Friday, December 30, 2011

New Years Trip: Day 4: St. Helena

Our final day of the Napa tour began at 8AM; it was a chilly 54 degrees and slightly overcast with a chance of rain.  The Napa Best Western was far superior to the Best Western in Seaside. I think they were completely relying on the fact that they were next to ocean.  You pay for waves there, not for room quality. Anyway, our continental breakfast included hard-boiled eggs and a waffle station, which made it more than continental, though I wouldn't go so far as to say it was interplanetary, so let's settle on continental-plus.

As soon as breakfast was over we headed to our first stop: lunch! Our wine tasting schedule was tight, since we had two appointments back to back right around lunchtime, so we would have to grab lunch in advance and eat it in a couple of hours (there were no restaurants near our two appointments). We stopped at an old-timey burger stand, previously called Taylor's Refreshers, but is now called Gott's Roadside. Though the original Taylor's sign is still up.  Probably just a matter of time before they tear it down to replace it with some neon light-up sign with a chainsaw rocket eating a dragon guitar or something.

Our first wine tasting of the day was at our favorite place: David Fulton. They make one kind of wine: Petite Syrah, and they make it better than anyone. Stephanie was our flavor engineer, and took us on a grand tour which included a few wines from her neighbors, a Sauvignon Blanc, something called One Last Kiss which was really nice crisp and drinkable white blend, a Zinfandel, and a Cabernet. And they all lead up to the Fulton '07, '08 and the '08 sweet petite (a port-style wine). The biggest surprise was how well the sweet petite paired with mint, of all flavors. Who would have thought wine and mint would go together? After we relished in the glory of our personal favorite (the '08), we took a little tour, where she discussed their process, how the equipment is used, and then showed us the 2011 wine resting in their barrels in the cellar (I'mma gonna drink that one day). David Fulton is a 150 year old winery and one of the oldest wineries in the valley.

One of the highlights of the tour was Trigger, the black lab. She was so friendly and wanted two things: to be petted and chase her tennis ball. Stephanie and Trigger were excellent hosts as we walked the grounds. The light mist provided a comforting ambience and Trigger tore through the mustard growing in the tracks between the now empty vines chasing after the ball.

We stayed at David Fulton as long as we possibly could, and finally had to leave in order to meet Christophe at the Titus winery. A tall, handsome and easy going fellow, he gave us the tasty tour of their Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, two Cabernets (a Franck and a Sauvignon), and a Syrah and a Petite Syrah. One of the things that is so fascinating about these wine tours, particularly of the smaller vineyards and wineries, is learning the history of the land, of the family who built it, and how they seek to develop their businesses into the 21st century. Christophe's tasting room was in a converted porch overlooking the vineyard. The porch was at the back of a very neat and inviting farmhouse, which just begged you to come in and have a glass of something.

It was time to have our lunch and we sat in the car eating our delicious sandwiches from Gott's Roadside. I had a sourdough burger covered in cheese bacon and some kind of delicious barbecue sauce. Gregory had an ahi burger that was really good. Beth got a turkey burger with cheese and some kind of delicious chutney and David had a cobb salad that had huge chunks of fresh chicken. This food was really good now, and I can only imagine how incredible it is when it's hot and fresh. Best roadside drive-in ever!

Our next appointment was at the Tedeschi family winery and the owner Emil was our host. Older and a bit shy, but clearly hardworking man led us through their process. This was a much smaller winery than the others. In fact at the end of the tasting, he pulled out the bottles and had to put labels on them before selling them to us. This was one of the most unique tastings of the trip. We started of with a Rose that was, get this, big and luscious. He led us through a few Cabernets, different years, and a lovely Syrah, but the biggest surprise of all was the dessert wine. I don't know if our taste buds were just in freakout by now, but this was one of the most lovely mellow sweet wines, not at all syrupy and not even really that sweet. He didn't have any that he could sell us though since they only made about 6 cases.

We bade the Tedeschi winery a bientot and headed to Heitz Cellars for some of what Beth recalled as amazing Cabernet. Perhaps this year was not their year, or perhaps our tastebuds were just completely shot by now, but their wines just weren't doing it for us. They did have a port that intrigued us enough to buy a bottle, however, and they have a lovely tasting room, also with a dog.  But this dog was a little high strung and not nearly as friendly as Trigger. I don't mean to play favorites, but I'll take the happy to see me dog with the slobbery tennis ball any day over a prissy dachshund mix that was so rude, it didn't even ignore me.

We had a while until dinner so we walked around downtown St. Helena. We stopped in a really yummy chocolate store, got a $2 chocolate that was definitely worth $2 of yum (I had rum-raisin and Gregory had a hazelnut milk chocolate; David tried a black cherry). We also stopped into an olive-oil store. Yes, they just sold olive oil, but that is something that some of the wineries around here also do.  In fact Titus also sold olive oil, but they were completely sold out. They only had a sampler for us to try and then disappoint, because it was REALLY good olive oil.

We stopped into a store that had olive oil among other things (like tapenades and sauces), but as one lady put it. "Hmm, it tastes just like oil." As in, unspectacular and boring. She and I found the owner and locking arms started shouting, "Booo!" until they agreed to close their doors forever!  Actually that didn't happen because you can buy Oliver's Olive Oils at Williams Sonoma. But why would you want to?

The good olive oil store had a pretty amazing selection of stuff. Flavored oils, as well as various balsamic vinegars, some honey and even truffle honey.

We ducked into a chatchka shop, and about the same time, Chris Parnell and his wife also wandered in, so we shopped and joked and knocked over displays and stole people's lunch money. His wife was pretty horrified. We decided we should probably part ways for the night, so they got back in their limo and took off into the night. Gregory and I went back in and bought a santa ornament (it was 50% off) to show our good will toward the shop. The owner was mad at all the damage. We also made sure to ask for an employment application before we left.

Our dinner tonight was at Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, one of the four restaurants by owner of Mustard's Grill, Chef Cindy Pawleyn. We all wanted seven things each, but limited ourselves to two appetizers to share, one entree each, and one dessert also to share. We started with an order of oysters which were covered in garlic and melted cheese, which can make anything taste wonderful, and polenta fries, which were really interesting: big and thick like pillars. This was another meal of amazing. Beth ordered the duck burger, David ordered the quail, Gregory ordered meatloaf, and I had the pasta special which was a fancy delicious take on mac-n-cheese. I won't go into details, but we passed around bites of our meal, took pictures of everything including my pear-cognac based sidecar (delicious!) and Beth's spicy Gin and cilantro martini (scrumptious!). At the end of the meal, our dessert was a caramel pineapple upside down cake that we tore into like savage starving dogs. I think our wait-master, Tim (who, like Mo the night before, was (and likely still is) awesome), was surprised and perhaps a little nervous how quickly we dissected that meal to the last atom in record time.

Now, we have checked into our hotel, Beth has been put on an overnight bus back to Los Angeles (she is leaving for Vegas in the morning), and we are happy and tired at the end of a very satisfying day.  Tomorrow we head to Reno to relax and spend some time with family and share the results of our tasty adventures.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

New Years Trip: Day 3: Napa

Just to warn you, you're going to read a lot things described as "amazing" today.  Day 3 began with an early departure.  We needed to be on the road by 8AM because we had a three hour drive to Napa from Monterey (with potential pit stops and vista pointe (pr. "pointy") picture stops). The morning began crisp and cool as we left the Best Western at Seaside, picked up David from his room and went to pick up Beth from Mira and Glen's.

With Beth in the car, we were well on our way, passing by the restaurant with the big concrete Artichoke near Hollister, contemplating whether or not we should stop there for breakfast despite some of the lackluster reviews, when Beth realized that her camera battery was not in her bag.  And due to the fact that many of our appointments in the various wineries were due to her blogging and vlogging and twittering on Busy Beth's Blog about food, wine and various fun things to do and places of interest, we had to go back for it.

Luckily we weren't very far out of town. Due to this setback, however, our delicious dilemma was solved by returning to the Breakfast Club, which enabled me to try the Egg Nog Pecan Baked French Toast, which was pretty damn amazing. It also came with two eggs and bacon or sausage, which was unexpected as I had braced my blood sugar for a morning spike, but it ended up being only part of this complete breakfast. Other people ordered other stuff that I'm sure was good. The thing that was so amazing about my amazing French Toast is that it sounds-tooth rotting sweet, but it wasn't at all. Lots of flavor without the overwhelming sweetness. It was amazing!

We finally made it on the road headed toward Napa and our first appointment at Hendry Wineries at 1:30PM. As we neared our appointment, we passed through Gilroy and we opened the car windows to be greeted by the delicious and not-at-all-overpowering smell of garlic, something the entire car agreed was welcome, inviting images of delicious breads and savory dishes.

Being winter the clouds were low enough to be a high fog. It made the air hazy and wintry, as much as California can get: pine trees and other ever greens interspersed with deciduous trees of two varieties, the ones that can't be fooled and were therefore bare, and the ones that had difficulty deciding what season it was, with a smattering of green and some half turned leaves. The haze across the hillsides made everything appear somewhat gray, but somehow soft, perhaps fuzzy, like mold.

Despite the setback we arrived about an hour early, so we headed up the road to Hess winery. It was a beautiful facility, and as we headed toward the tasting room, there were big stone walls covered with old bare vines, a goldfish pond and nice lush and inviting landscaping. The entrance to the tasting room was elegantly decorated with large spruce trees covered in fake snow. Our pourer, or tasting engineer, was a lovely young lady whose name I can't recall, so let's just say her name was Appelonia. They had some very nice wines, but we had to get going to our next appointment, so we didn't purchase any.

The main appointment for the day was at Hendry's Winery. We passed by an old run-down abandoned looking house and drove to the tasting room. Our appointment was with Jeff and this was one of the most amazing wine-related experiences any of us have had. He talked about the history of the wines, the history of the winery, cork, and some of their new methods of wine making that have helped develop and continue to champion.  He is a mechanical engineer and the winery owner George Hendry was an electrical engineer and they worked together on technology that is used in PET scans and cancer research. Aside from the wine, he was a fascinating person!

Jeff talked about the depletion of cork and the unpredictability of it versus the discs inside some screw cap wines which can precisely control the amount of oxygen allowed into the wine bottle. And further explained the advantage to these discs over synthetic corks, being that synthetics don't breathe at all, which is not desired either. He talked about each wine as we tried it in such detail, even if you didn't care much for, or didn't know much about wine, you would have to be a damned fool to not have learned something.

He talked about what to expect if you were to own a vineyard and how much money you would need, and pretty much talked us out of ever wanting to own one (not that it was ever on my list, but still). For example if you plant a new grape vine: 3 years until it bears fruit, then 4 years until it gets out of its adolescent stage, and once adult, the wine would be bottled for 2 - 3 years before it was drinkable, so 10 years before you get anything drinkable out of it.

They had some really amazing wines and after the tasting we got a tour of the grounds, the facility and got to see the room where their wines are barreled. He let us smell a barrel that was in good condition and a barrel that had "gone bad." I expected it would smell of vinegar, but it smelled like acetone!  The good barrel smelled sooo good.

One last thing I wanted to mention about Hendry's was the wine naming.  Being that both Jeff and George were engineers, their wine names lacked a bit of creativity, for example their bordeaux mixture, rather than being called something like "Bored Doe" as Jeff once suggested, or also Menage a Cinc (French for five since this was a five-wine combo) it was simply called "Red." And their special mixture of Zinfandel from Block 7 and Block 22 were called: "Block 7 & 22 Zinfandel." But getting a little insight into their personalities gave these names a little distinctive charm. They had some nice CAD maps of the property too.

It also turned out the vineyard owner George lived in that rundown house we passed. He also seemed like quite the character, though we didn't get to meet him.

This took the majority of the afternoon and so well worth our time.  But we managed to cram in one final stop and that was at the Napa Cellars and Folie a Deux (makers of the Menage a Trois - a simple but very drinkable wine). Dean was our guy and he gave us the grand tour. Gregory and I had learned of Napa Cellars from the wine tasting at Palermo where we tried the 2007 Cabernet.  We bought a couple of bottles of 2009 Cab, a special limited Syrah, a big beefy Zin, as well as some Muscat (or as I like to call it Muskrat).

For dinner we had one of the most amazing meals this year, if not of all time. Mustards Grill is one of the best restaurants in the Napa Valley, and when we asked Dean about it he raved.  Light sticks and all.  It is described as "Casual yet refined Truckstop fare."  Everything has an air of fun and confidence.  They know the food is good enough so they can have a sense of levity.  many of the items on the menu are labeled A.Q. (as quoted (by the server)). The wine list is labeled "All the wine that's fit to drink."  And the cocktail of the day bears the additional description of "Ask your server about today's 'experiment' (it's alive! ALIVE!)."  I ordered one of those and it was a sidecar, and it came alive and drove around inside my mouth. We ordered a couple of appetizers: the Ahi Tuna Crackers with wasabi creme fraiche and soy vinaigrette. The tuna was pepper seared, the tuna was so fresh and flavorful, even the peppery crust was amazing; the crackers had both regular and toasted sesame seeds.  it was topped with basil and green onions.  We also ordered crispy calamari with a curry slaw and fresno chilies, which Gregory thought was the best calamari ever.

I ordered the "Truckstop Deluxe: Always meat, often potatoes, rarely vegetables." This was a T-bone steak with some light mash and some of the most amazing broccoli.  It was smoky and had spicy red pepper chile flakes. Gregory ordered the Mongolian Pork Chop with sweet & sour red cabbage and a house made mustard.  It was the best pork chop ever.  And before you argue about, "I had a really good pork chop at so and so," please consider this: fuck you.  Until you eat a pork chop at a Michelin recommended restaurant, keep your stupid pork chop to yourself.

David ordered one of the most transcendent looking hamburgers, which is one of their specialties; really good fries too. Beth ordered a lemon and garlic chicken that had the best chicken skin. Gregory wanted to order just a plate of it, and I have a feeling they would have accommodated. Mo was our waitress and she was awesome.

For dessert, oh yes, there was dessert: creme brûlée (yes, some of the best) and it was served with a walnut cookie, that was amazing and even moreso when consumed together. We also ordered a waffle topped with berry business and (get this) cardamom ice cream. We also ordered lemon-lime tart with brown sugar meringue. The meringue was piled about a foot high, which we discovered when we found a foot in it.  Needless to sway, the foot was grilled to perfection, and was the best foot any of us had ever eaten.

We need to sleep now because we have a full day of drinking wine and more amazing food planned for tomorrow.  Now off to some happy or weird dreams. I welcome both.

But first I have to beat up Gregory because he keeps reading menus of other amazing restaurants we will be visiting in the days to come, and I keep hearing things like, "ooh tarragon basil butter," and "ooh this sounds good! prosciutto tomato benedict!". To the moon!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Joey and Splashes

New Years Trip: Day 2: Monterey

Our second day began after a short night's sleep.  The conversation with Mira and Glen lasted in to the wee hours, but not too wee, but still insufficient.

So we prepared ourselves for departure and our first stop was breakfast: The Breakfast Club.  This was a pretty basic place, nothing particularly fancy, but they had quite the impressive selection of benedicts: crab cake, corned beef hash, salmon and many more. The hollandaise was flowing by the bucketful.  I got an omelette with a biscuit and gravy and a side of hash browns.  The biscuit and gravy was particularly good.  We also ordered one of their specialities: Bananas Foster French toast.  Equally intriguing, but we didn't have room for it was the egg-nog pecan baked French toast (they had quite a selection of Frenched toasts as well).

We ate more than we should, but you're supposed to eat like a king at breakfast right?  In true Fisher fashion we discussed where we would eat breakfast the following day before the current gorge-fest adjourned.

Our next stop took us on a lovely walk to Lover's Point (apparently shortened from Jesus Lovers Point). It did seem as though there were a lot of nuns around, perhaps not coincidentally.  The ocean cooperated spectacularly: it crashed photogenically against the rocky coast and did the cute little oceany things you expect it to do. It was adorable, all posing and whooshy.  We saw seals beached like fuzzy slugs and otters who were no doubt doing something cute but were too far out in the ocean for us to see clearly.

The sun came out and it was quite warm (not that warm, but enough to at least remove the winter coat I brought).  Given the continuous walking and having the opportunity to push Mira and Glen's daughter Kyna in the stroller kept my body temperature at an even keel. I was just happy that Kyna didn't seem as terrified of me as the last time we met. She hardly screamed at all at the mere site of me.

There was a cove that must have captured the heat well since several people were playing on the beach as if it were July, and children frolicked in the waves.  They were either from Alaska and this was warm to them, or they were completely insane.  It would explain their howls of laughter, their sad and terrible howls of mad laughter.  It would also explain why the dead seal floating on the waves nearby didn't seem to bother them.

We walked back to the car and drove to downtown Monterey to wander the Fisherman's Wharf and meet up with John, Terry and Lara Fisher.  We wandered down restaurant row sampling the clam chowder the restaurants were using to try and lure us in.  We weren't falling for it, though.  We had plans on visiting the Museum Of Monterey, or MOM.

MOM had a really cool display / fundraiser idea: miniatures.  There were tons of them, and tons of different styles, local, regional, amateur and professional and running the gamut from paintings or drawings, photos, to small sculptures, and in a variety of media, styles and subject matter.  The idea was you could purchase raffle tickets, and each participating work had a box under it where you would put your tickets.  If your ticket is chosen, you win that work.  It's a pretty brilliant idea, and many of the works were really interesting, so we bought 7 tickets for $30, and chose which works we wanted.  They initially told me to come back tomorrow, but I told him we were leaving town, and that I had already scoped out my selections, so I would only take me a minute.  I'm sure he was happy to have one last sale for the day.

By now it was beginning to get dark and we had our sites and appetites set on dinner.  Mira, Kyna and Beth and the rest of the Fisher clan departed for Mira's.  Gregory, David and I found a Thai restaurant that seemed pretty good. We often get the same things at Thai restaurants to judge their quality.  They had really good Tom Kah soup and the rice was good.  The mild Panang was more like a medium.  It had a good flavor though, and I would have to say 3.5 out of 5.

We are wrapping up today a bit early since tomorrow we have to depart for Napa, which will be a good 3 hour drive.

Around Monterey Day 2

Joe & Beth have been onioned

Day 1: New Year's Trip: The Leavinging

I'm calling this the New Year's Trip, since that is the culmination of our vacation.  It is the 3rd day of Christmas, the 27th of December and we are en route to our ultimate destination: Reno and a small mini extra belated Christmas with my family and to celebrate New Years.  We will first spend some time in Monterey and then some time in Napa before arriving in the Biggest Little City (Sin City's whorish younger sister).

We have with us Beth Fisher and David Sobolov, the four of us traveling in a rental car, a silver Chevy Malibu.  Gregory did the driving for this first leg of our journey and was lamenting the non-use of his far superior car (the Ford Fusion), though happy he avoided the wear and tear of a long driving trip.

There is not too much to report this first day as it was primarily driving with few stops.  The first was lunch, as we got on the road out from Los Angeles around 2PM and were starving, we stopped in Camarillo at Brendan's Irish Pub.  This place seems like a chain at first glance, but only because all the decor has such cohesion.  The food is really good and they have so many little extras, special events, bands and a whiskey club, that I seriously am sad there isn't a location nearer to where we live.  A Burbank location would be perfect.

We stopped to pee at the Madonna Inn.  If you haven't been to this place, you need to stop here.  It is crazy, and at Xmas time, I would say this is doubly so.  I don't know if I can begin to describe this beyond David's remark, "it looks like the 60's threw up all over."  But I may venture further to help you draw this picture: Haunted Mansion at Valentine's.  There's something malevolent about that retro decor. It's so aggressively cheery.  Lights, xmas scenes, big gaudy ornaments on garlands topped with batting to substitute for snow.  (Sidebar: Christmas is strange, let's bring trees and a fabric approximation of snow inside of our house!)  They have a bathroom with a urinal latrine that is made of rock and has a big waterfall.  I don't know what to say about this place, only that I imagine everything here costs a lot.  I'm surprised they didn't have a bathroom attendant.  Don't get me wrong, they could have used one (since people seem to like to pee on the floor and all over the toilets in public restrooms (why is this? you do know that you don't own it after, right?)).

We continued our drive listening to a book on tape, and stopped again at a Mediterranean restaurant called Jaffa Cafe, in a residential neighborhood in some town.  It had undeserved four stars on Yelp, but we walked in anyway.  The food was good, but not four-stars-good, however the staff was four-stars nice, and the serving girl had four-stars boobies.  I just had a couple of appetizers, falafel and stuffed grape leaves.  They had a strange system of filling out a card, as in check the box of what you want, we make it, you eat it, then you pay for whatever you had.  It was strange, but unique and different.

We arrived in Monterey to the wonderful site of Mira and Glen and their lovely home, where were plied into friendly conversation with drinks and a cat (two things against which I am helpless).  I surrendered gratefully and we chatted and laughed about various things and fun stories, none of which I intend to share, since they wouldn't make any sense now out of context.  Beth is staying with them, and Gregory, David and I have a hotel a couple of miles away.  Tomorrow we meet for breakfast.


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