Aida Mollenkamp’s Top 11 Spots for Bay Area Foodies

Aida Mollenkamp. Photo by Julie Michelle
Aida Mollenkamp. Photo by Julie Michelle

Recently named one of the eight sexiest women on TV cooking shows, Aida Mollenkamp also happens to have a wealth of culinary expertise and knowledge in addition to being a hot TV food personality.

The host and co-creator of the television show “FoodCrafters” and “Ask Aida” she attended Cornell University and then the esteemed Le Cordon Bleu in Paris where she studied culinary AND pastry arts. She ended up in San Francisco when she became one of the editors of the online food magazine, CHOW. Currently, she’s working on her first cookbook, tentatively titled, “Keys to the Kitchen,” due out in 2012.

She recently took some time out of her hectic schedule to tell me about her love of food and the top spots in the Bay Area she’d recommend for food fiends like herself (that aren’t restaurants).

Elaine: You call yourself a “long-time food fiend.” Where does your love of food come from?

Aida: Oh, that’s a hard one. It’s like asking me why I like to dance (she’s a former classical dancer) — it’s just the way it is and always has been. My family showed me to respect food and through gardening and shopping with my mom, I also learned where my food came from. But, I guess there was this kismet moment in my teen years where I realized that food was like a cipher to understanding various cultures. From that moment on, I’ve looked at cooking as a means of traveling through my tastebuds.

Elaine: Where did the idea for your show “FoodCrafters” come from?

Aida: My friends would say the show is just an extension of how I naturally live as I’m constantly hunting down new tastes and food stories. The real story is that it is a creative collaboration with a producer I worked with on “Ask Aida.” We shared a passion for good quality food and would constantly trade stories about the latest tastes she hunted down in Brooklyn and those I had found in San Francisco. “FoodCrafters” became this natural fit of a show where my passions could be explored while giving the small guy the spotlight as we uncover foods, flavors, and stories from around the nation.

Elaine: You’ve lived in some of the best food areas in the world: Los Angeles, New York, Florence, Paris, and now San Francisco. How is the Bay Area different from all of them, food-wise?

Aida: Each city I’ve lived in has its own culture, and with it, its own food personality. San Francisco’s food scene is integrated into our daily lives in a way that I’ve only seen in Europe, but it’s also decidedly Californian as we’re simultaneously playful, respectful, and creative.

Aida Mollenkamp. Photo by Julie Michelle
Aida Mollenkamp. Photo by Julie Michelle

Elaine: What are the Top Eleven places in the Bay Area that you’d recommend for food lovers?

Aida: Here’s my list:

  1. The Pasta Shop — 1784 Fourth St., Berkeley
    I don’t remember the first time I went to The Pasta Shop, but I do recall that I liked the selection so much I considered convincing them to let me live there. Everything from 4505 Meats‘ chicarrones to sodas I’ve never seen this side of the Atlantic, they do a marked job curating their food and everyone on the staff is highly knowledgeable.
  2. Cheese Plus — 2001 Polk St., S.F.
    When I first moved to SF, I lived in Pacific Heights and would walk to work and quickly got in the habit of making a detour to Cheese Plus. As the name suggests, there’s not just cheese and I’ve also discovered instant favorites like crackers from The Fine Cheese Co. I’d spend the majority of my meager start-up salary on all the treats in there and have my friends laughing that instead of buying designer shoes, I was splurging on rare cheeses.
  3. Bi-Rite Market — 3639-18th St., S.F.
    It’s a 5-minute walk from my place to Bi-Rite Market, so I have become a regular there. In fact, I credit my many trips to Bi-Rite — where I discovered new foods and their backstories — as the source of my idea for FoodCrafters.
  4. Miette Confiserie — 449 Octavia St., S.F.
    With décor right out of the pages of a Roald Dahl book, Miette is as aesthetically pleasing as it is tasty. I lived in Hayes Valley when the confiserie opened and was immediately drawn to the carefully selected sweets, including chocolates from all over the world.
  5. City Beer Store — 1168 Folsom St., S.F.
    I arrived in San Francisco a wine drinker, but have been versed in the world of cocktails and beer thanks to knowledgeable places like City Beer Store, where there are always new beers to discover.
  6. Nest — 2300 Fillmore St., S.F.
    When I first moved to the Bay Area, I was over in Pacific Heights and would longingly walk by the eclectic boutique, Nest, everyday. When CHOW went from print to online, I treated myself by buying a set of hobnail glasses that I’ve kept to this day.
  7. Heritage Culinary Artifacts — Oxbow Market, 610 First St., Napa
    The Ferry Plaza is unparalleled — except perhaps by downtown Napa’s Oxbow Market. There’s an antique store there, Heritage Artifacts, that I became addicted to when we filmed in the market for last fall’s FoodCrafters.
  8. Heath Factory Store — 400 Gate 5 Rd., Sausalito
    Heath has a cult following among the food and prop styling crowd, but it’s not all that affordable unless you go to the factory store. When I first found out about it, I headed over in an absurdly large van thinking there was no way I needed all that space. But a few dollars and a couple of hours later, I filled the van to the brim with boxes and boxes of discounted, yet still gorgeous plateware.
  9. McEvoy Olive Oil Ranch — 5935 Red Hill Rd., Petaluma
    There’s moments when you travel somewhere and the environment has just as much impact as the food. The McEvoy Olive Oil farm in Sonoma is one of those places. But be warned: by the end of their tour, you may be considering olive oil farming as a new career.
  10. The Marshall Store — 19225 California 1, Marshall
    Definitely the farthest I’ve ever driven for oysters, The Marshall Store is as out of the way as it comes but is worth the trek. Fresh oysters, tangy BBQ sauce, and cold beer — need I say more?
  11. The Tourist Club — 30 Ridge Ave., Mill Valley
    It’s the hidden gems of the Bay Area that make it ever more interesting and Tourist Club is one of those very places. A few miles deep into the Muir Woods, the Tourist Club is a century-old German brauhaus that is closed to the public, except for a few hours each weekend. After an exhausting hike of Mt. Tam, there’s nothing better than pitchers of draft beer with friends on the Tourist Club’s sunny deck.

*Cross posted on Bay Area Bites

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Don’t Let This Shack Fool You!

After staying in Sonoma for the weekend, we wanted something low key for breakfast before heading back out on the road.  I had hoped to head to one of my favorite places in the area, Red Grape, but they weren’t open until 11:30.  The Girl and the Fig was a little too fancy for what we were looking for.  And the Black Bear Diner was a little too “chain restaurant.”  I was hoping for something different.

We’d passed by The Fremont Diner on Highway 121, and after reading some rave reviews online, that’s where we headed.

It’s a dinky old shack basically, with signs for “Whole Hog” and “Fried Pies” on the exterior, which would obviously make me and the Hubby take notice given our affinity for all things meat.  It’s a great place where you can stop in, order at the counter, and take a seat inside or out.  But don’t let its modest surroundings fool you.

The details are everywhere if you look carefully, from the wildflowers on the table, the homemade jams and condiments for sale, to the mason jar water glasses.

This place is known for their meats and brisket is the thing to have here.  So since it was breakfast, I got the Brisket Hash with carmelized onions, roasted potatoes and a perfectly runny fried egg on top.

Boy was I not only pleased with this dish, I was utterly floored!  These guys (and gals) were churning out some gourmet dishes secretly back there!  The hash was out of this world, peppery and smoky.  The onions and sage created a wonderful base for the dish, and those potatoes were perfectly soft and delicious.  The gravy from the hash made everything perfectly moist.  There was so much detail and depth to the elements in this dish and it all blended together wonderfully.

My Hubby ordered the traditional egg breakfast, but it came with some fantastic homemade fennel sausage that was, again, out of this world.  These people sure know their way around meat.  And the side order of bacon we got for the toddler was also fantastic.

Top that off with some perfectly toasted artisan french bread, and we were totally amazed at the level of skill and detail that this kitchen was able to produce.  I LOVE being surprised by a place and this was the best surprise surprise I’d eaten at in a very long time.

Fremont Diner on Urbanspoon

Taylor’s New Name

Taylor’s Refresher in St. Helena has been a Wine Country staple for years. It’s THE place to grab a stellar burger and shake, and more recently, their San Francisco location in the Ferry Building, as well.

Recently, they changed their name to “Gott’s Roadside Tray Gourmet.”  Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.  Fortunately, the food hasn’t changed.

I visited the Ferry Building location for some greasy goodness and a side of fries.  For whatever reason, I wasn’t in the mood for a cheeseburger.  These days, I consider the In N Out Double Double the standard, so nothing’s been living up to it.  Why disappoint myself?

I went for the Wisconsin Sourdough Burger, which had BBQ sauce, sauteed mushrooms, Wisconsin cheddar and bacon, all on toasty sourdough.  No way I could pass that up!  I decided to go for broke and add to that an order of Garlic Fries, too.  Mmmmm, Garlic Fries…

And they didn’t disappoint!  They were thin and perfectly crispy.  And I love when they pile on the garlic and herbs.  This was a total winner.

And the burger?  Fortunately, it was no slouch either.  I’m not usually a fan of bacon, but I left it on there.  The combination of all those elements was total overkill but oh so good.  I am a sucker for a burger on sourdough, and add to that mushrooms?  I was in greasy, toasty, heart attack heaven.

My only complaint is that it’s a tad bit pricer than most casual burger joints.  Again, I think I’m spoiled by the value that In N Out delivers.  Other than that, if you’re in the city and are craving a casual burger on a nice warm day/night, you could do a LOT worse.

Gott's Roadside on Urbanspoon

Ad Hoc: Nobody Does It Better

I’ll spare you the repeat history lesson on Ad Hoc in Yountville, Thomas Keller’s accidental restaurant. I’ve written about it in a previous post. Only this restaurant would warrant a write-up from me each time I pay them a visit.

Yes, it is that good.

So let’s get straight to the food. My Husband and I had planned carefully a trip to this restaurant on their famous “Buttermilk Fried Chicken” night, which happens only every other Monday. After all the hype from every foodie who has experienced it, I knew we were in for a treat.

We started with a Baby Iceberg Lettuce Wedge Salad with marinated cucumbers, paper-thin baby radishes, pickled red onion, crumbled bacon and green goddess dressing.  Again, as with every other salad I’ve had here, I don’t know how the lettuce they serve can be so damn tender and sweet!  The tart and sweet onion was the perfect foil for this salad.  And the bacon adds heft.  The fact that I’d even refer to a salad as “amazing” is amazing in itself.

Then it was time for Buttermilk Fried Chicken.  Boy oh boy, this did NOT disappoint.  The skin was deep-fried (not pan-fried) to perfect golden crispness.  And the meat was oh so juicy, tender and moist.  Pure perfection.  And at the end of each bite was that little tang of buttermilk that’s so subtle yet so distinctive.  It was fantastic.

It was served with a phenomenal sautéed corn dish with onions, red peppers, corn milk from the husk of the cob, paprika and cayenne pepper for a real kick.  I loved it.  It was bold yet comforting at the same time and the perfect partner for the chicken.

The other side was a Rancho Gordo black bean and rice dish with veggies and oyster mushrooms.  I am not a huge beans and rice gal, but I could appreciate the dish.  My Husband loved this one.

And the cheese plate…Oh that cheese plate.  I would forgo all desserts for another one of these cheese plates.  It was a Redwood Hill Farm Cameo sheep’s milk cheese that had the texture of a super soft brie, all goey and creamy.  It was topped with red pepper berries and herbs, which gave it a soft kick.  Alongside it was some perfectly toasted Palladin bread and a Cherry and Red Onion Marmalade.  Oh…my…gawd.  Crazy good.  That’s all I can say…crazy good.  This course was absolute perfection.  Probably my favorite of the night.  (Yes, even more than the chicken!)

We finished with what was our least favorite course of the night.  I LOVE cupcakes, so I was a bit disappointed in how dry the Red Velvet with Cream Cheese Frosting was.  And the addition of Verona Chocolate Chips on top was just plain unnecessary.  It actually competed with the frosting’s flavor and texture.  The only highlight of it was the fresh strawberries that were baked right in.  That part of it was delicious.

The other cupcake was a Banana with Caramel Center and Rum Vanilla Frosting.  That one was better, but tasted more like bread than cupcake.  Not the best execution, but still good nonetheless.

The highlight of this dessert, however, was the accompanying Lemon Buttermilk Sorbet.  Again, oh…my…gawd.  It was like lemon cheesecake in ice cream form, but light, delicate and sophisticated.  I’d have that sorbet again in a heartbeat.

And once again, the staff is so professional they make it seem effortless. They aren’t stuffy or intimidating. I’ll admit, I was nervous about bringing the toddler to a Thomas Keller restaurant, but the staff couldn’t have been better. They were fun, didn’t take themselves too seriously, but took pride in their jobs and the food they were serving.

The best thing about Ad Hoc is that there is no element of the dinner that isn’t well thought out, executed to perfection, and given the highest quality ingredients. I love how the menu is so seemingly simple night after night, but so perfectly executed like a symphony. Each course adds something different and yet works with the other courses so perfectly to create a complete and perfect meal.

Ad Hoc on Urbanspoon