The Last Supper

Chef Jeff Jackson of A.R. Valentien coauthors the ultimate omakase masterpiece in Naomi's honor.
  • Chef Jeff Jackson of A.R. Valentien coauthors the ultimate omakase masterpiece in Naomi's honor.
  • San Diego Reader food critic Naomi Wise
  • (Joan Golomb Goodwin)
  • 1945–2011
  • ★★★★★ (Superb)

Ratings reflect the reviewers' affinity for the critic and reaction to food, ambience, and service.

December 14, 2011

We all gathered around the bed.

“What fresh hell is this? This food is gonna kill me!” groused Naomi — Joan to us, her regular dining companions — as she choked down another morsel of hospital food.

“Mashed potatoes?” someone guessed.

No! Eggs!” Naomi said. “And which one of you brought my ‘fizzy water’ [code for nigori sake] and smokes?”

We joked about sending half the posse back to the kitchen while the other half smuggled in Naomi’s vices. It was the last time our entire group would laugh together. The next day Naomi went into emergency surgery. She never came out.

In March of 2011, Naomi and Samurai Jim spoke about Naomi’s eventual retirement from the Reader and the possibilities for a final review. Samurai Jim suggested she title the piece “The Last Supper.” Maybe they’d even make a reservation at a favorite restaurant under their recognizable Reader names.

“If we can have Chef Jackson at A.R. Valentien, you got it!” Naomi said.

This column is a collaboration, a tribute dedicated to the life and career of a true friend and culinary mentor.

December 21, 2011

Jim was first on the scene. Grinning, he said, “Reservations for Samurai Jim and Naomi Wise.”

“Ah, we’ve been expecting you, Mr. Jim. The chef would like to have a word.”

Chef Jackson, a tall man full of energy and enthusiasm, emerged from the kitchen. He escorted Jim to the private dining room. The young samurai remembered how much Naomi had enjoyed it when a chef was given free rein to create: these meals were always phenomenal.

“Chef Jackson,” Jim said, “please, go out and play in the kitchen. In my culture we say, ‘Onegaishimasu, omakase kudasai,’ which means, ‘We trust you to give us the best.’”

Chef Jackson and Chef Kolanko had already been planning the meal. Usually, Chef Jackson opened and Chef Kolanko closed. Not this time. All day long, they’d bonded over a hot oven, creating the ultimate omakase masterpiece.

Jim prepared the room. At the head of the table, he draped Naomi’s black sweater over the chair back and placed her red-and-black hats at the top of the rails. On a credenza sat pictures of a 16-year-old Naomi, with her 19" waistline, and two volumes of ornately bound Reader reviews. A bottle of nigori sake and a pack of Capri Lights were placed at every setting. A memorial tag pictured a frustrated Naomi visiting Machu Picchu. On the outside of the tag, the caption joked: “My kingdom for a truffle.” Inside: “Om mani padme hum,” Naomi’s chant for a friend when they passed.

One by one, the posse arrived: Petite Michelle, The Lynnester, Witty Fred, Dave, Sam (Sang), Ben, and Mark. We were happy to see each other, despite our sadness, and immediately ordered cocktails and wine.

Chef Kolanko arrived with the amuse bouche, succulent shrimp laid atop thinly diced white beans and kale, paired with Esprit de Beaucastel 2008, from Tablas Creek Vineyards.

Chef Kolanko said: “You don’t choose the profession, the profession chooses you. I always loved the kitchen, even back when I was washing dishes. I was cooking by 16. Chef Jeff and I opened A.R. Valentien in 2002, and every Thursday we got a bottle of wine and the Reader, in hopes that we would be reviewed by Naomi Wise. In October 2005, I was promoted to chef de cuisine. Two months later, we got our review — 4 1/2 stars. I was elated. Naomi’s words were the shot in the arm that gave me the confidence to excel.”

Witty Fred held up his glass. “Being a foodie novice,” he said, “I felt like a student at the end of the master’s fork. Naomi’s vocation was to expose average Joes to the fine-dining experience, describing ambiance, ingredients, and preparation.”

Chef Jackson appeared with the second course, Dungeness crab wrapped in lettuce, light citrus hints lurking within. Our wine was a Rhône blend from Sunset Cove in Washington state.

The next part of the meal we dubbed “The Oyster Cult”: oysters with Meyer lemon and mignonette. They were all velvet tenderness, as sensual as a first kiss. Every other oyster was adorned with a Meyer lemon foam. Samurai Jim and Fred, though not oyster fans, fought over the last one via “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” Naomi’s favored decision-making process.

Michelle recalled a quote from one of Naomi’s reviews: “These are about the sexiest oysters I’ve ever eaten, really an aphrodisiac. A dozen and I’d go nympho.”

“As enjoyable as the meals were,” Michelle continued, “Naomi was usually in a hurry to get home and write. One of the most delightful evenings we ever had occurred after a meal at Jsix with Fred and Jim. I suggested we enjoy a cordial on the rooftop. To our surprise, Naomi agreed. She regaled us with stories of her sensual adventures. How she’d traveled across the U.S. on the back of a motorcycle that belonged to a boyfriend who wrote for Oui magazine. There were stories of a clandestine relationship while working for the U.S. government and how she became a ‘cougar.’ When I mentioned the small town where I am from, she said she’d had a lover from there as well, and still corresponded with him in his jail cell.”

Eddie, our server, brought the next course, roasted duck breast from Liberty Farms, a side of poached baby turnip in duck fat, and a turnip tarte tatin. He recommended we pair it with 2007 Sonoma-Cutrer pinot noir.

“Put that duck fat juice on the back of your neck and I will lick it off all night long,” Ben said to Lynne. His husband Mark looked confused. Maybe it was Ben’s comment; or maybe he was wondering if it would be bad form to lick his plate clean.

Dave said, “Last April, I turned the tables on Naomi and treated her to dinner — at A.R. Valentien’s Artisan Table night. She loved it, and even tacked a mini-review onto her next column, saying, ‘It’s a bargain for so much pleasure and luxury.’”

Sam, known to us as Sang, our resident sommelier, selected a Twomey Cellars by Silver Oak, Napa Valley 2006, to go with the next course: Beef on a String — tender, juicy, poached filet of beef, bone-marrow flan (yep, bone marrow made into flan), and aromatic vegetables with smoked black tea and sherry broth.

The broth’s aroma was like a warm blanket on a cold day. Chef Kolanko explained how, one day, feeling extra creative, he’d added black tea to the already awesome mushroom-sherry broth. It was such a hit, the dish stayed on the menu. Served on the side was a buffet of options, house-made Dijon, fleur de sel, and smoked sea salt. The chemistry experiments began, a challenge to see who could come up with the best taste combination.

As the beef melted in his mouth, Sang’s eyes rolled back.

“Until now,” he said, “the best meal I ate with Naomi wasn’t for a review. We dined at the Better Half. Chef John Kennedy came to our table and said, ‘You two look like adventurous eaters. I can make some dishes that aren’t on the menu. Just give me a heads-up.’ We took him up on the offer. That meal included two foie gras dishes. In its brief incarnation, the Better Half was my favorite restaurant. Since all of our favorites have closed, I’ve been lost. But now I think I’ve found a new home.

“For Naomi, it wasn’t about ego,” Sang said. “She had business sense and compassion. She didn’t want to be too negative about a small place, as that might put them out of business. Neither would she publish a great review for places not equipped to handle a sudden onslaught of business. One thing she demanded was that the average diner be treated with respect. Restaurants that failed to do so got the razor end of her pen.”

For the final course, it was all hands on deck. Our server, the sommelier, Chef Jackson and Chef Kolanko presented our desserts, then, with our sincerest thanks, paraded off to a standing ovation.

The sommelier returned to pour a smooth Fiore D’Arancio Orange Muscat. Our first plate was the pastry chef’s signature Black Magic Cake, layered with pistachio brulée, and a lemon tart that made our mouths flood with anticipation. Then came house-made marshmallows, fresh-from-the-fryer donuts, and candied passion fruit. The only thing missing was an insulin pen.

Lynne, not a dessert person, was so impressed she had to try a bit of everything.

“I was recently in Mexico for a wine tour for foodies,” she said. “We’d have great food paired with each winery’s signature bottle. One of my fellow tour participants was a big-time chef, and toward the end of our conversation, he asked if I was in ‘the industry.’ I felt so complimented. Because of Naomi’s tutelage, I can talk knowledgeably with chefs. How cool is that?”

We toasted our friend one final time. Then the last crumb of the tart was licked off the plate by Fred. Sam tossed the last home-made marshmallow across the table, and Samurai Jim caught it in his mouth.

We unanimously agreed that the meal was the best we’d ever had.

Therefore, based on creativity, presentation, and service, we, Naomi’s friends, award Chef Jeff Jackson, Chef de Cuisine Tim Kolanko, and A.R. Valentien five stars.

We thank you, the readers, as well, for your support these ten years. It has been an honor to serve.

So long, farewell, and good eats.

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I am deeply saddened by the loss of Naomi. I looked forward to Thursdays for her reviews, and relied on her expertise to expand my horizon and locate new delights. “Om mani padme hum”

I agree wholeheartedly. She was a delight and will be sorely missed. God Bless her Family and Friends during this difficult time.

Bone marrow flan!! Very nice tribute. I will miss her reviews.

I know that's what i said what? Bone marrow...You are right, that was a very nice tribute. I miss her immensely. How will we ever learn about fine cuisine further without her leading the way?

I too am shocked and saddened by the sudden loss of such an amazing woman. I had the good fortune to have enjoyed a rather flirtatious e-mail relationship a few years ago when i mentioned that i "hung on her every word" while reading my Thursday fix. She was so funny and honest and intelligent, I remember "anything to avoid actually making my deadline, I do my best work under pressure anyway" as a true gem to explain why she was appearing so busy at her desk typing away while chatting with me.

Simply put, she transported us to a world of perception and understanding of lavish dishes that seem so out of reach. And to appreciate the minute details that make a meal an experience. She so protected her anonymity i never had the nerve to suggest we meet. She was a little intimidating despite her warmth and charm. And she typed like twenty times faster than me so it was tough to keep up. Now that she is gone so suddenly, I have been reeling somewhat every time a Reader is sighted. I have been wondering "where is the cover story", "stop the presses" why just a simple small mention about her passing...and Bedford did a fine job with limited time until Her Posse posted this beautiful tribute to her. I feel so much better now knowing that she has been acknowledged by her friends in such a personal way. And that they were there to bag on hospital food and share her last day. And to see the detailed description of the Chef's efforts to pay respect to a strong, intelligent woman that inspired them to new heights. She inspired me in so many ways, to educate and scintillate my fledgling knowledge of fine cuisine. Only after the horrible news did i appreciate the depth of her character. I was so surprised that i felt that sad upon news of her passing. I am not ashamed to admit i cried in instant sadness. Like i had lost a friend, and indeed we have. My old computer crashed long ago that would have archived our chats. How i would enjoy going back and refreshing my memory, we really had a playful banter for a brief time. She was a true gem that lived her life on her terms, outspoken and passionate, and honest beyond measure. I really blew it by not cultivating a personal friendship. I always thought that after a few months had lapsed since i had contacted her it was a lost friendship, how could she remember me with her hectic social schedule. She had that ability with the written word to endear you to her, so charming and vibrant. I would like to console all of you that share my profound grief, and we never met. I can only imagine the sense of loss by her Family and Friends. Please accept my most sincere and heartfelt empathy for your loss. And Her Posse and personal friends, I envy you in a positive way by having known such a unique character. She will be missed, Thursday will never be the same or will The Reader. Rest In Peace you Darling Lady Naomi Wise. Joan Golomb Goodwin 1945-2011 pleased to finally meet you.

wow, wish I had known her, and been at this amazing supper. great tribute

Man, she had a way. And seemed like she could display proper manners in a five-star restaurant and then kick my ass in a one-star alley. RIP, Naomi. You educated me, and made me chuckle. Is it wrong to now want to know everything about her?

Here's part of an email Joan's ex sent to some friends after hearing of her death:

My pal who knew her well in New York in the 60's, and San Francisco in the 70's, nailed it perfectly. She was, he said, "one of the hipster warrior princesses." I would add that she was also an intrepid adventuress, joining me on a coast-to-coast ride on the back seat of my R-60, a fairly hairy expedition driving down to the bottom of the Pan American Highway in an old pickup truck, and a trek in the high Himalaya--and hardly ever complained (at least about the adventures).

Joan wrote under the pen name of Naomi Wise, and I've always loved her story about how she got that name. Back in the late 1950s, when the NYC folk music thing was in fullest bloom, there was a weekly folk sing at some community space. It cost a buck to get in, unless you were willing to perform, in which case you got in free. Joan, who was probably 16 at the time, didn't want to perform, but she didn't want to pay that dollar either--so she signed up on the performer list as "Naomi Wise." The guy at the door, not a folk scholar, didn't recognize the name and let her in free. On the other hand, the MC, who called the performers, and who knew lots about folk music, recognized the name instantly as the heroine of a famous murder ballad, understood that it was a scam, and passed on to the next name. Hence Joan got in free, and did not have to sing or play. Not that that would have been so bad. She was one of the baddest "girl guitarists" on the scene thanks to "private" lessons from a series of hip, hot guitarists including Perry Lederman and others whose names would mean little to you today. Anyway, that's where the name "Naomi Wise" came from. She knew her way around the Village like the back of her hand.

I really wish I had brought her a guitar and insisted on hearing her play. One other fact many may not have known about her was her ability to finish a Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle in pen.

kencompton could have easily been her friend writing this instead of me, as I too exchanged email with her soon after she took over from Eleanor Widmer. I lucked into being a member of her posse, when she invited me to dine her boyfriend TJ and herself at Third Corner. It was thrilling to dine with a restaurant critic, although they soon both made me feel at ease. During the meal I was skeptical when they identified a not so obvious ice cream as vanilla ice cream from Gelato Vera. So I asked the waiter, who confirmed it. It was the first of many times I was impressed by Joan's knowledge and I learned a great deal from her over the many meals I was fortunate to share with her. In so many ways she was a friend like no other, and even once quipped that my female friends were all "wispy, pale, Pre-Raphaelites." I suspect I will never hear that description from any other friend.

Sang (aka Sam)

O.K. that confirms it. I want to know everything about her as well. Thank you Sang (aka Sam) for this incredible tidbit of her complex past, just like an appetizer now my interest of this fascinating woman is piqued. Posse Members and all others come on, it is time to share any personal experiences with the world. Please. What a life lesson for us all, to never take for granted any potential friendship with a fascinating person. You can hear the regret in my words for not simply insisting that we meet in person. If you have any people in your lives past present or future, do not make the mistake of not trying to introduce yourself and make new friends. And I am intent on furthering my culinary knowledge, that Thursday $85.00 A.R.Valentien culinary adventure is what i am now saving-up for. I will continue to educate myself in fine food and wine in her honor. I have always wanted to learn more so instead of just giving-up without her guidance, I will learn to enjoy life's finer things as a tribute to her. This is how we choose to celebrate her life, a life lived richly and fully. Please join me.

When Ms. Wise's passing was announced by Ed Bedford, I, like many, was in shock. Naomi-Joan and I exchanged emails several times, and we found we had several things in common (I had sent her a tongue-in-cheek "application" for a substitute position on the Posse.) Beyond our love of food and restaurants, we also shared a love of travel, music, cookbooks, movies--and we were in the same age group (I was born two years after she was), so we had a shared remembered history of American culture. Each week's Reader was special for me because--until her work load was trimmed down--I knew there would be a Naomi review. (I should say that I always looked forward to Bedford's reviews, as well.)

Eventually, NW-Joan did call me to ask me to sub on the Posse. Alas! I was out of town. That happened again...I so wish I had met her! In her emails, she was smart, funny, generous...

I hate to ask this question, because I don't want to invade NW's privacy, but WHY was she in the hospital? The UT article said she died of an infection she got IN the hospital: "clostridium dificile" (or something similar.) but why was she in the hospital in the first place? If anyone knows the answer and does not find it indelicate to divulge this information, please let us know (I know she had back problems, for example.)

Maybe we San Diegans, fans of Naomi Joan Wise Goodwin, could have an annual tribute to her? Or maybe have a larger memorial dinner/tribute sometime soon? I am sure many many readers of the Reader would attend an event--maybe a fundraiser for a charity or a Naomi Wise scholarship at the local Culinary Arts Institute? Just an idea.

Thanks to the Posse members for inviting the rest of us to partake of the tribute dinner at A.R. Valentien. And my condolences to Naomi's family and friends.

I adore your positive energy and suggestion of a fan-related event that we can all share and enjoy her life's work! Man this is amazing to connect with so many liked-minded individuals that share my appreciation of our dear friend. Tell me you share my thoughts that we knew her and adored her and count me in as "poser posse" co-founder. I too had to work when i received a last-second posse sub e-mail. How i regret that but duty called. I always wanted to groom myself to be worthy of her presence and company, that was the plan...
And the only other fan club i ever joined was "The Beatles", "SOMETHING" is my tribute song to her...

First page I turned to every week. RIP. A job well done. Cheers.

Wow! Thanks for all the kind words and thoughts. I think the idea of a Naomi Wise scholarship program is fantastic (heck, I wish I could be the recipient of that). If there is anyone out there ambitious enough to put that together I would be delighted to participate. A meet and greet mixer with Posse members and fans would be a blast. Aside from the main 8 that participated in the aforementioned meal, there are at least a dozen others that went on these type of adventures. I am sure they would love to chew the fat around the Artisan Table at A.R. Valentien or some other venue of culinary yumminess.

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