Friday, August 29, 2014

Carnation Breakfast Essentials

I have a long history with Carnation products.

When I was in high school (and maybe earlier?), my school bus came at an absurdly early hour.  This wasn't just me being a kid who didn't want to get up early.  It was ridiculously early, before 7am.  The school district was trying out a plan to reduce busing costs, and decided to join routes.  And lucky me, my pickup was one of the very first ones on the original route, and my route was tacked on to the front of the other route. So I was one of the first pickups for the joined route.  I rode the bus for over an hour every morning.  (At least the dropoffs were in reverse order).

Anyway.  This meant I was up way too early, was always rushing to get ready, and could care less about breakfast.  But, my mother cared.  And while she couldn't get me to sit down for breakfast, she discovered that I really liked Carnation instant breakfast drinks, particularly when she put them into a shaker thing and made them all frothy.  I recall liking pretty much all of the flavors, although the Chocolate Malt and "Strawberry Sensation" were my favorites.

Flash forward many years.  I forgot about Carnation.  And then, as you've heard me reference several times on this blog, I got very sick.  I was on a liquids only diet for several months.  I wore out several blenders experimenting with all sorts of smoothies.  I tried pretty much every brand of bottled nutritional shake possible (omg, I hate you Ensure!).  The only ones I could really tolerate were Carnation.  (I prefer the powder over the pre-bottled ones, probably due to nostalgia).  I developed my own recipes using Carnation powders as a base, but even after months of morning shakes, I still could manage to enjoy the Carnation ones from time to time.

But, I'm not hear to tell you more about Carnation drinks.  I recently discovered that along with the powdered drink mix and bottled drinks, Carnation also makes breakfast bars.
Compared to your average bar, they actually are pretty balanced nutritionally.  10g of protein to 12g sugar.  200 calories.  And of course, Carnation's famous "21 essential vitamins and minerals".  (Although, um, ... corn syrup is the first ingredient).  Made from soy crisps, oats, soy nuts, with chocolate coating.  Available in two flavors: chocolate or chocolate and peanut butter.

Sigh, soy crisps.  I'm sick of soy crisps.  I guess this is how bars load themselves up with protein, but I usually can't stand them.  This was better than average, and the ridiculous sweet binding helped mask the flavor of the strange crisps, as did the rich, generous chocolate coating.

The base bar was fairly sticky from the aforementioned corn syrup, making this seem much more like a candy bar than a breakfast item.  I have no shame in eating ridiculous things for breakfast, but this felt decadent, even for me.  The chocolate coating was thicker and higher quality than pretty much any other bar I've tried too.

While I didn't actually want this, it was better than expected, better than average, and I imagine, a great way to get kids to eat a reasonably balanced bar to get them going in the morning, while easily tricking them that they are eating a candy bar.  Luckily for me, I'm an adult, and I can just go ahead and eat a regular candy bar, no tricks required :)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Station

I've had my eye on The Station, a coffee shop near the edge of North Beach and the Financial District, for quite some time.  Unlike most places in the FiDi, they are actually open on weekends.  And they serve Blue Bottle coffee.  Visiting has been on my todo list, but got bumped up when I saw they were running a promotion with PayPal: a free $10 credit if you paid with PayPal.  I've been using PayPal all around town lately, and I'm a huge fan of how easy it is for payments, so cashing in on this was a no brainer.

The coffee shop is a bit strange, in that it is a coffee shop, but also has a rotating selection of pop-up retail stores on the side.  On my first visit, there was a tiny pop up clothing store.  The Station is also a pick up spot for Thrive Juicery.  I didn't check any of that out, so I don't have any comments on it.
Large Windows.
The space has large windows, which let in lots of light.  The high ceilings add to it feeling very open and spacious.  The main seating area is made up of large communal tables, but there are 2-3 small tables, and a long counter along the windows with stools or standing space.
Outdoor Seating.
On the sidewalk outside are a few small tables.

The vibe is relaxed and friendly, and since they have free wifi, lots of people set up with laptops (no power plugs though, so people don't camp out for too long).  The music selection was interesting, and played at just the right volume to be enjoyed but not overwhelm conversations.

As I mentioned, the coffee is Blue Bottle, and they offer all standard drinks, along with pour overs and New Orleans style iced coffee.  Food choices are fairly limited to paninis along with baked goods from Goody Goodie, including muffins, scones, and cookies (which I've tried before).  Also available near the register are stroopwafels from Rip Van Wafel, which I've tried, unsuccessfully, in the past, and a decent selection of TCHO chocolate, a local SF chocolate maker, who I've also reviewed before.  They clearly embrace local connections.

The staff were friendly, and when I asked for an honest opinion on their decaf (since, so often it can be so awful), the guy taking my order told me that he had actually had it recently, and that it had more depth of flavor than most decaf.  He said he preferred the caffeinated coffee more, but that the decaf was good.

The only issue I had was paying on my first visit.  I used PayPal, which seemed flawless, I put in the tip amount, and even got the receipt on my phone, but the cashier came over a few minutes later and told me that it had crashed and not gone through, and asked for an alternate form of payment.  Since I had the confirmation through the PayPal app, and the e-mail receipt, this didn't seem quite right, but it was going to be free, so I didn't argue, and just paid cash too.  I logged into my account once I got home and saw that I had indeed been charged.  Hmm.  I believe him that it had crashed, but the payment surely had gone through.  On subsequent visits, PayPal worked with no problems.

Anyway, I enjoyed my time in the cafe, my drink, and some of the baked goods, so I'll be returning when I'm in the area.
Decaf Cortado. $3.25.
Normally I like a black americano, but since I was going for decaf, I played it safe, and had a drink with milk in it, which I knew would help mask any decaf funk.  I don't like a ton of milk in my drinks though, so I was happy to see that they even had a cortado listed on the menu.  So few places do!  When I ordered it, the guy taking my order even commented his approval of my order.

My name was quickly called out up at the espresso counter for me to come pick it up.  Very fast service!  The latte art left something to be desired.  A leaf?  Not really.  A blob.  But honestly, I didn't care.  The taste is what matters to me.

This was indeed a good decaf.  I've had the decaf at the Blue Bottle cafes directly many times, and they have never been this good.  I'd even kinda given up on getting decaf from Blue Bottle.  It did indeed have depth of flavor, no decaf "funk", and was even a bit caramely on the finish.  The foam was good, not burnt.

Very solid, and I'd get one again.
Pancetta Gruyere Brioche.  $4.
I also wanted a snack to go with my drink.  I'm totally not a sandwich girl, so the prepared foods section of the menu was entirely out, since it was all paninis.  Instead, I had to go for baked goods (a real hardship, I know), all made by Goody Goodie.

They had a few different muffins, croissants, and scones, none of which really looked appealing to me, as it was a bit later in the day, and those are breakfast items to me.  I usually like blueberry crumb muffins, which they had, but I wasn't feeling it.  They also had a ton of cookies, but I haven't loved Goody Goodie's cookies before, although I admit that is just a style preference thing.

They also had two brioches listed, one was the "brioche bomb", which I really wanted, a sweet roll with cinnamon, sugar, and a hint of orange, basically, a morning bun.  But alas, they were sold out.  So instead, I went for the savory one, a pancetta gruyere brioche roll.

When I ordered, the server asked if I'd like it heated up.  Yes!  A wonderful touch.
Inside the pancetta gruyere brioche.
The brioche took a lot longer to arrive than my drink.  I very slowly sipped on my cortado, wanting to have some of it with my treat, but it was getting cold fast.  I questioned my decision of asking for the brioche warmed up.

After what seemed like forever (but was probably only 5 minutes), my brioche arrived, delivered to my table.  It was worth the wait, and heating it up was definitely the way to go.

The outside was a bit crisp, the inside delightfully moist and doughy.  In between the folds of dough was gruyere, which got even more melty and awesome due to being warmed up, and bits of pancetta.  The pancetta was the only disappointing part: the bits were soggy and very fatty, not crisp, and not flavorful.  There wasn't much of it, which would have made me sad, but instead made me glad, since I didn't like it.  I didn't like chewing on bits of flabby fat.  Along with the pancetta were pockets of incredibly zesty black pepper, which added wonderful bursts of flavor.

This thing was good, but I felt it needed ... something.  I honestly don't know what though.  A bit plain to just eat on its own, I wanted something to dunk it in.  Or an egg on the side.  Or ... something.  But I did love the flavor of the dough, the texture, and everything but the pancetta.  I'm not really sure why it was called a brioche however.  It seemed like more of a biscuit.  Maybe it had a lot of egg inside the dough?  It didn't have the classic lightness of brioche, nor the shine on the outside.

I liked it, but I don't think I'd get it again unless I was really wanting something savory.  Next time, I hope they have the brioche bomb!  $4 is a bit high for just a baked good, but for a savory snack, it wasn't bad.
Banana Chocolate Scone.  $3.
On my second visit, I was determined to finally get the brioche bomb, but, it was again sold out when I arrived at 10am.  Doh!  Either everyone else really loves these things, or The Station really doesn't stock enough of them.

I was really at a loss for what to get instead.  I still didn't want a croissant, and the muffins didn't look great.  So I went for a scone, which is always a risky choice.  Scones rarely are what I want them to be.  Often they are super dry, too cakey, or too oily.

But this scone was a pleasant surprise.  It was quite good.  The base consistency was the most impressive part, it was just the right level of crumbly, not dry, nor moist.  It had a slight tang to it, and wasn't oily.  The banana aspect was what I was most unsure about, as I've never had a banana scone before, but it basically tasted like banana bread, but as a biscuit, if you can imagine that.  It also had plenty of tiny little chocolate chips and large crunchy sugar crystals on top.  Quite enjoyable.

But after a couple bites, I thought it would be better warm, so I asked to have it warmed up (which was not offered when I ordered it, unlike the savory brioche).  I was warned that the chocolate might melt, which I said was perfectly fine.

It returned to me a few minutes later, warm.  I liked it better this way, as it got slightly more moist inside, slightly more crisp outside.  It was good both ways though.

$3 for a scone seems perfectly reasonable.  If I were back at The Station and was in the mood for a scone, I'd get this again, a very solid choice.
Vegan Bran Muffin. $3.50.
Another Sunday morning, another visit to the Station.  Again, I was eager to get a brioche bomb, and again, they were sold out at 10am when I arrived, 1 hour into service.  I'm fairly convinced at this point that they must get all their baked goods for the weekend in on Saturdays (which also makes sense since Goody Goodie, their baked goods supplier, isn't open on Sundays either), and they just never have brioche bombs left.

I was very tempted to get the scone again, since I liked it on my previous visit, but I recalled the cashier last time telling me that he really recommended the bran muffin.  I was skeptical then, and picked the scone, but this time I asked the woman taking my order about the bran muffin.  Her face lit up and she said she loved it, that it reminded her of bread pudding.  That is all it took to sell me, as I LOVE bread pudding.

She put my muffin on a plate, and was ready to hand it over at room temperature, but I asked if she could warm it up.  On my other visits they had offered to heat up the baked goods, so I was surprised to have to ask for it this time, particularly because bread pudding is an item that is often served warm, right?

Anyway.  First, I keep calling it a "muffin", because that is what the sign said.  Did this look like a muffin?  Um, no.  It was rectangular, not round.  While it had a "wrapper", it was unlike any muffin wrapper I've ever encountered before.  Muffin was certainly a strange term for it, but I figured it would still taste like a classic bran muffin.

It did not.  The form factor was more appropriate for a cake, and, the taste was far more like a cake.  It did have a hearty bran flavor, but it was really, really sweet.  Too sweet for me for a breakfast item, or at least, a breakfast item when I was wanting a bran muffin.  It was loaded with shredded carrot, which was good, but it was also loaded with golden raisins.  Soo many raisins.  They were juicy and plump, and I have nothing against raisins, but they were very sweet, and the quantity made the whole muffin-cake very sweet.  I'm pretty sure there was a lot of additional sweetness in there as well, it tasted somewhat like molasses, or I can imagine that it used applesauce, since it was a vegan item.

Anyway, I wasn't ever able to get over the sweetness.  It was very moist.  I enjoyed it warm.  The bran was nice.  But ... it was just too much like a cake.  Except, who eats a bran cake?  I always love slathering my mom's strawberry jam on bran muffins, the strawberry and bran combination is one I really like, but there is no way I could have added more sweetness to this.  I pondered what would have been successful as a pairing.  Since it was so cake-like, it almost seemed like you could serve it warm, like a cake or bread pudding, with ice cream.  But ... again, bran cake?  That didn't seem quite right.  I also considered some sort of savory whipped topping, like a whipped crème fraîche perhaps?  I'm just not sure.

Too sweet for a muffin, too bran-y for a cake, this item just didn't make sense.  I won't get another.
Brioche Bomb.  $3.75.
Finally, when I was about to give up all hope, they had the brioche bomb!

Sadly ... it really wasn't good.  I had heard great things about it, a brioche cinnamon roll with cinnamon, sugar, and a hint of orange.  It sounded like a morning bun, but with brioche.  Sure, I had hyped this thing quite a bit as they never had it when I visited before, but, even without hype, it really didn't live up at all.

The dough was the same as in the pancetta gruyere roll, which I again fail to really see why they call it a brioche, it wasn't at all fluffy or rich tasting.  It was really, really dry.  So the dough, dry and boring.  But a cinnamon roll item should be about the filling anyway, right? This was rolled with cinnamon and sugar, but the layer was so thin that I could barely taste it.  It certainly wasn't ooey-gooey.  There wasn't any additional topping on top.

Really, this was just a dried out roll that happened to have a tiny bit of cinnamon and sugar in it.  It wasn't satisfying in any way.  I obviously won't be getting this again.  $3.75 was a fairly standard price for an item this size.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Robot Restaurant, Tokyo

At this point, you've spent the past few months reading about my amazing Tokyo travels on Tuesdays.  I've shared pastries, a slew of Michelin starred dining, plus all the Japanese classics of sushi, okonomiyaki, tepanyaki, and ramen.

But not all of my adventures were for the food.  Some were for ... the experience, and the experience alone.

Like, the Robot Restaurant.  We were tipped off to this place by Levi, who proclaimed that he was going, even if none of the rest of us joined him.  I don't think he expected anyone else to go, particularly not Emil.  But we all joined for the adventure.

This is a case where the photos will speak much better than my words ever will, so I'll leave the narrative simple, except of course, for the meal review.  You can also watch Anthony Bourdain's experience on Parts Unknown.

This experience was even more insane than it looks.  And I'd recommend it in a heartbeat.  Thank you Emil for the photos!
The amount of flashy lights was only the beginning.
 Levi and I were a bit skeptical as we stood inside the entrance.
 And were greeted by a fembot, natch.
Soon we were escorted to the lounge to enjoy a pre-show drink.  The very, very tacky lounge.
I glanced through the menu, a bit distracted by what was around me.
And then I found ... ZIMA!

When I was in college, ZIMA was my drink of choice.  But when is the last time you saw ZIMA in the US?  Answer: at the latest, 2008, when it was discontinued.  You can only find it in Japan now.  And find it I did.  Available almost everywhere, also in a pink variety!
 Levi was soooo thrilled to be there!
Levi and the dino.
As we waited for drinks, Levi started playing with the cute littlo dinosaur on the table.
Julie and the dino.
Once I secured my ZIMA, do did I. It turned out to be sooo interactive!
Sleepy Dino.
It even fell asleep in my arms, and laid its head down ...
Going down ...
Finally, after amusing ourselves in the lounge for a while, it was time to head to the show itself.
Before the show, the state had a bar on it.  It would return during intermission.
The Dining Portion.
As we entered, we were given the choice of two bento boxes.  I dug into mine.  Spoiler: we weren't there for the food.
Fish Bento Box.
I was brave, and went for the seafood option.

The top left section contained tamago and beans.  The tomago wasn't layered, it wasn't very sweetened, but it wasn't offensive.  Meh.  The 3 large beans next to it were sweet, and I actually liked them.  They reminded me of molasses baked beans, and I gladly ate all the beans from Emil's box too, as he clearly wasn't going near this food.  The green beans next to those however I really didn't care for, they had a really strange unfamiliar taste.

In the center was a tiny container of pickles, pretty standard.

Top right was my first seafood, raw salmon over a small salad with pickled onions.  I wasn't brave enough to try the fish, but the onions were fine.

Bottom right was my other seafood, a miso coated, cooked fish.  I'm not sure what type of fish it was, but it didn't have much flavor, and was very fully cooked.

The final section was rice balls.  They were not good at all, the rice dried out yet mushy, flavorless.

I had heard that you definitely don't go there for the food, so I was expecting it to be worse than this.  Sure, I didn't actually like anything in here besides the beans, but it wasn't THAT bad.
"Meet" Bento Box.
The other option was "meet".  The "meet" turned out to be two types of chicken.  Since I dislike chicken, I didn't try any of it.  The other dishes were all the same.
Soon, it was time for the show.
Safety Briefing.
It started with a safety briefing.  Yes, literally.
 The first act: drummers.
Glowing drummers that is. 
Jelte and I were amused.  But we really had no idea what we were in for.
Of course there was a gong.
And a dragon.
Scene change! Since the venue was soooo small, they needed to change out everything between acts.
Pole Dancer.
Things started getting more interesting.

Bunny Drummers.
Now the drummers are ... bunnies.
Marching Band.
And a whole marching band of bunnies ...

Robot Wars.
And then a robot war began.
 With a giant panda, riding a cow, of course.  What???
I had no idea what to think at this point.
Have I mentioned that I hate spiders?  Particularly giant spiders?
Hover Bot.
Evil Robot.
Mermaid Riding a Shark.
Shark Attack.
Seriously, what is going on???
Glow Sticks.
No longer scary, it was time for them to hand out glow sticks.
Glow sticks were fun.
High speed rolling robots.
Robots inside light up rolling wheel things.
Giant fembots.
These were kinda freaky, like giant robot dolls on parade.
Robot DJ.
Time for a giant robot DJ ...
Yes, I was a bit confused as to what was going on at this point ...
HUGE Robots.
And lasers.  Because, lasers.
Dancers and Terminators. 
More Dancers.  More Lasers.
Yeah, that is an airplane, all lit up, with girls dangling from it.
Girls & Airplane.
Riding the Wing.
Out rolled a tank, to fight the airplane.
Tank Dancing.
Riding the Tank,
And, the climax, the tank crashed into the bomber.

I have no more words.