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Eating With Lisa 

Our out-of-town visitor will eat anywhere, as long as it's really good

Wednesday, Apr 9 2003
Lisa was always my best eating partner; she was willing to go anywhere and try anything, as long as I said the magic words: "I'll drive." (We had a running joke that whenever I was on deadline and begged her to accompany me to some funky place in the far reaches of the west San Fernando Valley or the east San Gabriel Valley for lunch, it always turned out to be the hottest day of the year. I won't say that she sat beside me in my un-air-conditioned little car uncomplainingly, exactly, but still she was there.)

But when she came up to visit me for the weekend several weeks ago (oh, those halcyon prewar days, how relatively careless and carefree they seem in retrospect), I was aware that the ground rules were different. She was willing to go anywhere and try anything, as long as it was good. This was partly because she'd just spent several days with a Scottish friend for whom eating was a very low priority. ("He's never eaten mussels!" she said to me, indignantly. She reconsidered. "He doesn't eat seafood at all!" It did seem that he knew how to drink, however.) And it was partly because she felt that she deserved several guaranteed superb meals, after all the hard time she'd put in with me taking her chances.

Actually, we were both taking our chances at lunch on Saturday. Lisa wanted Asian food, and we followed the recommendation of my friend Cathy, who for months had been urging me to try Battambang, a Cambodian restaurant in Oakland. Cathy's brother Jim was visiting her, too, from Portland, and she enthusiastically recounted the dinner they'd had there together, Friday night: "Wonderful green papaya salad, and beef curry with yams, and a fabulous dish of baked eggplant. And they do the best grilled lamb chops." In fact, they were having some of the leftovers for their Saturday lunch.

I was perfectly willing to order exactly the same dishes for our lunch, once we were ensconced in the snug, dazzlingly clean little restaurant, but Lisa preferred to explore the lengthy and excitingly unfamiliar menu and choose afresh. We ordered crab salad, avocado rolls, a soup with Chinese watercress called samlaw machou kroeurng, fried stuffed quail (baksei trung kor), and those highly touted lamb chops.

The bright salad combined shreds of fresh crabmeat with asparagus, bean sprouts, mint, and ground peanuts in a sharp lime dressing. Lisa thought the avocado rolls were slightly dull, but I enjoyed them, especially the textural contrasts -- the suave avocado, crunchy sprouts, and slightly furry mint leaves, wrapped in slick, stretchy, almost translucent sheets of rice noodles, dipped in crunchy chopped peanuts, and slicked with sticky tamarind sauce. The delicate soup was spicy and perfumed with lemon grass. The labor-intensive quails had been swollen to twice their size with a rather bland forcemeat of ground pork, onions, bean threads, and peanuts, which, mild as it was, somewhat mitigated their essential quailness; still, it was a pleasant dish.

But the star of the meal was, indeed, those miraculous lamb chops, four thick charbroiled rib chops, possessed of true lamb snap. It had been a meal of true flavors, and everything we'd eaten was of such impeccable quality and knowing preparation, and had elicited such delight, that I said to Lisa, "I bet we could have ordered an entirely different meal and enjoyed it just as much." We loved our shared dessert, a warm, thick, creamy custard studded with chunks of jackfruit and served in a banana-leaf cup.

With one exquisite meal, Battambang had leapt to the head of the list of my favorite restaurants. Within days I was toting takeout to my sister's house (the lamb chops, of course, plus the green papaya salad and beef curry called saramann that Cathy had recommended, and a wonderful soup with fresh pineapple; we liked the salad, with sliced pork and diced prawns, but we adored the lush curry, which had tender coconut meat and green beans as well as yams). I recommended the place with the fervor of a fanatic to everyone I knew, and some I didn't: a colleague who was picking up a friend at the Oakland airport and taking her directly to dinner, an English nurse I chatted with at a park whose family loved Asian food.

The excellent meal had put Lisa and me in an excellent mood, which inspired us to lavish gestures: We plunged and snapped up an entire collection of Stangl yellow tulip pottery at an antique shop called the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on College as a house gift for my mother, who was putting us up and putting up with us. (We were looking for maybe a pitcher and found much more, 30 pieces in all, and said, "Oh, what the hell." I wouldn't say we were drunk on lemon grass and jackfruit, exactly, but slightly giddy with it.) We went a little nuts at the Rockridge Market, too, picking up cheddar cheese and chive biscuits, almond cake, three bottles of wine, and a wedge of the Pierre Robert triple crème cheese that my father had loved at dinner at LuLu, oozingly à point and conveniently on discount. "Why would anyone shop anywhere else?" Lisa asked. "Because there are so many other wonderful food shops," I said, vowing to dazzle her with the Berkeley Bowl on the morrow.

But first there was dinner. Which was easy: fried chicken at the Casa Orinda, a favorite of many years. The Casa is also known for the western-themed kitsch of its front room, festooned with wagon wheels and Remington-esque oils and various weapons of individual destruction. Its other dining rooms are rather charmless, and the long menu, half American chophouse, half Italian, is uneven, but I do dearly love the "famous fried chicken," a crisp, dis-jointed half bird that comes with quite decent mashed potatoes and gravy, a more than decent baking-powder biscuit, butter, honey, and whatever fresh vegetable is on hand. Lisa also loved it. It's a perfect meal, made even better that night by the discovery that if the kitchen isn't too busy, the staff will sell you just the chicken, mashed potatoes, and gravy to go for a little more than half what the regular meal costs. And you can throw in biscuits for 75 cents each, which we did, because we'd promised to bring fried chicken dinner home to the folks.

They dined well that weekend, too, and not just on the fried chicken or the remnants of Cambodian quail and lamb. They joined us for Sunday supper at Zuni Café, which had been my favorite San Francisco restaurant for years. I was shocked to discover that my father had somehow never been there, and that Lisa had also missed it on her frequent trips to the city. I love everything about the place, from its oddly shaped, seemingly rickety two-story building that widens out from a point like the prow of a ship to its arrestingly short menu -- there were only 17 items the night we visited, including shoestring potatoes, but I'll bet every one was sublime.

This is because the eight dishes the four of us shared (including those shoestring potatoes) were indeed sublime: a dozen oysters chosen from a separate oyster list that was longer than the main menu; sweet-and-sour beef tongue with polenta; orecchiette with bacon, beluga lentils, and wild nettles; a bowl of polenta with mascarpone; and then the justly famed roasted chicken for two on a bed of warm bread salad; grilled quail; and a bouillabaisse-inspired stew of Manila clams, mussels, and house-made chorizo sausage.

The oysters we chose were Hama Hama, Steamboat, Netarts Bay, and Olympia, and they were so crisp and creamy that I easily could have seen ordering a second round, and then a third, but reason prevailed. (Still, I would like to return and eat nothing but oysters till I had my fill, like the woman in the cafe in Dijon whom M.F.K. Fisher saw eat more than seven dozen, followed by seven dozen escargots: "She turned a purplish red. I have often wondered about her.") The tongue, called "Carlo's lingua in dolce forte," was voluptuously tender. (I realize "voluptuous" is a word that could be used for all the dishes we had, even those seemingly the simplest and sparest, such as the restaurant's signature bowl of corny, creamy polenta, with a bit of rich mascarpone melting on top, because of the intelligence that created them and the rigorousness with which they were prepared. Every dish celebrated hunger and its satisfaction.) The pasta was almost a rhyme of texture and flavors -- toothy homemade pasta; smoky, chewy bacon; smoky, slightly toothy lentils, with the chewy fat of the meat and the slick fat of the olive oil; and the exotic vegetal touch of the nettles -- an inspired combination.

The chicken was plump and moist, and its golden juices drenched the bread salad. The quail tasted like the game birds they are and not like some pale imitation (and came with potato-celery root gratin, braised red cabbage, and Marsala-steeped prunes, robust accompaniments). The seafood stew, cooked with fideus noodles in a punchy sauce of tomatoes, onion, garlic, and the essential saffron, was the only bouillabaisse-influenced dish I've had in a long time that was worthy of its inspiration.

"This is the best meal you've taken us to," my father said. It's no wonder that in the recently announced James Beard Foundation 2003 Awards, Zuni is up for Outstanding Restaurant (along with Chanterelle in NYC, Galatoire's in New Orleans, Valentino in Santa Monica, and Topolobampo in Chicago), and The Zuni Café Cookbook by chef and co-owner Judy Rodgers is also nominated. Zuni is a world-class restaurant.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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