Saturday, November 10, 2012

Tava Indian Kitchen

Tava is a fast casual Indian restaurant, opening in SOMA on Wednesday.  They already have a location down in Palo Alto, opened 9 months ago, that has received very good reviews.  I was invited to a preview dinner tonight, a test run of the new restaurant.  I was excited, as I do love Indian food, and haven't found a place in the city that I've liked all that much.

The first thing I noticed when I entered was an entire wall decorated with spice jars.  I hoped that this implied that they use fresh and plentiful spices.  And indeed they do!

The concept behind Tava is to be a "gateway to Indian food", making it more accessible and familiar to Americans.  To achieve this, the menu is very simple, using form factors familiar to most.  They offer something for everyone, with vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options.  To start, you choose either a rice bowl, a salad, or an Indian burrito, dubbed a "burroti".

The ordering process is completely customizable, and is done assembly line style.  You next select the hot components, a protein and sauce.  Then you move down to the cold chutneys and fresh vegetables.  They make it simple and not intimidating, but do not sacrifice on the core part of what makes Indian food so great, the amazing spicing.

Another of their core concepts is using fresh, quality ingredients, which you can see the moment you order, as your roti starts as a ball of dough, cooked and pressed fresh to order.  When you select a protein, the lamb is grass fed.

They also care about offering a healthy meal, using yogurt in place of cream and ghee.  You don't feel all weighed down and heavy after eating there.

The food was good, and did live up to the promises of fast, fresh, and flavorful.  Ojan really enjoyed his burroti.  I haven't seen him this excited about a meal in ages.  I think he made better selections than I.

One area that the menu was lacking is one of my favorites - desserts.  There were none available.  I'd like to put in a plug to add some, particularly rice pudding.  Some of us just aren't satisfied without ending on a sweet note :)

The other area that fell short was the beverage offerings.  The menu does have chai and mango lassi, although they were not available at the test run, but mostly they just have soda and far-too-sweet Minute Maid Lemonade.  This doesn't seem to fit in with their general themes of fresh and healthy, and really doesn't seem to match the clientele right either.  It was honestly the first time I've come across fountain beverages in years!

I'm very excited to see a quality, fast casual restaurant opening in the area.  I expect that they will be very successful, and the focus on fresh and healthy ingredients is a good match for the neighborhood.   I hope they are able to be open on nights and weekends, as this neighborhood has so few options for easy dinners.  They will likely be very popular with the lunch crowd, much like nearby Sushirito and The Melt.

I hope to return soon now that I've tried the basics, and really customize the meal to better suit my style!
Burroti. $7.49 + $2 for paneer add on.
I choose the burroti.  A burroti is basically a burrito, made with fresh roti as the wrapper.  When you order, they actually take a ball of dough, press and grill it to order.  Then you pick your fillings, and it is assembled for you.

I was only the second customer of the test day, and it was clear that they were still getting the roti making technique down.  Mine was very doughy, barely cooked.  I really loved that they made it fresh, starting with a ball of dough, but it wasn't very good.  Since it wasn't fully cooked, it was really hard to take bites out of.  I ended up just unwrapping it and eating it with a fork.  When we mentioned this to the owner, he brought us over a new batch, and it was like an entirely different product.  Immediately upon seeing it, you could tell they were far more cooked, nicely golden brown on the outside.  I ended up eating a bunch of the extra roti dipped in some chutney and really enjoyed it.  Had my roti originally been more cooked, it certainly would have been more successful.

To start, you select white basmati or brown rice, both with some parsley mixed in.  The rice was fluffy and not buttery.  Fairly generic, not bad.  I went for the brown rice, which had a slight heartiness to it.

Then, you pick your "protein".  The options were chicken, lamb, or vegetables.  None of these options were all that appealing to me, as I hate lamb, usually don't like chicken, and vegetables are kinda boring (and aren't really a protein).  I asked to try the chicken first.  It was marinated and grilled, with a nice smoky flavor.  Pretty good, but I didn't want chicken.  Ojan had the pulled, grass fed lamb.  He said it was moist and not at all grisly.  Every few bites he happily commented on how high quality the lamb was.  I decided to get the vegetables, a mix of cauliflower, onions, and peppers.  This isn't a mix I was excited for, but since I didn't want the other options, I went for it.  The vegetables weren't very good, kinda mushy.  I wouldn't get them again.  I would have preferred eggplant or peas perhaps.  Or, even better, paneer, but I like that they were trying to have a vegan option.

Next up, you choose your sauce.  The options were daal or tikka.  As I dont like lentils, I went for the tikka.  It fell in line with their entire philosophy of being healthier, using yogurt instead of cream.  Unfortunately, I couldn't taste much of it in my burroti, so I can't really evaluate it.

Then, you choose your chutneys.  Even though I like spicy, I went for the mild tamarind date, it somehow just caught my attention.  Later on in my meal, I was able to sample all of the chutneys, see below for my more complete review of them.  I also added some cooling raita.

Finally, you pick fresh vegetables.  They offer lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, and red onion, all chopped up in a small dice.  I added all but the red onion, as it seemed like it would just be too harsh.  The lettuce and cucumber were fresh enough, added a good crunch, but were fairly unremarkable.  The tomato was under-ripe and not that great.  Ojan didn't order it upon sight, but I still gave it a try.  He made the better move.

Lastly, I discovered paneer, available as an add-in option for $2 more.  Since paneer is what I'd originally wanted, I added it.  It was small cubes, with good grill marks.  Unfortunately, it was cold (by design, it wasn't in the hot section).  I wish it was warmed.

I didn't love my burroti, but I'd really like to try another one, and make different choices.  Next time, I'd either get the chicken or really, what I want, is just paneer.  I wonder if I could do that?  I'd also ask for extra tikka sauce.  And I think I'd leave out all of the fresh vegetables.  They were all fine, but took things far more in the Mexican direction than I wanted.

The $7.49 price point was good, these were quality, fresh ingredients.
Garlic naan chips.
As a side, you can get garlic naan chips.  I expected them to be thicker, more like pita chips, but instead they were thin like tortilla chips.  They weren't at all oily or fried tasting.  Like the rest of the food, it was lighter, healthier, fresher than you expect.  Subtle garlic flavor.  A nice side to dip into the assorted chutneys.
Assorted Chutneys.
All of the chutneys were really impressive, bursting with flavor.  They were incredibly fresh tasting, clearly made with fresh ingredients and plentiful spices.

Clockwise, from top left.
  • Tava Lava: This was the spiciest one, although not in a traditional way.  The heat didn't hit at first, instead, you tasted the vegetables, the peppers and tomato that go into it.  But the heat came through in the finish.  It combined nicely with the cooling raita.  I really liked how strong the vegetable flavors were in this one.
  • Spicy Mint: This one actually seemed the spiciest to me, but it was a complex spiciness, as it was balanced by the cooling mint in it.  Very minty, very good.
  • Medium Cilantro Lime: When Ojan tasted this, he exclaimed "I don't know how they make it taste so cilantro-y!" It was so clearly cilantro.  Not my favorite flavor, but very fresh.
  • Mild Tamarind Date: I loved this one.  Ojan thought it was a little too sweet.  The sweetness came from dates, so it wasn't just sweet, it was flavorful.  Delicious as a dipping sauce.  When the owner saw me savoring every last bit of this, he offered me some naan chips and some of this to take home.  Such a tasty snack later on.
  • Raita: Nice cooling yogurt based dip, with some cucumber in it.  Combined nicely with all of the other sauces.
Hot Chai. $3.25.
While walking by one afternoon, it was cold out, and I saw that they had hot chai.  I didn't want food, but I really wanted a warm, comforting beverage.

Warm it was.  The chai was incredibly hot, too hot to drink at first, but I appreciated how long it stayed hot, keeping me warm for the rest of my journey.

The chai however was very, very sweet.  I love sweets, but this was a bit too much for me.  Nicely spiced, but overwhelmed by sweetness and milkiness.

Speaking of spices, they weren't strained out, so when I got near the end of the cup, I got a giant swig of ground up spices.  That was very unpleasant, but perhaps my own fault?

I didn't love this, but it was a nice change from a standard coffee beverage, and fun to try something different.

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Iced Chai.  $3.

And on other day, it was crazy hot out, and the idea of an iced chai sounded very appealing.

Like the hot chai, this was very sweet.  Again, too sweet for me.  It was also strangely served cold but without any ice in it, and the cup was filled to the brim, so I couldn't add ice at the ice machine.  And topped with a hot beverage lid, not a cold beverage lid, although I could easily add a straw and poke it through the sip hole.

Anyway, it didn't meet my desire for a refreshing cool beverage, since it wasn't actually iced, and it was far too sweet to be refreshing.  I wouldn't get this again.
Tava Indian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 08, 2012

More Froyo from Pinkberry


Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Evolution Fresh

Evolution Fresh is a subsidy of Starbucks, originally started by the same guy who founded Naked Juice.  Their main product is juices (fruit, veggie, combo, or even things like coconut water), sold bottled in stores, but they also have two shops in the Seattle area, and now one in San Francisco.  The focus is all on very healthy, fresh food.  In addition to the juices (on tap of course), the shops also offer smoothies, some healthy bowls you can create using kale, buckwheat noodles, quinoa, or lentils as the base, pre-made sandwiches (using multigrain bread or collard green wrappers) and a few sweets.  And of course, Starbucks coffee and Tazo teas.  Everything is very clearly labelled gluten-free, vegan, etc.

I attended the opening event in San Francisco, and tried out a few items.  The service was all very friendly and excited, as it was opening day.  For the most part, this just isn't the sort of food that I crave or would go out for, so I'm not sure when I'd go back.  Their juices and smoothies were really quite good, so if I was ever in the mood for one, I'd definitely think of Evolution Fresh.  I think it will do well, located right on Fillmore Street in Pacific Heights, and when I was there, it was completely filled with yoga pants wearing women, eager for a healthy snack.

Smoothie Granola Bowl.  $7.95.
They have a large variety of smoothies, which you can get as a classic smoothie, or turn into a granola bowl with granola and sliced banana.  I was originally just getting a smoothie, but changed my mind when I saw one of these come out, as it looked far more exciting.

For the smoothie, I picked the Smooth Blue, made with pineapple juice, mangoes, blueberries, and pineapple.  It was sweet, it was tart, it was super flavorful.  Icy, with some big chunks of blueberries, pineapple, and mango remaining.  I'm pretty sure that was intentional.  I really liked the smoothie.

Mixed into it was some granola, that got soggy fairly fast.  I didn't like that part, and had expected it to just come topped with the granola, like the açaí bowls I tried at Blue Hawaii.  There was also a bunch of ripe sliced banana.

This was very similar to an açaí bowl, but I liked it more.  However, I would have most likely just preferred a smoothie, and will unlikely get one of these again.

$7.95 seemed pretty pricy for the size, even if it was made with quality ingredients.
Mel Bar.  $2.
From the "small bites" section of the menu, supposed to be a healthy treat, made with almond butter, nuts, seeds, dried cranberries, crisp puffed millet, and rolled in coconut flakes.

I had a hard time identifying what exactly was in here.  There were bits of crunchy nuts, chopped up so tiny that I couldn't tell what type they were.  There were some tart dried cranberries, and I think some pepitas.  And obviously the coconut flakes on the outside.

I couldn't really tell how I felt about this.  It was a little sweet, but not really a dessert.  I believe it was a raw product.  There was a time when I went through a health foods kick, and I think that back then I would have really enjoyed it.  If you are a looking for a healthy treat, this could be it, but it isn't something that really has a place in my life right now.

$2 was a surprisingly good price, particularly compared to the other pricing.
Turkey and Caramelized Onion Sandwich.  $7.95.
They also have a fridge full of grab and go items, including sandwiches.  "Caramelized onions" jumped out at me, so I tried it.  It was turkey breast, with gruyere, baby spinach, dijon mustard, and of course, the caramelized onions, on seeded multigrain bread.

It wasn't very good.  It didn't taste all that fresh, which I guess is expected as it was pre-made.  The bread was kinda dry.  There wasn't much turkey.  I didn't taste any dijon.  The caramelized onions were flavorful, but besides them, it had nothing going for it.

Would not get again.

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  • Organic V: Carrot, apple, celery, lemon, beet, spinach, lime, parsley, ginger.  Tasting notes; I didn't like this, but I don't tend to like vegetable juices.  It was kinda thick and just ... vegetably.
  • Pineapple Coconut Water: One of the better coconut waters I have tasted, very refreshing, but with a pretty strong pineapple flavor.
  • Belgium Chocolate Granola Bar: Nice dark chocolate, good crunch, pretty tasty.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

More Nick's Crispy Tacos

Yes, I went back to Nick's Crispy Tacos.  Even though after my first visit, I said I wouldn't go back.

Why?  I've still heard good things about the place, and I was really craving fried fish, which I didn't try on my first visit.  This wasn't quite enough to make me return but then .... they ran a new LevelUp promotion, $10!  I could get the fried fish taco I wanted, for free.  I couldn't resist using my LevelUp credits!

My entire experience was pretty much the same as the first time.  The bathroom wasn't very clean, the salsa bottles were sticky, but the staff were friendly, LevelUp was welcomed and worked with no problems, and the food arrived quickly.  But, it wasn't very good.  This time, I swear, I'm not going back ...

By the way, if you want some LevelUp credits, you can join with my code (V47MSA) and get $5 to use anywhere, in addition to the venue credits they offer.
Small Horchata.  $2.
A few years ago, I had an office mate who loved horchata.  Whenever it was offered anywhere, he always talked about it.  Somehow, this got it in my head that I might also like horchata.  Since then, I often order it, wherever I see it.  But ... I rarely like it.  It always just seems too ricey, and not refreshing.  That said, there have been a few occasions when I have liked it, either because it was more aqua fresca like and thinner, or because the spicing was particularly good.

This was not one of those cases.  It tasted ... like rice.  Kinda thick.  Some cinnamon flavor, but not much.  Some sweetness, but not much.  Just pretty unremarkable, but since I'm not really much of a horchata drinker, I don't claim any expertise here.  I wouldn't get it again.
Pescado Taco.  $4.95.
The first time I went to Nick's, I went for $2 Taco Tuesday, and the seafood tacos were not an option.  This time, I was able to pick my first choice, the Pescado Taco.  Described as "baja style fried fish in a corn tortilla with salsa, lime mayonnaise, cilantro, cabbage & onions".

I was excited for this, as I've had a thing for fried fish since I visited the east coast over the summer and had some amazing fish and chips.  I haven't really found fried fish in the Bay Area that has even come close to comparing, although I tried pretty hard for a while.

Within a few minutes, it arrived on my table, in the same plastic red basket as my first taco.  I was again struck by the size.  They make seriously large tacos!  Like the pollo asado taco I had on my first visit, it came wrapped up with two corn tortillas.  They were exactly the same, soft, slight corn flavor, pretty unremarkable.

The filling of this was completely different however, as the non-seafood tacos are filled with beans and pico de gallo, neither of which were very good in my previous taco.  This one instead came with some cabbage, cilantro, and red onion as the main filling.  The cabbage and cilantro were pretty much lost, but the red onion ... it stuck out, and not in a good way.  There was a lot of it, and the slices were large. It was very sharp red onion.  I felt like one of the judges on Top Chef or Chopped, I forget which, who always freaks out when people use too much raw red onion.  It just ruined the entire slaw mix for me, it was all I tasted.

There was also some mayo, which I could see, but didn't really taste.  Apparently it was lime flavored, which I didn't detect.  I also squeezed the lime garnish on top, which gave a bit of flavor.  It also said there was salsa in the taco, which I didn't taste, but given how flavorless their salsas were before, this didn't surprise me.  I also tried adding more of the sticky squeeze bottle salsas to my taco, to give it some kick, but they again were pretty flavorless.  Even Taco Bell had better tasting salsa!

The fish was two fairly large chunks.  They were incredibly fried.  The batter was very thick, and very oily.  It didn't have a great flavor, but was pretty crispy.  There was way too much of the batter however, and it seemed like far too many of my bites contained only batter, no fish.  What fish I did have was just generic white fish, with no flavor that I could taste.  Not fishy or anything bad, but also not buttery or good either.  Really unremarkable.

This just wasn't very good.  The fish and the cabbage mix in the one from Rubio's was much better, and theirs is only $2.99, rather than $4.95.  And Rubio's includes it in their Taco Tuesday, for only $1.50!  My favorite fried fish taco is still from Tropisueño, which blows this one away with its incredible slaw.  And that one is $1 cheaper, and comes with chips and the huge salsa and condiments bar.

Basically, this one was the most expensive, not a single component of it was better than anywhere else I've tried, and it was pretty flavorless.  I wouldn't get it again.
Black Bean & Grilled Corn Taco Salad, with Carne Asada.   $7.95.
Ojan asked me to bring him home a taco salad, and of course, I snuck a few bites.  I don't think he noticed, as this was a massive salad.  They offer a base taco salad of "romaine lettuce, corn, black beans, cilantro, onions, tomatoes, cabbage & guacamole tossed in a tomatillo/rojo vinaigrette", and then you can top it with any of the different taco fillings.  He went for carne asada.

The lettuce, cilantro, onion, cabbage mix was pretty boring.  It got soggy very quickly from the large amount of dressing.  Definitely over-dressed.  There were generic black beans, the same ones I'd not liked in my taco, and a few kernels of unremarkable corn.  I didn't try the guacamole since I'm allergic to avocado.

The description didn't mention it, but it was also topped with a ton of fried tortilla strips.  They added a nice crunch, but there were far too many of them.  They also lacked any seasoning, I'd have liked them to have had more salt.

The carne asada was actually pretty good.  Flavorful, moist, decent quality meat.  The best of the proteins I've tried so far.

The base salad was $6.50, which seems way too pricy for not the highest quality salad ingredients, even if it was large.  The carne asada added $1.45 to the price, which seemed ok as the meat was quality Niman Ranch, but overall, this was just kinda expensive and not very good.