Thursday, March 29, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Starring: Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer
Director: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Running Time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Rating: R
 
Jason Segel has always been in my top 5 celebrity crushes, but with each role I see him in, he inches closer and closer to the top. (Don’t worry, Leo, you’ll always be the king of my world. Unless you keep dating 22 year olds. Seriously, stop.) I got attached to Jason on “Freaks and Geeks,” went head over heels for him on “How I Met Your Mother,” and fell hardcore in love with him in “I Love You, Man.” The characters he plays, though all very similar, always have a little something that distinguishes them from one another, but it’s the sensitive, carefree spirit that gets me every time. In “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” Segel, Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon are a powerful trio that deliver subtly comedic and heartfelt performances. We’re just along for the ride for much of the film, which culminates with a climax that is worth every step of the way.

Jeff is a 30-year-old stoner who lives in his mom’s basement, and has an unhealthy obsession with the movie “Signs.” A real winner. His widowed mother and eager-to-please brother think his “everything happens for a reason” attitude is ridiculous and unrealistic, and they write him off as hopeless, but what begins as a rather uneventful day takes Jeff on a fortuitous and fateful journey.

Ed Helms steers away from slapstick Andy Bernard on “The Office,” and I was thankful to see another side of him. It wasn’t a stretch to view him as Pat, a 33-year-old on the verge of depression with a dysfunctional marriage to the always lovely Judy Greer. Her powerful role in “The Descendants” and her equally heartbreaking performance in this film prove she’ll be around for a long time. As a wife who feels she’s never listened to or understood, she inches further and further away from Pat, and perhaps right into the arms of another man.

A playful side story brings light to a mundane cubicle world. Susan Sarandon gives a quiet but beautiful performance as Sharon, a woman trying to raise two equally disturbed sons, all the while being pursued by a secret office admirer. Her fun and playful confidante is Rae Dawn Chong (whom I haven’t seen since “Commando”!) This story plays out in an unexpected way, but gives Sharon a new outlook on life, and we know she won’t have office woes for a long time.

I don’t think the audience is supposed to be disgusted with Jeff and his breezy, goal-less attitude towards his day-to-day life, but if we are, I sure wasn’t. Though it may be because I was so smitten with him. I suppose I would classify this film as a dark comedy - there are some laughs in scenes which depict reality, however dark it might be. And in the final scene, Jeff will definitely be glad he left home – it’s intensely moving.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mez


I have to go for the obvious pun. The atmosphere at Mez is “mez-merizing.” Though I’ve graced the upscale nightclub with my presence a few times (which sometimes features a saxophone player and a flexible body contortionist after-hours) I’d never dined there. Last week, my friend and I decided to check out the Charlotte Film Festival’s Short Documentaries block at the Epicentre movie theatre. (The Film Festival ends this week, so be sure to check out a movie! Click here for the schedule.) This might seem a bit complicated, so let me clarify – the Epicentre movie theatre is inside Mez. Yes, a movie theatre in a restaurant. How random, right? It’s actually brilliant, and the long list of wine offerings and small plates seemed like a perfect post-movie treat.

The short docs were very entertaining and educational, though I wish we had taken advantage of the food sitch: people were bringing champagne flutes and plates of food into the screening! After the movie, we walked down the hall to the restaurant, where we sat among photos of Marilyn, Marlon and Elvis <3 and floor-to-ceiling velvet curtains (and maybe even a Charlotte Panther…?)

After perusing the large cocktail menu, I decided on the Flora - a mixture of champagne, elderflower cordial and blackberry puree. Quite refreshing. Fresh focaccia bread was served with a delicious olive tapenade. A nice salty contrast to the sweetness of the beverage. (**I VOW to get in the habit of taking more photos. Apologies.) 

The Roasted Mushroom Flatbread is big enough to share, and then some. This delicious thin crust pizza features peppery arugula, gooey cheese and my fave, truffle oil. Anything with truffle oil is MONEY. (Literally. Maybe one day I’ll experiment with truffle oil at home, when I have an extra $50 to spend on the real stuff.) Though tempting, we decided against Illegal Bread, as we were already consuming enough bread and cheese, but I will be back to try it. It sounds too good to be…legal.

For a little protein, we chose the Grilled Chicken Skewers. The presentation and chicken itself were underwhelming, but the dipping sauces made this dish. Ponzu Sauce was reminiscent of soy sauce but sweeter and thicker, while Spicy Chilli Sauce brought a nice heat. The description of the chicken was “coriander and cumin-rubbed,” but I didn’t pick up those flavors. Three skewers though, were plenty to share.

Put on your artsy hat, go support the Charlotte Film Festival and dine at Mez on your way out. And if you’re into saxophones and gymnasts, go back on a Saturday night.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Maxie B's


In my 24 years, I’ve encountered only a few others who have a sweet tooth quite as strong as mine. When Southern Living deemed Maxie B’s bakery in Greensboro one of the best in the South, I knew it was a place I needed to try. As soon as I walked in, I knew that it was my heaven.

Elegant white couches, dangling chandeliers and sophisticated art make for a peaceful setting to enjoy a cup of coffee and indulge in a treat. On any given day, there are at least 30 varieties of layer cakes and cupcakes on display, not to mention the cookies, brownies, ice cream and frozen yogurt selection. It is truly a sugar-lover’s paradise.

Lucky for me, much of my work takes place in Greensboro, so after a few visits I had been able to sample (too) many of their delicious flavors. They cut their three-layer cake slices larger than the average person’s face. I’m not sure if it’s a great thing or a dangerous thing that I’ve discovered the best cake in the universe: Fresh Apple Cake. Non-fruit fans, don’t rush to any conclusions – it’s not really apple-y, it’s more of a moist sourdough cake with a few bites of apples baked in, topped with a luscious cinnamon cream cheese frosting. To my approval, Maxie’s PILES on the icing between the layers (I am flabbergasted when people scrape off “excess” icing; there is no such thing as too much icing.) Every time I’m lucky enough to enjoy a bite of this cake, I am embarrassed how loud my moaning is. I will celebrate every birthday from now on with Fresh Apple Cake.

A close second place goes to the Italian Cream Cake. Walnuts and coconut fill the cake, and the rich cream cheese frosting is the bomb. It’s impossible to eat just one bite. My grandmother makes an awesome version too (maybe I will share if I ever create a baking blog.)

In close third (are you noticing a pattern?), is the Fresh Strawberry Buttercream Cake. I don’t know what the secret in their vanilla buttercream is, but it’s absolutely the best I’ve ever had. It’s thick, velvety and a perfect complement to their light white cake. Fresh strawberries fill the layers – ridiculous. Honorable mentions go to Red Velvet Cake and Sour Cream Coconut Cake.

If I had to pick my least favorite out of all the ones I’ve tried, it would be the Caramel Cake, which is disappointing because I’m usually a fan. The piece I got was a little dry, and the icing was too sweet (yes, I never thought I’d say that either.) I also didn’t love the 18 Carat Cake, perhaps it’s because my grandmother’s recipe can’t be beat. It was TOO chock-full of carrots for my liking.

Maxie B’s stays open until 11pm, which is perfect for those late-night cravings. And as if this place couldn’t get any better, they serve treats for dogs! Check out the photos on the website. If you aren’t drooling afterwards, there’s something seriously wrong with you. If you are drooling, wipe off your keyboard, then get in your car and go to Maxie B’s immediately. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Good Deeds

Starring: Tyler Perry, Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Brian White, Gabrielle Union
Director: Tyler Perry
Running Time: 110
Rating: PG-13

Believe it or not, I’ve never seen a "Madea" movie. Many people are in awe of Tyler Perry’s comedic genius, so I know I’m missing out. I chose to lose my Tyler Perry movie V-card to the dramatic but feel-good film that he wrote, directed and starred in: “Good Deeds.” I left the theatre with a new appreciation for life, a confirmation of Thandie Newton’s exceptional acting skills, and an admiration for Mr. Perry.

Wesley Deeds was born into a life of privilege. He is a fourth-generation Ivy League graduate, the CEO of his father’s company, and he’s engaged to a class-act with a bangin’ body (Gabrielle Union.) One might apply the lyrics of the classic Britney Spears song “Lucky” to this scenario – “if there’s nothing missing in HIS life, then why do these tears come at night?” Not that Deeds cries himself to sleep, but it’s obvious that he is unhappy. This life he was born into is, oddly enough, not the life he would choose to lead for himself.

After an unforgettable performance in “Crash” seven years ago, Thandie Newton stuns again as Lindsey, a widow raising her child under dire circumstances. She has one heartbreaking scene after another. We feel so much sympathy for this woman when we discover her husband died in Iraq, which forced her to drop out of nursing school to care for her daughter. This is a terrifying example of bad luck – it could honestly happen to anyone. We don’t know who to feel sorrier for: the child whose life is uprooted every day, or the mother who can’t stop the tethers from completely unraveling. Newton’s portrayal of a mother, a lover and a human being is beautiful, and reminds us of her underrated talents as an actress.

To Wesley, Lindsey is a breath of fresh air: she speaks to him in blunt, realistic terms – in such a way no one has ever spoken to him before. Things go from bad to worse in a matter of days for Lindsey, and Wesley’s first instinct is to help her. Though her pride stands in the way at first, she reluctantly accepts his help. We see that doing ‘good deeds’ for others is what truly makes Wesley happy. He is emotionally stagnant until the end of the film, when he chooses to lead the life he wants, rather than let someone decide for him.

Phylicia Rashad shines as an overbearing mother who favors Wesley over his angry and resentful brother Walter. Brian White plays this role with such intensity – there’s not one scene where his brow isn’t furrowed. His a-hole actions made me groan out loud several times. We don’t understand why Wesley puts up with his brother’s arrogance and general lack of consideration for anyone other than himself until a childhood memory is revealed.

This film gives us a peek into a scary world that many of us are unfamiliar with. As soon as the movie was over, I pulled out my cell phone to check for texts and Facebook updates, and immediately felt guilty. We should all pay more attention to the issues that plague the real world, rather than being so connected to the social media one. Though the “Madea” films are on my to-see list, I couldn’t have imagined a more fantastic introduction to the brilliance of Tyler Perry.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Flatiron Kitchen + Taphouse


When you walk into Flatiron Kitchen + Taphouse, you forget you’re in the small town of Davidson, North Carolina. The trendy restaurant sits at the corner of Main and South Streets in the community’s charming downtown, yet has a New York City vibe. Beautiful hardwood floors, an intricate ceiling design and a hexagonal bar surrounding a tall metallic beer tower fill this unique space.  My dinner companion and I both remarked on the size of the menu (rather small!), but Flatiron strives to use as many local and in-season ingredients as possible. Small world: the restaurant’s new Executive Chef, Thomas Marlow, led a cooking class I attended last fall at Mimosa Grill. As much as I enjoyed the food that day, I knew Flatiron’s cuisine would not let me down.


Flatiron offers a large beer selection – both North Carolina and out-of-state brews - but being that I watched the ACC games all weekend, I decided I’d had enough beer. Usually weary of Malbec wines, my companion suggested a 2010 Dona Paula Malbec; a very tasty start to our meal. When I read the description for Pan-Crisped NC Flounder, I had no idea how the numerous ingredients and flavors would work together: there was A LOT going on. The fish is served in a little pool of parsnip puree and goat cheese fondue - the latter being an awesome complement to the fish. Parsnips are similar to carrots but have a lighter color, so it was difficult to distinguish the puree from the goat cheese. The dish also features crushed pistachios, pickled red onions, grilled grapes, orange segments, avocado and arugula. I never would have thought to put all of these ingredients together! Needless to say, it was an explosion of flavors in my mouth, and the pickled red onions and orange segments really rounded out the dish nicely.

Low Country Shrimp & Grits features six shrimp (tail-on, oddly enough) in a Tasso ham and ale gravy with Andouille sausage over a stone ground white grit cake. The round cake form was lost under the velvety gravy, so it seemed like more of a risotto. The Andouille sausage played well with the Tasso ham (smoked pork, often featured in Cajun cuisine). Though it was a bit of a hassle to cut off the shrimp tales, the spicy, barbeque-y essence of the dish makes for a unique spin on a traditional Southern specialty.

Look no further than Flatiron Kitchen + Taphouse for a first date, birthday party or ladies’ night out. Its bustling atmosphere and daring cuisine definitely brightens up quiet Davidson. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Vow

Starring: Channing Tatum, Rachel McAdams, Scott Speedman, Sam Neill, Jessica Lange
Director: Michael Sucsy
Running Time: PG-13
Rating: 1 hour, 44 minutes

I first fell in love with Channing Tatum when he graced the screen in “Step Up.” I’ve loved him since, in “She’s the Man” and “Dear John,” and I’m eagerly anticipating “21 Jump Street.” Similarly, I’ve had a girl crush on Rachel McAdams since her days in “Mean Girls” and “Wedding Crashers,” so I figured the two of them on-screen would be a match made in heaven. Though the story seemed like a Nicholas Sparks romance, it’s actually based on true events. It’s terrifying that something this tragic could actually happen. With a solid supporting cast, Tatum and McAdams shine in this date-worthy movie, and it definitely exceeded my expectations.


(Photo courtesy of weheartit.com)
Paige and Leo are a happy, bohemian couple residing in Chicago. Paige is a sculptor, while Leo runs a music studio, and the two could not be more in love. I was in love with them, except for the fact that Channing Tatum is not a believable hipster. I love a hipster more than many things in life, but don’t try to make Channing something he’s not. Keep him in a wife-beater tank top (see photo) or Calvin Klein boxer briefs, not a fedora and plaid shirt. Apologies for the tangent. They have funny sidekick friends, as all rom-coms have, though these characters weren’t as developed as I would have liked. Paige and Leo are obviously soul mates, though they “agree to disagree about red velvet cake” – I was curious as to which one of them didn’t like it…and how that’s possible.    
                                                                                                                                                              
After a devastating car wreck, Paige has no memory of the last 4 years of her life: her life with Leo. He is absolutely destroyed that she doesn’t remember him, and it’s hard for him to understand that she’d rather be with her estranged parents than her own husband. He begins to lose patience when she shoots down all of his attempts at restoring their life together. Meanwhile, she resorts to who she was pre-Leo: a preppy, society girl who left law school on a whim to pursue art. She doesn’t remember why she alienated herself from her family, but the audience is aware that something strange happened which ignited the feud. Sam Neill and Jessica Lange are well cast as over-bearing, upper-class parents, who work at keeping Paige’s past 4 years a mystery, just as hard as Leo works at helping her remember them.

As Paige spends more time with her ex-boyfriend Jeremy than Leo, it eats away at their already dwindling marriage. Scott Speedman of “Felicity” fame plays Jeremy, and I found him more likeable than the director probably intended. If I’m being totally honest, it almost felt like he and McAdams had more on-screen chemistry.

Jessica McNamee plays Paige’s sensitive and empathetic sister, who sees Leo’s charm and understands why her sister fell for him. She begins encouraging Paige to give their marriage a chance, while her parents continue to push her into the arms of Jeremy. Her dad turns out to be the most hypocritical character of all. He claims to provide his daughters with every opportunity, yet he criticizes their every move. When Paige is reminded of the startling truth of why she distanced herself from her family, she is heartbroken. We discover a whole new layer to her family’s past. This turn of events begins the resolution to the film, though I won’t spoil it for you.

This movie doesn’t share the ranks of “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days” or “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” but I predict it will be a rom-com favorite for years. With an awesome soundtrack and eye candy for both guys and girls, I’ll definitely watch it again. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Encore American Bistro

I’m pretty torn about Encore American Bistro in Winston-Salem. Does delicious food make up for terrible service? I’ll try anything twice, so I might need to make another visit before I write it off forever (like wearing puka shell necklaces. Never, ever again.)

Formerly the hipster hangout known as Cat’s Corner, and more recently the Mexican joint Rana Loca, this space has always been a peculiar one. The restaurant occupies a room of a building among art galleries and other stores, and the kitchen seems to be in the building’s lobby. The decorations are a bit sparse, though I hear it becomes quite the dance scene on Saturday nights.
  
My dinner companion and I were one of two couples in the entire restaurant. At approximately 7:30pm, I found this odd. I had just attended a movie where I enjoyed a glass of wine (my kind of theatre!) so I passed on the beverages and dove in straight for the breadbasket. Fresh Sunflower Poppy Seed Bread was presented with a delicious garlic and herb butter, as well as rosemary-infused olive oil. They were off to a great start.

…I spoke too soon. If you recall, we were one of two occupied tables in the entire restaurant and it took entirely too long to get our entrees. Like, ridiculously long. Being a fish taco snob (Las Estrellas in Winston-Salem has the most comparable fish tacos to the West Coast that I’ve found) I was intrigued by the Grilled Mahi-Mahi Tacos. Though the fish was served less than hot, it had a delicious marinade. Shredded cheese (unusual for fish tacos), finely chopped cabbage (like coleslaw, instead of the usual shredded cabbage), fresh pico de gallo and a chipotle-lime aioli filled the grilled tortilla. Except for the temperature of the dish, my taste buds were very pleased.

If I had to guess why it took so long to get our food and why my fish tacos cooled off, it’s because one of my sides was a piping hot cauldron of Macaroni and Cheese – I know, not the most likely pairing with fish tacos, but it’s hard to resist every restaurant’s description of “The Ultimate Mac & Cheese” – none of which hold a candle to my mom’s though. Seriously. However, I was impressed with this cheesy concoction. It wasn’t the processed, orangey cheese you sometimes get in restaurants (not bashing on Velveeta by any means!!!), but instead it had a nice mixture of American, cheddar and ricotta cheeses, with a slightly crunchy topping. My second side was Sautéed Spinach, which had a nice, salty flavor.

Though the food rocked, our server didn’t come by to check on us or offer us drink refills - maybe he was mad we just stuck with water? We sat with empty plates long before we flagged him down for the bill. And there were never more than two tables occupied the entire time we were there. As for the restaurant’s future, hopefully the food will speak for itself, but with service as poor as that, I’m not too eager to return.