Friday, May 28, 2010

28 people, 18 carry on bags, and dinner at Il Fornaio

Had a chance to get to San Francisco this week - barely there for 24 hours, but had enough time to realize, once again, that this is pretty much my favorite city on the planet. No other place I've been has more elegantly combined the urban chaos of a great city with an abiding love for the good life. I love that it's a city defined by bookstores, by wine, by food, and by living life outdoors. Can't do much better than that.

24 hours is, sadly, not enough time to do anything outdoors, or even stop by a book store, but it was enough time for some food and some wine. After an afternoon of meetings at the University Club in Nob Hill(itself pretty awesome), all 28 of us filed out, got into bat-out-of-hell cabs, and headed out to Burlingame for dinner at Il Fornaio.

Disclaimer: This place is a chain. I'm not generally a fan of chains, but this is not a huge one, and they make their own pasta. Sometimes you've got to make an exception.

The food was, honestly, pretty fabulous. And it was surprising in a couple of ways. First off, you expect food at an upscale 20-location restaurant to *look* amazing. That's the easy part - the garnish and and the color. In that respect, Il Fornaio fell a couple of notches short. The appetizer plate was pretty, but my pasta arrived looking absolutely limp and lifeless, with a few bedraggled shreds of basil as its sad adornment. The taste: out of this world. The pasta was silky and perfectly cooked, the sauce subtle and simple. Those draggles of basil were actually remarkably fresh and sweet, and worked well with the garlic and bite of the sauce.

The second surprise was dessert. This is a place that seems made for dessert. Italian desserts are about as good as they come, and places with a little capital can generally find some talent to throw around the kitchen. But the dessert that came out was actually kind of cloying and overpowering. The name escapes me, but the dessert involved cake, mousse, and berries alongside a puddle of vanilla bean and raspberry sauce. Individually, the items were pretty solid, but taken together, the balance was all off. Far too much mousse, far too much sauce, not nearly enough of the berries or the cake. In the end, it was pretty much a garnished tower of sweet chocolate mousse.

Overall, it was a lovely experience - not without it's blemishes - but Il Fornaio delivered in some of the hardest stuff, and effortlessly managed to make 28 people, all lugging various luggage, completely at home at one very long table.

Il Fornaio on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 17, 2010

Holy, Wholly, Holey, Wholy Bagels

A bagel, by definition, is holey. Eaten au naturel, a bagel can be wholly a bagel. For some, I imagine, it can be even be holy. Add to that now Wholy, as in South Austin's Wholy Bagel. If the origin of the name is a mystery, the bagel itself is not. Put simply, these are some of the best bagels I've ever had, in Austin or anywhere. And in my little corner of Southwest Austin to go from absolutely nothing to this place is a lovely thing indeed.

One thing Wholy is not is trendy. It does not have wheels or a propane tank out back or international fusion or loud music. It's a tiny shop, crammed in a strip mall between Cypress Grill and the former home of Little Gym. Especially viewed from the parking lot, this place is about as nondescript as they come.

But inside is cozy, clean and warm, with a friendly, chatty, attentive staff. The store is dominated by a deli case with a small selection of Boar's Head meats and some fresh cream cheeses, but the real deal is up on the wall where the bagels are perched in metal baskets. One thing you notice when you first walk in is the paucity of these baskets - there's not a lot of excess inventory. But every time I've been there, I've seen a baking sheet of bagels being carried out and popped in the displays - just maybe a dozen at a time. That's part of the magic of this place - the scale is small enough that everything is just super fresh.

The bagels are huge and light - poised at a point between chewy and soft. It's not an easy balance to get right, and while different people may have different ideals on the chewy/soft/dry/moist spectrums, for me, these are just about perfect. I think there are some purists who would argue that these are too puffy for real bagel street cred. For me, it's not an issue. Except when I've tried to cram them in our toaster, which doesn't work so well.

Wholy Bagel is just a few miles from our house. My new Saturday tradition is a bike ride down to the store, loading up the backpack with cinnamon raisin for the girls, and everything or poppy for tracy and I, and riding back with the smell of warm bagels egging me on up the long and inescapable Escarpment hill.

It's a tradition I can see sticking with for a good long while. Wholy Bagel - your name may be a conundrum, but your bagels rock my world. Thank you for putting your anchor down where you did.

Wholy Bagel on Urbanspoon


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