Friday, August 26, 2016

Z. Cioccolato

If you've walked through North Beach, you've likely passed by Z.Cioccolato.  And if you were me, you'd obviously be drawn in.  Why?  Well, for one, the smell of fresh caramel corn floats out onto the side.  Second, also out on that sidewalk is a big sign saying "Free Fudge Samples!"  And third, if you peak inside, all you see is candy and sweets.  Oh yes.

Z. Cioccolato is a candy shop, self proclaimed "The Sweetest Spot in North Beach", which is likely true.  They have a vast array of candy, bins and bins of candy, mostly priced by the pound.  They also have bins and bins of taffy, that they make in house, in more varieties than you can imagine.  The front counter also includes an assortment of chocolate items, like giant peanut butter cups and many varieties of chocolate bark, and of course, the fudge with samples.  Oh, and gelato.

I've visited many times to pick up candy, and to uh, try some fudge samples (I mean, how do you not?)  They also used to encourage you to try all the taffy you wanted while in the store, a very dangerous offer given how long I'd spend browsing.  I always left with a ridiculous sugar high.

Anyway, the fudge is all fine, as is the taffy, but, I don't think I ever took notes on that stuff.  Its just candy.  But ... the caramel corn, that is another story.  You know how much I love snacks, and, popcorn in particular!
Caramel Corn.  Free!
When you enter Z. Cioccolato, there is an amazing aroma.  It is what drew me in the first time, as it wafted down the street outside.  Caramel corn.  Fresh popped caramel corn.  ZOMG.

I was really tempted to purchase a bag of it, as they had sealed bags of caramel corn displayed all around the shop, $3 each.  But I know that I'm a complete caramel corn snob, and I figured it wouldn't live up to my desires, and there were too many other sweets that I wanted instead.

But, luckily for me, it turns out, they give you a free small bag of fresh popped caramel corn with a $5 purchase.  Yes!

It was totally hot and fresh, literally right out of the popper.  Which, wasn't just lucky timing on my part, they actually pop it fresh every 15 minutes.  Clearly they realized the smell draws people in, and whatever isn't purchased immediately, they bag up, forming the bags I saw all over the place.  So, protip, don't ever get one of the pre-bagged ones, you can always get it fresher if you want it.

Anyway, it was decent caramel corn.  The caramel was a bit more on the burnt tasting side than I prefer, and it didn't have that strong of a buttery flavor, but the kernels were well coated, and it was hot, fresh, and free.  Hard to disagree with that.  I'm glad I decided not to splurge and get the $3 bag though, I would have been disappointed.  I won't buy it again, but if I'm offered a free bag again in the future, I'd obviously take it.
Z Cioccolato Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Dinner @ Zare at Fly Trap

Update Review, May 2016

Friday.  3pm.  Ojan sends me a message saying, "Hey, I have a group of 10 people for dinner tonight.  Do you have any thoughts where we can go near the office?"  I kinda laughed.  His default is to go to Osha Thai.  Osha is fine, but, I knew I could do better.  (And, if I was invited, I wanted to do better!)

It took me only about 10 seconds to think of Fly Trap.  It had been several years since my last in-person visit, but I knew it was the perfect answer ... if they could fit a decent sized group, last minute, on a Friday.  I called the restaurant, and literally, by 3:02pm, I had our reservation for 10 people, just a few hours later, secured.  Amazingly, it was Hoss, the Chef and owner himself, who answered the call and welcomed me warmly.  I couldn't believe how well this worked out.  The only downside?  He told me, unprompted, that he had no foie gras in the house that night.  Heh.  Next time, he said I needed to give more notice, which, I totally would, if I had even known I was going to be arranging a last minute dinner!

Hoss set us up in the side room so it would be more quiet.  There were 2 other small tables set in that area, but they joined mid-way through the night, so it was almost like having a private room.  I thought I got a photo of the room, but, alas, I don't seem to have.  It is a class but casual space, with wooden tables, real candles on the tables, decorative lamps and mirrors on the walls, and a big curtain behind our table that the wait staff would magically appear through.

Everyone enjoyed the meal, and for most, any sort of Persian cuisine or influence was new to them, which tends to be true with most folks we bring there.  I love how the menu is easily approachable, so, although unfamiliar, they were excited about it.  Amusingly, one member of our group actually went just the night before (which I didn't know when I suggested going!), but he enthusiastically agreed to go back again.  Every plate, at every course, was easily cleared, so, I think everyone was quite satisfied.

Service was friendly, the server even addressed me by name, a cute touch.  Fresh cocktails and other drinks were offered whenever a glass went empty, but not in a pushy way.  We felt very taken care of.  The only stumble was while we were still eating our appetizers, one server came and tried to clear away the plates, even though they still had plenty of food on them, and no one really looked done.  It was a bit odd, particularly when someone reached to grab the last piece of naan as he tried to take the plate away, saying, "wait, I'll eat that ..." and then still proceeded to try to take the next plate with plenty of food on it too.  We still had a good 10-15 minutes before our main dishes came, so it wasn't like the server was trying to make way for another course.  Not really sure what was going on there.  But, overall, very good, comfortable, service and a solid choice, particularly impressive for a last minute large group.

Drinks

Drink Menu.
I always love the cocktail menu at Fly Trap, and this time was no exception.

The menu has great variety, including classics with slight twists (like a martini with house made pickles), ones with Persian ingredient inspiration (a pomegranate daiquiri with pistachio salt), and showcases a large assortment of liqueurs.  Everyone at my table was eager to order cocktails to start, and everyone enjoyed their choices.

The beer and wine by the glass selection is good too.  For my second drink, I opted for a glass of Zinfandel, and it was decent, light, drinkable.
Gold Digger. $12.
"Armagnac, amaro nonino, douglas fir, cranberry shrub."

The Gold Digger caught my eye.  Not because of the name, but, I like armagnac, and this sounded a little more unique than my standard choice of a bourbon or whiskey based cocktail.  Plus, I was interested to see how the cranberry and douglas fir made their appearance.

It was a good drink, not too alcoholic tasting, nicely balanced.  I didn't really taste the cranberry shrub, there was no real tartness or fruitiness, but I imagine it was there adding to that balance.  I did taste the armagnac on the finish, which was quite delightful.  Inside was a citrus peel.

Overall, good, and it was a lovely drink to settle into the meal with.

Food

Dinner Menu.
The menu changed since my last visit, in format and in content.  Most Fly Trap classics were still there, like the Trio of Hummus, Bone Marrow, and Pistachio Meatballs appetizers, and the Lamb Burger, but there were also some seasonal changes and new additions.  But, the primary change was the layout, now broken into four categories: "Garden", "Barn & Yard", "Water" and "Sides".  As you might have guessed, "Garden" was vegetarian options, "Barn & Yard" was meat, and "Water" was seafood, but within each section were both appetizers and main dishes.  Main dishes seemed to be contained within call out boxes, and appetizers were not.  It took most of my party a good 10 minutes to figure this out.  They all thought that the Garden section was appetizers, the Barn & Yard was mains, and didn't even see the Water section.  A bit confusing.

Anyway, I ordered a few appetizers for the table, including the easily sharable dips and classic meatballs, and then each person ordered their own main dish.  Almost the entire table ordered the burger or the braised lamb.
Appetizer: Trio of Hummus. $12.
"Roasted squash, pine nut pesto, jalapeño black bean, crispy lavash."

Fly Trap often has a trio of hummus on the menu, and the varieties change out with the seasons.  I'm not really a hummus fan, because I don't really like chickpeas or beans, but I'm always interested to try the hummus trio at Fly Trap, because it usually isn't standard hummus, and really, I think of it just as dips or spreads for bread, and those are something I do like.  Last time I ordered takeout, the trio was chickpea, roasted squash, and beet.  This time, we again had a roasted squash version, but also  pine nut pesto and jalapeño black bean versions.

I tried a bite of each, but, there was something in the flavor of the black bean one that I really didn't like.  Feta maybe?  I'm not sure.  I quickly moved on to the next appetizer, and left this for the others.

The lavash served on the side was good, super crispy.
Appetizer: Grilled Spiced Naan & Fava Bean Spread. $14.
"Soft ricotta, aged balsamic, asparagus, cumin, chermoula, parmesan."

This was a new menu item for me, and I think it replaced my old favorite sourdough bread & lavash, with feta-walnut spread and caspian tapenade, that I literally used to get every single visit.  I loved those spreads.

I didn't love this quite as much as the old spreads, but, it was a very good dish, although perhaps a bit too involved.

The fava bean spread occupied much of the plate.  It was fresh and light, a great way to showcase the in-season beans.  I believe the chermoula was in here.

The ricotta was fabulous, soft, and very fresh tasting, I think housemade.  It was drizzled lightly with aged balsamic and sprinkled with salt.  The texture was lovely and the flavors just popped.  I could eat this easily by the spoonful, but of course, it was best when spread on the naan with some fava bean spread too.

Speaking of the naan, this was quite nice too.  Small, bite sized triangles, warm and grilled.  They had a deep, smokey grilled flavor that I adored.

A bit strange was the asparagus.  I like asparagus, and it was fresh, crisp, and in season, but I couldn't quite figure out why it was part of the dish.  The light mustard vinaigrette drizzled over the asparagus was tasty.  The dish was also garnished with some kind of fresh sprouts.  These too seemed a bit out of place, just a couple too many elements on the plate.  Not that they were bad, but, I just wasn't sure why they were needed.

Overall, this was good.  Ojan really liked it, and he easily polished off both plates.  I really appreciated the grilled flavor to the bread and the freshness to the ricotta, plus, the excellent salt level.  But I still miss my old spreads.
Appetizer:  Pistachio Meatballs. $10.
"Beef, red harissa, honey, pomegranate."

The final appetizer I ordered for the group was the signature meatballs.  I thought I remembered these being lamb before, so when the server asked if we wanted one for everyone (I think they normally come 3 to an order), I said no, that we only wanted 9 for our group of 10, since I didn't want one.

I didn't try a bite, which was fine with me, but, I did plan to at least soak up some of the yummy sauce with the bread from the other appetizers.  Unfortunately, the plate was cleared away as soon as the meatballs were taken, no sauce plate left around for me.  Doh.

So, I have nothing really to say here, besides that everyone liked them, and I thought it was thoughtful that the server asked if we wanted one for everyone, rather than just assuming we'd want multiples of the standard order size.
Asparagus & Watercress Salad. $14.
"Jicama, caramelized onion, herbs, sumac, and yogurt dressing."

We went to Fly Trap after several nights in a row of eating out, and eating heavy food.  I really just wanted something light, so, I opted for the Asparagus & Watercress salad as my main.  If I'd been up for something larger, I certainly would have gone for the linquine with scallops and prawns, with a fascinating sounding mix of caramelized fennel, leeks, salsa verde, arugula, pink peppercorn, and breadcrumbs mixed in.  I wished someone else ordered it so I could try it, but alas, they were all eyeing the meat dishes.

Anything, this order was definitely not a normal move for me, since, I don't really order salads, and I usually like the cheesy, creamy, heavy stuff, but I really just was looking for something with a lighter touch.  Plus ... I remembered how much I loved some Fly Trap salads in the past, like the similar sounding "Spring salad with asparagus, apple, jicama, caramelized shallots, marscapone, yogurt citrus dressing" that I enjoyed last time for take out, or the absolutely incredible "Smoked trout, cucumber, seaweed, tobiko, dill salad" I had when I dined in.

As I said, this was pretty similar to the "Spring Salad" that I had before, although, adjusted for the season.  The base was watercress, asparagus, and batons of jicama, all fresh, vibrant, and crisp.  These elements were all good, but, not particularly noteworthy.  What was noteworthy however was the caramelized red onion.  I loved the onion, just like I loved the caramelized shallots in the previous version.

Squash blossoms were an unexpected touch, and they added a pop of color and an interesting element to eat.  These replaced the edible flowers from previous versions.  There was also a generous amount of sumac all over, which looked excessive, but really was just right.

The only thing I didn't really care for was the yogurt dressing.  It was just a bit too tart, a bit too much like yogurt for me.  I liked it better in previous versions where it was balanced by mascarpone.  This just felt, uh, too healthy?  I know I wanted something light and fresh, and this certainly was those things, but, the net result was that it wasn't actually quite something I wanted.  Oops.

Still, I'd continue to try the salads at Fly Trap, as they are always interesting, flavorful, and creative.
Main: Zare's Lamb Burger. $21.
"French fries, little gem lettuce, bell pepper, feta, house-cured pickle, saffron aioli."

Ojan, and several others, all opted for the burger.  Since I don't like lamb, I had zero intention of trying it, but ... the burger patty looked really quite good, so, I snuck a bite.  The bun was seeded, nicely toasted.  The burger was quite juicy.  But, um, yes, it tasted like lamb.  I did not like.

The most interesting thing about this burger to me was the salad on the side, a mix of lettuce, chopped bell pepper, and crumbled feta.  Since there was nothing on the burger, no lettuce, no tomato, no cheese, just, bun and burger, I'm pretty sure this was supposed to be used as a garnish on the burger.  But really, it was a mini salad.  Some in the group piled it onto their burgers, others just ate it as a salad, others did a bit of both.  Interesting way to serve burger toppings.

Also on the plate was a pickle spear.  I quickly grabbed that from Ojan, as I love pickles.  But, I did not love this pickle.  It was a bit soft, and clearly a fresh pickle, not very tart, not dill.  I gave it back just as quickly.  Ojan also took a single bite and discarded it, a strong sign from him, also a pickle lover.  Maybe this is just how Perisan pickles are?

The final element was the fries, thin, crispy fries.  They were fine, fairly unremarkable, classic thin fries.  Served alongside, and I guess for the burger too, was ketchup and saffron aioli.  I appreciated the creamy aioli.

Anyway, this isn't something I'd ever order, but the burger eaters seemed happy enough, and I was happy to steal a few fries, dunked in tons of aioli of course.

Dessert

Dessert Menu.
The dessert menu had 6 different items.  Several folks were not interested in dessert, and most others wanted to order their own dishes, so, it was each person for themselves for dessert, no group ordering or sharing.

We got 7 desserts total, picking all but the faloodeh, and doubling up on two others.  Every dessert plate was cleared, instantly.  No drop of dessert remained a mere ... 4 minutes after the plates were placed in front of us.  And no, it wasn't because people were starving.  They were devoured because, well, everyone really liked what they ordered.
Goat Cheesecake. $9.
"Candied almond, eggplant preserves."

Always a classic at Fly Trap, the goat cheesecake.  Two members of my group ordered it.

You may recall that I really don't like goat cheese, and I've tried this before.  I didn't take a bite this time, since I knew I wouldn't like it, and, well, they devoured it before I really had a chance to reconsider.  A bit hit for those who ordered it, although they did say it was a pretty rich dessert.
Baklava. $9.
"Persian cream, rose preserves."

Instead I went for the baklava, another item that is a classic on the menu, and one I had for takeout once.

Again it was a deconstructed creation, not your standard bar form of baklava.  Crispy phyllo dough, layered with cream and sweet rose preserves, garnished with plenty of pistachio.

I again liked the crispy layer, and found it quite fun to eat.  The Persian cream was delicious, but I felt the ratio of cream to phyllo was a bit off.  I had far more phyllo dough than cream to dunk it in.  The crispy, caramelized phyllo was good, but, I wanted something more with it, and too quickly ran out of cream.

The rose preserves provided the sweetness that normally comes from honey in baklava, and was a more interesting flavor for sure.  I'm pretty sure there was cardamom in there too.

I thought there was too much pistachio on the plate, again, the balance of items just a bit off, but perhaps that is just because I'm not crazy about pistachio?

What I loved however was the salt.  Yes, the salt.  There was salt in the dish, and it really enhanced the flavor.

Overall, it was good, a creative play on baklava, an enjoyable dish to eat, but, I really just wanted more cream!
Poached Apple. $10.
"Saffron and cardamom whipped cream, cinnamon ice cream, walnut jam, rum-soaked fruit medley."

Next to me, a fellow dinner got the poached apple.  In fact, two people did.  I mocked them, as honestly, poached apples and pears are near the bottom of the dessert barrel for me, but I'll admit that this was a pretty awesome looking preparation.

While I didn't want to try the poached fruit, I was very interested in the walnut jam.  It was really delicious, made from black walnuts, in a slightly sticky sauce.  Yum.  I'd like to see that added to the baklava instead of the pistachio ...
Cucumber Yogurt Preserves. $9.
"White cherry preserves, cardamom."

Another member of the table ordered the cucumber yogurt preserves.  It was definitely the most interesting dessert, and one I'd never, ever order.

To me, yogurt and cucumber are just not dessert, even when plated with sweet preserves.  I did try a bite, and yes, it was creamy yogurt with fresh cucumber, but ... yeah, not for me.

The guy who ordered it loved it, declaring it "lovely and refreshing", and, I guess if you like this sort of thing, it really was a nice light ending to a meal, and one that wouldn't leave you feeling gross from having something too rich or too sweet.

I give Fly Trap credit for having a unique option like this on the menu, and, for the beautiful plating.
Flourless Chocolate Pecan Torte. $10.
"Champagne zabaglione, fresh berries."

And finally, a chocolate option, for the chocolate lovers out there.  I was planning to ask for a bite of this, but, by the time I looked up to ask, it was gone.  Doh.  Seems like it was also a hit.
Decaf Coffee.
I also ordered a decaf coffee alongside my dessert, as I like the pairing.  The server warned me it would take a few minutes since he was going to brew a fresh pot.  It arrived with my dessert, which is exactly when I wanted it, so, no problem.

The coffee was fine.  Not very memorable, but, for decaf, that is a good thing.  Smooth, drinkable, exactly what I wanted with my dessert.

Original Review, April 2012

The day my Australian visitors were leaving, another group was arriving!  So much dining hosting to do!  I didn't know they'd be making it to San Francisco, so the first meal I took them too was planned fairly last minute (as in, an hour before we went).  I fell back on an old favorite of mine: Zare at Fly Trap.

The restaurant is located just down the street from our office, and used to be the halfway point between my home and work.  A few years ago, I went somewhat regularly, but it had been at least a year since I'd been.  Lately, the chef has been sharing photos on Facebook of all the incredible special dishes he has been serving, and I've been seriously drooling over them.  I somewhat jokingly sent him a message asking if there was anything with scallops, uni, or foie gras on the menu that evening (a bunch of my favorite ingredients!), and he replied saying he'd combine them all into a dish just for me.  Um, clearly I had to go there, stat!

The cuisine here is a little hard to describe.  I guess I'd call it French, but with Persian and Mediterranean inspiration, and of course, using fresh local Californian ingredients.  I find the menu really fun, ridiculously creative spins on Persian dishes, or more standard French or Californian items with Persian ingredients thrown in.  Be on the lookout for pomegranate, pistachios, saffron, and rose water!  They do fun things like on Monday nights always serving some kinda of crazy kufte, and offering some form of dolme every night, where dolme is a very lose interpretation basically meaning just something stuffed with something.

Fly Trap was just as I remembered.  Nicely decorated, in that casual, swanky, SOMA style.  A little on the loud side, but mostly just in an energetic way.  Service was ok, not particularly notable.  Food was good, and reasonably priced.  The best part of course was the owner/chef creating a dish just for my group!  That is hospitality taken to a whole new level!  Thank you :)

I'll definitely be back before July, as I hear a rumor that the chef's old signature dish, the manage a foie, will be coming back sometime soon!
Sourdough bread & lavash, feta-walnut spread, caspian tapenade.  $6.
Back in the day, I used to stop in on my walk home from work and just get this togo.  I was obsessed with these spreads, so I ordered them immediately when we sat down, to munch on while we figured out what else to get.

The bread was crisp and toasted, the lavash warm and soft.  The caspian tapenade had a great olive flavor and the feta-walnut spread was creamy, nutty, and salty.  Each was good on its own, but I enjoyed them the most by combining some of each.

The perfect bite for me was some lavash, spread with equal parts of each of the spreads, and then rolled up and enjoyed as finger food.  I'm not sure if the spreads have changed, or if I had so much of them back then that I'm finally over them, but they weren't quite as fantastic as I remembered.  Still nice to have something to munch on at the start of the meal though, and I'd order again if others wanted it.
Pistachio meatballs, red harissa, honey, pomegranate.  $13.
I'm pretty sure these are a lamb based meatballs.  Try as I might, I still just can't get into the flavor of lamb.  I keep trying it whenever others order it, in a variety of forms, but it still just isn't appealing to me.  I'll keep persevering though, one day, I may finally like it!

Given that, I didn't really like the meatballs.  They did have a really nice crust on the outside, but weren't very moist inside, and were really lamby.  But the sauce was awesome.  Perfectly balanced, with the tartness from the pomegranate and the sweetness from the honey.  I enjoyed soaking up all of the remaining sauce with the lavash!

Our server noted when we ordered this that there were only three meatballs, and four of us, and asked if we wanted a forth.  We declined, but this was thoughtful and great service!
Smoked trout, cucumber, tobiko, dill.  $14. 
Surprise awesometastic dish of the night!

I think we all expected this to just be some smoked trout, with a little bit of cucumber on the side or something.  Instead, it was cucumber "linguine", with chunks of smoked trout integrated throughout.

The trout was fantastic.  It was flaky, and had a really wonderful smokyness.  I really liked it.

The cucumber linguine was also really great.  Clearly incredibly fresh, crisp, and refreshing.

It was all dressed in a creamy, slightly tart, crème fraîche based dressing.

Then there was was ton of fresh dill mixed in, which paired perfectly with the trout, cucumber, and yogurt, and just kicked the flavors of the entire thing up a million notches.

Every component of this dish was great on its own, but then combined they also complimented and enhanced each other absolutely perfectly.  This dish was a serious winner, full of great flavors, and also really fun to eat.  Creating the perfect bite was just like eating pasta: a fork swirled with the linguine, and then stab a chunk of trout.  Awesome.

I'd order this again in a heartbeat!  It was really, truly, fantastic.

( If you want to make this at home yourself, here is a video of Hoss preparing it! )
Bone marrow, turmeric, preserved lime, bergamot.  $14
We didn't order this, but the chef sent it out for us.  Somehow, I've never actually had bone marrow straight from a bone before (I've had it in sauces, etc, but never just ordered the marrow).

As this was my first time having it, I wasn't sure what to expect.  It kinda reminded me of seared foie gras, which I love, but it was slimier and fattier tasting.  I didn't really like it.  I'm sure this is an acquired experience though, so I'd certainly try it again.

The persian pickles on the plate were salty, crunchy, and good.  I'm a pickle lover, so I appreciated these!

The pumpkin jam was awesome.  It had this great pumpkin flavor, but was also sweet.  It tasted a lot like "classic" Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole, just in a jam!  It had the pumpkin/sweet potato flavor to it, and then a hint of brown sugar/maple syrupy flavor, and even the sweetness like from marshmallow topping.  Really hard to describe, but honestly, it was like putting one of those casseroles into a spoonful.  I loved it, and again used all the remaining bread in sight to finish it up!

While I didn't really like the marrow, I'm really glad I finally tried it in this pure form, and appreciated the gesture from the chef.  And that pumpkin jam!  So tasty, I'd encourage someone else to order this again just so I could eat the jam :)
 Diver scallops, asparagus, prosciutto, potatoes.  Plus ... uni sauce, seared foie gras!  $28.
This was our custom made dish.  It was the standard preparation of the scallops on the menu, but then topped with uni sauce and a few chunks of seared foie gras!

The potatoes and asparagus were just simply roasted and seasoned, fairly standard.

The scallops were decently seared, but more cooked than I prefer, definitely cooked all the way through rather than a little rare.

The prosciutto was crispy, salty, and a great compliment to the scallops.  I think it works really well in the original dish, also complimenting the potato and the asparagus, but prosciutto and foie was a little much :)

The uni sauce (added because I love uni!) was very light and mild.  I could somewhat distinguish the uni flavor, but it wasn't very strong.  I believe they were using this as the finishing element on a soup that evening, where it probably came across stronger, as it wasn't masked by as many other rich components.

And then there were chunks of seared foie gras (added because I love foie gras!).  Each scallop came topped with its own piece (two had fallen off by the time this photo was taken).  Like I was hoping, the foie gras went really well with the scallops, a good contrast of both flavors and textures.  The scallop was slightly sweet, light, and firm, contrasting and complimenting the foie, buttery, rich, and creamy.

I enjoyed this, and I'm still rather stunned that they added the foie and uni sauce to the dish for me!  What amazing hospitality.  Thank you very much Hoss!
Goat cheesecake,  date jam, walnuts.  $9.
So, I love dessert.  I was stuffed at this point, but I really don't know how to finish a meal without dessert.  Its just my thing.

I was excited for the panna cotta listed on the menu (again, another one of my obsessions these days), but the waiter informed us that it had been replaced by a pistachio crepe and ice cream.  Sadness!

So then I was excited for the baklava, but no one else at the table was interested in sharing it.  One other diner was interested in the goat cheesecake, which isn't something I'd ever normally pick since I really, really don't like goat cheese (at least, traditional soft style goat cheeses), but I wanted dessert, and this seemed like my only option!  We also had one other diner who loves cheeses, but hates sweets, so if this was cheesy enough, and not super sweet, it was possible he'd be into it as well.  We asked the waiter if it was really goaty, he said no.  We asked if it was really sweet, he said no.  He told us that it was just really well balanced and really fantastic.  So, we ordered it.

On the plate were some dates, some pistacho crumble, some date jam, and of course, the goat cheese cheesecake.

The cheesecake was incredibly fluffy, almost mousse like, and sat atop a shortbread crust.  The crust was buttery and delicious.  The cheesecake however was both very sweet and very goaty.  My non-sweet liking dining companion wanted nothing to do with this, nor did I, finding it way, way too goaty.

I do admit that the goat cheese and fig paired very well together, and if I liked goat cheese, I could imagine this would be fantastic.
Pistacho crepes, ice cream.  $9.
One other person at the table ordered the pistachio dessert.  It was gone within seconds, so I think he really liked it.  I didn't get a taste, so don't have anything to add here.  He also ordered the lamb shank entree, which I also didn't have, but I did have a taste of the torshi (persian pickled stuffs) that comes on the side, and thought that it was fantastic.
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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Breakfast @ Tres, SLS Hotel, Beverley Hills

Update Review, June 2016

Do you remember when I stayed at the SLS Hotel in Beverley Hills last year, and came back absolutely raving about the breakfast?  Seriously, the best continental breakfast I've ever had, with quality pastries and the most insanely delicious yogurt I've ever had.  Seriously, that yogurt.  You can read all about my original visit here.

I returned for a few days this summer, and, as before, breakfast was a highlight.  Overall, the breakfast was basically as I remembered.  That yogurt, particularly the pear one, is just incredible (and the pastries are higher quality than usual at a hotel restaurant).  Have I mentioned that I'd travel to LA just for that yogurt?
Citrus Yogurt, Blueberry Muffin, Cream Cheese Danish, Granola.
The berry topped yogurt was exactly as I remembered.  Creamy, panna cotta like vanilla yogurt, with berries on top.  The vanilla bean infused throughout is also fantastic.

But, as I discovered last time, I liked the pear/citrus version even more.  The tart compote on the bottom just goes so well with the yogurt, and I liked the acidic grapefruit segments on top.  This time it did clearly have cubes of pear on top (and a beautiful flower) as well.

The granola wasn't quite as I remembered.  It wasn't quite as crispy and caramelized, but it was still good.  The yogurt was delicious enough without it though.
Pastries: Cinnamon Apple Pocket, Raspberry Bear Claw, Chocolate Croissant, Cheese Danish.
The first item I went for was the folded danish on the far right.  I am pretty sure it had cream cheese filling.  The filling wasn't particularly creamy, but I loved how flaky the pastry was.  This was my favorite of the pastries on this visit.

The chocolate croissant was good, except that it was lacking in the chocolate department.  Again, crispy, flaky crust, and the chocolate was really great dark chocolate, but, there just wasn't enough of it.

The raspberry bear paw was another solid pastry, again, crispy flaky crust.  It had layers of raspberry jam folded throughout, but, just like the chocolate croissant, I found myself wishing it had a bit more.

The item on the far left was the one I was excited for, as it was coated in sugar crystals and I had no idea what kind it was.  Sadly, the filling turned out to be apple cinnamon, little cubes of apple in spicing, just not something I like.  The pastry was good and flaky though.  Notice a theme here?
Pastries: Raspberry Swirls, Chocolate Croissants, Apple Pocket, Apricot Danish.
As on my previous visit, the pastries changed out slightly every day, although plain croissants and chocolate croissants were always offered.

On my final day I went for the apricot danish, forgetting that I had not enjoy it before.  The crust wasn't as flaky as the others, and it was coated in a soggy glaze.  I just really didn't care for it at all.

The  (not pictured) almond croissant was again as I remembered.  I didn't love the sliced almond coating, generous as it was.  The filling was a decent almond paste and provided in a good quantity.  It had the same decent croissant dough.
Muffins: Strawberry Rhubarb, Bran, Blueberry, Banana Nut.
I remembered not being super impressed with the muffins, but, I wanted to give them another try.

I started with the blueberry.  It was moist, and a bit too dense, but had a generous amount of blueberry, and nice huge sugar crystals on top.  It wasn't earth shattering, and I'd prefer more flavor in the base, but, it was a good muffin.

The one in the front here I had no idea what kind it was when I picked it up.  It turned out to be strawberry rhubarb.  It too was a bit too dense, and the base didn't have a very interesting flavor.  Overall, ok, and better than most hotel muffins, but, not something I'd get again.

The bran again turned out to be my favorite, with a hearty bran flavor and studded with plentiful currants.  Perhaps a bit boring on its own, but slathered in the raspberry jam it was quite tasty.

Original Review, November 2015

I spent years of my life never visiting Los Angeles (well, besides LAX).  Yes, just a simple hour flight away from San Francisco, with much nicer weather, but ... for some reason I never visit.

A few weeks ago, Ojan had to visit our Venice office, so I tagged along.  We stayed at the very mediocre Le Meridien Delfina.  Emil described it as "a motel", which it obviously wasn't, but I can't say it was a particularly nice place.  But it was close to the office, which is what mattered.  We were only in the area for two days, but I can't say I had any interest in staying longer (delicious burgers aside).

So why, a mere few weeks later, would I go back?  I had an opportunity to speak on a panel at UCLA, at an event targeted at recruiting women in Computer Science.  I really enjoy interacting with students, and encouraging more women in the field.  Plus ... as much as I hated the smog, the traffic, the grime, etc of Santa Monica ... I did love the weather.  And San Francisco was starting to get dreary.

I checked the weather.  Upper 70s and 80s.  I quickly looked to see what Starwood properties are near UCLA.  Since I didn't need to go to the office, I didn't need to stay at Le Meridien again.  There is a W right adjacent to the campus.  Perfect!  Except ... way too pricey, even with our corporate rates.

I expanded my search radius.  I only needed to be at UCLA one night, so, I didn't actually need to stay super close by.  But, all the Starwood properties, besides the ones right near the airport, were just too pricey.  I was a bit dejected, until I discovered a ridiculous AARP rate at the SLS Beverley Hills.  Yes, it was slightly more than my corporate spend allowed, but just slightly.  And remarkably, cheaper than even our corporate rates anywhere else.  This seemed too good to be true.

I knew about the SLS.  Part of Starwood's Luxury Collection.  Category 6 property.  Of course, Emil's top recommendation of places to stay in Los Angeles.  I'd never stayed at any category 6 properties before.  Never at a Luxury Collection property.  I certainly never thought I would.

I was sold.  Since this is a food blog, not a hotel review blog, I'll skip the general details about the hotel, except to tell you, if you ever get a chance to stay here, ZOMG, do it.  When Emil recommends something, listen!  The staff are amazing, the rooms crazy, and I can't even begin to describe the rooftop pool area.

It also helps that Jose Andres runs the two restaurants in the hotel.  Within an hour of arriving at the hotel, I was seated at dinner at The Bazaar, the high end restaurant serving dinner, with a huge bar area, and separate dessert room.  It was great.

The other restaurant in the hotel is a more casual affair, called Tres.  It serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, and afternoon tea.  Spanish inspired, as you might guess given the name and proprietor.

As a Starwood Platinum member (!!!), continental breakfast was included in my stay, served at Tres.  Generally, "continental" means a couple stale, lackluster muffins and generic Kellogg's cereals.  Spoiler: that was not the case at Tres.  Think baked goods from The Bazaar patisserie, housemade granola, and, the most epic yogurt I've ever had (yes, yogurt.  Read on for more details).

And to top it off, the breakfast hours are quite generous, even during the week - served until 11am!  No need to rush to breakfast in the morning.

The Space

The space, simply put, is gorgeous.  It is unlike any anywhere you've ever been served a hotel breakfast in before.  Of course, they use the space for more than just breakfast, it is the hotel guest exclusive lounge the rest of the day, and they serve lunch and dinner as well.

But wow, the space.  The options for how you'd like to enjoy your breakfast are endless.
High Tables.
For the classy, there are high tables, made of white marble, available for small groups of two or four, or large communal high tables for solo travelers to perch at.

Each table has a stunning unique chandelier above it.
Standard Breakfast Tables.
If you'd prefer a more classic offering, there are round wooden tables with regular dining chairs, set for 2-4 people.  These were generally occupied by families.
Little Lounges.
Next came lounges, with slightly lower wooden tables, with comfortable arm chairs and couches, for those who wanted to relax a little more.
Fireplace Library Lounges.
And then, the ultimate: fireplace lounges.

These were alongside the length of the room, arranged in a line, with optional curtains to fully enclose each for privacy.

Like the lounges above, they have lower wooden dining tables, with arm chairs and couches, but are set up like personal libraries, each facing its own fireplace.

Each area has an individual rug under the table.  The wall they face is lined with bookcases filled classic books in assorted disciplines and stacked firewood.  The fireplaces are electric, but really add to the ambiance, and do provide warmth.  Above each fireplace is a ridiculous light up deer head, the only slightly tacky element about the entire space.  Gorgeous large lamps are on the side, along with assorted little stools and pieces of artwork.  It really does feel like a room in a very fancy house.

You can likely guess where I choose to sit.  Yes, I had one of these amazing little rooms each day.  The staff quickly learned my preference, and sat me in the same private library every day.  My section, rather fitting actually, included the bookcases for "Science" and "Planes & Boats".  Although my father would never ever enter a place like this, I think he'd really like digging through the books.  The library to my left shelved "Gardening" and uh, "Doors".  The one to the right had "Design" and "Cinema".  I didn't check out the selection in the final room.

The Buffet

So, the food.  My included option was a continental buffet, although an a la carte menu is also served.
Jose's Breakfast Table.
Sorry, not a buffet.  A "Breakfast Table".  For continental only, it is priced at a hefty $28 for adults, $15 for children.  For an additional $14, you can add a hot entree. 
The Breakfast Table Spread.
I stuck to just the breakfast table, as it was more than sufficient.  Continental only, which is not usually exciting, and not that extensive, but nearly everything on the table was a winner.  You don't need a more elaborate spread when the options are all delicious.

Drinks

Coffee Station.
The breakfast table also comes with your choice of coffee or tea.  I asked for decaf coffee, and when it didn't arrive in about 10 minutes, I assumed it was forgotten, and went and helped myself to the coffee carafes near the entrance, available for hotel guests to drop in and get at any time.
Decaf Coffee.
Eventually a little carafe was brought to me.  The server saw that I had already helped myself to the other coffee and apologized, but assured me that this was more fresh.  The next day, when I asked for decaf, I was provided my own large french press.

Both the fresh carafe and self-serve station were not very good.  But, I did get decaf, what do I expect?

Assorted sugar and sweeteners are available on the tables, and milk, including soy and almond, are available at the coffee station.

I was glad to have coffee, and to not need to be asking for refills all the time, but, this wasn't particularly good.
Aqua Fresca: Pineapple, cantelope, watermelon.
Up at the buffet is a selection of aqua fresca, rather than just standard juices, as this is a Spanish restaurant after all.

I obviously avoided the melon flavors, but tried the pineapple.  It was very, very sweet.  I couldn't really drink it on its own, but I think it would make for a great mixer for a cocktail.

Food

Organic cereals and granola.
The continental selection begins, like most, with cereals.  However these weren't boxes of generic Kellogg's cereal.  Only two options, one seemed to be some kind of wheat flakes, the other was house made granola.

Like the coffee station, various types of milk are offered alongside, including nonfat and soy.

I didn't try the wheat flakes.
Granola Closeup.
The granola was great.

While it wasn't a clumpy style of granola like I like for munching on as a snack, it was perfect to add to my yogurt parfait (more on that soon).

I can't even begin to enumerate all the goodies I found inside the granola.  A slew of assorted nuts including crunchy pistachios, sliced almonds, and pine nuts.  Tons of different seeds.  Little wheat sticks, flakes of this and that ... just so many things.

The granola was slightly sweetened, just enough to feel a bit decadent.  No raisins, an element that always ruins perfectly good granola for me.  In fact, no dried fruit at all.  I don't mind dried fruit, but I can't stand it when it is rock hard!

Good stuff for sure.
Chef's Selection of Assorted Pastries.
"Croissant, danish, muffins, pain au chocolate.  Selection of marmalades, organic butter, and cream cheese."

Next came my carbs.

Assorted sliced breads and bagels, plus all the good stuff: muffins, croissants, and danishes.  Butter, cream cheese, and assorted marmalades (unlabelled) were available in little pots on the side, and a toaster was provided if you wanted to toast things.

I skipped the basic breads and bagels.  I discovered a few days later that interestingly, on weekends, the selection is more limited, and there is no bread or bagels, no toaster.  I think this is because the buffet is moved to the side, as a far more extensive brunch buffet is offered starting at 11am, and they need to prepare for it and use the full space for that.  I saw a carving station and epic dessert displays being set up.  But uh, not included with my hotel stay.  Next time ...

I started with muffins.  There were three kinds the first day, only two the others.  One looked bran with flakes on top, one was blueberry, and one had a streusel top.  These muffins are available at the Patisserie at The Bazaar next door for $3 each.

Clearly, I went right for the streusel topped muffin.  The streusel didn't have tons of flavor, a bit disappointing.  But the muffin was very, very moist.  It turned out to be banana, with big chunks of banana inside, adding to the moistness.  Not my thing, as I don't really care for banana muffins, but it was decently made.

A few days later, I went for a streusel topped muffin again, because it looked different.  And, indeed, it was.  It had little chunks of fruit inside, I think bits of dried apricot and maybe strawberry, rather than banana.  Hard to tell.  The top was crispy and ok, but I didn't love that muffin either.

Next I went for the blueberry.  I honestly think there was more blueberry than muffin base to this muffin.  Just absolutely bursting with blueberry flavor, crazy moist.  And the muffin base itself was quite good, a hint of some spicing to it.  The top was a bit crispy, with large sugar crystals on it.  I adored that part.  For a muffin, it was a very good muffin!

On my last day, I went for the bran.  It was a hearty muffin, studded with currants, and flecked with oats.  For a bran muffin, and something that at least tasted a bit healthier, a nice option.  I of course slathered it with the delicious raspberry jam.

I didn't really need any, but I couldn't resist trying the marmalades, adding them to my pastries, or even to my yogurt.  The orange marmalade was pretty standard, but I really liked the raspberry jam.  Maybe I went for the bran muffin just as an excuse to have more jam.
Danishes, Day Two.
The muffins were fine, better than most hotel muffins, but the danishes were clearly calling out to me.

The first day, I went right for the most decadent looking, topped with sliced almonds and powdered sugar, drizzled with chocolate (far right).

It turned out to be a pan au chocolate, sliced in half, and stuffed with almond paste.  The slicing and stuffing certainly seemed to have been done after the fact, but as you can see, it wasn't exactly the same as the standard pan an chocolate next to it, as it had the toppings.  It was a good pastry.  Crispy exterior, quality chocolate inside.  I liked the extra crunch from the almond slices on top.  However, it was a bit sweet for me, the almond paste inside was generous and very sweetened.  (What is wrong with me?  The aqua fresca was too sweet, the pastries too sweet ... )  Still, far superior to most hotel pastries, and my third pick overall for the pastries.

I tried it again a few days later, and it was actually different.  Not nearly as much almond paste filling, so it wasn't as sweet.  I still liked the almonds on top, and the chocolate, but something about it was just not remarkable.  Subsequent days it was not offered, so I didn't get to try a tie-breaker, but if it was, I would have tried it again.

I skipped the plain pan au chocolate, but these are on offer at The Bazaar for $3.

Next I went for the raspberry bear paw (middle).  It was swirled with really delicious raspberry jam.  The danish dough, just like the pan au chocolate, was above average.  Flaky, buttery.  The raspberry filling was really quite flavorful.  My forth favorite, and I'd gladly get it again.

The next selection the first day was one of the best: a cinnamon sugar apple filled danish (not pictured here).  Now, I don't love apple, but the bits of apple were nicely cooked, well spiced.  The dough was great, a bit flakier, and ... it was coated in cinnamon and sugar.  It was more like a donut.  I loved it, my second pick overall of the baked goods.  Sadly, a few days later, when an apple filled creation re-appeared, it did not have the cinnamon sugar coating, which certainly was a big part of the appeal.

Several days into my trip, a new offering appeared: an apricot danish (second to left).  It was my least favorite, by far.  The dough wasn't flaky, the apricot in the middle was boring, and it was covered in a glaze that was seemed too sticky in this context.  Like many other items, also sold at The Bazaar, also $3.

On my last day, I opted to make a croissant sandwich with cheese and charcuterie, on a plain croissant.  The plain croissant was a decent specimen.  Buttery, slightly flaky on the outside, good layers to it.  Certainly not an award winning croissant, but compared to what you normally find at hotels, very good.
Pain Au Raisin ($3 from The Bazaar).
The final selection turned out to be the best however, Pain Au Raisin, aka, glazed raisin swirls.

They actually looked like the least interesting, but were hands down my favorites.  Crispy exterior, moist interior, loaded with cinnamon and raisins.  Tons of sweet, sticky glaze on top.  I'd actually prefer a plain roll, sans raisins, but still, this was great.  Sticky, sweet, decadent.

I wish I discovered these on the first day, but I assure you, after having one, I immediately went back for seconds each day, and added them to my lineup on subsequent days.  Totally dessert worthy, and I liked to close my meal with one each day.  Wow, I drool just thinking about these again.

Also available at the patisserie of The Bazaar for $3.
Cheese and Charcuterie.
As  I mentioned, there was a selection of charcuterie and cheeses.  Not what I'd normally go for, and not my idea of breakfast, but, this is the same product served at Tres for dinner, and I know that they are known for their charcuterie and cheeses, a Spanish restaurant after all, so on my final day I finally tried some.

The charcuterie on offer was jamon serrano, chorizo, salami. The jamon serrano was thin sliced, a bit too porky for my liking.  The chorizo and salami were both good, spicy.

The cheese lineup was manchego, vino de cabra, and idiazabal.  I normally prefer cow's cheeses, but I tried them anyway.  As expected, I did not like the vino de cabra, as I actually really dislike goat cheese.  The other two were fine, but when it comes to cheeses, I'm all about the triple cremes.

I used these inside a croissant sandwich, and it was fine, but really, there were just too many other better things in the buffet to waste stomach space on this.
Greek Yogurt Parfait, Mixed Berries.
The final element of the breakfast table is fruit and yogurt jars.  These looked pretty standard.  But, in reading reviews of the restaurant, person after person mentioned how amazing the yogurt was.  I'm not really one to go for yogurt, not that I dislike it, but, really, how exciting is yogurt?  It certainly didn't look special, but, if everyone says it is amazing, I figured I should try it.

Even after reading the reviews, I had no expectations for the yogurt.  Sure, people like greek yogurt, I thought.

But wow.  This was unlike any yogurt I've ever had before.  None were labelled.  From visual inspection, it looked like the one on the far right was plain, the one next to that had a little citrus, then next had berries, and the final two rows were just fresh mixed berries, no yogurt.
Berry Yogurt.
The first day, opted for the one with berries on top.

There was much more to this than meets the eye.  I thought it was just some yogurt with a few berries thrown on top.  Wrong.  Yes, there was yogurt, and it was topped with berries.  But there were more berries inside.  And a sweet berry compote on the bottom.

The yogurt wasn't really what I think of as Greek yogurt, as it wasn't thick and it certainly wasn't tart.  But it also wasn't runny.  Rather hard to describe really.  It was light and fluffy, and obviously sweetened.  I think it was vanilla?

I added granola on top before I realized how many other goodies were in the jar.  I loved the extra crunch, and added it again subsequent days, but it certainly wasn't necessary.

This was great yogurt.

The next day, I went for the one with the citrus segment on top.  The printed menu said "apricot", but I'm certain it wasn't apricot.  The online menu says "pear", which seemed slightly more likely, but, I'm still pretty sure it wasn't that either.  Like the berry version, it too had a compote hiding on the bottom.  This one was less sweet, more tart, and I actually liked it a bit more, even though I'd normally pick berries over citrus any day.

Finally, I did try the one sans toppings.  I'm pretty sure it was the same yogurt, vanilla.  I added a swirl of the delicious raspberry jam, a cup full of berries, and granola to it.  So good.  I think it would have been great with honey too.

This yogurt really reminded me of dessert.  Every single version could easily be served as a dessert, like a panna cotta.  Sweet, creamy, decadent.  Really, really wonderful, yet not over the top, so it felt not unreasonable to have with breakfast.

I needed to know what brand the yogurt was.  On my last day, I finally asked my server.  I thought she'd think it was a strange question, and likely wouldn't know the answer, but I really wanted to know, and figured it was at least worth a try.  She perked right up.  "Isn't it amazing??!!", she chirped.  "I can eat it every day, and never get sick of it.  It can even double as dessert, it is so creamy and delicious."  I instantly agreed, and leaned forward eagerly.  Maybe she did know!  Maybe I could get this at home!

And then, she revealed the magic ... it is made in-house, by the pastry kitchen.  They use Fage as a base, whip it, and infuse it with vanilla bean.   Doh.   I can't just go buy it somewhere.  The only place I can get it is Tres.  Guess I have to go back to LA?

Seriously, I'd return to the SLS, for this yogurt alone.  Totally worth the nightly rate.  Or, ok, fine, if I was ever back in the Los Angeles area, I supposed I could just go to Tres for breakfast, and splurge for the Breakfast Table for $28?  Or, I, could just get the yogurt a la carte for $12, which may seem like a lot of a little pot of yogurt, but, seriously, you don't understand how incredible this yogurt is!
Tres By José Andrés Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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