Friday, September 17, 2010

A Sip of This, a Bite of That ...

A journey through Northern California

California has haunted me for most of my life. I have always wanted to go see it, but I guess I share that dream with a lot of folks.

Growing up, all I knew about America was California and Dallas. OK, MAYBE The Statue of Liberty, but it was not till probably in first or second grade that I knew that was in New York. Everything, to me, was in California. California and America were perfect synonyms. What?! They are not one and the same country?! Well, as I have discovered in this last trip – they are very much not the same country. Most times, anyway.

We started off on a Saturday, on a road trip towards the Western state. On I-80 West of Salt Lake City things are flat. And salty. The Salt Flats fit their name to a tee. Yes, I did have to jump out of the car and taste the soil, just to make sure all that whiteness is salt. It is. The huge mountains of salt being harvested from basins on the side of the roads testify to that also.

Onward through Nevada we had again that Dorothy-like, deserted feeling we experienced in Kansas this year: lost. Just vast lands, big sky and nothing much more than dust. One would tell you that there are only two colors, yellow and blue, for the sand and the sky, but there are so many shades of those colors your eyes hurt! I guess if Eskimos have 100 words for “white” (or is it “snow”?!), Nevadans should have 100 words for “yellow”. In Nevada, because of wide spaces and infinite horizons, you get to see the beauty in the simplicity of the desert. The vegetation is scarce, but the land is vast and overwhelmingly present.

Once you cross the border in California, you literally feel like you are in a different country. People drive faster, traffic thickens and roads are horribly, horribly worse than anywhere else I have ever been. The landscape is different, too: lots of pine trees and junipers are now adorning the sides of the rocky mountains everywhere. Whereas in Nevada the dimension is horizontal, in Northern California you flip your vision by 90 degrees to vertical: there is only one way the eye can look, and that is up, from the winding, narrow valleys of the highways and you see the blue skies. Everything is close up and personal there!

We planned to make Napa Valley our main base for the short stay, and travel around it, for wine, food, sightseeing and photo opportunities, and of course people watching. I guess I can safely say we accomplished all that. We spent a couple of days winery touring, one day in San Francisco and on our way home, we stopped in South Lake Tahoe (for some WEIRD reason my tongue continues to call it “Lake Taco”) for lunch and lots of photos. It was a beautiful journey, one that I hope I can make another day, a little less rushed, and a little bit longer, so I can see all the beautiful adjacent places to these spots we saw this time.

A few travel notes for next time and for those interested in following in our footsteps.

Food in Napa and around is amazing. Yes, we did spend a bit more for food, because this was a special occasion for us, but even when we didn’t, when we stopped at a hole-in-the-wall kind of place, food tasted delicious. We had lunch at Armadillo's, in St. Helena, a Fresh Mexican food place, and it was like nothing I have ever tasted before! All the ingredients tasted like what they were not like melted cheese under a broiler.

The resorts do a fantastic job of cooking everything gourmet and everything familiar with a gourmet twist. Some of my favorite finds were the cold corn and lime soup at Solbar at the Solage Resort in Calistoga, as well as the herb French fries at Siena, the restaurant at Meritage, in Napa, our home for the trip. Now, two words of caution here: Solbar changes their menu daily, so the soup might be a one day event there, but everything they do is out of this world, so, you're in luck anyway. Siena (our “own” restaurant) has absolutely horrible service for dinners, from what we have experienced. Morning service was OK, but dinners – not so much. Unless you planned to spend at least two and a half hours for dinner and 30 minutes waiting for someone to show up to take your order, I would not recommend Siena. All I could figure was: well, they have you there! You stay there, you come in for dinner because you probably are too tired (or too tipsy) to drive anywhere else, they can make you wait forever – where else would you go?! Definitely below par from what you expect from a highly rated resort.

I WILL have to say one word (OK, maybe several!) about Morimoto Napa Restaurant. For those of you who watch Iron Chef America, you know who Masaharu Morimoto is: he’s this Japanese “iron chef”, one of the original “iron chefs” from the original Japanese show by the same name. You will see him cook on the American version of the show, and as one of our friends put it “he is the one who is always perfect”.

He has a restaurant he owns in Napa . I am not too sure how this whole thing works, whether he comes up with the menu, or ever cooks it, or supervises the chefs through video conference from New York, or even has anything to do with anything in there at all other than putting his name on the place and grabbing a check every month. Not sure how much of Morimoto is involved in the food is what I am saying. But the foods on the menu are pretty close to the tradition he’s cooking in: Japanese, lots of fish, fresh ingredients, original pairings of flavors.

The dinner we had there was definitely an experience of a lifetime! We looked around and no two plates looked alike! Every food had its own kind of plate or bowl, various colors to complement the foods, and various shapes. I had a crème brulee that had blueberries and Earl Grey tea in it, and lemongrass ice cream on top. Now, lemongrass is something you eat in your fried rice dishes, or your glass noodle Thai soup, as a veggie … The whole thing was exploding with flavors and just melting in my mouth. And I hate desserts, mind you! But this was not a dessert. It was a journey.

I had to have some sushi, as Morimoto describes himself as a sushi chef, primarily. I had flying fish roe and then king crab sushi – fresh, sea-like and simple! My fried rice and yellow tail came in this 400F Dutch oven kind of bowl – everything in the bowl was uncooked, except for the rice – the waitress cooked everything in front of me by mixing everything together and allowing every bite to touch the hot walls of the bowl– it was sooo fresh when I tasted it! There were ingredients in there I never had in fried rice before: mushrooms, nori, spinach all “fried” in sesame oil. Again, the rainbow of flavors was amazing: the salty fish with the woodsy mushrooms and the green spinach, the sweet sesame oil and again salty, sort of pickled nori – your mouth didn’t know where to go to describe it all!

My husband had a ginger and peach “martini” that was pretty boozy and surprisingly tasty, for ginger, in my opinion. He also had miso soup and pork chops with kimchi and ginger – in he Japanese tradition of perfect balance, they balance heavier meats (pork) with a smaller, leaner side (kimchi). In an American restaurant, you’d get pork chops AND potatoes AND fried onions on top! His dessert was tofu cheesecake with maple and coffee reduction sauce and maple ice cream. The cheesecake was like chewing on air – so light!

We didn’t have any bad service to speak of at Morimoto’s – the place runs like a scientific experiment – we were waited on by several people and we were showered with attention, although the place was incredibly full! The décor is something else too, but I don’t want to take too much longer here, so, just, please … visit the pictures .

The wine, of course, is plenty in Napa. And that is all I am going to say in the adjective department. Wine, much like any taste derivative, is a personal choice. And my mom always said don’t ever argue about taste! And I won’t. Some wine was good and some was not so good. To us. Some of the wineries we visited were: Domaine Carneros (my first “sparkling wine” winery), Artesa, Folie a Deux and Napa Cellars, Sutter Home, Freemark Abbey, V. Sattui, Joseph Phelps.

I have read a lot before I headed out there, but unfortunately not before we booked the trip: they tell you that Sonoma is a white and sweet wine place (more South, longer summers), and Napa is a red wine place, and a dry wine region – for the most part. Of course, there are various things to be found in both. But yes, they are right: Napa is predominantly “red”. We are mostly sweet white wine drinkers. OK, we’ll give a Riesling and a Pinot Grigio a try once in a while, but we like our “Kool-Aid” on the lines of Muscats and Ottonels . Sutter Homes and V. Sattui had the sweetest Muscat wines, the most perfumy ever! And thus we tasted the difference between Moscato, which is what you can typically find in any grocery store in America (well, except Utah, of course), and Muscat, which is what I grew up with, back home: fuller body, in the sugary content. All grapes, sun and deliciousness!

At Joseph Phelps we had a beautiful surprise because their grounds were by far the most serene and spectacular: just simple, quiet beauty. We were there on Harvest Day, September 7, and they were all looking forward to a wonderful new season, as these folks really get into their trade. The winery is by far the most upscale, and most "technical" of all of the ones we saw - not for the pleasure drinker, for sure: they talk about their wines in “points” and percentage of wines that make a blend. And they offer private tastings with a wine specialist in this beautiful, all wood tasting room. Definitely “up a notch”.

They are off the beaten path of the Hwy 29, but so worth the short trip. Whereas all the wines were anywhere between $5 and $25 at all the other wineries, Phelps’s bottles started at $45 and stopped at $225. They make mainly Bordeaux style wines, Merlots, and Cabs, very “full body” some say … but to us, they are “full of chalk”. And yes, I said that to them, and of course they stopped paying attention to me.

I personally don’t believe in the absolute in wine! There is no such thing as an absolutely great wine. I think it is such a subjective matter of palate and taste that you cannot tell me a full body Cab is the best wine ever produced and a fully aromatic Muscat or a perfectly balanced and smooth Pinot Gris is junk! Because what makes a wine great, after all, if not the taster?! I believe strongly that wine, just like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Phelps also reminded me that price has nothing to do with what you like, either. If it brings you pleasure and you only spend $.50 on it, more power to you, I say! A $225 bottle tasted worse, to me, than any $5 bottle of Muscat I ever bought.
Beautiful place, though. Definitely worth the trip, for the grounds, the trellis work and the largest wisteria in the world hanging off of it. Just don’t mention their wine is chalky if you want to make friends!

I think the funniest memory I’ll have from the wine journey will be the fact that when sales people were asking us where we’re from at the wineries, and we said Utah, they would make this very sad face and add “Oh, I am SO sorry!” – because they knew about our silly alcohol rules up here. But I will have to say, we got out of being upsold on memberships and “wine clubs” by telling them “hey, we’re from Utah, you can’t ship alcohol there”. And they can’t. And they were bummed. And we weren’t. Although the Muscat from Sutter Home would make my day every time it would arrive in the mail! For sure.

And speaking of Sutter Home – they also have beautiful grounds, although on Hwy 29, smack dab in the middle of traffic! They have the most gorgeous gardens. And that’s the thing about California: the vegetation is amazing! You get thousands and thousands of acres of vineyards, of course, but then you get olive orchards, and orange trees and lime trees and bushes, and lemon trees, and pomegranates, and palm trees and cactuses, and … pine trees …and what NOT?! It’s beautiful, and diverse, and lush green and fresh! The roads leave a lot to be desired, for sure, but what a delight for the eyes the hills are!

Till you get to San Francisco that is! Well, maybe I am once again biased here! You see, I am not a big city girl! I am one of those people who’ll tell you that NYC is “great to visit but not to live in”. Same thing in San Francisco! Man, what a zoo! And yes, surely: part of the zoo was the fact that we drove into it on Labor Day (Monday) and the place was abuzz with tourists, but part of it is just San Francisco: traffic, and more traffic, and pushy merchants, and crazy hills to drive on, and no parking and … metropolitan jungle at its worst! And I said nothing about the tourists everywhere – because the only other place I ever saw that many tourists, their bikes, go carts, kids, strollers, dogs and funky fashion styles was in New Orleans. Very colorful!

We had lunch at Lolli’s Castagnola’s in the Fisherman’s Wharf, and we had the world’s weirdest waitress serving us. We were perfectly sober, but we could not tell whether she (“Jennifer”) was a man or a woman, nor whether she was sober, drunk or high … She was something else … She started by saying she will make us “the world’s best Long Island Ice Tea”, as she is a world renowned, award winning bartender first, and a waitress next. And everything after that was “the best”, “the mostest” that we ever had, according to her … She had to “flirt with the chef for extra shrimps on my sandwich” and that alone almost killed my appetite. The seafood we had was definitely fresh, but not spectacularly cooked. The Long Island Ice Tea, however, was apparently amazing, according to my husband who did take her up on the offer.

We took a boat tour of the San Francisco Bay, and floated by The Golden Gate and Alcatraz Island, and just peeked, away in the distance, at the San Francisco – Oakland Bridge. I always love bay cruises, because they put things into perspective for you. I do enjoy riding through a city (or walking it, like we did a bit, too) to get a feel of what that city is, but I love seeing it from afar, too. After all, when you see postcards from New York, San Francisco, Chicago, etc – it’s always some skyline shot from some body of water, isn’t it?! So, seeing it in real life for yourself kind of gives you the feeling of “Wow! I have made it there!”.

The bay tour was great, I thought. Gave us perspective and a nice, relaxing way to look AT the city. And they don’t call it “the Fog City” for nothing! It IS foggy! All our pictures can tell you that! We didn’t visit Alcatraz, but I was shocked by the amount of decay we could see from the boat. I visited Ellis Island, and I was moved at how everything looked like it must have been many years ago, when it was a working island. I don’t know the history of Alcatraz that well, so I am not sure why it could not be preserved, but … it felt very depressing, and not just because of the fact that it’s a prison island. It felt like staring into a skeleton.

On our last day, we drove back home through Lake Tahoe. And what a beautiful trip back home that was! The Tahoe area is gorgeous. I am not sure how else to put it – but it’s just one of those places you just NEED to go to before you die! It’s beautiful mountain landscape at its best – breathtaking, raw and wild. Between the simple and tall beauty of the pine trees and redwoods, and the bareness of the rocks and the clear of the lake, you don’t know where to look for simple amazement!

The California part is nice and landscape - coordinated, all log cabins and stonework. No building almost violates the beauty of the land. You cross over into Lake Tahoe-Nevada, though, and as my husband said “you get lots of cheese in a hurry” – casino signs and billboards out of this world!

Nevertheless, the beauty of the mountains and the lake endures, and no human cheese can really temper that!

We had lunch at an Irish Pub and just drove along the shore of the lake for pictures. We stopped in the canyons for more photo opps, of course! It was like an extra breath of fresh air (in more ways, literal and not) before our long and relatively boring drive through Nevada, back home. But as any traveler will tell you: any corner of the world reserves a surprise, and we were lucky enough to once again be speechless when we almost found the “pot of gold” in the desert . Must have been that Irish blessing we got at the pub in Tahoe.

We loved our trip, and if we were to do it again, we would do it in a heart beat! We would like to go back to Tahoe right away, just for a longer weekend, or so … California was naturally gorgeous, but humanly weird, I guess. People are not friendly. They are always in a rush, and always want to sell something. Whatever it is about Napa, they’re trying to sell you on two things: wine and spas! And they’re really pushy! The roads are horrible and in a state with toll roads and 9% taxes I am not sure why they can’t fix them … The overpopulation feeling definitely kicks in in California. I come from North Carolina which does seem more crowded than Utah, but California is like Time Square at the size of a state. OK! I have not seen the whole state of California, but everything between Sacramento, San Francisco, and Tahoe is way too tight, population wise.

Another characteristic of the area is that there is a lot of “green initiatives” – more than I have seen in any other states: lots of solar panels on the houses, traffic lights, wineries, lots of windmill power, lots of “green” in restaurants (no ice, tap water, real, cotton towels to be reused, etc).

Like anywhere in the Southwest, there is a huge Hispanic influence here – and that was actually one of my favorite features! All our Hispanic waiters and waitresses were by far the best, friendliest and worked hardest. Just a side note, but an important one to me, when I will look back!

The small Western towns are a gem, if you can navigate the traffic to get into them. Old buildings, and lots of live oaks and palm trees. Nice houses, sort of Mediterranean in architecture, with overgrown gardens that offered much needed shade and privacy. These settlings are an oasis of small town feel in the middle of madness. St. Helena and Yountville were very quaint and quiet.

And what is California without star sightings, right?! So, apart from being in an internationally renowned chef’s restaurant, we also were seated at the table next to Tyler Florence , another chef, and his entourage, when we dined at Solbar. I will not go into the details of our eavesdropping, but suffice it to say, the conversations involved cooking with “aromatic herbs”, the kind some people in Amsterdam smoke. Or so I thought I heard.

It was definitely a fast forward trip, with the long drive and the not many (five) days we spent there. But it was an experience in more ways than one: cultural, culinary, oenological, geographical and definitely psychological!

I cannot find a better ending to this than the statement my husband summarized California in: “The experts have determined that Pluto is no longer a planet. California is in no danger of such a re-classification - it is a planet unto itself.”

Just GO! It’s worth it! And remember to take a camera, too. This way, you’ll end up with 2000+ pictures, like we did. Enjoy some of them here .

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