Across the road from The French LaundryÂ is what appears at first glanceÂ to beÂ a public park. On closer inspection, however, it reveals itself as the restaurant’s extensive chef’s garden. Interestingly, it’s neither gated nor guarded, giving anyone and everyone free rein to roam the planted beds and see what a handful of lucky diners might be feasting on that evening. Tonight, one of those lucky diners is me – turning my early evening stumble into a serendipitous aperitif.
Chef Cindy Pawlcyn is one of the original Napa Valley trailblazers. On the eve of her pioneering eateryÂ Mustard’s GrillÂ celebrating it’s 30th anniversary of dishing up heaping plates of honest American fare with worldly sophistication, she took time out to take me through her gardens and sound off on what it’s like for a one-time hippie to suddenly find herself part of the establishment, the importance of educating diners about what’s on their plates, and why she can’t stand reality shows likeÂ Top Chef. Alas, you’ll have to wait until the story is published later this year; I can’t give awayÂ everything hereÂ for free.
Unlike the tourist trap of the same name in San Francisco, the old Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey retains a flavor of its commercial past. Sure it’s pockmarked with t-shirts shops and all manner of snow globe sellers, but dayboats still head out in the early morning hours to troll for the seasonal catch of the day – making it an arresting setting for a big bowl of seafood chowder.
It’s a curious sensation sitting down to eat seafood at an aquarium. Yet when the setting is Monterey Bay Aquarium, theÂ researchÂ center behind Seafood Watch, a consumer’s guide to responsible eating,Â andÂ theÂ chef is Cindy Pawlcyn, creative force behind Napa Valley institution Mustard’s Grill, you breathe a bit easier, knowing that everything on the menu will not only be locally sourced, but also sustainable. And delicious I might add. From house-cured olives, which arrive as a gift from the kitchen, to grilled artichoke grown in neighboring Castroville – artichoke capital ofÂ theÂ world – the fresh flavor of the produce coming out of the Salinas Valley really shines through. Bodega Bay coon shrimp are a rare and tasty treat, perfectly suited to an old-fashioned get-your-hands-dirty shrimp boil. So, too, is wild-caught King Salmon, simply grilled and tasting like the sea. Dessert is an equal opportunity offender: olallieberries are a CaliforniaÂ curiosity; a hybrid, they taste like the liaison between a blackberry and a raspberry – and make for a delicious, warm tart. The tables at Cindy’s WaterfrontÂ eachÂ come with a pair of binoculars for the curious, as well as a guide to the wildlife on ample display in the bay. But don’t be fooled by the distraction, sea otters and cormorants are no match for what’s sitting on the plate in front of you.
Appearances are deceiving in San Francisco: the distance between two pointsÂ on a map, for instance; or that funny looking nun with a mustache. It’s true ofÂ restaurants as well. Elegant facades can belie inferior eats. AndÂ gritty basement boÃ®tes often bubble up with tantalizingÂ flavors. File Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen under the latter. In theÂ harsh light of day the restaurant’s visual charms are all but washed out -Â like one of those TenderloinÂ tender traps I’d normally studiously avoid. Yet I’d heard there were interesting experiments going on behind the bar – as well as in the kitchen – and felt it my duty to check things out. I’m glad I did because Jasper’s – despite an anodyne sense of design – is no ordinary “corner kitchen,” but the latest in a wave of cocktail bars and speakeasies that are marking the City by the Bay as a town that takes its tipple seriously. I start with a classic, the Negroni,Â whichÂ Jasper’s happens to keep on tap. You read that right: gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth in an ideal 1:1:1 ratio on tap. Frisco apparentlyÂ has a penchant for lip-smackingÂ aperitifs; the Negroni proved so popular that a second herbaceousÂ cocktail recently joined the tap: a mix of gin, sweet vermouth, and fernet dubbed The Hanky Panky. MixologistÂ Kevin Diedrich is the mastermind behind the clever idea, as well as a dozen-plus seasonal cocktails, like Rhubarb Mule (a mix of bourbon, orgeat, rhubarb syrup, ginger ale and bitters) and a Wiessen Sour (bourbon, lemonade, orange marmalade, house-made bitters, and white beer). Plus, there’s also what might very well be theÂ perfect summer concoction: house-bottled carbonatedÂ Pimm’s cup, muddled with strawberries and mint. Even better, there’s the kitchen inÂ Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen, whichÂ under chef Adam Carpenter has it’s own seasonal sensibility. If this weren’t laid-back San Francisco, you might even call it a gastro-pub. (But it is, so you won’t) Even so, the constantly evolving menu has been crafted to complement the strongest stout to the most subtle ale. I order a handful of small plates to see if works with various cocktails: saltyÂ Shishito peppers, a trio of deviled eggs, briny brussel sprout slaw andÂ house-made sausage bites, andÂ a warm soft pretzel with smoked gouda fondue. It does. Then I squirrel away the fondue, knowing it will be heaven for dipping with French fries. If you want to go “full gastro” The J Burger is a monument to the humble pub burger of yore; griddled Lucky Dog Ranch beef, English blue cheese, bacon onion marmalade, and frisee salad on a baguette bun. You won’t finish it, butÂ apparentlyÂ few people do. A lighter alternative is an equally flavorful filet of Scotch salmon atop a bed of organic black lentils. Sated, sedated, and just a little bit intoxicated, I’ve no room for coffee, let alone dessert. Before I head to the door GM Matthew Meidinger makes a point to tell me how at firstÂ peopleÂ came to Jasper’s for Diedrich’s drinks. Then I finish the thought for him: now they stay for the food, too.
According to sources, the first Irish coffee was invented and named by Joe Sheridan, head chef at the restaurant and coffee shop in the Foynes terminal building. (A precursor to Shannon Airport, Foynes was the last port of call for seaplanes on the eastern shore of the Atlantic. During Word War II it would become one of the biggest civilian airports in Europe) The coffee was conceived after a group of American passengers disembarked from a Pan Am flying boat one miserable winter evening in the 1940s. Sheridan added whiskey to the coffee to warm them. After the passengers asked if they were being served Brazilian coffee, Sheridan told them it was Irish coffee and the name stuck. In 1951, Stanton Delaplane, a travel writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, tasted what had by then become the traditional airport welcome drink and was smitten. Returning home he told his friend Jack Koeppler, owner of the Buena Vista CafÃ© and the two set about trying to recreate the drink. Stymied by the Irish flair for floating the cream on top, the duo went so far as to seek help from the city’s then mayor, George Christopher, who also happened to own a dairy. He suggested that cream aged for at least 48 hours would be more apt to float, and so it did. In later years, after the Buena Vista had served, by its count, more than 30 million of the drinks, Delaplane and the owners claimed to grow tired of the drink. (And who can blame them, the currency had been cheapened: bastardized versions of a drink that wereÂ less hot toddy and more like hot candy had popped up everywhere.) A snark after my own heart commented that the problem with Irish coffee is that it ruins three good drinksÂ â€“Â coffee, cream, and whiskey â€“ but youâ€™d never surmise that from the crowds that still take the Hyde Street cable car toÂ MaritimeÂ Park inÂ searchÂ of the original elixir. In fact, if you’ve never tasted a proper Irish coffee, you have no idea what you are missing – two go down nicely on an afternoon, while three guarantee a lovely start to the evening.Â Here’s how it’s done: Fill a glass goblet with hot water, then empty. Pour in hot coffee until about three-quarters full. Â Drop in two sugar cubes. Stir. Add a full jigger of whiskey and top with a collar of lightly whipped cream. Do not stir. Drink piping hot in two or three sips. Okay, four at most.
At the suggestion of a friend who also happens to double as a local San Francisco restaurant critic, I made it a point to visitÂ Bouche in the gastronomic wasteland of Union Square. I’m very glad I did.Â ConvenientÂ to an evening’s theatre plans, Guillaume Issaverdens’ unassuming hidden California-French bistro proved a welcome surprise of seasonal food amid charming surroundings. Tucked into an upstairs corner with views through mullioned windows the restaurant has all the rustic allure of a Loire farmhouse. A bottle of one of those wines you almost never find on a domestic wine list only reinforces the illusion. (Domaine Auchere Sancerre Rouge, as refreshing a spring red as you’re likely to ever find) Expectations henceforth were felicitously met: aÂ deliriously good duck confit with beet puree and walnuts arrived under a bouquet of radish and spring greens. Sauteed calamari lightly dressed with mushrooms and citrus made a refreshing, lessÂ intense companion and foil. Lamb shoulder balanced the difficult task of tasting earthy without being too fatty or filling an entrÃ©e. (chickpeaÂ pureeÂ instead of potato was a clever deception) And a Proustian nod to the marinated salmon; one of those dishes I will be able to recall years hence. DelicatelyÂ smoked slices of ruby red salmon come coiled atop a bird’s nest of crispy egg noodle, floating on a bed of creme fraiche. NestledÂ inside theÂ nest: a perfectly poached egg. Creamy, crunchy, salty, smoky, the liaison of flavors and textures is heady, if not downright erotic. After this, dessert seems altogether unnecessary – what I really want is a cigarette.