Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dinner and a movie: NINO's 208 and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

On one of my rare excursions out to an actual movie theater for a non-press screening, some friends and I celebrated our birthdays by heading for that sure-to-be-a-classic-of-"happiness" film, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. The three of us found it much better than The New York Times critics did, though less good than the raves of certain others. Everything is fine, as far as the film goes -- which is not quite far enough: the acting from all concerned, leads to support, and the on-target dialog (one of us, who had recently read the Yates novel on which the film is based, gave the movie high marks for fidelity). Where the film falls down, though not disastrously, is that it does not allow us to understand why these two people fell in love. There is so little of the good times (one tiny scene and a bit of remembrance) and so very much of the bad (the film seems to be almost literally one nasty argument after another) that it ends up too heavily weighted toward the negative. While it is true that many relationships begin from a false premise/perspective, they generally require more positive feedback on the part of both parties to take hold. Movies about these relationships need some of this, too.

Yet Revolutionary Road is not, as it has been accused, a screed against the terrors of the suburbs: You could find the same repressive attitudes in the Manhattan (or any urban center) of that day. Nor does it come out against either or both of its protagonists: You may not feel at the finale any of the (perhaps cheap) emotions that other films would have induced. Yet you do feel something for these two people who, it turns out, never understood themselves very well, let alone each other. They seem to feel that they are extraordinary people when, in fact, they are rather ordinary -- if quite attractive. Maybe what's most lacking in western culture is the ability of its citizens to delve deeply into who they are and what they want and need -- a point made very well by Arnaud Desplechin's current A Christmas Tale. Surface wants and desires (as well as surface servicing by surface shrinks) are still the name of the game -- the results of which have come home to roost in our economy, politics and culture. And the movie, to its credit, makes this clear, while remaining true to its time.

Certain questions arise, like where the hell are this couple's children most of the time? They are trotted out now and again, but a truer picture of "family" in the 50s ought to have included more of the kids. Yet what we do see is still pretty riveting and sad: the longings of the neighbor husband, the two scenes with the realtor's family (Michael Shannon (above) and Kathy Bates just keep knocking one performance after another out of the park), and the way of the workplace for men and women of the day. Don't miss Revolutionary Road. Just don't raise those expectations too high.

About the restaurant we found ourselves at, post-movie, I suspect that you can raise those expectations as high as you like and still not be disappointed. Though we headed out to Mia Dona (on 58th Street between Second and Third), that restaurant (where we have dined decently several times), proved far too crowded and noisy. We were surprised at this, since so many NYC restaurants seem nearly empty during this "down" economic time, as was the case right next door at NINO'S 208, which has been open only for a few months and offers a menu that, on paper, seems tasty and features enough variation of food and price that we could manage to dine affordably. The staff greeted us warmly, seated us within the classy and comfortable quarters, and we chose the cheapest red wine on the menu to begin (Nino's 208 has a full bar): a $24 bottle of Italian Sangiovese that proved rich and delicious with no cutting after-taste.

The Parmigiano butter and roasted eggplant spreads for the bread were tasty, too, as were our entrees: a calves' liver special ("Best ever," my companion stated), while the gnocchi in pesto sauce I ordered (sans the shrimp, to which I am allergic) was simple and elegant. Our salad featured mozzarella, tomato and beet, and sampling all three -- one keen, fresh taste after another -- proved a delight. Desert was a chocolate mousse cake: creamy heaven atop a crisp wafer. And the final coffee made a dark, rich and mellow end to what seemed a nearly perfect meal. The service was fine and the noise level approaching zero. We chatted for two hours without ever once having to lean across the table and say, "Excuse me?" I had the $35, three-course Prix Fixe dinner, my companion a $25 entree and $11 salad, and our guest, who does not generally eat out, had a $10 Harvey's Bristol Cream and tea. The bill, including liquor, tax and tip, came to $135. An increasingly rare occasion when this much money is spent at a single outing, the meal nonetheless remains one of the best I've had in a long while. I suggest that the New Yorkers reading this blog put Nino's 208 on your "must eat" list ASAP. (Location: 208 E. 58th Street, between Second and Third Avenues, phone 212-750-7766).

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