3 1/2 stars. 338 pages (the product description is incorrect, listing 352 pages.)
This semi-cookbook chronicles the Big Sur, California restaurant, Nepenthe, which owes much of its great success over the years since 1949 to the following causes:
(1) through terrific timing (on when and where to open for business) and the wisdom to change with the times (while maintaining selected standards) in certain aspects of the operation,
(2) by offering superb recipes/dishes which are founded largely upon the finest available ingredients,
(3) by attracting a celebrity clientele which was sure to boost continuing public interest.
(4) by initiating great architectural vision.
(5) by the fact that this restaurant has been operated over the years by a family (the Fassett family) which has been dedicated to its every detail and high standards.
The author (Romney Steele) is a member of the family operation and has documented a detailed and personalized history of this semi-renowned culinary establishment.
What do I most like about the book? It's very artsy, heavily illustrated (dishes/landscape/nostalgic photographs), unique to other books, and the recipes (85 of them) are all manageable, given some planning, and they lead us to something different with which to grace our dinner tables.
Discussing the recipes first, these dishes almost all scream out CALIFORNIA, a place from whence most things new in the United States typically issue. Nearly all the recipes here incorporate an ingredient fusion of multiple cultures, innovation, and a timeliness in that these great light entrees, sides, desserts, basket foods, treats, and complex cocktails all mesh with 21st-Century culinary thinking, even though the menu at Nepenthe has remained largely static for quite a long time.
Some examples include "Ambrosia Burgers" (one of the top sellers), "Lolly's Roast Chicken with Sage Stuffing," "Pumpkin Spice Cake, "Baked Fish with Marjoram," "Chile Custards with Salsa Fresca," "Rosemary Lamb Brochettes with Mint Pesto," and the "Moscow Mule" [a highball].
Regarding ingredients, if home cooks attempt these dishes from local (outside California) or inferior food products they are likely to be disappointed. Steele is very specific as to the brands and types of ingredients necessary to each recipe. Nepenthe has always used "Prime" meats (as opposed to "Select" or "Choice") and such meat products cannot be purchased just anywhere because they are expensive and thus do not market well in grocery stores and even in some butcher shops. Unbleached flour (always recommended by the author) is readily available everywhere and it's typically the same price as bleached flour; however, so many home cooks have yet to become informed on how very superior unbleached flour really is and so they tend to not use it. Nepenthe chefs chiefly use organic fruits and vegetables which are expensive in most regions. Dungeness crab is superb if you can get it (it really is the very best and comes from the Pacific Northwest region) but if it's not available, I would not attempt a recipe which uses it when anything less is bound to be inferior. Grand Marnier (an expensive French orange-flavored cognac blend) is pretty pricey to keep around for one or two recipes. And, a big positive is that Nepenthe chefs only use fresh tomatoes when they're in season which assures recipe quality and consistency.
While the recipes are very intelligently conceived and detailed, a few could still tolerate a minor improvement here and there. An example would be the excellent French Fries recipe on page 66 where the methodology is near perfect but the author lists canola oil as a possible base for the frying process - canola oil exudes a fishy taste when heated and peanut oil (which releases no flavor of its own) would have been a superior recommendation. Such issues are very minor ones but important in this type of cooking and baking.
My point is that many of these recipes are very specific ingredient-dependent so this is not really a "cookbook" that one should keep to pull off the shelf to whip up one of the dishes -- one needs to plan ahead to prepare most of these recipes, assuming that you wish to maintain a lofty standard of excellence.
The book features as much or more emphasis on Nepenthe's history as it does on the recipes and, of course, this is where the art of the book is punctuated. A huge feature of Nepenthe is grounded in the fact that scenes from the famous Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor Film, The Sandpiper, were shot here. And many other period celebrities have graced the premises such as Clint Eastwood (during his "Rawhide" years) and Kim Novak.
As the protest and psychedelic era of the Free Love Society came on, the Nepenthe staff members were host to rock music notables such as Jimi Hendrix, Mama Cass Elliot (she DESPISED the "Mama" appellation!), Janis Joplin, and David Crosby.
But probably the folks who originally launched this trendy ocean overlook included the sort of notables who could likely have just flown over from Gertrude's and Alice's Picasso-pad in Paris: Henry Miller, Dylan Thomas, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Jack Kerouac... (I'm certain that Kerouac was never actually in Gertrude Stein's and Alice B. Toklas's Paris home but his tenuous pal Brion Gysin was her frequent guest until he boinked Alice's cookbook [after Gertrude's death] with his infamous "Haschich Fudge" recipe! The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book.)
In an effort to avoid re-relating the entire book here I'll summarize with a few critical points.
These recipes are very difficult to locate by referencing the index -- so, too much art where there should have been some practical utility.
The graphics are fairly burdensome in numerous places where the layout folks used black ink on dark maroon- and dark teal-colored pages -- this is tough reading. I also did not savor the recipe titles (and other headings) where someone with marginal penmanship scribed them in longhand -- I felt that this artful approach actually detracted notably from the overall merit of the work.
To whom does this book market? It's not exactly a coffee-table book and, as a cookbook, it needs more recipes. Neither does it grab the eye of movie star fans since there is limited film and music nostalgia here. So the publisher really did not pinpoint a target buyer, which brings me to my final point: it's a fine book to flip through but with a sticker price of thirty-five dollars I'm sure that there are better gifts in the areas of interest which this work highlights only marginally. The book seems over-priced by about ten bucks to me.
With that, while I think that the author has generated a quality culinary and literary end-product, due to the reasons which I've previously stated I unfortunately cannot recommend it except perhaps to Bug Sur region residents and maybe to former visitors to the Nepenthe restaurant.