Bay Area eating & drinking

(by peter & susie)

The sign was clear. ‘Tasty salted pig parts,’ it read. Outside the shop, a long queue had formed.

Elbowing your way through the bustling Saturday farmers’ market at the historic Ferry building in downtown San Francisco, it’s easy to feel that this is as close as it gets to gastronomic heaven on earth.

The place wants for nothing. It has some of the finest raw ingredients in the world. Wine country is on its doorstep. Fruit and vegetables thrive in this beautiful, bountiful climate. There’s a notable emphasis on sustainability in production. Exquisite sea-food and meat abounds.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the people are diverse in origin and outlook but seemingly open-minded and omnivorous in their appetites. The Bay Area is a melting pot of Asian, American (of all colours), Latin American and European cultures and cuisines.

It all adds up to a veritable feast for the senses. If there’s a finer foodie destination on the planet, we’d like to know about it (Tokyo has been mentioned by some – it’s on the to-do list…)

Our recent trip to the Bay Area lasted barely a week, but in that time we managed to fit in a fair bit of gastronomic exploration, informed by several well placed sources (particular thanks to Alan, Ken & Mimi, Amy, Lynn, Claudia, Kate and Sam). Given the deluge of information we received, and the ensuing brilliance of what we experienced, we thought it would be worth summing up our impressions.

(We’ll also be reporting specifically on the wine side of things in due course. We were lucky enough to enjoy a series of quite wonderful visits, including Ridge in the company of the legendary Paul Draper, lunch in one of the most coastal Pinot Noir vineyards in the Russian River Valley – Benziger’s biodynamic De Coelo project, tasting back to the 1980 vintage of Robert Mondavi Winery’s iconic Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, and enjoying Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ fine 2007 vintages…)

WINE COUNTRY: Yountville, Napa Valley

Where to eat

While we don’t necessarily believe that Michelin has the monopoly on flagging up good places to eat – or that it never gets things wrong – it was telling to note that, when the latest results came out, the Napa Valley/Bay Area was one of the most star-strewn zones on the planet.

In short, this is a good place to eat if you’re into your food.

We based ourselves in Yountville, a small town towards the southern end of Napa Valley, largely because it had a great new hotel (Bardessono) and most of the restaurants we were interested in visiting were there. Santa Helena to the north is slightly bigger and more cosmopolitan, with some excellent restaurants – Terra being one, which Peter enjoyed on a previous trip.

The French Laundry (Yountville): this three-star Michelin restaurant is regularly lauded as one of the best – if not the best – restaurant in the world. For us, it’s right up there – a quite sensational gastronomic tour de force. (Click here to read our review.) It’s located in Yountville, a few minute’s walk from the Bardessono hotel (see below). Book by calling exactly two months in advance. If you’re too late, register for a cancellation, as these can often come up. 6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599, Tel: +1 (707) 944 2380.

Bouchon (Yountville): sister property to The French Laundry, with a bakery next door. It’s very much French bistro in feel – both in terms of the decor and the menu. We ate there on our first night having just flown in and it was ideal – relaxed and unpretentious but great quality food. Memorable flavours included some beautifully rustic, luscious jar of duck rillettes with apricot glaze, a fine beetroot & poached rhubarb salad and a succulent roast chicken with asparagus and wild mushrooms. Washed down very palatably with a glass or two of Schramsberg blanc de blancs and Ridge Lytton Springs 2007. 6534 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599. Tel: +1 (707) 944 8037.

Redd (Yountville): one of Yountville’s more hip nightspots – plenty of snappily dressed bright young things here, as well as on-trend starkly minimalist decor. There’s a bar as well as a restaurant, and a pleasant patio area outside for when the weather is nice. The food was decent without being exceptional. 6480 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599. Tel: +1 (707) 944 2222

Bistro Jeanty (Yountville): a less glam, more rustic take on a French brasserie than Bouchon, this relaxed venue is ideal for an al fresco lunch in the shaded terrace. A friend had recommended the ham and leek quiche as one of the best she’d ever tried. We weren’t disappointed. 6510 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599. Tel: +1 (707) 944 0103

Where to stay

Bardessono (Yountville): We were recommended this relatively new hotel (it opened in 2009) by several contacts as a luxurious option – which it most certainly is. The rooms are spacious and elegantly decorated – not to mention fabulously equipped (ours, a King Spa Suite, had a Jacuzzi bath and a shower that doubled up as a mini steam room). The raised-level swimming pool is narrow but long enough for a proper swim and spa treatments are available in your own room. Service is impeccably attentive and good-cheered. 6526 Yount Street, Yountville, CA 94599.

Which wineries to visit

One of the most enjoyable things about the Napa Valley and its surrounding wine areas (Carneros, Sonoma, Russian River, Santa Cruz etc) is that almost all of the wineries are geared up to receive visitors at any time. Many have regular tours. Well stocked shops are commonplace.

Wineries we’d recommend visiting:

Napa Valley – Robert Mondavi, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Beringer Vineyards, Jarvis, Grgich Hills Estate, Hess Collection, Niebaum Coppolla, Sterling Vineyards, Clos Pegase, Chimney Rock

Carneros, Sonoma, Russian River & around – Dutton Goldfield, Benziger, Merry Edwards, Littorai, Domaine Carneros, Artesa

South of San Francisco – Ridge, Bonny Doon


Where to eat

Benu – along with The French Laundry, Benu was the other jaw-dropping restaurant experience of the trip. Helmed by a former French Laundry chef Corey Lee, this has a decidedly Asian take on the multi-course tasting menu (ours had 16 in total and cost $160 per head). Highlights included ‘black truffle xiao long bao’ (a dumpling with truffled pork and an explosion of chicken soup inside, see photo, left), ‘white sausage, black bread, xo sauce’ (lobster in shrimp mousse with squid ink) and ‘sake lees, foie gras, mountain yam, yuzu’ (yuzu foam with creamy foie gras, a creamy sake lees sorbet and cubes of yam). The ‘shark’s fin soup, Dungeness crab, Jinhua ham, black truffle custard’ was, on polite enquiry, nothing to do with sharks or fins, instead a playful recreation of this classic dish. Our slight criticism would be that some of the dishes are so experimental (the waiter described the house style as ‘pushing the envelope’) that they work better on paper than on the plate. Great wine list, though, by sommelier Yoon Ha – we had Marcel Deiss Pinot Gris Blebenheim 2004 (lovely honeyed pears and delicate leesy texture, charged with minerality, 7.5/10) and a bottle of the outstanding Littorai Pinot Noir Les Larmes 2007, Anderson Valley (sappy, cultured and polished, 8-8.5/10). All in all, a quite breath-taking experience. 22 Hawthorne Street, San Francisco, CA 94105. Tel: +1 (415) 685 4860

Perbacco – this northern Italian restaurant would have slipped under our radar had it not been flagged up by gastronome friends. And what a miss it would have been. This lively town restaurant has a flaming, all-action open kitchen at one end, buzzy seating on the ground floor and some plusher rooms upstairs. But it pays to be in the action. Service is terrific but the food is better – if you are partial to the odd bit of truffle, parmesan and pasta. Brilliant, brilliant restaurant for lovers of Italian cuisine. 230 California Street, San Francisco, CA 94111. Tel: +1 (415) 955 0663

Spruce – it may be located a fair way from San Francisco’s beating heart, out near the Golden Gate Park, but it’s worth the hike. Decadent, luxurious decor and spacious seating create an instant feeling of sensual pleasure; there’s less starchy formality than in other places, creating a laid-back and romantic atmosphere. The famous home-made charcuterie is a delight – we particularly enjoyed the smoky pastrami.  Roasted bass with Dungeness crab and Champagne butter was utter indulgence. Charred Berkshire pork tenderloin with crispy pork belly and shelling beans was porcine indulgence. 3640 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, CA 94118. Tel +1 (415) 931 5100

The Slanted Door – if you can hold off on all the amazing bits and bobs being served up at the farmers’ market, this is the place to go for Saturday lunch on the San Francisco waterfront. This modern Vietnamese restaurant has a bustling yet friendly atmosphere – lots of kids tucking into spring rolls and glass noodles. Highlights included the mesquite grilled lamb sausage and kumo gway oyster with Chinese black olive and preserved lemon relish, the spicy Monterey squid with pineapple, sweet peppers, jalapeño and Thai Basil – and the view (ideal for people watching – a most fascinating sport in this ruthlessly diverse city). Ferry Building, 1, San Francisco, CA 94105. Tel +1 (415) 861 8032