Friday, July 8, 2011

Down & Out In Napa City

“Here’s a dime, boy…Gimme a shine, boy,

Down and out in New York City

Ain’t no way to be, but where can you go?

When you’re down and out in New York City”

James Brown, Down In Out In New York City, Original Soundtrack to Black Caesar

I know -- you probably thought I was gone for good. I’ve been busy, ok…

Just took a trip with Chris Cree to Napa/Sonoma to find new juice for the shop and experienced it all in terms of food service; the best of the best and the absolute worst of the worst. Stay with me on this one…

Arriving at SFO before the rest of my travel mates, I spent the am/afternoon hours exploring the Ferry Building and the magnificent, Slanted Door. Nothing unexpected here, just beautifully prepared food and attentive service as I sat at the bar alone soaking it all in with amazement. How do they feed so many people -- the place was packed – so quickly and at such a high quality? A funky-looking but tasty Vietnamese Crepe with Shrimp, Pork and Bean Sprouts was the perfect foil to a glass of Veuve-Fourny Champagne Brut Grand Reserve 1er cru. The lively bubbles caressing the delicate flavors of the crepe, I smiled a wide satisfied grin. Since I was eating alone, I’m sure my server peeped my face and thought I was missing a chromosome or two. Caramelized Wild Gulf Shrimp with Onions, Chili and Garlic was sublime with a glorious glass of 08 Donnhoff Kruetznacher Krotenphul Riesling Spatlese. Fat and happy, I waddled out of the Slanted Door and down Market Street, spending the rest of the afternoon wandering the city.

The next day held tons of tastings many of them notable and we found some magnificent wines. The Pre en Pierre label is in for some delectable stuff in the fall! As a confirmed Franc-Ital-o-phile, I sometimes forget that although California wines aren’t the first ones I personally reach for with dinner, there still are some very, very good wines being made. I was energized by the day which included a stop at Gott’s Roadside, the amazing 50’s style lunch joint that formerly was Taylor’s Refresher in St. Helena. I heart Gott’s…and fell head over heels all over again for my old standard, the Ahi Tuna Burger. It’s a solid brick of sushi grade Tuna, seared for just a moment per side and cool in the center. It is heaven on a bun. Opting to give wine a rest, I settled on a beer. It was good, refreshing but forgettable next to that lovely raw slab adorned with Asian slaw.

One constant through the day was the universal acclaim for the restaurant we planned to dine at that evening. I mean, everyone said it was fantastic. One person even told me it was the best restaurant in the valley (I’m assuming this person never had ventured to the French Laundry) so my excitement began to build.

I’m going to let this place go unnamed. As you would suspect, when anything goes unnamed, it ain’t a good sign, disaster looms. I know that everyone has a bad day, an off day and even a really awful day…myself included. This was a bad day, an off day and a really awful day combined to the tenth power for this restaurant. For a moment lets set aside the food – a serviceable for the most part yet innocuous meal with only one of the five dishes we tried (a beautiful braised rabbit) really making a mark in my mind. The service side is where the “down” began…

We’ll call my server Darren. Darren came up to the table literally shot out of a canon. “Ladies & Gentlemen, prepare yourself for one of the most amazing culinary experience of your life!” Wow, now that’s an intro! Now, I’m not saying I’ve eaten everywhere, but I’ve dined at some of the best in New York, DC, Philly, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. as well as a number of two star and three star restaurants in France, Italy and Spain. Places where the staff have the grace and elegance of ballet and the service moves in a concert-like rhythmic fluidity . Never at any one of these extremely memorable places have I had a server make such a wildly boastful claim. I’m a child of hip-hop. I’ve been known to throw around some MC-like braggadocio in my day. But can you imagine getting that kind of intro at Le Bernadin, or Le Meurice in Paris? They know they’re the shit…and so do you. They don’t need to make nutty proclamations. They just deliver the goods in every facet; quietly, assuredly, professionally, they allow you to have a great night with whoever you are looking across the table.

So Darren takes our drink order which takes a while because of his constant running commentary on every aspect. I mean, it literally took five minutes just to “order” the drinks. Ordering food took even longer, as Darren’s persistent chatter had us retool the order a couple times. The "process” ended with me ordering a bottle of 2005 Oddero Barbaresco Gallina that I asked to be decanted and then requested to see the sommelier. I’m in the wine biz, and am certainly capable of navigating a wine list. But I like to have the sommelier select wines for me. They know the food. They know the list. Might as well get that input, plus it is fun to bounce ideas off them. No sign of the sommelier…or our wine either. 10 minutes, 15 minutes go by. Our first courses arrive. We start to eat and I flag down Darren letting him know we have no wine. He apologizes (something he became proficient at throughout the night) and says its coming right up. “Here you are, Sir, the Jermann Pinot Grigio 2008", the sommelier says finally showing himself. Damnit! Nope we’re drinking Barbaresco. More apologies, more waiting.

The sommelier returns (although he never introduced himself) and begins to set the glasses for the wine we ordered 30 minutes ago. He sets my glass reaching over my left shoulder to place it in position. Then he takes the glass for Brian, who is sitting across from me, and slides it across the table as if we’re playing shuffleboard, resting pretty close to where it should be. I’m floored! When did this turn into Mel’s Diner? Actually, they wouldn’t even slide a coffee mug at Mel’s Diner. Flo has more sense than that! I look at Brian and he looks back at me like, “Should I go ballistic on this guy right now?” Nearly stepping on my jaw, as it was clearly on the ground a gasp at the glass toss, I think one of us began to smile breaking the tension a touch and onward we go. All told we order a very good 2001 Quintarelli Ca de Merlo followed by an even better 1999 Isole e Olena Cepparello Toscana IGT. I’m guessing we’re in for over $500 in wine alone.

Winding down, I was asked by Bex if I would like some more wine as there was about 1/3 bottle of the Cepparello still left. I respond, “I’d love some but they took my glass away!” Darren overhears this and about five minutes later apologizes for the fourteenth time stating, “I’m sorry we took your glass away too early, but since I don’t want you to go thirsty, here’s a Barbaresco that another table left.” He pours me a glass as I try to keep from busting out laughing, for now it’s getting comical. So the remedy to taking my stems away is presenting me with a leftover from another table? It felt akin to offering me up some uneaten French fries off a diner’s plate. Un-be-lievable!

So what is the final kick in the crotch? We order dessert…nothing comped despite the multitude of miscues. Oh, and I almost forgot – let’s not forget the 20% gratuity added TO THE ENTIRE BILL! Six diners equals automatic tip/screwing including paying 20% on the wine.

So that’s the “Down”, the next day brought a trip to Sonoma and then back to San Fran for the “Out”. Things got WAY better! Although there was nowhere to go but up, we went to the top of the food chain, first at a roadside grill in Occidental and then at one of the best meals I’ve ever had in SF. Stay tuned…

JCB the 4th


  1. The Slanted Door is why Aileen and me always have to budget two nights in San Francisco whenever we're there. We will not miss the Door, so if we want to try some of the new restaurants we need the second night. Any chance you made it to Scopa (Healdsburg) while in Sonoma? You'll have to let us know what the restaurant of doom was at some point... you can whisper in our ear.

  2. Oh, and yeah, the Donhoff, Fritz Haag, Burklin Wolff, etc. selections are not hard to take. Better German wine selection than any I've seen in NYC.

  3. I remember going to the Slanted Door when it was a little hole in the wall in the Mission district. They have come a long way and still produce delicious food, a true testament to their acumen in the kitchen and excellent training of staff.

    Never made it to Scopa...Oe, and I'll never tell. Check out Spruce on your next trip to won't be sorry.

  4. Last business trip out went to Chez Papa Resto. Excellent. We'll make a point of going to Spruce next trip... maybe in the Fall. You guys have to take advantage of access to mature Californian wines though when you're out on the town in SF. Not at Slanted Door though. ;)