Thank you to everyone who shared so much great advice – it was very useful - here is the related thread with the advice: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/836993
Our Californian experience starts at immigration; no wait, and a wonderfully warm welcome from the agent at the desk. There are very few countries that greet a visitor so well. We feared it would take a long time to get off the plans and out on the town to make our first reservation but it was quick. SFO to Nopa via the hotel and a shower was achieved in less than two hours.
Nopa really hits the spot, late on Friday night it is busy and bustling. A short wait at the bar then seated at a great table. The waiter recommends a really drinkable Central Coast Pinot (we had to ask where the central coast was) and we enjoy some sturgeon confit, a very fresh salad with warm egg, and a classic rare burger - very good food, which immediately set the standard for the trip. The one complaint: very inefficient bar staff with more attitude that is justified – I only wanted a beer not a lecture!
Saturday morning at the farmers market is very interesting, it is wet and windy,, but still lots of great produce. We are still jet lagged so can only squeeze in a coffee at Blue Bottle. Generally queues are a sign of great things. But here it seems to be a sign of very slow baristering. The glacial pace of the service wouldn’t go down well in the morning rush in Sydney. Later on the trip I was told the “make one at a time” rather than multitasking approach is a sign of good coffee as each is made individually with care and attention. Well the result is in the cup and to be frank we didn’t think the coffee was any better than a good Sydney, or Italian place where the barista churns through multiple coffees at once. I know it is meant to be the antithesis of the “Starbucks” production line but to be frank it struck me they have lost the plot. So after a lengthy queue an OK coffee.
We did do a bit of a coffee tour, also trying Ritual and Four Barrel but neither stood out, and we thought the Four Barrel was bitter, possibly burnt.
Our Mexican quest had quite mixed results. First, dinner at Nopalito on a busy and wet Saturday, the place was pretty chilly so that took he edge off it. We start with a really fine Taco de Pescado al Pastor which build the anticipation; Quesadilla Roja con Chicharrón, which is decent; Naranjas con Chile, Limón y Queso, which is wonderfully fresh and interesting; really wonderfullCarnitas; a good Empanada con Deshebrada de Res; then to finish a Mole Poblano con Pollo, which was disappointing. First, the sauce and meat didn’t seem to have been cooked together (it this normal), and whilst the Mole was OK it lacked real depth. However, the chicken was really poor, almost artificial in texture, a vibrant whit colour and lacking in any flavour.
The next days saw us try some Taqueria’s in Oakland and The Mission which were interesting but not stunning, good earthy food but no wow factor. Out of SF we ate at El Molino Central in Sonoma and enjoyed some good tacos at a wine bar in Paso Robles. El Molino is good, there chicken Mole had far better flavour than Nopalito’s and their other dishes are definitely a cut above the average, it is basic, but good if you are in the area. The best Mexican was in Healdsburg at Mateo’s Cocina Latino, they made the Chronicle Top 100 and a chance reading of the list put us onto it. Wonderful Tacones to start, a new (to us) Ensalada Jícama which was fantastic with interesting flavour and texture, a good Tamale and nice fish taco. But what makes the meal are the four Mayan Habanero Salsas the restaurant makes: Mayan Habanero, Ahumado, Verde, and Amarillo Rostizado. They all have very interesting flavour profiles and I wish we had bought some to bring home. A real find – highly recommended.
The other big meals we had were at Zuni Café and Chez Panisse. We headed for Zuni for some more Californian casual food freshness and it really delivered. It is the sort of place that sums up a visitors expectation. The service is fantastic, it’s busy and lively yet very civilised, and the wine list is good was great advice. We have a prime table looking into the kitchen and tuck into some delicate fried calamari (not certain it needed the onions); a classic Caesar salad, where the simplicity and freshness of the dish emphasised why it is such a classic; and then we finished with the Roast Chicken and Bread Salad. The chicken is fine, but I suspect the quality of US chickens lets the dish down, with squidgy, spongy moist meat that had lost its bite and innate meatiness (and I wonder is this the preparation method or how chicken is sold). However, overall it is a really lovely meal.
Monday night at Chez Panisse for the set meal; we arrive to find the upstairs café packed as it is their 30th birthday (I think), in the corner they have a lively French accordion band. The place feels so, so good. All woody in a arts and crafts way. Anticipation is very high. We head down to the restaurant which is surprisingly formal, lots of jackets and ties and hushed tones, slightly at odds with impression you get from afar. The food is OK, definitely really fresh well sourced ingredients. The starter of three salads including bean and pea puree is miniscule, decent for an amuse bouche but not a true starter. The main of Couscous de fruits de mer (Morrocan fish and shellfish stew of Bolinas rock cod, shrimp, clams, and squid with charmoula, peas, and carrots) again shows great sourcing; however, the overall dish is a little underpowered. We mention this to the maitre’d and he shares with us the kitchen would like to make it more realistic but the patrons don’t like flavours that are too strong. He reappears with another bowl spiced and seasoned in the way the chef would like to serve it. It really lifts the dish and makes it wonderful – a real shame they first plate wasn’t the same. Dessert is nice, but again small, and the petit fours are tasty but only two small pieces each. We are glad we went, we enjoyed it a lot, but we did feel it didn’t really live up to the ethos or image.
On our tour of the city we sampled Bi-Rite Creamery and Humphry Slocombe’s ice-cream. The preference was Bi-Rite, and we felt the quality of Slocombe’s was mixed with lots of ice crystals in the sorbet. It was good to walk around the neighbourhood but as destinations on their own not really recommended.
We headed out of SF and then returned for our last night for a really amazing meal at Manresa. See separate post: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/845454
The other part of our trip is on the California board: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/845456