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Delicious Hits of '95

Photo by Christopher Gardner

What I Chez: Spit-roasted rib-eye from the Chez Panisse kitchen was one of 1995's top tastes.

In which our tireless food writer revisits the culinary greatest hits of 1995, and throws in a few of her top gripes of the old year

By Christina Waters

A new dining year is just around the corner, though memories of delicious dining in 1995 are still fresh. But before I share a few of the high spots from last year, I want to get a few pet peeves off my chest. If I could, I would demand the following of our worthy South Bay chefs and restaurateurs:

* Let 1996 be a spinach salad-free year! I have nothing against the vegetable that gave Popeye his muscle, but I'm sick and tired of being presented with an avalanche of practically nude fresh spinach leaves, gathered like so many lawn clippings and dumped on an inadequately proportioned plate. How much of one flavor--a rather subtle flavor at that--can one woman consume in a single feeding? Enough!

* If I had seen the last crab cake appetizer on a local menu I wouldn't shed a tear. Yes, I know it's an economical crab-flavor delivery system, but all that oil. All that sawdusty interior. All that tartar sauce. It's been done. Let's move on.

* No more foil-wrapped butter. Please. Such obvious portion control insults the patron, and is counterproductive to a sense of welcome. If you can't let us choose how much butter we'd like to apply to our bread, then abandon the pretext altogether and opt, as many restaurants have, for a generous pour of olive oil instead.

If I were to recreate some of the top dining experiences I enjoyed last year, I'd start with the Mediterranean platter from FAZ Sunnyvale. The tender dolmas, the earthy hummus, but most of all the creamy eggplant confit laced with crunchy sweet pine nuts and topped with a garnish of caramelized onions--all made it easily the most sensuous appetizer I tasted last year.

For another starter, I'd choose the open-face duck tamale from Aqui in Willow Glen. Basil and chipotle perfumed each rich bite, made even better chased with sips of a fresh watermelon margarita. The tamale came with a romaine salad studded with tangy flame grapes and laced with crisp ribbons of blue and yellow corn tortillas--a destination dish.

Armed with a glass of plummy Côtes du Rhône from E. Guigal 1992, I'd dig into an order of Stars Palo Alto's splendid foie gras with lentils, lavender honey grilled figs and black currant vinaigrette, a satisfying marriage of opulent flavors and buttery textures, one of the stars of last year's appetizer scene.

Another killer appetizer would have to be Steve Crisler's barbecue duck and crab Napoleon, served at Orlo's in the Hayes Mansion. A complex Thai ginger sauce, sweet and spicy brought together the warm crab layer and succulent barbecued duck. Crowned with a crisp topknot of pastry, it was a spectacular example of chef Crisler's handiwork.

For my salad course, I'd give in to an orchestration of tender mixed greens, toasted pistachios, chèvre and tropical fruit served at downtown San Jose's appealing Cafe Matisse. The intensely flavored vinaigrette made magic with the various lettuces punctuated with toasted pistachios, tiny soft bits of bittersweet goat cheese and slices of apple/orange-flavored star carambola.

Among the many culinary rewards of Palo Alto's sleek Bistro Elan, fueled by the mind of chef/owner Ambjorn Lindskag, was an entree of sautéed rock fish with mashed potatoes, a lusty, one-dish defense of the entire bistro concept. Soft, perfect mashed potatoes cradled several moist, lightly breaded and perfectly cooked slabs of delicious white fish, all piled high one on top of the other. Anchoring each side of the plush potatoes was a garnish of buttery sauce packed with capers, leeks and bits of bacon.

Another memorable entree came from the sacred hearth of Chez Panisse, involving spit-roasted rib-eye carved into rare slices and lavishly dusted with black truffles. The aroma rising from the plate was intoxicating all by itself, thanks to the effective use of the prized truffle, a brilliant partner for beef. Sharing honors with the fine beef was a gathering of tiny winter vegetables, turnips the size of a thumbnail, sweet carrots, pearl onions, golden chanterelles and hearts of artichoke. All those perfumes of the January garden were catalyzed by a garnish of baby cress and a fat pillow of ultrarich potato soufflé. If, by this point in the meal, I had run out of the Rhône wine, I'd switch to a 1993 Central Coast Syrah from Qupé.

And that would go very nicely with a side dish of baked polenta from Bellino, an extravaganza of corn pudding slathered with abundant melted asiago cheese and topped with a rich tomato sauce and mushrooms that had begun some miraculous fusion with the thick, comforting polenta.

Along with a snifter of 10-year-old Talisker single malt from the Isle of Skye, I'd finish off my fantasy meal with a ramekin of archetypal crème brûlée, as done by chef Tabak at 71 St. Peter, it's so fine it defies stereotype.

And since this is a fantasy, I'd also match that final espresso with a coconut flan from Stars, dusted with toasted fresh coconut, crowning a pool of kirsch-spiked caramel sauce and dotted with ripe berries and slender triangles of shortbread. Then they could carry me away to rest up--and work out--before the meals of 1996. Happy New Year!

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From the Dec. 28, 1995-Jan. 3, 1996 issue of Metro

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