TODD WALTON: Sweet Libby’s


queen for a day toddq

Queen For A Day painting by Nolan Winkler

Under The Table

“Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.” Romeo and Juliet

There are days when things juxtapose so exquisitely, one can’t help feeling some sort of transcendent author is writing out the simultaneous arrival of related elements composing a harmonious whole greater than the sum of the parts.

To wit: on the very day Marcia read to me from the Anderson Valley Advertiser that Libby’s restaurant in Philo is closing, we received in the mail our Netflix copy of the Japanese movie Sweet Bean. Libby’s beans—if you have never dined at that incomparable Mexican restaurant—are not sweet, but the experience of eating Libby’s beans comingled on a fork with her delectable rice is a divine culinary experience—sweet in the sense of magnificent.

The 2015 movie Sweet Bean is based on the novel An by Durian Sukegawa, adapted to the screen and directed by Naomi Kawase. An translates as “sweet red bean paste” and is the filling for a favorite Japanese confection know as dorayaki, consisting of sweet red Azuki bean paste sandwiched between two small round sponge-cake patties. The quality of the dorayaki depends entirely on the quality of that red bean paste, and thereby hangs the cinematic parable Sweet Bean.

Yes, we loved the movie. Yes, the movie made me hungry. And yes, the loving care with which the elderly woman Tokue prepares her irresistible bean paste put me in mind of Libby’s beans and rice and flan and carnitas and spicy shrimp. I have long fantasized that Libby would open a Libby’s annex in Mendocino wherein I would happily dine multiple times per month. But now she is closing her restaurant, and those four or five times a year we made the long trek inland to gorge on Libby’s cuisine will be no more. I’m sure Libby has good reasons for closing her eatery, but we are already feeling nostalgic about the absence of her food in our lives.

“To be a good cook you have to have a love of the good, a love of hand work, and a love of creating.” Julia Child

When I lived in Berkeley, I discovered Nakapan, a Thai restaurant just off University Avenue. For my taste, Nakapan was not only the best Thai restaurant in Berkeley, but the best Thai restaurant I had ever been to, and I have been to many good ones. Yet Nakapan was never crowded. Indeed, when I would go there with friends, we often found the place deserted, and we couldn’t understand why. The high-ceilinged room was warm and beautifully appointed, the service fantastic, the prices low, the food incomparable, and the servings so generous I often took home more food than I managed to eat while I was there.

Every time I dined at the more famous Thai restaurants in the Bay Area and found them inferior to Nakapan, I would return to that paradisiacal food palace all the more mystified that almost no one was there: the waitresses lovely and gracious, the chairs comfortable, the ambience perfecto. I eventually surrendered to my good fortune and went to Nakapan whenever I craved Thai food and had a little extra jingle in my pocket. The owner/chef of Nakapan closed her restaurant a couple years before I moved from Berkeley to Mendocino, which made my decision to relocate much easier.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said. 

My late Uncle David was a successful restaurateur. In the 1980’s he opened the Beau Thai across the street from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the place was instantly successful. Until I stumbled upon Nakapan a decade later, the best Thai food I’d ever eaten was at David’s Beau Thai. The Beau Thai chefs were all recent arrivals from Thailand, having been assembled by David in Thailand to cook in a restaurant he was about to open in Chiangmai. When he was offered the location in Monterey, he couldn’t resist returning to the scene of his earlier and most famous success, the legendary Sancho Panza café. So he loaded those Thai chefs onto a jet and brought them to America.

I wish I could have dined with David at Nakapan. I would have loved to hear his theories about why that magical place was not the Mecca of Thai cuisine, while inferior restaurants won Best Of popularity contests and were filled to bursting with patrons. I also regret never dining with David at Libby’s in Philo. He would have loved everything about that unpretentious place, most especially the food.

In the movie Sweet Bean, the hero, a troubled man running the dorayaki shop as a form of penance, discovers that when the creation of red bean paste becomes a sacred ritual rather than a tedious obligatory process, all of life becomes sacred, too. Schmaltzy? Perhaps. But our hero’s transformation is so subtle, and the movie’s resolution so humble, I never felt my emotions being manipulated, but rather stimulated to respond in the same way we respond to good food.

At one point in the movie, as Tokue is sweetening her beans after they have attained perfection, she cautions our taciturn hero, “Not too sweet.”

He looks at her questioningly for a moment, and though nothing more is said about sweetness ever again, the entire movie is permeated with the subtle power of that moment of communication between them.

Now that Libby’s is closing, I aspire to cook beans that make my taste buds sing a similar tune to the one they sing when I eat Libby’s beans. And as I go about experimenting, I will remember Tokue leaning over her simmering beans and inhaling the scented steam, ecstatic to be part of unfolding miracle.

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