that movies hit you differently depending on when in your life you've watched them. I used to love Top Gun with every fiber of my being when I was eight, in large part because I had no concept of the French Kiss. Watching Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis tongue-bathe each other in soft blue lighting was an earth-shattering cinematic revelation for me. Nowadays? Not so much.

However, if you ask me why I've pursued a career in film, what movies made me want to MAKE movies, the answer is easy. Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects. Hands down, no contest. I watched them and thought, "Wait, you can do that in a movie?" Each flick, in its own way, questions the films that came before it, acknowledges and re-invents genre conventions, and finds unique ways to kick ass.

Which is why it pains me to say that I didn't care for Death Proof at all. Quentin Tarantino's first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, along with his screenplay for True Romance, have had an undeniable influence of Hollywood (not to mention me) in the last fifteen years, but in that same time Tarantino seems to lose himself a little more in his passion for movies. Each new QT piece, from his segment of Four Rooms on down, is bloated, self-indulgent, and often just a little boring. For every butt-kicking Kill Bill, Vol. 1, he delivers a drawn-out Kill Bill, Vol. 2.

Death Proof's faults are a lack of storytelling basics. There is no clever reinvention, no freshening up of dusty genre cliches. It's four girls yapping, followed by another four girls yapping. For two hours. And every now and again, Kurt Russell and his death proof mobile drop in to make things exciting.

And don't get me wrong, things get exciting when the titular car makes an appearance. The raucous, road raging finale delivers on the guilty pleasure promise of the whole grindhouse notion. It's genuinely thrilling to watch two types of car fetishes literally ramming into each other on a winding two-lane road. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the film is content to be about girls in conversation. And not the wonderfully sly, lyrical conversation Tarantino is known for. The conversations aren't unique, don't wind back on themselves, don't come up again later, or reveal anything about the characters. It's dreadfully natural chatter, bland in its realism. Oh, sure, there's a vague thematic connection, but who wants thematic mirrors when you've been promised killer cars?

I remember the mid-90s when Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez burst onto the Hollywood scene. Tarantino was the Golden Child, the post-classical Hollywood auteur. He was the trendsetter to Rodriguez's raw, brash director prodigy. The knock on Rodriguez was always that he could direct the hell out of anything, but couldn't write a story to save his life.

Planet Terror kicks unholy ass. Rodriguez has crafted a screenplay that toes the line of awfulness without ever going over, resulting in a marathon of corny dialogue and excessive gore that's an absolute pleasure to take in. He's smart enough to give us characters we care for, and savvy enough to know that what we really want out of Grindhouse is the sweet action/horror stuff. For example, there's El Wray, the classic brooding anti-hero. He's constantly being given a hard time by the local sheriff, who makes vague references to El Wray's dark, mysterious past. After skipping over a "missing reel" that burns out the film midway through the story, Rodriguez jumps straight to all hell breaking loose and reveals a wounded sheriff telling El Wray, "Thanks for telling me about... you know." It's more than just a film buff in-joke. It's Rodriguez telling his audience to hang on, the good stuff's on the way.

The film is a delightfully rich ball of cheese. It's the type of movie that's unafraid to beat a testicle joke to death, to repeat dialogue for melodramatic effect, or to amputate it's heroine's leg and replace it with an automatic rifle/rocket launcher. While Death Proof goes through great pains to recreate certain grindhouse elements (the scratched, dirty film stock, poor editing, etc.), Planet Terror actually relishes in the ridiculousness of action/horror movies. Tarantino delivers a tip of his cap to a by-gone genre of film, but Rodriguez goes all out and makes a film that stands on its own cheesy, gory merits.

12 November 2007


I don't want to sound like an old blowhard longing for the glory days of Hollywood's studio system. Disturbia's pretty good. It's an effective suspense/thriller. Shia "The New Dicaprio" LaBeouf is pretty good. But, come on, it's not Rear Window. Shia's kinda sorta cute girl has nothing on Grace Kelly. No one will ever rue the day she marries into Monaco's royal family. Speaking of which: Damn you straight to hell, Prince of Monaco Guy! Who do you think you are, taking Hitchcock's quintessential heroine? F you, a-hole!
Anyway. It's not fair to compare the two. Whether Disturbia is a re-invention or a re-imagining or a contemporary re-telling... it's a different animal. As in weaker. Oops, there I go.

I liked Shia's character, Kale. The opening moments of the film that turn him into the angry troublemaker he becomes are genuinely terrifying, and his resulting petulant attitude is completely understandable. In fact, that's ultimately what holds this story back. Kale's plight is so sad that his voyeuristic tendencies are almost acceptable.

The keen and clever part of Hitchcock's film was the James Stewart character's life of choice was one of distance, through his camera lens. He held everyone, including precious angel Grace Kelly, at bay, but was suddenly thrust into action upon discovering a murderous neighbor. Kale's actions really don't reflect on his character's flaws... he doesn't necessarily want to peek into his neighbor's lives. He got the royal screw and is stuck at home, what else is he supposed to do?

There I go with the comparisons, again. Look, here's the thing, Rear Window is dated. It's long and slow in parts. But it's ultimately more compelling and more harrowing when the chips are on the table. It indicts James and Grace and, gasp, even the audience for peeking through the window curtains, whereas Kale just happens to be bearing witness to evil and ends up going through the whole boy-who-cried-wolf affair.

So, if you've never seen Rear Window, then Disturbia does the job. It's tense and exciting when it needs to be, and surprisingly endearing between the thriller stuff. Kale's wise-ass Asian friend is hilarious. Alas, he has nothing on Grace Kelly, either.

24 October 2007

Capellini Shrimp

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Consider yourself flattered, C&O Cucina.

One of my favorite things to make at home is "inspired by" (or, in Hollywood-speak, "a homage to") the Capellini Shrimp dish at the Marina Del Rey ristorante. My take on it is a tad different, but still beautifully simple, sublime, sweet, and easy. I overload it with garlic because, seriously, is there such thing as too much garlic? However, the real kicker is the sun-dried tomatoes. DO NOT make it without sun-dried tomatoes. Shrimp is inherently light, almost bland. Sun-dried tomatoes give the dish the proper richness it needs to enhance all the other light flavors.

I think I almost made this in thirty minutes once. Eat it, Rachael Ray!

The software...

~1 package (16 oz.) capellini
~2/3-ish lb. shrimp, roughly chopped
~5-10 garlic cloves, minced (I don't give myself points for subtlety, so I use 10+)
~a handful (hell, I dunno, 3/4 cup?) of sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
~one package (hell, I dunno, 1 1/2 cups?) grape or cherry tomatoes
~olive oil
~grated parmesan or romano cheese

The hardware...

~one large frying pan
~one pot 'o boiling water

The program...

I should mention that I use the sun-dried tomatoes that are stored in a jar with olive oil and herbs. I guess you could use the truly dried ones that need re-hydrating, but for me "re-hydrating" is the exclusive domain of astronauts and marathon runners.

Okay, so, get some salted water into the pot and throw it on high heat. I use frozen shrimp (this dish is always on-call in my home), so now's a good time to throw those in a bowl of water to defrost. Chop up all that needs chopping, which is everything. I usually have medium-sized shrimp that I chop into thirds. This way, you can evenly disperse the shrimp throughout the plate and, hopefully, have some shrimp with every bite.

Heat the frying pan and olive oil. I usually cover the majority of the pan with olive oil. I know that sounds like a lot. You could make a white wine butter sauce like C&O does, if you know how. Or you could use a buttload of olive oil. I bet you the buttload of olive oil is healthier. And olive oil tastes good, anyway.

So, get the olive oil up to temperature. Unless you're a meth addict or an Iron Chef, the water should be boiling by now. Capellini cooks fast compared to other pasta. Time it so you finish cooking everything else at the same time as the pasta, like so: Drop the minced garlic into the olive oil and let it cook for about thirty seconds, then get the chopped sun-dried tomatoes in. The olive oil should soak up all those lovely flavors, and you'll definitely be smelling it. Please resist the urge to lap up that piping hot oil.

Throw the shrimp on there and cook, killing the heat as the shrimp gets close to opaque. Shrimp also cooks fast and gets rubbery when overcooked. Keep in mind that it'll sit in the piping hot oil until you dump in into the pot of steaming hot pasta, so don't worry about serving a lukewarm salmonella factory. It'll cook through.

Reserve a cup or so of the starchy pasta water before draining, so you can add as necessary later if the pasta gets too dry. After draining, return the capellini and then dump the whole works from the pan into the pot. Mix it as best you can (I find this to be the hardest part, actually) and then plate what you need.
Now add the fresh tomatoes. I drop a healthy handful onto each plate, so you get the light, juicy sweetness of the fresh tomatoes against the richer flavor of the sun-dried ones. Sprinkle the cheese, as parmesan and/or romano cheese will add a nice undertone of saltiness. And there it is. If you're feeling saucy, you can chiffonade some basil for garnish (also known as the "rolling a joint and chopping it" technique). But really, it's pretty enough, so have at it. Enjoy the tomatoes and get ready to breathe garlic for about an hour.

22 October 2007


There's such a fine line between gloriously bad and wickedly awesome. During the opening moments of Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, I was worried the film would lean toward the bad. The basic set-up is simplistic.

Meet Ting (Tony Jaa), rural villager, monk-in-training, and master of Muay Thai fighting. An elder monk stresses that Ting must not use his impressive combat skills. Everyone watching knows he will spend the entire movie using his impressive combat skills.

Meet Don, a shady character. How do we know he's shady? Because he wears jeans, has a trash 'stache, and offers to buy a sacred religious artifact from the villagers. When his offer is spurned, he steals the head of Ong-Bak just prior to the annual Ong-Bak festival.

Meet the villagers. They moan and wail and cry about how their village is doomed to perish without their sacred statue. They pool their meager savings to help Ting on his journey to track down the statue in the big city. There's actually a scene where they realize the well is running dry and, rather then, oh I don't know, look for more water, they gather and wring their hands about their missing statue.

It's a stilted yet quick way to get Ting into situations where he must fight against his peaceful will. But a funny thing happened on the way to the butt kicking: the movie suckers you into caring. It wins you over with humor while cleverly setting up a simple, effective theme to underscore the wild action.

The director and his co-writers find the perfect tone to launch Ting on his journey through the grimy, corrupt underworld of Bangkok. The film is sardonic and wry, almost satirical, but never silly and stupid. One funny scene has scam artist Humlae, a jaded former neighbor of Ting's, stumbling futilely while Ting leaps gazelle-like down an alley and away from an angry gang. Humlae eventually steals a knife from a butcher and wields it, the tables briefly turned, only to have a knife vendor pass through hawking her wares to the gang's sudden delight.
Instead of making Ting a superhuman hero, the film makes him a fish out of water. He's on the outside looking in with his peaceful mindset and singular beliefs. The filmmakers know a modern audience can't really identify with his mystical mission. Just like con artist Humlae and his partner, who Ting hesitantly links up with, we're skeptical of what Ong-Bak means and why it's so important. The joke is on Ting half the time, as when Humlae tricks him into participating in an underground fight club to pay off his gambling debts. Humlae keeps baiting and switching Ting, helping only so far as he can help himself. Tony Jaa finds the perfect note to play Ting. He isn't there to convert anyone, he's just a guy trying to make things right. He's patient, kind, but not stupid. He knows when he's being used but doesn't act out of spite or revenge. His refusal to compromise, if only to make his journey a little easier, is endearing. He's kinda like an ass-kicking Forrest Gump, a lovable country bumpkin with some seriously vicious flying elbows who's resilience won me over.

What I especially liked about the film is the way they make the conflict actually kinda sorta interesting.
It's not just Jaa versus gangsters. It is that, but time and again the story reflects themes of the old versus the new, the traditional versus the modern, and the sacred versus the corrupt. I'm not saying it's Pulitzer material, but there's something identifiable in the fighting that goes deeper than good and evil. My brain was tickled just enough to keep it awake. It's not just Jaa that you're pulling for, it's his cause, which I started to root for almost in spite of myself.

And by the way, the film kick serious ass. It's amazing stuff, especially considering that it's all basically real. Jaa's knees and elbows really are making contact, although it's a little suspect that every would-be victim either has big hair or a cap to hide the padding protecting him. No matter. Jaa is clearly an athletic freak, and the fights are quick and nasty, choreographed for maximum impact. (Doesn't "maximum impact" sound like a B-movie action flick? Curiously, it isn't. Dibs!) I appreciated the way that Jaa almost always is on the defensive, a reflection of his character. Most "peaceful" heroes in these things usually have an angry switch, but Jaa does only as much as is necessary to kick your ass.

He gets hit with chairs, tables, refrigerators, saws, more chairs, and even fire. Since this is an action movie, all sorts of bizarre and dangerous obstacles (plates of glass, racks of sharp rakes, whatever) magically appear during foot chases, but Jaa doesn't stop. All that stuff about tone, themes, and character? It adds just enough reality to the film to make me believe he can do all these things that he does. I willfully and gratefully suspended my disbelief, not just so Tony Jaa can jump off balconies and through scaffolding, but also so he can make things right with the gods, and maybe even redeem a few corrupted men along the way.

Ong-Bak had me going. It knows when to be funny, when to be serious, and when to let the stuntmen do the rest. That's how asses are kicked.

21 October 2007

Chicago, Part II

Click here to read Part I.

Even though it's a pretty widespread chain, Lonely Planet recommended we eat at The Original Pancake House for breakfast. And whatever Lonely Planet wants, Lonely Planet gets, so Camille and I went in our Sunday Best and trekked to the closest one.

If the name Pancake House doesn't give it away, they're known for breakfast, specifically pancakes. They have all the standards (buttermilk, silver dollar, short stacks, etc.), but their specialties caught our attention. Camille ordered the Apple Pancake, which is a dense pancake
with granny smith apples piled high and smothered with a cinnamon glaze. It looks like a deflated football steaming with apple-cinnamon goodness. I went for the Dutch Baby, a pancake that's baked until the edges shrivel and reach toward the sky, effectively making a huge bowl that gets slathered with butter, lemon juice, and powdered sugar. These might be the two tallest pancakes in existence.
It's good. It's heavy. It's like a genuine, long-term relationship in that they demand attention and hard work on your part. Dear God Almighty, it's an assload of pancake. Despite the heaviness, the Dutch Baby has a relatively light flavor thanks to the lemon juice. It's as simple as you can get, and if this is how they eat in... um... Dutchland, then I'm definitely hitting them up at some point in my life. (Wikipedia claims the country of the Dutch is called the Netherlands. It should be noted that Wikipedia isn't always accurate.)

We ended up skipping lunch due to The Original Pancake House's cargo now in our stomachs. We took a long, slow walk down Michigan Avenue towards the Theatre District to catch a show, along the way crossing paths with a long line awaiting the opening of local franchise Garrett's Popcorn, apparently the popcorn of choice for Chicago local Oprah. As luck would have it, there's a Garrett's right next to the theatre where we watched Wicked (I'm not a musical guy, but good stuff). After the show, we ended up with a combo bag of caramel and cheddar popcorn. We also stopped by local coffee chain Intelligentsia, where they have a fine collection of organic coffees, and headed east to Millennium Park to snack away. I didn't think caramel and cheddar popcorn would go together, but the combination of the salty and the sweet was insanely addicting. I've never tried any form of crack, but I think this is the culinary equivalent. It's like the only way to counter the salty cheese is to swamp your mouth with the sugar. And when that's too sweet, more salt! It's a vicious cycle.

After walking west to Sears Tower (which was deceivingly far. Stupid big building looked so stupidly close...), we decided to head back toward our hotel. Over the course of the day, we'd walked pretty much the length of central Chicago and didn't want to go too far for dinner. Since Garrett's pretty much refilled us to post-Pancake House levels, we wanted something easy.

Portillo's Hot Dogs is across from the biggest McDonald's I've ever seen, a two-story, two-drive-thru-lane monstrosity that was calling to us with it's slick convenience. But we were in Chicago and it'd been over twenty-four hours since we'd had encased meat of some kind. While the sign outside the building proclaims Portillo's, the space is actually a food court with a number of fast food options to peruse. Not that we did much perusing. We had hot dogs on the brain and complete and utter trust in our Lonely Planet guide. Has it steered us wrong yet?

Not really. Portillo's is pretty straightforward.
Chicago-style hot dog with all the fixings, crinkle cut fries with a cheese dipping sauce. Not spectacular, but it's fast and it hit the spot. The hot dog itself is pretty nondescript. I guess that's where the avalanche of toppings comes in. Hey, not everything can be fabulous. Fed, bed, next.

The next day we enjoyed our hotel's continental breakfast. Someone please tell me what makes these things "continental." Does every continent serve a variety of pastries for breakfast? Is that the tie that binds humani
ty across the face of the earth? There's got to be at least a sub-continent somewhere that goes carb free in the morning. Wikipedia's breakfast article lists continental breakfasts under the European region, but what have we learned about Wikipedia?

After visiting the fantastically free Lincoln Park Zoo, which I should stress is a free zoo, we hit up the Pasta Bowl for lunch. Normally, I stay away from pasta at restaurants since pasta is the simplest, easiest cuisine to throw together at home. Some people think bottled water is a con. Me? Pasta Roni, total scam. If I do ever order pasta, the ingredients should shine together, and they had better be good ingredients. Grilled chicken linguine alfredo? Please, I can smother Ralph's-brand alfredo over some noodles and frozen tenders at home, thank you. But I digress.
The Pasta Bowl is the kind of place I sometimes idly dream of having if lack of money, middling work ethic, limited skill set, and other, more pressing dreams were not an issue. The space is really cool, one of those long, thin dining rooms dominated by a counter, kitchen in full view behind it, and the manager doing double duty as our waiter. It's the kind of chill restaurant you see in mobster movies where the local don holds court in the back booth... except there wasn't a local don holding court. And the neighborhood is really nice. Again, I digress.

Camille and I are both suckers for seafood, and she especially for frutti di mare. The Pasta Bowl cooks shrimp, scallops, and mussels in white wine before serving with marinara and spaghetti. I went for clams capellini, the shellfish also cooked in white wine before being tossed in some angel hair with red pepper flakes. Now, having said all I've just said about how easy pasta is, there is some skill in making really good pasta, and this is really good pasta that's also really fast and really cheap. My clams were perfect, soft but not rubbery, and the red pepper really pops in the white wine. It's a nice, smooth spiciness. It did built as I ate, getting spicier and spicier, but nothing a fork full of angel hair couldn't handle. Camille's was equally good. I might sprinkle red pepper flakes over every pasta meal I do from now on. It's a nice, ass-kicking compliment to what is otherwise sublime food.

We had some time to kill before heading up to Wrigley, so we went west to Sweet Mandy B's, a bakery with some terrific cupcakes. I had the peanut butter and jelly, which is yellow cake filled with strawberry jelly and a peanut butter cream frosting. If ever the phrase "sweet Jesus!" was apropos, it is here. The frosting is decadent, creamy without diluting the peanut butter taste, the cake is moist, and the jelly brings it all home. I actually wish there was more jelly, as it was really just a drop, but oh well. I resisted the urge to order another since there was more encased meat to devour.

Wrigley Field was everything I hoped it would be. As intimate as ballparks can get, sunk right into an old Chicago neighborhood. You literally leave the rail station, turn a corner, and you're there. And the fans in the bleachers were the best, well deserving of their fevered reputation. Probably the funniest thing I've ever seen at a sporting event took place during Giants batting practice. Every fly ball into the deep outfield elicited a cry from the crowd for Giants players to throw up a souvenir. Most of the players turned a deaf ear, but one eventually gave in and lobbed the ball up into the center field bleachers. Though they had pleaded shamelessly for the ball, these were Cubs fans and this was a baseball from the Giants, and so, they threw it right back onto the field and cheered mightily.

Stadium food is always a risky proposition, but Wrigley had foot-long brats with grilled onions, plus all the toppings one could want off to the side. It was the eighth inning by the time I got to them, so the brats were nice and seared and wrinkly. Fantastic stuff. The sweet relish, the tomatoes, the grilled onions, the fact that it was 12 inches long, plus the friendly confines of Wrigley all make for some good eating. I love you Hot Doug's, but this is some sausage right here. My hands were sticky with mustard/relish/brat juice all the way back to the hotel. If there's one true test of a hot dog, it's got to be hand stink. Wrigley brats just set the high water mark for sticky stankiness.

The next day brought us to The Billy Goat Tavern, a restaurant bar most famous for inspiring an old Saturday Night Live sketch with John Belushi telling customers the only available item on the menu is the "cheezborger." The place is a true dive, in an area around the Chicago River where there are two street levels, the lower perpetually in the orange glow of artificial lighting. It's grimy, it's dark. And the guy taking orders is a true character. I don't know if he's The Guy that inspired the sketch or if he's just keeping up the reputation, but he's a goof. Despite the decent number of items on the menu, every transaction with customers, including us, goes like this...

"Double cheeseburger's the best."
"Okay, double cheeseburger."
"Double cheeseburger!"

A bit later, the following was overheard...

"Double cheeseburger's the best."
"Double cheeseburger."
"Triple cheeseburger's better."

The cook, of course, has a line of burgers going on the grill. They put the burgers on kaiser rolls instead of standard buns, which is a nice touch. Service is pretty straightforward. You order at one end of the counter and slide down to the other. There's a pile of butcher paper on the counter where he assembles your burger and nudges it over to you. Toppings to the side. The walls are adorned with news articles detailing the billy goat curse that supposedly haunts the Cubs. During our meal the guy turned to two customers sitting at a table without food.

"Can I help you guys?"
"We're just waiting for someone."
"Well, I get off in a couple of hours."

It's that kind of the place. Not the best burger ever. In fact, it's not too far above cafeteria food. But that'd make this the coolest cafeteria ever.

After visiting the Art Institute and the Married... With Children fountain a.k.a. Buckingham Fountain, where I paid a homeless guy five bucks for a free newspaper after he took our picture (he was a salesman, what can I say), we went to a place right down the street from The Billy Goat, Shaw's Crab House.
Up to this point, all of our food had been, for lack of a better term, peasant food. Pizza, hot dogs, pastas, burgers -- I feel like we got a fairly representative take of how locals eat on a semi-regular basis. Shaw's Crab House is in that same vein, except people here are wearing suits. Seafood tends to demand a higher price, but again, Camille and I are suckers. And Shaw's had an oyster bar with a happy hour. When in Rome...
It's overwhelming how many different types of oysters Shaw's has. And if that wasn't enough of a drain on the wallet, we had a terrific waitress who was friendly and quick with suggestions. I couldn't begin to tell you what was what, but they tended to be smaller oysters, all delicate, sweet, briny, but not too gritty. We downed two dozen of them before even so much as perusing the rest of the menu. If the thought of oysters scares you as it did me once, then suck it up. Literally. Use the little tinny fork, drink the juices in and suck up the meat. It's easy. Sure, it's a little slimy and cold and mushy. It's kinda like sweetened seawater. Suck it up!

We followed up the oysters with a creamy, savory lobster bisque before getting to our separate entrees. Camille had a combo plate of grilled shrimp, scallops, and a crab cake. I had a less inspired soft shell crab sandwich, which continues my love-hate of soft shell crab. The bread was a little charred and the soft shell was way too overcooked. I will forever be wary of soft shell in the future. It's an almost exotic food with the pricetag to match since farming them is so delicate, but even when it's cooked correctly, there isn't a lot of meat and there's a whole lot of edible but bland shell to chew on. No matter. I was on an oyster high. And we had a really good key lime pie for dessert.

The next day was our last, and between Shaw's and The Parthenon, we finished our food adventure on a real high note. The Parthenon is a Greektown requirement. Not that we visited any other Greek restaurants, but the place was so good I was truly blown away. The meal starts with the pizzaz of saganaki, which is a platter of kasseri cheese that gets doused with brandy and set aflame right at your table. It's warm and gooey and, like any flame-cooked food, a tad crispy on the outside. The burned parts are, naturally, the best. We also started with pan-fried baby eggplant, which probably takes the cake over Giordano's zucchini fritters for battered and fried appetizers. Crispy, that peculiar sweetness of eggplant, juicy, not excessively oily. It also came with some kind of mashed something. We think cauliflower. Whatever, I'm eating it. When in Athens...

The menu is absolutely loaded with lots of tempting food that was completely foreign to me. We thought we'd go with the ever-popular gyros, savory roasted slices of lamb and beef with onions to be eaten with pitas. In my mind, The Parthenon can do no wrong after those appetizers, but this was right on. We stuffed ourselves silly, all the better to fly home.

Thank you, Chicago. Rich, flavorful food. As many encased meats as one could dream of. And, oh yeah, a beautiful city to boot. We left heavier than we came.

FYI: we brought two half-cooked Giordano's pizzas onto the plane for consumption at home. So, when packing for a trip, keep in mind that you cannot hand carry more than three ounces of hair gel or toothpaste, but you can bring almost five pounds worth of deep dish pizza. Because if we can't bring pizza onto planes, then the terrorists have won.

18 October 2007

Gloriously Bad Movies: Bloodsport

When the idea for this blog was percolating through my head, one of the ideas I was most excited to write about was the Gloriously Bad Movie. You've seen them really late at night on FX or TBS, or all day on The Sci-Fi Channel. You may have taken part in a drinking game surrounding a Gloriously Bad Movie, or at least stumbled drunkenly home after a party, you and your friends about to tear into some fast food as you refuse to go to sleep while still buzzed, gleefully watching one.

Just to be clear, I am not talking about guilty pleasures. We all have movies that we're ashamed to like, that we enjoy even though we know we'll get ridiculed for it. I really dig Ronin, despite the cardboard cutout characters and a plot that's both byzantine and simplistic at the same time. It's a bad movie. But the car chases rock. They are sublime in their badassness.

The distinction is this: We like guilty pleasures in spite of their badness. We like Gloriously Bad Movies because of their badness. We revel in how awful they are. We cannot believe the low-rent acting or the do-it-yourself special effects or the fact that it was obviously shot without permits behind the liquor store down the street. The suckiness of these films is so entertaining that we just can't contain ourselves.

First and foremost, Gloriously Bad Movies are not about the details. At least, not the right details. Common utterances during a typical viewing include: "Wait, what?" "No way!" "Did that just happen?" and "Oh, my God, that was retarded!" If it's a truly glorious Gloriously Bad Movie, then you might even start doing the Mystery Science Theatre bit and speak overt, sexually explicit dialogue on the characters' behalf.

The inaugural entry into the Gloriously Bad Movie database: Bloodsport. Featuring that stalwart of Gloriously Bad Movies, the Muscles from Brussels himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme. It doesn't fit the mold of bad, it IS the mold. Watching this is watching every sports and action movie cliche from the past thirty years. And those are the good parts.

If you haven't had the good fortune of seeing it, the movie revolves around a secret, full contact martial arts contest in Hong Kong called the Kumite (KOO-mi-tay). A song plays during several fighting montages during which "Kumite" gets chanted in faux-hypnotic fashion. Remember, this is a non-John Hughes 1980s flick, which means the music is at a truly abominable level of cheesy synthetic shame. Jean-Claude plays an American soldier named Frank Dux who's representing his surrogate Japanese father who's dying but isn't dead. And never actually does die during the course of the story, so who knows, maybe he just has the flu.

"Wait, what?" Frank Dux. Surrogate Japanese martial arts master father. Wait, it gets better. In a really awful way.

Again, these bad flicks are about the wrong details, and Bloodsport is a prime example. Why is Dux an American with a Belgian accent representing a Japanese master in a secret Chinese martial arts contest? See, early on in the film, Van Damme visits the Tanaka home. Van Damme stares and stares at a sword before looking up into space for a prolonged beat, probably wondering why it's taking so long for the flashback to kick in. Then it kicks in, showing a young Van Damme first being beaten up by, then coming to the rescue of, Tanaka's real son. Tanaka takes Frank under his wing, but then the real son dies. We are not told why, but clearly it's because Frank needs to say to Tanaka that he's been treated like a son. Which happens a few minutes later.

Does any of this matter when the fighting starts? Is Frank's manhood or family ever questioned? Not so much. Anyhoo...

The flashback sets a good and proper tone of unintentional hilarity for the rest of the film. Rather than going with a kid who has a natural accent to match Van Damme's, the filmmakers cast a completely insecure stiff of a boy who may or may not have Down Syndrome. Watching the poor kid half-heartedly put up his dukes during a fight scene just about made me wet myself. It's important to note also that during this extended flashback/training sequence, the film keeps cutting back to Van Damme in the present day, still looking up into the air and wondering just how the hell long this damn flashback is.
Probably the biggest running unintentional gag is the secretive nature of Kumite. Time and again, the characters refer to the underground event as a sacred, honor-bound club. And time and gain, these conversations happen in public. At full volume. With other people around. In hotel lobbies. On the street. At restaurants. The police station. This is the worst-kept secret in the world. Less secret than Marilyn Monroe's affair with JFK. Less secret than Britney Spears' vajayjay. Everyone in all of Asia knows about Kumite. Except, of course, the requisite love interest: the hard-talking, career-driven female reporter who, nevertheless, falls in love with our hero.

The character of Janice is introduced with a shot of her legs, a short skirt being the outfit of choice for caucasian investigative reporters on the prowl in Hong Kong. Her investigative techniques are direct and to the point, "Hey, tell me about the Kumite. Where's the Kumite going to be? Come on, tell me about the Kumite!" She could have gone Jan Brady and screamed, "Kumite! Kumite! Kumite!" at the top of her lungs in public. Since everyone and no one knows the secret of Kumite (sssshh!), the effect would have been the same.

The film isn't really interested in Janice. There's a tremendously dumb scene where Frank, trying to explain what Kumite means to him, asks her why she's a reporter. "Well, my father was a reporter and I was a good writer and it seemed like a good fit." Um, okay. Frank practically goes into a spasm since this answer doesn't help him make his point. Janice eventually gets in on the arm of a gambler, sits ringside, and whispers illicit notes into a monstrously big tape recorder in full view of the rest of the crowd. By the way, if Kumite is such a secret, who are these peasant spectators? And how exactly does betting work when you're simply standing and holding up money? Oh, nevermind.

Above all, this is a movie of sheer manliness. The fighting stuff is actually pretty cool, although all the cliches of movie fighting are there. You know, if your opponent surrenders and you turn your back, he's gonna try and get the jump on you. Or the bad guy using some illicit substance to either pump himself up or blind the opponent (Van Damme gets blinded). The various fighting styles are in fine form, though sometimes the film is a little too manly. In fact, homoeroticism is taken to absolutely fabulous heights. When Frank beds Janice (after a scene of not-so-subtle innuendo), the filmmakers go out of their way to cover the naked Janice with a bedsheet. She looks offscreen at her lover, and the reverse shot is of Jean-Claude stark ass naked. This after a scene in which Van Damme meditates while doing an elevated split between two chairs in his underwear. The creme de la creme of latent gayness? The resolution in which a victorious Van Damme visits his injured comrade in the hospital. He's won the tournament and avenged his friend's defeat. He's got the girl at his side. He looks deep into the eyes of... his ravaged buddy. "I love you, man," says Jean-Claude. They hug. The girl stands off to the side wondering why she never filed her Kumite story.

I've not even mentioned Forest Whitaker as an FBI agent chasing Van Damme. Oh yeah, Van Damme is an AWOL soldier forbidden from fighting in the Kumite (because, see, EVERYBODY knows what the Kumite is, even United States Army officers.) For some reason, Whitaker and his elder partner want desperately to bring Van Damme back, but only they know why. And after all is said and done, they're waiting at the airport for Jean-Claude, who hasn't shown up. They curse his wily ways. Then Jean-Claude emerges from the plane with a smirk, "Hey, what took you guys so long?" And this point I uttered, "Oh, my God, this is retarded!" But it wasn't finished yet. Oh, no, Gloriously Bad Movies are bad to the last drop.

See, Jean-Claude turns and sees Janice waiting on the tarmac. She brings a fist into her open palm and bows like a fighter. "Did that just happen?" I asked myself. Jean-Claude returns the gesture. The music is coming up. I'm grinning from ear to ear at this silliness and I say to myself, "Please, Dear God, end with a freeze frame. This movie needs to end with a freeze frame." And just as I'm saying this -- BOOM! -- the image of Jean-Claude's bow goes still. The closing credits roll.


15 October 2007

Chicago, Part I

Chicago takes its name from a French mis-transcription of a Native American word for leeks. In other words, Chicago is named after food. So, when Camille, the lovely girlfriend of Butter Flavored Topping, redeemed a free Southwest ticket to the Windy City, it's only natural that we immediately started to salivate in anticipation.

Our primary planning tool for exploring the city was, of course, movies. Sadly, two out of three movie-inspired tours fell through. The High Fidelity tour of hipster hood Wicker Park was doomed from the start due to a lack of big tourist attractions. Sorry, Rob Gordon, but when it's your first time in a city, you've got to stick to the big draws, don't ya? Camille's intended My Best Friend's Wedding tour of Chicago was rendered incomplete, with only photo stops outside the Drake Hotel and inside Union Station accomplished. It's a shame as I really wanted to do the Chicago River tour. I privately considered Union Station to be a part of The Untouchables tour, anyway, so a Julia Roberts-inspired excursion will have to wait until next time.

Which leaves us with the Ferris Bueller's Day Off tour, which was a success. We hit the Art Institute of Chicago (where Ferris kisses Sloan and Cameron is hypnotized by a girl in Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on La Grand Jatte"); Wrigley Field to watch my lowly Giants lose ("Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Suh-WING batta!"); Sear's Tower ("I think I see my dad."); and Chez Quis, where I proclaimed myself the Sausage King of Chicago. Actually, Chez Quis isn't real, but we had some good eatin'. Speaking of which...
The first thing we ate was pizza. People speak of Chicago's deep dish pizza as if it were the little baby Jesus holding his own Holy Grail. After weighing various opinions about which restaurant makes the best pie, we decided to hit up Giordano's Pizza. We pre-ordered and put our names in line for the requisite hour-plus wait, cruised up and down Michigan Ave to kill some time, cursed the fact that we opted for a rental car with our travel package (parking is expensive, pay by the hour hell in this city of fine public transportation), and finally got our table.

We quenched our thirst with some pretty solid mid-west beer, Leinenkugel's Honey Weiss. I actually didn't have much beer here, sadly, so who knows how this compares, but we were thirsty, it went down easy, and it's called Leinenkugel's. Seriously, with a name like Leinenkugel's in the capital of the mid-west, how can you go wrong? They get bonus points for spelling it "bier."

We ordered zucchini fritters as an appetizer. Crispy but not oily, kinda burns your mouth like good, freshly deep fried food should, the mild sweetness of zucchini with the bread crumbs... I'm not sure I can fully encapsulate how good these were except to say that the little baby Jesus drinking Leinenkugel's Honey Weiss from his Holy Grail would be pleased.

We ordered the special stuffed pizza, which has sausage, mushrooms, peppers, and onions, plus
we added pepperoni because, hey, why not? It's very good, although I didn't have the religious orgasm that most people do. The pizza is stuffed mostly with mozzarella. A lot of mozzarella. It's pretty much like eating a wheel of mozzarella cheese that's been breaded, then covered with a thin layer of sauce. It's good mozzarella, but I was hoping for a little more tomato sauce. The sausage is good stuff, though. Cheese and sausage just might do it for me next time.

We ended up with leftovers that we took back to the hotel. Oddly, our reasonably-priced fancy dancy hotel didn't have a microwave. Ideal location, complimentary breakfast, free happy hour, no microwave. When we wanted to finish off our pizza a couple of nights later, we tried vainly to heat it with a hair dryer. Yeah, not so much. But it did taste mighty good cold. In fact, almost as good as when it was hot, which is a testament to the quality of the ingredients Giordano's uses.
The one time in five days I was happy to have a car was our trip out to see Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio. Along the way (in a roundabout, let's-use-our-car-damnit kinda way) is Hot Doug's, a popular joint that cheerfully refers to itself as "The Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium." It's the kind of place that has a table for local bands to dump flyers about upcoming gigs or to sell used instruments. There was a line wrapped around the building, but not the same tourist line mobbed around Giordano's. No, with my eavesdropping skills, I knew I was among locals (or, at least, other tourists who chose the cooler, more discriminating Lonely Planet over Let's Go! when buying their travel guides).

Other than pizza, the most talked about Chi Town food is the hot dog, which has a strict recipe of toppings: onions, tomatoes, sometimes cucumbers, sometimes lettuce, sometimes bell
pepper, pepperoncini, relish, mustard, and celery salt. Considering the semi-gourmet treatment Hot Doug's has with their various dogs, it can be a little intimidating, but thankfully Hot Doug's loses all pretense of snobbery with kitschy decor and hot dogs wryly named after celebrities. The Keira Knightley is a "fire dog" described as "formerly the Jennifer Garner and Britney Spears." They have fries cooked in duck fat on Fridays and Saturdays. You get the feeling the owner -- I'm gonna go out on a limb and call him Doug -- went to culinary school, got exposed to high end ingredients, then realized, "Wait, I like hot dogs," and created this place.
Camille had The Dog with all the proper fixings while I went for The Elvis, a polish sausage with all the fixings, plus sauerkraut. The duck fat fries were a bizarre creation. Camille said she could taste the duck in them. Me, not so much, but the texture of the fries was definitely different. Duck fat is richer, and the fries reflect that. Still crispy, but rich and somehow thick, even though it's a standard cut. If McDonald's fries are a light beer, these duck fat fries are Guinness. Take from that what you will.

The Elvis was juicy, good stuff. The Chicago mix of toppings is all well and good, but the real clincher? The celery salt. Seriously, this is what sets everything apart. It's the icing on a sweet and salty mess of slop. Kinda tangy and sweet, the celery salt really jumps out from the assault of other condiments.

For dinner, we hit up Navy Pier, where there's a cool and, more importantly, free stained glass museum beneath the carnival setting. There's also a free fireworks show. A lot of the food choices were kinda generic (nothing says Chicago like Bubba Gump Shrimp!), but thankfully there was the southern-style Joe's Be Bop Cafe, which enticed me with jambalaya and a live band. Our plans to hit up a genuine Chicago jazz club were pretty low on the list, so we settled in. The Jambalaya was nice with a good amount of spice and great sausage, though everyone around us was having ribs, so I was having buyer's remorse. Camille had the crawfish etouffee, a creamy, buttery, and spicy cousin of gumbo that was very, very good. Now I was downright jealous. Considering the tourist-centric locale, I was afraid the place was going to be flavorless and plain, but the food was good and, surprisingly, so was the jazz. No elevator music here, the place was rockin'.

If you're not keeping score, the standout ingredient after a day and a half of eating is sausage.

I like Chicago.

Click here for Part II.

03 October 2007

Pseudo-Memories of France

Ah, comfort food. I love a dish that's warm, hearty, savory, and brings back fond memories of my childhood in provincial France playing marbles, cycling, and thumbing my nose at those dimwit American tourists.

By France I am actually referring to quaint little San Lorenzo, California and quaint, ridiculously suburbanized Castro Valley, California (East Bay!) where I never so much as
sniffed a French bistro. Probably a good thing as San Lorenzo and Castro Valley are not exactly culinary havens. I did trek to Paris (among other European stops) after graduating college, though. Here's a tip if you're backpacking through Europe on the cheap: Don't go to the Moulin Rouge. I know, I know... I, too, loved Baz Luhrmann's filmic ode to bohemian love, and I, too, have a silly man-crush on Ewan McGregor. Just keep in mind that Montmartre is on the outskirts of Paris, so when you finally get to the Moulin Rouge and realize it costs at least $200 for dinner and the show, you'll smack yourself in the head, decide to pass, and look around and see that there's merde to do in the immediate vicinity. My buddy and I visited the various souvenir shops and settled in at a restaurant across the street that, judging by the English menu, catered to tourists. It was here I had my first croque monsieur, the egg-less sibling of the croque madame. I've tried to replicate it in the past without making bechamel sauce, one of those French "mother" sauces that scare the bejeezus out of a novice cook like me, and boy is that a mistake. Without bechamel sauce, the croque monsieur/madame is just a dry sandwich. So, grab your whisk, it's sauce making time. Your wrist will hurt, but you'll feel like a chef afterwards.

Before you start the sauce, though, start your broiler and place your oven rack right up under it. Huzzah for pretty blue flames!

I used a bechamel recipe from Williams-Sonoma. You're basically going to make a roux (French word alert! It's the thickening agent behind every sauce and gravy made from butter and flour. And it's pronounced "rue.") and then whisk in milk and cheese. The recipe calls for gruyere cheese, which is some salty good stuff. If you're wondering if you have to continuously whisk the entire time... yes, absolutely. Do NOT stop whisking! I stopped for ten seconds to peruse the recipe and the sauce burned slightly. Since I'm a lazy mofo, I pushed on with the lightly toasted bechamel. It's still good, it's still good.

If you're saying to yourself, "Butter! Milk! Cheese! How healthy is this?!" The answer to your question is: You clearly don't love food. Go eat a carrot.

After making the bechamel sauce, the hard work is done. All that's left is to do the math, as we used to say in Calculus (not bragging, I barely
passed). Assemble your dish.

Don't buy sliced bread for this. You're not eating it with your hands, so get a nice, fresh bread that'll sop up the sauce but still hold together. In other words, slice it thick. I bought some organic deal from Whole Foods, not because it was organic so much as it was round. Thems round loafs is fancy! It smelled good and was slightly soft. It ended up being some kind of sourdough, which wasn't in the recipe but works splendidly.

I used a croque madame recipe from, yes, Williams-Sonoma, but it called for black forest ham, which I didn't have. I did have a bunch of leftover rotisserie chicken from Costco... perfecto! (Perfecto is not a French word.) Toast the bread first, then pile on chunks of chicken and ladle the bechamel over the whole thing. Top with more grated cheese. Throw it back in the broiler until the cheese begins to melt and brown. At this point, you've pretty much got a croque monsieur that's waiting to be madame-ed. Get a pan with oil going and fry an egg.
You probably think you can fry an egg. I used to think so, too. But I never did it the same way twice. Then I realized that once the egg is down in the pan and frying... leave it the hell alone. Let it cook. Don't flip it yet. Just don't do it. Leave it be until the whites are all, you know, actually white. Not partially white. White. If you want over-easy, flip it once. It's not a steak, there's no reason to flip and flip and flip. Cook it through on one side, flip once, cook it to your desired doneness on the other. Camille doesn't like runny yolks, so I let hers go a little longer before flipping to make sure the bottom of the yolk is cooked.

Okay, so the broiler has probably done it's business by now. Take out the sandwich, plate it, top it with an egg. That's it. The recipe calls for topping each piece with another slice of bread to make a sandwich, but the tourist trap eatery across from the Moulin Rouge made it open-faced, and since I'm sentimental, I did the same.
The bechamel turns what is otherwise a mundane, dry meat and cheese combination into a rich, creamy, hearty, comforting dish. Savory chicken, tangy bread, cheese... that stuff hits the spot. Even better, as hearty as it is, it doesn't weigh you down. It brings back fond memories of France that I don't really have (damn you, Moulin Rouge! Damn you to hell!). Mmmmm, sentimental sandwich.