Sunday, December 28, 2008

Brunch - We Take Reservations!










Brunch never seems to arrive soon enough each week. As with most NYC dwellers who love food, meeting up with friends for a leisurely daytime meal on Saturday and/or Sunday is definitely one of the weekly highlights. Brunch can really be one of the most therapeutic events in the life of a New Yorker, but that can so often be immediately destroyed by the combination of a long wait and low blood sugar. I am here to tell you about some of the best brunch options in New York City that are completely stress free - the way any weekend day should be. The food and atmosphere are fabulous for both groups and dates, and yes, they take reservations too!

First stop and number to call, the west village's Morandi. The atmosphere here is what I love most about this rustic, Italian restaurant. With its brick walls, wood paneled ceilings, and tile floors, this spot immediately transports you to Europe. The large space is extremely welcoming and conducive to groups - encouraging diners to linger and truly enjoy their meal. I recommend ordering the bruschetta with ricotta, nuts & honey for the table once you sit down. As a quick blood sugar fix, this will allow you to take your time ordering and simply to soak in the setting. Any of the poached eggs dishes are perfectly prepared - my favorite being the Uova Affogate - two poached eggs over fava, artichokes and escarole. The brunch menu also offers more non-brunch items than most. All cravings are satisfied and there is a constant flow of customers throughout all hours of the day.

Next stop (and my top choice for the moment), Hundred Acres - a warm welcome into Soho. This restaurant wins on all levels - setting, food, service, and fun. The front bar room opens onto McDougal street while the back room leads to garden dining. The food is simple and delicious. Even a basic grapefruit jumped off the plate as it was topped with black pepper and cranberry compote - a unique combination that brought new flavor to the winter fruit. The Acres scramble is unbeatable - sausage, peppers, onions & gruyere served with Texas toast. Again, it seems simple, but the eggs are perfectly prepared, bringing the flavors together in a way that most could not. If you are not in the mood for eggs, the organic chicken salad served over apples and greens as well as the burger are wonderful options. But, I recommend that you do it up here - order as many items as possible, allowing you to sample the culinary expertise of this chef.

Onto the east village and my trusty "old" standby, The Smith. I finally made it here for brunch! And, similar to my dinner experiences, I left more than satisfied. I typically order an egg dish when I go to brunch, which I did here too (the open face omelet with asparagus and brie is a great option). Pancakes and French Toast always leave a little something to be desired. But, we boldly decided to add an order of their French toast with maple butter and caramelized bananas for the table. We ended up fighting over the dish. It was incredible. And, when I go back no matter the number of people I am with, I still plan to order an egg dish for myself, but with a side of French Toast (of course for anyone to share). And, the more dishes you order, the longer you can linger at your table! Although brunch does not normally constitute several courses, I want my meal to last just as long as a dinner outing would - afterall, there is probably much more to catch up on after a weekend night.

Final destination, Chelsea's Cookshop - a seasonal American restaurant supporting local and organic ingredients. The owners are actually the same as those of Hundred Acres and that is very apparent in the perfect preparation of the egg dishes. Here, the scramble with caramelized onions, crispy bacon, and creme fraiche over a buttermilk biscuit is a must. I also recommend sharing their pastry of the moment. The last time I went it was the fresh ricotta beignets with plum compote. But based on the season, the chef is constantly trying new creations, and all have been wonderful. No matter the time of year, this is a great spot. The open kitchen and stone oven in full view warm you right up. And, on warm days, check out the outdoor patio - one of the largest sidewalk spaces in the city.

Never fear, despite being able to make a reservation, all of these spots are still happening scenes - packed with diners starting as early as 10:30 am. A simple phone call will save you the headache that you definitely do not need on a weekend morning. You can now sit back and relax. Enjoy that bloody mary and the company of your friends knowing that on this outing you will not be spending as much as you would at a dinner. You and brunch have never looked so good!

Friday, December 26, 2008

L'Artusi

It is not every day that one of your favorite neighborhood restaurants decides to open up a sister restaurant. It is even more rare that the new restaurant is located just a few blocks away. And it is nearly impossible to imagine that it could meet up to the high standards of the original spot. Well, Dell'Anima has done it - opening L'Artusi earlier this month on West 10th street near Bleecker. The concept is hardly any different, but that is not a bad thing since the first restaurant's only flaw is overcrowding. It has not taken long for loyal diners to discover the new spot and, despite its larger size, it appears that this one may face the same challenge.

At L'Artusi, the chefs continue to do no wrong - and do even better by offering only dishes under $20. Here too, you will find an open kitchen lined by bar stools - but the bar wraps around the entire restaurant, providing many more spaces for diners. You can make a reservation for a table or enter as a walk-in and eat at the bar. Not to worry if there is a wait (and there will most likely be) as you will be highly entertained by their cocktail list and the great selection of music from all decades. Again, the ambiance is right on the money, guaranteeing another neighborhood following.

The menu is divided into Crudo (raw), Verdura (greens), Pasta, Pesce (fish), and Carne (meat). We covered the first four categories and had not a single regret. For an extremely fresh and light dish, order the thinly sliced raw sea scallops served with lemon, olive oil and chives. Surprisingly, a simple dish from the verdura section was our favorite starter - the frisee salad with speck, homemade croutons, and a poached egg on top. This dish was perfectly prepared. I have definitely sampled many versions of this salad over the years, but this was by far the best. I am going to have a hard time returning and not ordering this every time! The warm dishes to follow were complete hits as well. We shared the beef brisket over polenta and the pizzocheri pasta. While both were delicious, the pasta was absolutely amazing. I will not be shy in saying that this dish ranks as one of my all-time favorite pasta dishes - and, I have definitely ordered many in my day! The thick, flat buckwheat noodles are topped with sage, Brussels sprouts and fontina cheese and then baked in the oven. On a cold, winter night, it simply does not get better than that. And, again for those opposed to this particular green, I guarantee that even you will love the dish.

I have already mapped out my next outing to L'Artusi. My only worry is that on all return trips, I will have to order the frisee salad and the pizzocheri pasta - they are both that good. But, I have a feeling I have many more stops at L'Artusi ahead of me. The atmosphere is so upbeat and the price of the food (not necessarily the drink, but really, where is that ever the case these days?) is right. And, multiple meals with multiple friends means there will definitely be room to sample at least four dishes an outing - room for a minimum of two new ones each time. I still call that adventuresome with a side of loyal and a dash of supporting the local favorites!




L'Artusi
228 W. 10th St. (Hudson and Bleecker)
New York, NY 10014
Phone: (212) 255-5757
Menu

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Wilfie and Nell

Thank goodness for second chances. The turnover rate for restaurants and bars in NYC can often be a disheartening - for both owners and loyal customers. But, it can also be a great thing. I will be completely honest in admitting that since declaring West Fourth Street my home over five years ago I have been wondering when Absolutely Fourth would close. The location and space are just too great for a cheesy martini bar to stand ground. But, for years, it definitely did not seem like it was going anywhere as it catered to those jumping off the too nearby path train and the west fourth street station. And then, fall 2008 hit. A below average drink menu could no longer pay the bills. The space had a complete transformation and went from wannabe lounge to Irish gastropub. Wilfie and Nell has taken over. In tough times and cold weather, people want comfort in their food, drink, and setting - and this new spot provides all that and even a good time too.

I like the attitude and the vibe here. You walk in to a crowded bar where you feel like you probably know at least a handful of people. Most likely, you don't, but faces seem familiar and that alone is comforting. There are really no rules - everything goes. Tables are not only reserved for diners and the bar is not just drinkers. You will not find a hostess as there are no reservation or wait policies for tables - you are simply fending for yourself. This really isn't a problem because of how happy every one seems to be. Wilfie and Nell is the kind of place where you can just eat, drink, and be merry. There is no denying that it's loud from happy hour until the wee hours of the night. But again, it's just a testament to how much every one is enjoying themselves.

The other night, we walked right in and found an opening in the middle of one of the communal tables. Sandwiched between two different couples, we felt right at home and ordered up delicious cocktails that are not overly priced. The bartender definitely knows what he is doing and how to put together great combinations. The food was also affordable and goes perfectly with the pubby atmosphere. Even the Irish can pull off the trendy tapas concept. All plates range from $3 to $12 and are great for sharing. We ordered Berkshire pork sliders, a corned-beef sandwich with gruyere, and french fries with malt vinegar. To add a little green to our lives, we had a perfectly dressed spinach salad. But, even that was topped with bite size crispy bacon and a hard boiled egg. I am not sure there is anything on the menu that doesn't have a pork component - but who can really complain about that? They take pigs in a blanket to a new level as these little piggies are actually wrapped in bacon! On my next outing, I will definitely be trying those and the Scotch eggs (hard-boiled eggs wrapped in sausage, then breaded and deep-fried). Even I can only handle so much pork in one night!

Before leaving, I peered around the corner to check out the many different tables in the dark nooks and crannies. I was still convinced I knew at least a scattering of people, and, at that point, I probably did. It would be hard to leave Wilfie and Nell without making friends - whether it's with your table neighbors or even the bartenders - it's just a friendly place. I'm so glad that my stay on West Fourth has outlasted Absolutely Fourth. And I have a feeling Wilfie and Nell will see me through the rest of my west village days.




Wilfie and Nell

228 W. 4th st. (7th avenue)
New York, NY 10014
Phone: (212) 242-2990
website

Friday, December 12, 2008

Sweet Revenge

Every neighborhood needs a Sweet Revenge. The concept of a bakery that doubles as a bar is incredible. First and foremost, the options are endless - both for reasons to go there and things to eat there. I think this restaurant has just solved the issue for the fighting couple. On a night when the typical girl is craving a dessert, but the typical boy is just wanting a drink, Sweet Revenge is the solution - providing a full bar with signature beer, wine, and liquor cocktails as well as sinfully good cupcakes among other pastries. On another night, perhaps you have just been arguing over endless bills to pay - and you are searching for a full, yet cheap meal - again, Sweet Revenge is the answer. Despite the name, there are plenty of savory options ranging from salads to savory cakes to sandwiches. On yet another evening, you may be needing a night out of the apartment with just a close friend. You are craving a glass of wine, but your friend has just been the gym and could go for a coffee and maybe a sweet - this scenario is known to many girls as the "gym date." And, again, you can turn to Sweet Revenge. Here, it is possible for both of you to blend in - neither the coffee nor the wine and not even the gym clothes stand out. I could go and on and on, but I think you get the point. No matter the time of day, your mood, or craving, you can most definitely find something to suit your needs at this tiny restaurant.

Last week, I met up with a friend at Sweet Revenge - I was looking for dinner and she, just dessert. For both lunch and dinner, they offer a prix fixe of $11. This includes a sandwich or savory cake, a large arugula salad, and a choice of lemonade, coffee, or tea. I was intrigued by the savory cakes and ordered the Seville - chorizo and manchego served with zesty romesco (almonds, roasted garlic, olive oil, and dried red peppers) dipping sauce. These cakes are basically like scones, but not sweet- an entirely new, yet great concept to me. Sometimes you really do want breakfast food for dinner and it's even better when it is actually not completely sweet. The combination of the savory cake and the arugula salad with spiced pecans, dried cranberries, oil and vinegar made for a perfect sized meal. I nervously opted for their homemade lemonade since I am often disappointed when I order this simple beverage. However, they were right on - nearly rounding out my meal. But, what really did it was sampling my friend's cupcake. She ordered the Sweet Revenge - their signature sweet - a peanut butter cake with a chocolate ganache filling and peanut buttercream on top.

Not only is the food great, but the setting really is too. Sweet Revenge truly takes on the persona of both a bar and a bakery. Look to the right, it is a very chill cafe scene. Glance left, you could be sitting at the counter at any new trendy wine bar. This is definitely not a destination, but rather a great meet-up spot. No need to reserve in advance or get dressed up. Just plan on sipping on whatever you fancy and having your favorite treat to go with it. Revenge really does not always have to be a bad thing - especially if it's sweet!






Sweet Revenge
62 Carmine St
New York, NY 10014
Phone: (212) 242-2240
website

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Balthazar

Sometimes you just want an old standby. There are not too many New York City restaurants that can say they have seen both the 90s and the 21st century. New restaurants are constantly opening up overnight. Critics, foodies, and chefs alike wait in anticipation to see if the latest talk of the town will be a success. And, according to most in the food industry, no restaurant is safe until they have been open for at least seven years. Too often, most don't quite make the cut. Balthazar is a restaurant in Soho that has seen it all, served it all, and will survive it all - even the rough roads ahead. At the end of the day, it's nice knowing what you are in for and heading to a place that has a following of both young and old, locals and tourists, Americans and foreigners.

I have spent many memorable meals at Balthazar over the years. It is one of the few restaurants that I went to prior to moving to New York and still return to. Believe it or not, back in the day, I spent most of my time in midtown when visiting the city. But, Balthazar has always guaranteed great food and in a wonderful setting - nearly transporting me directly to a typical brasserie in France. No matter the time of day, whether you are eating lunch, brunch or dinner, there is a constant buzz in the air. As the French would do, diners linger for hours on end and most tables are packed with groups indulging in as many courses as possible.

Ordering is never a tough task at Balthazar. The menu has not changed - and for good reason - serving up any item you would expect on a menu in the middle of Paris. As I am typically there with a group, we always share several starters. They make one of the best steak tartares I have ever tasted - as good as any I have had in France. This is also the type of restaurant where an oyster platter should be a fixture on the table- it simply goes with the setting. Although basic, the green salad is also great. The sign of a truly authentic French restaurant is through their dressings. That simple vinaigrette always tastes so much lighter and fresher when topped on greens in France. The same is true for Balthazar.

I find it nearly impossible to go to dinner here without ordering the steak frites as my main course. The steak is always perfectly prepared to my medium-rare liking and the fries are exactly how I like them - thin and crisp. You also can't go wrong with their moules frites and the duck confit - all items to be expected at any standard French brasserie. When I last visited Balthazar, they offered a pumpkin ravioli as a special of the night. This seasonal dish was a nice addition to the old standards covering the table. To finish off the night, I recommend ordering a cheese plate and then you really might be confused as to what city you are in.

For the first time in my life (since I started traveling overseas), I am unsure of when my next trip to Paris will be. That is definitely not a comforting feeling, but it is simply a reality. I know work will not be sending me abroad any time soon and, at the same time, I really am trying to cut back in extravagance (at least for the time being). So, Balthazar is as close as it gets to being in my favorite city without having to get on a plane. I do know that I will be able to get back to Paris at some point - hopefully sooner rather than later. But, until then, whenever I need a Paris fix, I will continue to treat myself to Balthazar and enjoy an evening in my faux City of Lights.




Balthazar
80 Spring St
New York, NY 10012-3907
Phone: (212) 965-1414
website

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Voce

2008 has thrown us yet another curve ball. I never used to consider November as part of the winter, but November 2008 was one of the coldest I can remember. I feel like I have been fooled into thinking we are well into the winter months. And in the winter, I cannot seem to get enough of Italian food. Hearty pastas, meats, and cheeses are the definition of comfort and food that warms you right up. This past month, I found myself frequenting more Italian restaurants than usual - all typically cozy and rustic in setting. A Voce, while still providing me with the hearty dishes I am craving, takes you to a place different from the rest.

Located below the office buildings near Madison Square Park, A Voce is the place to go to when you want to get a little dressed up and "go out" to dinner. The dining room is a very contemporary space with large leather tabletops and swiveling arm chairs. As I so often feel that I am waiting for the day when I no longer think of myself as completely young, this is a restaurant where you can feel grown up - in both your surrounding and your cuisine. And that alone can be comforting in itself. I like knowing that over my time in NYC, I am slowly, but surely growing up.

It was the best of both worlds - being seated in a sort of throne amidst a modern, chic setting while being served wonderful rustic Italian cuisine. Since most of the main dishes are on the heavy side, there is no need for each person to get an appetizer. The menu provides many options for starters and sides to share. We had an order of buffalo ricotta infused with olive oil, mint, thyme and chilies to be spread upon toasted country bread. The toasted bread alone is delicious! We also shared the Cassoncini - swiss chard and cresenza cheese filled fried dough accompanied with prosciutto di parma. These were delicious and a must - not too much dough and the perfect balance of the ingredients inside.

We were all on the same page - craving pasta for our main course - and each homemade noodle dish we ordered was a hit. My favorite was the pecorino and ricotta filled pasta with savoy cabbage, bacon, and black pepper. A Voce is known for their homemade ravioli which changes depending on the season. While this dish can typically be a heavy one, their raviolis are always light and full of extremely fresh ingredients. The current serving is mushroom filled with prosciutto and parmesan - a flavor combination that cannot go wrong. To attempt to incorporate some form of vegetables into our meal, we ordered a side of roasted butternut squash with brown butter, rosemary and balsamic. I am not going to pretend that this really was a healthy option, but it certainly is one of my favorite preparations of this seasonal vegetable.

As with most meals where every dish ordered was a success, it is impossible to turn away the dessert menu. Yes - we were completely full at this point, but A Voce is smart. They have designed the perfect dessert for four people to share - Tuscan donuts with chocolate sauce. We were each able to satisfy that small hankering for a sweet and not feel too guilty about it. Believe it or not, these balls of fried dough are actually light - they are not overly fried and are quite airy. But, if you really can't find the space (or these days, the funds) for dessert, not to worry! Complimentary biscottis are served as the bill arrives. A Voce certainly knows that the last quarter in 2008 has been a rough one - and recognizes it's in their best interests to leave a lasting, positive impression on its customers. Even if the bill does make quite a dent, this small gesture, along with the comfort of the swiveling Eames chairs and impressive contemporary art do make a difference when handing over the Amex. After all, it can be fun to act grown up every now and then, just as long as it doesn't become a regular affair.






A Voce
41 Madison Ave
New York, NY 10010
Phone: (212) 545-8555
website

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Franny's

Scenario 1: The 2 train comes immediately. You arrive in Park Slope in nearly 20 minutes and within 5 more, you are seated at Franny's. A bottle of wine, an appetizer, a pasta, and a pizza are shared throughout the evening. The bill arrives and minimal damage has been done. Mission accomplished: you have spent a pleasant night with Brooklyn prices and delicious food - and all in unfamiliar territory. However, the story ends there, with not much else to report.

Scenario 2: Trains are rerouted due to weekend repairs. You finally arrive to a packed Franny's at prime time on a Saturday night and are told the wait will be an hour and a half. This just means one thing - it is time to make a night out of it. Forget the recession, how far you feel from Manhattan, and order up some drinks and appetizers to quiet the rumbling stomachs (or nerves). Yes, the night has just begun.

A trip to Brooklyn with a few friends had been my solution to calm the nerves of one of my oldest friends who was proposing to his girlfriend the next day. When he left Manhattan earlier in the evening, he was fully expecting Scenario 1 - ready for a relaxing, low key, and even well-priced evening. The others of us, always in search of a full experience or adventure, happily welcomed Scenario 2 as it quickly became a reality. What else were we really going to do with the night? Being rested the night before proposing is definitely overrated! It is much more important to be surrounded by great company and indulging as much as possible while you still just have your own tab to worry about.

Franny's has a large bar area as well as side counters and stools at the front of the restaurant. We made ourselves right at home - ordering up prosecco and cocktails - toasting our friend's last night as an unengaged man. Knowing the long wait ahead would equal many drinks, we decided to balance it out with a few plates to share - potato croquettes with fresh Parmesan and crostino of chicken liver and pancetta. Plenty of time had passed before we were seated so we were definitely still hungry enough to order up a feast once at the table. I just had to try out those signature pizzas that I have heard so much about!

We ordered two pies from their brick oven - tomato, mozzarella with sausage and hot peppers and tomato, provolone piccante with wood-roasted onions. Both were simple, yet delicious. Their pizzas have all the components that I crave from a brick oven: thin crust, crisp (but not burnt - even a bit doughy), and a unique sauce (this one being slightly sweet). We then moved on to a few side dishes - celery root with olives and sheep's milk ricotta as well as the wood-roasted octopus with fennel and salsa verde. Two totally different dishes, yet both perfectly prepared. I was unfamiliar with celery root, but it reminded me of squash (one of my favorite fall vegetables) with a celery flavor. The octopus may be the most expensive item on the menu, but the wood-roasted flavors make it well worth it - and, again, this was a night of celebrations - all worries were set aside! As if this wasn't enough for a feast, we added one more dish - rigatoni with pork sausage and Brussels Sprouts. As with the rest of the dishes, there was nothing left on the plate as it was cleared.

At this point, there was no turning back. Desserts and after dinner drinks were a must. We did order and devour three - cannolo, vanilla panna cotta with saba, and praline gelato- accompanied with grappa and limoncello. But, if there is one of the sweets that is a must, it is the gelato. We were all fighting over the fresh chunks of praline - an amazing distraction at the end of the night for our "slightly" anxious friend. Unfortunately, all distractions came to an end once the bill arrived! The night was certainly an unforgettable one.

So, I leave it up to you when venturing over to Park Slope. Just know that both scenarios are possible at Franny's. You know I would take Scenario 2 any day (even if it means a few more PB&Js for lunch over the next few weeks). After all, I think the night was a great success - she did say yes the next day!





CONGRATS LISA AND CHARLES!!
Let the festivities continue!










Franny's
295 Flatbush Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11217
Phone: (718) 230-0221
website

Friday, November 21, 2008

Smith & Mills

Cozy is key right now. The temperature has dropped 40 degrees in less than a week and the wind has been whipping like it's mid February - winter coats are definitely in full force. There is not much left to do in the city other than find little nooks where you can hibernate and store up on great food and drink. Located on an unassuming Tribeca block in a former carriage house, Smith & Mills is simply made for this very abrupt change of seasons. It is hard to imagine a more quaint space than what lies behind the unmarked doors of 71 North Moore street. The only catch is knowing to push on the wooden panel on the front right portion of the exterior - otherwise you might be left in the cold all night.

Even if you only intend to go for just a drink or two at the bar, I guarantee that you will end up staying longer than expected - and by default, ordering more than expected too. I know I've already said it once, but I'll say it again - Smith & Mills defines cozy. And cozy leads to settling in for the night. After a brief wait (they don't take reservations), we nestled into our table - one of about six in the entire restaurant - and ordered up a round of classic champagne cocktails. This simple drink, a sugar cube in bitters dropped into a glass of champagne, dates back to the 19th century and could not have gone better with the vintage setting. The surrounding shelves are even lined with antique flatware and jars while the bathroom relies on an old train car sink that empties manually.

If it wasn't enough that the atmosphere seemed to be perfectly suiting my current mood, the menu - featuring soups and comfort food - certainly did the trick. We each ordered a soup to start and then shared a few salads as our mains. The clam and oyster chowder is always on the menu and the French onion soup was the special of the night. While the soups were based upon the classic recipes, both were full of flavor and warmed us right up. I loved the addition of oysters to the traditional New England chowder and the French onion soup was served with a manchego crostini - adding a Spanish element to it. As comfort food (and soups for this matter) tend to be fairly hearty, it was nice to have salads to follow. We shared the warm mushroom salad with butter lettuce, chestnut, squash, yellow wax beans, tomatoes and goat cheese as well as the organic chicken cobb with avocado, tomatoes, smoked bacon, and bleu cheese. The ingredients could not have been fresher. Maybe it was because of the warm aspect of it, but the mushroom salad was my favorite.

After the meal, I felt completely satisfied - full (but not too full), relaxed (but not quite ready for bed), and (I'll say it one more time) completely warm and cozy. While I normally love spreading the word about great finds, I honestly considered keeping this one to myself. Smith & Mills is just that small! I do worry that with too many rave reviews it might fill up too fast. But, I do also feel it is my duty to let you in on the best kept secrets of the city. And, with a wait staff and bartenders being so nice, it wouldn't quite be fair to them not to eat and tell. I guess the good news is that they don't seem to be planning on adding a doorknob to the unmarked entrance any time soon.





Smith and Mills
71 N Moore St
New York, NY 10013
Phone: (212) 219-8568
website

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Bicoastal Roach

There is no denying that San Francisco can compete with the NYC culinary scene any day. This is mainly due to its close proximity to wine country. With great wine comes great food. While I was most excited to be visiting some of my best friends out west last weekend, I knew that most of our adventures would be centered around delicious food. I can basically map out my trip in taking you through a brief culinary tour.

First stop: St. Helena - a charming town in Napa Valley that is currently home to one of my oldest friends. Being in the heart of wine country and the land of foodies, we decided to go for the full wine and culinary experience at Michelin one starred The Martini House. Opting for the cozy downstairs, we did not totally splurge and allowed ourselves the option of ordering off both the tasting and the a la carte menus. The night could not have started off better - we ordered a delicious bottle of pinot noir while they offered us a mushroom crostini amuse-bouche. In following, there was not a single dish ordered that we did not love and devour. The presentation, creative use of ingredients, fresh produce, and powerful flavor combinations were unforgettable. My favorite savory dishes were the bresaola carpaccio with truffle aoli and crushed Himalayan truffles over peppercress salad topped with crispy potatoes and the egg and watercress ravioli with baby onions and mushrooms in a red wine reduction. Even the salad of mixed chicories, Fuyu persimmons, Point Reyes blue cheese, and candied pecans was perfectly balanced and topped with creamy white balsamic vinaigrette. The dish that truly blew us away was one of the desserts - a brioche bread pudding with candy cap mushrooms. As it did not taste of vegetables at all, I learned that these rare mushrooms which are only available in the winter and are somewhat exclusive to the west coast give off an intense sweet fragrance resembling maple syrup. This dessert exemplified all that culinary experts strive towards in the west.

The next day was a more traditional adventure in wine country. During our morning run, we passed through endless vineyards and rolling hills. We almost convinced ourselves that we were in the countryside of Tuscany - shouting "Bongiorno" to each and every passerby. Feeling energized and ready to start indulging again, we headed to the famous Oakville Grocery where we picked up sandwiches for an afternoon picnic. This gourmet country market offers made-to-order sandwiches, cheese, charcuterie, local olive oils, preserves, mustards, etc. I could spend hours wandering around the tiny store if it were not so crowded! Our favorite sandwich was the Italian salami and provolone with red onion, leaf lettuce, tomato, and balsamic vinaigrette on a baguette. But, I am convinced that you cannot go wrong with any of their creations. We enjoyed our sandwiches while sitting under the sun on the terrace of the Robert Sinskey Vineyards. After lunch, we went inside to sample the RSV "gluttonous" wine flight featuring a variety of the vineyard's most current red wines accompanied by small bites. We justified this over-indulgence as just another form of dessert! All five wines were paired with food that brought out the flavors showcased in each pour. As with any trip I have ever taken to wine country, it was one of the most relaxing and refreshing days - I am convinced there isn't a care in the world in that part of the country.

As I had so easily transformed into complete vacation mode, it was time to hit up the big city. Lunch on the following day could not have been more different from the scenic setting of the previous day. However, it was, yet again, a total experience! I met up with my lawyer and real estate investment friends at Yank Sing Restaurant - a dim sum house in the middle of the Rincon Center mall and office complex. I actually had not had dim sum since my trip to Beijing in March and was definitely skeptical that a downtown San Francisco dim sum outpost would even compare. However, Yank Sing was definitely not joking around! The minute we sat down at our table, we were approached by several carts, offering up each and every form of dim sum that you could imagine. As we jumped on the first few plates offered, we soon learned that we can and should be a little picky - there was definitely no shortage of food. Not only were the options endless and served at a ridiculously fast pace, but the dumplings were absolutely delicious. I was taken back to Asia immediately - maybe it was the food or maybe it was just being back in a mall restaurant!

It would not be a trip out to San Francisco without dutch crunch bread. Before heading to hike in the Marin Highlands on my last day, we picked up a couple of sandwiches from the Marina Deli. Our favorite combination was the roast beef, cheddar, jalapenos, tomatoes, and onions with mustard and mayo on dutch crunch. Dutch crunch, in actuality, Tiger Bread, is made with a rice paste crust that gives it a distinct crusty exterior while maintaining a soft interior. This is the perfect hiker's bread for sandwiches - the outside remains crisp through all terrains and activities - and was great fuel for the outing. Nevertheless, only a few hours passed before food was on our minds again! And, after such an active, yet scenic excursion, there was really only one way to top the day - and end my adventures out west. We drove to Tiburon and sat outside on the seaside deck at Sam's Anchor Cafe where an order of oysters on the half shell and a round of bloody marys and beers did the trick. In my books, life really does not get better than that. It was well worth taking the red eye to squeeze in those last few culinary stops!

For those of you heading out west in the near future, I recommend each and every of the stops that I have mentioned above. They are all truly unique to the San Francisco area. While I do love the restaurants of NYC, when I take time off from work, I want to be truly transported. My adventures, both culinary and scenic, that I shared with my friends last weekend define what it means to take a vacation. And I actually still feel refreshed and relaxed - it is amazing what good food and friends can do for you!