Dec
15
2013

Wandering Traveler

Bruges in the sunlight

Bruges in the sunlight

In BRUGES

Photos & Article by Virginia Miller

Carriage rides around the city

Carriage rides around the city

The romance of Bruges cannot be overstated. I was delightfully surprised to arrive in the small, intimate city of narrow cobblestone roads and horse drawn carriages to be one of the more romantic cities I’ve visited (and I’ve been to 25 cities around the globe just this year alone): partly due to its intimate size and approachability, partly due to its fairy tale architecture and interlocked waterways, not too far removed from the canals of Venice.

Hotel Die Swaene was my home base, a velvet-strewn respite of dreamy paintings, drippy chandeliers and a quiet bar behind thick curtains that feels like one’s one private drawing room straight out of an 19th century movie. The bamboo-surrounded pool and spa under a glass ceiling are added bonuses. The rooms themselves were a bit dowdy comparatively but I didn’t spend much time there.

Dining & drinking in Bruges squares

Dining & drinking in Bruges squares

Waterways of Bruges

Waterways of Bruges

I indulged in morning cappuccinos on the sunny rooftop garden of a cafe, savoring the Belgian ritual of chocolate or mini-pastries served with coffee. I scoured chocolate shops, tasting a range of truffles, some better than others – there’s a surprising excess of milk chocolate and other over-sugary chocolates vs. the dark, complex, artisan chocolate I seek out around the world. Nonetheless, I stumbled upon some worthwhile chocolate.

Belgian beers at La Garre

Belgian beers at La Garre

Entering La Garre

Entering La Garre

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bruges squares

The Belfry of Bruges (medieval bell tower to the left)

Frites & rose at Poules Moules

Frites & rose at Poules Moules

A bucket of Belgian frites (thick-cut fries) and a glass of rosé orbeer is a quintessential Belgian experience, particularly on a sunny afternoon at a sidewalk table in a large, bustling square, as was the case at Restaurant Poules Moules. Better yet, a heaping bowl moules and frites (mussels and fries).

Espresso in Bruges

Espresso in Bruges

Beer & stew at Cambrinus

Beer & stew at Cambrinus

Streetside Belgian waffles, hearty meat stews or platters of sausages and sauerkraut… and, of course, Belgian beer. In indulged in it all. Bierbrasserie Cambrinus, in an atmospheric 1699 brick building, was a favorite for its casual, traditional Belgian food and extensive novel of beers – pages and pages worth – even if neglectful service left a little (or a lot) to be desired. I sipped a double-hopped De Ranke XX Bitter (which is found easily here at home at places like Healthy Spirits) or Van Steenberge Leute bokbier, a bright brown ale.

My favorite bar was off a narrow alley in an even more narrow building: La Garre stocks over 130 Belgian, Trappist and craft beers, particularly of the craft kind, offering the likes of most of the Oerbier line on draft alongside house brews.

Belgian waffles streetside

Belgian waffles streetside

Hotel Die Swaene

Entering Die Swaene's bar

Entering Die Swaene’s bar

Romantic paintings line the hotel

Romantic paintings grace the hotel

Die Swaene's indoor pool

Die Swaene’s indoor pool

Lounging with Campari & soda or absinthe in the hotel bar

Lounging with Campari & soda or absinthe in the hotel bar

Cafe Cambrinus

s

Belgian beers at Cambrinus

Cambrinus' historic building

Cambrinus’ historic building

 

Written by in: Wandering Traveler | Tags: ,
Oct
01
2013

Imbiber

Red Rabbit's Krakow Salt Mine

Red Rabbit’s Krakow Salt Mine

DRINKING in SAC TOWN

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Grappling Hook at Hook & Ladder

Grappling Hook at Hook & Ladder

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. A recent revisit meant I trekked to at least eight spots a day, combing the city’s restaurants, bars, coffee houses and more (read about food/dining here; and my slideshow article on Sacramento highlights for PureWow.

While they’ve been a beer town for awhile, the formerly non-existent cocktail scene has grown exponentially the last five years, throwing its 5th Cocktail Week this August. Innovation isn’t the town’s strong suit, compared to what’s long been happening in other cities around the world – the focus is instead on approachable, straightforward drinks using quality spirits. Wine is growing in sophistication with some small producers exhibiting Old World restraint despite inland heat, as at Revolution.

Red Rabbit

Red Rabbit’s Chappelle Cocktail

Getting the worst out of the way, there was an appalling four spots in one weekend (far more than I experience at home or in frequent trips around the world) 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. Given the wealth of amazing spots in Nor Cal, it’s maddening to pay to be treated with indifference, or, as happened at a renowned cocktail bar, to leave a watery, tasteless drink virtually untouched, and not even be asked if everything was ok when I paid for it.

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 been established for years in other cities, Sacramento seems to be finding that sweet spot of embracing the bounty surrounding it and expressing it straightforwardly. Food and drink aficionados can find plenty to satiate here, graced with a California heartland freshness.

Wine

REVOLUTION WINES

Revolution Wines - Virginia Miller

St. Rey Celeste

At Revolution – a winery, restaurant and tasting room in the heart of town – Winemaker Craig Haarmeyer graciously tasted me through their wines from the barrel and the bottle. The whites are a balanced pleasure, like a crisp St. Rey Albarino ($22 per bottle) or grassy, floral, whole cluster Sauvignon Blanc ($19), rested in stainless steel. There are also nuanced reds like the Celeste Sacramento County blend ($30) or pepper-berry notes of a blessedly acidic Zinfandel ($26).

Haarmeyer is experimenting with Syrah grapes grown at over 2500 feet above the nearby town of Auburn. He wisely picks early, veering away from overripeness, ensuring elegant balance to his wines (not to mention the value for the quality). I was privileged to sample an experimental dry vermouth, made with rose petals, rosemary, black pepper, gentian, quinine and sage. I immediately began picturing its best gin pairing, imagining it in a martini – I hope it might be a future release.

Beer

TRACK 7 BREWING

Track 7

Track 7

Sac Town’s cult brewery, Track 7 Brewing, recently turned 1 year old, celebrating with a double-hopped version of their popular Panic IPA, a pleasingly bitter, lively release I had on draft at nearby Red Rabbit.

Friends and former home brewers, Geoff Scott and Ryan Graham, run a welcoming garage brewery where you can bring in your own food or eat from a revolving lineup of food trucks (like Chando’s Taqueria, Krush Burger, Orale Mole, Mama Kim Cooks, etc…), fill up growlers, and sample beers.

After sampling eight beers at the brewery, my favorites (besides the passion fruit bitter of the Panic IPA) are a bright and bready Delta King Saison or malty-earthy Soulman Stout. There are countless fantastic breweries in California, and Track 7 is one of them.

Bars

Inviting bar

Inviting bar

RED RABBIT

Besides being the kind of restaurant that serves winning fusion combinations like a pastrami stir-fry ($14.50), The Red Rabbit is a laid back, friendly, all-day watering hole.

Barman/Owner Matt Nurge (one of the cocktail pioneers in the area who helped open The Shady Lady) ensures quality cocktails ($8-9), heavy on classics like a Boulevardier or Chappelle Cocktail (gin, sweet vermouth, lime, falernum, pineapple). Try the signature house cocktail, Krakow Salt Mine, a salty-sweet refresher of Zubrowka vodka, apple cider, lemon, ginger beer, and kosher salt. The vibe is right at Red Rabbit: relaxed without sacrificing quality.

GRANGE

Elegant Long Island Iced Tea

Elegant Long Island Iced Tea

At Grange in the Citizen Hotel, engaging Bar Manager Ryan Seng (also one of the opening crew at Shady Lady) has created a strong cocktail program, and from what I could see, trains staff well based on the gracious service I encountered even when he was not around.

Seng runs a smart house barrel program with three personally-selected barrels of Bols Genever, Herradura Reposado tequila and Woodford Reserve bourbon he selected in their home country/distillery of origin (in fact, I saw his barrel of Bols Genever in the Bols warehouse outside of Amsterdam when I visited this May, ready to be shipped to California).

Tusk

Tusk

My favorite cocktail at Grange is Seng’s blend of all three house barrels into a boozy-elegant (yes, elegant) Long Island Iced Tea. I’ve never liked that sloppy, booze monster of a drink, but this version makes me reconsider. Another standout is the Grange Margarita ($14) made with their Herradura double barrel reposado tequila, house curacao, lime and agave, rimmed with smoked lime sea salt.

Tusk ($10), a savory-sweet blend of Four Roses bourbon, bacon vermouth and absolutely delicious candied bacon, is sweet and gratifyingly robust. Though I’ve seen bacon-infused whiskey many a time over the years around the US, Seng’s version is a crowd-pleaser.  Spectacular Spectacular ($12) is the aperitif of choice, using Hendrick’s Gin and Grange select barrel aged Bols Genever, mixed with plum, lemon and topped with Prosecco, making a dry, pre-dinner refresher.

HOOK & LADDER

Hook & Ladder's special brand branded via iron onto citrus peels

Hook & Ladder’s special brand branded via iron onto citrus peels

Hook & Ladder is a go-to for low key drinks, rotating cocktails on tap, and a solid collection of craft spirits. The bar is run by Chris Tucker, who was one of the pioneering bartenders to usher in Sacramento’s cocktail renaissance (another in the opening crew at The Shady Lady). He’s got other potential projects in the works, but at H&L, he’s the one person in town featuring a hand-cut ice program and an unusual (and smart) designated driver drink section where house ginger beer, honey blueberry lemonade or a strawberry shrub with soda ($3 each) are free for designated drivers.

Pimm's Proper

Pimm’s Proper

Besides local draft beers like Berryessa or Track 7, there’s wines on tap (like Saintsbury Chardonnay) or nearby producers I’ve enjoyed in recent years such as Lee Family Farm Rio Tinto ($9/32). The cocktail menu is straightforward and fun, offering Cheekies (one-ounce social shots), highballs, bucks, and rotating draft cocktails ($8-9) of classics like a Negroni, Bijou, Martinez, all barrel aged in a 6-gallon French oak barrel.

Pimm’s Proper ($8) is a variation on the Pimm’s Cup combining Pimm’s, gin, lemon juice and ginger beer, or there’s a Grappling Hook ($8) showcasing Candolini Grappa Ruta with Punt E Mes sweet vermouth and Luxardo Maraschino liqueur. My favorite cocktail is seemingly simple: Tucker’s La Fresa ($9) mixes Espolon Blanco tequila with a house strawberry shrub. The shrub is all tart, vinegar brightness – as a good shrub should be – restrained strawberry made complex and savory by salt, pepper, coriander.

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, county-by-county.

Bottled cocktails &  bacon popcorn

Bottled cocktails & bacon popcorn

What stood out at spacious, well-designed Hock Farm was Bar Manager/Managing Partner Brad Peters’ cocktails. “Bubbled and bottled” cocktails ($9) are straightforward – Aviation gin and house tonic or Papa’s Pilar rum and a house cream soda, effervescent and lively. An Irish banana colada ($10) combines Jameson Irish whiskey infused with banana and Perfect Puree of Napa Valley coconut and pineapple purees. It’s creamy, tropical goodness – with a touch of Irish.

LOWBRAU

LowBrau beer cocktails

LowBrau beer cocktails

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 schnaps/eaux de vie (Schladerer Himbeer Liqueur, Schonauer Apfel, Freihof Marile Apricot brandy) from Austria, Switzerland, Germany.

Cocktails ($9) and beer cocktails ($7) include the likes of the 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 like Prairie Ales.

ENOTRIA

Cocktails at Enotria

Cocktails at Enotria

Enotria is arguably the most advanced dining menu in Sacramento at the moment with impeccable wine pairings from Tyler Stacy. Cocktails ($12) by Russell Eastman likewise surprise, and are worth a visit to a somewhat generic-looking bar (the white light-draped outdoor patio is preferable). Employing savory and herbaceous elements in his drinks, Eastman avoids the “same old thing” a cocktail geek is used to expecting (i.e. classics), and instead creates cocktails more in line with a Scott Beattie ethos, utilizing produce and showcasing California bounty.

Eastman’s Electric Relaxation combines tequila blanco, Lillet Blanc, mezcal (for a hint of smokiness), lemon and thyme with a vibrant blueberry-white pepper shrub, resulting in a vivacious drink. A Salvador Dali mixes gin, Campari, lemon, lemongrass and sesame – blessedly heavy, almost textural, with the sesame, though I tasted little lemongrass.

Thankfully, one of the Sac’s best restaurants is also a great place to drink.

SPIRITS SELECTION

CORTI BROTHERS

Corti Brothers

Corti Brothers

From the exterior, Corti Brothers looks like the 1940′s-era grocery store it is, a bit dingy and plain 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, Corti surprises with solid beer and wine sections and an unexpectedly dense spirits selection – the best in the area. This is not an elevated liquor store like Cask in San Francisco or Hi-Time in So Cal, but it may be the best grocery store liquor selection I’ve ever seen. There’s an impressive array of small batch spirits, amari from Italy, Eastern European liqueurs and other rarities one would not expect to find in a place like this.

COFFEE

One of 2 Temple Coffee locations visited

One of 2 Temple Coffee locations visited

Find Sac’s best artisan, third wave coffee at Temple, Insight Coffee, or local’s favorite, Chocolate Fish. Insight in particular is obviously hipster and trendy (think artful graffiti, ubiquitous beards and handlebar mustaches, Chemex and Hario v60′s lining the walls) but the coffee is strong at all three coffee houses, providing a robust fix whether you order a cold brew or a pour over.

Written by in: Imbiber | 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.

s

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.

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

Imbiber

Gathering around Mikkeller's 30+ seat bar

Gathering around Mikkeller’s 30+ seat bar

What to Drink at SF’s New Mikkeller Bar

Article and Photos by Virginia Miller

MIKKELLER BAR, Tenderloin (34 Mason St. between Turk and Market, 415-984-0279)

Exposed brick walls in 1907 space

Exposed brick walls in 1907 space

In the heart of the Tenderloin and a couple short blocks from Union Square, Mikkeller Bar has soft-opened, a boon for beer aficionados and fans of the beloved Copenhagen brewery. But this bar and restaurant is not a replica of Mikkeller Bar in Copenhagen. Opened by Chuck Stilphen, founder of The Trappist and Trappist Provisions in Oakland, he partnered with friend and Danish brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø to open this SF bar featuring 42 taps of American and international beers, two cask handles, an extensive bottle selection, and numerous special house beers, including the Mikkeller Tenderloin Series.

The weekend of August 9-11th marks the bar’s grand opening and is packed with events and tastings to please the masses, including a rare, 7-course dinner on August 11th for Mikkeller beer and Scandinavian food fans alike with Danish Chef Jakob Mielcke.

Entering Mikkeller Bar

Entering Mikkeller Bar

The 1907 space houses a “sour room” cellar featuring Lambic and sour beers, and available for private parties and tastings. “Danish industrial” describes the brick-walled, clean lines of the large space designed by local Martin Heid Design/Build (Range, Adesso, Commonwealth), graced with artwork from the artist who designs Mikkeller’s beer labels, Keith Shore.

Special Mikkeller releases on draft

Tenderloin Mikkeller releases on draft

Gather in the main dining room around communal tables or the 30-seat bar and order a beer with Chef Michael O’ Brien’s (from Church Key in Washington DC) house sausages, charcuterie and gourmet-hearty menu. While you’re savoring steak frites, here are a few beer possibilities from an ever-changing tap selection.

1. Mikkeller’s collaboration with Firestone Walker: Lil’ Mikkel is a wild sour ale perfectly balanced with just enough sour
2. Mikkeller Texas Ranger is a meaty chipotle porter with a touch of spice – my new favorite
3. Mikkeller Tenderloin Pilsner is a beauty of a house Pilsner and a tribute to the ‘Loin, while the Mikkeller American Dream Pils drinks a lot like an IPA with subtle hops
4. Mikkeller’s It’s Alive Chardonnay is something different: a wild sour ale with subtle hints of mango and finely-tuned sour notes
5. Non-Mikkeller winners on draft at the bar’s soft opening: smoky Iceland beer Olvisholt Lava, Oklahoma’s Prairie Ales Prairie Standard, De La Senne’s funky, crisp Taras Boulba Belgian Pale

Enter Mikkeller Bar

Enter Mikkeller Bar

Written by in: Imbiber | Tags:
Sep
15
2012

Top Tastes

Visually striking, if not always satisfying, starters at Abbot's Cellar

BEER for DINNER

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Route de Espice for dessert at St. Vincent (also available at Abbot's Cellar)

Craft beers are in their heyday, alongside craft everything (coffee, spirits, food, etc…) From Anchor Brewing’s Fritz Maytag pioneering quality beer in the ’60′s, to the latest generation like Almanac Beer Co.‘s Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan brewing farm-to-barrel seasonal ales and their new line of grocery store-ready (but still lively, fresh), bottled California table beers, San Francisco – and certainly Northern California – has long been a breeding ground for beer lovers. SF beer luminary, Dave McLean, has been brewing Magnolia beers (among my favorite anywhere) at his Upper Haight brewpub for nearly 15 years, now expanding to a new Dogpatch location. Like Magnolia, modern classic (since 2007) Monk’s Kettle focuses on food and beer together, Church Key is an ideal neighborhood beer haven, and divey, dingy Tornado has kept it real over twenty years with roughly 50 rotating draft beers alongside Rosamunde Sausages.

In the mix with these stalwarts are two new beer sources where food is equally important – in fact, one of them is more wine bar than beer source but with a noteworthy beer slant.

ST. VINCENT, Mission (1270 Valencia St. between 23rd & 24th Sts., 415-285-1200)

St. Vincent on Valencia Street

Opened in May with great wine world buzz, St. Vincent is owned by sommelier David Lynch, known for his impeccable wine list at Quince. St. Vincent’s (a 3rd-century Spanish deacon known as the patron saint of winemakers) wine list is as global and well-curated as one would suspect, with many bottles in the $30-50′s range, plus affordable by-the-glass pours like a crisp, floral 2011 Domaine de Guillemarine Picpoul de Pinet.

Laverbread, a Welsh seaweed bread

Wisely, Lynch brought on beer director (and certified cicerone) Sayre Piotrkowski whose beer knowledge and keen eye for the unusual we enjoyed in his years at Monk’s Kettle. Lynch works as host and is busy overseeing the restaurant, so I haven’t benefited from his wine recommendations in any of my visits. But Piotrkowski has made spot-on drink recommendations each time and the friendly staff are well-versed on the menu.

Inside St. Vincent

I’ve tasted many of the eight rotating beers on draft, like Oakland’s Linden Street or Dying Vines breweries, or delightful beers from tiny Pasadena micro-brewery, Craftsman Brewing Co., including a Triple White Sage Belgian-Style Tripel or 1903 Pre Prohibition-Style Lager. By the bottle, splurge ($22 – or $11 if you can find it at liquor store extraordinaire Healthy Spirits) on fascinating Birrificio del Ducato’s Verdi Russian Imperial Stout, spicy with hot chile from Parma, Italy.

She-crab soup, reinterpreted

New Jersey native Chef Bill Niles (most recently of Bar Tartine) exhibits a strong dose of New Southern in his California cooking. Though dishes like She-Crab soup ($14), utilizing sea urchin, sugar snap peas and Carolina gold rice in a corn-lobster chowder, or rabbit burgoo ($24), a melange of white turnips, baby green okra, white corn grits and rabbit loin sausage, are nothing like the she-crab soups I’ve loved in South Carolina or the burgoo stews I’ve dined on in Kentucky, Niles has taken two distinctly regional dishes, reinterpreting them with a California ethos. Unusual herbs (like lamb’s quarter in the burgoo) and a farm-fresh ethos may be de rigueur in the Bay Area, but care in the details is clearly communicated.

Deviled eggs & beer

Beet-horseradish or curry pickled eggs ($3 each) are a predictably a good time, while a hand-rolled pretzel with mustard ($5) is a bit small and forlorn. I searched for the listed clothbound cheddar in the baked Vidalia onion soup ($9), where even onions didn’t impart the hoped-for flavor intensity. Rarely-seen, ultra-salty Welsh laverbread ($18) is a hunk of Tartine wheat bread lathered in Pacific sea laver (seaweed), Manila clams, and hen of the woods mushrooms, ideal with beer, if quite salty. Entrees like roasted duck leg ($22), surrounded by buttered rye berries, griddled stonefruit, celery and pickled mustard are heartier, but unexpectedly, I preferred a vegetarian entree: an herb-laden spring succotash ($18) of butter beans, white corn, dandelion, perfected with padron peppers.

Though St. Vincent’s food voice feels like it’s still finding itself, I appreciate that it is not the same iteration of gastropub food we’ve seen a thousand times over but seeks imaginative approaches to Southern, California, gourmet pub food… with impeccable beer and wine.

ABBOT’S CELLAR, Mission (742 Valencia St. between 18th and 19th, 415-626-8700)

Abbot's striking space

Newcomer Abbot’s Cellar just opened in July and is Monk’s Kettle sister restaurant. The Lundberg Design (Moss Room, Quince, Slanted Door) space immediately impresses with 24-foot ceilings illuminated by skylights, the long, 3000 foot dining room marked by reclaimed woods for a rustic-meets-urban-barn feel. A two-story stone cellar houses beer at proper temperatures, listed in a book that pulls out of the side of tables. Delving through this novel of over 120 rotating beers grouped by style (from sours to saisons), two pages are dedicated to drafts. Curated by co-owner and Cellermaster Christian Albertson with Co-Beer Director Mike Reis, there’s a wall of glassware suited to every type of beer served, whether Jolly Pumpkin’s Madrugada Obscura Sour Stout from Dexter, MI, or Italian 2004 Xyauyu Etichetta Rame. A pricey ($14.50 for a 6 oz. pour) Belgian Brouwerij De Landtsheer Malheur Brut is a dry, elegant Champagne-style beer served on the stem, one of ten offerings in a by-the-glass selection from large beer bottles rarely available by the pour.

Heartwarming parsnip cake

Certainly this is a beer sanctuary, rather than casual watering hole. As a temple to beer, it succeeds immediately. The bar and chef’s counter are ideal perches from which to sip, in view of glassware, hand-pump cask engines (sample Firestone Walker’s Unfiltered Double Barrel Ale from these classic pumps), and a reading shelf lined with Dulye’s collection of cookbooks.

Fantastic bone marrow pastrami

Chef/co-owner Adam Dulye explores flavors optimal with beer, having run craft beer restaurants in Colorado and Portland prior to joining Monk’s Kettle in 2011. Dishes (a la carte options or tasting menus: 3 course $45/$60 with pairing; 5 course $65/$90 with pairing) are well-crafted and artful, and similar to St. Vincent, some stand well above others, though there’s generally promising possibility. A coon-striped shrimp salad ($11) makes a dramatic presentation, but similar to crawfish, you’ll struggle to pull a tiny bite of meat from the shrimp. Cumin-roasted heirloom carrots ($11), elegantly displayed with quinoa, oyster mushrooms and sprouts, lack distinctive flavor.

Juicy, flavorful pork chop

Alternately, braised rabbit on tender handkerchief pasta ($23), dotted with English peas and hen of the woods mushrooms, is heartwarming, particularly with beer. “Wow factor” is in play with what is actually a unique beef bone marrow ($12) dish. The bone is topped with crispy house pastrami, alongside spicy greens, more pastrami, pickled mustard seeds and rye croutons – one of the more exciting of countless bone marrow dishes I’ve had. While roast pheasant ($24) with lacinato kale and non-existent (but listed) cauliflower puree was too dry, a generous pork chop ($25) is insanely juicy and satisfying over chewy caraway spaetzle, topped with grilled peaches. Unexpectedly, a dessert of warm, roasted parsnip cake ($9), co-mingling with whipped cream cheese and a ginger molasses cookie, is a homey highlight, lovely with the coffee, almond malt of Great Divide’s Yeti Imperial Stout.

Entering Abbots Cellar

Written by in: Top Tastes | Tags:
May
15
2012

Featured Neighborhood

Pristine sushi at neighborhood favorite, Hama-Ko

The Best of UPPER HAIGHT & COLE VALLEY

Walking Cole Street, connecting Haight & Cole Valley

I’m constantly asked what my favorite restaurant is. It’s an impossible question. Inquire about my favorite taqueria, German, tea house, French bistro, and I’m ready to talk. There’s a favorite for every style and mood in a metropolitan, dense city such as ours. My current home is on the cusp of Haight-Ashbury and Cole Valley, which, like every neighborhood in our food-rich city, has its treasures. We’ll explore it’s best here.

I’m ever making a plea for quality spots to replace much of the touristy swill that lines Haight Street (FYI: the El Balazo space is up for grabs; Papazote will open in the former Eos space from the Mamacita folks). Funny enough, it’s the expanded Haight Street Market, new Whole Foods and Off the Grid Upper Haight that have improved the food tenor of the ‘hood. It’s understandable why Upper Haight rarely places on budding restaurateurs’ horizon: uber-high rents and less-than-food-saavy tourist crowds. But it only takes a few to turn a neighborhood’s tide (note: Western Addition, Dogpatch, et. al.), and we already have pioneers like Dave McLean who’ve made this a better eating and drinking neighborhood for all.

Alembic cocktails

1. ALEMBIC
Thank God for The Alembic. The bar has been one of SF’s best since it opened, thanks to bar manager Daniel Hyatt, whose expertise on American whiskey equates an ahead-of-the-curve selection. Alembic claims many gifted bartenders, like Danny Louie and Janiece Gonzalez, and I’m never disappointed when asking for an off-menu cocktail creation. The food is destination-worthy in its own right – maybe the best in the Haight. Whether at the bar with jerk-spiced duck hearts and a bowl of shishito peppers, or dining on caramelized scallops and sweetbreads over kabocha squash spaetzle, I continue to leave satisfied.

2. MAGNOLIA PUB & BREWERY

Beer flights at Magnolia

Owner/brewmaster Dave McLean opened Magnolia Brewery over 14 years ago, brewing the best beers in SF (in my humble opinion). Magnolia’s space has old world, gastropub charm in black leather and wood booths and antique floor tiles. They serve the best brunch in the area (sorry, Zazie and Pork Store), like decadent BBQ belly over Anson Mills cheddar grits, or quinoa hash and eggs if you want to cut down the fat quotient. For lunch and dinner, house sausages delight (rabbit currywurst!) as does savory mushroom bread pudding or a near-perfect Magnolia pub burger.

3. GIOVANNI’S PIZZA at CLUB DELUXE

Retro gem: Club Deluxe

Upper Haight’s best hidden gem is Giovanni’s, a pizza kitchen in the back of Club Deluxe (eat in the bar or take-out). Giovanni’s pies aren’t so much Neapolitan perfection as a mix between Italian and East Coast styles, with classic margherita and pesto pizzas. Diavola is spicy fun, laden with pepperoncino, salami, Parmigiano and a Belizean hot sauce, while Friggin’ Meatball is dotted with meatballs, smoked provolone and caramelized onions. Save room for a West Coast rarity: a fresh cannoli, sweet ricotta stuffing brightened with orange blossom oil.

Retro Ice Cream Bar

Club Deluxe’s drinks are of the Mojito, Greyhound kind. Not exactly a cocktailians destination. What makes Deluxe special? Nightly live jazz in a well-loved bar that thankfully hasn’t changed decor for decades, with 1950′s, cozy bar feel. Bands rotate: trios, duos, quartets, even organ, providing some of the best jazz in the city – generally free. If only, like New Orleans, our neighborhoods were lined with such clubs.

4. ICE CREAM BAR & SODA FOUNTAIN
I’ve written much of Ice Cream Bar here and in the Guardian, so I’ll send you there for fascinating details of this truly unique, 1930′s era soda fountain. It’s my top pick for dessert.

5. PARADA 22

Cheery Parada 22

Parada 22 is a vibrant little space with aquamarine walls and vintage South American food products lining the shelves. The casual eatery feels vacation-like, offering Puerto Rican food. My favorite dish here is Camarones a la Criolla: sauteed shrimp, tomato and onions in a dreamy-light cream sauce. Sides like plantains and red or white beans in sofrito-based sauces, are fresh and appealing. They’ve recently joined forces with sister restaurant Boogaloos serving their brunch every weekend.

5. THAI DUO

Inside Ploy II

PLOY II and SIAM LOTUS – While maybe not worth crossing town for, Haight-Ashbury has two unexpectedly strong Thai spots serving authentic dishes. Ploy II is upstairs in an old Victorian space, with dingy carpet and decor (elephants, tapestries) straight out of Chang Mai’s Night Bazaar. They do standards well, while I crave their mango panang curry: spicy, creamy with coconut milk AND peanut sauce. Siam Lotus also is reliable on Thai classics, though it’s their daily changing chef’s special board that sets them apart. Thankfully on the permanent menu, their Thai tacos are a must. Though the paper thin crepes fall apart to the touch, a filling of ground chicken, shredded coconut, mini-shrimp, peanuts and bean sprouts make for one of the more fun Thai dishes anywhere. When available, they rock a mango sticky rice.

6. HAMA-KO

Hama-Ko’s simple interior

Hama-Ko husband-wife owners, Tetsuo and Junko Kashiyama, may open when they are ready to open (vs. dependable hours), they may treat regulars best, service is slow, and certainly there are no California rolls. It’s straightforward sushi: silky scallops, bright-as-the-sea tai (red snapper), melt-in-your-mouth unagi and avocado maki.

This nearly 30 year classic is one of those neighborhood secrets that locals return to and fish devotees enjoy. You won’t find the rare fish found at Zushi Puzzle, but you will find impeccable freshness (Tetsuo sources his fish from the same place The French Laundry and Chez Panisse gets theirs, he proudly tells me) from a couple who cares.

The Rest

COFFEE

Brand new Flywheel Coffee

Coffee has long been rough in the Haight. Until Haight Street Market opened a Blue Bottle kiosk in their store, one couldn’t get a proper cup. While appealing cafes like Reverie boast a welcome back patio, and the La Boulange chain on Cole serves substantial pastries, none offers a cappuccino or espresso to satisfy coffee snobs. But just in the last week or so, there’s a quiet coffee revolution afoot with two new cafes. Flywheel Coffee Roasters looks like a hipster Mission coffee spot with a handful of laptops and industrial-stark interior. Though they aren’t going the foam art/microfoam route at this point and they have not begun roasting their own beans in-house as they plan to, initial cups are promising. The other new spot is Stanza in the Coco Luxe space. They’ll be doing coffee cuppings on the first Thursday of each month (7pm) and have their coffee roasted by Augies in Southern California. They DO have foam art and proper cappuccinos. A welcome neighborhood addition.

BRUNCH

Pork belly grits at Magnolia

I’ve never gotten Zazie‘s endless brunch waits. Sure, it’s a charming, little Parisian space, though I’ve had better luck with non-brunch meals. But for 1-2 hour waits (they do have a nice system now that alerts you when your table is ready), it’s amazingly mediocre. Personally, I wouldn’t wait any amount of time for mediocre. There are so many delicious brunches in the city, I am flummoxed as to why, after all these years, this remains many local’s favorite. The original Pork Store Cafe likewise has waits (though not as painful as Zazie’s) which I likewise don’t find worth it. I once had a “sausage” scramble here that was hot dog slices. Yuck. What it does have is quirky, old school diner charm and clientele. My brunch recommend in the ‘hood, though, is always Magnolia. Arriving before noon, I’ve never had a wait and the food is quality (plus there’s Blue Bottle coffee and beers).

FOOD 

The original Cha Cha Cha

Kezar Bar (the one on Cole, not the pub on Stanyan) can occasionally surprise with above-average bar food, like giant potato pancakes with Andouille sausage, applesauce, sour cream – in a cozy, pub atmosphere. Despite the crowds and its faded glory, there’s still something appealing about the original Cha Cha Cha. Maybe it’s Mother Mary presiding over the bar, plants surrounding tables for that tropical effect, the festive atmosphere, plantains and black beans, or that damn tasty sangria. Citrus Club’s food is pretty hit and miss – downright average, really (who has time for that in this city?) – but many adore it because it’s cheap and easy Asian “fusion” (they mix and match Asian cuisines with abandon).

Burgermeister

For burgers, if you’re not eating Magnolia‘s fab burger, local chain Burgermeister is the best bet as Burger Urge just doesn’t cut it. Since the ’70′s, Say Cheese is a tiny Cole Valley gem of a market. Their small selection of cheeses, meats, wines, chocolates, is well curated, the staff are responsive and they make worthy deli sandwiches (like Cajun turkey, creole mustard, pepperoncini, pepper havarti), ideal to take to nearby parks.

DRINK

Classic Aub Zam Zam

Us spirits and cocktail lovers have a soft spot for Aub Zam Zam. These are not cutting edge cocktails.

Rather, it’s a slice of SF history, with a strong spirits selection and older, seasoned bartenders who are knowledgeable and sweet (since lovably cantankerous Bruno passed away, God rest his soul, there’s no kicking people out on a whim anymore).

They make a mean gin martini, boozy and bright. The space evokes the Art Deco era with an exotic, Moroccan slant. Divey and dingy, it’s a classic I hope we’ll never lose.

Sep
01
2011

Around the Bay

Bratwurst & Steak in MARIN

Photos & Article by Virginia Miller

Sausages, onions and peppers on the grill at Tavern at Lark Creek

Tavern at Lark Creek’s new Biergarten, Larkspur

Darling oompah band plays under towering redwoods

Think towering redwoods, smoky aromas of sausages, onions and peppers wafting from a grill, German beers on tap from a cooler, and a darling oompah band of elderly gentleman playing with spunk and skill. Enter the just-launched this week Biergarten at The Tavern at Lark Creek. For a short jaunt from the city to Larkspur, it feels worlds away.

I arrived the inaugural Sunday, 8/21, to sunny, fresh air and the knowing shade of those gorgeous redwoods that flank the Tavern (more a classic yellow and white house than tavern). The Biergarten will run every Sunday through October 30 (2–5:30pm) outside the restaurant. It evokes Munich beer garden days but with a decidedly California spirit from towering redwoods and elevated beerhaus food.

Idyllic setting at communal tables

House-made pretzels

Chef Aaron Wright grills up smoked beer or chicken apple sausages and garlic bratwurst, juicy and savory, accompanied with grilled onions, peppers and two types of mustard. House-made pretzels come generously dusted with sea salt, or German potato salad helps in soaking up pints of Spaten’s Pilsner and Dark Optimator. Food operates with a ticket system (1-2 tickets, at $5 each, per dish or beer).

When the oompah band raised their steins with rowdy joy, I raised mine, feeling time stop if for a moment, aware of the simple joys of taste, smell, music, camaraderie and nature on a Sunday afternoon.

Spaetzle, bratwurst & beers at Tavern at Lark Creek’s Sunday Biergarten

El Paseo, Mill Valley

Magical walkways leading into restaurant rooms

Tyler Florence and Sammy Hagar’s (yes, of Van Halen) rebirth of El Paseo, the historic, brick-lined labyrinth of a space tucked off an alley in Mill Valley since 1947, has been going strong since March. And if you’ve tried, you know it’s mighty difficult to get a reservation. I have found, however, on a weeknight or Sunday, that slipping into the bar around 7:30pm affords me one of its two cozy tables, while seats at the bar tend to open up pretty regularly.

Despite the fact that I can vouch for the quality of food coming out of the kitchen, the number one reason to go is still that magical space. The enchantment of candlit, brick-walled walkways opening up into one dim, romantic dining room after another, evokes a subterranean wine cellar feel.

Heirloom Tomato Salad

Even the font used for the restaurant name (on plates, knives, menus) harkens to the past, while the straightforward American chophouse menu confirms the old school vibe.

Though nothing here has been revolutionary, an heirloom salad ($15) loaded with yellow and red tomatoes, crispy croutons and thick mozzarella, is fresh, if a little salty, and more artful than expected. A a side of creamed corn ($8) is pretty much Summer goodness encapsulated.

El Paseo floor mosaic at bar entrance

Steaks ($26-29 or $60-90 for two) are juicy, dry-aged (for 38 days) California Holsteins (some come wrapped in bacon). Cravings for beef are satiated. As they are with the Béarnaise burger ($16): medium rare, its tenderness melts between toasted brioche, dripping with caramelized cioppolini onions and Nueske’s bacon.

There’s a worthy wine list, yes, but the one thing missing is a fine Scotch or bourbon/rye cocktail.

All in all, I’d come return again for more meaty, candlit enchantment.

El Paseo’s medium-rare burger

Written by in: Around the Bay | Tags: , , ,
Aug
01
2011

The Latest

Chef Adam Carpenter's fresh-baked pretzels dotted with Maldon sea salt, dipped in smoked gouda/chedder fondue

Early Favorites at new Union Square Tavern

Jasper’s Corner Tap and Kitchen, Downtown/Union Square  (401 Taylor at O’Farrell, 415-775-7979)

Elegant & boozy, the Grand Promenade: Templeton Rye, Benedictine, Laird's Bonded Applejack, Yellow Chartreuse

You heard it in my Guardian column a couple weeks ago: Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen is going to be a drink destination, no doubt about it. Pair its all-star bartender line-up and impeccable cocktail menu with 18 beers on draft (like Telegraph Reserve Wheat from Santa Barbara), a fine wine list with playful categories like “Flower Power” and “We’ve Got the Funk”, satisfying bar food, (eventually) open-all-day hours – and plunk the whole thing down next to Union Square, a perfect tavern space for your downtown rendezvous? The set-up is already screaming hit.

Jasper's sign at O'Farrell & Taylor

If a sneak taste before opening is any indication, it’s the type of place to bring friends for casual comfort food – house-made sausages, fish and chips, and lamb shepherd’s pie — with well-crafted yet un-fussy cocktails or craft beers in a space that manages to be industrial and warm at the same time.

Light-frothy Shibuya Shake: Beefeater 24, St. Germain, lemon, grapefruit, house orange bitters, egg white, Squirt, shiso leaves

Bar service bodes well with a  talented staff that includes not only Kevin Diedrich (formerly of Burritt Room and NYC’s PDT), but also Brian MacGregor (Jardiniere), Francis Kelly (Ponzu, Presidio Social Club), and Allison Webber (Portland’s Irving Street Kitchen and The Gilt Club).

End of the Affair, an Allison Webber creation: dry sherry, Hennessey cognac, Rocky's Bitters, honey & cream

As bar manager Kevin Diedrich told me, the menu is meant to be “approachable and not too geeky,” yet in signature Diedrich style, perfectly balanced and nuanced (for a delicious example of Diedrich balance, try his Soda Jerk, in which blanco tequila and Campari get tart with hits of lime and passion fruit, then fizzy and gently sweet with cream soda and egg white).

Dreamiest way to drink Guinness: on the stem with champagne & Plymouth Gin in Jacques Bezuidenhout's Velvet 75

Upping the game, Jasper’s will be the first known bar to have Bols Genever on draft! Starting next week, get your fill of a beloved Dutch spirit, flowing fresh and lush. Stay tuned for future unusual draft and barrel-aged offerings.

Enjoying Adam bar bites (Berkshire pork riblettes, anyone?), I tasted through a wide range of the cocktail menu.

Brian MacGregor's lovely Empress Bianca: Martini & Rossi Rosato Vermouth, Yellow Chartreuse with lemon & grapefruit bitters

With playful descriptions under each drink and plenty of house bitters and syrups, it satisfies the cocktail aficionado but, as Diedrich mentions, keeps bartenders and customers happy by not being painstaking or pretentious. Some drinks only have a handful of ingredients, others require a simple mix and stir and they’re ready. Elegant but straightforward.

With location, talent and hip casualness on its side, I can bet this will be destination for locals and tourists downtown.

** Cocktail recipes are Kevin Diedrich’s unless otherwise noted.

Written by in: Imbiber,The Latest | Tags: ,

Site Admin | Log out | Theme: Aeros 2.0 by TheBuckmaker.com