Sunday, February 28, 2010

Adventures in San Fran: Napa Valley

As much as we loved San Francisco, our favorite day of the whole trip was our excursion to Napa Valley. It's absolutely beautiful and relatively quiet in the off-season; no grapes on the vines but still lots of green hills and lush meadows that reminded me of the label on a Hidden Valley bottle.

Although we didn't plan it this way, our winery visits got more and more casual as we went along. We started with a scheduled tasting and tour, another scheduled tasting, and then two on-the-fly stand-at-a-bar visits. This worked really well, we got to learn a lot while we were still sober and yet we tasted over 16 wines that day!

We started at a tour of Schramsberg, America's first house of sparkling wine. To get there, you have to drive up a very narrow driveway up a hill for maybe a half a mile or so. A decorative mesh wine bottle serves as a great landmark for when you get there.The tour guide started by telling us the history of the winery, which was actually a really interesting story. In 1862, a man named Jacob Schram came from Germany to buy a piece of land in Napa. He hired Chinese laborers to hand dig Napa's first hillside caves; they were expanded a few times over the years and now stand at a few miles long. As the vineyard began to prosper, he hired a shipbuilder to create a beautiful Victorian house made entirely from pegs and rope, no nails; the house still stands today. The wineries changed hands a few times over the decades until the current owners, the Davies, bought the land in 1965. In 1972, a surprise: the Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc is served as the "Toast of Peace" hosted by Richard Nixon to the Chinese Premier Chou En-lay, the first American wine ever to be served at a White House event.

After this story (no tour of the Victorian house, unfortunately), we went into the caves to see miles upon miles of aging bottles. We saw winemakers take part in the riddling process, which involves a lot of banging the bottles around to get the sediment to settle before freezing it and shooting out the frozen extra yeast. It's quite a process. Apparently, Schramsberg is one of the few places to continue to do this by hand.

I wish we could have wandered around the caves more, but when we were rushed to the tasting table I didn't complain. The eight or so of us sat around a private table and were introduced to the following wines:

1) Blanc de Blancs ($36) -- Light and bubbly, reminiscent of a granny smith apple.
2) J. Schram ($100) -- This one had a heavier, creamier finish with a strong yeasty taste.
3) Brut Rose 2006 ($41) -- 68% pinot, 32% champagne. No one seemed to like this as much as the others, we agreed that it wasn't just the dryness but the lack of a finish.
4) Reserve 2002 ($100) -- This 75% pinot, 25% chardonnay mix smelled a little too much like the ocean for me.
5) J. Davies ($75) -- This only red wine of the tasting was our favorite. It was spicy and fruity, with a berry nose and elegant, oaky finish. In spite of all the bright smells, it wasn't sweet at all.
6) Cremant Demi-Sec ($38) -- The very lightly carbonated, slightly syruppy dessert wine. It had a nice acidity that the tourguide promised would be good with cheese, creme brulee, or even spicy non-dessert foods like curries.

Even though we felt a little rushed through the whole tour, this experience was really amazing. Walking through the caves, hearing about the vineyard's history, watching the winemakers in action gave the visit a depth we didn't get to experience elsewhere. Definitely recommended to anyone visiting Napa!

Schramsberg Vineyards
1400 Schramsberg Road
Calistoga, CA 94515

Next, we headed down to a "mystery vineyard" that Rob wouldn't tell me about until we got there. We had to drive up a very scenic mountain until we reached Viader. I had no idea what wine I had from this place until Rob reminded me of the DARE Cabernet Franc we had at Anissa for our anniversary back in 2008. This is what I said about it then:

"The waitress brought us a bottle of Dare -- 2004 Cabernet Franc. "Dare" I say this was the best wine either of us has ever had? Rob doesn't even like to drink during his meals and he couldn't get his hand off his glass. "


How could I have forgotten?

We were lead outside to a private table overlooking the vines growing on an incredibly steep hill that slopes down to a small lake. Unfortunately, they were out of the cabernet franc that day, but we got to try a few other kinds and all of them were amazing, rich, velvety reds. It was so cool to sit and sip right where these wines are created, instead of conjuring up loose images of a faraway California.
In addition to the lower priced Dare dry rose and tempranillo, we had these three amazing wines:

1) Viader Syrah ($50) -- A blend of estate grown Australian Shiraz and Rhone Valley "clones". Fermented with stems, skins and all for a unique, meaty funk. Fantastic.
2) Viader "V" ($125) -- This was hands down our favorite. It's a blend of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon that differs every year to "best express the character and nature of the Viader Estate." It's things like this that make small vineyards worth visiting. It hade a wonderful mocha/cocoa finish that paired exquisitely with the espresso and almond chocolates we were given. You can bet we asked for more of this one.

3) Vider ($100) -- A blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. An "elegant structure" and "violet-like aromatics" result in what our host called "liquid cashmere". Really smooth with a deceiving deep, dark smell -- the taste is actually much lighter.
On our way out, I bonded with Cody, the vineyard dog. Most vineyards have a token dog or cat, but no one had anything on sweet, mellow Cody.

Viader Winery
1120 Deer Park Road
Deer Park, CA 94576
(707) 963-3816 ext. 103

Next, we headed down the hill for the Plumpjack Winery. This was much less exciting than Schamsberg or Viader; we just headed in, stood at the bar with a few other people, and tasted a few reds. I didn't write any notes since they didn't even sort of compare to what we just had at Viader. The room was also overly gift shoppy. But it was nice to show up and have a quick tasting considering we didn't make reservations here.

Plumpjack Winery
620 Oakville Cross Road
Napa Valley, CA 94558

By now it was getting to be close to 5pm, when lots of wineries call it a day. We tried to hit up a few different places (all closed) until we found Hill Family Estate in Yountville, just down the street from the French Laundry. It was a cute little place inside an antique store; only one other couple lingered by the time we showed up. The bartender poured us a few different wines, none that we were too crazy about until we had the dessert wine. We normally aren't dessert wine people, but this had just the right amount of thickness and sweetness that we finally bought our first (and only) bottle of the day. It wasn't until later we realized we'd have to pay extra to check our luggage, so it became the breakfast of champions in our hotel room the next morning.

Hill Family Estate
6512 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

Our dusk-time drive from Napa back to San Francisco was quiet and intoxicating. It was hard to take in the great sights and tastes of the day as the sun set slower than it ever has on the East coast. I felt slightly dizzy from all the wine.

I wish every day could be that amazing.

Adventures in San Fran: Burritos and Sausage

Dinner out in San Francisco was never a glamorous expedition for us, but we did try some fun places that filled us up before a night at the whiskey dive bar (like Whiskey Thieves) or a beer-based dive bar (like Toronado). After all, what's vacation if you aren't eating and drinking well?

I really wanted to have some good Mexican while on the West coast, so we headed to the Mission District for burritos at Pancho Villa Taqueria. This place was big and bright, with super high ceilings and florescent lighting beating down on the grill and assembly line. It kind of reminded me of a bigger, more theatrical version of a Chipotle.

Unfortunately (and I really hate to say it), I'd take Chipotle over this place. My veggie burrito didn't have much taste to it -- the rice was mushy, the guacamole was bland. Rob said the shrimp is his shrimp burrito was perfectly cooked, but agreed about the blandness. I guess the salsa gods decided to punish me for my complaint, because the last bite had some kind of insane hot pepper that burned my mouth for the next half hour. Luckily the Mexican Coke with sugar cane instead of high fructose corn syrup helped to temper the pain a little.

Pancho Villa Taqueria
3071 16th St (between Caledonia St & Julian Ave)
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 864-8840

Another night we walked the two miles (uphill both ways... no, really!) to Rosamunde Sausage Grill for some cheap meats with crazy good reviews on Yelp. This tiny hole in the wall has a small counter with a display case and minimal seating. Most people take their sausages to go and enjoy at Toronado (where I had a fantastic Belgian style pale ale called Perdition.) We sat and tried to enjoy for a few minutes of peace first.

Anyway, I guess we got there a little late, because our top sausage picks were already gone (the duck with figs, and the wild boar with apple and spice). I tried the beer sausage with onions and sweet peppers, and Rob had the merguez (spicy lamb and beef) with onions and sauerkraut. My beer sausage felt lonely without its usual honey mustard companion; too bad I was already done with mine before I realized they had honey wasabi mustard dijon that would have completed the taste and then some. I really wanted to be hungry enough for a second one but these modest sized sandwiches were way more satisfying than I was expecting.

I will definitely return when I visit SF again... but early enough for the duck or boar this time!

Rosamunde Sausage Grill
545 Haight Street (between Fillmore St & Steiner St)
San Francisco, CA 94117
(415) 437-6851

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Adventures in San Fran: Cafes, Bakeries and Ice Cream

While running from the Full House house to the Mrs. Doubtfire house and delivering sick hummingbirds (OK... hummingbird) to the animal hospital, we needed caffeine and a lot of fast snacks. Luckily there are tons of great spots all over the city, and Rob mapped a few of them out so we could visit quickly as we shuttled along.I had the first iced coffee of 2010 at Cafe Murano, a cute neighborhood wifi spot on Steiner Street. Tasted like good high-quality coffee, but with too much ice it was a little watered down too fast. It was definitely refreshing after a hike up the hill to Alta Plaza, a quiet little park with a great view of the city.

Cafe Murano
1777 Steiner Street
(between Post St & Sutter St)
San Francisco, CA 94115
(415) 771-0888

That afternoon we were stuck in touristy Fisherman's Wharf, with no viable food options beyond a Bubba Gump Shrimp. I did a quick search on Yelp and found a highly rated Argentinean truck called Tanguito with quiet off-strip outdoor seating. Score! We shared a fresh, flaky ham and cheese empanada, then we each had two huge sandwiches on French bread. My steak sandwich had peppers, onions, mushrooms and a fantastic homemade chimichurri sauce; Rob had a sausage sandwich with similar toppings. We were only looking for a late afternoon snack, but it was so much food we were good for the rest of the day... until we made our way to Ghirardelli Square.

I know it sounds gimmicky and touristy but I really think this was the best hot fudge sundae I've ever had. The homemade chocolate chip ice cream was thick, creamy, actual good vanilla with lots of chips, topped with melted dark Ghirardelli chocolate, heavy whipped cream and walnuts. I could have sat by the fountain people watching with this sundae all night.

Rob had the sea salt caramel hot chocolate. I didn't find it all that salty or caramelly but then again I was pretty engrossed in the sundae.

Ghirardelli Square
900 N Point St
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 775-5500

The next day, after an afternoon at the Botanical Gardens, we headed over to Arizmendi Bakery for a coffee and snack. Every day they have a special pizza (this particular day it was artichokes, tomatoes, basil and rosemary oil) that people seem to go crazy for; they actually ran out while we were visiting and a lot of disappointed customers ensued. They also specialize in pastries and breads, all of which looked fresh and enticing. We finally decided on a cheddar scone. Wow. Hard, crunchy sections of cheddar melted along the sides, contrasted well with the softer insides, ended with a nice spice from red pepper. I wish we had time to try more here... but we had places to go.

Arizmendi Bakery
1331 9th Ave
(between Irving St & Judah St)
San Francisco, CA
(415) 566-3117

One day we got up ridiculously early to rent a car and head up to Oakland and eventually Napa. A block down the street from our hotel was a little cafe called Em's Place with very decent coffee and fairly awesome breakfast sandwiches. I had an egg and cheese on a cheese bagel, it was too cheesy to even take a picture. Rob's ham, bacon and egg sandwich held up much better under the poppyseed bagel and made a great Bay Bridge car breakfast.

Em's Place

154 McAllister St
(at Hyde St)

San Francisco
, CA 94102
(415) 552-8379

While driving through Napa we looped around through Yountville so I could see the French Laundry in the flesh (er.. stone?). Just down the street is Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery, which also exists in New York at Columbus Circle. They have a few good sandwiches here, like the turkey with cranberry. They don't stuff the sandwiches all that much -- it was only about a single slice of turkey -- but the bread is so freshly baked that it doesn't really matter that it makes up 85% of the whole sandwich. They'll even toast it for you too if you aren't in a rush.

The most impressive part of this bakery though, is the macarons. I'm embarrassed to say that I was a macaron virgin before Yountville, and this place has turned me into a full-fledged believer. Or have I just been ruined for macarons? Damn you Thomas Keller.

I guess I can't compare them to other macarons, but I think they were everything they were supposed to be -- crusty on the outside, chewy beneath the crust, creamy and flavorful on the inside. The sweet buttercream gave me tiny sugar rush headaches, but they were worth it.

We tried just about every kind there was. We came back after visiting a few wineries to bring more home. We ate them one at a time the next day at different benches in the Marin Headlands. We tried to savor them as much as possible.

I think my favorite one was the seasonal -- orange cream. Then the espresso and hazelnut. The vanilla, chocolate and caramel weren't so shabby, either.

I'll definitely be back here next time I go to Napa. Maybe then I'll give the regular Bouchon a try -- or (do I dare to dream?) the French Laundry!

Bouchon Bakery
6528 Washington St
Yountville, CA 94599
(707) 944-2253

French Laundry
6640 Washington Street

Yountville, CA 94599
(707) 944-2380

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Adventures in San Fran: Breakfasts

Rob and I just got back from a 6-day trip to San Francisco! Believe it or not, this was the first vacation we've ever taken just the two of us. It was also the most fun we've ever packed into a single week. We ran around the city to see a few key sights for the first few days (Alcatraz, Mission Dolores, Fisherman's Wharf, the Painted Ladies, Ghirardelli Square, etc.), then rented a car to explore Oakland, Napa and Sausalito. Oh yeah -- and we had TONS of fantastic food.

We tried to keep things light, choosing fast on-the-go meals over long, extravagant ones. As much in the name of saving time as saving money. But breakfast was the one meal of the day we didn't skimp on. The first three days we went to popular places that came highly recommended from a few different people -- Brenda's, Dottie's and Stacks'.

Brenda's French Soul Food was our favorite by a long shot. We got there before nine on Saturday, but there was still about a 20 minute wait. There must be a lot of early risers in this city!

I started with their specialty drink, a sweet watermelon iced tea (very refreshing) and a coffee and chicory. I don't think I've ever had chicory blended coffee before; it gives it a bitter, earthy kick.

We started with a chicken gumbo. It was loaded with lots of rice and scallions. We were starving when we sat down, so this was a great, hearty start to the meal.

The beignets are a specialty here, so I ordered the flight of four different kinds. -- plain, apple, chocolate and crawfish. I don't think I've ever had real beignets like these before, and they were fantastic. They're a lot like donuts, but lighter, less greasy, and filled with something other than Boston creme.The first was plain, not much to be said about it. The next was my favorite -- granny smith apple with cinnamon honey butter. Kind of like a half-baked apple pie -- deeelish. Next was the molten Ghirardelli chocolate; I saved that one for last. The crawfish (which we lovingly renamed "crawdaddy") was Rob's favorite; it was loaded with scallions and cheddar and rolled in cayenne pepper. The sweet-savory combo was a bit strange to me, so I let Rob have most of this one.Rob had the shrimp and goat cheese omelette with caramelized onions and a fantastic tomato-bacon relish (take a second and put all those flavors together in your head... it is heavenly). It came with the best, flakiest biscuit we've ever had and by far the best bowl of buttery grits I've ever tasted. The day we left I came back here to get an order of grits, a biscuit and crawdaddies to enjoy on our hotel bed until the shuttle bus came. It actually made watching old reruns of the Beverly Hillbillies on our crappy hotel bed quite enjoyable.

652 Polk Street (at Eddy Street)
San Francisco, CA 94102


The next day we dropped the ball and didn't make it to Dottie's until around 9:30. We waited in an hour long line with a bunch of other tourists as sleepy locals ran in and out with their takeout orders.
We thought the sign of quoted accolades outside the establishment was pretty funny. They didn't actually mention anything specific other than "Food... in a coffee shop... where breakfast is prepared." Thanks for telling us what to expect, experts.

We started with grilled jalapeno cornbread with a sweet jalapeno jelly. This was probably the highlight of the meal. The bread was super thick and held together really well, unlike normal cornbread. The sweet-spicy combo was very addicting.

I had one of the specials -- a sweet potato caramelized red onion & gruyere tart. It was sort of like a sweet potato pie with a flaky crust -- I definitely didn't taste the cheese. It came with two biscuits that were forgettable in light of Brenda's, two poached eggs (watery and not done well) and fresh fruit. It was nice to see kiwi, blackberries and strawberries in the mix; anywhere in Brooklyn this time of year you'll only be seeing melon and maybe grapes (if you're lucky).

Rob had another special -- the lamb fennel sausage omelette with roasted garlic, tomato, spinach and goat cheese. All the tomato and garlic made me think of an Italian dinner -- the flavors were almost too sophisticated for early morning taste buds. The side of hash browns were slightly burned on one side to add good crisp. They were a bit over-peppered though.
Dottie's wasn't worth the hour long wait, but I'm glad we did it for the grilled cornbread.

Dottie's True Blue Cafe
522 Jones St (between Geary St & O'farrell St)
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 885-2767

The next day we headed over to Stacks' for a less touristy breakfast. This place was a lot bigger than the tiny cafes we visited the past few days, and was great for people watching. Especially since they sat us outside in the warm Californian sun... ahhh.

I don't usually get sweet breakfasts, but seeing that we're at a place called Stacks' I couldn't really justify getting the huevos rancheros. Instead, I had the banana macadamia nut coconut pancakes. OH JESUS these pancakes were good. You know how Ben n Jerry's are always really addicting because every bite is different? Same with these pancakes. I kept getting different ratios of banana pieces, macadamia nuts and clusters of shaved coconut. It barely needed any syrup. And oh, they were huuuuge. I could only get through half the short stack. Heartbreaking.

Rob had the crab crepe with chives, jack cheese and avocado with hollandaise sauce. The outer part of the crepe was a little browned, but the inside was stuffed with fresh, not canned, crab. I don't think I've ever had hollandaise on anything with cheese before, but it seemed to work. It was served with (oddly) a bagel and some hash browns.

One of the nice things they do here is leave the whole pitcher of water and coffee on your table. We never had to flag anyone down for refills, but we ran out of table space so fast the waiter had to shovethe carafes into the bushes next to where we sat. Now that's service.

501 Hayes St (between Octavia St & Laguna St)
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 241-9011

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Faux V-Day at Nougatine

Valentine's Day has always been sort of a pain in the ass in the city. Every mediocre restaurant in Manhattan and Brooklyn suddenly only offers $100 pre fixe menus that night, and because of poor planning on my part, we wound up eating the worst potato pancakes ever one year (and they insisted I take it home with me!). This year, we decided to skip the hassle and have V-day early. But where to go for a nice but moderately priced meal?

It's nice that New York's best acclaimed chefs have already thought of that, providing restaurants that us normal people can visit without breaking the bank. Daniel Boulud has DBGB Kitchen & Bar, Danny Meyer has Shake Shack, and Jean Georges has (among many other lesser priced places) Nougatine. Since we're not going to eat cheeseburgers in the park in the middle of February (well, at least not in the name of love), Nougatine it was.

Nougatine is only separated from Jean Georges by two 15-foot high doorways, and they share the same kitchen. While Jean Georges looks very formal, Nougatine has more of a relaxed atmosphere. We arrived a bit early and started with drinks at the bar: a bubbly champagne for me and an off-dry Reisling for him.

Most restaurants offer at least some sort of options in their tasting menus, but Nougatine's is very set; it includes two pre-chosen appetizers, two entrees and a dessert tasting menu. It didn't make sense for both of us to get the same thing (it'd be way too much food anyway), so Rob got the tasting menu and I got the lobster to maximize our tasting experience.

The amuse-bouche was a scallop with julienned (and pickled?) green apples and a lime leaf on top. The scallop was tender and soft, contrasted in texture by the apple. The taste of the mint shined on. It was served with a warm shot of celery root and apple soup. Believe it or not, this was maybe my favorite part of the entire meal. Maybe next time I can get a plate of 20 scallop-spoons and soup shots?

First appetizer: tuna tartare with avocado, spicy radish and ginger marinade. Probably one of the best tuna tartares I've ever had, and pretty unusual too. Rob's discerning taste buds caught on to a flavor normally experienced in pumpkin pies. Nutmeg, maybe? The layers of radish slices on top gave texture to the dish that otherwise just melts in your mouth. (Sorry for the bad picture and the poor ones to come. There was a man sitting next to us with a huge lip from many years of pouting. He was staring at me strangely. It flustered me.)

Next appetizer: the foie gras brulee. It seems like they pureed the foie gras, since it was super creamy, and positioned it on top of a biscuit-type thing before blasting it with heat to make the brulee crust everyone loves. Served with a tart bowl of pineapple meyer-lemon jam.

Now the entrees... none of which were as good as anything that came before it. Especially the lobster, which was super disappointing for me. The lobster was deep fried, which, it turns out, sucks out all the flavor. The topping -- butter cabbage, ginger and lots of jalapeno peppers-- masked any flavor I could have tried to get otherwise. And there was a lot of it, too -- three tails, two claws maybe? By the end I was hoping never to see cabbage again. Let's leave the fried food with jalepeno peppers to the bars and strip malls.

Somewhere around this point in the meal I was out of champagne and decided to make a smart move and get something non-alcoholic. In this case it was a black cherry yuzu soda that they make at the bar. It was a bit syrupy, but it kicked ass over any other cherry soda I've ever had. If you like the Japanese citrus, I'd recommend this fizzy drink.

The red snapper with broccoli raab was topped at the table with a sweet garlic-lemon broth -- reminded me of Le Bernadin. This was very tasty with a good, crunchy top -- I only had a bite or two as I was too busy hacking away at my spicy cabbagey lobster.

Next, the pan seared beef tenderloin with miso butter and roasted baby brussel sprouts. This dish was really rich, and the beef almost tasted a bit gamey (maybe it was the odd paring with miso?). Served with some kind of pureed squash (we think), which was really light and soaked up the flavors of the beefy miso butter well.

The tasting dessert plate included a small warm chocolate cake with a creamy chocolate middle, vanilla ice cream, some kind of banana tart (which was actually my favorite, despite the fact I'm not a big banana-flavored desserts fan) and chestnut-flavored ice cream. This made me smile; I only taste the distinct flavor of chestnuts very briefly only twice a year (after meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas).

We also got the creme caramel, served with some kind of unique citrus and sacristan, a light twisted pastry. I only took a few bites of the pastry. Overall, it was good, but not terribly impressive.

Well, since Nougatine is (literally) a gateway to Jean Georges, I expected it to pique my interest of one of the highest rated restaurants in the city. But since we weren't absolutely blown away, it's not on any immediate to-do list. I can think of quite a few places I'd like to hit first: Convivio, Gramercy Tavern, Minetta Tavern, The Spotted Pig, Maialino, maybe even Eleven Madison Park and Per Se. Or maybe I'll try another one of JG's lesser restaurants. There are plenty to choose from, after all.

Nougatine at Jean Georges
1 Central Park W
New York, NY 10023
(212) 299-3900