Vanessa Chang
(A Glutton with Brains)


a glutton with brains

Postcard from Summer: San Francisco & Wine Country


It's easy to forget photos you take and upload onto the computer. Months go by before you happen upon them while you're, say, looking for a work file. The feeling is akin to finding $20 in the back pocket of a just-washed pair of jeans. Summer was a fine season. Good weather. Good travel. Good food. It would be a pity if I didn't share the happiness with anyone who happens to care. Or at the very least, give me a reason to look them over and re-live those months.

Anyone who's read the column has come across The Voracious One. He's the spice-loving, bottomless pit I take along when I review restaurants. He's also the one that makes the most fiery and elegant Panang curry from-scratch and quite possibly THE best pastrami sandwich in the world. He has the appetite, but he also has a palate of a great eater; he also has the mixed blessing of calling me his girlfriend. When he told me that he'd never been to San Francisco or a single acre of wine country, I was determined to take him along on my annual adventure west. And the following is the evidence of our merry-making, including a tea cupping in Chinatown, from my favorite Malaysian, Kenny.


My friend Derrick, my buddy since our poor-student college days in the hustle of Georgetown, resides in San Francisco and between our own wanderings of the Mission, Chinatown and everywhere in between, he served as our dining guide. Together, we circumnavigated the Marina District about five times looking for a parking lot so that we could make our reservation at A16, where we eventually had a fine meal saturated with the type of fresh seafood hard to find in my neck of the woods -- fresh sardines, fresh calamari, and varieties I could only get from my favorite fishmonger if I promised to buy an entire case. Derrick also was kind enough to share his xia long bao, or Shanghai dumpling secret -- aptly called the Shanghai Dumpling Co. in Millbrae, just south of the city. It was the first meal of our trip; it was also our last since it's so close to San Francisco International Airport. In between, we craved the strands of jia-jia-myung (ground pork and onions in a savory black bean sauce) and trays of the delicate, broth-laced dumplings. The Voracious One, who'd never had these dumplings or these noodles before, was addicted.


A proper trip for me is a few days in the city and a few days in less hectic places, so we took to the road and headed north into Napa and Sonoma. There are many passionate souls in the wine business, but I can tell you there are also many kind, passionate souls as well. We sipped. They talked. We bought. We laughed. We sipped some more. The Voracious One and I sustained ourselves with roadside strawberries and peaches. We splurged on a rather fortifying meal at the bar of Redd, seated next to an orthopedic surgeon who talked with us until his blind date arrived. This is what he does, wait for hot dates at a hopping Yountville restaurant when he's not racing sailboats. Then another splurge in Healdsburg with an epic and endless dinner at Cyrus -- caviar with brioche, wild mushroom and truffle risotto with parmesan foam, roast milk-fed poussin and all with wine pairings of course. We rolled across the town square and into our beds where we sleepily in the dark, we watched DVDs from my laptop I had brought along in case I had the urge "to get some work done."

The words "Glen Ellen" is music to my ears. It stirs something in my soul that strikes me to pause and breathe a bit more slowly and think of greener places. There we spent an evening at Bucklin Winery. Will Bucklin took us around his Old Hill vineyard with its kaleidoscope of varietals, some 100-plus years old and gnarled with time and wisdom. He dry farms the plot, meaning no irrigation, not even the xeriscape-approved drip and his vines are treated to something between organic and biodynamic. The process is according to Will's system of trial and error. He's practical. But also passionate. He does what his soil, his plants and his land loves best. My friend Francis, an incredible store of wine knowledge and love, says Old Hill is one of the most magical places on earth and that when he sips a bottle of Old Hill Zin, eucalyptus trees and rosemary sprouts in whatever place he may be in. The Voracious One and I ambled about and discovered the thick blackberry bramble. Earlier in the day, we had met Will's wife who had just picked gallons of the fruit. Remarkably there was still plenty left for us to eat off the plant like wild bears. Eventually, we got greedy enough to pluck enough for that night's dessert and stashed them at the hem of my shirt until we got to the cottage's kitchen.


There we made a simple, but best meal. Olive-oil roasted baby golden and chioggia beets, sweet as candy; pasta with a barely warmed heirloom tomato sauce, topped with artisan goat cheese bought from Raymond Cheese Co.; a tangy salad of chopped carrots heavy with anise flavor; and plenty of crusty bread to go with our other soft, perfectly ripened cheese.


Meals like this gently remind me why, despite the spectacular settings and endless courses of restaurant-life, the most striking feasts are the gloriously quiet ones created by your own hands and perhaps the hands of a loved one.