Friday, May 15, 2015

Burger Warfare

Located at 1209 Battleground Avenue in Greensboro, Burger Warfare specializes in burgers but also offers sandwiches, salads, and shakes. There is a full-service bar

Much like its nearly-adjacent sister restaurant (The Marshall Free House), Burger Warfare follows a familiar template for Kotis-owned properties: find a theme, go all-out on décor, inject some craft beers and a few unique food offerings, and jack up the prices. While the latter point is (understandably) a deal-breaker for some, I’ve found the overall experience to be worthwhile, and Burger Warfare is no exception.

How likely you are to agree with that assessment depends partially on how much you appreciate the dedication to theme. If the giant robot statue outside didn’t convince you, this place ain’t subtle. There are more robots on the inside, bullets inlaid on the bar counters, and servers clad in camo. While no one would confuse this with elegance, it is nevertheless a look that stands out. Try it if you want a change of pace.

Of course, aesthetics is only one part of the battle plan here. The menu isn’t particularly deep (only three sandwiches and two salads), but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in intrigue. You can build your own burger here, but the preset options are fairly compelling – they make use of everything from chorizo to portabella to brie. Ditto the drinks: booze-laden milkshakes are a house specialty, and brews from Pig Pounder across the street are readily available.

For my first visit, I went with the Eggstraction Pt. Siracha: a cheeseburger with onions, chorizo, and an over-easy egg. The burger was a bit of a mess to eat (as well it should be), and the flavors melded nicely. The Warfare Sauce that accompanied my fries was another zesty hit. The meat itself, however, doesn’t compare to Greensboro’s best. They do two thin patties here, and while it certainly outclasses Steak n Shake, let’s just say that it’s no Hops. My companion, on the other hand, seemed satisfied with her Black Ops: an Asian twist on a black bean patty. Moreover, the adult shake that we split – the Daniel Boone (vanilla with apple pie moonshine and caramel) – was a winning pick.

Our server, Victoria, was quite friendly, and our food arrived from the kitchen quickly. Both of these made the price paid more palatable. Burgers (with one side) fall in the $8 to $10 range while the alcoholic shakes are $8. These rates aren’t casus belli, but better values do exist elsewhere.   

Had I been here when the establishment was more crowded, I may have left with a decidedly less favorable impression. However, my first visit leaves me to conclude that while Burger Warfare may not win the battle for best burger in town, it can still wage a successful campaign for diners’ dollars.


7.75/10

Burger Warfare on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

As the Avengers combat terrorist organization Hydra in the Eastern European nation of Sokovia, team benefactor Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) has a horrifying vision of the team laid to waste because he didn’t do enough to save it. To avert this fate, he and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), alter ego of the Hulk, use Asgardian technology to create Ultron, an artificial intelligence dedicated to defending the Earth. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before Ultron (voiced by James Spader) decides that the only way to save the world from destruction is to annihilate its human inhabitants.

In the three years since the first Avengers film, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown by leaps and bounds, not only increasing in number but diversifying in style and tone. With everything from cosmic adventures to political thrillers in the oeuvre and the character count at an all-time high, pulling off a coherent ensemble piece that still satisfies the fandom is twice the challenge it was in years’ past. While this sequel is hardly seamless, it nevertheless rises (super) heroically to the occasion.

First, the bad: though the conflict (heroes vs. megamaniacal robot) is as simplistic as ever, the film misfires most when it aims for more complexity. Specifically, its attempts at furthering character depth all too often read as character derailment. Stark’s morally ambiguous heedlessness is (necessarily, in light of the upcoming Captain America: Civil War) on full display here, but instead of coming across as vulnerable and conflicted (a la Iron Man 3), he’s as flippant and jokey as ever. Speaking of jokey, it’s a pity that writer/director Joss Whedon decided that the best way to counter claims of Captain America’s woodenness was to make him part of a lamer-than-lame running gag about sensitivity to harsh language. In comparison, his deadpanning from the previous film (“It appears to be powered by some sort of electricity.”) was considerably more amusing. This does not even touch upon the film’s awkwardly shoehorned romantic subplot or the tendency for characters to go from comrades in arms to attacking each other (and visa versa) seemingly on a whim.

Ultimately, however, neither these script shortcomings nor a 140-minute runtime can erase how much fun the movie is. The action choreography remains top-notch with not only Cap (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) pulling off impressive melee acrobatics but newcomers Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) making the most of their abilities (super speed and telekensis, respectively) as well. The pacing is also an asset here. While there are quieter, more intimate and contemplative scenes, they complement rather than kill the momentum built by the action, and are no wasted moments here. As a result, the film feels considerably shorter than it is.

Lastly, as misguided as some of the scripting and character decisions are, the cast refuses to mail it in. Downey remains amusingly affable and roguish as ever, Johansson and Ruffalo do the tortured soul thing without sacrificing either efficacy or believability, and Jeremy Renner gives his Clint Barton/Hawkeye character both sarcastic quips and a moral center. Spader certainly could have made Ultron sound colder and more calculating, but in a way, his Stark-patterned neurosis and all-too-human personality make the antagonist more unnerving.

With each successive (and successful) film, Marvel continues to both redefine the parameters of its own triumph and inch closer to the point where audiences will finally say “Enough!” Avengers: Age of Ultron occupies neither the upper nor the lower bound, and though it fumbles more than it should, it also exhilarates, amuses, reflects, and, ultimately wins the day.


8.25/10

The Marshall Free House

Located at 1211 Battleground Avenue in Greensboro, The Marshall Free House offers upscale English pub fare for lunch and dinner. The restaurant includes two bar areas, outdoor seating, and indoor and outdoor fireplaces. A weekend brunch is offered as is a high tea menu.

If nothing else, my first visit to The Marshall Free House served as a testament to the value of experiencing things firsthand. High prices, inconsistent reviews, and a repeatedly delayed grand opening put me off giving this place a try, but in the end, I am more than glad that I did.

To start, the décor is quite impressive. It is easy enough to lay down some dark wood, low lights, and a beer sign or two and call yourself a pub, but The Marshall Free House really nails the details, waltzing right up to the edge of ostentation without crossing the line. The handsome bar areas, communal long tables, homey fireplaces, and other touches make for a comfortable ambiance. Seeing all this in person almost makes the laughably long time it took for this place to open a little easier to understand.

Service is another strong point. The tartan-clad servers are trained to give first-time patrons an introductory sales pitch, something I found overly showy but not altogether unwarranted. That aside, our server, Connor, was personable, knowledgeable, and made several helpful recommendations. Moreover, both food and drink arrived surprisingly quickly after our orders were placed: they run a tight ship here.

Speaking of food and drink, nothing we tried disappointed. An order of Scotch eggs had a great balance of textures (runny yolk on the inside, crispy panko on the outside), and my companion raved about the accompanying dill aioli. The menu offered a number of Anglo-Pub standards (bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, etc.) as well as a few intriguing sandwiches and other options (pork cheeks and pan seared salmon were both earmarked for future consideration). We decided to go classic, however, and did not regret it. My steak and ale pie may have been one of the best-smelling dishes I’ve ever had, and the taste was nearly its equal, tender beef, rich stew, golden brown crust, and all. My companion’s fish and chips, in addition to being absolutely huge, was also flaky and moist, well-breaded, and none too oily. A side of mushy peas, while texturally odd, was ultimately satisfying.

Should you favor a drink, The Marshall Free House is well-provisioned. If the 90-something varieties of whiskey are out of your price range (and they likely are), the beers – including several brewed right across the street at Pig Pounder – leave plenty to like. Our flight included two (Boar Brown and Banana Bread) that won me over, and I am nobody’s idea of a beer drinker.

The one blemish on what is otherwise an excellent dining experience is the pricing. While it is not outright thievery given either the quality of the food or the size of the portions, nearly $20 for fish and chips seems high no matter how much you dress it up, and other offerings are similarly steep. Abandon the pretense of dining at a pub and prepare to shell out for upscale cuisine, and you won’t get hit with sticker shock.

Even before it officially opened last year, The Marshall Free House had won its share of detractors. Prior to my visit, I was poised to place myself among their number. But the food, service, and atmosphere are simply too damn good for me to join the hatedom. I’ll be back.


8.25/10

Marshall Free House on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Cedar's Restaurant


Located at 6104 West Market Street in Greensboro, Cedar’s Restaurant offers pizza, sandwiches, and Italian fare. Delivery is available.

Situated a stone’s throw from Greensboro’s industrial area, Cedar’s makes the most of its proximity: the food here is quick, cheap, and filling. None of that is to say that it is actually good, but it’s likely good enough for the purpose it serves.

Cedar’s is infinitely more appealing for take-out/delivery than as a dine-in option. The interior is dated and somewhat dirty: the trashcan was practically overflowing at the time of our visit. The employee working the counter, however, was friendly and accommodating.

The food was a mixed bag. An order of zucchini sticks was likely previously frozen. They were neither revolting nor memorable. A Greek salad was generously portioned with a good balance of ingredients. Our pizza was served oven-hot, and the toppings were fresh, but neither the sauce nor the crust had much flavor at all.

If there is an upshot to this mediocrity, it is that it is budget-friendly. Large 18-inch pizzas start at $13.35, a good value for the quantity of pie. The entrée-sized salads, which can easily feed two, run $7.75 while footlong hot sandwiches go for $8.25. If you are looking to have leftovers or feed a group, having to add more seasonings yourself to compensate for the blandness seems like a small price to pay.

As a place to have a meal, Cedar’s would rate much lower, but it offers enough in the way of value, convenience, and expediency to make it worth your consideration if you’re in the area.


7/10


Cedar's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor famous for starring in a series of blockbuster superhero films, tries to regain relevance and win over critics by directing and starring in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” However, various personal and professional problems during production threaten to drive Riggan off the deep end. His co-star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is a gifted but uncompromising purist who threatens to sink his production. One of the female leads, Lesley (Naomi Watts), experiences a crisis of confidence while the other, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), is Riggan’s girlfriend, who doubts his commitment. Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering addict, serves as his production assistant but doubts his vision. Meanwhile, a voice in Riggan’s head admonishes him to give it up and don the Birdman costume one more time for an easy payday.

Writer/director Alejandro Inarritu’s is best known for dark and weighty dramas like Babel and 21 Grams, so it’s fitting that his first foray into comedy is no featherweight. A bitingly critical takedown of the pursuit of artistic truth and the culture of celebrity, Birdman is expertly acted and artfully executed. Though Inarritu occasionally struggles to reign in excesses, his multiple Oscar winner is too funny and too strangely compelling to ignore.

Given the premise, it’s no surprise that the casting is very much a part of the joke. Keaton is, of course, the erstwhile Batman who has done little of consequence since hanging up the tights while Norton harbors a reputation for being a difficult to work with perfectionist. These kernels of truth make not only for meta-humor but for excellent performances as well. Credit too goes to Watts, Amy Ryan (as Riggan’s level-headed ex-wife) and Zach Galifinakis (in an unusual quasi-straight man role as Riggan’s put-upon lawyer/producer). No talent is squandered here.

The same holds true for behind the camera as well. Birdman is designed to evoke a continuous single shot, and Emmanuel Luzebecki’s cinematography does just that. Constant motion and long shots work immersive wonders here, but the jitter-cam gets to be a bit much at times. This can also be said of Antonio Sanchez’s jazz drum score. It’s apropos and fits the rhythm of the film though it eventually grows repetitive.

Perhaps the most divisive aspect of the film is the role played by the title character himself. Birdman starts as a voice inside Riggan’s head but eventually graduates to an in-the-flesh (yet presumably still imaginary) appearance. This accompanies Riggan’s use of (also presumably imaginary) superpowers, which range from flight to telekinesis. While there is some value in illustrating – and parodying – how Riggan sees the world, the image of Keaton coasting through the city at the urging of a gruff-voiced simpleton of an alter ego is ridiculous to the point that it undermines whatever cleverness Inarritu had stockpiled. The ending, though necessarily ambiguous, inspires a similar level of eye-rolling.
While its stylistic flights of fancy may keep it from soaring as high as it should, Birdman nevertheless offers both the acting chops and creative vision to justify its place toward the top of 2014’s cinema pecking order.


8.25/10

Monday, March 16, 2015

Full Kee Chinese Restaurant

Located at 3293 Samet Drive in High Point, Full Kee offers Chinese fare for lunch and dinner. The restaurant is open seven days a week and serves alcohol.

Ever since I moved from New Jersey to North Carolina ten years ago, I have been on a futile search for good Chinese food. To be fair, the Tarheel State does offer some credible Asian fusion. But the strictly Chinese establishments are, more often than not, likely to be generic takeout or a chain (PF Chang’s, Panda Express, etc.). Enter Full Kee, a full-service restaurant with a respectably varied menu. Could this be the end of the search? If the first visit was any indication, the answer is no.

To its credit, Full Kee has a fairly deep menu, especially for these parts. While I was dismayed to see that cold sesame noodles (a personal favorite) were missing, the establishment offers a variety of duck, lamb, and sea bass dishes to complement the usual suspects (fired rice, kung pao, etc.). Moreover, the interior, while a bit dated in its design (salmon-on-brown, dark lighting, etc.) is nevertheless classy, clean, and comfortable. Service, while a touch impersonal, was efficient.

Unfortunately, the food disappointed. An order of steamed dumplings was doughy with an unexpected sweet note, qualities one doesn’t typically appreciate in this type of dish. The Singapore noodles were pleasingly fragrant and visually appealing but could have used a bit more seasoning.

Were this take-out Chinese, these missteps would have been par for the course. However, Full Kee seems to hold itself to a higher standard – and its customers to a higher price point. To put it simply, this place overcharges. All of the entrees are in the teens or higher, including simple noodle and rice dishes. For perspective, I was able to get a superior version of the dumplings and Singapore noodles in center city Charlotte (nobody’s idea of a low-cost area) for several dollars less.

Full Kee looks and feels the part of a real Chinese restaurant, and the menu suggests that Chef Yu knows his way around one, but the high prices and uneven execution don’t inspire much faith. Consider Full Kee a half-measure.

6.5/10

Full Kee Chinese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Cooper's Ale House

Located at 5340 West Market Street in Greensboro, Cooper’s Ale House offers appetizers, sandwiches, salads and entrees. There are daily drink specials and occasional live entertainment.

“Neighborhood sports bar” suggests a comfortably small, dark watering hole to which regulars flock to eat wings and drink beer while watching a game on one of a seemingly infinite number of televisions. At first glance, Cooper’s Ale House seems to fit this conception to a T: it is dark, wings are available, and there are many, many TVs. But looks can be deceiving, and though Cooper’s fulfills its core purpose, it also offers more than that.

Case in point: Cooper’s is deceptively large. There are multiple seating areas and space for plenty. The menu is also surprisingly varied (both in terms of food and beer). You will find the bar food staples – wings, burgers, etc. – but you can also find shrimp n grits and glazed salmon. Sometimes, these reaches backfire, but thankfully, this was not the case.

For our first visit, my companion and I started with an order of soft pretzels. They came out piping hot and well-salted, and the accompanying mustard had a nice kick. Taking a gamble, I opted to follow up with Cajun seafood pasta. It proved to be a pleasant surprise. The sauce had the right flavor profile, and there were plenty of shrimp and crawfish pieces mixed in. My companion went with fish n chips and found it to be one of the better versions in the Triad. The batter was crispy, the fish inside was flaky and salty (though not overwhelmingly so), and the fish-to-batter ratio was more than acceptable. A side of fries was well-seasoned, but the coleslaw struck out.

Neither pricing nor service disappointed. Our entrees were in the $10-$13 range, a better deal than comparable dishes served elsewhere. The food came from the kitchen fairly quickly, and our server was friendly and helpful throughout, though she did disappear for a while as the establishment got busier.

With its dark and dated decor, nobody will confuse Cooper’s with being trendy. But as overpriced failures of more recent vintage have shown, the tried and true often wins the day. And when that tried and true manages to offer a few additional perks (in this case, better-than-expected food), that’s all the more reason to stand pat.


8/10

Cooper's Ale House on Urbanspoon