Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Discovering Pan-America at Bocanova in Oakland

By Emma Krasov, photography by Yuri Krasov

A shiny symbol of Jack London Square’s revitalization, an upscale and artful Bocanova is owned and operated by the restaurant industry veterans and spouses Meredith Melville and Chef Rick Hackett.

Their kitchen pursues a special brand of harmony found in the flavors of the Americas – jalapeno, habanero, avocado, jicama, tomatillo, chimichurri…
The menu meticulously lists pantry, raw bar, garden, oven, etc. – the many locations a cornucopia of earthy delights is coming from. Choose any or choose all. You can’t go wrong with Bocanova’s creative approach to traditional dishes from different countries of origin successfully integrated into a Pan-American feast.

Start with cocktails, like Premier Paloma or Tangoed Up in You. Tequila, agave nectar, and cava surely set the mood for a culinary journey.

Mushroom escabeche with olive oil and cilantro is a great little starter coming from the pantry.

From the raw bar, Pacific rock fish ceviche is a definite winner with spicy lemony marinade nicely balanced out by a heap of starchy plantain chips.
And speaking of enticing starches, no matter what you order, don’t miss sweet potato and chipotle gratin from the oven.
On the night my husband and I first visited Bocanova, that was the dish that blew me away and shook the very foundation of my tastes and likes. I never really liked sweet potato considering it a cloying cousin of a perfect food, which is a highly-versatile regular tuber. But I do like chipotle, and when our knowledgeable server suggested the dish, I decided to give it a try.

Was I rewarded for my decidedness! A geometrical construction of thin golden layers, dusted with cilantro, which is Bocanova’s sweet potato, came as a true discovery – creamy, spicy, smoky, and incredibly well-balanced. I couldn’t stop eating it, but when I did, I asked to box a remaining tablespoon-size piece for me to take home and relive the experience.

Another surprise came from the grill. I’ve eaten quite a few pork loin plates in my life. However, this juicy Prather Ranch piece of meat appeared to be the best-dressed one, with tart tamarind glaze, crunchy jicama slaw, and bitter watercress, making it simply unforgettable.

A glass of Tamaral, full-bodied smooth tempranillo from Spain made a good match.

For dessert, a decadent warm chocolate croissant bread pudding paired with Lagrima white port from Portugal rounded up the delightful experience.
A big part of Bocanova’s attraction is its gentrified factory building ambience with high ceiling, ample seating and stylish light fixtures, as well as Villeroy & Boch fine china from Germany, and gallery displays of local artists’ work.
Sculptures by Jeff Margolin (www.jeffmargolin.com), paintings by Carrie Nardello (www.carrienardello.com) and shadow boxes by Meg Abraham (MegAbraham@gmail.com) are on display throughout the dining hall, private room, and even restroom hallway areas.
Bocanova is located at 55 Webster St., Oakland, CA. Call 510-444-1233 or visit www.bocanova.com.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Falling for Beautiful Ladies at Asia SF

By Emma Krasov, photography by Yuri Krasov

Come for the dancers, stay for the food, or come for cocktails, stay for the beautiful transgender ladies – any way you come to Asia SF you’ll want to stay.
With Aliyah, Nya, Darna, and their equally gorgeous colleagues dancing and lip-syncing on a bar, Asia SF restaurant – a San Francisco institution, could’ve gotten away with just mediocre fare. However, the Asian-inspired cuisine here is as enticing as the show.

But first thing first, darlings. As Nya puts it, “The more you drink the more beautiful we look.” Despite self-deprecating humor, the graceful ladies of Asia SF are a sight for sore eyes even if their viewers are cold sober, but no self-respecting diner would start a pleasant table conversation without a good cocktail, would he/she now?

So, every lady dancer in the joint has her own signature drink on the menu.
For redhead Scarlett, the newest cast member, it’s Sake Cosmo, for Nya it’s Razzle-dazzle with ROKK berry vodka and Chambord, and for Brandy it’s not really brandy, but Gin Blossom. Be it Jasmine’s Tarantula, a.k.a. The Ultimate Margarita, tinted with Blue Curacao, or Darna’s Lemon Drop, you are sure to enjoy it.

After the cocktails, dinner is served ménage a trois style. Each guest orders an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. All plates are meant to be shared. For starters, blackened tuna sashimi with picked carrots, daikon radishes and ginger is a perennial favorite.

Another great seafood appetizer is called “porcupines” – shrimp and scallop with water chestnuts rolled in clear noodles then deep-fried to crispiness.
As soon as the guests get their first bite, the show starts.
On the night we dined, Aliyah, Darna, and Nya were the featured dancers, enthusiastically cheered by the spectators.

Their dancing was skillful, and their costumes were creative and whimsical. Be it Chanel-clad baby doll, a vamp, or a femme-fatale, it’s always a pleasure to behold.

Then our main course arrived.
Meaty and satisfying miso-glazed king salmon with black rice was nicely complimented by a side of sweet tomatoes, red onions, and edamame beans.

Excellent filet mignon came sliced for sharing on a dramatic black plate with fried potato stars and Japanese eggplant salad.

By the time desserts came to the stage – pineapple cheesecake and trio of miniature ice cream cones – so did the dancers.
This time, the costumes were even more festive, the dancing more daring, and the three ladies of the first show were joined by Scarlett who at the beginning of the evening performed the hostess’s duty by the front door.

She began her number dressed as an L.A. starlet stepping out for coffee – short shorts, pink sweatshirt, flip-flops and Hollywood shades.
Then, all the street clothes fell off, and Scarlett appeared, long-legged, slender, and busty, in a cocktail dress and high heels, jingling her bangle bracelets and batting her long lashes.
Aliyah in turquoise chiffon looked like a true diva, while Nya in a wild punk black and red outfit managed to dance her own numbers and to emcee at the same time.
Darna stole the show with her fiery dance.
Incredibly feminine, in a silvery sparkling dress, she moved with energy, ease and grace, giving her audience enough time to appreciate and/or envy her voluptuous body.
Good time was had by all at Asia SF. Alas, it couldn’t last forever. The place is popular among the tourists and city dwellers alike, and is usually packed with couples, groups, and bachelorette or birthday parties.
Hurry up and see for yourself. Asia SF is located at 201 9th Street, San Francisco. Make your reservation by calling 415-255-2742. To find out more, visit: www.asiaSF.com

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Revisiting San Francisco Icons at Hyatt Culture Club

By Emma Krasov
Image: courtesy Jules Older. Beach Blanket Babylon 25th Anniversary Silver Skyline hat

There are always things to behold in the largest atrium lobby in the world at Hyatt Regency San Francisco. Hotel guests never tire of taking photographs from every side of the aluminum sculpture by Charles O. Perry, Eclipse, created in 1973 and standing at 35 feet.
Its namesake Eclipse Café with signature cocktails and cool minimalist ambiance is a popular hangout for tourists and city dwellers alike.
Holiday season brings in crowds to admire thousands of cascading Christmas lights and artificial snow falling from the ceiling.
These days, the ever-popular Hyatt Culture Club presents a display of San Francisco iconic institutions who partner with Hyatt for the first quarter of 2012 providing discounts for the hotel guests.
The thematic San Francisco Icons exhibition in the Hyatt lobby through March 31 features Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon, the world’s longest running musical revue; Cable Cars, running in San Francisco since 1912, and Ghirardelli Chocolates, a manufacturer and marketer of premium chocolate products since 1852.
Beach Blanket Babylon mannequin wears 25th Anniversary Silver Skyline hat, 13 feet wide, seven feet deep and 24 feet high. It weighs 350 pounds and the brim alone required over 60 yards of taffeta and over 200 ostrich feathers.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s exhibit celebrates the invention and technology of the iconic cable car and features a life-size photo backdrop.
Ghirardelli Chocolates shows off 160 years of history with vintage advertising and products, and educational information on the chocolate making process.
In the second quarter of 2012, Hyatt will celebrate Golden Gate Bridge’s 75th Anniversary with archival displays and lectures.
In the third quarter, The ExplOratorium will revisit the hotel with a three month interactive display of some of the museum’s most popular artifacts.
By the end of the year, a snow village display will come back to the grand atrium lobby with snow falling three times a day.
Hyatt Regency San Francisco is located by the Embarcadero Center, and at the beginning of the California Street Cable Car line, in close proximity to Financial District, Downtown, Chinatown, North Beach, Union Square, South of Market, AT&T Park (home of the SF Giants) and Embarcadero’s waterfront walking and jogging trail.
For more information, and to reserve your stay at Hyatt Regency San Francisco, visit www.sanfranciscoregency.hyatt.com.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sonoma Wine Road Marks 20th Anniversary of Winter Wineland

By Emma Krasov, photography by Yuri Krasov

While California Wine Country makes any savvy traveler’s list of top places to enjoy wine, food, and nature, Sonoma County jumps to the very top of it by sheer volume of Wine Road’s visitor-oriented events.
Wine Road is not only golden vineyards and picturesque little towns along Highway 101 that leads to the many wineries of Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valleys. It is also a name for an association of vintners and innkeepers, tirelessly promoting their cornucopia of earthy delights.
With more than 150 wineries and 50 lodgings, this creative organization puts up numerous educational and wine-tasting programs. One of its most popular annual celebrations, Winter Wineland, just turned 20 this January.
Every year, feeling overwhelmed by the amount of participating wineries, I try to rush through the list, but end up exploring just some of them – in depth.
This time, I limited my winter wine tasting to the vicinity of the town of Sebastopol.

I started at Graton Ridge Cellars, owned and operated by a family of Barbara and Art Paul, and Sue Bonzell. How could I leave their hospitable sun-lit backyard with Adirondack chairs and bocce ball court, where classic chili was served to compliment robust and tannic 2010 Petit Syrah from Russian River Valley?

I enjoyed my time in the sun, and proceeded to try sweet 2010 “A+” apple port made with locally-harvested Gravenstine apples, and berry-rich 2009 “Peninsular” Zinfandel Port.
My next stop was at Dutton Estate Winery, historically tied to Sonoma County since 1881.

On a wisteria-covered terrace of the boutique winery I learned about a perfect pairing of Dutton Estate 2008 Manzana Pinot Noir with Cynthia Newcomb’s California lamb stew. The secret of the stew lay in humble winter vegetables – carrots, parsnips, and potatoes, roasted before being added to the pot – deglazed with wine, of course.

Taft Street Winery was next on my list, pairing its tasting room exclusive 2008 “Garagistes Reserve” oaky Chardonnay with freshly-made clam chowder. Coming from Russian River Valley grapes, the wine took gold at the California State Fair, and silver at S.F. Chronicle Wine Competition, Sonoma County Harvest Fair, and Orange County Fair.

My last but not least stop was at Russian River Vineyards, in a fairy-tale historic house with an elegantly-modern tasting room, where dark and complex 2009 Petit Sirah was paired with equally elegant hors d’oeuvres of beef tenderloin with creamy and spicy lobster remoulade.

Sonoma County, producing highest quality wines for over 130 years, continues to entice visitors from near and far with its rich history, natural beauty, viticultural diversity, and culinary prowess.
To learn more about the Wine Road events, visit: www.wineroad.com.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

On the Road to Yosemite: Staying and Playing at Tenaya Lodge

By Emma Krasov, photography by Yuri Krasov

The many wonders of Yosemite do not end within its borders. A couple miles south from the South Entrance, behold Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite – an oasis of civilization as inspiring and as harmoniously pertinent to wilderness as the granite cliffs and rainbow waterfalls of the beloved national park.

The AAA Four-Diamond hotel sits on 48 acres of woods and meadows, and looks and feels like a place where you want to vacation time and again. It has its own distinct character, 297 guest rooms, a 6,000 sq. ft. Grand Ballroom, five restaurants, an amazing spa, and is well-equipped for all kinds of outdoor activities.

Arriving after a day spent at Yosemite’s Valley Floor Tour with a side trip to Glacier Point, my husband and I couldn’t wait to settle in our Honeymoon Suite with a hot tub opening up to the warmly-colored bedroom and a splendid view of sugar pines and giant sequoias right outside our window.

To be exact, we were not on our honeymoon – that was, like, 25 years ago, but who says you can’t enjoy a plush hotel room with down bedding, a romantic dinner by a fireplace, and a couple’s massage at a spa on a random weekend? Make it your honeymoon – or at least your honey day!

Let’s not underestimate the three rules of real estate that make Tenaya Lodge so irresistible. Located by the Sierra National Forest, the all-season resort provides its guests with immediate or easy access to cross-country skiing, sleigh rides, snowshoeing, sledding, ice-skating, and snowmobiling in fall and winter. In spring and summertime, there is whitewater rafting, golf and tennis, horseback riding, guided nature hikes (some at night, with flashlights), mountain biking, rock climbing, fly fishing, and various water sports on Bass Lake.
As it happened, there was no snow in the mountains mid-January, and if front of the hotel we saw two racks with equipment for both seasons – one with mountain bikes, another with show shoes – just in case.

On the morning after our arrival, we signed up for a one-hour Guided Nature Hike, which took us on a loop trail through the enchanted forest with hugging trees, icy Big Creek coming from Merced River, and beaver dams.

Fresh mountain air, clear blue sky, and cushy forest floor provided a perfect classroom where we’ve learned that sugar pines grow to 300 feet, hold five needles in a cluster for five letters of the word s-u-g-a-r, and develop huge “widow maker” cones loved by squirrels for their sugary pine nuts.

We also learned that black ravens use 19 different calls, mate for life, and have a special call for their mates (calling them by name?).
We stopped to look at a tree trunk turned into an ant hotel by carpenter ants. Then we stopped to touch a carpet of bear clover. Bears like to roll in these plants to cover their hides with the natural oil which protects them from tics and lice.

Then we marveled at a beaver’s miscalculation – the tree intended for a dam fell not across the stream, but in a different direction…
The forest was serene and quiet. A small plane cruising above was monitoring chips in endangered animals, like Pacific fisher weasel, and doing other environmental work.
For us, it was time to return to the hotel and explore more of its offers for exercise and fun.
Was it the friendliness of the Tenaya Lodge staff or the invigorating effect of the surrounding nature, but I attempted two physical activities I’ve never done before.

First, it was archery at Sierra Mountain Archery Range, steps from the front entrance.

Don’t tell me that traditional recurve bows are easily used by 5-year-olds – I was as proud of my bull’s eye shot as a regular Amazon.

Then, it was ice-skating at the open air 80x40-feet hotel rink. While I was making my wobbly way along the barrier with posted friendly reminders, “Skate at your own risk,” my skate-proficient husband was twirling in triple axels and reclining on the ice for breaks.

Finally, I felt much more confident swimming at the spacious indoor pool, with a video game arcade next door to keep the kiddies occupied while adults are doing their laps.

After the workout we endured during the day, at early sunset we were ripe for the Ascent Spa at Tenaya Lodge, with an outline of Half Dome as its symbol. Recently renovated and decorated with natural stone, earthy-colored furnishings, and nature-inspired photography on the walls, the spa invites hotel guests to its dry heat saunas, tiled steam rooms, dimly-lit massage rooms named after Sierra birds, trees, and flowers, and relaxation rooms where it’s easy to lose any sense of time while sipping hot or cold herbal teas and dozing off to quiet soothing music.
All I can say is, do not leave Tenaya Lodge without a visit to Ascent Spa. A skillful massage will leave you fully restored, renewed and reenergized, even after you have ascended Half Dome or El Capitan.
For a great finale of our “honey day,” we sat down to dinner at Sierra Restaurant off the hotel lobby.

With a fireplace at the dining room center, cozy booths are lined up along the walls, and comfy chairs surround elegant tables for four. The menu is California-comprehensive, and the wine list is California-great.
Sierra Restaurant uses plenty of locally-grown organic and sustainable products and locally produced wines and beer.

I started with my favorite lemon drop cocktail, and it was perfectly balanced and absolutely delightful – take it from someone who knows her lemon drop.

Cheese beer soup made with Fiscalini cheddar and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was just what the doctor ordered for a chilly winter night.

I also thoroughly enjoyed my eggplant napoleon with layers of grilled tomato, red peppers, and goat cheese, and my husband’s Angus filet mignon with colored fingerling potatoes and cabernet sauce.

When it seemed that we wouldn’t be able to eat another bite for a week, we retired to our luxurious suite for a good night sleep.
In the morning, before we headed back home to the San Francisco Bay Area, a hearty breakfast at Sierra Restaurant set us off for the day.

Was I happy that we overindulged in All-American sandwich with scrambled eggs, prosciutto ham, and cheese, hash brown, and French toast! What lay ahead was an unexpected misadventure with our car breaking down; a kind postmistress of the town of Fish Camp helping us connect with the local mechanics; leaving our car in a shop, and heading home in a rental… But even that couldn’t spoil our mood.
Now we’ll have to retrieve our car from the mechanic’s shop when it’s ready, on some future date, but who knows, maybe it’ll lead to another stop at Tenaya Lodge, and who would complain about that?
More information and reservations at: www.TenayaLodge.com