Friday, September 30, 2011

Voted Best Chinese Restaurant in Petaluma!

Four years in a row!*

With an endorsement like that, how could we not have lunch at Lily Kai’s?

It’s not often that a Chinese restaurant will bring out the white tablecloths for lunch service, but such was the case here. Lily Kai’s is one of the new generation of Chinese restaurants with sleek and minimalist décor, painted with muted colors and offering a menu that reflects multiple regional Chinese cuisines.

The dinner menu listed a number of intriguing small plates. Unfortunately, none of these are available at lunch, so we were forced to order from the short list of noodle dishes or from the long list of lunch specials which come with your choice of steamed, fried, or organic brown rice, soup and appetizer.

The day’s soup, which came with Chuck’s lunch, was a very good version of Hot and Sour soup that proved to be more hot than sour and was full of tofu, mushrooms, and egg treads. The amount of the aforementioned three components was surprising given that the soup with Chinese lunch specials tends to be heavy on broth and light on “stuff.” We (he) were off to a good start.

His Chicken with Black Bean Sauce proved to be the best of our choices that day. But not as spicy as one would expect from a dish identified on the menu as “hot and spicy.” (Black beans are made by “fermenting and salting soybeans. The process turns the beans black, soft, and mostly dry. The flavor is sharp, pungent, and spicy in smell, with a taste that is salty and somewhat bitter and sweet” []). The dish was full of tender and moist pieces of white chicken, red and white onion slivers, snow peas, carrots, and red, yellow, and green peppers.

My lunch choice was the Szechuan Noodles with was a large bowl of soft Chinese noodles, snow peas, bean sprouts, and zucchini slices with an abundant amount of tender white meat chicken. All of the components were first rate, but where was the seasoning? Again, for a something described as Szechuan you would expect more of a flavor punch.

We decided to round out the meal with an order of Spicy String Beans. Here the sauce provided the heat that was lacking in the other two dishes but still there was a problem—the beans were either too thick or they hadn’t been cooked long enough. While I like my vegetables crisp-tender, raw beans can be unpalatable.

Our lunch was a combination of hits and misses. But my research into Chinese restaurants in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys didn’t produce any that received ringing endorsements. Lily Kai seems to be the top pick, but still doesn’t merit more than 3.0 Addies.

*(2008, 2009, 2010, 2011)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Walk Around Town

The year was 1968. I remember following the preparations of one competitor who was training for the World Arm Wrestling Championship.

Petaluma was the site of the competition, and that was my introduction to the California city.

The competitor? None other than Snoopy, fresh from his training preparations for the Olympics held earlier that year in Grenoble, France.

Unfortunately, Snoopy was eliminated because the official arm wrestling rules stated you must lock your thumbs with the opposing competitor. Snoopy had no thumb.

We took a walk around Petaluma’s Historic Downtown. Many of the city's commercial buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Masonic Lodge (photos #1-3) was built in 1882.

The clock atop the Lodge building contains the original works.

The tree-lined Petaluma Boulevard took us past the Odd Fellows Hall (left and below),

which was constructed between 1871 and 1879 and

the American Trust Building, housing the Vintage Bank Antiques (a portion is shown to the left of the Odd Fellows Hall in the photo above).

Details of the Vintage Bank Antiques exterior are shown (above and right).

The McNear Buildings appear in the photo (right). The building on the left in the photo housed the Mystic Theater, and

the building on the right, built in 1886, housed a national guard armory on the upper floors.

The buildings in the next three photos constitute Iron Front Row. In the last century, builders believed cast iron fronts on buildings made them fireproof (not true), and the practice flourished.

The buildings on this block (built in the 1880s) are considered excellent examples of the once-popular style

Shown here is some of the detail in the building pictured above.

I included the next two photos because of the brick structure and

the sign for "Elmer Lamb Real Estate" that still is easy to read.

The Old Opera House was built in 1870 to replace Main Street’s Music Hall as the city’s culture center. Thirty years later it was completely renovated as a commercial facility and remodeled again in the 1970s.

The former Sonoma County National Bank, built in the 1920s, now houses the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company.

It’s a beacon for gardeners, foodies, shoppers, and tourists alike, offering over 1,200 varieties of heirloom seeds, tools, and books.

Before heading out of town, past the newer shops in town toward the hills, we stopped for

a drink.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays

Located due west of our home base in Napa is Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS). The drive to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, however, was anything but direct, taking almost 90 minutes along a circuitous route between the two points.

The cultural history of Point Reyes reaches back some 5,000 years to the Coast Miwok Indians who were the first human inhabitants of the Peninsula. Over 120 known village sites exist within the park.

In the early 1800s, Mexican land grantees established ranchos. They were followed by a wave of American agricultural operations, which continue to this day in the Seashore's pastoral zone.

As we neared the lighthouse, we passed about a half dozen farms designated as "historic farms." Some were working diary farms and at least one (right) offered lodging.

The Seashore's webpage describes it as "...a sanctuary for myriad plant and animal species and for the human spirit—-for discovery, inspiration, solitude, and recreation—-and exists as a reminder of the human connection to the land."

Along the route, the trees provided evidence of one of the two distinctive features of PRNS--"Point Reyes is the windiest place on the Pacific Coast."

The Seashore was established " preserve and protect wilderness, natural ecosystems, and cultural resources along the diminishing undeveloped coastline of the western United States."

But it was the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse, built in 1870, that we had come to see.

Reaching the final section of the road to the Lighthouse, we realized we had failed to observe Rule #2 of traveling--call ahead to be sure a destination point is open.
"Closed Tuesdays and Wednes-days" and a Ranger's statement to not walk beyond the gate ended our drive just short of our planned destination.

So, with the hope of catching a glimpse of the Pacific, we took the trail leading south of the closed drive.

The fog added a touch of mystery to the trail. We were left wondering how far the trail led before reaching view of the lighthouse, a beach, or a cliff's edge.

We could hear the surf below, but we could only catch glimpses of the ocean between movement of the fog.

Oh, yes, the second distinctive feature of the PRNS? It is "...the second foggiest place on the North American continent. Weeks of fog, especially during the summer months, frequently reduce visibility to hundreds of feet. "

Kind of made us wonder how Sir Francis Drake, who, according to many experts, landed here in 1579 avoided being shipwrecked. (Possibly he arrived in the fall, winter, or spring.)

So, while the fog prevented us from taking photos of landscape and seascape vistas, we used the opportunity to look for the beauty of the small scenes.

Our brief visit to the Lighthouse was enough to convince us to return, maybe not in the summer and definitely not on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I’ll Keep this Short…

because, yes, it’s another blog about pizza.

As part of our walking tour of downtown Calistoga, we stopped to read the menus posted on many of the city’s restaurant windows. Nothing really grabbed us so, by default, we headed off to Boskos Trattoria, where we found the building in which the restaurant sits (far left, photo on the right; photo below) to be more interesting than the food.

“Boskos first opened on the corner across the street from our present location in 1983 where we stayed for ten years. Then we purchased the building where we are today. Our building was originally built in 1888 from sandstone quarried on the Silverado Trail; the same stone used on many buildings, wineries, and bridges around the Valley. In the early 1900’s the building was used as a grocery store, then divided to 2 spaces as gift shops, until we remodeled and retrofitted in 1993. The building was partially burned in the 1905 fire; you can still see charred wood on the ceiling while seated in the dining room. After the remodel in 1993, the building received an award for preservation from the Napa Valley Landmarks, Inc.” (

The menu includes house made pastas, Italian sandwiches, salads, soups, appetizers, and—of course—Napoletana-style wood oven pizza. We decided to share one pizza and one Italian sandwich.

Sandwich choices included: the Trentino with fire-roasted eggplant, fontina, pesto, and tomato sauce on focaccia; the Toscana with seared chicken breast, Italian mayonnaise, calamata olive spread, and fontina on focaccia; the Capotolla with sautéed Italian ham, Italian mayon-naise, Dijon mustard, and fontina on focaccia; the Antonio with grilled seasoned vegetables and goat cheese on focaccia with Italian mayonnaise; the Italian Sausage with onions, red bell peppers, and marinara on a sour dough roll; and the Meatball with marinara and Romano cheese on a sour dough roll.

Chuck started with a cup of minestrone which was filled with carrots, zucchini, cabbage, onion, tomato, celery, white beans, potato, spinach, and shells. Very flavorful and very good.

For our sandwich we chose the Italian sausage which represented both the best and the worst of much Italian-American food. The sour dough roll was pleasantly crisp and chewy, and the juicy sausage contained just enough fennel to verify its Italian roots. But the excellent sausage was smothered with that sweet, thick, long cooked tomato sauce that swamps the flavor of everything it is served with. The sandwich was improved by removing most of the sauce and peppers.

From the list of pizzas, we debated between Margherita with tomato sauce, mozzarella, fresh basil, oregano and extra virgin olive oil and the Crispino tomato sauce, prosciutto de parma, mozzarella, fontina, and fresh arugula. We chose the Crispino. We should have chosen the Margherita.

While the crust had the charred edges and bottom crust that is a charac-teristic of wood oven pizzas, it was thicker and chewier than most. And the addition of fontina made for cheese overkill. But, to us, the most egregious sin was adding the prosciutto before the pizza was fired which dried the thin sliced meat.

An average meal gets an average score of 2.5 Addies.

After a brief stop at the Visitors' Center, we continued our walk around Calistoga. Maybe because the town sits " the end of the Napa Valley like a cork in a wine bottle," (Betsy Malloy at The town and its early 1900s main street only a few blocks long seemed undiscovered by the average tourist.

Malloy continues: Calistoga is "...a low-key place compared to the rest of the Napa Valley and with lodging and a bicycle rental shop right in town, it's an easy place to have an automobile-free weekend or to take the family."

With its natural hot springs and mud bath spas, Calistoga seemed an ideal place to relax the tensest of visitors--and a place to tell stories while having a beverage outside the cafe.

One such story relates to the naming of the town: "One of California history's greatest characters, Sam Brannan, who once owned most of the town, was asked what he planned to do with his northern Napa property. He intended to make it the Saratoga Springs of California, but with his diction slurred by alcohol, Brannan replied, 'I'm going to make it the Calistoga of Sarafornia!'

Monday, September 26, 2011

Napa Valley's Main Street

We had planned a leisurely drive through wine country.

We thought that a mid-
morning drive north on Silverado Trail from Napa to St. Helena would give us the opportunity to view vineyards and pull off the road to take photographs.

Silverado Trail paralleled California Highway 29. We had been on 29 a couple of times in the past few days and had experienced heavy traffic on this two-lane roadway.

So, we thought Silverado would be the "road less traveled" and provide us the opportunity to get a closer look at the heart of Wine Country.

However, the drive north on Silverado was not going to be a leisurely one. We later read that the Silverado Trail offers beautiful views, but "...this road can be dangerous, because people drive much faster than on Highway 29 and seem to get more impatient, passing on stretches where it is unsafe to pass. Use caution and you'll enjoy 'the Trail' immensely" (

Looking back on the morning drive, we would agree with that cautionary note. Even with frequent stops, i.e., pulling off the road into driveways, crossroads, or small turnouts, the traffic repeatedly built up behind us, as did the frustration level of a couple of other drivers.

But, "cros-sing the valley from west to east, connecting Highway 29 with the Silverado Trail, are three major crossroads. Each road crosses the valley at the town that it's named after. They are: Yountville Cross Road, Oakville Cross Road, and Rutherford Cross Road. Each road passes wineries and beautiful homes, and all offer gorgeous views."

Only when we took these roads, as we zig zagged our way north, did we have a chance to photograph vineyards in various stages of the life cycle of the vines.

As you can see, it was nearing harvest time in Wine Country.

The destination for most people traveling north on CA 29, known as "Napa Valley's Main Street," is St. Helena.

"St. Helena, in the Napa Valley which embraces it, is one of the loveliest, most intimate places on earth. The sun smiles on it, the breezes caress it and the mountains hold it as close as a lover. Few places have wine so renowned, food so fresh and life-giving, or people so content and pleased to welcome you" (sthelena.

The tree-lined two blocks of central downtown encouraged a slower pace and browsing. The older buildings seemed to anchor the downtown shops.

Goodman's Depart-
ment Store is a beautiful structure, but I could not learn anything about its history.

In addition to seeing the shop named "fideaux, Outfitters for Cats & Dogs," we thought this was one of the more unique signs indicating the business was closed.

This work of art, made from old license plates, certainly caught our attention as we passed by this shop.

We could not resist a stop at the Model Bakery for "the best English muffins anywhere," according to Chef Michael Chiarello, owner of Bottega Restaurant in Yountville, CA, and host of Food Network's Easy Entertaining.

We headed back to Napa with six of the muffins--the maximum number that one can purchase because of their popularity.