Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Three Perfect Hours in Healdsburg

Hamachi sashimi with Asian pear and soy truffle vinaigrette, Shimo
Some years ago I wrote for "Hemispheres," the United Airlines in-flight magazine, where the signature travel feature is "Three Perfect Days." The idea is to give the highlights of a city, whether Milwaukee or Moscow. But if you actually followed the itinerary, it would be a three-day nightmare: rushing from museum to shopping to lunch to shopping to coffee to a short hike to shopping to dinner to ... STOP!

Healdsburg now has enough area attractions, when you include the wineries of nearby Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley, to merit such a grim three-day experience-a-thon.

But there's a better way to enjoy the downtown Healdsburg square, which I'm fortunate to visit several times a year. I was there Sunday, and I think I have the perfect formula for Three Perfect Hours in Healdsburg.

THREE PERFECT HOURS) Grab a stool in open-air Spoon Bar, just outside the main square, but with plenty of foot traffic to keep you interested if the Giants aren't on.

You can easily while away 15 minutes browsing the cocktail menu. The bartenders never pressure you to order because the choices are difficult, and the array of ingredients is right in front of you -- fresh herbs and flowers sitting in water, bowls of fresh fruit, and a back bar with artisanal booze heavily slanted toward the locally made.

My biggest regret at Spoon Bar is always that I can't have more than a couple of cocktails, when there are at least a dozen I want.

Nuit en Maroc
Spoon Bar's cocktail menu was created by Scott Beattie, who has written a book on the topic. Scott wakes up early to collect some of his ingredients, either from farmers' markets or occasionally by foraging.

On Sunday, from the "tart and refreshing" section of Scott's list I had the Hemingway Daiquiri ($9.50), with two kinds of rum, lime and grapefruit juice, maraschino liqueur, agave nectar and Angostura bitters. I also had the East India Sidecar ($10.50): Germain-Robin brandy from Mendocino County with lemon juice, maraschino liqueur, essence of bergamot and Angostura bitters. Both were outstanding, and very different: the Hemingway Daiquiri summons the tropics with its fruitiness, and the noticeable rum flavor adds depth and gravitas. The East India Sidecar is great for an Earl Grey tea drinker: the bergamot is both exotic and familiar, and the bitters temper the drink's slight sweetness.

One of these days I'm going to make it to the "Improved Classic Cocktails" section of Scott's list, but it hasn't happened yet.

As part of my all-important research, I was also there Saturday along with about 20 guys from Missouri in town for a wedding party. As I was leaving, one said, "Can I get an ordinary beer, like a Bud Light?" The answer is no (live a little, guys), but there are local beers and wines on tap. But great wine and beer is all over Healdsburg, but Scott Beattie's cocktails are only at Spoon Bar, and are well worth long negotiations over who's driving and when.

These drinks are not weak, so even though Spoon Bar has food, my Three Perfect Hours continues with getting a (very) little air on the 15-meter walk to another local food celebrity's place, Doug Keane's Shimo. Shimo started out as a too-pricey steakhouse that served ramen at the bar, but the ramen proved so popular that it's now the focus of the restaurant, particularly at lunch. Even though it's expensive ramen ($12.50 if you want pork chashu, which for most shops is an essential ingredient), I don't know how long Keane can keep the staff going without selling the $40 steaks he set out to sell.

I lived in Japan for 8 years and am a tough critic of ramen. It's trendy in New York and the Bay Area but ramen is not a food for trend-following chefs to crank out one day for the heck of it. The only local ramen I've had up to Tokyo standards is Santa Ramen in San Mateo. Great ramen requires days to make the soup, the key ingredient. Japanese ramen shops sometimes throw their garbage away across town to hide soup ingredients. Yelp posters get all excited about food trucks selling ramen, but I have yet to have a good bowl from any of them; they're better than the reconstituted stuff we all ate in college, but that's not a very high standard.

You don't have to go on a ramen pilgrimage to Japan to learn about the cult of the noodle: just see "Tampopo," the greatest food movie ever made. (Runner-up: "Big Night.")

Keane, also the chef at Cyrus -- which is as good as the French Laundry, and more affordable -- is obsessive about mastering the details and has a healthy respect for Japanese food. His shoyu broth and miso broth are both very respectable efforts; if not "drink the soup bowl dry"-worthy, they are tasty and elegant and not overdone. The shoyu broth, unusually, has a strong chicken flavor from his inclusion of wings and other chicken parts. It's Tokyo style, which means it's not too heavy, and it's subtle enough that you can taste the impact of add-on ingredients (tip: Don't add too many.)

The chashu pork is really untraditional. It's not a flat, slightly charred, dry slice; instead, it's plump and juicy, like the edge of a plump pork chop. I resent paying $4.50 extra for something most ramen shops include as part of the bowl, but that said, this tender pork is something very different.

There's only one flaw to what is otherwise an excellent bowl of ramen: Keane doesn't make the noodles himself. The noodles I got had the slight ammonia taste they get when they're not completely fresh. That didn't stop me from scarfing the whole bowl of them, but it is does give him one last area to perfect.

We also had his excellent tsukemono ($3.75) -- Japanese pickles, extremely fresh and vinegary, apparently made that morning. The miniature turnip was most delicious; very slight vegetable sweetness contrasted with the sharpness of the vinegar. And his appetizer of hamachi sashimi with Asian pear and soy truffle vinaigrette ($10) -- very untraditional, because ramen shops in Japan don't want to fool around with sashimi -- was superb, with small crunchy bits of genmai adding textural contrast.

We didn't get into Shimo's sparse beverage list because I was still absorbing the Spoon Bar cocktails. After the ramen, it was off to the last stop for our Three Perfect Hours: Flying Goat Coffee.

Healdsburg has fancier coffee shops. The Downtown Bakery and Creamery makes its own ice cream and baked goods, and Cafe Newstand is trendy-looking. But if you really want good coffee, Flying Goat is the only choice. Moreover, Spoon Bar and Shimo get locals, but Flying Goat is almost all locals.

It's not true that coffee will help you get less drunk. It might make you THINK you're less drunk, but nothing will lower your blood alcohol after Spoon Bar other than time.

But you might as well spend that time with a fine coffee, or as I did Sunday, discussing which of the coffee beans that Flying Goat sources and roasts itself would be best in a Toddy home ice-coffee maker. The baristas had recently had an ice-coffee making competition, and everyone who had entered (which was every employee I spoke with) had a strong opinion on how it should have gone, rather than how it did. Who knew ice coffee making contests had the same drama and tension as figure skating? I wonder if one barista has ever kneecapped another?

I went home with a pound of a single-finca Ecuadorian coffee and new knowledge about why washed beans are better, after finishing the free cup of drip coffee you get when buying the beans.

So that's my Three Perfect Hours in Healdsburg, and it really is meant to be done in exactly that order: Spoon Bar, Shimo, Flying Goat Coffee. Hemispheres would never accept it as a story because there's no shopping, hotels or museums. But really, what could be more perfect than drinks, lunch and coffee? Perfection is not excess: it's balance.


Jerry said...

Nice post. Healdsburg is a fun town indeed. My wife and I were just there and after reading your blog, regret that I didn't try Shimo or Spoon bar. Next time perhaps, thanks for the tips!

P.S. Big Night it definitely one of the best food movies ever- haven't seen the Japanese flick you put at number 1.

Kristy Charles said...

I second Spoon Bar and Flying Goat, but I had absolutely no idea about ramen in Healdsburg. Will definitely head there the next time we are picking up supplies for the winery!

Kent Benson said...

Why ARE washed beans better? How does one know if one's beans have been washed?

W. Blake Gray said...

Apparently washing the beans eliminates inconsistent ripeness. Your retailer has to tell you if they're washed.