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An Afternoon with Patricia Wells

Burke and Wells | Nov 20, 200101:57 PM

Saturday morning, Wells and I drove into the city for our usual weekly French class. Little did we realize that in a few short hours we'd be meeting one of our idols.

We are taking French classes once a week at the Alliance Française. Wells, myself and six other students have three-hour classes every Saturday at 9:30. During the 11:30 break we spotted a bulletin board which had a list of upcoming Francophile events. That very day, in a restaurant north of the city, was a special luncheon and book signing featuring author Patricia Wells (no relation). Tickets were $100 and included lunch and a signed copy of her new book. We had read about this luncheon a few weeks ago but had forgotten to book tickets, and now the event was upon us! Surely they were sold out. A frantic cell phone call to the bookstore that was organizing the event confirmed my worst fears - the tickets were gone.

I was ready to go back to class and resolve to catch our favorite food author next time, but Wells was not to be denied. I have seen him with this sort of resolve a few times in the past - when he decides he wants something, he is an unstoppable force of nature. "I'll be in the car!" he announced loudly from the corridor, to the bemused chuckles of our classmates and teacher, as I snatched up our schoolbooks and made for the exit. Five minutes later, after skipping out on the last hour of French class, we were in the car driving north, about forty minutes to Larkspur, to a restaurant called Left Bank.

Patricia Wells's guidebooks, A Food Lover's Guide to Paris and A Food Lover's Guide to France, were our bibles during our three-week summer odyssey to Europe. Her recommendations were consistently superb, her anecdotes charming, with unabashed love for quality food and the culture that produces it. We grew to adore Ms. Wells while making great use of her French experience, and now it would be time to meet her. Although the luncheon was booked solid, surely there would be cancellations? Maybe we would sneak in disguised as waiters? We would meet this woman!

We arrived at the restaurant a half hour before the scheduled start, and the place was empty. A table lined with cookbooks stood ready for signing. The young woman in charge was genuinely sorry to tell us that the place was booked up, but we could wait at the bar until 1:00pm and hope for a cancellation. Over the next 45 minutes people filtered in, tickets in hand, as we nursed our glasses of Beaujolais Nouveau and discussed possible waiter disguises. The place was full up by 12:40, and the organizer shrugged over at us in a "we tried" sort of manner. Patricia Wells herself arrived at 12:45, slightly late, kissing the head chef on both cheeks and exchanging a few words in French about the traffic being a nightmare. A bustle of activity followed her as she was handed a microphone and gave a few words of welcome. Wells and I sat quietly at the bar, resolving not to leave until they kicked us out. A few minutes later the organizer came up to us with a remarkale offer. If we paid the ticket cost, we could have the full meal served to us at the bar, as well as the signed cookbook! We decided to go for it. Our waiter for the meal would be the friendly bartender, with whom we had conversation.

The meal that followed was delicious. More glasses of Beaujolais accompanied the four courses. A caramelized cauliflower soup with foie gras led the way, followed by a roasted chicken with risotto. The soup had a wonderful texture and a light flavor, not very "cauliflowery," but that's a plus in my book. The rice was perfect: fluffy and flavorful with chicken stock tying it to the roast chicken leg cooked in the French manner. During the meal, Ms. Wells circulated among the crowd, signing cookbooks and chatting. We hoped she would make a stop over at the bar! Next up was a salad, a simple assortment of greens, frisee, dill, endive and radicchio in a light vinaigrette. This salad was undoubtedly the strongest-flavored I have ever had. I could barely finish it. The individual flavors of the greens ranged from sharp to bitter to sour to lightly sweet, and as I remarked to Wells, just a couple of years ago I would not have liked the total effect one bit. It was very bitter, which is a flavor I am still learning to appreciate, but the greens hung together in their own way. The salad also paired excellently with the light Beaujolais, making the wine taste like sweet light fruit juice by comparison. Finally, it was time for dessert: a tarte tatin topped with homemade vanilla ice cream--a sweet, if workmanlike finish.

After the meal, Ms. Wells took the microphone again and answered a few questions from the audience. Shortly thereafter it was time for more book signing. She hadn't made it to our "private table" during the meal, but we finally got the chance to shake the hand of the woman whose books had made our France trip so enjoyable. She was perfectly charming and gave us her email address, as we gave her the address of this site and begged her to read our best story, the account of our meal at Restaurant Guy Savoy. To our delight, she promised to do so.

As we drove back to Sunnyvale, victorious, I knew that none of that would have happened if it wasn't for Wells not taking "no" for an answer. It's one of the things I admire most about him.


A Burke and Wells review.


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