Sep
15
2011

Imbiber

A FAMILY AFFAIR: Local, Small Production Wines from SF to Napa

Swanson Vineyard's charming Sip Shoppe

Lunch at Kelly Fleming Winery

It’s a unique time in Bay Area winemaking. We see more California winemakers finding harmony between New & Old World-style production, laying off heavier-handed extremes of overly-oaked or high alcohol wines, honing in on our region’s true terroir. While global love for big, bold California wines isn’t going anywhere, it’s ever more apparent that our range is far beyond what might be assumed.

Small, family-run wineries have long undergirded our region’s greatness, and today we see many new wines, from Sonoma to Napa, adding nuance to the landscape. As is the case historically, many wineries are a family affair where parents and children, husband and wife, share in the work, from production to business operations. Here are a few we felt you should know about.

Sutton Cellars, San Francisco

San Francisco holds a treasure in the person of Carl Sutton of Sutton Cellars. He walks the fine line of approachability and Old World-influenced production style. At 22nd and Illinois sits a funky warehouse winery where he throws Jug Sundays, tapping barrels and selling jugs or liters of wine (email directly through their website to be added to their event email list). Carl corrals Dogpatch neighbors to supply grub, like Olivier’s Butchery or TomKat Asian street food truck. His wife Sharon, often pours and works with him, both of them wine aficionados and passionate global travelers.

Sutton Cellars bottles (photo source: Cask Store www.caskstore.com)

His grapes grow mostly in Sonoma County (with a little Mendocino in the mix), often single vineyard wines. At a time when many claim personal care, Sutton’s brown label wines are actually filled and corked by hand. Often this kind of care implies high costs, but Sutton stays amazingly affordable at $14-$21 a bottle.

Sutton is heavily influenced by France and Spain, countries he and his wife have visited often. He has a full-bodied Rattlesnake Rosé ($15), but also the stunning Fizé, a 2010 rosé of organic Carignane grapes. It unfolds with each sip: tart cranberry and pomegranate notes, and a crisp effervescence. With no yeast or sulfites added, fermentation actually happens in the bottle. It possess a bready nose, with a profile far beyond typical rosés on either end of the sweet/dry spectrum (find this beauty at the winery, Bi-Rite, Rainbow Grocery, D&M).  As of last week, he has keg preview of 2010 Rattlesnake Rosé on tap at Magnolia Pub & Brewery.

Sutton Cellars logo

His 2007 Carignane is an acidic, balanced, food-friendly red (barrel fermented in neutral oak). The aged La Solera is an elegant after-dinner imbibement and one of Sutton’s best creations. A blend of syrah, zin and carignane wines from 1999-2006, it at turns evokes Madeira, Banyuls, sherry, even whiskey, with whispers of burnt orange, and a golden richness from its time resting in the sun, a classic method he picked up in Spain. La Solera is at the top of his price range at a mere $30, a steal for such a complex wine.

Sutton’s Brown Label Vermouth (unaged brandy-fortified neutral white wine, infused with 17 botanicals; bottled fresh weekly) is a winner. The Alembic was the first place to serve this refreshing aperitif on tap, enjoyed on the rocks, Italian-style. Sutton bubbles over with visions for a wide range of wines and liqueurs, including at least one new aperitif/digestif wine due before year’s end.

Watch for the Suttons around town, pouring elegant, affordable, everyday drinking wines at events and their winery. Look for Carl’s handlebar mustache and listen for his infectious laugh. Once you sip his wines, you, too, will discover what a city treasure Sutton Cellars is.

Order online or find Sutton Cellars wines and vermouth at local Whole Foods.

Kelly Fleming Wines, Calistoga

View from Fleming Winery

Head off Silverado Trail, past vines and olive trees, onto a dirt road that leads to a gate. Beyond a sea of cabernet vines, sits Kelly Fleming’s stone winery, evoking an Italian villa, similar to many I explored in Tuscany. The winery’s stone walls and wood shutters imbue the space with a rustic character far beyond its years.

Naturally cool, limestone caves

In an open-air dining room, I sit under stone arches at a handmade wood table crafted from one tree off the 300 acre property. Kelly and her daughter Colleen, who also works for the company, served a Mediterranean-style spread for lunch, using ingredients from their garden (like a silky jam made from their fig trees).

We sipped Fleming’s 2009 Sauvignon Blanc (50% French oak, 50% stainless steel), representative of the Oakville soil from which these grapes grow. It’s a balanced white with a floral and fruity (pear, pineapple) profile, rounded out by a hint of vanilla. 2007 Cabernet is 100% estate and CCOF organically grown, rested in 85% new French oak. Though fruit plays prominent (warm, dusty raspberries), hints of wood, nuts and spice give it contrast. We tasted it side-by-side with an unreleased 2005 vintage, finding the ’05 delightfully earthy but the ’07 layered, becoming more complex as it sits.

Kelly Fleming Sauvignon Blanc

Winemaker Celia Welch works with the region’s terroir (this is cabernet country, after all), from vines planted in 1999. The wild beauty of the property’s forests and creeks is kept intact with only 12 of the 300 acres planted with vines. Inside limestone caves, the air is naturally cool, storing barrels and bottles of past vintages (unreleased but which they’ve been perfecting for nearly a decade). At a mere 850 (cabernet) and 675 cases (sauvignon blanc) a year, these are truly small production wines.

Kelly is hands-on in so many aspects from harvesting to forklift operation. She and Colleen both were recently certified in forklift driving, highlighting the involved, familial nature of the winery. They are gracious hosts, welcoming guests by appointment. To visit and partake of Fleming wines is to taste this corner of Calistoga. The idyllic grounds and gorgeous stone house (Kelly was involved in every aspect of its design) represent Napa and its Tuscan similarities.

Order online or find Kelly Fleming wines at restaurants like A-16, Michael Mina, Perbacco, RN74, Zuni Cafe, Town Hall, and Morimoto Napa.

Swanson Vineyards, Rutherford

Swanson's dramatic Salon for sit-down tastings

Think Parisian carnival, classic French estate, Napa’s rich nature, New Orleans’ roots, and you’ll begin to get an idea of the influences on Swanson Vineyards. The winemaker is Chris Phelps, while Clarke Swanson founded the winery back in 1985, planting his first merlot grapes. His daughter, Alexis, works as the winery’s creative director. Wife Elizabeth buzzed about as we sipped wine in their enchanting garden, greeting each guest, and offering winery staff any assistance needed (they say she does this daily).

Caviar & creme fraiche chips w/ chardonnay

The first sign Swanson is different is apparent upon entering their Sip Shoppe, with red and white-striped, tented walls, Old World French artwork, and Billie Holiday playing soothingly in the background. Elizabeth and Alexis designed the shop themselves, imparting a playful Parisian spirit to what could just be another tasting room. One wants to linger for flights like  “Some Like it Red”, paired with the likes of warm pistachios, Alexis bonbons (made by Vosges with curry and their Alexis Cabernet),  or a potato chip topped with creme fraiche and Hackleback sturgeon caviar (lovely with their Chardonnay).

Swanson's peaceful garden

Their 2010 Chardonnay was my favorite, and a complete surprise as a mineral, French-inspired chardonnay, reminiscent of Chablis. Neutral oak allows crisp, green apple notes to shine, while honey adds a tinge of cream to the finish. At a pricey $45, this one is only available at the winery or to wine club members.

Inside the Sip Shoppe

Of the reds, their signature 2007 Merlot offers the best price-to-taste ratio at $38 per bottle. It’s unexpectedly balanced with tart tannins, hints of black cherry, currant and mocha. On the pricier end, their 2007 Alexis Cabernet ($75) is bold and layered, while a 2006 Petite Syrah ($70) goes the earthier, spice and gentle black pepper route.

Make an appointment to visit the winery for a Salon tasting ($65) or Sip Shoppe flight (around $25), then finish by lingering in their garden. You can taste at dozens of wineries but the Swanson’s chic shoppe and salon deliver a fun, Parisian spirit to the Napa countryside.

Order online or search for Swanson wines in restaurants and shops here.

Written by Virginia in: Imbiber | Tags: ,
Aug
15
2010

August 15, 2010

“We are born for meaning, not pleasure, unless it is pleasure that is steeped in meaning.” – Jacob Needleman

Inside the Elms Mansion at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans

It’s been quite a week with the ongoing party of SF Chefs and more high profile restaurant openings (Commonwealth, Benu, Bar Agricole). At SF Chefs, besides attending numerous seminars, tastings & parties (recap in next issue), I was one of three judges at a Top Chef Happy Hour in the W Hotel (former Top Chef contestants from the show facing off for best cocktail). I also emceed a chef demo at Williams Sonoma’s flagship store with Chef Jason Berthold and Pastry Chef Nick Flores of RN74. A delightfully exhausting week!

On the home front, Top Tastes highlights new SF openings, molecular experimentation, Boston-style roast beef sandwiches and duck confit tacos. Around the Bay reviews a slew of new (and not so new) eats in Wine Country, from Morimoto Napa to Spoonbar.

Now for Tales of the Cocktail and New Orleans coverage: a rundown of most memorable moments in On the Town. On the Town Part Two covers winners along with my photos from TalesSpirited Awards Ceremony (Mad Men celebrity shots included). Imbiber lists the most memorable cocktails at Tales.

Fence outside Fuel Coffee in New Orleans

Wandering Traveler eats and drinks through the French Quarter with proper cocktails, Italian Creole cuisine, burgers at 3am, and divine Creole Cream Cheese Red Velvet Cake ice cream.

I’d love your feedback on any spots visited from my site. Please tell your friends and have them sign up for the newsletter. As your personal concierge who tells it to you like a good friend would, I also create personalized itineraries: trips, meals, explorations (under “Services“).

Let me guide you to the perfect spot!

Virginia

Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ThePerfectSpot

Here’s recent entries in my SF Bay Guardian column, Appetite:
Three Gourmet Cheap Eats in Sonoma
Tales from Tales in New Orleans
SF Chefs returns
Two Sodas for the Epicure

**Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Virginia Miller**

Written by Virginia in: Intro Letter |
Aug
15
2010

Around the Bay

WINE COUNTRY

View from a Spoonbar table

HEALDSBURG

SPOONBAR – I could write a piece on the cocktails alone at brand new Spoonbar in the h2hotel off of Healdsburg’s town square. You’ve already heard me mention Scott Beattie many times over the years.

Beattie's work-of-art drinks

He truly is one of our country’s great bartenders and his cocktail menu at Spoonbar is a revelation. Yes, you’ll get waylaid by the initial menu, but don’t let that stop you from asking for the additional one. It’s a glory of new creations, featuring edible flowers and the herbal, produce-driven beauties Beattie has perfected since his Cyrus days. But there’s the added bonus of classics done with a Beattie sensibility. I get giddy at the site of three versions each of Old-Fashioneds, Negronis, Manhattans and Sazeracs, the holy foursome of cocktails. I sampled five, each exquisite. Stay tuned for next issue’s Imbiber for details on these cocktails – it feels right seeing Beattie behind the bar again.

Stunning cocktails

But the joys at Spoonbar are many as the food and wine list are likewise robust, the space open and airy (playful with hints of mid-century modern), the price point a nice mid-range. In early opening weeks, this has automatically become my # 1 Healdsburg spot for drink or food (since I can only afford Cyrus for a special occasion), and one of my tops in all of Wine Country.

Plump, delicious Calamari

Where to start? There’s wines on tap, a trend I am happy to see growing from an environmental and casual accessibility standpoint. Let Wine Director, Ross Hallett, choose and you’ll likely get a nice range of local and international wines. With dinner, he paired a dry 2000 Villa Claudia Gattinara and a full  ’05 Savuto Odoardi that yielded spice notes when paired with the Spoonbar Burger. For dessert, he poured thoughtful choices like Rare Wine Co.’s New York Malmsey Special Reserve Madeira, rich with earthy, coffee notes, and Ratafia de Bourgogne, a sweet but balanced liqueur.

Lush Burrata w/ beets & brioche

The food? With Moroccan and Mediterranean influences, Chef Rudy Mihal’s menu shines as fine bar food with cocktails or as multi-course dinner. Appetizers offer all kinds of goodness, like addictive little Fried Smelt Fish ($8) dipped in a caper aioli. Or how about skewers of plump, grilled Calamari ($12) in a preserved lemon vinaigrette? You’ll find me equally hyped over imported Burrata ($13), creamy heaven in a pool of fine olive oil with melting, soft brioche and finely diced beet tartare.

Addictive fried smelt

On the entree front, the lamb/beef mix is right in the Spoonbar Burger ($15), albeit small, on a house-sesame bun with a mini-bucket of fries. Kudos for a restrained but permeating burger topping of sweet tomato confit, cucumber chutney and spiced yogurt.

Spoonbar Burger

Though I am easily bored with chicken, their signature Moorish-style Brick Chicken ($24) is rife with flavor from herbs and spices, tender over grilled lemon couscous. Definitely a highlight.

Restaurant Manager, Darren Abel, runs a relaxed, festive restaurant that truly is the whole package. I’ll be plotting my next chance to get to Spoonbar when up that way – at the very least for cocktails and apps. If only this place was in the city…

SIMI WINERYSimi is one of those venerable wineries rich with colorful history.

Simi's old railroad crossing sign

Founded by Italian brothers, Giuseppe and Pietro Simi, in 1876, their cellars date from 1890 on one half to 1904 once they doubled in size. When both brothers died within four months of each other, Giuseppe’s daughter, Isabelle, a savvy eighteen year old, took over the winery, making and storing wine even during Prohibition.

I’m fascinated by this young girl’s ingenuity, which eventually led to a successful winery she first popularized by giving away free samples on the side of the road pre-tasting room days. Isabelle planted a grove of redwood trees around the grounds and a tribute rose garden with bushes for each president during the days she ran the winery (except for one… take their interesting tour to hear the whole story. I’ll give you a hint: he was the one who helped usher in Prohibition).

Isabelle's rose garden

Their pizza cafe is a lovely idea: held on Friday (2-6pm) and Saturday (11am-4pm) afternoons, it’s a welcome Summer respite on their shaded back patio under giant umbrellas where wood-fired oven shells out satisfying pizzas (wine is included). While I loved the concept, presentation and taste of their special Red, White & Blue Pizza (red – bacon, lettuce, tomato; blue – purple yam, blue cheese, red onion; white – corn, zucchini, onions, ricotta), my heart belonged first to their House Sausage Pizza with baked fennel bulbs.

Simi's Red, White & Blue Pizza

They have a balanced (read: not jammy, punch-you-in-the-face) Zinfandel available only at the winery, a Landslide Cabernet and the mineral citrus of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, creamy with hints of hazelnut, lemon and oak.

On August 28 (12-3pm), they’re having a party to celebrate the latest 2007 Landslide Cabernet release with dancing to New Orleans jazz  on the Terrace ($20 per person, or $10 for wine club members). You know I’d be there if I could.

NAPA

Morimoto Napa

MORIMOTO NAPA - Despite the celebrity chef status of the one and only Masaharu Morimoto (yes, I love the original Iron Chef), and the high price tag, his brand new Morimoto Napa restaurant is an experience and a welcome addition to Wine Country.

The space is huge, with a sea of greys enlivened by bright, yellow chairs. There’s patio waterfront seating and an ultra-cool touch of grape vines dramatically running the wall over the bar and in the lobby, as if to say, “Morimoto is now in Wine Country.”

Artistic Toro Tartare

As for the food, it adds up fast, but thankfully there’s beyond-the-norm presentations lending excitement to the expensive meal. Like me, you may have eaten a thousand tartares, but you haven’t had one quite like this: Toro Tartare ($25) comes on a little wood tray you scrape with a mini paddle, then dip in nori paste, wasabi, sour cream, chives, or a house dashi soy, smoky with a hint of bonito. Finish with a bright palate cleanser of Japanese plum.

Green Fig Tempura ($16) is a playful change of pace on the tempura front, but the real clincher is a creamy peanut butter foie gras sauce underneath, dotted with pomegranate reduction. Again, as a big beef tartare fan, I’ve had many a version. This one stands out. Beef Tartare ($18) Morimoto-style comes with asparagus flan hiding an egg in the center. As you slice through it, it oozes over the beef, asparagus slivers, lotus chips and teriyaki sauce. Morimoto Bone Marrow ($16) is an intriguing version: one giant bone loaded with gloppy, warm marrow, perked up with caramelized onions, teriyaki and spices on top.

The vine-covered bar

Entrees continued in this creative vein, though Whole Roasted Lobster “Espice” ($35) had its flaws. It’s a generous portion but the lobster meat is lost in too much garam masala spice, coriander, peppercorn, and cayenne, even though that was what sold me on the dish initially. It was over-spiced but the saving grace was a divine, whipped lemon creme fraiche, contrasting the blackened spice aspect with airy tart.

Duck Duck Goose (or, duck in 4 parts)

Duck Duck Goose ($36) was my preferred entree – essentially duck in four parts, from a bowl of duck confit fried rice with frozen foie gras shavings topped with duck egg, to duck soup, duck confit leg, and slices of duck meat with gooseberries. Tofu Cheesecake ($12) in coffee maple syrup with maple ice cream is a signature dish for Morimoto, but though I liked the light texture of the tofu cheesecake, it was overwhelmed by thick maple syrup. A Raspberry Wasabi Sorbet was a better finish for me, hitting strong on both key ingredients.

Beef Tartare w/ asparagus flan

Morimoto sat at the table next to us with friends, surveying the expansion of his growing restaurant empire. The GM stopped by our table to see how things were going and mentioned that Morimoto loved it so much here he was staying for a couple months. Even when the novelty of his first West Coast venture wears off (he’s opening in LA next), my initial visit, merely a week after opening, suggests that this restaurant will long remain one of downtown Napa’s destinations.

SONOMA

El Molino Central looks plucked out of LA

EL MOLINO CENTRAL – In a sea of taquerias lining Sonoma’s Highway 12, there’s a new addition I’ve been excited to tell you about that opened early Summer: El Molino Central. I pulled over after doing a double take: it looks like a charming taqueria, but reads hand-painted “tortillas… tamales… blue bottle coffee” on the side of the building. “Wait… what?”

With no dining space inside, there’s a leisurely patio out back. Inside, it’s an open kitchen where you survey self-proclaimed “Mexican street food” prepared with a high level of care and quality ingredients. They hand-grind corn masa and press tortillas in wood presses. There’s even fresh tortillas and pre-prepared dishes to heat up at home. The menu offers merely a handful of items: chilaquiles, tostadas, enchiladas and delightful tamales (I like the white corn and cheese version).

Blue Bottle drip set-up & espresso machine

What surprises is the Blue Bottle Coffee menu straight down to New Orleans’ Iced Coffee (perfect on a hot Wine Country Summer day). You can get your individual drip or a cappuccino, happily savored with a tamale made from local ingredients.

The place looks plucked out of LA with palm trees and all, but exemplifying Slow Food sensibilities. The shock is the quality level (which costs a little more than an average taqueria, though still under $10)… and the Blue Bottle. You, too, can have your Blue Bottle and homemade tamales in a Mexican food joint. Sonoma is lucky to get this lovably quirky new addition.

Pork Schnitzel Sandwich & White Corn Soup

LOKAL – Just off the Sonoma square, Lokal has been getting some love lately from SF folk like Michael Bauer. I’m in when you say Eastern European/Hungarian food, difficult to find done well anywhere, much less in Wine Country.

They won me over with shelves full of records/LPs in the dining room, then with sunny, back patio picnic tables. There’s a fine selection of beers making the patio beer garden-reminiscent. Service has it’s kinks, including a pricing discrepancy on their menu it took awhile to work out on my bill, but the food is a pleasure and is now a favored stop in downtown Sonoma.

Warm German Potato Salad

They make a mean German Potato Salad ($5), sweetened by grilled red onions, punchy with mustard, maintaining a fresh profile despite starchiness. A Summer special of White Corn Puree Soup ($3.50 a cup) is sweet and bright. Count me in on the Eva Gabor’s Pork Schnitzel Sandwich/”Rueben” ($12). You almost forget there’s no pastrami in there with a breaded pork cutlet layered with mustard and sauerkraut. There’s a satisfying savoriness here reminiscent of a great Rueben. Lightly crunchy brown bread and house pickles seal the deal.

Mondo's menu

MONDOMondo, a short drive from downtown Sonoma, has the largest beer selection in the area: 23 on tap and more by the bottle, with a little beer garden courtyard through the restaurant. A couple years ago, this was a sausage and burger joint.

White corn salad & a beer

The burgers remain but there’s also the kind of bar food that puts a grin on my face: plump Jalapeno Poppers ($7.50) oozing with cheese and shreds of carnitas (pork). There’s fatty Braised Beef Brisket Sandwich ($9.50) piled with crumbly blue cheese and shaved red onion. For a little healthy balance, try specials like Sweet White Corn Salad ($5) tossed in lime, cilantro, red peppers and red onion.

This is a welcome Wine Country respite where you can break from excess wine for beer and cheap, gourmet bar fare. 

GEYSERVILLE

Grilled Asparagus Salad w/ Farm Egg

DIAVOLA PIZZERIA – Though these gourmet charcuterie/pizza/rustic Italian spots are a ‘dime a dozen’ in SF, it still helps that in a town as tiny as Geyserville there’s one dining destination like Diavola. In a high-ceilinged, century-old storefront, brick walls, wood-burning oven and wood floors lend it a country kitchen feel by way of Italy.

Salami Platter

Kudos for being open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. There’s nothing that I haven’t seen here before but it’s all done well. Grilled Asparagus Salad ($13.75) is a Cali-farm type dish we often see done superbly in the Bay Area. Here it’s asparagus and arugula topped with pancetta, truffled Pecorino cheese and a fried egg. It’s a fine Salami & Cheese Platter ($13.75), reflecting meats they’ve been making in-house with select cheeses.

Fabulously addictive Inferno Pizza

Pizzas shine, and while the Sonja ($16) isn’t the best version of a fresh prosciutto, mascarpone and arugula pizza I’ve had, the Inferno ($15), on the other hand, is one of the best spicy pizzas ever, balanced with the sweet of roasted red peppers and tomato against hot Italian peppers.

Don’t go out of your way if you live in SF near many similar restaurants, but on your way up in this northernmost stretch of Sonoma County, it’s a worthy stop.

Written by Virginia in: Around the Bay | Tags: ,
Dec
01
2012

On the Town

11/16 Appellation Trail at CIA (Culinary Institute of America), St. Helena

2012 Flavor! Napa Valley

Photos by Virginia Miller

Flavor! Napa is a five day food and wine festival in its second year, potentially the definitive event representing the wines of the region and the chefs and restaurants that make this grouping of small towns in the countryside one of the great culinary and wine destinations in the world.

Despite some nasty rainstorms hitting the area for part of the week, festivities were many and varied, from classes and demos to dinners and galas.

Here are a few highlights this year in photos, including sessions with two of the biggest chefs in the world: Thomas Keller and Masaharu Morimoto.

My top taste at the 11/16 Appellation Trail event: an incredible chicken liver creme caramel - silky, sweet & savory - with roasted grapes & bacon from Chef Brad Farmerie at The Thomas & Fagiani's Bar

11/17 Interactive Lunch with Masaharu Morimoto who helped attendees make sushi for a three course lunch

11/17 morning session with Thomas Keller on the importance of selecting produce

Food highlight at 11/16 Appellation Trail event: Chef Richard Reddgington of Redd's confit chicken thigh in a winning chocolate orange spice mole sauce over cheddar cheese polenta with cracklins'

Appellation Trail wine highlights: 2009 Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc

Appellation Trail wine highlights: 2009 Moone-Tsai Howell Mountain Hillside Blend

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 11/17 Morimoto lunch, second course was a lush, braised black cod paired with 2011 MerSoleil SILVER Unoaked Chardonnay

Perfect dessert at 11/16 Appellation Trail from Chef Valentina Guolo-Migotto at Ca'Momi Enoteca: dreamy bigne (beignets), both Tchocolato with TCHO chocolate & latte miele, caramelized on top, filled with vanilla bean cream

Written by Virginia in: On the Town | Tags:
Jan
15
2011

Around the Bay

Best Restaurant Openings 2010,

Bay Area

In Top Tastes I list the top ten new restaurant openings of the year in San Francisco. Here I list an additional four best new Bay Area openings: one in the South Bay, two in the East Bay, one in Wine Country. In the midst of Oakland’s continued proliferation as a dining hotspot and the new downtown Napa reign of celebrity chefs from Tyler Florence to Morimoto, here are a few that rose above, in alphabetical order.

BAUME, Palo Alto

In the realm of all-senses-engaged gastronomy temples like Chicago’s Alinea or the whimsical decadence of Jose Andres The Bazaar in LA, San Francisco is shockingly lacking. We have the talent and creativity here of the best food cities in the world. But it seems at times there can be a fear of getting too experimental. Thankfully, in 2010 Chef Bruno Chemel (formerly of Chez TJ) opened Baume in a non-descript, ’70’s-looking Palo Alto building.

Baume's magical dessert spread

Yes, it’s crazy expensive (tasting menus), special occasion dining, but it stands out with well-orchestrated service and a simple but striking dining room of elegant orange and warm browns. You are teased with ingredients, like liquid nitrogen, curry, leek, seaweed, endive, then await the presentation like a gift. The best part is that Baume is not merely molecular showmanship… dishes are rich with flavor and heart. Don’t miss Chef Bruno’s 62-degree sous-vide egg. I had it with wild mushroom and Noilly Prat dry vermouth foam paired with shots of fresh celery and lime juice punctuated by roasted rosemary stalks. Currently, he’s serving the egg with lichee, lilikoi, espresso, chocolate. I’m intrigued.

GATHER, Berkeley
A December 2009 opening, Gather is the best thing to come along in Berkeley in ages. It reads typical Bay Area at first glance: local, sustainable, organic everything, from meats and veggies to spirits, wine and beer. The rounded corner room, with bustling, open space in full view of the kitchen is holistically casual and urban.

Gather's artful vegan 'charcuterie'

And, yes, everything you have heard about the raved-about vegan “charcuterie” is true. Decidedly non-vegetarian, I marvel at this artwork array of vegetables on a wood slab, five delicately-prepared (and delicious) combinations for $16. You might have roasted baby beets with shaved fennel, dill, blood orange, horseradish almond puree and pistachio as one item, then King Trumpet mushroom crudo with parsnip-pine nut sea palm risotto as another. Exec Chef Sean Baker and team do meat right, too. Whether sausage pizza with pork belly and chiles, or house-cured ham topped with crescenza cheeze and cardoon-walnut salsa, carnivores will leave happy. Gather displays an ethos and presentation one can only dream of being a standard everywhere.

PLUM, Oakland

Plum's "snacks"

Easily the best new opening in Oakland in 2010,, Daniel Patterson’s long-anticipated Plum delivers his impeccable technique in heartwarming food. Despite communal seating on uncomfortable wood stools, one is warmed by skillfully prepared food under $20. Chef Charlie Parker recently took the reigns, serving impeccably nuanced soups like ham hock & brussels sprouts or turnip apple soup with miso. Deviled eggs benefit from caperberry tarragon relish, while a rich beef cheek and oxtail burger welcomes the contrast of accompanying Autumn pickles. Patterson’s power continues to be used for gourmet good, and this time Oakland is the recipient.

FARMSTEAD, St. Helena
Farmstead may not be the most exciting restaurant to open in Wine Country in 2010 but I find it among the most satisfying. Part of Long Meadow Ranch, a welcome package of winery, poultry farm, herb garden, grass-fed beef ranch, and olive press, it’s in a modern, converted barn with fireplace, tractors and chairs on the outdoor patio. Inside it’s funky light fixtures, cavernous ceilings and leather booths.

Potted Pig at Farmstead

Their grass-fed beef is, in a word, exemplary. It makes for a decent steak, but my money goes towards the meltingly-good cheeseburger. On a house potato bun, it’s lathered with addictive mustard (they don’t skimp on the horseradish), cheddar and arugula. Order “potted” pig: tender, shredded pig packed in a mason jar with a layer of lard on top, served with toasts and that fabulous mustard. Another humane, locally-sourced restaurant, Farmstead brings a casual playfulness I don’t see often enough in Wine Country.

Written by Virginia in: Around the Bay,Best Of | Tags: , , ,

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