This week's tablehopper: please pack your fork and go.
Best appetizer evah: one tray of Russian uni, and two spoons. (Sorry, I can’t tell you where just yet…) Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Ahhh, hello sun. Thanks for showing up this Friday. The nice weather is making me want to get out of town, and after writing today’s jetsetter piece on Healdsburg, I am definitely feeling the call of the road (and the chicken legs at Pizzando).
Today we also have a second “Checking Lists” piece from Alan Goldfarb in the wino, I hope you enjoy it.
Over on 7x7.com, they created a slide show of this year’s The Big Eat, featuring 100 things to eat in San Francisco before you die. Yours truly is the editor behind this year’s list, adding many of my local favorites (more than 80 new items!) to that bad boy. I hope you enjoy it (and definitely look for the February print issue—The Big Eat has some great images).
Also on 7x7.com, I decided to share some tips I learned while I was suffering from that damn flu about how to survive at home in SF when you’re sick (and single). You’ll find some of my favorite soup delivery suggestions plus some delivery services. For all of you suffering from the million colds and flus floating around, I hope it helps you out. (The hopper is here for you. Meow.)
Enjoy the weekend, see you on Tuesday!
Healdsburg has always been my favorite Wine Country weekend destination—the food is so notably good; there are some nice options for accommodations; quality yet attitude-free wineries abound; and I usually pay at least a couple of visits to Flying Goat Coffee for espresso. Healdsburg can be a little bit of a schlep, but I think it’s totally worth it. So when I was invited with some fellow media types to come up for a night of tablehopping to check out the latest restaurants, I was like, uh, where do I sign?
Our first destination was PIZZANDO, the offshoot from the Hotel Healdsburg and Spoonbar at the h2hotel (which is just across Matheson Street). It overlooks the plaza and has a contemporary-meets-rustic look, with just 18 seats. Chef Louis Maldonado is overseeing both kitchens, and you can order some bottled cocktails on the menu by Cappy Sorentino at Spoonbar (he’s a Scott Beattie protégé). While the primary focus is on pizzas, there are also some appetizers, a couple of pastas, and about four main dishes, all featuring Maldonado’s creative touch. The dish that I would drive back to Healdsburg for (seriously) was the crispy chicken legs ($16), which are brined and then cooked like Korean fried chicken, with just enough spice (from Aleppo pepper). So juicy, and mega flavor. Bwok, majorly.
Pizzas have an elastic crust and come out of the wood-fired Mugnaini oven with some definite char and leopard spotting (Liza Shaw—previously A16—consulted on the pizzas). The burrata, arugula, and roasted lemon marmalade pizza ($16) was a favorite, until I tasted the special that night: finally someone did a porchetta pizza (it came with pickled and sautéed red onions, fresh arugula, garlic, imported mozzarella di bufala, and vinaigrette). Brilliant. Bonus: you can order any of these items for takeout (I would totally eat those chicken legs in bed in my hotel room, I am so not kidding).
You ready to hear about some of the best damn moussaka I’ve had in awhile? Dear lord, the moussaka at TAVERNA SOFIA was off the charts. We were served a family-style portion in a big clay bowl (see if you can get some friends together and pre-order this for a family-style meal—the individual size is $14). It sported a browned and beauteous topping of Kefalograviera cheese, with layers of eggplant (it’s grilled, so it’s not oily!) and ground beef in a superb béchamel. Just wow. Chef Sofia Petridis-Lim uses her grandma’s recipes, and the rustic Greek menu includes a gyro at lunch (the restaurant has a fantastic rotisserie for it). It’s a casual spot, and the outdoor patio is the place to be (the tiny dining room is very plain); perk up with a traditional Greek coffee made in a copper pot with your baklava.
Mark and Terri Stark (of Willi’s Wine Bar, Stark’s Steakhouse, and others) have opened a really fun addition to the Healdsburg scene in the former Ravenous space: BRAVAS BAR DE TAPAS. The Barcelona-inspired menu is packed with tapas ($4-16, but mostly falling in the $7-8 range), from crisp patatas bravas ($6) to skewers of chorizo and shishito peppers ($7)—you’ll find plenty to pair with your wine, sherry, or cocktail (there’s a section dedicated to gin and tonics). There are tender calamari with salsa verde ($10), as well as more decadent choices, like Dungeness crab fideua ($10)—just spoon some of the excessive aioli off—and the Sebastopol maitake mushrooms ($10) cooked on the plancha with “goat cheese fluff.”
The space is stylish, with a bar and a couple of different dining rooms in the front and some cool art. Wait until the weather gets nice—the back patio is going to be the place to hang out with some sliced-to-order Fermin jamón Ibérico (for now, the covered deck with heaters is doing a great job). There’s a separate bar in the back too—just look for the clever “Jamon In” sign.
The owners of local favorite Scopa (Dawnelise and Ari Rosen) have opened another hip hangout, CAMPO FINA. It has a welcoming and almost sultry vibe, with brick walls, cordovan banquettes and chairs, dim lighting, and Paolo Conte playing over the sound system (there’s also a bocce court and back patio). The rustic menu features standouts like Larry Pacini’s ciabatta bread ($3.50) and hard-boiled eggs with salsa verde ($5.50); an escarole salad ($9.50) with pecorino, white anchovy, and pine nuts was excellent. The pizzas from the wood-fired oven are so fantastico, with a nicely crisp crust. The pizza rapini ($15.50) was particularly memorable, with tomato sauce, mozzarella, rapini, black olives, the kick of Calabrian chile, and caciocavallo cheese. People also go nuts for the honey-roasted carrots ($7.50) with coriander and panko. This place has such creative aperitivi (all $8) by Erika Frey (previously at Cyrus), like the Piper’s Pick (chile-infused vermouth, Moretti beer, red pepper purée, lemon juice, and pickling foam) and the Shakerato Superiori (marsala, Allagash black stout, cherry pistachio syrup, Angostura bitters, and espresso).
A sunny yellow building in a nearby strip mall is where you’ll find THE PARISH CAFE, pulling in a line of locals for its po’boys at lunchtime. Owner Rob Lippincott is from Louisiana, and you’ll feel a strong sense of hospitality here. I was sorry to just miss the breakfast cutoff, because a friend swears by the sublime shrimp and grits ($12) that are served until 11:30am. We veered for the chicken and andouille gumbo ($6/$9) instead (be sure to shake some hot sauce on it), and a fried shrimp po’boy ($11/$15), which had plump and tasty shrimp, but the bread was too crunchy for my liking, and I had to pull out the slices of out-of-season tomato. You can come by all day for café au lait and beignets ($5)—try to snag a spot on the front porch.
Looking for a spiffy place to stay? Even if money is tight, try to at least hunt down a deal here, because the H2HOTEL is such a pleasure to stay in. I was ready to move into my suite (it always feels good to step away from the clutter of our own homes). Eco-chic is the name of the game (the hotel was built to LEED Gold green building certification), and it has a very NorCal sensibility, with weekend yoga classes. You can even tool around for three hours on a PUBLIC bike for free.
My favorite feature was my suite’s Japanese deep soaking tub made with Heath tiles—I was getting over a cold, and that thing was pure heaven. The room was minimalist but still artsy-funky, and I left the hotel feeling relaxed and calm. My only quibble was there weren’t slippers provided in the room—the striped bamboo floors weren’t fun to walk on barefoot (brrrr). I’d come back in a heartbeat during the summer to take advantage of the solar-heated pool. Downstairs, you can dine or grab a cocktail at Spoonbar—and breakfast is provided.
Guest Wine & Spirits Writers (in vino veritas)
Checking Lists: A Critical Look at Restaurant Wine by Alan Goldfarb (Heirloom Café)
Alan Goldfarb was the wine editor at the St. Helena Star, where it is said that assignment must be akin to covering Catholicism in Vatican City. He was also the senior editor for AppellationAmerica.com. His work has appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, Wine Enthusiast, and Decanter. He’s the contributor of the chapter “Chewing on Chile” in the Travelers’ Tales book Adventures in Wine. He was also the technical editor for California Wine for Dummies.
He’s a restaurant wine consultant and advises wineries on public relations projects. (For his “Checking Lists” column, he will not promote his clients.) You can listen to his latest appearance on iWine Radio. Have a question or a comment? You can email Alan. He’d love to hear from you.
Heirloom’s Neighborly, Visionary, Wine-Centric Owner
Matt Straus, a wine guy who owns the sweet local bôite Heirloom Café in the Mission, sent out an email a couple of months ago, which posited: Why don’t restaurant critics review wine lists too?
I have noticed this obvious omission and have railed for years that wine usually gets the short end. That’s because, as I replied to Straus’s observation/diatribe, most restaurant reviewers know little about wine. As I’ve long contended: Wine people know more about food than food people know about wine.
For people obsessed with wine, food and wine are inextricably linked. It’s like peanut butter and jelly, bacon and tomato, or Abbott and Costello. Many folks who love food could give a fig about wine with food.
Matt Straus was onto something with his missive, and got my attention. His email proved to be the inspiration for my “Checking Lists” column. My twice-monthly column will attempt to sort out the sometimes arcane world of restaurant wine. With the exception of Michael Bauer’s Sunday restaurant reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle, there is scant info about wine in most restaurant reviews. Although I applaud Bauer for the effort, his inclusion of a restaurant’s wine program merits just a sidebar in his weekly review. And that sidebar is more often a litany of the list’s pricing regimen than an actual review of it. Bauer’s efforts often lack a viewpoint of a restaurant’s philosophy of its wines; or an analysis of the offerings as it relates to the restaurant’s raison d’être.
Straus’s email is the reason I went to Heirloom for one of my first columns. I wanted to meet him, soak in his wine list, and eat his food. There is no pretense at the corner of Folsom and 21st, and hardly any indication from the street that there’s a lovely, homey dining room inside. Heirloom has all the warmth that one could wish for in a neighborhood spot; rusticity oozes from the joint. The food is simple, wholesome, and satisfyingly good. There’s a flatiron steak, and a bacon and onion tart that lovingly wrap their richness around your heart. Duck confit salad topped with an egg will remind one of the 4th—or is it the 5th?—arrondissement.
But it is the wine list that raises my heart rate. There are only 21 selections, meant to not overwhelm and confuse the diner, which would be anathema at such an unassuming place. Chiefly comprised of French wines, there’s nary a Bordeaux to be found on the list, but there is one Napa Valley cab. And, ah, what a cabernet it is. Straus presents a 2005 from the small producer Cathy Corison, who is one of the most accomplished winemakers in America. The ‘05, especially, is a revelation, particularly in the annals of Napa cabs. Corison farms her grapes on two small parcels in the heart of Napa Valley. What results is a wine with depth, nuance, and long-lived potential. There are no overwrought encumbrances such as gobs of oak or high alcohol, which can blight the food. At Heirloom, it is $20 by the glass and $80 by the bottle. Had I been flush the night I visited, I would have ordered it. It’s a great price, considering the producer and age of the wine.
Because Straus wants to make sure you have a good experience—with wine and food— he’s keenly observant as to what his guests order. In my case, seeing that I had ordered the duck salad, he sent over a glass of “proper” wine. The 2011 Riesling Quarzit Hexamir ($12/48) from Meddersheimer Rheingrafenberg, Germany, arrived unannounced to my table, because Straus knew its citrusy, slightly sweet fruitiness cut right through the fatty richness of that aforementioned duck. It was a perfect foil.
But what endeared me to Straus and his program is his reserve list, if you have the inclination to experience what a knowledgeable and generous wine entrepreneur he is. Scouring the 13-page portfolio made me as excited as the first time I emerged from the tunnel at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field as a schoolboy, awash by the wondrous expanse of the greenest green I’d ever seen. I wanted to eat it, as well as drink it all.
In Straus’s playing field is a 1998 Châteauneuf-du Pape (a red Rhône blend) from the always reliable Beaucastel for only $185 (a damned good price); and the 1996 Chateaux Trotanoy, a right-bank merlot from a good but not great vintage that is priced at $155, which is only about $30 above retail.
But what amazed and thrilled me was a vertical selection (various vintages from one producer) of Hanzell pinot noirs—one of California’s greatest makers of the varietal. Therein resides a 1973 pinot that was the first great wine I’d ever had. That was in 1976 or ‘77, at the iconic Imperial Dynasty. Richard Wing’s restaurant was the first to offer Chinois cuisine, and it was in the unlikely location of Hanford, California. That evening we had the gorgeous Hanzell with an escargot that was stuffed inside a pasta shell and topped with a cashew-butter sauce. What a magnificent pairing.
The atmosphere at Heirloom is assuredly conducive to those that seek a genuine experience without hoopla; and especially for one who is looking to augment and complement a wine culture so true as to give a sense of well-being. To prove the point, Straus will charge you only 10 bucks if you bring a bottle that is older than the 2002 vintage. Now that’s nurturing.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: 2011 Hexamer Riesling Quarzit, Meddersheimer Rheingrafenberg, Nahe, Germany. ($12/48) This wine from west of Frankfurt is the perfect complement to the menu’s mainstay, the bacon-onion tart. So rich is this dish that the sweetness of the wine cuts through it and cleanses the palate and readies one for the next bite. But don’t be fooled, while the wine has a citrus sweetness in the end, at midpalate it shows layers—minerality, herbal qualities—of a wine to be reckoned with. ($15-$20 retail.)