Thanks to everyone on this board who, directly and indirectly helped me plan meals during my week-long visit to chowhound nirvana. I won't bore you all with details of each meal (though I could!), but here are the (many) highlights, in rough chronological order:
-- Dinner at Zuni, on our first night in CA, was one of the best restaurant experiences I've ever had. I had been afraid that it wouldn't live up to my absurdly high expectations, but it exceeded them. Unfortunately it was only the 2 of us so we were slightly limited in the amount of food we could order (no chicken, sigh...) but we did our best. The Zuni Caesar salad, the ricotta gnocchi, the shellfish bisque, the braised halibut...everything was simple yet supremely delicious, and the service was pitch perfect. Despite our huge meal we each got a dessert AND ordered choc-hazelnut biscotti to go for breakfast. The mango sorbet and the biscotti were superb, but the real surprise for me, not the biggest chocolate cake fan, was the gateau Victoire, a triumph of baking science. How can a cake be so rich and so light at the same time?!
-- Lunch at Chez Panisse Cafe the next day was also excellent, although the service was not quite as good (not bad though). The pasta with morels and peas was incredibly flavorful, and my husband, who generally likes dessert more than I do (more on this to follow), proclaimed the cherry tart the best dessert of the trip--high praise indeed.
-- Willi's Seafood in Healdsburg was very good, but after a long, hot, trafficky drive we might not have properly appreciated it. Having lived in New England, though, I really enjoyed the Dungeness crab-based riff on a lobster roll.
-- Dry Creek Kitchen was OK. The food was not bad--I had a nice piece of halibut, and husband really liked his pork tenderloin--but the atmosphere was just sort of off-putting to me, a combination of starched white tablecloths and lots of people in shorts and Hawaiian shirts (not us, but it just all seemed stilted). I preferred the more laid-back surroundings of Zuni. Also, after they asked whether we wanted sparkling water and we said that plain was fine, they poured us Evian. I thought this was extremely presumptuous, and I also don't like the minerally taste of Evian with food. Unfortunately, however, I just sat there and didn't object. Stupid.
-- I LOVED the Downtown Bakery and Creamery, especially the addictive chocolate-hazelnut biscotti. In my foodie dreams, this is the sort of place I open up after I "retire."
-- Zazu in Santa Rosa was a close runner-up to Zuni. The food was fresh and delicious--I had a pasta with arugula pesto, snap peas and fava beans that tasted as if everything had just been picked from the garden late that afternoon. When we found out that the chef had worked at Kinkead's here in Washington and mentioned this to our waitress, the chef came out to chat with us. Gelato to die for, too.
-- Maybe the biggest surprise was a little place called Pignoli in Occidental. Terrific food, great comfortable atmosphere, and a brilliant strawberry-rhubarb pie with a crust that was beyond exemplary--crisp, brown and bubbly. It was also heaving with perfectly fresh fruit.
-- I also had my first In and Out Burger. Not too bad, though I am not a fast food fan.
As I said above, usually dessert is not a highlight of the meal for me, and I often don't get it in restaurants although I love to bake and make ice cream at home. But without exception, the (usually fruit-based) desserts we sampled were amazing. I'm sure the access to a broad spectrum of great ingredients helps, but there also seems there is a huge pool of extremely talented pastry chefs in the Bay Area and north.
There is also, obviously, a palpable appreciation of food by (apparently) almost the entire population. I can only imagine what it must be like when people so motivated, and who have such access to the freshest and best of so many ingredients, cook at home.
So thanks again, N Cal hounds! I'll remember these meals for a long, long time.