When we finish each year with the fermentation of our mosto cotto, and the leaves start to fall from our organic grape vines, my wife Jane and I hit the road to share our balsamic with new people at fresh, new locations.
This Fall was a lengthy blast in northern and southern California.
In early November we were in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, a cathedral of delicious things to see, smell, eat and drink. All of this is arrayed at the dockside site of the SFO Farmers’ Market, one of the best such markets anywhere in the U.S., given the nearby year-round growing regions, the adjacent Pacific seafood bounty, the entrenched ethos of organic food production, plus the aggressive love of great food there, which may be unmatched in the U.S.
We have long been graced there by having our traditional balsamic for sale at retail at Boulette’s Larder, one of the most unique expressions of great food -- to eat there or carry away. This original larder concept is owned, innovated and operated by partners Amaryll Schwertner and Lori Regis. It’s truly one of a kind and a must stop locations for food lovers visiting San Francisco.
Recently, Lori and Amaryll expanded their operation right next door when they created Bouli Bar, a trendy sit-down restaurant with a full bar, the best of pizza productions, and a full lunch and dinner menu – perfect for those who work late in the nearby Embarcadero and financial districts, those waiting to catch a ferry across the Bay. The décor and layout of Bouli Bar remind me of the classic look I first encountered in the early 1960s in Paris: a people and food friendly setting that sets a happy, bright, upbeat mood. It’s a stylish part of Amaryll and Lori’s art, which continues at the table.
Over a dozen entrée items on the menu would neatly pair with true aged balsamic. Three items on the evening ‘s entrée menu were designed specifically to be complimented by our balsamic: Boulette’s baked spinach polenta, roasted day boat scallops, and a classic vegetarian cauliflower soup. Wow what a trio!
End of the meal: a yogurt panna cotta -- with raspberries and strawberries and crystallized pistachios -- was neatly completed with Aceto Balsamico of Monticello. Bouli Bar’s long sweets list is a dream by itself, yet we always love to see traditional balsamic (ours or anyone’s) appear like this as a key addition at the end of any meal.
Bouli Bar, as the name states, has a full bar. The night of our special event, 3 drinks using our balsamic were added to the regular list: kir balsamico (blanc de blanc and our balsamic), club soda on the rocks with our balsamic (non-alcoholic), and, for me, the stunner – a Square One vodka martini with our Aceto Balsamico of Monticello.
The last one of these surprised me. The drink had been shaken with ice, but served with none; it had no garnish or fuss in its classic upright martini glass; its first appearance was that of a diluted crème soda. At first, I wondered about my order.
But it was truly and uniquely delicious! Great enough to order another, which I did. Neither the taste of vodka nor that of balsamic dominated; the drink had become a third taste all its own, showing that a little addition of great stuff can do its own kind of alchemy. Ketchup on a hot dog tastes like ketchup on a hot dog; but traditional balsamic on or with something can produce new dimensions in the combination. Here was proof at 80 proof.
Bouli Bar, under talented direction, execution, and brilliant ingredients, produces this kind of magic on demand, every day, in the kitchen and in the bar.
Our next foray was north to Healdsburg where we met Cindy Daniel, who along with her husband, has created the Shed, which is a place to get inspiration, to eat and drink freshly prepared (often local) foods, shop for rare and wonderful (bottled, canned, dried or fresh) ingredients – and a place where good farming, good cooking and good eating come together in the Shed’s resurrection of the Grange concept of community exchange and learning. I know; it doesn’t sound typical – and that’s their ideal – not typical. They’re outstanding, instead.
One shopper described the Shed as “very pretty, like walking into a Martha Stewart magazine. So clean, so spacious, so welcoming.” A visit to their website confirms and advances this theme. They now carry and sell our organic Aceto Balsamico of Monticello. (And we are looking forward to returning in 2014 for a balsamic tasting dinner, maybe even a discussion in their Grange about producing and using real traditional balsamic, et al.)
Next we headed to Los Angeles where we spent several days sampling our balsamic at the Farm Shop in Santa Monica. Kurt Gurdal manages one of the finest pantries or larders in LA: meats, cheeses, salumi, produce and high-end prepared foods and sauces. Our balsamic is for sale on their shelves – and we’re proud to be there.
Within the same space is a brilliant kitchen directed by Josh Drew, who has a superior pedigree as a chef. This was demonstrated in the 20+ item brunch menu where 4 items were integrated with our balsamic: stracciatella cheese with hachiya persimmon and hass avocado , pastami & eggs (cauliflower, red kuri squash, maitake mushrooms, peach ketchup and eggs sunny-side-up), classic omelet (chantrelle mushrooms, jersey-milk ricotta, soft herbs, Asian pear, arugula salad, and toasted butter croissant), and a grass-fed velvet steak salad.
We watched many people enjoying these combinations. At one table, a lady offered tastes of her omelet to her tablemates; she never saw her omelet again and ordered another.
The dinner menu has 25 things, any of which you would order as your last meal. Seven of those had been arranged to feature or accept our balsamic. The whipped La Quercia lardo iberico served with a small loaf of toasted zucchini bread and butter pickles, was simple and inspired. The prime dry-aged New York steak for two, served with smashed sierra gold potatoes and sautéed chanterelle mushrooms, was a great reminder of how a simple, straight forward piece of roasted meat can go to the next dimension with traditional balsamic as a topper.
This kind of entree is an Italian classic, especially at this time of year when woods and fields of Italy are harvested for dark, wild meat to roast and regal life. In America, the BBQ is our fitting alternative – and a place for balsamic, the good stuff, added at plating.
We go back on the tasting trail later this month in the Pacific Northwest. In January we will be in a famous Italian restaurant in Dallas. In February we will have a tasting in a new and noted restaurant in Portland, Oregon
More about our balsamic trail as we travel down it.