Let it be released from the mind

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

San Francisco (wasn't that like a year ago?!?)

Yes, our trip to sunny/windy California was quite some time ago. Apparently though, I've been lagging on the blogging front.

Here goes a quick synopsis:
My family picked us up from the Sacramento airport, which is surprisingly small. We got reacquainted and had a nice dinner together that night near their home in Sacramento. We then got up the next morning and took a train from Sacramento to Richmond, CA and then took the BART into San Francisco. We didn't want to have to pay for a rental car that would cost a fortune to park and would never get used in the city. From the tiny bit we saw in the car ride to the train station, Sacramento is just sprawl and not a city by any means. There was a town square with a few larger buildings around it, but didn't resemble an east coast city or capitol city in the least.

The Galleria Park Hotel was a dream--completely remodeled and beautiful inside. It was filled with muted tones of lavendar, turqoise and silver. It's convenient to the BART and the trolley on the Embarcadero. Part of the Joie de Vivre hotel chain, it was complete with vino happy hour each evening, and a working fire place with a blanket should you choose to sit around and cozy up. The weather in San Francisco was outstanding though, and we had no need to shelter ourselves.

We started off the first day, straight off the train, sloughing up and down the hills of SF. First stop, dim sum in Chinatown. It was a mere 5 blocks and a heart attack away--just kidding, but it is astounding how steep some of the hills are. D was prone to the sweet pork buns. We then continued walking to Coit tower where we saw a beautiful view of the city from its highest point. 360 degrees around, you could spot the crookedest street, Alcatraz, all of the piers and the financial district, and both of the bridges. We seemed to take pictures of Alcatraz from a billion different points throughout our 2 days. It was kinda like Nat'l Lampoons European Vacation, "Oh look kids, it's Alcatraz". The area around Coit tower ended up being our favorite location in SF. The flowers were beautiful and in bloom, there were these random wild parrots that we were tracking through people's lush gardens as we slowly meandered down Telegraph Hill, and we watched several Anna's hummingbirds fly around blossoms and their nests hidden in a tree.

Although we didn't necessarily have intentions to visit the touristy stuff, we ended up doing it anyways since we were close by. We did a quick fly-by to check out the sea lions at Fisherman's Wharf and have a beer. The next day we checked out Ghirardelli Square and the pier that curves far into the Bay there to get better views of the Golden Gate Bridge. We paid too much for a crappy milkshake at Ghirardelli and were bitter rather than sweet. We saw Grace Cathedral, which was lovely.

For dinner the first night we had reservations for Zuni Cafe, which was a corner building that was triangular in shape. Every post I read on Chowhound raved on the one-hour roast chicken so once I saw that on the menu we went for it. I didn't bother asking Daniel. We started with an appetizer of fresh artichokes and fennel with a vinaigrette which is satisfactory but a bit lacking, and then the caesar salad, which was a bit deconstructed in style. The romained leaves were whole and flat on the plate, with anchovy and dressing drizzled over. The chicken did in fact take an hour and was worth every minute of the wait. It was served cut into large chunks over a bread salad of peasant bread, currants, mixed spicy salad greens and pine nuts. An outstanding mediterranean twist to this American Sunday-dinner classic. The waitress conveyed that this was by far the most ordered meal, and that the only way we could have been more "quintessential Zuni" would have been a Sunday brunch with their famous Bloody Mary.

Side note: I mimicked the recipe for my family on Mother's Day, and it turned out delectable although not as browned and crispy as theirs. Roasting dry in the pan didn't exactly work as one of the skins of the chickens ended up sticking.

The next day we had happy hour oysters at Hog Island Oyster in the ferry building. Daniel was annoyed that I was making us wait for the happy hour, which they only offer once or twice a week. It was probably 3 or 3:30 and happy hour didn't start until 5. I insisted that oysters were too expensive to eat heartily at full price. So we had 6 small pacific oysters at full price, and then practically paid the same for an add'l two dozen once happy hour started. He is a huge fan to say the least. For dinner, post hotel happy hour, we ate at La Taqueria in the Mission District. We literally sat in silence as we gulped down this saint of a burrito. It was truly a gift from God--perfect carnitas, chunks of ripened avocado, warm pliable tortilla. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it. It's a small self-service joint with Spanish as the primary language. It was the best burrito I've ever had. I think the Mission District had a lot more to offer, but to be honest, it seemed fairly dirty and a little nerve-wracking if you were unsure where you were going. The next morning we tried to go to Tartine Bakery which is also in the Mission, but we were laden with our packs, sweaty from the walk, and were met with a 20-person line when we arrived. Needless to say, we didn't stick around. Being so impressed with Zuni I was sad to miss this add'l James Beard award winner, but there will be other times in life I'm sure.

We picked up our hybrid and headed to Sonoma for the day, where we sampled wines from 4 vineyards. Kunde seemed a bit pretentious and the person offering tastings would barely speak to us. We visited Wellington, a super small winery famous for their white ports--surprisingly good! We finished the day off with a tour at Benziger who have really made a niche for themselves by practicing biodynamics on their vineyard and even have an insectory, and Arrowood which we closed down for the night. The Arrowood staff was kind enough to lead us to the Fig Cafe. This is the original location of the famous Girl & the Fig restaurant of Sonoma, and now serves as a more casual dining experience. Since we couldn't spend the big bucks on another gourmet meal and certainly had not made reservations, the Fig Cafe was perfect. I had an outstanding spring lamb stew and Daniel enjoyed a sort of seafood bouillebaise in a creamy tomato broth. We got away with only buying three bottles of wine for the day--2 from Benziger to support their good cause of organic farming, and 1 white port from Wellington.

We drove back through the city to get to Carmel for the second part of our wonderful trip. We met the relatives there at the house that evening, exhausted from drinking and eating all day. The next morning we visited Point Lobos State Park, which was literally visible from their oceanview home. It was extremely windy on the coast, but we did a few quick trails to see the seals, the nesting Pacific cormorants, and the orange-fungus-laden Cypress groves. The Monterey cypress here in Carmel is the last stand in the world, and they even have a few on their property. They definitely do not realize how lucky they are, even though it blocks their view of the ocean some! We visited Point Lobos twice over the three days we were in Carmel, and were overcome by how beautiful the blue/green water was, the birds that we saw, and the succulents that grew all along the path. Our favorite area (seen below) was definitely China Cove ("o o o ohhh, little China Cove"). We enjoyed watching the otters fish for shellfish, bringing their catch onto their bellies and smashing them with a rock as the waves lapped them endlessly.

We drove our little Prius up and down Highway 1 to visit parks in Big Sur. We did the Pfeiffer Falls/Valley View trail. The most strenuous but our favorite was the Ewoldsen Trail. We didn't quite realize the elevation gain of 1,600 feet and how long it was before embarking. It was hard work, but well worth it, despite eating a whole baguette and chunk of Point Reyes bleu and triple creme brie from Cowgirl Creamery. Here's the top point, overlooking the Pacific Coastal highway far far below and the edge of the earth as we know it. The McWay Waterfall trail was beautiful and picturesque, and any dunce could make it out there--trail would be a stretch of a word.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

cracking myself up

have you seen my stapler? Seriously, I actually can't find it. But everytime I say that I just crack up laughing.

I love smoked meat

I am a huge fan of BBQ. It's probably because I love pork so dang much. Without all the hassle of smoking apparatae, we make a version of BBQ at home, where we take a pork shoulder and rub it all over with our secret homemade rub (kept in a mason jar in the cabinet of course) and let it sit at least overnight. Then I cook it in the crockpot the next day on low for the full 8 hours. You don't even need any liquid in there. The fat does everything for you, and the meat breaks down into the most lovely pulled pork you could imagine. It would only be made better by the insertion of smokiness and bright pink color that comes with smoking.

So since I was loitering yesterday throughout the Arlington/Roslyn area, I decided it would be the perfect opportunity to try the famed Rocklands. My coworkers have absolutely raved about it every time we pass it on the way to our worldwide office. They especially lauded the corn pudding. I think you should judge every BBQ restaurant by their handling of a pulled pork or chopped pork sandwich, so I went traditional yesterday as well. I got the Texas corn pudding for a side and macaroni and cheese. I thought I would be in for the best of treats because the line was out the door. It took 15 minutes to get to the front, and less than 8 minutes (their guarantee) to get the food.

I tried a few chunks of the pork by itself to understand the natural flavor of it and was immediately overcome by the smokiness. They use hickory and another wood to smoke their meats and the taste was way too overpowering. It was interesting, but I think took over the flavor too much. With a large group of what seemed to be coworkers smacking their lips behind me, I next tried the corn pudding and found it to be a little soggy and too savory for my tastes. I could taste onion and celery in it and thought it more to be a mushier corn stuffing rather than a "pudding". Pudding reflects sweetness to an extent and corn can be one of the sweetest most lovely things to eat with a super salty and savory bbq sauce. So that was a little disappointing as well. The mac and cheese was just sub-par compared to Urban, who has a light and buttery sauce with fresh cheese on top. Rocklands relies on the Velveeta-ish cheese for their mac and cheese, and using large shell noodles makes it awkward to pick up with a fork because the noodles were too done and broke easily.

Man, I feel like I'm being a bit harsh here, but I do take good BBQ seriously. Try Urban BBQ to fulfill your pork fantasies.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Do you ever have that weird experience where you look at a word that isn't commonly used over and over again, and suddenly it doesn't look right anymore?

Lobster just did that to me. I have a reward for my Discover card Cashback Bonus and Lobster Gram is one of the companies that you can double your reward with. I am insistent upon having a lobster for my birthday, so this intrigues me. But as I went to the website and read lobster in 50 different places on the homepage, I began to think it was spelled wrong or it was some weird word. I mean, how many times do you usually read lobster. Now it's not looking too weird to me as I write this blog, and I'm thinking I should probably just erase this post. But my stream of consciousness is now out there for the world to see.

Maybe I should just take a trip to New England for my birthday to get the lobster...

Friday, May 09, 2008

a weekend of cooking and eating

I have a weekend of cooking and eating ahead of me, and I'm looking forward to it. When executing large entertaining meals, most of my battle comes from the planning of the meal itself. It takes me forever to find the proper inspiration and pairing of a full meal. I surely fall short many times, but I know I have put my heart into it.

Tonight, I'll make an homage to spring as we have Kelly & Dan over for the first time as a couple--shocking it has taken this long. I think I'll start with a freshly-depodded pea and mint puree with a slight touch of broth and cream so it's not too thick served with a seared jumbo scallop with lemon. The main course will be a a simple past a dish, combining most likely mushrooms and asparagus with a simple light sauce.

Since I've been working like crazy it's a comp day today, so in a few hours I'll drive to Naptown for the Amish market, to buy all sorts of homemade goodies including bread to serve and no doubt a strawberry-rhubarb pie, which combines the finest of spring's bounty with the first emergers of the season.

It's always difficult for Mother's Day...how to appease two very different women. Two years ago it was planned around the MIL with homemade manicotti and eggplant parmigiana--no small feat mind you. Last year, for my own dear mudda, a French bouillebaise--my first attempt at this outstanding fisherman's stew. This year--mimic Zuni Cafe's roast chicken. It's half-between both of their likes, and if my dad can't respect chicken a little more after this meal then there's nothing to save him from a beef-laden existence. I'm so happy to see the recipe online, and I can't wait to try to mimic it this weekend.

Since it was just my mom's birthday as well, we'll probably eat some crabs, which must be her favorite thing to eat in the whole world. Second might be buttery movie-theater popcorn.