Tuesday, October 19, 2010

where did we eat, and other helpful hints for travelling to san francisco and napa

-sit at the bar or kitchen counter whenever possible
-ask the staff where to go eat. the cooks and servers all know the new hot spots. All of our favourite food places came from a recommendation from restaurant staff.
-get to know the bartender at your hotel. tip well and be kind.
-the Bart from SFO to downtown San Fran is easy and cheap.
-The F-line has antique streetcars, on purpose.
-Homeless people make good tour guides
-San Francisco has the best buskers. One guy had a real drum kit. another an actual piano. Larry the bucket guy makes a drum kit out of buckets. he is awesome.
-the streetcar stops just long enough to perform a crack deal if you know who to talk to
-the map of san francisco is flat. the town isn't. what might look like a "nice little walk", isn't bring your sherpa
-california avenue goes straight up.
-dungeness crab is best served plain. it is the only food that isn't made better with butter. Every place down on fisherman's wharf serves it.

first meal: La Taqueria on Mission. I had cow face and beef tongue, D had pork carnitas and shrimp.
first meal in Napa: Rutherford Grill, one of our favourites on the whole trip. In the town of rutherford, on rutherford rd. Rutherford is between Yountville and St. Helena.

- everything in Napa shuts down at 9:00. One exception is Bouchon which serves until 11:00

For Breakfast in Napa we went to the Luna market, a little grocery store across from our hotel, the Rancho Caymus, in Rutherford, which catered to the mexican population that worked at the wineries. We had breakfast burritos with egg, beans potato and chorizo

Oakville grocery in Oakville is better than the more famous Dean and Deluca's in St. Helena. great place to grab a quick pic nic lunch if you are doing the wine tour.

Bistro Jeanty, is fun, busy and loud. The food riffs off bistro classics. Sit at the bar. They have about 7 different types of pastis. Great cocktail list.

Bouchon, Thomas Kellers's french bistro. Less expensive and far more casual than French Laundry, but not worth the money. Doesn't live up to the hype. Fussy small portions. Which is okay, but only if the flavours were bang on. Which they weren't. Duck confit was way to clovey and lacked that tasty crispy skin. Marinated veg salad was weird with crab beignets which were smaller than a tater tot with as much crab flavour.

Couldn't get in to either French Laundry or Ad Hoc (Thomas's family style restaurant). Everyone was saying the Redd was fabulous, but we never made it.

In the town of Napa we went to Angele, which was tasty. Artsy takes on bistro classics. Locavore philosophy. Good cocktail list. Nice big patio, we sat at the bar.

Morimoto: did not enjoy. The designer had fun with this space. Felt unwelcome and uncared for, so we didn't stick around to try the more interesting dishes on his expensive menu.

Carpe Diem, had some nice desserts, although the candied potato chip was more gimmick than anything. Nice people. The owner knew where Winnipeg was, he was a hockey fan.

Boonfly Cafe, on the old sonoma road attached to the Carneros Inn. Charming, quite beautiful. Really tasty food. Excellent coffee. Awesome burger, great BLT sandwhich with heirloom tomatoes. definitely worth the trip.

In San Francisco we stayed at the Palomar Hotel. Very nice. Clean, modern, right downtown. from 5 to 6 their was a free wine reception. Have a glass of wine, and order the crab cakes. made with dungeness crab and not much else. Don't you hate crab cakes that are all breading and filler with very little crab? Or the ones that where the crab is so overworked that it tastes like sand paper? These are not like those, these are barely held together, almost pure crab, and tasty. While you are here, ask the bartenders where to eat in town.

First night we went to the Slanted Door in the ferry building. Modern take on vietnamese food. We had some really tasty clams with pork belly and some summer rolls with lots of yummy shitake and greens and tasty things. I had the girliest cocktail ever. With raspberries and vodka and shaken up with an egg white. All pink and frothy, luckily I am secure in my masculinity.

then we walked halfway to Nopa. Straight up hill. then we called a cab for the last half of the walk. Nopa was fantastic! Busy, lively, loud. We arrived at 930 on a wednesday and it was packed. We would have to wait 45 mins for a table. Food was fresh and local, interesting cocktails. They had a wood oven and a wood grill in their open kitchen. Probably the best restaurant experience we had in San Fran.

Thursday we went for breakfast at Boulettes Larder in the Ferry Building. The chef was intense. half an hour before lunch, she didn't have the lunch menu written. D had scottish cut oatmeal. hates oatmeal, loved this, came with garnishes of walnut, flax, raisin and brown sugar in cute little boxes. I had the fluffiest scrambled eggs ever with spinach and black eyed peas cooked in roast pork drippings. so good.

at cafe mystique on castro we had hummus with spicy ground beef. really delicious Morrocan mint tea.

at cafe zuni we had the house cured anchovies and a salad with pancetta and parm. tasty.

Frances for dinner. On Noe in the castro. farmer's market shot of two kinds of melon and tequila. house blended house wines served by the ounce. the bring you a beaker and charge you for what you drink. tasty crab beignets. lamb served 3 ways with rapini, and the tastiest chicken roulade you've ever seen. voted top 10 new restaurants in the US by Bon Appetit and you can see why.

Brenda's for breakfast. French Creole spot in the heart of sketchy town. We arrive, we are told to write our names on the clip board outside. when our table is ready, the call us. We begin with a flight of beignets. plain, apple, dark chocolate and spicy crawfish. I had crawfish and adouille pot pie and D had shrimp and grits smothered in a tasty brown sauce. worth the wait.

lunch we had dim sum in china town. china town is super touristy. apparently there are less touristy mini china towns in San Fran, but we wanted to see the big one. bought a mah jong board. Does anyone know how to play mah jong? Don't go for dim sum at 2 in the afternoon. the food is still good but you miss the whole show. highlight? the shang hai soup dumplings.

started dinner with a braised beef shortrib at the hotel bar. our bartender tells us, "tonight, I'm driving" she chooses our snack and pairs wines with it. Thanks, Morgan.

then pie at Mission pie. I had a plum pie and Danielle had a mixed berry.

walking up mission, their are a bunch of people grilling "mission style" hot dogs. fried up with lots of onions on little flat top grills out of the sides of mini vans. I am sure they have their permits in order. I had guerilla guacamole made right their on the sidewalk.

went to a bar that was basically under the free way. Zeitgiest. Looks like any college/punk rock bar anywhere in the world, until you step outside. The bulk of the bar is in this empty lot, hemmed in with 12 foot fence and barbed wire. the lot is filled with rows of pic nic tables. the facilities are porta potties. everyone sits together. one woman was doing yoga. most of the beer is sold in pitchers. great vibe, tons of fun.

then to bar agricole. recomended by the chef of Boulette's Larder. the courtyard up front featured tables and a herb garden. the restaurant was very new with lots of wood and crazy ligth fixtures made out of plastic tubing. The place was seven weeks old and beautiful. I had another cocktail involving an egg white, but at least it wasn't pink. We were really tired, so I don't remember all the dishes, but we had sardine roll mops and a dish with three kinds of radish and lardo.

tired and full, we still grab a street crepe from a vendor across the street. Danielle falls asleep with the crepe on her pillow.

saturday is ferry building farmer's market. We start with breakfast at blue bottle coffee. the individually drip each cup. Danielle had a caramelized belgian waffle, and I had a coffee cake that involved guiness and caraway.

the market is incredible. fresh dates, walnuts, pomegranates, limes, heirloom tomatoes everything you could possible want. oysters, fresh lamb, cheeses, cured meats, jams, juices... we ate "korean tacos" which was nori filled with grilled pork belly and yummy sauces.

we had salumi cones at boccalone. I bought a tasty salted pig parts t-shirt. we bought N'duja, guaciale and wild fennel and orange salami to bring back with us.

Cow Girl Creamery was beautiful we had a very enthusiastic cheese boy. we told him we wanted only California cheeses. we got about four from the Girl Creamery and about ten others. everything from a fresh chevre, to this stinky cheese made like a gouda, but kept soft. loved the story of the dry jack cheese. exclusive to California, this cheese was invented when during th war the local italian community couldn't import their prized parmagianno, so they asked the local cheese makers to dry and age their monterey jack to the consistency of parm. the dust it in cocoa.

rented bikes and biked down to fisherman's wharf. it was fleet week and their was a blue angels air show, so it was crazy. wall to wall people. so much fun.

we had dungeness crab at the blue mermaid. i had a big frosty glass of anchor steam ale. Dungeness crab is best eaten plain. we experimented. it is the only food that is not made better with butter. butter detracts from the sweet flavour of the meat.

not done yet, we had these delicious grilled chicken skewers from a street vendor. they were done with some sort of teriaki sauce.

that night we celebrated our bartender's victory at the bar tending competition by enjoying her lavender cocktail

then a cab to cosentino's In Canto. Nice spot, we sat in the lounge with a very friendly, career server. D ordered the with a poached egg and shaved cured tuna heart. I had the blood pappardelle with pork trotters and foie gras. I think we had dessert, i think mine was a goat cheese cheesecake, and Danielle's was a chocolate mousse, but its all a blur now.

sunday, we must return home. we have breakfast at thai place in the airport. really tasty soup. even the airport food was good! lunch at the ihop in the vancouver airport, not so much.

so, if you go to san francisco, eat small amounts often. you won't be disappointed. we ate six or seven meals a day. some were better than others, but we didn't have one bad bite of food the spaghetinni whole time we were there.

now, planning our next culinary trip. Chicago? New York? New Orleans? Italy?
we might just have to settle for the Canad Inns in Grand forks.

Friday, October 8, 2010

What I like in a restaurant

We walk in, sit at the bar. The bartender asks you want you want to drink and where you are from. He pours Danielle a glass of wine, and me a pastis with a side of water. It's a french bistro so I feel the need to drink pastis. I point to the two most expensive on the list and ask him which one is best. He recommends the cheapest one and says it is his favourite. We scooch over a spot to let two more join us in this busy, yet cosy spot. The bartender cracks a few jokes. When he discovers we own a french bistro in Canada, he starts speaking in French to us. He knows about three words, but is feeling pretty proud of them. We order an app, puy lentils and pork belly with duck confit. We contemplate a second app, but he warns us that it is a rich dish and maybe we should just start there. We are there because we have a 9:30 reso down the street and it is only 8:30. By the time it is time to leave, we contemplating cancelling our reso and staying at Bistro Jeanty. No, we need to go to Bouchon.
The next night, we walk into Morimoto. The Iron Chef has a new spot in Napa. The woman at the door greets us with a warm smile and seats us at the bar in a very impressive, large room. Lights clearly designed just for this space, over sized yellow wing backs, grey and steel, a gleaming stainless kitchen. So we sit at the bar, and wait. The bartender is busy talking to a couple that were clearly hipper than we were. When asked, he gave us a drink menu. He makes the wrong drink for me, then replaces it. Danielle orders a gimlet, which tastes nasty and chemically. We apologetically send it back, the bartender was trying to "kick it up" by using Hanger One Kaffir Lime. Sorry if it was too intense for us. He takes the drink away but doesn't offer to remake it, neither does he offer an alternative. The menu is overwhelming, crazy stuff we have never seen before. We order some (well-made) sushi as we contemplate what else to order. The bartender doesn't go out of his way to talk with us, he doesn't ask if we have any questions about the food, he doesn't suggest his favourites. We get no love from him. I am sure the food there was fabulous, but we don't stick around long enough to find out. We paid for our one drink and our fish and walked down the street...

Our favourite restaurants in Napa and San Francisco, were not the fanciest. They were not the ones run by celebrity chefs. They were not the ones we had read about in food magazines or on Urban Spoon. Our favourite restaurants were the ones which had warm and welcoming staff. Our favourite restaurants were loud and busy. Our favourite resaturants were the ones where the staff seemed to care about their place. Our favourite restaurants were the ones where the staff seemed to care about us.

Our Favourite restaurant in Napa was the Rutherford Grill, in the Town of Rutherford. We sat at the bar, the bartender let me sample the local draft beers before ordering. He suggested a white from "down the road" for Danielle. On our first visit Danielle ordered the vegetable plate which featured local produce at its best. I had a wood roasted chicken salad. Our second visit Danielle had the veg plate again and I had a really great French dip sandwich. We were told by several people that they do the best cheeseburger in California. We hung out at the bar with a local winemaker who was clearly a regular. He said that he was part of two teams of regulars who regularly occupy this bar. He claimed his team was the A team, although the two gentlemen sitting on the other side of us, members of the other team, would argue that point. This was the kind of place that after our first visit we were recommending it to other travellers we met at wine tastings.
Our favourite restaurant in San Francisco was Nopa. This place was a moderately sized restaurant, but when we arrived at 9:30 on Wednesday night, it was packed. We were told that we would have a 45 minute wait. We went over to the narrow bar area for a drink while we waited, and
muscled in to the first on seats at the long bar top. The head bar tender was intense. His eyes were constantly scanning the bar for things that needed doing and customers that needed help. I asked him, as he was stirring drinks, "do you taste every drink you make?" He replied with "do you taste your food?" But in the midst of all that intensity he cracked jokes, engaged in political debate, asked us about our restaurant and generally helped us have a good time. It didn't hurt that the food was fantastic as well. Simple yet interesting, flavourful and oh so comforting. We had cubes of polenta with creamed corn, ridiculously tasty cherry tomatoes and melted cheese. We had wood grilled broccoli with buttered bread crumbs and anchovies. We had a chicken noodle soup that would make your grandma weep.

We left California filled with ideas about food, about wines, about drinks, about better ways to run a restaurant. It was supposed to be a holiday, but we spent the whole time thinking and planning. It was great to be inspired, but it was also nice to see that we were doing some things right. I was quite excited that my duck confit was better than Thomas Keller's duck confit at Bouchon, but more importantly, it was nice to be reminded that the type of restaurant we like to eat at, is the type of restaurant we own. Our place is busy and loud, the food is comfortable and tasty and we are warm and welcoming. Bistro 7 1/4 is the type of restaurant I would seek out if I was visiting from out of town.