I've been remiss lately in writing up entries in the Tour From The Midwest category, but the last trip was so epic that it'd be a shame to skip. My brother Pat was among the first to make the trip out to the west coast after I relocated here, and I greatly appreciated the chance to have a second shot at hanging out this past week. If his first visit was mainly notable as an early exploration of my new environs, the most recent one was an opportunity to show off an area where I've grown increasingly comfortable, and to finally hit up some features that we've been talking about for years now.
We returned on the same flight from Chicago after a delightful (and, as always, too short) Christmas vacation. For a moment I thought that we might have overcome my well-documented transit curse, since the airport shuttle arrived well ahead of schedule. Sadly, it was not to be so, and Pat's first hour in California included nearly 30 minutes of waiting at the light rail platform. Still, after a quick shot back to my apartment, we quickly recovered with a journey to In-n-Out. This was one of the only things to repeat from our first visit, and was totally worth doing again. The original trip had happened soon after we read "Fast Food Nation," and Eric Schlosser's seal of approval meant a lot to us. After first experiencing this west-coast-only, fresh, fun, fast, surprisingly tasty fast food, it has become a staple of my tour for Midwesterners. By this go-around, I had been indoctrinated into the Secret Menu, and we split an order of fries Animal Style. This would be only the first of many questionable yet delicious decisions we would make in the week ahead.
On this same trip we shot over to the Blossom Hill Target in quest of the Dark Knight Blu-Ray. Pat had been thwarted in his attempt at acquiring it in Wheaton, and we both hoped that some California magic might make it achievable here. He was stunned at his sight of the massive structure, and said something like "I'll be shocked if they don't have it here," inadvertently jinxing the operation. Yes, this huge store was completely lacking in Dark Night packages that did not also include a Bat Man mask. Knowing that we'd have other opportunities in the future, we decided to keep the evening simple and headed back to my pad.
Pat had not yet been initiated into The IT Crowd, and responded enthusiastically to the show. (Tip: I always start with the second episode of the first season and then go forward; the pilot episode is fine, but doesn't show the true comic potential of the show.) We called it a night before too late and prepared for the next day.
Pat had secured a solid week of vacation, but due to my relatively recent employment switch I still had a few days to put in. Fortunately, this worked into our schedule pretty well. We took a Caltrain Baby Bullet into the city together, and while I plugged away in SoMa (either by myself or as one of two people in the office that day), Pat traipsed all over the city. He started off with the world's fastest ever trip on the N-Judah line to Golden Gate Park, where he had been planning to visit the recently opened California Academy of Sciences. After seeing the incredible size of the crowds there, he wisely decided to adapt his plans and followed the time-proven winning strategy of wandering the park. He stumbled into the Japanese Tea Garden, which he discovered lifted its admissions charge between 9 and 10 AM on weekdays - a tip that I'll need to remember for the future, especially since it also means arriving before the crowds get there. He also toured the Botanical Gardens, a favorite free jaunt of mine, before meeting up with a friend in the city for an Indian lunch. They spent a good afternoon together as I was wrapping up work, and we rendezvoused in North Beach a bit before six.
I usually hit up some entertainment sites a few weeks before a visitor comes in order to see if there's anything which looks particularly good. Pickings were pretty slim for this week around the New Year, but the one thing I found was totally worth it: Patton Oswalt! He is a stand-up comedian, certainly most famous for voicing Remy the Rat in Ratatouille, but very highly respected for his role in the Comedians of Comedy and some amazing routines; if you haven't heard his take on KFC meals, or his conversation with George Lucas, you owe it to yourself to check them out. Anyways, we had snagged tickets for this show, and since we were at Cobb's a bit more than an hour before show time on this Monday evening, we were the second and third in line - without even realizing that we had been standing in line. We took advantage of this to get the best seats I'll ever have for a comedy show, at a table roughly four feet from the microphone.
The opener was... well, fine. Obviously someone pretty new to comedy, and his nervousness distracted a bit from the show. He did have some funny bits, and the audience appreciated his local humor which focused on his experience as a substitute teacher at Oakland public schools. After his set, he introduced the first name on the bill, Dana Gould.
I was only vaguely aware of who Dana Gould was; I know him most as a name in the credits of The Simpsons, but he has a recent HBO special and has done some other TV work. He was the opposite of our opener: very mature and incredibly self-assured. He had an enjoyable set, one that's a little hard to characterize... sort of observational of family relationships, and anecdotal, though in a way that you recognize as probably being contrived. He also tossed us a few local bones when he reminisced about living in San Francisco at the start of his career, including a funny and true observation about entering a new climate zone when you hit 19th Avenue. That segued into a long and really dirty meditation on anger, rebellion, stubbornness, and love, as he reflected on his response (real and imagined) to his dad's final words when he moved from Massachusetts to San Francisco: "If you're thinking of coming back queer, don't come back at all!" He also tied into the season with some jokes about the holidays, including a pretty funny account of how difficult it is to be heading a non-religious household where they want their daughters to believe in Santa but not in Jesus.
Dana was funny, but we were all delighted when Patton took the stage. You could feel the whole room shift to the front of their seats, eager to hear whatever dropped from his mouth. His set was... wow, just amazing. I really can't do it any sort of justice in print. Topics included how sick he was feeling, including an account of him offering to pay $50 to the first person who would bring some toast and seltzer water to his room at the Hilton; seeing the Biggest Rat in the World in his back yard; an AMAZING line-by-line deconstruction of a contemporary Christian song called "Christmas Shoes" ("This is gonna be your BEST BIRTHDAY EVER, son!"); the attention-span try-outs between his treadmill, computer, and couch; why he isn't sorry to see George W. Bush leave; how totally awesome the present would seem to someone just ten years ago; and on and on. It felt far too short, even though by the clock it was a very generous set, and we were sorry to see him leave.
On the way back, after the super-useful mobile Muni Time web site observed that we would need to wait 20 minutes for a #30 bus (and miss the 9:30 Caltrain back), I decided we should spring for a cab. Man, I'm definitely going to do that again! It probably wouldn't be worthwhile during rush hour, but at night, we got all the way from Cobbs down to Caltrain in just about seven minutes, for a bit over 10 bucks; just as cool, it's a lot more fun than riding the bus, since you can zip up and down the hills and actually see everything. It's a splurge, but if it means getting home an hour earlier, well, that's well worth it to me.
We had some good electronic entertainment waiting for us at home. I've been poking through Little Big Planet for over a month now, and had a lot of fun trying out the two-player stuff with Pat. Pat also did some solo work, and within a few days had almost caught up to where I was. Even more exciting, though, was breaking in my new Rock Band 2 game. The guitar had arrived defective, but the beauty of Rock Band is that a variety of instruments means you still have stuff to do when a particular instrument is unavailable to you. We've just been tearing through the game, unlocking a ton of stuff. The band name is, of course, Horatio and the Boys; I play as Cirion, a bespectacled front man that looks a little like me with a beard; Pat plays as Robot Culinaire, a stocky drummer with the greatest fashion sense in the universe. For most of the time I mangled vocals while Pat displayed mastery of the drums, regularly tearing it up on Hard difficulty. I had a blast, especially with the songs I knew but even with some that I didn't. From our band home town of Chicago we gradually unlocked every city in America, and on our final night would secure an airplane and unlock the world. My favorite song? Hm, hard to say. As a singer... er, "singer".... I appreciated the Beastie Boys' "So Whatcha Want". Stephen Colbert's "Charlene" was hilarious. Now, one thing that's appealed to me for a while is the whole downloadable content thing, so I tried that out with the Offspring pack. Fun! They're great songs, lots of fun to play (at least for me - Pat wasn't as familiar with them and was a champ on the drums), and feel very appropriate for a Bay Area christening of Rock Band.
I'd taken my last vacation day for Tuesday the 30th, and with this ample time we had a nice, leisurely morning. Our main event of the day was a trip to Berkeley. I've now been there three times, and enjoy it more with each visit. This was the first time that I'd spent a chunk of the visit on Telegraph Avenue proper; I was pretty impressed with how much traffic was there considering that it was a weekday during a school break. We spent much of the time at Moe's Books, a really cool, big new and used book store. It's the sort of place where you KNOW you'll end up buying something, and need to restrain yourself from picking up too much. I agonized over grabbing a used collection of the Sandman covers or an ancient (yet nearly mint) Thieves World illustrated novel. Pat grabbed an entertaining parcel, adding to his already impressive collection of Anthony Bourdain books; Bourdain would prove to be a model and a reference point for much of the week.
We wandered Telegraph a little more, including brief stops at Rasputin and Amoeba, two good Bay Area chain music stores with vast and eclectic used music collections. I found a cheap CD of "Hold Me to This," Christopher O'Riley's second Radiohead adaptation, and Pat decided to enlighten me with The National. After a good chunk of wandering, we recovered at a tiny coffee shop and munched a little to take the edge off before our looming dinner.
With more than an hour before go-time, we decided to tour the Berkeley campus. This was my second trip there, after the Murakami lecture several months earlier, so I had a vague understanding of how things were laid out while still offering many opportunities to be surprised. Berkeley is really a very attractive campus, and since we were there over break, we could enjoy it without worrying about a press of students. It doesn't feel as architecturally unified as, say, my alma mater, but the individual buildings are generally interesting and good-looking. Sadly (perhaps), the Campanile was not in service this time, but we still got to soak up the greenery and enjoy the pleasant sprawl of the buildings.
We then wandered back north along Shattuck, and I was pleased to note that the entire stretch from the campus north is quite nice and walkable. Locals refer to this section as "Gourmet Ghetto"; growing up around Chez Panisse, a diverse and highly regarded collection of restaurants offers wonderful options to anyone with an expense account and adventurous tastes. We peeked in some windows, and killed a bit more time at a nearby bookstore before backtracking and checking in for our reservation at Chez Panisse.
I had previously enjoyed a very fine meal in the cafe here with my other brother, Andrew, but for this trip Pat had encouraged us to descend to the basement restaurant. I'm glad that we did. The atmosphere was certainly more formal than upstairs, but it felt like we received the best of everything. The room is surprisingly small, with an old-world look that is both elegant and warm. (Quite literally so - I'm sure the heat had something to do with the staggering quantity of water I drank there.) The servers were very polite and always there to take care of us. And the menu - ah, the menu! CP publishes its menu every Saturday for the following week, but reservations need to be made a month in advance, so you're rolling the dice a little. (Not really.... with CP, it's more or less guaranteed to be excellent, if unexpected.) As Pat had gleefully noted, our menu on December 30th was practically identical to the much more expensive menu on the following night, New Year's Eve. Basically, they'd be eating our leftovers and paying a lot more to do so.
We started off enthusiastically nibbling the Acme bread on the table. This is just one of the many cool things that I've loved about CP; Alice Waters established this relationship with what's often regarded as the best bakery in the Bay Area, and has them exclusively provide her restaurant with their best stuff. Our bread plate was small but varied, with both light and hearty slices of delicious bread.
The one thing I hate about the awesome bread in fancy restaurants is that it always makes me feel like a slob. You get these pristine white tablecloths on the tables, and because the bread is usually so crackly with great crumb structure, bits and pieces end up flying all over, littering the surface. The one perk is watching that cool thing they do before dessert service when they scrape all the crumbs off.
Following through on an earlier decision, I ordered a half bottle of wine to share. It seemed like a good amount for the two of us, over the course of what would prove to be a two-and-a-half-hour meal. Since the main dish was veal I figured I'd follow form and look at a red wine; since I don't know a ton about wine, though, I decided that an assist from our server would be appreciated. I picked out something that looked pretty good - a half bottle of a local Pinot Noir, which was in their cheapest price category at $25 - and, pointing at it, asked, "We'd like to share a half bottle. Do you think that this Pinot Noir would go with this meal?" See, this was pretty crafty, because I was subtly identifying my price range (CHEAP!) while asking for guidance. He assured me that it was a "very fine choice," because that particular vintage was especially mild for a Pinot Noir. He may have been humoring me, but I was pleased at how it went all the same. Chalk up another one on the Grown-Up Achievement List: ordering a bottle of wine in a fancy restaurant.
And, from almost-creepy observation of friends' experiences in ordering wine, I was even somewhat prepared for the ritual of accepting the bottle. He showed me the label and said out loud what it was; I nodded. He uncorked the bottle. I didn't have to smell the cork - I don't think that people do that any more, or maybe it just isn't in vogue in California. He poured a small amount into my glass. Working quickly, I lifted the glass, swirled the wine around a little, lifted it to my mouth, breathed in through the nose, took a small sip (maybe you're supposed to drink everything that's poured, but this felt better), moved it around my mouth a little, swallowed, looked back at the waiter, smiled, nodded, and said, "It's good." Then he poured for me, and then for Pat, before leaving the remainder of the half bottle on the table. (Oh, and note to self: "Half Bottle" means a 375 mL bottle, not a half-empty 750 mL bottle.) I really do like rituals, once I understand them.
Our first course was one of the most fascinating salads I've ever eaten. It had a variety of local greens, amazingly tender cod, and delicious endive slices, all marinated with a subtle but effective dressing. The second course kept the seafood theme going: Dungeness (woo-hoo!) crab cakes, together with some tender leeks and an amazing limo mayonnaise sauce. (If you haven't tried homemade French style mayonnaise, you're missing out! Check out the recipe from Joy or another decent cookbook - it isn't terribly hard, and tastes nothing at all like the stuff you scoop from a jar.) The entree was several very tender and thinly cut slices of veal. I think it was the first time I've ever eaten veal, except for ground veal in a homemade lasagna, and I wasn't prepared for its excellent flavor and texture. Sharing the plate with the veal were several wild mushrooms and glazed carrots. The glazed carrots were delicious, but a lot less sweet than when I make them, which makes me curious how their preparation was different here.
The whole course of the dinner felt very relaxing and pleasant. Despite the small size of the room, they did a great job of spacing out the diners (unlike the friendly-but-cramped quarters upstairs), and we had a particularly great table, tucked away in a corner behind the entrance. Pat could see directly into the kitchen, while I had a great view of the other diners, as well as a table covered with the season's bounty. (Hey, it's Northern California: yes, winter has a bounty, even if it isn't as colorful as summer's.) From my vantage point I could tell that we had properly judged the dress level of this classic spot. I counted one or two men with ties, a few in sweaters, and others in collars. I wasn't overdressed with my sport coat, and Pat wasn't underdressed without one. It's cool to know that I have the wardrobe necessary to enter what's just about the fanciest place you can go near San Francisco.
The one downside of the evening was my slip into incoherence. Since going home the week before, an intermittent ear problem had slipped into full-on nightmare; for the last 24 hours or so, I hadn't been able to hear out of my left ear at all. Weirdly enough, I could still hear Pat just fine, but apparently the loss of auditory capacity was causing me to mumble even more than usual, forcing Pat to ask "What?" after every other sentence of mine. I felt a little bad, and tried to keep him talking more than me; he gamely rose to the occasion, and the evening passed without any overly awkward moments.
After our plates were cleared and the bread crumbs swept, the after-dinner drink menus came out. Pat noted that there was an offering for a small French-press of their house blend coffee, good for 1-2 people. I'm not much of a coffee drinker, but I'll certainly take a cup upon special occasion, and this qualified as such. When the server came back, Pat placed the order, which was silently acknowledged. It was the one kind of weird part of the evening, and we got to laughing about it later. "Coffee? You, sir, are not worthy to drink our house blend. Oh, look, it's Mr. No Suit! And his friend, Sir Half a Bottle!" Pat also noted that there was a chance Dad would approve of this reckless outing after all, since he recently surprised us all by passionately coming out in favor of French press coffee.
The coffee was quite good, though as usual I needed to take it with a little sugar and cream; Pat drank it the way it was meant to be. Along with it came our final course, a Meyer lemon souffle. Utterly delicious, of course. The only other souffle I recall having had before would have been one that I baked back at Nicollet Junior High School in my 8th grade Home Economics class, and the only thing I remembered from that is that you aren't supposed to open the oven door. The souffle was crispy and sugary on the top, and warm and goopy on the inside. Hard to imagine it being any better. There was a whole, incredibly thin slice of lemon that just sparkled in your mouth when you bit down.
After my last bout of etiquette panic ("Do we need to let them know how to split this meal across our two credit cards?"), the evening slid to a graceful close. When we exited, I was amazed that the Maitre d' remembered who we were and retrieved our jackets and bags without any prompting. Man... that's even better service than you get at Bennigan's!
We walked back to downtown Berkeley and then hopped the BART down to Fremont, by which time I had worked all the alcohol out of my system. A short while later we were home, playing Rock Band and watching The IT Crowd. I'm all about routines so long as they're fun.
Wednesday morning we completed a mission that I had set for myself three years ago: to treat all of my family members to breakfast at Southern Kitchen. It used to be an activity designed to align visitor's experiences with my own: "Now you know where I eat every Thursday, and can see why I rave about it so much!" It has since grown to be... well, more of a treat, and also just a little melancholy. "This is where I used to eat the most amazing breakfasts. Sigh..." For almost the whole first year that I patronized SK, I would order the same thing: a half-order of Eggs Benedict with fruit. It was super good, but I eventually decided to explore the rest of the menu, especially after I realized that everything else on it was also amazingly good. Well, after an absence of several months from the restaurant, and nearly two years (!) since the last time I had ordered the Benny, I decided it was time to return to my roots. The Eggs Benedict were every bit as wonderful as I remember, every component perfectly prepared, and the Hollandaise sauce wrapping it all up in a warm embrace. Pat grabbed a special of the day, the Chef's Scramble featuring chorizo. It was super good as well, and had a really interesting texture... much less runny than I'm used to, more fine and crumbly instead. Really tasty, though. He also had a biscuit and some gravy, which I couldn't resist tasting... I'll never be able to eat an entire one of those things, but do love the taste. We split a plate of Belgian waffles and fruit too. It eventually became clear that we were entering an eyes-bigger-than-stomachs situation, and regretfully dismissed the remainders of our plates.
Continuing the week's quest, we decided to try again to locate a Target which carried the Dark Knight Blu-Ray. (Oh, I forgot to mention: Pat was in a gift-card situation, and Target had a great sale on this disc, hence our fixation on that particular vendor.) I had learned a lesson from Christmas shopping a few weeks earlier, and insisted that we call ahead to the various stores rather than just drop in. I experienced the joys of being kept on hold for over ten minutes before being hung up upon. Pat had better luck, and after calling one or two places, he placed another call to the Blossom Hill store that had earlier thwarted us, where he found that they had received a fresh inventory shipment. We ebulliently swung by, in and out like a flash, and Pat emerged triumphant.
I dropped off Pat, then headed in to the clinic to have my ear checked out. This was my second trip to the San Jose Medical Group's Acute Care Center, the first time being when I broke my wrist in a cycling accident several years ago. They were able to see me without much of a wait, and the problem turned out to be very minor: just some blockage, without any sort of infection. I was elated, and frankly stunned at how much better I felt and how the world seemed to instantly improve. It reminded me of getting a new pair of glasses during the period when my eyesight was reliably declining; I would walk into the office thinking that everything was fine and that nothing was wrong with my glasses, and would walk out amazed at how much CLEARER and more vibrant the world had become.
I returned home and buckled down to work; since almost everyone else was on vacation, I had a dispensation to work from home this day. I did kind of miss the work possee, but at the same time, I was reminded about how incredibly productive I can be when I don't have interruptions or distractions... I tore through a long list of stuff I'd been meaning to focus on for ages, and was pleased that 2008 came to such an efficient end.
I emerged from my lair after 6, and we got started on the New Years' Eve festivities. Pat and I both had decided in advance that we'd prefer to have a fun, chill evening at home rather than go out and try to enter the party scene. That meant a great mash-up of Rock Band 2, Little Big Planet, and "The Argentine", the first part of Steven Soderbergh's Che Guevara biopic. I cooked us up some Reuben sandwiches from a Cook's Country recipe that I'd had my eye on for a while. They turned out really good, if I can say so... I love Reubens, even though I rarely get them, and these were near the epitome of the form: large, meaty sandwiches with flavorful sauce, surprisingly neutral sauerkraut, a perfect amount of Swiss cheese and a great golden crispy surface. We fancied up the table a little with a Sweet Potato Gratin, which I cooked from my brand new copy of "How To Cook Everything," given to me by the one and only Pat King!
Guerilla was great. I'm familiar enough with the Cuban revolution to have a good framework for understanding the outlines of the movie, while still not knowing so much that I could immediately identify people outside the primary circle of characters. The movie works well both as art and as entertainment... it eschews the typical Hollywood approach to the biopic, instead giving a more non-linear and pointillist view of the man. It doesn't lionize Che (almost always referred to as "The Argentine" or "Ernesto" here), nor does it demonize him. Soderbergh does offer an unflinching view at the corruption and injustice of Batista's dictatorship, and doesn't shy away from showing the US's complicity in it. At the same time, the movie also offers some exciting action scenes, including a wonderfully harrowing account of urban warfare where the rebels fight to seize every single block and building.
We popped open a bottle of Champagne, and headed towards midnight on the wings of Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters for DVD. (ATHF:MFFT:DVD.) My youngest brother, Andrew, had very thoughtfully granted the disc. Neither of us had seen it before, and we were in the perfect state of mind to appreciate it. ATHF never makes sense, and I had worried that the increase in runtime from 15 to 90 minutes would cripple the flow, but rather than cut back on the craziness, it just got zanier and zanier as time went on. Along the way they brought us all the characters we've come to adore over the years. The Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past from the Future plays a surprisingly large role. If you aren't ordinarily amused at his "THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO!" schtick, you will have ample opportunities to change your mind over the course of the movie. Of course, the Mooninites make an entrance, and continue their insulting, thieving, violent ways. And my personal favorites, the Plutonians, have some great scenes as well. Of course, the main characters dominate the movie film, and the viewer is treated to some amazing revelations, which are gleefully contradictory and nonsensical.
We munched on some homemade No Work Bread (also from a Bittman recipe), toasted the new year, finished Aqua Teen, and wound down the night with some more IT Crowd Comedy before calling it a year.
New Years' Day was a great, graceful, relaxing and recovering day. We slept in, went for a nice long walk along the Los Gatos Creek Trail, finished up the Reubens, played a lot of Colonization (a wonderful Christmas present from Pat), and generally enjoyed having a warm sunny California day in January with nothing particular to do. That night I made my Pizza Margherita, which turned out about as well as it ever has - I mangled the crust a bit when dropping it onto the stone, but nowhere near as badly as I have done before. We watched "Paprika", another excellent movie from Andrew, and possibly my all-time favorite anime movie. It blew my mind AGAIN this time... I'm a sucker for any movie about dreams, especially ones that also question reality and and the mind.
Friday the Second opened as another calm day. We had a late breakfast planned, which turned even later when we found that Stacks had a 30-minute waiting list. We decided to tough it out. I've been meaning to check out Stacks for a while now - it's quite a bit closer to me than Southern Kitchen, and while SK is generally considered superior, I've heard great things about Stacks over the years, and have noted the many awards it has won. Anyways, it was worth the wait. They are most famous for their pancakes, so I had a full stack of their lumberjack pancakes (banana and wheat germ in the batter, blueberries on top). Pat courageously went Mexican with their Huevos Rancheros; between us we shared some Apple Chicken Sausage. Everything was great... the pancakes were so massive that we could only eat about half of them. It was pushing noon before we got up and left.
It drizzled on and off throughout the day, but by then we had become very well acquainted with amusing ourselves indoors. By this point in Rock Band 2 we had unlocked every American city, outfitted our characters (Cirion was wearing a blue San Francisco T-shirt, striped trousers, and sporty shoes, while Robot Culinaire blew everyone away with goggles, a World War I spiky German helmet, and a color ensemble that assaulted the eye. I had learned that, while I'm objectively not a good singer, by the second time I heard any given song I could nail it pretty well on Medium difficulty (at least so far as the game's forgiving scoring system was concerned).
The main event for Friday was another gustatory indulgence: dinner at Manresa. Manresa has been on my radar since a few months after I moved here. David Kinch opened this place in downtown Los Gatos, where it first wowed the local foodie scene before storming the global one; it was one of only a half-dozen Bay Area restaurants awarded two stars when Michelin released its first dining guide, and was the only restaurant to receive them south of San Francisco. (The French Laundry is the lone local three-star restaurant.) People regularly rave about its creativity, ambiance, and taste. I'd never really had a good opportunity to indulge before, but now that I had a self-declared foodie in tow, it was time.
Our reservations were for six o'clock; I'd asked for seven, but Open Table only showed me six and eight. We drove down a little early. I was already thinking of trying the wine pairings, and wanted to be sure that I could leave my car someplace legal if we ended up needing to take a taxi home. I nearly plopped us down in a lot a good half-mile from the restaurant before realizing that it disallowed parking from 3 to 5AM. D'oh! A second pass down University eventually revealed a spot that would work, as we were within the 2-hour limit before 6pm, and the next day was a non-enforced Saturday. We worked our way through several blocks of parking lots before entering the secluded Village Lane and arrived at Manresa five minutes early.
Inside, we were immediately and warmly greeted by the Maitre d'Hotel, who looked up our reservations (computerized here, as opposed to in an old-fashioned book at Chez Panisse). He took a wine menu and walked us into the dining room. We were nearly the first people there; just one couple was sharing a table in the corner, two tables away from us. We were located at the front center of the restaurant right by the windows; I faced outward, and gave Pat the seat facing into the restaurant.
Man, what a room! It was gorgeous without being overly elaborate. There was a subtle red look to the room, with beautiful wood surfaces and shiny brass. I'd noted in CP that the whole room looked elegantly aged, like you might see in an Old World bistro; Manresa was modern, but in a classy and fairly subtle way, looking well put-together yet not showy.
I opened the wine menu and just sort of scanned some things on the first page, dully noting that every price was three digits long. Our server came, introduced herself, asked what kind of water we would like (ice!), and deposited our food menus. We already knew what we'd do, but still wanted to take a look. Like CP, Manresa is entirely driven by the seasons and what's locally available. Kinch has a established a relationship with Love Apple Farm, a local farm owned by a woman (Cynthia Sandberg) who exclusively provides Manresa's produce. Kinch will walk through the garden in order to find inspiration for his menus, and they harvest food in the morning for dinner that evening.
Because it's winter, the menu did seem slightly constrained; because it's northern California, it isn't constrained too much. There were the root vegetables and greens that you'd expect, but it was more of a subtle theme they played with than a dour march.
The server came back before too long and asked us if we had decided on a selection yet. I replied with a smile that we would be having the chef's tasting menu. The chef calls this "Seasonal and Spontaneous", and while the price has climbed since the restaurant opened, it remains the most talked-about aspect of this restaurant.
Pat has ordered a tasting menu before; although I'm familiar with the concept, this was my first actual experience with one. Unlike a traditional multicourse meal like we had enjoyed at Chez Panisse, which consists of several moderately sized servings, the tasting menu is designed to convey a broad range of everything the chef is working on. In theory, you might order the tasting menu if you couldn't decide between all the good stuff on the menu. In practice, it is a more elite meal oriented towards serious foodies, people for whom the meal is the main point of the evening, rather than a celebration of an occasion. Some of the servings may consist of a single bite, while others are miniature versions of the courses you see on the menu. This is the opposite of food-as-fuel; it is food as art, elaborately prepared and presented over the course of a night.
I had hoped to write up what I ate, but quickly realized that it was hopeless. By Pat's count we had somewhere around nine courses that evening, not counting the amuses. Everything tasted great, looked gorgeous, and some have stuck in my mind even after some time.
The tasting menu at Manresa has an accompanying offer of paired wines. This is another idea that I loved. I am far, far more knowledgeable about wines now than I was before moving to California, but I still am far from an expert, and am often on the lookout for opportunities to improve my experience. This seemed like a great strategy: the restaurant would select some wines from their extensive and highly regarded list; pair them with appropriate courses; I would observe their choices and the pairings, and get to experience the whole thing, hopefully gleaning some insight into proper pairing. From reading some reviews online, I had learned that it was not uncommon for a couple to share a single wine pairing. Since I still hoped to drive that night, and neither of us is a huge drinker, I decided to pursue that strategy. They offer both "traditional" and "premium" wine pairings; traditional are just about half the cost, and I eagerly chose that option; my wine palette is definitely not evolved enough to appreciate the difference. Pat very generously offered to be the designated driver for the night, and so the bulk of the booze ended up flowing down my gullet.
Ordering the wine pairing was the one slight road bump that I encountered this night, though I'm sure it's all my own fault. After we selected the menu, she asked, "And would you like to try the wine pairings?" Trying to make sure that we didn't end up with an undesired extra $100 on the bill, or, even worse, need to explain that we had wanted to share a pairing, I very explicitly said something like, "Yes, we'll be sharing a single order of the wine pairings." Now, secretly, I'd been hoping that she'd say something like, "Excellent, I'll bring two glasses"; alternately, I'd been expecting that she'd remove a glass from the table and we'd share the other. Instead, she asked, "And who will be having the wine?" As is usually the case when someone goes off the imaginary script I've written for them, my mind hit a wall. "Uh... mainly me, but I'm sure he'll be having, uh, a sip or two along the way." She nodded and didn't ask any more questions, but it still felt a little weird. Later on, we realized that this was just an important question for the whole wine ritual. With every bottle that she brought out, she would need to go through the steps of showing someone the label and describing the wine. It was clear that she didn't care (well, not really) what we did with the wine afterward; it was more of an administrative step than anything else.
Anyways! With that out of the way, we had our first pour (a deliciously crisp Riesling), and the first amuse-bouche. Kinch surfs for fun, and even though we were miles from the ocean, we would feel the influence of the sea throughout the night. For the first amuse, the waitress brought out a slate of rock - it looked igneous to me, but I could be wrong. It looked like there were several large pebbles on the slate; as the server explained, though, they were actually jellies. I forget what the first type was, but the second was a roasted bell pepper. We smiled, nodded, each took one, and bit down. Bam! Flavor explosion! Each took just a few bites, but we were still amazed. Throughout the evening, I would regularly feel surprised and enlightened about what I was eating. In this case, my thinking went something like, "Mmmm, this tastes good. Nice and sweet. Whoa, wait a minute... that's not a normal taste. What is that? ... Oh, yeah, like they said: it's a bell pepper! Man, that's weird. This is basically candy; who ever heard of bell pepper candy? ... Now that I think about it, though, roasted bell peppers ARE really sweet, even though we always use them in savory dishes. That's interesting. Man, this is really tasty. Who'd have thought it!"
Although we had one main server, there was plenty of rotation, and we would spend time with many people over the evening. Our main waitress (for some reason, the word "waitress" sounds weird to me in this context) was a more mature woman, at least in comparison with the others. We were also served by a young blonde woman who seemed to declaim (in a good way) whenever she brought us a dish, and by a young brunette woman with multiple tasteful piercings who was quieter but just as pleasant. There was also a fine young man who spoke with a gentle, hard-to-place accent. He was primarily our bread server. The Maitre d'Hotel occasionally came by to check on things; every time either of us got up, he or a server would come by, pick up the departed's napkin and spend a minute elegantly re-folding it before placing it tastefully back on the table. And another young man, possibly Hispanic, assisted the others in clearing our places and silverware.
The bread service deserves a paragraph of our own. Manresa is an awesome restaurant that bakes its own bread every day - and it's really, really good. (As our main server pointed out at one point, "That makes me want to eat it with a bowl of clam chowder.") Unlike Chez Panisse they offer only one kind, but it was excellent, with a crisp crust and very tearable doughy interior. The butter was simple, but real, and just the perfect softness for spreading. Anyways, I loved everything about the bread service - mainly the fact that it IS a service. See, most restaurants would put a plate or dish of bread on your table. Which is great and all, but (A) it means your bread is getting slowly stale throughout the night, and (B) it is always available for you. On a night like this, where I was eating for several hours but also had long gaps of twenty minutes or more between courses, I'm sure that if there had just been a loaf on the table I would have kept munching on it throughout the evening, more because it was there than because I really wanted it. Instead, at regular (not frequent, but still fairly often) intervals, a server would come by and ask if we would like more bread. If we said yes, he'd transfer a slice to our bread plates. This meant that, at each juncture, I had to ask myself, "Do I really WANT more bread right now?" Often the answer was "Yes" - it IS really good bread. Other times I would have to honestly answer "No." What's REALLY cool, though, is that even after you said "No", he would come by again later in the night to check if you wanted more - and later on, the answer could very well be "Yes." So there was no pressure, no calculation, no pushing or resisting, just an ongoing casual dialog that ended up giving everyone what they wanted when they wanted it. And, as a nice bonus, because the bread was being sliced throughout the evening as part of the service, each slice was fresh and just a little bit warm.
Also worth mentioning is the bathroom. (I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I have a well-documented fascination with unusual toilets.) Pat went first and gave me a hilarious heads-up: the men's room contains menus from several restaurants, including a Charlie Trotter's menu right by the urinal. Which just gets funnier the more we think about it. I think that Trotter's is the only American menu in there, so perhaps it's meant as an honor... the others seem to be from France and other European places, generally with personal notes scribbled in the margin. There is also a gorgeous map poster which I believe depicts Manresa, the physical location for which the restaurant is named. The restroom was a little small, but that's fine, because the restaurant is too, so there was never a wait. (Seven glasses of wine and an estimated 16 glasses of ice water? Darn right I went to the bathroom multiple times!) (In the extremely unlikely event that anyone Googles this post while looking up info on Manresa, here's a little tip for you: As of January 2009, the men's stall door is weighted to swing shut automatically, so you should test the door even if it looks like someone's in there. And if you can, you should at least peek inside as long as you're in there - that's where the map and one of the biggest menus are.)
Oh, and the music! It was EXCELLENT. Eclectic, interesting, modern without being noisy, a good conversation piece that laid a nice background over the room without at all inhibiting conversation. (In fact, it did the opposite at first; it felt weird to be talking with Pat in a hushed room where the only other people were seated a few tables away, but so long as there was a certain level of sound, it didn't feel like we were intruding on each other's conversations.) It reminded me of an excellent New Yorker article I read a few years ago about modern Muzak. I'd never thought about it before the article, but retailers can do an incredible variety of things with their music. In a grocery store, the music is generally very slow; this subconsciously encourages people to linger, moving slowly through the store, thereby increasing the amount of time they spend in the aisles and increasing the chances that they'll pick up something they hadn't planned to. On the other hand, a youth-oriented store like Hot Topic might play very loud and fast music. Contrary to what you might think, this isn't primarily designed to appeal to its target demographic; instead, it's specifically designed to be annoying to its target demographic's parents, therefore ensuring that older folks aren't hanging out in the store, and it retains an overwhelmingly youthful demographic. So, what was Manresa's music designed for? It did cast a subtle youth vibe... not in an exclusive way, if that makes sense, but in a fun way. It seemed designed to support conversation, keep people upbeat, and generate a positive yet reflective mood. I'd be very interested to learn if someone at Manresa puts this mix together themself, if they contract someone to do it, or if they get it from a big provider like Muzak.
All right, enough environment, back to the food! Like I said above, I can't hope to reproduce the menu here, so I'll just jot down a few things that leap to mind.
Winter Tidal Pool. A wonderful stew of winter vegetables and thin slices of super tender fish. Super tasty dish, and fun, and also evocative of actual tidal pools.
Red snapper with octopus. The second time I've eaten octopus, and I'm not sure if the first time counts - that was a fried Octopus ball on a stick in Japan. The octopus was... I want to say julienned, but I don't think you can use that word with meat. Anyways, cut into super thin long strands. Which was interesting, because it made you think of octopuses (tentacles, right?) but, after a while, my brain caught up and I realized that of course it was way too small for actual tentacles. The snapper was phenomenal, too. Tiny portion, just a few ounces, but perfectly moist on the inside and with a stunning crisp crust. I kind of suspect that this was finished with a Brulee torch or something similar, based on my own experience preparing snapper.
The Egg. This has a fancier name that I really should remember because it's one of Kinch's two signature dishes. It's a softly cooked egg, served in its shell, and while I hate to do this, I must say that its flavor is indescribable. Kind of sweet, and rich, and just amazing, like dessert as a first course.
The most dramatic presentation came when the server laid down our two plates, we said "Thank you," she looked at us and said, "Gentlemen. The Vegetable Garden." We almost applauded. This is Kinch's second signature dish, and for a little while I'd wondered whether we would be having it; it was on the main menu, and seemed like a course we might have missed by getting the tasting menu. I don't think we should have worried... this dish so perfectly shows Kinch's skills and the uniqueness of his restaurant that I'm sure it's a staple on their tasting menu. The genius is that, unlike, say, The Egg, even if you ordered this multiple times you'd get something different with each visit. The Vegetable Garden is just what it sounds like: a miniature reproduction on our plates of Love Apple Farm's bounty of the day. Which I'd known before; I wasn't prepared, though, for the amazing presentation. It isn't just a jumble of greens thrown together on a plate. Eating it was like an exciting archaeological expedition. Each flavor led us forward, and as we cleared each bite, more and more treasures below were revealed to us. The edible grasses cover the top, and as you dig down you uncover the root vegetables (not raw like I'd feared, but tenderly cooked) and other buried treasures. Probably the coolest feature of this dish is the edible "dirt". I never could quite place exactly what it was, but it tasted a bit like coffee, with a fine and gritty texture.
Japanese Sea Bream was another really cool dish. It was a very thin layer of delicate fish - I believe they said it was roe, but I may have conflated it with another dish. Anyways, much like the Tidal Pool, it was another example of a super tasty dish that also visually and textually evoked a physical scene of the seaside, reinforcing the taste.
It wasn't ALL seafood at Manresa, though I would have been content if it was. The wine pours eventually moved from white to red, and among other things we were served pork bellies. It was... it was comfort food, elevated. I've never had pork belly before, but it tasted like the sort of thing that I could eat every day. Kind of crunchy, with a long-lasting succulent, subtle flavor.
I lost count of how many wine pours I had... not one per course, but maybe a bit more than one for every two courses. Each pour was maybe four ounces. I didn't feel any pressure to finish more than I wanted, and the glasses stacked up on the table; when our server brought out a new pour, she would ask if she could take any of our glasses, and if so which ones. I'm glad that I paced myself like I did... inebriation aside, I'm not sure if I could have enjoyed eating everything if I had that much wine jockeying for position in my belly. At first Pat would just take a sip or two of the wine, but by the end of the evening we had realized that we were both in good shape, and while we still didn't finish the glasses we did get closer.
I am glad that I did the pairings - they were tasty, and I did end up learning a lot. After our Riesling, we had a very good (not too dry) Champagne - as I observed to Pat, I'd drunk more Champagne in the last forty-eight hours than I have in a lifetime before then. And that's all right. The wines came from all over, with a certain focus on Bay Area wines (not just Napa - Sonoma and Mendocino were represented as well), but plenty of European and at least one Australian. As for varietal, we got many of the classics - Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. - but at least one that was new to me. By the midpoint in dinner, I was feeling relaxed enough to ask our server, "This may be a dumb question, but what exactly is a Viognier?" She spent a minute giving a great explanation - it's a varietal, this bottle coming from France, and she noted that when she tasted the wine (the servers taste before pouring, which makes a lot of sense, since of course multiple diners are sharing any given bottle) she detected some floral tones and a bit of citrus. I thanked her profusely, and later drank a bit. Darn good! As usual, I really appreciated having more information. I don't think I would have picked up on the citrus on my own, but since she had pointed it out, I knew to look for it, and darn if I didn't find it! Again, I'm far from an expert, but it's pretty amazing to look back and see the steps I've taken into this strange world.
Now, I'm going to lose any credibility I may have left after the prior paragraph, and state that my absolute favorite wine was the dessert wine. This was the first dessert wine I've ever had in my life, and I knew that it would be sweeter than most wines, but I wasn't prepared for its extremely smooth, mellow profile. I could sip on it all night long. Pat pointed out that it tasted a little bit like a fine bourbon. It was the final pour of the evening, and was the only one that we completely drained.
The dessert wine was, of course, served with our dessert courses. I get even more hazy in my memory here - I was well into my gourmet coma by now. There was a repeat Meyer lemon dessert... not a souffle this time like at Chez Panisse, but every bit as good. Something with a small scoop of perfect vanilla ice cream. Dark chocolate in there somewhere. We opted out of the coffee choice - by now it was past 10 o'clock, and we didn't want to be up ALL night.
We broke out into smiles when our final dish of the night came out - not because it meant dinner was over, but because of the humor and playfulness we could detect at work. It looked like our first amuse of the evening, a shale sheet with some "pebbles" on it. This time, our server informed us, we would be enjoying strawberries and dark chocolate. We did. And it was good.
We lingered for a few final minutes at the table. Pat laughed after the check came and noted that I don't have a good poker face. It was a momentary pain, though, and clearly well worth the memories of amazing food and a fine, relaxing evening spent with a brother and friend.
When we finally got up, the dining room was once again nearly deserted. It looked like we had been about the only people to try the tasting menu that night, and some people who were seated after us had already left. For the last few hours we had been seated next to a couple celebrating the girlfriend's birthday; she didn't seem to be in to it that much. At one point Pat overheard her say, "I don't know what that is, but I'm NOT eating it." Ouch! Not the best attitude to have in a place like this. It was kind of interesting to eavesdrop on the servers at their table... they had gone with the traditional prix fixe menu, and seemed to have chosen the wine pairings, but I was a little confused why each of them was poured a different glass. At the time I had thought that one of them had chosen the traditional and the other the "premium" wines, but I've since realized that, of course, the pairings aren't set in stone, and different pours should be selected based on which dishes a person is eating. They also got a cool little individual birthday cake, as did at least one other couple in the restaurant. I felt the tiniest twinge of jealousy.
Although the noise level waxed and waned through the night, it never got bad. Again, the dining room doesn't hold that many people, so there was an upper level on the potential noise, and pretty much everyone kept conversation to a low murmur. One thing that did surprise me was that the restaurant never filled up. Pat and I had speculated before arriving that any given table might only be used once during the night; if a party can be there for more than four hours, you can't exactly turn it over. That being said, several tables were never used during the time we were there. Which seemed a bit odd for a Friday evening dinner. I'm curious if this is evidence of people cutting back as a result of the recession; or if it's because this was a holiday weekend; or maybe Manresa just keeps some tables available for walk-ins, and those never materialized on this particular night. Anyways! I'm not complaining at all, just a bit surprised. Not to put too fine a point on it, I enjoyed Manresa more than Chez Panisse, and am curious why it didn't have the same traffic. (Obvious answers: location, price, and fame.)
Oh, and have I talked about dress at Manresa yet? I don't think so. We both wore pretty much the same things that we did to Chez Panisse, and once again were fine. One or two men were wearing suits with ties, but plenty more just had jackets. Overall it felt maybe a little more dressy than Chez Panisse, but I suspect that this is more due to the difference between a Friday and a Tuesday night than a huge difference between the restaurants. I would have felt comfortable wearing a tie at Manresa, but didn't feel out of place lacking one.
We eventually got up and made our way to the door. The Maitre d'Hotel took Pat's claim fob (apparently, they don't have photographic memory here like they did at CP) and retrieved his jacket. As we were in the foyer, exchanging pleasantries with everyone, we received one final treat: the Maitre d' encouraged us to take "a lot" of candies from a jar, as a final gift. He said that they're made fresh every day, and go great with coffee the next morning. We thanked him and each took a handful. After a final round of thank-you's and "It's been wonderful"s, we emerged into the cool clear night.
The positive feeling carried me all the way home and to bed. The food here, like at Chez Panisse, had been amazing, and intellectually seemed like a lot (a dozen dishes?!), but I never got that heavy feeling of having eaten too much. Pretty nice trick. I'm sure part of it has to do with the quality of ingredients and preparation - if you're focusing on fresh vegetables and fish, you aren't going to get that super heavy drowned-in-oil coma that plagues too many business lunches. And part comes from following the European model of enjoying food: taking a long time, stopping to pay attention to the flavors and appreciate each bite, focus on the company of people you love.
Saturday had been identified as our Coast Driving Day. We slept in, and had a late breakfast of leftover Stacks pancakes. It was a gorgeous day for a drive - we had had plenty of sun throughout the week, Friday being the only day with some drizzling, but this was the first day where the sun came out first thing in the morning. We loaded up my Saturn with some tunes, water, and blankets, then hit the road.
I have a couple of routes I enjoy using when showing visitors the Pacific. On this particular trip, I decided to stick to what I think of as the "Northern Loop". It starts with a drive up 280 north - I can chatter a little about the high tech titans in the area near home, and before too long we are rolling along the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains, a surprisingly scenic stretch of interstate highway in this notoriously developed area. We stopped at a scenic overlook near San Andreas Lake, and I quickly oriented Pat to the Santa Cruz and Diablo mountains, as well as downtown San Jose and my home. (I ordinarily would do this orientation at the peak of a hike, but we were too busy having fun this week to ever go on one.) We continued north just a bit more, then cut over on highway 92 to Half Moon Bay.
The drive isn't quite as exciting in January as it was in summer - I remember when you could order fresh salmon by the roadside in Half Moon Bay, and when every few miles on Highway 1 brought another roadside stand or pick-your-own farm field. We gave that up, but gained a lot: a rare perfectly clear day by the Pacific, and shockingly light traffic, probably the best I've seen for this highway on a Saturday.
We stopped at San Gregorio Beach, where several months earlier I had enjoyed an excellent picnic afternoon with my sister and cousins. Pat and I tromped up to the top of a cliff, wandered over to the surf, observed the tidal pool that now made our mouths water, then strolled down the coast for a spell. There were plenty of people around, but just enough for it to feel slightly festive, not at all crowded. We discussed whether Pat would absorb enough sunlight to carry him through the remaining Chicago winter, ambled back to the car, and continued our drive south.
The primary destination of the day was a spot that Pat and I have chatted about for nearly three years, which we refer to simply as Gas Station Taco Place. It was featured in an excellent travel article in the New York Times where the author describes driving along the coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco in search of the perfect taco. He claimed to have found it in Pescadero, a tiny blip of a town roughly halfway between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. I've been to Pescadero twice before with my mom, but on both occasions we've been happy to eat in Duarte's instead; Duarte's is a local legend, a 100+ year old tavern and restaurant famed for its cream of artichoke soup and olallieberry pies. Pat and I were determined to break form, and after parking we strolled confidently over to the gas station.
It's the sort of place that, once you step inside, makes you forget what it looked like outside. Not that it's fancy or anything, but it just looks like a really nice and surprisingly large Mexican convenience store that happens to have a tacqueria in back. It's probably a good thing that we didn't get there until 2:30 in the afternoon; there were already a fair number of people there, so it probably gets a little nuts during lunchtime. We examined the menu for several minutes, then grabbed drinks from the refrigerated case (Jardine Limon for me, Mexican Coke for Pat) and stood in line. I ordered two Tacos al Pastor and a side of rice and beans; Pat was adventurous, tapping a fish taco (his first ever!), al pastor, and carne asada. We spent far too long debating whether to eat at a table or take our food to go; we eventually ordered it to-go, but ended up eating there anyways. Hey, it works! They had fresh, warm tortilla chips while we waited with a variety of really good salsas. When our food came out, we tore into it.
I've been a big fan of al Pastor since moving to California; it's usually the go-to dish the first time I visit a new taqueria or taco truck. These just might have been the best I've had yet. Super tasty meat, well but not aggressively seasoned, and like the best tacos it just had a few small but well-chosen seasoning ingredients. Pat's fish taco was really good too... there are a variety of ways to prepare it, and fortunately they eschew the fried approach for one that emphasizes the firm but not crunch freshness. He claims the carne asada was good as well. Finally, I really dug their rice and beans, which are not refried like you would expect.
On New Year's Day we had been thwarted in our attempt to acquire an after-supper pie, and for several days I had dangled the possibility of a Duarte's pie over Pat. Now that we were finally positioned for it, we found that the combination of amazing tacos, Stacks, and oh yeah the four and a half hours of eating the night before had left us stuffed. Fortunately it was a nice day, and we wandered a little bit through the microscopic downtown. We ducked into the bakery, which I had seen before but never entered, and Pat picked up a locally prepared partially-baked loaf of roasted garlic and artichoke herb bread. I led an expedition to the back of the store after seeing some signage inviting guests to visit their picnic area. It looks nice enough - I would certainly consider eating there if I bought food there, and there is a pleasant little creek nearby, but it is basically a parking lot and I wouldn't make a special trip for it. We also stopped into "Made in Pescadero," probably my favorite shop in this town; it's a really cool furniture store that sells expensive and fantastic-looking California-built pieces. If I ever get rich - like, "Eat at Manresa every week" rich - I'll be super tempted to furnish my home from this store.
Finally, we decided we were ready to bravely eat still more food, and entered Duarte's. Even though it was around four in the afternoon, it was still packed, and we were told that the wait would be 30-40 minutes. The prospect of pie tantalizingly loomed, and we nodded our assent. While waiting, I pointed out a few features that I had noticed from previous trips, including their for-sale table (which contained the Olallieberry syrup that we'd poured over our homemade pancakes earlier in the week) and the 19th-century photograph of the original inhabitants of Pescadero.
The front desk called the first name on the list, then the next, then the next. It became clear that many other people had thought Duarte's was a good idea, but most were not brave enough to stick around. As a result, we were seated after less than ten minutes - an unexpected bonus that rapidly brought us still closer to pie!
Duarte's is a pretty cool and rambling place; over the past century it has been renovated and expanded numerous times, and so it can feel like several different buildings which connect by a few shared doors. We ate in a room that was brand-new to me, beyond the hoppin' bar. We sat at a huge round table and took in the ambiance, which I guess you could call "eclectic"... there was a stuffed deer's head, and a giant fake swordfish, ceramic Santa Claus and gnomes, some paintings, and a cabinet filled with dolls. We also had a direct view of the sun, and needed to shift a little in order to avoid blindness.
Pat ordered coffee and apple pie a la mode. I ordinarily would have ordered olallieberry in this situation, but since I've eaten it on every other visit, it seemed like I would be in my rights to go with something else. I had hot tea (which turned out to be a really good, mild, lightly caffeinated green tea) and pear pie a la mode; what can I say, I'm a sucker for seasonal produce, and didn't feel like pumpkin pie. It was, of course, utterly delicious. I don't think pear pie is traditional, and I can see where it could be tricky, but if you are working with a firm fruit like this then you can get a delicious result. Pat approved of his apple as well - nothing fancy or unusual, just extremely well executed.
We finally polished off the last bites, rose, and took our leave of Duarte's and Pescadero. The day was still nice and clear, and could tell that we'd have enough daylight to complete the Santa Cruz loop with a bit of time to spare. The rest of the drive was really nice and uneventful. We didn't hit any traffic at all until we hit Santa Cruz, and even then it was pretty light. I think I freaked Pat out a little on Highway 17; I've done this route so many times that it feels normal to me, and can forget how frightening it seems to a flatlander unprepared for twisty steep descents at high speed. I decided to not tell him about all the crashed cars I see when I hike in the Santa Cruz mountains.
Saturday ended pleasantly. We watched "Guerilla", the second part of the Che biopic. It was immediately clear to me that, like "Kill Bill," we were really seeing two different movies that made up a single story, each with their own distinctive style and rhythm. The differences in Che are even more pronounced. The movie takes place many years later in Bolivia. Unlike the first movie, it unfolds chronologically, without jumping around in time. While the storyline is more unified, it feels more fractured, reflecting the confusion and turmoil of that period... the first part had a strong momentum that carried you along the narrative, while the second seems to constantly be trying to gather its energy. Honoring history, the second part is much more of a downer. Again, the movie doesn't lionize Che, but he is still the protagonist, and it's dispiriting to watch as his rebellion falls apart and his career ends. Fine movie, though. It took guts to not end the story with the capture of Havana, and Soderbergh has presented a much fuller and more human portrait because of it.
Finally, Sunday was Pat's last full day in the Bay Area. We woke up early, surprised to see that a rare chill had left some frost on the ground. Despite the cold, Pat gamely suited up for my traditional weekly walk to the farmers' market, commenting that this would be good practice for re-acclimating to Chicago weather, and observing that 35 degrees in sunny still air feels far warmer than 35 degrees of cloudy bluster. It's a nice long walk along Los Gatos Creek down to Campbell, and by the time we arrived we were ready for breakfast. We first strolled down to look at all the vendors' stalls, keeping an eye open for breakfasty choices. There's plenty of good stuff, but nothing that really grabbed us. I was disappointed to see that Twist Cafe was closed for the holidays (but not too disappointed - it reflects what I love about them, their genuine mom-and-pop European identity). We wandered into the Cafe Campbell, which I've walked past many times before. My only previous entry had been late at night with my mom, when we had been a little creeped out by its interior (totally empty, almost no lighting) and for Aqui. It looks a bit better at breakfast, but still wasn't quite right for us... it's a bit too upscale for a market, with nice dishes and a full (slightly pricey) menu. We went across the street to a Orchard Valley Coffee, another place that I've walked past many times without ever entering. Pat liked their coffee, and I did eventually enjoy the tea, after I waited twenty minutes for it to stop scalding my tongue. I had a bread pudding, which was pretty good. Bread pudding is one of those interesting items with an incredibly broad range of approaches and interpretations, which can sometimes seem to have nothing in common other than the name. The pudding here was nice, with a very firm texture, and bits of whole fruit suspended in it. Pat, in a more breakfasty mood, got french toast and sausage. It looked all right, although in fairness, you can't expect a coffee shop to compete against the likes of Southern Kitchen and Stacks.
We went through the market with me doing my customary shopping. I'll generally walk all the way through the market once, just looking at everything, and thinking about what looks good and what I feel like eating. Then on my return pass I'll pick everything up. My goal is to get enough produce for the entire week, which generally means about nine pieces of fruit and about as many servings of vegetables, minus whatever leftovers are waiting at home. On this particular day I picked up a variety of apples (Gala [my favorite], Pippin, and a Japanese apple whose name I forget but that is not New Century); a basket of organic strawberries (I ordinarily would wait until summer for these - ones from the Central Valley aren't quite as tasty as what we get from Watsonville then - but they're still pretty good and I'll admit that I wanted to show off some of our winter produce); carrots (which I love, except that the ones at the market are always so thin that you lose much of them while peeling); a large head of cauliflower; and two small butternut squashes from Happy Boy Farms. I was pretty bummed to see that, once again, there was a paucity of root vegetables available for sale. Where were the parsnips? Where were the rutabagas? How about turnips, for gosh sake? I'm positive that by this time last year I was eating those things, and I'm really curious what's going on... I suspect that we may have lost a few vendors who used to supply them, but wonder if there might be something climate- or economy-related going on which is interfering with the harvest.
Another part of my Sunday ritual is getting some fish from H&H Fish. I'll usually take a single plastic baggie with a medium sized fillet, which is often enough for two meals. I vary what kind I get every week, and it has yet to get old. This time I picked up two small baggies of sole. It is line-caught in Monterey Bay, thus keeping the fresh-and-local foodie mantra of our tour. I noticed that the egg merchant was gone - hope he comes back next week, he's a great guy to have there.
After trekking back home, I almost immediately started preparing our lunch. Not because I was hungry, but because it was going to involve butternut squash, and that stuff takes ages to cook. Butternut squash is one of my favorite winter foods, probably only second to sweet potatoes (though I'll admit that I get larger and larger cravings for parsnips the longer I go without them). I've experimented with a couple recipes, many of which are good, but so far nothing has matched the pure ease and delicious taste of doing a sweet puree. I follow Joy's recipe. Scrub the squash, then roast them whole in the oven for about 90 minutes. When you pull them out, they will have softened, and cutting is far easier than when they're raw. I cut them in half with a chef's knife, then scoop the strings and seeds directly into the trash. The sweet orange pulp goes into a bowl, where I mash it with some butter, maple syrup or brown sugar, a little crushed ginger, salt and pepper. (I use less butter and sugar than the Joy recipe calls for - I suspect because the squash I'm dealing with are fresher or something, because they taste plenty rich on their own and don't require much flavoring.) Finally, I usually eat the skins of the squash... they never get exactly crisp, but they do caramelize, and the flesh that remains attached provides plenty of extra sweetness.
I've learned that fish fillets, regardless of how you prepare them, will leak a fair amount of fluid onto your plate. This isn't a big deal when I'm eating by myself, but when I'm with company, I like to compensate by serving the fish on a bed of something, like rice or grains. This time around, I decided to serve the fish on the puree, an idea I got from reading How To Cook Everything the night before. As for the preparation, in my opinion there's only one way to prepare sole: lightly coat it with seasoned flour and sautee in olive oil. After the squash was done, the rest of lunch came together quickly, and I offered up some of the sweet apples as accompaniment. (In retrospect, it would have been fun to pick up a pomelo or two since Pat hadn't had it before.) Everything individually turned out fine, but the next time I do this, I'll reconsider using the squash as a bed... it tastes a little odd to mingle savory fish with sweet squash. Joy also has a recipe for a savory squash puree that uses garlic and omits the sugar; I've never really cared for this much as a side dish, but it probably would have worked better here. Pat graciously choked down the food, and I got to polish off the remaining sauteed fillets. An unquestioned success was the bread Pat had picked up in Pescadero. As promised, it just needed about ten minutes in the oven to finish, and boy, it smelled and tasted wonderful.
Pat was re-orienting to an Illinois mindset, and spent a chunk of the afternoon reviewing documents for his theater company while I caught up on my New Yorker and other reading. We reconvened later, and once again I started a meal far in advance of the desired sit-down time. This was more due to active preparation than passive oven work. Since before Christmas I'd been hankering to make Cooks Illustrated's White Chicken Chili, one of the only recipes from them that I've done multiple times. It's fairly easy and not too expensive, but is pretty time consuming. Prep work includes dicing six large peppers and mincing two Japelenos and two onions, along with the expected steps like pressing garlic. I think that the most amazing thing about this recipe (which comes in a few variations; I was using the one in The Best Light Recipe) is that it only uses a single teaspoon of vegetable oil. You heard that right: one TEAspoon. You cook some skin-in bone-on chicken breasts in the oil, which gives you enough fat to sautee your vegetables, which form the flavor base for the chili. There's a total of about an hour of cooking once everything gets going in the pot, and you just need to occasionally stir it. Therefore, Pat and I were able to complete an enormous 7-song challenge in Rock Band and finally get an airplane while supper was cooking. When it entered the final stretch, I popped some cauliflower in the oven, following Cooks Illustrated's recipe for roasting. Finally, everything was shredded, cooked, and complete. I stirred in a little lime juice and some raw jalepenos, poured the chili into bowls, reheated some Roasted Garlic and Artichoke Bread, served up the roasted cauliflower, and arranged several strawberries on our plates. Have I mentioned lately that I eat very well? It only took me a few sips to remember what I was missing: sour cream! I quickly brought it out to add some appreciated richness. I "won" this round, finishing every bite, while Pat finally had to call for mercy.
And that's more or less how the trip ended. We pressed on into season three of The IT Crowd, then I showered and went to bed early(ish) to get ready for the next day's early start. We both woke up a little after 4:30, spent a bit of time getting ready, and got to the airport in time for the flight. I found myself already missing Pat as I drove down to the Caltrain station. I love having visitors, partly because they're great people, and also because each of them pushes me to get to know California a little bit better, to explore it a little more, to discover new activities I didn't know I enjoyed or to find new nuances and pleasures in things I pursue every week. It was great to see that a repeat performance could be even better than the first trial, and I hope that this won't be the last chance we have to live, see, and eat California.