travel bite: San Francisco and Napa

February is my least favorite month to be in Boston.  It is cold and snowy and dark.  With that in mind, it seemed a good idea to escape to California for a week.  It turned out, however, that last week Northern California was 50° and covered in rain while Boston was celebrating record high temperatures and plenty of sunshine.  Bad weather can’t get in the way of good eating though, and I ate plenty of great food.  I decided to make a list of the ten best things I ate on my trip.  There were a couple of restaurants that would have made the list multiple times, but I didn’t want duplicates. Although it was the most important factor, I didn’t make the list on taste alone. I weighed the decor, service, uniqueness, and overall experience  before settling on these ten extraordinary dishes.

10.  Sweetbread Ravioli – Luce IMG_1440.jpg

It was a little late when I sat down for dinner at Luce in the San Francisco Intercontinental Hotel.  After a long plane ride, checking in to the hotel, and then getting over to Luce it was about 12:30 in the morning back in Boston.  The restaurant was pretty quiet with only a handful of tables and the service was a little too casual compared to the food, but over all it was a great start to the trip.  I particularly enjoyed the beef tartare with puffed rice, but the winning dish was sweetbread ravioli.  It was served with crispy sweetbreads and shaved black truffles. It was on the appetizer list, but made for a good late night entree. It was rich enough you wouldn’t want a bigger portion and left me room for a little tres leches and a glass of grappa.

9.  Green Chile Cheeseburger – Gott’s RoadsideIMG_1442.jpg

Gott’s Roadside has a few locations.  There is one in the Ferry Building and one at the Oxboro Public Market, but the original is in St. Helena where I went.  The seating there is outdoors, but luckily I was there in between rain showers.  One sign on the building advertises “shakes, french fires, and burgers” and I can’t really argue with that.  Alongside good fries and a very thick cookies and cream shake was an absolutely amazing green chile cheeseburger.  Basically, they take a really good cheeseburger and add a special twist. It comes topped with a grilled Anaheim chile, salsa verde, and jalapeño mayo.  It’s spicy and fatty and I wish there was a burger like this near me.

8. Whole Roasted Dungeness Crab – Scoma’s IMG_1373.jpg

Scoma’s is the first of two “old-school” restaurants on the list.  It has been on Fisherman’s Wharf since 1965 and I don’t think they have changed the decor much since then.  There are also some menu items that have stuck around since the beginning, like the Dungeness crab.  You can get a half or a whole, hot or cold.  I went whole and hot. I expected the whole crab to be sitting on my plate, but they do break it down a little for you.  The warm tender crab pieces are tossed in butter, garlic and onions and served with lemon wedges. I had never tackled crab before, so I can’t compare Scoma’s to other crabs.  I can tell you they make a great negroni, but I was so messy eating the crab I had to wait a long time to finish it.

7. Prime Rib – House of Prime RibIMG_1316.jpg

The next “old-school” restaurant to make the list is House of Prime Rib.  They present you with a menu when you sit down, but that is kind of a joke.  There is a note in in that suggests if you want fish or vegetables to ask your server, but I didn’t see anyone in the restaurant eating anything but prime rib.  You do get a couple of choices.  You can get creamed spinach or creamed corn.  You can get your potato mashed or baked. They give you three different types of horseradish but you don’t really have to chose that one since they are all on your table.  There is one salad and you get it.  There is bread. You get that too.  There is Yorkshire pudding, which is basically a flat popover.  You get that.  There are different sizes of prime rib.  Pick one.  Pick the big one.  You are going to be full. Who cares.  Go big or go home. I went middle, still regretting it.

6.  Shanghai Dumplings – Yank SingIMG_1108.jpg

Yank Sing is madness. You are sitting down for less than a minute and you already have two or three plates of food on the table.  As long as one of these is the Shanghai pork soup dumplings, you’re good.  I actually like the baked bbq pork buns more than the soup dumplings, but Yank Sing isn’t famous for pork buns. The dumplings are a mixture of Kurobuta Pork, scallion, and ginger.  There is an entire dim sum (or deem sum as they spell it) cart dedicated to them.  If you leave Yank Sing hungry, you did something very wrong.  It was the most full I was all week and I think even a couple days after I was still full from that meal.  Oh and make sure you check out the incredible Art Deco old post office lobby while you are at the Rincon Center. It should not be missed.

As we move into the top five, we go from great to amazing food.  Everything here is spectacular and special.  If you have the chance eat this food. 

5. Meatballs – Farmsted at Long Meadow RanchIMG_1444.jpg

Best meatballs I ever ate?  Yes.  Three intensely-flavored, all-beef meatballs in a cast-iron skillet are topped with caramelized onions and tomato marmalade.  If you dig a little, you also find soft, delicious greens. Combine this dish with their cheddar biscuits and you might not need to order anything else.  If you do decide to keep eating, the ribs are smokey and tender with still the right amount of chew and the chocolate cream pie has an amazing graham cracker crust.  But the dish, that almost bumped the best meatballs I ever ate off the list was the potato salad. I can’t tell you what they do to make this potato salad so great.  It is just potatoes, bacon, and mustard, but it’s a don’t miss. Also, just for fun, I started off the dinner with a cocktail called “Waterlogged” which seemed very appropriate given the weather.

4. Tea-Smoked Duck Breast – The Slanted DoorIMG_1445.jpg

All vacation long, no matter what I ate, the dish I most wanted to have again was this duck.  In 2014, the Slanted Door won a James Beard Award for best restaurant in the country.  I don’t know.  That seems a little too much for me. Maybe it caused me to set my expectations too high. I didn’t think the service was that great. The decor inside was just ok.  There are a ton of pictures of dogs on the walls for no real reason.  Even when they explain to you why, there is still no real reason.  What I will say is that they have an amazing view from the Ferry Building looking out at the Bay and the Bay Bridge light show.  They also make a great Mai Tai. They have this duck.  The duck is not on the menu online.  I don’t know if I just got lucky.  If so, I got very lucky.  There is so much flavor in it.  The fat is rendered perfectly so that there is a crisp skin.  It is served with perfectly cooked white rice which soaks up the juices running from the duck.  As long as this is back on the menu I will be back at the Slanted Door

3.  Secret Breakfast Sundae – Humphry SlocombeIMG_1139.jpg

Even in cold, rainy weather, people line up for Humphry Slocombe ice cream.  With flavors like Fort Point Smoked Manzanita and Drakes Rye Robustito, this place isn’t afraid to make “interesting” creations. By the way, Fort Point Smoked Manzanita was terrible. On the other hand, Secret Breakfast is interesting in a good way. I guess the idea is that someone would secretly drink bourbon at breakfast. Maybe someone puts bourbon on their cornflakes?  The ice cream is bourbon, cornflake flavored.  That alone would have been good enough for me, but then they make it into a sundae with bourbon-caramel sauce and more crushed cornflakes.  The texture is particularly good with the chew of the caramel sauce and the crunch of the cornflakes.  I guess some people eat those other flavors, but I think they would do fine just selling this and nothing else.

2.  Egg Custard with Truffle Ragout – The French LaundryIMG_1274.jpg

The service at the French Laundry was perfect.  From start to finish I was impressed with the way they made you feel welcomed and special. The atmosphere was refined and sophisticated.  I know I take pictures of everything, but for this one meal, I decided to put my camera away.  So rather than a picture of this amazing dish, I will share my picture of the brand new kitchen at the French Laundry.  It cooked its first meal for the general public on February 18th just a few days before they cooked for me.  If you want to see it, just search “egg custard french laundry”.  The pictures there look pretty much like I remember it.  The dish is an egg custard topped with a black truffle ragout and a potato crisp served in an egg shell.  It was a little, extra course not originally on the menu.  Great service, great dish, great dinner.  It actually took about 1200 calls over five hours to get through to make this reservation.  Sounds crazy, but completely worth it.

1. Flambéed Bananas and Tres Leches – Gary DankoIMG_1394.jpg

So even I am surprised that a dessert made the top spot on the list, but the food at Gary Danko was so good that all of the courses would have made the list.  The savory courses of crab salad and duck breast were both beautifully done.  The poached farm egg with bacon probably was a very, very close second.  Even the banana cream cake that they gave as a parting gift was moist and packed with banana flavor.  It made a perfect breakfast as I packed my suitcase the next morning. The service was excellent and the room was beautiful.  But most of all I was overjoyed to find my two favorite desserts combined into one and prepared table side. I could have been swayed by the three-foot flame, but the delicious combination of bananas flambé on top of tres leches cake was the ideal end to my final dinner in San Francisco.  Paired with a little aged Guatemalan rum the dessert at Gary Danko was my favorite food on my trip to San Francisco and Napa.

 

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