Sunday, November 4, 2012

Destination: San Francisco and Napa - Restaurant Roundup

Hi there, readers.
It has surely been a week...The husband and I just wrapped a great trip to San Francisco and Napa that will likely inspire several more recipe-related posts, but for now, I wanted to give you a quickie rundown of all the amazing eats we enjoyed at these two great destinations. Our journey was filled with fun, including visits with two of my oldest and dearest friends (both of whom happened to be fantastic tour guides), copious amounts of wine, and of course, many wonderful meals. 

Alcatraz, as viewed from Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, Photo: NK 

The beautiful David Arthur Winery (Click HERE for Info) Napa/Rutherford, CA Photo:NK

Still, I must tell you, our trip was incredibly bittersweet. Just after we landed at SFO, much of the northeast, particularly New York City, Long Island, and New Jersey, was hit with a brutal "superstorm" by the name of Sandy. Naturally, we were in knots until we heard that all our friends and family were ok. In the days following, we, like the rest of the general public, would be astonished by the footage of the unthinkable damage and loss of life this horrific storm had wrought.  

I write to you today from my mother's house, as we still don't have power at home. Our city and many areas this awful weather event touched, remain paralyzed. Worst of all, the human toll has been horrific. So many of those who narrowly escaped with their lives lost nearly everything. If this chilling tragedy has a silver lining, it has been the remarkable banding together that's happening in response: people comforting, housing, and feeding one another. People giving of their time and money to help those in need. May it continue, and we are happy to be home to hug our loved ones and do our part.  

So - I hope my dining suggestions and observations, though probably ill-timed, help you in the future should you travel to the San Fran/Napa area. For those of you that were particularly harmed by Sandy, please know that our wish for you is that better times are ahead. And soon. 

San Francisco - Where to Eat
What a city. San Fran definitely lived up to its hype. We didn't have one bad meal here, in fact. San Fran offers amazing culinary diversity but my vote for the foods to focus on would be Seafood and Asian cuisine, notably the city's famed, ubiquitous seafood stew - Cioppino. Here's where to go for all of it, including some additional restaurant destinations for an extra special night out.

The Ferry Building/Embarcadero
When - lunch/quick snack
Why - Variety. The Ferry Building houses an amazing collection of kiosks representing some of the top foods in town  - and all under one roof. Bonus - You'll find lots of places to buy fresh produce and specialty items, as well as an outdoor farmers market on certain days showcasing all the best in organic produce and other tasty products. 
Where - Explore it all, and leave time to meander and taste. We particularly enjoyed 
Out the Door - a takeout Vietnamese counter with very good, cheap eats. Special thanks to my friend Gab for the hot tip on some good 'n spicy food!
Website HERE
Yummy Lemongrass Pork and Vermicelli Noodle
+ Spring Rolls at Out the Door, Photo: NK 
The Pescado Taco at Nick's - Delicious! Photo: NK 

Nick's Crispy Tacos
Whenlunch/quick snack
Why - Cheap, top-notch Tacos of all kinds. I can only vouch directly for the Pescado (fish) Taco that Nick's is famous for. It is to die for, and actually inspired a fast and easy Fish Taco Recipe in one of NK's first guest posts. Check that out HERE. Nick's is actually housed in a nightclub called Rouge. I know, weird, but what you do after your Taco is up to you. 
Website HERE

Sotto Mare - The place for Cioppino!
When - Go for a casual, mid-priced Dinner in the heart of San Fran's charming Little Italy. 
Sotto Mare in North Beach/San Fran, Photo: NK
Why - Sotto Mare has a no-frills yet jolly vibe, great food, and a laid back and pleasingly down-to-earth staff. It's all about the seafood here. Italian-inflected seafood at that. It impressed me as the type of fun and casual spot you'd find in Brooklyn. The food is very good and so is the experience. Get the Cioppino, a hearty seafood stew in a tomato-based sauce (which serves 2). Wear your bib proudly and be prepared to get dirty! To start, and don't miss the Oyster Shooters served Bloody Mary-style. Yum! For dessert? There, you're out of luck. This place is a get in and get out sort of joint, but you'll be happy you came. 
Make Reservations if you can, otherwise, go a bit on the earlier side.
Website HERE

When - For a special dinner out if you don't mind heading a bit off the beaten path. It was about a 15 dollar cab ride from the Union Square area)
Spatch-Cooked Game Hen with Pomegranate
at Incanto, Photo: NK
Why - Lovable Top Chef Masters star Chris Cosentino's newish restaurant is all about meat, but is not the best for the non-adventurous eater. A proponent of the nose-to-tail food movement, Chris highlights all parts of the animal relying primarily on Italian preparations. Which parts, you ask?  Think Tripe, Gizzard and Pig's Ear.That said, it is possible to order less "exotic" items that are also quite delicious. Cured meat plate anyone? We tried the Veal Tonnato Special and I had a fantastic Cornish Game Hen. Mind you, I don't even care that much for poultry. I order it at good restaurants from time to time figuring that it will be a great litmus test for the skills of the chef. If you can make me swoon over a poultry dish, then you are on to something. Go to Incanto for the commendable service, the upscale/casual if not slightly over-produced trattoria vibe, and of course, some nicely executed and inventive dishes. With a glass of wine each, two starters and two dinners, you can get out of here for about 110 dollars before tax and tip. Note that there will also be a small surcharge on your bill so that Chris can provide all hourly staff with healthcare benefits so sorely missed in the industry.
Make Reservations
Website HERE

Swan Oyster Depot
Photo: NK 

When - Lunch, Snack, pre-dinner (Closes at 530pm). Basically, go early and often, or when you have an hour ++ to kill waiting in line. They are closed on Sundays. Swan opens at 1030 am and the famous line can form before then. We arrived at 1130 on a weekday and our wait was about 45 minutes. Happily, once you are in, they don't rush you. 

Why - Because if you are a Seafood Lover, you should believe the hype. Holy smokes - this casual, family owned fish market/lunch counter blew my socks off. 

If you are someone who doesn't mind paying a bit extra for something incredibly special, this is your place. I love Oysters more than I can even express in words, and the Oysters here (priced on target for the market at 28 dollars per dozen), really all the seafood we tried, was over the top. Some of the other dishes like Crab Cocktail and Shrimp Salad are on the pricier side. Overall, think simple, delicious, and perfectly fresh fish of all types served by burly men with smiling eyes. Swan has a counter with about 12 seats. The walls are covered in bric-a-brac and other seafood-inspired and random kitsch. The menu is scrawled on a board above it all. Fresh fish adorns the window, helping hungry folks on the line power through the often lengthy wait.

The Tantalizing Window At Swan Oyster Depot, Photo: NK

They also have a nice basic wine and beer selection (I thought the Anchor Steam beer on tap was a great addition to my meal) and a variety of Oyster types determined by what is freshest. 

Sure, Bourdain made a trip here on his show - not that I want to be him or anything. No, he's way more funny than me and much less sober. Ok, at least more funny. Anyways, the guy usually knows his stuff, and Swan Oyster Depot is the kind of rare culinary pilgrimage spot that is also a well-deserved neighborhood institution filled with real-life locals. I am salivating as I write this. Just go. It is worth the wait. 
More Info HERE

OSHA - Thai
When - any time, lunch or dinner. Quick, fast, cheap and friendly. 
Why - My good friend Lissette met us here for our last evening out, before graciously ferrying us to the airport unsolicited. What a gal! Anyways, Osha has many locations in San Fran and offered some very solid cheap to mid-priced Thai food in a boisterous setting. Everything we had was quite tasty, and it was a great way to send off our trip in good company. 
Website HERE

Napa/Yountville, CA - Where to Eat
Yountville, CA, a town in the Napa region just over 1 hour from San Francisco, is a great base of operation for all things wine. Accessible to many of Napa's amazing Wineries, Yountville gets extra points for being incredibly charming. Finally, it also earns a huge gold star for being home to many of the top restaurants in the region, all within a few very walkable blocks. 

The French Laundry
You know, Thomas Keller's most sought after restaurant, widely touted as the best in the US. But guess what? I am never getting in here. If you go, please report back! I really didn't even try because we planned our Napa trip on the fly and you either have to know someone or call a LONG time in advance.  Also, it is tres tres pricey. 

One can dream.  Photo: NK
But fret not! Turns out that Keller basically owns the rest of Yountville. If you want to try some of his more accessible restaurants and bakeries there's always Bouchon, Ad Hoc (a casual bistro), and for Ad Hoc's famous Fried Chicken in a hurry, there is: 
Photo: NK 
When - Lunch/quick snack al fresco - it's basically a shack/window with some picnic tables serving only Fried Chicken and Pulled Pork. 
Why - The Fried Chicken is amazing, and since I will never get into French Laundry, I figured I'd at least check out Thomas Keller's frying prowess at a comparatively bargain price - ok, very comparatively. Be prepared to pay about 20 bucks for three pieces of Chicken, some Cornbread, two tiny but delish sides (watch out for the fantastic Collard Greens) and a soft drink. 
Where - Located behind Keller's casual Bistro, Ad Hoc - limited day time hours. 
Website HERE 

Now, check out this attractive bird:

Perfectly Fried Chicken at Addendum, Photo: NK 

When A perfect locale for a special meal, lunch or dinner, weeknight or weekend. 
Why - Sometimes Celebrity Chefs are over-hyped. Not Michael Chiarello.  A Napa local, runner up on Top Chef Masters, and noted TV Chef, Chiarello has the life. His Easy Entertaining Food Network series is shot in his gorgeous home kitchen and personal vineyard. By night, his restaurant, Bottega in Yountville, is one of the most popular on the strip. Serving inventive Southern Italian Farm to Table fare, Chiarello impresses using the best local ingredients, perfect execution, and often incredibly authentic and underrepresented regional Italian flavors - the latter being the thing that really gets me. Although dinner here will set you back a bit, I actually think it's well priced for what you get when measured against NYC prices. First course pastas don't typically cost over 25 dollars, many quite a bit less, even those with seafood. They are packed with complex flavors and portion size is as it should be - not too small, not too large. Appetizers are varied and interesting, usually landing in the 12-15 dollar range. I guess my point is that you can leave here with a reasonable check if you choose wisely. We did splurge on a quartino of very special wine as recommended by my friend Monica. A quartino, I learned, is about a glass and a half and so it's perfect for sharing two ways, and here, it makes for a super way to enjoy otherwise too-pricey bottles. As per Monica, Chiarello's 2009 Eileen Cabernet, named for his wife, was outrageously good. It pays to know people with good taste! 

Photo: NK 
For me, ambiance also means quite a bit to the dining experience, and Bottega's design is just as I like it - walls adorned in a warm but elegant Tuscan Palate, brick accents, high ceilings, fire pits and lanterns, clean, minimalist tables, and a partially open kitchen. The service is close to excellent, and best of all, servers there are friendly and not stuffy in the least. Very California, as they say. 
Make Reservations
Website HERE

Bistro Jeanty
When - A Lovely Mid-Priced Dinner, Bistro Lunch, and some afternoons, dollar Oysters!
Why - I may have mentioned before, but traditional French Bistro Cuisine has a very special place in my heart. Well executed French food can be gorgeous, simple, and always rich. I was at first unsure about my reservation here. Frankly, it's not one of the often "talked about" places in Yountville, despite being very well reviewed. Upon checking in to our hotel, I asked the concierge what his thoughts about it were. He assured me that Jeanty's chef was one to the Yountville originals who has continued to serve high quality food in the town for years, despite not having national celeb chef status like Keller and Chiarello. This was music to my ears. I just love a pioneer. 

Oysters at Bistro Jeanty, Photo: NK
We dined at Jeanty twice. The first trip was for an al fresco midday snack of the dollar Oysters (my third Oyster meal of the trip). Our friends ordered the outrageous Tomato Soup en Croute, which is served with a flaky pot pie-esque pastry topping, and raved. 

Our next visit was dinner, where we enjoyed the steamed Mussel Appetizer. For mains, my husband ordered a deliciously tender Beef stew and a not-to-be-missed side of Frites. I uncharacteristically ordered a Mushroom Pasta dish with deeply flavored Chicken Broth Base, Chanterelles, and Hen of the Woods Mushrooms. Delicious. The decor is typical bistro - red and white accents, and a few cutesy decorative pieces like an old fashioned bicycle - but no giant french posters, thankfully. Just very cute and warm. Friendly (by French restaurant standards) servers don white aprons, which I am a sucker for. We were too full for dessert but I did find room for a nice Cognac that nearly knocked my husband out of his chair. He's a Scotch guy, and Cognac can be like Scotch on steroids. What can I say, I was feeling very French! Overall, the experience was very good and I would go back.
Make Reservations for Weekend dinner, but otherwise, it seemed possible to walk in.
Website HERE

Other Napa Recommendations - As we only spent two nights in town, we did not get to all the restaurants that were recommended to us. Here are some notables that I am confident could be worth a visit, as they were recommended to me by some folks with very good taste!

Mustard's Grill

For Casual Roadside Fare - Gott's, also known as Taylor's Refresher.

A special shout-out goes to Genova Delicatessen in Downtown Napa, a friendly Italian Deli with a delightful staff. It's a great spot to grab some salty meats and cheeses on your way into town. Enjoy these at your hotel with some wine, or in between vineyard visits when there's no time for lunch. 

That's everything! I do hope our culinary recap comes in handy for you someday.
Coming soon, I will share some info about the amazing Wineries we visited, and surely, there will be repeat San Francisco and Napa visits in my future. These are great destinations for the food and wine obsessed, and really a good choice for a low-key vacation in the states. 

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