Fine dining atop an upscale market? You betcha. I dare say everyone in the San Francisco Bay Area is familiar with Draeger's, a mini-chain of 4 dazzling supermarkets renowned for their extensive selection of fine foods, specializing in hard-to-find treasures from local boutique producers as well as impressive imports from around the world. Their extensive wine department is staffed by knowledgeable experts; their collection of exquisite gifts and cookware can't be beat; and a stellar cooking school (where I happen to teach occasionally) attracts celebrity chefs from around the country.
It's no wonder Draeger's has become a must-see tourist destination for visiting foodies. Their landmark store in San Mateo, California has one big extra: arguably the best restaurant on the Peninsula. Really. Enter the doors of Viognier and you leave behind all the hubbub of the serious shopping going on downstairs. The restaurant is as serene as it is elegant.
I recently attended the "Half Moon Bay Crab Celebration" at Draeger's Cooking School in San Mateo, where we feasted on the bounty of our local coastline. The class began with an incredibly informative primer on Dungeness crab from our local Harbor Master, Captain Pietro Parravano. He was followed by Executive Chef Preston Dishman, fresh from overseeing dinner service at Viognier, to teach some of his favorite ways to prepare crab. I guess it's all in a night's work.
Chef Dishman carries an enviable resumé, even before he landed at Viognier. His wealth of culinary knowledge, some of which was simply dropped as "asides" during his presentation, left me scribbling notes madly. In short, he is best known for blending classic French techniques with California's bounty of fresh food. He believes it is part of the ethical duty of a chef to support local farmers and uses seasonal, local, organic and sustainable products whenever possible. In a time when it has become almost a cliché for chefs to claim they use only the finest ingredients, Dishman truly walks the walk. (Or woks the wok, as the case might be.)
As the filled-to-capacity class sipped wine, the aptly-named Dishman cranked out some of the best crab dishes I've tasted in a long time. Quite possibly ever. In less than 2 hours he effortlessly prepared his riff on Crab Louis, made with avocado cream, julienne slices of apple, and thinly sliced fennel and radishes; a Creamy Dungeness Crab Soup with sherry and celery root; and by far the most utterly delicate Dungeness Crab Cakes, served with Spicy Harissa Aioli. Just when we thought we couldn't eat another bite, Dishman rounded off the evening with his homemade Blood Orange Sorbet. Perfection.
To keep it all in the family, Dishman's wife, Nicole, heads up the beverage program at the restaurant. With over 1,700 bottles on the wine list, Wine Spectator has recognized it with a Best of Award of Excellence every year since 2002.
Disclosure: Samples of products discussed in this post may have been provided to Project Foodie by publicists and/or manufacturers.
If you're visiting the San Francisco bay area, make time for dinner at Viognier. It's the best of Big City Dining, right here in the 'burbs.