Thursday, May 10, 2012

Scream Sorbet

Warm weather makes me crave one thing even more than foie gras: ice cream!

I've never been a fan of sorbet, as it has always seemed inferior in every way to ice cream, gelato, or soft serve frozen yogurt.  Perhaps the only thing it beats out for me is nasty hard frozen yogurt.  But ... there is one place that makes sorbet that does indeed make me consider it something worthwhile: Scream Sorbet!

Scream sells at the Thursday and Saturday Ferry Building farmer's markets (among other locations).  Their sorbet is made fresh in small batches, and the flavors change constantly.  They generally have a few nut based flavors and a few pure fruit flavors.  The nut ones are often incredibly creamy and indistinguishable from ice cream, and the fruity ones can be intensely flavorful and refreshing, really capturing the essence of fresh, seasonal fruit!  And the staff are always so friendly, and seem to genuinely love the product!

I present to you my tasting notes, from the past year+ of trying various sorbets.  As always, subsequent tastings are listed in brackets.  
  • Chocolatey
    • Hazelnut chocolate: Like frozen nutella.  Nice! [ hazelnut flavor not that great ] [  yum, tastes like nutella ]
    • Chocolate coffee: very nice coffee flavor.
    • Valhrona chocolate: Nice chocolate flavor, really creamy, very good.
    • Chocolate coconut: nice coconut flavor, combines well with chocolate. [ Somewhat gritty texture from the cocoa powder, no coconut flavor, didn’t really like this ].
    • Chocolate almond: kinda chaulky, not very good.
    • Chocolate saffron: not much flavor.
    • Spicy chocolate pecan: creamy and flavorful [nice spice like mexican chocolate] [ nice and spicy, don’t taste pecans ] [ strange mouthfeel, nice spice ]
    • Chocolate peppermint: subtle peppermint, not very chocolatey.
  • Nutty
    • Peanut brittle: not as intense peanut flavor as I'd like.
    • Maple walnut: nice flavors [decent but not that flavorful]
    • Cashew chai: really nice.  chai flavor was great.  really liked this one [again, really good]  [ nice chai flavor ] [really nice chai flavor]
    • Pistachio: very pistachio-y but I don’t like pistachio much to start with.
    • Coffee almond: nice coffee flavor.  [  Icy but good coffee flavor ]
    • Cashew caramel: meh [ tastes like a honey roasted cashew, really caramely, yum ]
    • Almond pink peppercorn: savory, strong pepper flavor.
    • Almond vanilla: nice nutty flavor.
    • Saffron almond: Nice saffron flavor
    • Peanut vanilla: Creamy, very strong peanut flavor, awesome. [ Really creamy, great peanut flavor ]
    • Almond pink peppercorn: Very savory, not sweet, pepper flavor is subtle.  If you like savory sorbet, I could imagine really liking this.  It could have some fantastic pairings as well.
    • Vanilla macadamia: Really great flavor from macadamias, good vanilla flavor too.  Definitely like this one!
  • Fruity
    • Lime mint: mint flavor really intense from fresh mint leaf.  not my thing but very intense flavor
    • Orange mate: subtle flavor but nice.
    • Pineapple guava: bursting with flavor, refreshing, but you have to like the flavor of these things
    • Pear: super flavorful!
    • Quince: very sweet
    • Apple walnut: tastes like apple sorbet, no walnut flavor [ sorta like applesauce] [sorta apple but meh ]
    • Cranberry satsuma: nice and tart!  cranberry and satsuma flavors both very pronouced and delicious
    • Quince vanilla: meh, no real flavor [ meh, no real flavor, soggy ]
    • Page mandarin: nice strong citrus flavor
    • Tangelo: very intense citrus flavor, but meh, citrus. [ Nice tart citrus flavor. ]
    • Guava: refreshing, nice guava flavor.
    • Grapefruit: sweet, not very strong grapefruit flavor, more like a classic sorbet, kinda icy.
    • Strawberry lemon: not very flavorful
    • Strawberry shortcake: this is kinda amazing.  shortcake flavor is simulated using almonds.
    • Olallieberry: Just kinda sweet, not great flavor.
    • Blackberry olive oil: This was really strange! The blackberry was sweet and tart, and the olive oil was really strong on the finish.  Not flavors I'd ever think of putting together, but ... it worked in a really surprising way.
    • Spicy peach: refreshing, yet with a nice kick.  Very good!
  • Vegetable-y
    • Pumpkin guts: pumpkin seed, not as flavorful as I’d want.
    • Kambucha coconut: decent pumpkin flavor.


Monday, May 07, 2012

Dinner @ Spruce

Sunday dining options are always ... limited.  Many places are not open.  Or ones that are, often do not have their executive chefs around that night.  I'm always searching for good Sunday night venues.

Spruce just announced that they were bringing back their "Burgers and Burgundy" promotion on Sunday nights, something they did a few years ago.  Basically, they have their famous burger available in the dining room and lounge, and then offer some additional toppings (besides the additional ones they always have: assorted cheeses, caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, foie gras, fried egg, etc) to "spruce" up your burger.  And then they pick three different burgundies that they offer by the glass, or you can do a flight of 2 oz pours.  This sounded kinda fun!

I'd been to Spruce before to dine in the lounge and had the burger, and while I thought it was good, it wasn't one of my very top burger picks.  It has won so many "best burger" awards though, that I figured this would be a pretty good Sunday night option.  But, the real draw was their foie gras and waffles - perhaps the most memorable preparation of foie gras I've ever had (certainly in the top 5 ... and I eat a lot of foie gras), and I was really eager to get back and have it again (with seasonal variation of course).

My first trip to Spruce I sat in the lounge area, and this time we sat in the actual restaurant.  We were seated at a nice corner table in the back room.  There is plentiful space between tables and it felt really private.  As an added bonus, the chairs had purse hooks on them!  Dining in the dining room was otherwise a pretty similar experience, starting with an amuse bouche and bread service, and finishing with some petit fours.  The only striking difference from my last trip was how much less dressed up diners were.  The Sunday crowd is much less formal than the mid-week crowd!

Service seemed about the same in both locations, generally good and knowledgeable, however we had one major service issue.  Our appetizers came out, and the server almost reached our table, only to realize that our amuse bouches had not been cleared away, and that we had no appetizer plates or utensils.  He disappeared with the dishes, someone else came to clear our old plates and set out new ones, and then ... we waited.  Several minutes went by.  I made a comment to my fellow diners about how I hoped that our appetizers weren't just sitting there getting cold, as they were really temperature sensitive items, and they reassured me that the kitchen would re-fire them.  I was skeptical. Anyway, several minutes later the appetizers are brought to us.  It wasn't really enough time for our dishes to have been re-made.  And ... they were cold.  And it really, really effected the quality of the dishes (see full comments below).  The amazing foie gras and waffles was not only not amazing, it was actually kinda bad.  So when the waitress came back to ask us how things were, we hesitated, and then were honest.  She apologized and offered to send us a new batch.  We accepted, and as we hoped, it made a difference.  They certainly made up for the issue by bringing us a new dish, but this really shouldn't have happened in the first place.

Besides that hiccup, I was really impressed with our server.  She was incredibly knowledgeable, particularly about the wines being offered, and could talk about them at length.  She also seemed genuinely interested in the wines and food being served, and talked about elements of them that she appreciated.  She also could suggest good wine pairings to bring out different aspects of the dishes.

But ... overall, this was a fairly disappointing meal.  I enjoyed my time at the restaurant, but the food didn't meet my expectations, which were formed from past experiences.  Perhaps it was the Sunday thing?  I'm not sure about going back soon.  On one hand, I'd like to go and try my luck again at getting great foie gras and waffles.  On the other hand, there are only a few more weeks left, and so many other foie preparations out there.  Did we just have an off night?
Amuse bouche: Carrot and ginger soup.
The amuse was a creamy carrot soup.  I thought it was a little too thick, with a strange mouthfeel.  The ginger was very refreshing however, and I really liked the carrot + ginger combination.

Not pictured is the bread service.  Last time we had the choice of a roll or a really nice cranberry bread, but there was no choice this time, only a roll offered.  It was hot, with a slight crust on the outside, moist on the inside.  Decent, but nothing particularly memorable.  The rolls again came with two types of butter: standard butter or a garlic and chive butter.  The garlic and chive had good flavor and was more interesting than plain butter, but I preferred the honey butter we got last time.  Mmmm ... honey butter!
Hudson Valley foie gras: vadouvan waffle, strawberry, pistachio.  $23.
The moment we were all waiting for ... foie gras and waffles!  Two of us were familiar with this dish from our last trip (and he had actually had it again more recently as well), and one person had not yet gotten to experience the foie gras and waffles masterpiece.  Since the first time I had the dish, I've literally raved about it whenever someone mentions foie gras.  I was so excited to get to have this again, and to share it with the newcomer!

The dish looked basically the same as before.  Two quarters of waffle stacked up, with one ball of torchon rolled in pistachio on top, one on the side, and a seared chunk of foie gras.  The other aspects of the preparation were changed up to be more seasonal.  The pear slices were replaced with strawberries.  And the syrup poured on tableside was a rhubarb syrup rather than pear syrup.  There was no replacement for the pear jelly.

Unfortunately, that is where the similarities ended.

The waffle was cold.  It was kinda spongy.  It was honestly no better than a waffle from a breakfast buffet that had been sitting for hours.  This was a sharp contrast to last time, when it was crisp and rather perfect.  The waffle was improved in our replacement version of this dish, as it was at least warm that time, but it still was a little spongy, not crispy, and the vadouvan spicing, which I loved so much last time, wasn't noticeable at all in either version.

The foie gras torchon balls rolled in pistachio were exactly the same as our previous visit.  Creamy, great flavor and consistency, paired well with the pistachio.  The first time I had this dish, these balls were the most amazing component, as they melted into the waffle like butter.  In our first serving this night, since the waffle was cold, the foie didn't melt in at all.  So while it was tasty, it was just torchon spread on nasty waffle, so it totally did not create the same "waffle and melted butter" experience that had been so amazing the first time.  When we got our replacement version of the dish, the waffle was warm, and the foie balls did again melt into them.

The seared foie gras was really nicely executed.  Lovely sear on the outside, slight charred flavor, creamy, high quality foie.  Of course, the first time we received it it was cold, but the second time it was warm.  This was a really nice seared chunk of foie and I enjoyed it very much.

The strawberry chunks were just strawberries, not particularly good or bad.  I didn't think they went as well with the pistachio as the pears had.

The syrup poured on was a slightly tart, slightly sweet, rhubarb syrup.  Like last time, they poured a little over the top waffle, and then took it away!  This meant that the second waffle didn't really get any syrup at all, and was just dry, and lacked the sweet component to pair with the foie.  When we got the replacement dish, we asked to keep the syrup, and it was much better to be able to add some on.  I didn't like the rhubarb syrup nearly as much as the pear syrup.  It didn't seem to compliment the foie gras nearly as well, nor did I really like it with the waffles alone.  Last time I remember thinking that I could easily enjoy regular waffles with the pear syrup rather than standard maple syrup, and this time, I certainly wouldn't have wanted this syrup.

This dish was clearly much better when served at the proper temperature, with the warm waffle, melty foie torchon, and hot seared foie far better than a cold soggy waffle with torchon smeared on it and cold seared foie on the side, but it still did not come together as well as the last variation.  Some of it was execution of the waffle (not crispy, not spiced), but  I think the biggest thing missing was the sweet component to really enhance everything.  The rhubarb sauce just didn't do it and there was nothing in place of the pear jelly.

I paired this, at the server's suggestion, with a half glass of Tokaji.  It was sweet and lovely, and only $4.50!  I loved that they let me do a half glass!

Overall, this was still creative and good, but it paled in comparison to the previous version.  I'd certainly order it again if I went back, and I'm curious to see if they'll have another version before July 1.  $23 is a great price for the dish, particularly as it includes both seared foie and the balls.
Bellweather ricotta gnudi: asparagus, sweet onion emulsion.   $16.
At the Taste of the Nation event a few weeks ago, we had the pleasure of eating Spruce's dish: Bellweather ricotta gnudi with spring peas.  It was one of the best dishes I had that night, soft, pillowy gnudi, delicious fresh peas, in a fantastic sauce.  We were shocked at how wonderful it was, particularly in that setting as they were preparing it on a little burner and plating it rapidly to pass out to the hoards.  When I saw this on the menu, I was very excited, as it sounded like exactly the same dish, but with asparagus in place of peas.

It wasn't. At Taste of the Nation, the gnudi were traditional gnudi.  That is, they were little balls of basically ravioli insides.  These were instead a large format, with a pasta wrapper.  They reminded me far more of pierogies than gnudi, particularly as the filling seemed to have potato and they were finished with a butter and onion sauce.

The pasta was well executed, slightly al dente, with a slight chew that was enjoyable to bite into.  The filling was soft and indistinguishable from mashed potato.  Not bad, but not at all what I was expecting given that we ordered gnudi, and that I'd had traditional gnudi from them before.

The asparagus came as a couple spears and a couple shaved stalks.  Executed fine, slightly crisp.

The sauce was salty, but not all that flavorful.

This dish was all fine, but forgettable.  I wouldn't bother ordering it again.
Spruce burger, fries (split).  $16.
And ... the famous Spruce burger.  Like last time, I was splitting this with someone else, and they split it onto two plates for us.  This also meant they doubled up the toppings and fries, and they don't charge a split fee.  Score?

They offer a bunch of options to add to the burger: gruyere, cheddar, or blue cheese, caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, fried egg, foie gras, bacon, pancetta, and probably a few more things I'm forgetting.  At future Burgers & Burgundy nights, they'll be offering special add ons that they don't normally have.  We added blue cheese, and the other diner of course added foie gras.  The foie was nicely seared just like our appetizer, thought it was fairly small.  It was only $12, so this was a good value, and really did enhance the burger quite a bit.  How is it that not everyone orders foie on their burgers!  And perhaps it just seemed small after seeing the foie that Alexander's allows you to add to their burger, which is rather ridiculously large (literally, as big as the burger itself) and far more suited to adding to a steak (which I think is what most people do).  Anyway, good topping selection.

On the side of the plate comes a bunch of things to dress up your burger yourself: lettuce, pickled onions, thin slices of pickled zuchini, and tomato.  The tomato was better than last time, but still not great.  Alas, it is not yet tomato season.  The lettuce was nice and crisp.  I loved the pickled stuff, and ate my entire serving, plus all of that of my fellow diners.  I enjoyed it on the burger, but also just on its own.  Sour, vinegary, yum!

There was also standard ketchup and mustard.  They seemed like generic versions from a jar.  Compared to the amazing mustard at Alexander's, this is also a letdown.

The bun was the same as last time, english muffin style, and smaller than the patty.  I found this made it a little annoying to eat, as I always run out of bun in the first place, and the small size just exacerbates the problem.

The burger patty itself was not good.  We ordered it medium-rare, and it came medium, perhaps even medium-well.  It was dry.  Not flavorful.  And it had hard bits of gristle in it.  It was far better last time I was there, when it was properly cooked medium-rare, but it wasn't particularly flavorful then either.

The fries were really not good.  Last time, they were kinda standard and not anything noteworthy, but this time, they were actually bad.  Insanely oily and tasted just like grease.  I really couldn't taste any potato at all.  At least they were crispy?  I don't think any of us had more than a few of these.  Really, really not good.

I wouldn't get this again, as the only enjoyable part was the pickled accompaniments.  I don't understand why people love this burger so much.  Perhaps they have just never had the one at Alexander's?

Alongside the burger, we tried the flight of Burgundies, $16 for pretty generous pours of each.  Not full glasses, but certainly more than standard flight pours.  The three wines were all completely different, and we all really liked one of them, thought one was good, and thought the last was pretty bad.  It was fun to compare, and this may have been the first time we all agreed on liking things in the same order!  The wines did arrive after the burgers however, which was unfortunate.  It would have been nice to have them to try both before the burger, and with the burger, and two of us were planning to order a full glass of whichever one we liked the most to go with the burger, but since they arrived so late, we never did.
Honey yogurt panna cotta, oat streusel, rhubarb.  $10.
And ... on to dessert.  I've got a thing for custardy, puddingy, desserts, including panna cotta, so we had to try this.

The panna cotta was described by the waitress as being not too sweet, nicely balanced, with a honey flavor.  Since we had one diner who doesn't like sweets, this sounded like he might possibly like it, particularly as it was paired with sour rhubarb.  However, it was insanely sweet.  It was creamy, and the consistency was nice, but otherwise, it was just far too sweet and not very good.  I liked the crumble on the plate to mix in with it.  I'm not sure what the strands were that it was topped with.

The rhubarb cubes were stewed, slightly tart, and tasty enough.

The streussels were rolled, very buttery, very flaky filo dough filled with something.  I couldn't really identify what it was, just kinda sweet.  These weren't particularly good.

I would not order this dish again.
Carrot cake, cream cheese bavarian, fried carrots, orange ginger granita.  $10.
Next up was the carrot cake.  The server told us this was somewhat of a play on carrot cake, with a few non-traditional elements.  In particular, she said the sweet cream cheese frosting was instead replaced by a creme fraiche topping, and that it was sour rather than sweet.  Again, seemed like perhaps our non-sweet liking friend would tolerate this.

The cake itself was really generic.  Moist enough, carroty enough, but incredibly uninteresting.  Granted, I'm a carrot cake snob as my great aunt has a carrot cake recipe that just blows away all other carrot cake (super moist, it includes crushed pineapple and nuts ... soo amazing).

On top of the cake, in equal parts, was the "cream cheese bavarian".  I'm not sure why it was called that, as it wasn't really anything like bavarian cream, nor did it really taste like cream cheese.  It was more like what the waitress had described, more creme fraiche like.  It was indeed not too sweet, but it wasn't particularly good.  It needed some more flavor or something, and the equal ratio of this to the cake seemed really odd.

The top layer was some form of sweet jelly.  I'm not really sure what it was.  Perhaps carrot?

And on top of that, was crispy fried candied carrots.  These were awesome.  Sweet, crispy, fried goodness.  I ate them all.

When the dish was brought out, one person asked for clarification on the granita.  The server said it was pineapple.  It wasn't.  It was, as the menu had said, orange.  It was sour, decent enough, but melted very quickly, and didn't really go with the carrot cake.  Why would I want cold granita with my carrot cake?

Overall, not a very good dessert.  The only thing I really liked was the fried candied carrot curls.

Alongside my desserts, I also had a decaf coffee.  As is my standard practice these days, I asked how the decaf coffee was.  The server told me it was pretty good, a swiss water process decaf, individually brewed.  It was actually pretty good, very, very strong and intense.  Still a decaf, but not bad.
Petit fours: Almond financier, apricot jam.
And one final little bite of dessert ... these had a base layer of almond, a thin layer of pastry cream, a  layer of cake, a thin layer of apricot jam, and another layer of cake.  Not noteworthy in any way, they were basically just a sum of their mediocre parts.


Lounge Dining @ Spruce

[ Originally published Jan 24, 2012.  Just moving to blog now. ]

"Let's go get a burger and fries at the bar" -> multi course meal at a Michelin starred restaurant, starting with foie gras 2 ways and ending with warm apple pie with cheddar ice cream and oatmeal stout caramel sauce.  Whoops!  To be fair, we were seated in the bar area and there were burgers and fries in the middle of it all ...

Spruce is a swanky old place. People in the main dining room were dressed up, and even in the bar area people looked very nice. I was certainly the least dressed person there. The bar area was lovely - a bunch of seats at the bar (not bar stools of course, nice padded huge chairs) and then some tables with couch-like seats. Service was a little off - we got bread before water, had to ask for menus, etc but overall was good. You could order anything off the full menu in addition to the bar menu. I liked the more laid back feeling of the bar area, while still getting bread service, petit fours, etc. It was a nice compromise of being at a fancy place and being comfortable.

We got several starters from the main menu, burgers, and dessert. It was all good, but the foie gras starter was the tastiest thing I've eaten so far this year. INCREDIBLE. Of course, that made everything else in the meal pale in comparison. I'd love to go back and try some of the entrees from the main menu as well.

See individual photos for comments on the food (not pictured are the slew of drinks my dining companions had, all of which were high quality and nicely done).
Cranberry bread.
Bread to start was a choice of cranberry bread or a warm sweet roll. The cranberry bread had nice tart chunks of cranberry in it, but was otherwise a little boring. The roll was warm, sweet, fluffy, and the better choice, particularly when paired with honey butter.
Regular butter, honey butter.
Of course, one type of butter isn't enough. Regular butter was fine, but honey butter was delicious, as honey butter is!
Arugula salad, bresaola, cornichons, mustard, raisin compote.  $7.
Arugula was crisp, fresh, and lightly dressed, mustard complimented the meat well, meat was flavorful, cornichons and raisin compote pretty forgettable.
Grilled bread (to go with charcuterie platter).
Kinda oily, not all that memorable.
Hudson Valley foie gras 2 ways (seared lobe, cold pate rolled in pistachio), Vadouvan waffle, and pear 3 ways (ramekin full of pear jelly, pear syrup poured over waffle, slices of asian pear).  $23.


INCREDIBLE. Described on the menu as foie gras, waffles, and pears. Sounded interesting. Basically, think of a classic waffle, with the butter replaced with foie gras and the maple syrup replaced with pear syrup. It was an extravaganza of amazing flavors and components.

To start off, they pour pear syrup on top tableside. Sweet, subtle pear flavor. I appreciated that they didn't put too much on, but I wish they'd left the pot behind so we could add more.

In the ramekin is pear #2: pear jelly. This wasn't super flavorful, but did combine nicely with the foie gras.

Pear #3 was just some slices of asian pear. They were fine, but could have easily been left off the plate.

The waffle itself was well cooked, nice and crisp, with subtle vadouvan spicing. Better than the waffles you get at most brunch places.

The star of the plate is obviously the foie gras. The seared lobe was nice, smooth, creamy, flavorful. The cold preparation was even better (and I normally prefer hot seared foie gras over cold preparations). These truffle like balls were rolled in pistachio, and were super flavorful.

Most of these components were actually quite good on their own, but a bite of waffle, smothered in the cold foie, with some pear jelly or syrup ... AMAZING. The flavors and textures and concept just worked so well. Did I mention, ZOMG? ZOMG ZOMG ZOMG.

I'd go back for this in a heartbeat. How many trips can I make before July?
The Spruce burger and fries, with added gruyere and grilled onions. Served with tomato, lettuce, pickled onions, pickled cucumbers, ketchup, mustard on the side.  $16.

This is ostensibly why we were there, to finally try the Spruce burger. This burger has been #2 in the Burger Bonanza list for the past two years (, and it had remained elusive to us because it is only served in the bar, and during the burger crawl heyday, we always had too big of a group to go. Finally, we just 3 people, we could do it!

Lots of good options for adding to the burger: cheese choices were gruyere, cheddar, or blue. You could also add sauteed onions, sauteed mushrooms, a fried egg, seared foie gras, and a few other things I forget. I added gruyere and sauteed onions, one friend of course added the seared foie gras.

And good options for dressing it up yourself, on the side were tomato slices (mediocre at best, but I don't blame them, it isn't tomato season), nice crisp lettuce, pickled onions, and thin pickle strips. I loved the pickled stuff, and wish I hadn't added the sauteed onions to the burger, as the pickled things were plenty flavorful.

The burger itself was cooked really nicely, medium rare as the chef recommended. The beef had some decent flavor. The cheese was melted perfectly as well. The bun was an english muffin style (but a REAL english muffin, not a Thomas brand one). It soaked up the juices really nicely, but it was too buttery for me. With all of the other richness going on, I didn't want the extra greasiness there.

The fries were pretty forgettable, not bad, but not up to par with anything else we ate.

Served with ketchup and mustard only. In retrospect, I wish I'd asked for some aioli, I think I would have liked the burger and the fries much more that way, and most pictures I see on Yelp include it, so I know they have it.

Overall, certainly a solid burger, probably in the top 10 in the city, but not that memorable. However, I sorta blame the foie gras course, everything kinda pales in comparison to that.
Warm apple pie, white cheddar ice cream, cheddar cracker, candied apple, and oatmeal stout caramel sauce.  $10.

If you've been reading my posts, you know that I am a dessert-a-holic and that warm pie and ice cream is one of my favorite things. Thus, even though I was ridiculously stuffed at this point, we had to order dessert.

I grew up eating warm apple pie a la mode or warm apple pie with cheddar cheese melted on top. I always loved both preparations and could never decide how I wanted it more (ok, so I often had it with both melted cheddar AND ice cream). This dish sounded perfect - make the ice cream cheddar flavored!

The oatmeal stout caramel sauce was poured over the dish tableside. Again, I wish they'd left the pot with us so we could add more, as it was tasty and complimented the other components nicely.

The ice cream had a very subtle cheddar flavor, which I wanted to be stronger (perhaps because I wanted it to be more like the full chunk of melted cheddar cheese I was used to). The plating was cute, served in a cube shape, but that didn't really work, as I wanted the ice cream to be creamier/meltier. I would have let it sit and soften, but the pie was getting cold ...

Speaking of the pie, it was indeed served warm, although it could have been warmer as it lost its warmth pretty quickly. The pastry dough was nice, flavorful, and flaky. The filling was lightly spiced and the apples were cooked well. Overall, a decent pie.

The apple bits on top of the ice cream and on the plate didn't really seem to go with everything else.

The cheddar crisp was super flavorful and went VERY well with the pie.
A bite with the pie, the ice cream, the crisp, and some caramel sauce was really quite delightful!

One diner described this as everything you ever wanted a McDonald's Hot Apple Pie to be, but never was.
Cranberry financier, mango pate de fruit.

As if we weren't stuffed enough at this point, some sweets arrived with our bill.

The financier was moist, with nice tart cranberries in it. I liked how they bookended the meal with cranberries (in the bread to start and here as well). I felt such a sense of completeness :) The financier was fairly forgettable though.

The pate de fruit seemed not very sweet and I thought it was grapefruit, and I convinced a friend to try it, although he doesn't like sweets. Apparently my tastebuds were just being crazy, as he found it very sweet (which makes more sense, as it is mango and rolled in sugar!).


Dinner @ Benu, a la carte

We recently discovered that Benu offers an a la carte menu during the week.  Prices are pretty standard for the neighborhood: appetizers ~$15, mains $20-40, and desserts $12.  This seemed like a great way to try out some of the food, but not do the full on extravaganza of the $180, 18 course menu they always offer.

The space is well designed.  To get to the entrance, you walk by the kitchen, which is surrounded by glass walls, and even has a viewing platform.  You also pass through a really nice garden area.  Inside is swanky yet comfortable.  The bathrooms were really nice, with both hooks and shelves for your personal belongings, the toilet paper end folded into a V after every use, and high quality paper-clothes.  Yes I know, it is just a bathroom, but I was particularly impressed with this one!

Service was good, polite.  Dishes were presented and cleared synchronized.  Waitstaff were knowledgeable about all of the components of the dishes.  I tried hard to order one dish from the tasting menu that I desperately wanted to try (the foie gras xaio long bao that everyone raves about and I really wanted a chance to have before July 1), but the waiter wouldn't budge.

I was really looking forward to this dinner, but it just didn't wow me.  It wasn't bad, but there was nothing memorable.  I'm not sure if my expectations were just high given that they have two Michelin stars and I've heard such great things about it (although, always about the full tasting menu).  Or maybe it was just the seasonal elements being quite boring, as it is hard to get excited about things like fennel and cauliflower.  Either way, it really failed to leave an impression.  One of my co-diners had been to Benu a few times before, always for the tasting, and had loved it then.  His impression was that the small bites concept just didn't scale up to full size portions very well, and I somewhat can understand that opinion.

The most memorable part of the night was not the food itself, but rather the way things looked.  The serving pieces, particularly those that overlapped with the tasting menu, were very impressive.  I'd heard that many of them were designed for the restaurant, and that was quite clear, as these were unique, clearly single-purpose, pieces.  The plating and creativity in the desserts was also impressive, even if I didn't love the food.

I wouldn't go back for any of the dishes we had, although I'm still interested in the tasting menu, as it has some signature dishes that are supposed to be great.
Cute little stone that was used for all silverware placement. 
Each diner had a stone on the table in front of them.  When silverware was changed out, it was placed onto the stone.  I really appreciated this, even though I know they clean their tables, I still always hate my silverware sitting on them!

One annoyance though: I'm right handed.  I was the leftmost person at the table.  All of our stones were on our right, but the waiter moved mine to the left, presumably so he could better reach it?  But this made it so that my silverware was always on the left.  I moved it back once or twice to the right, but he moved it back each time.  Everyone else had theirs on the right.  It made putting down and picking back up my silverware kinda uncomfortable.

This spoon was our first piece of silverware, to go with our amuse bouche, which I somehow don't have a photo of :(  It was a cold sesame tofu dumpling, with a green asparagus broth and green asparagus chunks, topped with a tiny little bachelor button.  It was very cute, but I didn't actually like the tofu much.  It was firm, with no real flavor of its own.  I didn't taste the sesame.  The asparagus on the other hand was bright, light, and flavorful.  But overall, not very interesting.
Buckwheat lavash, toasted nori, sesame seeds.
Instead of bread service, you get a lovely wooden box full of these crackers, standing up in little slits.  Excellent presentation, the serving-piece clearly designed for this purpose.

I thought they were absolutely delicious.  The buckwheat and sesame seeds gave them a hearty taste and the nori added a saltiness and further flavor.  They were super thin, and crispy yet pliable at the same time.  They were flavorful enough to be good on their own, but I would have liked something to dip them into.
Brut Rose, $22.
I wanted only a single glass of alcohol for the evening, and wanted something that would pair with all of my courses, so went for the brut rose.  I expected this to be sweeter than it was.  It was surprisingly bitter.  I didn't like it that much.
Foie gras steamed in sake,  fennel, green grape, sea grape, arugula.  $16.
Of course we had to order the foie gras to start!  This arrived without the broth, which was poured over it tableside.  They didn't do any other tableside presentations on the a la carte menu (at least, given what we ordered), and this didn't really seem necessary.  A nice touch I guess?

The foie gras was a really interesting consistency.  It was really creamy and incredibly smooth like a mousse, yet firm and not fluffy.  It had clearly been processed quite a bit, as you can probably tell from the photo.  The foie flavor was weaker than I expected, again, more like a mousse than a torchon or pure lobe.  I didn't taste the sake it had been steamed in.

It came with fennel in several preparations.  First was the light fennel and star anise broth, then there were very thin slices of shaved fennel bulb, and a few, very flavorful, sprigs of the frond.  Fennel seeds were featured in the accompanying bread.  This was my frist fennel and foie pairing, and I'm still just not sure what I think of it.  I'm used to a sweet component paired with foie, which fennel isn't.  It didn't not work, but it didn't particularly work either.  Fennel is just kinda ... boring.  The frond however was really intense, and a bite with that really had a flavor pop!

The sea grape and green grape were interesting from a texture and visual perspective, but I didn't think they did much for the dish.  I guess the green grape added a little sweetness.  I didn't see any arugula, as was listed on the menu.

At $16, this was a decent foie preparation, but I think there was less foie gras in here than it looks like, with more filler making it as creamy as it was.  This dish wasn't particularly memorable, and while I'd eat it again, I wouldn't go out of my way to order it.
Whole wheat fennel seed roll.
This was the roll that game with the foie gras.  It was served really nice and warm, perfect temperature. Crusty on the outside, soft on the inside.  Like the lavash crackers, it was really hearty tasting from the whole grains.  The fennel seed flavor was really, really strong.  I actually thought it was too strong and overpowering.  I enjoyed spreading some of the foie gras on the warm roll, as it would slightly melt into it like butter.  But so much better than butter.
Whole steamed bass with crispy skin, gai choy, turnip, mustard seed.  $32.
Hmm, where to start.  This dish was not really a success.

The turnip came as tiny little cubes.  Nothing much to say about it.

The gai choy was a fresh nice vegetable component.  It paired really well with the mustard sauce.

Speaking of the mustard sauce.  It was the downfall of this dish.  It was insanely strong and intense, and totally, completely overwhelmed the light flavored bass.  It was great with the greens, but just took over everything else.  A few bites with this, and I felt like my palette was blown.

And speaking of the bass, it was cooked decently I guess, just simply steamed, flaky, but really, really boring.  It had no flavor to speak of and there was just absolutely nothing noteworthy about it.

The crispy skin however, was amazing.  It was completely separated from the fish, lightly coated in a thin breading, and fried.  It was as crisp as can be.  Spicy.  Salty.  Like the best chip you've ever had in your life.  I couldn't get enough of it.  While the rest of this dish fell down pretty hard, the skin really almost made up for it, it was that fantastic.  It actually brings a smile to my face just thinking about it as I write this.

I wouldn't order this again, but I'd tell someone else to, and steal the skin when they weren't looking :)  For $32 though, this was a very reasonable dish, and although I really didn't care for it, quality-wise and component-wise, it is on par with many fish entrees at lesser establishments in the area.
Lobster glazed in cognac sauce, cauliflower, ramps, celery, pine nut.  $38.
The cauliflower came two ways: chunks and pureed.  The chunks were cooked well, left slightly al dente.  Good enough, but at the end of the day, just cauliflower.  I didn't think it paired that well with the lobster.  The puree was more interesting, as it reminded me of creamy mashed potatoes, and the cognac sauce was like a gravy with it.

The ramps were pickled, with a really awesome tartness from the vinegar that made your mouth pucker as you ate them.  They went well with the cauliflower.

The celery and pine nuts came in the form of a ragout.  This went really well with the cognac sauce.

Finally, the lobster.  There was a generous chunk of tail meat, two chunks of claw meat, and another piece that I think was also tail?  The largest piece was really quite chewy, and I didn't like it much at all.  The medium size piece was better, but still not that great.  The chunks of claw meat were tender and fantastic.

The cognac sauce was good, with a very intense cognac flavor.  If you don't like cognac, you would not like this dish at all.

Besides the claw meat, the only part of this I really liked was a spoonful of cauliflower puree, with some of the celery, and some pickled ramp, and of course, the cognac sauce.  Those were tasty bites, but certainly not $38 worthy bites.  I wouldn't order this again.
Black truffle bun.
This came with the lobster.  It was a warm, doughy bun, filled with lobster confit, served nice and warm.  I liked this.  The truffle flavor was very strong in the breading.  If it had been served on its own I think this would have needed more filling, as it wasn't that plentiful or flavorful.  In fact, I couldn't really tell what was inside of it, was guessing there was lobster but couldn't distinguish it, and had to ask the server.  This was sooo good with the cognac sauce however.  The truffle and cognac were a fantastic pairing.  My favorite bite of the evening (ok, perhaps tied with the crispy skin!) was a chunk of this bun, smothered with cauliflower puree and cognac sauce.  It reminded me of Thanksgiving dinner, where I often take a chunk of warm roll and load it up with mashed potatoes and gravy.  Really tasty.  Honestly, this dish would have been better without the lobster itself, as there were some good things going on here!
Lamill Decaf Coffee, milk, sugar. $5.
As is my standard practice these days, I asked how the decaf coffee was.  The server very strongly said it was good, so I went for it.  I love sweets and desserts, but I love them even more when paired with a nice bitter coffee!

This was indeed fairly complex for a decaf, with some real bitter quality to it.  However, it had a strange, almost chalky aftertaste that was a little unpleasant.  Served with it was steamed cream (I usually drink my coffee black, but I love it when they steam it!), raw sugar, and then, hidden under the wooden lid, some assorted other sweeteners in packets.  I was very amused that they hid those unsightly things! :)  Nice presentation all around, with wooden coasters and handless mugs.
Chocolate ganache,  peanut pudding, miso ice cream.  $14.
I have been staying away from ordering chocolate desserts in the evening these days as I've found them causing me problems with sleep (yes, my caffeine tolerance is that low these days ... long gone are my zillion shots of espresso per day days!), but this was on a bunch of lists as a top dessert, so I had to try it.

I had seen photos of this one before, so I knew what to expect, but it still was a sight to behold.  It was beautiful, well thought out and nicely composed, with a lot of contrasting textures, colors, and flavors, but it certainly looked better than it actually tasted.  Not that it was bad, but it just wasn't that good.  Chocolate and peanuts ... how do you go wrong with those???

First, what should have been the star: chocolate!  The chocolate ganache came in the form of some little logs.  Soft, creamy, but it was only ok.  I was a little surprised, as I expected more flavor intensity from the ganache.  The next chocolate component was the chocolate sponge cake.  It was a little dry, again, not very chocolatey, and just not that interesting.  You certainly wouldn't want to eat it on its own.  The best chocolate component was the chocolate shards.  These were totally surprising.  They were insanely thin and insanely crunchy!  I'm not sure what made them so crisp and crunchy.  I really liked them.  There was also some chocolate "soil" on the plate, adding a little texture to the creamy pudding, ganache, and ice cream.

Next up: peanut components!  The peanut pudding was piped on as a rope.  It was very creamy, and peanuty, but again, just not that interesting.  I'm not sure what it needed, but it needed something.  It was certainly more like just plain old peanut butter than "pudding".  Peanuts also appeared in their whole form, crispy, roasted, and slightly candied.  These added a good crunch.

And finally, the most interesting parts, the miso components.  The meringues were apparently miso flavored, but I didn't pick up the miso, they just tasted like plain meringue to me, which was pretty boring.  They were crunchy though, and added something texture-wise to the dish.  The miso ice cream was by far the most interesting thing on the plate.  It was sweet, a little salty, and really quite good.

I did have fun making myself different bites, trying to combine different flavors and textures.  There was a lot to play with here, but I didn't ever find a bite that really wowed me with flavor.  I appreciated this dish more for its texture than taste.

I'm glad I tried this, but I wouldn't get it again.  $14 reflects the plating and creativity behind the dish.
Rhubarb,  yogurt, quinine, lavender tapioca.  $14.
Crazy, right?  There was stewed rhubarb and raw rhubarb, hiding under a blanket of yogurt gel, on top of lavender tapioca, with some quinine ice cream on the side.

This wasn't my dish, so I only had a few bites, but it was pretty marvelous.  The rhubarb was fresh, crisp, refreshing.  The yogurt blanket was slightly sweet, but still tart, nicely complimenting the rhubarb.  The flavor of the ice cream was really, really strange.  The lavender tapioca was lovely.

Overall a light, refreshing, not too sweet, dish.  I didn't have enough to fully evaluate it however.
Assorted chocolates.
Another very interesting serving piece, clearly designed just for this purpose.  These came in a box, which the server opened to reveal the tiers of chocolates.  Interestingly, we had five people at the table, and received two boxes, each with two sets of chocolates in them, four different kinds.  Luckily for us, one person dislikes sweets and has been to Benu several times and tried these before, so he just passed on them, but I found it really odd to serve like this.  I'm not sure how we would have divided them up otherwise, as there is no way to evenly distribute them.

Each of these chocolate surprised me, as they didn't taste anything like they looked.  They were all very sweet and not really that good.  From top to bottom along the left hand side, as described by server:
  • Dark chocolate with lychee pate de fruit: this was actually a very thin dark chocolate shell, filled with lychee buttercream, with tiny chunks of lychee in it as well.  It was very sweet.  Not at all what I was expecting from a dark chocolate.  Third favorite.
  • White chocolate with dried mixed fruit and almonds: This was actually the least sweet of all of the chocolates, which is not what you'd expect from white chocolate.  It was filled with tiny bits of dried fruit, in particular, I detected some apricot, which paired very well with the white chocolate.  This was my favorite piece, which is so strange, as white chocolate is rarely what I go for.
  • Milk chocolate and walnut: this was a thin milk chocolate shell around a walnut caramel goo inside.  Not at all what I was expecting when I bit into it.  Topped with a crispy candied walnut.  The walnut and chocolate were a good flavor combination.  Second favorite.
  • Milk chocolate and toasted sesame with cherry compote: The sesame here was very subtle.  The cherry didn't come through very well, which is a shame, as cherry and chocolate is a great combination.  The salt on top was a nice touch.  I didn't like this one.  Least favorite.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Frozen Yogurt @ Rockit Swirl

Today was gorgeous - 80 degrees in San Francisco.  When does that happen?

I decided to celebrate by venturing to a new frozen yogurt shop, partially as an excuse to get outside, and partially to use some LevelUp credits that were set to expire.  I didn't have that high of expectations, but I was hopeful ... I'm still looking for a frozen yogurt place in the city to love!

They have 6 flavors of frozen yogurt at a time, and plentiful topping choices, ranging from cereal, to all sorts of candy, to mochi/jellies, to brownies/cookies, to fruit.  They had both sweet and tart yogurt, surprisingly mostly low-fat rather than non-fat.  All self-serve, pay-by-the-ounce.  They also had Gelato Classico gelato, a huge menu of milk teas, smoothies, and shakes, ice cream sandwiches, and some random cooked food.  The other side of the store was filled with tons of gum-ball machines, free internet kiosks, and a couple giant claw machines.  A very strange place, indeed.

Unfortunately, Rockit Swirl wasn't very good.  If I hadn't travelled so far to get there, and didn't have the credits to spend, I probably wouldn't have stayed to get some after tasting the samples.  I made up for the not-so-good frozen yogurt by adding a ton of candy, of which they had plenty.  Not my normal way of eating frozen yogurt, but at least they can't really screw up the candy :)

After my frozen yogurt, I was still feeling unsatisfied, so I got a Thai boba tea.  It reminded me that I really miss Thai iced tea!  I'm not sure the last time I had one, but I used to get them once a week in grad school when we'd splurge and go get Thai food for lunch on Fridays.  While this was good in that it was milky, sweet, tea, it was lukewarm, with only a little ice in it.  It improved significantly as the ice cooled it down, but it would have been nice to have it cold to start with.  The boba were pretty decent, not at all gummy or stuck together or anything, but I think about half my cup was made up of boba, way, way too much!

I won't return here.

(Update, 10/9/12)
Except ... I did.  They had a Scoutmob promotion for 50% off, and were back on LevelUp.  I knew I didn't love it the first time, but I should have re-read my review to remember how much I disliked it.  Whoops.  I went back, and like before, found all of the frozen yogurt to be not very good.  Icy, fake flavors, meh.  And ... they wouldn't let me use both Scoutmob and LevelUp, saying it was a double promotion, which isn't really true, since LevelUp is just a payment method.  Double meh.  Now, I really won't be going back, I swear ...
  • Frozen Yogurt
    • Original Tart (non-fat): Good tart flavor, but really icy. [ Very icy, not great tart flavor, meh ]
    • Raspberry-Pomegranate Tart (non-fat): Sorta sweet, sorta tart, couldn't really determine what fruit flavor it was.  Not exactly icy, but not creamy. [ Icy, very sweet.  Wy was this labelled tart? ]
    • Vanilla (low-fat): Very generic.  Not creamy, no vanilla flavor, just sweet. [ Creamy, although not very vanilla flavored.  My favorite of the bunch. ]
    • Ghirardeli Chocolate (low-fat): Very generic.  Not creamy, not particularly good chocolate flavor.
    • Banana: Just sweet.  Very fake banana flavor.  Ok creaminess.
    • Dulce de Leche: Insanely sweet, not refined flavor.  Ok creaminess.
    • Cheesecake (non-fat): Very sweet, very fake, not good at all.
    • Reese's Peanut Butter (low-fat): Icy, although it did taste a lot like peanuts.  Not very good.
  • Toppings
    • Brownie bites, cookie dough: really not good.  Not fresh tasting, just lumps of gross.
    • Jellied bits: Not really sure what these were, but they were little jellies in a sweet sauce.  Not bad.
    • Assorted mochi: soft, not bad.
    • Heath bar, gummy peach rings, chocolate rocks, mini M&Ms: standard candy, not sure how they would have messed this up.  All good.
    • Fruit: Didn't get any, as it didn't look very fresh.