Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mad Props

The food scene is boring or over-conceived and under-executed. Or hyper-executed. Or whatever. Point is, finding a spot that is compelling, ever-changing, and unpretentious is a rare beast and when it is it needs to be folded up and put into your pocket for later.

For instance, I like Sophia, Sophia's tasty. Sophia's menu doesn't change, however. Same thing with Daimo. Lanesplitter too. But there's one spot that I frequent almost weekly where I'm able to get something completely different every week. It's also unpretentious, friendly, and reasonably priced. It's pretty much the best place ever.

That place is Solano Cellars.

It's a pretty compelling wine shop (though I'll admit it's sister store Vintage Berkeley is probably a better bet if you're looking for inexpensive wines) with a broad global selection. It's the best spot hands down for Northern European wines and a great spot for the more eclectic boutique-y California (and Oregon and Washington too) wines. More importantly it's one of very few wine shops that has an expansive collection of wines (randing from $10-$80 a bottle) from every major winegrowing region in the world.

Plus mark-up is reasonable, 10% discount on cases, monthly wine club, tasting events, etc.

How could it get any better?

I'll tell you.

A few months ago they reinstituted a small plates menu at the wine bar. They've always had a wine bar with tasting flights (red and white flights for $15 and a special flight for $25) and a couple cheese and charcuterie options. The previous incarnation of Solano Cellars had a "bistro" (re: lame-stro) menu at their wine bar that was unremarkable. This time around however, they've hit it pretty much right on the lower back tattoo.

The small menu has a bunch of wine-friendly appetizers in the $5-$10 range that are bold and flavorful but simple. A retarded good arugula salad with roasted strawberries, salt-cured olives, pine nuts, bacon, and feta. Artichoke hearts and Berkshire prosciutto served warm with Bellwether frams ricotta. A plate of manchego, membrillo, and marcona almonds. A personal favorite, fromage fort served warm over bruschetta. The rotating mix of cheeses is melted with garlic and wine and then spread over thin slices of La Farine baguette. Simple, earnest, and very very wine-friendly.

And there's no pretention in either prices or preparation. The guys (and gal) working the shop really like wine and really like food and really like drinking wine with food and without the contrivance that goes into the overwrought myth of "wine pairing." Drink and eat and enjoy.

And that's what it's all about, right? Good munching food with good wine. And the wine bar selection is heavy on earthier food-friendly reds and crisp refreshing whites.

Solano Cellars wine bar is one of the best places (and in many ways the best place) to eat on Solano Ave.

There I said it. If you don't like it you can go fuck yourself.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Napa Style, Sans Douche Bag

It was a fortuitous coming together of circumstances--some consecutive days off with girlfriend Charlie, some promotional deals at a nice bed and breakfast (Bordeaux House), and Yountville being only 45 minutes away. So I got home from work, packed up some stuff, and headed across the Carquinez Bridge to Vallejo, American Canyon, Napa, and Yountville.

Stay the fuck away, glassy winged sharpshooter.

Checked into the b&b early, which left us with a few hours before our 8:30 reservation at Bistro Jeanty. A stroll through Yountville yielded not a damn thing so we settled in at the bar at Redd after a small sidestep to an art gellery that showed that you can in fact make queer landscapes look somewhat okay.

We had dinner plans elsewhere, though in hindsight Redd was perhaps the more intriguing choice. Extensive a la carte menu, also available as a tasting menu. California cuisine to be sure, but with a subtle Japanese influence that was appreciated. Very nice wine list and well-priced, all things considered. We split a half-bottle of the Schloss Gobelsburg "Steinsetz" gruner veltliner which was excellent, and phenomenal with the one appetizer that we split, an asparagus and (scant) green onion tempura with bonito soy dressing. It was really tasty, light fluffy tempura batter around tender (but fully cooked) asparagus. Not much spring onion in the mix though, and the whole dish was a bit salty, especially when paired with the soy (salty) and bonito (salty) sauce. Still, it was freakin' tasty. In addition to the regular menu, there's a concise bar menu with somewhat more quotidian (and drink-friendly) options.

Moving along, we arrived at Bistro Jeanty for dinner a bit early and was promptly seated. Simple and to be expected French menu with a poorly conceived wine list. French wines and some typical Napa suspects. Nothing bad, of course, just really unremarkable for a restaurant of such regard. Got a bottle of Trefethen riesling for kicks.

First course, Charlie had a petite salad of beets and arugula. It was good. The escargots, which came highly recommend, were remarkably flavorless, though dragging bread through the butter and herb leftovers was fabulous.

Entrees stepped up where appetizers left off. Charlie's coq au vin was rich, redolent, and melting apart. My cassoulet, which I had to send back the first time because it was cold in the middle (I got a complimentary glass of wine while I waited), was oppressively rich. It was delicious, to be sure, but it was also a huge bowl filled with white beans, two andouille sausages, some bacon, and a whole confit duck leg. It was a lot of freakin' food.

Despite the obscenity that was our entree portions, we still got dessert. A nice tarte au citron with smooth creamy meringue was quite pleasant.

A quiet stagger home did little to help me digest the uncomfortable quantity of pork and beans in my stomach and I spent a fitful night dreaming about prostate exams and dragons.

Morning presented us with breakfast at the bed and which was surprisingly pleasant. Spinach and egg casserole was the highlight. Hardboiled eggs were very very green. Fruit salad featured watermelon with a lot of residual pith and peel.

We hit the road and dropped in on a few wineries. Martini is always a good stop. Nice tasting room, pretty good wines (steer clear of the wine list stuff and try the winery exclusives), and nice folks. The long-time tasting room mainstay, I forget her name, is retiring at the end of May. It's the end of an era.

Another mainstay of any greatest hits stop in Napa is Mumm. Great champagne cellar, even if (despite their claims of being "pure Napa) most of their grapes come from Carneros. The winery-exclusive flight was tasty. Good art gallery as well. Eclectic Ansel Adams collection in the permanent gallery and an always interesting new photographer in the rotating gallery.

We stopped at Duckhorn which was awkward. Despite the fact that we made reservations, we were headed off at the tasting room entry by an unpleasant woman who made us feel decidedly unwelcome. I informed her that we had a reservation. We were told to pay the $20 tasting fee in advance, directed to a table, and waited for a young man to come and pour the wines. Despite his assurance that we could flag him down should we have any questions, he disappeared from the tasting room entirely. After finishing our flight, we waited for someone to come back and talk to us, see if we wanted to buy wine, etc. but to no avail. So we left.

Spent some time strolling in St. Helena and Calistoga, only to discover that these towns don't really have anything worth going to (other than restaurants). Stop off at the CIA's Greystone campus was productive, mostly resultant of a Le Creuset sale at the shop.

Hunger finally turned up so we went to Auberge du Soleil. Not for the fancy-pants reastaurant or $1200 a night hotel, but for the rather pleasantly priced bar. Beautiful space, nice deck with a phenomenal view, and, I'll be honest, really good food. The menu doesn't change much (at all) but the food is great. Charlie had a chicken panini that was tender and tasty. I had the duck confit pizza which was retarded rich but retarded good.

Plus, beyond anything else, it was relaxing. Even if we had to listen to a string trio play "Champagne Supernova" as a party prepared for a timeless wedding that will be remembered forever and ever. Or at least for eight months until they get divorced, because really, "Champagne Supernova?" Christ.

That basically concluded our Napa excursion. We laughed. We cried. We made fun of people relentlessly. And at the end I learned a valuable lesson. Cassoulet dreams are even weirder than burrito dreams. Remember that.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Wood Tavern - Oakland, Ca

It's become clear I think to those who read this blog that I do work as a server in this here restaurant business and I do it at a very popular, very busy, somewhat trendy fine dining establishment in the East Bay.

I've found that servers either have very high standards for service when they go out, or very low standards. I like to think of myself in the second category. While I might be critical of service while I dine that' s just who I am. I'm a critical asshole and I like to compare how I work against how others work for professional purposes. I truthfully have adopted certain strategies and approaches that I've seen other servers use that I've found particularly effective on me as a diner. But, at the end of the meal, all I really look for in determining good service (who gets the 22% tip versus the 18% tip) is:

1. Knowledge of the menu/wines when I ask a question.
2. Attentiveness.
3. Availability.
4. Cordiality.

I'm not a diner who needs much follow-up. I do appreciate it when a server drops by to check in on each course, but I understand that that's not possible on some busy nights. At the very least, a walk-by with eye contact is good because it allows me to check in with the server if there is a problem with my food. And as far as cordiality goes, I'm not looking for banter or someone who says "honey," I'm just looking for a smile and a "how is everything?"

After dining at Wood Tavern I discovered how weird service can ruin an otherwise pleasant meal.

I cruised into Wood Tavern in Rockridge with girlfriend Charlie, winemaker Brendan, and mutual friend Mei on a Thursday night at around 8PM. I was immediately impressed with the decor. Warm dark wood befitting the name. Nice long bar. Log cabin inspired furniture. Our table was nicely set with unmatched vintage flatware which did honestly remind me of our family cabin in Tahoe where 60 years of visitors have left behind a melange of forks and spoons and knives so that there isn't really a matching set of anything.

Despite the busy-ness and crowded-ness at the restaurant, conversation wasn't overly difficult.

The menu is nice and simple, 8 or so appetizers and 8 or so entrees as well as cheese and charcuterie.

Nice compact if unremarkable wine list. Lacking signicantly in more unusual reds. Bauer gave the list props for its "esoteric" selection, but it's only esoteric if your idea of an exotic wine is gewurztraminer.

Shortly after sitting down the weirdness began.

Our service approached our table and just stood there. We stopped talking and looked at her. I said hello. She said hello. Still nothing. Another awkward pause. Then, "how about I get you guys some water?"

Um, sure.

She then disappeared. Water arrived. She returned.

"Did you decide on wine?"

Yes. We had decided on wine when you first came to our table.

We ordered our wine. And we ordered our food. She honestly said maybe a dozen words to us the entire time.

So... odd, but not super odd. Yet.

I ordered the black bean soup with chive creme fraiche. That's what it said on the menu. Remember that for later. I also ordered the duck. Also ordered was the pork belly appetizer and the romaine, apple, and blue cheese salad.

My soup arrived and it was essentially a pork chili with a few black beans. Not a big deal because I like pork enough, except that this was a lot of pork. It wasn't a bit of ham hock or bacon flavoring the soup, it was a good 1/4 pound of pork meat and very little in the way of beans.

This would've been useful information for someone to know, especially if he or she was, oh I don't know, a vegetarian ordering what looks like the only warm vegetarian appetizer on the menu. But it still would've been useful for me because I wouldn't've gotten the duck entree knowing that I was eating that much pork for my appetizer. I just don't want that much meat in one evening. Criticism one is that there should be a mention of the pork on the menu, subcriticism 1a is, failing that, this is something a good server lets a customer know. 90% of the time it probably won't matter, but that 10% can be seriously pissed off. I speak from experience here.

Entrees were good. Thick chunk of seared duck breast over wild rice and hazelnuts. Charlie had the halbut with polenta and Mei had the roasted chicken with artichokes and spinach.

Desserts were decent but limited. Conventional warm chocolate cake, seasonal fruit cobbler, and a couple of ice creams/sorbets paired with liqueurs. More concept then execution there as they seem to forget that most liquers are disgusting holdovers from an era when we had to suspend herbs in alcohol to preserve them for medicinal purposes and then added a shit ton of sugar to it to make it remotely palatable. No real reason they should exist anymore.

The espresso that I got took a really long time, came void of crema, and was barely lukewarm. When I sent it back I was asked if I wanted another one. No apology. I was made to feel like it was my fault. This proved to be a theme.


While all the food was expertly prepared and quite tasty, the cuisine itself was utterly uninteresting. It's all food that Range, Maverick, Town Hall, and to a lesser extent even Magnolia have been doing for a while now. And Range had more refined service, Maverick takes bigger risks with flavors, and Magnolia is more compelling and at half the price. While I suppose there's a void in Oakland for this type of food, in the Bay Area as a whole it's just another restaurant serving uninteresting New American. You get your pork, your chicken, your fish, your steak, and your vegetarian entrees coupled with seasonal produce. Tum tiddly tum tum ter.

Speaking of the service issue, when we got our check and paid (split on two cards) the server overcharged us by $10.70. Simple problem, these things happen. But when we told are server she made it seem like it was somehow our fault. Then, when the checks came back the amount on the receipt still didn't mach the amount on the charge slips (by seventy cents). Fucking weird. Even when the owner came over we still felt like we were talking past him. It wasn't a big deal, it just became one because nobody seemed to understand what our complaint was.

Finally, when my charge finally posted online, the amount charged was for the CORRECT amount, still seventy cents off from what I had signed. I think there was also an additional ten dollars on the gratuity (I failed to write the exact amount on my copy of the receipt).

So now I was really annoyed.

To the owners' credit, when I called to complain, Rebekah Wood was very conciliatory, informed me that our server had already been removed from the schedule, and offered to send me a check. So that was something.

So I left with a newfound understanding of the importance of competent service and a reinforced feeling that we're creatively bankrupt in the Bay Area food scene right now.

I'll be waiting for the next innovation.

Wood Tavern
6317 College Ave. (at Alcatraz)
Oakland, Ca