Thursday, August 28, 2008


This week, our friends E & G, invited us to lunch at Cavallo Point in Fort Baker in Sausalito.

Located just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Cavallo Point recently opened as a luxury lodge (The Lodge at the Golden Gate) and conference center. This location is now part of the Golden Gate National Parks.

The U.S. Army acquired Fort Baker in 1866 to serve as a base to protect the north side of the Golden Gate. It was an active military post through World War II. In 2002, when the army decided that Fort Baker was no longer needed by the military, this site and its buildings was transferred to the Golden Gate National Parks. Since 1973, Fort Baker has been listed as an Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places.

The name Cavallo Point dates to 1775 when a commander of a European sailing vessel named it "Punta de Caballo," as he sailed by. Wild horses once lived here and the Spanish word for horse is caballo

This week's warm clear weather was with us on the day of our visit...oh is this area magnificent, with the Golden Gate Bridge peeking out to the south and maginficent views of downtown San Francisco.

Our lunch was at Murray Circle, Cavallo Point's main restaurant.

The Lodge at the Golden Gate is in what looks to be the only new buildings on Fort Baker. The units look lovely from the outside.

Current room rates are between $250 and $750 a night, for a room for two.

We had high expectations for our meal, having read that the restaurant's executive chef, Joseph Humphrey had been awarded two Michelin stars when he was chef at The Restaurant at Meadowood in the Napa Valley. The dining room is several smaller dining rooms and we were seated in one with just three tables.

I will best describe the ambiance as "rustic elegance."

Having checked the menu online beforehand, I was prepared for a fairly pricey lunch. Both men ordered the Lunch Tasting Menu, four mini-courses served on a single plate, plus a dessert, priced at $23. The only choice they had to make was for the entree, either poached sea bass or a mini beef burger. One chose the bass and the other the mini burger. Also on their plate was a lettuce and anchovy salad, sweet corn Vichyssoise, and "chips & dip," waffle potato chips on a sort of sour cream dip.

Their dessert was chocolate Blackout Cake with malted milk ice cream.

E and I ordered less extravagantly...the Cobb Salad for her and a Poached Shrimp BLT for me. When our enthusiastic waiter took our orders, he asked if we'd like a bowl of soup to start; E ordered the Chilled Sweet Pea Gazpacho.

E's soup was delicious. Her bowl was first presented without the soup with a mound of citrus-fennel shaved ice in the center. A server then poured the pea soup over it.

My sandwich was tasty and was served with the same "chips & dip" that came with the Tasting Lunch. I thought the dip was tasteless and sort of thick..nothing special for sure.

E's Cobb salad was "deconstructed,"

with each component in its own little pile on her was not very appealing visually and she was disappointed. Looking at my photo of her salad, I think the plate looks empty.

At that point, we felt, the food was just "OK" and quite overpriced. E ordered a cup of coffee which arrived cold...back it went, with our waiter mumbling some words of surprise. She did get hot coffee the second time around.

Then came the bill...we knew what to expect for our meals, but had not paid attention to the price of E's soup. It was $11!!! We thought it had to be a mistake, but our waiter assured us it was not.

As I write this post, I am checking Murray Circle's menu on their web seems that they have raised some of their prices from what is shown on their web menu..hmmm.

So, will we return to Murray Circle? No!

Is the area beautiful? Yes and I'd come back just to enjoy the setting, but not for a meal.

I must mention that in the same building at Murray Circle is Farley Bar, a lovely bar named for now-deceased San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Phil Frank. If I do return to explore the grounds more, I might stop here for a drink; Farley Bar offers a small menu which inlcudes a burger, crab cakes,salads, and sweets. Prices are a bit on the high side but not outrageous.

Bay Area Heat Wave!

Today was my day to do my final update for the Where-To-Guide's annual Civic Center dining feature. Each year, in the September/October issue, I write short reviews of many of the restaurants near Davies Symphony Hall and the Opera House. My timing is for the beginning of the Opera and Symphony seasons.

Opening night for the San Francisco Symphony is September 3; for the San Francisco Opera, it is September 5.

I could not have picked a better day to do my walk-around. At mid-day, the temperature in San Francisco was in the low 80s. I loved it...didn't even need the sweater that I brought, just in case it was not as warm as I expected. Of course, back in the 'Creek, it is 103 degrees as I write this at 3 p.m.

By both the Opera House and Symphony Hall, tents were being put up. Presumably, these are where the dinners and parties before and after the opening nights will be held. Also going on this weekend in the Civic Center is Slow Food Nation 2008, a big food event, highlighting wonderful foods and drinks prepared with fresh, local, healthful fast food in this part of town or over at Fort Mason, the other venue for Slow Food Nation.

Something that has always intrigued me about warm days in San Francisco is that, while there are few days even in summer, when it is warm enough to go around without a light jacket, when the temperature rises, the streets are filled with people in the summery-est of clothing. Notice this woman crossing the street by the Opera House, with City Hall in the background:

Many of the Hayes Street restaurants now have sidewalk tables and today, they were the place to sit while having lunch. Note the sunbather in Octavia Park, eating his lunch at a table and catching some rays...kind of made me think of parks in Paris on warm days, when the world comes out to soak up some sun.

Since last year, there is lots of new housing in this area, known as Hayes Valley. To go along with it, many new shops and cafes. And many old favorites, such as Marlena's and Flipper's have spiffed up their Victorian facades.

Happy Summer Day!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Napa Valley...Day Five...and there were Balloons!

Up at 6 a.m. to clear 6:30 a.m., I was rushing across the Vintage Inn parking lot, heading for the two balloons that were ready to take flight from the V Marketplace parking lot. Already, the sky was filling with hot air balloons, a sight that always makes my heart race a little faster.

Within minutes, the second of these two balloons was up into the air.

Almost immediately, another truck arrived with another balloon. As I mentioned the other day, the balloon companies are in a race against the rising sun and heat that create air currents that won't allow ballooning. It is in the calm of very early morning is when it all takes place.

The following sequence of photos shows the 10 minutes or so, from the arrival of the truck with the balloon packed up in a bag to the actual takeoff.

The balloon arrives all packed up in a not very big bag

First it is layed out on a tarp.

Then, it is unfolded.

Once unfolded, one of the balloonists starts a fan to start filling it with air.

Next, they start heating the air to the point where the balloon goes upright, along with the passenger basket.

Then, the crew and passengers climb into the basket. There are a few holes on one side of the basket on which to climb into the basket.

And, they are ready for takeoff.

Within seconds of takeoff, the balloon is high above the buildings and trees.

Hot air balloon rides in the Napa Valley last about an hour. The truck and crew follow the balloon and pick up the passengers, crew, and balloon where ever it lands...when you are at the whim of the air currents and a bit of fire, you could wind up in Farmer Brown's pasture!!! Most balloon rides end with a champagne breakfast. As the story goes, in France, balloonists used to carry a bottle of champagne in their basket in case they did, in fact, land in Farmer Brown's pasture or would be a peace offering.

Having balloooned but once, I will never forget the wonderful, weightless, peaceful feel of it.

After this early morning excitement, I was famished! So it was breakfast back at the Vintage Inn and then a run across the street to Bouchon of Chef Thomas Keller's Yountville ventures...

for several loaves of bread and some pastries to take home as memories of our wonderful week.

The rest of the morning I spent swimming, sunning, and sad, the latter.

But, there was one more wonderful treat before the drive home: Lunch at Angele in Napa, on the patio overlooking the Napa River. When we walked by Angele after our breakfast at Sweetie Pies on our way to Yountville at the beginning of the week, I noted that Angele looked like the restaurants on the French Riviera. Angele has been open for a few years, but today's lunch was my first meal here.

We ordered our South of France favorite lunch dishes: Croque Monsieur for J,

Salade NIcoise for me,

and a side of French Fries for all of us, including Louie who tasted his first frite when I dropped one on the patio floor.

When we asked our waitress about the Banana Gratin,

she told us that it is Angele's signature dessert. We were not disappointed with what is a sort of Banana Crisp made with creme anglais and topped with a crumbly crust and ice cream. One serving is enough for two to share.

I always say that being in the Napa Valley reminds me of my time in France. Lunch at Angele brought me back to Nice, Cannes, and St. Tropez.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Napa Valley...Day Four

'Tis our last full day in the Valley and I am wishing the real world was not calling me back.

I got up before 6 a.m. in hopes of seeing some hot air balloons in the sky, but, it was not be be...a bit of fog that burned off by 8 a.m. but by then the window of time for ballooning had passed. Many ballooning companies take their guests out toward Davis or other places outside the Valley to balloon on foggy or cloudy mornings. This is a picture of the fog starting to lift over our pool this morning.

The highlight of today was an Olive Oil Tour and Tasting at Round Pond Vineyards in Rutherford.

We heard about this tasting last year from some friends who do not drink wine. I've had it on my list to do and this morning was the time. The tour/tasting lasts about an hour and a half. First our guide Mary Dee took us out into Round Pond's vineyard and olive grove...their olive trees grow all over the property, whereever there are no grape vines.

Then we saw the production facility and learned how olive oil is made.

A bit of Olive Oil info: Did you know that it is a waste to cook with Extra Virgin Olive Oil because the oil loses its nutritional and taste properties at 300 degrees? Better to just use Pure Olive oil or some oil that is not as pricey, as long as it is fresh.

Then we went into the tasting room where we sampled, out of special Olive Oil tasting glasses, 4 made with Spanish Olives, one made with Italian Olives, a Meyer Lemon Oil, and a Blood Orange Oil.

Mary Dee instructed us in tasting technique. We used apple slices to cleanse our palate between tasting. The glasses are blue because tasters should not be influenced by the color of the oil; color does not matter.

After that, we tasted Round Pond's wine made with Italian grape varietals, the other made with French varietals.The sugar cubes are for the vinegar tasting; we poured vinegar on the cubes and sucked it out.

Our final exercise was to pair tomatoes, salad greens, fresh mozzarella, basil and bread with our own choice of mixes of oils and vinegars. Also, Mary Dee suggested we try fresh strawberries dipped in the Blood Orange Oil...that was so good that I bought a bottle of the Blood Orange Oil.

A last "treat" before we left was a spoon of freshly-made vanilla ice cream, topped with Spanish Olive Oil and sea salt...very interesting!

The cost of the tour is $25 per person. Reservations are required. Each group...there are three tastings a up to 6 people. I highly recommend scheduling this tour/tasting on your next Napa Valley visit.

We then spent the afternoon wandering around St. Helena, mostly shopping. We always stop at the fabulous home furnishings and gift shop, Vanderbilt & Co. We also sipped coffee on the patio of the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company and I discovered that they have free wifi as well as good coffee and pastries. Of course, Louie insisted on some shopping at Fideaux, his favorite Napa Valley dog boutique...he did a cookie sampling before purchasing a mixed bag of cookies.

Our final St. Helena stop was at the Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufactury

where we have been buying our every day olive oil for more than 30 years...there is nothing as good as this is and the price is oh so reasonable. I always stock up here on Italian specialty foods I got anchovies in a jar, tiny ravioli from Italy, and a Molinari salami...the salami always tastes best from the Olive Oil Manufactury.

Dinner tonight was at the Rutherford Grill where Louie is welcome to dine with us on the outdoor patio.The Rutherford Grill is another place where the locals congregate. On this balmy summer night, we had to wait about half an hour for a patio table. With glasses of wine in hand, we sat on a wall and indulged in people watching. Time passed quickly as we realized that just about everyone here was with either family or friends from the area. Once seated, we started with the night's special appetizer, Queso Dip with Tortilla Chips...this cheese and chile dip was just the thing to start our dinner. J ordered the roast half Chicken which came with Very Wild Rice. I ordered the night's fresh fish: Loup de Mer (Mediterranean Sea Bass). My fish was a whole fish, split in half and boned before being grilled. The accompanying fresh vegetables were perfectly cooked Romano and Yellow Beans, dressed with Olive Oil and Parmesan Cheese...a cold bean salad that I will attempt to duplicate at home. The Very Wild Rice that accompanied J's Chicken was mixed with fresh corn, almonds and what tasted like a spicy oil. For dessert we shared the two Oreo Ice Cream Sandwiches with Chocolate Sauce...these were not your ordinary Oreos...more like Oreos on steroids. We devoured everything.

And, while we tried to eat our meals, Louie made great sport of catching the flies who were attracted to our food...he missed more than he caught, but he sure kept busy.

One final image: Isn't this a unique wine country bicycle rack? There are two of them in front of the V Marketplace.