Apr
01
2014

Around the Bay

The brick patio of L'Auberge Carmel

The brick patio of L’Auberge Carmel where I enjoyed pre-dinner aperitifs, read books & inclusive hotel breakfast

CARMEL WEEKEND: Michelin-starred Restaurant & Romantic Hotel

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Welcome bottle of sparkling wine waiting in my room

Bottle of sparkling wine chilling in my room

Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel, a boutique hotel right in the walkable, intimate town of Carmel, is no stranger to awards. They are one of only 500 Relais & Châteaux privately owned hotel and restaurants in the world, awarded for being a standard setter in the combination of cuisine and charming hotel character. In 2013, Executive Chef Justin Cogley was named one Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs, a title that historically represents some of the best chefs in the US.

Service is impeccable at the quirky, elegant hotel. From sunken tubs to breakfast in the garden/brick patio the rooms center around, the experience is pampering.

Each of the small handful of rooms is a different layout

Each of the 20+ rooms is a different layout

Similarly, a 12 course chef’s tasting menu ($145 per person, or a shorter menu $110), with three dessert bites from Executive Pastry Chef Ron Mendoza, is a pleasure from start to finish. The meal represents the region’s wealth of seafood and produce – a common theme all over California. The menu arrives as a list of ingredients merely hinting at the tastes in store. There’s only a handful of tables so the experience is intimate and the wine pairings strong.

Through my photos, journey through L’Auberge’s property and a few of the best courses at Aubergine, a winning California getaway.

Sipping a digestif post-dinner fireside in the intimate hotel lobby

I sipped a gorgeously funky, dry 2009 Királyudvar Tokaji Pezsgo Sparkling Wine post-dinner fireside in L’Auberge’s intimate hotel lobby

Kumamoto oysters topped with caviar in dashi broth and tied up inside an oyster shell, paired with Tissot Cremant de Jura Champagne

Kumamoto oysters topped with caviar in dashi broth, tied up inside an oyster shell, paired with Tissot Cremant de Jura Champagne

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My favorite course: just wowed by black trumpet mushroom in a sheet of French sheep’s milk Ossau-Iraty cheese accented by sorrel, dotted with chicken jus and gingerbread crumble – excellent umami drink pairing of Tannenbaum Imperial Korean Rice Wine made from rice neutral grain spirit & mushroom concentrate

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Artful presentation, tender flavor: dry-aged (28 days) ribeye, with a dusting of matcha green tea powder, lined with mustard greens, radish flower, kale, turnip, puree of Chinese shallots, parsley, almonds

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Lush Monterey abalone over hijiki seaweed with artichoke & tosaka seaweed, paired with lovely, rare 2011 Herri Mina Blanc blend (Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu, Petit Manseng) from Irouléguy, France

Dessert of pear sorbet over chocolate crumbs, topped with a celery leaf, next to walnut croquant & chocolate cremeaux

Dessert of pear sorbet over chocolate crumbs, topped with a celery leaf, next to walnut croquant & chocolate cremeaux

Lovely L'Auberge

Romantic L’Auberge

L'Auberge at dusk

L’Auberge at dusk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cookies & milk await in your room at night

Cookies & milk await in your room at night

Good night

Good night

Modern tub, old fashioned windows looking out over Carmel rooftops

Modern tub, old fashioned windows

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mar
01
2014

Around the Bay

View of the Mayacamas Mountains from St. Francis Winery lawn

View of the Mayacamas Mountains from St. Francis Winery lawn

Sonoma’s Unsung Tasting Menu “Steal”

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

ST. FRANCIS WINERY & VINEYARDS, 100 N. Pythian Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95409

A peaceful garden surrounding a statue of St. Francis with his beloved animals (namesake of the winery and the city of San Francisco)

Peaceful garden surrounding a statue of St. Francis with his beloved animals (namesake of the winery & San Francisco)

Consider it the unsung “steal” of a tasting menu on the idyllic grounds of St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in Santa Rosa. For a mere $50 including wine pairings, Executive Chef David Bush (previously of The Girl & the Fig) creates an imaginative menu roughly every six weeks or so. The menu is lunch only; on Fridays-Sundays there are three seatings each afternoon.

Dining room for St. Francis' lunches

Dining room for St. Francis’ lunches

It’s an intimate number of less than 20 people, allowing for interactive conversation with the chef and wine staff about pairings and food in an expansive dining room gazing out at the Mayacamas Mountains.

Here’s a photo journey through each of course of my winter visit where the value and quality of the food impressed (reservations here):

My favorite course: Red curry-braised squashes with kale falafel (instead of parsley), fried cashews, baby kale, minted yogurt paired with 2012 Viognier that spent 7 months in French oak ($24)

My favorite course: red curry-braised squash with kale falafel (instead of parsley), fried cashews, baby kale, minted yogurt paired with a 2012 Viognier that spent 7 months in French oak ($24 per bottle)

Mushroom ricotta agnolotti with seared oyster and crimini (?) mushrooms, pickled red onions, mache, shaved Grana Padano paired with 2011 Cuvee, a blend of 57% Cabernet and 43% Syrah; they haven't released this wine in a couple years and it's only sold at the winery ($40) - surprisingly light and acidic

Mushroom ricotta agnolotti with seared mushrooms, pickled red onions, mache, shaved Grana Padano cheese paired with a surprisingly light, acidic 2011 Cuvee (blend of 57% Cabernet & 43% Syrah; only sold at the winery; $40)

Bouillabaisse fish and shellfish of the day: bluenose seabass, mussels, calamari, shrimp, fingerling potatoes, fennel fronds with grilled crostini in piquillo pepper, garlic, olive oil, potato rouille paired with 2010 Cabernet Franc ($45) - vanilla, berry, oak

Bouillabaisse of fish & shellfish of the day (bluenose seabass, mussels, calamari, shrimp), fingerling potatoes, fennel fronds with grilled crostini smeared with a gorgeous spicy-bright piquillo pepper, garlic, olive oil, potato rouille paired with an oaky 2010 Cabernet Franc ($45)

Grilled bavette of beef, bloomsdale spinach in sesame miso vinaigrette, baby turnips, garlic chips, truffled ponzu with 2010 Amann Vineyard Zin ($45) and 2011 Anacleto Old Vine Zin ($40)

Grilled bavette of beef, bloomsdale spinach in sesame miso vinaigrette, baby turnips, garlic chips, truffled ponzu paired with 2010 Amann Vineyard Zinfandel ($45) & 2011 Anacleto Old Vine Zinfanedel ($40)

Chef's seasonal cheese selection (blue cheese) and peanut butter mousse, dark chocolate ganache, red wine soaked blueberries, pretzel crunch (streusel) with 2011 Port (Cabernet, Merlot, Alicante Bouschet) distilled at St. George/Hangar One

Dessert course: chef’s seasonal cheese selection and a peanut butter mousse with dark chocolate ganache, red wine-soaked blueberries, topped with pretzel crunch/streusel paired with 2011 Port (a Cabernet, Merlot, Alicante Bouschet blend) distilled at St. George/Hangar One in Alameda, CA

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Feb
15
2014

Around the Bay

Views from the new Luna Blu in Tiburon

Views from the new Luna Blu in Tiburon

WHERE to EAT NOW: MARIN

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

M.H. Bread & Butter

M.H. Bread & Butter

Suburbs, nature, charming main streets… family-heavy Marin has always had a few culinary gems. But a spare few of them though sandwiched between one of the great food cities of the world and the gustatory pleasures of Napa and Sonoma.

Bakeries like Beth’s Community Kitchen in Mill Valley are reminiscent of San Francisco bakeries (what is now standard Bay Area), while San Rafael’s Ponsford’s Place is a bread and pastry lover’s destination. Just open since June 2013, M.H. Bread & Butter in San Anselmo is the latest and greatest in Marin bakeries, doing classics like quiche and almond croissants right, alongside cookies, traditional French cakes and breads.

New openings and new chefs continue to pop up, some – like those below – worth crossing the bridge for.

Sausalito

SUSHI RAN, 107 Caledonia St, Sausalito, 415-332-3620

Coconut soup

Coconut soup

Amid relative newcomers like Pizzeria Rossetti and Barrel House Tavern, the longtime great Sausalito restaurant, Sushi Ran, recently promoted executive sushi chef Taka Toshi to master chef alongside Executive Chef Scott Whitman. Mitsunori “Nori” Kusakabe, sushi chef since 2004, left in December to open a kaiseki restaurant, Kusakabe, in SF’s Financial District in the former Machka space.

While I am thrilled to see Kusakabe come to the city, I’m delighted to say, having recently returned to Sushi Ran – one of my all-time top sushi restaurants – that it’s still shining with Chefs Whitman and Toshi, under the same ownership of Yoshi Tome.

Vegetable tasting

Vegetable tasting

Ten piece sashimi platters ($32.50) or six piece sushi ($19.50) are sustainable “when possible” and pristine. Rolls/maki are not an afterthought, whether an elevated creamy scallop roll ($10.50) or the crisp of a spicy soft shell crawfish maki ($13.50), enhanced by cucumber, Japanese 7-spice, spicy crab and crawfish legs dramatically kicking out of the top.

Squid

Grilled squid

Non-sushi items are just as much a highlight as raw fish. A cup of corn coconut soup ($4/8), lush with red crab, chive and truffle, goes down like silk. In fine winter form, Fuyu persimmons ($9) are a sweet contrast over crisp kale, marcona almonds, shaved radish, and creamy hunks of Point Reyes Toma cheese.

Wagyu beef carpaccio in wasabi oil

Wagyu beef carpaccio in wasabi oil

Grilled squid ($13) is a bit of revelation, served in a form I haven’t not seen before. A fat tentacle is cut in segments, standing tall like a tower, topped with a grilled sliver of lemon, surrounded by mounds of smoked citrus sabayon (an egg yolk sauce) dusted with pepper powder. This dish stands out, but surprisingly, so do vegetables (generally $7). A vegetable tasting ($12) is the best way to try three of them at once: spiced roasted cauliflower, kale tossed with dates and puffed rice, and kimchee brussels sprouts. Each is spanking fresh, alive with flavor. This is the way to eat your veggies.

Sush Ran’s sake book is extensive and impressive with helpful tasting notes and categorizations. Try unusual beauties like the uniquely funky Amabuki Sunflower by Amabuki Shuzo made with sunflower yeast. Or there’s a dry, clean, almost spring mountain water-esque junmai sake, Man’s Mountain by Oto Koyama. To finish, I love the umami richness of Kiminoi “Emperor’s Well” yamahai junmai ginjo sake.

Sushi Ran's crawfish maki

Sushi Ran’s crawfish maki

F3, 39 Caledonia St. Sausalito, 415-887-9047

Mousse

Chicken liver mousse

Even if the food at Le Garage Bistro never blew me away, the open air patio and water views always felt quintessential Sausalito. From the same owners as Le Garage and L’Appart Resto, Fast Food Francais, aka F3, may be the most realized of the three in terms of the food. It may be “just” a burger restaurant but with additional dishes showcasing French cooking technique, Vespa delivery to locals, friendly service, and solid wine list in a casual space that formerly housed Plate Shop, it’s fast become a town favorite that comforts without sacrificing quality.

Flinstone burger

Flinstone burger

The burger list ($9-14) is certainly a draw, particularly with the likes of the Flinstone, a juicy, bacon aioli and shallot confit-smothered burger, decadently partnered with bone marrow. It’s ideal smeared across the bun. Crispy, shredded duck confit makes up the Quack burger, perky with black pepper chèvre cheese and red onion marmalade.

F3 Cocktails

F3 Cocktails

The Herbivore actually keeps up with those two on its own terms: a flavor-rich patty of French lentils and jasmine rice, subtly spiced with ras el hanout (North African spice mix), marked by yogurt, apple compote and frisée.

All beef used is organic grass fed, lamb is natural in the lamb burger, and a mountain of Brussels sprout chips ($6) dipped in buttermilk are as gratifying as the better versions of fried Brussels leaves elsewhere over the years.

Cocktails are soft and catered towards a suburban crowd with toned-down or thankfully subtle fruit flavors. There’s a range of local and French wines to choose from and a few French-ified starters and small plates like a lush chicken liver mousse ($10) over rustic bread, happily given contrast from sweet golden raisins, pickled red onions and cornichons.

Celebrating it’s one year anniversary this Valentine’s Day, this could be the place to last in a space that has seen a lot of turnover.

LUNA BLU, 35 Main St., Tiburon, 415-789-5844

Outside on Luna Blu's deck

Outside on Luna Blu’s deck

Open barely a month, Luna Blu is not so much about the food as about that stellar Tiburon view over boats and docks, across the Bay to San Francisco. Thankfully, the food isn’t cause for suffering as some unnamed Tiburon restaurants can be. It’s straightforward Italian with “red sauce” dishes like Eggplant Parmigiana ($16) given a “healthy” touch from a smattering of crisp, green peas, or ravioli ($18) filled with pear, decadent in Asiago cheese and walnut cream sauce.

Eggplant parm

Eggplant parm

Though I long for more authentic Sicilian dishes from Taormina-born chef Renzo Azzarello, the warm welcome exuded by Chef Azzarello and his wife, Crystal (from Oxford, England), makes an impression. The two of them came to and fell in love with Tiburon on their honeymoon. They’re back, putting down roots with their own restaurant set to stellar, only-in-the-Bay-Area views.

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Nov
01
2013

Around the Bay

Goose & Gander's Pisco Sour Brava with Encanto Pisco

Goose & Gander’s Pisco Sour Brava with Encanto Pisco

WINE COUNTRY Bitters & Cocktails

Photos & Article by Virginia Miller

It gets easier and easier to find an elevated cocktail in Wine Country, besides the superb cocktails at Healdsburg’s Spoonbar and Campo Fina or gratifying refreshers at The Thomas (Fagiani’s) in downtown Napa. Here are a few recent cocktail highlights and one top-notch bitters shop:

Bitters Heaven

NAPA VALLEY DISTILLERY’s Bitters Shop, Napa

NVD's charming bitters & barware shop

NVD’s bitters & barware shop

Tiny Napa Valley Distillery (the first licensed distillery in Napa since Prohibition) makes vodka from Sauvignon Blanc grapes, bottled cocktails with retro labeling, and soon-to-be-released Hollywood Gin, while they age experimental brandies and whiskies. Husband/wife owners, Arthur and Lusine Hartunian, are also collectors of gorgeous vintage glassware, cocktail accoutrement, books, and bitters, which they sell in their Oxbow Market shop.

NVD's barrel-aged, bottled cocktails

NVD’s barrel-aged, bottled cocktails

I’ve not seen a bitters collection like this anywhere, including The Meadow in NYC, a lovely shop with a thorough bitters selection for purchase but none to taste. Not only is the Hartunian’s collection the most extensive and filled with rarities, but best of all, almost all bitters are available to taste. It’s a rare offer: the chance to “try before you buy” from fascinating, hard-to-find bitters, like AZ Bitters Lab meaty, spicy “Mas Mole”.

The shop elevates Oxbow to new heights and is just the sort of place I wish was in San Francisco.

A Break from Wine: Cocktails

CHALKBOARD, Healdsburg (Sonoma County)

Chalkboard cocktails

Chalkboard cocktails

In the former, legendary Cyrus space, Chalkboard is Healdsburg’s bustling, convivial new hotspot with a strong bar and spirits collection. Alongside intriguing small plates like roasted baby carrots ($7) over caraway yogurt, accented by sesame seed brittle and dill, or maple-glazed pork belly biscuits ($10) with chipotle mayo, sip cocktails ($10) like War of the Roses, a twist on a Whiskey Sour with lemon, egg white, and subtle cherry-infused Cyrus Noble bourbon.

Smoke ‘n Mirrors exhibits soft smoke from Don Amado plato mezcal, perked up by layers of green: jalapeno, cilantro and lime. My favorite on the initial menu is the Ballyhoo cocktail, a fine showcase of Brazilian cachaca. A tart strawberry ice stick slowly dissolves in the cocktail, balanced by basil, lime and a black pepper rim. It’s savory, sweet and garden-fresh.

If you crave wine (it is Wine Country, after all), Chalkboard offers international and local flights, featuring wineries like Banshee ($17.50 flight includes 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, 2011 Pinot, 2010 Mordecai), who just opened a tasting room off the Healdsburg square.

MERCANTILE SOCIAL at ANDAZ NAPA, Napa (Napa County)

Ukiah Sour

Ukiah Sour

The Mercantile Social bar at the Andaz Napa hotel was a welcome addition to the Valley the moment the hotel became an Andaz property in 2012. I’ve visited a few times since and it’s one of Napa’s stronger cocktail bars, displaying the rich produce of the region.

With a focused collection of mostly Northern California spirits, they showcase locally imported Tapatio Blanco tequila in a Ukiah Sour #3 ($12), herbaceous with bay leaf syrup, tart with lime, given earthy complexity from Tempus Fugit’s gorgeous crème de cacao. Local Blade Gin from Old World Spirits is put to sprightly, green use in a Sage Tom Collins ($12), blessed with lime, sage and citrus bitters.

Their lovely cocktails go well with heartwarming bar bites like cheesy queso fundido with chorizo ($7).

GOOSE & GANDER, St. Helena (Napa County)

Painkiller

Painkiller

Scott Beattie, Michael Pazdon and crew continue to craft gorgeous drinks at atmospheric Goose & Gander, a cozy basement bar below a restaurant in a historic St. Helena house, surrounded by an outdoor garden/patio.

Recent cocktail loves (at arguably the best bar in the county) include a Pisco Sour Brava ($11), a frothy egg white cocktail featuring Encanto Acholado pisco and Oro Italia pisco, tart/sweet with pür Spice (blood orange liqueur), lime juice and bitters.

Their dreamy version of classic Tiki drink, the Painkiller ($11), gains funky complexity from Appleton and Smith & Cross rums, creamy with Pazdon’s coconut cream, lively with lime, pineapple, orange and fresh nutmeg. In typical Beattie/Pazdon fashion, the floral garnish turns the drink into art.

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Oct
15
2013

Around the Bay

Flowers growing on Jordan Winery's farm

Flowers growing on Jordan Winery’s farm

Napa & Sonoma: EDIBLE ADVENTURES

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Jordan Winery food pairings

Jordan Winery food pairings

Late summer and harvest season have brought me to Sonoma and Napa for numerous excursions. Fall is my favorite season and time of year in Wine Country as vineyard leaves transform from green to blazing reds, yellows and oranges.

Here are a few fall ideas – unusual tours and quality Mexican food (plus mezcal and tequila, when you need a wine break!) – for weekend or day trips to one of our great treasures: Wine Country.

SommFor an insider look at the agony of becoming a master sommelier and a better understanding of the dedication I often witness behind the scenes in cooking, wine, spirits and beer, watch the documentary film, Somm (just out on DVD in September; available for download on iTunes).

Wine & Food Tours

JORDAN WINERY, Healdsburg

A stay at Jordan Winery is magical, with its Bordeaux-influenced chateau and clear focus on only two varietals since 1976: Chardonnay and Cabernet.

Jordan's farm

Jordan’s farm

Jordan is a family affair with their enchanting grounds, farm, animals and vineyards. All this is now accessible to the public via a just-launched estate tour and tasting ($120) that is about so much more than wine.

I partook in a preview before the three-hour tour launched in September (it runs through November, starting again in the new year – reserve here), exploring the estate, sampling Jordan wines and olive oil, walking through their edible garden, meeting farm animals, and eating the estate chef’s generous array of artful bites both lakeside and from a 360-degree hilltop vista.

GLORIA FERRER, Sonoma

Picking grapes in the early morning light

Picking grapes in the early morning light

Visiting Gloria Ferrer this September, I awoke while it was still dark to pick grapes for their famed sparkling wine on a clear Carneros morning.

Years ago, I took a tour of GF, the first sparkling house built in Carneros in the 1980’s. As I learn even more of their operation, I’m most impressed by their over 25 year dedication to extensively studying clones and grapes from Champagne, France, replanted in California soil, learning what works best here for sparkling wines. They generously share their studies and decades of research with the region to improve Nor Cal sparkling wines across the board.

A range of Gloria Ferrer tours are available here.

Wine, cheese & charcuterie break after picking grapes at Gloria Ferrer

Wine, cheese & charcuterie break after picking grapes at Gloria Ferrer

HALL Wines, St. Helena

Restored 19th century barn at St. Helena location

Restored 19th century barn at St. Helena location

The idyllic grounds of HALL Wines in Rutherford – opened in 2005 from wife/husband, Kathryn and Craig Hall – are peacefully perched hillside in a winery originally founded in 1885. The Halls collect and display modern art sculptures and paintings around the grounds, while a large terrace looks out over invigorating Valley views.

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Swarovski chandelier

For parties and private tastings, it is hard to top their atmospheric, cool wine caves built by hand with Austrian bricks. Most impressive is a stunning Swarovski crystal tree chandelier over a massive table buried further into the caves.

While the Rutherford location tours are by appointment, Hall plans to open their massive new visitors center right off Highway 29 in St. Helena in 2014. I did a hard hat tour of the site this summer, an impressive array of buildings, both modern and historic (like a gorgeous, restored barn and a massive structure overlooking vineyards which will hold cooking demo classrooms and tasting rooms), an edible garden, an outdoor concert facility, and more. It’s going to be the winery to visit next year in Napa.

Hall's wine caves hand-built with Austrian bricks

HALL’s wine caves hand-built with Austrian bricks, Rutherford

Mexican Food Break

Carnitas platter

Carnitas platter

LA CONDESA, St. Helena

La Condesa is first and foremost the county’s best tequila/mezcal selection offering a range of cocktails and agave spirits in a winning bar program overseen by Eric Schulz.

While basics like guacamole ($15 for the tasting of all guacs) and some salsas are surprisingly bland, there’s plenty to love on the food menu.

Queso fundido

Queso fundido

They serve one of the best queso fundidos ($10) around, oozing with Mexican cheeses, housemade wild boar chorizo and poblano rajas, sprinkled with pepitas (pumpkin seeds). Gourmet tacos come two per order in a range of meats and vegetables ($9-13 for two), while they make a mean entree ($13/18) of Snake River Farms carnitas (in this case, pork shoulder confit) partnered with white rice, black beans and avocado.

Save room for dessert as house ice creams are one of the best items here ($3 per scoop). Executive Chef Chris Mortenson experiments with fascinating flavors I wish I could take home, like ghost pepper sour, mint cilantro chip, Pt. Reyes blue cheese, apple crema tequila, avocado coconut curry and ever-popular brown sugar banana.

LA TAQUIZA, Napa

Taquiza tacos

Taquiza tacos

The best “fast food” tacos in Napa? In a suburban strip mall, La Taquiza may serve the best fish tacos in Napa, whether Baja-style (fried, breaded) or grilled ($3.65-3.95). As a huge octopus fan, I was disappointed in chewy octopus tacos. But on the fish taco side, an obsession of mine since So Cal youth, theirs stand up. Check for daily taco specials and pair with daily changing agua frescas ($2.50), like a vivacious watermelon.

La Condesa's extensive tequila and mezcal bar

La Condesa’s extensive tequila and mezcal bar

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Written by in: Around the Bay | Tags: ,
Oct
01
2013

Around the Bay

Rooms in the Citizen Hotel - chic, playful design with classic political cartoons

Chic, playful design in the Citizen Hotel rooms

EDIBLE SACRAMENTO

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Under the white lights on Enotria's patio

Under the white lights on Enotria’s patio

Sac Town, our California Gold Country capital… known for its politics, surrounded by the boundless produce of inland California which us city dwellers richly benefit from. It’s a town I stop to dine in on the way to or from Tahoe but have only stayed the weekend in a couple times, despite its close proximity to San Francisco. Here’s my slideshow article on Sacramento highlights for PureWow.

A recent revisit meant I trekked to at least eight spots a day, combing the city’s restaurants, bars, coffee houses and more. It’s nice to see the town embracing its agricultural surroundings in farm-to-table restaurants mapping out nearby farms (as at Hock Farm) or showcasing seasonal wealth on your plate (at Grange). Read more about the drink scene here.

Citizen Hotel lobby

Citizen Hotel lobby

Getting the worst out of the way, there was an appalling four spots in one weekend (far more than I experience in frequent trips around the world or at home) where service was lackluster to downright bad. In fact, for those I bothered to give a second chance to (something I typically cannot do, particularly when visiting eight places in a day), service only improved when meeting with a manager. A warm welcome, if not knowledgeable, engaged service, should be standard in raved-about places.

Compared to what we’re surrounded by in San Francisco, Sac might not (at first glance) seem to be making waves. But it’s a town that has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. Though you might see trends (gourmet donuts & hipster, third wave coffee, etc.) that have long been established in other cities, Sac seems to be finding that sweet spot of embracing the bounty surrounding it and expressing it straightforwardly, or in the case of restaurants like Enotria, elevating it. Food and drink aficionados can find plenty to satiate here, graced with a California heartland freshness.

Restaurants

ENOTRIA

Beef tartare at Enotria

Beef tartare at Enotria

Enotria may be the biggest surprise in Sacramento. Fine dining wonders await in a casual, open air patio strung with white lights or inside a minimalist dining room (the larger, event-sized dining room and the bar feel just a bit sterile).

Executive Chef Pajo Bruich wows with dishes you’d expect to find at a Michelin-starred restaurant, more exciting than the menu belies ($75 for 5 courses, $105 for 7, add wine pairing for $75). After the meal is through, you’ll still be dreaming about house breads (brought out intermittently through the meal): pain au lait (milk bread), pretzel bread, bacon challah, all accompanied by Straus cow (with a bit of goat) house butter subtly tinged with maple syrup, dotted with volcanic sea salt.

Cocktails at Enotria

Cocktails at Enotria

Dishes are also available a la carte ($12-37), where you might experience a playful twist on a classic like Niman Ranch beef tartare enlivened by horseradish dippin’ dots (icy pearls) and mustard, or chicken liver that has been cooked then pureed in a thermomix, converted to foam via an ISI soda siphon, then frozen via liquid nitrogen. Soft, cool liver remains, delicate over pistachio sponge cake, punctuated with compressed pluots and celery dippin’ dots (as you can see, dippin’ dot-like pearls are big here).

Scrapple

Scrapple

Expect mind-blowing on occasion. It happened with thinly shaved cow tongue (you haven’t had tongue like this) brined 48 hours, then given the sous vide treatment 24 hours, accented by banana, coconut, sesame oil powder, pearls of Fresno chili, pickled peanuts and serranos over crushed black puffed rice.

Other notable dishes included potato-less gnocchi (made with flour), savory with hen of the woods maitake mushrooms and black truffles, paired with a 2009 Don Michele Moganazzi, Etna Rosso, Sicilian wine which unfolds with salty earthiness. There’s a fabulous interpretation of scrapple paired with Duchesse de Bourgogne Belgian red ale. Their version of the Pennsylvania Dutch classic loaf of pork scraps and flour is made of pork skin, shoulder and trotters pureed into a loaf with cornmeal over brioche, given sweet contrast from plum mostarda.

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Palate cleanser

A palate cleanser of cucumber serrano sorbet over crème fraiche custard was more exciting than the two desserts I tried, including a corn panna cotta log, due to a proliferation of white chocolate (and therefore sugar rush) in the visually striking desserts. The refreshing, green sorbet was so much more than a palate cleanser, vividly tart with lime confit, tropical with coconut puree, herbaceous with mint vermicelli noodles, reminiscent of noodles in Middle Eastern/South Asian dessert faloodeh/falooda.

Enotria bar

Enotria bar

Wine pairings by Tyler Stacy are impeccable, and cocktails ($12) by Russell Eastman surprise, employing savory elements. Electric Relaxation mixes tequila blanco, Lillet Blanc, mezcal (for a hint of smokiness), lemon and thyme with a vibrant blueberry-white pepper shrub, resulting in a lively drink, alive with flavor. A Salvador Dali of gin, Campari, lemon, lemongrass and sesame, is blessedly heavy on the sesame, almost textural with it, though I didn’t really get any lemongrass.

Scallop dish

Scallop dish

Though the restaurant has been open over 15 years, Chef Bruich has been there just under a year and brought an entirely new direction to the menu from what it was before. He’s one to watch, bringing a delicious inventiveness not always reached in many cities, much less a smaller one.

If the dishes sound fussy or too molecular, they’re not. In fact, the restaurant veers away from revealing just how gourmet it is with straightforward menu descriptions and comfortable service – which makes it all the more a pleasure for those paying attention. In many restaurants, experimental, artful dishes don’t always equal deliciousness. More than once during my meal did visual beauty translate into edible wow factor. For quality of unusual dishes alone, this is one not to miss.

GRANGE

Grange charcuterie

Grange charcuterie

In retro-chic Citizen Hotel, Grange is one of the best restaurants in town, walking a fine line of upscale/inventive and relaxed/fun. Executive Chef Olive Ridgeway fills local candy stripe figs with burrata cheese covered in roasted pistachios, or dries tomatoes to raisin-like effect (deeming them tomazins), served alongside fresh Watanabe heirloom tomatoes ($13) over watermelon squares layered with feta puree, cucumber and kalamata salt.

Watermelon & candy stripe figs

Watermelon & candy stripe figs

Savory suckling pig ($27) feels oh-so-California with hominy, lime, corn, avocado, Napa cabbage and radishes in a spicy pork broth. House charcuterie ($15/25 platters) is a highlight, with the likes of coppa encrusted in cacao or orange coriander pork.

On my visit, I was lucky a rare cut of akaushi (the red breed of Wagyu beef) was in. Smoked on almond wood, accompanied by Oregon chanterelles and beef fat potatoes over horseradish, the tender, medium-rare meat with perfect outer char was a revelation. It was ideally paired with acidic, subtly smoky dark fruit of a 2008 Jeff Runquist Tannat. Cocktails from Bar Manager Ryan Seng are likewise a highlight (see my Sacramento drink article).

LOWBRAU

Cocktails & brats at LowBrau

Cocktails & brats at LowBrau

Hipster Germanic fare it is, but what sets LowBrau apart from other such artisan sausage and craft beer joints around the country is damn good sausages on pretzel buns, killer sauces (they perfect curry ketchup), and alongside the beers, the addition of elegant cocktails, and an impressive collection of rare herbal liqueurs (Schwartzhog, Killepitsch, Rossbacher) and eaux de vie (Schladerer Himbeer Liqueur, Schonauer Apfel, Freihof Marile Apricot brandy) from Austria, Switzerland, Germany. There’s cocktails ($9) and beer cocktails ($7) – like Zimmerman Plan, giving smoky Del Maguey Vida Mezcal a kick of refreshing lime, orange juice, cilantro simple syrup, jalapeno and a fizzy splash of Hefewiezen. There’s also rare beers from Copenhagen or hot US craft beers such as Prairie Ales.

Spacious LowBrau

Spacious LowBrau

A beef-pork hot link ($6.50) is flavorful with cayenne and garlic, there’s wild Boar-sherry-wine-sage sausage ($7.25), Polish, bockwurst, bratwurst, frankfurter, smoked chicken and vegan sausages on sweet or pretzel rolls with two toppings of choice, including sauerkraut, caramelized onions, sweet peppers or bier cheese sauce. I’ve had better duck fat fries ($3.50) over the years (these are just a bit bland) but dipping sauces are addictive, whether pimento aioli or creamy garlic chive.

Kru Sacramento - Virginia Miller

Sashimi “tapas”

KRU

Though suffering from disinterested service behind the sushi bar and the typical excess of sauces I often find at sushi joints outside of major cities known for sushi (which would make many a Japanese sushi master cringe), there’s creative vision inflecting the menu at Kru.

Try to tune out the smooth jazz soundtrack as you savor late summer goodness in an heirloom tomato salad with chunks of bright albacore tuna sashimi ($14). It’s heavy in miso mustard vinaigrette but the tomatoes and fish are ultra-fresh, accented by touches of chili oil powder and pink Himalayan sea salt.

Heirloom tomatoes & albacore tuna

Heirloom tomatoes & albacore tuna

It’s a pleasure to see thinly shaved beef tongue ($10) on the menu… until a thick pool of wasabi mustard aioli overwhelms delicate cuts of tongue, grazed with sea salt ponzu foam.

Sashimi tapas ($23) change each day and some are (again) too heavily sauced, but the dish is visually colorful and at times hits a fine unison of taste between sauce, roe, fish and fresh herbs. You might be served walu, tempura shrimp, albacore tuna, BBQed albacore or kanpachi on the platter, in varied preparations, which shine best raw or as tempura.

HOCK FARM CRAFT & PROVISIONS

Hock Farm's playful-chic decor

Hock Farm’s playful-chic decor

New Hock Farm Craft & Provisions, serves farm-fresh food sourced from nearby farms – far from a unique concept (think ubiquitous gourmet deviled eggs, fried green tomato BLTs, etc.), but it’s well-executed and comforting, the menu featuring a map highlighting the wealth of nearby produce and animal sources.

What most impressed in this spacious, welcoming restaurant was Bar Manager/Managing Partner Brad Peters’ cocktails. Delightful “bubbled and bottled” cocktails ($9) are straightforward, like a house cream soda effervescent with Papa’s Pilar rum.

Chocolate, Sandwiches, Spirits

Corti Brothers

Corti Brothers

CORTI BROTHERS

From the exterior, Corti Brothers looks like a grocery left over from a forgotten era in a nondescript area of Sacramento. Besides boasting an old school deli (take a number and expect a bit of wait) churning out hearty sandwiches (like sweet Italian sausage and peppers in the Da Vinci), Corti surprises with solid beer and wine sections and an unexpectedly dense spirits selection – one of the best in the state after greats like Cask in San Francisco or Hi-Time in So Cal. While this is a grocery store and not a liquor store, there’s an impressive array of small batch spirits, amari from Italy, Eastern European liqueurs and other rarities one would not ever expect to find in a place like this.

GE hot chocolate tins

GE hot chocolate tins

GINGER ELIZABETH

I’ve long enjoyed Ginger Elizabeth‘s chocolate bars purchased at San Francisco shops like The Candy Store. A Sacramento staple, these celebrated chocolates (bars, truffles, lovely drinking chocolate) are a draw at her shop but she sells an equal amount of macarons – I particularly love spiced maple blueberry filled with blueberry jam. I didn’t get to try GE’s ice cream but it’s available by the scoop, in creative sundaes, or in ice cream sandwiches.

With European training and heavy use of classic Valrhona chocolate from the Rhone Valley, France, it’s good news that Ginger Elizabeth is about to expand into a larger space this October where she will offer classes, tastings and more events to engage the public in all things chocolate.

Sleep

THE CITIZEN HOTEL

Downtown boutique gem, The Citizen Hotel, honors its 1800’s building with historic decor, while keeping a playful politico-meets-Old World elegance vibe. Velvet red and blue couches and books line the lobby, rooms are tasteful in blacks, creams, greys and reds accented by framed political cartoons, while the hotel houses one of Sac’s best restaurants and bars, Grange.

Citizen Hotel lobby

Citizen Hotel lobby

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Written by in: Around the Bay | Tags:
Sep
15
2013

Around the Bay

Possibly the best pizza in Marin? (at Farmshop)

Farmshop: the best pizza in Marin?

WHERE to EAT NOW: MARIN

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Farm Fresh Dining

FARMSHOP, Larkspur (2233 Larkspur Landing Circle, 415-755-6700)

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Fresh heirloom tomatoes

A modern day farmshop… the beloved LA restaurant, Farmshop, opened in 2010, and then, to be closer to the farmers from which they meticulously source much of their produce in Northern California, they opened a Larkspur location in May 2013. It’s suburban-chic, set in an open air, upscale shopping mall with outdoor patio, spacious dining room near an open hearth and bustling kitchen, and a long, sleek bar. And it’s all a short jaunt from the ferry.

Lounge area off the bar

Lounge area off the bar

Quality, seasonal ingredients stand out, like perfect heirloom tomatoes ($7.50) tossed with anchovy bread crumbs in a salsa criolla, or a wood fired California tomatoes pizza ($15) dotted with ramini mozzarella di bufala, Parmesan, basil, olive oil and sea salt. I’ve long appreciated Pizzeria Picco – this may join (or even surpass) as the best pizza in Marin County.

While I’ve faced a miss here (manchini spaghetti busta with overly funky sea urchin), twists on basic staples like hummus are interesting, their version being made from Rancho Gordo green chickpeas ($12) contrasted by pickled bing cherries and black sesame seeds. Strengths are apparent in simplicity, letting impeccable produce shine.

Currens' cocktails

Currens’ cocktails

Bar Manager Amy Currens succeeds in making Farmshop one of the best places to drink in a county with few options for the cocktail/spirits aficionado. She sources local California spirits in cocktails like a vibrant First Sunday ($13), mixing St. George’s Botanivore gin, absinthe verte, lemon and thyme, or pouring fascinating, small label, local wines like 2012 Bedrock “Ode to Lulu” ($11), a Mourvèdre, Carignane, Grenache blend from Sonoma. On a hot day, a silky Lamill (from LA) organic masala chai latte ($6) is ideal iced, alive with Indian assam, cinnamon, ginger, green cardamom.

BELCAMPO MEAT, Larkspur (2405 Larkspur Landing Circle, 415-448-5810)

Belcampo's butcher shop

Belcampo’s butcher shop

Launching in 2012, Belcampo is the sort of business model all restaurants and food shops would have in an idealized world: its own sustainable system of farms supplying organic produce and humanely treated animals.

Farms in Belize, Uruguay and Nor Cal supply their impeccable butcher shop, while they make and grow their own olive oil, coffee, cacao, grapes and cattle.

Homey touches in a sleek, modern space

Homey touches in a  modern space

In their Larkspur restaurant, butcher and gourmet foods shop (the same complex housing Farmshop), simple and seasonal dishes work best, like an heirloom bean and avocado salad ($6) mixed with roasted peppers, basil, olive oil. Sourcing their own animals, they are heavy on the meat with burgers, pulled pork, chili con carne, French Dip and juicy pork-beef meatballs ($12) in tomato cream sauce.  Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Belcampo marries casual with impeccablehigh quality.

Mediterranean & Thai Perfection

KABABBQ, San Rafael (555 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, 415-256-9878)

KabaBBQ

KabaBBQ

Casual Persian/Iranian food with California fresh ingredients? In Marin this combo is found at KabaBBQ, easily the best Mediterranean food in Marin.

Right off the 101 freeway in a nondescript strip mall, the dining room is soothing, pleasant, and turns out wraps worth grabbing on a drive north to Wine Country. I’m partial to Ali’s Special wrap ($8), packed with hummus, feta, tomatoes, greens and herbs, tahini paste and hot sauce.

Soothing space

Soothing space

While I find salads underwhelming, there’s a range of pleasing kabob platters ($11-20), from lamb leg to Cornish hen. I was strangely drawn to a simple Persian burger ($5), even when multiple koobideh (Iranian minced meat kabab of ground lamb and beef) kept falling out of a soft sesame bun. The burger is topped only with mayo, lettuce, tomato and raw onion, but somehow the whole is oddly gratifying.

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Arun’s crispy trout salad

ARUN THAI, Novato (385 Bel Marin Keys Blvd., Novato, 415-883-8017)

Noodles

Drunken noodles

Arun is one of the more creative Thai restaurants in the entire Bay Area. Authentic Thai restaurants are a dime a dozen in San Francisco, but what I like about Arun, nondescript in ultra-suburban Novato, is that the Thai owners offer welcome twists and interpretations of the traditional, inspired after shopping in local farmers markets, while remaining loyal to regional Thai flavors.

It’s refreshing to move beyond the expected into vibrantly flavorful daily specials like Holy Fishcake! ($9), cakes of lady fish, house curry paste, kaffir limes leaves, green beans and Thai holy basil, a rare basil only available in Summer. The clincher is a vivid, perky kaffir lime sauce to drizzle over the cakes.

Holy Fishcake!

Holy Fishcake!

I wish a special of crispy trout salad ($14) could be a regular fixture. A whole, deboned trout is lightly fried, crispy over generous mixed greens, cashews, and Thai herbs. Again, what I value most is the no-holds-barred approach to flavor. Instead of a demure salad or bland fish, it’s well executed and of quality in its own right, but pops in a dressing alive with lemongrass and kaffir lime.

While popular drunken noodles ($8.50-14, depending on meat/seafood chosen) were a bit oily and not as gratifying as many Thai noodle dishes from my months in Thailand or at my favorite Thai restaurants nationwide, unique specials are the reason to go here. Another memorable special might be a generous salmon filet ($16) in yellow curry laden with potato, carrot, onion, and sweet cherry tomatoes.

Juice It

URBAN REMEDY, San Rafael (1904 4th St., San Rafael, 415-786-8011; and a new location in Mill Valley, 15 E. Blithedale Ave., 415-383-5300)

Urban Remedy seems a bit of an odd name in the middle of the suburbs but not being far from the city, and yet another addition in the ever growing category of cold pressed juice shops, it is a respite of healthful cleansers and gluten free snacks.

Photo source: www.urbanremedy.com

Photo source: www.urbanremedy.com

In keeping with other cold pressed juice shops, this is far from the hippie juice shops of a decades past. It’s sleek, modern and delicious. Even snacks, like paper thin cacao brittle made from organic banana, coconut, cacao, sprouted almonds, vanilla, Himalayan sea salt and cinnamon, please those of us who embrace gluten.

Pressed juices are 100% organic and among the better I’ve tasted at the many similar shops opening from SF to LA. The day’s vegetable quotient can be had in an astringent but refreshing Dynamo loaded with kale, celery, cucumber, parsley, spinach, dandelion greens, lemon. I particularly like Cacao Mint Almond Milk, a soft, creamy blend of sprouted almond, cacao, essential oil of peppermint, date paste, vanilla bean powder, pink sea salt, maca root powder and ionized water.

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Written by in: Around the Bay | Tags:
Aug
15
2013

Around the Bay

Sampling beers at Steins in Mountain View

Sampling beers at Steins in Mountain View

3 Reasons to Dine South (Bay, that is)

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Oh, that burger: Steins

Oh, that burger: Steins’ dry-aged short rib-brisket-sirloin patty

As with any part of the Bay Area, the South Bay offers plenty of culinary riches. It may be Silicon Valley, the ‘burbs, numerous towns rather than a metropolitan city, but exploring Indian food from Mountain View to Santa Clara or international hole-in-the-walls in San Mateo can gleefully feel like eating through another country.

Here’s three restaurants where food and drink lightheartedly co-mingle, promising delights for the foodie, the gourmand, the drink aficionado, or the plain hungry.

STEINS BEER GARDEN, MOUNTAIN VIEW

Fried chicken

Fried chicken

There’s no better beer-with-food outpost in the South Bay (besides pastrami or brisket with Belgian beers at The Refuge in San Carlos) than Steins. Boasting a sunny beer garden, their spare, cavernous space features over 20 beers on tap, many of them rare kegs, and large, communal tables, ideal for larger parties.

Steins beer hall setting

Steins beer hall setting

EAT: Chef Colby M. Reade is clearly having fun with the menu. There’s obvious (but no less delightful) beer pairings like warm, house-baked pretzels ($6) coated in lye for golden brown color, sprinkled with Maldon sea salt, dipped in caraway beer mustard. Or a stunner of a burger ($11) – best medium-rare – a house-ground blend of dry-aged short rib, brisket and sirloin on brioche (add Danish blue, cheddar or Swiss for $1, pork belly, over easy egg, or mushroom for $2). Alternately, they serve a juicy fried chicken sandwich ($12) topped with apple slaw and spiced honey on ciabatta.

Summer Squash

Summer Squash

Unexpectedly, Chef Reade also offers seasonal, garden-fresh beauties that make me feel less guilty for chowing down on burgers, beer and pretzels. This summer it was thinly shaved and diced squash ($12) over a mound of roasted corn and cracked wheat in herb pesto and lemon vinaigrette. There’s good times to be had with Breakfast for Dinner ($15), a meaty hunk of smoked pork belly under poached egg in maple Dijon vinaigrette. End with cinnamon sugar crullers (doughnut-like pastries, $8) dipped in dark drinking chocolate.

Dessert platter:

Dessert round: Devil’s Food chocolate cake, flourless almond cake w/ raspberry sorbet, crullers with dark drinking chocolate

DRINK: Just a few of the possible draft joys waiting to be poured from the ever-changing drafts at Steins? A rare cask of Dogfish Head Positive Contact ($8), an ale brewed with Fuji apple cider and spices, slow roasted farro, cayenne and fresh cilantro. Or try High Water Brewing Campfire Stout ($9) which is actually brewed with chocolate malt, marshmallow flavoring and actual graham crackers. Sounds like junk food, yes, but it’s a marvelously meaty, smoky-sweet brew. Happily co-existing with food might be Ninkasi’s Total Domination ($7), an IPA with citrus, floral notes and hoppy richness from Carahell and Munich malts.

NICK’S NEXT DOOR, LOS GATOS

Beef tartare

Beef tartare

Expect a warm welcome from Nick himself, who moves effortlessly between kitchen and guests, ensuring everyone is having a good time. Nick’s Next Door is a South Bay gem with front garden/patio, a neighborhood restaurant filled with regulars and upscale enough (though definitely relaxed) to feel like a night out.

Nick's patio

Nick’s patio

EAT: There’s a Cali-fresh sensibility to the cooking and playful twists on some of my beloved favorites like steak tartare ($14). Here, a mound of silky tartare is topped with fried (vs. raw) sunnyside egg, surrounded by pommes frites and toasted sourdough crostini. Their “NOT your traditional Caesar” ($6) salad is a generous portion of baby spinach, wild arugula and radicchio littered with Pt. Reyes blue cheese, bright anchovies, garlic croutons and crispy bacon.

Nani's meatloaf

Nani’s meatloaf

Entrees aren’t a let down either, particularly house staple Nani’s meatloaf ($21), a tender mound of beef partnered with whipped potatoes and sauteed broccolini, in a mushroom gravy. A special might be plump, seared scallops ($28) over a duck fat-infused faro grain. The dish is decadent in Parmesan cream and parsley lemon oil with crispy sheets of lollipop kale for contrast. Finish with a scoop of tarragon ice cream in port cherries ($4).

DRINK: Choose from a California-only wine list or sip a ginger-spiced Bulleit Rye whiskey cocktail, Bitter Old Man ($12), softened by lemon, Grand Marnier, ginger and basil, served up with a candied ginger garnish.

MANRESA, LOS GATOS

Rare Belon oysters

Rare Belon oysters

Manresa is a fine dining temple to produce (sourced from their own Love Apple Farms) and experimental cooking, thanks to Chef-Proprietor David Kinch. They are widely acknowledged internationally, hosting some of the world’s greatest chefs when they’re in town (like an unforgettable collaborative dinner last year with Chef Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne, Australia). If that weren’t enough, they own a coveted two Michelin stars.

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Strawberry gazpacho

EAT: Needless to say, this isn’t everyday dining for many of us. That’s why I was pleased in early June to taste through their just-launched lounge menu, a still delicate, exotic sampling of Manresa’s creativity without the price of the prix fixe ($130) or seasonal tasting ($185) menus.

In the small lounge, the tasting menu is five changing “bites” for $48, starting with warm garden beignets, and a seasonal dish like vibrant, sweet-savory strawberry-red bell pepper-cucumber gazpacho poured over Marcona almonds and lemon balm curd.

Goat milk ice

Goat milk ice

Then there might be silky Japanese sea bream in yuzu, or a rare treat of a Belon oyster from Maine (originally from Brittany, France) over seaweed ice. Dessert from Pastry Chef Stephanie Prida might be goat milk ice, layered with kumquats, tapioca-like pearls and crumble, drizzled in a rum sauce.

Manresa cocktails

Manresa cocktails

DRINK: This peek at what goes on in a world class restaurant is ideally savored with wines from their impressive 600+ list.

Cocktails include the soft Golden Orange ($16), with a subtle taste of the Templeton Rye whiskey and Campari base, lemon, Amaro Nonino and bit of kumquat jam, or a Pumpernickel Twist ($16) using St. George’s Dry Rye gin, infused with caraway infusion, mixed with lemon, mole bitters, decanter bitters.

LODGING AND ACTIVITIES

While recently weekending in Los Gatos, which is about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco, I crashed at Toll House Hotel off the main street and easily walkable to all restaurants. My husband, The Renaissance Man, and I raided their in-house DVD collection for film noir and movie classics one night, complete with Scotch (which I brought) and chocolates from Amour Patisserie just up the block. I also recommend Amour for proper French pastries like pain au chocolat and almond croissants with Blue Bottle Coffee in the morning, and Garrod Farms in neighboring Saratoga where we spent a lovely morning riding horses through scenic trails with Bay views in the distance.

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