Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Road Trip

Ever since my first trip to Seattle I’ve been inspired by local foods, as unique menu treasures from non-ubiquitous local restaurants are hard to come by in the urban centers I’ve long lived in.

Right now I’m thinking about Seattle chef Tom Douglas’s triple coconut cream pie, from Dahlia Lounge, a dessert epiphany that I was lucky enough to experience for the first time years ago while exploring that fine food city.

The small successes you encounter in faraway restaurants are the parts you take home. Once you get back to your roost you’ll very likely share those discoveries with friends and colleagues, and if anyone hits the road themselves, if they don’t track down that wonderful place or menu item you found it’s easy to want to hurt them!

These thoughts have come to pass because a few weekends ago to ring in the new year I had the pleasure of driving up the California coast with Christy. What a wonderful reminder of why I moved to this great state. There is so much beauty to see, and it’s all so accessible.

We started in Pismo Beach with a pre-“Avatar” dinner at a local seafood spot called Steamers. My shrimp scampi was quite good, refined and flavorful and for the right price. Christy’s linguini with clams tasted great, although it took her a good 20 minutes to dig 100 tiny clams out of their shells before digging in.

The next day we couldn’t get into a sold-out Hearst Castle, so instead – since there were two full days left in the holiday weekend – we set our compass north. I imagined the map of the state in my mind, searching for a fun locale due north. Suddenly the Napa Valley exploded into my consciousness. It’s so close! And I’d wanted for a long time to visit the Oxbow Public Market, a fairly new food hall similar to the luminous Ferry Building in San Francisco.

We called en route and found out the market closed at 7:00pm, so we hauled ass. Even though we got there at 6:45pm, most of the food stalls were already closed, but that's okay. At least we got to see the place. It's nice! And this was very cool too, right next door to the market was a new branch of Taylor's Automatic Refresher—also in the Ferry Building, also in St. Helena—that fantastic local retro hamburger stand.

Next up, it was time to finally check out the Bounty Hunter, a hot wine bar that had just opened in downtown Napa back when I was taking a one-week course at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. That was in 2004, and the course was called the Professional Business of Wine. I went with the intention of seeing if this was a career path I should consider more seriously, and also thought it would be a fun way to explore Napa with my classmates.

No such luck, on both fronts:
1) I enjoyed the class, yet couldn’t wrap my head around the growing principles of vines and grapes. Then in the tasting portion of class, I couldn't shake my Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World Wine School training, which taught me to lose all pretention about wine and simply know what I like vs. what I don’t in the most general terms. Here, my classmates imagined tasting things I couldn’t imagine! They took a sip and in one wine tasted McIntosh apple and Greengage plum. They tasted fancy things in other wines like lemongrass, papaya and black pepper, even hybrid fruit like pluots. Poppycock! I tasted… grapes! Rich, jammy, bitter, tannic, dry, berry, smoky, apple, lemon, butter, caramel… in the wine. I was not able to taste Greengage plum in the wine. Come on!
2) My class was very small, with about seven people, and they didn’t care to have group activities after class. Except one lady said I could join her cadre at the then new Bounty Hunter, but it felt like a pity invite only, so I declined.

Instead I did my own thing and wandered into Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, located, um, actually on a backstreet parallel to the main street of St. Helena. This place was wonderful, in a converted two-story house, and I grabbed a seat at the bar. The bartender was a fantasy version of a man, a guy you'd want to talk to every day from now until forever, although an hour on that evening was good enough for me. All the food I ordered tasted perfectly amazing, yet the wine business not being for me really hit home that night when my appetizer order of a pan-sautéed artichoke with a glass of Trimbach Gewurtraminer to start was rejected by the bartender because “the artichoke is going to kill that wine.” I love sautéed artichokes, I adore Trimbach’s Gewurtraminer which is rarely on a restaurant menu by the glass, and I did not want to annoy this handsome bartender. But I held my ground and ordered it anyway. Of course he was right, as were the teenage weaned-on-wine busboys who giggled when I went ahead with the order and painfully realized my mistake. It’s ok though, my basic grilled chicken BLT with spiced fries was the best sandwich I’d had in years and years. So flavorful! And the campfire pie for dessert was so original, so incredible. Sure I lived in the great restaurant town of New York then, but finding a place like Cindy’s there was next to impossible because restaurants like that are only found on the road.

The next day after class I was invited by a cute blonde classmate to join him in Calistoga, up Rt. 29 by bus, to kick around a bit before he headed off to a softball game with his Calistoga friends. We perused a market in that town while discussing cheeses and local potato chips, bought fun sodas and finally walked to his friend’s place after openly dreaming of owning our own wine stores. This was the kind of post-class day I’d been looking for, though it ended too soon. He and his friends had to go! They told me to hop in the jeep and they’d drive me back to St. Helena, I could have dinner while they practiced, then they told me where to find them later to watch the game.

We hopped into the jeep with the top down and sailed south on the Silverado Trail, passing field after gorgeous field of grapes, where they and their vines lived in peace. The sun was shining on pretty green landscape as I’d never seen. When the guys dropped me off at Taylor’s Automatic Refresher I was pretty happy since they’d talked it up a lot and I’d never heard of it. Turns out the jeep driver used to work there, and he went up to the counter and ordered for me before waving goodbye and driving off with my classmate. My cheeseburger with sweet potato fries and a glass of red wine were not only of the highest quality, they were also on the house. I wandered over to the softball game about an hour later, and the experience was right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. This world was so serene and strange. I loved it, but it was also a bit lonely since I was there on my own and at this point doubted my ability to make a living there in the Napa Valley wine world (Greengage plum??).

So a few weeks ago, I was taken back to all this as Christy and I drove to dinner at the Bounty Hunter, although we didn't end up eating there and that's okay with me. See our trip to the wine country was an impulse and we never expected to find ourselves up there dressed in jeans and sweatshirts. From the moment we entered the Bounty Hunter bar there were looks and stares from the help, and it wasn't pleasant. We left without sitting down and drove up Rt. 29 to find another place, anything, and we drove past the Oakville Grocery, past the standby restaurants Brix and Mustards, past the flagship Dean & Deluca, and past all the wineries with their trees still wrapped in tiny glowing Christmas lights. We passed a new place I hadn’t seen before called the Rutherford Grill, from the Houston’s folks which I will plan to visit some time in the future. And finally we came upon the original Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, at which I’d had that delicious gourmet burger meal in 2004, and once you hit that you know you’re in St. Helena.

St. Helena was a bit too sleepy at 9:00pm on a Saturday night, so we decided to keep driving for our dinner. In the car I pointed out where Cindy’s was, along with the expansive Beringer winery, and finally we drove through the line of old oak trees that lead up to the majestic Culinary Institute of America. Five minutes later we arrived in the quaint western-style town of Calistoga, and it looked so charming at night that we decided to dine at the lovely Calistoga Inn.

Our repast complete, we drove through Healdsburg at around 10:30pm, home of the Kendall Jackson Winery tasting room. What an amazing town this was! Hadn’t been that north before. It was late, so we decided to come back the next day to walk around. The next morning we drove through California’s southernmost redwood forest park. We proceded south along the foggy Pacific coast winding down through Mendocino. The coastline sure is a sight to see.

Back in Healdsburg we ventured into the Kendall Jackson tasting room because KJ's Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay was the first wine I tasted and loved as an adult. We sampled some interesting wines not available in Los Angeles stores, served to us by "Uncle Bill." Throughout the tasting I threw out some wine facts from my wine school days and Uncle Bill was impressed. Maybe I was too hard on myself in 2004. Maybe it was a matter of simple intimidation, since the people in Napa seemed to know so much more than me. Now I realize I know enough to get by in that world; the key is to forget all pretention and just keep on tasting.

Now it was Sunday early afternoon and time to head back to Los Angeles. We drove south and decided to have lunch in Hayward, California, just south of Oakland, to hit up Buffalo Bill’s Brewery. I've had their excellent beer in LA, and imagined lunch at the brewery would be an amazing foodie adventure. Actually the food was kinda bleh, but let’s face it, we were there for the beer. Pity they were out of their fantastic orange blossom cream ale. Instead we ordered the renowned pumpkin ale (still have some bottles in my fridge from October) and that was good yet it was the unfiltered Hayward Hefe on tap that rocked our world. For a repeat of that experience, we will indeed have to drive back up to Hayward.

Which we may get to do this weekend. We’re heading up to Oakland to explore the foodie-dom of that little gem of a town. Ok, it’s a big and sometimes rough city, however its growing food offerings should not be ignored, and there are little restaurants popping up that I'm fairly confident don’t exist in Los Angeles. Yep in order to find those, we’ll have to hit the road again.

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