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.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review - Pasion

After taking in the permanent exhibits at the de Young Museum during its lively First Tuesday, A and I wandered up to Sunset, and on the recommendation of a friendly shopclerk, found ourselves at Pasion for its 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. happy hour.

 The space itself is bright and chic; the servers & bar staff friendly, though always moving! We visited the bar side of Pasion before the rest of the restaurant opened for dinner, and it was fun to catch glimpses of the ongoing preparation for that evening.

That said, the food did much to distract us! Lured in by promises of half-priced "bar bites" and sangria pitchers, we were quick to claim a pitcher for our table, along with a crispy-meaty-wonderful Cubano sandwich, some delicious fried plantains with an aji verde aioli, and a large plate of mejillones (mussels.) The mussels were plentiful, and a little taste of Canada (sourced from PEI) with a savoury tomato sofrito sauce and chorizo sausage to accompany them. Both the aji verde and sofrito were new to me, having not been exposed to much in the way of Latin American cuisine in the past, but I know they'll be tastes I'll wake up craving one day soon. We enjoyed the sofrito that accompanied the mussels so much that we ordered extra garlic bread to enjoy the last of it. (Extra bread, our helpful server advised us, would cost $1 for the two pieces we requested, but it was a small price to pay to enjoy the dish to its fullest.)

 It was easy to see that a lot of care went into the preparation of the dishes and their components; everything was plated beautifully and tasted fresh and delicious. Our sangria was a lovely accompaniment to our appetizers of choice, as well, though the cocktails that the bar staff were preparing also looked tempting. Next time!

  Pasion on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 5, 2013

Wandering - Tartine (SF)

I found Tartine just before noon on a Wednesday morning; like so many popular places in SF, it eschews notable signage, displaying a plain black sign with no lettering over tall windows. It was by chance I found it (well, chance and a nearby bus stop, en route to yet another apartment viewing) but I'm very glad I did.

Though the pastries were tempting, reminding me a little of the jewel-toned and rich chocolate desserts I first became acquainted with at Edmonton's Duchess Bake Shop, I snapped up a slice of the ham and cheese quiche, and was very happy with my choice. The quiche was delicious. Balanced, texture and flavour-wise, the ham added a salty undertone that fit, but which didn't overwhelm the other flavours. When I make quiche at home, it's often too soft (my baking curse continues!) but Tartine's doesn't suffer a similar fate. It's fluffy but not inconsequential, and made for a tasty, light lunch as I sat outside at one of their patio tables and watched the world slip past Guerrero and 18th.

Even mid-week, there were lines to contend with, but the staff were friendly and helpful, and the line moved pretty quickly. I'll be happy to return, and maybe indulge my sweet tooth the next time around!

Tartine Bakery on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Gastronavigation: Northern Sonoma County (Dry Creek/Russian River Valley)

A new home, a new wine region!

Last month, M's changing work situation saw us packing up our things*, throwing a most excellent shindig with great friends, and moving to San Francisco.

* = most of our things. International wine law is a complicated manner, and even with help from M's employer/relocation team, figuring out what to do with our wine was one of the most headache-inducing parts of the journey.  Next time, would I just drink my cellar?  I'd like to say no, but we'll see where life takes us!
Once we got our feet under us in the City, one of our first stops was Sonoma County.  Armed with a map and recommendations, we aimed our sights at the Dry Creek Valley.

We didn't make it up to Dry Creek until later that day; it grew too difficult to ignore all of the winery signs at the side of the road. One of the things that surprised us the most about California wine regions was simply how many wineries there were. With many more years as an established wine region, and hundreds of wineries in Sonoma alone, our journeying seems cut out for us - if I can persuade M to split our time between the vines and the mountains!

These futuristic, egg-like vessels were on the production floor at Thomas George Estates; while tasting some of their delicious Pinot Noirs, the sommelier working with us first showed us a picture  and then walked M and I over to the floor to check them out in person. He shared that the casks are primarily used to age Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines, but that the winemaker was also planning to experiment with other varietals.

I'd never heard about wine being stored in concrete before, but heard later from a friend that Tawse in Niagara also uses this method to age their wines without imparting any distinct flavours like oak, vanilla, toast, or toffee, like oak aging would.  Concrete-aged wine doesn't sound particularly romantic, but it's a fascinating innovation, and definitely something I'd like to return to try!

Here's the last sip of the last wine we tried at Thomas George Estates: a 2010 Zinfandel, which we took home with us.  I enjoyed the Pinot Noirs very much, but will have to return once I've found employment on this side of the 49th.  Handcrafted wines, while wonderful, reflect the care that goes into them in their pricetag.

Zinfandel isn't nearly as widely grown in Niagara, so with the mindset of "while in Sonoma, drink as the Californians do," I'm looking forward to learning more about this varietal. It's one that I hadn't put much stock in before, knowing it primarily as a sweet, berry-happy patio sipper in its White Zinfandel form.  I'd be happy to drink this Zinfandel on a patio (M and I sure eyed the garden area just outside the wine cave where we were completing our tasting with a wistful eye; unfortunately, the wine must be consumed inside designated tasting areas) but this delicious medium-bodied red would be even happier paired with a steak on a patio.

Our next stop was Hop Kiln Winery.  The historic building was constructed in 1905, and had a visually striking appeal only helped by its view of the mountains across the valley.  As we started our tasting, we learned that before Sonoma County became a wine region, this part of it was one of the largest producers of hops in the western USA.

The transition from beer-adjacent production to wine serves them well; the team at Hop Kiln serve tasty and approachable wines, and are friendly (if busy!)  The winery seems very popular with large groups thanks to both its wines and large picnic facilities, and there was a large group that looked like a family reunion spending the afternoon in the picnic area as we arrived. I know I'd have found trouble if I were a child at a winery (whether by asking tons of questions or finding my way into the library section) but it was great to see that some wineries are family-friendly.  I considered finding the library, but chose instead to sprawl with M on the winery's large front lawn and snap an absurd number of pictures. (It's a very cool building. Lots of neat details.)

Of the HK wines that we tried, I enjoyed the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and their red blend the best, and as the red blend changes yearly, and has a loyal fan base, I look forward to trying another year's vintage to see how it changes.

Our last wine stop of the day was, at the recommendation of Craig from Thomas George Estates, Bella Vineyards.  Bella is perched at the very end of West Dry Creek Road, and the journey there is gorgeous if mildly adventurous (narrow, winding roads with not really any shoulder to speak of, a decent amount of car traffic, and a more than decent amount of bicycle traffic!)

That said, is the journey worth it? Absolutely.

Bella feels carved carefully out of its surroundings; tucked into tall, winding hills covered alternately with vines or bee-magnet lavender near the entrance.

Its wine cave is built into the hill in the picture above, and on the day we visited, was candle-lit for the "Pink Out" event to celebrate the release of their 2012 rose (paired with Hog Island Oyster Co. oysters, which were amazing. I've never been one for oysters but the team at Hog Island might have changed my mind.)  The rose was a good match; refreshing, and with enough body to compliment but not overwhelm the oysters.

Once in the cave (french fries and 10 Acre Russian River Pinot Noir in hand), we wandered past barrels and old presses, all candle-lit, which was at once beautiful and worrying (fire hazard? anyone?) but it sounds like the winery has a good deal of experience in placing the candles so that they're safely out of elbow reach.

Our next two tastings were Zinfandels that the sommelier nicknamed Tuesday Evening and Friday Night, and while I smiled at the nicknames initially, they fit. The first of the two, the Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, was Tuesday - approachable, fruit-forward, with berry notes and softer tannins. I enjoyed it, but the Friday version, Block 10 (as seen below) was a little fuller-bodied and compelling.  Both were delicious introductions to the variety of Zinfandels available in California, and a great indication of the variety Bella's winemakers (and terroir) are capable of expressing.

It was also a blast to talk icewines and late harvest wines over our last tasting, a Late Harvest Zinfandel paired with a dark chocolate peanut butter cup.  After a day of learning, it was fun to be able to bring something new to the table, and perhaps inspire someone to check out a new wine region.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Gastronavigation: Prince Edward County

Because he knows me well, part of M's Christmas gift to me was a completists' tour of Prince Edward County, a developing wine region in Southern Ontario. Our knowledge was limited to the Wine Country Ontario map, which offers a great highlight of nine of the area's thirty-odd wineries (hence why we thought we could tackle this region in a weekend!)

Scoring a shoulder-season deal to stay at Huff Estates garnered us a wine tour with their sommelier, Brian, whose quick wit and wide breadth of knowledge gave us a better idea of which grapes grow well in PEC, and how the various soils align to better grapes. We learned that the sweeter dessert wines grow best in the South Bay area, that the process of burying the vines in dirt over the winter is referred to as 'plutage,' and that we should never refer to a full-bodied wine as "heavy" within Brian's hearing! (Fortunately, this was an anecdote, not learned first-hand.)

Zero de Gris (at left) is one of the wines we tried at Huff; the pun in its name made me smile, as did the wine itself.  It's a late harvest Frontenac Gris (something completely new for me.) It tasted of honey, and oddly enough, of lemon meringue pie, reflecting a good balance of acidity and sweetness.  This grape species is a hybrid, first observed in Minnesota as a cross between a French varietal (Landot) and the widespread North American Frost Grape, or Vitis riparia. Perhaps in part due to its hardiness, this varietal is much more visible in PEC compared to the warmer Niagara region.

Closson Chase vineyard - outside view
Closson Chase was one of our first stops, and even in overcast light, the soft purple on the renovated barn is striking. It's on one of the oldest homesteads in the region, and the winery's bold Chardonnays definitely made a good impression!

Naming conventions in PEC entertain me greatly. Closson Chase's name sounds as if it has a tale to spin, and while I'm sure it does, it's also simply located on the corner of roads named Closson and Chase. (East and Main restaurant and 66 Gilead Distillery are more examples of this trend.)

Decisions, decisions! Closson Chase focuses on growing and producing premier Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and the latter was good enough to pull M and I out of our (self-inflicted, post-Pinot-Affair-last-year) Pinot ennui!
Purchasing-wise, we wanted to focus on PEC-area (or VQA PEC) wines, so we brought home the Closson Chase Vineyard Chardonnay. (The winery also sources some grapes from the S. Kocsis vineyard in Niagara for some particularly lovely Chardonnays.)

M's declaratively more of a red wine fan, so it was great to see him try some of these bolder whites during our trip, especially at Closson - and emerge on the other side of the attempt a budding enthusiast.

The non-tasting room section of Closson Chase's barn is a seriously nifty space - a little drafty in early March, but I could see this being heaven in May, and very cool for shindigs, weddings, and other events.

I like how the stained glass's pattern on the far wall is echoed in Closson Chase's bottle design elsewhere around the winery.

This beautiful church (at left, above) is on part of Closson Chase's property; vineyards run for miles beyond it. The roof was resurfaced in the early 2000s with a design inspired by a church in Burgundy. Seeing it stopped M and I cold when we drove past (and sent us scrambling for our cameras.)  The friendly nature of the County was further revealed when the first car that drove past us slowed down as it passed and checked in on us to make sure we were all right. We waved our cameras and thanked them for checking with a smile.

Across the field was a wonderfully photogenic red barn. The County at this time of year dances a beautiful line between desolate and stunning that feels ineffably Canadian. (At least, it brings to mind all the CanLit I read in Uni that never really made sense until I moved East. That said, one day, I'll reconcile the fact that to Ontarians, Ontario is not East, it's Central, but I've enough prairie girl in me still to call it East.)

At right is one of the things that lured me to Prince Edward County in the first place - a Canadian take on port, both white and red, under Karlo Estates' Van Alstine label.  It was the last sample I tried in an array of delicious options. We started with an impressive Riesling (Lake on the Mountain) that was my trip favorite Riesling, then their Chardonnay CHOA, Cabernet Franc, and Quintus red blend (one of M's standouts, it weaves together Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Merlot.)

Though the Chardonnay CHOA was a little too bold for my palate at present, it had a complex blend of notes that will have me coming back on my next trip to see if my thoughts have changed. (CHOA stands for Cherry, Hickory, Oak, and Ash, the combination of County wood that goes into the barrels where this Chardonnay is aged, put together specially for Karlo at one of two cooperages in Canada, at the Carriage House Cooperage in Bloomfield.)  Compared to other varietals like the Riesling and Frontenac Gris Rose, it's not as easy-drinking, but I could see it becoming something I'll love in the future.

Wonderful as the wine was, we couldn't drink it all the time!  On our second day, M and I found ourselves at the Tall Poppy Cafe in Wellington for lunch. We loved it, and were I gifted with Carmen Sandiego's skill at purloining landmarks, I would leave the Golden Gate Bridge and steal the Tall Poppy instead! The people were friendly, the space was welcoming no matter one's age (people aged six to sixty sat around us, enjoying the fresh soups, sandwiches, and in my case, awesome Mediterranean platters of couscous, grilled halloumi cheese, hummus and pita, warm artichoke dip, and lots of fresh veggies and olives!  I was starving, and still walked away with a takeaway container for later.)

It's definitely worth the stop, if you find your feet taking you to PEC.

We rounded out our trip at Sandbanks Winery, and despite the chill in the air outside, it was easy to feel like summer was around the corner when leaning on the burnished copper countertop, enjoying the bright, abstract art that lines the tasting room walls, and learning that not all Baco Noir is created equally. M and I had a terrible experience with Baco Noir, once, but were slowly testing our luck with the varietal over the course of this trip. Sandbanks trumpet their Baco Noir VQA as their signature wine, so we suspected we would be in good hands.

After trying and enjoying both the regular and reserve releases, we decided to purchase a bottle of the reserve release - but not before I was ensnared by Love, Sandbanks' cassis aperitif, a blend of Canadian cassis liquor and white wine.

It was a perfectly sweet finish to a trip to vineyards that weren't afraid to see life through rose-coloured glasses - nearly every vineyard we visited prominently featured a rose wine or another offering in blushing hues, like Love.

One trip is never enough - there's a cooperage and distillery that have piqued my interest (but whom were closed on Sundays, at least in the early-March shoulder season when we visited!) not to mention twenty more wineries to wander through!

Some of the wineries are seasonal, closing until April's festivals begin and more visitors turn their eyes to camping and wine touring in the area, so I know we'll be back, perhaps spending some time (and enjoying some wine) in the brightly-coloured Muskoka chairs on Sandbanks' patio.

'Til then, happy wandering! Have you discovered any knockout wines or wineries recently?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Gastronavigation: TERRA at Home Market

It started with a wayward Tweet on a Thursday afternoon, in which I heard about Manual Labour Coffee, a mobile espresso bar based in part out of Dundas (and in part out of a vintage Bailey Travel Trailer named Frankie), and shared this finding with M.  

M, in turn, tracked down their website, quickly fell into admiration, and shared with me that they would be part of the TERRA at Home Market that Saturday in Burlington. And thus, a road trip was born.

The premise behind this winter market is a little magical, not least to me; I make the joke with a wistful smile that I must have been a plant in a past life, as I operate a thousand times better when it's sunny outside or when surrounded by green, growing things. 

So, this greenhouse just outside of Burlington made the perfect escape for us from the grey skies and cold last weekend. Stepping in, it's easy to be distracted by tall palms, stunning orchids, and hardy cacti, but if you wind past the pots of hyacinths and callas, you'll find yourself in the market, lured instead by the sweet-salty smell of kettle corn (be sure to sample the cinnamon variant!) or the precise fire of a blue-flame torch over creme brulee cheesecakes.

We visited most of the stalls, coming away with everything from organic rutabagas to Hario coffee drippers. Meanwhile, M was in coffee heaven as he talked preparation methods and bean origins with the friendly and extremely knowledgeable team at Manual Labour. Even though coffee levels me with headaches and jitters, I walked away with a dark chocolate and chipotle cookie, which was glorious: smoky-bittersweet, chewy, and the best kind of unusual.

We entrusted our growling stomachs to the naked sprout, splitting the kale salad and sweet potato & parsnip soup. (It tasted great, and has to be at least some positive food karma for the mix of superfoods and veggies therein.) Kale has always been a food I've danced around; not deliberately, but as friends swore by kale chips or carried massive fronds through farmers' markets, I'd find myself distracted by Brussels sprouts sold while still on their stalk or new varieties of apple (or, okay, Anna Tolazzi's chocolates; those too.)  

I'm happy to report that the naked sprout's salad was a good introduction to kale. The cashew sour cream swirl on top of the soup was also delicious, lending an almost-citrus-y counterpoint to the rich, mildly sweet flavours of the sweet potato and parsnip. Perfect for warming up after dashing outside to drop off round one of our purchases (say what you will, but potatoes and rutabagas become heavy over time!)

The greenhouse setting was great for taking a break to eat lunch, but also talking with the vendors and other folks as we wandered.  

Although the market was busy, we never felt rushed or crowded, and covered in conversation everything from the schematics necessary to make road trips for cheese curds to the politics of organic farming; debated the merits of rainbow trout pate versus smoked salmon (the trout won); and talked truffles and Valentines with The Little Truffle Maker (and her husband, the Big Truffle Maker, who had the best aprons in the Market and wonderful smiles. And dangerously tasty truffles - if you can, sample the Orange Heat!)

It was a busy afternoon, but a wonderful one - if you find yourself in Burlington or Milton (where another Terra market has just started up) over a weekend, it can be a great way to connect with local farmers, chefs, and innovators - and is a welcome burst of colour. Spring's just around the corner, after all...

Happy wandering!