Author Archive for Astronomer

San Antonio Winery: Taste of the Americas

During a brief respite from traveling this September, The Gastronomer and I made our third visit to San Antonio Winery in downtown Los Angeles. Attending the winery’s events is becoming a monthly tradition for us, and it’s also becoming a tradition that I give The Gastronomer a rest by handling the blogging duties. She’s written enough about Mexican food in the past couple of months to last a lifetime.

September’s event at the winery was the “Taste of the Americas” wine and food festival. The setup was similar to Boutique Beer Tasting—the large crowd strolled through the main room sampling food and drinks from several buffet tables and wine stations and then retreated to tables set up throughout the expansive complex to relax and enjoy their selections.

The food offerings were similar to the last event—a bit too similar, I thought, although there were some interesting new choices. I liked the Argentinean empanadas, and The Gastronomer thought the Chilean baked clams and Paraguayan seven meat stew were excellent. The foamy papaya mousse from Chile made me feel like I’d taken a brief detour to a modern fine dining restaurant, although the flavor wasn’t particularly groundbreaking.

Perhaps the strangest dish of the afternoon was the Brazilian vatapa, prawns served in an intensely peanut-y coconut milk sauce. Although she generally gobbles up peanut butter cups and the like, The Gastronomer was really turned off by this particular combination of flavors.

My favorite dish was the Nicaraguan chicken fried rice. It looked unspectacular, but the flavors were really excellent. As with The Gastronomer’s own fried rice recipe, the crucial ingredient was the sausages. I was also excited for the chance to try chicharron (fried pork rinds). They were tasty, but so thick and hard that we could barely bite through them.

After witnessing the rapid depletion of the dessert table at the last San Antonio Winery event, The Gastronomer made sure to make it her first stop this time. She gave rave reviews to the Alfajores De Maicena (short bread and dulce de leche sandwich cookies). After a couple of trips through the entrée lines, I didn’t have much room left for dessert (I’ve always been more of a savories guy), but I did enjoy a chocolate covered strawberry and a couple of little cream-filled fruit tarts.

As I worked my way through the food options, I also began sampling the nine wines on offer, starting with the La Linda Torrontes (Torrontes are an Argentinean grape). I also tried a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and a Mexican Chardonnay, but I was feeling rather uninspired to drink more—the nature of the food and the rambunctious environment made me yearn for a beer instead. Despite what Joshua Wesson tried to teach me with his peanut butter, I still only feel the urge to pair wines with certain foods, and the unrefined South and Central American dishes didn’t do it for me. Fortunately, none of the other attendees seemed to mind—booze was flowing freely, and two hours into the event our neighbors showed no sign of losing steam. The Gastronomer and I also sampled the homemade white and red sangria, both of which were delicious.

We hung around long enough to catch a musical performance and meet a kind fellow dressed in traditional Peruvian garb. He promised us a dance, but alas, we had to head out before it materialized. I’m sure those who stuck around were in for a treat.

San Antonio Winery: Boutique Beer Tasting

Hello everyone, it’s The Astronomer. These days, as my posts become more and more infrequent, I feel obligated to introduce myself at the outset, lest readers become confused and wonder why The Gastronomer has suddenly started talking about herself in the third person.

A few Sundays back, The Gastronomer and I attended our second event at San Antonio Winery in downtown Los Angeles—a boutique beer tasting with food pairings. The Gastronomer wants to appreciate beer with all her frat party-loving heart, but alas, her taste buds have yet to comply. Perhaps an ice luge would help the process along? Anyhow, I have been left with the task of expounding on our experience. I’m no beer expert, but I do know the difference between a lager and a stout, and can recognize a mediocre brew when I taste it. Granted, I may not be able to recall the finer points of a beer the following day, but the only way to improve my taste memory is to keep drinking. Bottoms up!

Upon arriving at the event, most attendees headed straight for food or beer. The Gastronomer and I, on the other hand, made a beeline for the table of aguas frescas in the corner of the room. We can’t resist horchata. Her thirst quenched, The Gastronomer loaded up a plate with Mexican food, including a tamale, a carne asada taco, some Mexican rice, and a side of fresh corn salad. Our favorite was the the taco, which was packed with superbly grilled meat that was flavorful and moist.

Meanwhile, I headed for the beers. We were offered a selection of nine brews from Europe and North America, served in small portions appropriate for sampling. The servers recommended that we start with the lightest beers and work our way up [right to left in the above picture], so my first selection was a Czech Republic Pilsner, followed by a Mission Brewery Blonde from San Diego.

Other food items on offer included tri-tip steak with a variety of sauces, a selection of sausages paired with unusual mustards, and several desserts. The sausages, or wieners as The Gastronomer likes to call them, were the highlight of the day. Some were sweet, some were pleasantly spicy, and all made for ideal drinking food. The garlic and tarragon mustards had The Gastronomer dipping her saucy heart out. The desserts could not be distinguished from grocery store fare; nevertheless, the crowd gobbled them up at an astonishing rate.

The event lasted for three hours, plenty of time for everyone to eat and drink their fill. I skipped a few beers in the lineup and tried a Coney Island Lager next. Finally, I sampled a dark Moretti La Rossa from Italy. All four beers I tried were solid—my favorite was the Mission Blonde.

Unlike the ‘Wines from Down Under’ Australia & New Zealand Wine Tasting Seminar that we attended at San Antonio Winery last month, there was little attempt made to educate attendees on the beverages we were consuming; everyone was simply encouraged to relax and enjoy. Programs handed out at the entrance contained a short blurb about each beer for those interested in tracking down a favorite later. The atmosphere remained lively throughout the tasting—it was clear that the diverse crowd was having a blast. No doubt we’ll be back at San Antonio Winery soon for more good times.

San Antonio Winery
737 Lamar Street
Los Angeles, CA 90031
Phone: 323-223-1401

How to Get a Reservation at The French Laundry

First off, thanks to everyone for all of your congratulations and kind words in response to The French Laundry post. Since a few people have asked, I thought I’d share some tips on securing one of the famously elusive reservations. This isn’t really groundbreaking stuff—all the info is available elsewhere on the internet—nevertheless, here goes.

Basically, getting a reservation at The French Laundry comes down to pure determination. They claim there is no special treatment, although I’m sure if you’re someone really important, things would be different. In any case, it is possible for an average person acting alone to get in, but if you are hoping for a weekend dinner, it’s going to take some persistent effort. There are two ways to make a French Laundry reservation; by going to French Laundry on Open Table or by calling on the phone.

Taking the Open Table e-Route

There are three tables for each dinner service available through Open Table, only one of which is for a party of two. All of these tables become available at exactly midnight pacific time, 61 days in advance. Unlike the phone lines, which sometimes seem to be switched on at 10:01 or 10:02 instead of exactly at ten, the Open Table system is completely automated. Using a trusty internet clock, click ‘Find a Table’ at exactly 12:00:00.

If you don’t mind eating at an odd hour (5:30 or 9:30), Open Table may be the best option, particularly if you have a party of four.  In my case, the timing didn’t work—it was easy to pop out of class every day at ten and try calling the phone reservation line over and over for a few minutes, but executing the perfectly timed internet reservation at midnight without The Gastronomer figuring out what I was doing proved to be too difficult.

If you find a desirable reservation on Open Table, it’s not yours until you finish the check-out process, so act fast. You’ll want to open an Open Table account and sign in beforehand. The French Laundry also requires a credit card to secure a reservation, so have that ready as well.

Finally, if you’re fortunate enough to live in northern California or have extremely flexible travel plans, canceled reservations are often made available on Open Table. You can find these by searching for a reservation for a nearby date; when you get the ‘There are no reservations currently available for the day you selected’ message, click on ‘Find next available day.’ There’s a good chance you’ll find at least one table available, probably on a weeknight, within the next thirty days (which is as far in advance as Open Table will look using this option).

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Redial

Phone reservations are taken two months to the calendar day (i.e. call on April 25 to eat on June 25; some months this turns out to be the same timeline as Open Table’s, sometimes it’s different).  If you call before 10:00 PST , you’ll get a recorded message telling you the reservation lines are closed. If you call back after ten, you’ll get a busy signal.  Almost always.  But keep trying.

As it happened, I first called the phone reservation line on January 21, the day The French Laundry reopened after their winter break. The Gastronomer was out of town at the time—so I had the apartment to myself. I started calling at about 9:55 and got the recording. At 9:58 or so I got my first busy signal. 100+ redials later, it was 10:30, and I still hadn’t gotten through. Not surprisingly, the call volume is exceptionally high on reopening day. I took a break and tried again at intervals throughout the rest of the day, but didn’t get through until around 1 PM the next day. Dinner reservations for Sunday, March 22 were all taken, but I was just in time to grab the last lunch reservation. Unfortunately, it was at 11 AM, a ridiculous hour for a $240 meal, but I took it.

The next week, I tried calling again for a Friday dinner reservation. I called a few minutes before ten and got the recording, then a succession of busy signals, and then, at about 10:03, I got the recording again. Frustrated by The French Laundry’s lack of punctuality, I hung up and redialed. At around 10:15, I finally scored. Instead of a busy signal, a voice came on the line, telling me to hold and wait for a reservationist. It slowly dawned on me that this was the same voice I had heard at 10:03—the second recording had actually been different from the first, and if I had just stayed on the line, I would have gotten through twelve minutes earlier. Still, I waited in eager anticipation, but when it was my turn to speak to someone, all the dinner reservations were gone. My heart sank—I had gotten lucky and blown it. It was looking like my proposal might have to be accompanied by a reservation for an early Sunday lunch. Still a nice surprise, but not quite what I had imagined.

The next day I awoke invigorated and determined to try again. By now I was getting the hang of the routine. There was no point in calling at 9:55—I waited until 9:59. At 10:05, magic! I held my breath while I held for the next available operator. If you’ve never tried to get a French Laundry reservation, I’ve got to say, it’s quite an emotional ride. Calling over and over and over and getting busy signals gets tedious, but when you finally get through—what an adrenaline rush! Nearly all of the tables for two for Saturday, March 28 were taken, but I managed to snag one for 5:45. It was the hardest thing not to tell The Gastronomer right then and there. Seven days and 500+ phone calls after I first started calling Yountville, I was set.

Piece of cake!

Peking Express – Napa

On the day of our long awaited trip to The French Laundry, I awoke and ate two small bowls of cereal. The Gastronomer was intent on eating sparingly for the remainder of the day in preparation for our just shy of six o’clock dinner reservation. I was considering joining her, but by noon I was already getting hungry. I never want to go into a fancy meal with a full stomach, but it’s no good arriving ravishing either—the first few courses come far too slowly, and I am inclined to shovel them down rather than savoring each bite.

As we neared the town of Napa, we pulled into a crowded strip mall, and as luck would have it, there was a single parking space available in front of Peking Express. Even though I had been planning to pick up just a small snack, I couldn’t resist fate—I went inside and ordered a two-item combo for $4.50.

I love it how when you see a Chinese restaurant anywhere in America named “_____ Express”, you know exactly what you’re going to get—a plate of either fried rice or chow mein accompanied by several meat items chosen from a row of trays next to the cash register. Not very authentic or complex, but nearly always delicious. I went with my all-time favorite, sesame chicken, and some chow mein. In my experience, the noodles at these places are always better than the fried rice. The cashier asked me if I wanted my order “for here” or “to go,” which confused me since it was already in a Styrofoam container. I regained my composure and requested “for here,” which garnered me a tray on which to carry my Styrofoam.

The food was exactly what I was expecting—sweet, greasy, and enjoyable. Normally, I would have ordered a three-item combo, and The Gastronomer helped out a bit, so at the end of the meal I was satisfied but not overstuffed. By 5:45 PM, I was ready to roll.

What would you eat before a fancy shmancy dinner?

Peking Express
101 W American Canyon Road #510
American Canyon, CA 94503
Phone: 707-553-8800

Peking Express on Urbanspoon

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