Sunday, September 7, 2014

Chef Samir Shaltout

Located at 4212 West Wendover Avenue in Greensboro, Chef Samir Shaltout serves Egyptian cuisine for lunch and dinner. Hot and cold appetizers, salads, beef/chicken/fish/seafood/vegetarian entrees, tagines, pasta dishes, and desserts are among the menu offerings. Alcohol is not served, but catering is available.

Television is flooded these days with clueless wannabe restaurateurs who are in dire need of rescuing (often by a stern, British-accented kitchen veteran). Chef Samir Shaltout is the antithesis of all that. His eponymous eatery serves up fantastic food, crafted with competence and care. Whether a newcomer to Egyptian cuisine or one who knows what to expect, there is a lot to love here.

The location isn’t one of those things. Sharing a plaza with a Staples on Wendover, the establishment is small and awkwardly placed. The dark interior isn’t by any means shabby, but it lacks the colorful ambiance of a Cleopatra’s. In the grand scheme of things, however, this proves to be quite a minor letdown.

Chef Samir’s menu is varied and large. It offers most of the familiar Egyptian staples – hummus, babaganoush, falafel, shawerma, kabobs, etc. – as well as some appeals to the American propensity for eating large (cases-in-point: a half duck or a whole fish fried or broiled). For our first visit, we opted for a babaganoush starter and a mixed grill (chicken and beef shawerma, chicken, beef and kofta kabobs, rice, and salad). The appetizer was creamy and fresh with lemon notes. All of the meats in the entrĂ©e were juicy and well-seasoned, and the kofta kabob in particular had a lot of flavor. The herb rice, however, seemed too understated.

Pricing here is as varied as the menu. Appetizers run $4 to $6 and most entrees are in the teens. However, you can easily build a meal through a few of the starters. In addition, the mixed grill proved a good option for two: there’s no plate sharing fee. For $19, the portion was certainly adequate though plating could have been a touch more delicate (everything was piled together on one dish).

Thankfully, the service was held to the same standard as the food. Our server was friendly and fast. He happily shared favorite dishes and answered questions. Chef Samir dutifully made his rounds as well, a welcome gesture of accommodation.

A deep menu and consistent execution are often at odds with each other, but Chef Samir proves that both are attainable in the right hands. If you can get over the location, you’ll likely leave happy.


Chef Samir Shaltout on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 1, 2014

Foothills Brewing

Located at 638 West Fourth Street in downtown Winston-Salem, Foothills Brewing serves craft beers and brewpub fare (apps, soups, salads, sandwiches, and entrees). There are daily specials and specialty beers rotate seasonally. Catering, party hosting, and outdoor seating are available. Foothills also hosts live music and entertainment.

After sampling their wares at a local event a little while back, Foothills became a must-see for our next visit to Winston. The in-person experience did not disappoint. The spacious pub is adorned with brick and wood for a classic look, and there are different areas (dining room, bar, and patio) to accommodate different seating preferences. The real draw here is the selection. From the dozen-plus locally brewed beers to the unexpectedly versatile (Vegetarian? At a brewpub?) menu, there is quite a bit to like beyond the anticipated wings and burgers.

For our first visit, we started with Ale-Battered Shrooms. They were batter-heavy – which was not a problem, the batter was good – and came with both a tasty homemade ranch and a mild horseradish sauce. There were quite a few to the plate, which helped justify the $6.99 pricetag. I then followed this with the Brewhouse Cuban. The juicy, beer-braised pulled pork gave the sandwich a flavor unlike any other Cuban I’ve ever encountered, and it – along with the mustard (a combination of three different types) – made for a delectable bite. The fries that accompanied it were nice and crisp though in the future, I’ll ask for traditional ketchup. The house-made ale-infused variety was oddly sweet. My companion, who opted to go lighter with a Greek Vegetable Pita, seemed satisfied with both the fresh vegetables and the warm, fluffy bread. Her side, a cucumber-tomato-feta salad, was similarly successful.

Both sandwiches were $9.99 apiece with a side included (premium sides, such as homemade chips, invite an upcharge), way north of being a bargain, but not high enough to merit outrage. Service was a just bit on the slow side though our server was helpful in making recommendations, steering my companion toward a coffee porter that was clean, bold, and free from bitterness.

On a busy Friday or Saturday night, Foothills Brewery may tell quite a different story, but on a Monday afternoon, it met and surpassed all expectations. And while it may not impress well-traveled pubsters, it safely ranks among the best breweries the Triad has to offer.


Foothills Brewing on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Grand Budapest Hotel

Beside his monument, a girl reads the memoirs of a famous author. From his desk in 1985, the author (Tom Wilkinson) tells his tale. In the late 1960s, he (Jude Law) journeyed to an impoverished communist-run European republic and visited the once-esteemed Grand Budapest Hotel. The author happens to come across the hotel’s humble, enigmatic owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who then shares his story. In the early 1930s, young Zero (Tony Revolori) joins the hotel’s staff as a lobby boy under Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the hypercompetent concierge who romances wealthy older female guests. When one such guest, the aristocratic Madame D (Tilda Swinton) dies unexpectedly, she wills a valuable painting to Gustave, much to the chagrin of her scheming, belligerent son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Though Gustave soon finds himself in a lot of trouble, Zero becomes his heir and accomplice.

Wes Anderson’s latest quirky, ensemble-driven concoction is very much in keeping with the spirit of his prior successes while still offering something new. As is Anderson’s wont, artifice is on full display here: fake setting, fake newspapers, even fake nationalities (This makes Brody’s part as a supposedly European nobleman with a New York snarl all the more hilarious). Indeed, style – which includes exaggeratedly bright hues and a perfectly paired Alexandre Desplat score – takes center stage.

However, there is a considerable amount of substance behind that style. The ugly specter of fascism (and, later, communism) looms large here, as do classism, nativism, and a number of ugly –isms. Grand Budapest Hotel shows that even a director as whimsical (and there is plenty of whimsy here) as Anderson isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, and with a few gruesome murders and a good, old-fashioned shootout, this is easily his darkest film to date.

That darkness is offset by the stealth humor of the script and the incandescence of the cast. From the main players to the fleeting cameos, this film is impeccably cast. Fiennes has an air of irrepressible handiness (even whilst cursing and preparing to die), Willem Dafoe injects menace as Dmitri’s hired thug, and Saorise Ronan lends a plucky determination (and finally gets to use her native Irish accent!) as Agatha, a baker who wins Zero’s affection. Among the smaller roles, Harvey Keitel leaves an impression as a tattooed convict and a number of famous faces (Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, and, of course, Bill Murray) play disaffected hotel staffers.

If there is one shortcoming here, it is that Grand Budapest Hotel, in contrast to a great many other films, isn’t long enough. The story feels truncated, particularly with regard to Zero and Agatha’s relationship and the aftermath of Gustave’s heroics. This is undoubtedly intended to foster a sense of loss (the past can’t all be whimsical, after all), but it contributes to the film’s smallness.

While Anderson aficionados will find a lot of familiar idiosyncrasies here, you don’t have to like – or even be familiar with – his work to appreciate this film. Elegant aesthetics and a deceptively smart script make Grand Budapest Hotel well worth a visit.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

In sordid Basin City, corruption and violence are a way of life. Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hotshot young gambler, rolls into town to challenge the powerful Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe) in high-stakes poker, but there is more than money up for grabs for both men. Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin), a repentant private detective looking to leave his old life behind, gets sucked back in when old flame Ava Lord (Eva Green) seeks his help. He knows she can only lead to trouble, but he just can’t help himself. Exotic dancer Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) is haunted by memories of Detective Hartigan (Bruce Willis), who sacrificed himself to keep her safe. Gradually losing her sanity, Nancy tries to find a way to avenge Hartigan by taking out the man responsible for his downfall: the untouchable Roarke. In the midst of all this stands Marv (Mickey Rourke), an unhinged bruiser who helps the innocent and punishes the guilty in supremely bloody fashion.

In 2005, director Robert Rodriguez staged a coup when he faithfully – and successfully – translated comic book writer Frank Miller’s paean to hard-boiled noir to the big screen. After a lengthy nine-year wait, this continuation continues to remain faithful to Miller’s vision albeit with less success this time around.

At first glance, the drop-off is puzzling. A Dame to Kill For retains many of the previous film’s key players (Rourke, Boothe, Alba, Willis, Rosario Dawson, and others return) with a few substitutions (Brolin for Dwight Owen, Dennis Haysbert for the late Michael Clark Duncan) and new faces (Green, Gordon Levitt, Christopher Meloni). It also retains the original’s style and sensibility, which is to say bleak, ultra-violent, and visually striking. But what was novel (a pitch-black digital underworld) in 2005 has lost a bit of its luster in 2014.

Another shortcoming here is the confusing continuity. Like its predecessor, a Dame to Kill For consists of loosely connected vignettes (the title story is taken from the comics; the others are new creations penned by Miller himself) that share characters and themes. Some are set prior to episodes in the first film while others take place several years later. Trying to keep up with who is supposed to be dead or alive or intact or disfigured at any given point becomes a laborious task.

The quality of the episodes themselves varies. In the title story, Brolin offers a different (re: less cool and composed, more struggling to keep it together) take on Dwight than Owen albeit not an inferior one. Williamson lends some more depth to the character Manute, a hulking-but-eloquent enforcer whereas Meloni’s casting echoes his most famous television-cop role. Green tries her damndest to pull off a stole femme fatale, but her French accent is occasionally distracting, and she seems too young to have such a sordid past. Rumored choices Angelina Jolie and Rachel Weisz may have fared better here.

Johnny’s tale – “The Long Bad Night” – is probably the strongest piece here. Gordon-Levitt turns in a strong performance as a cocksure young man who knows a lot more than he lets on. His antics win the admiration-turned-loathing of Roarke, which allows Booth to add a veneer of affability to what was previously a one-dimensionally malevolent character (the faux-chumminess actually makes him more dastardly). The episode also treats us to a rare, humorous Christopher Lloyd cameo as a degenerate back-alley doctor.

“Nancy’s Last Dance” features both some of the strongest acting and weakest plotting of the whole film. Nancy may expose herself for a living, but she is a complex, tormented character, and Alba shines in plumbing the depth of her guilt, self-awareness, and suffering. It’s also nice to see Willis back even if he’s only here for a brief appearance, and Rourke is having a blast as Marv. But the machinations of Nancy’s revenge are both overly simplistic (and insulting to her character development), and the hint of the supernatural the film drops toward the end undermines the payoff.

A Dame to Kill For satisfies on a visceral level with its stylish brutality, but it still comes across as a missed opportunity. Had it not taken so long to produce, had more of the original casting choices worked out, had Miller not entered a period of decline as a writer, this may have been on par with the original. Instead, it’s a somewhat disappointing – but still worthwhile – slice of sequeldom.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Nine Mile

Located at 233 Montford Avenue in Asheville (with an additional location in West Asheville), Nine Mile specializes in Caribbean cuisine. Entrees focus on fish, seafood, and chicken, and there are both vegetarian and gluten-free options. Beer, wine, and cocktails are available, and specials change daily.

Named for Bob Marley’s hometown, Nine Mile offers feel-good food worthy of the reggae legend’s name. The interior of the Montford location is your classic dark tavern enlivened by Jamaican flag trim and colorful, distinctive wall art. It makes for some nice ambiance, but the main draw here is the food.

About that food: this place knows fish. Tilapia, trout, tuna, salmon, and Mahi are among the regular offerings, and they come in a variety of iterations. You will find the expected jerk seasoning here, but you’ll also find maple glazes and white wine sauces. The Mayfield Falls is a favorite (even if the fish did come slightly overcooked the last time I ordered it): grilled Mahi with a jicama mint salsa and a coconut cream sauce over pasta or rice. Flake the fish and mix well, and it’s a mouthful of heaven in every bite. Another solid option is the Soon Come, which blends tri-colored cheese tortellini with bananas, apples, currants, and pineapples. The fruit may sound like gimmickry, but the sweetness balances the white wine butter sauce quite well. No matter what you order, you’ll get to sample a house-made dressing over a side salad. The sesame garlic tahini is a winner.

Given both the quality and quantity (plan on leftovers) of the food, pricing plenty reasonable. The vegetarian and chicken dishes tend to run between $11 and $13 while fish and seafood dishes are in the mid-to-upper teens. Go for lunch, and the prices drop to the $8 to $10 range.

Nine Mile’s one drawback is that service can be slow. This is exacerbated by the restaurant’s popularity as a weekend dinner destination. Come here anticipating a leisurely meal, and you should do fine. But come here starving and ready to eat right away, and you may rue the decision.

Fresh, vibrant, and flavorful, Nine Mile’s Jamaican creations are a worthy lure to anyone in the Asheville area.


Nine Mile on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

When the Kree Empire signs a peace treaty with the planet Xandar (home of the galactic police force Nova Corps), fanatical Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) refuses to honor it. Instead, he conspires to retrieve a mysterious orb for Thanos the Mad Titan (Josh Brolin) in exchange for the latter destroying Xandar. Meanwhile, in a Xandarian prison, an uneasy alliance forms to keep the orb out of dangerous hands. The unlikely heroes include Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), an Earth-born thief, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an adopted daughter of Thanos reluctantly pressed into his service as an assassin, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a warrior seeking revenge on Ronan for the death of his family, and Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), a genetically modified raccoon bounty hunter and his tree-like bodyguard.

This latest contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe offers a metanarrative that closely mirrors the on-screen presentation. Just as the titular guardians are looked upon as a “bunch of A-holes” by the Xandarian Authority, everything about this film – the relatively obscure source material, the writer-director of questionable pedigree (James Gunn, who previously penned Scooby Doo sequels and Troma films), the oddball cast (fronted by a sitcom star and prominently featuring a pro wrestler), etc. – invites raised eyebrows. But just as the guardians find a way to work together, so too do these film’s disparate elements. The result, even given the MCU’s overall winning track record, is an unexpected success.

Ultimately, the biggest asset here is the pitch-perfect tone. Whereas the last MCU film (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), was edgy and topical, this one opts for irreverent and fun. Quill, for instance, goes to absurd lengths to protect his Walkman and busts out 70s pop songs at the most inopportune times. Drax, on the other hand, has no grasp of idiom or tact and is as awkward a speaker as he is capable a fighter. “Green whore” thus becomes a term of endearment coming from him to Gamora. The talking, gun-toting raccoon with anger issues and good-natured (unless you make him mad) giant tree are regarded every bit as ridiculous in a world full of aliens as they are in our universe, but Raccoon’s banter and Groot’s ocassional bumbling are nevertheless entertaining.

Despite all this zaniness, the film is not without stakes. The villains are dark, deep-voiced, and full of gravitas. Pace overacts with scenery-swalloing conviction and Brolin makes the most of his brief screen time to deliver epic-sounding threats (“I’ll bathe the starways in your blood!”). In fact, there are no weak spots among the cast. Pratt uses his inherent goofiness to mask both competence and pain. Saldona taps into her character’s inner conflict and functions as the film’s heart. Cooper channels Joe Pesci’s Napoleon syndrome, and Vin Diesel remains that rare voice actor who can wring maximum impact from minimal dialog (a la The Iron Giant). Even Bautista’s limited range and wooden acting fit his character quite well. One does wish Glenn Close (who appears briefly as the head of the Nova Corps) had more to do here, though.

Stylistically, Guardians of the Galaxy mixes kinetic action, slapstick (most scenes involving Groot), and and the sounds of the 70s to surprisingly good effect. There is just so much going on here – and so much of it refreshingly random – that we never catch our breath long enough to ponder the ridiculousness of what we’re seeing. One notable exception is the CGI-heavy final showdown, which stretches on too long and comes across as both visually and thematically (Power of Friendship! Yay!) hokey.

Unlike other Marvel films, Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t do much to tip its hand as to the future direction of the MCU. Yes, Thanos appears, and Benicio Del Toro’s flamboyant Collector returns, but we don’t know what impact, if any, the guardians’ exploits will have back on Earth. And quite frankly, we don’t care. Taken on its own, Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun, funky film that shows that even the unlikeliest seeds can blossom.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Cheesecakes by Alex

Located at 315 South Elm Street in downtown Greensboro, Cheesecakes by Alex specializes in cheesecakes (available both by the slice and as whole cakes via pre-order). Other cakes, muffins, cupcakes, pastries, and coffee drinks are also available.

Cheesecakes by Alex is the gold standard for desserts in Greensboro. The titular cheesecakes come in more than a dozen flavors, and I've yet to try one that was anything less than excellent. The creme brulee has a delectably crunchy sugar coating while the Kahlua espresso balances its coffee flavor with a chocolatey crust. If cheesecake isn't your thing, there are plenty of other baked goods (other cakes, cannoli, biscotti, etc.) to choose from here as well.

One would expect to pay a premium given the quality - and the downtown location - but prices are surprisingly reasonable. Further, the counter staff are patient with patrons who struggle to make up their minds, a frequent sight to be certain. The two seating areas - one indoors, one outside - ensure that crowding isn't a problem.

While it would be nice if Cheesecakes by Alex recycled plates and utensils, that's a relatively small nit to pick. All told, this is a must-stop for anyone in downtown Greensboro who is craving something sweet.


Cheesecakes By Alex on Urbanspoon