Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Skyfall: Bond is Back – Finally!

James Bond faces mortality (his own and another’s) and a mid-life crisis in this latest, which is one of the more emotionally deep of the series

     We’ve waited what seems like an eternity since the second-rate Quantum of Solace – has there been a drearier title for a major movie in the past decade? – to see the latest James Bond.  Skyfall starts spectacularly, almost as good as The Spy Who Loved Me, leaving Bond (and the audience) in one of the darkest places yet.  Adele then sings the theme song and

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Mi Tierra: San Antonio’s Stand Alone Original Tex-Mex

It’s always fiesta time at this San Antonio institution

24-Hour Fun at Mi Tierra
     Years ago, Neil directed a shoot in San Antonio, ate at Mi Tierra, and brought me back what became my favorite T-shirt.  That article of clothing went everywhere – even South Beach, where a group of Latino workers started talking to me about Mi Tierra.  I struggled along in my much slower Spanish, but it

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Madhatter’s Café and Tea House: Wonderland in San Antonio

The excellent $6 lunch still exists at an enchanting location in King William

Madhatters' Wonderland
     Neil had read about Madhatter’s Café and Tea House before we went to San Antonio.  We drove by it on our first day there while checking out the King William neighborhood.  It’s a historical section with beautiful historic homes, some of which are undergoing renovation.  It reminded us a little of the Garden district in New Orleans or Clifton in Cincinnati.  

The Main Dining Room
     It’s a rambling, beautiful property with indoor and outdoor dining spaces.  The clientele is extraordinarily diverse and the staff is simultaneously very welcoming, laidback, and

The McNay Art Museum in San Antonio

An idiosyncratic Texas institution that needs to be considered on the national and international art radar

The Grounds of the McNay Art Museum
     The McNay Art Museum in San Antonio is one of those institutions that I cannot believe I hadn’t heard of before because it’s one-of-a-kind both in terms of its setting and its collection.  Former high school teacher Marion Koogler McNay inherited a fortune from her physician father, who

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Schilo’s: Recalling San Antonio’s German Heritage

A modest, relaxed deli restaurant that concentrates on getting all the details right and succeeds
     Schilo’s is up from the Riverwalk in San Antonio and it’s an unassuming location, quite a contrast from the bubbling, outdoor restaurants a stone’s throw away.  Though the menu reflects that of a New York-type deli, the interior looks like something out of a Rocky Mountain town with wooden booths and a tin roof.  
We arrived at 8 p.m., a half hour before it closed, and it was pretty deserted.  I was a little hesitant, but our waitress

Monday, November 19, 2012

Please crown Melissa Rycroft DWTS All-Star Winner Now

How many more weeks left of this endless season when Melissa is clearly ahead?

Melissa Rycroft and Tony Dovolani
     I’ll admit that I liked, but didn’t really think Melissa Rycroft was terrific when Dancing with the Stars All-Stars premiered this fall.  I forgot she came in third behind Shawn Johnson and Gilles Marini on season eight.  Even more significantly, I forgot she replaced an injured Nancy O’Dell with only two days to

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Master: Cult Study Short Circuits

That Powerful Father-Son Conflict Replaces A Coherent Story

     Paul Thomas Anderson has made one movie that floored me, There Will Be Blood (and it should have won the Best Picture Oscar), and two movies that I thought were extraordinary (Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love).  I haven’t seen Hard Eight and I had problems with Magnolia because there was so much story that it felt overstuffed, rather than having a strong through line such as those in Robert Altman’s Nashville or Short Cuts.  

Joaquin Phoenix
     I’ve longed to see The Master since it won director and actor awards at the Venice Film Festival.  (That festival’s rules forbid an entry being selected as best movie if it has won other awards).  Anderson is incapable of filming a generic shot or eliciting anything but at least an interesting performance from his cast members.  These abilities are on full display here with a series of gorgeous images and exacting yet unassuming production design by Jack Fisk and cinematography by Mihai Malaimare that plunges the audience into the late 1940s.  Even the lighting looks like something out of Life magazine from that era, both in the interior and exterior scenes.  Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix give huge performances, though there isn’t enough of an age difference between them and that erodes the father figure-surrogate son conflict.  Yes, one could say that there’s a homoerotic impulse being explored when they wrestle around on the lawn, but Phoenix holds his body in such a peculiar way and the character is such a straight horn dog that I don’t think there really is a sexual undertone to their relationship.

The Dodd Extended Family
     Although it was initially described as a roman à clef about L. Ron Hubbard and the formation of the Church of Scientology, I’m not certain there’s enough information to come out on either side about that because although Hoffman’s character Lancaster Dodd shares a number of biographical details with Hubbard, the movie isn’t really about ‘The Cause’.  It’s about his relationship with Phoenix, who plays a psychotic drifter named Freddie Quell that happens to stow away on a yacht and is taken into Dodd’s confidence.  I wish The Master focused much less on that and much more on an examination of Dodd’s rise to power.  Although Dodd is simultaneously sincere and a huckster, we don’t know how he got to where he is and why (besides charisma) the other characters follow him so intensely.  I wish we saw that part of the story because there isn’t enough information to answer basic questions about it.  There’s conflict and there’s plot, but the story is lacking, which is the direct opposite of Magnolia.

     Laura Dern looks spectacular and gives an excellent performance in a small part as one of Dodd’s main benefactors.  Amy Adams is very good as an iron butterfly trophy wife, though she’s also close in age to Hoffman.  I question the number of curse words as well.  My grandparents were similar ages to these characters and neither they nor their friends ever used the f word in my presence and I don’t believe it here.  I hope that Anderson’s next movie steps aside from the father-son conflict as he did in Punch-Drunk Love and that he finds a way to address the story information more fully in the plot.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Restaurant Gwendolyn: The Pearl of San Antonio

This excellent jewel box destination deserves to become a legend.  Foodies, mark it on your must visit list.

Chef Sohocki Presides Over Restaurant Gwedolyn
     Neil had read about Restaurant Gwendolyn on Urbanspoon, where it’s very highly ranked for a restaurant that’s not yet two years old.  The dishes were created before 1850 (with contemporary touches) and the cooking methods are elemental in avoiding electricity as a heating method.  Wylie Dufresne and Grant Achatz are the leaders in the molecular gastronomy movement, but Chef Michael Sohocki moves in the opposite direction philosophically and aesthetically.  And yes, he deserves to be mentioned along with Dufresne and Achatz because he’s devoted to his approach and his staff is thoroughly committed.  The dessert chef hand cranked ice-cream practically the entire time we were there, and they cure and smoke meat, dry fruit and 
Housemade Bread and Butter
create all jams, jellies, syrups, and sauces from scratch.  They even make their own bread and Neil thought it was the best he’d ever eaten.  For me, it was up there with the sourdough at Chez Panisse. 

Gwendolyn's Portrait
     It’s a charming, elegant dining room with a portrait of Gwendolyn, Sohocki’s grandmother and some of her antique furniture as well as her chairs.  The service is intelligent, intensely focused, and more than willing to offer more than the diner might have warranted.  Okay, so how’s the food?

     The cuisine is extraordinary, but it’s aimed at serious foodies.  The meat is cooked medium for fowl and medium to medium rare for beef.  Three of the diners at the table next to us sent their meat back to be cooked more.  However, by refusing to overcook, Sohocki realizes the actual taste of the protein.  There are three-course and five-course prix fixed menus, but the boundary is two choices for each course and the menus change nightly so what we ate is probably not what other diners might find.

Amuse Bouche
     We started with an Amuse Bouche, which was a large piece of pork belly with their home made ricotta, strawberry jam, and purslane (Neil plants it every year and didn’t know it was edible).  It was a salty, sweet, sour, and umami in two bites.  Neil ordered the Merlot Poached Pear Salad with arugula, walnuts, feta, and balsamic vinaigrette, where the fruit was hot while I had the Cherry red and yellow Tomato and fresh Corn Salad with dill and dressed lightly with vinegar and oil.  

Grilled Cherry Tomato Salad

Poached Pear in Merlot with Goat Cheese
Shrimp Stuffed Quail
Ribeye with Blackberry Demi-Glace

My entrée was the Shrimp Stuffed Quail – a combination I’d never seen before – served with flash fried green beans and great crispy pommes.  The winning detail was the olive butter that melted over the meat.  Neil chose the Ribeye for his entrée.  It was more difficult to cut because it was grass fed, but the taste was authentic and the texture tender.  It was crusted with coriander and a blackberry demi-glace plus a fried sage garnish so there was a wide variety of flavors.  The fried collard greens were delicate and the sweet potato mashers were soufflé-like.

Meyer Lemon Bavarois
Spiced Pumpkin Tart
     The desserts were amazing.  I had the Spiced Pumpkin Tart, which had a crust that Neil thought was as good as my Mom’s.  That’s a high compliment because hers is both melt in the mouth flaky and strong enough to hold a filling.  The pumpkin was a mousse served with a cinnamon crème and a ginger snap ice cream.  It tasted like autumn.  Neil chose the Meyer Lemon Bavarois, a beautiful dish with a delicate sponge cake surrounding a lemon curd soufflé topped with a prickly pear glacé that provided a rose color and accompanied by kaffir sorbet and a poppy tuille cookie.  

     We then jumped in fully and ordered the Cheesecuterie – a plate of about a dozen different meats and cheeses.  As Mike Sohocki said, he’d like to make the cheeses, but it didn’t work out except for the ricotta.  These were some of the items on the plate:  smoked gouda, tomato jam, parmesan, apricot jam, pig heart mousse, brie, head cheese, andouille sausage, local honey, pickled okra, von sorman.  When the chef heard we hadn’t had the pig heart jerky, he wrapped some for us to take back to the hotel.  We were delighted.

     And how’s the price?  Worth every penny and more.
Restaurant Gwendolyn on Urbanspoon

Sounds fantastic, but I'm a little pooped.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

48 Hours in San Antonio

Dining Along the San Antonio Riverwalk
      Our plane landed around 11a.m. in one of America's greatest theme cities.  It's as though Disney sprinkled Doritos® dust all over town coating it with Tex-Mex flavor, color, and culture.  As the 7th largest city in the country, traffic was exceptionally light and navigation quite easy.  It's a sprawling landscape, but with little congestion, which most likely adds to the small town feel of this spectacular urban center.  

Italianate Home in King William District
Greek Revival Home
      We headed to lunch at Rosario's Mexican Cafe y Cantina just south of downtown in the King William district. It's a great introduction to the city's primo cuisine with its extensive menu and colorful eclectic interior.  (See our review posted November 11, 2012.)  Walking around the area afterwards gave us a sense of San Antonio's beginnings when wealthy German merchants first migrated there in the 1840's. (Yes, the city actually began as a German settlement.)  Named for King Wilheim initially, it has gone through several names through political battles finally settling on the English version.  The area is reminiscent of the Garden District in New Orleans with the prominent Victorian, Greek Revival, and Italianate homes ranging from meticulous restorations to total disrepair.

San Antonio Riverwalk
      We chose the Marriott Courtyard on the northern edge of the Riverwalk for our stay, giving us the centerpiece of the city at our doorstep.  You may find it hard to believe, but the San Antonio River has always flowed through downtown much as it does today.  In the 1920's there was extensive flooding in the city's core that killed fifty people and led architect Robert Hugman to promote the idea for connecting the flow of the river with dams and different elevations in the 1940's to eliminate the problem.  Downtown revitalization in the mid 1970's led to a renewed interest in the water's edge below the city's street system with many restaurants and hotels popping up along its way.  The result was one of America's urban wonders, one that has never been duplicated.  It's a little like our version of Venice.  Today, the Riverwalk has been extended in all directions with further walking paths.

Tower of the Americas
Juxtaposed with
Torch of Friendship
by Mexican Artist Sebastián

      We made our way along the north edge of the Riverwalk, passing the many riverside cafes, fountains, and bridges.  Signage is helpful and extensive with police officers acting as tour guides.  Coming up to the streetscape, we saw the Tower of the Americas from HemisFair '68 in the background.  

Lobby of the Menger Hotel
We were on our way to the Menger Hotel across from Alamo Square.  It's an opulent Victorian architectural landmark that has hosted Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, and Bill Clinton when running for president to name just a few.  It was the best known hotel in the Southwest during the late 1800s and maintains its status as the most haunted hotel in Texas with some 32 spirits wandering the magnificent surroundings.  The courtyard has fine examples of the area's botanical offerings.  We also found the King X shop of miniatures in the lobby quite fascinating.  

Reception Area and Courtyard of the Menger Hotel

The Alamo: An Official Texas State Shrine
The Ornate Carvings
of the Alamo Mission
      The Alamo is synonymous with San Antonio and Texas history and the most visited site in Texas.  Its appearance is anything but dominating, pale in comparison to what it stands for and the belief that everything is bigger in Texas.  The battle fought there for independence in 1836 is far more important than the fact that it was once a mission.  Today it is an official Texas State Shrine commanding the respect of the public as we saw when one visitor was asked to remove his cap upon entering.

      Retracing our steps, we descended to the Riverwalk level and proceeded along the Southern portion of the waterway passing La Villita (the area where San Antonio was founded) and a much quieter portion of the walk.  Surfacing to street level we headed back to our hotel before venturing out for the evening.

The Riverwalk After Dark
      The Riverwalk seemed our obvious choice for dinner and we had checked out several options.  But when we were in the moment of making our way along the river path, we decided on something much more unconventional…Schilo's, a German deli. Just above the Riverwalk, it's been a San Antonio destination since 1917.  Surviving from the days when most San Antonioans were of German descent, we recommend it for sheer authenticity and a different flavor than the modern day Tex-Mex establishments. (See our future review.)  Walking back on the opposite side of the river, we 
Glass Valecia Oranges
Signed by Celebrities
had a different view taking us to the Valencia Hotel and one of the current hot spots in the city.  It was a Wednesday night and probably too early for things to be hopping, but a walk through the second floor public areas are worth a stop.  

Façade of Mission San José
     Day two started with a drive through the Southern neighborhoods to our final destination of the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park.  There are four missions within the park with the most notable one being the San José Mission.   There's a short and revealing film shown continually at the Visitors' Center.  From it, we learned that basically the religious settlers came to overtake the land from the natives bringing disease to them in the process.  That left them with only one way to turn in their misfortune—to the Catholic faith, leaving them as virtual slaves living within the mission walls.  It became their only way of survival.  That's an oversimplification of history, but you get the gist.  

Walled Grounds of the Mission San José
Restored Altar
at Mission San José
      Entering the walled grounds, one gets a sense of what life was like within the protected area.  The restoration of the park is a work in progress.  The most recent renovation is of the alter area of the mission.  The missions were painted in bright colored mosaic patterns on the exterior which have all gone pale over the years,  Hopefully, restorations will eventually include this important cultural feature of the buildings.  The grist mill and aqueduct system adjacent to the church are worth checking out for their simplicity of operation.

      The short drive back to town brought us to the King William distract again for lunch at the Madhatter's Tea House and Café.  We arrived early as the line for ordering can get long.  It's a local Panera type of place, and you can''t beat this local take on breakfast and lunch.  We were attracted to the iced tea bar with several different blends to choose from.  Save room for dessert as the locally made pies and cakes are considered the top in the city and the options are extensive.  (See our later review.)

Courtyard of the McNay Art Museum
      Driving northeast of downtown, we got a better sense of the city's culture and educational influences as we passed Trinity University, University of the Incarnate Word, and the Witte Museum.   The McNay Art Museum was our eventual pursuit housed in the former Spanish style mansion built by Marion Koogler McNay and expanded after her death to accommodate the extensive collections of several San Antonio families covering several periods and genres including theatrical arts.  It's one of the greatest art museums we have visited and well worth the several hours we spent there.  (See our separate story on the McNay to come.)

      Dinner was a short walk from our hotel to Restaurant Gwendolyn, slow food preparation made for foodie exploration and enjoyment.  It was one of the highlights of our visit to the city.  Definitely not a place for everyone, it is for the serious diner that wants an experience rather than just nourishment.  Our evening was spent there, but we have the memories forever.  (See our post from November 15, 2012.)

Main Altar of the San Fernando Cathedral
San Fernando Cathedral
      The next morning was spent exploring the western edge of downtown.  Our first stop was the San Fernando Cathedral placed on a plaza allowing worshippers to stop by on their way to work.  The altar is a stunning work in gold flanked by two smaller altars on each side.   It was also the only church visited by a pope in Texas when Pope John Paul II was there in 1987.  We continued by walking past City Hall and O. Henry's house on our way to the El Mercado in Market Square and Mi Tierra Cafe for breakfast.  The latter is an over-the-top Mexican restaurant with an interior made for celebrating whatever you're there for.  Breakfast was the perfect time to visit with lesser crowds and freshly made bakery items.  It's open 24 hours a day, so plan accordingly.  Our final stop was El Mercado, the Mexican Market located inside with many shops of clothing, trinkets, and collectibles.

Shopping in the El Mercado

All that…and all I got was this useless Mexican cat with a bobbly head.  Oh, yippee for me!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Rosario’s: San Antonio’s Mexican Treasure

All the details work in an edgy Mexican near downtown

The Entrance at Rosario's
     San Antonio is a foodie’s paradise that features many cuisine     San Antonio is a foodie’s paradise that features many cuisines, though Mexican and Tex-Mex are its most prominent.  Rosario’s is just south of downtown, literally in Southtown, and it’s the type of place where powerbrokers, young families, regular joes, and tourists eat.  The surroundings were funky with formal dining rooms; open bar areas, and adapted industrial spaces, but with interpretations of various major modern artists’ works on all the walls.

The Open Dining Room
Carne de Puerco en Chili Cascabel
     The green salsa, served with chips that were light in texture, was both spicy and sweet.  Our server Pablo was unassuming, very attentive, and correct in each of his suggestions. Neil ordered the Carne de Puerco en Chili Cascabel—Roast Pork in Red Sauce, a dish that was complexly seasoned, but not overly hot.  The meat was very tender and was served with refried beans that were extremely creamy and rice that was freshly cooked.  I had the Enchiladas Mexicanas, which was a good choice for vegetarians.  It was served with queso fresco, tender fried potatoes, a grilled jalapeño pepper, and a lime cilantro slaw.  Not only were both dishes delicious, but also the portions and prices were great.

Enchiladas Mexicanas
     We asked Pablo about dessert and he recommended the Bread Pudding.  Usually, I can take or leave that dish (also crème brulée and sometimes cheesecake), but his quiet enthusiasm won us over.  It was worth it since it easily served two.  The pudding was a warm apple walnut cake, shaped as a large bundt slice, accompanied by berries, cream, and ice cream.  Rosario’s was a great welcome to San Antonio and Texas.
Bread Pudding

Rosario's Mexican Cafe y Cantina on Urbanspooni

I should have worn my sombrero!