Between 1995 and 2011, the TBS cable network broadcast a series called Dinner and a Movie. The concept: expand the sensory film viewing experience of sight and sound with the addition of taste and smell. I wholeheartedly agree that the right combination of dinner and a movie (and good company) can elevate your evenings to a higher intellectual and emotional experience. It was a simple and brilliant idea for a TV show that satisfied both film buffs and foodies, but unfortunately, the TBS series required you to actually go into your kitchen and cook the dishes showcased in order to receive the promised full sensory experience.
With respect to the folks at TBS, I would like to update their simple concept to align with today’s world of internet streaming and take-out meals. We’re lucky to be living at a time when our planet’s entire digital library of filmed entertainment (almost) is accessible from the virtual video store in the cloud. For just a few dollars a month, we now have access to the most diverse collection of international movies at our fingertips. What a great time to be a film buff!
We’re also lucky to live in a town that has an amazing variety of high quality ethnic restaurants ready to serve you. In my opinion, our local options rival what’s available in many larger cities. So let’s put two and two together, and settle in at home with a good movie and the best take out meals our town has to offer. In this column, I’ll tell you about my favorite movie nights and the dinners that helped make those evenings memorable.
For example, last week we rewatched Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love again (for the third time). Like a good bottle of wine, this mood piece from 2000 ages well and gets better with repeat viewings. Wong Kar-wai first burst upon the international festival scene with Chungking Express (1994), a stylish art film from Hong Kong that was the antithesis to their usual commercial exports. But many people (like Anthony Bourdain) will cite In the Mood for Love as the classic that the director will be remembered by.
A sensual love story set in the 1960s, the movie is bursting with desire and longing. A visual feast of warm tones, mood lighting, cigarette smoke, and vintage cheongsam fashion, the film even manages to capture the sweet smell of street food along with the heat and humidity in Hong Kong. Like a fever dream, the director plays with time and makes great use of slow motion and mood music to build a world where repetition and looping enhance this story of unrequited love. In this world, longing and desire can only be satisfied with food. Be warned, there are a lot of scenes of eating and you will be hungry after the movie. In fact Wong Kar-wai has been quoted as saying that the original concept for the film was supposed to be “a story about food.”
Of course, In the Mood for Love needs to be followed by a great Chinese dinner. For tonight’s meal, I thought I would try a restaurant I haven’t eaten at before, so I chose to order from Kung Fu BBQ on campus. This is an interesting place that I’ve had my eye on for a while. Like the sign outside says, you can order Korean BBQ and hotpot cooked at your table (indoor dining will be re-opening soon).
If you take a closer look at their menu, you’ll see an extensive selection of Szechuan and Shanghai style dishes. They even have a decent selection of dim sum. I decided to order from the Shanghai side of the menu and chose two appetizers: Shanghai steamed soup dumplings and Shanghai special chicken with bones; and two entrees: stir-fried eel with hot oil and spinach in garlic. These four items made for a well-balanced dinner for two.
The soup dumplings (xiaolongbao) were the best I’ve ever had. Not just ordinary steamed dumplings, these bite-sized buns ($9) were filled with a nicely spiced ground pork mixture and injected with a tasty broth that bursts in your mouth as you bite into it (yes, it squirts!). Dipping sauce is completely optional.
The Shanghai special chicken with bones ($11), also known as “hacked chicken” at other restaurants, was served cold with a fragrant dipping sauce on the side. Beautifully presented even for take-out, the boiled chicken was skillfully hacked with a cleaver so that each bite had a bit of meat, a bit of skin, and a bit of bone (which needed to be skillfully removed with your teeth and tongue before swallowing). A fun dish to eat, but I had to spice up the sauce a little to satisfy my personal taste.
The eel dish ($22) was a heady mix of thin eel strips and a vegetable resembling pickled bamboo shoots gently stir-fried in a soy-ginger-garlic sauce and finished with hot oil. The eel had a wonderful fragrant texture, and the dish’s signature flavor was infused by the salt-piquant-zest of the pickled vegetables. The chef was a little light-handed with the hot oil, but I took care of that myself.
The sauteed spinach dish ($13) was a wonder to behold for its simplicity. A very generous serving of fresh spinach quickly sauteed with oil and garlic, this veggie entree was perfection in itself. A nod to the fact that the best tasting food doesn’t need to be complicated.
The traditional date night is usually dinner first followed by a movie. The proper sequence for this particular movie night needed to be film first, then dinner. There should be no eating before or during this movie (not even popcorn). Instead, let your senses be washed over as you watch the movie. Allow your mouth to water and let your stomach rumble. Feel the aching desires of the characters build with no release in sight. Trust me, when the movie is over, your dinner will taste that much better. Just be sure to order ahead of time so that dinner is ready when you are.
Kung Fu BBQ is located on campus. If you can read Chinese, delivery is available via Fantuan or Hungry Panda. A limited English delivery menu is available on Chowbus (where they are called “Kung Fu Sichuan”), but the full take-out menu is available here. You can call 217-355-1888 to place your order.
Extra credit: For dessert, watch the Hong Kong episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown (also streaming on HBO Max). Filled with stylish Wong Kar-wai visual references, this episode was directed by his then-girlfriend Asia Argento and photographed by Christopher Doyle (who also shot In The Mood for Love).
Choosing the right movie and dinner combination is like choosing the right wine to go with the right meal. Getting it right takes research, inspiration and luck. If you’ve got other interesting dinner/movie combo suggestions, please comment below. Be creative, but please skip obvious titles like Chocolat or Jiro Dreams of Sushi. They’re both good movies, but we know you can do better.
Kung Fu BBQ
510 E John St
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.