It is almost impossible for me to think about the new year and all that may lie ahead in my life without thinking nostalgically a bit on the year that has just passed. Where will I be, what will I be doing this time next year? What fabulous, what horrible things will I eat in the coming year? Will I have the opportunity to experience as many delicious meals in the coming year as I did in the year that just flew by almost without me realizing it? Oh boy, was I fortunate in 2012 to eat so many yummy dishes, to sip on so many scrumptious wines. I traveled all over, eating inside and outside of the country, I happily found myself dining from one end of the Bay Area to the next, and of course, I nibbled on so many amazing meals right here in Sonoma.
Wow, 2013, will you be as delicious?
Reminiscing back on my year in food, I wondered if I could name the ‘best thing’ I ate all year? That would definitely not be easy. Hmmm, was it the outrageous charred freshwater eel slathered in sticky black eel sauce from Sushi Ran? Or, could it possibly have been those spectacular East Coast oysters — gasp! — at the little, chic oyster bar in Boston? Maybe, just maybe, I could narrow it down to ‘the best five things’ I ate in 2012. Following, I give it my best shot.
#5. My first Dungeness crabs of the season. November 15, the beginning of local crab season, is easily one of the happiest days of my Sonoma year. I cannot think of a more cozy evening then covering the dining table in newspaper, popping a bottle of bubbly, melting a stick of butter and digging into a big Dungeness crab. I can’t say for sure why this year’s first crabs of the season were so darned extraordinary. Maybe it was the beautiful, floral, Meyer lemon from the tree right outside the kitchen squeezed generously in the bubbling butter. Possibly, it could have been the cozy setting, snuggling at the little table in my kitchen with icy rain pelting against the window, a perfect honey-scented Gewürztraminer in little glasses streaked with buttery fingerprints. It could have simply been the yearlong anticipation? More than likely it was a combination of all the above.
#4. Octopus ceviche. Octopus simply tastes better in Mexico. Is it more delicious when eaten in your bikini, poolside, overlooking the emerald green Sea of Cortez, under a bright white umbrella with the Baja sun toasting your bare shoulders? I just may have eaten my weight in octopus late this summer. I ate an octopus ceviche dish that was so tender, so incredibly tasty, that I couldn’t help but order it over and over again. First cured in a marinade that was traditional (heavy with fresh lime and flecks of cilantro) then charred over hard wood leaving the little tentacles crisp and smoky. What truly got me hooked, though, was the splash of dark, salty soy sauce and teeny cubes of cucumber that left my mouth ridiculously happy, craving more even as I was in the midst of a bite. How was this octopus so insanely tender? I don’t even want to know. I guess I will just have to return to Mexico to find out.
#3. Solbar’s summer corn soup. During an afternoon spent smeared with purifying clay and bathing in the healing mineral waters at Calistoga’s luxurious spa, Solage, I shared a chilled Brentwood corn soup that sounded like the ideal light, summer starter. The spoon barely touched my lips when my eyes grew wide as saucers and I slowly looked at my companion. Oh my gosh. I looked back at the bowl, hardly comprehending that something so beautiful could have originated there and not in my dreams. With every cold spoonful, I felt sweet summer sunshine literally course through my veins. It was corn exaggerated. The most corniest corn soup I have ever had. It was velvet and cream, and topped with lovely little chunks of decadent avocado. It took everything in my power to not lick the bowl. I think at that moment, I could have died and been perfectly content.
#2. Pok Pok Portland. New Year’s Eve I spent strolling the hipster-filled streets of Portland, fat, wet snowflakes smearing my mascara. I braved the frigid afternoon to dine on a late lunch, just me and my growling tummy, at a restaurant that I have been reading about for years, dying to try, and finally had the opportunity to get to, Pok Pok. The gushing accolades from the endless food magazines and foodie blogs were spot on. This restaurant, consisting of a mish mash of pieced together buildings, is without a doubt the most amazing, the most incredibly delicious, and the most authentic Thai food outside of Thailand. No matter how hard I try, I simply am unable to decide which dish I gobbled up was the best. I ordered so many dishes that I received stares of disbelief from my neighbors at the little wooden bar. The most glorious, sticky, chile crusted chicken wings absolutely blew my mind, beyond perfect and washed down with a tart-sweet-boozy tamarind whiskey sour. A green papaya salad was identical to one that I devoured hungrily after walking miles in the Bangkok heat a few years ago. Another highlight, a mess of rice noodles bobbing in a luxurious broth of rich coconut milk and kaffir lime was the most heavenly concoction on that freezing winter afternoon, particularly warming when drizzled with an oil thick with dried flakes of Thai bird chile. Pok Pok will most certainly go down as not only one of my most delicious meals of 2012, but probably of all time.
#1. Just bread and butter at Bouchon. Yes, I can imagine what you’re saying as you read this. Maybe you’ve had to read it more than once? When sitting back and seriously pondering my most memorable thing I’d eaten in 2012 — yes, honestly — it was just simply bread and butter. Thomas Keller’s French bistro in Yountville is where I have spent many of my last six birthdays, perched at the zinc bar entertained by the same, amazingly French looking, mustached man expertly shucking perfect grey oysters for their impressive plats of seafood that tower dramatically. There is truly no more festive spot to linger over a multi-hour lunch, almost convinced that you’ve been magically transported to Paris. There are so many swoon-worthy dishes here that I could rave on and on about and many of those very same dishes I did enjoy on that day, but what I just can’t get enough of is their crusty, yeasty, chewy, and altogether addictive loaves of bread. It arrives with a chilled ramekin of butter that somehow manages to taste better, creamier and, well, just more buttery than any butter you’ve ever eaten. Sitting there at that bar, people watching, sipping on a few glasses of the palest pink Cremant de Alsace, ripping that bread, slathering each perfect bite, I turned to my dining companion and smiled the biggest, silliest smile. Sitting there, at that bar, on my birthday this year, I knew had never been happier in my entire life.
On the menu
“Martini Madness,” the boozy, competitive event pitting local bartenders against each other for the title of best olive-themed cocktail creator is set for this Friday, January 11. This year, the event moves to Ramekins Culinary School. Part of the annual Olive Season, the night features bartenders from all over the Valley offering sips of their cocktails along with small bites and live music. The evening’s festivities begin at 5:30 p.m. For the first time, this year guests can purchase tickets to a three-course dinner and cocktail class in conjunction with the event. Tickets begin at $40. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit ramekins.com or call 933.0450. For all of the wonderful details surrounding the Olive Season events, visit olivefestival.com.
Next Wednesday, January 16, the Epicurean Connection hosts a “Guest Chef and Farmer Dinner” with Victorian Farmstead Meats’ Adam Parks and Chef John Lyle. The lovely sounding meal pairs local wines and includes chicken and dumplings, Porchetta with local vegetables, and a fig tart. The dinner is $75 per person, starts at 6:30 p.m. and reservations can be made by calling 935.7960.
Chef Rob Larman prepares his to-die-for Cassoulet, the classic French winter dish consisting of white beans, duck confit, and sausage for his next dinner at the Valley Wine Shack on Friday, January 18. His “Cassoulet Dinners” are always popular and extremely delicious and include a butter lettuce salad and his spectacular Valrhona chocolate mousse. Wine and beer will be available for purchase. The dinner costs a mere $35. Reservations are necessary by calling the Wine Shack at 938.7218.
Recipe from Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker
Place noodles in a large bowl; pour hot water over to cover. Let soak until tender but not mushy, 5–10 minutes. Drain; set aside. Heat vegetable oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add egg; stir until barely set, about 30 seconds. Add shrimp, if using. Cook, stirring, until shrimp and egg are almost cooked through, 2–3 minutes. Add tofu and radish; cook for 30 seconds. Add noodles and cook for 1 minute. Stir in sprouts. Add tamarind water, fish sauce, and simple syrup and stir-fry until sauce is absorbed by noodles and noodles are well coated, about 1 minute. Stir in chopped garlic chives. Add 1/4 tsp. ground chiles and 1 Tbsp. peanuts and toss well. Transfer to serving plates. Garnish with remaining 1/4 tsp. ground chiles, 1 Tbsp. peanuts, and lime wedges.
Kristin Jorgensen is one of Sonoma’s most passionate, food obsessed residents. In this weekly column, she covers all the delicious happenings, foodie events and restaurants in Sonoma, the rest of Wine Country and beyond. Email her with comments, questions, or your food related events at firstname.lastname@example.org.