Why is it that certain words catch on and become prominent in our lexicon (i.e. "vape" as 2014's Word of the Year) while others seem to get lost in the hashtag cesspool? I'm trying to make "wocation" (working vacation) a thing, because what's better than traveling to do what you love? Granted, my wocations revolve around wine; I'm sure there's a huge disparity between the enjoyment of my trips and say, a technology conference. But, I'm still going to try to start a "wocation" movement.
April's wocation was to Nothern California and the itinerary covered both city and country: specifically, San Francisco, Napa Valley and Sonoma. Seminars, trainings and of course, winery visits, were all on the docket. San Fran's dining scene rivals New York's in many respects, both in cuisine and in wine, and there's been a bit of a bicoastal culinary showdown going on. Eager to ensure we optimized our non-work dinners, we made several reservations through OpenTable.
Saturday night started off not with wine, but with beer, at Stone's Throw, where locavore cuisine meets craft beer. The rustic decor married sleek modern touches in this inviting neighborhood place.
We started with a charred octopus; perfectly tender yet meaty, it was a solid start to the meal. For entrees we opted for sea bass with shrimp ravioli in a tomato-moroccan broth and a seared duck breast with black rice and lettuce-wrapped confit. The just-picked-from-the-garden peas that accompanied the fish were the first mouthful where the concept of seasonality shone through and why there is a premium value placed on eating what nature dictates. The fish itself was slightly salty but mellowed out when consumed with the savory tomato broth.
Tender duck breast with crispy skin was only one preparation of this "duck two ways." Confit stood in for rice in a play on a dolmas grape leaf; lush and rich, it mirrored rice's toothsome texture but gave an unctuousness to the bite.
To drink, we paired the plates with Rockmill Brewery's Saison Noir, 3 Fonteinen's Zwet.be and Brouwerij de Molen's Heaven and Hell. The trip was off to an auspicious start.
A few days later we found ourselves at Coqueta, Michael Chiarello's tapas joint, located on the Embarcadero. Although the happy hour crowd was effusively, um, happy (most likely due to the strong drinks), we muted them out as one delicious tapas dish after another was delivered to our table. The simple yet innovative salmon ahumado montadito, comprised of smoked salmon, queso fresco and a drizzle of truffle honey, elevated NYC's standard breakfast sandwich into a salty-sweet concoction.
Traditional patatas bravas were updated from cubed spuds to white and purple new potatoes fried whole to become orbs of deliciousness. Dotted with a garlic aioli and a side of smoky, spicy salsa, these potatoes brought a fiery kick to a normally bland starch.
We also feasted on grilled octopus, duck and pork meatballs, the fideua with mixed seafood, and head-on prawns. The meal fell apart at the end with a misorder and lengthy waiting times for the last couple of dishes, but overall the bites were innovative.
Desserts, however, came up short. Churros were perfectly fried but the dipping chocolate had an offputting herbaceous note that clashed with the cinnamon-y sweetness of the churros. And a dessert "bite" of an ice cream sandwich was erroneously served with a blue cheese ice cream instead of the promised olive oil.
The wine menu highlighted most of Spain's wine regions but, as this was California, had a sizeable listing of local producers. From this well-curated list we opted for Terras Guada, O Rosal, Rias Baixas, 2012, an intriguing blend of Albarino and Treixadura. Ripe orchard fruits, bright citrus notes, flinty minerality and a decent amount of acid, this wine worked well with nearly every dish in our lineup.
Our final meal of the trip took place mere hours before we drove to the airport; at 5:28pm, we were lingering outside of SPQR, waiting for them to unlock the doors and let us in for our 5:30 reservation. It was an ungoldly hour for these New Yorkers to be eating dinner, but we couldn't miss the opportunity to try this highly acclaimed restaurant.
One would imagine we'd be sick of octopus by this point but we had to have one more go at the cephalopod. Plated with with kale, panisse, chickpeas, basil, pistachio and lemon, the flavors popped with brightness. This was the definitive winner in the week's octopus lineup.
We then dove into the pastas, starting with the radiatore with arugula pesto, teeny bay shrimp, herb breadcrumbs and a shellfish broth. The wavy ridged pastas were a fun texture and cradled the pesto in its crevices, while the shrimp lent a sweetness to the dish.
If a menu notes chocolate, it's pretty much an automatic order, whether it appears as dessert, or, in this case, as a pasta dough: chocolate and pea agnolotti with pea shoots, fonduta and ricotta salata. The cheese-filled packages were a symmetrical split of green and brown; however, the chocolate came through as an earthy note rather than sweet. It was very subtle but complimented the vegetables.
The final pasta, whole wheat lumache with beef cheek sugo and brussel sprouts, was a homey, comforting bite, reminiscent of a Sunday gravy. It veered towards the emotional, rather than the intellectual, side of the brain.
To drink, we selected Bruno Verdi, Buttafuoco, Lombardy, 2012 from the Italian-leaning list. Dark berries, spice and some earthiness came through on this medium-bodied red, which fared well with the range of pastas.
Obviously, we had to partake in dessert, so we opted for the cinnamon bombolini, red wine apple, chocolate, crushed cookie and a fior di latte gelato. Two small spheres, akin to Dunkin Donuts' Munchkins, were served with a regular sized ringed donut, along with poached fruit, chocolate sauce and the gelato. Airy, cakey, warm, and sugary, these donuts made us giggle with delight as we consumed them.
Then, a debate ensued: Should we get another dessert? Since there was no strong objector on this debate team, a tiramisu soon followed. However, this was more like a trifle; served in a tall glass, the luscious layers of cream and cake enticed the eyes. Moist cake, cloudlike cream and crunchy cookie texture made us grateful for the additional sweet rush.
The San Fransisco restaurant scene definitely kept us on our toes and we're eager to come back to experience even more from this Bay Area beauty.
Interested in checking out any of these restaurants? Head to OpenTable to make your own reservations.