Sunday Suppers at Lucques: A Review in Rhapsody

sunday-suppersSunday Suppers at Lucques, by Suzanne Goin with Teri Gelber (Knopf/New York, 2005)

Sunday suppers — not something you associate with high-class dining. Right?

Wrong.

Award-winning California chef, Suzanne Goin, of Lucques and A.O.C in Los Angeles, started serving Sunday suppers at Lucques in 1998. Each Sunday supper – always a three-course extravaganza of appetizers, main courses, and desserts – costs $40, to the joy of her regular clients and also those unable (or unwilling) to pay premium prices for the fresh, seasonal ingredients Goin coaxes into culinary masterpieces during the rest of the week.

And — for those of us unable to swing a trip to Los Angeles every Sunday for supper — late in 2005, Suzanne Goin published her first cookbook,

On the cover of that stunning book, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, baby new potatoes spill wildly out of a simple white bowl, still clinging to their earthy roots, suggesting tiny umbilical cords. The olive green and yellow-orange colors adorning the cover remind me of coastal California hillsides, where the least spark of fire burns and the merest drop of water causes lush vegetation to spring forth.

But I don’t judge a book by its cover, and certainly not a cookbook.

The proof of the book is in the cooking. And cook I did, once I grabbed my wooden spoon and my chef’s knife.

Carlos Serrao)
Suzanne Goin (Photo credit: Carlos Serrao)

All the recipes in the book all naturally stem from Goin’s Sunday supper menus.

I started with the Roman Cherry Tart with the almond crust, because I tend to cook a lot of Italian food these days. Ruby-red cherries poked out of the thick, but not too sweet sauce, while the buttery toasted-almond crust crunched pleasantly with each bite, much like a giant piece of shortbread. Served with huge dollops of lightly sweetened whipped cream, the tart left small paths of cherry sauce on the plate and it was all I could do to keep from picking up the plate like a little kid and licking it clean.

While the tart cooled, I went to work on the Herb-Roasted Pork Loin with Haricots Verts, Spring Onions, and Mustard Breadcrumbs. Finding a true haricot vert where I live requires a 30-mile drive, so I just used regular-in other words, enormous-green beans. Big mamas. Once the marinating period ended, and I put the pork in the oven, the smell of the roasting meat gripped my imagination (and activated my salivary glands) the whole time the pork bubbled away.

Since the book’s photographs portray the final “look” of many of the 132 recipes, I was able to compare my finished pork dish and the cherry tart with what the dishes look like when Goin prepares them. That my first attempts nearly cloned Goin’s professional products says much about Goin’s recipes and her ability to translate her art into something that less gifted cooks can also enjoy, especially if they don’t live within driving distance to Lucques.

There’s nothing like old-fashioned recipe writing here, where writers assumed a certain amount of a priori cooking knowledge. Goin’s recipes read clearly and informatively. She arranged her book by the changing seasons of the year, making it easy for the cook to find seasonally relevant recipes.

And it’s in seasonality that the book’s richness shines like the jewel that it is.

Another wonderful layer of Goin’s work is the teaching she does, almost as if she’s a mother introducing new food to her children.

Take the Sunday supper that I actually ate at Lucques in late June 2006, for example.

sunday june 25, 2006

jamon serrano and brooks cherries

with dandelion and ricotta salata

***

wild alaskan white salmon with torpedo

onion ragout, tareh [fresh chives] and creme fraiche

or

slow -roasted veal loin with cantal [a cheese],

summer squash gratin and salsa verde

***

strawberry and almond crepes

with vanilla ice cream

40 dollars per person

At first glance, the idea of combining dandelion greens with cherries didn’t float my boat, so to speak. And what was torpedo? Tareh?

I soon learned.

To begin with, the waiter brought bread and a little tray of appetizers: good-quality sourdough bread sided with mild green Lucques olives, toasted buttery almonds, fleur-de-sel, and European-style butter.

Each dish came out of the kitchen on large round white plates. The real surprise was the cherries with the dandelions. The bitter greens married with the sweetish red cherries in a sauce usually meant for ice cream, accompanied by the salty ricotta and Serrano ham, all napped with dollops of drained creamy fresh ricotta, produced a taste sensation close to rapturous.

And that is what is so amazing about Goin’s cooking — she takes ingredients and puts them together, forming a palette of flavors that amazes and yet sounds rather, well, unusual and even unappetizing when “tasted” with the eye via the written word.

Real food connects us to the earth and Goin’s food is real, coming as it does from local farmers and producers.

That is the essence of Goin’s restaurant and her book, too: as Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse, says in the forward to Sunday Suppers at Lucques, “When I take friends there, it’s like giving them a wonderful gift.” Indeed, it is. The glow begins at the door and lasts all the way home, even if home is half a continent away. Or just a few paces from armchair to stove and wooden spoon.

sunday-suppers-3

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