Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Vines Winery Mediterranean/Mongolian Grill

Doesn't the name just sound confusing? The entire menu and restaurant concept is, not to mention some of the staff. The night I dined here was fairly odd - I greatly enjoyed my company, but the restaurant experience is not one I'm looking to repeat. The Vines Winery Mediterranean/Mongolian Grill isn't sure if it wants to be Mongolian, Italian or Mediterranean. They do some things very well, but the inconsistencies are terribly disappointing.

Located in the corner location of the "Super G Mart" shopping center of Greensboro, the Vines wasn't terribly crowded during my visit, but the pace of the evening would have you assuming otherwise. We had been seated for about 30 minutes before drink orders were placed. I'm not sure the word "winery" should be in their name - the bottle we ordered was delivered to our table, already uncorked (faux pas #1), and was not presented to us (#2). Small sips were poured in each of our three glasses, as if we were all supposed to taste it (#3). 

Both the Bruschetta and Olive Tapenade prove to be fantastic appetizers - the former offering beefy, ripe, zesty tomatoes with white vinegar and basil atop toasted crostini, and the latter providing kalamata and green olives with Olive Oil on the same crisp bed. The Bruschetta is one of the closest renditions to what I had in Italy.

Many Mongolian restaurants offer a plethora of proteins and veggies for you to "build your own" and send it back to the kitchen to be prepared for you. At the Vines, the server takes your order, thus taking along with it any germs that may come from the "serve yourself" option. My Brown Rice bowl containing Chicken Thigh meat, Egg, Water Chestnuts, Pineapple, Almonds, Yellow Peppers and Broccoli was fine. I couldn't detect any of the Vines sauce (tomato paste, chili, garlic) that I requested. It needed another element to heighten the flavor. This was just a bit flat for my palate.

Dessert came totally out of left field. One of the best brownies I've had in my entire life is topped with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, and for a non-chocoholic, I could have eaten the whole pan. I know what you're thinking - how good could a friggin' brownie be? A crisp top, soft center, plus a flavor I can't really put my finger on - perhaps vanilla or evaporated milk - makes it an extraordinarily flavored dessert. This brownie was complementary, so I appreciate the management's generosity, but every other interaction we had with this man was fairly awkward. He encouraged us to "loosen up" and have a good time, but his constant bantering quickly became too much for me. He must have picked up on our vexation, because we waited another 30 minutes for the check.

I hate to write such a disappointing review. Too bad I'll never get that brownie again, or the Bruschetta, but I'd rather go back to Italy anyway.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

2014 Oscar Predictions

Are you all set for Oscar Sunday? Those of us non-sports fanatics consider this special event our Superbowl. I couldn't be more excited to see so many stars dressed to kill, with a few new faces thrown into the mix. By this point in awards show season, it's pretty obvious who will take home the big one, but this year, there are a few dark horses. My mom and I have our dinner menu set, and are anxiously awaiting the arrival of my aunt/co-star in "Trouble With the Curve." Good times! Tune in this Sunday, March 2 for the show at 8:30 on ABC (and Ellen's hosting!)

Click on the links to read my reviews!

Best Picture
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Should Win - 12 Years a Slave. The quiet intensity of this film will stay with you long after you leave the theatre. The score, cinematography, acting, script, direction - this is what makes a truly remarkable film.

Will Win - 12 Years.
Photo Courtesy - Deadline

Best Actor
Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce "old as the hills" Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo "be still my heart" DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Matthew "alright alright" McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Should Win - Leonardo "be still my heart" DiCaprio. This disgustingly engrossing character is the best I've ever seen him. His performance stayed with me for weeks. I don't know what more he has to do to win an Oscar, though, because it won't happen this year.

Will Win - Matthew "alright alright" McConaughey. I won't argue with this. He fought for this film to get made and lost 40 pounds for it. This is McConaughey's year. 

Photo Courtesy - Chicago Sun-Times

Best Actress
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Dame Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl "best there ever was" Streep, August: Osage County

Should Win - Cate Blanchett. Her heartbreaking portrayal of a depraved, nut job woman evoked such sympathy from the audience. She completely transformed herself into this character.

Will Win - Queen Cate > Dame Dench.

Photo Courtesy - Gold Derby

Best Supporting Actor
Barkhad "I'm the captain now" Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael "yum-o" Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Should Win - Michael "yum-o" Fassbender. This is an extremely tight race, but the ease with which Fassie played slavemaster Edwin Epps still haunts me.

Will Win - Jared Leto. Playing transgender Rayon, he owned this role. Also losing an insane amount of weight (30 pounds!), when he dressed up as a male, he still looked and acted more like a female.

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images, CNN

Best Supporting Actress
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Julia "mouth" Roberts, August: Osage County
June "who?" Squibb, Nebraska

Should Win - Julia Roberts. Essentially the lead role, the sadness and anger bubbling up inside this character penetrates the screen. The memorable "eat the fish" scene was hysterical and terrifying. Alas, she has a statue already.

Will Win - Lupita Nyong'o. Her debut into the film world is unforgettable.

Photo Courtesy - Studio System News

Best Director
David "four eyes" O. Russell, American Hustle
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Marty "DiCaprio is the new DeNiro" Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Should Win - Steve McQueen. 12 Years was the best I've ever seen some of these actors. I was shaken by this film and have incredible respect for McQueen for always taking such risks with his work.

Will Win - Alfonso Cuaron. I'm sure the vision Cuaron had for this film will win him gold, though I feel that McQueen's character direction was far more challenging.

Photo Courtesy - Screen Crush

Friday, February 14, 2014

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet Potatoes in downtown Winston-Salem has garnered somewhat of a “cult” status among fans. Southern soul food is done well here, with unique dishes making return visits inevitable. I got the cookbook (Well,Shut My Mouth!: The Sweet Potatoes Restaurant Cookbook) for Christmas a few years ago and have had fun exploring some of the recipes, though it’s best to leave some of the more complex ones to the chefs. 

My brunch began with a spicy Bloody Ginny, replacing Vodka with Gin in the traditional mid-morning drink. I was very pleased with the spice level, not even having to request extra heat! I also enjoyed the Pickled Okra garnish very much. All good Bloodys include some sort of munchie - celery, bacon, shrimp, okra, pickle, capers – or if you’re really lucky, all of the above! The Fried Green Tomato and Okra Basket whets the appetite, with the perfect amount of crunchy batter outside a tender vegetable. The Sweet Potato Aioli is sweet and garlicky, a nice complement to the savory bites.

Sweet Potato Biscuits are thick, slightly sweet, and sandwich Egg, Cheese and salty Country Ham. A slice of red tomato and leaf lettuce accompany the sandwich, as does a side of my choice. To continue the Sweet Potato theme, I opted for the Sweet Potato Hash, which is more like cubed, baked Sweet Potatoes. These weren't too warm unfortunately, but had an interesting Curry flavor that I wasn’t expecting. Next time I’ll go with the Grits.

Sweet Potato Pancakes feature notes of Nutmeg and Ginger, and are fantastic with Honey Ginger Butter and Apple Marmalade spread on top. Fried Chicken Tenders accent the dish, and I almost like this better than Chicken and Waffles. (Almost. My recent visit to Dame's in Greensboro rivals this.) My adoration of sweet and savory flavor pairings is satisfied here.

Service is inconsistent, with the need for refills being ignored a few times as well as an error on the bill, but supporting service jumped in and helped when needed. The brunch menu items are so intriguing - this isn’t just your bacon and toast place. I can’t wait to go back and try the Un-French Toast, Fried Sweet Potato Bread Pudding – are they kidding me? My mouth is watering.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Labor Day

Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, James Van Der Beek, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire
Director: Jason Reitman
Running Time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Rating: PG-13

Kate Winslet is the new Meryl Streep. She buries herself in roles, not taking her appearance into any consideration, and emotionally connects with her audience every time. She makes it look effortless. She also seems to find herself always playing characters that have an "itch," or as my colleague said “a look of longing.” This is especially true in “Labor Day,” as agoraphobic, single mom Adele, who falls for rugged ex-con Frank. Adele’s son Henry even falls for Frank as a father figure, and though the story is incredibly hokey, I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, if you’ve seen previews for this movie, you’ve essentially seen the whole thing.

We meet Adele as she is struggling to get over the loss of love, more so than the loss of her marriage. Frank first appears to us in a threatening manner, approaching young Henry in a drug store and demanding that they give him a ride to their house. He soon reveals that he has just escaped from prison, where he was serving time for murder. Great! Flashbacks throughout the film explain that there's more to his story. When he first arrives to their house, he ties Adele up (in case the police come looking for him there) and proceeds to feed her a bowl of chili. Suspend your disbelief, folks.

The film takes place somewhere up North, but perhaps in a fictional town, in 1987. We know by the title that it’s Labor Day weekend, and apparently still very hot. Adele and Frank glisten with sweat throughout the film, letting the circulating fans blow their hair seductively. The two are irresistible to one another. Tobey Maguire’s narrating voice as grown-up Henry is a random, welcoming surprise. Gattlin Griffith portrayed Young Henry, and was a bit static, but we feel for this character, growing up with a depressed mother and beginning to go through “the change.”

If anything, this movie will make you crave a peach pie. The care in the steps they took to make this dessert was beautiful, though it would have been more sensual had young Henry not been tossing the juicy peaches with them. It’s a pretty unbelievable story, but if you really suspend your disbelief, you’ll enjoy it.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Dishcrawl: Battledish

There's no better way to spend a Saturday than with good friends, good food, and good drinks. A gorgeous blue sky set the background for Dishcrawl's Battledish in downtown Winston-Salem, and it was an absolutely awesome day. I can't wait to attend more of these foodie-only events in the Triad! The Battledish premise is simple: you purchase tickets, sample dishes and drinks from 6 downtown restaurants, and then vote on the following categories:
Most Creative
Best Modern
Most Authentic
Best Cocktail

And we're off!

Top: Millionare's Row Marg   Bottom: Filet, Linguine with Egg
My group checked in at Spring House, and received our first dish/drink. What a way to kick off the day. Seriously, they set the bar insanely high with their trio of bites. A plump Butter Poached Lobster Tail sat atop a Jumbo Lump Crab Cake, and for not being a crab cake gal, this was so tasty! Beside this was a Breadcrumb-crusted Soft Cooked Egg on a nest of Linguine with Shaved Asparagus and Parmesan Cream sauce - holy cow - this was so rich, and I know the idea was for the runny yolk to add to the sauce, but sadly my egg was over-cooked so it didn't run. Finally, a fire-roasted Filet was doused with Bacon Jam and Pearl Onions. The meat was incredibly tender, and I decided it was best to merge all three presentations into one extravagant money bite. The Millionare's Row Margarita totally added to this decadence, featuring 150-year-old Grand Marnier "Foam" and Hawaiian Black Sea Salt. This meal actually makes you feel like a trillion bucks.

We trekked our way to the next stop, and walked into a busy Foothills Brewing. I was excited to see so many people out and about on such a lovely Saturday! I wasn't as impressed with their Ginger Lemongrass Hot Toddy, because I really couldn't taste any alcohol. The Jim Beam and Domaine De Canton (Ginger Liqueur) were lost underneath the house-made Lemongrass syrup and honey flavors. Curry Duck Breast with Lentils was a beautiful presentation, with an outstanding Coconut Sauce. The slight heat from the Curry was enough to warm the back of your throat, and I loved the uniqueness of this dish. On to stop #3!

Clockwise from Top Left: Foothills Brewing, Carolina Tap Room,
Bib's Downtown, Small Batch Beer Co.
Carolina Tap Room is relatively new to downtown Winston, and their dish description really proves that they're trying to make a name for themselves. Braised NC Pork Belly was topped with a zingy Chipotle Cheerwine Glaze, served with local Sweet Potato Puree and a tangy, vinegary Slaw. Brown Butter Toasted Sugar Croutons top the Sweet Potatoes - yum - which is like a dessert in itself! The cocktail paired beautifully with it, though we missed some of the promised garnish. Pear Nectar, Lemon Juice, lots of Rosemary and Cardamom are combined, and topped with Prosecco. Notes of honey make it extra sweet and yummy!

Time for an Intermezzo - a "Head Trip" cocktail at Jeffrey Adams on Fourth. Lemon Juice, Grey Goose, St. Germaine, Lavender House Syrup and Champagne make a nice, but familiar martini. St. Germaine has made its way onto every cocktail bar out there, so I wasn't surprised to see this pop up.

When we walked into Millenium Artisan Restaurant, I knew we were in for a treat. The owner was out on the floor, speaking to participants at each of the tables, thanking them for coming and supporting Dishcrawl and Downtown Winston-Salem. I was really impressed with this, and he was the only chef/owner that introduced himself. If Spring House set the bar, Millenium Artisan met the bar. The Lemon Barney was my second favorite cocktail of the day. Thyme is heavily infused in Gin, with Limoncello, Lemon Juice and Prosecco rounding out the drink. I was also blown away by the dish - Joyce Farms Duck lays next to a bed of custard-like Bread Pudding, but this isn't your everyday Bread Pudding - this features Lobster and Leeks, and is spectacular. Savory Bread Puddings are my new jam. The Fowl Demi Glace and Lobster Jus, brightened by notes of citrus make you want to lick the plate. All of my dining partners were in heaven. It was the bomb.

Stop #5 was at Small Batch Beer Company, another new addition to the downtown Winston scene. I had been most excited about this cocktail, a Blood Orange Margarita, but was kind of let down. What was supposed to be Ancho Chile-Infused Tequila with Cointreau Noir and Blood Orange Juice was totally masked by the house made sour mix. It made me so sour to miss all of those promised flavors. Their dish was quite lovely though, and makes anyone afraid of trying Rabbit a fan. Timmermans Cherry Lambic Braised Ashley Farms Rabbit tastes so much like chicken it's scary, and is accompanied by a slightly sweet Sunchoke Puree and a Roasted Carrot. The sweetness of these sides highlight the sweetness in the Cherry Lambic braise. We all stretched before making our way to the last stop!

Bib's Downtown Barbeque considers itself "not Eastern, not Western, but Bestern!" I've eaten many fun and tasty meals at Bib's, but wasn't crazy about their tacos today. It may have been because I had eaten so much gourmet food all afternoon, so a Pulled Pork Taco and Smoked Brisket Taco left me wondering "where's the foie?" (The Pulled Pork Taco is definitely the winner of the two, by the way.)

An exhilarating afternoon had come to a close, and the winners are...

Most Creative: Millenium Artisan
Best Modern: Spring House
Most Authentic: Carolina Tap Room
Best Cocktail: Spring House

I can't wait for more adventures like this. Join me for the next one!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

August: Osage County

Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Ewan MacGregor, if you can guess them they're in it
Director: John Wells
Running Time: 2 hours, 1 minute

Rating: R

The incomparable Meryl Streep could play a corpse and excel at it. I'm not sure how this woman keeps pulling the best performance of her career off year after year, but she never fails. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, "August: Osage County" is full of mentally and emotionally unstable characters, specifically females, and it's pretty difficult to watch the manipulation, disrespect and chaos. As Violet Weston, Streep stars as the matriarch of a dysfunctional Oklahoma family who reunites after their father has gone missing. Performances from just about everyone in Hollywood shine, with Streep, Julia Roberts and Juliette Lewis taking the spotlight.

This film is being billed as a comedy, and though there are bits of comedic relief, there's really nothing funny about it. It tells the heart-breaking story of a pill-popping mother and the effect she has had on her adult daughters. This film is saturated with big names, but it definitely gives the female characters more to work with. The men don't shine as brightly, but they aren't given the crazy dialogue and scenes. A failing marriage creates tension between Barbara, her husband and their daughter Jean (Roberts, Ewan MacGregor and Abigail Breslin, respectively). It's pretty scary when Violet talks about how heartless her mother was, and then we see her behave the same way to her daughters, and then we see Barbara becoming the same way with her daughter, and we know it will ultimately affect Jean as a mother. It's a tragic circle.

Juliette Lewis is Karen, the youngest and most innocent daughter. We admire her positive attitude in such a broken household, but her head is really in the clouds. Dermot Mulroney plays her sneaky, untrustworthy fiance (reunititng with his "My Best Friend's Wedding" costar Roberts!) This is the best I've seen Lewis and Roberts in years. The other Weston daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) seems to live a life of normalcy, but we are proven oh so wrong towards the end of the film. The fabulous Benedict Cumberbatch makes a brief appearance and impression on us, without enough screen time to really make a lasting impact. Chris Cooper is the only somewhat stable character in the film, but according to Violet, it's because "he smokes a lot of grass."

Meryl's drug-fueled scenes are haunting. I will think of them from now on when I hear "Lay Down Sally". Her appearance will shock you - a large wig covering up her thinning gray roots, due to chemotherapy from mouth cancer. The "eat the f****** fish scene" will stick with you too.

I'm not sure how well this translates to the screen since I haven't seen the play, but you can definitely tell it was adapted from the stage, with all of the dialogue and very few setting/scene changes. It's not a contender for Best Picture, but if Meryl doesn't get Best Actress it's because she has too many already. It might be best to let Cate have it this time, for playing another substance abusing nut job (see my review of "Blue Jasmine"). See this, then go home and hug your family, or if your family is bonkers too, relish in the fact that you're not alone.