Friday, February 22, 2013

Erin Baker's Granola

I love breakfast food, but rarely eat it at home. I generally prefer going out to brunch to have decadent french toast or bread pudding, or at least visiting a bakery or cafe for fresh baked goods.  But lately I've been lazy, trying more simple at-home options, like cereal and granola.

I discovered Erin Baker's, a brand with several product lines, including breakfast cookies (!!!), "Homestyle" granola, and "Endurance Granola".  The endurance granola is not your everyday granola, it is loaded with protein, Omega-3's, fiber, etc, via soy protein crisps.  It is even the "official granola of Ironman".  I started with that line, and didn't like it, so I didn't bother trying any others.
Power Crunch Granola: Peanut Butter.
"Made with whole grains, all natural Peanut Butter and sweetened with Honey and Molasses. "

They also make this flavor in their "Homestyle" granola line, which as far as I can tell, is exactly the same, just without the soy protein crisps.

I expected it to taste like peanut butter, given the name, but it didn't really.

First, I tried it just by the handful, as something to munch on.  It was boring and dry.  Not much flavor, and the clusters weren't really large enough to be good finger food.  I tried it several times this way, and never liked it.  It was also too dry, I think due to the peanut butter.

I then tried it with some soy milk.  Again, just not much flavor.  How can peanut butter be disappointing?  Sadness.  Meh.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Cupcakes from That Takes The Cake

That Takes the Cake was a bakery located in the Marina, that I discovered on to LevelUp.  They seeded LevelUp accounts with enough to get a free full size cupcake, or, for the indecisive, two minis!  The dessert lover in me could not resist.

The cupcakes were decent, and I probably would have returned, but unfortunately, they closed just a week or so after I found them.  Doh!  I heard that they just re-opened in Oakland, but they weren't really remarkable enough to warrant a journey across the bay.
Mini Blonde Bombshell: Vanilla buttermilk cake topped with vanilla buttercream frosting. $1.50.
The cake wasn't remarkable, but wasn't bad.  Decently moist, ok flavor.

The frosting was quite tasty, actually vanilla flavored!  I'm so grumpy with places where "vanilla" is just a synonym for "sweet and boring".  This actually tasted like vanilla, and was creamy, and not too sweet.

The size was great for the price, particularly compared to Cup and Cakes Bakery, where the minis were $2.15, and totally flavorless.
Mini Tuxedo Cupcake: Chocolate cake with chocolate chips with vanilla buttercream frosting.   $1.50.
I don't normally go for chocolate cupcakes, but they only had two types of minis available on the day I went, so I got one of each, and I knew Ojan would like this one if I didn't.

I didn't care for the cake itself, it seemed fairly dry and was not the best chocolate flavor.  It did have tiny little chocolate chips in it that added a bit of interesting texture.  It had the same tasty vanilla frosting that I enjoyed.

I wouldn't pick it again, but I liked trying it.  Again, good value for price.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Playa Azul

Playa Azul is a casual, Latin American restaurant in Bernal Heights.  Not a neighborhood I normally frequent, but I was nearby, and wanted a snack.  I quickly pulled up my favorite new restaurant discovery tool, LevelUp, and cross-referenced the nearby locations with Yelp reviews.  Playa Azul quickly rose to the top, so I checked it out.

It was a friendly place, with bar seating and standard tables.  I got my food to go however, so I didn't get to check out the establishment much.  I'd love to go back and try some of their other food, particularly the seafood that everyone raves about.
Ensalada De Papas.  $2.40.
I've been eating a lot of potato salad lately.  I'm getting a little sick of it, but I'm also having fun comparing so many different styles of potato salad, so I keep getting it when I see it, so I can add more data points to my collection.  The variety is really somewhat amazing - does it contain egg?  Lots of mayo? How are the potatoes cooked?  What else is in the mix?  So many variations!

I read good things about Playa Azul's potato salad.  People repeatedly mention it on Yelp, surprised that a Latin American restaurant would have good potato salad.  So I obviously had to try it.  They were right, this was good.  Not earth shattering, nor the best I've had, but certainly in the top tier.

I got it to go, and it came with the strangest accompaniments!  I opened my take out bag to find ... an entire bag full of Saltines.  I really don't know how Saltines and potato salad go together at all.  So random.  And then, in with the potato salad, was an orange slice and a lime wedge.  I'm guessing that they normally use these as garnish when plated in the restaurant, and so they included them for me too.  The orange was strange, but I actually squeezed some of the lime juice into the potato salad and liked the zing it added.

The potato salad was a fairly classic mayonaise based recipe, with no egg.  Also in the mix were  shreds of carrots and tiny bits of bell peppers, both red and green, along with a bunch of herbs.  The potatoes were the highlight: definitely al dente.  Probably the crunchiest potato salad I've found.  I'm sure some people would say it was undercooked, but I liked it.  I also liked the small cube size.

This was a very generous sized serving.  It was listed on the menu as a side, and I expected something much smaller.  A rather insane amount for the price as well.  Definitely high value.  I'd get it again.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bite American Tapas

As you know from my posts last week, I was recently up in Tahoe for a few days.  Summary: Tahoe is great, but culinary mecca it is not.  I had some ok breakfast, and some crappy fish and chips.  But I didn't really have high hopes for those establishments in the first place.

However, when I asked for recommendations of places to eat near Incline Village, one place kept coming up: Bite American Tapas.  The Yelp reviews were great, but I really don't trust Yelpers, particularly when it comes to something that can be seen as gimmicky, like tapas.  ZOMG!  Something different!  5 stars!  But other people whose options I valued also recommended it, so I was eager to check it out.

They do not take reservations for groups less than 6, so when we arrived at 7pm on a Saturday, I wasn't shocked that there was a 30 minute wait to get seated in the dining room.  But they offered the full menu at the bar, and as there were only two of us, we decided to just sit there instead.

The bar was large, with seating on all sides.  It was a beautiful wooden surface, although we quickly discovered that it was a bit awkward to eat at, as it had an edge on it that made it impossible to get close to it.  And there were no purse hooks.

Service was good enough, but the meal was a flop.  The food wasn't great, but the real issue is that one of our dishes (scallops) arrived cold.  The scallops and the accompaniments were all so cold, that I actually wondered that maybe we were just wrong in expecting a warm dish.  When I questioned it, the server told us that yes, it was supposed to be warm, and she'd have it fixed.  When the dish came back a little while later, it was clear that they had just re-heated the same portion, and the scallops, which were originally a fairly perfect level of doneness, were now rubbery and way overcooked.  Re-firing scallops is never a good idea :( And the potatoes still had my fork marks in them, so I think they were just placed under a heating lamp.  The dish was pretty nasty in its re-heated form, and no apology was made at any point, and nothing was done to make up for this.  Definite customer service miss.  Perhaps if we'd been in the main dining room these issues wouldn't have come up?  I'm not sure if food gets delivered differently to the bar, perhaps it was just sitting in the pass longer than it would have if going to a regular server?  Perhaps a regular server would be more adept at handling issues like this?  I'm sure I could have brought it up when the bill came, but I was just pretty disappointed and didn't feel like causing problems.

I was really saddened by this experience, as I said, Bite came highly recommended.  But also, I have some friends getting married in a few weeks in a week-long extravaganza in Incline Village, and I was eager to go back with large groups during that time, since everything they do at Bite is designed to be shared, and there were so many things on the menu that I wanted to try!  People have been asking me for recommendations for dining during the wedding week, and I just don't know what to say.
Ahi Sliders with Arugula, Pickled Ginger & Wasabi Aioli.  $14.
Bite has a slew of sliders available, ranging from classic beef burgers, to short rib, to even duck confit or crusted goat cheese.  They are all highly recommended, but the version that stood out both to my tastes, and from great reviews, were the ahi sliders.  They come two to an order, so they were a great choice for two of us to share.

The slider buns looked boring, but were actually pretty tasty, nicely grilled and warm, a bit broiche-like.         They turned out to be the best part of the dish.

I did not taste the pickled ginger mentioned in the description.  What I tasted the most was not included in the description at all: an insane amount of soy (teriyaki?) sauce.  Now, I love sauces, but this was not good.  The slider was literally dripping in the stuff.  It killed every other flavor in the dish.   I couldn’t taste anything besides the horrible sweet sauce.

Each slider had 3 slices of nicely seared ahi, served cold.  I didn’t really like the flavor of the ahi though, even when I managed to extract a little from the sauce.  Maybe that is why they drowned it in sauce?

There was a tiny bit of wasabi aioli, and I think it would have been really nice with the ahi, but like everything else, it was lost in the soy sauce.

I would never get this dish again, it was my least favorite of the night, but it made me interested in the other sliders since the bun was so good.

$14 was a good price for the sliders, as they contained a total of 6 slices of what should have been sushi grade ahi.
Pan Seared Sea Scallops with Yukon Whipped Potato & Brandy Mustard Cream Sauce. $14.
Next we moved on to the aforementioned doomed scallops, from the "small plates" section of the menu.  These were described as the size of a typical entree, just without sides.

There were two large sea scallops, each cut in half, served atop whipped potatoes, with some sort of oil.  The dish looked good, and the plate was warm, but the scallops were cold, and the potatoes were even colder.

As I mentioned, we told the server, and she took the dish back to re-fire.  I wish I'd taken a photo of the dish when it came back, so you could see how overcooked the scallops were after being re-fired.

The scallops were originally medium, although with no real sear on them, but fairly nicely cooked.  If they weren't cold, I would have been happy enough with them.  When they came back however, they had more of a sear, and were hot, but were completely overcooked and totally rubbery.  Who re-fires seared scallops?  Not good.

The yukon whipped potatoes were unremarkable, not very creamy, just mashed potatoes.  Originally cold and off-putting, better once reheated.

As for the brandy mustard cream sauce ... I couldn't find it in the dish.  There was a sauce, and it was creamy, but it had no flavor, and certainly was not mustard.   There was also a green oil sauce, I'm not sure what it was, as it was left off the description as well.

Overall, no part of this was very good, and it certainly didn’t come together.  It had the potential to be a good dish, and I wonder how it would have been if delivered fresh originally.

$14 again seemed like a fine price for a dish this size that uses premium ingredients.
Warm Apple Turnover Bites with Crème Anglaise. $8.
We pondered ordering more savory dishes, as there were a number of items that I did still want to try, but at this point, we were pretty underwhelmed.  You know me though, I couldn't resist ordering dessert.

The server said this was the dessert she always recommended, and the Yelpers agreed.  Amusingly, I almost went for the bread pudding instead, because the description said it was served a la mode, and I just adore warm desserts with ice cream.  I even considered asking for ice cream with the turnovers, since warm apple pie and ice cream is just so good.  But Ojan loves crème anglaise, and I was curious how turnover bites and crème anglaise could possibly be served together, so we just went for the standard dessert.

Like all of their desserts, it came as a set of four.  Four little apple turnovers, topped with a drizzle of crème anglaise, a drizzle of caramel, and … a big scoop of vanilla ice cream in the middle!

The turnovers were indeed warm (bonus points!), but they just weren’t very good.  Lots of dough, that was not flaky nor crispy nor buttery nor anything remarkable.  The filling was just mush, not very flavorful, and the apples were tiny little cubes.

As I said, the description on the menu only listed the crème anglaise as an accompaniment, so I was surprised to find just a little drizzle of it over the turnovers, totally lost.  I wasn't sure what to expect really, but I did think it would be more dominent.  There was just as much, if not more, caramel as crème anglaise, and it wasn't listed.  It was pretty standard, sweet.

And then there was the surprise scoop of ice cream, which I was thrilled by, but I was puzzled by what process they use to decide what to put on the menu.  The huge scoop of ice cream?  Not listed, but the tiny drizzle of crème anglaise was?  Same with the crazy soy sauce on the sliders, the most dominent feature, not listed.  Anyway.  The ice cream was unremarkable, slightly crystalized, vanilla I guess.  But I do love cold ice cream with my hot pie, so bonus points for that.

But overall, this was just not good.  I didn’t even bother finish the last turnover.  And I always finish desserts.

Like all of their prices, $8 was a good price for the size dessert.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Dinner by Chef Sean Mowell, via Munchery

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my first full meal from Munchery.  I enjoyed that dish, and I've been watching the menus since, eager to try out another dish.  I can't get over how awesome this service is - quality dishes, prepared by great chefs, delivered to my home, designed from the start to be reheated, for totally reasonable prices.  It fits my lifestyle perfectly.

I was very excited when I saw a dish listed by Chef Sean Mowell (previously of La Folie, AQ, Gitane, among others).  For Valentine's day, he was making a dish inspired by Chef Heston Blumenthal (3-Michelin starred chef/owner of The Fat Duck).  I was even more excited after Emil ordered it one night, and raved about it.  Emil is not one to give a false seal of approval, and I was actually quite surprised he tried Munchery again, as he didn't like the first meal he ordered through it.

I was intrigued by the basic description of the dish, "Heston Blumenthal's World-Famous Chocolate and Cauliflower Risotto", so I used a Munchery feature to send a message to the chef to ask more about it.  He responded, detailing the ingredients he was using, the cooking process, etc.  It was clear that he was excited to offer the dish, and was working hard to make this high end restaurant quality dish come out well when reheated at home.  This is such a key part of Munchery for me; it isn't just reheating leftovers.  The meals, when done prepared, are designed from the start to be finished by you at home.  It makes a huge difference.  I also love that Munchery allows me to interact with the chefs!

Since I've reviewed and explained the service itself before, I'll skip those details this time, and only review the individual dish.  You can read about all my Munchery experiences here.  If you'd like to try it out yourself, you can use my invite link, and get $20 off your first order!  Enjoy!
Like last time, the meal came with a photo of the chef, a description of the dish, and reheating instructions on the outside.
6 Individual Containers!
I opened the box to reveal 6 different containers.  Woah.  I was a bit overwhelmed, but I took this as a very good sign.  I do wish that Munchery had a way to designate the level of re-heating skill required, as it would allow me to rule out any that come pre-mixed and just want to be stuck in the microwave for 3 minutes.  I'm sure there are plenty of Munchery users who want that, but I am certainly not one of them.

To make the risotto itself, I had to combine the contents of three of the containers.  The largest container was the risotto base, made with shallots, cauliflower stock, parmesan cheese, Chardonnay, grated 80% dark chocolate, and of course, the Carnaroli rice.  The next container contained assorted roasted cauliflower florets.  And another container had a cauliflower cream sauce, made with the same base as the cauliflower stock, but also cream.  I was instructed to mix these ingredients together in a saucepan to reheat them.  Once it was up to temperature, right before serving, I folded in the container of mascarpone cream.

Yes, this was a bit more work than throwing it all in the microwave, but it allowed it to come out really well, finished just as it would be done at a fine dining restaurant.  Perhaps too fancy for most, but I thought it was great how everything was separated.

There were also two other containers, one containing radicchio and a chunk of citrus, the other a dressing.  Strangely, there were no instructions on what to do with these components, but I was pretty sure they were supposed to be served as a side salad.  I read a review from another customer who instead mixed it all into the risotto.  I think I did it right?
Heston Blumenthal's World-Famous Chocolate and Cauliflower Risotto.  $11.99 (early-bird price).
I almost did not want to include this photo, since the dish really did not look photogenic at all!  When I served a portion to Ojan, he looked up and made a face.

Luckily, it tasted far better than it looked.

The most impressive part of the dish was the texture of the rice.  It was slightly al dente, with the perfect level of chew to it.  I partially attribute it to the use of Carnaroli rather than the more common Arborio, but also, the chef just cooked it perfectly.  Really well done.

The flavor developed in the risotto was incredibly complex, a balance of sweetness from the cauliflower and earthiness from the chocolate.  I expected to taste more chocolate, but when I think about it, I probably wouldn't have wanted it more chocolatey, as this was a savory main dish after all.  My one complaint is that it wasn't as creamy as I would have wanted, even when I mixed in all of the cauliflower cream.  I ended up adding some additional milk to it when I reheated the rest the next day, and I enjoyed it more when it was creamier.

I appreciated the chunks of roasted cauliflower, as they added something more interesting texturally than just a big bowl of rice.  About half the florets were browned, and the other half looked more like they were steamed instead.  I think they were probably all roasted, but I'm not sure why they were so different.

My favorite element was the mascarpone.   As it melted in, it added an incredible richness and creaminess.  It went so well with the cauliflower.  It made the dish.

The side salad was a good pairing, the crispy, fresh, bitter radicchio contrasting nicely with the creamy, sweeter risotto.  The dressing also elevated the risotto, the acidity cutting the richness of the risotto.

This was a clearly well thought out, complex dish, with a high level of execution.  Great job chef!  I can't wait to see what else he offers.

The price was $11.99 since I purchased it in advance, $12.99 normally (and, they ended up doing a last minute Flash Sale for only $6.49, which is totally insane!  I guess this dish, while it attracted Emil and I, did not appeal to the masses?  Such a shame.)  Even full price, was a great price for a huge serving.  Ojan and I both had some the first day we ordered it, and then I had some the next day as well.  Emil mentioned that when he had it, he was only able to finish half of it.  While I appreciate the high value, I think this would have been a better offered as a side, in a smaller portion.