About Marcia Gagliardi

Marcia Gagliardi

Marcia Gagliardi is a freelance food writer in San Francisco. She writes a weekly column, Foodie 411 for the SFCVB on their “Taste” site; a monthly gossip column, “The Tablehopper” for The Northside; and regular features for Edible San Francisco. Her first book came out in March 2010: The Tablehopper’s Guide to Dining and Drinking in San Francisco: Find the Right Spot for Every Occasion.


Latest Posts by Marcia Gagliardi

The Trees of Yosemite California & Château du Sureau

August 10, 2014 by  

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Our home in Mariposa.

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Our former deli and pizzeria (now a Mexican restaurant).

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The exterior of the Château du Sureau.

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The sitting room/library in the Château du Sureau.

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The stairs down to the pool at Château du Sureau.

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The Elderberry Room.

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An afternoon snack, brought to our room on arrival.

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One of the chambermaids.

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One of the dining rooms (at the end of the evening) at Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant.

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Amuse of arctic char, pickled mustard seed, cucumber gelée, and trout roe.

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The creative and delicious beet salad.

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A look into grand Yosemite Valley.

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When was the last time you were in a meadow?

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The incomparable dining room at The Ahwahnee.

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A prime rib feast at The Ahwahnee.

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The library at the Villa Sureau.

I may have been living in San Francisco for the past 20 years, but there is a country mouse side to this city mouse.

Back when I was in the middle of third grade, my family packed up our life in San Mateo to move to Gold Country.

We landed in Mariposa, not far from Yosemite National Park, where my parents bought 69 acres; they planned to build our dream home on the land, with our family friend as the architect.

My father manifested his dream of getting out of the burbs and opening a pizzeria and delicatessen.

My mother worked as an R.N. at a nearby hospital, and still managed to cook all our meals, make our clothes (it was that or order clothes from the Sears catalog for delivery into the depot in town—they wouldn’t even deliver to your house), and she also learned how to kill rattlesnakes (thanks Mom, good save that one afternoon).

We were there for three years, and while it didn’t pan out—it ends up Mariposa wasn’t quite ready for spicy coppa and imported Italian wine—and we had to move back to the Peninsula, our time there made for a really sweet period in our lives, especially for me and my sis. We had dirt bikes, a huge yard, dogs and cats and a horse, and we got to run around and unleash our inner tomboys. I’m ever grateful for those years living in Gold Country, they were such a vivid part of my childhood.

Some years later, I remember my parents going back up to Yosemite for a big wedding anniversary dinner, and they dined at a very special place, ~ERNA’S ELDERBERRY HOUSE RESTAURANT~. (It’s the kind of name that stays with you.) Flash forward to one evening at Gary Danko a few years ago, when a charming young lady from the staff and I put together that we both had connections to Gold Country—and look at that, her mother was the Erna of Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant in Oakhurst.

And then let’s flash back to not too long ago, when I received a very kind invitation from the lovely Erna Kubin-Clanin to come experience a meal at Erna’s Elderberry House, and to stay at the ~CHÂTEAU DU SUREAU~. I couldn’t believe it—of course I called my parents immediately since they have such a treasured memory of the restaurant (the château was not built yet when they dined there).

Now, for anyone who has ever been to Yosemite, you may remember passing through Oakhurst, which is full of antique stores, big chain drugstores, and plenty of fast food. So to say that there is one of the most exquisite properties I have ever visited in the United States, a château that felt like it was transported from Europe lock, stock, and barrel (including the staff) and dropped off in Oakhurst of all places, well, that’s kind of what happened.

Ms. Erna is the most divine hostess, born in Vienna, and as soon as you get a look at her, you’ll be enchanted. She is so stylish and chic, with her fabulous French glasses, svelte figure, and tasteful high heels. She has a soothing and charming voice, full of kind words and comments. Ms. Erna is the kind of host who can handle diplomats and country folk with equal ease.

As soon as you pass through the gates to the château, it seems incredible that you are actually in dusty Gold Country. The place is an oasis of beauty, full of flowers and gorgeous landscaping. While many guests travel from far and wide to dine at Erna’s Elderberry House, the 10-room Château du Sureau (opened in 1991) also has an impeccable reputation. Not only is it a Relais & Châteaux property (since 1993), but it has won many other awards as well, from being a five-star Forbes Travel Guide property for more than 18 years to its five diamonds from AAA since 1992. And here’s why: Erna has a deep love for beauty, hospitality, and the finer things in life, and it shows in every corner and square inch of the property.

The two nights my friend and I spent there were like a shot in the arm of European class and elegance. The château is filled with antiques Erna found abroad, with tapestries, artwork, and unique pieces everywhere, along with fresh flowers and orchids too. Fresh lemonade sits out for guests. Oh, and how can you not love the chambermaids flitting about the property with their white aprons? I felt like I was going back in time. The staff is incredibly gracious.

All the 10 rooms are different; our room (The Elderberry Room) had exposed beams and a canopy bed (complete with a feather duvet and silky ironed linens, oh you know it). The room was mercifully devoid of a TV, a fireplace taking its place. It was actually pretty challenging (in a charming way) to find a place to plug in my iPhone and iPad by the bed (it would be better to write a letter to a friend on the château’s stationery). The spacious bathroom came with French tiles, and a soaking tub that I wish I had made time to enjoy.

On arrival, we were greeted with an afternoon snack in our room (tea sandwiches of housemade ricotta, cucumber, and beet on housemade bread, plus a tasty little almond cake) and two glasses of sparkling wine. (That’ll do fine, why thank you.) When we made our way down to the pool for an afternoon dip, we were offered more pink bubbles to enjoy poolside. (Careful, Marcia, don’t get to used to this…)

When it was time for dinner, it was an easy stroll through the gardens to Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant, which opened in 1984. It has a French country look, with a trio of rooms (the Escoffier, Point, and Paul Bocuse rooms) full of fabric and old-world charm, plus a garden terrace (if you sit near the windows, your view is framed with flowers).

Before Erna was overseeing all aspects of the property, she was the chef and managing owner (her husband René owns it with her)—she now has chef de cuisine Jonathon Perkins overseeing the kitchen. Her first restaurant was Scorpio’s in Westwood (Los Angeles), and she then became known in the Sierras in 1977, when she cooked at The Redwood Inn next to the Wawona Hotel for six years, offering a five-course meal of nouvelle and European cuisine. She was a trailblazer in the area for sure.

My guest and I enjoyed an elegant five-course meal ($108, $78 wine pairings), full of seasonal and well-prepared ingredients, along with a few modern techniques too (dessert featured some coconut “snow”). Our amuse was stunning: arctic char, pickled mustard seed, cucumber gelée, and trout roe, and a fragrant cauliflower soup had fascinating ribbons of flavor, with apricot chutney, curry oil, cilantro, and toasted almonds.

I also loved the old-world touch of serving the salad after the meat course, and the presentation was so inventive: the heirloom beet salad came with field greens with a thyme and lavender vinaigrette, and there was a scoop of a chèvre mousse with beet whipped in (it was the most gorgeous color), as well as Bull’s Blood beet purée and mulberries on the plate.

A few dishes had components that were a bit strong, like the Tahitian vanilla jus that dominated the milk-poached veal loin, but otherwise I could not believe I was having this elevated dining experience in Oakhurst of all places, and not some beautiful château in France. Pastry chef Kyle Waller’s dessert of milk chocolate panna cotta would fit right into most of San Francisco’s fine dining rooms. (They are many more photos here.)

You can see how much training the staff has had (it’s not like there’s a big pool of employees trained in fine dining service in the area), and we also had some excellent wine service and pairings (from Sinskey’s Abraxas to the Azelia “Bricco Fiasco” Barolo). It was one of those “somebody please pinch me” moments when we were able to walk back down the garden path after dinner and fall into our feather bed for a night of deep sleep. While the “full board” experience is part of the charm of staying in this fairy-tale place, you can also just come to Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant for dinner—you don’t need to be a guest of the château.

They also host a three-day cooking school twice a year, and many themed meals, including the annual Evening in Vienna dinner, with music. I’d subscribe to the newsletter to keep up on the happenings (and special offers) in case you are mulling over taking a trip to Yosemite. (How long has it been? When was the last time you walked through a meadow? It was far too long for me.)

While it’s very hard to leave the kingdom for the day (trust), we got up early to make our way to the other kingdom: Yosemite. It’s a short drive to the South Gate from the château, and the staff kindly packed us a picnic lunch to enjoy in the park. We also had a fabulous breakfast on the terrace before we headed out for the day that we were going to need to hike off: freshly made croissants and brioche with housemade jam, marmalade, and thick pats of butter, plus a European-style platter of meats and cheeses, a ramekin of egg frittata topped with ratatouille, and excellent coffee.

Our day in Yosemite was pure magic—we were there in mid-May, so we had beautiful springlike weather and the falls were running. We spent the day walking the trails around the majestic valley floor, and since it was a Friday, we didn’t have to deal with a crush of humanity. We had our picnic lunch next to the Merced River, such a dreamy spot.

We ended our epic day with bubbles on the back terrace at the Ahwahnee Hotel and were invited to stay for dinner. Is there a more jaw-dropping dining room, with its 34-foot-high beamed ceiling and hulking granite pillars? Of course you end up thinking about The Shining half the time (Kubrick’s set designer mimicked many elements of the Ahwahnee for the Overlook Hotel).

We got a kick out of our jacketed server, who handled the huge pepper grinder with aplomb, and I’d say sticking with simpler classics is the move here, like roasted Brussels sprouts ($15). It’s all about the prime rib ($42-$48) with Yorkshire pudding; some of the other dishes were too much of a reach, like my friend’s lobster and coconut bisque. I can imagine the setting for Sunday brunch is fabulous.

I wouldn’t recommend the long drive back to the Château du Sureau after a late dinner like ours to many people—fortunately I love driving mountain roads and so does my Fiat. But it was definitely a haul in the darkness after such a big day. Again, that feather duvet was waiting for me at the end, a strong motivator to get back safely.

The next morning we enjoyed a more leisurely start, with breakfast on the terrace once again (hello, croissant, I was missing you), a last dip in the pool, and a walk around the grounds. A newer addition to the property is the Spa Sureau and the Villa Sureau, which we were lucky to get a peek at since they were in between guests.

Because Ms. Erna just doesn’t stop, she created this secluded and private manor house in 1999, full of turn-of-the-century antiques (her husband René helped restore many of the treasures), a marble tub, a baby grand piano, and two bedrooms in its spacious 2,000-square-foot footprint. It’s grand, daaahling, and for those who can afford a stay there (it’s $2,950 a night), it’s a very singular spot where you can effectively play out a manor-born fantasy. Just gorgeous.

A visit to the Château du Sureau and Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant is a unique one, because its particular kind of luxury is so personal. Fortunately the elegant and visionary Ms. Erna wanted to create and share her world of cosmopolitan flair and grace—it so obviously (and thankfully) couldn’t be contained.

All photos are from tablehopper.com.

Food, Culture & Night Walks in Rio de Janeiro

June 23, 2014 by  

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Rio made me really lonely when it was time for dinner; in all my years of traveling solo, I have never felt so solitary at night. The city’s restaurants are not set up for solo diners—good luck finding anything resembling our city’s many counters, bars, and communal tables. One restaurant I went to had a bar, and no one was sitting at it—well, except me. Walking into a restaurant, every time, I’d have to explain “just one”—which at many places would elicit a raised eyebrow for a split second. Cariocas tend to dine out in big groups, or you’ll see lots of couples. Party of one, not so much.

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Portions were another frustrating thing: so much of the food is portioned for people to share. I had to walk out of three restaurants (ugh!) when they wouldn’t be able to serve me less than a whole chicken, or an entire pot of moqueca. It would be too wasteful for me to order a huge feast just for myself. And not much fun.

But I was not going to miss indulging in the famed feijoada, which is traditionally served on Saturday afternoon (well, it depends on where you are—I heard other Brazilian cities have different nights). I found a classic place (58 years old and counting) called Garden in between Ipanema and Leblon, with an older and classier crowd. I love how late people eat in Rio. A table of eight, with a median age of 74, were just sitting down to eat at 10pm. I made a little promise to myself that I’m going to return to Rio to live when I’m older—I can start getting tan again and go to the beach every day, wear bright lipstick, and hang out with my friends and eat late. Sign me up.

My solicitous server poured me a huge glass of wine, so big I chuckled to myself (“Mama’s gettin’ heated tonight!”), although I can’t believe how many Cariocas drink Coke Zero with everything, no exaggeration. I was served slowly cooked and garlicky black beans, beef tongue, pig’s ear and tail (my server was very happy to see me eat this), thin slices and little chubs of linguiça, and thin air-dried meat, plus the classic accompaniments of shredded kale, aipim frito (fried yuca), farofa (toasted manioc flour, made from yuca), white rice, and orange supremes. My table was completely covered in bowls and plates. I was an army of one with that dinner. I gave it my best shot, but I needed at least two other people dining with me to make a proper dent.

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So yeah, dinner in Rio was not very fun after the fourth night of going out. Although I will admit posting images to Instagram at least made me feel like I was dining with friends in a strange, techy, modern way. Twenty-nine likes for my feijoada pic. Yeah, was it good for you too?

 Saturday night feijoada at Garden.

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One afternoon while I was doing a little shopping after my beach time, I checked out the cute Gilson Martins shop, where I found some of my favorite souvenirs to bring home (little coin purses with the wave pattern of the pavers of Ipanema, um, yes, I’ll take five). I befriended the way-too-adorable manager of the shop, who used to bartend in Miami, and after a little sassy banter we were fast friends.

Marcelo was a sweetheart and met me a couple of days later to take me to lunch to one of his favorite places in Ipanema, Via Sete. I was so excited to finally have someone to dine with, I know I was beaming. I can see why he’s a regular there: there’s a lovely outdoor terrace, a cute stylish crowd, and probably the best steak I had on the trip, their grilled picanha, Marcelo’s top dish. It was bonkers good. And guess who was thrilled to have grilled hearts of palm again on her last meal in Rio? This girl. Pro tip: go for their combination meal, it’s a good deal (you get two sides—they had really fresh salads). After your lunch, be sure to walk a few blocks over to Gilson Martins and say “Bom dia!” to Marcelo.

Picanha and grilled heart of palm at Via Sete.

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I’m also here to report that my party of one status didn’t stop me from having quite a romantic dinner by myself at one of the restaurants most renowned for its beautiful atmosphere in Rio: Aprazível. It’s like a tree house in the open air, perched up in the historic neighborhood in the hills of Santa Teresa; you’ll hear birds chirping over the soft backing track of bossa nova, adding to the sultry tropical vibe. The really, truly breathtaking view of the twinkling city made for some excellent company while I was surrounded by canoodling couples. Truth be told, I also had one of the nicest servers of the entire trip, Marcos, who got a big kick out of my curiosity about each dish, and provided plenty of friendly company.

You’ll notice the dishes are much more northeastern in style, hailing from Minas Gerais and Bahia. I loved their little half-moon pasteles of acarajé (filled with beef), the cheesy gratin of sweet potato puree with air-dried beef, and I was so thrilled to try the freshly grilled hearts of palm, still in the stalk! It was a first for me. It was simply drizzled with some pesto, which I actually scraped off—the taste of the fresh palmito was plenty to savor. The thick and bubbling pot of moquequinha made with dogfish was homey and rustic, and the cheese plate with cheeses from Minas Gerais—with preserved orange rind and fig and dulce de leche—was over the top, and made for quite a finale.

One of my favorite things about Aprazível is their love and dedication to Brazilian wine! Sommelier Paul Medder, a Kiwi, shared some insider stories of the small-production wines he poured, like Vilmar Bettú, a garagiste who is making wine from the peverella grape that was brought over by the Italians when they came to Brazil in 1875 and later, one of the few wineries to still grow it.

I tried the 2011 malvasia, which had a bit of wildness to it, but balanced acidity, and became even more fragrant as it opened up. If you want to learn about Brazilian wine, Medder is a great champion. The restaurant even has their own wine (Era dos Ventos), cachaças (aged on premise), and pale ale they make in Niterói; they also have their own CDs—I totally had to buy one so I could re-create the bossa vibe back home. Although where is Marcos with my passion fruit caipirinha?

If you have a chance to spend a day wandering around Santa Teresa, do it. It has a bohemian and less-touristed vibe, with a bunch of cool galleries and cafés, although I was not going to walk around at night by myself (see, Mom, I told you I was careful!). You can easily take a cab to the neighborhood (it’s about a 15-minute drive from Ipanema) or a bus, and you’ll drive past some favelas along the way.

You better be wearing some sturdy shoes in Santa Teresa; the cobblestones are tough to walk on. I was there a couple of weeks too early for the annual festival called Arte de Portas Abertas, when artists let people into their studios, and there are a bunch of parties (be sure to check Time Out Rio; it can happen from June-August). There are many unique places to eat and hang out, like Bar do Mineiro, Jasmim Manga Café, “Bar do Gomez”/Armazém São Thiago, Rústico, and Espírito Santa.

Who has two thumbs and is one lucky lady? This girl. I was so damn fortunate to get to stay a night in Santa Teresa at the stunning boutique hotel, the Hotel Santa Teresa, which was originally a coffee plantation that was converted into the oasis of your dreams. You won’t want to leave, which is kind of dangerous because you really should explore the neighborhood. The hotel has beautiful views everywhere: from its rooms, its restaurant, even at the sexy pool (pay a visit to the hotel Bar Dos Descasados, complete with lounging beds where you enjoy your view with your bubbly).

My luxe-rustic room was so peaceful, with a natural-modern look, and a peek out the windows was full of green tree leaves and fronds. It really feels more like you’re hanging out at your fabulously rich Carioca friend’s place in the hills. As if! A girl can dream. The abundant breakfast spread reminded me of some of the more special Turkish breakfasts I experienced, although this one was laden with a Rio rainbow of tropical fruits. Carmen Miranda would have approved. Wonderful hospitality, what a special place. I was sorry to leave the peaceful kingdom when it was time to check out, but my 24 hours there left me feeling so calm and happy.

So, I just realized I am saving the best for last here, the one dish that stood out over everything I ate in Brazil: acarajé! My sister thankfully told me to hunt this street food bite down—it’s actually an Afro-Brazilian dish from Bahia (by way of Nigeria), so you have to search for it a bit in Rio. But every Sunday in Ipanema is the Hippie Fair at the Praça General Osório, which is a street fair selling crafts and tchotchkes (where I did manage to find a beautiful leather bag tucked away in one of the stands). And that’s where you’ll find the Bahian barracas! You can’t miss them—the ladies running these pop-up stands have colorful skirts and their hair up in white scarves and eyelet turbans to match their tops. (I realized I saw another Bahian barraca in town later on—look for the ladies in traditional head scarves.)

Get in line, and order the acarajé, which is a black-eyed pea fritter fried in dendê (palm oil)—it gets slathered with vatapá, a thick, rich, and spicy sauce made from shrimp, coconut milk, bread, cashews (or peanuts), garlic, onion, and more dendê, and then it gets topped with baby fried shrimp. Be sure to request a few shakes of the hot sauce. No, it’s not light, but the deep, layered flavor and textures of this dish will haunt me until I return to Brazil again. It made me want to go to Bahia, stat. Do not miss this experience. You can huddle at the counter or share a rickety table with your fellow diners, it’s a fun scene. Other folks are there for the sweets and the tapioca crêpes made with coconut and condensed milk.

Here are a few sights to see as well. I was there during the winter so I had some rainy days inside, which means yay, museum days!

One of the coolest museums is the Instituto Moreira Salles in Gávea, with an awesome photography collection—I got to see three fantastically curated shows. It was a private residence, and is such a cool tropical-modern building, with gardens designed by Burle Marx. I was ready to move in.

On the day I walked around the Centro area, I spent a rainy afternoon in the Museu de Arte Moderna, which not only was showing some provocative art by Brazilian artists, but it also has beautiful landscaping by Burle Marx in the back.

There was no way I was going to miss seeing the Museu do Arte Contemporânea in Niterói, which looks like a UFO (it was designed by by Oscar Niemeyer). There were a few cool pieces inside, but it’s really the building that steals the show. You take a ferry over, it’s a fun daytime adventure.

The Jardim Botânico is lovely to visit during the week, talk about a lush and serene place (it’s also orchid central). And you have to visit the Parque Lage, with a former mansion (now a visual arts school) that has a dramatic view of Corcovado looming overhead (there’s a café where you can grab a coffee or brunch). There’s also the nearby La Bicyclette (a local fave) or Jojo if you want more to eat, and there’s Yumê for Japanese.

You really should take a stroll through the colonial Centro area, with plazas dating back to the early 1800s (they fill up with people at lunch and after work, like the bright yellow Amarelinho on the Praça Floriano), and you absolutely have to visit the breathtaking Confeitaria Colombo which dates back to 1894. This coffeehouse is the picture of grand, full of rosy marble, stained glass, ornate hand-carved wood, beautiful tiles, and a rather tasty pastel de nata.

Just come here, relax, order a coffee or a cocktail (and candies to bring home), and soak the old world ambiance in—I have never seen anything like it. On a much smaller scale is the Casa Cavé, which I took shelter in during a rainstorm (it’s also historically charming, with tile floors). And if you want a bite, head to Casa Paladino (open since 1906!) for a classic, old-school lunch or snack.

The tropical treehouse vibe at Aprazível.

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The beautiful pool deck at Hotel Santa Teresa.

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My calming, beautiful room at Hotel Santa Teresa.

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Fruit extravaganza at the breakfast spread at Hotel Santa Teresa.

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One of the Bahian barracas at the Hippie Fair.

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My favorite dish of the trip: acarajé.

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The gorgeous grounds at Instituto Moreira Salles.

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The modern Museu de Arte Moderna.

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The Museu do Arte Contemporânea in Niterói.

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Parque Lage (and that’s Cristo Redentor perched on top of Corcovado in the back).

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The old world atmosphere at Confeitaria Colombo.

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One of the many interesting buildings in the historic Centro.

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Ascending Pão de Açúcar.

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You’ll see some of the best graffiti and street art all over Rio.

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Boa noite from the Hotel Santa Teresa.

Sights on my list for next time:

  • The Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, a huge estate of the amazing landscape architect.
  • Cristo Redentor: On a rare cloudless day, I opted to visit the stunning Pão de Açúcar instead of making the trek to Cristo, but I will definitely make my way to the top of Corcovado next time!

A few observations and tips:

Cariocas are some of the most friendly and warm people, and chivalry is alive and well. As a solo female traveler, I always felt so well taken care of.

Riding the buses is quite the adventure. I used Google maps for up-to-the-minute bus timetables on how to get somewhere, because there are so many buses you’ll never figure it out. If you want a bus to stop for you, you have to stick your arm out and wave like a crazy person to hail it, or it’ll never stop, even if you’re at a bus stop. It’s like the buses are in a mad race to somewhere, I don’t know. As soon as you get on, grab hold of something, because you’re about to experience torque like you have never felt it. The drivers will totally floor it, even if you’re an old lady with your groceries and you haven’t sat down yet, and totally lurch you around as they take a corner, and then slam on the brakes. It’s, uh, an adventure! There’s a cashier on board, so don’t worry about having exact fare.

ATMs can be a nightmare. You’ll see a lot of bank lobbies with ATMs, but sometimes they’ll be out of money, and most wouldn’t work with international banks. I learned the hard way that most of them don’t work after 10pm and on Sundays. (Gimme my money!) I had some success with Banco do Brasil, but plan on being frustrated most of the time—you start looking everywhere for those little Cirrus symbols.

Other frustrating things (i.e., you aren’t in California anymore): the amount of plastic used everywhere (like regular silverware wrapped in plastic and your napkin wrapped in plastic too), no comment on the flimsy napkins and toilet paper, and finding 3G on your phone is the picture of sporadic. Fortunately almost every business has Wi-Fi, and they’re usually generous with handing out the password.

Coffee was mostly depressing. They’ll dump chocolate syrup in your cappuccino if you don’t keep an eye out. There are some beautiful espresso machines run by people who don’t know what they’re doing, and the coffee itself was pretty grim. I found one cafe where the “barista” would let me gesture to her how I wanted her to make my espresso (my pantomime of a hard tamp was pretty hilarious—we both shared a good laugh). At least all the coffees come with a little treat on the side, which is a cute tradition. At the end of the trip, a Carioca told me Grão Espresso is pretty decent, and here’s a piece on cafés to try. Oh, and Guerin, a French boulangerie, is supposedly good for coffee.

Other restaurants that were recommended to me or on my list:

  • Chico & Alaide: an awesome boteco known for their bolinho de bacalhau (salted cod croquette).
  • Talho Capixaba: a bakery in Leblon that has good empadinhas, sandwiches, and more (supposedly a good spot for breakfast or before the beach).
  • Amir for Lebanese food.
  • Cocktails and seafood at the fancy Fasano.
  • Catch the sunset and have drinks with everyone on the little wall at Bar Urca.
  • A fantastic resource for places to eat is Culinary Backstreets.

 

On the Ramen Hunt in Northern California

May 19, 2014 by  

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Authentic Japanese pork ramen at Shige Sushi in Cotati.

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Forchetta Bastoni in Sebastopol will serve a Mom’s Day brunch with loco moco, juk, and other Mom-friendly dishes.

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The Summerfield Waldorf School will host Farm to Feast 2014 on their biodynamic farm and school campus. Photo courtesy of the Summerfield Waldorf School.

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The Art of Eating Picnic at Bouverie Preserve celebrates the life of M.F.K. Fisher. Photo courtesy of Art of Eating.

 

Northern California, we are desperately Seeking Ramen. Ever since Doug Keane shuttered his haute Japanese noodle bar, Shimo, the North Bay has suffered an appalling lack of decent ramen. There is, of course, Hana Japanese in Rohnert Park, but we’re talking casual, slurp-at-the-table ramen. Well, we’ve finally found it.

~SHIGE SUSHI~ in Cotati is the absolute real deal. The tiny Japanese kitchen simmers pork bone, chicken, and dashi over several days, concentrating the flavors into a cloudy, deeply pork-flavored broth. Slices of pork, a soft-boiled egg, strips of mushroom and green onions, and chewy ramen noodles—all served piping-hot (with a dash or two of togarashi)—make this a sinus-cleansing, soul-warming meal.

Ramen isn’t available every day, so call ahead to make sure they’ve got it. If not, you’re still covered. Shige’s sushi, sashimi, and home-style dishes (like kara-age) easily stand up to the food at Hana Japanese, Hiro’s in Petaluma, and Bennett Valley’s Yao-Kiku. Just don’t tell anyone else about this awesome find, or it’ll be standing room only. Open Tues-Fri, closed Mon. 8235 Old Redwood Hwy, Cotati, 707-795-9753.

Last-Minute Mom’s Day Ideas: Really? You waited until now to figure out where to go for Mom’s special day? Oops, so did we. Here are a few spots where the deliciousness of the meal will redeem your lack of planning.

~ZAZU KITCHEN + FARM~: Fried green tomato BLT Benedict with Tabasco hollandaise, “Momosas,” hot chocolate with housemade cinnamon marshmallows, maple-glazed doughnuts with bacon jimmies, corned beef hash, and more. 9am-10pm. 6770 McKinley St., #150, Sebastopol, 707-523-4814.

~FORCHETTA BASTONI~: Bottomless mimosas entertain Mom; face painting entertains the kids. On the menu, Vietnamese doughnuts, Monte Cristo, loco moco, juk (Asian-style rice porridge), gravlax flatbread, deep-fried waffles, and a Big Ole’ Salad for Mom (fresh from the farmers’ market). 10am-3pm. 6948 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol, 707-829-9500.

~SHED HEALDSBURG~: The recently crowned James Beard Award-winning space will host a Mom’s Day fest for the locavore. Heirloom-grain Belgian waffles with fresh strawberries, rhubarb compote, and whipped crème fraîche; and poached eggs with asparagus, smoked trout, tiny potatoes, and tarragon persillade. All Moms will also receive a fresh herb bouquet that dries beautifully and might enliven a meal she could make from scratch just for you—if you saw her more often. 25 North St., Healdsburg, 707-431-7433.

~SILVERADO RESORT~: Impress Mom with the local bounty of Napa’s spring harvest, including pristine sustainably caught seafood, hormone-free beef and poultry, farm-fresh eggs, and local fruit. Silverado’s pastry chef will also create a dark chocolate fountain. $60 adults, $25 children ages 4-9. 10:30am-2:30pm. 1600 Atlas Peak Road, Napa.

The owners of the high-profile ~RENDEZ VOUS BISTRO~ in downtown Santa Rosa (as well as Flipside Burgers, Flipside Steakhouse & Sports Bar, and Lakeside Grill) are planning a “fresh market concept” in the former Rendez Vous Bistro in Courthouse Square, which judging by the name, Flip a Crêpe, will include, uh, crêpes? Reps aren’t talking yet, but it’s slated to open this summer, along with Flipside Brewhouse in Rohnert Park, which was formerly Latitude Island Grill.

~LAKESIDE GRILL~, the outdoor restaurant that opened last year in Spring Lake Park, will open with a limited menu on Saturdays and Sundays from May 17th through Memorial Day, then offer weekend breakfast and brunch, daily lunch and dinner, and a happy hour starting at 2pm all summer long. Hours are 10:30am until the park closes at sunset. 393 Violetti Road, Santa Rosa, 707-523-1406.

~FARM TO FEAST 2014~: On Saturday May 17th, Farm to Feast, the annual food and wine event, pretty much sums up what it’s like to live in Sonoma County. Held at the Summerfield Waldorf School’s breathtaking biodynamic farm, top Bay Area chefs and vintners come together (many of whom are alums or have children at the school) to feast under the stars. Among the feast-makers: Traci Des Jardins of Jardinière, Jon Stewart and Duskie Estes of Zazu, Nick Peyton of Healdsburg Bar & Grill (and formerly of Cyrus), Lowell Sheldon of Peter Lowell’s, and the school’s own chef, Mat Petersen. Vintners pouring include Claypool Cellars, Coturri, Davis Family Vineyards, Littorai, Truett Hurst, Roederer, Small Vines Wines, Porter-Bass, and Martinelli Winery. 3:30pm-10:30pm, $90, all proceeds go to scholarships. Tickets at farmtofeast.org. 655 Willowside Road, Santa Rosa.

~BOUVERIE PRESERVE’S ART OF EATING PICNIC~: Inspired by the life of culinary author M.F.K. Fisher, this annual picnic presented by the Audubon Canyon Ranch invites guests to the limited-access Glen Ellen reserve for a day of eating, drinking, and exploring. Benefitting the ranch’s Nature Education Programs for schoolchildren, the Art of Eating event runs from 12:30pm-4:30pm, with chefs from Brown Sugar Kitchen, Rivoli Restaurant, and Taste Catering providing the food. $150. 13935 Sonoma Highway 12, Glen Ellen.

By 707 correspondent Heather Irwin including all photo credits.

Food Glorious Food in Brazil’s Fabulous Rio

April 27, 2014 by  

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A view of Ipanema (in the distance) from Pão de Açúcar. All photos: tablehopper.com.

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Brazilian pizza at Alessandro E Federico.

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The glorious beach at Ipanema.

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Açaí and acerola at Polis Sucos.

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My fabulous caipirinha at Barraca do Joel.

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Ipanema sunset.

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The Copacabana promenade.

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Awesome Rio street art.

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Street tiles.

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The late-night crowd celebrating at Jobi.

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Coxinha de frango at Bar Bracarense.

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The counter at Restaurante O Caranguejo.

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The scene at Bip Bip (with the crotchety owner to the right).

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The Copacabana Palace.

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The Sunday buffet at the Copacabana Palace.

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The over-the-top buffet at Porcão Rio.

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The view of Pão de Açúcar at Porcão Rio.

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One of the many charming meat pushers at Porcão Rio.

When I was invited to Brazil to learn about Brazilian wine in the Serra Gaúcha region, you can bet one of the first things that went through my head was: trip extension!

With some complicated ticket maneuvering and finagling, I was able to get myself to Rio de Janeiro for a week, a dream destination of mine (heck, of many!).

I tracked down an apartment in Ipanema, a 10-minute walk from the beach.

This was going to be one of my bigger solo trip adventures, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was a bit apprehensive to be arriving in Rio late on a Saturday night.

After me and my sister’s crazy experience getting a cab in the Mumbai airport at 3am, I guess I was ready for anything. I took it as a good omen that my cabbie was the most charming, kind man, who wasn’t out to fleece me—he just wanted to make sure I could see Cristo Redentor, lit up in the night sky and peeking through the clouds.

In fact, I didn’t have a single problem with any of the cabdrivers I had for the entire week in Rio.

A couple were flummoxed by my odd attempt at Portuguese that leaned heavily on a combination of Italian and Spanish words, but most wanted to find out where I was from, practice their English, and get me to where I was going (and of course were stoked with my San Franciscan tipping practices).

A big win for solo (female) travelers doing Airbnb in Rio is that most residential buildings have doormen who will buzz you in and keep a close eye on things. I always felt safe where I was staying.

After checking in with my Airbnb host, I ditched my bag and went out for my first Brazilian pizza at Alessandro E Federico in Leblon.

Considering how many Brazilian pizzas I have ordered from Mozzarella di Bufala here in SF over the years, it was time to have one in its native country, and my hard-boiled egg, black olive, and ham-topped pizza portuguesa did not disappoint (even better with a few shakes of piri piri sauce).

I sat outside at a table on the terrace, drinking some pink bubs, watching the pretty crowd—my week in Rio was officially on.

I was visiting in July, which is their winter, and the temps were the picture of pleasant: in the high 70s/low 80s during the day, and only slightly humid.

Although, bummer, most of the days were cloudy, and I caught some rain too. My sister gave me some great advice, since she stayed in Rio once during the same period.

She said if it was a clear day, to cancel your plans and head to the beach, because there’s no guarantee about having sunny beach days in the winter. She’s a fellow beach and sun hound, so it was good advice. Or save your sunny days to visit Cristo Redentor or Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain)—you’ll want a clear view for those.

Before heading to the praia (beach), I recommend stopping at one of the many sucos bars for fresh juices and açaí bowls (order it “na tigela” to get it in a bowl—I loved mine with granola, guaraná, and banana).

One place that was excellent was Polis Sucos—I was all over the acerola, a sour fruit with a nutty amount of vitamin C (I was fighting a cold on my last few days, and I’m convinced that thing saved me).

If you’re in Leblon, other places that are recommended are Bibi Sucos and BB Lanches (a word that always cracked me up—it means “snacks”). It’s fun to hang out at the open counter (I looooved the alfresco life in Rio), sipping your juice and taking in the scene. Italians have caffès, Cariocas have sucos bars.

A friend recommended suco de abacaxi com hortela (pineapple juice with mint)—what an elixir. I also liked being able to say “maracuja” (passion fruit) whenever possible (it’s also delicious in a caipirinha).

I never made it to this place in Flamengo, which serves fresh açaí, but I sure wanted to. You can also get fresh coconut juice at the many stands for just a few reais on the promenade by the beach.

The beach culture is amazing—lined up along the beach are barracas, beach stands that people are very loyal to. They will rent you a chair, an umbrella, and basically bring you cocktails and cold beers all day—some even serve good food too.

I enjoyed my steak sandwich from Barraca do Uruguay (#80), but it was Barraca do Joel (#79) that rocked my world on another afternoon—I noticed a guy was shaking up drinks like a pro, and I’ll be damned, I had some of the best caipirinhas of the trip while I lazed there in my beach chair. (Yes, plural.)

A few Rio-savvy friends and readers gave me some great tips about which part of the beach to go to.

There are a series of postos that run along the beach, 12 in all (you’ll find bathrooms and changing rooms at each posto). I was told I’d want to park myself between postos 8 and 9, which would be gay/mixed, with “cool kids and weed smokers.” All good by me.

There are also some rainbow flags along that stretch, but I saw fabulous gays mixed in all along the beach, not just in a designated area (although the beach was definitely gay-dense at the end of my street, Rua Farme de Amoedo).

Ipanema is full of gays, so I felt like I was back in SF with all my boys—except everyone was tan and wearing tight shorts. As you go toward postos 10 and 11 in Leblon, you’ll find more rich, famous, and fashiony folks on the beach.

Sure, it’s intimidating to show up on a Rio beach all pasty and overweight, but you know what? These people don’t know you. You will probably never, ever see them again.

And they really don’t care. So enjoy yourself. That was my attitude at least. Sure, there are hardbodies and painfully gorgeous women, but not everyone is beach Adonis/Aphrodite material—I saw allll types.

Although yes, I did see some really amazing specimens of humanity. The Cariocas are some mighty fine people. Anyway, don’t stress out about it and have fun.

There is so much action—beaches in Mexico have nothing on Ipanema. There is a constant swirl of men selling food and drinks and snacks and bathing suits and hats.

You just have to barely wave and they’ll come right over. My heart broke for some of them trudging through the sand, schlepping the heavier stuff.

The beach is a total circus. I can only imagine what it’s like in peak season.

There’s the incessant yelling of “BISCOITO GLOBO!” (they are sweet or salty doughnut-shaped biscuits, a classic beach treat), and I was always happy to espy the guys dressed in white hawking “pão árabe pão árabe pão árabe!” (an awesome stuffed pita-like bread)—I also enjoyed the savory empadas, and the Matte Leão (iced tea) guys will refresh you. All without ever leaving your chair. Magic!

On my first visit, I didn’t bring anything of real value to the beach (besides my phone).

Left my precious camera and all my credit cards in the apartment, and when I wanted to walk on the beach or go in the water, I sussed out some folks nearby and asked if they would watch my bag (and brought it over to them). People are so nice, so don’t worry, you’re not a bother. There is theft that can happen on the beach, but just pay attention to what’s going on around you.

The sand is so fine, and fluffy, and white. (You’ll track it everywhere.) The water is a little rowdy, so don’t just hop in—see where other folks are swimming.

And you don’t want to miss a sunset on the beach (go to Arpoador for some of the best).

The peachy-pink colors and the water and the dramatic backdrop of the mountains combine to make it such a breathtaking sight; one evening everyone around me made it so much more amazing: they applauded. I get goose bumps even writing about it, it was such a sweet, appreciative moment.

Hard-core beach lovers will want to consider trekking out of town to Prainha, which is supposedly beyond gorgeous (and not tooooo far, it’s about an hour south)—if you do go there, you have to eat at Restaurante Bira, famous for its moqueca (the owner is a fisherman), shrimp pasteis, and view (a friend warned that they don’t usually stay open past early afternoon, so try to arrive early).

I did a ton of walking in Rio. You’ll want to walk around a bunch—it was all so lush and tropical, trees dripping with vines, and there’s a fading modern glamour to a lot of the buildings.

went bonkers for the patterned, tiled pavement (calçada portuguesa) everywhere—seeing the iconic geometric wave pattern on the Copacabana promenade (designed by Roberto Burle Marx) for the first time brought a huge smile to my face.

But those little tiles are murder when it’s raining, and are really easy to catch and trip on (and especially tough if you’re in heels), so tread carefully.

You’ll also see some of the best street art and graffiti, it’s everywhere.

There were a few times I felt a little sketched out, but I mostly felt pretty safe. I always kept my camera and phone stashed away, and took a look around before taking them out of my shoulder bag (I swear by my Basil Racuk Monterey bag). Sometimes, I missed a shot I wanted, but that’s okay.

I was told that the food in Rio wasn’t going to blow my mind, and I didn’t have the budget to hit up a bunch of awesome (but spendy) places like Roberta Sudbrack.

But I found so many spots that I really enjoyed, namely all the botecos/botequims that reminded me of Spanish tapas bars, with people hanging out, drinking choppes (which are draft beers—someone thankfully explained to me “chopp” comes from German: “Schopp”), and snacking on petiscos (I was digging all the little bolinhos (croquettes) and savory pasteis (little tarts).

Some favorite botecos were definitely the old-school Jobi (which is where I went after Brazil won the Confederations Cup in 2013 and the city exploded—can you believe I was in Rio for that?), and Bar Bracarense had some of the best bites (loved their coxinha de frango with catupiry cheese and their bolinhos de aipim).

One of my favorite nights was in Copacabana—in between catching a few pickup/live music sessions at the utterly charming Bip Bip (open since 1968!), I walked over to the stand-up counter at Restaurante O Caranguejo (it was like Rio’s version of Swan Oyster Depot). All seafood. Salty servers. Folks around me were tipsy, happy to chat you up while you drink your chopp and eat warm shrimp empadas and octopus salad. Loved this place.

Then it was back to Bip Bip—the well-seasoned owner who has seen it all is parked out front at his table, with his ledger and change and beer—people walk in to the back of the shoebox space that’s shingled in memorabilia, grab a cold beer from the fridge, and then gesture to him and he writes it down on his pad of paper.

You can stand around with other folks, listen to the sambaistas play as they sit around the table inside (or whatever that night’s genre of music is), and pay up at the end of the night. Pro tip: people don’t clap after a song, they snap their fingers. It was all so groovy.

You really, truly don’t want to miss a visit to the Copacabana Palace. (I know, go ahead and sing it.) This white palace is stately and elegant without being ostentatious—it’s truly so grand.

For Sunday brunch, Pérgula Restaurant puts on quite the spread (for R$170, about $75), and if the weather is right, you can sit outside overlooking the chic pool area while servers dressed all in white swarm around tables, clearing plates and continually filling your glass. It’s a perfect place for you to get tipsy on bubbles, flaunt your sunglasses, and do some excellent people watching. It’s faaaaabulous.

I started with a plate of caviar and blini (and was very happy to see their house sparkling wine was Cave Geisse—finally, a Brazilian restaurant honoring their domestic product!) and almost needed to pinch myself.

It was one of those moments. (“I’m in Rio de Janeiro. I am having brunch at the Copacabana Palace. It’s balmy and all so beautiful. This is crazy. I can’t believe my life.”).

There was so much seafood, including these unusual mussels with a huge red spot on them served in a vieira sauce, and towers of shrimp, and so many hot dishes too. Extravaganza. Good luck making it to the platters of desserts. They also put on a feijoada Saturday lunch, but it might put you in a serious coma, so be careful.

Another thing you have to do: experience the Brazilian churrascaria. For a culture known for being so healthy and gorgeous, they sure seem to chow down.

I have had many Italian family and holiday meals to prepare me for massive consumption in one sitting, but I still don’t think I have a handle on how to best manage the churrascaria experience. Just show up hungry, that’s for sure.

One morning I went to the top of Sugarloaf, and then had lunch at Porcão Rio, which has a stunning view of Sugarloaf and the bay. The lunchtime extravaganza was R$112 (about $50).

There’s a caipirinha station, and then the most insane salad bar spread you’ll ever see in your life. Everything is carefully plated and presented (there’s a hell of a lot of garnish, and I have never seen chives used with such abandon). It’s a bit campy and over the top, but everything is really fresh.

For my first round at the salad bar, I tried a medley of items like a salmon and omelet roulade, and any chance I could get in Brazil, I was serving myself the fresh hearts of palm (obsessed!).

I also tried their cold mussel salad, and carpaccio, and noticed a bunch of creamy + fish combos (Brazilians seem to dig those). No, the sushi bar was not going to be getting any action from me—I had to save up room for the meats. Was happy to find a 375ml of Casa Valduga sparkling on the wine list, come to mama.

The staff was incredibly nice and of course being a solo female diner means you get lots of extra attention. It was time for the meats: the roving meat carvers come to your table, proffering all kinds of cuts, from salty sirloin to rib-eye to saucy pork ribs to chicken hearts to linguiça.

Beef and cheese, why not? The beef can be really seasoned and a bit chewy, but then suddenly you get a cut of the novilho (veal) and you’re like, ahhhh, damn, that’s really good. It’s a total adventure in food pushing, and you’re never exactly sure which cut they’re putting on your plate.

Your table is also loaded with fried aipim (cassava), farofa, fries, and don’t forget the vinegary Brazilian salsa on the table, so good with the meats. I walked out of there feeling as sturdy and stout as Pão de Açúcar.

San Francisco’s Taste of Potrero on May 8th

April 26, 2014 by  

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The lively scene at Taste of Potrero 2013. Photo courtesy Taste of Potrero.

Want to check out a bunch of great San Francisco restaurants and bars in one place, and help out a local public school?

Look no further than the ~TASTE OF POTRERO~ event on Thursday May 8th, which features tons of food from great local restaurants and is a benefit for Daniel Webster Elementary, a public school in Potrero Hill.

First up, six local bars will be mixing signature cocktails using Anchor Distilling spirits, including folks like Comstock Saloon, Trick Dog (in the VIP room only), Beretta, and Third Rail. Plus, more than 30 restaurants will participate (including food trucks), ranging from Hog & Rocks to El Sur food truck to Piccino.

The event is a fundraiser for Daniel Webster Elementary, and it ensures that the students have access to computers, books for their classrooms, and instruction materials. It’s a great cause, and it happens from 7pm-11pm at The NWBLK.

General admission tickets are $100 per person. VIP tickets, which include early admission at 6pm, access to a special tasting room, and a special whiskey tasting from Anchor, are $200. 1999 Bryant St. at 18th Street, San Francisco.

San Francisco’s Blue Plate Celebrates Their Big 15 With Special Wine Dinners

April 23, 2014 by  

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The blue room at Blue Plate. Photo courtesy Blue Plate.

A San Francisco Bernal Heights restaurant ~BLUE PLATE~ is celebrating a whopping 15 years in business this May, which is pretty phenomenal. They’ve lined up a series of winemaker dinners to toast the occasion, with wine flights of five tastes for $15.

First, on Thursday May 1st, Steve and Chrystal Clifton of Palmina Wines will be in attendance from 5:30 pm-10 pm, followed by Sean Thackrey Wines on Friday May 2nd from 5:30 pm-10:30 pm, and Skylark on Saturday May 3rd from 5:30 pm-10:30 pm. The winemakers will all be on hand, mingling with guests and talking about their wines.

The menu from the talented chef Sean Thomas will be served à la carte, and here’s a sample menu of what to expect. Reservations are available.

Let’s toast to this wonderful neighborhood restaurant! Big cheers to co-owners Cory Obenour and Jeff Trenam on 15 years of keeping us wined and dined. 3218 Mission St. at Valencia Street in San Francisco CA — 415-282-6777.

Pork Belly, Beef Tartare, Baked Alaska & More During Sonoma Restaurant Week

March 11, 2014 by  

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Pork belly from Belly Left Coast Kitchen in Santa Rosa, just one of the more than 100 restaurants participating in Sonoma County Restaurant Week March 10-16th, 2014, which is roughly an hour north of San Francisco California.

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Beef tartare from Partake by K-J, which will be served during Sonoma County Restaurant Week.

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Trillium chef Jeremy Baumgartner prepares for the opening of the new Mendocino restaurant. Photo courtesy of Trillium Cafe.

Sonoma County Restaurant Week (Monday March 10th through Sunday March 16th): I always feel like I need to announce Restaurant Week with the same voice Oprah used to announce that her audience was flying to Australia in 2010. “And you get a three-course dinner for $19! And, you get a three-course dinner for $29!” I’d shout over the screaming audience. Talk show dreams aside, it’s hard to believe this is the fifth year that Sonoma County celebrates its hardworking restaurateurs with a five-day celebration of all things delicious.

With well over 100 restaurants spanning Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Healdsburg, Petaluma, the coast, and everything in between, this is your chance to hit up some of those restaurants you have been dying to try, but just haven’t been to yet.

New this year: two-course lunch menus for $10, $15, or $20. Three-course dinner menus remain at $19, $29, and $39. I’ll have a full list online, as well as some of my favorite menus, but some of the newcomers you may want to check out include:

  • Palooza Gastropub (8910 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood) is featuring their wedge salad; beef cheeks or chef Chris Hanson’s luxe vegetarian risotto made with Speakeasy lager, mushrooms, and seasonal veggies; and s’mores on a stick, $39. 
  • 38 Degrees North Lounge (100 Boyes Blvd., Sonoma): Sonoma Mission Inn’s hot new restaurant serves up roasted beet salad, beef sliders, and crème brûlée, $39. 
  • Belly Left Coast Kitchen (523 Fourth St., Santa Rosa): Love this downtown SR restaurant that’s got a killer pork belly with hoisin and Campfire Stout chocolate mousse, $29. 
  • Red’s Apple Roadhouse (4550 Gravenstein Hwy., Sebastopol): One of my favorite off-the-beaten-path newcomers is doing both lunch ($15, pulled pork sammie or portobello mushroom burger with hand-cut fries and pie) and dinner ($19) featuring their famous fried chicken supper or beer-braised pork belly. 
  • Best Value, Partake by K-J (241 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg): BiteClub is pretty floored by the $29 and $39 dinner menus that include four-plus courses of chef Justin Wangler’s life-altering food with multiple wine pairings. Think oysters with white verjus, smoked loin of lamb, white chocolate panna cotta, beet tartare, and Meyer lemon pudding. Now, keep in mind, each course is just a few luxurious bites rather than a craggy mound of food. But we’d far rather eat well than prodigiously. 

Good news from our neighbors to the north: The Baked Alaska is back.

Granted, we’ve cherry-picked this Mad Men-era dessert (ice cream and sponge cake covered with meringue, baked, and often set alight) from the forthcoming ~TRILLIUM CAFE’S~ menu. But after perusing this new Mendocino restaurant’s menu, it’s indicative of the kind of classic-meets-modern dishes that are emblematic of chef Jeremy Baumgartner’s sensibility.

To wit: This Baked Alaska is an olive oil cake with kumquat meringue and mint ice cream ($9). And as long as we’re thinking dessert first, how about bourbon cream beignets with maple glaze and candied bacon, or a butterscotch pie with caramel and Chantilly cream. At least you’ve been warned to save room.

“We know this is an often overlooked area…We feel strongly that diners who are paying for a Wine Country-caliber meal…in a stunning location deserve not only outstanding food and drink, but…caring service as well,” said restaurant owner Sandra McElroy. Other tempting menu items: spring pea arancini ($12), Dungeness crab strudel with capers and nasturtium ($15), rabbit meatballs and tortelloni with sunchokes ($22), and pork loin and belly with heirloom beans ($26). Also available are several vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free items. The restaurant opens officially on Saturday March 15th for lunch and dinner. And of course, dessert. 10390 Kasten Street, Mendocino, California.

By 707 correspondent Heather Irwin and top two photo credits Heather Irwin.

Exploring Napa Valley With Food in Mind…

March 10, 2014 by  

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Sometimes you just need to get out of town, and look at that, we have Wine Country right in our backyard with Napa Valley not that far from San Francisco. Winter and early spring are an ideal time to visit: there are fewer crowds and better room rates, and it’s easier to make reservations. So let’s hit the road.

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When exactly was the last time you stayed in downtown Napa? Exactly. Things are a-changin’. Check in to the ~ANDAZ NAPA~, which has an ideal central location, and while it’s a bit on the larger side, the hotel is aiming for boutique style. Go for one of the loft or terrace rooms if the price is right, and ask for a room that faces the back, not First Street (it’ll be quieter). Plan on getting some sleep, because the beds are a pillowy dream. When warm summer temperatures are back, the terrace (complete with fire pits!) will be open for drinks and hanging out.

Book a reservation for dinner at the recently opened ~TORC~ in the former Ubuntu. The handsome, spacious dining room contains 90 seats, with 17 at the bar. I recommend you start with a glass of the Charles de Cazanove Champagne ($16); the Euro-centric wine list is gonna make you thirsty.

Wild boar bolognese with housemade bucatini at Torc.

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The interior of Torc (at the end of the evening).

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Arancini and Ca’ Momi Rosa Frizzante.

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Chef-owner Sean O’Toole (Quince, Cotogna, Bardessono) is one hell of a cook: his menu spans both the inventive and the traditional, ranging from Bengali sweet potato pakoras ($5) with yogurt-truffle dip to an elegant violet artichoke soup ($10). He is definitely rocking an international pantry. The Asian-inspired free-range chicken for two ($41) is a standout (it’s made with a vibrant farce of brioche, cardamom, cumin, clove, Tellicherry, star anise, cubeb pepper, allspice, pork fat, and butter), and it comes with creamy coconut rice. There are also some housemade pastas ($14-$19) you should strongly consider (remember, he has that Quince pedigree). One night we had the wild boar bolognese with bucatini—it was like an Italian molé, with cocoa and orange, and a hit of lime.

Dessert is truly a must. The pastry chef, Elizabeth Gentry, is so very talented; try the citrus-praline tart with lemon curd, caramelized hazelnut sablé, and smoked praline ganache (plus kumquat salt!), while chocolate lovers should get the Manjari chocolate bombe, rich with jasmine (both $9).

If you desire a nightcap, you can head to ~MORIMOTO~ for what is usually a lively scene in the lounge and bar, or enjoy a digestivo or grappa (my pick!) at the small bar inside ~OENOTRI~, conveniently within stumbling distance of the Andaz.

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Rigatoni con coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) at Ca’ Momi.

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The next day, if you’re a biscuit lover, you’ll want to hit up the popular ~NAPA VALLEY BISCUITS~, a Southern diner serving biscuit-y breakfasts that will hold you until dinner (and help soak up any extended wine tastings later in the day). There’s also fried chicken and waffles, or you can go for the Yardbird: fried chicken, bacon, and gravy sandwiched inside a biscuit. Uh-huh.

Another option is to visit the ~OXBOW PUBLIC MARKET~. Start the day at the Ritual Coffee stand, and then take a seat at ~CA’ MOMI~, an enoteca featuring dishes from all over Italy (owners Dario De Conti, Valentina Guolo-Migotto, and Stefano Migotto take the authenticity of their dishes very seriously).

Order the Ca’ Momi Ca’ Rosa Frizzante to go with the flatbread with lardo di Colonnata, a rare treat. In fact, they’ll do all kinds of great wine pairings here, or you can go for a Venetian spritz or an Italian beer (like Baladin!). Piadine (Rimini-style flatbread sandwiches) also rule, especially the Giorgio ($12) with radicchio, prosciutto cotto, and creamy stracchino cheese filling.

Ca’ Momi’s blazing pizza oven cranks out about 20 kinds of pizza, from a classic (and VPN-certified) margherita ($16) to the Momi, with porchetta, taleggio, and caramelized onion ($17). If the carbonara with egg and pancetta isn’t a perfect brunch pizza, I don’t know what is. Plus there are nine kinds of vegetarian pies for those on a healthier tip. All ingredients are organic, and some even come from Ca’ Momi’s own garden for the restaurant.

If you’re in a lunchy mood, the pastas rock, like a northern Italian dish of spatzle allo speck with cream ($16), or the Roman rigatoni ($22) con coda alla vaccinara (with oxtail, pine nuts, and soffritto). Who can say no to gnudi ($16)? I usually can’t. For dessert, get the bigné—cream puffs with a variety of fillings.

~THE THOMAS AT FAGIANI’S~ has a tasty, casual brunch—think corn pancakes, good egg dishes, and a quality Bloody Mary—and if the weather is nice, the rooftop terrace is where you want to be. When tomato season is back, the BLAT (bacon, lettuce, avocado, tomato sandwich) is tops.

From there? Check out wine tasting rooms like Vintner’s Collective, 1313 Main, and Carpe Diem. The Culinary Institute of America is offering new Napa wine education classes at the CIA Wine Studies Annex in the former Copia, listed here. Oh yeah, and there are always the Napa Premium Outlets if you’re in a shopping frame of mind. (Dangerous after wine tasting, btw.)

 

A version of this piece previously ran in my Tablehopping column in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

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