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.


8.5/10

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.


8.25/10

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.


9.25/10

Cheesecakes By Alex on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Los Cabos Mexican Grill

Located at 948 Walker Avenue in Greensboro’s College Hill neighborhood, Los Cabos serves Mexican appetizers and entrees as well as vegetarian items and a la carte tacos. Vegetarian items are available, as are lunch combos and daily food and drink specials.

Years ago, this space used to be occupied by El Carreton, a fairly dreadful Mexican restaurant that stayed afloat by virtue of offering cheap eats and drinks right near UNCG’s campus. Its successor, Los Cabos, is an upgrade in many respects, but it still probably benefits most from its proximity to campus.

Location aside, Los Cabos does have one other major point in its favor: the service is excellent. During a recent visit, the front-of-house staff were friendly and inviting while our server was both accommodating and fast, a real pro. That, plus the interior décor (we sat in front of a captivating dolphin mural) create a welcoming environment.

Unfortunately, the food is a major disappointment. The menu offers the usual suspects (tacos, quesadillas, fajitas, and some familiar entrees) without any unique standouts. The lunch specials are quite affordable, but entrée pricing ($10-plus on almost everything) offers no great value, particularly given the neighborhood. An order of carnitas had some semblance of seasoning, but the meat was dry and slightly tough. A spinach and mushroom quesadilla, on the other hand, wasn’t overcooked, but the flavors were flat. Nothing here merited an “mmm,” let alone a “muy bien!”

For College Hill denizens, Los Cabos fulfills a need: it’s Mexican within walking distance. And while its predecessor showed how much worse that could be, it still doesn’t offer much of a lure to anyone outside the UNCG area.


6.5/10

Los Cabos Mexican Grill on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 21, 2014

Los Gordos Mexican Cafe

Located at 3821 High Point Road in Greensboro, Los Gordos serves Tex-Mex cuisine for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Lunch specials, daily drink specials, and catering are available.

As the name (gordo means “fat”) attests, this is not an eatery for the health-conscious or weak-stomached. Whatever you try here, it is likely to look greasy and sloppy…and taste delicious. If you can hazard that and the somewhat inconvenient location (in a shopping plaza behind another shopping plaza off High Point Road), Los Gordos offers a take on Mexican unlike any other in the area.

Those who thumb their noses at the Tex-Mex designation will find familiar targets among the burritos and enchiladas, but look past the label, and you’ll see some flair. Your complimentary chips come with two very different sauces (one red, one green, both homemade), and the menu includes touches like seabass and chicken with mushroom sauce.

For my first visit, I went with the gordo plate, a sampler of carnitas, chicken, steak, fish, and shrimp. The pork was incredibly tender and left me wanting more. The shrimp were surprisingly large and seasoned well. The onions were nicely caramelized. Even the two items that were less-than-stellar individually (a thick and doughy flour tortilla and somewhat bland yellow rice) worked when mixed with everything else on the plate. My companion’s pollo Rosita (the aforementioned chicken and mushroom sauce) was a similar success: the chicken was buttery and the sauce infused plenty of flavor.

Other high marks go to service and décor. Our waiter was fast, friendly, and at ease answering questions and making recommendations. The atmosphere is open and tavern-like without being divey. You can certainly get cheaper Mexican in the area, but prices were hardly objectionable (my combo platter ran $14 and many entrees were a few dollars less).

Given that Mexican cuisine is far more diverse than we gringos give it credit for, ranking Los Gordos (or any competing establishment) as the “best” or “most authentic” Mexican in the area is inherently problematic. However, it demonstrates that “Tex-Mex” needn’t be a culinary slur, and, if your stomach can handle it, promises a satisfying meal.


8.25/10

Los Gordos on Urbanspoon

Mr. Mercedes

After running down a crowd of job seekers using a stolen car, demented Brady Hartsfeld anonymously contacts retired police detective Bill Hodges, hoping to goad the listless ex-cop into committing suicide. Instead, he spurs Hodges into action, prompting him to launch an off-the-books investigation aimed at taking the Mercedes Killer down. The more Hartsfeld and Hodges push each other’s buttons, the higher the stakes become for them both.

Marketed as a departure for Stephen King – a straight-up mystery/thriller without supernatural elements – Mr. Mercedes will hardly seem novel to the author’s longtime readers. After all, King has struck paydirt outside the horror genre (Shawshank Redemption, anyone?) before. Furthermore, some of his most chilling antagonists are not the otherworldly creatures who commit evil for evil’s sake but flesh-and-blood people – terrible people, but people just the same. Brady Hartsfeld is a welcome continuation of this tradition, and King does well to explore his perspective. What emerges is a portrait of a nihilistic, sociopathic genius with a tragic life and a burning hatred for everyone. King makes him pitiable but no less monstrous. By steering him away from cliché, King leaves us dreading a nemesis that could very well exist instead of yawning at a straw-abomination that can’t.

The bad guy isn’t the only well-defined character here, though. King’s heroes tend to be everyman-types who, through desperate circumstances, become hardened survivors or unlikely chosen ones destined to combat evil. Bill Hodges is a welcome subversion of all of that. Though he starts at a position of nominal heroism as a former police officer, Hodges is old, fat, and full of self-recrimination. Even as he becomes fully engaged in the case, he is beleaguered by physical limitations. This forces him to be a more cerebral hero albeit one who is not afraid to cross some ethical lines.

Unfortunately, the supporting cast isn’t nearly as well-drawn. Jerome, an intellectual black youth who acts as Hodges’ right hand, has a sarcastic, subservient alter ego…who inexplicably talks like Stepin Fetchit. As embarrassing as this characterization is, it still isn’t as painful to read as that of Holly, a cousin of one of Hartsfeld’s victims. King has long been enamored of the Magic Child, only instead of a boy with telepathy or a girl with pyrokinesis, he’s shoehorned the trope into a sheltered, mentally unbalanced middle-aged woman with improbable computer skills. That she takes on such a pivotal role in the plot despite not appearing until the middle of the book makes her all the more insufferable.

Despite these shortcomings, King still knows how to spin a good yarn. Mr. Mercedes moves briskly and keeps the reader invested in Hodges and Hartsfeld’s increasingly diabolical attempts to get under each other’s skin. Though we know who they are right away, watching them make discoveries about each other keeps the pages turning. Only the ending – contrived, circumstantial, and unsatisfyingly anticlimactic – rings a false note.

Mr. Mercedes is far from King’s finest novel, but it is also far from his worst. Though he proves incapable (or perhaps unwilling) of breaking entirely free from well-worn clichés, he still manages to apply his time-honed storytelling to a different kind of story. That makes Mr. Mercedes, if nothing else, a pleasant diversion, worth at least a test drive.


7.75/10

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Nostra Pizza and Italian

Located at 3900 West Market Street in Greensboro, Nostra Pizza and Italian offers pizza, stromboli, calzones, sandwiches, pasta dishes, and more. Lunch specials are available as is delivery.

As a native of northern New Jersey, I’ve always had a soft spot for Italian-American cuisine. There is something comforting in the familiar pasta-and-red sauce, and it’s all the better when it’s in walking distance. So when Nostra opened at the former Elizabeth’s Pizza location, I had reason to be satisfied. Two visits later, and much of that satisfaction is still there.

Inside, Nostra isn’t particularly large, but it doesn’t feel at all cramped. Comfortable booths and wall art elevate the décor above that of a standard pizza parlor. There was one waitress during my first visit, and though a bit distracted, she was unfailingly polite.

Nostra’s menu offers everything you’d expect, plus a few perks like lobster ravioli. Pricing is quite reasonable: every entrée runs between $10 and $13 and includes bread and soup or salad. Many of the entrees can be had with bread and a drink during weekday lunch hours for a mere $8 to $9.

The execution has room for improvement, but it hits more than it misses. An order of gnocchi Bolognese came with a so-so salad, an abundance of melted cheese, and a sauce that was a touch too sweet for my liking, but the bread was excellent and the gnocchi were cooked well. The regular stromboli featured a crust that some may find too crisp, but the meats (ham, salami, and pepperoni) were quality, and the well-herbed marinara sauce tasted homemade.

I’ve yet to try Nostra’s New York-style pizza, and how well they pull that off could be a significant difference-maker. Right now, Nostra shows enough promise to rate as a convenient takeout option and a welcome addition to the immediate vicinity.

UPDATE

My girlfriend was kind enough to procure me a slice of sausage pizza, and it did not disappoint. The slice was huge (comparable to Mario's) and a good value at $3 or so. The pizza sauce, like the marinara, tasted fresh with distinct herb notes, and the sausage was above par. The crust, while thin and crisp, could have used more flavor (some garlic, perhaps?).


8/10 

Nostra Pizza and Italian on Urbanspoon