Two 4-hour Dinners (when just eating dinner becomes a life enriching experience)

On our recent mini vacation to our lovely northern neighbors, San Francisco and Napa Valley, Fwet and I experienced amazing, fantastical, palate-elevating, mind-expanding, tummy-tantalizing, gastronomical euphoria!

Or, to put it simply… ate some really damn good food and drank some damn good wine.

But the thing is, it was beyond just purely eating the delicious slobber-inducing, intellectually-stimulating and interactive food…it was the ambiance; the warm–truly warm and personable service. It seems most restaurants that I’ve been to (which may have good food) but the service tends to err on the side of rushed, polite to outright cold, mediocre or just plain forgettable. And when spending this amount of moola and time, I think I can expect a bit more in the way of service and ambiance 😉

So in this particular post, I shall provide an overview of the two blazing gastronomical highlights of our trip: Restaurant Gary Danko and Morimoto’s Napa.

RESTAURANT GARY DANKO, SAN FRANCISCO, CA

Ahh GD’s…hm about 7 years ago, my palate was fully mother expanded by tasting his ingenious appetizer of Oysters, gently and barely cooked in warm white wine–to the point of just plumping the oyster meat into juicy pillows of sea briney goodness, then drizzled with a deceivingly concentrated yet delicate lettuce creme (you do not realize that lettuce could be so flavorful until you try this) and topped with a counter-point to this delicate-ness, Osetra Caviar. Sighh 🙂 After that first meal, I  became Gary Danko’s unofficial marketing executive–blabbing to anyone who merely mentioned “San Francisco” about my “favorite restaurant in the whole world.”

Menu Game Plan:

GD’s is one of the only restaurants that I know that allow you, in choosing from a 3 course, 4 course or 5 course, to select from any infinite combination of Appetizer, Seafood Main, Meat Main and Dessert categories–to mix and match as you choose.

It is easy to get greedy (as I did with 3 of my girlfriends a few years ago) and decide “Ooo I will get FOUR entrees then!”–because in this case more is definitely not better. It is not just the amount of food (they by no means are of the 2 sprigs of leafs and a morsel of meat type of portion sizes), is an overwhelming (in an unpleasant and not fully enjoyable way) blend of flavors not meant (duh since they are entrees) to be eaten in one go. It is best to respect the categories–and remind oneself to not be greedy by trying to maximize cost spent per ounce consumed. It is like experiencing a symphony on your tongue–where each dish, each ingredient is all beautifully thought-out and executed by the chef vs. a mosh-pit, all you can eat buffet.

So! On that note, Fwet and I decided to have 2 appetizers and an entree each (the apps are awesome and probably where Chef Danko tends to get more creative) and then if we felt like it later, we would then opt for a desert.

We did not have a reservation, and so we showed up right when they opened and sat at the bar–and let me tell you, I think this is a best kept secret. The bartender, Dave, or I like to call him Super Dave because of his superb amazing service + plus sense of humor, is awesome!

So without further ado, here is what we had:

Red Pepper Puree Soup (bright fresh peppery flavor)

Appetizers:

Glazed Oysters with Osetra Caviar, Zucchini and Lettuce Cream (ahh can’t go wrong with this one)

Juicy plump sweet oysters with lettuce cream, and salty pop of caviar.

Lobster Salad with Hearts of Palm, Mango, Pistachios and Honey-Vanilla Vinaigrette (The lobster was out of this world sweet and fresh, and paired beautifully with the subtle vanilla flavor–with bright pops from the chunks of mango)

Risotto with Lobster, Rock Shrimp, Shimeji Mushrooms, Asparagus Fresh Corn and Peas (This was heaven: Risotto was cooked perfectly–the lobster and rock shrimp, huge delicious sweet chunks, not overcooked–tender–with sweet pops of fresh corn and earthy mushrooms grounding it all)

One of our favorites! Absolutely perfectly cooked risotto, with sweet chunks of fresh lobster and rock shrimp, with also sweet fresh pops of corn to balance the decadent creaminess of the risotto.

Seared Foie Gras, Watercress, Cherry Compote (Ah my dear Foie, I shall miss you dearly come July 1st…)

Classic—cherry compote with Foie and fresh watercress I think (if i remember…) but sigh how can you go wrong. Thank you Mr. Duckie for sacrificing thy liver and life for me.

Main Entrees:

Branzini with Fennel Puree, Niçoise Olives, and Saffron-Orange Emulsion (The skin was crisp and tasty–makes me want to invest in a blow torch–an overall delicate dish with nice varying textures–fluffy fennel puree, moist branzini meat and crisp skin)

A perfect dish for summer–light herbie flavors (fennel puree) and interesting textures (crisp skin and soft moist meat)

Quail Stuffed with Foie Gras, Mushrooms and Quinoa, Nettle Panisse, Spring Onions, Peas and Artichokes (What a happy Quail!)

A happy quail indeed, stuffed with foie

To Drink:

Two bottles (oh yes, that is how we roll…or rather how our livers roll…or now, lack thereof…sigh detox time)

We couldn’t have our cheese plate with water, so we moved onto vino bottle numero dos!

For Dessert:

A Selection of Farmhouse and Artisanal Cheeses Presented Tableside (Man, this was the most interesting, intellectually stimulating cheese plate ever! One of the cheeses and darnit I should have taken notes while Dave was describing them all in great detail to us (how funny would that be, to bring a notepad to dinner just so you can capture…hmmm) but twas a “thinker’s cheese” where the flavor develops as you chew on it to a richer nuttier fuller body flavor. Another one was a cheese brushed with Chimay throughout its aging process–and you could taste the subtle Chimay beer infused in the cheese. And last but certainly not least was the very robust Roaring 40’s bleu cheese–sweet creamy complex and powerful (not for the faint of heart–but hey I can hang with stinky tofu so this was no problemo 😉

MORIMOTO’S NAPA

Ahhh this was a personal highlight for me, since I was surprised by the clever creativity of Chef Morimoto’s dishes (specifically his appetizers!) and it really elevated my tastebud experience of Japanese (style) food. I enjoyed how it took traditional basics of Japanese food and introduced me to new combinations or playful methods of eating the food (see metal spatula in the Toro photo).

(On an amusing side note, Fwet loved it –he normally is a total Japanese food snob as I think I’ve mentioned before–but his dad also has tried Mormimoto’s and being of the strict traditional Japanese food mindset, he actually did not care for Mormimoto’s cuisine. SO! Definitely not for the traditionalists!)

After doing some wine tasting at our favorite wine tasting room in downtown Napa (Vintner’s Collective–where they only feature unique boutique wineries–vs. the mass produced), the staff member recommended us to just drop in and sit at the bar at Morimoto’s –and specifically order from the Appetizer menu (it seems that is where he gets the most creative), which I now highly recommend as well!

A nice view of the sushi bar and watching the chefs do their thang.

Our Meal:

Toro Tartare (Wasabi, Nori paste, Sour cream)

 

This was where you use the metal spatula and scoop some delicous toro and then mix and match with any of the 6 condiments (in the wooden plate) and dip into the soy sauce.

Morimoto Sashimi (Seared Toro, Salmon, Eel, Hamachi, Five Sauces)

Another highly creative and fun/interactive dish: Select the slice of fresh sashimi and squirt a bit of (1 of 5) sauces from the pipette, and dip and mix as you like 🙂

Lamb Carpaccio (Wasabi leaf, Scallion-Ginger Dressing)

My first raw lamb–Lamb Carpaccio: Delicious! A very delicate lamby flavor (so I suppose the opposite cooking method, slow-braising lamb really brings out that gamey lamb flavor) Lovely combo!

Kama- Collarbone (Red Miso Chimichurri Sauce)

Ahh glorious yellowtail collarbone…tender and super flavorful–the flavors all the more concentrated as it was cooked above hot coals–with roasted meyer lemon to squeeze on it.

Sea Urchin Carbonara (Smoked bacon, Udon noodle, Crispy shallot, Raw Egg)

Lets have a moment of silence for this dish…….AMAZING!! Deathly indeed–the richness of carbonara, the creamy raw egg yolk, smoky bacon, fresh pops of peas, and the briney richness of uni….sigh….

Shrimp Tempura

Now normally shrimp tempura would not call to mind a “creative and unique dish” but boy…Morimoto does this right: Huge chunks of fresh sweet perfectly cooked (i.e. not overcooked) shrimp with airy light batter in two flavors: wasabi and a red pepper. Then homemade ranch dressing on the side.

Morimoto Chicken Noodle Soup

He has a sense of humor Morimoto does….a surprisingly purist simple chicken noodle soup with the most flavorful chicken broth I’ve ever had (as if he concentrated 400 chickens into a broth.)

Dessert: “Smores”

Selected this “Smores” since it sounded interesting with the smoky chocolate made with an infusion of soy sauce–subtle richness/depth it provided to the dish.

Our Beverages:

Premium Sake (Morimoto’s own Junmai Sake)- The best sake I’ve had–a beautiful round honeyed walnut flavor.

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In a Touristy State O’ Mind

A favorite and very important philosophical belief of mine (discovered from my “early-twenties-life-crisis”) is that Life is all about one’s perspective; it is how you decide or choose to look at things that makes all the difference.  Indeed, one of the main applications of this belief is towards one’s happiness: Happiness is what you choose to define for yourself–you alone have that power.  It is not what others, society etc. define for you, that is, unless you allow them to do so (and by doing so, cursing yourself to a very unhappy, unsatisfied and stifling life).

But! Before I start blabbering too much on inner peace philosophies, onto a more whimisical and fun application of such belief–That is, to regard one’s day-to-day (i.e. easily taken for granted) surroundings with new eyeballs (i.e. a fresh perspective)!

So the other weekend, Fwet and I decided to explore a part of downtown San Diego as if we were tourists. We don’t really frequent downtown too often (usually it is to go clubbing or something and since that occurs at night, we realized that we never have explored the area during the day time.) The area we chose was Little Italy!

When Fwet and I travel, we love just walking around the town or city and to soak up the day-to-day life of the people who live there, absorbing the culture if you will. And so we parked at the north-most end of Little Italy and browsed through some really cool modern furniture stores, gaining nice bits of inspiration for our own cubbiecave.

We randomly found a unique Beer Tasting spot called Bottle Craft (as a side note, India street is the main street of Little Italy—with many restaurants and cafes). It is located just down the street from Mona Lisa Italian Deli—A place we unfortunately did not check out this time, but I have heard many a great thing about their delicious Italian cured meats and cheeses. For future reference, it would be great to pick up a sandwich and some antipasti from Mona Lisa deli, then bring it to Bottle Craft to have some beer with it (no food at Bottle Craft, but the staff suggested this to us for next time—so basically having a lovely indoor picnic :). To be honest I am not much of a beer fan, but hey, I figure just like wine and coffee, it is always fun to explore new flavors with one’s taste buds and beer has a complexity and rich history of its own right. (Indeed, SD apparently is quite known for its beer scene—from a recent NY times article, it would be Napa is to wine as SD is to beer!).

Anyways so I had a yummie Japanese Hefeweizen and Fwet had a “California Lager.” (So you can either select to do a featured beer tasting –there were two choices available—or pick a bottle from the broad international selection in their fridge case and have it in the store.) So while sitting there we decided to learn ourselves some beer characteristics (thank you wiki!): Hefs are wheat based beers that are fermented cold…hence they have a heavy wheatie flavor. Lagers on the other hand are warm fermented..and this particular one was initially kind of bitter—but after awhile, this faded away to a much smoother taste (I wonder if beer is like wine in how oxygen exposure/aeration alters the flavors? Ah I am so ignorant of beer).

Then per the suggestion of the friendly staff, we decided to check out for a late lunch, (I wish we had multiple stomachs cuz there were so many other places we wanted to eat) a ramen place called UnderBelly. I had read about this foodie-esque place in some magazine and so we were curious to give it a try. (Fwet is a major Japanese food snob and plus we had the best ramen ever in this hole in the wall place in Shibuya so I wasn’t expecting this place to beat it—BUT! Since we cannot travel to Japan for ramen, we were willing to give it a shot.) We wanted to also eat at Mona Lisa—but sigh next time.

So! UnderBelly is located on Kettner, in a lovely corner location—with super high ceilings and windows—very urban modern meets ramen stand type of place. It was sitting here looking out onto the lovely buildings and harbor/ocean beyond that we could see ourselves living in a downtown such as this—being able to walk everywhere—shops, restaurants, cafes…

The ramen was very delicious–although not “conventional,” the smoky bacon provided a nice rich complexity to the broth.  We sat at the counter–(mainly the restaurant is composed of counter seating) with a lovely lil street view.

Then for dinner we ventured out of Little Italy to North Park area, to Jayne’s Gastropub.  Usually, indeed good food and England seem to be oxymoronous, BUT there are some things they do well heh and fried and deathly pub food is one of em. We started off with delicious tender moist Carlsbad mussels in a rich broth that made me want to drink it (mussel shells may double as spoons 🙂 Then, I had the Sea bass Fish N Chips (beautifully juicy chunks of one of my favorite fishies, with a light crisp fried batter, the sauteed sweet peas were a wonderful combo (a nice break from the fried stuff) but then back to the yummie fries.) Fwet had the delicious deathly Shepard’s pie with chunks of moist lamb and topped with a buttery mashed potato-esque topping mmmm. Talk about comfort food! And for desert we had a perfect Affogato (really can’t go wrong with dark strong espresso poured over vanilla gelato 🙂