Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Gastronavigation: Carneros & Sonoma Townsite Wine Wandering

We visited the wine country most recently with a medium-sized group, and as part of the Carneros wine region, Cline Cellars is a welcoming entry point. Although some of us were only interested in sweeter, aromatic whites while others looked for full-bodied reds, Ron, who poured for us at Cline's patio tasting bar, was excellent at ensuring everyone found something they enjoyed. He recommended wines at the edge of our comfort zones, from less common varietals like Carignane, to a smooth red blend even the white-wine-only drinkers might enjoy, but was never pushy. Tastings are complimentary, the atmosphere is gregarious, and the staff members are knowledgeable.

With lunch in our sights, VJB Vineyard & Cellars was an excellent next stop. The central plaza is large and airy - the perfect place to take a glass of wine, a scoop of gelato, or a wood-fired pizza (from the on-site gelato shop or pizza oven.) The pizzas are prepared on demand, but the wait is worth it. The winery itself focuses primarily on Italian varietals, and a glass of their Nero d'Avola paired beautifully with a prosciutto and mozzarella panini. At the tasting bar, $10 will snag you five tastes, which range from a medium-dry and citrusy Prosecco to a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon. The Chardonnay Port was also delicious.

After the sommelier at VJB recommended St. Francis Winery, particularly its Zinfandels, we were thrilled to try a horizontal sampling of three different Zinfandels at the St. Francis tasting bar as part of our overall tasting. (The Dry Creek Zinfandel was my favorite, but they were all delicious.) The newly released Petite Sirah is also worth looking up, and if you can, wander with your glass to the patio behind the tasting room to take in a positively gorgeous view. St. Francis' staff are friendly and knowledgeable, and will work with you to tailor your tasting to your tastes: we visited as a group of six very different wine fans, and each found – and left with – something we enjoyed.

For our last stop, we headed to Sonoma's townsite, where a number of tasting rooms circle the charming Town Square. M wanted to show off Bump Wine Cellars, one of our favorites, to the red wine enthusiasts in our party, but as we were traveling with a couple of Niagara ex-pats who were missing icewine, we continued up past the Square to Roche. The Californian and Ontarian wine regions differ considerably in terms of climate and terroir, so while we knew icewine was out of the question, we'd heard good things about their Late Harvest options. It was a fun way to end the day; just off of the Town Square, Roche is a casual and welcoming tasting spot. After sampling six different wines, we enjoyed a bottle of the Late Harvest Merlot while tucked in to a table on their large, sunny patio.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Review: Miller's East Coast Deli

...even though I think I'm still full from the Astro hoagie (a towering, savoury combination of pastrami, sweet-hot mustard, melty Swiss, red onion, and tomato), I find myself craving Miller's East Coast Deli's latkes. I scored a bite or two of K's when we ate there, and they were delicious: crispy on the outside and perfect when paired with applesauce.

Miller's was her recommendation: seeing it featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives piqued her curiosity, so the four of us met early on a Sunday evening to check it out.  The deli has a simple frontage, but once through the door, we looked from the deli fridge to our right where all of the meats, fish, and cheeses are displayed, to each other and smiled: we knew we were in good hands.

Although delis have cultural cache as fast-paced places where service is effective if not friendly, I'm happy to report that the folks at Miller's were both friendly and knowledgeable, even for diners like us, who took a minute or two to weigh the considerable menu options. Although it was hard to look past anything with pastrami, the Day After sandwich (hot turkey, stuffing, Swiss, gravy, and cranberry sauce on rye) also looked tempting, as it's unlikely I'll roast a Thanksgiving turkey this year.

Growing up on the Canadian prairies meant that I learned about East Coast deli food later than most, and viewed knishes as a larger, baked version of a perogy* - but am happy to be making up for lost time. Woefully, there were no knishes left at the time we visited, though in retrospect, the considerable size of my Astro and M's pastrami Philly meant that we both took part of our sandwiches home, and might have barely dented them at all had we started with a knish or two. (For those with smaller appetites, plate sharing is easy to request, with a small $1.75 charge.)

The dessert menu looked delicious, but with take-out boxes in hand, we agreed to return another time to try out the babka, kugel, or cheesecake. Maybe next time, we'll make like a souvenir-store magnet and eat dessert first.

(Or maybe not; that pastrami is a pretty compelling argument in and of itself.)

Miller's East Coast Deli on Urbanspoon

*Cultural/Spelling Note: "perogy" is how I grew up spelling pierogi/pyrohy (it appears to be a regional choice most commonly used in Alberta), where they're an immensely popular food (and mascot at occasional sporting events.)

Monday, November 3, 2014

Review: Brenda's French Soul Food

Be prepared for a line at any time of day, but know that the folks in front of you are on to something good. Brenda's serves delicious soul food at a great value - definitely a solid choice for big appetites!

I was thoroughly delighted (and defeated) by an order of the BFC (Brenda's Fried Chicken), especially having ordered the gumbo as a starter, so while the leftover chicken made the best lunch the next day, next time I'll order the chicken by the piece and customize my side, as I saw savvy diners do at the table next to ours.  Conversely, the catfish po'boy was joyfully devoured by M - I think I may have had a bite, but it disappeared in a flash.  The beer/wine list is on the shorter side, but carefully chosen, and there are a couple of selections from Dixie Brewing Company from New Orleans that work well with the food.

Brenda's French Soul Food on Urbanspoon

Review: The Plant Cafe Organic (SF Embarcadero)

The Plant Cafe Organic has become one of my go-to restaurants when friends who are vegetarian are visiting SF. It has a great view from the patio looking out over the water, the staff have always been approachable and knowledgeable, and the food is tasty (I've a soft spot for the Plant burger, made in part with beets and thus a brilliant pink hue.)  The menu changes seasonally, showcasing different foods every time I've visited, though a couple of standbys, like the Plant Burger, remain on the list year-round.

Moreover, while it doesn't bill itself as a vegetarian restaurant, focusing on its commitment to using organic produce and free-range/sustainable meats, it balances a solid array of vegetarian dishes with a couple of carnivore options, which is handy when eating with a larger group. I admire their experimental spirit, and admit to Googling cocktail ingredients I'd never heard of before when looking at the drinks list - Snap or Dimmi, anyone? - but being very happy with the results, particularly the Ginger Snap.

The Plant Cafe Organic on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 27, 2014

Thoughts: on cookbooks

I paged through Nigella Lawson's Feast for Halloween-party cooking ideas this morning; for a brief time in KW, I swore I'd cook my way through it, and referred to its author playfully as 'Queen Nigella' - there was something to her poise, her warm turn of phrase, her sumptuous recipes and beautiful hair, that I wished to emulate. Failing that, conquer my fear of baking, gather friends for dinner, and learn that some of the most curious Anglicisms relate to food. (A swede is not a Swede, but a rutabaga.)

Shifting years and timezones later, while I didn't elevate its author to the same royal moniker, I told myself the same thing about Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food. The books could be a study in contrasts; the rich matte pages with the simple line drawings reflected a life lived close to where everything grows, where so much had been pared away from what I'd known. Strangers in a strange land, the large portions and glossy photographs of Feast conjured bittersweet memories of knowing enough people to justify the recipes that served ten, or twenty; guiding one friend's hand as he first cut an emerald bell pepper, or laughing at the repartee between others, assigned to molding lamb meatballs spiced with harissa and bright peppercorns. Though I've never worked in a kitchen, and suspect my knife skills would have me laughed right out of one (effective but unglamorous; funny: I climb the same) those people, that time - they were a kitchen, they were a crew, though now scattered to the four corners of the continent quite literally.

Perhaps there's something to the fact that I'm picking up Feast again, for more than its risotto recipe (which I think I know by heart, by now.)  Both women, both writers, are storytellers, which is at least part of why these books survived my shifts with me. There's a balance to reading both, again. Know the land, know yourself, but don't be afraid to look beyond (remember to learn things along the way.)

Carpe diem, and save room for dessert.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Review - Nob Hill Cafe

A craving for pasta and a fiance out rock climbing turned my feet to Nob Hill Cafe on a windy Tuesday evening. It's a neighbourhood institution that's hard to walk past; often bustling with an interesting mixture of visitors and regulars, their heads bowed happily over bowls of pasta or seasonal pizzas. The scents of garlic and Parmesan, inevitably, follow you for half a block if you have the strength - or an already full stomach - to keep walking.

This time around, I ordered the Insalata Caprese for my starter, followed up with the Spaghetti alla Carbonara. I was sad to see that the Cafe hadn't quite finished baking their in-house foccacia when my bread basket arrived, as historically, the basket contains a blend of crusty sourdough and herbed foccacia (the latter of which is one of my favorite breads found to date in SF), but I was dining earlier in the evening, and the sourdough was perfect for dipping in the vinaigrette served with my Caprese.

The Caprese turned out to be more elaborate than the menu indicates; beyond the traditional basil, fresh mozzarella, and tomatoes, the dish was served over baby greens with thinly sliced red onions and an admirable quantity of olives, topped by a balsamic vinaigrette. At times, the vinaigrette cloaked the fresh flavours of the cheese and tomato, so I wouldn't recommend the salad for Caprese purists, but it remained an enjoyable start to my meal.

I have a guilty not-quite-secret; when it comes to pasta, I tend to lean towards the unconventional or the elaborate. NHC's Carbonara is a delicious reminder that sometimes, classic dishes keep their popularity for good reason. It arrived at my table piping hot, in a bowl with tall sides (the better for swirling and mixing in the fresh ground pepper and Parmesan; key ingredients, my server and I agreed, for making this dish an ultimate comfort food.) From the texture of the noodles to the creamy sauce highlighted by garlic and pancetta, the Carbonara was easy to love. It's a rich, filling dish, so I packed some away for my lunch, and thanked the staff for taking good care of me. 

I find it telling how restaurants treat solitary diners, and am happy to report that NHC is a solid choice, whether you're on your own, in a pair, or in a larger group. That said, it's a popular place, and they do not take reservations, so would recommend coming early or later for dinner if you have a large group.


Nob Hill Cafe on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 20, 2013

Wandering: Boccalone Salumeria

Boccalone sells, as it says above the door, "tasty salted pig parts" - which may be enough to convince you to visit in and of itself! It definitely piqued my curiosity, but moreover, whether stopping by for a fantastic sandwich (the Mess Piggy and Italian sausage are favorites) or picking up ingredients, their team is always welcoming and helpful, so I've been loyally returning every couple of weeks to their storefront in the Ferry Building to try something new.

The refridgerated wall of in-house salumi can be daunting, but every time I've visited, one of the staff have been able to answer all of my questions and suggest recipe ideas to match each of their products. It's dangerous shopping to do on an empty stomach (I never leave empty-handed), but for the opportunity to learn about and try delicious treats like guanciale and nduja, it's worth it.

Guanciale, I learned, has been largely usurped by pancetta or bacon in carbonara pastas, but was the original cut of meat paired with that dish.  I've always steered away from making carbonara, a little nervous that the raw egg in the sauce wouldn't cook well enough when mixed with the cooked noodles, but am happy to report that my first foray was successful.  Conversely, the nduja, a soft, cured salami was crumbled on to a homemade pizza at the last minute to great effect. My only caution (as I learned two nights later when making pasta) is that a little nduja goes a long way! Its flavour is intense, and can overwhelm other elements in the dish if too much is used.