Driving a car up from San Francisco to Vancouver, BC is a chance to see and eat some amazing things. Recently on a Thorpe Wine sales blitz thru the Pacific Northwest, I had a chance to revisit some favorite places and friends. “Flyin’ the Flannel“, an album and song from the 90’s US alternative band fIREHOSE, was still an appropriate moniker for the region which prided itself on the rugged individualism that paved the American frontier Westward. Plaid flannel shirts, the preferred garment of lumberjacks, fIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt and legions of NW “Grunge” rockers and their devotees, were still the fashion in the chilly Pacific Northwest. The warm, working class fabric betokens a region renowned for its laidback charm and woolen comforts. You need to get north of San Francisco and Napa Valley first, however, which involves overcoming some serious gastronomic obstacles.
Friends that cooked at Bouley, where I used to be the wine director, were now advancing thru the ranks in fine SF restaurants. We ate at avant garde, yet delicate Coi and luxurious classics like white truffles paired with an ethereal 1997 Chablis “Montmains” from Raveneau at Michael Mina, which were both superb experiences. Mina for its spread out, deep comfort amongst high columns and tall ceilings in soft light, and Coi for its intimate front room and tightly controlled dishes. Husband and wife chefs Evan and Sarah Rich are cooking up a storm at each place, respectively. It’s great to stay in touch and watch them cook like banshees. I look forward to the day when they open their own place in SF. It was also nice, as always, to have friends on the inside keeping an eye on things.
An hour north and you’re in Napa. And why not try to eat lunch at the French Laundry (TFL)when you are in the neighborhood, right? We got into the quaint “French farmhouse” without a booking (although we were wait-listed 3 weeks prior) and had a good lunch, which means it was sort of disappointing, since they normally blow you away. The main issue was a spoiled hollywood exec getting hammered on Martinelli zinfandel behind me, as you can see in the picture. This brings up an interesting point: what is the protocol at places like the Laundry, perennially one of the top-rated restaurants in the world, when a tame guest is seated near an obnoxious one? In our case the issue was tricky since we basically were a walk in and didn’t want to make any waves, although clearly we should have. The maitre d’ came trotting out after me, as we were initially declined a table. “Sorry, Mr. Hickey” he said,”but we just had a cancellation.” I had already doffed my tie and was, in my mind, already on my way to Taylor’s Automatic Refresher for a burger. While we were happy to get into the Laundry, nonetheless, it was to be our third tasting menu in a row after Mina and Coi. It was my second time to the Laundry, but a first for Nicole, so we were behaving as one should; namely, grateful, albeit full.
The service is still excellent at TFL, friendly and knowledgeable without being pretentious. The chef’s tasting menu is US$240 with service included, which is part of chef/owner Thomas Keller’s philosophy that the house shares all gratuities. The lunch degustation included such standouts as Moulard duck foie gras torchon, gingerbread puree, Tokyo turnips, watercress, toasted pecans and cranberries (pictured below). They automatically bring out the toasted brioche and 5 minutes later bring out another serve to make sure what you have is warm. This attention to detail makes diner’s swoon, and is also a standard at Keller’s NYC outpost, Per Se. My only real problem with the meal was the tolerance afforded to the Hollywood guy seated behind me. Throughout his meal French Laundry managers sat around his table trading jokes. It wasn’t until he tried to affix a spoon to his nose and it clanked loudly on a plate that I became seriously aware of him. Then, since he was a regular, he was given xtra desserts that were normally on the dinner menu. We were overlooked, which was bad form. This oversight was particularly bizarre since the waitstaff knew we were growing annoyed, since the guy was now making out sloppily with his date at the table. I asked about their extra delicacies, since we were there for the food, and the captain from Belgium said just that, that they were regulars and they liked to have treats from the master menu. Recently in a copy of NZ’s Cuisine magazine, issue 136, Sept 2009, there is an interview with TFL’s maitre d’, Mr. Nadeau, in which he tells how he deals with rambunctious tables. In the article he says to offensive parties, for example, “It’s a pleasure having you here and we appreciate you coming all the way from Texas. I just need to ask you to keep your language down a bit.” He then goes on to say in the interview that he would shift nearby diners to another table. If only we were so lucky, since there were many open ones. The trouble here was that the problem table was the house’s “friend”. All top spots, and low, have their so called “club members”, which I know from the Bouley and Daniel days. And perhaps lunch in general at TFL is a looser service. Maybe I need to loosen up, too.
Later that day we met our friend from Chateau Montelena, marketing mastermind Jeff Adams, for dinner at Bouchon, another Thomas Keller establishment, and a precise copy of a classic Parisian bistro. They call the Napa suburb of Yountville “Kellerville” since he owns a lot of real estate there. An old friend of mine from NYC, Rachael Lowe, is a sommelier at Bouchon and had just finished first in her class for the advanced course in the Master Sommelier derby. She, and the rest of the staff, took very good care of us with interesting wines from the Jura, a wonderfully fresh seafood platter, and almost perfect service. Rachael will be one to watch.
A visit to Chateau Montelena was on the way to Buster’s Southern BBQ in Calistoga, so we popped in to say hello to Jeff. After lunch we were driving to Redwood National Park. The Chateau Montelena itself, where the wine is still made and aged, is built into a forested hill and has well maintained Chinese gardens on the grounds from previous owners. They are experiencing a new flood of enthusiasm after their key role in the movie “Bottle Shock” about Montelena’s shocking victory over some top French wines in the early 1970s. They even have a “Bottle Shock” tour in the works there. You gotta love marketing.
After 2 days of driving due North, thru the great redwoods and along the rugged Oregon coast, we finally hit Portland. I used to live in Portland from 1991 to 1996, and I was very eager to return for a 4 day visit. We stayed at the hip, but friendly Ace Hotel downtown near Jake’s Famous Crawfish. The city was famous for its bookstores (Powells), good coffee (StumpTown Roasters), and fresh salmon (Higgins Restaurant) from the Columbia River. That organic gardening is popular is an understatement and the dress code is to dress down. Looking “clothes-conscious” is a no-no here as it shows you’re trying too hard, which young Portlanders don’t think is cool, although theirs is a studied look of dishevelment. As a friend once said, the “gas-station-mechanic look” is all the rage. The hippie scene still cuts a long shadow here with hemp clothing readily available and patchouli oil still wafting through the air. The city is also within 40 minutes of one of the world’s premier pinot noir growing regions, the Willamette Valley. When I lived in Portland I cut my teeth at Portland Nursery learning about and selling plants. On the side I was a landscape designer, which meant I put a lot of my over-educated friends to work. PDX, as the locals call it, is home to the loveliest Japanese garden outside Japan. Fields of Japanese Maples are cultivated in the wide open by the nursery industry outside the city, which is almost unheard of due to the trees’ delicate foilage. Portland is a perfect place to grow plants as it is veritable garden of Eden. A recent visit to the Portland Japanese Garden showed the maples still at the peak of their Fall color under the pewter skies and forest green backdrop in the West Hills. I was wearing a t-shirt, red checked flannel top (an homage to fIREHOSE), and a light jacket to stay warm. Layers are the key to warmth, as the mists are gentle and prolongated during the Fall and Winter in the Pacific Northwest.
What would a trip to the Northwest be without a visit to Breitenbush Hot Springs? A geothermal wonder, and kind of hippy chic now, the naturally heated meadow pools at Breitenbush were sublime as the snow started falling at a heavy rate. The location is in the heart of a protected old growth forest 2 hours East of Portland. Soaking in the outdoor pools is absolutely cathartic. A stop in the lithium induced steam house is also the finishing rough touch to a detoxifying cleanse. Breitenbush is always a great place to “heal thyself”, since it was once a victim of land abuse itself, and remains today one of the most sacred and serene natural spaces on the planet.
I also love the beer in Oregon, ah beer, and the McMenamins’ pubs brew some of the best. Hammerhead pale ale and Terminator stout are still pouring freely. It was a major shot of nostalgia, as those beers caused me a headache or two in the day. The pubs tap into the hippy element and psychedelic culture of the Pac Northwest psyche. Has the restaurant scene improved greatly in PDX since my last visit in 2002 or have my senses become more finely honed? Le Pigeon, an unassumming communal style restaurant in the once shady area of E Burnside, near the thumping live music venue the Doug Fir Lounge, is plating up mouthwatering briased meats and suckling pig. I love this place, as well as the passion of owner Andy Fortgang, a former NYC sommelier at Craft. It deserves a solid mention here and your attention when you are in Portland. The wine list at “the Pigeon”, as it’s called locally, was compact, but perfectly balanced with local and European wines to work with the game meats and earthy fare. We drank a 2005 Hermitage from JL Chave there that was ferocious, and quite rare, and worked magically with the spicy tenderness of their benchmark Beef Cheek Bourguignon ($29). Also, I would be remiss not to mention the humble Bunk Sandwiches on SE Morisson. Hands down the best pork belly Cubano sandwich I’ve had outside NYC and Havana. And again, zero attitude, just delicious simple food (approximately 200 sandwiches per day keeps things fresh), and classic kosher dill pickles. It is an eight dollars well spent.
More than the great food and wine, however, there were the old friends with whom I reconnected. You never know if you will see people again when you move away, so it was with great comfort that I could spend some quality time with some quality folks. And that’s what it’s all about: just add wine and a soft, worn-in flannel shirt and you won’t want to leave.