Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ubuntu: Uber-refined Vegetarian Mecca

If marriages were between people and restaurants, I would be wildly pursuing Ubuntu. Ubuntu is not only ultra cool, but good for me too.

As a person Ubuntu would be a soft-spoken intellectual whose uniform was jeans and a black t-shirt...and a beanie in the winter.   He'd be one of those few dudes in yoga class who is also interested in cooking, whose hair shags below his ears.  Read: a caricature of a Northern California dude.

The Last Supper of my divine 48-hour Napa Valley trip was appropriately at Ubuntu.

I was last here 15 months ago, right before the chef changed. I thought it was awesome. (Click here for the review.) The place continues to be otherworldly.  Ubuntu chefs are masters of combining flavors and making their productions look like artists' canvases.
Slow roasted chioggia beets (yes, those fleshy tuna colored chunks)
As faint silhouettes of yoginis darted around in the yoga studio above (visible from the restaurant), I enjoyed beets that looked like sashimi, opaque paperthin leaves, and  broccoli, which was unsuspectingly bursting with flavor. 
"Warm foccacia with truffled pecorino from Florence and apricot/almond agrodolce"
While the beets were gorgeous and tasty, the foccacia, delicately tangy and sweet, was extraordinary.  We ordered it with the optional poached egg.  I could talk about this dish for a while, except I would keep repeating the same adjectives: incredible, amazing, delicious...

Ubuntu also sells t-shirts and garb, which I would never wear. But how I look forward to another date with the restaurant. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

St. Helena's Olive Oil Company

Products that say "I've been to Napa Valley!"
Extra virgin olive oil from 
Just north of Yountville on the St. Helena highway is the St. Helena Olive Oil Company.  I was told by a friendly young sales clerk that a) their products are sold no where else (except their two Napa stores) and that b) their olive oil is organic and sourced from local olives.  This was music to my ears. But if their olive oil is truly organic, it is not obvious from neither their website nor their signage in the store.
Salts (edible ones; bath salts also available)
I was willing to take this clerk's word for it. Especially since I made the trip out there, and I was impressed with the looks of the place, which is worth a visit if you like extra virgin olive oil, vinegars, honey, gourmet salts, and bath products (soaps, lotions, bath salts).  They also have items such as butternut squash pasta sauce, pesto, blended herbs, and examples of recipes combining vinegar and oil.  

Salt of the earth
They have quite a variety and all their products are hospitably laid out for easy and clean sampling.
Vinegar bar
At this writing a 375ml bottle of extra virgin lemon olive oil costs $24.

Cheese Sampling in Sonoma

The Girl & the Fig is a cute and convenient place to share and test out cheeses. This was their minimalist sampler, but they have all kinds of cow, sheep and goat cheeses from various regions, including France.
From left to right: Morbier (France), Joe Matos St. George (Santa Rosa), Tomme brulee (Aquitaine, France). That two of these chosen cheeses were from France rather than Napa Valley was a careless accident on my part.  
The restaurant has worn hardwood floors and convivial mustard colored paint on its wood-trimmed walls.  The iconic place has gone commercial (you can buy t-shirts, totebags and compotes, and nuts there) which is a turn-off for me, but I still think it has a desirable atmosphere.  Reasonable prices.  
A salad of greens dressed in vinaigrette, with toasted walnuts and slivers of  pears. 
On the eve of the Sonoma Jazz Festival.
We found parking right on the street here, right before noon on a Friday. However, watch your time because the parking police tracks the amount of time you are parked.  

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Yountville, CA - Unrealville

Following lunch at Etiole on Thursday, we headed straight to Bouchon Bakery, about a mile away in downtown Yountville.   There converged all the other travelers in town too, in that tiny little space. But this tourist magnet is equipped with a friendly army of young, trim servers (who clearly do not make a habit of eating the bakery's products).  Though tiny, the place is densely packed with gorgeous sweets (cookies, muffins, coffee cakes, granola, puddings), breads and sandwiches.  It also has a basic coffee menu, and the iced coffee is strong and excellent. 
A rare occasion when no customers were blocking the counter!
French macaroons: hazelnut and pistachio (the latter is a best seller).
The first time I had these macaroons were at the Bouchon Bakery in New York. My culinary-trained friend highly recommended them.  I am glad I don't have to go to New York to get these!  By the way, at $3 a piece, these are some of the biggest macaroons I have seen. With pressure, they crack on the surface. On the inside they are chewy, and almost raw-tasting (imagine the consistency of cookie dough).  The center is like buttah.  

This was my first visit to Yountville.  The tiny town is spotless. Imagine a Walk of Fame of restaurants and tasting rooms--Washington Street has them lined up one after the other.  In terms of pure looks, the town did not appeal to me as I prefer buildings that look like they took blood, sweat and tears to build...or are a little worn around the edges.  At many points, I felt as if I were in a scene from a Jim Carrey movie, where everything is so perfect that it's creepy.  On this day, the sky was robin's egg blue, the temps were in the mid-70s, and there was a breeze.  
Yet another one of Thomas Keller's eaties...
Oh but that will not keep me away. I want to try Bouchon (the restaurant) for sure, which has a lovely French feel to it (I poked my head in)...and I want consumate my fantasies of eating at French Laundry.

There are also Redd, Ad Hoc, Bistro Jeanty, Bottega...

Ah, someday.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

Etoile, Yountville, CA
The about-to-be leek and green garlic soup...
For a belated Mother's Day lunch, my mom and I went to Etoile, on the edge of Yountville, where we enjoyed the leek and green garlic soup, tuna tartare, and muscat-scented sparkling wine from Etoile's vineyards (Domain Chandon).  It is not difficult to understand how Etoile was awarded a Michelin-star this year. The food was not only superb, but so beautiful that we had to admire it for a while before digging in.
The pour...
The tuna tartar had a light touch in flavor.  But the fish was so fresh that it would have been a shame to cover it up.  It was adorned with fuzzy green almonds (that is what the server called those three oval green and white slivers) and a touch of olive tapenade (the brown beneath those round pearl-like things--which were cucumber).  
Creativity, artistry and exceptional taste quotient surely go into Etoile's excellent ratings.  Service was attentive but perhaps overly so as we were asked at least three times if we were still working on our soups when one of us was.  The place does need to be renovated, however. It has a nice patio, and many tables inside have a nice view of it.   But the restaurant is clearly worn down from age (just look at it's carpet and soiled chairs--not so bad that you can't ignore it but still...).  On this Thursday afternoon at around noon, large parties of diners filled tables outside, but many inside were open, giving my mom and me a lovely view with privacy.  

The dessert menu looked sinfully good.  But since we were just at the start of our Wine Country eating marathon, with Bouchon Bakery on tap, we decided to skip it.

In short, Etoile certainly shines but could be even more brilliant.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Torron - Catalan Nougat

From Casa Gispert, a famous nut roaster in Barcelona.  This may be the last of my Barcelona posts for a while as I move on to new eats in California.

With pistachios, almonds and dried fruit.  Chewy and sweet.
This is where they roast the nuts:

 Bag of walnuts:


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tartine--je t'aime.

San Francisco Food Review
Their desserts...they could be called crack.  I love Tartine.  It makes all cares vanish, if only for the few minutes it takes to finish one of its desserts. 
Lemon meringue cake.  The bouffant topping has hints of burnt caramel.  
Besides producing eats with illicit drug-like, hallucinatory side effects, here are some other perks about this bakery-nirvana:
  • It's in the Mission
  • It's next to Delfina (out-of-this-world thin-crust pizza)
  • It's a stone's throw from Bi-Rite
  • It's unpretentious and approachable, with a gritty edge
  • It's hybrid French-California (everything is made with tons of butter and cream but with mostly organic and local ingredients!)
  • The chocolate in their pain au chocolat is super dark and superfine
  • Their yogurt is made from whole milk (this is not optimal for health, of course, but it is for taste buds)
  • Their muesli is chunky and chewy and wholesome
  • Everything is SO FRESH
Some selections tried today on this Bay-to-Breakers Sunday:
Meringue. This is light as a feather.  It doesn't break off since it is fresh, so you have to pull it gently to get a piece of it,  and when you do, it crumbles a little.  With slivered almonds and tiny chocolate nibs.
Chocolate croissant (or pain au chocolat). In my review of Tartine two years ago, I raved about this king of croissants.   Superflakey, super buttery, with hundreds of layers and dark, dark chocolate. This is perfection.  Plus, it's beautiful to look at.
And here it is, broken apart.  
Bread pudding - like flan in bread form!
The bread pudding has hunks of strawberries and is topped with a light caramel syrup which ends up getting divinely absorbed by the bread.  It really tastes like flan with a slightly firmer texture! This stuff is impossible to eat this without wearing an expression of glee, or Zen-like calm.  

Confession: I would not order the lemon meringue cake again.  While lemony and gorgeous, it was a bit cloying.  However, any of these other treats mentioned I would order again and again, and expect I would say the same of the other dozens of offerings from Tartine that I have not yet tried.

The "problem" with Tartine of course, is that it can be habit-forming...and if you eat too many of their breads and pastries as I did on this day, you will start to resemble like them.  Whatever. This place is a blessing. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

To the Most Important People in the World

Mother's Day Greetings
A small acknowledgement to all the mothers--the first to feed us.  
Snow peas from the Menlo Park farmers' market.  

More soon.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mercat de La Boqueria de Barcelona

A photo journal of the varied and scintillating edibles at the world-renowned La Boqueria market, where I deliriously browsed virtually every day of my trip in Barcelona:
Edible flowers that remind me of Hawaiian leis.  
Les petites fraises.  I rarely see these anywhere. 
White asparagus.
Prawns wrapped in potato shoe strings.

Fruit cut and blended-- among the rare to-go items I saw in Barcelona.
Candy fruit.
Chocolate (be sure not to miss the white and red roses, and monkeys in the upper right corner.)
Candy jewels.
Nuts and nougat.

   Your source for peppers, garlic and any other spice.
Red hot pepper powders. 
Juanitu, the owner Pinotxoof one of the famous establishments at La Boqueria. Despite his success and popularity, he is warm,  down-to-earth, charming...oh I can't imagine a man of his stature in a comparable city in the US being so ingratiating with his customers.
Cortado, not yet stirred.  
Tortilla with toast from Pinotxo. 
Quim's at La Boqueria serving up traditional Catalan dishes.
At 9:00 am, the wine is chilling and beer is enjoyed. 
Five or six men, many of them in Barça shirts on the eve of a big game, shuffle around in the tight space that is the kitchen behind the bar.  The boss, Quim, is on the right. These guys let me--a complete stranger to them--enter their  kitchen to take photos and video. I was unprepared and floored by this. Unfortunately none of the images I captured were sharp enough for posting (I think I was too excited to hold my camera still) but I came back with a genuinely fond memory of Catalan hospitality.

Warning: Vegans and vegetarians may find some of the remaining photos to be offensive.  Some of them are unusual (which is why I am presenting them), and well, I didn't know that some of these things were considered food for humans.

Many of the fish are still alive at La Boqueria.  Here, lobsters' claws are rubber-banded together.
Fresh sardines.  These I wish I could find more of in California. 
These could double as props in a horror movie.
The only other time I have seen sting rays, whole, is at the aquarium. 
Pigs feet and ears.
Cow tongue and other cow parts.  
Goose and duck eggs.  

I could hardly get enough of this place...and that was just La Boqueria! The narrow streets around the market were dotted with chocolatiers, bakeries, dairy shops and other eateries that I have tried to cover in previous posts.  Friends were wondering what I did all day since I didn't make it to the major museums. I was eating and taking food porn 24-7!