Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bivalve-Curious in Tomales Bay

Oyster eaters, it's true: our beloved bivalves taste much better at the source.
A recent pilgrimage to Tomales Bay opened my eyes and mouth to the most delectable mouthfuls of mollusk I have ever eaten in our country. 

Those sweet, slick, and silky little creatures seemed barely out of the water every place we ordered them, whether at a random diner, a roadside counter, or one of the area's top tables.  Such immaculate purity and undefiled virtue! 

How many fabulous ways there are to ravish them.

Until this trip, I typically devoured them raw and naked, with just a glass of wine and some bread and butter for accompaniment.  But here again, Tomales Bay prompted a revelation.  It seems that superbly fresh oysters can indeed remain just as delicious after they're cooked--something I would have rejected as impossible before.

I certainly did put away quite a few of the naked variety on site, but found myself completely enchanted by all the exciting and original ways these beauties get dressed up on their home turf.

My first tentative step down the path of cooked oyster love occurred at Priscilla's, a tiny, no-frills, diner-like restaurant on the main drag in Inverness.  The place did not look promising given its full page of traditional pizzas and scant handful of oyster based dishes.  But appearances can be deceiving... these guys can rock the fried oysters like you wouldn't believe.

Crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside, and absolutely greaseless.  Cue celestial chorus!  (And do you see how fresh and beautiful that side salad is? So unexpected, and so delicious.)

In addition to these badasstic cornmeal crusted fried oysters, the place also offered Silvertap's Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which is a dead ringer for the Languedoc's addicting Picpoul de Pinet.  And, like Picpoul de Pinet, this stuff was priced to drank.  Unfortunately for us (or perhaps not), only eight ounces were left in their keg, so we had to switch to beer after a quick glass as aperitif.  The Lagunitas Brewing Company's IPA we chose that day proved to be the go-to beverage with every oyster preparation we encountered.

Especially this one:

Oysters Kilpatrick.  Life altering.  Thank you, Australia, for creating this most miraculous of barbecued oyster recipes!  Bacon + Worcester-based sauce + Oyster = bliss.  The ones pictured above are at The Marshall Store, on the eastern shore of Tomales Bay in the town of Marshall. 

There's a lovely view of the bay from the roadside counter where those desiring to drink alcohol are relegated (the Store has no permit to serve on their premises).  Note that there's no roof over this area, so bring a jacket--the breeze off the water can be brisk-- and try to time your visit when the weather is cooperating.

Oh, and it's cash only there, so plan ahead. You'll need at least a dozen of the Kilpatricks ($13 for the half dozen, if memory serves).

Last, but certainly not least, we come to the oyster pizza at Osteria Stellina in Point Reyes Station.  What must have started as a mountain of thinly sliced leeks is sweated in butter and enriched with cream, then slathered all over the delicate thin skin of the pizza crust.  The raw oysters (out of the shell) are lowered into position, and into the oven it goes until the crust is cooked to a perfect golden brown, and those juicy little oysters are straining at their seams.

Thanks to the earthiness of the leeks, this pizza actually went beautifully with the non-vintage old vine Pleiades XXI, a quirky local red from winemaker Sean Thackrey.  The light body and earth-driven character totally worked with this pizza--and absolutely every other seafood item we ordered.  Magic.

Now that I've experienced what oysters can be just an hour and a half's drive away, I don't see myself ordering them anywhere else.  Unfortunately, I can already feel the withdrawal setting in.

This is when I thank the bivalve gods that I bought a copy of the excellent book "Oyster Culture" by Tomales Bay resident Gwendolyn Meyer, which contains history, science, pictures, and (most importantly) recipes for the region's most famous product.  Though my Napa versions will never taste as fine as the ones grown, cooked, and devoured within a half-mile of Tomales Bay, they hopefully will keep me going until my next visit.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Truffle Festival, Part Deux

"Whosoever says truffle, utters a grand word, which awakens erotic and gastronomic ideas...."
Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), preface to ‘The Physiology of Taste’ (1825).

"The truffles themselves have been interrogated, and have answered simply: eat us and praise the Lord." - Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870).

You see? We are not alone in our truffle depravity.  There is in fact a long and glorious tradition of truffle worship, culminating in the Napa Truffle Festival and its wonderland of earthy delights.  I had the great good fortune of getting to sit in on this hedonist's fantasy last year, for the inaugural event at the Westin Verasa.  You can read my official WineCountry.com coverage of that experience here, and my unofficial trip down memory lane (with photographs) here.

The second Napa Truffle Festival promises to be just as much delicious fun as the first.  This one will take place January 13-16th, 2012, coinciding with the kickoff of the 30th Annual All Truffle Dinner at La Toque.  As with the first Napa Truffle Festival, there will be two thematic tracks from which attendees can choose: the Scientific, for those interested in becoming truffle cultivators, and the Culinary, for those intent on eating as many truffles as possible (not an exact quote from the sponsors).

Among the highlights: Barbara Fairchild, the former Editor in Chief of Bon Appetit magazine will be delivering the keynote speech; a Michelin-starred cast of international chefs will be cooking the outrageous multicourse Truffles and Wine dinner for Saturday night; daily truffle cooking demonstrations and truffle wine pairing seminars; trufflicious lunches at La Toque; and a guided tour of Robert Sinskey Vineyard's developing truffle orchards in Carneros.

For those poor souls who who can't afford the all-inclusive $1,250 pass (that's per person, yo), there are other, more moderately priced ticket options to the festival, and a mere $40 will get you access to the Napa Truffle Festival Marketplace, where truffly goods of all kinds (including les truffes themselves) will be available for tasting and purchase.  Check the Festival's main page, or Facebook page for full details and updates as the date draws nearer.  You can also https://twitter.com/NapaTruffleFest for up to the second news.

As we toil through the four torturous months remaining until the festival, remember that Whole Foods carries a very respectable brand of truffle butter (yes I know it's not the same as the real thing but it's still super tasty), which -- with some mood lighting and sexy music -- ought to get the job done.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Insider's Guide To Happy Hour Deals In The City Of Napa

Being a person of French peasant descent (and modest income), I have always delighted in discovering great deals on food and wine.  Living in Napa raises the difficulty level of this particular challenge, but also the satisfaction of finding a truly awesome happy hour discount. 

The following is a totally subjective list of some of the best happy hours in town, chosen by yours truly because of their value, their accessibility (e.g., more than one day, continues past 5pm), and/or their quality of offerings.  There are other worthy contenders out there, though!  Let me know your favorites in the comments.  À la vôtre...

Oh how I love thee, mushroom flatbread. With. Truffle. Oil.
Carpe Diem Wine Bar.  These guys do happy hour RIGHT, which in my book means every day of the week.  From 4-6pm, you get $3.50 draft beers, red and white wines of the week (one of each color) for $6/glass, and discounts on a short list of their favorite menu snacks, including my beloved wild mushroom flatbread ($6 during happy hour), truffle popcorn, and their wildly addicting harissa fries--made with the harissa blend from Whole Spice in the Oxbow Public Market.  Carpe's space is cool and contemporary, and verrrrrrrry popular... so it can get loud.  Arriving on the earlier side is advised if you aren't up for standing room only.

Grace's Table.  Just down the street from Carpe, Grace's Table also rocks the daily happy hour from 3-6pm (3-7 on Wednesdays).  Glasses of the house red and white wines are $5, as are the soju cocktails (normally $9).  Their food menu offers a really great variety of meat, non-meat, seafood, and cheesey goodness priced between $3 and $6.  It's rare to see such a broad selection of dishes and non-fried preparations on a happy hour menu that also contains fried pickles and semolina crusted onion rings.  If the bar stools aren't calling your name, no worries--the discount applies in the restaurant area too.

Salt cod beignets/tater tots with harissa aioli.
Fish Story.  Rounding out the pack of daily happy hour spots, Fish Story's deal runs from 3-6:30pm.   During this luxuriously long time, full-size draft beers are $2.50 (!), signature and well cocktails are $5, and a half dozen of their wines on tap are also $5 per glass (the Morning Sun Sangiovese rosé from Sonoma Mountain is my vinous go-to).  Foodwise, the $5 menu changes but typically includes oyster shooters, fish tacos, ceviche, clam chowder, and salt cod beignets.  Discounts only apply in the bar area and on the pleasant front patio, aka the Octopus' Garden.

Zins' thrilling smoked salmon, goat cheese, caper pizza.  Try
it with a cucumber gimlet for maximal enjoyment.
Zinsvalley.  Holding court over the brick plaza on First Street, Zinsvalley is a spacious restaurant with plenty of shaded patio space as well as a fireplace-equipped bar.  Zins does its well-known happy hour in the bar Monday-Friday (no weekends), from 2-6pm--except for Wednesdays, when the hours remain happy until closing at midnight.  Three dollar beers, $4 well cocktails and house wine, and a discounted appetizer menu happens every happy hour night, but there are also special deals on Tuesday (half-price burgers) and Thursday ($6 you call it Martinis, featuring Ketel One).  The vibe is casual, and the bar is usually full of locals.

Bounty Hunter Wine Bar.  Bounty Hunter started its happy hour discounts in the dark early days of the recession, but the enduring popularity of these offerings has kept them around since.  Deals run Monday through Thursday from 3-6pm, and ALL DAY on Monday until closing.  During these happy times, draft beers (including Guinness) are 2-for-1, and Bounty Hunter wine brands (Streamside,  Pursuit, Waypoint, The Vigilante, etc.) are 2-for-1 by the glass, or 20% off by the bottle.  You can also get a quarter slab or ribs for $5, or a BBQ sampler platter with brisket, pulled pork, and ribs with a dollop of cole slaw (a full meal) for $10.

New bar tables and chairs moved into the wine bar space
in mid-September. Is a flatscreen next?
Whole Foods Wine Bar.  Ok, this one is technically neither a restaurant nor a happy hour--it's a frickin' unbelievable value.  The recently expanded wine bar located in the heart of the Napa Whole Foods Market is a wondrous place, open 11:30am to 8pm daily, where you can order beers like Four In Hand IPA or White Cloud Belgian White for $1.99, 5-ounce pours of Sancerre for $5, a half bottle of Veuve Clicquot for $30, cheese plates for $8, and/or any bottle in their wine department at retail cost, with no corkage. Thursday and Friday night wine tastings cost an impossible $2 per person... and we're talking flights of Rombauer Vineyards (9/22-9/23), Robert Sinskey Vineyards (9/29-9/30), and other totally legit producers.  No joke. Check the tasting schedule for details.

For more of my favorites, check out Part Two of the Guide...

Monday, September 5, 2011

Savoring Summertime

Flipping through my mealtime pictures from the last few weeks, I am struck by how many delicious items I discovered for the first time this summer.  Time for a roundup of the best stateside dishes of recent memory! (For pictures of France's prime offerings, check out my post from early August.)

Porchetta Arugula Pizza 

I discovered this luscious beast at the Silver Oak Release Party pizza pairing contest, when it won my heart and first place vote among a field of worthy contenders. A chewy blistered crust, perfect tomato to cheese ratio, and glorious paving of succulent porchetta slices packs plenty of flavor right out of the oven, but then the whole thing goes to another level with a cool showering of fresh arugula and shaved pecorino romano. Perfection. It was spectacular with Silver Oak's Alexander Valley Cab, but it is also superbly satisfying with Ca'Momi's own house red, Rosso di Napa. And, if you hit Ca'Momi on Sunday, Monday, or Wednesday night, you can get a bottle of the house red and any pizza (including this one) for only $20.  Total.

Grilled Watermelon Heirloom Tomato Salad 

Gorgeous, juicy, and minimally dressed, this is summer on a plate.  The hint of char on the watermelon brought a nice caramelized element to offset the sweet and tart aspects, but the stealthy showstopper of this salad was the creamy pine nut puree drizzled around underneath the peppery watercress and salty ricotta salata.  Amazing stuff.  I'm very pleased with the menu additions coming out of Fish Story under Kiwi chef Clint Davies, who took over from Stephen Barber in late June. Can't wait to go back and try some more of his repertoire.

Ham Biscuit With Peach-Borage Jam And Creole Mustard

Wow. As hard as it may be to believe, this thing tasted even better than it sounded, and even better than it looked.  Salty, meaty Fremont ham.  Sun-kissed peach preserves, with an unexpected herbal twist.  Tangy, spicy, coarse-grained mustard.  A perfect buttermilk biscuit enveloping it all like a fluffy golden cloud, if clouds tasted like butter.  And ... all this artisanal farm-fresh goodness costs a mere $3.25.  Get there early, because this divine creature is only on the breakfast menu.

Pork Chop With Agave and Malanga

Cielito Lindo opened in the old Annalien space on Main Street in July. Another Mexican restaurant for Napa? Yes... but with an original concept, and plenty of dishes you won't find anywhere else in the valley.  The menu salutes the cuisine of Jalisco, the Mexican region best known in the U.S. as the home of Puerto Vallarta.  As you might expect, there is a lot of fresh seafood involved. As you might not expect, there is also a pork chop to remember. Thick cut, seared, and slathered in a sweet-savory agave and lychee pan sauce, this slab of pork is irresistible--especially perched on its starchy mash of malanga (a tropical tuber very similar to taro, with a nutty, earthy flavor). I loved it when I tried it in the restaurant, but I loved it even more when I stood in front of my fridge later that night, gnawing the leftovers off the bone.