Tag Archives: Napa Valley

How to eat and drink like a (cheap) pro in SFO

19 Jun

A few months ago, our resident banker went off to San Francisco to indulge in the finer things. I was inspired and, on a whim, I went out there for a few days of food, beer and wine with a friend of mine. However, instead of doing the name-brand, reserve-ahead-or-fail restaurant circuit, we relied on our ability to ferret out a good hole-in-the-wall while wandering around. We found enough of them for me to write a review of biblical proportions, but I’ll spare you the time (and the eye strain) and give you the best and worst of what we had.



MagnoliaMagnolia (Haight Ashbury): this neighbourhood brewpub is a winner on all counts. The bar has a simple rustic feel, the basement brewery vents into the bar to give it the scent of sweet mash, and the staff regularly make jokes about the “colourful” people who walk/stagger by. The beer is fantastic as well – the Stout of Circumstance is as black as bitumen, velvety smooth and has a balanced yet complex flavour. Best of all, pints are generally $4! We almost didn’t leave. 3.94 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

901 Columbus Caffe (Telegraph Hill): $2 local microbrews from 5PM onwards and, despite being a few blocks from Fisherman’s Wharf, nary a fanny pack tourist in sight. Need I say more? 3.39 out of 5 brown thumbs up.








Chateau Montelena, Calistoga

Chardonnay, Cave de Lugny, Mâcon-Lugny (Burgundy): yes, the best wine we had was a $12 bottle of French chardonnay from the grocery store. Sadly, Napa and, to a lesser extent, Sonoma, are the Disneyland of wine. There are some great products, but the prospect of paying upwards of $15 for a tasting and $40-$60 for a decent bottle is mind-boggling. The two valleys have embraced the dog-and-pony show of touristy wine tasting to such a point that anyone with a modicum of knowledge about wine can see through the charade. If you do happen to fall into this tourist trap, go to Chateau Montelena for some genuine Napa Valley history and Bouchon Bakery for the best baguette on this side of the Atlantic. Napa gets a dismal 2.38 out of 5 brown thumbs down.






Whole roast chicken with warm bread salad, Zuni Café

Zuni Café (Hayes Valley): a Market Street institution that doesn’t disappoint. We chose the roast chicken for two because it was cooked in a brick wood-fired oven, which is code for “food sex orgy in your mouth”. The warm bread salad that was served right on top of the expertly butchered whole chicken provided just the right texture contrast, and its pleasantly acidic vinaigrette was the perfect companion to the impossibly tender meat and flavourful skin. Service was prompt and efficient – Zuni Café is very obviously a well-oiled machine. 3.71 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

Busters’ roadside BBQ pit

Harvest Moon Café (Sonoma): we wandered into this cosy restaurant after hearing high praise from two different wineries. That night, the kitchen had created a meatball plate with a red mole sauce and rice that paid tribute to the Italian-American original while marrying distinctly Mexican flavours. The menu changes frequently, but I hope they keep bringing back that innovative and well-executed dish. Try to get one of the two seats that face the open kitchen. 3.53 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

Busters Southern BBQ (Calistoga): the smoke from their roadside, wood-fired outdoor BBQ pit made us literally stop in the middle of the road and make a U-turn.  Armed with a baguette from Bouchon Bakery and some serious hunger, we ordered a pile of plump pork loin with a side of spicy homemade BBQ sauce and proceeded to make the most gloriously sloppy sandwiches known to man. Washed down with our Cave de Lugny chardonnay, this shockingly cheap yet satisfying lunch may have been the best daytime meal we had.  For this, and for the cavalier service from the sardonic till-minder, Busters gets 3.78 out of 5 brown thumbs up.



Anchor Oyster Bar

Anchor Oyster Bar, Castro, San Francisco

Anchor Oyster Bar (Castro): if you like your seafood fresh and your sauces buttery, this is the place for you. My friend’s vat of seafood pasta was large enough to feed the whole Bay Area for a week. Each element was very well executed – the shrimpswere perfectly juicy and sweet, the pasta was fresh rather than dried, and the sauce burst with flavour thanks to generous helpings of butter, fresh herbs and garlic. My comparatively light pan-fried sole was full of subtle flavour and needed nothing more than a squeeze of lemon to be brilliant. The service was friendly in a neighbourhood-haunt kind of way – welcoming without being overbearing. 3.68 out of 5 thumbs up.

Point Reyes

Drake Bay oysters at Cafe Reyes, Point Reyes Station

Café Reyes (Point Reyes Station): one word – OYSTERS. They come from literally just down the street, and are so fresh that they barely need a squeeze of lemon to induce the culinary equivalent of post-coital moaning. They are amazing enough to overshadow the restaurant’s superb wood-fired pizzas. They also go well with the spirited drive up the winding coastal road from the city. Get out of the city and go there (but not in a Ford Taurus, which is a detuned tractor compared to any other modern car). 3.79 out of 5 brown thumbs up (but a big fuck you to the car).



Castro Coffee Company (Castro): a hole-in-the-wall in the truest sense of the word, this tiny café barely has enough room to stand let alone sit.  There are likely more coffee beans per square foot in that shop than anywhere else in the world, all of which are expertly roasted in house.  Their espresso has an excellent full-bodied mouth feel and a nice long crema.  A house creation, the café Africano is an incredibly complex and deeply-flavoured blend of espresso and rock sugar.  The people who served us seemed to know everyone who walked in the door, a testament to how much the locals appreciate the quality of their coffee.  My friend ordered an americano and, when he was asked whether he wanted a 12oz or 16oz cup, he instantly realized they understood that the feeble and touristy would order the larger cup in order to fill it with useless milk and sugar, and the true cognoscenti would get the smaller cup and drink it black.  If you need to stay alert while eating and drinking in San Francisco, make sure you get to this incredible little gem. 3.82 out of 5 brown thumbs up.


The San Fran Bay Series: Bouchon Bakery & Bouchon Bistro

24 Jan Bouchon Bistro

Over the holidays, I went to visit my brother who lives in the San Francisco Bay area.  He is a Renaissance man – athlete, artist, academic, and all-around-great-guy.  On top of that, he has a super refined palate!  So when I showed up at the airport, I wasn’t surprised to hear he made several reservations for us between Monterey Bay to Napa Valley.

The next day’s plan was to hit Napa County, which is a 2 hour drive from my brother’s home in San Jose.  We left early at 7 AM PST which is 4 AM EST!  Fortunately, as my vacation chauffeur sped us along the highway, I got to doze in and out of a nap with the sun on my face (sorry people back home in -30 C weather).

Our first stop was a no-brainer.  With French-pressed coffees in hand, we stood in line at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery for our first meal of the day!

Always a line at Bouchon Bakery!

Always a line at Bouchon Bakery!

While at first I was super impatient and scowled at those taking their sweet (pun intended) time at the bakery, I developed a lot more empathy once I ditched my ‘Outside in Line’ status and became an ‘Inside the Bakery’ folk and witnessed the jaw-dropping French patisserie splendor that was being created.  We were faced with tough decisions in there, evidenced by the fact that I spent $70 USD on baked goods.

My Bouchon stash!

My Bouchon stash!




This is what a small fortune in sweets looks like. My bag was filled with: 2 dozen macarons (a mix of pistachio, salted caramel, black cherry, lemon meringue and vanilla…all with light and crisp outside and soft and chewy inside), Chocolate Bouchons (small brownie-like cork-shaped treats), and my breakfast…

My breakfast: bacon and cheddar scone!

My breakfast: bacon and cheddar scone!

A delicious savoury bacon and cheddar scone.  Although light and moist, it was also so rich and filling I could only eat half!

With my closely-guarded treats in hand, we wandered around Yountville, enjoying the sun, checking out artisan craft stalls and felt a similar vibe to Toronto’s Distillery District.  Basically we were killing time until our next meal at:

Bouchon Bistro

Bouchon Bistro

Yep.  Bouchon Bistro!  (FYI: the line at Bouchon Bakery next door was still ongoing!)

Bouchon Bistro table bread: perfect start.

Bouchon Bistro table bread: perfect start.

The table bread was straight from the bakery next door.  Crispy exterior and chewy interior, I could have easily eaten the entire thing for lunch and been a happy camper.

Gin 'n juice

Gin ‘n juice

I can’t remember what was in this cocktail but it was refreshing and easy to rationalize as my vitamin C intake for the day.

French onion soup!

Soup a l’Oignon

I am a sucker for a good French onion soup so I couldn’t resist testing Thomas Keller’s. It was, as expected, perfect.  Savoury rich wholesome broth that wasn’t oversalted, and perfectly broiled crispy melted cheese…I was in onion-breath heaven.

Confit de Canard

Confit de Canard

I am also a sucker for duck (my favourite dish of all time is Peking Duck) and I guess I was testing the ‘standards’ so I ordered a Confit de Canard.  Now this dish I did want a bit salty because there’s nothing better than crisp fatty duck skin with salt melting on your tongue.  It’s a fancy potato chip on steroids, really.  And did they ever deliver – and it balanced so nicely against the earthy lentils with root vegetables.



My brother ordered the pan-fried trout which he said was quite enjoyable!

Holding our full bellies, we decided, naturally, to walk to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and gaze wistfully outside like sad groupies.

French Laundry

French Laundry

**SHAMELESS ASK: If any of you know someone who knows someone and can get me on their 3 months in advance reservations list, I will be FOREVER grateful.  My brother and his friends have been trying for over a year.  Let’s just say, now that I’ve tried Bouchon Bistro, I KNOW I will need to go to French Laundry!**

Of course nobody inside French Laundry responded to our telepathic pleas so we settled for a tour of their farm which is right across the street from the restaurant.

The farm

The farm

The rest of the afternoon we toured around Napa Valley, visiting wineries, shopping at gourmet shops…basically killing time until our dinner reservations!  (See a theme?)  Stay tuned for my next post – dinner was Morimoto’s omakase!


Bouchon Bakery on Urbanspoon

Bouchon on Urbanspoon