Tuesday, August 23, 2011

#216 - San Francisco

Our third trip to the Bay Area in the last four years produced a very nice handful of highlights, a stupefyingly awful lowlight, a comfortable sense of familiarity, tons of interactions with ridiculously friendly, calm people and a relaxing feeling of escape, which was sorely needed.

So...success.  We liked it muchly.

Some impressions:  Torta Frontera by Rick Bayless in O'Hare is the best airport eats we've ever had (and we successfully avoided Bounty Hunter in Napa and Anchor Steam Brewery in SFO.  A first.).  We won't be flying or visiting wine country in August again.  La Quinta, you're always nice and cheap.  Dodge Charger...keep it.  2011 San Francisco summer weather feels like reading the more depressing moments of Kurt Vonnegut (which isn't altogether bad, just foggy-gloomy).  Spanish Table (and the wonderful Joe) was like a candyland for us, reminding us once again that a place deeply entrenched in Spanish-Spanish is desperately needed in Chicago.  Mrs. Ney continued her string of being selected for 'extra screening.'  She's now been tested for a full-body CT scan, a shoe bomb, a liquid/gel bomb, a boob- and/or crotch-bomb (aggressively) and now explosives residue while her companion with the stoic, slightly snarly expression sails right through.  We never expected a veggie-centric lunch could have been so transcendent and a formerly favorite restaurant visited a few hours later would have been such an abomination, tasting like it came from the 'International' section at Denny's.  But easy-peasy and a calming getaway.

This trip:  Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Zuni Café in SF, C Casa Taqueria in Napa, Ubuntu in Napa and Ad Hoc in Yountville.

Chez Panisse:  We enjoyed ourselves enough halfway through the meal so much that we made a reservation for two days later (drawn in by the clafloutis on Saturday's menu) but ended up canceling.  Some of that had to do with the impression left after the meal and the next day. The enjoyment of our second visit to the restaurant (went to the café four years ago) was mitigated a bit by the fact that we ran into the pork loin alla toscana once again as our main course, just like last year.  The idea of pork loin makes us sleepy and bored and taking a chance that it's going to happen again in the future leaves us feeling trepidatious.  But overall, another delicious meal with graceful, subtle flavors, more chanterelles (Chez Panisse seems to be propping up the U.S. market of chantrelles solely by themselves) and all around a meal with nice, light touches, if not the most soul-satisfying and deep goodness.  Tasted closer to what would have been a great lunch instead of a decadent, explosive dinner just off the plane.  If San Francisco continues to be an annual thing, the restaurant might (...will) be skipped henceforth and lunch at the café upstairs may replace it.  Insanely friendly staff and an atmosphere chockablock with tranquil tranquility keeps it on the list, even if it's just the café.

Food:  Crostini misti with duck liver, fish and shellfish brodetto, spit-roasted Becker Lane pork loin alla toscana and blackberry ice cream profiteroles

Wine (375mls):  2006 Lucien Crochet Sancerre Rouge with the crostini, 2009 Do Ferreiro Albariño with the brodetto and 2007 Domaine Les Pallières "Les Racines" Gigondas with the pork loin.

Pleasing, almost proper pairings overall but nothing that blew us away.  Stayed in the familiar range with the meal, having had these wines before but different vintages, except for the Les Racines - it's a favorite.        

Ended up being one of those meals that was very much welcome while eating it but it took a glance at the menu to conjure up the details in my brain in order to write on it.

That wasn't the case at...

Zuni Café:  People in our world have talked about the chicken at Zuni so much, we finally said, "Fiiiinnneeee!  We'll go!"  And it's worth it.  Fine chicken.  Huge chicken.  Tough to feed us chicken as we like our Thomas Keller Chicken and its variants (more on Mr. Keller later) but this is Good Chicken.

And this was Birthday Wine Lunch, a 1968 López de Heredia "Viña Tondonia" Gran Reserva Blanco, which...all I can say...was liquid magic.  Ponderous as hell.  That's what we did.  We shut up and sat there...pondering every sip.  Every signature Heredia white flavor but built for the looooong run, like the difference between your everyday car that you love and sitting in freakin' Mercedes-built race car.  Virtually no sherry quality, just an aging kaleidoscope of Heredia flavors that tasted like it's going to keep sailing strong for years, like it can't even think about dying in the least.  It's not in its DNA.

Food:  Anchovies, tuna mini-sandwiches, roast chicken for two, meringata and espresso granita

Wine:  See above and a 375 mil of 2009 Domaine Hüet Le Haut Lieu Vouvray

We'd go back just for the beautiful atmosphere (and great waiter).  Felt bistro-y.  Real European bistro-y.  And the food felt absolutely proper to the environment.  Fit like a glove.

Quick mention of a quick lunch here:  C Casa Taqueria in Oxbow Food Market in the city of Napa was one of the wondrous surprises of the trip.  Last year, we predicted the demise of Oxbow (sort of a domino thing with Copia next door) as it seemed dead in the water when we were there.  New life, it seems, with tons of new, more destination-style offerings and one being C Casa Taqueria.  Grass fed, free range, sustainable, local, compostable, gluten free, all that jazz.  We sort of settled on it having driven to the choked-with-tourists city of Sonoma and escaped in short order.  Just tacos but stupid-great tacos they are.  Chilorio (shredded beef) taco, prawn taco, chips and guacamole and a bottle of Elizabeth Spencer Sauvignon Blanc.

Having left the 60-degree gloomy fog of the Bay Area for the 75-degree sun with a light breeze in Napa, it made for one delicious lunch.  Flavors here that get in your brain and stay there.  Just the right touches of everything with no one element dominating.  Each bite tastes like a tried-and-true flavor developed over time.  Not too much citrus, not too much spice, not too much cream/sauce/filler, just the right amount of all, leaving an impression that this place could make a killing off us if nearby.  All served with a perfectly pleasant sauvignon blanc, cheap and wanted.  On a day that was labeled a "free day" (which is danger in our world as we prefer plans and deal with/work around them better), it made for the food highlight on a beautiful, (somewhat less) tourist-infested, Napa day.

But the best meal on the trip was lunch at Ubuntu in Napa.

Ubuntu: Vegetarian-centric but not solely, Ubuntu shocked us completely.  We had a feeling we'd like it, just not this much.  It's a top-three restaurant experience in my world over the last three years, probably more.

With the exception of one poached egg on one dish, an entirely vegetarian meal for us.

Go here to see the intimate details of the dishes.  We went for the fregola and stayed for everything else.

Food:  Snacks of marcona almonds and Castelvetrano olives, dishes of pole bean and cucumber salad, 'ox heart' carrots, squash, chickpeas in romesco, orange fregola, cornbread and meyer lemon desserts

Wine:  Two bottles of a delicious Pecorino, which I can't remember the name of.

We were struck mostly by the complete absence of using citrus as a crutch.  And the fact that every ingredient on every dish was carefully thought through on how to add flavor, develop flavor and balance flavor, both in relation to itself and how it's going to work with everything else.  Nothing was overlooked.  They don't just dump marcona almonds (we'll get to that as well) on a plate and call it a snack.  They take marcona almonds to a new level.  Same for the Sicilian green olives.  Same for carrots that taste like the satisfaction one gets from meat and was better than most meat.  Same for the squash.  Same for the foam.  Same for everything.

Couldn't have loved it more.  We'll be back as this place replaced the original intent of the trip - going to our formerly favorite restaurant, Ad Hoc.

Ad Hoc:  First we swore, then we gasped and then we just laughed...constantly.  I don't think we've ever so pointedly felt a "when dad's away, the kids will play" sense of a restaurant more than this meal.  Or maybe it's just become a tourist trap.  Or maybe they're playing out the string.  Or maybe we caught a particularly horrible night.  Or maybe we caught a particularly great night the last time we were there.  But when I say it tasted like the International section at Denny's, I'm only slightly exaggerating.  Worst meal in this price range we've had since Absinthe six years ago.  We felt ripped off, laughed at all the silliness at every turn and lamented the loss of a favorite.

We looked at the internet menu while at Ubuntu and laughed.  This was right up our alley with flavors we eat on a regular basis.  A Spanish bent of hanger steak with corn and piquillo pepper, marinated manchego with olives, basque cake to finish (and mixed green with dill cream dressing to start).  Fine!  Good! We eat these flavors all the time!

But not THESE flavors.  The mixed greens (from the FL garden down the street) was just salad with a timid dill cream dressing and dull Tokyo turnips.  Would have felt like simply a mistake if not for what followed.  Very pretty hanger cooked perfectly but...you know...this is hanger.  It wants to be gussied up  so that crust sets off the gnarly flavor of the meat.  Like paprika, which seemed right and proper for the Spanish-ness of the meal.  If there was paprika involved, we didn't get it.  It was simply meat, just sitting there, not jumping off the plate in the least.  Served with a corn-piquillo relish that seemed like they portioned it out, chain restaurant style, resembling two tablespoons worth on the entire family-style plating.  But the saffron rice brought the most chuckles.  Great All-Clad dish of saffron rice that tasted boxed with a severe skimp on the saffron.  But the portion size made for about five healthy bites for each of us.  That...and bland to boot.  Touché!

Manchego marinated in olive oil, served with various olives and marcona almonds.  Just had great marcona almonds taken to a higher level for lunch.  These were dumped out of the bag and onto the plate.  Great marinated manchego.  Loved it.  Probably some of the best manchego I've had with balanced touches of creaminess with a nuttiness and chalk placed properly in the background, all set in good olive oil.  The green olives accompanying it tasted like they marinated them in-house and nobody kept track if the marinade was salted so they just continued to salt it.  Like a salt lick.  Every one of them.  At this point, it turned to laughter.  How could Ad Hoc go so wrong?!

A Basque cake that wasn't really a gateau, more like a regional recipe on the French side of the border.  Light and delicate with a nice crust but forgettable with no pop, much like the rest of the meal.

We discovered the joy of Domaine Les Pallìeres Les Racines Gigondas at this restaurant but wanted something different, mostly a California pinot noir oddly (not our bag, really, but like it) but Copain or Etude weren't tripping us.  So we settled between choosing a California Rhône blend and a sangiovese-syrah blend and asked our server about the characteristics of each.  Mistake.  When asked about the grape order of the Rhône blend, we got a "there's a lot of grapes in it."  When asked about the impression of the sangiovese-syrah, we got a "let me ask (leaves, comes back)...it's...you know...typically full-bodied like sangiovese. I haven't had it."     

The server was trying but I just don't think I was asking hard questions for a Thomas Keller restaurant.  We settled on the sangiovese-syrah, were brought the Rhône blend, the server apologized (no problem on our end, I've done that before myself) but then disappeared for ten minutes.  After getting the wine and tasting it, we were left with a palpable sense that the Gypsy Chariot at $4.99, with food, would have beaten it (but that's not the restaurant's fault outside of the choice to put it on the wine list, which by the way hasn't changed hardly at all in a year...in Napa...even the same vintages).  And it just kept comin'.  A busser cleared plates like Joe Thomas (just resigned by the Browns, thank God) blocks defensive ends and tons of stuff was left on the table, uncleared throughout the meal.  And a glass of Verdelho ordered by the glass was...not tasted like...it WAS left open in the refrigerator for days and tasted like it (and we weren't buying the "this winemaker changes your perception of grapes" - that was fridge-open for days bad).  I would have ordered something else but at that point I didn't know when I would have gotten it.

It made for great laughter, almost gallows humor.  With the reverence we placed on the place after our last visit, always checking the daily email to see what's cookin' tonight and thinking, "THAT'S GOTTA BE GOOD!" the dichotomy made for some spectacular hilarity.

Thomas Keller has forgotten more about food than I'll ever know.  We love him.  He gave us French Laundry, Thomas Keller chicken, buttermilk fried chicken, vanilla mashed potatoes (crap!  we're going to have to have them soon) and others.  This meal felt like he's done keeping an eye on things.  Too much to do.  Which probably isn't true.  It's probably much more complicated.  Maybe a loose rope was given, a different division of full restaurant authority passed along, something.  Maybe the baddest of bad days happened.  It WAS August, the height (or depth) of tourist season.  I'm betting November through April is prime Ad Hoc, when the rabble is away and care can be taken and appreciated.

But we can't change a birthday.  It happens at the same time every year so going back to the best restaurant experience we've had seemed like a return to glory.  Oh, my!  It.  Was.  Not.

And I'm leaving stuff out!

We'll take the magic of Ubuntu any day over what happened at Ad Hoc.  The latter meal just made me want to swear and gut-laugh at the same time, the former in better, happy ways.

But San Francisco/Bay Area/Napa, we'll be back.  You're nice.  I don't know when but we'll be back.  And Ubuntu, please be open.

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