Anchovies are all the rage right now. The slippery little fish are showing up on all the hippest menus of the moment, and San Francisco’s hottest new restaurant is called The Anchovy Bar.
And yet, some people remain unconvinced. If you have friends of that persuasion (or frankly, if you know anyone who likes to eat), consider giving them Don Bocarte anchovies from Cantabria on the Bay of Biscay. They are hideously expensive (about $2 for each minuscule filet), but so packed with flavor, they punch far above their weight. Sweet, salty and the epitome of umami, these anchovies are fished between April and June, when quality is at its peak, and instantly processed and salted. Then they are left to mature for at least 8 months before being washed and filleted by hand.
I have to admit that I’m utterly addicted to these anchovies; my favorite snack is a thick slice of toasted bread topped with an anchovy and a curl of cold, sweet butter.
Watching the transformation of Saint Estephe Restaurant during the eighties was a bit like watching America slowly discover itself. The Manhattan Beach restaurant started life as a classic disciple of nouvelle cuisine. Chef and owner John Sedlar had worked with Jean Betranou at the extremely French L’Ermitage, one of the seminal restaurants of L.A. When Bertranou came to LA he said, “California is one of the most beautiful places I have seen, but when it comes to ingredients, forget it.” But Sedlar wasn’t ready to forget ingredients, and he slowly began incorporating native finds into his food; I remember the shock of walking in and finding “Tennessee caviar” on his menu.
But then Sedlar took a giant leap and began looking to his own New Mexican roots by adding “modern Southwest cuisine” to his traditional menu. Five years later, in 1988, he swerved in another new direction, creating a menu within a menu of traditional foods of Northern New Mexico. You could still order pigonneau or escargots, but you could opt for tamales or posole instead. I doubt that most patrons of the time understood how revolutionary this was, but Sedlar was essentially implying that our own food was every bit as important as that stuff from France. His cooking was so delicate and delicious, he made you a believer.
Sedlar ultimately abandoned French food to wholeheartedly embrace his native cuisine in restaurants like Bikini, Abiqui and Rivera. But he did it in his own unique fashion, with reverence, respect and great subtlety. There are rumors that he’s about to open another venue in Los Angeles, and I certainly hope it’s true. John Sedlar has been an important part of the conversation about American food, and I can’t wait to hear what he has to say now.