Dec 15, 2007

Books: Alice Waters & Chez Panisse

Cover photo: Alice Waters & Chez PanisseFoodsters will probably want to read this book (Alice Waters & Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee; Penguin Press; 2007). While covering the history of the famous restaurant, from its 1971 opening up to 2006, McNamee offers an interesting look at certain aspects of the US culinary scene over the last few decades.

As a one-time Berkeley resident, I've eaten at Chez Panisse many times--mostly in the moderately-priced café--and I enjoyed getting a behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant's history, the chefs that have come and gone (sometimes, as with Jeremiah Tower and Joyce Goldstein, moving on to wide acclaim), setbacks and triumphs along the way, and so on. I also enjoyed learning about the origins of the Slow Food movement.

What I missed, though, was a feeling for who Alice Waters really is. To use that old phrase attributed to Gertrude Stein when talking about Oakland, "there is no there there." I'm sure there's plenty of "there" in the flesh-and-blood Alice Waters. There would
have to be to have started Chez Panisse on a shoestring and a prayer and kept it right at the forefront of American cuisine for nearly four decades. McNamee gives us facts about Waters, but they never seem to amount to a real person. We learn of her delightful ways, but he carefully steps around anything that could be construed as negative. We all possess our little negatives; they're what make us human, after all. By ignoring Alice's, the author keeps her from being fully fleshed out. Thus, the book suffers from McNamee being a bit awed by, and overly-respectful toward, his subject.

Nonetheless: for many of us, this book is worth reading to understand more about the profound culinary changes that have occurred and continue to occur in the US.

Dec 4, 2007

Restaurants: Santé (Sonoma, CA)

Sonoma Mission InnHad a pretty amazing meal the other night at Santé, Sonoma’s only Four-Diamond restaurant. Located at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, the restaurant is committed to using local products and produce, particularly when they're organic and sustainable. That’s probably easier to do here in Sonoma, with its incredibly fertile soil, than it is most places; even a former city gal like me produces fabulous veggies in the garden without really knowing what I’m doing. But that’s another story.

Back to Santé. The kitchen is headed by Executive Chef Bruno Tison, who held the same position at the Fairmont’s famed sister property in New York City, The Plaza Hotel, and trained earlier with several of France’s master chefs, including Alain Chapel, Roger Verge, and Michel Guerard. Chef Tison’s culinary style can best be summed up by himself: “My cooking is heavily influenced by my strong classical background and the use of fresh American products.” Yes! 

BTW, Tison is beautifully teamed with Chef de Cuisine Andrew Cain, who also comes with tip-top credentials. The former Executive Chef at Sonoma’s St. Francis Winery, Cain served earlier stints at some of the country’s top restaurants, including The French Laundry, Citronelle, La Folie, and Michael Mina’s.

Santé’s dining room is spare and infinitely elegant—a fitting backdrop for the unfussy but gorgeous course presentations, each accompanied by a terrific Sonoma wine (thanks to the folks at Sonoma County Vintners). In a nutshell, this place is a knockout. If you’re visiting the wine country, it’s a must.
Here's a rundown of our meal:


First Course
“The Patch” Butternut Squash Soup
with Cinnamon Beignets & Crispy Sage
Paired with Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County 2006

Second Course
SonomaLiberty” Duck Confit with Frisée Lettuces,
Fines Herbs Vinaigrette & Persimmon Purée
Paired with Buena Vista Ramal Vineyard Pinot Noir, Carneros 2005 

Third Course
Sonoma “CK” Boneless Lamb Rack
Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Cassoulet
Rosemary Scented Jus
Paired with Hanna Cabernet, Alexander Valley 2004

A Tasting of Local Artisan Cheeses
Laura Chenel Chèvre “Fries”
Red Beet Relish
Bellwether Farms “Carmody”
Caramel Poached Granny Smith Apple
Pt. Reyes Blue
Sugar Pie Pumpkin Marmalade
Cinnamon Glaze
Paired with Pedroncelli Port, Dry Creek Valley 2002

Vanilla Bean & Brown Butter Cake
Local Poached Chestnuts, Chestnut Ice Cream and Foam