Must eat San Jose?
One suggestion for great Mex food is Tacos al Pastor on Bascom Avenue just south of Stevens Creek Blvd. Having been back in NYC for over 6 years now, I still think about those awesome tacos for about $2 each! I also like Gombei, which is in San Jose's Japantown (great lunch specials) and don't miss the curried potato croquettes. Komatsu (in Campbell on Campbell Ave.) has just about the best sushi in town (sit at bar, if possible) and watch Harry work his magic.
One more day at the conference but I'm done experimenting in San Jose and some places worth mentioning. First let me say, it's been almost two years since I've been in downtown SJ, and it has been completely transformed. Derelicts gone and buildings rehabbed, replaced by hunky bike patrol cops, outdoor dining and lots of people out in the evening. Second, it's been in the 90's during the day and the nights have been warm --- good A/C has been a big factor in my restaurant choices. Also, I'm staying at the Fairmont and gave walking a priority.
The Fairmont catering service has done a really good job with conference meals. The first courses and desserts (lemon creme brulee with fresh berries, chocolate/raspberry mousse torte and puff pastry apple tart with cinnamon ice cream and caramel sauce) have been about the best of any convention meals I've had and service is really great. The entrees are well-conceived but have been held too long and on the dry side. I didn't try any of the hotel restaurants but wouldn't be afraid to.
On Wednesday, I wanted to try Eulipia having heard good things about it for several years, but turned out to not be open for lunch. The menu looked good with Calif/New American dishes. There were several restaurants across the street - Cafe Matisse looked interesting with its adjoining wine bar but the A/C wasn't keeping up, also a Chinese-Cambodian place called Trieu Chau (as in Chiu Chow). Original Joe's is on the corner, and was cold enough to suit me when i poked my head in. The "Joe's" restaurants are independently owned but are similar in style with big helpings of Italian-American red sauce, meatballs, Joe's special, bar and grill kind of food with day of the week specials, dimly lit booths, and black-jacketed waiters. The lunch special was osso buco and the 3/4 portion at $9.95 was more than I could eat despite being ravenous. The veal shank slices were browned and braised in a tasty tomato-based sauce with lots of fresh champignons and thick slices of meaty portobellos. The pieces were tender enough to fall off the bone and be easy to eat, yet still held their shape and full glutinous glory. Section of the bones were included with the unctuous marrow. The buttered bed of rice was Uncle Ben's but it was all very satisfying. The Italian style bread from Roma bakery was very good with crackly crunchy crust and yeasty pillowy insides. Service was fast and professional (lots of refills of chug-a-lugged ice tea), and the food hit that comfort spot.
One of my local wine pals picked A P Stump's for our dinner. This is Dave's hang-out in downtown --- ask for a table in Fred's area (next to the bar) for the best service. We brought our own wines - his last bottle of 85 Durney Carmel Valley Reserve CS and I carried in the 89 Bosquet des Papes Chateauneuf du Pape. Fred decanted both of them for us and brought out the good Bordeaux and Burgundy crystal. Amusee was a grilled prawn with tomato, orange and black truffle sauce. Dave had the mussel and clam pan roast with chorizo and I had the roasted baby beet, walnut and caciotto dei boschi salad for first courses. We both ordered the grilled duck breast with duck leg confit and cherry/gastric on sauteed tatsoi. The shellfish turned out to have an exceptionally lemony and tart sauce (we wondered how many Meyer lemons had been sacrificed to make it!), which gave us an excellent opportunity to test the effect of lemon juice on big red wines. Wow! The CdP became softer and rounder in the mid-palate and fanned out broadly with a buttery aftertaste that was not there when tasted alone, and none of the metallic clang that often afflicts red wine and bivalve combos. The duck was well-prepared and tasty, but the flavor of the duck meat itself was not as intense and toothsome as a Reichart or other Petaluma duck. With more red wine to mop up we ordered the cheese plate for two which was a really smart choice. The cheeses were a good assortment of local and imported with interesting contrasts. Summi from St. Helena was a new one for me; the Cashel Blue from Ireland was at the height of perfection, and I usually don't like blues with red wine. The cost for two was $120, including tax and a 30+% tip since corkage was comped.
As we were leaving my friends Lisa and Peter called to us. She'd had the duck too and was happy with it, especially with the chocolate-dipped cherry fruit in their bottle of 94 Torre Muga rioja (think it's a reserva or reserva especial). Lisa, who was a restaurant critic in Portland, had been there the night before and had been impressed with grilled fig and Hobbs prosciutto salad and that the server had brought here a sample of the curry foam sauce when she'd been concerned it would be too spicy for her wine (half bottle of 96 Dauvissat premier cru chablis for $30). I forgot to look at the wine list, but it's clear that the wine buyer is inspired.
Thursday night I suggested E&O Trading Co. - branch of SF restaurant/brewery with pan-Asian food - for dinner. But Peter doesn't like places without table cloths and the A/C was too wimpy for me. He had his eye on a nearby bistro called Rue de Paris. Looking promising with its outside tables and Wine Spectator awards, we agreed to order a round of appetizers to decide. That turned out to be an excellent game plan as this place sucks. The tables are cramped, the wine list is terrible --- the red burgundy page consists of 4 Beaujolais (including a 99 Nouveau that should have been put out of its misery by January priced at $29!) and one Gevrey-Chambertin --- with a few bordeaux and calcab prizes at outlandish prices, and is not quite redeemed by a deep selection of vintage ports, the baguette was mushy, limp and tasteless, and the appetizers were so-so. They use thick Libby glassware, not really worth the $14 corkage for my bottle of 93 Adelsheim "Seven Springs" Pinot Noir and we opened it ourselves after waiting more than 15 mins. for our waiter to return. The busboy removes plates before everyone's done...I'm trying to think of something they do right but nothing comes to mind.
So, we got out of there and I suggested a pair of nearby Italian restaurants. Paisano Peter didn't want Italian but I said let's do a walk-by and see if we get a good vibe. Spiedo didn't pass the vibe test and we continued on to La Pastaia in the Hotel De Anza which I'd been to 4 years ago. As soon as we were in the door, we spotted a party of Banfi Vintners reps (they know something about Italian food). Joel Butler MW who reviews Italian wines for Steve Tanzer's International Wine Cellar was also in the house. In combination with the lively atmosphere, it easily passed the vibe test.
La Pastaia has many interesting and collectible wines, especially Italians, on the list. First we ordered the 1990 Tignanello, $200, but cancelled when we learned that they didn't have any crystal wine glasses. We settled on the 1997 for $120, which has just been released. The bottle was warm to the touch, probably 75 degrees, making us glad we hadn't order the 90 which would have suffered from such poor storage. We had it decanted and put it on ice to bring it down to about 62 degrees, the way I like Sangios. Lisa had tasted the 97 Tignanello in barrel, and it's progressing well. It is a fantastic wine with great potential. Yet as a young wine, I was satisfied with one glass, not enough development to hold my interest longer. We shared an order of fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with bel paese - delish. I had the veal scallopini with red and yellow cherry tomatoes on a bed of arugula which was pounded thin to cover the whole plate and expertly breaded in the Milanese style. Lisa's lamb rib chops were grilled as double cuts, trimmed rusticly, good quality but varied too much in doneness. Peter's osso bucco agnello was simple with direct flavors. We all thought this reminded us of the Italian country food and wouldn't mind coming back here too.
Most of the restaurants in the immediate vicinity have websites, it should be easy to make reservations. Other places I'd wanted to try but didn't are Emile's-French chef from Lausanne and a local standard, Sent Sovi in Saratoga, and 304.com which is supposed to have a fantastic wine list. Wonki's fiancee had given me her favorite Korean places in SJ but none were within walking distance.
Hope this helps.