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My California Culinary Pilgrimage (Apr. 2007)


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A Chinese diner in the French Laundry

After my lunch at Chez Panisse, I drove up to Napa Valley, didn’t stop at any taco trucks (sorry, Rancho Gordo), and arrived at my bed and breakfast place in Yountville. I decided to chill out before my 8:45 p.m. reservation at the French Laundry. I took a stroll through that affluent little town of Yountville: Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, Bistro Jeanty, Hurley’s, Redd, Ad Hoc ... Hey, maybe a small, early dinner just before my late dinner at the French Laundry? Uhh, no ... Instead, I took a few pictures of the town to help give a geographical context.

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My walk to the French Laundry is just two doors down from the bed & breakfast place. I hope I can find my way back after this meal ... I arrived at the French Laundry and my friend was waiting outside. Before entering inside, I strolled around the outdoor area and from a distance, I looked inside and saw Thomas Keller himself. I didn’t get to meet him personally that evening. Mind you, he was there that night.

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Et maintenant, le dîner, il commence ... (And now, dinner begins ...)

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Gougères

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Amuse bouche

A complimentary glass of champagne was offered. Our server helped guide us through the menu selections. I chose the Chef’s Tasting Menu. My friend chose the Tasting of Vegetables. I remember that they didn’t really offer any wine pairings. They could have, but that was not their approach, they explained. And if I recall correctly, I think I ordered a wine by the glass.

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Oysters and Pearls

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A complimentary course from the chef

How did they cut that egg shell so perfectly?

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Salad of compressed hosui pears

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du beurre

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Sautéed fillet of Atlantic striped bass (blurred)

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Beets and Leeks

What a misnomer! No mention of the lobster tail pochée au beurre doux!! Oh, how decadent! And don’t bother me! I’m eating!

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All day-braised Kurobuta pork belly

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Japanese “Wagyu” meat

The raw meat was presented to me. I asked to see the certificate. Sorry, I didn’t take a picture of that. It was all in Japanese, except for the hoof print.

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Herb-roasted sirloin of Japanese “Wagyu” ($100.00 supplement)

Yes, this course costed extra. Don’t have a cow, please, and you know what I mean! The presentation was wonderful, with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, grilled scallions, “Akita Komachi” rice, tatsoi, and kanzuri “coulis.” You can have your meat and potatoes. As for me, I grew up eating rice with my steaks. The Wagyu beef with the rice brought back happier feelings of comfort back during my childhood days. This course was worth the extra hundred dollars!

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Hayden mango sorbet

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Coffee and Doughnuts

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Bitter Valrhona chocolate “sponge”

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Golden Monkey tea

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Granité aux agrumes

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Mignardises

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That tray looks empty. It needs to be filled-up with some sweets, ehh?

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My dining experience at the French Laundry was okay. It was just one of the best three meals I have ever had. The food was delicious, especially the Wagyu beef course and the “Beets & Leeks”. The service was excellent. The “house” restaurant decor made us feel very relaxed, as in eating at someone’s home. After the meal, we got a tour of the kitchen and met the staff, including Corey Lee. I personally got to talk with one of the pastry chefs who used to work in L.A. By the time I got back to the B&B, it was 1 a.m., and my friend had to drive back to Berkeley! Unfortunately, I was so focused on my tasting menu that I don’t really know how his vegetarian tasting menu went. In terms of cost, the French Laundry was the better bargain with Yountville prices instead of Las Vegas prices. Yes, I would go back to the French Laundry.

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Russell J. Wong aka "rjwong"

Food and I, we go way back ...

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Great pix there, rjwong.

The Ferry Building definitely is more commercial, more touristy, than the farmers’ markets down in Southern California.
FWIW, for a while it was less commercial than they are. Around 2003-2004 or so, before all the current vendors were in place, it was lightly attended. (The woman at the Cowgirl Creamery stand looks familiar, I think she's worked also at the creamery itself up north.)
After my lunch at Chez Panisse, I drove...
So if I understand right, the lunch was at what we locals call Chez Panisse Café (CPC). (As in the mainstream Bay Area dining guide from the SF Chronicle food critic a few years ago with its two separate reviews, CP and CPC).
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Seeing Redd

Before my Sunday brunch, I took a short drive north to St. Helena. I stopped into this place and showed great restraint:

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Yes, I was able to eat brunch after last night’s meal, thank you. Redd is a nice place and outdoor dining was superb on a day like this. Mind you, I decided to eat indoors.

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Strawberry smoothie

With the yogurt topping, this smoothie hitt the spott.

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Shrimp and pork potstickers, cucumber salad, chili oil

To this Chinese diner, they were not badd.

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Ricotta, mascarpone and herb ravioli, spring vegetables, green garlic nage

I wanted to keep this meall lightt. Just like the previous course, it was pretty goodd.

Fortunately, I managed to eat before the early afternoon rush. I had a nice talk with the manager, who used to work in L.A. years ago. Redd is quite a casual, relaxing restaurant.

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Russell J. Wong aka "rjwong"

Food and I, we go way back ...

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Saluting the General

I took an afternoon nap. This was a pilgrimage, not a non-stop exercise in gluttony, right? Anyways, I was preparing myself for two dinners in one evening. The first one was in Sonoma. I had to drive from Yountville, down to Napa and head west over to Sonoma. Once I arrived in Sonoma, I eventually found the restaurant called the General’s Daughter:

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I got to meet Chef Preston and Nichole Dishman. They are such a wonderful couple!! Before the restaurant opened, chef Preston gave me a tour of the place. As for dinner, I just wanted a “light” dinner because I was going to have dinner no. 2 later in the evening.

NB The portion sizes you will see in the next few photos are noted as “small.” The “regular” size portions are larger.

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Foie gras amuse bouche

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Asparagus salad with crab fritters

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Halibut with herb butter

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Shrimp and grits

Those shrimp and grits sure made the Southern boy in me very happy!!

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Pineapple tart

NB Again, the portion sizes you just saw in the last few photos are noted as “small.” The “regular” size portions are larger.

Preston and Nichole took very good care of me. I definitely want to come back and eat those “regular” size courses. Thank you!!

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Russell J. Wong aka "rjwong"

Food and I, we go way back ...

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Quiet town, busy restaurant

After a wonderful dinner no. 1, I drove up the 101 to a small, quiet town called Healdsburg for dinner no. 2. My dinner reservation was for 9:00 p.m. I found Cyrus restaurant with little difficulty. The restaurant is next to a Relais Hotel. I go into the dining room, and the place is slammed, in a small town, on a Sunday night! The servers move to and from the kitchen at a brisk pace, as though it was a Saturday night.

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Canapes

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Two types of butter, two types of salt

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Amuse bouche

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A half-bottle of pinot noir

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Now they start putting the silverware in place.

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“Steak & Eggs”, Wagyu Steak and Lobster Tartare with Horseradish Creme Fraiche, and Caviar

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Seared Hamachi with Spinach Gomae, chilled Shoyu-Konbu Consomme

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Rabbit Loin with Spring Onions and Matsutake Mushrooms, Stuffed Baby Artichoke, Sherry Jus

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Foie Gras with Braised Duck Cannelloni and Green Garlic, Moscato Sauce

Oh, the sheer decadance of this dish! I rank it right up there with the French Laundry’s “Beets & Leeks.”

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Palate Cleanser

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Veal with Morel Mushrooms, White Asparagus and Crispy Sweetbreads

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A Selection of Artisanal and Farmhouse Cheeses with Complementing Breads and Fruits

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Soda

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Rice Cream Sandwich with Yamamomo Gelee, Tapioca and Hibiscus Chips

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Tea

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Mignardises

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End of the Meal

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Kitchen

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Dining area

Cyrus is doing great things in this small town. I was enjoying how the service was excellent, precise, while just a bit solicitous. Where do they find such professional servers in this small town of Healdsburg? The courses focused more on meats than seafood. And by the time I left the restaurant, it was 1 a.m. Then, I drove back from Healdsburg to Yountville, which made it 2:30 a.m.

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At this point, I could end my California culinary pilgrimage right here. But I’m not. There was so much more eating to do, even after Cyrus. That’s why it’s taking so long to post my report ... with photos ...

Russell J. Wong aka "rjwong"

Food and I, we go way back ...

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wow! GD and Cyrus in one night? Unbelievable. Russell, you are a man among boys.

Edited by Swicks (log)

"A man's got to believe in something...I believe I'll have another drink." -W.C. Fields

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I'm in awe. Wow, thanks for the photos but I"m just amazed you were able to fit in so much eating into any one day.

I think he's trying to give Daniel competition. :wink:

 

“Peter: Oh my god, Brian, there's a message in my Alphabits. It says, 'Oooooo.'

Brian: Peter, those are Cheerios.”

– From Fox TV’s “Family Guy”

 

Tim Oliver

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The pilgrimage continueth

I had three culinary events down in Southern California on Monday night, Tuesday night and Friday night. Are you ready to eat some more?

After my dinner at Cyrus, I got back to my B&B at 2:30 in the morning. I wanted to leave at 8:00 a.m. It didn’t happen. I left Yountville at about 11:00 a.m. to head back to Los Angeles that Monday night for a benefit dinner called “5x5 Chefs Collaborative.” I drove a different route to avoid going through the Bay Area, namely Interstate 5. I stopped in Stockton for lunch at GK Mongolian BBQ, recommended to me by a fellow eGer. Eventually, I arrived back in Los Angeles at 9 p.m. My reservation for dinner was 9 p.m. I called Providence Restaurant, and fortunately, the restaurant accommodated me and I managed to arrive before 10 p.m.

This 5x5 Chefs Collaborative was formed so that the five chefs from Providence, Ortolan, Water Grill, Mélisse, and Valentino can enjoy one another’s culinary comraderie, as well as to help benefit Cure Autism Now. Once a month, a dinner is hosted at each of the five restaurants represented. The first occurred at Providence.

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amuse bouche

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shima aji: heart of palm, dungeness crab, paige mandarin, pickled merliton, and kefir lime

David Lefevre, Water Grill

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fava bean velouté: razor clams, morel mushrooms, ris de veau

Josiah Citrin, Mélisse

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english pea “cannelloni”: green asparagus, oscietra caviar

Christophe Émé, Ortolan

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ricotta semolina gnocchi: taaleggio, spring vegetables, bottarga, and “primo” Italian olive oil

Angelo Auriana, Valentino

The gnocchi tasted so light. I enjoyed that course.

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wild striped bass: kumquats, fennel, baby turnips, black olives, saffron

Michael Cimarusti, Providence

The bass was moist, tender, juicy, and “cooked to perfection.” Chef Cimarusti knows how to cook a fish.

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yougurt mousse: with candied cucumber, melon sorbet, lime, and mint

Adrian Vasquez, Providence

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les mignardises

The 5x5 went pretty well. Getting different chefs together was a great idea. And I’m planning on attending the other four dinners.

Grand opening

Tuesday night was dinner at a brand new restaurant on its opening night. My report with photos on the Foundry on Melrose can be found here.

Russell J. Wong aka "rjwong"

Food and I, we go way back ...

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Maker Nights 2 at Cube

And Friday night was a dinner at Cube with four food producers to benefit Slow Foods in Schools. The food producers included:

Armandino Batali, Salumi Artisan Cured Meats

Jeremy & Jessica Little, Sweet Grass Dairy

Mandy Pedrozo, Pedrozo Dairy

Alex Weiser, Weiser Family Farms

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Before each course, a plate of cheese was served in its original state so as to compare and contrast it with the cooked course.

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Pedrozo Dairy Northern Gold & Weiser Family Frams Heirloom Carrot Soup with Chive Oil & Cube Artisan Garlic Flatbread

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Braised Fennel, Radicchio & Endive Ravioli with Mascarpone, served with Salumi Guanciale, Brown Butter, Sage & Red Cow Parmesan

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Braised Liberty Duck Leg with Plum & Eric Ross Zin Syrah Port, served with Sweet Grass Dairy Lumiere & Champagne Risotto

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We were encouraged to bring a bottle or two of wine that would go with our meal. My friend did the choosing.

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Trio of Desserts: Mini Weiser Family Farms Heirloom Carrot Cake; Butterscotch Pots de Creme; Dark Chocolate & Almond Tart

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Fun was had by all. I got to meet and talk with Armandino Batali. He is such a wonderful man.

And this culinary pilgrimage has now endeth. Mind you, I’ll be back with some final thoughts. I’m still digesting all those meals. SiseFromm had to ask the tough question about comparing TFL and Cyrus. Let’s not stop there. I hope to provide some meaningful words about TFL, Cyrus and Manresa.

When I got back from Northern California, someone in the biz asked me this question point-blank:

“Does Cyrus deserve a two-star Michelin rating?” :unsure::unsure:

Stay tuned ...

Russell J. Wong aka "rjwong"

Food and I, we go way back ...

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holy inflamed gallbladder, batman! that was soooome trip. great report, russell...i am impressed and envious of your california dining adventure. thanks for documenting it.

"Laughter is brightest where food is best."

www.chezcherie.com

Author of The I Love Trader Joe's Cookbook ,The I Love Trader Joe's Party Cookbook and The I Love Trader Joe's Around the World Cookbook

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Great report.  I must say, the most impressive meal of the bunch seems to have been the one at Cyrus.  Do you mind sharing how much that meal was?  I know Per Se (and TFL?) are up to $250.  What are Manresa and Cyrus like?

From my experience, TFL is closer to $500 with wine (more because of the supplements). I have done both Cyrus and Manresa and those are closer to $250 out-the-door (pairings + tip).

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Thank you, RJ. We'll be at TFL June 6 and really enjoyed your report. The pictures were exciting and the discussion useful. You and I have communicated here before and your suggestiions have always been spot on. You're a pleasure and an education.

Da Captain

Captain Hongo

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Final thoughts on my culinary pilgrimage

I enjoyed my California culinary pilgrimage very much. It took a lot of work, cramming as much as I did in a short amount of time. I think my body has recovered from my trip by now. Mind you, I haven’t received my next credit card statement yet ... And now, to answer a few questions and to make a few last comments ...

Comparing the three Northern Californian restaurants on my pilgrimage: Manresa on Fri. night, French Laundry on Sat. night, and Cyrus on Sun. night, I would say the French Laundry may be the best meal and dining experience I have ever had. TFL ranks right up there with Guy Savoy and Robuchon at the Mansion, based on my first-hand dining experiences. While Yountville is quite an affluent town, it is a town, not Las Vegas. The cost averaged out to be around $335 per person, including tax, gratuity and the supplement for the Wagyu course. Otherwise, the price would be about $285. Manresa was $220 per person, Cyrus, a little over $200. The service at French Laundry was quite professional, unassuming, subtle. I appreciated the server explaining the restaurant’s approach to wine selection and non-wine pairings. The Oysters & Pearls, Beets & Leeks and the Wagyu Beef course were my highlights.

My dinner at Manresa was wonderful and my dinner companions were great! My dining experience didn’t feel like it took six hours. It does take some time to serve six amuse bouches, eleven courses, and four desserts, along with a couple of intermissions. One course didn’t work well: the caviar consomme. Mind you, other courses worked quite well, particularly the abalone and the vegetable courses. Apparently, Passard has an influence on Kinch. The service felt relaxed, similiar to TFL. Let it be known that the meal was off-the-menu. Carrie made the reservations and knows a few people at Manresa. Thank you, Carrie, for a wonderful time and a wonderful meal!

To answer the question about Cyrus: “Does Cyrus deserve a two-star Michelin rating?”

My immediate answer was: “Not yet.” Then I started recalling my dining experience at Cyrus in my mind.

That place was slammed at 9 p.m. on a Sunday night in that small town of Healdsburg! In contrast to Manresa and French Laundry, the atmosphere was more celebratory and vibrant. The service was professional as well, and perhaps a bit solicitous. When the caviar and champagne cart was quickly introduced, it caused me to pause. Mind you, the host softened the “hard sell” by mentioning the option of proceeding right to the dinner menu. The tasting menu included three to four meat courses. Is that Chef Keane’s strength and/or the customers’ preferences? The rice cream sandwich dessert was a nice concept with a beautiful presentation, but the flavors didn’t work for me. The migardises made up for that. The foie gras with the duck canneloni was really decadent, just like the French Laundry’s Beets & Leeks (aka lobster poached in sweet butter).

I went back to my friend and changed my answer to yes. He wouldn’t let me. “You have to go with your gut feeling.” Well, it depends which Michelin system is being employed: the Americanized version (“Yes”) or the original French/European version (“Not yet”).

Cyrus is doing great things. Mind you, I get the feeling that they’re trying too hard to impress everyone and Cyrus doesn’t have to. I’m partial to the type of service displayed over at French Laundry and Manresa. Don’t misunderstand! The service at Cyrus was very professional in a more celebratory vein, different from the other two. I was simply amazed that a great restaurant was very busy on a Sunday night in such a small town.

I hope that answers the question regarding TFL, Manresa and Cyrus.

One last thought: Shrimp and grits.

After talking about French Laundry, Manresa, Cyrus, and Chez Panisse, the one refrain of this pilgrimage is that dish from the General’s Daughter Restaurant in Sonoma. Chef Preston, it’s all your fault! I now have this hankerin’ for shrimp and grits that I can’t get rid of! I’ll just have to drive back up to Sonoma and order some more.

Thus endeth my pilgrimage, for now ...

Russell J. Wong aka "rjwong"

Food and I, we go way back ...

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If you have a chance, you check out also the Chez Panisse Café (the upstairs, oven-and-grill-based casual venue).  Please identify which, if you post about either.  (Lately people eat for the first time at CPC, sometimes exclusively, then write all about their experiences at "Chez Panisse," which is a miscommunication. 

When I found that I was to be in the SF Bay area on my 50th birthday in January 2006 I hoped to arrange for lunch at TFL. As it turns out.... they were closed at the time and my need to be in Sacramento that same night for a business meeting early the following day precluded Manresa (another obvious choice that many eGer's recommended).

I did have my 50th birthday lunch at CPC and was.... underhwelmed. My respect for Alice Waters (which is immense) notwithstanding - the raw oysters I had as one of my appetizers and the Monterey Bay baby squid with cappellini served as my entree were both outstanding. And the rest of it was.... good shopping. By that I mean terrific ingredients of very high quality but more than a bit on the dull side. Granted - the 'simply prepared" aspect of their operation should have prepared me for that but I was still a bit disappointed.

You have whetted my appetite for trips to a few other places - particularly Manresa. I'll save that for another birthday.

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