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The Church of Trillin 

Our critic, an early convert, attends a revival meeting and genuflects at the altar of Shalimar

Wednesday, Jun 25 2003
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Over the years, I've met several people of whom I've later said, "If they started a religion, I would join it": Betsey Johnson, my friend Stephen Soba, and Calvin Trillin. Of the three, I would say only the Trillin conversion took; Johnson's creative joie de vivre and Soba's selfless generosity are inspiring, but difficult to sustain on a daily level.

But Trillin laid out a path that was easier for me to follow -- the relentless pursuit of pleasure at table was already in my genes. Some may say I've taken my idolatry of the Founding Father a little too far, judging by my frequent quotations from the Scripture (American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater, 1974; Alice, Let's Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater, 1978; and Third Helpings, 1983, the three eventually collected into one volume titled The Tummy Trilogy, 1994). But the devil quotes Scripture to suit his purpose.

Trillin's latest book, Feeding a Yen: Savoring Local Specialties, From Kansas City to Cuzco (Random House, $22.95), found him once again on the evangelical trail, spreading the Word in local houses of worship. I attended a service held at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, reflecting that I had now listened to his live sermons in three different cities, marking me among the faithful indeed.

Trillin showed a pleasing propensity to quote himself, too, responding with a practiced air after his introducer confessed to being a vegetarian, "I think most vegetarians will make an exception for baby bunny rabbits. Most vegetarians will eat cute things." I was happy to see, while he was describing how he tried to induce his San Francisco-dwelling daughter to return to her family back east by withholding his customary gift of a couple dozen New York bagels, that behind his right shoulder was a display of children's tomes called Bagel Books, propped up in a box cleverly configured to look like an outsize toaster. I was delighted, during the Q&A period, which Trillin handled with the same charm frequently displayed on late-night talk shows, to hear him quote himself again, as I recently did in a piece on Habana ("I realized that the main difference between the gazpacho I was eating and the classic gazpacho was that it tasted better").

When I became afraid that I had missed a few words while taking notes, I was cheered to find them right there on the printed page later that night when I read (or reread, more accurately, since the book is mostly a collection of pieces originally published "in different form" in The New Yorker, Gourmet, and other magazines): "I am on record as saying that in Kansas City going to a white barbecue joint is like going to a gentle internist: everything might turn out all right, but you're not playing the percentages."

I noted Trillin saying that in a three-star restaurant, "I'm usually OK for the appetizer, but around the main course, I start thinking, 'Well, it's really admirable that the chef can do all that, but am I really having a good time? I really wonder whether God meant all that to be done to food." Not to imply that Trillin is reduced to preaching the Gospel: He responded to his questioners with unfeigned enthusiasm and fresh quips. As we stood in line to have our books signed after the revival meeting, I was emboldened, because a guy ahead of me had slipped him a piece of paper with a sure-fire East Bay restaurant on it, to offer to add one of my own favorites to it. I intently scribbled down "Battambang (Cambodian), Broadway between 8th and 9th, Oakland," but later beat myself up a little for not preparing a list of dishes and places he shouldn't miss while in San Francisco: the salt-and-pepper crab and the brisket and turnip clay pot at R&G Lounge, the sweet potato gnocchi sauced with cream and bacon and the duck livers with caramelized onions and pancetta at Da Flora, the pastries both cheesy and fruity at Tartine.

And then I thought of another favorite, one that would fit right in with Trillin's sensibilities, though in Feeding a Yen he only mentions curry (quite favorably) in connection with England (which he thinks has now become their national dish, in what is otherwise the home of "stuff-stuff with heavy"). I'm sure he would find plenty to enjoy at Shalimar, a rather cheerless room on Jones Street that I visited after a somewhat dispiriting visit to its putative sister restaurant, Shalimar Garden, around the corner on O'Farrell, where I had fed nine friends on decent but not dazzling Indian fare. Shalimar's bare-bones amenities (you order at the counter, sit at communal tables, and grab your own water pitcher from the reefer) wouldn't have worked for the kind of leisurely group dinner we'd required. (A friend who owns a bookstore nearby pointed out that the sole stab at décor is a couple of large pictures of Indian palaces that you can gaze at while dining on Formica.) On my first visit, I ordered a whole mess of takeout for dinner en famille.

Once I'd gotten over my disappointment that the tandoori lamb chops I'd ordered had never found their way into the bags, I realized that I was eating some of the best Indian (and Pakistani) food I'd ever tasted, even at a remove of many miles and some time from its creation. There were chicken kofta (meatballs) heady with cumin, a wonderful buttery dish of chickpeas cooked with tamarind and coriander called kabli channa, and a highly spiced, long-cooked lamb stew. Even the rice was special, mixed with saffron and full of whole spices: bay leaves, a cinnamon stick, cloves.

When I returned for lunch with Ron and Hiya, it turned out that the tandoori chops were missable (they were dry and, I felt, disagreeably spiced, but my companions didn't agree), but I was thrilled with everything else we ordered: okra cooked with onions into what I thought was like the best ratatouille ever, creamy chicken tikka masala, and a naan as full of onion as an overstuffed pillow. The most unusual dish was haleem, which I had expected would be a pilaf of lentils and barley, but was instead a gluey, seductive paste that tasted like a divine bean dip, sprinkled with shredded fresh ginger.

I was perplexed because of the difference between the food I'd had at the putative Shalimar Garden and the sparkling, exciting food at Shalimar. (I knew that Shalimar Garden was in the process of forging a new identity as Mela Tandoori Kitchen, but when I called them I sensed a strange reluctance to admit that there was new management.)

I noted that on Shalimar's menu there were two other Shalimars listed, on Polk Street and in Fremont (and "Coming Soon" in Santa Clara), but no mention of Shalimar Garden. Hmmm, I thought, while enjoying a juicy, smoky-tasting murgh tikka lahori (butterflied marinated chicken breast cooked in the tandoori oven); daal masala, with lentils so big and yellow they looked like corn kernels; the minty yogurt sauce called raita; and a much-less-oniony-this-time onion naan at the huge Fremont outpost (open just two months), tucked between an Italian restaurant and a Mexican one in an undistinguished minimall anchored by a Stewart Anderson Black Angus.

But Shalimar Garden is listed on www.shalimarsf.com, I mused, while feasting with Andrea at the Polk Street Shalimar (open six months) on more bhuna ghost (lamb stew), garlicky black-eyed beans cooked with tomatoes and yogurt, and the most delicious dish among everything I'd tried in four meals: nihari, described as a "North Indian delicacy. Fat removed beef shank cooked slowly in mixed spices. Garnished with ginger, pepper, and cilantro." It was three succulent lumps of meat swimming in a sea of dark beefy sauce, so knowingly and patiently cooked that they fell apart if you looked at them hard. This was a dish I would dream about. I added it to the imaginary list I hadn't prepared for Mr. Trillin.

I realized that the three Shalimars I had visited all were operated on the same order-at-the-counter, bare-tables model, not the fancy décor and service and white tablecloths that had pleased us more than the food at Shalimar Garden. So I called the original outpost and asked what was up. "Oh," replied the cheerful voice on the other end, "I sold it."

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Meredith Brody

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