Late Night Bling, or I *Heart* SF

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(Above: I started my Friday with a michelada at Nopalito, which is Tecate mixed with tomato, chili de arbol, salt and lime. Yeah, it’s good.)

This post is going up late because I’ve been sick all week. For the record, summer colds suck. And no, I don’t use Zicam.

After gorging ourselves senseless with the Third Degree at Nopalito, we headed over to the Independent to catch Datarock, a fun, dancy band from Norway. The show was great and Datarock had the house dancing wildly for much of the set. The boys in the band got their groove on too, wearing their trademark red track suits (noticeably more blinged out than two years ago when the crew looked like they’d just come from Target).

Here’s a video for what’s probably Datarock’s most well-known song, “Fa Fa Fa”:

Still feeling jazzed after the show, we completed the circle by heading to Nopalito’s big sister, Nopa, where we thought we’d take advantage of the rockin’ cocktail program. Because a fancy rye drink is just what I need at 12.30 in the morning…

Scanning the wine list however led me to Gaston Chiquet’s 1998 Spécial Club Brut. Doing the math for two rounds of cocktails for three people suggested that the Chiquet was a splurge within reach. But really, I don’t care how good a cocktail is: When there’s good Champagne, there’s not much else. And this was pretty epic stuff, with vibrant fruit that felt savory and rich supported by profound mineral depth. Got better with air too. Drink this whenever you get the chance.

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As Peter Liem notes on ChampagneGuide.net, the Chiquets have around 40 percent chardonnay, 40 percent meunier and 20 percent pinot noir planted in the Grande Vallée de la Marne, mostly in the villages of Aÿ, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Dizy and Hautvillers. Interestingly, the family uses no wood in their cellar, and a program using concrete and glass-lined tanks has been in place since the 1950s.

The Spécial Club (shown above) is bottled as part of the Club Trésors de Champagne, a group of independent grower-producers who have organized under a set of guidelines, including a distinctive bottle, to produce what is effectively a prestige cuvée for each member. At Gaston Chiquet, the Special Club bottling typically includes 70 percent chardonnay and 30 percent pinot noir. To learn more about grower-producers like Gaston Chiquet, or most any producer of interest in Champagne, I highly recommend a subscription to ChampagneGuide.net.

Another Datarock song, “Computer Camp Love”:

Holy Hummus, or, I *Heart* Jerusalem

A quick update and some pics.

Greetings from the Holy Land! Spent the last few days wandering all over the old city section of Jerusalem. Stunning place, really, although so very puzzling. The religious energy is intense, and culturally it’s at once open and guarded. But it’s a thrilling place. We’ve also managed to balance out the trip a little and head over into the occupied territories, specifically Ramallah and Bethlehem, where tourist dollars are much needed. Both fascinating places. Again, though, another layer to complicated land with its contradictions and challenges.

Some highlights:

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Walking near the Western Wall, with the Dome of the Rock in the background.

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Hummus and Ful (fava beans slow-cooked in a copper pot) at Lina’s in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. The hummus, easily some of the best I’ve eaten, had a silky texture texture and rich, deep flavors while the ful was invigorating and bright.

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Required summer reading, if you like both Jane Austen *and* zombies…

Les Concerts à Emporter (or, I *Heart* Paris)

Make that j’M Paris.

Okay I’m not really in Paris, at least not physically. Sometimes when I get a little ancy or am feeling a desire to be easily distracted, I tune in to Les Concerts à Emporter, or the Take Away Shows, a series of intimate musical performances recorded and videoed in Paris by the team behind La Blogotheque. Often set in an apartment living room, kitchen, a bar or even out in the street, the shows have a transporting immediacy. They also — at least for me — inspire apartment envy. And of course, when Les Concerts does go out of doors, to the Parisian streets, the whole thing becomes something of a music video guide to what’s possibly the world’s greatest city.

Here are a couple of favorites from the last year (these might not be viewable in Google Reader, so you’ll need to click through to Spume to view them):

That’s was Grizzly Bear performing “The Knife”. And here’s the National’s “Start a War.”

There are many more; go here to have a look for yourself.

Up the Mendonoma Coast

We wound down 2008 with a mini-road trip up the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts. Below is Point Arena and its lighthouse, which was unfortunately being renovated when we stopped there. But the hiking along the rocks and cliffs is spectacular!

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Right on the countyline between Sonoma and Mendocino is the townlet of Gualala (which some people pronounce “wah-lah-lah”). There’s a long beach with lots of driftwood at the mouth of the Gualala River, making for excellent beachcombing.

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We stayed at St. Orres, a funky timecapsule from the mid-70s here on the far coast. Whimsically built to recall the 19th century Russian influence in the area, St. Orres consists of a lodge and a series of small cabins spread among several acres of oceanside forest. Cool stuff. Quiet, idyllic, with zero cell phone reception or internet (yay!). There’s also a hot tub overlooking the Pacific and an excellent sauna — also built to be sort of Russian, although really it’s 1970s Northern California in all its splendor, right down to the hot tub. There’s a restaurant in the main lodge which some people will say is good, but trust me: Don’t eat there. Instead, check out Pangaea in nearby Gualala (billed as “lusty, zaftig, soulful food”) — it rocks. Great food and a fine selection of regional wines from the Sonoma and Mendocino Coasts.

Below, some of our spoils: Anthill Farms 2006 Comptche Ridge Pinot Noir, from a vineyard planted a few miles inland from Albion on the Mendocino coast; and Renard’s 2003 Peay Vineyard Syrah, from the Peays’ vineyard a couple miles inland from Gualala and Sea Ranch.

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*Note: The New York Times recently ran this article on the community of Sea Ranch, a few miles down the coast from Gualala.

East Bay Grease, or, I *Heart* Oakland

For a while there Oakland got a really bad rap: Crime, urban decay, you name the disease and this city suffered from it. Things began to noticeably change back during the first dot-com boom when rents and the cost of living in San Francisco became untenable for many of the working class and creative class (like that situation has changed any), a number of whom uprooted and settled across the bay. Maybe this mirrors the story of Brooklyn?

I first noticed that Oakland was serious about attracting City folk while visiting my sister once. At the time, she lived near Lake Merritt, just south of downtown Oakland, in a beautiful arts & crafts apartment building. She’d afixed to her a door an ad courtesy of mayor Jerry Brown asking San Franciscans where to move in their city to avoid the fog. Answer: Oakland. While I never took that bait, I have found some excellent destinations in Oakland. And, as a bonus for Bay Area foodies, parts of the city are becoming outright gourmet destinations, with former employees of Chez Panisse setting up shop south of their alma mater.

Today I found myself BARTing over after work to meet a winemaker from Napa to talk about an upcoming freelance project I’m working on. He’d suggested we meet at Café Van Kleef, a place I’d never heard of, but that didn’t matter: As a resident of San Francisco, many voyages across the bay become the stuff of adventure, and this place didn’t disappoint. A vast, creative space, shrouded in darkness and filled with 20th century bric-a-brac, it’s home to a variety of musical acts, many of whom will actively recruit bar patrons to sing back up. It also seems to exist in it’s own time warp, or rather its own universe. The best part? When I left, I felt a strong sense of déja-vu: I’ll be back.

*On my way home I stopped by my neighborhood wine shop, Arlequin, to pick up a few more bottles of Cascina Morassino‘s 1996 Barbaresco, available for the whopping price of $29 (they got it as a close out). It’s honest, unfussed nebbiolo, expressive and aromatic, with lasting flavors and great focus. And it’s drinking perfectly right now. We drank my last bottle over the weekend with pizza (and yes, Dr. J, I’d have to agree: Pizza and nebbiolo does rock!), so I needed some more. Wine deal of the year, dammit.

Greatest Food & Wine Pairing Ever (or I *Heart* Seattle)

(Above: Champagne grapes are indeed very cute)

I was in Seattle last week for the Wine & Spirits Hot Picks tasting event, which was held at the historic Paramount Theatre in downtown. Like I did for a similar W&S event held in LA, I participated in a radio show in the days before the tasting (although this time I called in for a live broadcast). Anyway, the host asked me a common question: What’s the greatest food and wine pairing that you’ve ever experienced?

You think I’d have an answer to this one, but no–I just don’t think that way. I mean, there are loads of epic wine and food pairings that come to mind but I don’t really dwell on them. Too many more to look forward to, I guess. Why live in the past?

That said, one pairing immediately came to mind… Two years ago, I was hanging out in Seattle with Peter Liem prior to another W&S event, and we went to Matt’s In The Market for lunch. At the time, Matt’s was a narrow space with a fish counter and a few tables (it has since expanded to double that size). Hot food was cooked on a propane burner in the back; I think there was also a toaster in use. Peter, of course, brought along a bottle from one of his remote North American stashes: Louis Roederer’s 1983 Cristal.

1983, as Peter told me at the time, is considered an off year for Cristal (and Champagne), yet this wine was gorgeous. Better still, we ordered up a couple of fried catfish sandwiches to pair with it. Damn! Absolutely perfect combination…the Champagne was still very fresh at 23 years old, with plenty of zip left in it–bubbles, acidity–to cut through the rich fish and crispy batter. I can still taste it today, two years later. Now that’s bling!

(Above: The catfish at Matt’s is perfectly fried–crispy outer crust, the meat is fluffy and moist–and then generously served as a sandwich with aioli and greens)

I went back to Matt’s on this last trip, but alas, I didn’t have a bottle of ’83 Cristal with me. Matt’s has always had a good wine program, however, and the selection, I’m pleased to report, grew along with the remodel. Catfish sandwich ordered, we asked for a bottle of the delicious ’05 Muscadet Clos des Allées Vieilles Vignes from Luneau-Papin, a Loire Valley producer with total geek cred. Yeah, it kicked ass.

(Above: The marquee at the Paramount Theatre… not only did Wine & Spirits share the upcoming billing with NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, but also Billy Idol!)

The Plant Kingdom Gets Down ‘n Dirty (or, I *Heart* San Francisco)

Simon and I were joined by the Third Degree last Saturday in Golden Park for some serious picnic action. Food spread: a garlicy saucisson, St. Marcellin, crusty bread. Washed it all down with a couple bottles of ’06 Willamette Valley pinot gris (which to me is looking like a lovely vintage for Oregon gris) while sprawled out on my favorite grassy knoll in the park.

Afterwards we headed over to the Conservatory of Flowers, surly one of the best kept secrets in San Francisco. This stunning Victorian greenhouse is located conveniently near the Stanyan/Fell Street entrance to Golden Gate Park, just off MLK Drive. The Third Degree and I remember a ramshackle building and broken panes of glass from about when we both moved here, but thankfully the Conservatory was restored to its 19th century splendor a few years ago.

Here are some pictures from our visit:

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It’s hard to beat a sunny day in Golden Gate Park.

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The entrance to the Conservatory of Flowers. The Conservatory opened in 1879 and it is the oldest public conservatory of its kind in North America.

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Parts of the Conservatory are off limits, but not to worry: The USDA has got your back!

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One current exhibition features Penjing, or Chinese miniature landscapes with exquisitely carved landscapes and tiny cultivated plants and mosses.

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Lots of educational signage at the Conservatory. At its heart, the Conservatory is rather sexually explicit.

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There was also a butterfly exhibit where we were able to see the pollinators hard at work.

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I’m not so sure that this large cockroach was doing any pollinating…eeww!

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Orchids: A study in temptation.

Once the sun set, we stumbled home to Hayes Valley for a bite to eat. Not feeling entirely ready for bed, Simon and I walked over to Jardinère where we sat at the bar for fried olives and some exceptional Sherry that sommelier Eugenio Jardim insisted we try. Now I love Sherry but for some reason it’s something I don’t drink very often–and I now plan to change that immediately. Both the Gutierrez Colosia “Elcano” Fino from Puerto de Santa Maria and the Dios Baco Imperial 20 Year Amontillado (V.O.S.) from Jerez de la Frontera were exceptional. Dry, salty and crisp, they matched the olives perfectly.

I’d never heard of these Sherries before, but they’re available at the Spanish Table in Berkeley (Spanish Table also has stores in Mill Valley and Seattle). Of course, you could also try them at Jardinère. Just don’t miss the olives.