Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jer's Squares

Jer's Chocolates makes chocolates, all based around my favorite ingredient to pair with chocolate: peanut butter!  They come in a variety of forms, including standard bars, but also balls and squares.  The squares are the only products I've tried.

They are basically takes on fancy peanut butter cups: peanut butter blended with other mix-ins and enrobed in chocolate, either milk or dark.  The combinations sound quite amazing (caramel! pretzels! toffee!), and while the chocolates weren't bad, I always felt that they sounded better than they actually were.  I wanted these to be better, because, peanut butter and chocolate are such a winning combination!
Original.
I had an assortment of Jer's Squares to try out, so I decided to start with the Original, "all natural Valencia peanut butter mixed with crunchy rice crisp covered in premium milk chocolate."

Mmm, peanut butter and chocolate, with crunchy bits?  Sounded fantastic.

I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of peanut butter inside.  I expected it to primarily be a chocolate confection, with a thin layer of  peanut butter, but instead, it was the other way around.  The peanut butter was creamy, and I loved the additional bit of crunch from the rice crisps, but the peanut butter flavor wasn't quite as intense as I would have liked.  The milk chocolate was unremarkable.

Overall, enjoyable, more fun than a peanut butter cup due to the addition of the crispies, but not as compelling as the description sounded.
Cara Mella.
Next up, the Cara Mella: "creamy caramel and all natural Valencia peanut butter covered in premium dark chocolate."

This time, the peanut butter was not creamy at all.  It was almost more like a dense nougat.  The caramel was also not creamy.  The dark chocolate was harsh.

I have no idea what went wrong here, peanut butter, caramel, and dark chocolate should be awesome, but the textures in particular just didn't work for me.
Toffee Break.

"Buttery rich toffee bits mixed with all natural Valencia peanut butter covered in premium dark chocolate. "

Again, I didn't love the dark chocolate.  It wasn't a complex, rich dark chocolate.  The peanut butter inside was gritty, which I guess was the toffee bits.  The toffee didn't seem to add any sweetness, nor butteryness, and only gave the strange texture to the peanut butter.

I wouldn't try this one again.
Pretzo Change-O.
Finally, I had the one I was most looking forward to: Pretzo Change-O, described as "sweet and salty pretzel bits mixed with all natural Valencia peanut butter covered in milk chocolate."

The milk chocolate was smooth, mild, and creamy.  Inside, I somehow expected a full layer of pretzel, but I'm not sure why, since the description did say "pretzel bits", and said the pretzel was mixed with the pb.  The peanut butter was crunchy, not smooth and creamy, but I liked that.  There were little tiny pretzel bits, but they just added to the texture slightly, I didn't really get much crunch, nor the expected salt, from them.

Overall though, still far tastier than any regular peanut butter cup, I would have just liked to see the pretzel represented a little better.
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Friday, August 29, 2014

Carnation Breakfast Essentials

I have a long history with Carnation products.

When I was in high school (and maybe earlier?), my school bus came at an absurdly early hour.  This wasn't just me being a kid who didn't want to get up early.  It was ridiculously early, before 7am.  The school district was trying out a plan to reduce busing costs, and decided to join routes.  And lucky me, my pickup was one of the very first ones on the original route, and my route was tacked on to the front of the other route. So I was one of the first pickups for the joined route.  I rode the bus for over an hour every morning.  (At least the dropoffs were in reverse order).

Anyway.  This meant I was up way too early, was always rushing to get ready, and could care less about breakfast.  But, my mother cared.  And while she couldn't get me to sit down for breakfast, she discovered that I really liked Carnation instant breakfast drinks, particularly when she put them into a shaker thing and made them all frothy.  I recall liking pretty much all of the flavors, although the Chocolate Malt and "Strawberry Sensation" were my favorites.

Flash forward many years.  I forgot about Carnation.  And then, as you've heard me reference several times on this blog, I got very sick.  I was on a liquids only diet for several months.  I wore out several blenders experimenting with all sorts of smoothies.  I tried pretty much every brand of bottled nutritional shake possible (omg, I hate you Ensure!).  The only ones I could really tolerate were Carnation.  (I prefer the powder over the pre-bottled ones, probably due to nostalgia).  I developed my own recipes using Carnation powders as a base, but even after months of morning shakes, I still could manage to enjoy the Carnation ones from time to time.

But, I'm not hear to tell you more about Carnation drinks.  I recently discovered that along with the powdered drink mix and bottled drinks, Carnation also makes breakfast bars.
Chocolate.
Compared to your average bar, they actually are pretty balanced nutritionally.  10g of protein to 12g sugar.  200 calories.  And of course, Carnation's famous "21 essential vitamins and minerals".  (Although, um, ... corn syrup is the first ingredient).  Made from soy crisps, oats, soy nuts, with chocolate coating.  Available in two flavors: chocolate or chocolate and peanut butter.

Sigh, soy crisps.  I'm sick of soy crisps.  I guess this is how bars load themselves up with protein, but I usually can't stand them.  This was better than average, and the ridiculous sweet binding helped mask the flavor of the strange crisps, as did the rich, generous chocolate coating.

The base bar was fairly sticky from the aforementioned corn syrup, making this seem much more like a candy bar than a breakfast item.  I have no shame in eating ridiculous things for breakfast, but this felt decadent, even for me.  The chocolate coating was thicker and higher quality than pretty much any other bar I've tried too.

While I didn't actually want this, it was better than expected, better than average, and I imagine, a great way to get kids to eat a reasonably balanced bar to get them going in the morning, while easily tricking them that they are eating a candy bar.  Luckily for me, I'm an adult, and I can just go ahead and eat a regular candy bar, no tricks required :)
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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Baskin-Robbins

I grew up without a Baskin-Robbins nearby, and we always got our ice cream at home from Schwans delivery, so I somehow made it to my 30s without ever having Baskin-Robbins.  But, I love ice cream, and I'm always interested in trying out new places, so I finally checked it out.

My first visit was when I had a very sore throat, and I was on a quest to eat soft, cold things, using my GoPago credits as inspiration on where to go (yes, this was a few years ago, since GoPago is no longer active in San Francisco).  I'd just spent a couple weeks on the east coast, eating tons of soft serve ice cream, so even though it was still freezing out and totally not ice cream weather, I headed for the one place on GoPago that had soft serve: Baskin-Robbins.  (Yes, soft serve.  No it is not normal for them, they clearly specialize in hard ice cream)/

My second visit was prompted by joining their e-club, which gave me a certificate for a free scoop of ice cream for my birthday, so I went to cash in on it.  I looked up all of the flavors online beforehand so I wouldn't be too slow to decide, and had picked out a slew of flavors that I wanted.  I thought choosing one would be impossible!  Unfortunately for me, it turned out to be quite easy, as they didn't have ANY of the flavors I wanted to try!  Out of my list of 8 flavors, they didn't have a single one I wanted!  Not quite sure how that was possible.  They also didn't have the monthly special flavor.

My third visit was due to my realization that Togos was on LevelUp, with a $2 credit.  Sure, I could use my free credits to get some chips or a drink, but Baskin-Robbins is attached to Togos, and they use the same checkout.  Thus, I could use my credits to get a mini sundae!  Way better than chips or drinks :)

My next visit came from Togos running another LevelUp promotion, with a whopping $10 credit.  I think the idea was that you could get a full meal at Togos, but again, I didn't really want Togos, and that could get me quite a bit of ice cream.  And ... since Ojan wasn't going to use his credit either, I could fetch some for him too!

So, over the course of the past few years, I've tried a lot of their ice cream.  And for the most part, I'm highly unimpressed.  Maybe I'd go back for another freebee, but I certainly wouldn't pay for this ice cream.

The service at the SF location was varied.  As I mentioned, it is adjacent to a Togos, with the same staff running both places, running back and forth between them.  They are attached, but not exactly right next to each other, so this seems a little crazy.  It means you can stand there for a very long time with no one paying any attention, since they are all on the Togos side.  One staff member was also completely unfriendly, never smiling, never seeming remotely interested in her job, and generally annoyed that I was there getting ice cream.  I'll call her Ms. Surly for the rest of this review.  Another staff member was less friendly on my first visit, but was more informative and personable on subsequent visits, even striking up random conversation with me the last time I was there.  The third, I think a manager, gave decent standard service.

Soft Serve

The menu was advertising a new item: mini soft serve parfaits.  They had several varieties, each with a sauce in the bottom, then the soft serve, and then a candy topping.  Since I wanted soft serve, and a sundae is far more fun than just a cone or cup, I eagerly tried a few.

The soft serve just wasn't very good, and the form factor of these mini parfaits was far from ideal, making it impossible to get to the sauce until the end.  Why was the sauce on the bottom?
Reese's Mini Soft Serve Parfait.  $2.
I have a thing for peanut butter, so the Reese's one immediately called out to me.  Peanut butter sauce in the bottom, vanilla soft serve, peanut butter cup crumbles on top.

It was ... basically exactly as advertised.  The soft serve is a newer item for Baskin Robbins, and they only have vanilla flavor.  It wasn't very good.  It had a strange sourness to it, not tart like frozen yogurt, just ... sour.  It was creamy and a decent consistency.  It also wasn't really vanilla flavored.  Very, very mediocre soft serve.  The peanut sauce in the bottom was basically just generic creamy peanut butter.  It was hard to get to, since it was only in the bottom, and thus even though I wanted some to mix into my initial bites, I couldn't really without spilling the whole thing.  And at the end, I wound up with just a ton of peanut butter left over.  The pb sauce also got really hard from having the cold ice cream on top, making it difficult to scoop up.  The peanut butter cup crumbles were exactly what you'd expect.

I wanted this to come together better, being more than a sum of its parts, but it really wasn't.  Mediocre soft serve, pb cups, and hard to get to low end peanut butter.  Meh.

But for $2, it really did seem like a bargain, particularly compared to anything else on the menu.  I don't really understand why it was so cheap (as in, cheaper than just a bowl or cone of soft serve, even though it was bigger and had toppings ...).
Hot Fudge and Almonds Mini Parfait.  $2.
On my next visit, I tried a parfait again, since it is the only ice cream item that tell within my LevelUp budget.  I wasn't a fan of the peanut butter last time, so I went for one with hot fudge.  Even mediocre hot fudge is usually pretty good, right?

This parfait suffered from exactly the same issues as the first, namely, that you couldn't get to the sauce in the bottom, until the end, when you are left with only sauce.  Unlike the first one however, I didn't have the problem of spilling the parfait as I tried to dig for the sauce, as this one was tiny.  I thought it seemed like it had much less ice cream than the first one, and looking at the photos afterwards confirmed it.  This one barely extended above the top of the rim, whereas my first one had a nice swirl on top.  I'm not sure which one was correct, I'm guessing the first, as this looked pretty sad.  This one was made by Ms. Surly.

Anyway, the ice cream was the same mediocre soft serve, decently creamy, but not very vanilla, and with a slight sourness.  The nuts were just generic little bits of almond.  The fudge wasn't actually hot, and it wasn't particularly chocolatey.

This would have been a very boring parfait, but being the pro I am, I brought along a banana and a peanut butter cup, and turned it into a real sundae.  My final product was pretty good, but that wasn't exactly what they were offering.

I certainly would not order this plain parfait again, as it offered nothing flavor-wise.
Build-your-own Mini Parfait, hot fudge and cookie dough.  $2.
My third and final attempt at a parfait.  I kept trying, because $2 for a parfait really does sound like a great deal, if I could come up with a combo I liked.  And Ojan didn't want his $2 credit, so I might as well try again if it was free ...

On my last visit, I saw that they had the standard parfaits listed (chocolate with M&Ms, Oreos, or nuts, caramel with Snickers, peanut butter with Reece's, or strawberry with nuts).  But then it also said "or, build your own".  When I asked about it, Ms. Surly  told me that was only for the 31 Below Mix Ins, not the soft serve parfaits.  I was skeptical, since it was listed under the parfait section, but she was so grumpy and clearly unwilling to entertain this idea, that I gave up on it and picked the simple hot fudge and nuts, since I had my extra toppings with me anyway.

On this visit, I had the nicer employee, and I asked him about it.  He told me you can pick any sauce and any dry topping.  The dry toppings available were the standard candy toppings (M&Ms, Oreo, Snickers, Butterfinger, Reece's, gummy bears, sprinkles, nuts) or ... cookie dough!  This seemed like the clear winner, as it was more likely to be good than a generic candy topping.  Plus, cookie dough can be so good!  For sauces, there was the peanut butter, hot fudge, caramel, or chocolate sauce.  I didn't care for the peanut butter the first time, and thought the hot fudge was pretty mediocre, but it was the only one that seemed to go with the cookie dough, so I selected it again.  I guess the chocolate sauce would have as well, but why pick chocolate sauce when there is hot fudge?

As you can see, the nicer employee again made a much bigger parfait.  He even layered it a little, so there was the hot fudge in the bottom, then the soft serve, then some cookie dough, then he added even more soft serve, and more cookie dough!  Surly employee certainly did not do that.  Then, he asked if I wanted chocolate sauce on top too.  Such a difference!

The chocolate sauce on top was standard chocolate sauce, indistinguishable from Hershey's.  It didn't have a lot of flavor, but I appreciated that there was something on top, since, like every time, the hot fudge was trapped in the bottom.  The fudge was the same as last time, except that it was luke warm this time.  But like always, I had a very hard time getting any until  the end.

The ice cream was actually better this time, it still didn't have any vanilla flavor to it, but it didn't have the strange sourness.

But ... the cookie dough.  It was, quite literally, the worst cookie dough I have ever tasted in my life.  It was dried out beyond belief.  It tasted stale.  It just tasted ... awful.  I don't know how to describe it really, just beyond horrible.  I tried a couple pieces, and then picked them all out.  Or so I thought, forgetting that they nice employee had layered it throughout, so I accidentally got more later on.  Ugh.  It was truly foul!

Would never, ever, ever get this again.  Luckily, in my bag of tricks, I had a banana and other assorted toppings, and turned it into a proper sundae, which I enjoyed.

Hard Ice Cream/Sherbet/Frozen Yogurt

I've tried quite a few flavors of the regular ice cream, and several frozen yogurts.  Most were pretty standard, a few were kinda bad, and a few I really liked.
Mint Chocolate Chip, sugar cone.  $2.19.
For your birthday, you get a free kids size cup or cone.  I went with the mint chocolate chip, without sampling it first, because Ms. Surly looked like she wanted to kill me when I asked to sample one.  Rookie mistake.  It really wasn't very good.  Not creamy, no real mint flavor, even the chocolate bits weren't flavorful.  Really, really mediocre.

The sugar cone was also pretty generic.  Not much to say here.

The ice cream was just plopped on top of the cone.  It would have fallen off with my first lick if I hadn't secured it more properly.

Would not get again, and would have been very sad if I'd paid for this.
America's Birthday Cake, single scoop.  $2.19.
Another year, another birthday. I started this post over a year ago, which is crazy!  I returned this year to get my birthday scoop, and this time, went for America's Birthday Cake.  I'd probably never normally get such a silly flavor, but hey, it was free, and it seemed like the most fitting choice, given the circumstance.

Cake and ice cream, very festive, and quite colorful.  Described as "strawberries, cake-flavored ice cream, confetti topped cake pieces and blue whipped cream".

Like most of their ice cream, it wasn't creamy, was a bit icy, and kinda tasted stale.  I still don't know if that is just Baskin-Robbins in general, or if it is just this location.  Really just not good ice cream at all.

The "cake" flavored ice cream I actually thought was just plain vanilla, it wasn't until I looked up the description online that I saw it was supposed to taste like cake.  Very unremarkable.  The "strawberries" seemed to just be strawberry ice cream, fake tasting strawberry at that.

There were a few small chunks of vanilla cake mixed in.  I didn't see any promised confetti topping.  The cake wasn't stale tasting, or too hard, but was pretty unremarkable.

The "blue whipped cream" was my favorite component, and the real reason I picked this flavor.  It was sweet, fluffier than the ice cream base, which improved the overall texture.  It reminded me of the whipped cream style icing on Carvel ice cream cakes, which I always had growing up, and still have a weakness for.
Premium Churned Light Orange 'N Crème Ice Cream. $2.19.
"Soak up the sun with this orange light ice cream with a whipped cream flavored ribbon for a new twist on a frozen favorite!"

I didn't actually realize this was a Light version, but the flavor sounded somewhat interesting, at least, compared to my other options.  Baskin Robbins does have some really interesting flavors, but for some reason, my local shop never seems to carry them.  I hoped this would be somewhat like a creamsicle.

It was ridiculously sweet.  I'm not sure if they try to make up for the Light version by adding artificial sweetener or something?  Just way too sweet.  There was very little of the whipped cream ribbon, which is too bad, as I actually liked that, and it helped combat the sweetness of the orange ice cream.

The ice cream itself was fairly fluffy and light, but it was loaded with ice chunks.  Not just ice crystals, but actual chunks.  Sad for a scoop shop to not properly store their ice cream, as the result was just not appealing.

I ordered a single scoop, and got a very large multi scoop serving, which would have been quite nice, if I liked it.
[ No Photos ]
  • Apple Cinnamon Crisp Ice Cream: "Cinnamon flavored ice cream topped with a sticky brown betty ribbon and packed with tasty apple and oat chunks."  Tasting notes: This was decently creamy, seemed fresh, and had a ton of cinnamon flavor.  There was even little chunks of mushy apple in it. Not bad, but not great. [ This is really quite good.  Its like apple pie and ice cream, all in one!  Great cinnamon flavor, ridiculously sweet brown betty ribbon, but quite good. ] [ Loving this!  Yes, it is very sweet, but it is apple pie in ice cream form!  Kinda amazing.  Love the cinnamon flavor and the brown betty ribbon, oat chunks give some good texture. ] [ So sweet.  Love the gooey caramel swirl. ] [ My favorite of their flavors, by far.  Would gladly get again. ]
  • Blueberry Cheesecake Ice Cream: "A little bit blue, a lotta bit delicious. Creamy cheesecake flavored ice cream packed with cheesecake bits and swirled around with a blueberry ribbon."  Tasting notes: I didn't taste cheesecake at all, the base seemed pretty plain vanilla.  I also didn't find any cheesecake bits.  The "blueberry ribbon" however was quite generous, which was not a good thing, as it was just sweet and didn't really taste like blueberry.  I really didn't care for this.
  • Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream: "Vanilla flavored ice cream with cookie dough and chocolate flavored chips".  Tasting notes: Standard vanilla ice cream, with chunks of cookie dough.  This cookie dough was much, much better than the inedible stuff from the parfait.  It had a decent buttery flavor and wasn't all dried out.  Pretty standard cookie dough ice cream. [ Something tastes a little stale about this. ] [ Just not interesting.  Vanilla ice cream doesn't have much flavor, it isn't creamy.  There are little chocolate chips and some stale tasting dough.  I don't like this much at all. ]  [ Not creamy, base ice cream very generic, cookie dough bits not that great.  Would not get again. ] [ Just really not very good.  I've had a lot of different cookie dough ice creams, and this one just offers nothing.  The ice cream itself isn't very good, the cookie dough are just tiny chunks and not flavorful.  Meh. ]
  • Nutty Ice Creams
    • Nutty Coconut Ice Cream: "Coconut ice cream mixed with almonds, pecans, and walnuts." Tasting notes: Good coconut flavor, fair amount of nuts.
    • Old Fashioned Butter Pecan Ice Cream: "Butter pecan flavored ice cream with, yep, butter-roasted pecans.".  Tasting notes: Somewhat generic tasting base ice cream, with plentiful whole pecans.  Not particularly remarkable.  Decently creamy.  [ Ok creaminess  I like the whole pecans, ok buttery flavor, not really standout though. Could be any old butter pecan ice cream. ]
    • Pralines 'N Cream Ice Cream: "Praline-coated pecan pieces and caramel in vanilla flavored ice cream."  Tasting notes: Nice sweetness, thick swirl of caramel, pretty good.  Better than Butter Pecan.
    • Black Walnut Ice Cream: "Walnut flavored ice cream with a black walnut explosion." Tasting notes: Decent walnut flavor, but not particularly interesting.
  • Chocolate Ice Creams
    • World Class Chocolate Ice Cream: "Rich white chocolate flavored mousse ice cream swirled with even richer milk chocolate flavored mousse ice cream."  Tasting notes:  Not really sure I get the whole mousse part here.  Nor the white chocolate, mostly just seemed like generic chocolate ice cream and some white ice cream.
    • German Chocolate Cake Ice Cream: "Swiss chocolate ice cream with coconut, walnut pieces, and milk chocolate brownie. Oh and let's not forget the caramel swirl!" Tasting notes: the caramel swirl was nice, good sweetness.  Chocolate ice cream was pretty generic.  Liked the chunks of brownie. [ Big chunks of brownie, nice walnuts.  Yum! ] [ Love the nuts, love the texture from the coconut, great flavors. ] [ Nice coconut flavor, good rich chunks of brownie.  My second favorite of their ice creams. ]  [ Good creamy chocolate ice cream, nice flavor from coconut, plentiful brownie bites. ] [ I like this.  Fairly creamy, mellow chocolate ice cream, with good coconut flavor.  I love discovering the generous chunks of brownie and nuts throughout.  And the caramel swirl adds a little bit of gooeyness to it.  Second favorite flavor. ]
  • Splish Splash Sherbet: "Blue raspberry sherbet and a splash of blueberry sorbet".  Tasting notes: This was really quite good!  It was icy, but in the way that sorbet is.  Overly sweet, but fruity and refreshing.  I love, love, loved blue raspberry Slush Puppies when I was a kid, and it reminds me exactly of that. [ The blue colored one is way too sweet, so if you get some without the other swirl, it can be pretty cloying ] [ You need to be in the mood for sweet with this, but it is somehow refreshing at the same time.  Quite good. ]
  • Frozen Yogurt
    • Raspberry Cheese Louis: "Cheesecake flavored frozen yogurt is sprinkled with raspberry cheesecake pieces and graham crackers with a sweet raspberry ribbon.".  Tasting notes: I didn't taste cheesecake in any way.  Very icy.  Raspberry swirl just sweet.  Didn't like.
    • Sweet N' Salty Frozen Yogurt: "Super smooth salted caramel frozen yogurt and caramel pretzel balls tied up in a salted caramel ribbon bow."  Tasting notes: Just sweet, didn't really get any salt, my sample didn't have any pretzel in it either.

Novelties

Praline Caramel Ice Cream Cake Bite: Pralines 'n Cream ice cream over white cake, white coating, finished with caramel drizzle and crushed praline pecans.  $2.99.
This is one of their "novelty" items, small versions of their cakes, called cake bites.  Since I wasn't about to buy a whole cake for myself, this seemed like a good way to try out their ice cream cakes.  I grew up having Carvel ice cream cakes for every birthday, so ice cream cake has a special place in my heart.  Of course, Carvel cake is all about the crunchies and the frosting, of which this had neither.

The white cake was not good.  Kinda dry, and very flavorless, with a horrible aftertaste.  Cakes made from boxed cake mix come out better than this.  Not a good base layer.  The ice cream was just their standard Pralines 'n Cream ice cream, good enough I guess, but not really special.  It was covered in "white coating", which I give them credit for not even trying to call white chocolate.  It was kinda just sweet and there.  On top of that was a fairly tasty caramel drizzle and some bits of pecans.  The toppings were the best part.

Yes, this was cake and ice cream, which should be good together, but honestly, it didn't have much going for it.  Wouldn't get again.

Shakes

Very Berry Strawberry Shake, mini, $3.49.
I've went through a serious milkshake craze.  It had been years since I'd had one, and then I just got hooked.   I had just about every type of shake possible, ranging from ones made in real blenders (like the one at Roxy Cafe that started the trend), to those from shake dispensers at fast food joints (like my free birthday shake from Del Taco), to something in-between (like my shake from Bistro Burger).  But the best was from Holy Grill, made with Mitchel's vanilla ice cream and fresh strawberries.  Even though that one didn't have whipped cream, which I consider to be an important element, it was still the best one I've had flavor-wise.  Quality ice cream and fresh fruit really just makes a big difference!   Every time I've seen strawberry shakes since, I've gotten it, even though I never would normally pick strawberry, hoping to replicate my experience from Holy Grill.  The last one I had was the least successful shake ever, from McDonald's (yes, I should have known better).  That was horrendous.

This one wasn't nearly as bad as the McDonald's shake, but really wasn't very good.  There was no offer of whipped cream, even though I know they have it for making sundaes.  I wish I'd gone out of my way to ask for it, because once I left with it and tried it, it was obvious that it would have really helped out.

It was made in some sort of blender/mixer combo device.  Not quite a classic blender, nor a classic milkshake maker.  The result was not a good consistency.  Mostly, it was just milk, with a few bits that were too thick to suck up.  And then a ton of froth.  The high powered mixer thing just really destroyed the ice cream.  The small amount that stayed frozen melted far too fast.  It wasn't exactly hot out, as I was in San Francisco after all, and I had basically no ice cream or iciness remaining after about 2 minutes.  Very poor execution.  I was really surprised, since I think they sell a lot of shakes, and the machine seemed custom.

Flavor-wise there wasn't much going on.  Slight strawberry flavor, not even in the same ballpark as the one from Holy Grill, but not fake and horrible like the one from McDonald's.  It was at least made with real ice cream, with some bits of strawberry in it, but the addition of all the milk just watered it down.

On the plus side, I had the nicer employee this time.  I also ordered a hand packed pint, which he thoughtfully stashed in a freezer while he made the shake and rang me up.  I really appreciated that extra effort, as it helped my pint not melt as fast for my trip home.

I got the mini size, which was "only" 12 ounces.  $3.49 was actually kinda pricy for this size, more than the 12 ounce mini I got from Bistro Burger for $2.99 and just slightly less than the $3.99 large sizes I got many other places.  Certainly not worth the price, would no get again.
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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Station

I've had my eye on The Station, a coffee shop near the edge of North Beach and the Financial District, for quite some time.  Unlike most places in the FiDi, they are actually open on weekends.  And they serve Blue Bottle coffee.  Visiting has been on my todo list, but got bumped up when I saw they were running a promotion with PayPal: a free $10 credit if you paid with PayPal.  I've been using PayPal all around town lately, and I'm a huge fan of how easy it is for payments, so cashing in on this was a no brainer.

The coffee shop is a bit strange, in that it is a coffee shop, but also has a rotating selection of pop-up retail stores on the side.  On my first visit, there was a tiny pop up clothing store.  The Station is also a pick up spot for Thrive Juicery.  I didn't check any of that out, so I don't have any comments on it.
Large Windows.
The space has large windows, which let in lots of light.  The high ceilings add to it feeling very open and spacious.  The main seating area is made up of large communal tables, but there are 2-3 small tables, and a long counter along the windows with stools or standing space.
Outdoor Seating.
On the sidewalk outside are a few small tables.

The vibe is relaxed and friendly, and since they have free wifi, lots of people set up with laptops (no power plugs though, so people don't camp out for too long).  The music selection was interesting, and played at just the right volume to be enjoyed but not overwhelm conversations.

As I mentioned, the coffee is Blue Bottle, and they offer all standard drinks, along with pour overs and New Orleans style iced coffee.  Food choices are fairly limited to paninis along with baked goods from Goody Goodie, including muffins, scones, and cookies (which I've tried before).  Also available near the register are stroopwafels from Rip Van Wafel, which I've tried, unsuccessfully, in the past, and a decent selection of TCHO chocolate, a local SF chocolate maker, who I've also reviewed before.  They clearly embrace local connections.

The staff were friendly, and when I asked for an honest opinion on their decaf (since, so often it can be so awful), the guy taking my order told me that he had actually had it recently, and that it had more depth of flavor than most decaf.  He said he preferred the caffeinated coffee more, but that the decaf was good.

The only issue I had was paying on my first visit.  I used PayPal, which seemed flawless, I put in the tip amount, and even got the receipt on my phone, but the cashier came over a few minutes later and told me that it had crashed and not gone through, and asked for an alternate form of payment.  Since I had the confirmation through the PayPal app, and the e-mail receipt, this didn't seem quite right, but it was going to be free, so I didn't argue, and just paid cash too.  I logged into my account once I got home and saw that I had indeed been charged.  Hmm.  I believe him that it had crashed, but the payment surely had gone through.  On subsequent visits, PayPal worked with no problems.

Anyway, I enjoyed my time in the cafe, my drink, and some of the baked goods, so I'll be returning when I'm in the area.
Decaf Cortado. $3.25.
Normally I like a black americano, but since I was going for decaf, I played it safe, and had a drink with milk in it, which I knew would help mask any decaf funk.  I don't like a ton of milk in my drinks though, so I was happy to see that they even had a cortado listed on the menu.  So few places do!  When I ordered it, the guy taking my order even commented his approval of my order.

My name was quickly called out up at the espresso counter for me to come pick it up.  Very fast service!  The latte art left something to be desired.  A leaf?  Not really.  A blob.  But honestly, I didn't care.  The taste is what matters to me.

This was indeed a good decaf.  I've had the decaf at the Blue Bottle cafes directly many times, and they have never been this good.  I'd even kinda given up on getting decaf from Blue Bottle.  It did indeed have depth of flavor, no decaf "funk", and was even a bit caramely on the finish.  The foam was good, not burnt.

Very solid, and I'd get one again.
Pancetta Gruyere Brioche.  $4.
I also wanted a snack to go with my drink.  I'm totally not a sandwich girl, so the prepared foods section of the menu was entirely out, since it was all paninis.  Instead, I had to go for baked goods (a real hardship, I know), all made by Goody Goodie.

They had a few different muffins, croissants, and scones, none of which really looked appealing to me, as it was a bit later in the day, and those are breakfast items to me.  I usually like blueberry crumb muffins, which they had, but I wasn't feeling it.  They also had a ton of cookies, but I haven't loved Goody Goodie's cookies before, although I admit that is just a style preference thing.

They also had two brioches listed, one was the "brioche bomb", which I really wanted, a sweet roll with cinnamon, sugar, and a hint of orange, basically, a morning bun.  But alas, they were sold out.  So instead, I went for the savory one, a pancetta gruyere brioche roll.

When I ordered, the server asked if I'd like it heated up.  Yes!  A wonderful touch.
Inside the pancetta gruyere brioche.
The brioche took a lot longer to arrive than my drink.  I very slowly sipped on my cortado, wanting to have some of it with my treat, but it was getting cold fast.  I questioned my decision of asking for the brioche warmed up.

After what seemed like forever (but was probably only 5 minutes), my brioche arrived, delivered to my table.  It was worth the wait, and heating it up was definitely the way to go.

The outside was a bit crisp, the inside delightfully moist and doughy.  In between the folds of dough was gruyere, which got even more melty and awesome due to being warmed up, and bits of pancetta.  The pancetta was the only disappointing part: the bits were soggy and very fatty, not crisp, and not flavorful.  There wasn't much of it, which would have made me sad, but instead made me glad, since I didn't like it.  I didn't like chewing on bits of flabby fat.  Along with the pancetta were pockets of incredibly zesty black pepper, which added wonderful bursts of flavor.

This thing was good, but I felt it needed ... something.  I honestly don't know what though.  A bit plain to just eat on its own, I wanted something to dunk it in.  Or an egg on the side.  Or ... something.  But I did love the flavor of the dough, the texture, and everything but the pancetta.  I'm not really sure why it was called a brioche however.  It seemed like more of a biscuit.  Maybe it had a lot of egg inside the dough?  It didn't have the classic lightness of brioche, nor the shine on the outside.

I liked it, but I don't think I'd get it again unless I was really wanting something savory.  Next time, I hope they have the brioche bomb!  $4 is a bit high for just a baked good, but for a savory snack, it wasn't bad.
Banana Chocolate Scone.  $3.
On my second visit, I was determined to finally get the brioche bomb, but, it was again sold out when I arrived at 10am.  Doh!  Either everyone else really loves these things, or The Station really doesn't stock enough of them.

I was really at a loss for what to get instead.  I still didn't want a croissant, and the muffins didn't look great.  So I went for a scone, which is always a risky choice.  Scones rarely are what I want them to be.  Often they are super dry, too cakey, or too oily.

But this scone was a pleasant surprise.  It was quite good.  The base consistency was the most impressive part, it was just the right level of crumbly, not dry, nor moist.  It had a slight tang to it, and wasn't oily.  The banana aspect was what I was most unsure about, as I've never had a banana scone before, but it basically tasted like banana bread, but as a biscuit, if you can imagine that.  It also had plenty of tiny little chocolate chips and large crunchy sugar crystals on top.  Quite enjoyable.

But after a couple bites, I thought it would be better warm, so I asked to have it warmed up (which was not offered when I ordered it, unlike the savory brioche).  I was warned that the chocolate might melt, which I said was perfectly fine.

It returned to me a few minutes later, warm.  I liked it better this way, as it got slightly more moist inside, slightly more crisp outside.  It was good both ways though.

$3 for a scone seems perfectly reasonable.  If I were back at The Station and was in the mood for a scone, I'd get this again, a very solid choice.
Vegan Bran Muffin. $3.50.
Another Sunday morning, another visit to the Station.  Again, I was eager to get a brioche bomb, and again, they were sold out at 10am when I arrived, 1 hour into service.  I'm fairly convinced at this point that they must get all their baked goods for the weekend in on Saturdays (which also makes sense since Goody Goodie, their baked goods supplier, isn't open on Sundays either), and they just never have brioche bombs left.

I was very tempted to get the scone again, since I liked it on my previous visit, but I recalled the cashier last time telling me that he really recommended the bran muffin.  I was skeptical then, and picked the scone, but this time I asked the woman taking my order about the bran muffin.  Her face lit up and she said she loved it, that it reminded her of bread pudding.  That is all it took to sell me, as I LOVE bread pudding.

She put my muffin on a plate, and was ready to hand it over at room temperature, but I asked if she could warm it up.  On my other visits they had offered to heat up the baked goods, so I was surprised to have to ask for it this time, particularly because bread pudding is an item that is often served warm, right?

Anyway.  First, I keep calling it a "muffin", because that is what the sign said.  Did this look like a muffin?  Um, no.  It was rectangular, not round.  While it had a "wrapper", it was unlike any muffin wrapper I've ever encountered before.  Muffin was certainly a strange term for it, but I figured it would still taste like a classic bran muffin.

It did not.  The form factor was more appropriate for a cake, and, the taste was far more like a cake.  It did have a hearty bran flavor, but it was really, really sweet.  Too sweet for me for a breakfast item, or at least, a breakfast item when I was wanting a bran muffin.  It was loaded with shredded carrot, which was good, but it was also loaded with golden raisins.  Soo many raisins.  They were juicy and plump, and I have nothing against raisins, but they were very sweet, and the quantity made the whole muffin-cake very sweet.  I'm pretty sure there was a lot of additional sweetness in there as well, it tasted somewhat like molasses, or I can imagine that it used applesauce, since it was a vegan item.

Anyway, I wasn't ever able to get over the sweetness.  It was very moist.  I enjoyed it warm.  The bran was nice.  But ... it was just too much like a cake.  Except, who eats a bran cake?  I always love slathering my mom's strawberry jam on bran muffins, the strawberry and bran combination is one I really like, but there is no way I could have added more sweetness to this.  I pondered what would have been successful as a pairing.  Since it was so cake-like, it almost seemed like you could serve it warm, like a cake or bread pudding, with ice cream.  But ... again, bran cake?  That didn't seem quite right.  I also considered some sort of savory whipped topping, like a whipped crème fraîche perhaps?  I'm just not sure.

Too sweet for a muffin, too bran-y for a cake, this item just didn't make sense.  I won't get another.
Brioche Bomb.  $3.75.
Finally, when I was about to give up all hope, they had the brioche bomb!

Sadly ... it really wasn't good.  I had heard great things about it, a brioche cinnamon roll with cinnamon, sugar, and a hint of orange.  It sounded like a morning bun, but with brioche.  Sure, I had hyped this thing quite a bit as they never had it when I visited before, but, even without hype, it really didn't live up at all.

The dough was the same as in the pancetta gruyere roll, which I again fail to really see why they call it a brioche, it wasn't at all fluffy or rich tasting.  It was really, really dry.  So the dough, dry and boring.  But a cinnamon roll item should be about the filling anyway, right? This was rolled with cinnamon and sugar, but the layer was so thin that I could barely taste it.  It certainly wasn't ooey-gooey.  There wasn't any additional topping on top.

Really, this was just a dried out roll that happened to have a tiny bit of cinnamon and sugar in it.  It wasn't satisfying in any way.  I obviously won't be getting this again.  $3.75 was a fairly standard price for an item this size.
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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Robot Restaurant, Tokyo

At this point, you've spent the past few months reading about my amazing Tokyo travels on Tuesdays.  I've shared pastries, a slew of Michelin starred dining, plus all the Japanese classics of sushi, okinomiyaki, tepanyaki, and ramen.

But not all of my adventures were for the food.  Some were for ... the experience, and the experience alone.

Like, the Robot Restaurant.  We were tipped off to this place by Levi, who proclaimed that he was going, even if none of the rest of us joined him.  I don't think he expected anyone else to go, particularly not Emil.  But we all joined for the adventure.

This is a case where the photos will speak much better than my words ever will, so I'll leave the narrative simple, except of course, for the meal review.  You can also watch Anthony Bourdain's experience on Parts Unknown.

This experience was even more insane than it looks.  And I'd recommend it in a heartbeat.  Thank you Emil for the photos!
Entrance.
The amount of flashy lights was only the beginning.
Entryway.
 Levi and I were a bit skeptical as we stood inside the entrance.
Fembot.
 And were greeted by a fembot, natch.
Lounge.
Soon we were escorted to the lounge to enjoy a pre-show drink.  The very, very tacky lounge.
Menu.
I glanced through the menu, a bit distracted by what was around me.
ZIMA.
And then I found ... ZIMA!

When I was in college, ZIMA was my drink of choice.  But when is the last time you saw ZIMA in the US?  Answer: at the latest, 2008, when it was discontinued.  You can only find it in Japan now.  And find it I did.  Available almost everywhere, also in a pink variety!
Levi.
 Levi was soooo thrilled to be there!
Levi and the dino.
As we waited for drinks, Levi started playing with the cute littlo dinosaur on the table.
Julie and the dino.
Once I secured my ZIMA, do did I. It turned out to be sooo interactive!
Sleepy Dino.
It even fell asleep in my arms, and laid its head down ...
Going down ...
Finally, after amusing ourselves in the lounge for a while, it was time to head to the show itself.
Stage.
Before the show, the state had a bar on it.  It would return during intermission.
The Dining Portion.
As we entered, we were given the choice of two bento boxes.  I dug into mine.  Spoiler: we weren't there for the food.
Fish Bento Box.
I was brave, and went for the seafood option.

The top left section contained tamago and beans.  The tomago wasn't layered, it wasn't very sweetened, but it wasn't offensive.  Meh.  The 3 large beans next to it were sweet, and I actually liked them.  They reminded me of molasses baked beans, and I gladly ate all the beans from Emil's box too, as he clearly wasn't going near this food.  The green beans next to those however I really didn't care for, they had a really strange unfamiliar taste.

In the center was a tiny container of pickles, pretty standard.

Top right was my first seafood, raw salmon over a small salad with pickled onions.  I wasn't brave enough to try the fish, but the onions were fine.

Bottom right was my other seafood, a miso coated, cooked fish.  I'm not sure what type of fish it was, but it didn't have much flavor, and was very fully cooked.

The final section was rice balls.  They were not good at all, the rice dried out yet mushy, flavorless.

I had heard that you definitely don't go there for the food, so I was expecting it to be worse than this.  Sure, I didn't actually like anything in here besides the beans, but it wasn't THAT bad.
"Meet" Bento Box.
The other option was "meet".  The "meet" turned out to be two types of chicken.  Since I dislike chicken, I didn't try any of it.  The other dishes were all the same.
Intro.
Soon, it was time for the show.
Safety Briefing.
It started with a safety briefing.  Yes, literally.
Drummers.
 The first act: drummers.
Glowing drummers that is. 
Amused.
Jelte and I were amused.  But we really had no idea what we were in for.
Gong.
Of course there was a gong.
Dragon.
And a dragon.
Intermission.
Scene change! Since the venue was soooo small, they needed to change out everything between acts.
Pole Dancer.
Things started getting more interesting.

Bunny Drummers.
Now the drummers are ... bunnies.
Marching Band.
And a whole marching band of bunnies ...

Robot Wars.
And then a robot war began.
Panda.
 With a giant panda, riding a cow, of course.  What???
What???
I had no idea what to think at this point.
Spider.
Have I mentioned that I hate spiders?  Particularly giant spiders?
Hover Bot.
Evil Robot.
Mermaid Riding a Shark.
Shark Attack.
Seriously, what is going on???
Glow Sticks.
No longer scary, it was time for them to hand out glow sticks.
Glowy!
Glow sticks were fun.
Dancers.
High speed rolling robots.
Robots inside light up rolling wheel things.
Fembot.
Giant fembots.
Parade.
These were kinda freaky, like giant robot dolls on parade.
Robot DJ.
Time for a giant robot DJ ...
Confused.
Yes, I was a bit confused as to what was going on at this point ...
HUGE Robots.
Lasers.
And lasers.  Because, lasers.
Dancers and Terminators. 
More Dancers.  More Lasers.
Airplane.
Yeah, that is an airplane, all lit up, with girls dangling from it.
Girls & Airplane.
Riding the Wing.
Tank.
Out rolled a tank, to fight the airplane.
Tank Dancing.
Riding the Tank,
Crash!
And, the climax, the tank crashed into the bomber.

I have no more words.
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