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{ Dry Creek Valley } { Wine Country Bikes } { Oakville Grocery } { Gary Danko }

The rest of the morning was spent reminiscing about the previous night. Reality was sinking in and the boy and I could not believe that we finally ate at The French Laundry. At Tartine, the line was long but we waited for our ham and cheese croissants and iced coffees. Their croissants are massive but so good there was no problem finishing one. I also bought a dozen of their chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and walnut cookies. If we had more time to spend in the city, we would have stayed and enjoyed our breakfasts with the morning paper. But the vineyards were waiting.

Recently dubbed by The New York Times as "the destination for all things culinary," Healdsburg was recommended to us by California friends in lieu of Napa. It is just a short drive from the center of town to three Sonoma County wine locales: the Alexander Valley, the Dry Creek Valley and the Russian River Valley. The region boasts a variety of superb wineries but as yet lacks the crowds of toursists that flock to next door Napa. Healdsburg is still a farming community even though prunes, which was the main crop until the 1970s, has been replaced by grapes.

The boy opted for tacos across the street from Oakville Grocery while I stood in a long line inside waiting for my order of mushroom, sun-dried tomatoes and pancetta pizza. We sat outside the store and ate our lunches under a big umbrella.

After lunch, we drove to Front Street to pick up the hybrid bikes I reserved before leaving New York City. One of the owners, John Mastrianni, has been in the bike business the last twenty-five years. He said he made the best decision in his life when he moved from New York to Sonoma County with his wife. I think the effects of his move is reflected by his accommodating and gentle manner.

Once we donned our helmets, he gave us a map of the Dry Creek Valley highlighting his favorite vineyards. The boy and I decided to bike the twelve miles to the other end of the valley. We agreed to bike to the top of West Dry Creek Road and work our way down to Kinley Road. From there we would work our way back down, stopping at a chosen vineyard for a tasting and rest. The weather was perfect for biking. There was a little breeze coming in from the east. The midday sun was hot but not oppressive.

Our first stop was Bella, where the tasting was held inside a cave. They have a limited production, less than twenty-five barrels, but all their wines reviewed have received 90 or more points from respected wine critics all over the country. Their Zinfandels were huge, lush, and would require foods that were equally un-shy if one wanted to pair. The Syrahs by contrast were tamer though no less vibrant in terms of fruit and flavor.

Next stop was the 125-acre Preston Vineyards, where organic vegetables are farmed alongside the grapes. Picnic tables are set outside for visitors to enjoy the wine with their food. Preston was the only vineyard that charged us $5 each for the tasting. We tried their four wines: Zinfandel, Syrah, Rousanne and Vin Gris.

We crossed over to Lambert Road and ended up at Passalacqua, where finally we had some refreshing Chardonnay and a wonderfully crisp Sauvignon Blanc. We bought a bottle of each and packed them in our bike bags.

Unfortunately, the Dry Creek Vineyard across Passalacqua was closed for a special event. The boy and I decided this was the end of our tasting. We had about six more miles to go before Kinley Road and it was almost 5pm. I struggled on the way back. My legs were becoming weak and jello-like. I frequently stopped by the side of the road. Finally I made my way back to the rental shop. Back in our car, we devoured the leftover pizza from Oakville before starting our drive back to San Francisco.

Dinner tonight was at Gary Danko. We had an 8:30pm table for four but ended up waiting thirty minutes to be seated. The kitchen sent us amuses to enjoy with our starter drinks at the bar. Since Sean is a vegetarian, they prepared an extra one without salmon for him. It was a Tuesday night but the restaurant had the busy buzz of a weekend crowd with all the diners around us. As much as we promised ourselves not to compare The French Laundry to Gary Danko, it was disappointing to see that the service here was not up to par. Apparently tonight's performance was not representative of the Gary Danko my companions were familiar with. When a restaurant charges $70 for four courses, I expect the service to be better than what we received that night.

When we were finally seated, they forgot to give us the wine list. We had to request for it when the sommelier came to our table to ask us if we had decided on wine. When I decided on a glass of Zinfandel the sommelier walked away with the list without asking the rest of the table for their drink orders. When they brought us a second round of amuses, we had to remind our waiter again that one of us was a vegetarian. No one told us about the specials until we inquired. It also took a while for our waiter to return to take our orders. We spent four hours during dinner not because our courses were perfectly paced but because we were waiting for our food to be served.

In spite of the service mishaps once the food finally arrived, I began to appreciate what Gary Danko was really about. I started with the seared ahi tuna with avocado, enoki mushrooms and nori. The lemon soy dressing was almost too tart but the mushrooms and avocado provided the right balance. The tuna was wonderfully tender and pink. The size of this dish could almost have made it an entree.

Next was the roasted Maine lobster with chanterelles and white corn. Tarragon was the strongest herb in this dish and it tasted like it. I could have been happy without the potato puree because the lobster was rich enough to make the dish a complete meal.

I greatly enjoyed the frog legs wrapped in pancetta. The garlic puree was a nice touch to the lentils and both kept the saltiness of the bacon at bay.

For dessert, I chose the apricot tart with almond cream and Beaumes de Venise ice cream.

The food was excellent. It was unfortunate though that I had to be there on an off-night from the wait-staff.

600 Guerrero Street @ 18th
San Francisco, CA

Dry Creek Valley
Highway 101 to Healdsburg in Sonoma County
About an hour north of San Francisco

Wine Country Bikes
61 Front Street
Healdsburg, CA

Oakville Grocery
124 Matheson Street
Healdsburg, CA

Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves
9711 W. Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg, CA

Preston Vineyards
9282 W. Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg, CA

Passalacqua Winery
3805 Lambert Bridge Road
Healdsburg, CA

Restaurant Gary Danko
800 North Point at Hyde Street
San Francisco, CA

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