Mitchell Rosenthal has three San Francisco restaurants –Town Hall, Salt House and Anchor and Hope — and another, Irving Street Kitchen, in Portland, Ore. I haven’t been to any of them, but I’m pretty sure I’d like them all. I get this feeling because, as I read through Rosenthal’s new cookbook, “Cooking My Way Back Home,” I found myself really liking him. He has a giving and appreciative spirit, which often makes for a good restaurateur. He’s thankful for the mentors in his life — Tony Plaganis, “a big Greek guy who was passionate about food” and who gave him his first restaurant job; Paul Prudhomme; Seppi Renggli at The Four Seasons in New York; and Wolfgang Puck, for whom he worked at Postrio in San Francisco — and for everything working in restaurants has afforded him: travel, friendships, adventure and good food. This kind of honest and enthusiastic attitude tends to infuse one’s endeavors, and I’m sure his restaurants are full of it. His cookbook, written with Jon Pult, certainly is.
Get out the deep fryer
The book’s recipes, which have a Southern bent to them and are mostly culled from his restaurants, are adapted for home cooks — especially those with deep fryers. You’ll need one to make Angels on Horseback with Rémoulade, a gorgeous appetizer of deep-fried, bacon-wrapped oysters; Crispy Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms with Basil Cream; and an oyster and shrimp po’boy called The Peacemaker. For those of us without deep fryers, though, there are plenty of other finger-licking recipes to make us (fat and) happy. “Cooking My Way Back Home” is no diet book. It’s a collection of manly recipes that will also appeal to women who aren’t afraid to eat.
Rosenthal’s style isn’t subtle. There’s spice and smoke and fire in his food. There’s cream and butter. There’s lots of meat. And it all sounds delicious. Apple-Glazed St. Louis Ribs with Spicy Bourbon Barbecue Sauce, for example, and Peanut and Tasso Crusted Pork Chop with Hot Mustard. Even the fish dishes, like Warm Sea Urchin with Crab and Verjus Butter Sauce and Herb Fired Rainbow Trout With Apple and Horseradish Salsa Verde are daring. I want to eat them all. And I will. The recipes are clear, well-written and don’t require zillions of hard-to-find ingredients. His introductions offer as much insight about the food as about him — he had a recurring nightmare about eating gummy gnocchi, poor guy.
Thanks to beautiful photography by Paige Green, the food looks tasty and the people — whether it’s a smiling Rosenthal with his goatee and colorful tats or a young girl eating a messy lobster roll — look like they’re having fun. And I get the idea that if I serve this food at a dinner party, all of my guests will have a blast. It has that kind of energy. Indeed, the Haricots Verts with Harissa Vinaigrette, Serrano Ham and Spiced Almonds recently made an interesting and welcome addition to a potluck dinner. (Who knew making harissa was so easy? I’ll be using that vinaigrette on all sorts of salads.)
I’m often dubious about cookbooks written by chefs who spend their lives — including mealtimes — in professional kitchens, surrounded by sous-chefs and specialty equipment. In the introduction to the book, Rosenthal comes clean. “I’ve survived much of the last thirty-five years on staff meals. The last thing I wanted to do after a double shift on the hot line was to go home and cook.” But, he explains, as he became more of a restaurateur and less of a hands-on chef, he started to miss the “simple act of cooking.” That’s when he stepped into his home kitchen, started replicating his restaurant recipes and writing them down for the rest of us.
We’re lucky he did.
Mitchell Rosenthal. Credit: Paige Green
Book jacket, courtesy of Ten Speed Press