Sunday, December 21, 2014

Ah, Central Asian cuisine.  Specifically, the foods of the Chinese provinces of Henan, Shaanxi and Xinjiang.  My favorite examples of which have been enjoyed in recent years at Xi’an Famous Foods of NYC.  Years ago, we discovered this outpost in the depths – and I mean depths – of the food stalls at the Golden Mall in Flushing, Queens.  Tiny, cluttered, packed and sweltering, elbow to elbow, we sampled foods not available anywhere else, on a food expedition down to NYC undertaken by Larry, John, Michael and me.  Since sparked by a TV appearance on Tony Bourdain’s show, Xi’an’s Famous Foods soon branched out all over the city.

We have collectively been dreaming of finding these dishes elsewhere, and now we have.  In an unusual place – Boston’s Back Bay, on Mass Ave at Chef Chang’s.  Get out!  Yes, really.


Larry, John, Shane and I decided to give it a shot, and, boy, we were pleased.  The starter was the traditional Ma-la Beef & Tendon in Chili Sauce, and an exquisite take on this common specialty.  Finely ground peanuts, sesame seeds and scallion mixed in with shaved beef shank and tendon, all marinated in highly-addictive chili oil and Sichuan peppercorn, the numbing power (“ma”) that perfectly accompanies the spicy bite (“la”).  This fairly generous appetizer serving disappeared in less than 30 seconds, no joke. 


Next up, the Cumin lamb with Chinese steamed bun.  Cumin being a dominant spice in the region, it offers a nice offset to the richness of the lamb.  Chef Chang’s version has the lamb well-fried to offer a crisp texture, and the spiciness is cut by the tendrils of lettuce and the steamed bun.


One of us, did a fun “nips” run earlier in the day.  This is an “athletic” event where everyone brings a bunch of airline mini-bottles of alcohol, and toss ‘em into one big bag.  At each stop, the runner reaches into the bag, pulls out a random bottle, and knocks it back.  So, on 6-7 nips and lukewarm Tsingtao during dinner, we . . . had a lot of fun with him.  Luckily, a nice antidote to the alcohol was the XinJiang Big Plate Chicken with Hand Pulled Noodles.  This was a massive portion of mild curry with onion, carrots and potatoes, highlighting on-the-bone tender chicken, served over springy, long hand-pulled noodles.  Perfect for soaking up those nips.


Then came the “gout special”:  Braised Pork Belly Chairman Mao Family Style with Chinese Pancake.  “Red-cooked”, braised pork belly slices with a mysterious ingredient – olives? Prunes?  I think a date, perhaps.  Unctuous, yes, but oh so tasty, and soaked up nicely by the buns. 
A mild disappointment was the Shaanxi Chinese Hamburger – a larger steamed bun that’s been toasted, filled with mild pulled pork.  Juicy, yes, but, in comparison, non-descript.  Note that I was wearing, in honor of our good friend Shane (and those who know him will understand completely why), my Jimmy Buffett concert t-shirt from . . . 1990.


The final dish had the anodyne name, “Tofu pudding beef”, and was perhaps my favorite on the night.  Oil poached tender beef, including the chewy bits, with silken soft tofu floating in a rich brown sauce.  Slide that on top of some steamed rice, and . . . heaven.


Overall, the food is worth a trip.  And I suspect that you should take a trip soon, since I harbor a bit of fear for the restaurant.  Given the location, it’s an attempt at upscale Chinese, complete with tablecloths and pink cloth napkins.  But the seating is limited, and the two other tables I spotted tonight were ordering things like General Gau’s chicken.  How will this place draw the epicures and adventure seekers that it so richly deserves, when it’s attempting to woo a different demographic – complete with the high prices to match?  The final dinner bill, with six beers, tax and tip, was $180 for the four of us, easily double what we would have paid in Chinatown or in Flushing.


Still, worth every penny.  Really do try a trip if you’re adventures and able!


Chef Chang’s

30 Massachusetts Ave

Boston, MA  02115

Phone: 617-236-1888


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Gathering with old friends from college at a Bar Mitzvah this morning, the topic of great movies came up.  Working with interns this past summer, I discovered an appalling lack of film literacy, specifically as to those that people “of a certain age” might appreciate and cite often (i.e., old, old people like me), peppering their conversations with references and quotes that go right over their barely-post-adolescent heads. 
This list is what I consider to be a bare minimum for cultural literacy -- if you want to interact proficiently with, say, Generation X fogeys.
It was suggested to me to share the list, so posting it on this (old, unused) blog seemed appropriate.
As a percentage, what’s your movie-of-a-certain-age score?
Dennis’ list of movies that people of a certain younger age should have seen (in other words, get to it). Criteria for this list is not particularly laid out, but generally:
·         Impact on popular culture (i.e., conversations littered with quotes and references); if you want to understand what us old fogeys are talking about….
·         Highly entertaining/funny
·         Little before the late 60s, and nothing after, say, 2002; this reflects my own age, and also the expectation that those of you born in the late 80s/early 90s would have seen later classics already
·         Does not include those popular movies that everyone has seen (e.g., Star Wars, Raiders, The Matrix, etc.)
·         I would happily watch any of these if I came across it playing on cable or on a plane.
¨  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – Newman and Redford at their best.
¨The Sting – or, wait, is this Newman and Redford at their best?
¨  Apocalypse Now – Another classic Francis Ford Coppola movie, with both Sheen and Brando. 
¨  Life of Brian – Monty Python is one of the biggest cultural touchstones for humor among Gen X.
¨  Monty Python and The Holy Grail – Contains perhaps the most Python quotes per minute.
¨  The Meaning of Life – Not as much impact as the other two Python movies here, but great nevertheless.
¨  Annie Hall – Woody Allen at his best, with a combination of drama and humor.
¨  Manhattan – Better than Annie Hall?  No, but damn close, and a paean to New York.
¨  2001: A Space Odyssey -  There’s the score, of course, perhaps the first great Sci-Fi movie of the modern era.
¨  The Godfather Saga (I, II and III) – Duh.
¨  Goodfellas – Scorsese is easily one of the top five directors of all time.  This is his best.
¨  Casino – Another Scorsese masterpiece, and again with DeNiro
¨  Mean Streets – the first Scorsese and DeNiro gangster masterpiece.
¨  Taxi Driver – along with Mean Streets, reflects NYC of the time, completely different from NYC today.
¨  Midnight Run – Goddamn, this is a funny movie.  DeNiro shows his humor chops.
¨  Scarface – De Palma tackles the criminal genre, and is the I Ching of modern gangster rap culture.
¨  Casablanca – Bogart and Bergman; arguably the best non-audience-tested ending of all time.
¨  The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – many great Clint Eastwood “Man with No Name” spaghetti westerns; this is the best.
¨  Blazing Saddles – Mel Brooks in top form; combines pratfalls and fart humor with scathing social satire.
¨  History of the World, Part I – Many Mel Brooks movies, but this is another lodestone of contemporary quotes.
¨  National Lampoon’s Animal House – Been to a crazy college party since 1978?  You have this movie to thank.
¨  Jaws – Dah-dum.
¨  Rocky – Sylvester Stallone made one great movie.  This is it.
¨  Saturday Night Fever – Contender for best movie soundtrack ever, and symbolic of a certain time in a certain place (NYC in the disco era, bridge and tunnel guys included)
¨  Ronin – My favorite car chase sequences, with no CGI, and a Mamet storyline, with De Niro and Frankenheimer.  Duh.
¨  Get Shorty – The last great Travolta movie, with an Elmore Leonard story.
¨  Grease – You know you loved Danny and/or Sandy.
¨  Alien – Ridley Scott blew us away.  If you like this, consider James Cameron’s take in Aliens.
¨  The Road Warrior – Mel Gibson, pre-craziness, exploded onto the scene with incandescent heat.
¨  Lethal Weapon – Gibson and Glover (re)launched the buddy-action-drama-comedy genre.
¨  Airplane – The most quotable movie of all time.
¨  Caddyshack – Early Bill Murray made four classic comedies; add Harold Ramis, Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield, and voila.
¨  Stripes – Another early Bill Murray classic, with Harold Ramis and John Candy.  Can’t stop humming the theme song now, can you?
¨  Groundhog Day -- One wishes that Murray and Ramis didn’t have a falling out; this is them at their best together.
¨  Blade Runner – Ridley Scott strikes again, with Harrison Ford in the first and best example of future noir.
¨  Fast Times at Ridgemont High – Cameron Crowe explodes out of nowhere with Amy Heckerling directing that captures LA valley life for high school kids.
¨  Almost Famous – The second Cameron Crowe flick here. 
¨  Jerry Maguire -- …and the third Cameron Crowe flick, this time with Tom Cruise.  Almost good enough to make me not regret seeing Vanilla Sky.
¨  An Officer and a Gentleman – Worth watching for the final scene alone.  Also, steers, queers and mayo.
¨  Night Shift – Michael Keaton blew us away in his debut, and the first of his shtick is the best.
¨  48 Hours – hey, could that funny kid from SNL make it as an comedic action hero?  Yup.  And back before Nick Nolte went crazy.
¨  Trading Places – Let’s try that Eddie Murphy comedic partnership thing again.  Wonderful.
¨  Beverly Hills Cop – The first really good solo Eddie Murphy flick.
¨  Diner – Barry Levinson has made a ton of movies, with some classics and some stinkers.  This is perhaps his most personal one, and every guy with male friends should see this.
¨  The Color of Money – Newman and Cruise.  Mentorship in many ways.
¨  Cool Hand Luke – Ain’t nobody ever was cooler than Paul Newman in this one.
¨  Risky Business – Iconic.  And sexy.  And quotable.
¨  The Terminator – The real debut of James Cameron, and the first watchable Arnold movie.
¨  Terminator 2: Judgment Day – The best Arnold movie.
¨  True Lies – Reuniting Arnold and James Cameron results in an American Bond flick, with humor; the second best Arnold movie ever.
¨  Total Recall – Arnold in a movie based on a Philip K Dick story?  Really?  Surprisingly good.
¨  The Breakfast Club – John Hughes is perhaps the most adored director for Gen X.  This is a large part why; those of us who went to high school in the 80s recognized not only ourselves, but our friends.  And enemies.
¨  Ferris Bueller's Day Off – Hughes strikes again, with Broderick and a template for teenage coolness.
¨  Say Anything – the most romantic movie for Gen X.
¨  The Sure Thing – Number 2 in the Cusack teen genre, but almost #1.
¨  Better Off Dead – Not as high in “quality” as the first two Cusack movies above, but definitely the funniest (especially the surrealist touches).
¨  Tampopo – There are three great movies about food on this list.  This is the top
¨  Eat Drink Man Woman – Ang Lee, Chinese families and values, and food.  Oh the food.
¨  Big Night – Uncompromising in his cooking, and his attitude.  Oh, the Italian food.
¨  The Princess Bride-- No, wait, THIS is the most quotable movie of all time.
¨  Wall Street – Michael Douglas owns this movie, and is more right than Olive Stone intended.
¨  Roxanne – Best Steve Martin movie; really.
¨  Die Hard – Bruce Willis has been the lead in two great movies; this is one of them, and presents a (then) unconventional action hero.
¨  The Sixth Sense – alas, even those who haven’t seen this know about the twist; when we saw it the first time, the surprise blew our minds.  The other classic movie with Bruce Willis as the lead.
¨  Bull Durham – Ain’t no better movie about baseball.
¨  White Men Can't Jump – Ain’t no better movie about street ball and hustling.  Harrelson is a revelation.
¨  A Fish Called Wanda – when I saw this in the theater, I could not stop laughing, even though I was in tears and clutching my sides.  I had to sit there until long after the credits so I could collect myself.
¨  When Harry Met Sally... – I admit it; I saw myself as Harry.  Even though I was two decades too young.  Now that I’m Harry’s age…
¨  Pretty Woman -- I saw this in the theater four times.  No doubt you have seen it too, but just in case, I had to list it here.
¨  Glengarry Glen Ross – David Mamet, David Mamet, David Mamet.  Learn how to sell.
¨  House of Games – I’m going to toss in some more Mamet here.
¨  The Spanish Prisoner – It takes a bit to figure out what’s going on, but then Mamet drops the cleaver and your mind is blown.
¨  Reservoir Dogs – everyone has seen Pulp Fiction.  Have you seen Reservoir Dogs?  This is the first time we really get to see Tarantino’s style.
¨  Wayne's World – party time, excellent.
¨  My Cousin Vinny – Who knew Joe Pesci could be this funny?  And Marisa Tomei – an Oscar!
¨  A Few Good Men – Of course, you can’t handle the truth.
¨  Clerks – Had to restrict myself to just two Kevin Smith movies.  This is the first, and defined the “Kevin Smith” movie genre.
¨  Chasing Amy – Classic Kevin Smith, with Ben Affleck not being a dick.
¨  Four Weddings and a Funeral – who knew Hugh Grant could make a career out of playing this character? 
¨  Heat – DeNiro.  Pacino.  Mann.  Done.
¨  Spanglish – grossly underappreciated Adam Sandler movie, in a serious vein, with James L Brooks directing.  The bonus feature with Thomas Keller is food porn at its most tempting.
¨  As Good as It Gets – The second of three James L Brooks movies on this list, and for nothing else, it makes it for the line, “you make me want to be a better man.”
¨  Broadcast News – one of the films that made me the person I am today.  I see myself as both the Albert Brooks and the Holly Hunter characters.
¨  The Usual Suspects – Mind.  Blown.  If you don’t know the twist, you better see it now, before you discover it…
¨  Good Will Hunting – yup, more quotes.  For a work by such young talents, it’s all that more impressive.
¨  Face/Off – John Woo at the top of his game.  Your suspension of disbelief will be stretched thinner than a condom, but you’ll also realize as you walk out just how good of an actor both Travolta and Cage were.
¨  The Shawshank Redemption.  The best movie ever made from a Stephen King story.
¨  There's Something About Mary – comes damn close to A Fish Called Wanda for sheer, side-clutching laughter.
¨  The Wedding Singer – Sweet Adam Sandler movie with the most awesome music.  The one with Sandler and Drew Barrymore that doesn’t suck.
¨  Office Space – you really cannot work in an office setting without seeing this movie.
¨  This is Spinal Tap – Eleven.  Exactly.  One Louder.