Saturday, November 29, 2008

Copia Closes

In a shocking discovery Napa's COPIA building has shut its doors to the public. All of us who have appreciated the space to celebrate food, wine and art; plus those of us who have made use of the concierge, the wine pass, and the great restaurant, mourn the passing of this Napa Valley gem.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Is the Fried Chicken Worth the Wait?

I had heard about Ad Hoc's fried chicken dinner--I heard people line up on alternating Monday and Wednesday nights; heard Thomas Keller soaks the chickens in milk, and even feeds them milk before slaughter; heard the all you can eat family style meal is addictive; heard that you won't find a better deal in all of Yountville. Well, the rumors are true, sort of.

First off, the space itself is worth a visit--spare, with waiters wearing shirts that recall gas station attendants from the 1950s, with wide smiles and big praise for the God of Food--Mr Keller. The wine list, as you might imagine, is stellar, focusing on local wines, but not leaving out the stars of other regions.

We got there early on a Monday night and though there were no lines to be seen, about half of the tables were already taken (at the 5pm opening time). The diners were a mix of locals celebrating birthdays, families and folks on a date. Local secret: you can sit at the bar without a reservation.

Food is served family style in a 4 course prix fix style. Our fried chicken was accompanied by a wedge salad, black eyed peas and rice, collard greens, a rich cheese with a late harvest honey and a dark chocolate brownie (with a creme fraiche topping). Every thing I tasted was better than the next...except the chicken. Don't get me wrong, it is good. Too good; sinfully good. But it can not stand up to the reputation--especially not when the cuts are fatty, or pink (yes we had to send a piece back). The chefs did redeem themselves with the last piece: a thick, juicy breast of white meat that almost melted in my mouth. Almost.

The servers said to come back for other dishes, which change every night and are, some say, better than the infamous chicken. Besides the fried chicken days, diners don't know what is on the menu until that afternoon, but you will be in for a treat if Keller's take on beef stroganoff is on the menu.

Bottom line: try the chicken at least once, but come back for the truly creative dishes, the ones worth a hefty $50 per person.

Ad Hoc (

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Spa Treatments Worth Your Hard Earned Cash

Since jetting off to Fiji isn't in everyone's budget at the moment, perhaps the cure for the winter blues might include some indulgence in a Northern California spa. In researching my NORTHERN CALIFORNIA: AN EXPLORER'S GUIDE, I had the chance to try out spa treatments and here are a few that would surely make good stocking stuffers.

San Francisco
Kabuki Hot Spring and Spa ( offers a truly indulgent Abhyanga Massage with Shirodhara Treatment that makes you feel like someone is taking off your scalp and filling it with warm honey. Afterwards you can soak in the hot springs, sip tea and read in the communal bathhouse.

Sen Spa
( is located in an old military bunker in the Presidio and upon entering, you won't believe how the architects transformed the space into an earthly haven, incorporating fire, water, earth and air into the design. You can nibble on dark chocolate before your massage or facial and then relax in the lounge, reading the inspirational quotes scattered around the facilities.

Sonoma County
Osmosis ( offers guests the only chance in Northern California to experience Japanese cedar enzyme baths. Afterwards get a massage by the talented massage therapists then head next door to Wildflour Bakery for some of the best bread around.

Kenwood Inn Spa ( specializes in vinotherapy--wine baths, chardonnay facials, cabernet scrubs. My favorite is the wine barrel bath, overlooking the vineyards, followed by a massage. Afterwards, you can relax by the pool, sipping an elixir and listening to the fountains. Can we say decadence?

Napa County
Auberge Du Soleil Spa ( might not allow walk ins in summer, but come wintertime, you can stroll onto the property and be treated like the celebrities that hide out at this gorgeous retreat. Start with champagne, a dip in the 98 degree infinity pool overlooking the valley and then choose between a massage and outdoor bath overlooking the forest or a facial with a foot massage. Whatever you choose, prepare to veg out afterwards.

Villagio Inn Spa
( offers one of the finest spas in the valley. If you can spring for it, get an Asian-themed suite (one of the only of its kind in Northern California), where you get to enjoy a 2.5 hour spa treatment of your choice, a steam shower, private fireplace and outdoor tub.

Central Coast
Bernardus Spa ( is my choice for under the radar spa treatments in a pastoral setting. Not only will you enjoy regal treatment, but you can relax by the pool for hours, eating Cal Stamenov's wonderful cuisine.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Coffee Shops

Because I am a coffee addict, while researching my EXPLORER'S GUIDE, I had to find the best coffee in the entire region. Below I have listed the THE spots to get top notch lattes and a respectable cup of joe.

San Francisco
Ritual Coffee Roasters (
Blue Bottle (
Four Barrel (375 Valencia St)
Cafe Trieste (
Caffe Roma (

South Bay
Barefoot Coffee Roasters (
Caffe Del Doge (

East Bay
Cafe Trieste (

North Bay
Northpoint Coffee (

Central Coast
East Village Coffee Lounge (
Ol' Factory Cafe (

Temple (

Naked Coffee Roasting (

Sonoma County
Flying Goat Coffee (

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Best Northern California Beaches

My dad calls NorCal the Hinterland. Seems that every time he visits, the imfamous fog blankets the coast, creating a chill that seeps through the skin and touches bone. Though I spend most of June and July cursing this cold region, what I rarely tell people who don't live in Northern California is that we have some glorious beach days. We get these weeklong stretches of sunny weather that drives locals to the beach to act like real Californians. So where are the best beaches? Here is a list of my favorites.

Hike-In Beaches
Julia Pfeiffer State Beach, Big Sur
Point Lobos State Park, Carmel
Wildcat Beach, Pt Reyes

Sunbathing Beaches
Seabright Beach, Santa Cruz
Baker Beach, San Francisco
Stinson Beach, Marin

Surf Beaches
Pleasure Point, Santa Cruz
Ocean Beach, San Francisco
Mavericks, Half Moon Bay

Family-Friendly Beaches
Pacifica Beach, Pacifica
Half Moon Bay Beach, Half Moon Bay
Carmel Beach, Carmel
Main Beach, Santa Cruz

Other Notable Beaches
Limantour Beach, Pt Reyes
McClures Beach, Pt Reyes
Fort Funston, Daly City

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Fire in the Skies of El Dorado County

We had to be on the banks of the American River prior to dawn. As a new mom, getting up before your child isn't high on the list of musts, but they informed us that we could lift off and see the sun rise over the rolling hills--a sight, they claimed, that would awe even the most grumpy morning person.

A coffee and pastry later, the balloon's fire roared, lifting it off the ground. Inside the basket, we could hardly hear the instructions of our pilot--which I later learned was a good thing, since he wanted to make the trip into an adventure by telling us all the near miss landings he had experienced. Quickly we floated into the air, coasting along the river.

If you are among the countless who think the Sierra Foothills are only good for a gas stop on the way to Yosemite and Tahoe, you, like me, would have been impressed. The golden hills rolled like sheets of silk in the breeze, while oaks filled the crevices, seemingly grounding them to the earth. As the sun began to rise, it reflected off the roaring river and sprayed rays in all directions. Below, as they heard the roar of the fire in our balloon, weary campers waved from their sleeping bags. Horses and dogs greeted us as we passed. It seemed that no one below could ignore the spectacle of a balloon floating over the town of Columa. I looked over the site where James Marshall first struck gold and understood why the pioneers stopped in these valleys, made them their homes, believed in the power of the earth.

After 45 minutes of floating through the air, it was time to land. However, the wind had picked up and kept veering us towards the trees instead of a meadow. The pilot was radioing his crew to get them to find a safe space to land to no response. He wanted us to try and land without assistance. But without extra hands to pull us in, we needed a lot of space. We floated towards the Sierra Mountains until a field opened beneath. Seven false landings later, our crew appeared and we finally set down in a field of brush.

Our pilot had all the confidence in the world that our landing would be safe, and he was correct. However, his sense of adventure during the flight did make my heart race. And for our adventurous spirit, the pilot offered a champagne picnic and a toast to the newly minted members of the hot air balloon club.

A hot air balloon ride is an experience unlike any other. Is it worth the $200 per person you'll spend? Depends on how much you have to skimp to go on the journey. If money isn't an option, this is a not to miss experience--complete with adventure and out of sight photo opportunities. Why should you take a trip in Coloma rather than Napa or Shasta or Tahoe? It is a dash cheaper here, quite picturesque, and the pilot doesn't make you clean up the balloon after landing--which you do in many of the Napa trips. Besides, it is a great way to get a feel for the winding American River rapids before a rafting trip. Contact for more information.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

San Francisco Free Museum Days

One of the zillions of things I love about San Francisco is its commitment to enabling everyone access to art and museums. Below is a list of the city's museums and the days they are free to the public.

Free 1st Sunday of the month
Asian Art Museum

Free 1st Tuesday of the month
Cartoon Art Museum
De Young Museum
Legion of Honor
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Free 1st Wednesday of the month
SF Zoo

Free 3rd Wednesday of the month
California Academy of Sciences

Monday, November 3, 2008

San Jose: An IT Destination?

People in San Francisco don't often consider San Jose a worthy stop. Many float through for Vietnamese food or cheaper gas than in the City, then continue on to the Gilroy outlets, Santa Cruz, the Central Coast or LA. But I'll tell you a secret, San Jose is growing up.

In and around Cesar Chavez Square you'll find enough to keep you busy for days. Start with the Tech Museum--which currently has a wonderful Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit--and with the price of admission, you get to view an IMAX film. The museum itself offers so much information about how the world works, you'll want to spend hours playing with the interactive exhibits.

Around the corner, kids will love the Children's Discovery Museum. WIth everything from live music to bubble machines, crawl space for little ones to interactive science and art rooms, this is the kind of spot that mom and dad can chill out while little Logan runs all over the joint, tiring himself out.

The San Jose Museum of Art often has some of the most innovative exhibits in the Bay Area. Modern art lovers will want to spend some time exploring the collection and rotating display of art. Currently, there is an interesting exhibit on Road Trips.

Cesar Chavez Square, erected in the 1880s, is a central hang out spot for locals and tourists. Here you'll find everyone from dreadlocked hippies banging drums to women in saris to kids running through the fountains. It is the ideal spot for a picnic or watching the planes land in the airport close by.

When you get hungry, you have a few great options, but my current favorites include 19 Market--a modern Vietnamese restaurant--and Michael Mina's Arcadia steakhouse. Even if you don't eat meat, Arcadia is the ideal spot for a nice dinner. Spacious and hip, sit at the foot of the Marriott and watch the chefs prepare your meal in the wood oven. You can't miss the lobster corn dogs, ahi poke and soup special. Nor do you want to pass your chance for a steak or cioppino. The sides though are what put the restaurant over the top. Wood fired exotic mushrooms, truffled mac and cheese, whipped potatoes...just thinking about them makes me want to eat. But it is pricy (a dinner for two with drinks ran us $160). They are about to open a lounge next door, where you can enjoy fancy cocktails and small bites.

If you don't want to drive home, the De Anza Hotel, Hotel Montgomery or Marriott are within walking distance from the square. All balance hip amenities with retro appeal. The bummer is that parking rates are steep. For deals, go on weekends.

Unfortunately in the morning, you'll have to drive to the best coffee shop in the South Bay--Barefoot Coffee Roasters. Disregard the location in a strip mall and order a latte, then sit on mismatched chairs and relish in the fact that your coffee could win a barista contest.

Still looking for something to keep you busy? Head to Saratoga and Los Gatos for some window shopping, or hike Big Basin's redwood grove.