A Doyenne of Mediterranean Fare

Restaurant owner Joyce Goldstein savors the popularity of dishes from Barcelona to Beirut

Joyce Goldstein is the Mediterranean-food maven in this country. Even before Americans knew what pita bread was, she was delighting diners with the likes of baba ghanouj and Moroccan-style roast chicken stuffed with couscous at her restaurant, Square One, in San Francisco. She opened Square One 11 years ago.

Talk about foresight.

Now, as the 1990s embrace the Mediterranean diet, the award-winning chef and restaurateur finds herself in a larger limelight, poised as an authority on a cuisine that has been around for hundreds of years but has recently become trendy. Last year, she received the Perrier Jouet-James Beard award for Best Chef in California.

In an interview, Ms. Goldstein talked about her new book, ``Mediterranean The Beautiful Cookbook'' (Collins Publishers, 1994, 256 pp., $45), which sold 60,000 copies in its first six weeks, food trends in the United States, and the reasons people like Mediterranean food.

``For once in my life, I feel like I'm at the right place at the right time,'' says Goldstein, settling into a sofa at Rialto, a Mediterranean restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. that honored her with a dinner the night before. ``It's a validation of a lot of hard work.''

Simplifying the trend in Mediterranean food, she says, ``Let's assume that it is the romance of the Mediterranean coupled with the interest in health and diet.''

But the food - of southern Spain, France, Italy, Greece and the Balkans, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco - speaks for itself, she insists. And there are other deep-rooted reasons for its popularity beyond ``the diet pyramid.''

* History. ``These dishes have a long history, they're not just trendy,'' Goldstein says. ``I like to think that 500 years ago someone was cooking this.'' Also, the recipes are interrelated. ``A lot of the recipes travel, they're just minor variations. You look at eggplant caviar from Provence, baba ghanouj, Moroccan chopped eggplant with tomatoes; Spain has one called Escalivada. You make a circle, and they're pretty much the same ingredients but with different seasonings. You've learned a technique with one, you've learned seven recipes.''

* Simplicity. One of the reasons this food has been around so long is not just that it tastes good, but it's simple. ``This is all grandma food. You don't have to be a sophisticated cook, it's the kind of food people cook for families, and it tastes good,'' says Goldstein, who, by the way, became a grandmother last year.

While the 300 or so recipes in her new book are user-friendly, Goldstein worries about the book's size for cooking purposes.

``You hear coffee-table book, and it's praise and sort of pejorative at the same time. I always try to write books that people can really cook from,'' says Goldstein, who was a cooking teacher for 18 years.

``I'm on the side of the home cook, I want them to cook, I want it to be easy. I want them to be able to find ingredients, and I want them to be able to succeed, because if you succeed, you build trust, and you keep cooking from the book.''

So how do you cook from a big heavy book? (Goldstein admits, ``I can hardly lift it, and you certainly couldn't put it on a cookbook stand.'')

Her solution: Photocopy.

At Goldstein's restaurant, she offers recipe booklets so cooks can get olive oil on them and not fret.

The advantage of being a restaurateur and a cookbook author is you get to make the food for people and see if they like it and how they like it, Goldstein says. ``It's a wonderful testing ground, and it's the best way to get people to understand the food.''

When asked about the fusion fad that has some chefs mixing foods of many cultures (such as serving Moroccan tagines with Indian rice), Goldstein says: ``Occasionally there are people who can pair some very interesting things with no cultural tradition. But most of the time it's sort of a dismal failure, and you think - they should be made to eat this everyday for a month.''

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