31 August 2007

"One bag, plus the guns. I'll make pancakes."

Through divine intervention (or a friend of a friend), I managed to watch the pilot for Fox's slated 2008 hour-long show, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. That's T:tSCC for you geeks.

I love Terminator and T2, and I'm very happy that the rumored third film never came to fruition. Whatever did happen to that alleged third film? I could've sworn it was shot, but for some reason I can't recall any of it. Kinda like the prequel Star Wars trilogy George Lucas said he'd do but hasn't yet. Boy, I hope the rumors are true and Lucas casts Leo DiCaprio as Anakin Skywalker. He'd be good. Anyway.

For the fans out there, your worst fears have not come true. The pilot (which I hear is undergoing reshoots) is solid. It actually kicks some ass. The opening shot is of those familiar headlights on a dark road, which dovetails into a Sarah Connor nightmare that recalls more iconography -- nuclear holocaust and T-800 skeletons. The show quickly settles down to reveal the strict, regimented life of Sarah and John. Sarah's nightmare has sufficiently spooked her into wanting to take John and run from a home that includes a sweet fiancee. Despite John's protests, Sarah coldly tells her son, "No one is ever safe. Half an hour. One bag, plus the guns. I'll make pancakes."

While I'm pleasantly surprised that the official title of the show has "Terminator" in it, it really should be called The John Connor Chronicles, because at this point the writing begins to focus on the dilemma of the future savior of mankind: be a kid or be a soldier. As played by Thomas Dekker (who had the recurring guest role of Hayden Panettiere's friend Zach on Heroes), John is torn between the allure of a normal teen-aged life and the dire warnings of his mother. He has an easy chemistry with Summer Glau, who plays a cute girl named Cameron (as in James) at John's new school. His awkward confession about his parents is sweet and endearing, and is the kind of emotional territory the show can use as a solid foundation.

And just as I'm appreciating the emotional groundwork the pilot is laying, shit hits the fan. By the end of the pilot, the requisite good and bad terminators have appeared. The clever aspect of having the show from Sarah and John's point of view is that constant, ominous threat every other human provides. Anyone can be a terminator in this world.

The action is almost non-stop from the point the terminators come into the story, and this is where the pilot really clinched my fanboy adoration. There's a distinct feeling that writer Josh Friedman and director David Nutter truly love and respect James Cameron's original world. The hand-to-hand fight choreography between the terminators distinctly mirrors the face-offs between Arnold and the T-1ooo. Miles Dyson's wife and son ("Danny? Dann-eeeee!") have a brief but heart-wrenching reunion with Sarah, who they think murdered Miles. The original films' linchpin is a time machine that is never seen, but Friedman cleverly works it into the pilot's plot. But the show doesn't just want to rehash what Cameron did. One inspired sequence toward the end of the episode has the good terminator assembling hidden gadgets into a ridiculously cool weapon, and it's revealed that an engineer from the future was sent back to the 1960s explicitly to build and plant technology that can be retrieved in the 1990s.
There's an underlying excitement in exploring new aspects of the original world that's very alluring.

While one staple of the films -- epic, kinetic action sequences -- is hindered by the TV budget, there's enough tension and invention in the writing to make the production go. And the true core of the story, the mother-son relationship, is dealt with in quiet, endearing exchanges. While some of the dialogue errs on the cheesy and a subplot involving an FBI agent on Sarah's trail appears to already be running out of steam (how long can he NOT believe Sarah's crazy tale of the future?), there's good stuff here. And while this picks up where T2 left off, it sure feels like the show will end up rewriting that third movie that we don't talk about and doesn't exist. I'm not quite certain what these characters will be doing on a weekly basis, as their search for who picked up Skynet's research isn't given a lot of momentum in this pilot. But these characters are alive and well, so I'll be back... er, I'll be down for watching more.

PS - If you want to quibble about story continuity... it's fine. The 1992 film actually does take place in 1997, where this picks up. And I don't want to spoil it, but this world does revolve around... wait for it... time travel. I know, I know... Just shut up and watch it, dude.

PPS - Sarah Connor is played by Lena Headey, who is gaining serious geek points. She works with Terry Gilliam, co-stars in 300, and then takes the role as Sarah Connor. And she's no slouch in the looks department (looks strikingly like Naomi Watts in this, too).

Oh, what, you still think Alba's hotter? How many times have you seen 300? Now, how many times have you seen Honey?

Thank you.

29 August 2007

Ginger-Crusted Scallops, Take 1

It's hard to choose a favorite culinary experience from my recent Hawaii trip. There's just too much goodness there, and all of it comes with a side of rice, so bonus points for that. But if you were to hold a gun to my head and make me choose, I'd have to go with the Ginger-Crusted Onaga I had at Alan Wong's. I don't think I've ever had a better cooked piece of fish: flaky, juicy, tender, and with the ginger crust and miso sauce base that complemented but didn't overpower the meat.

Now I'm back on the mainland, wearing socks and shoes again and seriously jonesing for some good lau lau. The idea of getting fish that good here is almost laughable. I mean, the Costco's in Hawaii had the freshest albacore and ahi tuna I've ever laid eyes upon... the Costco's! My local Ralph's rarely has decent tilapia. What's a poor haole to do?

Whole Foods is a good start. During a recent stroll through my temple of organic goodness, while drooling over the sea bass and grouper selection, inspiration suddenly hit me (as it's prone to do when staring at fish priced at $18/lb or more). Why not try to mimic the ginger crust, but do it on something I'm a little more confident cooking... scallops.

Thank Google there's a recipe online for Alan Wong's masterful dish, so I used that as my basis. I had some mini bell peppers from my local Costco in the fridge (they only have farm-raised salmon in Canoga Park. Pssssh...), so I decided to go for Ginger-crusted seared scallops and broiled mini bell peppers on a miso reduction.

The crust recipe calls for minced ginger and scallions, but I didn't have scallions at home, so I substituted it with sesame seeds. Per the recipe, I heated 1/4 cup oil until smoking and poured it over the crust mix. It boils over like lava -- very cool -- and cools off to the side.

I started to chop the mini bell peppers, but as they were barely a few inches in length, I just tossed them whole onto an oven pan, drizzled with sesame oil and sea salt, and broiled on high until it just starts to char, them removed. I dusted with a little dashi soup powder for more seasoning. Done.

With oven pre-heated to 350-degrees and a hot pan with smoking sesame oil inside, I seared the scallops for about 30-45 seconds on each side, then topped with the ginger/sesame crust, and threw them into the oven for about six minutes to get them medium-rare. Meanwhile, I had a couple teaspoons of miso paste in about a cup or so of water that was reducing down to a thick paste.

Plating. I dropped a circle of the miso reduction on the center of a plate, arranged four scallops per plate on top, then fanned out the mini bell peppers around the scallops. If I had scallions I'd
use them to garnish, but then again, if I had scallions, they'd be in the ginger crust.

The results? The cooking time for the scallops is perfect for medium rare, though the baking causes juices to run and muck up the lovely sear that was created. They were juicy with the muscle strands just starting to show. Sadly, the ginger wasn't minced fine enough, and it really overpowers the sesame seeds. Maybe next time, the sesame seeds should be toasted and used as a garnish. The peppers were almost perfect. They basically cook in their own juices, and biting into them causes a burst of sweet flavor to drizzle down all over yourself. Okay, not the cleanest thing, but damn tasty. I didn't put enough dashi powder, but so what, these were a success. Next time, I might nix the ginger crust altogether and drizzle the miso reduction over the scallops, instead.

I'd give myself a solid B for my efforts.

When Vegas Bites, Bite Back

There's only one thing you can do when Vegas chews you up and spits you out. No, not find an ATM. Get your money's worth out of the town and eat it all back.

So it was when I reached my pre-determined loss limit halfway through my recent trip to Sin City. I was actually doing fine until a late Saturday night visit to the craps tables. For me, it's the most exhilarating way to lose your money: quickly, but with the promise of getting it back with one hot roll. Alas.

Sushi Roku @ Caesar's Palace

Okay, it's a chain, no big discovery here. But they make damn fine sushi (and stiff cocktails, to boot). Camille and I initially ordered oysters for an appetizer, but thanks to a plague of red tide in the Pacific, we ended up with Tofu Three Ways, which featured bites of soft tofu with: scallions and sesame oil, white truffle and truffle oil, caviar and lemon oil. My favorite was the caviar/lemon oil, the combination of the salty roe and the citrus over the smooth, soft tofu was the proverbial party in my mouth. I was most looking forward to the truffle when we ordered, as that was the first truffle experience for me, but it was far too subtle against the blank canvas of the tofu. Kinda like looking at an off-white painting on white canvas: underwhelming.

For sushi, we went with: ikura (the orange/red salmon roe), yellowtail-scallion roll, eel-avocado roll, spicy scallop roll, soft shell crab roll, albacore-garlic roll, and sweet shrimp sushi (which is raw) with accompanying fried shrimp head. I don't know what exactly it is about unagi, the freshwater eel, that I love. It's got a meaty-fishy taste and is almost pasty in texture. When combined with the equally mushy avocado and against Sushi Roku's very good sushi rice, it's fantastic. It all melts together so nicely. When I'm old and toothless, please stuff this into my mouth roll by roll so I can gnaw it till I'm in the grave. My other favorite is the yellowtail-scallion. Yellowtail is one of the least "fishy" fishes, and when it's mild creaminess is countered by the green onion, it's another little bit of awesomeness. Everything else was a fantastic pair of contrasting flavors save for the soft shell crab roll, which was fried too long and a tad burnt. I'm consistently a sucker for soft shell crab and have had it in a variety of cuisines, but I can't think of a time when soft shell was as satisfying as I imagined it to be. Nor can I think of a time when I won at the craps table. But off I always go, loading the back end of the pass line and covering the six and the eight like every other sucker. The lesson here: be wary of soft shell crab. And craps is lots of fun. Try it!

The Aloha Specialties Restaurant @ The California

This trip, we kicked it way old school and stayed downtown at "The Cal." It's just off of Fremont Street and populated predominantly by aging Hawaiian tourists, many of which lug their own oxygen through the smoky innards of the casino floor. And where there's oxygen-deprived Hawaiian pensioners, there's Hawaiian food! After promising runs at Pai Gow and blackjack didn't pan out, it was Loco Moco time.
Hawaiian cuisine is a mish-mash of the various immigrant cultures that worked the lands over the years, though I have no clue where the Loco Moco came from. Rice topped with a hamburger steak (aka
a hamburger) topped with a fried egg topped with gravy. So, uh, yeah... there's the cultural history of the Sandwich Isles on a plate!

The hamburger was cooked to be juicy inside and slightly crispy outside, which gave it a wonderful bite when combined with runny fried eggs and the beef gravy. This dish triggers nostalgia points for me because it reminds me of the simple breakfast my mom used to make of rice and a fried egg all mashed together into a big, yolk-y mess. So, my youth + cultural history of the Sandwich Isles on a plate = supreme satisfaction. It's one savory plate, but the egg whites and rice balance it enough to stave off immediate onset of food coma. I can't quite figure out what spices they use in Hawaii for the beef and the gravy, which seems to be the real key to the dish. I came close to unlocking that puzzle, but then I fell asleep in my room watching SportsCenter on a loop. Mmmmm, food coma.

Chang's. 4760 South Decatur Blvd.

If you're sick of buffets at the hotels... well, then, you're no friend of mine. But if you want a reprieve from the incessant jingling of slot machines and don't want bottomless plates of king crab legs two days in a row, head west on Tropicana. Go past the erotic supply store, turn right at the trailer park, and stop at Chang's for some brunch, dim sum style. The place is always bustling, and the staff will keep pushing plates of goodness at you. You really have to turn your table into a well-oiled eating machine, clearing off plates in a timely fashion to allow for the arrival of more steamed and fried bites.

The specialty here is the XO noodles, chow fun noodles fried in a type of chili oil-based sauce and accented with pepper flakes, scallions, and sesame seeds. It's slightly crispy, but the noodles are still soft.
The spice hits you but relents, letting you shovel as much as you can without fear of tearing up like a little girl. All the dim sum staples are here and in fine form. Mine and Camille's favorite is the taro dumplings, which are chopped pork stuffed inside dumplings of mashed taro, which is then breaded. Even though the taro is still a starch, it's a terrific change of paste from the noodles and buns.

I finally worked up the courage to take on chicken feet, which is cooked in a black bean sauce that turns the skin red. If you can get over the fact that it's chicken feet, it's actually quite good. It's basically the best part of the chicken, the skin, except instead of meat underneath, it's all knuckle and toe bones. It's delicious but awfully tedious to eat, as you basically have to bite a toe off, gnaw the skin loose, and spit the bones out. Strategically speaking, it's an excellent "breather" food that lets you take a break from stuffing yourself while you're still eating. At Chang's, you can stuff yourself for about $15 a person, so you'll be ready for either another food coma or a run at Let It Ride.

Mermaids @ Fremont Street

This is the saddest of sad casinos, all slot machines and posters beckoning you with novelty drinks. Yet, I went in because some of those posters tantalize you with the elite of fairground food: deep-fried Twinkies and deep-fried Oreos. I slinked past the two feathered showgirls out front offering the complimentary slot machine spin and beelined for the food counter at the back.
The truly ridiculous thing about the deep-fried Oreo basket -- if you can accept that three Oreos covered in sweet batter and deep fried for 99 cents is normal -- is that it's topped by powdered sugar and chocolate sprinkles. The frying does change the texture of the Oreo, partially melting the cream and softening the chocolate cookie, so that the whole thing feels like a doughnut hole stuffed with Oreo preserves. It's not as sickeningly sweet as you might think, and pairs fantastically with a cold root beer (also 99 cents). It's like a chocolate sweet cream sandwich bite, and while it was born at a state fair, it's right at home amidst the neon and LCDs of Fremont Street. It's also the perfect exclamation point to a weekend of reckless gambling. Vegas may have my money, but I got paid back in the form of free cocktails, Hawaiian history, and deep-fried sugar sandwiches.

16 August 2007

Why butter flavored topping? Why not!

Movies. Food. Really, what else is there in life? And what better symbol of that most beautiful union between film and food than the fake butter than makes reel life so enjoyable and popcorn bags so transparent?

Welcome to Butter Flavored Topping, my space for navigating my dual passions. Because can you think of anything better than dinner and a movie? (Rhetorical question, stop thinking about it.)

My reasons for kick-starting this uber diary are mostly selfish. Having to keep up with this blog means having to watch more movies, cook more, go out to more restaurants I've been meaning to go to. I'm hoping this blog will duplicate the state of mind I get into during fantasy football, which is an insatiable, unreasonable, mind-numbing, relationship-ruining desire. Or something reasonably close to that.

By all means, please comment as I hope this becomes a place for discussion. You won't hurt my feelings if you disagree with me. You'll just be wrong.