California cuisine, we have been told time and again, is based on the close relationship between chef and farmer. So have you ever wondered why all of these restaurants seem to be in San Francisco or Los Angeles, hundreds of miles from the nearest tractor?
Well, welcome to Echo restaurant, perhaps the least likely place one could ever imagine in Fresno, a city equally famous for the wealth of its farmland and the poverty of its food scene. An unlikely dining destination for sure, but for me, Echo was a case of love at first sight.
Take a look at the menu. It changes daily, but at this time of year it might include such appetizers as arugula salad strewn with vinegary Spanish anchovies and shaved Parmesan; a creamy roasted onion soup; a complex salad of pungent mustard greens, crisp pancetta and sweet golden beets; or a simple salad of garden lettuces accented by roasted shallots and sweet corn.
It’s simple, elegant, delicious food, the kind you expect to find at Chez Panisse and Zuni Cafe in the Bay Area, and Lucques and Campanile here in L.A. But the difference is, it’s in Fresno, and most of the fruits and vegetables that are served were grown within a half-hour’s drive.
For a main course, how about albacore tuna poached just until silky in olive oil and scented with basil and “burnt” tomatoes? Madera County quail stuffed with a rich filling of brioche, caramelized onions and almonds? Or aromatic grilled pork tenderloin rubbed with powdered bay laurel and fennel seeds?
Desserts are similarly simple: bittersweet chocolate and almond cake; warm pear tart with vanilla bean ice cream and bitter almond syrup; or maybe fresh figs poached in lavender-scented red wine syrup and served over coffee ice cream.
I first ate at Echo seven years ago when I was in Fresno for a couple of nights on an assignment. I was desperate; I had been in town just the month before and had found nothing but franchise restaurants. I was looking for anything that wasn’t part of a national chain.
Echo is anything but. The restaurant is unassuming from the outside, but as you step inside you enter a blaze of warm color. The front lobby, painted by beloved local artist Margaret Hudson, is all hot pink, red and orange roses.
The main dining room is equally vivid, with rustic farm scenes. These are not the usual bucolic views of a benevolent nature at rest. Instead of lounging cows, these paintings show farm workers laboring to harvest the bounty you are about to enjoy.
From the ceiling hang baggy lampshades made from what looks like copper-threaded linen. The chairs were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for a funeral home he built down Highway 99 in dusty Delano (the current pink and turquoise color combination is original to Echo). At the back is the brightly lighted display kitchen, set off by a tiled counter that anchors all that glamour with a feeling of home.
A small miracle
The crowd that night long ago seemed to span the gamut of Fresno’s prosperous citizenry: business-suited professionals, blue-jeaned farmers, some folks from the university, all dressed in black. The room buzzed with the happy sound of people eating well.
To tell the truth, I don’t remember exactly what I ate. It might have been grilled Harris Ranch steak served with a silken red wine reduction and roasted shallots. I probably had some oysters, with the perfect little mignonette made with a dash of Champagne. I remember having a fabulous wild salmon baked on fig leaves once -- maybe it was that night. The leaves gave the fish a light citrusy-herbal scent.
I’m pretty sure I had melons in a light mint syrup for dessert -- a dish I’ve made dozens of times since at home. On the other hand, it might have been a wedge of pungent blue cheese improbably and wonderfully complemented by moist, dark gingerbread.
One thing I remember for certain was the elation I felt when I was finished. I wanted to hug everyone in sight. I felt like I’d witnessed a small miracle. This was beyond good food; it was the building of a dining oasis in what had been a culinary desert. As soon as I paid my bill, I made reservations for the next night.
And since then, every time I’ve been within 30 miles of Fresno, I’ve eaten dinner at Echo. Partners Tim Woods and Adams Holland are doing more than making dinner here; they’re creating a community.
“I think they’re heroes,” says Judy Rodgers, chef at San Francisco’s beloved Zuni Cafe and one of Echo’s longtime fans. “It’s fabulous that they’re doing what they’re doing -- trying to use products that way in a place where it’s not made easy by cultural and economic sources.
“They’re going against the grain and they’re doing something that really matters. Let’s face it, it’s not really risky to do what we’re doing in San Francisco. But out there in Fresno, they’re offering those options in a place where it’s a lot riskier.”
Holland is responsible for the decor. Raised in Fresno, he’d moved to Pasadena and then New York, working as a photographer. When he came back for a vacation 14 years ago, he met Woods and the two have been together ever since. In addition to Echo, Holland has a thriving business doing interior design for some of the Central Valley’s landed gentry.
Woods does the cooking. He’s been working in restaurants in Fresno since 1983. While a former generation might have taught themselves to cook through Julia Child, his introductory text was “The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook.”
“That book gave me certain preconceived ideas about food before I ever started cooking in restaurants,” Woods says. “I learned the love of the ingredients themselves, that and the importance of giving food a sense of time and place, so it has meaning for people who are cooking it, the people who are eating it, and the people who grow it -- food that comes from a community. That was a very novel concept.”
Woods worked at a couple of restaurants in Fresno before he and Holland were ready to open Echo in 1995. “The quality of ingredients I wanted to use and the relationships I wanted to form with farmers were not something I felt comfortable imposing on another owner,” Woods says. “There’s an expense involved. When you want everything to be perfect, you have to be willing to pay for it.”
From the start, Woods says, his goal was simple: “I didn’t want to have to apologize to anyone for being in Fresno. I wanted it to be as good as any restaurant anywhere.”
To find the quality of the ingredients he wanted, Woods first studied the local farmers markets. After several years of buying widely from many different growers, he has now settled on three primary suppliers: Michele and Kyle Reynolds of KMK Farms, Rick and Janet Flores of Straight From the Farm, and Lou and Sharlyn Pascuale of Il Giardino Organico, all of whom farm within half an hour of the restaurant.
By doing this, Woods may not be able to choose from as many different ingredients as he would like, but he says he feels an obligation to support the people who work with him most.
“Sometimes I joke that I feel like an old farm wife, just cooking off the land,” he says. “They tell me what they have and then I figure out what to do with it. When they are out of something, it comes off the menu, no matter how it’s selling.”
The big payoff for Echo came four years ago with a rave review from Gourmet magazine’s Caroline Bates. “Few restaurants have so genuine a kitchen-to-garden connection,” she wrote. “Echo is a Fresno treasure.”
But even though the restaurant has a great reputation nationally, business has never been easy locally. Woods says mesclun salad remains a bit of a controversial subject. “I’ve heard it referred to as ‘roadside weeds in a petroleum-based dressing.’ ”
Location is a problem too. Their once-trendy Tower District neighborhood has fallen into disfavor as more people move out to the newly developing north side of town. Echo will follow its customers, moving into a new location next June.
A dining community
Still, the restaurant has plenty of avid fans. You never know who might be sitting at the next table. One night it might be mega-ranchers John and Carol Harris of Harris Ranch, who keep a house in Fresno. Another night it might be the celebrated peach farmer turned author Mas Masumoto, or Jon Skiles, Fresno’s senior city attorney, who moonlights at the restaurant when he has time, making chocolate truffles.
It’s these people who eat their food and the farmers who supply it who keep Woods and Holland in Fresno.
“There is inevitably a little bit of a feeling that you’re somehow substandard if you’re still in a town like this,” Woods says. “But for me, it’s the day-in, day-out living that makes it worthwhile -- making people happy. We have a lot of friends; we have a community.”