Friday, August 05, 2016

Lilly's Family Foods

Lilly's Family Foods is a snack food company based in Long Island.  They've been in operation since 1976, when they started as a health foods store.  They make assorted snacks like dried fruits, nuts, trail mixes, and other snack mixes, generally sold under several different brands: Elizabeth's Naturals, Joseph Xavier Find Foods, Robert's Gourmet Treats, Rita's Pure Earth Organics, and Mary's Snacks To Go!

I found their goods in the funniest of places: at BJ's, in my hometown.  My mom needed to pick up supplies for a BBQ with the extended family, and wanted to grab a few things from BJ's.  She asked if it was ok to stop on our way home from dinner one night since we were nearby.  She apologized about dragging me there, promising it would be fast.  Little did she realized that BJ's would be a wonderland to me.  I haven't been in a place like that in ... years.  I was fascinated by nearly everything.  I also couldn't believe how inexpensive everything was (particularly compared to San Francisco prices).  In the end, she was the one dragging ME out of there.

Anyway, at one point, I found the snack foods section, and was overjoyed.  I love snack foods.  It didn't matter than my mom had tons of homemade treats at the house.  Her shopping cart quickly filled with items like veggie chips and other exciting looking nibbles.  At one point, I was standing there with like 4 different snack products in my hand trying to decide which one to get, trying to not buy ALL the things, when my dad pointed out a mixed party platter of snacks.  I think he was joking, as it was a huge platter, clearly for sharing.  Or, for, uh, me.

I loved my platter, and promptly told my mom that I have a new request for the agenda whenever I come visit: visit BJ's, and try more snack foods.
 Lilly's Family Foods Party Bowl.
My party bowl had 4 items in it, each in their own compartment, plus a center compartment filled with extra wasabi peas.  It was fairly remarkable that they items didn't spill from one compartment to another, there was only very minimal mixing.

The items, in order of my preferences (least to favorite):
Wasabi Peas.
The wasabi peas were the style that I don't actually love.  They were ... too wasabi for me.  As in, too much wasabi coating, too strong.  They were fine, but, just not the style I like the best.
Sweet & Salty Pub Mix.
I love snack munchies in general, but, snack mixes are my absolute favorite.  I really love picking through snack mix and eating a bunch of one item, then a bunch of another, and another.  It makes you wonder why I care that they are all mixed together in the first place, but, well, I do care!

This mix had a number of different items: little pretzel rods, cajun sticks in two varieties, flax seed corn chips, peanuts, sweet sesame sticks, and candied nuts.

I didn't care for the pretzels, as I never really like pretzels, and the plain peanuts were a bit boring (they did have a bit of cajun spice on them), but, I liked all the other spicy, savory items and the sweets.  The cajun stick things were ok, not remarkable.  The flax seed corn chips were my favorite, surprisingly, as I don't like flax.  They were a good size, and I loved the saltiness.

The sweet sesame sticks and the candied nuts were both good, I liked having the sweets mixed in with the salty.  I'm not 100% sure these were different from the honey roasted sesame sticks and the butter toffee peanuts included in the other compartments, but, they seemed to be.  The peanuts in particular I think were just honey roasted, not butter toffee'd.

This was fine, and I enjoyed it, but, I actually like the AA lounge snack mix better.
Honey Roasted Sesame Sticks.
The honey roasted sesame sticks were very solid.  They were just standard sesame sticks, although sweeter than many.  Good to munch on, nice crunch, lots of sesame flavor.  Better than the similar sticks I bought at the fancy grocery store in town earlier in the week.  Next time, I'll just get these!
Butter Toffee Peanuts.
These were just super sweet, glazed, crunchy peanuts.  They had so much coating on them, and were well coated.  Sure, perhaps they were my favorite because they were the sweetest, but, I loved just munching on them by the handful.  They'd also be great chopped up and thrown onto an ice cream sundae.
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Thursday, August 04, 2016

Saffron and Rose Ice Cream

Saffron and Rose Ice Cream is a mom and pop ice cream shop in the LA area, specializing in Persian ice cream.  Their shop sells many flavors, including a few for the American palette like chocolate, but also more interesting flavors like pomegranate, cantaloupe, cucumber, and of course their namesake saffron and white rose flavors.

The place gets amazing reviews: 4.5 stars on Yelp with nearly 1000 reviews is no easy feat!  And there is a reason, they take quality and ingredients seriously.  The milk used is organic, hormone free whole milk.  The rose water is homemade.  They use high end spices.  Everything is made in small batches.

But, I haven't actually visited the shop.  Ojan's mother picked up a container of this as a treat for me on one visit, since she knows I like sweets, and their family does not normally have any around.  It was certainly the most successful treat she has ever gotten for me.  Yay for ice cream!
Saffron and Rose Container.
The container had farsi and English on it, describing their craft.
The contents!
And inside, the goods.  This looked quite unexpected!

Bright yellow from the saffron.  Studded with chunks of white cream.  Flecked with pistachios.

The texture of the ice cream was really unique.  It melted very rapidly, like gelato, except for the giant chunks of cream of course.  They melted more slowly.  I think this must be Persian style to have those large chunks not incorporated?

It was a bit too sweet for my preference, a bit too strong from the rosewater.  It was also a bit too floral.  But the texture was awesome, and it was a unique flavor for me to try.

I think it would be even better with a refreshing flavor paired alongside to cut the sweet ... I used whipped cream.
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Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Alden & Harlow, Boston, MA

In July, I took a trip to the east coast to visit my family in New Hampshire and enjoy the summer weather.  Ojan also traveled at the same time, to Boston, to visit his family, and then to our Cambridge office to meet with co-workers.  I was not on a business trip myself, but, decided to tag along and work from that office in order to extend my summer just a little bit longer.  And to crash his outing with his co-workers, of course.

Since I visit the Boston area about twice a year, I have a list of places I'd like to dine, ranging from family-friendly options (like Area Four, where we went with his family and kids the night before) to returning to my favorite higher end Clio.  When Ojan started planning with co-workers, I suggested a few places from my list.  Many were met with "ooh, yeah, that place is great, but we were there last week", while others had their shortcomings pointed out.  I really loved this response; it validated some of my choices, keeping them on my list, and demoted others.  But, moreover, it meant that they cared.  They know the Cambridge area food scene.  This was exciting to me.  And, one person suggested a place that wasn't on my list.  It should have been.

So I trusted my local guides, and we set off to Alden & Harlow, near Harvard Square.  Trusting them was an excellent decision.  The food was very good.  The menu was full of fascinating choices, that somehow all worked even if they sounded odd, and were well prepared using innovating cooking techniques.  The cocktail program was solid, even including mocktails for Ojan.  The service was prompt and thoughtful, I frequently saw the wait staff pause for a moment before approaching us, waiting for a natural pause in our conversation.  They even took the time when bringing out dishes to state that "This dish is safe for the allergy", referencing my watermelon allergy.  It felt a bit silly by the 5th time or so, but, really, it was appreciated.

I normally introduce a restaurant by describing the style of cuisine, but, I'm not quite sure how to do that here.  Alden & Harlow serves ... modern American cuisine?  But, tapas style?  But not really tapas, just, all designed as share plates.  It was a format I loved, since I really like trying many things, and hate committing to just one appetizer and one main dish.  They make everything they can in-house, and source locally.  The place would fit right in in San Francisco.

Alden & Harlow is open for dinner nightly, and brunch on the weekends.  Our visit was for dinner, mid-week, but I would love to return for brunch too.

The Setting

Inside-Outside.
The setting was beautiful.  We were seated in an area near the front entrance of the restaurant, off in a little side room with only 5 or 6 tables, all underneath a glass roof.  It was bright and open, and felt like we were outdoors, while still in air conditioned bug-free comfort.

The area that wasn't under the glass had big wooden planks on the ceiling, a rustic, yet refined touch.  The walls had exposed brick, again, slightly rustic, but not in a grubby sort of way.  I failed to get a photo of the lights, but they were housed in decorative cages, almost sculptures or art works themselves.

The seating was quite comfortable, with cushy padded benches along the exterior, and substantial chairs on the inside.

The atmosphere was casual and inviting, a perfect match for the style of cuisine.  The restaurant was actually much bigger than this, broken into several other sections, but, I didn't explore the other areas and was really quite pleased with our location.
Place Settings.
The tables were an elegant dark wood, sans tablecloths or place mats, but we did have cloth napkins.

Since the entire menu is designed to be shared, we were provided medium-sized share plates to start.  Every dish arrived with its own serving utensils.
Second Set of Plates.
We were advised to order ~2 dishes per person, and since we had a group of 4, that meant 8 dishes.  I tried to encourage the group to go a bit lighter, since I also wanted dessert, and I knew how large the portions were, but, everyone was so excited about the menu that we wanted all the things.  So, 8 dishes we got.  We were not able to finish everything, and certainly would have been fine with 6 dishes (or even less, really), but, then we would have needed to make harder choices.

Our meal was coursed out by the kitchen, arriving in waves, starting with the lighter 5 dishes, before moving on to the more substantial meat-heavy final 3.  In-between the two waves, we were provided clean plates and silverware, and real knives to deal with our upcoming cutting needs.  It wasn't necessary to swap our plates, but, I had accumulated some random sauces and discarded stems, so, it was appreciated.

Drinks

Once seated, we were offered still or sparkling water, both house filtered.  I really appreciate this, as I love sparkling water, but kinda can't handle coughing up $8 a bottle for water imported from the other side of the world.  There is just no need for that.

Our party was split, 3 of us opting for sparkling, and one for still, and somehow the staff never got it confused, even though they didn't use the telltale technique of different types of glasses, and numerous different people stopped by to keep our water glasses full.  I still don't know how they pulled this off.  Anyway, our water glasses were kept full without being invasive, and, I drink a lot of water, so they certainly had their work cut out for them.
Drinks Menu.
This entire menu was drinks.  Let's just say it was extensive.  The right column was all wines by the glass, including orange (?!) wine. The middle column was beer, both bottles and on draft.  But my eye was on the far left column, the cocktails.

The cocktail menu is broken into several categories: "liquid diamonds", stirred, and shaken.  The variety of alcohol and liquors used was huge.  Many had vegetable elements, like corn, beets, and cucumber, or fruit, like strawberries, rhubarb, and cherries, or herbs, like chamomile, dill, and spruce.
Paper Mache. $12.
"Bourbon, Leopold Aperitivo, AH Bitter, Brown Sugar, Lemon."

Picking a cocktail to start was hard, but, in the end my appreciation for bourbon won out, and I went with the Paper Mache.  It was a bitter concoction, with a generous amount of their housemade bitters. The lemon came through on the finish, kinda cleaning up behind the stronger bitters. While the description said it had brown sugar, there really wasn't much sweetness to it at all.  As a reference point, I am sure Emil would have liked this drink.

But I liked it too.  I wasn't in the mood for a fruity, sweet thing, hence, my pick.  It also meant I didn't drink it too quickly, and it was the perfect sipping cocktail while we settled in.  Oh, and it was frothy on top, from the shaken preparation.  I liked the froth.
Non-Alcoholic Menu.
Ojan asked me if he should even bother trying to get a mocktail, as usually when he does, he just gets a glass of sweet juice, which is rarely what he wants.  Since the cocktail menu seemed so strong, I encouraged him to ask.  When he did, the server said that they even had a mocktail menu, and came back with it moments later.  A separate menu is always a good sign.

One of the mocktails was the "Raincheck", a modified version of the "Purple Rain", usually made with gin, roasted beets, dill, lemon, Swedish Punsch, & egg whites.  The name really was quite cute.  But the Rain Check, while dropping the alcohol components, also dropped the egg white.  Ojan loves frothy egg white drinks, so he asked if they could do a version with the whites, or, if the bartender didn't think that would be good, suggested any mocktail, not too sweet, that would work with egg whites.
Raincheck + Egg Whites. $8.
"Roasted beets & dill, lemon, agave."

The bartender was happy to whip up a raincheck and add the frothy whites.

This was a pretty interesting mocktail, certainly not sweet.  The lemon and beets together were quite tart.  Honestly, it felt healthy, and more like a juice cleanse sort of drink, just with fun froth on top.  

It isn't what I would have wanted to drink with my meal, but it was certianly interesting, and certainly not just fruit juice.

Savory

Savory Menu.
As I mentioned, the menu is not split up into classic appetizers and mains.  Everything is share plates, although they do range in size.  Like the drink menu, it was extensive, with about 30 options.  And, I kinda wanted them all.  Seriously.  Most of the time when I visit a restaurant it is easy to rule out many items, and generally 1-2 things jump right out as clear choices, but here, besides the rabbit and quail, there is literally nothing I didn't want to try.  Of course, there were items I was more excited about than others, but, all sounded fairly fascinating.

The first section of the menu, in a box on the left side, is "snacks", which are supposed to be smaller plates, for $8.  I expected these to be much smaller than they really were.  We opted for one of them, and it was still quite large.  Next the menu moves into some lighter options, including crudo, pate, and lots of salads and vegetable choices.  Things get a bit more substantial as you move across the menu, moving into items like softshell crab, pastas, and fish, before the final column of heavier meats.

The box on the left, the snacks, clearly separated the smaller plates.  But then, randomly on the rest of the menu, were two more boxes, each calling out a single item.  One was grilled romanesco and the other crispy bok choy.  I have no idea what the significance of these items was.  And since the menu changes daily, it isn't like they were daily specials.  Amusingly, the boxes served to make us ignore items, rather than draw attention to them.  When one member of our party suggested the bok choy, the rest of us all said, "what, where?"

Anyway.  It was hard to pick only 8 dishes from the list of 30.  I had done my research, and I knew one dish I really wanted, so, that was a definite.  Others had a few token dishes they were most excited about.  So our first 4 choices were very easy, basically, everyone had a favorite in mind.  From there, we had to negotiate.  I think the hardest decision was which of the salads to get.  Which I realize sounds strange, but, really, the salads sounded amazing, including the "Ubiquitous Kale Salad" that had I had read many raves about, or their spin on Caesar with escarole, fried smelt, and grilled lemon, or even the Trumpet and Duck Tongue salad, with roasted trumpets, aioli, ricotta salata, and pickled fruit.  We settled on a different salad, as the others had stronger preferences than I, and it turned out to be one of my favorite dishes.
Complimentary House Pickled Sesame Green Beans.
Once we finally ordered, we were provided with a complimentary bowl of pickled green beans.  I thought this was a fun snack to start with, and far better than standard offerings of bread baskets, or, a little amuse bouche.  We could eat them at our leisure, and, they really did help get me into the meal.

I really liked the pickled beans, which surprised me, as I'm quite partial to the dilly beans that my great aunt and mother both make.  These weren't the same style, they were more tart and vinegary, but the texture was perfect with a slight snap still (I hate soggy pickled veggies!), and I liked the touch of the crunchy sesame seeds (and I think a drizzle of sesame oil?) on top.

Overall, very good, and I found myself going back for more and more, even though we had an onslaught of food coming.  The acidic pickled nature also helped compliment the first few dishes.  My third favorite dish of the meal.
Crispy Chickpea Panisse. $8.
"Salsa Verde, Anchovy & Caper Aioli."

Three minutes later, our selection from the snack menu showed up.  I was actually more drawn by a couple of the other snacks, like the chips and "three-onion dip", since I love chips and dip and enjoy trying nicer versions than classic Lipton mixed with generic sour cream, or the green garlic and cheese fritters with pickled ramp aioli, because, fried and aioli are hard to turn down.

But instead we got the crispy chickpea panisse, at another diner's suggestion.  I think Ojan was as surprised as you may be that I said yes to this one, as I hate chickpeas.  However, I do try to force myself to keep trying things I don't generally like, and environments like this where we are sharing so if I don't like it it is fine, I'll just have more of something else, are a great opportunity.  Also ... I'll admit, "crispy" sounded promising, and I was pretty sure this was going to be more like polenta than chickpeas really.  Also, um, aioli.

The order came with three disks of the crispy chickpea panisse, which was, as I had hoped, more of a polenta like fried cake than anything resembling chickpeas.  Yes, it was made with chickpea flour, but I certainly didn't taste chickpea.  Interestingly, two of the disks were much thinner than the top one.  I'm not sure if this was intentional, as normally don't you want everything the same size for ease of cooking?  But, it did create two different experiences of the cake, one with more creamy interior than the others.  I thought the textures were great in both versions, the inside super creamy and moist, and the outside crispy and seared.

Also on the plate was salsa verde, underneath the patties, and anchovy and caper aioli in dots along the side.  The salsa verde was kinda oily, but, it did offer fresh herbyness to compliment the creamy aioli and fried cake.  The aioli was fantastic.  It was strongly flavored, and I loved it.  The capers and anchovies, salty, briny, and quite flavorsome, really did shine through.

On top was a garnish of fresh pea tendrils, hinting at the kitchen's use of fresh vegetables.

I genuinely enjoyed this dish, and I'm quite glad we ordered it.  Crispy fried things with fantastic aioli?  Yes, please.  It was my third favorite dish that we ordered, and yes, I went back for seconds, of a dish I didn't even think I wanted.  One other diner rated it their top dish.  I'd gladly share it again.

Since this was considered a snack, it was only $8, and an incredible value.  It also made me fearful that we had definitely ordered too much food, since this was dish 1 of 8, and, it was supposed to just be a little snack to start us off!
Grilled Cavolo Nero & Fennel Salad. $12.
"Pickled Peppers, Pecorino, Green Garlic Pangrattato."

Two minutes after our snack was delivered, so was our first dish, our salad pick.  I rarely order a salad in a restaurant, but I was craving some veggies.  I had been traveling for nearly 6 weeks at this point, and, well, my body was feeling it.  I wanted greens, so, I, of all people, am the one who suggested we order a salad.

As I mentioned, there were a number of great sounding salad options, and I wanted all of them more than this one.  But ... the others seemed most interested in this one, so, I went for it, again, thinking that we were ordering enough stuff, so if I didn't really care for it, no real loss (although ... that kale salad with pistacho dressing and honey sure sounded different, and I do really adore trumpet mushrooms from another ...).

This was a massive salad.  When the mountain of salad was presented to us, I really starting fearing how much food we ordered.

So, what did we have here?  Yes, a huge pile of kale.  Unlike many kale salads though, this kale was grilled, and left in large pieces.  Normally with this kind of kale, you chop it up small and massage it to handle the tougher texture.  The kale was fascinating.  It was really smokey, the grill managed to impart a ton of flavor onto the kale.  Yet, it stayed fresh and crisp.  I hadn't ever seen anything like it before.

The fennel was also grilled and studded throughout, along with some spicy pickled peppers.  The peppers added little pops of red color underneath the mound of green, and a nice kick.

On top was the cheese and panagrattato, aka, bread crumbs, and lots of them.  I took one of the first servings, so I wound up with far more bread crumb than I really wanted.  My fault I guess, but, they did make it hard to evenly distribute.  It was fun to have bread crumbs rather than just croutons, as it achieved a similar taste, but, with a totally different eating experience.

Overall, a really different salad, and it was certainly interesting.  My notes say, "Huh, surprisingly good".  I was having a lot of those moments, and we were only two dishes in.  I really appreciated the grilled, smoky flavors, not something I am used to finding in a salad.

My forth favorite dish of the night.  I don't think I'd get it again, just so I could try something else, but, it certainly wasn't bad and it was a crowd pleaser.
Chicken Liver Pate. $14.
"Grilled Radish, Basil Oil, Salt & Vinegar Chicken Skins."

Alongside the salad, literally 15 seconds later, was our third dish, the chicken liver pate.  Our table was full now, with the green beans, giant salad, panisse, and now pate with a separate side plate of crostini.  I spoke up, voicing my concern over the onslaught, and our server said not to worry, that this was it for now.  It really was good pacing, giving us a table full to eat from, and the reassurance that things would slow down for a bit was good.  Plus, 3 of the dishes were cold items anyway, so we didn't need to rush to eat them.

The pate was a dish I suggested, as I like a good pate.  The presentation was ... interesting, and while clearly deliberate, not actually very visually appealing.  The pate was smeared on the plate, in a crescent shape, with chunks of cooked radish, basil and chives, and cooked peaches laid on top, with a few chunks of crispy chicken skin sticking out.

The pate was very rich, and I didn't like the flavor at all.  It was creamy, but, the flavor just didn't work for me at all.  I didn't really understand the radish either, a strange somewhat bitter compliment to the already bitter pate.  The peaches helped bring a little sweetness.

The salt and vinegar chicken skins I was excited for, and they were crispy, but, fairly lost in the dish.

Overall, this one fell down for me, my 7th pick overall, and I clearly wouldn't get it again.  No one else rated it very high either, but, they did mostly finish it.  I was more than happy to just go back to the other items, again, a surprise given that I picked this, and had little interest originally in the others.
Pickled Verril Farm Corn Pancakes. $15.
"Buttermilk, Maple, Shishito."

We had a very short break from new dishes arriving before moving into the slightly bigger plates.  The corn pancakes hit our table 8 minutes after the pate, and we still had plenty of all of the first dishes remaining.

Now, let's back up a bit.  This dish was the dish that convinced me to come to Alden & Harlow in the first place.  While the menu changes daily and with the seasons, I had seen something like this on the menu for quite a while.  And it sounded totally crazy.  And like all things I love.  Just, um, in a crazy way.  I had no idea what on earth to expect, but, I knew I needed to try it.  The moment we sat down, I made it clear that we were ordering it.  No one opposed.

It is no secret that I have a popcorn fetish, my favorite of all snack foods.  And I love pancakes (although, um, obviously usually for breakfast or brunch).  But, I can certainly say that I never imagined them on the same plate.  And, when the plate was presented, a "WTF?" did certainly go through my head.

There was house cultured buttermilk yogurt on the bottom of the dish.  Three crispy corn cakes.  Seared shishito pepper alongside.  Maple syrup drizzled over all of it.  And, um, popcorn.  Lots of popcorn.  What *was* this dish?

I'll tell you what it was: delicious.  I don't understand it.  I don't know how it worked.  But, wow, it did.

The pancakes were crispy fried cakes with whole kernel corn inside.  I guess the corn was pickled, but I didn't really taste pickling directly.  Maybe it helped keep the kernels crisper?  The cakes weren't really "pancakes" in the traditional sense though, no real batter and bready component.  They were very good, nicely crispy.

And then shishito peppers, grilled, and like the kale we saw before, smoky.  They were tasty.  And, corn and peppers do go together well.  Those elements I could make sense of.

The buttermilk yogurt and maple syrup were interesting sauce choices, but, they worked.  The yogurt wasn't tart, it just added a creamy component, and the maple accented everything in a way I didn't expect.  Plus, well, it was pancakes, you are supposed to have syrup with your pancakes, right?

A chunk of the slightly sweet and crispy corn pancake, with a bite of smoky shishito pepper, dragged through the creamy buttermilk and maple was truly a culinary delight.  You had so many flavors and textures all at once, and, for me, the sweet, savory, and salty trifecta was perfect.

Which brings us to the popcorn.  As I said, I do love popcorn.  And, the parallel of the popped corn and corn in the pancake was a fun one.  But ... popcorn with the cakes?  It was a bit odd, I'll admit.  And it didn't entirely work, the popcorn got a bit soggy from the maple syrup.  But ... maple drizzled popcorn really is delicious.  I couldn't really find a way to eat it all as one bite with the other components, but, I was pretty happy to just eat the other parts, and then munch on all the remaining popcorn.  We were supposed to eat the popcorn with forks?  That seemed hard.  But, picking it up with my fingers gave me sticky fingers.  Not that I mind sticky fingers, but, a bit awkward.

Anyway, this dish was crazy, but it worked, and I loved it.  Loved it, loved it, loved it.  My favorite of the night, hand's down, and I'd get it again in an instant.  It was also Ojan's favorite.  You can be sure that I took more than my share of this one.  A different version of the corn pancakes is also on the brunch menu, sans peppers and popcorn.
Charred Broccoli. $13.
"Butternut Squash Hummus, Bianco Sardo & Cashew."

And one minute after the pancakes were set down, so was the next dish: broccoli.  We had to frantically move things around and try to finish up some other dishes to make room.  This was our 5th dish, plus the crostini and beans, so we had a very full table of plates.  I was also pretty full at this point.  Not stuffed, but certainly fearing how I was going to find room for all the remaining larger dishes, and dessert ...

Anyway, the broccoli.  The menu gave us many choices for greens, including all the salads, and the two boxed items, crispy bok choy and romanesco.  One of the snacks was also a broccoli dish, grilled and served with burrata and pickled fresnos.  When another diner suggested the broccoli, that is the dish I thougth she meant, and I said sure.  Broccoli sounded boring, but, burrata!  It turned out she was suggesting this other broccoli dish, with hummus.  Remember what I said about chickpeas?  Yeah.  Meh.

But, of course I tried it.  It wasn't very exciting.  Yes, smoky, charred broccoli, but, we already had that smoky flavor in the kale salad, in a way that was more interesting to me than just large stems of broccoli.  The hummus was very creamy, and it too had a smoky nature to it.  And on top was a crumble of the cheese and cashews.

This was a fine dish, but far less interesting than everything else we had, and, given how much we had still to come, and the table full of other things I liked more, I only tried a bite and moved on.  My 6th pick of the night, above the pate since the flavor was at least something I did like.
Crispy Baby Bok Choy. $14.
"60 degree Egg, Walnuts, Hot Colatura & Garlic Dip."

Finally, we had a break.  It took us a while to finish off most of the previous dishes.  While we still had some of them remaining, we were brought out our fresh set of plates and silverware.  A few dishes we sent away, choosing to move on without finishing them.  10 minutes after the plate reset, and 25 minutes after the broccoli, the food began again, with our crispy bok choy.

This was a bit of a random pick on our part.  We had plenty of other greens, but, this was one of the dishes in a box, and we decided to get a boxed dish, just because.  They must have been calling attention to it for some reason, right?  I think we also were all a bit curious what it would be, and why the egg was a 60 degree egg.  Yes, a 60 degree egg.  I really, really appreciated the fact that I was seated at a table with people who would notice, and care, that the egg was a 60 degree egg.  Most wouldn't understand why this was novel to me.  Our dining mates however had a sous vide at home, so, they knew.  63 degrees (or usually more like 62.8) is how I normally see sous vide eggs, the temperature most folks consider perfectly poached.  This would be less cooked.  We speculated that it would form more of a sauce and coat the bok choy?  And what would crispy bok choy be anyway?

"Wow, that lookstotally crazy", was the words out of one diner's mouth as it was placed in front of us.

Like the salad, the mound of bok choy was totally insane.  And, as promised, it was crispy.  I think it was fried, although, this dish too had some smokey qualities that I really liked.  And yes, it was really just whole chunks of fried bok choy, the thicker areas stayed a bit succulent, but the rest, super crispy.  I loved the texture and flavors.

Underneath it all was the colatura and garlic dip, basically, a green puree (that might have had more bok choy in it?), with amazing flavor too.  The colatura (anchovy oil) really helped amp it up.  On top was some kind of walnut crumble.

Oh, and then the egg of course.  I don't have an egg porn picture, but, as expected, the yolk was just barely cooked, and easily spilled out over the boy choy, giving it a luxurious coating.  I could have done without the egg, as I'm just not really one for eggs most of the time, but, it was fine.

This was a pretty fascinating dish, but also, it was really delicious.  Again, more fried, more crispy, and more creamy, flavorful sauces.  We had a fair number of fried dishes (the panisse, the corn cakes, this), but, none of them felt very heavy.  We were getting our greens too!

Another great mix of flavors and textures, another dish that was really interesting, and my second pick of the night.  One other diner ranked it first.
Crispy Berkshire Pork Belly. $16.
"Torched Cherry Viniagrette, Smoked Anson Mills Grits."

Four minutes later, we got into the meat, starting with the pork belly.  This was the dish that Ojan asked us to order, and is another dish that stays on the menu in some form.

I was totally stuffed at this point, and wanted more and more of the bok choy, so, I actually skipped the pork belly.  It looked like pretty standard pork belly, kinda fatty, and, I just wasn't feeling it.  And yes, I loved the bok choy that much, that I passed over pork belly for it.  Let that absorb in.

I did try the grits though, and they were fantastic.  Super rich, super creamy, and, yes, somehow had a smoky flavor to them too.  I started to wonder if liquid smoke was in the kitchen's arsenal.

The cherries were also tasty, sorta pickled.  The cherry and grits combo was a nice one, and I suspect they went nicely with the pork belly too.  On top was a pea tendril garnish like we saw with the panisse, bringing in a hit of freshness and lightness.

If I hadn't been stuffed, I certainly would have had more of this, and I did really like the grits.  My 5th pick of the night.
Secret Burger. $16.
"Our 8oz House Creekstone Grind, Your Faith, House Made Roll."

Our final savory selection was the "Secret Burger".  Apparently this is a thing at Alden & Harlow, as they are made in a very limited number each night, and the toppings change out every day.  The menu gave us no description, but, normally the server would tell you what was on it.  Except our locals, regulars, asked about it the moment our server came over, asking if any were still available.  This was long before we even started looking at the menu, but, the server asked if we wanted to reserve one right then.  I said I didn't really care about the burger, because, well, it was just a burger, and the least interesting thing on the menu to me, but, the others all wanted it, so, we reserved it.

The burger was our last dish, and it arrived about 5 minutes after the pork belly.  This dish was also a bit of an outlier on the menu, as everything is share plates, and this is, well, a burger.  A full size burger, with a giant plate of chips.  Ooph.  We certainly didn't need this dish.

I tried a chip. It was just a chip.  House made I guess, but uninteresting.

I tried a bite of the burger, which one member of our group valiantly cut into 4 chunks.  We asked for medium rare, and it was, but, somehow it wasn't juicy.  It had a giant cheese frico on top, and some greens.  There was also a secret sauce of course.  On the side were really tart pickles.  I found nothing extraordinary about this burger, and totally don't understand the hype, nor the reason they limit it.

I certainly wouldn't get the burger again, my least favorite dish, but, it was Ojan's second favorite, even though he too was really full at this point and had consumed tons of burgers on this trip.  To each their own.

Sweet

As you know, I'm a dessert eater.  In my world,  every meal ends with dessert.  Yes, that includes breakfast, but at least after breakfast I'll keep it simple and just have a chocolate or something (well, most of the time).  But after this meal, I was tempted to not get dessert.  This is such a rare feeling for me, that I didn't know what to make of it.  First, I was just totally stuffed.  That alone isn't that rare, and I do always still go for a sweet treat to finish off.  But I was also just totally satisfied.  I wasn't wanting more.  I had so many good dishes already, that I really could walk out right then and not feel like I missed out.

The others felt the same way.  We were all so full.  Still, I wanted to see what I'd be turning down, so I asked to see the dessert menu.
Dessert Menu.
Unlike the other menus, the dessert menu was very small. Maybe it is normal for folks to be stuffed here and not want dessert?

Literally only three choices, plus cheese. The rest of the items on the dessert menu were coffee, tea, and uh, liquid dessert.

Like the regular menu, this menu had a random selection called out in a box, oil oil cake, with lemon curd, meringue, caramel, and sunflower seeds.  I don't like olive oil cake or lemon curd, so, that was easy to pass up.  The other items were the smoked chocolate bread pudding that is always on their menu, and a sweet corn spooncake, with black raspberry mousse, hazelnuts, and pink peppercorn honey.

Neither of these options jumped out at me.  Well, I do love bread pudding, but, I try not to eat chocolate in the evenings.  Some components of the spooncake sounded fascinating, but, when I asked what a spooncake was, the server told me it was just cake served as a big scoop.  Hmm.  I'm not a cake girl.

In the end, we decided to get the bread pudding, using the logic that with 4 of us, we could all have just a little bite, and, Ojan was pretty interested in the salt ice cream that comes with it.  Yes, *salt* ice cream, not salted caramel, just, salt.

So we ordered it, only to be told that they had a freezer problem, and didn't have any salt ice cream.  Instead, they were serving it with salt whipped cream.  Given how on the fence I was about ordering any dessert, let alone this one, that seemed like a good reason to just skip it, and I suggested doing so, perhaps switching to the spooncake.  But, everyone else was still game for it, so, we got it.
Smoked Chocolate Bread Pudding with Salt Whipped Cream. $9.
The smoked chocolate bread pudding has been a menu staple at Alden & Harlow for years.  You know how much I love warm desserts served with cold ice cream (or, ok, whipped cream), so this was right up my alley (sans the chocolate part of course).

Except, well, I'm really particular about bread pudding.  I love bread pudding, sweet and savory, but, only when it is a specific style.  I like a crispy top and moist inside.  I like distinct chunks of bread.  Bonus points for using brioche, croissants, or other interesting bases.

This one wins points for being served hot, fresh out of the oven, in its own little cast iron (much like the skillet cookie we had at Area Four the night before).  But that is about all the points it won from me.  It was the style of bread pudding I just don't care for, a solid, dense mass, no distinct chunks of bread, no crispy top.  More like a cake really.  It was really smoky, which was fun, but, also, at this point in the meal, I already had a number of smoky dishes, so that wasn't novel.

The whipped cream was, well, whipped cream, with some salt on top.

I don't feel like I can really evaluate this dish for what it was supposed to be, as they didn't have the salt ice cream, and that seems like a necessary component.  Whipped cream just isn't the same.  It also was just the style of bread pudding I dislike, but I know others find totally acceptable.

So, it fell down hard for me, but, some of that was just preference, and some of that was the freezer misfortune.  Still, I do get the impression that desserts are not their strong point.
Alden & Harlow Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Main Cabin Dining on Virgin America

Update Review, Summer 2016

Another day, another flight on Virgin America from Boston to San Francisco (or, vice versa).  This is the route I always take to visit my family.  As a Silver member, I got upgraded to Main Cabin Select, so I was able to sample some food for free.

Normally I'm not particularly excited about domestic airline food, as it is all sandwiches and salads, but, I've had some really good salads on Virgin America flights in the past.  Sadly, this was not one of those times.
Ginger Chicken Soba Noodles. $8.50.
"Grilled sliced chicken breast, soba noodles, julienne red bell peppers, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, sliced scallions, edamame soy beans, sliced English cucumbers, cilantro sprig, and ponzu ginger sesame vinaigrette."

Since I didn't want any of the sandwiches, and had good luck with salads in the past, I went for the salad, even though it contained chicken, an ingredient I loathe.

The garnish on it was amusing, a very substantial sprig, er, branch, of parsley extending the entire length of the tray.  Seriously, wat?

The chicken portion was 3 slices of rather scary looking chicken.  Scary in how ... fake it looked.  All white meat, with perfect grill marks that looked painted on.  Really ... fascinating.  I didn't try it.

The soba noodles were really mushy and all stuck together.  And kinda dry.  The veggies were all unremarkable. Shredded carrot, slices of red pepper, chunks of cucumber and mushroom, too much green onion, more parsley.  None of it was very good.

The dressing on the side was a solid mass, thick and gloopy.  It seemed to be oil and lemon?

I really didn't like anything about this salad.  The woman next to me also ordered it, took a few bites of hers, and said, "Wow, this is kinda awful, isn't it?"

Clearly not a winner.  Neither of us really made a dent in our salads, and our flight attendant didn't seem surprised when she came to collect trash and we both tossed them.  I didn't even bother try to get Ojan to try it.  I can't imagine anyone would find this appealing.

Update Review, Summer 2015

I've reviewed the food served on Virgin America several times, so, I'll skip all general intro this time around.  Please go read my other reviews of the Main Cabin dining from December 2013 and December 2012 below if you are interested, or, about my First Class experiences, and then return here for the latest updates.

The following are my reviews from several flights over the summer of 2015, don't worry, I didn't eat all of these on one single domestic flight :)

Sandwiches

Veggie Wrap
"Lemon cilantro tortilla with black rice, farro, edamame bean salad dressed with soy yuzu vinaigrette, roasted slivered almonds, edamame hummus, roasted red peppers, sliced cucumbers, arugula lettuce, and cilantro leaves."

I know, I don't like sandwiches.  I don't like rice.  I don't like edamame.  I don't like hummus.  But ... there really was nothing on the menu I wanted.  They got rid of the salads, which I really did enjoy.

Plus, the description said "soy yuzu vinaigrette", which did sound promising.

I didn't know the wrap would come with a mini fruit cup on the side, but that was the highlight.  A single grape, some fresh enough pineapple, bits of mango, and a single strawberry.  Awesome fruit? Nah, but it was fine, and I particularly appreciated the mango.
Veggie Wrap: Inside!
The wrap however, had nothing redeeming in it for me.  I never tasted any soy, nor yuzu, which was the only part I was looking forward to.

The whole thing was really quite dry.  The tortilla wasn't dried out at least, but the fillings were all just sooo drying.  No creamy sauce, just hummus.  And all the grains.  Dry, dry, dry.

I never should have ordered this, as it clearly wasn't going to be something I liked.  I'll say the good parts: the cucumbers were crispy, the roasted red peppers quite flavorful.  But ugh, not my thing.  I wish they would bring back my salads!  At least it was only half a wrap?
Roast Beef and Cheddar Sandwich
Ojan ordered the roast beef sandwich on his flight a few days prior, and told me he didn't like it (I wasn't with him to steal a bite!), but, alas, I was still hungry after the lackluster wrap.  So, I didn't heed his advice, and ordered it anyway.

I was surprised when it arrived, as it was a full size sandwich, two halves.  I thought that it would be like the veggie wrap and just half a sandwich.  Whoops.  I wasn't THAT hungry.

It didn't come with fruit salad on the side like the wrap, but instead included a small Dean and Deluca chocolate. Even better!
Roast Beef: Inside.
"Ciabatta bread, mesclun mix lettuce, sliced roast beef, mild cheddar cheese, sliced Roma tomato, sauteed pepper medley, balsamic glaze, and lowfat mayonnaise."

Ojan warned me that the sandwich was horrible.  He said the bread was soggy, the meat bad.  I didn't quite agree.

Ok, so the bread wasn't good.  It wasn't soggy exactly, but it surely wasn't good.  "Ciabatta"?  I dunno, it wasn't what I think of as ciabatta.  It certainly didn't taste fresh.

The top piece of bread contained a little bit of the balsamic glaze. It soaked into the bread, so was otherwise lost.  The bottom contained the mayo, a very thin layer, but, I do love mayo.  I mostly discarded the bread, and just scraped the mayo off.

The mesclun mix was fine, the sauteed pepper medley I really didn't like though, but mostly because I don't really like peppers. The roma tomato was rather mealy.

But, the core components, the roast beef and cheddar ... weren't bad.  Sure, the cheddar was just slices of pretty generic yellow cheese.  It didn't exactly have much flavor, so yes, "mild" it was.  But the roast beef was decent enough.  Not fatty, not chewy, just fine.

I did enjoy the roast beef, plus cheese, plus mayo.  Obviously I wouldn't highly recommend this due to the lackluster bread, but the parts that mattered were high enough quality, and if you like peppers, you probably would have found the peppers nice as well.
PB & J Sandwich.
"Sliced wheat bread topped with creamy peanut butter and strawberry jam served with Tasty Brand Fruit Snacks."

The pb & j is likely intended for kids but ... when all the other options don't sound great, what's an adult to do?  Plus, seriously, who doesn't like a pb & j from time to time?

The serving is only a half sandwich, like the veggie wrap.

The bread was very thickly sliced wheat bread.  It was highly unremarkable, except in its thickness.  While there was plenty of both peanut butter and jelly inside, it was really hard for anything to stand up to this quantity of bread.  It was slightly dried out, as you'd expect, but at least it wasn't soggy (although, sometimes, I really do like the soggy nature of a pb&j ...)

The peanut butter was smooth, creamy style, with a good peanut flavor.  Basic peanut butter, but certainly good enough.

The jelly was strawberry jam, not a smooth jelly, but also without any distinct berry bits.  Sweet.  Again, basic, good enough.

The most notable thing about the fillings is that they use two layers of peanut butter, one on each slice of bread, with the jam in the middle.  This helps prevent the bread from getting soggy, and really amps up the pb flavor.  Smart move, Virgin.

Overall, a decent, basic sandwich.  When all else fails, it works.
Chicken Mozzarella with Pesto Sandwich.
"Ciabatta bread, arugula lettuce, basil leaves, sliced fresh mozzarella slices, sliced chicken breast, sliced Roma tomatoes, lemon pesto, and balsamic glaze."

Now, I obviously don't like chicken, but the other components of this sandwich sounded great, so I figured I could just remove the chicken.  A tomato and fresh mozzarella sando with pesto sounded fantastic to me!
Chicken Mozzarella with Pesto Sandwich: Inside.
I was curious how the sandwich was composed, so I opened it up.

The bread was the same ciabatta we saw with the roast beef sandwich.  A bit stale, a bit dry, but also a bit soggy.  Not great.

The top side of the bread had the balsamic glaze soaked in, so, in order to taste balsamic, you had to go for the bread.

The bottom slice had the lemon pesto, really quite flavorful and delicious, and the winning element of the sandwich.  On top of that was the lettuce, basic lettuce, and the sliced roma tomatoes.  The tomatoes were fine, but really there wasn't much tomato.  Since I was intending to remove the chicken, this left a more meager sandwich than I was expecting.  More tomato please!

Speaking of the chicken, it came next, and was slices of deli chicken, rather than a piece of grilled breast like I expected for some reason.  There was tons of it.  Doh.  But at least they were generous with their protein?

Next came the slices of fresh mozzarella.  Decent enough, soft, but not particularly remarkable.  On top was a basil leaf.

Overall, the bread was clearly the worst aspect, and the other fillings good enough.  I really liked the pesto, but I'm really never a sandwich girl.

Boxes

Protein Box.
"This protein-packed meal combines Bumble Bee lemon pepper tuna, La panzanella rosemary crackers, Heritage roasted red pepper hummus, Crunchmaster multi seed crackers, Emerald's natural walnuts & almonds, and Happytimes veggie pals chews."

One one flight, I went for one of the snack boxes, rather than trying more sandwiches.  None of them were REALLY what I wanted, like a couple with boring cheeses (munster? who eats munster?) or featuring hard boiled eggs or sliced turkey.  I went for the "protein box" because I vaguely remembered liking at least the crackers before.
Crunchmaster Multi-Seed Crackers.
The multi-seed crackers were again decent.  Salty, crispy, flavorful.  But I wanted something to dunk them in.  I know that is likely what I was supposed to use the hummus for, but, I don't like hummus and didn't want it.

I could have topped them with tuna, and actually would do that next time, except that I'd bring mayo.  Tuna without mayo just seems ... wrong.

I also really love the La Panzanella rosemary crackers.  A bit of a strange thing for me to like so much because I don't generally get excited about crackers, and I often find rosemary too strong, but, these are strangely addicting, and quite fine on their own (although I'm sure they'd be better with cheese).  The rosemary flavor is not overwhelming, and the crackers are thin and crispy.  I'd gladly eat more of these!

Update Review, December 2013

As I mentioned last Tuesday, I recently did some traveling, and I'll be devoting Tuesdays for the next few weeks to Travelin' Tuesdays!  And what is a big part of travel for me?  The culinary experience (uh, I mean, seeing my friends and family of course!).

Last week, I started the review of my journeys with snacks in the Admiral's Club.  Not extraordinary.  I was eager to get aboard my Virgin America flight.  I was flying Main Cabin Select, which is always such a treat.  Not only do you have the normal Virgin America perks of in-flight wifi, tv, movies, and food ordering at your seat, you get unlimited food and drinks.  And, completely unlike any other domestic airline, this is food you actually would like to eat!  I normally pack myself meals for flights since I know what I bring with me will be far better than anything they have on the plane, but the last time I flew on Virgin America I was so impressed with the tuna niçoise salad that I risked it this time, and decided to go for the airplane food.  I'm so glad I did!

I was again blown away by the freshness and quality of their food.  It makes me wish I could fly Main Cabin Select every time :)  I'll be back on Virgin America for the Christmas holidays, but holiday pricing led me to stick with regular Main Cabin.  As I write this up, I'm slightly regretting that choice!  I again really enjoyed the food, and continue to be very impressed.  Virgin America really sets the standard here.
Udi’s Granola with Fruit and Yogurt.
"Fresh fruit salad of pineapple, mango, and red seedless grapes, served with Udi’s gluten-free granola and fruit yogurt. "

Since my flight left in the morning, I started with the only breakfast selection: the granola, fruit, and yogurt.

The yogurt was Upstate Farms brand, strawberry flavor, nonfat.  It really had no flavor at all.  I would have never known it was supposed to be strawberry.  Not that I like flavored yogurts anyway.  It was basically just generic, runny, sorta sweet yogurt.  The type I stopped eating years ago.  I had a little of this, tried mixing in the fruit and granola, but really didn't care for it.

I was more hopeful for the fruit, since I've had some very good fruit on Virgin America flights in the past.  The first time I ever flew on Virgin America, I ordered the cheese plate, and it came with assorted fresh fruit.  I was blown away by the quality of both the fruit and the cheese then (I've had it again more recently, and I've been less impressed, the cheese selection more mundane, the fruit dried instead of fresh).  But anyway.

The fruit was indeed good.  My bowl contained four chunks of mango, sweet, and ripe.  Really quite good for mango in the United State, and impressive for something pre-cut and served on a plane.  There were also four red grapes, standard.  The majority of the dish was pineapple, which was slightly overripe, but not bad.  It was very juicy.  Overall, I was impressed with my fruit, and quickly gobbled up the whole bowl.

The granola however was my favorite part of the assortment.  I had heard of Udi's before, but I hadn't ever had their granola.  I've been missing out!  It was really flavorful, and contained fun ingredients like banana chips.  Since I didn't like the yogurt, I ended up just munching on the granola alongside my coffee, and I was a happy camper.  I've tried, and reviewed, many granolas over the years, and this was some of the best I've encountered.  I'd gladly seek it out again.

Overall, this was a nice breakfast for the plane, and I'd get it again  I just wish they'd swap out the yogurt.
Arugula and Roasted Pear Salad.
"Crisp romaine and baby arugula salad tossed with red seedless grapes and toasted slivered almonds, topped with pears roasted in fig mustard, and served with olive oil, balsamic vinaigrette, and diced brie cheese on the side."

A few hours later, it was time for lunch.  I looked at the Virgin America website prior to my flight, and had a few meals picked out that I wanted to try.  There was a Vegetable and Plantain Salad that I was really eager to try, as I love plantains.  And there was a Tomato and Mozzarella Sandwich, with sundried tomato and basil pesto on a cornbread baguette!  Or, an interesting set of "Flight Bites", a collection of salads and chocolate mousse!  I wanted them all.  I was a bit torn between what to pick.  But alas, I never had to solve that problem, as none were available.  I even double checked with the flight attendant to make sure all the meals were indeed loading into the system.  He had never heard of either of these choices before, and thought perhaps they were an upcoming menu that hasn't rolled out yet.  Sadness.

Instead, my meal choices were the standard snack boxes (hearty meal, protein meal, jet set kid's pack), the standard unappealing sandwiches (pb&j, veggie wrap, chicken sandwich), or this salad.  Since I was really pleasantly surprised by my tuna salad last time, and I really just didn't want any of the others, at all, I went for the salad.

Like the tuna salad, it far exceeded my expectations.

The greens were a mix of romaine and baby arugula.  As always, Virgin America impressed me with the freshness of the product in their meals.  Both types of lettuce were incredibly crispy and fresh.  The romaine was juicy and succulent.  The arugula even a bit spicy.

There were a few slivered almonds, which added some additional crunch and flavor when I got some, but there weren't many in the salad at all.  The grapes were same as in the granola/yogurt dish, standard red grapes, juicy and fresh.  These all added up to be a decent base for a salad.

The pears were the part I was excited for, since I do like roasted pears, and fig mustard sounded flavorful and tasty.  But they were the only aspect of the salad that wasn’t good at all.  The flavor was just … bad.  I didn’t taste mustard.  Or fig.  And the pears were mushy.  Just old tasting, completely unlike anything else Virgin America served.  Just not good.  But, there were only 4 slices.  Had I liked them, this would have made me sad, but as it was, it wasn’t a problem.

The brie was in tiny chunks, in a separate container.  It was standard brie, not particularly good nor bad.  Probably the same as on their cheese platter?  The chunks did all stick together and required some work to separate, but it was nice that they weren’t on the salad originally.

But the best part was the dressing.  I really can’t say what it was, but I got addicted.  At first I thought it was too thick, but once I used it more as a dipping sauce rather than a dressing, I couldn’t stop.  It was tangy, it was sweet, and well, it was great.  It was sweeter than I’d normally want for an entree salad though.  Usually, I finish a meal and immediately want dessert.  After this, I had no desire for more sweets.  So, good for them in taming my sweet tooth?  I did enjoy it, don’t get me wrong, but I think the sweetness maybe needed some taming.

Overall, another impressive salad from Virgin America.  Is it the selection I wanted? No.  Was I still a bit sad that the more interesting choices weren't available? Yes.  But, I was satisfied and finished everything but the nasty pears, so, it was a winner.  If I was flying with the same menu again, I'd get it, but I hope they change up the selections before I fly again!
35° South Chardonnay Reserva 2012.
I wanted something to pair with my salad, and thought that the red wine would be too over-powering, so I went for the white.  I forgot that I'd had it last time.  It wasn't great. I like a buttery chardonnay, and this was just a bit too harsh.  Given no other option, it is ok, it did go well with my salad, and I did indeed finish it, but I'd pick the red next time, regardless of the pairing.

Original Review, December 2012

For the holidays, I travelled home to New Hampshire.  I had the pleasure of flying on Virgin America, always my favorite domestic airline.  I know I shouldn't be impressed with it at this point, but wifi on the plane still sorta blows my mind.  The time just flies by (yes, pun intended).

The first time I flew on Virgin America, I remember saying that it was like being on the couch at home, but better.  Comfortable recliners, internet, satellite tv (I don't even have cable at home!), movies on demand, and food and drink brought to me with the press of a button?  Yes, please!

My recent trip was just as I remembered, and really quite enjoyable.  I sat in Main Cabin Select, which gave me an unlimited supply of food and drinks, which I of course indulged in.  I was honestly quite pleasantly surprised by the quality of the fresh prepared food.
Tuna Niçoise Salad.  Romaine and mesclun topped with green beans, albacore tuna, potatoes, tomatoes, hardboiled eggs, and kalamata olives, exclusively by Gilt Taste.  Served with balsamic and olive oil dressing.
This was an honest surprise.  I did not expect a salad on an airplane to be remotely decent.  I had even less high hopes for seafood.  But I'm a brave girl, it was free, and as much as I love snack food, I wanted something else too.

The base of the salad was mixed greens, a nice assortment, all crisp.  The tomato came in tiny cubes, and was the most surprising part, as it is winter, and tomato is so often watery, flavorless, and not even red, and this stuff was decent.  Not a fresh ripe heirloom tomato obviously, but so much better than I ever expected.  The green beans were my least favorite element, more cooked than I liked.  They weren't bad, but I would have liked them more al dente, with a bit of snap to them.  The signature niçoise olives and hard boiled egg were unremarkable, decent, but nothing notable.  The tuna, as I hinted at above, was a surprise.  There was a generous amount of it, and it was all pretty good.  Not fishy, no dark meat, just decent.  There were also some chunks of cooked potato, that I originally thought were jicama.  Jicama made no sense to me in this salad, but that is what they looked like.  It took a while for me to identify them as potato.  They weren't very good.  The dressing was provided on the side, so as to not make it soggy.  It was good, flavorful, and complimented all of the greens.

Overall, I was just really impressed with it.  Not Michelin star restaurant quality, but honestly, on par with what you'd get at any decent restaurant in the wintertime.  And on an airplane.

[ Not Pictured ]
Protein Meal, $7.

I also tried out the "protein" meal, although this was mostly for Ojan, I just tried a bite of everything.  It was an interesting assortment, but a disappointment compared to the salad.  It was just a bunch of packaged foods:
  • Bumble Bee Lemon Pepper Tuna: I didn't try this, but I think it was just a can of generic tuna.  Ojan wasn't a fan, as he didn't like the lemon pepper flavor.
  • Emerald's Natural Almond: I also didn't try these, but they were just generic almonds.
  • Wild Garden Sundried Tomato Hummus: This came in a strange tube.  I didn't taste any sundried tomato, just lots of hummus flavor.  I don't really like hummus.
  • Multi-seed crackers: These were my favorite item.  A nice mix of seeds, crispy, and well salted.  I thought they were tasty just on their own, but also ate them with some cheese.
  • Partner's Traditional Crackers: Plain crackers, not remarkable.
  • Happy Times Veggie Pals, Carrot Orange Apple Chews: These were super strange.  They had carrot juice and some fruit juices.  They were chewy, but otherwise, not very good.

35º South Chardonnay Reserva, 2012.
This was better than I expected.  It wasn't good, but it wasn't offensive.  Not bad for generic white wine, and it paired well with my salad.
35º South Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, 2012.
Again, better than expected.  Not all that complex, but pretty drinkable and enjoyable for airplane wine.
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Monday, August 01, 2016

Zaika Indian Bistro, Woburn, MA

I recently visited the Boston area, as I do several times a year, since my family lives in New Hampshire, and I always fly in and out of the Boston airport.  Ojan's family lives outside of Boston too, so, I tend to spend some time closer to Boston besides just the airport.  You can read all about my east coast adventures linked to from my master post.

On one visit, I decided to take advantage of the airport drive, and stop with my parents for lunch en route to the airport.  I've done this several times before, stopping in Manchester, NH for good lunches at Republic Cafe and Campo Enoteca, and in Lexingon, MA for mediocre indian cuisine at Royal India.

This time, we had a pretty tight timeline, so I need to find somewhere fast, and, since both my parents were with me, my options were pretty limited due to my father's dietary preferences (as in, he doesn't eat a whole lot).  I mean, I could have gone for fast food, which I do from time to time, but I had just discovered that he is willing to eat some Indian food when we had highly mediocre takeout from Taj-E-India in my hometown.  Since I love Indian cuisine, and my mom has enjoyed it the few times she has had it, an Indian buffet seemed like just the thing.  And luckily for us, there were many options along our route.

Now, I know you are thinking, "But Julie, you are such a food snob, how could you possibly want a buffet?"  Um, I love buffets.  I love to try EVERYTHING.  Buffets are my secret love.  Of course, most food doesn't work well in buffets, but Indian cuisine is an exception.  The sauces hold heat well.  And, my favorite thing with Indian food is combining a bunch of dishes, which buffets are perfect for.  I actually almost prefer an Indian buffet over ordering a la carte, unless I'm going with a huge group.

I had a list of 5 different restaurants to choose from, all with great reviews, in different cities along the way, but Zaika Indian Bistro kept standing out of the crowd, for a few reasons.

The Buffet

First, and most important, they offer fresh naan made to order when you order the buffet.  Naan that sits in steam trays on a buffet seems like it will always be soggy and gross, so this is a major perk.  And even better, you can choose regular or garlic naan.  Oh, yes, please!

Next, they always include desserts.  Many buffets do this, so not quite as unique as fresh naan, but, definitely a requirement for me.  They also include chai, not necessary, but a nice feature.

The buffet itself has rice, 4 rotating veggie entrees, a meat entree (always the crowd pleasing chicken tikka masala), a second meat entree on weekends, and appetizers such as their famed veggie samosas, veggie pakora, and two others (one fish, one chicken).  And they also include a salad bar, complete with assorted chutneys and raitas.  If you have ever read my reviews of Indian cuisine before, you know how much these components matter to me.  I'm all about combining things, and I always want the accompaniments, but I never want to pay extra for them.  The weekend buffet is more extensive, with the extra entree, more appetizers, and more salad selections.

Zaika basically sounded perfect to me, so, I set the GPS to lead us to Zaika Indian Bistro, on Main Street, in Woburn, MA.  Is Woburn known for Indian food?  No, so this was obviously a random destination, but, given that I've never liked the Indian food in San Francisco, I was hoping for a miracle.

And, it happened.  Zaika was awesome.  I was in love with many dishes on the buffet, and stuffed myself silly.  This was the summer of 2015.

Fast forward a year, when I was visiting again.  There was no question where we'd stop this time.  Again, we went for the buffet.  Again I waddled out, ridiculously full.

I'd return in a heartbeat, for the buffet (weekend or weekday), but also for the a la carte menu, as I'd love to try some of the food with a bit of heat, as everything was mild in the buffet.

The Space

Casual Setting.
The restaurant is fairly narrow, so it isn't the easiest to move around, a bit unfortunate given that everyone is constantly getting up to use the buffet.  They could leave the side row of 2-tops out of course for more space, but, I assure you, those tables were filled nearly as soon as someone got up.

The buffet is set up near the entrance, with plates and bowls in assorted sizes ready to be loaded up.  You could return as many times as you wanted, which I clearly did, but signs instructed us to always use fresh plates.

The restaurant was busy, so buffet items were being replenished quickly, but they also choose to prepare the food in small batches, so it was always fresh.  I saw fresh food going by constantly.  In the small lulls between swarms visiting the buffet, they always took care to shut the lids to keep things hot.  Really, a well run buffet.

My only complain, ridiculously minor, is that the flow of the buffet is a bit odd, with condiments at the start, dessert as the second item, and appetizers mixed in among everything else.  But really, minor issue, and didn't detract from my experience at all.
Table Setting.
Tables are set as soon as they are vacated, and ready for the next guests.

At our table was glass water goblets (immediately filled when we sat) and silverware wrapped in cloth napkins.

As soon as we sat, we were asked which type of naan we'd like freshly made for us.

Everything was fast and efficient.  Once we sat, I went to use the restroom, fill my platter, and as I returned to my table, our piping hot naan was delivered.  Service was incredibly attentive; every time any of our water glasses got even remotely empty (as in, if it was 80% full), it was immediately refilled.  Our dirty plates were cleared immediately.  Our check was brought within moments of finishing.

Given the lunch setting, and the fact that we were in a rush the first time, we did really appreciate this.

Service was great, the food was great, the prices were great, overall, a total winner.

The Weekday Buffet: Visit #1, July 2015

During the week, the buffet is $8.95, which includes unlimited visits to the extensive buffet, chai, and your choice of naan.  It runs from 11:30am - 3pm.  

On our first visit, we arrived at 12:30pm on a Friday afternoon.  It was bustling.  A short line at the door, but not actually a wait, the hostess got everyone seated quickly.  

Everyone in the restaurant seemed to be getting the buffet, I didn't see a single party ordering a la carte, although it was an option.  I quickly understood why, as this is indeed a steller buffet.
Beverage: Masala Chai.
"Darjeeling tea w/ spices & milk boiled together in water."

Included with the buffet was self-serve chai.

It wasn't sweetened, but there were sugar and sweet-n-low packets available on the side.  I actually appreciated it being served unsweet, so you could sweeten as much, or little, as you preferred.

It was creamy, decently spiced, basic chai.  Nothing remarkable, but nice to be included.  I enjoyed it on both visits.
Garlic Naan.
"Unleavened white flour bread baked in our Tandoor."

As I mentioned, we had the choice of regular or garlic naan.  As if that is really a choice!  We all opted for garlic naan, and, a few minutes after we returned to our table, the naan was delivered, piping hot.

Now, my father has only ever had take out Indian food, so he had never had fresh naan.  I was excited for him to experience this finally.  But of course, not all naan is created equal.  Some is soggy.  Some is burnt.  This?  This was exactly what naan should be.

The bottom was crispy, a slight char, but not burnt.  The top moist and buttery, with just the right amount of garlic.  It was fluffy.  Yes, please.

It was the perfect vehicle for soaking up all the amazing sauces I was about to discover on my plate.

I loved this naan, and gladly finished far more than my share, which is rare for me.  I do always like having the naan to lap up my sauces, but, I try not to fill up on bread, but I couldn't resist this naan.  Too good.

As I said, the naan is included, fresh made to order, but the garlic naan is $3.50 a la carte (which seems a bit high, but luckily didn't matter for us).
Salad, Condiments.
The buffet begins with the salad bar and condiment section.  This is the only part of the buffet that wasn't labelled.  I appreciated the labeling elsewhere, and found it a bit odd that they didn't include any labels here.

Ok, who gets salad at an Indian buffet?  Answer: my dad, of course.  I skipped it, but actually, it looked like a decent garden salad, loaded with fresh vegetables.  Also in this area was slices of lemon, raw red onion, and melon slices.  I'm not really sure what any of those were for, perhaps I'm missing some knowledge about how to properly eat Indian cuisine?

Also in this section were tamarind, mint, and onion chutneys.  All rather unremarkable, but, nice to have to jazz up my plate.  The mint was the most disappointing, it didn't seem all that fresh.  This is perhaps the one area where the little Indian take out place, Taj E India, near my hometown, actually did a better job than anywhere else I've been.  I soon discovered that I liked dunking the fish pakora in the tamarind chutney.

There was also raita, "yogurt relish with shredded cucumbers and mint".  Thin style, basic raita, not particularly notable, but again, nice to have to complete the meal ($2.95 if you get it a la carte).

Finally, another white, milky substance, already in tiny dishes.  I had no idea what it was, but took one.  I assumed it was some other kind of yogurt?  And then I tasted it.  Thin, watery, milky ... and sweet?  Huh.  It almost seemed like rice pudding, except it had no rice in it.  And, the dessert of the day was rice pudding, in a separate vessel, with bigger bowls next to it.  So what was this?

I'm still not sure, but, at this point, I'm fairly convinced that it was actually rice pudding.  Why it was here, when there was additional rice pudding, I really don't know.  But, if you can think of what this was instead, please enlighten me!

I did find the flow a bit odd, salad makes sense to start, but the condiments would have been better after the other food, so I could put them on some of my appetizers.  Not a big deal though, as I prefer it on the side anyway.

Speaking of odd flow, the dessert actually came next, but, I'll review that last, since it makes more sense.
Appetizer: Vegetable Samosas, Accompaniment; Basmati Rice.
The first item, besides salad and dessert, was an classic appetizer, vegetable samosas, always a fixture in Zaika's buffet, and one that many reviewers rave about.

"Light spicy turnovers stuffed with vegetables."

I don't generally love samosas, so I skipped them on my first round, but since so many people seemed to love them, I planned to return for one on my second trip to the buffet.  I never did, only because the other food was so delicious that I couldn't get enough, and didn't want to jeopardize my ability to stuff myself with more of the things I knew were great with something I was less likely to like.  I'm still curious though.

My parents both tried them, but since neither had ever had samosas before, they had no comparison point, and they didn't take my advice to get chutney to put on them, so they just shrugged and said they were dry.  Well, obviously.

Anyway, veggies samosas are on the regular menu as an appetizer for $3.95, and also available with lamb for $1 more.  I'd probably try one next time, just to satisfy my curiosity, and, since everything else was great, I could imagine actually really liking one.

Also in this serving area was the basmati rice, described as "India’s long grained flavorful rice."  I skipped it too, since I never like rice and prefer to use naan.  Available as an a la carte side for $2.95 for a small serving.
Entrees: Saag Paneer, Dal Makhani.
Next up came two vegetarian entrees: saag paneer and dal makhani.

"Homemade cheese and freshly chopped spinach in rich butter sauce."

I started with the saag paneer, always a favorite of mine, and probably everyone else, hence why it is a common fixture on their buffet.

Saag paneer can come in many forms.  Sometimes it is overly creamy, really rich and heavy.  Sometimes the spinach is finely pureed, indistinguishable.  Or sometimes you can actually taste the spinach.  Every style has its place, and  I'm by no means opposed to cream, butter, and fat, but, I do like to actually taste my spinach, so I dislike it when it is just a heavy, creamy base.

The Zaika version was a nice balance.  It certainly had its share of butter and cream, but it didn't feel quite as heavy, and I could taste the spinach.  It wasn't pureed, so I could see the greens.  It also had some tomato mixed in, but not enough to take over the flavor.

Speaking of flavor, that is my only criticism, it was very mild.  I wanted some spice to it, but, since it was a buffet item, I understand why it was so mild.

The paneer was small chunks, obviously a housemade fresh cheese, really soft.  It broke apart nicely.  I do prefer paneer to have a bit of a sear on it, a little crust or something, but, for this style, it was quite nice.

Overall, a good version of saag paneer, and I'd get it again, but only my third pick of the dishes I tried, because the others were so amazing.

All of the classic curries, saagwala included, are available with assorted proteins on the regular menu.  If ordered a la carte, the paneer version would have been $12.95.  Other options included chicken ($14.95), lamb ($15.95), or shrimp ($16.95).  The a la carte prices do seem slightly high, but, this is quality product, so, not unreasonable.

"An aromatic marriage of lentils, fresh garlic and ginger ."

The other item in this section was dal makhani.  I believe this was just one of the rotating vegetarian items of the day, or it may be a permanent fixture, I'm not sure.  Since I dislike lentils, I didn't try it.  My mom also skipped it, I'm not sure why, as she liked dal the last time I introduced her to it.  My dad tried a few bites, and shrugged.  He isn't a man of many words.  Available a la carte for $12.95.
Daily Special Entree: Aloo Gajar.
Next came the aloo gjar, described simply as "potato with carrot".

I actually tried a bite of this, but it was just potato and carrot, slightly spiced, slightly mushy.  Certainly not interesting to me (ok, this was my least favorite dish, but given my single bite, I'm not counting that).  But ... my dad liked it!  He went back for seconds!

This is a major breakthrough in my mind.  I commented on him getting more, and he said, "well, it is tasty!"  Now that is an endorsement on his part.

This dish is not on regular menu, and I'm guessing is not part of the standard rotation, hence the handwritten sign, but it is probably similar to the aloo gobhi for $12.95.
Entree: Chana Masala.
"Chick peas soaked overnight and cooked gently with tomatoes, onions and spices."

Next, another vegetarian entree that I skipped, chana masala.  I don't like chickpeas, so there was no reason for me to try this.  My mom also skipped it, my dad had a few bites and shrugged.

$12.95 when ordered a la carte.
Entree: Chicken Tikka Masala.
"All time Indian favorite. Tomatoes, light cream, herbs, & spices."

The other entree always part of the buffet, and only non-vegetarian entree in the weekday buffet, is chicken tikka masala.

Clearly the popular item, as it was nearly empty on my first trip (there was plenty of sauce, but not really any chicken).  This wasn't a problem for me, since I only wanted the sauce anyway (I dislike chicken, but adore butter chicken sauce, so I always want people to order it just so I can eat the sauce).

Now, let's talk about that sauce.  It was really, really good.  It was creamy, well seasoned, nicely balanced and developed.  In particular, it didn't taste too tomato-y.  I hate it when tikka masala sorta just tastes like tomato paste.  Of course, mild again, and I'd prefer spicy, but, hey, this is what you get in a buffet.

I dunked the delicious garlic naan into the sauce, over and over, lapping up every last drop.  And then I went back for more.  And more.  I couldn't stop.  I haven't over-eaten like this in a long time, but wow it was worth it.  This was very good.

On my second visit to the buffet in this sitting, I decided to try the chicken, given my mom's rave review.  She kept saying how different it was from the other chicken tikka masala we had the previous week in my hometown, how it was like a different thing entirely.  On my return trip, the chicken was again nearly gone.  Everyone couldn't get enough of this stuff!  I got one chunk, and, I do admit, for chicken, it was well prepared.  Good flavor from the tandori oven, still very moist, tender, good quality chicken.  I still don't like chicken, but, they did this well.

Chicken tikka masala is $14.95 a la carte, or a veggie and paneer version is $13.95, lamb $16.95, and shrimp $17.95.  Again, the a la carte prices actually seem a bit high, but, when the food is this good, I'm not really complaining.

My favorite dish of the meal, and I still can't get over how good the sauce was.  I want more.  Now!
Appetizer Specials: Fish Pakora, Chicken Wings.
And finally, one more batch of offerings ... appetizers.  Remember what I was saying about the layout of the buffet not quite making sense?  Appetizers last?  Regardless, I was happy to see more appetizers than just the samosas (not that they were really appetizers since I was eating my platter all at once, but, you know what I mean).  It was nice to have something besides just curries.

Both had handwritten signs, and aren't on the regular menu, so I think these were just random items of the day.

"Fried tilapia in chickpea batter".

First up, fish pakora.   Woah, a fish option in a reasonably priced buffet?  I didn't exactly have expectations for this, but, I took one just to try it on my first round.  Spoiler: I went back twice more for this!

It was really good.  I had seafood a few other times during my trip, at far fancier restaurants, and none of it satisfied me like this did.

Tilapia isn't the most exciting fish, but it worked well here, just a mild white fish, and it held up to the batter well.  It was well coated in batter, nicely fried.  Not too greasy or oily.  Somehow it stayed crispy, even in the buffet.  Again, Zaika's frequent replenishing clearly paid off.  The fish was flaky and moist inside.

I loved the fish, and it isn't something I ever normally get at an indian restaurant.  I may need to start reconsidering my order if fish pakora is ever on a menu elsewhere.  My second favorite dish, but I did find that I wanted some kid of sauce for it.  I used the tamarind chutney, but that wasn't quite what I wanted.  Maybe I should have squeezed the seemingly random lemon from the salad bar over it?

Really, I wanted something like a tartar sauce, which I know is totally not indian cuisine, but I had been craving fish and chips on my entire trip, and didn't ever get any.  I love fish and chips on the east coast because we don't get Atlantic cod or haddock on the west coast, so even simple fish and chips there tends to be good.  This fish pakora totally satisfied my craving, even with tilapia, and even sans tartar sauce.  It does make me wonder about some kind of fusion cuisine though, with a indian spiced tartar sauce.  Mmm!

As I mentioned, the fish pakora is not on regular menu, but the appetizer menu has chicken, paneer, and vegetable pakoras normally for $4.95-$5.95.

I skipped the second option, chicken wings, since, well, chicken.
Dessert: Kheer.
"Rice pudding gently cooked in milk flavored with cardamom and topped with pistachios."

And finally ... dessert!

The buffet always includes a rotating dessert of the day, including ras malai, galub jamun, kheer, carrot halwa, and more.  I don't generally like the first two, so I was delighted to see kheer on offer.  I love my puddings!

As I mentioned, the dessert was in the buffet after the salads, and before the appetizers, rice, mains.  My mom, who is new to Indian food, didn't realize this was the dessert, and took it with her main food.  Lols.

When I finally went to get my rice pudding, a new batch had been brought out since my mom's visit.  When I saw hers in her little bowl, it looked like what I expected rice pudding to be.  When I got mine ... it didn't.

It was thin and watery, although milky.  But, the notable thing was ... I didn't see rice.  In fact, it looked remarkably like the same white milky substance that was in the little tiny bowls in the salad bar.  Hmm.

It was ... fine.  It was sweet.  It didn't have much spicing.  I didn't taste cardamom.  I didn't see any pistachios.  There seemed to be little bits of rice that had been ground up perhaps?  Hmm.  Not bad exactly, but not what I was going for.

I also tried my mom's version, which was more of a classic kheer.  Why were they different?  I have no idea.  Neither really wowed me, and I gladly just went to get more chicken tikka masala sauce to polish off the naan with.

$3.95 on the a la carte menu.

The Buffet: Visit #2, July 2016

The weekend buffet is $2 more, $10.95.  It includes everything the lunch buffet does, but also an additional entree, usually goat or lamb, an extra appetizer, and more extensive salad bar.

On the second visit, we arrived at 1:15pm on a Sunday, and it was busy, but not quite as busy as the weekday visit.
Side: Garlic Naan.
"Unleavened white flour bread baked in our Tandoor."

We again opted for garlic naan.  It took a little while longer to arrive this time, as I went to the bathroom, took photos, made chai, filled up my plate, was about half my first plate full when the naan finally arrived.   Doh.  I really wanted it sooner, to lap up my sauces.

The naan also just wasn't as good this time.  It didn't have nearly as much garlic, nor butter, nor char on the bottom.  It was hot, fresh bread, but, just not remarkable, a bit too plain.

Our portion was generous though, as there were 3 of us, and the basket had at least two full naan in it.  We didn't finish it, and my mom asked to have it boxed up.  I have no idea what she was going to do with it, as we had no leftover food since it was a buffet, but, she didn't want to waste.

Anyway, not bad naan, but not great.  The a la carte price was raised to $4 since our first visit, but still included in our buffet.
Side: Basmati Rice.
"India's long-grain flavorful rice."

The buffet changed up the type of serving dishes since my previous visit.  This time, the rice started the buffet, in a round chafing dish, rather than in a double wide chafing dish was samosas also in it.

As always, I skipped the rice, opting for naan instead.
Weekend Special Entree: Goat Curry.
"Goat in Indian Herbs & Spices."

Because it was the weekend, the buffet included an additional meat entree.  On our visit, it was goat curry.  I skipped it, but, my mother did not, mostly out of curiosity (and, because my little sister has goats, and my mom wanted to tell her she ate goat).

She said it was the only dish in the buffet that she didn't like, that the meat was too chewy.  I have no idea if that is normal for goat, or if this was poorly prepared goat.  Goat is not normally offered on the regular menu either.
Entree: Chicken Tikka Masala.
"All time Indian favorite, tomatoes, light cream, herbs, & spices."

On my first visit, the chicken tikka masala was my absolute favorite dish, as the sauce was insanely delicious, and I loved dunking the equally delicious naan into a mix of tikka masala sauce and palak paneer sauce.

As I approached the buffet the first time on this second visit, a fresh batch of chicken tikka masala was brought out.  Knowing I just wanted the sauce, I opted for a little bowl (likely meant for the desserts), and filled it with sauce, skipping the chicken entirely.

The sauce was good, but, it wasn't nearly as good as I remembered.  It was creamy, it was balanced (not too much tomato, not too much cream), but, it didn't have all that much flavor.  And since the naan wasn't great this time around, I didn't find myself wanting to have a yummy sauce to dip my naan in anyway.

Still, my third pick of the savory entrees and it is always included in the buffet and on the regular menu.
Special Entree: Aloo Baigan.
"Potatoes and Eggplant."

On our first visit, a handwritten sign was placed in front of a potato dish, alloo gajar, "potato with carrot".  It was my dad's favorite dish, as he likes both those items.  I was hoping they'd have a potato dish that he would like again this time, but, the choice on the second visit was aloo baigan.

He doesn't like eggplant, so, he skipped it.  I think my mom tried a bite of it, but, said it wasn't great.

Just like the potato dish last time, it did have a similar handwritten sign, and is not on the normal menu.
Entree: Chana Masala.
"Chick peas soaked overnight and cooked gently with tomatoes, onions and spices."

Next up was chana masala, another staple on the buffet and regular menu.  Since I don't like chickpeas, I didn't try it, but it was the only entree my dad really tried (and even then, he didn't really like it).

Special Entree: Egg Chili Broccoli.
The next entree was another hand labelled dish not from the regular menu.  It didn't even have an Indian name, it just said, "egg chili broccoli".

This one was fascinating to me.  It looked like a bowl of hard boiled eggs, with some chilies.  And only one or two chunks of broccoli.  No real sauce.  And it was served warm, and was an entree?

Since I don't really like eggs, I didn't try it, but, amusingly, my dad did on his second trip to the buffet.  My dad, the one who is totally unadventurous, and was mostly just eating salad.  I told him that he'd like samosas, but he wouldn't try them (because he couldn't see what was inside).  I told him he'd like the final curry, but, again, he wouldn't try it, because he couldn't identify it.  He doesn't eat goat, chicken, fish, or eggplant, so, at this was his only option besides salad and naan, and the little bit of chana masala he had on the first round, as he ruled out all the other entrees and appetizers.

Anyway, his comment?  "Tastes like a hard boiled egg".  I asked if it was spicy, and he said not really.  I asked if it was strange to have a warm egg, and he said not really.  He ate it only because he could identify it, but, at least he got some protein?
Special Entree: Punjabi Kadhi.
"Fried vegetables in yogurt with herbs and spices."

Next came the final entree, again with a handwritten sign, this one a bit hard to read.  I wasn't really sure what to expect given the description, but it was at this point in the buffet that I realized there was no palak paneer, which I was looking forward to.  In fact, no paneer at all!  I will admit I was a bit disappointed that there was no paneer option at all, and, if I had realized that before opting for the buffet, I might have gone a la carte instead.  I do really love paneer dishes.

But instead, I had this as my final entree choice, and since I didn't want the other 3 veggie entrees, nor the 2 meat entrees (save the sauce), I decided to try it.

It was actually quite tasty, and unlike anything I've had before.

The fried vegetables seemed to possibly be small veggie pakora, fried bits of veggies in jagged ball shapes of assorted sizes.  (Or maybe not pakora, but it seemed like it?).  I found onion and sweet potato, plus other unidentifiable veggies.  Oh, and a full chili.  It was strange to have these in the sauce, as I'm more accustomed to pakora as a appetizer, or to have kofta in a sauce like this, but, it did totally work, and, I liked it more than the regular veggie pakora as an appetizer.

The sauce was excellent, creamy, and flavorful, like a thick gravy.  It reminded me of other Indian curries I've had in the past, but again, usually served with something more like a kofta.

I enjoyed this dish, and even went back for seconds.  It made me wish I liked the naan more, as I would have gladly lapped up the sauce.  It was my second favorite dish, and I'd get it again, but, really would prefer a paneer option.
Appetizers: Fish Pakora, Chicken Patties.
After the entrees, came a double chafing dish of appetizers.  I was really happy to see the fish pakora from my previous visit (except, the tray was basically empty).  I eagerly waited for the fresh batch, which came out soon.  The chicken option this time was a patty.

"Fish fritters deep fried in chick peas batter."

Last time, the fish pakora was labelled as tilapia, this time it just said "fish fritters".  This might make you think it would be generic fish, perhaps mushed up, but, instead, it was lovely chunks of fish filet, flaky, moist, mild fish, not fishy.  The fish was coated in a chick pea batter, super crispy.

It was excellent.  Think of the best fish and chips you've ever had, and then improve on that.  Seriously.  I had fish and chips just the day before at 4 Aces Diner, and this wasn't even in the same ballpark.  Two weeks before, I had fish and chips, in London, at one of the top rated fish and chips shops there (North Sea Fish Restaurant).  This blew that away too.

I can't explain it, but, the fish pakora was just downright amazing.  Moist, flaky fish, amazing batter, super crispy.  Last time, I lamented not having tartar sauce with it, but, this time, I decided the tamarind sauce was actually perfect with it, just, not quite what I'm used to.

I went back for seconds, for thirds, and for forths of this.  Hands down, dish of the day.  I kinda wished I hadn't bothered with anything else.  I kinda wished I'd just had more for dessert instead of the desserts.  Really, it was that good.  It amazes me that you can't order this from the a la carte menu, but, clearly it is a regular offering on the buffet, as the sign is not hand written, and we had it on both visits.

On my 3rd portion, I was trying to explain to my parents why I liked it so much, and it dawned on me what it reminded me of.  This will sound crazy, but I'll share it anyway.  My hometown is not exactly known for having ethnic food.  We had one Chinese restaurant, that also served sushi and tempura.  It was crazy Americanized.  One dish we always ordered (on the VERY rare occasion where we got Chinese food as my dad doesn't eat it) was the sweet and sour chicken (remember, I'm talking 20+ years ago, when I used to eat chicken).  The sweet and sour chicken was ... different.  It came as deep fried chicken fingers in one container, and a very sweet sticky sauce with peppers, onions, pineapple, and maraschino cherries in another.  I'll be honest.  I loved it.  I loved the deep fried, heavily battered chicken fingers, and I loved the sauce.  I also liked dunking the fingers in duck sauce.

It was those ridiculous "Chinese" chicken fingers from my youth that the fish pakora with tamarind chutney reminded me of.  There was something about the batter, the crispy exterior, and the sweetness of the tamarind sauce that just struck a memory for me.  And I loved them.  Seriously, I want more now.

"Fried chicken cake with Indian herbs and spices."

I skipped the chicken patties because I don't like chicken, but my mom tried one.  She said it was dry.  But, she also didn't put any chutney on it.  I tried to explain to my parents last time that they should use some chutneys with their samosas, but they didn't.  The same thing happened on this visit.  I explained the chutneys, and, they still didn't use them.  Their loss.
Assorted Appetizers.
Next was more appetizers.

In the back row was potato samosas and veggie pakora, both kept hot, and some puffy mini pooris.  The next row had cooked potatoes, red onion, some kind of bean paste, and tomato.  In front was crispy gram flour sev.  On the side was what looked like a mint drink, except, there were no glasses.

None of this was labelled, and I wasn't quite sure what to make of it.  I feel like the ingredients here (besides the samosa and pakora) must have been meant to combine some way.  I tried the crispy gram flour sev as a snack, since I love to munch on things, but, it wasn't particularly interesting.  Same with the crispy mini poori.

When I went home to write up this blog post, I discovered what this was.  It was a station to make your own panipuri, and the "mint drink" was actually a sour and spicy mint water (pani), that you can dunk them in.  It seems like they could have, uh, used some instructions here ...

I skipped the samosas, and tried to get my parents to try them, but, they wouldn't.

"Cut vegetable fritters deep fried in chick-pea batter."

Since the fish pakora was so amazing, I tried the veggie pakora too.  It was ... fine.  Pretty classic mixed, shredded, vegetable pakora.  Not really my appetizer of choice.  I liked it more when in the punjabi kadhi.
Salad, Chutney, Desserts.
This section was a bit random.  It had a basic mixed greens salad, more red onion, watermelon, raita, tamarind chutney, mint chutney, and then, seemingly, two desserts (a pudding and ras malai).

The chutneys and other condiments I used throughout my meal.  As last time, I didn't find any of them remarkable, but, I really, really loved having all the condiments to add to my food.  The tamarind chuntney with the fish pakora was the winner of course.

Next to the watermelon was little bowls of ... something.  It actually looked like bowls of mayo.  I couldn't reason about what it might be, given the other contents of this area.  Salad dressing?  And next to that was balls of something, that looked like they were in a yogurt sauce.  It seemed like these would both be savory items, but, I think they were actually desserts.

I took one of the balls on my plate with my savory food, as I really thought they were something like chickpea cakes in a yogurt sauce.  I was pretty confused when I tasted the white sauce, clearly not yogurt.  And the cake broke apart easily with my fork.  I concluded that this was ras malai, but, since it got mixed in with my savory food, it was pretty confusing and I'm still not entirely sure, as it didn't really seem sweetened.

The little bowls were also very confusing.  Once I tried one, it seemed like custard or pudding.  It was a bit lumpy, but, I don't think it had anything mixed in, I think they were just lumps.  It tasted like Boston cream donut filling, or any other very thick custard.  A bit plain on its own, and I wanted to love it since I love puddings, but, just kinda lacking any major flavor.  However, my mom discovered that if you added sauce from the galub jamun that it sweetened it and made a wonderful combination, which I agreed with.  My favorite of the desserts, particularly with a little sweet sauce added.
More Desserts.
Next to that section was two more desserts, these labelled, gulab jamun and kheer.  I was very happy to see that they had multiple desserts on the weekend buffet.

"Condensed milk with cardamom shaped into balls deep fried and soaked in sugar and rose petal syrup."

I'm not generally a big fan of gulab jamun, but, I tried one anyway.  And, I felt about the same as I always do.  I like fried things, so I almost liked the fried balls, but, the syrup was just way too sweet.  Oh, and these were served hot, piping hot.  If you didn't watch out, you'd burn yourself.

On its own, a ball of gulab jamun was ok, but with the syrup, it was way too much.  But ... if you added custard, it really worked.  Custard with just the syrup, custard with syrup and a chunk of the ball, either way, it was really quite nice.  The creamy, thick, rich custard really cut the syrupy-sweet sauce well.  I was able to create some dessert bites I enjoyed, but, I wouldn't rave about them, and would rather try other options for dessert.  Really, I wished I'd just stuffed myself with more of the fish pakora with tamarind sauce!

"Rice pudding gently cooked in milk flavored with cardamom and topped with pistachios."

I didn't care for the kheer last time, when it was the only dessert option.  I felt the same way this time.  It was very thin, the rice short grain and not all that well cooked.  It at least had a little cardamom flavor, but, overall, really quite lackluster.  My least favorite dessert, and I think I might even actually not try it next time.
Zaika Indian Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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