Thursday, July 25, 2013

San Francisco Cheesecake

Mmm, cheesecake.  Such a classic, decadent, dessert.  It can be very simple, or dressed up with all sorts of toppings, flavorings, or fillings.  But, at least for me, it is a dessert that can disappointing more often than not.

I have a really easy cheesecake recipe that I got from my mom that I've been using for years.  I won't claim it is the best cheesecake ever, but it is solid, and whenever I bring it to a party, I do get rave reviews.  I won't tell you much about it, except that uh, it uses yellow cake mix in both the crust and the filling.  And when the top cracks, you just hide it with a beautiful fruit topping.  If I can make a good cheesecake, why are there so many awful versions out there?

One great thing about cheesecake, besides that it is delicious, is that it can be easily frozen and taken out when you want to serve it.  Just like I always have a freezer full of ice cream, I've been known to always have a few slices of cheesecake alongside.  So I was overjoyed when I discovered San Francisco Cheesecake.  A small, local company, that makes a variety of cheesecakes, sold at retailers around town.  They show up at artisan's foodfests, always with trays of samples.  I see why, as a single bite of one of these cheesecakes leaves you wanting more!  But the best part, is that they are sold frozen.  Easy to stock up on and pull out for "emergencies", like, you know, it is Tuesday night and you don't have any other dessert laying around.  And, they are a small size, so it totally makes sense to defrost one just for yourself.  You don't have to share.

I've really enjoyed all of the cheesecakes I've tried.  They are all nicely creamy, with a good graham crumble crust.  I was just glancing at their web site and saw a few flavors I haven't had yet that I really want to find: greek yogurt with honey and banana cream! Mmm!

I highly recommend purchasing a few if you ever see them (if you are into cheese, head to Cheese Plus, get some great cheese, and then grab some cheesecake from the freezer near the register).  They totally blow away the other cheesecakes I've had lately (like the mediocre frozen ones from Shari's Berries, the insanely awful one from Soup Freaks that Ojan even spit out,  or the flavorless thing that only sorta resembled cheesecake from Jack In The Box).  I still have a fond place in my memory of the cheesecake from Little Star, but last time I was there, they were out, and I've been too heartbroken to return.
Assorted Cheesecake Samples.
  • Butterscotch: Hands down favorite.  My grandmother is known for her butterscotch pie, and this tasted sooo much like it, just in cheesecake form.  Creamy, amazing flavor.  I'm dreaming about this one!  The crust had some extra salt in it, which really complimented the butterscotch flavor well (just like salted caramel).  OMG, I want more of this now.
  • Candy Cap Mushroom: Yes, mushroom.  It was really tasty, the candy caps add a beautiful maple flavor to it.  In fact, if you didn't tell me, I would have guessed it was a maple cheesecake, and I come from the land of maple syrup!  I'm sure people are scared off by the concept of mushrooms in cheesecake, but this is good.  I had this one still slightly too frozen, so it wasn't as creamy as it could have been.
  • Mint Chocolate Chip: Decent mint flavor, with actual chocolate chips embedded in it, and a chocolate graham crust. It was light and refreshing, which is a funny thing to say about a cheesecake, I know, but it really was.  It would be a great ending to any meal, and an easy crowd-pleaser - who doesn't like mint and chocolate? I would have preferred even MORE mint flavor though.
  • Pumpkin: This was a seasonal offering, around Thanksgiving.  Not the most pumpkiny flavor, but nicely seasoned, and not bad.
  • Strawberry Swirl: Classic cheesecake with a really nice strawberry jam swirled in it.  The jam comes from Inna Jam, who I've run into at a variety of artisan's events around town.  Another one that reminded me of home, as my mom is known for her strawberry jam, and I rarely like other strawberry jams.
  • Vanilla Sour Cream: Pretty creamy, nice sourness from the sour cream, and good vanilla flavor.
Read More...

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sausalito Cafe

I've been seriously craving breakfast or brunch foods lately.

Our cafe at work used to really mix things up and have a constantly changing selection of breakfast foods, but for the past few months it has been exactly the same.  The yogurt parfait bar with house made granola and fresh berries, the waffles made to order with real maple syrup, the house baked pastries, the bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese, etc, were all exciting and delightful at first, but after several months of the exact same thing every day, I've been seriously wanting a change.  I'm not sure why they stopped mixing it up.  Even the pastry team just makes one flavor of muffin and one variety of scone and they rarely change.  I realize how ridiculous and spoiled this sounds to members of the real world where you don't have a cafe providing you free amazing breakfast every day.  But this really is my reality, and I've been desperately wanting things like pancakes, french toast, eggs benedict, and other more "interesting" items.

So, when we had a long weekend for the 4th of July, I decided I was going to take advantage and go out to a weekday breakfast, something I never normally do.  Living in the Financial District, there are a slew of cafes that are open only M-F, only for breakfast and lunch.  And since I work somewhere that provides exactly those meals, I never try them.  I was really excited to check out the places that are always closed when I walk by!

Of course, because it was a holiday, pretty much everywhere was closed on the 4th, and many were closed on the 5th as well.  And I really wanted to find somewhere that served french toast.  Finding and reading the menus for every place around seemed like a very tedious task, so I let technology do the work for me.  I knew I'd be limiting my search somewhat, but I decided to only look at places that were available on Seamless.com, since it has a "food item" search.  I could select the time of day/day of week and find everywhere that had french toast, sorted by distance from my house.  Perfect.  I wasn't going to use Seamless for delivery (seriously, cold soggy delivery french toast? People do that?) but this was an easy way to filter through the options.

It turns out, not that many places offer french toast.  Being my crazy self, I cross referenced each place on Yelp.  Most were located near Union Square, clearly catered towards tourists, and got horrible reviews.  But Sausalito Cafe jumped out.  They have 3 locations in the city, all close by, but only one was listed on Seamless.  They all get decent reviews, except that there are no reviews of the french toast, as they are known for their lunch offerings the most (falafel, gyros, etc) and for their breakfast burritos.  But if the cafe got decent reviews in general, I decided it was worth checking out.

I eagerly pulled up Seamless on Friday morning, ready to place my order. Unfortunately, Seamless said they weren't open.  Oh, no!  My plan was foiled, which confused me, since I'd checked with them before to make sure they'd be open.  So I called, and ... yup, they were open.  I let them know that they weren't listed as open on Seamless, and she took my name and number, and said she'd look into it.  I didn't expect much to happen, but amazingly a few minutes later, my phone rang, and she apologized, and said that Seamless had taken them off for the holiday and forgot to turn them back on.  Fixed!

I placed my order for the french toast to have right away, along with a bagel to save for later.  Unfortunately, in the time it took to figure out the whole Seamless open or not issue, they ran out of the type of bagel I'd been wanting to try (asiago).  They nicely called me again to let me know of the problem, but I was pretty disappointed, as there weren't any remaining flavors I wanted.  The bagels  are from House of Bagels, who also provide the bagels at work, so I've had them many times, although we only get the plain flavors.  I was excited to try a new one, not just have another plain bagel.  (Side note: stay tuned for an upcoming bakery review day for House of Bagels!)

Ok, back to Sausalito Cafe.  I promise I'll stop rambling soon!

I was really impressed with the service, from dealing with the Seamless issue of being offline, to calling me when the bagel selection wasn't available, to greeting me when I arrived to pick up my order.

As I mentioned, they are known more for their lunch items, and I'm definitely interested in checking out their falafel wraps, complete with housemade hummus, or perhaps trying the breakfast burritos or pancakes.  I don't have a lot of reason to skip my free meals at work, but next time we have a holiday, and Sausalito Cafe is open, it will be at the top of my list to return to.  Or, perhaps I'll get sick enough of my same old breakfast everyday that I'll venture there on a normal workday, and, gasp, pay for breakfast :)
French Toast.  $3.99.
At the top of my list of breakfast cravings is french toast.  Now, french toast comes in many varieties.  It can be just standard white sandwich bread, dunked briefly in some batter, and barely seared, like the boring version from Soma Inn Cafe.  Or it can sound amazing, like the white chocolate french toast with roasted apples and pears from Sierra Cafe, that turned out to just be an oily flavorless disappointment.  Or it can be a bit more exciting, like the almond crusted thick sliced brioche french toast with vanilla bean cream cheese and roasted yellow peaches at the now defunct Axis Cafe.  Or it can be absolutely amazeballs like the a brioche french toast bread pudding with stewed apples and quince, crème fraîche whipped cream, and candied pecans at Baker & Banker, which is still the best french toast dish I've ever had.  The most memorable is the one from a cafe in my hometown in NH, that makes theirs from ... glazed crullers (yes, the donuts).  A serving of their french toast is literally, three full size glazed crullers, dipped into french toast batter, grilled, topped with fruit and whipped cream, served with syrup, and a side of bacon fat fried homefries.  Oh my.

Anyway, the description on Seamless for the french toast at Sausalito Cafe was devoid of any details.  Where in the french toast spectrum would it fall?  If it is just standard white bread served with nothing on the side, there was no reason to even consider it.  I know that is classic "french toast", but I find it to be kinda worthless.

Since Sausalito Cafe's version is only $3.99, I didn't imagine it had any frills.  The website had an inquiry page, so I wrote in asking, not really expecting a response.  I was amazed when they replied telling me that it was thick sliced, served with powdered sugar and syrup, along with with butter if I liked.

Sounded quite reasonable. While not brioche, thick sliced is certainly better than regular sandwich sliced.  Syrup is definitely required.  So I went for it.  But of course I did it Julie-style, prepared to spruce it up if necessary.  I brought some fresh sliced strawberries and blueberries from the farmer's market, in case I needed to freshen it up, and some toasted coconut and chopped pecans, in case I wanted to add some crunch.  I pondered bringing whipped cream, but carrying a full can of whipped cream seemed insane, and that kind won't hold up once out of the can.  I very seriously considered bringing my own maple syrup, as I thought there was a good chance that they would not be serving real syrup, but I didn't have any easy vessel to transport a small quantity in.  I do have my limits!

My order of french toast contained 4 slices.  I wouldn't describe it as thick sliced, perhaps just a bit thicker than regular sandwich bread?  It was wheat, not white.  About what I expected given the price.  But while it wasn't anything fancy, it was surprisingly well executed.  The spicing was good, with the cinnamon coming through.  It was eggy, clearly soaked a little bit, making it more interesting than regular toast, but not strangely eggy or anything.  Not burnt, not dried out, not soggy.  The back crust was a little crispy, adding a nice texture.  I was really pleasantly surprised.  This was standard french toast, but a good version of it.

As you can see in the photo, it did indeed come with "syrup" ... "Chef's Quality Breakfast Syrup" at that.  As you may recall from my IHOP adventures, I grew up with a godfather who made his own syrup, and never encountered this "pancake syrup" stuff until college.  I was pretty sad when I saw the packet, although I did pretty much expect it.  I kicked myself a little for not bringing my own.  But then I tried it.  Maybe I've been living away from the land of maple syrup for too long, but honestly, it wasn't bad.  Yes, it was flavored corn syrup.  But it was sweet, it was mapley, and it really tasted pretty great with the french toast.  I quickly put away my coconut and nuts, they were not needed.  I had a few bites with my fresh fruit, but I actually preferred it with just the syrup.  Who knew? (Seriously, don't tell any of my east coast family!)

The only thing I didn't like about it was the butter.  I'm not sure if you can see in the photo, but it must have had some pats of butter served on top of it, that melted into giant pools of butter in the container, and soaked into several of the slices.  There was far too much of it for my liking.  In some bites, all I could taste was butter, no matter how much syrup I added.  I've actually never thought of adding butter to french toast, as it oil from searing it is always enough, and I am usually soaking it in syrup.  The very top slice wasn't soaked in butter, and it was the one I liked the best.  Several of the other pieces were kinda ruined from the butter, and unfortunately, there was no saving them, as the butter had melted and soaked in.  I wish it was served on the side, or listed as an option.  When I'd asked how it was served, he did mention "butter if you like", which made me think it was something I'd have to opt into.

Anyway, while this wasn't a crazy decadent french toast extravaganza like some of the other ones I've had, I can safely say this was the best standard french toast I've ever had.  And for $3.99, it is an insanely good deal.  Just make sure to get the butter on the side.
Sausalito Espresso on Urbanspoon
Read More...

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Breakfast at Rosa Mexicano

Rosa Mexicano opened its SF location, right down the street from me, a few months ago.  I walked by many times as the restaurant being built up, and it looked swanky.  I read the initial menu and got so excited - tacos, but with scallops and pork belly!  Enchiladas, but with crab! Some of my favorite ingredients, put into a cuisine that I love for the flavors, but so often uses lower end ingredients.  It of course had price tags to match, but I'll happily pay for great food.

But then the reviews started rolling in.  They were not very good.  The only thing I saw anyone praise was the tableside prepared guacamole, and since I'm allergic to avocado, that was out.  So I filed Rosa away in the back of my mind, as a place to check back in on if I ever exhausted my endless list of other restaurants to check out.

A while later, I saw they offered brunch, featuring a mascarpone stuffed french toast with plantains. OMG.  I love a good french toast, mascarpone or other cream component is always a plus, and I'm somehow always craving plantains.  But, alas, it is served Saturday only, and I always have other plans on Saturdays.  So again, filed away in the back of my mind.

I'd honestly completely forgotten about Rosa Mexicano, until I received a very exciting e-mail.  They were trying out a new idea: breakfast, Monday - Friday.  Now, I get free breakfast at work during the week, so I rarely go out for breakfast, but sometimes, I do want a change from the norm.  And it is so close by. And better yet, they were offering a free breakfast to test it out the first week.

The menu provided stated many times that it was a sample menu, and that items would change and rotate, but it did have the french toast listed.  I was so excited.

Now, I must now give another detail: the breakfast is done as ... a buffet.  Yes, a buffet. Breakfast buffets generally have a pretty bad reputation: think uninspired hotel breakfasts, cold rubbery eggs, soggy pancakes, food that has been sitting around poorly maintaining heat for who knows how long.

I was determined to still give it a try, and figured it if was awful, I'd just turn back around and go back to my office, and enjoy something there.  And, I decided to drag myself there right when they opened at 8am, so at least I could combat the issue of food that had been sitting for ages.

I went on the second day of service.  I was greeted warmly at the front door, and handed my ticket to exchange for a plate (or togo box) at the bar.  I'm not sure what the setup will be like once they are running normal service, but I think it makes sense for the togo style to remain, so people can grab their breakfast on their way to the office.  The buffet will normally be $11.99, and includes beverages.  I exchanged my ticket for a plate, again, greeted very warmly, and made my way to the buffet line.

Overall, the food was quite tasty, far better than most buffet fair.  The flavors were where they really excelled.  If the chef can season, spice, and sauce like this in simple breakfast dishes, then I definitely want to return to try their regular food!
The Breakfast Buffet Line.
No items in the buffet were labelled, but the chef was behind the line, happy to describe any of the dishes.  In my review below, I pulled descriptions from the sample online menus.

The buffet featured 3 hot main dishes, 4 hot sides, along with yogurt and fresh cut fruit.  At the end of the line was real silverware and napkins for those staying to eat, plastic packaged silverware for those leaving.

The coffee station had coffee, a few types of tea, cream, and assorted sugar and substitutes.  One fellow patron was a bit upset that they only had cream, no skim milk for her coffee.  They had ceramic mugs if you wanted to dine-in, togo cups if you were leaving.  The coffee was astonishingly good, and I got decaf.  I almost wonder if it wasn't decaf.  I think that once they are in full swing, they'll also have orange juice and aqua fresca available.

Most folks just took their togo boxes and breezed out the door, but I chose to dine-in.  The buffet was set up in the bar area, so you just seated yourself in the bar after you got your plate.  Again, not sure how this will work when they are offering it for real, if they'd have table service, or open up the full restaurant.

One thing that was missing was any condiments.  There was no salt and pepper, ketchup, syrup, etc.  For the most part, the food was so flavorful that it wasn't necessary, but I did have one dish I wanted salt and pepper on.  I asked if there was any, and was nicely provided a set of shakers, but we all had to pass that set around, as there was only one set, and several other people wanted it too.
Mexican Breakfast! Chilaquiles, black beans, migas, potatoes, soft corn tamal. (clockwise, from top)
Sadly, the french toast I was so excited for was not on the buffet.  I was fairly disappointed when I saw the line up, all egg based main dishes.  Now, I can love a good benedict, or a perfectly fresh fried eggs, but scrambled eggs never do it for me.  Not that the type of eggs I like would ever do well on a buffet, so I didn't want those either.  I'm also not generally a fan of mexican food for breakfast, as I tend to go for something sweet rather than spicy in the morning.

That said, I was there to give it a try!  The main dishes offered were chilaquiles, migas, and an egg white burrito.

I started with the jamón con chilaquiles, "corn tortillas tossed in smokey tomatillo cream sauce, topped with scrambled eggs and grilled ham".  This is a buffet-friendly version of their regular brunch chilaquiles, which features a ham steak on the bottom, rather than chopped ham cubes on top.

I've never been a fan of chilaquiles ... why would I want soggy tortillas? And, as I said, scrambled eggs, meh.  But I have a good friend who LOVES chilaquiles, so I figured I'd try a few bites in her honor.  I'm so glad I did.  This was, hands down, the dish of the morning.  The tortillas, even though on the bottom and coated in sauce, somehow still maintained some crunch.  But it was really all about the sauce.  Just the right level of spicy, not too much for the morning, but enough to wake you up a bit.  The eggs were soft and fluffy, but I was too busy devouring the sauce soaked tortillas to pay much attention to them.  The ham cubes were on top, but I avoid them, since I'm not really a ham fan.  Did I mention the delicious sauce?  I hope this, or something like it, is offered in some of their other dishes!

Next, I moved on to a vegetarian selection, the Mexican Scrambled Eggs: "scrambled eggs with spinach, tomatoes, and jalapeños, served with salsa verde".  Again, another variation from their brunch menu, where you can add bacon, chorizo, or chicken as well.  I tried a bite of this just to give it a try, but as I said, I could kinda care less about scrambled eggs.  And, that is how I felt about these.  Very plain, although nicely loaded up with veggies.  The scrambled eggs is why I wanted some salt and pepper, as they needed ... something.  I didn't see any salsa verde as listed on the menu though, perhaps that would have helped.  My least favorite dish, would not get again.

The third main dish was an egg white burrito, filled with "herb-scrambled egg whites wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla with oven roasted piloncillo tomatoes, arugula, and queso fresca".  This is available in the same form on their brunch menu.  I didn't try it, as it really didn't sound like something I'd enjoy.  It is nice to see a light healthy option though, and I heard others remarking on that fact.

Next, it was time to move on to the hot sides.  They had refried black beans, potatoes, bacon, and something that looked like polenta.

I started with the refried black beans.  Like eggs, I kinda hate on beans.  My cafe at work has them every day at breakfast.  And at lunch.  And they use all sorts of beans, in all sorts of preparations, but I never, ever want them.  I'm honestly not sure when this happened, as I used to love refried beans, and all sorts of bean salads.  Anyway, I wanted to at least try them, so, as you can see, I took a tiny little dollop.  I wish I'd taken more!  (Side note: I'm not sure what the return trip policy is ... when you are paying, is it all you can eat? Or do you need to advance decide what you'll like?)

Anyway, the beans were the second surprise dish of the day, my second favorite overall, and my favorite of the sides.  They were soooo creamy.  So flavorful.  I'm not sure what else was in them, as they were listed just as "refried black beans".  They went perfectly with the chilaquiles too.  Would gladly get again, and hope to see featured in their other dishes.

Then I moved on to the breakfast potatoes, little cubed potatoes cooked with slivered onions.  The potatoes themselves were fairly unremarkable, but the onions had been nicely cooked down, soft, and caramelized.  I loved mixing the onions into the beans, but I'd probably skip the potatoes in the future (unless I had some ketchup or syrup to dunk them in ..).

The dish I was most interested in was the soft corn tomal.  It looked like a bowl of grits or polenta, and I've been really, really into both of these items lately.  I've been enjoying them at lunch or dinner as sides, all cheesed up with herbs, fried into cakes, or topped with all sorts of tomato based sauces.  But I've also really gotten into making breakfast hot grain porridges.  Add a ton of cheese and top with a fried or poached egg? Perhaps a little hot sauce?  One of my gotos these days.  And, being the sweets lover, I've also been making sweet versions, loaded with maple syrup, cinnamon, and sometimes nuts or fruit.

The soft corn tamal was creamy, and as you'd expect since it was a Mexican meal, spicy, with bits of chopped jalapeño throughout.  But those weren't the only bits of goodness.  There was also ... bacon!  I enjoyed this, particularly with some of the beans, or a bit of the sauce from the chilaquiles.  Without either of those elements, they were somehow a bit boring, even though loaded with spice and bacon goodness.  I really wanted some syrup to drizzle in ...

Speaking of bacon goodness, they also had bacon strips, which I skipped.  I wish I hadn't, as I later saw that they were "piloncillo bacon" ... aka, candied bacon!  Next time, I must try this.

Finally, there was some cut fruit, but since it contained watermelon, which I'm allergic to, I skipped it.  There were also cartons of assorted flavored Activa yogurts.  They normally have an interesting sounding yogurt and granola parfait on the brunch and buffet menus, so I'd be curious to see that make an appearance instead.

Overall, a very satisfying plate of food, and I'd definitely return, particularly if that french toast makes an appearance!
Rosa Mexicano on Urbanspoon
Read More...