Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Sentinel

The Sentinel is a casual sandwich shop located in SOMA, with a sister establishment, The Golden West, in the Financial District.  Both places are tiny, basically little take out windows, serving up sandwiches and salads that have quite the following.  I haven't ever had their lunch fare however.  I go there for one reason: the muffins.

I was first introduced to The Sentinel a few years ago.  It was mid-afternoon, and I was strolling through one of the mini-kitchens at my office, and there was a big container of muffins sitting there.  Being a baked goods fiend, I snatched one up.  I had no idea where they came from, how old they were, or even what kind they were.  But I just had to try them.

I got back to my desk and took a bite.  And then a second later, the entire thing was gone.  It was, hands down, the best muffin I'd ever had.  I needed to know where they came from.  Did a co-worker bake them? Were they from a nearby establishment?  I rushed back to the platter of muffins, but no clues were revealed.  No branding.  What was revealed however, is that there were actually several varieties of muffin.  To further my research, I of course needed to test them all out, just to make sure it wasn't a fluke that the one I had was so amazing.  They were all incredible.  Crispy tops, moist interiors, loaded with chunks of fruit, and covered in sugar.  I'd call them more cake than muffin .... which seemed entirely appropriate  given that it was afternoon.  But back to my mission.  I had to know where they came from.  Since there were several varieties, I determined that it probably wasn't a co-worker's baking skills, as they would likely just make one kind.  But still, I had no more clues.

So, I started walking around, with one of the muffins, and rather frantically asked every person I saw if they knew where the muffins came from.  No one did.  I gave up, dejected.  I consoled myself with another muffin.  I also told everyone I knew about the muffins, thus introducing them all to the best muffins of their lives.

That night, when I was leaving the office, I stopped by the mini-kitchen on my way out.  I was half hoping there would be muffins left, although, honestly, I was stuffed full of them at that point.  There was still one there, but someone else grabbed it just as I came into view.  He must have seen the look on my face, because he offered me half.  I explained that I'd already had an embarrassing number of them, and told him to enjoy it, that they were the best muffins ever.  He grinned and said "I know, I brought them."  Score!  He divulged his secret, and thus, my love of The Sentinel Muffins was born.

I couldn't believe how amazing the muffins were, even when I had them late in the day.  I wondered how much better they could be if I had them fresh.  So I went to The Sentinel several times.  But they were always sold out.  "Come before 9am!" one staff member cheerfully quipped.  "Call ahead to reserve one!", another said.  I kept trying, but continued to fail.

But luckily for me, everyone else loved the muffins too.  One co-worker took it upon himself to bring some in periodically.  He'd arrive there early, get them fresh out of the oven, and bring them to the office.  They were always still hot when they arrived.  OMG.  Since my first experience with the muffins, I do have to admit that I've found muffins I like more, from Baker & Banker, but pretty much everyone I've introduced to these muffins has raved about them.

It also turns out that you can get the same muffins at The Golden West.  I haven't ever acquired them from there, but I hear they are the same.  And if you like their stuff in general, check out Canteen, operated by the same chef.  I haven't been there for dinner yet, but I've had their brunch, and like the muffins, it was filled will delicious baked goods.

So, if you like muffins, go get these, particularly when a favorite fruit of yours is in season (the nectarine ones in the summer are incredible!).  And eat them warm.
Sour Cherry Muffins.
Strawberry Muffins. 
  • Blueberry: Absolutely amazing.  The blueberries were incredibly flavorful and plentiful, the muffin was really loaded up with berries.  Really moist on the inside, a little crispy/crumbly on the top/bottom/side, rolled in sugar!  Definitely not a healthy breakfast item, very sweet overall, particularly with the sugar coating, but really, really delicious.  Ojan and I agreed on liking the same muffin even, which was shocking, as our tastes tend to diverge.  Unfortunately, it did not keep well second day.  It was better cold than heated up actually, as it just got too moist and gummy when heated in foil in toaster oven.  Maybe should have just toasted it? Anyway. Best muffin ever.
  • Nectarine: Same as others, with a crisp top, lots of fruit, moist. Covered in sugar, and very much like cake. Second favorite.
  • Sour Cherry: You guessed it - crisp top, moist interior.  The cherries were indeed sour, which distinguished this muffin from the others in that it was slightly more tart than just sweet.  No sugar on this one.  Still good, but my least favorite.
  • Strawberry: Again, crisp top, lots of fruit, moist inside. No sugar coating. There was parts around the fruit that were almost under-cooked, not in a bad way though, just little pockets of moistness. The strawberries were very large pieces, some whole even. Third favorite. I wish it had the sugar!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Brunch at Canteen

I recently heard that my favorite brunch place, Baker & Banker, was putting their brunch service on hiatus, as the chefs are having a baby.  I'm happy for them, but, I'll miss it, as they really serve the best brunch in the city!  I stepped back to think of other memoral brunches, and remembered Canteen, which I visited around the same time as my first visit to Baker & Banker.  When I pulled up their website, I was met with bad news ... they also just ended their brunch service!  Doh!

Canteen is also run by the same chef from The Sentinel and The Golden West, known mostly as casual takeout sandwich shops servicing SOMA and the FiDi, respectively, but they also have, the absolute best muffins in the city.  Seriously, go get these muffins.  Just do so before 9am, as they always sell out.  The are loaded up with seasonal fruit, coated in sugar topping, crisp on top yet moist inside ... seriously, just dream muffins.  Trust me.  And expect a post about them soom :)

Anyway, this is an old review of Canteen, moving here to my blog since I won't be updating it, as they no longer offer brunch :(

Originally posted November, 2011.

Canteen is a small, cute place, with ~20 seats.  They have  only 4 booths that can seat 4 each and additional counter space.  Service was comfortable and friendly.  The whole place had a bit of a diner-vibe to it, but more upscale.  Since the place is so small, the food was executed well and served fast.  I'd love to go back for more pancakes!
Coffee Cake.
We wanted a little something to share to start, and selected the coffee cake.  It was a very large slice, served warmish, and actually a great item to split. It was pretty good, but different from most coffee cake.  It had a crusty bottom layer, and a moist interior, topped with pistachio crumble, and filled with walnuts.  Fairly unique for a coffee cake, and as you'd expect from its name, it paired perfectly with coffee!  My second favorite dish.
Pancake with vanilla sauce and apples.
They called this the "big pancake" or something like that.   It deserved the name - it was huge!  That plate in the photo was a regular full size plate.  If we were impressed with the size of our slice of coffee cake, we were downright blown away by this.

What you can't see in the photo is the delicious parts, all hidden under it.  The pancake was on top of cooked apples, on top of a vanilla sauce layer.  The pancake itself was kinda bland and not fluffy, but very moist.  The sauce underneath it was incredible.  The apples under were not cooked very well, still a bit too crisp.  But the sauce, oh the sauce.  Pieces of pancake dredged in the sauce were my favorite bites of the morning.  I sorta wished I had some more coffee cake, to soak into the sauce!
French Toast with sweet cream and blueberries.
This was pretty standard french toast, the weakest dish we had. The sweet cream cheese was not very interesting; not very cream cheesy, and had a bit of a strange mouthfeel.  The blueberry sauce was really good though, loaded with whole blueberries.  Noticing a theme?  They do good sauces!
Guinea hen with pomegranate sauce.
One member of our party wasn't feeling the crazy carby-sweets overload, and went for the guinea hen, while the rest of us shared the sweets.  I only had a bite of this.  It was nicely cooked hen, in a pretty tasty sauce.  Again, the sauce!

Monday, April 22, 2013


Oh yes, I went there.  I've been sitting on this one for a while.  But, after last week's review declaring the Target brand granola the best I've found, I might as well get some more shame out there.  I went to McCafé.  And, if my readership doesn't entirely plummet after this, perhaps I'll even be brave and put
up my review of McDonald's itself!

Anyway.  Let me back up.  I was lured into the whole McCafé experience via Mowingo, their phone app that promised to give me a free milkshake.  This was during my great milkshake quest, so I couldn't pass it up.  And then, a month later, it popped up offering a free coffee drink.  And so on and so on.  I'm such a sucker for freebies.  I love trying new things, and somehow, when I'm not paying, I feel like the stakes are much easier to deal with.  If it is awful, I just won't finish it.  But, when I'm paying, I have a bit of an irrational need to finish things, to "get my money's worth".  I don't know where I got this from, but it is really annoying, and something I'm working on.  But anyway.

So, I went to try out their fancy beverages.  I was honestly intrigued   It had been years since I'd be inside any McDonald's.  I pretty sure the whole McCafé thing didn't exist last time I was there.  And ... the website made it sound like they were basically making Starbucks drinks, and smoothies, and milkshakes.  They sounded possibly good ...

My first surprise came when I found that none of their coffee beverages, besides just plain drip coffee, are available in decaf, which I normally drink.  Seriously? No decaf? They lose some major points here.

And then ... the service.  Wow.  I know I was a at a fast food place, so my expectations did need to be reset from my normal dining experiences.  But some were still rather amazing.

At the first McDonald's I visited using Mowingo, I had no idea what I could choose from, as the app just said "small speciality coffee drink of your choice”.  And of course, the staff member had never seen Mowingo before, and couldn't read the small print on my screen.  She took my phone from me, and went back into the kitchen with it, asking random cooks to try to read the screen to her.  Of course the screen locked on her, which I tried to explain would happen.  She got very flustered and seemingly arbitrarily just declared that I could get any McCafé drink.  This sounded good to me, except ... I had no idea what McCafé drinks even existed.  I asked her, and she was like "What you want?  Coffee?  Latte?"  I knew they had all sorts of iced drinks, blended drinks, even shakes, as I saw some delicious looking creations on posters around the walls, but there was no McCafé menu in sight.  I asked for a McCafé menu, and she pointed at a blank screen.  Very good.  Sigh. So I stepped out of line, pulled up the McDonald's web site on my phone, and browsed through my options.

When I decided on an iced caramel mocha, she put the order in, and went to make it.  She came back with a Styrofoam cup.  I thought it was odd that they would serve iced drinks in those cups, but hey, what did I know.  Of course, the moment I touched it, I could tell it was hot.  I explained I'd ordered an iced drink.  She looked at the screen, and sure enough, she'd entered it as iced, like I'd said.  So she took the cup from me, hurled it across the room at the garbage can, and set off making a new one.  I'm not sure what went wrong with the next one, as she hurled it at the can too.  And then she started another, and threw that one out after only adding the syrups and milk.  And then, a forth one seemed complete, but she dumped it down a drain on the floor.  I had no idea what was going on.  She was upset, and frantic seeming.  Finally, she made one that she didn't throw out, and asked if I wanted whipped cream.  I said yes.  She pulled out the can of whipped cream, and went kinda nuts putting on an insane amount of whipped cream.  I could see her finger getting into the whipped cream as it dispensed, since it had to be nearby to activate the nozzle.  This was the same finger, without a glove, that had just been touching money, the register, my phone, etc.  Shutter.  And then she went to put the lid on.  Of course, it did not fit, given the massive mound of whipped cream she'd put on.  She tried to jam it on, with whipped cream spilling out the sides, and all over her.  The creation she handed to me was beyond sticky and messy.  Wowzer.  The next time I ordered a drink with whipped cream on top, the worker put the dome lid on first, and then filled it through the lid.  This resulted in zero mess.  Given how assembly-line style everything is done at fast food chains, I'm surprised that the procedure to make these drinks isn't a formulaic.

Oh, and in case you are excited to try out Mowingo, they stopped offering it.  The Bay Area was just a small test program, and apparently, it didn't work out so well.  Perhaps most McDonald's patrons don't have fancy smart phones? Or, people just don't want to install a different mobile app for each and every place they go?  Come on businesses, just get on GoPago or LevelUp!
McCafé Iced Caramel Mocha, Small.  $2.49.
Another McCafé Iced Caramel Mocha, Small.  $2.49.
I wasn't too hopeful as to the quality of their espresso, so I decided I might as well just load it up with syrups, to mask the flavor of what I expected to be pretty crappy coffee flavor.  And as it was hot out, I wanted something iced and decadent.

So I went for the most loaded up iced drink they had, the Iced Caramel Mocha.  Described as "iced espresso made with 100% Arabica beans, whole or nonfat milk, chocolate and caramel syrup, topped with whipped cream and a caramel drizzle."

It tasted like pretty much any other drink you could get elsewhere in this category.  The overwhelming characteristic: sweet.  I didn't really taste any chocolate, or mocha-ness.  The coffee flavor was there, giving it a slight bitterness, but there was so much caramel and milk that it was unoffensive, as I expected.

The whip on top was generic stuff from a can, but it wasn't bad.  The caramel drizzle was thick caramel sauce that was clearly just flavored corn syrup, but I liked it.

Overall, this was far more enjoyable than I expected, and I actually drank the whole thing, which I really wasn't intending on, making it the first fully caffeinated beverage that I had in about 1.5 years.  Let's just say that with all the caffeine AND the massive amount of sugar in it, I was rather bouncing off the walls afterwards.  Whee!

On a subsequent visit, I got another one of these, as it was the best drink I'd found so far.  As you can see from the photo, it looked pretty much identical.  McDonald's does have consistency down, even though these came from different stores!  It was pretty much the same.  Ridiculously sweet, barely any coffee flavor, with the same generic but kinda tasty whipped cream and caramel sauce.  I think I just like sweet things!
Small McCafé Caramel Mocha.  $2.49.
Since the iced caramel mocha was decent, and the next McDonald's I visited said I could only order a hot drink with my Mowingo coupon, I went for the hot version.  (Side note: some of the iced drinks are cheaper than hot ones, why can't I get those?  Grumble).

It was fairly inoffensive and generic.  Sweet, but not really that tasty.  Whipped cream was added on top without asking me, which I didn't mind, but this was the only place they didn't ask me about it.  The whipped cream was the same as everywhere, generic but pretty good.  The thick caramel sauce drizzled on top was again tasty.

I wouldn't get one of these again. Meh.
Small McCafé Vanilla Cappuccino.  $2.49.
On another visit, I was again told I could only pick from the hot beverages.  Feeling brave, I went for what I'd get at a "real" coffee shop: a cappuccino.  But since I thought their espresso was kinda nasty tasting, I added in the vanilla to mask it.

The vanilla didn't help.  This had a horrible taste.  Bitter, but not in a good way.  And the vanilla syrup was gross as well.

The foam was impressive, but again, not in a good way.  How did they create foam out of nothing?  It didn't really seem to be made of milk.  It had no flavor.  It offered nothing.

This was really, really bad.
Small Decaf Coffee, Vanilla.  $1.79.
And again, told I could only order a hot beverage.  Since the caramel mocha and the cappuccino were so bad, I decided to be simple and just get coffee.  But, hedging my bets that it would be nasty, I added vanilla syrup.  Bonus points to McDonald's that you can pick from a variety of flavor syrups to add at no additional cost.

It was bitter and horrible.  I added in 3 creamers and then it became bearable.  Do not recommend, would never get again.
Small McCafé Hot Chocolate.  $2.19.
And yet another visit where I was told I could only pick from the hot items.  Since I thought all of the hot coffee drinks were downright horrible, I went for the hot chocolate.  It was made by the same machine as the coffee drinks, described as "steamed  milk, rich chocolate syrup and topped with whipped cream and a chocolate drizzle."

The milk came out better than in my cappuccino, but it was still fairly airy seeming and not that creamy.  The chocolate flavor was ok, not spectacular, but you could at least tell it was a hot chocolate.  The whipped cream on top was again the highlight.   The chocolate syrup was again just Hershey-like, thin, and not interesting.

Overall, not a bad hot chocolate, pretty generic, although the whipped cream certainly elevates it above most of the hot chocolates you get out of magic machines.  If it was winter and I was cold and wanting a hot chocolate, I'd consider getting one.  Interestingly, at one place where I was told I could only get a hot beverage, they wouldn't let me pick this, even though it was hot, and the cheapest item on the menu.  Such inconsistencies!
Small McCafé Peppermint Hot Chocolate.  $2.19.
Since the hot chocolate wasn't bad, on a blustery day I decided to try out another one, this time, the seasonal peppermint version. The person taking my order cheered when I ordered this, apparently I was the first one to ever do so.

It was fairly minty, but like the regular hot chocolate, not very chocolately.  The whipped cream was again my favorite part, the syrup again basically generic Hersheys.
McCafé Frappé Chocolate Chip.  $2.49.
The frappé line was the one I was most interested in, but all locations had told me those weren't included.  On the very last day of the Mowingo deal, it happened to be a ridiculously hot day, a very rare treat in San Francisco.  The person taking my order asked, "And which McCafé beverage do you want?" and I said "The Chocolate Chip Frappé", and she said, "Oh, I'm sorry, it has to be hot".  Since I really didn't care to try any more of their hot beverages, I said "Oh, ok.  Its such a hot day out, I was really in the mood for a cold treat.  Never mind then", and started to walk away.  And she called after me, "Oh, its ok, they are the same price anyway, and it is totally a frappé sort of day!"

w00t!  I finally got to try one of these things.  My excitement was short lived.  I'm glad I didn't pay for it.  It wasn't good.  Described as "an indulgent combination of rich mocha, sweet caramel and a hint of coffee, with added chocolate chips, all blended to perfection. Topped with whipped cream plus a double drizzle of chocolate and caramel. "

Indulgent it was.  Do not go read the nutrition stats for this thing.  Let's just say that a quarter pounder with cheese is better for you, in literally every metric, than this creation!

I expected it to be somewhat like a milkshake.  Or perhaps like a Starbuck's frappucino or Peet's freddo.  It somehow wasn't like either.  Not ice-creamy like a shake.  Nor icy like a blended drink from a coffee shop.  It was just ... kinda cold sweet milk.  No real consistency to it.

Inside of it was a ton of bits of chocolate chips.  They added an almost good texture, except they were so tiny that they came out more like grit.   It was off-putting.

The top was the only redeeming part.  It was kinda frothy, although like the rest of it, the flavor was not good.  It was basically just sweet.  I couldn't pick out any mocha, or caramel, or coffee, or anything.  Of course, I enjoyed the whipped cream.  And again, the caramel sauce was really good, and the chocolate sauce totally mediocre.

I definitely would never get one of these again, but I'm glad my curiosity was satisfied.
Small McCafé Strawberry Shake.  $2.39.
I've had a serious thing for milkshakes lately, and so I was most excited about the free shakes in Mowingo.  They offer chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla, and I was intending to get vanilla, except they only had chocolate or strawberry that day.  Strawberry was my second choice, so I went for it, remembering fondly the amazing strawberry shake I'd had from Holy Grill a few weeks earlier.

This one seemed pretty similar to the Del Taco offerings, with the "shake" just coming out of a magic machine.  They topped it with standard canned whipped cream, and ... a cherry!  I give them credit for the touch of adding a cherry on top.

Unfortunately, this was, hands down, the worst shake I've ever had.  The consistency was fine actually, it was nicely icy, yet totally easy to suck up with the straw.  Much better than the far too thick one from Del Taco, proving that not all strange milkshake machines are the same!

The whipped cream was generic stuff from a can, but like in the other McCafé drinks I tried, totally fine.

The maraschino cherry was pretty awful, just way too fake and sweet, which, I guess is just how those cherries are supposed to be.  But way too fake and sweet is the theme of the sad story of this shake.

The flavor was beyond horrible.  So incredibly fake and medicinal.  And very sweet, but I expected that.  But ugh, it was just nasty.  There were little bits of real strawberry in there, but I'm guessing the majority of the flavor came from some sort of fake syrup.  Awful, awful.
Small McCafé Vanilla Shake.  $2.39.
You'd think that my experience with the strawberry shake would have been enough to make me never try their shakes again.  But ... it was really hot out.  I was craving a shake in a major way.  And I had another free one.

This time, I went for the vanilla shake.  Vanilla shakes are usually white.  For reference, the whipped cream in this photo was indeed white.  The shake was ... light yellow.  That was scary enough, why was it yellow?  But I still tried it.

It was just a step above the strawberry shake.  It also had a crazy fake, chemical taste to it.  And of course was super sweet.  It wasn't nearly as bad as the strawberry one, and given how badly I wanted a milkshake, I (regrettably) finished it.  I do give them credit for the consistency again, the magic shake machine does make a milkshake that is kinda the perfect consistency.

The whipped cream on top was again pretty good, and the cherry was again horrible.
Small McCafé Chocolate Shake.  $2.39.
And finally, I went for the chocolate shake.  Seems like I saved the best for last!

This wasn't an awesome shake or anything, but it was leagues above the others.  Like all of the others, it was a perfect consistency, not too thick, not too runny.  And it somehow didn't degrade as time passed.  It kinda reminded me of some ice cream my dad once threw out in the sink and returned to find not melted an hour or so later.  Magic, and in this case, exactly what I wanted, but somewhat scary to imagine what causes it to stay perfectly frozen.

The flavor was chocolatey, not too rich, but also not strangely sweet or medicinal like the vanilla and strawberry.  The whipped cream on top was standard and I liked it, the cherry was again horrible.

I certainly wouldn't ever go buy one of these, but it was by far the best of the bunch, and I could even imagine having another if it was given to me, which certainly isn't true with the other flavors!
McCafé Frozen Strawberry Lemonade, Small. $1.79.
It was a hot day, and I wanted something refreshing.  And literally, 2 minutes after having the thought of stopping somewhere for a cold beverage, my phone vibrated at me.  It was McDonald's, telling me that they were offering me yet another free McCafé drink.  This one looked like it had no strings attached.  I clearly didn't want any of their horrible coffee drinks, or shakes, but I had just seen that they also were making frozen summer beverages.  There were a few choices, but frozen strawberry lemonade called out to me.  It sounded like exactly what I wanted.

And it was, in theory.  Except, I needed to remember where I was.  I wasn't expecting fresh squeezed lemonade with real strawberry puree, but I still wasn't prepared for this.

First, it wasn't mixed at all, and I didn't realize it.  So I stuck the straw in, and took a big sip.  All I got was the strawberry syrup.  Now, you may recall how I felt about the strawberry shake?  That horrible, horrible flavor it had?  Turns out, they use the same chemicals for their strawberry sauce in the lemonade.  So fake tasting, so sweet, so horrible.

It turned out that I was glad it wasn't mixed, since I was able to then just try the lemonade, without the horrible strawberry syrup.  As you can imagine, it wasn't good.  Not tart.  Not lemon-y.  Just sweet.  Not good.

They do get points for the ice though.  It was like everything you ever wanted a Slush Puppy or Slurpee to be, just perfectly tiny little ice pellets.  That part was really nicely done.

But uh, no.  Do not get this.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Chocolate Visions

Chocolate Visions is yet another area chocolatier I discovered at my local chocolate shop.  They only distribute at a handful of chocolate shops, although you can purchase directly online.  They also work closely with a number of wineries, producing chocolates specifically to go with their wines.

They mostly make truffles, but also produce some bars.  All their chocolate is E. Guittard, Callebaut, or Chocovic.  They work with many area producers to source the other ingredients, including things like olive oil, basil, lavender, and of course, wine.  This is a very small scale, local as it gets, operation. I can't wait to try more of their goods.
  • Luscious Lemon (61% Bittersweet chocolate, handmade meyer lemon peel, applewood smoked almonds, lemon oil).  Tasting notes: Really nice quality dark chocolate, good texture.  Lovely lemon flavor.  Taught me that lemon and chocolate are actually a great combo.  The almonds didn’t seem necessary to me.
  • Omega Truffle:  “Luscious melted chocolate is combined with a very special olive oil from Valencia Creek Farm in Aptos, CA.  Chocolate, cream and the olive oil are blended to produce the ganache.  After it sets up it is sprinkled with a salt that was gathered from a secret salt pond off of Big Sur by a man who actually repels down a cliff to get it.” Tasting notes: smooth dark chocolate ganache, nice hit of sea salt.  Many salty chocolates lack a good balance of the salt, this one worked surprisingly well.  Unfortunately, I didn’t taste the olive oil.