Tuesday, October 27, 2015

November 2015 Movie Preview

            About a month ago, we looked at the big movies premiering in October. Early October saw the release of Ridley Scott’s surprisingly good The Martian. The Matt Damon starring film has led the box office every weekend this month. The Stephen Spielberg-Tom Hanks collaboration Bridge of Spies was the biggest Oscar bait of the month, with the famed duo reuniting, this time for an exploration of the Cold War. The upcoming month of November is looking especially thin in the film release department. On the one hand, there are two blockbuster franchises that are either ending or perhaps ending their current iteration. On the other, two needless extensions into well trodden cinematic territory.  Since going chronologically also means going thematically, let’s start from there.

November 6
Spectre: This is Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Rumors abound that this may be Craig’s last Bond film and his blunt answers about not really being interested in the franchise anymore have fanned the flames even further. Craig’s first Bond film, Casino Royale, reinvigorated the tired franchise that had been run into the ground during the tail end of the Pierce Brosnan era. The second film, the oddly named Quantum of Solace, was bogged down by plodding plotting. Skyfall took a more grounded approach to Bond, digging deeply into his past and presenting a tired, broken man. Spectre seems to promise more of the same with a figure from Bond’s past playing a central role. It will be interesting to see the shift from Dame Judy Dench’s version of M (Bond’s boss) to Ralph Fiennes.

November 20
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2: The final film in the franchise premieres right before Thanksgiving, reminding everyone that oh yeah there’s still another one of these movies. The 1st Hunger Games movie was surprisingly good and helped catapult Jennifer Lawrence to stardom. The 2nd one wisely built off the trauma of the first movie and broadened the scope of the growing rebellion. The third one simply marked time so the filmmakers could bilk an extra half billion dollars out of the movie going public. Now it’s up to Mockingjay Part 2 to deliver on the promised war that will overthrow the evil capital of Panem and hopefully put a rest to the never ending wave of dystopian young adult novels and movies that have overwhelmed theaters and bookshelves in recent years.

November 27
Creed: Could also just be called Rocky VII? Rocky VIII? We’re about six movies past any interesting story this character once had. Sylvester Stallone still plays Rocky Balboa—whose brain is probably just a pile of jell-o at this point---only this time he’s training the son of his onetime arch-nemesis turned friend Apollo Creed. This movie might be worth it if it had Carl Weathers playing the version of himself from Arrested Development. But Creed was last seen getting murdered in the ring by Dolph Lungren at the beginning of Rocky IV.

Victor Frankenstein: A sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead take on the Frankenstein legend, told from the perspective of Igor, the doctor’s assistant. Igor this time around is just as brilliant as the famed doctor, minus the medical degree. The presence of James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe are the only reasons to be interested in yet another retelling of Mary Shelley’s famous novel. The story of Frankenstein and his monster is one of the most used and overused stories in popular media. Plus what can this movie have to say that Mel Brooks didn’t cover in Young Frankenstein?

            These are just a few of November’s limited film offerings. With Star Wars, In the Heart of the Sea, and The Hateful Eight coming out in December, maybe Santa Claus will bring the movie going public some better movies this Christmas.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ox Lot 9 Revisited

            Last year, Bill had dinner at Ox Lot 9, located within the Southern Hotel in downtown Covington and he reviewed it on the blog. A few months ago, we highlighted the latest barbecue venture by the Ox Lot 9 team, Smoke BBQ, also located in Covington. Both establishments earned high marks the first time around. Last Saturday night, we revisited Ox Lot 9 with a group of nine people, including Doug and Mary, Benson and Liz and their two sons, Mary’s sister, Erlyn, and Doug’s daughter, Casey, and her husband, Chris. We’re happy to report that Ox Lot 9 continues to impress with its food and service.

            The menu focuses mainly on traditional Gulf Coast food, but with a fine dining twist. It features some American classics and even an Asian inspired dish or two, but Ox Lot 9 shines with its focus on the bounty of the Gulf. Maligned fish like Cobia, Pompano, and Red Snapper all feature prominently alongside soft-shell crab and ribeye. There is a clear emphasis on seasonality; the seared scallops featured a butternut squash puree and pumpkin seeds. The dishes are simply presented, allowing for the freshness of the ingredients to shine through. Since we wound up ordering a little bit of everything let’s dig deeper into a few of the dishes.

An Ox Lot 9 Charcuterie Board

OL9 Charcuterie Board: Chicken Liver Pate, Andouille, Tasso Ham, Duck Pastrami, Chaurice, Traditional Accompaniments
            The duck pastrami was the star of the charcuterie plate.  It was well prepared, well seasoned, and had a flavorful layer of fat to give the duck some depth. The Pate was covered with blueberries that added a fruity note to its creamy richness. The andouille and chaurice added some nice spice to the plate.

Southern Cheese Plate: Whipped Chevre & Tiger Sauce, Red Dragon Cheddar, Humboldt Fog, Beene Seed Brittle, Seasonal Garnishes
            The cheese plate offered a nice range of light (Chevre) to spicy (Red Dragon) to goat (Humboldt Fog). Scattered pieces of melon and other fruit complemented the cheeses. Nothing fancy here, just a nice collection of flavorful and different cheeses.

Pork Belly “YaKa Mein”: Udon Noodles, Black Eyed Peas, Arugula, Grilled Scallions, Smoked Green Tomato Relish, Soft Poached Egg
            The egg was expertly poached, easily breaking apart into the broth. The Green Tomato Relish offered a smokiness that contrasted the sweetness of the pork belly.  The mix of Asian ingredients, like Udon noodles, and southern ones, like black eyed peas wound up being a wonderful fusion of East and West.

Pork Belly YaKa Mein 

Seared Red Snapper & Lobster: Sweet Corn Cream, Roasted Okra, Covey Rise Tomatoes, Chili Vinaigrette
            This was Doug’s entrĂ©e and he thought it was well conceived and well executed. The fish had a good sear, the local tomatoes offered acid, the sweet corn cream added a touch of fat, and the chili vinaigrette brought just a bit of heat. This was an excellent example of how Ox Lot 9 lets the ingredients shine through.

Seared Duck Breast: Cast Iron Spoon Bread, Acadian Honey, Braised Kale, Cherry Demi-glace
            As with the fish, the duck breast was cooked perfectly. The skin was cooked to a golden crispy perfection. The accompaniments played nicely off one another adding sweetness, fruit, and some earthy greens. The spoon bread, with a bit of char on the edges, added an almost savory element to the dish.

Roasted Chicken & Dumplings: Bogalusa Pastured Chicken, Handmade Potato Gnocchi, Leeks, Young Carrots, Asparagus, Farm Greens, Truffle Pan Sauce
            This play on chicken and dumplings far exceeded the often pedestrian presentation of this old southern classic. Well cooked local chicken was paired with light and pillowy potato gnocchi to bring a fine dining twist to this well worn southern staple.

            Sometimes in fine dining, chefs neglect desserts. Well worn staples like molten lava cake or cheesecake are clear signs that the restaurant doesn’t really care about dessert. There are no such concerns at Ox Lot 9. Particular standouts included a play on milk and cookies with ice cream subbing in for milk with a walnut and Belgian chocolate cookie. There were seasonal slices of apple pie with sweet potatoes and tarts.

A play on milk and cookies for dessert 

            The hallmark of a great New Orleans restaurant is fantastic food coupled with impeccable service. Ox Lot 9 lives up to and far exceeds those expectations. The husband-wife team of chef Jeffrey and general manager Amy Hansell have made sure that service is just as important as the food. Servers moved across the room purposefully checking on their tables and clearing plates, silverware, and glasses without fail. When the ice in a drink had melted, one of the servers poured some from the water glass. Then brought over a glass filled with extra ice. When Casey and Chris wanted to share the pork belly appetizer, the kitchen split it into two bowls without being asked. No wine glass stayed empty. The bartender sliced lemon rinds for drinks fresh with every order and tasted every cocktail before handing it to a customer. It’s this level of detail that separates the good restaurants from the great ones. And right now, Ox Lot 9 is truly something special. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Aints

            With the current version of the New Orleans Saints season spiraling out of control, (1-4, they can still do this!) let’s look back at the team that inspired the “Aints” nickname that may soon be reappearing at the Superdome, perhaps as soon as this Thursday against Atlanta.

He wasn't the best quarterback, but he was the best Saints quarterback. 

            The term “Aints” was born out of the disastrous 1980 season where the Saints went 1-15. The Saints had entered the season with playoff aspirations after finishing 8-8 in the NFC West in 1979, a game behind the L.A. Rams. That season New Orleans scored the 6th most points in the NFL. Quarterback Archie Manning completed 60% of his passes (252/400) and had 15 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions. Manning’s numbers were not great, but still represented a massive improvement over Saints QBs prior to his arrival in the Big Easy. Running back Chuck Muncie ran for 1198 yards and 11 touchdowns. He averaged an impressive five yards per carry. Wide receiver Wes Chandler caught 65 passes for 1069 yards and six TDs. Head coach Dick Nolan had led the San Francisco 49ers from 1968-1975, winning three straight division titles. Under his watch in New Orleans, the Saints had improved from 6-10 in 1977 to 7-9 in 1978 and 8-8 in 1979. Media and fan speculation had the Saints primed for a breakout year.

This was a thing for a while. 

            49ers kicker Ray Wersching kicked the game winning field goal near the end of regulation to hand the Saints a 26-23 defeat in Week 1. Manning played well in that game going 25-40 for 314 yards and a touchdown. Muncie ran the ball 12 times for 57 yards and a touchdown. The next week the Chicago Bears bullied Manning into 2 INTs and trampled the Saints 22-3. And that’s when the losses started to pile up. Nolan’s Saints lost close games (21-16 against Miami in Week 4) and blowouts (40-7 against the St. Louis Cardinals in Week 5). They lost games when they scored over 30 points (45-31 to the L.A. Rams, Week 9) and less than 10 (27-7, also the L.A. Rams, Week 12). After the Week 12 loss sent the Saints to 0-12, owner John Mecom fired Nolan and replaced him with Dick Stanfel. The change did little to re-energize the team. The low point of the season came in a Week 14 loss to San Francisco where the Saints jumped out to a 35-7 lead at halftime. In the second half, however, 49ers quarterback Joe Montana lead a furious comeback and San Francisco won the game in overtime, 38-35. The Saints’ lone win of the season came in Week 15 when they defeated the Jets at Shea Stadium. With 20 mph winds and a starting game temperature below freezing, Manning strung together enough passes to lead the Saints to a 21-20 win. They would lose the next week to the New England Patriots finishing the season at 1-15.

The 1999 Aints. 
             As the Saints season drifted further and further into despair, New Orleans fans, as inventive a fan base out there, came up with their own remedy. They began to show up at home games wearing paper bags over their heads with eyeholes cut out. They scribbled messages across the bags with sayings like the “Aints”—a play on the team’s name and legacy of futility. The bags remained a recurring feature for the team throughout the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s. After the Saints Super Bowl victory in January 2010 there was a movement to retire the “Aints” moniker. While that optimism may have lasted for a few years, the Saints play this season has led New Orleans fans to head back to their garbage bins with a trusty pair of scissors. Mostly because it seems like the Aints are marching in … again. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Checking in on the Saints

            Now that we’re 1/4th of the way through the football season, it’s time to check in on New Orleans Saints. With a record of 1-3, New Orleans is tied for last place in the NFC South. They’ve scored 86 points (18th in the NFL) and allowed 104 (24th), a -18 point differential (23rd). On the plus side, the Saints have played in a lot of close games; the last three weeks have been decided by one score or less—the Week One loss against the Cardinals was within one score until Arizona score a late touchdown to put the game away. At 1-3, FiveThirtyEight’s ELO ratings system predicts the Saints will go 6-10 and them a 13% chance of making the playoffs. The schedule offers some hope for improvement as the Saints have games left against the perennially weak AFC South (Colts, Titans, Jaguars, and Texans) and a bunch of underperforming NFC teams including the Eagles, Lions, Washington, and the Buccaneers. On the flip side they have tougher games ahead against the resurgent Falcons, the New York Giants, and Carolina. Let’s now look at some of the big storylines from the season’s first four games.

The Saints better hope that shoulder is healthy. 

Drew Brees and his shoulder: First, the good news. Brees went 33-41 yesterday completing 80.5% of his passes, good for a 80.7 QBR. He averaged 8.76 yards per attempt, well above his career average of 7.4. Now the bad news. Brees threw nearly all of his passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. If you take out the last play of the game where Dallas forgot to cover C.J. Spiller and he ran the ball 80 yards for a touchdown, Brees averaged an anemic 6.8 yards per pass attempt, much more in line with his performance before his injury. Without a downfield threat, good defenses (not Dallas) will stack the line of scrimmage and take away Brees’s throwing lanes. Some of this could be alleviated by the running game, which I’ll discuss below. The other concern is with Brees’ bruised rotator cuff. Since this is a repetitive stress injury, the more times Brees throws, the worse the situation can get. We don’t know the extent of Brees’s injury or how well it has or hasn’t healed. But combining the nature of the injury and what the Saints have asked him to do, there’s still a lot to worry about.

Running Game: A strong running game might take the pressure off of Brees’s shoulder, but the Saints have gotten little return on their $32 million dollar investment in C.J. Spiller and Mark Ingram. Ingram has rushed the ball 56 times for 204 yards for a 3.6 yards per carry average. Spiller meanwhile only has 6 rushes for 21 yards, good for 3.5 yards per carry. For comparison sake, a league average running back should average about 4 yards per carry. And this isn’t a situation where you can blame the Saints offensive line. According to Football Outsiders they rank 14th in adjusted line yards—a statistic that measures both the effectiveness of the offensive line and the running backs. The running backs meanwhile rank 30th in open field yards—the offensive line is opening up running lines, but the running backs have failed to exploit them. According to DVOA, the New Orleans rushing offense ranks 17th in the NFL at -4.3% (meaning they’re 4.3% below league average). If the Saints want to help out Brees, Ingram and Spiller need to play better.

Meet Brandon Browner: defensive penalty machine 

Defense: Any offensive improvement is all for naught if the Saints defense can’t stop opposing offenses. If they’re not allowing big plays, they’re committing penalties. According to Pro-Football Reference’s penalty index, cornerback Brandon Browner has committed four defensive holding penalties, one illegal contact penalty, a face mask, and defensive pass interference. All seven penalties have resulted in first downs and have given Saints opponents 75 extra yards of field position. The Saints defense played okay against Dallas right up until you consider they were playing the Cowboys without their starting quarterback, Tony Romo, and their top receiver, Dez Bryant. The Saints played okay until the moment it gave up an eight play, 91 yard drive to Brandon Weeden, the Cowboys 31 year old backup quarterback. With former Raiders head coach and Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen now on the coaching staff, how long until Rob Ryan is sent packing?

How much longer does this partnership last? 

In-Game Decision Making: Head Coach Sean Payton displayed some seriously bad clock management in Sunday night’s game. After the referee and replay official confirmed that Terrence Williams had scored a game tying touchdown, Payton took his last timeout to argue the call. Why he did this defies explanation. There was nothing to argue and no way to overturn it, the play was a touchdown. While Payton managed to express his dissatisfaction, he cost the Saints their last chance to stop the clock as Brees attempted to drive the team down the field for the game winning score.
The other screw up occurred as New Orleans had the ball on their own 43 yard line with 4:24 left in the fourth quarter. On first down, Brees threw an incomplete pass stopping the clock at 4:21. On second down, Brees completed a pass to Ingram who went for five yards and took the ball out of bounds, stopping the clock at 4:16. On third down, Payton called for another pass that fell incomplete, stopping the clock at 4:12. The Saints then punted the ball back to Dallas after running 3 plays in only 12 seconds. With a seven point lead, the Saints needed to be running down the clock as well as trying to advance the ball. Why Ingram ran out of bounds is inexplicable. Surely he should have known or should have been reminded to stay in bounds in order to keep the clock running. If Ingram had stayed in bounds, the Saints could have run the clock down to about 3:40. Had they run the ball on third down that would have taken the clock down to about 3:00. Instead Payton called for another pass play that fell incomplete. On just those two plays the Saints handed Dallas over a minute of extra game time. Dallas put those added seconds to good use as Brandon Weeden got the ball back with 4:05 (instead of about 2:55 or so) and drove the Cowboys 91 yards down the field for the game tying touchdown.   

The Saints weak schedule offers some hope, but not without improved play from everyone on the team, including the coaching staff.