Restaurants & Bars

How to gain 5 lbs in 9 days- my SF/Sonoma/Healdsburg trip report (very long)

sparkplug | Sep 15, 200707:45 PM     7

Thanks to months of reading this board and your input, we just returned from a fabulous 9 day trip and I wanted to share……

Day 1: Arriving around 3 p.m. to SF, my boyfriend and I were hungry but didn’t want a large meal because we had 8 p.m. reservations at Aziza. BF had never eaten an In-n-Out burger so I decided that’s what we needed to start with. The burgers were delicious and hit the spot without filling us up too much. This gave us just enough energy to climb lots of hills and take in some sights before cleaning up to meet our two friends also in town for the weekend. The minute we walked into Aziza, we were greeted warmly and took in the beautiful, sensuous atmosphere. We knew this was the perfect choice for 2 couples looking forward to a low key evening. Cocktail menu was inventive, and our group tasted quite a few: Cilantro, Tarragon, Verbena, Meyer Lemon, Almond, and Watermelon. Our favorites were the Tarragon and the Watermelon, both of which were re-ordered more than once. The Watermelon had a hint of cayenne pepper, which gave it a nice little kick. We decided the tasting menu was the route to take, so we plunged forward. For the first course, we chose 3 lentil soups and one corn soup. The lentil soup was outstanding-a lemony tomato broth with a hint of spiciness. The corn soup was a creamy, perfect summertime treat. From the ooh’s and ahh’s, I could tell everyone was very happy. My BF commented later that the soup may have been his favorite part of the meal! On to the 2nd course, the chef’s choice of appetizers. I’ll put these in order of my favorite to least favorite: Mediterranean spreads; 3 dollops of spreads: eggplant, pomegranate-almond, yogurt cucumber dill with grilled flatbread; Fresh Bodega goat cheese: little toasts with cherry tomato and citrus jam; Baked Giant Lima Beans; small casserole dish of savory thick tomato puree’& feta cheese; Kefta and grape skewers; little meatballs with crisp grapes served with a cucumber and picked onion salad. Everyone had their own opinion of what they liked best, but there was absolutely nothing that we didn’t enjoy thoroughly.

Next was the Basteeya, a phyllo pie with a filling of saffron braised chicken and almonds, powdered sugar and cinnamon. I was a little nervous about everyone’s reaction to this dish because of what others had posted about it being too sweet. I was pleasantly surprised that most of us found it to be really tasty and it wasn’t as sweet as I was afraid it might be. On to the entrees…I chose the Prawn Tagine, with 5 large shrimp in a tomato/lemon sauce with peppers, zucchini, and roasted carrots. Delicious. Others at the table ordered the Couscous Aziza which had grilled chicken, prawns, spicy lamb sausage and perfect plump couscous; the Yellowfin Tuna, seared rare with a fennel seed crust and the Guinea Hen. We all tried at least one bite of each other’s. Next to my tagine, I probably liked the couscous dish best. Okay, so at this point did they seriously think we could each choose and eat a dessert??? None of us really felt like we could eat another bite, but didn’t want to walk out the door without at least trying something, so we told the waitress to bring us only 2 desserts to split between the 4 of us. Our choices were the upside down fig cake with cinnamon gelato and pistachio brittle- (if there was any bit of room in my stomach, I would have eaten the whole thing…phenomenal) and the hazelnut tartlet with dark chocolate ice cream (also really good but the fig cake had me hooked).

The food was amazing – but definitely more than we could eat comfortably. In hindsight, perhaps we should not have done the tasting but instead just ordered a few dishes separately to share. However, it was fun to taste some things that we possibly wouldn’t have chosen on our own. All in all the meal and service was incredible. Our only gripe is that our seating arrangement became increasingly uncomfortable during the meal. We were seated in a semi-circular booth that was too small for the 4 of us, causing our knees to all touch. I sat between the 2 guys and couldn’t cross my legs without kicking or brushing each of them every time. The restaurant was also pretty warm, which didn’t help our comfort level, especially since we were so tightly crammed together. If it hadn’t been for this, our meal would have been perfect!

Day 2: It was Saturday morning, so we got up early and hit the farmer’s market by 9 a.m. Immediately we grabbed a map from the information stand and made our way to Rose Pistola, where BF got in line to order us an egg sandwich with applewood smoked bacon, basil and mozzarella to share. While he waited in line for the sandwich I got a Blue Bottle iced coffee (was planning on a cappucino, but it was such a warm and sunny day I got hot standing in line and wanted to cool off). Loved the sandwich and the coffee but we decided that sharing just one sandwich wasn’t going to be enough breakfast for us, so with eyes bigger than our bellies, we got in line at Hayes Street Grill. BF ordered the scrambled eggs with chorizo (yummy) and I got the egg, bacon and tomato sandwich. It was good, but I liked the Rose Pistola sandwich more, and it was much too huge for one person, so I ended up throwing at least half of it away. Munched on some fruit at other stands, and bought a bag of kettle corn to snack on all week, then headed inside. After wondering around tasting some olive oils and dipping sauces we met up with our friends for a wine flight and some cheese at the wine shop.

At this point it was time to head over to Berkeley for the UT vs Cal game (the main reason we took this trip), so we jumped on the Bart and made our first stop at Jupiter (as suggested here). We met up with some more friends after having a couple of beers, and decided to walk closer to campus. This was probably a mistake because all of the bars were totally packed. I actually have no idea which bar we ended up in – we just kept walking around until we found one that could fit our group of 8. (As a side note, I’m sad that I was so close to Chez Panisse and didn’t go there, but I knew going into this trip that I needed to let this be my BF’s day since I was dictating every other meal of the trip.) Flash forward to SF after the game that night…we were all pretty hungry, but it was 10 p.m. and we still needed to take showers before going out. I knew from the board that only a handful of good restaurants would be serving that late, and Oola was the nearest to us, so we headed there around 11:15 p.m. My friends are pretty impressed with me at this point because they loved Aziza, and now I brought them to this very dark, hip spot with such a cool vibe. After a day of rowdiness, this was what we needed. The service was wonderful- from hostess to bartender to waiter. I ordered the Andrew’s chile drink which was hot, hot, hot. I loved it, but it is definitely not for the faint of heart. It was a sipper drink that lasted me all the way through dinner. BF and I ordered the filet mignon carpaccio to start and it was really tasty. For dinner I had the ½ rack of ribs and a side of goat cheese mac n cheese at the suggestion of the waiter. The mac n cheese was okay, but not as fantastic as he made it out to be. My friend ordered the ½ rack of ribs and a side of fries with truffle oil and parmesan. Now those are something to write home about. Luckily he was up for sharing because we devoured them! Yum. His GF ordered the Chanterelle risotto with blue cheese and she passed me a bite, and then a few more because I loved it so much. BF ordered the Rack of lamb, which he said he enjoyed, but I didn’t try. Let me note again that the truffle fries were INCREDIBLE….none of us could quit eating them!

Day 3: Waited in line at Mama’s for 1 ½ hours in the blazing hot sun for breakfast. Thank goodness that the meal was extraordinary, or my BF probably would not have allowed me to choose any other restaurants for the rest of the trip. He and I shared the Cinnamon French Toast and the Northern Italian Omelet with basil, tomatoes, mushrooms, mozzarella, and pancetta. Outstanding, delicious, scrumptious, what else can I say? The house-made jam is also quite tasty- we used it on our French toast rather than using the syrup. Service was fast and our waiter was extremely personable. By the time we were done eating, we totally forgot how miserable we had been waiting in line.
After breakfast we rented bikes and biked across the Golden Gate Bridge down into Sausalito and to the Arts Fest because I had free tickets. Snacked on a few things from the stands there for lunch.

(A side note on Liguria Bakery- I crossed the street and bought a couple of focaccia loaves to nibble on while we waited in line at Mama’s. The bread was really greasy and wasn’t that great. I’m surprised that I’ve read so many good things about it. Between 4 of us, we didn’t even eat even a ¼ of either loaf and ended up throwing them in the trash once we were inside Mama’s. Really disappointing.)

Another couple joined up with us for dinner at Foreign Cinema that night, and I am so glad that I chose this place to take our group of 6. This new couple is not as adventurous when it comes to eating, so when searching for a dinner spot for this night, I wanted something fairly tame, but unique to SF, and this definitely fit the bill. We sat out on the patio with a great view of the movie (not that we really watched it but it was fun that it was there!). I wish I could remember everything that was ordered, but I can’t so I’ll just tell you what I had: Sirloin carpaccio (shared with BF, like the carpaccio at Oola better, but this was still good), White corn soup w cream (delightful), Halibut, scallops and mussels in a green curry broth (very light dish, wish the flavor of the curry had been a little stronger), Green tea crème brulee (to die for- I think I would have licked the ramekin clean if I weren’t in public). We all left happy with the food and service, a very pleasant experience.

Day 4: Dottie’s True Blue Café breakfast. Fortunately my BF still loves me even after he had to wait in line AGAIN for 1 ½ hours for breakfast. Except this time instead of roasting in the sun, we were freezing in the shade! Ordered the Blueberry cornmeal pancakes to share, I got the Eggplant strata with roasted tomatoes (delicious), and BF had the rosemary lamb sausage scramble with goat cheese and tomatoes (he devoured). Even though we both thought the breakfast was wonderful, the long wait just put us in a bad mood. Plus the service was not that great- they weren’t very friendly and certainly not very fast.

After this we went and picked up our convertible and headed to Sonoma, where we were to meet up with our 2 friends at El Dorado Kitchen for one last dinner together before they flew home. The dining space is really beautiful, both inside and out. While we waited for them in the bar, we perused the very original cocktail menu before I settled on the “Peach Jalapeño”. The bartender was very friendly and even added a little more ‘heat’ to my drink when I told him I liked it HOT! After hearing this, he also offered up a little shot glass of Hangar One chipotle vodka he thought I might like, and in fact I did!

When our friends arrived, we were escorted outside to the patio with it’s sprawling fig tree and private cabanas, in which we were seated for dinner. Between the 4 of us, this is everything we ordered with comments: Fritto Misto (fried zucchini, mushrooms, cucumbers with lemon aioli)- perfectly breaded, light and tasty; Mussels w pommes frites- outstanding, sopped up every bit of the juice with our bread; tomato soup with feta- very nice; mixed greens salad – the only dish we really didn’t care for because it had too much dressing. Entrees: Scallops with veggies- good, but a little “vegetable soupy”, Halibut, Gazpacho with prawns, and Pork Osso Busco- all very well prepared. The hit of the table was a side of the truffled gnocchi we ordered to share–scrumptious!!!! To top off an extremely enjoyable dinner experience, we ordered the fresh made cookie ice cream sandwiches- one chocolate chip with vanilla ice cream and hot fudge dipping sauce, the other oatmeal cookies with caramel ice cream and caramel dipping sauce. So much fun to eat, and sinfully sweet!

Day 5: BF and I spent the day wine tasting at several wineries along the road to Healdsburg where we were to stay for the next 2 nights. Included on our trek was a stop at the Mayo Reserve Room in Kenwood. I highly, highly recommend stopping for this food & wine pairing. We were the only ones in the room at 3 p.m., so we were able to spend a lot of time talking to the chef. The food was exquisite, and was just the right amount for us to call it a light lunch. Some of the dishes included were a smoked sole with plantain macadamia dolma, a chanterelle Peruvian potato gruyere baklava, a kobe beef & stilton slider and a pork belly lentil cabbage tostada. The cost was $25 for 7 pairings, which I think was very reasonable for the quality of the food and wine.

Dinner at Zin that night was more by default than by desire, as many places in Healdsburg are closed on Tuesday nights. I went into this meal with not the highest expectations, and that was probably a good thing. Grilled shrimp with hush puppies appetizer and an order of the beer battered green beans started us off. The grilled shrimp was really quite good but the green beans not so much so. BF ordered Zinfandel glazed short ribs served with corn salad in basil vinaigrette and horseradish mashed potatoes for his entree. The ribs were smothered in too much sauce so he wasn’t particularly fond of them, but the corn salad was very enjoyable (I kept stealing little bites from his plate). My pick was the fish special- wild salmon wrapped in bacon served on what the waiter called corn polenta with a tomato vinaigrette but I think it was actually grits, because they were really runny and had no flavor. Despite a couple of disappointments, I still felt the need to order dessert –the blackberry crème brulee. They redeemed themselves a bit here because I really enjoyed it.

Day 6: After a day at wineries, we headed back into town for a late lunch at Oakville Grocery. I ordered the Oakville Vegetarian Sandwich, which consisted of artichokes, olives, spinach, sun dried tomatoes, and a feta spread on focaccia, while the BF ordered BBQ chicken pizza. I loved, loved, loved my sandwich, but it was so enormous I could only eat half of it. BF was happy with his pizza as well, but to him, you almost can’t go wrong with pizza of any kind. Even though I was stuffed from the sandwich, I decided I needed just a little something sweet (if you haven’t noticed a pattern yet, I do love my sweet treats). Headed over to Bovolo for some peanut butter gelato. Divine. Peanut butter is my addiction, so I was in heaven.

Originally we had dinner reservations for Willie’s Seafood and Raw Bar, but their ex-sous chef passed away, so they closed the restaurant and called us to cancel our reservation. I was really looking forward to trying their food because I had read many good reviews, but since we had such a big, late lunch, we weren’t really all that hungry anyway. Barndiva was right around the corner from our hotel, and the building looked so cool that we decided we should go there to at least have a cocktail. Very good idea, as we encountered another superb drink menu…. For me, it was the Julien- a sake, vodka, lychee, and cucumber concoction that really hit the spot, as it was clean and cool. BF opted for a couple of caipirinhas, which he enjoyed. We decided we liked the vibe here, so, we moved out to the patio and ordered a couple of small plates while enjoying the beautiful weather. First up was the “From the garden” salad with watercress, pea shoots, apples, pears, queso de Mano, and blackberry balsamic dressing. It was very light, crisp, and refreshing after several days of heavy eating and drinking. Next, we shared the duck spring rolls with sweet and spicy chili sauce and an order of calamari with ginger lime aioli. Both were very tasty, but the calamari was a huge bowl and much more than we were prepared to eat. We really loved the setting and would come back here again, even if just for drinks.

Day 7: I have to mention how excellent our breakfasts were at both Inn at Sonoma and Healdsburg Inn on the Plaza. This particular morning we had a spinach and feta breakfast strata, apple and pear bake, and buttermilk almond scones with lemon glaze among other items. I ate 3 of the scones and could have kept eating but finally left the room so I wouldn’t eat any more. They were addictive! After so thoroughly enjoying our breakfasts over our 3 day stay, I purchased the Four Sisters Inn cookbook to take home with me. (Note: I hosted a brunch for 8 ppl the morning after I got back home and baked the Blackberry Cream Cheese coffee cake from the book. It was a huge hit…days later my BF was still talking about it).

On our way down back to SF driving down Hwy 1, we stopped at River’s End so we could see the Russian River enter the Pacific. I am so glad that we decided to eat lunch at this restaurant, because this meal was one of the highlights of the trip, and I only ordered soup and an appetizer! It was quite chilly out, so BF and I opted to start with a cup of the tomato basil soup which was quite good. Then I ordered the Pan seared scallops with sautéed portabellos, oven dried tomatoes, and feta cheese in a truffle cream sauce. They were so rich and creamy…the sauce so delectable that I used all of the focaccia they brought to our table to soak up every drop.

Back in SF that night, we headed out for dinner at The House. Luckily I made reservations in advance, so we were promptly taken to our seat, sweeping by several others waiting on the sidewalk and crammed into the tiny entryway. The most interesting thing about this dining experience is that before arriving, both of us were really starting to feel the effects of all this eating and weren’t very enthusiastic about another meal out. However, after the first bite our taste buds came alive. This was definitely our favorite meal of the whole trip because there was absolutely nothing wrong with anything- very simple dishes but full of flavor and outstanding service. We started the meal with the tuna tartare appetizer with nori chips. So refreshing and delicious. Next we ordered 2 entrees to split- the grilled sea bass with ginger soy dipping sauce and the flat iron steak with wasabi noodles. The sea bass just melts in your mouth. Even the little green beans they serve with it are delicious. And to put a perfect ending on a perfect meal, we had the featured dessert of the evening, a summer berry bread pudding with vanilla ice cream. Wow. Thankfully my BF is not a huge dessert person, so he ate one bite, and then I devoured the rest!

Normally I wouldn’t bother to report on bars that we visited, but in this case, I think it is very appropriate. If you haven’t visited Cantina yet (it opened just 4 months ago), and you like inventive cocktails, you must go. It’s a hidden gem on Sutter, truly hidden because there is no sign, just look right next door to Hotel Rex. The cocktail menu is truly inspired and well thought out….fresh and intriguing ingredients- signature drinks include Five Spice Margarita and Farmer’s Market Sangria with Frog Hollow Farm peaches. My BF ordered a Pomegranate Manhattan and I ordered the Laughing Buddha, a concoction of ginger, serrano chile pepper, and hanger one buddha's hand vodka. It had a hint of spice, (which if you haven’t noticed already, I really like). Fabulous! Not only were our drinks wonderful, but the atmosphere and the staff made it even the more enjoyable.

Day 8: We slept late, not leaving the hotel until 10:30 a.m., so decided we needed to go somewhere fairly close by for breakfast. I had read some decent reviews for Town’s End, so that’s where we headed. The basket of mini muffins, scones, and house made fruit butter they bring you for free to start off were really tasty. I ordered scrambled eggs and chicken apple sausage with a potato/carrot pancake as a side. The eggs were nice and fluffy, but the potato pancake is not what I was expecting. It was just a thin greasy block of crispy shredded hashbrowns. Even though it was nothing special, it was a decent breakfast and the service was good. After breakfast, we spent the day exploring parts of SF we hadn’t yet seen, finally making our way to the Mission to see Mission Dolores. I had planned to have lunch at La Taqueria, but we started to run short on time (had to get to the Giants game that night) and we really weren’t that hungry yet after having such a late breakfast. So instead we walked down to Bi Rite Creamery where I purchased a double dip of chai spiced chocolate and salted caramel. Perfect afternoon treat! After a quick trip back to the hotel to change clothes, we headed to the Giants game. Having Club level tickets, I was hoping our food choices would be a bit better than the rest of the park. I still had tacos on my mind, so I ended up with 2 huge carne asada tacos. They hit the spot even though I’ve had better- but hey, I’m at a ballpark, I wasn’t expecting much.

Day 9: The last morning in SF, and I took the opportunity to visit the Farmer’s Market one last time. I only had 1 hour to wonder around until I had to be back at my hotel to catch the car to the airport. First I found the June Taylor stand because they were absent the week prior and I really wanted to see if they had anything interesting to take home. I tried 4 or 5 different jams but didn’t really think any of them were that fantastic (maybe I’m spoiled because my sister makes her own peach butter, blackberry preserves, blueberry jam, pear honey and strawberry preserves at the end of every summer and stocks me up for the year). After picking up a gift pack of flavored olive oils from Sciabica and Son, I headed inside for some chocolates to take home for friends. Then it was time for a treat for myself, so I dropped into Boulette’s Larder and snagged 2 chocolate brownie cookies with sea salt. Running out of time and in need of a substantial breakfast since I wouldn’t be eating again until late that night, I headed to Rose Pistola. This time I ordered the soft scrambled eggs with chanterelles and crispy pancetta. Scrumptious and huge! On my walk back to the hotel, the chocolate cookies were calling my name, so I ate those tasty little things in 4 bites. They probably wouldn’t have traveled well anyway!

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