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How to eat well in northern California

A California trip offered plenty of amazing food.


Posted on Feb. 17, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.

Today's Quick Bites can be found here.

The one thing you can't do to food is make it fresher.

You can cook a fish a variety of ways or not cook it at all. You can make an old apple appetizing again by turning it into sauce.

But you can't turn back the clock.

Wine needs time in a barrel or bottle to mellow. But seafood that was given the chance to mellow is bad news.

Therefore, seafood that hasn't had time to mellow is very good news.

Very, very good news.

The trip to California was about wine and food. I figured I'd eat well, but had no true idea how well.

I'm not a geography expert. I had to look it up to figure out that we were 500 miles from the gunman who was making news in southern California. But San Francisco is on the ocean and Sonoma is darn close.

And that means that fresh seafood is abundant.

The oysters have a short trip from the sea to your plate to your gullet.

And thanks to Rick Hutchinson at Amphora Winery, we had a pile of Dungeness crab to dig into.

“When you come to California, you've got to have Dungeness crab,” he said.

A few days before our visit, he ordered 70 pounds. When the group of about 35 of us were done eating, there were about 8 pounds left.

The crab didn't need butter. It was rich and sweet on its own.

The legs and bodies of the animals had still been alive that morning of our afternoon feast.

Rick also served a great clam chowder, which is easy to find in the Bay Area. I didn't see as much cioppino as I hoped.

In Santa Rosa, Calif., about half our group had a great meal at an Italian place called Portofino. The diners had great things to say about the service and food. In Healdsburg, Calif., a number of people enjoyed Willy's Raw Bar.

The oysters were good all three or four places I had them, but the best came at Swan Oyster Depot.

It sounds like Sam's Club, but it's a historic old spot in San Francisco's Nob Hill neighborhood. Kurt Janowsky, who was along on the trip, recommended it for my wife and I, who stayed a couple extra days after the wine tour ended.

The old lunch counter starts serving at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday morning and people lined up to get in.

We filed in and filled a seat at the counter. A guy took our order to fill with the fresh seafood that had been cleaned. But if you ordered oysters, you wait while he shucks them. And if you're lucky, you get to try your wife's smoked salmon with capers.

I love raw oysters, but depending where I get them, I add lemon juice, hot sauce, cocktail sauce or horseradish and then shoot them. I started doing that again with the ones at Swan Oyster Depot, but stopped. They were too bright and clean, too good, to mask with other flavors.

They were fresh. You could taste that by what you couldn't taste.

Janowsky, who owns and operates the Matterhorn, Lerner Crystal Ballroom catering and Cafe Navarre, knows great food. He recommended The Slanted Door “if you want some of the best Vietnamese food in the country.”

It's not easy to get a reservation, so my wife and I sat at the bar of a packed restaurant on a Monday night. And we started ordering.

I took a risk and got uni — sea urchin that in this preparation was served with avocado, cucumber and a bit of black tobiko, or flying fish roe.

It was creamy and delicate. And wonderful.

But the bahn nam — rice dumplings wrapped in banana leaf — continued the parade of subtle but great flavors. Chef Charlie Phan and his staff make great food.

The shaking beef entree with grass-fed filet mignon pieces, red onion, watercress and a lime sauce was perfectly balanced too. The meat had a sear, but was tender and flavorful. The accompaniments didn't overpower the beef.

For dessert, the warm doughnuts with a butterscotch dipping sauce were great, but didn't trump the lemongrass cotton candy.

Yep. They added the mild flavor of lemongrass to spun sugar and served it at a high-end restaurant.

Gimmicky? Yep.

Perfect? Yep again. A nice way to end a great meal.

San Francisco has really good coffee. I had a nice cup at Sight Glass with Jonathan Kauffman, a Goshen native who's now a food writer for Tasting Table in San Francisco.

California also has really good cheese, both because of the population centers and because it's the country's largest dairy state. My favorite was the creamy bleu cheese the Nuss family served at the Vinoce/20 Rows tasting room. I'll be hunting for Cambozola Black Label. Anyone know where I can get some?

Even in February in California, you can get fruit and vegetables that are fresh. I didn't feel guilty eating California strawberries because they hadn't traveled cross-country in a truck.

I ate great food on this trip, from the pizza to the oysters. Thanks to Jay Fields of Indiana Wine & Liquor Wholesale Co., we learned a ton about wine and tried some great ones. Thanks to Dorothy Shirk at Menno Travel Service, our travels went well. Thanks to a 29 travel companions along on the trip, we had a lot of fun.

There's talk of another trip. Where should we go next?

I'm hungry. Let's eat.

Marshall V. King is news/multimedia editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth/eTruth.com. You can reach him at mking@etruth.com, 574-296-5805, on Twitter @hungrymarshall or via Facebook. His blog is at www.blogs.etruth.com/diningalaking/.



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