Catherine Zeta-Jones is uptight master chef Kate, who lives a solitary life when she's not arguing with customers or delivering monologues to her therapist about the perfect way to roast quail.
Abigail Breslin is adorable niece Zoe, who gets stuck living with her frosty aunt after her mother dies in a car accident.
Aaron Eckhart is brash sous-chef Nick, who invades Kate's kitchen at fictional restaurant 21 Bleecker St. wearing flashy pants and orange Crocs and singing Italian opera at the top of his lungs.
This trifecta of appealing star power adds considerable charm to "No Reservations," a remake of the 2001 German movie "Mostly Martha." It's nothing particularly new or original, but palatable ingredients make for a satisfying dish even if much of it seems as familiar as yesterday's meatloaf.
"No Reservations" faithfully follows the "Martha" screenplay with some alterations for American audiences (a mandatory graveyard shot, for instance).
The original's gray backdrop of Hamburg, Germany, is traded for the bustling streets of Greenwich Village. The interloper in "Mostly Martha" was an Italian chef; Eckhart plays a chef who cooks Italian (and doesn't seem to show any ill effects from his pasta-and-tiramisu diet). Unlike in the original, Kate and Nick are supplied with the bare outlines of a back story that explains at least part of their behavior.
Patricia Clarkson is marvelous as the restaurant owner; Bob Balaban brings a quiet dignity to some silly lines he's forced to utter as the therapist.
For an audience accustomed to watching the Food Network, the filmmakers went to great pains to craft the scenes in 21 Bleecker's busy kitchen, the chefs bustling about in close quarters, handing off dishes in a noisy clatter of organized chaos that almost resembles a dance. Filmmakers even bought the Fiamma Osteria restaurant's work-a-day cookware to achieve a banged-up authenticity in the pots and pans.
Zeta-Jones is credible as the fiercely single-minded Kate, angrily confronting a customer about the proper pinkness of foie gras, taking refuge in the restaurant cooler or compulsively wiping the rim of a plate. While Nick and Zoe conspire to thaw her icy demeanor, she, thankfully, remains the same prickly perfectionist in the kitchen throughout.
Eckhart is appealing as the love interest (as he was in "Erin Brockovich" and "Possession"), although he has to say some ridiculous lines and play the clown as he woos both Zoe and Kate with plates of pasta.
There are a few false notes, among them Kate's suspiciously spacious Manhattan apartment, as well as seduction-by-cooking scenes that seem lifted from other movies.
As romantic comedies go, "No Reservations" is a pleasant diversion -- lovely to look at, unabashedly sentimental and satisfyingly predictable.
3 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Catherine Zeta Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin and Patricia Clarkson
DIRECTOR: Scott Hicks
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes
RATING: PG for some sensuality and mild language.
THE LOWDOWN: A chef's life is turned upside down when she must care for her niece after her sister is killed.