Friday, September 19, 2014

Chunky Pig Popcorn

Chunky Pig is a local popcorn maker.  I eat a lot of popcorn, so that isn't particularly novel.  But they don't just make popcorn, they make caramel corn.  Ok, again, not particularly novel.  But ... they don't make just any caramel corn, they make candied bacon caramel corn, available with or without peanuts.

I love caramel corn, I love bacon, so this sounded too good to be true.  I was overjoyed when I got a sample bag.  You can find Chunky Pig around San Francisco at speciality grocery stores, and apparently in Portland, too.  The caramel corn is gluten-free and dairy-free, if that matters to you.  The other ingredients are quality, they use real Vermont maple syrup and Niman Ranch candied bacon.  But ... I sadly didn't love it.
Candied Bacon Caramel Corn.
The popcorn was sweet, as you'd expect from caramel corn.  It was also very salty due to the bacon, a combination I always like.  The bacon wasn't visible, but it was surely there, the flavor not subtle at all.  The kernels were all well coated.

Flavor-wise, it was good.  Popcorn coating-wise, it was good.  But ... the kernels were soft, and not crispy or crunchy.  I put it in the freezer, and it was much better after it froze a bit (which actually, I always like my caramel corn better frozen, try it sometime!)

This was almost awesome, but not quite.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Birthday Pinkberry Froyo!

Many businesses give out freebies for your birthday, but usually they are chain restaurants, or fast food joints, and aren't really things I want (although, I've of course checked out many of them!).  This year, when my birthday rolled around, there was one freebie I was really looking forward to: Pinkberry!

Since I've reviewed them several times already, I'll skip the general details, and focus only on my experience on this particular visit.

The staff was friendly enough, happy to let me sample a few flavors first (in fact, the first question I was asked wasn't "What would you like?", but instead, "Would you like to try any flavors?").  And the cashier even wished me a Happy Birthday (always a great touch!).  And it was a beautiful sunny day, and I enjoyed the fact that they had outside seating.

My froyo was great, and I'll certainly be back again.

August 2013

Peanut Butter Froyo topped with Dark Chocolate Curls and Almond Roca, Mango Froyo topped with Blueberries and Mochi.  Small.  $4.95.
For my flavors I decided on two that I have always loved: Peanut Butter and Mango.  Of course, those flavors do not go together at all, so I had them side by side rather than swirled, and ate them separately.  My last few bites did have a little bit of each in them, as they had melted somewhat at that point, and ... yeah, mango and peanut butter just do not go together :)  But, I honestly don't know how I'd pick just one, so side by side it is!  I love that Pinkberry lets you have any two flavors you want in this way.

Peanut butter is the most decadent of their flavors.  While some are low-fat or non-fat, the peanut butter is definitely not.  They use real peanuts, which, yup, contain fat.  I'm certain that using real nuts is what makes it so delicious.  It is creamy and just so peanut buttery.  Always one of my favorite peanut butter froyos anywhere.

I love a chocolate and peanut butter combo, so I wanted chocolate based toppings on that side.  I had many choices, including milk or dark chocolate shavings, chocolate crunch balls, brownie bites, crushed cookies, chocolate granola, mini chocolate chips, or almond roca.  I have gone with the almond roca on many other occasions, and liked it, so I went for it again.  This time however, I didn't love it.  It was ok, I mean, it is chocolate covered toffee and ground up almonds, totally delicious, but it actually just seemed a bit too sweet to me.  The real winner on my peanut butter froyo was the dark chocolate shavings.  I was shocked by how much I liked them.  The chocolate was actually really good, slightly bitter, and the size of the shavings made them really fun to eat, added a bit of a crunch, and were big enough to really taste against the peanut butter froyo.  I'd certainly get the chocolate shavings again.  Surprising how the most simple seeming topping can be the best!

Mango is another one of their froyo flavors that I've gotten many times, although I've usually paired it with something more appropriate, like lychee.  I knew it wouldn't go with the peanut butter, but I didn't care.   I wanted a fruity tart option too!  And it was.  Not as creamy as the peanut butter, but still fairly smooth, nicely tart, and with strong mango flavor.  It was a refreshing contrast to the richer peanut butter.

With the fruity froyo, I wanted a light, fruit topping.  I've had such mixed experiences with the Pinkberry fruit toppings, ranging from underripe mangos to amazingly delicious raspberries, but generally the fruit is good, although not remarkable.  It all looked ripe and fairly fresh, so I took a gamble and went for blueberries.  They were as expected - not mushy, ripe, but not extraordinary.  Good enough, and I'd get this again.

I was a bit stumped on what to pick for my final topping.  I could go for another fruit, as the strawberries and raspberries both looked good, and would pair nicely.  I could add something crunchy, as there were plentiful choices, ranging from all sorts of nuts (caramelized almonds, slivered almonds, mixed nuts) to several varieties of granola.  But instead my eyes were drawn to the mochi.  The last time I had mochi on my froyo, I said I wouldn't get it again.  But I really liked the flavor combination of the sliced fresh mango and mochi when I used them as toppings on the Greek yogurt, and since I was having mango froyo, I thought it would go well.  Like all other occasions, the mochi was good.  Soft, glutenous, a tiny bit sweet.  And like before, I liked the mango and rice flavors together, reminding me of mango sticky rice.  But ... I still don't think mochi is a very good froyo topping.  I'm not sure what it is about it, I just do not like the soft mochi with the soft froyo.  I mostly pushed the mochi aside, and ate them at the end, in a pool of mango flavored melty goodness.

I also sampled the green tea frozen yogurt.  It was very creamy, but didn't have a strong enough green tea taste for my liking.

I'm still always shocked by the price of Pinkberry.  With no toppings a small is $3.50; with toppings $4.95.  Their stuff is quality for sure, but it always seems steep.  Of course, this was my birthday freebie, so I'm not complaining.

August 2014

Another year, another free birthday froyo!  The very first warmish day in the month around my birthday I headed straight to Pinkberry to redeem my freebee.  I was really looking forward to this, and hoped to get peanut butter.  But alas, my choices were fairly lame: chocolate hazelnut, which I've never liked and pomegranate which I wasn't interested in, neither of which I even bothered to try.  The promising sounding Vanilla Latte had a decent coffee flavor, but was incredibly icy.  I'm glad I sampled it first, because I wouldn't have wanted a whole cup of it.  Strawberry Banana was another sweet and not tart option, and it had pretty good flavor ... except that I don't actually like strawberry froyo or ice cream.  Thus, I was left with only the two tart options: pineapple and original.  I considered coming back another day instead, but, it was sunny, and I wanted froyo!
Small Tart and Pineapple Tart Side By Side with Strawberries, Strawberry Popping Boba, White Chocolate Chips, Almonds.
The pineapple was tart yet sweet.  I liked the flavor, except that it was actually a bit too sweet.  Both the pineapple and the original froyo were fairly icy, not as bad as the vanilla latte one I sampled, but far icier and less creamy than I remembered.  The consistency was disappointing.

For a fruit topping, I went for strawberries.  I thought strawberries and pineapple sounded good together, and it looked like the most ripe option.  The berries were good, sweet, fresh, pretty good.  I decided to continue the strawberry theme and also added strawberry popping boba (the other option was mango flavored).  They were pretty standard, sweet.

I wanted some crunch, but didn't want granola, so my only choice was slivered almonds, the only nuts available.  They were unremarkable.  Still, good for a crunch.

The final topping I picked was white chocolate chips, mostly just to have something sweet and a bit creamy.  Which is exactly what they were.

Overall, this was fairly successful in terms of the ingredients I picked working well together, but it failed to impress.  I actually liked the plain tart better than the pineapple once I had the toppings involved, because the sweeter pineapple yogurt was too sweet with all the sweet toppings.  I wouldn't get this exact creation again.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Cathay Pacific First Class, HND-HKG, CX549

After my rather ridiculous ordeal getting to Tokyo, you’d think the last thing I’d want to do would be to add more travel time to my trip back.  I was booked on JL2, a direct flight from Haneda to San Francisco.  9 hours and change.  With my co-workers as travel companions.  Easy.

But … while in Tokyo, my friend Emil, and another frequent flyer friend, joined us in Tokyo, just for the weekend.  This is the sort of thing that they do regularly.  Emil came for Friday - Sunday, the other for just Saturday and Sunday.  Then, they flew off to Singapore, where the other was speaking at a conference.  Emil was just along for the fun.  Yes, these guys travel a lot.  And they do it in style. 

Anyway, over dinner one night, I was telling them about how much I did end up liking my Cathay Pacific business class experience, even though it added a zillion hours to my travel time.  I said that I was starting to understand their lives, how they’d consider just coming to Tokyo for a weekend, then jet off to Singapore for a few days.  I said that I’d actually even consider going back through Hong Kong on my way back, rather than flying direct as planned.  I wasn't sure if I was serious or not.  But they were.  They both told me to do so.  And they said I had to fly first class.  I’ve never done that before, on any airline, for an international flight.

I wasn’t sure if I was crazy or not.  I could leave with everyone else, on a midnight flight, in business class, on JAL, straight back to SF.  The timing wasn’t awesome, as the flight is only 9 hours, so after all the hubbub of meal service and whatnot, I’d only get about 6 hours of sleep.  And JAL’s business class isn't fully flat.  But, I was booked on it, and it was easy.  Why would I want to complicate things by adding in a 5 hours flight to Hong Kong, a 4.5 hour layover in Hong Kong, and then a 12 hour flight to SF?  Why?

Well, because it sounded like such an experience!  And, I didn’t really get to check out the lounges in Hong Kong on my trip there, as I only had about 20 minutes between connecting.  Emil told me all about the new flagship lounge, with a champagne bar.  And I knew they had bathing cabanas!

So, I did it.  (Ok, really, what I did was tell Emil to make the decision for me, since I was on the fence.)  And of course he changed my flight to Cathay.  And, even though I said I didn’t need to fly first class, he put me in First anyway.  I have no idea how I’ll ever repay him.  Let's just say that he provided me with a very, very memorable experience.  It was the first time that I truly felt that transit was not just about getting from point A to point B, but rather, it was about the dining, the level of service, and everything else that can go along with the entire experience.  It wasn’t a quick 9 hour flight back, and was a full day of travel instead, but … wow.  I have no regrets for making a day out of my travel.

My journey home began in the Sakura Lounge at Haneda airport, which I reviewed last week.

Then, it was time to board CX549, with a 4:25pm departure time from Haneda, and ~4 hour flight time to HKG.

The first class cabin consists of only 6 seats, arranged in two rows, two windows and a center each, all with direct aisle access.  5 were occupied on this flight, and the others were all Asian men, in suits.  I felt a bit out of place.

But, the attendants put me at ease immediately.  The service throughout was rather amazing.  Very attentive, obviously, as there were 2 staff for only 5 passengers.  Somehow they were constantly moving, and busy.  They were also really friendly.  I told one of them I was going to San Francisco as my final destination, and the other stopped by later to talk to me about the city.  They really do an incredible job with customer service.

The flight was also really smooth.  Besides takeoff and landing, the seatbelt light never went on, and we didn’t seem to encounter a single bump along the way.

Overall, it was a lovely flight.  Sure, I was on a plane for 4.5 hours, but I honestly wasn’t bored for a single moment of it.  The start of the flight was exciting as I explored my seat, and I spent the next couple hours eating the ridiculous meal.  I’m sure I could have paced it even slower if I had wanted, and if I had a dining companion, I probably would have.  It is kinda crazy to think of it this way, but rather than just being how you get from point A to point B around dinner time, this flight truly was a fine dining experience on its own.

But, this was just the start.  The real magic lay ahead, as I explored the Cathay Pacific Lounges in Hong Kong, and then, eventually boarded my flight to San Francisco, the most memorable flight I've ever taken (stay tuned for that!)
My Seat/Couch.
This was my very first time flying international first class.  I knew the seat would be large, but I didn’t realize quite how large my seating area would truly be!  It was like my own little private zone, calling it a seat isn't quite accurate.  The width of the seat in particular was insane, I could have easily fit two of me side by side in this seat.  Possibly three.  Crazy!  From now on, I’ll refer to this part of the seat as my couch, rather than just a seat.

The couch was fairly comfortable, reclining in all sorts of ways.  I didn’t ever put it down into a full bed, since the flight was from 4:30pm - 9pm, but it of course did lay flat.

Along the windows was a sizable area for drinks and whatever else I pulled out along the way.  My seating area spanned the length of 3 windows!  A massive dining table came out of the window sill as well.

Since it was a daytime flight, I was also provided with a pillow and light duvet.  I didn’t use any of this until the final 20 minutes or so when it got a bit chilly, but the others in my cabin did snooze for most of the flight.
Guest Seat.
Opposite the couch-seat was a guest seat, so a travel companion could come sit with me, either just to socialize, or for the meal service.  The guest seat was easily as large as a regular seat in economy.  I was flying solo, but I think this is pretty awesome feature.  You could just sit back and have a real meal with someone while airborne.  Seems like the time would just fly by, tee hee, pun intended.

Under that seat was a storage area for my bags.
Huge Television!
Also opposite my seat was a HUGE television screen, featuring the same entertainment system we had in business class, along with a storage slot for magazines and whatnot.
My closet.
Next to the tv, a closet.  Yes, a closet.  No overhead bins in first class, rather individual closets, complete with hangers and hooks.  If this had been an overnight flight, and I was flying directly to business meetings and thus be wearing a suit or something, the closets seems pretty amazing.  It was a bit lost on me though.  Still, the amount of storage available at my seat was impressive, and it was all highly functional.

I don't have a photo of it, but no airline review is complete without mentioning the bathrooms, right?  First of all, for 6 seats, first class had two bathrooms!  I never had to wait, even momentarily.

The first class bathroom was everything it should be.  Spacious, with real towels, lotion, soap, moisturizing mist, and huge mirrors.  The most impressive part to me however was the fact that the water had an on/off.  It didn’t just run for an insufficient 5 seconds and then turn itself off.  The little things, they matter!
Pre-flight drink: Amour De Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2005.
Once I settled in, a hot towel was brought for my hands, and a drink was offered.  I was a bit amused that the attendant suggested water or juice.  Doesn’t everyone start with bubbles?  I asked for the champagne instead.  Since this was considered a regional flight, not long haul, they didn’t have the Krug I’d read about, but instead offered Amour De Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2005.  I didn’t really care for it, too acidic, and not sweet enough for me.
Non-Alcoholic Drink List.
Soon after takeoff, menus were offered, and additional drinks could be ordered.  Non-alcoholic drinks were standard juices, soft drinks, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate.
Water, snack mix.
Knowing what was in store for me, I started with sparkling water (Perrier).  It was offered with ice and lemon, both of which I accepted.

Along with the drinks, we were provided a little bowl of snack mix.  Peanuts, wasabi peas, rice snacks.  All of these were intensely flavorful, particularly the wasabi peas.  They weren’t messing around!  This was some of the best snack mix I’ve ever had, and uh, I eat a lot of snacks.
Regular Wine List.
I also pursued the alcohol lists.  In addition to the champagne I already had, there were a variety of wines, red and white.
Special Wine List.
In addition, a special promotion wine list was provided with six specially selected wines from Saint-Émilion.
Hard Alcohol, Cocktails.
A decent liquor selection was also available.  I almost started with the MaCallan 17, but decided to have a bit more fun, and went for the signature drink, the “Pacific Sunrise” instead.
Pacific Sunrise.
Described as a “refreshing combination of champagne and Drambuie with the zest of orange and lemon.”

Now this was delicious!  And it looked really, really good with the zest floating in the glass.  Not too sweet, nice citrus, lovely drink.  I see why it is their signature drink.  The purser told me it was quite popular, and when I said I’d never had it before, she made sure to tell me to let her know if I didn’t like it.  Not a problem, as I loved it.  They also offered an interesting sounding non-alcoholic cocktail, dubbed the “Cathay Delight”, a mix of coconut juice, kiwi, and mint.  I like that they have options for non-drinkers too!  It sounds like something that would be tasty in the morning.

Cathay is known for their alcohol selection, but mostly because they serve Krug on long haul flights, which I'd get to experience on the next leg of my journey.  I was really happy to see that they offered a great selection of other items, for those of us who aren’t quite as crazy about champagne.
Dinner Menu, Western.
For the meal, I had the choice of a Western Meal, or Japanese.  Since the flight was out of Japan, I’d been advised by my frequent flyer friend Emil to go for the Japanese meal (the general protip is to always go for the cuisine of the country catering the food, which, sounds entirely reasonable).  When I saw the menu for the Western meal, I was almost tempted to not listen to him, but decided he knew best.

The Western meal started with either a leek and potato soup (yawn) or herb marinated smoked salmon, seared scallops, and pesto cream sauce.  Oh, be still my heart!  But, I did have a lovely salmon dish at lunch earlier that day, and scallops at lunch not only that day but the previous few days as well, so I decided I could pass on it.  It was hard to resist, and in the end, I did regret this choice.  But more on that in a minute.

The first choice for the Western main dish was pan-fried chicken breast with caramelized onion sauce, parsley potato, sautéed spinach and baby carrots.  Meh, I don’t like chicken, so this was easy to ignore.  Next was braised pork ‘lion head’ with vegetable rice and braised baby Chinese cabbage.  Again, I don’t like pork, so easy to skip.  The final option was vegetarian, green pea and mint agnolotti with roasted capsicum and caramelized pearl onions, surely the dish I would have chosen if I went Western, but it didn't sound that great.
Dinner Menu, Japanese.
So instead I went for the Japanese meal, served in a traditional Kaiseki style.  I was a bit overwhelmed by the menu, as it seemed to include a thousand dishes: a canapé set of 5 items, an appetizer set of another 4 items, a braised dish of several more items, a soup dish, a side dish, a noodle dish, a hot dish, rice, and miso soup.  ZOMG.  The Western meal was just a single app and main choice with some sides, not really sure why they make the Japanese one such a ridiculous ordeal.

But hey, I had 4.5 hours to kill, why not spend them eating?

If only I was more hungry!  I really learned my lesson.  Do not have a big lunch before taking a Cathay Pacific First Class flight.  Unlike the "real" world, you do want to eat this airplane food!

The presentation of the meal was insane.  Restaurant quality for sure.  I had to constantly pinch myself to remember that I was on an airplane.  The ingredients used were also unlike anything I’ve ever been served on a plane before.  I see why people rave about the food aboard Cathay Pacific.  They aim to impress.

I was impressed, obviously for airline food, but, perhaps because I wasn’t that hungry, or perhaps because I went for the very traditional Japanese meal which was a bit outside my comfort zone, I didn’t love it.  But the experience?  Priceless.
My meal started with my table being set with a white tablecloth.  If I had a dining companion, they could have easily sat opposite me, and there would be plenty of room for us to both dine.  My drinks were moved onto the table.

I was provided wooden chopsticks and a chopstick rest.  I broke my chopsticks trying to open them.  Doh.  I pressed my call button, and within seconds they were replaced, and this time, she offered to open them for me.  I felt a bit silly, but obliged.

My meal came with a handwritten note.  How adorable.  I think if you are a regular flyer, they probably include something personal here too.

The first course was canapés, described as "braised nameko and buckwheat seed, broiled amago fish with miso paste, braised sea kelp roll with sea bream roe, broad bean cake with sticky rice, braised baby abalone with shell".  All cold items.

I didn’t know what nameko was.  Nor amago.  But, overall the dishes sounded fascinating, and I haven’t had abalone in ages!  When the platter was brought out, I had no idea what was what.  It took some detective work.  And, some things were surely not listed accurately on the menu.

In the center of the platter was a whole little fish, I’m guessing the amago.  I'm still not sure I was correct about this however, since I looked it up, and amago is a type of salmon, and it always seems larger than what I was served.  It was presented inside a boat made from artichoke.  It had a head, it had a tail, but I was brave and still tried it.  It was meaty and fine, but, given how much other stuff I had coming my way, I didn’t finish it.  I’m not sure if the artichoke was more garnish or for eating, but since I don’t like artichoke, I skipped that too.  But major points for presentation.

Above the fish were three items.  Starting from the top, there was the braised sea kelp roll with sea bream roe.  It was a bit fishy, from both the row and the kelp, but the presentation was lovely.  Rolled up and then tied off.  Not my favorite, but really nicely done.

Below that was the broad bean cake with sticky rice, which was a broad bean that had been cut in half and stuffed with the rice.  Not really what I was expecting for a "cake".  I don’t love beans, but I tried it anyway. Just a mushy bean and rice.  Meh.

Below that was the braised baby abalone, served in the shell.  This was the one I was most looking forward to, but turned out to be fairly disappointing.   Very chewy, in the way that gives abalone a bad name.  But um, they served me abalone on a plane!  In a shell!  Again, serious presentation points.

The other side of the plate is where I was more confused.  On top was a ball of something on a skewer.  It seemed almost cheese like?  I’m really not sure.  It was fascinating, perhaps my favorite thing on the platter, just because I had no idea what was going on there.

Below that was a cherry tomato stuffed with something, and wrapped in a leaf.  What?  I have no idea what was inside, it seemed to be some sort of grain, perhaps this was the buckwheat seed?  It had a really lovely smokiness to it.

And finally, 3 grilled items, that looked like leeks.  Or maybe asparagus.  But, as I bit in, I realized it was none of the above.  I have no idea what this was.  Perhaps this was the nameko?  Nameko are mushrooms, perhaps this was the stems only?

The presentation of the platter was lovely, but I didn’t actually care for most of it.

The moment I finished my plate was whisked away, and the next course was brought out.
Appetizers, Chinese Quince Wine.
The first platter was just my canapés, now it was time for appetizers.  Like I said, this was going to be a long meal!

The appetizer was another full plate, described as "salted red pandra filet, half beak fish kelp roll, seasoned salmon roe, sea urchin roll with red tuna".

Sea urchin!  This course is what sold me on getting this meal rather than the Western, as my blog has an entire label devoted to uni.  Like with the first course, I had a hard time figuring out what was what.  But again, look at this presentation!

The plate was served on a platter, with a lemon wedge, and wasabi served on a flower made from daikon, and a dish of soy sauce.  The wasabi was legit, it had some serious kick.  Far better than any wasabi I ever get in the US!

This course also came with Chinese quince wine with soda, served in a sake glass.  I loved it.  I’ve never had quince wine before, but it reminded me of plum wine, which I generally order with my sushi.  A bit sweet, really quite nice.  Cathay might not have totally impressed me with the food itself, but the drinks?  So good!

In the center was a red fish, sashimi style.  I’m guessing the red tuna?  But the red tuna was supposed to be a roll, with uni.  I'm not sure, but this sure tasted like tuna.  3 slices, sushi grade, pretty nice fish.  I can’t believe this was on a plane, as it surpassed the quality of the sushi I’d had at our team dinner in Tokyo a few nights earlier.  My second favorite item on the platter.

To the right was a roll, I'm going to guess the half beak kelp roll, as it seemed to be white fish wrapped up with kelp, served on a bed of shredded … diakon?  This one surprised me.  It was salty.  It was fishy.  But, I really liked it.  The kelp had a nice chew to it.  And, sometimes, you just want something super salty.  My favorite item on the platter, and still quite memorable.

And on the left must have been the salted red pandra filet, another fish, skin on, wrapped in thin slice of daikon, with cutouts on it.  I'm at a complete loss here, as I can't figure out what red pandra is, the internet doesn't seem to know about it.  Salmon roe popped out of it.  I didn’t care for this item.  Salty, fishy, skin.  Meh.  The salmon roe was standard, not something I ever really care for.

I didn’t see urchin anywhere, which was highly disappointing.  This course however was much better than the first.

The first and second course came out in rapid succession, and, I wasn’t actually hungry yet, as it was only 4pm when I boarded, I of course snacked a bunch in the lounge, and I'd had a big lunch before leaving for the airport.  I intentionally slowed down at this point, and this was clearly noted, and the pace of my meal was slowed accordingly.  I was a bit worried how I was going to make it through the next zillion courses though!
Braised Dish, Clear Soup.
Next, the braised dish and soup dish.  Described as "braised baby octopus and bean curd skin roll with braised pork, and pumpkin" and "clear soup with ice fish with sake".

I’m not much of a soup eater, but it was really tasty.  The broth was intensely flavored, again, salty, which I was really into.  And it was nice to have something so warm.  I’m not sure what was inside, a few assorted vegetables and some stringy white things I couldn’t identify.  Ice fish?  No idea.  Was sake inside of it?  Again, not sure.  (I looked up ice fish when I got home, and found they are also called noodlefish, and I'm pretty sure that is what the stringy things were, whole fish!)

The braised dish was another collection of items I had a hard time identifying, partially due to the description not matching the number of items.

The braised baby octopus was obvious, although I was a bit scared of it. It was the full thing, body and tentacles attached.  It was fine actually, tender.  Not flavorful itself, but the sauce that was all over the dish added flavor to everything.

There was a flower made from something orange, which I assumed was pumpkin, but seemed more like carrot.  And there were two different cake-like items.  Under it all was greens, I think Chinese broccoli.  It was all coated in some kind of sauce.

One of the cake-like items turned out to the pumpkin, which I liked, because I always love winter squashes.  Well cooked, a bit of skin on.

The other was the bean curd skin roll stuffed with pork. I dislike pork, and this was porky.  But I liked the bean curd skin wrapping it.

The sauce on everything was tasty, no idea what it was though, as it was left out of the description.

I also had cold sake to go along with this, a decent sake, but I’m not much of a sake connoisseur.  When my water ran out, I was asked if I wanted a refill, and an entire can was provided in addition.  Service was top notch throughout the flight.
Side dishes, noodle dish, hot dish, rice, pickles, miso soup.
Um, wow.  So, I was stuffed already.  And then this happened.

The “side dish”, top center, was boiled baby squid, with crab legs, over seaweed salad.  The baby squid was distinctly different from the octopus in the previous course, just the bodies, no tentacles.  Again, tender, not rubbery, but I didn’t really like it.  The assortment of seaweed used was impressive, fresh tasting, and many varieties.  The crab leg however was not very good.  Stringy.  Shell on, with cartilage still inside.  Meh.  There was a small bottle of something on the side that I think was supposed to be the dressing for it, since the dish didn’t have a lot of flavor on its own.  It was a honey mustard it seemed, a bit strange to pair with these items, but quite flavorful.

To the left was the noodle dish: "seaweed noodle and Japanese yam noodle, with wasabi and seasoned mushrooms".  There were clearly two types of noodle here, but meh, noodles.  Not too soggy, but still, noodles.  I again loved the wasabi, and the little mushrooms were really well seasoned.  This also came with a little container of sauce to pour over.  I was looking at the container a bit confused, since I wasn’t sure which dish it was meant to go with, and my attendant quickly saw my confusion and told me it was for the noodles.  I guess this was a fine dish, but not really my thing.

To the right, miso soup.  Salty, hot, pretty good for miso soup, but, meh, just miso soup.  Not nearly as flavorful as the previous soup course.  There was a ball of something floating in it, perhaps a wheat gluten ball?  I’m not sure.

The bottom row started with white rice.  I’m never a huge rice fan, but this was hot and fresh, and Cathay is known for having real rice steamers on board.  For rice, particularly on a plane, I guess it was good?

In the center was the main hot dish, described as "baked fish, deep fried fresh bean curd skin, and lily bulb cake".  Another stunning presentation.  Two pieces of fish, tails included, rolled up.  Served inside some sort of husk.  I’m not sure what the fish was, it was meaty, a bit oily, and actually pretty good.  Perhaps mackerel?  If I’d been hungry, I would have really enjoyed it.  The fried fresh bean curd skin was basically soggy tofu, that I really, really didn’t care for.  But I rarely like tofu.  Under all of this was some sort of grain, very mushy.  On the side, a beautiful leaf, and, the lily bulb cake. Now, this I loved.  Best thing from the entire meal.  A bit sweet, a bit glutenous, delicious.  Soy sauce was provided on the side for dipping my fish.

And finally, assorted pickles.  I can’t get enough of pickles, no matter what culture they come from.  These were no different.  I loved the diakon.  The others seemed to be some sort of greens, and perhaps a cabbage?  All tart, crispy, and I loved them.  The only one I didn’t like was the pink ball.  I’m not sure what it was, but it had a seed inside, and it hurt me when I bit into it.  It needed a warning message.

Overall, this platter wasn’t my favorite, but, I was really, really, really full at this point.  I should have known better and not snacked so much in the lounge. And not had such a big lunch, since I knew we were taking off at 4:30pm, and this meal would come soon after.  Protip for next time.
Dessert, decaf coffee, pralines.
After all that, it was time for dessert.  I know, I know, I was just saying I was way too full.  I did ask to take a short break at that point.  I went to use the restroom, and when I returned, I was asked if I was ready.   Well, not really, I was still stuffed!  But ... dessert!

The Japanese meal normally concludes with fresh seasonal fruit, but the Western meal had a few other choices, like a cheese course consisting of Combozola, Comte, Double Gloucester, and Chaumes. I know Emil would have gotten that one!  But me, I’m all about “real dessert”, so the other choice of apple streusel pie with clotted cream caught my eye.  Yes, I realize that after that ridiculous meal the simple fruit should have been sufficient, but come on, you know me.

The pie was served warm!  But ... it wasn’t very good pie.  Not that I ever love apple pie, but this was less good than normal.  Fairly mushy.  The crust not remarkable.  It also had raisins in it, mixed with the apples.  Raisins in apple pie?  So strange.  It did have nuts on top, which I liked, I guess this was the streusel element.  But it was, WARM PIE.  ZOMG.  Even if I didn’t love the pie, I give them props for serving warm pie.  Normally, I love my warm pie with ice cream, but I’ll forgive them for the lack of ice cream.  The clotted cream was legit.  This was no whipped cream.  It was thick, it was creamy, sweetened, insanely good.  Topped with a little leaf no less.  I kept picking at the pie, only to be have an excuse to keep eating the cream.  In the end, I gave up, and just ate it by the spoonful.  A pile of clotted cream isn’t THAT different from pudding, right?  I’m shameless.

I also ordered a decaf coffee to go with it, which was served with a small pitcher of cream and brown sugar cubes.  I feel bad that they prepared the additions for it, since I wanted it black, but I wasn't asked how I wanted it.  Just like in business class, the coffee, while it may have been fresh brewed, was not very good.  Bitter.  Meh.  I’ll stop trying it, even though I like having bitter coffee to pair with my dessert.

Dessert also came with a plate of assorted chocolates: 4 cocoa covered hazelnuts, a dark chocolate bar with dried cranberries, and a cocoa covered chocolate truffle.

I’m not a huge fan of hazelnuts, so didn’t really care for those, although they had a nice crunch.  The truffle was great, the chocolate inside very smooth, and darker than I expected.  I didn’t love the cocoa powder on it however, it was bitter and a bit annoying.  The dark chocolate bar was quite good, the chocolate rich and smooth, better than most dark chocolate.

Along with dessert, I had glass of port, because I could: Ramos Pinto Quinta da Ervamoira 10 Year Old Tawny Port.  The port however didn’t arrive with my dessert, but when my water ran out, I asked for it again.  When the water was delivered, she apologized for the port, clearly realizing it had been forgotten.

The port was lovely, the perfect thing to conclude my meal.  I must say, the drinks I had with the meal were all really, really good.  The starter champagne wasn’t really my thing, but the Pacific Sunrise cocktail, the Chinese quince wine, the sake, and the port were all phenomenal.  And I didn’t even get to try the wines, the whiskies, or the sherries, all of which were tempting me too.  I knew I had more lounge time up ahead, and another flight, so I didn’t want to drink too much.  But wow, what a drink menu.  It made me almost wish I was doing a longer daytime flight, just to work my way through it.

My meal ended with another hot towel, floss, and a toothpick.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Shake Shack

Time for something a bit different.  A chain restaurant.  And not just a chain, a casual burger joint!

You've probably heard of Shake Shack, even though there are no locations on the West Coast.  Shake Shack started in New York as a hot dog cart, but now has locations in a few different East Coast states, and several international locations too.  The menu is pretty simple: hot dogs, burgers, fries, and frozen custard based desserts.

Perhaps the reason you have heard of Shake Shack is that (gasp!) Michelle Obama went there and ate a burger, fries, and a shake!  OMG, serious newsworthy item there.  Or maybe you have friends in New York who are crazy about the place.  I really don't recall how I first heard about Shake Shack, but, I've certainly known about it for a few years.

Burgers are the big draw, but I was most excited for the desserts, as I'm a bit of a dessert-o-holic.  But, I did also want to try the burgers.  From time to time, I'm known to enjoy a burger.  I don't always need fancy burgers, although the burger from Alexander's is still my number one burger of all time, and I did appreciate the infamous Spruce Burger.  I was far less impressed with the West Coast's trendy burger joint, Umami Burger.

But back to the Shake Shack.

They take ingredient quality seriously.  Burgers are made from fresh ground, 100% natural Angus, no hormones or antibiotics.  Hot dogs are hormone, antibiotic, and nitrate free.  Fries are trans fat free and cooked in soybean oil.  And of course, the ice cream is made with real sugar, no corn syrup, and no artificial growth hormones.

The location I visited was near the Chestnut Hill mall in Chestnut Hill, MA.  The lines were long, and the place was packed.  The lines were smartly broken into two however, one for people just getting drinks and ice cream, the other for everyone else.  Once you ordered, you were given a pager.

The wait for our burgers and fries wasn't too long, enough time to find a seat (inside or out, we went for outside since we were there enjoying the amazing east coast summer), fill up some containers with ketchup, and get ourselves ready for a feast.  However, I went back to order dessert later on, and, apparently the computers broke down, so orders were lost, and things got very, very backed up.  I waited about 30 minutes for my ice cream, only to find that my order was among the ones that was lost.  I wasn't alone, many others had their orders lost, and were being given free fries to make up for it.

Overall, I'm quite glad I got to try Shake Shack, and I'd return if I was craving a simple burger, and I'd definitely return for the frozen custard!
Hand Cut Fries. $2.85.
You can't go to a burger joint and not get fries right?  Plus, I heard that Shake Shack makes decent fries, from real potatoes, not frozen mush.

The fries did look like they came from real potatoes, with skin still on.  But, that was their only redeeming quality.  The fries were soggy, limp, and totally unseasoned.  Mediocre doesn't even describe these fries.

The only other option for sides is the same fries, topped with cheese sauce for $1 more.  There were no non-fried options, nor even onion rings.  Very weak selection for sides.

Even though there aren't any other sides, I'd still skip these in the future.  They just weren't good. Fries are also offered only in one size, which was certainly large enough that two people should share.
Single ShackBurger.  $4.85.
For the main attraction, your choices are burgers or hot dogs.  The hot dogs are split and griddled, available in chicken or classic beef.  Burgers are available in only beef (or, a vegetarian portabello mushroom "burger").  Standard toppings of lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, and bacon are offered.

I went for the namesake ShackBurger, a "cheeseburger topped with lettuce, tomato, and ShackSauce."  (A standard cheeseburger has pickles and onions in addition, but no ShackSauce, for $0.50 less).

As you may notice from the photo, the lettuce was perhaps the most significant part of the burger.  It was a huge leaf, very fresh and crispy, unlike any lettuce I've ever seen at a fast food or fast casual establishment before.  The other vegetable inside was tomato, 2 slices, fairly fresh, smaller sized, perhaps from a roma tomato.  Again, much higher quality than I expect from a fast food chain.

The cheese was impressively perfectly melted, but there was a bit too much for my taste, it somewhat overwhelmed everything else.  I wonder if it is possible to order half cheese?  The "ShackSauce" was classic special sauce, creamy, likely a combination of mayonnaise and ketchup.

Now, for the main components.  The bun was soft and fluffy, griddled on the inside.  It was fine, but not particularly remarkable.  Like the lettuce and cheese, it seemed to overwhelm the rest of the burger, as there was far more bun than burger.  I ended up using only one half the bun, doubling up the burger.  )Of course, you can also order a double burger in the first place, rather than a single, but I didn't want a bigger burger, I just wanted to be able to taste the one I had!)

And finally, the burger.  It was cooked medium-well, but was still a bit juicy.  The plentiful cheese and ShackSauce also helped make it not seem dried out.  The beef was quite good, very well seasoned, and, well, beefy.  It wasn't a high end burger, it was cooked more than I'd normally order, but, it was very very good for what it was.

So, overall, certainly the best fast food, or fast casual, burger I've ever had.  The produce was remarkably fresh, the cheese perfectly melted, and the beef tasty.  Not something I crave often, but, there is a time and a place for a casual burger, and this was a good one.  $4.85 price was incredibly reasonable for the quality.
Lobstah Shell Concrete. Single.  $4.25.
And, the part of the meal I was most looking forward to: frozen custard!  You know I like ice cream, but custard is leagues above ice cream, and such a rare find.  And, I always prefer soft serve versions of frozen dairy treats, and, the custard at Shake Shack is soft serve.

Now, I was pretty full from my burger and fries, and already had ice cream earlier that afternoon, but there was no way I could resist trying the custard.  Available in vanilla or chocolate, plus a special flavor that changes every day.  I absolutely love soft serve custard, and I really don't understand why more places don't offer it.  (Well, I guess I do, froyo is the trend these days, and, nutritionally, custard is just about as far from froyo as it gets.  But ... it is so much more delicious!)

The custard is available as a simple dish or cone, or can be made into a shake or float, or, into a "concrete", described as "dense frozen custard ice cream blended at high speed with mix-ins."  When I did my research, everyone recommended the concretes.  Plus, how do you resist mix-ins?

For concretes, there are 3 predesigned options, or you can make your own.  The predesigned options are all location specific, and generally feature ingredients made locally.

The first custom one at this location was the "Shack Attack", made from chocolate custard with fudge, chocolate truffle cookie dough, and Mast Brothers Shake Shack dark chocolate chunks, topped with chocolate sprinkles.  Since I avoid chocolate in the evenings, that one was out.  Next was "Revere's Tracks", made from vanilla custard, with cheesecake blondies, peanut butter, and chocolate sprinkles.  This sounded good, but the final option is the one that really caught my attention: the "Lobstah Shell", made from vanilla custard, lobster tail pastry shell from Boston's North End, strawberry puree, and ricotta cream.  It sounded like the most special and unique to the location.

Of course, I also had the option to make my own, picking vanilla or chocolate for the base, plus any mix-ins I wanted.  However, the pricing made no sense to do so.  The base concrete was $3.25, plus $0.60 for each mix-in vs $4.25 for a pre-designed one.  So if I wanted just two mix-ins, the price was already higher than one of their designed ones.  Plus, I figured they knew what ingredients worked well together.

The custard was pretty much perfect.  Soft, creamy, rich.  So good.  Unfortunately, I didn't like the mix-ins.  The lobster tail pastry was soggy and a bit off-putting.  It reminded me of the also soggy waffle cone pieces in Ben & Jerry's Americone Dream.  I like crunchy mix-ins.  The strawberry puree was too sweet.  And honestly, I never tasted anything ricotta-like, not sure how I'd distinguish it from the custard itself.

Even though I didn't like my mix-ins, I liked the custard itself so much that I devoured this in seconds.  I'd love to try another type of custom concrete, or, more likely, I'd just like it in a cone ... with sprinkles of course.

$4.25 was a bit pricey compared to the food options, but not that much higher than other ice cream or frozen yogurt shops.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Justin's Peanut Butter Cups

Justin's is a company that primarily makes nut butters: almond, peanut, and hazelnut.  They come in versions sweetened with maple syrup or honey, and in fun vanilla or chocolate flavors.  More novel than the flavors is the fact that the peanut butter doesn't just come in jars, Justin's also sells squeeze packs, incredibly convenient for packing lunches, or, as I often do, for use on airplanes!  It is incredibly fun to make fresh peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on flights.  Your seat mates will be jealous, I promise.
Single Serve Squeeze Pack: Classic Peanut Butter.
I've had the nut butters before, and they are fine, but never nearly as good as my favorite Peanut Butter & Co peanut butter, so I don't usually buy it.  Protip though, definitely squeeze and knead it before you open it, otherwise, what comes out at first is just the oil, it does separate.

But, besides just the nut butters, they make one other product: peanut butter cups!  You know how much I love chocolate, and how I think peanut butter is pretty much the best thing to pair with chocolate, so I was very excited when one generous co-worker showed up with a pack of peanut butter cups, just so I could try them out.  Thank you!
Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups.
The peanut butter cups are available in milk or dark chocolate; I had the milk chocolate.

The milk chocolate coating was very smooth and creamy.  But the peanut butter inside was even smoother, even creamier.  And, gasp, it tasted like actual peanut butter, not like corn syrup, like some certain Reese's cups.

The aspect of these that was most interesting to me was the ratio of chocolate to peanut butter.  The chocolate layers were each individually as thick as the peanut butter filling, so with chocolate on top and bottom, it really dominated.  I found this surprising, since you would think that they'd want to feature the peanut butter more, as it is their main product.

Overall, these were quite good, and I liked the peanut butter much more than the similar style cups made by Unreal, and the overall result was much better than the fancy peanut butter cups from Jer's Squares.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Good Boy Organics

As you know, I love discovering snack foods, and in particular, chips.

When I visited one of my other offices (I think it was Cambridge?), they were stocked with different brands of snacks, so I was of course excited to try them out.

Good Boy Organics makes two types of snacks "Organicasaurus", aka, baked organic corn snacks shaped like dinosaurs, and "BOPS", aka baked potato crisps.  They also make ... pasta sauces.  A rather random set of goods, for sure.

All the snacks are supposed to be a bit healthier than standard, baked rather than fried, 65% less fat that traditional chips.  And of course, non-GMO, gluten-free, organic, etc.
Cheddar Cheese Organicasaurus.
First, the Organicasaurus.  Baked corn snacks that are indeed shaped like dinosaurs. Available in "Sea Salty", "Tangy Tomato", or, as I had, Cheddar Cheese.

I expected these to taste pretty much like any other cheese puff on the market, just in a more fun shape.  And indeed, they did taste like a corn puff, light and airy.  And yes, it was fun to hold them by the tail and bite of the heads.

But ... they didn't have any cheesy flavor, which is kinda the point.  And sadly, no orange covered fingers resulted from eating them.  Disappointing, and I wouldn't get again ... unless I wanted to eat flavorless, non-GMO, gluten-free air.
Sour Cream & Onion BOPS.
The other snack line is BOPS (Baked Organic Potato Snacks).  Also available in a few flavors, like sea salt, barbeque, aged white cheddar, and sour cream and onoin.

They really were lighter than standard potato chips, but the texture was a bit like packing peanuts.  The flavor was good though, I genuinely enjoyed the sour cream and onion flavor, and didn't share my bag full.

Not what I'd seek out, but, not bad.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Alexander's Steakhouse ... still the best!

By now, you obviously know of my absolute love for Alexander's Steakhouse.  It is, hands down, my favorite restaurant, for any occasion, in San Francisco, whether it be a special occasion, a large group private event, or even just a casual burger at the bar.  My blog has an entire label dedicated to meals I've had there.

Yes somehow, I didn't visit for an entire year.  This is insanity, as in the months leading up to the foie gras ban, I went there several times a month.  But, I've largely stopped eating out at restaurants.  The last time I was there was summer 2013, when Emil had family in town, and we had a fabulous meal in the semi-private room.

A few days before my birthday, Ojan had friends visiting (celebrating their wedding anniversary).  We wanted to have a celebratory group dinner out, and there was obviously only one placeto pick: Alexander's.

But to be honest, I felt like a bit of a traitor, since it had been so long (not that there is anywhere else I've been going instead.  I just haven't been going out to eat much).  It had been a year!  A ... year!  Sure, I rave about Alexander's constantly.  I send at least a few people there a month.  But, I myself hadn't been there in a year, and for Ojan, it had been even longer, since he was unable to join on my last visit due to health reasons.

When I got the confirmation call the day before my reservation, there was no familiarity in the voice of the caller.  When we arrived, I didn't recognize the hostess.  Nor our main server.  My heart somewhat sank.  Alexander's was "my" place, and part of the reason I love it so much is that they take hospitality to a level I've never experienced elsewhere.  Yes, the atmosphere is great, the food is phenomenal, but you can get good food in a nice environment anywhere.  It is the sense of being taken care of, of really feeling at home, that completes the package at Alexander's.

I looked around a bit disconcerted.  Where were "my" people?  Surely, the entire staff couldn't have changed in a year ... could they?  Where were the familiar faces?

I did not need to worry, they suddenly started materializing.  Over the course of the next hour, familiar faces started stopping by our table to chat.  They all seemed genuinely happy to see us.  And I really was happy to see them.  It was honestly a bit like coming home.  How had I let it be so long?

We had a wonderful meal, as always.  The service was flawless.  The food was everything I remembered.  Alexander's never wavers.  It will continue to be my favorite restaurant in the city, and, I vow to return much sooner next time!
Happa: Nikka 12 Yr Japanese Whisky / Old Forrester Bourbon / Benedictine / Tamarind / Fresh Lemon / Scrappy's Firewater Bitters.  $15.
To start our meal, we ordered cocktails, alcoholic for two of us, non-alcoholic for the other two.

I picked the Happa, since I like whisky based cocktails.  It was really strong on the first few sips, but mellowed out a bit as the ice melted, or, perhaps as I just got accustomed to it.  I can't pinpoint anything wrong with it, but it wasn't my favorite.

One of my dining companions went for the other whisky cocktail on the menu, the Mr. Pink, which was fruity and had a nice froth on top from egg whites.  He won this round.

Ojan and our other friend both ordered the Ginger Rose non-alcoholic cocktail.  They liked the ginger, but felt the drink was too sweet overall.  After a few sips they asked for more soda water to be added, which was done without hesitation, and they both liked their drinks far more once they'd been toned down just a bit.

Later in the meal, everyone ordered another round of cocktails, and Ojan's non-alcoholic California Kumquat was the hit of the night.  The no alcohol drinkers really appreciated the rather large selection of interesting non-alcoholic drinks, a rare treat for them.
Bread Course #1: Za'atar  Cracker.
After we placed our orders, and started sipping our drinks, it was time for the bread guy to make his first appearance, bearing crackers.  This time, za'atar spiced, a departure from the standard Japanese inspired ingredients Alexander's usually features.  Crunchy, perfect to nibble on while we continued settling in, and just enough spices to start to excite our taste buds.
Amuse Bouche: Buckwheat Panisse.
Soon after the crackers, an amuse bouche arrived: a small fritter.  The texture was really interesting, quite soft, and I had no idea what I was eating.  I couldn't tell if it was animal, vegetable, or what.  It turned out to be a buckwheat panisse, infused with soy and mirin based tonkatsu sauce, a little bit of Japanese inspiration right from the start.  The flavorful, salty sauce really helped wake up the palette, exactly as it was designed to do, a good progression from the za'atar spicing in the cracker.
Edamame: Warm truffle butter / Hawaiian black sea salt. $10.
Alongside the amuse came an extra complimentary side dish: edamame.  But it isn't just any edamame; it is served warm, bathed in truffle butter, and is deliciously salty from Hawaiian black sea salt on top.  I never order the edamame as I have no interest in filling up on it, and it can be quite filling, but I must admit, this is quite good edamame.

Ojan doesn't care for truffle, particularly truffle oil, but even he was able to enjoy the dish.  It took restraint on my part not to keep digging in, as the saltiness was totally addicting and paired perfectly with my cocktail, but I knew better things were coming!
Snack: Uni Toast: braised oxtail / 1k island / marrow toasted brioche. $9 each.
And now ... for the good stuff, starting with the uni toast, an item we selected from the "snack" portion of the menu.  You know I love uni, so there was no way I could pass it up.

The base was perfectly crisp toasted brioche, served warm.  It was insanely rich, as it was toasted in marrow.  On top, tender braised oxtail and creamy uni, both incredibly flavorful.  When I read the description, the 1k island seemed strange in concept to pair with the uni, but it turned out to work nicely, adding additional creaminess, which accented the already creamy uni.  Plus, the bread + oxtail + 1k island was reminiscent of a reuben.

There is literally nothing I can say that needs improvement here.  Such a smart dish, a delicious bite.  My initial tasting notes for this just read: "OMG, yum!".  My favorite dish of the night.

Variations on this have been appearing at Alexander's for a while, but it wasn't always on the menu.  Last time I visited, I had something similar, with shortrib ragout instead of oxtail, and it was my favorite bite that night too.  Highly recommended, in any variation, even if $9 seems a little pricey for a bite sized dish, remember, it did have a plentiful amount of quality uni.
First Course: Mangalitsa Pork Terrine: mangalitsa bacon / marcona almond / cognac / mustard emulsion. $20.
We also selected a first course to share, the Mangalista pork terrine.

Now, I'm not really a pork eater (well, besides bacon), so a pork terrine is a very strange pick for me.  Except ...  we had a little notice that wink, wink, something interesting might be in the center of the terrine, a certain ingredient not listed on the menu perhaps.  Plus, I was feeling inspired from all of the chef's photos from Cochon 555 the previous week, and I know he takes working with high quality heritage pork seriously.  And ... it was Alexander's where I first learned that I could indeed love pork belly.

The terrine turned out to be absolutely delicious.  Of course, it helps that it was wrapped in bacon and had a layer of creamy foie gras inside, because who doesn't love bacon, and obviously, I love foie.  Also hiding inside was a thin layer of shaved truffle, to amp it up a notch.  But even the pork itself was tasty, it did have a strong porky flavor, but the seasoning was really excellent.  Marcona almonds were mixed into the terrine, and added a surprising crunch.  And, wow, almonds and pork go together nicely.  Who knew?

But the perfect pairing was the pork and the mustard emulsion.  Once the rest of the dish was devoured, my dining companions started using just their silverware to lap up every remaining drop of the mustard.  "The mustard was really, really good!!!" one of them kept proclaiming, in defense of his near-licking of the plate.

We all loved this dish.  One person was pushed outside her comfort zone with it, and wasn't excited to try it, but ended up describing it as "a fancy sausage".  Hmm, yes, bread, pork, mustard ... it was kinda like a sausage, just totally deconstructed and reimagined, and I was glad that she was able to relate to it and find homey, familiar concepts hidden in the dish.  My second favorite of the night.
Gift from the Chef.
Before we moved on to our main dishes, we were treated to one more gift from the chef.  I saw it coming our way, and I think my grin was probably visible from across the room. 

As it was placed in front of us, I had to chuckle at the description:"purposely fattened duck liver, rabbit mousse, jasmine smoked blackberries, chanterelle mushrooms".

Yes, "purposely fattened duck liver".  Mmm, foie gras.  Super creamy, in a way that only Alexander's seems to master.  I'm not quite sure where the rabbit mousse was, but, since I had many rabbits as pets and have actually always refused to eat rabbit, I was glad that I could pretend it wasn't there.  In any other circumstance I would have skipped the dish due to the rabbit, but, foie.

The blackberries provided a sweet and acidic counterpart, although I didn't detect jasmine.  The chanterrelles were ridiculously cute.  The leaf on top was nasturtium, which shocked us all with its intense flavor.

A wonderful treat as always, although I think I actually liked the uni and the terrine more.  I'd gladly have all of them again though!  
6oz Filet Mignon.  Medium rare.  Uh, Truffles. $43.
Time for the mains.  But first, I need to confess something.  I don't love steak.  This may come a bit as a surprise, since Alexander's is a steakhouse, and is my favorite restaurant in the city.  But as I've explained many times, they do much more than just steak well.  I'm there for the whole experience, so I'm often tempted to skip the steak, as it regularly is the least exciting course for me.  Plus, I like to have bites of many different things, and a full steak, even the smallest 6oz filet, is quite filling!  By this point in the meal, I'm usually so happy from the starters, that I don't generally want an entire steak, no matter how good that steak is.  I have opted for a seafood course instead, or sometimes I pick another appetizer as my main, but what I prefer to do is just split a steak with Ojan, so I can enjoy a few bites, which is all I generally want.  Luckily for me, he was up for this plan, and wanted the same steak I did.

I've had many different steaks at Alexander's over the years.  Alexander's has taught me many things about steak, and one is that my cut of choice is filet mignon.  I know, it sounds so cliche, but it is the truth.  I've tried the dry-aged ribeye, on the recommendation from the chef himself, and the Akaushi  full blood Wagyu strip steak, and the even better Sher full blood wagyu stip.  I just really prefer the leaner filet.

I've also learned that the more expensive steaks really are better.  The Tajima F1 filet is probably the best steak I've ever had.  If money were no object, I would go for one of the higher end Wagyus over the standard one every time (but only when available as a filet).  But, the standard filet from Alexander's is still very, very good.

Alexander's has also taught me that I want my steak medium rare.  I grew up with well done steak, and by the time I first ventured to Alexander's I was "being brave" ordering medium well.  I quickly moved to medium, and now I can't imagine anything more than medium rare.

And, Alexander's has taught me that no where else cooks steaks so perfectly.  Seriously.  Time and time again, they just nail the execution.  Rare in the center.  Ridiculous sear on the outside (not that you can see it in the photo above, but I'll get to that in a moment).  Incredibly tender.  Even the standard filet is intensely flavorful.  I'm usually a serious sauce girl, and even I think this steak can hold its own without a sauce, although the bordelaise it is served with compliments it well.

Speaking of complimenting it well.  The truffles.  Oh my, the truffles.  Now, we did not order the truffles, yet they magically appeared on top of our steak.  A very generous portion at that.  ZOMG, thank you chef!  Now, time to step back.  Remember how I said Ojan hates truffles?  Yeah.  I was grateful and excited to see the truffles, but my heart did slightly sink, thinking that they ruined the steak for Ojan.

I nearly fell out of my seat when he took a bite and proclaimed "the truffle actually improves the steak".  Wait, what?  Not only did he not hate the truffles, he ... liked the truffles?  He ... wanted the truffles?  This was a groundbreaking moment.  I thought that perhaps with constant exposure he'd get to a point of tolerating truffles, but I never imagined that I'd ever hear Ojan explicitly say that truffles improved something.  Over the course of the evening, and into the next day, he reflected on the steak, and said it again.  First Alexander's taught us both that we could love pork belly, and now they have broken Ojan of truffle-hatred?  I told you this place is magical!

Anyway, Alexander's has perfected the filet, with or without truffles, and Ojan and I both really enjoyed it.

I also had a bite of my dining companion's pick, the Niman Ranch Strip Steak, with 1A sauce, cippolini onions, and shishito peppers.  I know that I don't normally like strip steaks, but I wanted to try it, just to reconfirm.  If Ojan could start liking truffles, then it seems totally possible that I'd start liking different cuts of steak!  It was perfectly cooked, just like my filet, but it was tougher as expected, and I really didn't care for it.  I also stole a bite of the cippolini onion, roasted, sweet, totally delicious.  Have I mentioned that I adore cippolinis?

In my mind, steak pretty much demands a glass of red wine alongside.  I was at a bit of a loss dining at Alexander's without Emil.  How on earth could I fend for myself and order wine?  I didn't need to fear, as I was in the expert hands of the Alexander's staff.  I mentioned that I'd like a glass of red wine to go with my steak.  I said I wanted something not too tannic.  Moments later, not one, but two glasses were placed in front of me.  I was poured two selections, one old world, one new world.

One was the Peay Estate Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast 2012.  California pinots are probably the varietal I drink the most, so this was very familiar to me.  Certainly not too tannic, light, and what I likely would have picked from a wine list.  The second was Le Chiuse Sangiovese, Brunello di Montalcino 2006.  I certainly wouldn't have known to pick it, and it was a bit more bold and assertive than what I normally gravitate towards, but it actually went even better with the steak, particularly when paired with the truffles and bordelaise.

I loved getting to try two different wines, and appreciated the different styles.  I also really valued that they brought me the one that I thought I'd like, the pinot, but also pushed me towards one that turned out to be even better, even though I wouldn't have asked for it myself.  Alexander's, always expanding my horizons!
Side: Brentwood Corn.  $15.
Yes, I ordered a side dish.  You may recall that while I love almost everything about Alexander's, the sides are the only area of the menu that I've been disappointed by.  But when I was at Alexander's last summer, I went out on a limb, and ordered the Brentwood corn, and absolutely loved it.  Last year it was a cheesy Camembert corn gratin, with ridiculously delicious corn bread crumble on top.  I knew it would be different this time, but I was certainly willing to risk it for another tasty corn dish.

This season's version was described as "fermented garlic cream / fennel / crispy yuba". 

The corn was nicely cooked, not mushy, not too crisp.  I liked the idea of the garlic cream sauce, like sophisticated creamed corn.  However, the fermented flavor just didn't work for me.  Everyone else liked it, and commented on how good it was, so I'm glad I ordered it for the table, but the flavor just wasn't something I liked.

What I loved however was the crispy yuba on top.  I've had yuba many times in my life, I've even visited the Hodo Soy factory to see learn it is made, so yuba itself is not novel to me (in fact, at the farmer's market that morning, we took our visitors to the Hodo stand so they could try yuba for the first time themselves).  I adore crunchy toppings, and although I've always had yuba sautéed, never fried like this, it totally works!  I gladly stole almost all of the topping.

I wouldn't order this again, but I'll still continue to try other corn side dishes that show up on the menu!
Bread Service #2: Parker House Rolls, Strauss Butter, Fluer de Sel.

I saw other tables receiving rolls throughout service, and after we had our steaks, we still didn't have rolls.  I didn't really mind, as I'm never one to fill up on bread when there are tastier things to be had, but mentioned our lack of bread to the others.  I'm not sure if I was overheard, or if the timing was just that magical, but all of a sudden, the bread guy appeared bearing rolls.

Described as Parker House Rolls, served with a log of Strauss butter sprinkled with fluer de sel.  Now, I've actually been to the Parker House.  I've had their rolls.  They were the highlight of my meal there, although I went for a wedding, and the food was awful.

Anyway, these weren't really classic Parker House rolls, but they were warm, fluffy, soft, and the dough had a great flavor to it, slightly sweet.  The butter was ridiculously creamy, rich, and delicious.  I used no restraint in adding generous amounts of butter to my little roll.  The fluer de sel sealed the deal.

I'd mostly finished my steak when the rolls arrived, but I still really enjoyed them.  One of the better bread services I've had in recent memory, and certainly didn't feel like a waste of stomach space.
Palette Cleanser.
Before moving into desserts, we obviously needed to ease our palettes into the sweets, so we were presented with a gift from the pastry chef.

A small dish, but there was a lot going on here.  The base was a little cube of sweet raspberry cake.   I'm not really a cake person, so that component was a bit boring to me, but it was sweet and moist, good enough cake.  Drizzled over the cube was lime curd, which, if you know my tastes, you know I really don't like.  I still don't know why, but I never care for citrus in my desserts.  I like lemon and lime in other applications, but a key lime tart is my absolutely least favorite dessert ever.  The curd was tart, it was creamy, but I really didn't like it.  My dining companions however liked it, and told me I was crazy.  This we know.

The most stunning aspect of the dish was freeze dried raspberry, broken down into individual drupelets, and scattered on top.  I loved the effect, as it took a very familiar item, a raspberry, and presented it in a way I'd never seen before.  It was clear what it was, but so strange to see in that form.

On the side was my favorite component: a fluffy meringue puff.

Even though I didn't really care for this dish, I appreciated that even the palette cleanser was such a composed creation, made up of several distinct elements, each showing off the skills of the pastry chef, and plated so beautifully.  My dining companions thought the "boat" shaped dishware it was served in was unique.
Dessert: Stone Fruit Almond. $13.
Earlier in the day, we took our visitors to the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market.  It was early August, so stone fruit was in full swing.  We all gorged on a zillion different varieties of plums, pluots, nectarines and peaches.  Which ...  I've also been doing for the past few months.  I'm actually getting a bit sick of stone fruit.

Thus, when one of our guests suggested the "Stone Fruit Almond" dessert, I wasn't really interested.  There were so many more exciting options, like a sticky toffee soufflé!  But, since I'd been calling a lot of the shots throughout the meal, I decided to just go with the flow.

The menu description read: "almond cake / créme fraiche / amaretti / absinthe / chamomile / stone fruit ice cream".  But of course, being Alexander's, what showed up was a very elaborate creation.

The base was almond cake.  As I mentioned with the palette cleanser, I'm not generally a huge fan of cake, but this was super moist and had a lovely almond flavor.  On top was sweet and tangy whipped créme fraiche, which I always love with fruit desserts.  Don't get me wrong, I love plain whipped cream too, but I really appreciate the depth of flavor that the créme fraiche adds.  It went well with the assorted slices of stone fruit.

On the side was the stone fruit ice cream, which reminded me more of sorbet, as it was a bit icy.  Underneath and alongside was my absolutely favorite component, an amaretti crumble.  It was sweet and crunchy.  I'm such a sucker for crumbles.

I not sure where the absinthe or chamomile were, as I didn't detect them in any bites.

I appreciated how much was going on in this dish, as it allowed me to take a bite in any direction I wanted.  Simple cake and ice cream?  Sure.  Fruit and crumble topping?  Had that too.  Or, my ultimate favorite: sweet fruit, tangy créme fraiche, and crumble, all in one.  Delightful.

I wouldn't have ordered this one, but that crumble was delicious, so I'm quite glad someone else did, and I got to experience it.
Dessert: Sweet Corn. $13.
The other dessert we ordered was my pick, and I was eyeing it on the online menu before we even arrived: the "Sweet Corn".

Now, I know this sounds like a strange pick for a dessert.  But, I had very fond memories of when I was at Alexander's last July, and ordered last year's version of "Sweet Corn".  It was a corn brûlée, one of my all time favorite Alexander's desserts.  I knew this would be different, as the menu described it as: "sweet corn cake / blackberry / lemon / honeycomb / olive oil almond ice cream".  Darn, cake again?  But, swoon, corn!

The cake was served slightly warm.  It was moist, reminded me of very dense cornbread.  Alongside was a quenelle of olive oil almond ice cream, blackberries, and what I think was a crumble made up from pieces of the same corn cake.  Those components were all fine, but not all that remarkable.

The amazing bits were the corn kernels.  They might just look like regular corn kernels, but they were crazy crunchy.  I think they were probably freeze dried, just like the raspberry in our pre-desert, and like the corn kernels in last year's "Sweet Corn".  I really loved how crunchy they were, and after everyone else had taken their main bites of cake and ice cream, I gladly scooped up all the remnants of the crumble + corn bits.

In both desserts, the cake and ice cream were fine, but what really stood out was the crumble components.  This was my favorite of the two desserts, although I wouldn't order it again.
Chocolates & Cotton Candy.
And of course, to conclude, just a few more sweets: housemade chocolates, and of course, the signature cotton candy.

Everyone at the table loved the specially made stand, with a slot for each of the 4 slices of bark, a pedestal for the bonbons, and a cotton candy holder.

The cotton candy flavor of the day was watermelon and strawberry-vanilla mixed.  Now, the astute reader should have alarms going off in their head right now.  Watermelon!  Danger! Danger!  Alexander's should know not the serve me watermelon!

Do not fear, they are not trying to off me.  I was assured that they had looked up the ingredients and were positive that no watermelons were harmed in the making of the cotton candy.  Julie-safe.

I actually think this is the first time I've even had artificial watermelon flavor in years.  It was such a strange experience.  My brain kept screaming "NO! NO! NO!", but at the same time, it was thrilling to taste watermelon.

Anyway, flavor aside, it was sweet, it was fluffy, and as always, ridiculously fun to actually eat.  It never gets old watching first time visitors notice the cotton candy arriving around the room, and getting excited to get their own.

For chocolates, there were thin slices of dark chocolate bark and bonbons, one for each of us.  My piece of bark had plentiful arare and a single tiny chunk of dried apricot.  The chocolate in the bark was super dark, very bitter, quite tasty.  I loved that they put arare inside, continuing with Japanese influence, even into the chocolates.  It added a great crunch.  The bonbon chocolate shell was shiny, and had a great snap.  It was filled with a creamy sweet praline filling.  Very good chocolates!

Perfect ending to a wonderful meal.