Saturday, March 19, 2011

San Franciso & the Wine Country

Ahhh, a little 4 day weekend with one of my best girlfriends, M. We booked this trip back in November or so, when gas prices were still cheap! We got a great price on tickets into San Jose (one of the "nerd bird" flights), and had a rental car in hand and were driving north by 10:45 am on Saturday.

The goal was to go to Pescadero or Half Moon Bay, walk along the beach and then eat. But with the two hour time difference from Austin, we got hungry as we were along the smaller roads headed west to Highway1. We stopped at Alice's Restaurant,  in Woodside, complete with plenty of bikers, and had a quick bite. Not a bad sourdough tuna melt to get things started.

Getting to the coast, we parked at San Gregorio beach, waded through an inlet and strolled down the beach. This was the day after the Japanese tsunami sent waves across the Pacific Ocean, and some places along the west coast did sustain some damage. I thought the waves looked a little big, but I haven't been to the California coast in so long, I have nothing to compare it to. Very pretty though.
Back in the car, and north to San Francisco and the Ferry Building, a food lover's paradise! WISH we had had more time there -- if you're going to SF, go and check it out! It's a refurbished building on the Embarcadero with a whole bunch of food businesses and restaurants. And farmer's market on Saturdays too. We started buying all kinds of stuff, and before we knew it, we had amassed enough for a decent dinner back in the hotel -- Acme Bread, Cowgirl Creamery cheese, Scharffen Berger Chocolates, Miette confections, Boccalone salami (as in "tasty salty pig parts"), a bottle of bubbly, a pear & nectarine from the general market there. But first, we were headed for "tea" at the Slanted Door -- a Vietnamese place there at the Ferry Building.
The SD is one of several restaurants owned by a local Vietnamese family; it's a more upscale place than your typical pho noodle house. On weekends, between their lunch and dinner service, they serve tea from 2:30 - 4:30pm. We got there around 4 pm, and sat at the bar. Fortunately, hardly anyone was drinking tea -- it was cocktail hour! So two glasses of bubbly, and some selections from the tea menu -- a beautiful yellowfin sashimi, shrimp spring rolls, and green papaya salad. It was all extremely good. Would go back again in an instant.

On to our hotel, stayed at the Beresford Arms Hotel, at the corner of Post and Jones, just 2 blocks from Union Park. I didn't notice until the next morning there was an Indonesian restaurant right across the street...M and I started planning this trip to SF with the idea of finding someplace that served rijstaffel -- the multi-course Dutch/Indonesian meal. Good thing this place didn't do a rijstaffel, because it would have seriously messed with our plans! So, with our loot from the Perry Building, we dined in that night.
The next morning, it was up and in search of dim sum in Chinatown. We knew of Yank Sing, a James Beard-awarding winning place that M has eaten at in the past; she says it's excellent food, but expensive, and often very crowded. They're also not directly in Chinatown, a bit more to the southeast. So we roamed around on foot a bit... M wanted to eat at Hang Ah Tea Room, and though initially she couldn't remember the name or location, but she was able to find it. But the note on the door said they were closed for about a 3 week period. Boo. So we wandered around the blocks a bit, and found a place that was open (it was 10:30 am on Sunday).... certainly a dive, but all Asians inside. Apparently this is the place to get your congee, because everybody was having some, except us. There were also a couple diners with their morning glass of cognac. I never really got the name of the place, and it was hard to read the awning outside the building... something like New Kitchen?  Yes, I should have gotten the proper name, but you're probably not missing a whole lot.  From the one dim sum cart, we got the pork shumai (though more like meatballs in a thin wrapper), sticky rice wrapped in lotus (with pork bits inside) and steamed pork buns.
And from the menu we got the BBQ duck and pork combo plate. The duck was very bony (vertebrae) and didn't really have much meat, but the pork was delicious -- nice pink smoke ring and a light Chinese five spice flavor.
We hit a couple of the Chinese gifty stores, then back to the hotel to check out by noon, and on the road north to Muir Woods. After going over the Golden Gate Bridge, we stopped at the scenic view spot (with all the other tourists, most of whom were speaking other languages).
Arriving at Muir Woods, the place was packed and it took 20 minutes to find a parking spot. And the perpetual overcast sky decided to grace us with some rain. The redwood grove is beautiful, and I am sure on days without rain, and maybe a few less people, it's really a serene, peaceful place to commune with nature.

Up the road to Mill Valley, where I arranged to have coffee with my first cousin, once removed. Great to see you, Jet! :) We continued up the rainy road to Santa Rosa, where after a small Google Maps mishap, we found our hotel, the Fountaingrove Inn. We also found a Trader Joe's just across the highway, and got some wine for the room, breakfast for the morning, and my personal favorite, their honey roasted peanuts! The hotel has a nice restaurant, Equus, where we dined Sunday night.  Their service was a bit spotty -- no host/hostess at the stand so we stood around for several minutes before a server seated us, and our server was a bit scarce throughout the meal. But the food was quite solid. I had a salad, followed by crab cakes (almost all crab, no filler!) with a citrus beurre blanc and tomato chutney. M had pumpkin waffles with duck (turns out it was a confited leg though it wasn't stated on the menu) and a red curry butter and pomegranate drizzle. And the bread they had a the table was some of the finest multigrain bread I have ever had! Nice crispy crust, but thin, and not at all tough, good consistent crumb throughout. And I proceeded to slather the herb butter on the bread in our second basket of bread and we wrapped them up and stuck them in our purses for breakfast in the morning! Oh, and Equus had a very rich chocolate souffle with some creme anglaise on the the side, that was certainly made with good quality chocolate. Had a Seghesio syrah with dinner I really liked.
While looking for a better winery map than what we had Monday morning, I went down to the hotel lobby and talked with the extremely helpful woman at the front desk, Lauren. Not only did she have a great Sonoma county map, she hooked us up with a bunch of complimentary tasting passes for six different vineyards! And, she had the answer to the following riddle: M's father had told her a friend ate at a restaurant in Santa Rosa that began with a "c" and was two words (but he couldn't remember the name) and it had the best French onion soup ever. So it was our quest to find this place. We had asked the guy who checked us in at the hotel the night before, but he said he wasn't from the area and had no idea. We scoured the yellow pages, for restaurants beginning with "c", and even called a couple to inquire. And we had almost given up on this semi-futile search, when on a whim, I asked Lauren. She immediately responded "Oh, it must be Cricklewood!" Ding! Turns out, the French onion soup was featured on one of Guy Fieri's (ugh) shows; he's from the area, which explained the Johnny Garlic's chain of restaurants we had seen ads for. Now we had a destination, and it wasn't far from the hotel, thank you Lauren!

But first, the trek along Highway 12 into wine country! First stop, St. Francis, where we decided to have charcuterie plates with our red wine tasting. Very good choice, as the plates were excellent!
Rogue Creamery cheese, La Quercia prosciutto, pears, tarragon mustard, candied marcona almonds, roasted garlic & baby arugula. This was actually the plate for the white wine tasting, but we both wanted to do the reds, so we got the two different plates, and swapped them half-way through.
Point Reyes Blue, soppressata, cranberry chutney, grainy mustard, candied walnuts, pickled onions, baby arugula. Had four reds, my favorite being their Tres Viejos Zinfindel, which was fruity, lightly spicy and smooth, and is a combo of three old vine zins.
Next, up the road about a quarter mile to Chateau St. Jean, which has a large tasting room and gift shop. Had a couple of reds that I liked, the 2008 Benoist Ranch Pinot Noir and the 2007 Durrell Syrah. Lovely facility, lots of gardens, and this double camellia tree in full bloom!
And another little ways up the road to Paradise Ridge; this was their tasting room only, their main facility is actually back in Santa Rosa. Very friendly woman working there, and we were the only ones in there.  Good 2007 Zin, The Convict, another old vine zin! Their tasting menu sheet that you can take notes on while sipping has nice food pairings, and their website has the recipes. Following the road south, we hit Napa and Cakebread, but unfortunately, got there just as they had finished the tastings for the day. Beautiful entryway though!
Hitting the road back north, we went through Calistoga, and stopped for a few minutes at an old cemetery on the side of the road. It had markers from the 1800s, and moss and lichen had certainly taken over some areas.
Back to Santa Rosa, we were able to find the aforementioned Cricklewood restaurant for dinner, not terribly far from the hotel, but not well-lit from the street either. I was hoping for the French onion soup and a burger, but they only do the burgers for lunch, so I settled on a baked potato for lack of  protein options that wasn't a $25 steak. Though hard to mess up, the potato was good. The soup was tasty, a fairly dark beef broth, nice crusty cheese all over the top. It was certainly good, but whether it was worth our adventure in trying to find it, that remains to be seen.
In the morning, we retraced some of our path down Highway 12 to Valley of the Moon. My favorite wine there too was the old vine Zin, also a 2007, from their 70 year old vines that are right next to the main tasting room. We continued south, taking the Richmond bridge into the East Bay, and arriving at Chez Panisse just in time for our 1:30pm reservation in the cafe.

On the second floor of a mission-style house, the cafe is separated into front and back rooms by the bar and kitchen area; we were seated by a window in the front room.
I opted for the prix fixe Menu du Jour, while M ordered a la carte. 
It started off with a mixed green salad for me, and the artichoke hearts and fava beans with lemon and pecorino for M.
Her next course was the half Dungeness crab with Meyer lemon, radishes, and parsley butter.
Then my main course, homemade spaghetti with rocket (arugula) pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh ricotta. 
And her salad with baked goat cheese rounds.  Up to here, the food was quite good, though I wouldn't call it exceptional. The service was a bit off. There appeared to be two head waiters for the front area, and a number of junior staffers; I don't know if they were short staffed, or what the situation was, but it didn't all seem to gel. M's wine came almost right away, and I had to inquire about my ice tea that after 20 minutes had failed to appear, and then was brought over by the hostess. Our main waiter seemed aloof, and didn't time our dishes very well, though apologized for it later when I asked him about my pasta dish after M had finished her crab (her second dish). 

But then we got to the desserts. The third dish in my Menu du Jour was the Meyer lemon sherbet with candied citrus peel and a langue du chat cookie (cat's tongue). Amazing Meyer lemon taste! They must boil the juice down to concentrate the flavor, but rarely have I had something with that fantastic of a lemon taste. M ordered the wildflower honey mousse with candied kumquats and gingersnaps. That mousse had the most lovely lightly sweet taste, but it was the texture that blew us away -- so smooth and velvety. The meal ended on these very high notes.
For a Tuesday, the place was packed, and I get the sense it's probably always like this. 
I became intrigued with Chez Panisse a couple of years ago, after reading Ruth Riechl's various memoirs.  Not only have they always been at the forefront of the eat local and seasonal "movement," their alumni listing is impressive, to say the least. But not just the well-known chefs like Jeremiah Trotter and Mark Miller, but the founders of Acme Bread and Cowgirl Creamery (both of which we purchased at the Ferry Building), worked at CP early in their culinary careers.

So eating at Chez Panisse, as our last activity before heading to the airport, kind of brought the trip full circle. The food and wine traditions are rich in these parts, but we barely scratched the tip of it in four days.  

I wanted to take a few pictures outside as we were leaving, and we encountered a friendly man, who volunteered to take a picture of M and I in front of the restaurant. We started talking with him, and it turns out, he's Richard Mazzera, a former manager at CP, who opened his own tapas restaurant, Cesar, next door in the late 1990s with a couple other CP alumi.  Full circle, yet again.