James Fisher
Freeman's Bilbo works up an appetite while walking across Middle-earth.
The Dinner : Shepherd's pie, at the Owl & Thistle (808 Post Alley).


The Hobbit Demands New Zealand Lamb

James Fisher
Freeman's Bilbo works up an appetite while walking across Middle-earth.
The Dinner: Shepherd's pie, at the Owl & Thistle (808 Post Alley).

The Movie: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, at the Cinerama (2100 Fourth Ave.).

The Screenplate: Much food is consumed in Peter Jackson's latest visit to Tolkien-land (aka Middle-earth, aka New Zealand), most of it by the 13 dwarfs who descend on Bilbo Baggins' cozy underground home, raid his larder, and finally drag him on an adventure. Their feast takes a very long time, during which they eat all manner of foodstuffs, which means a broad range of dining choices after the movie. But since the lovely landscapes of New Zealand again figure so prominently here, as in Jackson's prior Lord of the Rings trilogy, after three hours of hobbitry, you end up hungry for that country's national mascot: sheep.

Hobbits are said to eat seven meals a day, including a second breakfast and "Elevenses," and you might feel such need for such fortification before and during the 170-minute Hobbit, Part I. (Chapters II and III will arrive during the next two holiday seasons, to achieve maximum revenue per hobbit.) There is, however, the snack-bar option, and the Cinerama has a pretty good snack bar. It also has unusually wide aisles, which makes it easier to duck out for a bite. If the concession line is long, trust me: Missing 10 or 15 minutes of the movie won't matter. During that interval, many orcs and goblins will have been slain, but very little plot will have passed. Jackson has super-sized the single book that is The Hobbit, yet I don't think its passionate readers will mind the bloat. The movie is dense and overstuffed, yes, but it's worth the 3-D spectacle and ticket price if you're a fan. If you're a latecomer to the J.R.R. Tolkien myth-iverse, as many of us were before the 2001-2002-2003 LOTR pictures, my advice would be to wait for the nine-hour Hobbit DVD box set in 2015. This is a Middle-earth miniseries in the making.

Before then, however, where do we find some mutton? Or, in its more edible form, veal? There is no dedicated New Zealand eatery in Seattle, I was disappointed to learn. High-end veal is served in our nicer restaurants, but you want something quicker and more informal after (or before) a three-hour hobbit-athon. If you recall Bag End, the round-doored ancestral home of the Baggins clan, its low ceilings and cozy atmosphere put me in mind of an Irish place, the Owl & Thistle, that also has a warm, welcoming aspect. And on its menu is that staple of Anglo-Irish cuisine: Shepherd's pie ($9.95), which includes lamb, beef, bits of veggies and a doughy crust on top. It's a farmer's meal, the leavings of the larder scraped into a stew, which would appeal to those greedily rapacious dwarfs who convene at Bag End, drawn by a magical symbol from Gandalf the Wizard (again Ian McKellen, one of the LOTR vets back for The Hobbit; though he has the largest return role). There's a funny moment when, amid the feast, a dwarf pours a glass of wine to stooping Gandalf, who towers above the party. When he lifts it up to drink, it's the size of a thimble! Jackson hasn't lost his touch, though too many hectic scenes seem composed for the sake of 3-D rather than story. (There's also the 2-D version, shot at a higher frame rate, yielding more detail, which I haven't seen.)

After what seems like an hour of eating and indecision on the part of nervous Bilbo (the appealing Martin Freeman), the adventure finally gets underway. By then, too, we've seen a prologue with Frodo (Elijah Wood) and old Bilbo (Ian Holm) and had a refresher course on how the dwarfs lost their hollow mountain kingdom in a tremendous battle with orcs and a flying dragon, Smaug. (Of which Jackson restricts our view to precisely one tail, at the beginning of the movie, and one eye, at the end. What fucking tease.) On the trail, Bilbo is mocked for being a softie. He's doubted by the fierce dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his underlings, none of whom register as more than fierce facial hair and big noses.

One of the better scenes is played for comedy, as three giant trolls named Tom, Bert, and William--speaking in Cockney accents--debate how to eat these tiny captive dwarfs and hobbit. It's like an episode of Top Chef! I could've done with more of this troll drollery and less of the howling, molting orcs. Similarly, Jackson is more successful in a negotiating scene with the hideous, goitered Goblin King (voiced by Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna) than in the goblins' clamorous pursuit of our heroes through a mined-out mountain, all collapsing bridges and shattering lumber, which just feels like a 3-D theme-park ride (as was surely intended).

Hobbits are quiet, polite, somewhat meek creatures. They'd like the Owl & Thistle, as I do for a solitary, bookish lunch or a quick beer after work. Only during my evening visit, the whole place had been loudly invaded by ... fractious dwarfs? Almost: It turned out to be pub trivia night, with a huge, noisy table near me. Bilbo would not approve. Nor did I when none of that young company could correctly identify Robert Fulton as the father of steam navigation. (Though to be fair, I once lived in Jersey City, New Jersey, near the site of his first successful steam voyage.)

This merry band didn't care about the food; nor did my waitress, who brought the wrong order--fish and chips! WTF?!? I didn't want to complain, so I ate it with a pint of Manny's Pale Ale ($3.25), and it was fine (the fries far too salty, however). But I did feel my whole Dinner & a Movie adventure had been spoiled--as if Gandalf went knocking on the wrong door, or the dragon were slain right away, or Gollum turned out to be a perfectly nice fellow. (As if to mock me, there on the Owl's bookshelves was a paperback copy of Return of the King, with Viggo Mortensen's disapproving face on the spine.)

And, as with the three LOTR movies, Gollum is the best thing in this first Hobbit installment. Like the pub trivia crowd at the Owl, he and Bilbo play a game of riddles--only with mortal consequences. The centuries-old Gollum pounds the bones and eats the flesh of those who fall into his watery underground lair (far below goblin town). If Bilbo can't outsmart his foe (a fallen hobbit himself, shriveled by the darkness and dark power of his precious ring), he'll never live to resume his adventure and rejoin Gandalf and the dwarfs. But we know, with Parts II and III awaiting, that he does. Will there be more Gollum (again a motion-captured Andy Serkis) in those movies? We can only hope. But this time next year, I'll go someplace other than the Owl to find some veal.

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