THERE’S A WINDOW of time on my resumé in the early 2000s when it was my lot in life to run a romper room of a wine bar in San Francisco’s Civic Center. Occasionally, to avoid its semi-deranged, tinfoil-hatted owner, I’d pop across Hayes Street to Absinthe Brasserie & Bar for a nerves-soothing tumbler of Oban. Neither Rob Schwartz nor Jeff Hollinger, the head bartenders, knew me very well, but each poured a generous shot of the Scottish single malt, which I always thought of as a singularly kind gesture of hospitality.
Just a few years later in 2006, that pair partnered with the talented San Francisco food photographer Frankie Frankeny on a well-conceived cocktail recipe book, The Art of the Bar. In it, Rob and Jeff included a section on some of the classic drinks they served at Absinthe that butted up against current trends. “Die-hard devotees,” they observed with some amusement, “surely cringe at the idea of calling vanilla vodka mixed with Midori and a mélange of fruit juices a melon Martini.”
No doubt feeling reverberations of the 90’s vodka craze that spilled over into the new millennium, they wrote, “Nowadays, just about anything served in a martini glass is dubbed a Martini.”
Flashing forward to the present, I wonder what these former Absinthe guys would say about something like beefsteak tomato water, sherry vinegar, and basil oil, all expertly mixed in a martini glass—an intensely flavored concoction that, when I tasted it in the waning days of this past summer, reminded me of the passage in their book and the question it begged: when is a martini not a martini?
• • • • •
Before sundown on the Friday evening of Labor Day Weekend, Rachael and I waded into what might easily have been an oversized coronavirus petri dish along Main Street in downtown Napa—except that, a couple of weeks earlier, the Napa City Council, some restaurateurs, and a downtown business association succeeded in closing off the entire block to car traffic between Second and Third Streets, a row of storefronts consisting exclusively of dining and drinking establishments.
It was a wise social-distancing measure for an area that one of the Council’s members described as “the naughty section” of town in a Napa Valley Register article from August. As the reporter Jennifer Huffman wrote, many folks chose to go mask-less when out in the popular neighborhood. Perhaps these party people were confusing Napa with Dallas, Phoenix, or the more spastically libertarian quarters of Orange County.
Masked up for our September date night, we headed to La Taberna, our friend Mick Salyer’s northern Spain-inspired pintxo bar in the middle of the block, where Chef Armando Ramirez has been cooking Michelin star-ready food for the last few years.
We grabbed stools at the outdoor bar Mick had had built by one of his former employees, Mark Fogarty at FogFab, a furniture manufacturing studio on Mare Island. The sturdy, metal-and-wood bar sat under La Taberna’s striped awning and parallel to its tall, front windows. Our spots offered a pleasant view of Veterans Park and the still-sun-drenched hillsides of Alta Heights across the Napa River. Sipping cold glasses of Spanish rosé, Rachael and I had no idea of the deliciousness about to hit us.
“A pintxo from the chef,” the waiter announced, placing a martini glass in front of us on the bar. Technically—and I think here the Absinthe duo would nod—it was a coupe, which seems to be replacing the infernal V-shaped cocktail glass that spills precious contents when you look at it the wrong way. We asked what it was, this clear, yellow and green-tinted liquid garnished with a couple of maraschino cherries.
“It’s our special for tonight: a beefsteak tomato water consommé,” he told us.
There weren’t cherries in the glass but, rather, cherry tomatoes. Little, pale green circles of basil oil floated above them on the surface of the liquid, while a thin, purple curl of vegetable—a Murasaki pepper, it turned out—also bobbed in the glass.
Rachael took a sip, and her eyes widened. Then I tried it. The cool liquid was rich and oily, but also bright with a zing of acidity. Both salty and sweet, it delivered a jolt of tomatoey umami. This unexpected, unbelievably concentrated thing in the coupe tasted like Chef Armando had dipped his ladle down into some beefsteak well and come back up with the essence of tomato. It was, I would tell him later, liquid food: a drinkable appetizer. Definitely not a martini.
Of course, there were no magic ladles or umami fairies involved—just the patience of a disciplined chef and, perhaps, a little luck.
• • • • •
It doesn’t need a long rehash here, but that Labor Day weekend was the last semi-clear weather we had for the next few weeks. The LNU Lightning Complex fire that began in mid-August morphed into the Glass Fire in late September. Both cast a hellish, orange-brown pall over Napa Valley and across northern California for weeks on end. Wednesday, September 9th was maybe the worst of it psychologically: in a scene suited to a Mark Twain black satire, smoke blocked out the sun for the entire day, setting the imaginary stage for some latter-day Connecticut Yankee to make it alright.
I couldn’t get Armando’s tomato water off of my mind. I sent him a text on September 30th and asked if I could drop by La Taberna the next day to take some pictures of him mixing it in the kitchen and chat about it for this column. I was very curious how he managed to capture flavors in the consommé that were so redolent of the fruit itself. So much else lately seemed weird, dirty, and wrong: the acrid skies and poisonous Trumpism and Covid-19 kept pressing down darkly on everything. The chef’s flavorful pintxo was a little bright spot.
In the empty restaurant, we sat down at one of the bar tables, also built at FogFab, and I had Armando hold my recorder close to his masked face. I thanked him once again for the complimentary tomato water and for letting me pester him afterwards. “See, this is what happens when you’re nice,” I joked.
Mick stood at the other end of the restaurant doing Mick things, which under normal circumstances consist of running a tapas-and-paella mini empire in Napa Valley, but these days mean trying to stay in business. He seemed in good spirits, however, considering the gloom outside the door.
Since I’d caught him at La Taberna and not at Zuzu, the groundbreaking tapas restaurant a few doors down the street he opened in 2002, I wanted to bring him into my geeked-out narrative on his chef’s consommé, but I could see he was both busy and on his way out the door. So, I just asked a quick question: what wine would he recommend with it?
“Sherry,” he replied, then checked himself. “Actually, Manzanilla”—which, of course he would say. As a longtime Spanish restaurant proprietor, Mick must by this point have palomino juice galloping through his veins.
Armando’s tomato water, as it turned out, was a recipe idea born from a play on words. He told me he once tasted a dish prepared by a chef friend of his that was made from watermelon, minus its liquid. It was simply the meat of the melon combined with other ingredients, but the preparation left an impression.
In the late summer of 2019, when he brought in some beefsteak tomatoes from Tenbrink Farms, his produce supplier in Suisun Valley just east of Napa, he got to thinking about his friend’s watermelon dish again. Then it hit him.
“I had an idea to use just the meat,” he said. “Because these are called beefsteak tomatoes, I got this idea, like, these are beefsteak tomatoes, and the word ‘steak’ made me think of steak tartare. So, I thought about making a tartare out of them.”
On the day he decided to work on this vegetarian-friendly tartare, however, he got sidetracked by another task in the kitchen. He’d started a concassé of a box of beefsteaks—five pounds of blanched and peeled tomatoes—but then ran out of time. “I threw them in the freezer, and then I forgot about it for a while,” he confessed. “Two days later, I pulled them out and let them sit on a tray with some cheesecloth, because they needed to thaw out.”
What began to collect under the pile of beefsteaks looked to Armando like clear water. He took a taste and found it delicious. Curious as to what he’d end up with, he left the tomatoes out overnight to complete their thaw.
The following day, the clarity of the liquid that had dripped slowly through the cheesecloth was deceiving, because the flavor was so concentrated. “With the tomato water, you know, I just let it drop, and then the next day I tried it. And it was like, ‘Oh, this is so good.’ It was clear, and it was awesome.”
He was wearing a mask, but across the bar table I could see excitement in his eyes as he recounted this happy accident. “Then,” he continued, “I wanted to preserve it, so what I did, I added a little bit of sherry vinegar, so there would be a little bit more acid to it, a little more sweetness. And I used a little bit of salt in it too. It came out great.” I thought back to the expression on Rachael’s face when she took her first sip a month earlier.
Armando also wanted to lay some texture into it that could double as a garnish in the glass. Since, along with the beefsteaks, he had cherry tomatoes from the Suisun farm, he did a similar concassé, then marinated these cocktail onion-sized tomatoes in sherry vinegar, along with a little sugar and salt. They were the “maraschinos” I noticed when the waiter brought it to us. For a little more color and some crunch, the chef included the Murasaki peppers.
The last component, but definitely not least in terms of time required to make it, was basil oil. As a cook, Armando told me he likes the affinity of basil and tomato. And as a guy who would un-freeze a box of beefsteaks to see where that would take him, I figured he had a reserve of patience.
“I make my own basil oil,” he explained. “You blanch the basil, put it in ice water, and purée it with the olive oil. Then you just put it through the cheesecloth to let it drip, you know, and it’ll be ready in two days.”
Between the preparations for the tomatoes and the basil, his descriptions had me thinking this La Taberna dish might add a new spin to the concept of “slow food.” It certainly seemed to contribute to the definition of consommé. I asked him if he’d ever encountered tomato water before happening upon it himself.
“I’ve made gazpacho, but that’s the closest thing that I’ve had to this. I’ve made consommés, but, you know, those were based on chicken stock, or beef or duck broth. Before this, I never made it with tomatoes.”
Compared to recipes for those multi-step, animal-based stocks, Armando’s recipe seemed to me, a non-cook, to be as straightforward as it could get. We were talking on October 1st, and over a year had passed since he first conceived of it. Yet, he found he didn’t really need to make any adjustments. He said he just wanted to keep it simple: tomatoes, sherry vinegar, and basil. And a purple pepper.
“When I did it last year, it made me want to make it again this year, because I loved it so much. It was something unique and pretty simple and delicious, you know?”
My timing was good for the interview. That first day of October was going to be the last day the tomato water was offered. Though the beefsteak tomato is a supermarket staple, Tenbrink Farms’ version has a season of only a few weeks, and it had drawn to a close. When Armando mentioned this, I was glad I caught him in time but also felt a twinge of guilt. He assured me he’d planned around it.
Handing me my recorder, he moved to the narrow kitchen to assemble the tomato water ingredients he had ready. I stood on the other side of the wall, at the service window near the end of La Taberna’s bar, and watched him drop, pour, and squeeze the components into a pair of coupe glasses. It only took him a minute or two—the time it would have taken the Absinthe guys to make a martini.
On the way back to the table, he grabbed a bottle of Spanish white wine from the bar refrigerator. It was a Lanzarote from the Canary Islands, made with the Diego Seco variety. Armando had been enjoying it lately and, contrary to Mick the sherry maven, thought that high-acid, fruity whites were the best things to drink with his consommé.
While pouring generous tastes of this unusual wine—it did, indeed, go seamlessly well with his unique, drinkable appetizer—he reminded me that the tomato water never actually went on the restaurant’s menu. It was a verbal from the kitchen to the waitstaff, and from them to La Taberna’s customers, who were still showing up on Main Street despite all that had gone down in 2020. Not putting such an ephemeral offering in writing seemed appropriate.
“We wanted to do it as a pintxo,” the chef said, now unmasked and smiling, his usual expression. “Like, just a little taste, you know? Just to have fun, to give it to customers who didn’t know what it was. And I was giving it to people also to say, ‘Check this out, this is what we’re doing.'”