It's not fancy, it's not big and it's not clever, but the scrag end is delicious. For simple, honest opinions on restaurants, recipes, supper clubs and what not, you've come to the right place.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

San Francisco, the Napa Valley and Heathrow Airport (part two)

It has been, quite literally, 34 days since I last posted anything on this blog. A potent combination of frenetic busyness and frenetic business, coupled with a congenital inclination to laze, has made the last few weeks completely impossible, rendered palatable at all only by memories of California.

With work finished and leisure begun (see part one for more on that), restaurants could be picked for their promise, not their practicality. San Francisco is a cooking pot of cultures, with Asia especially well-represented.

We began at Akiko’s, a Japanese restaurant near our hotel (the Hotel Des Arts, a treat for those on smallish budgets). With a superb array of nigiri, brilliantly explained by our excellent waiter, we sampled delights ranging from barracuda to tuna, from arctic char to sea urchin and quail’s egg. While it wasn’t cheap to follow the waiter’s suggestions (about $60 per head without much to drink), the quality of fish put most London sushi restaurants to shame, while the decor fell on just the right side of the line between intimate and cramped.

After something like 7 different nigiri, of which the sweet, oily mackerel and smoky barracuda were my favourites, we needed something a little more chunky before braving the evening’s bars and their inevitable Anchor Steam. What with being in California, we considered California rolls, but went instead for the remarkable ‘Forty-Niner’, a shrimp tempura, salmon, avocado, and sesame number that crunched and piqued in all the right places. Akiko’s comes highly recommended, not least because it was the only place we visited where the 20% suggested service charge didn’t make this Englishman blench.

Phil Letts’ take: 8/10

Akiko's Sushi Bar on Urbanspoon

The service at The Slanted Door, a dockside Vietnamese restaurant and Bill Clinton favourite, is pretty good too (but then, that’s true of most places in America). The food is remarkable. Now I’m certainly no expert on Vietnamese food, so you’ll have to forgive me, but this place did the whole ‘fresh, sweet, soy and gingery’ experience better than anywhere I’ve tried in London.

A green papaya salad kicked things off. Refreshing and tangy, it was a textural joy, with crunchy peanuts perfectly complementing the rigid, watery fruit and soft pickled carrots. A Vietnamese crepe with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts explored similarly playful territory – crispy crepe, plump shrimp and sweet, giving pork, engaging easily with rice wine, brown sugar flavours and pert bean sprouts. 

Lemongrass pork with a crispy imperial roll and noodles added to the collection of flavours, while bringing a much-needed oiliness to proceedings. 

These all proved mere preludes however, both temporally and qualitatively, to ‘Hanoi style halibut vermicelli’. According to our waitress, this dish hails from a particular street in Hanoi, and is almost unknown further afield. Reading the description, you can see why – the halibut is served with turmeric, dill and a pineapple and anchovy sauce. It sounded revolting, so we ordered it, on the logic that the confidence required to put it on the menu might translate into serious quality at the end. It was a complete, genre-trumping triumph, part pina colada, part kedgeree, part Hawaiian pizza but mostly, simply, superbly cooked fish against vivid flavours that felt like they’d just finished a violent argument with a bout of sticky lovemaking. 

The Slanted Door must surely be the best restaurant at a ferry terminal in the world.

The Slanted Door: 8/10

Slanted Door on Urbanspoon

A ferry ride and car journey later, we were in Yountville – the Napa Valley’s answer to heaven, but with rather more rich people than camels and needle eyes would have you believe. Thomas Keller is the man down here; his French Laundry has been rinsing best restaurant lists for years. Mindful of budgets, we tried its cooler, more relaxed sibling, Ad Hoc, itself a linguistic companion to Keller’s New York effort, Per Se.

All this Latin confuses me, but Ad Hoc was, inter alia, fun and good. You can’t choose what you eat – the menu is put together on an ad hoc basis (boom boom), from whatever ingredients seem best and freshest at the time. Ergo, on the night we went, there was a heavy emphasis on simplicity; food here is given space to speak for itself. Exempli gratia¸ our starter – a clean salad of lettuce hearts with anchovy, tuna, almonds and mandarin, lightly dressed and unchallenging. It was delicious on a hot evening, though not terribly exciting, and the tuna was more cooked that I’d have liked. 

A main course of veal fillet on the bone was much better, with a creamy risotto that, surprisingly, did it no harm, and beautiful fresh peas and carrots. The veal was cooked perfectly, tender and slightly pink; the risotto came rich and white. The portion was enormous. 

Then came the cheese course. I’ve always been wary of American cheeses, suspecting that they only really exist to adorn burgers or make up the numbers in a thick, unhealthy dressing. Well, Leonora, a goats’ cheese from Napa, is far too good for that. It was a glorious, nutty delight, complex and creamy. 

A chocolate cake with caramel ice cream excelled as well, proving the rule that a good meal starts light, progresses richer, and ends heavy. Yountville residents are few in number, yet blessed with an obscene number of excellent restaurants. Ad Hoc was full to bursting. They are doing something very right.

Phil Letts’ take: 7/10

Ad Hoc on Urbanspoon

Post scriptum: Ad Hoc typically charges $55 for dinner.

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