Monday, April 6, 2009

San Fran and Napa Valley | Trying new food, in a new place

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Azzurro in downtown Napa, Calif., where I had one of the best pizza pies ever.


When I visit a place and write about it on The Offlede, I always save the food for the final post. Anyone who knows anything about food knows it's vital to leave the best for the last.

It's just too bad that this post about food in San Francisco comes six months after my vacation there. But as they say, better late than never.

Dining in the Bay Area is a culinary adventure, one that is rich with opportunities to try new things. I no longer pick up a menu to look for my favorite dish. I keep my eyes peeled for something new, different and indicative of the area.

In Maine, you eat seafood. In New Orleans, you have gumbo. In Denver, it's a giant steak (or mac 'n' chicken). In the Bay Area, it's a smorgasbord of tastes, many of which are high-brow.

My reporter friend and I, however, were served a deep dish of reality when we checked out some menus while visiting in October. For example, at Thomas Keller's The French Laundry in Yountville, a small town in the heart of Napa Valley, the nine-course tasting menu goes for $240. The reality was that we're journalists, not investment bankers stock brokers Realtors lawyers.

Here's a rundown of what I could afford, in chronological order. And I'll rate each from a 1 to a 10. Maybe even a 22.

***

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Eatery: In-N-Out Burger
Where: Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco
Why: My buddy and I had not eaten breakfast, so we were famished. From the hotel, we walked and took a cable car to the bayfront, so we had already worked up an appetite. But still, for our first meal in the city, we wanted something uniquely San Francisco, without paying a lot. That was impossible, so we settled on In-N-Out Burger because neither one of us had heard of it.
Atmosphere: It's the only In-N-Out in San Francisco and one of the few chains on Fisherman's Wharf. It was only allowed to locate there because it had the feel of a locally owned place. So, the place is busy with a mix of locals and tourists like us who also had never heard of the place.
What: Double cheeseburger with fries
Price: $5.35
Verdict: This place is no Five Guys, for sure. But it's unique in its own right. The burger resembled a Big Mac, though. The mayonnaise-based special "spread" is like Thousand Island dressing. It was tasty, and for a cool Lincoln note, I couldn't argue with something that, while not uniquely San Franciscan, was uniquely Californian.
Rating: 7

***

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Eatery: Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop
Where: Ghirardelli Square, the former headquarters of Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. that was converted into a complex of shops, near the cable car turnaround on San Francisco's waterfront
Why: After walking from Fisherman's Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge and back, we were once again peckish. Between meals, we decided that a snack was in order.
Atmosphere: We ate in a small patio area fenced off from the rest of the sidewalk. While we licked our ice creams, we listened to a beggar who attempted to sing songs, deliver rhyming pleas for cash - "give me some dough because I'm poh" - and speak the language of the people who walked by - "konnichiwa!"
What: Waffle cone with chocolate ice cream
Price: $4.25
Verdict: It certainly was not the cheapest ice cream I had ever purchased. But it was the best. Well worth it. I was convinced that it was not ice cream, just dark chocolate somehow frozen and made soft. Delectable. And in the time it took me to wolf down that ice cream cone, I don't think the beggar collected enough cash for one of his own.
Rating: 9

***

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Eatery: Pier Market
Where: Pier 39, in the heart of Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco
Why: My buddy and I were flying by the seat of our pants when it came to narrowing down dining options. We didn't have many prerequisites, just that our chosen restaurant should have seafood and televisions showing the Red Sox playoff game. In this place, those requirements were met.
Atmosphere: Unfortunately, we were seated out of sight of the TVs. But more magnificently, we had an excellent view of the bay - brilliantly lit at nighttime - from an indoor, glassed-in dining area. The kitchen at Pier Market is open; you can see the cooks work their magic. And as its name suggests, you also can buy fresh fish at the market.
What: Had I watched Michael Chiarello's Food Network episode about the San Francisco original cioppino - a kitchen-sink dish of fish, mussels, clams, crab and shrimp - I would have gone for it. Instead, I opted for the shark, which came straight from the Pacific Ocean. I had never eaten shark, so I gave it a whirl. A basket of sourdough was on the side.
Price: $15.95
Verdict: The fish was infused with flavors from Pier Market's mesquite grill, a specialty. It was glazed with teriyaki sauce and topped with grilled pineapple. It tasted like chicken, but it was excellent nonetheless. The sourdough bread - from Boudin Bakery, an institution in San Francisco - was incredibly sour. I had obviously never had real sourdough until Pier Market.
Rating: 7 (just because of the bread)

***

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Eatery: I can't for the life of me remember, and I didn't save the receipt. It was a mom-and-pop diner type that was probably bigger with the locals than with the tourists.
Where: Somewhere two blocks from Fisherman's Wharf
Why: It was the morning of our Alcatraz visit, and we knew there weren't any restaurants on The Rock, so we stopped by on our way to the tour boat.
Atmosphere: We sat outside in the cool morning air. The host stood at the doorway, asking pedestrians on the sidewalk if they needed a table. If a couple walked by, for example, he would say, "Table for two?" Frequently, the people were not interested.
What: A large stack of blueberry pancakes
Price: Reasonable
Verdict: These blueberries were not the little, sweet, wild ones from Maine. They were cultivated in California. Yes, they were big, but they weren't nearly as sweet, tasty or juicy as the ones grown in the wilderness of Down East, Maine. Disappointing.
Rating: 2

***

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Eatery: Some Chinese place in ...
Where: San Francisco's world-famous Chinatown
Why: Because we were in Chinatown, and when in Rome ...
Atmosphere: Odd. I don't frequent Asian restaurants, though I'm crazy about their food. This is the first place where I actually had difficulty communicating with our waitress. A few things wound up on my plate that I didn't ask for. At least, I don't think I did.
What: My first experience with dim sum. (Like I said, I don't eat at Chinese places often.)
Price: I wasn't paying.
Verdict: The dumplings were like frogs going down my throat. The spare ribs were very spare of meat, but I guess that's just how they are. The sweet barbecue pork buns made up the dish I hadn't asked for but found on the table anyway. Funny thing is, it was the best. My first dim sum was satisfying and lacking at the same time.
Rating: 6

***

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Eatery: Farina Focaccia & Cucina Italiana
Where: Mission District of San Francisco
Why: I had heard that the Mission District was a great place to find great food. At the same time, it sounded sketchy and not as touristy as the waterfront. We arrived by bus, then walked around for a long time, trying to find an affordable place that lacked a long line. We found a wallet-friendly place in Farina, but the dining room was packed. Instead, we sat in a sidewalk dining area equipped with outdoor heaters. It was a cold night: Keep the hot coffee flowing, please.
Atmosphere: Freezing. Yes, it's California, but I live in Florida. Give me a break.
What: Pansotti, a stuffed pasta
Price: $20.25
Verdict: This genovese torelli pasta was stuffed with ricotta cheese and a walnut pesto. It was light but surprisingly filling. And, again, I had never tasted such a thing. If it were not for my carefree attitude while vacationing, I would have a "5-dollar, 5-dollar footlooooong" at Subway for each meal. So, again, it was a good experience.
Rating: 7

***

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Eatery: Domaine Chandon's winery
Where: Yountville, Calif., in Napa Valley
Why: We were sampling three sparkling wines and needed something to go along with them.
Atmosphere: The best of the trip. Rolling hills to our left and right. Grapevines, of course. And a patio area, where one man was serving oysters on the half shell and another was playing the accordion. Meanwhile, I spotted a pregnant woman drinking wine, and my buddy and I gossiped with the tasters next to us.
What: Sourdough with brie cheese and a mustard spread
Price: About $13
Verdict: It's probably the most expensive loaf of bread my friend ever bought.
Rating: 22 (uh, because of the wine we had with it)

***

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Eatery: Azzurro Pizzeria E Enoteca
Where: Downtown Napa, Calif.
Why: When a pizza craving hits, you eat pizza. You can't mess with that.
Atmosphere: Bustling. We sat next to a group of local friends who must have been celebrating a birthday. Wine flowed steadily to their table. What seemed to be a common scene in California, the kitchen was open at Azzurro, again establishing intimacy with diners.
What: Uh, pizza; to specify, the pollo pie
Price: $22.98 with a few glasses of wine
Verdict: The style here was thin crust, which usually does not appeal to me. I'm a fan of Chicago-style pies. But this, this was an exception. The pizza was topped with Italian chicken sausage, sherry roasted onions, mozzarella and arugula. The memory of this meal is fading fast, as it was six months ago. But this pizza is memorable because it wasn't overly greasy. Like other California food, it was healthy. Wait, a healthy pizza? Well, not quite. But almost.
Rating: 8

***

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Eatery: Mustards Grill
Where: Napa, Calif., along State Route 29, the main thoroughfare through the valley
Why: After a full day of vineyard-hopping, we simply happened upon this place. We had examined the menu at the Culinary Institute of America's Greystone Restaurant, but it was out of range for two journalists' budgets. At Mustards, the parking lot was full, and the place didn't seem particularly fancy. It was perfect. Only later did I find out that Mustards' executive chef and owner is the renown Cindy Pawlcyn.
Atmosphere: The Red Sox game was on, and we were the only ones rooting for Boston over the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim). We sat at the bar because the tables required a lengthy wait. It was tight because every stool at the bar was occupied, too. But that's how one comes to call a restaurant "intimate." It was serious food with a comfortable feel that you can't get at the other fancy places in Napa Valley.
What: Sonoma rabbit
Price: $34.70 with a few glasses of wine
Verdict: I chose the rabbit because it was local, from the valley next door. And, yet again, it was a first for me. The meat was cooked with care over a wood fire. Because the restaurant was busy and the food was running out, my rabbit came with trimmings that were not advertised on the menu. It topped a bed of risotto, which itself was creamy and brilliant. The vegetables were summer squash and zucchini. As a child, my parents forced zucchini down my throat. The only way I was going to willingly eat it was if it were put into a bread. When it came to Mustards, I decided to be brave and eat the horrid vegetable for the first time since my childhood. For some reason, it was magnificent. What Mustards did to it, I do not know. But it sure was a tasty way to cap off a fabulous trip. And, yet again, enjoying zucchini was something entirely new.
Rating: 10

6 comments:

Denise said...

Darnit, you're making me hungry.
Next time you're in Disney, hit up the Ghirardelli in Downtown Disney Marketplace. YUM.

Andrew Knapp said...

Yeah, I just saw that there's a location there. But I need a friend so I can go.

Melissa said...

2 things: first, did you order from in and outs secret menu? Second, i am sad you ate rabbit as i have 2 running aroumd my apartment as i write this and i would never eat them....

Andrew Knapp said...

I don't think there was anything secret about the In-N-Out menu. But that sounds intriguing. And as for the rabbit, I'm sorry, but it was good. If it's any consolation, at least I didn't have the dog on the Chinese menu.

Oh, and I used to have a goldfish, but I eat fish all the time. I guess I'm heartless.

Ernie said...

This post is bringing me back to all the good food we had in Cali.

But seriously, that bread at Domaine Chandon was damn expensive, and they charged my credit card five times.

Though, when I called to have the extra charges dropped, they canceled all the charges.

So, in essence, the bread was free.

Rock on.

Andrew Knapp said...

Seriously? Dude, that's awesome. Way to go!