Friday, March 20, 2015

Nippy's Flavuored Milk.

Last week, I reviewed OAK milk, a line of flavored milk in Australia.  This week, we move on to Nippy's, another Australian, single serve, flavored milk brand.

The products look quite different.  OAK milk comes in individual plastic bottles, Nippy's in juice-box form with straws.  Personally, I find the juice-box style far more fun to drink out of!  OAK milks are all made from full fat milk (sans the light line), whereas Nippy's are reduced fat milk.  Both come in all the standard flavors of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, but Nippy's has some other fun ones, including Coffee, Mocha, Banana, and ... Honeycomb (which, sadly, I never found).

Anyway, I preferred drinking out of the Nippy's boxes but flavor and consistency-wise, I preferred OAK.  I'm sure it was just the full fat, but, it makes a difference.
Iced Coffee.
I tried only 3 flavors of Nippy's.

I started with the iced coffee, as I was jetlagged, and wanted caffeine.  It tasted like coffee and milk.  No more, no less.  Not particularly notable.  A few days later I tried one again, and I was even less impressed.

Next, I moved on to the ice chocolate.  It was ... just chocolate milk.  Not particularly exciting.  I preferred the OAK brand chocolate milk, as it had a far more intense chocolate flavor. {LINK}

And finally, iced vanilla malt.  I saved the best for last!  This one I really enjoyed.  Yes, it is just vanilla milk, but it is quite tasty vanilla milk.  I liked it far more than the OAK vanilla malt.  It almost tastes like melted ice cream, which is just totally delicious.  I found it really quite satisfying and decadent tasting, the only flavor of Nippy's that I'd want another of.  Now, I just need to find that iced honeycomb one sometime!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Dough Collective, Sydney

During my recent visit to Sydney, I discovered a magical place called Dough Collective.  A bakery, but primarily a bread shop.  I love my baked goods, but bread isn't something I'm usually crazy about.  Or so I though, before I discovered Dough Collective!

Of course, it isn't exactly *just* bread.  They make a variety of breads, some savory, some loaded with nuts and fruits, and others chocolatey.  The chocolate based ones turned out to be my favorites.  The breads are not just basic loaves, rather they have an assortment of interesting shapes, like crowns, rings, horseshoes, 'M's, and 'S's.  Most are quite large, although they are expanding to have more snack size items now.  Several styles of bread are available, including soft and fluffy, or harder and chewier.  I was in love with the soft ones, the texture was very unique, and I'm sure the ridiculous freshness played a big role in how amazing it was.

They have several locations in Sydney, including a large one on George Street, and a much smaller, newly opened, one in the Galleries just a few blocks down.
Baking times for the day.
Out front is a sign showing which breads will be fresh at each 2 hour increment all day.  This is awesome, because you can time it to have your favorite fresh out of the oven!  Except, you have to walk by the sign to know which is coming out when.  I wish they posted this on their Facebook page daily.

Not that anything is ever old, as they bake continuously all day long, and that was obvious in the freshness and quality of the product.

The actual selection varies by day, and time of day, and luck, so you never quite know what are you going to get, which can be sad if you had your heart set on something, but I found that I was always able to find something I was just as happy with, even if my first choice wasn't available.  Visiting mid-morning seemed to be the best bet though.
Espresso Machine.
The larger location also offers coffee, but the Galleries location does not.  This is too bad, because particularly in the morning, a coffee and bread, particularly a chocolate one, go together oh so well, and became my breakfast of choice, when I didn't eat at my hotel.
Decaf Long Black. $3.20.
I was thrilled to see that they use Single Origin Roasters for the coffee.

Back when I lived in Sydney for 3 months, I stayed in Surry Hills, and was close by Single Origin Roasters.  I loved it.  Bar far the best coffee I had in the city.  If the barista at Dough Collective could do even a fraction of as good as a job as those at the Single Origin coffee shop, I was in for a treat.  I was a bit skeptical after I ordered, as the barista was a bit surly and didn't seem to want to make my drink.

But ... grumpy service aside, it was indeed everything I wanted it to be.  I've been checking out all the well rated coffee shops around the CBD on this trip, including Workshop Espresso, Gumption by Coffee Alchemy, and Klink, but none were this good.  It was smooth, it had some depth, it was delicious.  No decaf funk, no strange sweetness, just delicious.

Dough Collective, like many other places around town, prices all coffee exactly the same.  A shot of espresso, a long black, or a mocha are all the same price.  This doesn't actually seem quite fair, particularly when I'm usually going for a long black, but at least they didn't upcharge for the decaf, as many places add a $0.50 surcharge for decaf.  The $3.20 price was right in line with the rest of the city, and actually a bit lower (I generally paid $3.50 - $4).
Muffins, Tarts.
Near the register, they also offer a few muffins and tarts, and I think earlier in the day there are other breakfast pastries, but I never had eyes for these.  Their bread is just too good to go for the other baked goods.  Yes, I picked bread over breakfast baked goods!
The Front Display.
The Dough Collective has several large display cases, loaded with the assorted available breads.  The displays are notable for several reasons, one of which is that they are adorable, with rolling pins for legs (and, rolling pins above).

To select bread, you grab a tray and set of tongs near the entrance, pick your selections from the cases, and then bring the tray to the front counter to pay.  To get to the bread in the cases, you just slide the glass doors, reach in with the tongs, and take the one you want, all self serve.
The real beauty of Dough Collective is the little plastic containers in front of each and every type of bread.  These containers are ... samples!  Yes, every single bread has a sample, and they aren't tiny pieces.  The photo above was taken close to closing time when they weren't very full, but normally, every bin was full to the brim.

Given that they have about 50 items at a time, you can eat a LOT of bread just walking through making decisions ... and making decisions is very, very hard.
Scones: Chocolate, Raisin, Cheese and Shallot.  $1.50.
The one item I wasn't a fan of was the scones, available in three varieties: Chocolate, Raisin, or Cheese and Shallot.

I tried them all, but the style was just not what I think of as a scone.  They were soft, not crumbly, not very buttery.  They weren't the hard style we think of as scones in the US, but also weren't really like British scones either.  Maybe this is Australian style?  They also just weren't very flavorful.

The savory cheese and shallot one I could imagine using with a fried egg and cheese sandwich, but besides that, I'm not sure why I'd want one.

$1.50 price is reasonable for a scone though.
Bagged Buns.  $6.25.
Some small buns are available in bags of 5, for $6.25.  These didn't seem to be a big hit though, I'm not sure who stops in to get an entire bag of just one thing when there is so much selection.
Individual Buns. $1.80.
There were also a couple varieties of individual buns, a great snack size, particularly compared to the much larger regular options that I do feel are a bit too big.  But, the flavors of the individual buns are the least exciting of the choices, so I never went for them, besides trying the sample of course.

I tried all the different buns:
  • Cheese Bun: This is a basic savory bun, made with Grana Padano parmesan.  Doughy, fluffy, a bit salty.  Simple, but tasty enough.
  • Cheese and Walnut Bun:  This is the same as the cheese bun, but with walnuts added.  The nuts made this more satisfying, perhaps good for a snack.
  • Chinese Bun with dried longan, black sesame, and black glutinous rice.  I expected to love this one, since the ingredients sounded like winners, but it was actually just quite strange.  The filling just had an odd taste to it, which I guess was the black sesame?  I didn't taste any sweetness from longan.  And I'm not sure where the black glutinous rice was.  Interesting, but definitely not my thing.  I tried it a second time, and still felt the same way.  The filling was gooey though, I wish I had taken a photo of that, as it was kinda a stuffed bun, quite different from most other options.
  • Chocolate Surprise with Belgian dark chocolate, cocoa, and "chocolate flavoring".  The winner of the buns, but the least exciting of the chocolate breads on offer.  Chocolate base with some chocolate chunks.
Front: Ham Pizza Toast. $6.50. Garlic and Cheese Bread. $3.20. Back: Gourmet Hot Dog, Cheese Triangle.
Now, starting with some full size savory options.

The Ham Pizza toast is a large loaf, with all your pizza toppings inside the dough, including ham, sliced cheese, "pizza cheese", onions, peppers, and uh, salad dressing.  I didn’t really think it was like “pizza” exactly, but it was savory and well seasoned, although the dressing was a bit runny.  I had samples at room temp and they recommend heating it, so perhaps I missed out on how great it could be when warmed up. 

The Garlic and Cheese Bread is a basic baguette style with parmesan and garlic, basically slightly cheesy garlic bread.  They also offer a Garlic Baguette, sans the cheese, and a Garlic Knot.  I thought they all had good buttery garlicky flavor, plus generous herbs, but these weren't items I'd typically go for, unless serving alongside an Italian dinner.

The Gourmet Hot Dog, on the back right, was the most interesting sounding savory option, a pork frank wrapped in their dough, with a little mustard.  It turned out to be one of my least favorites however; just an unremarkable cold hot dog inside some bread.  The bread was good, as is all their bread, but the ratio seemed off, in the opposite direction than you'd expect: too much hotdog, not enough bread.  I wanted it to be warm, which I guess I could do if I bought it and brought it home, or to have some cheese, more more mustard and ketchup or something.  It was just too bland as it was.

The Cheese Triangle, back left, is a triangle shaped piece, with parmesan cheese and sliced cheese.  It had a great saltiness and was really cheesy, a generous amount of cheese in this one.  It was firmer and chewier than most of their breads, which worked well here.  I was amused at the use of sliced cheese, but, well, that is an Australian thing.  I think a slice of this would go great alongside a bowl of pasta, or anything saucey to dip it in.

Not pictured are a few other savory cheese options, including a cheese and walnut roll that was a decent slightly savory selection, a two cheese roll (parmesan and cream cheese, a bit of a strange combo, but it kinda works), and the aptly named Roll O'Cheese, absolutely bursting with cheese, as it uses cheese cubes, so the cheese is in concentrated bites.  The Roll O'Cheese is my favorite of the cheesy ones.

Also not pictured is the 'S' shaped "Sailor's Special", with tuna, garlic sauce, shallots, walnuts, onions, black pepper, and cream cheese.  Um, yes.  I tried this one many times, as it sounds so fascinating, but I never tasted, nor saw, the tuna. It was savory, and perfectly soft, and I loved the shallots and onion, but I never found any tuna.  Still, a nice choice for a savory.

One item I wanted to try, but never found, was the Hokkaido Azuki Toast, made with sweet red beans.  I love red bean, so I really hoped to try this one, but they never had it when I visited.  I asked about it several times, and was told that everyone keeps requesting it, but they haven't been making it lately.  Perhaps they had a supply issue with the beans?  They do take pride in the sourcing of all the ingredients.   I also never encountered the Mixed Beans & Cream Cheese.
Chinese Goji Berry Roll. $5.25. Sweet 'n' Savory Ring. $5.50. Pumpkin and Cream Cheese Roll. $5.80.
Moving on, you can start to see the size of these items, and you'll understand why I see the appeal in the buns, rather than the full size items.  They would be great to share, but a bit much to just eat yourself, unless making a meal of it.  Which, honestly, doesn't seem like such a bad thing.

The Chinese Goji Berry Roll isn't a "roll" exactly, it is more of a loaf.  A fairly healthy, nutrient filled loaf with goji berries, raisins, almond slices, black sesame, white sesame and sunflower seeds.  I liked the crunch from all the assorted bits, but this wasn't particularly interesting to me.

I don't recall anything specific about the Sweet 'n' Savory Ring, besides the fact that it is quite large!

The Pumpkin and Cream Cheese Roll is actually the item that first drew me in to the store.  An employee was standing outside their newly opened Galleries location with samples of it, and it sounded really interesting.  Again, I'm not sure why they call it a "roll", as it is a large creation, shaped like ... an "M". Why?  I have no idea.  Anyway, soft fluffy bread, with cream cheese and pumpkin filling.  I liked the creamy inside, but there was not tons of pumpkin flavor.  I tried it several times, and each time, I was disappointed by the meager amount of pumpkin filling.  I still never really tasted pumpkin, but I do like this bread base, and the cream cheese.

I never saw it, but they also offer a similar sounding Sweet Potato & Cream Cheese Knot, with sweet potato in place of pumpkin, in a knot shape, that I would have liked to try.  It sorta sounds like Thanksgiving in a roll!
Front row: Mango Tango. $4.50. Multi-Grain Lychee Roll. $5.25. Strawberry Choc Heaven. $4.80.  Lucky Horseshoe.  $5.80. Dark Horse. $5.80.
And more large items.

The Mango Tango was a large roll, that sounded promising, because, well, mango, but wasn't ever as flavorful as I was hoping.  Just a few little dried bits of mango, the flavor never popped, and it is one of the harder style of bread.

One of my absolute favorites, flavor wise, was the Multi-Grain Lychee Roll, made with dried lychees, almond slices, black and white sesame, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, rum, and lychee syrup.  It was a surprise hit, as I never expected to like a multi-grain item, and one that was the harder style.  But I liked all the crunchy seeds, and absolutely loved the sweetness from the dried lychee.  Great flavors and textures in this one.

The Strawberry Choc Heaven is a lovely pink color from red wine, plus dried strawberries and dark chocolate.  The flavors were good, but it was middle of the road for me, not particularly notable, except that it was the soft style, and had a great name.

The Lucky Horseshoe is, well, a horseshoe shape, with dried cranberries and cream cheese.  Since I don't really like cranberries, I don't think I ever tried this one.

The other horseshoe shape is the Dark Horse, which was quite good, made with a chocolate cocoa base, plus Belgian dark chocolate and cream cheese.  Still fairly simple, but a good intro into their chocolate breads.  I enjoyed the dark chocolate flavor and the creaminess from the cream cheese, and, it is a soft style.  It was one of my favorites, but, their chocolate bread line is impressive, and gets better than this.

A few other chocolate offerings not shown here include a chestnut choc roll with chestnuts inside, that I'm pretty sure I never tried, a Swiss Chocolate Bun with a chocolate base, chocolate chips, and walnuts that is the harder style, and a double choc finger roll with both milk and dark chocolate chips and walnuts, also the harder style.
Front Row: Garlic Twist. $4.25. Berry Sweet Roll. $3.95. Gangam Crown. $6.20.  The Crown. $5.80.
And more! I told you they have a lot of fantastic bread.

I did not try the Garlic Twist, but it looked fairly similar to the other garlic items mentioned above.

The Berry Sweet Roll was a chewy style, filled with dried cranberries and Belgian dark chocolate, with a lemon yogurt flavor, and since I don't really care for cranberries, I skipped this too.  See, I have restraint and don't sample EVERYTHING.

I passed up the Gangam Crown the first few times I visited, as it is filled with kimchi and cream cheese, and I don't normally like kimchi.  After several visits though I decided to give it a go, and I'm glad I did.  I loved the creamy, flavorful filling.  A huge loaf, made from 5 rolls, attached at the center, forming a star, and the soft style.  I really appreciated how much filling there was inside, they really loaded it up.  This was my favorite of the savory offerings, hands down.  I was thrilled when they introduced the "Gangam Snack", as a single roll.  A great snack, particularly a savory one like this.  The full Gangam Crown is $6.20, but the snack was a very reasonable $1.80.

Finally, the Crown is the simple cream cheese filled option, shaped of course like a crown, made from 5 distinct rolls as well, attached along the edges.  Again, the awesome soft fluffy bread, and I love the creamy filling.  Another solid choice, but, why choose just cream cheese when there are so many other options?  The full size Crown is $5.80, but the "Crown Snack"was $1.80.  I'd pick the Gangam one over the plain cream cheese though.
Front row: Choco-nana. $5.25. Orange and Walnut Roll. $4.70. Twin Roll. $5.20. Mocha Walnut Roll.
Ok, now we are getting to the good stuff.

Next, my absolute favorite: the Choco-nana.  Chocolate cocoa base, Belgian dark chocolate, bananas, and ... Guinness.  I loved the large, soft chunks of banana.  I'm sure this wouldn't hold up well for long, but every time I got it, it was delicious.  I again loved the chocolatelyness. I didn't taste the Guinness, but that was fine by me.  My second favorite of all the chocolate items, although I wish it were done in the softer style, and offered in a smaller size.  Not that I really had trouble devouring it.

The Orange and Walnut roll had a slight hint of orange, and nice crunch from the walnuts.  They also offer a choc-orange ring, an orange base with chocolate chips, that was the soft style, with a slight orange flavor.  I didn't love either since I don't love orange flavor, but if you like orange, these are unique choices.

The Twin Roll was an interesting one, made with earl grey tea, red kidney beans, and cream cheese.  I actually did like the beans, although they were a bit firm.  It reminded me of red bean in desserts.

The Mocha in the Mocha Walnut was too subtle, I didn't really taste any coffee flavor.  They also offer a coffee roll with raisins and walnuts, which I never tried.
Front Row: Grand Pineapple Roll. $5.95. Walnut French Roll. $4.25.  Chinese Longan Roll. $3.95.  Chocolate Baguette. $3.50.  Brown Sugar Roll. $4.xx.
Ok, getting to the end of the lineup, or at least, the lineup that was available the day I decided to take photos!  This really is only a sample of their offerings.

The Grand Pineapple Roll packed a lot of flavor, with a subtle red wine base, plus chunks of dried pineapple and walnuts.  A good mix.

I don't think I ever tried the Walnut French Roll, just a french roll with walnuts, nor the simple looking Chocolate Baguette.

The Chinese Longan Roll was another red wine base, with dried Longan, which didn't really have any memorable flavors.

The Brown Sugar Roll I expected to love, but it never delivered.  Made with brown sugar and maple syrup, I somehow never really got any sweetness.  It also had raisins and walnuts, and I liked the crunch of the nuts, but it lacked much dimension.
The Dough Collective on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Sokyo, Sydney

Yes, I went to get sushi in Sydney .  You'd think I'd know better.  I'll never forget the first day they had sushi at my office in Sydney.  Everyone was so excited.  I eagerly joined the lines, only to find that the sushi rolls were filled with ... chicken.  Or tuna salad.  As in, canned tuna.  What?  That is not what I think of as sushi!

Over the course of my next few visits to Sydney, I did end up going to real sushi restaurants, all ones that were well regarded, and while they served actual raw fish, none ever really impressed me.  But Sydney is surrounded by water, and they do have a large fish market in Pyrmont, so I had hope that fresh local seafood could be found, and, why not have it raw?

But really, I decided to get sushi this time due to limited options.  It was Australia Day (yay!), but this meant it was a holiday, and most restaurants were closed.  So we decided to take a gamble to go get sushi, at Sokyo, located inside the Star Casino.

Ok yes, now I'm talking about getting sushi ... in a casino.  But before you think I'm totally crazy, please realize that it is a full restaurant, not part of the food court or anything, and there is even a Momofuku in the Star Casino, plus an outpost of my favorite gelato shop in Sydney, Messina, so there IS precedent for good restaurants there.  Plus, the chef worked at the Nobu in Las Vegas, Dubai, London, LA, and the Bahamas before moving to Sydney and opening Sokyo.  And they received One Chef's Hat the past two years.  I had reason to believe it could be good, even though I was ordering sushi, in Sydney, on a Monday, in a casino.  Four strikes against me.

Anyway, back to Sokyo.  They are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily.  No, you can't get sushi for breakfast, the breakfast menu is traditional breakfast fare, like Eggs Benedict, albeit served with edamame and miso hollandaise for Japanese flair.  They offer a really good deal for lunch, $45 for 3 courses, starting with your pick of several choices of sashimi, followed by your pick of tempura, and finally a hot dish, plus miso soup and salad.  Given how expensive everything else is, this actually is a deal.  But we went for the regular a la carte menu for dinner, and focused on the sushi, although the tempura and robata grilled menus are both sizable as well.

Disappointment began at the ordering stage.  We tried to order several pieces of nigiri, only to find out they didn't have any.  No uni.  No abalone.  No toro.  Sigh.  So we placed our initial order, and decided we'd order more after we had our first batch.  This turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  Spoiler: we decided not to order more.

The service was fine, fairly quick.  Dishes were brought out by different servers, making it was a bit hard to keep track of who was our actual server, when we had questions.

Overall, the food at Sokyo was fine, but not very good, and certainly over priced for what it was.  I wouldn't go back, and in fact, we decided not to order a second round of sushi as planned, and went elsewhere for more.
Sushi Bar along one wall.
The primary kitchen is an exposed sushi bar, with several chefs working at a time (I think I saw 5?)  Some diners are seated at the counter along it, but most are at tables throughout the room.
Dining Room.
The dining room is large and a bit boring.  The decor isn't great; it is somewhat modern, but filled with hard wooden surfaces and strange looking chairs.  It was not really a great ambiance.
Grapefruit Mocktail. $11. Future Words. $18.
For a drink, Ojan selected one of the three mocktails on the menu, the "grapefruit".  Described as "grapefruit, cucumber, elderflower".

He didn't like it.  He said it was interesting, and he was glad to have a mocktail that wasn't just sugar, but he didn't like the flavor.  I tried it, and the cucumber flavor was somewhat overwhelming, which I really didn't like.

I went for the "Future Words", described as "sake, burnt cinnamon, lime, and strawberry".

I also didn't like mine.  It was crazy sweet.  So much sweeter than I ever anticipated.  I did not taste any cinnamon nor lime.  Or sake for that matter.  I did taste strawberry, and there was strawberry puree in the bottom of my glass when I was done, so I know at least that was fresh muddled fruit.  But wow, so sweet.  I couldn't handle the sweet, and ended up diluting it with sparkling water to make it palatable.  Ojan said I should have just saved it for "dessert".  $18 is also a bit pricey for a cocktail, but on par with Sydney standards.
Kingfish Miso Ceviche. $22
"Green chilli, crispy potato, miso ceviche."

I did less research on Sokyo than most restaurants I go to, since it was a fall back option, but I did recall that everyone said to order the kingfish miso ceviche, listed under the sashimi menu.  When I ordered it, the waitress told me it was their most popular dish ... which isn't necessarily a good thing.

The kingfish was decent, although it didn't have a particularly great flavor to it.  It wasn't fishy or old tasting, and I liked the miso sauce that coated it.  The thinly sliced chilli and red onion added a nice balance, and just the right amount of heat.  The crispy potato shreds on top were crunchy and fairly tasty.

Overall, this was a decent dish, my favorite of the night.  Good flavors and textures, balanced.  The fish wasn't remarkable though, but overall it was fine.  $22 seemed a bit high for the small portion.
Ginger, Wasabi.
The ginger and wasabi provided on the table were both actually quite good.  We easily finished all our ginger, both this batch, and the other batches that came on the platters.  I'm pretty sure it was real wasabi, it had a nice heat to it and was slightly gritty.
Tai Ceviche Nigiri: $18 (4 pieces). Ocean Trout Ikijime (Tasmania) Nigiri. $9.

Next, we ordered nigiri.

The first was a selection from the "Sokyo Nigiri" section, another dish I had read recommendations for: Tai Ceviche Nigiri, described as "crispy nori, shio konbu, lime salsa."

It was pretty unique.  Crispy nori was wrapped around the nigri, like a taco shell.  I liked the extra crunch this added.  The tai was fine, just like the kingfish, not great, but not bad either.  The salsa on top was just a bit weird though, and I didn't really get it.

Special Sokyo Nigiri only come as sets of 4 pieces, which is a bit annoying.  Again, the price of $18 seemed a bit high.

Our other selection was just a standard nigiri, ocean trout.  We selected it because we remembered having really good ocean trout in Sydney before.

I wish I had a better photo, because while my piece looked ok from the top, when I went to bite in, I saw a thick layer of fat running the entire length of my piece.  You can almost see it in the photo, the top right piece, left side.  I showed it to Ojan, who agreed it wasn't right.  I showed it to my waitress, who also thought it wasn't right.  It was whisked away, and a new pair soon emerged to replace it.

The replacement was fine.  Again, just fine.  Not fishy, not off putting, but the fish really didn't have much going for it.  Price a bit high for what it was.
Sokyo Omelette (Tamago) Nigiri. $8.
At this point, I'd pretty much lost faith in Sokyo, so we decided not to stay at Sokyo for dessert and go elsewhere.  But I did have to conclude with the "dessert" of sushi, right?  Tamago!

Ojan and I were both temporarily stunned when the tamago was set down in front of us.  This was the strangest looking tamago we had ever seen.

It was sliced down the middle, and stuffed with rice, rather than served on top.  Ok, a bit odd, but I think I've seen that before.  Next, it also wasn't that sweet.  Again, sweetness level varies, so that wasn't too odd.  The crazy part was the texture.  It wasn't a layered omelet at all.  It was crazy fluffy, like a soufflĂ©.  I guess it WAS dessert!

I can't say I liked or disliked this, it was just quite different.  The fluffiness was rather amazing.
Sokyo on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Qantas Business Class, QF108, LAX-SYD.

My journey to Sydney began with exploring the new Qantas lounges in LAX, which, as you read about in last week's Business Class lounge review and the week before's First Class lounge review, turned out to be not nearly as nice as expected.  After a few hours of chaos in the lounge, it was time to board our flight, which at that point I looking forward to.  The lounge did a boarding announcement, and the gate was the closest one to the lounge, so it was easy and convenient.  Points to Qantas for that.

Our flight was fine, but our service was a bit lacking throughout.  Not quite the quality I was expecting from Qantas Business Class.
Row 1!
Since the flight was supposed to depart at 11:55pm, we wanted to maximize our ability to sleep, so we picked row 1.  Normally, I dislike the bulkhead since I like the storage under the seat in front of me at all times, but I knew this would be the most quiet and low traffic area, since there is no restroom or galley in front, so absolutely no one would be walking by.  As expected, I was slightly annoyed to not be able to keep my belongings with me during takeoff, but we were able to easily stash our items in the large closet in front, so it wasn’t too big of a deal.  And as expected, there was virtually no foot traffic, so it was a fairly peaceful space.
The Front Cabin.
Although we were on a 747 and not the A380, it was outfitted with the redesigned SkyBeds, something I made sure of, since I wanted a fully flat bed.  Of course, I would have loved to fly on the A380 again (I’ve been on it in Premium Economy several times), but business class tickets were almost double the price, so when picking between business on the 747 or premium economy on the A380, I went for business on the 747.
Water Bottle Cubby.
The SkyBeds are really nicely designed seats.  While the seat itself isn’t the most comfortable, I really appreciate all the touches that make it very functional.  There is a dedicated water bottle cubby, which is in perfect reach once you lay down to sleep, and water bottles are distributed after meal service.  And a dedicated shoe cubby, making it easy to find shoes to slip on to stumble to the bathroom in the middle of the night.  I also re-purposed the headphone cubby for my glasses and cell phone.  Everything had easy access, tucked away, with nothing left floating around.  Other airlines could certainly learn from the design of these seats, and I found it far more functional than even the first class seats on British Airways and similar to Cathay Pacific's business class seats.

They had power ports AND usb ports in every seat, so I could charge all my devices.
The seats also featured easy to use controls, and were fairly adjustable.  I appreciated the basic massage settings, plus the ability to save and recall your favorite position.  An overhead light and a reading light completed the main seat space.  Even though we were in a bulkhead, there was a small cubby with a padded compartment for a laptop in the basinet, so I could keep that with me too.

Unfortunately for me, my in-seat entertainment unit was broken.  They reset the whole plane once, and reset my particular unit a few times, but alas, I was out of luck, so I can’t comment on that.  They apologized many times, and told me they’d file a report and offered me a duty free coupon.  I never heard anything from the report.  Because the flight was full, they didn’t have an option to move my seat.

For sleep, the seats did lay flat, at the touch of a button.  A very, very thin “mattress pad” was provided, that honestly I’m not sure did anything.  The seat was hard as a rock, and really not comfortable.  I developed a cramp in my side very quickly.  We were also provided with only a single pillow.  Since I like one under my head and one between my knees, this was less than ideal, but I was able to snag an extra from the closet up front.  The blanket however was the worst part - thin, scratchy, and just really not comfortable. While I love Qantas for the well thought out compartments in the seats, the comfort of the sleeping experience was seriously lacking.
Amenity Kit: socks, toothbrush, earplugs, eyemask, moisturizers.
Before we took off, water, champagne, and orange juice were offered, along with amenity kits, different models for men and women.

My kit had face lotion, hand lotion, and lip balm from MALIN+GOETZ, along with some scratchy socks, a low-end eye mask, ear plugs, and a mini toothbrush and toothpaste.  The case was Kate Spade.  I used the toothbrush and lotions, but I had my own better ear plugs, eye mask, and sleeping socks (if you ever want an eye mask recommendation, just ask, I adore my eye mask, and sleep in it nightly!)

Pajamas were also provided, thin drawstring pants with no pockets, and a long sleeve t-shirt.  Not nearly as fancy as the Cathay or BA pajamas, but the lightweight long sleeve shirt was nice for the flight.  I brought my own pants since I knew I wouldn't like these.  They also only had two sizes, M/L and L/XL, and they were too big for me.  No slippers, but that is common in business rather than first.

I didn't take a photo, but the bathroom was tiny and cramped.  The only toiletries were hand soap and lotion, both nice smelling.  Tissues and those quasi-fabric “towels” completed the offerings.  The sink was of course the type that doesn’t stay on and is super annoying to use.  The entire downstairs business class cabin has only two bathrooms, and unfortunately for us, one of them went out of order during the flight.  When I got up to use the bathroom in the morning, the queue was quite long.  We were all on a similar schedule, and that many people using a single bathroom to also change, wash their faces, etc just doesn’t work.  They managed to fix the bathroom before we landed, but long after the rush.
Supper Menu.
Since the departure time is so late, the meal offered is “supper”, a compressed meal service with no starter and simple entree options.

The menu contained the following "Supper Plates":
  • Selection of cheese served with accompaniments.  The cheese accompaniments may include quince paste or dried fruits and water crackers.
  • Mushroom arancini with zucchini salad and salsa verde. 
  • Big bowl of Tuscan soup with cavolo nero and parmesan.
  • Chorizo dog with jalapenos, piquillo peppers and mustard mayonnaise.
  • Beef and Guinness pie with tomato relish.
  • Seared sea bass with caramelised witlof, crushed peas and minted butter.
  • Confit duck leg with celeriac puree, roasted pears and thyme jus.
Qantas allows you to pre-order your meal selection online in advance 7 days before the flight, which Ojan and I both did.  If you pre-order, there are more choices available than on-board, so we had the additional options of:
  • Taleggio, mushroom and tomato lasagne with wilted spinach.
  • Pumpkin empanadas with pebre salsa.
If you order online, they also have photos of all the dishes, and much more complete descriptions.  For example, for the sea bass, the online menu reads "Sea bass is lightly pan fried and served with caramelised witlof, crushed peas and mint flavoured butter. Witlof has a crisp texture and a slightly bitter taste and when caramelised provides a nice contrast in flavour which works very well with the crushed peas."

Anyway, I eagerly picked on of the exclusive items, the lasagna, with its tasty description: "Oven baked lasagne of roasted tomatoes and Portobello mushrooms pan fried with herbs."  However, by the time we finally took off, and got around to meal service, it was nearly 1:30am, and I’d already feasted in the lounge, so I no longer wanted it.  I felt bad, since no other passengers could order it, but I hope it didn’t go to waste.

Instead I just settled for a dessert, because, well, it is me.  This part of the menu wasn’t available to me in advance, so I was in for a surprise.  The options were a fruit platter, a cheese platter, ice cream, or a custard.  Clearly, since I love puddings, I went for the custard.  I did applaud the order of the older man across the aisle from me, who also skipped dinner, and ordered an ice cream and a single malt scotch on the rocks.  I was a bit jealous of his order.
Drink Menu.
Meal service was a bit strange.  No offer of a beverage was made, and when I requested a glass of wine, my attendant didn’t know what they had available.  The menu just said “An awarded selection of premium Australian wines”.

She suggested a dessert wine to go along with my dessert, so I went for it.  I assumed water would be provided as well, but it wasn’t.  No refills were ever offered.
Baked cinnamon custard with macerated strawberries.
The description of the dessert said “baked”, so I hoped it would be served warm.  It was not.

It was a good custard, thick, creamy, well-set, although the texture seemed a bit off, it was a bit lumpy.  I didn’t mind the strange texture really, but it was odd.  The custard base did have a strong cinnamon flavor as advertised.  The macerated strawberries on top were mushy and super sweet, but again, I didn’t mind.  They reminded me of the berries from my mom’s strawberry shortcake, where she soaks them in sugar in advance.  There was also a fair amount of sweet strawberry sauce, which was quite tasty, but really got to be too much.

Overall, I liked this, more than the panna cotta in the lounge,  but it was too sweet.  I wished I had a nice bitter coffee to go with it, but I didn’t want coffee, even decaf, as I was planning to attempt to sleep soon.  

The dessert wine was also super sweet, and I just couldn’t stand it with the sweet dessert.

Ojan opted for just a salad for simple bedtime snack, “green leaf salad with your choice of dressing”.  He was shocked when it arrived, a tiny bowl of greens with balsamic vinegar drizzled over.  How was this listed as a “supper plate”?  So he followed up with a cheese platter, “selection of cheese served with accompaniments”, as a bedtime snack.  It was very basic, with 2 water crackers, 2 digestive biscuits, a small chunk of a triple cream cheese, a chunk of a hard cheese, a dried pear, and a prune.

During the flight, the galley area near the bathrooms had a self-serve small snack station, featuring Valhrona chocolate squares, packaged pecans and cookies, sweet potato chips, cashews and pretzels, cashews and almonds, and whole fruit, so if you needed to nibble more, that was an option.
Breakfast Menu.
Hanging at our seats when we boarded was the breakfast menu, so we could fill it out and pre-order in advance, to maximize sleep.  For those who really wanted to sleep, there was an option to be left alone entirely, to just get an express meal of a pastry and drink.  Otherwise, the continental selections were a fruit bowl, which I avoided because of my melon allergy, muesli (with yogurt, whole milk, or skim milk), toast, a croissant, or a pear danish, along with an assortment of spreads (berry jam, marmalade, honey, or of course, vegemite).

For hot entrees, there were 3 choices:
  • Free range scrambled eggs on toasted brioche with pork sausages, sautĂ©ed mushrooms, and braised beans
  • Savoury french toast with slow roasted tomatoes, avocado, and rocket leaves.
  • Orange pancakes with raspberries, maple syrup, and mascarpone cream.
The menu was rounded out by juice (orange, apple, or "mango energizer") and standard hot drink options (coffee, tea, hot chocolate).  There was no option to indicate if you’d like water with your meal, so I assumed that would be included.  Alas, just like dinner, there was no water.  Am I really alone in wanting water on a flight?

From the continental section, I selected the muesli, although I knew it would be regular muesli, not bircher muesli, which I totally adore, and is one reason I love visiting Australia.  I knew I’d get plenty of it when I arrived in Sydney.  I went for the whole milk, hoping it was Australian whole milk, since I really really love the flavor of their higher fat milk.  It wasn’t, which I should have realized, since we were leaving from the US.

For my hot option, I was intrigued by “savory french toast”, but it had avocado, which I’m allergic to, so I went for the pancakes instead.

Breakfast service left a lot to be desired.  I woke up several hours before breakfast time, and eventually I asked what time breakfast was, as I was quite hungry at this point.  I was told it was in 45 minutes, so I waited.  45 minutes came and went, an hour came and went, and finally almost 2 hours later it was served.  If I’d known it would be 2 hours I would have had a snack, hence my reason for asking.  Now, to be fair, I think they may have *started* breakfast service at the 45 minute mark, but since we were in row 1, we were last served.  But the attendant answering my question knew that.

When my tray was cleared away, I also asked for a decaf coffee.  It never came.  This was all representative of service throughout: very slow, often lacking, no refills offered.  The attendants were perfectly friendly and polite, just not very attentive.  I’m not sure if I just have higher expectations now that I’ve flown first class?  But things like receiving drinks that are ordered and having your tray cleared seem fairly basic.  After 30 minutes, I tried again and ordered another coffee, and that one did come eventually.
Breakfast Platter.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, my tray was unceremoniously delivered, all at once.  I had my laptop out, and a bunch of things in the way, and had assumed they’d be by to pull out the tray, put down a table cloth, and offer drinks first.  I scrambled to move things as the attendant stood there waiting.  Whoops?

I saw that there was no water and was going to ask for a glass, but she was gone before I had a chance.  My tray was also covered in split coffee.  Like I said ... service wasn't awesome (it was much, much better on my return flight, stay tuned for that!)

The pancakes were lukewarm at best.  I was faced with a dilemma: did I try to devour them before they got even colder, or try to eat the muesli first before it got even soggier?  

If the pancakes had been warm, I think they actually would have been quite good.  I was pleasantly surprised.  They weren’t rubbery.  They weren’t soggy.  The base flavor was decent, although I didn’t detect a hint of orange, which I was actually glad about, and the only reason I almost didn’t order the pancakes is because  I don’t really like “orange” flavor.

They were inconsistently drizzled with syrup.  I really liked the bites that had syrup, pleasantly sweet, and complimented well by the tangy mascarpone, but there were many bites that had no syrup.  I would have greatly preferred to have the syrup on the side so I could distribute it as I wished.

The glob of mascarpone was just plopped there, and was a very generous amount that I didn’t think I could possibly finish, but alas, I love creamy, fatty things, and it was quickly devoured.  There were also a good quantity of fresh enough raspberries.  The raspberries and cream were delicious enough in their own right, cold pancakes notwithstanding.

Overall, the pancakes were far better than expected, and if the pancakes had been warm, and the syrup on the side, this could have been a home run.  I still enjoyed my meal, but the waffles on BA still take the prize as top breakfast on a flight.

I also ordered a regular coffee.  It was strong and fairly awful.  And, spilled all over my tray.
Muesli, Close Up.
My muesli was already fairly soggy when it arrived.  It was good muesli though, loaded up with assorted seeds (including sunflower), nuts (including macadamias), and dried fruit (both cranberries and raisins).  The mediocre milk and the mushiness however made it not very good.  Protip: next time, ask for the milk on the side to avoid the sogginess issue!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Bovetti Chocolate

Bovetti is a French chocolate maker with a ridiculous product catalogue of more than 150 different bars, spanning the spectrum of white, milk, and dark, filled with assorted spices (pepper, ginger, cinnamon), fruit (dried apricot, cranberries, candied citrus),  seeds (fennel, poppy, anise), and even flower petals (rose, violet, lavender).  They also make a small selection of organic bars, and a handful of single origins.

I don't know much else about Bovetti, nor do I recall where I picked up this bar, so, not much to say here, sorry!
Packaging with see-through window.
The packaging was quite attractive, a rustic paper holder, with a see-through window, revealing the textured chocolate inside.
Milk chocolate with caramel and fleur de sel.
The chocolate looked quite nice too.

But it was very boring.  I generally prefer dark chocolate to milk, so perhaps I shouldn't have expected to like this, but I was drawn in by the promise of caramel and fleur de sel, both things I quite enjoy.

The top had a crunchy layer to it, which I guess was the caramel and salt, but, I just tasted some sweetness, nothing I'd distinguish as caramel exactly.  And no salt.  I handed this off to Ojan.