Monday, September 19, 2005

A Weekend in San Francisco


The last time I visited San Francisco (and the West Coast generally), I was seventeen, and I was there halfway through a family vacation that involved both driving from Maryland to California and from California back to Maryland, albeit by vastly different routes. By the time we arrived, I had survived such horrors as Wyoming (sorry, Wyoming, I'm sure I'd love the wide open spaces now, but when you're seventeen, sitting in a car for eight hours on a highway that never turns with nothing but sagebrush to look at while your 10-year-old sister wonders whether we're there yet, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment), and I was fairly exhausted, so that when my parents handed me the map of the city and asked me to navigate us to Chinatown, I somehow ended us up on the top of Telegraph Hill; I blame the one-way streets. At least the view was good (my parents bought a small framed set of three drawings of the area, which they hung in their living room until they sold the house about three years ago), and we did eventually make our way to Chinatown, where we had a decent dinner in a big restaurant that had lots of brass dragons and even more red velvet and that was, a week later, shot up in some sort of organized crime incident.

So I suspected that I had not exactly experienced everything that San Francisco had to offer, but I hadn't gotten back until this past weekend. I'm sure that I still haven't gotten more than a taste of the city, but they tell me that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

I flew out Thursday night on JetBlue (round trip fare: $218; yay!) into Oakland (cab fare to hotel: $70; boo!) and proceeded to the hotel where I collapsed. You might think that with only two days, I wouldn't venture outside of the city, but then you'd be mistaken. On Friday, we took a tour that combined a morning in Muir Woods with an afternoon at Sonoma and Napa wineries.

Some of you will doubtless be horrified at the notion of an organized tour, and certainly they do have their downsides. There is, for example, always at least one example of the Midwestern Curmudgeon on the bus (our bus was more of an overgrown van, and it was, at least, fairly comfortable), and this person will take every opportunity to say things like "It all tastes like wine to me!" But there are easy ways to minimize contact with such people, and V. and I managed to have a very good time. Muir Woods is beautiful, and the 1.5 hours we had there was plenty of time for V. and I to take the 2-mile loop (Midwestern Curmudgeons do not like to walk, fortunately) with a lot of stops to gawk at the big trees and other flora and fauna) and still stop at the coffeeshop for a snack.

We visited three wineries in the afternoon. The first of these, Viansa, is clearly set up to accommodate a great many tourists, but at least they do that very well. A tasting is $5 for four wines, but we ended up tasting two additional wines at no additional cost, which is, I reckon, a fairly usual occurrence. We also got lunch there and ate it out in their courtyard, sitting under an olive tree and staring out at the vineyards, where, to add insult to injury, the grapes were ripe and ready for harvest.

And there, readers, is the problem with visiting California generally and San Francisco in particular. When you live on, and rarely leave, the East Coast, it is relatively easy to dismiss denizens of the other side of the country as lightweights. Yes, you think to yourself, it's nice over there, but serious people live on the East Coast. Serious people do not make their homes on or around fault lines. Serious people do not elect actors to statewide office. But then you get there, and there are vineyards in among brown hills topped with green trees, or you're walking along almost any street in SF, and you turn a corner and look down a hill and there's blue sky and blue water on the horizon and flowering vines on Victorian houses, and a bus or trolley to take you wherever you need to go every eight minutes even on a Saturday, and you think, I want to live here! I don't want to be a serious person! I want my own olive tree (and a ready supply of lye plus the patience of Job to actually cure olives, but let's not quibble) or at least to live on a street lined with lime trees. I want to wear flip flops to work!

Ok, so maybe I don't want to wear flip flops to work, and I'm sure that if you actually live and work in SF, then you see less pleasant sides to the city, and every place is nicer when you're there on vacation, right? (On the other hand, when we were wandering through the Haight district, I did say to V., "Well, surely, this weather isn't typical; surely we just got very lucky," and an extremely annoying woman who happened to be passing said, "Oh no, this is pretty usual for us." Wrong answer!) Let's just say that SF is extremely seductive.

Anyway. After Viansa, we went to two other, smaller wineries. Our guide had not been able to reach Viansa before we showed up, so we had had to find counter space for a tasting as best we could, but at the other two wineries, we were expected, and at the Bouchaine and Larson Family wineries, they had tables and chairs for us on the patio and terrace, respectively. They also had more of a spiel, but the hosts were very pleasant, and the spiels (and the wines) were dissimilar enough to keep everything pleasant. Apparently, despite recent SCOTUS rulings, California wineries generally can still not ship wine directly to households in Maryland (and six other states), and since I was unwilling to either check baggage or lug bottles of wine on the plane, I had figured that I would just enjoy the tastings and not bring any wine home. This did not initially seem like a big hardship to me because while the wines had been pretty good overall, after two wineries, I had not drunk anything that I would have gone out of my way to procure. About halfway through the tasting at Larson Family Winery, however, the host poured me a small amount of their Gewurztraminer, and I really wanted to have more.

I have liked Gewurztraminer since the first time I tasted it, probably twenty years ago. The LFW version, while certainly not as dry as their Chardonnay, was still not sweet, but it had a complex and energetic flavor (it was unfined) that satisfied my entire palate. I reckon it will be great with spicy foods. I say "will" because the host at LFW informed us, as we were headed away from the tasting tables, that LFW can ship to all fifty states. She also said that her boss had authorized a 15% discount on all purchases for us. With shipping, and after discounts, a case cost me $200. Significantly more than I normally would spend on a case of wine, yes, but it seemed a reasonable purchase at the time, and it continues to seem so without the benefit of slight inebriation.

Everyone was pretty tired after the third winery, but our tour guide (who, it turned out, was an environmental engineer by training and had worked for some big environmental groups in DC before relocating to SF, but who now made most of his income by scalping tickets, and who was a pretty nice guy despite having a big chip on his shoulder about the cost of housing in SF and also about the 2004 elections) wisely had us stop at the Golden Gate overlook on the way back.

And here I have to say, and I beg your pardon: WTF, San Francisco? That bridge isn't gold. It isn't even yellow. It's kind of rust colored. Would it kill you to pony up a few bucks and have that thing covered with gold leaf? How hard could it be?

Anyway. The tour dropped us off near our hotel, and we decided to go to Chinatown for dinner, to a restaurant V. had tried, at the suggestion of the concierge, earlier in the week. The restaurant is called House of Nanking, and I have mixed feelings about recommending it to you. On the one hand, it's probably the best Chinese food that you'll ever have in the United States. On the other hand, once you've eaten there, everything else is going to be a step down. House of Nanking is crowded and unassuming, and it moves people in and out very quickly (the food starts arriving almost before you've ordered it), but if you haven't had their Nanking sesame chicken, you haven't lived. (Sorry vegetarians: sucks to be you.) We also had the hot and sour soup (which is nothing at all like the soup of the same name around here) and the sizzling rice shrimp with garlic vegetables, both of which were superlative. If you ever go there, just tell the waitress that it's your first time, and she'll ask you what sort of meat you like and tell you what you should order. Do not doubt her; she knows what she's talking about.

(I'm not sure whether "best Chinese food that you'll ever have in the United States" is hyperbole. Naturally, if you know of a better place to get it, let me know, but keep in mind that House of Nanking is also pretty cheap and fast, so you could have this spectacular food before a movie or the theatre. There is often a line, but the line moves very quickly. Also, even if the food is better somewhere else, the chef at House of Nanking puts stir-fried [I presume] sweet potato slices on his signature sesame chicken dish, and it was the first time in my entire life that I have enjoyed eating sweet potatoes outside of a sweet potato pie context. That accomplishment alone was a miracle.)

Saturday morning we had breakfast at Pergamino, a restaurant near our hotel. It was a cool but sunny morning, and we sat on the upper patio, the view from which you see here. We spent Saturday just seeing the city. For $11, you can get an all-day pass for cable cars, trolleys, and buses, and we did our best to get our money's worth. SF is not that big of a city, and it's very easy to get around. If you take a bus or trolley to the Castro, you can take a very pleasant walk through there and to Haight-Ashbury. (I bought L. a tie dyed t-shirt at the corner of Haight and Ashbury: I am such a tourist.)

We had dinner near the hotel at Albona, a small restaurant featuring the Istrian cuisine, which is very similar to Northern Italian cuisine. Albona is not very far from Fisherman's Wharf, but the block that it's on is kind of drab, and you wouldn't expect to find a good restaurant there. It's small enough (twelve tables) for the owner to be able to tell everyone about the cuisine and the daily specials. There is obviously a lot of repeat business.

V. started with a pureed tomato soup thickened with potatoes, and I had a salad. For the entree, he had wild salmon, and I had rabbit (the owner was impressed that I would order rabbit: puh-leeze) braised in balsamic vinegar, onions, honey and juniper berries and accompanied with creamy polenta. We also had a bottle of Pinot Noir. For dessert, I had a coffee gelato topped with brandied Maraska cherries. Also coffee. Everything was perfect. The bill came to a bit under $60 each.

After dinner, we walked back to Chinatown, and I bought some more souvenirs for the kids. It was the night before the Autumn Moon festival, and while I was tempted to buy a moon cake with mixed fruits and ham, I settled for a bag of small almond cookies, which I ate back at the hotel. Our flights were not until around noon, so we had time the next morning for another breakfast at Pergamino.

I don't know when I'll get back to SF, but I'm sure it won't be another 27 years. I'm also sure that I won't go for just a weekend. I have never flown off for a weekend trip somewhere far away before, but I've done it now, and I'm not especially anxious to go through two long flights for two days of vacation again. Even a third day would have made a great difference, so from now on, I think that weekend trips need to be no more than one time zone away, and if I want to go farther, I'll take two days off from work.

3 Comments:

Anonymous lindy said...

Looks like we were wine tasting at the same time, though my little day trip was a good bit less classy, wine-wise.
When I was a relatively young person, I couldn't understand why anyone would move somewhere for the weather. Yet even then, I thought I would move to the bay area in a heartbeat, given the chance.
No wonder a pathetic shack there costs half a million bucks.
Sounds like a fine time.

1:12 PM  
Blogger David said...

I've been to San Fran several times and while it is indeed charming, I have never had the urge to move there. I would say it is because I am too serious a person, but I don't like it when people laugh at me over the internet.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Chox said...

First time reader here...I found you when you corrected Cement Brunette on his English. I've been enjoying your blog, and plan on trying some of you recipies. :-) I'm glad you enjoyed yourself in San Francisco...you know you could have taken BART to San Francisco and saved about $60, you know... ;-)

1:29 PM  

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