Well, I've transferred all the pictures and finally unpacked my ginormous blue suitcase (always referred to as The Behemoth), so let's take a few minutes to review the NorCal vacation.
Travel is No Pleasure
Sure, I was right on time to pick up my rental car at Kingston, and the drive to JFK only took two hours, but then I found that the drop off for the car was "off-site"...not to mention having to walk The Behemoth through several blocks of unpopulated airport space, up and down a few elevators, and into an odd little offshoot of the MTA called the Air-Tran. Finally showed up in front of the JetBlue terminal at 5:45, plane scheduled to depart at 6:00. "Can I still make the flight to San Francisco?" I screamed at the sky-hop, who nodded sadly and smooshed a sticker onto The Behemoth. Right he was; the 6:00 had been rescheduled for 9:30. It shouldn't be a total loss, however. Once aboard, the Terra Chips were on the house. (On the plane?)
At the Ritz
Yes, I paid to have a driver meet me at SFO. It might have seemed silly, but, since the plane got in at 2:00 AM local time, and SFO doesn't have a lot of cruising cabs like JFK, it turned out pretty well...my driver handled The B. and I sat in front and gawked at the sights of nighttime San Fran. Then we drove up under the portico of the Ritz-Carlton. Holy goshdarnit! Soon found my Double Deluxe Club-Level room to be beautiful, and there were cookies and milk waiting for me in the lounge. Did not manage to take my glasses off before I fell asleep.
Tony Bennett was So, So Right
Sure, I can't agree with everything the man did--that supporting role in The Oscar would have been a bad choice for anyone, including Moe of The Three Stooges--but, when it came to expressing himself on the subject of the city by the bay, I couldn't have said it better.
The next few days found me exploring SF on foot (when downhill) and in cabs (every other way). Never went into those little cable cars which reach halfway to the stars, but was interested to find them disgorging and taking on passengers just about anywhere, including major intersections, stopping traffic in four directions. You couldn't do that in New York, not and hope to have people like you for it.
The Ferry Building, a model of what the city center food market/food court/tourist magnet ought to be.
Chinatown, with lots of cheap and even some valuable.
Union Square, where you can get anything you forgot to get in your last trip to the hometown mall.
Japantown, a truly amazing American community (and source of great bento supplies).
Nob Hill, which reminds me of what Upper Fifth Avenue could have been like if we New Yorkers didn't have at least a little bit of humility.
The Financial District, which is attractive, but which I like most because that's where I took my first walk in town.
And, hey--I too have been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan.
It cost more to stay on The Club Level, but I chose this option because a) the wifi was free, b) I'd have the services of a concierge, and boy would I need them, and c) there was pretty-much-continuous food service throughout the day. Light food service, to be sure (Continental breakfast, light lunch, hors d'oeuvres, desserts), but I really like grazing.
Which, as on a cruise ship, wasn't exactly free (that's what you paid your Club-level upgrade for) but it felt free. And you could make a total hog of yourself under the indulgent eye of the concierge.
(Note to JC: I know, you always wonder if you should ask the concierge for female companionship, or is this chore more appropriately left to the doorman? And how much do you tip? Well, I picked up a cab driver my first day there
I mean, I did not feel the need of such buffoonery--
so I can't help you with that quandary.
I will say that the concierges were so obliging, and I got so into the habit of asking for their help, that when I found myself missing The Beautiful Daughter I debated going to Crystal or Ruggiero and having them check on Fed Ex rates to ship one smallish teenager coast-to-coast.)
Anyway, the food thing turned out really well since I am always intrigued by the idea that people are making food for me and I don't know what it will be. Camembert or Manchego at lunch? Foie gras with bacon or pickled herring at dinner? Ceviche or watermelon-and-feta in the oversized martini glasses?
Some things remained the same each day--there were always excellent tuna and egg salads at lunch, cold soups in shot glasses at dinner, a wide range of cereals at breakfast--and, if nothing else interested you, there were fresh fruit, cheese, and good bread at every meal.
Plus, the bar was open at lunch and dinner, and the non-alky choices were free at all times. This is how I spent ten days immersed in San Pelligrino water, sometimes mixed half-and-half with the Ritz's very strong and unsweet lemonade. And, yes, the virgin marys were wonderful. Even better, the barkeep grew to recognize me, and would offer to make me one whenever he saw me.
At first, La Skol was a little shy about all the service and attention. When she was helped out of her cab by a uniformed doorman who greeted her by name, she was completely creeped out. When five different Ritz employees said, "Glad to have you with us, Ma'm'selle la Skolnique", she accused me of bribing the staff. (I didn't have to! That's the Ritz!) but soon, as the warm sun of respectful attention and unlimited caviar crept into her bones, La Skol was completely down with the Beulah-peel-me-a-grape vibe. And, as Dan Ingram used to say, loving it.
She also introduced me to the Fitness Club (which I had somehow neglected to know the existence of, having only been at the hotel for 5 days) and a lovely little indoor pool with locker room.
La Skolnique has mentioned some of these places, but I'll revisit them, with photos. The Acme Chophouse, Traci des Jardine's flagship in San Fran, looks like a rockin' sports bar (and so it should, being adjacent to AT&T Park on a pretty boulevard called 24 Willie Mays Plaza), but has an eating ethos far above that. We ordered a fairly large meal and everything was exquisite, from the lamb chops which we expected to be familiar (they were un-familiarly transcendental) to the steak tartare (which was soft and smooth but never greasy or pasty, and the meat for which had surely been cut, not ground, two minutes after the order hit the kitchen.) Here's the food porn:
Salad with Little Gem lettuce, with which I am now in love.
Steak Tartare, surrounded with toast. Quail egg in the middle.
Shoulder Lamb Chops. So good, La Skolnique even ate the arugula, which she usually hates as much as Republicans do.
Hully geez, Risotto and Chanterelles with Fried Squash Blossom Stuffed with Ricotta. That was the Acme Chophouse: dishes which you could have made at home, just not as splendidly. Has Chef des Jardines put out a cookbook yet? I'm off to Amazon to check it out.
You could say that the Acme was an unexpected surprise. The delicacy of the flavors and textures didn't scream "sports bar"--but you could just imagine a boothful of Universe Masters chowing down on he-man food after a big win, or consoling themselves after a loss. But the restaurant served us well as a first-dinner-together for two old friends still getting used to each other. It was a wonderful meal.
Frida and Her Bandito
Okay, I'm fairly sure that, whatever Frida Kahlo ever called her husband, Diego Rivera, it wasn't "bandito". And she called him plenty. As I told La Skolnique, I kept waiting for Frida's masterwork, "I Hate Diego and I Don't Care if That Big Fat Frumpus Never Calls Me Again".
Diego was a womanizing jerk who slept with Frida's sister and probably most of her friends and kept asking for an open marriage and then for a divorce as she went through an agonizing series of miscarriages and back surgeries.
He also looked like--a most unattractive fellow--and any earthy-minded woman touring through the Kahlo show at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art would have to ask herself, "What on earth did this geek have? In addition to genius?"
Kahlo's portrait of Rivera is so alive, you expect him to reach up and take the frame from around his neck and go chasing the nearest babe or painting a mural over the Robert Rothenberg display.
Her other pictures are static, like something from a nightmare glimpsed in a flare of lightening. (Sin Esperanza and Henry Ford Hospital will live in my dreams). Some, like The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, are so filled with pain that the painting overflows onto the frame.
Then there are a few examples of Rivera's work, and you see immediately how, as unfair as it was, as personally tragic as it was, Rivera's concern for events and people outside of his own life make him incalculably greater than Kahlo. That didn't give him the right to treat her so badly. Unfortunately, it does give us the reason to spend more time with his work than with hers.
The Most Happy Fellas in the Whole Napa Valley (burp!)
Yes, that was us, in a splendid car-and-driver on our way out of San Fran. The trip was so quick that we didn't even get to stop at an In-n-Out for lunch; the driver called for directions to the one nearest to Yountville and drove us to it, making an expensive little extra stop tha La Skol referred to as "The $80 cheeseburger". And that is nowhere near the stupidest thing I've ever done with money. Lifetime? Not even close. But, while our I-n-O lunch might not have been worth $80, I've paid $30 for worse in New York and various places.
Some of my corespondents have been urging me to try I-n-O if The French Laundry was not good enough for me.
I will say that I had no complaints with I-n-O service, consisting as it did of a loud conversation with an intercom followed by a brief financial exchange with a teenager.
And then we had our burgers: the Single for La Skol and the Double-Double, with fries and small chocolate shake, for myself. (Our charming driver wasn't hungry). Oh Joy! It was one of the best, most honest burgers in my memory, good to the last shred of lettuce and crumb of bun. The meat tasted like meat you would buy and cook yourself, which I can't say of McD or BK. The garnishes were fresh; another nice change. The fries were underdone, nothing special, but the chocolate shake tasted like real ice cream and real milk.
I felt it more in that fancy car on Route 29 than I had felt it before: La Skolnique's opinion that "everything tastes better in California", as if "it's got the sun inside it". Yes, absolutely, and in my vacation there was no better example than the In-n-Out burger. Oh, unless it was...
Two Other Yountville Meals
After checking into our palatial accommodations (she at The Villagio and self at The Vintage, a couple of super-luxe resorts which bracket Washington Street, the main drag of the town), La Skol found the pool (a wonderful, over-the-top Tuscan extravaganza in which you constantly imagine you'll see Caligula and his posse resting up from a hard day's orgy) and I wandered the water gardens, where I expected to find van Gogh, Picasso and possibly Manet looking picturesque by their easels (or grabbing the side of their head and trying to staunch the flow of blood.)
By evening we were hungry, and got ourselves a late reservation at Redd's. And this is what we ate:
That's a salad of heirloom tomatoes with, you guessed it, Little Gem lettuce. And California sunshine. So good, La Skolnique and I both ordered it.
Thus was my Tasting of Cold Foie Gras, maybe the best foie gras I had on the whole trip (and I ate it at five different meals, including once, flawlessly, at The French Laundry). On the left we have Mousse, with a dark rich cherry gastrique and a pile of frisee to cut the richness; in the middle is Terrine, with a mound of nectarine compote atop; and to the right is le Torchon, rolled in pistachio nuts. The little red fruits are Bing cherries; there are a few whole candied pistachios on le Torchon.
Thoughtful food; this is it. The dish is not about the large servings of this rich, expensive ingredient; it's about the contrasts, the way the light and fluffy mousse practically melts off your fork and onto your tongue, the way the terrine is a little chilly, then warmed by the not-too-sweet nectarine, and the way the torchon, which is straight, cleaned foie marinated, rolled into a neat tube and poached before it is cooled and rolled in nuts, gives you the real mineral taste of the stuff itself; the texture is like good salumeria, a little resistant to the bite but then filling your mouth with complicated tastes.
The service at Redd's was wonderful, warm and welcoming, even though we stayed until past closing (we didn't notice how empty the place was, and no one was interrupting us at the end of what must have been a very busy Sunday).
Well, you know where we ate on Monday night, and enough said.
Tuesday, the last night of the vacation, found us at Jeanty, a pleasant Bistro which felt just right for our starting to get back to the real world. By this time we weren't taking pictures or writing tone poems about the food; we just enjoyed the good bistro specialties and the friendly service, as well as the Napa Valley pleasantry of a personal heater over each table.
All right. All right. I've FORGOTTEN what we ate.
And Finally, Friends
The very best thing of all is that I met so many nice people, some just for a conversation and some for real friended-on-Facebook friendship. I've already mentioned Joe Pak and Jenny Lam, who were wonderful dinner companions at The French Laundry, and who are probably wondering why on earth I'm making such a big deal over what was really a very pleasant dinner. (Just not as good as I thought the service should be!)
Another new friend, although not to La Skolnique, is her pal Paul, who picked us up in San Fran and took us for a wonderful day at Berkeley, including a sort of potluck lunch at the fabulous Berkeley Bowl, a grocery store which I recommend even to travelers who do not have a kitchen. Paul is a great guy and even took us to a Nepalese restaurant in Bernal Heights, an old nabe of his which, except for the hilly streets, reminded me of some of Queens' best residential/foodie neighborhoods. Paul knows even more about old movies than I do, and I hope to see more of him.
And now, I think I'd better have the staff of The French Laundry have the last word: