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A week in the Bay Area

Saturday, June 04th , 2011

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My last night on this trip to Chicago was spent at Alinea, where Grant Achatz has built up a reputation as the Heston Blumenthal of America, with inventive molecular gastronomy offerings. I had some misgivings about going, since I generally prefer classical food, and Alinea has had such praise heaped upon it that I would not have been surprised if expectations were not met. I was wrong. Alinea produced a simply dazzling meal, creative and complex but with a recurring emphasis on flavour balance; the were often a great many elements in a dish, but each was there for a reason. The detail of the meal is in the (lengthy) review, but suffice it to say that I found this the single best modern meal that I have eaten (well, maybe a tie with Marc Veyrat when he was cooking).

From a wet and cold Chicago I went to a wet and cold Napa Valley, and stayed at Meadowood, a country resort where rooms are self-contained cabins spread across a hillside. The main restaurant here (avoid the simpler Grill here as a dining destination, where I had a risotto that looked and tasted remarkably like wallpaper paste) recently was elevated to three Michelin stars. The food makes heavy use of local ingredients, with many vegetables grown in the local garden, some edible flowers foraged nearby, and a generally light style of contemporary cooking. I enjoyed the meal very much, though for me it was not quite edging into true three star territory (if this were in Paris, I doubt it would get three stars). However, the long series of amuse-bouches in particular showed some real ability in the kitchen, and the menu combinations are modern without, in general, frightening the horses. One dish did not work for me, but mostly the flavour combinations made sense, and the meal was a real pleasure.

While in Napa I also tried Ubuntu, a purely vegetarian restaurant that was thoroughly enjoyable. It is casual with a remarkably cheap wine list, with enthusiastic staff and carefully delivered food using good quality local produce.

From there we moved on to San Francisco. I did not enjoy Coi at all, a rather oppressive meal in an oppressive dining room, where flashy technique seemed to be elevated above pleasure as an objective of the kitchen. I preferred Saison, a restaurant that felt rather too achingly trendy for its own good, but with an emphasis on local ingredients and generally good technique.

A place barely on the foodie press radar is One Market, which actually delivered the best meal I tried in the city on this trip; solid one Michelin star cooking. I also liked Cotagna, the casual sister of Quince, which I could not fit in a visit to on this trip. Cotagna's simple but skillful Italian cooking was thoroughly enjoyable, with a couple of terrific dishes.

It was also a great pleasure to be able to venture down to Silicon Valley to sample the cooking of David Kinch at Manresa. On the way we were able to stop off at the iconic Ridge Montebello vineyard, perched at the top of a winding road with a spectacular view (see picture) over the valley below. Apparently, as well as the resident rattlesnakes, a mountain lion was once spotted on the property, which must have livened up that particular wine tour. If you are in this part of the world then it is worth the trek up the hill (tastings are by prior appointment, incidentally).

Manresa itself produced a superb meal, a long tasting menu with hardly a false step throughout, and showing great attention to detail (if there is better bread in America then I would like to find it). This was a lovely antidote to the disappointing Coi, and a restaurant that I can highly recommend.

I have also added to the site an interview with Francis Brennan, head chef at 3 star L20 in Chicago, and also Danny Grant, head chef of RIA, and David Kinch of Manresa.

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