Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dandelion Market

Located at 118 West 5th Street in Charlotte, Dandelion Market is a full-service bar with a small plates menu. There are occasional drink specials and a brunch on weekends.

Named for a Dublin landmark of the 1970s, Dandelion Market does little to evoke its Celtic lineage, but it is nevertheless a comfortable spot to grab a bite to eat. The dimly lit brick-walled interior, with its chalkboard specials and dried goods sacks on the walls, is the definition of cozy and quaint. The small plates dinner menu offers everything from appetizers to surf and turf to veggies and sides with a variety of culinary influences, leaving you free to cobble together a flavorful Frankenstein of a meal.

My wife and I rolled the dice with a spinach and artichoke dip, a fried green tomato caprese, a shrimp and grit cake, and a pork belly with a brownie-and-caramel-topped-ice cream combo for dessert. Some dishes were stronger than others, but the food was generally on-point. Dandelion Market does sauces very well, as both the fig balsamic accompanying the tomato and the peach-green tomato salsa accompanying the pork belly were excellent. The pork belly had a melt-in-your-mouth quality that I appreciated though my wife found it too fatty for her tastes. The bread that came with the dip was oven-fresh, and the ice cream betwixt the brownies offered some welcome vanilla bean notes that played well off of the salted caramel.






As with any tapas place, pricing can be a bit slippery. Most plates run $7-$12. Count on at least two per person, and it adds up. The skillful execution and artful plating take away some of the sting, and the efficient kitchen and attentive servers ensure you won’t have long to wait between plates.

With an appealing menu, an inviting atmosphere, and a front-of-house and kitchen that both seem to know what they are doing, Dandelion Market has all the components needed to deliver a memorably good meal.


8.25/10

Dandelion Market Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Razzoo's Cajun Cafe

Located at 8011 Concord Mills Boulevard in Concord, Razzoo’s Cajun Café serves Cajun cuisine for lunch and dinner seven days a week. There is a full bar, and lunch specials are available on weekdays.

This Concord Mills establishment is the lone North Carolina outpost of a Dallas-area chain specializing in Louisiana cuisine. How’s that for geographic confusion? Whatever its origins, Razzoo’s is kitschy beyond belief. Everything from the brightly-colored menus to the ceiling-hung instruments and fishing gear to the music to the very name itself seems like an attempt to be “fun” that instead ends in “Umm….”

Fortunately, the complaints end there. The menu rounds up the familiar candidates (gumbo, po boys, fried or blackened seafood, etc.), and adds gator, ribs, and raw oysters for some additional variety. For our first visit, my wife and I went with a jalapeno catfish and a Cajun combo skillet respectively. The food greatly exceeded expectations. The catfish was nicely breaded, and there wasn’t a thing in my combo skillet (shrimp creole, crawfish etoufee, red beans and rice, and andouille sausage) that was a disappointment. The sausage in particular had a welcome spicy kick and a firm bite.




Though our server was a bit difficult to hear at times (blame the music, maybe), she did a good job of letting us know what was popular and got our food out quickly. Pricing left no regrets. The catfish (which came with bread and a side of corn) ran $10 while my very generously portioned skillet ran a mere $13.

Razzoo’s isn’t likely to impress Louisiana-bred purists, but for a chain offering in North Carolina, it’s a lot better than one would expect it to be.


7.75/10
Razzoo's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Moonglow

In this fictionalized memoir, Michael Chabon revisits the beginning of his writing career and the end of his grandfather’s life. The dying man recounts his childhood in Philadelphia, his lifelong interest in rocketry and space exploration, his World War II service spent trying and failing to capture Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun (who becomes something of an arch nemesis), his troubled marriage to an unstable French refugee with a young daughter, his stint in prison, and his late-life romance with a widowed painter.

There was a time when Michael Chabon’s books were as purposefully plotted and paced as they were stylistically evocative, but 2012’s meandering, self-indulgent (though still colorful) Telegraph Avenue put an end to that equilibrium. Moonglow, with its overlapping plotlines and nonlinear treatment of time, does not restore it, but it does strike other balances: between intimate family history and world-altering events, between touchingly poignant sincerity and crassly irreverent humor, and between tragedy and triumph.

As with previous works, Chabon excels at bringing people and places to life. Though neither grandparent is named, both emerge as complex, fully realized characters. The grandfather’s capacity for violence is weighed against his commitment to family and obsession with rocketry while the grandmother’s theatrical gifts mask a tortured past. There is also a rakish, eye-patch wearing pool-hustling ex-rabbi uncle for good measure. Though the narrative moves around a lot – back and forth between Philadelphia, Europe, New Jersey, and Florida – each setting is clearly and convincingly rendered (As a native of northern New Jersey, I got a kick out of reading about the grandmother’s performances at the Paper Mill Playhouse).

For all of these virtues, Moonglow’s narrative structure is nothing short of maddening. The three main plotlines – the grandparents’ love story, the grandfather’s war experiences, and the grandfather’s retirement years – are constantly jockeying for the reader’s attention, and more often than not, they interrupt rather than complement one another. Going from a soldier’s haunting recollection of the horrors of war to a lurid description of an old man’s sexual appetites to a child’s eye view of obscure card games creates a kind of mood whiplash that does the novel a disservice. While this digression-laden, fragmentary approach is not without purpose – it evokes the way that Chabon himself probably heard some of these tales – Moonglow definitely could have benefitted from a more conventional structure.

Moonglow is not quite a return to form, and it falls short of both Chabon’s earlier works as well as the gold standard of family sagas that is Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex. However, it is still a bold and touching blend of fact and fiction, one worth cutting through the structural clutter to explore.


7.75/10

Bandito Bodega

Located at 1609 Friendly Avenue, Bandito Bodega offers internationally influenced tacos, burritos, and bowls for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday and lunch on Sundays. Food specials rotate, and catering is available.

Though Greensboro is a competitive town for both tacos and food trucks, the Bandito Burrito truck has been a popular mainstay at events and festivals. When this brick-and-mortar offshoot opened at the beginning of the year, it had the benefits of name recognition and an extant fanbase. Though the food remains solid, the immobile iteration doesn’t exactly dazzle.

Bandito Bodega is a small spot with a short counter and a handful of tables inside and out. The parking lot is also smallish, and exiting onto Friendly Avenue takes some patience. Should you make it inside, the staff here are friendly, and the menu is tantalizing. Tacos come Asian style, Baja style, or crispy rolled. Burritos and bowls similarly offer both Mexican and Asian offerings, and there are plenty of protein choices (including tofu for vegetarian patrons).

Having enjoyed it off the truck, I opted for a Big Ass Burrito (rice, black beans, pico, corn, radish, red cabbage, cilantro, and tomatillo) with chorizo. In terms of portion sizing, it certainly lived up to its name and proved to be quite filling. Though many of the flavors came through, the chorizo lacked the expected spiciness.

Bandito’s pricing, forgivable on a food truck, comes across as high for a sit-down restaurant. At $9, the bountiful burrito provides decent bang for the buck, until you factor in upcharges for cheese and guacamole. Meanwhile, a single baja-style fish taco runs north of $5.

There are enough menu options (kimchi fried rice balls, Korean-style po boys, etc.) to make Bandito Bodega worth further exploration, but future visits will come with somewhat lowered expectations.


7.5/10
Bandito Bodega Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s play traces the life of Chiron from childhood to adulthood. As a child in Liberty City, Miami, Chiron (Alex Hibbert), nicknamed “Little,” is mentored and provided for by drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) when his drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris) isn’t up to the task. As a teenager, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is shaken down by Paula for the money that Teresa provides him and frequently bullied by Terrel (Patrick Decille) all while developing feelings for his best friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). As an adult, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now nicknamed Black, is a drug dealer living in Atlanta who has a strained relationship with a now-recovering Paula and faces an awkward reunion with Kevin (Andre Holland), now a chef with a young son.

Too often, “message movies” turn into bloated spectacles that are too enamored of the righteousness of their thematic concerns to bother telling an engaging story. Moonlight, however, is a welcome departure from that trend: it gets its ideas across effectively through well-developed characters without being self-aggrandizing or contemptuous of its audience. Jenkins’s direction lends the film a naturalistic feel, and his lean, uncluttered script makes what little is said resonate more. From Little confronting Juan about Paula’s drug use to Terrel instigating a cruel hazing ritual with tragic results, there are plenty of poignant, raw, and powerful moments, yet thanks to the measured performances of the talented cast, Moonlight almost never feels like melodrama. Like a bleaker counterpart to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Moonlight is a harrowing snapshot of life away from both the middle-class suburbs and the familiar-to-the-point-of-cliché hoods of Los Angeles.

If there is a critique to be made here, it is that Moonlight is almost too economical for its own good. The time skips between stages of Chiron’s life make sense narratively, but they also leave the intervening years (and the potential therein) unexplored. That Ali won a supporting actor Oscar despite Juan’s presence in only the first act says a lot about how much more mileage Jenkins could have gotten out of these characters.

Moving without being maudlin and fluid to a fault, Moonlight may lack the grandeur of previous Best Picture Oscar winners, but it is every bit a worthwhile selection.


8.75/10

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Months after saving the planet Xandar, the Guardians of the Galaxy have been hired on by the elitist Sovereign race to protect their merchandise from a monstrous creature. After offending the haughty Sovereign priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the team is forced to flee, only to be rescued by Ego (Kurt Russell), the human form of a god-like sentient planet and the long-lost father of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). Ego promises Peter immortality and a sense of belonging, but Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is suspicious. Meanwhile, Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) is out to make her suffer for always besting her as a child, and the Sovereign have hired the pirate-like Ravagers, led by Quill’s mentor Yondu (Michael Rooker), to track the team down.

Despite the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s success up to that point, 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy still proved to a surprise hit, as it featured lesser known characters, a director (James Gunn) with a checkered pedigree, and a zanier tone than any MCU film had employed up to that point. In this 2017 follow-up, the element of surprise is gone. Audiences are no longer wondering if a film like this can work; they are expecting it to. Fortunately, for the most part, it does.

As with its predecessor, Vol. 2 deftly blends action, humor, and cheesy 70s pop songs. Ego cites “Brandy” by Looking Glass as a metaphor as his time on Earth with Peter’s mother while the soundtrack ironically backs Yondu’s use of a whistle-controlled arrow to wreak untold mayhem. To this formula, the sequel adds a healthy dose of character and thematic development. Ego tries to convince Peter of his rightful place in the grand scheme of the universe, Gamora and Nebula examine their culpability for each other’s suffering (amid trying to repeatedly blow each other up with comically oversized weaponry), Yondu and perpetually angry genetically modified raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) bond over being thought the worst of, and Drax (Dave Bautista, once again hilariously and obliviously brusque) assures Ego’s empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) that her ugliness is a sign that she must be a good person.

While a deeper and more heartfelt movie than its predecessor, Vol. 2 does suffer from a loss of freshness and a bit of ending fatigue, both in terms of the CGI-heavy last battle and the mawkish, protracted finale that follows it. Thankfully, these missteps are mostly offset by joyfully insane credits (lots of random dancing and a David Hasselhoff song, of all things) and a slew of post-credits scenes that both set up future characters and lend more context to existing ones (such as Sylvester Stallone’s Ravager leader Stakar or Stan Lee’s various cameos).

Ultimately, whether or not Vol. 2 is better or worse than Vol. 1 or places expectations for Vol. 3 too high or too low is somewhat beside the point. The fact that there was a Vol. 2 is enough to appreciate in and of itself, and that it was as entertaining as it was is icing on the cake. Here’s to these cosmic misfits and the idea that superhero films don’t have to be formulaic to be successful.


8/10

The Magnificent Seven

When mining baron Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) threatens a town for its land and kills those who oppose him, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), the wife of one of his victims, contacts warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) to hire gunfighters to come to the town’s aid. Chisolm then recruits gambler Joshua Faraday (Chris Pratt), Confederate veteran marksman Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), Goodnight’s knife-throwing friend Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun), Mexican outlaw Vazquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), religious mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), and exiled Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). These seven will lay their lives on the line to protect the town against Bogue and his mercenary army, but will it be enough?

Remaking a classic Western (itself an Americanization of Seven Samurai) is a dicey proposition, but 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma showed that it can be successfully done. That and the talented cast were enough to give this reboot of John Sturges’ 1960 film of the same name some hope, even if the director (Antoine Fuqua) and screenwriter (Nic Pizzolato) seemed an ill fit (both are better known for their work in the crime genre). Then again, Fuqua directed Washington to an Oscar and coaxed a solid performance out of Hawke, so how bad could this be? In a word, fairly.

A predictable (even for those who haven’t seen the original) script and uneven performances doom this version to quickly-forgotten mediocrity. Washington acquits himself well, coming across as unflappable in a role formerly occupied by Yul Brynner. Chris Pratt is no Steve McQueen though, nor does this movie allow him to really be Chris Pratt: Faraday isn’t given enough wisecracks to compensate. Hawke tries to give Robicheaux a touch of pathos, but it’s sloppily handled while D’Onofrio’s high-pitched, screaming, scripture-quoting bear of a tracker is simply ridiculous. While it wouldn’t have taken much to improve upon Eli Wallach’s dated bandito cliché from the original film, Sarsgaard nevertheless gives a terribly hammy performance as a walking embodiment of everything people blame on capitalism.

There are, however, a few bright spots here. Some of the dialogue is in Mexican and Comanche, lending the film a bit of credibility. The ending makes good use of the original movie’s majestic theme. And the climactic defense of the town scene, is suspenseful and well-choreographed.

Given Hollywood’s affinity for unnecessary remakes, it would be difficult to single out The Magnificent Seven on those grounds, but familiarity and cheesiness make this more of a mediocre six.


6.0/10