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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
It was a fairly quiet week for dining out, though things will start up again this weekend with a few Napa visits (but those reviews wait until next week!).
Mission Chinese Food, San Francisco
Quite possibly the most talked about restaurant in San Francisco, Mission Chinese Food perfectly shows where dining is 2012. It’s a pop up, yet also a restaurant. A little over a year ago, Anthony Myint and his wife Karen Leibovitz (of the pop up Mission Street Food and next door restaurant to Mission Chinese Food, Commonwealth) took over the Lung Shan Chinese Restaurant on Mission St. at 18th, that was not exactly on the radar of area food followers to say the least. They hired Danny Bowien, a chef best known for winning the World Pesto Championship in 2008.
There’s not a lot of pesto on the menu here, but a lot of gusto to Bowien’s Szechuan influenced, far global reaching menu. Bowien now is preparing to open the first off Mission offshoot of the restaurant, in New York. Luckily, the kitchen is hitting on all cyliners without his daily presence. This is Chinese food in inspiration and family style servings. The creations though represent the sheer vibrant diversity of San Francisco.
The cooking, the service, and even the atmosphere (the restrooms are not hideous anymore) have all smoothed out, becoming crisper and more refined since my initial visit last July. Then, the ma po tofu’s spice forced me to drink an entire swimming pool, and the enticing broth, chunks of tender Kurobota pork shoulder, and buttery cubes of tofu made up for the palette dulling spice. Those peppercorns that Szechuan cuisine is famous for numb your taste in a good way if that’s possible to say.
No longer on the menu, Bowien made an excellent Chinese barbeque sampler with hot links and fork tender brisk, a mash up of Fort Worth and Shanghai if I’ve heard of one. Bowien’s silky chilled egg custard is excellent with briny sea urchin and tiny scallops. The addicting Beijing vinegar peanuts and variation on kimchi cucumber pickles are excellent for beginning snacks. The heart of the order comes in the large plates. Sizzling lamb belly is excellent, coated in the Northern Chinese Islamic style with pungent cumin. Shanghai chow mein comes tossed withpork trotters and rock shrimp, while the simple sounding beef brisket noodle soup gets jazzed by a cardamom broth. The only dud is the salt cod fried rice, begging for less grease and more salt cod to liven the proceedings.
The stand out is the thrice cooked bacon tossed in chili oil atop a mound of miniature sweet rice cakes like lilly pads on a pond, tofu skins, and black beans. It’s not exactly your neighborhood take-out Chinese dish. My one wish at Mission Chinese Food would be to cut down the portion size, trim the already shockingly low prices with the portion size, and allow us to sample more of this exciting creations. I can’t imagine how popular the place would with everything tapas style.
It’s a party every night (except Wednesdays, beware!) at Mission Chinese Food. Even the wine and beer lists have slightly improved, with 3-4 options for each, including the terrific 21st Amendment Back In Black IPA, where hops meet stouts.
A year in and expanding to New York, Mission Chinese Food is better than ever and just as popular. Come at 9pm on a rainy weekday night and then you don’t have to wait!
Barefoot Coffee Roasters, Santa Clara, CA
A terrific espresso is pulled by the baristas at this oasis of quality third wave coffee in a random mini mall in a random area of Silicon Valley. The espresso comes a bit on the sour side like at Four Barrel, with some clove noticable, and an excellent crema. The music is hypnotizing, making everyone feel as zoned out as the baristas can sometimes soon. They do know how to make coffee here, dazed, or not.
La Trappe, San Francisco
A somewhat hidden gem of a Belgian beer bar and restaurant to get your moules frites and Tripel on. Tucked between touristy North Beach and touristy Fisherman’s Wharf, this is one of the city’s premier destinations for top notch European and American craft brews. Bartenders are incredibly knowledgeable as if they make the beers themselves and I can’t think of a much more charming setting than the cozy brick exposed cellar room downstairs. It’s perfect for a date or contemplating the superb Jolly Pumpkin Madrugada Obscura Dawn Imperial Sour Stout. Yes, that’s the name of the beer I had.
Joy Restaurant, Foster City
Having been to Taipei, Taiwan last summer, searching far and wide at night markets for the classic stinky tofu, I thought I found some, but clearly there was a missing link in the translation as the tofu was none too stinky. So I finally found time to seek out this traditional Chinese restaurant with a small specialty in Taiwanese specialties, in particular stinky tofu. You can get it fried or steamed in a similar way that Koreans serve soontofu, in a broth of boiling chili oil topped with chunks of pork, onions, and black beans. Joy ferments its own tofu. This is the real stuff, foul to the nose from when it exits the kitchen. The taste is intriguing, but ultimately not as exciting as an aged cheese would be. Then again, this is tofu we’re talking about. You end up feeling bad for the tables next to you and realize your clothes are going straight to the washer.
Interestingly enough, the special dish was an excellent recommendation by the waiter who could barely communicate to me his thoughts. On the menu it’s called “sliced gluten,” as unexciting as wheat germ or “pencil” might look on a menu. Guess again. Cubes of hoisin marinated seitan get tossed with edaname beans and shitake mushrooms for a fantastic starter. Gluten never tasted so good, especially with the stink of the tofu nearby.
Caffe Roma, San Francisco
Even though this North Beach cafe roasts its own beans, the espresso is as watery as I had recently at SFO. Very kind baristas and the back room’s leather banquettes makes you feel like a Beat Generation author. The bum sleeping on a table there made me feel like this is San Francisco.
Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store
No, not a cigar in sight, nor is this is a store. It’s a charming, North Beach stand by on Columbus, overlooking Washington Square Park. While next door’s Original Joe’s is massive and rowdy, Mario’s is miniscule and organized, with seating mainly at the 10 seat or so bar. It’s a rare local’s joint in this area, despite Frommer’s being in love with it. The espresso sadly is very bland and watery like Caffe Roma, but the atmosphere and tempting looking pizzas from the oven behind the bar, make this more than worthwhile.
We’ll see where next week takes us, have a great weekend!