Thursday, January 27, 2011

Fat Angel Wine Bar in San Francisco

On Tuesday night, I went to Fat Angel with my friends Amy and Aaron for happy hour. This little hidden gem is located smack dab in the middle of the Fillmore Jazz district at O'Farrell and Fillmore, Its swanky, stylish and such a find. A couple of friends opened up the place and it retains the unpretentious, intimate look irrespective of the surrounding neighborhood. My only gripe with the Fillmore district is that it's either 4-star expensive or 1-star and cheap and dirty. This place is a perfect balance for the neighborhood as it appeals to a wide range of people, young or old, professional or artsy type. It's perfect for me because I fall in between both those categories (in San Francisco definitions).

The wine bar is well decorated with reclaimed, recycled and repurposed materials from around San Francisco. So boho chic. The decorating highlights are the stamped tin roof and the "99 bottles of wine wall", aren't they so creative! The prices were average for the city, food was a bit cheaper than expected with the cheese plate being only $5 per cheese whereas you can pay up to $10 for the same sliver of cheese at other bars. The fried capers were delicious and creative. They tasted like the little fried bits of popcorn you find on the bottom of the bowl chocked full of salt and buttery deliciousness. I don't know how they made them, but keep it up. There is a wide selection of house made butters with all sorts of fun flavors like maple bacon and flatbreads to fill the tummy's of those who have a hard time just grazing. The theme for happy hour is "whine after work" which we all need from time to time, $1 off draft wines and beers and $2 off flat breads. What is draft wine you ask? Its the barrel of wine directly from the vineyard hooked up to a tap system similar to how bars serve beer. It's a fabulous idea and quite entertaining to check out. I'd never had draft wine outside of a vineyard before but I'll definitely come back to try out every kind. That's just the kind of dedicated blogger I am.

Fat Angel is my new favorite local spot! Plus the name is entertaining. It reminds me of the Lyle Lovett song, "Fat Babies Have No Pride" which still puts a smile on my face. Poor fat babies.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sizzler: A culinary adventure in Colma

After seeing a commercial on TV, John announced we should go to the Sizzler down in Colma for our weekly date night. The Sizzler is located in your standard low-budget strip mall with a super sized Target. A few months back at this very same location we saw a morbidly obese woman making her way from her car to Sizzler almost tip over. It was one of those moments you can't believe you just witnessed with your own eyes. I knew we were up for an adventure, but I was excited too as I have very fond memories of Sizzler from my childhood. To me (although I knew it wasn't true) Sizzler is a good restaurant and perfect for kids with the all-you-can-eat salad bar, self-service ice cream and endless fried shrimp. Plus I went to a Sizzler with my brother in Bangkok, Thailand and it was a four-star dining establishment with waiters, white table clothes and actual menus. Sadly, this may only exist in Asia because the Sizzler in Colma was a sad excuse for a cafeteria.

From the moment we walked in we knew Sizzler had seen better days, even though the place was full of young families. I don't know when the change happened but you now make your selection from an oversized wall menu and order at a walk-up cashier like McDonalds. It really cheapens up the place. We ordered fried shrimp and salad bar for me, and steak and shrimp with the salad bar added on for John. The salad bar advertises "hot appetizers" as well but they are really just dried out chicken wings and fried foods, some too overcooked to identify. The salad bar had deteriorated over the years too. The chopped up ham I remember so fondly was no longer available and the pre-mixed salads merely globs of mayo with random vegetables. Not five minutes after ordering, our food arrived. Clearly everything is pre-made cafeteria style and tasted that way too. Before we left John already had indigestion from his steak and shrimp. I made a point to hit the best part of the place, the self-service ice cream bar. Although all the toppings were gone, the ice cream machine was still going strong. As I enjoyed my extra large bowl of ice cream I knew this was the last time I'd step foot in a Sizzler. Over the years, the place has just gone down hill, it doesn't even have that random fun vibe that makes places like Denny's still entertaining.

Funny thing is a few days later John saw a commercial for Red Lobster and admitted he got confused. He meant Red Lobster and not Sizzler.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Jiuzhaigou: China's Picture Perfect Slice of Heaven

Jiuzhaigou National Park is a nature reserve located in northern Sichuan province famous for its picturesque almost surreal crystal clear lakes, multi-tier waterfalls and, stunning mountain views. Jiuzhaigou is home to two of China’s most treasured endangered species; the Giant Panda and the Sichuan Golden Snub-Nose Monkey. It’s one of the most visited sites in China with 5,000 visitors in 1984, 200,000 in 1997 and 2.5 million in 2007.
Jiuzhaigou literally means “Valley of Nine Villages” after the 9 ancient Tibetan villages located within the park. Seven of the villages are still populated today with a total of around 1000 permanent residents. Heye, Shuzheng and Zechawa villages located along the main roads cater to tourists, selling food, drinks and crafts.
Visiting the park takes time and money. Park entrance cost 220 RMB ($33 USD) per person per day and doesn’t include the “mandatory” 90 RMB ($14 USD) bus fee. There are two ways to experience the park: the traditional way and the not-so-traditional way. Most visitors stay at one of the 20,000 hotel rooms located in the town of Jiuzhaigou and visit the park by day utilizing the tour bus. The frequent buses are an efficient way to see the park as you can hop off, take a picture and jump back on. The non-traditional route is to stay within the park at a Tibetan Village and hike the 30 km through the park. My friend Liz and I decided to do the unconventional route as we were in need a bit of adventure. Keep in mind it’s against the law to stay in the park and even travel guides like Lonely Planet discourage you from doing so. Our plan was to stay one night in the town of Jiuzhaigou, pack a small backpack for our trip so we didn’t look suspicious to the park authorities, store our large rucksacks at a hotel, and travel into the park for a 3 day/ 2 night hiking adventure.
The park is comprised of three main valleys or “arms” in the shape of a letter Y, the park entrance is at the base of the Y. The lower part of the park is Shuzheng Valley, at the fork in the road Rize Valley is to the south west and Zechawa Valley to the south east. The plan for the trip was to hike the Shuzheng Valley on the first day and secure a room in Shuzheng village; the second and third day would be spent hiking the Rize and Zechawa Valleys.
The hike through Shuzheng Valley was more challenging than we had anticipated but rewarding as we were able to enjoy the tranquility of the park as the buses whizzed by. As we followed the Zechawa River, we first came to a beautiful clearing of wild flowers which of course we had to run. We continued hiking and came across Reed Lake, a 1375-meter long reed covered marsh. We continued on the main road to Sparkling Lake and to the crystal clear string of 18 lakes fed by the Shuzheng waterfalls. We finished off the day with Nuorilang Waterfalls, the widest highland waterfall in China and its string of 19 lakes.
After all that hiking, we decided to call it a day and find a room in Shuzheng Village. We secured a room including food for $10 a night, as long as we didn’t tell the park authorities our location and were out of the park before opening on the third day as we only had a two-day park pass. We agreed to the rules, not realizing leaving the park before it opened meant hiding on the floor of a neighbor’s car with a tarp over you as you pass by security.
After the park closed, we joined the family for dinner in their living room all pretending to watch Chinese soaps together. As we ate grandma watched us intently over her hand-held Tibetan Prayer Wheel. Once Liz and I finished eating, grandma proceeded to pry us with bijou. Every time we got up to leave, she would put her hand up to say “no”, giggle, and point at our tiny cups. The old lady was getting us drunk so we’d go to bed quietly and quickly. But in the middle of the night we realized the only working toilet was in the family house, thus we had to find a natural toilet in the dark of night, without a Tibetan Prayer Flag blowing above our heads.
The next day, we woke up to a torrential downpour and an almost empty park. Since there were so few tourists, the buses were not checking tickets and we used the bus free of charge which was a good thing as we were a bit tired from the hiking and drinking with Grandma the day prior.  We started with Rize Valley and hit all the picture perfect sites along the way. Some of the most memorable spots were Swan Lake, Five Flower Lake, Mirror Lake, Panda Lake and Arrow Bamboo Lake, the main filming site of the Jet Li movie Hero. We then took the bus through Zechawa Valley visiting Long Lake, Five Color Pond, and the Zechawa Village. We returned to Shuzheng Village for our second night and skipped dinner with the family opting for backpack snacks. At 6 am the next morning, a stranger knocked on our door and ushered us to the back seat of his car for our dramatic exit. Luckily we passed the guards without a problem and the man left us on the side of the street to find our way back to town.
Jiuzhaigou is by far the most beautiful place I have ever visited. Exploring the park on foot and staying in a traditional Tibetan Village within the park made it a memorable experience. We experienced Jiuzhaigou the proper way, off the beaten track and off the tour bus (for the most part).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Woodhouse Fish Company in San Francisco

Yum! Yum! Yum! Woodhouse Fish Company in San Francisco has to be the best seafood restaurant in the city. It's not overpriced like the Farrallon or dirty and bird infested like the stalls at Fisherman's Wharf. It's the real deal. Woodhouse has two locations, one Castro/Market and the other conveniently located by my house on Fillmore and Bush. The restaurant clearly was designed by someone who has been to an actual New England town like Newport, RI. Its quaint, white walls with pops of color (very Pottery Barn) with a nautical theme. The only thing about the ambiance that throws me off is the large 'electronic picture' hanging by the special board that displays a bunch of random nautical-type pics. It really doesn't jive with the overall New England theme. They don't take reservations and the restaurant is small but the tables turn over quickly. There is a nice long bar with 10 seats if you don't want to wait for a table. Come early, around 6pm for minimal to no wait.

I ventured to the Pacific Heights location with my friend Kerstin last night. It's a great place to have a meal with a vegetarian (pescatarian) friend because they can order anything off the menu and you don't have to feel bad about the limited non-meat selections. Since neither of us could decide on what to get, we split the Ciopinno and the Dungeness Crab Special, a whole crab grilled with cracked pepper and sea salt with jalapenos and green onions. OMG delicious. We both couldn't decide which was better but after much deliberation and eating, I liked the crab special the best. Some other highlights on the menu are: Crab Cakes, Stuffed Artichokes with Dungeness crab and bay shrimp, clam chowder, fish and chips and the $1 oysters on Tuesdays. Everything I have tried is great, so I am sure the other half of the menu is just as delicious. This is the best spot for seafood in the city and the beer/wine is reasonably priced.

It's Crab Season in San Francisco so go now why the little guys are fresh!!!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Wine! Wine! and some culture at the SFMOMA

Lending to my fascination, near obsession with all things red wine, my friend Melissa and I hit up the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Present one rainy Saturday in December. The exhibit opened November 20, 2010 through April 17, 2011 and was surprisingly not busy for a rainy day in the city. The exhibit was great, but we could have used some wine tasting to go along with all our education. The exhibit is a combination of artwork, a "smell wall", installations of cheeky wine bottles, architectural models, historical artifacts and a collection of Riedel glassware and some very creative and not-so-useful decanters and carafes. The exhibit aims to educate the visitor regarding wine making, globalization of wine, popular media, and glassware and winery design. My favorite part was the "smell wall", an assortment of bottles resembling old perfume bottles which you could pinch to get a whiff of the wine. I really didn't think my smeller would work properly, but I was able to smell out the difference between a Pinot Noir and Merlot, thank you very much. Another highlight was the wall of wine bottles from angel/heaven themes to the devil and back. I was surprised to find there were so many interesting labels out there, definitely not your run of the mill grocery store bottles. The exhibit takes about a half hour to explore, depending on your fascination with wine, plan on more time if you are really in the mood to learn about soil composition.
Don't forget the SFMOMA Perfect Pairings: Special Offers

Save your ticket stub or use your annual membership to receive discounts during the run of the exhibit. You can get banging deals at local wineries in and around the city offering two-for-one discounts and even complimentary tastings. Put your knowledge to work!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Napa/Sonoma Wineries

For my birthday, John and I took a wine tasting tour up in the Napa/ Sonoma area of Northern California. It's an absolutely gorgeous place with lush green rolling hills full of grape vines and picturesque wineries. We started the tour at the Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma ( The theme of this trendy hip winery is "No Wimpy Wine" and let me tell you they have some of the most delicious and robust reds around. They make 47 different types of wine with Zinfandel being the most popular and the specialty of the house. We arrived at Ravenswood at noon and the place was already hopping. We were quickly greeted by an employee who gave us a quick rundown of the wine tasting choices. Another option was to actually be your own winemaker and "blend a Zin" for $50 per person, fun but we passed. We happily chose the Zin flight. Our hostess was quite nice and joined us in random chit chat. She also provided us with two-for-one coupons for some other local wineries without us even having to ask. She was just that nice. After finishing our tastings we checked out the "gift shop" side of the winery and sadly I couldn't find anything to buy. We bought a bottle of the zin for around $35 and we were off to the next location.

On Ravenswood's recommendation and with our two-for-one coupon in hand we headed to The Buena Vista Winery (, one of the oldest wineries in Sonoma established in 1857. It's located down Old Winery Road which is fun in itself with a stream, big old red wood trees and some random picture opts along the way. On our walk up to the winery, we stopped over to the side to take some action photos and out of no where John popped the big question "will you marry me?." Of course I said "yes", adding to the excitement of the day, not only is it my birthday but now I have a ring to prove I am no harlot. Although the winery was lovely, the service was not as stellar as Ravenswood. I felt we approached the wrong host at the wine bar because the younger guy kept looking at us like "why did you choose her, someone talk to me." The older woman was very nice but she really didn't talk to much to us beside giving us the basic run down of the wines and a bit of history on the winery. She really never tried to engage us even when we tried to start up a Napa/Sonoma/wine-related conversation. The wines were good, a bit expensive but we still ended up buying the Pinot Noir. Sadly this winery left a bit more to be desired. The grounds are absolutely gorgeous and lush, and the tasting room is large and has a ton of history but I never really felt welcome. I think this winery would be better for older groups who are looking for a quiet experience, one couple actually didn't stay for the tastings because the place was so quiet. We will keep this winery on our list to visit next time we are in Sonoma, only because we got engaged there, not because of a stellar experience.

For the grand finale, we went to the Del Dotto Caves and Winery Tasting Room( in Napa. This fun but mildly pretentious winery charges $40 per person for a 1 1/2 hour tasting and tour of their caves. It's a heck of a good time and quite educational, but bring a sweater as it gets cold. We had a group of 8 who were all casual wine connoisseurs. Our guide, the "Jesse James" guy was very friendly but kept making reference to "those people" who buy grocery store wine. Sadly he was speaking to the chorus and after the fifth time of him speaking down, on what I believe is the general population, I started to get a bit annoyed and I could tell a few others did too. Although, this one little quirk was annoying, the guy gave us one heck of an entertaining tour through the candle lit dark caves. We tasted some amazing wines and were a bit shocked at the high price tags, on average a bottle was $75-100. The tour ended with the group sharing a platter of cheese and meats and truffles and a glass of delicious port. We ended up buying a bottle for nostalgic purposes and are letting it age so we can enjoy it just as Jesse James told us to. He did let us in on a little trick, drink wine when tailgating at football games so you won't have to wait in lines at the restroom like the beer drinking schmucks. This by far was the most entertaining winery I have ever been too and I would definitely recommend it to friends.

Out of the three, Ravenswood was by far my favorite because the wine and service were excellent, Del Dotto was a close second because of the wonderful cave tour and guide but sadly Buena Vista ranks third because it just didn't have any zip.