Saturday, July 24, 2010

Scrumptious Brunch at Saving Grace

Some of the best brunch places in the city are a little out of the way and usually one-of-a-kind. Saving Grace is one of those local secrets, a little restaurant tucked away on Queen West, almost hidden behind trees and with no obvious signage. We met our friend Jen there for brunch last week and were glad to have make the short trek out West.

There are no reservations at Saving Grace, but a waiting list on a small clipboard just inside the door that you need to put yourself on...and the wait can be long, but it is worth it! We enjoyed the cool breezes in the shade outside on a bench while we patiently waited for a table. Fortunately, there were only two tables ahead of us.

Once seated, we quickly discovered the one major downside of the restaurant - no AC. I hate to sounds like a brat, but no AC really is an issue! I just prayed that the food would prove me wrong and suffering the intense heat would be worth it. While Saving Grace has a regular menu, it was the specials on the chalk board that intrigued us. I decided on the open omlette with capicolla ham, caramelized pears and provolone, and Jen had poached eggs on spicy Italian sausage. My omlette was every bit as delicious and satisfying as the description sounded, with plenty of ham and cheese and sweet pears.

Saving Grace serves an almost hippy, artsy crowd, with savory and unique dishes. I'd bear the "no AC" heat again (they provided lots of water!), but would definitely prefer cooler weather to visit and try more/new items on the menu. I also recommend going early, because Saving Grace is a secret no longer, even being featured on Daily Candy's Toronto guide this past week!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

San Francisco & Napa Hotels!

I know this blog is mostly about food, but as I often travel and eat the whole experience is important to me; and thus, I've decided to share my thoughts on the hotels we stayed at in the San Fran area.

We flew in and out of SF and stayed at the W Hotel on 3rd, a swanky property in the SoMA district, surrounded by galleries and art schools; in fact, it is right next to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). It is in a great location - a short walk from Union Square and Market Street. It was a very pleasant and convenient area, including a close walk to other hotels and restaurants, coffee shops, and other casual cafes.
Having these conveniences is always important to us in the city, and we did take a stop at The Grove Cafe on our way out to Napa for lunch on the run (had a great pear and gorgonzola grilled cheese!). Other features we loved about the hotel was the concierge - we called in advance to ask about car rentals for our trip into Napa, and found that the deal the hotel had was far better than anything we could find on our own online, so that was a huge bonus. The hotel also features a complementary Acura car service, which we did not need to take advantage of but is certainly a nice option to have!
We were upgraded to a King corner suite on both our initial stay and after our return from Napa - great views of the city and Bay bridge! The decor was very modern, and the crowd pretty young, although not as young and hip as I had been expecting. The trouble with stylishness of W hotels, I suppose, is that it has to be current - and I felt that while our room looked great while we were there, it would easily look dated in a couple is not timeless. Oh, and lest I forget that I loved the Bliss bath and shower products provided in the rooms - that was a nice perk!

In Napa, we lucked out and found a great deal on expedia for a new hotel, Hotel Luca, a beautiful yet intimate hotel modeled after Italian villas - with only 20 guest rooms, it was a great little space for us to stay. We were welcomed to the friendly and intimate hotel with a glass of bubbly while we checked in - seated in huge leather armchairs, a much more intimate and comfy experience. Our room had a cute little balcony and a spectacular bathroom- it is what I will model my future bathroom after, complete with heated floors and double sinks! This time, we had H20 bath and shower products!
Our first night there, the hotel offered a complementary wine tasting session in the late afternoon, which we did not end up taking part in because of the
all our wine tours, but appreciated the effort nonetheless! The beautiful courtyard was a great location for hotel guests to gather. Of course, we were also welcomed to our room with a small bottle of Chandon bubbly (a gift for the newly weds!) and received cookies as our treat for the 2nd night. The hotel staff offered to valet our car each time we came in and out - but honestly, the parking lot is RIGHT next door, we couldn't be that lazy. We also loved that the hotel charges a flat $25 fee in lieu of cash tips everyday -
I think that is very fair for all the staff, and saved us the trouble of scrambling each time! The hotel concierge was also wonderful and called to help us secure winery tour reservations after learning what we had in mind, and the spa staff also eagerly followed-up on our requests through the concierge to ensure we had all the information we needed (although we did not end up going). Hotel Luca is a lovely hotel that offers a 5 star personal experience and is luxurious in its accommodations.

San Francisco & Napa: A Solid Meal at Redd

Without a doubt there are plenty of great dining spots Napa - if only we had the time and luxury to try them all! Maybe in due time. In addition to the famous French Laundry, we also made a dinner stop at Redd, in the heart of Yountville. It had a very different feel - more casual (but that's relative), more modern, and a crowd that all seemed very comfortable in the restaurant. We felt a little like we were intruding on an average night out for locals at Redd!

We were excited and overwhelmed by the menu to start, there were so many delicious sounding items. We had to consult our waiter in what we could reasonable eat! By looking around the room, we could tell the portions were healthy and we didn't want to over-order. Ultimately, we decided to start with the special lamb bolognaise and rabbit mole. The lamb was unfortunately pretty disappointing, tasting no different that "regular" bolognaise, although the fresh gnocchi was quite good. The rabbit mole was savory and unique - intense in flavor with a homey feel. It was served with cheddar grits and tortilla salad. Think of it has a high end taco salad! I thought nothing much of it at first, but with each taste I liked it more and more.

I knew what main I would have the moment we arrived, because I had spied some delicious plates around the room, particularly the John Dory - a white fish served in a mélange of clams, chorizo, and curry on jasmine rice. It looked and smelled delicious. It was tasty as I had expected, and I believe it is the best dish on the menu.

Overall Redd was good, but not an exceptionally exciting dining experience. I have no doubt the quality remains consistent, but it was not the "must experience" kind of restaurant we had believed it to be.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

San Francisco & Napa: Legendary Culinary Experience at French Laundry - Worth All The Hype!

When thinking about honeymoon and mini-moon locations, we knew we wanted some place that offered us great food; afterall, we live to eat! I don't quite recall how we ended up picking San Francisco, but perhaps it was the alluring possibility of visiting The French Laundry. We learned later that the little town of Yountville actually has the highest concentration of Michelin Star rated restaurants - boy did we pick a great place to stay! At first, we resisted The French Laundry - it seemed like an obvious restaurant for us to visit, but one, it's quite pricey, two, Tony had been before, and third, getting a reservation wasn't exactly easy. In the end, we decided that it was our mini-moon after all, and if we had to cut-back on other meals, this had to be worth it. We enlisted the help of our Amex and Visa concierges, who both managed to get us a reservation...and on this incredible food adventure we went.

The French Laundry is very nondescript, one could easily drive right by and not know they had passed one of the most famous restaurants in the world. It looks just like a European cottage. Before stepping into the garden of the restaurant, we visited the garden across the street - this is where the restaurant sources much of its fresh fruits and vegetables. Probably the most expensive garden ever to raid?? I wondered if there were video cameras! We had a short wait for our table, second seating, and had a chance to walk around the small, intimate garden - it was like being in the most beautiful backyard ever, pristine and with a quiet air of elegance.

We were welcomed to our seats in a cozy nook of the restaurant - inside is also pristine yet intimately warm. We were shown two menu's: chef tasting menu and the lighter, vegetarian option. Although I have no doubt the vegetarian one would be more unique than anything we have ever had, neither of could turn down the allure of rabbit and veal in the chef's tasting! The restaurant actually does not offer a standard wine tasting accompaniment, but the sommelier was happy to inquire about our tastes and recommended several over our "9" courses. I put that in quotations because the 9 on the menu did not include all the additional dishes we had - in the end we must have had at least 12 courses! I've numbered the official courses below.

*To start, we had a lovely pastry ball (malteser size) filled with something light and savoury, but I've already forgotten what!

*We were also served the famous salmon tartare coronets with creme fraiche. You'll find this recipe leading the French Laundry cookbook.

1. Oysters & Pearls: this was the first and probably my favourite course (what a way to start), pearl tapioca with oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. Was a bit creamy, savoury, rich but not at all heavy or overwhelming. Was the best caviar serving I have ever had!

*White truffle-oil infused custards with black truffle ragout: We were ecstatic to have this "bonus" dish, as Tony had made this for me for my birthday - how nice to experience the "original". We devoured every bit of it - love!

*We were also served a wonderful pain-au-lait, cross between a croissant and brioche with salted and unsalted butter. The unsalted butter was amazing - incredibly smooth with great "butter" flavour although unsalted! Genius, and I wish we could have taken some home. Normally, I don't indulge much in bread (filler!) but the bread and butter here were so fantastic....more below....

2. Foie Gras (we upgraded from the Endive Salad): was served with a peach consomme - should not be surprised that this was one of Tony's favourite dishes. It wasn't the foie gras that made the dish for me, but that it was accompanied by fantastic brioche toast and 3 salts to be sprinkled on the foie gras. I had not tried it this way before and it brought out some different flavours when consumed together.

3. Sauteed Kanpachi: a lovely white fish.

*Another of my favourite courses (albeit bonus), handmade tagliatelle with black truffle. The dish looks so simple and tasted so fresh and amazing. Although I knew scarfing down pasta would not help me through this "9" course meal, I could have had another full bowl if given! This, I have to learn to make!

4. "Deconstructed" Caesar Salad with lobster: Don't be mistaken, this was not anything like a salad, but more like lobster inspired by caesar, served with petite lettuce and parmesan foam and compressed roe shaved on top. Nice touch! And honestly, it was salad the way I liked it - more lobster than vegetables :P

5. Rabbit: Even the potato salad it was served with was quite delicious - we were starting to appreciate the incredibly fresh vegetables our dishes were selectively served with.

6. Veal: This was the MOST amazing veal, served with a side of delicious vegetables - sweet pureed corn, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and swiss chard served in a tarragon jus. (see top pic!). The veal was definitely one of my favourite courses.

7. Assorted cheeses

8. Apricot Sorbet served with a light foam on top (I love foam!).

9. French Laundry garden strawberries with pistachio and white chocolate sorbet: this was light and a great way to finish dinner; I even enjoyed the sorbet and I don't like white chocolate! Tony had the ricotta cake, which was very unique and served with blue berries and pine nuts and buttermilk sherbet.

*Of course, dessert was not quite done, we were also served a fancy peanut butter and jelly tart - upscale Reece's peanut butter cup, but light, flakey, and of course....delicious.

The French Laundry was really a wonderful experience. I expected it to be stuffy, but all the staff were warm, pleasant and chatty. The service was, of course, impeccable. Several times, I noticed our course being brought out to be served by our waiter - but because of any reason, like water was being poured, our neighbouring table was being served, or one of us was out of our seat, the server would quickly (and almost invisibly) disappear and return when we were ready for our food to be properly plated. Seamless and amazing. We also had the most spectacular wines - we loved in particular the whites that the sommelier recommended. Just smelling one in particular, Tony and I found it exciting. I don't think I could have ever described a white wine as exciting before! And he recommended just the right amount - a glass for every couple courses so we were not downing glass after glass without really enjoying it. And although we did not love the reds, they were great accompaniments to the meats and we recognize they were great recommendations.

I loved simple things like bread and unsalted butter, salt for my foie gras, simple (?) pasta, simply prepared veal, and even a P&J tart! Speaks to the exceptional quality of the ingredients used and the high level understanding of how to combine flavours, meats, and vegetables to bring out their best naturally. We would not have traded this experience for any other meal - it was simply AMAZING and we were thrilled to have celebrated our mini-moon there.

Once in a lifetime experience - must go!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

San Francisco & Napa: A Delicious Retreat at Meadowood Grill

We were so thrilled by our lunch at Domaine Chandon, we didn't want to waste our last day in the Napa area without a great meal. Tony had read some great reviews (2 Michelin stars!) about Meadowood, but since it was a bit further north, we did not consider going - there are so many options close by where we were staying. Since we were leaving already, we decided to make the short 20min drive from our hotel as a departing treat.

Meadowood is an exclusive retreat, well hidden in the hills of Napa Valley. From the highway, you would never know there was a huge resort, golf course included, beyond the trees! We drove the winding and narrow road into the resort (it felt like a hiking trail), to be greeted by security who directed us to the Grill. We were treated to a fantastic seat on the porch, overlooking the spectacular golf course - we even saw some hummingbirds fly by, what a treat! It had a very serene, country club feel.

The food was SPECTACULAR and we are still so glad we decided to go afterall. To start, I had dungeness crab soup served with a bit of paprika oil - which was incredibly fresh and delicious. Finally, comparable to the best bisque I have ever had at The Cannery (albeit lobster). We could have licked the bowl clean if it wasn't inappropriate! Tony had calamari lightly dusted with curry powder - which is probably the best calamari we have ever had, I was still savouring the tastes long after we left lunch. For mains, Tony had tuna fish tacos, which was freshly served with avocado and slaw, and I had a flavourful prawns & garlic pasta - the fettuccini was a bit thicker than I like, but the melange of ingredients came together in sort of an exciting way: garlicy, sweet and sour done with red and yellow cherry tomatoes and basil oil. The prawns were exceptionally sweet, skewered on rosemary. It was a lot of flavour that I never would have imagined together but was so delicious and paired perfectly. Although we loved our mains, it was the appetizers that left us salivating for more!

Meadowood Grill was a wonderful treat and worth every visitor to the area's drive to the secluded resort for a delicious meal....and, it was actually one of the cheaper meals we had all week! You get great food for a very reasonable price!

San Francisco & Napa: A Tour of Wine Country Highlighted by etoile at Domaine Chandon

We couldn't visit San Fran area without heading into Wine Country of course. Although we do not consider ourselves wine enthusiasts, we gratefully took recommendations for those more knowledgeable than ourselves. I think we if we lived closer, we might very well become wine lovers as the wineries we visited were all great experiences.

Beringer: This was our first stop in the Napa area, a Taste of Beringer tour booked by our hotel. It came highly recommended and did not disappoint. The winery is beautiful and full of history - from the Rhine house to the 200 year old leaning oak. Beringer was actually only one of two wineries to stay open during prohibition (the other was Beaulieu Vineyard). Our tour guide, Jack, was awesome - an older man with a passion for wine and matter-of-fact quips. Some of the more interesting things we learned and wines we tried as we toured the property:
  • Smell your glass after it is emptied - the taste and smell was a new experience for us!
  • The tunnels are all man-made, by "the same people who built the railroads" (Jack said he had to be PC).
  • Caesar changed storing wine in clay pots to casks - wine was stored in barrels from there on.
  • There are 7 gardeners dedicated to keeping the property beautiful.
  • If you don't think there is enough to do on the property already, there's a picnic area and bocci ball court!
  • The Wines: We had a chardonnay to start with a strong "butterscotch" after taste, a zinfandel, a cab, and a cab port. The portions were plenty and poured fast - I had to chug my zinfandel just to get going on the cab! We left with a bottle of the cab port, a unique fortified wine that was none-too-sweet.
Domaine Chandon: While we did not actually do a tasting here, Domaine Chandon is an absolute must stop. It is just on the edge of Yountville, and is grand from the moment you enter, driving through an arch with the vineyards in the background. We were lucky to get a lunch reservation last minute at the restaurant etoile. The Chef, Perry Hoffman, literally grew up in fine dining, as his parents were the original owners of French Laundry. We were treated to a wonderful table on the patio, overlooking the garden (which could have fooled me as a well manicured fairway). Of course, we had to try some of the sparkling wines Chandon is famous for - I had a pinot noir rose and Tony had a reserve chardonnay. We learned afterwards that several of the sparkling wines were favourites at events hosted by the Bush administration. Our lunch was....AMAZING, one of my favourite meals on the trip.
  • Appetizers: A delicious beef tartar topped with black truffle, served with toasts and crostinis. This beef tartar may have surpassed my favourite at Living Room in Calgary! Tony had hamachi sashimi with his summer prix fixe menu.
  • Mains: I had a wonderful lobster crepe served with a yuzu foam - best crepe ever of course! Tony had perfectly caramelized scallops, served at just the right temperature.
  • Dessert: Tony's prix fixe came with a summery strawberry tart.
The experience was so serene and pleasant - don't let Hoffman's young age fool you, he is a culinary master already earning a Michelin Star! Even if you don't stop in for a full meal, the bubbly bar offers a range of mouth watering snacks, like caviar and dungeness crab. Who couldn't use a bubbly stop??

Stag's Leap: This was a highly recommended winery stop - there are actually TWO Stag's Leap wineries as it is the name of the area, but we found the "older" one. We tasted 4 estate wines: An un-memorable chardonnay, Fay cabernet which from where it comes from in the vineyard, is a lighter wine, SLV (Stag's Leap Vineyard) and the Cask23, with grapes from the best of Fay and SLV. I liked the Cask23 while Tony was happy with the SLV - Stag's Leap wine is an indulgence for sure, but I have to say, neither of us were learned enough about cabs to appreciate the quality at $200/bottle for the Cask23, so we left without a bottle.

Pine Ridge: This was the second winery that came highly recommended. We had a flight of cab tastings here: Napa Valley, Oakville, Stag's Leap , and Fortis. The Napa Valley was a standard red wine you could throw down with any red meat, Oakville had a lingering oak aftertaste that I surprisingly enjoyed, The Stag's Leap was one of the best cabs I've had, and so easy to drink and I could have finished the bottle! We regrettably did not pick up the Stag's Leap, but were happy to have experienced such a lovely wine. I would definitely visit this winery again!

Opus One: I had only heard of Opus for its...well...opulence. We had noticed the winery on our first day in the area, its out of the world building. We of course, did not make an appointment for a tour or a tasting, but were still given a "partner" card to the retail store (think cigar room) to purchase. Pretty hard to fork out so much money for a wine we didn't have the opportunity to taste....but I still have to say, the winery is worth a visit if even just for photos. You can buy a bottle and enjoy it on the stunning roof top. We ran into some fellow Canadians who were doing just that (and complaining about how to ship wine back via Air Canada!). An experience, albeit stuffy, for sure, and maybe next time we will go with friends and enjoy it's grandeur.

Mondavi: Our last winery stop was Robert Mondavi - thankfully open until 5pm! Their tasting was more flexible, with a number of reds and whites, 4 to your liking. We decided to have some whites for a change (and I was a little cab'd out). We had an unoaked chardonnay that I quite enjoyed, fermented in steel tanks. Mondavi brought the fume blanc to the region, but it was not a wine I was a fan of. No doubt, I enjoyed the sweet Moscato d'Oro, but alas, I think our Canadian ice wine is better and not worth my packing. We were happy to get in a last tasting, but but it was none too spectacular.

V.Sattui: Although we did not have any wine here, this is a must stop in wine country because of its deli! We stopped by for a snack between wineries that was much needed - V. Sattui features a lush, green picnic area where we indulged in prociutto and cheese. We were introduced the "hottest" in cheese, Carboncino, which is a combination of cow, goat and sheep's milk, and although I laughed when the guy told us it was the latest and greatest in really was delicious! There is also a Dean & Deluca conveniently located across the street, but we preferred the food we found at V. Sattui.

Friday, July 9, 2010

San Francisco: Tastes of Fusion at Ame

Tony poured over reviews and enlisted the help of Chowhounders to find the best restaurants for our short visit to SF. Ame at the St. Regis hotel was one that came widely recommended based on our tastes and favourites, and thus, was our first fine dining stop in the city! Luckily, it was only a short walk from our hotel, the W, walkable even in Louboutins :) (an awesome gift thanks bridesmaids!!!).

Back to the food: Tony and I were most excited by the sashimi bar menu, and thought to do as we have in the past - just eat that list! But there were also mains that caught my eye - always the tragedy of a great menu, we cannot decide what to eat! In the end, we opted to do the Taste of Ame Sashimi Bar (which had a nibble of everything we wanted), and still had room to try other appetizers and hot mains.

The Taste of Ame Sashimi Bar included the daily crudo, served simply with olive oil and lemon; uni bruschetta, which I think had no uni taste so was a bit disappointing; tempura poke, which again was a bit disappointing because we loved having poke in Hawaii so much, it felt like the "tempura" took away from the experience; a "kaisen" sashimi salad that was quite delicious; and our favourite, cuttlefish noodles tossed with sea urchin (this dish was tasty!), quail egg, fresh roe, avocado, seaweed and some young jalapenos to give it a kick, all served in a cute little bamboo container. To go again, we would just have the cuttlefish noodles - but we were glad to have had a taste of everything.

Next we followed up with the Chawan-mushi, savoury Japanese custard. We LOVED this dish the first time we had it in Japan at a Hokkaido restaurant. The Ame version featured lobster and mushrooms...yum! In previous tastes, the "good stuff" was always hidden at the bottom of the custard - Ame's version included some lobster right on top, but also hid some of the delicious seafood and mushrooms within the large bowl....the biggest bowl of savoury custard we had had. No complaints!

We still had room for the mains, Alaskan black cod in a shiso sauce with shrimp wontons and mushrooms, and grilled liberty duck with sour cherry cabernet sauce and foie gras. While I liked the cod, we have a lot of good cod these days even in Toronto so it did not stand out to me, and the shrimp wontons were only ok - made with fresh pasta, but I did not feel like it added anything in particular to the dish. The duck was really well prepared, just perfect and with more than enough to share between us. The sauce had a nice flavour and how can you really go wrong with foie gras on top?

We still managed to have room for dessert, and had a chocolate mousse with burnt marshmallow (think s'mores!) and soy caramel. Was very unique and glad we had a chance to try it.

Overall, Ame was a good experience. We managed to "accidentally" order a whole 750mL bottle of sake, which of course we didn't finish, and they graciously let us take the rest of the bottle home :) We would go again to eat some of the favourites like the cuttlefish noodles and the custard, but as a Michelin star restaurant, we left a little bit disappointed. We feel like we've had some more elevated culinary and service experiences at less recognized restaurants in other cities.

San Francisco: Fresh Crab at Fisherman's Wharf!

One of the main reasons I love SF is for Fisherman's Wharf - I love the casual, crowded atmosphere in which to get some delicious food! Delicious seafood-streetfood!? I was in heaven! It was our first stop as soon as we arrived in San Francisco - I needed to see the ocean and get some sourdough and chowder in me! We explored Pier 39, which was more bustling than I remember, crowded with tourists and restaurants at every corner. We quickly ducked into Chowders for white (New England) clam chowder in sourdough bowl and a crab and shrimp poorboy. It was tasty and satisfying! We also ventured over to the seafood stands on Taylor street - this is what I came for! We managed to indulge in a bowl of lobster bisque from Nick's before happily heading back to the hotel.

But of course, one visit was not enough. After touring some of the best restaurants in SF and Napa area, I was craving just some good ol' crab! We made one more visit to the wharf for an early lunch before leaving the city. Getting down there early was key, as the stalls were not yet crowded and we had the luxury of scoping out each stand before making a decision. I had read some good reviews on Aliotos online, and was ready to even fork out for a restaurant sit-down meal....but alas, the crab stand was the best deal and featured a small patio seating area for patrons (being early also allowed us to find a table without any problems!). We ordered a small crab, cracked and guts included (honestly, what a waste otherwise!) which took up two paper trays, a crab sandwich (which had the best reviews - amazingly sweet crab meat), and even some clam chowder. This was probably one of my favourite meals in the city, and was exactly what I was craving - delicious and sweet fresh crab while enjoying the beautiful weather! I like to think we were attracting a bit of a crowd as I happily enjoyed my crab, since many stopped to watch us dive through our cracked crab. Yummmmm. I have no doubt the restaurant is fantastic, but if you ask me, the crab stand is the way to go - my whole succulent crab only cost me $13 and is prepared the best way possible, STEAMED and FRESH! Restaurants will run you $30+. We even took a crab sandwich to go for the flight! In truth, I can't really say it is better crab than the other stands, but we had such a great experience, I'd be happy to go back any day!!