Saturday, November 15, 2014

Black Mountain Chocolate

Located at 732 North Trade Street in downtown Winston-Salem, Black Mountain Chocolate offers chocolate bars, drinking chocolate, gelato, baked goods, and more. The chocolate is made on-site, and factory tours are available.

When it comes to food, “artisanal” typically conjures one of two images: the impeccable efforts of a skilled craftsman or overpriced pretension peddled to status-seeking rubes. Thankfully, Black Mountain represents the former tradition.

First and foremost, the chocolate here is outstanding (and this comes from someone who typically prefers milk or white chocolate to dark). Stop in, and you’ll get to sample different varieties (sea salt, cocoa nib, espresso, etc.), each with its own complex flavor. This diversity extends to liquid form as well: the drinking chocolate comes in three strains. I opted for ginger-nutmeg with a marshmallow and was not disappointed: the chocolate was rich and smooth, and the ginger notes added a welcome kick.

This excellence isn’t limited to just chocolate, either. The baked goods are spot-on as well. A banana cream macaroon had real banana flavor (as opposed to the overly sweet synthetic cousin), and a moonshine macaroon won high praise from my companion. The available offerings may rotate, but you’re bound to find something that catches your eye among the macaroons, pies, cookies, and pastries on any given day.

It also helps that everyone at Black Mountain is exceptionally friendly. They will answer questions, offer recommendations, and put up with your slack-jawed gawking at all the delicious desserts. They even held a chocolate bar that I had purchased but left behind during a previous visit.

At $5 a bar, Black Mountain’s chocolate will seem exorbitant compared to store-bought Hershey’s, but such is the difference between a bespoke suit and one grabbed off the rack at Wal-Mart. Besides, the rest of the goods – drinks, pastries, etc. – are far more in line with the competition, and those products that aren’t made in-house come from local businesses.

Whether you have a sweet tooth or not, as long as you can appreciate something tasty done right, Black Mountain Chocolate is worth your time.


Black Mountain Chocolate on Urbanspoon

Hutch and Harris

Located at 424 West Fourth Street in downtown Winston-Salem, Hutch and Harris offers soups, salads, sandwiches, and entrees for lunch and dinner. There is a full service bar, outdoor seating, brunch on the weekends, and daily food and drink specials. Take out is available.

Trying to find dinner in Winston on a Saturday night without a long wait proved to be quite a challenge, so Hutch and Harris won out by virtue of having seats open at the bar. The meal that followed made out stumbling in here out of desperation a stroke of good fortune, but there were still a few nagging inconsistencies that would preempt a glowing recommendation.

Conveniently located at the corner of Fourth and Spruce, Hutch and Harris offers an inviting atmosphere: classy without being stuffy and comfortable without feeling cheap. Despite a full house and a college football game on TV at the bar, the noise level never rose to the point of agitation.

The menu here is eclectic bordering on schizophrenic. Influences include Asian (Siracha Stirfry Salad), Southern (Shrimp and Grits, Kentucky Fried Chicken), Cajun (a shrimp/crawfish/chicken platter) and more. This makes for some wonderful variety; however, it also makes it hard to pin down H & H’s culinary identity.

During our visit, my companion and I opted to sample some soups and split an order of nachos. The nachos featured the standard accoutrements (cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream) elevated considerably by tender marinated pork. Among the soups, the crab bisque was creamy with excellent flavor. Unfortunately, it also contained a few bits of shell. The white bean chicken chili was hearty and satisfying, but the flavor profile didn’t really fit that of a chili (I found myself missing the tomato). Some savory, crumbly jalapeno cornbread made for a welcome addition.

Given the location, pricing at Hutch and Harris could be a lot steeper. Our soups came out to $4 apiece, and our app was $10. Sandwiches (with a side) start at $9 and entrees are mostly in the teens.

In terms of service, the bartenders on duty were great – fast, friendly attentive, and knowledgeable – but the kitchen certainly could be swifter.

All told, Hutch and Harris gave us a good meal and a good evening when one was needed. It has a few shortcomings, but it also has enough going for it to merit a return visit.


Hutch & Harris on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 26, 2014


British construction foreman Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is a happily married father of two. The night before he is scheduled to oversee a record-setting concrete pour, he forsakes watching a big football match with his family to be present for the birth of his illegitimate child, the product of a single night of infidelity with a woman he barely knows. As Ivan cruises the highway en route to the hospital, a series of tense phone calls bring his personal and professional life to ruin. However, he is determined not to walk in the footsteps of his late father, who abandoned him as a child.

For as many films as there are that fail to deliver on a promising premise, there is the rare film that succeeds despite sounding like a terrible idea on paper. Locke falls in the latter camp. Directed and written by Steven Knight, it unfolds in real time, and from the moment the title character enters his car, the camera almost never leaves him. An hour and a half of a character driving and talking has the potential to be excruciating, but it ends up captivating due to the precision of its script and the competence of its star.

Hardy, who sports a quirky Welsh accent, continues to excel at portraying characters who have a lot going on beneath the surface. Ivan starts the journey with an air of almost impenetrable calm and maintains it even while he comes clean to his wife and colleagues. But between phone calls, he seethes with resentment at his dead disappearing dad. Even as his frustration grows as the trip progresses, Hardy avoids the clichéd and predictable epiphany-inducing meltdown that would have sunk his credibility (and this film along with it).

Oddly, this bit of verisimilitude also serves as a hindrance. There is some semblance of closure by the end, but the viewer can’t help but feel cheated by the lack of a payoff. Even a quiet, grounded film can have its share of big moments, but there is nary a one to be found here, an absence that robs the film of impact and often tests the audience’s patience.

There are, however, plenty of amusing little moments. Through a series of conversations with Ivan, beleaguered second-in-command Donal (voice of Andrew Scott) goes from being completely overwhelmed by the prospect of tacking charge to amusingly drunk. And then there is Ivan’s awkward attempt to clarify the nature of his relationship with the mother-to-be to a hospital administrator. Every time a “her partner” is tossed his way, he insistently replies that he is “the father.” Knight’s stage-like feel for dialogue is in good form in these exchanges.

To be certain, Locke’s low-key unconventionality will prove maddening to a certain segment of viewers. But those with the requisite patience can appreciate a convincing (and mercifully compact) look at how one man tries to come to terms with a colossal screw-up.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Gone Girl

On their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike), the wife of writer-turned-bar owner Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) goes missing under suspicious circumstances. As the police investigate the disappearance, Nick commits some social blunders under media scrutiny, and Amy’s hidden diary points to a once-happy marriage that has since deteriorated into hostility and fear. Though suspicion falls on Nick, Amy’s ultimate fate may not be what it seems.

Directed by David Fincher and scripted by Gillian Flynn from her own best-seller, Gone Girl is both a solidly crafted piece of cinema and an enigmatic disappointment. Fincher is a master stylist, the movie is sharply written, and the cast exudes competence, yet the film never quite grips its audience to the fullest extent.

This failure to go for the jugular is born of both perspective and pacing. In the novel, readers are treated to dueling unreliable first-person narrators, and characters come to life in the discrepancies between the accounts. On film, we get traces of this – Amy gets a diary voiceover and the camera often follows Nick – but the amusingly sordid confessionals are largely lost. Further, while the film has plenty of tense moments (a shocking discovery toward the middle, a bloody act of desperation toward the end), that tension isn’t sustained through the second half. There is an episodic quality here that undermines what is at stake. We should feel the walls closing in on our protagonist, but we never fully get that sense of pending doom.

These flaws mar what is otherwise a very well-executed film. The cast is beyond reproach. Affleck, a real-life hate-magnet for many, seems born to play Nick, a character that embodies both sides of the laid-back nice guy/smug jerk dichotomy. Pike never fully gets across the bubbly naiveté of Amy’s diary narration, but she otherwise nails the character’s otherworldly cleverness and limitless determination. Among the supporting roles, Neil Patrick Harris is appropriately creepy as Amy’s obsessive ex, Kim Dickens delivers a healthy dose of skepticism as a dogged detective, and even the usually clownish Tyler Perry does quality work here as a media-savvy high profile lawyer. There is nary a weak link to be found.

In addition, although Fincher fails to impart the same spark here that made his past thrillers so gripping, Gone Girl is far from stylistically limp. There is a convincing sense of place as the film hops from New York to Missouri and beyond, and the few violent set pieces are visually arresting. Frequent collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross supply a score that  is handily unsettling when it needs to be.

Ultimately, Gone Girl may have more resonance for those unacquainted with the source material. The novel’s twists – and twistedness – were punches to the reader’s gut, and the film, faithful as it is, offers familiarity to cushion the blows. Even with this diminished thrill, there is still a lot to really like here, just not enough to love.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Devall's Cajun Cuisine

Located at 3932 West Market Street in Greensboro, Devall’s Cajun Cuisine specializes in Cajun starters, sandwiches, and entrees for lunch and dinner. There are food and drink specials, a full service bar, and catering is available.

Though Devall’s is in walking distance and I love Cajun, I have visited only a few times since the restaurant opened last year. There are reasons for that infrequency, just as there are reasons I won’t swear off this place completely.

First, the good: Louisiana-bred owner/chef Roger Devall knows what he’s doing. The menu here is full of Cajun staples, and every one that I’ve had has been well-executed. The etouffee (available with shrimp or catfish) in particular is a standout: the rich brown roux is addictive. The red beans and rice features a nice, spicy Andouille and provides the hearty comfort of a stew. The jambalaya is quite good too albeit markedly different from the more familiar Creole style: this one is drier and smokier without a strong tomato presence.

Stray from Cajun, however, and the quality varies. The hush puppies, long and oddly shaped as they may be, are served fresh and are above average, and the cheesy twice-baked potato earns no complaints. But the coleslaw lacks much flavor, and on a recent visit, a steak ordered medium well came out leather tough (a mistake that our apologetic server did try to remedy).

Other aspects of  Devall’s are similarly hit-and-miss. The establishment is small, and the bead-adorned bar area with the television gives off sports bar vibes. However, the inviting red walls and tastefully placed Mardi Gras décor add considerably more class. Every server I’ve ever had here has been attentive and personable, but the kitchen operates at a leisurely pace. Most entrees are priced in the teens, certainly not a bad value for the quantity, but one wishes the sides were on par with the mains.

Devall’s location – in a half-abandoned shopping center between Guilford Country Republican Party Headquarters and a Chinese restaurant – isn’t doing it any favors, so here’s hoping it can stay afloat. The restaurant is by no means a sure thing, but there is enough here to make it at least an occasional option.


Devall's Cajun Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Drop

In Brooklyn, unassuming Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) tends bar for his Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), the former owner who was pushed out by ruthless Chechen gangsters. The bar occasionally serves an underworld money drop, and a recent robbery leaves the Chechens angry and suspicious. Meanwhile, Bob finds himself caring for an abused and abandoned puppy brought to him by the mysterious Nadia (Noomi Rapace). Though he is reluctant at first, Bob takes to the dog, whom he dubs Rocco. Dog ownership brings Bob closer to Nadia, but it also invites trouble in the form of Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), Rocco’s psychotic former owner.

Though modern Brooklyn has gentrified in recent years, the borough remains a go-to backdrop for mean streets and shady doings. That The Drop would make use of this locale is no surprise. That it would do it so well despite its pedigree is a bit of a shocker. Writer Dennis Lehane, who adapted his short story “Animal Rescue” is a diehard Bostonian while director Michael Roskam is a Belgian making his American film debut. Add to that a cast led by an Englishman and a Swede, and it’s amazing how convincing this film pulls off “the neighborhood.”

Of course, sense of place isn’t the only asset here. The pacing is wonderfully taut with nary a wasted minute (at least until the last five or so). Roskam’s camera work and Marco Beltrami’s score work to imbue paranoid tension. Watching the goings-on leaves you with the unavoidable sense that something terrible is going to happen, but Lehane’s story cleverly plays with whom the audience expects to find in the crossfire.

This misdirection is made possible by Hardy’s complex, layered performance. Like his idol Gary Oldman, Hardy has proven capable of incredible transformation, and he slips seamlessly into his role here. We see Bob as something of a laid-back loser, but we also know, through bits of dialogue and pivotal gestures (he seems awfully handy with saran wrap) that there is more to him than meets the eye.

Hardy is very nearly equaled by Gandolfini, who makes his last performance a memorable one. At first, the bearded, balding Marv seems like an anti-Tony Soprano, a washed-up schlub grubbing for lost respect. However, the two characters actually have quite a bit in common. Like Tony, Marv is a bad man made sympathetic by his generosity toward friends and family and the presence of even worse people around him. And like Tony, Marv will lie, scheme, and use violence for personal gain, all while still garnering his share of apologists and defenders.

The remaining portrayals are somewhat less glowing. Rapace gives Nadia some street smarts and mystique, but her accent slips to a distracting degree. Schoenaerts plays Deeds like a pathetic-if-volatile mental case rather than a classic bully, which makes him simultaneously easier to believe and to dismiss. John Ortiz, the cast’s rare actual Brooklynite, plays well off of Hardy as a sly detective who knows more than he lets on.

If there is one knock against The Drop, it is that it isn’t transformative. It doesn’t deconstruct or rehabilitate the crime film or call attention to the genre the way that Goodfellas did, and there is an air of familiarity about it. It is less “epic” and more “story,” but it is a story that is told nearly perfectly.


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 entrée 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