Recently I made the mistake of taking my friends to the opera. The production -- a rather surreal interpretation of Mozart's The Magic Flute -- was actually well sung, the soprano more than capable of blowing off the roof. And the humor in the story was deftly handled. But the second-to-last row in the balcony is a long way from the stage, and we were doomed to it. Combined with a lack of opera glasses, this greatly lessened the visuals: costumes, sets, body and facial expressions -- all those things that contribute to the emotional impact of a work, reminding me of why one should only view the opera from the front row. My companions, first-time (and last-time) operagoers, agreed. Seduced by the steamy auditorium rather than by Mozart's stately complexities, we were all asleep by intermission.
Aside from the random luck of inexpensive seats, I take full responsibility for my friends' failure to appreciate so beautiful an art form. For novices a logical initiation might have been La Traviata -- the purity of Italian vowels, the melodic grandeur, and most important, the shorter, more manageable acts. Stupidly, because I've always loved the flirtatious duel between flute and voice, as well as the harmonic triads of The Magic Flute, I insisted: We would see a German-language opera. All three laborious hours of it.
What's unforgivable, it seems, is that I never learn from my mistakes. I took the same party to Movies, a German cafe on Biscayne Boulevard, for what we thought would be a reasonably authentic meal of average duration. But despite the vaunted German reputation for efficiency, the service was so slow we were snoring by the time the entrees arrived. Unlike the plot of Mozart's musical drama, though, this one doesn't even have a happy ending.
Obviously low budget, Movies is a wonderful, campy wreck of a place. Curtains of black and white lace drape the windows like mantillas. The tablecloths, layered three deep, can't conceal the cheap table-and-chair kitchen sets, the kind you see at yard sales next to the corduroy couches. Paper-lace doilies serve as place mats; a mirror acts as a vanity tray centerpiece, reflecting the salt and pepper shakers (and perhaps the desperate hunger of the diners).
The ceiling is done primarily in gold foil with white tulle and Christmas tinsel trim. Metallic red hearts, Mardi gras beads, countless fist-size gold balls, and scarlet papier-mche mobiles (to name a few items) dangle from the lame draping the ceiling in glittery profusion. It's as if a party store exploded during its post-holiday sale, when tinsel goes for a buck a bag. The effect is nearly overwhelming. This decorator not only had a budget, he had a vision, terrible and tacky.
And indeed, what better way to frame the restaurant's theme photos of Tinseltown's finest fakes? From autographed prints to what seemed like People magazine rip-outs, photos garnish the walls and columns A from James Dean to Julia Roberts. Fortunately some relative unknowns also hang around, the guesswork providing a diversion while you wait...and wait...for your dinner.
Normally this interval between ordering and eating would be a Heineken moment. But Movies, open since January 7, still awaits a liquor license. Those in the know drink from their own brown-bagged bottles. Those in oblivion drink diet Coke.
We began our two-and-half-hour marathon entirely sober, and with a soup course. Onion soup "Munich gratine" was potent if a bit undercooked; the onions, chopped rather than sliced, were slightly crunchy. A tomato cream soup is also offered. I sampled the leberknodelsuppe, a beef bouillon with a beef liver dumpling. Leberknodel, ubiquitous in southern Germany, is apparently the subject of a vast and fascinating debate: are these dumplings relegated to soup, or can they exist on their own, in only the barest hint of broth to promote their flavor?
Having experienced the Movies version, I would say liver dumplings can certainly hold their own. My beef liver affair was as big as the world, and about as heavy; even Atlas would have had trouble handling this one. It sat in my broth the way a boulder would stopper a bathtub. Though this Bavarian favorite (traditionally prepared with a hint of chopped spleen mixed in with the beef liver, bread crumbs, and spices) is rumored to have brought rival nineteenth-century composers Anton Bruckner and Johannes Brahms to an understanding A they both adored the leberknodel. However, it did little for the talk at my table (but a lot for the jokes).
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The next course, small salads served complimentary with dinner, were delivered by our host/server (one gentleman was working the entire room). Though the restaurant wasn't overly busy, he fumbled the dishes, bumbled the Cokes and the diet Cokes, and stumbled through his lines. Often his answers to our questions would be nonsensical, misunderstandings due to a German/English language barrier. Descriptions of food were beyond his capabilities; fortunately the menu is a fair translation. But he was earnest and friendly, and fascinated, for some reason, by the last name of my companion. "Can I get you something to drink, Mr. Einstein?" he would ask. Well, the rest of us are pretty thirsty, too. "How is your meal, Mr. Einstein?" and "Would you like dessert, Mr. Einstein?"
Perhaps it would be appropriate for Mr. Einstein to contribute his thoughts to this review: "I wanted the schnitzel but everyone else was ordering the schnitzel, so I went for the currygeschnetzeltes, that's curry over turkey fillets. I've spent some time in Germany and I've never run across curry. I don't think the recipe is indigenous, if you know what I mean. But I didn't really eat there, I just drank beer. So maybe I'm not the best judge. And it doesn't matter anyway because they were out of turkey so I thought briefly about the fillet of beef 'Madagaskar,' kind of like a pepper sauce. And the pasta looked okay A tortellini with gorgonzola, or spinach pasta with bacon and peas. But it's a special rule of mine never to eat noodles in a restaurant that can't claim Marco Polo as a relation. I settled for the rindsrouladen, rolled beef that came with mashed potatoes and red cabbage because, believe it or not, I'd never had red cabbage. Okay, I know, what kind of American? But cabbage just smells so bad. This stuff wasn't too heinous, warm and pickled, like sauerkraut. The meat was sure a surprise, though. There's a dill pickle in the middle. And bacon! I know it's a popular recipe in Germany, but it wasn't too appetizing, I'll tell you that." Thank you, Mr. Einstein.
If there is a single star to promote Movies, it would be the schnitzel, or breaded veal. Two of my friends ate it with a paprika sauce and buttered white rice. The veal was mild, a nicely cooked contrast to the creamy red pepper sauce. I tried the smoked salmon with American caviar and hash browns. The salmon, a cold plate sliced thinly and cleanly, was similar to lox and had me longing for a bagel. I settled for the greasy but flavorful latkes, though, which the promised hash browns (that's how they're listed on the menu) resembled.
An interesting feature of Movies is its location. You might expect a German restaurant to open in Miami Beach, where the influx of tourists, models, and photographers from Germany would make the cafe a success regardless of the quality of the food. But Movies's Biscayne Boulevard neighborhood is filled with panhandlers and prostitutes, certainly a deterrent to even the most homesick. Or so it would seem. The clientele, though, appears loyal, and as the stacks of gay and German magazines in the foyer would indicate, a South Beach crowd frequents Movies despite the area. The same way some of us frequent the opera despite the bad seats.