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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 07, 2002

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


The Death of Park Place, Rare Meat, and Ravens

Ah, the misery of it. Park Place is closed, and my life is the poorer for it. No more of the best spring rolls I've ever had! No more of that marvelous tomato salad! No more of their unforgettable jambalaya. And as for their sweet hummus appetizer, if it weren't for the fact that Southern Lights finally put their hummus back on the menu, I'd be utterly without hope.

It's your fault, you know. I was out of town all summer, and so I couldn't single-handedly keep it open by eating there every day. It was your job, O Greensboro diners, to keep that little jewel alive till I could get back!

Well, no, I guess that's not fair. The truth is, the place was always too small -- not enough tables to cover the overhead at the prices they were charging -- and I think they were counting on its becoming a trendy bar. Trendy bars, of course, don't have to have good food.

I hope the same team opens another restaurant soon, with a large enough space. I hope it's close to my house. I hope it has the exact same spring rolls on the menu.

You know, when a pretty good chain restaurant like Macaroni Grill opens, it's natural to go try it out. But you have to remember to go back -- often -- to the local originals so that when you finally get tired of the chains you have somewhere else to go.

Greensboro has been an excellent restaurant town these past few years. But if we lose the most original and excellent of our restaurants, where will we be then?

Just like you have to tip street musicians if you want to have streets with live music, so also you have to go to wonderful small restaurants as often as you can if you want to live in a town that has unique eating places.

So I expect to see you all at Leblon, and Mark's on Westover, and Southern Lights, and Café Pasta, and Revival Grill, and not just standing in line outside Macaroni Grill and The Outback.

*

Speaking of restaurants, I'm simply fed up with waiters and chefs who insist that meat is ruined when it's cooked well done.

That is simply false. They can say "but it loses all its flavor," but the truth is that it loses the flavor of rare meat -- and gains the excellent flavor of well-done meat!

As for the myth that "it will dry out if it's well done," the answer is, good chefs know how to cook meat well done without it drying out, so when a chef insists that well-done meat from his kitchen will be dry, he is confessing something unfortunate about himself.

I happen to like rare tuna even sashimi, when prepared by excellent chefs; but I also like fully cooked tuna. I am sickened by the sight of bloody beef on my plate (I don't care what's on yours) while I love a cooked-all-day osso buco or the well-done outside of a fine oven roast.

As for rare pork, or chicken, they are not only unspeakably inedible, they are downright dangerous.

If you disagree with me, fine. But when a waiter or chef gets snooty about how "we only serve this dish rare," I take my custom elsewhere. Because not only are they snobs, but they have also admitted they don't know how to cook.

*

So I stop by Borders and there's a display of a new novel -- When the Ravens Die, by Cameron Kent.

You know, Cameron Kent, the news anchor from WXII, the NBC station in Winston-Salem.

When somebody tries to do something outside the field where he earned his fame, you can't help but expect it to be awful.

If Kent had produced a book about some local news event, a la Jerry Bledsoe, no one would have been surprised. But ... fiction?

So, in the spirit of people who have to slow down and gawk when driving by an auto wreck, I picked it up and started reading.

And to my surprise, found myself becoming quite interested in the story.

Now, there are some definite markers that this novel is early in his writing career, and there are some techniques he has not mastered -- but the same can be said of my first published novel, and yet there are still people who come up to me at signings and tell me that it's the best thing I ever wrote.

The fact is: If the story is good enough, readers will forgive any number of flaws in the manner of the storytelling. (On the other hand, if the story is utterly boring, it doesn't help much of the prose is exquisitely crafted and all the techniques are exactly right.)

A synopsis makes the book sound like a cross between a Tom Clancy and a Robert Ludlum. Lone American in England gets caught up in a struggle for power in the royal family that involves him personally.

Oddly enough, however, Ravens is not a contemporary thriller at all.

Rather it's a more old-fashioned kind of story -- a graustark novel. There was once quite a fad for novels like this, beginning with George Barr McCutcheon's novel Graustark in 1901. Graustarks are novels set in imaginary -- but contemporary --European kingdoms, where royal families are riven by dissension, lost heirs struggle to regain their rightful place from usurpers, and tourists find that they are exact doubles of royal personages.

Ravens may seem to be set in contemporary Britain, but it's an imaginary kingdom all the same, in which a royal family we don't recognize actually has some real power in the government.

Once you realize what tradition Kent is working in, then this is a pretty good example of the genre -- and rather a bold move. He uses the usurper/twin/royal intrigue tropes quite well, and I can promise you an entertaining read.

The only real irritation, for me, was the way his hero kept insisting that people call him "Dr." instead of "Mr." I always think that shows a deep-seated neediness and makes the person who does it so very unattractive. But if you hold your nose and ignore that, the hero is otherwise quite likeable.

*

I stayed away from A Knight's Tale when it came out last year because (a) I love Chaucer and (b) I detest anachronistic historicals in which the characters dress in period costumes but think and act like modern people.

But I can watch almost anything on cable, and when A Knight's Tale popped up I didn't switch away.

All the anachronistic stupidity I feared is there, of course -- marriageable young ladies without chaperones hopping into bed with knights they take a fancy to, without fear of pregnancy; Chaucer, a royal clerk from a well-to-do merchant family traveling around with a poor would-be knight.

But the story turned out to be romantic and fun despite the silliness. Oddly enough, however, the performances I enjoyed the most were not the leads, who seemed to be the standard wooden puppets of fashionable beauty. It was the actors portraying Prince Edward and the young woman blacksmith whom I want to see in more films.

Worth renting after all, even for history snobs like me.


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