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2+1/2-day trip report

Fidelixi | Dec 30, 200201:01 AM

We arrived in the city in the afternoon and knowing we would have a substantial dinner that evening thought we’d have a bite of Chinese food for a late lunch. We found our way to R&G Lounge, a place I’d been to years ago but haven’t heard much about since then. We had the shrimp in walnut sauce and the mushrooms with mustard greens. Both were distinguished by neither their excellence nor their shortcomings; we were in part hiding from the rain and happy to munch away on food that arrived minutes after ordering. I wouldn’t intentionally go to R&G again but all the same I don’t hold anything against it.

Dinner at Delfina was a different story altogether. In a word, it was fantastic. We were very happy with the look and feel of the place – casual but with many careful and good choices, from the lighting to the seating, to the open kitchen. We were seated right away and quickly attended to by our informed waiter. We started with a 1/2 bottle of Gavi and an order of the grilled Hawaiian shrimp with white beans and the nettle soup (a first for us) with shiitake. The shrimp dish was divine. They were tender and flavorful and perfectly complemented by the white beans, which were stewed to perfection with sage. This was a truly memorable dish. The soup was a blast of chlorophyll and happily so, garden-fresh tasting and contrasted by the slight chewiness of the mushrooms. After that we had gnocchi with sweet potato and black truffles. Fortunately, this dish was small as it was packed with flavor and swimming in an aromatic butter sauce. Delicious, but more was less. Then came the Maine scallops, which were every bit as satisfying as the shrimps were. There we beautifully seared with a crust and tender within. We fought for the last bite. At this point my wife craved dessert but I hadn’t had my fill of the menu and figured why stop with a winning streak. She ordered the panna cotta and I watched her eat it, without taking a bite despite her obvious pleasure in eating it. Instead, I went ahead and ordered the Niman Ranch Flatiron steak with French fries. I just needed a richer, more decadent dish to finish my experience there sated and stuffed. The steak was much tenderer than the flatiron I’m accustomed to and it was the perfect finish to a great meal. I skipped dessert.

Breakfast the next morning brought us to Ella’s where we had frothy and thick café latte followed by the pancakes with bananas and eggs, onions, bacon and Brie. I always say that breakfast is pretty hard to screw up yet it’s amazing how many places do just that. Ella’s, however, didn’t screw up. Everything was just fine in the best way and the caramelized bananas on the bottom of the pancakes, mixed with butter and maple syrup, were a decadent treat.

After a day in Marin, for dinner we went to Chez Panisse Cafe. As we approached the building we bowed in respect for everything Chez Panisse has meant to American dining, and for the meal we were about to enjoy. It should have been a prayer. Chez Panisse…I’m sad to say…disappointed us. Nothing was grossly wrong – the service was excellent, we were seated quickly, the room had a pleasant buzz – but the food simply left us wanting. We started with a simple mesclun salad with goat cheese and a salad of cardoons with potatoes and black truffle and frisee. They were both fresh and delicate but lacked snap and finally tasted restrained and timid. After that my wife had the petrale sole and I had a Niman Pork Loin with cabbage, accompanied by a 1999 Testerossa Pinot Noir. Again, similar disappointment. The fish was served in a butter/cream sauce that simply bathed it in a diary broth and the Pork loin, while nicely crisped outside was left with very little to add to it. The cabbage sauerkraut was uninspired and seemed little more than cabbage simmered with mild vinegar and oil, undersalted and seemingly unseasoned. For dessert we shared an almond-cornmeal and orange cake, served with whipped cream. All the notes were right but it was a touch dry and lacked sufficient sweetness. The coffee was excellent. Is it just me or is Chez Panisse a bit dated? It seemed the vanguard for so long but now its offspring seems to have passed it by. Of course the produce and meats couldn’t be better but the kitchen feels like it’s working with a formula that seems past it’s prime.

Breakfast the next and last morning was at Zuni. I had wanted to go to Hog Island and get Oysters on Saturday and as the pounding rain nixed that idea I figured Zuni was the next best thing. I’ve never had oysters for breakfast – and given the way we’d been eating I thought it might not be the smartest idea but I was not to be deterred and ordered a nice plate of 8, mostly from the Pacific family. Along with an innocuous French Chardonnay, I was very happy. My wife followed with a radicchio and chicory salad with sorrel and egg, all chopped and dressed to perfection. The came our main course and last meal for the trip – the roast chicken with bread salad. It came on slowly. At first we though "Decent. Maybe even decent plus, but no better than we make at home." Bit by bite, however, the pleasure of the dish increased. It’s beautifully presented; well balanced and full of delicious, fat drenched croutons. Our waiter was excellent and (seemingly) very genuine, despite many warning that the staff can be annoying. Two great lattes later, our trip was essentially over, save for an intoxicating visit to the Exploratorium.

A great trip, with much good food and a sad, disappointing letdown at Chez Panisse. Next time I want to Florio (which I peeked in and gasped at the prices) and another round at Delfina.

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