Top Chef DC: Episode 6

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Father Figure: Well, Tim is gone – justifiably – but the show opens with cheftestants lamenting his departure, saying he was a father figure of sorts to the gang.  Of course you’d think dad in this context could cook – but oh well.

The Quickfire: Back at the Hilton – in comes Padma with Michelle Bernstein, former James Beard award winner.  Andrea is miffed, because apparently Bernstein is from Miami also, and they have a competitive relationship.  Padma asks Bernstein if this is a problem and Michelle says “it’s about the food”.  Oh the denial that’s not a denial.  Meowww!!!

Who Took my Testicles: The quickfire involves cooking with a series of very exotic ingredients – emu eggs, yak, and Angelo draws duck testicles.  Of course Angelo, the schemer probably deserves this.  Not that you can’t make something tasty.  Naturally balls jokes abound.  Of course Angelo was making some of these jokes – which of course makes ones skin crawl since he evokes the molester vibe.  Amanda draws emu eggs which she seems upset by, though clearly – it’s an egg.

The Twist: Padma comes in and makes them pass their protein to the left.  This put the emu egg in Kelly’s hands.  She is at sea, but at least thinks about making an omelette.  See?  It’s an egg!  Amanda gets the llama bits and Kevin gets the testicles.  After the 30 minutes warps by, we see Bernstein disapprove (predictably) of Andrea’s dish.  (so catty)  And Kelly gets the win, with a solid emu egg omelet.  Hooray for simplicity.

Elimination Challenge: Once again, no local DC angle, just a stupid cold war pun.  The cheftestants split into two groups to create cold dishes.  They will be serving to the other group.  The peers will choose the winner and who will be up for elimination.  If you don’t think Angelo has thought of trying to destroy someone – you have not watched this season.

So how does Angelo do it? We are on the presidential yacht where the contestants are planning.  Angelo is trying to give Tameka tips (as usual), Ed and Tiffany are flirting (as usual) … Kevin is wary of Angelo’s advice and yapping so he and Kenny stay far away.

362 words without a Padma blurb?!!: OK – well when she sat down to the dinner, she seemed to be trying to dress like some kind of pharaoah.  It was sort of weird.  She still has eyes though!

The first session: After we see Alex noticing cartilage in Amanda’s chicken but not helping her out (dick move), Amanda, Kenny, Ed, Kevin, Alex all on the block  … Kelly gets to judge both.  Kenny’s lamb is too raw, Amanda’s dish looked bad, Kevin ends up dominating though in the votes.  Of course the chefs are all incredibly vicious.  Tiffany marvels at the nastiness.  After some voting, Kenny’s lamb goes on the chopping block.

Session Dos: Tiffany’s peppercorn crusted ahi dish is universally lauded (wha?? they lauded her?)  But then comes the cattiness with Andrea’s tartare (too bland), Stephen’s was meh and then Tameka’s scallops were undercooked and way too spicy.  Of course I am a spice junkie and my pal Richard keeps packets of red chili pepper in his jacket – so we are the wrong people to ask.  Tameka, Angelo’s acolyte of course, is on the chopping block.  Tiffany advances to the good table.

Judging: With Michelle Bernstein at the table, Tiffany and Kevin get the praise thrown their way.  Kevin gets the nod, and a 6 night stay in Hawaii!!!  WOW.  Tiffany is easily the nicest person in the cast so far – so nice to see her get some love.  Kenny and Tameka get to the chopping block.  Tom opines Kenny’s errors were conceptual while Tameka’s were technical.  Kenny was floored he was there, and thought it had to do with the haterade the other contestants were drinking.

Pack Your Knives: Tameka.  Her dish was a disaster.  Also, though the judges say they don’t – how can the body of work not matter a little?  Kenny is a stronger candidate.  Of course, this is what you get for listening to Angelo!

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Bonnie and Clyde

It was a strange last note to end this season’s version of DC’s “Screen on the Green” outdoor movie series.  I am not sure the crowd gathered on picnic blankets were fully ready to see Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow absolutely riddled, pummeled full of machine gun fire as the screen went black with just “The End” on a title card.  It made for a pensive conclusion to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and it is not difficult to see the seeds of Drugstore Cowboy, Thelma and Louise, Natural Born Killers and other outlaw pictures.  The message of the picture itself is not particularly profound – the two folks got what was coming to them, frankly – but the arc of the journey reveals a voyage to doom that – while released in 1967 and set in the Depression – is still absolutely contemporary in its truths.

The movie is a series of episodes and set pieces centering around the forming and deforming of a band of Depression Era robbers in the Dust Bowl.  We start with Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow trying to steal a car in front of a sort of working class looking house.  From the upper window Bonnie (Dunaway) looks down and catches him – they flirt briefly and lo and behold, she is in his car and away they go.  In a modern movie now, you’d’ see the home she ran away from, some attempt to establish her background.  However, we never see that – we see her reaction and we see some references to it – but until her central reunion with her mama, her actual need to escape is really just sort of presupposed.  In a way, her background doesn’t matter – it could just as easily be narcissism and the fascination with a real live criminal.  This is reinforced further when she gets a chance to fire a gun.

Clyde, we learn has just come out of a time in prison, which he seems to refer to quite proudly – as if it were a pickup line.  If we know little about where Bonnie comes from, we know even less about Clyde.  Sure he acts chummy with his brother (Gene Hackman), but they don’t have anything to say to each other.  There is no biographical information – he is a robber, and that is his entire identity.  Clyde, as he proclaims, is not much of a lover – and there is the hint of sexual compensation in his guns and robbin – the confidence there that he cannot earn in the bedroom.  Ultimately their universes are boiled down to this rather pathetic existence.

Clyde promises them a chance to get out this hick town, but as we watch them in action, they aren’t particularly good robbers.  They pick up a young, dumb kid at a gas station to drive a getaway car, and he stupidly parks it while they hold up a bank.  They hold up a grocery store and Clyde damn near gets killed in an ambush from behind.  The jobs are sloppy, and while they are making money, they are leaving bodies and clues in their wake.  Even once Buck and his very shrill wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons – who won an Oscar for this role, and of course terrorized Roseanne on TV for years) join the gang, the jobs don’t go that much better.  What becomes interesting as we see them running, is that really that is all they are doing.  They have money – but are they spending it?  What is the cause?  Penn gives no motivations to why they need to do this – aside from that they are criminals and that is what they do.

That explains Clyde fine, but still where does that leave Bonnie?  She is clearly star struck and the Barrow gang become more interested in the marketing of their vocation than the vocation itself.  Witness the photos she takes for the papers – and the “Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde”.  As Stone would later develop in Killers, the robbing thing becomes intoxicating.  In particular note the particularly unwise move they make with one Sheriff when they end up nabbing him.  Oh, sweet hubris!

That said, all of this would make Bonnie and Clyde a rollicking tale of populist outlaws – maybe … but it is a sad tale of pathos ultimately – and this gets thrown into sharp relief when Bonnie reunites with her family for one last visit.  We see the kids, and see the home life that Bonnie had.  It was poor, but not that bad frankly.  Clyde muses about living a couple miles from her mother.  Then Penn focuses on her mother’s face – with the severity and weathered age that is almost as eerie as William S Burroughs – she tell Bonnie that she’ll be dead if they live near her.  It is hard not to feel the abject uselessness of their quest.  The loneliness, the meaninglessness of it all.  Sure it gets some laughs, but for all those bulletholes, come on.

Dinner for Schmucks

Jay Roach’s Dinner for Schmucks is probably as close to a truly edgy comedy as Hollywood in 2010 is probably capable of doing.  In a way that is a compliment – in particular Steve Carrell brings a sort of nerve to a comic performance not seen since Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy.  However, the movie does not make the leap into true black comedy and is content to go for a sweeter vibe.  This is no The War of the Roses.  That said, we are left with an effective comedy taking advantage of Paul Rudd’s enormous resources of Paul Rudd-ness and a wicked gallery of ummm … extraordinary people, but something a little maddeningly short of what could have been a real classic.

Tim Conrad is an investment banker in the Los Angeles wealth management game – who, like most of these types, is looking to get ahead.  He suggests a brilliant idea to rope in a very important client to the president of his firm, and suddenly he is on the promotion fast track.  However, first he has to attend a dinner with his future co-workers where they bring idiots to make fun of them. (idiots?  more on that later)  Now Rudd, who is one of the most effective actors in this sort of realm, projects goodness easily.  He is pretty clearly not the Type A uberdouche that you expect with this personality type.  He has  a girlfriend he is in love with, and a life that he wants to move forward  for most of the good, American Dream sort of reasons.  As such, you gotta pay to play, right?  Suffice to say, if the Tim (Rudd) wants to advance in his new job and secure a new client, the man has to find an idiot right quick.  Suddenly deus ex machina comes to the scene as his Porsche hits a very oblivious Barry (Steve Carrell) and away we go.

Barry is … something.  I am not sure if idiot or anything is a fair characterization of him, or if it is a mean spirited one.  I mean, he has considerable talent at his hobby (indeed a montage of his works is shown in the opening credit) which I would not dream of spoiling.  But he certainly is not book or street smart.  He gets Switzerland and Sweden confused for one – and then the language the Swedish actually speak with the language Swedish muppets speak.  He also has a bad habit of going through Tim’s stuff, and responding on Tim’s IM to a woman who has been stalking him.  Where some of these misunderstandings take Tim’s life (his girl, his car) does not require Nostradamus to predict.

In the trailers for this movie, I thought that Carrell might over ham this sort of character up, but to his credit his performance falls just short of that.  Carrell and Roach are able to manage Barry’s absolute, total cluelessness with absolute logic.  Barry is never acting maliciously – and that’s what makes the comic consequences of what he does so painful.  There is a lot cringeworthy here (in a good way) during these passages – the sorts of vivisection of manners that the Brits do especially well.  Tim, being a good guy is in a conundrum – because while he clearly recognizes Barry’s goodness, the sheer magnitude of Barry’s missteps can sure add up.  As the complications pile up (the stalker, the important client, Tim’s girlfriend walking out on him) Roach here consciously chooses to go a more genial, screwball route.  The supporting players are a menagerie of weirdos, whether it be the curiously Russell Brand-like artist whom Tim’s girlfriend is curating, or Barry’s archrival (Zach Galifanakis) who has developed a skill in hypnosis.

Ultimately all of this is a setup for the dinner itself.  Of course at this point, Tim does have regard for Barry, but still wants the promotion.  The dinner is a terrific comic set piece, and the variety of guests is pretty darn imaginative.  However, in the ending, the movie shows where it falls short of greatness.  While we have this gallery of true absurdity around, the movie has cast its lot with Barry being kind of sweet, and so of course here it is required that Tim make a Capra-esque speech about who the REAL idiots are and whatnot.  That Roach stopped just short of the finish line and went for a more conventional sort of tone for the finish makes the film more genial, but probably denies it greatness.  That is a bit of a shame.  Of course, for a summer Hollywood film with a couple of pretty high profile stars – taking this material in the darker direction might have just not flown with the test audiences or marketing types.  I guess it’s like the British version of The Office versus the American one – the marketing premise is that Americans want something sweeter and more cuddly, even in its satire.  I’m not sure that is the case.

Top Chef DC: Episode 5

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Flirting: Well, we have Angelo sweating on Tameka, and Ed sweating Tiffany.  That this is a positive symbol for Bulworth’s America, I don’t need to tell you, but also positive are the girls relative senses of humor and guard dealing with (at least in Angelo’s case this is pretty true) some real douchebags.

The Quickfire: Padma is nothing special this time around (just her … uh … eyes), but she has brought Patrick O’Connell, a restaurateur in DC who owns The Inn at Little Washington which is very fancy and very expensive.  As Keith Law in his twitter pointed out, he looks like crashed into a vintage clothes store.  Of course, there also a lot of crabs – and of course they have 45 minutes to make it into tastiness.

YUCK: Angelo says he caught crabs once (yeah – THAT kind).  He’s a douchebag, remember?

One would think: Timothy, the Marylander, would have the edge – hell, he thinks so.  Kenny of course is working like a speed demon and sweating.  Tamesha does not know how to cook crabs (she is allergic) but of course Angelo helps her out (BEWARE!!!).

The Result: After loving Angelo and Kenny (as usual) and hating Amanda’s weird choices (also as usual), ED ends up winning the quickfire.  Ed is happy, and I am too – since he seems like one of the few sort of likeable cats this season.

Elimination Challenge: As a team, they will be cooking at one of Virginia’s certified organic farms – they don’t know what they will be cooking with – they just have to game plan.  Of course, Angelo and Kenny take alpha male roles and they both argue over who gets the conch.  This is very funny since Kenny has tremendous presence while Angelo is a giant douchebag.

Off to the Farm: At the farm, things go down interestingly.  Tim takes all of the vegetables and has to be talked down by Kelly.  Tim ends up with turnips that he roasts down.  Roasted turnips?  That is it?  The chefs wonder whether he will deliver more thunder here.  Meanwhile Andrea tries to grill a pork loin but realizes it is a bad idea with these grills and cuts them up deftly.

The Winner: Amazingly, Kelly with her beets and a salad (always risky) came out roses.  Kenny was solid, and Amanda was in trouble (did not cut her vegetables evenly!).  Ultimately, though it comes back to the turnips.  Timothy did not deliver much and with the last few desultory weeks, there is no reason to keep him.

God I hope this season perks up.

Present

Customarily, the spot to look for the best (or worst – or just about any) Vietnamese in these corners is in Eden Center, the Da Nang of DC (if you want to be clever, maybe).  So it was with a measure of skepticism that I went to Present – though of course when Tyler Cowen digs it (yes, the economics professor – but for ethnic food, good catch) I pay attention.  The decor at Present is downright upscale for a Vietnamese  place – this is not one of the strip mall holes in the wall, but a pretty elegant space.  They even take reservations – though fortunately we did not wait despite not having one.

The service was pretty terrific and very friendly.  Our waiter was good as explaining the dishes – and the menu itself has a “recommended” list in the back (although this struck me as funny – does this mean that the rest of the menu is perfunctory)?  The recommended list was a little misleading though.  I ordered the Green Paradise Spring Roll (shrimp and pork wrapped with rice paper) – frankly a disappointment.  Granted, rolls are rolls, but the prawns were badly overcooked and the Vietnamese spring roll when not deep fried begs for some juiciness.  The prawns were also badly overcooked in the lotus leaf salad, but the salad itself was delicious besides that.  The crab and asparagus soup was very good – smooth flavour.

This all set up the main course, which was a hot pot tour de force.  Here they gave us thin cuts of flank steak which cook quickly in the hot pot, and then you make rolls out of them with rice paper etc.  The fixings were all there – vermicelli (avoid that), bean sprouts, mint, apple slices, young banana, and pineapple.  The pineapple was the crucial step to give the rolls some juiciness that was lacking the appertizer portion.  As a show and a fun way to socialize in a restaurant, this is a good deal.  It helps that the rolls themselves were quite good.  The cooking liquid was not fiery – but had good pineapple based, peanut infused, savory but a little sweet flavor.  Usually these mild flavors are not my cup of tea for savory dishes – but that is a systemic quibble … the experience was excellent and the dish was well done.

The price is not the bargain that some ethnic holes in the wall can be.  But the price was not unfair either.  Overall present is a good solid Vietnamese place, and worth looking at again.  Even if I ordered suboptimally for my flavor profile – the merit is clearly there.

The Invention of Lying

The gift Ricky Gervais has shown in his first two starring roles is not so much a gift of acting.  He always looks, talks like Ricky Gervais – and he has not played characters that far from the screen persona we all know.  But where Gervais has gone right is in choosing good projects, and good screenplays.  Of course The Invention of Lying, his second such role (also in a type of romcom) is written and directed by him in part – so hey, easy to choose your own work.  That said, The Invention of Lying, like movies such as Pleasantville or Bruce Almighty or even Gervais’ first movie Ghost Town start in the familiar vestiges of genre, but somehow sneakily end up making a substantially more interesting point than you expect.

In this movie, Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a screenwriter of stupefyingly awful documentary films.  (the sheer depth of the awfulness is best for you to discover yourself)  Of course they are awful, Bellison lives in a world where nobody tells lies – indeed, no suspense or fiction.  Literally.  Of course this sets up the most amusing of first dates when he goes out with Anna – who explains how she is out of Gervais’ league.  Indeed, given that Anna is played by Jennifer Garner, the viewer does not require a lot of convincing.  Indeed, the signs of a world without non-truth is very funny – the advertisements for Coke and Pepsi, the way a secretary talks to her boss, the way you describe the home the elderly end up in.

This set up is all funny, but Mark’s life is not so good.  At the film company, he is assigned films of a certain century – and let’s just say he did not get one of the better centuries.  Despite his attempts, his movies are not well received, certainly not as well received as his douchebag co-worker (hey, Mark says this!) Brad Kessler (of course if you want a douchebag – Rob Lowe is a hell of a choice).  He gets fired, he cannot make his rent because he only has $300 to his name in the bank.  So Mark goes to the bank, the system is down, so the teller asks him how much money he has in the bank.  Suddenly, Mark has an inspiration and explains that he has $800 – just enough to pay rent.  The teller just gives it to him.  Does this strain credulity?  Well, if we live in a world without lying – why would there be cynicism?

Mark is amazed.  He has – well, there is no word for it!  He tries to share this with his buddy (Louis CK – again, almost perfect casting) or a bartender, or a traffic cop (the casting and cameos in the movie are one of its pleasures).  At this point, the movie works through some predictable cycles.  Gervais discovers he can make a lot of money, especially at a casino – and it helps him get his job back at work, and of course he takes another crack at Anna.  All of these scenes are amusing and well handled.

However, the movie takes a turn towards elevation when Mark is interrupted to visit his dying mother.  She is afraid of the void, she is afraid of leaving this world.  Mark then explains – that there is life after death.  Of course, given that nobody has ever heard this tale (or any other fiction) – he suddenly becomes a worldwide religious phenomenon!  The scene where he addresses  the crowd that has gathered around his apartment is an exercise of evil genius – especially how long it takes Mark to explain what constitutes good and bad behavior to “The Man in the Sky”.  What makes The Invention of Lying more than just taking cynical potshots are religion (Religulous *cough*) is that Gervais finds a way to develop the construction, then kind of rebuild it and look at it from all sides – all within what sort of becomes a sci-fi sort of romantic comedy.  Indeed, he continues to have trouble to explain to Anna that she has free will and her main focus datingwise resolutely does not change for a long time.  But (and I don’t think I am giving much away) change it does, and The Invention of Lying ends up as a wholly satiating entertainment.

Parish Cafe

I had seen the name pop up on many a foodie blog – and finally broke down with the latest trip to Boston.  Parish Cafe is a pretty neat concept – a sandwich place populated by sandwiches dedicated to and developed by chefs from some of the top places in the city.  From what I had been told, it was a good chance to taste the best of the best in a more casual price point.  Certainly seemed like a natural after a warm/hot summer day walking around the city.  Located on Boylston Street near the Public Garden, like most of Boston itself, it is very easy to get to without a car (indeed, better that way if you can swing it).

On the downside, the space is cooled by ceiling fan and not air conditioned – but that said it was not that bad.  I was worried about sweltering, but fortunately that was not a problem.  The beer list was good and wide – I took a Spaten for my drink.  One might call the drinks expensive, but really considering Boston, par for the course is probably more accurate.  I was tempted to get the lobster roll – but was a little intimated by the dreaded “market price” on the menu.  The intimidation was further amplified by the waitress who explained that the market was pricing it at $32!  That said, I still took the plunge, the tomato confit, mayo, lettuce, bacon combination was too tempting to pass up.  Fortunately, for the price, I got a lot of lobster – two hot dog rolls worth.  The lobster meat was cold and tasty, on the bed of applewood smoked bacon – it was a meeting of lobster and a BLT!  Two great sandwiches, how can you go wrong?  Fortunately, they didn’t.  A couple of the tablemates got the BLTs, and they were similarly lovely.  The overall tab is not dirt cheap – but it is affordable, and a good place to hang out.