Some brief impressions of the restaurants we dined at on a foodie trip to the Bay Area last weekend.
BISTRO JEANTY in Yountville - enjoyed the excellent creamy tomato soup and the pork shoulder off the menu, plus rack of lamb off the daily specials list. My first time trying pig's feet, which was a bit too gelatinous for my tastes. I ate one but couldn't finish off the other two.
Very large portions (three lamb chops, enough pork for four tasting menu sized plates, three big cubes of pig's feet, huge salad). Fair wine prices and a decent selection. We had a half-bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir that paired nicely with the pork and lamb.
Even on a rainy Wednesday in February the place was lively, maybe more than half full. This was our first visit and we enjoyed the food and atmosphere. We'll no doubt return here. Just beware of the portion size.
FRENCH LAUNDRY - two friends, a doctor-doctor couple, made the reservation for a four top (much easier to get than a two top) and they flew out Thursday to join us. This was everyone's second visit to FL.
My wife had the vegetarian menu since she was recovering from all the food at BJ the night prior and she liked that menu very much, perhas a bit more than the rest of us liked the standard menu.
We all agreed the best plate was the beef dish, a fine slice of beef grilled very well, with a rich sauce. The rest of the savories were all OK but generally the tastes were a bit bland for our jaded palates, with a couple of vegetable exceptions. There were no 'bad' dishes, just not enough exceptional ones.
We upgraded a couple of dishes and this didn't work out as well as hoped. Two of us paid $75 for Royal Ossetra Caviar with sea urchin, but the roe was small and the doctors (who had both versions) said they actually preferred the white sturgeon caviar that came with the standard 'Oysters and Pearls' dish.
Mr. Doc also had a black truffle risotto dish for an extra $100. The truffles were really good, I think the best blacks I've ever had, but the risotto was just mediocre. In November we had a fantastic risotto with white truffles at Alinea that has redefined 'risotto' for us and this was simply not nearly as good.
Overall we enjoyed the meal and the dining experience but not as much as we had hoped. I've been to Per Se twice and it seems the flavors are a bit more aggressive there even with very similar menus, and there are several other restaurants that are easier to book which have food more to our liking. This was probably our last trip to French Laundry for a while.
ATELIER CRENN - the original plan was to stay in Napa and also dine at Meadowood but after getting the Laundry reservation we found out that MW was closed that week. So my wife and I decided to try two other restaurants to the south.
On a trip to Barcelona last October we met a foodie couple from SF who said "If you like this restaurant (Sant Pau) you'll probably like Crenn", so off of that (and some diligent parsing of various reviews, from Andy Hayler to OpenTable) we booked Crenn Friday night. Our doctor friends decided to stay in Napa but drive down for the meal, while we booked a really poor hotel about a block from Crenn so we could walk (probably a dumb idea ... next time I'll stay in a better hotel and take a cab).
Anyway, despite heavy rains our friends made the drive and the four of us dined at Crenn. And had a great time.
Of the 17 menu items there were only a couple that didn't quite rock, like a soup of grains (one doc felt there was too much of it) or a reconstituted carrot covered with candied orange, which I actually liked but the others felt was a bit too sweet. A lot of the dishes were very clever, with high quality products but with slight molecular twists.
Our consensus was that the food was certainly more interesting than at FL and perhaps a bit more savory. This restaurant is very different from FL in style and ambiance (there is no dress code and the interior is a bit modest) and I can see how many would prefer the formality of FL for 'fine-dining', but we would probably return here before going to FL again.
I had the wine pairing and I thought it was well done, with plenty of good matches on hard-to-match dishes, and even a bit of whimsy in a beer pairing. The wine list is short but had relatively small markups on some pretty good wines. And the corkage fee is just $45 if you bring your own, versus a cool $150 at French Laundry.
MANRESA - the missus and I uprooted Saturday and drove to Los Gatos, upgraded to a suite in a luxury hotel (which cost the same as our tiny room at the 1950's motor inn in SF :). This was less than a mile from the restaurant. We walked over just to loosen up and on the way passed two car dealerships - Bentley and Lamborghini ... uh, OK, we are not on Filmore Street anymore. Our friends decided not to drive again and stayed in Napa, where I think they had 5" of rain.
We had a great time at Manresa. The restaurant is pretty classy inside and the staff was very polished. The food is a bit less experimental than at Crenn, but very well executed, with subtle tastes for the most part.
My wife insists that I mention the bread ... she is celiac so can't eat wheat but they served her several kinds of rice and/or potato flour bread that she says was superb, surely the best she had on this trip. My standard bread included a brioche, an onion bread and a 'levain' or sourdough ... also the best bread served this trip. And I passed on at least three other types.
The highlight of the meal -- of the entire trip -- was an extremely well-executed A5 wagyu beef from Japan (the boycott is over ... no more Snake River farms 'American wagyu' ... yeah!). I think I've had maybe 15 wagyu dishes the past 3 years and this was one of the two best, by a wide margin over whatever is # 3. I asked for seconds but the server just smiled.
A second highlight was the 'tidal pool' dish, with sea bream and a broth but starring the sweetest scallop I've ever tasted. Basically the least interesting dish was very good and the best ones were exceptional.
I think I would give the food here an edge over the other two fine-dining restaurants and to be honest I think Manresa deserves that elusive Michelin third star, based on this meal (I think I'd need to dine there a couple more times to be sure, but this was better than about half the 13 Michelin 3*'s we've visited).
I should also mention the wines ... I had the enhanced pairing, which was a bit more expensive than the Crenn pairing, with fewer wines. I didn't quite 'get' one pairing, a Brut Rosé with roe deer -- I expected a more earthy wine for the earthy meat -- but the others were really good matches, highlighted by four French wines and ending with a 30 year Tawny Port. The red Burgundy paired with the wagyu was especially noteworthy.
Overall we enjoyed this trip very much. The Bay Area is lucky to have so many good restaurants with such varying styles. We are already plotting a return in the fall, perhaps for Meadowood, Saison or Crenn, and Manresa.
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