Thursday, April 27, 2017

Kika's Treats

I don't really recall the first place I encountered Kika's Treats.  It might have been at a local artisan's market.  It might have been at the La Cocina kiosk in the Ferry Building.  I'm really not sure, but I think I discovered Kika's Treats fairly on when they were getting started, and I've watched the product line grow and grow.

Kika's Treats is a local SF company, started by a woman (nicknamed, as you might have guessed, Kika) from Brazil.  She is a baker and loves chocolate, and thus started a company that makes mostly chocolate covered confections, all using local sourced ingredients.  A distinguishing characteristic is that she does not use white sugar or corn syrup, and find other ways to make things sweet.  And the products are gluten-free too.  I believe she started as a La Cocina project, was a success story, and she now gives back 5% of all of her proceeds to the incubator.

Her main products are cookies and caramels, but she also makes Brazillian cheese bread, and has experimented with a few other products along the way.  You can find her goods at a few small stores around town, at the La Cocina kiosk at the Ferry Building, and on Good Eggs.


Cookies are where Kika started, and are the majority of the products offered.  They company describes:
"Kika's longtime love affair with chocolate-covered cookies led her to create this line. It all started with the Brazilian Honey Cakes, Kika's favorite Brazilian treat, followed by the Caramelized Graham Crackers, Kika's award-winning take on her favorite American treat, then complemented by Shortbreads, each one with a unique and delicious flavor. Try them all!"
I'm not a big cookie fan, but I've still tried almost all varieties over the years.
Coconut Shortbread in Pure Dark Chocolate.
"Smooth dark chocolate covers a deliciously crisp coconut shortbread, made with coconut flakes and rapadura, an unrefined cane sugar with unmatched nutritional value and a unique caramel flavor. You’ll find yourself in the Tropics."

The coconut shortbreads had a nice crunch when you bit in, and I liked the texture from the coconut, but the shortbread was fairly boring to me.  It wasn't ... buttery enough.  I did really like the coconut though.  The dark chocolate coating wasn't actually that dark (64% it turns out), and I would have guessed milk chocolate if I hadn't read the packaging.

[ No Photos ]

Coconut Shortbread in Pure Milk Chocolate: 
“Smooth milk chocolate covers a deliciously crisp coconut shortbread, made with coconut flakes and rapadura, an unrefined cane sugar with unmatched nutritional value and a unique caramel flavor.” 

I also tried the milk chocolate coated version.  It again had a nice crunch, I liked the texture the coconut added, and the flavor was decent.  The coconut really makes these.  Milk chocolate was less exciting than dark.

Cocoa Nib Chocolate Shortbread Covered in Pure Dark Chocolate:
"Smooth dark chocolate covers a rich chocolate shortbread studded with roasted cocoa nibs, the delicious tiny pieces of crushed cocoa beans, which add an extra crunch and a subtle delicious bitterness to Kika’s least sweet Treat. Dedicated to all chocolate lovers."

Chocolate three ways!  Chocolate shortbread, cocoa nibs, and chocolate coated.  I loved the crunch from the nibs, even more than the coconut version, but the shortbread was again fairly boring, even though chocolate based.

Espresso Shortbread in Pure Dark Chocolate: 
"Smooth dark chocolate covers a light, buttery shortbread flavored with coarsely ground Arabica espresso beans. Call it a Mocha Treat!"

My least favorite.  The nibs and coconut had added great textures to the shortbread, but the espresso just made this gritty.  I did not like the mouthfeel.  And again, the shortbread wasn't very buttery.  I didn't like this one.

Caramelized Grahams in Pure Milk Chocolate:
"These are Kika’s most popular treats and truly addictive. Their distinctive buttery crunchiness and toffee-like flavor are unlike any other graham cracker available in the market."

This isn't the most exciting sounding product, but, it was tastier than expected.  The graham cracker is a nice base, and it is really, really cinnamon-y.  It didn't really seem "caramelized", but there was certainly something going on, and I liked the crunch, and combination of graham cracker and chocolate.  Again, just a flavored graham cracker with chocolate coating, but, for what it is, it was good.

Brazilian Honey Cakes in Pure Dark Chocolate:
“Originally called “pão de mel” (honey bread) in Brazil, where it’s a local favorite, this dark chocolate covered little dense spice honey cake will amaze your taste buds.”

And lastly, her original product!  I wasn't really into it.  The cake had a subtle honey flavor, and decent spicing, but overall it fell kinda flat for me. Again, just not a very interesting item.

Salted Caramels

Kika then expanded into the confections market, producing chocolate covered caramels.  They are even award winning, at some level ("Best Caramels" at the 2011 Chocolate Salon).  The company's description:
"Kika's Treats award-winning salted caramels are made with coconut palm sugar, an incredibly tasty sweetener with a natural deep caramel flavor. On top of that, it’s one of the best sweeteners around, with a low Glycemic Index and high in macronutrients. Does it get any better? Yes! We cover each one in rich, bittersweet chocolate and finish with a sprinkle of delicate flakes of sea salt. Try one and you'll never want a white sugar caramel again! Ever!"
They come in two flavors, both of which I have tried.
Salted Crunchy Caramels.
"Made with Coconut Palm Sugar, one of the best sweeteners around, these caramels have a unique and delicious deep caramel flavor. Crunchy Caramels contain Puffed Brown Rice. They are covered in pure bittersweet chocolate and sprinkled with sea salt flakes. Product does not use corn syrup and is gluten-free."

These I kinda liked.  It was a caramel with rice crispies in it, covered in dark chocolate.  The caramel was firm, chewy, and tasty, but the rice crispies were a bit odd, they were sorta ... soggy?  I was expecting them to be crunchy as it is the "Salted Crunchy Caramels" variety.  Still, I liked the salty caramel, it had a slight burnt caramel flavor, and the chocolate notes were good too.

Salted Nutty Caramels
"Made with Coconut Palm Sugar, one of the best sweeteners around, these caramels have a unique and delicious deep caramel flavor. Nutty Caramels contain roasted Oregon hazelnuts, are covered in pure bittersweet chocolate and sprinkled with sea salt flakes. Product does not use corn syrup and is gluten-free."

This was similar to the Salted Crunchy Caramel, but with hazelnuts instead of rice crispies.  It was again a decent caramel, firm and chewy, nice buttery flavor.  The nuts did better than the rice crispies, but still were fairly lost in it.


Gluten-Free Brazilian Cheese Bread
"Naturally gluten-free, Pão de Queijo is one of Brazil's best kept secrets. Kika's version has been tried and tested at events in San Francisco, and has always left people clamoring for more. Now you can be the chef and serve these fresh and hot, right out of your oven (no baking skills required). Plain or as sliders –with dry cured meats, tomato basil and olive oil– they're incredibly delicious!"

My notes on this are fairly lacking, but I seemed to have not really liked it: "Kinda oily, not great cheese flavor", is all they said.

Discontinued Items

These are all items that I tried at some point, but are no longer offered.  Including here just for completeness.

“The delicious marriage between a chocolate truffle and a caramel”.
Well, I didn't like this.  It was a mild chocolate caramel rolled in shredded coconut.  It was not very chocolate, nor very caramel-y, and even the coconut wasn't very flavorful.  It also had a strange mouthfeel.

Sweet Treaty Dark Chocolate Covered Rice Cake Bites.
"Crispy thin rice cakes covered in our dark chocolate, with a sprinkle of sea salt flakes. An almost guilt-free low-fat snack that will satisfy your chocolate cravings."

This was pretty unexpected, although, exactly what it advertised itself as.  I really liked it, and wished it wasn't discontinued.

Yes, kinda just a rice cake, covered in dark chocolate.  But it had a good level of saltiness, and was very munchable.  It was sweet and salty, but not too sweet.  The dark chocolate seemed high quality, with a nice level of bitterness.

I think I liked this partially because it felt healthy and indulgent at the same time.

Sweet Treaty Dark Chocolate Covered Corn Cake Bites.
"Crispy thin corn cakes covered in our dark chocolate, with a sprinkle of sea salt flakes. An almost guilt-free low-fat snack that will satisfy your chocolate cravings."

This was a corn based version of the previous item.  Same decent dark chocolate coating used in all the confections, wrapping a salty, crunchy, corn cake.  A nice combination of salty, chocolately, and crunchy.  I liked this even more than the rice cake version.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Waffling Leftovers: Zuni Cafe Inspired Bread Salad

San Francisco has many classic restaurants considered "institutions", one of which, no doubt, is Zuni Cafe.  Zuni opened in 1979 (!), and has quite the history (the original kitchen literally was just a toaster oven, espresso machine, and grill in a back alley!).  The menu has changed a lot of the years, including many years as mostly a Mexican restaurant, but in 1987 when chef Judy Rodgers took over, things evolved, and she introduced a wood-fired brick oven.  The accolades rolled in, including multiple James Beard awards (Outstanding Chef, Outstanding Restaurant, Cookbook of the Year).

That brick oven led to one of Zuni's most famous dishes: roasted chicken with warm bread salad.  It sounds simple, but, I assure you, this is no simple chicken and no simple salad.  It remains a fixture on the menu, but one that takes a commitment - it serves two, and has a warning that it will take an hour to prepare.  It will set you back $58.  Yes, for chicken and a salad made of bread.

I've been to Zuni, and I've had that dish.  I also have friends who have painstakingly made it themselves, and can attest to how much work it.  The recipe is easily available online, just Google search for "Zuni bread salad", and you can learn more than you want to about it (protip: if you want to make it yourself, Smitten Kitchen has a streamlined version ...).
Bread Salad Transformation.
Where am I going with this story?  Well, I had lots of bread salad leftover one day, and, I decided to do what I do with many leftovers: waffle it.  If this concept is confusing, please back up, and go read my master post.

To answer the big question: Leftover Bread Salad, Will It Waffle? The answer is ... not really.  But it still works as a reheating technique.
The Original: Bread Salad with Currants and Pine Nuts.
So let me back up, to the original dish, the bread salad.

My version did not come from Zuni, but, rather, it was prepared by the chefs who cater my dinners at work.  They have made this, along with roast chicken, several times for us, and it is always amazing.

What is it?  Well, a salad with bread as the main component, yes.  It sorta looks like a bowl of croutons with arugula thrown on top.  Or perhaps like some too crunchy stuffing strangely topped with salad?

It is chunks of focaccia, toasted first with olive oil, then drizzled with a very tangy vinaigrette with champagne vinegar, zinfandel vinegar, and mustard.  Toasted pine nuts, plumped up currants, onions, and some bitter greens round out the recipe.  It is served warm.  I believe it normally has chicken drippings as well, but, this was a vegetarian friendly version.

And, that is it.  This is not just a salad with some flavorful croutons.  The bread is the key component, not the greens.  The arugula is just tossed on top at the end, it is the bread that makes up the body of the "salad".  And those chunks of bread ... swoon.  Seriously, the most flavorful crispy bits of bread ever.  The flavor infused in them is just insane.  They are chewy, crispy, and somewhere between a crouton and stuffing, if that makes any sense.

Although I don't generally care for pine nuts nor currants, they are essential.  The pine nuts provide a nutty nature and soft crunch that I can't think of suitable substitution for.  I appreciate the sweetness from the currants, although I kinda wonder if perhaps cherries could work?  Any bitter greens will do, we usually have arugula, currently Zuni uses frilly mustard greens.  Something bitter is key though, to offset the acid from the vinaigrette.

And that is the bread salad.  It is served warm, and something you need to consume pretty much immediately.

We always have a lot left over, as my co-workers haven't quite caught on to the fact that this isn't a bowl of croutons (but once they do try it, you can bet that they rave!).  I've tried several times to save it, and it kinda holds up for a day (the arugula get very wilted obviously), but, the bread quickly gets mushy, and warming it up in the oven only goes so far.  By the second day, there isn't much hope for it.
Into the Waffle Iron.
Rather than throw it out, I decided to give it one last valiant effort, and threw it into the waffle iron.

At this point, the bread was mushy yet also chewy, a bit stale tasting, and just not holding up at all.  I didn't expect much, so I just threw a pile into the waffle iron, set the dial to my default 350 degrees, laughed at myself, and walked away for a few minutes.
Midway Through Grilling.
I checked in on it to find basically what you'd expect: grilled, toasted bread with waffle iron marks on it.

It obviously wasn't holding together as a waffle, as I didn't provide any binding element.
The Result: A Jumble of Bread Salad.
After sufficient time, I wanted to remove it from the waffle iron, and realized how ridiculous this experiment was.  What did I expect to happen exactly?  That it would magically turn into a waffle?  I know better than this.

After some careful work with chopsticks (I needed something nonstick!) I was able to remove it, and dump it onto a plate.  It was just a pile of toasted flavorful bread cubes.  Tasty bread cubes for sure, and I liked how crispy they were, but, clearly not a waffle, and I don't think this was much different than just warming it up in the oven.

So, I still ate it, it was enjoyable, but not really worth repeating.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Rise: Element Boston Seaport

Another day, another hotel breakfast buffet.  That is what it feels like to me sometimes these days.  I've been doing a lot of travel.

My recent adventures took me back to the Boston area, which of course you have read about many times as my family lives in the northeast and I visit several times a year.  This time I was headed to New Hampshire, but not to see my family (well, not entirely).  I was headed to a recruiting event, and needed to get to New Hampshire, without my family coming to pick me up as usual.  The only real option (besides taking a really early flight, or driving late at night myself) was for me to fly into Boston, spend the night near the airport/bus station, and then take a bus up to New Hampshire the next day.  Not exactly ideal, but it gave me a chance to check out a new SPG hotel: The Element Boston Seaport.

This was my first time staying at an Element hotel, one of Starwood's more economical options (like Aloft, where I stayed in Buffalo once), intended for longer term stays (most rooms have kitchenettes at a minimum).  It is branded by Westin though, so it still has the Westin Heavenly bed and shower, just none of the extra frills.  The brand is also about being ecologically friendly, with recycled materials and energy savings built in.  They also have a happy hour most nights and all stays include breakfast (I'm pretty sure breakfast is not included at any other Starwood property?)

Since this is Julie's Dining Club, not Julie's Hotel Review Club, you can guess where this review is going: breakfast.
Rise: Breakfast Bar.
"Wake up to our complimentary signature healthy breakfast. Start the morning with hot sandwiches, refreshing smoothies, wholesome granola, fresh fruit, whole grain breads & cereals, and coffee service."
I didn't really know what to expect.  Sure, reviews I read of the breakfast are all enthusiastic, but, honestly, I assumed this is mostly because people are excited about *any* free breakfast buffet.  I didn't think it would compare to some of the ridiculous breakfast buffets I've had at other Starwood properties, where I've had it included as part of a package, or as a Platinum benefit, like my current top three: Le Potager, Le Meridien, MunichLe First, Westin, Paris, and Tres, SLS Hotel, Beverley Hills.

And, it didn't compare to those.  But, for an included, mostly continental breakfast buffet, it was far above average.

The area was self-serve, buffet style, return as many times as you want, seat yourself, and bus your own table.  It was quite busy, with a line forming for the espresso machine all morning.  The selection was good, and I do think that most people would be pretty satisfied with the offerings, even though there were no made-to-order items, no charcuterie or cheese, and very limited hot items.

Element's buffet is known for 3 signature things that do set it apart for standard continental buffets: a fresh daily smoothie, good gourmet coffee, and, breakfast sandwiches, all of which I had to try.


The first thing I wanted was coffee.  8am in Boston did indeed feel like 5am in my world, and I wanted, no, needed, caffeine, ASAP.  Plus, I had read reviews of how good the coffee was.
Espresso Machine.
The first thing I encountered was a robot espresso machine.  It had regular and decaf, which it would grind to order, plus regular milk to make a cappuccino.  There was also a mocha option with powered chocolate.  I was surprised there wasn't a big pot of brewed regular coffee available, but I didn't mind waiting a minute for some fresh ground and brewed espresso, in the form of an Americano.

There were no coffee mugs nearby, only takeaway cups, which I found surprising for somewhere that is so focused on conservation.  Multiple types of sweetener were available, along with several types of sugar, creamer packets, and milk (both regular and soy), which did double duty with the cereal.

The coffee was indeed decent.  I had a regular to start, and it was strong and exactly what I needed.  I stopped by later in the day and made a decaf, and it too was really quite good, not stale tasting, no decaf funk.  Neither were outstanding, but both very solid.  Fresh grinding does make a difference.
Self-Serve Coffee & Tea.
Only once I had gathered all my food did I see the self-serve coffee area over on the other side of the room.  This area had ceramic mugs, two large dispensers of regular coffee, one decaf coffee, hot water, and assorted tea bags (Bigalow brand, including herbal, mint, and several black teas), plus the same sweeteners as the espresso area, with the addition of honey.

Non-caffeinated beverage offerings included orange, apple, and cranberry juice, plus plain water and a bowl of ice.  There were strangely no glasses available when I visited, and I awkwardly looked around trying to figure out what to put my water in besides a paper coffee cup.  I asked a staff member if there were glasses, and he opened a cabinet and gave me one, but didn't put any others out.  A few hours later, when I walked back by, there were glasses laid out.  I wonder why they weren't there earlier?  Maybe there should have been coffee mugs near the robot machine too?

The final beverage was a smoothie, the other item I had read much about.  I'm not one for smoothies, but, if everyone raved about it, it was worth trying, right?  It was in a pitcher in the well with cold foods, so I was able to take just a tiny bit and not waste.  I didn't like it, but, well, it was a smoothie.  Thick, yogurty, meh.

Hot Foods

Element prides themselves on the fact that the breakfast offerings are not just continental.  They always feature breakfast sandwiches, which you can tell are crowd pleasers (likely more out of novelty than anything else?)  I can't tell you how many reviews that I saw mentioned the breakfast sandwiches.  These change regularly, and I believe always include one vegetarian option.

They also had two chafing dishes with hot foods that I failed to get a photo of.  One was scrambled eggs that looked very dried out, and the other was bacon (actually crispy looking).  I don't really like eggs so those were easy to skip, but I did almost take a slice of bacon.  I'm not sure if these items rotate with other things like sausage or pancakes, as I was only a guest for one night.

Beside the hot foods were condiments, adorable packages of ketchup (far bigger than standard McDonald's packets, so you might actually only need one!) and hot sauce, plus salt and pepper grinders.  These little touches do set the Element apart.
South Western Breakfast Sandwich: Onions, Peppers, Egg, & Cheese (Vegetarian).
I know I don't like eggs, and why would I want a pre-made breakfast sandwich that was just sitting on a hot plate?  Yeah, yeah, I should know better.  But, these sandwiches used biscuits as the base, and biscuits weren't available plain.  I figured that worst case I'd salvage the biscuit and spread it with butter (or honey + butter = honey butter), or perhaps some jam.

This was about as you'd expect, a pre-made, but well made, breakfast sandwich.  The cheese on top was congealed, but quite tasty, some kind of white cheese.  The egg patty was actually really fluffy and nicely done, and I liked the spicy peppers on top.  I didn't see any onions.

The biscuit itself was the weakest part though, just kinda soggy, no real crumble to it, no tang.  I didn't feel the urge to try to save it, and instead actually ate more of the filling.

Overall, not great, but, better than I'd expect.
Steak, Egg, & Cheese.
I didn't try the other option, steak, egg, and cheese on english muffin, but, the two people I saw take these didn't finish them, if that indicates anything.


The majority of the buffet is continental offerings.
Yogurts, Milk, Toast.
The continental section started with a cold well with hardboiled eggs and individual packages of Dannon Lite & Fit flavored yogurts, a small pitcher of soy milk, butter, and cream cheese (Philadelphia, vegetable only, no plain). Next was bread (white and wheat), english muffins, and bagels (plain), with a toaster on the side. Besides the cream cheese, there was also smooth peanut butter (Kraft?) and Smucker's brand jams (strawberry, orange marmalade, and grape).

I didn't try any of this, and thought the bread selection was fairly disappointing - no variety in bagels, no cinnamon raisin bread ...
Cereal & Milk (backside), Sugar and Sweetener (front).
Opposite that area was a cereal dispenser with 3 types of cereal: Honey Bunches of Oats, Honey Nut Cheerrios, and Fruit Loops, along with milk.  These weren't anything extraordinary, but, I found my bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats with soy milk strangely satisfying, and of course finished off with a little Fruit Loops (mostly so I could make some tasty tasty cereal milk!)
Fruit, Granola, Nuts.
Finally, there was fruit (whole apples, orange, and bananas), a fruit salad, and dried raisins and cranberries, plus two types of granola.

I tried both granolas with soy milk, and enjoyed those too.  I'm not sure what brand or kind they were, as they were unlabelled.


Over on the other side of the area, next to the self-serve coffee, was a plastic case with baked goods.  It seemed far less popular than the other areas, and I'll admit, buffet pastries are rarely good.  Of course the yogurt, cereal, and bagels are safer choices.  Or more likely, people just didn't see it, as I only found it because I was seeking out baked goods.

They all missed out.  The baked goods were shockingly good, particularly for a buffet, and particularly for this level of buffet.
Danishes, Muffins.
The pastry case contained filled danishes of assorted varieties (custard, berry, apple, pecan), cinnamon rolls, and muffins.  Only the muffins had a label, and none looked that great, based on visuals alone.

Still, you know me, I love baked goods.  I obviously was going to try at least one.

I took a cinnamon roll, as it looked most promising.  It was soft, sweet, and had a great amount of cinnamon between the layers.  Only a little icing on top, but just the right amount to not make it too sweet.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and would gladly have another.
Cranberry Lemon Muffin.
"Our Lemon Cranberry muffin is made with lemon puree, real cranberries, buttermilk and eggs.  It's filled with a creamy lemon curd and topped with butter lemon streusel."

Next, I moved on to muffins.  The sign said that they had Chocolate, Apple Cinnamon, Green Tea, and Cranberry Lemon.

There were two chocolate muffins when I arrived, but, the person before me, somewhat apologetically, took both.  Clearly the appealing item, chocolate base with huge chocolate chunks.  I didn't see any that seemed like they could possibly be described as green tea.

I did my research, and learned that the muffins came from US Foods Chef's Line.

First, I went for the streusel topped muffin, which turned out to be cranberry with ... some kind of custard in the top center?  Certainly a strange combination, but I really quite enjoyed it.  

The muffin was moist, the cranberries provided a nice tang, and I did like the creamy custard, as strange as it was.  The crumbly streusel on top, which is what drew me in, was fine, but, the least exciting part of the muffin, as there just wasn't much of it.

Next to me, another women had an egg sandwich, and discarded it after a bite or two.  Then she had some scrambled eggs, and again, pushed them away.  She told her dining companion that nothing was good, but she was hungry.  He suggested a muffin, and she rather begrudgingly got one.  One bite in, she admitted that it was really good.  I wasn't the only muffin fan.

According to the sign, the one I took was Cranberry Lemon, or Lemon Cranberry per the manufacturer, but I dub it the "Cranberry Custard Streusel Muffin".
Apple Cinnamon Gourmet Muffin with Apple Filling.
"Our apple cinnamon muffin is filled with delicious Michigan Rome apples topped with a crumbly streusel."

After the success of the first muffin, I went for another, for the road (aka ... an hour later), totally unsure of what kind it was.  It had a few scattered oats on top, and a pocket of something that looked like it might be caramel (it wasn't).
Apple Cinnamon Gourmet Muffin with Apple Filling: Inside.
It turned out to be the apple cinnamon.

Inside the muffin was brown core, I guess "cinnamon", but not particularly cinnamon-y.  This part was a bit dry. 

Down the top center, much like the custard from the cranberry muffin, was a filling, this time, apple cinnamon.  It was half goo, half little chunks of apple.  The apple was nicely cooked, the spicing was good, but I don't really care for apple.

The rest of the muffin seemed to be the same base as the cranberry, moist, and pretty good.

The topping here was oats, just a tiny scattering, even fewer than the streusel from the previous muffin.

I didn't really like this one, but that is just due to the flavor.  It was still moist, and I still loved the top part that wasn't touching the apple filling.
Pecan Pie Danish.
And ... when I went back downstairs later, the pastries were still out even though breakfast had ended.  I couldn't stop myself, I helped myself to another.  It was the best of the bunch.

This turned out to be ... pecan pie-in-a-danish.  The filling was the sweet goo that makes pecan pie oh-so-delectable.  The pastry was flaky and crispy.  It was drizzled with sweet white icing and topped with little bits of pecan.  I loved it, and it reminded me of the one I had at the Hyatt Regency in Buffalo.  Very sweet though, but, really, if you love pecan pie like I do, and you love pastry, this is a thing of wonder.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Pizza from Buca Di Beppo

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Buca di Beppo. Large format, family style, chain restaurant, Americanized Italian, yadda, yadda, yadda, but, really, it isn't *that* bad.
Ok, their signs are bad.  As is the cheesy "Italian" music blasting out onto the side.  And, granted, I've only been to Buca di Beppo a couple times.

The first time was a rehearsal dinner for a wedding in Seattle, and the only thing I really remember is that Ojan loved the baked ziti. Or was it the ravioli? I don't recall anything noteworthy myself, besides, well, the massive scale of everything. A few years later, Ojan threw me a surprise birthday party at the Buca in San Francisco. I can't confirm it, but, I kinda think this was a case of rather late planning, and, where else can easily handle a large group? Again, I don't recall much about the food, but, I did think it made a decent enough venue for our large and rowdy group, and, I recall liking the garlic bread.
I've also had Buca di Beppo catering a few times, and again, recall thinking the caesar salad and fettuccine alfredo weren't bad.  Ojan likes the chocolate chip cookies.

My general impression has always been that the place is decent enough, for what it is, except of course, the brownie sundae, which I've just never liked.

April 2017

Fast forward to 2017, and now that I have a blog, I decided to pay attention when my apartment building hosted a party and had pizza from Buca di Beppo.  It was delivery, and, certainly suffered in transit.  To call it lukewarm would be generous.  I wanted to rush a slice up to my apartment to warm it up in the toaster oven, but, I felt a bit guilty running out of the party, just to provide myself tastier food.  So I stayed, and ate lukewarm pizza.
Pizza con Formaggio, Large. $29.99.
"Mozzarella, garlic-infused olive oil and our authentic pizza sauce."

I laughed when I looked up the cheese pizza online: "pizza con formaggio", it read.  Really, Buca?  Nothing else on the menu sounds pretentious, why the simple cheese pizza?  I laughed further as I copied over the description: "our authentic pizza sauce".  Oh, really?  Authentic what exactly?

It was decent pizza though.  Not fancy artisanal pizza cooked in a 900 degree oven.  Not made with flour imported from Italy, the finest tomatoes, or house made mozzarella.  But, for simple pizza?  It was good.  

The crust was thin crust, and nicely crispy.  The sauce was fine, not too sweet, not too tangy, nothing strange going on there.  Cheese well distributed and melted.  Did I taste the garlic infused olive oil?  Well, no.  Did the sauce taste "authentic"?  I have no idea what that even means, really.  But the pizza was fine, just, not special.

We had large size pizzas, oblong, with 18 slices, designed to feed 5 people according to the web site.
Pepperoni, Large. $30.99.
"Large slices of pepperoni, mozzarella, provolone and our authentic pizza sauce."

We also had pepperoni.  I didn't try the pizza itself, assuming the base was the same as the cheese pizza (but, it wasn't?  According to the description, no garlic infused olive oil on this one, and, provolone cheese too?), but I did steal a giant pepperoni off of one of Ojan's slices.  Because, really, how do you resist those insanely large slices?  #theBucaWay.  

The pepperoni too was, well, fine.  Sorry this review is so boring, but, there just isn't much more to say.  Ojan did like the pizza, and commented on how it was better than he expected.

Buca di Beppo is solid, reliable, and won't leave anyone unhappy, they just probably also won't remember it either.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Go Natural

I just found this review in my unpublished drafts.  I was confused though, I could have sworn I had published this.  And then I realized that there are two companies, both of whom make similar snack bars, with nearly identical names: Be Natural (which I did review before, and enjoyed) and Go Natural.  Be Natural is from Australia, and ... so is Go Natural.

As you might have guessed, they try to make more natural, healthy snacks.  Their tag line is "Goodness Tastes Better".  They are gluten-free.

They make a number of product lines, including packaged nuts and seeds, savory spicy snack bars, fruit and cacao bars, and nut based bars, including an entire section of macadamia based bars.  I tried several bars while in Sydney.

Nut Delight

"The goodness of nuts in the original healthy snack bars."
Nut Delights come in a lot of varieties, all based around nuts and seeds, with different fruit mix-ins and coatings.   I know I tried other varieties, but I seem to only have notes on the simple classic Fruit & Nut Delight bars.
Fruit & Nut Delight.
"Our Fruit & Nut Delight combines almonds, walnuts, peanuts, sultanas, apricots, and apple sweetened naturally with Australian honey."

This was a classic granola bar.  Chewy style, kinda sticky, loaded with lots of different nuts and fruits.  I give them credit for having so many types of nuts and fruit in it.

The honey was a different touch than most granola bars, a lovely sweetness.  I liked it more than most granola bars, but it was still just a granola bar, and, it had a bitterness to it on the aftertaste that I didn't enjoy.

Macadamia Selection

"Naturally indulgent Australian-grown macadamia bars."

Macadamia based bars are their own line, again with different mix-ins, and different coatings.

Macadamia Dream.
"Our Macadamia Dream is the perfect natural indulgence. Luxurious Australian-grown macadamias are lightly roasted to enhance their richness, then sweetened with fragrant Australian honey and smothered in a creamy yoghurt coating. Dreamy!

This was very, very sweet.

And almost good.  Almost.

I like macadamias.  I like honey.  But this had way too much honey flavor.  It totally masked the macadamias, and, macadamia and honey is a bit of a strange combination in the first place.
Then there was the coasting.  What was it? Sweet yogurt? White chocolate?  I’m not sure.

I really didn’t care for this after more than one bite.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Alexander's Patisserie

It has been a long time since I've written about the Alexander's family of restaurants.

Going to the Alexander's Steakhouses, in Cupertino and Mountain View really is what turned me into a bit of a foodie (and, ok, a bit of a monster for a while during the foie gras ban days).  "Alexander's" was one of the first labels I added to my blog, which I added explicitly because I was writing about the same place so often.   

I still visit the San Francisco Alexander's Steakhouse a couple times of year, although now I reserve it for special occasions.  Since I last wrote though, the restaurant group has radically expanded.  The original location in Cupertino moved.  They opened more steakhouses; in Pasadena, Tokyo, and Taipei (!).  They introduced a seafood focused restaurant, The Sea, in Palo Alto (which makes so much since given how often I rave about the seafood dishes at the steakhouse!).

And ... they opened a patisserie (ok, two now, one in Mountain View and one in Cupertino).  Oh, be still my heart!  Yes, my favorite restaurant group opened a pastry focused establishment.  They brought in a very accomplished pastry chef from Belgium, who worked at the famed Pierre Herme in Paris (which of course I've reviewed), and Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas.  Let's just say I was excited to try it, particularly after the accolades started rolling in.

In October 2014, I was invited to the pre-opening event for Alexander's Patisserie in Mountain View.  To say I was excited was beyond an understatement.  At the time, Alexander's was my absolute favorite restaurant, which I clearly visited way too frequently, and you know me, baked goods are always my favorite, so, this was a dream come true for me.  However, they weren't able to be fully operational at the time (read on for more!)

I still haven't actually been to the store while in operation, but I've tried their treats on several occasions.  I now know, definitively, that I need to go to the store.  I *need* to try their kouign amann, and I need to try their banana chocolate croissant. This place, as expected, has quality products.

Pre-Opening Event, October 2014

I gleefully accepted an invite to the pre-opening, even though it was in Mountain View.

But ... quasi-disaster stuck.  I went all the way down to Mountain View to find that ... their final permit did not come in in time.  They couldn't use the kitchens yet.  Doh.

They served coffee and macarons, and showed off the space, but, they weren't able to offer anything else.  The coffee was fine, and the macarons were all decent (good cookies with slight give to them and proper chew), but, macarons are really not my thing, and I'll admit, I was pretty sad.
Decaf Coffee. $2.75.
They served Equator Coffee at the time, but have since moved to Stumptown.  I had decaf.  It was strong, dark, and particularly good for decaf.
Coffee Macaron. $2.25.
I started with the coffee macaron, filled with coffee ganache.

This macaron somehow made coffee taste delicate.  It was clearly coffee flavored, but in a really light way.  My third favorite variety.
Pistachio Macaron. $2.25.
Next I had a pistachio macaron, filled with toasted pistachio ganache.

It was a beautiful green color, with decent pistachio flavor throughout.  My forth favorite.
Chocolate Macaron. $2.25.
Next came a chocolate ganache filled macaron, with in it nibs too.

I loved the rich, dark chocolate ganache filling.  The cookie was slightly chocolate flavored.  My second favorite, and I really just wanted to eat a big bowl of the filling.
Vanilla Macaron. $2.25.
And finally, simple vanilla, with Tahitian vanilla bean ganache inside.

It was my absolute favorite.  Super sweet filling, it reminded me of frosting, but I really did like the sweetness.  The thick filling was balanced by delicate cookies.

[ No Photos ]
Lavender is a flavor I don't generally like, so I didn't take one myself, nor take a photo.  But I couldn't help myself from stealing a bite of Ojan's when he had one in his hand, it was such a beautiful light purple color.  I don't generally like lavender flavors, and this was no exception, but, if you like floral desserts, the flavor was nice, and fairly subtle.  Second to last favorite though.

Another flavor I don't tend to like is passionfruit (although I love the real fruit!) so I only took a bite of Ojan's, hence no photo.  Very strong quasi fake passionfruit flavor, which, predictably, I didn't like.  Least favorite.

Tarts, April 2017

In April, I was invited to a pre-opening event for Total Wines & More, in Mountain View.

I was there to admire the store and sip on wine, and, let's be honest, I was excited to check out the food.  Savory bites were provided catered by places ranging from Michelin starred Chez TJ to casual Pokéworks, but my eyes were on the Alexander's Patisserie table from the moment I walked in.  It took a lot of restraint to wait to go for the sweets until after I had some savories first.
Easter Themed Display.
They easily had the best looking display, decorated for Easter, with tactful, not plastic, "grass", chocolate eggs, and bunnies (and yes they made all the larger chocolate creations too!)
Their offering was mini tarts, beautifully presented perched on top of a "soil" of cocoa nibs, in clear glass "planters".  It might sound tacky, but really, it wasn't.

The crew did an impressive job of keeping the display perfectly stocked throughout the event.   While other tables ran low, they never did.

I guess I expect no less from an Alexander's establishment, but they were true professionals, and, I believe the head pastry chef himself was there at the event.

I have a confession though - just like I don't really like macarons, tarts aren't really my favorite either.  I like pie crust, I like puff pastry, I like many other vessels for fillings, but, tart shells?  Meh!  So, I wasn't thrilled to see tarts as their item offered.

The tart shells were about as good as a tart shell is going to be.  Buttery, nice texture, a bit crumbly, not too hard.  And at least they tasted like something.  As Ojan put it, "you don't need to just eat the insides out of them".  But let's talk about those insides.  Spoiler: swoon!
Chocolate, Vanilla, Lemon Tarts.
On my first round, I tried all three.  Yes, all three.  And yes, I said my first round.  I'm sorry, I like my sweets!  In my defense, I *did* ask if it was ok when I went back for seconds.  The tarts were too good to listen to social norms about acceptable levels of consumption.

Chocolate Tart: cocoa nib praline / 66% dark chocolate ganache.

Those who have been reading my blog for a while might notice something here.  Chocolate.  I don't eat chocolate at night (caffeine).  I rarely make exceptions.  I don't even really care for chocolate desserts that much (but, I *always* have dark chocolate in the morning alongside my coffee).  So, I wasn't excited for the chocolate one, really.  Still, I knew my opportunities to try Alexander's Patisserie were limited, and I wanted to make the most of it.

It was glorious, just like the chocolate filling in the macaron.  The base layer had cocoa nibs in it, a surprise to me, wonderful bits of crunch.  On top of that was dark, thick, decadent chocolate ganache.  I'd say that I'd love to eat a whole bowl as pudding, but actually, it was too rich to want to do that.  Maybe a *small* bowl, with some whipped cream on top?

Anyway, the amount here was just right, and it was a fantastic bite.  It had a cap of more dark chocolate and a touch of edible gold leaf for some bling.  My second favorite.

Vanilla Tart: Tahitian vanilla ganache / vanilla mascarpone cream.

This. Was. Amazing.

I had zero expectation for this.  "Vanilla", aka, bo-ring, right?  No way.  (Side note: I wished I had re-read my notes from the macarons to remember that they made an amazing vanilla ganache, and perhaps I would have been more excited!)

Anyway, the vanilla ganache was a thing of wonder.  It was thick, sweet, and intensely vanilla flavored.  I'll be honest ... I didn't think vanilla *could* taste this good.  It was incredibly rich, even more than the chocolate.  There is no way you could have a bigger bite of this.

On top was vanilla mascarpone cream, also glorious.  Also wonderfully vanilla flavored, also sweet and rich, and somehow complimentary to the ganache.  How does one rich sweet vanilla element compliment another rich sweet vanilla component?  I don't know, but, it did.

One could take three bites to eat each of these, if he or she had restraint.  And I did, the first time, as I didn't know it would be so wonderful.  But when I went back for another, it was all I could do not to eat it in a single bite.  I settled for two wondrous bites, knowing I'd actually appreciate it more that way.

Seriously, fantastic.

Lemon: lemon cream / lemon zest / lemon segments.

And finally, lemon.  I almost didn't take this one, and really, I shouldn't have.  I do not like lemon desserts.

And this ... well, it was a lemon dessert.  The lemon cream tasted like lemons.  I did not like that.

However, the meringue on top was excellent, sweet, fluffy, light, airy.  And I give them kudos for the perfect execution of the toasting of each and every one, and the fact that these delicate treats were not damaged at all in their display!  Still, I wouldn't want another of these.
Alexander's Patisserie Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Waffling Leftovers: Noodle Kugel

I did not grow up with noodle kugel.  I didn't even know it existed.  A major downside of growing up in a small rural town with zero diversity.  This makes me sad, as, it turns out, I really enjoy it.

The first noodle kugel I ever had was from Wise Sons, a cold sweet version, served with seasonal jam.  I ordered it because I was fascinated by the idea, and I knew it sounded like something I would like: I love casseroles, puddings, bread puddings, and things with crispy tops.  Since then, I've had several savory versions too, such as spinach noodle kugel, and parmesan sour cream potato kugel topped with tomato sauce.

I still find all variations fascinating, and I never quite know what to make of them.  Savory versions seem like they could be side dishes or mains.  Sweet ones seem equally suited for breakfast or dessert.  Should I eat it warm, or cold, or either?  What about extra toppings?  I always want to drizzle some maple syrup on sweet versions at breakfast.  Am I really eating sweet mac and cheese?  I wish I had more exposure to these items growing up!
Breakfast Noodle Kugel Transformation.
This recent adventure was with a sweet breakfast kugel.  I had extra, and you know me, if there is any chance of crispy bits enhancing something, my mind immediately jumps to waffling it (if you don't know what I'm talking about, go start with my master post).

So, Leftover Noodle Kugel: Will it Waffle?  Sure.
The Original: Blueberry Cream Cheese Kugel.
The original was absolutely delicious sweet noodle kugel, served at my office for breakfast.

It was creamy inside, with sour cream, cream cheese, and cottage cheese mixed together to create pockets of slightly tart cheesiness.  It was perfectly moist and custardy inside, but had crispy bits on top from sliced almonds and noodles themselves.  Studded throughout with juicy blueberries.  Accented with lemon zest and vanilla for a bit of extra complexity in the flavor.  Dusted with powdered sugar and topped off with fresh blueberries.

It was very, very good, and served in giant slices.  I polished one off in an instant, alongside a few other breakfast items.  I realized that one slice was bigger than I needed even, but I wanted more.  I took a second slice.  I started in on it.  And then my stomach caught up with me.

But, I certainly did not throw it out.
Cold Leftovers.
Into the fridge my leftovers went.

I tried a few bites cold, and it was perfectly tasty.  I'm sure it would have been fine simply reheated in the toaster oven too.  But I saw an opportunity to experiment, and I couldn't resist.

Inspired by the crispy bits on top that I liked, I schemed to get more crispy bits, by waffling it, of course.
Mid-Way Cooking.
So into the waffle iron a chunk went.

Simple setup, 350 degrees.  No extra crusting or work done, although I think this would have lent itself nicely to crusting with some cornflakes, or a sugar coating to caramelize on the outside.

It cooked easily, no drama.  I held form well, extracted easily, made no mess, didn't burnt.
Waffled Blueberry Cream Cheese Kugel.
The result was basically what you'd expect.  Crispy noodle edges, all around.  Still fairly custardy inside.

I topped it with a dollop of whipped cream because I couldn't resist, and then returned to add some powdered sugar and cinnamon too, but what I really wanted was a drizzle of maple syrup.  Next time ...

I don't see it as a radical improvement on traditional reheating, or even eating cold, but overall, it was absolutely fine, and if you like crispy bits on your kugel, you'll like this.