For the new year, let’s remember that we Sacramentans are ideally positioned to get outta town. We have the unique opportunity to explore the dining and market scenes in destinations that are the envy of the world – Lake Tahoe, San Francisco and the San Francisco Peninsula, the Bay Area, the Napa and Sonoma wine countries, and the Monterey region, for starters.
With that philosophy in mind, we day-tripped to Menlo Park recently and strolled up and down the bistro- and boutique-lined main drag, Santa Cruz Avenue.
“This town is the venture-capitalist center of the Peninsula,” said our guide, Menlo Park resident Susan Eres. That dynamic is reflected in the prices on restaurant menus and the glut of goods artfully displayed in every store window.
Along the way, we encountered the extraordinary Draeger’s Market (since 1925), a two-story ode to high-end grocery shopping. Its produce section, bakery and deli help define the concepts of abundance and quality. Its shelves are so laden with diverse goods that the store publishes a map (the coffee bar is upstairs) and itemized directory (tuna for sushi is found on the “back left side”). A 30-page magazine called Cooking is the guide to Draeger’s cooking-school classes, which teach how to make the likes of roasted game hen and “crispy phyllo purses” stuffed with goat cheese, dates and bacon.
Farther along is Angelo Mio, a 17-year-old Italian restaurant whose tall-ceilinged interior looks as if the Baroque and Renaissance styles of architecture came for dinner and decided to stay.
Two lunch pals and I sat at a sidewalk table and people-watched over plates of stuffed baked artichoke with shrimp, splashed with lemon-white wine sauce; airy house-made gnocchi in silken basil sauce; tender, from-scratch ravioli stuffed with veal, ricotta cheese and basil, and covered in disconcertingly purple red-wine-cream-ground-beef sauce; and penne pasta with luscious meatballs, mushrooms, spinach and garlic in meat sauce. The tiramisu was good, but the lemon cheesecake was better. The menu ranges from $5 to $25; look for lunch specials.
Just down the road from Menlo Park is Woodside, home of some of nation’s wealthiest players, including Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. The multimillion-dollar compounds are hidden behind hills, forests and fences, including Ellison’s 23-acre estate, built to resemble a 17th century Japanese palace.
The town of Woodside itself is tiny but intense. We wandered through the estimable Roberts Market, which began life in 1889 as a San Francisco butcher shop, then moved into its current location, a wood-floored building dating to the 1930s.
Among its customers are private chefs who won’t reveal whom they work for because they’ve signed nondisclosure agreements, but they’re the exception.
“When you see our lunch rush, you can tell our clientele is all over the map,” said grocery manager Michael Kerr. “Fully a third of our customers are laborers and construction guys, and (a high percentage) of the rest are everyday people from all over the area. We do have a lot of gluten-free and organic (items), but we’re not a health-food store. Our butchers will cut you a steak thick enough to choke a hyena.”
Roberts looks like a little country store, but the shelves are filled with fascinating gourmet goodies. We lingered over the spectacular bakery, A-list meat counter and world-class deli. In the cold case, grilled swordfish and lasagna competed for space with lemon-pesto linguine and hero sandwiches. To-go containers were filled with rack of lamb with rosemary jus, salmon with red Thai curry sauce, and grilled chicken with leeks and mushrooms.
We walked across the street to the Woodside Bakery & Cafe. A supercharged Jaguar XKR-S coupe crouched in the parking lot. Starting price: $132,000. Presumably, the ridiculously huge rear spoiler keeps it stable when it’s doing 185 mph on nearby Highway 280. The owner must have taken the restaurant’s slogan to heart: “Come in your Bentley or on your horse.”
Inside, the bakery part of the store sells a fragrant array of Danish pastry, bear claws, twists, muffins, cupcakes and more, but its specialty is cakes, pies and tarts, about 20 in all.
The cafe area is a long counter with stools and a few tables, and menus that will make you hungry just by reading them – wood-roasted mussels, pizza from a wood-fired oven, turkey pot pie, crab melt, pot roast.
“One of our best-sellers is the Penne Sylvia, with pomodoro cream sauce, mushrooms and basil,” said cafe manger Nowell Olson. “Another is our sun-dried cranberry and apple salad with mushrooms, gorgonzola cheese and walnuts. Some customers buy a piece of salmon or chicken to put on top of it.”
We walked along the counter, surreptitiously eyeing what the breakfast crowd was eating – a shrimp and Swiss cheese fritatta here, French toast with dried cherries there. We settled for rich coffee and flaky hazelnut twists.
Then it was time to move on. Though our car does not have a spoiler, we had something better in the back seat – a crowd of paper bags full of groceries from our travels. Apparently, we’d found new meaning in the term “going to the store.” Best advice: Bring an ice chest.