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, 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 will a dedicated cook.
Unlike the average perfunctory compilation of restaurant recipes, what the two business partners have produced 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 ($29.95), is slightly misleading. This is authentic California Mexican cooking. Schnetz says he takes what he tastes in Mexico City, Oaxaca and Guadalajara during 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.
A literary kickoff
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 Guadalajaran 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 at Dona Tomas and contributed the cocktails to the book, including a cucumber daiquiri and a lime colada. (The partners 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,” Schnetz 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, though, than either Bayless’ or Kennedy’s. The writing is compelling: Mike Wille, a chef and writer in Los Gatos, Calif., who collaborated on the book, has a gift for communicating the sights, sounds and smells of cooking that are essential cues in a recipe. Hominy in pozole should “begin to flower open”; a roux should be “amber colored with the aroma of toasted hazelnuts”; pickled onions should be apportioned in “a three-finger pinch.”
The graphic design also helps: The lavish and gorgeous photos seem to yell, “Try me,” while headnotes are 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, you’ve made seared albacore with a spicy pumpkin seed-sesame sauce and pickled red onions.
An excellent glossary at the start of the book demystifies the more exotic ingredients, and 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 California-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, Mexican cinnamon, can finish it.
Verdolagas -- purslane sauteed with garlic and tomatoes -- could accompany anything, with its 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 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. The same publisher has also just come out with another book from Cafe Pasqual’s in Santa Fe, N.M., that has far less to offer. That much better-known restaurant may hold a Beard award. But “Dona Tomas” is the winner for cooks.