by Tony Dayoub
11:47 am - Waited for my table at Asiáte (80 Columbus Cir., New York, NY, 10023, 212-805-8881), one of the very best restaurants in Manhattan, and definitely the best view. It sits on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental on Columbus Circle, with floor to ceiling windows that overlook Central Park. As I wait, I see comedian Richard Lewis checking out of the hotel.
11:55am - The maitre'd invites me in to the restaurant. The crisp and clean dining room, separated from the kitchen by a wall of wine bottles, is decorated in soothing beiges and whites. The service is impeccable, with my waiter being knowledgeable about each of the plates I ask for. For the first course, I have a Red Snapper sashimi served over daikon and an avocado mousse cucumber melon gelée, in a mustard ponzu vinaigrette. It was so tasty that I was lamenting the fact that the portion was only enough for a taste. But happily, this was helpful in keeping me open to the more generous main course, Suckling Pig prepared three ways, with braised kale in a sweet plantains smoked ginger jus. The pork is prepared as a croquette (which was not heavily fried), roasted (with its crispy skin still attached), and finally, as a broiled tenderloin, which was the most rewarding.
I follow my waiter's recommendation and get the Chocolate Fondant for dessert. It is the perfect end to the meal, essentially a molten chocolate souffle, arriving in a tall cup, served next to a bowl of marscapone sorbet, with raspberry granité (shaved ice). And the biggest surprise, for a restaurant of its kind it was not too expensive. Very heartily recommended!
4:20 pm - I arrive to the Village East Cinemas to watch Celia the Queen, the new documentary by Joe Cardona and Mario de Varona. I anticipated this one with some interest, as the subject is very near and dear to me, a Miami-born Cuban. It covers the rise of the singer, Cuban guarachera Celia Cruz, starting in Cuba, then New York, and eventually Miami. This has been the only film I've arrived at so far where I've had to wait in such a long line.
The doc doesn't disappoint. It's biggest strength is the charismatic Cruz herself, and her music, of course. There is also very interesting footage of her time with Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colón, and the rest of the Fania All-Stars, the famous 70's Nuyorican conjunto, which is the unspoken heart of the film. The only drawbacks, which are easily remedied, are some unnecessary bridging sequences starring Christina Christian (formerly of American Idol) as a young Celia Cruz. I'd lose them, because the material is strong enough to stand on its own.
With fascinating interviewees, from here in the US (including David Byrne, Wyclef Jean, and Quincy Jones) to far-flung Tokyo, Celia the Queen proves that "Azucar!" can be found anywhere in the world.
6:45 pm - Paraíso Travel (pictured at top) is an accomplished Colombian film by Simon Brand, starring Ana de la Reguera (Nacho Libre), John Leguizamo (Love in the Time of Cholera), and two bright relative unknowns, Aldemar Correa and Angelica Blandon. Correa and Blandon play a young Colombian couple that become separated after arriving illegally in New York. As we follow Correa's Marlon through his travails in New York, and his search for his girlfriend, Blandon's Reina, flashbacks inform us of their painful, laborious, journey to get here after visiting the titular travel agency.
Correa is sympathetic as Marlon, haunted by the ghost of his long-missing girlfriend in a way that no one seems to understand. No one save for us, who see the sorrowful experience they went to in order to reach the U.S., only to be separated hours after their arrival. The fact that Marlon was perfectly content in Colombia until Reina convinced him to join her adds to the tragedy of their separation.
The real discovery is Angelica Blandon, whose lusty Reina is so alluring and vivacious, that her absence is deeply felt whenever the story switches to the present. Blandon is honest in her portrayal, showing Reina's desperation to come to New York to us, if not to Marlon. She is unafraid to reveal Reina's more manipulative moments, moments which could easily turn us against the character, except somehow, we are just as in love with the missing girl as Marlon is. Sly and seductive, Blandon is an actress I predict will become a big star, both in her native country and ours.
Paraíso Travel is one not to miss, and probably the best film I've seen at the festival.