Forget about leaving your heart here. Setting out to cover all the gastronomic ground we could in a week, we left nothing but skid marks on the pavement - and squid marks on our tongues.
That's how memorable the chili-encrusted calamari was at Betel-nut, a Pan-Asian tavern in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of this food lover's paradise. And that was just the first stop.Traversing the region - on to Berkeley, Sausalito, Sonoma and Napa - we sampled from cafes and cabernets, from cantinas and creperies, from corner markets and culinary institutes. Not surprisingly, the dominant influences continue to be Asian and Mediterranean, but don't expect just any old dish of rice. For all its peasant aspirations and country affectations, the California cuisine of the moment is still elegant, worldly, sophisticated - the essence of a life well-lived.
Here are a few of our favorite places:
- Betelnut. On an atypically hot San Francisco day, this was the perfect place to escape the dust and swelter. On the ceiling, leaf-shaped reed fans swayed back and forth languidly, as in a scene from "The Year of Living Dangerously."
So we orchestrated a series of dishes and drinks to cool, then quicken, the palate: icy rice ale , then that spicy calamari, fried with fiery rings of red and green chilis ($6.60). Salt-and-pepper prawns with the crunchy heads still intact ($7.95), then a lovely salad of green papaya, shrimp, mint and tomato ($5.95). "Little dragon" dumplings, stuffed with pork and shrimp ($7.88), then another round of rice ale. You get the idea. The beauty of the place is its casual style, its stacks of small plates that invite friends to sit and share a few appetizers - Asian tapas, if you will. 2030 Union St., San Francisco. 415-929-8855.
- Chez Panisse. Ellen Gil-christ's most recent collection of stories had one called "Lunch at the Best Restaurant in the World." Chez Panisse, of course. Though it's famous, there's nothing sexed-up or flashy about the place, or the little plate of exquisite, beet-red radishes that arrive first, signaling the freshness of things to come. The room is understated and comfortable, the service utterly professional and unobtrusive, the wine list impressive. The menu, of course, changes nightly, according to the season. Our prix fixe dinner ($38 plus tax, plus 15 percent gratuity) began with ricotta baked in fig leaves on a plate with garden lettuces, pickled onions and anchovy toasts. Then: spring lamb with artichokes, beans and saffron noodles. And, finally: lemon sherbet tinged with grappa and flecked with espresso grindings. It was a contrast of textures (soft and grainy) and flavors (sweet and zesty, jolting and calming) like I've never tasted before. We went placidly toward the noise and haste of the city. 1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. 510-548-5525.
- Greystone. The West Coast satellite of the Culinary Institute of America is housed in the old Christian Brothers winery, a stunning stone edifice sitting high on a ridge overlooking the Napa Valley. The dining room - there's a fireplace at one end and stylish wrought iron fixtures everywhere - surrounds a mega-size, open-air kitchen. The menu is a who's who of food trends: tapas, blood oranges, salt cod fritters, etc. But that's not a criticism. The fat spears of grilled asparagus with blood-orange vinaigrette were the freshest we've ever tasted. The paella ($16.50) was rich and robust, easily enough for two. And the coriander-crusted roasted halibut with spring vegetables and tiny morels could do no wrong. Naturally, there's a spiffy selection of wines, dessert drinks and single-malt scotches (try the smoky-earthy 16-year-old Lagavulin, $11). And get the all-American apple tart, with a big dollop of vanilla ice cream . 2555 Main St., St. Helena. 707-967-1010.
(If you are curious about the school, you can tour the teaching kitchens or catch a cooking demonstration. Call 707-967-2320 for schedule.)
- Wappo Bar Bistro. In Calis-toga, you can get a mud bath, then go blissfully to an outdoor cafe for a glass of wine (or vice versa). At some point in your sojourn, you'll probably wander by the arboreal scene at Wappo Bar, with its romantic outdoor dining space draped in canopies of vines. There, you'll want to sit a spell (skip the nondescript, shotgun-style main room), sample a grape or two and perhaps order a bite from the all-over-the-place menu. Careful, though: It's a bit uneven. I adored the elegant chilled oysters with Seville-orange mignonette ($7.50), but the appetizer of Portuguese fritters (salt cod, again) was less inspired ($6.50). Here, a Chilean sea bass ($13.50) swam into view (via India, apparently), wearing a ruby-colored sari of garam masala (this reminds me of a friend who told me about seeing women in a Bombay disco wearing saris and leather motorcycle jackets). Interesting. 1226-B Washington St., Calistoga. 707-942-4712.