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THE CALIFORNIA COOK

Straight from the farm

September 22, 2004|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

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."

Echo, 609 E. Olive, Fresno. (559) 442-3246. www.echomenu.com

Russ Parsons can be reached at russ.parsons@latimes.com.

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Coffee ice cream with figs, honey and lavender

Total time: 1 hour 10 minutes, plus freezing time

Servings: 8

Note: This dessert, inspired by Lindsay Shere, is equally good with fresh or dried figs. If you use the dark black Mission variety, they will need very little trimming. These can be halved. If you use green Kadota figs, quarter and trim the excess stem from the top. Simply trim and quarter dried figs.

Coffee ice cream

1/2 cup fine-quality freshly ground coffee

1 quart half-and-half

5 egg yolks

1 1/4 cups sugar

1. Place the coffee and half-and-half in a saucepan over low heat. Bring to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. This allows both the flavor and the color of the coffee to come through.

2. Line a strainer with a double layer of cheesecloth and place the strainer over a clean saucepan. Pour the mixture through the strainer to remove all trace of coffee grounds. You may have to repeat this procedure.

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