Friday, October 24, 2014

Fresh Express Salads

If you thought it was strange that I reviewed Sambazon smoothies last week , then I can only imagine what you are thinking now.  Salads?  Really?

Like I said, I get to sample random things sometimes because of this blog.  And in this case, it was salads.  Fresh Express sent me coupons to try whatever I wanted.  I could have stuck with basic lettuce blends, but I mostly went for the kits, because those are far more exciting.

For the most part, the greens, which is their primary product, were fine, but, not particularly remarkable.  I don't normally buy bagged, pre-washed greens at the grocery store (I'm a farmer's market kind of girl), so I'm not their target demographic.  But ... the dressings included in the some of the kits turned out to be totally delicious.

It was actually really fun to try these salads and add more greens into our daily life.  Ojan of course got to play along with me, and he also ate far more salad for a few weeks than I think he wanted, but, he was good sport.  If you are looking for pre-washed greens, available anywhere, with easy kits to make a meal, Fresh Express could be for you.


As I mentioned, the kits were the most exciting products.  They all include base greens, plus dressing, and a few other mix-ins.  Each one is packaged in a outer bag, with individual bags for the dressing and additions.

Fresh Express makes four different caesar salad kits (one with bacon, one enhanced with better cheese, and a lite version), two mexican style salads (one chopped, one not), two asian style salads (one chopped, one not), and a pear gorgonzola and a cole slaw.  I tried some from all categories except the asian ones.  While the greens and add-ins didn't impress me, the dressings really did, and luckily, they always provided far more dressing than you needed for the quantity of greens, so you could use it again another time.  If only they sold just the dressing!
Pear Gorgonzola Kit.
"Tender baby lettuces and sweet dried pears, frosted almonds and an amazing pear gorgonzola vinaigrette".

The very first Fresh Express salad I picked was the Pear Gorgonzola.  It sounded most like something I'd actually order in a restaurant.

I was confused when I opened the bag ... where were the pears?

The outer bag contained baby lettuces, a blend of romaine, green and red leaf, lolla rosa, green tango, green and red oak leaf, arugula, mizuna, tatsoi, baby spinach, and radicchio.  The assortment was varied and the lettuces were decently fresh.  I particularly liked the mix of colors, and the bitter radicchio.  I was impressed that they included so many more rare baby greens in a regular supermarket item.  But no pears.

The dressing bag contained the "amazing pear gorgonzola vinaigrette".  I didn't necessarily taste pear, but it was sweet, and reasonably well seasoned.  It had very tiny chunks of gorgonzola in it that helped balance against the sweetness, but I definitely overdressed my salad, and regretted how sweet it was.  The ingredients listed brown sugar, which explains the sweetness ... why?  Pear juice already provided plenty of sweetness.  The quantity of dressing was more than sufficient, and we had plenty left over to use on later salads.

The final bag initially looked like it was just the frosted almonds, but, it was the answer to "where is the pear?"  Along with the chopped almonds, were tiny, tiny chunks of dried pear.  They were completely lost once added to the salad.  Bigger chunks were definitely needed.  I did appreciate having both the almonds and pears for additional crunch.

I also added grape tomatoes, bacon, and gorgonzola crumbles once I saw how little was in the dressing.  My additions all complimented the salad well.

Overall, I was impressed with this; the greens were good, the dressing interesting, and the pear and almonds decent toppings.  I do wish the sweetness was dialed down a bit, and wanted something more, like real chunks of gorgonzola or bigger pears, but it was decent, and I'd eat it again.
Salsa! Ensalada Kit.
"A sensational combination of iceberg and romaine lettuces topped with Mexican seasoned cheeses, tortilla strips and spicy ranch dressing."

Next, I moved on to one of the Mexican offerings, the Salsa! Ensalada (the other choice was the Southwest Chopped salad, which sounded similar, but with chopped lettuces and cabbage).

The greens here were a bit boring, more standard, and mostly iceberg.  Fresh and crisp, but seriously, who eats iceberg these days?

The "Mexican seasoned cheeses" were a mix of finely shredded cheddar, colby, and jack with nacho seasoning.  The cheese wasn't remarkable, but added some zing and complimented the rest of the kit.

For tortilla strips, there were two varieties, yellow and blue, crunchy, but fairly unremarkable, and there weren't nearly enough for the amount of lettuce provided.  But again, complimented the kit well.

And finally, the spicy ranch dressing.  This stuff was very tasty.  I didn't quite get the "ranch" aspect to it, but it was creamy, and zesty, and tasted remarkably like the tacos I ate growing up.  Again, there was far more dressing provided than we needed, so we gladly used the rest up on later salads.

This all came together quite well, and I enjoyed it.  It would make for a very easy taco salad dinner with some seasoned beef or chicken thrown on top.  I also think it could have used carrots and tomatoes.  I'd certainly consider getting this one again, and jazzing it up a bit.
Salsa! Ensalada Kit ... as a taco salad!
A few weeks later, I decided to try out my taco salad idea.  I used the Salsa! Ensalada kit as the base for my salad, providing the lettuce, Mexican cheese, tortilla strips, and of course, the dressing.

As I said last time, it clearly needed tomatoes, so I added diced tomatoes.  I also thought the amount of crispy tortilla strips, while perhaps sufficient for a side salad, was not adequate for a full entree sized taco salad.  So I also added some Way Better Snacks Multigrain Tortilla Chips (remember those?), which I crumbled up.  I don't love them as tortilla chips on their own, but crumbled up in the salad they worked well.  What is unique about the chips is that they are made with sprouted seeds, and boost an impressive nutritional panel, are full of good things like Omega-3s. These particular ones are made with sprouted brown rice, quinoa, stone ground corn, flax seed, chia seed, broccoli seeds, and daikon radish seeds, all organic.  So, for tortilla chips, quite healthy, and they added whole grains and omega-3s to our otherwise not exactly nutritious meal.

Finally, I topped the whole thing with seasoned ground beef and onions, and a little cilantro.

It worked just as I hoped, and made for a ridiculously easy, satisfying, dinner.  Hands down the most successful salad we had.
CaesarLite® Kit.
"Our CaesarLite® dressing delivers all the authentic Caesar flavor you love with fewer calories and less fat than our regular Caesar dressing. Super crisp romaine is topped with our tasty, crunchy garlic croutons."

Fresh Express makes 4 different caesar kits: the "caesar kit", the "bacon caesar", the "caesar supreme", and the "caesar lite".  Ojan likes caesar salad, so we were interested in trying these out, particularly after the success of the dressings from the other kits.

We started with the light option, because, well, if it was good, why not pick the lightest option?

I was of course curious to see what was different between the kits, besides just a lower-fat dressing. The first thing I noticed is that the CaesarLite does not contain an additional packet of parmesan cheese to sprinkle on, like the regular caesar.  Obviously, the bacon one contains "real bacon pieces", in addition to the extra parmesan cheese.  And the supreme?  Rather than simple grated parmesan, it has "Italian artisan cheeses".  Oh my.  And rather than the "classic caesar dressing" of the others, it has "creamy caesar dressing".  We'll see how they all compare.

Nutrition-wise, the regular caesar clocks in at 150 calories per serving, 12 grams of fat. The supreme version adds a few calories and more fat (160 calories per serving, 14 grams of fat).  The Caesar Lite is indeed lighter, at only 90 calories and 6 grams of fat.

But back to the Caesar Lite.

The lettuce was all classic romaine, and I was pleasantly surprised by how crisp and crunchy it was.  Not a single bit of brown on it either.  They do earn the "Fresh" part of their name.  The bag contained a variety of types of leaves, but was generous with the hearts of romaine, my favorite part.  This was certainly the best of the lettuces we tried so far.

The garlic croutons were also a surprise.  They didn't look like much, and I expected them to be dry and flavorless, but instead they were really crunchy, buttery, and indeed garlicky.  I loved the flavor and the crunch they added to the salad.

The weakest part was the CaesarLite® dressing however.  It was very clearly a light dressing, more vinaigrette-y than creamy.  It didn't have any real anchovy flavor to it either, although anchovy is listed as an ingredient (albeit the second to last one).  Like the other kits, there was far more dressing than we needed, although in this case, we had no desire to keep it.

Overall, I was impressed by the lettuce and croutons, but I really didn't care for the dressing, no matter how much better for me it was.  And I wanted parmesan to add to it.  This was the first kit we tried where the dressing wasn't the star.  It did however make me curious to try the regular caesar, and the very fancy "supreme" version!
Bacon Caesar Kit.
So we moved on to the most exciting of the caesar kits: the bacon caesar.  The contents sound identical to the regular caesar, just with bacon pieces added:  "romaine lettuce, real bacon pieces, garlic butter croutons, aged parmesan, classic Caesar dressing."

The lettuce was pretty much identical to the other caesars, fresh and crisp, romaine.  The croutons seemed exactly the same too, even though described as "garlic butter croutons" in the Caesar and Bacon Caesar and just "garlic croutons" in the Lite version.  I'm pretty sure they were all the same, as they looked and tasted the same, and the ingredient lists were identical.  The croutons again didn't look like anything special, but the garlic flavor was crazy intense, and I loved the crunch they provided.

Unlike the Lite version, the regular Caesar and the Bacon Caesar provide a packet of grated parmesan cheese. It was completely unremarkable, not even a step above what you find in packets at a generic pizza joint, or in the green shakers at the grocery store.  Not exactly real parmesan!

Since I wasn't impressed with the Caesar Lite dressing, I was anxious to try the regular Caesar dressing, since I had been quite happy with the dressings from the other kits.  As I expected, this dressing was much better.  It was creamy rather than vinegary, it had some grit from parmesan cheese throughout, it had a bit of tang, and you could even taste a little anchovy.  A very classic, decent, caesar dressing.  I'd never go out of my way for it, but it tasted like a caesar dressing should, and was a totally different league from the Lite version.  Turns out, fat tastes good!  And like the other kits, plenty of extra dressing, which we gladly used later.

The differentiating component of this salad should have been the bacon.  Because, seriously, doesn't bacon always make things better?  I wasn't sure what to expect from the bacon, I pretty much expected tiny little bacon bit crumbles.  Maybe fakin' bacon.  I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the package to find a packet of, well, real bacon pieces, as promised.  Far bigger than bacon bits, or even crumbles really, and yes, they looked to be actual bacon.  But, once I invested further, my satisfaction with them disappeared.  I only like crisp bacon, and this was floppy and slimy.  I guess that is what happens when you put bacon in a little bag?  It also was really, really fatty.  Obviously, it is bacon, bacon is fatty, but this seemed to be either really poor cuts of bacon, or just not cooked such that the fat rendered out.  Either way, it was a disappointment, I didn't want flimsy, soggy, chewy, fatty bits of bacon in my salad.  Although, once mixed into the salad, the fact that it wasn't crisp was much less noticeable.

If I were craving a Caesar salad again, I liked the dressing from this enough that I'd get it again, but I'd go for the regular one, and skip the bacon.  And, I'd provide my own cheese.  Or really, I'd try to find somewhere that carries the Supreme version, as it is supposed to have higher quality cheese.
Cole Slaw Kit.
"Contains the freshest green cabbage and red cabbage, plus carrots, along with our signature sweet, creamy dressing."

Fresh Express makes a range of cole slaw products, starting with basic "Angel Hair Cole Slaw", which is just finely shredded green cabbage.  Next up is "Old Fashioned Cole Slaw", which adds shredded carrots to the cabbage mix.  To kick up the color another notch, you can go for the "3-color Deli Cole Slaw", which adds red cabbage as well.  But those all just contain the veggies, no dressing.

But of course, they make a Cole Slaw Kit as well, containing a mix of green and red cabbage and carrots, all shredded and ready to go, and a packet of "classic" coleslaw dressing.  At this point, I'd like to note that they spell it "cole slaw", two words, in all of the product names, but for the dressing?  "coleslaw", one word.  No judgement about which is correct (although, I think coleslaw is), but come on folks, consistency?

Anyway, the greens in this were the least impressive looking of the products I tried.  The cabbage looked dried out.  There was technically a scattering of red cabbage and carrots, but their representation was pretty minimal, my bag was essentially just green cabbage.

The dressing also didn't look quite right, as I expected something that was white and thick, mayo based, as that is what "classic" coleslaw dressing is to me.  But I realize vinegar slaw is also a thing.  This dressing seemed to live somewhere in the middle of the two styles, creamier than a vinegar based dressing, but not as creamy as a mayo one.  It was quite tangy from the vinegar, but too sweet.  It had both sugar and high fructose corn syrup in it, really unnecessary in these amounts.  It also lacked any zing, and I needed to add fresh cracked pepper to the mix.  However, for the first time with any kit, I found the amount of dressing provided actually matched the amount needed for the rest of the salad, and we didn't have any extra.

Overall, this just wasn't a classic cole slaw for me, I wanted creamier dressing, a peppery zing, and far more carrot.  But perhaps this is classic to someone, and it wasn't bad exactly, just not my style.  I do think the sweeter style would have benefited from the addition of some nuts to give a bit of bitterness, like pecans perhaps, or maybe just sliced apples or dried cranberries to just go with the sweet style more.

Amusingly, when I asked Ojan what he thought of it, his first comment was, "did you add pepper?"  I responded that I had, and he said, "why?  I want more, but without the pepper".  I said that coleslaw always has pepper, and he disagreed, saying that it should have had horseradish.  I've never had horseradish in my coleslaw.  So clearly, "classic" in regards to coleslaw is a highly individual thing!

Veggie Medleys

I still wasn't ready to try just basic greens, so I checked out the Veggie Medley's line.  These were all lettuce bases, with additional vegetables, like carrots, cabbage, radishes, pea pods, tomatoes.  But, not full kits, so no dressing provided.
Veggie Lover's.
"The perfect combination of lettuce and veggies you love!"

After success with the kits, we went for the most interesting sounding of the non-kits, the Veggie Lover's, as it had the most veggies other than just lettuce.  The bag said it had iceberg and romaine lettuce, carrots, pea pods, red cabbage, and radishes.

This was a very week attempt at a mixed salad.  The lettuce was mostly iceberg, flavorless, but fresh and juicy.  But there is so little value in iceberg.  I found very little romaine in the mix.

The cabbage and carrots were shredded and since they were heavier than the lettuce sunk to the bottom of the bag.  It was a bit annoying to get enough mixed in to add a little color and crunch.

The radish was a bit of a joke, perhaps three crinkle slices in the entire bag.  But more of a joke?  The pea pods.  I searched high and low, but didn't find a single one.

So sure, this was fresh, and it had some other veggies, but it was still mostly just a bag of iceberg, and I really didn't care for it.  Would not get again.

Tender Leaf Mixes

Ok, now for just some greens.  I skipped all the standard greens, the "Tasty Greens" products, and the fairly banal looking "Refreshing Mixes", and went straight for the higher end looking "Tender Leaf Mixes", which were mostly spinach based.
Baby Kale Mix.
"A perfect blend of kale and chard that makes any salad delicious."

I went for the "Baby Kale Mix", as it was the most interesting sounding.  It contained spinach and chard in addition to the namesake baby kale.  In fact, it contained more spinach than anything else.

The greens were all fine, fresh enough, tender, baby greens.  A fun mix, a bit peppery.  We enjoyed it raw as a caesar salad with leftover dressing from the caesar kit, and then simply sautéed it with salt and pepper the next night.  I liked it both ways, but slightly more when cooked down.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Starter Bakery Baked Goods @ Philz Coffee

Those of you who follow the day-of-the-week theme format of my blog, may have noticed that Thursdays are supposed to be about bakeries or ice cream shops.  Yet, last week I reviewed Coffee Cultures, a coffee shop, not a bakery itself.  But you see, I did so to review the baked goods they serve, from Mr. Holmes Bakeshop.  I did the same the week before, reviewing Epicenter Cafe on a Thursday, covering the baked goods they serve from Sandbox Bakery, not the cafe experience itself.   I think this is legit usage of my "bakery" review day, so, I'm doing it again.

This time we head to Philz Coffee.  When I first moved to San Francisco, I hadn't yet turned into a coffee snob.  I was coming from the east coast, land of Dunkin' Donuts, aka, massive quantities of cream and sugar in my coffee.  The idea of having my coffee black was unheard of.  Coffee was about being sweet, creamy, and generally, flavored.  It should come as no surprise then that my coffee shop of choice turned out to be Philz, where coffee is served not just with cream, but with manufacturing cream (>40% fat content, not sold in regular grocery stores.  Contrast this to half and half, at 10-15%) and with a secret sweeter mixed in that is rumored to include brown sugar.  It was the closest thing I had to my precious Dunkin' Donuts.

Of course, besides the excessive amounts of cream and sugar, Philz isn't actually anything like Dunkin' Donuts.  Yes, it is a chain now, but cups of coffee are brewed cup at a time, not in giant vats hours in advance like Dunkin'.  The coffee used is blends that Philz has curated, which is obviously better than Dunks.  I stopped going to Philz somewhere along the way, removed the cream and sugar, and wound up a devote Blue Bottle fan.  I recently tried Philz again and was shocked at trying to drink it black ... even the lighter roasts are much darker than what I prefer these days.

Anyway, didn't I say this was a bakery review day?  It is!  To go with your coffee, most of the Philz locations in San Francisco also serve baked goods from Starter Bakery (plus vegan donuts from Pepples).  Starter Bakery is located in Oakland, but they also run a large wholesale business, so I'm sure there are plenty of other places around town you can get their treats, which, you should do!

Starter Bakery cares about the sourcing of their ingredients, as their website calls out all of the local producers they use, not only for the staples like butter and eggs, but also TCHO for chocolate, Blossom Bluff Orchards for fruit, etc.
Ham & Cheese Croissant.
I decided to get something that wasn't totally just decadent, and somewhat counted as a balanced meal, to go along with my crazy sugary coffee: a ham and cheese croissant.  (I've basically justified it to myself that I can have a ham & cheese croissant at any time of day, because they totally have protein from the ham and cheese, and thus I'm not being an irresponsible person just eating baked goods and sweets.  Right?  Totally reasonable, responsible choice!)

It was good standard execution of a savory ham and cheese croissant.

The outside had a nice crispness to it, and the exterior dough was flaky and made a bit of a mess ... in a good way.  The interior was deliciously buttery and moist.

Inside was a generous amount of good quality ham and cheese.  I heated it up in the toaster oven to make it even more delicious and slightly gooey.

Not extraordinary, but very good.
But if you've heard of Starter Bakery, you know that they are known for one thing in particular: their famed kouign-amann (aside: if you have never had a kouign-amann, drop everything, and go do that now.  I'll wait.  Remember, I told you this when I reviewed the kouign-amann dessert at Clio in Boston too, which you should totally go to if you are ever in Boston, one of my top meals of 2013!)

The description is a bit wordy, but I'll include it, since I'm sure some of you are unfamiliar with this thing of wonder: "Starter's award-winning specialty, Kouign-Amann, is an indulgent French pastry that is similar to a croissant—but so much more. The rich treat is made by rolling out and folding together layers upon layers of dough with salted butter and sugar, then baking it in a butter-and-sugar-lined pan, resulting in an incredibly rich, sweet-and-salty experience." 

There are exactly two key words in that description: "sugar" and "butter".  They pretty much define this delicious treat (in fact, kouign-amann actually means "butter cake").  The recipe for an average batch of kouign-amann includes at least 2 sticks of butter.  And you can taste it.  And boy, does it taste good.  So buttery.

Ok, so what is a kouign-amann?  It is pastry with butter and sugar folded between the many layers.  Hard to go wrong here.  And, baked in a butter and sugar lined tin, so that the outside gets super caramelized and crispy.  When a kouign-amann is well prepared, it is a thing of wonder.

This was one of the best baked goods I've ever had.  Crispy, sweet, caramelized sugary exterior.  Moist, buttery croissant-like interior.  It was really, really, really good.  I'd get another in a heartbeat.

Starter Bakery also makes variations that I'd love to try, with different fillings like chocolate, espresso custard, fig, frangipane & raspberry, hazelnut praline, TCHO crunch, and vanilla cream.  I think I've seen at least the chocolate filled ones at Philz before, but I started with the classic.  The only time I've had a filled kouign-amann before is from Cyrus, when they gave chocolate filled ones as take home treats (you should also go there, Cyrus was one of my top meals of 2012!).
See review on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Auberge du Soleil

For Emil's birthday, we took at trip up to wine country, to enjoy a day of wine tasting.  But of course, the area is not only known for its wine, it is known for the food.  And while I appreciated the wine tasting, the thing I was most excited for was lunch.  Does this surprise you?

The Napa region has a slew of amazing restaurants, and shockingly, I haven't been to most of them.  Yes, really.  This was my first trip up to wine country in several years, since I really became a food lover.  I'm a bit tardy in publishing this review, as you may recall that I went up to Napa for MY birthday, where we dined at ... The French Laundry.  But this trip was actually about a month or so earlier.

Emil picked out our winery tour plan, and I was tasked with figuring the dining venue.  No problem!
There were many restaurants that I wanted to visit, but first, I was able to easily narrow our choices down to only those open at lunch.  Next, I decided to arbitrarily narrow our choices down to only those with Michelin stars (although I really had my eye on Archetype, a new addition).  Finally, I decided to only consider restaurants serving with a la carte menus, rather than full on tastings, as we didn't want the dining portion of our day to occupy too much time.  From there, it was pretty easy to settle on a place, since we had a 2pm wine tasting appointment in St. Helena, and there was one Michelin rated restaurant nearby: the restaurant at Auberge du Soleil resort.

The resort grounds were beautiful, but we didn't take much time to explore, besides having a drink on one of the patios overlooking the property before our meal, since we were pressed for time.

The service was fine, friendly and polite, although it didn't quite feel Michelin star level, possibly because they intentionally tone it down at lunch time?  The meal also did not include an amuse bouche, a palette cleanser, or mignardises, which made it feel far more casual than I was expecting.

Many items on menu sounded fantastic, so I was thrilled that Emil agreed to split 2 appetizers and 2 mains with me, so I wouldn't have to pick just one from each category.  And everyone else was happy to split desserts.

Overall, the meal was a mixed bag: the appetizers were mediocre, the mains quite good, and the desserts really disappointing.  Everything was nicely plated, the dishes well conceived, but nothing was all that memorable.  I don't really see a reason to return, as there are so many other great places to check out in the area instead.
The View.
We were seated out on the patio, like most (all?) of the other diners.  The patio is a more casual environment than inside the formal restaurant, where I imagine most people sit for dinner.

The view overlooking the property is stunning.

The patio is outfitted with very sturdy furniture, with umbrellas to protect from the sun, which I'm sure is intense at certain times of the year.  Although it was sunny, it wasn't that warm when we were there, but I can only imagine how amazing this setting is when it is warmer out.  Instead, we had the heat lamps on to keep warm.
Place setting.
The tables were set with cheery yellow tablecloths, with matching yellow cloth napkins.  We were offered house filtered still water, or bottled sparkling.  I opted for the still, as I love it when restaurants provide their own filtered water.

The centerpieces were fresh flowers and the setting was completed by a charger, which was removed after we ordered.  The cheery color scheme of the place settings matched the sunny day quite nicely.
Bread Service.
As I mentioned, no amuse bouche was offered, so the meal began with bread service.  The server came by and put a slice each of two different breads onto our individual plates; one whole wheat, the other rosemary meyer lemon.  They were both served warm, and had a nice crust on them, but were sourdough based, and since I don't like sourdough, this ruined the bread for me.  The wheat was slightly hearty tasting, but otherwise unremarkable.  I couldn't taste any rosemary, nor meyer lemon, in the other, although I was told that was the flavor.

Our table was provided with two little butter dishes to share, a local butter, topped with course ground salt.  The butter was really quite good, very rich, very fresh tasting.  I wanted to like the bread, just so I'd be able to eat more butter, without looking like a crazy person just licking butter off my knife (oh, you know you've done this too!)
Appetizer: Cow's Milk Burrata, Bing Cherries, Oats, Cress, Banyuls Vinaigrette. $17.
I love burrata, so I was excited to see burrata on the appetizer menu.  Emil is a cheese guy, so he obviously was happy to make this one of our selections.

It was served fairly plain, no crackers nor crostini to go with it.  This was fine with me, as I'm totally happy just feast on burrata.

Unfortunately, the burrata wasn't quite ripe.  I was a bit heartbroken, but it just really wasn't nearly as creamy as it should have been.  They seem to regularly feature burrata on the menu, with changing accompaniments, so I was shocked at the poor offering, as they should have known better.

The burrata was paired with a few sliced cherries on the side that were pleasantly tart, a drizzle of Banyuls for additional tartness, and was topped with a tiny bit of oat crumble for a pleasant crunch.  Garnished with micro cress.

It was a well thought out dish, nicely composed, but the cheese was just not ready, making this my second to least favorite dish of the meal.

Normally $17, or offered as part of the $32 2-course menu of the day.  It was a generous amount of burrata, but was not worth the price, as it just wasn't good.  I'd consider getting a burrata dish there again in the future, but perhaps would find a way to ask if the burrata was really ready to be consumed?
Appetizer: Kona Kampachi Crudo: Sesame Crème Fraîche, Cucumber, Radish, Dashi. $22.
The second appetizer we selected was the Kona Kampachi Crudo.

I'm not normally a fan of kampachi, but this was Emil's pick, and I was splitting with him, so I figured I'd give it a try.  Others in the group also ordered it and really enjoyed it, but it wasn't my thing.

The serving was 3 slices of fish, and I guess it was fresh tasting enough, but it tasted sorta fishy to me.  The garnishes were beautiful though, very thinly sliced radish and tiny cubes of cucumber.  I would have never realized there was cucumber in here, if I hadn't read the description.

The sesame crème fraîche was on the bottom, but was strangely watery, and not creamy.  It did have a fantastic sesame flavor however.

For $22, the dish seemed a bit pricey, particularly given that it was lunch, and there were only 3 slices of fish.  My least favorite dish, because I don't like kampachi, and I wouldn't get it again.
Main Dish: Wild King Salmon: English Peas, Roasted Spring Onion, Rosemary, Crispy Onion, Bagna Càuda.
The first main dish we picked was the king salmon, since it was just coming into season (protip: if you are even in the Bay Area when local king salmon is in season, by all means, get it.  And make sure they don't over cook it.  Best enjoyed mid-rare at most.)

Anyway, the salmon was cooked exactly as I like it, perfectly mid-rare, but with fantastically crispy skin.  Wonderful execution.

English peas showed up in two forms, whole peas and a coulis, both of which were light and flavorful.  The dish also included roasted carrots and creamy potato puree, not listed in the description, and I never found the roasted spring onion that was listed.  I loved the crispy onions on top, although the crispy salmon skin provided adequate crunch on its own.

We were told that it was finished with vanilla oil, but I didn't not detect this.

Overall good, although, not memorable after the fact.

This course was part of the $32 2 course lunch (along with the burrata), so it was an incredible deal since most of the seafood entrees normally cost at least $30.
Main Dish: Day Boat Scallops: English Peas, Roasted Spring Onion, Rosemary, Grapefruit, Crispy Onion. $34.
I didn't realize until I was typing this up just how similar the descriptions of the two dishes we picked were.  I just picked the scallops and the salmon as they are main proteins I was most interested in.  The descriptions of our dishes were were identical save one ingredient: the salmon was supposed to come with bagna càuda and the scallops with grapefruit.  Whoops.

The scallops were obviously the star of the dish.  Slightly sweet, seared, although I always appreciate a harder sear.

The peas were again fresh and light, very spring-y.  As was the spring onion puree, very fresh tasting and light, yet loaded with flavor (and yes, it actually showed up in this dish).  Speaking of flavor, the rosemary was also quite strong, not in an overpowering way, but it came though quite clearly.

The grapefruit segments made no sense to me.  Sure, some acid is necessary, and the grapefruit was fresh and light like the vegetable accompaniments, but, these flavors really didn't combine in a way that worked.

I loved the crunch from the crispy onions on top, but there were only a few of them.

Overall, a decent dish, no major execution errors, a nice exploration of spring, but not particularly remarkable.  The $34 price seemed a bit high for lunch.
Assorted sweeteners for the coffee.
After our meals, we opted to order coffee with our desserts, as we were headed to more wine tasting afterwards, and could use a break from drinking alcohol.

I was impressed with the array of sweeteners brought out with the coffee: regular white sugar (in granules or cubes), brown sugar cubes, and then at least 4 different types of artificial sweetener in packets.  Interestingly, although all these sweeteners were brought out, no cream or milk was offered.
Decaf Coffee.
I ordered a decaf coffee, while my dining companions ordered espresso or tea.  The espresso drinks arrived, as did the tea, but alas, my coffee was nowhere in sight.  No server said anything to me about where mine might be.  I wasn't sure if it was just slower, or, forgotten.  Since the tea person also received his drink, it wasn't just that they only brought out the espresso drinks.

After waiting quite a while, I finally got a server's attention and asked about it, and a while later it showed up.  I'm still not sure if it was forgotten or not.  Anyway, it was good, as you can tell from the photo, nice dark coffee.  Very little decaf funk, a good product, well brewed.

The coffee came with a small chocolate biscotti on the side.  It was dry, hard, and pretty boring, but, biscotti always is boring to me.  It didn't have much chocolate flavor.  But, I only had coffee to go with the main attraction, always a highlight of the meal for me: dessert!
Dessert: Chocolate Peanut Butter Mousse: Cocoa Génoise, Caramel, Nougat, Milk Sorbet.  $15.
The chocolate peanut butter mousse is the one I had my eye on.  You may realize that I don't often pick chocolate desserts.  This isn't because I don't like chocolate.  I love chocolate.  But I don't usually consume chocolate in the evenings, which is when I most often go out to restaurants, so I rarely get to indulge in chocolate desserts.  And chocolate with peanut butter?  Yes!

Sadly, it wasn't very good.  Also, what kind of "chocolate peanut butter mousse" was this?  I'm all for interpretations and interesting spins on things, but, I expected to see creamy mousse somewhere.

The main element was the bar shape, with a crunchy base, which seemed to be the only component that had peanuts.  The layer above that was a cocoa génoise, basically, dry boring sponge cake.  Above that was a layer of promised chocolate mousse, and it was all topped off with chocolate ganache.  Of the layers, only the top two tasted good, but neither was as rich as I would have liked.  I was particularly disappointed since it was called a chocolate peanut butter mousse, and there was very little peanut component.

I'm also not sure where the caramel from the description was, perhaps the drizzle on the plate was a dark caramel?  The milk sorbet was a ridiculously tiny scoop, seemingly from a melon baller, but it tasted like icy ice cream, with no real flavor, and no creaminess, so I didn't mind that there wasn't more of it.  I like that they were presumably trying to have something light to cut the richness of the chocolate dessert, but since the chocolate wasn't actually a very deep flavor, it wasn't necessary.  The chunk in the front was a piece of nougat, crunchy, but again, not very flavorful.  It might have had peanut butter too?

This dessert was such a disappointment: not enough peanut, not rich enough, not really a mousse.  It was also fairly small, particularly for the $15 price tag, which is higher than most nice restaurant desserts.  I would not get again, and, in fact, would not bother getting any desserts here again.
Dessert: Warm Chocolate Tart: Peppermint Ganache, Garden Mint Ice Cream. $15.
The second dessert my group picked was a warm chocolate tart.  I'm not generally a tart fan, but, since I picked the first item, I let others pick this one.  Plus, peppermint ganache and mint ice cream sounded good.

I didn't try the tart itself, as it didn't even look good, and after the last dessert, I was a bit brokenhearted.   The mint ice cream was nicely minty, although again, it came as fairly small serving (although about twice as large as the one that came with the previous dessert), and again, it was icy rather than creamy.  The peppermint ganache did have a strong mint flavor that I enjoyed.

And again, a fairly small dessert for the price.  I actually liked the size of the desserts, not overwhelming, and the right size to end a meal, but the prices for desserts were far too high for what they were.
See review on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Executive Lounge, Park Plaza London Victoria

During my recent trip to London, I stayed at the Park Plaza London Vitoria, conveniently located close to my office.

But of course, this is Julie's dining club, not a hotel review site, so I'm not actually here to review the hotel itself.  I stayed only two nights, but my room included executive lounge access, so I checked out the evening canapé selection both nights, and enjoyed my breakfast there each morning.

The evening canapés were less than impressive.  There was basic snack mix and finger sandwiches one night, spring rolls the other.  Not a single sweet treat!

I had low expectations for breakfast after the first night of canapés, and was pleasantly surprised.  The spread was extensive, including hot items, baked goods, fresh fruit, really good muesli, assorted yogurts, meats, cheeses, and more.  I gladly returned the second morning.
Little Tables.
Furnishings weren't luxurious, but they were good enough.  Padded chairs, wooden tables, and place settings laid out.
The first station had a machine for making espresso drinks, instant decaf coffee packets, and an assortment of Twinings tea, with a selection of sweeteners.  A good enough mix.

On my first visit, I was offered fresh coffee, so I didn't use this area, but on my second visit, even though I was greeted, no offer of coffee was made, so I used the machine instead to make an americano.  It was unremarkable.
Next was an assortment of cereals, plus some mix ins like banana chips, dried apricots, and raisins.  Certainly not my thing, so I skipped these.
Fruit, muesli, cheese, meats.
I was really impressed with the next section.  It contained several varieties of cold sliced meat, and a decent enough smoked salmon.  Only one variety of cheese, and it came in little packages, but I didn't expect to see any of these items in a simple buffet.

For fruit there was a fruit salad, mandarin orange segments, and chunks of pineapple, as well as a fruit coulis.

And muesli.  I love muesli, so I was thrilled to see this.  It was good muesli.  Creamy, well spiced, my style for sure.  I enjoyed a bowl each morning I was there.  The first day, I added the fruit coulis to it, but on my second visit, I decided it was good enough just on its own.  Highlight of the breakfast spread!
Watermelon, smoothies, yogurts, condiments.
The next area had ... WATERMELON!  I have no idea why the watermelon was on the side, rather than with the rest of the fruit.  But, since I have a deathly watermelon allergy, this made me quite happy.  I was actually able to eat the muesli from the previous station, and I would have needed to skip it if the watermelon was located inside the same serving area.

The yogurts were Loseley brand, not one I'm familiar with in the US, and came in an interesting assortment of flavors, including caramelized pear and fudge.  I obviously had to try that.
Caramelised Pear and Creamy Fudge Yogurt
Fudge? In yogurt? Caramelized fruit?  How could I NOT try this?

The yogurt had an ok creaminess, but was not as thick as Greek style yogurt.  I don’t actually like pear that much, but I was too intrigued by this flavor to not try it.  The pear bits were plentiful, in good size chunks.  They were sorta caramelized I guess.  But I didn't love them.

The fudge was the more interesting part.  I tasted chocolate.  But I never saw any.  No chunks, no swirls, no coloring to indicate cocoa.  I tried to find it, but I never could.  I tried to figure out if I was making up the fact that I could taste chocolate, thinking perhaps my brain was tricked because it read "fudge".  But, it was there, I swear.

Anyway, this was interesting, but not something I'd get again, only because I prefer a thicker yogurt, and, I don't like pears.  I'm glad I tried it though.
Hot Foods: scrambled eggs, bacon, beans, mushrooms, etc.
The hot buffet area had all the classic makings for a full British breakfast.  I didn't take notes, but I know there was at least scrambled eggs, baked beans, mushrooms, bacon, and sausage.  I think there were a few other items as well.

None of these were appealing to me, so I skipped them.
Danishes, muffins, rolls, fruit.
At the end, even more fruit, including whole bananas, oranges, apples.  A basket of sad looking rolls.  Mediocre looking danishes.

And a handful of muffins, none labelled.
 Finally, juices.  I didn't try any.
Pot of Coffee.
On my first visit, once I entered, I was greeted and offered fresh coffee.  Once I sat down, an entire individual pot was brought to me.  It was good enough, better than what I made in the machine.
Mini-Muffins, Day 2.
On the first day, the muffins were all full size, and were drizzled with something.  They didn't look like anything special, but they turned out to be absolutely delicious.  I wish I'd taken photos!

I started with one that seemed to be a carrot/raisin/pumpkin seed/cream cheese muffin.  It was moist.  It had a good carrot flavor, not overwhelming.  It was very well spiced.  It had a lot of plump raisins throughout.  I loved the crunch from the pumpkin seeds.  There were a lot of good things going on in the muffin, in terms of flavors and textures.  But the best part was the cream cheese.  A little was drizzled as icing on top, and then the center was stuffed with sweetened cream cheese.  I wasn't expecting to find it in the center, and it was a great surprise.  It added even more moisture and a bit of sweetness.  I really liked this muffin.

I liked it so much, that I went for another.  The next looked like a blueberry muffin, again with a little cream cheese drizzle on top.  Like the first one, it was nicely moist.  I liked the sweetness of the drizzle on top.  It was loaded with blueberries, all large size, juicy.  The muffin base wasn't particularly interesting, but only because I was comparing it to the carrot one, which was just loaded with so many goodies.  But again, the winning part was the cream cheese filling hidden within.  I just loved how much moisture it added.  My second favorite, but I still liked it quite a bit.

On the second day, I went rushing in for breakfast, very excited, only to find that my large muffins had been replaced with small muffins.  Not wanting to judge the muffins just based on size, since the first batch hadn't looked that great either, I tried two.  They weren't good at all.

They didn't have a cream cheese drizzle.  Or cream cheese lurking inside.  They were not moist.

The first one had a crunchy sugar topping that I liked, but it was a dry lemon flavored muffin, with lemon goo in place of my cream cheese filling.  I dislike sweet lemon desserts, and muffins are no different.

The next was blueberry, and the berries weren't large and juicy this time.  No cream cheese.

I have no idea how they could serve such radically different muffins.  It was like they came from two entirely different vendors.  One set was really quite impressive, the other, worthless.

Monday, October 20, 2014

IHOP ... again.

This review has been merged into my other IHOP in 2014 review.  Go read it there!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mars Chocolates, the UK Edition

I've reviewed a bunch of classic Mars' Chocolates before.  You know these yourselves anyway.  3 Musketeers, Milky Ways, Snickers, Twix, M&Ms, etc ... yawn.

But, like most companies, Mars makes totally different products in the UK.  So when I was there on a recent trip, I obviously had to try an assortment.  Since duh, chocolate.

Celebrations (UK Edition)

When visiting my office in London, I found the microkitchens stocked with Mars' Celebrations: small, individually wrapped, chocolates.  Some were the same as what I'm used to in the US, such as Snickers and Milky Way, but many were unfamiliar.
I had no idea what a "Bounty" chocolate was, so I had no idea what to expect.  The answer seemed to be chocolate covered coconut, which sounds great, except it was coated with poor quality chocolate and very meh coconut.  I expected to like this since I like chocolate and coconut, so this was a disappointment.  The coconut was also very, very sweet.
Next I moved on to Galaxy. It seemed to just be plain milk chocolate.  Fairly smooth and creamy, better than the milk chocolate they seem to use in most of their confections, but certainly not my style.  It reminded me of Cadbury.
And finally, Teasers.  This was my favorite of the items I tried.

Malteasers are standard malt balls produced by Mars, so "teasers" are these small chocolates included in the Celebrations lineup.  They are the same standard smooth creamy milk chocolate, with tiny little bits of malt ball inside for some crunch.

My favorite of the Celebrations, but not particularly remarkable.

Milky Way

Milky Way Crispy Rolls.
"Chocolate covered wafer rolls with a milk-cream filling".

I'm not really sure why these are part of the Milky Way product line, as they really don't have much in common with Milky Way at all.  Besides ... chocolate?

Creamy milk chocolate coating (the Mars milk chocolate in the UK is better than the version we get in the US!), surrounding a crunchy wafer, stuffed with a white filling.  I appreciated the somewhat decent chocolate, and the crunch from the wafer, but didn't really find the filling to be satisfying, and it was the dominant component.  It was just sweet, kinda like solid frosting.

This wasn't awful, but I didn't think it was particularly good.  Ojan enjoyed it however.