Thanks to all who replied to this thread and helped us plan the trip: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/838127
After four days in San Francisco we head up to Sonoma and our hotel in Glenn Ellen: Gaige House. It is a wonderful little hotel in this small town, best of all they bake their own cookies and breakfast pastries. I am not certain having a “help yourself” cooking box next to the front door is the healthiest option but it is yummy!
In the area we eat twice at the Fig Café (sister to the Girl and the Fig in Sonoma) which is quite decent French influenced homey food. Two very nice meals with just the right relaxed atmosphere for a meal in the country, they are not really worth a trip but good if you are in the area. We also try two Mexicans, El Molino in Sonoma and in Healdsburg at Mateo’s Cocina Latino. Both good with Mateo’s a good destination worth a trip (reviewed here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/845455).
We do manage to visit one or two wineries over our three days in the area. Day one around the Sonoma Valley and we find some nice small ones including Loxton and Roessler, the next day up to Dry Creek and Alexander Valley for some interesting small producers including Bella and Unti. We end in the Napa and concentrate on the “Disney” wineries. Generally we liked much of what we tasted but did find the fee regime odd, OK we are not used to paying. But equally we are used to strict drinking and driving rules with wineries encouraging moderation and spitting not drinking. Here we are often presented with tasting lists of nine wines for $10 and encouraged to get full value! My approach of only trying the two to three top wines was generally OK with lots of places not charging, but some couldn’t get it found it tricky to deviate from the program (we did buy over a case of wine over the three days). The worst was Opus One, they have two vintages on tasting, and for $45 you get a full glass. But I am tasting not drinking and don’t want one full glass let alone two. The concept of two small pours to get a vertical tasting just didn’t fly, all too corporate for my taste and to be frank whilst Opus One is good it isn’t that good.
We head out of Sonoma to Yosemite with a quick stop at “In-and-Out Burger”. Given all the hype I expected more. Better than many but hardly worth eulogising over as some bloggers do.
We say at the Ahwahnee. To be blunt a national disgrace. The National Parks Service should be ashamed to let an icon like this be run so poorly; it attracts lots of foreign tourists and does not reflect well on the US. Service is pretty slack (our stay at the Marriott was better), the restaurant menu was poor with absolutely nothing to tempt, and the food in the bar was awful with pastrami that was mainly gristle. Breakfast was little better, a lacklustre buffet and ALC dishes that may have been freshly cooked but were past there best by the time they got to the table. At over $600 a night this should be great, instead it was the worst of the trip and we stayed in B&B’s and budget motels.
We then move to Fish Camp and eat at the Tenaya Lodge Hotel as all the other options have yet to open for the season (warning for Europeans who see Easter as the start of holidays). The same company that runs the Ahwahnee (DNS) runs the hotel, but they are chalk and cheese. Embers at Tenaya service decent food and very good wine with great attentive service. The bar and more casual restaurants are rammed with kids but even so deliver acceptable food from interesting menus. I would travel to eat there but a good fall back.
On to Paso Robles, nothing really booked, we thought we would see what looked good. Tuesday night so Thomas Hill is closed. We check out Artisan and decide a late lunch is in order. It is so good we book dinner. It really is a cracking good restaurant with fresh produce and an inventive chef. Service is great and as you would expect the wine list is superb - one of the top meals on the trip. For lunch a good burger and salmon tartar and for dinner:
1. Polenta arancini, ‘nduja, highway one
2. Asparagus, lardo, black trumpet carbonara
3. Hen of the woods mushroom toast, bacon, soft farm egg
4. Local rabbit, nettle garganelli, sausage, pioppini ragú
All very well cooked and served by friendly staff. We also head to Villa Creek for an aperitif (and taco Tuesday) and it is very strong with great wine advice, plus we try The Pony Club Bar which is OK but lacking in atmosphere. We do try a few wineries but many are closed in the first half of the week, but the ones we try seem a lot less touristy than Napa/Sonoma. So we are glad we stopped in this nice little town.
We head up Highway One and plan to lunch at Big Sur, what a disaster. The bakery has little left and the kitchen closes between lunch and dinner, Nepenthe is full and looks average so we head on to Carmel and get a poor sandwich. That night it is 1833 in Monterey one I have been really looking forward to. It lets me down.
We start in the bar for a drink, the waitress doesn’t know anything about wine, I ask for a Chardonnay with minimal Oak, no consultation or tastes just the cheapest on the list – it is bad and goes back to be replaced by a better offering. As we drink the receptionist walks backwards and forwards through the bar to the dining room; it has bare wood floors, she has boots with heels, she is not petite, it is very, very noisy – not a good sign this place is run well. We are taken to the worst seat in the dining room, I ask for another vacant table (same size), it is booked, we insist and take the table. No other diners arrive after us to take our rejected table. The menu looks promising. We try:
1. The “famous” bacon cheddar biscuits to start, they are a bit solid and doughy, probably undercooked.
2. Crispy Hen Egg” sits on asparagus and seems to be a melange of an Asian deep fried egg, a scotch egg, and asparagus with egg-yolk saucing. The result is a interbred mongrel of a dish that doesn’t work very well and ends up disappointing.
3. Bone marrow is good though and the garlic and sourdough work will with it.
4. Charred Octopus” with romesco sauce is fine.
5. Pappardelle with beef is a flawed concept; good pasta but with four hunks of meat sitting on it.
Looking at other diners plates I think the best options may be the roast meats which did look good. When it is simple it is good but when it is overly ambitious less so.
Our last meal before we head back SF and then home is a place called “Burger” off the highway on the edge of Santa Cruz. It was very good, high quality ingredients with just the right amount of louche qualities to make it really good - a random choice but good one.
We finish at Manressa (reported here http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/845454), which was really fantastic. A great trip and thank you for all the advice, it made it a lot easier with all the local knowledge.