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Bites of The First Half of November

It’s been a few weeks since we savored some of the most special dishes enjoyed each week. Here are some of the bites that stop you in your tracks and make you want to order another round, all based in the San Francisco Bay Area this time around.

Next week we’ll get ready for Thanksgiving, the “Super Bowl” for the food world. Also, we’ll have new reports from Los Angeles and begin the switch to the holiday season, where everything pumpkin becomes everything peppermint.

Beauty’s Bagels, Oakland: Sesame Wood-Fired Bagel with Lox, Salted Cucumber, Capers, Red Onion, Arugula, and Oven-Roasted Tomato Cream Cheese

This new, cute bagel purveyor and much more café in a still edgy part of Oakland boasts an impressive wood-fired oven for their Montréal style bagels, à la St. Viateur and Fairmount (Fairmount is my pick). The smoky nature of the bagel is enhanced when served with just sesame seeds, a perfect contrast the velvet soft ribbons of superb lox. Go for the oven roasted tomato cream cheese for the perfect breakfast and make sure to go for the whole vegetable topping package. (more…)

Bites of the Week: Maybe The Best Pasta of My Life?

On the left, Oenotri’s fidei with smoked mackerel, tomato, and shellfish brodo. On the right, fried cavalo nero

Oenotri, Napa, CA: Fidei with Smoked Mackerel, Tomato, Cream, Shellfish Brodo, and Hot Pepper

Fidei is essentially capellini pasta, commonly seen in the Ligurian region of Italy, often paired with that other specialty of Liguria: pesto. Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde create some of the most innovative pastas anywhere, and none more so than this incredible dish. Think of the most vivid seafood broth of a bouillabaisse in Marseille, enhanced for some structure by cream and tomato. Flakes of fishy but not overly so smoked mackerel are strewn about the fidei, perfectly complimenting the oceanic voice of the broth. Finished with a joly of hot pepper, this is as perfect a pasta dish as you’ll fine.

Oenotri: Fried Cavalo Nero with Chili, Lemon, and Pecorino

Cavalo Nero is black kale, so this is healthy right? It’s a lot healthier and tastier than potato chips or frites in terms of vegetable sides. In the same vein as the recent boom in fried brussels sprouts (usually with pancetta…), the razor thin cavalo nero gets lightly fried to a crisp, then sprinkled with flakes of sharp pecorino, a squeeze of lemon for a new acidic dimension, and like the with fidei above, a jolt of spice from the chili. Once you pop, the fun won’t stop…they actually reminded me of Pringles in terms of the thin, brittle nature of the central ingredient.

Bottega’s Polenta Under a Glass

Bottega, Yountville, CA: Polenta Under a Glass with Caramelized Mushrooms, and Balsamic Game Sauce

Polenta? Seriously, we’re ordering polenta? That was the unanimous exclamation of my table when informed by myself and our very helpful waiter than the polenta was a must order. This isn’t your garden variety polenta, folks. Warm and creamy, served in a canning jar with the mushrooms glistening on top, and then after being mixed together, served on a plate, and topped by the robust sauce. Just like everything from Michael Chiarello (spoiling already next week’s review), this dish perfectly represents the Northern California meets soulful Tuscany ideal that the chef strives to achieves and surpasses magnificently. You’ll never have polenta this good I promise.

Note- the polenta really is IN glass, not under.

Bottega’s Pan Roasted Potato Gnocchi with Spring Vegetables and English Pea Fonduta

Bottega: Pan Roasted Potato Gnocchi with Spring Vegetables, English Pea Fonduta,  and Valley Ford Montasio

If I have ever had a dish I wanted to call Cézanne to hustle over and take a quick still life of before we ate it, this would be it. The dish just looks like spring. It’s full of bright colors, signalling hope, love, and the arrival of sunshine (and English peas). With tender brussels sprouts, pickled onions, carrots that almost melt, a swirl of the most pea-tasting English pea fonduta, the dish really thrives because of Chiarello’s home made potato gnocchi. They are somewhat hefty raft boat shaped gnocchi made of potato instead of flour, for a more earthy flavor. Then caramelized to a perfect golden crisp, this really is quite the masterpiece. Get Cezanne to paint and Mr. Beard to taste this!

Cheeseboard Collective’s Roasted Cauliflower Pizza

Cheeseboard Collective: Pizza with Roasted Cauliflower, Roasted Onions, Cheddar Cheese, Mozzarella, Italian Parsley, and Garlic Olive Oil

It’s the crust, just doughy enough toward the center, but very crisp at the perimeter that makes this one of the Bay Area’s premier pastas. Ingredients are stellar, especially the combination of sharp cheddar with the earthy funk of cooked cauliflower. I only wished for a little more Italian Parsley. It’s a greasy affair thanks to the garlic olive oil. The ratios are just perfect: not too wet towards the center, just the right amount of toppings, just the right amount of naked crust at the edge. They do one pizza a day here and boy, do they do that one pizza right. More places should take note about that lesson.

Cheeseboard Collective: Chocolate-Chocolate Chip Cookie

Almost more like a moist, dense chocolate cake, this is truly an epic and undeniably chocolatey cookie. Soft but not mushy, everything clicks here. Perfect after a Cheeseboard Pizza. Then go to the Temescal for…

White Guava Sorbet at Scream Sorbet, Oakland

Scream Sorbet: White Guava Sorbet (or any sorbet…)

I could have picked any sorbet here really, such charming sorbets from an equally charming postage stamp sized store front in Oakland’s Temescal Neighborhood. Something about the pristine white guava made by day so much brighter. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to guava tasting so syrupy that you feel horrible drinking this “fruit juice.” The sorbet here was so pure it felt like yoga meditation by the scoop.

And the Honorary Not So Pleasant Bite of the Week: Manhattan at Cafe Renzo, Palo Alto, CA

Manhattans depend on the bourbon. It’s the fabled trio of angostura bitters, vermouth, and then bourbon. At the almost elegant belle époque Cafe Renzo (formerly Francis Ford Coppola’s Cafe Neibaum Coppola) that is very Italian in food and waiters, but very French brasserie in look, this isn’t the place to sip a Manhattan. But, hey $5 cocktails and $4 wine at happy hour? Great deal right? Think of it as punishment if you have to sip those wines or succeed in finishing this Manhattan. I didn’t even bother to ask what low grade bourbon was thrown in. All I know is Happy Hour may have been cheap, but this drink makes nobody very happy for an hour.

End of the Week Wrap

A relatively quiet week after a food and wine filled weekend in the Napa Valley. Here are some of the other places visited the past few days, in addition to Oenotri in Napa reviewed yesterday and a certain Yountville restaurant (no, it doesn’t rhyme with The Bench Fondly) that will be reviewed next Thursday.

Is it Taylor's or Gott's?

Gott’s Roadside

In 1999 the Gott winemaking family bought the legendary Taylor’s Automatic Refresher along Highway 29 in St. Helena and at San Francisco’s Ferry Building from the Taylor Family, with the assumption that they will keep the fabled name in tact. That was the case until 2010 when the Gott’s switched the name and enough of the Bay Area was ready to revolt at the Gott’s Bastille. That revolt never really happened if the half hour lines in 90 degree heat last weekend are any indication. It’s an American classic, even the James Beard Awards have bestowed it with the title of “Regional American Classic” back in 2006.

It’s a great stop for a casual, filling lunch in the middle of wine tasting. The menu spans all the diner classics with high quality buzz word ingredients: Niman Ranch beef, Let’s Be Frank organic hot dogs, and the like. The burgers are the claim to fame aside from Gott’s location and roadside Americana atmosphere. One fellow diner complained about the burger meat being cooked too rare despite the menu claiming burgers are cooked to medium. Indeed it was medium rare…which made it juicier and even better than it would have been at medium. Think of the burger as a notch above In N Out, both similar in style featuring thousand island sauce covered burger that leaves your hands coated after eating. Gott’s meat patty is roughly twice the size of an In N Out burger. It’s the tender Niman Ranch beef that makes the difference really between the two burgers. Consider the variations on burgers too at Gott’s, whether to go Badger State with a Wisconsin sourdough burger or with griddled mushrooms and BBQ sauce, or Lone Star State with a Texas burger slathered in salsa, Monterey jack, sliced avocado, and pickled jalapenos. Fries are good, onion rings even better, and the shakes very reliable. This being Napa, why not keep the tasting going with a class of 09 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon or throw a change-up ay the routine with a Lagunitas IPA on draft instead?

As good as the burger is, it’s the fish items that actually shine the most. Fresh mahi mahi star in a pair of fish tacos and fresh ahi in a “burger” that resembles nothing of a burger except for the same toasted egg bun. It’s really an ahi sandwich. Sandwich or burger, it’s beautiful ruby red sashimi with ginger wasabi mayonnaise and just the right amount of Asian slaw. Roadside Americana? Well, this is the Napa Valley too, where it’s also sashimi and chardonnay country.

Ritual Coffee at Oxbow Market

San Francisco’s Ritual Coffee, one of the leaders of the “third wave” coffee roasting movement recently branched out for the first time to the Oxbow Market in Napa, a miniature version of the Ferry Building. The espresso here is just as rustic as the main cafe in the Mission District, possibly even better without that cafe’s hypnotizing music. An excellent crema gives way to a slight mahogany-cranberry finish. With Hog Island Oyster, Fatted Calf Charcuterie, Todd Humphries’ Kitchen Door, and many other very worthy artisans and food stalls, Ritual is a very welcomed addition to the market.

Napa Valley Wine Train

Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, there are at least three dozen better restaurants in the Napa Valley. Yes, it’s overpriced. But, it’s an experience. There is nothing like it I know of that brings back the glamour of old luxury train travel as if this were the Orient Express transferred to wine country. You fully expect Lauren Bacall to be sipping a a flute of champagne in the booth next to you, while  With the sunset to the west and the fading sunlight shimmering on the vineyards, the vistas for the first half of the train ride at dinnertime are stunning this time of year.

We were there celebrating my magnificent (and a huge train fan) Grandfather’s 80th birthday. It fit the celebratory bill perfectly. A great way to start is by wine tasting in the wine tasting cart. Here’s where things go downhill and can easily be fixed. Why were some of the wines we tasted not even from Napa? Better yet, why were some of the wines (especially the Honig Cabernet Sauvignon, a usually reliably good winery) not in the least good? In fact, shockingly with the name of this train, the wine list was very disappointing and absurdly overpriced for its quality. Maybe you shouldn’t have wine on the wine train?

The food is not the star if the show nor should it be with the spectacular setting. The first half of the train is for drinking and a ho hum hors d’oeuvres . The pâté was chalky and inedible, but the grapes and cheese passed the test. Shrimp with a few shreds of seaweed was surprisingly creative. Three course dinners start with a regular baby lady lettuce salad with an intriguing smoked goat cheese, candied walnuts, and honey cider vinaigrette that is pleasant but you won’t remember fifteen minutes later. There are a trio of sorbets next that fit more at dessert time. They aren’t necessarily palate cleansing, reminding me of the popsicles at the summer sports camps of my youth.

Sturgeon with Mussels and Pineapple Beurre Blanc on Napa Valley Wine Train

The noteworthy sturgeon with three (yes three, not four) was a nightly special, served United Airlines style on forgettable rice, with a pineapple beurre blanc begging for any vague taste of pineapple. At least the fish was moist and flaky. You could consider a riveting salmon on bay shrimp risotto or the always enticing vegetable trio: grilled zucchini with goat cheese, yam stuffed gypsy peppers, and sweet pea raviolis.

Sarcasm aside, nearly everyone goes towards the meat here, if for any other reason than to have an excuse for Napa Valley cabs…if only the train’s selection was worthwhile. Grilled pork tenderloin is passable atop polenta with three wild mushrooms and a flavorless truffle port reduction. The somewhat tender roasted beef tenderloin was a wiser choice with a Bordelaise potato and carrot sauté. The one show-stopper of the night was the toast with the beef slathered in a luscious Cambazola cheese. What did it have to do with the dish as a whole? Nothing. But good cheese is good cheese.

Dessert is vanilla crême brulée or a chocolate tiramisu. I opted for an improvised fruit plate. There were zeppoles to be eaten the next day at Bottega.

Cafe Borrone, Menlo Park

I finally visited my local cafe haunt for dinner for the first time since last year when they unveiled a new small, ambitious sounding dinner menu. Homemade pastas share space with various fish and steak dishes rotating weekly (though it seems like some dishes don’t change). The halibut over celery root puree and beurre blanc has been on the menu for weeks now, but they had run out of it by the time we arrived. I had thoroughly enjoyed Borrone’s crab cakes before and these did not disappoint. A trio of cakes that are filled with nothing but crab look more like coconut macaroons, tasting of pure sautéed crab meat.

Borrone makes its own pasta, filling a ravioli with ricotta and bloomsdale spinach. It’s an excellent choice, but the large portion gets monotonous after a while. The ravioli itself wasn’t as tidy as it should be, with far too much excess, unfilled pasta to the perimeter. Along with the always excellent desserts, the very spring fava bean crostini was brilliant.

The problem with dinner at Borrone lies in the whole concept of dinner at an order at the counter, servers bring the food to the number on your table type of restaurant. What if you want three courses? You’re not allowed to make a tab. What if you want another glass of wine? Get up and order again. For a real dinner here, you could be going to the cash register 5-6 times in the meal. That’s a bit much I would say.

Cheeseboard Collective, Berkeley, CA

Cheeseboard Collective, Berkeley

Across from Chez Panisse, part of the legendary 1970’s Gourmet Ghetto of Berkeley. Since its founding in 1967 and a worker’s collective since 1971, the Cheeseboard is a cult favorite amongst Cal students, many of whom probably come every day for lunch. It’s the kind of place where you don’t even care what the pizza of the day is or who the band performing will be. It’ll be good, have faith. The Cheeseboard is also the kind of place where they’ll be taking May 1st off to celebrate International Worker’s Day. I never knew May 1 was a holiday outside of a dancing around the May Pole.

It’s a simple menu. One daily changing pizza and one daily changing salad. If you want a slice, you’ll get a slice with a little “charity” slice added on top. Or get a whole pizza for the frat party (you’ll be very popular!). The lines are infamous, but the brusque, uber-efficient service actually makes the wait never that bad. It’s the smell of the pizza that makes the wait rough.

My visit happened to have a terrific roasted cauliflower and roasted onion variety (pizzas are always vegetarian here), over mozzarella and a very sharp cheddar cheese, with a few specks of Italian parsley and a drizzle of garlic olive oil. The combination sang beautiful notes, especially the cheddar teaming with the earthy cauliflower. It’s the crust that makes the day though, thicker than Neopolitan, and slightly doughy towards the center and crispy at the edge. No discussion of Bay Area pizza elite is complete without the Cheeseboard, though I still have to give gold and silver to Gialina and Flour + Water.

Next door is the sensational Cheeseboard Cheese shop, probably where that sharp cheddar came from. The baked goods are not to be skipped either, especially a scrumptuous chocolate chocolate chip cookie that seems more like a cake and fluffy, killer fresh pita. Hummus never had a better dance partner than that pita.

Remedy Coffee, Oakland

Remedy Coffee, Oakland

While Ritual has an outpost as mentioned above in Napa’s Oxbow Market, it has no outpost in Oakland. Officially that is. The honest truth is that this eclectic coffee shop on a barren stretch of Telegraph just out of walking distance (it’s close but…this stretch is more what people imagine Oakland to be) from the street’s now vibrant and hopping Temescal neighborhood heart is really a Ritual cafe. The coffee is Ritual, the vibe just as alternative and Mission feeling  as the Ritual cafe in the Mission. The coffee itself? Excellent, beautiful espresso and drip-overs. The vibe can be a bit cold, not inviting you to sit and read for a while. The dominating painting of a Telegraph Ave. street sign above the bar is very striking. Ritual or Remedy? What’s in a name?

Scream Sorbet, Oakland, CA

Scream Sorbet, Oakland

Further up Telegraph is the Temescal commercial center, best known as the home of Pizzaiolo and Bakesale Betty’s fried chicken sandwiches. Add some of the Bay Area’s most pristine (and healthy) iced treats. Scream Sorbet recently opened this storefront after operating only out of pints in a cooler at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market for a year or so. It’s a beautiful, sunshine filled spot, barely larger than the freezer filled with pints. Samples are given liberally (I literally was forced to try every one of the flavors). Go for the fruit flavors first, especially the white guava that makes any guava juice you’ve had before taste like fructose syrup. Pistachio is bold and vivid with the nut’s funky flavor. Go for the chocolate hazelnut and it actually tastes of hazelnut. Maple walnut tastes like walnut instead of just plain sugar. Strawberry shortcake? Tastes how it sounds, like perfectly ripe, red berries in a buttery Pierre Hermé pastry crust.

Prices are almost twice as high for the dainty scoops as you would get for the equivalent at a Bi Rite or Fenton’s…yet there is something so innocent, so pure in these sorbets that you walk away almost feeling virtuous from eating these sorbets. The scoops are worth the price, don’t worry. It’s the kind of place you wish you had around the corner from your house.

Where Peet's Was Born

the original Peet’s Coffee, Berkeley

Part of the Gourmet Ghetto, the “second wave” of coffee started here at Vine and Walnut. The shop seems no different than any other Peet’s in a shopping center near you. Yet the quality seems a tick above usual. Usually, Peet’s espresso strikes me as watery Italian style. Here it’s as full of nuance and a beautiful crema that I could be fooled into thinking its Ritual. For coffee fans, it’s a pilgrimage. Is it really a better Peet’s than, say, the one a few blocks further down Shattuck? If my espresso says anything, then yes.