A little over two years ago, we had what was the best restaurant food day of our lives.
Lunch at Chez Panisse Café and dinner at French Laundry.
That was a good day.
After the last Cleveland trip in April "didn't take," another trip out of the increasingly wearisome Chicago was needed tout suite. How about a cheap enough two-day trip back to San Francisco and its 60-degree weather when it's 95 crotch-sweatingly hot degrees in Chicago? Yeah...that'll do.
And in many ways, the great restaurant day from two years was duplicated right down to the owners of the two restaurants.
Ad Hoc Restaurant - Yountville
Right down the street from the French Laundry, Ad Hoc is the third Thomas Keller restaurant within a stone's throw of each other in Yountville, ten miles north of the city of Napa.
Opened in 2006, the place was originally a place holder for an inevitable burgers and 1/2 bottles restaurant Keller was planning, but the response he got from the comfort-food joint led him to keep the concept going.
And for that, we thank him. It was spectacular.
$49 four-course meal served family-style in a small, 14 table space that nonetheless feels airy while having a laid-back comfort and sparkle to it. Completely casual. Wear what you like.
We caught Memphis BBQ night:
Frisee & Bitter Greens Salad
Sungold cherry tomato, pickled pearl onion, hush puppy crouton, spiced tillamook cheddar
Memphis Style Barbeque
Wagyu beef brisket, grilled fatted calf andouille sausage, pulled pork sliders, savoy cabbage slaw, yellow corn and rancho gordo pinquito beans
Marshall's Farm wildflower honey, suncrest peaches
Chocolate Swiss Roll
Hazelnut crunch, vanilla ice cream
Two glasses of NV (?) Schramsberg Blanc de Noir to start
1/2 bottle of 2007 Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner with the frisee salad
1/2 bottle of 2007 Domaine des Pallieres "Les Racines" Gigondas with the BBQ
One Tokaji Aszu and one Quinto Do Noval Port with dessert
As always, it was in the little things. The hush puppy croutons were ridiculously delicious, especially with a smear of spiced cheddar. The wagyu beef brisket was the best preparation of wagyu I've ever had, beating even the Blackbird version from last October. The sausage...what can I say...great stuff. Something about the spice level. Some of the best honey I've ever had and the freshness of the vegetables was off the charts.
It seemed like we caught a menu (as the menu changes daily) that everyone working at the restaurant was quite fond of and what resulted on the plate told us why. I'll remember those flavors for years.
But what both of us will remember the most about the Ad Hoc meal will be the wine pairing. The grüner was quite good and performed well with the salad. The sparkling rosé was all creamy raspberry with loads of lively bubbles and pinot noir goodness.
But we immediately fell silly in love with the 2007 Domaine des Pallieres "Les Racines Vieilles Vignes" Gigondas. Seems almost wrong how good it was. Mostly Grenache with Syrah, Cinsault and Clairette as well. It was pure silk showing dark red berries and fruit cake notes that on the mid-palate just exploded with red licorice juice. Bright yet brooding at the same time with an almost velvety finish. Wanna get to know Gigondas and what good Grenache can taste like from the Rhône? This one's $30-40. Buy it and find out. Nearly perfect with the BBQ and absolutely perfect with the corn and bean salad. Ab-sol-utely perfect.
A great meal that will be long remembered with a new favorite wine.
Chez Panisse Restaurant - Berkeley
The first time we ate at Chez Panisse two years ago, it was upstairs in the a la carte café and had some great food, even realizing the joys of superlatively-prepared chicken. We always liked chicken enough but that was Chicken.
Always somewhat curious about the downstairs and its set four-course menu, we gave it a go with the caveat that we might cancel if the menu didn't look particularly great to us. After seeing it two days before (they release the menus for the week on Sunday), it sounded good enough with the added prospect that it's Chez Panisse. We'll probably be just fine.
And we were in spades.
King salmon carpaccio with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and basil
Hand-cut pasta with summer chantrelles, squash blossoms and arugula
Becker Lane Farm pork loin alla toscana with fennel sausage, green beans and cranberry beans
Almond nougat and strawberry ice cream cassata
I can take or leave salmon but I could eat this salmon once a week. Bright tomatoes, beautifully light touch with the aioli and generous hits of basil. But the salmon was the star. Terrifically fresh and just so damn tasty. A fine enough pasta, if a tad unmemorable, cooked the definition of al dente. But the pork loin! Oh, the pork loin! Almost didn't want to eat it because it was so pretty with a gentle pink center that faded to the edges with an almost grace. Mixed with the fennel sausage, it was a sumptuous bite of food. Solid dessert and a good capper with French press.
But with the salmon and pork loin, we had one beautiful meal.
Two glasses of Cava with the salmon carpaccio = a beautiful pairing.
Two interesting glasses with the pasta, a Corbières Blanc and a white from the Canary Islands. The Corbières showed elegant fruit and the Canary Islands white had a subtle touch of oil mixed with almonds (?) and smoked peach.
1/2 bottle of Domaine des Pallieres "Les Racines" Gigondas. The same wine from Ad Hoc because it was on the menu for $32 freakin' dollars and we loved it. Great again with the pork loin.
A glass of Hüet Demi-Sec Vouvray dessert wine which fell flat with the dessert. I figured it might but wanted to try it.
Two great meals again from Thomas Keller and Alice Waters. For that, we thank them profusely. A special mention should go out to Gianni, our server at Chez Panisse who was an utter joy all night. We wanted to hug him.
I would mention the lunch at Slanted Door if it was worth mentioning. Someone in the kitchen limed the beef carpaccio twice, turning it into a sloppy mess and the tuna tartare and spring rolls were merely fine enough with everything arriving at the table within three minutes of ordering it. We felt a bit rushed, which was a complete departure from the last time we were there and had a fantastic dinner/experience. The bottle of NV Tissot Crément du Jura was quite tasty though with a smoky creaminess and subtle hits of apple and lime.
Gott's Roadside in the Ferry Building, the inspiration for the marinade for fish tacos written about here on a few occasions? Skip it.
But if you're in Berkeley and looking for a quick lunch, run don't walk to Gioia Pizzeria on Hopkins. It's New York-style pizza with a Berkeley bent that made us curse the gods that Chicago refuses to do New York-style pizza right or at all. Crackerbox space, cheap as dirt and freakin' delicious.
All in all, a good trip, a needed trip, a trip that offered oceans breezes and 55-60 degree weather when it was hot as hell in Chicago. People were in sweaters and fleeces in July. I can support that.
I can recommend: Ad Hoc, Chez Panisse, the BART ($19 from Berkeley to SFO), the casual, seemingly normal and generally happy people of San Francisco and the Kia Sportage as a rental (nice little car. Wouldn't own one but nice little car).
Things that I can't: Slanted Door at lunch, Gott's Roadside, mothers flying with four screaming kids in tow, middle-aged women with too much money and a fanny pack that have no internal dialogue, taxi from SFO to Berkeley ($75), the person who thought it was smart to carpet and upholster the BART and the punch of heat in the face upon returning to Chicago (made worse by the fact that I was still in a fleece).
We'll see you soon, Northern California. You're nice.