CALIFORNIA VACATION

We spent the better part of the past two weeks on vacation in California, and I thought I’d share a few highlights of the trip.

We flew into San Francisco, and had a little time to kill there while we waited for all of our luggage to join us (thank you very much, TSA).  We stopped for a bite at Mocca, a European-style café, which included a mixed shellfish salad with shrimp, scallops, and green mussels, marinated in olive oil and herbs, and a delicious little apple tart:

We also made a quick stop at the Ferry Building, where I was fascinated by the offerings at Far West Fungi, and picked up some dried mushrooms and a wonderful truffle mushroom spread:

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Once we were reunited with our luggage, we headed towards Mendocino.  Knowing that dining options would diminish the farther we traveled and the later it got, we stopped for dinner at the “World Famous” Hamburger Ranch & BBQ in Cloverdale:

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I finally got to try a Dutch crunch, and it made for a tasty, if sloppy burger;

IMG_4609The rest of the family chowed down on a patty melt, an Italian fungi burger, and a chili cheeseburger:

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I really got a kick out of this place.  “Joey” from Friends likes it too:

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We arrived in Mendocino and settled in at Stanford Inn by the Sea, with its lush gardens and view of the coast:

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IMG_4621This “eco resort” is a little different than most (all) of the places we’ve stayed at over the years.  For starters, its Ravens’ restaurant is vegan.  The complimentary breakfasts were interesting (translated — my son wouldn’t eat them).  Among the vegan dishes we tried were a chickpea crepe filled with vegetables from the gardens and drizzled with a cashew cheese sauce, and enchiladas filled with quinoa and spinach:

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Although not everyone was crazy about the vegan breakfasts, we fought over the vegan chocolate chip cookies that were waiting for us in our room each day.  The inn graciously shared the recipe, which I’ll share as soon as I try it out at home.

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The Mendocino coast is breathtakingly beautiful:

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The Albion River Inn, where we ate one night, was worth visiting just for the spectacular view from the dining room:

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We noticed that in Mendocino they take tree-hugging to a new level:

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At the health food store in town I bought some organic GMO-free granola made with love (you get the picture):

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I guess Love is neither organic nor GMO-free

If you’re up that way, be sure to stop by the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.  This is one of the most gorgeous, colorful botanical gardens around, and the dahlia garden is a match for any rose garden:

Beautiful

Heathers

Dahlias

We left Mendocino to drop our son off with friends in Stanford, and headed on to Carmel, where we enjoyed more stunning coastline:

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Carmel has a beautiful town center, with upscale shopping and lots of dining options.  At the Flying Fish Grill, we loved the complimentary wonton crisps with gingery salsa, the steamed artichoke with wasabi mayonnaise and miso vinaigrette, and delectable halibut baked in parchment with fermented chinese black beans, mushroom, ginger & scallions:

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We also enjoyed an elegant meal at Grasing’s, where my husband loved his clams with Yukon gold potatoes, leeks, and bacon, and declared his lamb chops to be the best he’s ever had:

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Our hands-down favorite restaurant of the whole trip was La Bicyclette, a charming European-style café, recommended to us by my favorite oral surgeon:

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The menu changes daily to provide variety and focus on seasonal ingredients.  On this day we enjoyed a wood-fired pizza with local mushrooms, a grilled chicken and pesto Panini, and mussels in a saffron broth.  Even the coffee was excellent!

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While in Carmel, we spent a day marveling at the exhibits at the wonderful Monterey Bay Aquarium:

We next headed to the Napa Valley.  We stopped at the historic Oakville Grocery Co., which was established in 1881, and is the oldest continually-operating grocery store in California.  The shelves were loaded with tempting locally-made snacks, marinades, and condiments:

We splurged on accomodations here, and stayed at the beautiful Solage resort in Calistoga:

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The highlight of our Napa stay was a leisurely visit with winemaker Tom Eddy:

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If you’re looking for a place to go with kids for dinner in Napa, the Farmstead at Longmeadow Ranch has family-pleasing fare in an attractive, casual setting (and you can BYOB).  The starters were our favorites, including the cheddar biscuits with honey butter (which were complimentary for checking in on Yelp), meatballs with caramelized vegetables and tomato marmalade, and a wood-grilled Castroville artichoke:

On our way out of Napa, we stopped at the popular Gott’s Roadside (formerly Taylor’s Refresher), and sampled, among other things, the legendary Ahi Burger and Western Bacon Blue Ring Burger.  The food was good, but after eating out for 10 days or so, at this point it was a little too heavy for us:

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We loved all the places we visited, and the cool, dry California weather was a welcome break from our Gulf Coast heat and humidity, but it was nevertheless great to return home to our own beds, and our dogs that we missed like crazy.

UNDERBELLY “OFF THE WALL” DINNER

This weekend we attended an “Off the Wall” Vietnamese Family-Style Dinner at Underbelly, featuring Ryan Pera (Revival Market, Coltivare) and Saigon Pagolac.  Chris Shepherd (James Beard Best Chef Southwest 2014) aims to tell the story of Houston food at Underbelly, “showcasing the city’s cultural diversity that inspires his menu and the trifecta of farming, ranching and fishing that offers a bounty of local ingredients.”  Photographs of those that have inspired Chef Shepherd are mounted on the wall as you enter the restaurant.  The “Off the Wall” dinner series features some of the people in the photographs — they’re invited to collaborate on a dinner at Underbelly.  They prepare dishes representative of their food, and Chris Shepherd prepares dishes that are his interpretation of their food.  Proceeds from the dinner series go towards an Underbelly Scholarship at The Art Institute of Houston, which is where Chris Shepherd earned his culinary arts degree.  At each dinner he recounts what it was like to work in a kitchen while attending school full-time, as well as the burden of paying off student loans, and the scholarship was created to offer financial assistance to culinary students similarly working and attending school.

We sat down for the family-style meal at tables with large plates of lettuce and herbs to use as we desired, as well as red and white wines from Duchman Family Winery.  The meal began with a light Vietnamese Seafood Delight Salad (goi sua do bien) from Saigon Pagolac, a perfect summer salad:

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Next was a colorful and unusual salad that we loved from Ryan Pera, consisting of pickled butternut squash, Revival Market beef jerky, crispy shrimp, candied Louisiana pecans, basil, agave, and lime.

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Although Chef Pera is not Vietnamese and does not own a Vietnamese restaurant, he told the crowd that he simply loves Vietnamese food.  His dishes were among our favorites.  By the way, Chef Pera was looking incredibly trim!  (I’m always in awe of a chef who can lose weight while being around food all the time.)

The next two dishes were also from Ryan Pera, a crispy Vietnamese crepe filled with smoked pork, rock shrimp, summer tomatoes, and corn, seasoned with garum (a type of fish sauce):

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And one of our favorite dishes of the evening, deep-friedTexas quail with clams, wild rice, tamarind, Revival Market chicharron, and lime:

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The Beef Wrapped in Betel Leaf (bo la lot) from Saigon Pagolac was another winner at our table:

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The next dish, which was the least favorite at our table, was Grilled Shrimp Paste on Sugarcane (chao tom) from Saigon Pagolac, which although interesting had a rubbery texture and was quite bland:

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Lemongrass Beef from Underbelly, on the other hand, was loaded with flavor and disappeared quickly:

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The final dish from Ryan Pera was a whole roasted gulf fish with Vietnamese herbs, spicy sautéed greens, and soft garlic.  Keeping in mind that beauty is only skin deep, the fish was delicate and flaky and delicious:

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The last savory dish, Crispy Green Beans with Caramelized Fish Sauce, was from Underbelly.  In the words of my friend Tracy, I wanted to marry those green beans.  Everyone was looking forward to them, and pounced on them as soon as they hit the table:

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Dessert, provided by Cloud 10 Creamery (check out the flavors on their website), was a Pandan and Matcha Push-Up Pop, a dish that is best described not with words, but with soft moans:

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The meal ended with an Asian Fruit Cocktail (che thai) from Saigon Pagolac, an intriguing pale pink beverage/dessert/soup made with (I think) various kinds of tropical fruits (jackfruit? longan?), rectangles of flavored gelatin, and coconut milk.  As much as I enjoyed it, I would have liked it even more if I’d known what exactly was in it:

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Everyone at our table had a great time and a great meal.  For us, half the fun of going to these kinds of events is the interesting people we meet at them.  We went with another couple, and met two more couples at our table.  The gentleman seated next to me invented the Corkcicle — imagine that!  It was selected as a one of Oprah’s Favorite Things in 2012.  Oprah!  Oprah Winfrey!  How cool (and, I would guess, lucrative) is that?  And the woman seated next to my friend is an antiques dealer who sold Chris Shepherd the cleaver that is permanently imbedded in the wall at Underbelly.  He has since bought several others from her, and came by the table to show one off:

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There’s only one dinner left in the current series (hopefully there will be more in the future).  It’s on August 3, and will feature barbecue from Gatlin’s, Blood Brothers, Feges BBQ, and of course, Underbelly.  There’ll be 4 pits set up in the parking lot, and I am sure it will be a barbecue meal to remember.  If you hurry, there’s still time to reserve a seat . . . .