Saturday, August 23, 2014

Cooking Demo by Chef David Bazirgan

I haven't blogged about a cooking demo in a few years, although I attend at least one every Saturday morning.  But I wanted to share a glimpse into the SF cooking demo scene, in particular, a glimpse into a really great demo.

First, a bit about demos in general.

Everyone knows San Francisco is a fabulous city for food, but that goes beyond just dining in restaurants and shopping at farmer's markets.  The local chefs constantly engage with the community, through fundraisers and special events, including hosting cooking demos.  For example, every Saturday morning at 11am, CUESA, the organization that runs the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market hosts a demo.  Sometimes there is a second one at 12pm too.  They are held outside, in the midst of the market, rain or shine.  The theme of those demos centers around using products that can be found at the market.  Unless the recipe being shown is something I'm allergic to, or really dislike, I attend the demos as part of my Saturday morning Farmer's Market routine.

Or at least, I always did, until Embarcadero Center started hosting Saturday morning demos.  Also at 11am.  Not held with the same regularity as CUESA, and only held during the summer.  One year they held them inside the old Williams-Sonoma space, but this year they have all been outside in the courtyard inside Two Embarcadero Center.  Since there is not demo kitchen outside, the theme has been grilling.

Now, I was a CUESA regular.  When I first heard about the Embarcadero Center demos I was torn.  The Embarcadero Center lineup featured more well known chefs.  The dishes they were preparing sounded better.  But ... I felt loyal to CUESA.  That is, until I attended an Embarcadero Center demo.

I love the CUESA demos, don't get me wrong.  I really appreciate that they are held without fail, every single week.  They showcase seasonal produce, and introduce the audience to many fruits, vegetables, and herbs that were previously unknown.  But ... the Embarcadero Center demos are just more enjoyable, and, generally, far tastier.

The biggest difference between the demos is that the CUESA demos have a brief introduction and a few questions from a host, but the majority of the time is left for the chef to fill.  The Embarcadero Center demos are fully hosted, by Liam Mayclem, aka, the "Foodie Chap", who you can find on KCBS.  He makes all the difference.  The demos start with a quasi-interview, digging into the background of the chef, usually telling a few embarrassing stories along the way, and often filled with PG-13 jokes.  He manages to get even the most shy chefs to really open up and creates a memorable dialogue.

This isn't to say the Embarcadero Center demos are highly produced or anything, they are on a sidewalk, subject to everything that can happen in the natural environment.  At the last demo I was at there, it was very windy, and the banner backdrop went flying, almost clocking the chef doing the demo in the head.  The time before that, there was a cement mixer pouring cement literally the entire time.  But even when things are going slightly wrong, it is still entertaining.  I genuinely enjoy these demos, for the content, the stories, and of course, the food.

Which gets me to the next point, the food.  I'm obviously a food lover.  I love to taste and try everything.  And at demos, you always get to taste the dish being prepared.  It usually comes in a small appetizer size, which is just perfect for me.  Depending on the venue, you can get a dish prepared by a top chef themselves, or, with the assistance of those running the event.  I'll never forget tasting a few dishes by Chef Daniel Humm during his booktour demo at Williams-Sonoma a few years ago.  I didn't need to go all the way to New York to get a taste of Eleven Madison Park, and, I got it prepared by Chef Humm himself!

Anyway.  Back to today's demo.  Like always, I was torn between CUESA and Embarcadero Center.  The CUESA demo was the chef from A16, and the dish sounded appealing.  But, the Embarcadero Center demo was Chef David Bazirgan, and he was doing a dish with scallops, which, as you know, is one of my absolute favorite ingredients.

Chef Bazirgan is at the helm of Dirty Habit, a restaurant on the fifth floor of the Hotel Palomar.  It opened in early May, and the whole team actually came to my office before the opening to do a little preview.  The bar program sounds incredible, and, at the preview event, I think the drinks even stole the show over the food, although it was all excellent as well.

But I'm familiar with the crew behind Dirty Habit, as it opened in the space that used to be The Fifth Floor.  The concept is entirely different however, and the space has been completely remodeled, and now features an amazing outdoor dining area (or, so I am told.  I still haven't been!)  The Fifth Floor did have a lovely lounge scene, but was mostly a fine dining establishment, serving tasting menus filled with french cuisine.  I'd been to The Fifth Floor several times, like when I held a fairly last minute large group dinner there, or when I went to one final foie gras dinner before the ban.  I always found it good, but I wasn't ever blown away.  Well, I take that back, one of the most memorable desserts I've ever had was when Emil and I went once just to dine in the lounge, and had the very first dessert that I've ever seen Emil actually like: fried rhubarb pie, with foie gras ice cream, and pie crust foam.  It was simply one of the best things I've ever tasted.  I was already a fan of their pastry chef, Francis Ang, before that night, but since then, I've been to every demo he has done around town, like the ridiculously tasty beignets from a few years ago at a CUESA demo.

Anyway, back to Chef Baz.  The demo began with a story of his growing up on the East Coast, and of his time working for Barbara Lynch in Boston.  I didn't ever blog it, but I went to her flagship restaurant, No. 9 Park, a few years ago with my parents.  My father is not at all comfortable with fine dining, so we just ate in the lounge, and he didn't want anything on the menu, but my mother and I had a great meal (I adored the hake, lobster, and corn dish).  The demo was enjoyable, but, most importantly for me, it was delicious.
Grilled Scallops, Creamy Corn, Blistered Padron Peppers.
The scallops were what I was most looking forward to.  I really love scallops.  During his demo, Chef Baz talked about how he normally grills or sears them quickly, as he likes them to remain a bit rare in the center.  Yes!  Me too.  Over cooked scallops make me so sad.  The ones served to us were prepared by an assistant, so I think they were a bit more cooked than chef would have done himself, but they were still nicely done, not at all rubbery, and I loved the grilled flavor to them.

The scallops were served over an incredible creamed corn.  First, who doesn't love creamed corn?  I'll be honest, I even still sometimes eat the stuff from a can, I love it that much.  But this barely resembled the familiar canned mush.  The corn itself was super flavorful, incredibly fresh.  Corn season is at its peak right now, and it showed in this dish.  But the secret ingredient wasn't the corn.  Nor was it the copious cream.  It was ... shallots!  They added another dimension of flavor that elevated it far beyond any other creamed corn.

Corn and scallops are always a pairing I enjoy, as they seem to bring out the natural sweetness in each other.  The peppers added just a touch of heat, and I could imagine this being delicious with diced hot peppers added to the creamed corn too.

Overall, a delightful dish, well conceived, nicely executed, and absolutely perfect for a summer day.  And, it turns out, a more complex version is on the menu at Dirty Habit right now, so if you'd like to enjoy it yourself, you just need to head there.  Which you should, and let me know how it is :) 
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Friday, August 22, 2014

Oogie’s Gourmet Popcorn

I really get munchy in the evenings, and popcorn is one of my favorite snacks.  Well, in particular, I always crave the kettle corn that I can only find in my hometown.  I've been on a quest to find something even remotely as good in San Francisco, but alas, my quests have come up empty.  I've found some pretty good caramel corn, and Ojan has a fondness for basic microwave popcorn, but still, nothing competes with the kettle corn from Lebanon, NH.  I'm not joking.

Anyway, I also sometimes try packaged popcorn.  Oogie's makes a slews of flavors, mostly savory, including interesting sounding varieties like Cracked Pepper & Asiago, Spicy Chipotle & Lime, Smoked Gouda, and Hatch Chilli con Queso. 

Oogie's popcorns are all gluten-free, non-GMO,  no trans-fat, all-natural, kosher, etc, etc.   I only have tried some of the more standard offerings.  I also saw on their website that they do indeed make a kettle corn, although I haven't encountered it.  I'm keeping my eyes open!
White Cheddar.
The first flavor I tried was white cheddar.  The popcorn itself was fine, large kernels, but it didn't taste like white cheddar at all to me.  Sure, there was a savory coating, but I didn't taste the desired cheesiness.  Meh.

I gave it to Ojan, who easily finished the bag, but said he didn't love it.
Movie Lovers Butter Popcorn.
After the disappointing white cheddar, I had no expectations for the Movie Lovers Butter Popcorn.  I assumed I'd try a few bites, take my notes, and hand it over to Ojan.

Instead, HE got only a few bites, and I got the majority of the bag.

The popcorn itself was clearly bagged popcorn, not as good as fresh, not as crisp, but not stale tasting either.

The remarkable part was the flavoring.  Movie Lovers was the right name for it.  It reminded me exactly of movie theater popcorn.  So crazy buttery.  In that not-actual-butter sort of way, clearly fake "essence" of butter.  And very salty.

The cheddar variety didn't have much flavor, but this most certainly did.  I felt a bit sick after eating it, but, I really enjoyed it.  Exactly like the movies!
Sun-Dried Tomato & Parmesan.
And finally, sun-dried tomato and parmesan.  Like the white cheddar, I just didn't care for it.  It did taste sun-dried tomato and perhaps slightly cheesy, but the savory flavor combination just didn't do it for me.

Again, nicely popped popcorn, large size kernels.
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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Posh Bakery

The Posh Bakery is a wholesale bakery located in San Francisco, providing baked goods to retail stores, cafes, and restaurants worldwide.  They also have 14 retail stores of their own in the area, under The Posh Bagel line.

I haven't visited the stores, but my office got our morning muffins, danishes, and scones from them for years.  I was never impressed.  The danishes and croissants I always thought were awful, the muffins were never really good, and the scones were only worth eating when I really, really wanted a baked good.  Luckily, we stopped sourcing from Posh Bakery and the pastry team started making all of their own morning pastries.  I hadn't thought about Posh Bakery in a couple years, until ... my office introduced Donut Friday.

Now, Donut Friday *should* be an amazing thing.  And I have to admit, it looks impressive, every Friday morning when I arrive.  For the first few weeks, I was convinced that Donut Friday could be a success.  I mean, come on, piles of donuts in every style and variety imaginable.  How can you go wrong?  The answer is simple: source your donuts from Posh Bakery.

For the first few weeks, I thought I must somehow just be picking the wrong donuts.  Maybe I just didn't like their raised donuts.  Maybe it was just the cake donuts.  Maybe the vegan ones would be good.  No.  Their donuts are just bad, all of them.  I love donuts.  I'm not asking for freshly made donuts like the amazing ones we received at the end of our meal at Cyrus, or The French Laundry.  I'm not asking for delicious foie gras donuts like we had at one of Lafitte's foie gras dinners.  But even the baked-months-ago, loaded with preservatives, and wrapped in cellophane ones from Walgreens are better than these.

I tried far more of these donuts than I'd care to admit.  I was convinced I'd find a winner.  In particular, I was convinced that somehow, sometime, the apple fritter would be delicious.  But, it never, ever was.  None of them were.  Worst. Donuts. Ever.

Donuts

Raised

I started with the raised donuts.  All were light and airy, but generally tasted stale.
Apple Fritter.
Ah, the fritter.  Always one of the first donuts to disappear from a box. Obviously the one I tried first.

"A favorite for all, our moist apple fritter filled with ripe apple chucks and is soft on the inside and crusty on the outside.  It's not too sweet and has just the right amount of glaze to make it a masterpiece."

"Filled with ripe apple chunks"?  I beg to disagree.  I didn't find any apple in my first one at all.  It did have some cinnamon, and it was incredibly well glazed.  I liked the crustiness.  The first time I had it, I deemed it fine, but really not a great apple fritter.

On another occasion, I got one that actually had bits of apple in it.  So I take it back, sometimes, they do have apple chunks.  It was still not particularly good though.

And on another day, I tried another, again, there was some apple, I appreciated the crustiness, but still, it was just not a very good donut.

Yet I tried another.  It was so bogged down with oil. I couldn't even taste the sweetness this time, literally, just oil.  I can't resist these because they are apple fritters, but ugh, so bad.

Yet somehow my third favorite of all of their offerings.
Glazed Twist.
On that same first day, I also couldn't resist the glazed twist.  Don't judge, it is totally reasonable to have 2 donuts for breakfast.

"Our twist donut is hand-twisted and made with our light and fluffy raised donut recipe.  It is coated with a delicate icing and ready to be devoured."

It was totally unremarkable.  The donut seemed dried out.  It tasted very fried.  The glaze was crusty, as if stale, but I had it at 8am, right after they were delivered.  It had a good fluffiness, but was not good.
Cinnamon Roll Donut.
Next, a "cinnamon roll donut".

"Our cinnamon roll donut is prepared with our light and airy dough that we coat with a spicy cinnamon and sugar mix on the inside.  It is then rolled, sliced and covered with the perfect amount of glaze to make it delicious."

First, what is a cinnamon roll ... donut?  Answer: a dried out cinnamon roll, without the flaky goodness of a cinnamon roll, covered in hard icing.  Meh.

Yet, of course I had another.  This time I knew not to expect a cinnamon roll.  It did seem like a decent raised donut, airy and light, with some slight glaze.   But the cinnamon was totally lost, and thinking of it as a cinnamon roll would certainly result in disappointment.

Cake Donuts

After many disappointing raised donuts, I decided that perhaps cake donuts were just more of Posh's thing.  They were certainly different, denser, but all just tasted like bad old oil.
Crumb.
"Our crumb donut is made using our original recipe cake donut covered with icing and a tasty crumb topping." 

It tasted way too fried.  The crumb topping was slightly spiced, but I'm not sure by what.  Meh.

[ Update review: still oily and fried tasting, and why would I want my donut coated in crumb topping? ]
Maple with Coconut.
"This original recipe cake donut is first hand-dipped in rich maple icing, then sprinkled with fresh coconut shavings. "

Ok, this had to be better, right?  No.  Again, a spongy, too fried tasting cake donut.  The icing was clearly not just plain white glaze, but I didn't taste much maple.  There was lots of shredded coconut, but it wasn't toasted, so it was just soggy on the outside.  I really did not like this one.
Plain Old Fashioned.
 "Our famous old fashion plain donut has all the flavor and everything you'd expect from a great old fashion donut."

And, you guessed it, too fried tasting, not particularly interesting.

[ No Photo ]
Blueberry.

This was a basic cake donut, with little bits of blueberry inside. They were flavorless, and honestly I couldn't tell what kind of donut this was supposed to be. It was dense, greasy, and quite gross, like all of their donuts. The only good aspect was the light glaze on top.

Bar Donuts

Ok, so the raised donuts were stale, the cake donuts were oily.  How about ... the bar donuts?
Glazed Buttermilk.
"Our glazed buttermilk bar is made with is our original buttermilk recipe and then covered with a delicate glaze.  This bar is full of the buttermilk flavor you'd expect."

This was one of the better donuts.  The donut base is cake style, denser than the raised donuts, but not as oily as the round cake donuts, and it did indeed have a slight buttermilk tang to it.  The glaze was well distributed and sweet, but not too hard and crusty, as was an issue with the iced donuts.  It reminded me of the fritter, just without the apple, and with a tang (not that their fritter had much apple anyway).  My favorite of the donuts.

So I had another a few weeks later.  I still appreciated the tang and the fact that it wasn't as nasty oil tasting as the raised donuts, but, it too tasted stale.  It was still the best of the lot, but not very good.

[ Update review: still one of the better choices, but, not good.  The base flavor of their donuts is just too strong on the "old, stale oil" spectrum ]
Bavarian Cream Filled Chocolate Glazed.
"Our chocolate bar is made with our light and fluffy raised donut recipe and hand-dipped in rich dark chocolate icing.  This bar comes unfilled to be enjoyed as-is, or may be ordered filled on the inside with creamy and lightly sweet bavarian cream. "

This should be the ultimate donut, basically an eclair, or, if you are from the east coast, a Boston Cream.  But, as you read earlier, their raised donut base is just not very good.  Sure it is fluffy, but it just tastes so oily.  Even the chocolate coating on this was strange tasting, too heavy.  The bavarian cream was the part I was most excited for, but it too disappointed.  Even Jell-o pudding has more going on than this cream.  Would certainly not get again.

Ojan, who adores Boston Cream donuts and eclairs, didn't even want a second bite of this.
Bavarian Cream Filled Maple Glazed.
"Our maple bar is made with our light and fluffy raised donut recipe and hand-dipped in good ol' fashion maple icing.  This bar comes unfilled to be enjoyed as-is, or may be ordered filled on the inside with creamy and lightly sweet bavarian cream."

This was no better.  Same oily, gross base donut, same off putting bavarian cream, same maple icing as before (hard, just sweet, no maple flavor).  Definitely wouldn't try again.

Filled Donuts

Ok ... what about round filled donuts?
Lemon Filled.
This was a standard filled donut, covered in powdered sugar, filled with lemon ... stuff.

The dough was basically the same as all their other raised donuts, although in this case it was more dried out than bad fried oil tasting, an improvement I guess.  I did like the powdered sugar on the outside, it helped the less-than-notable dough take on a more interesting flavor.

The filling was lemon ... goo?  Sorta a jelly perhaps?  Since I don't tend to like lemon, I did not expect to like this, but, strangely, it wasn't bad.  The lemon was sweet and tangy, although the consistency of the lemon goo was certainly a bit strange.  And the donut itself wasn't good.  But the powdered sugar saved it.  I can't say that I want another, but this was my second favorite overall.
Raspberry Filled.
Another filled donut, this time glazed, and filled with raspberry goo.

The dough was fluffy, raised dough, but, just like many of their donuts tasted like only one thing: old fryer oil.  And it seemed stale.  The glaze was flaking off.  Basically exactly like the glazed twist.
Inside the Raspberry Filled.
And inside ... the goo.  I've ceased calling it jelly, as goo really does more accurately describe the situation.

It had no flavor, and the same horrible gooey consistency as the lemon.  Very low quality.

Everything about this donut was bad, and it was one of my least favorites.

Vegan

I don't even know why I was still trying at this point.  But, maybe the vegans knew something that I didn't ...
Blueberry Glazed.
This just tasted strange.  The texture was strange.  Clearly vegan, and not very good.  The icing was tasty, but the donut just boring.
Cherry Glazed.
Taking a play from its non-vegan siblings, this just tasted fried, and had no real cherry flavor.

Scones

As I said, we used to get their scones as well.  Luckily, I was taking notes, even back then.  You can see subsequent notes [ in brackets ].  The scones are my favorite of their baked goods, but I would certainly never seek them out.
Blueberry Lemon Scone.
  • Blueberry Lemon: Tasting notes: Same as other scones, always mediocre.  Loaded with blueberries though, which were very flavorful. [ Dry, doughy, no lemon flavor. Not many blueberries. Nothing good here. ] [ Tons of plump blueberries, but dry and doughy, subtle lemon ] [ Very dry, lots of blueberries in the middle, but so dry, not much flavor, and totally burnt. ]
  • Cranberry Orange Walnut: "We hand-fold in the fruit center and grace the top with sparkling sugar crystals. "  Tasting notes: same as others, very mediocre.  My chunk only had cranberry (no orange/walnut detected). [ Again, no orange or walnut, but there were plump cranberries. Kinda doughy, not that great, but enjoyable enough with coffee ] [ Dry, crumbly. Base scone just doesn’t have any flavor.  I’m still not sure this is really a “cranberry orange walnut” scone, as I can’t ever find anything but cranberry! ] [ Again, no orange or walnut, but lots of plump, juicy cranberries. Very strong cranberry flavor as a result. If you like cranberry, you’ll like this! So much fruit that it is easy to overlook the dry boring scone. ]
  • Maple Oatmeal Raisin: Tasting notes: nice icing on top, but hard, not good flavors.  Ok oatmeal flavor, but sorta mushy inside. [ Hard style. Nice maple glaze on top. Definitely my favorite of their scones.] [ Best scone I've had from them, but not that great. ] [ Nice texture from oatmeal ] [ Very dry, good hearty texture, but not that great overall ]
  • Raspberry Peach: Tasting notes: Hard style, sugar top. Very, very doughy surrounding fruit, I think it was undercooked. Raspberry is nice flavor, peach just sorta mushy. [ It was definitely undercooked last time. Now just kinda soggy, not very good. Soft, crumbly, no flavor. ]

Muffins

The muffins were all super generic and not good.
Poppyseed Muffin.
  • Banana Nut: "Topped generously with fresh walnut chunks, this delicious muffin is full of flavor and a real a favorite."  Tasting notes: flavorless, couldn’t detect banana at all, moist/soggy texture.  Not good.
  • Cranberry Orange: “Our cranberry-orange muffin is made with plump and juicy whole cranberries. We add minced bits of orange rind to marry two tangy sweet flavors together into one muffin”. Tasting notes: Cranberry did have tartness and strong flavor, muffin itself was really strange bright orange flavor, moderately moist but not very good at all. Very generic, like grocery store muffin.
  • Double Chocolate: “We combine delicious moist dark chocolate muffin and fold it together with plenty of rich milk chocolate chips. Just when you think it can't get any better, a few more chocolate chips are thrown on top.” Tasting notes: Dry, chalky. Not good chocolate flavor. Not good at all. 
  • Poppyseed: "Our poppy seed muffin is a harmonious blend of almond flavor and poppy seeds mixed together.  We top this muffin with slivered almonds and bake it to perfection."  Tasting notes: The consistency of this muffin was all off.  It was ... spongy?  Not moist, not dry, but almost gummy?  I did like the slivered almonds on top, and the almond flavor in the base, rather than standard lemon with poppyseed, but it was just all wrong texture-wise.

Danishes

The danishes, even worse.  I put their danish dough on par with their donuts.
Vienna Cream Danish.
  • Apple Cinnamon Danish: “This buttery danish has a generous dopple of chunky apple filling placed on top of our flakey dough. The danish is lightly brushed with an apricot glaze and baked to a golden brown.”. Tasting notes: Same danish dough that I don’t like. Topped with goeey not very good apple jelly like stuff, and some chunks of mushy apple.
  • Bearclaw: “Pure rich danish dough and filled on the inside with a traditional blend of chocolate and almond bearclaw filling. We delicately brush the outside with a translucent apricot glaze and top it with thin sweet/toasted almond slices.” Tasting notes: plentiful almond slices on the outside.  Decent flavored filling. I’m still not a fan of their danish dough and the ratio of filling/dough is a little off - too much dough.
  • Raisin swirl: “This swirled buttery danish is heavily speckled with plump juicy raisins throughout.” Tasting notes: Same not good pastry dough as others, no extra flavor, meh raisins. [ Same danish bread I don’t like, swirled with raisins. Do not like.] [ Same dried out, not good danish bread.  It looked like it would be good due to cinnamon visible, but it wasn’t. ]
  • Vienna Cream: “Buttery and twisted danish dough has a dopple of lightly sweet custard filling placed on top of our flaky dough. The danish is lightly brushed with an apricot glaze.” Tasting notes: Same danish dough that I find not very flavorful and sorta soggy.  Nice custard filling. [ Ugh, the danish dough is horrible.  Soggy, not flaky, not buttery.  The cream in the middle tastes nice, but the pastry is just way too nasty. ]

Croissants

The croissants have the same dough as the danishes, thus, disappointing.
Cheese Croissant.
  • Almond: “Our almond croissant is our buttery, flaky croissant dough wrapped around a traditional almond paste. This distinctive croissant is then topped with almond slivers and lightly dusted with powdered sugar”. Tasting notes: almond marzipan filling, croissant shell, topped with powdered sugar and almond slices.  The croissant part is just not very good.   Inside was nice flavor, but doesn't make up for gross croissant dough.
  • Cheese: "Our cheese croissant is a delicate yet flavorful croissant pastry that is filled with a rich creamy cheese inside. "  Tasting notes: if they would just get some decent pastry dough ... ugh.  Spongy, not flaky, stale tasting, just really horrible pastry.  The cheese filling was fine.
  • Chocolate: “This flaky croissant pastry is generously filled on the inside with rich dark chocolate that melts when we bake it. After baking, we drizzle the top with just the right amount of dark chocolate." Tasting notes: Decent amount of chocolate filling, lots of chocolate swirled on top. Same not very good pastry dough as danishes.

Breakfast Treats

Pecan Sticky Bun
  • Pecan Sticky Bun: Tasting notes: How do you make even a pecan sticky bun unappealing?  Dried out dough.  So dried out.  Not moist.  Not buttery.  Not good. The glaze at least was sweet, but the pecans were burnt and bitter.  There wasn't much cinnamon.  Perhaps one of their better baked goods, but this really isn't saying anything.

Bagels

  • Cinnamon Raisin: "This classic flavor combination brings a wonderful aroma of spicy warm cinnamon and each bite brings a delicate cinnamon flavor along with the taste of plump fruity raisins. "  Tasting notes: ok cinnamon flavor but not a very good bagel. [ Not much flavor, only 2 raisins in whole thing, not good texture to the bagel dough itself. ]
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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

La Maison du Chocolat, Tokyo

During my recent trip to Tokyo, one of my co-workers purchased treats for everyone from a pâtisserie/chocolate shop in the mall attached to our office building.  These were not traditional Japanese treats however, instead, he went to a French chocolate shop, La Maison du Chocolat.  The shop began in Paris in 1977, but now has a worldwide presence, including London, Hong Kong, Dubai, Tokyo, and New York.

Anyway, instead of chocolates, our coworker got his favorites: eclairs, available in chocolate, caramel, or coffee varieties.  Besides chocolates and eclairs, they also carry macarons and a few types of tarts and cakes.

The eclairs are apparently one of their most famous and popular items, but I wasn't particularly impressed.
 L'éclair au chocolat.
"Chocolate and pastry cream nestled in a delicate choux pastry dressed with chocolate fondant."

The choux pastry was pretty standard, a big soggy, not remarkable.  I also thought it was too thin, hard to tell in this photo, but it just barely held in the cream.  This treat was much more about the filling than the pastry itself.

The filling was a creamy, mild chocolate filling.  Not as intensely chocolatey as you'd expect from a chocolate shop.

The chocolate ganache on top was good.

Overall, it wasn't bad, but it wasn't particularly remarkable.
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Monday, August 18, 2014

IHOP, 2014

Every year, I go to IHOP.  I go twice.  So here you have it.  My two reviews of IHOP from 2014.

Visit #1, Beach Street.

I know, I know, IHOP.  Yes, that IHOP.  I'm sorry, I have a connection with the place, which you can read all about in my first review of the place, back in 2012.

I'm sure you know IHOP too, so I'm not going to discuss any generic details again, you can read about those in that first review, or in my subsequent review the next year.

This year, I again visited the Beach Street location in San Francisco, right near Fisherman's Wharf.  I went on a Sunday at 11am, so I was of course greeted by a waiting area loaded with people.  The place is seriously, seriously packed on weekend mornings, I assumed mostly by tourists, but as I later discovered in chatting with others at the counter, they were all locals.  Since I was alone, I was able to easily get a seat at the counter, which was empty when I arrived, save one diner.  (Well, it was devoid of patrons, but full of dirty dishes.  It took a good 10 minutes for any seats to get cleared so the swarm of us counter diners could get seated)

Once seated, I was immediately greeted, given a menu, and my drink order was taken.  I knew exactly what I wanted already, so tried to order, but the server taking my drink order said she'd send my real server over.  5 minutes elapsed.  Then 10.  When the original server cruised back by and saw me still with a menu in front of me she said, "he hasn't come yet?" and I said no.  She quickly rushed off to make someone else come take my order.  Besides being generally slow, service was friendly, non-invasive.
The pass and garnish station.
I really enjoy sitting at the counter because you get a prime seat to watch all the chaos.  Yes, the chaos.  IHOP somehow manages to function, but it is not a well oiled machine.  I described it in an earlier review, but the pace of the place, and the seeming disarray is so shocking that it seems worth mentioning again.  Half the staff are constantly rushing around, totally frantic.  The other half seem to move slow as molasses and look like they could care less.

Dishes come out of one side of the kitchen to the pass above.  I was again shocked at how long dishes sat there.  It seemed like no one was even trying to time the orders so full tables would come together at the same time.  I watched one plate of pancakes sit for 13 minutes.  13 minutes!  Most seemed to average 6-8 minutes, sitting there under the heat lamps.  But then it gets worse.  The slowest moving guy would come pull a bunch of plates down from under the heat lamps onto the counter to garnish them.  It is here that the butter, whipped cream, etc are applied.  (Side note: the butter comes in a giant bucket, and is served with a ice cream scoop.  Watching the massive scoops of butter get added to dishes amused me the entire service).  But back to the slow guy.  Once he pulled dishes out from under the lamps, they would sit there while he pondered them without doing a thing, occasionally wiping the plates, finally adding the butter, and eventually bringing them to tables.  I'm pretty sure most plates were more than 10 minutes old by the time they reached patrons.

This might explain why it takes so long to get your food at IHOP.  Just like I mentioned on my past visits, it took almost 45 minutes for me to get pancakes.  The man next to me got up and complained that he'd been waiting over an hour for his burger.

I also saw a ton of plates get sent back.  Several orders of pancakes were returned, with the server asking the kitchen to warm them back up, as diners complained they were cold.  No wonder.  Many other orders were sent back because they were just wrong, "she didn't want whipped cream on this", or, they had all the wrong side dishes.

Previously I somewhat felt like the staff put on an impressive show, but this time around, it just seemed like it was all falling apart.  I plan to visit the other SF location next time.
Place setting, including syrups.
As always, the counter was stocked with their 4 signature syrups.  And as always, the pitchers were sticky to the touch.  And as always, I couldn't resist trying all 4, even though I thought I knew what to expect.

The blueberry was my least favorite, it tasted sweet and fruity-ish, but the actual flavor was indistinguishable.  There were little bits in the syrup, which looked like they might be blueberry skin, so I think there might have been some real fruit in there.  Amusingly, on the first visit I wrote about, I liked the blueberry the best.  Preferences change it turns out.

Speaking of fruit, the strawberry was much better, very strawberry tasting, although not exactly like fresh fruit.  It was a very thin goo, or, perhaps thick syrup.  The flavor was actually decent, but strawberry syrup is just a strange concept to me.  Amusingly, on the second visit I wrote about, I thought it was fake tasting and my least favorite.  Maybe it does make sense to try them all each time!

My favorite was the Butter Pecan, which was very thick, and had a somewhat interesting buttery flavor.

Old Fashioned rounded out the bunch, again fairly thick, and tasted exactly like what it was, fake maple flavored corn syrup.

I also tried the Sugar Free syrup, which came in a squeeze bottle, and hadn't even been opened.  I tried to squeeze it on, and was surprised when nothing came out, until I discovered the seal still on.  It was a thinner style, which I somewhat preferred.

The best mix I came up with was the SF syrup mixed with butter pecan, it created a buttery flavor and a good consistency.  I'm sure next time around I'll have a new set of favorites.
Harvest Grain 'N Nut Pancakes.  $8.99.
But I wasn't there for the syrups, I was there for my favorite pancakes: Harvest Grain 'N Nut, which I've gotten almost every time I've visited an IHOP (except the time I went rogue and ordered the Whole Wheat).

I asked for my butter on the side, since I learned from previous experience that when the pancakes sit on the counter forever, the scoop of butter melts in way too fast, and your top pancake winds up drenched in butter (not a bad thing), but you don't ever have enough left for the rest of the stack, even though an entire ice cream scoop full was added.

Do you remember me praising the butter before for being soft, whipped, and fluffy?  It was not so this time.  Hard as a rock.  And since my pancakes were lukewarm when they arrived, it didn't melt at all.  Doh.

So far, not so good.  Barely warm pancakes, hard butter.

Now, the other thing to note is the size of the pancakes relative to the size of my plate.  No, IHOP did not get bigger plates.  These pancakes were absolutely tiny compared to what I've previously had, both in diameter and thickness.
Pancakes, 2012.
Just for reference, here are the pancakes from my first visit, literally, twice as big.  This is the same size plate.
Thin Pancakes.
Now, I don't necessarily want monster diameter pancakes, so that aspect wasn't a big deal to me.  But what was a big deal is that they were incredibly thin.  What I love about IHOP pancakes is how moist and fluffy they are.  These were not fluffy.  They were not moist.  Just look at how thin they were!  I was describing them to Ojan, and actually said the phrase, "you don't understand, they were as thin as pancakes!"  Uh ... whoops?  I guess that phrase is normally meant to describe pancakes, but IHOP pancakes are supposed to be huge and fluffy.

Anyway.  Thin, not fluffy, not moist, fairly tough.  They weren't burnt, which is about the only good thing I can say about them.  If I were anywhere else, I would have complained.  It also made me mad because I was sitting there watching all the other orders of pancakes sitting in the pass, and they were all huge and fluffy.  Why weren't mine?  Why can't IHOP get pancake size consistent, isn't this what they are known for?

Grumble.  So, my pancakes weren't good.  I did still like the heartiness to them, the bits of oats and nuts, but otherwise, they just weren't good.  Very poor execution.  I will not be going back to this location, but the flavor was still good, so I'm not giving up on IHOP completely ...

Visit #2, Lombard Street Location

Several months ago I made my annual birthday pilgrimage to IHOP.  As you read about then, I was highly disappointed, and decided that I was never returning to the big IHOP in San Francisco on Beach Street.  But I still had so many memories of delicious IHOP pancakes, that I decided to give the smaller location on Lombard Street a try.  I'm not really sure why I'd always gone to the Beach Street location before anyway.

The Lombard Street location was a standard IHOP.  You can read all the general details about IHOP in my past reviews.  I'll focus this review only on the comparison with the other SF location.

First, it is smaller.  Much, much smaller.  Definitely less than half the size in terms of tables, plus no additional counter area.

It was still just as crowded as any IHOP.  I arrived at 10am, and the entire waiting area, and the outside sidewalk, were filled with people.  At the Beach Street location I can usually skip all of this and sit at the counter since I'm dining alone, or with one other person, but that was not an option here.  I put my name down ("July", I was called, and didn't bother correct), and waited about 15 minutes.

Since I wasn't going to be seated at a counter overlooking the kitchen, I used the waiting time as an opportunity to watch the front of house.  They seemed much more calm than Beach Street.  No one was rushing around like crazy.  Food didn't seem to sit in the window as long.  Decent signs.

My favorite part of the experience was people watching.  Normally I sit at the counter and entertain myself watching the chaos in the Beach Street kitchen, so this time I had the other patrons to amuse me instead.  The demographics of the clientele at IHOP are so shockingly different from what I encounter in my normal life.  Most were much older, including cute elderly couples out for their special breakfast together.  Many others wore baseball caps, T-shirts bearing the emblems of sports teams, and boots.  And by boots, I don't mean trendy women in leather boots, I mean 55 year old men in dirty, heavy work boots with thick treads.  Honestly, it was rather refreshing to see an entirely different subset of society.

The best people watching was the lady who was seated next to me, about 10 minutes after me.  I've always thought that IHOP's portions are ridiculous, particularly some of their combo meals that easily include enough food for 2-3 people.  Or, so I thought.  I never imagined any one person would finish a full single one themselves, let alone order multiple meals.  But ... this woman did.  She ordered: a Big Steak omelette (1260 calories), a short stack of 3 pancakes (470 calories, not including the mound of butter or syrup), AND strawberries and cream crepes (960 calories).  Her mounds of food arrived all at once, and she systematically worked through it all.  Starting with the crepes.  All 4 of them.  Followed by the huge omelette.  When I left, she was finishing off the stack of pancakes.  (I thought she consumed them in a strange order, I personally would start with the savory omelette, pair it with the pancakes, and save the crepes as my sweet finish.  And I'd ask to have the crepes arrive last so they wouldn't get cold.  There is no way her pancakes were still remotely warm by the time she got to them.  But, the order in which she ate them, or the methodical manner in which she did so, were really the least of the crazy things about watching that ordeal.)  Wow.
Standard IHOP Tables.
After about 10 minutes, my name, "July", was called out, and I was lead to my table.  Standard IHOP decor.  Everything was cleaner than the Beach Street location.

The host and cashier were both friendly, but my server was basically non-existent and didn't really speak to me.  She probably said fewer than 10 words to me the entire time I was there.  "Drink?" was all she said when she first stopped by to take my drink order.  When she returned with my drink, all I got was "Ready?" and a head tilt indicating that I should order, and  "Anything else?" once I'd ordered.  She said nothing when bringing my order to me, never checked in on me, and took a very, very long time to bring me the bill after I was clearly done eating.  I think she did say "Thank you" then.  She wasn't a bad server, just not very attentive.  Not that I needed anything.
Standard Syrups.
Speaking of cleanliness, the most shocking thing to me was when I picked up the syrups.  They weren't sticky!  What!??!

Sadly, this time, I didn't end up liking any of the syrups.  You may recall from my past reviews that I tend to like different syrups every time, but this time, I wasn't into any of them.

The blueberry was just sweet goo, the Old Fashioned tasted like corn syrup, and the Butter Pecan was too ... buttery?  Just a few weeks prior, I said I liked the butteriness to the Butter Pecan, and deemed it my favorite.  Do my tastes really change this much from week to week, or, are the IHOP syrups inconsistent?  The strawberry syrup was the only one I really liked, even though it clearly isn't maple syrup, the strawberry flavor really is quite good.

I also tried the sugar free syrup, and hated it.  It was bitter, and way too sticky and thick.
Harvest Grain 'N Nut Pancakes.  $8.99.
I went for my classic order: Harvest Grain 'N Nut pancakes.

As I've learned from past experience, I asked for the butter on the side.  I still use plenty of it, but prefer for it not to all soak in to the very center of the top pancake before they arrive.

My pancakes were sadly not really any better than my birthday visit at Beach Street a few weeks prior.  They were again small in diameter, and thin.  They arrived lukewarm.  They were kinda gummy, not at all fluffy.  What I love about IHOP pancakes is that they are usually huge, super fluffy, super moist inside, and crispy on the outside.  These lacked all of the defining characteristics.

I did still like the heartiness from the oats and the crunch from the walnuts and almonds, but, they weren't anything like they used to be.  As you read in my last review, I have pictures of the ones I got just a year prior, and they were radically different.  This isn't just my memory, I have photographic evidence!  But ... if both SF locations have changed the form of the pancakes, I wonder if that is a franchise-wide thing?  If so ... BOO!

The price of $8.99 was fine, and the same as the other location.

Overall, I found this IHOP to be a bit more on top of things and less insane, but, I have no reason to return there either.  Sadness.
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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Harry & David

Harry & David is a "gourmet gift" producer, whose products are generally sold via mail order or online, although they also have a handful of retail stores.  They mostly sell gift baskets, fruits, and chocolates.  Not exactly things I'm generally in the market for, yet sometime show up on my doorstep.

Their signature item is "Moose Munch" popcorn.  According to the site, "Moose Munch® Popcorn is not your average caramel popcorn. We pay attention to every single detail of our secret recipe. Right down to the way the popcorn looks and sticks together. We make over five million pounds a year. "

Now, 5 million pounds of anything is a lot, but particularly of a lightweight item!  Moose Munch® comes in a zillion flavors, like simple milk or dark chocolate, exotic banana coconut and apricot mango, and even some sugar free versions.  A flavor for everyone.

Of course, they take things a step further, and use the signature popcorn inside of other confections as well, like Moose Munch® Popcorn Bites: "they're like little candy bars, except they have Moose Munch® Popcorn in them", or, as I got to try, Moose Munch® Chocolate Bars.
Moose Munch® Milk Chocolate Bar.
"Moose Munch bars are crafted from a rich, smooth fudgy center, plus their signature snake - fluffy white popcorn, buttery caramel and crisp nuts all dipped in decadent milk chocolate."

"Signature snake"?  I do not know this term, but it is on all of their marketing, so I don't think it is a typo.
Cross section.
This one deserves a peak inside.

Every bite was loaded up with goodies: popcorn, nuts, caramel.  The caramel was sweet and very creamy, it almost tasted like really smooth peanut butter at times.  The nuts added a great crunch, and the popcorn ... was, well, popcorn inside my chocolate, a bit strange, but, it worked better than I expected.  It was much better than popcorn inside of other items, like inside the Circus Cookie from Goody Goodie, although it was still a bit strange to have a soft bite inside the bar.  The milk chocolate was smooth and creamy.

Overall, pretty tasty, a bunch of ingredients you don't necessarily expect together, but, I liked it.  The tasting club didn't get to try this one!
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