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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 25, 2004

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


A New Leblon, Dumb Idol Voters, 13/30, and 3 CDs

For a couple of weeks, starting on May 30th, don't plan to go to Leblon. The restaurant, for many years one of Greensboro's finest, will be temporarily closed.

The good news is that when the doors reopen, Leblon will have undergone a transformation.

Now it will be called "Leblon Brazilian Steakhouse."

No, that doesn't mean it's trying to compete with Lone Star or The Outback or even Gate City Chop House.

Leblon is becoming a churrascaria.

In the past I've reviewed churrascarias in Utah and New York; there are also fine examples in Chicago, Atlanta, and other major cities. In fact, you might think of churrascarias as a new major league of dining, and we're about to get a first-rate team.

What is a churrascaria? Think of it as "continuous dining." After you've finished your salads -- or immediately, if you want to skip the salad bar -- you turn over the red marker ("ficha") at your table, revealing the green side. Green as in "go."

From then on, until you flip the ficha back to red and stagger out of the restaurant, the waiters will bring you ... meat.

Spit-roasted meat, still on the skewer (actually, more like a sword!), which they slice off at your table.

Several different cuts of beef, which you can either take from the outside (well done) or from deep in the middle (rare). Pork, lamb shoulder, chicken drumsticks, bacon-wrapped turkey breast, and, for variety, platters of grilled salmon. In other words, all kinds of different meats in the same meal.

It's Atkin's-diet heaven.

And this won't be just any meat. This will be Leblon-quality meat, cooked to the highest standards of Brazilian cuisine.

What if you really don't want a meal consisting entirely of meat and fish? Never fear. The salad bar, which will, of course, be up to chef Walter Vanucci's exacting standards, is a meal in itself -- vegetarians can opt for just the salad bar, at a lower price.

Along with the expected salad ingredients, there will be more exotic fare -- chilled asparagus, sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, fresh mozzarella, and ceviche-style mushrooms. Also, because it is a Brazilian restaurant, there'll be black beans, rice, farofa, and potato salad (called "mayonese" in Brazil), plus whatever extras Walter and Ilma Vanucci decide to put on their tasting table.

For those who know Leblon, most of what you already loved about the restaurant will still be there.

But as a churrascaria, it will offer new advantages.

First, you can begin eating as soon as you arrive. The waiter takes your drink orders and you head for the salad bar -- or flip over your ficha and start in on the meat, which will be sizzling and freshly cooked all through the evening.

Second, you know exactly what you're going to pay when you walk in the door. The introductory price this first summer will be $27 a person for the full meal, or $19 a person for the salad bar only. (These prices are low, compared to what you pay at churrascarias in big cities.)

Drinks -- which will continue to include the Brazilian soft drink guaraná as one of the options -- are the only price variable, and for those to whom meat is impossible without red wine, you won't lack for excellent options.

Third, this kind of restaurant is simply fun. Are you entertaining out-of-town visitors? Hoping to impress a client? Celebrating? Commiserating? If your guests have never been to a churrascaria, you'll have the pleasure of introducing them to what promises to be one of the best in the country. (After all, Leblon is already the best traditional Brazilian restaurant I've found in the States.)

And if your guests have been to a churrascaria before, then as soon as you mention that Greensboro has one, they'll be eager to go.

So ... you have the month of May in which to enjoy Leblon as it has always been. If you've never gone before, this is your last chance to see what so many of us have been praising for years.

Then, in mid-June, bring a group and see what it's like to have a cool new churrascaria within easy driving distance. (4512 W. Market Street. For reservations call 336-294-2605.)

Uncle Orson's pronunciation guide

To pronounce churrascaria, just say these three words fast: Shoe. Hoss. Korea. (Yes, that was "Hoss" like the character Dan Blocker played on Bonanza.) (In Brazilian Portuguese, ch is always pronounced like sh in English, and in São Paulo, at least, a double or initial r is pronounced like the English letter h.)

Churrascaria refers to the cooking method. The style of "continuous dining" is called rodizio, which you can pronounce just as it's spelled (roe-DEE-zee-oh), unless you want to be a Portuguese purist and say that initial r as an h and the d as a j.

In some cities, the churrascarias avoid the whole pronunciation problem by calling themselves "rodizios," so some of your guests might be familiar with the concept under that name. Both names are equally correct for this kind of restaurant.

Ficha -- the coaster-like "ticket" you flip over from red to green -- is pronounced "FEE-sha."

But don't worry if the Portuguese words seem intimidating. You can also grunt like Tim Allen, and they'll take that for a yes and keep slicing meat onto your plate until you get your protein high.

*

What's happening with American Idol? Last week -- or, by the time you read this, two episodes ago -- they had one of the best installments ever. Barry Manilow -- who began his career by arranging Bette Midler's brilliant music -- worked with these singers and helped them all amazingly. A generous musician, he helped them transform some of his old-standard songs into perfect vehicles for their voices.

The result was that the "three divas" gave some of the best performances of their lives. We've come to expect LaToya London to soar vocally, and it's never a surprise when Fantasia Barrino -- clearly a world-class professional from her first audition on -- finds new brilliance in an old song. Jennifer Hudson was the surprise. She has actually been learning before our eyes, and Manilow brought her over the last threshold -- her performance was perfect.

It was obvious that, if the audience had any judgment at all, the final four would be these three divas and George Huff, and in the end, Fantasia Barrino would win. What other outcome was even possible?

Instead, not only was Jennifer Hudson voted off the show -- voted off the week after she blew us all away with a great performance! -- but Fantasia was only saved from the same fate by the closest vote in the history of the show.

Yes, these were the bottom two, and LaToya was third from lowest. Incredible. The best performers by any rational standard got the fewest votes.

What was it, America? Complacency? Were they so obviously the winners-to-be that you didn't bother pumping the redial button on your phone till your vote got counted?

Or did people actually think that the seriously undertalented John Stevens was better than all three divas? And while Diana Degarmo and Jasmine Trias gave their best performances to date that week, they are simply not in the same league.

The good news is that just because the voters are idiots doesn't mean the record companies have to be. If Jennifer Hudson is smart, she's negotiating right now with Barry Manilow to help her launch her career -- clearly she flourishes under his nurturance.

And if Fantasia and LaToya (what? A talented person with that name?) are also bounced, I have no doubt that they'll both be signed by record companies. In fact, I wish I had an album of every single performance by Fantasia right now -- she's already one of my favorite singers and performers, period.

The bad news is that the same people who just gave the three best performers on American Idol the fewest votes will be choosing our president in November.

This could be the end of life as we know it.

*

Between the novel I'm writing and the play I'm directing (don't forget to reserve May 7 or 8 to see our free-of-charge production of Fiddler on the Roof!), there was no way I was going to see some bloody revenge flick. Which meant that last weekend, my wife and I really had only one choice: 13 Going on 30.

I really hadn't planned to see the movie. I think Big is one of the greatest movies of all time, and the concept of 13/30 was so obviously similar that I figured I'd rather just slap the Big disc into the DVD player.

I'm glad I went to the movies. Because even though 13/30 won't take you by surprise very often in the storyline -- which is, after all, a ridiculous fantasy premise -- and the writing was sometimes shockingly inept, the performances were wonderful and, in the end, I enjoyed the movie thoroughly.

Frankly, I didn't know Jennifer Garner had it in her. She does a good job of capturing the naivete, movements, and attitudes of a girl in her early teens, perhaps more so than the actual 12-year-old who played her young self, who was quite sober and mature for her age. But the fact is Garner is just plain charming and has what it takes to carry a comedy as the star.

For me, the real delight of the movie was Mark Ruffalo, who is suddenly popping up everywhere (catch him in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and We Don't Live Here Anymore, not to mention the upcoming Collateral). This guy has the looks to play as macho as Harrison Ford or John Wayne, and the acting chops to take on any part that would once have been given to Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman.

He's also has the likeability to handle the kind of part that Henry Fonda used to make his own. (I'm talking about the remake of Mr. Roberts. The guy's still too young for On Golden Pond.)

Back to 13/30. Some critics have complained that the plot about the magazine didn't work, and it's true that there's one howlingly awful moment, when Garner presents her cool new "redesign" of the magazine she works for -- and doesn't show a single spread. That would be like presenting a new line of furniture by showing pictures of people in sitting positions without any actual furniture in the shot.

But the real flaw was, simply, bad writing. Oh, there were good moments, but most of those were earned by the actors' charm. Time after time, a scene that looked like it might actually be building to something was simply ... dropped. At one key moment, Garner walks away in mid-conversation, when no human being in her right mind would do any such thing.

Unfortunately, most critics don't recognize bad writing when they see it. A collapsed scene? It makes them uneasy, but they don't know why. So they come up with words like "predictable" to register their disappointment.

The fact is, there's no such thing as originality, and to be "unpredictable," all a writer needs to do is cheat and not tell the audience what's going on -- another kind of really bad writing. So when critics tell you that 13/30 is "predictable," what they really mean is, "there are moments when the writing is bad enough that in spite of the good performances, you feel disappointed and distracted and start noticing things that you would never even think of if the writing were first rate."

But the writing is nowhere near as bad as the writing in, say, Independence Day or Titanic, those fantasy special-effects comedies of years past. (Titanic wasn't meant to be a comedy, it just becomes one around the second time you see it as a grown-up.) And the performances by these excellent actors were well worth the price of admission.

*

Three new albums:

Norah Jones's quirky new-age/jazz/country/blues style is put to good use on Feels Like Home; a favorite of mine is her spunky duet with Dolly Parton on "Creepin' In."

Michael Bublé is back with his second CD, a live album called Come Fly With Me. He takes old standards and sings them the way Sinatra would have sung them, if he had had a voice as good as Bublé's. (Oh, come on. The only thing that made Sinatra "great" was his live performances. Recorded, his voice reveals his severely limited range as a singer and the shallowness of his understanding of the music. It was Bing Crosby who was the great singer of the swing era.) Whoever is arranging Bublé's music is doing a fine job of helping him make some great old songs fresh.

And Harry Connick, Jr., has finally grown up. Though at times he still seems to be channeling Dean Martin, on his new album, Only You, he brings a tone of melancholy into the arrangements and performance that gave me chills. Even songs that I'd never heard before, like "My Prayer," haunted me the first time I heard them, and he actually made me love "My Blue Heaven." His may be the best version of "Save the Last Dance for Me" ever recorded.


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