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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 25, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Emma and Asiano

Back in 1996, Gwyneth Paltrow starred in one of the worst film adaptations of a Jane Austen novel ever. I speak of the Douglas McGrath written-and-directed Emma.

Admittedly, Emma is Jane Austen's second-most-difficult novel to film. This is because Austen seemed to set herself nearly-impossible challenges.

In her hardest-to-film novel, Mansfield Park, the heroine is Fanny Price, who represents the 19th-century ideal of feminine perfection -- that is, she is absolutely unwilling to put herself forward in any way.

A poor relation who has been more-or-less fostered on the family of her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, Fanny is treated "well" -- i.e., fed and dressed and even educated -- but is constantly put in her place by her other aunt, Mrs. Norris. (Yes, this loathsome woman is the origin of the name of Filch's evil cat in the Harry Potter series.)

Fanny cries a bit, but never, never, never complains about anything. She falls in love with her kindly cousin Edmund (this was an era when first cousins were allowed and even encouraged to marry), but never gives a clue of her feelings.

In the novel, we're inside Fanny's head, so her passivity, while frustrating, still keeps us engaged, seeing all events through her eyes. But in the film versions, there is almost no way to make her interesting -- because she never does anything. As a result, the characters of Mary and Henry Crawford, the worldly and corrosive visitors in the neighborhood, always steal the show. There is simply no way to write it otherwise.

But Emma is only slightly easier to film. The main character, you see, is a busybody. Trapped at home as the probable lifetime caretaker of her selfish, whiny father, she is quite reconciled to the idea that she will never marry. Nor has she any desire to travel -- though she lives in a seacoast county of England, she has never seen the shore.

So she centers her life on her village and the surrounding neighborhood, where she bears the burden of her rich family -- to look out for those less fortunate, which is almost everyone. Indeed, because of the rule that people of "good family" could not degrade themselves by socializing below their class, her circle is very limited.

Thus Emma sets herself the task of doing for others what she can never do for herself -- find a mate. She sets out to elevate and marry off a girl of unknown parentage, Harriet Smith. She begins by practically forbidding Harriet to marry the young farmer, Robert Martin, whom she recently fell in love with, because Martin is so "low" -- though in fact he is of the social class Harriet belongs to.

Emma is, in fact, wrong in all her matrimonial meddlings. Everyone she thinks is in love with Harriet is in fact in love with her; everyone she thinks is in love with herself is, in fact, in love with somebody else. But Emma remains obstinately convinced of her own correctness in all things.

The only corrective is Mr. Knightley, a neighbor whose younger brother married Emma's older sister. He has virtually helped raise Emma, and still sternly reproves her for her many stupidities. But she never believes him, despite holding him in infinitely high esteem.

How in the world do you make a good film out of a story in which the leading character is so amazingly and consistently stupid? The key is to understand that she is not stupid at all, merely young and hopelessly trapped in a life that no sane person would choose. She is only pretending to be content, and her life is spent flailing about for something -- anything -- to occupy her attention and give her purpose.

Neither Gwyneth Paltrow nor director Douglas McGrath had even an iota of understanding of the character of Emma. Paltrow played only two things: social class and English accent. Beyond that, her character was merely pretty. And McGrath made it plain that he understood none of the motivations that would make Emma likeable and worth caring about.

So for years I thought that I would have to be content with Clueless as the best adaptation of Emma -- Alicia Silverstone's character was not really Austen's Emma, but she was, I figured, as close as anyone was ever going to come.

Then, last year (2009), the BBC produced a miniseries of Emma that was not only better than the McGrath/Paltrow feature film (I could create a better adaptation with a cast of nine-year-olds), but which is, in fact, perfect.

I'm not exaggerating. Director Jim O'Hanlon and writer Sandy Welch (who is credited for only one episode, but no one else is credited at all) found every nuance of Emma's character, and Romola Garai played the role so vivaciously and yet subtly, that they brought home a version of Emma that actually clarifies the book so that after seeing this film version, the novel itself becomes more entertaining and successful.

It's like having the best literature teacher in the world explain a difficult novel and so turn it into one of your favorite stories. Those of you who hated reading Emma: I can't disagree with you, the book is that hard to love, but I urge you to watch this film version and judge again.

The casting of this film was as good as the writing and directing. Not only was Romola Garai perfect as Emma, but also Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley gave him a vigor that warmed us to him in a way no previous actor in the part has done. (You may remember Miller from the American TV series Eli Stone, where he was consistently better than the scripts.)

Right down the line, all the actors are superb. So the 2009 BBC miniseries of Emma is one of the most satisfying film experiences of a Jane Austen novel ever, moving Emma into the front rank of Austen adaptations -- right along with the easy-to-film Pride and Prejudice (1940, 1995, and 2005 all had good versions) and Emma Thompson's superb achievement with Sense and Sensibility (1995).

The DVD is already available -- no need to wait.

*

Greensboro is a surprisingly good restaurant town for a city of its size, but we do have a way of losing some of our very best restaurants. The recent closing of 223 Elm broke my heart, especially coming on the heels of the closings of Mark's on Westover, Revival Grille, and Muse.

Often a restaurant closes because it deserves to -- management or the cooking staff changes, and the restaurant deteriorates. Before Equinox and Grappa Grille closed, for instance, I had already stopped going, driven away by plummeting food quality.

But just as often, the vicissitudes of life and business kill a restaurant while it's in the prime of life. The brilliant Rendezvous ended with the passing away of the chef; is it callous of me, having not known him personally, that what I mourn is the loss of the most brilliant parmentier I've ever had or expect ever to have?

It can be a kitchen fire, the loss of a lease, or a brief slackening of business in a weak location -- the restaurant business is so marginal that even a profitable restaurant sometimes cannot absorb a sudden change in its cash flow. Sometimes, too, the owner or chef has done all he intended with the concept or the menu, and simply moves on.

Whatever the reason, I remember every great restaurant in Greensboro that used to be a favorite, and now is gone; I mourn them still.

One restaurant I have particularly missed was the East-West Bistro on Lawndale, which was the only true Pacific Fusion restaurant Greensboro has ever had. "Pacific Fusion" is a tricky concept, combining as it does not only various Asian cuisines but also the cuisines of California, Hawaii, and the Latin American Pacific coast.

There have been some great ones in California, where an emphasis on seafood makes sense, and where "California Cuisine" is indigenous. But the sheer variety of sources makes for a difficult balancing act.

The California part of Pacific Fusion is crucial, and I haven't found any restaurant in the Eastern U.S. that even understands what California Cuisine is. That's why I thought East-West Bistro to be almost a miracle.

Naturally, it closed only a few months after I started going there.

Now, in the building that once housed Grappa Grille (2618 Lawndale Dr., just across from Target), the Asiano Bistro has just opened, offering "Asian Fusion Cuisine."

For a moment my heart leapt: Fusion!

But not Pacific Fusion. Asian Fusion. Which means the California, Hawaii, and South America portions have been omitted.

Which is fine. Asiano isn't trying to be East-West Bistro; its range is from Japan through China and on to Thailand. The menu doesn't go on to Indonesia or India, except insofar as they have influenced Thai cooking -- but I didn't miss them. Because what they do offer is so very good -- and highly original.

Of course there are plenty of excellent sushi choices, but that isn't the only idea that they got from Japan. There's a perfectly cooked dish of beef medallions that is, by itself, ample reason to visit Asiano, and the tempura uses a breading with an extraordinary texture, so that even tempura zucchini, broccoli, and sweet potato are delicious.

Spring rolls? The best in town -- in fact, the first good spring rolls I've had in Greensboro since Park Place converted to a bar. (The P.F. Chang spring rolls are one of the few disappointments there.) And Asiano also makes a "summer roll," also of vegetables, that I, a committed nonvegetarian, loved.

The Chinese dishes include the traditional. There's a General Tso's chicken or shrimp that is only as hot as you want it to be -- if you want the fire, you make sure to get the sauce from the bottom of the plate.

Asiano did a gradual opening (instead of the normal "grand" kind) so they could work out the kinks that came from adapting restaurant software designed for a different kind of restaurant -- and from having a kitchen staff that speak almost no English. I can tell you: There are no kinks now.

From the superb service (our attendant, Jada, was wonderfully helpful and constantly alert without ever being intrusive) to the perfect ingredients, cooking, and presentation, there was simply nothing lacking.

Not only that, but the owner, who introduced herself to us as "Hong, like Hong Kong," explained that she is not looking to turn the table -- when you make a reservation, the table is yours for as long as you choose to stay. The food comes out in waves at leisurely intervals, leaving plenty of time for conversation.

We were with friends who share our love of dining and whom we don't see half often enough -- we didn't even notice, in such good company, that two and a half hours had passed before we were done. No one from the restaurant had given us the slightest hint that they thought we should be finished. It was like eating dinner in France or Spain, where it does not occur to anyone that your table might seat another group after you leave.

There are many fine places to get Chinese, Japanese, or Thai food in Greensboro, ranging from the excellent chain P.F. Chang to neighborhood gems. It takes nothing away from these other restaurants to say that Asiano is something special.

And it's not just that you get all three cuisines at Asiano -- it's that all three traditions inform all the dishes, so that something new and remarkable comes out of the combinations. That's what "fusion" is all about.

Let me add a note about sushi. I love sushi. While eel leaves me cold, most of the other ingredients that sushi chefs work with please me; a good sushi chef makes me ecstatic, while with enough ginger and wasabe, I can enjoy even an average one.

Except for one huge problem: Seaweed.

Thin dried seaweed is what holds most sushi rolls together so they don't become crumbled piles of rice and other ingredients on your plate. But in my mouth, sushi is like long, unchewable okra -- it wrecks whatever it touches.

So I asked Hong if it was possible to order any of the sushi-with-seaweed dishes without the seaweed.

Immediately she started coming up with alternatives. When I mentioned the thin clear sheets that enwrapped Asiano's wonderful "summer rolls," she was surprised. "Rice paper?" she said. "If you can eat that, then no problem -- just ask for rice paper instead of seaweed."

So I'm looking forward to trying that on my next visit; if that doesn't work for me, she suggests soy paper.

It's a mark of a good restaurant that they adapt happily to the quirky tastes, allergies, dislikes, and weird food fantasies of the guests. Asiano has passed that test -- and all the other tests we put them to.

For a dining experience like Asiano, I would expect to pay far more than their reasonable $7.50 to $25.00 dinner prices (less at lunch). Right now, the restaurant isn't crowded, but it won't be long before you'll need reservations to get a table. A restaurant that isn't pushing people out is one that can be hard to get into if they aren't saving a table for you!


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