As readers of these pages may be aware, I travel a fair amount.
Eating out alone is an odd thing. It serves several purposes, only one of which is to feed yourself. The other, equally important reasons are; to experience the place and culture, to sample a particular cuisine or restaurant and, of course, to fill time and relax. The last reason is why, when alone I almost always end up in a proper sit down restaurant rather than going for the fast food option.
I have come to the conclusion that I am something of a shallow traveller. As soon as I know that I am going to a particular destination I start Googling restaurants there. Not attractions, not cultural sites – just restaurants and bars.
Recently I was in California and had a few days in San Francisco before my wine business started. I was pretty excited about being there and determined to try some of the great and varied food on offer.
So, I enjoyed a traditional American Diner – I am a sucker for neon, juke boxes, vinyl benches, booths and waitresses called Peggy-Sue, honestly she was, I have witnesses! If you are in San Francisco and feel the same, there is a small chain called Mel’s Drive In. What they lack in finesse they more than make up for in ambiance.
Downtown I greatly enjoyed a genuine, or so I am informed, burrito in a Mexican Taqueria. I experienced the delights of a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich, a guilty pleasure if ever there was one, and I enjoyed clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl at Boudin in Fisherman’s Wharf.
My lunch the next day was at Brandy Ho’s, the self styled ‘best Chinese restaurant in the world’. It was not even the best that I have tried, but being Hunan Chinese it was different from what we get in the UK, which was kind of the point in going.
I had an uneasy moment on the way in as I passed a chef carrying a rather large and fluffy cat. He did not look amused and I wondered if all those tales were really true after all? Actually I soon saw that the cat was being escorted out of the kitchen, in keeping with local regulations of course.
The problem with eating Chinese food on your own is that, unless you want to waste a lot, you are limited to ordering what you can eat yourself. So in order to get some variety I just had two starters and so got to taste some of the spicy Hunan cuisine.
I quickly fell into the habit of having an aperitif in a lovely wine bar cum wine shop near my hotel and chatting to the staff there. They gave me helpful hints about where to eat and that is how I found the wonderful A16 Italian restaurant on Chestnut Street, it specialises in food in the style of Campania and Naples. I highly recommend A16 if you are in the area, it is like a little slice of rustic Italy, the portion of San Daniele ham must have comprised half a pig and was quite delicious.
Anyway, my friends in the wine bar were shocked that I had so far failed to sample any of the cities ‘fine dining’ establishments or top restaurants and they persuaded me that I owed it to myself to do so. They drew up a list and assured me that I would be amazingly lucky to get into any of them without booking.
Top of their list was the strangely named Gary Danko. They, and many others told me that if I managed to eat there it would be one of the very best meals that I had ever eaten and a memorable gastronomic experience. I was practically salivating already and went straight there by taxi.
It was one of those restaurants with a lectern outside on the pavement, brass-bound tasseled rope and milling uniformed flunkies – what do they all do? I am always struck by how many staff there are in restaurants in America – surely several times the number we have this side of the pond?
No waiting was needed, I was slotted straight into the very last stool at the bar, between a romantic couple and two ladies from Chicago.
I ordered a glass of Prosecco (Alice, Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Extra Dry 2007 – nicely aromatic without the overt sweetness of so many) for lubrication and perused the menu. It was expensive, certainly compared to Mel’s, but not outrageous for such a place.
The tasting menu is $98 for 5 courses plus another $65 if you want the paired wines as well. I went a la carte, which again is $98 for 5 courses, $83 for 4 and $66 for 3. I went for 4 course as it all looked too good to pass up.
For my starter I decided to try something that I would not usually order – ‘Beet Salad with Goat Cheese, Caramalised Apples, Pecans and Zathar Oil’. Zather by the way is a spice blend of sesame seeds, powdered sumac and dried thyme. I finished up the Prosecco with this and it went very well with the goats cheese and beetroot combination.
My entrée, in European terms – not American where entrée seems to mean the main course, was ‘Roast Maine Lobster with Potato Purée, Chanterelle Mushrooms, Corn and Tarragon’. I ordered a glass of Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner, Steinsetz, Kamptal 2007 with this.
I kept my main course simple with ‘Guinea Hen Breast with Rosemary-Pork Sausage, Maitake Mushrooms and Roasted Grapes’. I wanted a red with this and ordered a half glass (yes half!) of Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermtages 2007 which had lovely fruit, a firm structure and real elegance.
My dessert was ‘Roasted Pears with Gingerbread and Nutmeg Ice Cream’.
The server behind the bar, who appeared to be both waiter and sommelier, but I have no understanding of the rankings in such a place, was very good, extremely professional and had an excellent line in patter and flannel. As you might expect it was more friendly and intimate than a similar person would be in Britain, but it was an impressive performance complete with the regulation sing song description of every component of each and every dish.
Unfortunately he also sounded like Snagglepuss – which, while amusing at first, does tend to pall after a while.
I enjoyed myself very much and did not feel too ripped off. My pleasure was enhanced by the ladies from Chicago who tried to make sure that I ordered different dishes from them so that they could try them! So we all swapped forkfulls of food and experienced more of the dishes on offer – does that happen at Le Gavroche? This made the whole thing great fun and lifted my evening from a solitary experience to something shared, which is always when food and wine are at their best.
Over the next few days I was the subject of much incredulous envy. I had got into Gary Danko’s on the spur of the moment! They could not believe it. These same people urged me, time and again, to agree that it was amazing and the best food I had ever eaten – awesome in the local lingo.
The truth is, I enjoyed it. Everything was good. Nothing was wrong with the meal at all. Was it that good though? Was it a masterpiece? Was it aaawesooooome?
The answer is no, not to me. In all honesty the food was just not that tasty. Not bland, just not hugely tasty either. Perhaps the flavours were too subtle for me, but of course I appreciate subtle wine. I just wanted more and expected more given all the hype and build-up. I went away muttering things about the Emperor’s New Clothes.
The week before I had enjoyed a perfectly cooked Boeuf Bourgignon with a bottle of Volnay at a simple bistro in Beaune. I was with dear friends who were wonderful company and the meal was memorable.The food had a depth of flavour and concentration that really pleasured my tatse-buds and made for a deeply happy experience.
A couple of nights after my Gary Danko meal I was with a wine-maker friend in Napa and we went to the Rutherford Grill. Again we sat at the bar, but here we split a portion of ribs and rôtisserie chicken. Very simple and honest fare, but they were incredibly tasty, hugely enjoyable and went perfectly with my friends’ beautifully made Zinfandel.
I always seem to appreciate simple food more than the overly fancy. I invariably find it to have more taste and to be more fun to eat. Give me a paella on a beach with some good friends and wine. Give me some deliciously tender ribs and an old friend to drink with or give me a perfectly cooked Boeuf Bourgignon with a dear friend and some good Burgundy.
Perhaps I miss the point, perhaps I lack the fine food gene, but simple, traditional food that is well prepared does it for me over gastro temples every time. Fine dining seems to be a language that I do not understand, good food on the other hand is my language.