Good Times on the West Coast

Buckle up, because this is probably the longest and most food-porn laden entry I’ve ever written. I haven’t had a chance to write anything here for almost a month because life has been quite the whirlwind since my birthday, mainly because that was also the day that I was given two weeks notice that I would be getting laid off. It was a bit of a frenzied scramble trying to wind things down for a proper handoff so things wouldn’t collapse after I’m gone. Then, after my last day, I was on a 7:40am plane the very next morning to Oakland for my cousin’s wedding. I still want to recap my birthday dinner at Dinosaur BBQ, but let’s just say I loved it so much I think I will be making a return visit very soon and will write about it after that. So for now let’s talk about my trip to Cali instead…

My flight landed 15 minutes early in Oakland and my cousin Tony picked me up at the airport. First stop? To buy a bunch of Vietnamese sandwiches to bring back for the family for lunch at cousins Charlie and Nancy’s place where I would be crashing. We got a few different varieties of the sandwiches, but the best was the BBQ pork which had the perfect balance of sweetness, heat from green chile pepper, and freshness from cilantro. It was the first of a lot of good eating I was about to do over the next few days.

My cousin Wilson’s wedding was held at Half Moon Bay, atop a hill overlooking what I believe was the 18th fairway of the golf course. Because of our elevation, you couldn’t see the fairway below, making the bay itself the backdrop beyond the altar. It was a beautiful setting and a wonderful wedding presided over by their multi-talented friend Alex who played the role of minister, MC, musical talent and I don’t know what else. I wonder if he does balloon animals too.

The dinner and reception was a bit of a blur as somehow I ended up doing some incredibly heavy drinking with my uncle (father of the groom). He told me how happy he was that I made it for the wedding and how he’s always felt a debt of gratitude for help that my mom had provided long ago. He then proceeded to try repaying all of that debt in liquid currency! After multiple lowball-sized glasses of cognac (XO I think) I had to switch to Guinness just to slow him down a bit. Now I see where my cousin Lily gets her hard core drinking tendencies from. Holy cow! Somehow I made it through the night, including an after-party run to Red Mango for frozen yogurt which I barely remember. Pretty good for the first day of my trip!

The next morning, we had the perfect hangover food lined up- lunch at Santa Ramen in San Mateo. And line up we did, because this place was just as popular as Ippudo Ramen is here in NY. Fortunately the line moved pretty quickly and we were seated before too long. The comparison with Ippudo is particularly apropos since Santa serves the same Hakata style of ramen featuring the thick almost milky style tonkotsu pork bone broth. So how do they stack up against each other? Well, let’s have a look:

Santa Ramen

As you can see, I ordered my Santa ramen with fried garlic, a boiled egg, and stewed pork. Ippudo doesn’t offer fried garlic, so Santa gets an edge there. But their boiled egg was overcooked and had that green sulfur layer around the yolk; big minus. The noodles lacked life, seemingly a bit mushy after the initial bite so Ippudo gets the nod there. Santa’s broth was quite good but nowhere near as rich, porky and unctuous as Ippudo’s. Ah, but the pork itself. Oh my god, it was so good it was not even the same sport as Ippudo’s. It was Kurobuta pork that had been given a long braise that added a dimension of sweetness which completely permeated every bit of meat and fat without obscuring the natural pork flavor. Really superb. Overall, Ippudo makes a better bowl of ramen hands down. But man, I wish we could get some of that Santa pork out here.

After lunch, we were off to the Ferry Building with two things in mind- caviar and oysters. Mat, Beth and I decided to do the caviar first, so we nestled up to the counter at Tsar Nicoulai and indulged ourselves with this:

Tsar Nicoulai Caviar

The Select California Estate Osetra on the left was easily my favorite. The eggs had a slightly greenish-grey color to them and a deeply satisfying oceany creaminess on the palate. Really intense and interesting flavor from beginning to end. The California Estate Osetra in the middle was jet black in color and had a simpler flavor profile, more straightforward salt and minerality. The Paddlefish Sturgeon caviar on the right was the least interesting, with more of a nutty flavor and not much else other than the saltiness. We followed that up with a sampler that included some varieties infused with things that were just so weird they seemed wrong, like vanilla, saffron, and olive oil. Next time I think I will just order another tasting of the plain Select osetra instead. Man, that could become a very expensive addiction.

Next, we hit Hog Island oysters. We were seated outside and ordered a huge raw oyster sampler plus an additional dozen of their Kumamotos which I love so much. But it turned out that the gems were the Pacific Sweetwater variety in the sampler. So sweet with a clean, oceany brininess. Fantastic. Oh, and the view from our table wasn’t too bad either:

View from Hog Island Oysters at the Ferry Building

After that we headed back, but of course not without another stop for food. Nancy took us to an Indian (dot not feathers) grocery where they cook a small selection of food items in the back. One of the things we tried was this delicious pani puri, basically a little puff of dough filled with a chickpea soup. What a terrific little mouthful of goodness.

Pani Puri

From there it was back to the cousins’ place for a family dinner. Earlier in the day Tony asked me if I’d do some cooking for them, so I hit up the Japanese market right across from Santa Ramen and picked up some asparagus and ingredients to do my version of the dressing that Sam uses on the asparagus salad at Hajime. In addition, I decided to make beer can chicken since Charlie was firing up the grill that night. Stoopid me, I prepped the chickens, got them on the grill, turned it to medium low and went inside to do the asparagus, having total faith that I could get the asparagus prepped in time to check on the chicken. Boy was I wrong! Normally beer can chicken would take about an hour to an hour and a half to cook, but apparently Charlie’s grill packs some inferno-like power. The two poor chickens were comically torched and I was ready to write them off. My brother was more optimistic though and managed to save the birds by slavishly removing the firebombed skin and it turns out that the meat itself was perfectly cooked and even the white meat was fantastically juicy. So for future reference, you can cook beer can chicken in 20 minutes if you’re willing to spend 30 minutes scraping off the crispy carbon shell! Fortunately the asparagus came off without a hitch and in the end both dishes were well received and I was happy to have been able to cook for my west coast family and friends. Nancy’s endless pitchers of mojitos made me pretty happy too.

The next day six of us headed off to Napa but got a late start so we were only able to hit 3 wineries- Rubicon, V. Sattui and Corison. As you know, Rubicon and Corison are two of my faves, and we just hit V. Sattui because they have a nice area with picnic tables where we could sit and snack a bit. The V. Sattui wines were way too light and watery in style for my taste, but my bro and cousins seemed to like it, so it was worth the stop. I was able to take advantage of my membership at Rubicon to get us a tasting in the member’s salon. The 2004 Rubicon was tasting particularly well and Nancy managed to score us an extra tasting of it by asking in such a way that the poor Rubicon lady could not comfortably say no! We did buy a bottle to go though, because we had a special dinner on tap for later that afternoon…

At 5p, we found ourselves in the dining room of Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc in Yountville. The concept at Ad Hoc is that each night there is a different menu featuring whatever they feel is the best dishes they can produce with that day’s ingredients. The customers have no choices to make and so everyone is completely in the hands of the chefs. I like that concept. In addition the food is served family style which adds to the restaurant’s air of relaxed, casual refinement.

The first course was a salad of romaine with stone fruits (plums and nectarines I think), sliced cucumbers, candied spiced pecans and a spearmint yogurt dressing:

Ad Hoc Stone Fruit Salad

Every item on that plate was so fresh, crisp and seemingly perfect. The fruit was not just one dimensionally sweet, but had incredibly bright nuances. It’s hard to describe, but those plums tasted preternaturally plummy if you get what I mean. And that yogurt dressing was sprightly but not overly tart so it was perfectly balanced with everything else. And I must say, after tasting it, it seems that spearmint and yogurt are such a great pairing I’m surprised we don’t see it more often.

The entree for the night was Mishima beef with fingerling potatoes, eggplant and squash. And just to gild the lily, the beef was topped with a pat of chive butter. As you can see the beef was perfectly cooked, and oh, did I mention the potatoes were cooked in duck fat?! All I can say is wow.

Mishima Beef

Next up was a cheese course. But basking in the afterglow of that Mishima beef dish, I admit I kind of tuned out exactly what kind of cheese it was, but it was an elegant and simple presentation with Gala apple slices and wildflower honey:

Ad Hoc cheese

And finally for dessert, a chocolate brownie cake. I’m not usually big on chocolate desserts after big fancy meals, but man, this brownie was awesome. I mean soft, moist, rich chocolate flavor yet somehow not overly sweet or cloying, even with the vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce over the top. I finished the whole thing which I rarely, if ever, do with a chocolate dessert. This baby was just that good.

Ad Hoc brownie

For most people, that would just about round out the day’s eating. Not for me of course. We headed back into San Fran to go for… sushi! Actually we were just after the live uni at Sushi Groove, but we ended up ordering a few other things too like the mussel shooters. The shooters were just ok, with minced mussel meat and the highlight being a quail egg. Pretty good, but not spectacular:

Mussel Shooter

But we were there for the uni and it did not disappoint. Sure it’s main appeal was purely presentational, but it was sweet Pacific uni and it was as fresh as can be, so really how can you go wrong with this bad boy:

Live Uni at Sushi Groove

The next day was my last day in CA for this trip, and there was of course more amazing eating in store. Cousin Tony was the only one who didn’t have to work that day, so it was just the two of us for the afternoon. We began with lunch at Chez Panisse Cafe. Not the same menu as the famous main restaurant downstairs but still the same great ingredients and “California Cuisine” style that Alice Waters created. It was everything I’ve read about and more.

The first app was a salad of smoked black cod, cucumbers, dill and a shallot vinaigrette. The fish, while smoked was still quite fresh tasting and seemed much lighter than what you’d expect from black cod. And as this is California Cuisine after all, lightness is a theme that ran throughout the meal. The light vinaigrette was nicely restrained, giving just enough zing to contrast the fish and to make those delicious little cucumber slices sing.

Black Cod Salad

The next app was an heirloom tomato and avocado toast with wild watercress, not pictured because that photo came out blurry. Nevertheless, it was a simple dish that really worked. The tomatoes were awesome but it was the choice of watercress for spiciness really brought things together.

We followed that up with a mini pizza of zucchini, squash blossoms and basil. Super thin crust, super fresh veggies, and really intense basil made this a great pie. We killed this beauty off pretty quickly:

Pizzeta at Chez Panisse

Up next was roasted Monterey Bay squid with a salad of frisee, little gypsy peppers, roasted potatoes and an aioli. The squid was terrific because of the charring and the frisee, like all the raw veggies at Chez Panisse, was off the hook. But the gypsy peppers weren’t particularly interesting in flavor, the potatoes completely lackluster simply because we’d had Ad Hoc’s fingerlings the day before, and the aioli seemed unnecessary if not a little out of place.

Monterey Bay Squid

And for our final entree we had the fried chicken. Let me tell you, this was a damn brilliant way to make fried chicken. According to the menu it was buttermilk fried, but what they don’t tell you is the most important part- it’s boneless! They actually boned out a chicken leg/thigh, and battered and fried it. The super crispy coating was well seasoned and since it’s dark meat inside, it was moist throughout. Who knew that Chez Panisse of all places would be doing fried chicken and that it would be sinfully delicious to boot? Here’s a picture of that glorious chicken:

Amazing Fried Chicken

We closed out the meal with a couple of simple fruit desserts, just some Meyer lemon sherbet and a bowl of mulberries and figs. It was a great meal, and being light Cali style food, I was just pleasantly sated, not stuffed. But you know me, I couldn’t leave well enough alone. As we left the restaurant, what do we see across the street? The pizza joint that Nancy recommended, The Cheeseboard. Ok, one slice won’t kill me, right? Haha, except when the pesto slice I ordered comes with a bonus free extra mini slice!

Cheeseboard Pesto Slice

Cheeseboard makes a very tasty pizza, but it is thicker and breadier than I prefer. The flavor of the crust is pretty awesome though, and I can’t deny that having that substantive chew can be a good thing, it’s just not my favorite. The pesto flavor was pleasant but not particularly bold. But what does earn the slice high marks is the cheese. It had a fresh, salty, milky flavor, possibly the most notably delicious cheese I’ve ever tasted on a slice of pizza. Good stuff, but that cheese was so rich it put me over the top and suddenly I went from feeling ok to feeling totally stuffed. No more food until dinner…

To pass the rest of the afternoon, Tony took me to a couple of, um, interesting places in San Jose for coffee, Vietnamese coffee to be precise. And what made them interesting is that they were essentially bars without alcohol, and the servers were scantily clad women. The first place had a cool upscale vibe and the girls were just dressed kind of import-model slutty. But the second place was a total hole in the wall and the girls were dressed in straight ho-ish lingerie, the kind worn by strippers as they take the champagne stage. I didn’t quite get what the protocol was supposed to be at these places- are you supposed to chat it up with the girls, are you not supposed to look at them, or considering the way they’re dressed, will they be offended if you are not ogling them? The vibe, especially at the second place, is such that you don’t want to do something wrong for fear of a VC gangster popping out of the back with a machete to take care of you. I dunno. I will say that the coffee and the orange juice was excellent at both of these places.

And last but not least, it was finally time for my last meal of this trip, at a place call Sushi Sam’s in San Mateo. Lily had raved about the omakase so we had to check it out. We ordered a few things to start as we were waiting for everyone to arrive and then had a 9 course omakase. On the outset, I didn’t have high hopes for this place as the employees were talking in Cantonese and the spicy tuna roll that Lily ordered wasn’t very good. But it turns out that the quality and variety of the fish they have, which was really showcased in the omakase, was excellent. Probably my two favorite items of the meal were a nigiri sushi of wild halibut and a nigiri of blue shrimp which was seasoned with sea salt and lime juice. That sensible finesse of accent flavors on the blue shrimp in particular won me over completely. I had never had it that way before and it really was superb. Overall, Sushi Sam’s is not in the same league as Hiura or Sushi of Gari, but is still pretty damn good. Cousin Charlie picked up the whole giant check and wouldn’t let any of us pay. It was one of many super generous things my awesome west coast family did for us during this trip and to all of them I am grateful. I had a truly excellent time and look forward to seeing them again soon. What a great trip!

5 thoughts on “Good Times on the West Coast

  1. sounds like an amazing trip of nonstop eating,
    i have to go try adhoc. love the concept.
    Chez Panisse Cafe sounds AMAZING.
    of course, the vietnamese cafes cracked me up- glad you got back in one piece. we missed you!

  2. Thanks Kat; missed you too. And yeah, Ad Hoc should definitely become the de facto restaurant of choice when visiting Napa from now on especially since it’s only $45 a person and I’m UNEMPLOYED! lol

    Oh, and speaking of bargains, those Vietnamese Cafes have signs indicating that they have “FREE WIRELESS”… right there next to the signs that say “Taking Pictures Prohibited”.

  3. Yeah, Thomas Keller is pretty good, but do you think he’s cooked two whole beercan chicken’s in 30 minutes? I think not! I was watching Steve prepare the rub and I saw lots of Paprika, but I must have missed the napalm going in.

  4. Definitely some good eats. You forgot to mention your first taste of Pete”s Coffee

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