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I’ve often thought of myself as young-at-heart.

Heck, on a good day, I’d say I was damn-near cool. And yet, recently, I’ve had to confront an uncomfortable truth: I’m old.

Of course, age is relative: to an octogenarian, I’m a spring chicken; to many of my classmates, however, I’m ancient.

I was reminded of this generational divide recently, during a coffee break with some of them.

We were chatting about seminal movies from our youth. Naturally, I listed off some of my favourites: Tron, The Goonies, Flight of the Navigator, Labyrinth, E.T., The Dark Crystal, The Never-Ending Story.

Crickets.

Evidently, a decade might as well be a lifetime; most of my colleagues hadn’t even heard of these movies, let alone seen them.

Sigh.

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Having survived the two-day journey across Middle America, we arrived in Chicago on a sunny, Monday afternoon. I could hardly contain my excitement as the Sears Willis Tower — imposing, iconic, extraordinary — appeared on the horizon. I absolutely love this city and everything about it: The people! The energy! The architecture! The food!

Seriously, if given the choice between New York and Chicago, I’d pick the latter every time. Hands down. Bar none. No questions asked.

And so it was no surprise I made the most of my very short time in town: morning stroll through the University of Chicago’s sprawling urban campus, lunch at Rick Bayliss’ fantastic Frontera Grill, afternoon walk home along the lakeshore, dinner at Avec; a perfect day in a great city with wonderful friends.

The name, Avec, may ring a bell. I’ve mentioned it before. I’ll mention it again, no doubt. The reason is simple: it’s my absolute favourite restaurant in Chicago and a serious contender for my favourite the world over. I’d actually extended my trip and returned to Chicago with my friends, rather than fly home from Denver, in large measure because I’d wanted to sample their new menu. And, let me tell you, Paul Kahan and his crew did not disappoint.

As always, the place was jammed. We waited outside for a better part of half an hour for seats in the long, narrow, wood-lined eatery. Thankfully, the weather was lovely, as was the company. Best of all, we could stare at the diners already seated, already eating, already in heaven, taking comfort in the knowledge we too would soon know such delights.

When we were finally seated, coats checked, I gazed upon the new menu, freshly printed, paper crisply folded, resting every-so-gently atop my plate. I grasped it with my hands and opened it, tentatively, anxiously. First a quick scan: pork shoulder, beef, smelts, the focaccia, snapper, the dates… oh, the dates.

No man is an island — and no diner eats alone at Avec. As such, a brief, yet spirited debate ensued about what we’d order. We settled on the following dishes:

  • “Deluxe” focaccia with Taleggio cheese, truffle oil and fresh herbs
  • Wood-oven braised pork shoulder with chestnut-bacon dumplings, butternut squash, kale, puff pastry and fresh herbs
  • Chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce
  • Melted leek and salsify crostini with Meyer lemons
  • Wood-oven roasted smelts with romesco, spinach-horseradish vinaigrette and preserved lemon
  • Dietzler Farm braised beef with chimichurri, borlotti beans, fingerlings, creme fraiche, red pepper, cocoa nibs and cilantro

Each was sublime, but I liked the dates best. Even better, you can make them at home, courtesy Time Out Chicago. (I’ve yet to do so, but will surely blog about it once I do.)

As my flight took off from O’Hare International the next morning, thoughts of the previous night’s meal still swirling about my sated brain, I bade a silent farewell to the Second City and promised we’d meet again soon.

It’s a promise I fully intend to keep.

A Single Man.

The film. Financed and directed by fashion designer extraordinaire Tom Ford in his directorial debut. Adapted from Christopher Isherwood‘s novel of the same name. I had the privilege of seeing it yesterday afternoon – and make no mistake, it was a privilege indeed to fork over the $10 to do so.

There are a great many reasons why I loved this film: the set design, sumptuous and meticulously executed; the musical score, hauntingly beautiful; the cinematography, hypnotic.

Most of all, however, I loved this film for the performances, most especially Colin Firth‘s. His was, to me, one of the most gut-wrenching, yet beautiful performances I’ve seen in years. (It’s no wonder he’s been nominated for a slew of awards; they are deserved, absolutely.) With his face alone, he conveys such pain, such anguish – and he does so with subtlety and with grace. It’s hard not to take your eyes off him – despite Ford’s best efforts.

Of course, Firth isn’t the only stand-out: Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode and Nicholas Hoult all deliver equally brilliant performances and compliment Firth’s wonderfully. Like Firth, each of them is restrained, thoughtful, delicate. (It’s a welcome change from the Pacino-esque bravado often favoured in Hollywood.)

Make no mistake, however; this is a depressing film. If you see it – and you should – be prepared to spend the rest of your day alone, exhausted and emotionally spent.

However, in the quietude of your misery, with the images replaying themselves in your mind, be prepared to be thankful, as well. For Tom Ford, an artist in the truest sense of the word, has created a thing of beauty. And you were lucky enough to see it.

Year-end lists are trite, I know. I promise this is the only one I’ll make. It’s not about movies or news stories or gaffes or tween gossip. It’s about music. Specifically, my favourite albums of 2009.

So, lets get to it.

In no particular order, they are:

Don’t Stop
Annie

This offering by Norwegian pop sensation Annie is sickly sweet – in a good way. Listening to her album is like licking the spatula you’ve just used to mix a big ol’ bowl of icing. So bad, but so good.

Also good: the cover art. Even if you don’t like Norwegian pop (your loss), surely you can appreciate that cover. I mean, look at it. That chick is so cool she can write her name with light. Amazing. Like the tunes on her album.

Touchdown
Brakes

There’s no mystery here. Brighton’s Brakes have assembled a good ol’ fashion indie rock album. The kind of album you could throw on during a car trip, while re-paiting your den a brighter hue, or when it’s raining outside and you refuse to be bummed out by it. You get it, right?

Whatever. This album is good. I like it. It’s on my list of favourites for 2009. Deal with it.

My Maudlin Career
Camera Obscura

Where have you been all my life, Camera Obscura? You’re a delight! You’ve managed to capture the feeling that comes over me when summer has arrived, the air is warm, it’s a Friday night, I’m wearing a linen jacket and shorts, and I’m well into a bottle of chilled Chablis.

Thank you, Camera Obscura. And thank you to the “French Navy” you so marvellously sing about on your album. (It’s my favourite track.)

LP
Discovery

Hoo-haw! What a romp!

Yup, this album is bitchin’. Electronic pop at its best. Which is doubly remarkable, considering this album is Discovery’s first.

I’m particularly fond of the eighth track, “I Want You Back.” It’s an homage to the Jackson Five’s, “One More Chance.” If MJ were still kickin’, I’d like to think he’d be pleased with the effort. I know I am.

Three
Joel Plaskett

Joel Plaskett. Nova Scotian. Indie rocker. Obsessed with the number three. I dig it.

I also dig his latest album; a three-disc effort. It’s chock-a-block full of über-Canadian ditties. And what Canadian can resist jingoistic tuneage? Not this Canadian! (Case in point: of the 452 artists and 804 albums in my iTunes Library, nothing has received more airtime than Canadian troubadour, Gordon Lightfoot.)

But of course, you non-Canadians are probably thinking, “What about me? Will I like this Joel Plaskett fellow? I know nothing of Canada except for the igloos, dog sleds, and dope.”

My answer: you will like him, yes you will. Because good music knows no boundaries, be they political, linguistic, geographic, or otherwise. So do yourself a favour, pick up this album, head out to your nearest sugar shack, crack open a bottle of Canadian Club, and let the good times roll.

Battle Studies
John Mayer

Don’t judge me. I happen to enjoy John Mayer. And I think his fourth album is very good.

While it’s been out for less than two months, I’ve managed to listen to it from start to finish numerous times. (Granted, it clocks in at just over 45 minutes.) Yes, it’s a little uneven. Some tracks are stronger than others. In all, however, there’s enough good stuff to keep you coming back.

I particularly enjoy Mayer’s duet with Taylor Swift on the lovely, “Half of My Heart.” (This doesn’t count as tween gossip, by the way.) Their voices compliment each other surprisingly well. Seriously. (I said, don’t judge me!)

Grand
Matt & Kim

If fun had a soundtrack, it would be Matt & Kim’s, Grand.

Many a morning on my walk to work, I’d listen to this album. It put me in a good mood. It also made me want to walk past my office to the nearest bar, plug my iPod into their PA system, and spend the day rocking out, bottle of Jack in hand.

I regret never doing that.

Years of Refusal
Morrissey

Oh, Morrissey. So ironically miserable – or is it miserably ironic? Either way, Years of Refusal is sinewy, gritty, and damn good.

From the first few bars of the opening track, “Something is Squeezing my Skull,” through to the last licks from the closing track, “I’m OK by Myself,” Steven Patrick Morrissey delivers a genuine tour-de-force of grim cynicism.

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Phoenix

Oh yeah. How could I not include this kick-ass number from France’s hottest pop sensation? Sure, they’ve already licensed their stuff to Cadillac. (Odd, since they sound more like an Audi TT than they do an Escalade, but I digress.) Still, this album is solid, from start to finish.

Vive la France!

In and Out of Control
The Raveonettes

Whoa. I don’t know what happened between their last album, Lust Lust Lust, and this one, but whatever it was it definitely helped this Danish duo kick it up a notch.

Despite the myriad macabre subjects they cover (see: Rape; Suicide; Substance Abuse; Auto Theft; Death), Sune Rose and Sharin manage to infuse their tracks with a touch of whimsy and humour. I appreciate that, which is why I say this: when life throws you a lemon, listen to this album.

Oohs and Aahs
Say Hi

Picture this: you’re sitting on your friends’ back deck. It’s spring, so you’re still wearing a sweater. It’s evening. Nine-ish. Or even closer to ten. Between mouthfuls of this delicious, yet mysterious dip set out for you and the other guests, you hear music. It’s coming from the kick-ass outdoor speakers hanging from the eaves. It’s a band. They sound familiar.

“Who are these guys? They sound familiar,” you say, cracker crumbs falling out of your mouth onto your sweater.

They’re Say Hi. You’ve never heard them before. But you like them. You feel like they’ve been with you all your life. And listening to them makes you feel like everything’s gonna be okay.

Actor
St. Vincent

Gosh. Where to begin?

If you’ve been following the links I’ve embedded for each of these albums (which take you to the albums’ entries on Wikipedia, by the way), you’d already know two interesting things about this album: 1) it was created using Apple’s GarageBand application; and 2) Woody Allen’s movies and Disney’s animated features served as inspiration. Cool, eh? I thought so.

However, you should know I was unaware of both of these factoids when I first listened to the album. Moreover, knowing both doesn’t really change my opinion of it, either: I think it’s lovely.

Now We Can See
The Thermals

A little bit punk + a little bit rock-and-roll + a little bit indie hipster = this album.

Q.E.D.

Okay, so I was never that good at math. Sue me. But before you do, give this album a listen. Because I’ll be entering it into evidence in my defence, and I’m confident the judge, once he or she’s played it, will side with me.

So there.

xx
The xx

I know I said this list was in no particular order. (Actually, it’s alphabetical by artist.) Despite this fact, it’s hard not to read something into the fact that this album, xx, is the last on the list. This would make it my #1 album, if you subscribe to the Letterman Theory of Lists. While I won’t be so bold as to confirm your suspicion, I won’t deny it either.

***

Honourable Mention:

Two Weeks Last Summer
Various Artists

You’ve probably never heard of this release. That’s because it never was. This one was compiled by my friend and incomparable music afficianado, Ryan. It’s a mélange of good stuff, including hits from The Ramones, The Cars, Iggy Pop, Jesus and Mary Chain, Cheap Trick, The Pursuit of Happiness, Sonic Youth, New Order, The Pixies, and Smashing Pumpkins.

Of course, not a single one of the songs in this digital mix tape was released in 2009, which is why I couldn’t include it in the aforementioned list. But I include it all the same because my friend Ryan deserves mention in this post. Were it not for him and his stellar musical tastes, I’d have had precious little to listen to this past year. After all, it was his advice and guidance that led me to the albums I’ve discussed, and many others I haven’t. (John Mayer being the one exception. Don’t judge me, damn it!)

Yeah, I saw it. I’m glad I did, too. Avatar is every bit as good as most critics have said it is.

Granted, I had a spitting headache after the film, which I chalk up to my eyes’ inexperience with the 3D visuals; however, that doesn’t take anything away from the film itself, which was glorious.

Whether or not you’re a fan of science fiction, if you’re a fan of movies I encourage you to see it.

As Roger Ebert said, “Once again, [Cameron] has silenced the doubters by simply delivering an extraordinary film.”

Extraordinary indeed, Roger. Extraordinary indeed.

The Publican is for people passionate about pork. I’m one of those people.

First, a word about the place. Publican is situated in the heart of Chicago’s meat-packing district. Accordingly, the restaurant has a turn-of-the-century, butcher’s warehouse feel to it. (Okay, perhaps not the best way to describe it, but that’s how it felt to me.) High ceilings, subway tiles on the floor and walls, diner lights illuminating the sprawling place.

Our reservation was for 9:30. The place was jammed. We were escorted to a stand-up bar near the kitchen while they readied our table. After finishing an exceptional Manhattan (garnished with homemade maraschino cherries), my dining partners and I were seated at one of the place’s lengthy tables you’d imagine were standard in an English castle’s dining hall.

I started with a half-dozen Kumamoto oysters. They’re my favourites and often on the menu at Ottawa’s WBOH. How could I pass up the chance to have them here? And so, I did. Happily.

We also opted for an order of their in-house pork rinds. (What? It’s a bastion to all things porcine, after all.) They were… good. And not “NFL-Sunday-pig-out” good, but “delectable” good. Light, flavourful, crunchy. Heck, you’d hardly know they were fried pieces of Miss Piggy’s epidermis.

Since the menu was similarly titled towards small plates like Avec’s, my friend and I decided to share a few plates between us as our mains. And share we did: duck rillette (melt-in-your-mouth amazing); grilled sardines (rich and full of smoky flavour); pork belly (pure bliss).

To finish things off, I opted for a duo of cheeses. Raw cow’s and sheep’s. Equally delicious, and the perfect end to a sumptuous, protein-laded feast.

Chilam Balam was definitely worth the hour-long wait at the pedestrian sports bar next door.

In fact, I’d be willing to do it all over again, wait and all, if it meant I could once more feast upon the authentic Mexican fare created by Chef de Cuisine Chuy Valencia, the former Sous Chef at Rick Bayless’ renowned Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.

Rather than selecting our own items, we entrusted our fate to our server, asking simply that he brought us the best. The result:

  • Grilled pork ribs basted with Oaxacan pasilla glaze, radishes, and sweet plantains with crema
  • Grilled hanger steak in guajillo sauce, roasted potatoes, crispy onion and cilantro
  • Empanadas filled with braised mushrooms in pipian verde, two cheeses, epazote and roasted green chiles
  • Halibut ceviche tossed with red onion, cucumber, jicama, cilantro, habanero, avocado and tomato; tostadas
  • Crispy flautas stuffed with chicken and rajas; chipotle-mezcal sauce, pickled cabbage, fresh cheese and crema
  • Earthenware cazuela of braised wild mushrooms, roasted turnips, potato and epazote in New Mexico Chile and dark beer; Queso fresco and cilantro
  • Braised lamb shank in a spicy sauce of pan juices and cascabel chiles; whipped parsnips and roasted chanterelle mushrooms

We happily eschewed our utensils in favour of the little homemade tortillas that came with everything.

Word to the wise: bring booze. Chilam Balam is unlicensed. Thankfully, if you bring it, they’ll serve it – sans corkage. Even better, if, for example, you were to bring a bottle of tequila, they’d make you margaritas. Just sayin’.

I was never much of  a fan of the Tex-Mex slop that used to pass for Mexican food. I am, however, a fan of the real deal, and to my mind this little basement establishment has nailed it.