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The Ripe Tomato, Fresno

When The Cured Ham eats French cuisine in the U.S., I think of my experiences at La Grenouille, La Cote Basque, Le Bec Fin and The French Room, all hard-core French traditionalist restaurants and some of the best the U.S. has to offer. These restaurants and others like Daniel, Campagne, Brasserie Jo have shaped my love of duck confit, cassoulet, and steak tartare. LCB, The French Room, and Brasserie Jo are no longer with us, perhaps a warning to traditionalists to keep up with the times and an unwavering loyalty to a small group of patrons isn’t the path to longevity.

When I look critically at Chef Rudy, his traditional French cuisine and The Ripe Tomato as a staple in Fresno, I feel a steadfast loyalty to tradition, Fresno familiarity and long-time regulars. I get a sense that adapting to changing palates, Fresno demographics, and the vision of what The Tomato will be in 10 years, are not the first things on Chef Rudy’s mind.

We started with escargot classically prepared without shells in the little porcelain snail server. Lots of butter, lots of garlic, plenty of bread crumbs. Once we got passed the garlic, it actually needed salt. Not the best showing of this classic.

A not so classic dish, calamari in an apricot, garlic and Thai chili glaze was our second appetizer. Overwhelming use of garlic and basically a palate killer; this dish is totally out of place. Apparently, the chilies are Thai, courtesy of one of the cooks who has been with Rudy in the kitchen for 28 years. Regardless of the connection to the loyal cook, the combination of flavors was not welcome, although the calamari was properly cooked.

Our mixed green salad with walnuts was a welcome transition from all the garlic in our appetizers. Straightforward, clean and cold I have no complaints about the salad.

My grilled rack of lamb with a Dijon crust was seared on the grill and finished in the oven to cook through. The rack was cooked to my desired temperature of rested medium; however, each end of the rack and base of each bone was burnt and imparted an acrid flavor to the surrounding meat. Once removed, the main body of the lamb was good, but it was a shame to waste the charred ends. The Dijon crust was not perfect, but acceptable.

The Halibut in a white mushroom and sherry reduction was well cooked. The sauce was well balanced, not covering up or overpowering the mushrooms or halibut, but rather adding an accent to the dish. The halibut remained moist, but cooked through. Well executed, but one would have to like the sweetness of sherry to enjoy this dish.

The Filet Mignon topped with crab in a cream sauce was an absolutely outstanding dish. I’m actually upset that I didn’t order this dish and I never order filet mignon. The filet was cooked exactly medium-rare. The crab itself was tasty, but not overwhelmingly fishy when served warm and didn’t overpower the filet or the cream. The cream was silky smooth, near white, and perfectly seasoned. I don’t even like surf n’ turf type dishes and this one was outstanding. A credit to the chef.

With each of our entrée’s the same garnish was arranged; here’s the rundown.

Potatoes gratiné were cooked wonderfully. I haven’t had anything this good since my Mom made them back in 1979. The potatoes were sliced on the mandolin, evenly cooked, and well-seasoned. The potatoes gratine’ were the last bite on my entrée plate.

Orange glazed carrots, was my favorite recipe in 1976. I have less of an issue with the orange glaze, albeit outdated, than uneven cooking as a result of uneven cutting. Carrots that look like the ones they feed horses were simply cut on the bias, end to end. Last I checked, carrots were not an even width end to end, so the thick end takes longer to cook. I don’t think this is lack of attention to detail, I think it’s direction from the head chef; considering the precision used to cut the potatoes gratine’.

The green beans, were well cooked and salted. However, the broccolini, served with the green beans was several minutes undercooked. Note to the kitchen, cook the broccolini longer, they don’t cook like green beans.

To finish, we had three in-house made desserts, Key Lime Cheesecake, Chocolate Torte, and a Lemon Cream Torte. Simple, clean, well-executed and most of all, made in house. I’d come back for desserts simply because too many places in Fresno farm out their desserts to food service companies or don’t pay for the competency to craft them in-house.

Two people I wish to highlight with enormous praise, the Sous Chef Joshua and our server Melissa.

Joshua, the 23 year old sous chef has real culinary talent and only recently started cooking at The Tomato. He did a tour in France and at The Chef’s Table in Fresno. Joshua cooked nearly everything presented during our dinner. Why such high praise for the sous chef who undercooked our broccolini, inconsistently cut carrots, and charred my lamb? Two reasons, as a sous chef you have to listen to your Chef with no exceptions, so I understand he’s following orders on many items. Secondly, Chef Joshua came to our table after the meal and ASKED for a detailed critique of his cooking. I have the most respect for that attitude and the ability to listen to a critical review. I also found out Joshua makes 8 different soups and 15 different sauces per day! For who, I wondered.

Melissa, our server has been at the Tomato for six year years and I’m certain could recite the menu walking over hot coals, backwards, while juggling. While her style of explaining each dish might be interpreted by some as grandiloquent and flamboyant, her elocution and vocabulary were unmatched by any server I’ve had in recent memory. If a quarter of the servers in San Francisco were this clear and precise, I’d never have a question about the menu. Unfortunately, they are under-staffed at The Tomato, so she rushed early in service because she was attending several tables and does not receive an ounce of help from any other staff members. There is no such thing as back-up servers or “team” at The Tomato. Melissa was on her own and excelled that evening.

After 30 plus years, The Ripe Tomato is a real success story.  But in order to become a great restaurant again, it has to look ahead, not behind. Chef Rudy’s legacy can live on through a well-trained protégé, pitch-perfect servers, and an appreciation of modern cuisine rooted in traditional French technique. But after holding so tightly over so many years, the grip on the past may be too hard to let go. C'est la vie.

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