Friday, January 08, 2016

Carman's Muesli, Australia

If you ever visit Australia, and enter the cereal aisle of a grocery store, you will undoubtedly discover Carman's.  Carman's is, well, everywhere.  The company specializes in muesli, and a large variety of related products (muesli bars, nut bars, muesli rounds, muesli clusters, porridge, and oat bars).

Carman's specializes in muesli, and, products made from muesli, like breakfast rounds and bars.  Many are gluten-free.  I've tried some of the muesli and many of the bars.  Most were all fine, but not really something I'd seek out.  The exception though? The muesli rounds.  Those were winners.


Starting with the basics, the muesli.

Carman's makes 5 varieties of muesli, including one bircher muesli, one without fruit, and a gluten-free option.  Something for everyone. 

If you stay at a hotel with a breakfast buffet, chances are high that you'll see Carman's muesli among the lineup, which is where I had it.   I know I tried most of the varieties over the years, but, for some reason, I only have notes on one variety.  Ooops!
Deluxe Gluten-Free Muesli.
Carman's Muesli is the base of all of their other products, like the Deluxe Gluten-Free Muesli Bar that you'll soon read about.

Interestingly, the primary ingredient is actually dried fruit, which makes up 24% of the muesli, a mix of sultanas, raisins, and dates.  Then there are seeds, making up another 20%, a mix of sunflower seeds and pepitas.  Next comes rice flakes at 19%, and puffed rice (only 8%), and last, but not least, nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans), only 3%.  Not exactly the distribution I was expecting, and it explains why they offer a variety that boasts to be fruit free, if their standard offering is so fruit forward!

I didn't like this muesli.  I really didn't like the rice crisps nor puffed rice.  Sorry gluten-free folks, but, I like my oats!  I also never like sultanas nor raisins, and these were hard little pellets, my least favorite way to eat them.  I actually never really found nuts, they must have been ground up in the mix?  Really, the only thing I liked was the pepitas.

The mix was also strangely bitter.  I guess healthier this way, but, well, turns out, I like my sugar.


"Our nutrient-rich bars provide a unique balance of carbohydrates and protein. Did we mention that they’re also yummy? We have 7 different varieties of muesli bar and 2 gourmet protein bars - All soft, chewy and completely snack‘a’licious!"

Moving on to snack bars, made using many of their mueslis as the bases.   For varieties, they produce a bar for each of the base mueslis, plus two featuring dark chocolate (trying to be enticing!), one with greek yogurt (trendy!), and two with added protein (get the athletes!).

As you know, I don't love snack bars, but, I end up trying them all the time anyway, they really are so convenient to carry around.
Original Fruit-Free Muesli Bar.
The base to this bar is Carman's Muesli Blend (oats, sunflower seeds, pepitas, and sesame seeds) plus some nuts (almonds and pecans).  Most of the other bars have puffed rice also, but this one doesn't.

It was really quite boring.  Slightly sweetened, slight spicing from some cinnamon, but really, not much going on here at all.  It also had a bitterness that I couldn't identify, like it had flax, except, I know it didn't ...

Fruit free seems to mostly mean flavor free?
Deluxe Gluten-Free Muesli Bar.
So I moved on to a far more exciting sounding "Deluxe" bar, made from the base of Carman's Gluten-Free Deluxe Muesli (rice flakes, puffed rice, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and cranberries) that I reviewed above.  In addition to the muesli base, it had currants, sultanas, raisins, almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans.  If "deluxe" implies a TON of ingredients, then yes, deluxe it was. Also notable, is that it doesn't have oats like the original bar, since it was gluten-free.
It was a soft, chewy style.  It reminded me of a rice crispy treat, except a healthier tasting one.  Except ... I don't like rice crispy treats, so I didn't actually enjoy this.
Dark Choc Cranberry & Almond Bar.
I moved on to the more enticing offering, with dark chocolate.  Add some chocolate in, and then things get tastier, right?  I tried the dark chocolate, cranberry, and almond bar.

I'm not quite sure why they chose to name it "cranberry & almond", as there were seemingly more sultanas than cranberries, and as many hazelnuts as almonds.  Anyway, the base was oats and puffed rice, and it was loaded with assorted goodies: almonds and hazelnuts, sesame and sunflower seeds, cranberries and sultanas.

This was more like a classic granola bar, a bit sweet, with decent size chunks of fruit and nuts in it, but meh, it was just granola bar, with an ok chocolate coating on the bottom.  Nothing very interesting.
Yoghurt, Apricot, and Almond Bar.
 Ok, if chocolate coating didn't do it, maybe yoghurt would?

The base of this was again oats and puffed rice, with almonds and hazelnuts, plus pepitas, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds, and apples, currants, and apricots.  And the yoghurt coating of course.
Yoghurt, Apricot, and Almond Bar: Sideways.
It was another hard style bar, generously loaded with the assorted goodies. The bar itself had a strange bitterness to it, like many of the others, and I'm still not sure which ingredient caused this, I don't see any obvious culprits in the ingredients line up.

The yoghurt coating however was incredibly sweet.  It seemed more like white chocolate than yoghurt.  As you can see, it was applied in a generous layer.  I like sweet, but, I was still not a fan of this one.

Nut Bars

"If you're nuts about nuts like us, then these gluten free roasted nut bars are going to make the perfect companion for you.  They're satisfyingly chewy and contain a delicious blend of wholesome nuts and seeds.  We take pride in being able to offer you even more products with natural, simple and honest ingredients.  Enjoy!"

Moving on from meusli bars, I found the nut bars.  These sounded better, since I really do love nuts.  They make 4 varieties of these, including one with chocolate and one with Greek yoghurt.

I liked these more than the granola bars, as expected.
Macadamia & Coconut Roasted Nut Bar.
I actually quite liked this one, which surprised me, since, it was still sorta a granola bar.  I clearly like the bars that are mostly nuts just bound together with sweetness better than standard granola bars (although this did have little rice puffs in it).

There was a good crunch from all the nuts, and no soft flakes of oat to distract from the nutty deliciousness.  It was nicely sweet.  The only thing I didn't care for was the fruit, I'd rather just leave it out.

Sadly, this variety was discontinued.
Almond, Cashew, and Cranberry Roasted Nut Bar.
I also tried one of the classic nut bars.  Nuts were the star, 41% of the bar is made of a mix of peanuts, almonds, and cashews.  Throw in some seeds (pepitas, sunflower, sesame) to get the next 14%, and then, sadly, the next 13% is cranberries.  However, it DID have cranberry in the name, so, what should I expect?

The bar is rounded out with a little bit of puffed rice, and sweetened with glucose, honey, and rice syrup.

It had a nice crunch from the plentiful nuts, and it was sticky sweet from all the sweeteners, in a good way.  Really not bad for a bar, but, like I've said, bars are never something I actually crave.

Muesli Rounds

"Rounds are deliciously soft and delightful muesli bakes. Filled with all the natural goodness of wholegrain oats, honey, cinnamon, fruit and nuts they’re perfect for breakfast on the go, as a lunchtime treat or with afternoon tea. A source of fibre and 100% preservative free, you’ll savour every last crumb of these moreish muesli morsels."

These are also described as "A perfect after-school snack for kids who love their bikkies."

Ah yes, their ... bikkies?

Let me translate some of this for you.  Bikkies are what go in the bikkie tin.  Duh.

Still not helping?  Here is a hint: Australians like to shorten and cutesify words, thus, "bikkie" is just slang for "biscuit".

Still not clearing it up?  This clearly isn't a Southern United States style "biscuit", which is the first type of biscuit I think of.  Slathering this in gravy?  Um, no.  Remember the "bikkie tin"?  What if I told you that was a "cookie jar"?

Ok, so, bikkies are biscuits, biscuits are cookies.  Now, you can take Carman's second tag line: "Carman's Rounds are what we call biscuits upgraded to first class."

Ok, so ... a "muesli bake" is a biscuit which is a cookie, but this one is upgraded to first class, and, I'm allowed to eat it for breakfast?  While I may not love cookies as a dessert item, a cookie for breakfast had me intrigued.

Available in two varieties, again with Carman's muesli as the bases.  I tried both and was very surprised by how much I liked them.  They do work great for a quick breakfast item alongside a cup of coffee, and I think they'd be equally good as a mid-afternoon treat with a cup of coffee or a cup of tea.  You can pretend they are breakfast, or you can pretend they are a cookie, both with equal success.  I'll continue to get these whenever I'm back in Australia.
Classic Fruit & Nut Muesli Bake.
I started with the Classic Fruit & Nut Muesli bake, made from a mix of dried fruit (sultanas, apricots, raisins), nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, pecans), seeds (sesame, sunflower), and oats, in a basic baked goods base (flour, butter, sugar, eggs).  Hmm, this sure sounds like a cookie, with their granola as the central component.

I opened my package, happy to see that it looked like a cookie too.  Round, not bar shaped.  It was fairly soft.  In fact, if I hadn't seen it labelled differently, I would have thought it was just an oatmeal raisin cookie, although perhaps a slightly thick one.

I tried a bite, expecting to pass it on to Ojan quickly.  But hmm ... it was pretty good!  Nice and soft, absolutely loaded up with the assorted fruit, nuts, and seeds.  There was plenty of flavor, lots of textures from the crunchy bits of nuts and the soft bits of fruit.  It had a pleasant subtle sweetness from brown sugar, treacle, and honey.  Not much additional spicing, just cinnamon and vanilla, but that was all it needed.

The oatmeal cookie base really reminded me of a regular oatmeal cookie.  I felt a bit scandalous eating it for breakfast. (Ok, who am I kidding, this was no way less appropriate for breakfast than any danish or donut.  And, um, I'm known to eat all sorts of actual desserts like fruit crisps and cobblers, rice pudding, etc for breakfast on a regular basis).  But still.  It was a cookie!  A breakfast cookie!

The size was just right too, perfect for a light breakfast on the go.  It really would work as an afternoon snack too.  Or even a mid-morning treat alongside your second (or third ... ) cup of coffee.

I was pretty impressed, and for an easy breakfast item, I'd certainly grab another.

On my next visit to Sydney, I grabbed a few more of these over the course of my stay.  I continued to really enjoy them.  The texture of the bar is great, just slightly crumbly.  I love the crunch of the nuts and seeds, and the sweetness of the bits of dried fruit.  I'll continue to enjoy these, whenever I need a quick easy breakfast to go.
Apricot & Almond Muesli Bake.
Next I went for the apricot and almond bake.

It is made from the same ingredients as the first one, just in different amounts, highlighting the apricot and almond bits a bit more.  It uses Carman's Natural Bircher Muesli (oats, sultanas, apricots, raisins, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans) as the base.  It also has the same seeds (sunflower, sesame), and more spicing including ginger and orange oil.  It is again sweetened with treacle and brown sugar, but replaces the honey with grape juice.

So, slightly different recipes, but very similar results.

Just like the classic round, I really liked how soft it was, and adored the crunch from the chopped up bits of nuts.  The fruit was also perfectly sized, just little pops of sweetness.  A very balanced, well crafted treat.  It too had a slight crumble, and broke apart easily.

I'd gladly get another, and can't say that I could pick between the two varieties.

After having a few more of each type of round, I decided I liked the classic a bit more.  I'm not quite sure why, as I do like apricots more than raisins or sultanas.  I think perhaps the almond was a bit too strong?  I still like this one, but if I have to pick one, I pick the classic.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Shari's Berries

Update Review, January 2016

Given my original review of Shari's Berries (below, go read first if you wish for context), as you can imagine, I didn't actually seek out more of their products.  But, another co-worker received a gift box from Shari's Berries, and after everyone else consumed all the good looking options, there was one sad cookie left.  Now, I'm not a cookie lover, as you well know.  But ... it looked so sad, and clearly, no one wanted it.
Hand Dipped Oatmeal Raisin Cookie.
Why did no one want it?  Well, it was oatmeal raisin, the general loser of all cookie categories.  And Shari's Berries specializes in, well, berries, not cookies.  Why would anyone want this?

But, I couldn't let it sit dejected.  Plus, it wasn't just a cookie .... it was a dipped cookie, as Shari's Berries dips all the things (fruit, pretzels, chocolate, caramels, nuts, etc).  Even if I wasn't excited for an oatmeal raisin cookie, I do sometimes love sweet white chocolate coating (judge away).

The verdict?  Well, I liked it.  The top was covered completely in white chocolate, as were the sides, but the bottom remained uncovered.  The white chocolate was just crazy sweet, but, I was in the mood for it, and it paired nicely with my coffee.

The cookie itself was not a wholesome, hearty, almost-healthy-seeming oatmeal raisin.  Yes, it had oats.  And tons of raisins (that were NOT rock solid).  But it too was super sweet, and clearly horrible for me, even without the white chocolate.  It was crispy and sweet, and well spiced.

Would I go purchase these?  Obviously not.  But, uh, I enjoyed this quite a bit.  Far more than most cookies, even soft, fresh out of the oven, homemade cookies.  Perhaps I was just in the right mood for it?

Original Review, May 2013

My mother is the master of care packages.  I honestly can't believe that I've lived away from home for so long, yet still continue receiving amazing boxes for every holiday.  This past year, for Valentine's Day however, my mom did something a little different.  I did not get a box filled with standard Valentine's candy.  No conversation hearts, no red hots, not even chocolates!  In fact, Valentine's Day was approaching, and I hadn't received a box at all!

So when my concierge notified me that I had a perishable package that afternoon, I thought, "ah, how sweet, my mommy sent me flowers for Valentine's Day".  I knew flowers would be fine without me rushing home to pick them up, so I went back to my busy day and forgot all about the package.

When I arrived home much later in the evening, I was shocked to be handed a large box, with the words PERISHABLE and KEEP FROZEN all over it.  Whoops!

I eagerly opened it, and discovered that my mom had decided to try something totally different, sending treats from Shari's Berries.  I only vaguely knew of them, from seeing advertisements somewhere.  I had no idea what to expect.

I didn't love any of it, but it was nice to have something different.
One of two boxes, nice packaging!  
They win on presentation points, but not on taste.
Half Dozen Gourmet Dipped Swiveled Strawberries.  $19.99.
"Each strawberry is individually dipped and swizzled then gently tucked into a protective gift box, waiting for you to enjoy."

The strawberries are their signature item, and it is easy to see why.  The packaging was impressive.  Each berry was in its own little slot, on top of a doily, and the entire box had a very thick foam protective layer inside of it.  They were so pretty!  The OCD person in me couldn't stand the distribution of the berries in the box though ...

Speaking of the berries, there were 2 each of 3 varieties.  The berries were clearly real berries, as they were all totally different sizes.  They also ranged in ripeness, but I was pretty disappointed with how un-ripe they were.  It is winter, but still ...
  • White chocolate dipped with dark chocolate swizzles: The white chocolate was exactly the sort of white chocolate that makes people hate white chocolate.  Basically just sweet wax.  And the berry I had inside this one wasn't ripe at all.  The tip was pink, the middle was white, and the top half was actually still green.
  • Milk chocolate dipped with white chocolate swizzles: Unremarkable chocolate coating, less waxy than the white, but not great.  In this one, the strawberry was at least more ripe.
  • Dark chocolate dipped with milk chocolate swizzles: The dark chocolate and milk chocolate seemed exactly the same.  Again, a fairly unripe strawberry.
I just really didn't cafe for these, but Ojan like the non-white chocolate ones. Someone was happy with this gift!
Mini Cheesecake Trio: Classic New York, White Chocolate, Rocky Road,.  Each 3".  $19.99.
Next up, was a far more exciting box - a cheesecake trio!

Classic New York Cheesecake

Traditional cheesecake, chocolate graham crust on top and sides, chocolate frosting, and a white chocolate drizzle.

I'm surprised they called this a classic New York.  Does a classic NY cheesecake have chocolate fudge on top? Or chocolate crust?

Anyway.  The cheesecake itself was a plain one.  It didn't really have much cream cheese flavor.  It wasn't that creamy.  Honestly, the cheesecake I make is better than this.  But at least it wasn't bad like the one from Soup Freaks!

The crust on the top and bottom was apparently chocolate graham, but was basically just soggy black stuff.  Calling it a crust is generous, as it was more like a spray-on coating.  It was too finely crumbled to even add texture.  Did not like.

The chocolate fudge layer on top was very thick, and didn't go with the cheesecake very well.  It was very creamy however. It also went very well with the fresh sliced strawberries I added to jazz the whole thing up.

Sadly, the white chocolate drizzle on top was my favorite part.  No, I'm not joking.  Least favorite of the trio, would not get again.

White Chocolate Cheesecake

This was a white chocolate cheesecake, topped with a layer of white chocolate, a chocolate decoration, and the same thin chocolate graham crust around the sides and bottom.

It was very creamy, but I would not have known it was the white chocolate one, rather than the Classic New York.  I had to look it up online to figure out what variety it was.  The white chocolate flavor in the cheesecake itself was very, very subtle.  The white chocolate on top was thick, brittle, and hard to cut into, a strange choice for a topping, but I liked it more than the white chocolate used on the strawberries (which is strange, as I expected it to be the same).

The crust was again very thin, really just adding a slight brown color to the outside and bottom.  It was too thin to really taste like anything.

Second favorite of the trio, but I still wouldn't eat again.

Rocky Road Cheesecake

This was a chocolate cheesecake, topped with a chocolate fudge layer, mini marshmallows, mini chocolate chips, and chopped walnuts with the chocolate graham crust on the edges.

I don't normally like chocolate cheesecakes, but this was pretty good.  Again creamy, smooth, with a nice chocolate flavor and some cream cheese essence coming through.

The fudge layer on top was the same as the Classic NY, very thick, but unlike the white chocolate, it wasn't brittle so it was easy to cut through.  It added another layer of richness to the already ridiculous cheesecake.

And then it was covered in assorted "rocky road" toppings - mini marshmallows, mini chocolate chips, and chopped nuts.  I'm not really sure it all worked together that well, marshmallows on top of a cheesecake are a bit weird, but it was a good representation of rocky road.

My favorite of the trio, and I would get it again.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Delivery from Navin Thai Restaurant

I don't order food for delivery very often.  I'm really just too much of a snob for it, and I know it.  I want my food hot and fresh.  I get annoyed when it sits at the pass in a restaurant for more than a few minutes.  Delivery, even if done under optimal conditions, will always be fairly lukewarm.  But ... sometimes delivery is what you need.

One night, we had friends over, and no one felt up for going out to dinner, and we didn't really have anything on hand to feed the group.  So, delivery it was.

We opted for Thai food, as it generally holds up decently for delivery, and everyone seemed happy with that style of cuisine.  Since we never order delivery, we don't have a standard go to, so just took to cross referencing places from with Yelp, looking for something reasonable.  Navin Thai was one of the higher rated Thai choices that delivered to us (although it only had 3.5 stars on Yelp).

I found everything unremarkable, which, I guess is an endorsement of sorts.  There was nothing clearly awful about anything we got, and everyone else seemed happy enough, but I wouldn't order from Navin Thai again.

Do you have a recommendation for delivery, for when the situation calls for it?
Clear Labeling Each Dish.
I opened the delivery bag, and immediately noted the clear writing on each container.  Large block letters, easy to read.  Points to Navin Thai for the nice labeling.
Curry Contained Within a Bag.
And further points for putting the curry inside a second plastic bag, just in case there was a leak (there was not).  (Minus one point for "veggy" curry?)

The food was also somehow still hot when it arrived, particularly the curry.  While it took an hour to receive our food after we ordered, the food clearly wasn't sitting somewhere getting cold, which I appreciated.

The delivery person was also friendly and polite.  No issues with service.
Appetizer: Thai Beef Jerky. $7.50.
"Dried and deep-fried marinated beef strips."

To start, we ordered Thai Beef Jerky.  None of us really knew what to expect, but we needed one more item to make the delivery minimum, and Ojan and I had fond memories of the ridiculously tasty beef jerky-like bits that topped the papaya salad at our favorite Thai restaurant in Sydney (Sailor's Thai Caneen, if you are ever there.  Still my favorite Thai food anywhere).

It is hard to see in the photo, but in the box is little chunks of ridiculously chewy, dry, jerky.  It wasn't sweetened or candied like our precious Sailor's Thai jerky.  In fact, it didn't taste like anything.  Which I guess is why it came with a cup of sauce on the side, slightly spicy.

None of us really liked this.  Ojan's comment: "It just needs some flavor.  It is totally fine otherwise", which I didn't really agree with as I found it too chewy and dry, but, to each his own.

The portion also seemed pretty small for $7.50.  Maybe just because it only filled about 30% of the box it came in, it just looked meager?
Vegetarian Panang Curry. Medium. $8.95.
"Tofu and mixed vegetables, string beans, bell peppers, and basil in panang."

For one main dish, we picked a curry, since curry holds up well for delivery.  It was still hot when it arrived, so this was a good decision.

The tofu was firm triangles, and the "mixed vegetables" were carrots and broccoli.  The curry also had string beans, basil, and bell peppers in assorted colors.  The vegetables were all a bit overcooked and mushy.  Because Ojan can't handle spicy food, we ordered medium, and it was not spicy at all, certainly mild, not medium.  I'd normally go for spicy, as I like the spice to compliment the sweeter panang sauce.  The curry sauce was fine, but lacking any dimension, it was just sweet.

The portion was pretty large, the container about twice as deep as most deli containers, so the $8.95 price tag was very reasonable.  (Amusingly, when we first selected the panang curry from the regular curry section of the menu, and put tofu as our protein, it showed a price of $9.95.  When we got to the vegetarian section of the menu, we saw that it was listed for $8.95, so we added that one instead.  I'm pretty sure there was absolutely no difference in the two items, just a pricing glitch with vegetarian vs regular?).
Pad See Ew, Chicken. $8.95.
"Flat rice noodle with broccoli, egg, and chicken in black bean sauce."

For our second entree choice, we went for a noodle dish, my standard, Pad Se Ew.

Our protein options were tofu, beef, pork, chicken, or shrimp ($2 extra), but the others wanted chicken, so I went for it, knowing I could just eat around it since I don't like chicken and didn't particularly want one of the other options anyway.  The others all remarked that the chicken was well cooked, not dried out, and lacking any cartilage (unlike other delivery we'd had a few weeks prior).

The dish was unremarkable, fairly bland.  I wished it had more sauce.

The primary ingredient was noodles.  We all wished for more broccoli.  We joked that we should have just asked to have extra broccoli added to this dish, with a surcharge, to meet the delivery minimum instead of ordering the jerky.   The noodles were a bit mushy, but I expect that for delivery.  I appreciated the fact that it had both American broccoli florets, and Chinese broccoli, although, again, not much.  There was a very small amount of egg, plus the chicken.  I think the version from Modern Thai is a bit better, the noodles certainly were better there, and they had more generous veggies inside, but, it also lacked much flavor.

One of the other diners noticed that the curry and pad see ew on her plate combined to be tastier mixed together, and advocated for smothering the pad see ew in curry.  Everyone quickly agreed that this was the best approach, since both dishes were fairly bland on their own.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Aloft Hotel, Buffalo

On a recent trip, I wound up stranded in Buffalo, NY.

Why?  I was there for a co-worker's wedding on a Saturday night.  The wedding was lovely, and the wedding food, shockingly good.  As were the pastries at the brunch at the Hyatt Buffalo the next morning (although, the hotel itself kinda sucked).  I went to the airport Sunday morning, enjoyed lunch at Queen City Kitchen (also shockingly good), swung through the American Airline's Admiral's Club, and boarded my flight.  We left the gate.  We almost took off.  And then ... ORD, the airport I was headed to for my connection, issued a ground stop.  We waited for an hour on the runway.  Then we went back to the gate.  We waited an hour.  Two hours.  We were told it would be just an hour more.  It never was.  Eventually, the flight was cancelled.  And by then, it was too late to rebook on any other flights.  Of course, the cancellation was due to weather issues (hail in Chicago!), so American didn't need to do any customer care.  No vouchers for meals, no vouchers for hotel.  Oh, and the only American flight with availability was 5am the next morning.  I was not a happy girl.

We clearly needed to spend the night in Buffalo.  I had zero desire to go back to the lackluster Hyatt.  And, being a Starwood girl, I went for the only Starwood option in the area: Aloft Hotel.  I hadn't ever stayed at an Aloft before, but it seems like a lower-end Westin.  Hip, swanky, modern.  And the hotel was basically brand new.  A really nice property, and I'd gladly explore this brand more in the future.

But, obviously, you are here to read about the food, not about the excellent design of the hotel room.  During my time at the Aloft, I explored both the offerings at the bar that night, and the breakfast area in the morning.

The W XYZ Bar

When I checked in, the receptionist took pity on me and my cancelled flight ordeal, and gave me a voucher for a free drink at the bar, the W XYZ.  I gladly went to check it out.  And of course, I got tempted by the dessert menu too ...

The Space

The bar and lounge, like the rest of the hotel, was brand new, modern, and although obviously designed to be trendy, very functional.
Bar Seating.
There was a traditional bar, filled with really friendly patrons.  Everyone had a story of why they were there.  After all, who stays at the airport hotel?  Most of us had cancelled flights, missed flights, or were traveling for crazy reasons like renewing passports out of country.  No one was there because this was a destination they wanted to be at.  Yet ... everyone was so, so friendly, staff and patrons alike.  My mood really did improve once I started chatting with folks at the bar.
Lounge Space.
The other side of the space was a lounge, with full bar service.

I found a wonderful space to sit on a colorful couch, with foot stool and ample space to stick my drink, phone, laptop, etc.  It really was very comfortable, and as close to being at home as I could get.
More Lounge Space.
 Larger groups would have liked the couch area on the other side of the lounge.
Fireplace, Outside.
On a nice day, the space flows out onto a furnished patio too.  And for a bit of ambiance, a gas fireplace, perfect once the snowy Buffalo winters hit.

Overall, it was a really lovely space.
Pool Table.
Oh, and, on the far side, there was a pool table and other recreation activities.


Cosmo-Not. $10. Wasabi peanuts. Water.
"Raspberry Jam, Lemon Juice, Beefeater Gin".

I redeemed my voucher for a drink from the cocktail menu, the "cosmo-not".  It was a lovely drink. Very strong on the gin, which made it not too sweet.  The raspberry "jam" was a raspberry puree, I think freshly muddled fruit.  Really a nicely balanced drink, and I quite enjoyed it.  My evening really was looking up!

The best part however was the bar snacks: wasabi peanuts!  These were addicting.  I devoured, literally, an entire bowl of them singlehandedly, in the first 10 minutes I was there.  They had a serious kick.  Eat more than 2 at a time and you had a hard time breathing for a second.  But that just made them more addicting.  No pain no gain?  I loved the crunch of the shell, the peanut inside, and wow, the wasabi.  They weren't messing around here.
Hess Pinot Noir.  $9.
For my next drink, I went simple, and just opted for a glass of pinot.  They had only one selection available, but, it was decent.  It went well with my dessert, which is why I ordered it, rather than another sweet cocktail, even though their cocktail menu had plenty of tempting options.


Yeah, yeah, dessert girl here.  You know me, I can't resist dessert.  After my giant bowls of wasabi peas, I needed something less, uh, spicy.  (Side note: my nutrition this day was uh, leaving something to be desired.  Tons of addicting snack mix in the Admiral's Club.  Tons of excellent fresh chips at Queen City Kitchen.  An insane number of fantastic pastries at the Hyatt breakfast buffet.  Doh. 

But ... I wanted another treat.  Hey, I was stranded, I deserved nice things, right?

The dessert selections were a molten chocolate lava cake (sounded great, but, I didn't want caffeine), hot apple pie with whipped cream (ok, but, meh, my least favorite variety of pie), or, cheesecake.  I'd been craving cheesecake a lot, hence my ordering it at Romano's Macaroni Grill on my layover in Chicago a few days prior, and that one didn't exactly satisfy.
NY Style Cheesecake. $7.
"Served with seasonal berries".

So, cheesecake it was.  Plus, cheesecake has ... protein, right?  I was totally being responsible.  Same with those wasabi peanuts.  All about the protein.

The cheesecake wasn't quite what I expected.  First, it was round, an individual serving, not a slice.  Not that that really matters.

It was pretty good cheesecake.  Fluffy.  NY style, so not ricotta based Italian style.  Not super cream-cheesy, but really creamy enough.  I liked it.

The crust was super thin, and I still can't quite say what it was.  Not graham cracker, not cookie.  It wasn't crispy or sweet.  It was just there.  I really love a sweet, crispy base, and this was kinda lacking.

Drizzled on the plate was a sweet syrup that went great with the cheesecake.  And a single strawberry on the side, and a couple blueberries.  I guess that was my "seasonal berries"?  The fruit was good, really fresh, really ripe, really flavorful.

Overall, this was quite nice, far better than you'd expect from a hotel bar.  I'd like it even more with a touch of whipped cream on the side, which I'm sure I could have asked for.  The crust was really the only component that wasn't great.

The $7 price was about what I'd expect for a full, plated dessert.

re:fuel by Aloft

Our hotel package came with included breakfast.  You never know what exactly "breakfast" means when you book these things, but it is always a gamble I like to take.  Will it be a buffet?  Just continental?  Fresh made to order omelets?

At Aloft, it means $10 per person to spend at the re:fuel area.  Before I dive into describing breakfast, let me back up a bit, and describe re:fuel.


Aloft doesn't have mini-bars in the room.  Or crappy, out of stock, vending machines in the hallways.  Instead, they have a rather amazing snack station down in the lobby.  What a great idea - far easier to restock, and they are able to provide a far more interesting set of items, including frozen products and other items to microwave, since they can offer up a single microwave for all guests too.

I somehow failed to get a photo of the main table, laid out with assorted goodies, ranging from packaged candy, to things like Aloft branded chocolate covered pretzels, gummy bears, and jelly beans.  There were also granola bars, gum, and other packaged snacky foods.

I also failed to get a picture of the main cooler space, with salads, sandwiches, fruit cups, and other grab and go snacks/meals.  Bad blogger I am.
Bottled Drinks.
Coolers on the side held assorted drinks, including Coke products, iced teas, sparkling water, and juices.  A second drink fridge had upgraded drink selections like Naked Juice.
Mac and Cheese, Chips.
A number of chip-like options were available, including pretzels and several types of popcorn (including microwaveable bags so you could pop your own fresh, in the provided microwave).

If you wanted a simple "meal", they also had ... Kraft Dinner!
Freezer Goods.
The final section had a freezer, stocked with assorted frozen dinners (Lean Cuisine, etc), frozen breakfast sandwiches (Jimmy Dean Biscuits, Uncrustables), and ice cream (Drumsticks, Ben & Jerry's Pints, Snicker's ice cream bars, etc).  I was VERY tempted by this area, but alas, never took advantage of it.


As I said, I was given $10 to spend on breakfast.

As you can imagine, options there were extensive as well.  The pantry/snack area had plenty of breakfast selections, but they also have a made-to-order station.

Oh, coffee and tea are complimentary for all guests, all day long, although you could upgrade to made to order espresso drinks with your dining credit if you wanted.
Menu Board.
The main breakfast attraction is the cooked to order items.  It is kinda cute, you fill out a paper form with your selections, and hand it to the breakfast chef, who whips it up to order.

Choices included breakfast burritos, omelets, waffles, or custom breakfast sandwiches.  The breakfast sandwiches were clearly the top seller, available as a bundle with a piece of fruit or breakfast tots, and a bottled juice for $10, exactly the price of the voucher, and what most people clearly opt for.

The Aloft Buffalo website says they also have pancakes.  And the person checking me in said they had pancakes.  And the person I asked the evening before about how breakfast works mentioned the pancakes.  And ... yet, no pancakes.  Not on the board menu, not on the paper menus (which interestingly didn't match the board), and when I asked the chef, he acted very annoyed with me.  Ok, no pancakes.  False advertising!
Cereal, Oatmeal.
For not made to order items, a large variety of cereal was available, including the expected sugary junk, but also Cheerios, Chex, granola, and a number of Kashi selections (Go Lean!, Go Lean Crunch!, Blueberry Clusters).
In addition to the classic cold cereals, there were some "fancy" Quaker hot cereal "Real Medleys" in bowls with mix-ins like berries, to which you just added hot water.
Yogurt, Fruit Cups, Parfaits, More Drinks.
The fridge also contained yogurts, fresh fruit cups, and granola / yogurt / fruit parfaits, along with Starbucks bottled drinks and chocolate bars (to prevent melting I'm guessing).
Baked Goods.
The pastry case had some sorta sad looking sliced croissants, english muffins, and apple turnovers drizzled with icing.

I *almost* opted for the turnover, but, they just really didn't look good, even to the baked good loving me.
Bagels, Toast.
The next bakery case had assorted bagels and toast, with butter or cream cheese, which you could toast in the provided toaster next to the microwave.
The condiment station was nicely stocked with assorted Smucker's jams, peanut butter, pancake syrup, ketchup, hotsauce, honey, etc.  Really convenient!
Custom Breakfast Sandwich.  $6.
I've kinda been on a breakfast sandwich kick lately, I'm not quite sure why, as they aren't things I typically like.  But, when I get on a roll, well, I get on a roll, and I've even liked ones from Starbucks.  So I opted for a breakfast sandwich.

And, designing my own sandwich, cooked to order, sounded like it had the most potential of everything on offer to be tasty (although ... the Jimmy Dean frozen sausage breakfast sandwich was also calling out, I've clearly seen way too many of their ads!)

To start, I had to pick my bread, given the options of a bagel, bread, croissant, or english muffin.  I normally would pick a croissant, but the croissants looked fairly sad, and, my breakfast sando kick as has been featuring english muffins lately, so, english muffin it was.

Next, the eggs.  Choice of fried, scrambled, or whites only.  I went classic, fried.

Next, cheese.  American, cheddar, swiss, provolone.  Swiss is my favorite cheese out of the bunch, but, given the context, I thought generic old melty American was the best bet.

And ... meat!  Sausage, bacon, turkey bacon, or turkey sausage.  I'd pick turkey bacon usually, but I was sharing with Ojan, and he really wanted regular bacon.  My second pick anyway, so, not awful.

The only final customization you could make were the addition of pesto or sundried tomato.  I would normally go for the pesto (although, with bacon? Hmm, maybe not the best pairing), but Ojan didn't want it.

So, fried egg, american cheese, bacon on an english muffin it was.  All sandwiches, regardless of customization, are $6.

I filled out my slip, handed it over, and a few minutes later I was rewarded with a hot bag.
Fried egg, american cheese, bacon on an english muffin.
I opened it up to see my creation.

The muffin wasn't toasted, but it was warm.  I'm not sure what technique they used to make the sandwiches, but it clearly didn't involve a toaster.  I would have liked it crispy on the outside.  Next time, I'd ask for it specifically that way, or I guess volunteer to toast it myself in the toaster first?  The muffin was just a generic english muffin.  It wasn't buttered.  Again, I guess I could have grabbed butter from the condiment station to add it later?

The fried egg was fine ... it was an egg, but it didn't have a runny center or anything.  I'm not convinced it was freshly fried, it might have been a reheated patty.  I'm starting to think that they "made to order" is really just microwaving pre-cooked components ...

The cheese was nicely melted, standard yellow American.

The bacon was a generous amount, but greasy.  Salty.

Overall, this was ... fine.  I actually think Starbucks does a better job, although their eggs are even more questionable, but their reheating process is better for creating a desirable crispy english muffin..  Panera's version was also better, but it is hard to compare those, since I customized that one so much.

Anyway, if you like a basic egg and cheese, then by all means, get one, but beware that it may not be quite as fresh to order as you are expecting (which, I suspect the same is true of the waffles).

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Hotel Chocolat, UK

Ok, Hotel Chocolat is rather fascinating.  A UK company.  They do have a hotel, but it isn't in the UK.  Rather, it is in Saint Lucia, amongst the cocoa groves where they source the cacao to make their chocolate.  In addition to the random hotel, and chocolate factory, they also operate several restaurants, in London, Leeds, and in Saint Lucia, using cocoa as a savory spice throughout the menu.  Plus cafes all over Europe, selling drinking chocolates, chocolate pastries, and more.  Such a random, but actually tied together, assortment, revolving around one of my favorite things: chocolate.

The primary business of Hotel Chocolate is chocolate making, which is how I became familiar with the brand.  The chocolate line is extensive, containing everything you'd expect, ranging from bars, to truffles, to enrobed fruits and nuts, to drinking chocolate.

It doesn't really stop there though. They make things like chocolate spreads, mixed with things like gingerbread spices (the Gingerbread Christmas Spread) or the even better sounding salted caramel and pecans.  They also make jams, chutneys, and marmalades infused with cocoa. And ... cocoa pesto ... yes, basil, pine nuts, cheese, and cocoa nibs.  And cocoa pasta.  And cocoa nib ketchup.  And cocoa balsamic vinegar and finishing oils.  And even beer, vodka, and gin infused with cocoa pulp.  The list goes on and on.  It seems crazy at first, but I guess if they are developing menus for the restaurants and cafes to feature cocoa in many forms, these products probably just came out of that collaboration?  A little harder to explain is the beauty product line (body creme, eau de parfum, bath oils, candles, etc, etc), although, I guess those were developed for the hotels?

Anyway, totally fascinating.  I usually go to look up a chocolate maker, read the quick little details about where they source the cacao from, and quickly move on.  I totally got lost in Hotel Chocolat's website.
British Airways Treat!
Now, the chocolate.  I received this aboard a British Airways flight, a cute little package of two chocolates, wrapped in plastic, inside a cardboard tube.  Hotel Chocolat offers a zillion packaging options and very, very elaborate gift boxes.
Chocolate Menu.
The backside featured my "Chocolate Menu".  Inside, I'd find:
  • "A silky soft and perfectly creamy 40% milk chocolate truffle"
  • "Indulgent 70% dark chocolate filled with slated molten caramel"
The packaging also boasts "Hotel Chocolat represents a new model of luxury chocolate-maker.  Growing cocoa ourselves on our plantation in Saint Lucia enables us to link the world of sustainable cocoa agriculture with the hedonism of fabulous chocolate!"
Milk ganache in a milk chocolate shell.
I started with the milk chocolate, 40%.

The shell was smooth and quite creamy, with a nice snap.  I don't tend to go for milk chocolate, but this was actually a really complex milk chocolate.

The ganache inside was perfectly soft and almost oozed out.  I'd certainly prefer for it to be dark, or flavored, and of course they do make all these options, but for a very basic milk chocolate with milk chocolate ganache, this is clearly a quality product.
Salted runny caramel in a dark chocolate shell.
After the success of the simple milk chocolate, I eagerly moved on to the dark chocolate with salted caramel.

And ... I didn't like it nearly as much.  The shell was a shiny, snappy 70% dark that just didn't have any complexity.  Honestly, I think the milk had more going on than the dark.

Inside was a perfectly runny caramel, not too liquidy, not too firm, but I didn't taste any salty quality.

This wasn't a bad chocolate, but it certainly didn't come close to the milk, which really surprised me, as I always prefer dark chocolate, and mmm, salted caramel!