Archive for July, 2009
We had talked about renting a car while in San Francisco and either driving north to Sonoma/Napa or south to Carmel. We got loads of advice from many people about which place we should head. In the end, the decision was very, very easy. I found out through mom (thank you for being alert, Mom!) that Tyler Florence’s kitchen store was close to SF and kind of on the way to Sonoma and Napa Valley. Ok, decision was made! We were going north. Did I mention that Tyler is my favorite Food Network chef? Well, he is.
I’ve been following Tyler on Twitter, even taking (well, monitoring) his Twitter cooking class, so I knew he was in the area while we were. It was the night before we were heading out to Mill Valley when he posted that he was leaving for NY to do the Today Show when my world came crashing down. Tyler wasn’t going to be in the same town as me. I swallowed my disappointment and we decided to go anyway.
I was a little nervous about driving in San Francisco, especially after experiencing life in a cab, cable car and bus. The hills! the people! the cable cars! the other drivers! were all very frightening, mostly because of roads like this one: The Crookedest Street.
I like driving best when I’m familiar with where I’m going as well as the roads. Lucky for me, Jose is a very good navigator. He got me through downtown Manhattan and across the Brooklyn Bridge safely last year (we did take a very unexpected detour through Newark….though it was not his fault. There was a lot of construction and exits that just popped up out of nowhere)
In addition to driving to Sonoma and Napa, which in itself is very amusing as neither of us drinks wine, we had planned on going to another Food Network chef’s (Michael Chiarello) restaurant, Bottega. The reviews on yelp.com are filled with people raving about the food. We were intrigued and decided to go.
We picked up the car and quickly made it out of the city. It was much easier than I anticipated, and Jose did a great job of keeping me away from cable car lines, buses and pedestrians. We drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, which was pretty cool. I love the color of the bridge and the fog gives it a nice, dreamy quality. There were quite a few people walking or biking across.
We drove to Mill Valley to Tyler Florence’s store . Mill Valley is cute, quaint town! The store is nice, pretty typical kitchen store, but there is a reading room filled with comfortable seating and hundreds of cookbooks.
I knew via Tyler’s twitter feed that someone stole one of the giant forks off the front of the store. Literally, ripped it down. How does someone steal a five foot, fifty pound fork? That reminds me of a time in high school when my friends and I would do our own version of TPing houses. We would use plastic utensils and paper plates and we would stick them in people’s yards like place settings. Much easier clean up than toilet paper hanging from trees. I wish I had a photo.
Here you can see the missing fork! I think this story is worth Googling just to see the funny headlines. (search for Tyler Florence fork)
After we left that store we went to the little grocery store across the street to get some drinks and snacks for the car. I bought the best Rainier cherries I’ve had a long time. They were so tasty and fruity. Yum.
We continued on our trek to Sonoma and Napa and the drive was really lovely. There were areas of really dry land, and then tons of vineyards. Jose took a lot of photos out of the window because I was driving and couldn’t really check out the scenery.
One of the things we passed on the road was Marie Callender’s (yes, the frozen food lady) restaurant and bakery. Who knew?
Our lunchtime destination was Yountville, home of Michael Chiarello’s restaurant Bottega. I was pretty excited about eating here, especially since I heard that he was on site at the restaurant often. If I wasn’t going to see Tyler today, I was at least going to see another Food Network chef. (I like his show too…but I’m not up to that level of entertaining; I think I would if I had the space and the money to throw dinner parties like that!)
We stopped in at Michael’s NapaStyle store that’s in the same complex as the restauant and browsed around. It was very nice…lots of things to look at. My favorite was the collection of salts. If you watch his show, you know that the man is fascinated by salt (I was soon to find out exactly how much) and he sells about 12 kinds of salt in this store. There was a table set up for you to taste the different kinds. Something must be wrong with my taste buds, because even though they all looked different…they all tasted like…SALT to me. Everyday, regular, normal salt. Oh well.
We finally went in to eat (soo hungry by this time) and the hostess’ desk was this really interesting orangey glowing thing with wire mesh around it. I kept looking at it and finally realized it was made out of…wait for it. SALT crystals. I told you the man is obsessed with salt.
It was really hot outside, but once in a while we were hit with a nice breeze. The only negative thing that happened here (and it’s completely normal for outside eating, I think) is that since we were eating outside there were a lot of flies. If you hear Jose tell it, there were a million of them on his arm and buzzing around the food. In reality, there were 3 annoying ones. Eventually they left us alone. I kept my eyes peeled for a Michael sighting. Nothing. and then…a few minutes after we got our menus, I look up and here comes Michael!! bringing a plate of food to the table next to us. I was just about to grab Jose’s arm to show him when our waiter showed up to take our order. Rats!! By the time we were done ordering, he was gone!
Before we ordered, our nice waiter brought us some bread with this garlicky, cheesy, olive oil dip. It was literally chunks of garlic and parmigiano-reggiano cheese. Delish!
We decided to have three appetizers. The first was fried calamari with aioli nero, which is like a homemade mayo with garlic, and squid ink. Now, I managed to avoid eating anything made with squid ink in Italy (where it’s all the rage in pasta), but I was determined to try it. (it’s mixed with garlic and mayo..how bad could it be?) It was not bad, I couldn’t even taste the ink. It was just garlicky to me. It did however turn your mouth black while you were eating. It’s not always the most appetizing thing to see your dining companion with a mouth like a rotting zombie. A few swigs of water and all is normal again. The calamari was the best we’d had in San Francisco (and we ate it a lot). I’ve upset a few of my readers by waxing poetic about the crispy tentacles, so I won’t do it again (but they were crispy! and tasty!)
Then we ordered a warm goat cheese, frisee salad with dried, sour cherries. Ohh, this was one of the tastiest salads I’ve ever had. Jose isn’t really a salad guy (vegetables in general are a stretch) and even he thought it was delicious. (Still no more Michael sightings)
We also ordered this polenta dish that everyone on yelp raved about. It is called Polenta Under Glass, and it comes in this cute little jar with a lid. The polenta is soft, with lots of melted cheese in the mix, and caramelized mushrooms and crispy onions on top. It comes with a little pitcher of warm balsamic vinegar sauce that you pour on top to your liking. It was to die for. Amazing texture, flavor, everything worked together. We were fighting over who got to scrape the last bits out of the dish. I could have eaten another one of those! Here’s a nice review of the restaurant with a paragraph devoted to this dish. (No Michael)
I also had the ricotta gnocchi, which was good, but nothing exceptional.
Jose had the skirt steak with truffle SALT french fries. The steak was so tender, it was amazing. I have no idea how you can cook skirt steak like that. It was served with a red pepper sauce that was very tasty.
We were celebrating Jose’s birthday a little late and ordered two desserts. Both were very, good. One was a hazelnut cake with a warm chocolate center…very good.
The other was a caramel filled brownie like pastry, which was very, delicious.
Right about this time, we see a guy with a giantic camera walking around with a well dressed lady. They were looking at tables and moving plates around and talking to diners. Suddenly, here comes Michael with a bottle of wine and some wineglasses. The photographer was doing a photo shoot for a winery. The photographer was about 4 feet away from me, facing my same direction, which means, yes Michael was facing me. While this gave me a great view, I couldn’t just whip out my camera and start taking photos. Even if I wanted too. Badly. So here I am, mere feet away from a Food Network star and I can’t use my camera. So I just watched the excitement for a while and then it was over.
When it was time to leave, I had to check out the bathroom (of course). You know, for someone as anti-public toilets as me, I spend a lot of time photographing them. This one was beautiful too (nicer than Tyler’s, but you didn’t hear me say that).
I leave the bathroom and walk past the salt lick…aka the Hostess Booth, and there he is!! standing there talking to the hostesss!! I walked right past him. We made eye contact, but he kept talking to the hostess. Jose was still checking out the men’s room, so I sat down on a chair (close, but not TOO close) and waited. Finally, he turned around and started walking past me. We made eye contact AGAIN! and this time I said “hello” and he said, “Hello. Good to see you”. And he walked out the door. Jose emerges from the bathroom while I’m hyperventilating and says “What happened?” Typical. And that my friends, is the story of my encounter with a celebrity chef.
We drove back to San Francisco, turned in the car and that was the end of our eventful day. We drove 124 miles, round trip over a huge bridge (twice) to visit two kitchen stores, two celebrity chefs, eat a delicious meal and check out two nicely decorated bathrooms. Just a regular, normal day on vacation for us.
The one thing we have both been looking forward to was our trip to Alcatraz. Our tour of Alcatraz was slightly misleading. We bought tickets for a night tour, thinking it would be dark when we were touring the prison, but it turned out to mean “after the day tours”.
Our ferry departed at 6:45pm and it was a cool, windy day. Of course, I forgot my light jacket, you know the one I brought to San Francisco just for this outing? Yeah. It was cold. and windy. We were the only ones on the boat without a jacket or sweatshirt. Whoops! We took the short ferry ride over to the island. Did I mention it was windy? Check out my hair in this photo.
As we got closer to the island, the captain started telling us some historical information about the island, which was pretty cool.
Before we got off the ferry, they made sure to tell us that the last two boats leaving the island boarded at 8:45 and 9:25. All the guided tours of Alcatraz include an audio tour, which I’ve heard great things about from everyone who has taken it. We had a terrific experience with an audio tour in York, England when we toured the Minster church, so this one had some big shoes to fill. We got up the hill pretty quickly (ok, we cheated and hopped on the tram…hey, it was there and available).
We arrived at the beginning of the tour, got suited up with our headphones and we were on our way. At first, there were a lot of people congregated in one space, but you could pause the audio track whenever you wanted to so in a few minutes the crowds thinned out as people started traveling at their own paces. We were on the look out for funny photo opportunities and of course we were not disappointed.
We passed through one of the cell blocks and were looking into the cells. They are 5x9x7, about the size of our kitchen. Seriously!
Let’s talk about the condition of the toilets and sinks…I know the place hasn’t been used in over 40 years so that must explain the plumbing issues. Could this be a job for Scubbing Bubbles?
As we were walking through there was one open cell that everyone was just walking by. Of course Jose decides to step inside it, so I start snapping pictures like crazy. People walking by started laughing and waiting for their turn and soon there was a huge line waiting to get inside the cell. That’s my husband…the trendsetter…always climbing into the jail cell.
Kitchen/dining hall area.
View from a little window in the Recreation Yard door
One of the stops on the tour talked about an escape attempt that involved taking guards hostage. These markings on the floor were made by grenades dropped to stop the escape attempt.
There was another escape, this one involving three prisoners. They did manage to escape from Alcatraz, but were never found. It’s unknown whether they survived the swim or not. They used spoons to carve a larger hole in their vent and then climbed out using the existing pipe system. Similiar to, but not exactly like The Shawshank Redemption (one of my top 10 favorite movies AND short stories.)
Halfway through our tour, someone needed to take a bathroom break and it wasn’t me. You all know how I feel about public toilets…I’d never use the bathroom at Alcatraz, let alone do this. Eewwwww.
We toured all the cell blocks and even went into one of the solitary confinement AKA isolation cells. These were a little larger, but had doors and then cell doors, too. We got a few creepy pictures and an equally creep video. Jose was doing his best Blair Witch Project impression here. Check out the guy that walked into the cell, freaked out a bit and quickly left.
We walked through the entire prison, and even went upstairs to tour the medical facility. That was cool and very creepy. Some of the rooms only had one light in the corner, or just a piece of medical equipment like an operating table or xray machine.
Here’s Jose standing in the medical cell of the Birdman of Alcatraz. For some reason, I couldn’t spend a lot of time in this cell.
Here are some random shots that didn’t really fit anywhere else in this post.
As we left the prison, the sun was setting and the grounds started getting dark. We walked down the big hill and as we rounded a corner, Jose yelled “Oooh yeah!!” and started pointing. Up ahead, in a small building was the prison morgue. FUN! NOT! I took a picture of him outside the morgue and then passed the camera to Jose. He took a few pictures inside the window while I stood far far away.
The buildings on Alcatraz have not fared well due to the weather conditions, the salt erosion and the damage done by the Native Americans that took over in the 60s. The state of the buildings does help set the mood of the tour, and it’s strange to think about the 1500 men who were incarcerated here. In addition to the men, women and children who lived on the island.
I know there are a TON of photos here, you’re probably surpised to learn that I left a lot more out. I don’t want to spoil the experience for you, when you tour Alcatraz. I hope I didn’t. It’s worth doing. When it was all said and done, this audio tour was amazing. I’d highly recommend it for anyone who hasn’t been to Alcatraz. You’ll be fascinated. they did a very phenomenal job of producing the audio portion and planning out the tour.
On our second day in San Francisco, we slept in. I know, I know…things to do and see, but hey, we like our sleep and taking it easy on vacation. We decided to take the bus (using our awesome Muni passes, again) to the Italian village area for a San Francisco specialty called cioppino. Until recently, I was unaware of this tasty dish that’s a kind of seafood stew.
We used yelp.com to find almost all of the restaurants we visited on this trip. and this place was rated the best for cioppino. It’s a small, tiny restaurant with a few tables outside. Since the weather was lovely, we chose to eat outside. We ordered a bowl of clam chowder and one serving of cioppino. I heard via a yelp review that it’s a HUGE portion, so we figured we’d share it. I like seafood, but clams, mussels and oysters are on the low end of the spectrum for me. Usually I find that the clams are overcooked and tough, especially in chowder, so I wasn’t expecting it to be spectacular. Sometimes chowder is too thick and gluey, too. This one, however, was perfect. The clams were tender and flavorful and just the right size. (I don’t care for unchopped clams…they remind me of chewing gum…definitely not appetizing!)
Like a lot of people, I mistakenly assumed cioppino was an Italian dish because of the name, but it actually was created in the North Beach area. It’s called cioppino (chi-pino) because a fishermen would make lunch on the docks and call down to the other boats to see if they wanted to “chip in” some of their daily catch. They they would all share the stew. Ok, that’s my very simple explanation and I think it’s fairly accurate.
After the chowder came the cioppino. It was chock full of crab, bay shrimp and scallops, large shrimp, snapper, clams, calamari and mussels (which I did not eat) all in a tomato/garlic/seafood stock. Ohh my gosh it was SOOO good. I think this was the best new food thing I’ve tasted in a long, long time. I wanted to drink the broth or at least lick the bowl when I was done. I’m pretty stingy with salt when I cook beacause I like to let people do their own seasoning and I prefer less salty food. The cioppino was salty, but it wasn’t overly salty (I did drink 6 glasses of water, tho, which made for an interesting walk through Chinatown!)
The chef came out a few times to talk to us, and we saw lots of local people stop by to talk to the owner who was sitting at a table next to us. Overall, we’d recommend this place to anyone. It’s relatively close to Union Square, we took a bus ride that was pretty quick. The restaurant is Sotto Mare and you can find the menu here.
After a scrumptious lunch we walked off some of the food and headed towards Chinatown the fortune cookie factory that was on our “to do” list. Chinatown was really busy and crowded, but full of life and energy. There were a ton of little grocery shops selling vegetable and other items like hats, flipflops and cases of ginko biloba. We had a few dimsum places ready to try, but were so full from lunch that we didn’t stop. We’re hoping to do that this week before we leave.
We keep walking a few blocks to find the Fortune Cookie Factory where they make 20,000 fortune cookies a day. By hand. Impressive, right? Our directions took us down a main street and then said to turn down an alley and look for the factory. So we did. We walked up and down the alley two times. We could smell the cookies, but couldn’t see them. Finally on the third trip up the alley, we found the factory. Or in reality, the small store front, er excuse me, the small alley front with three Chinese ladies sitting on folding chairs in front of hot irons folding fortune cookies. One lady, the one closest to the door was smiling and chatting, the other two were not.
I loved the manager guy, he was so nice. He gave out warm cookies (unfolded) to everyone who came in and if you bought something you got another handful to take on the road. After a handshake. He wouldn’t hand over your merchandise or the free cookies until you shook his hand.
Here are some random Chinatown pictures…archictecture, Peking Duck and some interesting mechandise. We went into a store selling shark fin for soup, but we weren’t able to photograph them. Sorry!
It’s late and I am going to leave you with a video clip of the amazing fortune cookie factory. Have no fear, I did purchase cookies to bring home. Some have mystery fortunes. Should be interesting! I promise I’ll get to our Alcatraz tour and Sonoma/Napa Valley day trip ASAP, too. I have a celebrity chef sighting to discuss!