King Georges: A Possibly Tasty Movie Review

On our way to dinner at The Broad Axe Tavern on a recent Friday night I told my wife Sandy about the approach, since abandoned, that I might take in writing the article you currently are reading. It was to be a comparison of dinner at The Broad Axe with what my opinion would have been, had I ever eaten there, of dinner at Le Bec-Fin, a famous, majestic and now-closed French restaurant in Philadelphia. All of this made possible sense because the movie that Sandy and I were headed to later that evening in suburban Philadelphia was King Georges, a documentary about the last few years (2010 to 2012) of Chef Georges Perrier’s involvement with Le Bec-Fin, which he opened in 1970.

Yup, I had thought that my culinary tastes and scrutinies would make for way cooler reading than a review of King Georges. And, dope that I tend to be, I was quite certain about what my conclusion would be, even before seeing King Georges. Namely, that I’d prefer to eat at The Broad Axe than at fancy-schmancy Le Bec-Fin. Broad Axe food I understand. It’s good for the most part and you don’t need a translator to figure out what’s what. Le Bec-Fin’s fare, which I had read about for decades, would have intimidated me. That’s because I knew and still know diddly-squat about high-level French cuisine.

We saw King Georges at the Ambler Theater.
We saw King Georges at the Ambler Theater.

But after watching King Georges I did an about-face. Who cares about my food preferences when a terrific piece of filmmaking is at hand? Clear the way! Movie review, here I come! And by the way, I should have given pricey LBF at least one spin during its lifetime. I’d have parted with some serious cash, but the meal and the experience would have been worth it. I hadn’t because I was a culinary coward.

Sure, the food looks great in King Georges. But that’s not the reason to see the movie, as food isn’t primarily what it’s all about. What we have here is a vibrant look at a pretty complicated guy. King Georges is filmed mostly in close-up and often in tight quarters, Le Bec-Fin’s kitchens, and reveals an extremely colorful and self-driven character as he wrestles with the reality that his famed and celebrated baby, LBF, ain’t the destination that it once had been. And that maintaining his customer base is hard and ultimately maybe not possible. What’s a top chef to do? In Georges Perrier’s case, keep on truckin’ and truckin’ until . . .

King Georges 2 IMG_1269
King Georges shows Perrier as a sometimes-crazed dynamo in the kitchen, his senses aware of what’s going on in every pot and pan attended to by the small army of chefs under his command at LBF. He rants and raves. He praises and hugs. He includes sh–t and/or fu–k in half the sentences that pour from his mouth. He’s a pip, a perfectionist, an incredibly hard worker who seems to have gotten no more than a handful of hours of sleep nightly for forty-plus years. How can you not love someone like this? I mean, he cares. Born and raised in France, he came to the USA in the mid 1960s hoping to own, cook for and run one of the best restaurants in the States. All of which he ended up doing for years and years. And he became a celebrity of sorts in the process, a big name in certain circles around the globe, eons before the likes of chefs/restaurateurs Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Mario Batali became media fixtures.

During the last few years, though, Georges Perrier hasn’t been too visible. Whom, then, do we have to thank for bringing him to our eyes and ears in 2016? None other than Erika Frankel, she whom neither you nor I ever heard of before. Frankel has earned her keep producing documentaries and other works since the early 2000s but, before King Georges, never had donned a director’s cap. How did she manage to handle the job so well? Maybe it was beginner’s luck. Probably it was innate talent. Whatever, having a charismatic figure to make a movie about didn’t hurt.

You know, writing this article has made me hungry. I’m going to head into the kitchen and labor over one of my exotic specialties, a grilled cheese sandwich. I’m sure that Chef Perrier would approve of my sandwich-flipping technique, the precise and practiced manner in which my right wrist rotates just so. Before I say goodbye, however, let me mention that King Georges isn’t making waves at the box office. In fact, Sandy and I were lucky to see it in a theater, because nationally only a single digits number of cinemas are showing it. But happily for the inhabitants of our planet, King Georges is obtainable via Amazon Prime and other online operations. Be it at a theater, or more likely in the comfort of your home, here’s your chance to be the first on your block to watch King Georges. Take it from me, kids. I think you’ll like it.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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A Meditation On Pizza

Pizza, pizza, pizza. For how long have you been a part of my life? Why do I adore you so? Have my feelings about you changed over the years? And most importantly, where the heck can I find really good examples of you? These are questions I am about to answer. They also are questions to which I will return in future articles on this blog.

Some people write about politics or religion or nanomechanics. I have yet to address those and other heady subjects, and probably never will. I don’t have the smarts for that. I’m not too sure I have the wattage to say anything dynamic about pizza either, for that matter. I’m a preschooler compared to the Einsteins out there whose knowledge of and insights into the world of pies are dazzling. But I’m not embarrassed to lay out some thoughts and observations. Take it away, Neil.

Pizza is my favorite food and has been for 40 or so years. I grew up on Long Island, and it was there in the early 1960s that my pizza habit began. The habit grew, and somewhere in the early 1970s became pretty well an obsession. I was living on Long Island for part of that decade, and in Manhattan and Philadelphia at other times. In all of those locales the pizza was similar. I, and I’m sure most people, didn’t spend a lot of time discussing pizza in those days. Basically, you ate it and you liked it. There were only two varieties back then, regular (a round pie that I suppose now would be referred to as New York style) and Sicilian (a square pie whose crust was thicker and chewier than the regular pie’s). You could get mushrooms or pepperoni with the former if that was your wont.

By the late 20th century though, pizza became a complicated subject with a nomenclature that I can’t keep straight. New York style, Chicago style, Neapolitan, Margherita, thin crust . . . on and on it goes. And then there’s the whole matter of toppings. We live in an age when figs, pineapple, you name it, are fair game to bake atop a pie. For ease of discussion I’m going to keep this essay focused on the type of pizza I like best, the humble round darling composed of crust, cheese and tomato sauce. No toppings.

In the 1970s regular pizza seemed a-ok to me. It was chewy and floppy, often heavily laden with cheese and tomato sauce and usually dripping with oil. That variety is alive and well to this day. Its top makers, such as Di Fara (in Brooklyn) are truly famed. I’ve never had a Di Fara slice, but I gather that that establishment has taken the regular (aka New York style) pie to a new level, probably by using higher quality ingredients than those I grew up with. I wish that Di Fara would open a branch near me. While I wait two or three millennia for that to happen, I’ll instead continue to visit a couple of places in the Philly burbs that make New York style pizza similar to what I devoured years ago. The quality varies from visit to visit at these parlors, but I can’t complain too much. I like their wares fairly well overall, though I now have better alternatives.

There’s something about pizza that strikes a chord with my elemental self. It’s not a fussy or complicated product. The three main components seemingly were created to join blissfully together to make taste buds swoon. But as I’ve learned over the last 20 years, a great gastronomic marriage can become even greater. In other words, pizzas better than those I knew in my youth and middle age exist in this world. Di Fara’s baby is an example. In the USA, pizzas have reached rarified heights of deliciousness.

I’m not talking about all pizzas by any means. Most American pies still are very ordinary, maybe way too heavy on the cheese or cursed with a cardboard crust or hampered by an indifferent tomato sauce. However, new pizza orientations have taken hold in many establishments, and the one I’m especially all for is this: Thinner and charred crust. High quality cheeses and tomato sauce in balanced proportions. Oil in moderation, not cascading from each slice like a waterfall. This is not New York style pizza, though I’m a bit uncertain as to the name(s) it has been given by the pizza intelligentsia.

The above paragraphs are a long lead-in to my recent visit to Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, a chain with a branch in Horsham, PA, not far from my home. My wife Sandy and I dropped in on a hot August Saturday night. We’d been there before, each previous visit knocking our socks off. I know of a few places in Philadelphia with pizzas that match my updated criteria for excellence. In the burbs, Anthony’s is the one and only that I’ve discovered.

Our lovely salad at Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza.
Our lovely Italian salad at Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza.

Anthony’s has a small menu. I’d guess that pretty much everything on it is swell. Sandy and I, though, have had only the Italian salad and what Anthony’s calls its traditional pizza. Both are so good we order them again and again. The other night the salad was fine as usual. Crisp lettuce, chick peas, tomato and hard boiled egg wedges, all glazed with a tart light vinaigrette dressing. Simple and satisfying.

Our majestic pizza pie at Anthony's.
Our majestic pizza pie at Anthony’s.

The pizza came on a flat wood throne. Visually the pie was beautiful — you have to love those darkened areas, the basic color palette. Tastewise, beautiful too. The cheeses, mozzarella and romano, were earthy, the plum tomato sauce bright and lively. And the crust’s charcoal bite brought me joy. I’m an easy guy to please, given the right circumstances. At Anthony’s I was a happy eater. Good salad and superb pizza. And a hoppy brew to wash them both down, Arcadia Brewing Company’s Cheap Date Pale Ale. There was nothing more I needed or desired.

I’ve previously written about Capofitto, a fine joint in Philadelphia serving up blackened soul-satisfying pies. I know that pizza greatness extends far beyond Capofitto and Anthony’s. Fussy me will continue to search for pizzas way above the pedestrian, and will report back now and then as I discover them.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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We Said “Cheese Please” At Iron Abbey

I’ve grumbled before on these pages about the paucity of loveliness in the townships that surround my suburban Philadelphia home base. Stuck in the middle of a large section of this haphazard overdevelopment is a place that I think is a-ok. Iron Abbey is its name, and beer and good food is its game. It is a gastropub. Location: Horsham, Pennsylvania. My wife Sandy and I ate dinner there recently. One part of the meal, a cheese plate of all things, particularly opened our minds and eyes.

Part of the scene at Iron Abbey.
Part of the scene at Iron Abbey.

Iron Abbey is a large establishment. Its dining areas and bar are on ground level where the look is woody and stoney rustic. Kind of like, who’d have guessed, an abbey. Upstairs are an espresso café and rooms filled with beers for takeout purchase. The beer rooms are wondrous, packed with microbrews, many obscure, from the corners of the globe. For this article, let’s stay on the ground floor, where the beer selections are no less mind-blowing.

Sandy doesn’t like beer. She is a wine lady. Unfortunately for her, Iron Abbey does not cater to wine-by-the-glass ladies or gents. Those selections are slim. The two Sauvignon Blanc choices were overpriced at $10.50, so Sandy, a white wine devotee, instead sipped an eight dollar glass of Cielo Pinot Grigio, direct from Italy. Sandy says she has had better. I took a sample and approved of its dryness but quickly decided its flavor could be richer.

Enough about wines. The Philadelphia region has become a haven for beer geeks, and Iron Abbey is a top example why. I spent five minutes poring over the beer menu. The choices were nearly endless, around 40 on tap and 250 in bottles and cans. The pressure was on. Twice I told our waitress that I needed more time to decide. On her third visit to the table I was too embarrassed to ask for another extension. Firestone Walker Easy Jack IPA I said, pointing it out on the menu’s draft beer section. With craft beers, one usually can’t go too wrong, so skilled have the world’s brewers become. My selection, birthed in sunny California, was proof. Bitter and hopped-up it was, as all good IPAs should be. One of the hops varieties in the recipe imparted a husky tinge of grapefruit flavor to the brew. I liked that a lot.

The best segment of the meal came next. Sandy and I were all set to bypass any starters and simply place our main course orders when I absentmindedly began to pay some attention to the menu section titled “The Board.” There, one may select from various cheeses and meats, all of which are accompanied by an eclectic mix of nibbly stuffs. Why not, we decided. When the waitress reappeared we picked two cheeses and sat back with our drinks. We’re not naïfs, but neither of us had ever before ordered a cheese plate at a restaurant.

The cheese board that we loved.
The cheese plate that we loved.

The cheese plate arrived and we couldn’t have had a better time. It came with salty olives, crunchy excellent French bread, fig and apricot jams, roasted Macadamia nuts,  pickled red onion slivers and membrillo. Yes, I hadn’t a clue either as to what membrillo is. Turns out that it is a firm soft paste made from quince pulp, sugar and water. Some post-Iron Abbey research told me it’s commonly found in Portugal, Spain and Italy. I caught what I thought were flavors from the apple and pear family. Quince, as additional research told me a little while ago, is indeed related to those fruits. Bottom line, the membrillo was delicious. The other accompaniments were too. As for the cheeses, we had selected  Ubriaco Classico from Italy and Ossau Iraty from France. As with membrillo, I’d never heard of either of those cheeses before. For the most part I’m a Kraft swiss and Cracker Barrel cheddar kind of guy. But I know there’s a world of cheeses out there to be explored. The Ubriaco was semisoft and hinted of wine and citrus. The Ossau Iraty was dense and dry and pungent. Sandy and I swooned over both of them and the bread and the nibbly stuffs. This was the most exciting platter of food we’d had in quite a while.

Crab cake entrée (top). Chicken burger (bottom).
Crab cake entrée (top). Chicken burger (bottom).

After the cheese extravaganza we’d have been happy to pay up and leave. We knew that it would overshadow the next course. Which it did. My grilled ground chicken burger, though, was awfully tasty, a comfort dish covered with melted Monterey Jack cheese and sautéed bits of red peppers and onion. The side salad I opted for in lieu of fries was fine too. Sandy’s crab cake entrée was done nicely. The grilled crab cake was charred outside, soft inside and good. Some extra doses of spices and flavorings wouldn’t have been a bad idea, though. It sat atop dreamy mashed potatoes, mushroom slices blended through. Blanched then sautéed itsy bitsy asparagus and carrot pieces, very flavorful, surrounded the mountain.

We had no room for dessert. We paid our bill and thanked our waitress, then squeezed past the crowds to the front door. Iron Abbey is a popular spot. Though it is by no means perfect, there are good reasons why it’s bustling.

(Photographs by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)