Thursday, 7 February 2013

Bay Area and Sonoma

Of the many people who visit San Francisco, and certainly those from the UK, I imagine very few experience much of Oakland. And generally I would say it’s a place you need a reason to visit (family in my case), but it also has a few highlights especially for foodies.

Manhattan has its Brooklyn, and San Francisco has the Mission. There isn’t too much to contest there. But Oakland is striking out in a more balanced way. There are hipsters sure, but also plenty of baby-booming ex-hipsters and yuppies who simply can’t afford any space in SF. Oakland has always been a very black city, and suffers from social issues in certain parts, but interestingly there is also a large black middle class population which adds a different element to the place.

Plum Bar and Restaurant is on a small but perfectly formed strip running down from the CBD towards the Lake. Here I had my best burger of this trip to the US, following a recommendation from SF Gate. It was a flawless clash of textures; a beautifully rich, soft patty cooked rare but with some bite, and topped with an incredible Alpine concoction of caramelised onions and cheese. The spicy fries were among the best I've had too.


This burger is 2 mins walk from the BART and easily worth the 15 minute ride from Market Street. The bar itself had superb drinks and funky d├ęcor (check the elaborate network of suspended tea lights and plum mural).


Plum on Urbanspoon 

Next door is a sloppy but delicious Mexican joint: La Bonita Taqueria. As I mentioned on my SF post, I find the black beans and general US Mexican food a bit more mushy and plonked than the food I’ve had in Mexico itself. It is American’s comfort food, and could easily be apportioned through a drip. 


This explosion of enchiladas was exactly what this hungover little pig needed, but at this Mexican equivalent of a greasy spoon there was nothing delicate going on. 

 La Bonita Taqueria on Urbanspoon

My absolute food highlight of the trip, and I would say best of 2012 was the B Side BBQ. This is a barbecue joint owned by the same people as the famous Brown Sugar Kitchen, one of the sceniest brunches in the Bay Area. We sadly couldn’t get a table there (which looked FANTASTIC) but they referred us here,

I wonder if the team from Pitt Cue have been here? It’s BBQ but done in a modern way, with bourbon cocktails, succinct menus and bar seating. The food was outstanding. 

 
My Dark & Stormy St Louis ribs were the most tender, flavourful and juicy I’ve ever had. Amazing. Worth the 11 hour flight alone. Sides were also outstanding; brilliant Texas toast with a meaty dipping sauce, good pickles and dense, rich beans to die for. The pics don't do justice to the size of these dishes, they were enormous.


My sister’s baby back ribs with pineapple salsa were equally lauded, accompanied with creamy mac. Her  boyfriend’s pulled pork sandwich was the same - they live in Oakland and said it was the best meal they’d had yet. 


It’s in a rather ‘characterful’ part of Oakland (think burning oil drums in Homer & Eddie) but I couldn’t recommend it more. Come in a cab. Straight from SF airport. And then fly home, happy.

B-Side BBQ on Urbanspoon

Onwards from Oakland, as one must. Many visiting the Bay Area strike out towards Monterey and Big Sur, or perhaps to Yosemite. A fair few head to Napa wine tasting, but an even wiser few choose Sonoma instead.

Healdsburg is the spiritual home of the Sonoma wineries, and definitely worth the drive. It’s barely an hour from the Bay and its quaint, walkable centre set around a green square makes a pleasant change from auto-centric California. There are numerous twee interiors shops but a serious amount of wine bars and tasting rooms. Many of the wineries have their tasting rooms in town – it’s ideal as you don’t have to worry about driving and can do a crawl.

It’s a tad sneaky too, because common practice in this region is to use grapes from dispersed sites. So as their sources are scattered around (with some scandalously coming from Napa?!) it means their main premises may not be impressive. Hence the town locations.

My winery recommendation is the Portalupi team, who quite refreshingly work with Italian grapes such as Barbera and Sangiovese, rather than the ubiquitous Cabernets and Merlots. Also try Woodenhead and their punchy, booze-filled Pinot Noirs provide a bulkier twist on this grape associated with Ribena transparency and easy guzzling.

In Healdsburg it’s easy to get wine fatigue. Seems ridiculous but it’s all anybody talks about. Step forward Bear Republic –self-appointed state craft brewery and playfully jingoistic with it.


Their Racer 5 beer is relatively well known, and can be found in London, but some rare and riotously strong IPAs can be found here. Food is resplendently London 2012 in its natural habitat – all chicken wings, mac & cheese and more filth and dirt than you could ever wish for. The chilli bread bowl was particularly impressive slush. Not to mention the garlic fries....



 Bear Republic Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

Healdsburg is a genteel place however, so beyond California’s best brews, showy food and cocktails are expected too. This is not Paso Robles – the Sonoma apple has not rolled as far from the Napa tree as Sonoma folk would like to think - there is plenty of fine dining. We chose Spoonbar, where the cocktails were beautiful and the bar snacks dainty. Who would have thought chicken crackling with drops of buttermilk could be so fantastic!


Spoonbar on Urbanspoon 

There is more gush in this post, and its San Francisco twin than I am usually comfortable with. There was an analogy concerning female elephants somewhere but I thought better of it. My avid readers (hi mum!) wouldn’t approve.

Suffice it to say that San Francisco and the Bay Area has some of the best, most diverse and sustainable eating and drinking on the planet. Far more as a region and hinterland than New York I would say. The localism of both wine and produce means food frenzy has spread across the whole region and people are genuinely obsessed. I’d say that isn’t the case with New York which is, much like London, a beacon shining out to the wider world, but casting shadow upon the chains and mediocrity surrounding it.

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