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Mike and The Wife Do California, Part III: Tales Of Love From Yountville to Santa Barbara

It’s time to bring The Wife and I’s journey throughout the Golden State to a close.  With how ridiculously busy things have gotten since our trip in the beginning of August, Part III has obviously been put on the on the back burner.  I shall do my best to recall the events as accurately as I can.  The first part of our adventure brought us to the awe-inspiring Sequoia National Park, then the second chapter was the epic recount of our time in San Francisco.  This third and final chapter of our travels brings us from San Francisco up to Yountville where The Wife and I celebrated 5 years of wedded bliss, then a gorgeous drive down the coast to Santa Barbara and finally back home to Our Little Twinkle in the Desert.

The Wife and I: Five Years and Running Strong

The Wife and I: Five Years and Running Strong

It was August 6, 2010; five years to the day that The Wife said the biggest mistake of an “I do” in her life.  Other notable “I do” failures throughout history include include;

“Hey Judas, do you know where Jesus is hanging today?”  “I do.”

or…

“Hey George, do you really think there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?”  “I do.”

or even worse…

“Hey Brooke, you think we should give this Rachael Ray kid a shot at her own show?” “I do.”

Yes, The Wife’s “I do” on August 6, 2005 goes in the record books among the worst “I do’s” in history, but I, for one, am glad for The Wife’s egregious error in judgment.   Somehow we have made it five years, so we decided to mark those five years with a day of good food in a beautiful setting.

Easy Street Cafe in San Anselmo, CA

Easy Street Cafe in San Anselmo, CA

On our way up to Yountville from San Francisco we made a quick side stop to see The Official Only Living Relative I Still Talk To, Cousin Jimmy.  Cousin Jimmy moved to the Marin area in California a little bit after The Wife and I moved to Las Vegas.  Somehow he landed a sweet and beautiful girlfriend of which the Laws of Logic have yet to explain how.  Her name is Arden and she works at the Easy Street Cafe in San Anselmo, CA, a cute little town near San Rafael.  We met up with Cousin Jimmy there and had a ridiculously good breakfast.

I was at first a little apprehensive at meeting Cousin Jimmy at Arden’s place of work.  The last thing on Earth I needed was for the food to suck and I’d have to write about it.  He is after all The Official Only Living Relative I Still Talk To and to make things uncomfortable by submarining his woman’s place of work may very well have changed his title.  However, I am both pleased and relieved to say that it wasn’t only delicious, but it was the best breakfast we had in California by a mile, and one of the best breakfasts I’ve had.  Period.

Greek Scramble from Easy Street Cafe in San Anselmo, CA

Greek Scramble from Easy Street Cafe in San Anselmo, CA

An Eggs Benedict Meets Corned Beef Hash from Easy Street Cafe

An Eggs Benedict Meets Corned Beef Hash from Easy Street Cafe

I talked about this in the other two posts, but it bears repeating; California kicks our ass in the produce department.  Here at this unassuming little breakfast and lunch joint in the middle of a strip mall (sound familiar fellow Las Vegans?) were incredible ingredients being prepared well.  You can’t ask for anything more than that.  I think what I had was called the Greek Scramble. It had artichoke hearts, feta cheese, spinach, onion and kalamata olives scrambled up in eggs.  Paired up with good Sourdough toast and fabulous home fries with the perfect bacony / well-seasoned griddle taste, it was a work of art in the medium of simple breakfast.  Take good ingredients, scramble them up and serve it with toast.  It’s not rocket science, but when it happens you know it’s something special.  Something worth waking up for.  By the way, if you wind up going to the Easy Street Cafe and you have a lovely server named Arden, please tip her generously…you have no idea the man she goes home to.

The Wife, Cousin Jimmy and Me with Michael Narada Walden's Bling at Tarpan Studios

The Wife, Cousin Jimmy and Me with Michael Narada Walden's Bling at Tarpan Studios

Tarpan Studios: Hit Records Recorded Here

Tarpan Studios: Hit Records Recorded Here

After our fabulous breakfast, Cousin Jimmy took The Wife and I to his new gig, working for the venerable Narada Michael Walden at Tarpan Studios in nearby San Rafael.  The name Narada Michael Walden might not mean shit to most of you, but I guarantee you know his work.  Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey….he did Lionel Ritchie’s Dancing on the (Motherfucking) Ceiling!  This guy literally wallpapers his office with platinum records.  Again…how the hell Cousin Jimmy landed this, I have no idea.  Dream girl, dream gig…you either got to be happy for the guy or it makes you puke.  Ha!  I’m kidding, of course.  I’m very happy for him and it was nice to see him.  Better to see Arden. ;-)

O.G. Bouchon in Yountville, CA

O.G. Bouchon in Yountville, CA

From San Rafael we made the quick hour or so drive to Yountville.  The rolling golden hills of the Napa Valley splashed with vineyards is something to see.  You drive and drive, seeing nothing but quaint little roadside shops, vineyards, a house here and there, more vineyards and eventually you pull up to Yountville.  You would have no idea by looking at it that it is one of the Culinary Meccas on the planet.  Many a chef touches their head to their knife roll in Yountville’s direction daily.  For some reason, unknown to me, Yountville is home to His Excellence Chef Thomas Keller and his temple of the French Laundry along with his O.G. Bouchon, O.G. Bouchon Bakery and Ad Hoc places of eating. Also in Yountville is the Michelin starred Bistro Jeanty, recent James Beard Award Pastry Chef winning Redd, and the place where The Wife and I decided was the perfect place to celebrate 5 years of government approved love, Michael Chiarello’s Bottega. Isn’t that sick?

Staying in Yountville is not for the faint of heart when it comes in terms of the wallet.  Holy shit is this place expensive.  There’s a lot of money flowing down Washington St. With many of the available rooms floating in the $700 per night range, we lucked out with a coincidentally timed cancellation at the time of my desperately placed hopeful phone call to the Napa Valley Railway Inn. They had only one room for only one night and we were able to get it.

Our Room at the Napa Valley Railway Inn

Our Room at the Napa Valley Railway Inn

A fraction of the price of what you’ll find just about anywhere else in the area, the Napa Valley Railway Inn is a series of renovated train cars, each car having it’s own room and potty.  It’s a pretty decent room and in an outstanding location being two doors down from Bottega and right across the street from Hurley’s, O.G. Bouchon Bakery and the O.G. Bouchon.  I’d highly recommend the Napa Valley Railway Inn for anyone that would rather blow the cash on the food and wine rather the bedroom.

Hurley's Restaurant in Yountville, CA

Hurley's Restaurant in Yountville, CA

Perfectly Dressed Salad at Hurley's

Perfectly Dressed Salad at Hurley's

A Nice Short Rib Dish at Hurley's

A Nice Short Rib Dish at Hurley's

With a fabulous breakfast just hours ago and our reservations for Bottega not too far away, The Wife and I decided a quick, light lunch was in order, so we walked across the street to Hurley’s. Hurley’s has a cheap two-course prix fixe lunch that runs for something like $18, a bargain for how fine the food is.  For the first course I had a salad with (I think) a citrusy vinaigrette.  What I remember most about the salad is that it was perfectly dressed.  Just enough for proper flavor punch and lubrication, but not too much as to drown the lettuce and cancel out all other flavors.  The second course wasn’t the most light of summertime lunches, but it was certainly delicious.  Short Ribs with Root Vegetables in demi-glace.  If someone says “demi-glace,” I come running.  There’s nothing better than a good reduction of meat juice.  And while not the lightest sounding dish, the pristine ingredients made it as light as it could be.  Among such giants in the culinary world, you don’t hear much about Hurley’s, and based off this one lunch, it’s a shame.  Or maybe it isn’t.  Maybe it’s just a testament to how deep the bench is in Yountville.  I like it there. I like it there a lot.

Chef Michael Chiarello's Little Corner of the Earth

Chef Michael Chiarello's Little Corner of the Earth

After a much needed nap back at the inn, we strolled over to Michael Chiarello’s Complex of Good Stuff.  In some stunningly beautiful old-world type buildings and garden areas, Chiarello has a small empire in the heart of Yountville; his return to the kitchen in Bottega and one of the best shops I’ve been in in a long while, NapaStyle.

Michael Chiarello's NapaStyle in Yountville, CA

Michael Chiarello's NapaStyle in Yountville, CA

A Taste From Vegas on Display at NapaStyle

A Taste From Vegas on Display at NapaStyle

Salt Tasting Station in NapaStyle

Salt Tasting Station in NapaStyle

NapaStyle is a food nerd paradise.  My impression of the joint is that it’s basically all of the stuff that Michael Chiarello likes in one place and available for sale.  Genius. The cookbooks of friends and colleagues (nice to see Chef Rick Moonen’s ‘Fish Without A Doubt’ prominently on display), all sorts of glassware, flatware, pots, pans and dishes.  And salt. Lots of different kinds of salt. In fact, there’s a little salt tasting station with 19 different varieties of salt.  What an education that was getting to try all of them back-to-back.  I enjoyed NapaStyle so much that it has served as an inspiration for Tasting Las Vegas: The Store (still a work in progress).

Bottega in Yountville, CA

Bottega in Yountville, CA

Entrance to Where Good Food is Made

Entrance to Where Good Food is Made

Now finally we get to the part where this whole massive road trip hinged on; Our Anniversary Dinner at Bottega.  I don’t really have a good reason why I was so hell bent on going to Bottega for our 5th anniversary.  I’ve always enjoyed Michael Chiarello on his Food Network show; he was one of the last of “the good ones” on there, in the time I refer to as B.R.R. (Before Rachael Ray).  Then he came around again kicking ass on the first season of Top Chef Masters.  After hearing about his return to restaurant life, I was enthusiastic to try his food.  Nothing fancy, no pirouettes on the plate….but you damn well knew that his stuff was going to taste good.  And my how good it did taste…

Oh, the meal that was about to be put on this table!

Oh, the meal that was about to be put on this table!

One of the Hippest Water Glasses Out There is at Bottega

One of the Hippest Water Glasses Out There is at Bottega

The Wife and I wanted to put ourselves in the kitchen’s hands, so we asked our outstanding server, John, if they did a tasting menu of some sorts. He said there was a chef’s table, but that had to be booked in advance, but he was happy to take the wheel.  I was more than happy to let him lead as you could immediately tell that this guy knew his shit.  He wasn’t some guy trying make ends meet until he landed his big soap opera gig.  He was a guy that loved food, loved to work with people and loved his job.  One of the best servers I’ve ever had.  We started with a little Prosecco toast and went on from there.

Wood Grilled Octopus Salad from Bottega. Extraordinary!

Wood Grilled Octopus Salad from Bottega. Extraordinary!

Right off the bat John brought out something I’d never order, a Wood Grilled Octopus Salad.  Octopus usually sucks.  It’s almost always tough and rubbery, and even when it’s chewable, who cares.  Well, when someone spends a few days to prepare the octopus, your opinion of the cephalopod is quick to change.  It was extraordinary.  A revelation.  From what I can remember, the octopus was marinated for a day, then braised the next day, then finally finished over a wood-fired grill before serving.  The most tender, succulent, flavorful octopus you could ever have.  The flavors were so layered, so balanced and so pristine that it instantly raised the bar for how I judge all food.  If a miserable protein like octopus could be like this, then their ain’t no excuses for shrimp and tenderloins.  The bar was set mighty high.

Polenta Under Glass With Wild Mushrooms from Bottega

Polenta Under Glass With Wild Mushrooms from Bottega

The next course was one of Chiarello’s signature dishes, Polenta Under Glass with Wild Mushrooms.  Perfection.  The polenta was silk, the mushrooms brought the perfect amount of earthiness and the accompanying balsamic / stock reduction brought a brilliant contrast.  I couldn’t get enough of it.  I love me some grits, but these were grits on another level.

Garganelli with Rabbit Ragout and Housemade Ricotta

Garganelli with Rabbit Ragout and Housemade Ricotta

Our third course was appropriately a pasta course, and once again it was like our server crawled into our heads and knew exactly what we wanted. Garganelli with a Rabbit Ragout and Housemade Ricotta.  Garganelli are ribbed square pieces of pasta that are rolled to form a tube to sort of be like penne.  The tomato and rabbit sauce was reduced down to a perfect thickness to compliment the ridges on the pasta and also have that flavor of love that only time can do.  The creamy ricotta on top brought a luscious richness to the pasta for yet another layer of love.  It was one hell of a plate of pasta.

Confit of Half Duck from Bottega

Confit of Half Duck from Bottega

Smoked and Braised Short Ribs of Love from Bottega

Smoked and Braised Short Ribs of Love from Bottega

Fourth course came our entrees, which The Wife was served a Confit of Half Duck with Red Wine and Duck Jus and I was given Smoked and Braised Short Ribs.  Just as with all preceding courses, the best ingredient was time.  No…not thyme…but actual time.  The man hours put into each dish is extraordinary.  This is not food thrown together at the last minute.  This is food with a plan.  This is food with purpose.  I can’t stress enough the amount of work that goes in to each dish to produce such extraordinary results.  There were so many places where corners could have been cut, and labor saved…but it wasn’t.  The final product was the most important and all steps necessary were taken to ensure the dishes were delivered at the highest possible level.  I like that.

Panna Cotta, I think with Mango Purée

Panna Cotta, I think with Mango Purée

Chocolate and Hazelnut Molten Cake

Chocolate and Hazelnut Molten Cake

Dessert also continued the parade of excellent flavors, with a luscious panna cotta and chocolate and hazelnut molten cake.  Every time Chef Chiarello walked by our table, I wanted to give him a hug.  He appeared to be playing mostly a shaking hands and kissing babies role on this night.  Not a bad gig.  Walk around, allow people to tell you how wonderful you are and enjoy the empire that you built.  A goal for everyone behind the flames, I suppose.  Chef came by our table a few times, once telling me that I look like his nephew.  I feel sorry for his nephew.  Unfortunately by the time I was drunk enough from his family vineyard’s Petite Sirah to ask for a picture, he was on his way home before we could score the snap.  It doesn’t matter who people are, I always feel odd asking people to have their picture with me and usually need some liquid courage to do so.

The Wife. Ain't she pretty?

The Wife. Ain't she pretty?

The Wife and I walked back to our room, happy and satisfied.  Our dinner at Bottega could not have been a better way to celebrate 5 years of legal love.  I’d like to thank John our server, Chef Chiarello and the rest of the Bottega crew for one hell of a memorable dinner.  Remember, to put things in perspective, I’m writing this over a month and a half after the dinner of which I took no notes.  And we had champagne, a bottle and a half of wine plus dessert wine.  That’s what I call a memorable meal.  That’s what I call a great meal.

The Yountville Coffee Caboose, attached to the Napa Valley Railway Inn

The Yountville Coffee Caboose, attached to the Napa Valley Railway Inn

The next day came one of the longest drives of the trip, going from Yountville to Monterey and then down the Pacific coast to Santa Barbara, so we left early.  Before we left we were able to score a few more amazements from Yountville, one was a made to order French-Pressed take out coffee from the caboose of the Napa Valley Railway Inn, appropriately called the Yountville Coffee Caboose.  Are you kidding me?!? French-Pressed coffee to go?  Can I live here? Please?   We also picked up the best road snacks of the trip by stalking up at the O.G. Bouchon Bakery.

The O.G. Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, CA

The O.G. Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, CA

Good Pastries Served Here

Good Pastries Served Here

Yes we have a Bouchon Bakery here in Vegas, but it was a treat to be able to go to the Original Gangsta.  We loaded up on macarons, ham and cheese croissant and pain au chocolat and began our journey southward.  Driving down Highway 1 is something I’ve always wanted to do, I’m glad we did it, but I’ll never to it again.  It’s long, it’s winding and there ain’t shit other than ocean and woods.  It’s pretty.  Here’s a few photos we snapped along the way…

Ham and Cheese Croissant from Bouchon Bakery: Road Food of Champions!

Ham and Cheese Croissant from Bouchon Bakery: Road Food of Champions!

The View for about 6 Hours along CA-1

The View for about 6 Hours along CA-1

More Ocean along the California Coast

More Ocean along the California Coast

Long, Twisting, Winding....but Beautiful

Long, Twisting, Winding....but Beautiful

I’m not going to spend much time talking about Santa Barbara, as it was the least liked portion of the vacation for me.  Our hotel, Hotel Mar Monte, was nothing like the pictures online and all of the highly recommended food we had, sucked.  People love Santa Barbara, and I don’t get it.  I guess it’s nice to be able to say we’ve been there, but hindsight being 20/20, I would have picked somewhere else.

Your Place Thai Restaurant in Santa Barbara. Definitely not MY Place!

Your Place Thai Restaurant in Santa Barbara. Definitely not MY Place!

Rancid and Overcooked Pad That from Your Place in Santa Barbara

Rancid and Overcooked Pad That from Your Place in Santa Barbara

A Bland and Gloppy Sorry Excuse for Panang Curry

A Bland and Gloppy Sorry Excuse for Panang Curry

One of the most recommended spots was a Thai place called Your Place.  It made me feel sad that the good people of Santa Barbara obviously have no clue what good Thai food is supposed to taste like.  Pad Thai that tasted of rancid shrimp with overcooked noodles, Beef Satay that was clunky and flavorless and a Chicken Panang Curry that was gloppy and bland.  Terrible food.

Less than mediocre breakfast served here

Less than mediocre breakfast served here

A fairly uneventful jambalaya at Cajun Kitchen in Santa Barbara

A fairly uneventful jambalaya at Cajun Kitchen in Santa Barbara

Might as well call this Styrofoam Benedict. Awful.

Might as well call this Styrofoam Benedict. Awful.

Another highly recommended place was to do breakfast at the Cajun Kitchen.  Over-crowded and underwhelming.  It didn’t even have the allure of a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives that would have Guy Fieri yammering about taking the bus to Flavor Town. Instead, the Cajun Kitchen took a Vespa to Boringville.  And yes, I’m ashamed of myself that I just typed that.

The Old Santa Barbara Mission

The Old Santa Barbara Mission

The highlight, if you can call it that, of Santa Barbara was a suggestion from the waitress at The Cajun Kitchen and that was to go to the Santa Barbara Mission.  Yes, that was the ground getting cold as The Wife and I went to church.  The Mission already had to be rebuilt from a devastating earthquake, and I figured it would be knocked down again from the mere presence of me and The Wife.   We’re not religious folk.

However, I do appreciate religious art, especially stained glass things, even if the subject matter makes me gag and/or break out into hives.  It’s nice to look at in the kind of spooky fairy tale way that it is.  Here’s some pictures from that…

Some Guy Obviously Much More Closer To Jesus Than I

Some Guy Obviously Much More Closer To Jesus Than I

Fountain at the Old Mission

Fountain at the Old Mission

When Jesus Isn't Enough, Call Upon The Good People At SAS For Your Protection Needs

When Jesus Isn't Enough, Call Upon The Good People At SAS For Your Protection Needs

Come on everybody, sing along!

Come on everybody, sing along!

Dead Religious People

Dead Religious People

After hanging with Jesus for the morning, The Wife and I retired to our hotel room to sit and drink on our balcony and enjoy the ocean.  Unfortunately what the Hotel Mar Monte doesn’t show in the pictures on the internet is the fucking high traffic road between the hotel and the beach.  This pissed me off as my main purpose for this part of the trip was to sit on a balcony and listen to the ocean.  I hate the beach.  Getting sand on my balls makes me irritable, so that’s why I wanted to stick to the balcony.  Oh well…you win some, you lose some.

Beer On The Balcony. Life can't be bad.

Beer On The Balcony. Life can't be bad.

Mississippi Mud is tasty!

Mississippi Mud is tasty!

The next day after a decent breakfast in the hotel café, Bistro 1111, we headed back to Our Little Twinkle In the Desert.  Along the way we accomplished a major life goal, and that was to visit the Calico Ghost Town.  Anyone who has driven the I-15 from Vegas to L.A. has seen the signs, but how many have actually stopped to experience the Calico Ghost Town?  I’m glad we finally did it, it was a nice and quick way to break up the drive.

Calico House Restaurant in the Calico Ghost Town

Calico House Restaurant in the Calico Ghost Town

I had no idea sarsaparilla was spelled like that.

I had no idea sarsaparilla was spelled like that.

Not The Worst Turkey Sandwich You'll Ever Have. Actually, Kinda Good

Not The Worst Turkey Sandwich You'll Ever Have. Actually, Kinda Good

Ghost Taxi

Ghost Taxi

Apparently the Calico Ghost Town is half real and half fake.  Some of the structures are are original, yet restored, from the mining town, and others are there to look original and have some kind of store to get the gold of tourists.  We got lunch at the Calico House Restaurant which is an old time looking food hall.  Waitresses in big poofy dresses, a player piano, peanut shells on the floor and the whole nine yards.  I got the Smoked Turkey sandwich which I was told the turkey was smoked on premises.  I guess I’ll believe them.  It wasn’t terrible, although obviously eating at a joint like this is more about the vibe than the chow.  I was just happy I got to order a sarsaparilla.  I felt like John Wayne.

Overall this was one hell of a trip.  From the big ass trees to my favorite city in the United States not named Las Vegas, to one of the most unforgettable meals I’ve ever had in Yountville and then down the scenic Pacific coast to Santa Barbara.  Sure, the trip sort of ended on a sour note for me, but it didn’t matter.  I got to spend an entire 8 days with the love of my life, who can ask for anything better than that?  We could be in the middle of a shit pile and find a way to be happy.  Driving through it all made me amazed at the diversity of California.  A whole bunch of rural backwoods towns, some magnificent spectacles of nature, some of the most cosmopolitan areas on Earth and one hell of a collection of chefs and a one hell of a selection of ingredients for those chefs to cook from. In total, we drove 1,559.1 miles and ate at 27 different restaurants. Good times were had in California.

—–
Mike Dobranski is a professional musician, amateur blogger, eater of good food, poker junkie, master of the inappropriate comment and bad husband to a wonderful wife.

Follow Mike and Tasting Las Vegas on Twitter at @TastingLasVegas

If not for me, vote so that the The Wife can have a better life. You can vote once per day from now through 09/30/10

If not for me, vote so that the The Wife can have a better life. You can vote once per day from now through 09/30/10

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