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.

Ghost Town

Wow, romcoms suck.  I mean, as a genre, is there one with a higher probability of absolute bilge?  I remember when TS ranted about the lack of Asian-American leads in romcoms, I was grateful someone like John Cho had stayed away.  (I guess Romeo Must Die and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift are romantic comedies (however unintentionally) and maybe Cho’s own opus Harold and Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay, but yeah the field is thin)  Why would any ethnicity want to corner the market on such dreck?  The stories are canned, the contrivances hard to overlook, and in so many cases, the sentiment is so god damned forced.

What makes David Koepp’s Ghost Town – an unusually good romcom – is how easily it spins its yarn.  The film itself does not actually address any of the normal complaints one can have about the genre.  It IS contrived, from the set-up, to the encounter.  The story is very predictable, and when I describe it – yup, it’s corny.  But it is funny how in these hands, with this script and these actors – it works.

The movie of course stars Ricky Gervais, and he is central to the movie’s effect.  This was his first feature film starring vehicle, but he employs all the tricks that he uses to such great effect in The Office and Extras.  Here, he plays Bertram Pincus, an English dentist living in New York.  Put simply, Bertram is insufferable and quite the misanthrope.  (if he were your dentist, I’d wish you had a broader insurance plan)  He is mean to strangers, he hates his patients, he obviously lives alone (not even a crazy cat person!) – clearly the charmer.

And then … he dies – sort of.  Through this contrivance, he is able to see ghosts – and of course ghosts, who are often unseen by humans, are all too happy to have this sudden medium to talk to their loved ones.  One of these individuals is Frank (Greg Kinnear), a lout of a husband who cheated on his wife Gwen (Tea Leoni) but alas, passed away.  He wants to make things right with Gwen – who just so happens to live in Pincus’ building.  Just from this bare bones description, I am sure you could guess how the plot would work without getting a ton wrong.  Bertram resists, shows his meanness etc, then meets Gwen and her fiance and then finds himself falling in love, especially with the inside info Frank is providing.  There is a conflict and a resolution.  So far, routine.

However, it is amazing what just casting the movie correctly can do for something so typical.  What is unoriginal becomes comfortable, and Koepp and his actors find the right notes to elevate the material and make it tougher edged than it had to be.  Gervais of course has such skill showing aggravation.  He is able to be a giant prick for most of the movie while flashing some reserves of charm.  He is clearly smart, but he does not suffer food gladly.  But you see his loneliness, and when he makes the requisite “growth”, we believe him.  Greg Kinnear is one of the most underrated actors in the game – always useful, whether being a passive aggressive optimist (Little Miss Sunshine) or here, where he really is a cad.  Finally of course Tea Leoni projects warmth so easily – and the movie milks every bit of it.  Without overacting, she has a way to project goodness – the audience wants her to be happy, whether it be with Pincus or not.

World Cup Final: Spain 1, Netherlands 0 – some random thoughts

Before we get to the World Cup Final, I’d be remiss to add another couple thoughts about LeBron.

  • As is often the case, Joe Posnanski explained it the best.  On national TV, a 25 year old prodigy at the height of his powers admitted he did not want to be an immortal.  A-Rod to Jeter, Pippen to Jordan.  It was just too much work.
  • It’s clear LeBron self identifies as a winner.  He follows the Yankees and Cowboys though he is an Ohioan.  He is a frontrunner.  Being able to hang with some friends while feeding his frontrunning tendencies was all too typical.
  • Titles are not entitled.  When LeBron talked about wanting a chance to win – somehow (as flawed as the Cavs were) a team with 128 wins in 2 seasons is not a non-contender.  But he sees himself as a winner, and cannot handle the notion that he isn’t.  Rick Reilly said “He doesn’t need to win like he needs his next breath, like Lance Armstrong.”  This is wrong.  More accurately he needs to be a winner more desperately than anybody.  He does not feel the need to be the best to do so – he just likes the glow.

Now onto the World Cup, and a somewhat less than riveting Spain win over the Netherlands:

  • The officials, awful all World Cup, kept it up.  The Netherlands did deserve more fouls – they were very chippy once they realized they could not take possession from Spain.  They got physical.  But the yellow card fever was way too much, especially considering that most of the offenses were dives.  Moreover the one foul by De Jong which WAS a red card worthy offense, the refs missed.
  • Spain scored the fewest goals of any World Cup winner, but they were not a negative side.  Really with Fernando Torres’ horrendous tournament, the team lacked (besides the great David Villa) finishing touch.  When you possess without finishing, it becomes agonizing at times.  But Spain, their defense was excellent throughout – 0 goals allowed in the knockout stage says it all.
  • And Spain was positive!  In overtime and the last few minutes, Spain was the one who chased the win – the Dutch, partially due to exhaustion, were clearly staring at the clock.  When Iniesta scored the magical goal – it was fully deserved.  Spain kept trying.
  • Full marks to the Dutch though.  They played pragmatically, and a bit negatively.  But they outplayed Spain for a large portion of the middle hour of regulation, and Iker Casilla’s brilliance kept them from winning.  The Dutch did what they had to do – and it was almost enough.
  • Maybe wanting a truly great winner take all soccer game is impossible.  The tension, how much the sides care, the fear of making THE big mistake.  It prevents teams from going balls to the wall.  Only Spain did at the end in this game.  But a cautious defensive yuckfest might be the default state.

The LeBachelor

It could not be more damaging to the career of Andrew Dice Clay if it had been made as a documentary by someone who hated him.

Roger Ebert on Dice Rules

He could have just as easily had been describing LeBron James’ portrayal of LeBron James in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “LeBron James: Decision”.  Wait?  It’s not a 30 for 30?  My bad.  I will admit – I watched.  As an NBA fan and a self proclaimed pop culture aficionado, how could I not?  Besides getting the news story – that he is going to the Heat, making them the favorites in the East even if they get 9 cab drivers to occupy the remaining roster spots – the special was reality TV at its worst and most inevitable.

Indeed, this could not have done more to hurt James’ image than an expose by somebody who despised him.  That this production was devised by his management team and midwifed by ESPN makes it utterly flabbergasting.  If the World Cup was ESPN at its best, this is the Worldwide Leader might have been rock bottom.  Given that they were the network behind “Who’s Hot?” and Dick Vitale’s xenophobic rants on the NBA draftcast, that’s saying something.

Now, the first thing TS mentioned to me was that all he wants to do is win – isn’t that like other ath-a-letes?  After all, as a Celtics fan, isn’t this the same as what happened in 2008 when the Celtics landed Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen?  If one wants to make that argument, I can see it to a degree.  However, Kevin Garnett was one of the 5 best players of the 2000s, and was on a team that was below .500.  So was Ray Allen and Pierce.  They were in pretty horrendous situations – and all past their primes.  The strategy employed by Boston was VERY high risk – that it has gotten a title and a runner up is the high end outcome.  On the other hand, LeBron, at the height of his powers, is leaving a contender (for all the bashing the Cavaliers deservedly get as an organization, this team won 128 games in 2 seasons and only lost to teams that were arguably at least as good as they were) to form a super team.  Bill Simmons posited that this was all decided as early as 2007.  “A few weeks after the 2008 Summer Olympics, Someone Who Knows Things told me the following rumor: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Chris Paul became such good friends during the 2007 Olympic trials, and then during their 2008 Olympics excursion in Beijing, that they actually made a pact in China to play together.”  In other words, the best basketball player in the world might be a fifteen year old girl.  Futhermore, where is the urge to beat the best?  At their peak, I reckon Bird wanted to beat Magic, not join him.  This whole thing reveals the sort of competitor he actually is.  In other words – not what we thought.

But enough of the competitive ramifications – the Heat will be good, period.  What one marvels at is the utter tone deafness of LeBron’s team during the entire run.  For instance, there is the very real possibility that LeBron has been sitting on this news for a long time.  But instead of a presscon and full paged ad to Cleveland fans, like a normal player might do (ok, maybe even a tweet) – LeBron’s team put together a one hour show – hired noted hack Jim Gray to interview him, and sold it to ESPN.  ESPN of course, got exactly what it wanted.  He set it at the Greenwich, Connecticut Boys and Girls Club – the noted trick of surrounding him with kids so no really inflammatory questions can be asked (not that Gray, on LeBron’s payroll, would do that) – leaving open the possibility of Vince McMahon showing up.

But alas no Vince McMahon, Shawn Michaels, Brett Michaels or any other possibility of actual entertainment or insight followed.  The studio show had league partner Stuart Scott and the ABC NBA crew of John Barry, Wilbon etc.  The possibility of asking him why he chose a national TV forum to publicly urinate on the people of Cleveland was basically zero.  They made empty headed happy talk – they had correspondents at all the relvant NBA cities.  I remember thinking how absurd the depiction of the chase for Jesus Shuttlesworth was in He Got Game – it turns out that Spike Lee was 12 years too early.

Anyway then, Jim Gray started with his questions – idiotic small talk, and it took a FULL 25 MINUTES before LeBron made the announcement.  He confessed he did not tell any of the other pursuing teams until now.  He announced his departure “I am taking my skills to South Beach” and that was that – except there were 30 more minutes of air time to fill.  The only satisfactory moment was his uncomfortable look throughout the interview and especially at a burning jersey shown to him from Cleveland.

Now, Cleveland fans should not be burning jerseys, and Dan Gilbert is a spectacular hypocrite.  After all LeBron changed basketball teams – he didn’t flood Lake Erie with crude oil or anything.  He has the right to change employers – as we all do.  HOWEVER, the choice to go on national television and publicly embarass his fans by leaving them (in other words, he turned heel, he broke up on the jumbotron … that is a bit less forgiveable.  How did his team think it was a good idea?  It was the greatest emasculation a city’s sports fans could ever have – and for no reason.  What was LeBron thinking?  We’ll never know.

Top Chef DC – Episode 4 (SPOILERS)

Some cattiness and a surprisingly meh choice for a double elimination challenge – and no Gail Simmons’ … um … eyes to look at.  A disappointing season continues to roll on … the rest of the season can be found here:

Padma Update: not much to report – casual at the quickfire, elegant later.  Only one pair of eyes to regard this episode so – hey, why not?

The Economy Strikes!: Chef Tom and Padma are judging the quickfire, and the elimination challenge is taking place in the Top Chef kitchen?  Come on now!  You couldn’t find anywhere else to do this?  There was definitely a sense of laziness in this episode.

Quickfire: A meal that would work as baby food.  Very interesting – you see the dishes in their adult form and then as puree.  Not a whole lot to see here, though Alex‘s green puree gave me the same feeling I get when I see peas in the baby food section.  Oh yeah, Kenny won.

The Elimination Challenge: Contestants get into pairs.  All 7 pairs cook breakfast (30 minutes) – top 2 are safe.  Remaining 5 cook lunch (45 minutes) – top 2 are safe.  Final 3 cook dinner (60 minutes) – one team goes home.  Also the dishes had to be friendly to a hotel menu.  The guys choose up teams – and we get some interesting pairs.

Guest Judges: Douchebags from DC!!  The detestable Mike Isabella from the overrated Zaytinya, Brian Voltaggio (we like him), Spike Mendelsohn (kind of a prick from Season 4 is it – and his burgers aren’t that good) and someone else.  Really they spent the entire episode being hypercritical.  It is easy to think that the thrill of being on the other side of the judges table filled them with hubris – the chance to tee off on these people for once!

The Shocker: Kenny on the elimination chopping block.  However for dinner, he made short ribs with his team.  With Arnold and Lynne’s Squid Ink Pasta being undercooked (and Lynne not being on board anyway) – their ouster not a surprise.

I think the recaps will get shorter as the season evolves.  So far, there has been no real attempt to make this show about DC.  Four episodes and no Jose Andres??  What the F?!!  Also, the talent level is not transcendent – not like last year.