Ita 義塔 (Taipei)

April 15, 2015 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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Another day, another Wowprime Group restaurant. Taiwan’s good industry juggernaut has just about tackled everything, from steak to Japanese to Teppanyaki to hotpot. Just as I was wondering when they’d venture into Italian, out comes Ita  (義塔), a new establishment that follows in their predictable but comfortable set course tradition.

As at the date of my visit in March 2015, there was only one store in Taipei, one in Taoyuan and two in Taichung, though if it is successful — and I think it will be — I’m sure the franchise will branch out very quickly.

The decor inside the store is fairly typical of Wowprime restaurants. Comfortable, clean, and probably designed by the same people. It’s a very child-friendly place that has ample baby and child seats for all ages and free soup and bread for the young ones.  They have a semi-open pizza kitchen but we were seated at the other end so we didn’t see them in action.


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Ita belongs to the lower end of Wowprime’s price spectrum. Each set is just NT$380 +10% service charge, and you get bread, salad, soup, a main course, dessert and a beverage. You can also just get a main course without all the extras for NT$280, which is also the price for a fried share plate that contains chicken wings, fish and French fries.

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First up, some bread. Fresh, warm, and with butter. Not bad.

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We ordered both salad options, the cold Caesar, which appears to have no chicken.

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And the warm roasted vegetables.

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This is the corn soup for the kiddies (also an option for the adults). Creamy.

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We also got the pumpkin soup, probably their best soup.

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And the tomato vegetable soup, which was average.

Choosing the main course was very difficult because they have so many options. They have five types of pizza and nine types of pasta/risotto. We were so lost, because everything looked so good in the menu photos, that we even ordered an additional pizza. In the end, we got two pizzas and a pasta.

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The first was the Margherita, with tomato and basil. It looked pretty good and tasted pretty good. Obviously not on par with some of the pizzas I’ve had elsewhere, but for the price it was very good value.

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The second was their only mix-and-match pizza, the half-Hawaiian, half Hakka pork pizza. Pretty good too. The kids liked the Hawaiian. The Hakka pork was a little salty but I think that’s the way it’s meant to be.

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We kind of wanted steak too, so we got the roasted garlic pasta with steak. Surprisingly excellent. The pasta was cooked to perfection and the meat was fairly tender. The sauce that came with it was super.

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This is the beverage. A lemon ice drink. Sweet and sour, just the way I like it.

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As for the dessert, we got the banana chocolate cake.

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And the berry milk pudding. Loved the milk pudding. The banana chocolate was OK.

Overall, a place I can see myself coming back to. It’s not gourmet cuisine but it’s very solid and ranks as one of the above average Wowprime restaurants. The affordable pricing makes it especially attractive. Most of all, it’s the variety in the options of main courses that make me want to come back and try again.

8/10

Details

Ita (義塔)

Website (Chinese): http://www.itahouse.com.tw/index.htm

Address: No. 99, Section 1, Chongqing S Rd, Zhongzheng District, Taipei

Phone: 02-2361-2792

 

2014 Movie Blitz: Part VI

April 13, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Kill the Messenger (2014)

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Surprised this one didn’t get more burn.

This is the true story of Gary Webb, played by the brilliant Jeremy Renner, a journalist who uncovers the CIA’s role in importing crack cocaine into the US to secretly fund the Nicaraguan contra rebels. OK, so maybe the CIA didn’t import the drugs themselves, but they acquiesced in stopping it and they knew that it was going mostly to impoverished black communities. That’s pretty huge news, right? But for whatever reason the story, much like this film, slipped under the radar.

The film had a big cast too that included the likes of Ray Liotta, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Oliver Platt, Andy Garcia, Michael Sheen and Robert Patrick. It’s hard hitting, gripping and gritty, and though it might not be the most exciting film, it certainly kept me entertained and emotionally invested in Webb’s plight.

Renner is sensational in this, proving once again that he can be believable no matter what kind of character he plays. Webb is a complex character and Renner brings out his fear, frustration and anger in perfect abundance. The moral of the story, as always, is to not mess with the US government because they will mess you up tenfold in return.

3.75 stars out of 5

The Best of Me (2014)

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Ever since The Notebook, his debut novel, Nicholas Sparks has been trying to recreate the magic with clones of his most beloved work. The Best of Me is his latest attempt, and frankly, it stinks.

Perhaps that’s too strong of a word, but I feel like if you’ve seen one Nicholas Sparks movie you’ve seen it all. This one, in particular, embraces the formula to the letter. An innocent romance between young star-crossed lovers, who end up being separated for some painful reason. Years later, they reunited by chance and rekindle the passion, lamenting how things could have been, before finishing with a bittersweet ending that aims to be both tragic and moving. If you haven’t noticed, that description matches both The Notebook and The Best of Me.

James Marsden, who played the third wheel the girl dumps in The Notebook gets an opportunity to redeem himself as the male lead this time, while Michelle Monaghan earns her paycheck as the rich girl who falls for the poor boy. The film also utilises flashbacks, in which the younger characters are played by Aussie Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato, respectively. One problem with this arrangement is that James Marsden (41) looks a little too young and Luke Bracey a little too old (25) for them to be versions of the same character 21 years apart, though the bigger issue is that the two actors look absolutely nothing alike! Seriously, they might as well have gotten Samuel L Jackson to play the older version because the resemblance is zero.

Fans looking for the same thing will probably love it — explains why they keep rolling these movies out — but for me this film was just so much saccharine fluff. You can clearly see the plot points it’s trying to hit along the way, including the contrived ending you could see coming a mile away, and if you don’t buy into the characters there’s not much of a chance you’ll feel anything for them. There was one good scene between Monaghan and the actor who plays her douchey husband, Sebastian Arcelus, when they’re at the dinner table and you can see why their marriage isn’t working out, but apart from that The Best of Me won’t bring out the best of anyone who watches it.

1.75 stars out of 5

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (2014)

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I can’t remember much about The Woman in Black except that Daniel Radcliffe is in it and that the film was surprisingly good and scary. The sequel, Angel of Death, on the other hand, is bland and boring.

There is a connection between the two films — being the haunted house — but they have a different cast and different directors and screenwriters. Susan Hill, who wrote the book the first film was adapted from, helped with coming up with the story, but if I didn’t know that I would have thought she simply sold the rights in return for an easy paycheck.

Angel of Death follows a boarding school teacher (Phoebe Fox) and a bunch of students forced to evacuate their boarding school during World War II. Of course, then end up at the Eel Marsh House where the Woman in Black resides. Spooky stuff starts to happen, and there’s a mystery behind the haunting that needs to be figured out. All fairly standard horror tropes.

The best thing the film has going for it is the creepy atmosphere of the house and the fact that children are involved (also scary), though the narrative progresses slowly and there are too many lulls in between the attempts at scares, which aren’t really scary with the exception of a couple of well-timed moments. On the whole, this is a straight-to-DVD-quality horror sequel fans of the original will likely be disappointed with.

2 stars out of 5

If I Stay (2014)

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Chloe Moretz is growing up quickly, and this is a bold choice for her to venture into supernatural teen romantic drama territory (which I argue is even bolder than her young prostitute stint in Denzel’s The Equalizer). If I Stay, based on the novel of the same name by Gayle Forman, tells the story of a teenage cellist named Mia who falls into a coma following a devastating car accident with her family. The twist is that Mia’s soul is still hanging around outside her body, kind of in a limbo state, and she must decide whether she wants to move on to the afterlife or stay to be with her rock band musician boyfriend (Jamie Blackley).

It’s not a terrible film, but If I Stay didn’t do much for me. The narrative jumps around, with a few scenes in the present and plenty of flashbacks that trace the progress of the romance, which came across as fairly stereotypical and without anything fresh to offer. There was a heavy focus on music, given that they are both musicians and all, but I didn’t care much for either of their musical tastes. I thought its central conceit — the whole should I stay or should I go thing — was interesting, though the execution felt like it was trying to milk tears from audiences as opposed to letting the moving drama speak  for itself. Some parts worked, while others came across as clear attempts at manipulation.

Chloe Moretz, who is very good as usual, tries really hard to make it work. Unfortunately, while I can see how some viewers would fall in love with this movie, for me, If I Stay is a film that fails to fulfill the potential of its premise.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Focus (2015)

April 13, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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If it feels like it’s been ages since Will Smith has been in a movie, it’s probably because it has been. The Fresh Prince’s last genuine feature film (if you discount basically cameos in Winter’s Tale and Anchorman 2) is the abysmal After Earth, which practically destroyed his son Jaden’s acting future and put a severe dent in his own.

And so I found it interesting that Smith went for a project like Focus, which is a departure from his typical sci-fi blockbusters (Independence Day, MIB, Hancock, I Robot, I am Legend) and melodramatic “acting” efforts (Six Degrees of Separation, The Pursuit of Happyness, Seven Pounds). The closest things on his resume is probably Hitch, made 10 years ago, which has a consistent vibe and has him playing a similar sort of character.

In Focus, Smith plays Nicky Spurgeon, a con man who takes a beautiful young woman (Margot Robbie) under his wing to learn the tricks of the trade. They scam people, they make money, they have fun. Naturally, there is an attraction between the two, which is a no-no for their line of work. It’s one of those films where you’re supposed to be constantly unsure of the characters’ motivations and just who is playing whom.

Focus relies on the chemistry between the two leads, which is apparently so good that the gossip mags had a field day with all the affair rumors when the film was being made. Smith and Robbie are nice to look at and do make a good team, but I just couldn’t bring myself to like Smith’s character, who came across as too familiar to distinguish from his other roles. It’s always the same  — the “I’m so cool and suave and deadpan” and “I’m always in perfect control and never get rattled by anything” demeanour Smith has been crafting since his Fresh Prince days and perfected through Bay Boys, Independence Day, MIB, Wild Wild West and so forth. The act can be funny and all, but I found myself getting tired of it in this film.

There’s not a lot of depth in Focus, though I admit it had some fun and exciting moments as the stakes kept being raised higher and higher.  Fans of plot twists will also probably get a kick out of the movie because there are plenty of twists and turns all the way through. The problem I had with it was that rather than being shocked again and again, I became prepared for every twist that came my way and grew suspicious each time the plot took another turn. Most of all, underneath all of that, I carried the feeling that everything was going to be just fine in the end, so it kind of rendered all the twists superfluous anyway.

In the end, I found Focus to be forgettable experience. It may be slick and stylish but it wasn’t particularly funny and was only sporadically entertaining. The ending was also predictable and not as clever as it should have been. Chalk this one up as a DVD rental.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Seventh Son (2014)

April 12, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Seventh Son is a bleak illustration of just how difficult it is to make a good fantasy film in a single instalment.

Having heard all sorts of terrible things about it, I knew it was probably not going to be great, but as a sucker for epic fantasy action flicks, this one was supposed to have it all: a seemingly interesting plot about the “special” seventh son of a seventh son; witches and monster hunters; swords and magic; shape-shifters, snarling dragons, dudes with four arms, dudes who turn into bears and giant lizards — all of it presented with stunning special effects; and an impressive all-star cast featuring Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes (best known as Prince and then King Caspian in the Narnia series), Julianne Moore, Kit Harington (Jon Snow), Olivia Williams, Antje Trauer (from Pandorum), Alicia Vikander (who is apparently going to be huge after Ex Machina becomes a global hit), Jason Scott Lee and Djimon Hounsou.

And yet, Seventh Son failed to exceed my low expectations. Cliched, predictable, dull, with stock characters and a disappointing climax, the only thing it really had going for it were some impressive special effects and a handful of nice action sequences. Sadly, what everyone said about it turned out to be true.

The film is based on the novel The Spook’s Apprentice by Joseph Delaney, which is actually the first in a series of books about a 12-year-old boy named Tom Ward, who as the seventh son of a seventh son is able to see supernatural things others cannot. His parents apprentice him to a Spook — basically a ghost/monster hunter of sorts — named Gregory, and so begins his adventure into a world of crazy stuff.

But while The Wardstone Chronicles, as the series is known, has 16 books, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Seventh Son is going to be a one-and-done effort given how cursed the entire production was. Ben Barnes was a late replacement for Sam Claflin. Filming began back in March 2012, with a target release date in February 2013. But the special effects team went bust and had to get a court-issued payment of US$5m to finish their work on the film. The guy who was supposed to complete the score left due to scheduling conflicts and they had to get someone else. Legendary Films then parted ways with distributor Warner Bros. The film was eventually released in France late last year and most other regions in February, a delay of almost three years from the initial target. When a film gets delayed that long you just know that no one involved thought highly enough of it to try and get it pushed through.

The finished product, as you might expect, is a bit of a mess. The biggest problem is the complete lack of character development, especially for Tom Ward. It appeared they made a decision early on to focus on the film’s bigger star, Jeff Bridges, who plays the master Spook to the apprentice. Bridges was given top billing and probably equal screen time to Barnes, and they made the story more about him than its titular character.

The Spook is an intriguing character, but it defeats the purpose when the supposedly central protagonist, the Seventh Son, turns out to be a character you don’t care about and can’t really be bothered to get to know. In this film, Tom Ward is the most vanilla hero you could possibly come up with. We know he’s a cliched farmer’s son who grew up not knowing anything about the real world or his destiny. And apart from that, we don’t learn much more about his personality throughout the rest of the film, except that he’s a little horny and has no problem bending the rules for sexy ladies (in this case Alicia Vikander, who plays a witch — setting up the typical “star-crossed lovers” dynamic).

Ben Barnes, whom I’ve always thought is one of the prettiest actors of his generation, gets little to work with here. He’s a fine actor, but with such a thin plot and character there’s not much he can do to turn Tom Ward into a protagonist audiences can give a shit about. Jeff Bridges slurs his way through like he’s still The Dude from The Big Lebowski, while Julianne Moore is probably willing to hand back her Oscar to pretend she was never the baddie/witch/dragon lady she played in this film.

With the exception of a couple of relatively exciting, CGI-filled set action pieces, Seventh Son is a failure that never manages to escape an air of familiarity and predictability. The source material may have had a genuinely interesting world to offer, though it’s sadly something audiences would never know from watching this film. It’s easy to blame the script or the direction of Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov (who has received a couple of Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Film), but the reality is that it’s just extraordinarily difficult to make a decent epic fantasy in a standalone film, especially one that’s 102 minutes. It’s no wonder why the gold standards of the genre are Lord of the Rings, which is basically three three-hour films, and Game of Thrones, which is 10 hours per season.

Ultimately, Seventh Son is not terrible — it’s just another major disappointment. It’s a film that felt like it set out with high ambitions but everything about it suggests that it was aiming low.

2.25 stars out of 5

The First @ Eslite Spectrum Songyan (Taipei)

April 12, 2015 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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It was anniversary time, so we needed somewhere special. My foodie cousin recommended The First, a relatively new restaurant inside the Eslite Spectrum Songyan store that’s been getting rave reviews online. The cuisine has been described as modern French with a distinct Taiwanese influence and flavour. Sounded good to me.

The restaurant is literally among the books on the third floor, not exactly the kind of place you’d expect to find a top notch restaurant with great ambiance and views. The decor, as you can see below, is new, very clean cut and comfortable, and it put me immediately at ease as soon as I walked in.

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The restaurant is also known for its impressive views, including of the under-construction Taipei Dome and the iconic Taipei 101 in the background. Apparently dining by the window at night is particularly awesome, so make sure you reserve a seat early.

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For both lunch and dinner, they serve two set menus, so no a la carte  options, though I understand the chefs can make amendments to the ingredients if there are certain things you don’t eat. On this day in March there was a Menu Prestige (for NT$1,680 +10% service charge) or a Menu Elegance for either NT$900 or NT$1,000 (+10%) depending on your choice of main course. For dinner I understand it’s a choice of a NT$1,600 (+10%) menu or a NT$2,500 (+10%) menu. They also have an afternoon tea which I hear is quite spectacular.

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We initially wanted to get one of each, but on second thought we decided to go all out and get two of the Prestige, which had more courses and seemingly more enticing options.

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First up, the complimentary freshly baked bread with olive oil. I loved this bread, which had a light but sweet lemon tang to it. I was actually tempted to get seconds but decided against it at the last second as I wanted space for the rest of the meal.

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The first appetizer was a chilled oyster dish. The green thing on the bottom of the plate is not sauce but jelly, made from cucumber. It was an interesting dish because I hadn’t had anything like it before, though as I’m not a huge fan of fresh oyster it didn’t do a whole lot for me. I feel like the dish prepared the palette more than anything else.

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Next up, a plate of winter vegetables and wild herbs from local Taiwanese farms. This was also very interesting as the dish was laid out in a way that you would have a different flavour and texture with each bite. There’s that green vegetable meringue which was surprisingly tasty, and from what I remember there were four types of sauces and mayonnaise that made it a bit of an adventure.

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I would have liked a soup of some kind, though the menu instead offered a 65-degree egg with smoked and corned duck, potato and Sakura shrimp. You mix it all together and the result is a warm and flavoursome party in your mouth. Reminded me of those Japanese steamed egg cups.

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The first of the main dishes was the Cherry Valley duck, which was amazingly soft and juicy. Probably my fave dish of the meal thanks to the sauce and kumquat jam that came with it and the creamy barley risotto beneath.

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The other main course was the fish with Hakka pork and mushrooms. This reminded me a lot of Tetsuya’s signature fish dish because the skin on top is so perfectly crispy and the fish itself is moist and kind of melts in your mouth. Loved this one too, and the fact that it’s not too big so you end up stuffing your face.

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Lastly, the dessert, which says “TERAmisu” on the menu. It’s basically a twist on the traditional tiramisu as it separates the components and infuses the ingredients with tea. It result is a collection of cremes and ice creams along with an assortment of thin chocolate pieces, sauces, powder and rice crisps. Very creative and tasty dish.

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And of course, some tea to finish things off. The best part is that you can go wander around in the book store immediately after while you digest.

On the whole, a splendid dining experience. There are probably better places in strictly in terms of taste, but The First also offers a nice blend of creativity, ambiance, setting and views. Just a very relaxing and comfortable place to eat.

8.5/10

Details

The First

Website: http://www.eslitegourmet.com.tw/Store/Space.aspx?sid=A043 or http://artevent.eslite.com/product-page-694

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Restaurant-the-first/544540242262086?fref=ts

Phone: 02-66365888#1515 / 02-66389888

Address: Eslite Songyan Spectrum, No. 88, Yanchang Rd., Xinyi Dist, Taipei

Hours: 11am-10pm

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