Friday, August 01, 2014

Tortilla Chips from Way Better Snacks

As you may have realized, I tend to munch on a lot of snacks, and chips in particular.  While I'm not normally all that interested in "healthy" chips, I somehow keep encountering the products made by Way Better Snacks.  They aren't "healthy" in the raw nutrition stats, but rather, are supposed to be better for you because "Way Better Snacks creates a unique blend of sprouted grains and seeds that are bursting with goodness and form a flavorful snack of unprocessed ingredients!"  The idea is that the sprouted seeds are digested more easily, so your body absorbs more nutrients.  I like that they have tons of Omega-3s too, since eating chips sounds like a far more fun way to get Omega-3s than fish oil pills (not that I need to do either, I eat plenty of seafood).

Way Better Snacks makes two product lines, pita chips and tortilla chips, but I've only tried the tortillas.  Both are gluten-free, and come in a slew of flavors.  They are still not what I really would pick up to snack on, but if you are looking for a way to add some Omega-3s or whole grains to your diet, they really aren't bad.
Simply Sunny Multi Grain Tortilla Chips.
I started with the most basic offering, "Simply Sunny Multi Grain Tortilla Chips".

The chips did have a nice heartiness to them, and didn't taste fried, and truly did seem like a healthier chip.  Of course, they are fried, but they are baked first, which I think reduces the fried-ness?

They are made from sprouted brown rice, quinoa, stone ground corn, flax seed, chia seed, broccoli seeds, and daikon radish seeds, all organic.  This simple flavor had a good salt level and a nice crunch.  They were not bad at all, particularly for something moderately healthy.
Simply So Sweet Chili Tortilla Chips.
When I was in Australia, I felt in love with sweet chili sauce.  It is the standard accompaniment to fried potato wedges, with sour cream too.  (Side note: we seriously need to get into this trend here in the US.)

Thus, I basically try any product I see with sweet chili in the name, hoping it will remind me of my precious wedges with sauce.  And since these were chips, I had a hope that they'd have the potato-y aspect as well.  I didn't read the packaging at all, and missed the fact that there was no potato in them, instead the chip was made from the same fascinating mix of ingredients as the plain ones: quinoa, brown rice, flax seeds, chia seeds, daikon radish sprouts, broccoli spouts, stone ground corn.  Wow.

Unfortunately for me, they didn't taste anything like sweet chili.  As Ojan put it, "they taste like Doritos, and you hate Doritos".  I really didn't like whatever zesty spice they had to them.  I even tried dunking them in sweet chili sauce to help them out, but alas, it didn't work.

I praised them for their nutrition profile, but none of that mattered since I couldn't stand the seasoning.  Would not get again, but perhaps if you like Doritos, these could be a nice healthier alternative?
Simply Sweet Potato Tortilla Chips.
Next, I moved on to the Simply Sweet Potato chips. These at least had potato in them, although they still had a slew of other powerful ingredients, like quinoa, flax, and stoneground corn.

Just like the others, they were nice hearty chips, but I didn't really taste sweet potato. Meh.
Simply Unbeatable Blue Tortilla Chips.
And finally, I went for the Simply Unbeatable Blue Tortilla Chips.  Same square shape, loaded with seeds.  Actually, they were identical in their ingredients to the Simply Sunny chips, except with blue corn instead of regular corn.

Like all of the rest of Way Better Snacks chips, they were hearty, and healthy tasting, a nice salt level.  But still just a tortilla chip.  I did like the blue corn version more than the regular corn, but I didn't really want to try more of these.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

M.H. Bread & Butter

M.H. Bread & Butter is a small artisan bakery and cafe located up in San Anselmo.  I haven't ever been there, and I don't think you can find their goods anywhere in San Francisco, although they do distribute to a few places around Marin.

I had never heard of M.H. Bread & Butter until I attended an event, and someone brought a few of their baked goods.  Never one to turn down a baked good, I tried them out, even though I had no expectations.  I was impressed with everything I had, and later found out the owner is a former baker from Tartine, which makes total sense to me, the croissants were very similar.

If I ever find myself up in San Anselmo, I'll be sure to check them out!
Croissant.  $3.25.
The croissant was a textbook croissant.  And I don't mean that as an insult.  The exterior was shiny, flaky, and crisp.  The inside, layered and moist.  It was insanely buttery.

Plain croissants are rarely something I want.  Almond or chocolate croissants make sense to me.  As do savory ham and cheese versions.  To me, a plain croissant is useful only as a building block for something bigger: fried egg and cheese on a plain croissant?  Sure!  Use it instead of sliced bread for a lunchtime sandwich?  Again, no problem.  Use it to make bread pudding?  Oh, yes please!  But just a plain croissant? Meh.

But this was a very good version of something I'm not all that excited by.  And once I added some jam to it, I was perfectly happy.

[ No Photo ]
Banana Date Walnut Bread.  $3.

I didn't take a photo of the banana date walnut bread, mostly because I thought I'd just try a bite and move on.  I'm not really one for breakfast breads, particularly banana bread.  Perhaps every once in a while I like a slice of thick banana bread, toasted, and slathered with cream cheese.  But generally just not something I'm excited about.

An event I was at had slices of this out, and it wasn't labelled, so I didn't even know what it was, besides that it was a thick slice of a breakfast quick bread.  It seemed like a banana bread base, although I didn't really taste much banana.  It was very, very moist.  It was absolutely loaded up with walnuts, which gave it a great crunch.  The entire thing was sweet though, with a complex sweetness that I think may have come from dates (indeed, I contacted the bakery later and found out there were dates).  And the very top had some kind of gooey goodness.  I know, not the best description, and I really wish I'd taken a photo!

I really liked it, particularly with a cup of coffee.  Like I said, I'm not one for coffee cakes or quickbreads, but this worked very, very well.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

I've missed you Alexander's!

If you have read my blog before, you are well aware that Alexander's Steakhouse is my favorite restaurant in San Francisco.  I love it so much that I even devoted a label on this blog to it.  Whenever someone asks me for a restaurant recommendation in San Francisco, I send them to Alexander's.  It is where I bring out of town visitors.  It is my goto for any special occasion.  It is even where I held my last large team dinner, in their private room.  Speaking of the private room, that is where I've attended some incredible special event dinners.  On the other end of the spectrum, it is also my favorite bar area, where I like to swing in to just get some appetizers and desserts,  or, back in the day, to get some foie, or, the absolute BEST burger in the city, or, amusingly, even some sashimi.  They do everything well, and you can read all about my previous adventures in past reviews, so I'll spare you all the details now.  All you need to know is that it is consistently outstanding, and you need to go now.  And tell them Julie sent you :)

Anyway, this time I'm here to tell you about a meal we had in the Board Room.  The Board Room is a semi-private area up on the mezzanine, overlooking the main dining room, a great vantage point.  We were there because Emil had family in town visiting, including his little sisters, and he wanted to give them a fabulous Alexander's experience.  If you think I like Alexander's, then you haven't met Emil.  When he is in town, he is there literally at least once a week.

And a great experience it was.  As I said, I'll spare all of the details this time around and solely review the food we had, but the Board Room was the perfect setting, and I highly recommend it if you have a party of 8 or so, and want a little more exclusivity.  And as always, service was top notch.

Astronaut. $12.
I don't normally get cocktails at Alexander's, since I know there will always be plenty of wine.  And usually, within a few moments of sitting down, we are presented with a complimentary glass of bubbly (which, of course happened tonight, with the girls given sparkling lemonade instead, a very thoughtful touch!)  But everyone else was ordering cocktails, and I really was in the mood for fun.

So I picked the first cocktail that had a slew of delicious sounding ingredients.  I failed to write them down, but I think muddled blueberry was a key component.  It was sweet and absolutely delicious.  I'd get it again in a heartbeat.  In fact, I almost did right then, as I certainly wanted a second one, but I wisely decided to pace myself for the upcoming wine.
Point Reyes Blue Cheese and Walnut Cracker.
Soon after ordering, "the bread guy" made his first appearance.  He'd be showing up several times throughout the meal, each time with a new and interesting bread product.  No standard white rolls here!  Alexander's has changed their bread program several times over the years - they used to offer a standard selection of Acme breads, but I think it is all made in-house now.

The crackers had a strong blue cheese flavor, and were quite nice to nibble on, more satisfying than standard bread.
Amuse Bouche: Sous vide beet, blueberry compote.
Next came an amuse bouche.  The standard amuse for the evening included melon, and since I have a melon allergy, they came up with something different for me.

Mine was a sous vide beet slice, topped with blueberry compote, and some crunchy stuff.  It wasn't a very balanced bite, the compote was far too sweet to pair with the beet, but I appreciated the crunchy bits on top.  Alexander's has made some incredible amuse bouches in the past, so this was a letdown for me, but everyone else enjoyed their offering.  I didn't catch all the details, but it had smoked salmon along with the melon, and I think the same crunchy stuff I had.
Oscetra Caviar Cannolo: crème fraîche soft serve / toasted brioche / red onion / agretti / chive. $22.
I'm not a huge caviar fan, so it is a little funny that I chose to order the caviar for one of my starters, but it just sounded so fascinating that I could not resist.  Crème fraîche soft serve?  Um, yes!  To be clear, it isn't that I dislike caviar, I just don't love it enough to normally think it is worth getting, given other options.

Anyway, the dish was as fascinating as I hoped it would be.  The red onion came in the form of a gel dotted on the plate.  A beautiful, pale purple color, such stunning presentation, and, even more importantly, insanely flavorful.

The green bits were "moss".  They added a spongy texture, but besides that, were not really interesting.

The crème fraîche soft serve I was so intrigued by was found inside a crispy brioche tube that reminded me of a waffle cone in taste and texture.  This actually makes some sense, given that it was filled with something resembling ice cream.  The crème fraîche was frozen with liquid nitrogen, super cold.  It amazingly didn't even really melt while I was eating it.  It was so clearly crème fraîche, the flavor unmistakable.  The cannolo was a little hard to eat, since cutting into it kinda broke up the shell over all the place, but I didn't mind.  The crunchy shell, the cold ice cream, and the flavors, particularly of the crème fraîche and red onion together, were all quite good.  Oh, and the caviar on top was nice too, adding a perfect amount of salt.

I probably would not get this again, but I certainly enjoyed trying it.

I actually think a more successful way to present it would be to have a mini ice cream cone instead of cannolo, fill it with the crème fraîche soft serve, and top it with caviar, like sprinkles on ice cream!  How fun would that be?  But, it would need to be mini, so probably more appropriate for an amuse than a starter.
Sparkling Ceviche: salmon / hamachi / tako / seabeans / yuzu kosho / peaches / pineapple. $19.
The other appetizer I really wanted to try was the "sparkling ceviche".  I've been craving raw seafood lately, and I was very curious what made it "sparkle".

The seafood was a mix of salmon, hamachi, and tako, although hamachi seemed to dominate the mix.  And since I actually don't love raw hamachi, I was a little sad it made up so much of the dish.  The tako was thin sliced, but too chewy for my liking.  I think that is pretty standard for raw octopus though, I'm not sure I've ever liked it in sushi form either (although, I always love it grilled!)  The salmon was nicely sliced and my favorite component, although I wasn't able to taste it very well due to the dressing.

Sigh, the dressing.  There was just too much.  It was overdressed and it was far too sweet.  When I said it was too sweet, one of my fellow diners was shocked, saying, "What?  Did you just say something was too sweet?  Does that ever happen?"  Yes, we all know I love my sweets, but there is a time and place for sweet overload, and on my raw seafood is not it.

So sadly, this dish fell down pretty hard for me.  The seafood was high quality, it was a generous portion, and it was certainly a creative way to serve raw fish, but I was not a fan, and would not order again.
Little Gems and Romaine: parmesan vinaigrette / crispy capers / olive crostini / niboshi/ poached egg. $12.
And a final appetizer.  Yes, it is a salad.  No, did not order it, as I've said many times that I never order a salad at Alexander's given the other choices, by one of my dining companions ordered it, and thus I tried it.

This salad replaced the Caesar salad on the menu.  If you weren't aware, the Caesar salad was an Alexander's classic dish, a signature item, right up there with the hamachi shots.  On one of my early visits to the Cuptertino location, we were celebrating a birthday, and did a special seating inside the kitchen.  As part of that dinner, you were allowed to jump in and help make your courses.  That is the only other time I've had a salad at Alexander's, just because I wanted to get up and make it.

Anyway, this was a really interesting presentation of a salad.  The idea is that you break through the crostini that covers the whole dish, breaking it up into pieces like croutons.  You also break open the sous vide egg, allowing it to mix into the salad as part of a dressing.  The capers were also really interesting, as there were both full caperberries and frozen ground up bits.

I actually really liked this.  The little gems were fresh and crisp, the dressing absolutely delicious.  It was my favorite of the appetizers, which sounds absurd to me even now, as it beat out the caviar and raw seafood.  I still don't think I could bring myself to order a salad at Alexander's, since their other apps are always so good, but I'm glad my friend ordered it and insisted I have some.

The rest of the table also enjoyed a slew of other appetizers, including the scallops (which looked perfect as always) and some oysters.
Edamame: warm truffle butter / hawaiian black sea salt. $9.
After our appetizers, we had a little time to relax.  I was actually already feeling kinda full at this point, but I was hopeful that perhaps something special might arrive before the main course.  And the silverware that was set out didn't seem right for our mains, so I crossed my fingers ...

And then, a bowl of edamame arrived.  Hmm.  It was actually really good edamame, warm, covered in delicious truffle butter and sea salt.  But ... I was secretly hoping for something a bit different.

The waitress later explained that she brought it for the girls, just in case they didn't like what was coming next for the adults ...
White Peach Compote, Maple Bourbon Duck Liver Mousse, Freeze Dried Blueberries.
Yes!  It came!  My real obsession with Alexander's began right before the foie gras ban, when I visited as many times as I could, fitting in as many last tastes of their delicious foie preparations as possible.  They really did foie better than anywhere else.  My little "dining club" attended all the special foie dinners, and stopped in, just to sit at the bar for a quick cocktail and foie, whenever possible.  Alexander's has always done such incredible foie preparations, and in particular, their seared and mousses are always top notch.

This was no exception.  Creamy, delicious mousse, the liver flavor balanced out by a touch of maple and bourbon.  A lovely sweet white peach compote.  And freeze dried blueberries.

Yum.  This was gone far too fast.  I could have easily had seconds.  Or thirds :)
Toasted Brioche, Shitake-Shortrib Ragout, Uni.
And then, another gift!  It just happened to feature my second favorite ingredient: uni!

It was a crispy toasted brioche, topped with truffled shitake-shortrib ragout, and draped with uni.  The ragout was the same as comes on their amazing burger.  I've always absolutely loved that ragout.  It is great on the burger, and I've said it before, but I think it would be amazing on pasta too.  Seriously, if they'd let me just buy a bowl of the ragout, I'd take it home and make pasta the next day ;)  So flavorful, the short rib so perfectly tender, I just love it!  I didn't really think the ragout could get tastier, but it turns out, topping it with uni does the trick.  Super creamy, high quality uni.  Now I'm imagining my shitake-shortrib ragout dream pasta dish, with uni too?  Squid ink pasta perhaps?  I'm totally willing to taste test this if they want to experiment!

Absolutely delicious.  I think I might have even liked this more than the foie.  I was also totally full at this point, and we still hadn't gotten to the mains!
Salt Platter.
Finally, time for the salt platter.

I always enjoy going to Alexander's with people on their first visit, as there are a number of fairly unique parts of the experience, and I love seeing reactions to it.  One such moment is when the salt platters arrive.

When you order any of the wagyu steaks, they do not come with any sauces or sides.  Just a steak. You are meant to enjoy the flavor of such supreme beef, not drown it in sauce.  But of course, a little seasoning is fun.  So, they bring a platter of 12 unique salts!

You may not think there is a lot of variance in salt, after all, it is all just salt right?  Wrong!  Each of these salts has such a distinct flavor.  In the moments between the salt platter arriving and the steaks showing up, I always take a moment to sample all the salts to figure out which ones I want to use.  Some of the prettiest ones don't have the strongest flavor, but they sure look amazing, particularly the ones with huge flake size.  And the intense sulfur flavor in one of them is fascinating, but do you want it on your steak?  So many choices!

Luckily, there is a salt sommelier who will stop by to explain all of the salts.  He knows the history of each of them, explaining their origins, why they are so rare, what good pairings are.

Anyway, I love watching people the first time they see the platter, as their eyes go a bit wide, and they seem in disbelief that someone is describing that many different salts to them.  And then they are hesitant to dig in, not really knowing how ... do you try to use your ... fork?  Your finger?  So fun!
Tajima F1 Filet, 3 oz.  $42.
And ... steak time!  I actually often skip the steak at Alexander's, which I know sounds insane because it is a steakhouse and they have such incredible cuts available, but I just love everything else so much and I'm usually stuffed by the time we finally reach the mains.  And ... I'm always trying to save room for dessert too!

But, one of the other unique aspects of Alexander's steak program is that for the wagyu cuts, you order in 3 ounce increments.  So, while a normal filet is 10oz, or a petit filet is 6oz, you can actually just get 3oz if you upgrade to Wagyu.  Generally, I think people use this to try out several different steaks, comparing the difference between an American Wagyu and a real Japanese Kobe, or a $42 cut vs a $135 cut, but for me, it is a chance to just have a small steak.

But of course I had to pick from the crazy selection.  I knew I wanted a filet, and that night, there were only two filets available, so that made my choice easy.  One was the cheapest of their Wagyus, the Tajima F1, and I forget what the other was, but it was far pricer.  The Tajima was one of the first Wagyus I ever tried, and I have fond memories of it, so it was an easy pick.  It isn't a fullblood Wagyu, but a first generation crossbreed with a Holstein (hence the F1 designation).

I ordered it medium-rare, but it did arrive more on the medium side.  Julie-of-old would have preferred it that way and was always a little scared ordering medium-rare, but now I actually do want it a little bit pinker.  Besides that, it was really nicely cooked, a great crust on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside.  Very good flavor, which was easily enhanced with some of the salts.

It was a good steak, but I don't think I was really in the mood for a steak, or perhaps I was just too full to really appreciate it.  Next time, I might go back to skipping the steak, or just stealing a few bites from someone else :)
Brentwood Corn Gratin: camembert / harissa / corn bread crumble. $9.
Now, I love Alexander's.  You know this.  But one area that they don't always shine in is the side dishes.  The appetizers are always amazing.  The steaks, the seafood, amazing.  But the sides?  I haven't had any that have been all that memorable, except for the asparagus and miso crab gratin once.  At this point, I actually rarely even order sides.  But they had a corn gratin.  I love corn.  I grew up eating corn on the cob several nights a week during corn season in New Hampshire.  I had fantastic corn at lunch earlier that day, which put me strongly in the mindset of wanting more corn.  And cheesy corn?  Even better.  With Camembert, one of my favorite cheeses?  Perfect.  And, topped with corn bread crumble?  I had to try it.

I'm really glad I did.  A few others tried a bite of it, but no one else seemed interested.  Their loss!  It was delicious!  The corn was perfectly cooked, still a tiny bit crisp, not mushy.  The sauce was super creamy and cheesy, but somehow the intense flavor of the Camembert didn't mask the sweetness of the corn.  And the cornbread crumble on top was incredible, as it added not only a crunch, but was really, really delicious on its own.

This was by far the best side I've ever had at Alexander's, and I'd certainly get it again.  Maybe the gratins are the way to go for sides?

The girls also ordered the truffled french fries, served with a sundried tomato - tonkatsu aïoli ($13).  They only had a few, which of course meant I had to try some, even though I've had the fries a zillion times (they come with the burger).  I couldn't let them go untouched!  As always, they were seriously good fries.  I am always stunned by just how crispy they are.  And the truffle flavor?  Swoon.  If you ever want a simple meal, go to the bar and get the burger and fries.  I've said it a million times before, and I'll say it again: best burger in the city.  Hands down.  No contest.

They also ordered the mashed potatoes, topped with chicken cracklings and white gravy ($9).  Most times when I go to Alexander's with non-regulars, they order the mashed potatoes.  I think there is just something about the steak and potatoes pairing that people can't get away from.  So I've also had these a number of times.  They are crazy creamy, smooth potatoes.  Absolutely no lumps or bumps in here.  I'm a little terrified thinking about the ratio of potato to cream and butter that I'm sure achieves the creaminess.  Some things are better left unknown.  These are good mashed potatoes, but honestly, by this point in the meal, I never really want them.
Bacon Brioche Rolls, Marrow Butter.
After our mains were brought out, the bread guy made his third appearance, this time bearing brioche bacon rolls, served with marrow butter, in a marrow bone.  They were quite tasty, and I love the crispy chunks of bacon studding the rolls.  Whenever I order an entree or side with a sauce, I appreciate having rolls to lap up the sauces, since as you know, I'm a serious sauce girl.  This time, I didn't have a sauce, so I wasn't really feeling the need for the rolls, but ... how do you turn down bacon?

The astute reader will realize now that I said the bread guy made his third appearance, but I only told you about the blue cheese walnut crackers so far.  Whoops!  I forgot to snap a photo of the second bread course, Parker House Rolls, served with butter and salt.  They came after our appetizers, before the extra gifts from the kitchen.  Warm, fluffy, but a bit unremarkable.
Pre-dessert: Coconut mousse, pineapple compote, white chocolate.
Now, on to the sweet stuff.  Instead of a dainty little sorbet for a palette cleanser, we got this creation.

I'm still not sure how I felt about it.  I love my sweets, and I did finish the whole thing, in spite of being already full, and having ordered dessert too, but it was a bit off.

The coconut mouse was very thick, and tasted too fatty.  Like, the layer of fat on top of coconut milk, and nothing else.  The mouthfeel was slick, the texture a bit too hard.

But, the pineapple compote was really flavorful, and I loved the slightly candied texture to it.  There was also crunchy, sweet, white chocolate bits.
Decaf Coffee.
By this point, I really wanted a warm drink to relax even further.  I went for a simple decaf coffee.  It was ok, very intense for a decaf, but it still had some of that "decaf funk" that most decaf has.  I can't blame them, I was ordered decaf, and there are very few decafs that are ever actually good!  I'll try to remember this next time though, and skip it.
"Sweet Corn":  sweet corn brulèe / blueberry /  lime buttermilk / purple sweet potato ice cream. $12.
The desserts at Alexander's have always been a bit hit or miss for me.  I obviously love desserts.  And their desserts are just like their other dishes, in that they are incredibly composed, beautiful dishes, made from a slew of ingredients.  Maybe it is because the rest of the meal usually blows my mind, and I'm always beyond full by the time we get to the real desserts, but I don't generally think of Alexander's as having amazing desserts.  They always sound, and look, fascinating, and I'm glad to try them, but I'm rarely wowed.

That said, the dessert menu was all new to me, so I had to try something.  The "Sweet Corn" caught my eye immediately.  As I mentioned earlier with the corn gratin, I absolutely adore corn, althouh not something you normally see in dessert.  That part had me fairly intrigued, and I did love the corn in the gratin.  But the real selling point was a single word: brûlée.  If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know I am obsessed with pudding based desserts, and creme brûlée in general.  I was also very interested to see how an ice cream could possibly fit in with the rest of the dish.  Finally, when I asked the server if he had any favorite desserts, he immediately recommended this one.  It was a no brainer, I had to try it!

The corn brûlée was exactly what I hoped it would be, a creamy corn pudding, with a perfect brûlée layer on top.  Emil, who has dined with me a zillion times when I've ordered creme brûlée, knew exactly how insanely picky I could be, and immediately asked about the "tap test", that is, when you tap on it with the spoon, does the spoon go right through?  If so, the layer is too flimsy and thin.  Or equivalently, is it too hard to get through?  If so, then it is likely burnt tasting.  This was perfect, right in the middle.  A thick enough layer to add flavor and texture when it broke, but not over done.

Speaking of textures, there were a lot of textures to this dish!  On top of the brûlée was crispy freeze dried corn kernels.  They added a fantastic crunch, and even more corn flavor.  There was also a blueberry compote, I think the same one I saw in my amuse bouche.  When I had it with the beet, it was just too sweet, but it worked very well in this dish.  I would have never thought to pair corn and blueberry, but they were fantastic together.  (Actually, now that I think about it, I love corn blueberry muffins, so I guess this pairing is more common than I originally realized).  Anyway, these three elements were all winners.  Creamy pudding, crunchy corn, and sweet compote.  It had flavor, it had sweetness, and it had texture.  The dish could have been complete then.

But there was more.  I'm not sure if you can see it in the photo, but another part of the corn showed up here: the silk.  Now, normally, I'm the person who demands that I husk the corn personally because I can't stand any corn silk left on my ear of corn.  No one else does an adequate job of removing every last strand.  It is nothing I want to eat.  And now, it was showing up, intentionally, on my plate!  And ... it was ... deep fried?  Creative, interesting, but absolutely horrible to me.  It was stringy, like eating hair.  So very off-putting.  I loved absolutely everything else about this dish, but that one element has the potential to ruin it.  Shutter.

And finally, ice cream.  The menu said it was purple sweet potato, but when I received the dish it was described as red bean.  I'm actually not sure which it was, I would believe either one.  It was creamy and good, and actually I did like the flavor pairing with the corn, but as expected, I found it a bit strange to have cold, soft ice cream with a slightly warm, also soft, dessert.  It wasn't bad, but just didn't seem necessary.

Anyway, this was very good, one of my favorite Alexander's desserts.  I absolutely licked my plate clean, and unlike usual, I didn't have Ojan to share with, so it was all me.  I'd get it again even, but just ask for the silk-hair to be left out.
Lime cotton candy, assorted chocolates.
As always, our meal ended with cotton candy.  But, they have changed up the presentation a bit, bringing it in a custom stand, that also contained chocolates!

The cotton candy was impressively large.  Nice lime flavor.  They also nicely packaged one up to go for me, so I could bring it home to Ojan, who loves their cotton candy, and was unable to join us.  Thank you as always for such hospitality Alexander's!

One of the chocolates was a chocolate square with a creamy filling and a full hazelnut on top.  I'm not sure what the ganache inside was, it was mostly just sweet (not chocolate based).  Perhaps it was hazelnut?

The second was a thin, light brown colored bar.  It tasted like butterscotch!  It was really creamy and quite delicious.  It had bits of I think dried cranberries on top, which were tart and added a bit of chew, but didn't quite go with the flavored chocolate.  My favorite of the pair though.
Alexander's Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Tokyo

On my recent business trip to Tokyo, I had only three free days, and I was determined to take full advantage of all of the amazing cuisine Tokyo has to offer - more Michelin stars than anywhere else, France included!

On Saturday, we started with a fairly formal lunch at Tateru Yoshino, 2 Michelin stars, French.  As you read last week, it was good, but, didn't seem worthy of 2 stars.  That night, we moved on to dinner at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, another 2 Michelin stars, also French (don't worry, we did mix it up later on, and experienced fine Japanese cuisine too!).

Joël Robuchon has several other restaurants in Tokyo, including his 3 Michelin star flagship and La Table de Joël Robuchon (also 2 stars), which we visited the next night.  But we began our journey into his cuisine with the Tokyo outpost of his L'Atelier line, the most casual of all of his establishments.  There are 8 worldwide, including Hong Kong, Las Vegas, London, Paris, Singapore, Taipei, and obviously, Tokyo.  All of the L'Ateliers are a similar style and decor.

The Tokyo L'Atelier was located in the same complex as the hotel I was staying at, thus it was quite convenient.  The restaurant is an upscale brasserie, and the ambiance was unbeatable.  I loved being able to get fantastic food in such a comfortable environment, without breaking the bank. The food was delicious, certainly worthy of at least one star.  It wasn't earth shattering, not super innovative, but the execution of pretty much every element was perfect.  This is clearly why they have their Michelin stars.  I feel confident that I can recommend this restaurant, and you will be guaranteed a fabulous meal.

Service was good, but not super formal.  There were little missteps, like things not being cleared from the table promptly, and not having any wine when the main dish arrived, but overall, quite good, polite, friendly.
Outside View, such large windows!
I absolutely loved the style and decor of the restaurant.  It felt casual yet elegant at the same time.  The color scheme was a dramatic red and black.

The decor was largely made up of food as artwork: beautiful jars of pickled vegetables, spice racks, pasta in vases.
Serious work pursuing the menu.
Although it has 2 Michelin stars, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon is amazingly affordable, even for dinner.  Sure, there was the option of a ¥14,800 degustation menu available, but most diners seemed to pick one of the set menus.  The smallest set was only ¥4,800, and consisted of a amuse, main dish, dessert, coffee/tea and petit fours.  For ¥2,400 more you could add a soup course, for ¥4,000 a soup and appetizer, or for ¥8,000 you could add soup, appetizer, a second main dish, and cheese.

And there were several options to pick from for each course, so there was certainly something for everyone.  I loved how flexible the menu was, both in terms of the different set options and the numerous choices for each course, and they also offered an a la carte menu as well, although pricing definitely was in the favor of the fixed menus.  And, even more amazingly, not everyone in the group had to pick the same option, so I selected the smallest set, since after our multi-course meal earlier that day, three courses seemed like enough to me, but several others in our group opted up to the ¥8,800, and then supplemented on top of that too.
Large open kitchen, with jamón ibérico.
The huge open kitchen takes up most of the restaurant, with counter seating running down the length of it.  When I say huge, I mean huge.  Unfortunately, I didn't get any photos of it, but it was an incredibly impressive working kitchen, with plenty of different stations, all operating at high efficiency, amazingly calm.  No Gordon Ramsey-esque folks in sight.  Above you can see the jamón ibérico that was occasionally carved to order.  There was a rotisserie spinning in the background with a full chicken on it.

Most diners were singles or couples seated at the counter, able to watch over everything, but since we were a large group of 6, we occupied one of the very few tables, a bit further away from the main action.
Bread Basket.
The first item we received were bread baskets, one for each end of the table, 3 different types of bread each.  No butter nor oil was provided, which bothered some of the group.  The restaurant is attached to a patisserie, and has a full bakery, and it was very obvious from the moment I took my first bite of bread.  This was quality table bread, not just filler! (Stay tuned for a review of the patisserie, which of course I had to visit too!)

I absolutely loved the fluffy roll, almost croissant-like, very buttery, perfect salt level.  It certainly did not need butter or oil added to it, and I could have easily eaten several of these.

The petit baguettes were ok, but it seemed sorta sourdough, which I never care for, although one member of the group was really impressed with these.  They were available at the bakery for ¥105 each.

The final offering was the petit pan a l'âme erre, a hard roll, with a really great crust, but again, sourdough, so not my thing.  Available at the bakery for ¥136.

Overall, a nice selection, and I liked that they provided one of each for everyone, I always hate it when an assortment is provided, but not enough to go around, and there is awkwardness in selecting who gets which piece.
Amuse Bouche: Pork Rillettes.
Next up, we all received an amuse bouche, pork rillettes.  Doh.  I don't generally like pork, and this was very porky.  And very oily.  Certainly not my thing, but the others all liked it, and when I offered mine up for the taking, everyone reached for it.
Appetizer: LES NOIX DE SAINT-JACQUES en coquilles au beurre d’algues acidulé. +¥630.
Those who ordered the larger menu all selected the scallops as their appetizer, "pan-fried scallops cooked with seaweed butter."

The presentation was lovely, served on the shells.  Because he is awesome, Emil let me have one of his three precious scallops, as he knows how much I love scallops.  They were well executed, still translucent in the center, good sear on the outside.  The seaweed butter was fascinating, and there was lots of it.  Somehow light yet decadent at the same time, and a good start to the meal, but probably my least favorite dish.

In addition to the higher base price set meal that including a appetizer, the scallops also had a ¥630 supplement.
Soup: LES RAVIOLES de foie gras dans un bouillon de poule avec une fleurette pimentée.
Next, the folks with the larger menus moved on to their soup course.  Now, "soup" doesn't sound very exciting.  But this wasn't just soup, it was "duck liver ravioli in a warm chicken broth, with herbs and spicy cream."  The cream was dolloped on tableside.

Again, because he is awesome, Emil let me have one of the three raviolis floating in the soup.  This was a treat for both of us, since foie gras is still illegal in California.  I am so glad he did, as this was, hands down, the highlight of the meal.

The broth was light and flavorful, but the star was obviously the ravioli.  Hands down, the best ravioli I've ever had in my life.  The pasta was perfectly executed, slightly al dente, great chew.  And inside, foie gras.  Swoon.  When you bit into it, it just burst into your mouth.  The flavors, the textures, everything about this was incredible.

I almost went back several nights later, just to order this dish.  Best ravioli ever.  Best soup ever.  Best dish of the night.  Get this.
The other person who ordered soup went for the one that sounded far, far less exciting: "lettuce cream soup served on hot onion custard flavored with nutmeg".

Why anyone would pick lettuce soup when foie gras soup was an option, I don't understand.  But he did.  And he liked it.  I was far too distracted by the amazing foie soup to pay any attention to this, but it looked as interesting as soup possibly could, super frothy and foamy on top.

It turns out that you can make this at home, as he published the recipe, if you are into lettuce soups ... 
Main: LE FOIE GRAS DE CANARD à la plancha en risotto au parmesan. 
Now, for my main course.  This dish was why we were there that night.  A signature Joël Robuchon dish, seared foie gras served over parmesan cheese risotto.

My heart skipped a beat when the dish was brought out, even though I knew what to expect.  Yes, that is a giant hunk of foie on top!

It was pretty much everything you'd expect.  Creamy, cheesy risotto, perfectly executed, not mushy, not too al dente, but with a good bite, topped with slivers of very flavorful parmesan.

The foie on top was well seared, creamy, good foie.  It went very well with the risotto.  I'm not sure I've ever had foie and risotto before, but this is a great pairing.

Side note: this restaurant really has execution nailed down.  Every single dish was perfectly prepared, but this one really exemplifies it.  I think consistency like this is the difference 2 Michelin stars makes.  Perfection.

Overall, it was a really nice dish, comforting, rich, creamy, very, very satisfying.  My second favorite dish of the night, and no supplement required!
Main: L’ENTRECÔTE DE BŒUF poivrée puis légèrement laquée servie avec une purée de pomme de terre et des légumes croustillants au jus. +¥1,890.
Somehow, not everyone was excited about the foie, as only Emil and I ordered it.  The others did have foie earlier that day at lunch, and seemed satisfied with just one serving of foie in a day.  Two others opted for the beef, "peppered and caramelized Wagyu rib eye with mashed potatoes and crispy vegetables".

I'm not a huge beef eater, but I know Wagyu in Japan is obviously high quality, so I traded a bite of mine for a bite of this.  The beef was amazingly well seasoned, and the crust on it was incredible.  I did find it a bit chewy however.

The waguy had a +¥1,890 supplement.
Main: LES NOISETTES D’AGNEAU avec une compotée d’aubergine au cumin et citron confit.
The remaining diners opted for the lamb, "roasted lamb served with a cumin flavored eggplant compote and preserved lemon".  Since I don't like lamb, I didn't try it.
Hard at work scribbling down all the details.
Since we were rapid-fire eating so many great meals, I tried to take down as many notes as possible, so the individual meals wouldn't blur together.  Such hard work being a food blogger!
Cheese Platter.
The set menu included 3 dessert options, none of which were cheese.  But since Emil doesn't eat dessert, he asked to see the cheese platter.  This was some seriously impressive cheese.  Emil decided to get cheese, as did a few others.
3 cheese selections.
Emil's cheeses were served with some token raisins and crackers on the side.  One of his cheeses, plus one others ordered, were so runny, that they were served in spoons!  I tried the crackers, which were actually interesting, very flavorful with grapes and chestnuts inside.

I don't generally have cheese envy, as I'm a total dessert girl, but these were serious cheeses.
Dessert: LA MANDARINE et en sorbet avec un blanc-manger à la noix de coco.
Dessert is usually a highlight of a meal for me, but the dessert menu didn't have a single option I was really excited about.  I picked La Mandarine rather half-heartedly.

It was described as "mandarin and sorbet served with a delicate coconut custard."

The sorbet was orange-y, tangy, but just icy sorbet.  Meh.

The mandarin was just that, segments of mandarin.  Meh.

And finally, the only part that sounded appealing to me, the coconut custard, which was a bit like a pudding, but not very flavorful or remarkable.

On top was a coconut sable, which added a nice crunch.

Overall, I just really didn't care for this, although all of the components were fine.
Dessert: LA TENDANCE CHOCOLAT onctueux au chocolat araguani, sorbet cacao au biscuit pulvérisé.
And the guys all ordered the chocolate dessert: "araguani chocolate ganache served with a cocoa sherbet covered with bitter biscuit powder."

For some reason, they couldn't all finish theirs, so I gladly cleaned up.  I loved the play of textures here, creamy ganache, cold sherbet, crunchy biscuit powder.  Better than mine, but still, desserts were not a strong point.
All set meals in Tokyo seemed to come with coffee or tea service, which was really nice.  My decaf coffee was fine, but not remarkable.  At least they had decaf, which is virtually unknown in Tokyo.
Migs: Shortbread cookies, chocolate covered candied citrus, caramels.
Set meals also all include mignardises.  Our selection at L'Atelier included shortbread cookies (pretty mediocre, a bit buttery, but not all that great), chocolate covered candied citrus with some zing to it, and caramels.  Everywhere seemed to give us caramels, which always paired well with the coffee.
Still, hard at work!
As everyone enjoyed their final treats, I was still hard at working, capturing all the details.  It is amazing how many photos I have just of me taking notes.  I promise, I'm not always totally boring!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Scones from Munchery

You've heard me rave about Munchery many times by now, so often that I have a label on this blog devoted to it.  But a quick recap: meal delivery service, curated group of chefs, well designed web site, delivery tracking, etc, etc.

Munchery is open only for dinner, so I mainly use it to order entrees, like my absolute favorite meal so far, the stuffed shells from Chef Bridget Batson.  But, they often have breakfast items on the menu.  I was pretty skeptical about ordering a baked good the night before, as I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to baked goods, and generally consider muffins or scones that are even just 2 hours old to be not worth eating.  But a few months ago, I threw a blueberry bran muffin on to my order, and ended up loving it.

So when I saw scones by Chef Jennifer Bratko on the menu, I decided to give it another go.  I thought scones were even risker than muffins, so I did write the chef a note using Munchery's "Ask the Chef" feature checking if they really would be good the next day, and she assured me they would be.  Given my success with the muffin before, I decided to trust her, and added one to my next order. (Side note: I love that you can write questions to the chefs on Munchery.  I've done it a few times, and the chef always replies quickly!)

Chef Bratko is the owner and self-taught pastry chef of Beyond Buttercream, which caters mostly cakes for weddings and other special occasions.  They have no physical storefront.  However, Munchery often features her scones and cakes.

This wasn't my first encounter with her treats, which is another reason I was willing to risk it and order a scone.  I knew she makes amazing things, as she was the one who made the insanely delicious pumpkin pie cheesecake we had to go along with our full Thanksgiving dinner from Munchery in November.

If you are interested in Munchery, for a full meal, desserts, or even just baked goods, use my invite link, you'll even get $20 off your first order!
Lemon Poppy Scone. $2.95.
"This is proper traditional UK style scone that is moist, delicious and perfect for breakfast. It has organic poppy seeds and pure lemon oil imported from France, a light and sweet tangy glaze."

I was intending my scone to be for breakfast that next morning, but to give it a fair evaluation, I obviously had to try a few bites the evening I received it.  I was very skeptical that it would be better the next day, as the chef claimed, so I wanted the comparison point.

The first thing I noticed as I took a bite is that it was truly a lemon scone.  Seriously lemon-y.  If you do not like strong lemon flavor, or tang, or zing, then this is really not the scone for you.  The lemon is infused in the scone itself, and is very strong in the glaze as well.  I don't actually really like lemon flavor, and would have chosen any other variety if available, so this was a turn off for me, but I clearly can't fault the chef for the scone being too lemony, when it was indeed advertised as a lemon scone.  I do wish the glaze was just sweet instead of tangy, but again, only because I don't care for strong lemon flavor, I actually think it is awesome that she amped the flavor up that much.

The glaze was applied in just the right amount, enough to accent the scone and make adding jam or cream unnecessary (although, I did still add jam the next day), but not so much that it felt like frosting.  As I mentioned, it was very lemony and tangy, but also very sweet at the same time.  Overall, the scone itself was also fairly sweet, which pushed it a bit into the realm of dessert rather than breakfast for me.

The scone was loaded with poppy seeds, evenly distributed throughout.  They added a bit of crunch, and obviously, lemon poppy seed is a common pairing.  The base flavor had a bit of tang to it, which I originally thought must be buttermilk, but I actually think was just the lemon.  It was very moist, as advertised, but reminded me more of a cake than a scone.  I guess I'm just used to the more American style of scone that is drier?  Again, it pushed a bit in the dessert direction, due to the more cake-like texture.

The next morning, I pulled out my scone, very skeptical.  I ate half of it at room temperature, and warmed the other half up in the toaster oven, since I always like warm baked goods.  It had changed overnight.  I wouldn't say it was better the next day, but it was a bit drier, as you would expect.  I prefer a drier style scone, so I somewhat thought that aspect was better, but it still wasn't a crumb style scone.  I found that adding some of my mom's strawberry jam helped tame the strong lemon flavor, and did compliment it well.

Overall, this was a fine scone, and it did hold up overnight far better than I expected.  It was nice to have a breakfast treat waiting for me in my kitchen.  If you like lemon, I recommend it.  It wasn't my ideal scone, but my experience just makes me want to try some of Chef Bratko's other baked goods.

The $2.95 price tag is a bit high for a scone, since most bakeries or coffee shops have them more in the $2.25 - $2.50 range, and once you add on delivery fees it is a very pricy scone, but just like the muffin, it is a reasonable add-on if you are already ordering dinner from Munchery.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Righteously Raw Chocolates

Righteously Raw is a chocolate maker, that, as you would expect given the company name, makes all raw products.  The website is filled with buzzwords galore: certified organic, vegan, gluten-free, no refined sugar, low glycemic, anti-oxident rich, etc.  They use coconut sugar, agave, coconut nectar, dates, figs, and raisins as sweeteners, rather than cane sugar.

I tried all three of their original varieties of their chocolate, which come as individual little squares rather than large bars.  They also make chocolate covered macaroons and a chocolate drink, which I did not try.  Overall, I wouldn't rush out to purchase the chocolates again, but, they were much better than I expected.
Pure Dark.
I started with the most basic: the "Pure Dark", an 83%.

After making fun of all the buzz words, I wasn't really expecting much from this bar.  But ... it was really, really good.  Very complex, fruity chocolate.  Smooth and rich.  I'd gladly get another.

Update: I did get another.  I was again very impressed by the quality of the chocolate.  Perhaps a bit chalky in texture, but the flavor was really incredible, particularly the fruit that seemed to come forward.
Divine Mint
Next, dropping down to an 82% dark, with peppermint, for the "Divine Mint".

The aroma coming off of this was unmistakable: mint, mint, mint.  And the mint came through in the chocolate, tasting like real mint leaves, not a mint "flavor".

The chocolate was quite dark, not very sweet, although a bit chalky again.  I was impressed with how bitter it was however.  My least favorite flavor I tried, but if you like dark chocolate, and real mint, I could see this being a winner.
Synergy Spice.
Finally, the most interesting: Synergy Spice.  80% dark chocolate, seriously kicked up with cayenne and aji panca.

As I opened the package, I could smell the spice.  Still, nothing prepared me for the actual spice level.  This thing was crazy spicy!  The chocolate was smooth, dark chocolate, that I enjoyed, but it was actually a bit too spicy for me.  I shared it with a friend, who declared, “I’ve never had chocolate that is legitimately spicy before!  I like this!”