The Jetsetter

Getaways (get outta dodge)
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Yours truly in one of the barrel-aging rooms at the A.S. Kalavryton cooperative.

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This is what happens on #fetatrip: many feta tastings (this was at To Pantopolio in Thessaloniki). All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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Barrel-aged feta from Kostarelos.

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Transcendent soft feta from Kostarelos (four months old).

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The Kostarelos café and retail shop in Kolonaki, Athens.

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Cutting the curds by hand at A.S. Kalavryton.

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Dry-salting the feta in barrels at A.S. Kalavryton coop.

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Feta in brine in tins at Dodoni.

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Barrel-aged feta at Roussas Dairy (who export Mt. Vikos to the U.S.).

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Roussas had us visit one of their farms, where we got to see this black-eyed breed of sheep from Chios at milking time.

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Dairy School students draining the whey while making feta.

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Talagani cheese being made at the Dairy School in Ioánnina.

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Just one part of the stocked shelves of dairy products from Kourellas at Mia Feta in Thessaloniki.

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Feta-stuffed rolls (served warm) with oregano oil at Mia Feta, one of the best feta bites of the trip.

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At the Marmita Cooking Lab in Thessaloniki.

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In Greece, feta is served simply. Here at our cooking class at Marmita, we enjoyed feta with sumac, florina (a sweet chile), olive oil, and chestnut bread.

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A classic Greek dish of dakos and feta at a charming restaurant, To Spiti tis Marios, with feta from A.S. Kalavryton cooperative.

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A tasting of feta from A.S. Kalavryton cooperative over lunch at To Spiti tis Marios.

When I was invited on a press trip to Greece to learn about PDO feta, trust, I gave huge thanks to Athena, and Demeter, and a shout-out to Zeus himself. It was pretty spot-on as far as media invites go, because if there’s one thing you’ll always find in my fridge, it’s feta. (And kale. And so much hot sauce. Funny how I love the three of those things together. Anyway.) I’ve been buying the feta from Lesvos (yes, Lesbian feta with a capital L!) at Rainbow Grocery for years, and I was bugging the poor cheese department at Bi-Rite Market for ages to add more feta to their case (it happened, but of course I want more). But really, there was so little I knew about feta considering how much I love it. It was time to change that!

Back in 2002, the European Union designated Greek feta with PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status—Greece originally applied for feta to be protected under PDO status in 1994, which was accepted by the European Commission in 1996, but then Denmark, Germany, and France contested and appealed the exclusive decision. There was some back and forth (and a reversal!) until the 2002 ruling. Feta is Greece’s flagship national product, one they’ve been producing since the time of the ancient Greeks (it was even mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey!), so you can see why they wanted to protect it.

In the EU, feta can only come from Greece—sorry, no more Danish feta (made with cow’s milk, no!), or French feta, or Bulgarian feta; they had to rename what they call it (like “brined white cheese”). PDO feta can only be produced on the Greek mainland, and on three islands (Lesvos, Limnos, and Agios Efstratios). It needs to be sourced and produced according to very specific guidelines, which reflect how this product has traditionally been made. Even in Greece, if it’s a feta-style cheese, but doesn’t follow the PDO specifications (and hasn’t been certified by Elgo-Demeter, the national certification agency), it’s not PDO feta—they have to call it “white cheese.”

Feta is primarily made from sheep’s milk, or a mixture of sheep and up to 30 percent goat’s milk. No cow’s milk. Not even a drop. You should look at the ingredients of the feta you’re buying—there’s a Bay Area cheese producer that uses cow’s milk for their feta, and once you taste feta the way it’s supposed to taste, you’ll wonder why would someone use cow’s milk for feta, which also doesn’t have the fat content of sheep’s milk?! (And don’t get me started on pre-crumbled feta.)

The milk is so crucial to what makes this product special. In Greece, the milk comes from traditional breeds of sheep and goats that graze freely, and reflects the unique terroir, from the grasses to the soil to the weather. On our press trip, we visited all kinds of dairies all over the country, from artisan to large-scale, with handmade to highly automated processes, but one thing they had in common is all the milk was acquired from local farmers. It’s just the number of farms and herders they source from that shifts, depending on the size of the manufacturing operation.

Each dairy has their own arrangements for collecting the milk, with refrigerated trucks that collect it daily (sheep can be milked from one to three times daily!); Dodoni dispatches 35 trucks to pick up milk from their farmer partners daily. Some of the places we visited were very mountainous, with windy roads in extremely rural areas, so it’s not exactly a quick collection service.

After the milk arrives at the dairy, it’s tested for many things (they test for fat, protein, and pH, and they spot check to make sure no cow’s milk or water have been added, or any antibiotics), then it’s pasteurized, and then goes through an elaborate process of curdling, cutting the curds, placing them into forms or cloth bags, draining the whey, and dry salting for several days (at the dairies we visited, we always heard they used Greek sea salt). Then the feta is placed into wooden barrels (often beech), or into special metal tins filled with brine, where it’s left to ripen for at least two months, spending up to 15 days in a warmer, humid room, and then it’s moved to a cooler room when the time is right (it depends on the pH/acidity and taste).

Barrel aging is the traditional way, and will lend more complex flavor, depth, and aroma to the cheese, with a twang of sharpness, and the texture can be a touch more crumbly—I found the brine-aged versions were softer and tasted a bit more mild but still bright, and somewhat one-note and linear. It’s worth noting that barrel-aged feta will often be repacked in plastic for export, but there are some importers who get it in barrel (which can hold 50 kilos of feta or more!).

While the overall process is the same, with PDO regulations and guidelines to adhere to (including no additives, thickeners, or preservatives), there are so many nuanced touches that change from dairy to dairy. An obvious one is how much goat’s milk they prefer to use. At Kostarelos (my favorite producer—they were extremely artisan and small production, since 1937!), the amount of goat’s milk they use will fluctuate seasonally—they add it for the trademark “spice” of feta, and for whiteness—but in the summer, the milk from the free-range goats they source from in Southern Evia is very scarce. (And they said in springtime, you can really taste the herbs and chamomile.)

I’ll be writing more about Kostarelos in my upcoming Athens recap, but if you’re in Athens, be sure to visit their café and shop in Kolonaki. Their barrel-aged fetas were transcendent. At their dairy and shop in Markopoulo (just outside of Athens), we tasted feta aged for 4, 12, and 18 months, and also got to try soft feta (I will never forget how revelatory it was to taste a feta with a creamy texture that was like a crescenza or Teleme—they use different aging temperatures and less salt to achieve it, and I wish it was back in my life), as well as semi-hard and hard fetas. I had no idea feta could have such a range of flavor, texture, brightness, tang, and spice, and this was all from one producer! Someone in SF, pllllllease figure out how to import from them—they said they export to Milos and a few other premium restaurants! (You can read more about Kostarelos in this fantastic post on Culinary Backstreets.)

At A.S. Kalavryton, a cooperative we visited in the mountainous Kalavryta, they work with 1,600 farmers in the Peloponnese region, and the percentage of goat’s milk they add changes daily (usually 10 to 18 percent). We were told if there’s more sheep’s milk (which is more expensive, by the way), the cheese is softer. Texture is also determined by the temperature they pasteurize at, and the culture and rennet change the final product too—for their domestic products, they use rennet from goat’s stomach, but for export, they use a different rennet (at Kostarelos, they have their own secret family recipe for their animal-based rennet).

Kalavryton ripens their cheese in barrel for domestic sales (barrel aging is more common in the Peloponnese), while their exported cheese is in tins with brine. (See, you have to go to Greece to taste the special stuff.) During maturation, they taste the cheese every 10-12 days to determine when it’s ready, for a maximum of six months of aging. We got to visit their barrel room—with over 4,000 barrels—containing 62 kilos of feta per barrel. Here’s a fun feta fact: it takes 4.2 kilos (9.25 pounds) of milk to make 1 kilo of feta (2.2 pounds).

We visited the number one seller of feta in Greece, Dodoni (since 1963), which you are probably familiar with stateside—at the time of our visit, they said they export to 51 countries! It was a staggering operation to see, with most of it automated, but it’s still so rooted in tradition through their relationships with small farms—they collect milk daily from over 5,000 farmers in Epirus, with the diverse local plants and herbs in this pristine area adding flavor and elevating the overall quality. Click the link above for a video about the farmers and region on their website (also: cute sheep alert).

At the Roussas Dairy in Almyros, which was founded in 1952, Vice President Vassilis Roussas’s grandparents were herd owners (their forefathers are Sarakatsani, an ethnic Greek population of nomadic shepherds), and the dairy works with over 400 farmers. They prefer to only use a small amount of goat’s milk here, a maximum of five percent, and they were one of the first organic feta-makers in Greece. They also export 95 percent of their production: Mt. Vikos is their export brand to the U.S. and Canada (Mt. Athos is their brand in Australia and Asia). They’re a very innovative company, which you’ll note at their state-of-the-art production facility: their CEO, who was a mechanical engineer, developed a special machine to cut the wedges of barrel-aged feta into consistent, smaller pieces (and look at that, they’re a leader in sales of portioned barrel-aged feta).

We were taught to look for feta that doesn’t crumble when it’s cut (the sheep’s milk is what makes it so creamy), and not too many holes. It should have a tangy aroma, and freshness. Roussas barrel ages for five-six months, while they ripen the feta in brine and tins for three months. We were treated to a special tasting of Vassilis’s private reserve, tasting feta aged in barrel for one year, one-and-a-half years, and three years! (He also brought us to my favorite meal of the trip at The Giousouri, a seaside tavern in Volos that turned me on to the wonders of tsipouro, which is like a Greek grappa, and another PDO product.)

We visited Greece’s sole dairy school, the Dairy School of the University of Ioánnina, which is a free technical school for two years, and they teach 120 students annually about producing butter, yogurt, and cheese, from hard to soft. It ends up if you’re poor, from the mountains, or your family has a dairy, you have greater odds of being accepted to the school. It’s a dedicated way to ensure traditional cheesemaking methods continue. (The founder of Stani Dairy in New Jersey is a graduate.)

When we visited the school, we got to see the students make graviera cheese, and taste fresh talagani cheese, a cheese from the Peloponnese that is cooked in whey, and then sliced open and given a layer of salt and pepper and green peppers (like pepperoncini) inside, and then mint is added to the outside—you can fry it up like halloumi. We need this in California.

An ideal finale of the weeklong trip was our meal at Mia Feta in Thessaloniki, an innovative restaurant and retail shop from Kourellas, a dairy based in the mountains of Grevena that has been family-run since 1960. They were the first organic dairy in Greece (in 1996!), and they export 85 percent of their production to 24 countries—yes, the U.S. is one of them. They have an extensive line of dairy products, which includes a few versions of PDO feta, five other PDO cheeses, innovative snacking cheeses, yogurts, kefirs, milks, and more. I was ready to buy their entire deli case and ship it home.

While in Thessaloniki, we attended a cooking class with the delightful Smaragda Makri at her cooking school, Marmita. She taught us how to make feta, walnut, and date phyllo pastry cigars; spring vegetable risotto with feta; couscous salad with sun-dried tomato and feta; shrimp saganaki, poached in tomato sauce (soooo good, I have to make it again); and kataifi with feta for dessert. Each dish was fantastic—the best souvenirs of a trip are sometimes a dish or two you can recreate at home. I’ll be writing more about Thessaloniki, but I wanted to make sure to mention her charming cooking lab, and she also leads wonderful culinary tours (Eat and Walk). You’ll want to spend as much time as possible with her!

Where to find PDO feta in SF

It’s time to start tasting some different PDO feta brands, maybe track down some barrel-aged versions to compare, and hone in on your favorite. Be sure to look for the yellow-and-red badge on the package to confirm it’s PDO!

Rainbow Grocery
Try the sheep’s milk Lesbian feta (from Lesvos)! It’s from Essex Street Cheese, and is such a special, artisan product. So creamy. (Although I hear it’s been out of stock this summer, but hopefully should return soon.) In the meantime, they have the Mt. Vikos barrel-aged PDO feta, sold as “Greek feta” on their shelves.

Chico’s Market
This friendly Russian Hill and Greek-owned corner grocery carries organic Epiros (a very creamy PDO feta, with both a soft texture and lightly tangy taste), and the well-known Dodoni (also PDO!), and a number of other Greek cheeses (like myzithra, Cypriot halloumi), Greek spirits and wines (and beers: Septem and Fix!), and some cool products, like rosemary lamb salami, mountain tea, honey, and all kinds of Greek pantry items.

The Argentum Project
This awesome Greek café in SoMa also carries Epiros and Dodoni, plus a bunch of Greek products, extraordinary house-baked goods (with feta galore!), sandwiches, an honest-to-goodness frappé, and more! Read my previous article on this gem of a shop here.

Cheese Plus
They carry Kourellas barrel-aged feta and Mt. Vikos barrel-aged feta in brine, and the Lesbian feta from Essex when it’s available. While you’re at Cheese Plus, check out their quality pantry items, like their Greek olive oil and spices.

Bi-Rite Market
They carry the Lesbian feta from Essex Street (when it’s available!), as well as Mt. Vikos barrel-aged feta, and they now carry Kourellas barrel-aged and organic PDO feta as well.

Whole Foods
They carry Kourellas barrel-aged feta and look for Mt. Vikos barrel-aged feta in brine.

Greek Imports
This old-school store in Daly City has barrel-aged PDO feta (Zeria) from the Peloponnese at the deli counter, as well as Dodoni, Epiros, and feta from Divanis. You’ll walk out with more than you planned on getting here, there are all kinds of discoveries to be had.

How to store feta

After you open it up, if your feta didn’t already come in brine, you need to make your own, otherwise the feta will dry out and it can also sour quickly. You don’t want to make your brine too salty (or not salty enough), it will affect the taste of your feta! I follow this advice from the sage Janet Fletcher: “Whether it’s aged in a barrel or a tin, feta matures in a brine that’s 6 to 7 percent salt. The feta itself (minus the brine) is just under 3 percent salt. Store it in a brine that’s somewhere in between. A 5 percent brine would be 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons salt dissolved in 1 quart water.” (That link also has some feta recipes and food highlights from our trip!)

How I like to use feta 

I always have feta around because it’s easily applicable to so many dishes. I usually use feta in my omelets and scrambles, and I love occasionally treating myself to a decadent, open-faced egg tartine with feta: toast a slice of cracked wheat bread, drizzle the slice with a peppery olive oil, top with thin slices of feta, oregano, and a fried egg, which I finish with Aleppo chile, salt, and cracked pepper (shout-out to Roberta Economidis for the original inspiration on this one). It’s the best hangover buster. In the summer, I’m a fan of making a tomato bruschetta for breakfast (with spicy olive oil but no garlic), and topping it with feta and oregano.

When you’re buying the good stuff, it’s brilliant on its own with a drizzle of olive oil and oregano, maybe add some figs, honey, and dates to complete the Mediterranean picture. Of course, you can use it in all kinds of salads (it’s so good with watermelon and mint), and I’m known to sprinkle some over soups for a little acidic tang, or stir it into whatever pasta combination I’ve cooked up at the last minute for a little creamy brightness. (Feta on top of a risotto, do it.)

I’m currently loving this lemony whipped feta dip, which I’ve also been using as a spread in sandwiches, and with these turkey-feta burgers I make every summer. Roasting feta is one of the easiest appetizers, jus’ sayin’. (Check out what Plagios—a modern restaurant in Volos we visited—did with pink peppercorns for more appetizer inspiration.) If you’re wondering what to serve with it, feta pairs well with sauvignon blanc and sparkling wine (yay)—or some retsina, of course. Yamas!

Feel free to write me back with any of your favorite feta recipes, sources, and more! The feta fanatic club always has room for more members.

If you want to see more pictures and notes, I posted a bunch of pics on Instagram in March 2019, starting here.

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A stylin’ babushka at Udelnaya Fair in St. Petersburg. All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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Gagliardis in the house! At our first World Cup match (in Kazan).

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There were about 15 of these fruit and nut stands at the market in Kazan.

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At the market in Kazan. I wanted everything in the jars.

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At the market in Kazan.

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A traditional Tatar house in Kazan.

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Enjoying Spritz o’clock at Kult in Kazan.

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The vintage, homey style of Pyatkin in Nizhny Novgorod.

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Herring and salo at Pyatkin.

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Rissoles and potatoes at Pyatkin.

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Spires at the Kremlin in Moscow.

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Sunduny baths (since 1808) in Moscow.

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A clock tower at the Kremlin in Moscow.

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A view of Red Square from St. Basil’s cathedral.

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Cafe Pushkin in Moscow.

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Khinkali at Khachapuri in Moscow.

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Check out the wood-fired oven to the right (at Severyane in Moscow).

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The bread and butter service at Severyane in Moscow.

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Flatbread with chanterelles (at Severyane in Moscow).

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You have to make sure you have the address to each restaurant, or you may walk right by it. This is Severyane in Moscow.

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The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow (one of Stalin’s “Seven Sisters” skyscrapers).

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The high drama of White Rabbit in Moscow.

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Another spectacular view from White Rabbit in Moscow.

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Swan liver topped with rhubarb marshmallow at White Rabbit.

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Uni with sea buckthorn sorbet at White Rabbit.

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Our server pouring the shchi (cabbage soup) at White Rabbit.

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One of the beguiling desserts at White Rabbit (with flavors of burnt hazelnut, sour cream, and wild strawberries).

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Stunning sunset in Samara.

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My obsession: the pink Stroganov Palace in St. Petersburg.

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A glimmering room in the Hermitage.

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Inside one of the 360 grand rooms of the Hermitage.

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The Catherine Palace at Pushkin (Tsarskoe Selo).

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Looking for me? I’ll be right here, on this silk chaise. (At Peterhof.)

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The famed fountains of Peterhof.

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My favorite pickle plate (at Chachapuri).

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The Azerbaijani dish we had at Mindal Cafe, with quite the epic vegetable spread.

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The No. 2 starter at Bekitzer.

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Sunset in St. Petersburg at 10pm (this is what happens during summertime’s White Nights).

When I told friends I was heading to Russia this summer, the response I kept receiving was “Ugh, why?” or “Um, now?” or “Really, aren’t you worried?” Friends started sending me “how to keep from getting hacked in Russia” articles. With everything happening between our government and Russia, honestly, I wasn’t as excited about the trip, as, say, a trip to Finland, or even Poland. It felt daunting. But when you’re going to Russia for your very first World Cup with your father, and it’s his seventh World Cup (yes, he is a super-tifoso), well, that significantly dials up the excitement factor. This was going to be an adventure of a lifetime.

You know one thing I learned? That no matter how awful someone in power is, along with their horrid practices and policies, it doesn’t have much to do with who a country’s people are and what they are about. (I’m talking about both sides here, to be clear.) I would tell people we were from California, and wait to see what their response was—all we ever heard was “America!” and then usually: “So far away!” I didn’t expect to feel like such a novelty, but we were, especially outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Over our three weeks in Russia, time and time again, we were so utterly touched by the warmth and kindness of so many people we encountered. The Russians charmed the hell out of me.

It’s funny, I learned that the first impression you may have of some Russians is that they are cold, abrasive, or prickly, or that they dislike you (I couldn’t believe the death stare I’d sometimes receive—stone cold). But then, if you were to keep interacting, there could arrive a moment when that first mask would drop and you’d get to see a little more of the person. Maybe a flicker of a smile. (Although it’s always in the eyes.) Ah, I get it.

Some folks, forget it, they were the toughest nuts, so all you could do was laugh—they were not going to give an inch, help you, or be nice. I learned quickly to not take it personally—it’s not you, it’s them. Look, these people have suffered—they have some really rough history, you’ll see it in monuments to loss everywhere, and everyone has been touched by hard times in their recent family history. If someone wanted to cut in line, whatever, let them cut. It’s how they were taught to navigate the world, to be tough, to survive, and many still hang onto that pushy and hard mentality, especially the babushkas. I realized, in California, it’s my own personal luxury to be smiley and positive and upbeat. Lucky me.

The mask drop kept happening time and again: the server who couldn’t be bothered with us in the beginning of our meal, at the end plucks a Gerbera daisy out of a vase as we’re leaving and hands it to me. (It was so disarming, I was a puddle.) Or the Uber driver who communicated with us using Google Translate on the hour-long ride to the Samara airport, asking all kinds of questions and telling us proudly about his children, and at the end of the conversation, says, “I really enjoyed this ride and conversation with you both.” And we got a hug at the end. Russians, why so cute?!

Our American-ness ended up perhaps bringing us closer to people, maybe more than how they could be with their own kind. Women in grocery stores were especially helpful, and it happened three separate times: they’d see me looking quizzically at packages of things that didn’t have a single word in English. (Let me tell you, Cyrillic is TOUGH and exhausting. Brush up on the Greek alphabet before you go, it helps to decipher a lot of those strange words that are everywhere.) “May I help you?” “Da, sbasiba, I was wondering if this is cream cheese?” “Yes, and a very good one.” Well, thank you very much. I mean, when have you last offered unsolicited help to a stranger in a grocery store? It just kept happening.

I have to do a special shout-out to Google Translate—it was unexpected to see so many cab drivers and people at hotels and restaurants take their phone out to have you speak into it. It helped me daily.

But it did more than that. At the huge flea market outside of St. Petersburg (Udelnaya Fair), I was buying a vintage hand-stitched table runner from a woman, and after our bargaining vis-à-vis her calculator, I spoke into Google Translate and said, “Thank you, this will be a lovely memento of my trip to Russia,” just so the vendor knew how much I really loved it. She read the Russian translation on my phone, smiled, squeezed my hand and made a gesture for me to wait—after digging into bags behind her table, she produced a small matryoshka doll that she pressed into my hand. Awww! [melt. again.] Technology is funny that way—while we would have possibly shared a smile without the app, I also would not have had that deep of a quick connection with her. That’s the stuff.

Ah, but technology was also our enemy. Planning the trip was officially a logistics nightmare. We had tickets for World Cup matches all over Russia (Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, Samara, Nizhny Novogord), but let’s just say those lesser-known cities you have probably never heard of didn’t quite have the infrastructure to handle the millions of people looking to buy flights, train tickets, and find lodging (some of the ugliest, saddest, beige-est rooms in the world were on Airbnb for $200 a night).

If you could even book anything: every time we used a credit card online, there would be an issue with processing, usually the Russian company declining the transaction. Excuse me, I’d like to just buy a train ticket, pozhaluysta (pllllllease)? Thank gawd for Facebook Messenger, you won’t believe how many airlines and rail companies I had to contact to get help. Just try calling! Hilarious—they’d hear three words of English and hang up on me. One airline “service” rep actually suggested I find someone with a credit card in Europe to make the transaction for me. In order to verify our credit card, another had us cut out pieces of paper to cover the numbers in the middle of our credit card and then send a picture (“Don’t cover the numbers with an editing tool. It has to be paper.”). Yeah, we were off to the races.

By the time we arrived in Russia, I had not just one but both of my eyebrows raised. Running, no, actually, full-on sprinting to make our final connecting flight, we learned the handy electronic boarding pass the airline sent us was useless, they needed a paper one. Russia, please! [eyebrows no longer raised but knitted into a look of extreme frustration] And let me tell you, the people who run airport security are just a riot. So fun. (But we made the flight, by the skin of our teeth, oy.)

After a 22-hour journey door-to-door (SFO to Paris to St. Petersburg), we finally arrived in our first city: Kazan, a southwestern Russian city (a university town) in the republic of Tatarstan. It was 3am in the morning, and it felt like dawn—well, because it was. Sunrise was at 4am. Wild. Where’s my sleeping mask…and blackout curtains?

The day before the match, there were people flooding the streets of Kazan from all over the world in their bright soccer jerseys, flags over their shoulders, their Fan I.D.s on lanyards tossed cavalierly around their necks. I loved how quickly you could start talking with fellow fans, sit at tables with them, share a beer—we were all on this kooky adventure together.

The city was spotless, with flowers everywhere and things were shipshape. I’d like to know if this was Kazan’s normal level of cleanliness, or if things were extra-tidy for World Cup, but it seemed like it was its natural state.

The Kazan stadium held almost 43,000 of us for the France-Argentina match. You have never seen fans like the Argentines. So many songs—they have an entire songbook. The fans will sing and sing and SING, at their loudest and proudest, and although they lost, I would still hear Argentines singing songs at future matches throughout the entire Cup, even though they were out. It was like their pride wouldn’t let them be quiet. “We’re still here, we’re Argentine, we are the best, we love our team and country the most!” Ohhhhhh Argentinnnnnnnnnaaaaa.

Highlights from Kazan: the charming and colorful Tatar homes from the late 1800s that looked like they were from a fairy tale, the funky food market full of beautiful herbs and greens and pickled vegetables (I wanted to buy an entire table from the babushka who ran it) along with the men from Kazakhstan selling an enormous array of fruits and nuts, with the sweetest dried apricots, and an amazing hustle game. We tried horse salumi (horse was on quite a few menus) at a groovy little wine bar (Bread and Wine, spelled ХЛЕБ И ВИНО, just to give you an idea of how hard it was to visually translate Cyrillic), and at Tatarskaya Usadba Restaurant, we tried traditional meat-filled Tatar pastries from a wood-fired oven (pochmak and peremyach) and chak-chak honey balls for dessert and little super-sweet pyramids of phyllo strings (talkish kaleve).

We were thrilled to find an outdoor bar (Kult) in the old Tatar quarter that served us perfect Aperol Spritzes after a hot day of walking around. The bartenders were totally into modern and bespoke cocktail-making, with a friendly crowd of locals mixing with a few of us travelers who luckily stumbled across this dream little patio scene.

We had to visit Nizhny Novgorod twice for two separate matches (Croatia-Denmark and France-Uruguay) and it was our toughest city to navigate, with rascal cab drivers charging 10x fares when the city streets were blocked off and they had the only means to cross town. We had an entire pack of them skulking around outside our hotel, smoking and waiting for their next tourist rabbit to come out the building. Everyone had to get their buck.

Our hotel, the Marins Park Hotel, fulfilled its duty in giving us an authentic Soviet experience that was laughable in its crappiness and self-declared four stars (proudly built into its external sign, like they were ever four stars, and gonna be four star forever), complete with threadbare carpet from the 60s, lumpy mattresses with springs that would dig into your back, helpful signage, and an enormous statue of Lenin out front that could successfully blot out an entire sunset with its heft.

We also had a brush-up against obnoxious and ridiculous Russian policing as we were entering the stadium—a pink and fat-faced guard decided my dad’s hat with 30 years’ worth of World Cup pins he has collected was dangerous and didn’t want to let him in with it. (Um, you are selling World Cup pins inside the stadium, gimme a break.) Fortunately, my dad was able to talk to piggy face’s superior, and after a second body search in a separate room, they let him through. Don’t mess with Carmen, or his World Cup hat! Nyet!

You can imagine, security was intense. I felt like I should have tipped the security ladies each time I passed through, it was quite a frisk. But if anyone was going to run a heavily secured World Cup, it would be the Russians. (Which is why the Pussy Riot protest on the pitch at the final was such an affront, huzzah!) But kudos to the Russkis for keeping us all safe at such a huge international event, I can’t imagine what was going on behind the scenes.

Nizhny Novgorod ended up unexpectedly providing one of my favorite meals of the three-week trip. A Russian friend in the industry here in SF recommended this restaurant from his hometown, Pyatkin, and it was like stepping into a cozy turn-of-the-century tea parlor, with damask tablecloths with tassel fringe, heavy curtains, woven rugs, and female servers forced to wear dresses with aprons and floral ruffly necks whose cotton-poly blend reminded me of my Swensen’s uniform back when I was scooping ice cream in high school. (We saw a bunch of dress-with-apron uniforms on the trip, it was like a time warp.)

Pyatkin also had an English menu, a godsend, so we didn’t miss out on any of the dishes that caught our eye, from bear sausage to salo (imagine Russian lardo with a little paprika) to incredible pickles and slaws, black bread, and their house herring. It was our first experience with rissoles, an artery-clogging delight of a meatball with a fried crouton-y exterior, a magic combination of meat and crunch, served with potatoes on the side, because more is more. Dill sprinkled madly on everything like Californians with cilantro, I was in heaven. They even had some tasty Russian bubbles. And the sweetest service. We loved dining at grandma’s house!

We took a night train to Moscow, and when we arrived, it was grey, and rain was coming. I had a cold, and would like to do a shout-out to the banya (bathhouse) called Sanduny, which officially knocked the cold out of me. It dates back to 1808, and is quite the Baroque palace. It had staggering heat in the sauna, more than I have ever experienced, with an herbaceous and mentholated note to the steam, and women around me getting the birch beatdown. Russians, so tough.

We had to dodge rainstorms and were lucky with the timing of our visits to St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin, and Red Square. You absolutely must visit the Kremlin Armory Museum—the riches in the museum, from French china to Fabergé eggs to gold placket necklaces embedded with precious gems from Medieval times, wowza, it’s quite a collection (er, not surprising). We got lucky with a scalper who was selling legit tickets outside—if you can, buy your tickets ahead of time, the lines for tickets the day of were Russian bread line long.

We fully enjoyed our Red Square tour with Free Walking Tours Moscow (we also took a tour with them in St. Petersburg)—you get a local (usually a student) who will take you around main monument areas and you pay what you think it’s worth. Both our guides were so educated and passionate for local history, and you’ll meet people from around the world on the tour with you.

Moscow is huge. You will walk and walk. Fortunately, there are massive monuments everywhere to hold your attention, huge monoliths with sickles engraved in marble over the facades, and Stalin’s “Seven Sisters” dotting the cityscape, a Soviet version of skyscrapers that spawned Stalinist Empire as an architectural style. They are jaw-dropping in their scale. And the Moscow metro is such an experience, you feel like you’re taking an escalator to Middle Earth.

We dined at Cafe Pushkin, and it offers a quaint trompe-l’œil experience: you think it has been there for hundreds of years, but it actually opened in 1999. (The building, however, is an older one that dates back to the late 18th century, and it’s a beauty). People love this restaurant, but the faux nostalgia of it reminded me a bit of what Vegas feels like. We enjoyed our smoked fish plate and window seat and Russian classics of pelmeni and more rissoles (heh heh)—overall the food was fine, but not particularly memorable. But I will fondly remember it as the location where I discovered the healing powers of Siberian buckthorn tea with fresh ginger when you have a cold. I’m a convert.

My father and I had lunch at Severyane, and it was such a fascinating spot, with an intense Brutalist look (just look at the wood-fired oven), and innovative dishes (there was this funky primal-meets-sophistication thing to the dishes), and you definitely want to get their breads (and house butter) and anything else coming from the oven. We had plump chanterelles on flatbread, and corn on the cob (Russians love corn, you’ll see it everywhere, even on the street). I wish I could have had a breakfast there as well, the egg dishes baked in the oven sounded so good. Fresh green juice, why thank you.

We had such a fun dinner at Khachapuri, our first Georgian restaurant, and we were hooked immediately. From the fat khinkali dumplings that are like fist-sized xiao long bao, which you pick up by the doughy stem and use like a handle as you bite and slurp the juice out before chomping into the savory lamb filling, to the namesake khachapuri breads with cheese (there were something like 15 different regional kinds), to a beautiful salad loaded with herbs (coriander, parsley, spring onion, beetroot leaves, basil, and tarragon) and plums, with a sauce made from green tkemali, honey, wine vinegar, and hazelnuts. All that, yes please.

And then there are the Georgian pickles (I’m officially obsessed with the tomatoes), and spinach pkhali, tender and lightly cool balls of spinch made with a paste of crushed nuts and spices. We loved the Georgian kick of chile in so many dishes, including the lamb dolmas cooked in tomato sauce…no, this place didn’t end with delicious things to eat. They also win for the most badass translated menu here: it was a binder, packed with so many details. I felt like I was in school with that thing. The restaurant was lively and hip and fricking delicious. Sbasiba!

The culinary pinnacle of our trip was dinner at White Rabbit—we were so fortunate to have a connected Russian friend (not that kind of connected) make the call for us. It’s crucial to watch the Chef’s Table episode on Netflix to fully understand the back story from chef Vladimir Mukhin about Russian cuisine and history that he presents on the plate.

It’s surreal to be dining under a glass dome at the top of a building on the 16th floor, surrounded with such flashy décor, with low-slung dining couches with colorful pillows (for bigger groups), massive floral displays, pillar candles, and a surrounding view of the city that keeps shifting in the evening light. The space wasn’t about luxury per se, nor was it about refinement, it was more playful than that. Theatrical. And the Macallan Whisky Bar downstairs is one of the most over-the-top branded things I have ever seen in a restaurant.

The evolution tasting menu is a must, and while it may seem affordable ($158) by SF standards for the fifteenth best restaurant in the world (as deemed by the Top 50), it’s the wine that’s gonna hurt. The mark-up in Russia is breathtaking. Like the view.

A primary part of the experience is the storytelling that accompanies the dishes and ingredients, thanks to our server, who provided the pinnacle of such thoughtful service, and was ready to do as deep a dive as we wanted. We tasted fantastic and pristine Russian ingredients, from custardy scallops from the Black Sea to wispy plumes of Russian uni brightened with sea buckthorn sorbet (hey, we knew what that was!). While I don’t have a childhood in Russia imprinted on my taste memory, the bright tanginess of the cabbage soup (shchi) will stay with me for a long time. The inventive dessert courses were so savory, with notes of black bread and sour cream and even porcini. And oh, the honey wine!

The dishware ranged from iridescent glazes on pottery to dark brown rustic bowls that were rough to the touch. And then there’s the whimsical smelling game you play at the table with ceramic noses (yes, it sounds kooky), which will yield a small cologne for you to bring home as a memento. (I have my celery cologne on right now, love it.) It was quite the way to spend our last evening in Moscow. (Thanks so much to my father for taking us there.)

On the super casual side, I have to do a small shout-out to the fast-food spot Teremok, where we ended up eating a couple times during our trip when we just needed a quick bite—they specialize in blini, but it was their soups I loved, such a homey chicken noodle and my first otroshka (cold soup with cucumber and yogurt). Plump pelmeni. And they had a lightly alcoholic kvass on tap. This was the kind of fast food I want here in SF, can you imagine?!

Samara (about as far east as Kazan) ended up being the most personal experience we had, and it was all because of our Airbnb host, Svetlana. Her place was in such a bizarre area, it initially looked quite grim with the dirt roads and potholes surrounding her complex. (I was thinking, “Oh man, Airbnb location fail!”) But it ended up being one of our favorite stays. She was so kind, feeding us pelmeni on our exhausted and bleary-eyed arrival, driving us to the tram to ride to the match (England-Sweden), checking on us via text after the match to make sure we were okay and finding our way back…it was like staying with family. I’m so glad we didn’t end up in some faceless hotel; instead, we met such a sweet woman who was so incredibly hospitable (and had great beds in her place, the best of our trip). We ended up taking her out to dinner with us on our last evening after she gave us a tour—I mean, wow. Uber host!

St. Petersburg, I saved the best for last. What a contrast from masculine Moscow: this city was like Paris but with Baroque buildings in soft pink and butter yellow and light cream, covered in adornment and mythologocal figures and cherubs, and wide canals à la Venice. It felt so old, and grand, and I was not quite prepared for how pretty the city was, with some amazing architectural wonders over the years, from the massive domed St. Isaac’s Cathedral (the fourth largest cathedral in the world) to the Singer House that was an Art Nouveau fantasy.

And then there’s the Hermitage. My father gave me a huge book about the Hermitage when I was in high school, and it gave root to a hope that I would eventually get to see it someday in person. Well, it’s no coincidence he had the same dream, it’s why he gave me the book. So to be able to visit this spectacular museum together, one of the top in the world, was a particularly meaningful highlight of the trip.

Thanks to the delightful and highly educated guide we lucked out with (I booked her on Get Your Guide), we had the tour of a lifetime. There are over 360 rooms in the palace, and I recommend you pre-book a guide to help you navigate it efficiently and skip the line, there is so much to see. Catherine the Great started the art collection, and it took off from there. Oh, there’s a room full of Rubens. And hey, there’s a Da Vinci. A room of Dutch masters, yup. An Egyptian mummy. It’s all there. And each room in the palace is so beautiful. It was one of my most memorable experiences with art, one I will never forget.

The heavily touristed palace circuit outside of St. Petersburg can be a bit intense, I’m talking thick with tourists, and lines, but you absolutely have to see the Amber Room at Pushkin (Tsarskoe Selo), one of the most magnificent rooms in the world—and you can’t take a picture of it, flash degrades the amber. You just have to see it.

Peterhof is another stunning palace to visit, with fountains galore and decadent rooms filled with hand-cut crystal chandeliers and so much silk and gold. Man, those tsars really knew how to summer. Opulence! (But for me, learning about the restoration of these palaces after World War II was just as interesting.)

Back in St. Petersburg, an unexpectedly fantastic museum was the Kunstkamera, started by Peter the Great, which everyone knows for its freaks of nature room (oh, the things they have in formaldehyde—cyclops kittens, nooooo), but it was all about the displays of world cultures that were so enchanting and fascinating, from Aleut raincoats made from whale intestine to Mayan artifacts. The Native American collection was so impressive—I never expected to be looking at Ohlone attire and pottery in Russia, but there you have it.

For this English major, to be able to visit Dostoyevsky’s home in St. Petersburg was so special. It’s a funny feeling to walk into a building—his home—and see his office, and kitchen, and the same streets he walked, and to go to the same church one of your first favorite writers went to. It’s heady.

There’s also a fantastic piroshki shop (Pyshki-Pirozhi) almost exactly across from his building, you want to go in there. Green onion and egg was like egg salad (score!), and then there are the hot doughnuts. You want those too.

We were on a Georgian cuisine tear by this point—we ended up going to Chachapuri (Ulitsa Marata, 12) twice since it was just ten minutes from our Airbnb, and it was the home of my favorite pickled vegetable plate. They had tasty khinkali dumplings and great braised meat dishes, with good service as well.

Ah, yes, a note on service: in Russia, it was the best of times, the worst of times. Of course, the finer places have dialed service, and sometimes at mid-level places we’d luck out with the one friendly person who cared about their job, but otherwise don’t expect much. I could tell you tales—a few experiences were so laughably bad it was like we were being pranked, but no! It was mostly from a severe lack of training (and remember that Russia doesn’t quite have the years of consistent restaurant/dining out culture like other countries—they, uh, experienced a little bit of a blip there). Google Translate is your friend, both in reading menus and asking questions. Plan on your meals taking longer than you’d expect—things just proceed much slower, and getting the check (or the wine list back) can be an ordeal.

One night, after the most frustrating experience trying to get a table in a restaurant (sometimes you just have to walk away), we were saved by finding an on-point Neapolitan pizza and big beers at Pizza 22cm. Pizza can fix a lot when you’re cranky.

Our favorite meal in St. Petersburg was at Mindal Cafe—we went to the location on the English Embankment, and sat outside for a remarkable Georgian feast for three hours. I would have eaten there three more times, the food was that good (and the menu was that deep).

We were so lucky to be there for the peak of summer produce, highlighted in a bright tomato salad, and an Azerbaijani dish cooked on a flat pan with quite the epic vegetable spread. This place puts a bib on you when it’s khinkali time (they make them with pork and beef here), and the Ossetian pie we ordered with beet tops and greens inside (and cheese!) was so savory and brilliant. I found out the chef is Marina Naumova, and if anyone wants to talk to her about opening a Georgian restaurant here in SF, I’d appreciate it immensely. She’s a beast of a chef, the food was so soulful and carefully prepared.

If it’s a warm summer evening, I’d recommend you head to Bekitzer for a drink and their No. 2 starter plate, with hummus, eggplant, carrots, fluffy pita, and more. This funky and bohemian spot offers a casual menu of Israeli street food, cocktails, and such a fun evening scene, with huge windows that open onto the busy street. If you go by during the day, their sabich pita sandwich also hit the spot.

Julio Bermejo of Tommy’s was also in town for World Cup, and put in a word for us so we could get into El Copitas Bar, which felt like going into a subterranean speakeasy in New York. The trick is to find it (not easy) and fortunately a woman in the neighborhood led us through the courtyard to the front door.

There’s a huge concrete island in the middle of the bar that they seat you around. It’s so dark, your eyes take a while to adjust to the candle-lit room. Our cocktails were refreshing albeit a bit fruity for my taste. They have a notable dedication to mezcal (they even make Mexican food—I would have tried the posole if I wasn’t so stuffed). Great hospitality—they even have a cheat sheet of their favorite places in St. Pete’s that they gave me after I was inquiring the kind owner where they like to go.

I was happy to see the bar below our Airbnb on Ulitsa Vosstaniya had a fun, mixed crowd. When I spotted a queenie young man in some flashy fashiony regalia holding court out front with a couple friends, I did a clap clap clap in my head. Go ON! As someone who has lived in San Francisco for 24 years, it was a notably different experience to be in a country that felt so closeted (in order to avoid anti-LGBTQIA violence and persecution). St. Petersburg definitely had more hints of gay presence than what I noticed in Moscow, but it was still sparse—I had nominal blips on my gaydar. My heart goes out to everyone in Russia fighting for LGBTQIA and human rights. Keep on fighting.

Another thing that was hard to be around was all the cigarette smoke, dear lord, it was like being back in Italy 20 years ago. Everyone smoked. So many people walking and smoking, a pet peeve, and the smell was in almost every Uber. At least you couldn’t smoke in the stadiums. People, lay off the death sticks!

I have been telling people that even if you’ve never really had a strong desire to travel to Russia, you should at least consider a visit to St. Petersburg (but good luck with the visa!). The city was enchanting, and our visit during the summer was a balmy 82 degrees every day. The White Nights in the summer (endless evenings) and canals give it an unusual light. Any art buff, history buff, literature buff, and even a lover of food owes themselves a visit to this cultured and grand city. It was easy to navigate, and when you’re dog-tired or just need to get somewhere, Uber is shockingly cheap (although the Metro was also handy). It didn’t have the stultifying traffic and masculinity of Moscow—St. Petersburg is Baroque and fabulous and a joy to stroll through.

Sbasiba, for the life-changing and perception-shifting trip, Russia! As for me, next on my list is Georgia!

Resources:
Here’s a handy post with travel tips about St. Petersburg.

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Single Thread’s stunning yet peaceful dining room. Photo: Garrett Rowland.

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Kyle and Katina Connaughton. Photo: Jason Jaacks.

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The opening hassun course. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Smoked sabayon mousse (inside an eggshell from their Ameraucana chickens). Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The breathtaking foie gras mousse course in November. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Black cod, king trumpets, leeks, and brassicas, initially presented in a tagine-style donabe (fukkura-san). Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The AvroKO-designed dining room at Single Thread. Photo: Garrett Rowland.

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Sonoma grains course (with tempura mustard blossoms). Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The wagashi course: includes these little trompe-l’œil eggs and walnuts made with chocolate (with different fillings). Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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A room in the Single Thread inn upstairs. Photo: Garrett Rowland.

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It’s always sangria time on the sunny back patio at Bravas Bar de Tapas. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The can’t-miss day boat scallops en croûte at Valette. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Sonoma Cider has a front patio where you can hang out on warm evenings. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The lengthy bar at Duke’s Spirited Cocktails. Photo: Nat and Cody Gantz.

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Brunch at SHED includes this beauty of a smoked trout dish. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The pool behind Hotel Healdsburg. Photo via HH’s Facebook page.

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The updated and soothing natural modern rooms at the Hotel Healdsburg. Photo via HH’s Facebook page.

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A spacious and comfortable living room in one of the four Two Thirty-Five Luxury Suites. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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One of the bedrooms at Two Thirty-Five Luxury Suites. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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A salad and glass of rosé on the back patio at Diavola in Geyserville is how to do summer like a boss. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

Poor Healdsburg. It’s just so damn charming, with its many quality restaurants and wineries and bars and cute shops, that the out-of-towners keep comin’ (like moths to a flame), and the locals get no peace. Things keep getting nicer, and more expensive, and the laid-back country charm is getting overrun and squeezed out a bit. Fie upon you, city slickers! (And I’m not helping matters by writing this piece.)

Of course, the biggest buzz to hit Healdsburg of late has been the arrival of ~SINGLE THREAD~, most definitely my favorite dining experience of 2016, and my March meal there this year is still bright in my mind. It’s not only destination-worthy, it’s also one of those meals that’s worth saving for, truly. There are a lot of expensive tasting menus with amped-up luxury and hyped omakase going on in the SF dining scene and beyond, but this is a completely different level of luxury, one that is rooted in craft and rarity and nature.

Kyle and Katina Connaughton have created something so personal here (the two of them have been together since they were 15), and it all reflects their deep experience with and love for Japan (including Kyle’s seminal time working at Michel Bras Toya Japon in Hokkaido), and cooking, and nature, and ingredients, and craft. You can see what an extreme labor of love and thought Single Thread is—every square inch—and the more questions you ask, the deeper you go.

The award-winning design by AvroKO is so intentional, from the edges and width of the walnut tables to comfortably accommodate glassware to the brass finishes, the layout, the finely tuned lighting, the custom everything. The space feels simple and soothing yet dense with detail, like the Fibonacci series-inspired pattern on the kitchen doors that close at the end of service (and on the carpet). Those woven screens throughout the dining room? They represent different months, and the patterns are actually inspired by the DNA sequence of plants, like tomatoes (for August). Geek out at nature’s amazing math to your heart’s content.

It’s a very textural experience, you notice how everything feels in your hand, from the cutlery to the napkins to the table, from the nubby texture of ceramic to the lightest wooden spoon. It’s also very peaceful—the volume of the restaurant is quite modulated. (Although one clunker for me has been the music—I was always paying too much attention to it, which didn’t seem right.)

Guests are initially invited to the rooftop to decompress from their drive from San Francisco (which is rarely pleasant) or wherever they’re coming in from, and any dietary restrictions or aversions are discussed over a welcome beverage and bite. Now that our warm weather has arrived and their rooftop garden is growing in, you may not want to leave.

When you walk down to your table, you’ll discover it’s covered with the most exquisite place setting, the hassun course, a landscape of moss and branches with tiers tucked with bowls and plates and cups, each filled with small servings and bites, with some that you eat with your hands. It’s like you just sat down on a mushroom and started an Alice in Wonderland forest meal. Citrus-braised kohlrabi with Meyer lemon gel. Lightly pickled Kusshi oysters with freshly grated wasabi hiding under a layer of Passmore Ranch caviar and the tiniest blossoms. Roasted onion with melted potato topped with Dungeness crab. Carrots (lightly fermented) over a black sesame cream. Salt-braised celery root with a bergamot remoulade. It goes on.

Working closely with whatever Katina and crew are growing in their nearby five-acre sustainable farm, the kitchen has access to the freshest ingredients, which they want to present at the height of their flavor and expression. (Although they also know there is also something so exciting about being served the very first peas of the season on a cold night in March.) The menu is meant to shift not only with the seasons, but also the microshifts within the seasons, week by week, day by day. Each meal is designed to be a celebration of the moment—fleeting as it may be. A stunning foie gras mousse course—a series of nested circles, including an orb of persimmon and hickory nut, in a bed of glistening colorful leaves—was also a nod to the full moon outside.

Some restaurants have a full-time forager, but here, they have two full-time florists dedicated to assembling all the beautiful presentations of leaves, mosses, flowers, and other treasures that will find their way to your table throughout the evening. In a way, I don’t want to talk about it too much—there’s so much delight and wonder that unfolds with each course. (To add to the storytelling, your menu isn’t presented until the end of the meal, so you get to enjoy a surprise each time your servers approach your table.)

The experience definitely has an affinity to Japanese kaiseki—I was calling it Wine Country/NorCal kaiseki—with a purity of flavor, and dedication to the beauty of nature and craft. Japanese ingredients like umeboshi, ponzu, and shiso seamlessly intermingle with the bounty of Northern California. Flavors are never too strong, nor too subdued. They are balanced, with touches of pickled or fermented acidity counteracting any richness. They are not showy, but so gorgeous.

I found one of my meals here to be downright emotional—it really touched me, all this care for the guest. (Kyle and Katina’s hospitality has been inspired by ryokans in Japan, and the desire to to anticipate your every need.) Every detail is so carefully considered: the special water cups made from titanium have a chamber inside to trap the condensation, so they don’t sweat on the table, but also stay cold (or hot). The collection of rare donabe pots that some of your courses will be presented tableside in. The thoughtful expression of nature. The Zalto glassware that feels like it could fly away from your hand. The wine service from wine director Evan Hufford is so select and spot-on (which spans California selections to rare sakes), the tea service, the wondrous desserts from Matthew Siciliano that again make you feel like you became a sprite in the forest as you eat robin’s-egg blue shells made of chocolate with lemon verbena ganache inside. It’s a Midsummer, or Midwinter, or Mid-September’s, Night Dream.

The 11-course meal is $295, which includes service and tax. Wine pairings are additional ($200, or $385 for reserve pairings). You buy advance tickets on Tock, which are available up to two months in advance and are released on the first of each month.

And if you’re flush enough to stay on the premises, there is an inn upstairs with five peaceful and of course well-appointed rooms, with the same painstaking level of care and detail as the restaurant, from the in-room beers to the sound system that let’s you run your own music. (Inn guests also have an advantage in securing dinner reservations.) The property used to be a post office and is leased from the Seghesio family (as is the farm land).

I know not everyone in Healdsburg is thrilled with the arrival of this premium luxury property, complete with Tesla chargers, but what Kyle and Katina have created is not soulless luxury—it’s quite the opposite. It’s extremely rooted, but also rare, and artisan, and that all costs money. So I say only you can decide what you can afford, but if you’re looking for a memorable meal that will make you think, “Wow, they really love Northern California and here’s why,” you should book dinner here. And they just started lunch service on the weekend (but the price is the same), so there’s another option, and you don’t have to worry about the cost of staying overnight in Healdsburg that way. I feel like we are so lucky to have this restaurant nearby, don’t miss it.

One more thing to note: Single Thread is hosting a special event on Sunday August 13th: a screening of Eric Wolfinger’s full-length documentary, Dashi Journey, at SHED, plus a dinner at Single Thread with guest chef Shinobu Namae from Tokyo (L’Effervescence). Tickets.

Okay, so let’s talk about some other reasons to head to Healdsburg this summer:

—The patio at ~BRAVAS BAR DE TAPAS~ is such a fun place to be, with weekend paella in the summer, and the lengthy tapas menu just keeps getting better. You want their cava sangria, salmorejo (a smooth Andalusian-style gazpacho), plates of pan tomate and jamón Ibérico, and the cider-braised chorizo and Cloche Farm shishito peppers, which will all get you into summertime mode (many ingredients come from their farm). Even if you just come by for cocktails or sherry and a couple of tapas, it’s just right.

—The charcuterie and day boat scallops en croûte at ~VALETTE~. The rest of the menu is full of seasonal and elegant dishes that highlight local produce and artisans (the brothers who own and run the restaurant have deep roots in the area and know everyone), plus you’ll get to explore a list full of boutique wines. But again, don’t miss chef Dustin Valette’s abundant housemade salumi platter; the scallops are also a showstopper.

—More salumi: did you know ~IDLEWILD~—known for their Piemontese varietals, like dolcetto and arneis and nebbiolo—have opened a salumi and wine bar just off the plaza? Sì!

—Cool off with some inventive and seasonal ice cream at ~NOBLE FOLK~, like Japanese almond matcha or toasted sesame and maple. And there’s pie. And incredibly nice people who run it who love to feature the bounty of their community.

—Take a break from all the wine drinking at ~SONOMA CIDER~, a father-and-son business that makes organic ciders, with many limited runs and experiments on draft (23 taps!), and don’t miss their apple brandy. There’s also music on Fridays, entertainment, a small but mighty kitchen, a patio, and a fun local scene. Open for lunch, happy hour, and dinner.

—You can also take a break from California wine at ~BERGAMOT ALLEY~, where you’ll find Champagnes, chenin blanc from the Loire, and Sicilian reds, and they make some wicked grilled cheese sandwiches. It’s one of the few places open late (until 1am Tue-Sat), and the kitchen is open until midnight (Tue-Sun). Don’t miss their annual Seven % Solution event, focused on celebrating and perpetuating varietal diversity in California—this year it’s on Saturday July 22nd, tickets here.

—Have a nightcap at ~DUKE’S SPIRITED COCKTAILS~ right on the plaza (in the former John & Zeke’s). You’ll be easily distracted by the impressive selection of spirits, and the drinks are fun, seasonal (garden-fresh!), and well made (the partners are Steven Maduro, Laura Sanfilippo, Tara Heffernon, and Cappy Sorentino from Spoonbar, so they know what’s up). Try their carbonated drinks on tap—I was partial to Ms. Bojangles, made with Four Roses bourbon, house root beer, Fernet Branca, bitters, and phosphate. There are plenty of tables for your group, and the bar is looooong—pull on up.

—Stop by for breakfast or brunch at ~SHED CAFÉ~. Perry Hoffman took over as culinary director and is offering a fantastic breakfast, like a rustic lemon ricotta pancake, and my dream dish of smoked trout and sunchokes with crème fraîche, pickled onions, chervil, preserved lemon, capers, poppy seeds, and toasted bread. Even the polenta and eggs were beautifully presented with fresh greens on top from their farm. They also have courses, classes, guest chefs, and more; keep up with the calendar when you subscribe to SHED’s newsletter.

—If you would rather have someone take you around to multiple places (with no wait!), one option is a food tour with ~SAVOR HEALDSBURG~. They offer a variety of options, from farms to restaurants to tasting rooms and wineries, and will introduce you to the makers, give you some interesting backstories, and of course make sure you taste the best each place has to offer.

—Looking for a different place to have lunch? ~LAMBERT BRIDGE WINERY~ has an ongoing series of guest chef weekend lunches each month, like one coming up July 14th-16th with Mateo of Mateo’s Cocina Latina, paired with small-lot wines in the winery’s private cellar (and hosted by a Lambert Bridge wine educator). Seatings at 11am and 3pm; the chef’s table experience lasts approximately two hours. Each seating open to 10 guests. Tickets are $95 for Lambert Bridge members and $125 for nonmembers. Check the site for upcoming chefs and other special events, like the James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour Dinner on Saturday August 5th. Reserve via email here.

—Enjoy an alfresco dinner with ~SEGHESIO~, which is hosting a chef’s dinner atop Rattlesnake Hill at Seghesio Home Ranch on Saturday July 8th, 5pm-9pm. Tickets: $175

Accommodations can be tough to score in Healdsburg. The ~HOTEL HEALDSBURG~ is always a coveted reservation, with their updated natural modern-meets-shabby chic rooms in soothing colors, spa, and sixty-foot pool in the back (and it’s the site of Dry Creek Kitchen restaurant, which has a new chef).

And then there’s their sister hotel, the eco-chic ~H2HOTEL~, with Spoonbar conveniently downstairs. Both hotels offer some great packages and deals, especially in the off-season, so subscribe to their newsletters for updates.

—If you’re traveling with a group, like a few couples, or in my case, a couple with a baby, look into the spacious suite-style accommodations at ~TWO THIRTY-FIVE LUXURY SUITES~. There are four suites, each with three bedrooms and bathrooms. While the style was a bit suburban for my taste, we enjoyed having a shared living room, dining room, and kitchen so we could hang out together. And the beds were dreamy (the sheets were supersoft), the location off the plaza can’t be beat, there’s easy parking, and their hospitality was homey and warm. It would be perfect for a girls’ getaway, and they also offer some great deals in the winter.

One more thing:
—Now, I know this is in nearby Geyserville, but for me, a summertime meal on the back patio of ~DIAVOLA~ is something I live for. Dino Bugica’s top-notch salumi, fire-kissed pizzas, perfect salads, badass tripe, seasonal dishes like soft-shell crab, and pastas, and…oh, good luck, you’re just going to have to show up hungry.

And there’s also Bugica’s Geyserville Gun Club a few doors up, where you can wait for your table with a *craft cocktail *(for just $10!), and even grab a bite.

Additional resources:
Kudos to ~JORDAN WINERY~ for this excellent online resource they just launched—Wine Country Table—full of tips about local restaurants, bars, wineries, experiences, and more. It’s a wealth of info. (And ask about the new release of the Jordan Cuvée by Champagne AR Lenoble, which you can only purchase from the winery—feel free to bring a bottle back for me, heh.)

I also have some past Healdsburg tips here, scroll down and take a look!

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An ocean view guest room. Photo courtesy of Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay.

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The marble soaking tub. All photos © tablehopper.com except where noted.

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A sunset walk.

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Amuse-bouche with Dungeness crab, avocado, caviar.

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Red abalone with matsutake, eel, arugula oil, sea beans, agretti, fennel, and sea urchin.

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Sturgeon à la coq au vin with lardons and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms.

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S’mores fire pit for dessert.

Looking for an excuse for an overnight getaway to gorgeousness? Maybe the renovated rooms at the ~RITZ-CARLTON HALF MOON BAY~ coupled with the somewhat recent hire of chef Jason Pringle who is now leading the Navio dining room are enough of a one-two punch to coax you to visit.

First, the property. It has always been a beaut, with a stunning view of the coastline and trails that impel you to walk in the morning, afternoon, and at sunset—there are even tide pools to visit. It goes without saying that golfers love this spot, while I prefer a cocktail or glass of bubbles out by the fire pits. Bring on the bagpiper.

The service is always so gracious and warm, you never want for anything. It’s fun to see families enjoy the resort, along with romantic couples, golf buddies, and girl getaways (there’s a fantastic spa on-site). It has something for everyone (well, if you have room on your credit card—keep your eye on their offers).

The renovated rooms are the picture of peaceful, with soft tones of gray and silver, and natural elements throughout. You walk in and just say “ahhhhhh”—the tones and materials are so calming, and the deep soaking tubs tell you it’s okay to forget about the drought (at least right now). Nothing tops Ritz-Carlton bedding, it’s always a dream to sleep in their cloudlike feather beds with 400-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets. It’s worth holding out for a room with a coastal view—the ocean is beyond breathtaking, especially at sunset. Your window becomes the best artwork: a picture of NorCal beauty.

Since chef de cuisine Jason Pringle has taken over the hote’s maritime-feeling ~NAVIO~ restaurant, the food has definitely upped its game a few notches. (The restaurant will also be getting a renovation soon, I was told.) His background includes Epic Roasthouse and Aqua, where he worked for five years with Michael Mina and Laurent Manrique, eventually becoming executive chef. His style is definitely rooted in French technique and elegance, and his love of the seasons and Northern California bounty keep things changing daily—he’s big on foraging as well. The menu is primarily a celebration of seafood, but meat lovers have some choices too.

One evening, my dinner was a combination of dishes off the à la carte menu and the tasting menu ($125, now $135). If you see something on the tasting menu, you can order it à la carte. Our meal started with a stunning amuse-bouche with Dungeness crab, avocado, aioli, and a perfect quenelle of Sterling caviar—a bite built for bubbles.

My friend’s course of fluke crudo with matsutake and pear was far more interesting than my ahi tuna ribbons. While the flavors of mostarda and watermelon radish were complementary, the execution was just too strange (and the plate coated with black sesame overwhelmed—I found the dish was more about drama and show than truly enjoyable flavors and textures).

Things were back on track for me with an elegant dish of local red abalone with matsutake, freshwater eel, arugula oil, sea beans, agretti, fennel, and sea urchin. It had a Japanese simplicity, with an earthy broth, and let the freshness and flavors of the crustaceans really shine.

Hey, you, try not to fill up too much on all the breads from the extensive bread service. (It’s almost impossible to resist—mmmm, warm olive bread.)

Wine pairings are on point, even my curve ball request of only whites and bubbles was greeted with pleasure. (Trust, I can enjoy 2014 Domaine Matrot premier cru Meursault-Blagny alllll night.)

Things dipped again with the pasta course: my spaghetti alla chitarra with Dungeness crab was far too overseasoned and rich, and the pumpkin agnolotto was heavy and a bit pasty with the chestnut—the proportions felt off, like it had too much filling.

But then, an upswing—and to the top shelf! We were there during truffle season, so we got to experience those jewels of the earth with next-level, luxe scrambled duck eggs with shaved white truffle and smoked mascarpone. Ahhhh. Where’s that bread?

My favorite dish was the meaty sturgeon, which got the coq au vin treatment, with black pepper jus, lardons, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and other vegetal additions to the plate, which remind you that you’re in California. Brilliant seafood main course, so savory and clever.

One of the desserts ($14) is a total showstopper: the s’mores fire pit. It looks like a little flaming pyre from the outside, with toasted marshmallow mousse, spiced chocolate granita, and graham cracker cake. Our apple dessert, however, turned into a mess of kataifi and melting apple sorbet. A pretty selection of migniardises ends the meal charmingly—oh, canelés.

If you stay overnight, you can return for breakfast in the morning and enjoy the view (more so than at night). The weekend brunch buffet is famous, a gluttonous affair every Sunday, with everything from dim sum to caviar to oysters and carving stations ($119). If you want to impress out-of-towners or take Mom out for a special meal, this is the spot.

A couple things to note: Navio is closed Mon-Tue. And the valet parking fee is an exorbitant $49 overnight ($15 during the week and $30 on the weekend is what you would pay to park for dinner). You kind of feel like you’re at a little kingdom in the sky while you’re there—it’s one hell of a special property. And nope, keys to the kingdom (or to get your car back) don’t come cheap.

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A truly breathtaking sunset while parked at Seaview Lawn (which is also a fun scene). All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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Rambutans at Maku’u farmers’ market.

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One of the many food vendors at the Maku’u Sunday farmers’ market.

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There’s live music on Wednesday nights at Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar and Farmers’ Market.

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Mongoose! Captured while scavenging at Richardson Beach. You’ll see them all over.

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Halo-halo at Hilo Bay Sugar Shack.

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Only a small section of the many exotic jams available at Mr. Ed’s Bakery.

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My groovy little ohana at my friends’ property in Puna.

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The backyard at my friends’ house in Puna—so much green, everywhere you look.

A couple of dear friends of mine have been traveling extensively to Hawaii over the years and recently bought a home on the Big Island in the Puna District, just south of Hilo, which would be considered the wet side of the island (Kona, on the west side, is the dry side). It’s incredibly tropical, with lush plants, trees, vines, and plenty of rain, which is a good thing, since most homes in the area depend upon the rain catchment for their water supply.

The other big feature you’ll notice immediately is the dramatic lava flow fields all over the island, which makes for some jaw-dropping contrasts in the landscape, from lush to lunar. The current eruption has been going on since 1983, and if you drive through the town of Pahoa, you’ll see the remains of a flow that happened in June 2014. Talk to locals and you’ll learn about the different lava flows over the years and how they have shaped the terrain (and devastated some areas, destroying homes and businesses). Lava: it does whatever the hell it wants.

My Puna getaway was exactly what I needed: an extremely chill scene (I think I actually downshifted into second gear), a beautiful nearby beach, no cell service, a bonanza of tropical fruits, the most perfect balmy weather (I got lucky with minimal rain that week), and a whole lot of nature. The night skies are marvelous—it will make you want to learn more about constellations.

The drive to Pahoa and Hilo was a bit of a haul, so we stuck to mostly cooking at home, which was also a treat for me (but I do list a few places to eat at the end of this piece). When you see the amazing produce at the numerous farmers’ markets, you’ll want to cook so you can enjoy it all.

My favorite was the big Sunday market at Maku’u (6am-1:30pm), which also runs Tue-Thu, where we picked up everything from rambutans to ginger to farmstead feta, and you’ll find some prepared foods too (from Thai to takoyaki). The Kea’au Village Farmers’ Market (16-0550 Old Volcano Rd.) is also handy, running Sun and Tue-Thu 6am-1:30pm, where we scored Thai basil, a huge soursop, and bags of lilikoi (aka passion fruit, which you’ll want to enjoy daily—you cut into one and it will perfume the entire room!).

And then there’s Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar and Farmers’ Market in Kaimū, Kalapana—you absolutely cannot miss their night market on Wednesday nights (5pm-9pm), what a blast. People come from all over to attend. There are a few stands with local produce and a ton of prepared foods (our seared ahi plate from Aloha Lehua was so good), crafts and jewelry, and you can get your chill on with glasses of rootsy awa (kava)—or hit the full bar.

There’s dancing, hula, picnic tables packed with friends and families and kids, and basically it’s like a big-ass block party. Aloha HQ, with probably some of the best people watching I’ve had in a long time (and you’re talking to someone who used to go to the End Up on Sundays in the ’90s, and THAT, my friends, was some people watching). Uncle Robert’s also does a Saturday morning market, but it’s not like the Wednesday night scene.

The local supermarkets were also pretty fun to navigate (like the family-owned KTA) because of all the different local products and ingredients, and be sure to pick up some Bubbie’s mochi! Island Naturals was another good one (it’s in Hilo and Pahoa), and much more on the organic side—it was a bit like Rainbow Grocery. But be prepared to pay—the cost to ship over all these items is no joke (which is why I brought two bottles of Champagne over in my checked bag for New Year’s Eve).

And then there’s the nature! My favorite beach was Kehena—you definitely want some sturdy shoes as you descend the cliffs, but the black sand beach is fantastic. There’s plenty of shade, plenty of hippies, and it’s very clothing optional. The powerful waves are initially a little hairy getting in and out, but once you’re past the break, it’s dreamy blue water to swim in. But when the surf is up, I can see it being a different story. And keep your eyes peeled for whales and dolphins swimming in the distance! Note that Sunday afternoons bring a drum circle, and Mondays are gay day. (Hey girl.)

Snorkeling in the tide pools at Kapoho was mind-blowing. Once you clamber out on the lava rocks (wear some aqua socks!), you can swim in a variety of calm tide pools—some are quite large—with the most beautiful array of sea life (oh my God, the parrot fish!) and coral too! There were so many brilliantly colored fish, and I even got a surprise visit from a moray eel hiding under a rock (which actually scared the bejeezus out of me—as my friend said, “I have never backed away from a fish so fast before!”). The water is both ocean-fed and spring-fed, which creates some interesting layers, and also benefits from some volcanic heating too.

There’s also a warm thermal pool you can soak in at Ahalanui Beach Park—it’s a good spot for the kiddies because the pool is walled in and very calm (it would be nice in the evening under the stars too). The water is a mix of springwater and salt water, and there’s an outdoor shower where you can rinse off.

If you want to take some yoga classes, hit up a weeklong tantric festival, enjoy ecstatic dance, or just come by for a communal meal on their spacious lanai (and a late-night swim in their huge and clothing-optional pool), Kalani is a popular destination and retreat center/eco-resort. You can stay on property too.

I was very lucky to stay with my friends, who know so many people in their neighborhood (Puna Beach Palisades)—it’s a tight community. Being invited to people’s homes for a variety of parties and kikis was really a treat (I felt right at home in the gayberhood). While a bit remote, even if you were just renting a home there for a week, you’d definitely make some pals. Everyone is quite friendly—refreshingly so.

Like many Hawaiian homes, my friends’ place has an ohana (cottage) on property for friends and family, so lucky me, I got to stay in a windowless (but screened!) room behind the main house for nine days. So magic. It was a little damp in my jungle abode, but waking up to the rain and shimmering plants and going to sleep to the sounds of the frogs chirping every night was enchanting. If you’re interested in renting Rob and Christian’s place, take a look here. I loved the height of the main house—you get a nice view, fresh air, and minimal mosquitoes. Oh yeah, and there’s an outdoor shower! Highly recommended under the stars at night.

Across the street was our neighbor Robert Trickey’s house, Pohakunani. It’s pretty famous in the area because, well, it’s a modernist marvel of a space, so airy and spacious, with the stark lava flow in the background. Drama! And there’s a beautiful pool and guesthouse. (And you can rent it!)

After working with Robert Trickey on his dream house, SF architect Craig Steely was hired to build some other homes in the area. Just across the street is Hale ‘Ohai, another modern beauty you can stay in, surrounded with monkeypod trees. The owners, Paul and Mike, have created quite a charming oasis.

Eats/Grinds:

Soon after I landed in Hilo, my pals scooped me up and we headed to Suisan Fish Market (a retail shop) for some poke (say “poh-keh,” or “poh-kee” for a more pidgin pronunciation). They have a variety of ready-to-eat poke in the case, which you can get on brown rice or lettuce, or just pack up and bring home, along with fresh fish too.

We randomly popped into Papa’a Palaoa Bakery and were so happy we did—not only do the kind owners makes some tasty breads, but they also offer a couple of kinds of premade sandwiches (we snagged meatloaf and chicken salad), just $3 each (!) and perfect to pick up before any beach trips or excursions. Don’t pass up the cardamom coffee cake either.

After a day at the beach, hit the Hilo Bay Sugar Shack for halo-halo (shaved ice with evaporated milk, coconut palm, agar agar, and avocado [it’s an island thing], topped with ube/purple yam ice cream), plus other shaved ice and ice cream treats.

If you are planning to visit Akaka Falls, don’t miss a stop at Mr. Ed’s Bakery on the way for a staggering selection of jams and butters made from local and exotic tropical fruits. (I wanted to buy at least 20.)

I’m bummed we weren’t able to dine at Tina’s Garden Gourmet Café in Hilo—I was hoping to try her unique spin on Thai with ingredients from her garden, but the timing didn’t work out (a lot of places closed around the New Year). Sombat’s Thai is more traditional, but reportedly good Thai as well, with some chef garden/ingredient action too.

Some local folks also recommended Hilo Bay Café (which also has a nice view) and Moon and Turtle, both on my list for next time.

If you’re craving some local flavors, I hear Hawaiian Style Café has loco moco and a whole lot more for breakfast and lunch.

I look forward to returning soon—I’ll make my way to the Kona side next time. If you have any Big Island tips, please send ‘em along since I barely scratched the surface! Mahalo!

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A beautiful installation at the ferry terminal. All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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Morning view of Victoria Harbour from the InterContinental Hong Kong.

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Wonton and noodle soup in the Cathay Pacific lounge at SFO.

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Premium economy on Cathay Pacific. Photo courtesy of Cathay Pacific.

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My incredible studio at Upper House.

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My Upper House bathtub and view.

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Waking up in your Upper House room is something really special.

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The nighttime view of Hong Kong from the Kowloon side.

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The gorgeous jade and dim sum at Yan Toh Heen at the InterContinental Hong Kong.

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The dining room (and jade room dividers) at Yan Toh Heen.

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The old school glamour of Man Wah at the Mandarin Oriental.

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Black Iberian pork with chin kiang vinegar and pear at Man Wah.

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Baked abalone puff with diced chicken at Lung King Heen.

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The inside of the chashu pork bun at Tim Ho Wan.

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Inside the tiny kitchen at Tim Ho Wan.

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The famed XLB at Din Tai Fung.

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The fried chicken wing stuffed with bird’s nest at Celebrity Cuisine.

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The chef counter at Bo Innovation.

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Sichuan hollandaise with lobster, Chinese leek dumpling, charred corn, and xiaoshing chile consommé at Bo Innovation.

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Man making “stocking tea” (“nai cha” milk tea) on our Hong Kong Foodie Tour.

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Beef brisket noodles at Kau Kee.

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Fried snake at Shia Wong Hip.

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One of the tastiest drinks on the trip: the Stumptown coffee shochu at Yardbird.

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The entrance to Ho Leek Fook.

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The roast Wagyu short ribs at Ho Lee Fook.

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The unique and artsy style of Bibo.

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The busy bar at Quinary.

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Rooftop bar action.

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My elegant Harbour Room at the Mandarin Oriental.

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This is how to do a hangover breakfast (I felt better just looking at it). At the Mandarin Oriental.

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My room (and view) at the InterContinental Hong Kong.

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Bellhop at the InterContinental.

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The hopper at The Peak!

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Hong Kong Observation Wheel.

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The incense is thick at Man Mo Temple.

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Learning about tea at LockCha.

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Now that’s what I call some signage.

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Business class cabin on Cathay Pacific. Photo courtesy of Cathay Pacific.

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Dim sum and The Big Lebowski in business class on Cathay Pacific. This is living.

I got together for lunch with a publicist friend of mine who represents Cathay Pacific, pretty much a favorite airline of travelers everywhere. We were talking about doing a promotion on tablehopper for their new premium economy class, when she leaned over the table and asked me, “Marcia, have you been to Hong Kong?” My answer, “Not yet,” although it had been on my heart’s desire list for too long, right up there with Tokyo, Bangkok, and Buenos Aires.

After a couple of meetings, I was invited by the Hong Kong Tourism Board to come visit (NO WAY!), and we ended up crafting the ultimate in dream itineraries. I couldn’t believe it, I was finally going to the land of chashu pork buns and roast goose and dan tat (egg custard tarts). (I also stayed on for a few extra days on my own, as I usually do when I go on a press trip somewhere.)

Flying Cathay Pacific will kind of ruin you for most other airlines. They just finished updating their SFO lounge, where you can start your day with noodle and wonton soup, refresh with a shower in the marble stalls if you’re on a long trip, and lounge in cushy chairs while reading Time Out Hong Kong and sipping on an iced coffee, which is what I did.

After priority boarding, the most gracious flight attendants will take good care of you (they could give the world lessons on manners), and I couldn’t believe how much room I had—the new premium economy made the business class of some other airlines look shabby in comparison. They stuffed us with lunch after takeoff, and then dinner too. Why thank you. And now it’s time for a nap (my seat reclined with a leg rest, so civilized).

I thought I understood hospitality, but it wasn’t until I arrived at Hong Kong’s Upper House in the evening, my mouth still agape from the psychedelic sky-high skyscraper light show as my driver took me to Pacific Place (where Upper House is located). Outside, a small group of people were waiting and descended on our car like a scene out of a movie, escorting me up the escalator and whisking my bags into the most chic, sleek, glamorous hotel room, one that felt like a penthouse apartment, with its wraparound views of Victoria Harbour and the dense, tropical hills behind me. I felt like I needed to invite Halston and Calvin Klein over for a cocktail party, it had such a louche, retro luxe but timeless style.

My welcome team checked me in while in my Upper Suite (70, Island View), brought a glass of Champagne to go with the cheese plate they already had in my room, and proceeded to blow my mind further with the most thoughtful amenities, from a leather luggage tag and bag to a dim sum guidebook. Looking out the windows, taking this all in, I remember thinking, “It’s too much. Is this my life? How did I get this lucky?” I don’t have answers. But I do know I was overwhelmed with this unique abundance of generosity, luxury, and kindness.

I was giddy and needed to wind down and try to get some sleep. Time for Champagne in the tub! The enormous bathroom had the most glorious soaking tub, big enough for two, with a staggering view. (I couldn’t bear to descend the shades, so someone may have seen a full moon that night, heh.) I loved all the soft and serene lighting in the studio—it felt like such an oasis of calm.

Waking up in that glorious bed and opening all the automatic shades to that captivating view was quite a way to start the day—truly breathtaking. Again, I felt like I was in a movie. And every time I returned to my room, I found a new handwritten note from the team, asking if I was enjoying my stay (plus a bunch of sweet emails after I left). The level of warmth and personability here felt like a boutique hotel—actually, like a B&B—but pure luxury.

Upper House is quite beautiful—it opened in 2009 and was designed by André Fu and features contemporary art and sculptures throughout. The 117 rooms are perched on the upper floors of the building—from 38 to 49, hence the name—and there’s the swanky Café Gray Bar (go for cocktails in the evening) and Deluxe restaurant on the 49th floor (the Gray is chef Gray Kunz). Start your day there with the Upper East breakfast (it would be a great spot for a biz breakfast), complete with corn and crab congee, turnip cake, fried egg noodles, and a medley of dim sum, like har gow and a steamed chashu pork bun. They noticed how much I enjoyed the sweet and sour chile paste, and before I left, provided me with a recipe and small jar from the chef. #flabbergasted

You can look at my photo album of the entire trip here.

In general, the kindness and manners of people in Hong Kong is notable. I remember taking a picture of the exterior of the Tai Cheong bakery, and people stopped walking so I could take the pic. What? In a city of more than 7 million people, one of the most dense metropolises in the world, that is quite amazing. I also noticed how quiet drivers were. Didn’t hear a single honk out of my many cabdrivers, even in the most harrowing of traffic jams.

I have been on many subways around the world, and the MTR in HK was not only easy to navigate and spotless, but everyone was so polite and conscious of personal space. And I encountered the general kindness of strangers daily, from shared smiles with cooks in steamy kitchens to the grandma helping me pick out yao tiew (Chinese doughnut) for my congee.

There is a lot to take in and I walked a ton (gotta burn off those dumplings)—fortunately the mild weather in January was perfection. I can’t imagine the heat and intense humidity in the summer, I know I would be writing a very different piece!

You have to explore both sides of Hong Kong—Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon side. I’m so glad I stayed on both sides. You can’t miss the evening light show and view of the Hong Kong skyline, which you can only witness from the Kowloon side. You can easily take a cab (when you need to go to the other side, you have to make a rolling gesture with your arm like a snake in order to hail one), grab a boat (definitely do this, it’s scenic and so cheap), and there’s that subway (the MTR—which also has a great airport express line, FYI).

I was fortunate to explore the high end and the day to day in HK, here were some favorite places to eat:

Dim Sum

Yan Toh Heen
The most elegant dim sum I encountered, with a gorgeous dining room to match (which was recently remodeled in 2013), was at the two-Michelin-star Yan Toh Heen at the InterContinental (on the Kowloon side). The place is tricked out in more jade than you’d imagine, from the panels at the entrance all the way to your place setting, with a jade-handled spoon and chopstick rest. (I couldn’t stop staring at everything and pivoting my head around like an owl.)

Chef Lau Yiu Fai’s dim sum was so refined, delicate, and utterly delicious, from a gossamer-thin steamed seafood dumpling in soup with king crab and bamboo pith, to wok-fried minced pigeon prepared tableside, served with caviar and lettuce cups. I went crazy for their XO sauce. Dishes are inventive too—how about crispy pork, duck liver, burrata, and dried shrimp with preserved vegetables dim sum? (And chef has been with the hotel since 1980 and obviously has not lost inspiration.)

Dessert is a showstopper, with basil dragon pearl with ginger ice cream and a tower of fresh fruit tucked into shaved ice. Extraordinary. You can also experience the delicacy bird’s nest on top of their dan tat. Quality wines, and plenty of special dishes you can request ahead of time if you really want to splash out (their Peking duck is a signature).

Man Wah
My other favorite dining room was at Man Wah on the 25th floor at the glam Mandarin Oriental. The room is breathtaking, with an undulating ceiling of black lacquered enamel with gold accents, vintage gold lamps that look like birdcages with tassels hanging underneath, and the kicker, tablecloths and painted sections of the ceiling that were a rosy, Pepto pink. Drama! It’s glorious. I was ready to move in. The room harks back to an older elegance, and the view out the framed windows is truly stunning.

Chef Chi-Kwong Hung’s menu is abundant. It’s a swanky place for lunch, and you can taste classic dim sum like well-executed siu mai, a delicate beef tenderloin puff with black pepper sauce, and crabmeat with green pea, charmingly served in the shape of a pea pod. A restorative soup with sea conch, lily bulb, longan, and lotus seed was unlike anything I’ve had before, and probably one of the sexiest dishes of my life was the stir-fried lobster with silky egg white, scallop mousse, and caviar, with gold leaf on top that picked up the shimmer of the lanterns.

Chinese barbecue, take your pick. But then there’s the black Iberian pork, which was as flavorful as it was pretty (the tang from the chin kiang vinegar and pear kept it from feeling too cloying), and I hope to have their glutinous fried rice with preserved Chinese sausage (lap cheong) again in my life—each grain had such perfect wok fire. Somehow, find room for some traditional Cantonese desserts, like almond cream with sesame dumpling, and red bean cream with lotus seed, tangerine peel, and sesame dumpling.

Lung King Heen
You’ll need a reservation in advance for this high-end spot at the Four Seasons, which has three Michelin stars (executive chef Chan Yan Tak was the first Chinese chef to earn three). You’ll have access to some amazing wines (the somm poured us an impressive Chinese wine!), and the baked abalone puff with diced chicken will blow your mind—ditto the baked chicken “casserole” with black truffle, which was so juicy. The fried puntalette (orzo) with minced beef in XO chile sauce was another fave. While I found the details to be more attended to at Yan Toh Heen (example: some of the dishes here had drops on the side and weren’t wiped down), it was still a memorable lunch.

Tim Ho Wan
You absolutely have to head over to the Kowloon side for dim sum at this extraordinary place in Sham Shui Po. Chef Mak Kwai Pui (such a kind, gracious, talented man) makes the best barbecue pork bun I’ve ever had—trust, you need this benchmark in your life—you will have never experienced such flavor and texture.

Also of note: the cheung fen (rice noodle/vermicelli roll) filled with your choice of meat (including pig’s liver); the steamed egg cake; pan-fried turnip cake; egg roll with shrimp and egg white; steamed dumplings (try the Chiu Chow style); and an extra order of the char siu bao. It’s packed, popular, and casual—with a team running around in lime green polo shirts—but also has a Michelin star; one bite of the made-to-order dumplings and it becomes abundantly clear why. Tim Ho Wan now has locations all over, like Taiwan and Singapore—fingers crossed chef Mak comes to SF at some point. I tried my best to convince him.

Din Tai Fung
I was not going to let the opportunity to have Din Tai Fung’s xiao long bao in my life slip by, oh hell no. There’s a spacious location in the Silvercord shopping mall (Tsim Sha Tsui), and the line moves pretty quickly, don’t feel daunted. While the XLB were quite superlative (oh so many delicate folds in the silky wrapper, like 18!), I was disappointed they weren’t piping hot, so eat them immediately (and the little cloth they are served on so they don’t stick was quite ingenious). The steamed vegetable and pork bun gave me the hit of greens I was craving, and the pan-fried shrimp and pork dumplings came with a crisp layer you tap through like the lid on a good crème brûlée.

Cantonese

Celebrity Cuisine
When I couldn’t get a reservation for The Chairman, this was a recommendation from a local, who told me Celebrity is known for its traditional Cantonese dishes (chef Cheng Kam Fu has earned a couple of Michelin stars since opening in 2010). It’s hidden away above the street in the Lan Kwai Fong Hotel, and the décor felt very ’80s, with purple walls, oddly large chairs that looked like they belonged at a card table in a bonus room in a Palm Springs mansion circa 1982, and just two small dining rooms.

The must-order dish—the expertly fried chicken wing stuffed with bird’s nest—totally got our attention (you can see how it’s made here), followed by a delicate steamed crab claw in egg white and some really tasty sweet and sour pork (I was told to order it, and I’m glad I did!). A few other dishes we tried were good but not memorable. It was a quirky excursion, with some good moments, but not necessarily one I’d return for.

Bo Innovation
I’m so glad that one of my last meals in HK was at the chef counter at Bo Innovation. I have met chef Alvin Leung (aka The Demon Chef) on his many visits to San Francisco, and remember the first time I tried his playful and molecular take on xiao long bao at an event here. I was fortunate to catch him while he was in town (the guy has a busy schedule—he’s opening R&D in Toronto and is a judge on MasterChef Canada).

The tasting menu features a spin on many famous Hong Kong dishes and ingredients, and after a week of eating through the city, I was able to understand many of the references. It was a very satisfying way to wrap up the week!

Leung has created his own style of cuisine, which he calls X-treme Chinese. You’ll see plenty of technique and molecular tricks and a lot of humor too (plus one shocker dish he’s famous for). It’s a totally interactive meal, and I thoroughly enjoyed all the different dishes, bowls, and vessels he has created for each course. There were some fantastic dishes—especially the brilliant Sichuan hollandaise in a lobster dumpling dish with xiaoshing chile consommé—and I ended up learning about so many Chinese ingredients too.

There were some spot-on wine pairings, and the staff was engaging. I got a kick out of the two wealthy tai-tais dining at my left at the counter—we talked about food the whole night. Leave it to the lady with the big rocks on her hand to send me to the most awesome little congee spot (Chung Kee Congee, 275-285 Hennessy Rd.) in Wanchai—way to keep it real, HK.

Hong Kong Foodie Tours
One of my favorite activities on this trip was the food tour I took of Sham Shui Po with Hong Kong Foodie Tours. I learned so much about this fascinating neighborhood and tried new dishes I would have had a hard time discovering on my own, even after years of living in HK. The balance of food, culture, and architecture facts was awesome. I liked the focus on small places and touring a wet market in Kowloon was so cool. Also was happy to be brought to a kitchen shop (Leung Tim Choppers Factory) where I was able to score a couple of cleavers to bring home. I’ll come back to HK and take their other tours for sure.

You can look at my photo album of the entire trip here, and you’ll definitely want to check out the tour pics, starting here.

Kau Kee Noodle (21 Gough St. in Central)
At some point you have to get your heinie over to this noodle institution (90 years and counting) and try their beef brisket noodles. Their beef curry is also amazing. It’s a tiny, popular spot—we had good luck scoring a table by coming by at the end of the night (around 9:30pm).

Mak’s Noodle
There are a few locations, both Central and the Kowloon side, and Mak’s is known for its wonton noodle soup.

Shia Wong Hip (170 Apliu St., Sham Shui Po)
And just in case you want to eat some snake, because, Hong Kong, I thought the fried version I had with black bean and garlic was pretty tasty at this old-school spot.

Tai Cheong Bakery (G/F, Lyndhurst Building, 35 Lyndhurst Terrace)
Is it wrong that I didn’t loooooove the dan tat at this institution? I think all the amazing pasteis I was eating in Lisbon a couple of months earlier ruined me, but I was happy to discover that our dear Golden Gate Bakery really is that good.

Street Food in Wanchai
Walk around at night and eat all the things (including fish balls and cuttlefish in spicy curry sauce).

Hip, Fun, Non-Cantonese Spots

Yardbird
This yakitori-heavy izakaya in Sheung Wan from Matt Abergel and Lindsay Jang is a must-visit for anyone who adores chicken—Abergel does amazing things with the bird, absolutely don’t miss the succulent neck with yuzu kosho and the tsukune/meatball. Other hits on the menu: the KFC (Korean fried cauliflower), corn tempura, and chicken and egg rice.

Check out their house label junmai nigori (the family who makes it has been doing so for 400 years), and the dangerously delicious shochu they infuse with Stumptown coffee and serve shaken—it will get you loaded if you don’t watch it. I speak from experience.

The vibe is fun and lively, with soul pumping on the sound system and an expat crowd putting back cocktails while snacking on pan-seared Korean rice cakes with furikake. The bar is where to be, but the place doesn’t take reservations, so take what you can get. Also groundbreaking here: they don’t charge a service charge like everywhere else, so be sure to tip.

Two other spots from this group: Ronin, a counter-only Japanese restaurant in SOHO (book a reservation), and Sunday’s Grocery, where you can score some sick takeout sandwiches (like a chicken schnitzel or katsu) to fix your Yardbird hangover.

Ho Lee Fook
The name alone should let you know you’re in for some fun, but Taiwan-native chef Jowett Yu has some serious chops (he’s well known in Sydney for Mr. Wong, Ms. G’s, and working at the renowned Tetsuya). The menu here isn’t strictly Cantonese, far from it—you’ll see all kinds of dishes, let’s just call it freestyle Asian. The steak tartare is the spin on tartare I have long been looking for, with mint, Thai basil, fish sauce, bird’s eye chiles, and fried shallots (it reminded me of the sliced raw beef salad at Yummy Yummy). A love child of shrimp toast and okonomiyaki is pure evil, loaded with cabbage, bonito, and Kewpie mayo, ditto the well-made Mom’s “mostly cabbage, a little bit of pork” dumplings.

I hope you’re with a group, because I don’t want you to have to choose between the meaty Kurobuta pork char siu (all juicy and lacquered and sticky) and the roast Wagyu short ribs—so succulent inside with crispy edges, thanks, deep fryer—that you drag through a jalapeño purée, and the accompanying bites of a kicky green onion salad dressed with green shallot kimchi. Whoa. HO LEE FOOK. Cocktails are refreshing, and even though I didn’t grow up on Horlicks, the Breakfast 2.0 dessert is a winner, but the mandarin granita was what I really needed at the end of this tour de force of mad flavor.

Superfun design here (G.O.D. is behind it), with mah-jongg tiles covering the wall in front of the open kitchen, the wall of waving good luck kitties as you descend to the clubby dining room downstairs, with backlit artwork on the wall. It’s part of the Black Sheep Restaurants group, which includes Boqueria, Motorino, La Vache!, Chôm Chôm, Carbone, Le Garcon Saigon, and Burger Circus.

Speaking of Chôm Chôm, it’s a fun spot to come by for a beer and some well-executed Vietnamese street food. Don’t miss their banh mi, only served 4pm-6:30pm.

Bibo
This one-of-a-kind place on Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan is a French restaurant, Blade Runner-esque bar (just wait until the sliding door opens), and contemporary art gallery all in one (we’re talking Jean‑Michel Basquiat, Vhils, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Damien Hirst). Chef Mutaro Balde offers a contemporary French menu—there’s a prix-fixe for lunch and a larger menu for dinner. Excellent wines to choose from—I had never seen the silver chalice they poured my Champagne into before (it’s by Puiforcat—it had little cuts inside to enhance the distribution of the bubbles more, and stayed nice and cold).

The food was pleasant enough, and lunch was extremely reasonable, but personally, I wouldn’t come here to dine unless I lived in HK—as a visitor, I’m looking for more unique and Cantonese experiences. Then again, if you are into art or restaurant design, you really have to see it. At least come by for a drink (FYI, Man Mo Temple is just across the street, another must-see).

Five places on my long list for next time
-The Chairman
-Yat Lok for roast goose and lai fun noodles
-High tea at The Peninsula
-Fook Lam Moon for dim sum
-Mong Kok night market

To Drink

Quinary
I had some of my favorite cocktails at this hipster spot on Hollywood Road, and the crew working there were fun and talented.

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The experience of finding this speakeasy at night, the entrance hidden away in a wet market, was a total adventure. Beautiful space, but the cocktails weren’t very balanced. I’d still go back and order something simple because the space was really that cool. (Search online for clues about the address!)

Rooftop Bars
You have to go to at least one, the vertigo alone is unlike anything else! One spot I went to was WooLooMooLoo—nothing like having a whiskey on an open roof when you’re 31 floors up!

More Fab Hotels I Stayed At

Mandarin Hotel
It was such a special opportunity to stay at this renowned international hotel’s flagship property, The Mandarin, which opened in Hong Kong in 1963. There is an old-world luxury that permeates this Central property, which has 430 rooms and some tremendous views. I stayed in a Harbour Room, with a view of Victoria Harbour and the Hong Kong Observation Wheel.

I definitely felt like I was in Hong Kong, with the rich colors and fabrics in the room, the sexy bathroom, and they even give you a choice of two different bathrobes: purple Asian silky or classic cotton terry. The bed, sheets, and pillows were downright dreamy (plus the best blackout curtains!), and every night you come home to some little surprise, like a lavender spray to help you sleep. You feel quite pampered, and that’s before you experience their spa!

Many details are about guest comfort here, like the delivery pass-through chamber they put things in (such as your morning paper) so they don’t disturb you. I was infinitely charmed to find housekeeping had wrapped up my iPhone charger cord into a perfect little bundle. The property is packed with dining options, from Man Wah (mentioned above) to their famous cake shop M Bar and The Chinnery, a British lounge.

InterContinental Hong Kong
I was happy to spend my last four nights on the Kowloon side, because nothing can beat the views of Victoria Harbour and the Hong Kong skyline from this 503-room hotel, which is located right on the waterfront. I can only imagine what it’s like for Chinese New Year!

My room was comfortable (dug the pink Italian marble in the bathroom), but after the understated elegance of the Mandarin Oriental and Upper House, I thought the room was also a bit too cluttered with paperwork and marketing offers (it definitely feels more corporate). The hotel staff was delightful, from the white-gloved bellhops to the amazingly informative staff at the concierge desk—I scored some excellent Kowloon food tips (there is a lot to see and eat nearby!).

Everywhere you go in the hotel, you’ll see sweeping views (they even had a fêng shui master consult on the hotel design before it opened in 1980). They’re famous for their Presidential Suite, the largest in Hong Kong (7,000 square feet), which costs almost $13,000 a night (whoa)—I got a tour and was blown away with the view, just beyond.

But it was really lunch at Yah Toh Heen (mentioned above) that captivated me the most, what a special experience. There are other dining options, including Spoon by Alain Ducasse and some serious breakfast and lunch buffet action at Harbourside (Hong Kong is big on the Sunday buffets). Be sure to enquire about their “In the Know” classes: you can learn about everything from how to make dim sum to food and market tours to tips about buying pearls and jade. I got a tour of the spa and outdoor swimming pool, which looked pretty marvelous. Again, that view!

A Few Things Not to Miss:

A Symphony of Lights (nightly!)

The Peak
Victoria Peak a great place to start your trip and take in the tremendous views—you’ll ride a tram to the top. Be sure to go for a walk on Lugard Road—it’s very scenic, and a good place to cool off and get some fresh air.

Hong Kong Observation Wheel
A tremendous Ferris wheel, with 42 enclosed gondolas (there’s a VIP one with a crystal floor too). I’d recommend hitting this up at night so you can take in all the lights!

Man Mo Temple
Be sure to visit this extraordinary temple, rich with incense, for worshiping the god of literature and god of warriors.

Wet Markets
Even if you don’t take a food tour, make time to wander the many wet markets—you’ll find some in Wanchai, and there’s a chef’s market on Lyndhurst Terrace near the bottom of the escalator.

Tea at LockCha
Sunday evenings at the LockCha teahouse (in Hong Kong Park) are totally restorative, with beautiful music (every Sunday for the past 14 years!), exquisite tea (more than 100 kinds), and 12-15 kinds of vegetarian dim sum. I was so lucky to have a personal tea session with Mr. Ip Wing-chi, and learned his shop was the first to offer single-day harvested teas. He also showed me the correct way to wash your tea and hold your cup. Read more about this fascinating man (and tea) here. (Next time, after my tea, I will visit Yi Xin, a classic Cantonese restaurant he recommended that is within walking distance.)

Jade Market
I found the experience to be a bit chaotic and stressful (everyone is barking for you to come to their stand, and then you have to haggle haggle haggle), but my publicist pal at the InterContinental recommends stall #148—her friend Alice runs it, and reportedly has nice things.

Elegant Tang (Li Yuen Street East)
This was the best place to pick up inexpensive gifts for everyone, from silky shoe bags to coin purses. Thanks again to Carole at InterContinental for this awesome tip! (You can wander down Li Yuen West for more shopping…)

I ended up bringing home many different kinds of XO sauce (from Mandarin Oriental, Upper House, Yan Toh Heen, and, of course, The Peninsula, where it was invented)—these would make awesome gifts as well!

Think about getting a foot massage on arrival and before heading home—you’ll see crazy cheap massage places all over the place (especially on Nathan Road).

Flying home on business class on Cathay Pacific was definitely the pièce de résistance—not only do they have some of the best airport lounges, but the dim sum breakfast I had on my flight was tops. Such notable quality of food, again.

You can sleep comfortably, fully flat, with a comforter and plenty of room for side sleepers. And let me tell you, watching The Big Lebowski while drinking a White Russian before bedtime is the way to do it. I woke up for arrival in SFO feeling fantastic, and like one lucky lady.

I’d like to give a particular thank-you to Rainbow Wong (her real, fabulous name!), my delightful tour guide assigned by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, who made my trip so extra special—what a lovely person to explore Hong Kong with! She taught me so much about the culture, the people, and of course the food. M’goi!!

And tremendous thanks and gratitude to Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Tourism Board for this trip of a lifetime. I will remember it always, and I hope it inspires many of you, dear readers, to discover Hong Kong!

You can look at my photo album of the entire trip here.

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The spa at Indian Springs. Photo courtesy of Indian Springs.

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Entrance to the historic pool. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The huge main pool with thermal waters. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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An overhead shot of the massive pool. Photo courtesy of Indian Springs.

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The lounge and bar at Sam’s Social Club. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The dining room at Sam’s Social Club. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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The patio at Sam’s Social Club. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Halibut ceviche at Sam’s. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Eggs in a hole for brunch at Sam’s. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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One of the view rooms. Photo courtesy of Indian Springs.

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Island vibes in the bathroom. Photo courtesy of Indian Springs.

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The view from our geyser view room. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

Have you ever been somewhere for the first time, and you got so mad at yourself for not having gone there sooner? Experiencing my first mud bath at ~INDIAN SPRINGS~ in Calistoga was like that. As soon as I pulled up to the spa—with its charming Mission Revival historic building, palm trees, and punchy orange table umbrellas—I felt like I was visiting a resort in Palm Springs that had been magically dropped down into Calistoga.

Talking to some of my long-term San Francisco friends, they remember when it was Pacheteau Baths, up until 1988, when Pat and John Merchant bought the property and renamed it Indian Springs. But the history of this land stretches back 8,000 years, when the Wapoo Indians settled here, creating sweat lodges and enjoying the mineral waters.

It’s pretty remarkable: the Indian Springs property has four geysers, and all the volcanic ash they use for the mud baths is from the property as well. Back when Sam Brannan owned all of upper Napa Valley, he envisioned the area as a resort. He built the original spa, mud baths, pool, and a racetrack—in 1861! Leland Stanford bought the property in 1880, and then the Pacheteaus took it over in 1905.

This place has deep roots—and total juju. And here’s the thing: after you steam in that intense ash-mud bath, you get to soak in warm thermal mineral water in a clawfoot tub that dates back to who knows when, and even the little wood shelf that holds your water and rests over the width of the tub looked older than me two times over, with its wooden nail and handcrafted edges.

It’s worth noting that there are a few moments when you’ll be totally nekkid and exposed to others (like your mud bath attendant), so if you’re modest, you can request a disposable swimsuit. (Don’t worry, the men and ladies are in separate areas in the spa.) When you’re soaking in your tub, there will be a few other people in the room as well, and someone else may be with you in the sauna. I dug the NorCal naturalism of it, and everyone seemed pretty chill about it, but if you’re modest, you can make a few adjustments. (Hopper says relax. And yes, that is a Frankie reference.)

After a good steam in the wet sauna (also powered with mineral water), you’ll be brought to an area that I called the human corral—there are open-ceilinged rooms with wood-slat walls lined up next to each other, each with a bed where you’ll be wrapped up in a cotton sheet and left to rest and daydream for a bit while your body returns to its natural temperature. (I just wish they would make that area a strict no-talking zone—some chatty spa guests walking by made a lot of racket.) And then it’s time to go to the massage you hopefully booked for yourself, or you can go hang out in a lounge chair by the tranquil Buddha Pond, or head over to the Olympic-sized pool filled with mineral water.

The main pool is magnificent. It was built in 1913 and is one of the largest pools in California. When you consider it’s filled with thermal mineral water, it’s incredibly impressive. The water is blissfully warm (anywhere from 92-102 degrees) and feels so silky on your skin. And healing. You’ll hear the water trumpeting out of the earth nearby (at 230 degrees!), and it then cools off in a series of reservoirs before it makes its way into the pools. It feels so…alive. Because it is.

A few things to note: the pool used to be open to the public, but the resort has now made it available only to hotel and spa guests (so if you can’t stay at the resort, you can book a spa treatment and the pool is complimentary Mon-Fri and $30 on weekends and holidays). Hotel guests have an extra advantage: you can use the pool up until midnight, while spa guests can only access it until 7pm. Let me tell you, floating in that hundred-year-old pool under the stars is downright special. (And then you get to towel off your tired bones and toddle off to bed.) Oh, and for a little more peace and quiet, there’s an adjacent adult pool as well.

A big move for the property was building their on-site restaurant, Sam’s Social Club (named in honor of Sam Brannan), which opened early in 2015. They brought on chef Kory Stewart, previously at Americano, who is doing a bang-up job with the menu. After eating some of his bright and vibrant dishes, I said to my dining partner, “This is a happy chef. These are happy dishes.” You can taste it. Of course, being there at the end of summer, tasting perfectly ripened watermelon dusted with ghost chile salt and Brentwood corn soup topped with “salumi salsa” (it’s as good as it sounds) on the spacious back patio under the oak trees will put anyone into a chipper state of mind.

The menu is full of snacks ($7), ten in all (like fried green tomatoes with bacon rémoulade, yes please), matched with an equal number of starters. Don’t miss the market ceviche ($17) with sweet potato chips—it was one of the best ones I have had. The line-caught halibut was so fresh, and you could really taste the delicate fish—instead of overdoing it like almost every ceviche you’ve ever had, Stewart cured it just so with lime.

We saw a lot of tables with the cheeseburger on it, and his rotisserie chicken looked good, too, but we went for the housemade casareccia pasta with guanciale and tomato ($24), sporting a warm heat from the Calabrese chile. Kudos on the well-made pasta and great sauce, but the guanciale was cut into some odd shapes, some almost the size of lardons—I would have liked them much smaller. Meanwhile, the grilled octopus ($15) had the opposite fate—it was cut into such small pieces you could barely discern it was octopus. These are small quibbles on an otherwise really delicious meal. Everything is served at the height of its season, and you can see Stewart is sourcing his ingredients like he’s still right across from the Ferry Building.

You probably have been smelling something warm and maple-y throughout the evening, and that would be the candy cap churros ($9) being brought to tables. Stewart was known for his candy cap desserts at Americano, and I was happy to have another taste here—the churros were so donut-y and cakey, don’t miss ‘em (you can also have them at breakfast!). The butterscotch and coconut bread pudding ($9) was another winner.

Brunch the next day was quality—Stewart is a fan of mushrooms (he’s a big forager), so the omelet ($14) with corn, mushrooms, chives, and Piave cheese (hold the truffle oil for me, thanks!) was the way to go. But then there’s the eggs in a hole ($13), with the creamy eggs tucked into Parmesan-crusted housemade brioche, topped with a mushroom fondue, and some really good home fries, with the richness cut with arugula on the side. You can steam it off later. Heh.

The bar and lounge have such a welcoming and handsome style, with a whimsical/folksy mural behind the bar, plus good lighting and comfortable seating—it’s going to be really cozy in the winter (complete with a fireplace). The space transitions well from the evening to being an airy and light-filled room during the day. The style fits in with the Calistoga surroundings and rest of the property—it has some subtle Western touches that hark back to its history.

If you’re staying on property, you get to ride their resort-branded Public bikes around, which makes you feel like a little kid again. You don’t have to worry about getting home a little tipsy after dinner (both the cocktail list and all-local wines by the glass are extensive, plus there’s a house-brewed IPA too)—just ride a little slower (it’s especially fun at night when you’re riding to the pools in your robe).

There are a variety of rooms you can choose from, whether it’s the original cottages, the bungalows, the lodge (renovated in 2005), or the the brand-new view rooms. We stayed in a new geyser view room, and I’d recommend requesting one on the top floor so you don’t hear people above you (but the ground floor was still very tranquil, don’t get me wrong). You have a view of the Geyser Pond, and either a terrace or balcony where you can chill.

The rooms have a cheerful and eclectic style, from the cornflower blue headboards to the Turkish blankets, while the tropical vibe of the bathroom made me feel like I was in a cottage on Barbados. The beds are really comfortable and come with soft linens—you’ll want to request a late checkout.

The good news is, even though the property feels like a dream summery getaway, it’s also going to be a perfect place to visit in the winter—that mud bath and a nighttime soak in the main pool have my name on them.

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The regal and grand look of Lisbon. All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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One of the many retro trams you’ll see.

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If you find the A Ginjinha stand, you have to stop for a shot.

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One of the extraordinary street pieces by Vhils.

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The exterior of the beloved Solar Dos Presuntos.

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Almejas à Bulhão Pato (clams in white wine) at Solar Dos Presuntos.

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This is what happiness looks like at Cervejaria Ramiro.

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Take your pick of the beautiful seafood at Cervejaria do Bairro.

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A homey dinner at A Baiúca.

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The hopper getting her Azeitão on (and bubbles, natch) at the Time Out Mercado da Ribeira.

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Taberna da Rua das Flores—winning at atmosphere.

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The massive Jerónimos Monastery.

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The famous pastéis de Belém.

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The first room (of five!) at the Pavilhão Chinês, one of the coolest bars I have ever been to.

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The bewitching gardens at Palácio e Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra.

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See if you can find these subterranean stairs at the Palácio e Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra.

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The utterly charming Luvaria Ulisses, ditto the owner, who is holding the green leather gloves I want to go back for.

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Dusk at the Praça do Comércio.

I was invited to attend a five-day Portuguese wine tasting and education trip that was going to begin in Lisbon, and you can bet I was sure to fly myself out early. Lisboa, I really had no idea how cool you were going to be, and it’s partly due to the fact there aren’t that many people in my life who have traveled there. And you know what? That’s a big mistake, because this city is a full-on gem. Paris, Rome, Istanbul, Barcelona, they all get lots of love, but Lisbon is kind of like the quieter guy in high school who goes away to college for a year and returns home the next summer and is suddenly smokin’ hot—the charms were there all along, but it took you awhile to really notice them.

The city has a bunch of interesting parallels with San Francisco: it’s really hilly, full of cheerful yellow trolleys traversing the city like bumblebees, and with fresh air and beautiful light thanks to its proximity to water. The compact size feels comparable. There’s the 25 de Abril Bridge which, like the Golden Gate Bridge, is a suspension bridge and is funnily enough painted a color very similar to our bridge’s International Orange. Every time you see it, it feels like you’re back in SF for a split second. And then there’s the shared tragic history of getting wiped out by a major earthquake—the majority of Lisbon had to be rebuilt after its 1755 earthquake (there was also a fire, and fortunately we didn’t have a tsunami like they did).

Where Lisbon really has us beat is how old it is—we’re talking roots in pre-Roman times—and then subsequent layers of civilization on top of it. The architecture here is so rich, and everywhere you look, there is such beauty, from all the vintage Deco lettering to buildings covered in alentejos (the classic blue tiles) to the pavimentos (slippery cobbled streets, with larger designs in city squares, just like you see in Rio). So much old-world craftsmanship, everywhere.

It’s a city built for wandering, full of winding streets and stairs and vistas, and you’ll suddenly happen upon a group of people gathered around the little A Ginjinha stand, a famous place known for its liqueur made with sour cherry, or a bakery that’s over 100 years old. I dug the grittiness, the incredible graffiti and street art (including some really cool neon pieces and mind-blowing pieces by Vhils), and how easy it was to get around. Although when it’s absolutely dumping down rain, you’re going to want to find a café to hang out in—I couldn’t believe how much water filled the streets during an evening downpour.

The city is also shockingly affordable: I rented a top-floor apartment in the charming Chiado neighborhood for $110 a night, with a breathtaking view of Castelo São Jorge (thanks, Airbnb!), and taking a cab around was crazy cheap (this is what happens when you leave San Francisco—you suddenly see how much you’re overpaying for everything). When I had my first meal and got my bill, I almost laughed at how little my glass of wine cost—I’m talking 3 euros. The Portuguese definitely know how to encourage you to drink a lot of their national product. And I did.

And let’s talk about the food. If you love seafood, this is your place. I had some of the best seafood of my life, and there’s nothing like wonderful hospitality to make food taste even better. Dining solo can be awkward in some cities, but I was treated quite kindly and warmly almost everywhere I went. It helps to have some basic Portuguese down, do your best.

Some favorites (and be sure to check out my photo album on Flickr:

Solar Dos Presuntos
This place is absolutely steeped in history, in regulars, in famous people—it’s like an Elaine’s of Lisbon (since 1974), with the walls of the two-level space covered in caricatures of politicians, stars, and athletes. I had plenty to look at in between making eyes at course after course of deliciousness. They serve thinly sliced Joselito presunto on a piece of lightly warmed slate, so the fat starts to melt. You will die. The huge fish tank when you walk in is also a clue to what you want—it’s all about seafood and classics here. I had the juiciest clams (almejas à Bulhão Pato) in a garlicky white wine broth, and perfect arroz with juicy prawns and lobster. My server made some great pairing suggestions, and dessert is death by the toucinilho (i.e., flan extreme) and a glass of moscatel roxo.

Cervejaria Ramiro
Yes, Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain have blown the lid off this classic seafood spot that has been open since the 1950s, but it’s damn special. I wandered in there in the midafternoon, and very luckily only had to wait 20 minutes for a seat at a table. I was sandwiched in with couples, families, lots of locals, and some happy tourists, the paper tablecloths quickly covered in crumbs from the buttery bread in front of every guest.

Luckily I could order smaller portions of seafood (by the kg) and proceeded to have my dream lady feast of percebes (finally got to try these dinosaur paw-looking barnacles, and the host was kind enough to show me the best technique for eating them), stunning deepwater shrimp (gambas do Algarve) in rock salt, and sweet langoustines. (Even with my bottle of vinho verde, my entire check came to €46, amazing.) As you can gather by the name, most people are drinking beers, which will go well with your “prego” at the end: a garlicky steak sandwich that is traditional to eat at the end of your meal. I know, what? I was too full to even attempt it. This place was full of soul—so many locals and regulars, and they treat everyone like family. Warm fuzzies.

Cervejaria do Bairro
For a more modern and sleek take on a cervejaria, check out this newer spot in the Bairro Alto neighborhood. There was an array of fresh seafood, like razor clams, clams in white wine, Algarve prawns, and percebes—all elegantly displayed on ice—plus plenty of small plates like croquettes and gorgeously sliced pata negra de Bellota to round out your meal. There’s a bar as well (good for solo diners), but this place is great with a group.

Cantinho do Avillez
During the wine portion of my trip, we were hosted for dinner at this restaurant in Chiado, a relaxed bistro from chef José Avillez (of two Michelin starred Belcanto fame). We started with some mighty tasty appetizers (fried green beans, baked “Nisa” cheese with honey), although for some reason they chose to serve us their prego (steak sandwich) for our main course, so I can’t comment on the larger dishes, but the menu looked really appealing (and affordable). It’s one I’ll come back to, as well as his newly launched Mini Bar, serving serious snacks and canapés.

A Baiúca (Rua da Barroca No. 86)
My first night, I wandered to a nearby spot a friend recommended (Tagide), but sadly they were closed for a private function. But the host steered me to this homey and no-frills place in the Bairro Alto neighborhood, with the walls covered in art and years of memories (a mother and daughter have run the place for 40 years). The guy from Tagide had even called ahead to give them a heads up that I was arriving (which was revealed to me later). Adorable. My swishy server Isidro melted me with his sassy charm while I got my Lisbon home cooking groove on with bacalhau roasted with cream, potatoes, and onions. (There are a bunch of bars and fado spots nearby that you can visit when you’re done with dinner.)

Time Out Mercado da Ribeira
Oh dear lord, this place was a glutton’s dream food court. Time Out magazine helped to reinvigorate this old food market in 2014, which now features 35 kiosks with everything from Portuguese cheeses (try the buttery Azeitão and Ilha) to cured presuntos (hams) and charcuterie, croquettes, Santini ice cream, chocolates, and classic dishes. Some top restaurateurs have stands selling affordable dishes, like Alexandre Silva and Vítor Claro. One stand even serves the famous francesinha/”frenchie”—which isn’t from Lisbon, it’s from Porto—but I was so happy to be able to try the insane hangover-curing sandwich stuffed with sliced and roasted meats covered in melted cheese and a tomato and beer sauce, what the hell!

You’ll find beers, wine, and be sure to swing by the Garrafeira Nacional wine shop if you want a bottle of Madeira from your birth year. A great souvenir are the tins of sardines, mackerel, and more in colorful packaging from Conserveira de Lisboa. The mercado has a modern look to it, with plenty of communal seating—but note that it gets really busy on the weekend. Come hungry and with friends so you can share and eat your faces off.

Sea Me
This casual place was recommended to me by a tablehopper reader, a modern-sushi/fusiony seafood spot, which came in handy while I was waiting for a table at Taberna da Rua das Flores around the corner (in Chiado). The menu has sushi and sashimi, which is not what I came to Lisbon to try, but I really enjoyed their smoked sardine nigiri while I was at the bar, and the cuttlefish tempura with squid ink.

Taberna da Rua das Flores
This cozy little tavern is full of vintage flair, with tiny tables and rickety stools and old tiled floors, with an eclectic menu that they will bring over to your table on a blackboard. The cooking from chef André Magalhães was soulful and playful (you’ll find some international ingredients and references), and even though I really wished I was on a date in that atmospheric and candlelit room, I kind of had the best date with myself possible. The rotating menu features dishes like a tiradito of corvina, veal ribs, and other flavor-packed small plates. No reservations, so expect a wait, but fortunately you can drink some wine on the street until your table is ready.

One funny thing about the restaurants here: some of them will put out a bunch of little plates, ranging from olives to cheese to bread and butter to ham, which you will pay for as part of a cover/couvert fee, ranging from a couple of euros to a cuttlefish salad that was placed before me for €6. You can politely decline the ones you don’t want and they’ll whisk the dishes away, no problem.

At some point you should pay a visit to the Jerónimos Monastery, an enormous structure in a Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline style in the parish of Belém, which has the tomb of Vasco da Gama. While you’re there, you can thank the monks for creating pastel de Belém (pastel de nata), that utterly exquisite egg custard tart that has made its way around the world (the wonders of colonialism). It ends up the monks and nuns were using a lot of egg whites to starch their clothes and needed to figure out a use for the leftover egg yolks. Presto: the pastel de nata.

Once you’re done checking out the monastery, like everyone and their mother, you have to walk over to the famous Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, which has been making pastéis de nata since 1837. While I was in Lisbon, I was admittedly trying pastéis de nata every day (yes, the plural form), but not one came close to the construction and flavor of these flaky and custardy beauties from the mother ship. Don’t worry about the line (well, unless you want to get them boxed to go). Just go hover for a table, eat a couple of these still-warm beauties with your coffee (be sure to sprinkle them with cinnamon), and go to heaven. (Check out this fascinating article for more about this treasured item, which they reportedly sell 50,000 of on Sundays.)

It was a bummer it was just too cold and rainy for some of the city’s awesome rooftop bars I heard about, this is what happens when you travel in November, but I can imagine places like Park are so fab on a summer night.

On the last night of our wine trip, we literally stumbled into one of the most amazing bars of my life, Pavilhão Chinês (Rua Dom Pedro, V 89). I have never seen anything like it, and it will be the first place I return to so I can make sure it was real. What started as a grocery store at the turn of the century was transformed into an antique shop, and soon thereafter the owner turned it into a bar. You’ll encounter a warren of rooms, each one filled with treasures in floor-to-ceiling vintage shelves and cabinets. There are little tables where you can sit, served by waiters in brightly colored vests, and then there’s the pool room in the back. You won’t even believe the room overflowing with old soldier memorabilia and war toys. There are details in every corner and square inch—even the ceiling is something to behold. One of the most magical places ever, and I’m so glad it was the last place on my trip, what a send-off.

One of the best things I did on this trip was hire a guide, and fortunately I had a recommendation from a friend to hire Pedro Ferreira of We Are Lisbon Tours, who took me around for a couple of days. I was able to cover so much more ground, and with his background in art history, I learned a bunch about all the beautiful buildings and artwork and history of the city, and Pedro also took me to see some really amazing street art.

Bonus: he was as happy to go to the flea market as I was, and like a good Portuguese, was obsessed with good food, so he took me to some cool local spots for coffee, pregos, pastries, and more. He was also able to give me some real talk about the economy, the difficulties in the local job market (and why so many young people move away), and we had a blast talking about music and nightlife. My two days with him made my trip—it was like hanging out with a friend.

Even if you don’t hire Pedro to take you around Lisbon, you really should consider hiring him for a day trip to Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is about 20 miles outside Lisbon. You simply have to visit this dreamy and almost unbelievable place, full of palaces from the 20th century and earlier. My favorites were the Pena National Palace (a summer residence of the monarchs of Portugal during the 18th and 19th centuries) and the utterly mystical Palácio e Quinta da Regaleira, which the Freemasons used in the 20th century (this place is such a head trip, and do not miss the underground staircase!).

While you’re in Sintra, be sure to visit the Piriquita Café, famous for their travesseiro pastry (its name means “pillow,” which gives you a clue to its shape), with almond pastry cream inside. You can also try their queijadas, which are much less sweet (and easy to take to go).

Back in Lisbon, if you love tiles and find yourself getting more and more obsessed with the azulejos around town (it happened to me), pay a visit to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum).

Don’t miss the opportunity to be fitted for the most fantastic handmade leather gloves at Luvaria Ulisses, a total jewel box. The entire visit is such an experience. Since 1925.

It was pure luck that I was walking around the Praça do Comércio at dusk on a rare sunny moment when there was a break in the storm. The magic hour light was incredible, it actually brought tears to my eyes. It wasn’t until later on that I learned Lisbon is referred to as “the luminous city” and “the white city.” Indeed.

Be sure to check out my photo album on Flickr—the beauty of Lisbon will blow your mind.

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The entrance to the historic Colonial House. All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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The busy counter at Bestia.

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Veal tartare crostino at Bestia.

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Housemade ‘nduja pizza at Bestia.

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Rustic Canyon’s famed clam pozole verde.

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Sycamore Kitchen’s buttermilk-rye pancakes.

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The sunny patio at Sycamore Kitchen.

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Brunch mayhem at Sqirl.

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Sqirl’s malva pudding cake. You want this.

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THE SLAYER at Bäco Mercat.

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Lobster roll of your dreams at Connie and Ted’s.

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Pizza bianca at Pizzeria Mozza.

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The comfy rancho style at Harris Ranch.

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Vintage charm inside the ladies’ room at The Glendale Tap.

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Marty and Elayne at The Dresden.

I have a history of heading to Los Angeles for New Year’s Eve, and when the opportunity presented itself again this year, yay, I scooped up a fellow former Angeleno pal, and off in my little Fiat we went. I don’t think I could have asked for a better crash pad: my fab neighbor from my UCLA dorm days was out of town and let us stay in his (temporary) apartment that was, oh, in The Colonial House. You mean the historic place from the 1930s on Crescent Heights in West Hollywood where Cary Grant and Bette Davis and numerous other starlets lived? What a dream.

I was long overdue to check out some LA eats (and flea marketing and vintage shopping). Here are some highlights from our whirlwind visit:

Bestia
Wow, is this place fun. It was our top meal and experience of the trip, by far. You head down a random street downtown (not too far from the warehouses where I used to rave more than 25 years ago) to discover a busy parking lot, with valets directing well-heeled patrons inside (instead of promoters shepherding kids in oversize overalls). Times have changed.

The restaurant is impressively huge, with a bar and lounge, and every seat is coveted. Kudos to the staff for running such a busy room while keeping track of the details—the hospitality here was notable. Ditto the wine list, you’ll get happily distracted by it. Your servers will make some excellent pairing suggestions too.

Chef Ori Menashe’s menu is going to crush you with desire. The veal tartare crostino ($15)—a supped-up vitello tonnato on their housemade bread—was one of the best things I have eaten in awhile; wait until you sink your teeth into the creamy tonnato sauce generously slathered on top. The salad of smoked sea urchin bottarga ($16) grated over chicories, sieved egg, pomegranate, and the punch of pickled chile came together so well, what a brilliant salad. We spaced on ordering the famed gizzards, damn. I’ll be back! But then the housemade ‘nduja pizza ($19) more than made up for it, loaded with tomato, creamy mozzarella, black cabbage, and fennel pollen. Exceptional crust. Complimenti!

There were nine housemade pastas to choose from, we went for the cavatelli alla norcina ($29), plump-chewy ricotta dumplings decadently coated in a heady sauce of pork sausage, black truffle, and Grana Padano. We were stuffed but made a little room for a dessert by Genevieve Gergis, a simple but pretty crème fraîche panna cotta ($9) with winter citrus. Don’t miss this place, and even if you don’t get a reservation, it’s worth trying to walk in and waiting a bit like we did.

Rustic Canyon
While the Bay Area still bemoans the loss of chef Jeremy Fox’s singular cuisine, at least it gives us a reason to hunt him down in LA. The Westside location of this casual restaurant and wine bar reminded me how huge LA is to drive across, but Fox’s earthy and inspired menu made it worth the schlep.

The tables felt luxuriously big, and as soon as the Marcona almonds with lavender sugar and sea salt ($7) hit the table, you’ll be thankful for the extra space, because you’re about to take it all up with shareable dishes like tender Monterey squid ($16) spiked with Calabrian chile, with falafel quenelles and aioli nero—this one really hit the bass notes. The housemade ricotta ($16) with mushroom escabèche and cubes of crispy polenta went for a higher octave. The bright clam pozole verde ($16) is justifiably famed, featuring Rancho Gordo’s hominy with poblano, scallion, and thin slices of “honeydew” radish, with crisp pieces of tortilla in the electric green bowl. Your whole palate gets shaken awake.

A larger dish we tried was the roasted half chicken “mulligatawny” ($29), cue Seinfeld, a homey curry broth with coconut milk coating the pieces of succulent chicken, with slices of “tandoori” carrot and M’Hamsa couscous in the bowl. It was so comforting, the flavors familiar yet exotic at the same time. The menu is quite varied, and it would be a great place to take your vegetarian Westside-dwelling friend who likes big glasses of boutique wines.

The Sycamore Kitchen
Before hitting the Sunday Fairfax flea market, we swung by for brunch at this casual café on La Brea (you order at the counter and your food is brought out to you), but the place has chops: it’s run by Quinn and Karen Hatfield, beloved chefs formerly of SF. This spot would be so mobbed in San Francisco, I couldn’t believe that at 11am on a Sunday we just breezed in, ordered, and sauntered to an outdoor table on the patio without being told there would be an hour wait. Miracles!

I had a weird craving for pancakes for more than a week, so was happy to indulge with the buttermilk-rye pancakes ($11, with salted butter and maple syrup), while my wingman went for the egg tartine ($11.50) with arugula pesto, tomato, and avocado hummus on their housemade bread. Grab some baked goodies for later—our blueberry financier muffin was the business. We were out of there in 45 minutes, one of the tastiest brunches in the shortest period of time I have experienced in years, if ever.

Sqirl
Meanwhile, this Silver Lake joint had SF-style lines all over it. It’s the tiniest spot, quietly chic with a marble communal counter running down the middle, and people scootched up against narrow counters along the wall and windows, hovering over their brioche toast (anointed with owner Jessica Koslow’s notable jams) and cappuccinos. I know, toast. We had breakfast toast ($7.50), a thick slab of buttery and golden brioche, topped with a fried egg, kale (the jokes, they write themselves), tomatillo, and lacto-fermented hot sauce (I think it was the first time I saw a hot sauce listed as lacto-fermented on a menu). But they could easily be charging more than $10 for that action and people would pay for it.

I wasn’t quite sold on the whole mob scene until we got a couple of spoonfuls into their malva pudding cake, and then I was a devotee. It’s sticky and decadently textured, with the surprise of some apricot jam inside. A must. Ask them to warm it up. Okay, okay, you won me over, I’ll be back!

Bäco Mercat
For some reason I thought maybe, just maybe, we’d be able to score an eggslut sandwich for brunch without too much of a line since it was the holidays and all, but no. It was DMV in the eighth circle of hell long. So, Bäco Mercat to the rescue. This casual downtown joint made its name with chef Josef Centeno’s trademark bäco sandwiches, a flatbread of sorts, filled with all kinds of pleasure-focused fillings that pull from a variety of cuisines.

We had the toron ($15), a burger-like patty of oxtail hash with cheddar melted on top, plus a hash brown-like layer of crisp potatoes, the richness cut by fresh greens, pickles, and horseradish yogurt. Pretty hefty and fabulous. We also took our server’s advice and went for THE SLAYER ($19), because, when something is on the menu in all caps, you gotta do it. It was a baked bäco, all bready and golden, topped with a punchy tomato salmorejo, pork belly, and a fried egg. The contrasting temperatures took a bit to get used to, but ultimately it came together and was quite delicious. There are a bunch of small plates at lunch, many of them vegetarian and with interesting spices and flavors—would be fun to come with a four-top and crush the menu. Well-selected wine list and friendly folks, too.

Connie and Ted’s
We were peckish one afternoon (oh shopping, it’s so exhausting!) and needed a pit stop. Connie and Ted’s to the rescue. This California-ized seafood shack in WeHo from Michael Cimarusti is conveniently open all day Wed-Sat. We explored some unique oyster selections (they had Belons!) although sadly our shucker lost the liquor on a few, and then we moved to some fresh (as in cut open before your eyes) Santa Barbara urchin ($18).

The siren song of the lobster roll ($26) was hard to ignore, and I’m so glad we heeded it, because let me tell you, a glass of Champagne with their damn good fries and textbook-perfect lobster roll was in the pocket. This place is doing some good things with seafood, and the postmodern LA look adds a fun twist to an otherwise classic East Coast (with a whirl on the West Coast) seafood menu.

Pizzeria Mozza
I can’t go to LA without paying a visit to one of my favorite crackly pizzas. And this was shockingly kind: they were open on New Year’s Day. Grazie, Nancy Silverton and crew! The room was full of red balloons from the night before, and now was packed with our fellow bleary-eyed and hungry diners. We perched at the spacious wood bar, shared the insalata rossa ($14, bitter and tender chicories with bacon, egg, and a fluffy mountain of Parm), and then it was pizza time: nettles and finocchiona with cacio di Roma ($18), and a bianca ($18), a perfectly sized sea of Fontina, mozzarella, sottocenere, and crisp sage leaves, so deliciously paired with their trademark golden and blistered crust. No one does pizzas like Pizzeria Mozza does.

We didn’t save room for the trademark butterscotch budino, and the menu even admonishes us to do so, but it’s good to know it’s always there.

Harris Ranch One more item to note: of all the years I have driven up and down the I-5 (I went to UCLA, so it was a frequent haul back and forth to San Mateo for the holidays and summer), I have never stopped at Harris Ranch. Big, big mistake! That place is classic! Was so charmed with the old-school rancho-meets-jockey club vibe, and the service could not be nicer—we melted for our server Lynn, who took such sweet care of us.

I ordered the classic ranch burger ($15.95), the well-seasoned patty cooked to a perfect medium rare and served on a house-baked bun. They were quick to whisk away my cold fries for fresh and hot ones, with a pile of apologies. (Note for the future: tablehopper readers reportedly love the tri-tip Caesar, steak and eggs, and desserts.) I found my new I-5 oasis, complete with the cleanest bathrooms too.

A few quick takes
We had a blast catching up with friends over quality beers at the The Glendale Tap (which lives up to its name, with 52 taps—I enjoyed exploring the beers from Eagle Rock), decked out with vintage bar signs and other eclectic finds.

I will never, ever go to LA again without booking a massage at Sunset Foot Spa. This place worked us OUT for so cheap. Full body (including feet) in a cushy chair for $50 for an hour, whut?

And it’s not a visit to LA without a night at The Dresden for a show with Marty and Elayne. They perform every Tuesday through Saturday, I don’t know how. Everything about that place, from the roller chairs to the vintage pendant lights, it could only exist in LA. La la love you!

You can view my entire photo album of our long LA weekend getaway here.

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Our home in Mariposa. All photos: © tablehopper.com.

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Our former deli and pizzeria (now a Mexican restaurant).

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The exterior of the Château du Sureau.

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The sitting room/library in the Château du Sureau.

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The stairs down to the pool at Château du Sureau.

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The Elderberry Room.

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An afternoon snack, brought to our room on arrival.

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One of the chambermaids.

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One of the dining rooms (at the end of the evening) at Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant.

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Amuse of arctic char, pickled mustard seed, cucumber gelée, and trout roe.

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The creative and delicious beet salad.

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A look into grand Yosemite Valley.

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When was the last time you were in a meadow?

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The incomparable dining room at The Ahwahnee.

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A prime rib feast at The Ahwahnee.

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The library at the Villa Sureau.

I may have been living in San Francisco for the past 20 years, but there is a country mouse side to this city mouse. Back when I was in the middle of third grade, my family packed up our life in San Mateo to move to Gold Country. We landed in Mariposa, not far from Yosemite National Park, where my parents bought 69 acres; they planned to build our dream home on the land, with our family friend as the architect. My father manifested his dream of getting out of the burbs and opening a pizzeria and delicatessen. My mother worked as an R.N. at a nearby hospital, and still managed to cook all our meals, make our clothes (it was that or order clothes from the Sears catalog for delivery into the depot in town—they wouldn’t even deliver to your house), and she also learned how to kill rattlesnakes (thanks Mom, good save that one afternoon).

We were there for three years, and while it didn’t pan out—it ends up Mariposa wasn’t quite ready for spicy coppa and imported Italian wine—and we had to move back to the Peninsula, our time there made for a really sweet period in our lives, especially for me and my sis. We had dirt bikes, a huge yard, dogs and cats and a horse, and we got to run around and unleash our inner tomboys. I’m ever grateful for those years living in Gold Country, they were such a vivid part of my childhood.

Some years later, I remember my parents going back up to Yosemite for a big wedding anniversary dinner, and they dined at a very special place, ~ERNA’S ELDERBERRY HOUSE RESTAURANT~. (It’s the kind of name that stays with you.) Flash forward to one evening at Gary Danko a few years ago, when a charming young lady from the staff and I put together that we both had connections to Gold Country—and look at that, her mother was the Erna of Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant in Oakhurst.

And then let’s flash back to not too long ago, when I received a very kind invitation from the lovely Erna Kubin-Clanin to come experience a meal at Erna’s Elderberry House, and to stay at the ~CHÂTEAU DU SUREAU~. I couldn’t believe it—of course I called my parents immediately since they have such a treasured memory of the restaurant (the château was not built yet when they dined there).

Now, for anyone who has ever been to Yosemite, you may remember passing through Oakhurst, which is full of antique stores, big chain drugstores, and plenty of fast food. So to say that there is one of the most exquisite properties I have ever visited in the United States, a château that felt like it was transported from Europe lock, stock, and barrel (including the staff) and dropped off in Oakhurst of all places, well, that’s kind of what happened.

Ms. Erna is the most divine hostess, born in Vienna, and as soon as you get a look at her, you’ll be enchanted. She is so stylish and chic, with her fabulous French glasses, svelte figure, and tasteful high heels. She has a soothing and charming voice, full of kind words and comments. Ms. Erna is the kind of host who can handle diplomats and country folk with equal ease.

As soon as you pass through the gates to the château, it seems incredible that you are actually in dusty Gold Country. The place is an oasis of beauty, full of flowers and gorgeous landscaping. While many guests travel from far and wide to dine at Erna’s Elderberry House, the 10-room Château du Sureau (opened in 1991) also has an impeccable reputation. Not only is it a Relais & Châteaux property (since 1993), but it has won many other awards as well, from being a five-star Forbes Travel Guide property for more than 18 years to its five diamonds from AAA since 1992. And here’s why: Erna has a deep love for beauty, hospitality, and the finer things in life, and it shows in every corner and square inch of the property.

The two nights my friend and I spent there were like a shot in the arm of European class and elegance. The château is filled with antiques Erna found abroad, with tapestries, artwork, and unique pieces everywhere, along with fresh flowers and orchids too. Fresh lemonade sits out for guests. Oh, and how can you not love the chambermaids flitting about the property with their white aprons? I felt like I was going back in time. The staff is incredibly gracious.

All the 10 rooms are different; our room (The Elderberry Room) had exposed beams and a canopy bed (complete with a feather duvet and silky ironed linens, oh you know it). The room was mercifully devoid of a TV, a fireplace taking its place. It was actually pretty challenging (in a charming way) to find a place to plug in my iPhone and iPad by the bed (it would be better to write a letter to a friend on the château’s stationery). The spacious bathroom came with French tiles, and a soaking tub that I wish I had made time to enjoy.

On arrival, we were greeted with an afternoon snack in our room (tea sandwiches of housemade ricotta, cucumber, and beet on housemade bread, plus a tasty little almond cake) and two glasses of sparkling wine. (That’ll do fine, why thank you.) When we made our way down to the pool for an afternoon dip, we were offered more pink bubbles to enjoy poolside. (Careful, Marcia, don’t get to used to this…)

When it was time for dinner, it was an easy stroll through the gardens to Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant, which opened in 1984. It has a French country look, with a trio of rooms (the Escoffier, Point, and Paul Bocuse rooms) full of fabric and old-world charm, plus a garden terrace (if you sit near the windows, your view is framed with flowers).

Before Erna was overseeing all aspects of the property, she was the chef and managing owner (her husband René owns it with her)—she now has chef de cuisine Jonathon Perkins overseeing the kitchen. Her first restaurant was Scorpio’s in Westwood (Los Angeles), and she then became known in the Sierras in 1977, when she cooked at The Redwood Inn next to the Wawona Hotel for six years, offering a five-course meal of nouvelle and European cuisine. She was a trailblazer in the area for sure.

My guest and I enjoyed an elegant five-course meal ($108, $78 wine pairings), full of seasonal and well-prepared ingredients, along with a few modern techniques too (dessert featured some coconut “snow”). Our amuse was stunning: arctic char, pickled mustard seed, cucumber gelée, and trout roe, and a fragrant cauliflower soup had fascinating ribbons of flavor, with apricot chutney, curry oil, cilantro, and toasted almonds.

I also loved the old-world touch of serving the salad after the meat course, and the presentation was so inventive: the heirloom beet salad came with field greens with a thyme and lavender vinaigrette, and there was a scoop of a chèvre mousse with beet whipped in (it was the most gorgeous color), as well as Bull’s Blood beet purée and mulberries on the plate.

A few dishes had components that were a bit strong, like the Tahitian vanilla jus that dominated the milk-poached veal loin, but otherwise I could not believe I was having this elevated dining experience in Oakhurst of all places, and not some beautiful château in France. Pastry chef Kyle Waller’s dessert of milk chocolate panna cotta would fit right into most of San Francisco’s fine dining rooms. (They are many more photos here.)

You can see how much training the staff has had (it’s not like there’s a big pool of employees trained in fine dining service in the area), and we also had some excellent wine service and pairings (from Sinskey’s Abraxas to the Azelia “Bricco Fiasco” Barolo). It was one of those “somebody please pinch me” moments when we were able to walk back down the garden path after dinner and fall into our feather bed for a night of deep sleep. While the “full board” experience is part of the charm of staying in this fairy-tale place, you can also just come to Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant for dinner—you don’t need to be a guest of the château.

They also host a three-day cooking school twice a year, and many themed meals, including the annual Evening in Vienna dinner, with music. I’d subscribe to the newsletter to keep up on the happenings (and special offers) in case you are mulling over taking a trip to Yosemite. (How long has it been? When was the last time you walked through a meadow? It was far too long for me.)

While it’s very hard to leave the kingdom for the day (trust), we got up early to make our way to the other kingdom: Yosemite. It’s a short drive to the South Gate from the château, and the staff kindly packed us a picnic lunch to enjoy in the park. We also had a fabulous breakfast on the terrace before we headed out for the day that we were going to need to hike off: freshly made croissants and brioche with housemade jam, marmalade, and thick pats of butter, plus a European-style platter of meats and cheeses, a ramekin of egg frittata topped with ratatouille, and excellent coffee.

Our day in Yosemite was pure magic—we were there in mid-May, so we had beautiful springlike weather and the falls were running. We spent the day walking the trails around the majestic valley floor, and since it was a Friday, we didn’t have to deal with a crush of humanity. We had our picnic lunch next to the Merced River, such a dreamy spot.

We ended our epic day with bubbles on the back terrace at the Ahwahnee Hotel and were invited to stay for dinner. Is there a more jaw-dropping dining room, with its 34-foot-high beamed ceiling and hulking granite pillars? Of course you end up thinking about The Shining half the time (Kubrick’s set designer mimicked many elements of the Ahwahnee for the Overlook Hotel).

We got a kick out of our jacketed server, who handled the huge pepper grinder with aplomb, and I’d say sticking with simpler classics is the move here, like roasted Brussels sprouts ($15). It’s all about the prime rib ($42-$48) with Yorkshire pudding; some of the other dishes were too much of a reach, like my friend’s lobster and coconut bisque. I can imagine the setting for Sunday brunch is fabulous.

I wouldn’t recommend the long drive back to the Château du Sureau after a late dinner like ours to many people—fortunately I love driving mountain roads and so does my Fiat. But it was definitely a haul in the darkness after such a big day. Again, that feather duvet was waiting for me at the end, a strong motivator to get back safely.

The next morning we enjoyed a more leisurely start, with breakfast on the terrace once again (hello, croissant, I was missing you), a last dip in the pool, and a walk around the grounds. A newer addition to the property is the Spa Sureau and the Villa Sureau, which we were lucky to get a peek at since they were in between guests.

Because Ms. Erna just doesn’t stop, she created this secluded and private manor house in 1999, full of turn-of-the-century antiques (her husband René helped restore many of the treasures), a marble tub, a baby grand piano, and two bedrooms in its spacious 2,000-square-foot footprint. It’s grand, daaahling, and for those who can afford a stay there (it’s $2,950 a night), it’s a very singular spot where you can effectively play out a manor-born fantasy. Just gorgeous.

A visit to the Château du Sureau and Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant is a unique one, because its particular kind of luxury is so personal. Fortunately the elegant and visionary Ms. Erna wanted to create and share her world of cosmopolitan flair and grace—it so obviously (and thankfully) couldn’t be contained.

You can view my entire photo album of our weekend getaway here. Trust me, you want to look!