For years, September has meant to me the annual cinematic orgy that is the Toronto International Film Festival, the best-run and most accessible film fest I know, where the biggest problem is acknowledging the physical and temporal realities that limit the festivalgoer to four or five movies a day, when the 10-day event programs well over 300 movies (and a cursory read-through of the catalog always yields, in my experience, a hundred pictures I absolutely have to see). One local alternative weekly ended its festival overview with a stern, "Remember: seeing more than three movies a day isn't fair to you or the movies," but who are they kidding? Three movies a day is kid stuff, and not particularly festive.
Alas, despite my penchant for continuing the mood of a movie by dining in a restaurant whose cuisine or ambience has been suggested by what I've just seen, the nonstop Toronto festival schedule doesn't lend itself to anything more gastronomically ambitious than grabbing a pre-made sandwich from the excellent lineup offered at the Bloor Street Diner, conveniently located inside the Manulife Center, where many of the films unspool at an eight-screen multiplex. The festival press office offers a useful list of films broken down by interest -- everything from "animals" (six movies, including the German documentary set in Mongolia The Story of the Weeping Camel, which was the first movie I saw after arriving, and featured the on-screen birth of an albino camel, at which point I knew I was at the Toronto International Film Festival and had left the Summer of Sequels far behind) to "women directors" (49, including two of the best movies I saw there, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised [see Night & Day, Page 26, for more on this title], the amazing documentary about the military coup that toppled Hugo Chavez from the presidency of Venezuela in 2002, and Since Otar Left, a French film set in Russia about how three generations of women deal with life after the male member of their family immigrates to Paris).
But there's no category titled "food" or "gastronomy," so I patched together my own list: Kitchen Stories, a droll comedy from Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer about a quasi-scientific study of kitchen usage; The Green Butchers, a delightful Danish black comedy from one-time Dogme stalwart Anders Thomas Jensen, wherein human flesh tastes like chicken; and Dream Cuisine, a poetic documentary about a 78-year-old Japanese woman who runs a classical Shandong restaurant in Tokyo but wants to return to China, where she learned to cook in her youth. (After seeing Dream Cuisine I managed to extend the reverie by joining friends for our annual lobster-and-crab feast at the Excellent Peking restaurant in Toronto's Chinatown.) These were the obvious titles, but many more included scenes of fasting (the bulimic teenagers of Gus Van Sant's Columbine-inspired Elephant) or feasting (the vacationing friends whose lives revolve around their communal meals in Nos Enfants Chéris -- one of the half-dozen French movies I saw whose plots concern adultery, which began to seem self-parodic).
I have a self-imposed rule at Toronto not to see any movies whose theatrical release is imminent, which precluded, for example, viewing Pieces of April, in which Katie Holmes prepares Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged relatives. I know from long experience that I can't stop seeing movies cold turkey (!) upon my return, so it was delightful to find that I could segue right into some titles slated for the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival (Oct. 2-12). I surreptitiously brought a baby carnitas burrito from Pancho Villa Taqueria right down the street into the Roxie screening of My Architect (playing at the festival Oct. 4 and 7), an extraordinary documentary by Nathaniel Kahn about trying to discover the truth about the life and art of his father, the visionary architect Louis Kahn, who died when Nathaniel was 11. (The snack would have been more appropriate, I know, for Once Upon a Time in Mexico, aka Act 2 in the Rehabilitation of Johnny Depp, but proximity ruled my choice. And what would be apt for a movie about buildings, anyway? The brief fad for constructing towers of food has pretty much played out.)
One movie seeming like just an appetizer, I took myself to the Metreon to see the delightful Lost in Translation, one of the hits of both Telluride and the Toronto International Film Festival (and not only on the "women directors" list, but as an example, here, of local girl -- Sofia Coppola -- makes good). The game would seem to demand that I eat afterward at a shabu-shabu restaurant, as Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson did (even though Johansson said, "That lunch was the worst!" and Murray replied, "What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?"), but I already had a date to meet a friend at a small place that seemed lost in its own translation from Cajun-Caribbean food to quasi-Italian or who knows what.
The food-movie matchup worked much better the next day, when I wandered in a daze from the exquisitely lit, painterly Girl With a Pearl Earring (at the Mill Valley festival Oct. 4 and 9), which begins with a montage of the careful slicing of jewel-toned beets and carrots, to the nearby Ti Couz (3108 16th St., 25-CREPE), where the rough wooden tables and simple crepes and bols of cidre seemed like a continuation of the 17th century, despite the shift from Delft to Brittany.
And it reached its apogee the following night, when my goddaughter Anna invited me and a clutch of her college pals to a screening of Under the Tuscan Sun, which owes only a shred of inspiration to its source material (a book by another local-girl-makes-good, S.F. State professor Frances Mayes), but is sheer porn for the Italophile [see Page 45 for a review]. We were inflamed by the many shots of food (when the character of Frances was given a statue of St. Lorenzo and told it was the patron saint of chefs, Anna leaned over and whispered, "This is a good movie for you!"), especially a montage of Frances providing endless feasts of antipasti, pasta, roasts, and tarts for the Polish workers remodeling her Tuscan villa. You could almost smell the garlic.
So it was no wonder that we raced over, afterward, to a new Italian ristorante in Berkeley, where our friend Robert had been instructed to order some antipasti for us in case we were late. He had chosen carciofi ripieni, a stuffed artichoke; melanzane fritti, fried eggplant; and funghi trifolati, sautéed mushrooms -- all favorites from earlier visits of his. I added the classic caprese salad (mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes) and a platter of grilled vegetables, hoping to re-create the abbondanza feeling of the movie's dining. (I was sad that the carciofini all'ebraica, the classic tiny fried artichokes as served in the Jewish quarter of Rome, were not available, but Robert said that, although tasty, the version he'd had here was sautéed rather than classically deep-fried.)
The star of the starters was the mushroom dish, sensuous slippery slices bathed in a lovely broth of white wine, garlic, and parsley, and crowned with two crisp slices of garlic toast. Everyone said he would order it again. And I liked the simple fried eggplant, the smoky, lightly oiled vegetables, the mildly lemony filling of the artichoke.
I especially liked watching four slender college girls tear into their food as though they hadn't eaten for days. (Robert's wife Gail and I eyed them with nostalgia.)
But where the place really shone was with our main courses. Excellent pastas, including tender ricotta and spinach ravioli drenched in a sauce much like the acclaimed mushroom trifolati; airy gnocchi that deserved their menu description of "potato pillows" in a blushing aurora (tomato-and-cream) sauce; and a tasty special called conchiglione, big shell pasta stuffed with ricotta, zucchini, garlic, and mint, topped with mozzarella and served with marinara. I was disappointed only by the penne that the restaurant called "arrabiato," finding its sauce insufficiently spicy. Even better, I thought, were the fish dishes we had: a light brodetto featuring chunks of halibut and snapper in a white wine broth; a slab of grilled salmon set in a luscious sauce of mascarpone, basil, and garlic ("In case pesto isn't sufficiently caloric," Gail said); and the best, an ethereal dish of poached halibut glazed with béchamel called rombo con beschamella that I wish were on the regular menu.
The dessert list looked exciting, but the proof was not in the pudding: I found the panna cotta overgelatined, the zabaglione soupy, the un-hotted-up apple bread pudding too dense (though I loved its boozy sauce).
Alert Italophiles might notice that we had no prosciutto, bistecca alla fiorentina, or even shellfish in the brodetto. This is because Raphaël is a kosher restaurant, which is discreetly mentioned on its menus. (Even the wine is kosher.) "I think it's genius," Robert said, "because their clientele, as well as those who keep kosher, includes vegetarians -- even vegans -- fishatarians, and people who just like good Italian food." And this milchedig (no meat) restaurant works much better than the one flayshedig (no dairy) kosher Italian restaurant of my experience -- because who can conceive of an Italian restaurant without cheese?