Friday, July 29, 2011

LWF&D goes to Napa and chills with Michael (Chiarello) (not really)

Our last dinner in Napa was at Bottega, famous chef/food personality Michael Chiarello's Yountville restaurant. It's a palatial complex, a huge house-style restaurant with a lovely semi-wraparound patio for dining outdoors, and it was crowded in the way Cheesecake Factories are crowded... that is, it was enormous, and it was packed with people. Fortunately, we had a reservation, and we were seated at a large table set for four, which meant we had plenty of space for the two of us.

Wine comes in quartinos here, so I chose a quartino of grechetto, a light Italian white, to complement my food. Unfortunately (especially since this was our last dinner in Napa), I really didn't enjoy this wine... it was somewhat insipid and the flavor was flat and harsh. Oh well.

A half-loaf of crusty, flaky bread with a dish of some sort of cheesy spread landed on our table (literally on our table, too; there was no plate for the bread, which sat directly on the butcher paper covering our tablecloth). But there was barely time to eat it, since our shared appetizer arrived barely a second or two after the bread. This was a delicious salad of fresh ricotta, arugula, stewed peaches, pecorino, and some sort of peach gel. There's usually coppa as well, but I ordered it vegetarian-style for the two of us. And while the portion was pretty small, this was a very tasty dish; while the smear of ricotta on the side of the plate wasn't especially tasty, the rest of the ingredients were fresh and vibrant.

Bread on table

Greens on ricotta smear

For entree, Mom ordered the fish of the day, which was a white fish similar to red snapper whose name we both missed. The server came and finished filleting the fish at the table, a service note that is probably better in theory than in practice. But nonetheless, Mom enjoyed the fish.

Without head and tail, too

My choice for entree was the insalata del bosco, which was mixed greens, sliced pear, candied hazelnuts, and pecorino. While the pear wasn't much of a presence in this salad, the hazelnuts especially were quite flavorful. Again, the portion was on the small side, but otherwise this was delicious.

Pretty greens

We also shared a side of asparagus, which was both pretty and tasty, although I ate a little too much of it. But that's my own fault.

Too much asparagus. Hoooooboy.

Finally, we decided to have dessert at the restaurant. Mom chose a simple scoop of salted caramel gelato, which was really tasty. It also came with this slice of peanut-butter feuilletine-fudge-like confection, which I really enjoyed (but Mom, not so much).

Plain, unadorned

My dessert was the tiramisu profiteroles, three puff pastries split and stuffed with tiramisu & sponge cake gelato, all drowned in chocolate sauce (the menu also listed "cocoa puff," but I'm not sure what that is and don't think I had it on my plate). This was a well-executed rendition of profiteroles, although the gelato-- chock full of chunks of espresso-soaked lady fingers-- was too strongly coffee-y with me, especially with the bitterness of the chocolate sauce as well. I definitely would have preferred vanilla gelato, but I'm glad I tried the dish as is. And it was very, very rich; I only downed two of the three profiteroles before having to stop.

Pretty, no?

On balance, we did enjoy the food at Bottega, and the service was friendly and professional. It's worth a stop if you're in Napa. But-- how to put this-- it wasn't the most personal of our dining experiences. For better or for worse, Bottega is so successful that it's perennially packed and feels sort of like, well, a factory, churning diners out in a fast and efficient, albeit tasty, fashion. That said, you can get a great meal there, and if you don't necessarily want to linger or aren't out for a romantic, personalized atmosphere, it'll fit the bill.

6525 Washington Street, Yountville, Napa

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

LWF&D goes to Napa (and SF) and eats even more ice cream

One of the reasons I had chosen Incanto as my SF birthday dinner location was due to its proximity to Humphry Slocombe, one of the most famous ice cream shops in the area. Being the ice cream connoisseur that I am, I was determined to give their creative flavors a try, so after dinner at Incanto, we all hopped in our cars and drove the mile to the Mission district.

After parking, we walked a couple blocks to Humphry Slocombe and saw... the longest line I've ever seen. It snaked out of the small shop and down the block, moving slowly but just quickly enough to trick you into staying. If you didn't know what was going on, you'd think that the place was giving something away free... but it wasn't. All these crazy people were waiting outside in the chilly SF weather to pay for their ice cream.

Regardless, we stayed, and after a half hour or so, we made it into the store to investigate the flavors. Humphry Slocombe is known for its off-the-wall concoctions, from peanut butter curry to their famous "secret breakfast" (bourbon with cornflakes, which tasted just about as weird as it sounded). We each tasted as many flavors as we could handle, and props to the counter staff for being friendly and accommodating when facing an interminable line of people who wanted to taste everything before deciding.

My uncle went for the Gabba Gabba Hey sundae, with balsamic caramel ice cream (tasted like a slightly caramelized balsamic vinegar... very intriguing), brownie, amarena cherries, and whipped cream. Decadent and delicious.

Mountain of oozy deliciousness

I chose half McEvoy olive oil, half brown butter. Yes, I realize it's kind of weird to have a dessert based entirely on greasing agents, but still. The olive oil-- always one of my favorite ice cream or gelato flavors-- was floral and herbal to the extreme, creamy with almost a citrusy tang from the intense olive oil. But surprisingly, the brown butter was my favorite, with a nutty taste and a lovely caramelized note from a bit of brown sugar. Ridiculous. And, it should be noted, a huge amount of ice cream-- for a "small" order, this was an overwhelming quantity for any post-dinner eater.

So much ice cream it won't fit in the bowl

So, that's Humphry Slocombe for you. We ate standing up, crunched into the tiny store; we waited over a half hour for our post-dinner treat. Was it worth it? Sort of, I'd say. I'm definitely very glad I tried it, and the ice cream was truly delicious. But I couldn't imagine making that my local ice cream shop if I lived nearby, perhaps because when I want ice cream, I want it NOW. I'd never brave that long a line on a regular basis, but most people are more patient than I. If you're in the area, definitely decide for yourself...

Humphry Slocombe
2790 Harrison Street, San Francisco

Monday, July 25, 2011

LWF&D goes to Napa (and SF) and encounters Incanto

On Saturday, Mom and I day-tripped into San Francisco to give ourselves a break from all the bucolic beauty of Napa. We had also planned a birthday celebration dinner for me with my aunt, uncle, and cousin, who live out near San Jose. It took me a whole heck of a lot of online research to find a place I wanted to try out, and frankly, my choice was a little bizarre.

Our crew ended up at Incanto, an innovative, Italian, meat-centric restaurant in Noe Valley. When I chose this place, I had based my choice on the menu that had been online that day; of course, the menu changes each day, and when we got there, the menu options for me were... slim. It took about a half hour, complete with a complete explanation of the menu's foreign terms by our very patient server, for us all to decide what we wanted. But ultimately, we were quite happy with the food and the experience overall.

To start, we were given a heap of bread with a ramekin of chunky olive tapenade. From the herb-topped focaccia to the salted herbed breadsticks to the chewy white slices, this was an admirable bread plate. And the tapenade was a salty, toothsome break from the usual plate of olive oil.

Lots of bread for all

Then came the appetizers. Mine was the wild greens and elderflowers; this was exactly as purported-- a mess of unusual greens, bitter and rough-textured, in a tangy vinaigrette.

Those greens are really green

Mom got the garden salad, which was a bit more interesting than the greens. Same concept, though: simple ingredients; vibrant, light dressing.

From the garden

My uncle got one of the day's specials, which I can't for the life of my remember. I think it was some sort of soup? Or some kind of aspic-y creation? Regardless, he and my cousin, who shared it, enjoyed the little dish.

Forever mysterious?

We also shared an order of olives for the table. This was a surprisingly large portion, though (with the exception of the big mama in the photo, which I snapped up immediately) the olives were tiny. Briny and flavorful, these hit the spot.

Olives! Always a fave

Then the entrees came. Both Mom and my aunt ordered the game hen with eggplant, chilli, and smoked capers. It was a huge portion of rustically prepared roast chicken, appealing and satisfying in the way only roast chicken can be.

Big ol' hunk o' chicken

My cousin ordered a pasta dish: Paccheri with duck sugo, sicilian olives, and savory. While it came out a little muted-looking (perhaps a garnish of snipped herbs might have brightened up the plate a little bit?), she enjoyed the flavor.

Needs color

My uncle chose the pork shoulder with peaches and cippolini onions. While the pork comes out pink due to the preparation, "It's cooked!" our waiter promised. It was another admirably hearty portion, and it was well enjoyed.

Pink pork

My choice was an order of "Chantenay carrots and flowers." These were addictive and craveable roast carrots, soft but not mushy, caramelized on the outside, with flower garnishes that took on an almost fried texture. Truly incredible in a way that's surprising to anyone who's ever crunched on a bland carrot stick.

I actually crave these carrots

Oh, and did I mention they offer FREE unlimited house-carbonated sparkling water? If there's a quicker way to my heart as a sparkling-water-loving-diner, I don't know what it is. I only wish they'd provide water glasses that were bigger than the size of shot glasses so we didn't have to keep reaching for the carafe on the table every five minutes.

We had a dessert adventure planned (to say the least... stay tuned), so we skipped Incanto's dessert options. But overall, despite initial hesitation and skepticism from certain members of our dining party, we liked Incanto. If you're a fan of hearty, simple but unusual Italian food served in a bright, convivial atmosphere with friendly, caring servers, Incanto is for you. It can even please a vegetarian, under the right circumstances...

1550 Church Street, San Francisco

Thursday, July 21, 2011

LWF&D goes to Napa: Soaking up the evening air at Brix

Friday found us motoring north to Calistoga to take in the Old Faithful Geyser and the local Petrified Forest. Suffice it to say that the geyser was a geyser and the "petrified forest" was the lamest thing my mother and I have ever done. By far.

So on to dinner. This evening found us at Brix, a sprawling restaurant by the St. Helena highway. We sat outside on the patio by their incredible gardens, taking in the sunset, the ideal weather, the grape vines, the vegetables... it was pretty much the perfect setting. Oh, and the food was good too.

Mom started with the butter lettuce salad, which she claimed was tasty. It looked simple and fresh from across the table.

Herbs, lettuce, croutons

There was a long wait between appetizers and entrees; our waiter apologized several times and explained that the kitchen had lost the ticket, so as we waited he brought us each a half-glass of zinfandel on the house. It was delicious. Props to Brix for being honest and dealing with a mix-up in a stand-up fashion.

Yummy zin

Once the entrees arrived, we were back to being happy. Mom chose the halibut once again and asked for potatoes instead of the fregola pasta; those potatoes ended up being incredibly delicious, creamy and crispy and completely indulgent.

Can't you tell it was a beautiful evening?

AND they came in a cute mini cast iron pan!

My choice was a combination of sides: warmed spinach with saba vinaigrette and pan-roasted wild mushrooms with fines herbs and shallots. The spinach was pretty standard-- wilted spinach with an occasional sweet kick from the saba. The mushrooms were delicious, though; not as butter-drowned as those at Cuvee but tender, flavorful, and earthy in all the right mushroomy ways. Outstanding.

Green as expected

Brown and umami-rich

Brix was a top contender for the best meal we had. While the food was quite good, it was the atmosphere that was priceless... sitting out on the patio in the delightful early evening, drinking wine and eating fresh food, then strolling through the garden to see where that food came from-- it's a Napa experience that shouldn't be missed.

7377 St. Helena Highway, Yountville

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

LWF&D goes to Napa: More fish and salads at Celadon

The Thursday evening of our trip found us at the Napa Chef's Market, which we wandered around until we were tired of walking. Then we sat on a bench and debated dinner. I wasn't hungry (and my stomach was telling me that probably wouldn't change soon), so we simply went someplace nearby. As we were perched outside the Napa General Store, to Celadon we went.

It turned out to be one of the better meals of our trip, starting, as all good meals do, with good bread and olive oil/balsamic mixture.

Starting on a good note

Then Mom started with the macadamia-crusted goat cheese, served with port poached figs, apple slices, and crostini. It was with this dish that she learned the pleasure of cheese + fruit + bread in one bite; a smear of goat cheese plus a slender plank of apple topped with a piece of stewed fig brought her around.

Positively Parisian

Next up, for Mom, was the special fish of the evening: halibut. The kitchen even graciously substituted mushrooms and eggplant for the vegetables it came with, which didn't delight her. The finished product, however, did.

Hugely portioned AND delightful

My choice was the endive and apple salad with goat cheese instead of blue (sense a theme here)? This was quite delicious, actually, with a tangy vinaigrette and an appealing crunch from the julienned endive. It's a creative preparation for endive that's so much better than the usual plain spear; points to Celadon for that.


Our meal ended, as all good meals do, with more ice cream from Three Twins at Oxbow. But Celadon truly impressed-- the service was kind and friendly, and the food was unexpectedly good. If we'd had more time, we probably would have been back to Celadon for another meal. As it was, it's highly recommended.

500 Main Street, Suite G, Napa

Monday, July 18, 2011

LWF&D goes to Napa and eats a lot of ice cream

Our hotel was just down the street from the Oxbow Public Market, one of the coolest places in Napa. It's a large indoor market with lots of different food stalls (kind of like the Essex Street Market back here, but a bit nicer and more relaxed), including an outpost of Kara's cupcakes, a produce stall, an oyster bar, a tea shop, a coffee station, etc. etc. But the most important place of all, according to me, was the outpost of Three Twins Ice Cream. Three Twins is noted for being one of the best ice cream purveyors in the area, so I was there. Literally. Many times.

The first visit was after our dinner at Obuntu. After a couple of samples, I chose a small cup of half mint confetti (pretty much standard mint chocolate chip) and half burnt caramel. The burnt caramel was the winner here, not nearly as bitter as some renditions of the flavor but plenty smooth and creamy. And the sprinkles were surprisingly delicious as well.

Happy birthday to me!

The next night after dinner I tried their lemon cookie flavor, and I never went back. It's a light lemon base with vanilla (potentially lemon?) sandwich cookies inside... it was an incredibly familiar flavor, like the girl scout cookies of my youth, without being overpoweringly lemony. Addictive and powerful, it replaced burnt caramel as my favorite.

Half lemon cookie, half burnt caramel

Oh, and another night I got half lemon cookie, half cookies and cream, which was also a damn fine rendition of a classic.

More sprinkles!

Suffice it to say that Three Twins makes some incredibly delicious ice cream. If I lived anywhere near one, I'd be there on a shamefully regular basis.

Three Twins Ice Cream
610-644 First Street, Napa

Friday, July 15, 2011

LWF&D goes to Napa, part II

The day after we arrived was my birthday, so of course I had booked something special for dinner. After hot-air ballooning in the morning and doing a bit of inaugural wine-tasting in the afternoon, we headed into downtown Napa for dinner. And where was our destination? No less than the most famous vegetable-focused restaurant in the country, of course: Ubuntu.

Frank Bruni brought fame to the vegetable restaurant-slash-yoga-studio when he wrote about it a few years ago. In person, the restaurant is quite large, with warehouse-style high ceilings and an insanely, almost preternaturally peppy and friendly staff, all of whom are clearly committed to the pro-vegetable ethos of the restaurant. We each started out with some bubbly in their elegant flutes, and after a few moments the amuse bouche emerged. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no recollection of what this was, except for the fact that the foam was bizarrely flavorful and the chilled soup below it was delicious.

Wine! Because it's Napa, of course

I want to say it was cucumber-based soup with tomato-basil foam?

To begin, we shared the "garden snake," a tangle of fresh greens and flowers accented with their signature "soil," essentially a way to repurpose vegetable scraps (as explained by our server). That night, the soil was made of charred kohlrabi, and it was a bitter counterpoint to the fresh greens.

Served on a plank of unfinished wood

As entrees, Mom and I shared the beets ("assorted beets, roasted and a la giardiniera, with preserved lime and pistachio; lightly cooked squash, mint, torn potatoes, purslane"). This was a symphony of flavors, with fuscia beet puree and all different kinds and colors of raw and cooked beets. The spice-coated crispy potatoes were hearty and tasty as well.

Isn't that beautiful?

We also went for the asparagus dish: "roast and raw asparagus, cool burrata coated with s&p potato chip crumbs; potato skin puree, pine nut/currant soffrito, baby head lettuces." This was an insanely busy plate, arranged like the forest floor, with tastes of asparagus, dollops of creamy puree, puddles of foam, sweet currants, and more. Oh, and the small spheres of burrata were as reliably milky and creamy as expected. I preferred this dish, potentially because the flavors were slightly more familiar (asparagus and cheese, sure!) while Mom slightly preferred the beets.

Asparagus and burrata. Of course.

Nothing on the dessert menu appealed (stay tuned...), but since it was my birthday, the kitchen sent out two mignardises with a candle. These were their play on PB&J, with jelly gelees sandwiched between peanut butter chips, and darn it if it didn't taste exactly like PB&J. Spot on and incredible.

Adorable. And there was a candle on the end of the plate.

Ubuntu was certainly an experience, and I'm very glad I went. It's not exactly the kind of food I crave every day, but it featured the most creative takes on vegetables I've ever seen, alongside an attractive dining room and super friendly and welcoming service. For those who appreciate food-- even those who aren't vegetarian-- it's a prominent example of a restaurant keeping the purity and integrity in its food while not forgoing creativity or deliciousness. If you're in the Napa region, it's an experience and a must-do.

1140 Main Street, Napa

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I'm back! And LWF&D goes to Napa

Dear readers,

I've been a bad blogger recently, I know... there's been travel, there's been me trying to prepare for my move to Philly... essentially a whole bevy of excuses. My week in Bermuda was food-photography-free, so that brings us up to last week, which I spent in Napa with my mom. Since these are restaurants that might be of interest to some of you, what follows are some reports of our culinary travels.

The first night, we convened at Cuvee, since it was right next to our hotel. It's a beautiful restaurant with a lovely, sun-drenched courtyard and a very friendly staff (actually, the service was uniformly good throughout the trip). We elected to sit inside due to the oppressive heat and got started right away.

Mom started with the "Tumble of Local Organic Lettuces," which had a few radishes and a bit of goat cheese. It was a small portion, but she complimented the flavors, particularly the goat cheese.

Basic but fresh

My salad was the wild arugula, sans pancetta and with goat cheese instead of blue. The crispy parsnips and roasted muscat grapes were both flavorful and creative; I only wished there had been a touch more cheese.

Wine country on a plate

For an entree, Mom chose the salmon, which she enjoyed. She also ordered a side of Cedar Roasted Forager Mushrooms, which I was planning to share. That is, until they arrived positively BATHED in butter. They had clearly been cooked in butter, and then they'd been drizzled in what looked like a butter sauce. I ate a half dozen of the mushrooms and cut myself off-- while tasty, the mushrooms were unfortunately ruined by the lack of fat restraint.

Pretty fish

Butter with a side of mushrooms

We decided to try the desserts, and in retrospect we should have stopped at the savories. Mom chose the fruit cobbler, which she pronounced "okay." I went with the bronzed tart apple, which was also just "okay"-- everything, from the poached apple to the wan strips of puff pastry, was just all right, nothing special or inspired. That is, until I found a dead mosquito floating in the melted ice cream when I was halfway through. Um, ick. I doubt it was the restaurant's fault (I suspect it may well have dive-bombed the plate while I was eating), and they were appropriately apologetic (and removed it from the bill), handling it in textbook good-restaurant fashion. Unfortunately, it was a bad way to end what was otherwise a good experience.

Mediocre cobbler

Apple, pre-mosquito?

Overall, I'd recommend Cuvee for the atmosphere and the savory foods. Bugs aside, the desserts weren't worth returning for, since as you'll see there were many delicious sweets to be found elsewhere in Napa...
1650 Soscol Avenue