I feel compelled to begin this column on a sad note. We recently lost Bay Area chef Judy Rodgers, owner of San Francisco’s Zuni Café. Judy wasn’t as famous as Alice Waters, her neighbor in Berkeley, or as sophisticated as the French chefs who trained her. She cooked simple food well: oysters, an amazing wood-oven roast chicken with bread salad, great homemade sausages. But I’ve been eating at Zuni Café since the ’70s, and never had a bad dish. The Zuni Café Cookbook, from W.W. Norton and Company, is filled with Judy’s recipes, techniques and cooking secrets. And I can think of no better holiday gift for the serious home cook.
You also have time to fill that holiday gift basket, and save money, with a visit to the International Marketplace (5000 S. Decatur Blvd., 889-2888), a Home Depot-size food store on the corner of Tropicana Avenue and Decatur Boulevard. Joyce Kwan, the dynamo who does most of the buying here, is a local treasure, as no food store has an inventory of ethnic foods as vast as this one.
As I write this, I’m nibbling on Oebel butter stollen and wrapping a rich Walker’s fruitcake from Scotland to place under the tree. Joyce carries Popin’ Cookin’, a Japanese do-it-yourself sushi-candy-making kit, achieved by mixing a special powder with water. Kids are insane for it. She also has Foster’s brandy butter; Tortuga Caribbean rum cake; Vergoni marron glacés (candied chestnuts); Niederegger marzipan; chocolates from Asia, Europe and the Americas; and thousands of other goodies ideal for any gift basket.
Winter in Venice at the Venetian and Palazzo started with a toot rather than a bang—the toot provided by legendary Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini, who greeted guests with his horn, blasting it through the dining room at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut. Cecchini doesn’t speak English, so his lovely Californian wife, Kim, translated for him. “Animals have to be respected and treated well,” he said. “We use everything, from the nose to the tail.” The menu, created by Cecchini with help from Puck, included beef tartare, braised beef with bone marrow and Florentine beefsteak, and was spectacularly delicious. “The quality of American beef,” Cecchini said, “is fantastico,” while attendees nodded ecstatically.
Finally, Phoenix doesn’t get much space here, but whenever I go there, I look for restaurant genres that we lack, and that would improve our dining scene. The creative Mexican restaurant Barrio Café and the Breadfruit & Rum Bar, a cool Jamaican place, are two such places. Have cochinita pibil (Yucatan-style oven-baked pork) at Barrio Café and anything with jerk sauce at The Breadfruit, which also does the best chocolate crème brulee I’ve ever tasted.