Monday, 6 August 2012

California Love Part 1: NorCal

Spent about 9 days in California this July.  I've been to California before but never spent this much time exploring the Golden State.  This time we flew into San Francisco, drove to Napa and Sonoma, then drove south along the coast to LA, Newport Beach and San Diego, making a stop first in Paso Robles.  First stop was Northern California.
We arrived in San Francisco and spent the day exploring the city.  We took the cable car over to Fisherman's Wharf.  It was a lot fun to stand on the edge of the cable car going up and down the hilly streets of San Fran.

Since 2hung hadn't been to San Fran before, we did the usual Fisherman's Wharf, Pier 39 and Chinatown thing.  Too bad there aren't many sea lions at the pier during this time of the year.  There were only 2 lonely sea lions lying around.  Good thing we saw a lot more as we drove down the coast of California.

We enjoyed a nice cup of coffee at the Black Pointe Cafe across from the Guiradelli Square.  I never saw this place the last time I came here.  It's quite a nice spot to sit and relax after a long walk, and their coffee was pretty good.
We took the historic trolley back towards Union Square and Chinatown before heading over to dinner.
Last time when I visited San Fran, I didn't even bother walking into Chinatown.  This time we took a brief walk through Grant Ave and there really wasn't much to see.  The street was lined with boring souvenir shops.  I guess the grocery stores and restaurants must be located on the other side streets which we didn't walk through.
I made dinner reservations at Cotogna which is a chic little Italian restaurant.  I picked this place based on a review I read on David Lebovitz's blog and it was definitely a good recommendation.
We ordered the ravioli di ricotta with farm egg because I've always wanted to try this dish.  I don't think there are any places in Toronto that makes this dish.  The egg yolk remains runny even after the pasta is cooked!
The white sea bass was everyone's favourite dish.   The fish was juicy and cooked just right.
We ordered a pizza with sausage, ricotta and arugula.  I think this was the first time I've had cooked arugula instead of having the fresh arugula just sprinkled on top.  Cooked arugula actually tastes fine and it takes away that bitterness in the vegetable.  The crust was a little too burnt for my taste though.
The cheesecake was one of the best parts of the meal.  It was made with homemade ricotta and not Philadelphia.  It didn't have a graham cracker crust.  Instead, the cheesecake was sitting on top of a bed of freshly crushed hazelnuts.
The next morning, we visited the farmers market at the Ferry Building.  I can't believe I never visited this place last time.  It is way better than the Fisherman's Wharf.  They had a lot of awesome food inside and outside the building.  We went there in the morning, but we definitely ate our breakfast and lunch portions worth of food.  First we started off with a cup of coffee from Blue Bottle Coffee.  There were many coffee shops in the building, but this was the one with the longest line, so we had to try it.
Not sure how they manage it, but their drip coffee is literally dripped cup by cup.  It probably took the same amount of time as it did to make an espresso drink!   The latte art on my cup was done beautifully and their Belgian waffles were worth the wait in line.
Another place I enjoyed very much inside the Ferry Building was the Cowgirl Creamery which sells lovely cheeses made in California.  They have a little food stand called Sidekick.  We enjoyed a Mt Tam & Ham sandwich and a Mozzarella & Egg and they were both so yummy.  I love fresh chunks of mozzarella!
Imagine if you had all these fresh wild mushrooms available for your everyday cooking!  They smelt so good...
Outside of the building, there was more great food.  We tried the rotisserie chicken and roasted porchetta sandwich from Roti Roli.
Then we bought some lovely fruits before heading out to Napa Valley.

Oops, and I forgot to mention the oysters and cherry stone clams...
Napa Valley and Sonoma were definitely key highlights of our trip.  I particularly enjoyed Napa the most because of all the amazing restaurants...oh and of course there was the wine!  We literally drank from 10am to 5pm the couple of days that we spent there.
The Robert Mondavi winery tour is a must-see.  It is only $25 and you get to see their vineyards and wine cellars as well as enjoy 3 tastings and a small bite.  You are better off making reservations the day before or else the tour might be sold-out.
We also visited a winery called Opus One which we thought was a beautiful estate.  We later found out that this is a premium winery and that their wines would cost $35 per glass if we were to have a taste in their lounge.  We decided to just take some photos and spend our money elsewhere.
Next, we went to V. Sattui Winery.  This seems to be the more affordable place to get your wine and they had areas with picnic tables for people to enjoy a little lunch with their wine.
Next, we were off to Castello di Amorosa, which is a castle built around twenty years ago by the owner.  We paid the general admission which included 5 tastings and we could visit the rooms that are open to the general public.
That was pretty much it for the first day.  The wineries close around 5-6pm.  We headed to our first dinner in Napa at Terra, a restaurant with 1 Michelin star.  We ordered the 4-course prix fixe menu, and this pretty much covered us the entire menu so we were able to try one of everything.  Their food was very delicious and very well presented.  For $70, the value is way better than any restaurant in Toronto.
The next day, we started off with more food from Michelin starred chefs.  Well, at least at their lower end restaurants.  You've probably heard of Thomas Keller's famed restaurant The French Laundry.  It is almost impossible to get a reservation there although they allow bookings up to two months in advance.  I tried my luck but wasn't able to secure a spot for us, so we decided to go and check out the outside of the restaurant nonetheless! 
We had a quick lunch at Bouchon Bakery, another one of Thomas Keller's creations.  Their sandwiches are great for lunch, but most of all, I was there for the desserts and pastries.
We were off to Sonoma after lunch.  The good thing about Sonoma is that their wine tastings are a lot cheaper than in Napa.  The bad thing about Sonoma is that I didn't find their wines to be nearly as good as what we tasted in Napa.  Our first stop was Ravenswood Winery which is one of Robert Mondavi's sister wineries, but it was rather disappointing, and I would not recommend going there for even a tasting.  We left promptly and headed to Buena Vista Winery next, which is California's first premium winery.  Disappointed again, because their estate was under renovations, but their tasting room was still open for tastings.  Their wines again didn't really leave an impression on us and their staff certainly didn't seem like they wanted to try.

Third stop was the Kunde Family Estate winery.  This winery was more like it.  Their estate was quite beautiful and I later found out that this is where that movie Bottle Shock was filmed, although I hadn't really heard of the movie before visiting Sonoma. 

Last stop, we saw this beautiful mansion as we were driving in from Napa.  It turns out to be Domaine Carneros which is a maker in sparkling wine.  Here we enjoyed a sampling of sparkling wine, a charcuterie plate and a cheese plate.
For dinner, we went to another one of Keller's restaurants called Ad Hoc.  They have a fixed menu each night and the food is served family style so everything is for sharing.  I quite like this concept and it reminded me of Ruby Watch Co. in Toronto.


What a wonderful experience in only a few days spent in Northern California!  The drive along the Pacific coast and SoCal is next!

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