Saturday, January 29, 2011

What's up with all the island restaurants? Revisiting Gourmet Island

A friend of mine did a project a year ago that consisted of taking pictures of food from a bunch of restaurants down Valley Blvd. in the San Gabriel Valley. While she was doing her research, she discovered the enormous amount of restaurants being named with the word Garden and Happy. Lately I discovered a few places being named with the word island. I initially thought it was a Taiwanese thing to do since Taiwan is an island. But then when I discovered Gourmet Island, I couldn't figure out what island had to do with their Chiu Chow style cuisine.

I personally have a Chiu Chow heritage. I am seven-eighth Chiu Chow and one-eighth Hakka. I'm no stranger to Chiu Chow style foods. Gourmet Island had a barely adequate selection of authentic fChiu Chow foods, mixed with some other general Asian style foods. I had been here once previously and enjoyed the foods a little bit. The last time I visited there I experienced a major issue; the taro mud dessert was spoiled. My family loves taro mud, a quintessential Chiu Chow dessert. It's only offered at a very few of the Chiu Chow seafood restaurants around town, and only a few make them well. Generally they are served with a sweet wet dressing with lotus seeds and cloud ears. The mud paste itself like most Chinese desserts should be lightly sweetened. It's actually hard and takes a lot of work to make taro mud and so we always get it whenever we visit a Chiu Chow style restaurant. But since we had a bad experience with it the first time around, we opted out of it the second time around.

Nevertheless my family and I decided to return to this place to check out more of what they had to offer. We do generally give restaurants revisits if it's decent enough, if only to give ourselves a variety. The rest of the original dinner was enjoyable so we didn't want to let one spoiled dish ruin the restaurant.

(Beef Stew with Light Broth)
We love a good beef stew. Most people are familiar with the Taiwanese version of beef stew, which has a heavy dark colored soup base. It's extremely rich and generally served with noodles. Sometimes beef stew is served dry over rich or in curry. But if you are in for a slightly lighter in flavors version of beef stew, I would recommend the Beef Stew with Light Broth. This dish is actually commonly found in a lot of Cantonese restaurants around town.

The beef this night was cooked thoroughly to a very nice and soft texture. The soup was very flavorful with a fair amount of spices. The black pepper really added a little sting to the soup. This was also a great way to save some money by not having to order an actual soup. It was kept hot the entire time with a little fire from a small portable stove that came with the dish. It was a bit strong in the beginning so we had to turn it down to keep the water from being boiled off and evaporate. It was certainly a juicy and delicious dish. The truth is all it took to make this dish good was time and enough spices. It's very hard to get it wrong.

(Fried Rice)
A lot of restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley recently had been doing promotions by giving away free food. Gourmet Island gave away a free plate of fried rice served in their sizzling plate. I believe Green Island was the first restaurant around the area that started using this wooden framed metal sizzling plate to serve their fried rice. It's a great way to keep the food continuously warm. However the rice tonight was a bit bland and I wouldn't order it if it wasn't free. Even as a free dish, it wasn't all that interesting to eat. It was basically a filler, a replacement for just plain steamed rice.

(Combination Appetizer: Roasted Suckling Pig, Fun Tai and Jelly Fish)
This was the best dish of the night. Although it's an appetizer, I never really think appetizer meant much in Chinese food except during banquets. Ultimately for most meals, things are all served and eaten together. The roasted suckling pig skin was perfectly crunchy while the meat was flavorful and retained some juiciness. The jelly fish was well marinated without it being overly sauteed. The Fun Tai was fine, but I suppose it's just a cold cut so it's hard to go wrong and hard to be impressive.

(Stir Fried String Beans)
I am a big fan of string beans, and stir fried string beans generally is among my favorite. I did find their string beans a bit on the oily side despite being flavorful. I seem to be coming across more and more oily string beans. I really prefer them to be less oily and drier. The garlic also wasn't as strong as I prefer and I generally like it with just a bit of stir fried ground beef in the dish which this was lacking. It would had given it that little bite to the dish that pulls out the crunch in the string beans. It wasn't my favorite version of string beans, but it filled my stomach with enough flavor that neither impressed me nor disgusted me.

The meal was finished off with a sweet soup free of charge. We didn't order the taro mud fearing it may turn out sour again. The sweet soup had some water chestnuts, lotus seeds and an assortment of other goodies inside. However it was way too sweet for my entire family. I never understood why any restaurant would inject their desserts that full of sugar. Fortunately most drinks in the San Gabriel Valley can now be ordered with half sugar or no sugar. But unfortunately the same cannot be said about the desserts. My mother has diabetes and both my brother and I are extremely weary about this since it seems to run on my mother side of the family. So we all basically took a couple sips and decided it was probably best not to finish it. 

Gourmet Island was a nice break from some of our usual joints. It wasn't amazingly prepared but it was still good enough to visit once in a while, very long while. Personally if I were to pick a Chiu Chow restaurant of my choosing, it would be Seafood Village. Their food is much more true to the Chiu Chow culinary style with a few more selections of ethnic dishes. Gourmet Island seemed to be a Cantonese restaurant with a few specifically Chiu Chow dishes added onto the menu.

By the way, Chiu Chow isn't located on any form or Island. It's not even on or near a peninsula.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sheesh...It's U2 Again?

I am a Cantonese Cafe addict; that is my comfort food. I can grab a menu from any Cantonese cafes and just order down the menu from breakfast to dinner. So it's important for me to have that one go-to restaurant whenever I want this stuff. Actually I have like five go-to restaurants when it comes to Cantonese cafes, alternating depending on the deals and quality they currently have. The thing about Cantonese cafes in Los Angeles, more like in the San Gabriel Valley is that the consistency of quality is, well, inconsistent. One day I may find a certain restaurant to be my favorite because the portions are great, the quality is good and the price is cheap. The next month suddenly without warning, they would either jack up the price, or decrease the portion size, or the quality deteriorated. I am then forced to go with one of my five other main choices or even the half a dozen other second choices.

Right now, my Cantonese cafe of choice is U2 Cafe.

It's actually my entire family's Cantonese cafe of choice. Just within the first two weeks alone this year, I had already visited the cafe three times; this post is a compilation of the different visits. The other ones on my current list are JR Cafe, Face Cafe and Garden Cafe. I do have a few other ones I occasionally visit, but these are the ones I most frequent.

(U2 Cafe - Lor Sung Soup)
(U2 Cafe - Cod Cream Chowder)
In order to be a true Cantonese Cafe, the menu must be long and includes a few stable Cantonese dishes as well as some "Cantonese-ized" western dishes. It also wouldn't be a Cantonese cafe if you are not immediately served one of two soups: Lor Sung soup, a Cantonese style minestrone, and some form of cream chowder. The minestrone is the absolute essential for any Cantonese cafe, while some restaurants also serve a Chinese soup as an alternative in place of the cream chowder. U2 serve various versions of their cream chowders, sometimes it's a cod based chowder while other times it's a corn and ham based chowder. There really isn't anything fancy about this chowder. I would certainly not claim this to be anywhere near the best cream chowder I had in my life. But it certainly still hits the spot. Having cod in place of corn and ham gives the soup a bit more substance and just hits the comfort spot in my stomach. It certainly hits my mother's comfort spot. In fact for some odd reason, she chooses to come back to U2 Cafe mainly for the cream soup. I think it's most because of the fact that most other cafes have opted to replace the cream soup with a Chinese soup which she never cared for.

The Lor Sung however is my preferred soup. It is a tomato based soup with lots of vegetables and beef inside. My Dad knows how to make this really well, but we generally don't make it since it's usually made in a huge quantity. The soup served at U2 is average. Fortunately I have yet to taste it to be too salty, though sometimes it can border being too sour from the tomato sauce they use. The consistency does waiver in Cantonese cafes; it's in its nature.

(U2 Cafe - Lemon Iced Tea)
(U2 Cafe - Red Bean Ice)
Drinks came with the lunch special at U2 cafe, which is one of the big pluses. I have to get my drink fix at these cafes. U2 charges an extra 75 cents for the cold version of their free drinks, which is coffee or tea. Tea includes both lemon iced tea as well as milk tea, both of which are refillable. There's a little history behind this when all the Cantonese cafes in the area picked up this trait during the 1990's. I used to be a major milk tea drinker, but I have come to the conclusion because of the inconsistency of the quality of the tea, it is impossible to reliably get a good cup of milk tea. I like my milk tea to be very rich in tea flavor ala the Hong Kong style. There were periods of time when JR Cafe and other nearby cafes served a milk tea that's dark enough, but they fluctuate based on client feedback. That's the reason why Cantonese cafes are all average, they listen to their customers. Sometimes a restaurant just have to stick to their guns on what they believe is good instead of just constantly try to cater to the masses.

Generally speaking I order lemon iced tea with no sugar. It's been a little over two years since I started to decrease and remove sugar from most of my drinks. Most Cantonese cafe are realizing the trend for lower sugar so they usually put a different colored straw into the cup. At U2 I still had to remind them at every refill. Initially I started off with half sugar, which gradually became sugar on the side so I have control. Finally I took the plunge to no sugar for my lemon iced tea and relied purely on the juice from the lemon to sweeten the tea. On occasion we may end up ordering a red bean ice, which is pretty much the only other drink I would order from a Cantonese cafe. Generally speaking the other drinks aren't the best quality around, since their drink bars are generally staffed with waiters who were given a crash course in mixology. I basically only trust drinking their milk tea or their lemon iced tea.

(U2 Cafe - Singaporean Fried Rice Noodles)

I'm a huge fan of rice noodles, and the Singaporean fried rice noodle is a must order on my list at any Cantonese cafes. Of course I can't be ordering this dish every single time since I do enjoy various other dishes. The Singaporean fried rice noodle is curry based and can be semi-spicy depending on who's making it. It is fried with shrimp, sprouts, chasu and green onions, along with the occasional bell peppers and even chilly peppers. U2's version today was on the slightly spicier side where I almost had a little difficulty eating. They added a bit too much chilly peppers in it for my taste. Still I love the dish more then I hate how they can just ruin it by changing the spiciness of it.

(U2 Cafe - Seafood Chow Fun - Burnt)

(U2 Cafe - Seafood Chow Fun with Bad Shrimps)

The other staple of my Cantonese cafe diet is the beef chow fun. There's two different ways to get chow fun; wet style, where the chow much is white and the sauce is a liquid paste, or the dry style, where the chow fun is dark brown in color from the soy sauce and the sauce is cooked into the noodles. I generally order the dry style mainly because my parents prefer eating this. We generally order the beef version, but we do occasionally try out the seafood or other versions of the chow fun.

We ordered the beef version at one of the meals, but this time my parents opted to go for the seafood version instead. Unfortunately today was just not U2's day. The first plate they served us was burnt. I could smell and taste the burnt in the chow fun and it is no good. We told the waitress who knows us pretty well since we've been coming back so often. She was very friendly and took it back for us to remake. A short while later, she brought back out a second plate of it. It wasn't burnt, but the shrimp were bad. It boggled our minds since the shrimp in the Singaporean rice noodles were not bad, and I would assume, correctly so when we asked the waitress about it, that they were from the same batch of shrimps. Our only answer is that the shrimp on the bottom of the batch went bad while the top were still good most likely because the refrigerator was not at the correct temperature. I hope for their sake no one from the health department is reading this. The waitress was kind enough to offer to take it back again, but we decided to just pick out the shrimp and eat the rest. It was too much trouble by then.

(U2 Cafe - Black Pepper Beef Udon)

A good alternative to the beef chow fun, especially for me since I don't really like chow fun, is their black pepper beef udon. Again this plate can be ordered with seafood in place of the beef, which is true for half the dishes on the menu. A lot of Chinese food is simply replace one main ingredient with another and you got yourself another dish. This was actually ordered at a different meal here at U2 a week prior to the burnt chow fun/spoiled shrimp experience. For me the flavor to the dish was good. I could use a little bit more black pepper. The main thing I miss is a sizzling plate to serve it on. Many other Cantonese cafes serve this dish on a hot sizzling plate, which I had always been infatuated with as a child. If you do bring a child, just make sure the plate is kept far out of their reach, cause it is extremely hot.

(U2 Cafe - Baked Pork Chop Rice)

Occasionally I would opt out of something Chinese and go with something more western. Most often I would order a chicken, steak or pork chop with black pepper, mushroom, garlic or onion sauce. In fact I just had that on Martin Luther King Jr. day when I went back to U2 but forgot to take a picture. The one thing I absolutely would recommend anyone to try at U2 is their pork chop and their chicken steak. That is the true gem of this restaurant. There are three dishes that I would order for the pork chop. One, the chicken and pork chop steak combination with the sauce of your choice. Two, the pork chop over rice noodle soup that is generally served at afternoon tea time between 3pm to 5pm. Three, the baked pork chop rice.

The pork chop I believe were briefly deep fried and then baked over fried rice with a rich tomato sauce with just a little bit of cheese. They do not overload the dish with cheese since cheese isn't all too popular in the Asian population. But the little bit of cheddar then use does give it that added flavor that's needed to balance the tomato sauce. The pork chops are slightly crispy but still juicy and never over cooked. I have never had an overcooked pork chop at U2 cafe, and I think they do pork chops better then any of the other cafes around. It's also nice that they use fried rice instead of steamed rice as the base. It added to the flavors of the dish tremendously. This is one of the best made dish at U2.

(U2 Cafe - Salty Fish and Chicken Fried Rice)

Speaking of fried rice, the salty fish and chicken fried rice is one of my family's favorite. It's generally the dish we order when we can't decide what we want. That's the problem with have hundreds of items on a menu. This time they did this dish correctly. I was actually able to smell the salty fish when it came out and I could definitely taste it. The salty fish adds an edge to the flavor of the dish more than salt would do. It's almost likely having that grainy little bites of salt without being overwhelmed by the saltiness of the salt. It was one of those rare times where the dish was actually semi-well made. It wasn't the best though I have ever had. The salty fish was still in very small chunks, which mostly is because they can be a little more costly than other ingredients.

(U2 Cafe - Chicken Salad)
I'm not a big fan of salads at any Cantonese cafes, and I would never deliberately order a salad from there. Yet here's a picture of an actual salad at U2. It turns out that U2 is having a nice promotion where if we spend over twenty dollars before tax, we would get a free chicken salad. If we spent over thirty dollars before tax, we would get a free soy sauce chicken. It's actually not that easy to spend over thirty dollars with a party of three people at U2. Most dishes cost between five dollars to eight dollars. Even with the added 75 cents for a cold drink, it generally would not put your bill over thirty dollars before tax. Now with a free salad, it's really a great deal.

The salad really is nothing special as far as salad goes. But for a salad at a Cantonese cafe, it's better than your normal cut. Most salads at a Cantonese cafe uses iceberg lettuce. I always wonder if they actually ever visited a supermarket sometimes and saw that there are other vegetables aside from this dreadful one. But nonetheless it is what makes it Cantonese. They added a little bit of cucumbers and tomatoes to enhance the flavor, which is more rare than you would think for a Cantonese restaurant. I had once ordered a salad which I had to pay for with purely iceberg lettuce at a Cantonese cafe. The chicken however was very well made. I believe they make it the same way they make the chicken steak, briefly deep fried and well seasoned. That made the salad actually worthwhile, and one of the better salads I had at a Cantonese cafe. But if you are looking for good salads to eat, I suggest you go elsewhere. You won't find it in most Chinese restaurants.

(U2 Cafe - Soy Sauce Chicken)

We got the soy sauce chicken at a different meal where we had four people. That would take us over thirty dollars. U2 has a decent Siu Lap (roasted poutry and pork) department. In fact they have a section of their restaurant devoted to that, which increases their quality. In fact most other Cantonese cafes tends to be weak on this. Generally I would go to Sam Woo for good Siu Lap. The soy sauce chicken at U2 was juicy enough, though a few of their thicker pieces were bordering dry. It was free so I'm not complaining. The ginger oil sauce however could use a little work. It was not strong enough and could use a bit more ginger.

(U2 Cafe - Duck and Wonton Noodle Soup)
Their duck from their Siu Lap section is generally well made. In the soup, the duck then really becomes juicy and wet and easily palatable. The wonton however wasn't my favorite, but then most restaurant's wonton is missing the one key ingredient Dai Dei Ju. So far I believe only Sam Woo makes their wonton with that fish, without which it just taste like a ball of pork meat with very little flavor. The shrimp helps with giving it a little contrast in texture, but Dai Dei Ju is want gives it a kick. The egg noodles today was decent. It had a little spring to it, but not enough for me to be wowed. Beside, I'm not a big fan of egg noodle to begin with.

(U2 Cafe - Chinese Condiments)

Despite having a lot of issues with the consistency of the food, I still return. It's just because I'm an addict for Cantonese Cafe. I'm actually addicted to the environment. It's easy to visit with a friend, order some food and a bottomless cup of ice tea, and spend a good two or three hours chatting without any pressure or discomfort. Sitting at a Starbucks for hours going through two or three cups of coffee would easily cost ten dollars. With that same amount of money, I could get decent drinks for the afternoon and some good chow to go with it.

I'm sure I will fluctuate again in the future between which Cantonese cafe I would go to as my primary hub. One thing for sure I would never quit Cantonese cafe as my comfort food cafe.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Legendary Hainan Chicken: Not So Legendary at Savoy Kitchen

I had heard about Savoy Kitchen for a very long time. I had passed by Savoy Kitchen many times. My hairstylist place was only two stores over. But I had yet to step foot inside this tiny little corner cafe in the middle of busy Alhambra until two Sundays ago with my friend Kenneth. Yes I'm still catching up with my blog, the San Francisco and Napa trip took a while to finish writing. Kenneth had actually been there before and he enjoyed it the last few times he was there. The place was known for its Hainan Chicken, so I already knew what I was going to order before even stepping foot inside the door.

(Savoy Kitchen - Hainan Chicken)
There was a little sign-in sheet at the door. Their indoor seating accommodated only fifteen or so people. They also had a few tables and chairs on the outside next to the cafe that sat an additional fifteen to twenty people. It was a small but cozy joint bustling with a hipper and younger crowd. We waited for about ten minutes before a table was ready for us.

We sat at the counter of the restaurant ready to order some food. I took a quick glance over the menu in case if I wanted to change my mind. I didn't; I still ended up ordering their Hainan Chicken. I was generally a fan of this dish if it's done well, but sadly only a few places did this well. Fortunately Savoy Kitchen did it pretty well; unfortunately it wasn't as good as the hype around it made it seemed. I honestly preferred the chicken at Cafe Spot down the street over Savoy's, but I did like Savoy's rice over any other place I had before.

Hainan Chicken is basically a steamed chicken that's chopped up and served. The juices from the chicken is then added to the rice during the steaming process so that the rice is chicken flavored, and not with MSG either. It also comes with a ginger and chive oil dipping sauce on the side for the chicken. Savoy took this one step further and served the dish with an additional spicy version of the ginger sauce as well as a dark soy sauce. It's always nice to have a choice; I tried all three. The soy sauce was too strong and distracted me from the actual taste of the chicken, which really shouldn't need a distraction; more on this later. Both of the ginger sauces were well made and were true to what they were supposed to be. The taste of the ginger and chives were not masked with an overt amount of salt which some restaurants end up doing.

The rice to the Hainan Chicken at Savoy was extremely well made. They were one of the few restaurants around that actually used the fresh juices from the Chicken and steamed the rice with them. The rice were extremely flavorful unlike other places that simply either poured on the juices afterwards or didn't even bother doing that, but serve you an MSG based chicken soup instead; that always drove me nuts. What I sort of missed and was looking for were a little bit of preserved vegetables somewhere on the plate. It was a pretty meaty, carby and oily dish. It would be nice to even have a hint of fiber somewhere just to make me feel a little better. I suppose it was not always absolutely necessary to add that to a Hainan Chicken dish.

If I judged this dish by everything surrounding the chicken, it was definitely hands down one of the best Hainan Chicken around LA, minus my Dad making it at home. But I can't possibly judge the Hainan Chicken without putting a lot of weight on the Chicken itself. The Chicken was only good, no where near as good as how everyone else made it sound like. With steamed chicken, most restaurants overcook them and they become dry. The few descent restaurants manage to get the dark meat to stay juicy while the white meat is generally dry. The good restaurants get the dark meat right and it's a hit or miss with the white meat. The greatest ones get it all perfect. The one I had from Savoy landed in the good restaurant zone. Most of the slices were juicy and tender, but the thicker white meats from certain parts of the chicken were a bit on the drier side. In fact, even the upper wing of the chicken was ever so slightly overcooked for a Hainan chicken.

I suppose without the hype, I would have thought this to be a pretty good Hainan chicken, but I was definitely expecting more. I wanted perfection or near that and Savoy didn't come close enough. It was only good. Perhaps the one I got was below their usual quality, but that's their problem. I had high demands for my chicken and I hated dry chicken. If I wanted a dry piece of chicken, I would go to El Pollo Loco. This is Savoy, and they were supposed to have the best Hainan Chicken around. I think they understood how to make good Hainan Chicken, I just didn't think they have it down cold to the point that every chicken would turn out perfect. To their defense, cooking chicken perfectly is way harder to do than cooking beef or pork. In the end, I much prefer the chicken at Cafe Spot only because I have yet to eat an overcooked chicken there. But I did enjoy tremendously the rice at Savoy, and would enjoy their chicken more because it's slightly lighter in flavor than Cafe Spot if it wasn't overcooked. I just can't have it all.

(Savoy Kitchen - Lemon Iced Tea)
I also ordered my usual drink, lemon iced tea sans sugar. Savoy served them in medium sized plastic cups. The environmental side of me was screaming "waste," while the consumer side of me was screaming "I can take it to go afterwards." They do free refills which is standard now for both lemon iced tea and milk tea in the San Gabriel Valley for most Cantonese style cafes. There's a history behind this and how this came about mostly during the 1990's which I actually lived through here in the valley. Basically because of the highly competitive nature of the Cantonese cafes of that time, in order to draw more customers, a few of the more established Cantonese cafes began serving free refills on lemon iced tea and milk tea, which were and still are the two most popular drinks at all the cafes. It made sense since even if a customer drank three or four refills, it would only have amounted to a few pennies to a dime or so in extra cost. But the customers were happier and more willing to return as a result. When this first started, we the customers had to ask every time we ordered whether they had free refills. But eventually every restaurant picked it up or at least noted it in their menu which drinks had free refills and which didn't. For American restaurants this may seem trivial, but if you visit Cantonese cafes in Hong Kong or even in New York, they may not necessarily have free refills.

The tea brew at Savoy was good and had some descent tea flavors. I was annoyed that I didn't get a spoon to crunch up the lemon. I had to use my straw to draw out the lemon flavors. It was your average drinkable lemon iced tea. Not too shabby but not memorable either. It's hard to make a cup of lemon iced tea memorable. However when it comes to milk tea, that's a different story and warrants a different post.

(Savoy Kitchen - Curry Chicken With Rice)

My friend Kenneth decided to order the curry chicken with rice. I took the liberty to take a picture and had a little taste of the dish. The curry was mildly spicy which was pretty standard at Cantonese Cafes. Once in a while I would run across a really spicy plate of curry rice, but most restaurants knew not to scare off their customers like that. The curry was also very flavorful and the chicken was just shy of being overcooked. They were mostly cut in long shreds rather than in chunks. It's much easier to overcook shreds than chunks when it comes to curry, but Savoy did a good job with this.

It's nice to finally say I know what Savoy's Hainan chicken tasted like and to know that it wasn't as good as everyone said. But I will probably give it a second try in the future before completely writing it off, but it will be way down the line in the future when some other friend of mine insist that we go again. Personally I don't care for the restaurant mainly because I didn't like the ambience. I wasn't comfortable; I felt like I had absolutely no personal space and all I was doing was being jammed inside a tiny room to pick at some food. At least it only took a few minutes for my food to come out; I suppose that is to be expected for Hainan Chicken. I can't expect them to steam the chicken on the order. I would starve before I get any food in me.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Riesling, riesling, where for art thou my riesling? - 2010 San Francisco & Napa Trip Day 3 - The Wine

Continued from...

Finally, without further ado, I present to you the wines of my trip.

Alright, I lied, with a little ado first. I have to first make the disclaimer that I know very little about wine. Wine is a PhD in its own right, and I have only scratched the corner of the surface. What better way to get better educated than to visit wine central of California, Napa Valley.

(Domaine Carneros - Sparkling Wine Samplers)

I had learned that wine is best if I started off light with sparklings and whites and move towards the more powerful reds. There was certainly no better way to get a day of wine tasting going then to start at Domaine Carneros who specialized in sparkling wines. I suppose if I were to drink before noon, I should at least go with something that is legitimately served before noon on occasion.

(Domaine Carneros)
Domaine Carneros' main building sat atop of a small hill to the southwest of Napa City. We took the beautiful and scenic Old Napa Valley road, which prepared us for a beautiful morning. When we arrived, we were told that if we wanted to enjoy the wine tasting, all we had to do was sit at a table and a waiter or waitress would come and serve us. We grabbed a table outside overlooking the vineyard and shortly after a friendly waitress came to give us a run down of the menu.

(Domaine Carneros - Menu)
There were three samplers on the menu, which I already knew having done my research online. There were a sparkling wine sampler serving three sparkling wines, a red wine sample serving three red wines and a grande taste sampler that served two sparkling wines and two red wines. We only ordered the sparkling wine sampler since that was their specialty, and we wanted to pace ourself for the day.

(Domaine Carneros - Sparkling Wine Sampler)
(Domaine Carneros - 2006 Vermeil Demi-Sec)
(Domaine Carneros - European Pastries)
For fifteen dollars, we got three wines that fell between $30 to $60 a bottle. Looking back at this, it was kind of a rip-off. The wines that were served were not overly expensive and most other places would serve five or more. The fifteen dollars really went towards the atmosphere and the service we got. It was a lovely morning and sipping sparkling wine overlooking fields of green was probably a much more pleasant way to sample the wines than to stand indoors around a counter. To add to the ambiance, we ordered a set of four European patries that went along with the sparkling wines. The three wines were all mostly dry blends of pinot and chardonnay. I personally did not like chardonnay. In fact it was because of chardonnay why it took me this many years to even get into wine.

The first bottle was the 2006 Vintage Brut Cuvee, which I found a little disgusting, mainly because I could really taste the typical chardonnay taste which I hated. For me, chardonnay generally hit me really strong in the front and it can taste a bit more like alcohol than wine. The second bottle was the 2006 Brut Rose, which was a tad bit more enjoyable for me. Even though it was still a chardonnay and pinot blend, because it touched the skin of the pinot, the nasty taste of alcohol of the chardonnay was somewhat masked. Finally the 2006 Vermeil Demi-Sec was slightly, and I mean ever so slightly sweeter than the other two, which probably helped in masking that chardonnay flavor that I didn't like, making this one more enjoyable than the other.

I personally didn't end up buying any of the sparkling wines here despite originally considering it. None of the sparkling wines impressed me enough for me to warrant spending over thirty dollars on them. I did however help my friend pick up a bottle of their pinot noir having overheard the table next to me praise the wine. My friend gave me some money and asked me to surprise her.

(V. Sattui Winery - Fountain)
(V. Sattui Winery - Picnic Area)
We moved up from Napa City to St. Helena for the next winery. This was suggested by a friend of mine on Facebook. A week or so prior to the trip, I posted on my Facebook wall for suggestions of wineries I should attend and this one popped out mostly because the tasting was very cheap. They had a classic wine tasting of five wines for $5 and a premium tasting of five wines for $10.

Having just been to Domaine Carneros, I thought it was just a slow season so I wasn't expecting a lot of people. In fact Domaine Carneros was so slow that it turned my travel buddy off from wine tasting. As we pulled into the parking lot, we discovered it to be vibrant. This place was definitely happening. I suppose it's the low cost of the tasting that attracted so many people; it attracted me and I ended up buying a ton of wine from here as did my friend. I walked up to an open spot at the counter and an ultra-friendly woman who was in charge of that corner greeted me and asked me what I would like. I told her I knew very little about wine. The only thing I knew was that I liked Rieslings. Other than that, I was willing to try a few other things.

She was super friendly and nice. She offered me tasting from mostly the classic menu with a couple from the premium menu for the classic price. Actually by the end of it, she served me six wines and didn't charge me anything. This was before I actually ended up buying near seventy dollars of wine from her. I actually went back and bought even more later but she was no longer there. She had me taste the different Rieslings that V. Sattui had to offer and I discovered the bottle that I wanted; 2009 Anderson Valley White Riesling. This bottle was full of fruitiness and had a wonderful ting to the front of my teeth. It was bright and brilliant and I can see myself drinking this with all kinds of foods. In fact I loved it so much I'm planning on ordering a few more bottles soon. The other Rieslings were basically too sweet for my taste. I had outgrown sweet wines having been influenced by my friend Ko, and now I'm liking drier whites. She promised me I'll eventually move up to reds. I almost dread that, knowing that she was probably right.

(V. Sattui Winery - Vineyard)
Outside the buildings were the vineyards. Just like all the other vineyards in Napa at this time of the year, they were all brown and leafless, awaiting for the next season to come. I suppose this is why most people come in the summer and the fall to see the grapes rip and the fields green. Winter though has its charm and the nostalgia brings forth a soothing ambiance that called out to me to enjoy some wine while wanting to cuddle up with a loved one.

(V. Sattui Winery - 2007 Prestige Cuvee Brut)
(V. Sattui Winery - 2009 Anderson Valley White Riesling)
(V. Sattui Wines)
Ultimately I left V. Sattui with a bottle of that 2009 white riesling for myself and a bottle of their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon for my friend. I didn't actually try this one myself, but the woman who served me said this was the bottle she would just crack open and relax the night to and forget the world. The way she described the bottle and her entire demeanor and personality reminded me of my friend who asked me to get her a few bottles, so I figure it must be right for her. Though when I told the woman that my friend gave me very vague guidelines and a "surprise me" instruction, she used a word to describe my friend that I best not repeat here. Later that day I did return to pick up another bottle of their sparkling wine as my travel buddy wanted to grab a few more bottles for her family.

(Chateau Montelena - Garden Gazebo)
The final stop for the day was Chateau Montelena. The day really flew on by and we were hitting the chateau near its closing time. This was on my list because it was the famous winery that won the famed French competition and made famous again through the movie Bottleshock. I definitely wanted to see what the fuzz was all about and perhaps try their world famous chardonnay.

(Chateau Montelena - Wine Tasting)
(Chateau Montelena - Award Winning Chardonnay)
As luck would have it, their wine tasting menu for the day started off with their famous $50 bottle Chardonnay that won the historic 1976 Paris Tasting. As you already know, I detest Chardonnay with my whole being. But I suppose I can't write off Chardonnay completely without trying the bottle that is supposed to be the very best in the world, so perfect that the original is still preserved in the Smithsonian. To my pleasant delight, I actually enjoyed this bottle of Chardonnay. It actually didn't taste like rubbing alcohol inside my mouth. It certainly had a little butteriness to it as the flavor of the fruit spread over my tongue. I couldn't believe it, I was actually enjoying a glass of Chardonnay for the first time in my life. It was actually good enough to drink. But then would I ever buy this bottle in my life, probably not. It was a good bottle of Chardonnay, but it was still Chardonnay and it isn't my preferred white wine. For $50, I could get two really awesome bottles of Rieslings which I much prefer.

Next on their menu were their Zinfindel and their low end Cabernet Sauvignon. I was not a fan of zinfindel and this bottle did not change my mind. I just never understood zinfindel; I am literally confused whenever I drink it. I was not sure what it was that I was drinking. It didn't feel like a red wine, nor a white one. It didn't burst with flavors nor did it taste like alcohol. I just couldn't make sense of it, and this bottle still didn't make sense to me. The Cabernet Sauvignon however did make sense. The flavors of the fruit was definitely in the wine and I can easily feel how at ease that bottle can put people to. That was definitely on my to get list for my friend.

(Chateau Montelena - 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon)
(Chateau Montelena - 2004 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon)
Finally the two big ones were their 2006 and 2004 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, each with a price tag of $135 and $145 respectively. For a $20 wine tasting price tag, this was definitely a bargain. The combined full bottle values of the wines that I sampled that afternoon was near $500 compared to the measly $150 at Domaine Carneros. To top it off, they waived the tasting fee if I bought over $100 worth of wine, which I did.

This tasting of the two Estate Cabs was the first time in my life where I could finally tell what an open flavor versus a closed flavor tasted like. The only way to learn the difference really was to try the two bottles back to back. There was just no way to really describe what it was that the wine was doing inside my mouth, and I won't even try. All I knew was that both bottles were full of the same flavors except the flavors in the 2004 bottle blossomed inside my mouth more than the 2006 bottle. I can only imagine what these two bottles would taste like in ten more years time.

(Chateau Montelena - Vineyard)
(Chateau Montelena - Wine Purchases)
I ended up buying a bottle of their 2006 vintage Riesling since I wasn't a red wine drinker, at least not yet. I just wanted to give their riesling a try. I was told that since it was a 2006 bottle, it would be a slightly sweeter. I bought the Chardonnay and the non-estate Cabernet Sauvignon for my friend who wanted to be surprised. Don't asked to be surprised if you don't really want to be surprised was my motto. Well I figured if there was one bottle of Chardonnay to try, this would probably be the one.

(Chateau Montelena - 2006 Riesling)
(My Rieslings)
(Seven Wines)
I learned a tremendous amount about wine, but I learned even more about how much I don't know about wine. It really was an impossible task to learn the in's and out's of wine without living on a winery or being inside a cellar. There was just so much out there, good and bad, that it was really a lifetime of work. In the end none of that mattered. The most important part of it all was learning about which wines I liked and which ones to avoid.

This trip up north was probably the most productive of all the trips I had ever taken there. I was able to get a good sense of what San Francisco was and I learned a ton about wine in Napa. It had a ton of food from various cultures, and the world that the food encompassed were revealed. Focusing a trip around the real foods of the destinations can really show me what the place is all about. It was reflective of the people's willingness to put up with a long wait for a table in the freezing cold in the morning simply to have forty-five minutes to an hour of stomach warming happiness. It revealed insights on the lives of the local people and their travels and returns as they divulged their stories to a waitress pouring hot coffee. It showed me that whether in Napa or in Los Angeles, a good bottle of cabernet sauvignon is used in the same way after a long day of work or an intense final exam. Though the foods we eat may be different, we are all essentially the same because we must eat, and we all eat for the same reasons; we eat to live.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Burger To Die For - 2010 San Francisco & Napa Trip Day 3 - The Food

Continued from...

I had heard the name Napa for a very long time. I had envisioned in my mind a peaceful and secluded paradise a little ways north of the bustling city of San Francisco. I didn't start enjoying wine until last year on a train ride on Amtrak's Coastal Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles. I knew only the basic names and understanding of wines and had been to one wine tasting trip prior in my life. I never thought I would visit Napa since I wasn't much of a wine person, but this year I finally made the journey.

(Napa Valley)
(Gaia Hotel & Spa)

Napa was beautiful, though busier than I imagined even for the winter time. Perhaps I was disillusioned by movies like bottleshock which my friend Kenneth made me watch before going. It did give me some names of wineries to visit during this trip. To avoid the high price tags of the hotels in Napa city and St. Helena, we ended up at Gaia Hotel and Spa Resort down in American Canyon. It really wasn't a problem since there weren't too much traffic during the winter season. Gaia Hotel was also a fully environmentally sustainable hotel in Napa which made me feel good booking the place. They named each room after something different from nature, though the interior I suppose were all the same as far as I can tell. Fortunately there wasn't a wall full of grasshoppers nailed to the walls inside.

(Harassing the cook will definitely result in smaller portions)
(Butter Cream Bakery and Diner's Kitchen)
With a full day's worth of wine drinking, I made sure we had a hearty breakfast before gulping down alcohol. We ended up at the Butter Cream Bakery and Diner in Napa City. It was an authentic 50's diner where a lot of the locals ate. I was certainly out of place carrying my huge Canon camera bag around with me. The dinning area was small and accommodated around twenty to thirty people along with another fifteen or so at the counter by the cooking stations. We opted for the counter since I always preferred the atypical dinning experience, where we got to watch the cooks in action making our breakfasts.

(Butter Cream Bakery and Diner - Small Breakfast)
We both ended up ordering the small breakfast which included eggs, toasts, hash browns and a choice of  ham, sausage or bacon. I never liked bacon and I am generally weary of sausages as they can be either really good or really nasty. I made the safe choice for ham with my eggs scrambled. The grill was in full view from where I was sitting. I was able to see how everything was cooked. The toasts were put through the toaster twice to brown them. The hash browns were cooked in mass and thrown in practically every other plate that was being served. The meat were cooked to order, as were the eggs. I had serious issues with the eggs as I had already blogged about in my earlier post Chopped Up Omelets Are Not Scrambled Eggs!!! Scrambled eggs are to be scramble both before and during the cooking process.

Aside from the badly made scrambled eggs, the rest of the breakfast were good and hearty. It had the taste of traditional Americana in them. The ham was slightly burned and not overly salty, which is a good sign. The hash brown had a crispy top with a mushy middle which was very enjoyable. In the end, diner food is just that, diner food. Very few diners actually stand out in my book; I absolutely love some of the dishes at Diner on Main in Alhambra if you are in that area. The atmosphere here was the real deal. An older couple who sat next to me were long time customers of the diner, and the waitress had a small catching up session with them on their winter trip to Montana. I was hoping for that kind of treatment but I found myself feeling more like an outsider as the waitress paid very little attention to me or my needs. I blame my Canon camera bag.

(Oxbrow Public Market)
(Oxbrow Public Market - Olive Oil Shop)
(Oxbrow Public Market - Tea Shop)
(Oxbrow Public Market - Live Seafood Shop)
(Oxbrow Public Market - Pica Pica Maize Kitchen)
After breakfast our first winery stop was for the sparkling wines at Domaine Carneros, which I'll review in a separate post. After some lovely European pastries and elegant sparkling wines to kick off the morning, we stopped by the Oxbrow Public Market to pick up lunch. It does seem like all I did was eat and drink during this trip; that is really all I did. I couldn't pass by an opportunity to check out a public market. For me, it gives me a sense of the people in the city and what their taste buds are saying. There were a good variety of foods and other shops in the market. It was also very nice to see the existence of a tea shop in the market, though it was a bit dead. I am a big fan of tea and I personally do not drink coffee; I do eat some coffee products on occasion.

(Pica Pica Maize Kitchen - Arepa Catira)
After circling the market, which was rather small, I decided on Pica Pica Maize Kitchen, which actually was one of the two choices for lunch based on yelp reviews. The other was Gott's Roadside Napa next door to the market. It was a bit difficult to figure out what to order out of the menu at Pica Pica as I'm not very familiar with Venezuelan cuisine. They did have the ingredients written out next to each name so I picked it based on what kinds of meat and assortments I wanted. I ended up with an Arepa Catira, which was sauteed chicken in their signature sofrito with cheddar cheese in a grilled corn bread. The market was full and there weren't any open tables, so we took our food to Fuller Park which was a few blocks away from the market. Personally it was more enjoyable sitting outdoors under a few trees in a quiet park eating the food than it was with people criss-crossing everywhere in a stuffy room.

The Arepa Catira was descent. I found the arepa to be too hard and rough against the meat and the cheese. The chicken and the cheese were well marinated and were tasty on their own, though there were just a bit too much cheese and not enough chicken. When they were bitten along with the bread, the thick texture of the bread destroyed whatever balance that was left and all I could feel in my mouth was the thick corn bread. Personally I almost wanted to pour out the insides and eat it alone with less cheese, and occasionally take small bites into the arepa to balance out the chicken and cheese. If it wasn't because of the soothing atmosphere of a green park, this would had been a mediocre meal at best.

(Gott's Roadside's Daily Special)
That afternoon we visited two other wineries, V. Sattui and Chateau Montelena, both of which were superb in their own right which I'll go into details in the next post. After a whole day's worth of wine and food, we stopped by Gott's Roadside up in St. Helena right on highway 29. I was so glad that I saw the place on my way up to Chateau Montelena, this place was amazing.

(Gott's Roadside - Wisconsin Sourdough)
As soon as I stepped foot in front of the counter of Gott's Roadside, I knew I was definitely in Napa Valley when I saw one of the specials for the day was Pillar Rock's Cabernet Sauvignon. Leave it to Napa to serve wine as a daily special next to a Chicken Tortilla soup and a Dulce de Leche Shake. I had enough wine for the day though so I only ordered the Wisconsin Sourdough. I saw on the menu that it had both mushrooms and in a sourdough and I didn't have to think twice. I'm a burger person and I make my own burgers from scratch with my own recipe, but this was seriously one of the best burgers I had ever had.

Unlike the Menage A Trios from Ike's, Gott's Roadside's Wisconsin Sourdough's flavors were all distinct and coherent. Though my intent was to take the burger back to the hotel to eat, I took a few bites before heading off. When the burger first entered my mouth, I could taste the juiciness of the medium cooked beef, the aroma and the sweetness from the mushrooms, the chewiness of the bacon, the tangy BBQ sauce on top distinct from the creamy mayo, and the cheddar, all squeezed between two crunchy sourdough bread slices. They all then blended inside my mouth forming one coherent divine burger taste that cried out to me to eat me and eat me now. I had to resist the urge to eat it all right there since it was still a bit early for dinner. It was just convenient for us to grab the dinner right then.

I also got to try some of their sweet potato fries that my friend ordered. I personally don't care for sweet potato, though I would eat it when the opportunity presented itself. I took a few pieces and they were delicious if you like sweet potatoes. They were fresh, well cut and the flavors of the sweet potato was definitely there.

Most people would opt for a nice sit down restaurant while eating in Napa. But we weren't really super hungry and my friend really didn't eat much to begin with. So it's certainly possible to find some good joints to get your taste buds all fired up in Napa. If you are ever in the valley, just be certain to stop by Gott's Roadside and give their burgers a shot. If you are a fan of red wines, be sure to grab a bottle while sinking your teeth into some of the best burgers money can buy.

Continue reading at...
Riesling, riesling, where for art thou my riesling? - 2010 San Francisco & Napa Trip Day 3 - The Wine

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