Friday, September 12, 2014

Good Boy Organics

As you know, I love discovering snack foods, and in particular, chips.

When I visited one of my other offices (I think it was Cambridge?), they were stocked with different brands of snacks, so I was of course excited to try them out.

Good Boy Organics makes two types of snacks "Organicasaurus", aka, baked organic corn snacks shaped like dinosaurs, and "BOPS", aka baked potato crisps.  They also make ... pasta sauces.  A rather random set of goods, for sure.

All the snacks are supposed to be a bit healthier than standard, baked rather than fried, 65% less fat that traditional chips.  And of course, non-GMO, gluten-free, organic, etc.
Cheddar Cheese Organicasaurus.
First, the Organicasaurus.  Baked corn snacks that are indeed shaped like dinosaurs. Available in "Sea Salty", "Tangy Tomato", or, as I had, Cheddar Cheese.

I expected these to taste pretty much like any other cheese puff on the market, just in a more fun shape.  And indeed, they did taste like a corn puff, light and airy.  And yes, it was fun to hold them by the tail and bite of the heads.

But ... they didn't have any cheesy flavor, which is kinda the point.  And sadly, no orange covered fingers resulted from eating them.  Disappointing, and I wouldn't get again ... unless I wanted to eat flavorless, non-GMO, gluten-free air.
Sour Cream & Onion BOPS.
The other snack line is BOPS (Baked Organic Potato Snacks).  Also available in a few flavors, like sea salt, barbeque, aged white cheddar, and sour cream and onoin.

They really were lighter than standard potato chips, but the texture was a bit like packing peanuts.  The flavor was good though, I genuinely enjoyed the sour cream and onion flavor, and didn't share my bag full.

Not what I'd seek out, but, not bad.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Alexander's Steakhouse ... still the best!

By now, you obviously know of my absolute love for Alexander's Steakhouse.  It is, hands down, my favorite restaurant, for any occasion, in San Francisco, whether it be a special occasion, a large group private event, or even just a casual burger at the bar.  My blog has an entire label dedicated to meals I've had there.

Yes somehow, I didn't visit for an entire year.  This is insanity, as in the months leading up to the foie gras ban, I went there several times a month.  But, I've largely stopped eating out at restaurants.  The last time I was there was summer 2013, when Emil had family in town, and we had a fabulous meal in the semi-private room.

A few days before my birthday, Ojan had friends visiting (celebrating their wedding anniversary).  We wanted to have a celebratory group dinner out, and there was obviously only one placeto pick: Alexander's.

But to be honest, I felt like a bit of a traitor, since it had been so long (not that there is anywhere else I've been going instead.  I just haven't been going out to eat much).  It had been a year!  A ... year!  Sure, I rave about Alexander's constantly.  I send at least a few people there a month.  But, I myself hadn't been there in a year, and for Ojan, it had been even longer, since he was unable to join on my last visit due to health reasons.

When I got the confirmation call the day before my reservation, there was no familiarity in the voice of the caller.  When we arrived, I didn't recognize the hostess.  Nor our main server.  My heart somewhat sank.  Alexander's was "my" place, and part of the reason I love it so much is that they take hospitality to a level I've never experienced elsewhere.  Yes, the atmosphere is great, the food is phenomenal, but you can get good food in a nice environment anywhere.  It is the sense of being taken care of, of really feeling at home, that completes the package at Alexander's.

I looked around a bit disconcerted.  Where were "my" people?  Surely, the entire staff couldn't have changed in a year ... could they?  Where were the familiar faces?

I did not need to worry, they suddenly started materializing.  Over the course of the next hour, familiar faces started stopping by our table to chat.  They all seemed genuinely happy to see us.  And I really was happy to see them.  It was honestly a bit like coming home.  How had I let it be so long?

We had a wonderful meal, as always.  The service was flawless.  The food was everything I remembered.  Alexander's never wavers.  It will continue to be my favorite restaurant in the city, and, I vow to return much sooner next time!
Happa: Nikka 12 Yr Japanese Whisky / Old Forrester Bourbon / Benedictine / Tamarind / Fresh Lemon / Scrappy's Firewater Bitters.  $15.
To start our meal, we ordered cocktails, alcoholic for two of us, non-alcoholic for the other two.

I picked the Happa, since I like whisky based cocktails.  It was really strong on the first few sips, but mellowed out a bit as the ice melted, or, perhaps as I just got accustomed to it.  I can't pinpoint anything wrong with it, but it wasn't my favorite.

One of my dining companions went for the other whisky cocktail on the menu, the Mr. Pink, which was fruity and had a nice froth on top from egg whites.  He won this round.

Ojan and our other friend both ordered the Ginger Rose non-alcoholic cocktail.  They liked the ginger, but felt the drink was too sweet overall.  After a few sips they asked for more soda water to be added, which was done without hesitation, and they both liked their drinks far more once they'd been toned down just a bit.

Later in the meal, everyone ordered another round of cocktails, and Ojan's non-alcoholic California Kumquat was the hit of the night.  The no alcohol drinkers really appreciated the rather large selection of interesting non-alcoholic drinks, a rare treat for them.
Bread Course #1: Za'atar  Cracker.
After we placed our orders, and started sipping our drinks, it was time for the bread guy to make his first appearance, bearing crackers.  This time, za'atar spiced, a departure from the standard Japanese inspired ingredients Alexander's usually features.  Crunchy, perfect to nibble on while we continued settling in, and just enough spices to start to excite our taste buds.
Amuse Bouche: Buckwheat Panisse.
Soon after the crackers, an amuse bouche arrived: a small fritter.  The texture was really interesting, quite soft, and I had no idea what I was eating.  I couldn't tell if it was animal, vegetable, or what.  It turned out to be a buckwheat panisse, infused with soy and mirin based tonkatsu sauce, a little bit of Japanese inspiration right from the start.  The flavorful, salty sauce really helped wake up the palette, exactly as it was designed to do, a good progression from the za'atar spicing in the cracker.
Edamame: Warm truffle butter / Hawaiian black sea salt. $10.
Alongside the amuse came an extra complimentary side dish: edamame.  But it isn't just any edamame; it is served warm, bathed in truffle butter, and is deliciously salty from Hawaiian black sea salt on top.  I never order the edamame as I have no interest in filling up on it, and it can be quite filling, but I must admit, this is quite good edamame.

Ojan doesn't care for truffle, particularly truffle oil, but even he was able to enjoy the dish.  It took restraint on my part not to keep digging in, as the saltiness was totally addicting and paired perfectly with my cocktail, but I knew better things were coming!
Snack: Uni Toast: braised oxtail / 1k island / marrow toasted brioche. $9 each.
And now ... for the good stuff, starting with the uni toast, an item we selected from the "snack" portion of the menu.  You know I love uni, so there was no way I could pass it up.

The base was perfectly crisp toasted brioche, served warm.  It was insanely rich, as it was toasted in marrow.  On top, tender braised oxtail and creamy uni, both incredibly flavorful.  When I read the description, the 1k island seemed strange in concept to pair with the uni, but it turned out to work nicely, adding additional creaminess, which accented the already creamy uni.  Plus, the bread + oxtail + 1k island was reminiscent of a reuben.

There is literally nothing I can say that needs improvement here.  Such a smart dish, a delicious bite.  My initial tasting notes for this just read: "OMG, yum!".  My favorite dish of the night.

Variations on this have been appearing at Alexander's for a while, but it wasn't always on the menu.  Last time I visited, I had something similar, with shortrib ragout instead of oxtail, and it was my favorite bite that night too.  Highly recommended, in any variation, even if $9 seems a little pricey for a bite sized dish, remember, it did have a plentiful amount of quality uni.
First Course: Mangalitsa Pork Terrine: mangalitsa bacon / marcona almond / cognac / mustard emulsion. $20.
We also selected a first course to share, the Mangalista pork terrine.

Now, I'm not really a pork eater (well, besides bacon), so a pork terrine is a very strange pick for me.  Except ...  we had a little notice that wink, wink, something interesting might be in the center of the terrine, a certain ingredient not listed on the menu perhaps.  Plus, I was feeling inspired from all of the chef's photos from Cochon 555 the previous week, and I know he takes working with high quality heritage pork seriously.  And ... it was Alexander's where I first learned that I could indeed love pork belly.

The terrine turned out to be absolutely delicious.  Of course, it helps that it was wrapped in bacon and had a layer of creamy foie gras inside, because who doesn't love bacon, and obviously, I love foie.  Also hiding inside was a thin layer of shaved truffle, to amp it up a notch.  But even the pork itself was tasty, it did have a strong porky flavor, but the seasoning was really excellent.  Marcona almonds were mixed into the terrine, and added a surprising crunch.  And, wow, almonds and pork go together nicely.  Who knew?

But the perfect pairing was the pork and the mustard emulsion.  Once the rest of the dish was devoured, my dining companions started using just their silverware to lap up every remaining drop of the mustard.  "The mustard was really, really good!!!" one of them kept proclaiming, in defense of his near-licking of the plate.

We all loved this dish.  One person was pushed outside her comfort zone with it, and wasn't excited to try it, but ended up describing it as "a fancy sausage".  Hmm, yes, bread, pork, mustard ... it was kinda like a sausage, just totally deconstructed and reimagined, and I was glad that she was able to relate to it and find homey, familiar concepts hidden in the dish.  My second favorite of the night.
Gift from the Chef.
Before we moved on to our main dishes, we were treated to one more gift from the chef.  I saw it coming our way, and I think my grin was probably visible from across the room. 

As it was placed in front of us, I had to chuckle at the description:"purposely fattened duck liver, rabbit mousse, jasmine smoked blackberries, chanterelle mushrooms".

Yes, "purposely fattened duck liver".  Mmm, foie gras.  Super creamy, in a way that only Alexander's seems to master.  I'm not quite sure where the rabbit mousse was, but, since I had many rabbits as pets and have actually always refused to eat rabbit, I was glad that I could pretend it wasn't there.  In any other circumstance I would have skipped the dish due to the rabbit, but, foie.

The blackberries provided a sweet and acidic counterpart, although I didn't detect jasmine.  The chanterrelles were ridiculously cute.  The leaf on top was nasturtium, which shocked us all with its intense flavor.

A wonderful treat as always, although I think I actually liked the uni and the terrine more.  I'd gladly have all of them again though!  
6oz Filet Mignon.  Medium rare.  Uh, Truffles. $43.
Time for the mains.  But first, I need to confess something.  I don't love steak.  This may come a bit as a surprise, since Alexander's is a steakhouse, and is my favorite restaurant in the city.  But as I've explained many times, they do much more than just steak well.  I'm there for the whole experience, so I'm often tempted to skip the steak, as it regularly is the least exciting course for me.  Plus, I like to have bites of many different things, and a full steak, even the smallest 6oz filet, is quite filling!  By this point in the meal, I'm usually so happy from the starters, that I don't generally want an entire steak, no matter how good that steak is.  I have opted for a seafood course instead, or sometimes I pick another appetizer as my main, but what I prefer to do is just split a steak with Ojan, so I can enjoy a few bites, which is all I generally want.  Luckily for me, he was up for this plan, and wanted the same steak I did.

I've had many different steaks at Alexander's over the years.  Alexander's has taught me many things about steak, and one is that my cut of choice is filet mignon.  I know, it sounds so cliche, but it is the truth.  I've tried the dry-aged ribeye, on the recommendation from the chef himself, and the Akaushi  full blood Wagyu strip steak, and the even better Sher full blood wagyu stip.  I just really prefer the leaner filet.

I've also learned that the more expensive steaks really are better.  The Tajima F1 filet is probably the best steak I've ever had.  If money were no object, I would go for one of the higher end Wagyus over the standard one every time (but only when available as a filet).  But, the standard filet from Alexander's is still very, very good.

Alexander's has also taught me that I want my steak medium rare.  I grew up with well done steak, and by the time I first ventured to Alexander's I was "being brave" ordering medium well.  I quickly moved to medium, and now I can't imagine anything more than medium rare.

And, Alexander's has taught me that no where else cooks steaks so perfectly.  Seriously.  Time and time again, they just nail the execution.  Rare in the center.  Ridiculous sear on the outside (not that you can see it in the photo above, but I'll get to that in a moment).  Incredibly tender.  Even the standard filet is intensely flavorful.  I'm usually a serious sauce girl, and even I think this steak can hold its own without a sauce, although the bordelaise it is served with compliments it well.

Speaking of complimenting it well.  The truffles.  Oh my, the truffles.  Now, we did not order the truffles, yet they magically appeared on top of our steak.  A very generous portion at that.  ZOMG, thank you chef!  Now, time to step back.  Remember how I said Ojan hates truffles?  Yeah.  I was grateful and excited to see the truffles, but my heart did slightly sink, thinking that they ruined the steak for Ojan.

I nearly fell out of my seat when he took a bite and proclaimed "the truffle actually improves the steak".  Wait, what?  Not only did he not hate the truffles, he ... liked the truffles?  He ... wanted the truffles?  This was a groundbreaking moment.  I thought that perhaps with constant exposure he'd get to a point of tolerating truffles, but I never imagined that I'd ever hear Ojan explicitly say that truffles improved something.  Over the course of the evening, and into the next day, he reflected on the steak, and said it again.  First Alexander's taught us both that we could love pork belly, and now they have broken Ojan of truffle-hatred?  I told you this place is magical!

Anyway, Alexander's has perfected the filet, with or without truffles, and Ojan and I both really enjoyed it.

I also had a bite of my dining companion's pick, the Niman Ranch Strip Steak, with 1A sauce, cippolini onions, and shishito peppers.  I know that I don't normally like strip steaks, but I wanted to try it, just to reconfirm.  If Ojan could start liking truffles, then it seems totally possible that I'd start liking different cuts of steak!  It was perfectly cooked, just like my filet, but it was tougher as expected, and I really didn't care for it.  I also stole a bite of the cippolini onion, roasted, sweet, totally delicious.  Have I mentioned that I adore cippolinis?

In my mind, steak pretty much demands a glass of red wine alongside.  I was at a bit of a loss dining at Alexander's without Emil.  How on earth could I fend for myself and order wine?  I didn't need to fear, as I was in the expert hands of the Alexander's staff.  I mentioned that I'd like a glass of red wine to go with my steak.  I said I wanted something not too tannic.  Moments later, not one, but two glasses were placed in front of me.  I was poured two selections, one old world, one new world.

One was the Peay Estate Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast 2012.  California pinots are probably the varietal I drink the most, so this was very familiar to me.  Certainly not too tannic, light, and what I likely would have picked from a wine list.  The second was Le Chiuse Sangiovese, Brunello di Montalcino 2006.  I certainly wouldn't have known to pick it, and it was a bit more bold and assertive than what I normally gravitate towards, but it actually went even better with the steak, particularly when paired with the truffles and bordelaise.

I loved getting to try two different wines, and appreciated the different styles.  I also really valued that they brought me the one that I thought I'd like, the pinot, but also pushed me towards one that turned out to be even better, even though I wouldn't have asked for it myself.  Alexander's, always expanding my horizons!
Side: Brentwood Corn.  $15.
Yes, I ordered a side dish.  You may recall that while I love almost everything about Alexander's, the sides are the only area of the menu that I've been disappointed by.  But when I was at Alexander's last summer, I went out on a limb, and ordered the Brentwood corn, and absolutely loved it.  Last year it was a cheesy Camembert corn gratin, with ridiculously delicious corn bread crumble on top.  I knew it would be different this time, but I was certainly willing to risk it for another tasty corn dish.

This season's version was described as "fermented garlic cream / fennel / crispy yuba". 

The corn was nicely cooked, not mushy, not too crisp.  I liked the idea of the garlic cream sauce, like sophisticated creamed corn.  However, the fermented flavor just didn't work for me.  Everyone else liked it, and commented on how good it was, so I'm glad I ordered it for the table, but the flavor just wasn't something I liked.

What I loved however was the crispy yuba on top.  I've had yuba many times in my life, I've even visited the Hodo Soy factory to see learn it is made, so yuba itself is not novel to me (in fact, at the farmer's market that morning, we took our visitors to the Hodo stand so they could try yuba for the first time themselves).  I adore crunchy toppings, and although I've always had yuba sautéed, never fried like this, it totally works!  I gladly stole almost all of the topping.

I wouldn't order this again, but I'll still continue to try other corn side dishes that show up on the menu!
Bread Service #2: Parker House Rolls, Strauss Butter, Fluer de Sel.

I saw other tables receiving rolls throughout service, and after we had our steaks, we still didn't have rolls.  I didn't really mind, as I'm never one to fill up on bread when there are tastier things to be had, but mentioned our lack of bread to the others.  I'm not sure if I was overheard, or if the timing was just that magical, but all of a sudden, the bread guy appeared bearing rolls.

Described as Parker House Rolls, served with a log of Strauss butter sprinkled with fluer de sel.  Now, I've actually been to the Parker House.  I've had their rolls.  They were the highlight of my meal there, although I went for a wedding, and the food was awful.

Anyway, these weren't really classic Parker House rolls, but they were warm, fluffy, soft, and the dough had a great flavor to it, slightly sweet.  The butter was ridiculously creamy, rich, and delicious.  I used no restraint in adding generous amounts of butter to my little roll.  The fluer de sel sealed the deal.

I'd mostly finished my steak when the rolls arrived, but I still really enjoyed them.  One of the better bread services I've had in recent memory, and certainly didn't feel like a waste of stomach space.
Palette Cleanser.
Before moving into desserts, we obviously needed to ease our palettes into the sweets, so we were presented with a gift from the pastry chef.

A small dish, but there was a lot going on here.  The base was a little cube of sweet raspberry cake.   I'm not really a cake person, so that component was a bit boring to me, but it was sweet and moist, good enough cake.  Drizzled over the cube was lime curd, which, if you know my tastes, you know I really don't like.  I still don't know why, but I never care for citrus in my desserts.  I like lemon and lime in other applications, but a key lime tart is my absolutely least favorite dessert ever.  The curd was tart, it was creamy, but I really didn't like it.  My dining companions however liked it, and told me I was crazy.  This we know.

The most stunning aspect of the dish was freeze dried raspberry, broken down into individual drupelets, and scattered on top.  I loved the effect, as it took a very familiar item, a raspberry, and presented it in a way I'd never seen before.  It was clear what it was, but so strange to see in that form.

On the side was my favorite component: a fluffy meringue puff.

Even though I didn't really care for this dish, I appreciated that even the palette cleanser was such a composed creation, made up of several distinct elements, each showing off the skills of the pastry chef, and plated so beautifully.  My dining companions thought the "boat" shaped dishware it was served in was unique.
Dessert: Stone Fruit Almond. $13.
Earlier in the day, we took our visitors to the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market.  It was early August, so stone fruit was in full swing.  We all gorged on a zillion different varieties of plums, pluots, nectarines and peaches.  Which ...  I've also been doing for the past few months.  I'm actually getting a bit sick of stone fruit.

Thus, when one of our guests suggested the "Stone Fruit Almond" dessert, I wasn't really interested.  There were so many more exciting options, like a sticky toffee soufflé!  But, since I'd been calling a lot of the shots throughout the meal, I decided to just go with the flow.

The menu description read: "almond cake / créme fraiche / amaretti / absinthe / chamomile / stone fruit ice cream".  But of course, being Alexander's, what showed up was a very elaborate creation.

The base was almond cake.  As I mentioned with the palette cleanser, I'm not generally a huge fan of cake, but this was super moist and had a lovely almond flavor.  On top was sweet and tangy whipped créme fraiche, which I always love with fruit desserts.  Don't get me wrong, I love plain whipped cream too, but I really appreciate the depth of flavor that the créme fraiche adds.  It went well with the assorted slices of stone fruit.

On the side was the stone fruit ice cream, which reminded me more of sorbet, as it was a bit icy.  Underneath and alongside was my absolutely favorite component, an amaretti crumble.  It was sweet and crunchy.  I'm such a sucker for crumbles.

I not sure where the absinthe or chamomile were, as I didn't detect them in any bites.

I appreciated how much was going on in this dish, as it allowed me to take a bite in any direction I wanted.  Simple cake and ice cream?  Sure.  Fruit and crumble topping?  Had that too.  Or, my ultimate favorite: sweet fruit, tangy créme fraiche, and crumble, all in one.  Delightful.

I wouldn't have ordered this one, but that crumble was delicious, so I'm quite glad someone else did, and I got to experience it.
Dessert: Sweet Corn. $13.
The other dessert we ordered was my pick, and I was eyeing it on the online menu before we even arrived: the "Sweet Corn".

Now, I know this sounds like a strange pick for a dessert.  But, I had very fond memories of when I was at Alexander's last July, and ordered last year's version of "Sweet Corn".  It was a corn brûlée, one of my all time favorite Alexander's desserts.  I knew this would be different, as the menu described it as: "sweet corn cake / blackberry / lemon / honeycomb / olive oil almond ice cream".  Darn, cake again?  But, swoon, corn!

The cake was served slightly warm.  It was moist, reminded me of very dense cornbread.  Alongside was a quenelle of olive oil almond ice cream, blackberries, and what I think was a crumble made up from pieces of the same corn cake.  Those components were all fine, but not all that remarkable.

The amazing bits were the corn kernels.  They might just look like regular corn kernels, but they were crazy crunchy.  I think they were probably freeze dried, just like the raspberry in our pre-desert, and like the corn kernels in last year's "Sweet Corn".  I really loved how crunchy they were, and after everyone else had taken their main bites of cake and ice cream, I gladly scooped up all the remnants of the crumble + corn bits.

In both desserts, the cake and ice cream were fine, but what really stood out was the crumble components.  This was my favorite of the two desserts, although I wouldn't order it again.
Chocolates & Cotton Candy.
And of course, to conclude, just a few more sweets: housemade chocolates, and of course, the signature cotton candy.

Everyone at the table loved the specially made stand, with a slot for each of the 4 slices of bark, a pedestal for the bonbons, and a cotton candy holder.

The cotton candy flavor of the day was watermelon and strawberry-vanilla mixed.  Now, the astute reader should have alarms going off in their head right now.  Watermelon!  Danger! Danger!  Alexander's should know not the serve me watermelon!

Do not fear, they are not trying to off me.  I was assured that they had looked up the ingredients and were positive that no watermelons were harmed in the making of the cotton candy.  Julie-safe.

I actually think this is the first time I've even had artificial watermelon flavor in years.  It was such a strange experience.  My brain kept screaming "NO! NO! NO!", but at the same time, it was thrilling to taste watermelon.

Anyway, flavor aside, it was sweet, it was fluffy, and as always, ridiculously fun to actually eat.  It never gets old watching first time visitors notice the cotton candy arriving around the room, and getting excited to get their own.

For chocolates, there were thin slices of dark chocolate bark and bonbons, one for each of us.  My piece of bark had plentiful arare and a single tiny chunk of dried apricot.  The chocolate in the bark was super dark, very bitter, quite tasty.  I loved that they put arare inside, continuing with Japanese influence, even into the chocolates.  It added a great crunch.  The bonbon chocolate shell was shiny, and had a great snap.  It was filled with a creamy sweet praline filling.  Very good chocolates!

Perfect ending to a wonderful meal.
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Sunday, September 07, 2014

Moonstruck Chocolatier

Moonstruck Chocolatier is a chocolate maker from Oregon.  They focus on making bars that not only taste, but also look, beautiful, featuring flavors from the Pacific Northwest.

They make basic chocolate bars, but also more exciting creations called "Dark Chocolate Bark Bars", like the stunning Candied Orange and Hibiscus Bark Bar, with full slices of candied orange inset on top, or interesting sounding fruit and herb combinations of Strawberry and Basil or Raspberry and Fennel.  They also make a few filled bars, hot chocolate, and a slew of truffles, including a whole line made with spirits from Oregon distillers.

I don't recall where I found their chocolates, and I only had a couple of the standard bars, but I'm certainly interesting in exploring their more creative sounding products if I ever find them!
Milk Chocolate Sea Salt Toffee.
I really enjoyed this bar, but it was certainly a candy bar, not a pure chocolate bar.

The milk chocolate base itself was quite good, very creamy.  Inside was actual whole nuts, perfectly salty.  Chocolate and salt is a winning pairing, as is chocolate and nuts, so this was fantastic.

But then, there was also bits of toffee.  The toffee is what certainly turned it into a candy bar, super sweet, but, somewhat balanced by all the salt.

This was a winner, I loved the combination of sweet and salty, the creamy chocolate, and the major crunch from whole nuts!
Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Almond.
Next I went for a dark chocolate bar, also with whole nuts, this time, almonds.

The almonds were roasted, which gave a bit of bitterness to the bar.  Not bad bitter, but it helped accentuate the fact that this was a dark bar, not a sweeter milk chocolate one.

The dark chocolate itself was extremely smooth, great quality.

And I loved the salt on the finish.

Another good bar!