- San Diego Reader food critic Naomi Wise
- (Joan Golomb Goodwin)
- ★★★★★ (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.