San Francisco

The City By the Bay

My aunt and uncle live in San Francisco and have been inviting me to visit for years. I hadn’t in at least 20. They weren’t even married the last time I was there (it’s his third marriage, her fourth). I was way overdue, so Sam and I decided to visit on Columbus Day weekend. Our timing was perfect. The weather was un-San Franciscanly warm, and it was Fleet Week, which means the Blue Angels would put on an airshow over San Francisco Bay on both Saturday and Sunday. From the bedroom of our window in my uncle and aunt’s 1896 corner mansion in Pacific Heights (yes, they’re loaded), we had the perfect view of Alcatraz and all the Navy ships, sailboats, power yachts, working vessels and pleasure craft bobbing around in the world’s most panoramic bathtub.

Alcatraz from our bedroom window

When we finally got our act together on Saturday (after a leisurely welcome breakfast and an introduction to a crazed Havanese named Charlie Bear who likes to leave little landmines all over the Orientals), we drove to Noe Valley, thinking it would be a good place to schmy around. It might be, but parking is another story: there were no meters that lasted longer than an hour and spaces were harder to come by than Immodium during a cruise-ship flu outbreak. It was lunchtime already, so we found an outdoor café called Pomodoro that proved not all chain restaurants are soulless. Then, we tried to shop, and in fairness, the stores did have cool stuff, but with the exception of footsie pajamas for adults, almost everything was sized infant to toddler. The explanation we heard later from a friend who lives there is that Noe Valley, which used to be fairly boho, is convenient to Palo Alto, so all the Google-ites have taken over with their 2.5 children. (A pretty good premise for a sci-fi movie about a cult, if you ask me.)

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A Feast at the French Laundry

 

The House of Good Eats

March 14, 2011

“Welcome to The French Laundry.”
Her voice was husky. Hushed. Seductive. It reverberated in my chest. She sounded like a high-class film noir femme fatale.
“I’ve been waiting to hear that for a long time,” I answered.
She smiled. “That’s what we like to hear.” I hadn’t tasted a thing yet, but her voice was like white Hawaiian honey.
And I had waited. For three months, exactly, which is their time-frame for taking reservations. I’d also flown across the country and driven to Yountville, CA, which (besides having an unfortunate name) is one of those pseudo-rural burgs in Napa that caters to well-heeled wine enthusiasts and happens to house one of America’s most famous restaurants, The French Laundry.

I don’t remember when exactly I first heard the name of chef Thomas Keller, but I’ve interviewed a lot of famous chefs—from Julia Child and Jacques Pepin to Anthony Bourdain, Bobby Flay, and Rachael Ray—and more than one of them has identified The French Laundry as their finest dining experience. Most people in the culinary world speak reverentially about it. For some, it’s the Holy Grail on their bucket list.
The only thing that compares (and some would say eclipses) it is Fernan Adria’s El Bulli outside of Barcelona, but otherwise, in terms of influence, Keller has done as much as any other living chef to wrestle the laurel wreath of fine dining out of the hands of the French.
Which gave the place mythical status in my mind. It had to be blown out of proportion. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to try it. Like when you’re seventeen and you know you’re going to get laid, the anticipation was bound to exceed the experience.

 

Our reservation was at 5 o’clock, when they first open, which seemed barbarically early to be eating dinner, except that we knew it was going to be a five-hour meal. We parked across the street and admired the restaurant’s enormous kitchen garden, which looks as staged and fake as the farm on a salad dressing label. The sun was low over the mountains, and beyond the deep green of the crops was a hothouse that looked like a gauzy white airplane hangar. Despite its name, the restaurant doesn’t specialize in French cooking per se, although no culinary influence is ruled out. Their objective is simply to create a dining experience where each course is an “A-ha!” moment. As for the name, it comes from the fact that the building—a quaint two-story stone and wood affair—actually operated as a French Laundry 100 years ago. While visitors back then were presumably greeted by some sudsy detergent smell, they’re now welcomed into a garden worthy of a Hobbit, and then a hushed interior like a rabbit warren of rooms that are elegant in a spare, Shaker way.

 

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San Francisco Part II

San Francisco, Part II

The City By the Bay

Food and wine are as good a reason as any to fly 3,000 miles, and while Napa Valley may be ground zero for good eats, San Francisco is studded with gems, too. To thank my aunt and uncle for putting us up, we took them to one of the city’s most popular new restaurants, Flour and Water, in the Mission district. Suffice it to say, the simple Italian food lives up to its reputation, which you can read about in any guidebook, but what came as a surprise was the reverse sticker shock. I’ve paid five times as much for a meal half as good, and watching my aunt use the Braille method to parallel park her Jaguar made it like dinner and a show.

5:30 at one of San Francisco's trendiest "no reservations" restaurants

Napa is an hour-and-twenty-minute drive from San Francisco, and we had the touristy thrill of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, and passing Sausalito, Marin County and Sonoma, before reaching the Failla Winery in St. Helena by 11 a.m.—in other words, just in time to start drinking.

Established by Ehren Jordan (who mastered his craft at the Turley Vineyards, known for their Zinfadels and a 2-year waiting list), Failla is the winery he started with his wife (it’s her maiden name). That greatest of gas-bags, Robert Parker, calls Failla wines “top-notch,” and Jordan has been named Napa Valley winemaker of the year. In the shade of an old tree, we enjoyed a tasting with two couples from Washington, D.C. Normally, when I’m in California, I expect the Californians to be the oddest people I’ll meet. In this case, I was wrong. These two couples had inexplicably traveled to the West Coast to accompany a friend who was a famous novelist to a Detective Writers’s Convention. One of the husbands told Sam about his 4,000-bottle “cellar” and asked if we had one, to which Sam said, “It’s not really a cellar. It’s more of a basement.” They were pleasant enough, though, and I’m sure they thought we were odd, too: When one of them told me he was a urologist, I thought he said “neurologist” and loudly told him I had an appointment with mine the following week. It was altogether entertaining, and we left after ordering a mixed case of wine that we’ll be able to enjoy once it settles down from the shipping. Unlike France, you can send wine from California to Massachusetts, which says something about the idiotic laws in Massachusetts, France, or both.

Inspecting fermentation tanks with Ehren Jordan at Failla

 

 

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