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



At Ehren’s suggestion, we followed the tasting and tour of his cave with lunch at Solbar, the restaurant at the Solage resort and spa in Calistoga. Hemmed in by killer mountain scenery, bocce courts and a fountain, the restaurant boasts food worth having a gastric bypass for. However, our favorite place in Calistoga was an art gallery called Ca’Toga. The owner is a Venetian-born whirling dervish named Carlo Marchiori, a jovial bear in suspenders over a t-shirt, with a closely cropped beard. He did the terrazzo floor, the mural on the barrel-vaulted ceiling, and all the ceramics and paintings in the gallery. It was like meeting a latter-day, more whimsical Leonardo da Vinci. But one art form he had failed to master was how to process a Mastercard. Normally, his partner takes care of those things. You’d never know Marchiori has no interest in business, though; he’s gregarious, even by Italian standards, and the one thing we were sorry to miss was one of the weekly tours of the surrealist-meets-Palladian Villa and gardens he designed and built. (We bought the coffee table book, though.)

Bocce balls at Solbar

Carlo Marchiori at Gallery Ca'Toga

From Calistoga, we headed South to Yountville, for dinner at the legendary French Laundry—a meal that’s described in gut-busting detail in the “Latest” section of this blahgazine. Whether or not you intend to worship at this Mecca of American cuisine, the picturesque (if unfortunately named) Yountville is worth a visit. It’s an odd mix of quintessential American farm town and super high-end stores, like the (also unfortunately named) art gallery/home furnishings/wine shop Ma(i)sonry. In a beautiful sculpture garden, you can enjoy a delicious glass of whatever they’re pouring, and decide whether or not to buy the $400 throw pillow, opt not to, but still walk out with two $100 bottles of wine. At least, that’s what we did. And then we left them in the coat closet at the French Laundry. This was something we didn’t notice until we were back in San Francisco, collapsed in a food coma, but the good folks of Yountville were kind enough to figure it out and send them along.

The sculpture garden at Ma(i)sonry

I’ll put Golden Gate Park up against any other park in the world for the sheer diversity of the activities that go on there: there’s boating, polo, archery, petanque, fly-fishing (and no doubt a fair amount of al fresco nookie). It encompasses an Arboretum, the de Young Art Museum, and a Buffalo Paddock in an area equivalent to 50 city blocks. Upon retiring, my uncle set out to photograph everything that goes on there but quickly gave up, overwhelmed. Of course, one of its treasures is the Conservatory of Flowers—the elaborate greenhouse that looks like a giant white Victorian marzipan on the outside, and inside houses a staggering array of rare plants and flowers. We were lucky enough to catch a special exhibit of carnivorous plants alongside an elementary school field trip, and one of the kids looked at me and said, “I’m scared of that plant. Stick your finger in there and it’s gone.” He was so earnest, I didn’t have the heart to tell him he’d need to leave it in there for six months or so.

The Conservatory of Flowers

Man-eating plant

Welcome to the Academy of Sciences

The California Academy of Sciences didn’t exist the last time I was in San Francisco, and the Renzo Piano-designed museum beggars description. Located across the Music Concourse from the De Young, it’s like something straight out of Star Trek, or Willy Wonka’s idea of a science museum. Visitors are greeted by an eight-foot albino alligator. Glass tubes allow you to walk underwater through a coral reef, and a three-story rainforest recreated inside a giant glass bubble has a sign asking visitors to check themselves for butterflies before exiting. The undulating roof-garden is a marvel of green architecture, and it still has endearing reminders of what old-fashioned science museums are like—for example, the dioramas of stuffed African wildlife. For a place that puts any theme park to shame, it’s amazing they don’t have better postcards.

Sam and Diver Dan

Jellies, hold the PB

As far as I’m concerned, no trip to San Francisco is complete without a stop in the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, and out of expedience (as well as my aunt’s recommendation that “All the Chinese people eat there”) we had dinner at the R&G Lounge on Kearney St. It’s probably not the best Chinese food in San Francisco, but I’ve had worse in Hong Kong.

Boarding the red-eye back to Boston, I had to loosen my seatbelt. For the first time in recent memory, I didn’t care that airlines no longer serve food on domestic flights. Forget my heart. I left my waistline in San Francisco.

So long, San Francisco!

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