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Meals of the Millennium

Each New Year's Eve brings with it a tide of nostalgia, but none more so than at the turn of a century

By Christina Waters

THE UNIQUE ALIGNMENT of endings--of a year, a century and by some calculations even a millennium--buys me all the poetic license I can run with in terms of remembering great dining experiences.

A few quick tributes are in order before I settle in. There was an omelet at some Dutch roadhouse with a view of the orange sun sinking into a slate-gray North Sea. And in my wayward impecunious youth, there was hot bratwurst on a Kaiser roll, washed down with a stein of beer in the Munich Bahnhof--all unbelievably delicious for less than two marks.

One languid day on Mismaloya Beach south of Puerto Vallarta, I watched a Zapotec woman grill fish fresh from the bay over mesquite. I ate the fish right from its wooden skewer, alternating squeezes of lime and sips of Corona beer toted to the beach in a chest filled with ice.

During the hippie era the culinary high point of a drive across the continental United States--a required coming-of-age ritual--happened near the Four Corners area of New Mexico. Or maybe it was Arizona. My doors of perception were wide open. A truck-stop diner filled with Navajo regulars beckoned, and we ate bowls of sumptuously fiery chili while keeping our eyelid movies peeled for a glimpse of Don Juan. And then there was Mr. B's effortless linguine alio y olio, so intensely garlicked and punctuated with toasted fennel and anchovies--served with a salad of baby arugula that I picked from my own kitchen garden and splashed with lemon.

My mother's expertly fried eggs, over medium so that the yolk is still liquid but not disgusting, placed atop a toasted English muffin which fueled my entire high school career. Each one an archetype, as were so many of her meals. The secret ingredient was love.

One of my earliest unforgettable meals was a barbecue at Waddell Beach, with my parents, sister, aunt and uncle and my cousins Danny and Gerry. Our families lived on opposite sides of the continent, so it was a cherished outing. It was wet and foggy, and the grownups got the fire going while we combed the moist sand for treasures. Pockets filled with "jade" and bits of driftwood, we inhaled great hamburgers grilled to juicy pinkness along with my aunt's quintessential potato salad. Cheeks and noses glowing like the coals, we just laughed at the wintery weather. Irreplaceable.

IN TWO FORTUNATE decades of great restaurant dining, certainly many moments stand out. My first dinner at Oswald--rack of lamb and quail with a fresh fava bean salad, cooked by Charlie Deal. A mind-melting, complexly spiced tjumi tjumi made by Joseph Schultz in the heyday of India Joze's Calamari Festivals. Karl Cook's voluptuous tea-smoked sea bass at O'mei. Jack Chyle's consummate duck sauced with plums at Chez Renee.

In Rome, we dined at La Compana, an inn that once hosted medieval travelers. There was a single seating, everyone talking and laughing, while waiters worked harder than longshoremen to bring pastas, veal sautés and antipasti platters the minute they were ready. Beef and fresh porcinis cooked in balsamic along with a salad of wild puntanelle and shaved Parmesan knocked us out. The vivacious ambiance didn't hurt. Also last autumn, one rainy day in a hotel room in Bellagio, we split a loaf of earthy Alpine nut cake called mattaloch, chased by mouthfuls of grappa we'd bought in Orvieto. Indelible.

Paris has favored me many times, including last New Year's Eve at a nameless Left Bank brasserie where we feasted on warm tarte tatin and Cognac. But my all-time top French dining experience was in the dining room of a modest two-star hotel in Beaune. We were unprepared for the heroic flavors of Burgundian cuisine.

Shrimp and truffle pâté joined crusty bread. Mashed white beans and rosemary played off entrees of country ham and braised pears. The cheese cart changed my life. Pont L'Evêque, St. Nectaire and Reblochon--it was my first taste of these cheeses, so multidimensional that we looked forward to them ever after. With dinner we drank a breathtaking Montrachet and then (joining a bittersweet chocolate cake encrusted with pistachios in whipped cream) a potent pear eau-de-vie.

Three years ago on Crete, I joined American guests at an international food and wine conference dining with the entire population of a small village. Gathered wild greens, spit-roasted lamb, myriad dishes of fresh feta, garlicky legumes, marinated octopi and fat tomatoes formed the mainstays, along with copious quantities of the locally made wine. After desserts of flaky pastries and honey, we all danced--even the village priests. Forming one room-filling spiral, we all whirled together into an Olympian dreamtime.

Each year, I anticipate a ritual of particular pleasure, when fresh salmon season overlaps with the first harvests of local dry-farmed tomatoes. Last summer, we had such a meal, one for which the term "poetic" is completely appropriate, filled with flavors that all made sense together.

Onto a mesquite fire we laid the plumpest Monterey Bay salmon filets we could find, cut into rectangles so they stayed almost sashimi-moist inside, seared bronze on the outside. On a table glowing with candlelight, they joined steamed organic broccoli.

Slices of tomatoes marinated briefly in balsamic and shredded basil inspired the rich salmon. A zinfandel, bright with berries and spice, completed the picture. The bread, torn into tender, free-form shapes rather than sliced, was a fragrant francese. The last sips of zin washed down piquant morsels of goat cheese.

Come this New Year's Eve I'll be somewhere near Zabriskie Point toasting the next century with Veuve Clicquot. For auld lang syne.

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From the December 30, 1999-January 5, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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