Observations on Food in the Bay Area
How I shop for wine
Wow, it's been over a year since I posted here. That's a shame. I'll try to work on that.
Anyway, I just finished writing up this long, rather detailed set of notes on my process when perusing the aisles at a wine retailer (like klwines.com or thewineclub.com, my 2 favorites in the Bay Area) looking for things to buy. It struck me that I ought to post those thoughts, as others might find them interesting. So here ya go.
In general, I look at a few different things. All of these, except the 1st one, are for finding good wines I don't already know and/or haven't already tried.
- 1, wines I know. If I already know the wine or winery is good, I'm likely to get some if the price is reasonable. This is less likely to be helpful to you, except for some general notes about reliable producers, like that Ridge and Rosenblum are almost guaranteed to make good Zinfandel.
- 2, price. I've got a map in my head of what I'm willing to pay for various types of wine (that I haven't tasted). here's a short list:
zin: $15-20 (except producers i know to be good)
malbec/tempranillo (spain & chile/argentina): $15-20
french rhone: ~$20
riesling/viognier: ~$15 (US/germany/alsace)
sauv blanc/semillon: ~$10 (US/New Zealand)
these numbers are what i use when looking at wines i don't already know, for a reasonably likelihood that the wine will be good. good wines of all of these varieties can be found cheaper, but that generally requires inside knowledge of an unknown deal, for example the employees at the wine club, or having tried the wine yourself/knowing the winery well.
- 3, rating + who rated it + accuracy + tasting notes. wine is too complex for a point score to tell you much that's useful. generally, anything rated 90+ has the potential to be pretty good. below that and it gets iffy, unless you already know the winery & wine pretty well (I've certainly had good 85 point wines, but I've also had many 85 point wines I didn't think much of).
you also have to look at who rated it. wine stores will put up any good rating they find to try & sell more wine. the wine club isn't as underhanded as many, but it's always worth looking closely. "Wine Advocate" or "Robert Parker", "Wine Spectator" and "Wine & Spirits" are pretty reliable for their ratings. "Wine Enthusiast" is less so - they often have grade inflation, as they're driven by advertising & marketing more than the others. Some online rating site I'm less likely to trust. Also, make sure that the rating is for the exact bottle it's matched with. unscrupulous wine shops may list ratings for other wines the producer makes, or for the same wine but a different vintage (the SF costco does this all the time, though they usually highlight ratings when they do match the bottles for sale).
finally, once you like the rating, rater, and it's for the bottle they're selling, read the notes and see if it sounds like something you'd like to drink. for example, if you don't like dry, tannic wines beware of phrases like "strong/firm tannins" or that recommend a few years of aging before drinking (which implies the wine is tannic, and needs time to mellow).
so that's more or less what's going through my head when wine shopping.
there are also some other things, like whether the wine is from a region that's generally good at making that wine, or whether a wine's vintage was a good year for the area it came from (which I'm horrible at keeping track of), but these aren't necessarily as important. (though vintage probably should be; i'm just not good at remembering it).
but your best resources are really 2 things:
first, tasting a lot of different wine, to get a good feel for what sorts of things/flavors you like.
second, telling the enthusiastic, knowledgeable people who work at good wine shops for recommendations based on the sorts of things/flavors you like. in a place like the wine club, it's what they're there for, and they all love wine and will love helping you find good things to drink. :)
Food blog review aggregator/site
Restaurant Reviews by Food Bloggers
Great concept - search restaurants by food blog ratings, all aggregated into one site. Should be rolling out in SF soon.
website - half renovation, half reinvention of the space previously occupied by Hawthorne Lane, Two opened just 2 days ago. The first thing you'll notice walking up to the entrance (which is in the parking lot) is that adjacent to the door are a collection of iron and stone ants. Fun and quirky. The door handles throughout are all fun metal sculpture resembling gnarled vines. It's a great way to set a unique tone before you're even inside. Following what seems to be a trend recently (or maybe it's just the 2 most recent restaurants I've been to) they've gone with a brown theme. The walls are all zebra wood (according to a previous review; I wouldn't have known the name, but the resemblance is clear) which is definately unusual, but a bit odd looking; it has something of a busy feel. The quirky decoration is only enhanced by the most unique lighting I've seen in a long time - large hanging lamps of (apparently) shards of coconut. I think I've seen miniskirts that looked vaguely similar, but as lighting it's fun and very cool looking. The space is dominated by a large, oval bar in the center with a good selection of inventive cocktails. Unfortunately, my first choice which involved an infused vodka apparently hadn't infused sufficiently yet, so I went with my recent standby - a Woodford Manhattan, which was pleasantly large and well made.
They have a large communal eating table where we sat, with benches along its length and oversized stuffed chairs at each end (which are incredibly entertaining especially when occupied by those of the petite persuasion). This is a fun concept, and I hope it works for them, as communal dining works or doesn't more often than not depending on those doing the dining. If you choose it, it will probably go well. If you end up there because it's all that's left, perhaps not.
On glancing over the wine list, the first thing I noticed was the large list labeled "50 under $50." As a self-professed wine dork, who often finds himself annoyed by restaurants who seem to see wine as nothing more than an opportunity to wring customers for all the money they can, this was clear evidence to me that these folks get it. If you want to introduce people to wine who aren't regular drinkers, or who are intimidated by its complexity, or who simply aren't flush with cash, good inexpensive wine is the way you do it. And I firmly believe that many of those people who sample a few inexpensive good bottles will quickly come to see how well a good wine can enhance the full dining experience, and will progress on to the more expensive (and lucrative for the restaurant) options as their tastes and curiosity expand. Our waiter proved that he knew the wines on offer, as both of those I sampled before deciding on a different bottle met his descriptions quite accurately, and the bottle we selected based on his recommendation was a great choice - an '03 Catena Zapata Malbec from Argentina for $36. They also offer wine which is custom-bottled for the restaurant and as such available at a great discount. It's currently a sangiovese, which is light but chock full of strawberry flavors and while not an amazing wine, is certainly pleasant and quite drinkable.
On to the food!
So we only had one, which came thoroughly recommended:
Roasted marrow bones with tomato stew and crusty bread - it takes a while to prepare, but is a fascinating thing if you've never experienced it before. The marrow was suprisingly subtle in flavor, especially when eaten unaccompanied on the bread. Add a pinch of salt, however, and it begins to sing. It's easily overpowered by the rich tomato stew (with delicious slices of garlic), so while the 2 go well together, you must be careful not to overwhelm the light flavor of the marrow with the intensity of the stew (which is really more like a chunky tomato sauce). The 3 of us who tried it all agreed this was quite fantastic.
Grilled swordfish with braised escarole, topped with garlic herb sauce - I've loved swordfish for a very, very long time, and I spent many years refusing to eat it while it was on the endangered list. Now that it's recovering, I get to enjoy it on occasion again, and this was one such. It's not a particularly large serving, but it's of proper size, decorated with what's much less a sauce, and more a sprinkling of chopped herbs (mainly green). After the marrow sauce, the garlic on the fish seemed almost nonexistant by comparison. My first bite was a bit tough and slightly overcooked, but luckily that was only at the thinner edges, and most of the fish was tender and really delicious. All the smoky, grilled, almost steak-like goodness I adore. The escarole was astoundingly good - rich and flavorful, and a great contrast in its light crunch to the meaty texture of the fish.
Of the following, I had but a sample...
Prime New York strip with bleu cheese compound butter - I only got a slice of the steak, which was done to roughly medium (as it was supposed to be). To me, it was a little tough, though I order mine medium rare, so that could be why. It was tasty, but in my bite there was nothing truly outstanding.
Roasted pork with braised Belgian endive and apples - I only had a bit of the pork, which looked like odd half-round and unusually thick bacon. This was noticeably tougher and fattier than I would have liked, and honestly didn't do much for me at all. Could be personal preference rearing its ugly head here, but it's not something I'd order.
Braised lamb cheeks with creamy polenta - unfortunately I didn't get a chance to try the lamb (which looked delicious and judging by how clean the plate was later, must have been) but the polenta was scrumptious. Very soft and creamy (not the kind of polenta you cut with a knife, or really cut at all) and really delicious.
Apple tarte on puff pastry with vanilla bean ice cream - wonderful, flaky, very buttery pastry with juicy, rich, sweet slabs of apple on top, accompanied by what could only be housemade ice cream, as it had that homemade consistency and richness of flavor. Great.
Banana cream pie brulee - this I had to try. It's sliced banana, caramelized to a crisp on top (probably with added sugar) like a creme brulee topping, layered across a creme brulee enclosed in a pastry crust. Very interesting. The banana flavor seemed to overwhelm the light flavors one usually expects in a creme brulee, but that didn't stop it from being good. But if you're expecting a more traditional creme brulee that has a hint of banana, this isn't it. It was accompanied by some sort of ice cream which everyone else declared to be banana, but which I actually thought tasted more like traditional creme brulee than the main dessert itself. It also had a remarkably creamy consistency which made me think it more likely to be sorbet or gelato than ice cream. Either way, it was very good.
Service throughout the evening was uniformly well informed and very, almost remarkably, friendly. They really liked asking if we wanted more wine; not sure if they're encouraged to do so, or if it was just because we seemed to be enjoying ours (which we were). Everyone was just chatty enough to make the experience that much more pleasant, without being annoying or overbearing. The food was good and priced quite reasonably for the quality, and I really liked the atmosphere in which it was designed and presented. TWO wants to provide a place to go out and enjoy a good meal, without making you feel like you have to pay an arm and a leg for it. We should be so lucky to have more places like this.
website - located on Jackson St, just off of Columbus in the oddball land of old brick buildings known as Jackson Square, tucked between the Financial District and North Beach, your first impression is of the cool and vaguely aggressive entrance, an alcove inset into the wall with a massive, dark wood door set at an angle. It's reasonably unique, and certainly a striking first impression. Beyond the door, you walk through a nice equally dark buffer curtain into a warm yet modern atmosphere of hardwood floors, dark wood chairs, and various shades of brown and tan throughout the walls and beamed ceiling. A dark bar lit by old-fashioned large filament bulbs dominates the left end of the space, and the dining area is sunken to the right. It's an intense yet classy space.
We were a bit early, so started at the bar - there's a reasonably interesting list of specialty cocktails, and my Manhattan was well made and plentiful.
Moving on to dinner, our first sample of the food to come was a basket of delectable little biscuits - warm, moist, and chock full of buttery goodness. A promising start, though we soon discovered that our place had been set sans napkins, the first of a few quirks.
This being the Dine About Town month, we went with the prix fixe menu, which offered 4 selections for each course, all of which looked quite good. They also offer a $15 2-glass wine pairing, but it (this evening) was the 2 cheapest wines by the glass, one white, one red, and represented a savings of $2 over ordering them individually. Seeing a pleasantly long and non-standard selection of bottles (with an impressively large selection of Pinot Noir, and offering a full spread of wines from around the world - fun to peruse), we chose 2003 Anne Amie Willamette Valley Pinot Noir (largely at the recommendation of the sommelier). A fabulous selection - ripe, bright cherry and berry fruit well mixed with earthy and tobacco complexity and plenty of acidity. A wonderful wine, it worked very well with everything we ate.
Carrot broth with chervil sabayon and black truffle oil - when the bowl of intensely orange liquid was placed in front of me, it was as if I'd been punched in the nose by a truffle. What an aroma! The soup was awesomely rich, much like the sweet shredded carrot dessert often found in Indian restaurants, but the intense earthy flavor of the truffle oil added a whole layer of fascinating complexity. Delicious.
Smoked trout with truffled egg salad and crostini - egg salad the way you've never had it. Served as 4 small baked (and olive oiled) crostini, topped with a dollop of egg salad and covered in a slab of trout. These develop through a full range of flavors, with the initial being the subtlety of the white fish flavors enhanced and intermingled with the equally subtle egg salad, enhanced by the crusty crunch of the bread and (in this case) a light application of truffle which is but barely noticeable as an additional note of flavor. This then slowly morphs into a smooth rich smoky aftertaste.
Scottish salmon with shallot confit, black trumpets, fingerling potatoes and curry buerre blanc - I was slightly hesitant to order this as Scottish salmon is almost all farmed and generally not terribly flavorful, but in this case I chose very well. The fish was, while not of the intensity of while Pacific salmon, very fresh and of plentiful rich flavor, served with the charred skin up. The curry sauce was a marvel of subtlety (subtle curry? who knew?!) and unless tasted on its own was hardly identifiable except as a fascinating enhancement. The mushrooms nearly commanded more attention than the salmon, with an intense dark earthy richness.
Maine scallops with maitake mushrooms, saffron sauce and potato puree - just as the carrot soup was the ultra-intense counter to the subtlety of the smoked trout, the scallops were the absurdly strong counter to the subtlety of the salmon. Neither of us had ever experienced scallops with such strong and rich flavor, and this seafood magicking was the only way they could have been paired with the sauce and not wholly overwhelmed the way an avalanche buries a hapless skier. It's as if they took a half stick of butter, added some saffron and pureed potato, and decided it wasn't rich enough, so poured in a half cup of heavy cream. Delicious? Oh yeah, but even though there were only 4 scallops, the dish was so rich as to be nearly overpowering. I'm not sure I could have finished, had it been mine.
Warm chocolate cake with raspberry sauce - honestly, this marks the first time a warm chocolate cake has come close to the perfection of that served by the Wild Hare back when it existed. Dark, rich, fully molten in the middle, topped by a dollop of cream, and accompanied by a sauce of pure sugar and berry, this couldn't have been much better.
The other quirks - for some odd reason, while our appetizer and main course came out in short order and very well timed, it took something like 20 minutes or so after our dinner plates had been cleared for dessert to appear, and at one point while waiting a random cheese plate was placed in front of us, before being swept away a couple of minutes later when it was discovered to have been deposited on the wrong table. Not sure if they were having an off night, but it felt like something you'd expect from a restaurant that had only been open a couple of months, not more than a year.
But otherwise service was quite helpful and friendly, and they did a remarkable job of never allowing our wine glasses to empty which is relatively (and suprisingly) rare. They also cleared the finished plates as soon as a fork was placed upon them upside down, a bit of etiquette I hadn't been aware of, and which might have been coincidence, but which was impressive nonetheless.
In all, even if the service was a bit quirky, the food was plenty good enough to convince me it's worth returning for. And when you can get 3 courses for only $32, it's damn hard not to.
website - located in the Hotel Adagio on Geary between Taylor and Jones, also known as right on the edge of the ugly part of the Tenderloin (one of SF's rather less savory parts), it's not what you'd expect on viewing from the outside. Cortez is a modern Mediterranean (fusion, perhaps) restaurant, focusing mostly on small plates, though they've added some larger main course options to their menu as well. Upon walking in, you're greeted by a long dark space, dominated by a swank bar along one wall, candlelit couches and small tables, and funky modern lighting hung from the ceiling. And the bar is worth its own entry. They've got a full page of specialty cocktails, and they're damn good. The Mojito #4, made with Calvados, is pure tasty brilliance. Also of note is the Chef's Bloody, a custom Bloody Mary made with celery sorbet - you have to taste it to believe it. Quite possibly the best version of this cocktail classic I've ever encountered.
They also have a reasonably large wine list, including nearly 30 selections by-the-glass, with a significant focus on Spanish producers, and a number of unusual entries you aren't likely to find elsewhere. My only comment is that you pay a bit of a premium in markup for the creativity and breadth of their selection, but I'd argue that their sommelier has done such a good job in picking outstanding values, that at many restaurants you'd pay just as much for many poorer bottles.
And now a brief note about our visit, to help explain its absurdity: We had a group of 15 people, and for large groups Cortez offers a number of different pre-set menus, for varying price points, ranging between $45 and $70/person. Ours was $55, and included 9 dinner courses and 3 desserts. This was an amazing way to really experience what the restaurant had to offer, and I cannot recommend them enough for large groups. For the amount we had to eat and drink, the price simply can't be beat for the quality.
One more brief note about presentation: for groups, all the food was served family style, usually with 5-6 portions per plate. Everything was presented quite attractively, but I'm late enough with this posting that I can't recall what they looked like in sufficient detail to do them justice, so I'll just be commenting on the flavor.
We started with a bottle of '04 Merlin Sancerre ($48) - light, crisp, dry, with bright acidity and a great pairing with our first set of dishes...
- Gougere amuse bouche - made with a delicious, nearly liquid cheese (which I've unfortunately forgotten), these were a great indicator of how the night's dining would proceed.
- Soup Shots: Roasted tomato with English pea & bacon emulsion - Served in a tall double-shot glass, mostly red with a green foam on top, it's a wonderfully fun and creative way to do soup. The emulsion/foam was an amazing combination of peas and bacon, and both enhanced and contrasted in fun ways with the richness of the tomato soup. It only would have been nice had there been a bit more, because the contrast only really happened on the first taste.
- Yellow fin tartare with ginger sprouts, perilla, mustard seed oil & cracked fennel seed lavash - while the tartare was good, there was nothing truly unique or stand-out about it, but the lavash really made this dish. The flavorful, crispy crunchy flatbread was a great contrast to and vehicle for the melty tuna.
- Frisee salad, smoked trout, apple & avocado with warm fingerling potatoes & mustard beurre blanc - some people declared this the best dish of the evening. The smoked trout was incredibly good, and a unique and unexpected addition to a salad.
At about this point, we moved on to an '03 Bobal Tempranillo, which was bright and very fruit-forward, while maintaining a hint of traditional European earthiness. A medium bodied wine, which didn't overpower that which followed...
- Katafi crusted crab cake with tarragon aioli, citrus marinated cabbage - the Katafi made for a fun and slightly different take on a traditional crab cake, offering a bit more light crusty crunch, enveloping a richly flavorful cake. I would have perhaps liked larger chunks of crab, but these were really very tasty, and the aioli was delicious.
- House made ricotta ravioli with creme fraiche, English peas, & basil sauce - this dish seemed to provoke the most discord, with some of us professing intense love for it, and some claiming it wasn't their thing. Personally, I found the ravioli tender, delectable, and of just the right amount of richness in the sauce.
- Fries with harissa & zaatar spiced aioli - Wow. Best French Fries Ever. About this, I have no doubt. I generally don't much enjoy fries. They're either too limp, too fried, too potatoey... But these. Pure addictive goodness. There was some very intense debate over what they were fried in. Me? I'm guessing it had to be beef fat; there's just no way they could be that good otherwise. The dipping sauces were great as well.
Finally, my favorite wine of the evening, an '03 Tinto Pesquera Tempranillo ($61). Dark, rich fruit mixed with dark earth in a dry nose; fantastic medium-dark red fruit and spice in flavor, medium-body, very dry, light, fine tannins, and a long, dry, delicious finish. This went with...
- Organic roasted chicken breast with chestnut puree & pan roasted brussel sprouts - remarkably moist, richly flavored breast meat made simply astounding by the intense, crispy skin edging it. Some of the best chicken I've had.
- Hazelnut crusted natural Long Island duck breast with vanilla glazed baby turnips, & creamy sunchoke puree - Wow for a second time. In the past, I've not been impressed with duck. It's often very fatty, and to my palate overly gamey. Here, fat was almost not in evidence, and the level of gameyness was just sufficient to provide a fascinatingly complex flavor without overpowering. Astounding. This dish was the winner of the evening for me.
- Painted Hills Farm roasted flat iron (steak) with caramelized potato puree with glazed salsify & bordelaise - the steak was perfectly medium-rare and almost meltingly tender, but the real standout here was the sauce, which elevated the dish from simply good slices of steak to really making you wish there was more.
Unlike the previous 9 dishes, 3 of these were served simultaneously.
- Bourbon glazed banana with maple ice cream, buttermilk waffle, pecan & salted butter foam - my memory gets a bit hazy at this point, but I recall the banana being good.
- Pinenut caramel tart with bay leaf ice cream & roasted black mission figs - the standout here was the figs; addictive!
- Warm double chocolate truffle cake with madagascan vanilla bean ice cream & salted cocoa nib crunch - a very liquid-middle warm cake, very rich, and well matched with the ice cream.
So this was dinner. All told, it was basically a 10-course meal, served over the course of 3 hours. Not including some extra dishes which were ordered, and all our cocktails, the meal + wine (2 bottles of each) came to roughly $100/person total. I can't see a large group finding a better or more impressive deal, especially with such fantastic food, anywhere in the city. The value/price was simply astounding. Everyone in our entire group was hugely impressed. There was enough food for everyone to have some of everything, and by the end of the evening, everyone was pleasantly sated without being at all overfull.
The service is helpful, knowledgeable, and quite courteous, and the sommelier knows his wine list very well, and is happy to discuss the options.
In all, cool, slightly modern romantic atmosphere, great food, and great drinks. I'll certainly be back again.
The French Laundry
website - So I must admit I was perhaps somewhat intimidated by the knowledge of my impending meal here for a few days before it happened. French Laundry is, after all, considered one of the finest restaurants in the entire country - no small honor. Yet, I'd been
awaiting this dinner for years, and here it was!
Located in an obscure stone building with an exceptionally subtle sign in copper on the outer stone wall on the edge of town in Yountville, CA, the approach is anything but ostentatious, until you notice the line of cars you're parking behind: BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, Maserati...
We were greeted by the hostess as we entered the back yard/garden area, who knew who we were based on our arrival time (our dinner reservation was for 9:15pm on a Monday). We enjoyed a few minutes' relaxation in the 80-degree night air under the twilight while our table was made ready, and had time to peruse the enormous wine list. There are a few pages of wines by the glass, many pages of half-bottles, and an intimidating array of full bottles from all over (though I noticed to minor dismay that they only had one New Zealand Pinot Noir), with a significant focus on France (shocking, I know).
The first thing I noticed as I glanced around to see what I recognized (admittedly not much) was the magnitude of the markup. Judging by the bottles of Turley and Cayuse I recognized, it ranged anywhere from 200-500%. Now admittedly, Cayuse is virtually unavailable except to those on the winery's list, but bottles which sell for $65 were listed at $325, which strikes me as rather unnecessary, even for a restaurant whose sole dinner option is $210.
That minor rant aside, there were some few value options on the menu for those without Mad Cash to spend - many of the half bottles could be had for $40-60, and I even spotted a few full bottles (mostly white, like some German Rieslings) for around $60. By and large, however, the average full bottle price sat well above $100.
Soon, we were brought inside to sit, and informed that due to the heat they had relaxed their jacket requirement for the evening, and we gratefully entrusted ours to the hostess, as the building is not air conditioned. Inside, the dining is roughly divided into the upstairs, and 2 moderately sized rooms downstairs, of perhaps 8 tables apiece. The atmosphere is subdued, perhaps rustic-chic. Service is utterly professional, cheerful and friendly without being overly relaxed, and flawless. We were given our menus and a new copy of the wine list and left to peruse.
There are 2 menues - the 9 course chef's tasting menu, and the 9-course vegetable menu (note: 'vegetable' not simply 'vegetarian' as it emphasizes vegetables in each dish. There is a distinct lack of starch.). Both are $210. The tasting menu includes a few courses where one must select an option, one of which is foie gras for an additional $30. Among the 3 of us, we managed to have nearly everything available on the tasting menu, except the veal which serves 2.
They used to offer a wine pairing with each course for an additional $210 - this is no longer a listed option, however the sommelier is happy to construct a pairing for you at a given budget and with input as to your likes and dislikes, which we opted for - this way, we were able to enjoy 8 wines over the course of the evening with (likely) a much better pairing success and effort at calculation than we would have had were we to attempt to construct our own.
Enough introduction - you're here to read about food!
Mini Gougere - sorry, this is the only one I missed a photo of. About the size of a marble, this melt-in-your-mouth pastry/cheese blend was quite a starter. Rich in flavor yet light as air, it was a good setup for what we were beginning. If I were a cheese connoisseur, I might guess what was in it; instead I can only tell you it was rich, smooth, subtle, and complex all at once.
Salmon Tartare in an ice-cream cone - The only way to describe it. This was the first real "WOW" food moment. So smooth, rich, perfect, and complex in both flavor and texture, it was astounding. The melty smoothness of the tartare vs the crisp crunch of the cone; the light sweetness of the cone vs the rich, buttery salmon (and whatever else was in it). We'd have been happy eating nothing but an entire plate of these.
Wine 1 - Laurent Perrier "Brut" Tours-sur-Marne, 1997 – Light, bubbly, with crisp apple fruitiness. I’m not a champagne fan, but it was tasty champagne.
Oysters and Pearls - "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Beau Soleil Oysters and Russian Sevruga Caviar – Unexpectedly for all of us, this is a warm dish! It’s a very thick, very rich tapioca with an intense saltiness from the oysters and caviar, and a hint of fishiness as well. I found the oyster flavor to be almost indistinguishable from everything else, but I’m not a big oyster fan. The texture was a fun mixture of various sizes of soft round bits.
Wine 2 (for the Foie Gras) - Gaston Huet, Vouvray "Clos du Bourg" Demi-Sec, 2002 – sweet, but not at all of the intensity of sweetness one would find in a more traditional pairing like sauternes. It was more of a subtle sweetness that seemed almost dry due to a surprisingly strong stoney, mineral character. It worked wonderfully with the fatty richness of the foie gras.
Wine 3 - Brundlmayer Riesling "Zobinger Heiligenstein-Alte Reben", Kamptal, 2004 – perhaps 1% residual sugar at best, with very high acidity, this had the wonderful fruity backbone one expects of a Riesling, but with the faintest hint of sweet (especially after the dry champagne). It worked well with both the salad, and the fish.
Salad of Glazed Sunchokes - K&J Orchards Royal Blenheim Apricots, Toasted Pine Nuts, Mizuna Greens and Nicoise Olive Oil – I had but a small taste of the oil, which was incredibly rich and somewhat nutty, over a sunchoke. Light and pleasing.
Moulard Duck "Foie Gras au Torchon" - Medjool Dates, Pickled Ramps, "Frisee" Lettuce and Hazelnut "Nougatine" – Served with freshly toasted brioche bread, and 3 different kinds of salt (in the silver stands in the background). Wow number 2. Generally, I’ve not been overly impressed with foie gras in the past. This was a whole different beast from those previous experiences – perfectly smooth in texture, lightly salty, rich and a bit gamey without being too intense as foie gras often is. A complexity of flavor I can’t begin to describe accurately, so I won’t. But suffice it to say that it was magnificent on the bread, even more magnificent when mated with the nearly crystallized sugary sweetness of the date, and yet more astounding when followed with a splash of the Clos du Bourg, whose stony sweetness only enhanced it all further.
Sauteed Fillet of Pacific "Suzuki" - "Violette de Provence" Artichokes, "Piperade" and Fino Verde "Basil Pudding" – Absurdly fantastic. The fish, crispy on the bottom and easily flaked into tender moist perfection, was uber-fresh and great on its own. Then you add the piperade, which had the most intense and amazing fresh red pepper flavor I’ve ever experienced. Then you add the basil sauce, which was basically liquid fresh basil, but without the occasional sharpness of flavor. The artichokes weren’t as impressive as all that, but had a great just-cooked mix of softness and crispness. I’m just not an artichoke addict, otherwise I’m sure their flavor would have been otherworldly.
"Sashimi" of Japanese "Hamachi" - Jacobsen's Farm Galia Melon, Sweet Pepper and Fennel "Vinaigrette," Young Arugula and Shaved "Mojama" – I only got to sample a wee bit of the shaved Mojama, which is Spanish salt-cured tuna. Wow number 3. Take the best sushi-grade tuna you’ve ever had, multiply the intensity of flavor by at least 10x, then add a rich salty smokiness. Fantastic. My dining companions described the hamachi as good, but basically nothing more than a slab of hamachi sashimi, which you can many other places.
Wine 4 - Guigal Condrieu, Rhone France, 2004 – an enormous contrast with the crisp Riesling which preceded it, this was thick, oily, and almost buttery in flavor (though not at all malolactic), and with its solid oaky backbone reminded me strongly of both chardonnay and viognier. It was perfect with the light lobster and the richness of its vanilla sauce.
"Saffron Vanilla" - Maine Lobster Tail "Cuite Sous Vide," Wilted Arrowleaf Spinach and Saffron-Vanilla Emulsion – I must first specify that I’m not a lobster-nut, but my companions were. The lobster was a bit tough (took some effort to cut with a knife, and certainly didn’t flake apart) and they guessed it was overcooked. It certainly tasted fresh, though. The saffron-vanilla sauce, however, was the obscenely good highlight. This stuff could make anything delectable. Anything! The flash-fried spinach leaf on top was a fun contrast in crispiness to the softness of everything else, and the round ball of wilted spinach was flavorful and amazing when combined with the sauce.
Wine 5 - Bastide Blanche "Estagnol", Bandol, 2003 – an exceedingly dry, rather tannic red, this had the complexity of flavor in both fruit and earth that one expects out of the South of France. It was essentially undrinkable on its own, but it paired magically with both the poultry (amazingly) and the beef (oh, the sweet, sweet beef) that followed. Especially the beef. The tannins melted into nothing, leaving the dark, almost pruney, raisiny fruit and the incredible complexity to shine forth.
Four Story Hills Farm Milk-Fed "Cuisse de Poularde" - "Farci au Jambon Serrano et Sauge" with a "Fricassee" of Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms and Golden Corn Kernels – So that all translates to thigh of a young hen, stuffed with Serrano ham and sage, and the mushrooms were chanterelle. The first thing we noticed was that the corn was the sweetest, crispest, most flawlessly prepared individual kernels of corn any of us had ever experienced – Wow number 4. I grew up in Wisconsin; we’d drive a few miles to where local farmers would sell sweet corn on the street that they’d just picked minutes prior, take it back home, throw it in the pot and eat it within an hour of picking. Trust me when I say there’s no better way to eat corn. Somehow, these individual kernels were as good. I was gobsmackered. The mushrooms were a bit on the tough side, but had wonderful flavor, and the whole mix enhanced the meat very well. The bird/ham was rich and very mellow, with a light crispy skin around it adding an amazing richness and intensity, along with a great textural contrast with the meat it surrounded.
Snake River Farm "Calotte de Boeuf Grillee" - 48-Hour Braised Brisket, Glazed Pearl Onions, Baby Leeks, Truffled Yukon Gold Potato "Bouchons" and "Sauce Perigourdine" – Wow number 5. No. Uber-Wow. This went beyond a mere Wow. The slice of grilled beef could not have been more tender (with a crisp grilled edge), medium-rare, rich, melting, intense bit of marbled perfection. This was a true culinary orgasm. I don’t know how to describe this, other than that it just might be the most perfect piece of grilled meat I’ve ever had. I should note that Sauce Perigourdine basically means truffle sauce, which may have had something to do with this. The brisket was much less moist and melty, but of a whole different richness of flavor and quite tender. My only disappointment was with the potato, which I found uninteresting, but my dining companions fought over.
Wine 6 - Bert Simon Riesling "Serrig Wurzberg", Auslese, Gold-Kapsul, Mosel, 1989
Pleasant Ridge Reserve" - French Laundry Garden "Haricots Verts," Marinated Sungold Tomatoes and Taragon "Creme Fraiche" – The essential French cheese course. 2 cheeses, one richer and perhaps smokier and more intense than the other. Unfortunately, I’m not a cheese connoisseur, so I can’t describe them much better. They were quite good though.
Silverado Trail Strawberry Sorbet - "Pavlova" and Chantilly Cream – Imagine the sweetest, most perfect strawberry you’ve ever eaten. Then blend it, and freeze it, and that was the sorbet. Fantastic. And the fresh cream certainly didn’t hurt. Also accompanied by a perfectly executed meringue.
Wine 7 - Cossart Gordon, Bual, 10yr (Madeira) – I’d hoped for a vintage port, but with most of the blood that should have been feeding my brain instead diverted for emergency backup operations on my stomach, I thought of this too late to mention it to the sommelier. The Madeira was quite good, however, sweet and rich, and it worked very well with everything that followed…
Wine 8 - Toro Albala, Pedro Ximenez Gran Reserva, Montilla Moriles, 1971 – this was brought out for our female dining companion, and she very evilly consumed it all before I had a chance to sample its inky dark goodness. Apparently it was fantastic.
Valrhona Araguani Chocolate Tart - Caramel Ice Cream and Butterscotch "Crunch" – I’m not a butterscotch or caramel person, but while the crunch was not so interesting, the ice cream was fantastic. The tart? Dense. Rich. Dark, dark chocolate. Luscious. Did I mention rich?
Creme Brulee – This was served to the female member of our group, and had a thicker sugar crust than I prefer, but the custard was easily equal to any of the best crème brulee I’ve ever had.
Trifle – These appeared for myself and the other male member of our party. Rich, with a dark sponge cake within, and damn good. This was the point where my stomach really started complaining that it had fully run out of space, and continuing on this little eating adventure might not be the best course to take.
Cookies – I’ve forgotten their details, but they were crisp, thin, shaped like a dragonfly’s wings, sugary, and perhaps lightly cinnamon? Anyway, they were good.
Chocolate Covered Macadamia Nuts – It was a milk chocolate, unfortunately, as I’m a dark chocolate person, but you can’t really go wrong. Except when your stomach starts attempting to kick you from the inside.
Truffle selection – No, we weren’t done yet. They brought out the plates, and then a tray full of 8 different kinds of truffles for you to choose one. I selected a chocolate espresso, beat my stomach off with a bat, and enjoyed its rich deliciousness.
By the time dinner has finished, you’ve been eating for something in the neighborhood of 3 hours or more, and you’ve had no concept of how much time has passed. I recall glancing at my watch out of curiosity before the first of the dessert courses, and noticing with curiosity that it was somehow already 11:30. Nowhere have I been where the emphasis was so clearly on relaxed gustatory enjoyment to the exclusion of all else. There is a complete absence of any sense of hurry, and the staff does a flawless job of ensuring that any and all needs are taken care of, any and all glasses are always kept full, and the guests are always happy. They are supremely knowledgeable without any of the holier-than-thou attitude often encountered in high-priced establishments. Dishes for each course all arrive at the same time; new flatware is set out each time; the table is always kept clean with the nifty little crumb catchers. After a new course arrives, the head server for your table describes what's just been placed in front of you, and then leaves you to enjoy it.
This meal is an experience unlike nearly any other (certainly unlike any others I’ve experienced thus far), and while I don’t think I’ll repeat it, I’m definitely glad I did it.
Why won’t I repeat it, you ask? Well, while it was certainly fantastic in all regards, it’s rather obscenely expensive (our bill was a bit above $400/person. yeah.), and from speaking with a number of folks who’ve been in the past (including one of my companions that evening) it’s just not the same. Chef Keller is no longer the head chef, though I was told assured he stops in routinely to ensure that things are operating to his specifications and occasionally does a bit of cooking, and while this has not led to a decline in quality, it has led to a notably different approach. Keller was noted for his unusual creativity and “fun” food pairings – many dishes would extract a “this has WHAT and WHAT in it?!” sort of response, and then of course be fantastic. Now, as you’ll note above, there are virtually no truly unusual dishes – merely perfectly executed examples of more traditional fare. If I’m going to spend that much money on a meal, I’d like it to not only astound me with how good it is, but astound me with its creativity as well, and unfortunately that is no longer to be found here it would seem.
As a further note, on the off-nights (Sunday & Monday I believe) the new head chef (Corey Lee) is off, leaving the cooking to the sous-chef. Perhaps this was why the food was not more creative? Perhaps this was why the lobster was slightly overdone? I may never know. But you, perhaps planning a reservation, will want to keep this in mind.
But is it worth going? Well, if you’ve never been, and you’re nuts about food and the whole experience wrapped up with food, the answer is an unqualified yes. It’s worth it. For I doubt there are more than a handful of places in the entire country capable of an experience on par with The French Laundry. (and if nothing else, you can chuckle quietly to yourself at all the trophy wives)
website - handily located in the middle of SF's Civic Center, which isn't too far from the Opera or Symphony for those of you looking for a pre-or-post show meal, it's a reasonably ordinary rectangular space with a bar along the front half, spruced up with some fun lighting (especially the small star-like lights opposite the bar), and most of the restaurant seating is on what are essentially couches. This is somewhat nifty, except that in my experience couches make for a horrible seating choice when attempting to eat - they encourage you to lean back (though these have rather upright backs) rather than forward towards your plate, and are much harder to comfortably shift in towards your table.
We appeared on a Thursday evening around 8:30, and the place was reasonably deserted, with one lone server tending to the few diners. By 9, however, it had filled up suprisingly, and we felt bad for his having to do his best to tend so many customers.
They have a passable wine list of perhaps 20 options, many by-the-glass, and prices generally ranged around $35/bottle. After sampling their by-the-glass pinot, which was rather bland and unremarkable, we opted for an '02 Greenwood Ridge Estate Pinot Noir (at the suggestion of said waiter), which was quite excellent. Very tasty with solid cherry fruit and plenty of spicy character. A medium-bodied wine, with complex notes of leather complementing its fine tannins, leading to a nice, longish finish.
Soluna offers a $35 prix fixe option for 3 courses, and we both chose that (as it would add up nicely to our $70 dinner coupon, courtesy of SF Survey).
Duo of Dungeness Crab (lemon-thyme crab-cake, clementine crab salad) - an attractive presentation, but a bit lacking in implementation. The cake was small enough that it's battering and frying nearly overpowered any other flavors within it. It was overly dry, and the crab nearly lost. The salad didn't fare significantly better, with nothing remarkable about its flavor. Mostly, I was unimpressed by the lack of sweetness I'd hoped for from the crab - it was either lost in the mix, or simply not that great to begin with.
Wild Mushroom Risotto (roasted mushrooms, thyme, and parmesan reggiano) - while my girlfriend enjoyed it thoroughly, I found it disappointing in that the mushrooms tasted to me entirely too much like buttons, which I distinctly don't enjoy. Had they been anything more exotic, I think this would have been a much better dish. The consistency seemed good, though, from my small experience with risotto.
le Main Course
Pan Seared Wild Salmon (on asparagus and hazelnut risotto, with orange vinaigrette) - the first thing I noticed was that the 'salmon' was white! This struck me as rather odd, and i queried the server who realized he'd forgotten to mention that it's Alaskan white salmon (which I'd never heard of). While it did have some salmon flavor, I'd describe it as most similar to farmed salmon, which is rather bland. It was flawlessly cooked (though a bit past seared; it was nearly cooked through) and fell apart at the faintest touch. The risotto was very tasty and rich, and complimented the light flavor of the fish well.
Grilled Kurobata Pork Loin with sweet potato and applewood smoked bacon hash (braised baby beet greens, caramelized onion whole grain mustard sauce) - the pork was thinly sliced, charred around the edges with a wonderfully flavored marinate or rub, and the sauce was about halfway to a BBQ sauce and went perfectly with the pork. The only disappointment was that the meat was a bit dry, though impressively tender. The real winner, however, was the hash. WOW! This stuff was astounding. The sweetness of the potato flawlessly complimented and contrasted with the smoky, salty perfection of the bacon. I'd come back here if for no reason other than to try and order this stuff by the pint. Amazing. The greens were, well, braised greens.
Fallen Chocolate Souffle Cake (with caramel sauce & chocolate gelato) - the cake was dense and quite tasty, and only sitting upon the sauce which I appreciated as I don't enjoy caramel. The gelato, unfortunately, was over frozen and rather icy.
Strawberry Shortcake sandwich with vanilla gelato - much better than the cake, in my opinion, with heaps of fresh berries, delicious cold gelato for contrast with cakey cookies, and whipped cream.
The food was generally quite good, though the appetizers were a bit uneven. Service was very friendly and helpful, made even more impressive because of how busy he was. It was worth the cash outlay, and certainly worth a return for that amazing hash. We tried to wheedle the recipe out of them, and failed. Perhaps next time...
website - at the corner of Market and Church. It's a pleasantly open restaurant, with a big bar along the back wall. Though this was a brunch outing, so we didn't start with a drink.
One of the first things out of the waiter's mouth was that they have a make-your-own Bloody Mary bar for $3. I must admit, that's a pretty good deal (it gets you a glass with a shot of vodka; the rest is up to you), and I was sorely tempted, except that it'd been too long since I'd made one, and had a nasty feeling my $3 would get me a nasty tasting tomato & vodka concoction. So I skipped it and went for a big OJ, which was very thick, rich, and made from nicely ripe oranges, which was a welcome change from the last fresh-squeezed OJ I'd gotten at a breakfast place which came from clearly overripe fruit which had that nasty sour tang.
Anyway, their brunch menu (available Saturday & Sunday from 10-2) consists of a number of common brunchy type items for an average price of about $9.
Wild mushroom scramble, feta cheese, breakfast potatoes - Tasty! The mushrooms were fresh and very flavorful (unfortunately my mushroom knowledge is insufficient to recognize what they were), the eggs perfectly scrambled to my taste (not runny! I can't abide gooey, runny eggs. They weren't dry, though.), and the feta was an intense counterpoint. High marks. The potatoes were described as quite good, in that my girlfriend kept eating them even though she doesn't usually like plain potatoes.
Banana pecan pancakes, maple syrup (with a side of bacon) - Enormous. 3 truly massive pancakes. I could only finish about 1/2 of them, which was too bad, because they were quite tasty - proper texture and density. The flavor combination of the pancake, banana, and pecan was very nice, but they could have used more of both pecan and banana within the cakes. One pancake only had 2 chunks of banana, which strikes me as a bit skimpy when the thing is 8" in diameter and 1/2" thick. Maple syrup was tasty. The bacon was the highlight - rich & flavorful with a good smoky/salty mix, and the fat was just cooked to the point that it literally melted in my mouth. Yum!
Equator Estate coffee - described by my girlfriend as "good but expensive" at $2.50 (though with unlimited refills, if you're a big coffee drinker it's probably not that expensive).
Overall impression? Pretty good food (though the pancakes would have been much better if there were 1 fewer of them, and maybe $2 cheaper. $8 for pancakes? really...), and while it's a bit on the expensive side, there are a lot of other brunch joints serving up poorer fare for not much cheaper. And the service was very friendly, and definately didn't make us feel rushed at all.
website - neatly tucked away on a little alley off Taylor St near Post, Le Colonial has a great, enveloping atmosphere. Dark, with an old stamped-tin ceiling, it's decorated with accents that successfully take the diner out of San Francisco. They've even got an outdoor eating area with heat lamps which is fantastic on warm nights.
We started our evening upstairs in the bar for some drinks, where I noticed two things. One, the by-the-glass wine selection was remarkably small - something like 7 bottles. The second was that their Mojitos, which I've been partial to in the past, are a little over-soured. I can't tell if they were actually using sweet & sour, or just a pre-made lime juice mix, but the flavor of the rum really didn't come through. On the other hand, they have a marvelously large selection of specialty alcohols, including vodkas, whiskeys, and rums, and a reasonable selection of sipping rum ain't something you see very often. I had a Cruzan single barrel selection that was warm, smooth, very caramel-y, and with a long rich finish. We also had the Vietnamese spring rolls which were tasty and nicely crispy.
On to Dinner!
We headed downstairs to eat around 8, and most of the restaurant was either full or booked up with reservations, so we ended up at a table near the door. Not so bad, really, but a good reminder that it's a popular destination, and reservations are always a good idea. The downstairs wine list is far larger than that upstairs, and has half again as many by-the-glass selections interestingly.
We started with a half bottle of German riesling for $22, which was lightly sweet, rich, fruity, and paired marvelously with just about everything it lasted for. To accompany it we got the appetizer Tasting Platter, which included:
Cha Gio Vit - crispy rolls with shrimp, chicken, crab, and woodear mushrooms, with lettuce cups and sauce. I don't recall if these were the same as what we had upstairs, but for some reason they were infinitely richer! I attribute this to the mushrooms, which were quite prevalent in the flavor, adding an earthy flavor that balanced nicely with the crispness of the prawns and really filled out the flavor.
Crab Cakes - these were also rich and fantastic! Not enormously crabby, nor with particularly noticeably large chunks of crab, but really tasty.
Prawn dumplings - the only disappointment, they were a bit on the fishy/salty side and not very impressive. It was as if they were covering up bad prawns with dumpling.
Shrimp salad - light, crisp, and a good break from the richer dishes.
Meat on a stick - I don't honestly remember what this was, but it was bold, tender, and terrific.
Having polished off the Riesling, I selected an '03 Robert Sinskey Pinot Noir which I thought would work well with our wide selection of main dishes. Unfortunately, upon its arrival, I found it to be suprisingly highly acidic, thin on the palate, very dry, and all together quite disappointing. Unfortunately, there wasn't anything "wrong" with it, so we couldn't very well send it back. We decided to order something else - an 03 Ridge Geyserville Zin for $60 (giving up on balance, and going for the guarantee). Unfortunately, the first bottle that came out was faintly corked! The Sommelier was perfectly understanding, and immediately swapped it for a fresh bottle, which was exactly as it should be - rich, opulent, full of dark berry fruit with a nice tannic structure to back it up; complex and delicious.
Ca Nuong - Grilled sturgeon marinated in lemongrass, chilies and curry, served over rice noodles with lettuce cups and a spicy cucumber dipping sauce. The light white fish acquired a wonderful smoky flavor from the grilling and firmed up to a nice consistency for wrapping up with the lettuce and other fillings. The lemongrass was faint, but added additional complexity. Very tasty.
Ca Ri Tom - Coconut curry with black tiger prawns, mangos, eggplant, Asian basil. Simply magnificent! This is an opulent dish, rich, sweet, and a fascinating mixture of both texture and flavor. The mango provided a unique citrus counterpart to the sweetness of the coconut, and everything blended astoundingly. One of my two favorite dishes this evening.
Cuu Nuong - Grilled Colorado lamb chops marinated in hoisin and roasted rice powder, served with a grilled eggplant salad and scallion oil. This was the other winner. The lamb was simply flawless - perfectly grilled to a light char on the outside while unbelievably moist and tender within. Rich lamb flavor, enhanced by the hoisin sauce, and well contrasted with the cold eggplant salad.
Bo Luc Lac - Cubes of beef tenderloin marinated in garlic, soy, and crushed peppercorns, served with organic watercress, tomatoes and crispy potatoes. To me, this dish was the most disappointing. The beef was very tender and well cooked, but I felt that the flavor of the soy overpowered nearly everything else - the beef, the garlic, and even the pepper was nearly nowhere to be noticed. Given the balance demonstrated by the other 3 dishes, this selection was clearly lacking.
Being magnificently full at this point, we limited ourselves to a single order of the Beignets, which came out well dusted with course-grained sugar. One was served with a suprising citrus sauce, one caramel, and one dark chocolate. All were thoroughly dolloped with whipped cream, which I could have done without as I felt it detracted from the natural sweetness of the beignets themselves. The sauces were all marvelous.
All told, a magnificent meal with only a few nits to pick. This was my third time dining here, and I've yet to be disappointed with the quality of the food, or the service which was very helpful and friendly. The upstairs bar can be a bit of a scene, especially as it gets later, but that doesn't detract from the downstairs, and it's a great bar for partying early (it also has an outdoor patio), though on the expensive side. But then, the restaurant is also on the expensive side, so go figure.
All in all, though, highly recommended.
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