November 30, 2009

My Napa and a Perfect Dinner in Berkeley

I woke up to a clear but windy morning in Napa. The wind was wild – blowing branches around and scattering leaves outside the window. The windows rattled and the electricity wavered.

So, my day began a bit uncertain – but this is my Napa. The tourist books and “insider” books talk about wineries up and down the valley, quaint cottages and cafes in St Helena and Calistoga, and recommendations for food and wine parings. But over the years we have learned to ignore all that and find the other Napa behind the hype and mostly away from the crowds.

My favorite place to eat in Napa is Oxbow Public Market. Yes, tourists eat here too – but not in the great droves seen along Highway 29. My favorite thing here is the arepas at Pica Pica Maize Kitchen – they are amazing! (As you might have guessed since this is there second appearance in my blog.) In addition, the market is home to Ritual Coffee Roasters, an outpost of Kara's Cupcakes, and several other merchants.

Within a block or so of the market there are several small wine tasting rooms that feature small production wines. One of these is Taste at Oxbow on the corner of First and McKinely Streets. This small shop features wines from several small vintners – Waterstone Wines, Mahoney Vineyards, and others. The wines are excellent, they have a broad range of varietals, and the prices are very reasonable. In addition, the staff is friendly, knowledgeable, and enjoys sharing their passion about Napa Valley and wine. Next door is GustavoThrace (of the Bottle Shock movie fame). This is also a great place to go wine tasting. Gustavo's wines are wonderful and the prices are also reasonable.

You can also travel across the bridge on First Street and explore the rest of downtown Napa. This is a great part of Napa Valley that is often overlooked by the majority of tourists and bay area day-trippers who flock up Highway 29. Over Thanksgiving weekend my husband and I decided to visit Napa for a day. We skipped the elegant estate wineries and headed straight to Oxbow Public Market and visited Pica Pica, Taste at Oxbow, and GustavoThrace!

On our way back to San Francisco we stopped in Berkeley for dinner at Great China Restaurant. This small, hectic restaurant on Kitteridge Street serves outstanding Chinese cuisine. One of the house specialties is duck, but the menu is very extensive and includes several vegetarian options. In addition, they have an extensive wine list and one of the waiters is very knowledgeable about wine and pairing it with his restaurant's menu items. On this occasion, we brought a bottle of wine we purchased in Napa and asked the reverse question and he gave us some excellent suggestions for food that would match nicely with our wine. We got some vegetarian soup with mushrooms, then Jonathan ordered the duck and I got tofu sauteed with green vegetable. We both thoroughly enjoyed everything! Great China is one of the bay area restaurants I will miss living in DC!

November 28, 2009

San Francisco - a Last Few Favorites

In Spring 2005 I moved from Boston to San Francisco. During the past few years I have experienced a great deal of change – I attended graduate school, changed careers, met and married Jonathan, and became happy. Now my time in San Francisco is drawing to an end. In a few days Jonathan and I will be moving to Washington DC. While I am excited about living in a new city, here are a few of the places I will miss in San Francisco.

One of my favorite places to relax in San Francisco is Samovar Tea Lounge. With three welcoming locations in the city – Castro, Yerba Buena Gardens, and Hayes Valley – Samovar is a wonderful place to go for a snack, a healthy meal, to meet friends, or just enjoy a cup of tea. All locations offer an excellent menu, good service, and a calming atmosphere.

My last career – flying – brought me to Germany many times. During my visits I gained a great affection for German chocolate and food. San Francisco has some good German restaurants, but I think Walzwerk is particularly charming. This small and cozy cafe on South Van Ness in the Mission has good service and serves some great food. For me, the fare is comfort food – warm and hearty East German cuisine. My favorite thing to order is the Käsespätzle mit Gemischtem Salat (chesse spätzle with salad). One day we were there they had a black forest cake on the specials menu and it was fantastic.

Lastly, looking back through my past blog posts I realized I have never shared one of my all time favorite restaurants – Alegrias – with my readers. Located Lombard Street, this small family owned and operated Spanish restaurant is wonderful. The owners and staff at Alegrias are very welcoming and the service is exceptional. But, most importantly, the food is wonderful. They serve a very flavorful olive oil with the bread and all the tapas dishes are delicious. My favorite tapas are Cazuela de Queso de Cabra (oven cooked goat cheese with red sauce), Espinacas a la Catalana (sauteed spinach with garlic, raisins, apple, and pine nuts), and Setas al Ajillo (mushrooms sauteed with garlic and white wine). This is the perfect restaurant to go for special occasion or celebration!

November 25, 2009

Celebrity Chefs, Restaurant Hype, and Pizza

Given a choice, I prefer small, local restaurants. In general, I am a bit wary of restaurants have too much hype. In today's world of Food Networking cooking shows and star the ultimately hyped restaurant is one with a so-called celebrity chef. So, I had tampered expectations and was slightly suspicious of two of the dining spots on our New York itinerary – Otto Enoteca Pizzeria and Mesa Grill.

Our fourth day in New York was a crazy day for me – waking up at 5:00 am, flying to Washington DC for a meeting, and returning to New York City by late afternoon. After a short nap at the hotel I headed out for a dinner date with my husband, Jonathan. We took the subway downtown to the Bleeker Street stop.

Owned by chef Mario Batali, the Otto Enoteca Pizzeria is a few blocks from Washington Square at the intersection of 5th Avenue and 8th Street. The restaurant has a warm vibe and is abuzz with activity. After we were seated at our table we started studying the menu and massive wine list. All the choices menu sounded wonderful – but we decided on antipasti (cauliflower, spicy rabe, lentils, and calamari), an escarole salad, a margharita pizza, and a bottle of Italian wine. The salad and antipasti was a very good and paired well with the wine. The pizza was perfect – good cheese, good tomatos, and crispy crust! Pizza is one of my favorite foods and this was very tasty. For dessert we ordered the sweet brioche with nutella, which was just as wonderful as the main part of the meal.Yes, Dinner at Otto was superb! I had been cautiously optimistic about the restaurant and it far exceeded my expectations. Most importantly food was delicious; in addition, the atmosphere was warm and lively and service was excellent! I will definitely return on a future trip to New York!

After dinner we strolled around Greenwich Village and listened to music at Groove, a small music venue at MacDougal and West 3rd Streets.

The following evening we met some friends at Mesa Grill. This dining experience also exceeded my tempered expectations! We had a fun evening with friends and the food was very good! I ordered the squash blossom appetizer and the chili rellano. Everything was artfully prepared and presented. The atmosphere here is perfect for an evening of conversation and enjoyment. The whole experience was very good, but of the two restaurants I preferred Otto.

Perhaps my preference for Otto over Mesa is due to my obsession with perfect pizzas. To me, pizza is one of the most simple and perfect foods – and the pizza at Otto was wonderful!

November 10, 2009

Along the High Line and the Streets Below

A little further north on Manhattan Island are two other neighborhoods I enjoy exploring – the Meatpacking District and Chelsea.

First the Meatpacking District...

Since my last visit to New York, there has been a dramatic change to this area – the opening of the much anticipated High Line. Formally an old elevated railway, the High Line is now a beautiful meandering garden that extends south along 10th Avenue from 20th Street to Gansevoort Street. The park is beautiful – lush beds of grasses and wildflowers weaving along with the path above the city streets and between the buildings. It is a wonderful way to walk through the city, a great place to relax elevated above the clamor of streets.

On the days I walked the High Line my husband we stopped by the Chelsea Market Public Art for lunch. We purchased our food from the tbsp rickshaw cart parked at this point along the path and enjoyed our meal at a table nearby. I had a sharp cheddar sandwich – a delicious handheld meal of great cheese on multigrain bread with tomatoes and watercress. Jonathan enjoyed some warm homemade soup. Perfect picnic lunch on a crisp fall day!

After lunch we continued walking south along the High Line – past more flowers and under the impressive Standard Hotel, then descending to street level at the end of the tracks. The Meatpacking District is different than the other neighborhoods of Manhattan with large low wear-houses and broad streets. Walking through the streets we snaked back and forth exploring the neighborhood and shopping.

Eventually we reached 9th Avenue and 15th Street – home to Chelsea Market. This is a food mecca – filled with shops, cafes, bakeries, and tempting smells. A recent addition to the market is Jacques Torres Chocolates. This shop's spicy wicked hot chocolate is often listed as one of the best hot chocolates in New York City (New York Magazine, Food Network). My husband and I each ordered a small wicked hot chocolate and sat down to enjoy it. The hot chocolate is one of the richest concoctions I have ever enjoyed. It is delicious – creamy and chocolaty with a hint of spice. It is also one of the most luxurious hot chocolates I have ever had – thick and rich like molten chocolate.

After our wonderful snack we continued into the Chelsea neighborhood and spent the remainder of the afternoon browsing shops along 9th Avenue.

November 4, 2009

SoHo and Greenwich Village

During a good portion of our time in New York we crisscrossed the city shopping in several different neighborhoods, visiting different sights, eating some great food, and then often doubling back to return to a place we had already visited. The majority of the time we spent in SoHo, Greenwich Village, the Meatpacking District, and Chelsea.

In this post I want to talk about my adventures in SoHo and Greenwich Village.

These are a uniquely New York neighborhoods – with tree-lined streets and beautiful old buildings. And it's a great part of the city to walk around in – and a great place to shop.

On this trip we went back to some of my favorite shops and found some new ones too! My favorite new shops are Rosebud and Makié in SoHo. The first, Rosebud, sells women's clothing and accessories imported from Israel. This shop has very pretty things at reasonable prices. A few doors down, Makié sell adorable clothing and accessories for children and whimsical accessories and clothing items for women. All items are designed and made at the shop.

Walking along Bleaker Street in Greenwich Village I came to a door that led down into a small shop. On a simple wooden sign had two simple words – Pure Dark. A new chocolate shop! Pure Dark sells simple and delicious handcrafted chocolate slabs and confections. The slabs are delicious!

SoHo and Greenwich village have an eclectic mix of shops, cafes, and people. It is a place that is fun to explore! It remains one of my favorite shopping – and eating – areas of New York City!