the left coast- part 3 … foggy city and beyond

We woke up to a  foggy Thursday morning in hilly Hillsborough, just south of San Francisco that could have induced  laziness if we didn’t have such important work ahead.  (The town is named after the coffee family, not the terrain.) We took our time to enjoy the morning Joe and wonder if the weather would persist up in San Francisco throughout the day. It did, and because of the overcast, it was rather chilly by the water when we arrived at the Ferry Building.

As we strolled toward the Farmer’s Market on the sidewalk in front of the building, clouds of smoke rose just beyond the stands of bright produce. They were food vendors that I have read about. At that point, I could have been a cartoon character, drawn off his feet and carried aloft by fragrant smoke. I immediately sampled a Korean Taco, which used nori as a wrapper to give the juicy beef cubes an unexpected crunch. I was very close to getting a roast pork sandwich—but we were about to have lunch at Slanted Door inside the Ferry Building. Truth be told, I would have gotten it if it weren’t for the long line, regardless of the snickers from M and our SF friends.

Slanted Door was a great distraction for someone just deprived of an alluring pork sandwich. The menu was so extensive that I kept looking around at the dishes being served at nearby tables for inspiration. We ordered many dishes to share and really got a sense of what the restaurant had to offer. I apologize for not postings any food photos except the menu and a glass of fresh-pressed organic tangerine juice–there was so much busy tasting and no room to leave the camera in a handy position on the table.  The dishes I would recommend are Grilled Hamachi Collar  with pickled green mango and spicy ginger-fish dipping sauce, Grilled Five-Spice Chicken  with tamarind dipping sauce, Cellophane Noodles  with fresh Dungeness crab meat, and Caramelized Catfish Clay Pot  with cilantro, ginger and Thai chilies.

The overcast weather still lingered as we exited the Ferry Building. The temperature was warmer than New York, but something about the dampness in the air made it unpleasant to try outdoor activities, so we head over to the Asian Museum to view the Shanghai Exhibition. It was the perfect choice for that afternoon; we got to sample the art and culture of Shanghai from its time as an outpost of expats, an extensive collection of Buddha statues, and luminous Chinese jades. After a few hours, we managed only to see a fraction of their extensive exhibition.

Time for dinner! We maneuvered around a bit of rush hour downtown traffic and arrived at Quince, a focal point for contemporary French and Italian cuisine using local ingredients. As luck would have it, we found a parking spot on the block, which as I’ve mentioned in part 1 of the trip, is an auspicious sign of good things to come during Chinese New Year. Quince relocated to this current location after a hiatus from its former tiny jewel box on Octavia Street. The new, higher profile space was understated, elegant, and luxurious—with soft acoustics for comfortable conversation (all auspicious signs according to the Foodie calendar.)  We were seated toward the back of the restaurant, next to a massive original brick wall with large windows looking into the extensive wine cellar. The mood was perfect, so we eagerly waited for our food while sipping on our gin beverages. Of course mine was a classic dry martini with olives.

The good news: the food lived up to all the hype. Every course was presented artfully and each had a unique complexity that subtly pulls your attention away from the conversation to think about what you’re eating.  The bad news: we had such a good time, I forgot to take notes and Quince wouldn’t give me information on the menu when I called a week later.

The menu changes almost every day depending on the availability of the local fresh ingredients, they said.

You must have it on a computer or in a file somewhere, I said.

It was senseless to provide me with a menu that probably won’t be available ever again, they said.

I’d like to know and my readers would like to know. I don’t want to be inaccurate, I said.

We can’t help you, they said.

Not very diner friendly. I apologize but I can only sum up the experience of that evening—at the end, it was a great evening of food, wine and conversation that I highly recommend for your next visit to San Francisco.

To redeem myself, we’ll move to the most anticipated culinary experience of our trip—a visit to a foodie Mecca. Bright and early the next morning, we all dressed up and head up to Napa. As we left the Bay area, I wondered if my taste buds had recovered from last night’s explosion of flavors and could appreciate what awaited ahead. All worries were pushed aside as we pull into Yontville and road through town to French Laundry. I could have been Charlie entering the Chocolate Factory. We calmly walk through the courtyard to enter the cottage-rustic restaurant. Our reservation was for 11:15 am—normally, much too early to consume lunch—but customers were already seated at several tables. The Maître‘d escorted us to the second floor to a room with only six tables. The decor was warm, but more dressed up according to our friends who’d been there in earlier years.

Our captain explained the menu and got us comfortably situated. I know it’s before noon, but this occasion calls for great wine, and my friends ordered a luscious bottle of Blackbird Vineyard- Contrarian (a  blend of 38% Cabernet Franc, 34% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon.). It was full bodied and polished with excellent body structure. As we toasted our friends for hosting a fantastic vacation for us, a bread tray came with freshly baked choices from Bouchon Bakery down the road. There were choices of butter—salted, local, unsalted—and three kinds of salt. I started to sample the butter and salts, but, the breads were so amazing that I just want to enjoy them without any other flavors. Good thing these baked goods were petite or else we would be full from the passionate sampling. Even though someone of us avoided carbs whenever possible, it wasn’t possible with these beautiful creations.

The signature Salmon Tartare Cornets were gently placed on the table, but there was nothing gentle about the way we bit into the crunchy tulle, filled with sweet red onion crème fraîche, topped with fresh salmon tartare and studded with specks of chives. I’ve heard so much about these cornets, and after tasting the original, I can’t wait to make some when I get home.  This was followed by our first tasting on the menu, Cauliflower Panna Cotta. The surprising element was the oyster glaze that fused the creaminess of cauliflower to the saltiness of the caviar. Of course, I selected Foie Gras for the next course. I adore foie and the Torchon did not disappoint. The orange, fennel, and arugula contrasted the richness of the foie beautifully. The white honey reiterated the creaminess while the pine nuts added an occasional crunch. I ate this course with more bread (It was there!)

Another one of my favorite foods, Sea Urchin, came next. The intense flavor of the velvety urchin was brought to light by the supporting role of Asian pear, ginger, and the cabbage. The Kanzuri, a Japanese paste of red pepper, salt, koji, and yuzu, was a bit of a lost cause for me. It was so heavily ‘painted’ on the plate that it was hard to get enough of it to understand what contribution it made to the ensemble. Nonetheless, it was a good solid dish. Sea Scallops were next on the order of tasting. From the description in the menu, I expected nothing more than a sweet fresh scallop with a burst of crustacean goodness. Boy was I wrong. It was all that and then some. The scallop was cooked to perfection, caramelized on the top with succulent sweetness. The Dry Corn Nage added a certain depth of complexity that exceeded all my expectations. The intensity of corn just exploded like I’ve never experienced before. To me, this was the dish that confirmed what an amazing chef Thomas Keller is—something seemingly simple that brought a foodie orgasmic moment.

The Pork Belly was delicious—a well rendered piece of belly that melted in my mouth without unctuousness. The switch from intensive seafood to the supple tenderness of the pork was a surprising but refreshing change. With a few sips of the delicious wine, we entered a new phase of the meal with the arrival of the Lamb Rib-Eye. To me, the unique scent of lamb broadcasts comfort food. A classic preparation with a deconstructed twist gave it a lighter mouth-feel. It was a most satisfying end to the protein portion of the meal. After the cheese course with a tasty Swiss chard rubric, I was ready for a change. Persian Lime Sorbet cleansed the palette and the Huckleberry Tart and Marconi Almonds completed the meal with just the right sweetness. Even though we felt satiated at this point, they enticed us with Petite Fours and Crunchy Toffee Crusted Macadamia Nuts. The Petite Fours were pleasant but these macadamia nuts were a terrific surprise–fresh, crunchy, sweet, and a touch salty.

After our exquisite, 3.5 hour dining experience, our captain gave us a tour of the impeccably clean and organized frenzy of the very busy kitchen. As we left the courtyard, I thought about how blessed we were to have experienced a slice of greatness. I hope to recreate some of Thomas Keller genius via his cookbooks. Until then, make your reservation.