Sunday, January 1, 2012

On the Road: DC in December

On Friday night, we got back from a quick trip down to DC to visit my parents. As has been our custom of late, we took the train there and back. Some dining advice for anyone taking the Vermonter all the way through: it's best to hit the café car right after New York, where they restock. Most train fare is pretty awful but it helps to have choices. The teriyaki chicken bowl is my personal favorite.

Image via tr3s

One of many great things about grandparents is their willingness to babysit. My Wife and I took advantage of this on our second day to plan a late afternoon/early evening date. My Wife really wanted to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy while we were in town so we used that as the inspiration for a spy-themed extravaganza.

Image via Cul de Sac

Our first excursion of the day was to Big Planet Comics, not far from my parents' apartment. Big Planet just recently moved their DC store from Georgetown to U Street. I was rather hoping for a store comparable to That's Entertainment in Worcester but Big Planet has nowhere near as much space. All of their comics were new. I didn't see second-hand boxes anywhere. Nonetheless, variety was more than adequate for both of us to find decent treasures. We even grabbed some spy-themed titles in honor of the day. My thoughts on my finds are best handled in a separate post, I think.

Photo via Drink DC

On the way to the subway station, we stopped in at Kramerbooks, one of northwest DC's top-notch independent book stores. We didn't find any spy novels but there were some other good finds: a couple of Asimov books plus George Plimpton's Paper Lion. I've been wanting to read Plimpton for a while now but his sports books are hard to find these days. Paper Lion has been released as a 45th anniversary edition - what an odd number.

Next, on to the movie. The Landmark E Street Cinema is a relatively new theater, just opened in 2004. It's a nice one. I love the new trend of being able to purchase beer at a movie theater.

Photo via Little Worlds

The film was very good, the highlight of our spy-themed day. We first ventured into John Le Carré's world via the 1979 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy TV series on the BBC, starring Alec Guinness. My Wife has also since read the book and has been very eager to see the new film, especially since two of her favorite actors are in the cast: Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch. Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley, the Guinness role. I think he was a fine choice. In fact, I can hardly imagine a better choice.

I can understand why someone might not care for the film. The pace is very slow, the tone very quiet - both of which reflect the TV series perfectly. It did help me to already be familiar with the story. Since I knew whodunit, I could focus on other aspects. The look of the film was very satisfying: dark, murky, foggy. Attention to time period detail was thorough: the right cars, the right clothes, the right hairstyles, etc. Casting all around was outstanding.

Obviously, going from a book, to a seven-part TV series to a feature film required much condensing and there were plenty of differences in this latest interpretation. The confrontation between hero George and nemesis Karla was an interesting case. In the 1979 series, Guinness faces off against Patrick Stewart in the scene. In the new film, Oldman interrogates an empty chair - only an actor of his ilk could have pulled it off so effectively.

I was inspired to read the book myself and perhaps even give the TV series another look - overall, 4 out of 5 stars.

Image via Wikipedia

If the film was the highlight of our day, the disappointment was the International Spy Museum. That's not to say that it's not a high quality museum. It is. If you want to see loads of Q-esque spy gadgets from all over the world, they're all here - including a replica of James Bond's Aston Martin. The history of espionage is well-documented from antiquity to the present. Here's the problem: museum admission is $18 for adults. In a city where one has access to the world's largest museum complex free of charge, any institution charging even a modest admission had better have something pretty special on offer. The attempts to offer an interactive experience are admirable but not sufficiently accommodating for the large crowds passing through. In the end, I felt that I'd rather just read a good book on the subject.

Photo via The Art of Being Mom

Our espionage date culminated at Zola, the museum's fine dining establishment. Theme elements are light: images from classic spy films like The Third Man grace the walls. Beer and wine selections were pretty good and the food decent. The carnitas tacos were my favorite. Service was mediocre - polite but inefficient. No one ever brought us bread for the table, for instance.

Photo via National Museum of American History

The third day of our visit was busy as well. In the morning, we took Our Girl to the National Museum of American History. I have visited the museum many times in my life but it had been a while. The museum has seemingly been in various stages of renovation for decades. Long gone is the old-fashioned ice cream shop, once my favorite part of the entire Smithsonian. It's still a great museum, of course. I think the dollhouse display is impressive but Our Girl was underwhelmed - lack of Calico Critters, perhaps? Not surprisingly, the Jim Henson display is my personal favorite.

Photo via

In the late afternoon, my parents treated us to a performance of Knuffle Bunny at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Kennedy Center is an important place for our family. My father has sung with the Choral Arts Society of Washington for over 30 years and most of their concerts are at the Kennedy Center. Both my sister and I walked across the concert hall stage for our high school graduations. This was the first visit for both My Wife and Our Girl and we took some time to appreciate the Hall of Nations, the Hall of States, the view of the river and, of course, the gift shop. I would never turn up my nose at my parents' generosity but we all agreed that Knuffle Bunny was best suited for kids - not exactly adult-friendly. Our Girl enjoyed it, though. That's all that really mattered.

Dinner was a greater success: Mama Ayesha's, a DC institution since 1960 and long a favorite of our family's. Vermont is wonderful but among other things, it lacks a decent Middle Eastern restaurant. My Wife's Lebanese family heritage is very important to her, especially in terms of her culinary sensibilities so the opportunity to reconnect when we're in a big city is very exciting. I often feel that My Wife orders better than I do in restaurants but I did pretty well at Mama Ayesha's. The mushakal mashal (mixed grill) is outstanding. As one would hope for a Mediterranean restaurant, the wine list is very impressive.

Overall, it was a great trip. We're looking forward to our next visit.

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