19 December 2016

Travelogue: San Francisco, Oct. 2016 - Rain can't drown this city's charms

My wife and I just can't stay away from San Francisco. We first visited 40+ years ago for our honeymoon. We liked it so much, we moved there for a year. Though we didn't stay, we have made many return visits over the years. It's the city we travel to most often for leisure. So we know it pretty well.

Our October trip was technically a business trip. We did have a meeting on one day. But we extended our stay so that we'd have time to take in our favorite activities and visit some favorite restaurants. One little glitch - it rained. Quite a lot, actually. But we still made our way around the city and visited familiar locales. Some of the others who were involved in the meeting used the opportunity to go to museums. The city has great museums. But on this trip, we didn't join them. Another couple had a break of good luck and went on a harbor cruise - no rain, lucky them. We've been on the harbor cruise before. It's fun.

Lodging: The meeting planner made arrangements for us to stay at the University Club on Nob Hill. It wasn't really the kind of hotel that we would normally consider, and we had some problems there. When we checked into our room, there was a very strong odor that made us think of some kind of cleaning product or solvent. It was not at all tolerable. The management was prompt in addressing the problem. But the scent still lingered, and we left the window open and the ceiling fan running the whole time we were there. Also, this is a private club, and club members are their priority. So one night during our stay, we had planned to go to the bar for a drink before dinner. But the bar was reserved for a members-only event. I must say that we found the staff to be very friendly and helpful. But I wouldn't really recommend the University Club for a SF stay, unless you're really into that kind of experience.
Day or night, a walk along the Embarcadero is fun

Of the many times we've stayed in San Francisco, we've never stayed on Nob Hill. Besides the University Club, which I don't recommend, there are other very nice hotels on the Hill. It's actually a pretty good location. Two blocks down the hill one direction is Chinatown. Three or four blocks down the hill in another direction is Union Square. North Beach is an easy walk as is the Embarcadero and even Fisherman's Wharf ... all down the hill. The trouble is, eventually you have to go back up the hill. And it's steep. By the end of our 3-day stay, we all were tired and sore from hiking up the hill. I decided that if I ever stay on Nob Hill in the future, I'll by a cable car pass for as many days as I'm staying. Then I'll walk down, and just ride the cable car up when I return to the hotel.

Music: SF has a good music scene, and my wife and I have found good live music on each of our visits in the past. This time, we only had one free evening. We went to the Top of the Mark (located on the top floor of the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel). It's a pretty glitzy place with a breathtaking price tag that goes along with the view. On the night we went there (with a group of people) we heard a very entertaining, high energy R&B band. They were great. The drinks were great. The view would have been great, but it was rainy and foggy, so we couldn't see much.
Dinner at Kokkari

Restaurants: Whenever we go to San Francisco, we always have a dilemma about where to eat. Over the years, we enjoyed many really great restaurants, and we're always tempted to go back again. But on the other hand, there are so many good places to eat in the City that we want to try new places. One of our return visits on this trip was an elegant Greek restaurant - Kokkari Estiatorio. I've written about it on this blog; click here to read my past review. Another return visit was at Rose's Cafe for lunch while shopping on Union Street. Click here for my previous post.
The Bay Bridge, after dinner at Waterbar

  • Waterbar - This actually was a return visit for my wife and me. But for some reason, I never wrote a blog post about it. This time, we went with a group of 8. That can be pretty challenging for a restaurant, especially when it's as busy as Waterbar was the night we were there. They did pretty well under the circumstances. We did have to wait a while for our table, even though we had a reservation for 8:30. But once we got seated, everything went quite smoothly. Our server was very patient, accommodating, and professional. It takes a while for 8 people to decide what to eat. Our server hung back, let us take our time, and then swooped in to take our orders when we were ready. The food was excellent, just as it was the other time we ate there. I started with a seafood chowder and for my meal, I ordered scallops served with sweet potato gnocchi. The scallops actually were an appetizer portion, and there were only two of them. It might not have been enough, but my wife share some of her ample portion of tuna. The ambiance is very chic and attractive. The restaurant is located in the shadow of the Bay Bridge. Our table was near a window and we had a gorgeous view of the bridge and the light sculpture by Leo Villareal. As you would expect, the meal was not inexpensive. But it was worthwhile considering the stylish venue and delicious food.
  • The Slanted Door - A friend of mine recommended this Vietnamese restaurant a few years ago. I never seriously considered it. It's located in the Ferry Building, and I expected that it just catered to tourists and passengers arriving on the ferries from around the Bay. Boy was I wrong. We met some relatives there on a rainy Saturday afternoon, their choice. For a table of 6, we ordered several items from the menu and shared all around. It was excellent. Our server was pretty laid back and not particularly attentive. But his recommendations on what to order were great. I would definitely consider a return visit. 
Lunch at the Slanted Door

12 December 2016

Travelogue: Sonoma CA, October 2016 - Rainy weather, wine, and good food

I read somewhere that in the fall of 2016, Northern California had an unusually large number of rainy days. Too bad for us, that's when we were there. While the rainy weather put a damper on some of our planned activities, we still were able to enjoy wine tasting, good restaurants, some live music, and a cozy, comfortable inn. And it didn't rain the whole time. We did have one day of beautiful weather.

Hotel: Our base for this visit was the Inn at SonomaThis was a return visit for my wife and me. The location is ideal. It's a short walk to the Sonoma Plaza which is the bustling heart of this little wine town. And it's easy to get in and out of town from here for wine tasting and other adventures. 

The amenities are very nice. There's a reception every evening with wine and light appetizers. It's a fun way to meet other people and learn about their wine country experiences. Breakfast every morning is delicious and hearty - a great way to begin the day. They do have a few bikes available for guests to borrow. On a previous visit, my wife and I spent an afternoon biking to 3 or 4 wineries that are located within a few miles of the town. The rainy weather precluded a similar biking trek.

The rooms are spacious and comfortable. I only have one quibble. We had a ground floor room facing the parking lot, and the very bright parking lot light kept the room from getting totally dark. The shades block out most of the light. But if the light would annoy you, try to get a room on the back side of the hotel. Lastly, the staff is friendly, helpful, and accommodating. They're knowledgeable and eager to provide tips on things to do.

Music: My wife and I usually try to find venues with live music when we travel. I didn't really expect much for mid-week in Sonoma. But we were delighted to find the Sonoma Speakeasy. It's located in the Mercado building right off the Sonoma Plaza. We stopped in on a Tuesday night after dinner and heard a great blues band. The web site shows that it's closed most Mondays but has music on stage most of the other days of the week. 

Live blues at the Sonoma Speakeasy

Wineries: I've written a separate blog post about our food and wine pairing at Kendall-Jackson. It was a fabulous experience. Click here to read that post.

  • Kenwood Vineyards: This was our first stop on the first day of wine-tasting. We picked it because it's a wine that we've ordered in the past at restaurants. When we arrived, there weren't very many other customers, and the staff person who was serving us was very accommodating. He included a few extra wines that weren't on the menu. One, an estate bottled Cabernet was excellent. But, he advised us, it's a 'teaser' wine, not available for purchase except as part of the wine club. Too bad. We probably would have bought a bottle to bring home.
    Fall colors and ripe grapes
  • Dry Creek Family Wineries Co-op: We were the only customers in the tasting room for almost an hour. Our server was Shawn (or maybe Shaun). He was very friendly, engaging, personable and funny. (We talked about the term Minnesota Nice. He'd never heard of it. He said he was originally from Massachusetts where people are called Mass-holes.) I liked that the tasting room is a co-op jointly owned by several small family wineries. I told Shaun I spent my career working for a co-op. He was impressed,  at least diplomatically. We had trouble finding wines that we could all agree on. I bought a bottle of Zinfandel that I liked.
  • Foppiano Vineyards: As far as a tasting experience, this was a dud. We picked it because my brother-in-law (who was traveling with us) was familiar with the wines and we were driving right by it after lunch. The staff person serving the wine did not have much personality. She tried to make small talk, but it mostly fell flat. Still, my brother-in-law liked the wine and he ended up buying some to bring home.
  • Francis Ford Coppola Winery: Yes, it's a winery. And yes, I've had their wines and liked them. But on this winery visit, we didn't actually taste any of their wine. We brought along a picnic lunch which we ate while sitting outside on the winery's gorgeous courtyard and patio. Then we meandered through the movie gallery and looked at a vast collection of props and items from Coppola's films. And before we left, we took a walk to view the vineyards and the many different varieties of grapes grown there. It was a very nice experience.
  • Ravenswood Winery: This was the best tasting experience of the trip. It was the absolute last winery visit of our trip. It was late in the afternoon, just a half hour before they closed. The sky was blue and the setting sun was casting long shadows into the valley below the hill where the winery is located. Eagles soared overhead. I've had Ravenswood zinfandels in the past, so I knew I'd like them. But it wasn't just me. All of us agreed that these wines were great. (They're motto is "No Wimpy Wines!" Even though it was close to closing, our server brought us onto the patio, sat us in Adirondack chairs and brought us wine to taste. He joked with us and we had a wonderful time. I joined the Ravenswood wine club and can look forward to quarterly deliveries through the year to remind me of our wonderful visit.
We had lots of fun at Ravenswood. No Wimpy Wine!


  • Sunflower Caffe: When we arrived in Sonoma, it was already past the typical lunch hour. But we were hungry after our travels (and flight delays). The staff at our hotel suggested the Sunflower for lunch. It's located right on the Sonoma Plaza. The food was good. My wife and I each had soup. It was very flavorful and was served with some nice artisan bread. But it was not cheap. $20 for two bowls of soup and no beverage (we drank water). 
  • The Girl and The Fig: My wife and I have eaten here before and we really liked it. It was good again this time, though our appetites for dinner were a bit spoiled by our late lunch and then a few snacks at the hotel afternoon reception. My wife and I split a Brussels sprout salad that was very good. For my entree, I had trout on a carrot puree, and that was excellent. The others had burgers. I really don't know why you'd go to a nice place like this and order a burger. But I guess it's nice to know that they have it on the menu. Everyone did like their burgers.
  • B&V Whiskey Bar: After a day of wine-tasting (including a big lunch), we just wanted a nice, casual place to get something simple for dinner. This place is located right on the Sonoma Plaza. The menu looked good, so we came in. The ambiance was unimpressive, just a sports bar really. I had a panzanella served with fried goat cheese on top. It was very good. My wife had smoked, roasted chicken that was very good and unusual. Service was friendly but not especially attentive.
  • Dry Creek General Store: This is a convenient place to pick up a light lunch to take on a picnic ... which is what we did. My wife and I split a tart from the deli counter. You also can get made-to-order sandwiches. There are picnic tables outside, and we saw groups of bikers stop in for lunch and to take a break from their rides. We gook our lunches down the road to a winery and had a picnic on their grounds. 
    Complementary starter at La Salette
  • La Salette: I was eagerly anticipating our dinner here. It was a return visit for my wife and me; we ate here on a previous trip to Sonoma and really liked it. Part of the appeal is that it's a fairly unusual ethnic menu - Portuguese. Maybe there are Portuguese restaurants in other cities, but not in the ones where I've traveled. We had some really great fish and seafood. I had the whole roasted branzino which was excellent. We did order Portuguese wine. It felt a little odd to order imported wine in the middle of California wine country. But that's what we did.

06 December 2016

Food, wine pairing in the Sonoma Valley

My wife and I have enjoyed California's wine country for many years. We've frequently been wine-tasting in Napa and Sonoma, as well as other areas of the state. Over the years, our preference for Sonoma has grown. I think in general, the wines produced there suit our tastes better. We also like that Sonoma still has many small family wineries, and we've enjoyed visiting many of them. Napa has many small wineries as well. But it seems like the Sonoma Valley is a little more laid back and less touristy than Napa. 

While we've visited many wineries in California over the years, one experience we never had was a food and wine tasting at a winery. In retrospect, that seems like a foolish oversight. It's a truism that having wine with food enhances the experience of both. Yet, at most wineries, the experience usually is all wine, no food (except for sometimes crackers or breadsticks to help clear the palate.) So on our October trip to the Sonoma Valley with my wife's brother and his wife, we wanted to experience a real food/wine pairing.

We picked Kendall-Jackson in the town of Fulton, a little north of Healdsburg. It was our choice for a couple of reasons. First, the menu (which we viewed online before making our reservation) looked great. Second, it was available mid-day on a Tuesday. We were kind of surprised to learn that even wineries that offer food/wine pairings often don't have them available mid-week. 
In the elegant dining hall where the pairing takes place

The Kendall-Jackson estate is impressive and gorgeous. The room where the pairing takes place is like a large, elegant banquet hall in a manor. The table was set formally with an enticing line-up of wine glasses. 

During the experience, we interacted with a wine steward and two chefs. The wine steward poured our samples and provided some tips on what to look for when sipping the wine on its own compared to how it tastes with the food. 

Online, the web site talks about a 7-course experience. That's true, but it's really served in 3 stages. The menu items change regularly, based on what's fresh and in season. So if you look at the online menu, you should not take it too literally. Here's a run-down of the food and wine that we experienced. 

First we were served a sauvignon blanc with fried green tomatoes topped with marinated cherry tomatoes and a dollop of fish roe. The second white wine was chardonnay and that was paired with garden vegetables and cheese on a polenta cake. To demonstrate how the pairing affects the perception of the wine, our wine steward had us mix and match. It was remarkable. None of us is very fond of chardonnay, and our prejudice was reinforced tasting it alone or with the fried green tomato. But with the veggies and polenta cake, it complimented very well. And conversely, as much as we liked the sauvignon blanc, it wasn't nearly as enjoyable when paired with the veggies and polenta. 
White wine pairings

But all of us really prefer red wine, so we were eager to get on with the next set of pairings. First we tasted a pinot noir with duck breast, charred eggplant, and tomato caponata. As a general matter, I don't particularly like pinot noir. But paired with the duck, it was excellent. On the other hand, I was a little disappointed by the next pairing - zinfandel with a barbecued pork belly slider. I love zinfandel, but I wasn't very impressed by this particular zin, and the slider was not something I'd normally order either. The third red wine was cabernet sauvignon paired with lamb tacos, and that was another real winner. 
From the left - duck, slider, lamb taco

Lastly came a platter with two desserts paired with a sweet muscat wine. One dessert was a buttermilk mousse - very creamy and a little tart, a nice contrast to the wine. The second dessert was caramel corn, which was the hit at the table (though I really preferred the mousse. I gave most of my caramel corn to my wife.)
Dessert pairings - buttermilk mousse and caramel corn

It sounds like a lot of wine. I guess it was. But the experience is spread over 60-90 minutes. So we never really felt a buzz from the wine. 

Then, afterwards, we strolled through the gardens surrounding the estate, and that was very relaxing and interesting. You can view the different grape varieties that go into the wine. But they also have a very extensive garden that yields much of the produce served in the tasting. From start to finish, we spent 3 hours at Kendall-Jackson. 

Overall, it's not cheap. But for us, it was probably the most memorable experience from our Sonoma Valley wine vacation.