Thursday, February 6, 2020

Just Mercy

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Running Time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Rating: PG-13

The first time I heard of Bryan Stevenson (I'm embarrassed to say) was just back in 2017, when he spoke as part of Guilford College's Bryan Series. He spoke about his book Just Mercy, and the work he's done to exonerate wrongly accused death row prisoners. I was moved by his speech and got my hands on a copy of the book. In more than one instance, the book brought me to tears. So when I heard they were making a film based on Just Mercy and Bryan's work, I was thrilled to hear it. Again, more than once, the film brought me (and several people in the audience) to tears, and left me very troubled with startling stats at the end (you can read some of them here). I'm stunned the film hasn't gotten more critical acclaim, especially during the current awards season. While it was long in parts, I thought it was fantastic and a film everyone should see.

We meet Bryan, played by the always delightful and delicious Michael B. Jordan, as he's pursuing a law degree at Harvard. Much to his mother's chagrin, he turns down fancy job offers to work in Alabama, giving poor inmates on death row legal advice. His clients are all men, mostly African American. Some are guilty and admit it, and some insist they are innocent, just guilty from the moment they were born, because of their skin color. Jamie Foxx plays real-life former death row inmate Walter "Johnny D" McMillan. This performance might be my favorite of Foxx's to date. A jury convicted him of murder, based on the false testimony of a convicted white felon. Johnny D questions Bryan's ability to get any traction on his case, because the jury ignored the 20+ African Americans who testified that Johnny D was at a fish fry that day, and nowhere near the murder scene.

Brie Larson brings quiet strength to her role of Eva Ansley, the current Operations Director at Bryan's company Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). She is bound and determined to help Bryan's cause, even if it means getting threats from people in the community. Just when the team thinks they have a crack in the case, it gets shot down. The system seemed to be corrupt, and there was no way to change it. I admire their persistence and resilience to pursue justice at any cost. As Bryan said in the film, "it's never too late for justice."

There were several side stories regarding other prisoners, including the one who falsely testified against Johnny D. There were really beautiful moments and fantastic character work. I do think a few scenes could have been a bit tighter and shorter, but I would have watched these stories all day. The tears really flowed at the end, when we get to see real-life footage of wrongly accused death row inmates reunited with their family. EJI has become a powerhouse organization, overturning 140 wrongly accused sentences. Go see this movie. If you can hear Bryan Stevenson speak in person, do it. If you like to read, pick up a copy of Just Mercy. He will quickly become a hero of yours, as he has become for me.

Monday, February 3, 2020

2020 Oscar Predictions

Best Picture
Ford V Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Little Women
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood

Should Win: Of this random and somewhat unimpressive list, my favorite films were "Jojo Rabbit" and "Parasite". I don't believe "Jojo" has quite the chops to pull off a Best Picture Oscar win, though it was hilarious and cute and fresh and moving. So my vote goes to "Parasite". It was also darkly hilarious and fresh and moving, and as Director Bong Joon-ho said during his Golden Globe acceptance speech for Best Foreign Language Film, if we could just get used to subtitles, our worlds would be opened up to films beyond belief.

Will Win: I think it's a toss-up between "1917" and "Parasite". The latter is likely to win for Best International Feature Film, and the Academy has never awarded an International Film the Best Picture award. And as much as Hollywood loves stories about Hollywood, I think the Academy will look to "1917" for the big award.

Best Actress
Cynthia Erivo, "Harriet"
Scarlett Johansson, "Marriage Story"
Saoirse Ronan, "Little Women"
Charlize Theron, "Bombshell" 
Renée Zellweger, "Judy"

Should Win: Renée all day. She slayed this performance, which was heart-breaking, and she brought enormous empathy to the role. She did her own singing and was totally unrecognizable. No contest.

Will Win: Renée.

Best Actor
Antonio Banderas, "Pain and Glory"
Leonardo "my husband" DiCaprio, "Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood" 
Adam Driver, "Marriage Story"
Joaquin Phoenix, "Joker"
Jonathan "Peron" Pryce, "The Two Popes"

Should Win: It's difficult for me to not be biased toward Leo, because I think he is fabulous in every role. He was truly exceptional as aging, has-been actor Rick Dalton. But for his heart-wrenching performance in "Joker" and for his body of work, it's Joaquin Phoenix's turn.

Will Win: Joaquin's got it in the bag.

Best Supporting Actress
Kathy Bates, "Richard Jewell"
Laura Dern, "Marriage Story"
Scarlett Johansson, "Jojo Rabbit"
Florence Pugh, "Little Women"
Margot "queen" Robbie, "Bombshell"

Should Win: J. Lo, except that she wasn't even nominated! If I'm to pick from the actual nominee list, I would vote for Florence Pugh. She was the best part about "Little Women," and she stole the movie. She gave the Amy character more depth and well-roundedness than I have seen in other productions. 

Will Win: Laura friggin' Dern. I don't particularly get why she was nominated for the brief time she was in "Marriage Story," and I didn't particularly like the movie. But she's everywhere these days and has "paid her dues," I suppose, so I'm pretty sure it's hers.

Best Supporting Actor
Tom Hanks, "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood"
Anthony Hopkins, "The Two Popes"
Al Pacino, "The Irishman"
Joe Pesci, "The Irishman"
Brad "yum" Pitt, "Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood" 

Should Win: This is really tough, because I think Tom, Al and Brad all did exceptional work here. However, because everyone else has already won an Oscar, and because he really was fabulous in the film, and because of his body of work, I think this deserves to go to Brad.

Will Win: Brad.

Best Director
Man # 1 - Martin Scorsese, "The Irishman"
Man # 2 - Todd Phillips, "Joker"
Man #3 - Sam Mendes, "1917"
Man # 4 - Quentin Tarantino, "Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood"
Man # 5 - Bong Joon-ho, "Parasite"

Should Win: My man Q has never won an Oscar for directing, and I see it possibly happening here. However, Bong Joon-ho has burst on the screen with a film everyone is talking about. My vote is for one of these two men. Out of the five men nominated. 

Will Win: "Parasite" could not be hotter right now, and on the tails of 2019's Best Director win for Alfonso Cuarón for "Roma," I'm predicting a win for South Korea's Bong Joon-ho.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Butcher & Bull

Chef Richard Miller's newest venture into the culinary world is a knockout. Located inside the Marriott in Downtown Winston-Salem, Butcher & Bull is doing so many things right. From their ample bar, to prompt and courteous service, and from the excellent cooking techniques all the way to the plates and glassware - I could not have been more thrilled by the meal and experience I had there last week. Chef Miller stays true to his passion for local ingredients, and many NC farms and butchers are found on his menu. Throughout the month of January and February, they're participating in downtown Winston-Salem's "The Big Eat," so you can try a featured dish for half the price! That should be enough to lure you there, but the experience itself will have you returning. I can't wait to go back.

My dining partner and I were there for "The Big Eat" special, but we wanted to try a handful of other dishes, so we opted to start with the Spanish Octopus. When done correctly, octopus is phenomenal. And at Butcher & Bull, it's done to perfection. The octopus is charred, and not rubbery at all. It reminded me of a thick slab of bacon. It's served with a Roasted Red Pepper sauce, Red Island Sea Beans that reminded us of Crowder Peas, thinly sliced Celery and thickly cubed Chorizo. This might seem like a risky dish, but I promise you - if you're an adventurous eater and haven't tried Octopus, try it here. It's outstanding!
Charred Octopus
The Big Eat special is something I definitely would have selected on my own. Perfectly cooked, melt in your mouth Scallops sit atop buttery, velvety Parsnip Puree, and are topped with crispy, salty fried parsnip strips. Chef adds in a few local mushrooms for meatiness, and drizzles some Smoked Shoyu Butter on top for good measure, and to give it a boost of umami flavor. One of the most outstanding scallop dishes I've ever had. The parsnips are more exciting than mashed potatoes, and the addition of mushrooms and fried parsnips for chew and crunch is imperative, since the scallops and puree have a similar texture. Brilliant dish.
Scallops with Parsnips
Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork Tenderloin is cooked absolutely perfectly. There's a slightly salty crust on the outside, and the meat itself is unbelievably tender. It's tea-brined, but don't let that deter you. If anything, it just adds another layer of flavor, but doesn't alter the beautiful taste of the meat. It's served with slightly sweet Mushroom Spoonbread (I'm a fan of any sort of spoonbread or corn pudding) and a Walnut Apple Chutney because apple and pork are a match made in heaven. Thankfully, the Red Eye Gravy isn't too coffee-forward, it's more of a nice, salty jus.
Pork Tenderloin with Apple Chutney
We lost our minds for the Creme Caramel, a flan-like, custardy mound that is rich beyond words. It's served with a Honey Bourbon Drizzle, Walnuts and garnished with what should be Marigolds, but my companion remarked that they were more like purple pansies. We could not get enough of this decadent dessert. We both scraped the plate so hard, I thought we would permanently scratch it.
Creme Caramel
If the food is any indication of whether or not a restaurant will succeed (hint, it is), I am very confident in Butcher & Bull's success. I hope people will realize that parking in downtown Winston is not difficult (the Cherry Marshall Deck is always a great option!) and they should come support local spots. Great food is great food, and I promise you'll find something you like here. We didn't even dive into the steak menu, which is their specialty! They have something for everyone and you're sure to enjoy it too.

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Social on Friendly

The Social on Friendly has been many things over the years - Ham's and Madhatter to name a few - but lucky for us, the restaurant has a brand new head chef who's doing some very exciting shake-ups to the menu. The Social sits conveniently between the Sunset Hills and Westerwood neighborhoods in Greensboro, and it offers incredibly delicious food that's very reasonably priced. The ample bar, numerous TVs, wine offerings and craft beer selection make The Social an ideal hangout for millenials, though people of any age will enjoy it. Their plan is to slowly introduce more tapas and small plates, and offer less entrees. Based on my experience here last week, I can definitely see myself becoming a regular.

My friends and I started with a lot of appetizers, since they all sounded pretty irresistible. The Bangin' Shrimp lives up to its name. About a dozen shrimp are lightly breaded and fried, and tossed in a slightly spicy, slightly sweet house bangin' sauce. The shrimp are large, super tender and cooked perfectly. The crispy crust even retained its crunchy texture after being drizzled with the sauce. Scallions offer a nice bite and color.
Bangin' Shrimp
Brussels Sprouts are truly having a moment. They're one of my favorite things to cook at home, and one of my favorite sides to get at restaurants. These Crispy Brussels were flash fried and incredibly tender - not a tough cabbage in the bunch! They're tossed with Bacon and Parmesan, which make everything better, and drizzled with a tangy balsamic vinegar reduction. These are difficult to share.
Crispy Brussels
Crispy Green Tomatoes are a pretty presentation, feautring buttermilk-breaded, thickly sliced green tomatoes. They're sprinkled with creamy, tangy goat cheese, crispy bacon, scallions and bangin' sauce. The acid from the tomato, creaminess from the goat cheese and spice from the sauce make this a nearly perfect bite. These are particularly tasty, not greasy, and like many of their apps, could almost suffice as a full meal.
Crispy Green Tomatoes
Chicken Tender fans will lose their mind for The Social's rendition. These tenders are thick, moist and enormous. There's a lovely crust on the outside that clings to your choice of dipping sauce (we tried all three) - ranch, BBQ and...that's right...bangin'! These are extremely satisfying for kids and adults alike.
Chicken Tenders
The Chef's Seasonal Catch sounded awesome to many people in my group. Jerk Salmon with a Strawberry Balsamic sauce was cooked to perfection. The fish was moist, tender and boasted authentic Jerk flavors. The sweetness of the strawberry and the tanginess of the balsamic made this a beautifully well-rounded dish. I got to choose two sides to accompany the salmon, so I opted for rich, cheesy grits and a side spinach salad, complete with radishes, carrots and tomato. Both sides were high-quality.
Chef's Seasonal Catch - Jerk Salmon
A meal for me isn't complete without a little something sweet at the end, so we opted for the featured dessert: homemade Chocolate Pudding. And you can tell that it was homemade. It was thick in texture but light and not too rich in flavor - just perfect so that you can enjoy the whole dish. Fresh whipped cream is always a great addition, and the chocolate chips on top added a nice crunch. I swore I tasted something similar to a toasted marshmallow, because I got a major s'mores vibe, but the chef insisted it was just high-quality ingredients. I'd like to dip graham crackers in this though, and do my own riff on a s'more.
Dessert special - Chocolate Pudding
I am so excited to see these changes at The Social, and even more excited for what I know will be a successful "new beginning" and re-branding for the restaurant. They offer brunch on the weekend, and I am eager to try their Huevos Rancheros and their plethora of brunch cocktails. If you've dined here in recent months or years, you definitely need to return - it's different, and it's better. You won't be disappointed.
Some of the best people you'll ever meet.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Cuisine in LA

LA (at one point) was known for being a city with incredible food that no one eats. Well, on this recent trip, we ate. A LOT. We had some absolutely fabulous meals, and one not-so-fabulous experience at a restaurant that had been on my bucket list forever...but I'll start at the beginning.

True to LA fashion, our first stop after we landed was In-N-Out. And I gotta say, I finally realized that I am just not an In-N-Out fan. I get why people like's not greasy or whatever...but neither are Bobby Flay's burgers from Bobby's Burger Palace. Neither are Shake Shack's burgers. Neither are the ones I make at home using ground beef from Red Oak Brewery (it's the best ground beef and the best kept secret in town). Not to mention the hyper-sweet Strawberry Milkshake - just licking the straw was enough to know that I was not going to enjoy it. So yeah, no more In-N-Out for me!

Catch LA is one of the trendy restaurants I researched, and though we waited 20 minutes past our reservation to be seated, it was the best food of the trip. The star of the show was the Truffle Sashimi Tuna and Hamachi with Chile Ponzu and Caviar. Unbelievable. The pièce de résistance though, was the dessert: Sticky Coconut Cake with Coconut Sorbet and Mango Sauce, a terrific take on my second favorite dessert of all time, Sticky Rice with Mango. I'm salivating right now just thinking about it! Sadly, both of these dishes were ravished before any photos could be taken.

We grabbed a drink at the Chateau Marmont (the Bleu Velvet Martini, obviously), and learned that we can't take pictures in there! I snuck one anyway. I had to! We zoomed over to The Bazaar by José Andrés. ("Zoomed" is quite the figure of speech; everywhere in LA takes 30 minutes.) I knew this place would be excellent, because Chef Andrés is an inventive, whimsical chef with restaurants all over the country. From the chairs to the glassware, everything about this place was indeed, bizarre. Particularly the food! The first thing that caught my eye was the "Philly Cheesesteak", in quotations on the menu. The description read: Air Bread, Cheddar and Wagyu Beef. Of course we ordered one, and of course it came at the end of the meal. This was like a cracker thin eclair topped with thin beef shavings, and when you bit into it, garlicky, melted cheddar oozed out. It was sensational! We also went crazy over the lamb shank. For dessert, we were taken into a separate room with a dessert bar. Smart, because you eat with your eyes first! We loved the Vanilla Mousse Cake with Caramel and Speculoos Crunch. YUM!

I had to!

The Bazaar

Dessert bar at The Bazaar

Moonshadows in Malibu was right on the beach, and it was an absolutely spectacular day to dine al fresco. (Side note, our server looked like a combination of John Stamos / Jonathan Rhys-Myers, so we would have sat there all day). We were concerned that a place as beautiful as this wouldn't have good food, but au contraire - the food was fantastic. We particularly loved the Tuna Tartare. And the champagne. Always champagne.

Lunch at Moonshadows

I was stoked out of my mind to dine at Spago in Beverly Hills, which is Wolfgang Puck's flagship restaurant. was the biggest bust. We were seated in what felt like a hallway, between the two dining rooms, with air vents below and above us. So it felt like we were in the way, and we were cold the whole time. It wasn't until we were 3/4 through our meal that a manager handled the air problem! We did enjoy the food - Uni with Soft Scrambled Eggs, Chestnut and Mascarpone Agnolotti (it really was amazing) and Sea Bass with Black Bean Sauce - but the bad experience overwhelmed the good food. A real shame. And there were no heaters outside for the valet. And it's ranked #2 on TripAdvisor! I just don't get it.

Overall the food on our trip was outstanding, though it was second on the priority list for this trip. We were there for the Golden Globes. The good food was just an added bonus.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Screen in LA: The 2020 Golden Globes

For those of you who know me, you know I'm obsessed with all things movies, celebrities and awards shows. (It even says that about me in my blogger bio on the right!) My mom is the only other person I know who gets just as excited as I do over this type of stuff. After decades (literally) of watching awards shows and wondering "who are these people?!" in the bleachers on the red carpet, we decided to take action on this bucket list item and finally figure out how to be one of those people. So I did a bit of sleuthing and discovered a package that included bleacher seats on the red carpet. A few phone calls and credit card numbers later, we had our reservation.

We checked into the Beverly Hilton the Wednesday prior to Sunday's show. Things were already getting set up, and they were literally rolling out the red carpet. Each day, security presence increased more and more in the lobby, and crews worked 12 hour days to build platforms over the pool for the HBO party, grids for spotlights outside, putting up signage and building our bleachers. We got super excited seeing all the directional signs to the Netflix/Amazon/Disney parties, and we also began seeing celebrities in the lobby! Pierce Brosnan, Giuliana Rancic, Ryan Seacrest (basically every E! personality) - everyone was buzzing with excitement. We met multiple groups of women who had done this for several years. One group had done this every year for 20 years!

FINALLY, it was the day of the show. The first hour of the red carpet was slow, but once things started moving, we felt like we couldn't blink or look away, because we didn't want to miss anyone. It was such an adrenaline rush. Our hearts were pounding. I just wanted to see the stars, but my mom wanted them to see HER. And they did. I have never heard that woman shriek so loud! But it worked! Well, MOST of the stars turned to wave and smile and acknowledge the crowd. Some of them clearly wanted nothing more than to move it along and get inside. It was difficult to savor who we just saw, because sure enough, another A-lister would be walking up right behind them!

We were getting nervous when it was 23 minutes until showtime and Brad and Leo had not walked the red carpet. Leo has been my #1 since 1996. That is a 24 year love affair. When they finally walked in front of us, I felt like I left my body. It was so surreal, and everyone went bananas. The best 3 minutes of the trip.

It was a thrill to be in the lobby after the show let out - I was shocked that security seemed to disappear, and the celebs were totally mixed with us civilians. I was nervous for them! My mom shook hands with Rami Malek, congratulated Joaquin Phoenix and Renee Zellweger, said hi to J. Lo, and we spoke with Nicholas Braun (who we met on the street earlier that day!) and Kieran Culkin from "Succession" (I nearly died). It was truly a dream come true and an overwhelmingly incredible experience.

Here is just a tiny selection (seriously, I have hundreds of photos) of some of the stars we saw:
Right outside the ballroom!
On the bleachers!

So excited!

Pierce Brosnan

Carol Burnett
Margot Robbie

Olivia Colman

Sam Rockwell and Leslie Bibb

Helen Mirren

Quentin Tarantino

A blurry Reese

Amy Poehler

Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix

Eddie Murphy

Jennifer Aniston

Cate Blanchett

J. Lo and A. Rod

Gwyneth Paltrow

Brad Pitt

The man himself

I'd like to be in the middle of that sando
Another shot of Leo - I couldn't get enough

Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas

Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman

Colin Jost and Scarlett Johansson

Renee Zellweger

Tom Hanks

Joaquin Phoenix and his GG! 
Sofia Vergara and Joe Manganiello

Kieran Culkin <3

Connie Britton

On the red carpet with Moet & Chandon

Mom waving at J. Lo!