Friday, January 31, 2014

Snapz

I'm always on a quest to discover new snacks, particularly crunchy ones.  I've got a bit of a thing for sitting on the couch munching on treats during the evening.  Usually, I wind up with assorted flavored popcorns, chips, or pretzels, but every once in a while I try to be somewhat healthier.

So I was interested in the Snapz product line,  fruit and vegetables crisps made from slices of fruit and vegetables with no added salt, sugar, fat or artificial flavors or colors."  They are all dehydrated at low temperatures, not baked nor fried.

The product line is pretty limited, only two types of vegetable chips and two types of fruit chips.  I tried all but the tomato chips, as I wasn't ever able to find them, although they sound potentially interesting.  The fruit chips were highly unremarkable, but the veggie chips were ... interesting at least.  I don't see myself going out to buy any of these again, but they were fun to try.
Premium Pineapple Crunch.
This bag of pineapple crunch was a bit deceiving.  It was a fairly small bag, but was less than half full.  I expected pineapple rings, or at least sizable chunks, but what was inside was just tiny little bits of pineapple, as you can see above.

It was ... basically just dehydrated pineapple.  It tasted like pineapple.  Slightly sweet.  But crunchy.  I could see the pineapple bits being tasty as part of a snack mix, but I wasn't really into just eating the little bits on their own.  It wasn't that they were bad, just very boring.
Crunchy Premium Apple Crisps.
I like apple chips.  I think dried apples are ok.  These were somewhere in between those two worlds, not as soft as a dried apple, nor as crispy as a chip.  They didn't really have anything redeeming about them.  I have no idea why I would ever pick these over any other type of apple: fresh, dried, chipified ... anything.  Again it isn't like they were bad, but they were a bit strange, and there was just no reason to eat them.
Premium Grilled Zucchini Crunch.
The zucchini was definitely the most interesting of the products.

None of us quite knew what to think with this one.  They tasted incredibly like zucchini, which makes sense given that they have exactly one ingredient: zucchini.  I expected a chip like form factor, but instead, they were puffy, as you can see in the one I'm holding up above.  Like all of their products, they were dehydrated somehow, not baked nor fried.  They also had grill marks on them, and there was some grilled flavor.

I think we were all more fascinated by these, than enjoyed them.  They weren't bad, but as Ojan put it, "why would I want grilled, dry, puffed zucchini?" I guess they are a super healthy alternative to potato chips when you want something crunchy, as they are only 30 calories per bag.

Some people felt these tasted a bit like seaweed.
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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Takeout from Swan Oyster Depot

If you live in San Francisco, and you like seafood, you've undoubtedly heard of Swan Oyster Depot.  One of the most famous places in the city, although along with having the freshest seafood in the city, the other thing they are known for is the epic wait.  Open Mon-Sat, lunch only.  No reservations.  Cash only.  And, it is tiny, just counter seats.

I've wanted to try their food for ages, but I haven't been willing to commit to getting there at 10am when they open, or waiting in line for hours.  Plus, lunch time, mostly weekdays, isn't when I'm ever free.  So while Swan Oyster Depot has been at the top of my list of places to try for ages, I hadn't ever managed to visit.

But I knew a less known fact.  They offer takeout.  And, I was tasked with organizing dinner for a group at work one night.  Being me, I wasn't willing to just order cold, soggy delivery pizza, and decided to treat the team to something special.

Although I knew Swan Oyster Depot was not open for dinner, I wasn't quite sure when the afternoon they closed, so I called ahead to find out.  It was 2:30pm when I called, and I was told that they don't close until 5:30pm, but that if I didn't get into line soon, I wouldn't be able to be seated.  And, yes, sure enough, when I approached Swan Oyster Depot at 3pm, there was a huge line down the sidewalk. People are crazy.

On the phone, I said that I'd be getting takeout, and I was advised that I could just walk right in.  Even knowing that I should do this, I felt a bit strange prancing past everyone, and it seemed like people were glaring at me.  Maybe I was being paranoid.  Maybe they were just bored from waiting for so long and had nothing better to do, but I certainly felt unwelcome, by the other patrons.

There is no menu online, or out front, so I had to walk in to see the menu, printed on a large board behind the counter.  I'd done enough research that I pretty much knew what I was going to order, but I wanted to be sure the menu matched what I'd read about online.  Prices were higher than I'd previously seen, but besides that, it all looked about the same.  Seafood cocktails, seafood salads, clam chowder, smoked salmon or trout.  That was about it.  Of course, there are also plenty of other items not listed anywhere, as I saw several people eating the sashimi style dish I'd read about, and I saw calamari salad in a bin in the window display area.

I took a moment to glance around and take the place in.  It was fairly fascinating.  Just a long counter, in a narrow area, each seat obviously filled.  Behind the counter were about 3 workers, all constantly moving, pouring drinks, putting salads together.  As Yelpers have noted, none wore gloves, and did seem to go back and forth between touching the seafood, money, and the register without ever washing their hands.  I choose to ignore this fact, but it was a bit disturbing.

I expected that I'd still need to wait, even though getting takeout, so I was surprised when someone immediately asked if I'd been helped yet.  I said that I wanted to make a takeout order, and he promptly replied, "ok, what would you like?"  He didn't reach for a pen or paper to write anything down, which I expected.  I figured he'd add my order to the queue, along with all of those for people seated at the counter, and I'd have a good 30 min or so wait.  Not the case.  The moment I said my first item, he started fetching it.  And so it continued for each thing I ordered.  I was shocked to say the least.  Why on earth are all these people waiting in line, when you can waltz right in, order immediately, and have your order filled, immediately?  The more you know ...

The service was really good.  I think I was asked by every single employee if I was being helped.  They really wanted to serve me fast!  The guy who did take my order was courteous and very efficient.  He asked for clarification on several items, gave me a taste of the smoked trout just to make sure I liked it, and was meticulous in putting together each dish, even for takeout.

I honestly have no idea why people wait to eat here, and I have no intention of ever doing so.  Perhaps it is part of the experience, but their takeout system is just so good, I don't know why you'd ever do otherwise.  And I'm obviously not alone; while I was getting my order, another lady came in to pick up her order which she'd called in, and another guy came in and REALLY did it right - the first thing he asked for was a glass of wine while he waited for his order to be assembled!  And he had a charge account, so he didn't have to deal with the cash-only nature.  Clearly a regular, and he did it like a pro.

Next time I need takeout during the day, Swan Oyster Depot is certainly near the top of my list, and I'd gladly return.  It also seems like a good place to just get smoked salmon or trout, or even cooked shrimp or crab by the pound.  Quality seafood, for sure.  I'm so glad I finally got to experience it, sans waiting!
Fantastic packaging!
Everything came incredibly well packaged so nothing leaked, or got sloshed around.  The sauces for each dish were in individual labelled containers.  Most impressive was the packaging of the salads.  I ordered two, so he made a tower of salads, basically, a plate with one salad, topped with another plate, clamshell-style so it wouldn't spill out, with the second salad on top of that, in the same manner.  Then, the whole thing was wrapped in butcher paper, and taped up.  It didn't budge.  When I unpacked it, it was totally unharmed.  More places could really learn from them in how to package their take out!
Sourdough bread, with butter stuck between each slice.
Each salad came with a wedge of sourdough bread this size.  I was amused by the pads of butter stuck between each slice.  Since I hate sourdough, I didn't try it.  It smelt VERY sourdough, and everyone else seemed to enjoy it.
Combo cocktail.  $12.
First, we started with a cocktail.  The choices were crab, shrimp, prawn, oyster, clam, or combination.  Since I couldn't really narrow it down, I went for the combination.

The guy preparing my order knew better than I did, and questioned my order.  He let me know that it would contain crab, shrimp, prawns, oysters, and clams, and asked if I wanted all of these things, or if I wanted anything left out.  Well, indeed, I didn't want clams or oysters.  Perhaps this is a common request?

When dining at the counter, the cocktails come in classic cocktail glasses, layered with cocktail sauce, with horseradish in little jars alongside to add in, along with lemons to squeeze over.  For takeout, I was offered to have the cocktail sauce mixed in, or on the side.  I asked for it on the side.  The cocktail was layered, starting with a generous pile of bay shrimp, then shredded crab meat, then several chunks of lump crab meat, and finally, three prawns.

The shrimp were tiny, fresh, but not that interesting.  No real reason to have them in a cocktail.  The crab was likewise fresh, and I liked how precise they were in giving a mix of both types of meat.  But again, I didn't find myself really just wanting to dunk it in the cocktail sauce.

The prawns on the other hand, were just perfect.  I didn't actually know prawns could taste this good.  I've had plenty of shrimp/prawn cocktails in my life, and generally, they just aren't that great.  Often the seafood is rubbery.  Or not well cleaned.  These were perfection.  Perfectly poached, not remotely rubbery, with a bit of snap to them.  I polished off all the prawns in no time.

The cocktail sauce is housemade, and fantastic.  I was asked if I wanted horseradish added, since I wouldn't be able to add it myself at the counter.  I said yes.  He added just the right amount to zest it up.  We were provided with far more sauce than necessary, and I may or may not have decided to drink some like it was soup.  Its totally almost just like gazpacho, right?

$12 was a great price for the generous amount of seafood included.  My favorite part of the entire meal was a prawn dipped in the cocktail sauce.  Next time, I'd probably skip the crab and shrimp, and just go for a prawn cocktail.  Or two.  But I'd certainly get it again.  Favorite dish of the order.
Calamari salad. $10.00.
Next we had calamari salad.  Not listed on the menu anywhere, but I'd seen reviews of it, and saw it on the side, so I asked for it.

Calamari, like shrimp or prawns, are also often poorly cooked and rubbery, or poorly cleaned.  This calamari suffered from none of these problems.  It was tender, not rubbery, expertly prepared.  People who have never had good calamari need to have this, to understand what it can be like!

The salad was a mix of bodies and rings, lightly dressed with olive oil, with bits of celery and red onion.  I found the red onion to be too harsh when I got a bite of it, but overall the salad was light, fresh, and refreshing.  Probably the best calamari salad I've ever had, and they even provide the very easy recipe.  My third favorite of the dishes.

The portion was about the same as the combo cocktail, $10.  For some reason this felt a bit high to me, but I honestly have no idea what I'm basing that on.
Combo Louis Salad.  $21.
Now for the item that most people seem to get, a seafood salad.  Available with shrimp, prawns, crab, or combo.  I again went for the combo, since I had no idea which would be best.  In this case, the combo did not include clams or oysters.

The salad was about as simple as it gets.  The base, shredded iceberg lettuce.  No fancy greens, no other vegetables.  Just shredded iceberg.  It was fresh and crisp though, juicy, and really did pair well with the dressing and seafood.  I can safely say however, that this was the first time I've had iceberg since I can remember ... well, probably since I had the crab louis salad at Crazy Crab'z.

I did sort of wish the salad had carrots, egg, green beans, or something else in it.  What was there was good, for sure, but very, very basic.

The seafood used was the same as in the cocktail, and again, attention was paid to the amounts of everything added.  First the bay shrimp, then the crab meat, then several chunks of lump crab meat, and 3 more prawns.  Garnished with lemon wedges.

In the cocktail, the prawns were my favorite, since they were best to just pick up and dunk in the sauce, and seemed to go best with the cocktail sauce.  Even though it was the same seafood used in this dish, my preferences on the salad were the total opposite: I didn't like the prawns as much, they were too big and clunky, and didn't go great with the louis dressing.  No fear, I just plucked them out, and dipped them in the cocktail sauce instead.  The crab and shrimp both were good with the dressing, but I liked the shrimp the best.  A bite with crispy lettuce, a shrimp or two, and creamy dressing was a great balance of flavor and texture.

Speaking of that dressing, I asked to have it on the side, and the guy preparing my order assured me that he'd always put the dressing on the side for the salad for takeout.  When dining in, you could have it on the side or on top, and I saw people ordering it both ways.  The dressing was textbook louis dressing, creamy, rich, zesty.  Bits of pickles inside for texture and flavor.  Perfect thing to have on the salad.  They also offer oil & vinegar instead of louis dressing, but ... why?  (Side note: I had extra dressing left over, which I later used to dip Utz Crab Chips in.  It sounds crazy, but it was very tasty.   Highly recommended!)

At $21, this was an expensive salad, but the portion of seafood was generous.  My second favorite dish.  I'd get it again, but I'd be tempted to get just shrimp or crab, and I do wish the salad had a little bit more going on.
Smoked Trout.  $10.75.
I wanted to get something besides just shellfish, and I know they are known for their smoked salmon.  I asked about it, but was told that they were out of it.  Doh.  But he did mention that they had smoked trout too, so I said I'd like some of that.

I'd already said I wanted it, when he offered me a taste, just to be sure.  It was flaky, and oh so smoky.  One of the more intense smoked fish I've encountered.  Very good!  He also suggested that I order it by the pound, rather than in the preparation that they use at the counter (atop buttered bread), since that wouldn't hold up well.  I took his word for it, and just got a fillet.

A good snack this way, and I could easily see myself stopping in to get smoked salmon or trout to have with a bagel and cream cheese, or otherwise as part of a breakfast spread.  Far better than anything you'd get at the grocery store.

My least favorite thing we had, but only because it was just smoked trout, not a real dish.
Swan Oyster Depot on Urbanspoon
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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Clio Restaurant, Boston

I recently visited Boston on a business trip, and I was determined to have great food, even though I was traveling solo.  My first night, I went and got very good sushi at O Ya, seated at the sushi bar.  It worked well, as a sushi bar is a less awkward experience for a solo diner.

On my second night, I decided to go high end, even though I was alone.  I normally dine at cafes, casual places, or seated at the bar when I'm alone.  The thought of getting a table for one was a bit daunting.  Would I look lonely? Would others stare at me?  I decided I didn't care.  I wanted great food, and, in particular, being outside of California, I wanted foie gras.

I did a bunch of research, and picked out Clio.  The menu sounded amazing.  I wanted it all.  They had a bar area, but I didn't want to risk not being able to get a seat at bar, or having a long wait.  So I made a reservation.  Table for one.

Spoiler: this was one of the best decisions I've made all year.  I had an absolutely wonderful meal, perhaps even my top meal of the year.  Even more notably, it wasn't just the food, which was phenomenal, it was the entire dining experience.  Clio delivered on all fronts.

Clio is headed by Chef Ken Oringer, who owns several restaurants around Boston (including Coppa, where I visited on my last trip.  I wasn't very impressed at Coppa, but they had run out of uni for the signature dish that night, which is why I had gone there in the first place).  Chef Oringer's accolades are numerous: he competed on Iron Chef against Cat Cora and won, and he is a James Beard Winner for Best Chef Northeast.

On the sweets side, the pastry chef, Monica Glass, is also well known, having won Food & Wine's Best New Pastry Chef Award.  And Clio is one of Gourmet Magazine's Top 50 Restaurants in the US.  So, I went into it with some expectations, and even with those high expectations, Clio blew me away.

Clio is one of two restaurants located inside the Eliot Hotel.  The other restaurant is Uni Sashimi Bar, which was actually the other top contender for my pick of sushi the night before.  Actually, I had wanted to go to Uni over O Ya, but once I decided on Clio, I decided to go to O Ya to mix it up a little.  Luckily for me, Clio decided to treat to me to a few dishes from Uni as well.  They far surpassed anything I had at O Ya the night before, which is saying something, because the sushi from O Ya was quite good.

But back to Clio.  The ambiance and decor put me at ease immediately.  It was upscale, but comfortable, smaller than I expected.  There was a bar where I could have dined, although it was fairly small.  I found out later that if you dine at the bar, you can order from either Clio or Uni, which sounds like a seriously winning combination.

Seating was a mixture of padded benches and chairs, with mostly small tables.  There were living room style lights everywhere, which created a warm, cozy glow, albeit a tad bit dark.  I apologize for the lighting on my photos below.  There were live plants everywhere, larger ones throughout the room, and a small one on each table.  Also on my table was a small candle.

I felt so comfortable, that my worries over my dining alone quickly vanished, and I settled in to narrow down my choices for what to order.

Of course I had done some research beforehand, so I knew what was on the menu, and I had a pretty good sense of what I wanted.  But I had a conundrum.  Since I was dining alone, I wouldn't have anyone to split dishes with, and I'd just come from a work event with food throughout the afternoon.  I wasn't starving, and the dishes I most wanted were the appetizers and the desserts.  I wanted almost ALL of the appetizers, narrowing down to just one would be impossible.  So, rather than order a main, I decided to order two appetizers and a dessert instead.

The service matched the ambiance, comfortable, yet polite.  Upscale, but not stuffy.  I enjoyed chatting with my server between dishes, and she did not treat me as a solo diner strangely at all.

I absolutely cannot wait until I get a chance to return to Boston to dine at both Clio and Uni again, particularly Uni.  Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed Clio, and I'd actually like to eat there again too (and this time get a main dish too!), but I think I'd pick Uni first.  Or, I'd sit at the bar, where you can order a bit from each.

I'll be back.  And if you live near, or visit Boston, you should go too.  I endorse this as my top recommendation of the year.
House Sourdough, Butter.
To start my meal, I was brought a basket of bread and butter.  The bread unfortunately was sourdough.  I am a horrible San Franciscan, in that I just do not like sourdough.  But since I live in San Francisco, it means that pretty much every restaurant I go to serves sourdough.  So I try it all the time.  I try to like it.  But I don't.  I laughed inside when the server told me this was their house sourdough.  Even in Boston, I can't escape it!

If I liked sourdough, I would have liked this.  It really was good bread.  A crisp crust, moist interior, great crumb.  It was slightly warm.  The butter was delicious.  I may or may not have had just a few bites of the butter (with large salt crystals sprinkled on top, of course), just to enjoy it.  Quality stuff.  If only it wasn't served with sourdough.

Fear not, I had plenty to eat during this meal, and didn't actually miss the bread in any way.

I was struck by the presentation of the bread, as it echoed the entire feel of the restaurant, and set the tone for the rest of the meal.  The bread was in a burlap sack, a bit rustic in appearance.  This mirrored the comfortable, homey style of the wooden tables and the candles.  But the butter was served on a slab, arranged precisely at an angle, elegant, like the highly refined dishes that would soon be coming my way.  This pairing somehow managed to make one feel comfortable and at ease, yet upscale at the same time.    
Amuse Bouche Trio: Arugula Financier, Olive Madeleine, Chicharrón.
To start, I was brought not one amuse bouche, but instead, a trio.  Each highly unique and fascinating.

The first was an arugula financier, topped with a goat cheese emulsion and crispy pork.  The financier was moist and flavorful, although if blindfolded, I'm sure I would have never guessed it was arugula.  Even though I don't care for goat cheese, I loved the idea of the savory version of a financier, and I thought this was quite good, although the crispy pork was a bit lost.  My second favorite of the amuses.

In the middle was another savory play on a classic cake, an olive madeleine, topped with an olive oil emulsion.  Like the financier, it was moist and incredibly flavorful.  In this case, there was no mistaking the olive.  Lovely flavors.  The olive oil emulsion was less successful, it was a bit ... slick.  It coated my tongue in a slightly strange way.  But the cake was so good I didn't care.  My favorite of the amuses.

Finally, there was a chicharrón, topped with a sweet onion and cider puree, pickled peanuts, and a slice of apple.  There was a lot to figure out in this bite!  The chicharrón was crunchy and a nice contrast to the softer financier and madeleine, but it was a bit too oily for me.  The puree was very sweet, and the cider flavor was just a bit too strong and dominating.  The pickled peanuts were just fascinating.  This was going somewhere, but the balance of the components wasn't quite right.  My least favorite.

Overall, I thought each of the three amuses were really interesting.  They were unique, thoughtful, well composed.  Each one left me with something to think about, yet by the end of the meal, I had largely forgotten about them.  Solid, a good lead up to the meal, but none that I loved.
Cassolette: Lobster, Sea Urchin, Parsnip Milk, Candied Lemon.  $21.
I was really on the fence about ordering the cassolette.  Unlike the rest of the world, I'm just not in love with lobster.  Sure, I like lobster, but at least in San Francisco, I'd take Dungeness crab over lobster any day.  And I obviously love uni, but I had an insanely large portion of it the night before at O Ya, and I was a bit burnt out on it.  So, when I was trying to pick just two dishes, why would I pick this?

For starters, I knew it was one of Clio's signature dishes.  It has been on all sorts of lists of iconic dishes.  A variation of it is what Chef Oringer made on Iron Chef America when he beat Cat Cora.  Yelpers rave about it.  Chowhounders rave about it.  But, I knew it wasn't entirely my thing.

So I asked the server about it.  She encouraged it, saying that it was a unique dish, and pointed out that when on the east coast, I should have lobster.  But what really convinced me is that she also mentioned that it was Maine uni, and that Maine uni could be really different from what I was used to on the West Coast (primarily Santa Barbara or Mendocino).  She was a recent transplant from California herself, so she was speaking from experience.  And, the uni I'd had the night before at O Ya was indeed still Santa Barbara urchin.  Just for research purposes alone, I DID need to try Maine uni!

So I ordered it.  It was a beautiful dish.  So hard for me to show off what was inside, but at least you can see how visually appealing it was.

The top layer is a parsnip milk foam.  Light, frothy, and well, quite fun.  Foams and other techniques like this can often be too overdone, but as a top layer for what was essentially a bisque, it really did create a light, playful, mood.  The foam itself didn't have much flavor, but it served its purpose well.

On top of the foam was crispy shallots, which were as delicious as they should be, and long chili threads.  The threads were not successful for me.  As they fell into the soup, they sorta resembled wet hair.  There was something about them kinda sticking together and to the bowl that was actually a bit gross to me.  Certainly nothing that ruined the dish, but I do think it would have worked better with something else instead.

Down below the foam was the main body of the dish.  It was made from parsnip milk like the foam, but instead of being airy, it was thick and creamy.  Filled with chunks of uni and lobster.  I had at least four decent sized chunks of lobster in my bowl, all quite nice, although one was a bit chewy.  I didn't regret getting the lobster.  There was an equal amount of uni as well, strongly flavored.  Due to the other flavors in the dish, I can't say that I really got to appreciate the subtleties of the difference of the uni.  It almost made me wish I'd gone to the sister sashimi bar, instead.

Overall, everything sorta worked for me with this dish, except ... the base of the soup. It was just too sweet.  I'm someone who always finishes up every last drop of things, particularly sauces, but instead, I found myself straining my bites of lobster and uni out of the soup, as I just didn't want the broth.  I still can't pin point exactly what it was that was off for me.  Something was just out of balance, and it wasn't just the sweetness.

I was a little bit sad as I put my spoon down.  I'd agonized over which dishes to order, and I knew this wasn't exactly what I wanted, but it seemed like the dish I should order.  And, it really did not satisfy me.  Like the amuses, it was unique, but didn't quite do it for me.  I told myself that after the other dish I ordered, if I was still hungry at all, I'd just order something else to make up for this.  It turns out, I'd have no need to do such a thing, as you'll soon see.

At $21, this was a fair price, as it contained generous chunks of prime ingredients like lobster and uni.  I wouldn't get it again however, and have a hard time recommending it.  Maybe something was just off in my batch.  It was my least favorite dish of the night.
Hon Hamachi, Two Ways.
After my cassolette was cleared away, I was a little surprised when I saw chopsticks placed in front of me.  I worried for a moment that my server thought I'd decided on a different dish, as I had told her I was trying to decide between a raw sashimi style yellowtail and yellowfin tuna dish, and the cassolette.  But, I'd picked the cassolette, and already received it, so I had a moment of terror that she thought I'd picked the sashimi style dish over the foie gras, the other dish I order, which, was NEVER a question!  Then I figured it must just be some type of intermezzo between my courses.  So I relaxed.

But then, a new server brought out this dish.  It was clearly not my foie gras.  Nor was it intermezzo sized.  My heart sank.  I'm not the type that would have said anything had the server made the error I feared she had.  Maybe I could just order the foie after if I was still hungry.

Anyway, once the server set the dish down, I looked up a bit quizzically.  He smiled, and told me this was a dish that the chef from Uni wanted to send my way, since he heard that I had been thinking about ordering the yellowtail dish from Clio.  The Clio dish was just a simple crudo of yellowtail and yellowfin tuna, but this was something else entirely.

He explained that not only did the chef want me to enjoy some yellowtail since I'd expressed interest in it, he wanted me to get both the loin and the toro, so he created this dish to showcase each.

It was suggested that I start along the outside rim, with the loin, and then move on to the belly in the center of the dish.  It is hard to see the scale in this photo, but that plate was huge, and along the rim was actually 6 full slices of the hamachi sashimi, arranged in pairs in three mounds, and in the center, was another 4 slices of the belly.  This was a full platter of sashimi, incredibly high quality, beautiful, hon hamachi.

I started with the loin.  Each pile contained two thick, meaty slices of the hamachi, with a tiny dollop of red shiso, and candied jalapeño.  The jalapeño wasn't really spicy, but created a familiar combination of flavors, as I've had many a "spicy hamachi" roll in my day.  The truly unique thing here however was the banana glass.  Yes, each of the little piles had a piece of banana glass placed on top.  It was obviously very crunchy, and intensely banana flavored.  Like banana candy.  Incredibly interesting.  And, it turns out, that banana and hamachi do work together really well.  Very, very interesting, and the quality of the hamachi was evident in every bite.

I moved on to the belly.  It was arranged as four smaller slices, drizzled with black truffle vinaigrette, and topped with crispy pork bits.  The hamachi toro was luxurious.  Again, the quality of the fish was incredible.  The vinaigrette was a bit too oily for me, it seemed strange to add oil to an already fatty fish, but the flavor was fantastic.  The crispy pork bits were the same as from one of the amuse bouches, just more plentiful this time, and they worked far better here.  I wouldn't ever think to essentially crumble bacon on top of raw fish, but, well, it worked.

This dish was obviously totally unexpected.  Since I had been very seriously tempted to order the other dish, and I didn't love the cassolette, I was thrilled to receive this one.  It seemed as if each course was just getting better and better.  This dish ended up ranking second to last for me, which gives you a glimpse of how much better it was going to continue getting, as I'd gladly eat this again.

I later looked up Uni's menu online, and found that each of these is offered as standalone dishes, for $18 and $20, respectively.  Those prices sound right, perhaps even low for the truly impressive quality of the hamachi, although I'm not certain how many pieces would come in those orders.  As this was delivered to me complimentary, um, obviously, it was an incredible value.  I still can't quite get over how much extra sashimi they brought me!
Spicy Tuna & Foie Gras Tataki.
But even more amazingly, it didn't end there.  My sashimi platter was cleared away, and ... more chopsticks were placed in front of me.  At this point, I was rather full.  I'd decided to order only two appetizers since I wasn't that hungry, and I wanted to save room for dessert.  And I was still eagerly awaiting my foie gras.  After all, I can get good sushi in California, but I can't walk into a restaurant and order foie ...

The same server from Uni returned soon after with yet another plate of sashimi.  I think I looked a bit alarmed at this point.  He told me not to worry, that the chef at Uni also wanted me to enjoy some of the yellowfin tuna (the other fish used in the dish I had decided not to order).  I said something like "phew, I was a bit worried there, because that didn't look like the foie gras I ordered", and he laughed and said, "well, there is some foie here for you ..."  He explained that not only should I enjoy the tuna that I had obviously wanted to order, I should also have some foie to ease into my upcoming larger foie course.

As he said those words, I actually looked at the plate in front of me in more detail.  OMG.  There in front of me, were 4 beautiful slices of yellowfin tuna tataki, each topped with an individual slice of seared foie gras.  All thoughts of being too full vanished from my head, as I tuned back in to what the server was telling me.

Two days later, I still can't find the words to describe this dish.  These were four of the best bites I have had all year.  And, it wasn't just because of the foie.  I've had plenty of foie.

The yellowfin was truly phenomenal.  If I thought the hamachi was incredible quality, this was something else entirely.  So flavorful, perfectly rare inside yet with an even sear on the edge.  I could have eaten just the tuna as plain sashimi and been thrilled (and in fact, I did of course try a bite without the foie in order to really taste the tuna).  It could stand alone with the top sushi I've had anywhere, no problem.  But then, each slice was topped with a perfectly seared hunk of creamy La Belle Farm foie gras.  Wow.  To quote Gordan Ramsey, "Wow, wow, wow".  No, seriously.  I laugh whenever he says that, but truly, I don't have any other words for this one.

I thought that the foie would be too rich and mask the flavor of the sashimi, but it wasn't.  Or I thought that hot seared foie on top of rare, cold tuna would be strange.  But ... no, it just worked.

The sauces on the plate were an aji amarillo and a goat cheese emulsion (like from the earlier amuse).  Since I knew already that I didn't care for the goat cheese emulsion (no fault of the emulsion, just my aversion to goat cheese), I skipped that, but I loved the heat that the aji amarillo sauce added.

Seriously, this tuna, with the seared foie, dipped into the aji amarillo sauce was one of the most perfect bites ever constructed.  Hot and cold, light yet rich, creamy, just ... awesome.  There were also a few cubes of compressed apple atop each slice, but I didn't notice them much.  I have written in my notes that the salt level in this dish was good.  I have no idea what I was referring to.  On the tuna? On the foie?  I'm not sure.

In my notes, I also dubbed this a fun play on a "spicy tuna", except with real heat from the aji amarillo, creaminess and richness from foie instead of mayo, and of course, very high quality tuna to start with. So nothing at all like what we most commonly encounter as "spicy tuna".  I was thus very amused when I looked up the Uni menu online later and found ... "Spicy Tuna & Foie Gras Tataki" listed.  Guess I wasn't unique in my thinking!

Anyway, this was an incredible dish.  Best of the evening, and, I think, quite possibly, my best of the year.  I am so, so, so happy the chef sent this my way.  I'm still not sure why he did.  But I am thankful, and cannot wait to return to Boston to dine at Uni, where this dish is normally offered for $22.  Again, not sure what the portion is then, but for quality tuna AND foie, in one dish, that seems totally reasonable.
Foie Gras Laquée: Milk & Honey, Piquillo Jam, Pickled Hon-shemejis.  $22.
At this point, I wasn't just full, I was stuffed.  And my foie had yet to arrive.  But I was on cloud nine, and didn't really care about the slightly uncomfortably full feeling that was creeping in.  There are times when eating way past the point of being full is totally justified.  And when the food is this amazing, it is one of those times.  I knew that even if I wound up feeling awful later, I wouldn't regret it.

When my "real" foie gras course arrived, I took a moment to just admire it.  Perfectly seared foie gras is such a thing of beauty.  This was a generous hunk, expertly seasoned, a great sear on it, and just so creamy and perfect inside.  I wanted to sigh with happiness with each bite.  I also wanted to never return to California again.  Seriously, why can I not enjoy this at home?  Each bite reminded me of just how amazing foie gras can be.

As you can probably tell from the photo, this was yet another intriguing dish.  Let me walk through the components.

Acidity was brought to the dish in the form of two pickled items: cornichons sliced in half and tiny hon shemeji mushrooms.  Both served the purpose of adding just that hint of acid against the foie, and were super flavorful on their own, but didn't compete with the foie.

Sweetness came in the form of pulled honey.  Yes, the component on top that you probably couldn't identify is pulled honey.  It reminded me slightly of the banana glass I'd seen in the earlier dish, in that it was essentially a candy element.  What it really reminded me of was the sugar honeycomb I enjoyed while in Australia and New Zealand.  Very sweet, but with a slightly burnt undertone.  I'd gladly just munch on it as a candy, and it was perhaps the most unique way I've ever seen sweetness brought to a foie dish.  You always need something sweet on the plate, or in your glass, to go along with the foie gras, but I've certainly never had a candy like this before.  My one complaint is that it was a bit difficult to eat, as you had to break it apart, and try to get a little with each bite of the foie for the "perfect bite".  But, if you took the time to compose such a bite, with a slice of foie, a chunk of pulled honey, and one of the pickles, and then you ran it through the piquello jam for a tiny kick of heat ... the reward was worth it.  A bite like that just had it all going on.  Rich, sweet, tart, creamy, crunchy, everything.

This was a very, very good dish.  I slightly preferred the tuna and foie, just because there was a bit more going on, but this was certainly the best foie focused dish I've had all year, and was obviously my second pick of the night.  I'd order it again in a heartbeat.

At $22, the price was right for a generous portion of foie, and expertly crafted pairings.  This dish really exemplified what great foie gras can be like!
Intermezzo: Frozen Ginger Parfait.
And finally, it was time to move towards dessert.  If I hadn't already ordered the kouign-amann, there is no way I would have ordered dessert at this point.  I was beyond full, and honestly, I was completely satisfied.  If you've ever dined with me, you know how rare it is for me to be willing to skip dessert.  I'm a serious dessert girl!

But, I'd already ordered the dessert, and quite honestly, given how much extra food had been sent my way, I would have felt ridiculous not spending more money.  So, onward I charged.

But of course, we wouldn't move straight to my dessert.  The intermezzo from the tasting menu was delivered to me first.

In front of me I found a frozen ginger parfait.  The top layer was sake sorbet, with frozen ginger underneath.  Alongside was creamy avocado mousse, circular chunks of asian pear, wasabi masago, and more ginger.

This was very refreshing, and everything an intermezzo should be.  I loved how it worked as a palette cleanser for both of the dueling sizes of my meal, tying in the sushi aspects through the use of ginger and sake.
Kouign-Amann: Hazelnut Gelato, Vermont Crème Fraiche, Smoked Salt.  $13.
And then ... my dessert.  I was confused when it arrived, featuring the words "Happy Birthday!" written in chocolate, with a lit candle.  The server who brought it to me wished me a happy birthday.  I wasn't sure what to do.  Should I say something?  Would that be more awkward?  It wasn't my birthday.  But perhaps that explained why I received the extra dishes?  Did they think I was a sad person dining alone on my birthday?

I quickly blew out my candle, silently wished myself a happy birthday, and dug in.

Now, if you haven't ever had a kouign amann in your life, you need to stop reading now, find somewhere that offers one near you, and go get it.  Your life will not be the same.  I'm not entirely sure when I first had one, it was certainly in the past 5 years or so.  There are very few places that make kouign amanns, and probably fewer that make them well, so they are a rare treat.  I know cronuts are supposed to be the ultimate in treats like this these days, but I'd still pick a kouign amann. (Yes, I know that Dominique Ansel's bakery also makes the DKA, and that you can even get a hamper full of them, which I'd totally do if I lived in New York!)

Normally, I'd have a kouign amann for breakfast (yes, a very guilty breakfast, but a breakfast nonetheless), paired with a coffee.  Or, perhaps as a mid-afternoon snack.  But always as a pastry with coffee, not as a dessert.  So while I was familiar with kouign amanns, I wasn't really sure how they'd turn one into a dessert.

It came cut in half, each piece turned on its side.  Like any good kouign amann, it was basically a flaky, delicious croissant, except one that was ridiculously caramelized on the outside.  And, in this case, it was warm.  It was a thing of beauty, yet somehow, it wasn't quite what I wanted.  Maybe I was just too full.  Maybe I still couldn't quite see a kouign amann as a dessert.  I'm not sure what was wrong with me.  I could recognize all of the technical merits of the pastry, I knew I should adore it, yet I only ate half.

It was a bit hard to eat as a formal dessert.  Due to the intense caramelization on the outside, it was hard to cut into.  Yet, given the other elements on the plate, it certainly didn't seem like finger food. I wanted to just pick it up and bite into it, but that didn't seem appropriate.  So I struggled with cutting off individual bites, and tried pairing them with the other elements of the dish.

I dug into the other components individually, as well as with the kouign amann.  First, there was a quinelle of hazelnut gelato.  It was delicious.  At first I thought it was salted caramel, not hazelnut, except it was not as cloyingly sweet as most salted caramel ice cream.  It had more of the burnt caramel flavor rather than the over the top sweetness.  This was necessary to balance the sweetness of the exterior of the kouign amann.  I think the gelato must also be where the smoked salt mentioned in the description of the dish was.  I eat ice cream/frozen yogurt/gelato on a daily basis, so you'd kinda expect that when I was this full, the last thing I'd care about is just more gelato, but this was really quite good.  The only downside is that it was already fairly melty when it arrived, and it melted down further within moments.  If I'd been sharing the dessert, or if I was actually hungry, I'd also think that there wasn't nearly enough.  That one quinelle wasn't nearly enough to pair with the large kouign amann.

The crème fraiche slathered under the crumble was also good, a creamy component, and one that provided some tang, again, something besides just sweet that can overrule desserts.

The crumble was brown butter and hazelnut, and didn't look like much, so I expected to try one bite and move on.  I also didn't really know what to do with crumble and the kouign amann together.  But, the gelato, plus the crumble, plus the crème fraiche, was a delicious combo.  Like I said, I ate half the kouign amann, was tormented by the fact that I didn't love it, tried it with all the other components seeking the dream pairing, but I couldn't find it.  But what I did find, was just eating everything else, like it was an ice cream sundae, was totally delicious.  Full as I was, I had absolutely no problem finishing up every last drop of everything else on the plate.

But you know me.  It isn't like I was going to throw out the other half of the kouign amann.  Of course not.  Instead, I just brought it home with me.  I knew it was a good pastry, and that I'd be thrilled to have it in the morning with a cup of coffee.  Although I couldn't imagine eating another bite at that moment, I could dream about how glorious it was going to be in the morning.  It reminded me of my last meal at Cyrus before it closed, where they sent every diner home with a kouign amann for the next morning.

And, indeed it was.  In the privacy of my hotel room the next morning, I was able to just eat it with my hands, alongside the coffee I brewed in my hotel supplied coffee maker.  It was amazing, just as I recognized it should be the night before.

So, while this didn't work as a composed dessert for me at the restaurant, I was perfectly happy with the end result.  I had a delicious gelato sundae to finish my meal AND a perfect pastry for a treat for breakfast.

For $12, the price is a bit high for a dessert, but I know how much work goes into making a kouign amann, even if it just looks like a simply pastry.  And, given how many extras were thrown into my meal, there is no way I could possible say I didn't get an amazing value.

Speaking of which, when my main server returned at the end of the meal, she saw the Happy Birthday message on my plate, and asked, "oh, it is your birthday too?" I admitted to her that no, it wasn't, and that I wasn't really sure how that happened.  And then she figured it out.  She said that when she put in the request for the intermezzo, she rang it up using a birthday code so I wouldn't be charged for it, and that must have mistakenly got passed along.  Aha!  I felt much better, because I certainly hadn't mentioned a birthday or anything anywhere.
Chocolate Bon Bon.
But wait, there is more!  I missed the description of this, but I think it was an orange liqueur bon bon.  It was placed on a plate that must have just come out of the dish dyer, as the plate was hot.  And, chocolate placed on a hot plate does one thing ... it melts.  So when I tried to pick it up, it was somewhat fused onto the plate, in a half melted state.  Whoops.  It wasn't like I felt the need for the chocolate anyway, so I gave up on trying to separate it from the plate, and left it behind.  So sorry, this review is incomplete :)
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Monday, January 27, 2014

McDonald's Seasonal McFlurries

You may recall that a while back that I ventured a land familiar to most Americans, but not one I'd stepped inside of for many years.  Oh, yes, I went to McCafé, or, ok, McDonald's.

I didn't have the food, but I had pretty much all of the drinks, ranging from classic coffee, cappuccinos, and hot chocolate, to sweeter things like caramel mochas (hot or iced), to full on dessert drinks, like frappés and shakes.  I can't say I loved any of them.

But McDonald's has always had decent desserts, particularly the ice cream creations.  And I usually eat ice cream every day, at my office, and found myself with a serious ice cream craving going on when I was visiting my family in New Hampshire, and had gone a whole two days without ice cream.  So when I saw a seasonal special for the Pralines & Cream McFlurry, I couldn't resist checking it out, mostly for curiosity purposes.
Pralines & Cream McFlurry, Snack Size.
"Silky reduced fat soft serve vanilla ice cream mixed with candied praline pieces and swirled with our hot caramel topping."

I don't know the last time I had a McFlurry.  I'm pretty sure I was in high school.  But I did have an McDonald's hot fudge sundae last summer when I was traveling.  The ice cream wasn't horrible.  And something about this seasonal offering just jumped out at me.  I love caramel.  I love pecans, particularly candied ones.  So I tried it.

I was a little blown away at first.  It was crazy sweet.  I needed some water or something to cleanse my palette after the first bite.  But I continued on, determined to understand it better.

It was really well mixed.  They have this technology down.  And I love the ice cream + sauce + crunchy bits concept.

The ice cream was the same as in the sundae, just plain vanilla ice cream, pretty creamy.  But it was very, very soft and melted, even though I received it immediately after it was made.

I didn't know the caramel was supposed to be "hot".  It surely wasn't when I got it, but I think it was when it was applied to the cold ice cream.  As my ice cream was very, very melty.  The caramel was super super sweet, but, it was caramel, and I like caramel.  There was a generous amount of it.  Too much of it actually.

The candied praline pieces however were not successful.  I loved the crunch they added.  And as I said, I really like pecans.  But I honestly would have believed you if you told me there were no pecans in these "praline pieces".  They were just sweet.  But not in a good way.  I couldn't stand them.

Overall, the concepts behind this were all solid, but I wouldn't get another.  I would however consider getting another McFlurry at some point ...
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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ghirardelli Chocolate

I do a lot of chocolate tastings.  As such, I've reviewed many of the small local chocolate makers, along with some of the bigger producers.  I've held off on reviewing Ghirardelli because they are so big that they don't really count in my mind as a local producer, but their chocolate factory sign is an iconic piece of the San Francisco waterfront so ... I'll go with it.

I've mostly only tried their signature squares.  Since I never intended to publish a review on them I didn't take notes on most of the varieties I tried over the past few years, so this is a fairly short review.

Overall, Ghirardelli is good for mainstream chocolate.  It isn't amazing, but its certainly better than Hershey.  Some of the creamy, milky squares can be satisfying when I'm really in the mood for that sort of thing, but their dark chocolate is not very complex or interesting.  I don't really see a reason to buy their chocolate, but I wouldn't be offended if someone gave me some.

As always, subsequent tastings are denoted inside brackets.

Squares

  • Peppermint Bark Square: Tasting notes: These used to be my favorites.  Available only around the holidays.  Milk chocolate bottom, white chocolate top with peppermint layer.  [ Not as pepperminty as I recall, but still decent ] [ Kinda meh.  Milk chocolate isn’t anything special, white chocolate is just there, not that minty] [ Pretty sweet and mostly white chocolate] [ Nothing good here really, just crappy chocolate and not very intense peppermint. ] [ Very forgettable.  Milk chocolate isn't creamy, nor flavorful, just ... there.  Would be better with dark chocolate.  White chocolate also isn't creamy, and the pieces of peppermint aren't very abundant, making the entire thing not very minty.  Meh. ]
  • Milk & Caramel Square:  "Milk chocolate around gooey caramel center".  Tasting notes: pretty mediocre milk chocolate, caramel filling way too sweet and not complex. [ Mediocre, generic chocolate, gooey, kinda boring caramel ] [ Creamy but totally generic milk chocolate, just sweet oozy caramel.  Better than Hershey calibre chocolates, but certainly not high end.  ]
  • Milk & Hazelnut Crisp Square: “Decadent hazelnut filling with delicate rice crisps, surrounded by rich milk chocolate.”  Tasting notes: Unremarkable.  Just standard milk chocolate around a crunchy hazelnut filling.  The milk chocolate was not creamy.  The filling had a good hazelnut flavor, and the rice crisps added a good crunch.
  • Milk & Truffle Square: Tasting notes: very creamy milk chocolate, “filling” is pretty much the same as shell.
  • Sea Salt Soiree Intense Dark square: “The luxuriously deep and velvety dark chocolate in Sea Salt Soiree is infused with bursts of sea salt and roasted almonds delivering unrivaled chocolate intensity.”.  Tasting notes: Mediocre dark chocolate, few bits of almond, not very good.
  • Sea Salt Escape Square: “Milk chocolate with sea salt and roasted almonds”.  Tasting notes: Creamy milk chocolate, nice little crunch from tiny bits of almond, decent salt level on finish.
  • Pumpkin Spice Caramel Square: "Luscious caramel infused with spices and pumpkin, enveloped in velvety milk chocolate." Tasting notes: Seasonal special.  Creamy milk chocolate, slightly spiced very gooey caramel filling.
  • Dark & Raspberry Square: "Delectably luscious raspberry filling made with real fruit surrounded by intense dark chocolate."  Tasting notes: I did not like this at all. The dark chocolate was very mediocre.  The raspberry filling was ... nasty.  It was strangely thick, and seeds in it, and was just not well flavored.  Would not get again!

Truffles

Caramel Meltaway, Dark Toasted Coconut, Soft Toffee Truffle. (Clockwise from Top)
These were all part of the Signature Collection box of truffles.
  • Dark Toasted Coconut: Sweet coconut filling inside a dark chocolate shell.  The coconut was not flakes exactly, but it was grainy.  Not really enjoyable.  There were also a few coconut flakes in the chocolate itself.
  • Soft Toffee Truffle: Milk chocolate coating, sweet filling that had an off taste to it. Not toffee-like at all.  Almost burnt, but not quite.  Just not good.  Stale tasting?
  • Caramel Meltaway: Milk chocolate shell, creamy filling, again, did not taste good at all.  Stale?

Ice Cream

They also have a big ice cream shop with decadent sundaes.  When my sister last visited, we went to get one.  I was disappointed since I thought they'd have amazing hot fudge, but the ice cream was good.
  • Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream: Decent mint flavor, but pretty standard ice cream.
  • Nob Hill Chill Shake: They describe this as a drinkable sundae, made from vanilla ice cream, their hot fudge, and then topped with chocolate chips.  It was really delicious, with a great chocolate flavor, and I loved the crunch from the chocolate chips on top.
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