“Today’s Special” ★★★★
By KEN HANKE, Mountain Xpress Asheville & W. North Carolina
Published: Mar. 22, 2011

From its inception in 2003 to its demise in 2009, I saw every narrative feature entered in the Asheville Film Festival. That’s well over 100 movies. Only three of them was I ever compelled to keep a copy of for myself, and at that top of that list was David Kaplan’s Year of the Fish (2007)—a film that won Best Feature and the Audience Award. I remember co-judge (along with Don Mancini) Robby Benson remarking, “I wish I’d made it,” and I know what he meant. It truly was—and is—a magical film. Well, Kaplan’s next film, Today’s Special, comes to town on Friday. It may not be as magical, but it’s a worthy and utterly charming follow-up.

The film originated as a one-man Off-Broadway show by The Daily Show‘s Aasif Mandvi (the show landed him the lead in Ismail Merchant’s The Mystic Masseur (2001)). Mandvi and TV writer Jonathan Bines turned that show into the screenplay for this film starring Mandvi. It’s a simple story and offers little in the way of surprises once it gets underway, but that’s not a downside in this case because it carries the day with charm and a strong sense of humanity—and a delightful tone. Sometimes that counts for more than originality. This is one of those times.

The story concerns Samir (Mandvi), a sous chef at a trendy New York restaurant. When he’s passed over for a promotion (mostly for a lack of imagination in his cooking), he quits, telling new cook Carrie (Jess Weixler) that he’s going to Paris to work for a master chef. Before he can manage this, however, his father, Hakim (Harish Patel, Run, Fatboy, Run), has a heart attack, leaving Samir temporarily in charge of the Tandoori Palace, the rundown family restaurant in Queens. The place is nothing to brag about. It’s shabby, the paint is peeling, the food is at best mediocre, and the only customers are three old guys (including Wes Anderson regular Kumar Pallana), who virtually live there. It’s also in the red and badly run.

When Samir causes the so-called chef to quit, he remembers an earlier encounter with a chatty Indian taxi driver, Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah, Monsoon Wedding), who claimed to be a world class Indian chef. Armed with nothing but the man’s visiting card (left in case Samir needs him, though it offers no clue how to find him), he enlists the aid of the three old men in locating Akbar. (It’s this almost magical aspect of the film—and a few similar touches involving Akbar—that makes it so right for director Kaplan). Now, you know where this is going, don’t you? Yes, Akbar proves to be a great cook and a mentor, who teaches—without seeming to—Samir how to become a great cook himself, and, in so doing, find his place in the world.

All this works wonderfully well simply because all the characters are likable (exempting the cocky chef who didn’t promote Samir) and because this is what you want the film to do. Samir’s romance with Carrie (of course, she lives in the neighborhood) feels a little more perfunctory, but it nicely parallels Samir inevitably falling in love with the Tandoori Palace. The performances and direction are all first-rate and there’s nice nod to Merchant-Ivory in using music from their 1969 film The Guru (Wes Anderson fans will recognize the piece from The Darjeeling Limited (2007)). If I’ve any complaint, it’s with cinematographer David Tumblety’s lighting, but it doesn’t seriously impact this sweet-natured, charming movie. Rated R for language.