24 December 2012

Peruvian lunch in SF, at La Mar

For our November trip to northern California, my wife and I flew in on a Wednesday, arriving in San Francisco just before noon. That gave us enough time to stop along the Embarcadero for lunch before heading to Santa Rosa.

On our October trip, we’d spied an interesting looking restaurant that we wanted to try. La Mar is a Peruvian ‘cebicheria.’ (I don’t know if that’s actually a word. I couldn’t find an official definition online. But by implication, it’s a restaurant that specializes in ceviche.)

The weather was pretty nice, and we asked for a table on the semi-enclosed patio overlooking San Francisco Bay. The patio was well populated, but the rest of the restaurant was pretty empty. (It did fill in later during the lunch hour.)DSC00275

La Mar offers a daily tasting menu. On our visit, there were two choices, one of them vegetarian. The items offered on both menus were very intriguing and looked interesting. I had the non-vegetarian option. One word: Fabulous.

My lunch started with a classic ceviche. It was yellowtail cured with red onion and habanero and served with Peruvian corn and yam. Also on the artful plate was a small serving of ‘causa.’ This is another word that’s not too easy to find, but I take it that it’s a fancy mashed potato. My ‘causa Limena’ featured Dungeness crab (a Bay Area specialty) on whipped potatoes with avocado puree and a sauce.

The entrée was fresh fish with red onions, tomatoes, cilantro and mashed yucca with a pungent sauce. The dessert was a Peruvian purple corn sorbet.

My wife had a hard time picking an entrée for lunch. She finally chose quinoa chaufa (another difficult word to find a definition for). A ‘chaufa’ apparently is a fusion of Peruvian and Chinese cooking. The quinoa chaufa essentially was quinoa served in the style of fried rice. Her dish had peppers, onions, mushrooms, bean sprouts, egg, noodles and mixed seafood.

Before I end this review, I have a comment about the service. At first, our server seemed impatient with Linda’s indecision about what to order. He seemed exasperated that she was having a hard time picking something. But in the end, he made up for it by serving her a bowl of the Peruvian purple corn sorbet like I had, no charge.

So this was a great lunch. Excellent preparation, a cuisine that’s a little unfamiliar to us, beautiful location in one of our favorite cities. I think it was Linda’s favorite meal of the trip. I have a hard time picking a lunch as my favorite meal. I’ll save that designation for another review.

22 December 2012

Northern California lodging for any taste, any occasion

I had two trips to northern California this fall, one in October and one in November. On both trips, I had some business and on both trips, my wife and I spent some additional time on our own. I’ll be posting information on some of the great restaurants we ate at. But this post is about where we stayed, because we stayed at four very different styles of lodging.

Here’s the list. Read on for my review of each:

I was at the Ritz for a meeting. Half Moon Bay is a small, artsy, and intensely organic agricultural town. A long time ago (1975), when my wife and I lived in San Francisco for a year, we drove down to Half Moon Bay (about 45 minutes) not really knowing what it expect. It was late October, and we discovered that they have a pumpkin festival. Well since then, the Half Moon Bay pumpkin festival has become a BIG deal. The cars are backed up for miles making their way into the town. That got to be an issue one day when the group I was meeting with went to Palo Alto for the day for a seminar at Stanford University. Our trip back to the hotel was significantly delayed because of the traffic.2012-10-23T21-59-48_5

The word ‘pretentious’ has negative connotations. I don’t mean to be negative about the Ritz, but pretentious is the best word I can come up with. It is self-consciously elegant. The location is fabulous. It overlooks a beautiful stretch of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a short and easy walk down to the beach. The golf courses are supposed to be fabulous (I don’t golf). And it has a highly rated spa (I didn’t use any of the spa offerings). It was a great place to have a business meeting. The staff is very accommodating and friendly (in an unpretentious way). But it would not be the kind of place we’d pick for a vacation spot.

After our stay at the Ritz, we drove to Wine Country for a stay in a bed and breakfast in the little town of Occidental. We prefer bed and breakfast accommodations when visiting wine country. It doesn’t matter if the rooms are a little small. We don’t spend much time in the room anyway.

For this particular visit, we had a hard time finding a bed and breakfast in our usual haunts. We knew we wanted the Sonoma Valley. We checked Healdsburg and the town of Sonoma, but the places we’d stayed previously had no availability. We considered staying in Bodega Bay, which is on the coast west of the Sonoma Valley. But as I was looking at the map, I saw Occidental and was pleased to discover that it has a very highly rated B&B – the Inn at Occidental.

It was a great choice for our long weekend in Wine Country. The proprietors were friendly and gave some great suggestions on wineries to visit. The morning breakfasts were delicious. They have an evening wine reception. We like B&Bs that do that. We like meeting people and comparing notes on wineries to visit and things to see or do. One minor quibble – in some B&Bs they offer creative appetizers with the wine. At the Inn at Occidental they offer a plate of cheese and crackers, but nothing particularly creative.DSC00268

Occidental is a small town. I mean really small. They do have a couple of restaurants in town, including a really wonderful one, Bistro Des Copains, which I will review in a later post. But if you’re looking for a town with lots of dining options, this isn't it. During our three-night stay, we ate once in town, once in Sebastopol (20 minute drive, including getting lost once), and once in Graton (10 minute drive).

One more thing – the Inn’s web site says it’s an hour drive from San Francisco. But driving up out of The City on a Friday afternoon, it was about 3 hours to Occidental.

When we came back to northern California in November, my meeting was being held at the Vintner’s Inn in Santa Rosa. This time the drive on a Wednesday afternoon from San Francisco was mercifully quick. Vintner’s Inn really is a wonderful place to stay. It has an excellent restaurant on the premises and good meeting facilities. But the accommodations are extra special. There are 44 rooms, located in three or four separate lodges. The whole resort sits within a working vineyard, and guests can walk through the vineyard and see some of the work being done.DSC00279

The rooms themselves are very spacious and nicely decorated. Each room either has a little private patio or a balcony. Ours overlooked the vineyard. When we checked in, there was a small bottle of the wine made from the Inn’s grapes. We uncorked it and sat on our patio and watched the sun set. Wow.

As I mentioned, the resort has an excellent restaurant on premises. But there’s nothing else nearby. So guests would have to drive to Santa Rosa or Healdsburg or Sebastopol (or any of a number of nearby towns) for other dining options.

After our wonderful stay at the Vintner’s Inn, we finished our northern California sojourns in San Francisco. There are two small chains of boutique hotels that we like to stay in when we’re in The City. This time we stayed at the Prescott Hotel, which is a Kimpton Hotel. The Kimpton business model is to take older hotels, renovate them and run them as boutique hotels. We have always found them to be friendly and fun, though often the rooms can be small and/or quirky.

We liked the Prescott very much. The location is ideal, just two blocks to Union Square. We had countless restaurant options all within walking distance. Like all Kimptons, it has an evening wine reception. Several years ago at another Kimpton in San Francisco (the Serrano), we met a young Irish couple and struck up a friendship. My wife still exchanges e-mails with the young woman.

There are a couple of other Kimptons in San Francisco that I like better than the Prescott. But we had a great time.

Of these four lodgings in northern California, my wife’s favorite was definitely the Vintner’s Inn. For me, I think I liked the Inn at Occidental the best. We definitely would look for a Kimpton hotel for our next stay in San Francisco. And we’re not likely to stay at the Ritz Carlson in Half Moon Bay in the future.

18 December 2012

Birthday dinner at Bar La Grassa, Minneapolis

When I wrote my first review of Bar La Grassa two years ago, I explained all the reasons why I liked it but couldn’t rave about it. At the end of the post, I promised a do-over. Well, it was a while coming, but here it is.

The first time we went to Bar La Grassa, we didn’t like our table. This time we got a better table. I also didn’t like the lack of descriptive language about the menu items; I’m over that now. And just like our first visit, the food was very good and creative.BarLaGrassa2

We started with a couple of bruschettas. One was peperonata with gorgonzola cheese. The other was eggplant caponata. Both were excellent. Because we are big fans of gorgonzola, I think we liked that one better. But we didn’t realize how large they would be. Each plate had two large thick slices of bread and the toppings were generously piled on. We could easily have gotten by with one order between the two of us.

Next we went for two half portions of pasta. One was a foie gras tortellini. It was very rich and delicate. The other pasta was agnolotti with mushrooms and taleggio.  Agnolotti is another kind of stuffed pasta. For this dish, they are stuffed with taleggio, a soft Italian cheese.

For dessert, I had a tart tatin – closest thing to apple pie on the menu. I also had an espresso.

Toward the end of dinner, I commented to my wife, “As good as this is, it doesn’t compare to some of the Italian restaurants I’ve eaten at in DC.” Many people say Bar La Grassa is the best Italian restaurant in Minneapolis. It may be, though actually my current favorite is Tosca in Linden Hills. But so many  times, after an Italian meal in DC, I can’t help lamenting – Why can’t we have an Italian restaurant like this in Minnesota?

As much as I enjoyed Bar La Grassa, here are four recent DC restaurants that I think are better – Bibiana, Acqua al 2, Potenza, and Fiola. Unfortunately, I discovered on my last trip to DC, Potenza is no longer in business.

I’ve struggled trying to articulate what makes those DC restaurants better than Bar La Grassa or Tosca. There isn’t a single factor. Part of it is ambiance. The DC restaurants I listed are mostly fairly formal and elegant. Bar La Grassa is kind of a hipster venue (a trait I noted in my original review) and a little pretentious. Tosca is a friendly neighborhood place, relaxing and casual, but not really elegant.

When it comes to the food, the DC restaurants don’t have anything over the Minneapolis Italian restaurants in terms of flavor and preparation. But I guess I’d describe the DC restaurants as having classic Italian menus. Bar La Grassa is innovative definitely not ‘classic.’ Tosca has classic preparations, but the menu is quite small.

I’m not sure if this description adequately defines the difference. But I have a solution. I’m going to bring Linda along to DC in January. (We’re going to attend Barak Obama’s Inauguration.) We will eat at one (or more) of the restaurants I listed. Maybe she can help me articulate the difference. Or, maybe she’ll totally disagree with me. I guess we’ll see. Stay tuned.

15 December 2012

Belated birthday lunch … served slowly

My brother Mike and I usually have lunch between our respective birthdays. His is in October; mine is November. Well, one thing lead to another, and we ended up having lunch in mid-December, coincidentally on our brother Richard’s birthday.

Mike asked me to pick the restaurant. Neither of us had eaten before at Cosmos in the Graves Hotel. So I made a reservation there for noon on a recent Friday.

When I got there, Mike had already arrived and had perused the wine list. Neither of us were going back to the office on a Friday afternoon, so we shared a bottle of wine with lunch. Mike found a personal favorite on the list and ordered it. We started chatting. Pretty soon I noticed Mike scanning the restaurant, and I realized that we’d been sitting there for at least 15 minutes, and no wine, no server to be seen.

He finally caught her attention and waved her over. She apologized for the delay, saying that they’d had trouble finding the bottle. Ok, but then she could have let us know, and maybe given us the option of ordering our lunches.

The wine finally arrived, and we started enjoying it. Unfortunately, that was just indicative of the slow serve we experienced the rest of the lunch. There were long delays between courses. In the end, it took an hour and 45 minutes for us to finish lunch, and we didn’t have dessert or coffee. That would have been too long for an average business lunch.DSC00285

The server was friendly enough. She did a nice job taking our picture, and when she didn’t like the way the first shot turned out, she took another (and another and another). She did make one other faux pas – she asked which of us was older. I’m 9 years older than Mike.

Other than the service, Cosmos was very nice for lunch. I like the décor, quite sleek and modern. And the food was very good.

We both started out with Caesar salads. They were served with a slice of French bread toasted very crisp as a crouton. The traditional anchovy was laid atop the crouton I suppose to give anchovy haters an unobtrusive way to leave it off the salad. (I relished my anchovy. I didn’t notice if Mike ate his.)

For my entrée, I ordered the daily fish special. It was steelhead salmon. It was cooked so that the skin got very crisp. When I grill salmon, the skin gets crisp like that, but this wasn’t grilled. The fish was very moist and delicate, like trout, which apparently it is. It was served with roasted Brussels sprouts (yum), roasted fingerling potatoes (also yum), and small beets (left on my plate untouched.)

(Several sources say that ‘steelhead’ are trout, not salmon. Like salmon, and unlike trout, steelhead live in salt water but return to fresh water to spawn (like salmon) whereas trout spend their whole lives in fresh water. Wikipedia says that steelhead and rainbow trout are the same species, even though rainbow trout is strictly a freshwater fish. I don’t understand how they can be the same species when they have such a significant difference. I guess that’s just a shortcoming of my biology education.

(I actually don’t care what they call it. The way it was prepared at Cosmos was good.)

Mike had Cosmos pad Thai with shrimp. It was kind of an unusual entrée to find on the menu. I don’t consider Cosmos to be a fusion restaurant, and there weren’t any other Asian dishes on the menu. Still, Mike liked it.

Overall, I liked the ambiance and food well enough to consider going back to Cosmos despite the slow service. Next time, however, I think I’d like to try it for dinner rather than lunch.