Posts Tagged ‘Yountville’
March 30, 2011
Ainsley, although usually a very calm and agreeable child, did not approve of her hotel-provided crib. So I was up early and decided to check Dynamo’s Twitter feed to see what they’re making. I had no plans to make the hour-long bus trip there and back since we had a rental car for a day trip up north, and I was going to need all of the stomach room possible for an afternoon of Thomas Keller’s food.
Rats. They were making several flavors that are on my list to try this time around. Chief among those is the cornmeal cherry that eluded me last time. I mentioned my dilemma to Loria and she, ever pragmatic, said that I have four donuts on my list and that if we split them all, that’s really like only eating two donuts apiece. That can’t possibly spoil my appetite, she sagely reasons. I was halfway out the door before she finished the sentence.
Dynamo Donuts – an unwholesome variety and quantity of donuts
As mentioned before, I love donuts more than I can accurately explain. One of the biggest losses in my everyday life over the past year was the closing of the Dick’s Market up the street. Rather than taking that as evidence of my living a particularly charmed life, consider it a statement of how much donuts and I get along. The in-house bakery at Dick’s was amazing, and their apple fritter had become a regular part of my diet. It helped that the store resided in the same strip mall as my gym, so I could get my workout in and easily rationalize the pastry afterward. I’d earned it. Dick’s, you will be missed.
Dynamo, how I missed you. Over the course of this last week-long trip, I made the long trip there three times. If they weren’t closed on the day we left, I suspect there would have been one last trip there as our final stop on the way out of town. I say this despite finding out late last trip that the bus route from our hotel and Dynamo apparently also serves as the most convenient way for the denizens of the Tenderloin to get to the closest methadone clinic. So, needless to say, our merry band of bus riders are a colorful lot. I barely noticed on the way there, anticipation drawing my attention to the countdown to my 24th Street stop; the way back is fraught with terror as I will myself and, more importantly, my box of $3 donuts to be invisible.
Here’s what we ate during the entire trip. I’m sure if you do the math you’ll realize that if only four of these happened on this first day, we had a couple of really piggish days thereafter. Maybe it’s better if you just don’t do the math.
Meyer Lemon Huckleberry – this one is nicely tart due to plenty of lemon zest.
Maple Apple Bacon – same and brilliant as it ever was. I may or may not have eaten one of these myself each time I went.
Lemon Pistachio – beautiful middle Eastern flavors with the lemon glaze being much more acidic than you’d find on a normal lemon donut.
Hot Cross Bun – hint of nutmeg in the pastry cream filling.
Molasses Guinness Pear – dense molasses donut with Guinness-soaked pears, crystallized ginger, and raisins with a molasses glaze. I love pears, crystallized ginger, and desserts, so this donut should be a no-brainer favorite. Instead, I found it rather muddled. I’m not sure if it’s a function of there being too much going on or a function of the donut being particularly dense and smothering the other flavors, but I could taste only a touch of pear, plenty of molasses, and not much else. That being said, the worst Dynamo donut is better than most other donuts I have available, so still a very pleasant experience.
Cornmeal Rosemary Cherry – cornmeal donut with rosemary and dried cherry with a buttermilk glaze. I love the idea of cornmeal in a donut. As a flavor, it doesn’t show up much in this one, being taken over by the glaze.
Monte Cristo – donut with chunks of gruyere and ham in the batter filled with a house made jam. Great jam, though I could have used more of it. And, while we’re at it, more of the ham and cheese would have been good, too. The one bite that I got that contained all three was sublime, though.
Bitter Queen – candied grapefruit donut with an Elderflower glaze and dusted with Campari sugar. Brilliant little pastry, this. First of all, there is much more sourness and bitterness than I anticipated in a donut. The Campari sugar is very flavorful, but the candied grapefruit makes this donut for me. Seeing this on their daily Twitter feed will give me serious hunger pangs from here on out.
Blueberry Cornmeal – cornmeal donut with fresh blueberries and a lavender glaze. I preferred this version of the two cornmeal donuts. Clear, copious amounts of blueberry flavor and a nice compliment from the lavender.
Strawberry Earl Grey – donut with dried strawberries and a double bergamot Earl Grey glaze. Orange from the bergamot oil in the team and strawberries, both very prevalent. I wish I’d gotten a second of these, as the half that I had didn’t have many dried strawberries.
Peanut Butter Banana – banana donut with peanut butter glaze. I’ll admit to not finding much banana flavor here, though the peanut butter glaze was delicious.
Our appetites properly piqued, we picked up the rental car and headed north over the Golden Gate through Napa. It’s a beautiful drive that would, I’m sure, have been greatly augmented by an occasional stop at a winery for a tour and tasting. We don’t drink, though, so we blow right past Napa on up to Yountville to visit
Bouchon Bistro – Rillettes, Lobster Bisque, Poulet Rôti , and Gnocchi à la Parisienne
Our previous visit to Bouchon in Vegas was a memorable meal. We are also avid fans of the bakery, so we figured that it would constitute a nice side trip to visit the mother ship of both. We encountered what was to become a running theme on the trip: the wait staff, as happy as they are to see us, are over the moon about having Ainsley dine with them. Both the our server and the greeter are both lavish in their praise of her beauty and behavior. And, as much as I feel immune to a wait staff who butters me up personally, appreciating my child seems to wonder for my mood and the size of the post-meal tip.
This incarnation of Bouchon is a much smaller, more intimate room. I’m fairly surprised that we are one of maybe five tables occupied. The lobster bisque arrives and I’m surprised to find a deep, rich, and complex flavor more akin to a beef stew than the seafood-enriched soup I’m expecting. In fact, without the benefit of having been the one ordering it, I don’t know that I could have identified it as a seafood dish at all. It’s not bad, but definitely not expected. The rillettes, on the other hand, comes exactly as described: meat cooked into a tender paste, packed into a small crock, then topped with apricot preserves. It’s served with small grilled pieces of toast which I feel duty-bound to pile as high as I can with the tasty mix. The flavor balance is dead on, with the preserves providing just a bit of acid to cut the fat of the meat. I kind of wish we’d ordered two of these and skipped the bisque.
There are no surprises with the mains, however: the roast chicken is juicy, flavorful, and perfectly done. I recall there being vegetation that accompanied the dish, but it hardly mattered. I was too busy denuding the bones of my part of the chicken to pay much attention. The gnocchi is the best I’ve ever had. It is light, airy, and the browned butter sauce around it is beautiful.
We’re offered dessert, but plan on the bakery next door.
Bouchon Bakery – small assortment of desserts
I don’t know whether I was full or simply sated after the Dynamo run, but a trip to Bouchon Bakery, usually an expensive endeavor, turns into a fairly cheap affair. We grabbed a chocolate eclair, which was rich and decadent and that I would gladly enjoy again. I also grab a blackberry pâte de fruit (mispronouncing it as “pa-tay d’froot” only to find it’s actually “paw d’fwee” (die in a fire, French language)) and two macarons. Among them, only the passion fruit macaron stands out as being anything special.
I’m certainly open to admitting that, after a day of food indulgences, my palate was shot. The next time we’re in Vegas, I certainly will be excited to visit the version of the Bakery in the Venetian. This one in Yountville has a larger selection, adding a robust selection of breads to the menu. Since we were there for dessert, I was mostly focused on those and surprised to find that there are very few choices here that can’t be had in Vegas.
The drive home was trying. We managed to nail rush hour between Napa and Oakland, and sit in the car for an extra 45 minutes. Ainsley’s patience finally runs thin, and by the time we’re dropping the car off at the hotel, she’s in real need of feeding and a nap. As such, when dinnertime rolls around an hour or so later, I head out to forage for food to bring back. Since the mall is just next door, I opt for an old friend.
Out the Door – Green Papaya Salad, Steamed Pork Bun, Crispy Jumbo White Shrimps with Garlic Shanghai Noodles, and Lemongrass Pork Noodles
Among my proud accomplishments this trip is that I have both convinced and addicted Loria to the joys of Out the Door. The fast-food incarnation of the famed Vietnamese restaurant The Slanted Door offers impressively seasoned and conceived dishes to go. My experience with them last trip was marred only by the fact that I discovered them the day before we were leaving, so I didn’t get to try everything on the menu.
I’d had the green papaya salad last time and loved it, and grabbed one again this time to make up for the last time I talked Loria into a papaya salad at a local Thai place that was dreadful. She agreed that this version was crisp and delicious and has rhapsodized about its joys since then. The steamed pork bun was the same as last time, with bonus points being awarded for it not being the disturbing color of blood red that most similar buns in San Francisco are on the inside.
Of the two entrees we got, Loria picked better than I: while the shrimp noodles were good, I found somewhere halfway through my dish that I’d had more than enough of them. Instead, I finished up the lemongrass pork noodles and wished that I’d gotten the caramelized chicken that was on the menu.
One note: the online menu appears to be somewhat out of date, as the lemongrass chicken that appears there wasn’t available. I’m not sure if that had something to do with our being there somewhat late in the day, but good to know if you’re headed there that it’s best not to get yourself married to any particular dish until you arrive and see what they are actually offering that day.
Up next: a naked song. Cringe, San Francisco, cringe.
It’s a rare meal when, at the end, I’m excited to have only paid $100, tip included. It’s even more rare when I am anxious to return, and nearly do so the very next day.
Loria and I visited The Venetian resort in Las Vegas last year specifically to enjoy Bouchon Bakery, a small stand outside of the Phantom of the Opera Theatre. The first visit made such an impression that our final stop on the way out of the town consisted of my parking illegally in the hotel’s covered entrance, leaving her to watch after the car, sprinting to drop a silly amount of money, and then running back with two bags full of baked goods.
While the eponymous bouchon, a dense, rich chocolate brownie bite, the lemon and raspberry macaron, and the eclairs were each delicious, it was the ham and cheese sandwich that really surprised me. It takes something this simple and elegant to really make the point that Thomas Keller is a genius, and clearly knows how to coax maximum flavor out of each ingredient. On a not entirely unrelated note, we repeated the exercise this year, nearly doubling last year’s expenditure. The prices are, in some cases, double that of a regular bakery. Food with the precision and thought like that served in a Keller restaurant is worth every penny. Which is my way of saying, visit the bakery, go prepared to spend some cash, and don’t look back.
Having enjoyed the baked goods last year, we decided to make the actual restaurant the central dining experience of the trip. Good call.
If you’ve ever read a Thomas Keller recipe, you’ll know that “precision” isn’t finely detailed enough a word to describe the man’s work. When somebody suggests that I cut up a chocolate bar for use in a chocolate chip cookie, and then use a sieve on the pieces of chocolate to make sure that the smaller shards don’t end up melted into the dough and change the pale color, you know that you’re dealing with somebody who really cares about the smallest details of his food. It shows and I’m grateful.
Bouchon Bistro is a recreation of Keller’s casual eatery in Yountville, California. It serves French bistro food, dressed up for a night on the town. Or, in some cases, dressed down and simplified in very elegant and flavorful ways.
The staff was beyond friendly. Our waiter bantered wittily when appropriate, and gave us plenty of space when we needed it. I love a server who pays attention, and this guy was very much on his game. His description of the specials indicated clearly that he’d sampled each of them, which seems to be a dying tradition in restaurants. His first recommendation put us in a quandary: the night’s special appetizer sounded amazing, but I’ve read a bit about the pate and have my heart set on it. In an evening filled with great choices, we decide to do both.
It consisted of pork shoulder, cooked low and slow for the entire day, pressed into the shape of a long, thin candy bar. The pork presse was topped with an apricot preserve and a salad of marble-sized heirloom tomato halves. These parts of the dish alone would have been worth the money. The genius bit, though, was a sprinkling of dried garlic flowers, so pungent and flavorful, with a bit of creme fraiche to combat the acid of the tomatoes. I would love to know what, exactly, had been done to those small flowers to make them so filled with garlic flavor. Whether they were soaked or treated in some manner before drying, or they came from The French Laundry’s garden, they were the extra bit that put an already remarkable dish over the top.
As for the pate, I honestly don’t remember the details. It had some bacon around the outside. It made me feel very happy for the lucky pig that gave its life for the dish. I remember feeling like it would have been a serious mistake had we passed it up. I will not visit Bouchon again without getting the pate before my meal.
For our entrees, we choose the Kurobuta pork loin and the croque madame. The pork was served with a mustard water and creme fraiche on a small bed of wilted swiss chard and lightly heated peaches. I will admit that, though I do dearly love pork, I have only rarely had a pork loin that I was really excited about. Given how the appetizers went, I was fairly confident that Bouchon’s take on it stood a decent chance of turning that around for me and I wasn’t disappointed. It was weet, tender, and very delicate. The pairing of stone fruit with pork, a traditional favorite in late-summer, was a nice compliment. I certainly enjoyed it and might even order it again.
The croque madame was, however, all kinds of amazing.
This one was my wife’s choice, though we shared both entrees. Here is the menu description:
toasted ham & cheese sandwich on brioche,
fried egg & mornay sauce
served with French fries
Reading that, I was underwhelmed. I was wrong.
The visual impression the sandwich gives is monumental: a tall, sharply squared block of what appears to be very crisp bread with a bit of ham visible from the outside, topped with a round and very flat egg, and a mountain of frites on the side. Cutting into it revealed the reality to be a bit different: the bread was ethereal and nearly disappeared under my knife. The egg, it turned out, was fried just to the point where the white appeared to be solid. It was not. Both it and the yolk ran immediately and coated the exposed bits of the sandwich, and the fries. The combination was a perfect bite of light, airy bread, a bit of protein, and runny sauce from the egg and mornay.
Eventually the server came over with a small container of house made ketchup for the frites. It was a nice touch, but it’s going to be hard from here on out to eat frites without lightly fried egg coating them, no matter how well they are cooked.
We skipped dessert in favor of another trip to the bakery. Our server’s recommendation turned out to be another favorite – half a croissant, smeared with raspberry preserves, topped with a brown sugar and butter crumb and baked. I wish this read more like a critique and that I had some suggestion for the restaurant. My only real complaint is that, since Keller seems willing to recreate the bistro and bakery pair, that there isn’t one closer to home. Maybe someday.
April 2 – Day Four
Out the Door – Shredded Chicken Salad, Steamed BBQ Pork Bun, Caramelized Chicken
Tucked in the far corner from the Bloomingdale’s entrance we frequented, Out the Door has both a very busy takeout counter and a sizable dine-in area – especially for a mall. Though I have to admit that there is nothing about this place that says mall food to me. The first meal I ate there, my poor digestive system was feeling a bit abused from days of donuts and ice cream, so I figured I would go light and get a salad and steamed BBQ pork bun. The prices, on first glance, seemed a bit steep, but no other salad options were speaking to me, so I took the plunge.
I’m so glad I did.
The cabbage-based salad had a light, crisp mix of vegetables very delicately dressed in a lime and ginger dressing. Simple and delicious. The chicken on top of it seemed a bit skimpy, but then I’m used to eating large homemade salads with 1/3 of a chicken on top of it. The salad ended up being very filling despite looking small. I topped it off with a steamed BBQ pork bun. Costco, of all places, used to sell these and I loved them. I mourn the loss of them. The Out the Door version had a filling that was less of the paste of meat and aromatics I’m used to having. Instead, it was filled with a complex mixture of still-crisp vegetables, cubes of pork, and enough sauce to cover them.
My second meal there the next day, I went for broke and got the caramelized chicken. Suffice it to say that, even though I tend to view rice as a carb that I can easily cut to a minimum (in favor of dessert), I ate nearly all the rice served with this dish in an effort to soak up all of that unctuous, complex sauce.
April 3 – Day Five
It’s our final full day in San Francisco, so I decide to start it off in style. Although neither of the girls are interested in them, I get up very early and go to Dynamo. They are just finishing frying off the hot cross donuts and it becomes clear to me that I either miss the panel with Max Brooks or finally get to taste the cherry cornmeal donuts. Already planning to return next April for the convention, I choose the panel and promise myself the donut on return. Besides, I’ve already eaten five, maybe more…my poor, poor diet.
After the panel, I’m hungry again. So I slog through the rain to the Ferry Terminal to Boccalone for another meat cone, then around the corner to
Yank Sing – Deem Sum Platter and many other tasty Deem Sum treats
I’d read about the baked BBQ pork buns here, so I wanted to give this place a shot. I’d also read that it was fairly expensive for dim sum, which I didn’t find to be the case at all. Maybe a bit more than the $15 for two we’d paid in Chinatown, but the quality of this food was amazing.
Seafood was front and center for most of the dumplings in the dim sum platter. Loaded with scallop and shrimp meat, they were tender and tasty. I’m also a bit amazed that it was all packed so well that it was hot even after my long walk from the restaurant to the Moscone Center. The baked BBQ pork buns were as advertised – simply a step above. I especially liked the onion flavor prevalent in the filling, something missing from other incarnations I’d had before.
I regret both that I decided to hit this one late in the trip, as it would have been worth revisiting, and that I was doing takeout: I’ve never actually had dim sum with the rolling carts piled with bamboo steamers, and they do this at Yank Sing. Next time!
Convention ends, we tear things down, and head back to the hotel with the intention of dropping off the bags and heading to the food court. I have been eyeing Out the Door’s Coconut Pork Riblets. I can nearly taste them in anticipation.
We get ready, head out, and get to the doors of the mall later than hoped to find them locked. I nearly pull a “Khaaaaan” here. Instead, I pout silently as we head to
Mel’s Drive-In – Broiled Chicken Breast Dinner
This place looks horrendous from the outside, so while the girls get seated, I run up the street to look at the menu for Green Papaya in the hope that it’s prices are comparable. It’s more pricey, so I trudge back and face the music.
While the girls work a convention, the business picks up the cost of their food. So when our weary server wanders over, I start by saying “Mine will be on a separate check.”
“Nope, sorry, all one check.”
Um…ok. Eventually Janelle overhears him talking to somebody – he’s finishing up a 13 hour shift. I guess that’ll explain the surly attitude.
I’m too upset at having been deprived of my last visit with Out the Door to argue. The food eventually comes. The girls seem to be ok with theirs. Mine is terrible – dry chicken, gravy that tastes like something mom would have turned in her apron permanently had she made it. The server chides us for not ordering dessert. We pay and leave defeated.
April 4 – Day Six
Our flight is early, so no real breakfast. I wake up around 4am, though, and cannot sleep. So eventually I shower and head to Dottie’s around 7am. I find myself first in line, grab the pastries to go, and return to find the girls getting ready.
My to-do list for the next trip to SF: Sotto Mare, Yank Sing, those Out the Door riblets, as much Dynamo as my pancreas can handle, and some other places we didn’t make:
In my perfect world, we’ll have time the resources to go early and visit Yountville, too. I’ll let you guess why.