Monthly Archives: April 2016

Celadon: A garden spot for California cuisine in Napa, California

No trip to Napa County is complete without good wine and food. The area has an overwhelming selection of both, so how can one choose? I offer one suggestion for a great dinner of California-influenced global cuisine in a literal garden spot in the city of Napa: Celadon.

My experience with Celadon came to be after a few friends walked by it and became enchanted with its covered outdoor patio dining area and eclectic International menu. Two days later, we secured an early Saturday evening reservation (a necessity on weekends).

While Celadon has an indoor dining area, the majority of its tables line a large, covered patio. Excepting truly cold days, the patio, with overhead heaters spaced strategically throughout, is the seating area of choice. Green and white tones, exposed brick, ivy and other plants seeming inspired by English gardens give the dining area a breezy elegance. It reminded me somewhat of my favorite restaurant in Kraków, Poland – Zielona Kuchnia (which I chronicled in the CD here), and so did the execution of its dishes.

The restaurant’s wine and cocktail menu was on par with any in Napa (that is to say it meets Napa’s unparalleled standards), but my group took advantage of the restaurant’s very reasonable corkage fee of $15 for our bottle of Pine Ridge Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon from our earlier excursion.

Based on a recommendation from a tasting room staffer earlier in the day, we shared the macadamia-crusted goat cheese appetizer. It met our expectations and was a sweet start to our meal – sweet enough literally that it also appears on the restaurant’s dessert menu. We also tried Celadon’s fried calamari, which was pleasant though not memorable.

  
Chicken is not a dish I often choose at a great restaurant, but I couldn’t resist the house-made, pan seared gnocchi, spinach and peas that accompanied chicken breast. That decision proved not to be a mistake; it was a wonderful combination for an early spring meal on a rainy April evening. The chicken breast and gnocchi were both cooked perfectly: tender and seared to produce a dainty, caramelized crust.

  
One friend ordered a vegetarian dish, of which a grilled artichoke was the beautiful centerpiece. Artichoke is not a vegetable I expect to see as a main dish, and yet this one was hearty when paired with quinoa and red pepper coulis.

  
The best dish of all was a bone-in lamb loin, served with Israeli couscous. This dish was another recommended above all others to our group, and the recommendation clearly had merit. The lamb was indescribably tender to the fork’s touch and seasoned with a touch of cinnamon and North African spices. If you enjoy lamb, do not pass up this dish!

Unfortunately, none of us left room for their dessert menu, which was good but fairly typical for Northern California restaurants. I certainly do not mean that as a dig in Celadon; desserts simply tend to be somewhat predictable even with California’s pride in its own eclectic style of cuisine. Which I suppose proves that “Californian” is a good style and culture all its own.

Tired of wading through a sea of great restaurants in Napa? Choose Celadon and you will have a winner.

Willi’s Wine Bar: Sonoma’s little secret

Considering a visit to Sonoma’s Russian River Valley wineries? Make sure to stop into Willi’s Wine Bar for pretentious food -without the pretentious ambiance or price.

Willi’s Wine Bar of Santa Rosa, California, embodies every quality that makes Sonoma County an attractive wine destination. It appears more laid back and relaxed, less pretentious and showy as compared to its sister Napa, but its wine and food is in lock-step. Calling Sonoma the Anna to Napa’s Elsa is a bit of a stretch (does that make the Central Coast Olaf the snowman, then?) – but might not terribly far off.

I am a huge fan of scenic and elegant Napa County, but its hoardes of tipsy tourists, splashy tasting rooms, and excessive prices have led me to appreciate the (relative) slower pace in Sonoma. The towns of Sonoma and Healdsburg, the latter of which is a bit more polished and resembles more the Napa towns of Yountville and Calistoga, have great dining options and tasting rooms in their own right. But for those visiting the famed Russian River Valley, great meals require a bit more of a search (and drive).

On a recent day trip to the Russian River Valley, my group received an enthusiastic recommendation from a winery staffer for Willi’s. She declared it the best food in Sonoma County – no small honor. While Sonoma’s restaurant scene lacks the heavy investment and celebrity chefs of Napa County’s, its reputation for great wines and proximity to San Francisco ensures its chefs are held to high standards. Our group had no choice but to try it.

A short, five minute drive south of the River Road wineries in Windsor, Willi’s Wine Bar is an unassuming roadside stop. If you weren’t looking, you might confuse it for a converted gas station or general store. Inside, its atmosphere is California countryside meets French country brasserie. Its menu is an impressive array of international small plates. In other words, it is a great place for a small group willing to share (or hoard and sample!).

  
Choosing just two plates for lunch was difficult. It was a warm, sunny day and I wanted a lighter meal, so I chose ahi tuna tartare (pictured in the featured photo) and an arugula salad. Both were decent portions for having been labeled as small plates. Both were perfect; I had not a single complaint or suggestion for balance of flavor or texture.

And despite having sandwiched lunch between two wine tastings, I had to check out Willi’s wine list – it has “wine bar” in the name, after all! The extensive wine list highlights not just California wines from Sonoma and beyond but international imports as well. Restraining myself, I had 2 oz. “taste” of French rosé.

 

Pork belly potstickers

 
Two of my friends selected the pork belly potstickers with shiitake mushrooms, which were light and subtly flavored, they told me. When both sampled another friend’s crispy pork riblets, however, they expressed instant jealousy and regret they hadn’t chosen the succulent, intensely seasoned ribs. 

  
The last member of our party chose filet mignon sliders with creamed spinach and bernaise – of which I was envious. The sliders were the first menu item that caught my eye, in fact. He loved the sliders so much that he ordered a second round of them – all for himself. He was kind enough to allow me to try it, and I will say the sliders were definitely a great bite.

We left Willi’s fortified for our next wine adventure and with a list of other dishes to try on our next visit. I have no doubt that next visit will happen soon.

San Francisco’s Greens: A fine dining experience to excite vegetarians and surprise carnivores

Vegetarians are accustomed to limited options at fine restaurants. Yet San Francisco’s Greens has given generations of vegetarians (and their carnivorous friends!) living or visiting the Bay Area meatless, international farm to table experiences since 1979.

If you are a vegetarian in the Americas or Europe, your restaurant dining options typically force you to choose between casual restaurants that cater to vegetarians and vegans, mainstream restaurants with a few veg-friendly options, or the fine restaurants with one vegetarian main course (if that). If you want a truly memorable meal and want to get a bit dressed up, you might find yourself reading through sample menu after sample menu on restaurant websites in search of something you can eat.

San Francisco’s notoriety for its progressive culture – as one of the first food-obsessed US cities, the Mecca for “granola” hippies (now, a new generation of hipsters), and a general health consciousness – led me to conclude I would find a host of great vegetarian and healthy restaurants when I relocated to thw city. Now, I am not a vegetarian, but I enjoy eating and cooking vegetarian food, and I am empathetic to my vegetarian friends. It came as a surprise that finding a great vegetarian menu in the Bay Area was more difficult than I expected.

Nourish café’s Bibimap salad – a fantastic detox meal

When I finally discovered Nourish, a tiny, casual vegan café, I was ecstatic. I had so many options to choose from, and the salad (photo above) I finally chose did not disappoint me. Nevertheless, Nourish is a stereotypical veg/vegan restaurant: It is tiny, cramped, and minimalist. It frequently has a long line out the door for its patrons, predominantly ordering takeout (as you wouldn’t have room or time to really sit and mingle). It’s also not open for dinner, and its Inner Richmond neighborhood location is not exactly accessible for many San Franciscans, not to mention tourists.

When a vegetarian friend introduced me to Greens, it defied most preconceptions I have for vegetarian restaurants. First, it occupies prime bayside real estate at the Fort Mason complex (former Army post), wedged between the North Beach and Marina neighborhoods and which hosts an exceedingly popular farmer’s market and one of food truck festival Off The Grid’s weekly events.

  
Now Greens’ decor admittedly has an earth-friendly late 1970s vibe, but in a sleek and airy, blond wood and high ceiling sort of way. An artful petrified redwood tree greets visitors upon entry, the restaurant’s only real indication of its roots in the “crunchy” 1970s California health food movement. Its large dining room is otherwise tasteful and timeless, with perhaps the city’s best restaurant view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the marina.

Greens’ menu is a study in internationally inspired fare, carefully prepared from local California produce, grains, and cheeses. As expected of a fine restaurant, the menu changes seasonally, but it retains a few staples, such as a spring roll appetizer, hummous, and grilled brochettes. Notes of India, east Asia, North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, and the USA weave through the menu, offering the diner almost too many options.

  
The server was kind enough to let my friend and I split the special mushroom and barley soup as an appetizer. From the description, I expected a bisque but found what my friend described as a “lighter, vegetarian French onion soup” – well, with barley. It could have used more melted cheese than its delicate topping of grana padano, as well as crostini to make it even better, but I had no complaints.

  
We split the hummous platter, and as my friend is an understandably particular Arab, her endorsement spoke volumes of Greens’ quality. High quality olive oil and the right amount of tahini makes all the difference.

 

A meal so good, i forgot to take a photo until it was half gone!

 
Having eaten a heavy lunch, I had to pass up wonderful main courses such as a butternut squash and sweet potato gratin or spinach and chard filo pie. I chose a single vegetable brochette as my main course. My friend explained that one of this dish’s draws was its locally produced (Hodo) tofu. The skewer, which included unexpected chunks of refreshing fennel bulb, peppers, onions, and mushrooms, was grilled nicely without an overpowering marinade. It was served with couscous and a green herb puree reminiscent of a light, more subtle chimichurri. My friend chose a heaping portion of red curry with spring vegetables (pictured in the featured photo), which was delicious.

The dessert menu was extremely tempting. Alas, Greens’ healthy portions left us without room. A banana-chocolate cake particularly caught my eye. Next time!

So vegetarians, vegans: if you haven’t tried Greens, you are missing a true treat. Omnivores: Greens is for you. A wide variety of hearty but restrained options will leave your stomach full and tastebuds more than satisfied. Carnivores: Don’t turn your nose quite so quickly; you will find yourself pleasantly surprised to find your favorite international comfort foods never needed the meat in the first place!

The Capitol Hill Food Tour: Seeing Washington, DC in a new light

Having lived in the Washington, DC metropolitan area for over a decade, I thought I knew all the ins and out of the city – much less the food scene. A recent food tour proved me wrong about this multifaceted city.

If you’ve followed my blog for awhile, you may recall I recently relocated to San Francisco, CA – a city renowned for its food and wine – from Washington, DC. As many of my earlier blog posts centered around DC’s food scene, one can tell that I have the utmost respect for DC as a food town, and one that is grossly underrated. Returning to my hometown, I was reminded just how important DC’s geopolitical and culinary history as part of America’s story. So I’d like to give credit where it is due! [boring part over].

My reminder came in the form of a food and walking tour organized as part of a friend’s bachelorette party. With my long history with DC, it has been a long time since I played tourist in my hometown. Coming back to do just that was a great way to see the city with new, fresh eyes.

 

A typical restored row house in Capitol Hill

 
The tour centered around DC’s Capitol Hill, and specifically its Eastern Market/Barracks Row neighborhood. In many ways, Capitol Hill has been not only the epicenter of American politics, but also of the Black (African-American) and immigrant experience in the U.S. – both marginalized and disenfranchised, while at the same time playing critical roles in Washington’s story. The food tour showed both aspects of this famed neighborhood.

On this particular outing, Stop 1 was Capitol Hill Tandoor & Grill. I regret that I missed the stop due to another commitment, but my friends raved about the Indian and Pakistani food served. Our tour guide explained much of Capitol Hill’s history during the stop, with a bit of walking in between to provide examples of Capitol Hill’s trademark architecture.
Stop 2 was Cava Mezze, a relative newcomer to the DC area. The fast-growing chain, native to the area, features Mediterranean small plates at its upscale restaurants (this location at Barracks Row; in Arlington’s Clarendon neighborhood; and in Olney, Maryland). Its sister chain offers fast-casual versions of Mediterranean comfort food at its fast-casual eateries, known as Cava Grill (in Bethesda, MD; Tyson’s Corner and Merrifield in Virginia, as well as upcoming locations in Los Angeles and New York City).

I have plenty of past experience with Cava Mezze and Cava Grill, but sampling the restaurant’s most popular dishes acquainted me with new flavors instead of my own standards. We enjoyed a lovely lamb and tomato-based orzo dish; roast cauliflower with a swipe of Greek yogurt; and flaming, breaded and fried cheese. We certainly needed a walk after those.

 

Flaming, fried cheese, anyone?

 
And walk we did, through neighborhoods of row houses decorated with Gothic gargoyles and grotesques – learning the differences between the two (very similar) decorative architectural elements. We passed through a storied alley that witnessed generations of low-income families, artisans and their collective spirit of community, disrupted by DC government’s mandate to clean up the neighborhood for purported sanitary purposes. Today, that alley is the gentrified home of the wealthy – but they are friendly!

  
Stops 3 and 4 were at DC’s famed Eastern Market – the only remaining functional market of the city’s original four (Northern, Western, and Southern). The indoor-outdoor market bustles on weekend mornings with a farmer’s market outdoors, while local artisans outdoors complement them with permanent food stalls indoors. Just like historic food halls in many other US cities, this one features local and international favorites, from produce, meats, and fish to prepared foods and a favorite breakfast/brunch spot. 

 

Sweet and savory, flaky empanada

 
Here, we sampled sweet and savory El Salvadorian chicken empanadas, as well as DC half-smokes (sausages).

We moved along to conclude the tour at Ted’s Bulletin, one of Barracks Row’s most popular diners. Ted’s combines traditional American comfort food with an air of sophistication. Try one of their homemade pop-tart; they were one of the earlier restaurants to popularize this trend (see my homage to the actual Kellogg’s Pop-Tart here) – and you’ll see what I mean. Our tour guide supplied us each with a Ted’s salted caramel pop-tart – a sweet, very American ending to a fun and educational Saturday afternoon.

To take an opportunity to play food tourist during your next visit to Washington, DC! check out DC Metro Food Tours’ website here.