A few months after I quit cooking, I sold my first restaurant review to the Express. It was my first paid writing job, period. One of my best friends, who was feeling stuck in her life, told me how much she admired my ability to change directions. No big thing, I replied. It's like walking off a cliff. You just close your eyes and take a step.
Seven years later, I'm stepping off again, moving north to write for the Seattle Weekly. That finally gave me the chance to answer the question I've been asked dozens of times over the years: If you left the Bay Area, what would your last meal be? It took me thirty seconds to answer. I would revisit two of the most influential meals of my life.
The first restaurant I returned to was Daimo, the eternally busy Cantonese seafood house in the parking lot of Richmond's Pacific East Mall. The restaurant's decor may be Home Depot clearance, but that hasn't prevented its success. For the first year of its existence, people lined up outside at all hours, curious to see why a Hong Kong restaurant famous for its noodles and wontons would open a branch in Richmond. Six years in, the trendier foodies have moved on, but the place still gets busy at prime time and keeps buzzing until the early morning.
Like so many other large Cantonese restaurants, Daimo has a menu that just won't quit and servers who don't have the time or inclination to teach outsiders what to order. But it no longer daunts me. After years of disappointing meals at Chinese restaurants that other people seemed to hold in high regard, Daimo was where I finally got it not just the fact that there was phenomenal Cantonese food out there but how I, too, could find it.
Six years ago, my first review dinner there left me scowling. Ostrich with XO sauce, lamb with green peas, mustard greens with bamboo pith they all sounded delicious, but somehow just eh. All around me, though, were tables packed with great-looking plates. But I was supposed to write something about the experience that wouldn't make me look like an idiot. So I hit the library. I spent hours online. I chatted with Cantonese-American cooks about how they ordered at restaurants. Then I went back.
The meal I ate this week was much like the one I ordered five years ago: To start, a plate of roast duck and soy-sauce chicken. Soup was the daily special, double-boiled winter melon soup with eight treasures, delicate and almost indefinably sweet. For something bracing and green, pea leaves stir-fried with garlic. For something rich, beef spare ribs sautéed with black pepper. Deep-fried squid with salt and green chiles, counterbalanced by a whole steamed black bass with scallions and ginger. Bowls and bowls of steamed white rice.
Except for the soy-sauce chicken, Daimo's food this time wasn't as transcendent as the meal of my memory. But my pleasure in the clean, fresh food, and the satisfaction of creating a harmony of flavors, tastes, and textures, was the same.
There's still so much for me to learn about Cantonese food, and in fact, about all the non-European cuisines I've loved tasting in the East Bay. What Daimo taught me was that becoming a culinary explorer took work. But the work has always paid off.
I ate my last official meal at the one restaurant I've never bothered to review because, well, what's the point? Actually, perhaps that is the point that Chez Panisse still defines the East Bay food scene.
I have such mixed feelings about Chez Panisse. Awe, for one, that after 35 years its vitality hasn't waned. Reflected pride that, because of Alice Waters, almost every food lover in the United States knows how well I eat here; and, when I peer into the kitchen at the quiet, deliberate cooks, more than a little envy.
Still ... over the years, upstairs and down, I've had great meals with fine service and fine meals with great hype. I've been served by waiters who were present with me from aperitif to espresso, and grand viziers who treated me like a supplicant at their altar. But I've grown weary of eating Chez Panisse meals at restaurant after restaurant. I don't need my carrots and strawberries to be branded. I like improbable garnishes.
The lovely thing about a meal downstairs is that, though you may have tried similar combinations, good food made beautifully is never clichéd. Several of the dishes a sea-bass crudo with Meyer lemon, shaved radishes, and cucumbers anointed with hyssop and chives, and the final course of profiteroles stuffed with toasted almond ice cream and wreathed in strawberries were no more elegant or unique than I've tasted at dozens of bistros on both sides of the bay.
Still, it's great to taste what a dozen experienced cooks can do when each is focusing on one or two components of a dish. There was a new-garlic soufflé, just faintly perfumed, that evaporated on the tongue. It was surrounded by a velvety sweet-corn sauce that matched its ephemerality, with sly, minuscule basil leaves scattered here and there. The waiter told the table next to us that the quail was the best they'd ever taste. I rolled my eyes, but it turned out to be true. Papery skin, soft pink meat. A reduction sauce underneath that boosted the intensity of the meat without masking its flavor. What impressed me most about the dish wasn't the quail, or the sautéed porcinis and fava-bean toast next to it, but the slivers of onion confit, braised until they became silky but stopped just before they lost their onionness and dissolved into sugar. To cook a meal like that is a meditation. To eat it is one, too.
My first Chez Panisse experience had an alchemical effect on me. I was a 25-year-old cook enamored of Asian fusion, wowed by foot-tall salads and complicated, high-contrast tastes. My parents were in town, and I had Monday night off, so I campaigned for them to take me to the downstairs $35 prix-fixe.
That first meal (chicken breast with a sherry-chicken jus, plum upside-down cake) was the moment I found my own style, the one I've strived to cook at home since. When I had the time, and the attention, I began to focus on making all my technique invisible. Cooking became less about me and more about the ingredients I was using. And as it has on all my visits since, every bite of this last Chez Panisse meal, from the vinaigrette on the mixed greens to the macerated strawberries on my profiteroles, continued to inspire me not as a restaurant critic, but as a cook.
As we recovered from the chocolate-caramel truffles that ended it all, my friend Jennifer, who has accompanied me to more reviews than she wants to remember, nodded at me. "Soak it in while you still can," she said. "Just let me know when you're ready to go."
I looked around one last time at the burnished wood and scuffed brass, the Deco lamps, the vases filled with cherry branches, the diners mulling over their plates. Then I closed my eyes and stood up.
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