It's a little like Mario Andretti coming home from the Indy 500 and relaxing by taking the neighbors out for a spin in his Testarossa. Or Wayne Gretzky treating the gang to an evening of skating.
You would think that after a full week of running the kitchen at Gustaf Anders restaurant, the last thing that head chef Ulf Strandberg would want to do is whip up meticulous gourmet meals at home. Most people would forgive him if he spent the weekend curled up with a basket of Chicken McNuggets and a frozen pizza and took the phone off the hook.
Instead, he often spends his off hours ringing up a few pals and having them in for the kind of meal that usually appears as the lead story in slick food magazines, the sort of feed that a lot of people couldn't knock together even if they knew how.
Strandberg said that he has been cooking for friends at home "three or four times a week" since he and his partner, William Magnuson, opened the original Gustaf Anders restaurant in La Jolla in 1981. The two men moved the restaurant to South Coast Village in Santa Ana about a month ago. (The restaurant takes its name from both Magnuson's and Strandberg's middle names, Gustaf and Anders, respectively.)
"Dinner is my favorite meal to do (at home)," said Strandberg, who received his restaurant training in his native Sweden. "But since we've opened in Orange County, I just haven't had the time. Now it's so much easier for our friends to come over for lunch, so I've been doing a lot more of that lately."
One of Strandberg's latest lunchtime extravaganzas was held last Sunday at the Laguna Beach hillside home he shares with Magnuson. The two partners, assisted by Gustaf Anders bartender Tom King, entertained five friends at the house overlooking the ocean on a glorious afternoon that allowed Strandberg to serve part of the meal at a precisely laid table in the back garden of the house.
First, however, came an array of Swedish appetizers in the bright, airy living room. The counter separating the tiny kitchen from the living room was dominated by three bottles of iced liquors: citron-flavored vodka and two brands of aquavit. Aquavit (literally, water of life) is actually a generic term in Sweden, said Strandberg, referring to "any flavored or unflavored distilled spirit, although most people think of the caraway taste as being typical aquavit." It was served ice cold in tiny, delicate glasses.
"The aquavit table is always the beginning of a smorgasbord," Strandberg said. "It was a tradition that got started in Sweden about 150 years ago."
On the other end of the counter were two different types of bread: limpa (a dense brown bread) and knack (a type of brown cracker bread). Both were baked in Gustaf Anders' bakery in La Jolla.
"When you break it," Magnuson said of the knack , "it goes knack. "
Elsewhere was a plate of matje, a type of herring topped with a sauce of creme fraiche, mustard and chives, as well as a small pot of pickled herring marinating in a juice of sugar and vinegar with onions, shallots and dill. Nearby were two small trays of smoked ham, served with a cod roe mousse made with onions and sour cream, and a large wedge of Swedish table cheese.
The second course, sugar-and-salt-cured salmon--called rimmadlax-- with sweet creamed potatoes with dill, was served with beer or Swedish mineral water in the garden.
"I think it's one of the best taste sensations," said Strandberg. "The salty taste of the salmon with the creamy taste of the potatoes."
At that point, it was necessary for Strandberg to leave his guests for a time and concentrate on the business at hand in the kitchen: the main course of veal kidneys sauteed in cognac with cream, mushrooms and onions (accompanied by white rice and fresh-cooked asparagus spears).
All of this culinary wizardry was accomplished in a kitchen that, Strandberg said, is far from ideal. It is what might be called a one-man kitchen, where turning around is about the only movement that can be performed comfortably. Also, the stove is electric and tends to heat up the entire surface of the appliance, a fact that does not please Strandberg.
The house, he said, offers a wonderful view and fine space for entertaining but is merely a rented stop-gap for him and Magnuson until they can find someplace more permanent--and with a larger and more accommodating kitchen.
"I'm really not in the kitchen at home at all for myself," Strandberg said. "But for guests, it's very enjoyable. You can't do everything you want to do in a big restaurant kitchen when you're overseeing things. And we enjoy people. Rather than going out for a meal, it seems that there are always people here."
And, he said, he doesn't mind leaving the good times with his guests in order to whip up the main part of the meal.
"No, no, no, I don't mind at all doing this," he said, smiling and pouring a little more cognac on the sauteeing onions. "It's fun. After all, when I'm a guest, I just sit back and enjoy myself and don't do a thing."
ULF STRANDBERG'S VEAL KIDNEYS SAUTEED IN COGNAC
12 shallots, chopped.
1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced.
3 cups heavy cream.
4 veal kidneys soaked in milk for 48 hours, cleaned and sliced.
2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard.
Salt and pepper to taste.
Rinse and slice mushrooms and set aside. Peel and chop shallots and set aside. Dust kidneys in flour. Reduce cream in a large saucepan. Heat oil in a second large saucepan and saute shallots until tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add cognac to pan if oil burns off. Add mushrooms to shallot mixture and reduce, adding cognac as needed. Saute kidneys in butter in a separate pan, adding cognac as needed. Add reduced cream to shallot and mushroom mixture and blend ingredients. Add kidneys to shallots, mushrooms and cream and stir in mustard. De-glaze kidney saute pan with cognac, scrape down ingredients and add them to the final mixture. Serve immediately.