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California for two weeks - SF, Napa, Yosemite, and Highway One [trip report]

PhilD Apr 22, 2012 03:45 AM

Thanks to all who replied to this thread and helped us plan the trip: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/838127

After four days in San Francisco we head up to Sonoma and our hotel in Glenn Ellen: Gaige House. It is a wonderful little hotel in this small town, best of all they bake their own cookies and breakfast pastries. I am not certain having a “help yourself” cooking box next to the front door is the healthiest option but it is yummy!

In the area we eat twice at the Fig Café (sister to the Girl and the Fig in Sonoma) which is quite decent French influenced homey food. Two very nice meals with just the right relaxed atmosphere for a meal in the country, they are not really worth a trip but good if you are in the area. We also try two Mexicans, El Molino in Sonoma and in Healdsburg at Mateo’s Cocina Latino. Both good with Mateo’s a good destination worth a trip (reviewed here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/845455).

We do manage to visit one or two wineries over our three days in the area. Day one around the Sonoma Valley and we find some nice small ones including Loxton and Roessler, the next day up to Dry Creek and Alexander Valley for some interesting small producers including Bella and Unti. We end in the Napa and concentrate on the “Disney” wineries. Generally we liked much of what we tasted but did find the fee regime odd, OK we are not used to paying. But equally we are used to strict drinking and driving rules with wineries encouraging moderation and spitting not drinking. Here we are often presented with tasting lists of nine wines for $10 and encouraged to get full value! My approach of only trying the two to three top wines was generally OK with lots of places not charging, but some couldn’t get it found it tricky to deviate from the program (we did buy over a case of wine over the three days). The worst was Opus One, they have two vintages on tasting, and for $45 you get a full glass. But I am tasting not drinking and don’t want one full glass let alone two. The concept of two small pours to get a vertical tasting just didn’t fly, all too corporate for my taste and to be frank whilst Opus One is good it isn’t that good.

We head out of Sonoma to Yosemite with a quick stop at “In-and-Out Burger”. Given all the hype I expected more. Better than many but hardly worth eulogising over as some bloggers do.

We say at the Ahwahnee. To be blunt a national disgrace. The National Parks Service should be ashamed to let an icon like this be run so poorly; it attracts lots of foreign tourists and does not reflect well on the US. Service is pretty slack (our stay at the Marriott was better), the restaurant menu was poor with absolutely nothing to tempt, and the food in the bar was awful with pastrami that was mainly gristle. Breakfast was little better, a lacklustre buffet and ALC dishes that may have been freshly cooked but were past there best by the time they got to the table. At over $600 a night this should be great, instead it was the worst of the trip and we stayed in B&B’s and budget motels.

We then move to Fish Camp and eat at the Tenaya Lodge Hotel as all the other options have yet to open for the season (warning for Europeans who see Easter as the start of holidays). The same company that runs the Ahwahnee (DNS) runs the hotel, but they are chalk and cheese. Embers at Tenaya service decent food and very good wine with great attentive service. The bar and more casual restaurants are rammed with kids but even so deliver acceptable food from interesting menus. I would travel to eat there but a good fall back.

On to Paso Robles, nothing really booked, we thought we would see what looked good. Tuesday night so Thomas Hill is closed. We check out Artisan and decide a late lunch is in order. It is so good we book dinner. It really is a cracking good restaurant with fresh produce and an inventive chef. Service is great and as you would expect the wine list is superb - one of the top meals on the trip. For lunch a good burger and salmon tartar and for dinner:

1. Polenta arancini, ‘nduja, highway one
2. Asparagus, lardo, black trumpet carbonara
3. Hen of the woods mushroom toast, bacon, soft farm egg
4. Local rabbit, nettle garganelli, sausage, pioppini ragú

All very well cooked and served by friendly staff. We also head to Villa Creek for an aperitif (and taco Tuesday) and it is very strong with great wine advice, plus we try The Pony Club Bar which is OK but lacking in atmosphere. We do try a few wineries but many are closed in the first half of the week, but the ones we try seem a lot less touristy than Napa/Sonoma. So we are glad we stopped in this nice little town.

We head up Highway One and plan to lunch at Big Sur, what a disaster. The bakery has little left and the kitchen closes between lunch and dinner, Nepenthe is full and looks average so we head on to Carmel and get a poor sandwich. That night it is 1833 in Monterey one I have been really looking forward to. It lets me down.

We start in the bar for a drink, the waitress doesn’t know anything about wine, I ask for a Chardonnay with minimal Oak, no consultation or tastes just the cheapest on the list – it is bad and goes back to be replaced by a better offering. As we drink the receptionist walks backwards and forwards through the bar to the dining room; it has bare wood floors, she has boots with heels, she is not petite, it is very, very noisy – not a good sign this place is run well. We are taken to the worst seat in the dining room, I ask for another vacant table (same size), it is booked, we insist and take the table. No other diners arrive after us to take our rejected table. The menu looks promising. We try:

1. The “famous” bacon cheddar biscuits to start, they are a bit solid and doughy, probably undercooked.

2. Crispy Hen Egg” sits on asparagus and seems to be a melange of an Asian deep fried egg, a scotch egg, and asparagus with egg-yolk saucing. The result is a interbred mongrel of a dish that doesn’t work very well and ends up disappointing.

3. Bone marrow is good though and the garlic and sourdough work will with it.

4. Charred Octopus” with romesco sauce is fine.

5. Pappardelle with beef is a flawed concept; good pasta but with four hunks of meat sitting on it.

Looking at other diners plates I think the best options may be the roast meats which did look good. When it is simple it is good but when it is overly ambitious less so.

Our last meal before we head back SF and then home is a place called “Burger” off the highway on the edge of Santa Cruz. It was very good, high quality ingredients with just the right amount of louche qualities to make it really good - a random choice but good one.

We finish at Manressa (reported here http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/845454), which was really fantastic. A great trip and thank you for all the advice, it made it a lot easier with all the local knowledge.

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    Steve Drucker RE: PhilD Apr 22, 2012 05:56 AM

    Invaluable trip report, especially where it overlaps our upcoming trip from LAX to Bakersfield layover to Fish Camp/Yosemite.

    Winery tours. With all due respect, once you've seen one winery from stem to stern, there's not much that's novel to see. And as far as tasting goes, unless you have the palate and the daily exposure to the trade where you taste everyday it's impossible to make sense of young wines. Full disclosure: I'm an engineer who has owned two restaurants. Kudos.

    Fish Camp. Thank you so much for your report on the Lodge and the Tenaya. We're planning on self-catering to the greatest extent possible for our two day visit to Yosemite.

    SFO last night. We like to stay by the airport and eat in the Hong Kong place of the moment nearby. Coals to Newcastle for you, LOL?

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      glbtrtr RE: PhilD Apr 22, 2012 08:32 AM

      Sorry about your hit and miss travel/dining experiences, but appreciated your discerning reviews. Agree, never understood the fuss over In N Out burgers, nor did we find Girl and the Fig appealing and also certainly not worth the prior hype.

      Perhaps because the Ahwanhee was way bad beyond unbelievable, its recent menu expansions made it a far more enjoyable repast than in the past under these strained circumstances. I'd go again after our most recent experience, but that was over a year ago

      Also agree, the setting begs for so much more. They are getting high-end prices, but not delivering what this place and those prices deserve. "Good enough for government work" is indeed shameful. So least we feel we would go back and not be as thoroughly insulted as prior dining forays had been in this most lovely of settings.

      NB: We did find the Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley (managed for the US National Park Service by Xanadu?) to be a enjoyable experience, utilizing like the Ahwanhee a similarly spectacular and historic hotel in the incomparable national park setting.)

      Many of us who live in this part of the country do have favorite dishes that work while others do not at various central-coast stops. Your feedback was helpful and we shall continue to work on offering recommendations that can more consistently deliver because there is a lot to love in this part of the world.

      1. susancinsf RE: PhilD Apr 22, 2012 08:42 AM

        oh, so sorry to hear about the Awahnee. I have never had dinner there, but the bar food I've had wasn't as bad as you decribe...then again, I wasn't staying there and paying $600 a night, which would raise my level of expectation, and I definitely agree that they can do better...when you say nothing else was open in Fish Camp, I am guessing you decided not to drive down to Oakhurst? (It is a bit of a drive so can't say I blame you, but then again, I've not heard many previous positive reports on the Tenaya Lodge food.).

        I was thinking about you a few weeks ago when I went to the Santa Clarita (southern Cal) In And out, mostly to get out of a rainstorm fairly late in the evening while driving home from LA. It was really not good at all. In fact, I wouldn't even call it better than most. Don't say I didn't try to warn you off of it. I've never understood the appeal, other than as a port in storm (and even that I regretted as soon as I bit into the burger. Oh, and I got the fries extra cooked, which is supposed to make them better. Sorry, McDonalds still makes better fries, which says too much about In and Out, IMO)...

        Burger was mentioned and praised in the Santa Cruz thread linked to on your original request: glad you found it even if randomly and glad to hear a good report. Thanks again for reporting back!

        2 Replies
        1. re: susancinsf
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          glbtrtr RE: susancinsf Apr 22, 2012 09:28 AM

          Re-post of my prior review of the Ahwanhee that was posted after the OP had already left on this current trip:

          Our stay at the Ahwanhee last Sept produced a surprisingly good dinner after decades of really insulting fare. The appetizers are good enough for a light entree - I remember the best crab cakes, papas bravas and home made ice-cream. Overkill for the meat entrees for both price and portion, but it was good. Just not necessary when there were very nice smaller plates to choose from as well.

          Best to stick to the plated special they are offering that night for the best value, if you want a full dinner. But I am serious about the size of the crab cakes being a very adequate entree. Breakfast was even better because you could see the views outside and the orange juice was fresh and the pace was so quiet. A thoroughly wonderful place to both stay and dine - finally they got all parts working together.

          1. re: glbtrtr
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            LLDavis RE: glbtrtr Aug 4, 2012 12:56 PM

            Sorry to hear about your lackluster experience in the Yosemite area. I live nearby and would have loved the opportunity to share with you a better option, for those of you who may be traveling to the Yosemite area, here it is:

            While in Yosemite, there aren’t many dining options. The Ahwahnee Hotel will be your best bet for the view of the lovely meadow from the 30’ high windows and for the only fine dining, which is hit or miss. The nearby deli (near the store, where you’ll park), for a sandwich, is surprisingly good. But, once you’re out of the Yosemite Valley floor and back in the mountains near Fish Camp, you can head to the Tenaya Lodge for a small selection of restaurants inside the hotel. But considering my own experiences there, which have ranged from awful to pretty good, I suggest you go past the lodge about 15 minutes, towards the mountain community of Oakhurst. There is a true culinary gem called Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant. They have access to fresh fish flown in daily and by far the best food in all of Central California. They’ve been Zagat rated 27/30, for the food, (even better for service)and it’s a great representation of elegant dining with the most amazing food. It’s far less expensive than the French Laundry, but will leave you very satisfied and delighted. They have a great wine cellar and will do a fine job pairing each course with a wonderful wine selection, too. For any considering a trip there, be sure to make reservations because they do special things for you like customize your menu and decorate your dessert plate for special occasions, which is fun.

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          goldangl95 RE: PhilD Apr 22, 2012 09:30 AM

          Thank you so much for reporting back. Glad the majority of the wineries in Sonoma/Napa were flexible on the tasting fees and that you were able to enjoy the experience.

          We too love what's going on in Paso. While it is starting to get more crowded, wines are creeping up in price, it's a nice contrast from Napa or even Sonoma these days.

          Thank you for taking the time to review the Coastal spots and other areas around California. It's nice to get perspective on what works and what really may not.

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            PattyC RE: PhilD Apr 22, 2012 09:50 AM

            Good to hear about Artisan. We're always looking for lunch stops on our 101 drives.

            There are some decent lunch options in Carmel but sometimes you just have to eat something somewhere. Reminds me of the night we ended up eating microwaved pizza at Kayser :)

            Bummer about 1833.

            Thanks for your report.

            1. Beach Chick RE: PhilD Apr 22, 2012 09:56 AM

              Thanks for reporting back PhilD..
              Wish you would of hit up Sierra Mar in Big Sur, since the bakery is quite good but after lunch, they must of gotten hit hard and Nepenthe is pedestrian at best.
              Sounds like your trip was more misses than hits..

              7 Replies
              1. re: Beach Chick
                PhilD RE: Beach Chick Apr 23, 2012 03:18 PM

                BC - just did a count: 11 really good meals, 8 average, and 4 poor. We were happy with 19 of them and felt it was probably the correct balance. The real problem on the trip (including SF) is that in the good areas there is far too much choice and you want to try everything. For example, I think Paso Robles probably had some other good choices, but then when there is little choice there is none. I think Big Sur did get hit hard, general impression was business wasn't geared up for the Spring Break/Easter Holiday. We came across lots and lots of Europeans holidaying in California (schools break for two weeks) and were surprised how many businesses were not open yet.

                Overall we were really impressed with the choices and options, just didn't have enough space to try more. If I include breakfast in our count then the average drops; of the 13 we ate only 2 were Good, 3 average. Lesson learned here is to avoid B&B packages and simply head out for breakfast if the in-house option doesn't look good.

                Susan - I wonder if Tenaya Lodge would have stacked up as well if it wasn't just after the Ahwanee, and everything else was closed. The Narrow Gauge Inn is meant to be best, although with new wonders this season. I considered Oakhurst but it was 14 miles away along twisting roads so made do were we where

                1. re: PhilD
                  susancinsf RE: PhilD Apr 23, 2012 06:59 PM

                  could be that you are right re: the Tenaya lodge....and I've not heard any reports on Narrow Gauge Inn on CH, so will have to try that one of these days (in summer).

                  regarding the being closed at spring break: keep in mind that (at least as far as Yosemite goes), this was/is a below average snow year...and much of the Park is still inaccessible in mid-April, even in a light snow year. Last year, a heavy snow year, it was late June before the Tioga Road opened, and the Mariposa Grove Road didn't open till mid-April. So, thanks to higher elevations, the traditional start of the 'tourist season' isn't really until Memorial Day (last Monday in May). That is good news for Europeans who want to enjoy the park with less crowds (fewer day and local visitors) but bad news from a dining standpoint. Oakhurst or the Park options (including the Tenaya Lodge) are really your only choices on the south side of the Park.

                  As far as Big Sur goes I think it is more a question of just limited options year round...and perhaps partly as a result I've never seen Nepenthe not crowded. I have had a lovely lunch (at least six years ago, if not more) on the deck at Ventana (which is open year round, though they only seat outside in nice weather...) Ventana will be less crowded than Nepenthe, but definitely pricier.

                  1. re: PhilD
                    Beach Chick RE: PhilD Apr 24, 2012 08:07 AM

                    I was hoping that everything would be perfect for you PhilD and I know that isn't realistic but wanted you to have a great 2 weeks...next time, you need to come to San Diego and venture down to Tijuana, Mexico, which has been crowned some of the best food on the planet...Mision 19 et al.

                    1. re: Beach Chick
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                      glbtrtr RE: Beach Chick Apr 24, 2012 08:19 AM

                      Scared to death to go across the border these days myself, but would be interested in your report. Which Chowhound forum would that be on: San Diego or Mexico? Thanks

                      1. re: glbtrtr
                        Beach Chick RE: glbtrtr Apr 24, 2012 08:55 AM

                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/830579

                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/808965

                        Dining Diva on the San Diego board who is fab and cooks with Rick Bayless and other notable chefs is a good one to follow.

                        1. re: Beach Chick
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                          gpjba RE: Beach Chick Apr 26, 2012 06:07 PM

                          I have never done the drive as we come from the Rockies in Canada. In Paso Robles we have dined at Artisian but found others to be better. They were busy it was the first Sat in Dec but nothing stood out. We enjoyed our meals better at Thomas Hill, Villa Creek and il Cortile. We had breakfast at Panolino and we hit Route 46 for lunch. We ate outside at Route 46 besides the pizza oven. It was great. Too bad the tasting fee at four vines along with unknowledgeable staff left us grumpy. Going back in June with friends for a long weekend. Can't wait.

                          1. re: gpjba
                            PhilD RE: gpjba Apr 27, 2012 04:33 PM

                            Thomas Hill was my first choice but it was closed when we were in town (Tuesday). Our tacos at Villa Creek were indeed good and the barman was one of the best of the trip, very informative and helpful. If we had been there longer we woud have tried it for dinner. Note: at Villa Creek they do Taco Tuesday so it is packed with lots of happy elope eating cheap tacos - good fun.

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