Local Goodness with a View
In an area known for great beauty in all directions, West Marin is an exceptionally beautiful destination of the Bay Area. Go over the Golden Gate Bridge, due west and in only about 50 - 60 minutes you’re on the coast. Furthermore, the drive getting there is a feast for the eyes, with the proverbial rolling hills sprinkled with cows, horses and goats. Thanks to the Marin Land Trust, most of the area is protected and unspoiled, with little or no development allowed and only the stingiest amount of land allotted for farming. Intermixed, there are small town centers like Pt. Reyes, home of the local favorite Cowgirl Creamery, the towns of Olema, Bodega Bay - known for the film location of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and Inverness. The town of Inverness is especially tiny, with only about 3 structures that make up the center. It consists of a post office, a general store/deli, and Saltwater restaurant and oyster depot.
Saltwater is literally across the street from the bay, so when they say fresh oysters, they mean it. It effortlessly combines contemporary minimalism with rustic charm, aesthetically speaking, and while the menu (and prices) winks at high end city fare, the atmosphere is neighborhood-y and comfortable, welcoming both locals and visitors. Chef Jeremy Whitcomb boasts that Saltwater is “rooted in its respect for sustainably managed farmlands, shellfish producing water bottoms and folks that are engaged in the thoughtful gathering of food. It welcomes local foragers, farmers, visitors and neighbors to partake in festive celebrations that honor the efforts of those who grow and gather our food.”
As for the end result, Saltwater maybe has too minimal a menu and presentation. The sea bass entree I ordered was absolutely good, but too small a portion for the price and in need of embellishment of a starch (maybe a puree), in addition to the plentiful and perfectly prepared vegetables. Unless you plan to load up on oysters as appetizers, don’t come with a big appetite or expecting many options. The service was kind, but tepid and distant, with more attention given, understandably, to locals and regulars. Overall, the chef served up perfectly prepared elements that worked individually, but didn’t come together to necessarily entice or wow. Saltwater’s dishes are solidly good, but not doing anything new or exceptional. That having been said, the menu appears to rotate regularly and often, which can affect the dining offerings and experience from week to week. What is a constant is the view out the large and many windows. For many that could be worth the price of admission.
Worth the Wait
After living in NYC I always proclaimed that standing in line for a museum exhibit or opening night of a movie was one thing, but I would never stand in line for a restaurant or club. And in my 12 year tenure in the Big Apple, I held true to those words. But the buzz was too strong and my craving too consuming to dismiss an opportunity to eat at Mensho Tokyo in San Francisco because of “my rule.” As luck would have it - maybe because it was my birthday, or maybe because we arrived to the line early on a Friday night the city experienced a major power outage - we were second in line and seated promptly upon the restaurant’s opening.
It’s in a somewhat rustic or sketchy part of Japantown that has the distinct ear marks of transition, with hipsters slowly bringing in funky and popular cafes and bars, like Swig, which is just down the street from Mensho. Just prior to reveling in the delight of hearing our names called for early seating especially in light of the long line of people behind us clearly seething with envy, we hear a collective loud sound from inside. Is it arguing? Is it the unwelcome tones of an intrusive private cell phone conversation? No, it’s chanting. The manager or chef is firing up the troops like a football coach prepping the team with affirmations of winning. There’s a collective chuckle from the line of soon-to-be patrons. This makes us all feel special. They clearly take customer service seriously.
Walking into the noodle bar, you can’t help but be impressed with how well appointed the definitely diminutive space is. It’s modern, clean, simple and seemingly new, with white walls and red accent banners. There are four long high top communal light stained wood tables making up the entire main space, and one short bar snuggled up to the kitchen, with a birds eye view of frenetic action among the chefs. Although this is a small space and a minimal menu, it is clear that the owners care about the small things, with a keen eye for details. No hooks under the table for purses (women love having hooks!), no problem. Instead, there are small wicker baskets on the poured concrete floors under the tables. And something I’ve never seen before, but now want in every restaurant I go to: individual cut outs in the front of the tables, like a desk. Here you can safely tuck away glasses or your phone instead of laying them on top of the table next to you.
The host and wait staff are exceptionally attentive and efficient, surprisingly so for an affordable noodle bar. I’m not complaining. I appreciate good service and presentation at any level, I just don’t necessarily expect it. Onto the main attraction: the dishes. Guests have choices between pork, chicken and vegan soups, with creamy or clear broths. Included in each are a bevy of vegetables, garnishes, and of course, noodles cooked to perfection (no gluten free options). These noodles are firm, yet soft at the same time. The bowls are all the same size - big. They are brimming with delectable elements and contrasting and complimentary flavors. I feel as if I could make a meal out of any of the individual elements that make up the dish. After just one or two bites/slurps, I was secretly dreaming of my next excursion to Mensho, with a goal to experience every offering on the menu. This is a complete, satisfying, robust meal in a bowl. One of the best I’ve ever had at any price.
My only complaint, if you can call it that, is “to-go” containers are non-existent at Mensho. This means there is no carry out available and no doggy bags. The chef is a purist and doesn’t believe the noodles travel well. It is best experienced in person in real time. That translates to - you need to come with a BIG APPETITE. Even at that, you could end up like me, only getting through half the serving. All in all, I walked out impressed and satisfied, plotting my next visit ... even if I don’t make it to the front of the line.
Just when you thought there wasn’t a need for one more bar in New York City, along comes Solomon & Kuff Rum Hall. This bar/restaurant located Uptown in West Harlem is a revelation with its handsome, dark looks, vibrant, yet cozy atmosphere and niche bar and kitchen menus. The 5,000 square foot space, just steps away from the Hudson River, combines a warm masculine and industrial feel with the use of cement floors along the bar area, hardwood floors in the restaurant area, and exposed brick walls throughout. American and Caribbean rums, as well as Brazilian cachaca take center stage at S&K, and If you haven’t experienced many rum-based cocktails, or think you wouldn’t like them, I suggest getting your feet wet here as the cocktails are diverse and delicious.
Behind the long bar made of dark wood and corrugated metal, is a showcase of the dozens of rums. Just above bottles is a decorative array of several rum barrels. Co-owners Karl Franz Williams and Julie Grunberger pour from over 100 rums and serve up such specialty drinks as “Venture’s Punch” (Jamaican Rum, Aricole, Lime, Bitters, Nutmeg) and S&K Dark-N-Stormy (Dark Rum, Jamaican Rum, House made Ginger Beer). Just as impressive (if not more so) and not to be outdone by the bar, is what comprises the dinner menu. Headed up by chef Chris Faulkner, formerly of Melba’s, a welcome array of Caribbean flavors and smells come wafting out from the kitchen, and almost any one of the appetizers alone would make for a delicious meal.
For the small bites you can’t go wrong with the Pulled Jerked Pork Coco Bread Sammies or Caribbean Lobster Sliders. On the appetizer side, consider the Spicy Kale and Green Papaya Salad, or the Escovitch Skewers, but do not leave there without experiencing the Shrimp and Yam Sauce! For mains you have options from fish, beef and chicken dishes, such as Curry Roasted Free Range Chicken & Johnny Bake. They each have a Caribbean twist and are packed with flavors. All in all, you may come for the atmosphere and fabulous drinks, but you’ll stay or come back for the food.
Without a doubt, LA has become a bit of a mecca for foodies in recent years, and restaurants like Sotto and Alma contribute to that distinction. Both restaurants represent two of the best meals I’ve ever experienced anywhere. Part of the foodie adventure was not just due to the decor, vibe and eats, but also to the accompanying wine. Both restaurants- in very different locations- offer menu selections great for tasting and sharing. As such, we shared 8-10 courses, including dessert(s). The young chefs at both these restaurants are inspired by fresh, seasonal market ingredients, and aren’t afraid to think outside the culinary box and taking risks that pay off. They present an eye-catching aesthetic and wonderfully complex textures. Sotto showcases Southern Italian dishes with a twist, and Alma features highly curated California cuisine.
It is at Sotto that I discovered and experienced Donkey and Goat wine, natural wine from a wine producing couple based in Berkeley, CA. The clean, clear Chardonnay with impressive acidity and subtle alcohol and fruit was the perfect compliment to all the textures, flavors and varying dishes we had that night. When we even more recently ate at Alma, I ordered an unfamiliar Prosecco that as soon as I tasted, I knew was in the au natural family of wines. I turned the bottle around and noticed that none other than Joe Dressner was the importer. The follow up red wine was a fantastic Cab Franc from a somewhat familiar producer imported by Jenny and Francois. I instantly knew they had assembled an all organic and biodynamic wine list working with the best wine importers in the business.
It’s no coincidence that these up and coming, cutting edge restaurants are working with organic and biodynamic wines and the importer/distributors that have the best selection of the genre.
For anyone who’s ever been to Fairfax, Ca in Marin County, they would never think of it as a food or wine destination. With the town’s prevailing western facade and a seemingly large hippie population, a modern wine bar seems out of place. Thanks to 123 Bolinas wine bar, Fairfax can now be known for more than just tie dye shirt stores and The Good Earth health food grocer. You walk in to a small, casual space that’s definitely a locals hang out, with a nice mix of individuals and couples of all ages. It’s impeccably designed, combining modern minimal decor with rustic touches in the form of low wood tables and stools, hanging Edison bulb light fixtures and a floating fireplace along much of the restaurant’s periphery. In the center is a high communal table, and at the front is a large bar.
Bolinas emphasizes seasonal and local foods, and artisan wines. The dishes, which rotate regularly, are always fantastic and inventive, like high end restaurant culinary statements at affordable prices. In fact, the food is so great that it tends to upstage the wine selection. That’s not to say the wines are not enjoyable and appropriately paired because they are, but the food is better. I’ve been here a lot, love it and have never been disappointed.
Wine professionals, wine geeks and hipsters pour into this Lower East Side hot spot all week long. The allure isn’t the amount of space or the decor, as it’s dark, small and quaint with its low indie music playing in the background, but nothing special to look at. The charm of The Ten Bells is the food and wine list, and that’s high praise given it’s located in what’s probably the city’s most robust foodie scene. To make a selection, you won’t be given a menu, instead you’ll have to refer to the chalkboard or illicit recommendations from one of the owners or bartenders. The recommendations come in particularly handy when choosing wine, especially if you’re not savvy in the ways of and producers of natural and biodynamic wines, which is their entire list. Either way, you can’t go wrong cause the happy hour oysters are slamming, the food is layered with flavors, and the wine is interesting, unique.
A big chunk of the wine list comes from the most touted natural and biodynamic producers from every world region, including selections from Jenny and Francois or Luis Dresner. This is where the wine geek and wine professional customer base comes into the picture as reps from these portfolios, as well as wine producers and winemakers often hang out to sample The Ten Bells wares. Expect to pay the usual, or more than usual NYC high price for wine by the glass.
Photo Credit: Ten Bells
In the last few years, New York has experienced an explosion of wine bars across the city, with particular interest in Spanish wine and tapas bars. Probably one of the first and most notable is Tia Pol in the heart of Chelsea and on the edge of famous art gallery district. When you walk in, you feel like you’ve entered an authentic old world, back street Madrid-type tapas bar. It’s a diminutive space, with narrow hallway, dark, cozy interior and thick wood bar and tables.
Even better than the aesthetics are the food and wine lists. Here the kitchen staff is creating traditional dishes, with modern twists and presentation, pleasing to the most discriminating of native Spain patrons. The bocata de lomo adobado (marinated pork loin, piquillo pepper and tetilla chees sandwich) and the Trucha a la navarra (Navarran style trout) are utter decadence in a small plate and just two of many fantastic selections. When I say decadence and fantastic, I choose my words carefully and without exaggeration. When I took a Spanish transplant to lunch at Tia Pol, the native of Navarro exclaimed that this was the most authentic and best food from her homeland that she had experienced in New York. The wine selections are exclusively Spanish, hailing from every area of the country. Much of the authenticity is due to the love for all things Spain by the owner, chef and wine buyer who often vacation there.
From the people who brought San Francisco the ever popular Little Vine specialty grocery store in North Beach, comes the recently opened Union Larder, a wine, cheese and charcuterie bar in Russian Hill. Taking over a space formerly occupied by a parking lot on Hyde Street, owners Melissa Gugni and Jay Esopenko, along with the design agency that responsible for the Apple stores, have created a special space that is both comfortable, warm and inviting, yet also hip, modern and industrial. The 800 square foot space with windows along the entire side of building has approximately 30-seats, many of which are at the generous size bar. Behind the bar is more than just a bartender. There is a full-service cheese counter, with much slicing, dicing and activity. Beyond the bar and along some of the tables in the back is a larder inspired floor to ceiling shelving and cupboards, with a rolling ladder. The shelves are full with many of the grocery items found in Little Vine.
Co-owner Jay’s passion for wine and food comes through on the menu as he was greatly influenced by Cava bars he frequented when living in Spain. There’s a wonderful and welcoming diverse wine, cheese and appetizers list, including olives.
Hyde Street is an iconic residential street among the city's hillyest and most beautiful, with cable cars going up and down along several blocks. It's know for beautiful old architecture, with a wonderful mix of homes, restaurants and shops. It's just steps away from intersecting with the top of the famous Lombard street with all its twists and turns. Despite all this credibility, one would expect an onslaught of tourists, but it's surprisingly and welcomely an area frequented mostly by locals.
This is a small production winery with a big reputation among wine geeks and aficionados because of it’s quality wines done in subtler, less ripe style. This evokes a more French sensibility and is contrary to the typical California winemaking style, making it unique and worth seeking out. Because of the locale and by-appointment-only policy, it is like “seeking out.” The only things as good, if not even better, than Copain’s wines is the location and presentation. The property is perched a top a hill overlooking the lovely and tranquil Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, and just a few miles from the upscale small but bustling town of Healdsburg.
The exterior of the winery and tasting room is simple, charming and rustic, with white barn-like structures. The tasting room interior is small, yet roomy, mostly modern, with rustic touches. There are two large wood communal tables for going through a tasting inside and a long sleek wood bar, for signing in and starting with a splash of something. Most of the tastings take place outside of the tasting room where several private tables varying in size and adorned with a cozy arrangement of bright flowers. Each are situated to overlook Copain’s garden and the Russian River Valley. The staff are knowledgable and personable, without a hint of snobbery and sales pressure free as they go through several select wines complimented with small bites.
Where Rustic Meets Elegance
Sparkling wine as the “breakfast of champions” doesn’t get any better than at this property in Sebastopol/Green Valley AVA of Sonoma. With only an outdoor tasting bar, Iron Horse takes full advantage of their dramatic sweeping views and the lovely moderate year round weather. Couple that with a line up of fantastically impressive wines, you’ve got a gem of a way to start the day off. To get there you come along a long, windy, rustic road that will remind of hidden roads of Burgundy, France and seems as if it leads to nowhere. Indeed it leads to a beautiful, unpretentious property overlooking equally gorgeous Green Valley views. Because there is only an outdoor tasting bar area (with an awning) and limited space at it, one can think of the rest of the property, including covered seating in the back and rocks along the picturesque hillside, and some 350 acres of vineyards, as part of the tasting area. In fact, there are no spit buckets and the hosts encourage guests to sip and linger away, or pour out the remaining wine in the nearby vines.
This independent, family-owned winery is a casual, rustic and fun feel and laid back friendly service at its best. These wines that range from rustically charming to elegant and soft, have been featured at White House dinner and a staple at weddings. Anyone would be hard pressed not to include in a personal portfolio.