Thursday, September 12, 2013

Brad's Raw Foods

I've been really into assorted snack foods lately, particularly salty things like chips.  In an attempt to be healthier, I decided to try out a new brand of kale chips.  I really liked kale chips in the past, particularly a few years ago when I used to make them myself and season them with all sorts of things, but I don't recall what brand I used to get when I did get store bought ones.  I tried Brad's Raw Foods because the flavors sounded good.  The kale chips themselves impressed me every time, but I didn't like the flavors of them.  I haven't found any that I'd purchase again.
Natural Nacho Kale Chips.
  • Natural Nacho: "Coated with sunflower seeds, red bell pepper, agave nectar, chickpea miso, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic powder, onion, Bragg Aminos, and Himalayan sea salt". I wanted to like these.  The kale chips themselves were nicely done, big chunks.  They were well coated in seasoning.  But I did not like the nacho cheese flavor at all.  Personal preference perhaps?
  • Nasty Hot Kale Chips: "Smothered with red bell pepper, cashews, sunflower seeds, lemon juice, jalapeno pepper, chickpea miso, Himalayan sea salt, and cayenne pepper". These were better than the nacho ones, but I still didn't like them.  Again, the kale was nice and crispy, in big chunks.  The coating was spot on.  But I just really didn't like the flavor, they had a strange bitterness to them.  I liked the spicy though.  I tried these several times, to make sure my first failure wasn't just due to the mood I was in, but I never liked them.  The crunch was good, the chunks were good, but they just didn't come together for me.  Another friend said they tasted too much like grass.
  • Vampire Killer: "Coated with red bell pepper, cashews, sunflower seeds, lemon juice, scallions, chickpea miso, garlic, and Himalayan sea salt".  These I actually liked.  The kale chips were again nice big chunks, and the seasoning on these was enjoyable.  Although, they did leave me with some serious garlic breath.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Miss Saigon

As I mentioned last week, I had the task of providing dinner for my group at work for a few days.  Since it was going to be takeout, I went for all cold items.  I didn't want to deal with re-heating food, or serving lukewarm, soggy food.

For one meal, I decided on Vietnamese, as there are a number of classic dishes that are takeout friendly, like cold salads and spring rolls.  I didn't have anywhere in mind, as last time I did this, I went with Out the Door, and it was good, but not amazing.  So I did some research, and discovered Miss Saigon.  The reviews were plentiful and strong, for everything but the spring rolls, and they had a fantastic sounding dessert menu.  So, I did what any crazy person does, and went to two places, supplementing the salads and desserts from Miss Saigon with spring rolls from Freshroll, as I reviewed a few weeks ago.  Yes, I could have gotten delivery, from a single restaurant, but ... that just isn't how I roll.  I wanted good food!

Anyway, Miss Saigon is located at 6th & Mission, just a few blocks from Freshroll, so it was easy to pick up both orders.  I don't tend to venture down much past 4th or 5th, so it was also uh, a cultural experience.

It is a simple restaurant, no fancy decor, but clean, and the furniture all matches.  No real personality to the place except ... the mannequin at the entrance.  I have no idea why they have a mannequin, but they do.  I wish I'd taken a photo of it.

The staff were friendly and pleasant taking my order, but I was not impressed with the service.  I placed my order, and sat to wait for my food to be ready.  It was brought out by the kitchen to the counter area pretty quickly, but then it just sat there, while the server did a bunch of other random things.  He even walked over and picked up my containers several times, and then put them back down, and did other things.  He wasn't helping other customers, but instead collecting dirty cups, wiping down counters, etc.  I assumed that some of my order must just not be ready, but nothing else was ever added to it.  I think it was ready a full 10 minutes before it was handed over to me, even though I was sitting there waiting, and one of my items had ice and was melting.  There was only one table seated in the restaurant since I was there mid-afternoon, so it wasn't that he was busy.  I was pretty annoyed by this, and still really can't figure out why he kept picking up my food and then ignoring it.

Anyway, the food was all solid, and some of the hot dishes did look good, so maybe I'd consider dining in, but I don't see any real reason to return otherwise.
Packaging fail: sauce from papaya salad all over the place, soaked through the napkins.
One thing I noticed is that when the server would pick up my containers, he noticed that one of them was leaking everywhere.  He wiped it down, and looked like he might try to do something about it, but then just put it back.  When he picked it up another time, it had leaked out everywhere again, so he again wiped it down, but did nothing to fix the situation.

When I opened my take out bag, everything was completely coated in sauce.  There was a lake in the bottom of the bag, which was just a low quality thin plastic bag, so it also leaked into the larger bag I brought with me to carry my purchases.  The napkins and utensils provided were drenched in the sauce, the napkins unusable, the utensils sticky.  This was a really crappy container to package saucy food in, and they seem to do a lot of togo business, so you'd think they'd have decent containers.  Grumble.
Taro Smoothie With Boba.  $3.75.
I've been craving taro milk tea for a while now.  Basically ever since I had the amazing one from Quickly months ago, and my craving was not satiated by the awful one from Out the Door a few weeks later.  When I saw taro boba smoothies on the menu, it was what made my final decision of where to get the food.  I wanted one, it was a hot day, and nothing sounded better than slurping up a taro boba!

The name "smoothie" concerned me a little, as I didn't quite know what to expect.  When I saw a blender and ice get pulled out, I knew it wasn't going to be the milk tea I was expecting.  I'm not sure what else went into it, clearly something milky, something sweet, something taro flavored, and obviously the boba.

It was really nicely blended, full of tiny little bits of ice, like a slushy.  Not what I was expecting, but I actually liked it even more.  It was almost like a milkshake.  It was creamy like one too.  It was sweet, but definitely not too sweet, and the taro flavor was good.

It was loaded up with boba, hard to see in this picture, but there was actually tons of it.  Perhaps a bit too much.  By the end, I was very sick of it.  The pearls were a good size, and the straw perfect for sucking them up.  They started out soft, but actually got kinda icy as time passed, since they were immersed in the icy mixture.  That was fairly fascinating, I liked them soft at first, I liked them as they got a bit chewy, and I liked them once they got icy.  Kinda fun to enjoy it as it evolved!

Overall, this was pretty good, and I really enjoyed it.  I still wish I knew what went into it.  At $3.75, it was more expensive than the others I've had, but it did have more work put into it.
Goi Ngo Sen Tom Thit. $7.25.
This is a cold salad of lotus root, carrots, cucumber, shrimp, pork, ground peanuts, and rau ram.

I wasn't entirely sure what this was going to be, but I like lotus root, so I decided to try it.

The lotus was sliced differently than I've had before, I usually have it in disks, this was in strips.  It was crispy and fresh.  The carrots and cucumber were fine, and added some color, but did kinda overwhelm the salad in bites, as they weren't evenly distributed throughout.

The shrimp were small, poached, and sliced in half.  Not offensive, but not very good either.  I ate around the pork, as I don't like pork, but it was in thin strips.  I could taste it in the salad though, which I didn't like.  My own fault, for ordering something with an ingredient I know I don't like.

Overall, it was lacking in any real redeeming qualities.  It wasn't bad, but it wasn't very flavorful nor interesting.  I wouldn't get again.

Priced slightly lower than the salads at Out The Door, but didn't seem as high as quality.
Goi Du Du Bo. $7.75.
When I lived in Sydney for a few months, I got totally hooked on papaya salad.  There was one place that had a version that came with caramelized bits of pork belly on top.  It rocked my world.

I've tried the papaya salad at many Thai and Vietnamese restaurants in SF, but have failed to find one that really packs any punch flavor-wise, or has the freshness I'm looking for.  When I saw that Miss Saigon offered 3 versions, including one with beef jerky on top, I was excited.  Would the beef jerky be like my caramelized pork? Surely it would be closer than all the tofu or shrimp versions I've had.

The papaya was fine, there were plentiful peanuts, and some beef jerky bits.  The beef was a nice change, but not nearly as good as my pork belly memories :)  It had good flavor, but wasn't crispy, nor really caramelized.

But overall flavor-wise, there was not much going on here.  Perhaps because all the sauce had leaked out?  Again, not bad, but not really good.  I probably wouldn't get again.

Priced at $7.75, it was on par with others I've had, but not as good.
 Goi Du Du Dau Hu. $7.25.
We also tried the vegetarian version, with crispy fried tofu on top.  The salad was the same, although it seemed to have a lot less sauce.

The tofu was awful.  Soggy, definitely not crispy, and totally soaked in oil.  Quite nasty.
Che Dau Do. $3.00.
You know me and desserts.  The highlight of my meals.  Their dessert menu sounded fascinating.  I was most excited for the "taro root with sweet rice and coconut" and the "yellow com and sweet rice with coconut".  I love taro, I love sweet rice, and I was fascinated by the idea of corn in dessert.  Sadly, they were out of those desserts, even though it was only mid-day.  Boo.

So I moved on to my next selections, including fruit with coconut milk.  Again, they were out of all of those!  The menu had about 10 desserts listed, but they only had 4 available.  One had ice cream, which didn't make sense for take out, one was a banana cake, which really didn't sound or look good, and then two others were things I'd never pick, but ... I wanted something, so I got them.

So first up, was this one, described as "red bean with coconut".  It was basically just some red beans, in a very milky soup.  Seriously, soup.  I guess it was sorta coconut flavored, but not much.  Maybe this is a traditional dessert, but I was expecting something different, more like red beans with a thicker coconut cream drizzled on top.

I wouldn't get again, but it was interesting.  $3.00 for a dessert this size was good, and it actually came in a container that sealed, unlike the salads, so the soup didn't spill everywhere.  Points for that.
Che Dau Trang. $3.00.
The other option available was described as "black eye peas with rice and coconut".  He said it was just like the taro or corn ones that I wanted, just with black eyed peas instead.

I dislike black eyed peas.  I don't like them in savory preparations, and I couldn't imagine liking them in dessert.  But I was desperate, so I went for it.

The coconut flavor was quite nice in this one, much stronger than in the red bean.  That part was good.  And maybe if you liked black eyed peas, they were good, but I hated them.  There wasn't much rice, but what was there was good.

I think I really would have liked the taro or corn versions of this.  Sadness.  If I return to Miss Saigon, I'd like to try those desserts.

Again, $3.00 for a dessert this size was good.

Monday, September 09, 2013

La Boulange Breakfast Catering

When I moved to San Francisco, La Boulange was just a small local chain of bakeries.  I think they had maybe 3 stores.  It was there that I first had creamy greek yogurt with fruit, honey, and granola, and got totally hooked.  Then they started expanding.  Their growth was astounding.  It seemed like every couple months a new store was popping up.  And then Starbucks bought them a year or so ago.  And now, Starbucks is rolling out La Boulange baked goods in all of their locations, replacing the products they used to have.  Really an incredible accomplishment.

I've reviewed pretty much all of their baked goods before.  For the most part, I haven't been that impressed.  I can't say I really understand their success.  I've also reviewed an event catered by La Boulange.  Again, not super impressed.  Nothing is ever bad, but nothing is ever that good either.  Except that yogurt and granola.  I have such amazing memories of that dish!

My apartment complex holds an impressive number of events each year.  A couple times per month we have simple wine and cheese receptions, but we also have larger evening events every few months.  The food has ranged from really impressive to just ok, usually catered by JJardine Catering or 
Delessio, which I've reviewed preciously.  This time however, our "Resident Services Manager" did something a bit different, and hosted a "Back to School" Sunday Brunch.  I love brunch, and he promised delicious baked goods, so even though I had no kids of my own going back to school, I eagerly rushed down.

I was curious where he was going to source the goods from, and was a bit disappointed when I saw the La Boulange napkins.  As I've said, their stuff is never bad, but, it isn't that good.  Oh well, I was still excited, as all I had to do was go downstairs and there was a huge brunch spread waiting for me!

He ordered the "Grand Breakfast" package, featuring bread and pastry baskets, fruit salad, quiche, orange juice, and coffee.  Each 10 person package is $125.  Of course, we had several sets, since our building is huge.  My opinion on La Boulange remains unchanged after this event.  I'm curious how people feel about the Starbucks offerings, as they are all actually baked off-site in large baking centers and then distributed throughout the region, so they are even less fresh, and likely less tasty, than those products in the actual La Boulange stores.  Have you had the Starbucks, or La Boulange products lately?
Salmon and Dill Quiche.
The breakfast catering package starts with large quiches, cut into pie slices: "Traditional pastry crust filled with egg and savory ingredients."  Ours came with three different quiches, and of course, I tried them all.

I tried several of the quiches previously in mini form at the last La Boulange catered event I attended, and didn't really like them.  Then again, I actually really dislike quiche.  There have been very few quiches that I have ever even tolerated, let alone liked.

All of the quiches had the same pastry crust.  I really didn't like it.  I love pastry, so this wasn't just me not liking pastry.  It was oily rather than buttery, felt greasy yet dried out, and had no real flavor.  Meh.  But it was better than the mini tart shells the mini versions are served on.  The quiches all had a standard egg base, which is the aspect of quiche I don't like, and it didn't seem seasoned at all.  Meh.

I started with one that I hadn't tried before: Bacon and Pea.  I like bacon, I like peas, so I hoped this would be good.  The "bacon" seemed more like ham to me, flabby.  Tiny chunks.  I didn't find anything redeeming about the quiche.

I moved on to the Salmon and Dill.  I like salmon, and remembered that I had quasi-liked this one when I tried it before.  It had large chunks of salmon, and tons of greens.  I was confused by the amount of greens.  "Salmon and dill" it said, yet there was no way the massive amount of greens was all dill.  It turned out to be spinach, a strange pairing with the salmon.  The only good thing about this was the size of the chunks of salmon, impressively large, and well distributed throughout.

Finally, I tried the vegetable quiche.  This one sounded the most boring, as it had no star ingredient like bacon or salmon, but actually turned out to be the most delicious.  Once I had a few bites, I remembered that I had it in mini-form at the last event and didn't like it, and that I also had it in a larger form at the bakery once.  The vegetables are a mix of leeks, mushrooms, and tomatoes, and all were quite flavorful.  The pastry crust was still really dry, oily, and flavorless however.  But a bite of mostly leeks and tomato was tasty enough.

A quiche was part of each package, but you can also purchase a full quiche of 10 slices of this size for $30.
Almond Croissant.
I mostly ate quiche to make sure I had some protein, and then quickly moved on to the good stuff: the baked goods!

Next was a basket of assorted croissants: plain croissants, chocolate croissants, and almond croissants.  Now, I've tried all of their croissants before.  Multiple times.  I've never liked them.  But still, I wanted to give them another chance.

I went for the most interesting of the croissants, the almond croissant.  This thing was loaded up.  The inside was an incredibly thick layer of almond paste.  I think there was actually just too much of it, as it overwhelmed the croissant.  The filling was ok, had slight almond flavor, a nice consistency, but somehow didn't quite do it for me.  The croissant was then topped with even more of the almond paste, which really seemed like overkill, then topped with powdered sugar, and tons of sliced almonds.  They really just overdid it with everything on this croissant.  Too much filling, too much extra almond paste on top, and even too many sliced almonds.  I wanted to taste almond, but even with all of these almond components, I didn't realize taste almonds.  The crunch from the sliced almonds was nice.

But the real problem was the croissant dough itself.  It just wasn't good.  I've felt that way every single time I've tried any of their croissants.  It isn't moist.  It isn't flaky. It isn't buttery.  It always seems stale, no matter how fresh they appear to be.

Starbucks now carries all of their croissants, although they come in a smaller size, and are more shelf stable.  The La Boulange ones at least look good and only disappoint once you eat them, the Starbucks-La Boulange ones don't even look appealing in the case.  I'm curious, has anyone tried them yet?

I forgot to take a photo before I broke into my croissant, so here I just have a mutilated corner.  This was about 1/4 of a croissant.  The things are huge, you do get a lot for your money I guess.  I ate 3/4 of it at room temperature, and slathered on some jam, which really helped it a lot.  Paired with a coffee, I almost even enjoyed it that way.  I brought home this remaining 1/4 and tried heating it up in the toaster oven, hoping to make it a bit moister, but it actually just got worse.  The filling turned gummy and strange, so I certainly don't recommend that move!

The croissants are normally $2.25 for plain, $2.50 for chocolate, and $2.75 for almond, or an assorted catering basket is $35.
Orange cinnamon morning bun.
Along with the trio of croissants, the pastry basket also contained orange cinnamon morning buns, and fruit danishes.

The danishes didn't even look good.  The dough looked like the same croissant dough that I never like, and they were filled with a gummy looking cheese, and some soggy looking fruit.  They were also huge.  Perhaps if they'd been cut in half I would have tried one, but a full one was way too much, and I didn't want to waste.  Normally $2.75.

Instead I went for the morning bun.  San Francisco has some very good morning buns (yes, I'm looking at you totally-hyped-but-ridiculously-good Tartine morning bun!), and I've been craving them lately.  I hoped it would have a slightly caramelized exterior, a bit crispy outer layer, yet be moist inside, with a doughy center.  Loaded with cinnamon and sugar.  A total indulgence, perfect with a black coffee.  That is what I wanted.

I knew it wouldn't be quite that, as I could see there was some orange marmalade in it too, but that didn't bother me.  What bothered me is that there was no caramelized exterior. There was no moist interior.  Instead, there was just more of their very mediocre, somewhat stale tasting croissant dough base.  Sigh.  Yes, it had tons of cinnamon and sugar, but how come it didn't caramelize at all?  And the orange marmalade was fine, but, sigh.

Starbucks now carries these too, and I imagine they are even MORE dried out and stale there.  Normally $2.50 each, a decent size, but not worth getting.
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Organic Bread Basket with homemade jams.

Next to the pastries was a far inferior looking basket: assorted breads.  Sliced baguette, apricot apple hazelnut bread & multigrain boulot.  I didn't try any of them.  If I had realized one was apricot apple hazelnut, I would have tried it, but I thought they were all plain.  I'm still not sure one really was that variety, but that is what their online catering menu advertises.  I'm not sure I saw anyone touch the bread baskets.  Who goes for bread when there are pastries?

The bread was served with a bowl of butter, raspberry violet jam, and apricot vanilla jam.

The jams are where La Boulange shines.  I've always really liked their jams, and it is one unique thing about their stores: they have a very impressive condiment station!  Sure, they have ketchup, mustard, cornichons for the savory items.  But they also always have house made jams and nutella!  And they don't charge extra to slather as much of this stuff as you want on your baked goods.

As always, I loved both the raspberry violet and the apricot vanilla jam.  Both were very sweet jams, but they went really well with almond croissant.  The apricot vanilla had a complex flavor from the addition of the vanilla, and was my favorite of the pairing, although I'd gladly eat either again.

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Fruit Salad.

The brunch spread also included fresh cut fruit: pineapple, grapes, cantaloupe, honeydew, and strawberries.  This is the same mix of fruit that they use in those greek yogurt and granola parfaits that I so fondly remember.  The fruit was never the highlight of the parfaits (it was the amazingly creamy greek yogurt, seriously, I wish I knew what brand they used!) and of course their house-made granola.  But the fruit was always good.  Ojan and I used to always split a parfait, and since I'm allergic to melon, he'd get all the melon, and a few pieces of other fruit that I spared, but I'd mostly get the grapes, pineapple, and strawberries.  I tried a few pieces just for old time's sake, and it seemed about how I remembered.  I kinda think they sweeten the fruit.
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Coffee and orange juice.

And finally, the beverages.

The coffee was actually quite good.  Very strong.  Served with a variety of sweeteners (Sugar! Sugar in the Raw! Splenda! Equal! Sweet N Low! Pick your poison!), along with half and half.  I'm pretty sure they have NOT started serving Starbucks coffee, although I imagine that day is coming.  I can't stand Starbucks coffee!

They also provided orange juice, Evolution Fresh brand of course, since it is a subsidy of Starbucks.  It didn't seem particularly interesting.