Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Girl on the Train

After being fired from her job, depressed alcoholic divorcee Rachel rides the train every day to trick her landlady into believing she is going to work. The train regularly passes by a couple’s house, and Rachel imagines their idyllic lives. However, one day, Rachel spots the wife with a man who is not her husband, and shortly thereafter, the woman goes missing.

Paula Hawkins’ debut novel is one that both requires patience and rewards readers for displaying it. From the onset, Rachel is not a particularly likeable protagonist. She comes across as a helpless sad sack who is hopelessly adrift in life. It takes several chapters of meandering through her ineptitude and daydreaming before the book finds its footing, but once it does, it stays (pardon the train pun) on track.

Like any good writer, Hawkins leaves her characters room to grow and change. But in place of cheesy epiphany moments, she deftly peels back layers to reveal what was hiding there the whole time. In this way, she alters our perceptions not only of Rachel, but of her ex-husband Tom, Tom’s antagonistic (from Rachel’s perspective, anyway) replacement wife Anna, of Megan, the missing woman, and of Scott, Megan’s conflicted husband. Because the novel offers multiple perspectives – the narrators alternate between Rachel, Anna, and Megan – we gain a more nuanced view of the who and the why as the novel progresses. This nuance is compounded by Rachel’s unreliable memory, which lends a hazy ambiguity to the proceedings.

Hawkins also succeeds in creating plenty of red herrings. Mysteries tend to involve a certain degree of misdirection, and while Hawkins is guilty of that, she never changes course in a way that seems wildly improbable. The extent to which readers will welcome or scorn the final twist will vary, but there are both more predictable and more contrived ways for the book to have wrapped up.

The Girls on the Train is a divisive book. Some will find it an effectively engaging mashup of Alfred Hitchcock and Gillian Flynn; others will regard it as a confusing slog through broken lives. Regardless of your final take on it, it merits reading if only to see how your reaction to it changes from beginning to end.


Mac's Speed Shop

Located at 1218 Battleground Avenue in Greensboro, Mac’s Speed Shop specializes in barbeque and offers platters, sandwiches, salads, and more. There is a full bar with daily drink specials, and catering and occasional live music are available.

This motorcycle-themed regional chain opened its garage doors back in August, giving the likes of Stamey’s, Smokey Bones, and Shane’s Rib Shack another competitor. While the more established presences needn’t start quaking in their boots, Mac’s has demonstrated popularity and staying power despite some flaws in its execution.

Housed in a former repair shop, Mac’s picked a good location for its biker bar motif. There is a surprising amount of space here, but be forewarned: it does get quite loud. If the constant stream of chatter and 80s hard rock doesn’t faze you, then it is still possible to enjoy your time here, but be prepared to speak up if you want to be heard.

For such a boisterous, bustling operation, Mac’s service is much better than expected. We showed up on a Saturday night to a nearly packed house yet still had no trouble getting a table. Our order was placed correctly – sans noise-related miscues – and our food arrived surprisingly quickly. The staff appear to be well-trained to handle the volume.

The food itself is a decidedly mixed bag. We started with an order of tabasco fried pickles, and the peppery kick elevated this above comparable offerings elsewhere. With an eye toward leftovers, we moved on to a four-meat combo platter: brisket, sausage, pulled pork, and ribs. All of the meats were cooked well, and none were dried out. The brisket, ribs, and sausage were nicely flavored. The pork was a bit on the bland side, but that was nothing an application of sauce (choose from among red, Carolina, mustard, or vinegar) couldn’t fix. The sides, on the other hand, fared worse. The green bean casserole tasted OK, but the texture was unpleasantly mushy. A homestyle mac and cheese was buttery but not particularly cheesy. Sweet potato fries and coleslaw left no room for complaint, but unlike the app, they weren’t standouts either.

While the pricing here doesn’t scream value, the portion sizes are actually quite generous. For $4, we got a very full basket of pickles. The $28 combo platter miraculously fit on one dish but still yielded plenty of leftovers.
With the right set of expectations, Mac’s appeal isn’t difficult to fathom. Come here expecting a quiet meal of top-notch barbeque, and you’ll hate this place. Show up willing to abide the noise for the sake of decent food, and you’ll motor away satisfied.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Guest

After its oldest son, Caleb, dies in combat in Afghanistan, the Peterson family receives a visit from David Collins (Dan Stevens), one of Caleb’s brothers-in-arms. The family takes David in and at first finds him to be helpful and polite. However, it later becomes clear that David harbors several secrets and may not be all that he claims to be.

Directed by Adam Wingard and scripted by Simon Barrett, The Guest is both a throwback to 1980s-style thrillers (think The Stepfather with a dash of The Terminator thrown in for good measure) and one that fully engages more contemporary concerns. Neither of these things make it a truly good movie, but for the cheap thrills that it provides, it’s a lot better than it needs to be.

There are a number of elements present here that work to elevate The Guest above the B-movie fray. First, it uses what would have otherwise been an overly convenient plot point (David’s military background) to make a fairly effective statement about the dehumanizing nature of war. Next, it boasts a memorably idiosyncratic goth and indie-rock dominated soundtrack. Synths a la Clan of Xymox form an ironic counterweight to the onscreen carnage. Lastly, it benefits from some unexpectedly solid performances. Stevens’ seeming sincerity and well-mannered charisma make his eventual course of action all the more disconcerting while the always-reliable Lance Reddick exudes authority and competence as a military officer with connections to his past.

Despite these perks, The Guest also manages to fall prey to the worst conventions of the genre. When the danger increases, several characters display a naivetĂ© and a lack of self-preservation that is annoying as it is predictable. The ambiguous final scene may have been intended as a Halloween homage, but it comes across as a dull surprise. In addition, some of the other performances – such as Maika Monroe’s flat rendition of the eldest Peterson daughter – simply aren’t good.

The Guest doesn’t shine enough to win over non-horror fans, but it is far more accomplished than the average time-filler.


Matthew's Chocolates

Located at 107 North Churton Street in downtown Hillsborough, Matthew’s Chocolates offers chocolates, confectionaries, gelato, coffee drinks, and more. A customer loyalty program allows for purchases to accrue toward free products.

For anyone with a sweet tooth, this place is a must. One look at the display cases is enough to inspire Homer Simpson-style drooling. Barks, truffles, and other blissful bites come in different shapes, colors, and chocolates dark and milk and white. All are homemade, and those sampled have tasted every bit as good as they looked. The clusters, for instance, have a good nut-to-chocolate ratio while spicier offerings pair ginger and Asian seasonings to bring a little heat to the sweet. Such is the quality that it absolutely justifies what seems at first to be overly ambitious pricing. You may balk at spending $2 to $3 for something that disappears in two bites, but when said bites are through, you’ll be glad that you did so.

If Matthew’s Chocolates has one Achilles’ heel, it isn’t the layout (the brightly marked chalkboards are easy to read) or the staff (quirky and typically friendly if occasionally harried) but rather the establishment’s own success. This isn’t a big space, and when it fills, lines will form, your view of the goods will be obstructed or blocked, and your patience may wear thin. Remind yourself that the chocolate is worth the wait, and you’ll appreciate it even more when that wait is through.


Matthew's Chocolates Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

La Place Louisiana Cookery

Located at 111 North Churton Street in downtown Hillsborough, La Place offers Cajun cuisine for lunch and dinner. There is a brunch on weekends, limited outdoor seating, and a full-service bar. Food, drink, and dessert specials change regularly.

I have a weakness for Cajun and thus tend to be more forgiving of an establishment’s flaws if it delivers the right flavors. In La Place’s case, no such pardon is needed. Named for the Andouille Capital of the World, this restaurant not only nails the food but also gives ample motivation to keep coming back.

Owner/chef Joe Tullos, a native of the region, succeeded in capturing the look and feel of a New Orleans-area establishment. The long wooden bar, the photos on the walls, and the specials written on chalkboards all preserve a certain vintage charm. However, this classic presentation should not be taken for an unwillingness to experiment as La Place’s menu is deceptively varied. Yes, you will find po boys, gumbo, and other traditional fixtures here, but you will also encounter novel twists on biscuits and gravy (with green onion sausage) and the BLT (with smoked chicken) as well as a whole slew of creative cocktails (including one with cereal, milk, and bourbon).

Whether your tastes run experimental or conservative, you are likely to be satisfied no matter what you order. For a late brunch, my fiancĂ©e and I went with the meat bol and the crawfish etouffee. The former – various house-made sausages served over two eggs, grits, and a biscuit – featured smoky meats and grits that were good enough to be a meal on their own. The latter was creamy, well-seasoned, and no less enjoyable.

Add to this a team of outgoing and knowledgeable bartenders, and it’s hard to find fault with La Place. The pricing ($15 for the meat bol, $12 for the etouffee) is moderate, but it’s fair given the quality of the ingredients – though I do wish the portion size on the latter ran larger. And while our Saturday afternoon visit was a comfortable experience, La Place’s relatively small size makes me wonder if dining during a dinner rush would tell a different tale.

With a pleasingly vintage aesthetic and terrific food, La Place is a worthwhile destination for anyone in the area, Cajun-phile or not.

La Place Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

nOma Food & Co

Located at 2403 Battleground Avenue in Greensboro, nOma Food & Co offers Vietnamese and Thai soups, sandwiches, curries, rolls, and bowls for lunch and dinner. Online ordering is available.

nOma’s motto is “Fresh. Asian. Fast.” and that is a good indicator of what you can expect here: Viet/Thai-inspired dishes made to order in a fast casual setting. It’s an appealing concept, and one that the owners (one of whom, Kieuanh, also owns Boba House) are determined to make work. While there is definitely room for continued improvement, there is also enough promise here to suggest staying power.

Nestled in a shopping plaza near Maxie B’s and Krispy Kreme, nOma tries to make the most out of limited physical space. The green-hued interior is bright and clean with descriptive, easy to read menus and a bird’s eye view of food preparation. It is, however, still quite small, and despite the decorative touches, it may be better suited for take-out than dine-in.

The menu here is limited: don’t expect more than banh mi, pho, rolls, bowls, curry, and bubble teas. However, keeping it simple allows for some measure of quality control, and many of the dishes are customizable. Not only are vegan fillings available (as well as beef, pork, and chicken), but larger and smaller portion sizes are also among the options. Even the larger (32 ounce) phos and bowls top out at $7.95, which makes for a fairly decent value.

Further, nOma lives up to its promise of freshness: dishes are prepared in front of you, and the ingredients appear to be quality. The creamy Thai curry is a standout: try it with chicken and jasmine rice. Unfortunately, other dishes simply fail to eclipse the competition. Pho Hien Vuong has better pho, Saigon Bakery has better sandwiches, and both have better rolls. Nothing here was unpleasant, but the flavors came across as somewhat muted.

Though nOma would not be my first choice for Vietnamese or Thai, it has all the makings of a solid option for quick, cheap, healthy eats.


Noma Food & Co Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, November 6, 2015

Vida Pour Tea

Located at 412 State Street in Greensboro, Vida Pour Tea offers house-blended teas and other beverages as well as a selection of baked goods from local sources. There is a wellness lounge that can be reserved for groups and events. Vida Pour also offers custom blends, tea accessories, and shipping across the country.

Let’s cut to the chase: this whole review is a build-up to the punishingly punny pronouncement that Vida Pour is tea-riffic. Of course, it would be hard to get away with such a crime against language if this establishment didn’t have so much going for it. Among Vida Pour’s many virtues are an expansive selection (greens, whites, reds, herbals, and everything in between), reasonable pricing ($2 to $2.25 depending on the size for a cup of tea), a helpful and passionate owner in Sarah Chapman, and some high-quality products. An apple pie tea sweetened with local honey was the best hot beverage of recent memory while an apple pumpkin chai muffin managed to satisfy despite “organic” and “vegan” hitting my brain like toxic waste warning labels.

You don’t have to be a tea connoisseur to appreciate this place though it definitely won’t hurt. One certain-tea is that you will have a hard time finding fault with Vida Pour.


Vida Pour Tea Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato