Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page
Sometimes, after a long week of work, nothing sounds better on a Saturday night than a nice dinner (that you don’t have to cook) and a good movie.
And since this is Oscar weekend, it seemed appropriate to see an Oscar-nominated film.
But first, the dinner.
We went to one of my favorite restaurants in Ames: Café Shi. The restaurant, located at 823 Wheeler (on the north side of Ames, just off of Grand), describes its food as “international cuisine” – it’s a wonderful mix of Asian, American, and much more.
The challenge for me is to order something new, because I have my favorites and I always want to order them. To start with, Café Shi’s appetizers are about the best I’ve ever tasted, so it’s tempting to just get a couple of apps, a glass of wine or pint of beer, one of their amazing desserts, and call it dinner. That’s what I usually do. If you are like-minded, go for the truffle parmesan fries with aioli dipping sauces and the guacamole with freshly-fried tortilla chips. Finish it off with a piece of coconut pie. You will not be disappointed.
For those who prefer actual entrees for their meal, you can choose from Asian-inspired spicy rice, Vietnamese curry, banh mi, or shrimp pad Thai. Or go for the Southwestern chicken pasta, jambalaya, lemon chicken primavera, or many other steak, chicken, seafood, and pasta dishes. Café Shi also features excellent soups and salads, and the menu changes frequently.
In addition to the best coconut pie on the planet, Café Shi serves a wide array of other desserts, from the simple but wonderful crème brulee to a rustic olive oil cake with strawberries and vanilla custard to a red velvet cupcake with vanilla ice cream. I can’t say I’ve eaten them all, but what I’ve tasted has been splendid.
The restaurant, which is elegant but very comfortable, has an outstanding bar area, a lengthy wine menu, good beer selections, and a variety of martinis and cocktails. It is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday and for Sunday brunch but does not serve lunch. It is closed on Mondays.
After dinner, we rented one of the films nominated for best picture, as well as for a couple of the acting awards: “Winter’s Bone.” It’s one of those movies I intended to see in the theater…but it didn’t hang around long enough. Set in the Ozark Mountains, it’s a gritty, realistic film about a teenager forced to assume the parental role in her family. Her father, a meth dealer, is in and out of prison, and her mother is mentally ill. Ree takes care of her two younger siblings, her mother, and the family’s home. As the film begins, Ree learns that her father has put the family’s property up for bail, and unless he turns up for his trial, they will lose it all. Ree risks her own life trying to discover where her father is – and to save her family.
The film is depressing and a few of the scenes were hard for me to watch, but I give the creators credit for showing a part of American life that few of us have ever experience.
And so…that brings us to tonight: Oscar night! At our house, this has always been a big deal. Even on the years when I haven’t managed to see even a fraction of the nominated films, I always like to guess the winners, watch the film clips, and see what everyone is wearing. If that makes me shallow, so be it.
I am generally not very good at guessing the winners, even though I always think I’m going to be right. The only year I really swept the categories was in 1991 when I correctly predicted that “Silence of the Lambs” would win for best picture, best director (Jonathan Demme), best actor (Anthony Hopkins), and best actress (Jodie Foster). I still remember watching the awards show that night all by myself and just yelling my head off.
This year, it seems all but locked up for “The King’s Speech,” a fine film but not the best film of the year in my opinion. Before I comment on the other nominees, can I just say that I think it was a huge mistake for the Academy of Motion Pictures to increase the best picture pool from 5 to 10 last year? To me, it dilutes the quality of the films chosen to compete for best picture. The fact that “Inception” is one of this year’s best picture nominees clearly states my case. This film was nothing but a huge special effect with, oh yeah, Leonardo DiCaprio thrown in for good measure.
You can disagree if you want. The other nominees range from the lovely and touching “The Kids are All Right” to the rollicking “Toy Story 3” to the harrowing “127 hours” and “The Fighter” (neither of which I saw, because I’m not into harrowing). But speaking of harrowing, “The Black Swan” started out to be a really intense portrait of a young ballerina but somehow turned into a creepy horror movie. About halfway through the film, I turned to my daughter in the theater and said, “What kind of a f—ed up movie is this???” It was way too weird for me to recommend it.
Personally, I enjoyed “The Social Network” and “True Grit” more than “The King’s Speech.” Most people who know me would be surprised that I would even go see a western, let alone love it, but “True Grit” is an exceptional film, and Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld (both nominated in their respective acting categories) were wonderful in it. I can remember watching the original, John Wayne-version “True Grit” with my father when I was young. I liked that version, too, but it pales in comparison to the Coen brothers’ remake.
That said, I would choose “The Social Network” as this year’s best film because it exemplifies the times in which we live so much more than any other film, and because it was just so much fun to watch.
Do the other categories matter much? Probably not, but here goes: Colin Firth for best actor, Natalie Portman for best actress, and David Fincher for directing “The Social Network.”
Here’s the great thing about the Des Moines Art Center: It’s not a huge commitment. For one thing, admission is free. And you can easily view all of the museum’s holdings in an hour. In a way, it reminds me of Des Moines’ Blank Park Zoo: It’s small, but what they have on display is very good.
Take for example the Center’s current exhibition titled “Henry Ossawa Tanner and his Contemporaries.” The small exhibit features four works by the African-American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) — including a fine portrait of Booker T. Washington — plus works by Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, Paul Gauguin, and others. Tanner’s Big Web is shown at the right. That show continues through Feb. 27.
Elsewhere in the Center are works of art by Edward Hopper (his wonderful Automat is shown below), Marc Chagall, Picasso, Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol, and John Singer Sargent. I like them all. Of course, to round out the collection there always seems to be the weird “is this art or did they just forget to clean up the mess?” kinds of installations that you always see in modern art museums whether you’re in Paris, New York, or, apparently, Des Moines. I mean, really…who pays money for a square of canvas painted white? Or how about the one that looks like something I’d do on my living room wall when I was trying to decide between three shades of gray?
The original building opened in 1948. Its first addition on the south side was designed by I.M. Pei and opened in 1968. A later, three-level addition on the north opened in 1985.
An added bonus to your museum experience is a really good-quality restaurant, open for lunch Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. It’s an airy, charming place to dine.
The Des Moines Art Center is located at 4700 Grand Ave., Des Moines.
The way I see it, I had three choices this weekend. I could go to the Home and Garden Show, I could go to the Antiques Spectacular, or I could go to the Hawkeye State Cat Club Cat Show.
I went for the cats.
This is the third cat show I’ve attended — the first for the magazine (covering one of the judges, who’s an Iowa State alum) and the second last year at the Iowa State fairgrounds. I’m not in the market for a new cat, and I don’t show the cats I have, so I’m not exactly sure what keeps drawing me to these damn things, but I paid $4 (after my $1 off coupon from the newspaper) and went to my third cat show.
It was pretty much the same drill as the other ones. There is a lot of cat stuff for sale (cat food, cat litter, cat toys, purses and shirts with pictures of cats on them); there are cats dolled up for the competition (some inexplicably with coffee filters around their necks); cats inside ridiculous decorated traveling cat houses; and the main attraction: cats being judged.
My house cats are better looking than a lot of these overly primped and/or way too skinny and hairless felines. I enjoy looking at the purebred Maine Coons and the Norwegian Forest Cats and the Somali cats. These cats all look like real cats to me and I’d be happy to own one if they didn’t cost $600.
I bought one cat toy (a bug on a stick) and a set of dog boots for my daughter’s puppy. Who knew you could buy dog clothes at a cat show?
This post could be subtitled “The ultimate anti-Super Bowl Sunday activity.” I don’t like football, and I detest all the hype surrounding the Super Bowl. And the weather this weekend was decent enough for me to finally get out and snowshoe – so that’s what I did on Sunday.
Snowshoeing is the easiest winter sport there is. All you have to do is put on snowshoes…and walk. No training required! Every time I go out and snowshoe I ask myself why I don’t do it more often, because it is so much fun. (But the reality is, of course, I come up with every excuse in the book: It’s too cold. I’m too tired. I don’t have time. Blah, blah, blah.)
I’ve had these snowshoes for eight or nine years. They are extremely lightweight and not a huge investment. You can buy them at sporting goods stores or discount stores. I bought poles with mine because I’m super uncoordinated, and the poles help keep me upright (most of the time). I also bought gaters, which attach easily to a pair of hiking boots and help keep your feet and lower legs dry (and therefore warmer).
The first time I snowshoed was about 10 years ago in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with a friend who lived in Denver at the time. He let me borrow a pair of snowshoes and showed me how to attach them to my hiking boots. And then off we went. The path we hiked had at least a couple of feet of snow on it, but it was packed down tight so the walking was easy. What a great idea! I was hooked.
Since then I’ve snowshoed in northern Minnesota and in central Iowa, but I definitely need to do it more. Yesterday’s hike was in Ledges State Park, one of my favorite places. I trekked through the woods and worked up a good sweat. A word of advice: Don’t bundle up too much when you snowshoe, because you generate a lot of body heat. Dress in thin layers instead, and be prepared to sweat!
There’s been an awful lot of handwringing this week about the possible snowstorm / the impending snowstorm / the snowstorm that ate the Midwest / the I-have-more-snow-than-you-do snowstorm.
Much of this time, I was in Florida.
Florida is a hot, muggy hell-hole in the summer, but it feels mighty fine in January. I was fortunate enough to spend a long weekend in Orlando, and I tried my darndest to suck as much sunshine and warmth out of those four days as I possibly could.
For example, for an Iowan, there is special pleasure associated with dining outdoors. Because here it’s nearly always too hot or too cold or too windy or too rainy or too buggy or too something. The perfect days of late spring and early fall are few and far between. So to be in a land where I could comfortably dine outdoors IN JANUARY, that was something to savor. So I ate outside a lot.
My husband Dave and I have never been to Florida together without children, so this was a treat. We stayed in a nice resort, in which I could sit on the balcony each morning, sipping coffee, checking my e-mail, and gazing out across the tops of palm trees.
We spent the weekend doing what some couples sans kids wouldn’t dream of doing – we went to the theme parks.
Dave is a big fan of Harry Potter, so the lure of the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park was too great to resist. So that’s where we spent the first full day. I will say right off that I am NOT a Harry fan, and now I can also say that I am not a fan of Islands of Adventure.
To start with, we had to stand in a very long, slow-moving queue line just to buy our tickets. I was already tired by the time we got into the dang park. We dashed through Suess Landing (though I would have gladly stopped to ride the Cat in the Hat ride if I had been with a three-year-old, because it was really adorable), through the Lost Continent, and directly to the Wizarding World of You-Know-Who.
Everything I have read about this World is correct. The design of the castle (Hogswart) and the village (Hogsmeade) are phenomenal – as good (dare I say better?) than anything at Disney World. The main ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, would have been completely spectacular had I A) cared anything about Harry Potter and B) not become intensely nauseated. It’s a fantastic mixture of ride and 3-D film and animatronic (I think) technology – or something altogether new that I didn’t recognize from any ride I’ve ever experienced. It was cool. (But next time — if there ever is a next time — I will take Dramamine 30 minutes before I ride it.)
Critics say that the Wizarding World is too crowded, and they are correct. We visited during what is likely the slowest time of the year and literally had to stand in a queue line to enter one of the shops. People kept asking us, “What are you in line for?” and we would point and say, “To get into that shop” and they would furrow their brows and walk away. The buildings and other attractions are extremely close together. The walkway through the village is too narrow. The wait for a mug of butterbeer is forever (though I will tell you that it’s worth the wait).
My solution to all of this is that Universal should tear down all the rest of the Islands of Adventure attractions and make the entire park into Harry’s Wizarding World. Because the Marvel Super Hero Island is obnoxious, the Toon Lagoon is a complete waste, and even Jurassic Park had nothing to interest me (and I am a huge fan of the movie). The worst area, though, is the Lost Continent, with its poorly run Poseidon’s Fury (we waited in line nearly 45 minutes before cutting our losses and going back for more butterbeer) and its Eighth Voyage of Sinbad “stunt show” that made me laugh out loud only because it was the single worst live-action show I’ve ever seen. (Note to Universal: A lame script, unimpressive special effects, and bad acting equal a rotten tomato of a show, even if your target audience is an 8-year-old boy.)
I thought as I was planning this trip that one of the downsides to going to the theme parks during the winter is that the operating hours are a lot shorter than the rest of the year. As it turned out, I was more than ready to leave the Islands well before the posted closing time of 7 p.m.
When you leave the park, you walk through an area called CityWalk, which is sort of a Downtown Disney wannabe. It calls out for exhausted parents to STOP! Spend more money! Drink a lot! Which is not a bad idea if you’ve spent a full day at a theme park with a few kids in tow. We didn’t think it was a bad idea for us, either, because we were clearly ready for a beer.
There were many, many chain bars and restaurants, and I think we went into most of them in search of a decent beer. But alas, it was a land of Bud and Bud Light. Even a bar called Pat O’Brien’s didn’t have a single New Orleans-worthy beer. (Would it be too much to ask to have bottles of Abita? I can buy a six-pack at HyVee in Ames.) We ended up at Hard Rock Café, which is not known for its food, but it blasts good rock’n’roll and has a decent beer list. I went in with low expectations, and I was not disappointed.
The next day (after the aforementioned coffee on the balcony) we headed for a theme park that knows how to do things right: Epcot. One of four Walt Disney World theme parks, Epcot might be the least favorite of most kids, but our family loves all the parks equally, and Epcot’s World Showcase seemed like the perfect place to spend the day.
The line to buy tickets was brief; in fact, we walked right up to the window. Within minutes, we were in a fast-moving line for a slow-moving ride: Spaceship Earth. It’s corny and I’ve been on it half a dozen times, but I still love it. Next we headed for a newer attraction inside “The Land” section: Soarin’. This ride (really just an IMAX film on steroids) started out at Disney’s California Adventure theme park as Soarin’ Over California. It’s the exact same ride, and it’s a fabulous experience. I could ride it over and over. A bit of advice: If the line appears long, grab a fast pass for this one.
Before leaving Future World and heading for World Showcase, we caught an encore performance of “Captain EO.” This 1986 film features Michael Jackson when he was at the top of his game: Young, adorable, not yet creepy, and still black. The film, which features early 3-D technology, hasn’t been seen in the park since it was replaced by a better, more family-friendly 3-D film inspired by the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” movies in the 1990s. I’m guessing Jackson’s death in 2008 prompted the Disney folks to bring the film back. Captain EO’s special effects are awful and its intergalactic premise is weak, but it was created by the team of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola – and Michael Jackson’s dance moves are thrilling. I left the theater with a big, goofy smile on my face.
Other fun things in Future World (which I’ve experienced before but passed on this time around) are the very clever “Turtle Talk with Crush” show (from “Finding Nemo”) and the high-speed Test Track ride. There’s also a Mission: SPACE ride on which I nearly had a panic attack last time I was at Epcot (note to anyone suffering from claustrophobia in any form: please do not ride this ride) and a new Ellen DeGeneres “energy adventure” that we simply didn’t take the time to see.
So… on to the main attraction: World Showcase. This place is a glorious soup of geography lessons, fine dining, exotic shopping, international tourism, Disney character encounters, live music, and adult beverages. One minute you’re swilling a beer in Germany and the next you’re running into Donald Duck from The Three Caballeros in Mexico.
We did our best to see and do everything World Showcase had to offer. We ate and drank our way around the World: lunch (with wine) at a sidewalk café in Italy, chocolate éclairs from a French patisserie, pints of Bass at the Rose and Crown Pub in the UK, and dinner under the stars at the San Angel Inn in Mexico. We sat and listened to live music (Off Kilter, a Canadian and Celtic rock band in Canada; The British Invasion Beatles tribute in the UK), stood and watched street performers (Sergio the mime/clown/juggler in Italy; the comical waiter and wine steward in France), and watched wide-screen tourism films in Canada, France, China, Norway, and the U.S. I think I walked through every shop in Morocco, China, Japan, Italy, France, Germany, and all the rest.
The day flew by, and pretty soon it was evening. I hate to use the word, but evenings in Disney theme parks are, well, magical. The lights come on, the fireworks go off, and there’s just a total sense of contentment. It never fails.
The other theme parks are just as wonderful, and maybe better if you have kids in tow. Disney’s Hollywood Studios might be best for older kids, with its kickass Aerosmith Rock’n’Rollercoaster and screamalicious Tower of Terror. The Magic Kingdom, of course, is the most magical for little kids, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom (the newest park) features a world-class safari and an impressive coaster (Expedition Everest). I like all of the parks; please don’t ever make me choose a favorite. If you haven’t been there since you were a kid yourself, you really need to go back sometime.
May I suggest January???