We must now ask Rick Bayless, long the prince of high-end Mexican cooking in this country, to make some room at the pinnacle. Bayless is the chef and owner of a pair of Chicago restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, that were among the first to give a gloss of elegance to Mexican cuisine; he is also the author of a series of cookbooks that do much the same thing. But now competition has arrived, in the form of Doña Tomás: Discovering Authentic Mexican Cooking (Ten Speed, $29.95), by Thomas Schnetz and Dona Savitsky, the pair behind Oakland's highly regarded Doña Tomás restaurant. (Mike Wille, a chef and writer in Los Gatos, gets an authorship "with.")
Schnetz and Savitsky actually have a leg, or pinkie toe, up on the more established Bayless, for their book opens with a foreword worth reading. The author, noted essayist Richard Rodriguez, has a number of piquant things to say about cultures Catholic and Protestant, Texan, Californian, and Mexican, and the tension, muddle, and melding among them. Rodriguez seems a little conflicted about fat, on the one hand deploring the "greasy bathos" of so much Cal-Mex cooking and on the other taking a gentle poke at "whole-grain Puritan Berkeley" for its war against obesity. But then, he is an American, and Americans are conflicted on many subjects, fat among them.
Leafing through page after page of recipes can induce stupor, but I had the opposite reaction to Doña Tomás: I could feel my enthusiasm mounting, and by the time I reached the recipe for petrale sole with tequila and capers, I thought, I am going to make this ASAP. Then I turned the page, to a recipe for sea scallops with butternut squash, chiles, and onions, and thought, I am going to make this too, just slightly less ASAP. (Needed: colder weather.)
Usually I find cookbooks' wine-pairing suggestions to be fussy and overbearing, but I would have welcomed some guidance here. Mexican cooking is strongly associated with beer, in part because the cuisine has generally been presented as peasant food in this country and in part because Mexico produces many excellent beers but very little wine. Yet the dishes in Doña Tomás are of a sophistication that calls out for wine — and that's a revolution, of a quiet sort.