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October 16, 2005

Zuni Café celebrates the artistry of Paula Wolfert

by Carolyn Tillie

Paula_arrives_1On Thursday, October 13, 2005, Judy Rodgers and Zuni Café celebrated the release of Ms. Wolfert's completely revised and updated The Cooking of Southwest France.  The original seminal edition, published over 20 years ago, laid the foundation and opened the doors to a regional cuisine then considered exotic. In an era when building your own pizza on store-bought Bobboli crust was considered "cooking Italian," The Cooking of Southwest France introduced concepts of rustic sophistication of French cuisine to an English-speaking public.  In researching and revising her original tome, Paula enlisted the aid of a small group of enthusiastic supporters via the internet to test and retest both old and new recipes.


Inviting along some old friends to a table I reserved were Squeat Mungry (Neil), Hest88 (Peggy), and Peggy's adorable husband, Keith. We were a small party of four, but just one of many who arrived at the restaurant that evening to revel in the food and the company. Upon our arrival, Paula immediately descended the stairs to greet us.


We few -- we happy few -- we band of brothers and sisters were just a small number of the devotees attending the evening's festivities. Visiting from New York, Florence Fabricant of the NYTimes sat with her husband at a corner table of the mezanine and was often seen chatting with Paula's husband, Bill (a mystery writer!). Paula's own table had Judy Rodgers herself as well as her husband, another famous crime writer Kirk Russell, and Paula's editor, Linda Ingroia.



It was an evening to walk around the restaurant and meet people. On the lower level, near where our party was situated, was Janet Fletcher of the San Francisco Chronicle.


But of course we had come to taste the food... Judy liberally peppered her daily menu with a number of courses from the new book which she made easily identifiable in italics on the printed menu. When the waiter arrived, it was a no-brainer: "We are ordering all of the Wolfert dishes..."  For good measure and because they are Zuni classics, we did order a few additional items, but are not photographed here (house-cured anchovies with celery, Parmesan, and niçoise olives, a dozen oysters, and a side of polenta with mascarpone).

The Starters

22_sardine_and_potato_cakeLa Tupina's sardine and potato cake - (Gâteau de Sardines aux Pommes de Terre)
We should have ordered two of these... thin, crispy potato slices grilled perfectly brown caressed the sardine fillets with a tease of the supple butter cream sauce, stunningly accented with bits of fresh chives, adding the perfect piquant accent to the salty, earthy flavors.

21_duck_liver_flanDuck liver flan with caramel vinegar sauce - (Flans aux Foies de Volailles, Sauce de Vinaigre Caramélisée).
Peggy pegged it; rich and opulent like ankimo (monkfish liver), the erotic texture of the flan is smooth and velvety in the mouth and explodes with the contrasting sweetness of the caramel vinegar sauce.

20_salade_aux_gesiers_de_canardConfit of duck gizzards with salad of mixed greens. (Salade aux Gésiers de Canard).
This is one of those dishes that benefits well from a Zuni preparation for we know they have access to some of the best sustainable farmers and producers in Northern California. Yes, we can all make this dish (and many of us will), but the greens and duck products that are available to John Q. Customer cannot equal what the Big Boys get and it certainly shows in this presentation. The duck gizzards were earthy and sultry next to the intensely vibrant fresh greens.

18_musclesSteamed mussels with ham, shallots, and garlic - (Moules Paysanne).
Shame on me for not mentioning earlier, but being the sole wine drinker at the table, it was the arrival of this dish where my single glass of 2004 Domaine de Peyreficade, Picpoul de Pinet shined. Bright and crisp with defined mineral flavors, it was at this point in the meal that I easily could have stopped to relish the combination and order a second helping just for myself. The saltiness of the mussels, coupled with bits of ham all floating in butter and wine, is almost cliché in its perfection. My salvation was that my dinner companions were so quick to empty the mussels of their nestled treasure, that they didn't bother to discard the shells from the serving dish to sop up the remainder of the broth with Zuni's famous rustic bread. Silly them.

39_paula_exaulted During the course of the evening, Paula made the rounds to others who had participated in the recipe testing or who were just excited to taste the great food. I was thrilled to capture her exuberance.


26_poulet_2Sauté of chicken with peppers, ham, and tomatoes with "armottes" -  (Poulet à Basquaise)
This was the first time during the evening that two of Paula's recipes were combined on one plate; the chicken (page 158 of the new book) and the armottes (fried cornmeal porridge cakes in the style of Gascony, page 357). I don't know if Paula suggested the combination or if Judy devised it on her own. Regardless, it was spectacular with a slightly-spicy compote blanketing the chicken but balanced with the simplicty of the cornmeal.

27_lapin_1Compote of rabbit with prunes - (Lucien Vanel's Compôte de Lapin aux Pruneaux).
Thank goodness, we DID order two servings of this dish! Like carne asada that is tender and moist, but beyond the sensibilities of simple shredded meat, this rich and surprisingly complex dish displays depth of flavor which produced expressions of awe as we glanced at each other, questioning how such intensity was achieved.


40_abbaye_de_bellocAbbaye de Belloc with green fig and walnut jam - (Confiture de Figues Vertes aux Noix).
Yet another inspired combination. Zuni is also known for showcasing local artisinal cheese producers and it was lovely Ms. Rodgers paired Paula's jam recipe with traditional Pays Basque-region cheese. Of course, I'd be happy eating that confit with a spoon, but the surprisingly dark, concentrated flavors of the cheese were heightened with the sweetness of the jam.

41_both_dessertsMarie-Claude's chocolate cake with fleur de sel and crème anglaise - (Gâteau Chocolat, Fleur de Sel) and Basque cake with pastry cream filling - (Gâteau Basque).
I had to chuckle for the chocolate cake was a recipe I tested and in the book, Paula writes "a friend who tasted the cake said all it needed was some crème anglaise, a few raspberries, and a glass of Ruby Port to make it perfect." Well that was me and here was this lovely cake with a crème anglaise and Squeat, having ordered a glass of port...  I adored the contrast of the occasional salt bite with the brownie-like darkness of the chocolate. The Gâteau Basque, however, was my personal favorite of this evening's desserts. I have been buying a lotal version of the cake at a supposedly-Basque bakery and now feel as though I have been horribly deceived by every previous incarnation I have suffered through. Here, decadent rich pastry cream, sandwiched in perfectly light, delicately flavored cake was flavored with a hint of orange, almond, and black spice. 


To cap the meal, my dessert wine for the evening was an Italian Aggazzotti Nocino Riserva. It was an unwittingly synchronistic move on my part, for how was I to know that this inky black, syrupy conconction was made from the husks of fresh walnuts? The import of this? Go to page 35 of the book and read Paula's account of vin de noix...


By the end of the evening, we were all wandering around to see old and meet new friends. We found Ludja (Claudia) elegantly attired at a tableful of friends. Marvels of the meal and of the joyous evening shared by all.


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