Thank you so much to all the recommendations on this board, I thought I would reciprocate with a recap of a lengthy trip, just concluded, to Napa/Sonoma/San Francisco:
First of all, I have to say that the weather was simply amazing. Everything is so lush and green right now and I believe there was a total of about 15 minutes of rain in the 9 days I spent in the area every other moment was simply glorious. Lucky you who live there. Onto the food & wine:
Monday night, arrived Oakland and drove up to Chez Panisse. Now, I have to say that dinner there has probably spoiled me for dinner almost anywhere else in the world. This was certainly a big big highlight of my trip, for many reasons, more below.
I ate in the lovely downstairs room. Started with a small dish of paprika-ed olives that announced the Moroccan theme for the evening. The first dish was a salad with beets & fava bean puree. Red and yellow beets perfectly cooked, revelatory. Fava bean puree, lovely, nice citrus-y tang but not overwhelmed by flavoring, just really great favas. A pita crisp that was possibly the best pita crisp on any plate ever. Crisp but not crumbly, great olive oil flavor and warmth without being oily or greasy. And the star of the plate, a mixture of greens (parsley, cilantro, beet greens, arugula) cooked with preserved lemon and served cold that I could eat until the end of time. Yum. I was sold. The server poured me a glass of a lovely crisp Albariño to go with the salad.
The main dish was a couscous Parisian hand-made couscous with spring veggies, lamb, chicken, mergez sausage, chickpeas, and harissa. I started with the vegetables, figuring that since the veggies in the salad were so amazing, these had to be too. They were good. But when I tasted the lamb, I knew that the meat was the real star of this dish. The lamb (Dal Porto Ranch) was the best lamb I have ever had buttery soft, great lamb flavor without any gaminess. The sausage was also great, the chicken leg was very good. Nice ginger-saffron broth. Couscous was good, but did not convince me to start hand-rolling my own couscous. I had a glass of a pleasant Spanish red to go with this course.
The dessert was a Baba au Rhum, which was well executed. Nicely soaked cake, good heavy cream that was just very lightly sweetened on the side. Valencia orange segments alongside, and the whole dish was plated on a simple syrup with a lot of orange zest that gave it a pleasantly bitter taste that contrasted well with the sweetness of the cake. Alongside of the rest of the orange segments were slices of what I can only assume were small clementines, or some kind of very tiny orange that I am not familiar with. They were sliced paper thin, with the rind still on, and macerated with simple syrup, and were stunning.
The whole meal surpassed my expectations and gave me inspiration for my own cooking. Everything was so beautifully and lovingly prepared. The staff seems to care about your experience and to be excited about what they present to you. They know they have great ingredients and try to prepare them well and then get out of their way.
Monday night downstairs dinners seem to be a very chummy affair there were several tables of regulars, including a delightful table next to me that adopted me as the night wore on, gave me a taste of their 85 Port (dazzling) and a 91 Sauterne (might as well have been the inspiration of the dessert course, it was such an unbelievable match). It turned out that several of them were from Della Fattoria in Petaluma, and they encouraged me to visit them later in the week. They also were friends of Alice Waters, and when she came in towards the end of our meal, introduced me to her, which was awesome. I mumbled something like Unbelievable revelatory or something like that to her, and she was very sweet.
The impresario (no, really, an actual maestro) of my adopted table encouraged me to get a nightcap at César, the tapas bar next door. I got a Cesar martini (shaken vodka, straight up, with a splash of pastis), which was yummy, and looked through their cookbook then the maestro came in and BOUGHT me a copy of the cookbook and had Olivier Said (the managing partner and one of the authors of the book) autograph it for me. Great book, fresh recipes for both great cocktails and tapas. I will certainly visit Cesar again the next time Im in the area. But I was off to Napa.
Tuesday breakfast was at ABC (Alexis Baking Company) in downtown Napa. I got a (giant) breakfast sandwich. Yummy soft potato bread roll, lean & thinly sliced farmhouse ham, eggs, a nicely sharp yellow cheddar that complimented everything. Not your New York $2 egg sandwich next to the subway (then again, it wasnt $2 )
I visited seven wineries on my first day, mostly larger commercial places to get my feet wet:
Esquisse: nice, smaller place. Good Viognier, a hard to find varietal.
Raymond: enjoyed their reserve tasting quite a bit. Great staff, friendly place.
V. Sattui: horrifying. Commercial with a capital C.
Niebaum-Coppola: Nice place to visit. Several fine wines.
Andretti: Nice staff.
Domaine Chandon: Beautiful grounds. The prettiest tasting room of the bunch.
Regusci: My favorite place of the day. Tasted an excellent 01 Merlot here. Very low-key, down to earth.
I picked up lunch at Genova Delicatessen, down the street from where I was staying in Napa. Nice Italian deli. Their handmade pastas looked great.
Dinner was at Martini House in St. Helena. I decided on the mushroom tasting menu and asked the server to do a wine pairing of 2 to 3 tastes for me. Amuse was a salmon tartare on a little puff pastry-cracker thing, a shot of a carrot-ginger soup with lime crème fraiche, and goat cheese mixed with fresh oregano stuffed in a mini gougere. Salmon was lovely and refreshing, the soup was a bit too creamy but had great flavor, and the gougere was great, a lovely cheese with great meltiness.
The first course was a black trumpet mushroom tea: black trumpets, brunoise of carrots and green garlic in a mushroom broth with a lot of truffle oil. Well flavored though a bit over salted and a lot of truffle flavor that shouted over the trumpets.
The sommelier dropped off a small pour of a nice sherry with the first course and gave me a glass of the 02 Stones Throw Chardonnay for the next few courses.
The second course was king trumpets over hollandaise with fried artichokes and a frisee salad with a porcini vinaigrette. Really rich. The vinaigrette helped to cut through some of the richness of the sauce but there was an overwhelming amount of it and it completely inundated the mushrooms.
Third course was braised shitakes in a mirin-sake-ginger sauce with pea shoots and crispy leeks. The sauce was finished with a lot of butter and so was quite rich, again, and very sweet from the mirin. The pea shoots were not aggressive enough to stand up to the sauce. The leeks added some texture but almost no flavor because of how thinly they were sliced they ended up just tasting like little fried bits of air. The shitakes were again overmatched by the sauce.
The fourth course was a morel mushroom strudel with a parsnip puree and a mushroom reduction. Again, too rich. The morels were able to stand up this time and were very flavorful, well prepared, mixed with cooked spinach and wrapped in phyllo. That would have been enough. Instead, it was supplemented by a parsnip puree, lovely, smooth, but with a ton of butter and cream taste; a butter-and-mushroom reduction; and potato shoestrings that suffered the same fault as the fired leeks in the previous course. They also went limp as they cooled.
The sommelier poured me a 03 Grenache from the Cotes du Rhone with this course, it was fine.
The dessert course was profiteroles with a porcini ice cream over chocolate rocher and caramel swirls. This was a lovely, perfect and interesting course except that the profiteroles were rock hard. Obviously this was a choice as the gougeres in the amuse had been of normal texture, and they were not hardened up from the ice cream as they were the same hardness all the way through. A puzzling choice, though, as this rendered the profiteroles almost impossible to eat unless dissected and softened in the mouth before attempting to chew. The ice cream was quite nice, though. And the chocolate rocher ended up being chocolate sauce with crunchy (wafer cookie?) bits inside. Yum. The caramel swirls? Kind of overkill.
I was disappointed by the wines that were chosen for me. The sherry was nice, but the sommeliers comment on it was it goes with everything. The white that she poured for me was the featured white of the day that was written on the board in the dining room and the red was the featured pairing wine with the regular dinner prix fixe. The staff, I have to say, was totally paranoid. At least three of the staff stopped by my table to ask me why I was taking notes. They all asked how is everything? with a bit of desperation. This was the only time that I ever felt like it was a bad thing to be sitting at a table for one during my whole trip. On the whole, this was the worst experience of my trip. And I had high hopes going in. My general impression was that everything was pushed too hard: the service, the food, and the décor.
Wednesday breakfast at Gordons Wine Bar in Yountville. I got the smoked salmon plate, which came with a lot of salmon, not quite enough toasted rye bread, cream cheese and capers, onion, and tomato. A classic, well executed. A touch overpriced for everyday breakfast (for me) but a nice place.
I went to a few wineries in the morning and early afternoon, my favorite being Casa Nuestra (especially their Cab Franc and a very delicious and different off-dry Riesling; and their friendly pet goats) and then I got sick. Really sick, terrible stomach-ache, fever, cramps, runs, you name it. Ick. And horrifying, as this was supposed to be the night of the big dinner at The French Laundry. I went back to the hotel and tried to sleep it off, but to no avail. About 7 oclock, when it became obvious that I would not be able to eat and enjoy a meal that night (my reservation was for 9 PM), I attempted to call the restaurant, but naturally got their recorded message. So I threw on some clothes and went down there. The front desk was very nice, very understanding, said that she would cancel us with no penalty and try and get us in later in the week. I went home and slept.
Thursday I was feeling better, enough to go to a couple of the wineries on my list. I ventured out to:
Silver Rose Winery: My favorite of the trip. Great barrel tour, great scenery, great wines.
Rutherford Hill: Nice reds, great port.
Jarvis Winery: Very interesting tour of the caves, gorgeous scenery, okay wines. A little snooty.
Cakebread Cellars: Home of the Midwest tourist (I should know, I am one). The leader of the tasting did not seem very interested in answering questions. Tasted a lot of wines, which struck me mostly as being overpriced.
Stopped for a quick on-the-run lunch at Soda Canyon Store on the Silverado Trail, which was a good chicken sandwich with pesto accompanied by a pasta salad, notable for its almost complete lack of flavor.
Stopped back in at the French Laundry, who said to try for Friday lunch, so my mom and I went to Terra for dinner. Terra was just lovely. Ive had their cookbook since it came out, so nothing terribly new on the menu for me but everything was executed well. I was still feeling a bit under the weather (wouldnt really feel right again until Saturday night), so I didnt take great notes that night (and didnt finish anything that I ordered), but wished I could have. For an appetizer, I got the crispy veal sweetbreads with peas, mushrooms, and proscuitto, which was to die for; Mom got the soupe au pistou with goat cheese ravoli (nice, pesto could have been a little more assertive for my taste). For dinner, I got the sake-marinated black cod with shiso shrimp dumplings (a house specialty) and Mom got the scallops in a saffron sauce with a puff pastry vol-au-vent. My cod was perfectly prepared and I only wish I could have had more of it; Moms scallops were a bit overcooked to my mind but I didnt taste them til way late in the meal. Dessert was a ginger cake with pineapple ice cream and pineapple carpaccio, well done. A great place for dinner, absolutely lived up to my expectations.
Friday morning, we got to the French Laundry at 10:45 AM and they sat us almost right away. I have now discovered that lunch is really the way to go at French Laundry. First of all, there is very little pressure to order wine (I mean, a lot of the tables did order wine but there was no pressure to do so), the dining rooms and the outdoor gardens are really beautiful in the sunlight, and you can digest for the rest of the day. A rundown of what we had:
The salmon cone as an amuse, of course.
A traditional gruyere gougere.
Cauilflower panna cotta with a quenelle of sevruga caviar
Hearts of palm, celery, olive and radish salad with a bitter orange dressing
Kahala almondine with brown butter
Lobster tail with fava beans and truffles
Pork belly pave with French green lentils and a red cabbage sauce Pork and Beans
Lamb with asparagus, pearl onions, and grey morels
A Basque cheese with a tomato marmalade and a pepper cracker
Banana sorbet with a Muscat cake, pineapple and mango
Temptation of Chocolate: Buttermilk ice cream with this chocolate-hazelnut cream thing that was awesome
A crème brulee and a vanilla pots de crème
My favorites were the kahala and the pork and beans; Moms was the cheese course. It was everything I expected it would be. Great dishes, great ingredients, meticulously prepared. The staff was a bit friendlier than I thought they would be; it is worth going for watching the service alone, they are so precision drill team. You should go once. Its worth it. Now that Ive been to both, I would give my home-town boy Charlie Trotter a slight edge but that may be rank Midwest boosterism.
Naturally, I felt like never eating again after that but I had reservations at the Farmhouse Inn that night, so off I went. I feel that I did the restaurant a disservice by not being able to truly enjoy eating there. I had their signature dish, the rabbit, rabbit, rabbit. The rack of rabbit was a bit hard to eat because of the tiny rib bones but you forgive that because of the novelty factor; the bacon-wrapped loin was awesome; and the leg confit was buttery & really good. Tiny quibbles were that the green beans & sugar snap peas were nothing special (country club veg) and the little edible flower on my plate seemed a bit precious and was drowned quickly in the sauce. Oh, and there was a bit too much sauce; it almost comes out looking like country-fried rabbit. Their small list of wines by the glass gave me a nice pinot to go with the rabbit. I had them pack up what I couldnt finish and I had rabbit, rabbit, breakfast the next day. Nice experience, very laid-back kind of vibe, quiet place in the middle of well nowhere.
Saturday day was the April in Carneros event, so I drove back over into Napa at the southern end and did about five wineries in that event. The event itself made every place a little nutso, with a lot of people there sipping and not very many tasting, if you know what I mean.
Artesa: Beautiful facility. Were only pouring three wines with the event, which I thought was a little shady, since they normally pour six.
Carneros Creek: Nice facility, good low-end wines.
Truchard: Great little family winery. All five wines that I tasted were great. My second favorite stop.
Bouchaine: I did not care for their wines at all.
Ceja: Great people.
And I am pretty much wined out at this point. Wow.
Saturday night I had dinner at Syrah in Santa Rosa. I had two appetizers and a dessert. That was enough food to feed me for a week; giant portion sizes! I had a roasted red & yellow beet tangerine and shaved fennel salad with a citrus vinaigrette. Nice flavor combos, gorgeous presentation (I took pictures but they didnt turn out very well, alas), beets suffered in comparison to Chez Panisses but they were still very good. After the salad, I had crabcakes with a lime crème fraiche and a mango, pepper and jicama slaw. Good crabcakes, nice moistness inside and crunchy exterior. I found the slaw really interesting, good combination of flavors, although it could have used a bit more heat. I did not get any wine (as I said, a little wined out), but they seemed to have a good selection of wines by the glass, including a couple of glass flights. Dessert was an individual angel food cake served with raspberry sherbet and a lemon crème anglaise. I liked the interesting play with textures the cake was a little denser than your average angel food cake but the crème anglaise was a little lighter. That was cool. Chef Silvers dropped by my table and we had a nice chat. An amazing semolina bread was served as the table bread I dont normally get excited about bread but this was damn good bread. I asked and the waiter told me it was from my friends at Della Fattoria, so I decided to drop in and visit on my way down to the city the next day.
Sunday morning breakfast on the run from Della Fattoria. I got a pear turnover, baked pears wrapped in puff pastry, which almost brought a tear to my eye, it was so good, and a hard-boiled egg and prosciutto sandwich on their brioche, also excellent.
I went and did the chocolate tour at Scharffen Berger in Berkeley on Sunday, which was an excellent, interesting tour and they give you chocolate during it! Also, the prices in the retail shop are much less expensive than they are here in Chicago, so I spent some money there. I would recommend this tour to any chocolate fan.
Dropped my rental car off in Oakland and headed into the city via BART. My first stop was Cookin in the Haight, which is a very cool used kitchenware store. I am happy that that store is not in Chicago, as I would spend a lot of money there if I didnt have to fit things into a suitcase. The store is so packed with things it is like walking around a museum, which might account for the total surliness of the staff. I was in there for about an hour and was snapped at once and humiliated when I tried to ask a question. Geeez. The prices are welll fair, I guess, although everything is just on the verge of being overpriced.
Stopped in for a mid-afternoon snack at a branch of Naan-n-Chutney. Got a fish pakora (good breading, lots of spices, fish flavor very weak) and a Keema Naan (good flavor, but a little oily and lost heat very quick, almost as if it had been rewarmed).
Sunday night was dinner at Gary Danko. Someone had told me, Its not the best food you will ever have or the best service or the most beautiful place you will ever eat but you will feel really well taken care of there. I walked in at exactly 9 PM, when my reservation was, and was immediately taken to a table (the first time that happened the entire trip!) I opted for four courses, and asked for two glasses of wine with those. The table next to me did five and looked a little green when they left. I got a lovely little amuse of white asparagus soup with a beet relish and crisped prosciutto garnish. Great flavors, matched well together. The only slightly curious thing was that the soup was served with a 5 plastic sip straw in it to sip with? I just picked up the shot glass and drank from that Im probably a hopeless barbarian.
I had a glass of a great 00 Chardonnay: Mizua? From the Carneros region. Great long finish. First course was a Dungeness crab salad with fennel, grapefruit, mixed greens, and apple with a mustard-tarragon vinaigrette. The great thing about this salad with that it understood it was all about crab. The other flavors in the dish helped to complement the crab rather than interfere.
Next course was the lobster with morels and asparagus over mashed potatoes. It seemed a little odd to mix such luxe ingredients with the humble mashed potato, but that kind of added to the guilty pleasure in eating it. This was the seafood place that my parents took me to when I was a kid gone upscale and yummy for that.
I next got the famous cheese course, 4 cheeses:
St. Pats from Cowgirl Creamery so good. If I had to pick a cheese to take with me on a desert island, this might well be that cheese.
Cypress Grove: a great middle of the road cheese with a mild nuttiness.
A Gruyere called, perhaps, Hoch Ysing? Very nice, a little stronger than the Pleasant Ridge Reserve that I like so much.
A goats milk cheddar. Interesting. You can say to yourself, I like goats milk. I like cheddar. However, you will not necessarily like a goats milk cheddar.
My server gave me a sweet Tokaj wine that was perfect with the cheese and a little too much with the dessert.
For dessert I got a passionfruit soufflé cake with raspberry-swirled ice cream. The cake was good, had a nice light texture but was fairly wet, almost flan-like in texture. It was good, but soufflé is not the way I would describe the dish. I almost thought I had been given the wrong thing. The ice cream was well done, actual raspberry chunks in with the swirls. The whole dish was a little on the really sweet side, though almost tooth-achingly sweet.
Great experience, nice little touches (boxed mignardises, the breakfast muffin for the next day). A great restaurant and a great time.
Monday I ate my Gary Danko muffin and then biked across the Golden Gate Bridge. After working up that appetite, I was ready for dim sum at Ton Kiang. I took the bus all along Geary Street, which is reason enough to go to Ton Kiang, just to see all the amazing sights along Geary. I was amazed by how non-ghettoized the food scene was along the street: there was a Thai place next to a Russian deli next to a sushi joint next to an Irish pub next to a well, you get the picture.
Awesome dim sum, which I am still pretty much a novice of. I did, however, break the cardinal rule of dim sum and grabbed the first three things that came by instead of scoping it out a bit first. This is the only place I would have liked to have a friend along, so I could have tried more things. I did get:
Hai Kin: Shrimp-stuffed crab claw. Full of shrimp.
Nol Mal Gai: Sticky rice & meat, leaf-wrapped. Fine, nothing special.
Wah Tip: Shrimp potsticker. Juicy. Lots of shrimp. Strong ginger component.
Fried meat balls: Too much breading.
Shrimp-stuffed mushrooms: In a tasty sauce. My favorite thing.
Pork bun: Really good.
BBQ Duck: Well prepared.
I then did the press through the Chinatown grocery strip on Stockton, which was a blast. I saw seafood that looked like it was auditioning for a bit part in a creature movie. I didnt understand a word being said, and I got elbowed in the back more than once, and it was great fun. I got a sweet bun from AA Bakery, which was fine, and a scoop of durian ice cream from a corner ice-cream shop, just because I had always wanted to try it. Verdict: not worth it for me. Really interesting, though.
Still trying to get the taste of durian out of my mouth, I wandered down towards North Beach and got 40 truffles at XOX truffles. My only regret is not getting more. They are quite possibly the best chocolate thing ever and hopelessly addictive. Kind of worth the price of airfare alone.
Monday night was dinner at Rubicon. I went with the 5-course tasting menu and asked, again, for them to pair me up with some wines. To get my major quibble out of the way first: why cant they offer a nice wine pairing with the tasting menu on any given night? I mean, my wines were fine but nothing really great and no really interesting matches. As a by-the-glass consumer, I was treated with much less appreciation than any bottle customer was, to the point of getting my wines in smaller glasses than the people who ordered bottles next to me. It seemed to me that the wine program and the food were almost at odds here; that the restaurant is so well known for its wine program now that the food is almost taking a back seat. Just my impression. The wine list was awfully fun to read, though: broken down and annotated like a good novel.
The food was ambitious in its pairings, which worked well for me in certain places and fell a little flat in others. The amuse set this expectation up right away: a teriyaki salmon with truffles. This combo worked for me.
First course was yellowfin tuna, raw and preserved. This consisted of raw and cooked tuna with capers, olives, fava beans, celery, crème fraiche, and potato gaufrettes. An interesting combo that I was a little unsure of. I have to admit, I found myself eating the raw tuna with the crème fraiche and the potato and the cooked tuna with the Mediterranean veggies. The fava beans were a little under-blanched to my taste; still on the raw side. Wine was a Louis Roederer Brut Champagne.
Second course was a caramelized garlic soup with fennel, dill, apple, Dungeness crab, and a toast and prosciutto garnish. A more traditional pairing that was very nice, although the flavor of the crab was a bit drowned out. Wine was a German Riesling.
Third course was my favorite of the evening, a halibut in a truffled broth with wild mushrooms, braised salsify, and a foie gras mousse with dried fruit and nuts. The contrasts between the warm, Asian, soy-truffle halibut, broth and mushrooms and the cool, sweet fattiness of the foie gras worked a treat. Wine was a Willakenzie Pinot Noir (Oregon).
Fourth course was a squab (breast and leg confit) with polenta, turnips, cauliflower, prunes, green olives, seeds of some sort, and rather a lot of preserved lemon. Now, I loved the Moroccan-ness of the vegetable accompaniments. However, the preserved lemon came through so clearly that there werent enough prunes or they werent sweet enough to counteract the bitterness of the zest. The squab was beautifully cooked, I must say. The polenta got swallowed in the rest of the flavors. Wine was a Cotes du Rhone.
The dessert course was challenging and great. It was a slice of bleu cheese, a fig tart, pears, walnuts, and balsamic ice cream. The ice cream was really good and really strong the drizzle of balsamic on the plate completely unnecessary. However, as the ice cream began to melt, it started to cover everything on the plate, and you could no longer choose your taste pairings. The bleu could have been a bit stronger, as well. Wine was a 15 year old Malmsey.
Stuart Brioza, the head chef, came out to talk to me for a bit before dessert it was great to meet him. This also clocked in as one of my longest dinners of the trip, at a bit over 2 ½ hours. I would recommend this restaurant to anyone who wants to be challenged by their food; he is doing some really creative stuff in the kitchen. Some of it worked for me, some didnt, but it was fun to go with him on that journey. Go with friends and order bottles of wine, though!
Tuesday, my final day in the city, I went down to the Ferry building and had a wonderful time at the Farmers Market (great stuff) and in the Ferry shops. Thats one of the coolest places to go in the city, IMO.
Went to Swan Oyster Depot for lunch, which was very fun and brought back fond memories of growing up on the East Coast and going to Crisfelds and other great local seafood joints. I got a cup of chowder, 6 blue points, and a half a crab and an Anchor Steam. Hard to not like a place where the beer is only a buck-fifty more than a soda. Definite highlight of the trip and Im glad I saved it until the last day, or I might have been tempted to go more than once.
In short (much too late!), I had a wonderful time and thank you all once again for all the recs.