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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

Mike and The Wife Do California, Part II: The San Francisco Treat

San Francisco.

I love San Francisco.  It is one of the few places I’ve been to where I instantly feel home, Las Vegas being the only other.  New York makes me gag, Chicago makes me bored, Los Angeles makes me cringe…but San Francisco…I love San Francisco.  I don’t know what it is about the place.  There’s a certain vibe, a certain energy that is palpable, simpatico with my own.    San Francisco is the most European of the American cities, I suppose. There’s a focus on the good things in life; food, drink and culture.  The frantic pace of “work work work”  isn’t felt here like other major American cities.  It’s a city that lends itself well to The Hang.

On the Bay Bridge to San Francisco

On the Bay Bridge to San Francisco

San Francisco was my part of the trip, The Wife gets credit for the big ass trees I talked about last week.  I’ve only been to San Francisco once before, almost 9 years ago.  It was when I was living in Salt Lake City (yes, really. Don’t ask.) and was at the point where I couldn’t take…it…anymore.  I hopped in my car and just starting driving west on I-80 and before I knew it, after a liver abusing stay over in Reno,  I was in San Francisco.  I only spent a few days, not knowing anything about the city, driving around aimlessly, literally sticking my head out the window to smell something good for a place to eat. That’s how I first discovered the wonders of The Stinking Rose.  I walked into bars that looked inviting, ate at restaurants that smelled good from the outisde and lived for a few days as an actual San Franciscan.

Ever since that fateful voyage there has been a tug on my heartstrings to go back.  After far too long an absence, I was back in my happy place, and with not much more knowledge than I had my first time around.  I knew ahead of time a few places I wanted to hit up, of course all of them being food related, but other than that I was happy to wander like a blind idiot again.  San Francisco is good for that, there seems to be something worthwhile at every corner. The hills suck ass though.

We stayed at the Hilton in Union Square.  A nice hotel with nicely appointed rooms and very comfortable beds, but in retrospect not necessarily the location I’d pick again.  It was a few blocks away from the closest Muni Station which was our preferred method of travel, even though we had our own car.  One thing Vegas has over everyone is FREE PARKING! With each garage you need to park in being $15 or so on their own, it’s cheaper to cab it, or even more economical (and much more entertaining) to take public transportation.  New York’s subway system is still the most idiot proof for clueless tourists such as ourselves, but the Maps app on the iPhone was brilliant in letting us know how to get to where we wanted to go.

We got to town around 3pm and quickly hit the streets.  Not having a clue where the hell anything was, our sense of direction completely in the shitter, we looked up and down O’Farrell St. and decided to go down…or at least what we perceived as down.  Not really having a game plan for anything, we were just playing it by ear and it was wonderful.  So many vacations are wrecked by having a mapped out schedule of events.  We went to San Francisco knowing we couldn’t do everything, we didn’t really want to do everything. We want a lot of reasons to go back and go back often.  San Francisco certainly doesn’t disappoint in that department.

D & G Lounge in Chinatown, San Francisco

D & G Lounge in Chinatown, San Francisco

We were hungry (surprise, surprise), and Chinatown was the first thing to spring to mind.  I remembered there was a place in Chinatown that Bourdain visited on the San Francisco episode of No Reservations, so after a few quick searches on the iPhone, I found out it was the R & G Lounge.  I don’t know much in life, but one thing I know is that when you go into a Chinese restaurant and have to walk downstairs to get to the dining room, you’re in for some good food.

Salt & Pepper Dungeness Crab from D & G Lounge

Salt & Pepper Dungeness Crab from D & G Lounge

Combination Chow Mein

Combination Chow Mein

Good-But-Not-As-Good-As-First Walnut Shrimp

Good-But-Not-As-Good-As-First Walnut Shrimp

Tank O' Shrimp at R & G Lounge

Tank O' Shrimp at R & G Lounge

R & G’s signature dish uses the signature ingredient of San Francisco, Salt & Pepper Dungeness Crab.  Beautifully fried and elegantly simple, it was a real treat.  One of the toughest things for me is to not be disappointed by crab that doesn’t have Alaskan King on its birth certificate.  The Dungeness is certainly no Alaskan King, but R & G did their product proud with expert execution and fun presentation.  We also had a Combination Chow Mein that was fine, and Walnut Shrimp that were also fine, although made me puff with pride as First Food and Bar here in the 702 is still the Grand Champion of the Walnut Shrimp.  One thing about R & G is the supreme freshness of their seafood, as we were seated next to a tank of still smiling, still unsuspecting prawns.  Oh, the fate that lies before them. Yum.

The Wife in Chinatown

The Wife in Chinatown

Chinatown

Chinatown

Chinese Dick Figurines

Chinese Dick Figurines

Not found in Walmart - $95,000 Hand-carved Elephant Tusks

Not found in Walmart - $95,000 Hand-carved Elephant Tusks

Homeboy rocking out American Folk Songs on an Erhu

Homeboy rocking out American Folk Songs on an Erhu

After our very satisfying meal at R & G Lounge, we hiked up the hill to the heart of Chinatown, you know, where all of the junk shops are.  I absolutely adore Chinese junk.  This is what a Chinatown is to me; a crowded city street filled with junk shops, exotic markets, ducks hanging in windows (although I don’t remember seeing any) and massage parlors oozing from happy endings.  I love it. While our Chinatown in Las Vegas has some fabulous restaurants of all Asian persuasions and its fair share of shit stores, it’s still a strip mall Chinatown, thus losing the vibe that a “real” city’s Chinatown has.

Café de la Presse

Café de la Presse

With last minute reservations at Chef Chris Cosentino’s Incanto for that night still a few hours away and since we just ate a late lunch, of course we should stop at the cute little Parisian café on the walk back to our hotel and eat more.  We desperately need places like Café de la Presse in our neighborhoods here in our Little Twinkle in the Desert.  Yes, Starbucks and the Coffee Bean have a place in life, but don’t come close to filling the void created by not having a kick ass daytime hang spot like Café de la Presse.  A big newsstand of an international assortment of magazines, premium coffees and a whole assortment of the standard French café light fare to nibble on, this is a place that I would love to spend all day, every day at.  Unfortunately we don’t grow these in Green Valley.

Macarons and Café Americano from Café de la Presse

Macarons and Café Americano from Café de la Presse

Eyeballing some delectable looking macarons, The Wife and I sat at a table and had a conversation about the world, exactly what needs to happen in a place like this.  Not some fucking sales pitch or other irritating business meeting, but a conversation about life and love.  From our table I heard at least French, German and Spanish being spoken elsewhere.  Not once did I see some eager douche with a calculator stuffing figures down his companion’s throat.  It was nice.  Also nice were the macarons; we had an assortment of Pistachio, Strawberry and Mandarin Lime.  A very fine Café Americano to sip on as well, the atmosphere was perfect.

Chris Cosentino's Incanto

Chris Cosentino's Incanto

From a brief aside in Paris it was time to make our way down to Cosentino’s House of Pig Entrails; Incanto.  It’s almost funny to witness chefs on Twitter like @AndrewZimmern, @tom_colicchio and @Rick_Bayless continuously rub one out to the pictures that @offalchris puts up.  Incanto is the ultimate of food porn for chefs; impeccably prepared parts of tasty animals that no one should ever want to eat.  When eating at Incanto, one must come with an open mind. A very open mind.

Hanging Meat.

Hanging Meat.

Located in the unassuming neighborhood of Noe Valley, it’s a substantial but easy Muni ride from downtown.  It reminds me a lot of Soyo here in Vegas in the light that you wonder why the hell a restaurant like this is in a neighborhood like this, but you’re thankful that it is.  Cosentino also runs a very popular salumeria in the Bay area called Boccalone. At Incanto, you are greeted with some of the fine hanging meat from Boccalone as you enter the restaurant.

Wall-Sized Pig Asses at Incanto

Wall-Sized Pig Asses at Incanto

Incanto is a beautiful space. Rustic stonework along with large photographic murals of odd animal parts.  Any restaurant with a wall-sized picture of pig ass is my kind of joint!  The hard stone does create for a lot of sound reflection, and with a jam packed floor, it made for a very high volume level, so don’t go to Incanto for intimate conversation, but go to have your mind blown away with some food you’ve probably have never even thought about eating before.

Piglet Salumi Platter from Incanto

Piglet Salumi Platter from Incanto

We started with a salumi platter which immediately  made me see why Boccalone is so beloved.  This was some of the finest salumi / charcuterie / cold cuts / whatever the hell you want to call it, that I’ve had.  The platter made me see proscuitto in a different way, with this offering having a much thicker slice than what is the norm.  Over two weeks later and I’m still thinking about the flavor of the pistachio studded mortadella.  The accouterment were a perfect compliment; pickled beets, gherkins and house made whole-grain mustard.  This was one fine plate of pig.

Pig's Blood Pappardelle with Pig's Head Ragout. Yes...really.

Pig's Blood Pappardelle with Pig's Head Ragout. Yes...really.

While there was a salumi of heart, kidney and liver included in the platter, something I never thought I’d ever eat in my life was the next course.  Pig’s Blood Pappardelle with Pig’s Head Ragout.  No…really.  Have you ever heard of Pig’s Blood Pappardelle? I sure as hell haven’t.  This is the part where I usually like to be a dick and say, “Well, there’s a reason.” , but I can’t in this instance.  It was delicious.  The pig’s blood was present more for unique color than actual flavor, there was still just the faintest hint of minerally flavor that blood-related foods are known for.  I almost felt like a Cullen eating this thing.

The Pig’s Head Ragout was spectacular.  Head braised down until it falls off the skull and in a fabulous reduction of the tasty juices that come with such braising, it was a full blown porkgasm (patent pending).  I’m pleased to say that even The Wife, while squeamish at first, also greatly enjoyed it.  It made me think about food.  I personally know about only four or five people that would ever order such a thing, and it’s a shame.  If I didn’t go with the specific intention of expanding my palate, I might not have ordered it either.  While most of this offal craze is utter bullshit with a bunch of jabronis serving up organ meat because it is the countercultural hip thing to do, Cosentino and crew work magic with it.  I ask myself the question with the obvious answer; “Why can’t anybody do this in Las Vegas?” Then I think about the only four or five people I know that would actually order it.  I think about that in a restaurant that couldn’t possibly fit another soul in the room. On a Wednesday night.

Cornish Game Hen Fra Diavolo with Zucchini Waffle

Cornish Game Hen Fra Diavolo with Zucchini Waffle

We finished up our mindblowing meal at Incanto with a mindblowing spin on Chicken and Waffles, Cornish Game Hen Fra Diavolo with Zucchini Waffle. It, like the rest of the meal, was perfect.  Succulent Game Hen that brought just the right amount of heat was perfectly balanced with a pillowy soft waffle and drizzle of honey syrup.  Unfortunately with all the food we already ate that day, there was no way in hell dessert was going to happen at Incanto.  Also unfortunately, I didn’t get to chat with Chef Cosentino as the kitchen seemed to be in the weeds with a full house and I didn’t want to be the unimportant pain in the ass from another town interrupting his expediting duties.  With the outside chance that Chris reads this, thanks for one hell of a fucking meal!  I now know why people like Colicchio, Bayless and Zimmern spill their seed at the mere glimpse of your menu.

Bad

Bad

Waddling out of Incanto, we jumped (more like fell) back on the Muni and returned to our hotel for the evening.  This wasn’t before stumbling across a jazz club about a block or two from the Hilton.  My intention was to completely avoid live music on this trip, but some of the contents of my stomach jostled around just enough to make room for a taste of dessert. We saw Les Jeoulin’s Jazz Bistro and I wish we didn’t.  The only shitty place we went to in San Francisco.  The service was appalling, if not offensive.  You’re running a jazz club, it’s well after what Americans consider standard dinner hour, so don’t be a dick when a patron is up front with you and saying they’re only getting drinks and dessert.  Douches.  What the fuck were they expecting at 11pm? A five-course order?  In a huff they left The Wife and I stranded, being subjected to shitty smooth jazz interpretations of fucking Watermelon Man.  Yeah, yeah…I know most jazz makes me gag, so why would I go to a jazz club, but the music I can excuse.  The Hostess-quality shit cake in plastic cup drenched in Well-Grade rum I can not.  Hideous.  As soon as I could convince some asshole at that place to come to our table to bring us our check, we paid in full and got the hell out promptly.

Awful

Awful

Even if you might not make a fortune off a particular table some night, treat your table well.  You never know when that person at your table is some asshole with a blog that can send more business your way.  The worst part is that this was the end of an otherwise incredible day.  It’s was like a rancid fart after a basking in the glow of a good run in the sack.  Ugh.

Ok…so I’m already 2,300 words into this pig, and I have yet to get to Day 2 in San Francisco.  I’m going to keep it all here, but now might be a good time to get up, stretch, take a piss, run some errands and come back.  Sorry this thing is so long (that’s what he said) but I’m not only using this for your enjoyment, but also something to use for personal memories (that’s what she said).

Heaven: Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco

Heaven: Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco

Day Two in San Francisco was magnificent.  I finally got to go to one of my life’s destinations, the Ferry Building Marketplace.  When I put the call out to Twitter and Facebook of where to go and eat in San Francisco, the Ferry Building Marketplace was confirmed as a number one destination, as well it should be.  An amazing marketplace of all sorts of restaurants, shops and other food stands, the Ferry Building is the place I would go everyday should we ever move this operation to the City By The Bay.

Good Coffee Made Here

Good Coffee Made Here

Mocha from Blue Bottle Coffee Co.

Mocha from Blue Bottle Coffee Co.

Highly recommended by many and now also by myself is the Blue Bottle Coffee Co.  Anyone that is a coffee nerd is going to love their custom drip process, suspending a filter in the air, directly pour the perfect temperature water over it and letting the good juice drip into the cup.  It was like a standard drip married a French press. So. Good.  The Wife got a Mocha (specifically recommended by follower on Twitter and soon to be a San Franciscan once again, @GeriJeter) and it was as beautiful as it was tasty.  Got to love coffee houses that take so much care in the craft of what they do. There’s so much more to coffee than waking up.

Good Meat Served Here

Good Meat Served Here

SAUSAGE ON A STICK!!!!

SAUSAGE ON A STICK!!!!

I almost walked by the Golden Gate Meat Company stand before I caught the Organic Sausage on a Stick out of the corner of my eye.  Organic. Sausage. On a stick.  How the hell could I turn that down?!?  It was so good.  When animals are left alone to be the animals they are supposed to be, man do they make for some tasty eats.

Ciao Bella Gelato in the Ferry Building Marketplace

Ciao Bella Gelato in the Ferry Building Marketplace

A pleasant surprise was a lemonade drink with a scoop of Blood Orange sorbet from Ciao Bella Gelato, directly across from the Blue Bottle Coffee Co. stand.  They call it something Italiany sounding, but I can’t remember what it is.  Mouth-puckering and sweet, it was a boldly flavored drink that was remarkably refreshing.

Good Bread Made Here

Good Bread Made Here

Assortment of Bread from Acme Bread Co.

Assortment of Bread from Acme Bread Co.

One of the must eats in San Francisco is the Acme Bread Company, nationally recognized as one of the best bread makers in this free land of ours.  I tried an assortment of their breads, finding all of them to be just as good as advertised.  Crusty, rustic and fresh, this is the place to cheat on your diet should you be terrified of carbs.

Not a bad place to chow

Not a bad place to chow

Ferry Building Marketplace

Ferry Building Marketpace

Lucky Bird

Lucky Bird

Full from a bounty of foods, I was sad I wasn’t able to try more.  I guess that’s why people go more than once.  By the time we left the building, the outside was bustling with activity, with phenomenal smelling food stands lined up with droves of people waiting in line to sample their wares.  Everything from Organic Hot Dogs to Grilled Pizzas filled the lot.  If there was a heaven, this would be it.  The next time we go back, there is a Hyatt Regency right across the street from the Ferry Building Marketplace and the venerable One Market Restaurant, as well as right by the Embarcadero Muni station.  Although the Hilton we stayed at was just fine, I think future operations will be held at this Hyatt to be the Official Hotel of My San Franciscan Gluttony.

Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf

Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf

The Wife and The Noodle

The Wife and The Noodle

From the Ferry Building we hopped onto a cable car and went up The Embarcadero to Pier 39.  Yeah yeah yeah, I know it’s a tourist trap, but we were tourists and consider us trapped.  Pier 39 is a decent tourist trap though, and  exposed The Wife and I to a new favorite candy, candy-coated chocolate covered sunflower seeds, affectionately known as Crab Poop.  I will go on record and say that a man hasn’t lived until he has eaten Crab Poop. Crab Poop can be purchased in the store with all of the crab related t-shirts.  I can’t remember the name of it, but you’ll know it when you see it.

Crackhouse on Pier 39

Crackhouse on Pier 39

Bag of Crack

Bag of Crack

As many of you know, I am a sucker for donuts and the smell emanating from Trish’s Mini Donuts was irresistible.  A little  miniature production line like you would see at a Krispy Kreme (minus the Kreme), the cake donuts are practically made to order and are served hot and sprinkled with sugar. Pure crack.

Smelly Sea Lions at Pier 39

Smelly Sea Lions at Pier 39

A main attraction of Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf is viewing the sea lions.  They are amazing to behold, but beware the smell of R.C. (that one’s for my boys in SLC) that occasionally wafts in your face.  Hearing the belches and roars, seeing them get in pissing matches and the resulting open wound battle scars of trying to get to the top of the pile, it was something else.

Far from Bruce Lee

Far from Bruce Lee

Another fun thing at Pier 39 was a real life Hall of Mirrors.  I felt very Bruce Lee-ish circa Enter The Dragon as The Wife and I tried to navigate through the mirror maze.  Nothing makes you feel as stupid as when you see a reflection of yourself, yet continue to walk into yourself.

Worst Street Performer. Ever.

Worst Street Performer. Ever.

Speaking of stupid, Pier 39 also features the worst street performer I’ve ever seen.  The worst jokes, the guy can barely juggle.  He’s the kind of guy you’d expect to see on America’s Got Talent.  Even with how horrendous the guy was, maybe even as a result of such horrendification, there was something endearing about the guy.  What was not endearing however was the little shit punk bastard child left unattended by his useless mother.  A 4-year old heckler, I felt sorry for the poor performer.  People, grab hold of your fucking children and make them obey.  Please. Thank you.

Experiencing enough touristy shit, we decided to get us some culture, so a cable car ride down to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art it was. We didn’t stuff food in our face for at least a half hour, so of course we were hungry.  Not knowing anything in the area, we walked around near the SFMOMA, saw a big red sign and walked towards it.  The sign said “Brewing Company,” the sign said “Spanish Cuisine” and that was more than enough to entice The Wife and I to dine at The Thirsty Bear.

The Thirsty Bear in San Francisco. Go here.

The Thirsty Bear in San Francisco. Go here.

To say the Thirsty Bear has Spanish Cuisine doesn’t quite do it justice. Chef Jessica Gorin is kicking ass and taking names putting a serious California spin on Spanish favorites.  I can’t believe I’ve never heard anything about this restaurant or this chef before stumbling in the door out of sheer chance and hunger.  While the execution was absolutely perfect, the ingredients made a desert fox such as myself completely reconsider what food actually is.

While the best restaurants in Las Vegas will rival any of the best restaurants anywhere else in the world, San Francisco kicks our ass everyday and twice on Sundays when it comes to produce.  I’ve never had grape tomatoes that tasted like these grape tomatoes, corn that tasted like this corn, Romano beans that tasted like these Romano beans, shallots that tasted like these shallots. Unfuckingbelievable.  This food tasted like food.  Imagine the concentration, the clarity and the intensity of the greatest grape you ever tasted, multiply that by 4 and this is the experience of all the produce used at the Thirsty Bear.  Words can’t describe, you just have to go and taste it for yourself.

Menestra from The Thirsty Bear. Nom.

Menestra from The Thirsty Bear. Nom.

Seasonal, fresh, organic and prepared in a way where the ingredients are put on the pedestal they deserve to be on, the food at the Thirsty Bear is spectacular.  Take for instance the Menestra, which I think the loose translation from the Spanish is “mixed veg that doesn’t suck.”   Completely blown away, and if it wasn’t for what we were to eat in Yountville the next day, this would have been THE dish of the vacation.  A mixed vegetable dish topped with an exquisitely poached egg. Amazing.

Spectacular Flatbread from The Thirsty Bear

Spectacular Flatbread from The Thirsty Bear

Also amazing was a flatbread.  I can’t remember everything that was on it, I remember quail eggs, serrano ham, manchego cheese, an olive tapenade and some spicy aioli, but I do remember the foodgasm that ensued upon first bite.  Here was one of those rare instances where you had a shit ton of ingredients, yet it worked as a dish.  So many chefs dick that up, not this one.  I couldn’t imagine an flavor missing, and I couldn’t imagine a flavor added; it was a perfect bite.  After several other fabulous dishes like empanadas and flank steak with chimichurri, we headed back across the street to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Henri Matisse ' Woman In A Hat'

Henri Matisse ' Woman In A Hat'

I don't know who did this, but I liked it.

I don't know who did this, but I liked it.

Ass.

Ass.

Remarkable!

Remarkable!

Much of “modern art” is completely lost on me, and the collection at the SFMOMA is no exception.  It was special to experience the Matisse ‘Woman With A Hat’ first hand, but Warhol and Lichtenstein aren’t my bag.  Even worse were these bullshit videos, one of a guy bending over.  Is that really art?  A black and white film of some dumb bastard bending over?  I guess that’s the point of modern art, to expand and redefine the borders of what art “is,” but I am perfectly comfortable in my closed-mindness to tell you that three blank canvasses hanging on a wall is bullshit and it is not art.  Behold…

Art.

Art.

This day was a special day in California, the day where Prop 8 was overturned.  Being in San Francisco, I expected there to be a Yellow Brick Road laid out with full ticker tape parade of Dorothys celebrating.  But there wasn’t.  There wasn’t a fucking peep.  If it wasn’t splashed on the headline of the San Francisco Chronicle, you would never know what happened.  I guess when people are finally given the privilege to be treated like a human being, it isn’t much cause to celebrate.  There was more of a “what the fuck took so long” feeling in the air.  I think being in San Francisco during this major event and advancement in equality and experiencing this reaction was much more special than the Dorothys.  This is the kind of feeling that sticks with you in the important way.

Castro Theater Sign

Castro Theater Sign

However, if you’re going to see an impromptu performance of the Wizard of Oz, the best chance of it happening is in the Castro neighborhood.   Castro isn’t just all about being loud and proud though, Castro is also home to Ike’s Place, maker of ginormous hoagies.

Home of the Ridiculous and the Delicious

Home of the Ridiculous and the Delicious

Kitchen at Ike's Place

Kitchen at Ike's Place

Ike’s Place is an interesting space.  It’s a kitchen, and that’s it.  Your order is taken at the front door and you’re only allowed inside to pick out your drink and chips.  You wait outside, there are no tables to be found and apparently the neighbors bitch about the droves of hungry people waiting in line for a spectacular Ike’s Place sub.  They have over 100 subs to choose from, ranging from the huge to the absolutely ridiculous.  Being the supreme glutton I am, I of course went for the absolutely ridiculous and this was in the form of the Lex Luthor.

The Lex Luthor from Ike's Place

The Lex Luthor from Ike's Place

Chai Cola. Who knew?

Chai Cola. Who knew?

The Lex Luthor is Niman Ranch Hamburger Meat, Chicken Fried Steak, Ribeye Steak, Mozzarella Sticks, American Cheese and all the standard greenery and goop one would expect on such a beast.  It is huge, and I only could get through half of it.  The Wife got the Hot Mama Huda which was Chicken Breast, Frank’s Red Hot, Ranch and Provolone.  Not as big as the Lex Luthor but still fabulously flavorful.  Ike’s serves their sandwiches with Dirty Potato Chips and have the most interesting soft drink selection I have ever seen.  I went for some kind of Chai Spiced Cola and it was ass-kickingly incredible.

Harvey's in Castro

Harvey's in Castro

Tasty drinks from Harvey's

Tasty drinks from Harvey's

As I said before, there are no seats to be found at Ike’s, so we walked up to Castro St., sat in a little public park right next to a cable car track and in the light of the historic Castro Theater sign.  After powering through as much as we could of the delicious beasts, we walked down to Harvey’s, named after a true hero of the gay community, and quite frankly a hero to humanity, Harvey Milk.  I thought it was a nice nod to a remarkable guy on the street where he launched a revolution.  We only got a drink there, I can’t even remember what I had, but I do remember it was good and that there was an interesting mixed drink selection.  The food we saw at the other tables looked like quality bar food, I wouldn’t mind giving it a shot on a return visit.

It is from here that we rolled ourselves into a taxi and returned to the hotel, thus ending a fabulous two days in a fabulous town.  Thus ending this nightmarish beast of a post.  I think if anyone actually made it this far, you really need to leave a comment and kind of sign your name and get the recognition you deserve.  I wish I had medals to hand out.  To everyone that bailed a long time ago, I’m certainly not offended, there’s no way in hell I would have made it.

No, we didn’t go to Chez Panisse, we didn’t even think about going to the O.G. Fleur de Lys or even wanted to step foot in a Michael Mina joint. We didn’t see Japantown or North Beach and we fucking missed out on Alcatraz because it was sold out.  To the bitter disappointment of several friends on Twitter and Facebook, we didn’t get to hit up Molinari’s either (sorry @Chef_RyanR & @TonyJnVegas). But we’ll be back, my sweet love.  Oh yes…we will be back.

Part III will cover the last leg of our journey; The Wife and I’s 5th Anniversary in Yountville and our drive down the coast to Santa Barbara.  I swear it will be nowhere near the size of this pig.

—–
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

Remember, you can vote once per day from now through 9/30/10! Thanks!

Remember, you can vote once per day from now through 9/30/10! Thanks!

The Weekly Bad Picture of Good Food: Wood Grilled Octopus From Bottega

Now before you all start scratching your head wondering where in the hell Bottega is, (must be some ghost restaurant in Lake Las Vegas) Behold!  You are now in the middle of witnessing a Weekly Bad Picture of Good Food first; a dish from a restaurant outside  the confines of the Las Vegas Valley! Exciting, isn’t it?

While you will hear much more about this dish and others from The Wife and I’s Great California Road Trip, this dish deserves multiple mentions.  I never order octopus as it is usually tasteless and rubbery.  For most of my life (all of it up until August 6, 2010), I’ve held a steadfast position that the octopus was an animal that should be left alone and not eaten.  In fact, we didn’t order the octopus at Bottega, but our outstanding server, Andrew, who we gave the reigns on what we were to eat that night, ordered it for us. And I’m glad he did.

While the iPhone guided us with every twist and turn on our over 1,500 mile journey throughout the Golden State, told us when the Muni was going to pick us up to take us to more tasty food and let us see every menu we could possibly want to see, not even the iPhone could capture the hours upon hours of marinating, braising and grilling that had to take place to make this cephalopod one of the most significant food experiences I’ve had in recent memory.  Because no one frame could possibly capture the exquisite  significance of this dish, the Wood Grilled Octopus from Michael Chiarello’s Bottega in Yountville, CA is this week’s Weekly Bad Picture of Good Food.

Wood Grilled Octopus from Bottega in Yountville, CA

Wood Grilled Octopus from Bottega in Yountville, CA

—–

Bottega
6525 Washington St.
Yountville, CA  94599

(707) 945-1050

http://www.BottegaNapaValley.com

Follow Chef Michael Chiarello on Twitter at @chefchiarello

—–
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

You can vote once per day from now until 09/30/10!  Thanks for your help!

You can vote once per day from now until 09/30/10! Thanks for your help!

Mike and The Wife Do California, Part I: Reflections Among The Big Ass Trees

For the first vacation The Wife and I have taken in over three years, we decided a road trip through California was in order.  Yeah….I know….three years.  When greedy scumfuck banks decide to jack your credit card rates up to 30% for no reason at all other than they are greedy scumfuck banks, sacrifices must be made.  And besides, we live in Las Vegas, it’s like living in a vacation anyway…except for the whole work part.

Big Ass Tree in Sequoia National Park

Big Ass Tree in Sequoia National Park

But I digress, it was good to get out of the heat and see something new.  We took 8 days to drive first to Sequoia National Park, then up to San Francisco, then a quick day in  Yountville, then down the coast to Santa Barbara where we would then come home.  Not only was this a vacation, but it surrounded The Wife and I’s 5th Anniversary, which we celebrated while in Yountville.  Why the hell that woman has stayed with me for 5 years is beyond me, but who am I to question.

Another part of the trip was to get away from Tasting Las Vegas for a bit, which a few of you noticed.  It was indeed nice to look into The Wife’s blue eyes during meals instead of FourSquaring and taking notes.  It was also nice to have a conversation with her rather than say, “Get the hell away from me, I’m writing.”  And while I could use another 2 or 3 years..I mean weeks away from the Bill Payer, I missed TLV and you fine folks dearly.

So it was off to the open road we were, cooler packed with lots of water, lemonade and cranberry juice and a bag full of chips, pretzels and other processed foods one should only eat while on a road trip or in the middle of a bout with deep depression (Oreo Cakesters, FTW!).  I finally subscribed to XM / Sirius Radio or whatever the hell they call it now.  The soundtrack to this trip was provided by the 80′s on 8 and Howard Stern.  Unfortunately, Howard was on vacation the very same week, so they had a “Gayest Week Ever” thing which was all of his offensive, homophobic shit about gays from over the years.  Most of it wasn’t funny, especially the sketch bits, however I almost drove off the road from laughing listening to George Takei pick who has The Prettiest Penis or hearing Artie Lange’s story about getting spooge on his chest during a threeway.

The Mad Greek

The Mad Greek

Our first pit stop was the one made by countless other travelers on I-15 between Vegas and LA, The Mad Greek in Baker, CA.  Eating at the Mad Greek brought on thoughts of a growing concern within myself, and that is since I started to write about restaurants and food, constantly thinking about it with my Holier-Than-Thou Judgment Cap (patent pending), I’m starting to enjoy shitty, greasy roadhouse food, less.  The diners, drive-in’s and dives are starting to appeal to me less and less, and it’s not just because Guy Fieri makes the hair on my balls curl even more than it’s supposed to.

Where in my youth the gut rot from a greasy spoon used to be worn like a badge of honor, it now just pisses me off.  Now I look for shitholes that make good food and use good ingredients.  The days of Sysco Whipped Imitation Butter and chemical eggs are way behind me, which unfortunately makes 90% of American breakfast joints now suck.  It’s not just that I don’t like it anymore, I can’t really eat it anymore. Period.  If I eat that poison, now it feels like my gut is on fire, there’s a vice on my chest and it only goes away once I do a scatological imitation of the Bellagio Fountains out of my ass.  It sucks getting old.

Gyros From The Mad Greek in Baker, CA

Gyros From The Mad Greek in Baker, CA

Anywho, I got the obligatory Gyros at the Mad Greek, and where it was once a dish that I would scarf down and ask for more, it was now just another roadside plate of shit that’s going to give me The Agita in about 20 minutes after consumption.  I must say though, it was sort of worth the burn.  The Gyros at the Mad Greek is certainly nothing special in and of itself, but it’s one of those rites of passage travelers in our little corner of the Earth should do.  And if you’re hungry and in Baker…it’s not like you have many other choices.

All of the Middle of California Looks Like This

All of the Middle of California Looks Like This

We pressed on from the Home of the World’s Largest Thermometer to Three Rivers, CA, the entrance to Sequoia National Park.  For those not familiar with driving through the guts of California, it’s something you really need to see.  The rolling golden hills look so soft from a distance that you want to pet them.  Once you get off the exit on your way to Sequoia National Park, much more of the greens come in with jagged rocks jutting through.  The winding roads were a wake up call for this Pennsylvania hick now turned Certified City Boy….well…maybe Certified Suburbia Boy.

Three Rivers is a cute no-traffic-light town that appears to solely exist to be one of the entrances to the park.  No one in the history of big ass trees (and that’s a long history as many of the trees are over 2,000 years old!) has ever gone to Sequoia National Park for the food, so I’ll try not to shred the food too much, but it was certainly something that made me reflect on life in Vegas.

One reflection is that where Las Vegas might not have the baseline of produce (more about that in Part II where I’ll talk about San Francisco) found elsewhere and while the prices in Las Vegas might be jacked up for mid-range joints on up, Las Vegas kicks the ass off of any town’s service across the board.  Whether you are rolling 3-Star at Robuchon or whether you are getting a quick nosh at a place like the Weiss Deli, service in Las Vegas is MILES beyond most other comparable establishments elsewhere.  Is it because the jacked up prices attract the cream of the crop?  I don’t know.  But it’s just better.  A good side effect from living in a town built on the service industry, I suppose.  It shouldn’t be rocket science to keep a water glass full, check on the table every now and then and for shit’s sake to pick up the damn check once we stick the credit card in the folder…but in many places, it is.

Buckeye Tree Lodge at the entrance to Sequoia National Park

Buckeye Tree Lodge at the entrance to Sequoia National Park

The view from our balcony

The view from our balcony

We stayed at the Buckeye Tree Lodge which I would recommend to anyone thinking about hitting up Sequoia National Park.  We had a stunning view from our balcony of a mountainside whitewater creek running in the backyard of the inn.  There’s no food at the Buckeye, but next door was the closest place and by looking at a selection of menus in our hotel’s office, the fanciest place in town, the Gateway Restaurant and Lodge.

Spiders Come Free!

Spiders Come Free!

“Rustic” doesn’t quite describe the Gateway.  More like infested shed.  The Gateway also has a fabulous view from their back balcony outdoor seating area.  Unfortunately the tables were strewn with bird shit on the tablecloths and spider webs, complete with the spiders that spun them, riddled the railing along side the table.  Needless to say, we didn’t sit out there for long and relocated to their indoor dining area.

Surf and Turf, or Suffer and Tough

Surf and Turf, or Suffer and Tough

Once inside, we ordered our food, The Wife going for Ribs and I springing for the $30 Surf and Turf of Shrimp Scampi and Filet Mignon.  Isn’t that cute?  I don’t think I’ve ordered Surf and Turf since living in Upstate NY.   I should say that beforehand, even the nice lady running the office at our hotel warned us of The Gateway, however I assumed it was because of the exorbitant-for-the-area prices, which were half of what we’re used to in our Little Twinkle in the Desert.  However, I didn’t take into account that the quality of the food was below a Village Pub, thus making the meal twice as expensive as a comparable meal in Vegas.  Needless to say, the fanciest restaurant in Three Rivers, CA is a far cry from the fanciest restaurant in Las Vegas, NV.  The evening was capped off when a spider came down on a web from the ceiling and crawled into the bread basket.  Hilarious!  For the rest of the trip, the Gateway was officially known as “the place with the spider bread.”  I wonder if they’ll add that line to their advertising!

The view on the way up to the Big Ass Trees in Sequoia National Park

The view on the way up to the Big Ass Trees in Sequoia National Park

The next day we made the trek up to the star of the area, Sequoia National Park.  The difference between Sequoias and Redwoods is that Redwoods are taller and found on California’s coast, Sequoias are thicker and found more in-land.  These are some big fucking trees.  It’s about a 45-minute twisting, winding and stunningly gorgeous drive from the entrance to the park to the Grove of the Big Ass Trees (I think they call it the Giant Forest, I’m partial to my version).  I can’t even count the number of times I nearly drove us to our ultimate demise off the side of the mountain due to being awestruck by the scenery.  I’m not even much of a nature person, and this is something I’d recommend anyone to do at least once in their lives.

Makes for a nice Commemorative Paperweight!

Makes for a nice Commemorative Paperweight!

As I said before, no one has ever gone to Sequoia National Park for the food, and the Lodge at Wuksachi Village certainly won’t buck the trend.  I knew before even entering the restaurant that there must have been something called a Sequoia Burger with my name on it, and not to disappoint, the Giant Sequoia Beef Burger was nearly top billing on the menu for $10.25.  I think the namesake trees might be easier to chew and swallow, but I didn’t expect anything less.  A half-pound incinerated gray puck of despair.   Strikingly flavorless, however, was the Onion Soup.  I didn’t know that it was possible to make beef broth and onion to have no flavor, but they figured out a way.  I’d like to imagine a world where food served in the middle of the wilderness didn’t have to suck, but I guess I’m going to have to keep imagining.  The moral of the story is…if you’re going to Sequoia National Park….pack a sandwich.

The General Sherman, A Really Big Fucking Tree

The General Sherman, A Really Big Fucking Tree

Sequoia National Park is home to the largest tree in the world by volume, The General Sherman Tree.  Many of the trees in the park were named in the Civil War era, so there was the General Grant, the General Lee and so on.  Neither words, nor pictures can appropriately describe the size of the General Sherman.  It’s a really big fucking tree. That’s about as good as I can do.

The path to the General Sherman from the nearest parking lot is about a half mile, but it is very steep and at over 7,000 ft.  If you wanted a good laugh, you should have seen my fat ass struggling to make it back up the mountain to the car.  I thought I was going to die.  If you want an even better laugh, I present to you an (as far as we know) unnamed tree that is still pretty big which The Wife and I named The Lance Armstrong.  Behold…

The Lance Armstrong Tree

The Lance Armstrong Tree

That's my girl!

That's my girl!

Exhausted from the walk back up to the car, we said goodbye to the land of the Big Ass  Trees, drove back down the mountain and retreated to our hotel room before going to a restaurant that’s name tugged on my Vegas-centric heartstrings, Serrano’s.

Far From Julian...

Far From Julian...

The Don Jesus Burrito from Serrano's in Three River, CA

The Don Jesus Burrito from Serrano's in Three River, CA

The Three Rivers version of Serrano’s however is of course a far cry from our hometown hero.  This Serrano’s is a Mexican joint.  I won’t knock it too bad, as it was the best food we had by a landslide thus far on our voyage.  Again, it was a name on the menu that dictated what I ordered and the Don Jesus Burrito it was.  It was a huge carne asada burrito with all the fixin’s.  While anyone that is of Mexican descent or has ever seen a person of Mexican descent will think that Taco Bell is closer to the truth, the food was certainly edible and met my needs just fine.

No Bueno.

No Bueno.

A Plate of the Unchewable and Flavorless

A Plate of the Unchewable and Flavorless

Unfortunately, the some of the worst food of the trip was had the following morning on our way out of town and onto one of my favorite places on Earth, San Francisco.  Breakfast at the We Three Bakery & Restaurant was brutal, and no matter how bad you expect the food to be at such an out of the way place, this is one to pass as you’re on your way to some other hole.  I went for the Steak and Eggs and I wish I didn’t.  The restaurant itself looked like the Republican Party exploded all over the walls.  Military, America and Apple Pie.  While I’ll certainly always support our troops, it’s a rarity that I support the people that support our troops, if ya know what I mean.  Regardless of the politics, the food was inedible.   It’s from this Tea Party Hookup House that we left the woods and made our way to civilization once again.  Good civilization.  Civilization with good restaurants.  San Francisco.

Home of Unmatched Beauty, Not So Hot Food

Home of Unmatched Beauty, Not So Hot Food

Our trip to Sequoia National Park not only had me reflect on the majestic beauty of Mother Nature, still un-raped by mankind, but it also made me reflect on how sorry I feel for people that don’t live within a reasonable distance of a good restaurant.  It’s such a joy that I take for granted living in one of the premiere restaurant towns on Earth, it takes moments like these to remember not everyone has our luxury.  And sure, people can’t imagine people living in a place with billboards about starring in internet porn, but everybody eats, and it’s too bad some people can’t leave the pots and pans in the cupboard and go out once in a while to eat well.

I suppose ignorance is bliss to a certain degree, but it still makes me sad. My desire for everyone to experience the best in life almost makes me want to help these fine folks like a Red Cross Doctor would aid a poor child stricken with malaria in the African bush.  A Restaurants Without Borders, if you will.  If only I could put Rick Moonen in a backpack and have him whip up some Cioppino at some distant, Middle American land.  Move over American Cancer Society, I think I’ve just founded the greatest charity. Ever.

I guess I’ll split our California Road Trip up into three parts. The next will be solely dedicated to San Francisco and I’ll round out the series with Yountville and Santa Barbara being the third.  Stay tuned for more adventures.  I promise, the next one will be more about food.  Good food.  Until then, to my fellow Las Vegas valley residents, go to your favorite restaurant soon, kiss the chefs and toss a few extra bucks into the tip jar for the servers.  Be thankful for what we have.

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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

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