Saturday, January 26, 2013

Demo By Chef Terri Wu, Farallon

It has been a while since I last posted a cooking demo review, partially because I haven't been to as many lately with the holidays, but also because I only post them when I'm particularly impressed.  Many are good enough, and I learn a few handy tips, but aren't really worth telling you about.

Today's demo, held in the beautiful Macy's Cellar, was by Chef Terri Wu, from Farallon, and she was demoing their top selling dessert.  It is easy to see why.  It combines two of my absolute favorite things: chocolate and ice cream!  I'm coming down with a cold, and was very tempted to skip the demo, but I couldn't resist the appeal of a dessert demo, particularly once I read the description.  I'm glad I dragged myself there, because it was quite a treat.

Chef Wu gave a demo full of helpful tips, particularly surrounding how to make the texture of the gateau come out right: don't let the chocolate get too hot, else it comes out grainy.  Sift the cornstarch so it doesn't get lumpy.  Bake it in a water bath so the middle cooks without drying out the edges.

She also gave us some interesting historical information about some of the ingredients, like the fact that malt was originally developed as a supplement for infants, and then was used by trekkers as a nutritional aid.  We also learned about vanilla, which I knew to be the second most expensive spice after saffron, but I never really knew why.  It turns out that it needs to be hand pollinated, the flowers last only a day, and it takes three years to mature!

She also gave us one incredibly handy tip: she said to cover the semifreddo with plastic wrap in the freezer, so it didn't develop an icy layer.  She then added offhand that we could do the same with any ice cream once we open it.  Why have I never heard of that before?  I always have to scrape off the top layer!

I've somehow not yet been to Farallon, even though it has been on my list for quite a while, as they are known for their seafood, and I'm a seafood lover.  I had no idea that they had such a great pastry program, but now that I know, they are climbing even higher on my list!  Or perhaps, I'll even just go for dessert at the bar :)
Valrhona Grand Cru Tainori Feve.
To start, chef Wu had us taste the chocolate itself.  She uses Valrhona, a chocolate I'm a big fan of (somehow, I haven't ever posted my reviews of their chocolate ... stay tuned!)  It is a 64% from the Domincan Republic.  It was very smooth, yet had a remarkably fudgy finish.  I'm used to chocolate with a strong fudgy taste like this having a thicker mouthfeel, but it had a nice snap to it and was really clean.  Definitely quality chocolate!
Bittersweet Chocolate Malt Gateau with Vanilla Bean Semifreddo, Milk Chocolate Caramelia Pearls, Cocoa Nib Praline, and Espresso Malt Crème Anglaise.
She really gave us a taste of everything, featuring a bit of all of the components that they feature on the dessert at the restaurant.  When I saw it on the menu for $10 I thought it seemed a bit high, but there are  a slew of elements to the final dessert.  Each element was fantastic, and certainly combined together to create a masterpiece.  And look at the plating, just for the demo!

Of course, there is the chocolate malt gateau.  It was everything you want a flourless chocolate dessert to be: rich, decadent, super fudgy.  It was fantastic on its own, and would have been great with just some whipped cream or perhaps a little berry coulis.  But Chef Wu stepped it up a bunch of notches with her accompaniments!

The zig zag is the espresso malt crème anglaise.  It had a strong bitter coffee flavor to it, which paired very well with the rich chocolate gateau.  The little balls are milk chocolate caramelia pearls, another Valrhona product, made with their milk chocolate and real caramel.  They added a nice crunch and as someone who loves toppings on ice cream, I enjoyed them most with the semifreddo.  The little bits that look like salt are actually cocoa nib praline, another nice crunchy component, particularly when you got a cocoa nib (although, I think salt would work beautifully here too! Dark chocolate and salt is always a winning combo!)

My favorite element was the semifreddo.  It was far creamier than I expected and had a lovely malted flavor to it, along with some intense vanilla.  Given how much easier it is to make than ice cream (it doesn't require an ice cream machine), I'll certainly be trying this out at home!

This was a great dessert, and it is easy to see why it is such a crowd pleaser at the restaurant.  I'd certainly order it!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fountain Cafe & Grill

Fountain Cafe is located inside Crocker Galleria, where they have a farmer's market I regularly visit on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  They also have a food court, but I'd never checked out any of the eateries before, until of course, I saw that I had LevelUp credits to use at a few of the places, so I finally ventured up to the top floor to check them out.

Fountain Cafe serves breakfast and lunch, with items you can order from the grill. I didn't partake in any of that though, and went for the pay-by-weight salad bar instead.  The salad bar is really extensive, featuring basic greens and veggies, but also a slew of composed salads, and mediterranean items like hummus, falafel, dolma, pita, etc.  I've been on a serious potato salad, pasta salad, etc kick lately, so the plethora of composed salads was incredibly appealing!

These were the best salads I've had from anywhere in San Francisco.  I was really surprised by how much I liked them, and preferred them over those from local delis, even Whole Foods.  They nail a couple key aspects for me: cooking the noodles and potatoes just right, keeping them al dente so they aren't remotely mushy, not over dressing anything, and their seasoning is just spot on.  The salads didn't look like anything special, but they are very good versions of some classics.  The salads all seemed fresh, made of decent quality ingredients, and with recipes that have been honed in.

I recommend, and am very glad to have found this place.  Thanks LevelUp!  They are also on GoPago, but you obviously can't get the salads that way.  If you want to check them out yourself, you can use my invite to LevelUp to get a free $5 credit to spend here, or anywhere, and you'll also get another $2 to spend just at Fountain Cafe.
Curry pasta salad, macaroni salad, seafood salad.  $6.99/lb -> $2.38 for this container.
None of the salads looked particularly good, but I figured I'd give it a try, since it was (mostly) free.  I had no idea how much the $2 credit could buy me, so I picked the most interesting 3 salads, and took a tiny scoop of each.  If they were good, I could always get more!  My little container was still over budget, it came in at a whopping $2.38!

One salad was a curry pasta salad.  The pasta shells were the highlight - they were just perfectly cooked, very al dente.  The sauce was flavorful.  Also in the mix were celery and cranberries, which added some crunch.  I didn't take any, but it also had large chunks of apple and chicken.  I avoided the chicken since I just don't care for chicken, and I figured the apples wouldn't hold up very well.  This was my favorite salad, and sadly, the one I took the least of.

Next was a classic macaroni salad.  It contained shredded carrots, red and green peppers, tiny chunks of egg, and ... corn.  The corn was super weird, not something I've ever really seen in a macaroni salad, but it worked.  The dressing was mayo based and fairly flavorful.  And like the curry shells, the macaroni was cooked nicely.  I liked this much more than the macaroni salad from A.G. Ferrari.  My second favorite of the trio.

Finally, there was a seafood salad.  Besides the bay shrimp, I couldn't identify what else was in it.  Shredded crab stick I think, in a mayo base.  It was well seasoned and flavorful.  Not high end seafood salad obviously, but tasty and I enjoyed it.  My third pick.

I'd get any of these again, and was really surprised by how much I liked them.
Curry pasta salad, coleslaw.  $6.99/lb -> $2.10 for this container.
On my second visit, I had a very hard time not just getting more of the same three I had the first time, as I liked them all so much.  But, there were so many more fun looking salads to try, so I forced myself to only repeat one, the curry pasta.

The curry pasta really wasn't entirely the same this time.  The pasta was cooked more, not overcooked, but not as al dente as the first time, which is what I had loved about it.  The celery and cranberries were the same, and this time I took some of the chicken and apples.  The apples were pretty mushy.  The chicken was decent quality.  The sauce seemed sweeter, but perhaps that was my imagination, as I'd just had a lot of sweets prior to eating it, and was a little sick of sweet things at that point.

The coleslaw was crunchy, clearly fresh, and had great seasoning, with a little bit of kick from some pepper.  It was lightly dressed with mayo.  The winner of the pair.
Curry pasta salad, potato salad, macaroni salad  $6.99/lb -> $1.96 for this container.
On my third visit, I again struggled deciding which ones to get.  Every single salad I'd had so far as really good, but I still hadn't tried the potato salad.

I couldn't resist getting the curry pasta salad again, since I'd loved it so much the first time, and thought the flavor was still great the second time.  This time I avoided the apples, since they were mushy last time, and avoided the chicken, since I'm not a huge fan.  The pasta was cooked nicely al dente, and the flavor of the curry sauce was just to die for, a perfect balance of curry and sweetness.  I love this stuff.  My favorite, by far.

I tried a tiny bit of the potato salad.  I wish I'd gotten more!  The potatoes were just how I like them - al dente.  I guess this is probably personal preference, but I really like my potatoes to be slightly crisp when in potato salad.  They nailed this for me.  The dressing was mayo based and flavorful, with bits of carrots, green pepper, and eggs.  Much, much better than the potato salad I had from A.G. Ferrari a few days prior.

I also got a little more of the macaroni salad, since I'd enjoyed it the first time.  Unfortunately, this time, the pasta was way overcooked.  Not only not al dente like I like, but actually mushy.  But the flavors were good.  My least favorite though, and I'm glad I got this once before when it was good, as I'd never have gotten it again if this was my first encounter.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Yes, More Rubio's

A few months ago, I discovered Rubio's, rather by accident, while on a ridiculous mission to try random places that had birthday specials.  Unlike most of my birthday adventures, Rubio's was a success, and I've been back many times since.

This time, I brought Ojan with me, as he hadn't yet experienced it, despite all of my praise.

Since I've reviewed it so many times before, I'll leave out all the general details in this review, and focus on the specifics from this meal.  But like all other times, I was impressed with the friendliness of the staff, and particularly the quality of the food for the price point and location.  Yes, it is possible to get a large chunk of fish, in a dish full of flavor, for <$5, near the Ferry Building.

The staff were even more impressive than usual this time.  As on all my other visits, even though we were given a pager, the food was delivered to us at our table.  But more surprising was the fact that one of the staff members was circulating the room, checking in on every table, and even bussing them as people finished food.  It was almost like full table service, but in a fast casual restaurant.  Totally crazy.

The two tacos we got on this visit were actually my least favorites, which was disappointing  but I'll definitely still be going back.
Blackened Mango Habanero Mahi Mahi Taco, Blackened Salmon Taco, No Fried Pinto Beans, Chips.  $8.39.
Ojan picked the salmon taco, blackened style.  Described as "Sustainable Atlantic salmon, grilled or house blackened on an authentic comal with a special garlic marinade. Topped with fire-roasted corn with a pinch of ancho chile, our creamy chipotle sauce, cilantro/onion and red and green cabbage. Served on a warm stone-ground corn tortilla and garnished with a slice of lime."

Since the salmon was the one type of seafood I hadn't yet tried at Rubio's, I of course demanded a bite. The salmon was tender, a large piece, but it was fishy.  I can't stand fishy salmon.  A big disappointment  as all of the other seafood I've had at Rubio's has always been surprisingly fresh tasting, and never fishy.

For my taco, I picked the one I remembered most fondly from all my previous visits: the Mango Habanero Mahi Mahi Taco.  Described as "Pacific mahi mahi, a mild, white fish, seasoned in olive oil and garlic or house blackened then grilled on an authentic comal and topped with mango pineapple salsa, a smoky red chile sauce made with guajillo, ancho and red jalapeño chiles, along with crema and serrano cabbage slaw. Served on a warm flour tortilla and garnished with a slice of lime."

On my previous visit, I got it regular, but this time, I went for the blackened, since I'd loved the blackened seasoning when I had it on a talapia taco on another visit.  Like before, the mahi was nicely prepared, a large chunk.  But the blackening seasoning completely took over and overwhelmed the taco.  I didn't get to taste any of the amazing serrano cabbage slaw that I'd loved so much the last time.  The mango and pineapple salsa was still sweet and tasty, and I loved the size of the chunks of the fruit, but overall, this was one of the least successful tacos I've had there.  It was also really watery, dripping with something, I'm not entirely sure what.  I wouldn't get it this way again.

The pinto beans were hot, fresh, and creamy.  I'm not a bean lover, but I could appreciate the quality.

The chips were pretty generic, but I enjoyed them a few with salsas from the salsa bar.
Churro.  $1.50.
The one part of the menu I hadn't yet explored at Rubio's was the dessert.  They have a single option: a churro.  Described as: "Cinnamon-sugar pastry, served warm."

I was excited to try it, as I love sweets, and I've been craving a donut quite a bit lately, and thought this would satisfy me.

It wasn't very good.  It seemed far too fried, the entire thing incredibly crispy.  It had tons of cinnamon and sugar on it, which, I love cinnamon and sugar, but it was just too much.  But it was easily banged off.  But, nothing could save it from being just a crispy stick of fry.  Would not order again.
Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 21, 2013

Dinner by Chef Steven Levine, via Munchery

A few days ago, I wrote about getting cookies delivered to my doorstep, via a wonderful service called Munchery.  Today I bring you a full dinner review, from one of the top rated chefs on Munchery.

First, let me tell you a little about Munchery, as I'm a huge fan.  The simple description is that it a food delivery service, but that doesn't really do it justice.  I've seen it described as "personal chef for the masses", but that doesn't really fit either.  So, I'll be more wordy, and try to accurately portray it!

The items available on Munchery are prepared by an assortment of chefs, some of whom offer dishes daily, others whom only contribute occasionally.  It basically seems like an opportunity for them to cook whenever they have some extra time.  These aren't just random folks, they are alums of great places like Gary Danko, Michael Mina, The French Laundry, etc.  The food selection is incredibly varied, ranging from healthy dishes (lots of salads and soups) to classic comfort foods (meatloaf, mac and cheese, fried chicken) and everything in between.  There is Asian cuisine, Mediterranean, even Caribbean.  And then there are bakers and pastry chefs, offering up fresh breads, cupcakes, cookies, and other treats.  There is certainly something for every taste, and the menus change daily.
Well packaged, with clear preparation instructions.
The meals come nicely packaged, with detailed instructions on how to finish preparing the food.  For most items, this just means heating something up, or adding a sauce.  One thing that makes Munchery really different from restaurant delivery is that the items arrive cold, rather than hot (er, lukewarm), and are designed to be delivered that way.  This means for some things the chef deliberately under-cooks the items, so that in your warming process, you complete the cooking, rather than over-cook it.  Items like salads come with the dressing on the side, so they don't get soggy.  This results in a much better meal than restaurant delivery!

Menus are constantly updated, some posted a couple weeks in advance, but many items are not added until a day or so before.  If you order early enough (two days ahead?), you get "early bird" pricing, which seems to be about $1 less than normal prices.  If you order late enough, you might catch a "flash sale", where 50% off discounts are offered.  You can see photos and very detailed descriptions of the dishes, along with reviews by other diners.

I've been wanting to try out real food from Munchery for a while now, as the photos and menu items always sound incredible, but I was a little nervous.  I'm a food snob, and honestly didn't think that reheated food, no matter how nicely prepared, would really satisfy me.  But San Francisco got crazy cold, and I went into hibernation mode.  The idea of a nice dinner showing up on my doorstep was too much to resist.  I knew I could play it safe and just get a salad, or a soup, or perhaps something like a lasagna, dishes known to be easy to reheat.  But, I love seafood, and I figured I'd just go all out and try something that sounded good.  I read a bunch of reviews, and when I saw a seafood entree come up from a well rated chef, I went for it.

The ordering process, just like when I got the cookie, was through their website and very easy.  You select a 1 hour delivery window (or go pick it up at their headquarters in the Mission), and pay a modest delivery fee.  It all worked flawlessly, and the driver sent me a text message about 5-10 minutes before he arrived to let me know he was almost there.  If I wasn't going to be home, I could have provided a cooler, and he would have left it there for me.  So simple!

I'll definitely be ordering more from Munchery, whenever I'm feeling lazy, or when a great looking dish shows up on the menu.  If you are interested in checking it out yourself, you can use my invite link and get $20 off your first order!
Grilled Mahi Mahi, Shrimp-Root Vegetable "Home Fries", Watercress Slaw, Lemon-Caper Tartar Sauce.  $13.99.
First, do not be shocked by the portion shown here.  This wasn't the whole dish, it was actually Ojan who ordered this, I just took some to try, and didn't get a photo of the larger portion.

The full description was given as: "Grilled Mahi Mahi served on diced potatoes, celery root, parsnips, carrots and rutabagas sauteed with onions, celery and bell peppers and diced shrimp 'home fries' style. Topped with a slaw of shredded cabbage, onion, peppers, carrots, cucumbers, radishes and watercress tossed with a lemon-celery seed vinaigrette. Served with a lemon, caper and dill tartar sauce."

The mahi mahi was the star of the dish.  It had lovely grill marks on it, but they weren't just for show, the grilled flavor was pronounced and quite delicious.  The fish had some slight seasoning on it, but honestly, the smokey grill flavor was more than enough to flavor the whole thing.  It was a good size piece of fish, fresh tasting, well cooked.

I was really excited for the tartar sauce, and to be honest, it is partially what made me select this dish over other seafood dishes offered.  I love tartar sauce, particularly caper tartar sauce.  Unfortunately, I didn't like it.  I'm not sure what it was.  It did have capers.  It was creamy.  It had some nice dill undertones.  But something was just off for me.  It disappointed me, but the fish was so good on its own that it wasn't necessary anyway (did I mention that grilled flavor?  Yum!)

The "home fries" were the part I was most intrigued by from the description, and were a fun addition to the dish.  They came as a very generous portion, cubed root veggies, which apparently included potatoes, celery root, parsnips, and rutabagas, but all I really tasted of those were potatoes.  They seemed a bit mushy and overcooked however.  I liked the flavor that the onions and peppers added, but I kept thinking the entire time that I'd want to have this for breakfast, with an egg, rather than with the mahi mahi.  It was also too oily for my liking.  My least favorite part of the dish, although I really like the shrimp that were included.  They were small little shrimp, and their tiny size perfectly matched the veggie cubes.

The slaw was a mix of fresh vegetables, including cabbage, yellow and red peppers, cucumbers, red onion, julienned carrots, and watercress.  It was fresh and crisp, but otherwise unremarkable.  I enjoyed the strong peppery watercress, and the balance that the slaw added to the final composed dish.

The portion size was good, and it was a well balanced plate containing the fish, the home fries, and the salad.  The price was great for the portion and quality too.
The slaw, dressing, and tartar sauce came separately packaged.
I appreciated that the slaw came in its own container, so it stayed fresh and crisp.  The dressing was on the side, which helped the slaw not get soggy, but also allowed me to dress it to the level I wanted.  I was impressed with the packaging and thought that goes behind the fact that the items are going to be re-assembled.
The fish and hash, in the main container.
Here you can see the full portion of fish and the hash, which came in the main container.  They had to be transfered to an oven-safe dish for heating up, obviously.