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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Angels, and Devils, and Diets, Oh My!

February 5, 2007

Angels, and Devils, and Diets, Oh My!

I picked the wrong month to go on a diet.

Like a million other slugs out there, I started dieting the day after New Year’s. Since then, business travels have taken me on several waistline-expanding trips.

For the first several days I walked around with a diet angel and a diet devil on each shoulder. The diet devil kicked back and told me that onion rings would be O.K. Then the diet angel would whip out a picture of me at the swimming pool last summer.

Around two weeks in, the diet devil spread a map on my desk, pinpointed all of the locations that would tempt my palate, and handed over the airline tickets.

During this period the diet-angel was not on my shoulder encouraging me to “do right and eat well” because— as all angels know— it’s not polite to speak with your mouth full of cheesecake.

The diet-busting journey began in New Orleans at Restaurant August. It continued to Las Vegas where I sampled several of that town’s finest. The diet devil made it easy to get reservations at all of the restaurants I wanted to visit. The diet angel was nowhere to be found— probably playing blackjack in the casino.

The next week, business took me to Columbus, Miss to tour the Jubilations Cheesecake factory (details in a future column). I don’t know if you’ve ever toured a cheesecake factory, but the diet devil and I suggest you do so, sometime soon.

The next week I found myself in San Francisco— again on business— yet this time only in town for 48 hours. At the request of one of my associates I called the French Laundry in Yountville to see if I could secure a table with only 36 hours notice. “You’re dreaming,” I told my him. “I have people calling me for help two months out. There’s no way we’ll get in.”

Obviously the diet devil has access to the French Laundry’s reservation book. Two nights later I was seated among a six-top in the French Laundry that included three business associates, the diet devil, the diet angel, and me. The six of us participated in a 14-course bacchanalia that one rarely ever experiences. Actually, our web guy from New Orleans— the pickiest eater on the planet— mostly ate bread. Therefore the diet devil and I, not wanting to waste any of Thomas Keller’s brilliant offerings, picked up his slack and ate at least 12 courses off of his plate(we didn’t share any with the diet angel).

Safe at home, but not for long, a Frenchman has opened a bakery directly across the street from my office. How much can one man take? There are several bakeries in my hometown but most are miles from my office. Out of sight and out of mind equal out of stomach.

The new bakery, C’est La Vie, is exactly 97 steps from the front door of my office, and on top of that, everything there is good. As a matter of fact, everything is fantastic.

The bakery is owned by a French-Polish man named Janusz. That is what his business card states, just “Janusz,” like Elvis, Bono, or Sting, one word: Janusz. And folks, Janusz is a rock star when it comes to baking pastries and cakes.

He and his wife are from France and Poland respectively, but he is a bread-baking, cake-making journeyman who has pulled many stints as a pastry chef in multi-starred kitchens all over the world. As a matter of fact, I found out that he trained the pastry chef that is currently working at the French Laundry.

The new bakery has a true European sensibility. The pastries are light and not-too sweet. The cakes are world-class, and the man makes the lightest and best-tasting quiche I have ever eaten. My entire family eats there, often. The diet devil is usually somewhere near the pastry case pushing the chocolate croissants.

During my first visit to C’est la Vie, the diet angel was sitting on my right shoulder and constantly ranting about bread and carbs. By the second visit I made him wait outside while the diet devil and I enjoyed a custard and raisin-filled croissant.

Now I’m back to square one. Willpower was along for the ride during the first few weeks, safe and warm in a secure spot in my back pocket. Then the diet devil found him, shivved him like a jail-yard stooge, and sent him packing.

They say that life is all about timing. It appears that dieting is about timing, too. So now the question: Lose 20 pounds or eat freshly baked pastries and quiche from an extremely talented French baker’s kitchen? Well, I wasn’t ready to buy a bunch of new smaller-waisted pants, anyway.

As for the dieting angel, in the words of Don McLean, “He caught the last train for the coast.”

I have to go now. My friend the diet devil is saving a table across the street for our mid-morning pastry.

Blackstrap Molasses Muffins
3/4 cup hot water
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup milk
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped pecans, dry roasted

In a medium-size bowl combine the hot water and molasses, stirring until well blended. Stir in the milk until blended.

In a large bowl sift together the flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

With a rubber spatula, fold the liquid mixture and pecans into the dry ingredients just until flour is thoroughly incorporated; do not over mix. Spoon into 12 greased muffin cups. Bake at 300 degrees until done, 45 minutes to about 1 hour. Remove from pan immediately and serve while hot.

Makes 1 dozen muffins

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