Review: ‘Today’s Special’ easy to digest |

Review: ‘Today’s Special’ easy to digest

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Inimitable PicturesAasif Mandvi stars as Samir, a second-generation Indian-American, in "Today's Special."

ASPEN – Sometimes you walk into a restaurant knowing full well that the meal won’t leave any lasting mark. But you’re hungry, it’s mealtime, and while you’re actually eating it, your thoughts don’t need to be on the fact that this food will be forgotten by breakfast time the next day. You can enjoy this plate of respectably made pasta with red sauce till the last strand of spaghetti is gone.So it is with “Today’s Special.” This food-oriented slice of culture clash won’t give you indigestion. But it won’t leave you sitting in the theater, savoring the original, precisely balanced ingredients.The film stars “The Daily Show’s” Aasif Mandvi (who also co-wrote the script) as Samir, a second-generation Indian-American who is thoroughly indoctrinated as a New Yorker. A sous chef at a cutting-edge New York restaurant, Samir has no use for cookie-cutter ethnic joints serving up General Tso’s chicken or chicken tikka masala. And one ethnic eatery in particular turns his stomach – Tandoori Palace, the tired, outer-borough dump run by his father, Hakim. Samir wants to get as far away as possible, and aims to study haute cuisine in Paris.But fate pushes Samir back to Jackson Heights, Queens. There’s no master French chef there; instead, he’s got his father, Hakim (Harish Patel), and Hakim’s heavy disappointment that Samir, unlike his brother, became a cook, not a doctor. (The doctor-brother is deceased – talk about throwing a cloying, unnecessary ingredient into the pot.) And in place of some castle of French cuisine, there is the Tandoori Palace, a failing, drab eatery whose main clientele are three elderly Indians who seem to have no place else to go. Samir takes over the distasteful job of learning to make the old standards of the Indian-American restaurant.The secret ingredient here is Akbar, a mystical old Indian with a gleam in his eye, a thousand colorful stories to tell, and a cooking philosophy that emphasizes heart and passion over recipes. Played by Naseeruddin Shah, Akbar energizes Samir to see the opportunity in front of him – and adds juicy flavor to the movie.Despite the overly familiar themes and plot, “Today’s Special” is likable. Mandvi, like Shah, rises above the material; the film is friendly, familiar – you could compare it to a thousand Indian restaurants that don’t aim too high, have the formula down pat. Beyond the clichs (and there are some doozies), I was bothered by some of the implausible food details. A New York City chef who has no appreciation of old-world cuisines – really? And when Samir transformed the Tandoori Palace into a chic spot in a matter of days, and started turning out creative, contemporary Indian-inspired dishes on the spot – well, the food looked spectacular, but to put it in restaurant terms, I was considering sending it back.

“Today’s Special” shows Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 26, at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen. Prior to Tuesday’s screening, beginning at 5:30 p.m., Aspen Film will present a $25 prix-fixe dinner at Pitkin County Steakhouse. (Diners will be asked to present their ticket stub for the dinner special.)

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