Friday, July 14, 2017

Mediterra Bars

I've reviewed a lot of snack bars by now.  Many make claims of their nutrition benefits, show off that they are non-GMO, high protein, low glycemic, gluten-free, etc.  I usually read these materials, roll my eyes, think to myself, "another healthy nutrition bar, yay", try the products, and generally dislike them.  It takes a lot for me to do a second taste, or even find a snack bar company unique at this point.

But ... Mediterra did indeed catch my interest.  At first, their material looks the same as all the others.  All natural ingredients, nutrient-rich foods, good fiber from nuts and seeds, yadda yadda yadda.  They take a slightly more focused spin, zeroing in on the Mediteranean diet specifically (hence, the name, Mediterra).  Incorporating the Mediteranean diet staples, grains, fruits, and vegetables, into a nutrition bar is a bit different though.  Nuts and seeds, fruits, sure, but, vegetables?  Sundried tomatoes?  Leafy greens?

But they did.  In bar form.

They have two product lines, Savory Nutrition Bars and Yogurt & Oat Nutrition Bars.  The former are the ones that sound ... interesting at least.  Kale, Pomegranate, Quinoa, & Almond.  Bell Peppers & Green Olives.  Sundried Tomato & Basil.  Black Olives & Walnuts.  These are just a few of the offerings.  Sure, not crazy combinations of ingredients, but, in a bar?  Savory bars just don't really exist like this.

The base for the Savory Nutrition Bars is pea crisps, made with pea protein, which is actually my favorite these days, and amaranth puffs.  They use brown rice syrup for sweetness, cashew butter to bind.  And, yup, they have vegetables in them.  Green peppers and chives are also in the Black Olives & Walnuts flavor.

I wasn't ever able to find the Savory Nutrition Bars though, so I have only tried the Yogurt & Oat bars, far more tame.

I was only able to find the Yogurt and Oat Nutrition bars, but I'm still pretty intrigued by the savory ones ...

Yogurt and Oat Nutrition Bars

Mediterra also makes more mainstream, sweeter bars, with gluten-free oats as the base, sweetened with brown rice syrup and honey, coated in "yogurt".  They look like traditional grain based bars with yogurt dip.  These bars also have rather suspicious sounding "Soy Nuggets" as an ingredient, made from rice starch coated soy protein isolate.  Sigh.  They were doing so good with the pea protein the savory bars!

Yogurt & Oat Nutrition bars get their Mediterranean kick via the fruit and nut add-ins, like Fig & Almond, Lemon & Walnut, Cherry & Pistachio.
Apricot & Pistachio.
"Did you know Mediterraneans have incorporated a balance of apricots, pistachios, and oats into their daily diet for generations? We’ve drizzled them with honey; sprinkled raisins, figs, and sunflower seeds; and added a layer flavored with yogurt to bring you a delicious gourmet nutrition bar. Just a little taste of the Mediterranean Diet’s infinite wisdom—made to enjoy on the go."

The Apricot & Pistachio bar was ... not bad.  Almost good.

The apricot flavor was great, plenty of bits of dried apricot (and raisins and date paste mixed in too).  The base wasn't what I expected, not a standard granola bar of any sort, not crunchy, not chewy, just, really different.  It was very dense, presumably from the biding agents, and all the ingredients were more ground than you'd expect, no whole flakes of oats.

However, the bar was pretty bitter, even with the added sweeteners and fruits.  The pistachios I expect added some of the bitterness, but there is also sunflower seeds and flax, which I suspect added most of the bitterness.
Apricot & Pistachio: Side View.
Here you can see the "yogurt" coating.  It only covered one side of the bar, and was really quite thin.  I couldn't taste any yogurt when I was eating the bar, as the apricot and seed flavors overwhelmed.  I say "yogurt" because the first two ingredients of it are sugar and palm kernel oil, followed by dry milk and yogurt powder.  There was nothing actually yogurty about this.

So, overall, great dried apricot flavor, but, too bitter, and definitely didn't deliver in the coating department either.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Funnel Cake, Santa Cruz Boardwalk

A walk along the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk is filled with an array of tempting, horrible-for-you, extremely overpriced, carnival fare.  Garlic fries or sweet potato fries.  Chips-on-a-stick with a DIY seasoning station!  Deep fried veggies, hot dogs, cheese, Oreos, Twinkies, even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!  Caramel corn, or caramel apples.  Perfect looking soft serve cones with chocolate dip.  Dippin' Dots.  Even Dole Whip!

But when I was there a few weeks ago, I walked past it all.  I had my eyes on a different prize: funnel cake.
Funnel Cake Stand. 
While most items are offered at multiple stands, funnel cake is only available in one location, midway down the boardwalk.  The stand sells only two items, funnel cake and shakes.

Funnel cakes come in only 4 styles: Original (just powdered sugar), Chocolate Strawberry (with strawberries, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce), Oreo Sundae (with oreo crumble, whipped cream, caramel, and ice cream), or, Apple Pie (with seasoned apples, whipped cream, caramel, and ice cream).

Now, an aside.  I grew up with fried dough, rather than funnel cake, and it never came with these sorts of toppings.  It came buttered, and then you added powdered sugar, regular sugar, or cinnamon sugar via shakers yourself.  Sometimes the fancy places had bavarian cream you could have plopped on top.  But whipped cream, ice cream, and all these fruit toppings?  No.  That is not what you put on fried dough!  But I like all those things, and Yelp reviews rave about the Apple Pie funnel cake in particular.  So we got it.

Unfortunately, our funnel cake was awful.  Even though I didn't like the funnel cake at Great America either, at least that one had yummy soft serve and toppings.  This one ... had nothing redeeming about it.
Apple Pie Funnel Cake. $10.99.
"Cinnamon sugar, seasoned apples, whipped cream, caramel, & a scoop of ice cream."

I watched our apple pie funnel cake being assembled with wide eyes.

Yes, there was a funnel cake in there ... somewhere.

It did start with a funnel cake, not freshly made to order, just plucked from a rack, lukewarm.  Minus one point, funnel cake, and fried dough, should be made to order!

Next, it was sprinkled with powdered sugar.  In retrospect, this move made me laugh, as, um, there was so much other stuff piled on top, and it was all sweet, that the powdered sugar was entirely lost.  Why bother?

Next came cinnamon sugar, again from a shaker, again totally lost in this craziness, particularly given the seasoning on the apples.

And then ... the "seasoned apples".  Mounds and mounds of apples in sweet goo.  Seasoned goo, I suppose.  They weren't too mushy, but that is about all they had going for them.  Another diner commented that they were like McDonald's, but, honestly, even McDonald's has better apple pie filling than this.  The apples completely ruined this funnel cake, and, they covered the entire thing.

Next up was whipped cream, generic, from a can, around the outer edge.  A generous application of this too.  But why have just whipped cream, when you can have ice cream too?  It also came with a scoop of generic hard serve vanilla ice cream in the center.  Both these elements were highly mediocre, but at least quasi helped cut the sweet from the apple goo?

And then, to top it all off?  Caramel from a squirt bottle.  It was entirely unnecessary, given all the apple goo.  This thing was too sweet as it was.

It *did* look good, in a way.  It was nicely assembled.  But ... it was not good.

The funnel cake itself wasn't hot and fresh.  But honestly, it barely mattered.  I couldn't really get to the funnel cake.  I tried to take just from the edges, but, it was impossible.  You did not get to taste the funnel cake in any way, no matter how hard you tried.

I really did not like this, although I consumed far more of it than I expected.  I think I *wanted* to find something redeeming in it so badly.  Maybe if I had gotten a plain one I could have at least enjoyed the funnel cake?  Clearly, I do not recommend this.  The $10.99 price is high, but, it also was insanely large, and 4 of us did not finish it.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Waffling Leftovers: Lasagna

Well, this is a bit odd. I was looking through my blog archives, and discovered that I had an unpublished review about waffling lasagna.  I was confused, because, well, I had a memory of publishing a review about waffling lasagna, and it was a great success.  And this post was not really a strong success story.

It turns out, I had the idea to waffle lasagna long ago.  I wrote it up, in January 2015.  It didn't work. And then, a year later, I tried it again, entirely forgetting about my unsuccessful experiment (which, is a good thing, since, the second time, it worked great).

I'm publishing this "update", of an old review, just for completeness. It turns out, lasagna doesn't always waffle great, which, to be honest, surprises me (although my technique was different both times).   So, I guess, your milage my vary?

Old Review, from January, 2015 ...

A co-worker put the idea of waffling my lasagna into my head, I actually didn't consider this myself, which is a bit shocking.

It worked, but, I wouldn't do it again, lasagna is one item that reheats just as good as it is originally, if not better, so there is no need to try to improve on it.
Before: Leftover Lasagna
I started with cold, solid chunks of lasagna.  Not very appealing.
I decided to separate the layers, and create a lasagna sandwich, to make sure I had mostly noodles for the outside layers, with the cheese and filling inside, to prevent too much sticking or falling apart.
Almost Ready!
The sizzling sounds were promising, but when I opened the lid after a few minutes it was a horrible mess; it separated in the middle, and the top and bottom both stuck to the waffle iron lid.  I knew from my pizza experiments though that the secret is just to wait longer, and when I checked a few minutes later, as pictured about, it was almost ready.

One issue though, the pool of oil surrounding it wasn't exactly appealing ...
The end result was about what I expected.  The noodle layer outside got super crispy.  The cheese and filling were melty inside, and crispy in the bits that oozed out.

This *should* have been absolutely amazing right?  The best part of lasagna is the crunchy edge pieces, and this was lots of crunchy.  But it turns out, I just prefer basic ooey gooey lasagna.  Don't get me wrong, this was good, and a success, but this is one item that I'll stick with the classic reheating technique.  I think one issue was the oil that all ran out.  While this version was perhaps "healthier" than standard reheated lasagna since the oil was removed, it turns out, that is what makes the cheese so delicious.  I wonder if I needed to use a lower temperature setting to prevent the separation?  Or try to seal the cheese in more?  Although I liked the cheesy bits than ran out ...

Original Review, February 2016

As I mentioned in my Waffling Leftovers introductory post, I'm quasi obsessed with taking leftovers and putting them into my waffle iron as the reheating technique.  Some are successes, some are not.  Either way, it is always fun.

But this one, is a success story.  If you are a "crispy edge" lover of lasagna, I highly recommend waffling your leftover lasagna!
The Original: Butternut Squash & Sage Lasagna (right).
One Friday evening, my group at work had an amazing lasagna prepared for us for "Comfort Foods Friday".

The pasta was layered with roasted butternut squash slices, it was seasoned beautifully with sage and thyme, the entire thing just screamed "fall!"  There were soft cloves of crazy flavorful confit garlic.  And then of course, the decadence: creamy mascarpone, Point Reyes blue cheese, and mozzarella.

It was delicious, and I loved the crispy bits along the exterior the most.
Leftover Lasagna.
There was a lot left over.  I gleefully packed some up to take home and eat over the weekend.  Lasagna always keeps well, and often, even tastes better the next day.  And it did.  Saturday night, I had a slice heated up traditionally, in the oven.

But I couldn't step thinking about the crispy edges.  And I know one way to maximize crispy bits ... waffling!

So Sunday night, into the waffle iron it went.
Halfway Done ...
After a few minutes, I opened the waffle maker to check on it.  Uh-oh.  It was stuck to both the top and bottom grills, and separated in the middle where the butternut squash slices were.

But my experience has taught me one thing when waffling: if it is sticking, just, let it go longer.  This *usually* is the answer (unless of course you end up burning it).
A few more minutes, and I opened the waffle iron up again.  This time, it slid out easily.

So, the answer to the burning question: Will it waffle?


It worked just as I expected.  The noodles on top and bottom came out perfectly crispy.  Inside stayed moist.  Some cheese ran out, which turned into crispy bits of fried cheese.

Total and complete success, and there is nothing I would change.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Banquet @ Longrain, Sydney

When I'm in Sydney, one of the cuisines I tend to gravitate towards is thai. It was Sydney where I really discovered how good thai food could be (and, where I subsequently was ruined for thai food in San Francisco!).  These days, I generally stick with the casual establishments in thai town, like Chat Thai or Home Thai, or the always classic Sailor's Thai (and canteen) in the Rocks.

But several years ago, when I was living in Sydney, I frequented Longrain, in Surry Hills.  Longrain is an entirely different type of restaurant, more upscale, far more trendy, with a vibrant bar scene in the front.  We weren't ever really into the scene of it all, but, it was on the way home from work, so Ojan and I would often stop by just to grab a bite in the bar area.  We went a few times for regular meals too, where everyone is seated at a massive large communal table, and all dishes are made to share.  Like I said, trendy.

I recall it being pretty good back then, but it was before I wrote a blog or took notes, so I didn't recall much besides the fact that their signature item is the betel leafs.  On my recent visit (February 2016), I had the opportunity to join a large group of co-workers in the private room for a Banquet meal, so I gladly accepted, even though it was my first night in town and I was crazy jetlagged.

I'm glad I joined, as it was a good experience, particularly for large group dining.  The cocktails were creative and tasty, the food was good, the dessert was swoon-worthy, and the service was shockingly on top of things, for group dining and for Sydney, not exactly known for great service.  You can read all about that in my first review.

Fast forward a few months, December 2016, and I had a large group dinner to arrange with co-workers.  Longrain was an easy choice, and I was thrilled that the semi private room was available.  We had another fantastic group meal, which you can read all about, and I highly recommend this for anyone looking to do group dining in Sydney (our groups have been 15-20 people).

The Setting

Longrain is in Surry Hills, a little bit off the beaten path on a side street.
Semi-Private Room.
Our group the first time was 19 members, 15 the second, and we had the semi-private room on the backside of the restaurant.  I say semi-private because it was behind a divider, but not actually noise isolated from the main room.

The decor was similar to the main restaurant, with a long wooden table, wooden floors, and wood on the walls.

Our server was friendly and attentive, and did an impressive job handling our large group.  Food came out hot and fresh.

Original Review, February 2016

Our first meal was not arranged by me, but it was a large group of nearly 20.


Drink Menu.
The drink menu had the expected beer, wine, and cider offerings, plus a slew of fairly creative cocktails.  I appreciated the names of the cocktails, and Ojan appreciated that many of them were available virgin, as indicated by stars on the menu.
 Surly Temple. $17.
"Don Julio Blanco Tequila, lemongrass, kaffir lime, house made grenadine, ginger beer, lime."

I went for the Surly Temple, mostly because I wanted something different, and tequila sometimes hits the spot for me, particularly when I'm traveling (I can't explain this, I blame it on my trip to Tokyo ...)

The Surly Temple was a pretty drink, a lovely pink color, with a giant stick of lemongrass sticking out, and garnished with a kaffir lime leaf.

It was a refreshing, balanced drink, not too sweet, not too strong on the tequila.  I quite enjoyed it.
Longroni. $19.
"Lime leaf, holy basil & lemongrass infused Tangueray Gin, Campari, Sweet Vermouth, chilli bitters."

After watching Emil drink "Longronis" all night next to me, I finally ordered one myself.  I wanted a not-sweet drink, and this is the one the server recommended.  Yes, I wanted a not-sweet drink.  It happens sometimes.

Like the Surly Temple, the Longroni also had a big stalk of lemongrass sticking out of it.  It was indeed not sweet, as requested, but perhaps a bit too bitter for me.  As in ...  crazy bitter.  I did like the lemongrass flavor in it though, surprisingly.


Banquet Menu.
Because of our group size (19!), we were given the banquet menu, a fixed, family-style menu, for $65 per person.  The menu was:

  • Betel leaf, smoked river trout, peanut, green papaya, mint
  • Freshly shucked oysters
  • Filled eggnet, pork, prawns, peanuts, caramelised coconut, cucumber relish
  • Red Jungle curry of grilled beef rump, wild ginger & holy basil OR crispy twice cooked duck with sweet tamarind sauce
  • Caramelised pork hock, five spice, chilli vinegar
  • Steamed Chinese broccoli, oyster sauce
  • Thai jasmine rice
  • Young coconut jelly, vanilla tapioca, seasonal fruit
3 appetizers, 2 main dishes, 2 side dishes, and dessert, all for $65, really a good deal, particularly given their regular pricing.

One of the main courses had the choice between beef or duck, but that was a decision our host had to make in advance, for the entire group (he picked duck).  I appreciated that the banquet menu is composed of dishes available from their regular menu, rather than toned down versions for large group format.  The lineup was mostly their signature items too.

We did have one vegetarian, and he was given a vegetarian betel leaf instead of the trout one, salt & pepper silken tofu instead of the main duck/beef course, and a veggie curry instead of the pork.  Those came in individual, albeit quite large, portions.

The dishes were all served family style, with several of each dish placed on the table.  Dishes came one by one, with a new course arriving every 10 minutes or so, a good pace.
Starter: Freshly shucked oysters.
The first dish to arrive was oysters.  Since I don't really care for oysters, I skipped this one.

On the regular menu, these are $20 for 6.
Starter: Betel leaf, smoked river trout, peanut, green papaya, mint.
Next up, the famous betel leaf.  These are the item I remember from my visits to Longrain years ago.  You eat it by wrapping the leaf around the filling, like a taco.

On the regular menu, these are $6 each.  They also make a vegetarian version with pomelo, coconut, chilli, and mint.

The leaf itself was fresh and crisp.  On top were crispy bits (peanut?), that I also liked.  But, the smoked trout was really quite mushy.  The textures didn't do it for me at all, just way too mushy.  And the trout was a bit fishy as well.

This was disappointing, as I know it is one of their signature dishes, but it really didn't work for me this time.  My least favorite of the savory dishes.
Starter: Filled eggnet, pork, prawns, peanuts, caramelised coconut, cucumber relish.
The first non-bite sized dish, but still an appetizer, to arrive was the filled eggnet, a cold dish, a salad of sorts.  This is the other dish I remembered from my visits years ago.  As you can see, it is a looker.

The outside is a cage made from egg, and inside is a filling of ground pork, chopped prawns, peanuts, bean spouts, crispy coconut, and tons of herbs.  On the side is the cucumber "relish", basically, just cucumber in a vinegar with red onions, to help cut the other flavors.

This is $34 on the regular menu.
Another view of the eggnet.
Here you can see into the eggnet.

I'll be honest, the first few bites of this were disappointing to me.  Emil turned to me and said, "I thought I remembered this being good?"  Clearly, I wasn't alone in feeling this way.

The eggnet itself isn't something I care for, since, well, egg.  And, there seemed to be way too many bean sprouts.  Most bites were almost entirely bean sprouts, plus some peanuts.  Where was everything else?  The sprouts were fresh and crisp, the peanuts added even more crunch, but, there was just not much flavor.

After finishing the portion I had originally served myself, I did not intend to have more of it.  But then ... much later, we still had a ton left, and I tried a little more.  And suddenly ... it was great.  The sprouts and herbs soaked up all the sauce, and it was suddenly crazy flavorful.  This was what I remembered from Longrain, wonderful flavors and texture combinations.

I kept nibbling on it the rest of the night, until my tablemates told me to just take the whole platter as my plate.  Ooops.

So, in the end, my favorite savory dish, although it started off really not great.
Side: Thai jasmine rice.
I skipped the rice, but we were provided with several giant bowls.  We didn't even make a dent in the rice.
Main: Crispy twice cooked duck with sweet tamarind sauce.
I didn't intend to try the duck, since I don't really care for duck, but, after everyone around me raved about it, I had to dig in.

And I must say, this was impressively well cooked.  The skin was crazy crispy, as were the greens that seemed to maybe be fried?  The sauce was sweet and tasty.

But, at the end of the day, it was still duck, which was a bit too gamey for me.  My second to last favorite savory dish.
Main: Caramelised pork hock, five spice, chilli vinegar.
Speaking of insanely crispy, the caramelized pork hock was also super crispy on the outside, yet moist and melty inside.  The sauce for this was even better, sweet, yet balanced by vinegar.

Some others said that their pieces weren't great, but, I clearly lucked out, and my pieces were cooked perfectly.  I couldn't get over how perfectly crisp the exterior was.  My second favorite dish of the night.
Side: Steamed Asian greens, oyster sauce.
Our token vegetable side dish was steamed Chinese broccoli and snow peas.  The greens were fine, crisp, not too overcooked, but the oyster sauce was very salty.  It was nice to have a vegetable, but this came long after the other items, I would have preferred to have it arrive earlier, perhaps alongside the first meat dish?  Unless that is more traditional Asian style to serve greens after the meal?
Dessert: Young coconut jelly, vanilla tapioca, seasonal fruit.
After that feast, we were all stuffed.  We had tons of savory food left over.  I think most people would have opted to skip dessert (myself included actually).  But, it was part of the banquet.

So, time for dessert.  I'm glad I mentioned my watermelon allergy to the server at the beginning of the meal, even though I didn't see any watermelon anywhere on the menu, because the dessert indeed had watermelon.

As I reached for one, the server came running around the corner to stop me, a separate one for me in hand.  She caught me just in time!
Dessert: Young coconut jelly, vanilla tapioca, seasonal fruit ... sans watermelon.
This dessert was ... incredible.  One bite in and I instantly regretted polishing off the eggnet dish.  I never expected this dessert to be so amazing, given the description.

So, what was it?  It was many, many things, but, at the core, a pudding of sorts, one of my favorite types of dessert.  But a pudding with a slew of elements, each bringing a different texture and flavor to it.

For one, you can't really see it in mine, but you can see in the earlier photo, there was black sticky rice.  The rice was awesome, nicely chewy, and added a great texture to contrast with the tapioca that was a bit softer.  There was a icy foam on top, I think pandan infused, adding a colder, fluffy element too.  And then thick slices of crispy coconut, and a sesame wafer, sticking out of the top, providing a lot of crunch.

Down with the sticky rice was chunks of pineapple in mine, plus watermelon in everyone else's.

I absolutely adored this, and polished it off even though I was quite full, and these were sizable portions.  We had two go entirely unclaimed, and many half-finished, since everyone was full, and honestly, if they didn't have watermelon in them, I'm sure I would have finished those too.  So many flavors, so many textures, really quite fantastic.  My only criticism is that it was a bit too sweet overall, the black sticky rice was the only non sweet element in the mix.  I'd get this again in a heartbeat.

Update Review, Dec 2016

This time, our group size was 15.  We again had the semi-private area, and again did a family-style banquet.

Our group had several dietary constraints, and Longrain handled them better than anywhere else I've ever seen, with custom dishes prepared when necessary.
Our Feast!
We had a wonderful feast.  And a feast it was!  

The banquet is a ridiculous amount of food, far more than any group can possibly finish, and it was amusing to watch people realize just how much more food was still coming, when we were halfway through and they were stuffed.  Those with dietary constraints seemed to receive full size portions of their custom dishes, in addition the regular banquet feast, which created even more abundance than normal.

The $65 per person price is ridiculously reasonable.

Overall, it was a good value, the food was incredibly flavorful, the cocktails were fun, and the dessert again fell in my top 10 desserts of all time.

Highly recommend.


Our group started with a round of cocktails, given how fun the cocktail menu was.

I was looking forward to another Longroni like I had last time , but ... it was no longer on the menu.  I picked a backup drink, but still asked my server if it was possible to get a Longroni.  She said she wasn't sure if they had the chili bitters anymore, but assured me that if they did, she'd sent a Longroni my way.
"Lime leaf, holy basil & lemongrass infused Tangueray Gin, Campari, Sweet Vermouth, chilli bitters."

And .... our server made it happen!

I enjoyed my Longroni as I did on my previous visit, but the lemongrass stalk in it was incredibly annoying.  I didn't comment on this in my last review, so maybe it somehow didn't bother me, but it drove me absolutely crazy this time, it kept hitting me in the face and made it hard to drink.  I quickly removed it.


Since we were a large group, we were required to order the banquet menu, as I had on my previous visit.  As expected, it was a ridiculous feast, all served family style, with 3 starters, two main dishes, two side dishes, and dessert.
Banquet Menu.

Our menu was:

  • Betel leaf, spanner crab, mango, chilli, mint.
  • Freshly shucked oysters, red chilli nahm jim.
  • Filled eggnet, pork, prawns, peanuts, caramelised coconut, cucumber relish.
  • Green Curry beef, Thai eggplant, baby corn, basil  OR Aromatic spiced yellow curry, pumpkin, cauliflower, sweet corn
  • Caramelised pork hock, five spice, chilli vinegar.
  • Stir fried Asian greens, garlic, oyster sauce.
  • Thai jasmine rice.
  • Black sticky rice, passionfruit jelly, vanilla tapioca, seasonal fruit, sorbet. 
The curry main dish was the only dish where we had to make a choice: green curry beef or veggie yellow curry, and the decision was for the whole table.  I posed the question to the group, but it wasn't really necessary, all wanted beef.

The menu was nearly identical to my previous visit, the only changes being the curry dish (last time we had the choice of red jungle curry with beef or crispy duck), and the side dish of greens (this time Asian greens, last time Chinese broccoli and snow peas).
Starter: Freshly shucked oysters, red chilli nahm jim.
The first dish is always their signature oysters, one for each of us.  I skipped this as I had in the past, as, I'm just not into oysters.  Someone else in the group gladly scored an extra.

We had one diner who doesn't eat seafood, and he was given the vegetarian version of the betel leaf instead of an oyster.
Starter: Betel leaf, spanner crab, mango, chilli, mint.
The betel leaf is probably Longrain's most popular dish, although ... it changed!  For years, they always had a smoked trout version (and a vegetarian version), but on this visit, it had spanner crab instead.  I've visited Longrain many times over the past 6 years, and had never seen this before.  Very curious what inspired the change.

Anyway.  The members of my group who bothered look at the menu all asked me what a betel leaf was.  I told them to just wait and see, but explained that it was indeed a leaf.  I enjoyed watching everyone's faces when the dish was served, again, one each.  "Uh ... what do I do with this?" echoed up and down the table.  My answer was simple: "Pretend it is a taco".  That seemed to work, and my group quickly figured out that they could grab it, wrap it like a taco, and devour.

This version was the least successful Longrain betel leaf I've had.  The leaf itself was still crunchy and fresh, very refreshing.  And I liked the spice and kick from the slivers of chili.  But ... it was way too sweet.  The mango overpowered.  Maybe the smoked trout usually does a better job of balancing the sweet mango, and the delicate, slightly sweet, spanner crab couldn't do that?  Or maybe the kitchen just went too heavy on the mango?  For a dish they have made so many times it seems like they would have perfected this though.

I thought perhaps it was just mine that turned out unbalanced, but the moment I mentioned mine was overly sweet, others agreed.  This was sad, because, really, this item usually is a great start to the meal and showcases the flavor combinations their kitchen is capable of.

Still, 3 members of my party rated it the best dish of the night, but I imagine that is somewhat out of novelty.
Starter: Filled eggnet, pork, prawns, peanuts, caramelised coconut, cucumber relish.
Next was the final cold starter, this one more substantial, the eggnet.  On my last visit, this was the dish of the meal for me, so I was seriously looking forward to it.  Plus, I was excited for everyone to see what this was, because, just like "What's a 'betel leaf'", "What's an 'eggnet'" was echoing up and down the table.

The answer of course, is this stunning dish.

The main component is a chilled salad with bean sprouts, cilantro, peanuts, little prawns, pork, caramelised coconut, and more.  It is topped with the eggnet, yes, made of egg, and served with a side salad of a refreshing cucumber relish.

Sadly, I didn't love it quite as much this time.  The flavors just didn't pop.  The prawn was a bit too fishy.  I did like the refreshing herbal quality to the salad though, all the crunchy elements, and appreciated a light dish given the heavy pork belly coming up.

As with last time, this dish got much better near the base, where the flavors really soaked in.

This is the dish where the kitchen really impressed us with attention to our dietary needs.  We had one person with a peanut allergy, one no shellfish, and one no cilantro.  Those are all ingredients in the dish, so they each received a personalized version with their respective allergens/dietary preferences removed.  The individual portions were HUGE, and came plated just like the full size ones, with their own cucumber salad and eggnet.  Everyone at the table agreed that the "individual" salads would make more than a full entree sized meal for anyone normally, let alone as part of a banquet, and we still received 3-4 of the full size ones for the table too, so, uh, we had way too much of this.  Sadly, it wasn't something you could box up for later, since it depends on fresh crispiness.  I don't want to complain though, the kitchen really was ridiculously accommodating here.

This was the top choice for 2 of my group.
Side: Thai jasmine rice.
The main dishes were served with big bowls basic rice, which I didn't try.  We were provided tons of rice, far more than the group needed even if we were big rice eaters, but I think we all barely touched the rice, opting to fill up on the other dishes instead.
Main: Green Curry beef, Thai eggplant, baby corn, basil.
The first main was finally a new item for me, green curry beef.

The flavor of the green curry was great, although it was very rich.  It was pleasantly spicy and quite flavorful.  The beef itself however wasn't very good, it was very chewy, very fatty.  The flavorful curry made up for it though, and most people opted for rice only to lap up more of this sauce.

The most successful dish so far, with 4 diners ranking it their top.
Main: Caramelised pork hock, five spice, chilli vinegar.
The second main was caramelised pork hock, another dish I was looking forward to, as it was crazy crispy last time, and I loved the sauce.

This one lived up to my memories.  The pork was remarkably crispy on the outside, moist, perfectly melty fat inside.  Sooo bad for you, but oh so good.

The sauce was again a flavor powerhouse, sweet and spicy and sticky and fantastic.  On the side was fish sauce chilli vinegar, also a bit spicy, and quite tasty.

This was my favorite dish of the night, and the overall winner for the group too, racking in 6 votes for #1.
Side: Stir fried Asian greens, garlic, oyster sauce.

The mains were also served with a side of stir fried Asian greens.  Last time, I referred to these as "token vegetables".  I didn't give them a second bite then.  But this time?  Shockingly good.

The gai lan was perfectly prepared, crunchy, succulent, bitter in all the good ways.  I adored the oyster sauce, salty and ridiculously tasty.

Somehow, this dish, of simple stir fried Asian greens, something I'd never order or give a second glance, was my second favorite dish of the night.  I raved about it, but I couldn't really convince anyone else to try it.  Several bowls of it went untouched.  They missed out, I'm telling you.
Dessert: Black sticky rice, passionfruit jelly, vanilla tapioca, seasonal fruit, sorbet.
And then ... dessert.  Oh, man.

Last time, I raved and raved about the dessert, lamenting that I had filled up on all the delicious savory food.  This time was no different, except that my entire group was in the same boat.  Everyone was stuffed after the banquet feast.  I did remember thinking, while taking "just one more piece" of the caramelized pork hock, "hey, self, remember how much you loved dessert last time?  Maybe stop?"  But ... the pork hock, and those damn asian greens, were just too good.  I was stuffed.  I couldn't stop.

And then dessert came.  As before, a special one was prepared for me because watermelon was part of the "seasonal fruit', and I'm allergic.

And as before, this was fantastic, although a slightly different version of the parfait than before.  I think this is a dish that evolves with the seasons.  It still had the same black sticky rice and tapioca in the bottom, but this time the young coconut jelly was replaced by passionfruit jelly, an overly sweet element, but I did like the seeds in there for some crunch.  The fresh fruit was kiwi rather than strawberry (and watermelon for everyone else), which I liked more, just because I have kiwi less often than strawberries in California.

There were two sorbets on top, the white one that I think was coconut, and another fluffy pink one that I couldn't quite identify.  The toasted coconut and sesame cookie on top may have looked a bit haphazard, but I still liked the crunch they added too, and that sesame cooke straw was really tasty even on its own.

So, overall, a fantastic dessert, with lots of fun textures and flavors.  Creamy, chewy, crunchy, yum!
Decaf Long Black.
To go with my dessert, I opted for a long black, decaf.  Well, I intended it to go with my dessert.  It was horrible, extremely bitter, leaving me with notes that simply said: "awful".  I couldn't take more than a few sips before just giving up.

The only real miss of the night.
Longrain Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, July 10, 2017

City Baking Co. @ Caffe Bianco

Caffe Bianco is a cafe in the Financial District in SF that I desperately want to like.

It is a bit of a fixture on Sutter Street, located in a historic building, and has been in operation since the early 1980s.  It has elegant, old school decor.  You can tell the staff have been working there forever, the owner included, who is always around the front keeping an eye on things.

But, the thing is?  They aren't very friendly.  It is not welcoming, to those who aren't their regulars.  No warm welcome.  Barely any words spoken to me, actually.  Their regulars are treated remarkably differently from the rest of us though.  The woman in line behind me was spotted by the sandwich maker while we were still in line, and she leaned over to ask her if she wanted her regular, and it was ready before she even got to the register to order in the first place.  Same thing with a guy a few people back, the barista saw him, said, "Americano for ya?", and he had an Americano in hand before I even ordered.  This is fine, I get it.

But my issues are with more with customer service when things went wrong.  I don't need a warm greeting, but, when you charge me $500 instead of $5, it shouldn't take 6, yes 6,  follow-ups to get it resolved.  And that wasn't my only mispayment issue.  They have tried to embrace technology, but ... don't know what they were doing.

The first problem was with Paypal.  They accept Paypal payment, which I used for my coffee and pastry.  My total was $5.  I was charged $500, which I saw happen before my eyes.  I told them immediately  However ... they had already submitted the payment to Paypal.  They didn't know how to undo, but said they'd get it sorted out.  Days, a week, two weeks went by without it getting reversed.  I called once during that time to explain what had happened and ask for a status update.  Nothing.  I finally went to Paypal customer service to get THEM to help.  They needed to talk to the merchant.  Still nothing.  I finally went back to the cafe, and stayed there until they called Paypal and fixed it.  It was ridiculous.  It wasn't like they just slightly overcharged me, $500 is VERY different from $5.

The next was with  Another time I ordered online in advance, on, a pickup order.  I was in a rush, and had the time set for pickup so I could swing by to grab my order quickly.  It wasn't ready, and they had no record of it, even though I had my receipt from charged me.  I asked them to still fill my order, but they wanted more payment.  Sigh.

So, as cute as it is, in outward appearance, I don't think I'll be returning, even to try paying the traditional way.  It isn't worth it, when there are so many other places to visit instead.

The Setting

The building is a historic building from the early 1900s, the Chancery building.  The atmosphere is really cute, amazing really.
Curb Appeal.
From the street, Caffe Bianco looks quite regal, with lush plants in the windows, and even visible columns framing the door.  "Espresso & Fine Food", the sign welcomes.  It looks like a swanky place.
Ordering Counter.
Step inside to find a fairly classic cafe ordering setup, with baked goods on display, a sandwich/salad prep area, and espresso machine.  Bags of chips, whole fruit, and other grab and go items are available near the register where all orders are taken.
Downstairs Seating.
Seating on this level is a bit limited, but there is plenty more upstairs.  The curb appeal extends through this area, with more columns, more plants, faux marble tables, real wood chairs.

On the side is a station for sweeteners and milk for coffee.
Upstairs Seating.
Upstairs is even more seating, open and overlooking the downstairs.  Tables are bisto style.  It looks like a great place to spend time, slowly beginning your day over coffee an a newspaper.

The Food

Caffe Bianco serves breakfast all day (oatmeal, scrambled eggs, egg sandwiches), and offers up salads, sandwiches, and soups for lunch.  I however haven't investigated any of those things.  I've only opted for the baked goods, to go alongside my coffee.  They use City Baking Co. as the baked goods provider.

Many cafes around town carry products from City Baking, so I've tried a number of their offerings from time to time.  City Baking makes a large variety of baked goods, but most places only offer a very small selection, and somehow never seem to carry the goods I'm most interested in,(like Prima Cafe, which carried only the most boring varieties of muffins and scones, or Diller's, which always seemed to be out of better varieties ... if they ever have them).

I've never actually really cared for anything I've gotten from City Baking before, but also, I've never been able to pick something I really wanted at other establishments.  Cafe Bianco was the exception to this.  The spread was very impressive!  Tons of muffins, including crumb topped, or low fat, or even gluten-free.  Croissants, filled or plain, cinnamon rolls, danishes, bear claws, morning buns, etc, etc.

Finally!  I had my chance to try the items I was interested in, some of the more fun scone varieties.
City Baking Co. Apricot Scone.  $2.50.
“Filled with dried apricots and apricot preserve, this scone is then topped off with a brown sugar crumble.”

For some reason, I was really, really craving a scone.  It was funny, because Caffe Bianco had every single type of muffin that I wanted to try, but instead, I went for a scone, even when I've tried several of City Baking's scones before in the past, and didn't care for them them, like the dry, crumbly, flavorless, round berry one I got at Diller's.  Or the equally flavorless triangle shaped blueberry scone from Prima Cafe.  And Caffe Bianco had only one type available on this visit, not a flavor I'd normally pick.

The label at Caffe Bianco just said "whole wheat apricot scone", so I didn't have any indication that this would have any interesting components.  And yet I still went for it.  I really wanted a scone!

And, I'm glad I did.  This was actually quite delicious.

The top was covered in cinnamon and brown sugar, sweet and delicious, along with a scattering of oats.  It reminded me of a dessert crisp or crumble topping.  There was just the right amount of it, not as heavy of a layer as you'd get on a coffee cake, but plenty to sweeten up the entire thing.

Inside were plentiful little bits of dried apricot, cut up into a tiny size just right for adding a fun little chew here and there, but never being annoying to eat.  The layer of apricot preserves added a ton more flavor and moistness.

I'm not entirely sure what the base was, since City Baking didn't claim it to be anything special, but Caffe Bianco said it was whole wheat.  It didn't seem particularly wheat-y to me.

The scone itself wasn't quite the style I normally prefer, as it was a bit cakey.  A tiny bit more moist than I would normally go for in a scone, but still quite good.  It was a bit crumbly, but not enough to make a mess at all.  I think I'd prefer it just a tiny bit drier, with a bit more crumb.

This was nothing like any of the other scones I've had from City Baking, and I honestly can't believe that the same bakery produces these.  This one had so much flavor, from the apricot and from the topping.  It was sweet, but not too sweet.  Never a flavor I'd really think of choosing, but quite enjoyable in the end.  I'd get another, and now I am excited to try more City Baking products in the future!

The $2.50 price tag was right in line with what other cafes serve City Baking's scones for, and was fine for such a large scone.  And large it was; if you paired it with a cappuccino, you could easily split it with a friend for a nice snack.  Or, just devour it yourself, as I did.
City Baking Co Apricot Scone.  $3.75.
A few visits later, I couldn't resist getting the apricot scone again.

It looked pretty much the same, but, alas, it was quite different.

The topping was the same, a nice sprinkle of brown sugar and oats, not too heavy, adding a slight sweetness and fun texture.

The scone itself was nicely cooked, not too dry, not a single burnt edge to be found.  It had a great tang to it, plus a heartiness from the whole wheat.

This was all good.  As were the little bits of apricot inside the base, adding a pleasant chew and sweetness.  But, alas, there were no preserves in this scone!  I wonder if someone just forgot to fill it?  Literally, no preserves.  They had added so much before!

Overall, it was fine, although a bit boring.  If I had never known it was supposed to have the preserves, I probably would have just thought it was a healthy, not quite sweet or interesting enough scone.  But I knew better.  It was supposed to have preserves!


Also, Caffe Bianco increased their prices.  When I got the scone the first time, it was $2.50, a reasonable price.  This time, it was $3.75, a significant increase, and, I don't think City Baking products are remarkable enough to justify this price.
City Baking Co. Raspberry Almond Scone.  $2.50.
"Almonds and a sweet crumb topping give this raspberry-filled muffin the perfect finishing touch."

On my next visit, I had a very hard time resisting getting the apricot scone again.  It had been such a success, particularly compared to any of the other City Baking offerings.  But, I really love trying new things.  My other scone options were strawberry, or raspberry almond.  The strawberry scones looked exactly like the blueberry one I'd had at Prima Cafe, that is, very plain, with a few berries inside.  The raspberry at least had almonds on top, and, I recalled that I thought one thing missing from the blueberry scone was a topping.

The scone was again large, same somewhat cakey-style as the others, triangle shaped.  It had a decent crumble to it.  The base flavor was again very boring, I really wish they'd give it a tang of some sort.  Inside was raspberries, a bit seedy for my liking.  I like having jam with my scones, and the berries inside almost provided a similar experience as eating a scone with jam, but, there wasn't quite enough berries to go around.

The topping was the part I was most interested in, as the City Baking website says that "almonds and a sweet crumb topping give this ... the perfect finishing touch".  Precisely what I thought was lacking from the other City Baking berry scones.  The slivered almonds did give a good crunch, and there was a tiny bit of sweet topping, but I certainly wouldn't call it a "sweet crumb topping".  Still, better than nothing.

Overall, this scone was fine. It wasn't remarkable, and there isn't really a reason to get it again, unless I was really craving a scone and had no other options.  It would of course be much better if served warm, with jam, and obviously some clotted cream.
Caffe Bianco Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato