Sunday, June 30, 2013

Review: Amazon Grill on Kirby

The Rundown:
The City: Houston
The Place: The Black Walnut Cafe at Rice Village
The Day: Sunday
The Time: 2:00 P.M. - 4:00 P.M.

The Review:
Sunday once again found me out and about in the great city of Houston, looking for a meal on a warm summer day that was too hot by ten degrees. It can be easy to miss Amazon Grill when driving by, a result of a small sign and an unremarkable location in an area of town where there are many, many restaurants. I'll be up front, though. Missing out on Amazon Grill is missing out on a treat.
Honestly, it could almost be a Popeye's.
Something that stands out about Amazon Grill is the color. From its exterior to its interior, the emphasis is on bright, warm, fresh. I'm not too partial to yellow in general, but the overall vibe is vibrant, with large open windows allowing the sun in, providing a relaxing feel for patrons. A small seating and waiting area at the front sits just next to the order counter, removing any confusion as to where you need to go, and menus are in plain sight from the entry.

It's not much space, but hopefully you won't be waiting long anyway.

The seating provides a nice variety for all manner of customers. The interior is filled with booths and tables, as per any normal restaurant. There is an enclosed patio area outside, as well as a fully open area patio, which given the heat was being avoided by the patrons on this day. What's good about Amazon's approach is that they've provided something for everyone, a comfortable seat for every tye of customer. Ordering was simple enough, the counter clerks courteous and friendly, explaining the small details of the restaurant, and food delivery was incredibly speedy. There could be some slight more care at the front of house, and I never saw anyone that remotely looked like a greeter or a manager, which are all trifling issues unless you actually feel lost or in need to talk to someone in charge.

Have any seat in the house.
Let's get down to the food though, shall we? Provide as pleasant an experience as you want, it all collapses if the food is no good. First, house chips provided at the front sit under a warming light. This is one of my minor quibbles with the restaurant. After all, if you're paying for food, you'd rather not feel as if your chips or stale, having been warming on a platter for hours. From what I tasted, though, they were crisp, and the hot sauce provided was warm enough to tingle the tongue without burning.
Suspicious at a glance, but the taste was satisfactory.
My order today was a classic dish of southern flare, a three beef taco order with a side of blackbeans. Too often, puffy tacos are served soggy, bloated by grease and oil, dripping, the taco shell barely containing its contents. Not at Amazon Grill, my friends. This dish was a beauty.

Oh Happy Day.
The side dish, a take on simple black beans, is served over rice with a garnish of peppers and corn, with a morsel of plantains. Taken as a whole side, it is wonderful. The flavor from the beans and various sides blend together quite well. Salt, which I am obsessed with, was hardly needed. However, they nailed not only the flavor, but the presentation. When you think of black beans, you think dark, unappealing. However, served on a tray with many other colorful sides, the overall blend created a delightful image to accompany the delightful flavor.

A smashing start.
And as for the tacos? My tongue, be still. A side of garnish, sour cream and guacamole accompany the meal to the side, allowing you to choose what you would like to add to the tacos. The meat itself has a wonderful season to it, really enhancing the flavor of the beef. And the taco shell? Good gods, what a delight. Breaking crisply in one's mouth, flavored, not greasy, not crunchy like a chip, it broke apart with just the right give. Rather than spill its contents all onto the plate, the shell held just firm enough while crisply breaking, and with the mix of garnishes on top of the seasoned meat, provided an explosion of flavor. I was praising its wonders at the table.

What a wonder.
There are some slight issues on presentation in which the tacos nearly seemed to be overwhelmed by the sides, but that's a nitpick best reserved for other occasions. What matters today is this: Great tasting food, good presentation, speedy service, lovely atmosphere. That's the best you can ask for from a restaurant. One of my other minor quibbles would be on the delay between the time our party finished lunch and service came by to pick up the dishes, but again, really? If you avoid Amazon Grill because they took long to pick up your plates, you're avoiding it for the wrong reason.

This location receives one of my highest recommendations, easily.

The Final Call:
Facilities: 5/5
Staff: 4/5
Service: 4/5
Drinks: N/A
Food: 4.5/5

Overall: 4/5

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: Black Walnut Cafe at Rice Village

The Rundown:
The City: Houston
The Place: The Black Walnut Cafe at Rice Village
The Day: Sunday
The Time: 1:00 - 2:00 P.M.

The Review:
Once again on my blogging adventures, and again on the often times Quixotic adventure of trying to find a good church to attend, I recently found myself being invited by a local church group to The Black Walnut Cafe in the Rice Village area. Rice Village, one of the nicer, charming areas of the city, is home to a number of restaurants, bars and stores. Of course any store catering to the British is immediately an area of town I'll be visiting.

The Black Walnut itself doesn't sit on Rice Boulevard but is instead just a street back, where yet another impressive array of stores, bars and restaurants all sit cozied up to one another. I'm not sure I can level this as a criticism at the restaurant, but the parking situation in Rice is atrocious. Despite all it has to offer, it's difficult to find a place to saddle your car so that you can actually enjoy the area. Then again, this is Houston, and the lawmakers of this city don't seem to actually care whether anyone shops around here.

To get this out of the way, The Black Walnut is, undoubtedly, a pleasant place to gather and sit. Though slightly crowded on this Sunday afternoon, the owners have done a wonderful job of making sure the area is well lit with natural light instead of fuzzy interior lights. Windows empty out on the streets and fill the restaurant with just enough sun. A long stretch of seating lines the back wall while bar stools and tables sit along the main dining area, and tables can be brought together quite easily for larger parties. The Black Walnut has a good problem in this respect. So many people want to eat there, that they struggle slightly to accommodate the numbers given a simple problem of size. The rich wood, so beautiful, and the slightly antique styled chairs provide a quirk and charm to the restaurant that makes it a lovely gathering place on a sunny afternoon.

From the point of entry there's nobody to greet you but the front of store is easily located directly ahead of the entry, with a number of menus just off to the side and some popular dishes and drinks chalked on the boards above the order area.

There are a delicious number of pastries presented up front as well, there to delight the eyes and tempt the tongue. However the first point of confusion emerged at this point, since it becomes confusing to order if you've never been to the Black Walnut. There are two signs that say "Order Here". However, you're actually only supposed to order at the first, while the second is for pick up. This had to be explained as my companion and I struggled to find a place to actually get a lunch requested. Not a massive stumble, but at least a hiccup.

A rather minor one of course, but then, we haven't actually discussed the food. I ordered what it labeled on the menu as the "Thirteen Coins". Oh dear, what could that possibly mean? A quick examination quickly presented it as a sandwhich, almost a club, though with a greater variety of meets and an interesting bread to top it off. To quote, from their online menu, it is a composition of "Cajun Turkey, honey ham, hard salami, provolone, red onions, tomatoes, lettuce, pesto La-chac-la bread, tomato savory dressing, served warm".

That last bit is good for a chuckle in retrospect. Here's what my meal looked like as it was served.

Keep a close eye on that bread. As far as sides go, the fries were well seasoned, though perhaps slightly overly so. When I eat a fry, the aftertaste of the seasoning shouldn't be so strong that I need to take a drink of water to cool my throat. However, better a well seasoned fry than a bland one, and even despite the over-seasoning it wasn't offensively done so. The crime on those fries, though, had nothing to do with the seasoning and everything to do with the taste. Slightly cold, not mushy but not crisp, almost limp. It felt as if they'd been sitting on the plate for a few minutes before the sandwhich was brought to the window for plating. Unfortunate.

Still, not extraordinarily bad, just not as good as I was expecting. Here's the real kicker. Remember that bread? This is what it quickly became:

What a soggy mess. Kudos to the restaurant deciding to use so many different ingredients, but the choice of bread creates a disaster as the diner tries to actually eat the damned thing. At times I wondered if I shouldn't grab a fork and go at it like a salad. The chefs at Black Walnut Cafe need to decide to go with either a different bread for this sandwich, or a different method of presentation is less bulky portions, because this simply won't do. Mind you, La-chac-la is merely their fancy way of saying flatbread. I noticed my neighbors sandwich in normal toasted bread was staying together quite nicely.

So my review of Black Walnut Cafe? Mixed, honestly. I understand they were busy on a Sunday afternoon, and the price at 12 dollars is reasonable, but you're still asking for some basics from your meal. Warm fries. Not oily and limp. And bread that doesn't fall apart because it's too tin and soggy. It's a damned shame considering the appeal of the restaurant, and in the end the food defines what you are as a restaurant. Much like the crowded interior of the cafe, the food is just sort of a confused mess.

The Final Call:
Facilities: 4/5
Staff: 5/5
Service: 4/5
Drinks: N/A
Food: 2/5

Overall: 3/5

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
Location:Houston, TX

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Watch This Movie: Man of Steel

The Brave and the Bold.
It's been a while since I blogged, due to the nature of grad school. I've been waiting for a good topic before I made a return, and I thought, upon doing so, I would make it about something that truly moved me.

Man of Steel is that something.

This is going to be a long review. A short one wouldn't do the film justice, and I'm going to tackle this in several segments. I don't think I can do the film any justice if I don't pay it the attention I believe it deserves. So please, grab a drink, and try and enjoy my review of Man of Steel.
Here he comes!

Man of Steel tries to do multiple things at once. Aware of the fact that the Superman origin story has been told and retold, most recently in Superman Returns and the ten years of Smallville, Man of Steel shifts the origin story away from an extended stint in Kansas. In fact, it jumps tens of thousands of years prior to Kal-El's arrival on Earth, and focuses on the circumstances that developed on Krypton, leading to his departure into the stars.

Kal-El, now known as Clark, is seen wandering the world in search of his purpose, while also seen trying to hide his origins from any prying eyes. Always trying to do the right thing while keeping his powers secret, his life is, relatively speaking, nearly meaningless. He hasn't come out as the Blue Crusader, in fact he has no costume yet. He works odd jobs as he tries to get by in life, wherever he can pick them up.

It isn't until the story intersects with Krypton, as Clark begins to learn of his origins, that the story really begins to pick up pace again. The movie falls into a breathing period, considering the introductory Krypton sections are farely intense, and allows us to see Clark's childhood and development in flashbacks. Rather than focus a whole half of the movie to him growing up, the film moves back to critical periods in his lifetime, mostly focused around him as his father (played spectacularly by Kevin Costner). During this time he's also making his first, meaningful human connection outside his family, as he is trailed by the persistent Lois Lane (done with charm and grace by Amy Adams).

At this juncture in the film, General Zod (an amazingly intense Michael Shannon plays the role) also becomes a figure in Clark's life, meaning he is introduced to both the best and worst of Krypton at the same time. This is almost getting into spoiler territory, so I'm afraid to type much more. However, to at least glaze over the issue, Clark is forced to make decisions between his Kryptonian and Earthling heritage from this point out. For the first time he is interacting with the general world, which eyes him suspiciously, even as he works for their good. For the first time he is experiencing a human connection outside of his mother and father. Yet at the same time he's coming face to face with Kryptonian society and having to decide what defines him.

I mean they really don't trust him.
Man of Steel is done mostly with hand cam, so there's a shaky vibe throughout many of the scenes. Someone complained that this was painful to watch in 3D... to which I respond, why would you watch a film not intended for 3D in 3D? The actual effect of using this style camera is intense. It's never as stuttering as, say, Cloverfield. However there are times it almost seems like a documentary. At one point, in Alaska, I mused I might be watching an episode of Deadliest Catch.

As far as CGI, the world of Krypton is brought to life in a way never before realized on film. Those of us old enough to remember the Donner films think back on a crystalline ice world. However, the comics have made clear over the decades that Krypton was technologically, highly advanced and that it was an incredibly harsh environment. In Man of Steel we finally get a sense for the technology of the Kryptonians, their grand spaceships, their rising living towers, their incredible weapons, their mastery of space travel and their grasp of advanced genetic manipulations. Explosive, volcanic terrain is paired against flying lizards and swooping star vessels. Then, when the action moves to Earth, towers are obliterated, cars tossed about, jets leaped upon, and fights waged in the depths of space. This is great stuff, completely unimaginable as a fight just a little over a decade ago. Superman is not afraid to go hard toward science fiction, a genre far more welcome with modern audiences than it has been in decades. It never comes across cheesy, but it is awe inspiring at times to see the technology that is being wielded.

I also want to stress that, for the first time, we get an idea for just how powerful the Kryptonian species is. In Superman Returns, we all remember the infamous bullet-to-the-eye scene in which a bullet struck Superman's eye, only to flatten. There's plenty of that here. In fact, tons of hero movies have these. Iron Man, Thor, and now Superman all have scenes in which they have shrugged off weapon fire. Man of Steel goes above and beyond, though, to show the audience that Kryptonians aren't just like every other super powered being, though. In battles against the humans, Kryptonians move so fast on screen that they go between a half dozen soldiers within seconds. They barely struggle when brutally tossed through exploding fuel tankers, entire buildings, or hammered with missiles. I'll go so far as to say that this is the single greatest demonstration of what it means to be superhuman ever realized on film. It's not just the strength, it's the speed, the endurance. They seem almost limitless in their ability to deal out destruction, absorb it, not to mention move with a quickness never so accurately portrayed on screen. Not to mention that just two of them did as much damage as all the invading armies and defending heroes combined in Marvel's Avengers.

Finally, music wise, Hans Zimmer has put together a score that is going to remain with you for a lifetime. Borrowing a hint from Dark Knight and the entire recent Batman franchise, a few simple notes define Superman and recur throughout the films. This leitmotif takes on darker, more sinister tones, and seems to encompass Kryptonians as a whole. However, specific to Superman, it is often accompanied by soft choral voices, taking it away from its dark edges and into a glorious apotheosis. It's stirring notes, which I'm listening to even now as I let the soundtrack play, take on heavenly resonance at crucial moments in the movie when Superman demonstrates his willingness to give everything he has for the good of mankind.

The Battle for Krypton.

 "You're not even my real father".
These words, uttered by a young Clark Kent, are ones he'll come to regret in the course of the film. As an adopted son, they were words I also, regrettably, uttered to my own parents. This is one of the many issues Superman touches upon.

More than ever before, I am convinced that Superman is the most human of all superheroes. It's a notion echoed at least once by Batman, when he said of Superman, "In many ways, Clark is the most human of us all." This is realized on several levels throughout the movie.

Superman is a perpetual outsider for the majority of his life. The gain of his powers in his youth led to many distressing moments that labeled him as a freak. In refusing to use them, he became the victim of bullies that did not understand them. In young adulthood, he fled, itinerant, uncommitted, and alone. Loneliness, the feeling of being an outsider, unwelcomed, and unloved are feelings we all feel at one point or another. The second half of that Batman quote goes, "Then... he shoots fire from the skies and it is difficult not to think of him as a god. And how fortunate we all are that it does not occur to him." Clark is presented with a unique problem that only the guidance of a caring father help him overcome. Though he feels like an outsider, his ability to retaliate far outstrip any of our own. Yet it is never something he truly considers, and owes much to Pa Kent's willingness to impart the value of life to his child.

Specific to Superman is the notion of adoption, which not all of us face, but I won't doubt that there aren't several adopted children out there who, like me, resonated with particular conundrums. Curiosity at one's parents, why they gave you up, where you came from, and the willingness to use that frustration as a way to hurt one's adoptive parents are all present. It even extends to Clark's decisions on to what degree he should embrace his Kryptonian past, much like a child having to decide between parents. 

Family is incredibly important, and as the primary shaper of a person's identity, it's that much more important when considering how it shapes a person with the power of a god. Two moments stand out quite prominently in my mind. One, as the Kent residence is being raided by Kryptonian soldiers and Ma Kent is being threatened directly, Superman swoops in and begins a beatdown of epic proportions while screaming out "What makes you think you can attack my mother?" There's a passion there, a reason for him being so enraged. These are the only people that have ever fully known him, a truth that, in reality, remains for many of us. There are few people that will ever know us, flaws and all, more deeply than our parents.

The second moment comes in the final flashback of the film. You've seen clips of it in the trailers, of a young Clark, a red cape wrapped around his neck, playing with the family dog. His father's working on the truck, his mother descending the stairway. It's the family we could all hope to have, if not with our parents, then maybe when we start families of our own.

Some of the grander themes obviously reside in the notion of a savior. Superman has, quite obviously, been compared to Christ or a general messiah figure many times throughout the years. The film not so subtly references this, but it's important for long time viewers of Superman to remember that these obvious themes aren't always as obvious to younger fans (just look at Twitter reactions to see there are many younger audience members only now making the connection).

This leads to two of the most prominent themes in the movie, and some of the grandest, although they can be made quite trite when abused. The willingness to put everything on the line for the sake of others, even those he reject you, is a highly Christian notion among others. The idea to love those even though they hate you is one Christ spoke of, perhaps one of the enduring reasons why even people who reject organized religion can find admirable things in the religion's founder. Turning the other cheek, taking an extra burden upon yourself even when it means helping those who don't deserve it, these are actions of love. Superman thoroughly loves humanity, with all its flaws, despite its suspicions of him. The messiah comparison isn't simply one born out of his willingness to die for others, but out of his willingness to restrain himself when he could dominate, to help when he could ignore, to be selfish instead of selfless.

Which leads to the final, grandest, and among all these others, most complicated notions of the Superman legacy. It's the hardest to get right, and can be subtle enough to be boring. It was aimed for in Superman Returns, and it's shot for here. For all that's discussed in the previous theme, and given an extraordinary number of discussions from both Pa Kent and Jor-El, Superman's primary function is to serve as a light, an example. His primary function isn't to punch down huge spaceships or fight flying enemies, but to inspire mankind to treat others with respect and dignity, to help one another, regardless of whether we think they deserve such treatment or not. Even in the most action intense sequences of the film, the director finds time to switch back to Superman's human counterparts and see how they're conducting themselves in the face of an invading menace. Soldiers put their lives on the line against overwhelming odds, against forces they can't possibly prevail against, but do so with the knowledge that they might help save others. However, this theme of inspiration is not limited to just soldiers. Everyday people, Mary Sue and John Doe, are on the ground helping each other in all odds. Many, many times it's shown that Superman inspires others, but that his character to do so was in turn forged by others that did the same. Superman's respect for life and willingness to try and do what's right in respect of life and dignity extend even to his enemies. There is no way I can give the ultimate example of this, since it occurs in an agonizingly painful climax that truly encompasses Superman's identity and love of life, but the final battle scene seals the deal on how much love he has for preserving life. That is something he inspires in others. 

At one point, Jor-El says, "one day they will join you in the sun." In the original Donner films, Jor-El also said "They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son." Kal-El, Superman, Clark's ultimate mission is to inspire others to good. The perfect world will no longer need a Superman.

Still, until that day, it's good to be able to go back to the red, yellow and blue.

Many thanks to the creators of this film. I cried through about three fourths of it, even in the middle of some action sequences, that's how moving I found it to be. To give it the ultimate credit, I saw this at 11:30 P.M. on a Friday. As I left at two in the morning, I wished there was another showing so I could watch it again.