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California Brunching (Pt. 2): Cabin Fever and a Keller Instinct

A look down at the cities of the East Bay from the Berkeley Hills
The second of my California breakfast/brunch posts for 2016 takes our first peek into the San Francisco Bay Area proper, where we enjoyed the a fine sit-down meal inside a vintage catalog house.  Also, a glance at a Wine Country town known worldwide for its gourmet restaurants and some of the prettier pastries you could ever lay your eyes (or taste buds) on.

You don't exactly go looking for log cabins within the urban landscape, nor would you expect to actually find one. However, Sam's Log Cabin, located along a main thoroughfare just outside of Berkeley proper, is worth seeking out for some scrumptious early day eats.

Built in 1930 from a Sears Roebuck catalog home kit, the space which houses Sam's has served many different capacities: speakeasy, roadhouse, and a gambling institution (as in off-track horse race betting.)  Current owners Mike Daillak and Rhasaan Fernandez took over the space in 2010 and have implemented a focus on organic and local food sources as well as an expanded backyard that doubles as a community/music event space and a customer waiting area.

Inside, the space feels equal parts diner and equal parts grandma's house; with a book bin full of childrens' books next to the door and a bench seat that rings the front of the eatery, it wasn't surprising to see a fair share of young families with kids in tow on the morning of our visit.

Sam's menu touches a variety of cuisines and diner classics and gives them a more thoughtful presentation (Fernandez had a prior gig at the Berkeley's Gather Restaurant), including some unique items like Lassen County Trout and Eggs (featuring Rainbow Trout with Country Hash, Eggs, and toast from local renowned bread purveyor Acme) and the Hudson Valley Hawkin sandwich, which features roasted apples, cheddar and arugula. The scones were also recommended, and a big display tray of freshly made persimmon and raisin ones laid in wait temptingly behind us.

We decided in the end to dive into some of the dishes and were not disappointed. The chilaquiles sported a peppery red sauce with a pleasant kick, plenty of fresh ingredients, and perhaps the most durable tortilla chips in terms of staying crispy we've ever encountered, Meanwhile, finely cubed chunks of house-made corned beef and three different styles of potatoes (diced, sliced and wedged, which gave a variety of textures from fluffy to crispy) distinguished Sam's Corned Beef Hash over many others out there.

Located about an hour north of Sam's, the Napa Valley-located Yountville (population 3,000) might have the most fine dining options per capita in the Bay Area, much less the state of California. Highly touted eateries like Redd, Bistro Jeanty, Bottega and R&D Kitchen are just a hint of the culinary riches one can find in the town founded by George Calvert Yount, the first European settler in the valley via his receipt of a land grant from the Mexican government in 1836.

However, one cannot discuss this town without mentioning one of the granddaddies of today's culinary scene in Thomas Keller, whose Yountville-based restaurants provide quality across a myriad of concepts and price ranges. At the top tier lies the long-time dream meal prix fixe chef's tasting menus of the world-renowned French Laundry, which as of the date of this post can be had for a cool $310 per person. Next level down is the still fancy but much more affordable French-bistro oriented Bouchon, which itself rates a star rating from the Michelin Guide. Those seeking out a more casual experience might find Ad Hoc and seasonal cousin Addendum, which both hone in on Keller's childhood comfort food favorites, more to their liking.

Then there's perhaps the most unassuming and most (financially) accessible Keller property of them all, in Bouchon Bakery. The exterior is fairly plain spoken, and the interior isn't much more fancy either, save for windowed-area where you can see workers kneading out future example of baked deliciousness. I think it works well, because there is really nothing to distract your attention from what the public is really here for - the baked goods.

I admit, I'm pretty much a fan of most bakery items; a standard cinnamon roll or a pleasantly crusty bread will make me happy more often than not. I do recognize, however, that there's something special about places that will make their croissants just that much more flakier, their muffins just that much moister, and their wares just simply that much prettier. San Francisco's Tartine...Petoskey Michigan's Dripworks Coffee...Columbus' Laughlin's Bakery...those are three that quickly come to mind.  Bouchon definitely falls in this select category.

Really, the only "mistake" on our visit was not based on taste but on practicality, at least in my selection - it is not easy to eat a sticky bun as a grab and go breakfast, especially while driving on twisty, hilly one-lane road. Nonetheless, Bouchon's formidable creation, topped with bourbon-y, buttery, brown-sugar magic and laced with whole pecans, was a worthwhile conquering.

My spouse's pear croissant would've been a much more easily handled affair for me, as it turned out. A quick taste from me confirmed what she asserted: it was a divine creation. These creations, paired up with some freshly-brewed coffee, transformed a beautiful morning for driving through Wine Country into something just that much more sweeter.

Sam's Log Cabin
945 San Pablo Ave, (Google Maps)
Albany, CA 94706
(510) 558-0502
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Bouchon Bakery
6528 Washington St, (Google Maps)
Yountville, CA 94599
(707) 944-2253
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