Category Archives: Restaurants

Hola to Olla Cocina

Duck carnitas tacos -- a must-order at Olla Cocina.

Duck carnitas tacos — a must-order at Olla Cocina.

 

The weather outside may be wet and dreary at this time of year, but you’d never know it from the inside of downtown San Jose’s Olla Cocina.

The casual Cal-Mexican eatery opened last summer after the building was revamped, giving it a playful design that makes you feel like you’re sitting on the terrace of a hacienda even if you’re completely protected from the elements. On a beautiful summer day, though, the glass garage doors at the front retract to let the sunshine in.

The soaring space was designed by restaurateur Doug Washington of San Francisco’s Town Hall fame. The colorful dining room is set off by a patterned tile floor, a reclaimed wood pergola, painted cinder-block wall, shoes hanging from overhead wires, and eye-catching Dia de los Muertos wallpaper. There are even a couple of swinging rattan egg-shaped chairs that just beg to be sat in.

Day of the Dead wallpaper.

Day of the Dead wallpaper.

Bringing the feel of the outdoors in.

Bringing the feel of the outdoors in.

There’s also a private dining room upstairs with a massive wood table, an old church pew, and framed historical photos on the walls.

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The Newest Il Fornaio Opens in Santa Clara Square

A bountiful Mare Chiaro at Il Fornaio in Santa Clara.

A bountiful Mare Chiaro at Il Fornaio in Santa Clara.

 

So conditioned are we these days to thinking negatively about chains that we often dismiss them without a second thought.

But bigger doesn’t always mean mediocre or less personalized.

Case in point: Il Fornaio.

The Italian restaurant chain started in the Bay Area, but now has 23 establishments not only throughout California, but also in Colorado, Virginia, Washington and Nevada.

I admit I hadn’t dined at one in quite awhile, even if I’d always had fine experiences at them, including when I held my wedding rehearsal dinner at the San Francisco locale years ago.

So, when I was invited in to dine as a guest at the newest Il Fornaio, which opened last month in the new Santa Clara Square retail-residential complex, I knew it would be satisfying, but I honestly had forgotten just how good the food really can be.

After all, it may be a chain, but it takes the time and effort to make its own breads and pastas, which is no easy feat. And it does so exceptionally well.

Fetching a bottle of wine.

Fetching a bottle of wine.

The Santa Clara restaurant is a huge 150-seat affair housed in a 6,200-square-foot building that has the air of a modern-day Tuscan farmhouse with soaring ceilings, weighty wood posts, a wide-open dining room, an open kitchen, and stylish glass-enclosed wine storage cases that reach to the ceiling and are accessible by a library ladder.

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Holidays at The Hotel Healdsburg

Holiday tea is served in style at the Hotel Healdsburg.

Holiday tea is served in style at the Hotel Healdsburg.

 

Sonoma Wine Country always sparkles, but even more so during the holidays.

With everything ablaze in festive lights, it’s a wonderland without the true toll of winter.

There’s no better place to experience it, too, than at the Hotel Healdsburg, as I found out when I was invited as an overnight guest recently.

The 56-room boutique hotel, right on the square, is co-owned by celeb Chef Charlie Palmer, who lives with his family just four miles away on a 36-acre spread. The hotel was his first venture upon moving to the area in 2001. It sports one of his restaurants, Dry Creek Kitchen, as well as a lifestyle store, Lime Stone, operated by his wife Lisa.

For the holidays, the hotel gets dressed up with strings of lights, and both tabletop and 6-foot-tall decorated trees. The contemporary fireplace in the lobby lounge is always aglow with a warm fire. Nearby is a help-yourself station where you can assemble your own cups of spiced cider or hot cocoa complete with cinnamon sticks or mini marshmallows.

Dry Creek Kitchen -- all done up for the holidays.

Dry Creek Kitchen — all done up for the holidays.

The lounge also has a full bar, with plenty of tables and chairs around the fireplace, to enjoy an afternoon glass of wine or morning breakfast, which is included in the price of the room.

Now through Dec. 23, the lounge also serves a popular Holiday Tea on weekends from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. It’s $34 per person with tea and food; $43 with wine; and $14 for kids under 12 who get a choice of tea, cider or hot chocolate.

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The Long-Awaited Single Thread Finally Opens

Chef Kyle Connaughton in the kitchen of Single Thread, the restaurant-farm-inn he and his wife have dreamed for years of creating.

Chef Kyle Connaughton in the kitchen of Single Thread, the restaurant-farm-inn he and his wife have dreamed for years of creating.

 

Healdsburg’s Single Thread is an ambitious, high-end restaurant. It is an organic, sustainable farm. And it is a luxurious inn.

It is also the most hotly anticipated opening of the year.

Above all, it is a labor of love and dedication by husband-and-wife team Chef Kyle Connaughton and farmer Katina Connaughton.

After two long years of construction, it finally opened its doors to the public last Friday. I had a chance to check it all out at a media dinner held just a few days before that.

Connaughton’s impressive credentials include cooking at Heston Blumenthal’s the Fat Duck in the United Kingdom and Michel Bras’ Toya Japon in Hokkaido. Katina learned the tenets of sustainability while working on a strawberry farm in Japan.

It was under construction for two years.

It was under construction for two years.

Just a few steps off the square.

Just a few steps off the square.

Together, that ethos of serene Eastern hospitality and utmost respect for the land imbue the restaurant, which they built almost from the ground up. The former post office right off the square was supposed to be a tasting room with lodging for Seghesio Vineyards. But when the winery was sold to Crimson Wine Group, the property became available. And the Connaughtons pounced on it for their dream restaurant.

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Sacramento’s Grange To Get a Facelift

 

The top-selling zabuton at Grange.

The top-selling zabuton at Grange.

When Sacramento’s Grange reopens tomorrow, it will have a refreshed look.

I’m curious to see how this farm-to-fork downtown restaurant will re-imagine itself, as I had the chance to check it out a month before the redo, when I was invited in as a guest of Grange and the swank Citizen Hotel.

Downtown Sacramento is undergoing its own renaissance, what with the opening of Golden 1 Center, home of the Sacramento Kings, just a stroll away.

With Chef Oliver Ridgeway’s farm-to-table sensibilities and an industrial, masculine setting of concrete columns, soaring windows all around, and black steel pendant lights, the restaurant has long been a popular venue. The bar area in particular gets packed early in the evening whenever there is an event going on at the arena.

Grange's former look.

Grange’s former look.

I started with a Blueberry Shrub ($13), a refreshing sip of gin, lemon, thyme, and Luxardo sour cherry syrup, made extra puckery with Buckeye Creek blueberry rice vinegar. It’s a great way — and a pretty one — to rev the palate up.

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