Saturday, May 27, 2017

Northern California Road Trip

Fried Egg Sandwich, The Fremont Diner
Back in April, we spent a week in the Sonoma/San Francisco area, marveling at the incredibly beautiful rocky coastline, enjoying the culinary offerings of the area, and relaxing at a lovely inn in Mendocino. Come along as I recount our tour!

We began by driving north from San Francisco airport, the GPS set on Healdsburg. Most of this drive is spent on Hwy 101, really not much to see here other than car dealerships, strip malls, etc. After leaving the cold and gray New Jersey winter behind us, I was really looking forward to the famous California sunshine…unfortunately, the weather gods were not smiling on us. It rained (I’m talking torrential downpours) the entire four days we spent in the Healdsburg area. We made the best of it and soldiered on.

Healdsburg boasts one of the prettiest town squares in California. Ringed by restaurants, coffee shops, wine tasting rooms, and boutique-y type shops, we easily forgot about our damp clothes. One morning, after eating a nondescript breakfast at the restaurant adjacent to the hotel, we roamed around looking for good coffee. Luckily, we found Flying Goat Coffee right off the main square. After a wonderful cappuccino for me and a pour over for Mr B, we meandered a couple of blocks to Shed. Picture a Williams-Sonoma store coupled with a cool restaurant/food shop and you’ve got Shed. This place was right up our alley. You can buy everything from hand-thrown pasta bowls, cookbooks, grains, sweets, oils and vinegars, to house made pickles, artisan cheeses, breads, and cured meats. 
Hazelnut Babka - Shed

We ambled around ogling the kitchenware, chatting with one of the friendly staff about some of the unique spices in the store, and then, of course, I had to try one of the luscious looking breakfast pastries. The mini-chocolate hazelnut babka caught my eye. I devoured it. Moist, flaky layers of buttered pastry intertwined with rich chocolate and chopped nuts, it was sublime.


The next day, on the suggestion of a chef friend we drove to Fulton for the food/wine pairing lunch at the Kendall-Jackson Winery. Admittedly, K-J would not have been on my list of wineries to visit due to its huge commercial output, but it came highly recommended. The K-J tasting room is beautiful (I’m sure the estate is too, but as I mentioned, it was raining), with a large circular tasting bar in the center and comfy chairs around the perimeter. 

First Course - K-J Estate
The first course was Estate Beets, Citrus Vinaigrette, Honey and Orange Roasted Almonds, with Nicosia Valley Foggy Morning Cheese, and Chrysanthemum. This was paired with a 2014 Grand Reserve Mendocino County Sauvignon Blanc

Our second course was a delicious Dungeness Crab Cake with a Carrot Radish Slaw, Meyer Lemon, and Carrot Ginger Dressing (paired with a crisp 2014 Santa Barbara County Jackson Estate Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay). 

Course three was a delicate Crispy Maitake Mushroom, Red Wine Tempura, Sweet Soy, Dashi, and Estate Radish, paired with a 2013 Outland Ridge Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley.

The highlight for me was the Red Wine Braised Beef Short Ribs with Estate Grown Swiss Chard, Mole, and Currants. This was served with a luscious 2013 Trace Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon. The chef told us this wine is aged 20 months in 100 year old French oak.

Dessert - K-J Estate
Dessert rounded out our lunch with a 2015 Monterey County Late Harvest Riesling served alongside a Beet Mousse with Yogurt Cream, Honey Mustard Sable Breton, Pickled Mustards, with Orange-beet Sauce, and Lime Meringue. If you’re thinking honey mustard is a bit weird for dessert, you’d be right. Absolutely beautiful presentation, but this was my least favorite course. 

However, a post-dessert course, “Canneles de Bordeaux,” was spectacular, both in presentation and taste. Canneles are small French pastry flavored with rum and vanilla. They have a soft custard center and are covered with a thick caramelized coating. I had heard of these but never tried them. This must be a common practice in the area, though, because we also received them at Dry Creek Kitchen. If you’d like to read about the history of this little confection, see this comprehensive overview from Paula Wolfert.
Canneles - K-J Estate

We were seated in the main tasting room and it can be very noisy if there are big groups doing tastings (as there were the day we visited), so I would suggest trying for a table upstairs where it appeared to be much quieter. The wine/food paired lunch is $55.00/person, and I think it was well worth it. They were generous on the pours and the food quality and presentation was very good.

After lunch, we visited chocolate makers, Jeff and Susan Mall of Volo Chocolate, at their workshop. We met Jeff and Susan a couple of years ago when they were the executive chefs at the dreamy Rancho Pescadero in Baja California. While living in Mexico, they fell hard for the traditional foods and ingredients of the area. Now they’ve returned to their California home and have embarked on a wonderful adventure of crafting authentic chocolate from Mexican cacao beans. They are turning out incredible chocolate bars with inventive flavors such as Dark Milk Chocolate with Brown Butter and Roasted Almonds, Dark Chocolate with Candied Orange Peel, Creamy Dark Mocha (made with Flying Goat Coffee, cream, and cinnamon), or Dark Chocolate Salted Caramel Crunch (I can hear the collective sighs).

Cacao beans
The day we visited, they were in the midst of turning out dozens of adorable and delicious bunnies for Easter. It was a real treat to have Jeff and Susan take us through their process (from bean to bar). If you have a serious chocolate addiction, check out Volo Chocolate, handmade in Sonoma County. You won’t be disappointed.

We are big fans of breakfast (you know, the most important meal of the day). However, if you wanted something more substantial than, say coffee and a muffin, there were not a lot of viable options in Healdsburg.  But an internet search revealed a promising-looking diner in the town of Sonoma. Now remember, we live in New Jersey, the land of diners, so I was curious. And since we had no particular place to go that morning, we figured we’d take a ride to the Fremont Diner and check it out. 

Well, after a forty-five minute drive in the (still) pouring rain, we arrived at a roadside ramshackle tin-like structure. Since it was a Friday, there was no wait and we sat right down. A pleasant server came right over to greet us and about two minutes later, we had a Thermos on our table filled  with great coffee from Four Barrel. 
French Toast - The Fremont Diner

Deciding on our breakfast took a bit longer because the menu looked fabulous! How about Buttermilk Biscuits with Ginger Rhubarb Jam? Or Brioche French Toast served with House made Vanilla Syrup? This was my selection on our “first” visit… the bread was super custardy and light. 

My husband raved about the Smoked Brisket Hash with Collard Greens and Sunny Egg. The brisket was tender and bursting with smoky flavor.

Or the Fried Egg Sandwich with House-smoked Ham, Spicy Mayo on Model Struan Wheat? This was my choice on our “second” visit to The Fremont Diner and it was out of this world! Yes, we went two days in a row! On our last day in the area, we were presented again with the age-old question “where are we going to eat breakfast?” and with the delicious memory of the wonderful experience we had just the day before still fresh in our minds, we hopped back in the car and drove there again! 

Words to live by at The Fremont Diner
Biscuit - The Fremont Diner
However, this time it was a Saturday and a bit later in the day, so we were met with a 30 minute wait. But the wait was worth it. My husband had his other favorite, Biscuits and Sausage Gravy. These biscuits could make a Southern grandma jealous.

What I loved about The Fremont Diner, was the fact that, like a traditional diner, you could get anything from Nashville Style Chicken (spicy, fried chicken with your choice of white bread and collards or waffle, “so hot it’ll set a cheatin’ man straight”), to their Hangtown Fry (scrambled eggs, fried oysters, arugula and potatoes with remoulade and bacon), at any time of day. This place has got it goin’ on and I would kill for a place like this close to home!

And now for something completely different. 

On our last evening in the Sonoma area, we had dinner at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen.  Part of the complex right on Healdsburg Avenue that also houses Palmer’s Hotel Healdsburg, this restaurant is like an elegant oasis. Refined, yet comfortable and unpretentious. 

While perusing the menu, we enjoyed a non-rushed cocktail, all the while taking in the lovely surroundings. A large, beautiful flower arrangement dominates the dining room. Next to it, a sommelier’s table. There is a small bar with about 6 seats. Soft, warm candlelight glows on every table. The chairs are plush. Jazz plays in the background — just loud enough to hear but not so overbearing that you can’t have a conversation with your dining companions. I love it here. 

In fact, the atmosphere was so nice that I didn't want to disrupt it by taking a bunch of pictures so there are just two.

What did we eat? The smooth and fragrant Sweet Pea Soup with Goat Cheese Tortellini for Mr B, and the nutty Risotto with Parmesan Trio (parmesan broth, parmesan foam, and parmesan snow) for me. The perfect start. 

Scallops - Dry Creek Kitchen

Pork Tenderloin - Dry Creek Kitchen

I luxuriated in the Carmelized Scallops and Spring Succotash with house-cured Pancetta, while Mr B got lost in the tender Niman Ranch Bacon Wrapped Pork Tenderloin with Yukon Gold Potato Veloute, Swiss Chard, and Fennel.

Dry Creek Kitchen also has it goin’ on,  just in a different way.

New Friends in Mendocino
That’s all for the first leg of our California trip. Next time: up the coast to Mendocino and back down to San Francisco.

Wishing you a lovely weekend!

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