Eat any chef’s food and you’re tasting her life story and her passions. But more importantly, you’re tasting her résumé.
Many cooks bounce around from place to place for years before they land a plum position in an established restaurant or give up and open their own. Ask any cook who has been at it for ten years where he or she has worked, and you’ll probably hear a half-dozen or more names. In the office world, so many short-term stints would immediately raise an HR person’s hackles. But in the kitchen, they’re a source of pride.
Line cooks, the welders and grips of the kitchen, have a repetitive job: They must master all the dishes on their station, and then make them over and over again. There’s little creativity, no pay, and absolutely no glory in the job until you make it up to sous-chef, when you’ll start working more hours than a dot-commer in order to put a few of your own ideas on the menu.
Most journeymen cooks stay in each job until they hit the limit of their education or their ambition. Then they choose a new chef to study under. By the time they take over their own kitchens, their cooking has taken on shadings and nuances from each of their former teachers — this way of plating the salmon from one, that way of braising short ribs from another. The personal touches that animate a chef’s cuisine come less from jolts of culinary inspiration than from how skillfully he combines all he has learned.
This is particularly evident with the East Bay’s Asian-American fusion chefs, who are combining their formal Western training with the flavors they’ve absorbed from their homes and heritages. Take, for example, the case of Ponnarong Nimearmson.
Nimearmson, who moved to the United States from Bangkok in the 1960s, started his career in the kitchen at La Bourgogne in San Francisco, one of the city’s top French restaurants. After a dozen years there, he moved on to Le Candide, several San Francisco hotels, and Fize — interspersed with a five-year stint of owning Symphony Restaurant until the 1989 earthquake destroyed his business. After spending his career cooking classic French and Italian cuisine, about five years ago he and his wife Ninna opened their Piedmont Avenue restaurant — with Ponnarong in the back of the house and Ninna in the front — and brought their Thai heritage into the mix.
Ninna’s menu is a funky little thing, a list of a dozen or so simply conceived dishes representing a mishmash of cultures and techniques. Sometimes the East and West fuse together; sometimes they sit side by side, kicking each other beneath the table. Which makes for a quaint, very personal neighborhood bistro.
More than the tonier, less-family-oriented College Avenue, Piedmont Avenue has become the place for microbistros. Anchored by the stalwart Bay Wolf and the ever-enduring Chez Simone, Jojo, Ninna, Zatie, and brand-new Dopo are carving out the tiniest of niches on the strip. If Ninna were a storefront, it’d have to sell stationery, because there wouldn’t be much room to stock anything larger — only two rows of tables can fit in the narrow, not especially deep restaurant. Subdued hues of purple and gold run through the walls and carpet, with a row of drawings running along one wall and fabric-covered panels on the other. Not that the restaurant is loud, because there aren’t enough people to raise a buzz, but you can hear snippets of conversation from the folks on the other side of the room.
On the Western front, leaves from the heart of the romaine, pale green and crunchy, came tossed in an overly sharp champagne vinaigrette with little nuggets of blue cheese scattered throughout. More satisfying was a salad of minuscule bay shrimp and chopped endive tossed together with a creamy, mustard-tinged mayonnaise, which brought out the almost nonvegetal earthiness of the green rather than its bitterness.
Lift off the lid on the clay pot of mussels — March is your last chance to order truly plump, sweet mollusks before the warm weather has its way with them — and a waft of lemongrass and galangal drifts up. Once the mussels disappear, the delicate broth they leave behind doubles as a light, aromatic soup. Sip it with a spoon.
Many of the entrées declare their allegiance to France and Italy, not Thailand. The thick pork chop, say, tender and rosy, with a dollop of caramelized onions and a cider-sweetened reduction sauce, would fit seamlessly onto the menu of any neighborhood restaurant in Northern California. The same could be said of the oven-roasted salmon fillet, a layer of pesto smeared across its top; unlike the chop, though, all joy had been cooked out of the medium-well fillet (fish should be medium-rare to medium, buttery and semitranslucent at its core).
Nimearmson pulled his dessert list, too, from the bistro Hall of Fame. In the Bananas Foster, you could taste a little rum around the edges of the just-caramelized bananas, quickly melting a couple scoops of vanilla; the invisible presence of that omnipresent Thai restaurant item, deep-fried bananas and coconut ice cream, hung in the air. The surprising thing about the tiramisu, which my dining companion made me order, was that it was better than two-thirds of the versions I’ve eaten in so-called Italian restaurants. You could actually taste espresso, marsala, and mascarpone, not just stacks of whipped cream and cake dusted with a little cocoa powder.
As he did with the mussels, Nimearmson blends cuisines by lightening and perfuming the French and softening and sweetening the Thai. Blending the two culinary techniques resulted in an odd lamb shank, braised in tomato-tinged stock made strangely elegant with a few Kaffir lime leaves: The lamb had cooked long enough to soak up the flavorful broth, and easily pulled off the bone with a fork. However, cooks usually reduce the braising liquid into a more concentrated, potent sauce instead of ladling it into a bowl as if it were a soup.
On paper, bay scallops in a chicken-basil sauce sounds like a culinary no-no, but not in Asia, where cooks don’t have the same prejudices against combining sea and earth. And the rich ragout of ground chicken and Thai basil over rice — once you taste it, you’ll remember it — brought out the sweetness of the big, soft scallops without covering up their flavor. The roast chicken breast layered West over East: An airline breast, so-called because the butchers leave the wing on, was pan-roasted perfectly so that the skin fried into a crispy shell and the meat exuded juices each time it was sliced. It was surrounded by “turned” (football-shaped) carrots and zucchini, as well as slices of potato simmered in a mild yellow curry. They soaked up the soft notes of ground coriander and coconut milk, and more of the creamy sauce was poured around the bowl to slather on bites of chicken.
Ninna is a fine neighborhood bistro, the kind of place where you can walk from your house, be greeted by your first name, and tuck into comfortable, decently prepared food, taking in the personality as well as the experience of the cooks who made it.