Thursday, October 30, 2014

Bonjour Patisserie

If you haven't heard of Bonjour Patisserie, perhaps you know it by its old name, Patisserie Philippe?  Patisserie Philippe got rave reviews back in the day, but the change happened in 2011, and I never experienced the baked goods before the change.  Bonjour Patisserie has the same location, and basically the same menu, but new owner, and, well, no Philippe.

Anyway, Bonjour Patisserie is located down on Townsend street, by Zynga, in an area I bike by regularly, but never stop at.  And, I still haven't actually visited the cafe.  I have however tasted their treats, because, why else would I be writing this?

I attended a brunch catered by Bonjour Patisserie, and couldn't help but try pretty much everything.  You know how much I love baked goods.  I wasn't particularly impressed with anything.
Croissants, Cannelés, Vanilla & Blueberry Pound Cake, Chocolate Madelines, Raspberry Financier.
The setup was fairly simple, with a bunch of baked goods on slightly tacky silver platters.  I'm not sure if the platters were provided by Bonjour Patisserie or the event host.  Almost all of the goods were stacked up on one platter.
Croissants, Apple Strips.
There was a second platter with only two items on it, slightly less jumbled.

The flaky croissants were the fastest moving item, one of Bonjour's signature items.  There were also ham and cheese croissants.
Berries, Jam, Cream Cheese, Brie.
Assorted condiments were also provided.  The jam on the left was really, really good, particularly with brie from the nearby cheese platter.  I have no idea what it was, or if it actually came from Bonjour Patisserie.  It was really delicious though, perfect slathered on the otherwise unremarkable croissants.
Vanilla & Blueberry Pound Cake.
"A muffin sized vanilla pound cake, baked with fresh blueberries."

This was dry and pretty flavorless, although speckled with flecks that I think were almonds?  I couldn't distinguish a particular flavor from them, and the description doesn't mention anything else, so I'm not sure what they were.  The blueberries were plump, but there were just two on top, no more inside.  Dusted with powdered sugar for a bit of sweetness.

I did not like this, unsurprising I guess since I don't generally care for pound cake.  Ojan usually likes blueberry baked goods, and he only took a single bite of one too.
Apple Strip.
"Flaky puff pastry baked with apples and almond cream, topped with caramel."

I had no idea what this was until I looked on the website later to add the description.  It was the best of all the treats.  I had a full slice at the brunch, and then brought another one home, intending to share with Ojan, but uh, he never got a bite.

The crust was a flaky puff pastry, crispy and a bit caramelized.  The next layer was a thick paste, very, very sweet.  I think it was frangipane, although it didn't necessarily taste almond-y (indeed, the description says almond cream).  The baked apples were nicely cooked, soft but not too soft.  There wasn't really any seasoning on them though, they could have used some cinnamon.  And, to top it all off, caramel sauce.  And it was dusted with powdered sugar.

Overall, this was very sweet, almost too sweet.  When I had my first slice, I enjoyed with black coffee, and didn't mind the sweetness too much.  But when I had my second slice a few hours later, it seemed a little much.  Perhaps I'd just had too many sweets by that point!  It had gotten a bit soggy, so I warmed it up in the toaster oven.  And then, since I had a warm dessert ... I just had to add ice cream too.  That helped cut the sweetness a lot, as I paired it with a classic vanilla.

This was the best treat I had from Bonjour, but I wouldn't seek another out.
Cannelé.
I have fond memories of the epic cannelé from Keiko à Nob Hill, one of the top meals of my life.  Very few cannelés can possibly compare to those.

This one surprised me, particularly given how much I didn't like the other pastries.  It wasn't nearly as good as the Keiko one, but it wasn't bad.

Slightly crispy exterior, super moist interior, really nice caramelized flavor on the outside.  It didn't hold up at all though.  I had another one just a few hours later, and the exterior turned totally gummy.  I tried heating it up to make it better, but that just made it worse.  Very short shelf life here!

I probably wouldn't get another.
Chocolate Madeline.  Raspberry Financier.
Finally, two petite treats.

The chocolate madeline was dry and totally flavorless, no better than the blueberry pound cake I started with.  Neither the white nor brown parts had any flavor.  I'm guessing it was supposed to be chocolate and vanilla, although they list it just as chocolate on the site.

The platter also had a bunch of the financiers, some were plain, some had a jam filling.  I actually kinda liked the jam filled one I picked, although I struggled to know what it was.  It looked like a mini banana muffin, as it had little flecks in it, but I didn't taste any banana.  Once I looked it up and discovered that it was a financier, I realized the flecks must have been ground almond.  Anyway, it was sweet and moist, and the jam was tasty, just like the jam on the condiments table.  Some of the jam had leaked out, and that bit was crispy.  This was decent, but not remarkable enough to get again.
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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Group Dining, Bottega, Napa

Large group dining (as in, 30-50 individuals) is tricky.  No matter what restaurant you pick, it will never measure up to the experience of when you go with only a few others.  It just isn't possible.  I know this.

Over the past few years, I've helped organize a number of dining events for my group at work. Last year, for our holiday party, we went to my favorite restaurant in the city (Alexander's, duh), and they did a fine job, but again, it couldn't live up to the small group experience.  A few years before that, when our group was only 24 members, we went to Fleur de Lys, and again, it was all good, but not remarkable.

This year, we decided to plan a trip out of the city, up to wine country, to enjoy a great lunch, sunshine, and wine, obviously.  There is no shortage of great restaurants in wine country.  But ... which of them do large groups well?  I anticipated 40-50 people.  Many restaurants in the area have great sounding group dining packages, complete with private areas.  They are accustomed to holding private events, as they are often venues for wedding receptions and rehearsal dinners.  This made doing my research far easier than I expected. Rather than just reading Yelp reviews, focused on standard dining experiences, I could read on wedding recommendation websites, tailored towards groups.  Perfect!

Once I dove in, it took very little time to narrow down on my choice: Bottega, in Yountville.  I've seen Chef Chiarello give cooking demonstrations in SF before, and I have been wanting to try his restaurants for a while, so it was a natural pick, particularly once I read all the raving reviews.

Long story short?  It was the perfect venue and the food was fantastic.  If you are looking to host a group event in wine country, I highly recommend you check out Bottega.  It is located adjacent to V Marketplace, a specialty shopping area, on a winery estate with stunning grounds.   We arrived early and didn't mind at all; it was a beautiful day, and we frolicked in the courtyard enjoying the sunshine.

Once our dining time arrived, we were invited into the private bar attached to the private dining room to begin our experience, and were encouraged to take our glasses of wine back out into the sunny courtyard before being seated for lunch.  Such a perfect way to begin!
Private dining room.
The experience continued to impress as we entered the private dining room, set up with 3 tables.  The decor was rustic and comfortable, yet refined.  We all felt at home as we settled in.

I really appreciated the seating being broken into 3 tables, rather than trying to fit everyone at a single table.  With that many people, you can never talk to everyone anyway, and this setup made it feel more intimate.

The only negative thing I have to say about the venue itself is that it was freezing inside.  It was a big shock after coming in from the warm sunny day, but the initial shock didn't really go away during the few hours we were there.  I would have been more comfortable if it were warmer.
Kitchen through the windows.
I also liked that you could spy through the windows from the private room into the kitchen.  I watched one chef painstakingly roll pasta through the pasta machine all afternoon long.

Speaking of the food, it was really impressive.  This was the best executed group dining experience I've ever had.  They managed to serve the large group all at once flawlessly, with hot, fresh, well prepared food, plated nicely.  I had no idea it was possible to achieve these results with such a large group.

Some of the dishes, and in particular the ones that I expected to be hardest to execute, were very, very impressive.  I would have been impressed even if I was dining with just one other person, much less in a group event.  The salmon was better than what I've had at many nice restaurants, and the gnocchi was mind blowing.  If they do this well with groups, I really need to go back for a regular dinner sometime.

The staff were all friendly and professional.  The only flaw I experienced is my decaf coffee was forgotten.  Besides that, they handled all our special requests seamlessly, although, some of the special diners were served a bit later than the rest of the group.

I'll certainly return for a regular dinner, but I highly recommend Bottega for large events.  You'd be hard pressed to do better.
Custom Menu.
Since we were a large group, we had to arrange a menu in advance, from the special group dining menu.  I of course had a major hand in picking our menu.  There were several options for format, but we went for the standard recommended group experience, composed of 3 antipasti to start, followed by two pasta dishes, all served family-style.  After all those family-style courses, which were certainly enough for a full meal anyway, there was a plated entree (diner's choice, from a pre-selected set of 3), and then dessert.  For only $85 per person.

It was definitely a great value, particularly given the quality of the food, and the ridiculous amount of food served.  There are smaller "luncheon" menus available as well, which, if you aren't feeding an army of hungry software engineers, might be more appropriate.

Immediately once we were seated, we were brought loaves of sourdough bread, served with melted butter with parmesan and herbs.  Since I dislike sourdough, and knew how many more courses were coming, I didn't try any, but my co-workers all loved it, particularly the cheesy, herby butter.

Antipasti

The meal began with antipasti.  In advance, we selected 3 items (out of 6 choices), all of which would be served family style to the whole group.  We narrowed down the selections quite easily, eliminating the salads and charcuterie platters, as those didn't seem very unique.

To please the folks who wanted something a bit healthy, we started with the Roasted Baby Golden & Chioggia Beets: La Tur espuma / pistachio vinaigrette.  I felt no need to try this, again, knowing how many more delicious options were about to be headed our way.  My restraint however, ended here.
Burrata Caprese: creamy mozzarella / heirloom tomatoes / basil leaves / basil oil / balsamic “caviar”.
Next came my top pick from the antipasti list: burrata!  This dish is also served on the regular menu.

It came on huge platters as expected, but, interesting, the servers came around and served us all individually from the large platters.  I actually really would have preferred to serve myself, since there were a slew of stunning looking tomatoes in assorted colors, and I would have surely gone for yellow or green, rather than the reds I was given.

The burrata was delicious, as I hoped.  The center was super creamy.  Served perfectly ripe.  You might say that of course it was tasty, it is burrata after all, but, sometimes, it isn't served at its peak, like at Auberge, where we had disappointing burrata just a few weeks prior

The tomatoes were just ok.  We were nearing the end of tomato season, so it is to be expected that they aren't as awesome as earlier in the summer.  They were well seasoned with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and garnished with basil.  The balsamic caviar was flavorful, and a fun, way to add the standard vinegar component to the dish.

Overall, a very solid execution of a classic dish.  Bonus points for using burrata instead of mozzarella in the caprese too!
Monterey Calamari Fritti: lemon / parsley / aiolo nero.
The third antipasti we choose was the only hot option: calamari fritti.  It came on a huge platter, but, this one was passed down the table rather than being served individually, which I preferred.  This id is also available on the regular menu as an appetizer.

It was ... just ok.  It was served piping hot, which is impressive for such a large group, particularly for fried food.  The calmari was not chewy, a good assortment of rings and bodies, was nicely breaded, and was not oily.  I can't quite pinpoint what I didn't care for, as these all sound like winning attributes, but it just wasn't that flavorful.

I think the real problem was the garnishes, and the family-style setting.

Each platter had a single grilled lemon on it, which was awkward for group dining.   What if one person just ... took it?  Were we all supposed to squeeze it with our questionably clean hands over our own dishes and then put it back?  It certainly wasn't just for show.  A little acidity would have brightened the calamari up considerably.

Likewise, there was aioli nero, which I certainly wanted since I'm all about sauces and dips, but, there was only a artful smear on the platter, no extra provided, nor any drizzled over the dish.  For utensils, we had only serving tongs, so there was no real way to even attempt to get some of the decorative smear onto your individual plate.

This was my least favorite of the antipasti, and the only example throughout our meal of the large group dining format not working well.

Pasta

Next we moved on to the pasta courses.  The group menu contained three options: vegetarian gnocchi, traditional bolognese, or a rabbit pasta.  We had the option of picking just one for everyone to enjoy, which would be plated individually, or two, served family-style.  Since two is better than one, we went for the family-style.

We needed to included a vegetarian option, so the gnocchi was an easy pick.  The bolognese is a dish Bottega is known for, so it was easy to pick that one too.  Like the calamari, they were served on large passed platters, so we could help ourselves.

Our gluten-free and non-dairy diners had a risotto instead, individually plated for them.  The timing did seem a bit off on their dishes, as they arrived long after our pasta.
Pan Roasted Potato Gnocchi: blistered cherry tomatoes and summer squash / English pea - Meyer lemon fonduta /11 month Valley Ford Montasio.
The first pasta to arrive was the vegetarian gnocchi.

It was the hit of the meal.  Absolutely everyone loved it.  Of all of the giant platters we received throughout the course of the meal, this is the only one that was actually completely emptied.  I went back for seconds, and thirds, and then, doh, it was gone.  So much food was provided throughout this meal, but, I totally would have had more of the gnocchi.

So, what made it so delicious?  First, the gnocchi was ridiculous crispy.  I loved the texture.  Next, the cherry tomatoes were incredibly flavorful.  Anything that was lacking from the heirlooms in the caprese did not apply here.  Perhaps it was the blistering that drew out even more flavor?

And the, the summer squash.  Yes, it was late summer, and I stopped being interested in summer squash long ago, but this was probably the best summer squash I've ever had.  Seriously.  Absolutely bursting with flavor, and, presumably, sautéed with plenty of oil.

Finally, there was the English pea-Meyer lemon fonduta.  It was on the bottom of the platter, and I'm glad I took the extra effort to scoop some up when serving myself.  I didn't taste the Meyer lemon, but the pea flavor was there, and it was very creamy, making for a quasi-sauce.  You know I'm a sauce girl, so it was a bit strange for me to love an almost sauceless dish, but honestly, it didn't need it.  The gnocchi was just absolutely remarkable on its own.  The dish was finished with grated Montasio cheese too.

I was shocked by how good this dish was, on every dimension.  They nailed the crispness of the gnocchi and the flavors of the vegetables, in a way that would have been impressive when served individually, much less on a giant platter.  It was also served piping hot.

I'd return to Bottega, just to get this dish.  Unfortunately, it does not appear on any of the regular menu.  A ricotta gnocchi (I think flour based rather than potato) is available, with pomodoro sauce, but, that is obviously an entirely different dish.
Trenne alla Bolognese: veal, pork and porcini mushroom sugo / rosemary / Parmigiano Reggiano.
The second pasta dish was less successful, Bottega's famous bolognese.  When served as part of the regular menu, the pasta is taglierini, but otherwise, I think it is the same dish.

I don't really like pork, but I think even the pork lovers found this dish to be a bit lacking, as they all went back for more gnocchi instead.  The pasta wasn't particularly remarkable, a bit mushy.  It was pretty oily, and the serving dish was left with big pools of oil on it.

We had a lot of this left over, and no one wanted seconds.  We all just kept looking around wistfully for more gnocchi.

Segundi

And finally, the main course.  Because, you know, 3 appetizers, bread, and two pasta courses wasn't enough already!

The main course was a plated affair, and each diner was able to select their choice of entree at the start of the meal.  Diners were able to choose from 3 options that we had pre-selected, out of a list of 5.

Since we had vegetarians in the group, we had to select the single vegetarian dish, Lasagnette di Zucchini al Forno: crisp potato / zucchini and tomato torta / shaved mushroom and celery insalatina / broken tomato vinaigrette.  No one at my table ordered it, so I don't have anything to report on that.

For a meat choice we went for the Costolette Brasate e Affumicate, aka, Smoked & Braised Natural Short Ribs: Calabrian chile broccoli rabe / smokey jus.  A number of diners, Ojan included, picked this, and seemed to really enjoy it.  I of course snuck a bite of Ojan's dish.  The short ribs were fine, moist, tender enough, but, short ribs are never something I like.  Served over a mediocre puree.

The meat options that we decided not to offer were roast chicken (boring!) and wood grilled lamb chops.  For an additional fee, we could have offered a veal chop or steak for $15 more per person.

Our final selection was the single seafood choice, salmon.
Segudi: Salmoni del Pacifico: sweet corn mostarda / smoked and marinated baby beet insalata.
I obviously picked the salmon.

Just like the gnocchi, this was really impressive, not only in general, but particularly for large group dining.

I asked for mine medium rare, and, it actually was.  No one else specified how they wanted theirs cooked, and several others commented on how it was more cooked than they'd like, so, it was definitely a good idea to specify this when ordering.  The most impressive part was that it somehow had perfectly crispy skin.  Seriously, how did they pull this off for a large group?

The sweet corn mostarda was absolutely amazing.  The corn flavor was strong, as was the tang from the mustard, it was incredibly creamy, and went perfectly with the salmon.  I've always had fruit mostardas before, but, the sweetness of the corn worked just like fruit would here.

Well dressed greens perched on top added a bit of lightness and freshness.  The marinated beets were fine, but, like I mentioned when skipping the beet appetizer, I find beets rather boring.  However, the little tiny cubes of pickled beets were incredible, and I'm glad I tried them.  I loved how they complimented the mostarda in particular, so much tanginess.

This was just crazy impressive for large group dining.  We were all served at once, the food was all hot, the crispy components still crispy, nothing was overcooked and dried out, everything was plated beautifully ... I still can't fathom how they did this.

The salmon was clearly the winning entree, and I loved every bite of it.  I was shocked at how much I was able to eat at this point in the meal, after all that gnocchi.  I'd gladly order this again.

Dolci

Finally, we approached the end.  The group menu allowed us to pick only one dessert, individually plated and served to everyone (our dairy-free diner was offered a sorbet instead).

The options that we didn't pick for the group were tiramisu, semolina cake, chocolate hazelnut cake, cookies, or gelato.  Instead, we went for the semifreddo, since it sounded the most unique.
Dolci: Ricotta Semifreddo / Stone Fruit.
You know how much I love dessert, so I was quite excited for this finale, even though I was completely satisfied by the burrata, the gnocchi, and the salmon.  Sadly, it was the weakest dish of the meal.

The semifreddo didn't taste like ricotta to me.  In fact, it didn't really taste like much of anything.  It also stayed far more frozen than I expected, even with time, it didn't get a creamy melty consistency.

The crumbled cookie bits on top just seemed like hard, stale cookies.  Slightly buttery, but really not very good.

The stone fruit however was delicious, fresh peaches.  I think they may have been sweetened additionally, or perhaps they really just were that awesome.  I also enjoyed the fruit puree on the plate.

But overall, this was not very good.  Great presentation though, particularly for a large party.

Along with dessert, coffee was offered.  I ordered decaf, it was forgotten.  Regular coffee was brought in carafes for the table.
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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, London

On my recent business trip to Europe, I had exactly 1.5 days to spend in London.  I arrived with Emil on Thursday evening, fairly burnt out from our time in Zurich, and before that, Mallorca.  For dinner, we were planning to just check out the offerings in the executive lounge at our hotel, and if that wasn't sufficient, perhaps venture to a nearby place for fish and chips.  Casual, simple, easy.

But the executive lounge failed to impress, and after a glass of mediocre bubbles there, I considered other options.  I remembered that there was a L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in London, somewhere.  I had no idea where it was in relation to where we were.  But I quickly looked it up, and saw that the restaurant consists of 3 separate spaces, one of which is a bar area.  The website implied that it served food.  We really enjoyed our experiences at both La Table de Joël Robuchon and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Tokyo, so it seemed only fitting that we check out the London branch, you know, for research purposes.  Just to compare.  I felt a bit ridiculous suggesting this to Emil, given that we were intending to have a very simple night, but, he didn't exactly need convincing to go do fine dining, and the next thing I knew, we were in a taxi on our way.  We were planning to just get a light bite in the bar area.

We arrived and went straight to the bar, on the top floor, the Salon Bar and Terrace.  It was a stunning space.  Just like the L'Atelier in Tokyo, the color scheme was red and black.  Inside was comfortable seating, even a fireplace.  It was an incredibly welcoming environment.  The entire space felt classy, intimate yet comfortable, very well thought out and cohesive.  The large terrace area looked equally inviting, particularly on a warm evening.  Everyone inside looked, well, happy.

Even though I was exhausted from travel, I was thrilled that I'd suggested this.  We settled in to our seats, and a glass of olives was brought out, along with cocktail menus.  The cocktails sounded fantastic, and we both eagerly ordered one.
Gingerbread Manhattan.  £13.
"Woodford Bourbon, Maraschino Liqueur, Carparno Vermouth, Homemade Gingerbread Syrup and Angostura Bitters"

I picked the Gingerbread Manhattan.  I really enjoyed it.  It was spicy from gingerbread syrup, sweet from the maraschino liqueur, and bitter from the Angostura.  So balanced.  So complex.  I of course appreciated the maraschino cherry garnish.  I'd gladly get another.

Initial drinks taken care of, it was time to look at food.  The bar menu we were given just had a list of "les brouchettes", nothing we really wanted, so we asked to see a food menu.  We were presented with menus.  5 or 8 course tasting menus were available, or, a la carte, with a menu divided into small plates, appetizers, and mains.  The menus were filled with our favorites.  Every single category contained at least one dish with foie gras, which even though we'd had some of during other legs of this trip, we couldn't resist since it is banned in our home state of California.  The list of star ingredients also included scallops and crab.  Basically, yes, everything I like.

We painstakingly picked out a few items (sooo hard to narrow it down!), and asked to order food, menus in hand.  Our server was confused.  "I thought you just wanted to see the menus", she told us.  "You can only order les brochettes in here".  We were devastated.  Tease us with these amazing menus?

We had no choice.  So, even though I wasn't remotely dressed for fine dining, and even though we were planning to just get a simple bite to eat in the bar, we asked if it was possible to get a real table.

The restaurant is broken up into two further spaces, La Cuisine de Joël Robuchon, a table concept, and L'Atelier, counter concept.  Since we knew I wasn't dressed for a real sit down meal, as I was in casual clothes and had just stepped off a plane, we asked about L'Atelier.  A few minutes later, our server came back to tell us that yes, we could be seated, although we'd be at the end of the counter.  This was fine with us.  Somehow, our just grabbing fish and chips at a nearby shop had turned into Michelin star dining.  I suppose, you might not expect much less from the pair of us.

So, down to the restaurant we went.  It reminded me a lot of the L'Atelier in Tokyo, it is clear that they aim to maintain consistency between the different outposts.  Most of the space, just like in Tokyo, was occupied by a large open kitchen with counter seating.  A few tables completed the space.  Also as in Tokyo, there were large displays featuring fruits and vegetables, and a huge wall of plants.

As expected, we were indeed seated at the end of the counter, for which several members of the staff apologized.  They were the worst seats in the house.  But, we randomly walked into a Michelin star establishment and got seated at prime time, so, we weren't complaining.  Service was good, attentive and fast, our server worked from behind the counter the whole time.

The food was good, but I did prefer both L'Atelier in Tokyo, and obviously La Table in Tokyo, more, which I suppose makes sense, given that they both have 2 Michelin stars, and this had only 1.  Overall, the food was all well executed, and I had few technical complaints, but nothing left a lasting impression.
Amuse Bouche: dashi custard with sundried tomato and asparagus foam.
Soon after we ordered, we were presented with an amuse bouche, a layered creation in a little cup.  Like the cocktail, it was an exercise in balance.

The custard on the bottom was warm and creamy.  The dashi added an umami quality.  The foam was ... well, foamy, and tasted mildly like asparagus, but the fresh bright asparagus flavor was accented by further bits of asparagus inside.

This was warm and comforting, yet quite flavorful, and a nice way to start the meal.  I enjoyed it.
Bread Basket, Cone of Butter.
We were soon presented with a bread basket.  This looked familiar!  Yes, it was the exact same basket that we had at L'Atelier in Tokyo!

The basket itself was the same, although, this time it was filled with a different bread selection.  It had the same petit baguettes, but instead of a crusty hard roll and the fluffy croissant-like roll I loved in Tokyo, the other options were sliced varieties.

Not particularly exciting, and all served cold, but I of course still tried them all.

The petit baguette was adorable, had a good crust on it, but tasted a bit stale.

One sliced variety had almonds, the other olives.  Both had a good crust and were quite moist.  The olive one had a strong olive flavor.  But .. it was still just sliced bread, and I really wasn't into any of the options.

In Tokyo, some of my companions were upset because we didn't receive butter or oil at L'Atelier, which that was not the case in London.  The butter came on its own plate, in a cone shape.  It was soft, but otherwise, unremarkable.

This was a poor showing of a bread basket.  Cold, sliced bread?  Even if it is housemade and fresh, who wants cold sliced bread?
LE TOURTEAU aux herbes, guacamole légèrement acidulé". £19.
We started with a dishe from the "small plates" menu, the le tourteau, or, "crabmeat seasoned with fresh herbs, slightly sour guacamole".

Since I am allergic to avocado, we asked to have the guacamole on the side, which they provided in its own little cup.

The crab was light and well seasoned.  It was accented by good citrus (orange?) notes.  Garnished with edible flower petals.

The most interesting part of the dish was what the crab was served on top of.  It seemed to be some sort of cracker, something baked and crunchy, but we couldn't figure out what it was actually made of.

The plate was finished with an herb oil, which paired well with the crab.

Overall, a very light, fresh tasting dish, a nice easy start to the meal.  My second favorite dish of the night, but Emil's third pick.
LE FOIE GRAS chaud de canard, fruits rouges et kumquats.  £16.
And of course, being outside of California, we had no choice but to order foie gras.

Foie gras appeared on the menu in several forms, but we choose the seared version, another pick from the small plates menu: "pan seared duck foie gras, red fruits and kumquats".

It was plated very artistically, with stripes of kumquat and fruit purees, along with whole blueberries and kumquats.  Topped with the perfect amount of sea salt.

It was served hot, on a hot plate even, clearly delivered to us rapidly from the kitchen.  The foie was good, very creamy, quality, no veins.  The sear was good, but I would have preferred even more of a crust on it.

The kumquat emulsion was slightly sweet, a nice pairing with the foie.  There were also a few chunks of pecan which gave some crunch, but they otherwise seemed a bit out of place.

At L'Atelier in Tokyo, we had the seared foie gras as well, but there, it was served atop a creamy cheese risotto.  I preferred the Tokyo version.

This was good, again, nothing wrong with it, but my 3rd pick of the night, Emil's 2nd.
LES NOIX DE SAINT-JACQUES saisies, conchiglioni farci et émulsion d’asperge, side of Pommes Puree.  £43.
From a main dish menu, we selected the scallops, as we both love them: "seared Scottish scallops, stuffed conchiglioni pasta and asparagus emulsion".

This was a fabulous dish.  3 large scallops, cooked just slightly more than the mid-rare I'd prefer, but still nicely done, sweet, meaty, and delicious.  They reminded me of how much I could love scallops.

The conchiglioni were two large shells, stuffed with a seafood custard.  I'm not sure if the filling had any ricotta as is traditional in a stuffed shell, it seemed more egg based perhaps.  The shells were absolutely perfectly cooked, al dente.

The sauce was a green asparagus foam, and, just like in the amuse, asparagus flavor was deepened by shaved asparagus in addition to the foam.

Although not mentioned in the description, the dish also contained 3 large chunks of morels, which I absolutely loved for their meatiness and texture.

All together, perhaps this was bit of a strange pairing of ingredients, but they were all quite good, and Emil and I both ranked this as our first pick, even above the foie gras.

The only negative is that the dish was served barely lukewarm.  I was impressed by how hot the foie gras was when it came, and this was borderline cold.  Not the fault of the kitchen, but sad, because it could have been that much better.

We also received a bonus dish: a side of Pommes Puree, the famous Joël Robuchon mashed potatoes.  These are a thing of legend, and, even though we'd been to two Joël Robuchon establishments before, we had never encountered them.  It is rumored that the potatoes were responsible for earning his first Michelin star.

The mashed potatoes were indeed magic.  Honestly.  I have never tasted any so creamy, so rich, so smooth in my life.  They reminded me more of a perfectly smooth creamy cheese than of potatoes.  The creaminess is achieved through use of not only a food mill, but also a fine mesh sieve, through which the potatoes are passed several times.  And the insane flavor is achieved in only one way ... the ratio of potatoes:butter is 2:1.  Ok, so not magic, just butter and great technique.  But wow, I can assure you, these were the best mashed potatoes I've ever had.

They say that you shouldn't have more than a couple spoonfuls of these potatoes.  And, even more ridiculously, in the Vegas restaurant, they had to change the ratio to 4:1, because guests were eating them in "American sized" portions, and that wasn't such a good thing.  The side we got of these was small, but Emil doesn't eat carbs, so they basically became all mine.  I uh, had more than a few spoonfuls.  I had to take breaks.  But I savored every last bite of the potatoes.  I decided that they were decadent enough to be my dessert.
2011 Dow's Quinta do Bomfim Port.
Speaking of dessert, you know how much I love desserts.  Always a highlight of a meal for me.  But in Tokyo, there was pretty much nothing on the L'Atelier dessert menu that I wanted.  I still tried the La Mandarine, but didn't really care for it.  The same thing happened in London.  The non-caffeinated dessert options were only lemon or orange based, and, although I like citrus, I just don't tend to like it in my desserts.  To be fair, if I ate chocolate in the evenings, there were plenty of options on the menu, and, in Tokyo, my dining companions enjoyed their chocolate dessert.

So, I actually used restraint, and decided to skip dessert.  Of course, it helped that I knew my dining companion, Emil, would not help me out with a dessert at all, so I'd have to eat the whole thing myself.  And, I was full and quite satisfied by those ridiculous mashed potatoes.  But, you know me, if there was something that actually sounded good, I would have gotten it anyway.

Instead, Emil ordered us "liquid dessert", a glass of port for me, a double espresso for him.  The port was good, but all I was still thinking about was those potatoes.
Mignardises: yuzu marshmallow, financiar.
Even though we didn't order dessert, we were still presented with a tray of mignardises.

Since Emil doesn't eat sweets, the whole platter was for me.  I never care for financiars, but they were nice and moist, with a good amount of jam on the inside, well distributed.  But still, just financiars.

The marshmallows on the other hand were amazing!  Fluffy, fresh, sweet, with a really incredible yuzu flavor.  I really liked these, and gladly consumed the extra.
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Monday, October 27, 2014

Noodles & Company

A few months ago, I was walking by the Metreon and saw a new casual dining establishment about to open: Noodles & Company.  Perhaps Noodles & Company is not novel to you, as they apparently exist all over the US (400+ locations), but, it was new to me.  The Metreon location was their first San Francisco branch.  I kept meaning to swing by after they opened to learn more, but, I uh, tend to avoid that area, and totally forgot about it.  But a few months later, I saw that they were opening a second location, just a few blocks away on Market Street, only a few months later.  Strange to put both locations so close to each other, but, the second one is in a much nicer location for those of us who don't want to get trampled my conference-goers.

As you may have guessed, the menu features noodles, from all over the world.  The menu ranges from standard "American" noodle dishes such as Mac & Cheese, Spaghetti & Meatballs, and Steak Stroganoff to Italian inspired dishes like Penne Rosa, Pesto Cavatappi, and Alfredo, to Asian dishes like Pad Thai, Bangkok Curry, and Japanese Pan Noodles.  The options don't stop there however, for every dish, you can add a protein option, from a selection including tofu, pork, chicken breast (parmesan-crusted or grilled), steak, shrimp, or meatballs.  Suggestions for the best pairing are given on the menu, but really, you can do whatever you want; if you want meatballs on your pad thai, no one will stop you.  You can customize your dish further as much as you want, removing the normally included vegetables, swapping out the pasta shape (or opting for gluten-free pasta), etc.  If noodles aren't your thing, the menu also includes soups, salads, sandwiches, and flatbreads.

The style is the ever trendy fast-casual: order at a register and get a number to bring back to a table.  Not too long after (about 5 minutes is what they claim), your meal is delivered directly to you by servers, who also swing by along the way and pick up dirty plates.  The format reminded me a lot of Rubio's, which I've reviewed many times, in that it had quasi-table service, food somewhat cooked to order, and is easily customizable.  However, Noodles & Company goes a few steps past Rubio's and provides real silverware, ceramic bowls, and real glasses.  It may be fast-casual, but using real tableware really does change the feel.

Overall, I was fairly surprised, and not just by the real dinnerware.  The food was much higher quality than I expected given the price point and the casual nature, and in particular, the ingredients really did seem fresh, and care was even given to the plating of the dishes.  The staff were all incredibly friendly on my visit, very eager to explain all the options.

I didn't actually like my dish, but I'd like to return to try one of their other selections, perhaps one of the Italian pastas, or the spinach and fruit salad (I know, this sounds crazy, but it has bacon, pecans, blue cheese, and it looked really, really good!)
Inside Seating.
The main dining area has regular tables with chairs and an area with slightly taller communal tables with stools.
Inside-Outside Seating. 
There is also a rather strange hybrid indoor-outdoor area, which is where I ended up sitting.  It is furnished as if outside, with patio tables and umbrellas, except it is completely indoors.  Yes, there are glass walls on 3 sides, so it gets plenty of light, but there is a regular ceiling above.  Certainly a strange design decision, but, it did almost sorta make me feel like I was eating on a patio somewhere, and most of the time, I wouldn't actually want to be on the San Francisco sidewalk anyway.
Cola-Cola Freestyle Soft Drink Machine.
The soft drink machine was particularly notable, a Coca-Cola Freestyle, which I'd heard about, but never encountered before.  I couldn't even tell you how many options it had, all Coca-Cola brand, but not just including soda.  I was thrilled to discover that it had Dasani Sensations (flavored sparkling water).   It uses a touch screen, and you drill down by categories to select your flavor of choice.  Or mix and match as you please.  I ended up trying a few different flavors, and was quite thrilled by my drink experience.

When dining in, you are provided with a real glass.  Not plastic, but actual glass.  I realized that I'm pretty sure I've never used a soda fountain with a real glass, always a standard fast food paper one, or perhaps a plastic one, but never glass.  This was also novel to me.

Next to the soft drink machine is condiments (soy sauce, sriracha), along with napkins (thicker and higher quality than is standard at fast food restaurants), chopsticks (NOT the cheap kind you need to break apart, rather, round wooden ones, still disposable, but far higher quality than I was expecting), and, togo boxes.  I loved the fact that they just had boxes available to pack up your own leftovers.
Pad Thai + Brocoli. $5.99.
"Rice noodle stir-fry with scrambled egg, carrots, cabbage, sweet chili, citrus, peanuts, Asian sprouts and cilantro."

I was incredibly indecisive about what dish to get (I know, imagine that).  Of the Italian options, the Penne Rosa was the top contender, with a creamy tomato sauce plus mushrooms and spinach.  But so was the spicy Indonesian Peanut Sauté from the Asian section.  And strangely, I also wanted the Spinach & Fresh Fruit Salad (come on, it has bacon and blue cheese!).  While I was waiting in line, I asked an employee what her favorite was, and she told me the pad thai, and warned against the Indonesian Peanut Sauté, saying it was really spicy.

So, I took her recommendation, as I do like pad thai, and it had been a long time since I had any.  None of the protein options sounded appealing though, besides meatballs, but um, I knew meatballs didn't go with pad thai.  I wanted to add a little something to my pad thai though, so I asked if I could have broccoli added.  I know broccoli doesn't normally go in pad thai, but they have it for other dishes, and I thought it would soak up the sauce nicely.  It was no problem to customize in this way.

After about 8 minutes, my dish was delivered to my table, piping hot, along with real silverware.  Seriously, seriously hot.  Every time I dug back in, steam would come out.  They clearly do prepare dishes fresh to order and serve them immediately.  Points for that.

Points also for the presentation, served in a modern style bowl.  I wasn't expecting, at this price point, to have a dish plated so well.  My noodles were garnished with crushed peanuts, sprigs of fresh cilantro, crispy bean sprouts, and a lime wedge to squeeze over the dish.  The toppings in particular all seemed higher quality than I expected, the cilantro wasn't limp or wilted, the bean sprouts still crispy.

I dug in further.

Mixed with the rice noodles were julienned carrots, that were actually cooked really well.  They were not mushy, as happens so often with carrots, but they also weren't undercooked.  Just a bit al dente, how I like them.  The noodles were unremarkable, but not mushy, not stuck together.  There was a good amount of scrambled egg too, which I appreciated since I didn't add other protein.  The egg wasn't rubbery or tough.  The broccoli I added did indeed soak up some sauce, as I was hoping.

This all sounds successful, right?  Except ... I really didn't like the sauce.  It was sweet and very one-dimensional.  The amount of sauce was correct, it wasn't overdressed or anything, but, I just really didn't like the flavor, so it ruined the dish for me.

So, I didn't like my pad thai.  But, I really did appreciate how well done it was, and my experience makes me curious to try their other dishes.  The quality was much higher than I was expecting.  Did I mention that this entire giant bowl was only $5.99?
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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Cadbury, UK Edition

Last week, I reviewed Mars brand chocolates found in the UK, as a special UK edition of my regular Sunday chocolate reviews, in honor of my recent trip to London.  This week, I'll continue the trend, moving on to Cadbury, which I've reviewed previously featuring some US and Australian selections

Cadbury is in fact a British company, so it should be no surprise that the selection offered there is much greater than what we see here in the US (yes, Cadbury really does make more than just Creme Eggs).  Since I ate my share of Cadbury while living in Australia, I wasn't that excited about the regular chocolates, but there was one item that caught my eye, based on the name alone: SNACK!

What is a SNACK!, anyway?  It sure sounds exciting.  But, because it is annoying to type, and read, I'll refrain from calling it SNACK! anymore, and just go with "Snack".

The Snack line of products contains 3 different items: Snack Wafer (chocolate covered wafers), Snack Sandwich (chocolate covered chocolate and biscuit sandwich), and Snack Shortcake (chocolate covered shortbread).  Each comes in a bright wrapper (pink, purple, or yellow, respectively), all bearing the SNACK! logo.  They are not to be confused with Cadbury Snack products in Australia, which is entirely different (blocks of strawberry, pineapple, orange, coconut ice, Turkish delight and caramel covered in milk chocolate).  Note to self: next time I'm in Australia, try this version of Snack too.
Snack Shortcake.
"Shortcake biscuit squares".

The classic product from the Snack line is the Shortcake, so that is what I tried.  It has been around since the 1950s and is apparently very popular in Ireland.  I don't really see why.

My package contained 6 squares.  Each was a very generic, totally unremarkable, dry shortbread, coated in equally unremarkable, generic milk chocolate.  Some Cadbury chocolate is actually really creamy, but this layer was too thin to really appreciate the milk chocolate.  It was just dry biscuit, not very buttery or sweet.  Perhaps an acquired taste?  I certainly wasn't into this.

Ojan however really liked it.  He declared it as a nice variation on a Twix, basically, Twix without caramel.
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Friday, October 24, 2014

Fresh Express Salads

If you thought it was strange that I reviewed Sambazon smoothies last week , then I can only imagine what you are thinking now.  Salads?  Really?

Like I said, I get to sample random things sometimes because of this blog.  And in this case, it was salads.  Fresh Express sent me coupons to try whatever I wanted.  I could have stuck with basic lettuce blends, but I mostly went for the kits, because those are far more exciting.

For the most part, the greens, which is their primary product, were fine, but, not particularly remarkable.  I don't normally buy bagged, pre-washed greens at the grocery store (I'm a farmer's market kind of girl), so I'm not their target demographic.  But ... the dressings included in the some of the kits turned out to be totally delicious.

It was actually really fun to try these salads and add more greens into our daily life.  Ojan of course got to play along with me, and he also ate far more salad for a few weeks than I think he wanted, but, he was good sport.  If you are looking for pre-washed greens, available anywhere, with easy kits to make a meal, Fresh Express could be for you.

Kits

As I mentioned, the kits were the most exciting products.  They all include base greens, plus dressing, and a few other mix-ins.  Each one is packaged in a outer bag, with individual bags for the dressing and additions.

Fresh Express makes four different caesar salad kits (one with bacon, one enhanced with better cheese, and a lite version), two mexican style salads (one chopped, one not), two asian style salads (one chopped, one not), and a pear gorgonzola and a cole slaw.  I tried some from all categories except the asian ones.  While the greens and add-ins didn't impress me, the dressings really did, and luckily, they always provided far more dressing than you needed for the quantity of greens, so you could use it again another time.  If only they sold just the dressing!
Pear Gorgonzola Kit.
"Tender baby lettuces and sweet dried pears, frosted almonds and an amazing pear gorgonzola vinaigrette".

The very first Fresh Express salad I picked was the Pear Gorgonzola.  It sounded most like something I'd actually order in a restaurant.

I was confused when I opened the bag ... where were the pears?

The outer bag contained baby lettuces, a blend of romaine, green and red leaf, lolla rosa, green tango, green and red oak leaf, arugula, mizuna, tatsoi, baby spinach, and radicchio.  The assortment was varied and the lettuces were decently fresh.  I particularly liked the mix of colors, and the bitter radicchio.  I was impressed that they included so many more rare baby greens in a regular supermarket item.  But no pears.

The dressing bag contained the "amazing pear gorgonzola vinaigrette".  I didn't necessarily taste pear, but it was sweet, and reasonably well seasoned.  It had very tiny chunks of gorgonzola in it that helped balance against the sweetness, but I definitely overdressed my salad, and regretted how sweet it was.  The ingredients listed brown sugar, which explains the sweetness ... why?  Pear juice already provided plenty of sweetness.  The quantity of dressing was more than sufficient, and we had plenty left over to use on later salads.

The final bag initially looked like it was just the frosted almonds, but, it was the answer to "where is the pear?"  Along with the chopped almonds, were tiny, tiny chunks of dried pear.  They were completely lost once added to the salad.  Bigger chunks were definitely needed.  I did appreciate having both the almonds and pears for additional crunch.

I also added grape tomatoes, bacon, and gorgonzola crumbles once I saw how little was in the dressing.  My additions all complimented the salad well.

Overall, I was impressed with this; the greens were good, the dressing interesting, and the pear and almonds decent toppings.  I do wish the sweetness was dialed down a bit, and wanted something more, like real chunks of gorgonzola or bigger pears, but it was decent, and I'd eat it again.
Salsa! Ensalada Kit.
"A sensational combination of iceberg and romaine lettuces topped with Mexican seasoned cheeses, tortilla strips and spicy ranch dressing."

Next, I moved on to one of the Mexican offerings, the Salsa! Ensalada (the other choice was the Southwest Chopped salad, which sounded similar, but with chopped lettuces and cabbage).

The greens here were a bit boring, more standard, and mostly iceberg.  Fresh and crisp, but seriously, who eats iceberg these days?

The "Mexican seasoned cheeses" were a mix of finely shredded cheddar, colby, and jack with nacho seasoning.  The cheese wasn't remarkable, but added some zing and complimented the rest of the kit.

For tortilla strips, there were two varieties, yellow and blue, crunchy, but fairly unremarkable, and there weren't nearly enough for the amount of lettuce provided.  But again, complimented the kit well.

And finally, the spicy ranch dressing.  This stuff was very tasty.  I didn't quite get the "ranch" aspect to it, but it was creamy, and zesty, and tasted remarkably like the tacos I ate growing up.  Again, there was far more dressing provided than we needed, so we gladly used the rest up on later salads.

This all came together quite well, and I enjoyed it.  It would make for a very easy taco salad dinner with some seasoned beef or chicken thrown on top.  I also think it could have used carrots and tomatoes.  I'd certainly consider getting this one again, and jazzing it up a bit.
Salsa! Ensalada Kit ... as a taco salad!
A few weeks later, I decided to try out my taco salad idea.  I used the Salsa! Ensalada kit as the base for my salad, providing the lettuce, Mexican cheese, tortilla strips, and of course, the dressing.

As I said last time, it clearly needed tomatoes, so I added diced tomatoes.  I also thought the amount of crispy tortilla strips, while perhaps sufficient for a side salad, was not adequate for a full entree sized taco salad.  So I also added some Way Better Snacks Multigrain Tortilla Chips (remember those?), which I crumbled up.  I don't love them as tortilla chips on their own, but crumbled up in the salad they worked well.  What is unique about the chips is that they are made with sprouted seeds, and boost an impressive nutritional panel, are full of good things like Omega-3s. These particular ones are made with sprouted brown rice, quinoa, stone ground corn, flax seed, chia seed, broccoli seeds, and daikon radish seeds, all organic.  So, for tortilla chips, quite healthy, and they added whole grains and omega-3s to our otherwise not exactly nutritious meal.

Finally, I topped the whole thing with seasoned ground beef and onions, and a little cilantro.

It worked just as I hoped, and made for a ridiculously easy, satisfying, dinner.  Hands down the most successful salad we had.
CaesarLite® Kit.
"Our CaesarLite® dressing delivers all the authentic Caesar flavor you love with fewer calories and less fat than our regular Caesar dressing. Super crisp romaine is topped with our tasty, crunchy garlic croutons."

Fresh Express makes 4 different caesar kits: the "caesar kit", the "bacon caesar", the "caesar supreme", and the "caesar lite".  Ojan likes caesar salad, so we were interested in trying these out, particularly after the success of the dressings from the other kits.

We started with the light option, because, well, if it was good, why not pick the lightest option?

I was of course curious to see what was different between the kits, besides just a lower-fat dressing. The first thing I noticed is that the CaesarLite does not contain an additional packet of parmesan cheese to sprinkle on, like the regular caesar.  Obviously, the bacon one contains "real bacon pieces", in addition to the extra parmesan cheese.  And the supreme?  Rather than simple grated parmesan, it has "Italian artisan cheeses".  Oh my.  And rather than the "classic caesar dressing" of the others, it has "creamy caesar dressing".  We'll see how they all compare.

Nutrition-wise, the regular caesar clocks in at 150 calories per serving, 12 grams of fat. The supreme version adds a few calories and more fat (160 calories per serving, 14 grams of fat).  The Caesar Lite is indeed lighter, at only 90 calories and 6 grams of fat.

But back to the Caesar Lite.

The lettuce was all classic romaine, and I was pleasantly surprised by how crisp and crunchy it was.  Not a single bit of brown on it either.  They do earn the "Fresh" part of their name.  The bag contained a variety of types of leaves, but was generous with the hearts of romaine, my favorite part.  This was certainly the best of the lettuces we tried so far.

The garlic croutons were also a surprise.  They didn't look like much, and I expected them to be dry and flavorless, but instead they were really crunchy, buttery, and indeed garlicky.  I loved the flavor and the crunch they added to the salad.

The weakest part was the CaesarLite® dressing however.  It was very clearly a light dressing, more vinaigrette-y than creamy.  It didn't have any real anchovy flavor to it either, although anchovy is listed as an ingredient (albeit the second to last one).  Like the other kits, there was far more dressing than we needed, although in this case, we had no desire to keep it.

Overall, I was impressed by the lettuce and croutons, but I really didn't care for the dressing, no matter how much better for me it was.  And I wanted parmesan to add to it.  This was the first kit we tried where the dressing wasn't the star.  It did however make me curious to try the regular caesar, and the very fancy "supreme" version!
Bacon Caesar Kit.
So we moved on to the most exciting of the caesar kits: the bacon caesar.  The contents sound identical to the regular caesar, just with bacon pieces added:  "romaine lettuce, real bacon pieces, garlic butter croutons, aged parmesan, classic Caesar dressing."

The lettuce was pretty much identical to the other caesars, fresh and crisp, romaine.  The croutons seemed exactly the same too, even though described as "garlic butter croutons" in the Caesar and Bacon Caesar and just "garlic croutons" in the Lite version.  I'm pretty sure they were all the same, as they looked and tasted the same, and the ingredient lists were identical.  The croutons again didn't look like anything special, but the garlic flavor was crazy intense, and I loved the crunch they provided.

Unlike the Lite version, the regular Caesar and the Bacon Caesar provide a packet of grated parmesan cheese. It was completely unremarkable, not even a step above what you find in packets at a generic pizza joint, or in the green shakers at the grocery store.  Not exactly real parmesan!

Since I wasn't impressed with the Caesar Lite dressing, I was anxious to try the regular Caesar dressing, since I had been quite happy with the dressings from the other kits.  As I expected, this dressing was much better.  It was creamy rather than vinegary, it had some grit from parmesan cheese throughout, it had a bit of tang, and you could even taste a little anchovy.  A very classic, decent, caesar dressing.  I'd never go out of my way for it, but it tasted like a caesar dressing should, and was a totally different league from the Lite version.  Turns out, fat tastes good!  And like the other kits, plenty of extra dressing, which we gladly used later.

The differentiating component of this salad should have been the bacon.  Because, seriously, doesn't bacon always make things better?  I wasn't sure what to expect from the bacon, I pretty much expected tiny little bacon bit crumbles.  Maybe fakin' bacon.  I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the package to find a packet of, well, real bacon pieces, as promised.  Far bigger than bacon bits, or even crumbles really, and yes, they looked to be actual bacon.  But, once I invested further, my satisfaction with them disappeared.  I only like crisp bacon, and this was floppy and slimy.  I guess that is what happens when you put bacon in a little bag?  It also was really, really fatty.  Obviously, it is bacon, bacon is fatty, but this seemed to be either really poor cuts of bacon, or just not cooked such that the fat rendered out.  Either way, it was a disappointment, I didn't want flimsy, soggy, chewy, fatty bits of bacon in my salad.  Although, once mixed into the salad, the fact that it wasn't crisp was much less noticeable.

If I were craving a Caesar salad again, I liked the dressing from this enough that I'd get it again, but I'd go for the regular one, and skip the bacon.  And, I'd provide my own cheese.  Or really, I'd try to find somewhere that carries the Supreme version, as it is supposed to have higher quality cheese.
Cole Slaw Kit.
"Contains the freshest green cabbage and red cabbage, plus carrots, along with our signature sweet, creamy dressing."

Fresh Express makes a range of cole slaw products, starting with basic "Angel Hair Cole Slaw", which is just finely shredded green cabbage.  Next up is "Old Fashioned Cole Slaw", which adds shredded carrots to the cabbage mix.  To kick up the color another notch, you can go for the "3-color Deli Cole Slaw", which adds red cabbage as well.  But those all just contain the veggies, no dressing.

But of course, they make a Cole Slaw Kit as well, containing a mix of green and red cabbage and carrots, all shredded and ready to go, and a packet of "classic" coleslaw dressing.  At this point, I'd like to note that they spell it "cole slaw", two words, in all of the product names, but for the dressing?  "coleslaw", one word.  No judgement about which is correct (although, I think coleslaw is), but come on folks, consistency?

Anyway, the greens in this were the least impressive looking of the products I tried.  The cabbage looked dried out.  There was technically a scattering of red cabbage and carrots, but their representation was pretty minimal, my bag was essentially just green cabbage.

The dressing also didn't look quite right, as I expected something that was white and thick, mayo based, as that is what "classic" coleslaw dressing is to me.  But I realize vinegar slaw is also a thing.  This dressing seemed to live somewhere in the middle of the two styles, creamier than a vinegar based dressing, but not as creamy as a mayo one.  It was quite tangy from the vinegar, but too sweet.  It had both sugar and high fructose corn syrup in it, really unnecessary in these amounts.  It also lacked any zing, and I needed to add fresh cracked pepper to the mix.  However, for the first time with any kit, I found the amount of dressing provided actually matched the amount needed for the rest of the salad, and we didn't have any extra.

Overall, this just wasn't a classic cole slaw for me, I wanted creamier dressing, a peppery zing, and far more carrot.  But perhaps this is classic to someone, and it wasn't bad exactly, just not my style.  I do think the sweeter style would have benefited from the addition of some nuts to give a bit of bitterness, like pecans perhaps, or maybe just sliced apples or dried cranberries to just go with the sweet style more.

Amusingly, when I asked Ojan what he thought of it, his first comment was, "did you add pepper?"  I responded that I had, and he said, "why?  I want more, but without the pepper".  I said that coleslaw always has pepper, and he disagreed, saying that it should have had horseradish.  I've never had horseradish in my coleslaw.  So clearly, "classic" in regards to coleslaw is a highly individual thing!

Veggie Medleys

I still wasn't ready to try just basic greens, so I checked out the Veggie Medley's line.  These were all lettuce bases, with additional vegetables, like carrots, cabbage, radishes, pea pods, tomatoes.  But, not full kits, so no dressing provided.
Veggie Lover's.
"The perfect combination of lettuce and veggies you love!"

After success with the kits, we went for the most interesting sounding of the non-kits, the Veggie Lover's, as it had the most veggies other than just lettuce.  The bag said it had iceberg and romaine lettuce, carrots, pea pods, red cabbage, and radishes.

This was a very week attempt at a mixed salad.  The lettuce was mostly iceberg, flavorless, but fresh and juicy.  But there is so little value in iceberg.  I found very little romaine in the mix.

The cabbage and carrots were shredded and since they were heavier than the lettuce sunk to the bottom of the bag.  It was a bit annoying to get enough mixed in to add a little color and crunch.

The radish was a bit of a joke, perhaps three crinkle slices in the entire bag.  But more of a joke?  The pea pods.  I searched high and low, but didn't find a single one.

So sure, this was fresh, and it had some other veggies, but it was still mostly just a bag of iceberg, and I really didn't care for it.  Would not get again.

Tender Leaf Mixes

Ok, now for just some greens.  I skipped all the standard greens, the "Tasty Greens" products, and the fairly banal looking "Refreshing Mixes", and went straight for the higher end looking "Tender Leaf Mixes", which were mostly spinach based.
Baby Kale Mix.
"A perfect blend of kale and chard that makes any salad delicious."

I went for the "Baby Kale Mix", as it was the most interesting sounding.  It contained spinach and chard in addition to the namesake baby kale.  In fact, it contained more spinach than anything else.

The greens were all fine, fresh enough, tender, baby greens.  A fun mix, a bit peppery.  We enjoyed it raw as a caesar salad with leftover dressing from the caesar kit, and then simply sautéed it with salt and pepper the next night.  I liked it both ways, but slightly more when cooked down.
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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Starter Bakery Baked Goods @ Philz Coffee

Those of you who follow the day-of-the-week theme format of my blog, may have noticed that Thursdays are supposed to be about bakeries or ice cream shops.  Yet, last week I reviewed Coffee Cultures, a coffee shop, not a bakery itself.  But you see, I did so to review the baked goods they serve, from Mr. Holmes Bakeshop.  I did the same the week before, reviewing Epicenter Cafe on a Thursday, covering the baked goods they serve from Sandbox Bakery, not the cafe experience itself.   I think this is legit usage of my "bakery" review day, so, I'm doing it again.

This time we head to Philz Coffee.  When I first moved to San Francisco, I hadn't yet turned into a coffee snob.  I was coming from the east coast, land of Dunkin' Donuts, aka, massive quantities of cream and sugar in my coffee.  The idea of having my coffee black was unheard of.  Coffee was about being sweet, creamy, and generally, flavored.  It should come as no surprise then that my coffee shop of choice turned out to be Philz, where coffee is served not just with cream, but with manufacturing cream (>40% fat content, not sold in regular grocery stores.  Contrast this to half and half, at 10-15%) and with a secret sweeter mixed in that is rumored to include brown sugar.  It was the closest thing I had to my precious Dunkin' Donuts.

Of course, besides the excessive amounts of cream and sugar, Philz isn't actually anything like Dunkin' Donuts.  Yes, it is a chain now, but cups of coffee are brewed cup at a time, not in giant vats hours in advance like Dunkin'.  The coffee used is blends that Philz has curated, which is obviously better than Dunks.  I stopped going to Philz somewhere along the way, removed the cream and sugar, and wound up a devote Blue Bottle fan.  I recently tried Philz again and was shocked at trying to drink it black ... even the lighter roasts are much darker than what I prefer these days.

Anyway, didn't I say this was a bakery review day?  It is!  To go with your coffee, most of the Philz locations in San Francisco also serve baked goods from Starter Bakery (plus vegan donuts from Pepples).  Starter Bakery is located in Oakland, but they also run a large wholesale business, so I'm sure there are plenty of other places around town you can get their treats, which, you should do!

Starter Bakery cares about the sourcing of their ingredients, as their website calls out all of the local producers they use, not only for the staples like butter and eggs, but also TCHO for chocolate, Blossom Bluff Orchards for fruit, etc.
Ham & Cheese Croissant.
I decided to get something that wasn't totally just decadent, and somewhat counted as a balanced meal, to go along with my crazy sugary coffee: a ham and cheese croissant.  (I've basically justified it to myself that I can have a ham & cheese croissant at any time of day, because they totally have protein from the ham and cheese, and thus I'm not being an irresponsible person just eating baked goods and sweets.  Right?  Totally reasonable, responsible choice!)

It was good standard execution of a savory ham and cheese croissant.

The outside had a nice crispness to it, and the exterior dough was flaky and made a bit of a mess ... in a good way.  The interior was deliciously buttery and moist.

Inside was a generous amount of good quality ham and cheese.  I heated it up in the toaster oven to make it even more delicious and slightly gooey.

Not extraordinary, but very good.
Kouign-Amann.
But if you've heard of Starter Bakery, you know that they are known for one thing in particular: their famed kouign-amann (aside: if you have never had a kouign-amann, drop everything, and go do that now.  I'll wait.  Remember, I told you this when I reviewed the kouign-amann dessert at Clio in Boston too, which you should totally go to if you are ever in Boston, one of my top meals of 2013!)

The description is a bit wordy, but I'll include it, since I'm sure some of you are unfamiliar with this thing of wonder: "Starter's award-winning specialty, Kouign-Amann, is an indulgent French pastry that is similar to a croissant—but so much more. The rich treat is made by rolling out and folding together layers upon layers of dough with salted butter and sugar, then baking it in a butter-and-sugar-lined pan, resulting in an incredibly rich, sweet-and-salty experience." 

There are exactly two key words in that description: "sugar" and "butter".  They pretty much define this delicious treat (in fact, kouign-amann actually means "butter cake").  The recipe for an average batch of kouign-amann includes at least 2 sticks of butter.  And you can taste it.  And boy, does it taste good.  So buttery.

Ok, so what is a kouign-amann?  It is pastry with butter and sugar folded between the many layers.  Hard to go wrong here.  And, baked in a butter and sugar lined tin, so that the outside gets super caramelized and crispy.  When a kouign-amann is well prepared, it is a thing of wonder.

This was one of the best baked goods I've ever had.  Crispy, sweet, caramelized sugary exterior.  Moist, buttery croissant-like interior.  It was really, really, really good.  I'd get another in a heartbeat.

Starter Bakery also makes variations that I'd love to try, with different fillings like chocolate, espresso custard, fig, frangipane & raspberry, hazelnut praline, TCHO crunch, and vanilla cream.  I think I've seen at least the chocolate filled ones at Philz before, but I started with the classic.  The only time I've had a filled kouign-amann before is from Cyrus, when they gave chocolate filled ones as take home treats (you should also go there, Cyrus was one of my top meals of 2012!).
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