Bookwormed

Guthrie's has a great cookbook collection. Too bad they're on the shelf.

William Guthrie is a collector: books, utensils, antiques, family photographs. Much of his trove peppers his restaurant, Guthrie's. Guthrie says he has more than 1,500 hardback cookbooks, a collection of tomes that dates all the way to 1796 and one from which he pulls recipes. He also keeps old recipes clipped from this and that. His Caesar Cordini's (sic) salad with bacon and anchovy comes from an early-1960s issue of Reader's Digest, he says.

The Caesar is among the most spectacular culinary creations ever produced on North American soil if you don't count the twin Popsicle, which was invented in San Francisco by 11-year-old Frank Epperson in 1905 (it was code named the Epsicle). Heck, the Caesar salad was once voted "the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in 50 years" by the International Society of Epicures in Paris, and you know how much the French love America. That's why the Caesar had to be invented in Mexico.

The salad gelled in the mind of Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini, who invented it in Tijuana in 1924 over the Fourth of July weekend. Cardini was running low on food, so he tossed together a salad of leftovers for his guests, preparing the hash tableside with lots of theatrics--even garbage is compelling with the appropriate choreography, as any contemporary art exhibit will show. The original recipe was a ragtag of romaine, garlic, croutons, Parmesan cheese, boiled eggs, olive oil and Worcestershire sauce. It was Caesar's brother Alex, an ace pilot in the Italian Air Force during World War I, who later added anchovies to the mix and named it "Aviator's Salad" in honor of the pilots from Rockwell Field Air Base in San Diego. Flyboys relish anchovies--who knew?

Guthrie's needs to match the artistry on its chairs with more artful cooking on its plates.
Tom Jenkins
Guthrie's needs to match the artistry on its chairs with more artful cooking on its plates.

Details

Caesar Cordini’s $8
Trout sautéed in rice paper $10
Tossed salad $6.50
Cioppino $28
Baked cod $16
Veal sauté $21
Pork schnitzel $18
Black Angus fillet $25
Blueberry cobbler $8
Closed Location

As it happened, shuttling down to Tijuana to nosh on a Caesar salad became fashionable because, well, you need something to do between Prohibition-era tequila sips. Stars schooled down like anchovies: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, W.C. Fields. Julia Child even made the trip with her parents. "It was such a big deal because people just didn't eat salads in those days, especially not in the East," says Child in a 1994 article on the Caesar salad published in the Wine Spectator. "Salads were considered foreign and sissy food."

Guthrie's Caesar Cordini's salad with bacon and anchovy is not sissy food. No way. It spills bold strokes, with just enough pulverized anchovy in the dressing to utter an articulate statement of pungency. The romaine leaves were clean and crisp and void of blemishes. And while croutons (regrettably) are Caesar staples, bacon is not, though it somehow pushed its salty snout into Reader's Digest (presumably). Dark, crisp bacon flakes were welcome, adding the concentrated rich and salty streaks the anchovy only hinted at, applied as it was in blips. This is risky, and it's easy to see how strewing a well-balanced Caesar with bacon could create mayhem, but an occasional lurch from Caesar orthodoxy can be thrilling, too.

Another stunning piece of artistry is the brook trout sautéed in rice paper served with sweet-hot vinaigrette. The rice paper is barely detectable, save for a slight tackiness on the surface of the fillet. The fish is well-seasoned and tender, perhaps leaning a bit too hard into mushiness. But the sweet-hot splash dispels any fears of pulpy drudgery, adding some searing spine to a plate boiling in an orange vinegar tint.

William Guthrie is a proud fellow with a considerable amount of pith and humor, no doubt forged in the cauldron of a 38-year professional kitchen confinement. He boasts that his family has been in the restaurant business for four generations, though it's hard to follow his genealogic tree branches. Aunts and grandmothers seem to figure prominently, though he concedes his mother could burn water, so maybe she was a physicist.

Guthrie has guts, too--this much is apparent to all but the addled and the glassy-eyed. Some six years ago he opened Guthrie's Historical American Food on South Ervay and struggled to keep it breathing for five years. "It was the worst environment in the world," he says. "I opened it up on my credit cards on a $30,000 budget. The lease ran out, 2.5 of the three [air conditioners] were down, every time someone flushed a tampon down the toilet I'd be up to my knees in shit. The bums were horrendous. So I was looking for something else." See what I mean by pith?

After he closed his historical American Food venue, Guthrie was enticed to more respectable downtown venues. Bank One approached him to do a restaurant in its bowels, which meant he would have had to raise unseemly amounts of loot. "The object was to chop a hole in the side of the building," he says. "Everybody was scared of downtown."

But a real estate broker pulled him to the Rooster space, a restaurant that was slowly spiraling into insolvency, plus it needed no holes punched into it. The space afforded him the opportunity to inhabit a handsome free-standing restaurant without the need for waders or even a cookbook auction. So he loosely transformed the Rooster space, mostly with quieter paint, new sconces, fresh carpeting and a cookbook library off to the side of the bar. He also had 12 Dallas artists dedicate chairs for the restaurant, painting scenes on the back fabric of a dozen. These were distributed among 12 tables in the dining room. And the paintings are nice: splashy and colorful, except you rather feel like you're eating pork schnitzel on a beach towel.

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