Monday, January 30, 2017

Weekend in Ashland

The kids
Ashland, Oregon, January 29, 2017—

TWENTY YEARS AGO we celebrated our fortieth anniversary, the Contessa and I, by getting all the family together for a weekend here. The highlight: dinner at one of the Five Restaurants, a concept I'll get to in a moment.

At the time there were fifteen of us in three generations. Since then another grandson has arrived, and three great-grandchildren. The cousins are spread far and wide and it's no longer really possible to get them all together. Tempus fugit, and ou sont les neiges.

But Friday night there were nine of us at table at a very favorite restaurant, that same one: all three kids and their mates, and that youngest grandson, still celebrating his fourteenth birthday, actually marked the day before.

Digression on The Five Restaurants

The Five Restaurants were assembled, in my mind, many many years ago: the irreducible Five, my favorite places for food, wine, company, conversation, and comfort. They were Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Il Vipore outside Lucca, Stephanie's in Melbourne, Obelisk in Washington D.C., and Placemarker.

I haven't been back to Washington in years and have no idea if Obelisk is still as good as it was, or even still in business. Il Vipore and Stephanie's are long since closed. Placemarker will never close, of course. The original idea was that it would be your favorite place, dear reader, or perhaps an emergency temporary top favorite of mine, embarrassingly forgotten about when the list was being considered.

Let's look back at favorite restaurants from the distant past. Troisgros and Pic in the French southeast. Au Pied du Fouet in Paris, and, why not, L'Ecurie, though it's a modest place. Giannino’s in Milan. Stephanie’s and Il Vipore joined the Mighty Five in that time, the 1980s. Then, in the 90s, we began traveling more. Het Pomphuis opened in Ede, Netherlands, and was an unquestionable Five, displacing Obelisk since work no longer took me go Washington. Alas Pomphuis lasted only a few years, but Marius in Amsterdam took its place in our hearts.

In those days I wrote letters to a few friends about our travels. The list grew to forty or fifty recipients, too many for the e-mail services I found in those days at provincial hotels or village libraries, and since I'd set up a website, I don't now recall just why, It occurred to me to post travel journals there. (You can still find some of them here, though I hope one day to make drastic revisions to that website.)

Later on, in March 2008, I began writing this blog with a post on anchovies. Slowly my thoughts about dining, including specifically about dining in restaurants, began to evolve differently. I'm sure many potential followers drop away because I neglect so many aspects of restaurant dining here: prices to begin with; ambience; service; menu and wine list — I'm interested in the food, its flavors and textures, the recipe as it connected to place or history or season; to an extent the hand that goes into executing the recipe. But the near-daily routine of adding usually short posts to this blog then eroded the writing, and Eating Every Day is more a personal eating-diary than any serious kind of food journalism.

Still, there are those Five Restaurants. How to approach them? Does the list change depending on where I am, so that in Rome, for example, or Stockholm, or Los Angeles, I'll be sure to find one? Perhaps. In a way.

Or is it a community of ideal restaurants we have known, which continue to represent a kind of standard by which new encounters can be measure, a community which can then expand on those lucky days that a new find measures up? In a way. Perhaps.

End of digression

THERE ARE FEW GREATER pleasures than basking in the company of progeny. My Companion and I sat centered at the kong table, our three adult children across from us, in-laws at our sides. We were at the same favorite restaurant, though in the meantime a new dining room had been attached to it; the same friends were our host and chef-hostess. We ordered from the menu, which features a table d'hôte but can also be ordered from à la carte; the wines were suggested by our host, who knows his wines, particularly French wines.

We ate by candlelight, which is not conducive to photography (though in general it flatters our faces), so you will find no photos here of our food — instead, I'll simply set the menu descriptions of my courses. We began off the menu, though, with amuses-bouches: mine a dolma filled with ricotta and, I think, pine nuts.

Champagne, Moutard-Diligent, Brut Rosé

Cuvaison, nv

Then, Grilled toast with hot green tomato jam, bufala mozzarella, and frontoio olive oil, and a broth bowl of broccolini radicchio cannellini beans kumquats and pickled red onions

Sancerre, La Côte des Monts Damnés, 2014: Sauvignon blanc as it evolved to be treated: clean, direct, complex, herbal, charming

"Beeler's" pork shoulder boned, stuffed, rolled, and slow roasted, with vegetables, black beans, and hominy in a spicy stew, and a tiny cabbage-carrot salad with cilantro, pumpkin seeds, radish, and green onions.

Cahors, Clos Triguedina, Jean-Luc Baldès, 2010: rich, mature, balanced, rather deep, rewarding

Bittersweet chocolate cake with chocolate, orange, and ají amarillo (moderately spicy) mousse layers, and vanilla bean/orange brandy ice cream

CS with Pavel
CS; son-in-law on his right
photo: Ivo Shere (edited)

The chef, Charlene Rollins, is one of a few women I think of as masters (anciennement I might have written "mistresses")

of the braise: slow moist cooking of (usually) meat with (usually) many flavorings. Since I've been reminiscing, let me mention two others, to make a troika: Amaryll Schwertner of Boulette's Larder; Loretta Keller of Bizou (both restaurants in San Francisco, Bizou now alas closed)

Charlene's particular genius lies in combining a great many ingredients in these dishes — let's call them ragoûts; the French word derives from ragoûter, meaning: "to revive the taste") without the individual textures going mushy, and keeping the many tastes in balance. One of my stupid kitchen rules forbids more than five ingredients in any one dish: that rule never applies here.

Every course was delicious on its own terms, and combined effortlessly in a successful succession of courses — even the repetition of beans was pleasing, not dull. I won't try to investigate each course, but I can't help noting that the pork shoulder took me back to a meal very dimly remembered from April 1975, when I first tasted cocina yucateca at a restaurant called El Faisan, where pumpkin seeds, spices, and peppers combined in a way I'd never before experienced, in a cuisine that seemed more Indian (I mean the subcontinent) than "Mexican". (I suppose El Faisan was one of the original Five Restaurants.)

CakeLet me mention, too, that dessert — also, now I think about it, vaguely Mexican; the combination of chocolate and pepper showed up in a mole at El Faisan. This was a very moist cake, almost a zuppa inglese; the cake and mousse were in perfectly calculated balance, the orange-flavor component negotiated the jump in textures and temperatures between cake and ice cream; the chocolate sauce literally grounded both to the plate. Charlene's cooking is nothing if not intelligent, as well as all its other virtues.

New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro, 2210 South Pacific Highway, Talent, Oregon; +1 (541) 535-2779

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating:

2016      2015     2017

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