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Trip Report Long weekend getaway in northern CA - trip report

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Last month my husband and I took a long weekend road trip to the Bay Area and Napa Valley. We've been there many times so I normally don't bother writing a trip report since we don't focus that much on visiting the typical tourist spots or sightseeing; but this time we did a couple of touristy things so I decided to write this brief report, mainly covering our restaurant/food experiences since most of what we did was eat!

En route ...
Even though there are plenty of great airfare deals between southern and northern CA, we decided to make this a road trip. We were both very happy that this gave us the chance to stop by the Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant http://harrisranch.com/dine_steakhouse.php in central CA. We're crazy about Harris Ranch beef. We started our drive from SoCal in the morning, via the 5 fwy, and reached Harris Ranch perfectly in time for lunch. I had the Ribeye Dip steak sandwich and my husband had the Tri-Tip sandwich. Both were delicious. This was probably the best lunch we had during our trip.
I'm skipping ahead here, but on our way back home, we stopped here again; not to eat, but to buy some fresh meat from their meat counter in the Country Store. Prices were quite reasonable and they pack the meat in dry ice so it stays good for up to an 8-hr. drive.
We continued on our drive, briefly stopped at Casa de Fruita http://www.casadefruta.com/ in Hollister, and made it to Silicon Valley by evening.


Silicon Valley
Dinner was at Parcel 104 http://www.parcel104.com/ in the Santa Clara Marriott. This was the best dinner during this trip. We had eaten here before and had a wonderful experience which is why we chose this place again. We didn't realize until afterwards that this restaurant is co-owned by Bradley Ogden. It's quite pricey, but well worth it. Since it's in the hotel, the atmosphere seems to cater a bit more to the business traveler (there was a sports bar in between the restaurant and lobby for more casual dining), but that didn't deter us from having a wonderful meal.
I started with an appetizer of green asparagus with pancetta and Sonoma goat cheese souffle. I normally prefer white asparagus, but this dish was still good and the portion was just right. Hubby had a Sonoma artisan foie gras which he said was really good.
We also received an amuse bouche, complements of the chef. They called it a crab "cappuccino" which was crab soup that was frothed up and served in a tiny cappuccino cup. It was outstanding!
For our main courses, we both had pork chops with what they called a housemade thousand island dressing. I'm not very fond of thousand island dressing and it sounded kind of weird at first to have it on pork chops, but their version of it was nothing like a bottled thousand island salad dressing. It was a nice sauce they poured over the pork chops and it tasted delicious. The pork chops were juicy, tender, and cooked perfectly. Our waiter said that particular cut of pork chops supplied to them was a very high quality, like the "filet mignon of pork chops."
For dessert, I started with a glass of Bonny Doon ice wine. Then I had their "caramel" course which consisted of a caramel flan (which was unbelievably good), Tahitian vanilla milkshake, and strawberry thumbprint cookies. Hubby had the "chocolate" course which consisted of a Valrhona pot de creme, chocolate brownie, and double chocolate ice cream. He liked it very much and so did I (of course I took a bite of each). The presentations of the dessert plates were also very impressive.
We would absolutely eat at Parcel 104 again in a heartbeat!


San Francisco

Restaurants:

Tommy Toy's Cuisine Chinoise
http://www.tommytoys.com/
Very upscale place with good food and service. We ordered a few dishes to share "family style" but the food was split evenly and beautifully presented to us on individual plates. We started with crab won tons, pot stickers, and seafood spring rolls. All were very good and came with dipping sauces. For the main courses, we had vanilla prawns, Peking duck, and one of their signature dishes - medallions of filet mignon. Everything was great, especially the Peking duck, which was carved tableside.

Laiola
http://www.laiola.com/
The food (small plates/Spanish style tapas) was pretty good here, but I can't say it's the best tapas we've ever had in the US or in Spain. We had patatas bravas, bacon-wrapped dates, pork meatballs, tri-tip steak, chickpea croquetas, and fried Brussels sprouts. The chickpea croquetas looked nice, but they ended up tasting weird. I can't quite put my finger on what it was, but the flavor was just strange. My husband raved about the Brussels sprouts, but I don't like sprouts so I didn't eat them. We really liked the patatas bravas and tri-tip, so we put in an additional order of both.
Desserts weren't that great. I had to try the pan con chocolate (chocolate with sea salt, accompanied by bread drizzled in olive oil). I had read so many raves about it, but I was pretty disappointed with it. I'm crazy about things like fleur de sel caramel, but their combination in this dish just didn't work with their chocolate. Even when I tried a spoonful of the chocolate by itself, it just wasn't anything special. Hubby had the almond cake which was ok, and we also ordered the churros to taste, which were kind of bland.
One thing to note about parking - there's metered street parking (which was completely filled up), so we drove a couple of blocks further and turned the corner to a parking garage with meters. It was $2.50/hr. We didn't have enough quarters and surprisingly there were no change machines to be found anywhere. We put a quarter in, walked to the restaurant to get change, walked back to fill the meter for a couple of hours, and went back to the restaurant to eat. Luckily we put enough in for two and a half hours because service was slow and we used up every minute. Overall, I doubt we'd eat here again, as I would rather try something new next time.


Sights:

Ferry Building - A lovely place to walk around and browse the shops. I had to stop at Recchiuti Confections http://www.recchiuti.com/index.html or http://www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com/recchiuti_confections.php to stock up on chocolates for me and for gift-giving. The Fleur de Sel Caramels were excellent. I bought all the pieces they had available that day :) I also bought some burnt caramel hazelnuts and almonds, neither of which were that special. I ended up receiving 2 free bags of Recchiuti Grahams (graham crackers covered in dark chocolate) since I purchased so much.

Alcatraz - On the ferry going to the island, we sat inside on the first level near the front. Once the ferry started to speed up, everyone watched the handful of people on the outside deck in amusement -- despite the "Caution: Wet Area" warning signs and wet floor, those people didn't come inside right away and ended up getting completely drenched by the first big wave that hit the ferry. They attempted to run inside but had trouble opening the door since the wind was pretty strong. So they were splashed a second time before they were able to finally get inside. I think people started to pity them a bit when they were finally inside with their cameras and other belongings dripping from the cold 50 degree water.
The waters were choppy, but since it was such a short ferry ride, I didn't get seasick. I did get a bit dizzy and had a tiny headache which wore off shortly.
My husband hadn't seen Alcatraz yet but I had been there several times already, so once we reached the cellhouse, I requested a refund for the audio tour. Hubby really found the place to be interesting and enjoyed the tour. He was surprised at how small everything was. In the movies, it looks so big. He's really tall, so he was able to touch the second floor without even tippy toeing. He was also amazed at how small the holes were that Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers used in the infamous 1962 escape. They must've been small guys.


Napa Valley

Restaurants:

Bouchon
http://www.bouchonbistro.com/
This was an underwhelming experience. The restaurant was too noisy, the menus were made of some kind of thin wax paper that they just wrapped around the napkins, we didn't get any small plates for the bread, and the bread is placed directly on the table without a bread basket or any type of container. I know they're trying to create the Parisian bistro ambiance, but we weren't impressed. Things got a little better, though, with our appetizers. I had the soup of the day which was sweet carrot bisque and hubby had the French onion soup. We also ordered pate to share. All of it was really good.
For our main courses, I had roasted chicken and he had steak frites. The dishes were decent, but really not that great. The meal kept going downhill with desserts. I had pistachio pot de creme and he had profiteroles, neither of which were very good.
We would not go back to Bouchon. There are too many other restaurants in the wine country that we want to try and while the food here was good overall, it just didn't wow us. Service, by the way, was just average.

Bouchon Bakery
http://www.bouchonbakery.com/
Before our dinner at Bouchon, I picked up a few items at their bakery next door. I bought some chocolate chip cookies, a TKO (their version of an oreo cookie that's one of their most popular items), a double chocolate cookie, and some chocolate Bouchons (their version of a brownie that's also one of their signature treats). All of them were good, so maybe their bakery is better than their restaurant? That still doesn't explain why their restaurant desserts weren't as good, though. Plus their bread from our dinner wasn't anything special, either.
Again, although the bakery items were good, they weren't fabulous. We wouldn't go out of our way to buy from their bakery again. In fact, a couple of weeks later, we were in Vegas where there's another Bouchon Bakery in the Venetian Hotel. I had planned to visit that one, but after trying this one in Napa Valley, we ended up skipping it.

Napa Valley Grille
http://www.napavalleygrille.com/yountville/about.php
We wanted to try Mustards Grill but it still hadn't reopened yet from their kitchen fire renovation, so we opted to try this place. We were very pleasantly surprised. The food was very nice and flavorful, service was excellent, and the atmosphere was relaxing. It was a breeze getting a table since I think so many people are fighting to get into one of Thomas Keller's establishments! We had the Kobe tri-tip and flat iron steak, and shared the "Snickers" dessert: chocolate mousse, almond nougat, praline semifreddo, and sea salt. This was better than the pan con chocolate at Laiola in San Francisco. We wouldn't mind eating here again in the future.


Wineries:

V. Sattui - The last few times we visited Napa Valley were during rainy Valentine's days, so it was nice to finally be there on a warm, sunny day so that we could picnic on their grounds. Originally we were just going to buy something from their deli, but on weekends when the weather is nice, they have an outdoor BBQ where they grill ribs, sausages, wood-fired pizzas, prawns, fish, and steak. We decided to buy the grilled steak and sausage. We found a picnic table and enjoyed.
It was extremely crowded, by the way, when we first drove up to the parking lot due to some tour vans, but there was plenty of parking in the back and the attendants kept things moving smoothly. On a side note, Napa Valley, in general, wasn't very crowded. There have been times when we've been stuck in traffic on Hwy 29, but it wasn't the case this time. My husband prefers the Sonoma and Russian River Valleys over Napa Valley since they're less commercialized, but to his delight this time, V. Sattui and Mondavi, which are both very popular and can be packed, were fine. Plus, since we had limited time and wanted to eat at Bouchon, we decided on Napa Valley to stick close to Yountville.
After our picnic, we ran across the street to the Dean & Deluca. We enjoyed browsing their tasty-looking products and I was delighted to find Yoku Moku cookies, so I bought a tin.

Robert Mondavi - We took a guided tour that included wine tasting. It was a very nice tour; better than any of the other winery tours we've done in the region. The tour groups are limited to 15 people at a time and the tasting is paired with a bit of food. Our tour guide took us through the vineyard, then inside to the barrel rooms where he explained the fermentation and aging process. Then we all sat down at a big table in a private room for the wine tastings. We tasted three wines which included an unoaked Chardonnay and two Pinot Noirs. We were served mini lamb burgers (which were very good) with one of the Pinot Noirs. I wanted to taste some dessert wines, so after the tour, we were directed to the Reserve Wines tasting room. They let me try a Sauvignon Blanc Botrytis and a Moscato d'Oro at no additional cost since I had been on the tour. I also bought some Vosges Chocolates that they carried in their souvenir shop - they gave a discount on merchandise if you took the tour.

Lastly, our hotel was the Best Western Elm House Inn in Napa. It's a very small place so it felt like a bed & breakfast. The staff was very nice and breakfast was included. Breakfast was very good - they offered various breads, fruits, cereals, and drinks, but my favorites were their fresh, hot, made-to-order waffles and homemade blueberry crumble muffins. They advertise a complementary afternoon snack of cookies and cider, but it turns out they serve it between 6-8 pm. I consider that evening, not afternoon; plus it's a weird time to serve it when most people are out eating dinner. My only complaint about our room was the sink in the bathroom didn't drain very quickly. Overall it was a nice place.

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