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Straight from the farm

September 22, 2004|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

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."

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