1516 Bistro (German) (Taipei)

August 18, 2014 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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I have a cousin who’s a big foodie just like me, and recently I’ve been keeping an eye on her recommendations on places to visit next. She gave a big thumbs up to 1516 Bistro Essen und Trinken, a cozy German joint in an alley across the road from the Breeze Center near Zhongxiao Fuxing in Taipei.

We visited early for Friday lunch. It’s not the type of place you notice walking by, and the interior is quite small with only room for about 25 people. But it’s stylish, with a little bar out the front and a wine room in the corner. The toilet is also surprisingly spacious and clean.

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They usually serve business lunch sets during lunch times, but you can also ask for their dinner menu (which comes in English). The business lunch (between NT$300-380) is quite different, offering a soup of the day along with a choice of four sets, which include a salad, a main course and rice, plus a tea/coffee or other beverage for an additional cost.

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The dinner menu is packed with traditional German goodies, and the recommendation I got was to skip the vegetables and go for the meats. It’s a shame, because we wanted to order a lot more than we did, but the waiter told us it was likely going to be too much already, as our order came with free soup and bread. This meant we had to skip the German sausage and bacon, as well as the pan fried US prime steak and the mustard pork tenderloin.

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Instead, we went with the flammkuchen (bacon onion pancake/pizza) as a starter, and pork knuckle and deep fried chicken with caramel sea salt.

First up, the complimentary soup and bread.

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The soup was thick cream corn soup, which was nice but extremely thick, so my advice is to not force yourself to finish it because there’s plenty more to come. The bread is nice a fresh, and comes with butter and olive oil/balsamic.

Next, the flammkuchen.

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This was amazing, more or less a super crispy pizza with bacon, cheese and spring onions. Highly recommended as a starter. It’s thin and flavoursome, but not too heavy or filling.

Then, the main courses. Their signature dish is the German pork knuckle, which is crispy on the outside and with a nice bite on the inside.

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It went really well with the yellow mustard and the sauerkraut, which was great because it was not as sour or vinegary as I expected. The best part is that it did not feel too oily or heavy, unlike a lot of other pork knuckles with crispy skin.

Next, the fried chicken with caramel sea salt.

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As you can see, the chicken comes in a roll with a thick, tangy sweet sauce below, well-cooked fried potatoes with onions and sour cream, and a fresh salad. Excellent stuff.

All of that is great, but if you get the chance — and if you can handle a little spice — you must ask for their homemade chili sauce. Take a look at this beauty below.

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It’s spicy, but it’s not the kind of heat that makes you uncomfortable. It just gives the food a great kick and enhances the flavours, without overpowering it. Get it if it’s available — you might have to ask for it.

Lastly, we asked about dessert and were recommended the Kaiserschmarrn, an Austrian pancake that’s supposed to be shredded but comes as a whole here.

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They serve it whole, and then cut it up in front of you before adding a sprinkle of sugar powder and syrup. It’s a glorious hot mix with raisins on the inside, and reminds me of a mix between a thick pancake and bread and butter pudding. It’s phenomenal.

I would have liked to have tried more things, but what I did try was fantastic. 1516 Bistro is one of those small, cozy restaurants that you might not notice at first glance, but one you try it you’ll likely be back, again and again.

8.5/10

PS: I’m not much of a drinker, but I hear they have great wine too.

Details

1516 Bistro Essen und Trinken

Address: No. 4, Lane 30, Section 1, Fuxing South Rd, Zhongshan District, Taipei

Phone: +886 2 2740 5586

Hours: 12:00 am – 2:00 pm, 6:00 pm – 12:00 am

1516

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

August 17, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Guardians_of_the_Galaxy

I hadn’t initially planned on watching the latest Marvel entry, Guardians of the Galaxy, which seemed like a strange turn for the multi-billion-dollar film franchise into less grounded, more childish territory with a talking raccoon and a giant walking tree. Word of mouth that reached me all said it was “OK” or “Pretty good,” though I was astounded by the number of positive reviews I saw online, including an incredible 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Considering Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, probably the best movie of the year (let’s face facts here), only got 91% (about 9% too low), I knew it was only right for me to lay down some dough to watch Guardians on the big screen.

My verdict trickles closer to the word-of-mouth reviews I personally encountered, which is that it’s pretty good, definitely better than original expectations (from the time I saw the trailers), but not quite as good as the glowing reviews it’s been receiving. It’s solid popcorn entertainment, plenty of fun, frequently funny and always engaging, though ultimately still a second-tier franchise when ranked among its peers in the Marvel universe.

The core of the story is virtually identical to The Avengers – a bad guy teams up with another bad guy (with resources) to get their hands on a powerful object, and the only people who can stop them is a team of heroes with different strengths and conflicting personalities. The first half introduces the characters as they “get to know each other,” so to speak, and in the second half they learn to work together and become greater than the sum of their parts. Sound familiar?

Instead of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Hulk (plus Black Widow and Hawk Eye), we have Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) — a wise-cracking, smart-aleck human thief abducted by aliens as a child; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) — a green humanoid alien surgically enhanced by her father and the film’s antagonist to be a killing machine; Drax the Destroyer (David Bautista) — a powerful pink humanoid alien with lots of scars/tattoos and bent on revenge; Rocket (Bradley Cooper) — a CGI talking genius raccoon made from lab experiments; and Groot (Vin Diesel) — a CGI tree-like humanoid with lots of special abilities but a limited vocabulary.

It’s not the Avengers, but this bunch is still pretty solid team where each member plays off the others really well. Chris Pratt, all buffed up for the role, is a larrikin whose sole remaining connection to Earth is his cassette walkman and classic mixtapes, a gag the film executes wonderfully without milking it. He’s no slouch, but his main purpose is to play the human character we can connect with and to provide the laughs. Zoe Saldana, having played a blue alien in Avatar, goes green this time, and she’s the straight face of the group, while David Bautista is the hothead/meat-head with a broken heart. What surprised me were Rocket and Groot, both of whom I thought were going to be lame, but instead they probably turned out to be the film’s most likable characters. Considering the overall tone of the film, a talking raccoon and a walking tree didn’t feel out of place at all.

The supporting cast is also formidable – Glenn Close, John C Reilly, Benicio Del Toro, Karen Gillan and Djimon Hounsou, with Michael Rooker (Daryl’s hillbilly brother from The Walking Dead) as Star-Lord’s mentor, and The Hobbit elf Lee Pace as the destructive villain, Ronan the Accuser, who is no doubt powerful but somewhat lame because of his typical (boring) motivations.

The best way to describe the film’s general feel is cheeky and exciting. Apart from the introductory sequence, none of the film is based on Earth, meaning it’s all crazy alien business we don’t have to take too seriously. Overall, the film’s laugh quotient isn’t as high as I expected, especially because the humour is sometimes obvious and geared towards younger/dumber audiences. I personally thought there could have been more wit and sharper jokes, though it’s still frequently amusing enough to make the film a fun ride.

The action is varied and visually spectacular — largely thanks to superb special effects we tend to take for granted these days. It’s not quite edge-of-your-seat stuff, though it’s clever, creative and amusing enough to be plenty of fun.  And importantly, it feels as though the action never stops. Even when there’s no fighting there are always people walking, in the forefront or in the background, and if they’re standing still it’s because they’re on a speedy spacecraft. It gives the film a frenetic pace that never seems to slow.

The disadvantage of this film compared to The Avengers is that the characters themselves, as great as they are, don’t generate any excitement. With The Avengers, much of the attraction comes from the concept of putting all these fantastic superheroes together. With Guardians of the Galaxy, however, most viewers outside of hardcore fans won’t know who our heroes are, meaning more time has to be spent building them up from scratch. The Avengers superheroes already have cache entering the film, whereas here they have to earn our trust and affection. On the other hand, the advantage of this set-up is that there are no expectations or baggage. We expected The Avengers to deliver; no one really expected much out of Guardians of the Galaxy, allowing it to pleasantly surprise. Full credit has to go to director James Dunn (who also co-wrote the screenplay) in taking what was probably an experimental franchise — a year before the release of The Avengers 2 – and turning it into such a good-natured, family-oriented hit.

I’ve seen some people write that Guardians of the Galaxy is better than The Avengers, but that’s just borderline insaniquarium. Calling it “Baby Avengers,” however, would be doing the film a disservice. It is what it is: two hours of top-notch popcorn fun that’s quickly forgotten as soon as the credits roll (or in this case, the conclusion of the crazy post-credits scene).

3.75 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ by John Green

August 14, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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It’s almost always a dilemma for me when a film adaptation of a popular novel is released. Do I read the book first or watch the movie first? I’m pretty sure this is something I have posted about on this blog many moons ago, and I still don’t know the answer.

This time, when faced with the agonizing decision between movie or novel version of The Fault in Our Stars by award-winning young adult writer John Green, I went with the novel first, partly out of necessity because I didn’t have enough time to watch movies not named Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (I’m serious).

I’m not much of a romance reader and I’m rarely emotionally gripped by a novel, but I admit The Fault in Our Stars got to me. Not right away, but slowly and gradually, and by the end of it all I was a bit of a mess. I can usually see through when I’m being manipulated by the author, so I thought I would be able to handle the book’s cancer-ridden themes, though in this case Green’s writing was so crafty that by the time I realized what was happening it was already too late.

The story itself is not groundbreaking in any way. Sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster is a thyroid cancer patient who is already living on borrowed time after being miraculously but temporarily spared from death. She begrudgingly attends support group, where she meets young amputee Augustus Waters. And so begins a courtship of two teenagers, one that’s strangely normal, typically awkward, but also incredibly sweet. A notable aspect of the tale is their shared love for a (fictional) novel called An Imperial Affliction, which sparks a search for the book’s reclusive writer halfway around the world.

So what is it that makes the fault in our stars a good read? Well, for starters, Hazel and Augustus are really likable people. They’re smart, they’re genuine and they have a great sense of humor. There are other — arguably more important — reasons too: Hazel supposedly looks like a young Natalie Portman, while Augustus is a former basketball star who happens to have an Indiana Pacers Rik Smits jersey. And if you have any idea how I feel about Natalie, Rik and the Pacers, you’ll understand why I enjoyed their company so much, and why I was perhaps a little biased.

The legend himself

The legend himself

Far from the beautiful, flawless protagonists from Twilight, Hazel carries around an oxygen tank with her at all times and is rarely seen without a tube under her nose, and Augustus of course has a prosthetic leg. They make a great couple.

And it’s not just them either. The minor characters, while generally in the background, are also well developed, especially the parents and the fellow cancer patients down at the support group. My favourite has to be Augustus’s best friend, Isaac, who is about to lose his eyesight and has the same wry humour as our star-crossed lovers.

What really surprised me about The Fault in Our Stars is that, as a book about cancer and death, it has a distinct lack of sappy melodrama. The way Green goes about the story is candid, realistic, with no trite sense of self pity (though even the most stoic of cancer sufferers have their moments). His prose is full of wit, just like his main characters, who, despite being teenagers, are incredibly level-headed and self-aware.

This is not to say Green makes light of cancer or cancer sufferers. But here, they are not heroes or warriors, nor are they weaklings — they are just ordinary people cursed with something they can’t control, doing whatever they can to cope. As a result, there is a subtle charm about this book that creeps up on you. I didn’t start off thinking, “Wow, what a great book, what great writing!” I actually recall early on thinking that it was pretty good, though I didn’t get what the fuss was all about. But at some stage I began to realize that I was emotionally involved in these characters’ lives, and I badly wanted them to make it against the odds.

I thought this was going to be quite a simple love story. On some levels, it is, but there are also many thought-provoking themes that will make you question what life is all about, what it means to be alive, and the legacies — whether big or small — that each of us leave behind when we die.

I was deeply touched by The Fault in Our Stars. I laughed, I (nearly) cried, and I thought about it a lot, even long after turning the last page. It’s a book I would recommend not only to young adults, but all readers.

4.5/5

PS: Can’t wait to see the movie.

Movie Review: 22 Jump Street (2014)

August 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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21 Jump Street, the big screen adaptation of the late-80s TV series that made Johnny Depp famous, is somewhat of a minor miracle. Everybody expected it to suck, and suck badly,  and yet it somehow became one of the surprise hits of 2012, featuring irreverent and self referential humor fueled by the seamless chemistry between the two leads, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

The film’s unexpected fortune is a fact that the inevitable and obligatory sequel, 22 Jump Street, makes fun of very early on, and it goes even further than that by dishing out pessimistic predictions for what will happen the second time around.

It’s the type of humor and wit that made the first film so enjoyable, but at the same time, it also serves as a self fulfilling prophecy — because admittedly, 22 Jump Street genuinely isn’t as good as its predecessor. That’s not to say that the film is not still significantly better than most comedies that get turned out these days. In fact, there’s a good chance it will end up as one of the better comedies of the year. 

Hill and Tatum return has the ultimate odd couple — one physically challenged and the other mentally — who are thrust back into the undercover business because it’s the only thing they haven’t yet screwed up. And so their superior, Ice Cube, sends them to college to figure out who has been selling a dangerous new drug to students.

The central premise is almost exactly the same except it is set in college, and the writers know only too well the pitfalls of such a by-the-numbers sequel. But instead of trying something drastically different, the film embraces its destiny.

In 21 Jump Street, the film made fun of how high schoolers these days are different to what they were back in the 80s, and it also flipped what we had expected to happen to the characters, making Hill popular and Tatum miserable. Of course, in 22 Jump Street, the roles are predictably reversed once again, with Tatum becoming a football star and Hill failing to catch up because of his physical shortcomings. It’s the old “we know that you know that we know what should happen” joke, if that makes any sense.

Apart from this one big in-joke, the strengths of the sequel are almost identical to that of its predecessor. Hill and Tatum have a legitimate bromance; their chemistry and the weight they feed off each other come across as effortless and genuine. I’m guessing that some of the biggest laughs in the film were probably improvised. There’s also some solid slapstick, farcical action, and of course a lot of trippy craziness. Those who understand Hill’s brand of awkward, outrageous and random humour will likely get the most out of it.

The supporting cast is also very solid, with Ice Cube seemingly (I say seemingly because I can’t remember) given a bigger role this time around, and newcomers such as Peter Stromare, Amber Stevens and Nick Offerman, with cameos from Queen Latifah, Dave Franco and Rob Riggle. The standout, though, has to be Jillian Bell, basically a psychotic anti-version of Jonah Hill. Former pro hockey player Wyatt Russell, who has been in This is 40 and Arrested Development, also does a great job channeling his inner Owen Wilson as Tatum’s new BFF.

There are no major problems with 22 Jump Street except that some of the jokes don’t work or come across as a little repetitive, and the unfortunate thing with having such a great introduction (which this film did) is that there is inevitable disappointment when the rest of the movie fails to live up to it. 22 Jump Street opened with a bang, but there was a lengthy portion in the middle — primarily college life — that sagged, though luckily shifting the scene to Spring Break in Mexico towards the end breathed some much-needed fresh life back into its system.

The verdict? It may not be as witty as it thinks it is and the edges may be somewhat rough and coarse, but 22 Jump Street is definitely still funny and enjoyable enough to warrant a viewing. Considering how badly it could have gone, the end result also passes as a minor miracle.

3.75 stars out of 5

Setting (realistic) daily goals

August 13, 2014 in Blogging, On Writing by pacejmiller

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About 10 days ago, I posted about taking a new approach to my writing, and that’s to treat every single day as a challenge. So far, it has worked out OK. I’ve been more efficient, but still nowhere near as effective as I want to be.

Part of the problem is that the extent to which I challenge myself can vary greatly on a day-to-day basis. Some days I feel pumped and challenge myself to do a lot. Other days I’m not in the mood and I challenge myself to do very little.

And so I’ve come up with a second prong to my strategy, and that’s to set (realistic) goals every day. Back in the day when I was busy working at The Place That Shall Not Be Named, writing daily task lists was my favourite thing to do. I loved writing down everything that needed to be accomplished and then enjoying the sense of accomplishment as I ticked them off one by one. To some extent it did help me become more organized because there was often so much to do that I felt completely swamped, but usually it was so I could tick things off a list and feel good about myself.

I need to bring that back. From now, I will write up a list every morning of the things I should complete for the day. I usually set extremely unrealistic goals for myself, so I’m going to try and slowly build it up, like a workout (you can’t start off with the heavy weights, you know).

Will report back on that works out.

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