Dona Tomas is not a restaurant name that rings many bells outside the San Francisco Bay Area. The owners, Thomas Schnetz and Dona Savitsky, have never been on the cover of Food & Wine, or competed on “Iron Chef,” or even cooked at the James Beard House. Google them and mostly what you will find are references to their new cookbook, named after their first restaurant, in Oakland.
In a food culture that seems to worship celebrity above creativity, it says everything that their book is a knockout on every level, not least because a vicarious eater will get as much out of it as a dedicated cook can. Unlike the average perfunctory compilation of restaurant recipes, what the two partners have produced with a co-writer, another chef named Mike Wille, is one of the most appealing Mexican cookbooks ever published, and one of the best in any category all year.
You can instantly conjure the melon salad seasoned with chile powder, kosher salt and fresh mint and drizzled with pungent crema, the Mexican answer to creme fraiche, but you have to taste it to believe it. Ditto the very simple, sublimely silky corn pudding, or the queso fundido, translated into Californian with goat cheese and blanketed with a classically complex sauce of pumpkin seeds and tomatillos with three herbs.
The subtitle of “Dona Tomas: Discovering Authentic Mexican Cooking,” from Ten Speed Press, does not cover the whole enchilada. This is authentic California Mexican cooking. Schnetz says he takes what he tastes in Mexico City and Oaxaca and Guadalajara on his yearly trips and translates it using local ingredients and twists, always with the goal of elevating an undervalued cuisine. “We try to be a step beyond what’s out there,” he said, and he thinks Mexican food in the Bay Area is improving overall as a result.
The book’s dreamily meandering foreword is by the very lyrical Mexican-American writer Richard Rodriguez, who happens to be Schnetz’s uncle, and it speaks volumes.
“Dona Tomas is Cal-Mex of a sort we have never tasted. It rejects the blandness of California Mexican cooking, but also the greasy bathos of it. Dona Tomas belongs to the nouvelle California initiative for the pure and the good.” The inspiration for the queso fundido, after all, was the Alice Waters signature at Chez Panisse, warm goat cheese, Schnetz says.
Schnetz, who is half-Mexican and grew up eating his Guadalaran grandmother’s tortillas and refried beans, met Savitsky while both were cooking at Square One in San Francisco. They opened Dona Tomas in 1999 after she had been the chef at Cafe Marimba and he had started a cafe in Sacramento with his brother, among other stops on their resumes. Savitsky now runs the front of the house and contributed the cocktails to the book, including a cucumber daiquiri and a lime colada. (They also own a taqueria in Berkeley called Tacubaya and are opening a third place.)
Schnetz credits two non-Mexicans, cookbook author Diana Kennedy and Chicago chef Rick Bayless, with inspiring him to head up the chile trail. “Her book, ‘The Art of Mexican Cooking,’ got me excited about it,” he said. “It was so comprehensive it brought that cuisine to life, made me realize how underutilized it was. And Rick Bayless, what he did with his restaurant, he brought it to America.”
The recipes in “Dona Tomas” are more accessible than either Bayless’ or Kennedy’s, though. The writing is compelling; Wille, the collaborator, is a chef and writer in Los Gatos who has a gift for communicating the sights, sounds and smells of cooking that are essential cues in a recipe. The graphic design also helps — the lavish and gorgeous photos seem to yell, “try me,” while headnotes are also printed above the bold titles, which has the curious effect of making each dish almost speak for itself. You jump straight to the ingredients and before you know it have made seared tuna with a spicy pumpkin seed-sesame seed sauce and pickled red onions.
An excellent glossary at the start of the book demystifies the more exotic ingredients, but then most can be found at a decent supermarket; even crema is available in a can. A blender is key for many of the sauces, but anything more complicated is rarely needed.
Schnetz says he Californa-ized his food partly by developing side dishes that would not be served in Mexico, which makes it supremely easy to put a full meal together from his book. Everything seems not just to fit but to almost fall into a menu. That amazing corn pudding goes with the tuna, which goes with the richly flavored achiote rice; the queso fundido can start a dinner party and a sweet and crusty zucchini cake dusted with canela, the Mexican cinnamon, can finish it. Verdolagas — purslane sauteed with garlic and tomatoes — could accompany anything, with vibrantly rounded flavor from so few ingredients. A cookbook that entices you to try a vegetable you have been ignoring at the farmers’ market for 20 years is not to be mis-underestimated.
But then the book is crammed with enticing ideas: salt cod and potato tamales; pozole with crab, or with duck; a salad of wilted cabbage, toasted pecans, chicharrones and cilantro with baked goat cheese; pumpkin seed brittle; salmon tacos with mango salsa; roasted chiles rellenos, filled with potato or zucchini and crab. Another simple recipe can become an addiction: pumpkin seeds toasted in a skillet with whole cloves of garlic and chile de arbol.
Tasting any of them makes it easy to see how “Dona Tomas” came into being. Schnetz said the owner of Ten Speed Press, which is based in Berkeley, is a regular customer who loved the cafe’s food and wanted to get it into print. Now the same publisher has just come out with another book from a much more famous restaurant, Cafe Pasqual’s in Santa Fe, N.M. You can guess how good that one is.