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The Next Level

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

It is high time I took picnicking to the next level.

I have read and re-read the chapter in Peter Mayle’s Toujours Provence where he talks about the picnic his wife plans for his birthday, the picnic he is loathe to attend because of a fear of “a damp bottom and ant sandwiches”.  Of course, the picnic reaches far beyond all his low expectations when he is presented with a table with actual linens and sliverware, set in a sunny, quiet meadow and several courses of a divine luncheon.  As beautiful as that all sounds, I’m not sure that I would necessarily categorize that as a picnic;  it’s more like alfresco dining.   So what I want to target is something that, on the spectrum of Eating Outside, sits far, far from PB&J and rather close to alfresco dining, but without the caterers or linen.

An opportunity to experiment with picnicking arose with Mom & Dad’s visit to SF, and the subsequent – practically mandatory – day trip to wine country.  There are several wineries in the region that have picnic areas for visitors, but one in particular, in Napa, is where we had been before and wanted to go again:  Reynold’s Family Winery.   It’s a small scale operation with a nice patio, some chairs and tables with umbrellas arranged under (what is almost always) the hot sun.  Even better, they have one of the few Chardonnays on the planet that I actually find pleasant to drink.   The wine is where I started the menu, the library is where I continued.

Truthfully, I didn’t plan to actually go searching for a picnic cookbook when I was last at the library, but I happened to pick a most unlikely choice: Tassajara Cookbook, Lunches, Picnics & Appetizers, by Karla Oliveira.

“The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a legendary Buddhist monastery set deep in California’s Ventana Wilderness, is famous for its healthy gourmet vegetarian cuisine.  Guests rave about one particular Tassajara tradition: the bag lunch.”


Ha!   It’s vegetarian, and I still brought it home.  Brought it home and got completely wound up in what were starting to sound like really good spreads and chutneys, even without any meat:  Fennel Mustard Butter, Tarragon Onion Spread, Eggless Egg Salad, Mushroom Pâté…  I had to look up what “tempeh” was, and what “tamari” was (coarse tofu and a kind of soy sauce, respectively) and then designed a menu mindful of chardonnay:

Tempeh Garlic spread with cherry tomatoes

Artichoke, Walnut Tofu spread with Raincoast crisps

Un Mondo Cacciatore Hunter’s Style dried salami & grainy mustard

Cabbage slaw with maple vinaigrette

Coco-Luxe chocolate truffles

Ultimately, though I forgot the forks and the sun refused to shine in Napa (inconceivable!), this picnic was a smash.   We uncorked a thoughtfully chilled 2007 Chardonnay, dressed the salad, sliced the salami, and enjoyed our picnic despite the chilly breeze.  In fact, I’m not sure it could’ve been nicer– the spreads were good protein but not so filling that we would regret them at dinner time, the slaw added a vinegary, crunchy element and the truffles at the end effectively sealed off any overindulgence in white wine.   Only the sun was lacking to make our view out over the vineyards perfect.

…Back to Napa

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

It seems we cannot stay away.  Gail and Daniel’s visit gave us an excellent excuse to explore further wineries and picnic spots.




To Wine Country, Jeeves

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

view-cole-valleyThe fog drifts in again and makes itself comfortable on the hill that is Buena Vista Park, opposite our picture window.  It’s this wet blanket of water droplets dampening streets, hiding views and flattening hair that makes me sigh and reminisce about wine country.   Ahh, Napa–  where the sun always shines and the palm trees wave and the wine flows. Unless you rent a convertible, in which case, it is sure to rain.

I’m convinced that the only reason it rained on our trip North recently is because we rented the Mini Cooper Convertible.  It’s cute and all, but kind of simple and definitely not as fun in the dark, cramped, ill-formed back seat with the top up.  Nonetheless, Marc and Marcia and I trooped from winery to winery despite the chill, even stopping for a surreptitiously-timed picnic lunch before the rain began.  As it turns out, a winery is perhaps the most perfect place for civilized picnic outdoors:  tables and chairs are usually positioned with a wide view of vineyard or valley or pond, staff are quick to offer knives or napkins or whatever else has been forgotten at home, and wine is conveniently sold chilled for enjoyment on the spot.  Bread and good cheese, some sun-warmed fresh figs bought at the farm stand along the road, a glass or two of unoaked Chardonnay.  It will be hard to beat that.

After having filled the wee trunk with as much wine as it could carry/we could purchase, we headed for The Fig Café in Glen Ellen.  As they accept no reservations, we took our place second in the queue forming outside the door for the first sitting at 5:30pm.  It smelled delicious as soon as we walked in– did someone toss garlic into pan as the doors were unlocked?



Fried calamari with lemon aioli, no corkage (!), fig and arugula salad with chèvre, pecans and pancetta, duck confit, saffron and white corn pasta, and a humble order of “fries” with tarragon aioli.  Now allow me, please, a moment to elaborate on the fries:  these were The Best Fries I Have Ever Eaten.  They were twice fried, to be sure, but that oil must have contained duck fat or pure lard or something that penetrated the fluffy potato interior and melted in one’s mouth.  Burning hot and very liberally salted, they crunched so preciously between the teeth that I found them more enjoyable eaten one by one by hand, rather than by the civilized forkful.


The three of us, after having eaten and wined all day, could barely muster the strength to get through three quarters of the honey-lavender crème brulée before crying uncle and staggering back out into the drizzle to our cramped little Mini.  The dinner and the wine and the fries more than made up for the rain.

Dinner at The Movie

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

Here’s something:   I love the Kabuki Sundance Theater in Japantown.  Let me explain.


We had decided to see Star Trek: The Prequel Where Spock and Kirk First Meld Minds.   SciFi kind of warrants viewage on the IMAX-sized screen but the theater downtown which offers this option is rather large and cold and rather not our favourite.   Instead, I suggested that we make use of the balcony level of the Kabuki theater because it is connected to a bar and is uniquely qualified to cater to women dragged to see Star Trek: The Origin of The Unconscionably Offensive Yellow Captain’s Uniform.    Marc promptly purchased the tickets online, where we were able to choose our seats at the very edge of the balcony so as to have an unobstructed view of the finer details of the visual effects associated with “beaming”.

We arrived early to size up the bar.  The cinema itself is on the small side, somehow managing to be both cozy – with the Peet’s Coffee on the second level – and bright, with the 3-story atrium effect.  We headed straight for the third floor and ordered glasses of wine.   At this point, it’s nothing to really write home about, but the true brilliance of this theater is the fact that one can take their (generously poured) drinks and pizza or salad or mediterranean platter into the balcony seating area.   So civilized to sit in comfortable reclining seats, separated in twos by coffee-table-esque surfaces, sipping wine from glass glasses, feet up, in front of a big screen.  I doubt we’ll be able to visit another theater now;  all others are ruined.  (Except that one in Oakland that serves beer and pizza, but it can’t hold a candle to Kabuki.)   At least I will not offer any resistence when goaded into seeing the next Star Trek movie, Star Trek: Even More Green-Skinned Women in Their Underwear.

Same Old

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Perhaps it’s a sign that our Valentine’s Day was nothing out of the ordinary.   I don’t mean that cynically, rather in an every-day-is-filled-with-sunshine kind of way.   Most often, an occasion or a holiday warrants, for us, a relatively extravagant meal that we prepare, but this year, it was just what happened to remain on our weekly menu.  Our regular menu has, I suppose, evolved to a place where almost every evening we cook is an occasion.  Except for the nights when we make Kraft Dinner.

This year’s V-day was preceded by an attendance at the Food From the Heart wine and food tasting at the Ferry Building the night before.  This was reminiscent of one our first dates spent at a wine and food tasting in Calgary at the Stampede Grounds.  The Ferry Building was somewhat more demure and featured some really enjoyable wines from Napa, Sonoma, etc. but somehow they had neglected to put a champagne tasting booth next to the raw oyster booth.  A small oversight I suppose I can overlook for the fact that there were pulled-pork sandwiches, caviar blini and, thankfully, no Hungarian wines.

The next day, Saturday, we needed only to ferret out a delectable treat of a wine to go with supper.  Expensive wine is certainly a deviation from our norm and so much more appreciated as such.   We went to our new favourite wine shop/convenience store in Cole Valley where $150 bottles of wine are sold next to canned pork and beans and Big League Chew.   We discussed with the proprieter, Adel, what we planned to cook that night and that we were leaning towards a Malbec, but he suggested instead a Chilean blend from Maipo Valley with a hand-lettered “716” on the bottom right of the label.   It is the bottle number of that vintage of Antiyal 2005, of which 6900 were made.   Somehow, this little piece of knowledge added a new perspective to the wine, because to picture this one bottle as its number, I must see it relative to its 6899 brothers, and that is was among the first thousand to be bottled (presumably).  Curious: would it be different from bottle 5016?

  • grilled chili-marinated skirt steak with maple-chipotle glaze


  • french fries with fleur de sel and truffle oil


  • chevre rice pudding with pistachios, dates and candied kumquats


Some bold flavours to challenge this wine;  it was certainly enjoyable after breathing for awhile but I wouldn’t describe it as extraordinary, though neither would the meal itself warrant that praise.   However, when applied together to a small desk-cum-table facing our best and only view of the city at night, it was certainly delightful and romantic.

Let The Gluttony Begin

Monday, November 26th, 2007

I find it hard to resist salivating while watching cooking programmes. Like a dog, I find there are certain things that trigger my reaction: when someone on TV tosses a pile of onions into a pan of melted butter, when I see tasty, seared meat coming out of an oven, and when sauce is drizzled over anything. I suspect that this is because I know so well what sauteed onions and roasted meats smell like, and can anticipate what sweet and/or vinegary tastes are about to be thrust onto the item over which the sauce ladle hovers. Indeed, it makes my mouth water to think about these things just now, as I type.

These past couple weeks have been especially Pavlovian for me because of all the Thanksgiving business on the Food Network. For two solid weeks, the theme was turkey and fixin’s: roast turkey, braised turkey, southwest-style turkey, deep-fried turkey, barbecued turkey, turkey with stuffing, turkey without stuffing, turkey wraps, turkey pot pie, turkey soup, turkey cracklin’, turkey gravy and turkey mole. We hadn’t even planned to make turkey until the TV so earnestly convinced us to do so. And thus, we produced a TV-inspired Thanksgiving meal for two, which actually produced enough food for six. This is what America is all about. Loosen the belt, point the tube at the dining room table and make way for the bird.

So the day before The Day, we walked down to the market to pick up a few things for our meal. Initially, the shopping list consisted of four items: turkey breast, sweet potatoes, potatoes and cranberry juice. It was to be a simple, elegant meal with a few favourite items and some homemade cranberry sauce. Though maybe we should get some carrots, because we kind of need a veg. Although we have those brussels sprouts, I could make those too. Oh yeah, and I forgot that I bought some pumpkin pie filling the other day because it was on sale. Plus that bread is kind of getting stale, we might as well use it in stuffing… and on, and on. Somehow, that quick trip to the grocery for four items turned out to be a dinner of way too much food. How much is too much, you ask? How does one gauge the point at which the line is crossed from sufficiency to excess? I think it would be fair to say that when you forget to serve a couple of dishes, you’ve crossed the line. We were in the middle of eating before we remembered the stuffing in the oven. Ergo, this picture is a fair representation of our meal, minus one.


There is also no picture of the pumpkin pie that I made because we were so full, we forgot to eat it. If that is not the very definition, the very essence of excess, than I don’t know what is.

Though very much in overabundance, we managed to pull off quite a satisfactory meal, if I do say so myself. Without having to worry about uneven cooking times or different parts of the bird being over- or under-cooked, the roasting of the breast was dead simple and wonderfully juicy; the cranberry-port sauce kicked ass. Slow-baked sweet potatoes and fluffy mashed Yukons cannot be any tastier than when monteed by a ton of beurre and then pressed into service as a blockade for gravy, protecting the vegetable half of the plate. That evening also marked the occasion for opening our last remaining Argentine wine, the Beta Crux from O. Fournier in Mendoza. This is the bottle that travelled with us across the Andes to Chile and up to Bolivia, that got strapped to the roof of our jeep as we crossed the blazing desert and the salt flats of Bolivia, that bumped along in the bowels of the bus that forded rivers as it took us to La Paz and then made it, intact, inside Marc’s soft-sided backpack when we checked our luggage to fly from Peru to Canada. These are less than ideal storage conditions for wine. However, we were very pleased to have decanted the bottle and found, after a little airing, a brilliant, well-balanced accompaniment to our meal.

As has been a tradition for the past nine years, Sam received his annual salary in the form of food, a small plate of all the things that dogs dream about for 364 days of the year. He set aside nothing for his retirement.


Cheap and Happy

Friday, October 5th, 2007

cimg7158.jpgOfficially, this wine has no name. That, perhaps, should have been our first clue. The fact that it has a smiley face instead of a label, and that the description on the back speaks of the “flavour of happiness” should have warned me against buying it. I don’t know what I was thinking except that we needed two more bottles of wine in order to get the bulk discount at Trader Joe’s, this one was $5.99, and I was being lazy and silly. I have learned my lesson. Better to have been short a bottle and to not have gotten the discount rather than buy this swill and have to drain it down the sink. After the first puckering sip, I hoped that it just needed air but that was a fool’s hope. It was heinous. Not since Shanghai have we had to pour an entire bottle down the sink because the wine was simply awful.

Speaking of China, though, we ordered chinese take-out last night after we opened a fresh bottle. With a name like “Andy’s Chinese Cuisine”, what is one to expect? It’s kind of hard to know because the eponymy could be on purpose, giving the illusion of humble when it is really divine. Of course, it could be genuinely humble, a hole-in-the-wall with a greasy kitchen, mismatched tables and chairs and cheap, too-thin paper napkins. One cannot necessarily judge by the name or the look of the restaurant- the food from either could turn out to be a fabulous bargain or a disastrously bland, or MSG’d mistake. Sometimes, the nastiest of dives makes the tastiest of take-out and the places that look posh could serve sad, Americanized imitations of the original cuisine. cimg7159.jpgIt turns out that Andy’s is someplace in between. After Marc had placed our order, we noticed that our photocopied menu had been trying to tell us that Andy’s had been voted as the Best of the Bay for its Kung Pao chicken. Luckily, we had ordered it. I don’t exactly know what Kung Pao chicken is supposed to taste like (unless I count the version we ate while in China, but I can’t, really, because it was likely a tourist-ized version of the original), but Andy’s was pretty good: a little spicy, nicely oniony, lots of chicken. The best part about the meal was the take-out boxes. You just don’t see these in Canada where every place seems to use styrofoam containers. These are the classic Chinese take-out containers, the kind you see in the movies, the kind I thought were perpetuated only by movies and TV but were not actually in use anymore. How very quaint.

Speaking of “quaint” and “dive”, it turns out that a purveyor of food can be both. A couple of weeks ago, we took the car in to have its smog emission test which left us with about 20 minutes of waiting time in a gas station. Rather than sit at the picnic table in the parking lot, we wandered off for a snack and went into the first shop we saw that served coffee: The 5 Star Truffle Cafe. It’s a small, dark place with an old espresso machine, an ancient glass display case and a guy making a mountain of truffles behind the counter. It’s the truffle store next to the gas station on Divisadero. While we waited for the guy in front of us to have his order for 60 truffles filled, we perused the flavours: mocha, cognac, coconut, espresso, hazelnut, orange… there were at least 10 or 12 different kinds. The man in the front of us asked to taste the Earl Grey truffle; when he nodded and held up 10 fingers, I concluded it was good and said as much. He continued to nod and rolled his eyes to say it was fantastic. I joked he must be the most popular guy at his office to bring in so many truffles, but he corrected me, saying that his partner had just died and that he was collecting some of his favourite foods for the celebration of his life taking place that afternoon. Wasn’t really expecting to hear sad news, but I guess it means that at least these truffles were somebody’s favourite. We ordered 20. They were exquisite, especially the Earl Grey.

Lucinda’s Prison Burgers

Tuesday, September 11th, 2007

Here’s something odd and rather gruesome: list of last meal requests in Texas.

How or why this information was compiled and posted is curious; it certainly peaks the curiosity. What does a person choose for their last meal on earth, the last thing that will pass the lips, the last thing, arguably, to give pleasure before the end? It seems that Dr.Pepper, Coke, cheeseburgers, fried chicken, chef’s salad, steak, eggs and bacon are the foods of choice for many of the condemned, though there were definitely some interesting requests: “Cool Whip and a bowl of cherries”, “One bag of assorted Jolly Ranchers”, “Mexican Dish with all the fixings”, “1 jar of dill pickles”, “Eucharist”, “1 apple, 1 orange, 1 banana, coconut and peaches”. (Seriously, fruit? That’s your choice for last meal?) Clearly alcohol was off limits. And what about the people that requested no meal at all? Perhaps food isn’t high on the list of priorities at that point in time but I can’t even really speculate. Out loud, I wondered what Marc thought this list might contain if it were another country, like France, before I remembered that they don’t employ capital punishment… You can be sure there’d be lobster, though. And plenty of foie gras, wine and cheese. Zero cheeseburgers.

Indeed, while reading the list, it was hard to miss the fact that so many people chose some form of hamburger as their last meal, though the details varied: double meat hamburger, “all the way” (everything on it?), bacon double cheeseburger, old fashioned cheeseburger. So with all the variations on the burger, would one be allowed to specify how, or by whom, it was prepared? I mean, could one request a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, or a Whopper or “one what like my Ma used to make”? How disappointing would it be if your request for a last meal, to which one might look forward with a least a little relish, was unobtainable or fell entirely short of expectations? Like the guy who asked for “Shrimp and Salad. Shrimp not available. Served cheeseburger, french fries and cola.” I guess there’s no justice on death row.

img_1511.jpgFrom this chain of thought, I recalled our recent, and first ever, journey into Northern California wine country, with Geoff and his girlfriend, Lucinda. I know that seems a little off topic, but it was because we stopped for lunch at the In ‘N Out Burger at Lucinda’s request- dare I say insistence? It’s been awhile since she has visited California and a visit to the In ‘N Out is a mandatory item on her Golden State To Do list. Nobody in the car argued, because they do make a fine burger. So fine, in fact, that I think that might be what Lucinda would specify as her last meal- it would have to be In ‘N Out. That is, if she chose a cheeseburger, and if she were on Death Row, both of which seem pretty unlikely.

Visiting a few vineyards in Dry Creek on a hot, sunny afternoon was a pretty sweet way to spend a Monday afternoon. I was more than a little surprised that we had such a successful day because a) it was Labour Day and surely we were not the only people inclined to drink, I mean taste, our way through the afternoon, b) we left when the city in the afternoon, and c) the Bay Bridge was closed for construction which meant the traffic on the Golden Gate was more concentrated than ever. It turned out that none of these things posed any kind of an obstacle and we happily sampled more wines than I can recall. Arguably, our favourite was the 2004 Unti Syrah, which we brought home and have since drunk with relish (but no mustard or ketchup). We had enjoyed the 2003 Syrah the night before at Saha, a Yemeni restaurant where we met Geoff & Lucinda, her Aunt Kate and mom, Ellen and thought we would be so clever to visit the winery the next day. Indeed, Lucinda was clever enough to arrange the whole thing, including the In ‘N Out luncheon.


Uh Oh, Uco

Saturday, March 31st, 2007


We found a small premium wine tour with Ampora Tours to the Uco Valley, the supposed “next Napa Valley” and home to the highest vineyards in the world at 1,100 to 1,300 meters. The sandy soil, sunny days, cool nights, lack of rain, and abundant spring water all create perfect conditions for great grapes with concentrated sugars and thick skins. After picking up the three other tourists we visited three vineyards of different sizes with our guide.

The tour was nearly continuous hilarity from the beginning and wine only added to the Canadian humour. Upon finding out the other tourists in the group were staying at the Park Hyatt, we started hypothesizing who would stay at this elite bastean of elegant class. I guessed Americans and Janet guessed Germans. Both wrong: two youngish Canadian women, Sharon and Linda from Vancouver, travelling on their oil and gas money. They vowed revenge if we published this picture of them. So be it.


The first vineyard, Estancia Ancon, was the smallest vineyard with a production of 90,000 bottles. The Grande Reserve de la Familia blend of cabernet sauvignon, malbec and pinot noir, a limited edition of 6,000 bottles, was our favorite wine of the day, although our palettes were still fresh at the time. The atypical blend had a pleasant smoothness from the pinot noir and oak. The property’s villa can also accommodate tourists for an undisclosed sum.

cimg5495-320.jpgAndeluna, the second vineyard, was a little bigger. The suburban-country tasting room was warm, though a little contrived. We tried five wines with the 2005 Malbec and the 2003 Pasionado Blends being our favorites.
The last vineyard was O. Fournier. The owners told the architects that visitors should either hate it or love it, but never forget it. The ominous concrete structure fulfilled that mandate; it kind of looks like an airport terminal. To avoid pumping the wine, the lowest level is 20 meters underground. Whole grapes are crushed at the top level, then slide down to the fermentation vats on the next level, and then are aged in oak barrels on the last level. We toured the cellar on catwalks where we also viewed enourmous pieces of art from a local artist.

A highlight of the tour was the four course lunch at the winery’s by-appointment-only-restaurant. A colourful trio of warm soups—potato, pumpkin with pepper and greensquash with spring onion—were served in shot glasses and followed up with a few simple treads of julienned peppers and eggplant with oil and salt. We were surprised to find the Malbec held up to the red wine vinegar in the salmarejo, a cold gazpacho-like soup, which followed. Alfa Crux, a wine we tasted at Vines of Mendoza, accompanied the requisite beef entree. The dining room’s six meter high windows were intended to provide grand views of the Andes, but instead the clouds provided a white backdrop which only partially cleared.

After a day of wine we were noisely cracking jokes and laughing and the two Canadian women setting the pace. As the only male in a party of six, I couldn’t offset the natural tendency of the drunk women to get rowdy and talk about men. Somehow, one of the owners’ father at the next table managed to fall asleep over the ruckus at the next table. Fortunately, the ladies directed most of their interest to the driver, the waiter and the security guard, who one hoped would require sexual favors in place of a lost receipt.

Winey Senses Tingling

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

I can’t resist adding this post about the Sensory Tasting because it was some of the best fun we’ve had on this trip.

To learn how to properly taste wine, the Vines of Mendoza set up this flight of wine and provided us with an instructor to learn some of the finer details on how to properly taste wine. It turns out that just popping off the cork and slugging it back does not equal tasting.

cimg5461-320.jpgThe special tasting room (!!) was prepared with three different, non-blended local wines: a Torrontes, a Bonarda and a Malbec. However, in addition to the wines, there were tasting glasses filled with the flavours that one is meant to experience in each wine. For example, the glass of Bonarda was accompanied by a glass each of earth, dried leaves, quince jam, and pepper. So, after one swirls and takes notes on the wines appearance, one is meant to sniff the aroma and compare it to the raw elements. How much fun is THAT!

And then we got to taste. And taste and taste, and sniff and taste and note… yet another blissful afternoon. Funnily enough, our tolerance for alcohol seems to be increasing with our knowledge of wine.