Cherry Valley Duck at Red Lantern, Silks Place (Yilan)

July 8, 2014 in Best Of, Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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We received a recommendation from a friend that if you are looking for excellent roast duck, then don’t miss out on the famed cherry valley duck (櫻桃霸王鴨) in Taiwan’s Yilan county. Specifically, the place to try is the Red Lantern (紅樓) at Silks Place (蘭城晶英酒店), one of the region’s top hotels.

And so when we knew we would be passing through Yilan, we made sure we booked two weeks in advance. It was a good thing we did too, because it was a Friday lunch at the place was packed out. They offer two strict times, an 11:30 slot and a 1:30pm slot, with a dining time of 90 minutes. Everyone goes there for the duck, without exception.

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Their menu is relatively extensive (you can find it here). You can go for a banquet that’s NT$3888+10% for four people, NT$5288+10% for six people and NT$7288+10% for 10 people, or you can just go for the duck plus a few side dishes. When you order the duck, there’s basically a four-course set and a five-course set.

The four-course duck set (NT$2,088) comes with what is essentially Peking Duck (wrapped in a special Yilan scallion pancake), duck sushi, duck soup and a choice of either duck san choy bau (cooked duck wrapped in lettuce) or san bei ya (three-cup duck) cooked in a clay pot. The five-course duck set (NT$2688) is the same except with an extra duck mapo tofu.

We ended up going with the four-course duck set plus a few other dishes. We also ordered a jug of fresh watermelon juice, which looked really appetizing because everyone else around us was having it. It was indeed super sweet and refreshing, but it did set us back a whopping NT$600.

Anyway, here are the photos. First up, the duck.

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A chef arrives with the first of the duck courses, which is served in traditional Peking Duck style

Juicy, succulent duck with a super crispy outer layer

Juicy, succulent duck with a super crispy outer layer

The chef slices off the crispy skin, piece by piece

The chef slices off the crispy skin, piece by piece

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Just like this…

And this...

And this…

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The duck is wrapped in this special Yilan scallion pancake

And served with a special sweet miso and either standard scallion or deep fried scallion

And served with a special sweet miso and either standard scallion or deep fried scallion

They do all the rolling for you, and this is the end result

They do all the rolling for you, and this is the end result

As you can probably gather from the photos, this is a spectacular dish, as good as, if not better, than any Peking Duck dish I’ve had, even in Beijing. The duck is of course exquisite, but what sets it apart are the scallion pancake, which gives it an added flavour boost, and the sweet miso, which is not as salty and heavy as traditional hoisin sauce. The normal scallion is also not as sharp as others I have tried, and the fried one is a whole different experience. What a fantastic start.

Next up, the duck sushi.

The duck sushi is served on individual spoons and can be eaten in a single mouthful

The duck sushi is served on individual spoons and can be eaten in a single mouthful

This turned out to be the most unbelievable duck dish I’ve ever had. I never thought duck sushi would be this spectacular. The crispy duck skin was glazed and cooked to perfection; the sushi rice was excellent, with just the right amount of vinegar; and there was also a thin layer of cheese that completes it. Absolutely heavenly.

Next up, the duck san choy bau.

Duck san choy bau

Duck san choy bau

This was also surprisingly good. The lettuce was fresh and the duck was saucy and cooked with bean sprouts. The filling and the lettuce are served separately, so it’s up to you how much you want to put in. I put in a lot.

Unfortunately, I may have forgotten to take a photo of the soup. But you can guess what it looks like. To make up for it, here’s a photo of a noodle soup we got.

The other a la carte dishes we got include sauteed beef with spring onions and sauteed water spinach. Both were very very good.

Noodle soup with spring onion

Noodle soup with spring onion

Sauteed beef with spring onion

Sauteed beef with spring onion

Sauteed water spinach

Sauteed water spinach

So, you add some of the best duck I’ve ever had, anywhere, and you throw in the ambience of the hotel, the quality service and everything else, and you end up with a top notch dining experience you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. I would definitely recommend paying the Red Lantern a visit if you’re ever near Yilan, and I’m sure I’ll go back there some time in the future.

10/10

Details

Red Lantern (紅樓) at Silks Place (蘭城晶英酒店)

Website: http://www.silksplace-yilan.com.tw/en/food_red.html

Number: 03-9101011

Address: Silks Place, No. 36, Section 2, Minquan Rd, Yilan

Hours: Weekdays 11:30-15:00, 17:30-21:00; Weekends 11:00-15:00, 17:00-21:00

Movie Review: Walk of Shame (2014)

July 8, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

walk of shame

The nicest thing I can say about Walk of Shame, the new Steven Brill comedy starring Elizabeth Banks, is that there’s nothing about it that makes me loath the film with a vengeance. The same can’t be said about Brill’s last directorial effort, which is the appallingly toxic iBabe segment in the venom-inducing Movie 43 from last year. The worst crime Walk of Shame is guilty of is being criminally unfunny, and I suppose that’s an improvement.

Elizabeth Banks, who got into great shape to fit into the snug yellow outfit she dons for the majority of the film, is Meghan Miles, a news anchor and a “good girl”, the safe option in a safe relationship. A series of unfortunate events befall her, and a dispirited Meghan goes out on a wild night with her girlfriends, only to wake up in the bed of sexy stranger Gordon (James Marsden). The rest of the film is all about Meghan running into one outrageous situation after another as she tries to make her way to the news station so she can cash in on a new job opportunity. 

It’s a fairly typical comedy premise where nothing seems to go right for the protagonist, and all efforts to resolve the situation only lead to more misunderstanding and mayhem.

In this case, the central gag is that Meghan is repeatedly mistaken for a prostitute, which gets her involved with both the police and gangster drug dealers. It doesn’t sound like a hopeless idea, but I kid you not when I say there was not a single laugh to be found in the entire 95-minute film. Not a tee-hee, not a chuckle, and nary a smile. (OK, so the introductory sequence with real-life news blooper footage WAS funny, but that’s just collected from YouTube, so you can’t give the movie credit for that.)

The jokes are either obvious, typical or stereotypical. I don’t want to say misogynistic because that is a term that gets thrown around too liberally these days, but much of the humour in Walk of Shame is definitely sexist and racist. That’s something I don’t usually mind if the film is actually funny. When it’s not witty or funny, however, it’s just pathetic, and that’s what this movie ultimately is.

And I haven’t even mentioned how incoherent the plot is and how little sense any of it makes. It’s really hard to get into a film — any film — when its central premise is that flimsy. There were about a million ways Meghan could have resolved the situation, but of course she keeps choosing the most moronic, implausible option just so she could extend her misery, and ostensibly, ours.

Elizabeth Banks tries her hardest but can’t even come close to salvaging this disaster. I doubt even Meryl Streep could have. Is Banks a likable protagonist? I dunno. She certainly is a stupid one and not really worthy of our sympathy. 

As for James Marsden, the poor guy still can’t catch a break. I don’t get it. He’s a good-looking guy and not without charisma or acting ability, and yet he seems to always get the worst roles. He was the guy Rachel McAdams ditched without reservation in The Notebook. He was the guy who turned Cyclops, the leader of the X-Men, into an afterthought. Even when he gets a leading role, such as in the remake of Straw Dogs, the film never gets any traction. And the romantic comedy roles he gets appear to be those Paul Rudd would not touch with a 10-foot pole. I last saw him in The Butler as JFK, and we all know what happened to him. Poor bastard.

As bad as it is, Walk of Shame is at least not one of those films that left me spewing vitriolic profanities by the end if it. It’s just one of those really unfunny romantic comedies you wonder what possessed the studio to make and will forget a couple of days after watching it. In this case, that’s a good thing.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Transcendence (2014)

July 7, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

transcendence

Count me as one of the few people who don’t think Transcendence sucked balls.

I admit, given the hype surrounding the script and the star-studded cast, that the film is a relative disappointment, but I still found it to be an intriguing take on the man-vs-computer concept that’s thought-provoking on some levels and at least never boring.

Johnny Depp plays Dr Will Caster, a brilliant scientist who plans to develop a sentient computer that he predicts will create a technological singularity, or in his words, “transcendence”. His wife, Evelyn, is played by the wonderful Rebecca Hall, and his best friend is Max, played by Paul Bettany.

Of course, there are people out there somewhat uneasy about the possibility of such a creation, and they plan an attempt to derail the whole thing. One thing leads to another and soon Will is forced to insert his consciousness into a quantum computer in a attempt to cheat death. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it worked, and the rest of the movie is all about the consequences of this and questioning whether the computer really is Will’s consciousness or just an imitation of it.

Trascendence, made for $100 million and made only $90 million at the box office, was both a commercial and critical failure for debut director Wally Pfister, previously best known for his cinematography work on Chris Nolan films (Memento, Batman Trilogy, Inception). Despite the film’s unique visual flair, the film was savaged for its lack of logic — even within its limited sci-fi story universe — and bad science, and it also didn’t help that it was released amid the recent Johnny Depp backlash.

For me, Transcendence may have failed to deliver the philosophical sci-fi experience it was trying to achieve, but it’s still not a bad film about the dangers and limits of technology and artificial intelligence. I thought it started off well in drawing audiences in and developing the relationships between the characters, which I thought proved crucial down the line in heightening and contrasting their feelings and emotions.

It’s far from the first sci-fi film to tackle the “control or be controlled by technology” premise, but Transcendence does feature some interesting ideas that I hadn’t seen or thought about before. I won’t give those things way except to say that it takes us not only out of the cyberworld and the world of the physical, but also ventures into the world of the metaphysical. The ramifications take us much farther than say something like 2008′s Eagle Eye or even last year’s brilliant Her (which is a vastly superior film, by the way).

Though the science is extremely sketchy (even for someone as clueless about science as me), I thought both the script (by Jack Paglen) and the direction did a fairly good job of blurring the specifics and using misdirection to fudge things so we simply have to take what is happening on screen at face value. The problem is that fudging can only take audiences so far, and at some stage the whole facade begins to crumble because the computer keeps doing impossible things on the one hand but doing impossibly stupid/illogical things on the other. And once you start to ask yourself why a computer this intelligent and omniscient would do this or not do that, it’s too late — the entire premise of the film collapses in a hurry. The irony is that for what is supposed to be a thinking-man’s sci-fi, thinking too much is the last thing you should do if you want to remain engaged.

That’s a deal killer for most viewers, but let’s face it, it’s not the first time a sci-fi film has failed to make sense. In my humble opinion, the obvious holes are what prevent Transcendence from being a great sci-fi, rather than what make it a completely unwatchable movie. There are enough positive things about it to not call the film a waste of time.

For starters, the eerie feeling the film generates is genuine. While it’s not a horror film per se, some of the things the computer is capable of in the film are genuinely creepy and will make you think twice about handing your life over to artificial intelligence. Secondly, the cast is awesome and contains big names I didn’t even realise were in it. In addition to the aforementioned trio of Depp, Hall and Bettany, there’s also Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Kate Mara. None of them get to do much, but a bit of added star power never hurt anybody (except in those Expendables movies). And thirdly, the film is stylish, imaginative and not as predictable as you’d expect. It’s well-made, solidly paced over the course of its 120-minute running time, and is never in danger of being a snoozer. That’s already more than you can say about most sci-fi flicks these days.

At the end of the day, Transcendence is never quite as intelligent or philosophical as it set out to be, nor is it as action-packed or exciting as a traditional sci-fi blockbuster. That said, I think those who approach it with an open mind will be pleasantly surprised by how much it has to offer.

3.5 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part VIII

July 7, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Why the heck not?

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

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I admit I didn’t know a whole lot about Nelson Mandela’s life outside of him ending apartheid in South Africa and his long prison term, which is why I was particularly interested drawn to Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, based on his autobiography.

I had previously seen Morgan Freeman (his Hollywood doppelganger) as Mandela in Invictusso I had my doubts when I discovered that in this film he’s portrayed by strapping British actor Idris Elba, best known as crime kingpin Stringer Bell in The Wire and more recently in Pacific Rim.

While I was wrong about the casting of Elba, who turned out to be magnificent in the role despite being four inches taller than the real Mandela at 6’4″, Long Walk to Freedom turned out to be a disappointment, more a telemovie than the definitive adaptation of the great man’s life.

The film essentially begins with a fully-grown Mandela who is already a lawyer in South Africa and beginning to gain a broader interest in fighting for the rights of his people. From there, the film is a fairly straightforward blow-bu-blow account of his life, from organising protests to his imprisonment and eventual release. None of it is poorly executed or lacks subtlety, but at the same time the pulse of the film is so flat that it had trouble sustaining my interest. There, I said it: I was bored.

Thought I haven’t compared Elba and a young Mandela side by side, I believe there is some resemblance, or at least the performance is so good that it made me believe there is one. Far from a glorified hero, Elba portrays Mandela as a complex, flawed man who cheated on his wife and neglected his family for his cause. It’s still a respectful portrayal because you ultimately come to see his growth as a leader and person, and the remarkable change he brought to the world through his inspiring resolve and perseverance.

Another aspect that pleased me was the portrayal of Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, played by Brit Naomi Harris. We usually only hear about Mandela’s greatness but here we also learn about what an amazing woman Madikizela-Mandela is and her significant contributions to the plight of her people and especially South African women.

Unfortunately, two stellar performances weren’t quite enough to elevate Long Walk to Freedom into a superior biopic. A less conventional approach would have been welcome to give the film more layers and nuance. As it stands,  it’s still a passable Mandela flick, just not a great one.

3 stars out of 5

Wolf Creek 2 (2013)

wolf-creek-2-poster

Wolf Creek, released in 2005, was Australia capitalising on the torture porn era ushered in by the Saw and Hostel movies. I personally though it was overrated, but it did have a couple of things going for it: a very uniquely Australian villain played by John Jarratt, who is as amusing as he is terrifying, and the “based on a true story” tag thanks to Ivan Milat and the disappearance of British backpacker Peter Falconio — which highlight the dangers of the vast Australian outback.

So eight years later, we have the obligatory low-budget sequel, which brings back Jarratt as maniacal serial killer Mick Taylor and a bunch of poor foreigners waiting to be tortured and slaughtered.

The film starts off as camp as can be, with Mick taking on a couple of cookie-cutter dickhead cops. It doesn’t make much sense but at least it sets the stage for the carnage that is yet to come. A film like this is always bound to contain gratuitous and over-the-top violence. Wolf Creek 2 embraces its destiny and just goes for it.

There’s not much by way of plot or character development. Mick picks up a German couple (one of them’s played by an Aussie) and then a Pom (also played by an Aussie, Ryan Corr of TV’s Packed to the Rafters fame). Be prepared for a lot of screaming, a lot of stupidity, and loads of visceral, extreme acts of violence.

Surprisingly, it’s quite effective as a torture porn horror, with moments that will make you cringe and others that challenge you not to look away. The tension is there, even though it doesn’t feel real and some suspension of disbelief is mandatory.

The original actually had plenty of what I call “filler” moments, which made it a bore to sit through. But Wolf Creek 2 disposes all the formalities to give viewers what they want almost straight away. As a motion picture it’s much rougher around the edges, but in terms of pure entertainment value it arguably trumps its predecessor.

Wolf Creek 2 is B-grade rubbish, all the way down to its laughable and cliched ending, but it knows what it is and at least tries to have a good time on its way to the dumpster.

2.5 stars out of 5

Thanks for Sharing (2013)

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Thanks for Sharing is a comedy about three very different men with sex addiction. There’s Adam (Mark Ruffalo), a spunky single guy who has no problem attracting the ladies but wants to start dating again after five very difficult years of self-restraint. There’s Mike (a silver-haired Tim Robbins), a veteran who believes he has turned the corner and acts as a big brother-type to the others at their support group, but doesn’t give much support at home to his drug-addict son. And thirdly, there’s Neil (Josh Gad), a tubby, sweaty sexual deviant who has banned himself from the subway so he’ll stop rubbing himself up against random women.

This is more or less what I expect from a comedy-drama about sex addiction. There are amusing observations and situations the protagonists have to deal with, but also a much darker side to their impulses which inevitably become more serious as the film progresses. It’s not exactly lighthearted but it’s not depressing either. Shame this is not.

The tone of the film actually reminds me of another Mark Ruffalo film I saw last year, The Kids Are All Right, about same sex parenting. As a comedy, however, Thank for Sharing is not in the same class. The majority of the laughs come from the awkwardness of Josh Gad’s character, who shoulders the load in that department, while the arcs of Ruffalo and in particular Tim Robbins are more heavy duty.

In addition to the solid performances of the three male leads, the film also boasts an excellent supporting cast, with the standouts being Gwyneth Paltrow as Ruffalo’s love interest and Pink (as Alecia Moore, her real name) as a female sex addict who befriends Gad’s character. Patrick Fugit, who plays Tim Robbin’s son, is also fantastic, as their explosive relationship is perhaps the most emotional and compelling in the entire movie.

Thanks for Sharing is an interesting take on sex addiction as it offers three perspectives from three very different characters. It’s lightly amusing and the drama is well-executed, but perhaps because the focus is split in so many directions it lacks the depth required to be an exceptional film on the subject. I enjoyed it as much as a film like this can be enjoyed — that is, a solid DVD rental, but not much more than that.

3.25 stars out of 5

Out of the Furnace (2013)

out of the furance

If gritty, brooding crime dramas is your thing, then Out of the Furnace is just the film for you.

Produced by Ridley Scott and Leo DiCaprio and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), the film stars chameleon Christian Bale as Russell Baze, a likable guy who seems to be on a friendly basis with everyone on both sides of the law. Like his dying father before him, Russell works at a steel mill in a small town and enjoys a steady relationship with his girlfriend, played by Zoe Saldana. Life for him would be stable if it weren’t for his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq war veteran who has trouble coping with an uncertain future.

A tragic accident strikes, and Russell ends up incarcerated. In the meantime, Rodney becomes involved in the shady world of underground bare-knuckle fighting under the management of Willem Dafoe. Once Russell gets out (of the furnace, so to speak), he is immediately thrown into the proverbial fire when Rodney is linked up with violent hillbilly Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) and bites off more than he can chew.

At its heart, this is a film about family, regret and living with the consequences of one’s decisions. Some critics have been scathing about its masculinity and testosterone-filled violence, though personally I found it to be an intense, entertaining experience. The pace is a little too contemplative for my liking, but I liked the old-fashioned themes of redemption and thought the action was well-executed.

The biggest strength of the film still has to be the performances, which are sensational all round. Woody Harrelson, in particular, once again shows us what an underrated actor he is with a terrifying portrayal of a brutal redneck. The script does have a few holes in it, but I was hooked on the bleak tones, which reminded me a little of one of my favourite movies of 2011 (directed by Casey Affleck’s big brother), The Town. And like that film, this one turns a fairly run-of-the-mill plot into an engaging, engrossing drama with explosive sequences.

The result is a raw, in-your-face, uncompromising film that will probably divide viewers. It becomes more conventional as it progresses towards a painful, semi-ambiguous ending, and it does have the occasional clunky scene, though overall I thought it was awesome.

4 stars out of 5

TJB Cafe (Taipei)

July 4, 2014 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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So apparently there are a lot of different types of restaurants under the TJB (TheJeansBar) umbrella. Last time we went to their dim sum store at Taipei Main Station, which was surprisingly tasty. This time we decided to check out their cafe in the trendy Zhongxiao Fuxing district.

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Located behind the Zhongxiao SOGO department store, TJB cafe is cozily fitted and looks nice and clean with that Tiffany blue decor. They have an extensive menu featuring all-day brunch options, appetizers, burgers and sandwiches, pastas and risottos, Mexican selections, desserts and so forth. Price-wise we’re talking about NT$250-400 a head, depending on if you order set meal or other beverages or desserts. It’s yet another one of those all-in-one cafes that seem so popular in Taiwan these days. Here’s a sneak preview of their menu.

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The problem, as always with such places, is deciding what to order. When they have so many options it makes me concerned that they might be a jack of all trades but a master of none. What is good and what is not here?

In the end, we went with a Mentaiko (pollock/cod roe) pasta and a Philly steak sandwich, one of which we turned into a set meal that includes a drink, a soup and a dessert.

Here are the pics!

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Surprisingly good creamy corn soup with thin slices of garlic bread.

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Legitimate 100% fresh orange juice

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Mentaiko seafood pasta

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Philly steak sandwich

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Chocolate brownie dessert with vanilla ice cream

I think we did pretty well with the ordering. The creamy corn soup was better than most “soup of the day” ones you get with set meals, and the bread was relatively fresh. The mentaiko pasta was creamy and flavorsome, and the Philly steak sandwich had plenty of beef chunks and cheese sauce. The fries were super crispy and the honey mustard dipping sauce was a delight. Even the dessert, which was quite a small piece of chocolate brownie, wasn’t too bad, and it was good to see they did not skimp on the much-needed vanilla ice cream.

Everything else others were ordering on the tables around us look very good too, so I think this is a place I can definitely see myself coming back to some time in the future.

8/10

Details

TJB Cafe

Website: http://www.thejeansbar.com.tw/tjbcafe/

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/TJB-Cafe/258780554213318

Address: No. 31, Lane 135, Section 1, Fuxing South Rd, Daan District (nearest MRT Zhongxiao Fuxing)

(Four other locations in Taipei, one in Hsinchu)

Phone: 02-2775-1559

Hours: 9am-10pm

MAP

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