Friday, March 07, 2014

Califia Farms Almond Milk

This review is a bit outside the ordinary for me.  Almond milk?  Not something I normally consume, let alone review.  But I recently had the opportunity to sample the full range of Califia Farms almond milk products, as they were a vendor snack food fair I attended, and they were giving out coupons for full size products.  Amazing!

Califia Farms is a local Californian company, using nuts and fruits grown in the area to make their products.  The product line is all beverages: few citrus juices (orange, lemonade, lemon-lime aid), a slew of almond milks, and cold brew iced coffee (with almond milk).  All the almonds are grown in California.
Original Almond Milk.
I started with the "original".  It consists of only almonds and cane sugar.

Since it was sweetened, it is sweeter than their unsweetened variety, but since it has no other ingredients, it is less flavorful than the vanilla.

I can't see why I'd want to just drink it plain, and I found the almond flavor overwhelming when used for cereal.  It worked fine in tea and coffee however, and I have seen an increasing number of Bay Area coffee shops using it for their drinks.
Unsweetened Almond Milk.
Next I went for the pure thing, the unsweetened version.  It literally contains only almonds and water.

I didn't care for this, as I mostly didn't know what use it had in my life.  It wasn't sweet, so I didn't enjoy drinking it on its own.  And like the original, I thought the almond flavor was too strong to use with cereal.  So, overall, I just didn't have a purpose for it.  It was fine to use in my tea.
Coconut Almond Milk.
Next I went for a more exciting version: coconut!  Their same base almond milk, with coconut cream added. This did indeed taste like coconut, and was a bit thicker than the others due to the coconut cream.  I liked the flavor it added to my coffee, but I didn't really want to just drink it by the glassful.
Holiday Nog Almond Milk.
A holiday time only special: holiday nog!

The nog was thick, like the vanilla.  Sweetened.  It didn't have a strong almond flavor like the plain versions, but I really couldn't identify what the flavor was.  I don't think I liked it.  It certainly wasn't classic nog flavor, and it tasted somewhat chemically.  Sadness.  I really wanted to like this.

I did find it good to mix into assorted tea, as it turned everything sorta into a chai-spiced drink.

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Vanilla Almond Milk

The vanilla was my favorite!  It was a tiny bit thick like a milkshake, with slight vanilla flavor.  The vanilla flavor goes really well with the almond flavor base.   Really not bad, and I think would make quiet good smoothies with frozen fruit mixed in.
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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Takeout from Roka Akor

I've had my eye on Roka Akor since the moment I heard they were opening a restaurant in San Francisco.  Roka Akor offers Japanese cuisine, including sushi, steak, and robata grilled items.  Their other outposts have great reviews, and the SF location isn't too far from my house.  High end sushi and Japanese cuisine, nearby?  It sounded too good to be true!

But alas, somehow they had been open a full year, and I never quite found the opportunity to visit.  Until one day, when I was in charge of ordering dinner for a group at work.  If you've followed my blog, you know that I'm not exactly the type to be satisfied with cold, soggy pizza delivery.  Whenever I'm tasked with figuring out dinner, I get creative.  And, it has generally been very successful!

I knew that Roka is a nice place, not exactly somewhere you get takeout, let alone delivery, from.  And obviously takeout steak or robata grilled items wouldn't work.  But sushi?  It wouldn't suffer from the common takeout problem of getting cold.  And I knew that Roka would have higher quality sushi than anywhere else I could possibly get takeout from.  So, I went for it.

I contacted the restaurant in advance to make a takeout order, since it isn't something that they really do much of, and I wanted to make sure it would work.  I was beyond impressed with the response.  Not only could I order takeout, but they even offered to deliver it.  Now, not only was I getting high end sushi not at a restaurant, I was getting it delivered?

Mind blown.  I continued to be impressed once I opened our bags of food, due to their incredible packaging (more on that below) and accessories.  My satisfaction continued as we dug into the food.  Since it was take out, we stuck with cold dishes - a few tataki appetizers, along with standard rolls and nigiri.  The tataki stole the show, but the nigiri was impressively fresh.  I assure you, this is the best sushi you can possible get delivered in the city.

I can't wait to visit the actual restaurant sometime soon, to try some of their cooked offerings.  And if I ever want takeout sushi again, I will most certainly get it from Roka Akor!
All packaged up and labelled!
First, I have to give a major shout out to the amazing packaging, everything was clearly labelled in boxes.  And somehow, I honestly don't understand how, nothing was jumbled up.  Out of all of our sushi, only one piece even fell over inside the box!  How on earth did she transport this so well?
Included dishware.
I also have to give a shout out to the dishware.  Rather than standard paper plates, we were instead provided with cute little disposable wooden dishware, like you'd find at a catered event.

There was also an individual container of soy sauce for each of us, to pour into the provided soy sauce dipping trays.  Such a nice touch.
Butterfish Tataki with White Asparagus and Yuzu. $13.50.
We started with the butterfish tataki appetizer.  Each order contained six slices of butterfish, wrapped around white asparagus.  There was a yuzu dressing provided in a separate, labelled container, for us to drizzle over it.

I was really impressed with the plating here, even for takeout.  How did each slice of fish stay so perfectly wrapped around the asparagus?  And even the tiny micro greens as garnish were not out of place!

The butterfish was incredibly fresh, and I appreciated that the sauce was on the side, so it didn't soak in or otherwise make the fish soggy.  This was a very light dish, smooth, not too buttery, delicate.  I loved the crunch from the white asparagus, which I think was lightly poached, as it didn't seem quite raw, but was still satisfyingly crispy.

A single order was 6 slices, for $13.50.  Price seemed right.  My 4th pick of the night, but I'd still happily eat it again.
Tuna Tataki with Chili Ponzu, Red Onion and Lotus Root Chips.  $17.
The second appetizer we ordered was the tuna tataki.  Each order was six slices of barely seared tuna, rolled up around some greens, served over a bed of pickled onions, garnished with lotus root chips, with chili ponzu sauce on the side.

Again, I was impressed that the fish stayed rolled up, and appreciated the sauce on the side.

This was insanely delicious.  The flavor of the tuna was incredible.  The pickled onions added a bit of tartness and another flavorful component.  But speaking of flavor, the chili ponzu sauce was amazing.  I'd love to drizzle it on more things!  I also really liked the crunch from the lotus root chips, but then again, when does adding a fried bit lead you astray?

Hands down, my top pick of the night.  Most others agreed that it was their second favorite.  I would order again in a heartbeat.

Six slices of tuna were $17, which seems a bit high, but honestly, it was so good I didn't care.
Uni nigiri ($5 each). Salmon nigiri ($3.75 each).
Next, we moved on to nigiri.  Since there were only 5 of us, I asked for 2.5 orders of each of the nigiri, one for each of us, since nigiri normally comes in pairs.  They easily accommodated this request too.  The one piece of uni nigiri here was the only thing in our entire order that toppled over!

Wasabi and ginger were included in the box, and extra wasabi and ginger were also provided in another container, a nice touch, since we did need to split it 5 ways.  Multiple people commented on how good the wasabi was, clearly fresh wasabi.

The salmon was very good, silky smooth.  3 people said it was their top pick of the night, for me it was second, behind the tuna tataki.  I'd certainly get again.

The uni was creamy, with a deep flavor.  It didn't didn't have any "funk" that uni can sometimes have.  Clearly very fresh.  One person had never had uni before, so this was quite a treat.  My third pick of the night.

The salmon was $3.75 per piece, the uni $5.  Both prices seemed on point for high quality, fresh nigiri.
Hamachi Serrano Chili Roll. $12 each.
Next, we moved on to rolls.

As I said above, I was really impressed with how well everything transported, but this one really amazed me.  Each piece was still standing upright, with the dollop of cream on top, and a slice of chili still perfectly perched on top!

Inside the roll was hamachi and avocado, topped with a dollop of some sort of crema, and a slice of serrano chili.

Unfortunately, I'm allergic to avocado, and didn't expect this roll to contain any since I'd mentioned my allergy, and it wasn't listed in the description.  I poked the avocado out of one slice to try it, but very quickly started reacting, so I didn't try another.  The bite I did have was good though, and I like the sophisticated play on a spicy hamachi roll, using real chili, and the cream on top for the creaminess, rather than covering the fish itself in mayo.

My 5th pick of the night, and I'd love to try it without avocado sometime.

Each roll was 8 pieces, $12 each, which seemed fine.  This box contained two orders.
Tuna Roll with Green Chili Aioli. $9.50.
The final roll we got was a tuna roll, the most basic item in our order.  Just tuna with a bit of creamy aioli in it.  I didn't taste the green chili.

This was my least favorite, and I wouldn't get it again, but one other person said he really enjoyed it.  Overall, we all agreed that the rolls were the weakest part of the meal.  Still good, and far better than any other takeout sushi you'll ever find, but not a highlight.  In the future, I'd probably go for more cold apps and nigiri.

Each roll was again 8 slices, $9.50 each, which was a good price.
My first plate full!
Since we didn't have an even distribution of everything, we all got a plate full to start, and then fought over the remainders.  You can be sure that I won the "fight" for the tuna :)
Roka Akor on Urbanspoon
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Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Cafe Fresh Bagel

For the past several months, I've been featuring eating establishments on the East Coast on Tuesdays, as part of my Travelin' Tuesdays series.  I've mostly called out the amazing places I dined in Boston, the failures in New Hampshire, and a few classic east coast institutions.  This one isn't any of those things.  It is just a bagel shop, in Needham, MA.

So, why would I go to Cafe Fresh Bagel in the first place?  Simple: it is located just a few blocks from a friend's parent's house, and I've been hearing his whole family talk about it for years.  I wanted to find out if it was just nostalgia, or if they truly did make fantastic bagels, something we do really lack in San Francisco.

I wasn't impressed when I walked in, it really was sorta a dive.  The furniture was low end, the entire place was really cramped, it wasn't particularly clean.  But wow, was it bustling.  The clientele were a mix of just about everyone in town: high school kids clearly on a break, moms in yoga pants, and working professionals.  This was promising, despite the ridiculous name of the place and the outward appearance.

Service was not particularly friendly, and it was a classic bagel shop, with bins of different bagels behind a register, choice flavors running out early in the day.  Besides classic bagels and cream cheese, they also offer a variety of bagel sandwiches, and, the item my friend so fondly reminisces with his family over, egg and cheese sandwiches, offered all day.  Chips, coffee, and bottled beverages round out the offerings.

Over the course of our recent visit, I was able to try several different items, mostly my friend's picks.  I wouldn't go out of my way to return, but I do admit they they make a much better bagel than any I've had in San Francisco.  So if I was back in town and wanting a bagel, I would return.
Pumpernickel Bagel.
First up, my friend's pick of bagel: pumpernickel.  Like all of their bagels, the outside was shiny, the bagel itself soft.  But, it was loaded up with caraway seeds, which I really don't like.  He really liked these, and got one every day.  He eats a lot of bagels, and I haven't seen him so enthusiastic about a bagel, ever.
Blueberry Bagel, Cinnamon Raisin Cream Cheese.
Next was my pick: blueberry!  And I of course needed to add some flavored cream cheese :)

It was a very good blueberry bagel - absolutely loaded with plump berries.  Again, like all the bagels, the outside was shiny and it had the perfect chew to it, even without toasting.  I preferred it toasted, it developed a nice crust, while staying moist and doughy inside.  It was okay with the cream cheese, but best just with lots of butter slathered on and melted in.  Mmmm.

The cream cheese was housemade, but pretty unremarkable.  It had raisins, and was mildly spiced with cinnamon,  but was not all that interesting.  It also really didn't go well with my bagel choice - whoops!  I'm glad I had it on the side, as I just used it on another type of bagel later.
Egg and Cheddar on Veggie Bagel.
And finally ... the egg and cheese.

If you read reviews for Cafe Fresh Bagel, one item quickly pops out as the thing to get: the egg and cheese breakfast sandwich, served all day.  Everyone loves it, it all its forms.

Available on your choice of bagel, with bacon, sausage, or ham additional.  At most places when you get an egg and cheese, you get a single fried egg.  Or maybe some of that magic egg mix scrambled.  But not here.  A single sandwich contains three whole eggs, and if you order sausage, it is a full sausage, aka, hotdog size, split in half.  Not exactly a light meal!  Imagine decomposing this into a breakfast of 3 eggs, cheese, a full sausage, AND a bagel.  Not entirely unreasonable, but not exactly a small grab 'n go meal.

We stopped in mid-afternoon, and decided to split one, since neither of us were up for such an enormous undertaking, but still wanted to try it out.  This meant we had some compromising to do.  He wanted pumpernickel or marble rye, or even plain, for the bagel.  I didn't like the caraway seeds and think plain is ... well, too plain.  I wanted the fascinating looking spinach, or perhaps sesame or everything seed for some crunch.  We somehow compromised on the veggie bagel.  Like all of their bagels, it was soft, and got a bit crispy on the outside when toasted, but stayed soft inside.  It seemed to have chunks of carrot and peppers, in a slightly hearty base.  I really liked the bagel, although I wish they'd toasted it a tiny bit more.  I think it was also lightly buttered.

No choice is given for how the eggs are cooked, they are just like a thin omelet, folded over a few times.  Not overcooked, but I'm not a big egg fan, so I wasn't into that part.  It tasted ... very eggy.  They also were not seasoned, at all.  No salt and pepper.

For cheese, it normally comes with American.  But, last minute, the cashier asked us if we wanted provolone, swiss, or cheddar instead.  I don't care for provolone, swiss seemed strange for an egg and cheese, and cheddar sounded ... far more interesting, so I suggested it.  My fellow diner agreed.  In retrospect, this was probably the wrong move.  Classic American melts better, as the cheddar just got all stringy.  It also didn't have any aged or smoky flavor, which is what I was picturing, as it is how I like my cheddar.  But the real issue is that the cheese wasn't evenly distributed at all.  I was sitting there kinda gloomily eating my half, tasting only egg, as my friend seemed to like his more (although he was struggling with lots of cheese stringing all over the place).  I gave up and decided I just liked the buttered bagel and not the filling, so I discarded it, and munched away on the tasty bagel.  My friend took one bite of mine and said that my half was way worse, that his actually contained cheese layered with the egg.  He didn't want my part either.

I probably wouldn't get another one of these, as the omelet style egg is just not my thing, and without any seasoning it was really lackluster.  If I was convinced to try another, I'd certainly split it, get American cheese, and add bacon for some more flavor.  But, I'd probably just stick with a bagel, as they do those very well!

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Whole Wheat Bagel with Oats.

Another decent bagel, earthy from the whole wheat, and I liked the oats on the crust.
Cafe Fresh Bagel Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Monday, March 03, 2014

Munchery by Chef Allison Tom

I'm a bit obsessed with caramel corn.  It is my late night snack.  Sweet, salty, crunchy ... my favorite thing to just mindlessly devour while sitting on the couch in the evening.  I mostly make my own, as I haven't found any store bought versions to really be to my liking.  I rarely keep my mix as just caramel corn, somehow nuts and other goodies always find their way in too.  Mmmmm.

Anyway, I'd been eying the caramel corn offered on Munchery by Chef Allison Tom for quite a while.  Just like the muffins, I've wanted to order it, but felt a bit silly making an order just for the caramel corn.  So I waited and waited until I was ready to make a "real" order, and then added the caramel corn on.

Since I've reviewed Munchery many times before, I'll skip the general service review and focus just on my caramel corn.  But if you are interested in Munchery, use my invite link, you'll even get $10 off your first order.  You could have caramel corn delivered to you tonight, for free!

The caramel corn is Chef Allison Tom's only offering on Munchery, as she isn't a chef by training, but rather spent her career as a television journalist.  Somehow she found her new calling, following a special family recipe for caramel corn.  It is available pretty much every day on Munchery, and gets rave reviews.
Gourmet Caramel Popcorn.  $4.95.
"Made of pure and simple ingredients, this caramel popcorn is a favorite family recipe that I am excited to share. Each addictive bite offers a buttery smooth taste with a unique crunch. A perfect blend of lightly sweet with a hint of salt."

Well, this was a disappointment.  It didn't seem particularly fresh, even though well sealed.  It wasn't crispy.  Each kernel of popcorn was well coated in caramel, but didn't really have much flavor, no buttery nor rich undertones to it, it was just sweet.  There were also no clumps, something I always like in my caramel corn.

I decided to try freezing it in order to make it crispier, and that worked.  This is a trick I use with my own snack mixes all the time, not only to keep them fresh, but I like the additional crispy factor.  It was still a bit too one-dimensional to me though, so I probably wouldn't get it again, and I'll go back to making my own.

The portion size was fine, a small bag of caramel corn, good for a sitting (or perhaps two), but for $4.95 it really wasn't worth the price.  I normally am impressed with Munchery's reasonable pricing, but this was the first exception I've found.

Update: I've since ordered this every single time I've ordered from Munchery and it is also available.  I'm totally addicted to it, but, I do always freeze it now.  The popcorn is perfectly coated, it is super sweet, and I love the extra crunch the fridge adds to it.  Perfect late night snack to pull out of the freezer.  Or perfect with a morning coffee.
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Sunday, March 02, 2014

Excellence Bars from Lindt

Every year for Christmas, I receive a large assortment of Lindt chocolate, as my family knows I like chocolate, and it is the only "real" chocolate store in town.  I've reviewed the lindor truffles and basic bars before, but this year, I was upgraded to the "Excellence" line of bars.

Since I had a whole flight of bars, I invited my favorite chocolate tasters to join me in tasting them all.  You'll see their comments below as well.

While Lindt is still not high end chocolate, myself, and many of my chocolate tasting club members were very pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed these bars.  Everyone reacted pretty much the same way, commenting how they never expected such complex or smooth chocolate from Lindt.

I don't expect my higher end chocolate stores here to start carrying these bars, nor would I go out to purchase them myself, but I'd gladly receive another stockingfull of them!
Excellence Dark Strawberry.
"Our fine dark chocolate is combined with real strawberry pieces to create an intense chocolate experience with innovative flair."

They said strawberry and they didn't lie!

It tasted like ... strawberry.  Dark chocolate, with crispy bits of dehydrated strawberry throughout.  It also smelt very strawberry, the aroma was incredibly strong when you opened the wrapper.

It reminded me of a chocolate dipped strawberry, but obviously with the balance of ingredients different, so not as much strawberry.  Another taster said it was "very sweet, creamy, and … strawberry. Not as much texture as expected given how it looked."  Another said,  “I like the strawberry! Interesting.  It's good, actually!” And another: “I’m not sure I’d buy it on my own, I’d rather just have chocolate and strawberry on their own”.

Overall, a fascinating bar that we were all glad to try.
Supreme Dark Chocolate Excellence Bar.
"A full-bodied dark chocolate, masterfully crafted to be smooth and rich with a profound cocoa flavor and surprisingly balanced taste."

Smooth, rich, really nice dark chocolate.  90% was a great choice of darkness.  Best Lindt we have had.

Even Emil said, “Rich and creamy, a hint of sweetness, almost a bit nutty, but still has nice bitterness, not too gritty. Shockingly, better than Lindt’s 99%."  Another said,  “The lack of grittiness I really appreciate, it melts in your mouth”.  And a final taster said, “Definitely very dark, bitter and not sweet, but very flavorful. Not my favorite, the initial bitterness is too much for me.”

Everyone was really impressed by this one.  Someone tasted a bit of cinnamon.  Final taster said: “I give that one a A+!”
Excellence Dark Chocolate Intense Mint.
"A rich combination of dark chocolate infused with mint for an invigorating experience."

This was actually pretty minty, although not what I'd call "intense", as the label promised.  Also not that dark for a dark chocolate, and sweeter than we expected.  Very smooth.  Good for what it was, but not my thing.
Excellence Dark with a Touch of Sea Salt.
Made with Fleur de Sel crystals.

This was another very nice smooth chocolate.  Not super dark, but clearly not a milk.  Salt on the finish, not as pronounced as I'd like but there.

On subsequent tastings of this, I decided not to share it.  I really was addicted to how silky smooth it was, and how the salt came through on the finish.  This was a bar to savor.

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 Roasted Almond Excellence Bar

“Dark chocolate with roasted almond slices”. 

This was pretty sweet for a dark chocolate,  but very smooth.  The almond slices were a welcome addition for some crunch.  Not remarkable, not bad.
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