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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Revival

In the early 1960s, Charlie Jacobs, a charismatic young preacher and amateur electric engineer, arrives in a small Maine town. He befriends the Morton family and acts as a role model to six-year-old Jamie. But when tragedy strikes, Jacobs publicly renounces his faith and leaves. Decades later, Jamie – now a drug-addled musician – reconnects with Jacobs, who has become a carnival performer. Though Jacobs is able to cure Jamie through some rather unconventional means, the latter becomes increasingly worried about where the former’s bitterness and obsession with the unknown will take them.

For an author who can occasionally be accused of self-plagiarism – if not self-parody – Stephen King has shown a surprising amount of inventiveness in his old age. Last year saw the horror icon release both a hardboiled detective novel (Mr. Mercedes) and Revival, which defies easy classification. An ambitious work that spans a half-century, Revival is a welcome change-of-pace that nevertheless falters at the end.

If there is one trick of the trade that King has picked up over the course of the past few years, it is nuance. Much of his work has been dominated by classic – and predictable - good vs. evil conflicts, but recent outings have seen protagonists become more flawed and antagonists more sympathetic. Revival is the culmination of this shift. The opening narration characterizes Jacobs as Jamie’s “nemesis,” but for all of the former’s eventual flaws, he never comes across as completely malevolent. Call it King’s concession to reality: sometimes, those most dangerous are those who act with the best of intentions.

Both the reconfiguration of conflict and the book’s scope suggest a slow read, yet Revival is anything but. King uses the passage to time to advance characterization and string the reader along. As the periodic reunions between Jamie and Jacobs become more and more tense, we find ourselves wondering not only whose way of thinking will prevail, but at what cost to the rest of the world. In between, King peppers his narrative with tragedy. A former drug abuser himself, he is able to depict Jamie hitting rock bottom with squickish verisimilitude. And the event that kick starts Jacobs’ apostasy is presented with gut-punching efficacy.

Given both the narrative build-up and the depth of characterization, the ending – a sharp turn to Lovecraftian horror with a smattering of Frankenstein on top – feels like a cheap cop-out. Not only is it tonally out-of-sync with much of the rest of the book; it also comes across as trite and overly familiar. Even if King’s intended take-away was “don’t mess with what you don’t understand,” that message could certainly have been wrapped in prettier packaging.

Ending woes aside, Revival works as an exploration of human nature and a look at how loss differently shapes us all. This is not King’s best work, but it is among his most mature.


7.75/10

Monday, January 19, 2015

Koshary

Located at 200 South Elm Street in Downtown Greensboro, Koshary offers Egyptian and Mediterranean cuisine for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. There is no alcohol, but limited outdoor seating and catering are available.

Elm Street is practically Restaurant Row, but despite the competition, Koshary manages to  shine. A versatile menu with expertly prepared and seasoned offerings combine with a pleasant ambiance and hospitable service to make for an all-around winning experience.

Named for a somewhat eclectic Egyptian dish, Koshary appropriately incorporates some diverse influences. You’ll find the expected shawerma and kabobs here, but you can also get a gyro, burger, or rib-eye sandwich. For our initial visit, my companion and I split a mazza sampler and a full-size order of koshary with lamb. The sampler included hummus babaganoush, pickled vegetables, and eggplant ratatouille. All of the dips were tasty (though the hummus was a bit oily), and the accompanying pita was fresh and hot. The koshary (a multi-layered affair consisting of macaroni, rice, and lentils with tomato sauce and fried onions) had great tomato flavor, and the onions provided an unexpected but welcome crunch. The heavily herbed lamb was cooked to perfection: a still-juicy medium. Even a complimentary sample of hibiscus tea was cool and refreshing.

Koshary isn’t large, but it feels more spacious than the number of tables indicates. Like many Egyptian restaurants, it is adorned with colorful tapestries and decorative plates. Cliché or not, it makes for classy and comfortable surroundings.

Also like many Egyptian restaurants, Koshary can be pricy. Our appetizer sampler clocked in at $10, and the koshary was $14 ($9 without meat, $6 for a half-size portion). Come for dinner (ours was a lunch visit) and many dishes are a dollar more. This is hardly a shocker given the downtown location and the quality of the food, but some of the simpler fare (like a gyro or kebab) can be found for less elsewhere.

There are only a few minor annoyances that separate Koshary from excellence. For starters, the restrooms are not conveniently accessible: you have to venture into a building and down a hall to find them. Also, should you check in on Yelp during your visit, the Yelp app will provide a coupon that the restaurant itself will not recognize. Lastly, our server, though quite genial, was on his first day on the job and had to defer our questions to a colleague. Thankfully, responses still came quickly.

All told, Koshary offers great food made by people who seem to know – and care about – what they are doing, and that’s more that can be said for many businesses these days.


8.25/10

Koshary on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 12, 2015

El Camino Real

Located at 4131-E Spring Garden Street in Greensboro, El Camino Real serves Mexican cuisine for lunch and dinner seven days a week. There is a full bar, and food and drink specials are available.

Call it the tyranny of abundance. Inundated as it is with quality Mexican eateries of various stripes, an establishment really has to outdo itself to stand out around here. El Camino Real has a lot going for it – solid food and reasonable prices – but it doesn’t do enough to gain separation from the competition.

Housed in an easily overlooked shopping strip, El Camino Real is small both inside and out: maybe eight tables and four booths in total. The casual cantina look won’t win style points, but it is comfortable and inviting. That, plus fast and friendly service, lets you forget the meagerness of the surroundings.

Fittingly for a place that translates to “The Real Way,” El Camino Real wears its authenticity on its sleeve. While the familiar burritos, enchiladas, and fajitas fill the menu, you will also find lengua (beef tongue), mole, and other less Americanized offerings here. A recent Cutthroat Kitchen episode inspired a fish taco craving, so I decided to give them – and the al pastor (marinated pork) and chorizo – a try. The tacos came well-dressed with radish, cilantro, and lime. Of the three varieties sampled, the chorizo was far and away the tastiest: it offered a spicy, crumbly bite throughout. The tilapia in the fish taco was moist and adequately seasoned, but doesn’t reach the standard set by Los Gordos. The pastor had the right flavor profile (hint of pineapple) but was disappointingly dry.

Pricing here is wallet-friendly. Lunch specials run under $6, and many dinner entrees clock south of $10. Tacos are $1.50 each (more for fish or shrimp) regularly and are only a buck on Tuesdays. Whether you go for a combination or eat a la carte, it is easy to sample a lot here for relatively little green.

Were El Camino Real amid a less crowded field, it would likely be a local favorite. But it lacks the menu depth of El Kiosco, the inspiration of Los Gordos, and the taco wizardry of El Azteca or Crafted. As an also-ran, however, it is certainly better than most.


7.75/10

El Camino Real Mexican Grill on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Snowpiercer

In the near future, a chemical released into the atmosphere to combat global warming plunges the planet into a deep freeze and kills most life on earth. The survivors live aboard the Snowpiercer, a state-of-the-art self-sustaining train that circles the earth. Poor passengers are crammed into the tail of the train and treated like second-class citizens while wealthy passengers live decadently in the forward cars, and the train’s brilliant designer, Wilford (Ed Harris), is worshipped as a god. Sick of the injustice, Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) leads his fellow tail passengers in a rebellion to capture the rest of the train, but his disruption of the status quo carries a terrible price.

Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s English-language debut (a loose adaptation of an obscure French graphic novel) is a film that is both easy to be impressed by and easy to take to ask. An ambitious sci-fi allegory, it is at once tense, provocative, well-shot, solidly acted, overlong, ham-handed, and at times downright silly. But whether you love it or hate it, Snowpiercer at least makes an impression.

If nothing else, the film is beautifully shot and scored. From the industrial drudgery of the tail cars to the opulent refinement of the head, each section of the train has an appropriately distinct visual identity. Bong’s fight-scene choreography is as stylish as it is brutal, and there are aesthetic homages to everything from Bioshock to Terry Gilliam. Marco Beltrami’s score is hauntingly beautiful at times but foreboding and discordant when it needs to be.

Though characters here are developed to varying degrees (with varying success), the cast offers some laudatory performances. Evans previously established his action star credibility as Captain America, and here he showcases his range by playing Steve Rogers’ polar opposite. The beginning of the movie sees Curtis as a reluctant leader, bold but principled. When his friends fall by the wayside, however, he dirties his hands and doubles down on his resolve. His background-revealing breakdown toward the end makes for one of the film’s stronger moments. Korean stage vet Song Kang-Ho exudes surly mystique and detached cool as Curtis’ reluctant ally Minsu, a drug-addled security expert with his own agenda. Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer are around for the ride, but they don’t get enough screen time to flesh out their characters. In opposition, the always-reliable Tilda Swinton seems to be having a blast doing a quasi-Margaret Thatcher impersonation as Wilford’s condescending minister. As the man himself, Harris is effective in a banality-of-evil sort of way, but his closing summation is disappointingly long-winded and contrived.

This speaks to one of the film’s chief flaws: the pacing is uneven and the runtime is padded. The first hour and a half or so are suspenseful and full of urgency, but the film then inexplicably tapers off and very nearly (pun intended) derails. The latter part of the film is so exposition-heavy that it is almost as if Bong expended all of his considerable visual creativity and couldn’t think of a better way to clue the audience in than simply having characters talk at length.

Though not to the same extent, Snowpiercer’s tone is inconsistent as well. This isn’t always a bad thing: Minsu’s sour observations and constant demands for drugs are genuinely amusing. On the other hand, having a cadre of armed goons stop fighting to yell “Happy New Year!” and having Curtis slip on a fish are head-shakers, to say the least. There are several other odd moments – including a segment in a classroom car – that feel off as well.

Sci-fi message movies (Elysium, After Earth, etc.) are bountiful, but movies of any genre that temper a message with a healthy dose of complexity and ambiguity are not. For that reason alone, Snowpiercer is worth your time. Look past the length and loquaciousness and enjoy the ride.


8/10

Monday, December 29, 2014

Agni Indian Kitchen and Bar

Located at 651 South Regional Road in Greensboro, Agni Indian Kitchen and Bar serves up Indian cuisine for lunch and dinner. There is a full-service bar and delivery is available.

A former fast food location off of N.C. 68 is an unlikely bet for good anything – let alone good Indian – but Agni comes very close to pulling it off. While the outside still resembles the Wendy’s that Agni once was, the interior tells a different story. The décor features bright reds, greens, and blues, a funky combination that nevertheless lends a touch of comfort and class. The layout, however, is logistically suspect. A U-shaped buffet area isn’t conducive to high volume or foot traffic, a problem when Agni draws a lunch crowd.

Fortunately, this did not prove a problem during a recent lunch visit. The buffet’s offerings were chicken-heavy, but there were a few vegetarian dishes and one fish offering, plus the requisite condiments, desserts, and naan. Everything I sampled was executed competently though only a few dishes – namely, the saag and the fish tikka – really stood out. The dishes had a good (but by no means overwhelming) amount of spice and heat, appropriate for a place whose name translates to “fire.”

At $9.99, the buffet wasn’t a steal, but Agni’s ongoing 10 percent discount made it easier for me to feel like I had gotten my money’s worth. That, plus excellent service, make this an attractive lunch spot. Just the same, I would hesitate before trying Agni for dinner: the prices are a bit high (entrees with meat start at $15 – on par with the competition, actually), and the selection, though varied, is somewhat limited (no thalis, no jalfrezzi on the regular menu, etc.).

Despite this — and its out-of-the-way location – Agni comes across as a welcome addition to Greensboro’s increasingly heterogeneous dining scene. It may not be in any position to supplant Saffron, but it still has merit all its own.


7.75/10

Agni Indian Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

After the menacing dragon Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) is slain by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), a displaced company of dwarves is finally free to reclaim its former home in the Lonely Mountain. Having a vast treasure at his disposal, however, turns dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) greedy and paranoid. When his refusal to compensate his human and elven allies puts their forces at the brink of war, hobbit thief Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) must take drastic action. Meanwhile, an orc army seeks to capitalize by launching a massive invasion.

The third and final film in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies is less a standalone work and more a reward to fans for their exceptional patience. After shamelessly padding the previous two installments, the finale clocks in at a relatively lean 144 minutes, and much of that running time is filled with action. The thinness and predictability of the plot would ordinarily be a major demerit, but in context, it makes for a satisfying conclusion to a sprawling saga.

Like all of Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, The Battle of the Five Armies is well-shot and visually immersive. There are some places where the CGI is a bit too conspicuous (witness a puff of smoke frozen perfectly in place), but for the most part, the film successfully brings Middle Earth to life. The action sequences are similarly well-crafted. Though nothing here quite matches the previous film’s barrel scene, a late battle lets Legolas (Orlando Bloom) demonstrate some innovative swashbuckling. It’s also quite satisfying to watch Ian McKellen (Gandalf the Grey) and Christopher Lee (Saruman the White) beat down foes with wizard staffs at 75 and 92 years old, respectively.

As mentioned previously, the plotting here fails to inspire. Everything that transpires reads as a mere prelude to the inevitable battle, but the lulls in the action do allow for some character development: namely, Thorin loses and regains his honor, and elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) learns that pain comes with love. Her ill-fated romance with dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) remains improbable and divisive, but it does fulfill the function of giving the film a “B” story.

For all its ridiculous moments - Thorin’s declaration that he won’t part with a single coin is inexplicably delivered in slow motion, and the film’s fauna are something else (a dwarf chieftain rides a boar while elf king Thranduil favors a war elk as his mount) – The Battle of the Five Armies entertains more often than it frustrates. It is by no means Jackson’s finest work, but it succeeds ably at bridging the gap from one trilogy to another and should satisfy fans of both.


8/10