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San Francisco/Napa trip report

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Just returned from a delicious and memorable trip. Here were our stops:

Arrived Friday August 31, famished. We dropped our stuff at the hotel and went in search of Yank Sing for first-time dim sum for my husband. We went to the closer, and I suspect smaller, branch on Stevenson St. We walked in and an absolutely adorable waitress asked us if we'd like the house speciality -- soup dumplings. Why yes, we would! They were absolutely scrumptious -- and, I learned when I asked for a menu, $9.50 for 6 dumplings. That pretty much sums up the experience: scrumptiously delicious and excruciatingly expensive. We moderated our food intake significantly and still ended up with a $53 bill before tip. I had been warned of the prices on the board, I must say, and for us it was marginally worthwhile because it was a gentle introduction to dim sum for my unadventurous other. He greatly enjoyed the experience of the carts, was only subjected to one eyefull of chicken feet, and tried a bunch of new tasty treats -- pork buns (great), peking duck in a bun (a new taste for me -- I prefer the thin pancakes that let the chewy richness of the duck shine through -- it gets lost in the doughy sweet bun), a plateful of sauteed chicken, some better than average but not stellar potstickers, and two snow pea shoot dumplings -- two per plate! We must have had something else I am forgetting. We saw lettuce in a cup go by while chowing down, never to be seen again. Overall, a great first-time experience for husband, but we won't go back because it's just prohibitively expensive -- hopefully he'll be willing to try something a little more authentic/cheaper next time.

After traipsing around your beautiful city, we headed for our early dinner reservations at Zuni. I was a little surprised at the service -- we waited a good 10, 12 minutes without a waiter until I flagged one down. Knowing that we needed an hour's head-start for the chicken made us a bit crankier than normal at waiting for the waiter. Redemption was quick with the arrival of appetizers -- I had two types of extraordinary oysters (sorry not to remember which kinds -- one that was creamy and unlike any oyster I've ever had before) and husband had the delicious ricotta gnocci -- second-best gnocci we've ever had, although I am still partial to non-ricotta variety (the ricottas seem to come by their lightness dishonestly -- to be a potato-based gnocci and still light-as-a-feather, yet perfectly al dente -- now that is a commendable achievement!)

We did love the chicken. Brined to the heavens, it was still the most delectable restaurant chicken in our memory. But then again, we almost never order chicken in a restaurant. I do see the point of those who say you can get a really delicious chicken at a Peruvian joint for 1/10th of the price -- but at Zuni, it's about the bread salad and the theater. We had seats overlooking the kitchen prep area and the oven, so we could dream about and salivate over our chicken while waiting. We loved the San Fran-does-French-cafe vibe and didn't find the decor dated. For dessert, we split the yummy espresso granita -- excellent intense flavor. I'd say that this (along with the next night's meal) was one that at least met high expectations, even if it didn't exceed them.

Our plan the next day was to do a few touristy things before hitting Ferry Plaza early. But our few stops turned into a tourist hike from Lombard Street to Coit Tower, and we were too hungry by 11:15am to wait. So when we crossed Levi Plaza and saw the adorable patio and water fountain displays by Il Fornaio, we were suckered into sitting down for brunch. Mistake! I'm really not a stickler for good service, but if you're sitting down for half an hour with no wait staff bringing you water, you'd probably do what I did: get up, help yourself to water from the spigot, and hope that one of the waiters would see and feel embarrassed at guests being forced to serve themselves. The waiter-customer ratio was ridiculously high -- we counted at least five of them going in and out of the patio area, with no more than six occupied tables. But we never saw our waiter between taking our order, leaving us water-less, and bringing our food -- and my plaintive looks towards other waiters went totally ignored. We were starving for the covered bread baskets we saw delivered to our table, so when we did spy a waiter we asked for bread -- and got a standard dinner-service assortment, nothing like what the other brunchers were receiving. Oh well. Food was fine -- I had an omelette, whose best feature was the accompanying polenta square with blue cheese on top -- I've infrequently enjoyed polenta so was pleasantly surprised. Husband had a doughy breakfast stromboli with undercooked potatoes, eggs and sausage. He was so hungry that I had to fill him in on its less than delicious-ness. I also had a good champagne with strawberry puree.

We did stop by Ferry Plaza, but by the time we got there (around 12:30p), it was beyond crowded, and my non-crowd tolerant husband was going nowhere near the farmers' booths. I must say it's the most impressive in sheer number of farmers' for any market I've ever seen, and I will be back (early) on future visits. We snagged a few grapefruits which we gobbled up later -- really tightly sectioned fruit that was super-sweet -- if we had access to those grapefruits regularly, we would scoff at the idea of sprinkling with sugar and eating in any other way than section by sweet section.

We managed to skip lunch and wait on our late reservations at Aziza, and still, in our famished state, knew we couldn't do justice to the extremely reasonably-priced tasting menu. Husband had a bad previous experience at Moroccan restaurant and really dislikes bastilla, which is standard in the tasting, so we stuck with the options menu. I had a lavendar cocktail, which was a treat for the first few ice-cold sips, then got progressively sweeter and less tasty as it warmed up. I started with fava beans in a tomato sauce under a feta topping -- upon reflection, it reminded me much more of a Provencal-style gratinee than something I think of as Moroccan, but it was great -- warm and filling and substantial with honest country savory flavor. My husband had some excellent firm goat cheese with a tomato jam, really tasty -- but to my mind, the Moroccan connection was absent and it was all California. In any case, we enjoyed both starters. I opted for the prawn tagine (I was hankering after the preserved lemons) and husband had lamb chops with a chickpea puree. Both were great; I got my Moroccan fix with a quite traditional tasting tagine and with some delicious couscous (which we had to order separately). It had a thick tomato gravy and I think potatoes in mix, although it only advertised carrots. Lamb was perfectly cooked and with a nice side of cabbage. We split the lemon basil ice cream with crepes after reading great reviews of the dessert on this site, and enjoyed it quite a bit -- the whole meal, again, met expectations (which were very elevated after reading this site) but did not exceed. I would characterize the fusion as a Moroccan-French-California combo, more accurately, although perhaps the French characteristics are considered inherent to Moroccan cuisine.

Skipping over a dismal day of starbucks, local Chinese and wedding buffet food, we hit Napa on Monday. I don't know if it's appropriate to discuss wine tasting on this particular board, so I'll just say quickly where we hit: V.Sattui (no longer free, even if free not worth it), Clos Pegase (really good cabs, amazing sculptures on the grounds), Zahtila (really great zins and cabs in a small, family-farmhouse feeling vineyard up north on Silverado Trail near Calistoga), tour at Schramsberg (probably worth most of the $25 just for the great tour, but *definitely* worth it for the four full glasses of champagne near the end) and Darioussh -- interesting Persian palace in the middle of Napa, overrated if $20/tasting is an indication of their measure of self-worth in wine, the lemony pistachio nuts though were awesome. We never did get to lunch (huge line outside of Taylor's Refresher at 11:30a = no way in hell we were stopping) especially in anticipation of 5pm reservations at Ad Hoc.

This was an extremely memorable, extremely pleasant meal and experience. The decor is like a sleeker Ethan Allen living room, without the poofy furniture. Just the right touch for food that is homey but sophisticated. We had an exquisite salad -- fairly simple, with fresh local lettuce, heirloom tomato variety, thin apple slices and pinenuts, but to our East Coast palates, believing for decades upon decades that we could enjoy lettuce if only it was sufficiently coated with another substance, it was a revelation. Main course was polpette and spaghetti with a variety of fresh green, wax, and other beans in herbs -- I almost abandoned the meatballs completely for the beans. I thought the polpette was a tad salty, but husband adored the crisp crust on a huge mound of meat (3 parts wagyu to 1 part each pork and veal) surrounding a small dab of mozzarella. The pasta itself was even quite tasty. The cheese course -- idiarad (sp?), a smoked Spanish cheese -- was to my mind unnecessary -- even knowing it's a set part of the menu as the third course, it does seem a little incongruous with the hearty, elevated peasant food we were enjoying. We liked it with the honey and almonds more so than plain. The dessert, a Basque cake topped with a few strawberries and with a small pool of bittersweet chocolate sauce, was a triumph. It had muffin shape with a crisp crust that I assumed would be my favorite part, until I reached the meltingly buttered middle. It was really quite perfect without chocolate, and with a cup of Earl Grey, but that's not to say that I didn't try the chocolate combination and found it quite delicious.

The concept is really quite precious -- who other than Thomas Keller could pull it off? Telling diners that no choice would be presented for your hard-earned money ($45 a head added up very quickly to $175 with various drinks) is only for the most adulated of chefs to impose upon the dining masses. And yet the concept yields great benefits for the diner -- huge portions, multiple courses, and quite a low price considering the quality and fame associated with the place -- knowing exactly what each guest is going to eat must significantly cut down on waste and on costs. The wait staff was superb -- really, that rare combination of high compatency and unforced pleasantness. A home run, overall probably the top dining experience of the trip.

Quick breakfast at the concierge suite of the hotel sent us off on an early start in Sonoma -- we traveled far beyond Napa to the Alexander Valley, stopping at said Alexander Vineyard (good solid zins) and Murphy-Goode (we like their liar's dice wine, and husband played a game with the proprieter!). Then we headed to Russian River Valley. We wanted to get a look at the modern buildings of Roshambo, but that property has been purchased by Twomey. Nice wines, we liked the pinot and their merlot is apparently uniquely produced and celebrated (we liked it fine), but the building and the view really are beyond reproach and worth a visit. We went to Hop Kiln, one of our favorites, with really accessible reds and good whites -- they're known for the Thousand Flowers white blend, which husband liked, but I preferred the citrusy lightly sweet gewurtz. Loved the Big Red as well as Rushin' River, and because they're so well-priced we'll hope to stock up for a signature bottle to have at home (but first, finding a DC distributor ... grrrr). We were highly tempted by all the great looking cheeses, the promise of freshly baked bread, and a bottle of Big Red by the duck pond, but we needed a substantial lunch before our late reservations at Redd.

So in Healdsburg we went to the Taqueria el Sombrero. I had carne soft taco, husband had burrito (we had meant to go for burritos in Mission district but circumstances intervened.) Oh. my. god. Without a doubt, the tastiest taco I have ever had. Huge flavor, perfect textures of both meat and tortilla -- the tortillas were really especially great. Husband really enjoyed his burrito, I had a few bites, it was certainly better than average. But I'm still thinking back to the tacos ... and you can't beat the price. A great change of pace from a wine-soaked morning.

It took us a good long while to drive down the valley, so while we had grand aspirations of stopping first at Ravenswood, which we did, followed by a few pinot and champagne tastings in Carneros, Ravenswood ended up being our end of the line. We did like the wines, but tasting fatigue had set in and probably unfairly clouded our palates. I should say that having not paid all day in greater Sonoma valley (except $5 at Twomey, a Napa-based vineyard) we were not too happy to pay $10 for the lower-end wines. The nice pour-guy sneaked us a pour of reserve Zin which was great, and we ended up really enjoying the dessert wine, whose name escapes me, and which is for some reason not on the website.

And so, we ended at Redd. Again, intentions of a tasting menu deserted us -- it really is not for the faint of heart (the one time we did a high-end tasting, with wine, I actually thought I would have to lie down on the sidewalk out of fullness). We both wanted seafood starters and meat mains, so I did a nice Asian-spiced tuna tartar with chunks of avocado and a fruit (apple?) to break up the monotony -- a great touch since tuna tartar can get start to seem mushy after several mouthfuls, without any other texture to contrast. Husband had a sort of ceviche taco salad -- that sounds right but is really perfectly descriptive, with napa cabbage replacing iceberg lettuce and citrusty ceviche chunks instead of chuck -- with dollops of crema and salsa and crunchy tortilla strips. Unusual and satisfying (but I preferred my tartar). I had the duck with cherries, baby turnips and beets and cabbage -- very, very good. But as my husband said, you must like duck to eat duck -- it was really quite a traditional preparation and I enjoyed it. He had a combination of New York strip and short ribs. He loved it, I tried a very flavorful piece of his strip and a good, but slightly dry, piece of short rib. I am biased about short rib because I make a great version with horseradish mashed potato and fresh spinach (from epicurious) and I think it can be done so well at home, that a restaurant really has to be spot-on to improve on it -- and that's why I go to restaurants, for food I can't (or won't) do at home, either because of complexity, time, availability of specialty or regional ingredients or expertise of a cuisine that I don't possess. I also think short rib should be served with a hefty amount of sauce (and I wouldn't hesitate to say a gravy-like sauce), which this wasn't. In retrospect, I'm not sure why we both chose winter dishes, or why our food throughout the trip skewed to hearty comfort food. We had a fantastic Pinot called Green Truck with our mains that ended up being our favorite of the trip.

We split a dessert that was quite lovely -- brioche "profiterole" with decadent rich chocolate ice cream and a few slices of bananas that may have been bruleed -- only complaint was that the brioche was a little dry, leading me to wonder why they didn't use plain old profiteroles, which can be moist and delicious and, you know, profiteroles by definition! Switching up profiteroles and brioche -- just go totally crazy, next time!

Service was lovely and attentive. Room was a bit stark for my tastes and if only I'd known I would have reserved one of the adorable patio tables. Here on the East coast, the only thing crazier than switching profiteroles and brioche is trying to eat outside Labor Day weekend -- nothing romantic about slapping mosquitos off your sweat-drenched flesh while trying to eat special food. But next time (and I would go back) it has to be outside. Do ask for an outdoor table if you reserve.

And there you go, my unwieldy description of a food-tastic weekend. I am interested in your own experiences at these places!

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  1. Since you mentioned you were interested in others experiences... here was mine (including Zuni, Aziza and an accidental/unimpressive brunch!): http://www.chowhound.com/topics/434109

    1. thanks very much for taking the time to post about your trip! it's such a pleasure to get an outsider's perspective on restaurants, especially old favorites like zuni and aziza.

      1. Thanks for the information about the wineries...I've lived here in San Francisco for six years and have never gone to Napa for wine tasting (only to go eat at Ad Hoc!), and I've been scouring for winery suggestions.

        As I've mentioned in other posts, I love Ad Hoc. I even had my last birthday party there in July. I always like to hear when people enjoy their experience there, as it is a wonderful establishment and the Chef (Dave Cruz) is a really amazing and friendly guy.

        Often times, the staff from Thomas Keller's other restaurants will stop in with their families, and Thomas Keller himself will be there from time to time. That's how you know it's GOOD. :)