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Wednesday, 25 July 2012 14:43

César – Recipes from a Tapas Bar

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César – Recipes from a Tapas Bar

By Olivier Said and James Mellgren with Maggie Pond

 

Ten Speed Press, 2003ISBN 1580084893

211 pages, hard cover. $29.95

 cesar

Many modern cookbooks go to great lengths to describe the culture and history of the country or region from which the recipes originate. This is a valuable aspect of learning how to prepare cuisines from different lands, especially for those of us who do not plan to go to Provençe or Spain or Italy or Thailand anytime soon. There is something that enhances the ability to create and present a dish when a carefully crafted cookbook evokes the history, sights, sounds, and aromas of distant lands. Cookbooks that highlight a restaurant, as does this of César - a tapas bar in Berkeley, California - add to this cultural immersion personal notes, explaining the hard work and dedication as well as the sense of purpose that goes into creating a successful restaurant.

The authors - Olivier Said, managing partner of César, James Mellgren, writer and expert on Spanish food, and Maggie Pond, César’s executive chef - have gone one better with this collaborative cook book. Not only does it literally take the reader from concept to construction to opening of their restaurant in its amusing and sentimental introduction, but they also share with you every aspect of what a tapas bar is supposed to be, which more than anything else is ambience. In many aspects, this cookbook is more like a menu with instructions. All that is missing is the crowded intimacy that comes from being there yourself. The foreword by Jackson Browne draws a carefully arching line from Barcelona to Berkeley, leaving no doubt about your departure point or your destination on this culinary journey.

As would be expected of a tapas bar, much of the first part of the book is devoted to both traditional Spanish and modern American libations. The opening section on sherries was particularly welcomed. If the traditional start to an evening of tapas is not the direction in which you want to head, the authors go through an extensive array of cocktails covering all the modern trends in martinis, rum drinks, and tequila creations. Clearly, after going through this section, the reader can quickly lay claim to being an expert mixologist.

While it was consistent with the concept behind the book, I was nevertheless disappointed with the terse discussion of wines, which primarily was a quickly listing of regional reds and whites and an interview with one of the other partners at César, Dennis Lapuyade. Frankly, it really doesn’t add to the book or to the knowledge of someone trying to replicate the food and beverage of this fine restaurant to know that he buys between twenty and twenty five cases of wine a week – unless the reader really parties at home. A more extensive explanation of how the regional Spanish wines pair up with the tapas offered at César, or some basic distinctions between Spanish and American wines, would have been more valuable than the note at the end of this section that basically states everything goes with everything and don’t worry about it. That may work in a restaurant, but not every person hosting a dinner at home can buy flights of Spanish reds and whites for the four guests coming over to make sure there is a functional wine list.

Of course, the most significant part of any experience at a tapas bar is the tapas. In this regard, the people at César do not disappoint. The authors start with a brief description of the essentials for the Spanish pantry, a concept that many other cookbooks would do well to emulate. From there, they go through a litany of soups, salads, vegetable, meat and seafood tapas, and even sandwiches. The variety in the offerings is at least in part an acknowledgement that more substantial fare may be necessary at home when planning a dinner. That is unfortunate, since part of the art of serving tapas is in its diversity. Care has to be taken to read the directions carefully, since more than a few of the intriguing recipes are made to serve eight, which might require some awkward paring down if you are planning an intimate dinner with that special person in your life.

Of the many interesting recipes in this book, I was especially intrigued with the Poached Salmon with cilantro and cumin vinaigrette. Its liberal use of jalapeños should make this a dish that is hard to put down even as the temperature is rising. If heat is what you like, I would also recommend the Gambas a la Gallega, which with its liberal use of pimenton is certain to slap around even the most jaded palate. For those who feel that eggs can be eaten any time of the day - and for a good contrast to many of the other meat, seafood, or vegetable dishes in this book - I’d recommend the Migas which, as the authors state, is somewhat of an Old World equivalent of huevos rancheros.

More than anything else, César – Recipes from a Tapas Bar, made me want to hop on a plan, fly to Oakland, and go spend the evening sampling all that this restaurant has to offer. While good for business, it is not necessarily the objective of a cookbook. For the uninitiated, many of the recipes border on unapproachable. Part of the challenge to doing justice to tapas at home is being able to prepare relatively small portions of many dishes. Once again, the authors fail to recognize that most kitchens do not have this capability. A little more direction and a little less narcissism would go a long way to make this book a must have on any culinary shelf.

Reviewer Mark Webb is an insurance executive and gourmet chef. He is married to former actress and director Christina Hamlett, who is an award winning author and script coverage consultant for the film industry. They reside in Pasadena California, although on any given week Mark may be found at his satellite office – Aioli Bodega España – in Sacramento.